Forest mage, p.46
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       Forest Mage, p.46

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

  “Even Yaril has given you up for dead,” he went on, “for she said you had promised to write to her, and that it was a promise you would not break. Your father told her your horse came home riderless. That made her nearly certain. Epiny has shed buckets of tears over you. When I saw you in the mercantile, I could not believe my eyes. Then, when you refused to admit it was you, it was so…peculiar! I didn’t know what to think. I nearly told Epiny but then I decided that before I allowed her to leap blindly into this, I’d find out exactly what was going on. It’s just so hard to get a few hours away without having to explain to her where I’ve been every moment that I’m gone. But here I am, blathering on, when what I really want to hear is, what has happened to you?”

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  I tried to consider my response. As I took a breath to speak, Spink broke forth again. I stared at him, somewhat astounded. I supposed that living with Epiny, he had had to learn to speak all his thoughts whenever he had the chance, or forever give up the opportunity. “We had your letters from Widevale, of course. Then they just stopped, but after a time, we began to receive letters from Yaril. Then they stopped. That really worried us, but finally we had a stern letter from your father, returning a letter that Epiny had sent to Yaril and telling her that he would not brook anyone interfering with his daughter’s proper upbringing. Epiny had only said that we’d welcome a long visit from Yaril if she felt she needed some time away from home. Well…I’m making it much milder than what Epiny actually wrote, to be honest.

  “She actually wrote that if Yaril felt she could no longer tolerate living under your father’s roof, she could come and live with us. ” Spink sighed abruptly and then drew a breath. He shook his head. “My dear wife is sometimes a bit too frank, I suppose. Not that I’m telling you anything you don’t already know. Her exhortations to Yaril to think for herself offended your father. He wrote that Epiny’s letters were unwelcome, that Yaril would not receive them, and that he was going to be sure his brother knew how far his daughter had strayed from her upbringing. ” The lines around his mouth deepened as added. “You can imagine the sort of storm that provoked in our home. ”

  “Yes, I can,” I said quietly. My father was still a good soldier. He unerringly aimed for the weakest point in the enemy’s defences. Diverting Epiny’s attack on him to make it a battle between her and her own father was a brilliant tactic. I could imagine how he would sit, pipe lit, eyes narrowed, smiling and nodding to himself over it. Telling Yaril that Sirlofty had come back without me was the perfect way to end her hopes.

  “I did write to Yaril,” I told Spink. “Several times. The news wouldn’t be what she hoped for, for I told her of my situation here and pointed out that it was impossible for her to come and stay with me as we’d discussed. I assumed she didn’t write back because she was angry or disappointed. Obviously, she never received them. Since my father has disowned me, he will not feel I deserve the courtesy of a reply from him. Very neatly done. I imagine he’s letting Yaril expend a lot of energy writing letters to Epiny, which he then diverts. If Yaril thinks that I am dead and that Epiny no longer replies to her letters, she will become very discouraged. And probably much more tractable. ”

  “So what are you going to do about it?” Spink asked me.

  I looked at him in surprise. “Do? What can I do? Nothing. ”

  His manner toward me stiffened slightly. “You didn’t give up so easily when you were a cadet. I recall how you stood up to the old noble second-years when they persecuted us. And how you solved the bridge problem in engineering. ”

  I shook my head at him. “Those were schoolboy solutions to schoolboy problems. And all of that happened before I was the size of a barn door, and when I still had the prospect of a good commission and a real life before me. ” All my bleakness came flowing back. “You shouldn’t be here, Spink. You’ll only damage your career by associating with me. I’m a fat cemetery soldier, an enlisted man with no prospects save grinding toward a stripe or two. The last thing I want is for people to know that we are related, even if it’s only by marriage. ”

  He looked at me for a time in utter discouragement. Then he shook his head and said quietly, “I should have known it would get to you, too. It weighs us all down, but I thought you would see through it. The discouragement you feel isn’t natural, Nevare. I’m not sure that I agree entirely with Epiny’s analysis of it, but one can’t argue at all with the end product. ”

  I sat like a sack of oats, refusing to be prodded by my curiosity. Spink gave in before I did.

  “Morale here is terrible. It isn’t just the prisoner-workers or the soldiers who guard them, though they have the worst problems. Did you know, in the last two years, there has been no substantial progress made on pushing the road up into the Barrier Mountains?”

  I looked at him. “I was initiated,” I said. “I’ve broken a Gettys sweat. I know about the terror at the end of the road. I’m not surprised that we’ve made no progress. But what does that have to do with me?”

  “The discouragement you feel, the horrible depression, it’s not just you. It’s every man who is assigned here. How much of Gettys history do you know?”

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  I smiled sourly. “We didn’t get that far before I was pushed out of the academy. ”

  “It’s not funny, Nevare, not when you know it. Gettys was a trade outpost a long time before it was a Gernian fort. There was good fur trade with the Minda folk, but none of them live around here these days. Traders came in the summer to go up into the mountains and trade with the Specks.

  “Then came the plains wars and the push east. King Troven decided that this would be the eastern boundary and his soldiers made it so. The fortress was built and the basic buildings, and the town was laid out around it. You can tell just by looking at it what was done back then. It’s all sound. And after the skirmishing was over, things pretty much went on as they always had, with traders coming and going. But then came the king’s idea for a road going up into the mountains, through the pass and down to the sea on the other side. Survey crews came and marked out the likeliest path. The Specks didn’t seem to care. Then the road started getting built. Progress was rapid at first. Mostly it involved making improvements to established trails. Then it reached the foothills and started snaking up toward the mountains. And the pass. Right through the forest. ”

  He paused in his telling and looked at me significantly.

  I lifted a hand for him to proceed. I didn’t know what he was getting at.

  “Nevare, the summer the road crews began clearing for the road to venture up into the forest was the first summer that we ever had a bloody clash with the Specks. They didn’t do well against our firearms, of course. They retreated to the mountain forests for a time, and we pushed the road on. We began to have trouble with morale at Gettys that year, and with the prisoner-workers. They became lethargic; some would fall asleep standing. Or there would be days when all the crews felt frightened of their own shadows. It came and went, and it was put down to laziness or cowardice.

  “Eventually the Specks returned, and even came out of their forest to trade. That had never happened before. It was hailed as progress, and there were hopes that the road construction could proceed without any more bloodshed. But that same summer, those three trees were felled at the end of the road, the fear came, and work stopped. Before summer’s end, we had the first outbreak of Speck plague. The fear has been at the end of the road ever since then. ”

  Spink’s voice had spelled me like a fireside storyteller’s. I hung on his words.

  “Morale here plummeted. It got so bad that General Brodg decided to do a complete changeover in the troops here. The fellows here had lost all heart. They blamed it on the plague coming, year after year, with no relief and heavy losses. Desertion and suicide were taking as many soldiers as the plague was. Brede and his crack regiment came in here to take things over and put Gettys back on
the map.

  “They got here just in time for the plague season. They dropped like flies. After that, everything went to the dogs. Desertion, dereliction of duty, suicide, rapes, and murders. Good solid officers turned into drunkards. The worst was a captain who came home and strangled his wife and then drowned their two children before shooting himself. It was hushed up here and the tale never went west, but there isn’t an officer in Gettys who doesn’t know what happened. ” He paused, his eyes looking far.

  “That sounds awful,” I said faintly. I couldn’t even imagine it.

  Spink nodded vaguely. “Everyone thought so. That was two years ago. General Brodg reassigned Brede to the Fort in disgrace. The Fort is the only outpost more desolate than Gettys. He rebuked them for slovenliness, dereliction of duty, and even cowardice because other officers had known the captain was losing his mind and did nothing. General Brodg even confiscated their colors. Then he assigned the Farleyton Regiment to replace them. Can you believe our regiment were the golden boys at the time, the soldiers General Brodg would send into any desperate situation when he needed real action? Farleyton was a great regiment three years ago. We put down the uprising at Hotchkiss Springs and lost only three of our own men in the process. Two years before that, when some Plains warriors formed an alliance and tried to overrun Mendy, Brodg sent Farleyton in and we not only broke their siege, we ran them off completely. ” He shook his head sadly. “I’ve heard all the old glory tales from the senior officers, usually when they’re drunk. It’s all about what used to be. None of them can really say what happened. The regiment was assigned to Gettys, and ever since then, it’s gone downhill.

  “This meeting that Epiny is holding tonight, for the women? She said she had to do it. Wives are fleeing back west and taking their children with them. Married men are turning to whores for comfort here, and the honest women who do remain are often treated like whores. There was a rape last night, rape of an honest woman; she was Lieutenant Garver’s sister, come to take care of his children because his wife died of the plague. Some enlisted men caught her on the streets and, well, they left her for dead afterward. Garver hunted one down and killed him, and wants to kill the others when he finds them. They’ll hang, most likely, but killing them won’t repair the insult to his family or the injuries to his sister. Or the damage to our regiment’s reputation. None of the women feel safe anymore. Not even Epiny. The very men who should be willing to die to protect them are preying on them. ”

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  I almost told him that Hoster had accused me of being one of the rapists. I decided it would serve no purpose. Spink’s face had gone pale with his telling. His fists were clenched with his anger. Slowly it came to me that this wasn’t just his regiment he was talking about. It was mine, too. I’d enlisted with Farleyton when I signed with Colonel Haren. Funny. I’d never have said “my regiment” as Spink did when he was speaking of their past glories. They were just the outfit that had finally let me sign papers. I thought of how my father had always puffed up with pride when he spoke of his old regiment. He lionized them as heroes, one and all. And what were mine? Drunks, murderers, and layabouts. I still made excuses for them. “We’re isolated out here, Spink. Everyone knows that’s bad for morale. Maybe Brodg should rotate his troops more often. ”

  “That’s not it,” Spink said gruffly. “And you know it. There’s a feel to this place, Nevare. You come in through those gates, and you can smell the despair. Everything is grimy and shoddy. The only people who stay in Gettys are the ones who have to. ” He met my eyes suddenly and said in a challenging voice, “Epiny says the place is under a curse. Or a spell. She claims there’s an aura to the whole town, a darkness that eyes can’t see. It hangs in the air. We breathe it in, and it drowns all happiness. She says it comes from the Speck. She said it’s the same sort of magic that held you when first she met you. ”

  I plastered a cynical smile on my face. I felt queasy. “So Epiny is still playing the medium, is she? I had hoped that being a married woman would settle her down a bit. ”

  Spink didn’t smile back at me. “She’s not playing, as you very well know, Nevare. I was there, remember? Why do you do that? Why do you pretend not to believe things you’ve actually experienced?”

  I’d made him angry. I looked away from him and tried to formulate a reply when I scarcely knew the answer myself. “Sometimes, Spink, when all the things in my life seem to collide and contradict each other, I pick one set of facts and believe those, no matter what. ” I lifted my eyes and met his as I asked him, “Do you blame me?”

  “I suppose not,” he said in a lowered voice. “But,” and here his voice rose again, “don’t mock Epiny. She may be your cousin, but she is my wife. Give her credit where it is due, Nevare. She saved both of our lives, I believe, when she took care of us during the plague days. She defied her family and society to make herself my wife. Her life since then has not been easy, nor has it been at all what she supposed it would be. But she hasn’t left me. A lot of the married men here in Gettys wish they could say the same. They were soldier sons and they married women they thought could be good cavalla wives. But the women couldn’t take what Gettys served them, and they’ve left. Epiny looks it in the face for what it is, and stays on. ”

  “And Epiny believes it’s Speck magic that is undermining morale at Gettys. ”

  Spink didn’t flinch at my blunt assertion. “That’s right,” he said levelly. “She does. ”

  I leaned back in my big chair. It creaked slightly as it gave to my weight. “Tell me what she says,” I requested softly. I knew I wasn’t going to like it. I knew I already believed Epiny.

  “She’s very sensitive. You know that. The night before we reached Gettys, when we were traveling here, she had her first nightmare. She woke wailing, but couldn’t say what had scared her. Her dream was full of macabre images with no sense to them. Jaws with rotting teeth. Babies covered with mud, sitting alone in a swamp, endlessly crying. A dog with a broken back dragging itself in circles. She couldn’t go back to sleep that night, and the next day she was nervous and distraught. I thought she was exhausted from travel. When we reached Gettys, I thought our problems were over. Epiny could get some rest, have hot food, and sleep in a real bed. We were both dismayed by the quarters we were assigned. They were dirty. No, not just dirty, filthy, as if whoever lived there before us had never cleaned at all. Everything was in bad repair, and I had to leave her to it, for Colonel Haren put me to my new duties immediately. She was left to cope while I was put to inventorying a warehouse full of dusty supplies. The men they gave me were surly and lazy and incompetent. ” He practically spat out the last words and rose abruptly from his chair by the fire. “But I don’t think they were always that way. I think it’s the haze that overhangs Gettys. I believe it’s the Speck magic, Nevare. Ask yourself how you’ve felt about your life since you came here. Do you feel drained of hope and ambition? Does all of it seem pointless and drab? When was the last time you awoke in the morning and actually wanted to get out of bed?”

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  He’d come closer to me as he asked each question, as if the answers might prove something. I gestured at my swollen body. “If you were trapped inside this, would you feel hope or ambition, or look forward to hauling it out of bed each day?” A sudden thought came to me. “You haven’t even asked what happened to me. You don’t seem shocked to see me this way. ”

  He tilted his head and smiled sourly. “Did you forget that Epiny and Yaril have exchanged letters? If there is anything you told your sister, be sure it has been shared. ” He shook his head. “And I’m sorry about all of it, Nevare. Losing your mother. Carsina’s faithlessness. And what the Tree Woman’s magic has done to you. Unlike you, I don’t regard any of that tale with any skepticism. I’ve seen the power of Speck magic too close. ” His voice had become very dark.

  “What do you mean?” I asked softly.

  “Epiny tried to take her life a couple of weeks after we arrived here. ”


  “She tried to hang herself in the middle of our bedroom. If I hadn’t forgotten my penknife and come back to get it, she would have succeeded. I was barely in time, Nevare. I cut her down and pried the rope out of its groove around her neck. I wasn’t gentle; I didn’t have time to be. But I think the shaking around actually brought her back to the world of the living.

  “I was so angry with her, so furious that she could even think of leaving me that way. She said she didn’t even recall it as something she decided to do. She only remembers odd bits of it, going to the stables to get the rope, and then standing on a chair to get it over the rafter. And tying the knot. She told me she particularly remembered tying the knot because she had the most peculiar sensation of doing something she hadn’t done before, but knew how to do. ”

  Ice was creeping through my heart. My mind raced and I asked the only question that came to me. “How do you dare to leave her alone? Couldn’t she be overcome again, at any time?”

  Pride and trepidation warred in his expression. “She told me, ‘Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me! I won’t let the magic creep over me like that again. Never. ’ And she battles it. As do I. As does every officer and soldier in Gettys who’s worth anything. You can tell which ones fight daily to go on being who they once were, and which ones have given up and sunk down to the lowest level. ”

  When he said that, I wondered which he thought I was. But he did not pause nor look at me accusingly. He continued, “We do all we can to shore each other up, Epiny and I. Your sister’s letters were a great source of strength to her, until they stopped coming. So now you can see that the loss of that correspondence and your father’s threat to tell Lord Burvelle of her waywardness were heavier blows than you might have imagined. Oh!” He darted back to his chair and thrust his hand into the pocket of his heavy cloak he’d slung over the back of it.

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