Forest mage, p.54
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       Forest Mage, p.54

         Part #2 of The Soldier Son Trilogy series by Robin Hobb
Page 199


  “Thank you,” I replied awkwardly. I was not accustomed to compliments from women. She approached me until she was standing less than an arm’s length away. She was almost my height. When she lifted her chin to look me in the eyes, it was almost as if she were inviting me to kiss her. I noticed now that she had dressed her hair. She had bound it back from her eyes with a bark-cloth strip. Wooden beads secured several tiny thin braids that hung down just in front of her ears. She smelled wonderful. When she licked her lips, I noticed that her tongue was both dark and pink, as mottled as the rest of her. She smiled wider, and I knew she was enjoying my awareness of her, and my physical reaction to that awareness.

  “I hope you enjoyed all of it. ”

  “I beg your pardon?”

  She shook her braids back from her face. “The basket of food I left for you. I hoped you would be in your shelter, but you were not, so I left it for you to find. I hope that you ate it all with great pleasure. ”

  “That I did. ”

  “Good. ” She lifted her arms and stretched like a cat. Her eyes never left my face.

  My mouth went dry. I cleared my throat and then said, “Your father, Kilikurra, is helping me to find trees I can use to build a fence around the cemetery, so that our dead may rest in peace. ”

  “Is he?” She glanced around, and when her gaze came back to her face, her smile was secretive. “But he seems to be gone now. And you know there are no trees here that can be cut. So. Shall we occupy our time another way?”

  While my attention had been focused on her, Kilikurra had vanished. I now wondered if everything he had said and done had been a ploy to lure me to his daughter. But why would any father conduct a stranger to his waiting daughter and then abandon her to him?

  I tried to awaken a sense of wariness in myself, but all I could recall was how brazenly she had touched me on our first meeting. She reached a hand toward me now and fingered the fabric of my shirt. “These garments look uncomfortable. And ridiculous. ”

  I stepped back from her. “They protect me…my skin. From scratches, and cold, and insect bites. Among my people, they are required. For courtesy. ”

  She puffed her cheeks briefly, the Speck gesture for denial. “I am your people. I do not require them. How do these work?” She had stepped up as she spoke and seized the front of my shirt. The first button went flying. Her eyes followed its flight and she laughed delightedly. “They jump like frogs!” she exclaimed. Before I could react, a sharp tug had sent a second and third to join the first.

  With every fiber of my being, I longed to tumble her immediately on the mossy forest floor. What held me back was not morality or modesty, or even a reluctance to couple with a Speck. Rather, it was simple shame at showing my body to her. This was different from seeking out a whore. A prostitute took money and had small right to quibble about her customer’s appearance. The last thing I wanted to do was to have this young creature see me naked, and react with either horror or laughter.

  And so I stepped back from her, catching at the flapping front of my shirt. “Stop!” I bade her. “This is unseemly. I scarcely know you. ” My embarrassment put a starch in my words that I did not intend.

  I needn’t have worried about offending her. She laughed merrily at my reluctance and advanced on me, unabashed. “You will scarcely come to know me by fleeing from me! Why do you hesitate? Is the mossy floor of the forest not soft enough for you?” She cocked her head as she looked into my eyes. Her hands were on my chest again. “Or do you find me undesirable?”

  “Oh, never that,” I assured her, but one questing hand had already assured herself of just how desirable I did find her. I could scarcely get my breath. “But your father…will he not…object?”

  She puffed her cheeks at me. “My father has gone about his business. Why should he care what I do? Am I not grown, and a woman? He will be pleased if his daughter should have a Great One at her hearth; all my wide family will take a share of this honor. ” My belt buckle gave way to her fingers. The buttons on my trousers were more stoutly sewn than my shirt buttons. One by tantalizing one she undid them. I scarcely heard what she said anymore. “But mind you that my sisters and cousins take no more from you than the honor of your presence. In all else, you will be mine. Oh. Yes. You are ready. Here. Give me your hand. Touch me. ”

  I did. Her nipples were erect. She deliberately brushed them against me. I wanted to howl in frustration. My great bulging belly was a barrier between us. I pulled her close against me, but found the longed-for contact denied. Shame coursed through me, strong enough that I tried to pull away from her. She let me go, but then caught my hand and pulled me down on the moss beside her. “Sit,” she bade me. “Let me free you from all this. ”

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  “Olikea, I am too fat. I don’t know how—”

  She hushed my mouth with her fingers. “Sshhh. I do. ” She stripped my clothing away from me. Shirt, boots, socks, trousers were all flung aside. Then, to my dismay, she leaned back and looked at me. I expected her to recoil, but to my amazement, she gazed on me greedily, as if she were a child contemplating a feast. She licked her dark lips with her dappled tongue. Then she put her hands on my shoulders and pushed me back to recline in the moss. “This is what you must do,” she whispered. “Lie on your back. And resist me as long as you can. ”

  “Resist you?” I was puzzled.

  “Stay hard,” she clarified.

  In that long afternoon and early evening, I learned about women and sensuality. She was not to be rushed in her enjoyment. She spoke plainly of exactly what she desired of me, with blunt words and a frankness that went beyond anything I’d ever heard men say about sex. She found multiple ways to fit our bodies together and used me shamelessly for her own pleasure. It felt strange to be explored and exploited. At one point, as she was posting along on top of me while I stared at the blue sky through the branches overhead, it occurred to me to wonder if this was how women sometimes felt when men mounted them and took what they wished, as they wished it.

  She was noisy in her enjoyment of me, and once even Clove came wandering over to see what the fuss was about. She pushed his muzzle away, laughing where another woman might have been horrified at his animal curiosity.

  I lost all sense of time. The third time that we dozed off together, I awoke to find it so dark that I could not see my hand in front of my face. Overhead, only a few stars managed to show themselves in patches of sky. I was shivering. “Olikea,” I whispered, and she drew a great sighing breath and moved against me. “Are you cold?” After all she had done for me, I suddenly wanted to shelter her from every discomfort.

  “It’s night. It’s supposed to be cold,” she told me. “Accept it. Or, if it pleases you, use your magic to change it. ” She plastered her body against mine once more. Where we touched, I was warm. She seemed to go back to sleep.

  I thought about it. “I want to be warmer,” I told the night. But it was my own body that answered me. I felt my skin slowly flush with warmth. Olikea murmured with satisfaction. We slept.



  I opened my eyes to birdsong. I was on my back. There was a pattern before my eyes. After a time, I resolved it into tree branches against a dark gray sky. The air was cool and crisp as I breathed it, and very clean. I lay perfectly still, wanting for nothing, in deep satisfaction and harmony with all that existed. The sky above me lightened, and the frequency of birdcalls increased.

  I don’t know how long I would have remained in that state of awareness without connection if Clove had not come up and curiously nuzzled my foot. I looked at him and then lifted a hand and scratched my face. I felt as if I had returned from a very long journey, and now all that had once been familiar was strange and new. I sat up slowly, and then reached around to brush a few twigs and leaves from my naked back. A glistening black beetle was crawling on my thigh.
I brushed him off and yawned hugely.

  I was alone. “Olikea?” I called softly, but there was no response. I came back more to the world, and noticed my scattered clothing on the nearby moss. I yawned again and got up slowly. I had expected to be aching or stiff. I was fine.

  “Olikea?” I called more loudly. A bird cawed a raucous response to me, and then I heard it take flight from the upper branches. I had no more than a glimpse of black-and-white feathers. Other than that, my call brought no response. Either she had left me and gone back to wherever Specks came from, or she was close by but choosing to remain in concealment. It was unnerving to be uncertain.

  “Olikea!” I shouted her name, and then felt almost angry with myself for calling for her like that. She knew where I was. If she chose not to be there, then I would not demean myself by bellowing for her like an abandoned child.

  I gathered up my dew-damp garb. In the dim forest morning light, my clothes looked drab and shabby. I felt reluctant to put them on, yet I was not accustomed to walking about naked. It was difficult to dress. Pulling on damp, chilly clothing made the day seem cold. I put on my old life with my discomfort. I suddenly shivered, and became aware that my constant hunger was not only present but raging. I rubbed my whiskery face and felt as if I had only just wakened.

  I went to Clove and leaned on him, taking comfort in his warmth and solidity. My experience with Olikea seemed like an excursion into an imaginary world, one that made no sense to me as the stronger light of day dissolved its mists. I felt a hundred years apart from yesterday.

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  “Let’s go home, Clove,” I told the big horse. I was troubled by the idea of returning to the cabin after an absence and empty-handed, but not so troubled as to linger to look for fenceposts. The urgency of my hunger was strong enough to make me tremble. Olikea’s vanishing seemed a shoddy trick. I couldn’t understand her behavior, and then I wondered why I was bothering to try. She was a Speck. What had I expected from her? It was time to go back to where I belonged.

  As I had anticipated, Clove’s big hooves had scored the forest moss heavily. It was easy enough to go back the same way we had come. I led and he followed willingly. There was little in the shaded forest for him to graze on. He was probably as hungry as I was. We wended our way down through the forested hills we had climbed the day before.

  It came to me that the forest no longer breathed either terror or weariness at me. I wonder if the magic had stopped, or if I’d been granted full immunity to it. In either case, it was something of a relief. I could finally see the forest as it truly was. Its beauty was breathtaking. The shifting shade of the overhead branches mitigated the bright sunlight. It was the perfect light for the eyes of a hunter. I stopped to catch my breath and let my aching calves rest. The long climb up the hill had become steep.

  As I looked around me, two things struck me: this area looked very familiar, and I did not recall going down such a slope as this yesterday. But Clove’s tracks were clearly imprinted in the forest soil. I glanced up at the sky, but the trees overhead obscured most of it. I could not tell if I traveled east or north. An icy shiver ran up my spine. I knew this place, yet I was suddenly certain it was not yesterday that I had walked this way, but last year, and then I had walked as my Speck self and Tree Woman’s acolyte. I knew that if I followed Clove’s trail up the steep incline to the top of this ridge, I could then follow the ridge until I came to the path to the Tree Woman’s waterfall.

  My mouth was dry. I wanted to go back. Yet I knew trying to avoid this was futile. The forest had brought me to this place, and the magic would not be satisfied until I had followed it. Behind me, Clove snorted, irritated with halting on such a steep slope. I resumed my steady climb. Now I could see, ahead of me, a large opening in the forest’s canopy. I knew who and what awaited me there.

  I cannot describe my feelings when I came to that intersection of my worlds. I had heard of battle shock. I think I experienced something akin to that. My ears rang and I could not get a full breath. My face and lips flushed, tingled, and then went numb. My ears felt blocked and I was uncertain of my balance. Yet I tottered forward, my shaking hand outstretched.

  The cold hilt of the cavalla sword rasped against my hand. Its blade was deeply sunken in the partially severed giant stump of the fallen tree. Impossible that such a blade could have cleanly swept through the huge tree, but that was how it appeared. A single slash of a saber had felled a tree, yet the cut was wildly disproportionate to the length of the blade. I could have parked a wagon on the cleanly cut portion of the stump. I had swung this saber, not at a tree, but at Tree Woman. And it had swept through her belly and then stuck in her spine. I’d seen her entrails spill and seen the slow gush of her sap-thick blood. She had toppled backward, just as this tree had fallen, not cleanly split in two, but with part of her torso still intact and the saber wedged deep in her.

  I had never been here before. The last time I had physically touched this saber, I had been standing on my father’s lands in Widevale. Months later, I’d found its empty scabbard where Dewara had disdainfully discarded it. Now I stood gripping the cold hilt and shaking with discord. I had called this weapon from the real world into Dewara’s dream world, and it had come to anchor one end of a spirit bridge. I had seized it and used it to slay Tree Woman, and then abandoned it in the other world. And now, impossibly, it was here.

  Which world did I stand in today? Did Gettys even exist in this place?

  I looked around me again. There was no Tree Woman that I could see. The fallen tree was of the same kind as the one that had gripped the corpse, the same as the trees at the end of the King’s Road, though not their equal in size. It was still a giant compared to any of the trees of the Plains or Old Thares. The long trunk had measured its length on the forest sward, brushing aside lesser trees as it fell and opening a huge gap in the forest canopy. In the year that had passed since I’d felled it in a dream, moss had crept up the sides of the fallen log. Mushrooms sheltered beside it. What had been a branch on the top side of the trunk was metamorphosing into a sapling growing upward from the fallen tree. And as I looked at it, I thought of another thing Tree Woman had said to me. “Such as I do not die as you do. ” She had fallen to my sword, but her tree lived on.

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  I tugged on the saber. It did not budge. I set my teeth and jerked on it as hard as I could. It remained where it was, as if it had become a part of the tree. I released it and looked around the clearing that Tree Woman’s fall had created.

  Other great trees surrounded hers, but none were as large as hers had been. I still felt a sense of antiquity that surpassed anything I’d felt from the buildings of Old Thares. These trees had stood for generations and unless something disturbed them, they would continue to stand.

  But would they?

  As if summoned, I left the uneven stump of her tree and followed what had once been our path. After a short walk, it emerged from the twilight of the forest onto the rocky end of the ridge. I toiled a little higher, to a jut of stone that had been our lookout, and suddenly I felt I was standing at the edge of the world. Below me was a billowing sea of green treetops in the cup of a shallow valley. I recalled it as full and green from my dreamtime. But when I looked down, I saw the King’s Road trickling to a halt in the forest below me. It cut through the foliage like a worm’s trail in an apple bound directly through the stand of ancient trees below me. I could make out the road crews at work; they looked like busy insects eating their way into the forest. That straight avenue of empty space was a gash of light and bared soil that pointed directly toward me.

  The roadbed would follow the easiest path up into the hills. From here I could see what was not apparent from the road. All the trees along the road’s edge had been weakened by the slash opened beside them. The leaves of some were a sickly green; the road had cut through their root systems. Some of the trees at the ed
ge of the road gash were starting to lean out into the open space. The next snow load would bring them down, in turn weakening those who stood behind them. Those trees would die. I was saddened by the thought but knew they were ordinary trees. More could be grown. But the three trees that had been cut at the end of the road were kaembra trees, the same sort of tree that Tree Woman had been. They were irreplaceable. The loss of three of them was a cause for mourning. For more to fall would be disaster. If the road continued, it would cut a wide swath through an ancient grove of them. I turned and followed the trail back to my tree.

  “I see why you are making a stand,” I said. I stood beside the fallen trunk of her tree. “I see why you thought you had to strike back at the very core of my people. We had attacked the core of yours. But eventually, the road will be forced through and the kaembra trees will fall. It cannot be changed. ”

  “Do you think so, still?” she asked me. Her voice reached my ears plainly. I did not turn to look at her or her stump. I did not want to look on what I had done.

  “They will not stop, Tree Woman. You can send magic waves of fear or weariness or sorrow at us. But the convicts who do the work are little better than slaves, and live constantly in fear, sorrow, and weariness. Your magic will slow the work, perhaps by years, but it will not stop it. Eventually the King’s Road will flow up these hills and through the mountains. People, trade, and settlers will follow. And the kaembra trees will be no more than a memory. ”

  “Memories are what we are right now. I have not been bone and flesh for many hundreds of seasons. But age does not make me less powerful, Soldier’s Boy. Rather, I grew in strength as I grew in girth. The wind through my leaves carried my thoughts across the forest. Not even you with your cold iron could fell me. You have brought me down, but I rise again, and there will be another me, containing the past and sinking roots and lifting branches into the future. Do you understand now?”

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