Forest mage, p.69
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       Forest Mage, p.69

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

  “Not to wake up at all, I suppose. But worst of all is to have someone waste a man’s last bit of time with idle chatter. Be quiet, Nevare, and listen. I’m here as a messenger. You were expecting me, weren’t you?”

  Olikea’s angry words echoed in my mind. “It will send you a messenger you cannot ignore. ” Cold emanated from my spine and spread to every part of my body. I barely managed to set the kettle on the hob without spilling it. I was suddenly shaking, my teeth chattering with it. His grin grew wider, a merry death rictus. “Are you cold? Sit down by the fire, Nevare. I don’t have much time. Listen to me. ”

  “No. No, Hitch, you listen to me. Back at the academy, Dr. Amicas said some of the plague victims seemed to die but then they revived. That was why he wasn’t letting the orderlies take the bodies out of the wards right away. You’ve just been in a very deep coma and now you’ve come out of it. You’re disoriented and confused. You need to rest. The same thing happened to me and to my friend Spink. We both lived. Let me get you some water, and then I’ll ride for the doctor—No, damnit, they stole Clove. But I’ll go on foot. I’ll get help for you. You just rest. ”

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  He shook his head slowly. “There isn’t any help for me, Nevare. I made my choice a long time ago, or rather, the magic made its choice when it took me. After that, I had no choices. That’s one of the things I’ve come to tell you. You have to understand this. You don’t have choices when it comes to what the magic makes you do. It can turn you against your own people; it can make you do things you’d be ashamed to whisper to a demon. Sit down, Nevare. Please sit down. ”

  I knew that I should insist on getting help for him immediately. Instead, I slowly sank into my chair across from him. He smiled at me, and for a moment he looked more like his old self. Then he looked down at his feet. They were bare, I suddenly noticed. They’d sent him to his grave without his boots. He spoke without meeting my eyes. “I’m going to tell you one of those things I wouldn’t whisper to a demon, Nevare. Because I think it may be the only way to convince you that you have to do what the magic demands of you. And it’s the only way I can clear my conscience. You’ve been resisting the magic, haven’t you?”

  “Hitch, I truly don’t know what you are talking about. Olikea says the same thing. So does Jodoli, and so did Tree Woman. They all tell me that I’m supposed to do something that will send the Gernians away. They act as if I know what it is I’m supposed to have done by now. But I have no idea what they are talking about. If that’s what the magic wants, then it should give me some clue of how I’m supposed to accomplish it. Because I don’t think there is any action one man could take that would suddenly cause King Troven to give up his road to the sea and the Kingdom of Gernia to retreat from its frontiers. Do you?”

  He slowly shook his head. “Well, I don’t know of any. But then it isn’t my task. It’s yours. ” He gave me a ghost of his old grin. “I’ll tell you one thing that was true of the magic for me. When it wanted me to do a thing, I knew clearly what it was. And I did it. It always seemed the most obvious choice to make. It made me want to do it more than anything else in the world. Even if it was something wrong, something that went completely against the grain, the magic made it easy, even desirable. Nothing ever made me feel better than just doing what it wanted me to do. ” He coughed a dry little cough and added, “I’ll take that drink of water now, if you please. ”

  His request comforted me. I’d been toying with the idea that I’d somehow slipped into dream travel and was only speaking to him on that “other side. ” To have him ask for something as simple as water made me more confident that we were still in my real world. I rose and went to fill my cup from my water barrel. When I brought it to him, he took it and drank it in long, smooth swallows. He lingered over that water as if it were nectar.

  I spoke as he drank. “Your fever’s broken, Hitch. Let me find you some food. If you drink a lot of water and eat some bland food and get some good rest, you’ll be fine. You’ll live. I know how vivid fever dreams can be. But you’re back in the real world now. You’re safe. You’re going to live. ”

  As he handed the cup back to me, our eyes met. He looked sorrowful. “Thank you, Nevare. And not just for the water, but for hoping I’ll live. I won’t, not in this ‘real world’ of yours. In that other world, well, yes, I expect to live for a good long time. In fact, it has been promised to me. Especially if you do the task the magic has given you. But my time here is ticking away, even now. So let me talk while I can.

  “You’re a good man, old son. You’d have been a good soldier, and I suspect you’d have been a damn fine officer, given the chance. But then, so would I, if the magic hadn’t taken me. I hope you’ll understand that what I did, I did because I didn’t have a choice. Soldiers kill in times of war, and sometimes they do even worse. They’re under orders. And everyone understands that a man under orders does things he wouldn’t otherwise do. When you think of me after this, think of that, please. ‘Hitch was under orders. ’ Will you do that for me?”

  A terrible foreboding rose in me. I moved the bubbling kettle off the hob and then slowly sat down in my chair again. “Tell me what you did,” I suggested quietly.

  He shook his head, his lips pursed sourly. “You already know, don’t you?” He sighed. “I tried to warn you about it. ‘If you resist the magic, then bad things happen to you, things that force you to go the way it wants you to go. ’ I told you that. Never say I didn’t. It’s like being a sheep herded by a big mean dog. Run where it wants you to, and you don’t get bit. I’ve been bitten by it a few times. Did I ever tell you that once I had a wife and a little girl? A real wife, I mean, a Gernian wife, one who dressed in ruffles and set a fine table, and played sweet little songs to me on her lap harp. Lalaina. And I loved her, Never. Loved her, and our little golden-haired girl. But that wasn’t what the magic wanted from me. It wanted me out riding the edges and doing its bidding, not sitting home listening to sweet little tunes with a child on my lap. I wouldn’t leave them, though, not for the magic, not for the world. So the magic took them away.

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  “The plague cut them down, and once my roots were gone, the magic could roll me wherever it wanted me. Kind of like what it done to you. A girl to marry and your mother’s love and a father who respected you? Well, if you’d kept all those things, you wouldn’t be here now, would you? So when you held onto those things too tight, whisk! The magic took them away. See, that’s what I’m telling you. There’s something you’re still holding tight to, isn’t there? If you love it, let go of it. Before the magic destroys it, or finds a way to make you let go. ”

  “Epiny and Spink, you mean?” Amzil and her children came to my mind also, but not from my lips. Not even then could I admit to Hitch that I cared about them.

  “I don’t know who or what you cling to, man. I’m not the magic! All I know is that you stay here when the magic wants you to move on. So it found a way to make you move on. Don’t hate me for this. I’m the messenger. But I came here on my own just as much as because the magic made me. Because, despite everything, I’m still a soldier son, like you. I’ve still got a bit of honor left. ” He shook his head ruefully. “Damn me. In a few more minutes, you’re going to hate me, old son. I don’t like the thought of that. But it’s got to be, before I go. So before I make you hate me, I’ll ask you a last good turn. Because I know that if you give me your word, you’ll stick to it, even if you hate me.

  “Never, will you do me a favor?”

  “What kind of favor?” I asked him, suddenly suspicious.

  He gave a croaker bird’s caw of laughter. “There, you see. I shouldn’t have warned you. A couple of minutes ago you’d have agreed first and then asked what it was. Well, it’s something easy, Never. Don’t bury me. That’s all I’m asking. I’m supposed to get a tree. That’s a high honor from the Specks. My own tree. And if they do, if the Specks
come and take my body, let them have it. All right? Just let them have it. ”

  The thought appalled me. I covered it as best I could. “I’m not going to bury you, Hitch, because you aren’t dead. ”

  He folded his mouth into a stubborn smile and shook his head as if my words amused him. “Just say you won’t bury me, and I’ll do whatever you ask, Never. Because I know you’ll keep your word. ”

  “Fine. I won’t bury you. ” I felt I was indulging a child. “Now do what you said you’d do. Obey me. Go lie down. I’ll bring you more water. ”

  He rose slowly and when he did, I saw how the sickness had wasted him. His clothing hung on his body. He walked slowly to my bed and sat down on it while I got him water. When I handed it to him, he said, “Good-bye, friend. Good-bye. Because this is the part I do for myself, so I can die knowing that I warned you. So I say good-bye to you one last time as a friend, because in just a few moments, we won’t be friends anymore. Will you shake my hand a last time, Never? Nevare. See, I’ll even call you by your real name. Just shake my hand a last time, and then I’ll tell you. It will make you hate me, but I warned you. ”

  “Hitch, you’re raving. Just lie back. I’ll be back soon. Well, as soon as I can. ” I turned for the door.

  He groaned. “Good-bye, my friend. Good-bye. ”

  I feared he was becoming feverish again. He sounded so strange. My hand was on the door latch when he spoke.

  “I killed Fala. I choked her to death with a strap I took from Clove’s harness. And when it was done, I went to Rollo’s Tavern and I got drunk. Good and drunk. Drunk enough to tell everyone that you were a nice enough fellow, really, but you had a bit of a mean streak, and a temper where women were concerned. And I hinted that Fala had laughed at you when you couldn’t do the deed with her. We all had a good laugh about that one, a big porker like you trying to prong a tiny little thing like Fala. Everyone knew she’d never lie still for it. She’d mouth a man, but that was all. Did ’em all fast, that was our Fala. Yes. We had a good laugh. And then I drank some more, and threw up on Rollo’s floor, and passed out and slept it off in the corner. And rode out the next day. And the worst part was that I felt good about all of it. Really good. Because I was doing what the magic wanted me to do. The magic wants you to come to the forest. And if you won’t come because you’re being offered sweet foods and sweeter flesh by Olikea and led that way, then it will drive you with whatever whip or spur it can find. Just like it drove you away from your home. There. I’m done. You hate me now, don’t you?”

  “I think I will in a moment,” I said quietly. I was reeling from his revelation. At the same time, all of the pieces were falling into place for me. Hitch had taken me to Sarla Moggam’s brothel. Had he arranged that Fala would volunteer to take me? It wasn’t an unheard of thing, for one man to arrange a whore for a friend, as a favor or as a rough jest. I remembered the missing bit of strap from Clove’s harness, and now I recalled, with a groan, how interested Sergeant Hoster had been in Clove’s harness the last time I’d gone to town.

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  The three men who had attacked me? That was what they’d been after. Not to steal my horse and wagon, maybe not even to hurt me, but to get Clove’s harness, and show the one new strap amid all the old tack he wore. I’d killed them for that. I wondered where that harness was now. Did Hoster have it? Did anyone else know its significance?

  If I didn’t flee Gettys and take to the forest and the Specks, my regiment would hang me for killing Fala. As Hitch had warned me, I had no choices left. Not if I wanted to live.

  And Hitch, my friend Hitch, had set me up for all this. He’d framed me neatly. Who wouldn’t believe that a whore would mock a fat man who couldn’t perform with her? Was that a reason to kill her? Enough men would think so. And would they think me stupid enough to have throttled her with a strap from my own horse’s harness? Yes, they would. I looked at the wreck of a man whom I had trusted. I’d saved his life. I’d called him friend. “You’ve ruined me,” I said quietly.

  “I know,” he replied as softly. “And as a man and as your friend, I’m sorry about that, Nevare. Sorry beyond anything you can ever know. All I can repeat is that the magic made me do it. Maybe someday you’ll understand what I mean by that, how it forces and lures a man to do what it wants.

  “I’ll only say one more thing, and then you can do what you want. Beat me back to death, if it brings you any satisfaction. I’m headed that way anyway. But before I go, let me tell you this. Whatever it is you’re supposed to do, Nevare, you’d better do it. Do it and have done with it, and know that you did what was best for king and country, not to mention yourself. The Specks, they’re determined to have us out of here. The Dust Dance plague and the fear at the end of the road and the despair that rolls out of the forest and fills Gettys: you might think that’s awful magic, but the Specks think it’s sweet persuasion. They were sure it would send us all hightailing out of here. But it hasn’t. And you and I both know that likely it won’t. But if you don’t find a way to make it happen, well, then, all the Specks will say that Kinrove has failed and that it is time to listen to the words of the younger men. ”

  I was scarcely listening to him. My mind was racing through solutions to my problem. I could leave tonight and seek refuge with the Specks. That solution held little appeal to me. I’d be abandoning all my friends, and they’d believe what Sergeant Hoster told them about me. I also didn’t relish the prospect of Olikea flaunting that she had told me so. But a darker fear was that by giving into the magic, I’d be setting my feet on the same path that Buel Hitch had followed. I didn’t want to become what he was now, a decent man distorted and tormented by the foreign magic that had infected him. I’d rather face a hanging than be herded like a sheep. I would not flee directly into the jaws of what threatened me.

  I could see two alternatives. One was to keep laboring at the cemetery and hope that in the tragedy and the confusion of the plague, poor Fala’s murder would be forgotten. Yet Sergeant Hoster had promised me he’d never let that happen.

  The sole hope I had of remaining in Gettys and escaping the noose was the man now reclining in my bed, talking in a voice that sounded ever vaguer.

  “The youngsters, they say they have to make it a war in the way Gernians understand war. Maybe they’re right. They say that Kinrove’s dancing has failed, that all it has done is consume the best and strongest of them. They’re the younger generation, and they’ve got new ideas of how to deal with us. They don’t want to give up what they get from us; they like the trade we bring. But they don’t want us living here, and they’re tired of waiting for us to go away, and they won’t tolerate us cutting their ancestor trees. Some of them think the best solution would be open warfare, bloodshed that we’d understand, and taking what they want from us. You were the last best hope for avoiding that, Nevare. If you don’t do whatever it is you’re supposed to do, they’ll bring war down on us. And there are two things you should know about that: there’s a lot more Specks than the other scouts think there is. And they’d all be willing to die, down to the last child, to protect one ancestor tree. ”

  His voice had become a hoarse whisper. His eyes were drooping shut.

  “Hitch?”

  He had stopped speaking. He turned his head slightly toward me but didn’t open his eyes.

  “Hitch, I’m going for help for you. Just lie there and rest. I’ll be back. I promise. ”

  He took a breath and sighed it out as if it would be his last. But then he spoke. “Don’t fight it, Never. It all goes easier if you don’t fight it. I’m not going to fight it anymore. ”

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  “Hitch. I’ll be back. ”

  A very faint smile curved his lips. “I know you will. ”

  I wanted to run. I knew that if I did, I’d collapse long before I reached town. So I set off at the brisk walk that I thought I could sustain. The night
was clear and the moon had risen. There was no color in the light it gave me, but the longer I walked, the more my eyes adjusted. That bit of moonlight and the feel of the road under my boots were enough to guide me.

  I was tired to the bone. I’d had two solid days of hard physical labor, with only a sleepless night full of strange dreams to rest me. My back ached from all the digging I’d done. It was fear that drove me more than the desire to save Hitch’s life. I wanted him to live, but only because I hoped I could persuade him to confess to what he had done. It was a thin thread of hope, but I still believed that I knew the heart of the man. He’d done terrible things, if I were to believe his words, but in his heart he was still a soldier son, born to duty. If Hoster did accuse me, I didn’t think Hitch would stand idly by and watch me hang for something I hadn’t done. Would he put his own head in the noose to save me? That was a question I didn’t want to consider. I focused on the problem at hand; I had to keep him alive.

  More than once on that long walk I cursed the men who had stolen Clove and my wagon. My big horse would have made nothing of this journey. When the lights of Gettys came into sight, I had to resist the urge to break into a run. I knew I had to pace myself. It seemed to me that more lights than usual burned in the windows for such a late hour. When I finally reached the town itself, I followed the main thoroughfare right up to the gates of the fort without seeing a living soul on the street. I passed three blanket-draped bodies set out in front of homes.

 
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