Forest mage, p.76
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       Forest Mage, p.76
 

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

  “You’re holding me here. ” I said, amazed.

  “I’m trying to. I don’t quite know how any of this works. ” She looked around fearfully. “Do you know the way home?”

  “I might. It’s a long trek through the woods. Do you think you’re strong enough?”

  She gave a strained laugh. “What choice do I have? I’ve read that phrase over and over in your journal, Nevare. That the magic leaves you no choices. Now I think I understand what it means. ” She turned away from Lisana’s stump and walked back along the ridge and I drifted with her, a child’s toy on a string.

  “Why did you come here? Why were you looking for Olikea?”

  “I thought…I don’t know what I thought. That perhaps she would know a way to save you. Spink came home heartsick that you had decided to plead guilty and be done with it. I waited until he left the house. And then I borrowed a horse…”

  “From whom?” I cut in.

  She was unfazed. “Very well. I stole a horse and cart and drove out to the cemetery and walked into the new woods behind your spring. The fear wasn’t so bad there. So I thought I could do it. And I pushed on up into the old forest. But I could barely make myself go under those trees. So I stood there, and I called for Olikea. I think my shouts stirred something up, because then the fear flooded over me. Nevare, I have never been so frightened. My heart was racing and I couldn’t get my breath. My legs just turned to jelly and I sank down where I was. I was so terrified I couldn’t even run away. And it made me, well, angry. So I screamed for Olikea again. And then something happened. I was still very scared, but I felt I had to get up and walk. So I did. I walked and I walked, up steep hills and through brambles, and I was so tired I knew I couldn’t keep going. But I had to. And finally I got to that stump. And when I saw your sword sticking out of it, the fear came on me so strong that I thought I would die of it. Because I knew that somehow I’d come to a place that we had all dreamed together. ”

  She stopped walking. I halted, too, not because I willed it but because I was somehow fastened to her. She drew a deep and shuddering breath. “How did you stand it?”

  “What?”

  “The fear. Even though I know that it’s something being done to me, I can’t ignore it. ” She put a free hand to her chest as if to calm the pounding of her heart.

  “Epiny, I didn’t. The magic took it away, or I never could have ventured so freely through the forest. I don’t know how you forced yourself to come here. Keep walking. I want to see you safely home. ”

  “I wish you were really here. I wish you could protect me. ”

  Those words stabbed deeper than any knife could. It took a little time before I could speak. “Epiny, I don’t think you’re in any real danger right now, other than exhaustion. Go down that way, to the left. See that little rabbit trail in the moss? Follow it. There’s a stream down there. Drink some water and rest for a bit before we go on. I’m amazed that a woman in your condition could make this hike at all. ”

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  She followed my suggestion, but as she worked her way down the steep path, she asked me, “So you are one of those men who think pregnancy is a ‘diseased state’? You can’t even bring yourself to say ‘pregnant,’ can you?”

  “I was afraid you’d consider it rude. ” Even to myself, I sounded priggish.

  Tired and scared as she was, she still managed a small laugh. “It’s only rude because you think how I got this way is somewhat shameful. Well-bred women shouldn’t be pregnant. Isn’t that true?”

  I thought over her words, and then had to laugh with her. “You make me think about how I think about things, Epiny. You’re one of the few people in my life who can make me do that. ”

  “If we both live through this, I intend to do a lot more of it. At this rate, I fear I will never have time to scold you properly for how badly you treated me by concealing that you were still alive. I want you to know I’m just putting it off until it’s more convenient. I have not forgiven you. ”

  “There, through those trees—see it? That’s the stream. ” I forced myself to add, “I probably don’t deserve to be forgiven for that. I don’t expect it. ”

  She halted for an instant and then stumped her way down to the stream, complaining as she went, “And that is probably the only thing you could have said that would make me instantly forgive you, no matter how much you deserve to endure my disdain and contempt for, well, at least months! Oh, how lovely! It’s beautiful, here. ” She pushed through the foliage of a bush and emerged onto the mossy banks of a stream.

  “It is. I’m surprised that you can see that through the fear. ” Something else caught my attention. “Epiny. Do you see the berries on that bush? The one we just passed?”

  “I do. ” She ventured closer. “They’re lovely. Such a rich color. ”

  “Do you think there is any way you could pick some and bring them to me in the jail?”

  “I’ve nothing to carry them in except my handkerchief. ” She walked past them to the stream. She sank down carefully onto the moss. She dipped the handkerchief she had just mentioned into the water and wiped perspiration from her brow and the back of her neck before cupping some water in her hand to drink. All the while, she never let go of my phantom hand pinned to her shoulder. “When I get back to town, I can buy you some berries at the market if you wish. ”

  “Not like those,” I told her. A faint but tantalizing scent wafted to my ghost nose. My mouth watered, and my suppressed appetite woke with a roar. “It’s a special sort of berry. They facilitate magic. ”

  “Really?” She stood up slowly and went back to the bush. “Such an unusual color,” she said. She picked one. And before I could utter a sound of warning, she ate it. I felt her consume it. “Oh, my! I’ve never tasted anything like that!”

  “Epiny, stop! Stop!” Her hand hovered over another berry. “I’m afraid if you eat them, the magic will gain more power over you. Don’t eat anymore. ”

  With just the one berry, I sensed a change in her. She did as well. She gripped my hand now, not her own shoulder. Some of her weariness had fallen away. Tree Woman was right, I realized. Epiny did have an aptitude for their magic. I recalled what Epiny had told me so long ago in Old Thares: that once a medium had shown her how to open herself to magic, she had felt it was a window inside her that she could not close.

  “They’re so delicious,” she murmured. She picked a second berry.

  “Epiny! No!”

  “Just one more. It made me feel stronger. ” It was already in her mouth. I knew the moment she crushed it, for I felt a surge of magic wash through her.

  “Epiny! For the sake of Spink’s child, stop now! You cannot use this magic without it taking something from you. You’ve read my journal. Let me tell you what isn’t in there, what I didn’t have time to record. This magic, it grows in odd ways. You’ll use it without meaning to. I made Carsina a walker! I forced that on her, by my foolish words spoken in anger at Rosse’s wedding. I was too ashamed to tell Spink what I’d done to her. Carsina came back from the dead, forced to do what I’d cursed her with. I forced her to go on her knees and beg my forgiveness before she could die. ”

  “Oh, the good god’s mercy!” Epiny leaned over and spat. It was too late; I knew she had absorbed the berry’s potency already. But the simple act showed me that she had the strength of will I’d lacked. She took a breath, and then straightened. “Show me the way home, Nevare. ”

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  “Pick the berries for me, Epiny. Even a kerchief full will restore some of my power. ” I felt tantalizingly more substantial. The smell of the two berries she’d eaten was on her breath. I longed to devour every one that remained on the bush.

  “But you said they’d put me in the magic’s power,” she protested. “Won’t they do the same to you?”

  “I’m already in the magic’s power. If you can get them to me
in the prison, I may be able to rejuvenate enough magic to be able to help myself. Then you won’t have to. ”

  “But—”

  “I’ve already given Lisana my word. Pick the berries for me, Epiny. ”

  She stood a long time considering it. Then she spread her handkerchief on the moss and began, one-handed, to pick berries and drop them on it. When she had a goodly pile, she gathered up the four corners of her kerchief and picked it up.

  “The way home?” she asked me again.

  I made a decision. “Going home the way you came is far too long. Follow this stream,” I told her. “It has to flow downhill. It will take you closer to the end of the road. From there, I think you can beg aid of the men working there. They’ll put you on a cart and get you home. ”

  It was a long and weary walk for her. The berries, she told me, seemed to have calmed the fear in her and lent her strength. Even so, my heart ached for her. She’d had the sense to put on boots before she stole the horse and cart, but her heavy skirts were scarcely the best hiking garb. I greatly feared that night would fall before we were out of the forest. I wondered if I’d misjudged the way until we heard the muted sounds of axes falling and smelled the smoke of burning brush. “We’re nearly there,” I said quietly. “All you have to do is go toward the sounds. The men working on the road will help you. ”

  Her response was as subdued. “She took me to the end of the ridge and made me look down on what we had done to her forest. I don’t pretend to understand completely what the ancestor trees mean to her. But for that moment, I felt what she felt, and my heart actually went out to her, Nevare. Different as we are, I still understood that all she wants is to keep things as they are, to protect her people. ”

  “But we both know that things never remain as they are, Epiny. It’s a lost cause already. ”

  “Perhaps. But I’ve already said that I’d stop them from cutting the ancestor trees. Do you know exactly what they are?”

  “I think that when a Great One dies, the Specks give the body to a tree. And that the tree absorbs the body, and somehow that person lives on as a tree. ”

  “That’s what Tree Woman is? Lisana?”

  “I think so. We’ve never discussed it directly. There are so many things that she assumes I know, and—”

  “But that’s horrible! We’re literally killing their elders when we cut those trees! By the good god’s mercy! No wonder they think we’re monsters! Nevare, when you went to Colonel Haren, you should have told him what those trees were! If only he had known!”

  “Epiny. I know you’ve read my journal. I did go to Colonel Haren, the morning before the Dust Dance. I told him what those trees meant to the Specks and even warned him that if the cutting did not stop, we’d be facing a different kind of war.

  “He dismissed my concern, and said that he thought less of me for having it. He’d heard it before. He saw it as silly superstitious nonsense, and said that once the trees were gone and nothing bad happened to the Specks, they’d see they’d been foolish and come around to our way of thinking. It was as if he believed that if we took their culture away from them, they’d instantly convert to thinking like Gernians. As if our way of seeing the world were the only real one, and that anyone, given the opportunity, would think like we do. I couldn’t make him see any other point of view. Even if I’d told him that the trees were actually the Specks’ ancestors, he’d have been unable to believe me. But, yes, we knew those trees were sacred to the Specks. We’ve evidently known it for a long time. And we keep trying to cut through there anyway. ”

  “We’ve been fools! Couldn’t someone, for just a moment, have believed the Specks knew the secrets of their forest better than we did? We’ve brought all this on ourselves! The fear, the despair, the Speck plague! It’s all our own doing. ”

  “I wouldn’t go that far—” I started to say, but she interrupted me.

  “So what did you try, then, to stop the cutting?”

  “I—well, that is, what else could I do? I told the colonel and pleaded with him to stop it. He refused. ”

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  “Well, you should have done something more!”

  “Perhaps I could have, if I’d had time. But on my way home, your friend Hoster’s men shot me. ”

  “He thought you were a murderer,” she said. She sounded angry and embarrassed.

  “I still can’t believe you trusted that man!” I retorted. She stopped and looked up at me, and her eyes suddenly filled with tears.

  “You should just say it and get it over with, Nevare. It’s my fault that you’re in that cell facing death. I betrayed you. I’m so sorry! So sorry. ”

  “Oh, Epiny, I didn’t mean it that way! You didn’t betray me. All you did was what you thought you should do, keep faith with a man you trusted. And maybe by his own lights, he was a good man. If he believed me such a monster and a threat to the women of the town, then maybe he was justified in sending those men after me. It’s all about what we believe, isn’t it? Not just Gernians and Specks, but even down to individuals like Hoster and you. All we can do is what we think is right, driven by what we know, or what we think we know. ”

  “Nonetheless, I feel it was my fault. And that was why I had to go to the forest today. To do whatever I could, at any cost, to free you from that cell. ” She was no longer meeting my eyes. She trudged on. The forest brush was getting thicker. She pushed her way through.

  “Epiny, you don’t have to do anything more. ” The ringing of axes came louder now. I could see the sunlight at the edge of the clearing ahead and smell the drifting smoke of the burning slash piles. The work crews were close. “Just get yourself safely home. And if there is any way you can get those berries to me, please do that. And then stay away from whatever happens next, knowing you’ve done your best. ”

  “Would you go back on your given word, Nevare?” Her hair had tangled in a bush. She stopped and made an exasperated sound as she pulled it free.

  “Of course not!”

  “Then how can you suggest that I do that? I told Lisana that I’d do whatever I could to save the ancestor trees. I intend to keep my word. ”

  “Epiny, I don’t think that Major Helford is going to give you any more credence than Colonel Haren gave me. Less, because you’re a woman. ”

  “Such a comforting thing to say to me, Nevare!” I could sense her anger coming to a boil and felt helpless to stop it. I feared that when it bubbled over, we would all be scalded.

  “Epiny, what can you do?”

  She halted. We could hear men’s voices ahead of us. I felt a sudden bolt of fear. I’d brought her here assuming that the work crews would offer her help. What if they didn’t? What if they abused her?

  “I shouldn’t have brought you this way, Epiny. Most of the men on these crews are prisoners. And their guards don’t strike me as much better. ”

  “Actually, I think this is the best way you could have guided me, Nevare. It will give me the opportunity to see how they are working, and where, and what they are using. That is information that will help me stop them. ”

  She was patting her hair back into order and brushing at her skirts as she spoke. She was tidying herself, I realized, before she walked out to meet the work crew.

  “Epiny, what can you possibly do to stop them?” I asked in a low voice.

  “I was thinking explosives,” she replied brightly. “I’ve heard they’ve been using them to fell trees. Perhaps they’d work to make them stop felling trees. ”

  “Oh, the good god’s mercy on us all! Epiny, let that idea go. All you’ll do is succeed at hurting yourself or others. Where would you get explosives, anyway?”

  She turned and gave me a sly smile. “Have you forgotten? My husband is in charge of supply. ”

  Then she lifted her hand from mine. All around me, the forest sparkled unbearably and then dissolved into floating dust. A moment later, I was staring
up at the ceiling of my cell. I groaned and covered my eyes.

  CHAPTER THIRTY-THREE

  COURT-MARTIAL

  T hey woke me early on the day of my trial. I was given a basin of warm water and a rag to wash myself. When I thanked the guard, he told me gruffly, “It’s for the benefit of the court, not you!”

  The water was filthy long before I finished. Just the caked blood from the side of my head had turned it a rusty brown. I wished for a mirror, then was glad I didn’t have one. My hair and my whiskers had grown out. I hadn’t changed my clothing since the day I’d awakened in the cell. Grave earth still smudged my knees, and my own blood stained my shirt and jacket. The cuffs of my trousers seemed to have picked up some very real burrs and thorns on my dreamwalk. I’d lost weight, but not in the way of a man who had worked it off. My flesh hung slack on my body; my face sagged. I suspected that many people would flock to my trial expecting to see a monster. Thanks to my confinement, I would look the part.

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  The last two days had been an agony of suspense. No one had come to talk with me. I didn’t know if Spink was too furious or too busy trying to collect evidence in my favor. In the long lonely hours that had passed since I had “returned” to my cell, my emotions had peaked and fallen in an endless series of waves. Lisana had said that if I did what the magic wished, I’d be saved. I’d promised to do anything. But the magic had not asked anything of me. I’d sat, idle and hopeless, waiting for something to happen. I tried to feel some spark, some turmoil in my blood to suggest that the magic had not abandoned me. There had been nothing. If the magic had given me a task, I didn’t know what it was. Nothing and no one could save me now. It was time to meet my fate like a soldier.

  Spink arrived by midmorning. When I heard his step in the corridor, I went to the window of my cell. Over one arm, he carried my spare uniform, freshly mended, washed, and pressed. The glint in his eyes warned me that he was still angry over my earlier comments about Epiny. What I had to say to him today would please him even less, I thought. I might have only one chance to bring up that topic.

 
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