Forest mage, p.67
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       Forest Mage, p.67
 

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

  She stood up and stretched. “I’ll be right back. ”

  I lay where I was on the moss, trying to find thoughts that belonged to me. I hadn’t intended to come here. Yet here I was, enmeshed with Olikea again, and listening to her scold me for not letting the magic have its way with me. I knew it was a problem, but I couldn’t bring myself to care about it.

  She returned and sat down in the angle of my body, her back against my belly. She leaned back on me a little and rummaged in her basket. Some of the fruit had been bruised in the fall. I could smell each separate one quite clearly. She offered me a lily leaf. “Eat this first. For your strength. ”

  I took it from her and ate a bite. “So. You anticipate I will need more strength tonight?”

  I was surprised when she giggled. “You might. Just eat it. ”

  I obeyed and then asked, “Does each food you bring me have its own virtue?”

  “Here, yes. On the other side, sometimes food is just food. To eat. Here each one is a piece of magic. What you eat here is far more potent than anything you eat on the other side. It is why it is so important that you come here every night. ”

  “What other side?”

  “The other side of here,” she said impatiently. She took another lily leaf, put an orange section of root in its center, and rolled the fleshy leaf around it. “Like this. Eat it like this. ”

  I obeyed. The orange root was slightly sweet. Weariness fell away from me. I reached over and pulled her basket closer to me. “What is this one for?” I asked, taking a clump of pale yellow mushrooms.

  “For walking the web more strongly. ”

  “I don’t understand. ”

  She puffed her lips at me, and then made a dismissive gesture with her fingers. “Just eat it. Trust me. I know these things. ”

  The mushrooms had an earthy flavor, rich and dark. She followed them with a double handful of berries so ripe and sweet that they burst in my hands before I could get them to my mouth. Each had a flat seed inside it, strongly piquant. As I chewed a mouthful, she said, “You should go now, so that you can come back to me on the other side before the light is too strong. You do not need to bring anything with you. Simply go and then come back to me. ”

  I didn’t understand, so I avoided the question. “The light doesn’t bother me. ”

  “It troubles me. And you need to be with me, so that I can show you the way to the deeper place. We think that one of the old ones will fall tomorrow. The magic will waken with great fury then. It would be better for us to be sheltered from that wrath. ”

  “I cannot go with you tomorrow, Olikea. I promised my friend that I would come to visit him in Gettys. I have to keep that promise. ”

  “No. ” She shook her head. “Tomorrow death sweeps through that place. It will only make you sad to see it. Come away with me. ”

  Every word she spoke jabbed me like a small pin, awakening me to my other life and the dangers that threatened it. While I loitered here with her in satiation and contentment, my friends were in danger. The closeness I had felt to her was thinning like darkness before the dawn. “Were you there?” I asked her. “When your people danced the Dust Dance in Gettys, were you there, spreading disease with the dust?”

  “Of course I was,” she answered promptly. There was no shame in her voice, no regret at all. “You saw me leave by the gate. I thought you would come with me, but then I saw that you had her with you. So I left you. ”

  I lifted her hand that rested against my ribs and looked at it. “With this hand, you threw the dust that will make all of them sicken with the plague?”

  She twisted her hand from my grip, and then held it palm-up and fingers loose. She shook it like that. “It is the winnowing. The dust flies and blows and settles where it will. Some will walk the path of the winnowing and some will not. Of those who walk the path, some will cross the bridge and others will not. Some will serve the magic: they will cross, but come back to us, briefly, as messengers from that far place. Among our people, we honor those ones as worthy of a tree. They send down roots to one world and reach up branches to another. They stay among us then and grow, and wisdom grows with them. You, you bury your dead to rot, as if you care nothing for the wisdom of that world. The messengers who come back to you, you ignore and bury beneath the earth. We have tried to help you be wiser. We have tried to give some of your people trees so that they could grow in wisdom, but never does it work. The tree does not thrive, or one like you comes to tear them free from the tree and throw them back into a hole in the ground where they rot like bad seed. ”

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  I sat very still. She took another lily leaf from the basket, rolled it around an orange root, and passed it to me. I took it from her absently. I could almost understand what she was telling me. The little I comprehended frightened me.

  Olikea took pleasure in her musing. “A few, a very few like you,” and she patted me fondly, “pass through the winnowing a different way. No one knows what makes the dust change you. Perhaps it is not that the dust changes you, but that you have already changed in a way the dust cannot alter. Great Ones can cross the bridge more than once and return to stay among us as members of the People. ” She shrugged. “Perhaps it is because the magic knows its own. It is a thing to think on, sometimes, when one does not feel too much like sleeping. But it is not a thing to be troubled about, because it does not matter if we ever understand it or not. It is for the magic to know. We can be content with that. ” She spoke softly, contentedly, as if this was a philosophy of life. To me, it was her justification for the slaughter of innocents. I felt sudden disgust with myself that I had whiled away these hours in animalistic pleasure while in Gettys men, women, and children were beginning to burn with the sickness she had sown.

  “You can, perhaps, be content with that. I cannot. ” I rolled to my belly, pushing her away from me in the process. She made an annoyed sound. I got my knees under me and then stood up. “I am leaving, Olikea. I will never come back to you. I cannot be with you again. I cannot accept what you have done to my people in Gettys. ”

  “What I have done? You make this my doing? It is the doing of the magic. And perhaps it is more your doing than mine. Perhaps, oh plain-skin Great One, if you had followed the magic’s calling more willingly, it would not have had to be!” She sprang to her feet to confront me “If you had done the task the magic set you, the intruders would be gone by now, banished back to their own lands. You were the one who was to drive the plain-skins back to their own lands. Jodoli saw that clearly. We all saw that. For that task, the magic marked you. And we have waited, we have all waited, and I have tried to nurture you to your power, but always you run away and deny it and refuse it. Jodoli humbled himself to show you the danger that threatened the ancestor trees. He has explained it to you in every way it can be explained. All thought that when your own eyes beheld the danger to the ancestor trees, you would waken to your task. But now they teeter and sway, and tomorrow one of them will fall and be no more! They are the oldest memories of our people, and tomorrow we lose them. Because of the intruders. Because they wish to make a path for their horses and wagons to go where they have never needed to go before. They say it will be a good thing for us, but how can they know what is good for us when they have begun by destroying our greatest good thing? We have let them feel our sorrow. We have let them feel our fears. Still, they are too stupid to go away. So they must be driven away with harsher means. How can anyone doubt that? But you, oh, you look at those intruders who live little short lives known only to themselves, you look at those treeless people and you say, ‘Oh, let them stay, let them cut the ancestors from their roots, do not make them endure the winnowing, let them be. ’ And why? Because they are wise or kind or great of heart? No. Only because they look like you!”

  “Olikea, they are my people. They are as dear to me as your people are to you. Why can you not understand this?”

  S
he puffed her cheeks in a display of utter disbelief. “Understand what? They are not the People, Nevare. They will never be the People of this place. They must all go away, go back to their own place, and then all will be as it should be again. Except, of course, that with their tools ‘your people’ will have cut a hole in the sky of leaves and stolen from us the oldest of our elders. But for this, you care not at all! Will you say what all of ‘your people’ say? ‘It is only a tree!’ Say that, Nevare. Say it so I can hate you as you deserve. ”

  I stared at her in shock. Tears were running down her cheeks. They were tears of fury, true, but up to that moment I had not thought anything I said or did would wring such impassioned words from her. I was a fool. I tried to reason with her.

  “The Gernians will never leave here, Olikea. I know my people. Once they have come to a place, they do not leave it. They stay, they trade, and their towns grow. Your lives will change, but the changes will not be all bad. You could learn to accept it. Think of your own people. From us they get tools and cloth and jewelry. And sweets! Remember how much you liked the sweets? The Speck people like these things, and we value the furs that they—”

  “Be silent!” She shrieked the words at me. “Do not tell me in soft words that our dying will not hurt! Do not tell me of trinkets to wear and tools to use and sweet things to eat. ” She tore the simple bead necklace I had given her from her throat and the bright little glass beads went scattering, littering the moss like tiny seeds of Gernia.

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  I looked at them, glistening orbs of red and blue and yellow resting on top of the moss like a dew of gems, and for an instant I saw the future. A hundred years from now, those shiny bits of glass trodden into the ground would still remain intact, but the forest near the cemetery would be gone. I felt a sudden sorrow that it would be so, but I also recognized the truth. “Olikea, it is inevitable. ”

  Her hands rose as claws and she screamed wordlessly at me. I lifted my hands to defend my face from her nails. “Stop!” I told her, and to my horror, the magic obeyed me. She halted, straining against it, longing to rake me bloody, but unable to push past the boundary I had put there. For a moment she scrabbled against it wordlessly, a savage animal caged behind glass. Then she stopped. Breasts heaving, eyes streaming tears, she let her hands drop to her sides.

  She took a ragged breath. When she spoke, I could hear how she forced the words past the lump in her throat. “You think you can do this! You think you can swell up big with the magic of the People and use it against us. You cannot. You will come to do what the magic says you must. This I know. Of this, I say to you, ‘It is inevitable!’ And you shake your head and make your eyes sad and do not believe me. I do not care. The magic will convince you. It will send you a messenger you cannot ignore, and then you will know. You will see. ” She crossed her arms in front of her and stood tall and straight, reclaiming her dignity. “I did not think you were so stupid, Nevare. I thought that if I fed you, you would see the path of wisdom and tread it. ” She fluttered her fingers dismissively. “You did not. But it does not matter. You will do what the magic had destined for you. You will turn your people back to their own lands. We all know this. Soon, you will know it, too. ”

  She turned her back on me and walked away. Her stride was arrogant and free once more, not that of a woman scorned but rather that of a woman who had won and no longer cared whether I recognized that or not. As I watched her go, the dawn’s light broke through the canopy overhead. In that sudden brightness, I could not see. I blinked frantically, but she seemed to be disappearing even as I stared after her.

  I shut my eyes and knuckled them.

  When I opened them, fingers of strong daylight had reached through the cracks in my window shutters to fall across my face. My back was stiff and my neck ached from sleeping with my head thrown back against my chair. I sat up, flinching as my neck bones crackled. Despite all my efforts, I’d fallen asleep. And I’d dreamed…something. The first thought that came to me filled me with dread. I’d promised to go and see Epiny today.

  I groaned and rubbed the back of my neck, and then scrubbed my stiff face with my hands. When I lowered them I was stunned at what I saw. My fingers and hands were sticky and stained red from the fruit I had shared with Olikea. My mind wobbled as it tried to integrate the idea of dreaming myself into a world that left physical evidence of itself. The other side, Olikea had called it. And now I was back on this side. The strength of the sunlight filtering through my shutters told me that I had slept far past my usual rising time. I rose and opened the window to the day. It was sunny and fine, and the sun already stood high in the sky. I rubbed my face again, and then grunted in annoyance.

  By the time I’d wiped the stickiness of the dream fruit from my face and hands, I had another distraction. The sounds of a horse and cart reached me through the open window. I wondered if someone was returning Clove to me, but a glance out the window showed me that was not so. A man with his face muffled in a scarf perched on the seat of wagon pulled by a swaybacked black nag. It took me a moment to recognize Ebrooks. Three coffins jutted from the open back of the cart. My heart sank. It had begun.

  I went out to meet him. He waved me back. “Speck plague!” he shouted at me “Going though the town like a prairie fire. Here. Put this on before you come any closer. ” He tossed me first a small glass bottle and then a folded cloth. The liquid in the bottle proved to be vinegar. “Wet the cloth with that and tie it over your nose and mouth. ”

  “Will it keep away the plague?” I asked him as I obeyed him.

  He shrugged. “It’s mostly for the smell. But if it keeps you from catching plague, well, you haven’t lost anything. ”

  As I tightened the knot in the kerchief over my face, I heard a terrible sound. It was like a distant scream, breathlessly and hideously prolonged. It ended with a monumental crash that shook the earth under my feet. I staggered a step or two from the impact and then stood unsteadily, dizzied from the experience. “What was that?” I demanded of Ebrooks.

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  He gave me a puzzled look. “I told you. Just vinegar. But some folk say it wards off the plague. Can’t hurt is what I say. ”

  “No, not that. That noise in the distance. The scream. That explosion. ”

  He looked puzzled. “I didn’t hear anything. There was some talk in town that the high mucky-mucks from Old Thares were saying that we were wasting time trying to fell those big trees with saws and hatchets. One fellow suggested drilling a hole and packing a black powder charge into the trunk and then touching it off with a long fuse. Don’t know that they decided to do it, though. And I’m not sure you could hear if from here even if they did. ”

  “Oh, I think I’d hear it,” I said faintly. The world still seemed to shimmer at the edges. I knew what I’d heard. The ancestor tree had fallen. That piece of the past had been destroyed. I had a sense of a gaping tear in time, and a cold wind blowing through it. What had been known was unknown now. Names recalled, deeds of old, all gone, as if in an instant a great library had collapsed into ash. Gone.

  “You all right, Nevare? You coming down with the fever?”

  “No. No, I don’t have the plague. I’m just—forget it. Forget it, Ebrooks. ” All would be forgotten. “Three bodies. It seems so sudden. ”

  “Yes, well, the plague is always sudden. There will be more before the day is out. The colonel himself has it; they say every officer that was on the reviewing stand is down with it, and a good portion of the troops. The infirmary filled up last night. Now they’re telling people to stay home and put a yellow flag out in front of their houses if they have sickness and need help. Town looks like a field of daffodils. ”

  “But you’re all right?”

  “So far. But I’ve had it twice, and lived both times. Makes it less likely I’ll get it again. Come on. No time for talking. We’ve got to get these ones planted before the next load arrives. Kesey
was waiting on coffins when I left. Luckily, they had a batch of planks all sawn, just the right size. ”

  “Yes. Lucky. ” I didn’t say that was due to my foresight. What had seemed eminently practical when I had suggested it now seemed grisly and foreboding. I felt as if I’d been the croaker bird waiting for the dead to die. As if my thought had summoned them, I heard a hoarse cawing. I turned to see three of the carrion eaters sail in from the seemingly empty blue skies and alight in the branches of my newly planted trees, which bent beneath the weight of their heavy bodies. One of the croakers spread his wide black wings in alarm and cawed again. I felt cold. Ebrooks didn’t even notice them.

  “All those empty graves you dug will come in handy now. Time to show the colonel what you’re made of. ”

  “Is he very ill?” I asked him. I walked beside the wagon as he drove it slowly to the opened and waiting earth.

  “The colonel? I reckon. He’s never had it before. First year he was here, it went through the ranks like a batch of salts. Killed the commanding officer; that was when Colonel Haren got jumped up to commander. Well, the day he did, he all but went into hiding. You’ve seen how he is. Hardly ever leaves his rooms if he can help it. I hear he’s got them all fixed up like a little palace in there. Comfy as a bug in a rug. Winter and summer, he keeps a fire going in there; I know that rumor is true, because I see the smoke all the time. Someone told him that fire fights off fever; burns it right out of the air before it can get to a man. Seemed to work for him, anyway. But maybe this was just his time for it. He come down bad, I hear, and none of those visiting officers are likely to go home. Well, actually, they will, but in boxes. Too good to be buried out here in the wild east with us common soldiers. They’ll go home to their fancy stone tombs. Well, here we are. Last stop, folks. ”

  His forced good cheer was already beginning to grate on me, but I didn’t ask him to stop. I suspected that whatever feelings he hid behind that mask would be harder for me to look at. We worked quickly and efficiently to set each coffin in an open grave. The names were marked on each coffin. Elje Soot. Jace Montey. Peer Miche. The waiting graves were ones I had dug last autumn. Grass and weeds had sprouted on the soil mounded next to each hole. “I’ll go get some shovels,” I said when the heavy coffins were in place. ”

 
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