Forest mage, p.53
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       Forest Mage, p.53

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

  All the way home, I wondered what consequences I might expect. An official rebuke was the least of my worries. I had no witnesses who’d take my part in telling the story. They could say anything. Sarla had already as much as accused me of killing Fala. Dropping her doorman scarcely made me look more innocent. I berated myself for rising to such a schoolboy goad. I could have walked away.

  But by the time I reached my cottage, I knew the truth.

  No. I couldn’t have.

  If I’d walked away once, those sorts of attacks would have become a constant in my life. I’d done nothing wrong. I hadn’t killed Fala, and when Stiddick had struck me, I’d only struck him back.

  The night was mild, the air calm. I put Clove up and went to my cottage, thinking only that I’d wake the fire, eat something, and go to bed. When I reached my doorstep, I was alarmed to see the door ajar and light issuing from within. I reached for the door handle and almost fell over the basket there. It was a curious sort of basket, with a frame and handle of hard wood, but the sides woven of fresh green creeper, with leaves and flowers still on it. It looked very pretty and yet it filled me with dread. It could have come from only one place. I looked over my shoulder, across the graves to the forest edge. But no lone figure waited there in the dim shadows for me to find her gift. At least, my eyes could not pick out anyone.

  I looked at the door. But surely if she were inside, she would not have left the basket outside? Cautiously, I eased the door open. I could see no one. After a few moments of hesitation, I picked up the basket and entered my cottage.

  The fire had burned down to coals. I did not have many possessions, and as a result, they were kept in precise locations. Someone had explored my home. My journal and writing supplies were undisturbed, but my clothing seemed to have been examined. One of my more frequently darned socks still lay in the middle of the floor.

  Several items in my limited pantry had been sampled and rejected. I set the basket down on my table next to the remains. The basket of cold biscuits on the shelf was to have been part of my dinner. Those she had apparently enjoyed. The napkin that had enfolded them held only crumbs.

  I filled my tea kettle and swung it over the fire on its hook. Then, as gingerly as if it were a basket of snakes, I opened the woven cover of the basket. Incredible smells, earthy and rich, wafted up from it.

  I ate everything that was in the basket.

  I didn’t recognize any of it in a specific way. I knew that there were mushrooms, roots, fleshy leaves, and scarlet gobbets of fruit that were sweet as honey yet stung the tongue with tartness, too. Almost everything I devoured was exactly as it had been harvested, uncooked in any way. But wrapped in leaves were a stack of golden flat cakes. I could taste honey in them, but whatever else they were made from, I did not know. I only knew that they were particularly satisfying, as if this were food I’d been seeking for a long time.

  The basket was the size of a book satchel. When I was finished, I sat back, almost moaning with satiation. The skin of my belly was stretched tight. I didn’t remember loosening my belt, but I obviously had. My conscience fussed at me that I had been both greedy and foolish; the food could have been poisonous. In all my days of travel and at Gettys, my circumstances had protected me from gluttony. My low pay had not permitted me to indulge in huge meals on my own, and my pride kept me from excess when I was eating in the mess hall where others could see me. This was the first time that I’d had access to a quantity of food that did not have to be rationed out over weeks, food that I could devour in privacy. I’d thought I’d had self-control. I’d just proved I did not.

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  But louder than my conscience was the satisfaction of my body. I felt nourished as I had not in months. Waves of well-being washed through me. The rightness of consuming it overpowered all my doubts, as did my sudden urge to sleep, nay, almost hibernate. I walked from my table to my bed, pausing only to latch my door. I dropped clothing as I went, and by the time I reached my blankets had nothing more to do than crawl in and close my eyes. I slept the sort of sleep that one never gets as an adult, a deep, dreamless repose.

  I awoke the same way, between one breath and the next, feeling alert and rested. For several long moments, I lay there, taking simple pleasure in the comfort of my bed and the cool gray light of dawn that found its way through my loosely closed shutters. No list of daily tasks pressed upon me. All the things that usually weighted my soul, that I was fat, alone, without prospects, that I had left my sister in terrible circumstances, uncertain of my survival, that my life was as completely different from how I imagined it would as it could possibly be—in short, all of the things that always flavored my mornings with defeat and despair were absent.

  I sat up, swinging my bare feet to the wooden floor. And then those things did come to me, but they came without teeth. So my life was different from what I’d planned. Or, I thought to myself, more accurately, what my father had planned for me. It was still a life. Even the thought that Yaril believed me dead did not rend me as it usually did. I might as well be dead to her, I thought, for I could not, in good conscience, ever bring her to a place like Gettys. My father would attempt to oppress her, but from her letters to Epiny, I had the feeling that she would stand up to him if she finally believed that she had no other choice. Perhaps she could now begin to govern her own life without hoping for rescue from someone else.

  As for myself, I could now rise as I was, unencumbered by clothing or shackles of any kind, and walk away from this ridiculous life of regulations and expectations. I could go to the forest and live in freedom, learning to serve my magic and my people.

  I stood up to leave.

  And my real life engulfed me like a wave washing over me. The dread, the sadness, and the frustration rose like walls around me, cutting me off from the peace and optimism that I’d briefly enjoyed. I struggled against it. Was the bleakness that now enveloped me the miasma of magic that Epiny had claimed to sense, or was the bright beckoning dream an illusion that could not withstand the light of day? For a moment, I teetered on a fence between the two realities, almost as if I could choose which world I would step into. Almost.

  Habit made me stoop and pick up my worn trousers from the floor. I put my familiar life on with them. I grunted as I stepped into them, and cursed myself for being greedy when they proved hard to fasten. By the time I had dressed myself, brewed my morning tea, and decided to punish myself by going without breakfast, I heard the sounds of Ebrooks and Kesey arriving. They would soon be at my door, expecting to be invited in. I couldn’t face them. They were too sharp a contrast with the world I’d briefly visited and too much an affirmation of the world I now felt trapped in. I seized my jacket from its hook and hurried out of the door. By the time they arrived, I had strapped a selection of tools onto Clove and was leading him toward the forest.

  “Where you going?” Ebrooks called after me. I could hear the disappointment in his voice. A hot cup of tea or coffee together before starting the day’s work had just begun to be a habit among us.

  “Forest!” I called back to them. “I’m going to start my fence today. ”

  “Ya, sure you are!” Kesey mocked me. “We’ll see you back before noon. ”

  I made no reply. I half-suspected he was right. The forest exuded a dark mix of terror and discouragement today. I steeled myself to it, and led Clove into it.

  We toiled up the wooded hillside through the young forest. Immediately the sensation of being watched by hostile eyes flooded me. I took a deep breath and tried to focus my mind on what I needed. I wanted a stout, straight tree to cut into lengths for a corner post and my first few fenceposts. I resolved that I’d set the uprights first, and then use smaller poles for the rails.

  The deeper I went into the woods, the more futile my task seemed. It would take me ages to cut enough wood to fence even one side of the cemetery. The trees here were all softwood. My posts would
rot through in no time at all. Why had I volunteered for such a senseless task? And none of the trees seemed suitable. This one was too skinny, that one too thick, this one forked, that one bent. In despair, I finally chose one at random, telling myself that once it was cut down and limbed, Clove would drag it out of the woods for me and I’d at least be away from the darkest part of the woods’ magic.

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  I unpacked my ax from Clove and selected where I would begin my cut. I lifted my ax to begin my swing.

  “What are you doing?”

  The voice didn’t startle me. I turned to look at the same Speck I’d seen the day before.

  “I’m cutting this tree down. I’m going to build a fence around the cemetery, so that our dead can rest in peace. ”

  “Fence. ” His tongue twisted the foreign word painfully.

  “Pieces of trees all in a line. With limbs blocking the path. Other plants and bushes will grow along it. ” I searched the Speck language for words that would approximate what I was doing. I had no qualms at all about letting them know I was setting a boundary.

  He frowned at me, slowly taking the meaning from my words. Then a great smile dawned on his face. “You will put trees for your dead? Trees will grow on the hill that was made bare. ” I heard him draw in a great breath before he exclaimed, “This is an excellent idea, Great One! It would take one such as you to see this resolution that could be made. ”

  “I’m glad you approve,” I said. I wondered if he could sense the sarcasm behind my words. I readied my ax again.

  “But that is not the right kind of tree to take, Great One. ” His tone made it clear that he was very reluctant to point out my error.

  I lowered my ax again. “What sort of tree do you think I should use, then?” I asked with cautious curiosity. I’d heard rumors that the Specks were very territorial of certain groves of trees. Perhaps the tree I’d chosen was precious to him. I was willing to take a different tree. I was going to have to cut a lot of trees before I had a fence. There was no sense in antagonizing the man any more than I must. Besides, that was Colonel Haren’s order.

  He turned his head at a slight angle and almost smiled. “You know! These trees will not bring the dead peace or hold them properly. ”

  We were talking past one another again. I tried to find a clear question for him. “What trees should I use then?”

  Again, he cocked his head at me. It was hard to read his expression. Perhaps it was only the colors that interrupted his face that made him look quizzical. “You know this. Only kaembra trees will enfold the dead. ”

  “Guide me to the kaembra trees that I may take,” I suggested to him.

  “Guide you? Oh, Great One, I should not so presume. But I will accompany you. ”

  He was as good as his word. I soon realized that in his presence, the power of the forest to sway my mood waned. I did not know if he distracted me from it, or if his presence neutralized the evil magic of the place. In either case, it was a great relief to me. Despite his words, he did take the lead. I followed him, with Clove lumbering along behind me, his heavy tread nearly silent in the deep turf of the forest. “Why do you call me Great One?” I asked when the silence had stretched too long.

  He looked back at me over his shoulder. “You are filled with the magic. Today you shine with it. You are a Great One, and so I address you. ”

  I glanced down at the swell of my belly and experimented with the notion that I was not fat, but instead was filled with a power I did not completely understand. What if my size were not a weakness, not an indicator of lack of self-control or sloth, but a sign of strength? This Speck, at least, seemed to regard me with respect and treat me with deference. I shook my head. His reverence for me only made me uncomfortable, for I felt I deceived him. We walked on, going ever uphill. Clove’s big hooves scored the forest floor; even if my guide abandoned me, I’d easily track my way back. Birds sang and darted overhead. A short distance away, a rabbit thumped an abrupt warning and then fled. My perception of the forest shifted; it was a pleasantly mild spring day. The young forest around me was leafy and sunlit and smelled wonderful. A sense of well-being smoothed away all my anxiety. I relaxed my shoulders even though I resolved to maintain my wariness. I became aware of the silence and said awkwardly, “My name is Nevare. ”

  “I am called Kilikurra. Olikea is my daughter. ”

  “She was with you yesterday. ”

  “I was with her yesterday,” he confirmed.

  I glanced around at the surrounding forest. “And is she near today?”

  “Perhaps,” he said uncomfortably. “It is not for me to say where she is. ”

  Ahead of us, the forest grew thicker and darker. We passed through an intermediate zone of mixed trees, some youngsters and others fire-scorched giants, before the morning sunlight gave way to the eternal dusk of old forest. Single shafts of sunshine intermittently penetrated the canopy. Insects and motes of dust danced in those beams, and where the light struck the forest floor, flowering plants or patches of brush grew. One bush was already bejeweled with hanging drupes of scarlet fruit. I recognized it as the same luscious fruit that had been in the basket the night before. The fast I had maintained since dawn suddenly seemed a hollow and foolish thing to do. Denying myself food would not change the shape of my body. All it did was torment me with hunger, and make me both irritable and sad. “Shall we stop and eat the berries?” I asked my guide.

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  He looked back at me with a smile. For the first time, I realized that one reason his face looked so strange was that his lips were as black as a cat’s. “As you will, Great One,” he said, but he spoke as if I’d honored him with a royal invitation.

  The drupes hung heavy on the twigs. Perhaps it was the open air or the freshness of the fruit or simply the enhancement of greater hunger, but the flavor exceeded anything I’d ever tasted. The bush was not large, but it was laden with berries. They were a glowing scarlet in the sunlight, with thin skins, almost liquid flesh, and a single pip in each. We shared what was there, unhurrying, savoring the simple pleasure of absolutely ripe fruit. When the last berry was gone, I sighed. “I do not know why I find these so delicious and satisfying,” I said. It was true. Two handfuls of the berries had been my sole meal that day, and yet my hunger was sated.

  “They are a powerful food, Great One, and the rightful food of the mage. You feed your magic as well as your body when you eat them. Everything that comes from the forest is your rightful food, and all of it will nourish what you are. But some foods are especially yours and fuel for your growth. I am honored that you have allowed me to partake of these alongside you. Already I feel my awareness unfold. I hear the kaembra trees whispering even though we have not yet reached them. ”

  “Food for a mage,” I said. I wondered if I had eaten something that would give me hallucinations. I recalled my experience with Dewara and the gore frogs. Yet…had that been a hallucination brought on by poison, or a true journey? If it had not been a true journey, would I be here now? Again, I walked a thin line between realities. A disturbing thought came to me. I could not straddle this boundary forever. Soon I would have to choose one of these worlds and walk in it for the rest of my days.

  If Kilikurra sensed my distraction, he did not show it. “Certainly, a mage food. Some, such as the reddrops, an ordinary man like me can enjoy when invited. Others, as you know, are food for mages alone. Certain mushrooms may be harvested only if they are to be taken to a Great One. ”

  I had to smile at how carefully he spoke to me. “You are telling me many things that I have not known. Earlier you said that I must know these things. Now I think you realize that I do not, and therefore you instruct me. ”

  His hands fluttered in a subservient gesture, one that shooed my words away, but respectfully. “Great One, I would never presume to think I knew anything that you did not. I am a talkative, fo
olish fellow. Anyone will tell you that I am known for saying that which needs no saying, and for repeating what all folk already know. It is a tiresome trait, I know. I beg that you will tolerate it in me. ”

  The forms of another courtesy, unknown and yet known to me, niggled at my mind. The proper sort of response came to me. “I shall enjoy your conversation, I am sure. These many things are known to me, but it is helpful of you to recall them for me. ”

  As I said it, I felt it was truer than I had intended it to be. That other self, taught by Tree Woman, rippled through my awareness, like a fish seen silver in the murky depths of a river. His knowledge was in me, and the longer I walked in this world, the clearer it would come to me. We reached the shoulder of the hill, went into a brief steep fold of valley, and then climbed again. “I do not wish to go much farther,” I warned him. “I would rather find suitable trees at a lower level, so that I do not have to haul them so far. ”

  He looked at me oddly. “But what you wish differs from what is, Great One. The trees you must use do not grow lower down. So you are jesting with me?”

  I could not think of a reply. So I said only, “When we get to these trees, then I shall decide. ”

  Whether it was the berries or Kilikurra’s presence or simply that I was becoming accustomed to the forest, I began to enjoy my journey. I was not nearly as weary as I should have been. The light under the trees was gentle and restful to my eyes. No wind stirred there. The deep moss muted not just Clove’s hoof-thuds but also seemed to absorb our voices and to cushion my footfalls gently. I was looking directly at a tall stump when Olikea stepped out from its shelter. She had not been behind it, but merged against it. She was naked except for several strands of red-and-black beads around her waist and a tight necklace of blue beads around her throat. She was so comfortable with her nudity that I felt no embarrassment for her. Rabbits and birds were naked in the same way she was. Kilikurra’s nudity had not even registered with my mind as something important to notice. I was considering that as she came towards us. She smiled when she spoke. “You are looking much better today, Great Man. The food I brought replenished you. ”

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