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Forest mage, p.57
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       Forest Mage, p.57

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

  “Then you didn’t do it. ” She spoke it as a statement but I heard it as a question.

  I replied bluntly. “Good god, no. No! I had no reason to, and every reason not to. Why would a man kill the only whore in town who would service him willingly?” Anger and fear made my heart race. I got up and left the table and went to the door to stare out across the graveyard toward the forest.

  “They said—” I heard her swallow, and then she went on, “They said that maybe she wasn’t willing, that you kept her in the room a lot longer than any man ever had before. And that maybe you caught her alone, and maybe she said no, not for any money, and that maybe then you raped her anyway and killed her in anger. ”

  I sighed. My throat was tight. I spoke softly. “I don’t know what became of Fala, Amzil. I hope that she somehow got away from Gettys and is having a nice life somewhere. I didn’t kill her. I never saw her again after that one night. And I didn’t force her to keep to her room with me. As far-fetched as it sounds, she wanted to be there. ” Even as I said the words, I realized how unlikely they would sound to anyone else in the world.

  “I didn’t think you had, Nevare. I thought of all the nights we were alone in my house. If you were the kind of man who would force a woman, or kill her if she refused, well—” She paused, then pointed out, “If I’d believed what they said, would I have come all this way out here, alone, not telling anyone where I was going and leaving my kids with strangers who’d toss them out on the streets if I never came back? I didn’t believe it of you. ”

  “Thank you,” I replied gravely. I felt truly grateful. I thought about that. I was grateful because a woman didn’t think I was a murderer. When I’d been tall and handsome and golden, everyone had thought well of me. Carsina had told me how brave I’d looked. Encase the same man in this slab of flesh and these worn clothes and women saw a rapist and murderer. I lifted my hands to my face and rubbed my temples.

  “So. Nevare. What do you think?”

  I dropped my hands and stared at her. “What?”

  “I know it’s not much time to think about it, but I have to have an answer. Last night they let me stay for free. They say that my little ones can sleep in one of the empty rooms at night while I’m working. But that won’t change that they’ll be growing up as the children of a whore. And I know what will happen to my girls if they do. Don’t know what would become of Sem. Truth to tell, I don’t even want to wonder what happens to a boy growing up in a whorehouse. I got to get them out of there today, or I got to go to work there tonight. And I know that you know in the past, I’ve done whatever I had to do to get by, but Nevare, I never thought of myself as a whore. Just as a mother doing what she had to do, once in a while, to get stuff for her children. But if I start working there, night after night, well, I will be a whore. And no denying it. ”

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  “Why did you leave your cabin finally? What drove you out?”

  She met my gaze squarely. “You remember that fellow up the hill? He tried to break in. I had my gun and I warned him, four, five times I shouted at him to get away from the door or I’d shoot. He shouted back that he’d never seen me fire that thing and he didn’t think I knew how or that I had any bullets. And the way he was yelling, I knew that he wasn’t just going to break in and take what he wanted. He was going to get rid of us, to be sure he could have all we had. So I shooed my kids behind me, and when he finally got the door chopped in, well, I fired. And I killed him. And then I packed up my children and what we could carry and we ran away from there. ” By the time she finished speaking, she was hunched over in her chair as if she expected me to strike her, wringing her hands together. She looked up at me from her cower. “So now you know,” she said very softly. “I am what they accuse you of being. I murdered him. I’m telling you the truth, because I want you to know the truth before you decide if you’ll help me or not. ”

  I sat down heavily in my chair. “You can’t stay here, Amzil. It…it wouldn’t be safe for you or for the children. I’m not even sure if I can stay here anymore. ”

  She was silent for a time. Then she said furiously, “It’s because I killed him, isn’t it? You think someone from Dead Town is going to come here and accuse me, and I’ll hang and you’ll be stuck with my children. ”

  The way she said it told me far more than she’d planned. She’d intended me to be her hedge against that possible disaster. She’d intended to bring her children to me in the desperate hope that if she was found out and executed, I’d protect them. I tried to speak in a calming voice. “I’m flattered. No, I’m honored that you would think of bringing your children here. And it means a great deal to me that you would hear such stories about me and disbelieve them. There are not many in town or in the fort that would be willing to stand by me as you would. But I’m serious when I say that it wouldn’t be safe here for you. Feelings are running high. Today, when I was ordered to leave town, I worried that I would be followed. I have no confidence that I won’t be attacked tonight or burned out of this house. That was the kind of hatred I saw today. I can’t take you in, Amzil. I wish that I could. ”

  “Of course you do,” she said with hard skepticism, and stood to leave.

  I blocked her exit. Sparks of anger came into her eyes, but I didn’t move. I took the colonel’s piece of silver from my pocket. “You take this,” I began.

  “You don’t owe me anything,” she hissed.

  “I owe you what you offered me. The belief that I know you well enough to say that you didn’t murder that man. You did what you had to do in defense of your children. Now you take this coin, for the little ones. It will at least feed them tonight. Get them out of Sarla Moggam’s brothel. It’s a foul place. Take them to—” For a moment I hesitated, then I plunged on, “Take them to Lieutenant Kester’s house. Ask around. Someone will know where he lives. Lieutenant Spinrek Kester. Tell him the same thing you told me. That if he’ll give you and the children a place to sleep, you’ll help cook and clean and so on. Tell his lady that you used to be a seamstress, and you want to make an honest living for yourself. She’ll help you. She’s like that. ”

  She looked at the money that I’d pushed into her hand. Then she looked up at me, confused. “Do I tell them that you sent me? Do I…do you want me to come back here sometimes? At night?”

  “No,” I said quickly, before I could be tempted by her offer. “No. You didn’t offer me that, and I’m not asking for that. And don’t tell them I sent you. Tell them…No. Tell him that you wish your whistle were shaped like an otter, that you’ve heard that whistles shaped like otters are lucky enough to save a man’s life. But you only say that to him if no one else is around. Do you understand me? It’s important. ”

  Bewilderment flickered over her face. “So, you want me to make him think I’m daft, so he’ll give us shelter out of pity?”

  “No. No, Amzil. It’s just something he and I both know, something that will make him know it’s important to help you as he was once helped. ”

  “A whistle shaped like a beaver,” she said carefully.

  “No. An otter. A whistle shaped like an otter. ”

  She closed her fist tight on the coin. Then she said suddenly, “Give me your trousers, at least. ”

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  “What?” It was my turn to be bewildered.

  “Your dirty trousers there. Give them to me. I’ll wash them, and I’ll let them out and bring them back to you. ”

  I was tempted. But, “No. Anyone who saw them would know to whom they belonged. Amzil, until I can clear my name, you must not be associated with me. Now. Thank you. Go and do as I said. ”

  She looked down at the floor. “Nevare, I—” She stepped suddenly forward, and I thought she would hug me. At the last minute she extended her hand and patted me timidly on the arm, as if I were a dog with an uncertain temperament. “Thank you,” she said again.

moved away from the door, and she fled. I watched her go, a small woman hurrying down the dirt road, away from the cemetery and toward the town. I yielded to an impulse, bowed my head, and asked the good god to look after her.

  I hadn’t had an opportunity to buy food. Despite everything else that had happened, I was ravenous again. I drank my tea, trying to swallow my hunger with it. Then I methodically secured my house. I closed and latched the shutters of my window. I took my disreputable weapon down from its hooks on the wall and prepared five loads for it. Then, scowling, I prepared an additional five. I hoped against hope that I’d never have to use them. Perhaps, I thought sourly, I’d be lucky, and if a mob came to drag me from my house, this ancient derelict of a gun would blow up and kill me quickly.

  Ebrooks and Kesey came to my door before they went back to Gettys for the night. They were sweaty and tired and looking for a few moments of talk and a cool drink before they began the walk back to town. I let them in, and watched them dip up water from my cask. The room was small, and while they were in it, they filled it with their noise. They talked about how much grass they’d cut and what they had to do tomorrow as if it all were of tremendous importance. It was trivial and meaningless to me. Dead soldiers and their wives and children were all rotting back into soil, and the soil grew the grass, and these two men would cut it to make the cemetery look tidy, and then more grass would grow and they would cut that, and more folk would die and we would bury them. I thought of the body that had been stolen and how outraged I’d been, and all the effort I’d put into recovering it. What if I’d left him there, a soldier whose name I didn’t now recall, and the tree roots had penetrated his body and the beetles and ants had carried off his flesh? How was that any different from burying him in a hole and marking the spot by writing his name on a plank of wood? I thought about what I’d claimed as my life, that I would call myself a soldier and guard the place where bodies were buried. And I would do this because I was the second son my mother bore, and therefore I must wear the king’s uniform on my back and, at least ostensibly, serve him.

  It was all so meaningless when I looked at it that way. It was meaningless in the same way as when I stood up from a game and then looked down on the scatter of playing pieces, and realized that they all were just bits of polished stone on a wooden board marked with squares. All the meaning they’d had moments before when I’d been trying to win a game were meanings that I’d imbued them with. Of themselves, neither they nor the board had any significance.

  I could not decide if I were just a playing piece, or if I’d finally stepped far enough away from the game someone else had made of my life to discover that I no longer wished to be a playing piece. I shook my head as if I could rattle my own brain, trying to find my way back to my own world where all these things were accepted and important and mattered.

  “Something wrong, Nevare?” Ebrooks asked me abruptly. I realized that both he and Kesey were looking at me oddly. I’d been staring sightlessly out the window. Now I looked at them. Their faces were damp with sweat and smudged with dirt, but their eyes seemed genuinely concerned.

  “You know what they’re saying about me in town?” I asked them.

  Ebrooks looked away and said nothing. Kesey looked stricken. It was enough.

  “Why didn’t you say something to me?” I demanded.

  “Aw, Nevare,” Kesey exclaimed, “We know that ain’t true. You ain’t got that kind of mean in you. ”

  “I hope not,” I said. “I just don’t understand how a rumor like that could get started, or why so many people would be willing to believe it. ”

  “Well, it’s how you are, you know,” Kesey said ponderously. “Living out here, all alone, near the forest. And being, you know, big like you are. And no one knowing much about you. It just, well, maybe it makes it easier for them to make up something about you. You ought to come to town more often, drink with the boys, let ’em see you aren’t so strange. ”

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  “Good advice too late,” I grumbled. “Not that I ever had the money to do much drinking with the boys. I’m all but banished now. I nearly got stoned to death today. ”

  “What?” Ebrooks demanded, horrified.

  They listened to my tale, nodding gravely. When I described the man who had come toward me out of the mob, Ebrooks nodded and said, “That’ll be Dale Hardy. He’s new. Give him a month in Gettys and he won’t be so piss and vinegar. He’ll get ground down like the rest of us. ”

  We talked for some time longer, and then they left, promising to bring me supplies from the mess hall the next day. That was small comfort. I’d had next to nothing to eat all day, and the hunger inside me now was not to be ignored. An equation nudged into my awareness. I’d used the magic last night to keep myself warm. And today my hunger was proportionately strong. Magic, it seemed, demanded more food than physical effort. I wondered idly if I could work enough magic to shed the wall of fat from my body. I decided that the appetite it would create would probably drive me insane before I succeeded.

  I went out into the gathering evening to see if I could find anything to eat. I carried my gun with me, even as I told myself I was worrying needlessly. If the mob were going to hunt me down and hang me, they’d have done it by now. Wouldn’t they?

  As yet, my vegetable garden wasn’t yielding. I went to Clove’s stall and abashedly took a measure of his grain. It was coarse and hard and none too clean, but I rinsed it and put it to soak in a pot near my fire. My water cask was nearly empty; I took my bucket and headed down to the spring.

  As I had that very first day, I had the strong feeling that someone was watching me. I heard a shuffle of feathers overhead and looked up hastily to find that a croaker bird had just settled in a tree at the edge of the woods. The silhouette of the trees and the bird were black against the day’s fading sky. He croaked suddenly. A shiver ran up my spine. I lurched to my feet, and my brimming bucket sloshed a little cold water down my leg.

  “Nevare. ” A voice spoke softly from the woods. It seemed to come from the trees just below the bird’s perch. Although it was a woman’s voice and I recognized Olikea’s tone, my first thought was that death had called my name. On the fleeting heels of that thought, however, was the heated flush of my memory of Olikea. All my senses came to sudden quivering attention. I stared into the shadowy woods and saw no one and nothing, until she moved. Then I could not understand how I had not seen her before. She stepped clear of the sheltering trees, but did not venture out of the forest.

  Abruptly I became aware of the basket that she carried on one arm. She held out a hand toward me, beckoning me. I took a slow step toward her, trying to find logic in my mind. Did I wish to reenter her world? I saw her flex her fist, and the scent of fresh crushed fruit suddenly filled my nostrils. She had pulped something in her hand. “Nevare,” she called again, softly, coaxingly. She took a step backward toward the forest. I dropped my bucket and lunged after her. She laughed and fled.

  I followed her into the forest. She paused and ran, dodged, hid, and then revealed herself, and I pursued her mindlessly like a dog tracking a squirrel as it jumps from tree to tree. She had reduced me to my most elementary drives, food and sex. Dignity, intellect, rationality fell away from me as I hunted her through the dusky woods.

  Night deepened under the interwoven branches. My eyes adjusted to the dimness and my nose became a keen ally. She did not seriously try to elude me, but only stayed just out of my reach, laughing when I got close to her, then fleeing with a sudden dash and vanishing again from my sight as she camouflaged herself in the tricky sunset light.

  Before I knew it, we had reached the eaves of the true old forest. Then she ran in earnest, basket jouncing on her arm, and her buttocks bobbing. She made no attempt to hide from me now, and I ran, heavily, panting, but running like a dog on a scent, tirelessly and determined.

  Did I catch her or did she turn and snare me in her a
rms? I could not say. I only knew that near a welling spring, the game suddenly ended in triumph for us both. She had splashed out ankle-deep into the water. I followed her, and there she came to me, suddenly willing and not coy at all. I kissed her, an act that seemed to surprise and intrigue her. She pulled back, laughing and saying, “You do not need to eat me, Great One. I have brought the right foods for you, the foods that will restore you, the foods that will reveal you. I have the dream traveler’s berries and the bark of the flight-of-eyes. I have ever-heal and never-tire. All that a Great One needs, I bring to you. ”

  She took both my hands and drew me to the riverbank. There she would not allow me to do anything for myself. She fed me from her hands, even to cupping cool water for me to drink. She took my clothing from me, and then offered me more food and herself. The tang of the soft, thin-skinned fruit was interspersed with the play of her warm, wet tongue as she mixed her kisses with feeding me. She had learned so quickly. She held mushrooms between her teeth and offered them to me, refusing to let go so that I had to bite them from her mouth. Her hands were sticky with the fruit she had crushed, and as she ran them over me, the smell of the fruit nectar mingled with the musk of our bodies to become one scent.

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  Later, I would think it depravity. At the time, it was lust and gluttony combined into one glorious, sense-engulfing indulgence. The moon was high before we had finished our consumption. I lay back on deep, soft moss, completely satiated in every way I could imagine. She leaned over me, breathing her wine breath into my face. “Are you happy, Great One?” she asked softly. She stroked the curve of my belly, following the line of hair that led downward. “Have I pleased you?”

  I was far beyond being pleased with her. And yet it was her first question that clung to my mind. Was I happy? No. This was transitory. Tomorrow I would be back in my cabin, fearing to go into town, digging holes to bury men I’d never known, and planning a fence that would keep out this world that I now wallowed in. I answered neither of her questions.

  “Olikea, you are a very kind woman. ”

  She laughed at that and replied, “I am as kind to you as I hope you will be to me. Will you be kind enough to come to my village? I wish to show you to the people there. ”

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