Forest Mage (The Soldier Son Trilogy #2)

by Robin Hobb



There is a fragrance in the forest. It does not come from a single flower or leaf. It is not the rich aroma of dark crumbly earth or the sweetness of fruit that has passed from merely ripe to mellow and rich. The scent I recalled was a combination of all these things, and of sunlight touching and awakening their essences and of a very slight wind that blended them perfectly. She smelled like that.

We lay together in a bower. Above us, the distant top of the canopy swayed gently, and the beaming rays of sunlight danced over our bodies in time with them. Vines and creepers that draped from the stretching branches above our heads formed the sheltering walls of our forest pavilion. Deep moss cushioned my bare back, and her soft arm was my pillow. The vines curtained our trysting place with their foliage and large, pale green flowers. The sepals pushed past the fleshy lips of the blossoms and were heavy with yellow pollen. Large butterflies with wings of deep orange traced with black were investigating the flowers. One insect left a drooping blossom, alighted on my lover’s shoulder, and walked over her soft dappled flesh. I watched it unfurl a coiled black tongue to taste the perspiration that dewed the forest woman’s skin, and envied it.

I lay in indescribable comfort, content beyond passion. I lifted a lazy hand to impede the butterfly’s progress. Fearlessly, it stepped onto my fingers. I raised it to be an ornament in my lover’s thick and tousled hair. She opened her eyes at my touch. She had hazel eyes, green mingling with soft brown. She smiled. I leaned up on my elbow and kissed her. Her ample breasts pressed against me, startling in their softness.

“I’m sorry,” I said softly, tilting back from the kiss. “I’m so sorry I had to kill you.”

Her eyes were sad but still fond. “I know,” she replied. There was no rancor in her voice. “Be at peace with it, soldier’s boy. All will come true as it was meant to be. You belong to the magic now, and whatever it must have you do, you will do.”

“But I killed you. I loved you and I killed you.”

She smiled gently. “Such as we do not die as others do.”

“Do you yet live then?” I asked her. I pulled my body back from hers and looked down between us at the mound of her belly. It gave the lie to her words. My cavalla saber had slashed her wide open. Her entrails spilled from that gash and rested on the moss between us. They were pink and liverish-gray, coiling like fat worms. They had piled up against my bare legs, warm and slick. Her blood smeared my genitals. I tried to scream and could not. I struggled to push away from her, but we had grown fast together.


I woke with a shudder and sat up in my bunk, panting silently through my open mouth. A tall pale wraith stood over me. I gave a muted yelp before I recognized Trist. “You were whimpering in your sleep,” Trist told me. I compulsively brushed at my thighs, and then lifted my hands close to my face. In the dim moonlight through the window, they were clean of blood.

“It was only a dream,” Trist assured me.

“Sorry,” I muttered, ashamed. “Sorry I was noisy.”

“It’s not like you’re the only one to have nightmares.” The thin cadet sat down on the foot of my bed. Once he had been whiplash-lean and limber. Now he was skeletal and moved like a stiff old man. He coughed twice and then caught his breath. “Know what I dream?” He didn’t wait for my reply. “I dream I died of Speck plague. Because I did, you know. I was one of the ones who died, and then revived. But I dream that instead of holding my body in the infirmary, Dr. Amicas let them put me out with the corpses. In my dream, they toss me in the pit grave, and they throw the quicklime down on me. I dream I wake up down there, under all those bodies that stink of piss and vomit, with the lime burning into me. I try to climb out, but they just keep throwing more bodies down on top of me. I’m clawing and pushing my way past them, trying to get out of the pit through all that rotting flesh and bones. And then I realize that the body I’m climbing over is Nate. He’s all dead and decaying, but he opens his eyes and he asks, ‘Why me, Trist? Why me and not you?’” Trist gave a sudden shudder and huddled his shoulders.

“They’re only dreams, Trist,” I whispered. All around us, the other first-years who had survived the plague slumbered on. Someone coughed in his sleep. Someone else muttered, yipped like a puppy, and then grew still. Trist was right. Few of us slept well anymore. “They’re only bad dreams. It’s all over. The plague passed us by. We survived.”

“Easy for you to say. You recovered. You’re fit and hearty.” He stood up. His nightshirt hung on his lanky frame. In the dim dormitory, his eyes were dark holes. “Maybe I survived, but the plague didn’t pass me by. I’ll live with what it did to me to the end of my days. You think I’ll ever lead a charge, Nevare? I can barely manage to keep standing through morning assembly. I’m done as a soldier. Done before I started. I’ll never live the life I expected to lead.”

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