Forest mage, p.62
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       Forest Mage, p.62

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

  I had hoped to spend a night asleep if not at peace in my own bed. Yet sleep eluded me, and when finally I wrestled my way into it, I dreamed not of Olikea or of Fala, but rather of Orandula, the old god of balances. I stood beside him, helping him to balance scales that were fixed, not with two bowls, but half a dozen in a circle, very similar to the carrion carousel I had seen at Rosse’s wedding. The cruel hooks impaled not doves, but people, and worse, they were folk I knew. Dewara was gaffed on one, Tree Woman on another, poor Fala on yet a third, and my mother on a fourth. Around me in a circle, dully awaiting my choice, were Epiny and Spink, Colonel Haren and Olikea, my sister Yaril and even Carsina.

  “Choose,” the old god insisted in a caw as hoarse as a croaker bird’s, and indeed he wore the head of a great croaker bird on his man’s body. His red wattles wobbled when he spoke. “You unbalanced it. Now you must make it balance again, Never. You owe me a death. Choose who next feels the talons of death. Or shall it be you?”

  It was not an idle question. When I tried to protest that I could not possibly choose, he swung a tool like a hay hook as if he would gather them all. I leaped forward to try to stop him, and felt the cold iron sink into my sternum.

  I came awake with a gasp and a jerk. I was trembling all over, with cold as well as fright, and I took a second shock at finding myself standing on the rocky ridge near Tree Woman’s stump. I was facing the edge, gazing down on the violation of the road visible to me as a streak of darkness in the silver-leafed bowl of trees that the full moon showed me.

  Of late, I had almost become accustomed to sleepwalking. I took several deep breaths and had almost calmed myself to the point of wondering how I would find my way home through the deeply shadowed forest when a man’s voice spoke beside me. “So. Which would you choose?”

  I gave an involuntary cry and sprang back from the dark figure that suddenly stood beside me. It was too accurate an echo of my nightmare. “I cannot choose!” I cried out, and it was my answer to Orandula that I gave him.

  I blinked, and my eyes adjusted to the dimness of the moonlit night. It was not the old god who stood beside me, but Jodoli, the Great Man who had bested me in the Speck village. His eyes shone oddly in the mask of pigment that barred his face. He grinned, and I caught a glimpse of his white teeth. “That is the first sensible thing I have heard you say, Plain-skin. You are right. You cannot choose, because the choice has already been made for you. Yet you swing from side to side, delaying and dawdling, careless of the hurt that you do to everyone. Look down there. Tell me what you see. ”

  I didn’t have to look. “I see the road pushing deeper into the forest. ”

  “Yes. I walked down there tonight. I found many sticks driven into the earth, marked with bright cloths. And I found the marks where cold iron has bitten into the trees of our ancestors. The last time I saw such marks, it meant those trees were marked for death. As I walked among them tonight, they cried out to me, ‘Save us! Save us!’ But I do not think I can. I think that magic is for you to do, if anyone is to work it. Why do you delay? Is it because, as Kinrove has said, that the Endless Dance has failed, and only bloodshed will save us now?”

  “Jodoli, you speak of things I do not understand. I do not know this Kinrove, nor of the Endless Dance. Over and over, I have been told that the magic has claimed me, and that something I have done or will do will doom my people and save yours. The idea that I will be the bane of the Gernians gives me great pain. Why must there be this conflict? What do you fear? Our people have come together in trade. I see that the People bring furs down to us, and I see you enjoy honey and fabric and ornaments that you otherwise would not have. What is evil in this? Why must our people be set against one another?”

  Jodoli did an odd thing. He reached out a cautious hand and patted my belly firmly. When I lifted my fists, affronted, he stepped back quickly. “I meant no offense. I do not know how you can be so much larger than I am, so filled with the magic, and profess not to know anything. When last we met, I could not grasp how easily I defeated you. I pondered it for many days afterward, and finally I thought that you had mocked me, or used me for your own ends. All these days, I have waited for your vengeance to fall upon me, and it has filled me with anxiety. I thought of running away, but Firada threatened to disgrace me if I fled. Firada said that you were a false Great One and that you had chosen to go back to your own kind. I knew that was not so. I felt the magic running through you when last we met. I dreaded you. Then tonight I was called by the magic, and when I saw that you, too, had been summoned, I dared to speak to you. ”

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  I was distracted from his words, for I felt another subtle presence. Tree Woman was not far from where we stood. Someone else’s sorrow washed through me and I suddenly longed to visit the stump of her tree, to feel for a time her presence, dwindled as it was.

  “Walk down with me,” he said, and I flinched as if awakening from a dream. “Ask your question of the eldest ones. ”

  “Down where?”

  “There. ” In the dimness, he pointed at the valley and the road arrowing into it. Without waiting for my answer, he started out, and I found myself following him.

  At first there was no path and the going was steep, but Jodoli soon struck a game trail that led us at a slant across the face of the steep hill and down into the valley. I followed him into the deeper darkness under the trees. The moon became a silver memory, and I was surprised at how my eyes adjusted to the darkness. As I followed Jodoli, I noticed a strange thing. For a large fellow, he moved swiftly and was very light on his feet. There was no ponderous sway or heavy tread to his progress. I could hear him breathing through his nose as he hurried along, and I was impressed with how fleetly he moved without tiring.

  Then it came to me that I was keeping pace with him. It occurred to me to wonder at how quickly I had moved in my sleep to pass from my cabin to the Tree Woman’s ridge in the dark of night. I wondered briefly if we were truly there at all, or if I was walking, not in my sleep, but through a dream of this place.

  My impression of unreality was heightened as I became aware of whispers in the stillness. Voices were quietly conversing in the distance. I would have put it down to the soft rustling of leaves, except that there was no breeze and the sounds followed the cadence of speech. I strained to hear what they were saying, but could not pick out individual words, only a tone of worry and anger. As we reached the valley floor and began to move in the darkness of the true forest giants, the whispers grew louder. I suspected that Jodoli was taking me toward a gathering of Specks at the end of the road. I wondered what he intended. I did not wish to be the sole Gernian in a mob of angry Specks. I slowed my steps. “Where are they?” I demanded of him. “I hear them whispering. How many of them are there?”

  He halted and looked back at me, puzzled. “They are, as you see, all around us. I have never thought to try to count them. ” He took a step or two back toward me, and now I could see envy plain on his face. “You can hear them already? Without touching them?”

  “I hear whispers. I can’t make out the words, but I can hear them whispering. ”

  For a moment he was silent. Then I heard him sigh. “Olikea was right. You are full of the magic, and will always be a more powerful mage than I could ever hope to become. I hear nothing yet. And it has always taken all of my concentration and used up much of my magic to listen for long. Sometimes Firada rebukes me for this, for twice I have used so much magic that I have fainted, and she has had to come searching for me, to find me with my skin lying loose around me. Then she must feed me for days to restore my strength. She says I do no good for my people just by listening and that I waste the magic she labors to build in me. But I think that first I must listen if I am to learn the wisdom of my elders. ”

  “Then you could use up so much magic that you wouldn’t be fat anymore?” I asked him, and held my breath to hear his answer. He turned and started walking
again. I followed. He spoke over his shoulder.

  “There are tales of it happening to Great Ones in the old days of war with the Plains people. You can die from loss of magic, just as you can die from loss of blood. But it seldom happens to us without the mage knowing exactly what he is doing. It takes a great deal of will to burn every bit of magic out of yourself. A mage would have to push past pain and exhaustion to do it. Ordinarily the mage would lose consciousness before he was completely dead. Then his feeder could revive him if she were nearby. If not, the Great One might still perish. That was why Firada was angry with me. She has invested much of her time in me. I have not managed to give her a daughter. She says that if I die of my own foolishness, she will not even bother to haul my body to a tree. That is how angry she becomes. Even when I tell her that I think this is what the magic wishes of me, she remains angry. She says that I should be content to do only what the magic forces me to do rather than seeking out its will. Sometimes,” and here he turned to flash me a liar’s grin, “I wonder if I would not have been better off with the younger sister? But of course, I do not ask Firada this! There is enough rivalry between those two to start a war. Some even say that Olikea would not even have taken you on except that she so longed to say that her Great One was larger than her sister’s. ”

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  “They say that, do they?” I muttered, and instantly wondered if it were true. It would explain so much. I suddenly felt disheartened, and was surprised at how bolstered I had felt at the idea that Olikea was genuinely fond of me. Only a few days ago I had thought I should tell her that I could never truly love her. To hear that she did not love me, either, should not have wounded me. But it did. I felt my pride bleeding.

  “There. See how the light breaks through the wounds in the world’s roof, even from the moon. During the day, it is hard for me to come here. My eyes hurt and I grow dizzy. Now, those of us who can hear the elders can only come by night to listen to them. It is hard. We know that even if the Gernians are turned back, it will be generations before the light is banished from this part of the forest and the People can walk freely here again. ”

  Ahead of us, the trees had become pillars of darkness against faint moonlight. We were coming close to where the King’s Road ended. The whispering had grown louder.

  “See this?” Jodoli asked me, and with his toe, he scuffed at a flagged surveyor’s stake driven into the earth. “This is their sign that they mean to cut deeper into the forest. Once before they came into the forest and drove many of these into the earth, in a line that went far up into the mountains. We pulled them all up. But this one, new planted, means that they intend to try again. ”

  “Yes. It does. ” I raised my voice to make myself heard above the muttering of a hundred angry voices. Then my own words sounded strangely loud to me. I looked around in the darkness. “Take me to the elders you spoke of. Let me talk to them, and hear from them how they think this can be resolved. ”

  “They think there are only two ways. The Gernians must go away. Or the Gernians must die. ”

  A chill went up my back at his words, but I replied, “Let me speak to them. There must be another way. I know my people well. They will not leave. ”

  “Then they will die. I take no joy in telling you that,” Jodoli replied. “This way,” he added before I could speak again and led me forward to the very edge of the cut. Jodoli stopped when he was still in the shelter of the woods, but I walked forward as if pulled by a magnet. I stepped out of the forest onto the torn bare earth and looked around me in awe. Behind me, I heard Jodoli’s frantic call of, “Come back! Come back!” I ignored it. I had to see for myself what my king’s ambition had done.

  The huge fallen trees were not completely gone, but the pieces that had blocked the progress of the road had been cut to pieces and hauled away. The ground under my feet was yellow with fragrant fresh sawdust that had been churned and mixed with forest soil by the passage of heavy hooves. The stumps had been removed by a combination of digging, chopping, and burning. Nothing remained of them save a sunken spot in the earth. With my back to the forest, the road stretched out before me, a wide avenue of light. I could see that the repairs to the eroded parts of the road had proceeded well. When the inspection team arrived in a few days, they would be shown a stretch of well-constructed road with fresh progress into the forest. Colonel Haren would be proud.

  Then I turned my back on the road and looked into the forest. Squarely in the path of the road stood another immense tree. The preliminary bite of the ax showed pale against the dark bark. As yet, it was a small chip out of such a great trunk, less than a mosquito bite on a man’s ankle. And yet that bit of whiteness caught the moonlight and winked back at me, as if sharing an evil joke. Jodoli leaned up against the tree, and the uneven shadows made his dappled body difficult to distinguish from the mottled bark. He had pillowed one cheek against the tree and his eyes were closed, his brow furrowed. Slowly I left the Gernian world of the road and walked back into the Specks’ forest.

  “Jodoli,” I said to him when I stood by him, but he appeared lost in thought. Or asleep. I touched his shoulder.

  The whispers rose to a roar and then thinned out to a single voice, a man’s voice raised in anguish and outrage: “—and the fear no longer prevails against them. They drug their senses and do not feel it. I have watched them, pale little grubs, burrowing and chewing away at the others. They are gone. Tomorrow I shall begin to die. It will take days for them to kill me. This I know from what happened before. It is too late, perhaps, for you to save me. So I do not ask this for myself, but for those who stand in ranks behind me. Discouragement has not worked. Not even the purification of the fever has awakened them. They dismiss the vision sent to them; they ignore the messengers sent back to them. Only death will stop them. ”

  “What of the plain-skin Great One? He is large with magic. Is not this what he was supposed to do, to turn back the Gernians?”

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  I felt the wave of disdain that emanated from the trees. The scorn burned me. “Lisana made him. Wise she is, but not the wisest. She said that the magic commanded it, that the magic brought him to her and bade her claim him. We doubted, and many said that she was too young and should not have been set to guard the way. I was one of them. And look what has befallen her. He turned on her, and set her plan awry. He turned our own magic against us. She herself fell to him; now her trunk lies prone. It will be many turns of seasons before she has regained the girth to speak loudly and well again. Does this speak well for Lisana’s wisdom?”

  Lisana. My heart knew that name. “Tree Woman,” I whispered. Bits of knowledge tumbled through my mind and fell into a pattern. These great trees were literally the elders of the Speck people. When we cut them, we were killing their ancient advisers, the ones who preserved the wisdom of centuries past. These were sacred trees to the People. We were at war with them, without intending to be.

  “I know what I have to do,” I said. My spoken words rang strangely loud in the forest night. “I must return to the Gernians. I will go to my leader tomorrow and tell him that the road must not go through here. Surely there is another path that we can follow over the mountains and to the sea? Lisana was wise. ” Convincing them of that suddenly seemed very important to me. “She made me to be a bridge between our peoples. I cannot send them all away. But I can speak for you and make them see that cutting these trees is a great affront to the Speck people. I promise, I will do my best to save you, old one. ”

  “Can it be so easy?” Jodoli asked me.

  “No!” The spirit of the tree was contemptuous of my offer. “Do not trust him, Jodoli of the People. He is a man of two hearts. He can be true to neither. ”

  I shook my head. “I can be true to both. You will see. ”

  It sounded so simple, there in the moonlit night.



>   I ran home as quickly as I could. I could feel the magic burning in my blood with my need to be swift, and I was. It was as if the ground itself hastened me to my destination. I followed a path that was impossibly short, and arrived home before dawn had grayed the skies.

  And when I arrived home, I sat up in my bed. I swung my feet over the edge of the bed to the floor, my heart pumping urgency. Then I caught my breath.

  For a long time, I sat still. Realities fought in me. I had just run home through the forest. My bare feet were dry and clean. I could not remember opening my cabin door, nor shutting it behind me, nor lying down in my bed again.

  One of two things was real. I had dreamed it all, and none of it was real.

  Or I had used magic to travel in my dream, and it was entirely real.

  I began to breathe as if I had truly run that distance. Sweat broke out on my back and brow. A trembling ran through me. It became a shudder, and suddenly I was clutching myself, teeth chattering and quivering like a leaf. Waves of trembling passed through me as if I would tear myself apart. I felt hot and then cold, and then as suddenly as it had all come on, it ebbed away. My breathing slowed. I accepted it, whatever “it” was. I decided that however the knowledge had come to me, it was real. I would act on it.

  I bathed, I shaved, and I dressed in my best uniform. I knew I had consumed magic to make that swift journey home. I knew the signs of it now, not just the ravenous hunger that bread could not assuage, but also that my trousers were almost loose on me. Almost. I still decided that I would not risk their multiple seams by straddling Clove’s broad back. I hitched my big horse to the cart and drove into town just as the sun was coming up, feeling fired with purpose and even hope. If I could convince the colonel that rerouting the road, difficult as it might be, would put an end to our differences with the Speck and stop the evil magic pouring out of the forest, then it was quite possible that I would have saved us all. I’d be a hero. My smile twisted as I thought the word. A fat hero, and no one would ever know of my heroics. But that wouldn’t mean I hadn’t done it.

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