Forest mage, p.61
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       Forest Mage, p.61

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

  “He challenged me to prove that my magic was stronger than his. ”

  She furrowed her brow at me. “But you are bigger than he is. You hold more magic than he does. You should have won. ”

  “I may be full of magic. Sometimes I feel that I am. But that does not mean that I know how to use it. Jodoli said as much. ”

  She puffed out her cheeks at me and made her disparaging sound again. “Then he turned his power on you. ”

  “His magic made me fall asleep and wake up somewhere else?”

  “It could be. Or he made you think you were somewhere else and just awakening, and you wandered off. Or he made it so you could not see us, or I could not see you. I do not know how his magic was done. I only know that he did it. And my sister mocked me, and all the People had to bring tribute to Jodoli and to her today to make up for their doubts. ”

  I felt a pang of defeat so immense that I could scarcely comprehend it. I’d lost. It was impossible and horribly unfair. I who had undone the power seat of the Plains people, I who had stopped their magic forever so that they could never again menace the People or threaten our lands, had been tricked and defeated by a mage scarcely worthy of the title. He was no Great Man. He barely had the belly of a pregnant girl! And then, as before, my perception shifted, and I was once more Nevare, the soldier son. I looked down at the rumpled and soiled uniform on my arm, at the dirty scuffed boots I still clutched. “I have to go back to my people,” I told her. “I’m sorry I disappointed you. I have to go back. Others are depending on me. ”

  She smiled at me. “You are right. I am glad that you have come to see it. ”

  “No,” I told her. She had come closer to me, and I could already sense the warmth and musk that radiated from her body. It was so hard to deny her. “Olikea, I have to go back to my own people. To the Gernians. I have to become a good soldier, I have to make a home for my sister. ”

  She stood less than a hand’s-breadth from me now, tilting her face to look up into my eyes. “No. You are wrong. You are not to be a soldier, but a Great One. That is how you will serve the magic. And no man should make a home for his sister. Women go out and make their own homes, and it is not with their brothers. ”

  It was hard to find words when she stood so near. She put her hand on my chest and my heart leapt to meet it. “I have a duty to my people. ”

  “Yes. You do. And the sooner you fulfil it, the less suffering there will be on both sides. You must use the magic to make the Jhernians go away. ” Her lips twisted the name of my folk, and made them foreigners to my ears. “The sooner the war ends, the sooner the suffering will stop for all. ”

  “War? What war? We are not at war with the Specks. ”

  “That is the most foolish thing I have ever heard you say. Of course we are at war. They must leave, or we must kill them all. There is no other way. We have tried and tried to make them go away. Soon there will be no choice for us. We will have to kill them all. ”

  These dark words she breathed against my mouth as she carefully aligned her body to mine and pressed herself against me. “Only you can do it,” she said quietly when she lifted her mouth from mine. “Only you can save all of us from that. That is your duty. You must stay and do it. ” She ran her hands down the sides of my belly, caressing it sensuously. The sensations she woke drove all thought and internal division from my mind. She made me hers again, and I fell to her willingly.

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  CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

  THE ROAD

  I became a pendulum, swinging between two lives, committed to neither.

  By days I labored in the cemetery. I dug graves and worked on my cemetery wall. The third day after I had set the poles in the earth to mark my fence line, I noticed that the bud nodes on their bark were swollen. In the next few days, leaves unfurled. I decided I had nothing to lose by watering them, and hauled each one a bucket from my spring daily. I thought that the leaves were a last desperate bid at life, and expected them to curl, wither, and die. But they did not. Instead the “poles” began to thrive as swiftly as if they were carefully transplanted saplings rather than posts. The rate at which they put out new stubs for branches was astonishing. I devoted myself to moving rocks, flowering plants, and bushes into alignment with my poles. I hammered stakes and strung lines to mark where the other hedgerows would eventually be, and generally took care that if the inspection party chose to visit, they would find evidence of careful and daily industry.

  Amzil surprised me with a visit, one that was all the more astonishing in that she brought tailor’s tools and an assortment of worn cavalla uniforms that she had disassembled into fabric. I was both relieved and embarrassed to have her take on the task of making me presentable. She obviously regarded it as a debt she owed me, for she went at it with pinched-lipped determination. I made one effort at asking her how she did in her new position. She narrowed her eyes at me and said that she much admired the lieutenant’s lady, for she seemed like a woman who deserved better than the hand that life had dealt her, but was nevertheless making the best of her fortunes.

  “Such a small woman, and having such a hard time just now. She can’t keep a bite of food down, and yet she said she could watch my three while I did a bit of sewing work. ” Somehow her words seemed accusing, and I let a silence fall that was broken only by her commands that I lift my arms, turn, and hold a paper of pins for her. It was more humiliating than being measured by my mother’s seamstresses, for this was a woman, I reluctantly admitted to myself, for whom I had feelings, even if I was not exactly certain what they were.

  Once I had been measured, she turned me out of my own house. Midway through the day, she called me back and left me to try on what she called “the basted pieces. ” Both the jacket and the trousers had more seams than any such garments I’d ever seen before, for she had had to “ease them,” as she put it, to fit me. By the time I finished my work and returned to my cabin that evening, I found a jacket and trousers and a shirt that I could actually put on and button. I walked around my small home, marveling at how freely I could sit, stand, and even bend. Then, but with reluctance, I carefully hung them up, resolving that I would not wear them again until the inspection team arrived.

  By day I appeared content to be a cog doing this humble work for my king. I resumed the proper regimen of a soldier. I rose early, as I always had. I made an honest entry in my journal. I had resolved that no one but me would ever read it, and thus I did not mince words. Afterward, I washed and I shaved. Both Ebrooks and Kesey commented on my new demeanor, and they themselves began to look more clean and trim. They both had seniority over me, if not rank, but I began to notice that they deferred to me in how the cemetery was kept. I was their de facto corporal even if the sleeve of my uniform lacked stripes. By day, I was a good soldier.

  By night, I belonged to the forest.

  It was not always a conscious decision. I was coming to think of my other self as my Speck self. He was part of me and apart from me. Some nights, after darkness had fallen and Ebrooks and Kesey had left, I would enter the forest and seek Olikea. At other times, when I tried to resist the double sirens of food and sex and simply go to my own bed, I would awaken from a dream of walking in the forest to find that I was, indeed, walking in the forest, the dew-heavy hem of my well-worn nightshirt slapping against my calves. I thought of tethering my wrist to my bed, as the sergeant in my academy dormitory had once suggested to me, but I decided it would do little good. I was living two lives now, and with a bystander’s neutrality, I watched and waited to see which one would come to dominate me.

  Olikea I did not understand. She had come too suddenly and too completely into my life. Every night, she awaited me in the eaves of the forest. Every night, she lured me into its depths, and then, when I reached the ancient forest, she would claim me as her own. I could not look at her without becoming aroused, and the food she brought me was the food that a Great One should
always eat in order to maximize the growth of the magic. I could not refuse it any more than I could resist her favors. And yet I was not sure that either one was good for me. I could almost feel myself growing fatter when I ate what she offered me; it was not that there was a vast quantity of it, only that it seemed always the perfect food and exactly what I had wanted that evening.

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  As for the woman herself, she, too, satisfied my body beyond anything I could have imagined. She was imaginative, daring, and completely shameless in how she joined her body to mine. She relished our congress beyond any expectations I’d ever had of a woman. Her response to me seemed almost masculine, she was so aggressive, and she felt no qualms in letting me know exactly what would give her the greatest pleasure. She was noisy in her appreciation of my efforts, and in return, she left me mindless with fulfilment.

  Awkwardly, guiltily, I courted her. The small gifts I brought her delighted her far beyond their worth. Brightly colored boiled sweets, brass bangles, cinnamon sticks, and glass beads were treasured by her, but made me feel as if I bought her with trinkets.

  By day, it grieved me that she loved me so. I knew that in the long term, nothing could come of it but sorrow. She could never join me as my wife in my world. One evening, she took me to a place where she had hung a sort of sling between two trees. It was low and very large, and before I knew it, she had shown me how it could facilitate an entirely new form of coupling for us. And afterward, as I reclined in it, she joined me, molding her body along mine. The night was balmy and windless, and her body was warm where it pressed against me. A wave of sentiment washed through me. She deserved better from me than this casual sexual play.

  I steeled myself to explain it all to her. I had been a cad, using her, allowing her to become attached to me, when in reality I could offer her nothing. I tried to express my apology for letting her become involved with me. A better man, I was sure, would have refused her advances.

  But my explanations only baffled her. I looked up at the black network of branches against the starry sky and found myself groping for words I did not know in her language. “I do not feel I am worthy of your love, Olikea,” I spoke plainly at last. “I fear that you have plans and dreams for a future that cannot be. ”

  “Any future can be!” she replied, laughing at me. “If it were not so, if it were fixed, it would be a past. You say a foolish thing. How can a future be impossible? Do you hold the gods’ powers in your hands?”

  “No. I do not. But I speak of things I cannot or will not do, Olikea. ” Now that I had become determined to have this talk with her, what I had to say sounded colder and crueler than ever. But cruelest of all, I decided, would be to let her labor on under a delusion of a bright future with me. “Olikea, my father has discarded me from his household. I doubt I can ever return there as a respected son, and I will not return there as anything less. But even if I could, I could not take you with me. He would not accept you. Do you understand what I am saying?”

  “I do not understand why you think I would wish to go there. ” She was genuinely puzzled. “Or why I would allow you to take me there. Am I a sack that you would carry off with you?”

  I perceived I had to be even blunter. “I can never marry you, Olikea. You can never stand beside me as my—” I searched for a Speck word and found I did not know one. I used the Gernian instead. “Wife. You can never be my wife. ”

  She leaned up on top of me to look down into my face. “What is that? Wife?”

  I smiled sadly. “Wife is the woman who will live with me for the rest of my life. The woman who will share my home and fortunes. The woman who will have my children. ”

  “Oh, I will have my children,” she assured me calmly. She lay back beside me. “A daughter, it is hoped. But I do not like your home, out there in the bare lands. You may keep it. As for fortune, I have my own fortune, so I do not need yours. You may keep it. ”

  Her calm assurance that she would have my child unnerved me. “I don’t love you, Olikea,” I burst out. “You are beautiful and you are seductive and you are kind to me. But I do not think we truly know one another. I do not think we share anything beyond this passion for the moment. ”

  “I share food with you,” she pointed out reasonably. She stretched and then settled more comfortably beside me. “Food. Mating. ” She sighed, pleased with herself. “If a woman gives these things to a man, then he is fortunate and he should not ask for more from her. Because,” she added in a tone between teasing and warning, “more than those things, he will not get. Though he may earn her displeasure by asking. ”

  The last was plainly a warning. I let the conversation die away. Her head was pillowed on my shoulder and her hair smelled sweet yet musky. I decided that there were great differences between our people, greater than I had imagined. There was still the one thing that I could not keep silent on.

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  “And if you have my baby, Olikea? What then?”

  “Your baby? Your baby?” She laughed. “Men do not have babies. Women do. Your baby. ” She chortled again. “When I have my baby, if it is a daughter, then I will celebrate and reward you. And if it is a boy,” she puffed her cheeks briefly, “I will try again. ”

  Her words gave me plenty of food for thought for several nights. I remembered a saying that my father had: “Don’t measure my wheat with your bushel. ” He’d used it whenever our opinions differed so much that I could not predict what he was likely to do next. It suddenly seemed that that was what I’d been doing with Olikea. The Specks had a strange set of values, and I decided that despite my continued contact with them, I knew very little of their ways.

  Yet with each passing day, I knew that I was closer and closer to having to make a decision. Things were happening, and some of them were events I had set in motion. Sooner or later, I would have to stop balancing on the wall between my worlds and make a choice. Some days I dreaded the idea that a letter from Yaril might arrive; at other times, I longed for it. As the days passed with no word from her, I suspected that my father had intercepted the letter and destroyed it. Then I decided it was equally possible that Carsina had received a letter from Yaril for Spink and kept it. I tried to decide what I must do next, but I could not think clearly. Little sleep and long hours of work interspersed with frantic coupling do not lead to clarity of mind.

  Dr. Dowder, ever an advocate of alcohol as a means to soothe his own nerves, seemed to have come up with a balanced dose of rum and laudanum that deadened both workers and soldiers to the terror at the end of the road. Work was proceeding, not at a pace that would have caused rejoicing in any other circumstances, but with a steadiness that was nothing short of astounding given the record of the last few years.

  It was, as Ebrooks had noted, a monumental task. Before the road could progress, the three gargantuan trees they had initially felled had to be cut to pieces and hauled away. According to what I heard from Ebrooks and Kesey, it was being carried out as if it were a military operation. The cutting crew, properly dosed with alcohol and laudanum, worked an hourlong shift of cutting chunks of the logs and hitching teams to them to haul the cut pieces away. Each piece was hauled beyond the “fear zone” to where a sober crew of prisoners would take it over. The forward men worked for an hour, then fell back to be replaced by prisoners and guards who had been freshly fortified against the fear. Slowly but steadily, the fallen trees were being diminished. A cutting crew had already been sent forward to mark the next trees that should fall. Morale in Gettys was improving, and not just because of the road progress. Colonel Haren, after consulting with Dr. Dowder, had decided that a milder “Gettys dose” was to be available to any man or woman who felt the need of fortification. According to Ebrooks, the entire town was mildly intoxicated most of the time. I had no way of confirming that, but did notice that both he and Kesey smelled of rum.

  I did not venture into town anymore. Just as
I had hoped the furor over Fala’s disappearance would die away, her body had been found. She had been strangled with a leather strap and her body discarded in a pile of waste straw behind the stables. Falling snow and subsequent piles of waste straw mucked out from the horses’ stalls had been heaped over her, or she would have been found much sooner. As it was, she was only discovered when the straw was being loaded into a wagon to be hauled away for the general tidying-up that Gettys was undergoing prior to our inspection.

  I did not bury her, nor attend her funeral. Colonel Haren proved that he was not unaware of the rumors and temperament of the town, for he ordered me to take myself to the end of the road and lend a hand to the work crews there for that day. I wished I could have paid my final respects to a woman who had, although very briefly, been a comfort to me. Later, I would learn from Kesey that the funeral had been “a regular tea social” as he put it, for all of the Whistle Ladies of the town turned out to follow Fala’s coffin to the cemetery and watch her lowered into the ground. I think this display of sympathy was intended to inform the men of Gettys that the women would not tolerate the mistreatment of any woman, no matter how common. I wondered, but dared not ask, if Epiny had been part of that delegation.

  For me, the day was a peculiar one. Clove and I appeared, as ordered, at the road’s end, just beyond the fear zone. Once we were there, however, no one was quite sure whom I was to report to or what we were to do. I passed the day as an object of curiosity to the prisoners and their keepers. It was the first time I had observed the lot of the penal workers at such close range. I still cannot decide which appalled me more, the brutal treatment they received from their guards or the brutish nature of the louts that made them seem almost deserving of such abuse. By the end of the day, my only clear judgment of the whole operation was that it dehumanized the keepers just as much as those who were kept. I resolved to never belong to either group.

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  When I returned to my cemetery that evening, I went to Fala’s grave and paused there for a moment of prayer. It pleased me to see that her grave had been strewn thickly with flowers from those who had attended her funeral. I fervently hoped that whoever had ended her life in such a brutal fashion suffered similarly at his own end. What sort of a man could murder such a slight woman so cruelly and then so heartlessly dispose of her body under a heap of soiled straw? Her fate weighed on my mind as I cooked my simple meal, and it was probably why I sought my bed that night rather than seeking Olikea on the edges of the forest.

 
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