Forest mage, p.50
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       Forest Mage, p.50

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

  As the snows melted and the sap ran in the trees, the tiny leaf buds swelled on their branches. The forest beckoned, with game trails to follow and hunting that could fill my dinner pot with meat, but the prospect of battling either terror or fatigue dimmed my enthusiasm and kept me close to home. Every morning, I’d stand by the spring with my water bucket and gaze up into the forest depths. Birds flitted there, and new green leaves bedecked both trees and bushes. I longed to enter, and knew it was a foolish wish. It was a relief when the thawing ground allowed me to resume my gravedigging. It gave me a physical task to occupy my body if not my mind.

  One welcome aspect of spring was that the supply wagons began to once more make the long eastern journey to us. The dusty windows of the mercantile stores were uncluttered and wiped clean. Fresh wares were displayed in them: shining tin washtubs, woollen and cotton goods, a gleaming long gun with a curly maple stock that no man could pass by without ogling. Within the store, new casks of pickled herring from the far coast had arrived, along with fresh stocks of sweet fruit preserves and bright packets of garden seeds. All these and much more were bait for hearts and eyes jaded by all the oldness of winter. Yet I had come to the store that day not for anything so gleaming and grand but only in the hope of looking through some of the newspapers that had finally reached us. The articles in them might be weeks or months old, but they were a link to Old Thares and the cities of the west that gave us an inkling of the changes going on in the greater world.

  Ostensibly, they were for sale, not casual perusing, but they were displayed in a rack on the wall, and I was not the only fellow standing and reading the front pages.

  The papers were expensive, and I could spare money only for one. After I’d read it, I might be able to trade it to some fellow reader for his purchase, but I wished to make the wisest choice. At length I chose one with a front-page story concerning a vote in the Council of Lords about taxation. A side column was an editorial on the number of noble sons who had been shifted into roles other than that prescribed by birth order following the previous winter’s plague deaths. Evidently, some cousins who had hoped to inherit titles were seeking legal redress against “heirs who were not truly heir sons. ” I took the paper from the rack and then waited, holding a few packets of vegetable seeds and gripping a fistful of coins, for the clerk to deign to notice me. He was the same supercilious youth who always scorned to wait on me. Today he took my money and passed over the journal with the comment, “Are you sure this is what you want? You can’t eat it, you know. And we’ve a stock of plain paper for wrapping things. ”

  “Just sell me the seeds and the newspaper, please. I’d like to read it,” I replied quietly.

  “Ah, he reads! Will wonders never cease? There you go. ”

  I ignored his mockery, took my paper and my garden seeds, and turned to leave. As I did so, two women entered the shop. One was a woman of middle years whom I’d frequently seen around Gettys. I was puzzled to notice that she now wore a large brass whistle on a fine chain around her neck. But a greater shock to me was to recognize the finely dressed young lady who accompanied her. My erstwhile fiancée looked lovely. Carsina Grenalter was wearing the latest style from Old Thares, I was sure. Her green bonnet could not contain the flaxen curls that bounced about her shoulders. The cut of her forest-green dress flattered her buxom figure. Little gold earrings gleamed in her earlobes. The fresh air of spring had pinked her cheeks and the tip of her nose. She glanced about the mercantile and gave a strangled laugh. “Oh, my dear Clara! This is dreadful! Is this what they deem a dry goods store in Gettys? My dear, I’m afraid we shall have to send away for the proper buttons and lace if we are to retrim your dresses in the new styles!”

  By the time Carsina had finished speaking, her companion was flushed a bright pink. I did not know if it were shame for Gettys’ poor quality of stores, or Carsina’s forthright announcement that Clara would be retrimming her dresses rather than purchasing new frocks. It didn’t matter. I looked at Carsina, and delightful as she appeared, I wondered how I had ever believed I could be happily partnered with such a thoughtless woman.

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  If I had thought to take vengeance on her, I got it without making any effort at all. Carsina’s eyes had found me; it would have been difficult to miss a man of my size in any setting, let alone amid the crowded shelves of the mercantile. There I stood, unlovely and immense in my well-worn “uniform,” looking back at her. Our eyes met. She recognized me. I knew that from how her eyes widened and her silent gasp. She instantly turned away from me and fled toward the door, exclaiming, “Come, Clara, there must be other stores in Gettys. Let us see what they have to offer us. ”

  “But—but, Carsina, I’ve told you, this store is the best of them. Carsina!”

  The door shut behind her. I hadn’t moved. “Can’t blame her for taking fright,” the youth behind the counter smirked. “And what can I do for you today, Mistress Gorling?”

  Clara Gorling was a lady. I’ll give her that. She cast me an apologetic glance before telling the lad, “Well, I thought we were going to look at buttons and lace, but my husband’s cousin seems to have fled. I do beg your pardon. She’s only newly arrived in Gettys. It’s been arranged for her to meet Captain Thayer. Their families are discussing a betrothal. My cousin spent the best part of the winter in Old Thares. You can imagine the shock she feels, coming straight to Gettys from the society and culture of the capital. Well. As I’m here, Yandy, would you please put up two pounds of herring for me, and two measures of corn meal? At least I’ll get the day’s shopping out of the way. ”

  She glanced out of the window as she spoke, and I followed her gaze. Carsina lingered outside the mercantile with her back to the store. Did she think I would pursue her? Why would she imagine I would want to, after she had treated me so badly and tried to turn my own sister against me? Yet that random thought of Yaril suddenly made me realize why I had to speak to Carsina. I hurried out of the store.

  The streets were muddy and rutted from the rains of spring. Carsina lingered on a cobbled walk, trying to hold her skirts away from the mud without flashing her ankles into view. The spring wind from the mountains tugged at the scarf that she held close to her throat with her free hand. There was no one near to overhear me. I walked softly up to her and spoke in a low voice. “Such a surprise to see you in Gettys, Carsina. I understand you’re here to meet your new fiancé. Congratulations. I’m sure he’ll be as charmed as I once was. ”

  I had intended my words as a compliment, to calm her and make her regard me with gratitude before I asked my favor of her. Instead, she seemed to regard them as either insult or threat. She turned her head to look at me, eyes flashing, and then jerked her gaze away. “Leave me alone, sirrah. We have not been introduced, and I’m not accustomed to conversing with common strangers. ” She took several hasty steps away from me and then paused, staring anxiously at the mercantile door. I knew that as soon as Clara came out, she would flee. I only had a moment to convey my need to her. A soldier who was riding past stared at us curiously.

  I approached her again. “Carsina, please. There is just one thing I need from you, a small and simple favor. Won’t you help me out, please, for old time’s sake? For Yaril?”

  Her face had gone white and she stood stiff as a stick. She looked all around us, as if fearing someone would see me speaking to her. “Sir, I do not know you!” she said quite loudly. “If you don’t stop bothering me, I shall scream for assistance. ” Two ladies had just turned the corner near Gettys’ only teashop. They halted at the sight of us, staring.

  “Don’t do that!” I whispered hoarsely. “You don’t need to do that. Carsina, it’s about Yaril, not me. Once you were the very best of friends. Please, for her sake, help me. She thinks I am dead. I don’t have any way to—”

  “Leave me alone!” She all but shrieked the words as she took several more tottering steps away from me.

nbsp; “Excuse me, ma’am. Is he bothering you?” The voice came from behind me, and I turned, dread in my heart. Sergeant Hoster, puffed up with hostility, looked absolutely gratified to have an excuse to humiliate me. He didn’t wait for Carsina to speak before he barked at me, “Step away from the lady, Gutbag! I seen you whispering at her. She warned you off twice. Now get on your way and leave her alone. Better yet, get back to the cemetery where you belong. ”

  Carsina stood with her back to me, trembling as if with terror, her handkerchief clutched to her mouth. I knew what she feared, and it wasn’t that I’d harm her. It was that somehow the folk of Gettys would connect her with me.

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  I spoke deliberately to her back. “I meant no harm, ma’am. Obviously, I mistook you for someone else. ” A vengeful demon inside me wanted to call her by name, wanted to announce to every fool on the street who had stopped to gawk that I had once been engaged to her. Coldly I clamped down on the impulse. I must not antagonize her. She was my best hope of getting a letter through to my sister. If I could catch her alone, I could if necessary threaten her with exposure to get her to write to Yaril. But that ruse would have to wait. For now, I lowered my head and stepped back apologetically.

  Clara Gorling had emerged from the shop at last. She gave an exclamation of dismay at Carsina’s distress and hurried to her side. I turned and walked quickly away. Behind me, I heard Sergeant Hoster apologizing to her for “the lady’s bad experience. No woman should walk the streets of Gettys alone, more’s the pity. Some of the enlisted men have no more manners than savages. She’s not harmed, ma’am, merely shaken. A walk home and a hot cup of tea will likely put her right. ” He turned and shook his fist at me. “I’d give you the thrashing you deserve, if it weren’t for all these ladies watching. Count yourself lucky!”

  Clara Gorling was no shrinking violet. She called out loudly after me, “You should be ashamed of yourself, trooper! Ashamed! Animals like you are why the ladies of this town must carry whistles and walk in pairs just to be safe in broad daylight! I’ll be speaking to Colonel Haren about you! Don’t think I shan’t! You’re a hard man to mistake! My husband will see that you get what you have coming to you!”

  And all I could do was hunch my shoulders to her words and slink away like a chicken-killing dog. I almost expected the onlookers to stoop and fling stones after me to make me run. For a terrifying moment, I wished death on all of them. Yet the moment I felt my blood begin to seethe with magic, a horror seized me and I quenched the emotion and the evil thought it had spurred. I felt physically ill and more of a monster than even the gawking folk believed I was. As quickly as I could, I turned down an alley and escaped from their sight. I had not intended to take Sergeant Hoster’s suggestion that I hurry back to the cemetery, but that was what I did. For the rest of the afternoon, my mind seethed, not just with plans of how I could persuade Carsina to help me clandestinely contact my sister, but also with genuine fear of the emotions she had stirred in me. Eventually I took out my dearly bought newspaper and tried to absorb myself in the news from Old Thares and the civilized world.

  But the news that had been of such pressing interest to me but a few hours earlier now seemed irrelevant to me. I tried to care about the old nobles and the new nobles and questions of birth order and life roles and could not. None of it, I told myself, would ever touch me again. I was no longer a new noble’s soldier son, but only an enlisted man who wasn’t even truly a cavalla trooper, but only a cemetery soldier, a guardian of graves. The storekeeper had been right, I told myself in disgust. Just because I could read the newspaper did not mean that any of it applied to me.

  No. I was a creature of this border world now, a man infected with magic. A monstrous power slept inside me, and unless I could rid myself of it, I would have to live in fear of my honest emotions. I had to find a way to rid myself of the magic. I had starved my body of sustenance to no avail. I had thought that if I could regain my former body, I could take back my former life. Now I saw that I had been starting at the wrong end of the problem. If I wanted to take back my old life or any semblance of it, the first thing I had to do was be rid of the magic that lurked inside me. It was the true change that had befallen me, not the layer of fat that covered me. My fat was only an outward sign of the real transformation.

  Spink had offered to help me. I suddenly longed to be able to seek him and Epiny out and have someone I trusted on my side in this battle. Perhaps I could find a way to contact Spink, and I tempted myself with the thought of revealing myself to Epiny. I banished the hope by recalling how the folk in town had looked at me today. Did I want to bring that kind of disgust and shame to Spink’s doorstep? Did I want tales of whores and insults to women on the street to attach themselves to my real name, as they surely must if Epiny acknowledged me as her cousin? I imagined such gossip reaching my father’s ears, and Yaril’s, and I cringed. No. Isolation was better than shame. I would continue on my own. This was my fight and no one else’s.

  I stayed away from town for over a week. I was well settled in my cabin now. I dug myself a garden patch, well away from the grave sites, and planted a small vegetable garden. I tended the graves of the folk I had buried over the winter; the frozen earth I had tossed down on their coffins had settled unevenly. I leveled it now, and whenever I noticed wild flowers sprouting near my path, I dug them up and moved them to the new graves.

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  Rabbits and birds were attracted to the spring grass on the open hillside of the graveyard, and I began employing my sling to obtain fresh meat for myself. I began to wonder how independently I could live. Eventually I must return to town for fresh supplies and to fulfill my duties, but each time I thought of going, I found an excuse to stay home.

  I was hoeing in my little garden one morning when I heard hoofbeats. I hurried around the front of my cabin and then stood and watched as a lone horseman followed by a mule and cart came up the rough road to the cemetery. It took some time before I recognized Ebrooks and Kesey. Even then, I was reluctant to go and meet them. I stood silently until they pulled in their animals. Ebrooks dismounted and Kesey clambered down from his cart. The cart held a coffin.

  “No mourners?” I asked as I approached them.

  Kesey shrugged. “New recruit. He managed to get himself killed the first day he was here. The corporal that did it is locked up now. I expect that before the week is out, you’ll be burying him, too. ”

  I shook my head at the sad tidings. “You could have just sent a messenger out here. Clove and I would have come for him. ”

  “Yeah, well, it’s that time of year. You’ll be seeing me and Ebrooks regular now. Colonel doesn’t like the grass to get more than ankle-deep here. We’ll be cutting some each day; it’s the only way to keep it down. ”

  It was strange to have company. They helped me lower the coffin into the waiting grave, and then watched me fill it in. It annoyed me that neither one appreciated that a dug grave was already waiting, nor did they help to fill it. At least they bowed their heads with me as I said a simple prayer over the grave.

  “Used to be every soldier from our outfit had a real funeral,” Kesey observed. “But I guess funerals are like birthdays. Once you reach a certain number of them, they don’t seem so special anymore. ”

  “As long as I’m here, I’ll do my best to see every man buried with dignity,” I replied.

  “Suit yourself,” Kesey said. “But Ebrooks and I won’t always have time to help you, you know. ”

  His callousness angered me. I took a petty revenge. I professed ignorance as to how to put an edge on a scythe. I watched them do all the tool sharpening, and then feigned that I did not know how to use one and spent the rest of the day “learning” by watching them. I discovered they were actually very competent at their tasks. We began at the oldest section of the cemetery, and worked row by row to take down the grass that had grown too tall. As we r
aked it into piles and collected it, they complained that once simply putting a couple of sheep out to graze had accomplished this task. It had been stopped not out of exaggerated respect for the dead, but because three times in a row, the sheep had been stolen. When I expressed surprise, they laughed at me. Had I forgotten that most of the population of the town around the fort were criminals?

  As the afternoon shadows lengthened, we returned to my cabin. To my surprise, they’d thought to bring food with them, and we made a meal together. They were not companions I would have chosen for myself, yet it was still good to eat and talk and laugh without regard to anything else.

  After our meal, they headed back to town. They invited me to come with them and join them in a beer, but I’d spent my money on the Old Thares newspaper, and told them so politely. And so they departed, with the promise or warning that they’d return to work again tomorrow. As they waved at me, they laughed, and told me to keep good watch tonight, lest the Specks come to steal my latest resident. I waved them off and went back into my cabin.

  I’d worked longer hours than I had in some days, and I went to bed early, actually anticipating the morrow with some pleasure. After all my days alone, it would be good to have company each day. I tried not to wonder if I would soon weary of the twosome. I slept well and deeply.

  Dawn woke me, and I rose and followed my routine. When I went to fetch water, I received again the strong impression that someone was watching me from the forest. I steeled myself to the magic’s insidious creeping and shook my fist at the forest before I carried my bucket of water home. While I waited for the icy spring water to boil for tea and porridge, I took my sling and went out across the grave sites looking for rabbits or birds. I’d resolved to make a nice meat soup for all of us for supper, and suspected that the scent of newly shorn grass might have lured in a few fat spring rabbits, or perhaps some birds come in quest of gravel or worms.

  What I found instead shocked and horrified me. Somehow, the tales of body-snatching had seemed only that: tales to frighten a man new to his task as a cemetery guard. To see the gaping grave and the plundered coffin crookedly perched upon the heaped soil raised the hair on the back of my neck and sent a shiver down my spine. I approached it cautiously, as if it were somehow dangerous to me. It was empty. Only a smudge of caked blood from the dead man’s wound remained to show that a body had been in there. In the loose soil beside the grave, I found two sets of barefoot prints. I lifted my eyes to the forest that crouched on the hillside above the cemetery.

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