Forest mage, p.55
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       Forest Mage, p.55

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

  “I understand less now than I did before. Let me go, Tree Woman. I am not of your people. Set me free. ”

  “And how shall I do that, when the magic binds me more tightly than it does you?”

  I could almost see her from the corner of my eye. She was a fat old woman with graying streaky hair, or perhaps a willowy girl, her pigment-speckled face as engaging as that of a fierce and friendly kitten. She smiled at me fondly. “Flatterer!”

  “Let me go,” I begged her again, desperately.

  She spoke softly. “I do not hold you, Soldier’s Boy. I never did. The magic binds us both, and it will have of us what it wills. In the days of my walking the world I served it, and I serve it still. You, too, must serve. From the moment it seized you from the Kidona coward and turned you to its own end, you have served it. I have heard the whispers of what it has done through you. With your hand, it stopped the turning of the Plains Spindle, did it not? They will never threaten us again. That was the magic working in you, Soldier’s Boy. It has quenched a mighty people who once spilled over all the flatlands and thought to creep up into our mountains. Do you think it will do less against those who encroach from the far sea? No. It will use you, Soldier’s Boy. Some task of yours, some word, some gesture, some act will destroy your folk. ”

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  “I did not do that,” I said faintly. “I did not destroy the magic of the Plains people. ” I spoke the lie as if by saying such words I could undo it. Her truth had struck and sunk into me, cutting and sticking just as my iron blade had done to her. I had been there when the Spindle stopped turning. I’d felt that magic falter and fail. If I had not been there, if I had not chased the boy from the Spindle’s tip, would he have gone to work his mischief at the base of it? If not for me, would that wedge of cold iron have fallen to where it stilled forever the Spindle’s dance?

  And if I had done that, and by doing it, had begun the final end of the Plains people, did it have to mean that I would also be the demise of my own folk? “I cannot do this. I cannot be this. ”

  “Oh, Soldier’s Boy. ” The wind or the caress of a ghostly hand moved through my hair. “So I said, too. The magic is not kind. It makes nothing of what we would or would not do. It takes us as we are, small and simple folk for the most part, and makes us Great Ones. Great Ones! So others name us, thinking we have power. But you and I, we know what it is to be a reservoir of power for the magic. We are tools. The power is not for us to use. Others may think so, and they may think that by befriending us or claiming us, they will gain influence over our power. ”

  “Are you warning me about Olikea?”

  She was silent. I almost wondered if I had embarrassed her. Was it possible that she felt jealous? I think she heard more than I intended. She gave a soft laugh that held echoes of regret. “Olikea is a child. There is little to her; you have already experienced all she has to offer you. But you and I—”

  “I have no memories of you and me,” I interrupted hastily.

  “You do,” she asserted calmly. “They are deep in you, as deep as the magic. As real as the magic. ”

  Her voice had grown warmer. I bowed my head, and my throat suddenly tightened with a sorrow that did and did not belong to me. Tears pricked my eyes. I groped out and my hand touched the rough bark of her stump.

  “Do not grieve, Soldier’s Boy. ” Fingertips of moving air caressed my cheek. “Some loves go beyond bodies and times. We met in the magic and there we knew one another. I schooled you for the magic; it was what the magic demanded of me. But I loved you for myself. And in the place and time where ages and shapes have no meaning, and there is only the comfort of kindred spirits touching, our love remains. ”

  “I’m so sorry I killed you,” I cried out. I fell to my knees and put my arms about the standing stump of the great tree. I could not embrace it; it was far too large. Still, I pressed my chest and face against her bark, but could not find her there. There was another man within me, one who was me but who had lived a separate life from the young man who had attended the academy. I had battled that self and won, but he resided in me still. The tearing grief I felt was his. It was and was not my sorrow.

  “But you didn’t kill me. You didn’t,” she comforted me. “I go on. And when the days of your mortal flesh are done, you will go on with me. Then we shall have a time together, and it will be a far longer time than humans can count. ”

  “That’s a cold promise for now,” I heard myself say. And it was my own voice and it was me. The tree I leaned on was just a stump with moss creeping up it. I pressed hard against the stump, trying to recapture Tree Woman’s presence, but she was gone, and with her my awareness of my Speck self.

  I stood up, and smeared the tears from my face. I left that place. I was only a little surprised to find that a single set of hoof tracks led me uphill to it. We had not come this way before. Neither Clove nor I had ever been here in the flesh before.

  I came eventually to where I had diverged from the correct trail home. I plodded along it, hungry, tired, and confused. Was I a dutiful soldier son, a loyal trooper in my king’s cavalla, or was I a disowned son masquerading as a soldier in a threadbare frontier existence? Was I the forest mage’s student who had both loved and slain her? Had I shamed myself deeply last night by having relations with a Speck, or had I simply had a wonderful, extravagant sexual experience? Without success, I tried not to wonder what my encounter with Tree Woman and my other self meant. I had felt the echoes of their emotions and could not doubt the sincerity of what they had felt. It was all the stranger in that I had been a dumb and blind participant in their romance.

  When I saw daylight breaking through the forest roof ahead of me, I knew it traced the demarcation between the ancient forest and the younger trees on the burned hillside. My steps slowed. I would soon be leaving one world for another, and as I approached the boundary, I was not entirely sure that I wished to do so. If I left the forest, I would be making a large decision, with consequences I didn’t fully grasp. What did the magic want me to do? I didn’t know, and I also didn’t know if I wanted to fall in with the magic’s plan for me, or fight it with every ounce of my strength. Tree Woman had said that if the magic had its way, I would be the downfall of my entire race. That seemed impossible. But I had been there when the Dancing Spindle stopped turning. It seemed that with my aid, the Speck magic had hastened the end of the Plains magic and all its people. Could I possibly bring a similar destruction down on my own kind?

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  As I led Clove from the old forest to the new, my eyes fell on a neatly stacked pile of cut poles beside the trail. There were about twenty of them, no bigger around than my wrist, and only about eight feet long. They had rough gray-green bark still on them. I had no doubt that Kilikurra had cut them and left them there for me. I was surprised that he had felt comfortable cutting trees in the forest when the Specks seemed to so oppose our tree cutting for our road. My second emotion was disappointment. He had misunderstood me completely. I had intended to harvest some hefty logs for stout corner posts that I could set deep in the earth. By the time I dug holes for these posts, my fence would be only five feet tall, and so spindly that the wood would likely rot through in just a couple of years.

  I half expected Kilikurra to step out of the dappling shadows and claim the credit for his good deed. When he did not, I decided that I could not be sure he wasn’t there, and that my best course was to appear grateful. I put a hitch line on the bundled poles, and then bowed gratefully to the forest.

  Clove didn’t like the strange contraption scraping and jolting along behind him, but eventually we managed to get down to the cemetery. I left the poles there, having decided I could use them as stakes to set out the straight lines for my barricade. I was freeing Clove from his unwanted load when I heard the heavy thunder of running feet. I straightened and turned to find Ebrooks coming at me at a dead run. Kesey, pantin
g heavily, was some distance behind him. I looked behind me, saw no cause for the alarm on their faces, and turned back to them, shouting, “What is it? What’s wrong?”

  “You’re…alive!” Ebrooks gasped out the word. He reached me, seized me in a sweaty hug, and then leaned on me, panting. Kesey had given it up. He stood, bent over, his hands on his knees, his mostly bald pate bobbing as he tried to catch his breath. After a time for breathing, Ebrooks panted, “When you didn’t come back by nightfall, we waited for you. But when night shut down and fear was flowing out of the forest thick as tar, we went back to town and told the colonel you were dead. God’s breath, Nevare, how did you survive? Are you sane still? No one knows how you can stand to live this close to the forest. And now you’ve gone and spent a night in there. Are you crazy, man?”

  “Clove and I got turned around in there. We had to wait for dawn to find the way home. That’s all. It wasn’t pleasant, but I’m not hurt at all. ” The lies were nearly effortless. “Why did you tell the colonel I was dead?”

  Kesey had staggered up to us by then. “Well. That seems to happen a lot to fellows that have this job. ”

  “And the colonel was really upset to get the news. He said, ‘That’s all I need, with this review coming up! Another dead cemetery sentry. ’ And he tried to tell us we’d have to take on guarding the graves. But we said, ‘No, sir, thanky kindly. ’”

  “I didn’t think you could just say, ‘No, thank you’ to an order. ”

  Kesey and Ebrooks exchanged a look. Ebrooks spoke. “It’s been a long time since the colonel issued a real order. I expect he’s afraid of what he’d have to do if he did and no one obeyed it. Easier not to test his authority than find out it’s gone. ”

  Kesey shook his head sadly. “It’s a shame, really. That man used to be able to blow fire when he wanted things done. But since we come here, well. He ain’t the officer he used to be, that’s all. ”

  “And we ain’t the regiment we used to be, either,” Ebrooks pointed out sourly. “It’s one and the same. We’ve lost so many men to desertion and suicide or just plain bad ends that the colonel worries all the time about his numbers. They keep sending us scads of prisoners to work the road. Well, pretty soon they’re going to have more prisoners than their guards can manage, even with soldiers to back them up. And if the prisoners don’t turn on us and burn the place down, then the Specks will get us. Gettys is a bad post. I wish they’d send their high mucky-mucks to inspect us and have done. They’ll turn us out of Gettys, probably send us somewhere worse. Though it’s hard to imagine anywhere worse than this. ”

  “Well. I suppose I’d best get cleaned up and go let the colonel know that I’m not quite as dead as he’d heard. ”

  “That would be good,” Ebrooks agreed. I think he was happy that I’d offered to do it myself, rather than suggesting that he should have to correct his own mistake. They went back to their groundskeeping while I went to my cabin. I was ravenously hungry, and I emptied most of my small larder. By the time I’d washed, shaved, and changed my clothing, it was late afternoon. I saddled Clove and headed for town.

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  Several surprises awaited me there. The first was that a contingent of Specks had set up a scattered tent village on the outskirts of Gettys. I would later learn that they always came by night to pitch their tents for the trading season. When it was over, they vanished just as swiftly. Within the tents’ shelter, both male and female Specks were strangely but decently clad in a mix of Gernian garments and Speck versions of Gernian garments. Those I saw outside the tents’ shade were veiled in head-to-toe shrouds woven from bark cloth supplemented with fresh leaves and flowers. The garments looked like fishnets that had been dragged through a garden but protected their sensitive skins from sunlight.

  Their trade goods were furs, carvings, smoked venison, bark, and leaves for brewing what the Gettys folk called “forest tea,” as well as mushrooms, berries, and a prickly fruit I didn’t recognize. I looked, but did not see any of the fruits or mushrooms that Olikea had brought to me. Either Olikea and her father were not among them or they were veiled and unrecognizable. I thought it intriguing that despite our fear of the Speck the trading was brisk, with local merchants competing with traders from the west to buy the best furs.

  The Speck trade gave an oddly festive air to Gettys. It was the liveliest I had ever seen that mournful place. The Specks were acquiring fabric and felted hats, mostly for novelty, I suspected. Glass beads and brightly painted tin toys were almost as popular as sugar, candy, and sweet cakes. One wily Old Thares trader was exchanging casks of honey for the best furs

  When I walked into the colonel’s offices, his sergeant jumped as if he had seen a ghost. He didn’t make me wait to speak to the colonel, but ushered me right in. When he left, I noticed that the door didn’t shut firmly, and I suspected he listened outside it. The colonel was extremely pleased to find me still alive. He actually offered to shake my hand before giving me a rambling lecture on not straying too far from my post and letting my superiors know when I thought I might be gone overnight. He claimed that he had just been putting together names for a search party to send after me, though I saw no signs of such activity. He was singularly uninterested in what had befallen me in the forest. Instead he actually patted me on the shoulder and gave me a silver piece from his own pocket, telling me that he was sure I could use a drink after my “jittery night. ”

  I thanked him for it as humbly as I could manage. Sometimes his eccentric kindness toward me grated on my pride. He dismissed me, but spoke again when my hand was on the doorknob. “And do something about that uniform, soldier. You know we have a contingent of nobility and officers coming to inspect us at the end of this month. Since we arrived here, I’ve never had a man in my command look less like a soldier than you do. ”

  “Sir. I’m sorry, sir. I’ve asked several times for a better uniform. Supply always tells me that they have nothing in my size. ”

  “Then you may tell them I said they should issue you something that you could have altered. You should at least be somewhat presentable, though it would probably be best if you avoided town while the inspection was in progress. I don’t intend to have our inspection team visit the cemetery, but the good god alone knows what they’ll take it into their own heads to do. ”

  “Yes, sir,” I replied grimly. I tried to keep my face expressionless. I knew that he only spoke the truth, but it did not make it any easier to accept. I touched the doorknob.

  “Trooper. Regardless of what others may think of me, I know what goes on in my command. Your efforts with the cemetery have not gone unnoticed. I’ll add that although you look the least like a soldier of all my troops, in your efforts to protect our honored dead, you’ve behaved more like a soldier than most men in my command do at present. Now go have that drink. ”

  His words smoothed my rumpled feathers a bit and I left in a better state of mind. The silver piece was a generous bonus, and I decided I’d take his advice and have a beer before I left town.

  Gettys was a lively place today. In addition to the Specks coming to town, several western traders had arrived with merchandise to sell to the soldiery and trade goods to barter with the Specks. The streets were busy, so when I encountered Spink and he frantically signed to me that I should meet him in the alley behind the blacksmith’s shop, I was not much worried that we’d be noticed together. Nonetheless, even in that noisy area, I resolved to maintain appearances.

  “Nevare! I heard you’d gone missing. Thank the good god that you’re alive and unharmed!”

  That was how Spink greeted me, but as he moved to embrace me, I reminded him of our varying statuses with a brusque, “Thank you for your concern, Lieutenant Spinrek. I assure you, it was not much of an adventure, but mostly my own foolishness that delayed me. ” I hoped the look on my face conveyed that there was far more to tell, but that it would have to wait. Behind us, the smithy’s hars
h clanging of metal on metal screened our words.

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  He drew back and stood still for a moment. I could tell from his eyes that he took no offense from my caution. Instead, he said carefully, “A lot of mail has arrived from the west. A washed-out bridge on the road had caused a great bottleneck of wagons and travelers. Perhaps there is some for you. My own lady wife has been very pleased to hear from her young cousin in the Midlands. ”

  Now it was my turn to practice restraint. I wanted to demand to see the letter from my sister immediately. Instead, I kept my voice steady as I said, “I trust all is well with her family, sir?”

  “Oh, excellent,” he replied, but his eyes said differently. “She wrote that they were enjoying a long visit with houseguests from Old Thares. Her father seems to think that the young man would be an excellent match for her, and his uncle is prone to agree. ”

  I racked my brain for whom he could be describing. No one came to mind. At last I said, “Well, for her sake, sir, I hope the lad is of a good family. ”

  The pleasant expression on his face looked forced and sick. “Oh, they are not of the first quality, but they are still well placed. His father was in charge of the King’s Cavalla Academy for a time. ”

  That shocked me out of my pose. “Caulder Stiet? Impossible. ”

  Spink’s smile grew wider, but there was nothing of pleasure in it. “There Yaril agrees with you. It’s a desperate letter, Nevare. She still thinks you are dead. She risked her reputation to slip away from the house and go alone to a little town to post her letter to us. ”

  “What am I to do? What can I do?” I felt frantic with worry. The thought of Yaril being given over to that shallow, trembling boy filled me with loathing. I hated the idea of him being near my sister, let alone claiming her as his wife. I wondered if my father was mad, if this was his vengeance on Yaril, or if he genuinely thought it was a good match for her. Caulder wasn’t even a soldier son anymore. If Yaril married him, her sons would be “gatherers of knowledge” like Caulder’s geologist uncle.

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