Forest mage, p.42
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       Forest Mage, p.42

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

  When I reached home, I turned to what I always could rely on to empty my mind. I worked. The sack of hay became stuffing for my mattress. It was clean and fragrant, and Clove would not miss it. I unloaded my building supplies, and put the harness in my storage shed. I’d take the cart back to Gettys tomorrow, I decided. I doubted anyone would miss it.

  It was a chill day, but I was soon sweating. I’d decided that Clove’s shelter would be attached to the toolshed, to save myself constructing one wall. I worked with shovel and pickax to level an area next to it that would make a generous box stall for the big horse. Setting the two uprights made me wish I had another set of hands and eyes to help me. I felt it even more keenly when putting up the supports for the roof. The carpentry was a different sort of work than I’d done in months, and I lost myself in the simple pleasure of working steadily and watching what I had imagined take shape. The smell of the sawdust, the rhythm and sound of a nail squarely driven, the satisfaction that comes when the final plank fits snug and true in a wall: there is a lot to be said for honest work and the ease that it can bring to a troubled heart.

  The dimness of the early night had crept up on me before I was finished. I felt more satisfaction over that stall than I had over signing my enlistment papers. When I poured the corn into the grain box, Clove came gratefully into his new shelter. I went into my little cabin, taking my mucky boots off by the door. I built up the fire again and lifted the lid off my bean pot. Fragrant steam rose gratifyingly. I hung up my cloak, and then dismantled my makeshift clothesline and folded or hung my extra clothing. As I put it all neatly away, I tried to retain the sense of satisfaction I’d felt earlier. I set my little table with my cutlery and bowl, and ladled myself a generous helping of the baked beans. I had tea to go with it, and sugar. I ate my meal with pleasure, perched carefully on my rickety chair. Tomorrow, I resolved, I’d remedy that. I’d make myself something that not only could accept my weight but would be comfortable to sit on.

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  As night lowered outside and the world grew chill and black, I was safe and warm within my shelter. I had much to be grateful for, and very little to complain about, I told myself. Nevertheless, when I sought my now-softened bed that night, a bleakness of heart settled on me once more.



  I began each day with a patrol of the cemetery, shovel in hand. Diligently I repaired animal damage to any grave. I made notes of headboards that would soon need replacing, jotting down information that might otherwise be lost. I maintained the paths and improved them, evening out the ruts and adding drainage. And every day, I dug a fresh grave. I measured them precisely, and dug them deep and straight-edged. I mounded the soil so it would not fall back into my excavations. I did this past the time when the frosts came and froze the ground. I stopped only when the snows began. My diligence was the only reason that when Narina Geddo died from pleurisy at six years, three months, and five days, an open grave was waiting.

  I knew Narina Geddo’s age to the day because I was informed that one of my duties as cemetery guard was to carve the grave markers. I did hers in my cabin one long evening. I put the plank on my table and puzzled out how to engrave the letters and numbers into the wood with the few tools I had. I’d never been a whittler, but I fancy that I did well enough. I threw the chips and shavings into my fire as I worked, and when I was finished, for good measure, I heated the poker and burned black each letter and number in the hopes they would remain legible a bit longer.

  The next day I drove to town with a coffin in the back of my cart. Clove snorted and steamed as the cart jolted along over the frozen ruts of the road. When I stopped outside the small house that belonged to Corporal Geddo, his older daughter opened the door, looked out, and gave a wild shriek of fear. “It’s a croaker-bird man, come for little Narrie! Papa, don’t let him eat her!”

  I heard later that the tale of her words scampered through the town and brought laughter to those untouched by the tragedy. But that day, no one laughed at her words. I bowed my head and held my tongue. I suppose that with my cold-reddened face and flapping black cloak, I did look like one of Orandula’s carrion birds. The little girl’s solemn father came to my cart and wordlessly took the coffin from it. I sat and waited in the biting wind. A time passed, and then he and another man carried it back and loaded it. It weighed very little. I wondered if I’d been thoughtless, bringing such a large box for such a small body. I wondered if a man so gripped by grief could care about such things. Clove and I led, and the small funeral procession of men and women on foot and horseback followed.

  I had cleared the grave cavity of fallen snow the night before, so there was a trodden path for the mourners to follow. I did not stand with the attendees. Instead, I watched from a distance as the family lowered their child into the frozen earth, and Gettys’ sole priest, a thin, pale plague survivor, said words over her. When they were gone, I went back with my pickax and shovel to break the frozen mound of snowy soil into lumps that thundered down on her coffin as I shoveled them in. It seemed a harsh and cruel sound, and heartless somehow to bury a little girl beneath frozen clods of earth. Yet, in a way, I was proud of myself. Without my foresight to dig a grave, I was told, her little body would have been stored in the coffin and toolshed until spring softened the earth and she could be decently buried. So they had done in years past.

  Putting such a young child to rest put me in mind of Amzil and her brood. I had not thought of her in weeks, and her carry sack that I had borrowed still hung on my wall. That day I resolved I would make good on my promise to myself, and also attempt again to win an audience with the colonel. I saddled Clove in the dim afternoon, and rode to town.

  I was less of a spectacle than I had been when I first arrived. I still heard the occasional sniggering remark as I passed, but fewer folks stopped and stared. They’d probably had their fill of doing it. Now that I lived among them, I’d lost my novelty. I came to town several times a week to take a meal in the mess hall with the other troopers. I’d found Rollo’s Tavern and claimed my beer and admitted my Gettys sweat. People knew me as Nevare the cemetery guard, and some I called friend. It did not mean, however, that everyone regarded me kindly or even neutrally. It still unnerved me to find that my size stirred feelings of extreme dislike in people, even when I had given them no other cause to take offense.

  My pay as a common soldier was not generous, but I had relatively few wants, and I’d been very stingy with the money that Yaril had slipped into my pack, so I still had a small cache of funds. I took my saved money to town and tried to be wise in the gifts I bought for Amzil and her children. In the mercantile, I bought red woolen fabric, four loaves of barley sugar shaped like flowers, a box of tea, and a small round cheese. I’d already spent more than I’d intended when I saw the book of nursery tales with hand-colored pictures in it. It would be a foolish gift, I told myself. None of them could read it, and the price was very dear. Nonetheless, I found myself giving over the money for it and sliding it into the worn rucksack with the other items. “That’s more than I meant to spend,” I observed innocuously as I counted out the scrip on the counter.

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  “What you want it for, anyway? Going to read stories to the dead?” The young son of the storeowner had been waiting on me. He looked as if he were about twelve, or perhaps a very unhealthy fourteen. Since I’d walked in, he’d regarded me with the same disdain he exhibited to me every time I came in for supplies. I was weary of him, but his father’s store had the best supplies in Gettys. Nowhere else could I have found a picture book, let alone barley sugar shaped like flowers.

  “It’s a present,” I said gruffly.

  “For who?” he demanded, as if he had the right.

  “Some children I know. Good day. ” I turned to leave.

  “A bit early for Dark Eve gifts,” he observed to my back.

  I shrugged one shoulder by way of response. I was nearly out the door when another voice spoke behind me. “Nevare?”

  Despite myself, I turned to my name. A young man in a lieutenant’s uniform had stepped out from behind a tall rack of tools. The moment I recognized Spink, I turned away again. I headed for the door as if I’d never paused.

  “Wait!” I heard Spink exclaim. I didn’t.

  I was out the door and mounting Clove before he caught up with me.

  “Nevare! It is you! It’s me, Spink! Don’t you know me?”

  “Excuse me, sir. I believe you’re mistaken, sir. ” I was shocked he knew me. I scarcely would have recognized myself as the trim academy cadet I’d once been. I avoided looking at him.

  Spink looked up at me incredulously. “Are you saying that I don’t know who I am, or that I don’t recognize you?”

  “Sir, I don’t think you know me. Sir. ”

  “Nevare, this is ridiculous! I can’t believe you’re going to insist on this bizarre charade. ”

  “Yes, sir, I am. May I be dismissed, sir?”

  “Huh. ” He breathed out in a harsh sound of disbelief. “Yes. Dismissed, soldier. Whatever is the matter with you? What’s become of you?”

  If he expected an answer, he didn’t get one. I rode away from him. The afternoon was already dark, the yellow lights of Gettys leaking out from the small houses and businesses. The streets were all dirty churned snow over hard ice ruts. Clove’s big round hooves threw up chunks of frozen muck as I urged him into a ponderous trot. I rode him toward the gates, but when I judged that Spink would no longer be staring after me, I turned him aside to go to Colonel Haren’s headquarters

  I resolved that I would not let my encounter with Spink rattle me from my course. I told myself that I’d done what was best for both of us. Spink was a lowly lieutenant, still new to Gettys, an officer with no years of experience behind him nor good social connections. It would not do him any good to admit that he was related by marriage to the fat gravedigger.

  No. It was best to leave everything as it was. My life served a useful purpose. Actually, I was more than useful. I was succeeding at a task where all others had failed. Perhaps I was not serving my king as an illustrious officer; perhaps I would never lead a battle charge or win the day for Gernia. But then, neither would Spink, in his role overseeing food supplies and deliveries for the fort. In reality, how many soldiers ever did win a burst of glory? Even if I’d completed the academy, like as not I’d have ended up doing some mindless task, much as Spink had. It was not so bad, what I did. It was necessary.

  Even Colonel Haren said as much. That day, I finally managed to get in to see him. I think it was more his sergeant’s decision than his. I’d been coming in every third day, and each day been turned away. When I’d tried to voice my concerns to his sergeant, he’d gravely informed me that as I was outside the chain of command, reporting directly to the colonel, he could not help me. That afternoon when I walked into his room, the sergeant had sighed heavily, flipped a hand at the door, and suggested sourly, “Go ahead. Try your luck. Don’t blame me if it’s all bad. ”

  “Thank you. ” I’d immediately crossed to the door and knocked briskly. When the colonel barked irritably, “What is it?” I’d taken advantage of the query to enter and present myself.

  Colonel Haren did not look surprised to see me. He was exactly as I’d seen him weeks before, as if he hadn’t moved the whole time. He still wore his smoking jacket and cavalla trousers. This time, at least, he had two slippers on his feet. As before, the warmth in his room was overpowering. After a glance at me, he went back to staring at his roaring fire. “Well. I knew you’d be back, trying to go back on your word. ‘I’ll do anything,’ you said, didn’t you? Now I know what you’ll say. Can’t cut it, can you? Did you come to me to beg me to reassign you, or threaten to desert? Or will you say you’re ill? I’ve seen better men than you fail at this assignment. ‘He won’t last,’ I told myself when I gave it to you. And here you are. ”

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  I was startled. “Sir?”

  “Now you’re going to tell me all the same stories I’ve heard before. Haunts and ghosties wafting out of the trees at night. Loneliness that cuts to the bone. Strange chill winds when you walk through the cemetery, even on a sunny day. Odd scratching sounds at night, and an utter discouragement with your life that you cannot shake. Thoughts of suicide. I’m right, aren’t I?”

  Although all of those things sounded somewhat familiar, I shook my head. “No, sir. I’m here to discuss gravedigging, coffins, and what I am allowed to do about renewing the markers on the old graves. Some are scarcely legible anymore. Were any written records kept of who was buried where?”

  His eyes widened at me. “Well, what would be the sense in that?”

  “For their relatives, sir. So they might know where their sons are buried. In case they came to Gettys to visit the grave. ”

  He shrugged that off. “The ones that really care about such things pay to have them carted home. The others…well. If you’ve the time and it gives you comfort, repair the markers as best you can. Dismissed. ”

  “Sir, that isn’t the only reason I came. ”

  He compressed his lips and knotted his fists. Then he swung his feet off his hassock and sat up straight to face me. “Do your duty, soldier! If graves are being desecrated, then it’s your own fault for not guarding them well enough! If a body is taken, it’s up to you to track it down, untangle it from the tree, bring it back, and rebury it. Quietly. And I for one do not care how many times you have to do it! So do it and don’t complain. ”

  I was shocked, stunned to silence. I finally had a complete description of what my job was to entail. “No bodies have been stolen, sir,” I managed to say. “But I would like to talk to you about coffins, sir. I think a ready supply of sturdy coffins might be good planning. To prevent the very sort of desecration you’ve spoken about. ”

  He seemed very relieved that I was neither trying to quit nor reporting stolen bodies. “What do you want, man?”

  “I’ve looked at the cemetery and how it has been filled. It’s obvious to me that at regular intervals, such as every summer, we are overwhelmed with Speck plague victims. Bodies are buried in one communal trench, without coffins. I’d like to remedy that, sir. I’ve begun by digging surplus graves. Now I’d like to suggest that we warehouse coffins. If we built them now and set them by, any man who died would at least be assured of the dignity of a proper burial. ”

  “Oh, and that would be a real morale booster, wouldn’t it, trooper? I could address the whole regiment, ‘Well, fellows, seeing as how the foul weather and utter lack of anything of cultural significance in this godforsaken posting has left you idle, I propose that you each build at least one coffin each, so that when summer arrives with the heat, dust, and plague to end your miserable existence here, you’ll be assured of a nice burial. ’”

  I was aghast. “I didn’t mean it like that, sir. Only that, well, prudence dictates that recognizing that a problem exists and taking measures against it is…” I faltered to a halt. That bit of wisdom had come from an engineering instructor at the academy.

  “Quite so. But a warehouse full of coffins might not create the best impression on visiting dignitaries the next time…if there is a next time…” Now his voice dwindled away. I read in his silence thwarted ambition and dreams gone awry. “This is a dreadful post,” he said quietly. “I was an ambitious man when I arrived here. Now look at me. I can’t get out of my own path. Something about this place sucks the heart out of a man, trooper. The rate of desertion, suicide, and plain dereliction of duty defies all common sense. ” He stopped, and suddenly seemed to realize that he was talking to someone so far his subordinate that we could have nothing in common. He sighed.

  “Very well. You are correct. We would be prudent to take measures against the inevitable. But I shall not order the build
ing of coffins. I shall authorize the men to acquire a supply of wood, saw it into lumber, and keep a supply of the needed dimensions to build coffins. Acquiring the wood will be a difficult enough task. Are you satisfied? I’ll issue the orders that will ready planks for our yearly devastation. ”

  “I’m sorry that it was necessary for me to ask, sir,” I said quietly. “And I thank you for granting my request. ” I longed to know more about the other things he had mentioned, but there was no acceptable way for me to ask those questions.

  I turned to go.

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  “Burvelle. ”

  I turned back to him. “Yes, sir?”

  “You’re not very good at deception, are you?”

  I stared at him, flummoxed. He said nothing. I think it took over a minute for me to comprehend what I’d done. He’d called me by my proper name and I’d responded. I looked down at the floor. “No, sir. I suppose I’m not. ”

  He sighed. “Neither am I. Your father would prefer that you not know he’s aware you are here. But I’m in command of this fort, not him. And I’m not going to play cat-and-mouse with any of my troopers. ” He turned and looked back at the fire. “He must have sent the dispatches out the same day you left. I suspect he sent them to every place he thought it likely you’d try to enlist. He stated, quite coldly, that you had no right to call yourself his son or to use his name anymore. ”

  I felt like someone had fisted me in the gut and driven all the air from my lungs. I hadn’t thought my father’s ire would push him so far. “That’s my father,” I said quietly. “Always smoothing the path for me. ”

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