Forest mage, p.23
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       Forest Mage, p.23

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

  I shied away from that image, but then found myself thinking about our landed neighbors and how they had fared. Some lived in relative isolation. I hoped that our folk fleeing the plague had not visited it upon them.

  Then, like a willful horse on a lunge line, I came round at last to wondering if Cecile and Yaril had safely reached the Poronte manor, and if they had escaped the plague or borne it thither.

  I had been so angered with and distanced from my little sister. Now, when I thought of her, I could only recall how wide and trusting her eyes had always seemed when she was a child. I discovered an odd thing. I had only been able to be so angry with her because I had believed that one day we would apologize to one another and resume our close relationship. It had felt safe to be furious with her, because in my deepest soul, I had been utterly confident that she still loved me, as I did her. Now I wondered with a terrible lurch of sorrow if she had gone to her death neither forgiving me nor knowing that I would forgive her. And with that last terrible thought in my mind, I flung the final shovel full of earth out of the ninth grave. Alone, I carried the bodies of the servants, one by one, to their resting places, setting them beside the holes where they would lie. I put my shirt on over my dirty body, and went quietly to the kitchens. The wonderful smell of simmering porridge and baking bread filled the air. I found Sergeant Duril and the maidservant there, talking quietly. Her name, I discovered, was Nita. Nita had set out salt and molasses on the table alongside a slab of butter from a cold cellar I’d been unaware existed. She had put several loaves of bread to bake in the reawakened ovens. She told me that they had given my father food and several very strong drinks before steering him into a clean bed in one of the guest rooms. They’d left him there, sleeping the sleep of exhaustion.

  At my request, they went out to the four bodies I’d moved, to look on them a last time and to tell me what their names had been. The moment they left the kitchen, I could restrain myself no longer. I dished myself an immense tureen of porridge. I put several hunks of butter to melt in it, and then poured molasses over the top of it. I sat down and devoured it in huge spoonfuls. It was hot to the point of scalding, but that did not discourage me. I stirred it to cool it, melting the glorious yellow butter into the oaty porridge and mingling the rich brown threads of molasses in swirls. As fast as it cooled, I ate it, savoring the subtle flavors and the sensation of swallowing large bites of nourishing food. I served myself another bowlful from the pot, scraping it clean. I was generous with both butter and molasses. I devoured it.

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  They’d left a pot of tea on the table. I poured myself a cup, sweetened it to soupiness with more of the molasses, and drank it down. I could feel life and strength resurging in me with the consumption of the sweet stuff. I poured another cup, draining the pot. I put more water in the kettle and set it to boil again. The smell of the baking bread almost made me wild.

  I was startled when Duril and Nita came back. In glorying in the food, I’d almost forgotten them and my grisly task. I hastily drained off the last of my cup of tea. Duril was looking at me in a sort of frozen dismay. I suddenly realized how I must appear, my face and shirt smudged with dirt and sweat, my nails and hands filthy, and supporting it all, my immense body. The sticky tureen was still on the table before me, the ewer of molasses almost empty beside it. I bowed my shoulders reflexively, trying to seem smaller.

  “I have their names, if you want to write them down,” Duril said heavily.

  “Yes. Thank you. I do. We will have to have stones carved for them later, but for now, well, it is best that I put them in the earth. ”

  Duril nodded solemnly. I went to my father’s study for paper and a pencil. When I returned, Nita was washing up the porridge pot. “I’ll go with you,” Duril announced, and followed me out of the kitchen.

  He said little, but I could feel his disapproval hovering over me. When we reached the bodies, he listed their names for me and I wrote them down carefully, along with whatever he knew about each of them. Then, as if I were planting tulip bulbs, I set one man and three women into the earth. Duril helped me as much as he could, but his strength was gone, and I fear we were not as gentle with those mortal remains as we would have been in better times. When they were in their graves, we returned to the house, and one at a time, I carried out the two dead servants I had discovered in their rooms. Their soiled bedding became their shrouds. Flies had found the one, and the hatching maggots worked in his nostrils and at the corners of his mouth. Even hardened old Sergeant Duril turned aside from that sight, and I repressed a gag as I covered the dead man with his bedding and wrapped it firmly around him. As I carried him out of the house, I wondered if we would ever get the stench of death out of the place.

  Duril had known them both. I noted down their names and set them each in a grave. Then we covered them, with me doing the lion’s share of the work, and Duril manning a shovel more for the sake of his self-respect than for any real help he could give me. The long summer day had found dusk before we were through. We stood by the six mounds of pale soil, and Duril, who had buried many a comrade, offered a simple soldier’s prayer to the good god.

  When we were finished, he looked askance at me.

  “Tomorrow is soon enough,” I said quietly. “They’ve lain in their rooms this long. One more day will not hurt. And perhaps by tomorrow my father will be recovered enough to help me give them a more formal burial. ” I sighed. “I’m going down to the river to wash. ”

  He nodded, and I left him there.

  But the next morning, my father was little better than he had been. He made no response when I tried to speak to him. Unshaven, his hair wild, dressed in his nightshirt, he would not even sit up in his bed. Several times I told him that I had to bury Mother, Rosse, and Elisi, that it was not fitting to leave them dead in their beds. He did not even turn his eyes to look at me, and at last I despaired of his help, and took on the mournful task myself. Duril helped me, but still it was a sad and messy duty. I found rope in the stable, and at least we were able to lower them into their graves with a bit more dignity. I wished for fine caskets or even simple boxes, but the stench and the rot persuaded me that it was best to act quickly instead. The trees surrounding our little graveyard were full of hopeful croaker birds before I was through. They sat watching me, jaunty in their black-and-white feathers, the wattles around their greedy beaks red as blood. I knew that the smell of carrion had attracted them. They were only animals, and they did not care whether it was beast flesh or human that they scented. Even so, I could not look at them without recalling the Porontes’ wedding sacrifice to Orandula, the old god of balances. I wondered grimly what all these deaths balanced, and if it pleased him.

  I put my family in the earth, and covered them, and said the prayers that I could summon to my mind. They were the childish prayers of comfort that my mother had taught me when I was just a boy. Sergeant Duril came out to stand beside me and witness that feeble ceremony. Afterward, I took my shovel and pickax back to the toolshed and hung them on the wall before I went to wash the grave dirt from my hands.

  And that was how my old life ended forever.

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  M y father’s recovery was agonizingly slow. In the first week that followed the burials, he was almost completely unresponsive to me. I went daily to his bedside, to speak to him and report what was going on, but he looked away from me. After several experiences of moving to try to meet his gaze and having him simply turn his head away, I gave up. I stood at the foot of his bed each morning and each evening and gave him a report of all I’d done, as well as presenting the problems that awaited me on the morrow. Each time, I stood quietly when I finished speaking and waited for a response. Silence was always his reply. I tried to take it in stride and keep on functioning. The terrible tragedy that had befallen our family had ended, I felt, our battle o
f wills. There were more immediate things to worry about than why I was fat or if I would ever be a soldier.

  Nita fared better with my father than I did. She took his meals to him, persuaded him to shave and bathe, and eventually moved him back into his own chambers. In retrospect, I believe he was suffering not just from his grief but also from a mild form of the plague. In later years, I would come to find that most people seldom fell victim to severe bouts of the plague twice, but that some sufferers would catch a milder form and then endure recurrent bouts in the years that followed.

  Whatever the cause, my father was incapacitated for a month, and despite my own burden of grief, the tasks of running the estate fell upon me. What a whirlwind of work that time was. Everything demanded my attention at once, and I had few resources at first to apply to them. The servants had not fled far. Some had gone to neighboring landowners, who had either taken them in or afforded them refuge in rudimentary shelters on the outskirts of their holdings. Others had been living rough. They trickled back, shamefaced, a few each day, until we had about three-quarters of our former staff. What had become of the rest of them, death or simply that they had abandoned us, I was never to know.

  I wrote to Dr. Amicas about my experience, for I knew he was still gathering all information he could on the disease. I speculated that the people scattering had perhaps cut down on the spread of the disease, but also that the swifter deaths we had experienced were due to the sick being left without caretakers. I could not tell if that had led to a lower percentage of deaths, and added that I did not suggest it as a routine response to the disease, as it seemed likely to me that if the servants had had other towns to flee to the chance of spreading the plague to large population centers would have been much greater.

  It was not just people that I had to care for. At the same time, there were cattle, sheep, pigs, and chickens to be thought of. Most of our livestock had done well enough foraging, thanks to Sergeant Duril’s foresight in turning them loose, but some of our crops had suffered from their attentions. Every creature had to be gathered up and restored to its proper pen or paddock.

  Yaril was foremost in my thoughts in those harried days. I longed to ride to Lord Poronte’s manor myself to see what had become of Cecile and my dear little sister, but I dared not leave my father. In the end, I dispatched Sergeant Duril as soon as he could ride. He took a messenger bird with him, and before the day was out, it returned with a green band on its leg to let me know my sister was alive.

  The worst news came from beyond Franner’s Bend. Cayton’s Horse and Doril’s Foot were dead to a man. Two days past the Bend, they had begun to sicken. The officers had ordered a halt and set up an encampment. It became their graveyard. Franner’s Bend had been too deep in its own troubles to lend them any aid, and other travelers fled when they saw the yellow banners that warned of sickness in the camp. By the time anyone came to their aid, there was no one left to save. The commander had died at his field desk, a neat tally of his men’s death in his soldier son journal under his elbow. They’d managed to bury some of their dead; the rest of the bodies were burned in a funeral pyre. “If Gettys was hoping for more manpower this summer, well, they’ll have to do without it,” Duril observed grimly. “It looks like the King’s Road won’t be pushed forward much this year. ”

  I pitied them, but my heart was more beset with my own problems. True to my worries, the Landing had been devastated by the plague. As soon as I could, I ventured a visit there, and found a state of chaos. Many had died, and the town council had let the rabble take it over. There had been looting, and violence against the people suspected of bringing the plague to town. Entire families had perished, and in that dire situation, even good men had resorted to pilfering food, blankets, and valuables from the houses of the dead. I was at first at a loss as to what to do to restore order.

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  Sergeant Duril, who had become my de facto adviser, shrugged and suggested, “In hard times, folks are comforted by what they’re used to. Doesn’t matter if it’s porridge for breakfast or the same prayer each night. More than half that town was soldiers at one time or another. Put them back under military command until they remember how to run their own lives. ”

  I decided he was right. I told him to choose his men. That afternoon, we crossed to the Landing with Duril at my side and his men behind him. We rode our horses into the center of town. There, in as commanding a manner as I could muster, I called what was left of the town council to order in front of me in the street. In no uncertain terms, I told them my father had empowered Duril to select a dozen men he judged trustworthy to represent order. I told them that under my father’s authority, he would be using that patrol to impose martial law on the town, setting a curfew, boarding up unoccupied houses, commandeering and rationing supplies, and pressing a number of the more troublesome young men into service as gravediggers. Duril supplied the muscle; I kept the records, for I promised them that when the dust settled, people who cooperated would be reimbursed for whatever necessary supplies were seized. Despite my ungainly body, I did my best to strike a martial posture and suggest an authority that was mostly imaginary. I was a presence. I implied that Duril would report to me, and I would report to my father. This was true. What they didn’t know was that my father continued to stare at the wall silently while I made my reports.

  It worked. It took only ten days of such tactics before the townspeople recovered their sense of lawfulness, and proved ready to resume running their own affairs. I let the surviving members of the town council know that they could report to me, and that if necessary, I would have Sergeant Duril and his patrol enforce whatever rules they thought needed for the town’s recovery. I took a great deal of satisfaction from that. I knew that the idea had been Duril’s and that he had supplied most of the discipline at the lowest level. But I had conducted myself as an officer and a gentleman, and it had worked. I was proud of myself, and imagined that when my father came back to himself, he would share that pride and sense of accomplishment.

  That was but one of the tasks that busied me from morning to night, and every day there were dozens of others that scarcely seem worth mentioning, but demanded my immediate attention and a solution. I had thought I knew a great deal about the running of the manor. Only when the cistern went dry did I recall that keeping it full required several men, a wagon, a team of horses, and water casks filled from the river to replenish it on a weekly basis. Dozens of young fruit trees in the orchard had gone unwatered during the plague, but I swiftly restored boys to that task, and was able to save more than half of what my father had planted that year. Fences the cattle had broken down had to be mended.

  To me fell the grim task of notifying friends and family of our losses. I wrote to my uncle, to Epiny and Spink, and to other relatives, and sent messages also to neighboring farms and holdings. I wrote to the head of Vanze’s order, telling him what had befallen our family and enclosing a personal letter to Vanze. I received in response a starchy response that Vanze was in meditation and isolation for a month, and that the news would be given to him when he returned. I sighed for my little brother, and then the other demands on my time claimed me. A brief letter from Dr. Amicas arrived, offering his condolences and suggesting strongly that I have any bedding and hangings in plague chambers burned, for fear that they might hold contagion. After I had carried out his order, I looked at my mother’s stripped room and my heart misgave me. The smell of death lingered elsewhere in the house, so I ordered a thorough cleaning of every room.

  Although most of our servants and hired folk had wandered back to us, certain key people had disappeared, and it fell to me to decide who would take on those tasks. Some of our people had suffered through the plague, and though they were recovering, they were scarcely ready to take up the full burdens of their usual chores. Impulsively, I moved Nita up to be the head of our housekeeping, and quickly discovered that although she was loyal and intelligent,
it did not make her adept at making everything function smoothly. But I did not know how to demote her without insulting her, nor who I could put in her place if I did. So we limped along under her haphazard supervision.

  I found my father’s ledger books and his keys and did the best that I could to keep records up to date and to spend only what we needed. It was not easy, and I often wondered how he, a soldier, had so effortlessly managed all this business of being a noble. I had never imagined that it required so much accounting, let alone such a plethora of managing people. Daily I prayed to the good god that my father would recover and take these burdens from my shoulders.

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  Two weeks after I had buried my dead, I decided that the household was close enough to normalcy that I would fetch my sister Yaril home from the Poronte manor. I ordered up the carriage, and made the same trip that only a few months ago had taken us to my brother’s wedding. Now I went to visit his widow. I wore my best clothing, the suit that my mother had made for me for Rosse’s wedding. It was now uncomfortably tight on me.

  The plague had passed the Poronte estates by. It was strange to see an aspect of normality when I arrived. Men were working in the fields, cattle grazed peacefully, and the liveried servant who opened the door smiled a gracious welcome. Even so, when I entered the chambers that had been so full of flowers and music at my last visit, I found them decked for mourning. Cecile’s parents came to meet me in their parlor. I formally thanked Lord and Lady Poronte for taking in my sister. They replied awkwardly that it was the least they could do for Yaril at such a dreadful time.

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