Forest Mage

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  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. ” Page 2


  Trist stood up. He shuffled away from my bed and back to his. He was breathing noisily by the time he sat down on his bunk.

  Slowly I lay back down. I heard Trist cough again, wheeze, and then lie down. It was no comfort to me that he, too, was tormented with nightmares. I thought of Tree Woman and shuddered again. She is dead, I assured myself. She can no longer reach into my life. I killed her. I killed her and I took back into myself the part of my spirit that she’d stolen and seduced. She can’t control me anymore. It was only a dream. I took a deeper, steadying breath, turned my pillow to the cool side, and burrowed into it. I dared not close my eyes lest I fall back into that nightmare. I deliberately focused my mind on the present, and pushed my night terror away from me.

  All around me in the darkness, my fellow survivors slept. Bringham House’s dormitory was a long open room, with a large window at each end. Two neat rows of bunks lined the long walls. There were forty beds, but only thirty-one were full. Colonel Rebin, the King’s Cavalla Academy commander, had combined the sons of old nobles with the sons of battle lords, and recalled the cadets who had been culled earlier in the year, but even that measure had not completely replenished our depleted ranks. The colonel might have declared us equals, but I suspected that only time and familiarity would erase the social gulf between the sons of established noble families and those of us whose fathers could claim a title only because the king had elevated them in recognition of their wartime service.

  Rebin mingled us out of necessity. The Speck plague that had roared through the academy had devastated us. Our class of first-years had been halved. The second- and third-years had taken almost as heavy a loss. Instructors as well as students had perished in that unnatural onslaught. Colonel Rebin was doing the best he could to reorganize the academy and put it back on a regular schedule, but we were still licking our wounds. Speck plague had culled a full generation of future officers. Gernia’s military would feel that loss keenly in the years to come. And that had been what the Specks intended when they used their magic to send their disease against us.

  Morale at the academy was subdued as we staggered forward into the new year. It wasn’t just the number of deaths the plague had visited on us, though that was bad enough. The plague had come among us and slaughtered us at will, an enemy that all of our training could not prevail against. Strong, brave young men who had hoped to distinguish themselves on battlefields had instead died in their beds, soiled with vomit and urine and whimpering feebly for their mothers. It is never good to remind soldiers of their own mortality. We had believed ourselves young heroes, full of energy, courage, and lust for life. The plague had revealed to us that we were mortals, and just as vulnerable as the weakest babe in arms.

  The first time Colonel Rebin had assembled us on the parade
ground in our old formations, he had ordered us all “at ease” and then commanded us to look around us and see how many of our fellows had fallen. He then gave a speech, telling us that the plague was the first battle we had passed through, and that just as the plague had not discriminated between old nobility and new nobility, neither would a blade or a bullet. As he formed us up into our new condensed companies, I pondered his words. I doubted that he truly realized that the Speck plague had not been a random contagion but a true strike against us, as telling as any military attack. The Specks had sent “Dust Dancers” from the far eastern frontiers of Gernia all the way to our capitol city, for the precise purpose of sowing their disease among our nobility and our future military leaders. They had succeeded in thinning our ranks. If not for me, their success would have been complete. Sometimes I took pride in that.

  At other times, I recalled that if not for me, they never would have been able to attack us as they had.

  I had tried, without success, to shrug off the guilt I felt. I’d been the unwilling and unwitting partner of the Specks and Tree Woman. It was not my fault, I told myself, that I’d fallen into her power. Years ago, my father had entrusted me to a Plainsman warrior for training. Dewara had nearly killed me with his “instruction. ” And toward the end of my time with him, he’d decided to “make me Kidona” by inducting me into the magic of his people.

  Foolishly, I’d allowed him to drug me and take me into the supernatural world of his people. He’d told me I could win honor and glory by doing battle with the ancient enemy of his people. But what confronted me at the end of a series of trials had been a fat old woman sitting in the shade of a huge tree. I was my father’s soldier son, trained in the chivalry of the cavalla. I could not draw sword against an old woman. Due to that misplaced gallantry, I had fallen to her. She had “stolen” me from Dewara and made me her pawn. A part of me had remained with her in that spirit world. While I had grown and gone off to the academy and begun my education to be an officer in my king’s cavalla, he had become her acolyte. Tree Woman had made that part of me into a Speck in all things but having speckled skin. Through him, she spied on my people, and hatched her terrible plan to destroy us with the Speck plague. Masquerading as captive dancers, her emissaries came to Old Thares as part of the Dark Evening carnival and unleashed their disease upon us.

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  My Speck self had seized control of me. I’d signaled the Dust Dancers to let them know they had reached their goal. The carnivalgoers who surrounded them thought they had come to witness an exhibition of primitive dance. Instead, they’d breathed in the disease with the flung dust. When my fellow cadets and I left the carnival, we were infected. And the disease had spread throughout all of Old Thares.

  In my bed in the darkened dormitory, I rolled over and thumped my pillow back into shape. Stop thinking about how I betrayed my own people, I begged myself. Think instead of how I saved them.

  And I had. In a terrible encounter born of my Speck plague fever, I had finally been able to cross back into her world and challenge her. Not only had I won back the piece of my soul she had stolen, but I had also slain her, slashing her belly wide open with the cold iron of my cavalla saber. I severed her connection to our world. Her reign over me was finished. I attributed my complete recovery from the Speck plague to my reclaiming the piece of my spirit she had stolen. I had regained my health and vitality, and even put on flesh. In a word, I had become whole again.

  In the days and nights that followed my return to the academy and the resumption of a military routine, I discovered that as I reintegrated that other, foreign self, I absorbed his memories as well. His recollections of the Tree Woman and her world were the source of my beautiful dreams of walking in untouched forest in the company of an amazing woman. I felt as if the twin halves of my being had parted, followed differing roads, and now had converged once more into a single self. The very fact that I accepted this was so, and tried to absorb those alien emotions and opinions, was a fair indicator that my other self was having a substantial impact on who I was becoming. The old Nevare, the self I knew so well, would have rejected such a melding as blasphemous and impossible.

  I had killed the Tree Woman, and I did not regret doing it. She had extinguished lives for the sake of the “magic” she could draw from their foundering souls. My best friend, Spink, and my Cousin Epiny had been among her intended victims. I had killed Tree Woman to save them. I knew that I had also saved myself, and dozens of others. By daylight, I did not think of my deed at all, or if I did, I took satisfaction in knowing that I had triumphed and saved my friends. Yet my night thoughts were a different matter. When I hovered between wakefulness and sleep, a terrible sorrow and guilt would fill me. I mourned the creature I had slain, and missed her with a sorrow that hollowed me. My Speck self had been her lover and regretted that I’d slain her. But that was he, not me. In my dreams, he might briefly rule my thoughts. But by day, I was still Nevare Burvelle, my father’s son and a future officer in the king’s cavalla. I had prevailed. I would continue to prevail. And I would do all I could, every day of my life, to make up for the traitorous deeds of my other self.

  I sighed. I knew I would not sleep again that night. I tried to salve my conscience. The plague we had endured together had strengthened us in some ways. It had united us as cadets. There had been little opposition to Colonel Rebin’s insistence on ending the segregation of old nobles’ and new nobles’ sons. In the last few weeks I’d come to know better the “old noble” first-years and found that, generally speaking, they were little different from my old patrol. The vicious rivalry that had separated us for the first part of the year had foundered and died. Now that we were truly one academy and could socialize freely, I wondered what had made me loathe them so. They were perhaps more sophisticated and polished than their frontier brethren, but at the end of the day they were first-years just like us, groaning under the same demerits and duty. Colonel Rebin had taken care to mix us well in our new patrols. Nonetheless, my closest friends were still the four surviving members of my old patrol.

  Rory had stepped up to fill the position of best friend to me when Spink’s broken health had forced him to withdraw from the academy. His devil-may-care attitude and frontier roughness were, I felt, a good counterweight to stiffness and rules. Whenever I lapsed into moodiness or became too pensive, Rory would rowdy me past it. He was the least changed of my old patrol mates. Trist was no longer the tall, handsome cadet he’d been. His brush with death had stolen his physical confidence. When he laughed now, it always had a bitter edge. Kort missed Nate acutely. He bowed under his grief, and though he had recovered his health, he was so somber and dull without his friend that he seemed to be living but half a life. Fat Gord was still as heavy as ever, but he seemed more content with his lot and also more dignified. When it looked as if the plague would doom everyone, Gord’s parents and his fiancée’s parents had allowed their offspring to wed early and taste what little of life they might be allowed. Fortune had smiled on them, and they had come through the plague unscathed. Although Gord was still teased by all and despised by some for his fat, his new status as a married man agreed with him. He seemed to possess an inner contentment and sense of worth that childish taunts could not disturb. He spent every day of his liberty with his wife, and she sometimes came to visit him during the week. Cilima was a quiet little thing with huge black eyes and tumbling black curls. She was completely infatuated with “my dear Gordy,” as she always called him, and he was devoted to her. His marriage separated him from the rest of us; he now seemed much older than his fellow first-years. He went after his studies with a savage determination. I had always known that he was good at math and engineering. He now revealed that in fact he was brilliant, and had till now merely been marking time. He no longer concealed his keen mind. I knew that Colonel Rebin had summoned him once to discuss his future. He had taken Gord out of the first-year math course and given him
texts to study independently. We were still friends, but without Spink and his need for tutoring, we did not spend much time together. Our only long conversations seemed to occur when one or the other of us would receive a letter from Spink.

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  He wrote to both of us, more or less regularly. Spink himself had survived the plague, but his military career had not. His handwriting wavered more than it had before his illness, and his letters were not long. He did not whine or bitterly protest his fate, but the brevity of his missives spoke to me of dashed hopes. He had constant pain in his joints now, and headaches if he read or wrote for too long. Dr. Amicas had given Spink a medical discharge from the academy. Spink had married my Cousin Epiny, who had nursed him through his illness. Together, they had set out for his brother’s holdings at distant Bitter Springs. The sedate life of a dutiful younger son was a far cry from Spink’s previous dreams of military glory and swift advancement through the ranks.

  Epiny’s letters to me were naively revealing. Her inked words prattled as verbosely as her tongue did. I knew the names of the flowers, trees, and plants she had encountered on her way to Bitter Springs, every day’s weather, and each tiny event on her tedious journey there. Epiny had traded my uncle’s wealth and sophisticated home in Old Thares for the life of a frontier wife. She had once told me she thought she could be a good soldier’s wife, but it looked as if her final vocation would be caretaker for her invalid husband. Spink would have no career of his own. They would live on his brother’s estate, and at his brother’s sufferance. Fond as his elder brother was of Spink, it would still be difficult for him to stretch his paltry resources to care for his soldier brother and his wife.

  In the darkness, I shifted in my bunk. Trist was right, I decided. None of us would have the lives we’d expected. I muttered a prayer to the good god for all of us, and closed my eyes to get what sleep I could before dawn commanded us to rise.

  I was weary when I rose the next morning with my fellows. Rory tried to jolly me into conversation at breakfast, but my answers were brief, and no one else at our table took up his banter. Our first class of the day was Engineering and Drafting. I’d enjoyed the course when Captain Maw instructed it, despite his prejudice against new noble sons like me. But the plague had carried Maw off, and a third-year cadet had been pressed into duty as our temporary instructor. Cadet Sergeant Vredo seemed to think that discipline was more important than information, and frequently issued demerits to cadets who dared to ask questions. Captain Maw’s untidy room full of maps and models had been gutted. Rows of desks and interminable lectures had replaced our experimentation. I kept my head down, did my work, and learned little that was new to me.

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