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Forest mage, p.52
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       Forest Mage, p.52

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

  I pulled the rope free of the canvas and unrolled the cloth. I bent to seize the corpse by the shoulders. Insects buzzed over my head, and the distinctive smell of death surrounded me. I held my breath. Resolved to get it over with quickly, I seized him by his shoulders, intending to pull him over onto the canvas and then quickly roll him up in it.

  The corpse didn’t budge. I tugged at him several times, and then had to step away to take a deep breath of untainted air. The stench of death clung to my hands, and it took all my will to keep from retching.

  All this while, the Specks had watched me, the man solemnly and the woman with amusement. Their presence bothered me; if I must do such a distasteful task, I would rather have done it without an audience. Obviously, they had fastened him to the tree somehow. I stood up straight, unsheathed my knife, took a deep breath of air, and once more approached the corpse. I could not see any binding. When I could hold my breath no longer, I took another gasp of air through the sleeve of my jacket. Then I tried to slide my hand down behind his back, between him and the tree. Immediately, I encountered a number of tiny rootlets projecting from the tree and into the corpse, thrusting right through the fabric of his jacket and shirt and into his flesh.

  I could scarcely credit it. I knew that the man’s body had not been here more than a few hours. That a tree could send greedy, questing roots into him so quickly was macabre. I tried the blade of my knife against those I could reach; it was a hopeless task. They were pencil thick and as hard as oak knots.

  I do not like to recall the next half hour. The stench was stronger because the rootlets had pierced his dead flesh in so many places. Every atom of my nature rebelled against the idea of manhandling the dead. Yet, in the end, that was what it came down to. I jerked him loose. The rootlets that had entered his body so quickly had fanned out inside him as a network of tendrils. By the time I pried the body loose, it was leaking foul fluids from dozens of gaping wounds. It smelled far worse than it should have; I suspected something in the roots was hastening the breakdown of the corpse. Pulling the body free of the roots left the tangled root masses dangling from the tree and dripping gore. Liquids and particles of flesh and gut smeared my hands and arms before I finally managed to lay him out on the canvas. I flung an end of it over him and then dropped to my knees to roll him up in the coarse shroud. I bound the parcel with my rope.

  I was tying the final knot when the Speck man spoke again. “I do not believe he wished to go. But in this I will defer to your wisdom, Great One. ” He sounded ineffably sad.

  The woman spoke with more scorn. “You did not even try to listen to him. ” She puffed her cheeks at me several times, making her lips flutter. When I made no response, she said, “I will come to see you again. This time not as a dreamwalker, but in the flesh. ” She cocked her head and eyed me appraisingly before she added, “And I will bring you proper food. ”

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  I could think of no response. It was difficult to lift the swathed corpse to my shoulder and even harder to rise with it, but I would have died before I would have asked either of them for help. I lugged the dead trooper over to Clove, who snorted his distaste, but accepted the nasty burden. I could almost feel the Specks’ eyes boring into me as I secured the body to my saddle. Both ends of my parcel stuck out awkwardly. The journey home would be a complicated one once we reached the narrow path through the younger forest. I spoke over my shoulder to the watching Specks as I tightened the rope that lashed the corpse to my saddle.

  “The way of my people is to bury our dead. It is my duty to protect their graves. I do not wish to have problems with you or your people. You must leave our dead alone. You must never again do what you did last night. I do not want to bring harm down on either of you. But if you again take a corpse from our graveyard, I must. Do you understand?” I tugged the last knot tight and turned to look at them.

  I was alone.



  M uch later that afternoon, I presented myself at Colonel Haren’s office. After I’d reburied the unfortunate trooper I’d hauled bucket after bucket of water and scrubbed myself raw, but the stink of death clung to me. I wanted to throw away the clothing I’d been wearing, but I did not have that luxury. Instead, I washed it and left it dripping on my newly strung clothesline. I avoided Ebrooks and Kesey entirely. I didn’t want to speak to anyone about my encounter with the Specks, but thought that perhaps I must report it to Colonel Haren.

  The sergeant kept me waiting. I had learned that the person I really had to wear down was his sergeant, not the colonel. So I stood before his desk and watched him shuffle his papers. “You could leave and come back later,” he suggested to me sharply at one point.

  “I’ve nothing more demanding to do. And I feel I should make my report to the colonel as soon as possible. ”

  “You can simply give me your information to pass on. ”

  “I could, Sergeant, of course. It’s rather detailed. But if you wish to write it down for the colonel, I could come back tomorrow for his response. ”

  I don’t know why he didn’t simply order me to leave. Perhaps because he knew I would come back. There were a few chairs along the wall of the office, but I had observed that my standing seemed to chafe his nerves more than if I withdrew quietly. He sorted his way through a stack of dispatches, assigning them to different piles. Then he looked up at me, sighed, and said, “I’ll see if he can see you now. ”

  Despite the spring weather, the colonel still lounged in his chair by the blazing hearth fire. No ray of daylight penetrated his chamber. I wondered if he ever left this room.

  He turned his head as I entered and sighed. “Trooper Burve. You again! What is it now?”

  “Specks stole a body out of the graveyard last night, sir. I had to enter the forest to recover it. I had contact there with a Speck man and woman. ”

  “Did you? That’s the only part of your story that is unusual. Did you antagonize them?”

  I considered his question. “I took the body back. They didn’t seem to approve, but I simply did it. ”

  “Well done. ” He nodded sharply. “We’ve found that to be the best way to deal with them. Approach what must be done calmly, inform them of it, and then do it. They soon come to understand that we know what we’re doing and it’s for the best. For the most part, they’re a passive people. The only time they’ve ever attacked us, we had shed Speck blood first. They became very distressed about the road construction and tried to interfere with it. Instead of talking to them, some fool lost his head and shot one. Instead of fleeing, the Specks charged at us. Well. We had no choice except to use our weapons then. A lot of Specks died. Such a one-sided battle was unfairly called a massacre. The papers in Old Thares published a very biased account, and all the officers involved were rebuked. What should they have told their men? ‘Don’t shoot until they’ve killed some of us?’”

  His indignation had brought two bright spots of color to his cheeks. He took a deep breath to calm himself. “So. We don’t want a situation like that again. Do as you’ve been doing. Simply bring the bodies back. Don’t make threats. Don’t shoot at Specks. Just do your duty, but don’t provoke them to bloodshed. Remember I assigned you to the cemetery to prevent this, not so you could come here and complain about it. You did recover the corpse and rebury it?”

  “Yes, sir, I did. Sir, I thought I should report my contact with the Specks. ”

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  He lifted a wine glass from a table at his elbow and sipped from it. The liquid was a dark crimson. “It’s of no consequence. It’s spring, trooper. Spring always brings the Specks down to trade. Soon it will be summer. Then it will be high summer, and people will die of plague. Lots of them. And as fast as you bury them, the Specks will try to dig them up. By the end of summer, if you don’t die of the plague, you’ll be like all the rest of us. Praying for winter to com
e and cursing it when it gets here. ”

  He spoke with absolute certainty. When he was finished, he resumed staring into this fire.

  “Sir. It seems to me I might better serve in my post if I could find a way to prevent the Specks from stealing bodies before summer and the plague season hits. ”

  I waited for a response from him. When he didn’t give me one, I took it as permission to speak on. “I’d like to acquire a dog, sir, with your permission. He could serve in two capacities: he could keep watch in the graveyard by night and bark to warn me of intruders. And if a body was stolen, a hound could help me track the culprits and bring the corpse back sooner. ”

  He made no response. I tried again. “I’d like to keep a dog, sir. ”

  He gave a sudden harrumph of laughter. “So should we all, trooper. But tell me this. Where would you get one? Have you seen any dogs in Gettys since you arrived?”

  It was such an obvious lack, I wondered how I had missed it before. “Perhaps dogs could be brought from the west?” I ventured, certain that this had already been tried.

  “Dogs disappear from Gettys. Dogs do not seem to like Specks and Specks certainly do not like dogs. Except in stew. So. You will not be getting a dog to help you fulfill your duties. ” He glanced away from the fire to look at me, and when I didn’t move, he demanded testily, “Was there anything else, trooper?”

  “May I attempt to build a wall around the cemetery, sir? Or at least along the side of it that is closest to the woods? It might not prevent all such incidents, but I should like to make stealing bodies as difficult as possible for them. ”

  He shook his head. The neck of the bottle chinked against the lip of his wineglass as he poured. “Did you pay any attention when I let you sign on? I told you that I’ve requested a shipment of stone for a wall. I’ve asked for it several times now, and each time I’ve been put off. ” He took another sip from his wine. “Obviously, the King’s Road is far more important than our troopers resting in dignity after they die in this forsaken place. ”

  A silence fell between us. I made a final unwilling effort. “I could build a fence, sir. ”

  He did not turn his head toward me but only shifted his eyes. “From wood, I assume. ”

  “Yes, sir. ”

  “And where do you plan to get it? Not from our supplies. Wood, ironically, is hard to come by. We can harvest it only from the edges of the forest because…because, well, you know how difficult it is for our crews to enter the actual forest. So how would you build a fence without wood?”

  Some stubbornness I had thought long vanquished from me reared its head. I did not point out that he seemed overly generous with his own supply of firewood. “I’ll get my own wood, sir. ”

  He leaned deeper into his chair and considered me. “Taking wood from that forest is not as easy as it might appear. Have you attempted it, soldier?”

  “I’ve been in the forest twice, sir. I know its challenges. ”

  “Yet you’d willingly attempt such a thing”

  Perhaps he weighed my courage against the appearance of my body. I felt as if he were seeing me for the first time rather than just the flesh that enclosed me. I spoke the truth. “I’d rather try to take wood from that forest than have to hunt down stolen corpses in it, sir. ”

  “I suppose you would. Very well, then. Feel free to attempt it. But don’t neglect your other duties. I’ve had good reports of your predigging the graves. Continue with that effort. But in your spare time, you may attempt to build a fence as well. ”

  “Thank you, sir. ” I felt anything but thankful as I left. I emerged into the dusky streets of Gettys. The colonel had kept me waiting for longer than I thought. Evening was coming on.

  What had I been thinking, volunteering to fence in the cemetery? I had enough work to do, and with no dog to help me, I might have to start keeping a night watch over the fresh graves. I thought of the long boundary the cemetery shared with the forest, and tried to picture a fence. A tall fence of solid wood plank would be the most effective. A rail fence would do little more than slow the graverobbers. I considered a palisade of logs and rejected the notion. The idea of cutting that many substantial logs, digging the holes, and erecting them was beyond a lone man.

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  Clove awaited me patiently at the hitching rail. I stared at it, and at the weeds that grew vigorously at the base of its supports. It reminded me of my father’s hedgerows, founded on lines of rough stones hauled from the surrounding fields. I’d encountered no sizable stones while digging graves. The largest ones were no bigger than my head. But even those, set in a row, could provide a demarcation. And if I planted thorny or densely growing bushes, I might make a barrier of the very stuff of the forest that so daunted me.

  The moment the idea came to me, I recognized the rightness of it. It would take time to grow, of course. So I’d erect a rail fence to begin with, and any stones I encountered in my gravedigging could go along the bottom of it. The Specks went naked. I’d plant brambles and briers along it. Yes.

  Clove’s reins were loose in my hands. He tugged at them, reminding me that I’d been standing there, lost in thought, for some time. I realized abruptly that I appeared to be staring at two women approaching me on the sidewalk. In an effort to counteract that rudeness, I smiled affably and gave a friendly nod. One gave a squeak of fear and her hand darted to seize the brass whistle she wore on a chain around her neck. The other woman abruptly took her companion’s elbow and steered her quickly out and across the street. They walked briskly and glanced back at me once, whispering together. My cheeks burned in embarrassment, but I also felt a tinge of anger. I knew, with absolute certainty, that if those women had so encountered me two years ago, they would have smiled and returned my greeting. I resented that the shape of my body made them judge me so hastily. Within, I was the same man I’d always been.

  Almost. I realized I was still staring after the women, and mentally contrasting their figures to the naked Speck woman I’d glimpsed earlier. Walking about clad only in her flesh, she had still been less self-conscious and more confident than either of them. And she had been aggressive, as Hitch had warned me that all Speck women were. He’d said that his Speck woman had simply chosen him and that he’d had no say in it, then or since. I wondered what that would be like, and caught my breath at the idea. It didn’t displease me.

  I hadn’t planned to go back to Sarla Moggam’s. Yet I found myself there, and tying Clove to the railing. It was stupid of me, I thought. Did I really want to spend what little remained of my month’s pay on this? Fala was gone, I reminded myself as I knocked at the door, and the other whores had appeared uninterested in my trade. I’d be wiser to go straight back to my cottage.

  Stiddick opened the door to my knock. “You!” he exclaimed the moment he opened it. Over his shoulder, he said to someone, “The cemetery guard is back. ” He stood solidly in the door opening. I could not pass, nor even look inside.

  Before I could say anything, he was thrust to one side and Sarla herself darted out. She wore a red dress with many little white bows on the skirt of it. A layer of lace inadequately concealed her shoulders and the top of her bosom. She fairly quivered with anger. “You’ve got a lot of nerve coming here!” she exclaimed. “After what you did to Fala!”

  “I didn’t do anything to Fala,” I protested, but my voice went soft and guilty on the last words. I had done something to Fala, I just couldn’t explain what.

  “Then where is she?” Sarla demanded angrily. “Where does a woman go in Gettys in the dead of winter? You come here, you spend the whole night with her, something Fala never did with anyone. Then you’re gone, and she just isn’t herself. Turns away every man who comes to her for two days, and then just disappears. Where?”

  “I don’t know!” I’d heard Sarla was angry with me over Fala’s leaving her employ. I hadn’t expected her angry questions.

  Her har
sh smile of vindictive triumph deepened the lines in her face and flaked the powder from the corners of her mouth. “You don’t know? Then why didn’t you ever come back to see her? Everyone saw how satisfied you were. You come to my establishment just once, spend the whole night with one of my girls, and then she vanishes. But you never come back looking for her. Because you knew she was gone, didn’t you? And you knew she wasn’t ever coming back. And how does a man know that unless he makes sure of it himself?”

  I was dumbstruck for a moment. Then, with all the dignity I could muster in the face of her outrageous words, I said carefully, “Are you accusing me of something, madam? And if you are, would you state it plainly?”

  If I had thought a blunt response would rattle her, I was wrong. She leaned forward from the waist toward me, her hands on her hips, thrusting her breasts at me like weapons. “I say Fala came to a bad end. That’s what I say. And I think that you know just how. Is that plain enough for you?”

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  “It is. ” Cold anger was building in me. “I only knew Fala for a few hours. But, as you say, I was a satisfied man. I had no reason to wish her harm, and every reason to be grateful to her. If she has met with foul play, I will be very grieved to hear of it. But it will have been none of my doing. Good day, madam. ”

  I turned, seething with anger, to depart from her door. When I turned my back, Stiddick struck. It was a doltish schoolboy attack. He punched me squarely in the back, between my shoulder blades. I don’t know what he thought would happen. Perhaps he thought that because I was fat, I must also be weak or cowardly. I do know he wasn’t expecting it when I spun around and gave him a straight-from-the-shoulder fist to the face.

  His head snapped back on his neck. Then he dropped like a rock. Time seemed to observe a long silence while he lay there, flat on his back and still. For one aching instant, I thought I’d killed him. Then he made a terrible retching sound, rolled over on his side, and curled up in a ball. Blood was flooding from his face, through his cupped hands and curled fingers. He yelled wordlessly, and Sarla began shrieking. I turned and walked away. As I mounted Clove, my hands started to shake. I’d never struck a man that hard. Gravedigging builds up a man’s back and shoulders and arms. I thought of my defense: “I didn’t know my own strength. ” Oh, that sounded good. I rode away, knowing that what I’d done was justified, but also that I felt queasy about it.

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