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Forest mage, p.47
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       Forest Mage, p.47

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

  “Your sister’s letters. I brought them with me. I came here thinking you a heartless wretch to leave her in such cruel suspense. I thought if you read how she has suffered, wondering what has become of you, that you would be moved to write to her. Now, knowing that your letters have no better chance of reaching her than ours do, perhaps it is cruel of me to let you read these. Still, I think it is your right to know what goes on at Widevale in your absence. ”

  He tugged a substantial packet of letters, bound together with a ribbon, from his pocket. I recognized Yaril’s sprawling handwriting with a sharp pang. When I’d seen that penmanship on letters sent to me at the academy, it had always sent a thrill through me, for I knew she would have found a way to smuggle me a note from Carsina. Now it was my own little sister whom I missed with sudden and heartbreaking strength. I reached for them.

  Spink handed them to me, but with a warning. “I cannot let you keep them long. Epiny will surely miss them. ”

  I lifted my eyes to his. “Then you haven’t told my cousin that I’m here. ”

  “I wanted to offer you the chance to do that yourself. ”

  I shook my head. “I cannot, Spink. I’ve told you why. ”

  “And if you’ve listened to me, then you know why it is more important that she does know you are alive and well. We three, we can be a strength for each other, as we were before. Please, Nevare. I’ll let you think about it, but not for long. I’ve held your secret from Epiny, and already that shames and disturbs me. We do not keep secrets from one another, nor deceive each other. Don’t put me in that position. It’s a shameful thing for one friend to do to another. ”

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  “Spink, I can’t truly be anything to you, or Epiny. I’m an enlisted man and a fat gravedigger. We cannot socialize with one another. You know that. And you know full well that Epiny will not recognize that, and it will make difficulties for both of us. Do you wish to be mocked as the gravedigger’s cousin? To have people sneer at your wife because of our relationship? How can we be a strength for one another when I can only be a source of shame to you?” I softened my tone at the look on his face. “I am humbled and grateful that you’d want to continue being my friend under the circumstances. And I am doubly grateful that you have offered to share Yaril’s letters with me. As things stand, they are likely to be the last news from home that I’ll have for a long time. If you don’t mind, I will keep them, just for a night or so, to read them. I’ll find a way to quietly return them to you. ”

  Sparks of anger lit in his eyes. “That’s the dulling magic of this place talking, not the Nevare I knew. ”

  “Spink. Please. Just let me borrow my sister’s letters. ”

  He appeared to relent. “Do you think you can get them back to me with no one the wiser?”

  I thought. “If we decide on a place and meet by night, it should be possible. ”

  He grinned. “So it should be equally possible for us to meet in such a way for friendship, as well as the passing of letters between us. ”

  He was incorrigible. I had to smile, but I did not share his optimism. “So it might seem, for a time. But sooner or later, we’d be noticed. And then it would all come unraveled. We are not talking about a pretence that must be kept for weeks or even months, Spink. We are talking about years. For as long as we both belong to the same regiment. To my death, most likely. ”

  “Well, aren’t you a cheerful, optimistic soul? The Nevare I knew had a lot more spine! What happened to you, Nevare? Where did you go?”

  “This isn’t school anymore, Spink. This is life. As to where I went, well, behind this wall of fat. And I can’t get out. ”

  “Are you sure of that?” The way he asked it made it a genuine question.

  “I’ve tried everything. Working hard, fasting…my father took me to the edge of starvation, Spink. ”

  “I know,” he broke in quietly. “Yaril told us, in her letters. It’s still hard for me to imagine that any man could treat his own son like that. ”

  “It’s true,” I said defensively.

  “I believe it. But I think you’re overlooking the obvious. ”

  “Which is?”

  “That magic brought this on. You have defeated that magic before, with Epiny’s help. We have. Don’t you think Epiny would come to your aid again? She’s already immersed herself in studying Speck magic, not just to discover what is behind the miasma of depression that afflicts Gettys, but also to research your condition. It’s not unique, Nevare. You must know that. ”

  “I’d guessed it,” I replied grudgingly. “Dr. Amicas said as much. ” I almost feared to let him see how much he piqued my interest.

  “Epiny has researched it as much as our rather paltry resources have allowed. Most of what she knows is hearsay. There isn’t much written about the Specks. They are a people who prefer to keep to themselves. One of the doctors here in Gettys has quite an interest in the native people. Unfortunately, he has quite an interest in drinking, also. Trying to get information from him is like trying to squeeze it out of a wet sponge; you get as much of the liquor as you do the facts. But according to him, the Speck wise folk or holy folk are referred to as Great Ones and not just because of their wisdom. According to Dr. Dowder, the Great Ones are immense in size, so big that they hardly ever leave their homes high up in the mountain forests. Their size reflects their power and their magic; the bigger the man, the more important he is, and the more dominant. ”

  “And the women,” I said quietly.

  He took it as a question. “Well…possibly. I’d never considered that possibility. Oh. Of course. The Tree Woman. Well, she’s dead. What I’m trying to say, Nevare, is that if this, er, fat is a consequence of Speck magic, then perhaps it can be undone. The three of us, perhaps, could break it, and loosen the gloom and fear of this place. We’d begin by getting you back to who you were. ”

  I wanted so badly to hope and didn’t dare. “I don’t think so. I’ve felt the changes, Spink. My body works differently than it did before. That’s an inadequate way to express it, but it’s the best I can do. I don’t think I can go back to what I was. ”

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  “But you don’t know that,” he said triumphantly. “We should let Epiny know you are here, and then see what can be done. And of course, a way must be found to let your sister know that you are alive, and that if she wishes to defy your father, she is welcome to join us here. ”

  I nearly told him that was not his task. She was my sister; I wanted to be the one to protect her. Instead I said simply, “I’ll find a way to get a letter to Yaril. Never fear. ”

  “I shall leave that in your hands, then. Well. It’s late. It’s been good to see you, Nevare, but if I’m to keep your confidence for now, I’ll have to get back to town before all Epiny’s company leaves and she starts to wonder where I’ve been. I’ll find a way to come back this way next Sixday. Captain Oford’s wife has invited all the officers’ wives to join her for a late lunch and some inspirational readings. Epiny dreads it, but she knows that a junior officer’s wife cannot shun her social duties. I’ll ride out this way again, shall I?”

  “If you can without anyone noticing you. If not?”

  “If not, I’ll find an excuse for another late-night visit. I trust I’ll find you in?”

  “Small danger that I’d be elsewhere. ”

  “Until then. Nevare, you have no idea how pleasant it has been to talk to someone simply as a friend, not as a fellow officer or a superior or as someone under my command. I’ve missed you sorely. Epiny must know you are here. Then we three shall find some better way to gather for conversation than this!”

  “Let me think about it, Spink, I beg you. And in the meantime, do be cautious. ”

  “Oh, I shall be. ” He’d already risen from his chair. He picked up his outer clothes with distaste. “Brrr. I dread going back out into the cold. It bites down to
my very bones. ”

  As he was drawing them on, I noted something that had escaped me before. “You’ve recovered well from the plague, Spink. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen any plague survivor who looked so much like his former self as you do. ”

  He grinned unexpectedly. “I wrote to you about it, but I suppose you didn’t credit it any more than I did at first. The water from Bitter Springs cured me, Nevare. And Epiny. She’s as feisty as ever. The plague victims who were able to get to the spring promptly survived, and many recovered completely. It’s not a complete cure for everyone, perhaps, but it is better than anything I’ve heard of yet. ”

  “They all survived? But that’s miraculous. Spink, you haven’t kept this knowledge to yourself, have you?”

  “Of course not! But it’s difficult to make anyone believe me who hasn’t seen it for himself. Epiny brought a number of small bottles of Bitter Springs water with us. I warned her that it might be less than useful; we’ve no idea how much it takes to effect a cure such as we’ve enjoyed. We used complete submersion and drank only that water for days. Nonetheless, she told me she could not come to such a plague-ridden place as Gettys without bringing the water in hopes of saving some poor souls when next the plague strikes. I hope it does not make me sound cruel to say that I almost look forward to the next outbreak so that our water can be tested against it. ”

  A chill ran through me. “Don’t even say such things,” I begged him. “I know the next plague season must come. And I dread it. I’ve made such preparations as I can, but—”

  “Your pardon, Nevare. I had not paused to think how gruesome your tasks would be at that time. But if the good god wills it, our water may prove effective, and it may be less horrendous than you fear. ”

  He was dressed again for the outside by the time he finished speaking. “May the good god will it,” I agreed with him, with small faith that such a thing would be. I’d come to wonder just how much power the good god had against magic as old as the Specks’. “Spink. You recall Dr. Amicas from the academy. Have you written to him about this water cure? Dare I ask if you could send him a sample of your water?”

  “Getting it to him would be a fair trick. Have you any idea what it costs to send a simple letter? But you are right, we can at least write to him, and tell him about the Bitter Springs cure. ”

  I hastily donned my own cloak and boots, and carried my lantern to walk Speck out to his horse. The gelding was a sorry mount for any cavalla man, let alone a lieutenant. I said not a word of that, but only waited until he mounted the shaggy beast and then bade him farewell. I watched him ride off into the cold night and then hurried back to my cabin. I read all of Yaril’s letters that night. There were only six of them, and in truth there was not much of real news in them. Mostly she recounted, in excruciating detail, all she and I had gone through when the plague struck our home, and afterward. Spink had warned me, but I was still shocked at how intimately she had written of my problem to Epiny. And Spink had read these letters as well! Yaril’s description of the weight I had gained and how it hindered me were far more accurate than flattering. When I’d set down the last page, I tried to be grateful that my friends completely understood my situation, without my having to explain it all. It was a very thin comfort.

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  There were a few other items of interest in there. Carsina had attempted to renew her friendship with Yaril, but my sister had repulsed her. Remwar’s family had engaged him to the eldest daughter of an old noble family in Old Thares. Carsina’s father had found her a promising young captain for her, and she would be traveling east in the spring to meet her future husband. Odd how such news could still pierce me.

  My father had received a letter from Vanze’s monastery. It commiserated with him on his recent losses, and proposed that Vanze could be partially released from his priesthood if my father wished to name him as his heir son. Gar Sunwer, Vanze’s superior, recognized that it was a very unusual offer for them to make, but said that in such times, it was only sensible to be sure that the noble names of the king’s lords were carried on. Yaril’s tone was cynical as she wrote of it.

  Father had received a note of sympathy from Caulder Stiet and his uncle. They had taken my advice not to visit while the family was in the first throes of grief, but would be pleased to come in the spring. The uncle had been almost “obseequious’ in his phrasing (here I paused, and wondered how Yaril would know that. Was she sneaking into our father’s study and reading his letters?), and Yaril feared that my father had fallen victim to his fawning style. He had written back to say that they would be welcome and that he would find a man to interpret the map I had sent them and help them to find the locations where the interesting mineral sampling had come from. Yaril had heard of Caulder from me and did not look forward to the visit. Yaril’s final letter revealed that the estate was not prospering. My father had dismissed many of the men I had put in positions of authority, including Sergeant Duril, and his health was not good enough that he could teach his new foremen their duties, let alone check on them properly. She thought that some of them were dishonest, and said that if her father did not soon take them in hand, she might do so herself. Such a thought shocked me.

  In that same letter she mentioned twice that she feared I was dead because she had not heard from me, and my horse had come back riderless. That mention, along with the news that Duril had been cast out for “conspiring” with me, were what cut me most deeply. I’d treasured a brief hope that perhaps I could send a note to Duril and he could have someone read it to him and then share the news with Yaril. To hear that my old mentor had been so harshly rewarded for his years of loyalty to the family sickened me. Where would he go and what would he do? I could not find a way to get a letter to Yaril; I would have to beg leave of Colonel Haren and return myself to rescue her and find out what had become of Sergeant Duril.

  As I refolded the last letter into its envelope, I felt both lonely and yet comforted. I was alone, and yet there were still people in this world who cared deeply about me. That night I did as I had not in some time, and that was to go down on my knees by my bed and pray to the good god to protect those I loved.



  S pink and I met twice more during that long winter. The first time was only a handful of days after the first meeting, when I returned the letters to him. He could not stay long, and I scarcely had time to do more than thank him and beg him not to betray me to Epiny just yet.

  I am sure he intended to get out to see me again, but fate intervened. We were given the news that the king was severely disappointed in us, and that a contingent of highly ranked officers and several nobles were scheduled to visit Gettys to inspect our regiment and review us before offering their advice regarding us to the king. Depending on how we showed, General Brodg might be replaced as commander of the eastern divisions. This news did nothing to lift our morale, and everything to panic our officers into an irrational frenzy of discipline and inspections. I could guess at the pressure Spink was under, as a junior officer, to whip his men into line. The higher officers would be counting on him to make them look competent. I did not envy him his task.

  Even I, isolated as I was, was not completely immune to the sudden rush to bring all of Gettys up to a spit-and-polish standard. Sergeant Hoster made a trip out one afternoon, for a “surprise” inspection of my quarters. I could tell he was quite disappointed that I was not living in squalor. He still managed to find a substantial list of things he wished corrected, one that included everything from cutting my firewood to more uniform lengths before racking it to acquiring a proper uniform for myself. His mockery was very insulting as he stated that last requirement. I applied myself to meeting his expectations, cursing him for every wasted moment of my time, but when the day for his promised second visit passed, I decided that his first inspection had simply been opportunistic harassment. I kept my quarters tidy, i
n case he decided to descend on me again, but refused to dread him.

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  I buried four more soldiers that winter. One had cut his foot with an ax while chopping firewood and bled to death. Two others died of pneumonia, and a fourth had got drunk, passed out in the street, and frozen to death in the dark. The last one was one of Spink’s men, and Spink accompanied the five other mourners to the graveyard to see him laid to rest. He lingered for a short time afterward, but could not stay long. I begged him to let me borrow any books he might have, for my mind was atrophying from boredom. He promised he’d do his best, and again asked if he could not let Epiny know I was there. Once more, I held him off, but he told me sternly that if I did not soon capitulate, he would have to tell her anyway, for he could not bear how she would look at him if she knew how long he had deceived her.

  I promised myself I would think about it, and then procrastinated.

  The long dark days of winter dragged on. Dark Evening came and was celebrated by the enlisted men with an orgy of drunkenness, fights, and the arson of one officer’s house. I had avoided the town that night, and only heard of the ruckus the next day. The general misbehavior of the troops brought more reprisals. Morale was no longer low; it was lost completely in a simmering hostility toward the officers. I feared the regiment was on the edge of general insubordination and avoided Gettys as much as I could. I went only for essentials and stayed as short a time as possible.

  Despite that, I was in one of the mercantiles, buying some thread to mend my trousers, when I caught a glimpse of Epiny just as she came in the door. I stepped away from the counter and immersed myself in studying a row of axes behind a tall stack of blankets. Hidden there, I listened to her ask the man for her whistles. He told her that he had none in stock. She then complained that she had requested he order fifty brass whistles for her two months ago, and she considered it unreasonable that they had not yet arrived. He explained rather impatiently that Gettys did not enjoy regular delivery service from anywhere, and that doubtless her order would arrive when spring made travel less arduous. She pointed out that the whistles would make only a small packet, something a king’s courier could easily bring, and asked him if he did not care about the safety of the women and girls of Gettys. I wanted to step out of the corner and hit him when he told her that their safety was up to their husbands and brothers, and if she hadn’t noticed, he wasn’t the king and did not have the king’s couriers at his disposal. His words were sensible enough; it was his sneering tone that angered me. She departed in high dudgeon, observing as she left that perhaps she would make her concerns and efforts known to Colonel Haren, and perhaps he could arrange a swifter delivery of such essential items. Despite my irritation with the shop owner, I rather pitied Colonel Haren at that moment. I wondered what on earth she wanted so many whistles for and what they had to do with the safety of the female population of Gettys, but had no one to ask. I paid for my thread and left town.

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