Forest mage, p.63
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       Forest Mage, p.63

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

  It had been days since I’d last dared go into town. I was surprised by the changes I saw. The Speck trade village was still set up on the outskirts of Gettys, but it was Gettys itself that amazed me. A change had come over the town. It was more than fresh paint and gravel in the worst ruts and potholes, though those were changes enough. Cavalla-green bunting festooned the doors and windows of shops and taverns. Windows had been washed. But even those changes were not what impressed me. Even this early in the day, the people moving on the street had lost the tension and weariness that I’d come to accept as a normal part of Gettys. If anything, the citizenry seemed relaxed, even lethargic. Two women, their best bonnets lavishly decorated with green ribbons, strolled slowly arm-in-arm down the street. I slowed Clove to a walk, for they seemed scarcely aware of our approach, smiling and nodding to one another as they talked. I guided Clove around them, and we continued on our way.

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  I had to divert from my normal route to the colonel’s office. The street in front of headquarters had been roped off. A dais had been erected in the middle of the street, and a squad of men were setting benches out in rows around it. On the arch erected above the dais, a sign welcomed General Brodg and General Prode, as well as a list of lords. I was surprised to see Prode’s name there. He had been the king’s commander in the east before General Brodg had taken over. I wondered if the presence of that old general was intended to honor Brodg, or as a subtle rebuke that more progress had been made in Gettys and on the King’s Road in the days before Brodg had taken over.

  I left Clove and the cart on a side street and walked to the headquarters door. The paint on the building was so fresh I could smell it. The brass doorknob was slick with polish. I had to grip it firmly to turn it. Stepping inside the door, I received another surprise. The sergeant’s domain had been completely refurbished. The walls were newly painted, the wood of the desk gleamed with linseed oil, and there were plump cushions on the waiting chairs. The shelves were dust-free and lined with books and manuals. At the sergeant’s desk sat a lieutenant I’d never seen: he looked as freshly renovated as the rest of the room. His buttons shone, and his shirt was so starched it looked painful. His pale scalp contrasted strangely with his tanned face: it was obvious his hair had been cut very recently.

  I drew myself up straight at the sight of him, expecting to be rebuked for entering so casually. Instead he gave me a level look and asked solemnly, “Do you have an appointment, soldier?”

  “No, sir, I do not. In the past, the colonel has been so kind as to allow me to report without an appointment. I’ve brought information that I think might be useful to him, sir. ”

  “I see,” he replied absently. He looked down at a paper on his desk, blinked at it, and then back up at me. He gave me a vague smile. I kept my soldier’s demeanor and waited. He picked up the pen from his desk, fiddled with it for a bit, and then asked me gently, “You want to talk with Colonel Haren, then?”

  There was a faint waft of rum on his breath. That widened my eyes. Drinking on duty? No. Probably the Gettys dose that Ebrooks had told me about. I found myself wondering about the two placid women I’d see strolling down the street earlier. I cleared my throat. “Yes sir, if that’s possible. I’d like to speak with Colonel Haren. ”

  He leaned back suddenly in his chair and out flung a generous arm at the colonel’s door. “Be my guest, then, soldier. Be my guest. ”

  Feeling furtive as a mouse under a cat’s stare, I walked to the colonel’s door and tapped on it, expecting that at any moment the lieutenant would change his mind. But he seemed to have forgotten about me entirely, and was giving his full attention to wiping the tip of his pen. At my second tap, I heard the colonel’s muffled invitation to enter. I opened the door and walked in.

  I was almost relieved to find the room largely unchanged. There were the same layered carpets on the floor, the same tapestry-covered walls. The fire burned smaller, but there seemed to be more light in the room because all the lamp chimneys had been freshly cleaned. All the horizontal surfaces had been cleared of clutter. Colonel Haren himself, nattily attired in his uniform and a gleaming pair of black boots, sat bolt upright in a chair beside a small table. At the sight of me, he exclaimed, “Oh, for the good god’s sake, what are you doing here?”

  I came to attention. “Sir, I’ve come to request a few moments of your time. I have information about our problems with the road building and the Specks. I think it may lead to a resolution of our difficulties with pushing the road through. ”

  He lifted one eyebrow at me. “Where have you been, man? The problem with pushing the road through was solved several weeks ago. Dr. Dowder’s research has finally yielded fruit. Properly fortified, our road crews have made more progress in the last few weeks than they previously had in the last two years. That problem is solved!

  “You, however, present an entirely different problem. Look at your uniform, man! Why is there a seam up the front of each trouser leg? That is not regulation. And your general physical conformation leaves more to be desired than I could possibly list at this moment. ” He shook his head at me and made a decision. “Back to the cemetery, trooper. The inspection team is scheduled for a two-week visit here, with a possible extension to a month if they feel they need more time to assess our performance. Busy yourself at the cemetery for a month. And due to the nature of your duties there, I give you permission…no, I require that you wear civilian clothing to prevent soiling your uniform. And in the event that our inspection team sees fit to visit the cemetery, you are to, uh, busy yourself elsewhere. Do you take my drift, soldier?”

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  I took his insult as well, but I swallowed it. There was more at stake here than my pride. “I do, sir. And I’ll see that the inspection team does not see me or identify me as a member of your regiment. ” I kept all anger from my voice. “But before I vanish, sir, I would like to give you some information about the Specks and the trees at the end of the road. ”

  “Well, then, do it, soldier, and then clear out. The inspection team arrived last night. In a very short time, I’m to join them in the officers’ mess for a special breakfast. I can’t be late. ”

  “Yes, sir. ” I suddenly realized that I hadn’t formulated how I was going to disclose what I knew to him without admitting that I’d been going into the forest among the Specks. I thought of passing it off as a rumor I’d heard, but knew that would be a betrayal of trust. I’d told Jodoli and the elder that I would come here and present their case to my colonel. I had to do it. “Last night, sir, I was in the forest with Jodoli. He’s a Speck Great One. We might call him a wizard or a mage. He’s a reservoir of magic for his people. ”

  I paused, hoping for some sign of interest. Colonel Haren drummed his fingers on the tabletop. “Yes, soldier, I’m sure he is,” he replied sarcastically. “And this Great One told you?”

  “The trees at the end of the road, the ones marked for cutting, are very important to the Specks. They hold the elder spirits of the Speck people. Their advisers. Like ancestor spirits. The trees are important to them. Holy. ” I kept explaining, trying different words for what I was trying to convey. His eyes had narrowed when I first spoke of the trees. With every description I added, they seemed to go stonier.

  When my words staggered to a halt, he asked me sternly, “Is this your information? Is this ALL of it?”

  “Yes, sir. Well, not quite all. The fear we feel at the end of the road, the discouragement that drenches this town: it’s all Speck magic. If we stopped threatening the trees, it would go away. If we backed up and surveyed a completely different route through the mountains, one that didn’t cut through their sacred groves, Gettys would be a peaceful place again. ”

  He made a contemptuous noise. He shook his head, then gave me a painfully incredulous smile. “Soldier. If we stopped trying to build the road, Gettys would be a near-useless place again. A place
to come to trade for furs each summer, and a place to leave again. Gettys’ only future is if the King’s Road is pushed through the Barrier Mountains. If it goes through, we become the last civilized stopping place on that route. If it’s not, if we stop cutting the trees…pray tell, what purpose do we have in being here?”

  I blinked, my heart sinking. “Then…you already knew the trees were sacred to the Specks? That they house ancestor spirits?”

  “Oh, please. Yes, of course we know of their quaint superstitions. If you have more details on them, then take them to Dr. Frye. He will listen to them carefully, write down your every word, and send it off to the queen herself. He hopes to curry favor with her by supplying tales for her collection of native lore. Burvelle, I’m surprised at you. The last time we spoke for any length of time, you convinced me that your father was mistaken in his evaluation of you. You seemed enterprising and thoughtful. Now the town simmers with rumors of your whoring, to the point at which twice ladies have come to me presenting petitions to bring charges against you. I was still willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, but here you come to my door on the day of an important inspection to tell me tales of ‘ancestor trees. ’ Try to think about it like an educated man, Burvelle. After all, it was believed you were academy material at one time!”

  I held my temper with difficulty. “Sir, I think I understand this situation far better than anyone else. If we provoke the Specks by cutting those trees, they will rise against us. They already perceive that we are at war with them. This will push them into making it more deadly. You yourself warned me that I should not antagonize them. Cutting their trees will do far more than that!”

  He laughed. “The Specks? At war with us? Yearly their trade with us increases. Do people at war with one another trade together? Deadly? Oh, come, come. You can’t be serious. I told you what happened the last time we ‘fought’ them. It was a slaughter for them. Have you ever seen a Speck up close, soldier? They can’t even bear to be out in the sun for more than an hour. They run about town draped in veils with flowers stuck in them. They have no weapons. They barely have tools! And you would have me fear a Speck uprising?” He cocked his head at me. “I’ve told you before. The best way to deal with them is to let them know what we intend to do, and then do it. Calmly. Without threats. Without violence. They will not be happy with us at first, but once they see that nothing bad comes of it, they’ll accept it. We’ve been out here for years, young man, and I think that makes us better qualified to know how to deal with them. What makes you think you understand the situation so well? Have you had unauthorized contact with the Specks?” His gaze pierced me accusingly.

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  I was in it now. Might as well swim as wade. “Some, sir. Yes. I’ve spoken to them about this. ”

  “And they told you that if we cut the trees, they would attack us?”

  “Not in so many words, sir, no. But that was my understanding of it. ”

  “Do they have weapons that you know of? Trained warriors? A strategy?”

  Honesty made me look a fool. “Weapons, no, sir, not in the sense that we use the term. Warriors, again, no. But a strategy that demands neither, yes, sir, they do. They have the plague, sir. They’ve been using the plague against us for years. I believe they spread it with their Dust Dance. The infection is deliberate. ”

  “Preposterous!” He spat out the word, and his mustache quivered with indignation. “The plague is indigenous to this country, soldier. Do you know what that means? It means that everyone who comes to live here gets it sooner or later. The Specks get it, too. It’s a part of living here on the far borders. We know the plague will come with high summer. It always does and—”

  I interrupted my superior officer. “And do the Specks always do the Dust Dance shortly before it hits?”

  He stared at me for an instant. I read my answer in his outraged glare. They did. Dancing Specks flinging dust did not fit with his concept of an enemy attack on the fort. “Your father was right,” he said stiffly. “You’re a fool. You’ll always blame your own misfortunes on someone else, won’t you? I had thought him wrong. I had even considered promoting you. I should have known. Who can know his son better than his own father?” He took a breath and I saw a strange transformation. His eyes went from steely to pitying. “I don’t suppose you can help it. You believe your own ridiculous theories. ”

  As his insults left me breathless with rage, he nodded at me and spoke in carefully measured words. “Let me point this out to you, Burvelle. When the trees fall and the Specks perceive that no disaster follows, they will more readily abandon their superstitious ways and enter the modern world. It is to their ultimate benefit that we take down those trees. When the road goes through and trade follows it, why, think of what it will bring to them. If you want to help us with the Speck problem, speak to them of the benefits of the road. Encourage their natural hunger for what civilization can bring to them. But don’t humor their superstitious fears.

  “But for now, get yourself out of sight. I don’t need our visiting dignitaries to see you or hear you, and I certainly don’t need the females of Gettys stirred to wrath by your presence at this time. Off you go now. Dismissed. Good-bye. ”

  With his final words, he had lost interest in me. He had risen, walked to a mirror on the wall, and was carefully smoothing his mustache with one hand as he shooed me out of the room with the other. I made one last effort. “Sir, I think,” I began.

  He cut off my words. “No. You don’t. I think. You obey orders. Dismissed, trooper. ”

  I went. I didn’t speak to the lieutenant as I left. I didn’t trust myself to say anything. The colonel had known. They’d all known. I’d thought I’d been so clever piecing it together. But they’d known of the significance of the trees and they didn’t care, because keeping Gettys on the road east was far more important to them. More important than what it did to the men to be kept on such a discouraging task. More important than felling trees that held the ancestral wisdom of a people.

  I found I was nearly shaking with rage. My heart pumped magic like a poison through me. It took every bit of control I had to refuse to let my anger focus on those I wished to punish. It would solve nothing, I knew. If Colonel Haren dropped in his tracks tomorrow, there would be another man just like him right behind him. As I approached my cart, I noted with displeasure that Sergeant Hoster was standing near Clove, apparently inspecting my horse’s harness. I wanted a fight so badly. It would have been such a relief to put my fist in his perpetually sneering face. By a vast effort of will, I walked around the wagon to approach the seat from the other side rather than jostling Sergeant Hoster out of the way. “Good day,” I greeted him coldly, climbing up on the cart seat.

  “In a hurry, soldier?” he asked me. His eyes glinted bright, as if he were seeing something that delighted him.

  “Colonel Haren’s orders. He wants me to go immediately to the cemetery. ” I gathered up Clove’s reins.

  Hoster sneered at me. “He’s not the only one who thinks you should go straight to the cemetery. ” He gave a “haw” at his own joke and then added cleverly. “Nice harness on your horse, soldier. ”

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  I tried to find the insult in his words. “It’s just a harness. ”

  “That it is. That it is. ” He stepped away from Clove.

  I shook my head and drove away.

  It took me longer to get out of town than I expected. The streets were thronged with people converging on the dais. Half of them walked in a Gettys tonic daze; the others glared at me as if they could not believe my stupidity in trying to get a horse and cart through such a crowded street. The sun was well up now, and the day promised to be a sweltering one. I thought longingly of the forest shade as Clove picked his way through masses of people that grudgingly gave way to him. I was uncomfortably aware of turned heads and stares, but seated on my cart, there was no way to
avoid scrutiny. The colonel’s remarks about the accusations against me had rattled me almost as much as his cavalier attitude toward the Specks and their trees.

  We finally reached the gates of the fort. In the wider streets outside, there were fewer pedestrians. I was able to persuade Clove to a trot and we soon rolled out of town, leaving only our dust hanging in the air behind us. I wished I could get more speed out of him, but Clove was a creature of endurance rather than swiftness. We rattled along, and my anger burned inside me. I was furious with my commander, and soon that anger spread to include all my countrymen. My mind raced ahead of my body, planning how I would return to my cottage, unharness Clove, and immediately go into the forest in search of Jodoli. The news I must give him shamed me. Plans for how I could stop the road’s progress and whom I could enlist in my cause vied with the creeping suspicion that I was about to do something treasonous. I thrust that consideration aside. I insisted to myself that stopping the road until it could be completely rerouted away from Gettys would benefit both the Gernians and the People. A dim hope came to me. After I’d warned Jodoli that we must take steps today to save the ancestral trees, I would find a way to speak to Dr. Frye. Colonel Haren’s sarcastic suggestion might actually bear fruit for me if the queen herself could be swayed to our view.

  Ahead of us in the rutted road, I saw a lady trudging along alone. It struck me as strange that on a day of festivities in Gettys, she was headed away from the town. Her bonneted head was bent against the sun’s heat, and she held her blue skirts daintily free of the road’s dirt. I admired her tidy figure from behind, and then swung Clove wide so that we might not choke her with dust as we passed. I thought I had done well, but as I passed her, she shouted at me. It was only when I looked over my shoulder that I recognized that the lady was Amzil. I pulled Clove in and waited as she hurried up to us.

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