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       Forest Mage, p.7

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

  With a surly snarl, the boy flung the knife down so hard it bounced. “I wasn’t doing anything! Just making my initials to show I’d been here, that was all! What a fuss about a stupid striped rock! What’s it going to do, make it fall down?” He turned to glare at me. “Are you happy, fat man? You’ve got your way! I never even asked to come on this stupid outing to look at a stupid rock!”

  “Jard? Where are your manners?” the matron snapped. “Regardless of the man’s mental condition, he is your elder. You should speak to him with respect. And I have warned you before about your endless carving on things. It’s disrespectful. If you cannot behave any better than that, and if Ret and Breg have nothing better to do than assist you in being a fool, then I think it is high time we all left! Boys and girls. Gather your things and follow me. This has not been the outing that I had expected it to be. Perhaps all of you prefer to sit in the classroom and study from a book rather than see the real world. I shall remember that the next time I think of taking you out. ”

  There was a chorus of whines and dismayed denial from her students, but she was adamant. The guide shot me a vicious look. Plainly I had ruined his trade for the day. The other tourists were folding sketchbooks and taking down the easel. I caught sideways, uneasy looks from them. They seemed to think I was mad, and the guide apparently shared their opinion. I did not care. The boy stooped to snatch up his knife, and then made a rude hand gesture at me before he followed the others to the top of the winding stair. As before, the guide went with them, offering them many warnings about going carefully and staying close to the inner edge of the steps. After a time, I became aware that I was alone on the top of the tower, except for the Plainswoman. I felt as if I were caught between dreaming and wakefulness. What had just happened?

  “The Spindle does turn,” I said to her. I wanted her to agree with me.

  Her lip curled in disgust. “You are a madman,” she told me. “A fat and stupid madman. You have driven away our customers. Do you think we get tour wagons every day? Once a month, perhaps, they come. And you have spoiled their pleasure with your shouting and your threats. What do you think they will tell their friends? No one will want to come and see the Spindle. You will destroy our livelihood. Go away. Take your madness elsewhere. ”

  “But…don’t you feel it? The Spindle turns. Lift your hands. You’ll feel the wind of it. Can’t you hear it? Can’t you smell the magic of it?”

  She narrowed her eyes at me suspiciously. She gave a quick, sideways glance at the spindle and then looked back at me. “Do I look like a foolish savage?” she asked me bitterly. “Do you think because I am a Plainswoman that I am stupid? The Spindle does not turn. It never turned. From a distance, it tricks the eye. But always, it has been still. Still and dead. ”

  “No. It turns. ” I wanted someone to confirm what I had experienced. “It turns for me, and when I lifted my hands, it happened, as you warned me it might. It lifted me up and—”

  Anger flared in her face and she lifted a hand as if she would slap me. “NO! It did not. It has never turned for me, and it could not turn for you, Gernian! It was a legend. That was all. Those who say they see it turning are fools, and those who claim to have been lifted by it are liars! Liars! Go away! Get out of here! How dare you say it turns for you! It never turned for me and I am of the Plains! Liar! Liar!”

  I had never seen a woman become so hysterical. Her hands were clenched in fists and spittle flew from her lips as she shrieked at me.

  “I’m going!” I promised her. “I’m leaving now. ”

  The clamber down the circling steps seemed endless. My calves screamed with cramps. Twice I nearly fell, and the second time, I bloodied the heels of my hands when I caught myself on the wall. I felt sick and dizzied. I felt angry, too. I was not crazy, and I resented how I had been treated. I did not know if I should blame the blindness of the other people or the foreign magic that had polluted me and taken me for its own. What was real? What was illusion?

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  For the moment, the battle for control that I’d had with my other self had subsided. There was no comfort in that. When I’d previously confronted him, I’d been able to set him apart from me, to comprehend him as “other” to myself. There was no such separation now. He permeated my being, and I recognized him as comprising the harder parts of my soldier self. Had Tree Woman deliberately chosen those parts when she had seized a lock of my hair and jerked a core out of my awareness? I stole a cautious peek at that part of my self, as if I were peeking at an adder in a box. I was both fascinated and repelled by what I glimpsed. There were the bits of myself that I’d lacked in my first year at the academy. He was the one who had enabled me to take my petty vengeance on the new noble sons. He had fierce pride and recklessness and daring. He was also ruthless and single-minded in what he would do for his people. The frightening part of that was that it was not to Gernia that he pledged his loyalty, but to the Specks. I’d been imagining that I’d reintegrated him into myself. Now I wondered if the flow were not the other way; was he absorbing my knowledge and memories for his own ends? He’d had a goal up there near the Spindle, one that I still didn’t grasp.

  I suddenly decided it was time to leave.

  The guide seemed to have calmed his customers on the way down. As I followed the path back through the ancient city, I saw that the teacher and her charges had dispersed throughout the ruins. The easel woman was hard at work again. One of the women with a sketchbook was drawing the other as she sat picturesquely beside a tumbled wall. I passed them all, enduring their glances as I did so. Something nagged at me, some task had been left undone, but I recognized that concern as belonging to my other self. Nevare only wanted to be away from that place.

  As I drew near to the base of the spindle and the shabby little shack there, I saw the guide again. He leaned in the shade against the wall of his pathetic house and watched me come. I could see him trying to decide if he would say anything to me or would let me pass unchallenged. His furtive glances told me that he both despised and feared me as a madman.

  I heard voices. As I passed the edge of the bowl in which the Spindle rested or spun, I glanced over the rim. The boys were there. This time, his two companions gripped his legs while Jard lay, belly down, in the slanting cup of the bowl. His knife was busy again. Large letters proclaimed that Jard had been there. Ret’s name was in the process of being added. All three were so intent that they didn’t see me staring at them. I looked at the guide and our eyes met across the distance. His face paled with fear. I smiled.

  “If my illustrious ancestors had carved this, I’d protect it from young vandals,” I advised the half-breed sarcastically.

  He narrowed his eyes and opened his mouth to respond. But before he could, one of the boys holding Jard’s legs yelped, “It’s that crazy fat man! Get out of there, Jard!” At the same moment, he helpfully let go of Jard’s leg as he sprang away and fled, intent on saving himself from my supposed insanity. Jard, supported now only by Breg’s grip on his other leg, gave a wild yell as he suddenly slid deeper into the bowl. He flailed his arms wildly, seeking a grip on the smooth surface and finding nothing. Breg, surprised by Ret’s desertion, was himself tugged to his knees at the edge of the bowl. “I can’t hold him!” he wailed. I heard a tearing sound and saw the fabric of Jard’s trousers starting to give way.

  In two steps, I reached the rim of the Spindle’s bowl. I flung myself to my knees and reached to grab Jard by the knees. He screamed and kicked at me, evidently thinking I intended to tear him from Breg’s grip and let him plunge headfirst into the Spindle’s well. I didn’t. I hauled him back to the lip of the bowl. He jabbed his knife at me, still struggling against his rescue. My blood seethed with anger at his insolence. I seized his wrist and slammed it flat against the stone of the bowl. His knife flew free. An instant later, I had dragged him back over the edge and to safety. I released him and tried to stand up. Magic was singin
g triumphantly through my blood. Something was happening, something vast and not of my volition, but of my doing all the same. The forest mage within me laughed wildly, victoriously, and then slid back into the leafy shadows of my subconscious. I could not discern what his victory was, and then I did.

  Even as the other tourists were running toward me, and Jard fled sobbing to his teacher, I watched his knife sliding down the bowl toward the unseen depths at the center. As the bowl became steeper, the knife slid faster across the polished stone. When it entered the darkness of the center, I felt my heart stand still.

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  The half-breed had seized my hand and was pumping it while stuttering out his thanks and apologizing for misjudging me. The fool. I heard Ret shouting to the rapidly gathering tourists that, “No, it’s all right, he didn’t try to hurt Jard, he saved him! Jard nearly fell headfirst into that hole. The man pulled him out. ” Jard was sobbing like a small boy as he clung to his teacher. I alone seemed to hear the terrible grinding noise at the edge of the world. The blade of the knife had wedged beneath the Spindle’s tip. I knew that tip existed, deep inside the well the magic had drilled for all those years. The vast momentum of magic met the iron knife and wedged against it. The Spindle ground to a halt. I felt the moving magic foul and tangle, thwarted by a small iron blade. I sank down and pressed my brow to the edge of the stone bowl. It was like the death of the wind wizard all over again, but this time I could not claim innocence for myself. What had I done? What had the forest magic done through me?

  “Best leave him alone!” I heard the guide say. “I think the man just wants to be left alone. ”

  Then all sound halted around me. Like the harsh kiss of a sandstorm, the harnessed magic of the Plainsmen suddenly burst free and scattered. For a blink of my lifetime, I swear the world went black and still. Raw power abraded my senses and engulfed me. I struggled to stand, to lift my arms to defend myself from it.

  When time started up again, I seemed again to have fallen behind the rest of the world. The guide had rounded up his tourists and was herding them back toward their wagon. Several of them glanced back at me and shook their heads, speaking quickly to one another. The knife boy was already sitting on a wagon seat. Ret said something to Breg and they both hooted with laughter. Jard’s brush with death was already a joking matter for them. They had no idea of what had just happened.

  The flash of anger I felt subsided before I even felt its heat. Surely the sun had moved in the sky? I gave my head a small shake and let my clenched fists fall to my sides. My arms ached. My nails had left deep red indentations in my palms. I had no idea how long I had stood there. I did know what my Speck self had done. The Dancing Spindle no longer danced. The magic of the Plainspeople was broken. I found Sirlofty. It was all I could do to clamber onto his back. I held onto the horn of the saddle as I kicked him into a lope and fled that place. The driver of the wagon shouted at me angrily as I passed his team on the steep trail. I paid him no mind.

  By the time I reached the road again, I had almost recovered. The farther I went from the Spindle, the clearer my head became. The forest mage inside me ceased his chortling and grew still.

  Evening fell, and I pushed Sirlofty on, journeying through the dusk to make up the time wasted in my foolish detour. I wished I’d never left the road. I tried to stuff what I’d discovered back into the darkness, but it rode with me now. I shifted in my saddle and felt it slip under me. Gently I reined Sirlofty in; I dismounted as if I were as fragile as an eggshell. With a feeling of ineffable sadness, I tightened the cinch on my saddle.

  It was the first time in my life that I’d ever had to do that.

  Night was deep by the time I reached the town. I found an inn that would admit me. Before I fell asleep, as had become my habit, I wrote carefully of the day’s events. Then I scowled at the words. Did I really want these wild thoughts in the first volume of my soldier son journal? Only the teaching that it was my duty to record what I observed each day comforted me.

  In the days that followed, I did not again diverge from my father’s itinerary for me. I fixed my mind on my carefully planned life, on my brother’s wedding, my reunion with Carsina, my education at the academy, my service, and my eventual marriage. My father had mapped out my future as precisely as he had mapped out my journey home. I had no time for illusions, no time to question where my reality ended and someone else’s began. I refused to think about the magic of the plains and a keep fast charm that no longer seemed to work. Everyone knew that the magic of the Plainsfolk was fading. There was no reason to blame myself for its demise. With the destruction of the Spindle, that other self in me seemed to subside. I dared to hope that it was the last I would sense of him. I practiced believing that until I was able to think and live as if I were certain it was so.

  Although the Midlands are often referred to as flat, they rise and fall with subtle grace. Thus it was that the trees and walls of my father’s home were concealed from me until I rode up a slight rise in a gentle bend of the road and suddenly perceived my home. My father’s manor was set on a gentle rise overlooking the road. I gazed up at it and thought that it looked smaller and more rustic than when I had last seen it. Now that I knew what the estates and manors of the west looked like, I could see that my father’s house was a pale imitation of their grandeur. I could also see how clearly our home was modeled upon my uncle’s house. They had made improvements since I’d left for the academy. River gravel had been hauled up to surface the drive, and young oak trees, each little more than a shovel handle high, now edged it. Someday they would be tall and grand, and this would be a fine carriageway to our home. But for now, they looked spindly and forlorn, exposed to prairie dust and wind. Each had a damp circle of soil around its base. I wondered how many years they’d have to be watered daily before their roots reached deep enough to sustain them. This copying of our ancestral home suddenly seemed both sentimental and a bit silly to me.

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  But nonetheless, it was home. I’d arrived. For an instant, I had the foolish thought that I could pass it by and keep traveling east, on and on, all the way to the mountains. I imagined tall trees and inviting shade and birds calling in the shadowy thickets. Then Sirlofty took it on himself to turn from the main road and break into a canter. We were home! We woke dust all up the long driveway from the King’s Road to my father’s front door. There I pulled him in with a flourish, as our family’s dogs swirled around us in a barking, wagging pack and one of the stablehands came out to see what had roused them. I didn’t know the man, and so I was not offended when he asked, “Are you lost, sir?”

  “No, I’m Nevare Burvelle, a son of the house, just returned from the Cavalla Academy. Please take Sirlofty for me and see that he is well treated. We’ve come a long way, he and I. ”

  The man gaped at me, but I ignored that and handed him my reins. “Oh, and send the contents of his panniers up to my room, if you would,” I added, as I climbed the front steps. I let myself in, calling out, “Mother! Father! It’s Nevare, I’m home. Rosse, Elisi, Yaril? Is anyone home?”

  My mother was the first to come out of her sewing room. She stared at me, her eyes growing round, and then, embroidery in hand, she hurried down the hall. She embraced me, saying, “Oh, Nevare, it’s so good to see you. But the dust on you! I’ll have a bath drawn for you immediately. Oh, son, I’m so glad you are home and safe again!”

  “And I am glad beyond words to be here again, Mother!”

  The others had arrived by then. Father and Rosse looked startled, even when I turned and strode toward them, smiling. Rosse shook my hand but my father held back from me, demanding, “What have you done to yourself? You look like a wandering peddler! Why aren’t you wearing your uniform?”

  “It needs a bit of mending, I’m afraid. I hope Mother can have it ready in time for Rosse’s wedding. Elisi, Yaril? Am I a stranger now? Aren’t you going to say hel
lo even?”

  “Hello, Nevare. Welcome home. ” Elisi spoke stiffly, and looked past me as if I’d done something rude and she wasn’t sure how to deal with it.

  “You’re so fat!” Yaril exclaimed, tactless as she had ever been. “What have you been eating at that place? Your face is round as the full moon! And you’re so dirty! I thought you’d ride up all glorious in your uniform. I didn’t even recognize you at first. ”

  I chuckled weakly, and waited for my father to rebuke her. Instead, he muttered, “Out of the mouths of babes. ” Then, speaking more strongly, he said, “I’m sure you’ve had a long trip, Nevare. You’re a few hours earlier than I expected you, but I think you’ll find your room is waiting, with wash water. After you’ve cleaned yourself and changed, please come and see me in my study. ”

  I made a final effort. “I’m so glad to see you, Father. It’s good to be home. ”

  “I’m sure it is, Nevare. Well. I’ll see you again in a few minutes. ” There was restraint in his voice, and the edge of command. Plainly he wished me to obey him immediately. And I did. The habit of not questioning his authority and commands was still strong in me, but as I washed the dust from my face and hands, I experienced something I hadn’t felt before about my father. Resentment. It wasn’t just for the way he ordered me about, but for his obvious displeasure with me. I had only just arrived home. Could not he have suppressed whatever it was that annoyed him long enough to shake my hand and welcome me back? Must I immediately fall completely under his domination again? I thought of his rigid itinerary for my journey home, and suddenly saw it not as a helpful aid, but as oppression. Did he or did he not trust me to make my own way in the world?

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