Forest mage, p.58
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       Forest Mage, p.58

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

  “You wish to show me to your people?”

  “Some there do not believe that one of your kind could become a Great One. They mock me and ask, ‘Why would the magic choose as defender the one who has invaded us?’” She shrugged the question aside as if it were of no consequence to her. “So I wish to prove I speak true to them. Will you come with me to my village?”

  I could suddenly think of no reason to refuse. “Yes. I will. ”

  “Good. ” She stood up suddenly. “Let’s go. ”

  “Now? Tonight?”

  “Why not?”

  “I thought the Speck villages were far back in the forest. Days or even weeks from here. ”

  She tossed her head and puffed her cheeks. “Some are. All the winter villages are. But our summer village is not. Come. I’ll show you. ”

  She stooped and seized both my hands. I laughed at the thought of her being able to tug me to her feet. With a groan and a lurch, I rolled over, got my knees under me, and stood up. She took my hand. She led and I followed her, away from the spring and my discarded clothing. Away from everything. At the time, I didn’t even think that I was leaving my old life behind, only that I was going somewhere with Olikea.

  The night was velvet around us. Olikea occasionally swatted at the gnats that hummed about her head, but none came near me. If she followed a path, I could not detect it. We walked on banks of moss and waded through drifts of fallen leaves from decades past. Other animals moved in the forest, as softly as we did. Our way led us across the sides of steep hills at a slant, always ever higher. We came to a place where the trees were as big around as towers, their tops lost in leafy darkness. We topped a ridge and went down into the shallow valley beyond it, and never once left the shelter of the trees.

  Night was still deep around us when we came to her summer village. I smelled first the soft smoke of small campfires. Then I heard something that was more akin to the humming of bees in a hive than music, but was pleasant all the same. I began to catch glimpses of subtle firelight pooling in the hollows of the sheltered valley. As we descended, I expected to see a humble village of rustic dwellings. Instead, I saw only forest. It was only when we reached the edges of a natural clearing that I could see shadowy folk passing in front of the several small fires that dotted the dell. I estimated the population at about sixty, but there could have been three or four times that many in the darkness.

  I had almost forgotten my nudity. It had seemed completely natural to move unclad and unencumbered through the soft darkness of the forest night. Now that I faced the reality of walking into a community of Specks unclothed, I suddenly felt intensely uncomfortable. I halted and said softly to Olikea, “I need to go back for my clothing. ”

  “Oh, do not embarrass me,” she chided me and, seizing my hand, led me inexorably forward.

  I followed her as if unable to exert my own will in the matter. I walked into a child’s nursery tale. That is as close as I can describe it. The soft glow of the campfire was cupped gold in the mossy hollows that had formed around each hearth; they lit no more than the circles around them. Shadowy people moved intermittently as black silhouettes before it. The dappled folk who dozed or lounged and spoke quietly around the fires were, for that time, the legendary denizens of the forest, creatures forever beyond my ken. They were comfortable in their naked skins. Their adornments of feathers, beads, and flowers were aesthetic ornamentation only, and all the more potently beautiful for that. The summer village seemed a place where the forest had chosen to welcome the humans. The earth had shaped itself to receive humanity, rising as mossy couches around the fire circles. The curving roots of one immense tree cupped three small children curled and sleeping in its grasp. In the hollowed trunk of a still-living tree I glimpsed a couple indulging in unabashed passion in a privacy granted to them by their fellows and graced by a flowering vine that did not quite curtain them from the firelight. A hummock of earth sheltered a moss-floored cave. Glowing insects formed chains of light on the walls inside it, creating a mystical light for a group of women who were weaving baskets. Our destination was a central firepit where a group of people were singing. Olikea’s fingers imprisoned mine in a firm grip. She led me on a winding path through the village. She did not pause as we circled down and down to the lowest central firepit in the dell where the song was continuing. I felt she deliberately led me past the smaller family fires, as if she were leading an especially fine livestock purchase home and wished to be sure that her neighbors admired it. If that were so, she was achieving her purpose, for as we passed, people were rising from their fires to follow us. At last we stopped on the outskirts of the musicians’ circle. The men were humming a series of deep bass notes. The women were breathing out a sweet soprano counterpoint. A few shook bundles of dried seed pods that made a soft shushing sound. It was a gentle concert. At our approach, the music faltered, broke into pieces, and then died.

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  Olikea did not let go of my hand as she broke into the circle of gathered singers, and so I had to follow her. I hoped my high blush was invisible in the low light. She spoke not loudly, but in a clear, carrying voice. “Behold, I have found a Great One of the plain-skin folk. I have made him mine and brought him here. Behold. ”

  In the hush that followed her words, I could hear my heart beating in my ears. I had expected only an introduction to her people, which had been a frightening enough prospect. To be announced as a Great One and presented like a prize bull filled me with uneasiness. As my eyes began to adjust more fully to the firelight, I recognized Olikea’s father among the singers. He had a contraption of leather thongs strung on a wooden frame attached to something that was like a drum. He did not stare at me, but looked into the flames. Next to him, a woman a few years younger than Olikea suddenly stood. She pulled the man beside her to his feet. He was a stout fellow, more dappled than most of the men gathered there, and with a face made even odder by the dark mask of pigment around his blue eyes. His hair was long and uniformly black rather than streaked. He wore it in many plaits. At the end of each plait, the hair was knotted through a small, polished animal vertebrae. He stared at me in astonishment and dismay. The woman spoke angrily. “We have a mage already. We have no need of your plain-skin Great One, Olikea. Take him away. ”

  “Olikea’s Great One is bigger,” someone said. The voice was not aggressive, but was clearly audible. Murmurs of agreement followed this announcement.

  “Jodoli is still growing,” Olikea’s rival protested. “Already he has blessed us many times over. Continue to feast him, and he will continue to grow and fill with magic for you. ”

  “Nevare has scarcely begun to grow!” Olikea countered. “Look at how big he is, and he has never been properly fed. Since I have taken him over, he has grown, and he will grow even more as he is correctly cared for. The magic favors him. Look at his belly! Look at his thighs, his calves. Even his feet are fattening. You cannot doubt he is the better one!”

  “He is not of our people!” the other woman declared shrilly.

  Olikea feigned amazement. “Firada, how you talk! He is a Great One. How can he not be of our people? Do you dispute one that the magic has chosen and sent to us?”

  Firada was not persuaded. “I…I do not see how it can be so. Who has taught him the magic’s way? He is fat, that is true, but who could have trained him? Why does he come to us?” She turned to address the gathered folk. “Is this wise, my family, to take in a Great One who does not come to us from our own? Jodoli we have seen since the day his mother birthed him. We all witnessed the fever, and we all saw him return to us, and when he began to fill with magic, we rejoiced. We know nothing of this plain-skin Great One! Shall we replace Jodoli with an untried stranger?”

  I spoke, much to Olikea’s quick disgust. “I did not come here to replace anyone. Olikea simply asked me to come and meet you all. I cannot stay. ”

  “He cannot stay tonight!” Olikea ha
stily corrected me. Her hand gripped mine firmly. “But soon he will come to live among us, and the richness of the magic that swirls inside him will benefit all of us. All of you will be grateful for the mage I have brought you. Never before has our tribe-family been able to boast of such an immense mage loyal to our clan. Do not doubt him lest he be offended and, leaving us, choose another family for alliance. Tonight you must dance and sing a welcome to him, and bring him food so that we may feast the magic. ”

  “Olikea, I cannot…” I began in a low voice.

  She gripped my hand hard, digging her nails into me. She leaned close to speak by my ear. “Hush. You need food. Eat now. Then we will talk. See. They already scatter, to bring you food. ”

  No other words could have driven all my concerns so completely from my brain. My hunger came back, a roaring beast. Like a returning tide, the People came back, bearing with them every imaginable sort of food. There were berries and drupes that I had no names for, but also the tender tips of leaves and flower buds, a bowlful of nectar-heavy blossoms, and finely shaved tree bark. They brought me dense, golden bread, made not from grain flour but from ground tubers. It was studded with dried fruit and spicy little nuts. I hesitated over a basket of smoked insects. The woman offering them to me took honeycomb in her fingers and pinched it to drizzle the honey over the gleaming black bodies. They were crunchy and smoky and strangely oily. Delicious. I washed them down with a forest wine served in wide clay bowls.

  I ate, and as each dish was emptied, others were pushed forward to take their place. Eating had become an adventure in sensations, with no relationship to appetite or nourishing the body. I fed something larger than myself, something that took satisfaction in every morsel that entered my mouth.

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  There were moments when my true self broke through, moments when I realized the incongruity of my pale nakedness in the flame-lit velvet darkness, moments when Olikea’s satisfied patting of my swelling belly reminded me that in the streets I had walked this morning, that distended paunch was a source of mockery and shame to me. My hidden self that Tree Woman had nourished and educated emerged into his own. He, at least, understood that this tribute was due to him and proper, and he showed his satisfaction in ways that would have made my aristocratic self shudder, had I taken time to consider it. He licked his fingers and moaned with pleasure at some tastes, smacking his lips over others, and licking bowls to obtain every last morsel of the best offered to him.

  The People adored his praise of the food they brought him. As the night progressed, they built the fires higher, making the circle of light broader. They joined in the feasting, serving to themselves the lesser food unfit to offer me. When I was full nigh to bursting and had reduced my activity to sampling the best morsel from each dish presented to me, I became aware that the other mage had seated himself beside me. I turned to look at him. Jodoli gravely inclined his head to me.

  “My people feast you well,” he informed me. There was no warmth in his voice, only the statement of fact.

  I suddenly felt awkward. The scattered fragments of my real self assembled and I found myself groping for manners. “They feast me better than I have ever been fed. ” I started to thank him and then hesitated. Was not I supplanting him? Would thanking him be rude? Who should I be thanking for this amazing meal? I glanced toward Olikea for guidance, but she was temporarily absent, circulating among her people. I watched her for a moment, nearly forgetting Jodoli. Olikea walked like a queen bestowing favor. Her nakedness was always graceful, but now her swaying walk suggested a swagger that was both attractive and intimidating to me. She inclined an ear to the people who sat or reclined on mossy couches, eating and drinking. To some she nodded and smiled, to others she raised her brows or waved a hand indecisively.

  “Great Man Nevare. ” Jodoli’s low voice summoned my attention back to him. His gaze held mine. It was singularly uncomfortable to look at him. His eyes were unnaturally light in the patch of darkness that swathed them. “Have you come to take my place?” he asked me bluntly.

  “Olikea said—” I began, but he cut my words off with a strange smile. He was rubbing the fingers of one hand together as if he were polishing a small coin. “These people of mine,” he warned me. “They may not be as easy to win as you might think. You are bigger than me. And you know as well as I that the magic courses through you. But magic is like any other strength, Plain-skin. It must be trained to be useful. And I do not think you have been trained. ”

  “And you have?” I asked him with a coolness that I did not really feel.

  “My teachers stand all around you,” he said. I felt him watching me as he spoke, and knew that I was being tested just as surely as I knew I was failing that test. I looked at the gathered people and wondered what I could set against them. Mentioning the academy would probably not impress him.

  “My teacher is within me,” I said impulsively, mostly for the sake of saying something different from what he had asserted. The words had no meaning for me, but I was pleased to see a flicker of uncertainty in his masked eyes.

  “I propose a small competition,” he said. “One that will allow my people to choose wisely between one who is better schooled and one who is greater in girth. ”

  His eyes flickered away from me as he made this challenge. I followed the direction of his glance and saw the woman who had earlier championed him standing at the edge of the firelight’s circle. I sensed how they conspired to unmask my ignorance. For one instant, I scrabbled for a strategy. Then I realized I simply didn’t have one. My Speck self might have a working knowledge of magic, but I didn’t have access to it. I leaned back lazily and smiled at him, wondering if I should bluff. What did Olikea expect of me? She seemed to have deliberately maneuvered me into this confrontation. My eyes roved the gathering, looking for her. The moment my gaze touched her, she lifted her face. Our eyes met. I saw Olikea become aware of my danger. She began trying to hurry back to me without betraying her haste. Her gaze warned me, but I looked away from her. The smile on my face was becoming fixed. I nodded at Jodoli as if I’d been carefully considering his challenge. “What sort of a competition did you have in mind?” I asked him.

  “The simplest sort,” he replied complacently. “As you know, in times of plenty, the People care for their mage. In hard times, we burn our magic and ourselves to care for the People. So. Shall we show which one of us is more capable of taking care of the folk in lean or dangerous times?”

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  I was not sure how to reply to him. A woman carrying a flat tray toward me blocked Olikea. Her eyes flashed desperately toward me, but I looked away from her at Jodoli. He’d judge me weak if he caught me looking at a woman for advice. If I were going to move among these people, I must make my own way. I sized up my rival carefully. If this fellow thought he could best me in a competition of strength, he was wrong. I was not only wider than he was, but at least a head taller. My daily labor meant that my muscles were hard under the fat that coated him. He looked soft to me. The food I’d eaten had charged my magic. I could feel it scintillating through my blood, heady and intoxicating as liquor. Power. I had power and I had it in greater quantity than he did. Hitch had said I’d worked wonders beyond anything he’d ever seen a Great One do. Perhaps I had a natural talent for magic. I knew I had the benefit of a military education. Everything I’d ever learned about strategy warned me that now was no time to appear indecisive or afraid. My only hope was to draw Jodoli out and try to find a weakness. “Set the terms of the challenge as you wish,” I told him affably. Did he look surprised at my nonchalance? I hoped I was buying time.

  He bowed his head. I thought for an instant that he smiled, but when he lifted his face to mine, his mouth was serious. “And when shall we begin?” he asked me softly.

  “Whenever you like,” I said magnanimously.

  I opened my eyes to dim light filtering down through t
he forest canopy. A light rain of dew was sprinkling down from the leaves high above me as the morning breeze stirred them. The falling droplets sparkled in the random rays that broke through the canopy. They fell on my face, my bare chest and belly, for I lay flat on my back. I yawned and stretched. I could not recall a morning when I had awakened feeling better. My belly was still pleasantly full from the evening before, and I had slept as deeply as if I’d been snuggled into the finest featherbed. I sat up slowly and looked around.

  I was alone on a forested hillside. The events of the evening before came back to me in a rush of sensation and detail. Try as I might, though, I could recall nothing after I’d accepted Jodoli’s challenge. As if someone had blown out the lamp, darkness followed his words until I opened my eyes to this day.

  Yet something must have happened, for there was absolutely no sign at all of the fires or the feast or the Speck encampment. The lay of the land did not match my recollection at all; the Specks had been settled in a little dell and I rested on a slant of hillside. I doubted I had been carried here, yet surely I would remember if I had come here under my own power? Most annoying of all was Olikea’s absence. She might at least have stayed by me after luring me to visit her people. I stood up slowly, gradually realizing how peculiar my circumstances were. I was stark naked. I had no supplies, nor tools nor weapons of any kind. I was not sure where I was. Belatedly, I recalled that Spink had hinted he would be coming to see me today. He’d even given me a direct order to remain at my cabin so he would find me there. I needed to get back to my world.

  I looked around me, trying to get my bearings and finding nothing familiar. The leaves and branches overhead screened the sun. The forest of ancient trees looked the same in every direction. I recalled that as I pursued Olikea, we had climbed higher and higher up the forested flanks of the mountain. Downhill seemed my best choice.

  I walked the morning away. I could not see the passage of the sun, so I was uncertain of the passage of time. I cursed my own stupidity for following Olikea. I had been blinded by greed and lust, I told myself. And magic. I blamed the magic, and tried to convince myself that it and not my own poor judgment was responsible for my situation.

 
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