Forest mage, p.60
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       Forest Mage, p.60

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

  He glanced back over his shoulder at me suddenly as he said this, almost as if he expected to catch something in my expression. But I controlled my face well. All the while I was weighing in my mind just how much of my experience I could share with Spink. I would be ashamed to tell how I had indulged myself with Olikea, or to admit how much contact I’d had with the Specks. He was uncomfortably close to the truth; I had thought of staying in the forest with them. I probably would have if I had not lost to Jodoli’s challenge. I wondered again what had happened, then reined my mind violently back to the present as Spink suddenly slapped his forehead.

  “What an imbecile I am! Here we’ve been talking away, and I almost forgot the most important reason for my visit, the one that makes it absolutely necessary for Epiny to know that you are here. Look at this, Nevare, and tell me that it changes everything for you. ”

  From inside the breast of his jacket he drew out a simple white envelope and set it on the table before me. My heart turned over in my chest. At one time, the sight of that handwriting had meant so much to me. The pen strokes in Carsina’s hand spelled out my sister’s name and my home address. I glanced at Spink, then opened the unsealed envelope and drew out two sheets of paper.

  My dear Yaril,

  I regret that I could not find time to visit or write to you before my departure to the east. The oppertunity arose and my beloved parents judged it best that I act upon the invitation swiftly. I am staying with my cousin and his wife, Clara Gorling, so that I may have the time to become better acquainted with her cousin, Captain Thayer, my fiancé. Gettys is a rather wild place, it’s true, but I think I will find true happyness here with such an ambitious young officer. He is the most dashing fellow you could imagine, with dark curly hair and the widest shoulders I’ve ever seen! Oh, I do wish you could meet him! He is far handsomer than Remwar ever was! I feel so silly when I think that I was jealous of your flirtation with him. What children we both were!

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  Please write to me at your earliest convenience to say that you have missed me as much as I have missed you and that we can renew the friendship that sustained us through so many happy years.

  With affection,

  Carsina Grenalter, the future wife of Captain Thayer

  “What is this?” I demanded of Spink, though my mind was already putting the puzzle together.

  “I went to Carsina. It was difficult for me to get in to see her, for it seemed a score of women had closed in to stand guard over her and commiserate with her on her terrifying experience. It was harder still to find a way to speak privately with her. I pretended I was there to get a detailed statement of exactly what you had said to her and how you had insulted her. She’s a fine little actress, Nevare. She stuttered and wept and fanned herself until I sent her maid out of the room to fetch a glass of water for her. Then I told her, bluntly, that I knew who she was and who you were and that I’d even seen some of the letters that she had written to you while you were in the academy. I told her that you had saved them, and that if it came to a court-martial over your behavior, you could produce them to prove that your prior acquaintanceship gave you every right to speak to her on the street. I think she came close to really swooning then. ”

  Spink was grinning as he spoke, and I found a rare smile stretching my face as well.

  “I told her that if she wanted the whole matter quieted down, she could simply accede to your request and give me an envelope addressed to your sister in her hand. I assured her that was all you wanted and that you had no interest in her beyond that.

  “By then her maid returned with her water. Carsina sent her immediately for paper and pen, and this was in my hands before I left the room. I suggested to her in the maid’s hearing that it was all a mistake, that I had talked with you and you had said that you had only asked her name, for she resembled someone you had once known. She very faintly agreed with me. I am sure I left her with a dilemma, for she had been denouncing you so rabidly that it will be difficult for her to retract what she has said. But her fear of her own letters may keep her from taking her wicked lie any further than it has gone. I can’t tell you that your good name has been restored, but I don’t think Carsina will dare to blacken it further. ”

  I looked up from the letter in my hands. While he had been speaking, I’d read it through again. I was sure that her references to her future husband were put in to needle me. I was surprised by how little it bothered me. “Truth to tell, I do have her old letters. They’re shut in my soldier son journal, with all the rest of my papers. ” I heaved a huge sigh of relief. “Spink, I don’t know how to thank you. You’ve boxed her in quite neatly. If I presented those letters, I’m sure it would be the end of her engagement to Captain Thayer. I doubt that she’ll do or say anything that would damage her own reputation in such a way. ”

  He glanced away. “I felt rather a bully at first, to tell you the truth. But once I had threatened her with exposure, I could not believe how her sweet little mouth stopped trembling; I swear she longed to spit at me. I know you once loved the girl, Nevare, but I think she did you a favor when she ended your engagement. I cannot imagine you harnessed to such a woman for the rest of your life. ”

  “Nor I,” I muttered. The last remnants of my old fondness for Carsina were long gone. I wondered if she had ever been the sweet and simple girl I had imagined her to be. Was it possible that both Yaril and I had been so mistaken about someone? Or had the harshness of fate changed all of us?

  “Well, we have what we needed. You must write to Yaril at once, and I’ll put it in the military post for you. Tell her that she is more than welcome to come and stay with Epiny and me; Epiny would be delighted. ”

  Nothing would do for Spink but that I undertook that task immediately. He stood over me as I took my pen and ink from my soldier son journal. “You’ve filled pages and pages of that!” he exclaimed when he saw it. “I’ve scarcely touched mine. I’ve been waiting for something significant to occur in my career. ”

  “My father taught me that I should write at least a few lines every night, for insight comes from detail, and often a man can look back and see that a problem or a solution had its roots in earlier actions. ” I glanced at the dwindling supply of blank paper. “I suppose that soon I shall have to stop keeping it. It wasn’t really intended for an ordinary soldier anyway, and if my father ever read all that I’ve put into it, I think he would be horrified. But I suppose I shall keep it until I run out of paper. ”

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  “You won’t send it home to him when it’s finished, so he can replace it with a fresh one?”

  I looked at Spink to see if he was making a bad joke. He was sincere.

  “No, Spink,” I said quietly. “I am dead to that man. He disowned me. He wouldn’t want to see it. ”

  “Then entrust it to me, when you are finished, for I am sure you have written many valuable pages. I’ll take care of it. Or give it to Yaril, to pass on to her own soldier son. ”

  “Perhaps. If she has one. Now I need to think before I write. ”

  Silence reigned for a time. I’d dipped my pen, but that ink had dried before I thought of what to say and how to phrase it. I did not write a long letter; too fat an envelope might invite my father’s scrutiny. I told Yaril only the bare facts, that I was alive and at Gettys, enlisted as a common trooper, but that Spink and Epiny were living in a situation better befitting Yaril’s station and had offered to make her welcome. With every word I penned, I was painfully aware that my father might read my words and judge me on them. I hesitated long over mentioning Spink’s invitation, for fear it would prompt my father to some radical maneuver to keep Yaril at home. At last I decided that I’d have to chance it. The sooner that Yaril knew she had a bolt-hole, the more opportunities she could find to use it.

  “How can she reply to this? She may need money to make the journey, or she may need to let us
know when she might arrive. ”

  Spink grinned. “I’ve already arranged it. Tell her to write back to Carsina, but to enclose a second, sealed envelope addressed to me. That should work. Be sure to let her know that Epiny is most eager for her to join us. ”

  I added the requested instructions. As I sanded and then sealed the letter, I asked him, “Just how large a household are you planning to support on a junior lieutenant’s pay?”

  His smile faded slightly as he took the envelope from my hand. “Well, I’m sure it will all work out some way,” he replied. And then, more sternly he added, “And I don’t expect to shoulder it alone, Nevare. You realize that once Yaril writes back to us, you will have to talk with Epiny. This deception you practice will end. You will have to step up to your responsibilities. Yaril will be coming here. You know that. Her only other recourse would be to stay under your father’s roof and marry Caulder Stiet, and I can’t imagine a woman of even rudimentary intelligence taking that path. Your sister will be here. Both she and Epiny will expect to see you living and working as a proper soldier son, even if you are not an officer. So I suggest you begin now.

  “You need a proper uniform, and you need to maintain yourself as befits a soldier. That means shaving and keeping your hair cut and asking the colonel to position you in the regiment in the regular chain of command instead of reporting directly to him. Devote yourself to your duties, and you can earn some rank. The dice rolled against you and you aren’t starting your career as a lieutenant, but that doesn’t mean you have to surrender your ambitions. Many a man with less intelligence and fewer connections, I might add, has managed to work his way up through the ranks. For everyone’s sake, you had best start conducting yourself as a soldier son. You’re a part of this regiment, and it can only be as good as the worst soldier in it. ”

  His voice had grown sterner and more officious as he spoke. I raised an eyebrow, and he flicked a sideways glance toward the window. I instantly divined that either Ebrooks or Kesey was within listening distance. I came to my feet as quietly as I could and quietly acceded, “Yes, sir. I’ll do better, sir. ”

  “Yes. You will. Because this is the last warning you’ll be receiving from anyone. Whenever I choose to drop by here, I expect to find you at your duties, soldier, and looking like a proper trooper. Good day. ”

  “Yes, sir. ”

  Spink left immediately afterward. Outside, a light summer rain had begun to fall. I knew that Spink had admonished me for show, but as he rode off, I took his words to heart. I’d been teetering on the brink, but now I’d stepped back to safety in my life as a soldier son. I would do more than simply drudge along. I thought of Gord and how natty he had kept his academy uniform despite his girth. I could do that. It would take effort, but a soldier’s lot was effort. And there was no real reason that I could not set my sights on making rank. I’d begun well with my cemetery duties. Colonel Haren had said so. I could earn my stripes and perhaps more.

  I spotted Ebrooks slinking away behind Clove’s stall. I hailed him as Spink rode off into the sprinkling rain. “Well, that wasn’t quite as bad as I thought it would be,” I told him, trying to sound like a man who had just been soundly rebuked by his superior. “In fact, he said pretty much the same things that Kesey did. Shape up for the good of the regiment and all that. ”

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  “Yah. I heard him. But you know, Nevare, he’s right. Things have been hard for the regiment here, and there’s some of us as would welcome being shipped off somewhere else, disgraced or not. But the rest of us remember the old days, and while we’d like to leave, we’d like to see the road get pushed through first. So that when we walk away, we can say, well, it was hard but we done it. ”

  I looked at rough, plain-spoken Ebrooks and noted that although his uniform shirt was stained, it was as clean as it would come. He was clean-shaven and his hair was combed. He wasn’t much of a cavalla trooper, but right now he stood in front of a nobly born, academy-trained soldier son and looked far more like a soldier than I did. I felt ashamed of myself and also envious.

  “I wish I could have joined this regiment in better times, and know it as you do,” I said humbly.

  He gave me a sour grin. “Nevare, in better times, we wouldn’t have had you. That’s harsh, but it’s true. So you come to Gettys and you got a chance to join us. Make it an opportunity. Live up to what we were rather than dragging us down any further. That inspection team won’t arrive for another ten days. Get yourself together. I don’t suppose we’re going to win any citations from them while our primary objective goes undone, but at least we can try to avoid disgrace. ”

  “You mean the King’s Road? I thought it was up to the prisoners to build it. ”

  “Well, the shovel-and-pick labor, yes. But our scouts and engineers were supposed to lay it all out for them, and map out the tasks and say what was needed to get it done and how fast it could be done. ”

  “And didn’t they?”

  He gave me a look. “You go walking into that forest like it’s nothing, Nevare. I don’t know how you do it. But for the rest of us…well, whips and threats are all that keep the prisoners working, and even so, the progress is so slow it’s like going backward. Colonel Haren thinks he’s onto something. Rum. And laudanum. I don’t know where he got an idea like that. Get a batch of prisoners drunk or doped up and give them axes—that’s got to be a recipe for trouble. ” He gave a lopsided shrug. “But I hear that it’s working. Drunks are too stupid to be afraid of anything. Some of them get gloomy or cranky, but a man with a whip or a gun can persuade you that you’ve got to work no matter how gloomy or cranky you are.

  “They’ve started cutting into those monster logs and hauling chunks away. Like ants trying to carry off a loaf of bread crumb by crumb is what one guard told me, but it’s better than no progress. Even liquored up, most prisoners can’t stand to work there more than an hour, and the guards have to be almost as drunk as the workers are. Makes cutting grass here look like a real pleasure. ”

  Stillness washed through me. The road might go through. And I’d given the colonel the idea of how to do it. Haren seemed a fair man. He might not credit me with the idea, but I suspected I’d have a stripe or even two on my sleeve by the end of summer. Crashing against that idea like two waves meeting was the terrible sick sense that I had betrayed the forest and Tree Woman. I’d given the intruders a way to defeat the magic. They would keep cutting and gouging, an hour at a time, one tree at a time, until they’d cut right through the heart of the forest and the People. I’d betrayed the Specks just as completely as I’d betrayed the Gernians when I’d signaled the Dust Dancers to spread their plague. I felt queasy with what I had done. “You look pale. Are you sick?” Ebrooks asked me.

  “Maybe,” I said.

  “Well. I got work to do. I’ll see you later. ” He walked hastily away. Not much was left of the day, but Ebrooks went back to his work and I went back to mine. Some of my posts were leaning. I tamped them in more heavily. I wished I could just stop thinking and do this simple work in front of me. Why couldn’t my life be simple, like Ebrooks’s? He had duties, he did them, he ate, had a beer, and went to sleep. Why couldn’t I have that life? I knew the answer. Because I didn’t. When I reached the end of my line of posts, I stood for a time looking up at the encroaching forest on the hillside above me. Then I walked up the hill and into it.

  As I entered the young forest, I tried to recall how terrifying and depressing it had been for me the first time I’d walked here. It seemed like a strange dream. I tramped through it, trying to remember where Olikea had fled so I could retrace my path from last night. That seemed like an even stranger dream. Spink and the letter and the lectures from both Ebrooks and Kesey had recalled me to my duty and my life. What had I been thinking, to even consider abandoning Yaril to a forced marriage with Caulder Stiet? How could I have imagined that I could tear off my clothes and run off into the forest t
o live among the Specks?

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  Twilight was falling when I found my scattered clothing and boots. I gathered them up and as I did so, I noticed how worn and smelly they were. The cracked leather of my scuffed boots was gray; I could not remember the last time I’d blacked them or even cleaned them. When I held up my trousers, they wrinkled and sagged into a parody of my buttocks and legs. Tomorrow, regardless of consequences, I’d visit town and push hard for a proper uniform from supply, even if I had to simply beg for fabric and then hire Amzil to sew for me. The thought of going to Amzil for help made me recall that she was living at Spink’s home now. Epiny was there, and Spink had said he was going to tell her that I was alive in Gettys. The thought of that filled me with both dread and anticipation. With my dirty clothes draped over one arm and my boots in my free hand, I turned and started back when suddenly a shape separated herself from a tree trunk. Olikea stood before me.

  “Now I find you!” she exclaimed accusingly. “Where did you go?”

  “Me?” I was affronted. “I woke up in a strange place alone. I don’t even know how I got there or what happened. ” I halted my words. I was speaking Speck; I’d made the transition without thought, without effort. Again.

  She made a sound between a hiss and spitting. “Jodoli! What did he say?”

 
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