Forest mage, p.51
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       Forest Mage, p.51
 

         Part #2 of The Soldier Son Trilogy series by Robin Hobb
Page 188

 

  The Specks had come and taken the body into those woods. Somewhere in there, I’d find him. All I had to do was muster the courage to go and look for the corpse.

  Ebrooks and Kesey found me gathering what I thought I’d need. I’d found a piece of old canvas in the tool shed, possibly left over from crude shroud-making for plague victims. I had the canvas and a good length of rope. I’d slung those onto the back of Clove’s saddle. My long gun was in the scabbard. I hoped I wouldn’t have to use it, and not just because I didn’t want to face a difficult situation. I had no faith in the battered weapon. I had expected them to share my horror at the body snatching. Instead, simpletons that they were, they roared with laughter at my predicament and wished me “good hunting” but declined to make any effort to help me. Kesey offered me the only helpful bit of information. “Sometimes they puts them right at the end of the road, where the workers would find them. I think they do it to frighten them. But other times, well, there’s just no saying. That feller could be anywhere in the woods, from here to the other side of the Barrier Mountains. ”

  “Why do they do it?” I demanded furiously, not expecting an answer.

  “Most likely because it bothers us so much. For a while there, Rheims, the fellow who dug graves before you, he kept a list of the ones that were stolen, and which ones he brought back and buried and which ones he never found. Colonel Haren got angry about that. ”

  “That he never found some of the bodies? I don’t blame him! That’s awful. Think of the families. ”

  “No, not that. He got mad that Rheims kept a list. Sergeant Hoster told us a new rule for it, after Rheim disappeared. You got to go look for the body at least three times. If you don’t find it after that, you can just fill in the grave and keep your mouth shut about it. Now, Ebrooks and me, we asked him, ‘What do you mean?’ Do we only have to go looking for the corpse three times all told, or that we got to try to find it three times each time it gets stole, no matter what?”

  The horror I felt was only getting deeper. “What did Hoster say?” I asked faintly.

  Ebrooks laughed sourly. “Not much. He just shoved Kesey down and called him an old fool and then stomped off. And over his shoulder he shouts at us, ‘Work it out for yourselves. ’ So we did. And we decided three times was the maximum we’d go into the woods for any body. And that’s how we’ve been doing it. ”

  I felt queasy. “And how many bodies have been lost that way?”

  They exchanged a look. It was an agreement to lie. “Oh, not many,” Ebrooks said airily. “But we don’t really know the count, because Colonel Haren forbade keeping track of it. And neither of us are much good at writing anyway. ”

  “I see. ”

  They went off to their grass-cutting after that, and I took Clove and my corpse-packaging materials and went back to the empty grave. I resolved that I would start there and see if I couldn’t discover any sort of trail. I also decided that I would approach Colonel Haren about acquiring a dog, to both help me guard the cemetery and to help track down stolen bodies when the occasion demanded it. This time, however, I knew I was on my own.

  From the tracks in the disturbed soil around the grave, I decided there had been two intruders, one smaller than the other. They had walked through the uncut grass burdened with a corpse. I mounted Clove to enjoy a better vantage point. There had been a heavy dew the night before. As I had hoped, the passage of the grave robbers had disturbed enough of the moisture on the tall grass that I could see where they had gone. Even better, it indicated they had left after most of the dew had formed. I kicked Clove, and we followed their trail through the grave markers. It made straight for the woods.

  The forest looked beautiful in the morning light. The new leaves were at their brightest, and the contrast between the shades of green shown by the different kinds of trees made a springtime palette. The sky was a pale blue, with wispy clouds. In the near distance, the mountains shouldered up above the hills, still mantled with snow. It looked as if clouds had snagged on their rugged tops and flew there like banners. The woods should have looked welcoming, but the closer I got to them, the more they breathed dullness and fatigue and deep dark despair.

  At the edge of the meadow, I dismounted. From here, I’d have to walk if I was to keep my eyes open for sign. And walking would force me to stay awake. Already sleepiness buzzed in my ears and my eyelids were heavy. I rubbed my eyes, scratched my head briskly to try to rouse myself, and entered the woods. Clove came behind me.

  The packed litter of the forest floor looked deep and undisturbed. I tried to imagine myself as two men, burdened with a corpse. Where would I choose to walk, what would I avoid? I picked my way up the hillside, avoiding the denser thickets of underbrush. I struck a deer trail, and was rewarded by a fresh scuff mark on the bark of a tree beside it. I yawned prodigiously, shook my head, and forced myself to go on. The forest smelled lovely, both lush and rotting in the rising warmth of the spring day. It reminded me of something…no, of someone. Of her. Tree Woman. It was the smell of her breath and body. In a sort of daze, I drifted into a walking dream of lying beside her, in warmth and ease. My discouragement turned to a shameful longing for a past that I didn’t even remember.

  Page 189

 

  Can a man fall asleep walking? I’m not sure, but it is possible to waken by jolting into a tree. I shook my head, and for a moment I could not remember where I was or what I was doing there. Then Clove nudged me from behind, and I recalled my task. We had not strayed far from the deer trail. I went back to it, and trudged on. I used every trick I knew to keep myself alert. I bit my lip. I scratched the back of my neck. I forced myself to walk with my eyes open very wide. Such antics kept me awake and moving, but it was devilishly hard to focus on trying to find marks of a trail. I saw nothing for a long time, and cursed my luck, wondering if in my sleepiness I’d missed some key clue. Then I saw the unmistakable mark of three muddy fingers on a tree trunk. Someone had paused there and steadied himself. I tottered on, yawning. That hand mark meant something more than the fact they had passed this way. My mind chewed the thought slowly. I decided it meant they were getting tired.

  The nature of the forest was changing. The woods right above the cemetery were of fairly young trees interspersed with large charred stumps and fire-scarred giants. Clove and I came now to the edge of that old burn, and in a dozen paces the open, airy forest of deciduous trees abruptly gave way to something darker and more ancient. The underbrush dwindled and gave way. The crowded trees that competed for space and survival had no place in this cathedral of giants. The forest floor became a deep carpet of moss. A few broad-leaved plants and ferns broke the floor, and occasionally the long, crookedly sprawling and fiercely thorned canes of demon’s club sprouted like strange forest cacti.

  Previously, Clove had had to shoulder his way along the narrow path. Now we were dwarfed. The trunks of the trees were columns that held up a distant sky. The giants were widely spaced, and I could not reach the lowest branch on any of them. Their leafy limbs began far overhead and reached out to mingle in a canopy that, when their leaves were fully developed, would completely block the light. I had never walked in such a forest, and the magic’s sleepy spell was abruptly dispersed by a jolt of genuine and deeply felt fear. I’d recognized these giants of trees. They were the same as those at the end of the road. I halted where I stood and stared all around me. The vista of thick columnar trunks extended in all directions. I had no name for the trees; I’d never seen them anywhere else. The upper reaches of their trunks were mottled in color, from green to reddish-brown. But down here, at my height, the surface of their bark was ropy, as if the trunks were braided tendrils rather than a single stem. The roots that radiated out from the trees raised hummocks in the forest floor. Their fallen leaves from last autumn made deep leafy beds of humus among the tangling roots. The rich smell of healthy rot filled my nostrils.

  The sile
nce in that place was a pressure I felt in my ears, and between one heartbeat and the next, I suddenly acknowledged a thing I had always known but never fully realized. Trees were alive. The colossi that surrounded me were not the work of man or the earth’s bones of stone. They were living creatures, each one begun from a tiny seed, and older, far older than anything I could imagine. The thought sent a sudden shiver up my spine, and suddenly I needed to see the sky and feel moving air on my face. But the trees hemmed me round and closed me in. I glimpsed an area that seemed more light and open and made directly for it, heedless of leaving the deer trail that was now only a winding indentation through the mossy earth.

  My area of light marked where one of the giants had half fallen. It leaned at an angle, its roots torn from the earth, and its bare branches pushing half a dozen fellow trees aside. Its falling had opened a window to the sky; spring sunlight reached the mossy forest floor. In that irregular patch of light, several young trees had sprung up. I would have said they were large, old trees if I had seen them growing in Old Thares. Among these giants, they seemed like saplings. And fastened to one of the saplings I found the corpse I had been pursuing.

  I had seen only his coffin when we buried him. It was a shock to find him such a young man, little more than a boy, really. He sat with his back to the tree, his head fallen forward on his chest and his face covered by a sheaf of yellow hair. But for the discoloration of his skin, he might have simply fallen asleep there. His hands, darkened by death, lay in his lap. He looked at peace.

  I stared at him, and wondered what I had feared I would find. The Specks had not stripped his body. They had not cut his limbs away or in any way dishonored him that I could see. They had simply carried him all this way, only to set him down against a tree.

  The shafts of spring sunlight falling from far above illuminated him as if he were god-touched. Tiny insects danced above him in a flickering cloud of gossamer wings. Behind me, Clove snorted impatiently. I glanced back at my horse, and at the roll of soiled canvas and old rope he carried. Suddenly it seemed that I would be the one disturbing the rest of the dead. A man spoke beside me. “Please, sir. Don’t bother him. He is peaceful now. ”

  Page 190

 

  I leapt sideways and landed in a defensive posture. Clove turned his big head to look at me curiously. The Speck man did not flinch or move. He didn’t shift his eyes toward me, but stood with his hands clasped loosely below his belly and his head bent as if praying. For a long instant, we were frozen in that tableau. The Speck was a man of middle years, naked as the sky. His long streaked hair was held back with a tie of bark twine. He carried no weapons; his body was unadorned by jewelry of any kind. As natural as an animal, he stood in submission before me. I felt foolish in my wrestler’s crouch, with my fists held up before me. I calmed my breath and warily straightened.

  “Why have you done this?” I asked him severely.

  He lifted his eyes to look at me. I was startled to see that his eyes matched the streaking pigment on his face. A brown eye looked at me from the dark blotch on the left side of his face, and a green eye peered from the tan area around his right eye. His gaze was mild. “I do not understand your words, Great One. ”

  Clove and my scabbarded long gun were several steps away. I edged toward them as I tried to think of a different way to phrase my question. “Yesterday I buried this man in a coffin. Why have you disturbed his rest by stealing his body and bringing him here?”

  He puffed his cheeks at me lightly, a gesture I would later learn indicated a sort of denial. “Oh, Great One, I cannot understand what you say. ”

  “Speak the language, can’t you?” The woman who suddenly stepped out from the shelter of a tree snapped these words with asperity. She had been leaning against the mottled trunk in a way that had allowed her to blend with it. Now that she stood clear of it, I wondered how I had not seen her before, and wondered, too, why Clove showed no sign of alarm. He paid these Specks no more mind than if they were jaybirds hopping near him in his pasture. When, I wondered, had he become so accustomed to them? A paranoid fear that there were actually unseen Specks all around me suddenly seized me. I glanced about and then put my back to Clove’s barrel body. My long gun was on the other side of my horse. I started to edge around him.

  As I took that precaution, the woman walked toward me. She was as naked as the man, and completely comfortable in her bare skin. She reminded me of a large, heavy-bodied cat as she stalked me. She was lithe, but there was nothing slight about her. As she drew closer, I halted my flight. Her modest breasts hugged her body; muscle moved in her powerful thighs. I tried not to stare at her nakedness, but it was just as difficult to meet her eyes. They were the deepest green I had ever seen. A sooty streak ran down the center of her face, dividing her eyes and darkening her nose. She had more specks and larger ones than the man did; at some points, the dashes on her body almost became stripes. Her streaky hair fell in a mane down her back, and in color it reminded me of varnished oak.

  If I felt uncouth staring at her body, she was not so inhibited about perusing mine. Her eyes ran over me familiarly, and she said to the man, “Look at him. He’s huge. He could make two of you even now, and yet it is plain that no one cares for him. Think what such a man could look like with the proper care. ” She was only an arm’s length away from me, and she lifted both her hands as if she would measure my girth with them.

  “Keep your distance!” I warned her, unnerved by her casual attitude toward me.

  “Speak the language, I said! Are you rude, or stupid?”

  “Olikea! It is dangerous to speak so to a Great One!” The man offered his warning in a humble tone, as if he must defer to her. It made me wonder what her status was; I tried to gauge her age and decided she must be close to twenty. Her nakedness, I suddenly realized, confused me. I was accustomed to dress defining both a woman’s status and her age.

  She laughed, a clear peal that shattered the quiet of the woods. The sound woke a memory in me. I’d heard that laugh before. “There is no danger, Father. If he is so stupid that he cannot speak the language, then he will not be offended by what I said. And if he is so rude as to speak his own tongue to us when he can understand the language, well, then I have only returned that rudeness to him. Is it not so, Great One?”

  “My name is not Great One,” I replied testily. And then my tongue halted of its own accord. I had spoken Gernian to her, until I came to the words for Great One. That phrase I had returned to her in her own language. I knew then that I could speak the Speck language, and recalled when I had learned it and from whom. They were speaking Speck and I’d been replying in Gernian. I took a breath and tried again. “Please. Keep your distance from me. ”

  “There!” she exclaimed to her father. “I knew it. He was just being rude. Because he thinks he can. ” She turned back to me. “Keep my distance. That I shall. This is my distance, Great One. ” She stepped closer to me and set both her hands on my chest. Shock paralyzed my body and my tongue. She ran one hand down my side, and slapped me firmly on the hip as if she were checking a horse or dog for soundness. Her other hand simultaneously traveled up my chest and up the side of my neck and stopped on my cheek. She ran her thumb lightly over my lips. Her bold gaze held my own. She leaned in closer until her breasts brushed my chest. Then the hand that had lingered on my hip suddenly groped my groin. Startled, I sprang back from her, but Clove’s huge body blocked my escape. She squeezed me playfully and then stepped back, grinning broadly. She spoke over her shoulder to her father, who stood, his eyes cast down, as if he wished to avoid seeing her outrageous behavior. “Oh, you see, he regrets being rude already. ” She cocked her head at me and wet her lips. “Would you like to apologize to me?”

  Page 191

 

  It was very hard to think. The sudden idea that I had succumbed to the spell of the forest and fallen into a deep sleep came to me. If this was a dream, I could do whatever
I wanted, without repercussions. No. I recalled the last time I had lain with a Speck woman in a dream, and all that had followed. I made fists, digging my nails into the palms of my hands. I lifted my hands and scrubbed roughly at my face. Either the dream was a very strong one, or this was real. Either choice was frightening. I took a breath and spoke firmly to the man. It was hard to summon an authoritative voice when the woman still hemmed me in against my horse. “I have come to take the body back to our graveyard. Stand clear of me and let me do what I must. ”

  The man lifted his eyes to mine. “I think he prefers to be where he is, Great One. Go to him. Speak to him. See if it is not so. ”

  He spoke with such confidence that I looked toward the corpse. Was it possible that by some horrible error the man still clung to life? No. He was dead. Flies were walking on him. I could smell him. I decided to put my decision into words the savage could comprehend. “No. He wishes to be back in his coffin, buried in the ground. That is what I must do for him. ” As casually as I could, I turned back to Clove. I took my roll of canvas and length of line from his saddle and slung them over my shoulder. The woman had not moved. I had to edge past her to walk toward the corpse. She followed me.

  The man clasped himself and rocked from side to side as I approached the body. “Great One, I fear you are wrong. Listen to him. He wishes to stay. He will make a fine tree. When the trees of your people fill our forest, the cutting will have to stop. Your own trees will stop you. ”

  I understood each word that he said, but I could not take his meaning. “I will ask him what he wishes,” I told the old man as I dropped the canvas next to the body. I knelt briefly by the body and pretended to listen. “Yes. He wishes to go back to the cemetery,” I told them.

 
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