Forest mage, p.6
Part #2 of The Soldier Son Trilogy series by Robin Hobb
His glib pitch reminded of the singsong cant of the freak show barkers on Dark Evening in Old Thares. The memory of that evening and all that followed flooded through me. I pushed aside his pleading palm with the back of my hand and stepped away from him. He flinched at my touch, although I was not rough.
“I’ve come to see a rock formation that was doubtless mostly carved by the forces of nature, and only embellished by your people. I do not need to pay you to see what is right before my eyes! Please stay out of my way. ”
For an instant, his eyes narrowed and I thought he would snarl at me. Then his eyes widened, and to my surprise, he mimed another of his elaborate shrugs. He gestured toward the towering stone, making a small bow as he did so. “Do as you will, sir,” he said. Then he bowed again and backed away from me. I stared after him, puzzled, for I had detected no sarcasm or rudeness in his words.
But as he turned away from me, I lifted my eyes and perceived the real reason for his sudden loss of interest. Creaking down the steep trail was a team and wagon. The open wagon had been decked out as if for a holiday outing. A sunshade of bright yellow was suspended over its passengers. A banner painted on the side of the wagon proclaimed, “SEE THE WONDROUS SPINDLE!” Within, a dozen passengers of all ages sat on cushioned benches, the ladies holding parasols against the spring sunshine. As my erstwhile guide hastened toward them, I saw my error. I had stumbled into his commercial endeavor unawares. Now that his true prey had arrived, he was forsaking me for a richer prize. That was as well with me. I turned my back on the tourists’ arrival and set my attention on the Spindle.
It was taller than the tallest building I’d ever seen, and far more massive. My eyes traveled to the towering tip, and then down the rod. It appeared to dwindle to a single sharp point touching the ground. I walked to the edge of the depression that cupped it and looked down. The sides of the bowl sloped steeply down, and the narrow point of the Spindle was lost in deep shadow, like a giant pen plunged into an inkwell. The whole structure leaned at a sharp angle, not touching the sides of the well, apparently supported by a small joining hidden within the well. That ran counter to my engineer’s instincts. How could such a small anchorage of rock support that weight? Even at this closer perspective, it still maintained its illusion of motion.
For a time I stood there, my neck craned, staring down at the Spindle’s tip in the deeply shadowed bowl. What had seemed when viewed from a distance a fine point in proportion to the gargantuan spindle was in fact a substantial girth of stone. Where it disappeared from sight in the depths of the hole it had seemingly drilled in the earth, the cylinder’s girth was still as wide as a watchtower’s base. It must have been still. If it hadn’t been still, the grinding of the stone tip against the depths would have been deafening, as if a giant mortar and pestle were at work. But my gullible eyes still insisted that the Spindle spun. I shook my head to clear it of the optical illusion and tried to focus my mind on the real puzzle: What kept it in place? Given its mass and how it leaned, why hadn’t it fallen ages ago?
I had been certain that a closer view would reveal the trick of it. But now, standing as close to the base as I could get without tumbling into its well, I was as puzzled as ever. A lone tower edged with winding steps spiraled up to almost reach the lower side of the tilted spindle’s topmost tip. I resolved that I would hike to the standing tower and climb the stairs. It looked as if the tower came so close to the Spindle’s tip that I could actually put my hands on it, to prove to myself that it could not be rotating. All thoughts of keeping this side trip to a brief detour had vanished from my mind. I would satisfy my curiosity at all costs. I lifted my eyes to pick out the best route over the broken land and immediately saw a faint footpath across the stony earth. Obviously, I was not the first gawker to have such an ambition. Confident that Sirlofty could mind himself, I left him standing and followed the track.
When my path led me directly beneath the spindle and through its shadow, I went with trepidation. At the heart of the shadow, the day seemed to dim. I could swear I felt a distant chill wind, manufactured of the Spindle’s turning, brush my cheek. I felt in my chest rather than heard the deep rumbling of the Spindle’s eternal motion. The ghost wind seemed to slide a hand across the top of my head, stirring an uncomfortable memory of how the Tree Woman had caressed me. I was glad to step out of that shadow and away from those strange fancies, even though the day now seemed brighter and the sun too hot on my skull.
My path was not straight, but wandered through the broken walls and sunken roads of the fallen city that intersected my route. The stubs of the walls gave witness to the half-breed guide’s claim that the Spindle was a manmade wonder, for some were built of the same reddish stone as the spindle and still bore odd patterns, an alteration of checkering and spirals, at once foreign and familiar. I walked more slowly, and began to see the suggestions of sly faces eroding from leaning slabs of wall. Hollow mouths fanged with now dulled teeth, carved hands reduced by time to blunt paws, and voluptuous women whittled by the wind to become sexless boys teased my eyes.
I climbed up on one corner of wall and looked around me from that vantage point. I could almost make sense of at the tumbled walls and collapsed roofs. I jumped down and once more began to thread my way though…what? A temple town? A village? A graveyard of ancient tombs? Whatever it was, it had fallen, leaving the spindle and its tower to lord it over the time-gnawed remains. How could a folk with tools of stone, bone, and bronze have shaped such a vast creation? I even considered giving the guide a hector on my return, to see if he had a believable answer to the question.
When I reached the base of the tower, I discovered two things. The first was that it was in much poorer condition than it had seemed from the distance. The second was that it was not a proper building at all. It consisted only of a spiraling stair that wound up and around a solid inner core. I could not enter the tower at all; I could only ascend to its peak by the outer stair. A crude barrier of ropes and poles had been thrown up in front of the tower’s first step, as it to warn people off. I paid no heed to it. The lips of the stairs were rounded. The center of each step dipped, tribute to the passage of both feet and years. The walls of the stair’s core had once been tiled with mosaics. Glimpses of them remained: an eye and a pair of leering lips, a paw with claws outstretched, the fat-cheeked face of a little child with eyes closed in bliss. Round and round I climbed, ever ascending. I felt a giddy familiarity yet could recall no similar experience in my life. Here, in the mosaic, the head of a red and black croaker bird gaped its beak open wide. There a tree, arms reaching up to the sun with its face turned to its rays. I had passed it by a dozen steps before it came to me that a tree should have neither arms nor a face. There was graffiti, too, the ever-present proclamation that someone had been here, or that someone loved someone forever. Some of it was old but most of it was fresh.
I expected to grow weary with the climb. The day was warm, the sun determined, and I was carrying more flesh than I’d ever had in my life. Yet there was something exhilarating about being up so high with nothing between me and a sheer drop to the rocky ground below the spire. With every step I took, the music of the spinning Spindle grew louder; I could feel the vibration in my bones. I felt the wind of its passage on my face. There was even a peculiar scent that I knew was generated by the stone’s movement, a warm smell, delicious, like singed spices. I stopped watching the stairs and looked up to the Spindle. I could see the striated stone core. It, perhaps, was still. But there was a hazy layer of air or mist that surrounded the Spindle, and it spun. I cannot explain the fascination and delight that this woke in me.
The top of the tower culminated in a platform the size of a small room. A low stone wall edged it, but on one side a crack had corrupted it and the stone had eroded away to an uneven mound only about the height of my knee. I walked to the center of the platf
I took a moment and stared out at the view. The ruined city was cupped in the canyon. The sightseers had disembarked from the wagon and stood in a respectful mob around the half-breed. I knew he was speaking to them, but not a sound reached my ears save the soft hum of the turning Spindle. I gazed up at it. I suddenly knew I had come here for a reason. I reached a slow hand up over my head.
Suddenly, a voice spoke nearby.
“Don’t touch it. ”
I jumped and looked to see who had spoken. It was the Plainswoman from the guide’s hut, or someone very like her. She must have followed me up the steps. I scowled. I wanted no company. My hand still wavered above my head.
“Why not?” I asked her.
She came a step closer to me, cocked her head slightly, and looked at me as if she had thought I was someone she knew. She smiled as she said jestingly, “The old people say it’s dangerous to touch the Spindle. You’ll be caught in the twine and carried—”
My fingers brushed the spinning stuff. It was mist, said my fingers; but then the gritty stone surface swept against my hand. I was snatched out of my skin and borne aloft.
I have watched women spinning. I had seen the hanks of wool caught and drawn out into a fine thread on a spinning wheel. That was what happened to me. I did not keep my man’s shape. Instead, something was pulled out of me, some spirit or essence, and was drawn as fine as yarn and wrapped around the immense Spindle. It twisted me as it pulled me into a taut line. Thin as string I was, and I spiraled around it like thread. My awareness was immersed in the magic of the Spindle. And in that immersion, I awoke to my other self.
He knew the purpose of the Spindle. It pulled the widely scattered threads of magic out of the world and gathered them into yarn. The spindle concentrated the magic. And he knew the spire’s purpose. It gave access to the gathered magic. From here, a Plainsman of power, a stone mage, would work wonders. This spinning spindle was the heart of Plains magic. I’d found it. This was the well that not only the Kidona but all the Plainspeople drew from. The suppressed other self inside me suddenly surged to the fore. I felt him seize the magic and glory in the richness of it. Some he took into himself, but there was only so much this body could hold. As for the rest, well, now that he knew the source, no Plainsman would ever unleash this magic against the Specks of the mountains again. I’d see to that. All their harvested magic was at the tips of my fingers. I laughed aloud, triumphant. I would destroy—
I strained, striving to grip what I could not see. It was too strong. I was abruptly flung back into my body with a jolt as shocking as if I’d been flung to my back on paving stones.
“…to the edges of complete power. It is not a journey for the unprepared. ” The Plainswoman finished her sentence. She was smiling, sharing a silly old superstition with me.
I swayed and then folded onto my knees. I saved some of my dignity by collapsing back onto my heels rather than falling on my face. My hands, I saw, rested on faded patterns carved into the stone. She frowned at me and then asked, more in alarm than concern, “Are you ill?”
“I don’t think so,” I replied. I took a deep steadying breath and became aware of a voice lecturing. It was coming closer. I was dizzy and I did not want to turn my head, but I did. The guide advanced slowly up the steps. He had donned a straw hat that gave him a comical dignity. Behind him came a gaggle of sightseers, the hardy ones who had made the climb. One woman held her parasol overhead. Two others fanned themselves against the day’s warmth. There were only two men in the party, and they seemed to be escorting the young ladies rather than here by their own inclination. A dozen boys and girls traipsed along behind the adults. The girls were trying to imitate the ladies but the lads were exhibiting the universal signs of bored boys, nudging one another, scuffling to be first onto the platform, and parodying the guide’s posture and remarks behind his back.
“I beg of you all to be most careful and to stay well away from the edge. The wall is not sound. And to answer your question, Miss, the spire has four hundred and thirty-two steps. Now, please lift your eyes to the Spindle itself. Here you will experience the clearest view of it. You can now see that the illusion of motion is created by the use of the striated rock. At this distance, of course, the illusion ceases and one can see that the spindle is fixed in place. ”
Without standing up, I turned my eyes to the spindle again. “It spins,” I said quietly, and heard, aghast, the distance in my own voice. “For me, it spins. ” Despite my effort to clear my voice, I sounded like Epiny when she spoke through her medium’s trance. That other self inside me struggled for ascendance. I suppressed him with difficulty.
“You are not well, sir. ” The Plainswoman stated this with emphasis. I sensed that she spoke to inform the others of my situation. “You should leave here. ”
I stared at her. I had expected her to urge me to rest or offer me water. Instead, her gray gaze was narrow with distrust. I closed my eyes for a moment.
“I don’t know if I can,” I said. I had been about to do something, something of vast importance. I could not get my bearings. My pulse beat in my ears. I staggered to my feet and then blinked at the scene around me. Only a moment had seemed to pass for me, but the tourists were not as I had last glimpsed them. The guide had concluded his lecture and was pointing out over the valley, answering questions for an earnest young man. The other sightseers likewise stood beside him looking out across the wide vista. Two of the women had opened sketchbooks. The parasol woman was working from an easel her male companion had carried for her, her watercolor already sketched and half-painted. He stood behind her shoulder, admiring her skill. An older woman had gathered the girls around her and was repeating the key points of their tour. One dutiful boy held a sheet of paper against a block of stone as a stout older woman made a charcoal rubbing of the bas-relief etched there. The guide turned away from his party and started toward me.
The Plainswoman had remained beside me. “What’s happening to me?” I asked her. She knit her brows and shrugged at me. She stood by me, almost as if I were in her custody.
The guide approached me with a sanctimonious smile. “Well? And have you satisfied your curiosity, sir? I am sure you must be very impressed with the winds that managed to sculpt these wondrous carvings. ”
His sarcasm was justified. Possibly that was why it angered me. “I’m leaving,” I announced. I heaved myself to my feet. I was turning away when I felt a sudden wave of queasiness. The earth seemed to rock under my feet. “Is it an earthquake?” I asked frantically, although I suspected that the unrest was within my own body. I lifted my hands to my temples and stared bleakly at the guide and the Plainswoman. They regarded me with alarm.
A terrible whine like an ungreased axle shrieked through my ears. I turned my head in search of the source of it. To my horror, three of the boys had gathered at the center of the platform. Two acted as support to hold a third aloft. Thus lifted, the middle boy could reach the stone of the spindle. He had taken out a sheath knife and set the blade to the stone. As I watched, he tried to scratch a line into the ancient monument. The self that the Tree Woman had tutored stabbed me with fear. There was danger, vast danger, in suddenly loosing that magic.
“Stop!” I shouted the warning. Against all common sense, I expected to see the young fool snatched up and away by the momentum of the spindle. “Don’t do that! Stop that immediately!” The iron was tearing the magic free of the spindle in wild, flapping sheets. It could go anywhere, do anything. I was deafened and dizzied by its buffeting, but the others apparently felt nothing.
The boy stopped, glared at me, and said scornfully, “You’re not my father. Mind your own business. ”
The moment he had lifted his knife from the stone, the screeching had stopped. Now, as he deliberately set his blade to the monument, it began again. As he bore down on the iron blade, the sound soared in volume and pitch. I clapped my hands over my ears against the harsh shriek. A ghostly smoke rose from the point at which blade met stone. He seemed oblivious to all of it.
“Stop!” I roared at him. “You don’t know what you’re doing, you idiot!”
Now every member of the touring party had turned to stare at me. For myself, I did not know how they could be immune to the shrieking of the spindle as the cold iron bore into it. Wave after wave of vertigo washed through me. The humming of the Spindle, a constant that had been so uniform I had scarcely been aware of it, now warbled as the blade’s contact slowed its turning. “Make him stop!” I shouted at them. “Can’t you see what he’s doing? Can’t you sense what he’s destroying?” My hidden self warned me of magic unraveling around me. I felt the tattered threads of it score my skin as it dispersed into the empty air. It felt like tiny swift cuts with a razor-sharp knife. It threatened me; it threatened to strip from me all the magic I had so painstakingly stored away.
“Stop him, or I shall!” I made the threat, but the wavering of the magic unbalanced me. It wasn’t just the air; it was the reality around me that seemed uneven and fickle. I didn’t think I had the strength to swat a fly. Nonetheless, I moved to stop the boy.
I must have looked like a madman as I lurched and staggered toward the young fool who was whetting his blade on ancient magic. The women had lifted their hands, covering their mouths in horror. The two boys supporting the vandal staggered back, one dropping the leg he had supported. One young man stepped forward as if he would protect the boy from me. Only one matron, the one making the rubbing, added her voice to my protest. “Stop that, you young hooligan! I brought you here to teach you about primitive culture, not to have you ruin it! Stop defacing these ancient works! Your father will hear of this!” She dropped her charcoal and advanced on the lad. Behind her, her assistant rolled his eyes wearily.
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