Forest mage, p.79
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       Forest Mage, p.79

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

  I’d never thought Amzil could chatter like that, let alone speak so calmly of magic. Too much time with Epiny, I thought to myself.

  “What are you smiling about?” she demanded. “You’re not out of danger yet. ”

  “I know. I’m just glad to see you. ”

  “How did you get out?”

  “Epiny was right. The magic got me out. Tree Woman tore down the wall for me. ” I shook my head in wonder, still moved by what she had done. “She rescued me, at great cost to herself. ”

  Amzil scowled when I said that and then retorted, “Well, much good that did. She didn’t get you out of the fort, did she? It looks like she’s left the hardest part for us. And there’s no time to waste. ”

  “Amzil. I’ll never get through the gate. But I want you to know I thank you for trying. That you would do all this…”

  “You’ll never get though the gate if you don’t shut up and listen to me,” she corrected me. “We only have a little time. We stole your horse and he’s had a good feed of oats earlier today. Mistress Epiny said that would give him staying power. We put food and a bottle of water in your panniers. It’s not much, but it will do you for a day or so. Now, this is the plan, or as much of one as we could come up with. I’ll go first. At the gate, I’ll find a way to keep the guards busy. Give me some time. Then, when you judge it’s best, put your heels to the horse and gallop on through. A lot of the soldiers were sent out to the road’s end to see what the first blast was about. Most of the others are busy at the fire, trying to put it out and round up the prisoners who escaped. So there aren’t a lot of folk on the streets just now, but we don’t know when they’ll start to come back. We need to get you out of the gate as quickly as possible, and then hope the darkness will hide you. ”

  I stood gaping at her. When she finally ran out of words, she scowled up at me and asked, “What are you waiting for? We’re losing what time we have. ”

  “Why are you doing this?”

  She stared at me for a moment, lost for words. Then she said with indescribable scorn, “The mistress is right. You are an idiot. Let’s go. ”

  I took a step toward her and my legs folded under me. As I sank down, hissing with pain, she crouched down beside me. “What’s wrong with you?” she cried in alarm.

  “The tendons in my calves are badly cut. From the irons they used on me today. They put them on cruel tight. ”

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  She was silent a moment. Then she said, “I’ve seen what those can do to a man’s legs. They did that to you on purpose, Nevare. To hurt you and cripple you. ” She sounded furious.

  “I know. ”

  Her pragmatism came back in a rush. “You’ll have to get on your horse now and ride from here on. Makes you more obvious, but what else can we do?” She stood up, then suddenly crouched down again next to me. She seized my face in both her hands and kissed me on the mouth. I thought I had been kissed before. I was wrong. I reached for her, but before I could pull her close, she drew back from me. Her words were breathless. “The lieutenant told me—what you said. He gave me your message. And I, I think I love you, too. But we haven’t got time to talk about it now. ”

  “Amzil?” I said, too shocked to say more.

  “Shhh!” she hissed at me, and stood up.

  She brought Clove to me. He stood, patient as ever, as I dragged myself to my feet. My calves hurt less this time, but Amzil had to steady me as I lifted my leg to put my foot in the stirrup. I hissed with pain as I put my weight on that foot trying to get up onto my horse. The most humiliating moment was when Amzil put a firm shoulder into my rump to boost me up into Clove’s saddle. I settled onto his back, feeling oddly whole again, even though Amzil had to help my other foot find the stirrup. “I’ll go first,” she told me hoarsely. “Stay well back. ”

  She had just kissed me and said she loved me. And now she would go to another man to save me. No. “Amzil. Please don’t do this. Don’t whore yourself to the guards for me. Stay here. Clove and I will make a run for it. ”

  “You’ll never get through the gates if they see you. You just mind your own business about how I do things. ” She hissed the words, and I thought she was angry. “Give me a few minutes to go ahead. Be careful when you come out of the alley. Look around first. You’re a hard man to mistake. ”

  “Amzil, I—”

  “Look, Nevare. ” She took a ragged little breath. “You have to let me help you however I can. You helped us with no thought of thanks. Now it’s my turn. ” She was quiet and then added in a very low voice, “You know that I’d go with you if it weren’t for my children. I can’t just leave them. But if I didn’t have them, I’d go with you now. You know that. ”

  Her words left me speechless. “No,” I said at last. I looked down at her, but her face was shadowed. “No, Amzil, I never thought you’d come with me. You take good care of the children. And take care of my cousin for me. ”

  “I’ll do that,” she said quietly. Her hands moved up to her face. Perhaps she wiped away tears, or perhaps she just pushed the hair back from her eyes. She cleared her throat. “Everyone will expect you to run to the forest. Don’t you do that. Go west. Don’t stop in Dead Town. They’ll look there for sure. Just keep going, as far and as fast as you can. If you want…” She hesitated and then plunged on, “Go to Darth. Mistress Epiny says it’s on the road to Mendy. Within a year, we’ll come there, the children and I. If you want, we’ll find you there. ”

  I was speechless at what she offered me. For a moment, the prospect of an entirely new life floated before me. We’d be starting with nothing. I’d have to find a trade to support us. It would be a hard life, but it would be mine. Almost as soon as the temptation formed in me, I felt the magic roil forbiddingly in my blood. Would I try to break my bargain with it? It would leave nothing standing that would keep me from coming to it. I could almost see the shimmer of impending doom it cast around Amzil.

  “Amzil, you must not—” I grasped for words that would forbid her, words that would send her fleeing from me and the magic that marked her.

  “There’s no time now, Nevare. Later, we will have time for words. Now you have to listen to me. Wait here!” She leaned close and pressed her cheek to my thigh in a farewell embrace. Before I could touch her hair, she whirled away, lifted her skirts, and ran off toward the dark end of the alley. In a moment, she had vanished from sight.

  I sat on Clove in the dark, my heart thundering with dread. Only a coward would let a woman do for me what Amzil was about to do. “I’m not going to her,” I whispered to the night. “I’ll keep my word. I’m coming to the forest and the Specks. I’m not going to Darth. No life with Amzil and the children awaits me. ” Childishly, I hoped the magic would hear and heed my words. My wayward heart yearned after the future Amzil had sketched. “No,” I growled at myself, and tried to believe that as long as I went to the forest, the magic would leave Amzil untouched. What could I do about my creeping suspicion that it would burn every bridge behind me, destroy every person who might draw me back to my old life?

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  I sat on Clove in the alley because she had told me to, because she and Epiny had planned it so carefully that it seemed an insult to let my man’s pride get in the way of their women’s wiles. My hands became fists, and when I suddenly knew that I couldn’t stand it, couldn’t allow her to whore herself out to save me, fate intervened.

  I heard pebbles rattle in the darkness. I turned to peer in the direction of the sound. In the dimness behind me, the guard poked his head out of the hole Lisana had made in my cell wall. He gasped and then shouted, “Help! The prisoner’s escaping. Stop him, stop him!”

  Startled, Clove lunged forward. I kicked him awkwardly and leaned forward, kneeing him on. I wasn’t sure that anyone would respond to the guard’s outcry. I wasn’t going to wait to see.

  Amzil had not gotten far. Clove and I p
assed her at a gallop as she hurried down the street. She shouted angrily at me as she scurried out of our path. I wanted to look back, to see her one last time, and didn’t dare. I yelled encouragement to Clove, and the big horse pounded through the streets headed directly for the gates of the fort. Behind us I heard the guard ringing the alarm bell. I leaned low on Clove, urging him on.

  There was a single man on duty on the gate that night. The sound of the bell had alerted him. He stepped out into the opening, peering toward me through the dim evening, perhaps thinking that I was a messenger sent on a desperate mission. He held his long gun across his chest at the ready. “Messenger!” I bellowed at the top of my lungs, hoping he would believe it. It bought me a few moments; by the time he realized I did not wear the garb of a courier and lifted his gun, I was on top of him. Clove’s big shoulder spurned him aside, and we were through the gate. I heard his gun clatter as it hit the cobbles. I leaned in tight to my horse and urged him on. A few moments later, there was a muzzle flash behind me and a bullet whizzed past us. I was already at the limits of his range. He would not kill me tonight.

  I glanced back over my shoulder. The fires at the laborers’ prison made a red glow against the night sky, silhouetting the walls of the fort. The alarm bell was still clanging. Ahead of me, the streets of Gettys Town were deserted. Muted lights showed through a few windows, and welcoming lanterns still burned outside Rollo’s Tavern. A few faces peered out the door, wondering what the ruckus was about. The guard fired another futile shot after me. I grinned as Clove stretched into a harder gallop.

  I heard questioning shouts behind me, and to my horror, they were answered by other cries. My eyes picked out a mounted troop of horsemen coming at a trot down the street toward me. The troops who had gone out to investigate what had happened at the road’s end were returning to Gettys. I reined Clove hard, but he was no cavalla horse, to wheel on his haunches and gallop away. The troops had spurred their own animals, and before Clove could even turn they had surrounded me. Gloved hands seized his bridle while other men clutched at me. “It’s the cemetery guard. He was trying to escape!” someone shouted.

  In the next instant, I was pushed and dragged from my saddle. Horses and men milled around me in the dark. Voices shouted angrily. My calves burned with pain as I stumbled and then tried to stay on my feet, struggling against hands that clutched at me from all sides. I could smell smoke and sulphur on their clothing. A fist hit my jaw, reawakening the old pain. I yelled and tried to strike back, but my arms were held. In the darkness, someone hit me in the belly, once, twice, thrice. The blows drove the air out of my lungs and I sagged down, gasping. Wild laughter fenced me. Someone brought the lantern from the tavern’s door, pushing though the mob toward me. Someone else had found a torch. He reached me just as Captain Thayer seized the front of my shirt in his fists and dragged me up to face him. His eyes were wild with grief and fury. “You won’t escape me!” he roared. In the lantern’s bobbing light, I had a fleeting glimpse of a white-faced Spink trying to elbow his way to me through the mob. The mob surged closer to me; I could no longer see him.

  Thayer was strong. When he hit me, I felt my head snap back on my neck. I fell backward into the roaring, jeering crowd. They seized me and pushed me back toward their captain. “Carsina!” he cried and hit me again, unholy joy lighting his face. I went down, tasting blood and bile. The torchlit night spun around me. I’d die here, beaten to death in the streets.

  As I was hauled yet again to my feet, I heard a sound that froze my blood. “Stop! Let him go, let him go! He didn’t do any of those horrible things. He’s innocent! Let him go!” Amzil’s shrill cries cut through the deep laughter of the men. The troopers holding me for their captain turned toward her. Someone laughed harshly.

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  “It’s the Dead Town whore, come to rescue her lover!”

  “Let her through! I want to watch them go at it!”

  “No! Bring her to me!” someone else shouted. “I’ll comfort his widow!”

  I could not see what was happening. Men ringed her. I heard her furious shouts and then a shriek of outrage and pain. “No!” I roared, but the men holding me only shook me roughly and laughed. I thought I heard Spink’s voice raised in outrage, but the rough laughter of the men who dragged Amzil forward drowned him out. The front of her dress was torn, her breasts bared to the night and the harsh groping of jeering men. Two men gripped her roughly as they presented her to me.

  “Hey, Nevare! Want to watch us do your woman before you die?”

  “Let me through! Captain Thayer. Take charge of the men! Are we soldiers or scum? Let me through!”

  Spink finally eeled his way past the taller men blocking him and into the circle of light. Captain Thayer looked down on him, breathing hard. He still clutched the front of my shirt.

  “Sir. ” I heard the desperate plea in Spink’s voice. “Take command. Restore order, or we’ll all have to live with this for the rest of our lives!”

  Thayer just stared at him. Then he let go of my shirt. Stillness fell over the mob. It had grown. Townsfolk had tumbled from their beds and come out into the street to see what was going on. They ringed the troop of uniformed soldiers, their eyes avid for blood and spectacle. Thayer’s control of the moment teetered on a pin’s head.

  He hit Spink. The blow sent my friend flying backward into the crowd. The men behind him parted to let him fall, and then closed up the gap. I heard Spink cry out and knew someone had kicked him while he was down. Thayer turned back to me. His eyes glittered in the wavering torchlight. “Shall we do to your woman what you did to mine?” he asked me in a hoarse voice devoid of humanity. “Shall we rape her after she’s dead?”

  A roar went up from the gathered men. Months of fear and bleak spirits, suppressed anger, and the bestial impulses of deepest night spoke. “Let me do her while she’s still alive!” someone shouted, and laughter rose in a night lit by fire and hatred. Thayer drew back his fist. A man stepped out of the crowd, fumbling at the front of his trousers, while another man pulled Amzil’s arms back behind her and thrust her at him. For a horrible instant, our eyes met.

  “Stop. ”

  Blood sprayed out from my broken lips with the word. I did not shout it. But as I spoke it, I finally surrendered completely to the magic. It was the only thing that could save her. In that single spoken word, I gave up all hopes, all dreams, all futures I’d ever imagined for myself. The word was like lightning, and the power that surged out from me was its thunder as the magic rumbled through the crowd and filled the street. The power of the magic settled on the people like a light only I could see. They froze as they were, Thayer’s arm drawn back, the man opening his trousers, Amzil with her head thrown back in a wild cry of fear. Spink stood as he was, blood running down his face, his hand gripping the shoulder of a man in front of him as he tried to get to me. All was sudden stillness. Only the flames of the torch still wavered and leaped.

  I was shaking as I jerked myself free of the hands gripping me. The men who had been holding me let me go, their hands dropping to their sides. Thayer slowly lowered his fist, a puzzled expression on his face. Around me, the magic rippled and began to ebb. I summoned the power inside me and burned it furiously. “Stand as you are!” I commanded them. “And believe me. ”

  I stepped forward to Captain Thayer. “You beat me to death. You avenged your wife. You were satisfied. And you went home. Now. ” I tapped his brow, and he blinked, then turned and walked away from me.

  I reached through the crowd to seize Spink’s hand and drew him to me. I spoke hoarsely. “I died tonight. There was nothing you could do to save me. But you did what you knew I would want you to do. You saved Amzil. ”

  I led him unresisting to her. Then I tugged her away from the men who feebly gripped her. I gathered the torn remnants of her dress around her, and then stooped to kiss her mouth. She made no response to my touch. Her eyes were full of d
arkness and fear. I whispered to her. “You fought them off. They didn’t take you. You know now that no man will ever take you against your will. You’re strong, Amzil. Strong. You’ll keep going and build a life for yourself and your children. Lieutenant Kester helped you get safely home. ”

  As if I were posing dolls, I put Spink’s protective arm around her shoulders. I gave them both a slight push. “Go home now. Go home. It’s done. I died here. You did all you could for me. There was no way you could have saved me. ”

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  I watched them walk away into the dark street. Tears rolled down my cheeks, and as my heart yearned after them, I felt my control of the magic waver again. I instantly repented. “No,” I promised the magic. “I sever myself from them. They are no longer a part of my life. I am dead to them. Let them go, let them be. ”

  I took up the reins of the power again. I moved swiftly through the crowd now, touching men as I passed, speaking to them quickly. “You regret your part in this. ”

  “You saw me die. ”

  “You were there. You saw me beaten to death. ”

  “You held me for your captain. You know I died. ”

  I moved from man to man, repeating the lies that would become truth in their memories.

  “The Dead Town whore escaped you. You’re sorry for what you nearly did. ”

  “You’re ashamed of how you treated the woman. In your heart, you know you’re a coward. ”

  As I worked my way past the inner circle of men who had ringed me, I was kinder.

  “You turned away, sickened by what you’d thought of doing. ”

  “You tried to stop it from happening. ”

  “You saw nothing. ”

  “You never came out of your home tonight. ”

  I did not stop until I had spoken a command and sealed it with a touch to every person on the street.

  At the outermost edge of the crowd, I found Ebrooks. He crouched in the darkness, his hands over his face, his shoulders bowed. Despite my command that all be still, he was sobbing softly. I touched him gently. “You did what you could for me. After it was all over, you took my body. You buried it in a secret place. It was all you could have done. You bear no guilt. ”

 
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