Forest mage, p.66
Part #2 of The Soldier Son Trilogy series by Robin Hobb
“And you didn’t come to town to report it?” he asked me severely.
“No. I didn’t. Spink, I expected town to be in the first throes of the plague. I’m surprised it isn’t, but I still think it will come. And when it does I’ll have the graves dug and waiting. ” I sat down in my own chair across from him and rubbed at my face. I suddenly felt a hundred years old. “It’s really the only thing I can do for anyone,” I added morosely.
“Well, I can see that you’re discouraged and worried. We all are, Nevare. When the Speck magic isn’t flooding us with discouragement, we’re either drugged or simply seeing how senseless life on this post can be. But to not report the attack and theft now make you seem, well, involved somehow in those deaths. You know there were rumors about you. That was why I asked you to stay out here and out of trouble. And now people are saying—”
“How did they die?” I demanded suddenly.
“Well, I don’t exactly know. Amzil said they were just sprawled all around your wagon, like they’d been gathered around it and then just died right there. ”
“Who were they?”
“Nevare, I don’t know. I didn’t hear the story firsthand, and between Amzil’s blubbering over you and the hysteria that followed, I didn’t get much information. Only that Sergeant Hoster was saying that you’d probably killed them all to shield yourself and that you should be arrested until we can discover what’s going on. ”
“Hoster would say that. The man hates me, for no reason that I know. Do you think they will arrest me?”
“Nevare, I don’t know! We still have the inspection team here, and the mysterious death of four men inside the barracks stable doesn’t make any of us look good. Command will have to cover it up, explain it away, or find a scapegoat. ” He rubbed his face and then looked a stark plea at me. “You didn’t have anything to do with it, did you?”
If he hadn’t asked me directly, I could have maintained my deceit. But Spink had always had that honest, open stare of a boy who wants to believe the best of his friends. Even in a face that was beginning to show the care lines of a man, that look still demanded honesty. If I lied to him now, I’d know that I’d given up all hopes of ever being the man I thought I’d become.
“I probably killed them,” I admitted bluntly. “But I don’t know how. And I didn’t do it on purpose. ”
He sat very still, looking at me. His mouth was a tiny bit ajar, and I could hear his breath going in and out of it. He looked as if he was about to speak, and then his face crumpled. “Oh, Nevare. No. I can’t go back and tell Epiny that. I can’t. It will kill her. It will kill her and the baby and they’re all I have in this godforsaken piss-hole of a post. ” He leaned forward, his face in his hands, and spoke hoarsely through his fingers. “How could you do this, Nevare? Who have you become? I’ve seen the changes in you, but I always thought I knew the true heart of who you were. How could you kill men in your own regiment? How?”
“The magic did it,” I said softly. “It wasn’t really me, Spink. It was the magic. ” It sounded like a childish excuse. I didn’t expect him to believe me, but he didn’t lift his face from his hands or interrupt me. I found myself telling him the whole story of what had happened to me in the last week. I didn’t mince words or find excuses for myself. I told him everything, even going back to fill in the truth about Olikea and myself. It felt good, cleansing, to be honest finally with someone. His shoulders sagged as I spoke, as if he took on the burden that I shed. When I was finished, I felt hollow and he looked like a man crushed beneath the weight of a world. Two worlds, I thought to myself.
I got up quietly and filled a kettle. My throat was dry and despite everything else, I was ravenously hungry. Perhaps coffee could soothe that pang a bit. As I set the pot on to boil, Spink finally spoke. “They’ve always known the trees were sacred to the Specks?”
I lifted a hand in a dismissive gesture. “That was the impression I got. ” I was surprised that he cared.
“Do they know that the sadness and discouragement that overwhelms us here is from Speck magic?”
“I don’t know. They must suspect. What else could bring on a fear like that at the end of the road? They must know that’s Speck magic. ”
He spoke in a low voice. “The doctor wants Epiny to take the ‘Gettys tonic. ’ She keeps refusing. He says that if she doesn’t, she will miscarry. Or that when the baby comes, she won’t be a fit mother to him. ”
He fell silent. “And?” I prodded him.
“And he might be right,” Spink said heavily. “Not that many healthy children are born here, Nevare. And the women who do have children seem…flat. Exhausted. As if they can barely care for themselves, let alone their children. ”
“But Epiny seemed to have a great deal of energy. The way she’s organized all those women with whistles. Didn’t you say she was trying to hold classes or lessons…?” My questions trickled away as Spink shook his head.
“She starts things. Every day, she gets up, saying that she’s not going to let it win. We both do. But by afternoon she is weeping, or we’ve had a quarrel, or worst of all, she simply sits and stares out of the window. This dark magic is devouring her, Nevare. It eats at me, but Epiny is more vulnerable to it. You remember what she once told us? That it was like a window had opened and she couldn’t shut it? The sadness comes in that window and Epiny’s life leaks away through it. I’m losing her, Nevare. Not to death, but to…sadness. Bleakness that never goes away. And for what? So that we can push a road through by the shortest possible route, regardless of what it does to the people who live here, or what they do to us in retaliation?”
He stood up slowly. The coffee had just begun to smell like coffee. He didn’t seem to notice. “I’ve got to go home to Epiny. I’m not going to tell her all of this, Nevare, but I am going to tell her that you are here and alive. ” He walked toward the door.
“Spink—hold on a moment. Did Amzil give you my entire message? Did she tell you to send for more of your Bitter Springs water?”
He smiled sourly. “Nevare, you are so accustomed to life on the King’s Road, aren’t you? Bitter Springs is far more isolated. There is no regular courier run to my home. Sending a courier to Bitter Springs would cost me most of a month’s pay. And my message would not reach my brother until weeks from now, if it arrived at all. Add to that the time it would take for a wagon with casks of water to make the trip. With great luck, it might reach Gettys before next winter’s snow closed the road. ”
“So, you didn’t send the message,” I confirmed quietly.
He shook his head. “It would be pointless. ”
I was silent for a time. “How many of those little bottles of water do you have?”
“Now? I have three left. ”
“That’s all?” I was horrified. “What happened to the rest?”
He shrugged. “Almost as soon as Epiny arrived, she began to give them away to people she met. I hid three, for she was determined to pass it all out. I’ve told her it may not be enough to help anyone. After all, I immersed her whole body in the water to cure her. She seems to think if they drink it at the beginning of the fever, it may cure them. As for ourselves, she believes that since we took the Bitter Springs cure, we are immune. I’m not so certain of that. ” He hesitated, then asked, “Did you want some for yourself?”
“I…no. Thank you, but no. I’m sure the magic protects me now. ”
“You speak of the magic as if it were a thinking entity. ”
“I’m not so sure it isn’t. I still don’t know what it is. But I don’t think I’ll need any of your water. If the magic can heal a bullet graze in three days, I doubt it will let me die of the Speck plague. ” A new thought chilled me. “Unless, of course, it suits the magic’s purpose. ” I shook my head, refusing to let my thought follow where that might lead. “When I asked about the water, I wasn’t thinking of myself, but
Spink smiled. “Epiny has already provided for them. She and Amzil have become quite close. As for the children, they are almost like our own. ”
“I’m glad of that,” I said, and was surprised at how grateful I felt.
He was quiet for a moment and then said, “For what it’s worth, Nevare—I think she cares for you, too. Her terror at the thought you were dead surpassed the caring of a friend. ” He turned toward the door. “And speaking of that, Nevare, I must go. It’s cruel for me to let them dangle in suspense while I tarry here, talking with you. I’ll admit that I dread rushing back to Epiny’s wrath. I fear her forgiveness will be slow in coming. ”
“Blame it all on me,” I suggested apologetically.
“Oh, never fear. I fully intend to. ” The grin he gave me was a cracked imitation of his usual one. I was still glad to see it.
I spoke before I could lose my courage. “I’ll come to town tomorrow, Spink. I’ll come to your house. We can tell people that I went there to visit your maidservant, Amzil. ”
He folded his lips for a moment and then decided to speak. “Odd how easy it is for you to arrange a ruse once you decide to do it. ”
I bowed my head to the rebuke in his voice. I could imagine the scene he was returning to, and dreaded my own next encounter with my cousin. “I’ll see Epiny and tell her that all the secrecy was my fault, not yours. And I’ll go to headquarters and report I was attacked. ”
He glanced back at me. “And prove it how? You’re completely healed of a bullet wound in less than three days. There’s no evidence you can offer that you were attacked. What are you going to tell them?”
“I’ll think of something. ”
He nodded grimly and left. I barred the door after he’d mounted and ridden away. I took the coffee from the fire and poured myself a cup. It wasn’t what I wanted, but I sipped it anyway. It was hot and bitter and did nothing to assuage any of my hungers. While Spink had been here, I’d been able to call my thoughts my own. Now that he was gone, I felt besieged again.
“Nevare. ” Olikea’s call sounded closer.
“No. ” I said aloud. “I’ve had it with you and your magic. ”
I did not intend to sleep that night. I did not want to wake finding I had sleepwalked into the forest. I sat up in my chair by the fire. As the night crawled past, I drank mug after mug of steaming black coffee. The summer evening outside was balmy, so I let my small cook fire slowly die. I watched the flames falter and shrink until they subsided as a ripple of light over the dwindling coals.
From time to time, I heard Olikea call to me. With every summons, temptation flamed up in me, but I was determined. Covering my ears did nothing to muffle her invitation. The magic conveyed her call to me rather than the utterance of her voice. Was she in league with the magic or only the unwitting tool of it? Perhaps it was only that she wanted to use the magic in me for her own ends.
The last cup of coffee from the pot was thick and bitter. I’d worked hard all day and my body ached for sleep. The night had reached its coolest point, and I felt chilled. I longed to wrap myself in a blanket but resisted. Too much comfort would make me more susceptible to sleep. Dawn would come soon. I rubbed my eyes, stood up, and paced around the room. I yawned hugely and sat down in my chair again.
“I’m not coming. ” I leaned my head back on the hard top of my chair and stared into the shadowed corner of the room. I could picture how irritated she would be at my refusal. She’d be standing just inside the new forest, just beyond the spring where I filled my water bucket, naked to the night, heedless of the chill and the settling dew. I had noticed something the last time I was with her; even in the darkness, I could sense the dappling on her skin when I ran my hand down the smooth curves of her back. There was a very subtle difference in the texture from dark to light. My mother had used to favor a fabric that had that texture. What had she called it? I couldn’t remember, and that saddened me. Another little bit of my old life gone from me.
“Leave me alone, Olikea. You don’t love me. You don’t even know who I am or where I came from. You’re just the same as Amzil. She can’t see past my fat to discover who I am inside. You can’t see past my body either. But to you, it’s what makes me desirable. It’s probably the only thing that does. ”
“Who is Amzil?” It was a sharp, suspicious query.
“Don’t worry about it. She is just another woman who doesn’t love me. ”
“There are many women in this world who do not love you. ” She puffed her lips at me disdainfully and lifted her chin. “Why should you care about one more?”
“There you are absolutely correct. There are multitudes of women in this world who don’t love me. In fact, if we were looking for women who did love me, I think we could quickly narrow it down to two. However, one loves me as a brother and one as a cousin. Neither is very satisfactory to a man. ”
“Why not?” She stood just under the shadow of the trees. Her basket rested on one outthrust hip. I could smell the mushrooms, and the soft, heavy petals of a pale water blossom that tasted like sweet pepper. The necklace I had given her glittered around her throat. It was the only thing she wore. Her jutting breasts seemed to offer themselves to me, a warmer sort of fruit. For a moment, I could not think.
“A man wants more than kindly affection from a woman. He wants all of her. ”
She puffed her lips at me again. “That is a stupid thing to want. Only a woman can have all of herself. You should be happy with what any woman offers you, rather than to want everything she is. Do you offer all you are to any one woman? I doubt it. ”
That stung. “I would if a woman offered all of herself to me. It is hard for me to be with someone who holds herself back from me. My heart doesn’t love that way, Olikea. Maybe among your folk that is how you love. But among my people—”
“Your people and my people are the same people, Nevare. Over and over I tell you this. Cannot you learn it? The People are the only people you have now, Nevare. And we offer you everything. So why do not you love us with this ‘heart’ of yours? Why do not you come to us for every day and every hour, and use the magic of the People as it should be used?”
“To do what?” I asked her. We had moved closer together. The cool mud of the spring’s edge cradled my bare feet. The night did not seem so dark. There was light in the spring water that glinted up at us. The light in Olikea’s eyes was twin to it. I smelled the startling tang of crushed fruit. It was a berry in her hand. She reached up to my unsmiling mouth to push it gently between my lips. Her fingertips lingered a moment on my tongue and then drew back, painting my lips with the stinging sweetness of the fruit. My senses reeled with the flavor, the scent, and her touch.
“This is a new taste for you,” she whispered. “They grow only in our dream country. And only a Great One like you is allowed to eat it. I can taste it only when I taste it on your mouth. ” With sticky fingers, she hooked my face, pulled it closer, and lapped her tongue lightly across my lips.
A man can only bear so much. My dreams of true love and the fulfilment of a life shared dissolved beneath a wave of simple lust. I caught her up and pulled her close. She let the basket of food fall. I tasted the skin of her neck, breathed in the scent of her hair.
She laughed softly. “Remember, I do not love you as your sister does, nor as your cousin does. I do not love you as a plain-skin woman would love her man. So this—” and she touched me teasingly “—is not enough for you. Is it? You don’t want this from me, do you?”
“I want it,” I told her fiercely, imprisoning her in my arms. “I want it, but I want more than just this. Can’t you understand that, Olikea? Are our peoples truly so different?”
“I don’t want to talk right now,” I decided. I stooped and picked her up in my arms. She gave a whoop of surprise and flung her arms around my neck. I liked the feeling that I could startle her, that I could move her with my strength. It fueled my lust.
I carried her deeper into the forest. Magic surged in me with the heat of desire. I made a gesture, and moss and fallen leaves gathered themselves into a couch for us. Another motion of my hand, and a tree branch drooped to become a support for a vine that suddenly draped itself into a bower around us. Fragrant flowers opened to perfume the night. I banished the small stinging insects that had come to investigate us, and invited instead the little glowing moths, that I might better see what I touched. I lavished magic with a free hand. It was as simple and natural as the way Olikea opened herself to me, and as mutually pleasing. This night I led and she followed in that most ancient dance. In our previous times together, she had always taken the role of aggressor, and I had been astonished to find how much pleasure I could take in that. This night, I think she was equally surprised to find that a male could command her pleasure so completely. Discovering that I could render her near-mindless with bliss bolstered my sense of myself as nothing else had in the previous year. It spurred me to greater efforts, and when at last she lay beside me, slack in my arms, I felt I had proven something to her, though I could not have said exactly what.
We dozed. After what seemed a very long time, she asked, “Are you hungry?”
I nearly laughed. “Of course I’m hungry. I’m always hungry. ”
“Are you?” She sounded concerned. She set her hand on my side tenderly. “You should never be hungry. Not if you would allow me to care for you properly. Not if you allowed me to feed you as you should be fed. How can you do all that the magic wishes you to do if you do not eat as you should? You must pay attention when I call to you, and eat every night of the food I bring to you. You must stay close by me so that I can bring you to the peak of your powers. ”
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