Forest mage, p.22
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       Forest Mage, p.22

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

  My mind conjured up all sorts of possibilities. My father was sick and no one had thought to check on me. Or my family had left on a visit and abandoned me to the servants, who had forgotten me. A darker thought kept pressing against my mind: every soul in the household was dead of the plague. It was terrifyingly possible. I thought of breaking out the remaining panes of glass and the framework of my window and jumping out, but it was a sheer drop to the paving stones below. If it did not kill me outright, I suspected I would die a lingering death from broken legs or back. I was trapped, like a rat in a box. I wondered how long it would take me to die.

  The morning breeze through my broken window carried a bit of moisture. I opened my shirt to it and felt my skin take it in. I sat down and in a wavering hand made what I feared would be among the final entries in my soldier’s journal. Then I lay back down on my bed and closed my eyes to my fate.

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  At least two more days passed. Time lost much of its meaning for me. My Speck self had merged more deeply with my being than ever before, and I paid more attention to the cycling of daylight to dusk than I did to the passing hours. The pangs of hunger had become such a constant that it seemed a normal state. I ignored them. My skin seemed thicker when I touched it, more like the rind of a tough fruit than the skin of a man. There was little moisture in my mouth and less in my nose and eyes. It was easier not to open them. I became slowly aware of the sound of someone rattling the lock on my door. Had I heard my name called? Was that what had roused me? By the time I rallied my consciousness enough to turn my head, whoever had been in the hall had gone away. I thought of shouting, but my throat and mouth were too dry. I could scarcely pry my sticky lips apart. My body forbade me wasting energy on an effort that might prove futile.

  A time passed. Then I heard slow footfalls that stopped outside my door. Something scraped on wood, and then there was a creak followed by the sounds of wood rending. I heard the hasp and lock fall to the floor outside my door. I stared at the door passively. It seemed a miracle when it opened inward. Framed in the entry was a thin and haggard Sergeant Duril. He held a pry bar in one hand. “Nevare?” he asked me hoarsely. “Is it possible you are still alive?”

  Ponderously, I raised myself up in my bed. Duril’s eyes widened. I mouthed the word “water,” feeling my lips crack as I did so. He nodded his understanding. “Let’s go to the kitchen,” he suggested. I rose and followed him stiffly, walking like a wooden man. As I stalked through the hall behind him, I began to smell the stench of illness. A terrible premonition welled up in me.

  Neither of us spoke. Duril tottered along as if at the end of his stamina. I forced my knees to remember how to bend. My feet felt stiff as roots and even my hips worked grudgingly. When we reached the kitchen, I went directly to the sink, scarcely noting the untidy clutter that littered the tables. Dirty cups and plates filled the washing tubs. I ignored them and drank directly from the spigot, stooping and turning my head to suck in the cool water as it flowed. When I could drink no more, I filled my hands with water and splashed it over my face. I ducked my head under it and let it run over my neck and through my hair. I scrubbed my hands together in the water and rubbed it over my forearms. Dry skin sloughed off in the water as if I were a snake shedding an old skin. I cupped my hands and rubbed water into my eyes, only now realizing how crusted my eyelids had been. When I had finally had enough moisture, I shut off the spigot and turned to Sergeant Duril.

  “It was the plague, wasn’t it?”

  He nodded, staring at me in amazement. “I never saw a man drink like that. But then, I never expected you to be alive. Been sick as a dog myself, Nevare, or I’d have come for you sooner. When I dragged myself up to the main house to check on your da, I asked about you right away. He just stared at me. I’m afraid grief has turned his mind, lad. ”

  “Where is he?” I rummaged through the pantry as we spoke. Anything fresh had been consumed or gone bad. The bread cupboard was empty. For the first time in my life, the big baking ovens were cold. Only the stale smells of cooking lingered in the air. I desperately wanted and needed food. Ever since my father had built this house, the kitchen had been full of food. There had always been bread, always been a simmering stockpot on the back of the stove, its steamy aroma mingling with the smells of hot coffee and sizzling meat. Quiet had replaced the chatter of the kitchen staff, the crisp chopping of their knives against the block, the rhythmic thudding of busy hands pushing and turning pale bread dough.

  I did not know where anything was. Always, the food had been prepared for me and brought to the table, or I had discovered it cooling on the racks and shelves there. I opened drawers and cupboards randomly, finding cutlery and mixing bowls and folded towels. A terrible frustration began to build in me. Where was the food?

  I found the barrels of flour, meal, and cut oats. They infuriated me, for I could not eat them as they were, and I did not have the time to cook. My body demanded sustenance now. At last I found some turnips in one of the root bins. They had withered, but I was not fussy. I bit into the purple and white root. As I bit into the tough vegetable, Duril spoke.

  “I found your da sitting outside your brother’s door. Rosse is dead, Nevare. So is your mother and your elder sister. ”

  I stood before him, chewing, hearing his words, and sensations tore at me. In my heart, the sudden gulf of grief that opened was beyond anything I’d ever felt. I’d lost comrades when the plague swept through the academy, and teachers I had respected. Those deaths had shocked and hurt me. But the news that my mother, Rosse, and Elisi were all vanished from my life, seemingly in one instant, paralyzed my mind. I had expected to share the rest of my life with them. When I was old and unfit to serve my king any longer, I had expected to return to Rosse’s estate and make my home with him. I had anticipated helping him raise his own soldier son, as well as seeing Elisi become a mother and wife. Gone was my own gentle mother, always a force in my life, always my advocate with my father. Gone, all gone.

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  Yet the food I chewed flooded my mouth with keen pleasure. The starchiness of the core became a mild sweetness in contrast to the peppery skin. There were two textures—the fibrous skin and the crisper inner vegetable. The sensation of swallowing a bulky mouthful of food after my long deprivation was an ecstasy in itself. The taking in of food, I suddenly knew, was not only my consumption of life but a victory of the continuation of life. I had once more survived, and my physical body rejoiced in that even as tears filled my eyes at my loss.

  Duril was staring at me. “Aren’t you going to go to him?” he asked me at last.

  I shook my head slowly. My voice creaked when I spoke. “Give me some time, Sergeant. I’ve been days with no food or water. Let me eat and regain some strength before I have to face him. ”

  A shadow of disapproval passed across his face, but he did not argue with me. Instead he waited as I ate all the turnips. I offered him some, but he shook his head wordlessly. When the turnips were gone, I found a crock of raisins and sat down to devour them one sticky, chewy handful after another. They tasted wonderful. Yet the more food filled me, the keener became my awareness of my loss.

  That sensation of duality flooded me again. There was the Speck me who gloried in survival, and there was Nevare who had just lost most of his world. I looked up at Duril. “Please tell me all you know. I’ve been isolated for days. No food or water, no news. ”

  “So I see,” he said gravely. “It’s soon told, for all that has happened. The sickness came from Franner’s Bend. So I think, anyway. It happened so fast. Your da and brother went to investigate when Doc Reynolds first sent them a message about a dying family. It alarmed your da enough that he and Rosse came back here to plan the quarantine. But by the next morning, it was too late. ” He shook his head. “It spread through the Landing like a wildfire. Somehow it jumped the river. Your brother Rosse came down with it the next day
. Your mother caught it nursing him. By then, anyone who could still move was running away from it. I done the best I could, Nevare. I turned out the stock to graze and put the stable beasts out in the fields. It was the most I could do for them. I got sick right after your mother did, so I don’t know too much else until today. I finally decided I was going to live and crawled out of bed and staggered up here. I saw four covered corpses in the yard outside—I don’t know whose, or even how long they’ve been there. Stink is something terrible. Most everyone seems to be gone; at least, I hope they are, and not dead in their beds or something. I haven’t gone room to room—I came to find you first. Had no idea your da had locked you up like that, lad. It’s a miracle you survived. A miracle. What did you eat or drink up there?”

  “Nothing. ”

  He looked at me skeptically.

  “Nothing. I’ve had nothing to eat or drink for days!” I shook my head at his doubts and gave it up. “I’ve no time to convince you of it, Duril. But it’s true. Whatever magic Dewara exposed me to is strong. I slept a lot. And deeply, like a bear hibernating, I suppose. And I still feel hungry enough to eat a horse. But—”

  “But you haven’t got any thinner. Your skin’s strange, though. Dusky. Dusky as a dead man’s. ”

  “I know. ” I hadn’t, but I’d suspected it. I rubbed at my forearm. It felt odd to my touch, thick and rubbery. I shook my head, pushing the strangeness away. “I have to go to my father, Duril. Then I have to do what you said—go room to room and see what I find. ”

  I still cringe when I recall my father’s first words on seeing me. He was sitting on a straight-backed chair outside Rosse’s door. He turned his head at the sound of my footsteps.

  “You,” he said. “Still alive. Still fat as a hog. And my son Rosse dead. Why? Why would the good god spare you and take Rosse? Why would he serve me so?”

  I had no answer for him then or now. He looked terrible, thin, haggard, and unkempt. I set his words aside.

  “Have you had the sickness?” I asked him stiffly. He slowly shook his head.

  “What should I do now, Father?”

  He bit his lower lip. Then as he stood, his mouth worked suddenly, his lower lip trembling like a frightened baby’s. “They’re all dead! All of them!” He suddenly wailed. He staggered forward a few steps, but it was Duril he sought for comfort, not me. The old sergeant caught him and held him as he sobbed. I stood alone, excluded even from his grief.

  “Yaril?” I asked him when he took a breath and seemed to be easing.

  “I don’t know!” He cried out the words as if I had inflicted a fresh wound on him. “When Elisi sickened, I feared I would lose all my children. I sent Yaril and Cecile away. I told them to ride to Poronte’s holdings. I sent my little girl away, all but alone. There were no servants left who would come to the bell. I had to send them off alone. The good god alone knows what has become of her. All sorts of folk are on the road. I pray she reached there safely, I pray the Porontes took them in. ” He burst into open sobs, and then, to my horror, he sank slowly to the floor and collapsed there.

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  When I first tried to raise him up, he slapped at me feebly as if he could not abide my loathsome touch. I exchanged glances with Duril, and gave my father time to keen and moan. When he had exhausted his hoarded strength, I again stooped to take him up. I had to go down awkwardly on one knee, and my own belly was a barrier to picking him up. I was surprised to find myself strong enough to lift him easily.

  Duril followed me as I carried him to the parlor. I put him on a cushioned settee there, and told the sergeant, “Go to the kitchen. Get the cook fire started and put on a big pot of porridge. My father needs food, as do you, and simple food will do him best at first, if my own experience of the plague is any guide. ”

  “What are you going to do?” Duril asked me. My father had closed his eyes and sunk into stillness. I think Duril already knew the answer.

  “I have to go to my mother’s chamber. And Elisi’s. ”

  Duril looked guiltily relieved. We parted there.

  The rest of that day comes back to me sometimes in my nightmares. That house had always been my home, a refuge to me. The large pleasant rooms, decorated to my mother’s tastes, had always seemed an oasis of calm and respite from the larger world. Now it was filled with death.

  My family had been dead for days. Rosse was stiff in his bed, and I suspected he had been the last to die. My father had tried to tend him. A heap of soiled linens was at the foot of his bed. A clean blanket had been tucked around his body, and a napkin covered his face. My elder brother who had always gone before me in life had also gone before me into death. My father’s heir son was dead. I refused to consider the full magnitude of that loss. I left his room quietly.

  Someone, probably Elisi, had sewn a hasty shroud for my mother. I had thought to bid her farewell with a last kiss, but the smell was so thick in the stuffy room that I could barely force myself to enter. Fat flies were bumping and buzzing against the window glass. I resolved to leave her covered and keep my last memory of her strong beauty intact. I thought of how I had nodded to her and then turned away, as if she were already a ghost. I regretted it as I regret few things in my life. I left her swaddled body without touching it and went on to Elisi’s bedchamber.

  She and I had never been close. When I was born, I was not only the new baby in the family, but a son and a soldier son. I had displaced her in many ways, and that had always colored our relationship. Now she was gone, and that gap would never be mended. The last time I had been in her room, it had been a little girl’s room, with dolls on shelves next to expensive picture books with tinted illustrations. The years had changed it. Some of Elisi’s own watercolors of wildflowers were framed on the walls. The dolls were long gone. The fresh flowers had rotted in their graceful vases, and Elisi herself was a contorted corpse on the bed. A lovely comforter embroidered with birds was rucked all around her as if she had struggled free of it. She lay on her side, mouth gaping horribly, her clawlike hands reaching toward an empty pitcher on her nightstand. The fragments of a broken cup crunched under my feet. I left her room, unable at that moment to deal with her horrid death.

  I forced myself to check every other bedchamber in the house. In the newly redone servants’ wing, I found two more bodies, and one thin, frail maidservant. “They all ran off,” she told me in a shaky voice. “The master ordered them to stay, but they crept away in the dark. I stayed, and I did my best, sir. I helped Mistress Elisi tend her mother to the end. We were sewing her shroud when the fever come over me. Mistress Elisi told me to get to bed, she’d finish it herself and then come to me. She said to just take care of myself. So I did. And she never came. ”

  “It’s all right,” I said dully. “You couldn’t have saved her. You did all you could, and the family is grateful to you. You will be rewarded for your faithfulness. Go to the kitchen. Sergeant Duril is cooking food there. Eat something, and then do whatever you can to restore the household. ” I hesitated and then added, “Care for Lord Burvelle as best you can. He is overcome by grief. ”

  “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. ” She seemed pathetically relieved that I had not condemned her as she shuffled off to the task I had given her. The rest of the bedchambers showed the signs of hasty departure. I wondered if those who had fled had saved their lives or only spread the plague further.

  My father himself had laid out our mansion and estate. He had forgotten nothing in plotting out a home that he intended would serve the family for generations. Thus there was even a stone-walled cemetery with an adjacent chapel with shade trees, and beds of flowers. Niches in the stone wall held symbols of the good god: the pomegranate tree, the ever-pouring pitcher, and the ring of keys. I had seen them so often that I no longer noticed them. The walled cemetery was a very pleasant place, really, as carefully maintained as my mother’s garden. There, my father had once told me, “All of our bones
will someday rest. ”

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  He had never expected that day to come so soon, nor that his children would die before him. For most of my life, there had been only five graves in it, simply marked with stone, markers for the retainers who had followed my father, serving him first as soldiers and later as servants, and finally dying in his employ.

  All the rest of that day, I dug graves. Nine graves. Four for the poor souls who’d been left in the courtyard. Two for the bodies I’d found in the servants’ quarters. Three for my family.

  It was not easy work. I was surprised I could do it, given the privation I had endured. The top layer of soil was cultivated turf, but only a few inches below it I struck the rocky soil that was more characteristic of our lands. I set aside my spade and took up a pickax to break through that layer, and eventually into the claylike soil beneath it. It was a relief to focus my mind on this simple task. I made the sides of each grave straight, and threw the soil where it could not slide back onto me. The holes were wider, perhaps, than another digger would have made; I had to accommodate my own girth. My arms and back were stiff at first, but soon warmed to my work. My body complained far less than I had expected. It was good to be out in the fresh air and sunlight again. After a time, I stripped off my shirt and worked more freely, though not without some worry that someone might see me.

  The hard physical labor kept my thoughts at bay. I toiled like the muddy-boots engineer I had once planned to be. I aligned my graves precisely, leaving uniform walking spaces between them. When my mind began to work again, I walked the edges of my grief, pushing away the full realization of what had befallen me. I did not think of my dead, but wondered where the servants had fled to and if they would return, or if they had carried their own deaths with them and perished alongside the road. From there, I had to wonder how Burvelle’s Landing had fared. That small community on the other side of the road was my father’s pride and joy. He had laid out the streets and persuaded an innkeeper and a smith and a mercantile owner to come there long before anyone else had seen potential for a settlement there. His men operated the ferry to it, and the little town council reported directly to my father for his final say on all their decisions. The existence of that town and our comfortable life in the manor house were tightly linked. I wondered if the streets of Burvelle’s Landing were still and quiet, if the dead lay rotting in their homes.

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