Forest mage, p.24
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       Forest Mage, p.24

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

  I had expected to bring both Cecile and Yaril home with me. But Cecile’s mother begged me to allow her daughter to stay until the greatest blackness of her grief had passed. She said that the shock of passing from the joys of being newly wed to the horrors of disease and widowhood had been too much for Cecile’s gentle spirit. She had been bedridden for days after she arrived there, and even now only rose for a few hours each day. She needed time, her mother said, time to recover and find her way into her sad new life. I wondered uneasily if they intended to let Cecile return at all. It was Cecile’s duty to return to her husband’s home and take up the management of it, but I did not have the heart to demand that. Instead I said that when my father was better, they could all take counsel together to decide what was best.

  I was disappointed that Yaril had not come to greet me, but Cecile’s mother told me they had asked her to wait in the garden until “things were settled. ” With the matter of Cecile decided, they released me to find her. When I saw Yaril walking alone on the sandy path between the meticulously tended herb knots, my heart went out to her. She looked so small and so young in her deep blue mourning dress. “Yaril?” I said softly, prepared to discover that she was still disgusted with me.

  At my voice, she whirled about. There were dark circles under her eyes and she had lost flesh, but even so her face lit up and she ran toward me. I wanted to catch her up and whirl her about as I used to do when she was much younger. Instead she crashed into me and then clung to the front of my shirt with both hands, rather like a little squirrel trying to climb the trunk of a massive tree. I hugged her awkwardly, and for a moment we didn’t speak at all. I stroked her hair and patted her back, and after a moment, she lifted a tearstained face to me. “Elisi didn’t die, did she? That was a mistake, wasn’t it?”

  “Oh, Yaril,” I said, and that was all I needed to say. She put her face against my chest again, her fists tightened on my shirt, and her shoulders heaved. After an endless time, she said, “We’re all alone now, Nevare. Just you and me. ”

  “We still have father,” I pointed out to her. “And Vanze. ”

  Her voice was full of bitterness. “Vanze belongs to the priests now. Our family gave him away. I never had Father. You did, for a time, while you were a good little soldier boy. But now you are worthless to him. You have even less value than I do. No, Nevare. We are alone. And I’m sorry for how I treated you. I’m sorry. It just seemed that Carsina and Remwar would not like me if I sided with you. And so I abandoned you, my own brother. And then, at home, if anyone said one good thing about you, Father became furious. He and Mother fought so much about that…she’s gone. They’ll never fight about anything again. ”

  I wanted to tell her that somehow we would find a way through the difficulties we now faced. I knew that someday we would again have a life that seemed normal and routine, even boring. Boredom sounded so attractive to me now. I tried to imagine a day when a dozen problems didn’t confront me and sorrow did not weight my every breath. I could not conceive of it.

  “Come,” I finally said with a sigh. “Let’s go home. ” I took her small hand in mine and led her to say our farewells to the Porontes.

  Our lives did resume. Young as she was, Yaril still knew more about the internal workings of the household than I did, and proved to be effective at undertaking dire reforms when needed. She removed Nita as head of housekeeping by deftly putting her in sole charge of my father’s well-being, and replaced her with a woman who had been a maid with the family for years and knew what was required to run the household. I suspected that she also took the private opportunity to reward those servants who had befriended her over the years and rebuke those who had treated her as insignificant within the family. I let her do as she saw fit. I was only too happy to allow Yaril to assume responsibility for the household, for not only did she make things run more smoothly, but also it kept her from dwelling on all we had lost.

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  Yaril grasped that a return to schedules would be best for us. She immediately reinstated regular meal served at the table, and assumed the role of leading Sixday worship for the women. I followed her example guiltily; I had not even considered assuming that responsibility, and our worship had become a very slipshod observation of the forms. I realized how important it was for us to offer thanks to the good god for our survival when I heard the women and men of our household let loose the tears they had restrained until then. Ceremony and form, I reminded myself, gave shape and meaning to our lives. I resolved never to forget that again.

  As for the meals, Yaril’s insistence on a return to normality there was a delight to me. It seemed like years since I’d had the pleasure of sitting down to a carefully planned meal in which the flavors and textures complemented each other. My deprivation had schooled me to a far more sophisticated appreciation of food than I’d ever had before. Having realized that even foods as simple as bread and water could be enjoyed, well-prepared food now nearly paralyzed me with delight. A sauce could send shivers up my spine. A contrast in flavors in a simple salad could plunge me into a sudden, rapt reverie. Unless I concentrated on keeping pace with Yaril, a meal could take me three times as long to consume as it did her. Sometimes I would look up from my soup to find her regarding me with a mixture of amusement and worry. At such moments, I felt ashamed of letting my senses carry me into a world of my own. Yaril and I were in this predicament together, and it was up to us to create an ongoing life for ourselves.

  There were times when it felt like an elaborate pretense. Each evening, I escorted her into dinner. I would seat Yaril at the table and then move to my accustomed place. Around us, the empty chairs gaped at us. I felt as if we had returned to our days of tea parties in the garden, when Yaril and Elisi had always pretended to be great ladies and welcomed me solemnly to their gatherings. Could this really be all that was left of my family? After dinner, when we would seek refuge in the music room, Elisi’s harp stood silent and watching us. In the parlor, my mother’s chair was empty. There seemed no room where the absent did not outnumber the living people.

  Then, one evening, Yaril instituted a change. I was shocked when our soup was a cream one, a type my father had always despised. Yaril eliminated the fish course, something she had always dreaded. When we rose from our meal, she announced calmly that we would be having our coffee in the garden. When I followed her there, I noted with approval that she had had a net pavilion erected to frustrate the mosquitoes that the little glass lamps would attract. Within the pavilion was a table with only two chairs. A flower arrangement and a deck of cards and a pot of markers were already set out for us. As I stared, a servant brought the coffee service out to us on a small side table. Yaril smiled at my astonishment. “Shall we play?” she asked me.

  And for the first time since the plague had passed us, we shared a pastime, and made wagers and even laughed a bit.

  And so the days passed, one after another. I controlled the estate and Yaril ran the household. I realized how completely Yaril had stepped into my mother’s position when she informed me one night over dinner that she had sent for a seamstress and that tomorrow I was to be measured for new clothing. I didn’t know what to say for a moment. I blushed hot. Every garment I had was stretched and strained at the seams. It was not a trivial matter for me; in some places I was chafed raw, and yet it had happened so gradually that I had not taken any steps to correct it.

  She shook her head at my humiliation. “Nevare, you have no idea how uncomfortable you look. Just looking at how your clothing binds you distresses me. You can’t walk around looking like that in front of the hired men, let alone when company comes. We have to do something about it. That’s all there is to it. ”

  I looked at my plate in front of me. I had just eaten a large meal, but not outrageously large. Still, stupidly, I said, “I’ve been putting it off. New clothing, I mean. I keep hoping I’ll regain my shape and be able to fit into my old garments
again. ” And the words that I had intended as an excuse were, I suddenly recognized, the absolute truth. I was still waiting for something that would restore me to the way I had been. A miracle was required, and I suddenly knew I was not going to get one.

  “I am glad that you intend that,” my sister said quietly. “And if you would try harder to do so, I’d be ever so proud of you. Not that I think you, well, not that I think you eat like a pig. I see you each day, Nevare. You work hard. And I don’t see you eating gluttonously. Well…that is, your meals are generous, but Mother always said that you boys would eat more than we women did, and even more so when you were working. But, of course, you should strive to regain your physique.

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  “But in the meantime,” she went on very seriously, “you must look presentable. So. Please come to the sewing room tomorrow at ten o’clock. ”

  And that was that. My new suits were all in the deep blues and blacks of mourning, but that was only fitting. It was such a relief to put on a shirt that didn’t strain at the collar and would reach around my belly to button. Of my own volition, I sent for the cobbler from the Landing, and had myself fitted for new shoes and a pair of boots. Having clothing that fit made me look much better. The fabric straining across my ample flesh had made me look fatter.

  I did not enjoy the work of running the manor, but there was satisfaction in doing it well. I sketched out the plans for new ferry landings and entrusted them to men capable of following them. I worked hard, ate well, and slept deeply at night. There was meaning in my life once more, and the companionship of my sister. For a time, I was content, and did not think beyond having the hay cut and stacked, and deciding how many pigs should be slaughtered for the winter’s bacon.

  When the ferry landings were completed, I made a trip across, to be sure they functioned as I had intended. I was well pleased, for my design had eliminated the muddy track that had once led down to the boats and my new floating dock facilitated the loading and unloading of the vessels. Once on the town side, I decided to visit the council. I found the Landing running smoothly and beginning to recover its prosperity and hope for the future. The keenest pleasure of that evening came when the council members thanked me for my intervention and commended Sergeant Duril for doing an excellent job in a difficult situation. The old sergeant, who often accompanied me on my rounds, blushed like a boy. The impromptu meeting turned into a meal together at the largest inn in Burvelle Landing, simply called the Landing Inn. The meal stretched into an evening of drinking, at which a number of townsfolk and several of Duril’s patrol joined us as the night progressed.

  We drank too much, of course. For me it was the first time to unleash my restraint and talk, as a man among men, about all that had befallen both manor and town. As the hours trickled by, both jackets and tongues were loosened. It was not the first time I had ever been drunk, but it certainly became the drunkest I had ever been. Perhaps the company of relative strangers was what made it so easy. The talk wandered from the plague and the aftermath to talk of beautiful women, and drinking, and easy women, and my academy experience and gambling and fickle women and true women. My rotundity was the object of not only curiosity but also jesting, some of it pointed but most of it good-natured. I had had enough to drink that none of it seemed too important. To the ones who seemed intent on needling me, I responded with what seemed at the time acid wit and endless good nature. Everyone laughed with me. For that night my fate did not seem so hard. It almost seemed that I received double credit for having stepped in and restored order to the town, for not only had I done it while being young but I’d done it while being fat. We drank until long past midnight, and I only set down my mug when Sergeant Duril was tipsily insisting that we had to return to the manor for the night. Arms about each other, we left the last tavern, and grandly commandeered the ferry for an unscheduled crossing to our side of the river. We had a long walk home from the ferry landing, and by the time we reached the manor, I felt nearly sober. Such was not the case for Duril, and I actually put the good sergeant into his bed before retiring to my own. He awoke the next morning with a terrible hangover, but to my amazement, I slept well, and when I rose I seemed none the worse for wear.

  After that, at least once a week I would go into town to speak with the council and to have a few beers at one of the taverns afterward. It was very pleasant to socialize, and though I didn’t patronize the tavern whores, it was flattering to be the subject of their flirtatious attentions. I might have been more tempted to indulge myself except that Sergeant Duril inevitably accompanied me, and the habit of behaving myself in his presence was still strong.

  At the manor, things were much quieter. Yaril refused all invitations sent to us. Looking back on it, I realize now that we isolated ourselves, retreating into a world we could control. Eventually, there was a letter from Vanze, but his grief seemed almost abstract, as he saw it through the focus of religion and philosophy. Yaril was angry and hurt when she read it, but I think I understood his reaction. He’d been born to be a priest, and a priest’s business was to find the good god’s will and wisdom in everything. If he could apply it to what had befallen our family and take comfort from it, then I would not begrudge it to him.

  The most annoying piece of correspondence I received was an arrogant note from Caulder Stiet’s uncle, addressed to my father, blithely informing us that he and Caulder would be visiting us in the spring. He was confident that we would be glad to welcome them as houseguests and looked forward to studying the geology of Widevale. As he did not think their blooded saddle horses would be appropriate for cross-country terrain, he would be obliged to borrow some rougher mounts for their expedition. The man’s assumptions grated on me, and I fired off a letter that mentioned our family losses and implied that plague was rampant in our area. I suggested he should find another location for his holiday. My missive was courteous, but barely so.

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  My father received letters from my Uncle Sefert. I longed to read them, but they were addressed only to my father and I had them taken directly up to him. If he replied, I never saw the outgoing posts.

  There was another long letter from Spink and Epiny, written in her hand. Her condolences on my losses were heartfelt. The rest of her note was full of news, incredibly good news that filled me with jealousy and frustration. My uncle had decided that Spink deserved a second chance at his career as a soldier son. Epiny did not write that her father was trying to buy a better life for her, but I was certain that was the case. My uncle had been impressed with the devotion Spink had shown in nursing Epiny through her illness and so he had purchased a commission for Spink. It was not an excellent one; it was with the Farleyton regiment, currently stationed on the border at Gettys. Spink and Epiny would travel there by wagon, and once there, Spink would become Second Lieutenant Kester. They had been warned that he would most likely be assigned to Supply, but Epiny was already certain that his commander would immediately recognize Spink’s potential and soon transfer him to interesting tasks.

  Her letter was one long dither about packing, what to take, what to leave, how she must learn to behave as an officer’s wife, how overjoyed Spink was, and yet he felt humbly indebted to her father, and her worry that in his drive to impress his superiors Spink might jeopardize his recovered health. She confided to me that she was convinced now of the healing properties of Bitter Springs, and had spent a good portion of their savings on blue glass bottles and stoppers, for she intended to take a gross of dosages of spring water with her. The folk of Gettys suffered much from the plague and she was most anxious to see if the bottled water could relieve or perhaps prevent the disease. She went on for pages on what she hoped their quarters would be like and whether there would be other young wives to socialize with, and perhaps families so that when the good god finally blessed her with pregnancy she would be around women experienced in births and babies.

  I tried
to smile over her pages, but all I could think was that Spink had been given a second chance, one that I would have given my eyeteeth for. For the very first time, it occurred to me that I could take money from my father’s account and do the same for myself. The dishonorable temptation lasted only for one sharp moment, and yet envy would nag at me for days afterward.

  Spink’s part of the letter was more restrained than Epiny’s. Farleyton had once been a crack regiment, renowned for their valor in numerous campaigns. Since they’d been posted to Gettys, their star had dimmed substantially. Rumor said that numerous desertions and dereliction of duty had tarnished the regiment’s reputation. Still, he was glad to accept his commission there. “Beggars can’t be choosers,” he wrote me. “I always dreamed that I’d join a regiment where I could rise swiftly. Farleyton’s Horse may well be it. Wish me luck and say a prayer for me. ”

  I did both, and tried to do them without an envious heart.

  Every evening, Yaril had a place set for my father at the dinner table, always in the hope (or dread) that he might deign to join us. As the harvest progressed, my father improved but still kept to his room. When I tapped at his door each day and then entered, I usually found him sitting in a chair by the window, staring out over his lands. He still refused to look at me, and I still persisted in giving him my daily reports. Once he had confined me to my room to try to break me; now he confined himself to his room, but I felt his intention was the same. I felt that his grief over his losses had been consumed by his anger at his fate.

  He did not treat Yaril so coldly. Her lot was harder. When she first returned to Widevale, she had gone to see him, and he had burst into tears at the sight of her, safe and healthy. But his tears of joy at receiving the daughter who was left to him soon turned to tears of anguish over all he had lost. She sat with him daily, and daily he would recount his misery and despair. All he had striven for his entire life had been snatched away from him. She would emerge from her sessions with him pale and drained. Sometimes, she told me, he would rant against fate; at other times, he bade her pray with him, that the good god might show him a path through his misfortune.

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