Forest mage, p.39
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       Forest Mage, p.39

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

  “The cemetery is rather large considering the size of our living population, and that it is only recently established. And Colonel Lope gave no thought, when they started burying people there, that it might be a hard location to defend. Four times now I have requested a budget and artisans so that our cemetery might be properly protected with a stout stone wall, and perhaps a watchtower. Four times now, I have been ignored. The road is all our king can think of. His road. And when I ask for supplies and funding to wall the cemetery, he always responds by asking me how many miles of road I’ve built in the last season. As if the two were connected!”

  He paused for my reaction. When it became clear that I didn’t have one, he harrumphed and continued. “I’ve assigned men to guard the cemetery. They don’t last long at the duty. Cowards. And as a consequence, the depredations against our beloved dead continue. ”

  “Depredations, sir?”

  “Yes. Depredations. Insults. Ignominy. Blasphemous disrespect. Call it what you will. They continue. Can you stop them?” He gravely tugged at the ends of his moustache as he spoke.

  I had no clear idea what he was asking of me. But I did comprehend that it was my sole opportunity. I rose to the occasion. “Sir. If I cannot, I will die trying. ”

  “Oh, please don’t. It would just be another grave to dig. Well. That’s settled then. And just in time, it appears!”

  He spoke the last words as he leapt from his seat, for there had been a knock on the door. Even before he reached it, the sergeant had opened it. He entered, bearing Hitch’s saddlebags. The colonel seized them greedily and dug though them to resurrect the same oilskin-wrapped packet that Hitch had guarded so assiduously. “Oh, thank the good god, it’s not been harmed or stolen!” he exclaimed. He carried it directly to a small table near the fire’s light. I stood, feeling awkward, unsure if he intended me to witness this act or not. I felt I should go, but feared that if I left, no one else would recognize that I’d been accepted into the regiment. I needed to know where to go to sign my papers and assume my duties. So I quietly remained. The sergeant departed as quickly as he had entered.

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  Colonel Haren carefully untied the string that had bound the packet shut. When the last fold of oilskin was carefully laid back to reveal the contents, he gave a huge sigh of contentment. “Oh. Beautiful,” he exclaimed.

  My nose had already told me what he had unwrapped. Smoked fish. I could smell it, and my day’s hunger clawed at me with frantic desire. My mouth watered, but my brain wondered how smoked fish could be so important.

  “Alder-smoked river salmon. It’s glazed with honey. There is only one small group of tribesmen who still prepare their fish this way. And they will only trade with Scout Hitch. Now, I suppose, you see why a word from him is held in such high esteem by me. Only he could obtain this for me, and only at this time of year. Ah. ”

  As I watched in consternation, he pinched off a tiny morsel of shining, dark red fish and lifted it to his lips. He set it on his tongue and then, without closing his mouth, breathed in past it. Eyes closed, he finally closed his mouth. I could have sworn that his mustache quivered with delight. He moved the food about on his tongue like a wine connoisseur savoring a vintage. His throat moved very slowly as he swallowed. When he opened his eyes and looked at me, his face held a look of dazed satiation. “Are you still here?” he asked me vaguely.

  “You didn’t dismiss me, sir. And I have not yet signed my papers. ”

  “Oh. Well. Dismissed! The man at the desk out there will help you with your papers. Just make your mark where he shows you. You can trust him. ” And with that, he turned back to his fish. As I opened the door, he added, “Take Hitch’s saddlebags back to him, would you? Nothing else in there for me, I’m sure. ”

  I picked up the worn leather bags and slung them over my shoulder. I shut the door quietly as I left, wondering if the man was completely mad or just so eccentric that I couldn’t tell the difference. Then I decided that it didn’t matter. I wouldn’t question my luck in finding someone who had allowed me to enlist.

  The sergeant put his darning aside with a sigh when I stood in front of his desk. “What is it?”

  “Colonel Haren said I should see you about my enlistment papers. ”

  “What?” He grinned, certain I was joking.

  “My enlistment papers,” I said flatly.

  The smile faded slowly from his face. “I’ll draw them up for you,” he said with obvious reluctance. “It may take a little while. ”

  “I’ll wait,” I told him, and did so.

  CHAPTER SIXTEEN

  THE CEMETERY

  T he sergeant took some time to draw up my papers. On purpose, I thought. I signed promptly, as Nevare Burve, and then annoyed him further by insisting that I would wait there until Colonel Haren had signed my copy. When he came out of the colonel’s office, I asked him to whom I should report. He vanished back into the office and reappeared quickly. “You’ll be loosely attached. Rather like a scout. If you have any difficulties, come here, and I should be able to get them sorted out for you. ”

  “Isn’t that rather irregular?”

  He laughed. “The whole regiment is rather irregular just at present. None of us expected to be here for another winter. We thought we’d be replaced and sent off in disgrace by midsummer. Given that we are here and have one more chance, as it were, to prove ourselves while we are more undermanned than we have ever been before, irregular is about the best we can do. Don’t worry; you’ll become accustomed to it. I know I have. ” He paused, then asked almost paternally, “Has anyone told you that you should ride out to the end of the road, first thing? We recommend it to all our new recruits. It helps them understand our mission here. ”

  “Thank you, Sergeant. I’ll make a point of it. ”

  “You do that, trooper. You do. You’re one of us now. ”

  His words warmed me, and he actually stepped around his desk to shake my hand. Once that was settled, he sent me off to a supply sergeant. A note from the colonel’s desk sergeant informed him of my “cemetery guard” assignment. He laughed at me, and then diffidently gave me a kit that included no uniform parts that fit me save a hat. “Best I can do for you,” he dismissed that issue. The long gun they gave me had seen hard use and little care. The outside of the barrel was badly pitted, and the stock had cracked, but been repaired with brass tacks and string wound tightly around it and coated with varnish. The butt plate was missing entirely, and the saddle scabbard needed restitching. “Probably wouldn’t be much good to you anyway,” the supply sergeant answered my scowl. “Out where you are, if the Speck ever got serious, one rifle wouldn’t hold them back. But chances are you’ll never see one doing any mischief to take a shot at him. Don’t worry about it, sojer. ” I accepted my “weapon” with a frown, resolving to inspect it thoroughly for myself before firing it.

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  “You riding out to the end of the road today?” he asked me as I turned to go.

  I turned back to him. “Sergeant Gafney in Colonel Haren’s office did recommend it to me. ”

  He nodded sagely. “He’s wise to do so. ’Twill give you a much better grasp of what we’re all about. Good luck, trooper. ”

  I had not been assigned to any patrol. I had no corporal, no sergeant, no officer at all to report to. Like the scouts I had once disdained, I was loosely connected to the regiment, given a task, and would be, I suspected, ignored unless I failed. When I went to the infirmary to return Hitch’s saddlebags, he gave me a dazed smile when I outlined my enlistment. The laudanum the doctor had given him for his pain had made him very genial. “So you’re off to the cemetery, are you, then? Better and better, Never. You’ll have one of the more lively commands around here. It’s the best I could have hoped for, for you and for me. Rest in peace!” He lolled his head on his pillow. “Laudanum. Ever had laudanum, Nevare? It makes getting hur
t worth it. ” He sighed, and his eyes started to sag shut. Then they abruptly flew open, and he said with sudden command, “Before you go to the cemetery, ride to the end of the King’s Road. It won’t take you more than a couple of hours. Do it today. Very educational. ” He flung himself back onto his pillows as if he had told me something of great import. And on such a note, I left him there, glassy-eyed and slack-jawed.

  I made a final stop at a general store to buy food with some of my hoarded coins. I was not sure how regular the pay would be in such a remote location. I’d been told that I could ride into town each day to eat in the mess, but thought it would be nice if I had food available at my lodgings at the cemetery. No one escorted me to my new assignment, or even gave me a list of expectations. The sentry at the east gate of the fort pointed out my road to me. “Just ride that way, toward the mountains. You’ll see it. ” And that was that.

  The cemetery was more than an hour’s ride from the gates of Gettys. The road got progressively worse the further Clove and I went, while houses and other signs of settlement dwindled almost immediately. Soon I had left all signs of successful settlement behind. Occasionally I would see an overgrown cart track that led to an aborted farm, but no one lived out this way. It seemed very peculiar to me that every single farm east of the fort had been abandoned. As the road became steeper, winding ever upward into the foothills, all attempts at settlement vanished. The forest drew closer to both sides of the road, dark and menacing. I caught myself riding as warily as if I knew I were being stalked, but saw no one.

  I came finally to a rough sign by the side of the road. “GETTYS CEMETERY,” it read, and an arrow pointed to a narrower road that led up a bare hill. The hill had been logged off; in some places, stumps still dotted it, while beyond the cleared zone, the ranked trees of a deciduous forest stood in a straight row where the logging had stopped. I started to turn Clove’s head toward it, and then recalled Hitch’s words. “Ride to the end of the King’s Road. ” I glanced back at the sun, wondered how far it was, and then decided that I’d find out. If I didn’t come to it by nightfall, I’d simply turn back.

  I soon began to doubt that decision. The road led ever uphill. It was poorly engineered; there were washouts down the center of it, and in one place a stream had eaten a gully across it. It had been repaired badly with coarse stone. I wondered at how shoddily the King’s Road was being built. Was not this the king’s great work, the project on which he pinned so many hopes? What ailed the men overseeing its construction? I could understand that common criminals were not the best workers for such a project, but surely competent engineers oversaw them?

  The road narrowed, and the forest grew ever closer. Twice I startled at motion, just at the corner of my peripheral vision. In each case, I turned my head and saw nothing. Later, I caught a glimpse of the largest croaker bird I had ever seen. It perched in a tree that was half dead, on a bare branch that almost overhung the road. I marveled at the size of it, for it looked like a black-and-white man perched up there. Then, just as I rode alongside it, it suddenly separated into three birds that took flight. I watched them go, wondering how I could have mistaken three for a single entity, and wondering, too, what a scavenger such as a croaker bird was watching for beside the road.

  I began to see signs of ongoing work. An empty wagon rattled down the hill toward me. Clove and I gave way and allowed the team to pass. The driver did not so much as turn his head or nod at me. His gaze was set, and he hurried his team at a dangerous pace for such a heavy vehicle going downhill. I began to hear sounds in the distance and soon passed a rough work camp by the side of the road. In a small clearing there were five crude shelters, a corral holding a dozen horses, and an open-sided barn. Two wagons sagged on broken axles beside the barn. It looked desolate and, except for the penned horses, deserted. I had never seen a drearier place. Hopelessness wafted from it like a bad smell.

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  I suddenly did not want to go any further. I’d seen enough. It was all adding up to something I didn’t want to admit. The old nobles had been right. This was a futile, senseless project. It would never be completed, no matter how long we worked on it or how much the king spent. It was wasteful, stupid, and cruel to the men dragged from their city lives to toil in a foreign wilderness. I wanted to turn Clove around and go back. But in the distance, I could hear men’s voices raised in command and the creak of heavy wagons. Hitch had told me to see the end, and I resolved that I would, if only to satisfy my curiosity as to why he would give me such a strange command. It did not take me much longer to come to the work site.

  I’d seen my father’s much smaller road crew at work and knew how it was supposed to operate. There was a rhythm and order to good road building. The best route should have been marked out, the trees taken down, and the ground surveyed to grade. In some places, earth would have to be scraped away and in others, wagons would dump the excess to build up the roadbed. Rock and gravel would be brought in, to lift the roadbed above the lie of the land. Done right, the operation was almost like a dance as some men prepared the way and other workers followed.

  The operation before me was chaos. The overseers were either ineffectual or did not care. I saw a wagon driver shouting at men who were digging in the path that his laden wagon must traverse. Further on, two groups of workers had paused to watch their foremen come to blows. The men were fighting doggedly, trading heavy blows in a sullen, mindless way. No one tried to stop them. The convicts in their ragged shirts and trousers leaned on their shovels and picks and watched the fistfight with dull satisfaction. The workers wore leg irons that limited them to a short stride. It struck me as barbaric.

  Discord and disorder surrounded me. Weeds and brush grew on heaped fill dirt beside the road. An overturned wagon, its load spilled beside it, had simply been abandoned where it fell. I came at last to where the road was only a raw scar in the earth, with stumps of trees sticking up to show where it was supposed to go. The stumps were silvery, and on some moss had started to grow. These trees had been logged at least a year ago and more likely three. It made no sense to me. The road should have been growing much more swiftly than that.

  A uniformed guard oversaw a coffle of convicts ineffectually grubbing up the stumps. He waved an arm at me as I rode through. He wore a corporal’s stripe on his sleeve. “Hey! Hold up! Where do you think you’re going?” he demanded of me.

  I reined Clove in. “Just to the end of the road. ”

  “The end?” He gave a great haw of laughter, and around him his fettered prison crew joined in. It took him several moments to get his merriment under control.

  “Is there a problem?” I asked him. I cringed as I realized that I’d addressed him as a noble son would address a common worker like himself. That was a reflex I’d best learn to control. Once I’d donned the uniform of a common trooper, I doubted it would be tolerated. But he didn’t appear to notice.

  “A problem? Oh, no, none at all. You just go your merry way. Usually we only get new recruits visiting it, but for myself, I think every visitor to Gettys should go out to the end of the road. It really takes you to the heart of our mission. ” He grinned broadly as he looked around at his work crew, and I saw his dispirited workforce nodding and smirking sourly among themselves, doubtless over my fat. I nudged Clove, and we passed through the midst of their work. Beyond them, all work seemed to have come to a complete halt.

  The road ended in a tangle of three fallen trees. I had never seen logs so large, nor stumps so wide. They must have been cut years before. The dead bare limbs and the stumps of the trees had gone gray. Their giant bodies were a barricade of death against the road’s progress. The standing trees beyond them were even bigger. No wonder the logging crews had given up. No one could cut a road through trees that size. It was an insane task. This was the king’s great vision? Anger was growing in me beside a sudden self-loathing. It suddenly seemed that everything I had been taught, all
my pride in being a soldier son, was a part of this fallen ambition. Stupid. I was stupid, the king was stupid, and the road was a folly.

  I sat on Clove’s broad back, disillusioned and discouraged, staring up into the ancient forest. Then I dismounted and walked forward, trying to see beyond the fallen giants. The ground was uneven, and underbrush of thistles and thorns had grown up swiftly when the ground was granted sunlight. The bushes were so dense and evenly spaced, they almost seemed a deliberately planted hedge against intruders. These brambles had sharp-tipped leaves as well as thorns all down their flexible canes. I made a halfhearted attempt to push into the thicket, but soon tangled in their barbed branches like an insect in a spider’s web. Withdrawing cost me snags in my trousers and long bleeding scratches on my arms. I’d wakened a horde of tiny stinging gnats and they swarmed about me. I waved at them wildly and retreated to the road.

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  The gnats continued to hum about me, trying to settle and sting as I climbed up onto one of the huge stumps. I could have hosted a dinner party for twelve on top of it. The additional height gave me just enough of a vantage to see into the forest beyond the barrier of brambles.

  Only in my dreams had I seen such a place. The trees on the hill above me made the stump I stood on seem a sapling. The trunks of some of the trees were as big around as watchtowers, and like watchtowers, they soared toward the sky. Their lower trunks were straight and limbless, and the bark was rumpled and fissured. High over my head, the bark looked smoother, and that was where the branches began. The smoother bark was not rough and brown, but a softly mottled blend of greens, hazels, and red-brown splotches. The leaves were immense, at least the size of dinner platters. The branches of each tree interlaced and meshed with others, forming a dense mat of foliage overhead. Beneath those trees, there was little underbrush, only deep carpets of leaf mold and a silence that seemed part of the permanent twilight under those behemoths.

  Never in my life had I seen such trees.

  Yet I had.

 
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