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       Forest Mage, p.2

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

  In contrast, Cadet Lieutenant Bailey was doing rather well instructing Military History, for he plainly loved his topic and had read widely beyond his course materials. His lecture that day was one that engaged me. He spoke about the impact of Gernian civilization on the Plainspeople. In my father’s lifetime, Landsing, our traditional enemy, had finally dealt Gernia a sound defeat. Gernia had had to surrender our territory along the western seacoast. King Troven had had no choice but to turn his eyes to the east and the unclaimed territories there. Nomadic folk had long roamed the wide prairies and high plateaus of the interior lands, but they were primitive folk with no central government, no king, and few permanent settlements. When Gernia had begun to expand east, they had fought us, but their arrows and spears were no match for our modern weaponry. We had defeated them. There was no question in anyone’s mind that it was for their own good.

  “Since Gernia took charge of the Plainsmen and their lands, they have begun to put down roots, to build real towns rather than their seasonal settlements, to pen their cattle and grow food rather than forage for it. The swift horses of great stamina that sustained the largely nomadic peoples have been replaced with sturdy oxen and plow horses. For the first time, their children are experiencing the benefits of schooling and written language. Knowledge of the good god is being imparted to them, replacing the fickle magic they once relied on. ”

  Lofert waved a hand and then spoke before the instructor could acknowledge him. “But what about them, uh, Preservationists, sir? I heard my father telling one of his friends that they’d like to give all our land back to the Plainsfolk and let them go back to living like wild animals. ”

  “Wait to be acknowledged before you ask a question, Cadet. And your comment wasn’t phrased as a question. But I’ll answer it. There are people who feel that we have made radical changes to the lifestyles of the Plainsmen too swiftly for them to adapt to them. In some instances, they are probably correct. In many others, they are, in my opinion, ignorant of the reality of what they suggest. But what we have to ask ourselves is, would it be better for them if we delayed offering them the benefits of civilization? Or would we simply be neglecting our duty to them?

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  “Remember that the Plainspeople used to rely on their primitive magic and spells for survival. They can no longer do that. And having taken their magic from them, is it not our duty to replace it with modern tools for living? Iron, the backbone of our modernizing world, is anathema to their magic. The iron plows we gave them to till the land negate the “finding magic” of their foragers. Flint and steel have become a requirement, for their mages can no longer call forth flame from wood. The Plainsmen are settled now and can draw water from wells. The water mages who used to lead the people to drinking places along their long migratory routes are no longer needed. The few wind wizards who remain are solitary creatures, seldom glimpsed. Reports of their flying rugs and their little boats that moved of themselves across calm water are already scoffed at as tales. I have no doubt that in another generation, they’ll be the stuff of legend. ”

  Cadet Lieutenant Bailey’s words saddened me. My mind wandered briefly. I recalled my own brief glimpse of a wind wizard on the river during my journey to Old Thares. He had held his small sail wide to catch the wind he had summoned. His little craft had moved swiftly against the current. The sight had been both moving and mystical to me. Yet I also recalled with wrenching regret how it had ended. Some drunken fools on our riverboat had shot his sail full of holes. The iron shot they had used had disrupted the wizard’s spell as well. He’d been flung off his little vessel into the river. I believed he had drowned there, victim of the young noblemen’s jest.

  “Lead can kill a man, but it takes cold iron to defeat magic. ” My instructor’s words jolted me from my daydream.

  “That our superior civilization replaces the primitive order of the Plainsmen is a part of the natural order,” he lectured. “And lest you feel too superior, be mindful that we Gernians have been victims of advanced technology ourselves. When Landsing made their discovery that allowed their cannon and long guns to shoot farther and more accurately than ours, they were able to defeat us and take from us our seacoast provinces. Much as we resent that, it was natural that once they had achieved a military technology that was superior to our own, they would take what they wished from us. Keep that in mind, cadets. We are entering an age of technology.

  “The same principle applies to our conquest of the Plains. Shooting lead bullets at Plains warriors, we were able to maintain our borders by force of arms, but we could not expand them. It was only when some forward-thinking man realized that iron shot would destroy their magic as well as cause injury that we were able to push back their boundaries and impose our will on them. The disadvantages of iron shot, that it cannot be as easily reclaimed and remanufactured in the field as lead ball can, were offset by the military advantage it gave us in defeating their warriors. The Plainsmen had relied on their magic to turn aside our shot, to scare our horses, and generally to confound our troops. Our advance into their lands, gentlemen, is as inevitable as a rising tide, just as was our defeat by the Landsingers. And, just like us, the Plainsmen will either be swept away before new technology, or they will learn to live with it. ”

  “Then you think it is our right, sir, to just run over them?” Lofert asked in his earnest way.

  “Raise your hand and wait to be acknowledged before you speak, Cadet. You’ve been warned before. Three demerits. Yes. I think it is our right. The good god has given us the means to defeat the Plainsmen, and to prosper where once only goatherds or wild beasts dwelt. We will bring civilization to the Midlands, to the benefit of all. ”

  I caught myself wondering how much the fallen from both sides had benefited. Then I shook my head angrily, and resolutely set aside such cynical musings. I was a cadet in the King’s Cavalla Academy. Like any second son of a nobleman, I was my father’s soldier son, and I would follow in his footsteps. I had not been born to question the ways of the world. If the good god had wanted me to ponder fate or question the morality of our eastward expansion, he would have made me a third son, born to be a priest.

  At the end of the lecture, I blew on my notes to dry them, closed up my books, and joined the rest of my patrol to march in formation back to the dormitory. Spring was trying to gain a hold on the academy grounds and not completely succeeding. There was a sharp nip of chill in the wind, yet it was pleasant to be out in the fresh air again. I tried to push aside my somber musings on the fate of the Plainsmen. It was, as our instructor had said, the natural order of things. Who was I to dispute it? I followed my friends up the stairs to our dormitory, and shelved my textbooks from my morning classes. The day’s mail awaited me on my bunk. There was a fat envelope from Epiny. The other cadets left me sitting on my bunk. As they hurried off to the noon meal, I opened her letter.

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  Her letter opened with her usual queries about my health and schooling. I quickly skimmed past that part. She had arrived safely in Bitter Springs. Epiny’s first letter about reaching her new home was determinedly optimistic, but I sensed the gap between her expectations and the reality she now confronted. I sat on my bunk and read it with sympathy and bemusement.

  The women of the household work as hard as the men, right alongside the servants. Truly, the saying that “Men but work from sun to sun, woman’s work is never done!” is true of Lady Kester’s household. In the hours after dinner, when the light is dim and you might think some rest was due us, one of us will read or make music for the others, allowing our minds to drift a bit, but our ever-busy hands go on with such mundane tasks as shelling dried peas or using a drop-spindle to make thread of wool (I am proud to say I have become quite good at this chore!) or unraveling old sweaters and blankets so that the yarn can be reused to make useful items. Lady Kester wastes nothing, not a scrap of fabric nor a minute of time.

/>   Spink and I have our own dear little cottage, built of stone, as that is what we have an abundance of here. It used to be the milk house, and had fallen into disrepair after the last two milk cows died. When Lady Kester knew we were coming, she decided that we would relish a little privacy of our own, and so she had her daughters do their best to clean and tighten it up for us before we arrived. The inside of it was freshly whitewashed, and Spink’s sister Gera has given us the quilt that she had sewn for her own hope chest. There is only the one room, of course, but it is ample for the little furniture we have. The bedstead fills one corner, and our table with our own two chairs is right by the window that looks out over the open hillside. Spink tells me that once the late frosts have passed, we shall have a vista of wild flowers there. Even so, it is quite rustic and quaint, but as soon as Spink’s health has improved, he says he will put in a new floor and fix the chimney so that it draws better, and use a spoke shave to persuade the door to shut tightly in the jamb. Summer approaches and with it warmer weather, which I shall be grateful to see. I trust that by the time the rains and frosts return, we shall have made our little home as cozy as a bird’s nest in a hollow tree. For now, when the cold wind creeps round the door or the mosquitoes keen in my ear at night, I ask myself, “Am I not as hearty as the little ground squirrels that scamper about during the day and have no better than a hole to shelter in at night? Surely I can take a lesson from them and find as much satisfaction in my simple life. ” And so I make myself content.

  “Yer cousin wants to be a ground squirrel?” Rory asked me. I turned to find him reading over my shoulder. I glared at him. He grinned, unabashed.

  “That’s rude, Rory, and you know it. ”

  “Sorry!” His grin grew wolfish. “I wouldn’t have read it, but I thought it was from your girl and might have some intrestin’ bits in it. ”

  He dodged my counterfeit swipe at him and then with false pomposity warned me, “Better not hit me, Cadet! Remember, I outrank you for now. Besides, I’m a messenger. Dr. Amicas sent word that you were to come and see him. He also said that if you don’t think his request to visit him weekly is sufficient, he could make it a direct order. ”

  “Oh. ” My heart sank. I didn’t want to go see the academy physician anymore, but neither did I want to annoy the irascible old man. I was aware still of the debt that I owed him. I folded up Epiny’s letter and rose with a sigh. Dr. Amicas had been a friend to me, in his own brusque way. And he’d definitely behaved heroically through the plague, going without rest to care for the dozens of cadets who fell to the disease. Without him, I would not have survived. I knew that the plague fascinated him, and that he had a personal ambition to discover its method of transmission, as well as document which techniques saved lives and which were worthless, and was writing a scholarly paper summing up all his observations of the recent outbreak. He had told me that monitoring my amazing recovery from such a severe case of plague was a part of his research, but I was dismally tired of it. Every week he poked and prodded and measured me. The way he spoke to me made me feel that I had not recovered at all but was merely going through an extended phase of recuperation. I wished he would stop reminding me of my experience. I wanted to put the plague behind me and stop thinking of myself as an invalid.

  “Right now?” I asked Rory.

  “Right now, Cadet,” he confirmed. He spoke as a friend, but the new stripe on his sleeve still meant that I’d best go immediately.

  “I’ll miss the noon meal,” I objected.

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  “Wouldn’t hurt you to miss a meal or two,” he said meaningfully.

  I scowled at his jab, but he only grinned. I nodded and set out for the infirmary.

  In the last few balmy days, some misguided trees had flowered. They wore their white and pink blossoms bravely despite the day’s chill. The groundskeepers had been at work: all the fallen branches from the winter storms had been tidied away and the greens manicured to velvet.

  I had to pass one very large flower bed where precisely spaced ranks of bulb flowers had pushed up their green spikes of leaves; soon there would be regiments of tulips in bloom. I looked away from them; I knew what lay beneath those stalwart rows. They covered the pit grave that had received so many of my comrades. A single gravestone stood grayly in the middle of the garden. It said only, OUR HONORED DEAD. The academy had been quarantined when the plague broke out. Even when it had spread through the city beyond our walls, Dr. Amicas had maintained our isolation. Our dead had been carried out of the infirmaries and dormitories and set down first in rows, and then, as their numbers increased, in stacks. I had been among the ill. I had not witnessed the mounting toll, nor seen the rats that scuttled and the carrion birds that flocked, despite the icy cold, to the feast. Dr. Amicas had been the one to order reluctantly that a great pit be dug and the bodies be tumbled in, along with layers of quicklime and earth.

  Nate was down there, I knew. I tried not to think of his flesh rotting from his bones, or about the bodies tangled and clumped together in the obscene impartiality of such a grave. Nate had deserved better. They had all deserved better. I’d heard one of the new cadets refer to the grave site as “the memorial to the Battle of Pukenshit. ” I’d wanted to hit him. I turned up my collar against a wind that still bit with winter’s teeth and hurried past the groomed gardens through the late afternoon light.

  At the door of the infirmary I hesitated, and then gritted my teeth and stepped inside. The bare corridor smelled of lye soap and ammonia, but in my mind the miasma of sickness still clung to this place. Many of my friends and acquaintances had died in this building only a couple of months ago. I wondered that Dr. Amicas could stand to keep his offices here. Had it been left to me, I would have burned the infirmary down to scorched earth and rebuilt somewhere else.

  When I tapped on the door of his private office, the doctor peremptorily ordered me to come in. Clouds of drifting pipe smoke veiled the room and flavored the air. “Cadet Burvelle, reporting as ordered, sir,” I announced myself.

  He pushed his chair back from his cluttered desk and rose, taking his spectacles off as he did so. He looked me up and down, and I felt the measure of his glance. “You weren’t ordered, Cadet, and you know it. But the importance of my research is such that if you don’t choose to cooperate, I will give you such orders. Instead of coming at your convenience, you’ll come at mine, and then enjoy the pleasure of making up missed class time. Are we clear?”

  His words were harsher than his tone. He meant them, but he spoke almost as if we were peers. “I’ll cooperate, sir. ” I was unbuttoning my uniform jacket as I spoke. One of the buttons, loosened on its thread, broke free and went flying across the office. He lifted a brow at that.

  “Still gaining flesh, I see. ”

  “I always put on weight right before I get taller. ” I spoke a bit defensively. This was the third time he had brought up my weight gain. I thought it unkind of him. “Surely that must be better than me being thin as a rail, like Trist. ”

  “Cadet Wissom’s reaction to having survived the plague is the norm. Yours is different. ‘Better’ remains to be seen,” he replied ponderously. “Any other changes that you’ve noticed? How’s your wind?”

  “It’s fine. I had to march off six demerits yesterday, and I finished up at the same time as the other fellows. ”

  “Hm. ” He had drawn closer as I spoke. As if I were a thing rather than a person, he inspected my body, looking in my ears, eyes, and nose, and then listening to my heart and breathing. He made me run in place for a good five minutes, and then listened to my heart and lungs again. He jotted down voluminous notes, weighed me, took my height, and then quizzed me on all I’d eaten since yesterday. As I’d had only what the mess allotted to me, that question was quickly answered.

  “But you’ve still gained weight, even though you haven’t increased your food intake?” he asked me, as if questioning my hones

  “I’m out of spending money,” I told him. “I’m eating as I’ve eaten since I arrived here. The extra flesh is only because I’m about to go through another growth spurt. ”

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  “I see. You know that, do you?”

  I didn’t answer that. I knew it was rhetorical. He stooped to retrieve my button and handed it back to me. “Best sew that on good and tight, Cadet. ” He put his notes on me into a folder and then sat down at his desk with a sigh. “You’re going home in a couple of weeks, aren’t you? For your sister’s wedding?”

  “For my brother’s wedding, sir. Yes, I am. I’ll leave as soon as my tickets arrive. My father wrote to Colonel Rebin to ask that I be released for the occasion. The colonel told me that ordinarily he would strongly disapprove of a cadet taking a month off from studies to attend a wedding, but that given the condition of our classes at present, he thinks I can make up the work. ”

  The doctor was nodding to my words. He pursed his mouth, seemed on the verge of saying something, hesitated, and then said, “I think it’s for the best that you do go home for a time. Traveling by ship?”

  “Part of the way. Then I’ll do the rest by horseback. I’ll go more swiftly by road than on a vessel fighting the spring floods. I’ve my own horse in the academy stables. Sirlofty didn’t get much exercise over the winter. This journey will put both of us back into condition. ”

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