Forest mage, p.73
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       Forest Mage, p.73

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

  “And those are the things you chose instead of the magic. ” She cut into my diatribe. She sounded angry.

  “What am I going to do?”

  I meant the question to be rhetorical. I’d asked it of myself thousands of times with no answers. Lisana had one.

  “You are going to do what the magic wants you to do. It would have been easier by far for you to have lived with the choice you made instead of fighting it. Now it comes for you, Nevare. And no one can protect you anymore. ”

  “You called me Nevare,” I said.

  “Nevare. ”

  I was sitting up in my bed in my cabin. The echo of her voice saying my name was still in my ears. It was such a physical memory that it was hard to convince myself it had been part of my dreamwalking. I rubbed my eyes and sighed. Only darkness showed through the crack in my shutters. It was still night. I groaned. I doubted I would find sleep again that night.

  My fire was nearly out. I forced myself to get out of bed and pad across the room to give it another stick of wood. Feeding it now was easier than trying to start another fire in the morning. I was getting back into my bed when I thought I heard a noise outside. I swung my feet back onto the floor.

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  Soft as the wind, someone spoke outside my door. “Nevare?”

  “Who’s there?” I asked. I stood up and took two steps.

  My cabin door opened soundlessly.

  I saw her nightdress first, a long confection of lace and white linen. Expensive and elegant, I thought inanely to myself. Doubtless her trousseau had been purchased in Old Thares from the most exclusive merchants. A flirtation of veiling pretended to hide the cleavage of her breasts, and a high collar of soft lace maintained a mockery of virginal modesty.

  I was trembling. I lifted my eyes to her face. She had always been plump, with rounded cheeks. The disease had sculpted her face to sharper lines, and her lips were chapped. Dark circles ringed her eyes. Our gazes met. She entered the room, came to me, and took both my hands in hers. I couldn’t move or speak. I was caught between horror and hope for her. Slowly, she sank down in a graceful curtsy. She bowed her head, and her flaxen hair fell forward to hide her face. I found my voice.

  “Carsina?” I croaked.

  She moved closer and rested her forehead against my knees. The hair stood up on the back of my neck. Her voice was husky and low. “I’ve come to beg your forgiveness, Nevare. Just as you said I must. I apologize for how cruel I was to you at your brother’s wedding. ”

  I took a step backward. I felt faint. Our quarrel at Rosse’s wedding seemed to have happened a century ago. Yet at her words, my angry prediction to her came back to me, and I recalled too well the tingle of power that had rushed through me as I had uttered my harsh words. “Carsina. Please get up. Please. ” My mind was reeling. Carsina was a “walker. ” Could her life be saved? I’d failed with Hitch. Epiny had told me that most walkers died. But not all of them. I stooped down to offer her my hands to assist her in standing. She remained on her knees, her head bowed.

  “You have not said that you forgive me. ” Her voice was low and hoarse.

  “Carsina, I should be begging you to forgive me. I spoke angrily, never thinking that I would bind you to this. I am the one who is sorry. ”

  Her voice was muffled. “I cannot rise from my knees until you forgive me. ”

  “I forgive you, I forgive you, I forgive you a hundred times. ” I all but babbled the words. It went against everything I’d ever been taught as a gentleman to have her on her knees before me. “Please, please, let me help you get up. ”

  Despite my offer, she tried to get up by herself. She swayed, and I barely managed to catch her before she fell over. I lifted her gently to her feet and helped her to a chair. “Sit there and rest. What a nightmare for you, to wake alone in a winding cloth in the cemetery among the dead. But you’re safe now. Just sit and rest. I have medicine from the infirmary in town. Let me put the water to boil for it. It’s feverfew and willow bark and, and I forget what else, but the doctors in Gettys are giving it to the plague victims there and they believe it helps. Just rest while I prepare it for you. ”

  I moved swiftly as I spoke, putting fresh water in the kettle and setting it on to boil. I added more sticks of dry wood to the fire to send the flames lapping against the kettle’s bottom. I found the little tisanes that Epiny had given me, wiped my mug clean, and put one in it. “Do you think you could eat a little something? Broth would be best for you, but I’m afraid I don’t have any. I’ve some bread, though, and a bit of cheese, I think. ”

  She looked pathetically grateful. “Water,” she managed to say.

  I hurried to my water cask and came back with a dripping ladle. She clasped it with both hands and drank so greedily that it ran down her chin. When it was empty, I brought her more, and she drank again. Where the water had fallen on her nightdress, the fine linen became nearly transparent. I tried not to stare. I tipped my water barrel to fill the ladle a last time. She drank it down, and then handed the ladle back to me with a small gasp. “Thank you,” she managed to say.

  “Sit still and rest. As soon as the water boils, I’ll have a healing tea for you. ” All the anger I had ever felt at her had fled. I could not look at her without thinking of all the times she had been my sister’s playmate and companion.

  She covered her face with her hands for a moment, and then let them drop limply into her lap. “Tea won’t help me, Nevare. You know that. I’ve only come back from the dead to beg your forgiveness. Because you said I must. ” Her eyes flooded with sudden tears. “And now I have to die again. ” She sounded terrified.

  All pretense fled before her words. “Carsina, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know what I was doing. Truly I didn’t. And I won’t let you die. Listen to me. Listen. I know you feel weak, but your fever has passed. Let me take care of you. ”

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  “You don’t hate me?” She sounded puzzled. “After what I did to you in the street in Gettys? You forgive me for that, too?”

  I am not as noble as others might be. I felt a flash of anger as I recalled that scene. A suddenly selfish thought quenched it. Just as she had accused me publicly, so could she also clear my name. If she lived, and if she felt kindly toward me. I chose my words. “You thought you had reason to fear me. You don’t. At one time, Carsina, I think you loved me. I know I loved you. You are beyond my reach now, and in many ways I am beneath your notice. But I do not think we have to hate or fear one another. Look. The water is boiling. Let me brew you that tisane. ”

  “Oh, Nevare, you are too good. And I am so ashamed now of what I said and did. But I was afraid. I hated coming to Gettys, but my father said it was my last chance to make a good match for myself. He did not want to send me to stay with my cousin, for he feared for my reputation. He was so stern. He said I must not flirt or do anything that might invite a scandal, and that if I did, he would disown me. He was still angry because he had found Remwar kissing me when we both knew that Remwar had been promised to Essilee Cummors. But Remwar had said that he truly loved me and that the engagement was something his father had forced on him. We were going to run away…or so he said. Oh, Nevare, I have been a fool, over and over again. I lost your sister’s friendship over Remwar, and he wasn’t worth it. But you must admit that most of that was your fault. I still do not understand how you could have chosen to get so fat, and then to embarrass me like that at Rosse’s wedding when I had been dreaming and planning for months about how fine we would look together, and how my green skirts would stand out when you spun me on the dance floor. I had so looked forward to that, and then you dashed all my hopes!”

  I had forgotten how much Carsina could talk. “None of it was my choosing, Carsina. On that, you will just have to believe me. ” I had poured the boiling water for the little sachet of herbs. The sulfur in it immediately betrayed its presence. It reeked
. “I’m afraid this isn’t going to taste very good, but it’s what the doctors at the infirmary are prescribing. Do you think you can drink it?”

  “I want to live, Nevare. I’d do anything to live. ” Her eyes shone with the intensity of her desire. A moment later, I interpreted that glitter a different way. Fever. Her fever was coming back. As I handed her the cup, our fingers touched briefly. Mine were warm from holding the hot cup, but so were hers. I watched her put the cup to her lips, wince, and blow on the hot liquid and then sip from the edge. She wrinkled her nose and pursed her mouth at the foul taste but swallowed it down determinedly.

  “That’s right,” I encouraged her. “But you need to drink it all, Carsina. ”

  She tried another sip. I saw her grip on the cup begin to loosen and managed to take it from her before it fell. She looked at me with a gaze both desperate and unfocused. “My mother died of the plague, Nevare. I didn’t get to say good-bye to her. My father wouldn’t let me go near her once she got sick. Only the servants tended to her. And I had to wonder if they really did. She could have died alone. ” She blinked her eyes at me and then said unsteadily, “I’m married now. Did you know? My husband took care of me until I died. He kept saying, ‘I’ll be right here, Carsina, my sweet. I won’t let you die alone. ’”

  “He sounds like a very good man. I think you need to rest now, Carsina. Do you want to lie down?”

  “I…” She looked up at me, suddenly puzzled. “I want Jof. I want my husband. Where is he?”

  “He’s probably at home, Carsina. Let’s put you to bed, shall we?”

  “But…where am I? How did I get here? Please, can’t you get Jof? He promised he would stay right by me. ” Her lips were a darker red, and two spots of color had begun to show on her cheeks. I did not think it would be a good time to tell her that she’d come here on the corpse cart, or to point out to her that Jof probably thought he had stayed by her side.

  “Lie down and I’ll see what I can do. ”

  “I want Jof,” she repeated, and she suddenly looked very young, a child asking for her daddy.

  “I’ll go and get him,” I said reluctantly. I feared to leave her, lest she die as Hitch had. On the other hand, I could see that she was working herself up over her missing husband. “Can you drink the rest of your tea?” I asked her, and was tremendously relieved when she nodded. I handed her the cup, and she bravely drank it down. “I want you to lie down now,” I told her firmly, and was rather surprised when she took the arm I offered and accompanied me to my bed.

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  “Lie down, Carsina,” I suggested to her. She sat on the edge of the bed and looked up at me. She was breathing through her mouth. “You look like my first fiancé. Only fatter,” she said. Before I could reply, she commanded me imperiously. “Fetch me a drink of water, and then please tell my husband to come in to me. ” Of her own volition, she lay down. I helped her lift her feet onto the bed and tried to put my blanket over her. She angrily kicked it away.

  “Very well. ” I saw no sense in upsetting her.

  My water keg was empty. I damped a clean cloth in the dregs and put it across Carsina’s brow. She did not open her eyes. She was fading rapidly. I caught up my bucket and headed out to the spring. I’d fetch water first and then saddle Clove and ride into town to find her husband. I wondered how I’d locate him.

  Outside my cabin, the pitch torches around the unburied bodies had burned low. Dawn would soon come. I started toward the spring with my bucket and then turned abruptly back to the torch circle.

  No bodies rested inside it. A single shroud, probably Carsina’s, lay in a tangle on the ground. The other six bodies were gone.

  Horror and panic rose in me. The bodies had been stolen. I spun around, scanning the graveyard in all directions to see if I might see Specks still carrying the corpses away. What I saw was more frightening. The torchlight did not carry far, but it picked up the figures stumbling toward my hedge. Their shrouds trailed white behind them. As I watched, one fell away and the woman who had been wearing it stumbled on. Numbly, I counted them. Six. All six of them were walkers. Seven if I counted Carsina.

  It was not a coincidence. It was the magic. Why? What could it mean?

  I snatched up a torch from the ground and hastened after them. “Come back!” I shouted foolishly. “You need help. Come back. ” I ran after them, torch in one hand and water bucket in the other.

  None of them paused or even looked back at me. The smallest one, the boy, had already reached the hedge. I saw him halt there. Slowly he tottered around. He reminded me of an arthritic dog walking in a circle before it lies down. Awkwardly, he sat down on the earth by one of my trees. Then he leaned back against it. He crossed his arms across his belly and was still. The foliage of the little tree rustled as he sat down against it. I saw the boy give his head a shake. Then his legs twitched, and the tree rustled more strongly.

  As the others reached the hedge, they each selected a tree, turned slowly, and sat down against it. A horrible suspicion filled my mind. I recalled the body I had had to retrieve from the forest. “No!” I cried as I raced toward them. “Get away from there! Don’t!”

  The young trees shivered and trembled as if a strong wind were running through their branches, but the summer night was still and warm around me. The walkers twitched and jerked like puppets. One of the women cried out, a high shriek cut short. I dropped my bucket and torch as I reached her. I reached down and seized her hands. “Come away from there,” I cried, pulling at her hands. She did not resist me, but neither could I budge her. She looked up at me, eyes open, her mouth stretched wide in a silent cry of pain. Her hands closed on mine and gripped tight with the strength of terror. I pulled with all my strength but could not lift her. Her legs kicked wildly against the earth. Not far from us, the boy gasped suddenly and then sagged limply against the tree that gripped him. Then something not his own muscles lifted his head from his chest and pressed it back against the tree. In the light of the torch guttering on the ground behind me, I could see black blood trickling from his nose and mouth.

  I still held the woman’s hands, and she still gripped back at me. “Please!” she gasped. I stooped, seized her shoulders, and with all my strength, I tried to pull her free of the tree. She gave a long, agonized caw of pain, and her head suddenly rolled limply forward on her chest. Her hands, which had been gripping my forearms, fell away. “No!” I cried, and again heaved at her inert body.

  “No way to treat a lady,” a voice rasped hoarsely behind me. “You scoundrel. You raping bastard!” I let go of the woman and turned, smelling earth and rot and quicklime.

  Dale Hardy stood, legs spread, at the edge of the torchlight. He held my wooden bucket by the bale. “I warned you!” he shouted as he charged at me. As he came into the light, I could see that the quicklime had eaten half his face away. He could not be alive, I thought wildly, he could not be a walker. I took a stumbling step backward as he swung the heavy wooden bucket in a wide arc. It was coming too fast. I could not avoid it. It hit the side of my head, and I exploded into light.

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  E brooks and Kesey found me a few hours later. When they arrived with the first wagonload of bodies for the day, they were puzzled to see the dead torches and only a single shroud remaining where they had left seven corpses the previous evening. Thinking I had somehow dug a new pit and begun to inter them on my own, they had walked out into the graveyard. They’d found me, facedown, next to Dale Hardy’s body. As they approached, a whole flock of croaker birds rose. They’d been feeding on the six bodies that were neatly fastened by the swiftly growing rootlets to my hedgerow trees. The whole area stank of rotting flesh and buzzed with flies.

  Kesey thought I was dead. He and Ebrooks assumed that I’d gone down fighting with Specks who had come to steal our dead. Blood coated o
ne whole side of my head. But when Kesey rolled me over, I groaned. He sent Ebrooks running to my cabin to get water.

  “And that was when Ebrooks found Carsina’s body in your bed,” Spink said quietly.

  He stood outside my cell and spoke to me through a small barred window. I lay on a straw-stuffed mattress on a narrow pallet and looked up at the dim ceiling. The only light came from a lantern fasted to the wall in the outside hall. Spink was the first visitor I’d had since I’d wakened in the cell a day and a half ago. They’d fed me twice, food on a tray shoved through an open slat in the bottom of the door. Grayish stuff in a bowl and a round of very hard bread with water. I’d eaten it. The two meals had been the only noteworthy events since I’d wakened there in the dark, head pounding with pain.

  I listened to the silence of Spink waiting for me to come up with a logical explanation. Talking hurt. I didn’t like to move my jaw. Thinking hurt, too. I made it brief. “Carsina was a walker. She came to me just like Hitch did. I tried to help her, but her fever came back. She asked me to get her husband for her. I was going to bring her some water first. I took the bucket, went outside, and realized that all the corpses we’d received that day were walkers. And they were all headed for the hedge. I ran out there and tried to pull one woman free of the tree, but it was already growing into her. I couldn’t get her loose. And that was when Dale Hardy came up out of the pit grave, picked up my bucket, and hit me with it. And that’s all I know. ”

  It was my turn to fall silent. I waited for him to say he believed me. When the silence lasted, I waited for him to say he didn’t believe me.

  What he finally said was, “That doesn’t sound good, Nevare. ”

  “Just say it sounds like a madman raving. I know it does. ” I sighed and slowly sat up. “I don’t remember any of what you’re telling me. Only that bucket coming at me. ” The vertigo passed. I felt dizzy every time I changed position. I scratched the side of my head. Flaky brown blood came off under my nails. The magic did not seem to be healing me as swiftly this time as it had when I’d been shot. The answer came to me. The magic was severely depleted. If I didn’t feed it, the next time death knocked on my door, it might come right in. At that moment it sounded like sweet mercy. “Spink, you shouldn’t be here. No one connects you and Epiny to me. Go home. Let me just meet my fate. ”

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