Forest mage, p.77
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       Forest Mage, p.77

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

  So I greeted him with, “Epiny plans to use explosives to stop the road crews from cutting the Specks’ ancestor trees. ”

  He stopped dead and stared at me. Then he turned to the guard who had been outside my range of vision. “Bring this man more water and a razor! He cannot be presented to the court this way. We have the dignity of these proceedings to consider. ”

  “Sir, he may do himself an injury with a razor. ”

  “And how much would the court care about that? Less, I think, then having an unshaven bumpkin presented to them as a soldier facing trial. Corporal, this is still our regiment. Doubtless this man will exit it one way or another in the next few days. Let’s have him leave looking somewhat like a soldier, shall we?”

  “Yes, sir,” was the daunted response. I listened to the scuff of his boots as he left.

  Outside my door, Spink gave a sudden sigh. “I shall hope I can pass your greeting off as lunatic raving. How are you feeling?”

  “Did you hear what I said?”

  “I did. I hope the guard thought it was gibberish. And you obviously expect me to be surprised by it. Nevare, it grieves me that you don’t understand at all the depth of love and trust that exists between Epiny and me. You think she has concealed this from me, don’t you?”

  I was left speechless. It had been inconceivable to me that Epiny would go home and confide her intentions to Spink. He was right. I had had no concept of the strength of the connection between them. But when I replied to him, I spoke to something else. “That isn’t the only reason you’re furious with me, is it?”

  He spoke tightly. “No. It’s not. In a very short time, Nevare, after you’ve gone to the trouble to shave and wash and put on your best uniform, we will walk under guard to the courtroom, where you will face seven men all intent on condemning you to a vile death. I’ll put on a mimicry of a defense, not because that is my intent but because I literally have nothing to work with. After that, they’ll condemn you. And tomorrow, as your friend, I’ll watch you hanged. Then Epiny and Amzil and I will bury you. We’ve already decided that it’s better that the children not attend any of this. It would scar them for the rest of their lives. We’ll allow them to pray for you at home. ”

  Slow tears formed in his eyes. He ignored them when they began to roll down his cheeks. He stood very straight, stiff as a soldier facing deadly fire. And as brave, I thought to myself. I tried to find a gentle way to ask my next question. “You’ll keep Epiny safe, won’t you? You won’t allow her to do anything to endanger herself?”

  His voice choked. “I’m afraid I already have. She’s been in bed since she was brought home after her little stroll in the woods. She had—that is, we feared she was going to lose the baby. The doctor says her situation is still grave, but that if she stays in bed, she may still carry the child to term. Such is our hope. ” He took a deep shuddering breath. “For a short time, I feared I would lose Epiny and our child, as well as you. I’ve had a very dark three days, Nevare. I know I should have come to see you and consult with you on your defense. But it all felt so hopeless. ”

  “It is hopeless for me, Spink. But if you keep Epiny home and safe and she gives you a healthy child, well, then, that is hope enough for me. Don’t think you have to watch my execution. In truth, I think I could bear it better knowing that you were not there. Please. ”

  He’d gone paler. “Military laws demand it. I’ll be there, Nevare. Epiny wanted to be at your trial today. Only the threat of losing her baby kept her at home. Amzil is taking care of her. If there is an opportunity for her to testify on your behalf, I’ll send a runner for her. It was very difficult to convince Epiny that there was nothing she could contribute to your defense without putting you in deeper water. I’ve been grateful for her weakness in one way—at least I know she won’t be running off to explode things. ” He took a breath and then asked wistfully, “Is there no chance the magic will save you?”

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  How peculiar the world had become. A year and a half ago, we would have mocked such a fantastic idea. Now we both tried to cling to it as a last hope. I had to shake my head. “It’s gone, Spink. I haven’t felt even a tingle of it. ” I did not add that with Epiny unable to fulfill her end of the bargain, I had no chance at all. I would die tomorrow, her bargain with the magic would be broken, and its ability to manipulate her would be gone.

  Spink spoke suddenly in an official voice. “Ah. Here are your water and razor. ”

  The guard commanded me to stand well back from the door as he entered to give me the fresh water, a mirror, soap, and a razor. Spink passed in my clean uniform. Then they withdrew while I made myself presentable. I wadded up my filthy clothes and tossed them in the corner with the pan of dirty water. Not much chance I’d need to worry about having spare clothing anymore.

  The mirror showed me that I looked even worse than I had supposed. Haggard would have been an understatement. I cleaned myself as best I could, shaved, and then got dressed. The many-seamed uniform that Amzil had sewn for me hung oddly on my reduced frame. When I heard Spink and my guard returning, I stood straight awaiting them.

  They both peered into my cell through the barred window. The guard’s eyes widened. Even Spink looked rather impressed. “You look a lot more like the soldier I know you are,” Spink observed. The guard made a derisive sound, but when Spink turned on him, he pretended to have been clearing his throat.

  “Shall we go?” Spink asked me.

  The guard shook his head. “Sir, we’re to await an armed escort for the prisoner. They should be here shortly. ”

  “Do they truly think I’m going to try to escape?” I almost laughed. “What would be the use of that? I’d still be inside the walls of the fort. ”

  They were both silent for a moment. Then Spink said unwillingly, “The armed guard will be protecting you on the way to the courtroom, soldier. Feeling has run very high against you. There have been threats. ”

  “Oh. ” Cold washed through me. The studied calm that I’d been practicing for the last two days suddenly cracked. This was real. This was now. I’d step out into sunlight, walk a short distance, and then stand before seven men who would condemn me to death. My legs felt weak, and I was suddenly terrified that I would faint. “No!” I forbade myself in a low rough voice, and the vertigo passed.

  “While there is life, there is hope,” Spink said suddenly. I heard the cadenced tramp of feet at the end of the hall. I recalled my resolution. They would be armed. If the opportunity presented itself, I would make a run for it. I could force them to kill me. I just had to find the right moment and the nerve to act. I had to be ready.

  The men they’d sent to escort me were brawny fellows. The sergeant was half a head taller than me, and his steely gaze left no doubt that he’d happily shoot me down if I ran. I primed him for it, meeting his stare with an insolent smile. They formed up their patrol around me. Just when I thought fate had finally smiled on me, the sergeant produced a set of leg irons. As he went down on one knee to fasten them tightly above my ankles, he observed, “We promised the ladies of the town that there would be no chance you’d escape trial and the death that you deserve. ”

  Having my solution yanked so neatly away from me paralyzed my thoughts for an instant. He clamped the iron cuffs tightly around my legs, just above the bones of my ankles. “He’s too damn fat for the irons!” he observed with a guffaw, and then crimped them tight enough to make them latch anyway. I cried out in pain and anger as the iron crushed the tissue of my calves, but he latched the second one anyway.

  “They’re too tight!” I complained. “I won’t be able to walk. ”

  “Your own damn fault for being so fat,” he observed. “Let’s go. ”

  It was only when he was once more standing beside me that it occurred to me that I should have kicked him while he was down. If I tried to escape now, all I would earn myself was a severe beating rather than the bull
ets in the back I’d anticipated. Another opportunity lost.

  The patrol stepped out smartly around me and I trudged in their midst, taking quick short steps in a futile effort to keep up with them. The leg irons bit instantly and painfully. In three steps I was limping. I awkwardly double-stepped up a short flight of stairs. By the time the outside door of the prison was flung open and the harsh sunlight assaulted my eyes, the pain was such that I could think of nothing else. “I can’t walk,” I told them, and the man behind me gave me a firm shove in the back. When I tottered and nearly fell, they laughed. I jerked my head up and looked around me as I minced painfully on. Beside me, Spink’s face was scarlet with fury, his mouth held so tight that his lips were pinched white. I caught a quick sideways glance from him, steeled myself to the pain, and walked on.

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  The short walk from my cell to the building where I would be tried was a gantlet of mockery. The only other time I’d seen the streets of Gettys so packed with people had been right before the Dust Dance. The crowd surged forward at the sight of me. A woman I had never seen before screeched the foulest invective I’ve ever heard before falling to the ground in a sort of hysteria as we passed. Someone shouted, “Hanging’s too good for you!” and threw a rotten potato. It struck the guard next to me and he cried out angrily. This seemed to incite the mob, for a veritable fusillade of rotten produce was launched at me. I saw a ripe plum bounce off Spink. He kept walking, eyes straight ahead. The sergeant roared at the crowd to “Give way, give way!” and they reluctantly let us pass. The pain from my chained ankles vied with the flood of hatred that rolled out from the mob.

  The courtroom was stuffy. I shuffled up a short flight of steps to the prisoner’s box. A solid half-wall topped with iron bars separated me from the spectators but permitted all the gawkers a good view. Below and in front of me, Spink sat alone at a table, a small stack of papers before him. Opposite, at a larger table, sat a captain and two lieutenants. Behind them, seated on benches, an assortment of witnesses waited impatiently to testify against me. Captain Thayer, Captain Gorling, and Clara Gorling were seated in a special section. My seven judges sat at a high table on a dais in the center of the room. A line of guards held back the mob that had surged in to watch the proceedings. Folk who could not crowd into the room peered in through the windows. I thought I caught a glimpse of Ebrooks, but when I turned my head, he was gone. Other than that, the only soul I recognized was Spink.

  I stood still and straight and tried to ignore the agony of the iron clamped tight into my flesh. I could feel blood seeping down my left ankle. My right foot buzzed and went numb.

  The proceedings began with a lengthy reading of a document that said that the military would conduct my trial, and in the event that I was found guilty, the town of Gettys would have authority over my punishment for crimes against the citizens of Gettys. I listened to it through a haze of pain. We were momentarily allowed to sit down. Then we had to stand again for an extended prayer to the good god that asked him to help the judges to fearlessly render justice and condemn evil. I could barely stand upright for the wave of red pain washing up through me; my ears rang with it. When we were finally allowed to be seated, I leaned forward to explain my discomfort to Spink, but the officer in charge of the proceedings commanded me to silence.

  I sat, agony rippling up from my legs, and tried to listen to the testimony against me. The officer in charge listed my misdeeds. The charges began with my rape of Fala, moved on to her murder and my subsequent concealment of the crime, my assaulting of respectable women on the streets of Gettys, and my poisoning of the men who had managed to claim my horse’s harness as evidence against me and finally reached a crescendo with a long list of my supposed crimes the night Carsina had walked into my cabin. One woman fainted when the words “necrophiliac depredations’ were uttered. Captain Thayer lowered his face into his hands. Clara Gorling stared at me with the purest hatred. Witness after witness spoke against me as I endured the silent torture of my leg irons. Once I leaned down to touch them, to try to shift them on my compressed flesh, and the judge shouted at me to sit straight and show some respect for the court.

  The damning evidence piled up against me. A horde of women testified, one after another, that they had witnessed me terrorize poor Carsina in broad daylight on the busy streets of Gettys. Others told how I had scowled at the noble Dale Hardy when he had sought to protect Carsina’s honor from my scurrilous behavior. One claimed to have heard me mutter threats against him as I left. A doctor I’d never seen before testified that the manner of my ambushers’ death was such that poison was the only explanation. Sergeant Hoster’s letter from beyond the grave was read aloud, and Clove’s harness held up so that all might behold the telltale piece of less worn harness compared to the strap that had been “pried out of the livid flesh about poor dead Fala’s neck. ”

  Late in the afternoon, Spink was finally allowed to address the judges. I heard his speech through a haze of pain. A runner was sent to fetch Amzil to testify. While we waited for her arrival, Spink read aloud statements that both Ebrooks and Kesey had thought me a good man and that I tended the graveyard well. After a significant wait, during which the judges scowled and the spectators shifted and muttered, the runner returned. He stated only that “the witness is unavailable. ” That sent a buzz of speculation through the courtroom. Spink gave me one stricken glance and then maintained his composure. With the judge’s permission, he read a statement from Amzil. I wondered why she had refused to come, but when I looked around the courtroom, I realized it did not matter. My fate had been decided before I even left my cell.

  Page 289


  The seven judges stood as one, and then filed out of the room to consider their verdict. I sat, sweat rolling down my face and back from the pain in my ankles, and waited. The spectators shifted, murmured, and then, as the wait continued, began to openly converse with one another. Clara Gorling spoke furiously to her husband. Captain Thayer sat silently and stared at me. I met his gaze briefly and then looked aside. The genuine suffering in his face moved me. He believed me guilty of the horrific crime. I found I could not resent his hatred of me. How would I have felt in his place? That thought put a new face on what was happening to me. I glanced about the courtroom. The eyes that met my gaze were avid with hatred, yes, but fear and horror were what sparked that hate. I lowered my eyes before it.

  When the judges filed back in, the courtroom quieted immediately. I knew by the looks on their faces that I was condemned. As one by one they spoke the word “Guilty,” I hung my head.

  When they announced my execution by hanging, it was anticlimactic. I’d hang. My execution would bring a measure of healing to a town traumatized by my imagined misdeeds. And my death would free Epiny of her bargain with the magic. I took a breath and accepted my fate. I thought my ordeal was over.

  But then one of the civilian judges stood. He smiled as he announced that the justices of the town of Gettys had decided that justice would be best served if the victims most wronged by my misdeeds were allowed to determine my punishment for my crimes against the citizens of Gettys Town. I stared at him in consternation. I’d already been condemned to hang. What punishment could they wreak on me beyond that?

  Clara Gorling stood. Her husband and Captain Thayer rose to flank her. She was well prepared for her moment. She unfolded a small sheet of paper and read her statement from it.

  “I speak for the women of Gettys. I do not ask this just for my poor dear cousin, but for all the women who live in Gettys. ” Her hand crept up to clasp the brass whistle that hung on its chain around her neck. “Gettys is a rough town. It is a difficult place for any woman to live, yet we do our best. We strive to make homes for our husbands and our children. We are willing to face the privations of living in such an isolated place. We know our duties as cavalla wives. And our husbands and loved ones try to protect us. Recently, the women of Gettys
have banded together to try to protect ourselves. We have tried to bring the gentler virtues to this rough place, to make our homes havens of civilization and culture.

  “Yet despite all our efforts, a monster has roamed free among us, raping, murdering, and—” she choked for an instant, but forced herself to go on, “dishonoring our dead. I ask that the honorable judges imagine the terror that the women in Gettys have endured. Hanging, my friends, is too good for this creature. It offers him too swift an end for his misdeeds. And so we ask that before he meets his end, he receive one thousand lashes. Let any man who thinks to perpetrate such evil against defenseless woman witness what his wickedness shall bring him. ”

  Tears were running down her cheeks. She paused to dab at her face with her handkerchief. A profound silence held in the courtroom. Coldness spread through me. Clara Gorling took a breath to speak on, but suddenly sobbed instead. She turned abruptly to her husband and hid her face on his shoulder. The silence held an instant longer, and then gave way to cheers and applause. I heard the request spread to the crowd outside in a rippling roar of satisfaction. Then a terrible silence fell as all waited for the officer in charge to make his decision.

  He commanded me to stand to receive my sentence.

  I tried to. I placed my hands flat on the railing of the box before me and tried to lever myself onto my numb and swollen feet. I stood up, teetered for a horrid moment, and then crashed to the floor. A wave of hate-filled laughter greeted my mishap. “The filthy coward fainted!” someone shouted. My head was swimming with pain and humiliation. I scrabbled my hands against the floor but could not even sit up.

  Two of the brawnier guards came to my box and hauled me to my feet. “My legs are numb from the irons!” I shouted at them. I don’t think anyone heard me over the commotion in the courtroom. They hauled me to my feet and held me up while the officer confirmed that the town of Gettys wished the military to honor the request of the victim’s next of kin that I receive one thousand lashes before being hanged by the neck until dead. When it was confirmed, he made it official, and then issued a lengthy apology on behalf of the cavalla that a man such as I had ever been admitted to the ranks. He deemed it a misplaced act of kindness by his worthy predecessor.

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