Forest mage, p.74
Forest Mage, p.74Part #2 of The Soldier Son Trilogy series by Robin Hobb
“Before you sounded mad. Now you just sound stupid,” he huffed. When I made no response, he sighed. “If you only sounded insane, it would be better for you. ”
I stood up slowly and came to the window. “What do you mean?”
“Captain Jof Thayer nearly went mad when he heard that the dead body of his wife was found in your bed. Captain and Clara Gorling are equally distressed. It looks…very bad, Nevare. ”
“What, that I tried to save his wife? What was I supposed to do? Look, Spink, I’ve been here a day and a half. And if it weren’t for,” I lowered my voice, “the magic, I’d be dead by now. No one gave me five minutes of care for my smashed head. The guard won’t talk to me at all. I don’t even know why I’ve been thrown into prison. ”
Spink swallowed. He started to speak, then looked around as if he’d rather bite his tongue out.
“Just say it,” I barked at him.
“It looks bad, Nevare. No one will believe that all those people were walkers, not all at once. It looks as if you deliberately planted those trees and then, when you had the chance, shoved fresh corpses up against them to feed them. The trees had shot up almost three feet taller overnight, and blossomed! They had to chop them down to free the bodies from them. The trees had rooted into them so deeply that they had to bury them with pieces of trunk still attached to them. And Dale Hardy’s body out there, pulled right out of his grave? From the damage that the quicklime did to him no one will believe he was a walker. ”
“Look at the grave. You’ll find no shovel marks on it, at least, none that I made. If anyone dug him up, it wasn’t me. And I don’t think anyone did. I think he came crawling out on his own. ”
Spink gritted his teeth again. “A bit too late to look for any evidence of that sort. They put him back in the earth as quickly as they could. But it was no secret that he’d threatened you in the street that day. How people see it is that you took a macabre vengeance on both the woman who accused you and the man who wanted to defend her. You dragged his body out intending to give it to a tree. ”
“And then what? I hit myself on the head with a bucket?”
“Good point. But people in the town are too scandalized and horrified to think sensibly about this, let alone make allowances for claims of Speck magic. Nevare, they found Carsina Thayer’s body in your bed. ”
I was baffled. “I told you. She was a walker. I tried to save her. I gave her water, and made her one of those teas that Epiny gave me for Hitch. I never had a chance to make it for him; he was dead when I got back to him. But I thought I had a chance to save Carsina. I took my bucket to get her more water before I left for town to get her husband. But when I went out the door, I saw the other walkers. I’m afraid they distracted me from my errand. ” Spink didn’t deserve my angry sarcasm, but my head was pounding with the effort of talking. My jaw felt strange. When I touched it, I found lumpiness at the hinge. Had it been broken, and healed by the magic?
“They found Carsina in your bed,” Spink said again, heavily emphasizing the word. Then, his face flushing dark scarlet, he added, “Her nightgown was rucked up around her waist. ”
It took me a moment. At first, his words made no sense to me.
“Oh, by the good god!” I felt as if I’d been punched in the belly. It had never even occurred to me that Carsina’s body in my bed would be seen as anything other than an act of compassion on my part. I felt dizzy. Rumors that I could murder and rape had been hard enough to deal with. Adding necrophilia to the list sickened me. I said as much to Spink, and added, “I was rather counting on the fact that I’d tried to save Carsina to be to my benefit. ”
“You’re facing execution, Nevare. ”
“I didn’t do it, Spink. Surely I’ll be given a chance to defend myself? They’ll have to admit that someone struck me down. ” A thought came to me. “My journal. My soldier son journal. Can you get it?”
“I already thought of that. I have it safe at my house. No one will know your secrets, Nevare. ”
“I wasn’t worried about betraying secrets. I was hoping that it might be accepted as evidence. Surely if a man keeps a journal faithfully, he records what is true. There is a lot in there that I wouldn’t want widely known, of course, but there is also much that will prove me an innocent man, if they allow it. ”
“Or a crazy man, Nevare. I don’t think they’d let you pick and choose what your judge saw. Would you really want the whole thing bared to him?”
I thought of everything that was in there. My true name, among other things. The shame a court-martial would heap on my father. My unvarnished opinion of my father, hard things I’d said about Yaril, and my trafficking with the Specks. No. “Burn it,” I suddenly decided. “I’d rather hang than have my journal become fodder for the yellow press. ”
“I wouldn’t let that happen,” he assured me.
Silence fell between us. The utter hopelessness of my position washed through me. “Why are you here?” I asked miserably.
He shut his eyes for a moment. “Epiny demanded that I come. She did something, Nevare. She did it for a friend, a deathbed favor. She had no idea what it would mean. Sergeant Hoster entrusted a letter to her. She promised that if Hoster died, she would deliver it to the commanding officer of the regiment and demand that the letter be opened and read in her presence, and the contents acted upon. Nevare, I swear she had no idea what was in it! When Major Helford read it out loud, she fainted there in his office. They came to get me, and I had to carry her home. She’s been distraught ever since. ”
I didn’t have to ask what it was. Epiny, my own cousin, had unwittingly delivered Sergeant Hoster’s damning evidence against me. I spoke the heavy words slowly. “The letter accused me of Fala’s murder. And it told where to find Clove’s harness, with the one mismatched strap. ”
He stared at me. Then, “Yes,” he said softly. His eyes were sad. I tried not to see the question in them.
“Hitch did it,” I told him. “He confessed it all to me that night he walked. ”
Spink glanced away from me. His eyes did not come back to meet mine.
“Spink, I’m telling the truth. He told me he took the strap from Clove’s harness and that he killed Fala with it because the magic forced him to do it. He’d set the whole thing up. He was the one who took me to Sarla Moggam’s brothel in the first place. ” I suddenly stopped talking, as I recalled that no one there had seen us together. He’d entered before I had, and I’d probably left after he’d gone. Oh, so neatly done, Hitch. You served the magic well.
Spink spoke hesitantly. “I’m sorry, Nevare. I believe you. I do. But it all sounds so, well, so desperate. What possible reason could Scout Hitch have for killing that whore? You’re accusing a dead man whom almost everyone on the post respected. He was a bit of a rogue, that’s true, but I don’t think anyone is going to believe that he killed Fala because Speck magic made him do it. ”
“But they’ll believe that I did it for pleasure,” I said heavily.
He closed his eyes before he spoke. “I am afraid that they will. ”
I turned and walked away from the door. I sat down on the bunk. The wood frame made a cracking sound. I ignored it. “Go away, Spink. Save your reputation. I don’t think there’s anything that anyone can do for me now. Go away. ”
“I do have to go. But I’ll be back, Nevare. I don’t believe the things they’ve said about you. Neither does Epiny. For what it’s worth, most of her women are angry at her now, because although she gave Major Helford the letter, she has tried to say that it’s all a huge mistake, that Sergeant Hoster didn’t have the truth of it. But they found Clove’s harness hidden in the stable, with the one odd bit of strap, and the strap they found around Fala’s neck matches the harness perfectly. ”
“So, in addition to knocking myself out with a bucket in the midst of dishonoring the dead, I’m now
The muscles stood out on the side of his jaw. He forced himself to speak. “Nevare. These acts you are accused of are so hateful that given even a scrap of evidence, they’ll find you guilty. The whistle brigade is demanding that someone be punished, and the only someone in custody is you. ”
My mind jumped back to what he had been telling me. “Epiny took my part? Publicly?”
He nodded grimly.
“Tell her to renounce it. Tell her to say that she has changed her mind. ”
“Oh, and of course she would do that if her husband commanded it. ” Spink’s voice was dryly sarcastic, but I saw something else in his tight smile. Pride. He knew Epiny would not back down. And he took pride in the fact that she would stand behind her convictions regardless of the consequences.
“Oh, Spink, I am so sorry. She will lose all her friends over this, won’t she?”
“Not quite. Amzil has come forward to stand beside her. She has told everyone that you lived with her for nearly a month in Dead Town and never put a hand on her or demonstrated any sort of temper. Of course, as a former whore, her word counts for less, but she gave it nonetheless. ”
I winced. “Go home, Spink. You’ve done all you can and I need to think. There has to be some compelling evidence I can offer that I’m innocent. ”
“You’ll have to come up with it soon,” he warned me.
“Surely they won’t try to hold a court-martial while the plague is still raging?”
“The plague has stopped. Just as if someone blew a lamp out. Some are hailing it as a miracle. I’ve heard at least one person say that it’s the good god showing his pleasure that a vile criminal like yourself has been captured. ”
“Like magic. ” He smiled grimly. “Fevers went down. People rallied on their deathbeds. There hasn’t been a death since you were brought here, Nevare. ”
“Like magic,” I agreed sourly. I lay back on my protesting pallet and looked at the cobwebbed ceiling. “Go home, Spink. Tell Epiny I love her and tell her to stop defending me in public. Tell Amzil the same. ”
“That you love her?” He seemed incredulous.
“Why not?” I replied recklessly. “I can scarcely lose anything by saying it now. ”
“I’ll do it, then,” he said, and seemed almost pleased at the prospect.
As he turned to go, I called after him, “I’ll be sent some sort of counsel, won’t I? Someone who will help me present my defense?”
“They’re trying to find someone willing to represent you,” he said. If he meant the words to be reassuring, they were not. I wondered if they would still hold the court-martial if I had no representative.
If I had remained at the academy, I should have eventually had to complete a course that covered martial law and how it was administered. What little I had heard of that course convinced me it would have been a dry study. Little had I ever thought that any of it would apply to me. I closed my eyes for a moment and tried once more to be the boy who had set off so joyfully for the academy, so full of anticipation of a glorious career and a golden future. That future was to have included an obedient and doting wife, a woman raised in the traditions of being a cavalla officer’s wife. Carsina. What had we done to one another? Then I clenched my jaw and admitted that she was little to blame for all that had happened.
If I wanted to parcel out blame, I had only to look at myself. Hitch had warned me that using the magic for my own ends would always extract a harsh price. If I had not put Carsina under a command to apologize to me before she died, she might have died quietly of the plague. I had sealed my own fate. At least hanging would be a swift end for a man of my girth. The physics of such an execution probably meant that my head would be torn completely from my body. Grisly, but much swifter than dangling and strangling. I shook my head and tried to rattle such thoughts away. I could not think of that just now.
And I could not think of anything else, either.
I was in pain from the blow I’d taken from the bucket. Feeling my face and the side of my skull, I became convinced that I should have died of such injuries if my residual magic had not undertaken to swiftly repair them. Tender spots convinced me that the least injuries I had taken were a cracked skull and a broken jaw. I was torn between being glad the magic had preserved my life and wishing that I had died a swift death. The healing of my injuries, though not as fast as my recovery from my bullet wound, was a liability to me, I slowly realized. It was likely that when I stood before the court-martial, I would appear fully healed and in good health. No one would believe that I had taken a deadly blow from a dead man. They would find some other way to account for me being unconscious.
My cell was a small bare room. I could see the cot, a chamber-pot, the barred window in the door, and the food slot in the door. Light, dim but constant, came from a lantern on a hook in the hall outside. It was very quiet. Either the other inhabitants slept a lot or there weren’t any. Other than my visit from Spink and the guard on his regular rounds to check on me or feed me, I did not see a soul. With no pastimes and nothing to distract me from my predicament, my thoughts chased each other in ever-smaller circles.
I was going to die. That much seemed very certain. I hoped I could maintain my dignity. Just thinking of ascending the steps to a gallows made me shaky. I resolved I would not shake or weep or beg. Probably all condemned men resolved to go bravely; I hoped I’d have the strength to keep those resolutions. I dreaded my trial and yet longed for it, to have it all be over. I made and unmade final decisions a dozen times a day. I would ask that all my possessions be left to Amzil and her children. No, I would not mention her or the children lest association with me taint them. I would tell the court everything: who I was, how I had become infected with magic, the dangers of the Dust Dance, how I had consorted with Specks and been tricked into planting ancestor trees in the graveyard, and what the matured trees meant to the Specks—No. I would stand silent and say not a word and let them convict me. That would shelter my father and sister from further shame. I would tell them only of the walkers, and how I had tried to save Carsina. I wondered if they would think me a liar or a madman.
The days dripped by. A Lieutenant Roper came by to tell me my trial had been delayed until it could be determined if the town of Gettys had more right to try me for crimes against its civilian citizens than the military. He came to the door of my cell, imparted this to me, and left before I could ask me if he was my defense counsel. I feared he was.
My next visitor wakened me in what I thought were early-morning hours. A tall man with bloodshot eyes breathed brandy fumes into my cell as he gripped the bars of the little window in my cell door and shook it on its hinges. “You great fat bloody coward!” he slurred at me. “I ought to drag you out of there and rip you limb from limb for what you did to my beautiful wife. You desecrated the most gentle and honorable woman the good god ever made! You filthy dog! You unspeakable filth!” He shook the barred window again, working the heavy door against its hinges and the stout bolt that locked it. I wondered if he had a gun with him. I wondered if I would move out of range of its muzzle if he did.
When he had spent his fury shaking the door, Captain Thayer suddenly slammed his head against the wood of it. He rested it there, leaning on my door and breathing harshly. Then his breath caught. His ragged breathing gave way to the heart-wrenching sounds of sobs ripping out of him. Into the lesser noise of his weeping, I foolishly spoke.
“I did not dishonor your wife, sir
“You lying scum!” My words had kindled him to fresh fury. “Don’t you dare say her name so familiarly, you piece of filth! Hanging is too good for you! You should have to suffer as you’ve made me suffer!” He thrust his hand and arm between the bars and made groping motions, as if it could somehow stretch across the room and throttle me. It would have been humorous if his murderous intent had not been so sincere.
“Captain Thayer! Sir! Captain, please, sir! You should come away now. ” The guard who addressed him had a thin reedy voice. Thayer turned his head to stare at him. “Please, sir. You have to come away. I shouldn’t have let you in at all. He’ll come to trial soon, and you can confront him there. Sir. ”
Thayer seized the bars again and tried vainly to shake the door. The guard let him. When he finally gave up his vain effort, he sagged against the door, breathing hoarsely.
“Come away, sir. Justice will be done. Come away now. ” And with that, the guard led him away.
I suspected I had burned away whatever magic I’d had left. I ate the prison food, but the sophistication of taste that had allowed me to take pleasure in even the simplest of foods had fled my palate. It was a bowl of slop each day, with a hunk of hard bread and some water. I ate it only because I was constantly ravenous. As if to make its mockery of me complete, the magic that had kept me fat even in far more dire circumstances now failed. My clothing hung looser on me every day, and my skin began to sag. When I slept, I only slept. The dreams I had were fragmented nonsense or ominous nightmares of hanging. After the initial burst of healing that had kept me alive, my recuperation from the bucket blow was slow. My jaw ached and my head hurt most of the time. Sudden motion as simple as turning my head toward a sound produced dizziness.
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