Forest mage, p.40
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       Forest Mage, p.40

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

  Not in this flesh, but as my other self. I knew it, and then the knowledge flickered away from me. I reached after it, knowing it was immensely important, but again it was concealed. I took a deep breath and sat very still. I closed my eyes for a moment, focusing my concentration. He was part of me; we were one. What he knew, I could know. What was the significance of the trees?

  My eyes flew open.

  The trees were alive. They loomed over me. There were faces in their rumpled bark, not faces such as men had, but the faces of the trees themselves. They looked down upon me, and I cowered. They were so full of knowing. They knew everything about me. Everything. Every despicable thought or deed I’d ever committed, they knew. And it was within their power to judge me and punish me. And they would. Now.

  I literally felt terror flow up inside me. Like an engulfing flood, it rose through my body. My feet and legs felt nerveless. I sagged and staggered where I stood. When I was a boy, I had experienced nightmares in which my legs turned to jelly and I could not stand. Now, as I collapsed, I discovered that it could happen in real life. The fear that washed through me loosened every joint in my body. I barely managed to crawl to the edge of the stump, dragging my useless legs after me. I fell from the stump to the thorn-choked earth. The thorns tore the flesh of my hands; their tiny teeth snagged in my clothes and tried to hold me back. I sobbed and wallowed toward Clove. My horse stood regarding me with distrust, his ears folded back at my odd behavior.

  More than anything, I feared my horse would abandon me here. “Clove. Good boy. Good horse. Stand, Clove. Stand. ” My words came out in a hoarse, shaky whisper. I wanted to weep with terror; it was all I could do to control myself. I managed to get to my knees. Then, with a huge effort, I surged to my feet. My quaking legs would not take my weight, but I was close enough that I fell forward against Clove’s side. My nerveless hands gripped feebly at my saddle. “Oh, good god, please help me!” I moaned, and somehow found the strength to drag myself upright. I got a foot in a stirrup and, while I was only half in the saddle, urged Clove to move. He did, meandering confusedly while I clung, shaking and sobbing, to his saddle. I was inexpressibly grateful that he moved in the correct direction, away from the end of the road and the hideous, crouching forest that waited there. Waves of blackness threatened my consciousness. I was ashamed of what a coward I was, but could not help it. I focused all my thoughts, all my efforts, on getting my leg the rest of the way over the saddle, and when I did and hauled my weight up onto Clove’s back, the first thing I did was urge him to a gallop, heedless of the uneven surface and how my panniers jolted behind me. Up ahead of me, standing across the road like a barrier, I suddenly saw a group of road workers gathered in mass. They stood like a wall, whooping and laughing. Clove’s good sense more than my direction made him slow his pace and then halt before we overran them. It was all I could do to hold onto the horn of my saddle. My breath still rattled in and out of me. Tears of terror had left tracks down my cheeks. I opened my mouth to shout a warning to them, and then could not think what to warn them about. The fellow who had spoken to me earlier asked with false solicitude, “So, did you find the end of our road? Did you like it?”

  I had the barest edge of control of myself. Shame warred with the last fading shreds of panic. What had frightened me so badly? Why had I fled? I suddenly had no idea. I only knew that my throat was parched and that my shirt stuck to my back with fear sweat. I looked around at them, confused by what I had felt and done and deeply insulted by their grinning faces. One of the guards took pity on me.

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  “Hey, big man, don’t you know we’ve all felt it? That’s what the ‘end of the road’ means here. Sheer shit-your-pants terror. Hey, don’t feel bad, trooper. It gets done to all of us. Initiation, you might say. And now you’re one of us. Gettys-sweated. That’s what we call it. You got a proper Gettys sweat worked up. ”

  A roar of laughter went up as he approached me and offered me his own canteen. I reached down, drank from it, and as I handed it back, I managed a completely insincere smile and a weak laugh. “It happens to everyone that way?” I managed to ask. “The terror?”

  “Oh, yeah, that it do. Count yourself a tough nut. There’s no piss running into your boot. Most of us here can’t brag about that. ” The fellow slapped me companionably on the leg, and strange to say, I felt better.

  “Does the king know about this?” I blurted out, and then felt a fool when my words woke another general laugh.

  “If it hadn’t happened to you, would you have believed it?” drawled the fellow who had befriended me.

  I shook my head slowly. “No. Like as not, I wouldn’t. ” I paused, then asked, “What is it?”

  “Nobody believes it until it happens to him,” he agreed with me. “And nobody can say exactly what it is. Only that it happens. And that we can’t think of a way to get past it. ”

  “Can’t we go around it?”

  He smiled tolerantly, and I almost blushed. Of course not. If they could have, they would have. He gave me a nod and a smile. “Go on back to Gettys. If you go into Rollo’s Tavern and tell them that a Gettys sweat requires a Gettys beer to quench it, he’ll give you a free one. It’s a tradition for new recruits, but I think they’ll extend it to you. ”

  “I am a new recruit,” I told him. “Colonel Haren just signed me on. Loosely attached me, that is. I’m the new cemetery guard. ”

  He looked up at me, and the smile faded from his face. Around him, the other men were exchanging glances. “You poor bastard,” he said with feeling. And then they opened their ranks and motioned me to ride back to Gettys.

  The notion of a free beer at a friendly tavern was a powerful draw. I considered it carefully as I rode back toward Gettys. I still couldn’t decide if I felt insulted or hurt by the prank that had been played on me, or relieved that they’d all seen fit to initiate me. In the end, I decided that Hitch’s remark had been the most accurate one. It had been very educational. And I was in no position to resent it, I reminded myself. I wasn’t a junior officer and the son of a battle lord. I was a new recruit, at the very bottom of the social order. I should probably have thanked my stars that my initiation was no rougher than it had been.

  Now that I was well away from the end of the road, I could ponder what had overcome me. I didn’t want to try to remember that fear too clearly, nor to dwell on it. A comforting thought came to me suddenly. It wasn’t really my problem. I wasn’t building the road. All I had to do, simple soldier that I was, was guard the cemetery. I heaved a sign of relief at that thought and rode on.

  But when I reached the sign that pointed the way to the cemetery, I decided that my visit to the tavern could wait for tomorrow. Evening was coming on, and I wanted to see what my new billet looked like.

  A cart track wound up the hillside. Clove and I followed it. I soon reached the first rows of rough headboards, for such they were, grave markers made of wood, not stone. To come on such a sprawling cemetery so far from any domiciles, was a very strange sensation. The graveyard was in an open meadow on a gentle roll of hilltop. Tall grass surrounded it, and the inevitable tree stumps. After the immense trees I had seen that afternoon, these seemed quite small and ordinary. I reined in Clove and sat on his back, enjoying that vantage of height. The only sound was the sweep of wind across the grasses, and the calls of the birds in the nearby forest. The cemetery told its own sad tale. There was a row of individual markers, and then what I could only describe as a filled-in trench. The hummock of earth over it showed that the dead had not been buried deeply. Beyond it, the individual graves resumed, but soon enough, those tidy rows were again interrupted by a long hummock of grass-grown earth. The farther I went, the newer the grave markers became.

  It was an efficient cemetery, without thought for sentiment or beauty. The grass growing in it had been scythed, but not recently. There were no plantings, no walkways wandering among the graves, and not
even a fence to indicate the boundaries of it. I rode Clove along a narrow track through the graves until I reached my destination: three wooden structures on the far eastern edge of the graveyard. As I approached the buildings, I found them better constructed than I had dared hope. They were tidy and tight, built of squared-off logs and well-caulked with clay. Grass had crept into the walkway along with weeds. It had been weeks, at least, since anyone had trodden them on a regular basis.

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  I dismounted, slipped Clove’s bit so he could graze, and set out to tour my new domain. The first shed held the tools of my new profession. Shovels, rakes, a pickax, and several axes were neatly hung on one wall. Four plank coffins, plain as dirt, were stacked ready in the back for whoever might die next in Gettys. A supply of planks for making markers leaned beside them. The very small building between the other two was a necessary. A small paper-wasp nest on the eave by the door showed it had not been used in some time. The other structure proved to be my new home.

  The single room held a bed built into a corner, a table likewise attached to the wall under the sole window, and a hearth that would both supply my warmth for the winter and cook my food. Three pots of various sizes hung on hooks above it. A cupboard fastened to the wall would be my pantry. There was a chair, but a single glance told me it would not hold my weight. There was little else of note there. An enameled washbasin on a shelf next to the hearth held a motley assortment of dishes and utensils. I felt vaguely grateful that the previous occupant had at least washed them before he left.

  Dust and spiderwebs coated every surface. It did not look as if the cottage had been occupied for months. Well, I’d have some washing and dusting to do before I settled into my new abode. I went outside to see to Clove first. I picketed him where he could graze the deep grass, and took his tack to my tool shed before I returned to my cabin.

  The straw tick on the bed was musty. I opened a seam and shook out the old straw onto the earth. Tomorrow, I would cut fresh grass with my scythe and put it to dry before I stuffed the mattress again. For tonight, the bare bed would serve me.

  There was a tidy rick of firewood outside the door. I started a fire in the hearth and was pleased to find that the chimney drew well. I had to free the broom from its cobwebs in the corner before I could put it to use. I propped the door open and swept a cloud of dust, dirt, and spiders outside.

  The work wakened my suppressed appetite to new fury. I found a wooden bucket in the corner, and took it with me while I followed a faint track from the door to the edge of the woods. There I found a sullen spring seeping water up into a greenish pond. I scowled at the thought of using such water for drinking or cooking. When I knelt down to fill my bucket, I saw a wooden box peeping from the nearby reeds. I pulled off the clinging grasses that had overgrown it, to find that someone had carefully set a box into the spring and filled the bottom with sand and gravel. The water standing in it was much clearer than the rest of the pond. As I sank my bucket into it to fill it, a movement in the woods across the pond startled me. I lifted my eyes, but saw nothing. My heart began to beat fast. The fear the end of the road had wakened in me was still fresh in my mind.

  A game trail led from the forest’s edge to the water. Doubtless the motion had been a deer, or even the flicker of a bird’s wings. I seized the handle of the bucket and heaved myself to my feet. As I did so, I heard a gasp, and then the unmistakable sound of someone fleeing on two legs. I had a glimpse of a bush shaking, but did not see the intruder. For a moment longer I stood frightened. Then I sighed and shook my head at myself and my fears; I had thought I was far enough away from the town that I would be spared people peering at me. Perhaps with time they would become accustomed to me, and the stares would stop.

  I took my bucket of water back to my new home. As I returned to my cottage, I considered how squarely and snugly it was built. Whoever had built it had put time and thought into it. I suspected that Gettys had not always been the haphazard place it was now. Once a real officer had commanded it; I judged that the caretaker’s cottage had been built during his time.

  I was fairly occupied for the next few hours. The simple work calmed me, and I was able to set the last of my fears aside. I put water to boil on my freshly swept hearth, and proceeded to put my food supplies away on the pantry shelves. As I opened my panniers to do so, I rediscovered Amzil’s bag. I’d promised to return it to her. I decided to ask Hitch when next I saw him if he knew of anyone heading in that direction. A pleasing fancy came to me, that I would put in a few things for her and her children. In the next moment, I wondered if she would think me fatuous for doing so. She had made her lack of interest in me plain. Even so, imagining the surprise and delight of the three youngsters made me smile, and I decided that I didn’t care if Amzil thought me foolish. I hung the bag on one of the hooks on the wall so that I would not forget.

  When I opened the pantry doors, a pleasant surprise awaited me. The previous inhabitant had departed but left a goodly store of dried lentils and beans in two fat crocks with heavy stoppers. Neither damp nor insects had reached them. I immediately put some to soak for cooking. I had spent some of my remaining coin on coffee, tea, sugar, and salt, along with four measures of meal and a rasher of bacon. My biggest indulgence had been a loaf of freshly baked bread.

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  My days of travel had taught me a great deal about my new body. Limiting my food intake did not dwindle me, but I did become more lethargic, and in extreme cases very irritable. I had continued my habit of savoring food, and I fancied that I better understood now how my body had changed. Almost all that I took in as sustenance, my body retained. I produced very little waste, a fact that had been rather disconcerting to me at first. When I could not find as much food as I wished, I began to crave quantities of water, which, thankfully, had been plentiful through most of my journey.

  My hunger was a constant. I had come to accept it as a companion to my life, just as some men had to deal with poor eyesight or deafness. The cramp in my gut was always there, but I had learned to master it. There were still moments when my hunger could seize my attention, as it had near the bakery that morning, and in severe cases, it could distract me until nothing would do until I had found something to put in my mouth. I had learned to set aside a bit of food against moments such as that, for when such hunger overtook me, I became almost irrational. It was a terrible thing to fear that I might slip into such a frame of mind, almost like dreading a bout of madness.

  But tonight I had no such fears. I allowed myself a very hearty meal of coffee, bread, and bacon. The drippings from the bacon made a wonderful spread for the fresh bread. By the time I was finished eating, I felt more satisfied than I had in weeks. I tidied up my pan and plate; checked on my horse, which seemed as contented with his lush grazing as I had been with my meal; and then resolved to walk the perimeter of my new domain.

  I returned from that walk a sobered man. Grass grew past my knees throughout most of the cemetery. The trench graves I had noted earlier betrayed the regular waves of plague that had swept through Gettys. The markers for individual graves, mostly made from slabs of wood, were rapidly losing the painted or carved epitaphs they had once held, but they retained enough information to be heart-rending. The cemetery had begun in an orderly fashion. In the oldest section, officers and their family members were grouped together, as were enlisted men. But after the first trench grave, the burying ground had become a much more egalitarian place. Infants reposed alongside captains, and humble nameless privates rested next to colonels. I had thought every grave untended. That was not so. True, wild grasses dominated the area, but here and there I would literally stumble across a marker standing sentinel above a groomed grave site. On a few, flowers grew. On one, perhaps a child’s, a simple string of wooden beads, their paint fading in the weather, festooned the marker.

  When I came to the most recent section of the graveyard,
the change was remarkable. Here, only a season had passed since the last wave of interments. The last mass grave was a weed-covered hummock crawling across the hillside. A row of individual graves marked the first rank of those who had fallen to the plague. A second row after the trench grave marked, perhaps, those who had lingered before they succumbed, or the natural deaths that had occurred since the last wave of plague. The markers were newer and easier to read.

  To my horror, I discovered that some kind of animal had burrowed into one of the most recent graves. A mostly decomposed hand had been brought to the surface and feasted upon. It was a man’s hand by the size of it, shriveled and dark. The animal had gnawed at the fleshy palm and mostly ignored the curled fingers with their yellowed nails. I looked away from it firmly. The size of the burrow made me think the scavenger was a fairly small creature. I wondered if these were the depredations that Colonel Haren had been lamenting. If they were, then a good watchdog might be my best assistant. Jaw traps might also help me find a solution. But surely a sturdy coffin would have been the best preventive of such incursions.

  I performed my first act of duty, though I will admit that it made me feel not just edgy but queasy. There were no sticks close at hand. With the toe of my boot, I nudged the hand back into the creature’s excavation wishing I had a stick to poke it farther in. Again with my boot, I scraped and kicked soil back into the hole, and finished up by firmly plugging it with several rocks of the right diameter. It did not seem a very respectful way for me to deal with it, but I judged that in this case, promptness exceeded the need for reverence. I patrolled the rest of the line of recent graves, and found three other places where wildlife was intruding on the resting places of the dead. I repeated my rock- and earth-scuffing at each site, resolving that after this, I’d always take a shovel with me when I made my daily circuit of the graveyard.

  The high clouds and fresh wind of the day had thickened to dark overcast and bluster. The first heavy drops began to fall. The moisture in the air made it hard to continue ignoring the clinging smell of the place. Nothing smells quite like rotting human flesh, and my experience at Widevale had forever associated that terrible stench with my own stunning losses. It horrified me that such a foul smell carried my mind immediately to thoughts of my mother. Worse were the mental images of Elisi that came with it. Try as I might, I could not recall my elder sister at her harp or sewing, but only as that perpetually sprawled and futilely grasping corpse. The thought ambushed me that I had done no better by my family with their hasty burials than Gettys had done with theirs. It both shamed me and woke kinship in me.

 
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