Forest mage, p.65
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       Forest Mage, p.65

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

  Several days of agony seemed to pass. Then I could move my hand. I put it up to touch my head. Blood. A flap of scalp. The hardness of bone beneath my wet, questing fingers, and some rough splinters. The rip of the bullet’s passage was a ragged groove across the back of my skull. I was dying. Time stopped. It seemed impossible that dying could take so long. Perhaps time dragged only because it hurt so badly, and because I was waiting for it to stop. Dully, I began to count the throbs that corresponded to the beating of my heart. I reached twenty. One hundred. Two hundred. I felt my eyeballs pressing against my eyelids, as if they wanted to leave my skull. Five hundred. A thousand. I managed to turn my head so I wasn’t breathing in so much dust. One thousand, five hundred. I heard the caw of a croaker bird. I felt the scuff of earth and the brush of its wings as it landed beside me. I braced myself to feel the slash of its greedy beak.

  “You owe me a life,” Orandula reminded me.

  You can have this one. I no longer cared which god took my soul. I just wanted the pain to stop.

  “Give me a life that is yours to give before you die. ”

  The croaker bird had the voice of a nagging little old lady. I didn’t have the strength to frame a thought in response to it. It didn’t matter. I was dying.

  Damn. I’d lost my count. I started over again at one thousand five hundred. I knew I’d gotten at least that far. A fly buzzed heavily near my ear. I lifted a hand and brushed it away. No distractions. My heart pounded in my chest, and I felt the throb of the moving blood in every part of me.

  When I reached five thousand, I opened my eyes a crack. They didn’t feel quite as tight against the lids as they had. I could see dust and scrub brush. I don’t know how much longer I lay there before I gave in and admitted I wasn’t going to die right away. The pain was still intense, and when I sat up, the world spun around me so violently that I was sure I was going to vomit. Three croaker birds took sudden alarm as I moved, but by the time I recovered from my vertigo, they had resettled around me. They were large birds, and their red wattles always made them look as if they had just finished a bloody feast. I’d never realized their eyes were yellow. “Go away,” I told them feebly. I waited for them to answer, but none spoke. One hopped three steps closer and tilted his head to stare at me. I stared back.

  After a longer time, I lifted a hand again to explore the wound where the bullet had grazed me. Blood was caked thick on the back of my head. My hand came away sticky and black. Don’t look. Don’t think about it. I surveyed the world around me instead. It was afternoon at least. There was no traffic on the road; everyone would have gone to the fort for the welcoming ceremony. No help was going to come to me.

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  After five attempts, I remained standing. I wasn’t standing straight, but I was upright. I looked around. The road was there, but my distance vision was fuzzy. I couldn’t decide which direction led back to the fort and which led to the cemetery. I could feel myself swaying. If I could just find the cart, Clove would probably take me home. I couldn’t turn my head. I had to turn my whole body in a slow circle, looking for my horse and cart. It took me a very long time to realize that neither Clove nor the cart were there. I was badly injured, probably dying, and on foot.

  And suddenly I didn’t care

  I walked. Not quickly. I followed the rutted road. The landscape was blurry. At some point I found I had to hold up my trousers. My belt had loosened, and I could not make my eyes focus well enough to tighten it. I clutched the top of my trousers and staggered on.

  Slowly my equilibrium came back to me. I walked more steadily. My vision began to clear. I felt grateful when I saw the sign for the cemetery and left the main road to follow the trail leading up to it. I lifted my hand to the back of my head and felt about squeamishly. It was undeniably tender, but I no longer felt torn flesh or scored bone. The magic was healing me. I couldn’t decide whether to be grateful or angry.

  When I reached my cabin, I filled a basin with water and wet a rag. I gingerly dabbed at my wound. The rag came away dark with clotted blood and small tufts of hair. I dipped it in the water and rinsed it clear. When I wrung it out, I felt a splinter. I plucked it loose and looked at the tiny fragment. Bone. From the back of my skull. I felt ill. I dipped the rag again, squeezed it out, and washed all the blood, scraps of dead flesh, and loose hair from the wound. When I was finished, I could feel a hairless stripe of soft bare skin across the back of my head. I wondered if it would be a scar.

  The healing had consumed a lot of my magic. I could tell by how my clothes hung loose on me. I moved my belt buckle two notches tighter. Then, carefully not thinking, I dumped the dirty water from the basin, washed it and the rag, and hung the rag on my laundry line to dry. I was hungry, I realized, and the moment I acknowledged it, my hunger flared to red and ravenous. I went back into my cabin and began rummaging through my pantry. I longed for a certain pale mushroom that Olikea had once brought me, and those hanging, thin-skinned berries. I longed for them above all else. But what I had were some potatoes and an onion and the end of a side of bacon. They would have to do.

  I think my injured body recovered faster than my jumbled mind. I was frying chopped potatoes and onion with a bit of fat bacon before it dawned on me that someone had tried to kill me. They’d stolen my horse and cart. They’d left me for dead. I put a pinch of salt on the cooking food and stirred it again. What did I remember? Men on horses behind me. Long guns. The flash. I didn’t even remember the sound, only the flash of black powder igniting.

  Someone had shot me. Shot me! They’d left me for dead, and stolen my horse and cart. The bastards! And in that arrowing of fury, I felt the magic flare in me and then subside. Too late I regretted that surge of hatred and vindictiveness. I knew I didn’t have the strength to call it back, and suspected it was already too late to think of doing it. I sat down heavily on the floor by the hearth, feeling as if I’d just burned the last bit of energy in my body. I wanted to fall over on my side and sleep. By an extreme effort of will, I managed to take the pan of food from the fire before it burned. Once I had it on the floor, I ate from it, using the stirring spoon, with the single-mindedness of a starving dog. When the last strand of translucent onion had been scraped from the pan’s bottom and consumed, I crawled into my bed, pulled my blanket over me, closed my eyes, and slept.

  And slept. I woke to a foreign dawn, blinked at it, and closed my eyes again. I awoke to darkness, staggered to my water bucket, and lowered my face to drink like a horse. Chin dripping, I stood in the closed darkness of my cabin. I thought I heard someone call my name softly, but I ignored it. I found my way back to my bed, fell into it, and slept again. Dreams tried to break into that rest. I banished them. I heard my name spoken gently, then with urgency, and finally with both command and annoyance. I pushed her away. She battered at the edges of my sleep, but I pulled it tight around me and would not admit her.

  I rose with the next dawn, famished, my mouth dry and sticky. My body stank with my own sweat. I crunched through my last two potatoes raw, for my hunger would not wait for me to cook them. I heated what water remained in my barrel, washed myself, and got dressed in my other clothes. My head no longer hurt.

  I went down to the spring. There I found the shallow prints of bare feet at the water’s edge. So Olikea had ventured that far in trying to lure me back to her. A spike of desire pierced me. I longed for her warm willingness and the mindless pleasure she could wake in me with her body and her food.

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  No. Fervently and abruptly, I decided to end all my interaction with the Specks. I was not a Speck and I could not save them. This magic had been forced onto me. I didn’t like what it allowed me to do or what it did to me. I would be prey to it no longer. Let it punish me as Buel Hitch had said it would. I no longer cared. With equal vehemence, I rejected my own people. I no longer wished to have anything to do with any of them. Even the thoug
ht of Spink and Epiny could not lure me back to being a soldier and a Gernian. I would end my life here, I decided, in this role of gravedigger. I could not save either people from their own foolishness. The best I could do, the only thing I could do, was to bury them. So be it.

  In that frame of mind, I went to my tool shed and began to dig a fresh grave. I knew there would soon be bodies aplenty to bury. I might as well be prepared. I dug it with professional competence, a good deep grave with straight sides and plenty of room to lower a coffin. As soon as it was finished, I drank more water and went right on to dig the next one.

  The thought of going to town and reporting that someone had shot me and stolen Clove and my wagon came briefly to my mind. I pushed it away. I found I no longer cared for anything much except my gravedigging. I found that my only thought on the subject was to hope that Clove was well treated by whoever had him now. I went on digging. I tried not to recall how the magic had felt as it had rushed out of me. I didn’t know who had shot at me. Did that mean the magic could not target them with my anger? I feared what I had done, and then felt furious with myself for thinking about it. It wasn’t my fault, I angrily declared to myself. I hadn’t sought the magic, and I’d never wished for it. Those who had imposed it on me were to blame for all of this. Not I. I pushed the nose of my shovel deep into the turf and ripped out another shovelful of earth.

  Neither Ebrooks nor Kesey came to the graveyard that day. I missed them, but I was glad they hadn’t come. I would have liked their casual companionship if I could have looked at them and not wondered how soon they would die. I wondered if plague was already prowling the streets of town, or if the people were still intoxicated both with Gettys tonic and the thought that the road was moving forward again. Even now, I was sure the heavy saws and axes were biting deep into the flesh of the ancestor trees.

  That thought made me ill, and for a wavering moment I was outside my body, reaching up to distant sunlight as I felt the inexorable severing of my connection to the earth and all it had been to me. I felt both the breeze that shivered my leaves and the deep vibration of the blades gnawing through me. A love of life deeper than anything I had ever felt rang through me, coupled with the anguish that it would end so suddenly. I jerked my awareness away from the magic’s greedy clutches. I didn’t care, I told myself fiercely. It was only a tree, and a Speck tree at that! But even that denial showed me how deeply I’d changed my way of thinking. Sickened and shaken, I dragged my thoughts back to my work. I drove the shovel deep into the earth again.

  I worked until there was no light left in the day and then returned to my cabin. There was little left in my pantry, but I made a meal off the last end of the bacon, a few vegetables from my garden, and some hearth bread. After my day’s work, it was less than satisfying, but I sternly told myself it was enough.

  And then the long night stretched before me. I had nothing to read nor any way to occupy my mind. For a time I sat and stared out my window and tried to empty my mind. Despite my efforts, my thoughts returned to the looming plague, the felling of the ancestor trees, and my determination that henceforth I would be a part of neither people. After a time, I took down my soldier son journal and made the longest entry that I had written in some weeks. I poured my thoughts onto the paper, and when I had finished, I felt almost at peace. I waited a few moments for the ink to dry, and then leafed back through it. The entries I had made at the academy now seemed shallow and boyish, and the sketches I had made of my classmates were the scribbles of a child. As I paged through the leaves of the books, the entries grew longer, and the thoughts more considered. I’d been lax in my duty to be a naturalist as well as a soldier. There were few sketches, and other than an attempt at showing how the specks were placed on Olikea’s hands, they were all of plants I’d seen. The soldier son journals I’d seen at my uncle’s house had been terse accounts of battles and journeys over difficult terrain. In contrast, mine looked like a schoolgirl’s diary. I closed it.

  “Nevare. ”

  Olikea’s call was a whisper on the night wind. I tried to pretend I’d imagined it. But it came again and with more urgency, like a doe’s mating call.

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  “Nevare. ”

  Against my will, I felt stirred. I knew exactly where she would await me, in the trees just behind the spring. I gritted my teeth. She would have a basket of food with her, I knew. My will began to crumble. What would it matter if I went to her one last time? Didn’t I at least owe her an explanation? After all, it was not her fault that I was caught so harshly between our peoples. Hurting her served no useful purpose; in a way, it was giving way to the magic, to let it force me to be cruel to her.

  I had almost convinced myself; indeed, I was rising to go to her when I heard a sound that stood the hair up on the back of my neck. Hoofbeats. A horse was coming up the road to the cemetery at a canter. In a rush of wariness, I was sure it was someone coming to kill me. My attackers would know I had lived because no one had found my body by the road. They’d want to be sure I was dead before I could step forward to accuse them. I suddenly saw how stupid I’d been not to go to town to report the assault and the theft. If they killed me now, there would be no one to accuse them. They’d go free and I’d be dead.

  I pulled my window shutter closed and fastened it. In two strides, I reached my door and slammed the bar into place. I took my disreputable weapon down from its hooks and checked the charges I’d prepared for it days ago. I readied a load and waited silently, the muzzle pointed at the door. Ears straining, I heard someone ride up to my door and then dismount. An instant later, someone pounded on the door. I kept silent. I didn’t want to kill anyone unless I had to.

  “Nevare? Are you in there? In the good god’s name, open up! Nevare?” Spink rattled the door loudly and then gave it a good kick. For a moment longer, I sat still and silent. “Please, Nevare, be there!” he cried out, and there was such despair in his voice that I relented.

  “A moment,” I called, and set my gun aside and unbarred the door. The moment I did, Spink came pushing into my cabin. He seized my forearm and exclaimed, “Are you all right, then?”

  “As you see,” I told him, almost calmly.

  He slapped his hand to his chest and breathed out heavily. I thought he was being dramatic, but when he straightened up, his face was pale save for two bright spots on his cheeks. “I thought you were dead. We all thought you were dead. ” He tried to catch his breath and failed. “I left Epiny caught between hysterics at the thought that you were dead and fury that you had been so close and alive all this time and I never told her. Nevare, I am in such trouble at home right now because of you that I could kill you, except that I am so glad to find you alive. ”

  “Sit down,” I told him and guided him to a chair. He dropped into it, and I brought him a cup of water. He was breathing as if he’d run all the way rather than ridden his horse. “Catch your breath and tell me what happened. Why did you tell Epiny I was out here? What made you think I was dead?”

  “Amzil told me. ” He took another drink of water. “She’d gone out to do errands for us. She came running back, sobbing her heart out, saying that your horse and wagon had been found surrounded by dead men. ” He dragged in another breath. “Oh, and of course Epiny was not in the bedroom napping as she thought, but only in our kitchen, and the moment Amzil blurted out that ‘everyone in town is saying that Nevare is either dead or the one who killed them all,’ she came bursting into the room demanding to know what was going on and how there could be news of you that she hadn’t heard. ” He ran his hand over his head. “From there, all was chaos. I was trying to explain, but Amzil kept interrupting me, and at the same time I was trying to get Amzil’s story out of her, and when Epiny started weeping and shouting at both of us, Amzil got angry at me, saying I’d upset her now and she might lose the baby. So then Epiny started crying even harder, and all the children joined in the wailing. And Amzil threw m
e out of my own house telling me that I was just as useless as any other man she’d ever met and I should at least come out here and see what I could find of ‘that big idiot. ’ Meaning you. ”

  He took a deeper breath and dropped his head onto the back of the chair. Staring up at my rough ceiling, he added, “And here you are, alive and fine, and my life is in an uproar and will be so until you come to town and see Epiny. You’ll have to now. ” Almost as an afterthought he added, “This whole mess is your fault, Nevare. You know that. ”

  “Tell me about the dead men and my wagon,” I said quietly.

  “Meaning you know nothing about it?” he asked quickly.

  “I know something of it, I suppose. Yesterday…no. The day before, I think, when I was last in town and sent Amzil to warn you about the plague…what was Amzil doing out of the house? Why have you left your home? Didn’t she give you my warning? You need to keep quarantine! The Speck plague is going to break out any day now, Spink. It always follows the Dust Dance. It’s how they spread it. ”

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  “No one has been sick yet!” he defended himself, and then added shamefacedly, “I told Amzil not to go. But Epiny has been so sick with this pregnancy, and there’s some tea that an old woman in town makes that seems to help her. Amzil insisted on going for a fresh supply when we ran out. It was no good my telling her to stay inside. I tell you, Nevare, once there is a woman under a man’s roof, he can just forget about being in charge of his own life. Two women, and he doesn’t even have a life anymore. ” He shook his head as if bothered by gnats and then glared at me. “But you were explaining how your wagon came to be in a barracks stable surrounded by dead men. ”

  “No, I wasn’t,” I replied testily. “I was telling you that on my way home, I was attacked. They hit me hard and I went down fast, so I can’t tell you how many they were or what they looked like. When I came to, I was facedown on the ground and Clove and my wagon were gone. I managed to get home, spent a day recovering, and then got back to my work. ”

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