Forest mage, p.41
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       Forest Mage, p.41

         Part #2 of The Soldier Son Trilogy series by Robin Hobb
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  This duty that had been given to me, however lowly anyone else might regard it, was a trust. In life, these men had served their king as best they might. They and their families deserved respectful rest. I saw now the wisdom of the stored coffins in the shed. There were not enough of them. I wondered if I could persuade my commander that we needed a warehouse full. I grimaced as I imagined how that would affect morale at the fort. Planning to be decimated by disease was scarcely optimistic. But I thought I could convince him it was better than being overwhelmed with dead bodies when the annual onslaught of Speck plague began.

  I thought of the anonymous trench graves. Well, that was within my power to correct or at least lessen. I’d proven myself as a gravedigger. If I dug a grave daily and left it open and waiting, would I stay ahead of the plague victims when the hot dusty days of summer brought the sickness again? I was not sure, but it was worth trying.

  The rain began to fall in earnest, a driving curtain of water. As I cut short my tour of the graves and cut across their lines in my trek back to my cottage, I resolved that I would remember that every body buried here had been beloved by somebody. I passed Clove, hobbled in the tall standing grass. He’d turned his big rump to the wind and had his head down. He was already drenched, and I pitied him. I led him to the lee of the shed. If winters here were as harsh as I’d heard, I’d need to put up some sort of shelter for him. I’d forgotten to request his corn and oats; a cavalla man’s horse received his own rations from the regiment. Tomorrow, I promised myself. Winter was just around the corner, and I still had much to do to make myself ready for it.

  The downpour firmed my decision that I would not return to town this evening. I found I rather looked forward to my first night in my own residence. Once inside my cottage, I shut the door firmly behind me. I was pleased to find that the roof was tight, and that the hearth was sufficient to warm the room to a comfortable temperature. I took off my wet cloak and hung it on a peg by the door, and pulled off my boots and stood them under it. And there I stood, suddenly safe within doors in my own little place, with more comforts than I’d enjoyed in weeks and with remarkably little to do.

  I busied myself as best I could. The beans had begun to swell in the water. I added more liquid to them and set the kettle at the edge of the hearth. By tomorrow they would be softened. I would add salt and the last of the bacon to them, and let them cook all day. Contemplating that gave me so much satisfaction that I was rather shocked at myself. Surely I wanted more out of life than to simply have my next meal secured and a tight roof over my head.

  But did I?

  It was strange to look around my little cottage and realize that I’d fulfilled my ambition for myself. I was, technically, a soldier. I had a post and a task. If I saved enough of my pay to afford it, I could have a uniform made that would fit me and I could wear it. I doubted that my father would ever be proud of me, but at some point I was sure that I’d let him know that despite his lack of faith in me, I’d achieved what the good god had decreed for me.

  And did I want no more than that out of life?

  I was irritated with myself. I took the spindly chair and set it by the hearth and cautiously perched in it. I’d come all this way to do this, and now that I’d done it, the first thing I did was question the value of it. Could not I take even one night of satisfaction in my accomplishment? What was wrong with me?

  I added a bit more wood to the fire and stared at it for a time.

  Yaril came to mind. I had said that I would provide for her, that I would send for her as soon as I was able. In the next few days, I should write to her and tell her where I was and that I was, indeed, a soldier. I looked around my snug little cabin. Then I tried to picture my sister there. My heart sank. Yaril had said that she would manage anywhere I did, but I could not imagine my pretty pampered sister coping here. She had always lived in privilege and comfort. Could she adapt to life here? I would have to add another room onto the cabin. How long would she be content, sleeping on a sack of straw, cooking on an open hearth, fetching her own water to bathe in a pan? Gettys would offer her little in the way of amusement or company. How soon would she become bored and bitter? How could I offer this to Yaril as an escape?

  I sat down with my journal. I took paper from my extra leaves, and wrote Yaril a letter telling her briefly of my adventures on the road and that I was now at Gettys and an enlisted man. It was hard to tell her that my situation was such that I could not welcome her yet. I tried to make the words gentle and affectionate, but feared that no matter what or how I wrote, she would feel abandoned. I sealed the note, resolving to send it the next day.

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  My thoughts had spiraled downward. I suddenly saw that all my life, I’d been shallow and without ambition, content to take my birth order destiny and make it the sole focus of my life. I made my nightly entry in my journal. I recounted how I’d finally enlisted, but also included my terror at nothing and my final image of myself at the end of the day, a lowly soldier unable to keep his promise to his sister. It was a savage denunciation of myself. The tidy little cabin I had so enjoyed earlier in the day now seemed an empty little shell that I had moved myself into, something that would permit me no growth, nothing but existence.

  My hearth fire was the only light in the cabin. I banked it, undressed, and lay down on my hard bunk. I listened to the wind howl, pitied poor Clove standing in it, and then fell into a deep sleep.

  I dreamed of a smell, rich and spicy. It took me some time to identify it, and then I recalled it. It was the smell of magic, the same aroma I’d inhaled when I stood on the pinnacle of the spire and plunged my hands into the magic of the Dancing Spindle. But in my dream, the scent of magic became instead the perfume of a woman’s body. She stood naked before me, perfectly comfortable in her speckled skin. Her nakedness revealed the pattern of her markings. They were much like a tabby cat’s stippling, suggestive of stripes. Like a curious cat, she moved soft-footed and wary around my cabin.

  I watched her. The palest parts of her skin were lighter than mine, the darkest a smooth velvet black. She explored my cabin and my possessions. She lifted my shirt, fingering the fabric, and then raised it to her face, where she sniffed it with flared nostrils and half-open mouth. I caught a glimpse of her white teeth and dark tongue as she tasted my scent. When she set down my shirt and moved again, I could see the darker streak that ran down her spine. The speckles that were almost stripes radiated out from that streak. The nails of her hands and feet were dark. Once she stopped her prowling and stared long at me. I looked back at her frankly. Her belly was paler than the rest of her, but still speckled. The nipples of her breasts were dark. Her hair was long and coarse and as streaked as the rest of her. The rain had washed her, and her hair clung flat to her skull and was a soaked veil down her back. Streaks of rain glistened on her skin and small jewels of it sparkled in her pubic hair.

  She was not the first Speck I’d seen, nor even the first Speck woman. But this time there were no cage bars between her and me, and I felt her feral grace as a muted threat. Her body was strong, her legs muscled, her thighs and haunches powerful. She was easily as tall as I was. Her breasts were heavy, swaying with her walk, and her belly curved frankly above the furred mound between her legs. There was nothing delicate about her. She was as unlike a Gernian woman as a wolf is unlike a lapdog. I watched her scoop two fingers full of beans from my pot and taste them, frowning. She pulled her fingers from her mouth and shook them disdainfully. Then she moved again, and came to stand over me in my bed. She leaned down close to me, so close I could feel her breath on my cheek. I smelled her. Arousal shocked through me with an insistence I’d never felt before. I lunged for her.

  I awoke on the floor with skinned knees. I was shivering with cold, and still desperately kindled. But there was no woman, not a scent or sight of her. The cold wind and driving rain were coming in through the open door.
There were wet leaves tracked across my floor. I wanted most to believe that there had been a woman there, but knew the more logical explanation was that I had been sleepwalking again. The rain had chilled me and a few wet leaves were still plastered to my feet and calves. I stumbled across to the door, shut it firmly, and made sure of the latch. I added wood to my fire and then crawled back into my bed.

  I tried to find sleep again, but could only skim the surface of it for moments, like a thrown stone skipping across a river. I listened to the storm rant and rave outside, and toward dawn I heard it finally give up, more from weariness than satisfaction.

  I arose to a world washed clean, to blue skies and a fresh, cold wind sweeping the world. Such mornings usually energized me, but today I felt old and stiff and hampered by my weight. I was hungry, yet too bleak to want to prepare food for myself. The swollen beans had burst their wrinkled skins; they looked disgusting. I nudged them closer to the coals and covered them to continue their slow cooking. I hated myself for being too stupid and greedy to save some of yesterday’s loaf to break my fast. I toasted the remaining bacon on a skewer over the fire, ate some, and dropped the rest into the bean pot

  When I went for water, the tall standing grass soaked me to the knees. When I stood up from dipping up a bucketful, I looked up at the forest on the hillside above me. I felt an echo of the wonder I’d felt once before at such a sight. But in the next instant, a wash of fear swept through me. I imagined slogging through wet leaves while water dripped down on me and tangled roots tripped me. Buzzing insects would sting me, to say nothing of the threat of poisonous snakes and the larger predators of the forestlands. No. I wanted nothing to do with the forest. I turned away from that gloomy, dangerous place, wishing my cabin were not so close to it. I hurried away with my bucket.

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  I made a morning of heating water, washing my clothes and myself, and stringing a clothesline inside my cabin to dry my clothing. I put on my cavalla hat, a jacket that would not button, and a shirt and a pair of trousers still damp from washing. I built up the fire in the vain hope that the rest of my clothing would be dry when I returned, saddled up a disgruntled Clove, and rode back to Gettys.

  My cavalla hat was my admission though the gates. I went back to Colonel Haren’s office. I had no success in getting in to see him. When I told his desk sergeant that I wanted to request supplies to build a shelter for my horse, he seemed shocked that I’d have the ambition for such a task. He filled out a requisition form for me, acquiescing to everything I asked him for, but taking such a long time to do it that I felt I’d spent half my life in the office before he gave it to me. I told him that I wished to speak to the colonel about creating a supply of coffins against the projected need in plague time, and that I wished to discuss the wisdom of digging graves beforehand.

  His smile might have been a grimace. “Well, aren’t you the ambitious one? Do what you think needs doing, soldier. Either no one will notice it, or someone will complain about it. ” He smiled at his own jest and sent me on my way.

  The supply sergeant took the requisition form from me, glanced at it, and then told me to help myself to what I needed in the warehouse. When I asked for the use of a wagon to haul it, he shrugged and told me again to take what I needed. The warehouse was worse. I finally found the men on duty behind the warehouse, leaning against the back wall and smoking. Three of the four were bony plague survivors. I doubted they had the muscle to lift a hammer. I showed them my form, and they told me, as the sergeant had, that I might take what I needed. In the end, that was what I did. I found a cart and a heavy harness, stiff with disuse. I put patient Clove between the traces. The lumber was of poor quality, the nail kegs were jumbled together, and there was no order to any of it. I took what I wanted, including corn, oats, a sack of hay, and a currying brush for Clove, and loaded it all myself. When I was finished, I found the warehouse sergeant out at the back with his men. I asked him if he’d like to inventory what I’d taken. “I’ll trust you,” he replied, and did not even walk around to look at the laden wagon. It seemed to tax his ambition to walk as far as his untidy office, where he put a sloppy signature on my form and thrust it back at me. I left there feeling vaguely insulted by the whole procedure.

  Before I left town, I took my letter to the dispatch office and paid a breathtaking fee to have it delivered. Then I went to the infirmary to visit Hitch again. He was much as he had been the day before. When I complained about how slack discipline seemed at Gettys and the apathetic warehouse men, he grinned lazily. He motioned me closer to his bedside, as if to tell me a secret, and then said softly, “They danced it out of us, lad. You went to the end of the road, didn’t you?”

  “Yes, I did. I didn’t find it humorous, Hitch. ”

  “That’s Lieutenant Hitch, soldier!” he said sharply, and when I flinched, he laughed softly. “You should see what happens every time they try to send a road work crew into the forest. Half of them can’t remember their own names by the day’s end, and in a week, you might get a day’s worth of work done. Try it sometime yourself. Go walking into the forest. You’ll feel it. You feel it already, I’ll wager. I’m surprised you had the sand to get this far. ”

  He lay back in his bed and let his eyes droop closed. “Don’t fight it, Never. There’s no point in fighting it. Your pay’s the same whether you work or slack. Relax, trooper. ”

  I put it down to the laudanum. As I stood up to leave, he reminded me, “Hey. You didn’t salute me when you came in. ”

  I could not tell if his words were a rebuke or a jest. I stood and gave him my best salute. He rewarded me with a faint laugh and a feeble wave of his hand.

  I pulled my coat tighter around me as I emerged onto the windswept street. If this were a foretaste of winter, I’d soon need to do something about my wardrobe. The bleakness of Gettys struck me all over again. Everywhere I looked, neglect met my eyes. Weeds straggled along the sides of the street. The paint was peeling from the fronts of the buildings, and shutters hung crookedly. Although people moved on the streets, there was no bustle. A young soldier, his shirt stained with old gravy, walked past me, his eyes on the ground. I wondered if morale was always so low at this post, or if the stormy weather were to blame.

  The lone exception was a young woman in a blue gown with voluminous skirts. The wind had pressed her skirts against her legs, effectively hobbling her. She wore a heavy black cloak as well, and this the wind whipped wildly. She was struggling with it and a market basket she carried, and did not notice my scrutiny. “Drat!” she exclaimed sharply when the wind wrenched the garment free of her. It took flight down the street like a crippled blackbird, and she raced after it and captured it by making a wild leap and landing on it with both feet. As she picked up the flapping cloak from the muddy ground, I suddenly recognized her. Epiny. My cousin was older than when I had last seen her. A moment later, I revised that. No. She was dressing as a woman now, but if she had matured in any way, it did not show.

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  As I stared at her, a sergeant hurrying out the door of the store bumped into me. “Stop blocking the door,” he barked at me. Then as he caught sight of Epiny in the street, he glared at me. “Oaf. You’d rather stand and leer at a woman than offer her help. Get out of my way. ”

  He hurried across the street to offer his aid. She thrust the heavy basket at him and then spun in a circle, letting the wind lift the muddied cloak wide, before she sort of danced herself into it, finally trapping it around her. There was a large dirty patch on the back of it now. I blushed for how foolish she looked as I heard her thanking the man for his help.

  I think she felt my stare. They both glanced toward me, and I found myself lowering my head and turning to one side. She did not know me. The brim of my cavalla hat hid my face, and there was nothing about my body that she could possibly recognize. I walked quickly around the wagon and climbed up onto the seat. I could n
ot find a clear thought for why I was avoiding her. “I’m not ready,” I muttered to myself. “Not yet. Let me get settled, and then I’ll make myself known to them. ” I took the wheel brake off and shook the reins, and Clove leaned into his harness. I think he was grateful to be back to pulling rather than being ridden. The ride home took longer than when I’d ridden horseback. The road had been soaked by the rain, leaving the ruts full of standing water. As I let Clove pick his way, I tried to sort out my thoughts and feelings on seeing Epiny. I’d felt that lift of anticipation at the sight of a familiar face, followed by my surprise that she and undoubtedly Spink were here and settled in already. For some reason, I thought it would take them far longer to transfer their home. I thought of how pleasant it would be to call on them, to sit down to a meal and talk of people we knew. And then I laid my own dread bare to myself: that would never happen now. Cousin or not, Epiny was an officer’s wife. Spink was no longer Spink to me: he was Lieutenant Kester. By now they probably had their own circle of friends among the other young officers stationed at Gettys. What could I be to them, save an embarrassment? Yet even as such a thought came to me, I knew that Epiny and Spink would both stand by me, whatever my rank or physical condition.

  Yet it was not their reaction but my own that concerned me. Could I salute my best friend and stand before him and wish him well, without spoiling it with the greenest of envy? Could either Spink or I make Epiny understand that no matter what had gone before, Spink was now an officer and I merely an enlisted man, and thus could not fraternize with any comfort? All I could see would be discomfort, embarrassment, and shame on my part. I felt the greatest wave of revulsion that I had ever felt for my body at that moment. It surrounded and engulfed me in a wall of yielding flesh. I felt it with every jounce of the cart, how my thighs met and my elbows rested against the roll of fat that masked my ribs. I felt the heaviness of my jowls and cheeks. It was even in how my hat sat upon my head. My soldier’s hat, the sole symbol that I was a soldier son.

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