Forest mage, p.43
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       Forest Mage, p.43

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

  “Indeed,” Colonel Haren replied grimly. “But I should let you know that he also wrote that you were a soldier son, destined by the good god to serve as a soldier, and that if any of us saw fit to sign you on, wretchedly unfit as you were, we had his blessing to do whatever we thought best, no matter how harsh, to hammer some sort of a soldier out of you. Even so, when I first set eyes on you, I didn’t want to take you in. He’d made you sound like a whining spoiled rich man’s son, hiding from his duty. You impressed me when you said you’d take any post, no matter how dirty. So I signed you on. Today you’ve surprised me. In a good way, I’ll add. I don’t regret letting you enlist with my regiment. ”

  There was an awkward pause between us. Then I said quietly, “Thank you, sir. ”

  “Don’t thank me. It’s not a favor to you. It’s a matter of my own ethics. ” A hint of steel was shining through the rust on the officer. Truth to tell, I was glad to see it. I remained at attention, looking straight ahead at the dim tapestry on the wall. I wondered if he’d report back to my father. Did I want him to? I kept my mouth shut. He’d tell me what he wanted me to know.

  He took a breath and then let it out rapidly, as if he’d decided something. He changed the topic abruptly. “Burvelle, I deplore the ‘initiation’ that most of our recruits are put through. But I assume you endured it. What did you think of it? Speak freely. ”

  “It was horrible, sir. But it did do what everyone told me it would do. I now understand our mission. And how hopeless it is. ”

  “I was afraid you’d come to that conclusion. Far too many of my officers and men have. I sit here, day after day, and ponder my dilemma. I’ve a road to build. But no one can get close enough to the end of it to push it any further. We can’t even seem to finish the approach to it. You’re academy-trained, in leadership as well as engineering, I assume. So with all that fancy schooling, I’d hope that you’d have an insight for me, perhaps. ”

  I didn’t, but I didn’t want to state it that baldly. “I only went for a year, sir. And it was interrupted by the plague. ”

  “Nonetheless, you come from a good bloodline. New noble’s son or not, the blood of the old Burvelle line runs through you. Continue as you’ve begun, and I’ll see that you get a chance to rise through the ranks. You’ll have to earn it, but I want you to know that I’ll not hold you down because of your father’s ire. Nor raise you because of your name. ”

  “Thank you, sir. ” His words kindled something in me, a hope that I’d thought had died. I suddenly burned with the need to distinguish myself before this man, as more than just a cemetery guard. “Sir, I see three ways to approach the dilemma of the road. ”

  “Well. Let’s have them. ”

  “The first is obvious and I’m sure it has been tried. Go around whatever it is. ”

  He shook his head. “The road’s development follows the old trading trails that go up and eventually through the mountains. There is one good pass fit for the King’s Road. Unless we intend to level hills and fill in valleys for miles, this is the best and only approach. What are your other two thoughts, trooper?”

  I’d heard as much from the other men. There was seldom a night that the dilemma of the road was not discussed in every tavern. Farleyton Regiment had fallen on hard times, but they still had their pride. If there was a way to succeed at this damnable mission, they wanted to find it.

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  “Find a way to shield the men from the terror. ”

  He furrowed his brow. “Do you have any practical suggestions for doing that? Are you saying you think armor would stop it?”

  “No, sir. But it’s well known that sometimes drink will make a cautious man foolishly bold. Can a man be numbed to the terror, yet still alert enough to carry on his work?”

  “You’re suggesting liquor. Or a drug?”

  “Laudanum seemed to set Scout Hitch’s mind at ease over his injuries. ”

  He gave a short sharp nod to himself. “That’s a new suggestion. I’ll speak to the post doctors and see if there’s any value in it. And your third thought?”

  “Find what causes the terror, sir, and stop it. From the talk I’ve heard, the old trading trail was used for generations. Now no one can pass that way, and the Specks have to come down to trade. So I speculate that something caused that fear to, well, to start. It wasn’t always there. And if something can be made to start, perhaps it can be made to stop. ”

  He pursed his lips and then sucked them in as if he’d forgotten his mouth wasn’t holding a pipe. “That’s an…unusual way to see it. But sometimes that’s how you get around a problem. Looking it at from a new angle. ” He nodded to himself and for a short time stared at the lampshade. I hoped he was pondering some new thought rather than completely forgetting that I was still standing there. I summoned up all my nerve. “Sir. May I ask a question?”

  “You may. ”

  “Does the king know what we face here? Does General Brodg?”

  “Attempts have been made to explain it to the king. He did not accept the explanation. As for General Brodg, he has, as have the rest of us, experienced a Gettys sweat. Often, when I hear him criticized as having too much sympathy for the common soldier, I think that perhaps that is at the base of it. He has come to Gettys; he has seen what we face here, not just the terror, but the plague. ” He suddenly cleared his throat, perhaps feeling he’d said too much to a common soldier. “You’re dismissed, trooper. Back to your duties. Tell the sergeant to write up the orders to have the carpentry shop turn out planks of a proper length for fifty coffins, but not to phrase it that way. I’m sure he can deal with that. And be assured that I’ll be watching you, Burvelle. Burve. Dismissed. ”

  I about-faced smartly and left the room. After a brief conference with the sergeant, during which I wondered if he were also aware of my secret, I left the headquarters and went back out in the street.

  I’d left the colonel’s office with more questions than I’d come with. I couldn’t decide if our commander were mildly insane or a damn good officer. The chance that he might be both was particularly unsettling.

  The colonel’s unpredictable mood and my chance encounter with Spink had disturbed me. I decided that rather than go back to my cabin and dwell on those things, I’d take my meal at the mess with the other enlisted men. It was something I did occasionally, when I was in a mood to endure gibes and mockery for the sake of some socializing. Some of the men were almost my friends.

  The mess was in a long, two-storey building. The lower room was for the enlisted men; the officers always went up the stairs to a more genteel atmosphere. At one end of the big open room, there was a kitchen, with three large hearths for cooking and big ovens built above them for turning out enough bread to feed everyone. It was probably hellishly hot in summer, but in winter the heat from the cooking and the smells of the food made it a welcome oasis. The ceiling was low and darkened with smoke. In the enlisted men’s mess, the floor was made of rough timber and permanently filthy. The tables were battered wood, and the long benches were uncomfortable and awkward for me, but I’d come to like the noisiness of the place. I missed the sounds of people talking, laughing, and eating almost as much as I missed my books and lessons. My glimpse of Spink had brought all those memories back afresh.

  Ebrooks and Kesey were seated when I came in. I picked up a large bowl of steaming mutton stew and four fresh rolls of bread and went to join them. They were not the brightest of fellows. Their summer duty was to keep the grass in the cemetery mowed down. In winter, they shoveled snow or cleared ice from the walkways. In the plague season, they dug graves.

  “Hey, Fats,” Ebrooks greeted me without malice. He called Kesey “Curly. ” The man was nearly bald. “How’s the gravedigging business these days?”

  “Cold,” I told him, and he laughed as if it were funny. Then Ebrooks lowered his face to his soup bowl to spoon up more food. He always ate like that. His spoon
never had to travel more than a couple of inches. I sampled mine. It tasted like wet sheep smelled. “What brings you to town?” Kesey asked. He was an older man and had lost several teeth in the front of his mouth, but I didn’t know if it were to fighting or rot. He made a lot of sucking noises at meals as he freed the food trapped in his mouth.

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  “I had some questions for the colonel. And I wanted to do some shopping. Do either of you know anyone who’s headed west on the road soon? I’ve got a package I’d like delivered. ” I stirred the stew in my bowl. A quarter of an onion, three carrots, and some crumbling lumps of potato. There were two gristly lumps of meat coiled defensively in the bottom of the bowl and little slivers of meat in the flour-thickened broth. And pepper. Lots of pepper. I think it was the only spice they used. I chose the carrot first. It had been cooked too long; its texture was gone. But the flavor had lingered and I savored it.

  “Delivered where?” Kesey demanded, breaking into my food reverie.

  “Dead Town. There’s a woman named Amzil there, with three kids. She put me up for a while and loaned me a rucksack. It’s time to send it back to her. ”

  “Oooooh, Amzil. Yessir. That’s a nice bit, when you can get it. I’m surprised you don’t want to ‘deliver’ that yourself. ” Ebrooks waggled his tongue appreciatively.

  “It’s nothing like that. Just a return for hospitality. ” I tried not to let my annoyance show.

  “You’re out of luck, Fats. All the carters have stopped for the winter. If a winter storm catches you on the road this time of year, you’re a dead man. Snow comes down, wind blows it smooth, and whoops, where did that road go? Most of them won’t chance it. There won’t be much traffic until spring. You might find a scout heading out that way, but good luck getting a favor from any of them. You might have to make the trip yourself if you want it delivered. Just go. Who’s to know?”

  “I might,” I lied. My feelings about Amzil were decidedly mixed. I wanted to send her the gifts, not just for the children’s joy but to make her think well of me. At the same time, I wasn’t sure I wanted to see her again. I’d heard too many men casually refer to her as the Dead Town whore. I wasn’t sure I could visit her without her seeing that in my eyes.

  “I think that one of the scouts might take it for you. Hitch, or that new fellow, Tibber, Tiber, whatever his name is. ”

  “Lieutenant Tiber? He’s here?”

  “You know him?” Ebrooks looked surprised.

  “Not really. I’ve heard of him. ”

  “What did you hear?”

  “Oh, just rumors. He’s a noble’s son, isn’t he? Didn’t he go to the academy?”

  “Who cares? Jumped-up bastards. ” Kesey sounded disgusted that I’d even give it a thought. As far as they knew, I was a common soldier’s son, as they were. They expected me to share their disdain for officers who were born to that calling. That stung, but I nodded and went back to my food. The potatoes were as overcooked at the carrots. The bread was good, though. I tore the bread and used the pieces to mop up the peppery broth. I thought about the food, not about Tiber and the ambitions we had once shared. The jealousy of the old nobles’ sons had dashed his hopes. My brush with Speck magic had stolen mine.

  Ebrooks broke into my thoughts again. “What’d you ask the colonel?”

  “I asked him if we could stockpile more coffins. We know the plague is going to come again. It comes every summer. And from what I can see, every summer, we run out of graves and coffins and the time to make more, and end up burying our dead in a trench. I just thought we could admit what happens, and have coffins ready. I’ve been doing my part. I dig a new grave every day. ”

  “Aye. See. I told you he wasn’t going to go off like Rheims did. ” Ebrooks addressed this to Kesey.

  “Who’s Rheims?” I demanded.

  “Last fellow who had your job. ” Kesey paused to suck noisily at the gaps in his teeth. “He come to town three times, begging the colonel to put someone else out there. Then he killed himself. Or so some say. Some fellows said they saw him dead over his gun, then come to town to report it. When they sent us out there to see, there wasn’t anything there. No gun, no body. ”

  “No blood?” I asked them.

  They looked at one another and shrugged. They didn’t know. They probably hadn’t looked for it. I suspected they’d felt only relief at not having a body to bury. They weren’t curious in that way, I suppose. I’d met them the second time I’d come to the mess hall to eat. They’d sat down beside me and introduced themselves as gravediggers and caretakers of the cemetery in summer. The graveyard was the common bond that made us friends.

  “Was his body ever found?” I asked. I expected that to be a negative.

  Again, they exchanged a glance. “We found it. Finally. And we brought him back and buried him. ”

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  “Where did you find it?” I felt resigned to having to pull the story from them a bit at a time.

  Kesey ran his tongue over his teeth, then opened his mouth with a popping sound. “The usual place. In a tree. ”

  “Someone stole his body and left it in a tree?”

  “’Course in a tree. Where else?”

  I was bewildered. “Why a tree? Did an animal drag him up there?”

  “You might say that,” Kesey snickered.

  But Ebrooks was incredulous. “You don’t know about the bodies in the trees? I thought sure they would have told you that when you took the job. ”

  I shook my head. “All I know is that I’m a soldier son, I needed to enlist, and after I helped Scout Hitch, Colonel Haren said he’d have me. And he assigned me to guard the cemetery. ” I knew a bit more, but I thought feigning ignorance might encourage them to talk.

  Again, they shared a look. “And you said he had to be some kind of brave to take the job. ” Ebrooks scoffed at Kesey. “Damn fool didn’t know a thing about what he was getting into!”

  Their grins were wide but also uneasy when I said, “So why don’t you tell me, then? What about the fellows who have guarded the cemetery before me? What about the stolen bodies?”

  “Well, ain’t all that much to tell,” Kesey said cheerily. “Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t. You bury somebody, and poof, the next day the grave’s dug up and the body’s gone. Then you got to go into the forest and look till you find it. And that’s damn hard, you know, cause one day the forest will be full of spooky noises and the next you’ll go in there and under the trees it’s so thick with weariness and discouragement, a man can’t hardly keep his eyes open. But anyway, you find the body, tear it free, and bring it back and bury it again. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, it stays buried. Sometimes you got to go get it again the next day. Easier the second time, because it will be in the same tree. But it will be worse for dragging it around, because the bodies go bad so fast, after a tree has been at it, you know. ”

  They spoke so calmly, and I found myself nodding. A long-ago memory surfaced, of words overheard in the night outside my father’s study. “The Specks do it?” I asked.

  “Well, sure. Who else?”

  “Why?”

  “Because they’re savages, with no proper respect for the dead. They do it to mock us!” Ebrooks was adamant.

  “I don’t know about that,” Kesey said. “Some folks think they do it like it’s a sacrifice to their gods. ”

  “No. It’s to make fun of us, to force us to go into their damned forest. That place is enough to drive a man mad. But we know we’ve got to go in there, to get our own dead back. ”

  “Why is it so difficult to go into the forest?” I asked. “I live right near the edge of it. It’s not like the end of the road is. ”

  They looked at one another again, sharing their conviction of my idiocy. I decided if they did it one more time, I might try knocking their heads together. “Don’t you talk to anyone?” Ebrooks
demanded. “Don’t you know anything about the Specks?”

  I fancied I knew a great deal more about the Specks than they did. Before I could phrase a more tactful thought, Kesey grinned and challenged me, “Why don’t you just try going into the forest, Nevare? Find out for yourself. ”

  “I probably will, but I’d like to know—” My request was cut short by a sergeant bellowing their names. They both rose hastily and followed him. The sergeant gave me a disdainful glare before he turned and led them away. I knew the man slightly. His name was Hoster, and he was the man who had helped Epiny with her cloak that windy day. He’d formed a bad opinion of me that day and had never troubled to change it. He seemed to find my fat a personal affront. Today his harassment was veiled, limited to sending away my dining companions on some trivial task.

  I sat by myself, finishing my cooling stew and savoring the fresh bread. I let myself focus on the bread, how it tore between my fingers, on the difference between the brown crust and the softer interior. I felt my teeth break it down with my chewing, the satisfaction of swallowing. This, I could always rely on. Food never failed me.

  I cleared my place at the table. Most of the men were dispersing. As I was leaving, Lieutenant Tiber entered. He let the door bang shut behind him and stepped to one side to unwind a long muffler from around his face and throat before taking off the heavy woolen cloak he wore.

  I had not seen him since he’d left the academy to become a scout. I still could not look at him without feeling a measure of guilt. If I had spoken up sooner about what I’d seen the night he was beaten and left for dead, perhaps scandal would not have stained him. Winter aged him as it does some men: he looked bitter, and the lines in his face were deepened by the redness of his cheeks. The mud-spattered edge of his cloak seemed to attest to a journey just completed. He glanced at me, grimaced with distaste at my portliness, and then his eyes slid away, dismissing me as being of no consequence.

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  I watched him strip the gloves from his hands; despite their protection, his hands were red with chilblains. I challenged myself to approach him and ask if he could carry my gifts to Amzil on his next mission in that direction. But he was an officer, and obviously tired, cold, and in a hurry to get to hot food. I halted and he strode past me without a glance. I left the mess hall.

 
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