Forest mage, p.38
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       Forest Mage, p.38

         Part #2 of The Soldier Son Trilogy series by Robin Hobb
He ignored my incredulous question. “Go borrow some from the desk. I’ll give you a note to the colonel. There’s no sense you waiting on me. They’ll be keeping me here a few days, I imagine. ”

  “Longer than that, I’m guessing. ”

  “Go get the paper and pen. I’m hanging on by my teeth, Never. Wait too long, and I’ll be no good for you. ”

  “Nevare,” I said, and went out to the boy’s desk to borrow the requested items. He was not there, and after a moment’s indecision, I simply took what I needed. I carried them back to Hitch.

  He took them with a sigh. There was a small table by each bed in the ward. He grunted as he leaned over it to write.

  “What shall I do with your horse and gear?”

  “Oh. Bring my saddlebags in here. Tell the boy to make sure Renegade is cared for properly. He’ll call someone to take care of it. ”

  By the time I returned with his saddlebags, which he had me put under the bed, the note was finished. He blew on it carefully and then handed it to me, unfolded, so that I might read what he had written. “Take it to the colonel. ”

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  “Are you sure you don’t want me to stay here with you until the doctor comes?”

  “There’s no point to it. The boy will find Dowder, they’ll sober him up with a cup of coffee or two, and then he’ll do what he can for me. You got me here alive, Never. That was more than I thought anyone could do. ”

  “It was the magic, not me,” I replied jokingly.

  A ghost of a smile touched his mouth. “You only laugh because you don’t know how true that is. Get out of here. I’m going to sleep until Dowder comes. Pull my boots off for me. ”

  I performed that service for him, and then helped him swing his feet up onto the bed. He hissed out a stream of quiet curses as he eased himself back onto the bed. In contrast to the clean blanket and muslin-covered pillow, his filthiness was shocking. He closed his eyes and his breathing deepened. “I’ll come by and see you later,” I told his still form.

  I put the pen and ink back as I had found them. I walked outdoors into the sunlight before I allowed myself to look at what he had written. The letters straggled over the page, the scrawl of a very ill man. It wasn’t the kindest letter of recommendation I’d ever seen.

  “This is Never. He doesn’t look like much, but you should let him enlist. He’s got a spine, and he sees things through. If he hadn’t come willing and helped me, I’d be dead now, and you know how much that would annoy my dear father, not to mention inconvenience you. ”

  That was it. No date, no greeting the colonel by title, not even Hitch’s own signature. I stood staring at it, wondering if it were some sort of a terrible joke on me. If I dared show this to the colonel commanding Gettys, would I immediately be thrown out of his office? I was reading it over again when I saw the boy soldier hurrying back. A tall, dapper man with a captain’s insignia on his collar followed him. The boy stopped at the sight of me. “What did you do with the scout?” he asked me worriedly.

  “I left him on a bed in the ward, as you suggested. He asked me to ask you to look after his horse. ”

  The boy scratched his nose. “I’ll get someone to do it. ”

  I turned to the captain. “Do I have the pleasure of addressing Captain Dowder?”

  “I’m Captain Frye. Doctor Frye to almost everyone. Who are you?”

  His question was both brusque and rude. I kept my temper. I knew I did not present a respectable appearance. No doubt I was nearly as filthy as Buel Hitch. “I’m Nevare Burv—” I fell over my own surname. I let it go. “I brought Lieutenant Hitch in. A wildcat has mauled him badly. He asked that Dr. Dowder be fetched for him. I’m sorry you were bothered. ”

  “So am I. But I’m sober enough to walk, and Dowder, as usual, is not. Nor does Lieutenant Hitch command this entire post, though he seems to think he does. Good day, sir. ”

  “Sir? If I might ask a favor?”

  He turned back to me irritably. The young soldier had already vanished inside.

  “Could you tell me where I might find the commanding officer? And where, prior to that, I might find a bathhouse?”

  He looked even more annoyed. “There’s a barber just outside the gate. I think he has a bath in the back. ”

  “And the commanding officer’s headquarters?” I felt stubborn now, determined to wring the requested information from him.

  “You’ll find Colonel Haren in that building over there. The writing over the door says, ‘Headquarters. ’” He stabbed a finger in the direction of a tall structure just down the street from us, and then turned on his heel and went into the infirmary.

  I took a breath and blew it out. Well. I’d asked for that, I supposed. The faded lettering was almost legible from where I stood. I simply hadn’t noticed it. With a sigh, I led Clove away.

  I found the barber with little difficulty. It was a bit harder to get him to take me seriously when I requested a bath, a shave, and a haircut. He demanded my money first, and took it before he would even heat the water. He had several tubs in the back room of his shop. I was glad to find them all empty. It was not modesty, but shame that made me relieved no one would witness my ablutions. None of his tubs were large enough for me to bathe comfortably, and he was remarkably chary with the hot water and soap. Nevertheless, I managed to get cleaner than I’d been in many a day, and even to soak away some of my aches. I emerged from the lukewarm water feeling more like myself than I had in a long time. When I was dry, I dressed in my cleanest clothing and went out for my shave.

  He was good at his trade, I’ll give him that. His tools were sharp and shining. He gave me a soldier’s haircut. As he shaved me, he handled my face familiarly, pulling skin tight as he worked and pushing my nose to one side. “How many of these chins would you like me to shave?” he asked me once, and I forced myself to laugh at his jest and told him, “All of them. ”

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  Like most men in his trade, he was garrulous, asking questions of me when it would have been very hazardous for me to attempt to speak, and telling me all the gossip of the fort as he worked. I soon knew that he’d been there six years, and that he’d come east with his soldier cousin, reasoning that wherever there were soldiers, a good barber could find work. Brede Regiment had been holding Gettys then. Brede had been a good regiment before it came to Gettys. But everyone said that about Farleyton Regiment, too, and look at it now. He hated Gettys, but would never have the money to move back west, so he tried to make the best of it. Everyone hated Gettys. He’d had a wife once; she’d run off with a soldier, and when he left her, she’d turned to whoring. I could probably buy her for less than what I’d paid for my bath and haircut, if I fancied heartless sluts. I’d soon discover that I hated Gettys, too, he predicted. He asked me where I was from and accepted a mumbled answer from me as he scraped busily at my throat. While he was cleaning his blade, I told him that I’d brought Lieutenant Hitch back to Gettys after he’d had a run-in with a wildcat.

  “Hitch, eh? I’d probably have helped the cat myself,” he told me, and then went on with a long tale of a very complicated brawl in a tavern in which Hitch had distinguished himself by ending up fighting both of the men who had originally been combatants. He seemed to find it very amusing.

  “So. You’ll be heading back home now,” he asked me when he’d finished and offered me a towel to wipe my face on.

  “Actually, I thought I’d try to see Colonel Haren and enlist,” I told him.

  He took that as a knee-slapping joke. He was still roaring with laughter when I handed his towel back to him and took my leave.

  The sentries on the gate likewise found it amusing. Getting entry to the fort was not as easy without Hitch, I discovered. After they had dismissed my first request as a joke, I reminded them that they had admitted me in Hitch’s company only a couple of hours ago. “Oh, yes. Now that you mention it, I
remember your great big…horse!” one exclaimed. After several more jests of that subtlety, they consented to let me pass. I reentered Gettys and went directly to Colonel Haren’s headquarters.

  Colonel Haren’s headquarters were constructed entirely of sawn lumber and once had been painted. Flakes of green paint clung to the weathered timber. The splintery planks that made up its porch were uneven and warping away from one another.

  The slum that had sprung up around the fort, the lethargic air of the sickly soldiery, and this final evidence of a commander without ambition filled me with trepidation. Did I want to enlist with such a regiment, under such a command? The rumors I had heard about Farleyton Regiment came back to haunt me: once a top outfit, now fallen on hard times. Desertion and dereliction of duty were rampant here.

  What other regiment would take someone like me?

  I ascended the two steps, crossed the rough porch, and entered. A sergeant in a faded uniform sat behind the desk. The walls of the room were lined with wooden shelves jumbled with books and stacks of paper at all angles. A gun rack in the corner held two long guns and an empty stock. An unsheathed sword kept them company. The sergeant had taken a saber cut down the face in some distant past. It had healed into a fine seam that pulled down at his left eye and the corner of his mouth. His eyes were a very pale blue, so pale that at first I wondered if he were blinded by cataracts. Gray hair in a wild fringe stuck out around his bald pate. As I entered, he looked up from some bit of sewing. When he set it aside on the corner of his desk to greet me, I saw he was darning a black sock with white yarn.

  “Good morning, Sergeant,” I greeted him when he just stared at me.

  “You want something?”

  I controled my disdain of his sloppy manners. “Yes, Sergeant. I’d like to meet with Colonel Haren. ”

  “Oh. He’s in there. ” He tilted his head toward the single door behind him.

  “I see. May I go in?”

  “Maybe. Try knocking. If he’s not busy, he’ll answer. ”

  “Very well. Thank you, Sergeant. ”

  “Yeah. ”

  He took up his sock and bent over his work again. I tugged my shirt as straight as it would go, crossed the room, and rapped sharply at the door.

  “Come in. Is my sock mended yet?”

  I opened the door to a dim room, lit by the fire in an open hearth in the corner. A wave of heat rolled out to greet me as I opened the door. I stood a moment, letting my eyes adjust.

  “Well, come in, man! Don’t stand there letting the cold get in. Sergeant! Is my sock mended yet?”

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  The sergeant called the answer over his shoulder. “I’m working on it!”

  “Very well. ” He answered as if the delay were anything but “very well. ” Then he transferred his gaze to me and said irritably, “Come in, I said, and close the door. ”

  I did as he bade me. The room confounded me. It was dimly lit and stuffy with heat. I felt as if in one stride, I’d covered hundreds of miles and was back west in Old Thares. Fine carpets covered the floors, and tapestries hid the planks of the wall. An immense desk of polished wood dominated the center of the room. Oak bookcases filled with leather-bound volumes lined one entire wall, floor to ceiling. A marble pedestal supported a statue of a maiden with a basket of flowers. Even the ceiling had been covered with plates of hammered tin. The shock of contrast between this inner sanctuary and the rough building that housed it nearly made me forget why I was there.

  The reason for his query about the sock was abundantly clear. One of his feet was bare. The other wore a dark sock and a lambskin slipper. I could see the cuffs of his cavalla trousers. Over them he wore an elaborate silk smoking jacket, belted with a tasseled length of the same fabric. The silk skullcap on his head also had a tassel. He was a pale, bony man, taller than me, with long feet and hands. What hair he had was blond, but his magnificent mustache looked rusty. The ends of it were waxed to points. He looked like a caricature of a country gentlemen rather than the commander of the king’s last outpost.

  There was a well-cushioned chair with a footstool before the fire. Colonel Haren ensconced himself there and then demanded of me, “What do you want, then?”

  “I wished to speak to you, sir. ” I kept my tone extremely civil despite his brusqueness.

  “Well, you are. State your master’s business and be quick about it. I’ve other things to do today. ”

  Two ideas fought to be first out of my mouth. At my realization that he thought I was a servant, I longed to tell him in no uncertain words that I had no master. The second was that I doubted he had anything else to do today. I closed my teeth against expressing either and then replied tightly, “I do not come as a servant with a message from his master. I come as a soldier son, hoping to enlist with your regiment. ”

  “Then what’s that in your hand, man?” he demanded, pointing to Hitch’s roughly worded letter of recommendation. I understood now, I thought, why Hitch had phrased it so crudely. Even so, I did not want to present it, lest he think the rough sentiments were my own. I kept a firm grip on it, despite his open and waiting palm.

  “It’s a recommendation from Lieutenant Buel Hitch. But before I present it, I’d like to tell you a bit about myself and my—”

  “Hitch!” He sat up straight in his chair, letting his unshod feet fly off the footstool and slap onto the floor. “He was due back days ago. I could not imagine what detained him! But he’s back at the fort now?”

  “Yes, sir, he is. He was badly injured when a big cat attacked him. When I met up with him, he was feverish and weak from blood loss. I’ve been traveling with him for the last five days or so, to be sure that he arrived here safely. I took him straight to the doctors when we arrived. ”

  He looked agitated at my news. “But…he was carrying a package for me. Did he say nothing of it?”

  I instantly recalled the oilskin-wrapped package in Hitch’s saddlebags. “He said nothing of it to me, sir. But his saddlebags are intact. I put them under his bunk in the infirmary. When I came away, Dr. Frye was going in to see him. I have high hopes for his full recovery. ”

  I could have saved my breath. As soon as Colonel Haren heard that Hitch was in the infirmary, he strode to the door of his office and flung it open. “Sergeant. Stop whatever you’re doing. Go directly to the infirmary. Scout Hitch is there. His saddlebags are under his bed. Bring them directly here. ”

  The sergeant moved with surprising alacrity to his command. Shutting the door, the commander turned back to me. “Well done, man. Thank you for letting me know Hitch had returned. You have my gratitude. ”

  The way he spoke and the way he returned to his chair before the fire indicated that our interview was at an end. When I continued to stand there, he glanced back at me, nodded emphatically, and repeated, “Thank you. ”

  “Sir, letting you know that Lieutenant Hitch had returned to Gettys was not my sole reason for coming here. As I was telling you, I’m a soldier son. I’m interested in enlisting in your regiment. ”

  He raised one eyebrow. I noticed it had a sort of a tufty twirl. “Impossible, man. Don’t deceive yourself. You’re not fit to be a soldier. ” He spoke the words bluntly.

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  I advanced to him, desperately holding out Hitch’s recommendation. “Sir, you’re my last hope,” I said bluntly. “If you will not take me, I do not know how I will fulfill the good god’s destiny for me. I beg you to consider me. Use me in any capacity. I will take the humblest assignment. All I wish to be able to say is that I serve my king as a soldier. ”

  He seemed surprised at my vehemence. He took the piece of paper I offered him, and while he read it, either slowly or several times, I considered the offer I’d just made him. Did I mean it? Could I humble myself to serve in any capacity? Was it still so essential to my pride that I be able to call myself a soldier? A few short days ago, I
d been willing to put all that behind me and begin a new life as an innkeeper in a ghost town. Yet here I stood with my pride abandoned and my heart beating like a drum as I hoped by all I held holy that the eccentric man before me would accept me into his dispirited, sloppy regiment.

  He looked up at last from the piece of paper. Then he leaned forward carefully and set it on the flames of the fire. My heart sank. As he straightened up, he said, “You seem to have made a good impression on my scout. Few people manage to do that. Myself included. ”

  “Sir,” I said, neither agreeing nor disagreeing.

  He leaned back in his chair and breathed out through his nose. His wriggled his feet, one slippered and one bare, on the hassock before him. “It’s not easy to keep men at this post. A lot of them die of the plague. Those that survive are sickly, and often die of something else. Some desert. Others prove unsatisfactory in an extreme enough way that I am forced to dismiss them. Even so, I try to hold to a certain standard for choosing those who will serve under me. Under ordinary circumstances, I would not choose you. I’m sure I don’t need to elaborate on why. ”

  “Sir,” I managed to say again, keeping my tone even. He did not look at me, but only at his own feet. He touched their toes together.

  “But the circumstances are not ordinary. ” He cleared his throat. “My scout makes few requests of me. I make many of him. Most of them, he fulfills for me. I am inclined to grant him this request. ” As I caught my breath in hope, he finally turned his head to look at me. “How do you feel about cemeteries?” he asked me.

  He asked in a pleasant and engaging way, as if he had asked a little girl her favorite color at a tea party.

  “Cemeteries, sir?”

  “We have one here at Gettys. Two, actually. The old one is just outside the walls of the fort. That one doesn’t concern me. It’s the new one, an hour’s ride from here, that is the problem. When plague first struck here, several years ago, my predecessor had a new cemetery established some distance from the fort. Because of the smell of all the dead bodies, don’t you know? He’s buried there himself, as a matter of fact. That’s why I’m the commander now. It passed me by. ” He paused a moment and smiled a tight and toothy smile, as if very pleased with his own cleverness at not dying of the plague. I wasn’t sure what response to make, and when I was silent, he spoke on.

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