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Forest mage, p.64
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       Forest Mage, p.64

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

  “Nevare! I was coming out to see you!” As she spoke, she climbed up on the cart seat beside me.

  I shifted over as far as I could. I was still aware that she had to perch on the edge of the seat. I could not help notice how prettily she was dressed. There was not a smudge nor patch to be seen on the blue dress she wore. Even the white cuffs and collar were clean as fresh snow. A wide black belt cinched her waist, and somehow emphasized both the swell of her hips and the lift of her bosom.

  “Well?” she said tartly, and I realized I’d been staring at her.

  I lowered my eyes. “I’m sorry. You just look so pretty today. So clean and fresh. ”

  A long silence followed my words. I gave a wary sideways glance to see how angry she was. There were two spots of red on her cheeks. At my glance she muttered a stiff, “Thank you. ”

  Silence fell until I prompted her, “You were coming out to see me?” Whatever her errand was, I decided I needed to dissuade her from it. I needed to get to the forest, and I could not very well just walk off and leave her in my cabin. Telling her I had no time for visitors seemed harsh, and setting her back down in the road to walk back to town even harsher. “I have a great deal of work I have to do today,” I began. I tried to think of a gracious way to phrase it, but it came out bluntly. “I don’t have much time for a visit. ”

  She gave a sniff and sat up a bit straighter on the seat. “Well, neither do I, sir! I’m actually here on an errand. I don’t know why it would be of great concern to you, but Lieutenant Spinrek wanted to you to know that the Specks are going to perform the Dust Dance today. He called me aside to give me the news. He thought it important enough to volunteer to mind my children for me while I came out here to give it to you. I was not pleased to let him do it, for Mistress Epiny still goes green as glass at the sight of food, and the children were frantic at the thought of missing the music and the Specks dancing and all the rest of the festivities. ”

  “The Dust Dance? The Specks are doing the Dust Dance today?”

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  “It’s part of the welcoming ceremony for the inspection team. The Specks wished to perform for them. ”

  Before she had finished speaking, I had slapped the reins on Clove’s back. I turned him in a tight circle and urged him to a canter. “We have to get back to town right away. I have to stop them. ”

  She gave a small shriek, then held tightly to the back of the seat with one hand while clutching at her bonnet with the other. She raised her voice to shout over the rattling of the wagon. “Slow down! It’s too late to stop them. You probably won’t even get to see them dance. I told the lieutenant that, but he insisted that I go and tell you anyway. ” Then, as we hit a hard bump, she abandoned her bonnet to its fate and clutched at my arm. “Nevare! Slow down! It’s already too late, I tell you. ”

  I paid her no heed. “It’s life or death, Amzil. The Dust Dance is how the Specks spread the plague! Everyone who watches that dance and breathes in the dust will catch it. And from them, it will spread to others. ”

  “That’s crazy!” she shouted back at me. “Nevare, pull him in! Slow down or I’ll jump. This is crazy!”

  She sounded so sincere that I heeded her. As soon as Clove dropped down to a trot, Amzil let go of my arm and resumed her grip on her bonnet.

  “Amzil, I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true. It’s how I caught the Speck plague. Spink…Lieutenant Spinrek caught it the same way. That’s what I believe. I think it’s why they do the Dust Dance. To infect us and kill us. ”

  As the meaning of those words sank into my awareness, I suddenly felt doubly betrayed. Yes, it was why they danced, and it was especially why they danced today. They would kill nobles and generals as well as poor soldiers. The inspection team would be their targets, even as the academy had once been their target. Each time, I had unknowingly given them the information they needed to kill most effectively. I felt doubly betrayed by both my peoples, first the Gernians and now the Specks. They would find ways to hurt one another, and I would feel the pain of both sides.

  Clove gave a snort, shook his head, and slowed to a walk. I let him. I thought of the only people I could protect and turned abruptly to Amzil. “Listen to me. Please believe how important this is. I’m taking you back to Lieutenant Spinrek’s home. You’ll have to show me the way, and I don’t want to pass through any crowded streets. Once we are there, you have to go inside and stay there. Do you understand how important it is? You have to stay inside with your children and not go out into the city. By tomorrow, if I am correct, people will begin to get sick. Stay away from them. Keep your children away from them. ”

  She was staring at me as if I were insane and possibly dangerous. I took a moment to get control of my voice. In a calmer voice, I told her, “Spink has these little bottles of water from his home in Bitter Springs. He thinks they may be a cure for the plague, or that they might prevent people from catching it. Ask him to set some aside for you and the children. And ask him to send a courier immediately to his brother, no matter the cost, pleading that Bitter Springs water be sent to Gettys in as great an amount as possible. ”


  The way she said his name made me wonder if she had heard anything else I’d said. “Lieutenant Spinrek,” I amended, and muttered, “We knew each other a long time ago. ”

  She gave a curt nod. Then, staring straight down the road, she asked me, “And how are you related to Mistress Epiny?”


  She cut me off while I was still deciding whether to act bewildered or to lie. “You look alike around the eyes. And she often speaks to her husband of her fears about what might have befallen Nevare. ” Her voice went hard. “I never would have taken you for a cruel man. She’s with child and having a bad time of it, and you leave her in anxiety, both of you. I don’t know who is more despicable, you or her husband. ”

  “You don’t understand. It would ruin her reputation to be connected to me. It would bring her great unhappiness. It’s better that for now she knows nothing. ”

  “So that when you tell her later, she can feel an even greater fool? Most folk around town don’t know your name. They just call you the Cemetery Sentry. But sooner or later, she’ll put it all together. She’s not dim, that one, though you seem to treat her as if she is. ”

  I dropped all effort at pretense. “My cousin is not dim. But in many ways, she is too quick to risk herself. I won’t have her put herself in danger for my sake, especially when I do not think it would truly help me at all. All she could do is stain her reputation with mine, to no good end. I love her too much to allow her to do that to herself. ”

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  I had not expected to speak with such vehemence, and when I uttered my feelings aloud, I was surprised at the strength of them. I think Amzil was, too, for she looked both taken aback and chastened. After a moment, she said more quietly, “I think I understand you better now. ”

  “Well. Good. And if we are finished with that, please let me know that you understood my earlier words as well. After the Dust Dance, at most a few days will pass before Speck plague sweeps through Gettys. I do not think we can stop it. Quarantine yourself and your children, and please do not let my cousin go out and risk herself. Remind her that if she does, she risks her child as well. That should get her attention. ”

  “I did hear you,” Amzil replied a bit testily. “And I will tell the lieutenant about the water and the courier. Mistress Epiny has told me of her journey here from Bitter Springs. I do not think you can expect that water to arrive soon. ” She shook her head at me. “If you thought it worked, why did not they immediately start bringing it in to Gettys? If you know the Dust Dance could spread the plague, why did you not warn everyone ahead of time?”

  “We’re not sure the water will work. It seemed to work for Spink and Epiny, and they did bring some when they came, as much as Epiny could manage, actu
ally. As for the Dust Dance…we, that is, I believe it spreads the plague. I haven’t had much luck in convincing anyone else of that. ”

  We had reached the outskirts of Gettys town. The streets were still empty. Everyone, I suddenly knew, would have converged inside the fort to watch the welcome speeches and ceremonies. As we grew closer, my heart sank. Where the Speck tent village had been there was little more than trampled earth. This morning, Clove and I had ridden past it. Now it was gone. They had melted away, leaving no sign of where they had gone. I suspected I knew why they had gone. They’d be well away from Gettys before the deadly dust rode the breezes. “I think we’re too late,” I said quietly. “They’ve left. And Specks don’t usually travel during the day, only in the evenings or nights. ”

  “Nevare, I believe you,” Amzil said suddenly. “Take me home. I’ll keep my children in and do my best to keep Mistress Epiny there, too. I won’t be able to do much about the lieutenant. But I’ve heard that folks who have had Speck plague once don’t catch it again. ”

  “Most of them don’t,” I agreed. “But some do. Such as Spink and Epiny. ”

  As we were passing through the gate to Gettys, I saw something that chilled me to the bone. Seven Specks, draped in their encompassing network of vines, leaves, and flowers, were leaving the fort, walking swiftly. I could not see their faces or even tell their sexes, but their bare speckled feet were gray with dust. I wondered if it was the dust of the dance or of the road. I felt a sudden urge to leap down on them from the wagon seat and kill them all.

  I could not see their faces, but as if they could feel the malice of my thoughts or sense the anger boiling the magic though my blood, their draped heads turned toward me. I stared at them, feeling coldness build in me. How many people would die from the dust they had spread today? Amzil put her hand on my wrist. “Nevare. Let them go. Take me home. ” The sudden urgency in her voice swayed me. I wondered what she had feared I would do. I could not stop what they had begun. And how could I pretend that they were any worse or better than my own folk? I had precious little time in which to act. A few people I cared about could be spared.

  As we went through the gate, the sentries exchanged a glance and then waved me through. Despite their freshly cleaned and pressed uniforms, they were not behaving like real guards. They were too busy craning their necks to see what was going on down the street. Up on the dais, someone was talking loudly, and his every pause was punctuated by applause. I glanced back over my shoulder. The Specks were separating, each going a different way. Did they see me look at them? Perhaps, for they all sprinted away like startled rabbits. If my suspicions needed any confirmation, that was enough. I gritted my teeth.

  “Go left here,” Amzil said quietly. “We can get around the crowds that way. I want to get home as soon as possible. ”

  She guided me and we threaded our way through the back streets of the fort. I’d never really explored the area where the officers were housed; I’d never had reason to. The structures dated from the fort’s earlier days and were tidily built. Most of them seemed to have a fresh coat of paint, but that sprucing up could not completely disguise years of previous neglect. Wooden steps sagged, window shutters were missing slats, and the few gardens had the bare, brave look of fresh effort. The housing for the junior officers and their families was humbler and had not been as well built. “Pull in!” Amzil warned me, and at the corner of a street, I hauled Clove to a halt.

  Page 239


  “I’ll get down here,” she said, “so Mistress Epiny does not see you dropping me off. ” Before I could start to climb down to assist her, she gave a little jump and landed in the dust of the streets. Her skirts billowed out around her as she landed, and for a moment I had a glimpse of her stockinged ankles.

  “Keep the children in,” I reminded her as I took up Clove’s reins.

  “I will,” she promised and then, holding up a hand to bid me wait, she asked, “What are you going to do?”

  I almost laughed. “I’m going back to the cemetery. I’ve got a lot of graves to dig. I may as well get started today. ”

  My words startled her. “You really do believe the Dust Dance will bring on the plague in the next few days. ” Her brow furrowed. “Aren’t you going to warn Colonel Haren?”

  “I saw him this morning. I had my say then, and he didn’t believe me. I doubt he’ll believe me now. He’d only be angry to find I’d defied his direct order and come back into town. I’m supposed to be hiding out in the cemetery so his visitors don’t see me. I’m an embarrassment to the regiment, you know. ”

  She squinted her eyes looking up at me. “Do you still care about things like that?”

  “Of course I do. ” I shook Clove’s reins. “I’m a soldier son. ”



  I guided Clove back through the streets the same way we had come. My mind seethed and my blood simmered with both unfocused anger and frustrated magic. My peoples were set on killing each other off. The moment I recognized that thought in my mind, I realized how much the magic had changed me. Not so long ago, I had belonged to only one people. At one time I would have shared Colonel Haren’s conviction that the road and trade would bring good to the Specks, and like him I would have rejected the idea that the trees could be anything more than trees. Yet the part of me that had been initially stolen and made Speck was now as integral to my self as the soldier son was. Every day, his memories surfaced more clearly in my mind. Removing those trees was the equivalent of burning all Gernian libraries. The Specks might go on without them, but they would lose their roots.

  Yet at that moment I did not feel torn between my two peoples; my selves were united in how furious I was with both factions and how desperately I wished I could withdraw from them both entirely. We rattled through the near-empty back streets and toward the gate. The sentries annoyed me by stopping me.

  “Where you headed, soldier?”

  I was in no mood for their sudden vigilance. They’d let me in unchallenged, but would stop me on my way out? “Where do I always go? Back to the cemetery. It’s my post. ”

  They exchanged a glance and a nod. “Right. You may pass. ”

  I slapped the reins on Clove’s broad back, jolting him up to a trot. I left the fort behind and rattled my way out of town. Every time Clove tried to drop down to a walk, I nagged him on. I wanted the noise of the empty cart and the jostling and the dust. The violence of it suited my mood. As I left the town behind me, I urged him up to a canter. The cart jolted and bounded, bouncing in and out of potholes. I passed two struggling trees beside a failed farm. A flock of black-and-white croaker birds had found something dead by the trees. They rose, screaming their displeasure, as I careened past them.

  I knew I invited disaster and didn’t care. The anger was building inside me and I longed to have an outlet for it. Everyone was acting in absolute certainty and righteousness. Was I the only one who could see how wrong both sides were? Destruction and death awaited everyone, and I saw no way to defuse any of it. The lack of a focus for my anger made it a churning, clawing dragon inside me.

  Time after time, Tree Woman had insisted to me that the magic had chosen me because I was the one who could do something that would send my people away from these lands. Over and over, she had tried to wrangle from me what it was that I had done or was going to do. I’d always thought her eager for the destruction of my folk; now I wondered if she didn’t believe that driving the Gernian away was the only way to save us all. Perhaps she was right. Perhaps the only way to avoid the coming conflict was to make the Gernians retreat from the land of the People.

  But I knew of nothing I could do to cause that. The coming month would bring me dozens of plague victims to bury, and would see the felling of the Specks’ ancestral trees. No one would triumph. The ancestor trees would fall and the Speck culture with them. The Gernians would fall to the disease the Speck had deli
berately sown among them. Death, death, death for everyone. Magic thrummed in me, drumming through my veins with each beat of my heart, but I could not save a single soul from the misery ahead.

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  Clove tried to slow down again. Sweat streaked his back and flanks, and I felt shame for how hard I’d driven him for no good reason. The anger that had coursed through me suddenly subsided into hopelessness. I let him slow, and as the rattle of the cart decreased, my ears picked up the thunder of other hoofbeats. I glanced over my shoulder, and had a single, fleeting glimpse of mounted men coming up behind me, fast. I saw a muzzle flash.

  Something was very wrong. I was breathing dust instead of air. A great crack had opened in my head, and light was pouring into my brain. It hurt. I tried to lift my hand to cover the crack, but my fingers only feebly twitched at dry dust. Every breath I sucked in pulled dust with it. I knew I should lift my head from the ground. It was too much trouble.

  “Think he’s dead?” someone asked me. I couldn’t work my mouth. Someone answered for me.

  “Good as dead. This could be big trouble. Damn it, Jace. Slowing him down is one thing. Killing him is another. ”

  “He was trying to get away. You seen how he run that horse. Hoster said he might try to get rid of it if we didn’t get it right away. I had to shoot. ” Jace was angry, not repentant.

  “Calm down. No one’s going to care if we prove he’s guilty. ”

  “I wasn’t trying to kill him. When he slowed, it spoiled my aim. His own damn fault for turning to look back at us. ”

  Someone else spoke. “I didn’t bargain for this. I’m sorry I got mixed up in this whole mess. I’m going back to town. ”

  “We all are,” the first voice decided. “Jace, you drive the cart. ”

  Horses’ hooves striking the earth. Wheels turning. Then silence. I tried closing my eyes to keep the glaring light out of my skull, but my eyes were already closed. It just went on hurting and hurting. I tried to be unconscious or asleep. I failed. Lights bloomed across my vision and then faded. Pain burst and ebbed with the light. I couldn’t make sense of what had happened to me. Trying to think hurt too much. Stillness without thinking still hurt. The intensity of the pain suddenly increased. The throb of my heart was like a wave slamming against the inside of my skull.

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