Forest mage, p.68
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       Forest Mage, p.68

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

  “Sorry, friend. I won’t be staying to help you dig today. My orders were to come right back for the next load. Oh. Wait. ” He took a folded paper from his pocket. “Here are the names. Better note down who went in each hole if you want to make markers for them later. ” He watched me closely as I took the paper.

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  “Oh. Yes. Thank you, I’ll do that. ” I took the list, scarcely seeing the names. “I’ll see you later, then. ”

  “I’m afraid you will, and often. ” He paused. “You didn’t know none of them, did you?” he asked curiously.

  “No. I don’t think I did. And it’s too late now. ”

  “Humph. Well, I admit I thought you might flinch a bit when you saw those names. But either you’re cold as ice or you never knew them at all. These fellows aren’t dead from plague, Nevare. These are the ones they found dead around your wagon in the stable. Doctor still don’t know what killed them. He wanted to keep them a bit longer, figure it out, but with all the folks sick and needing the beds, he told me, ‘Just get them in the ground. We’ll sort it all out later. ’ You didn’t know nothing about them, huh?”

  A chill went up my back. Ebrooks had been testing me with that list. I tried to speak slowly as if jolted by his news. “Someone found my wagon? And my horse? I got jumped a couple days ago. Hit on the head. When I woke up, I’d been robbed. My horse and wagon were gone. I managed to walk back here and didn’t do much for the next day or so. You think they were the ones who jumped me?”

  “Well. I known them a little. Never figured them for thieves. Not that they were gentlemen, either. Mean as a mad dog, that was Elje. And Peer just liked to see blood. Everyone knew that about him. None of the whores ever wanted his money. Still, I hate to see any of us go like that. They were all twisted up like poisoned cats. That’s no death for a soldier. ”

  A terrible tingling ran over me. In a fit of anger, I’d killed these men. It had been vengeance for what they had done to me, and yet it still bothered me. Horribly. Ebrooks was right. Execution by unseen magic was not a fitting death for any soldier. I felt as if I was made of wood as I lifted a numbed hand to wave a farewell to Ebrooks. He waved back at me and slapped the reins on the horse’s back.

  I fetched my spade and began moving earth down onto the coffins. The first few shovelfuls woke an empty thumping from the coffin below, but soon I was shoveling earth onto earth. I’d finished the first grave and was carefully packing the mounded earth into a smooth heap before it occurred to me how commonplace this had become to me. I hadn’t even breathed a prayer over them.

  Neither had Ebrooks. He’d behaved as if he’d dropped off a load of grain sacks. All my life, I’d always heard of our glorious military tradition of respect for the dead. After battles, our soldiers were always buried with pomp, ceremony, and reverence. The military cemeteries in the west were well tended, planted with flowers and trees and solemnized with ornamental statues. Not here. Here we planted our dead like potatoes.

  Speck plague had made death mundane. Dealing with it had become something we did efficiently. Mourning would come later, when danger had passed and we had time for reflection. It saddened me, but on a deep level of familiarity, I understood it. It was no different from how I had been forced to bury my mother, sister, and brother.

  I put my foot on the shovel and pushed it deep into the grassed-over heap of soil. The first shovelful of earth and gravel rattled down onto the coffin’s wooden lid. It was the only music that would be played to memorialize this passing.

  The day was warm, and sweat had long since soaked my shirt to my back. I toiled doggedly on. My head throbbed. My brief sleep of the night before had not rested me. On the contrary, whenever I allowed my mind to stray to that “dream,” I felt even more drained of energy and purpose. I did not think that Olikea would make a threat she could not fulfill. The only way I could distract myself from that anxiety was to worry about Spink and Epiny and Amzil and the children. Had the plague descended on their house as well? If it had not, if her mind was free to dwell on such things, would Epiny forgive me for not coming to visit as I’d said I would? I hoped she would consider my profession and understand. I lifted yet another shovelful of soil.

  I promised myself that as soon as I finished the third grave, I would take a rest. I’d make a trip to the spring for cool, fresh water. I was thinking of that longingly as I used the back of the shovel to smooth the mounded soil over the last grave when I heard an ominous sound. It was the rattling of heavy wagons. On the first, driving it slowly, sat Kesey, his face swathed against the plague. The wagon rode heavy; there were six coffins stacked in it.

  A soldier I didn’t know drove the other wagon, equally large. Three other soldiers rode in the back, perched on top of a load of lumber. The second wagon halted near my shed. The men jumped down and began unloading their cargo. Kesey drove the other wagon slowly toward me. He hadn’t even reached me before I saw Ebrooks drive up his horse and wagon, similarly laden. Kesey pulled his team in. “Give me a hand unloading,” he requested gruffly.

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  “What are those men doing?” I asked, gesturing at the fellows unloading lumber.

  He shook his head sadly. “The bodies are piling up at the infirmary. I can only haul six coffins at a time. But if the supplies to make coffins or the coffins themselves are already out here, then I can just bring the bodies. We can crate them up here before we drop them in the holes. ” He spoke with deliberate callousness. He climbed into the back of his wagon while I stood at the rear of it and shoved one of the top coffins toward me. I caught an end of it, surprised by how little it weighed. Kesey saw the look. “She was just a girl,” he said. “Martil Tane. ”

  “You have a list of names, then?”

  “I do. ”

  We lowered the first coffin and went on to the others, taking each one in its turn. The names were roughly chalked on the coffin lids. I put the list of the dead in my pocket with the first one. By the time we were finished with Kesey’s load, Ebrooks was ready to deliver his. We went by the order of his list. I borrowed a pencil stub from Ebrooks to number the lists to match the graves.

  Nine coffins awaited burial. I was relieved when Ebrooks and Kesey both went for shovels. Even with three of us working, it was heavy work. At one point, they walked to the shade of my fledgling hedge while I went to the spring for a bucket of water. We drank, put fresh vinegar on our masks, and cooled our heads.

  “How bad is it going to get?” I wondered aloud.

  Kesey lifted his mask and spat to one side. “The first few days are always heavy. The weak ones go down fast. After that, it’s just steady for a while. Then, just when you think it has to be over, there will be another flurry of deaths. I think the people that have been taking care of everyone just get too tired and let go. Then it trickles off until it’s only one or two a day until it finally stops. And then winter comes. ”

  I wanted to ask him how many plague seasons he had seen, but could not bring myself to form the words. I looked at the freshly mounded graves, then toward my shed, where the ringing of hammers against nails had been a constant since the men and lumber arrived. A glance in that direction showed me a tidy stack of new coffins. As I watched, two men stood up and moved another one into place. There was something so implacable about the process that my heart turned over in my chest. It was almost like an odd sort of peace.

  This was the Gettys I had not been able to see before now. This parade of coffins, this methodical burial of the dead, this was what had separated me from the veterans of my regiment, far more than my body had. This was the war they had fought without weapons every summer since they had been stationed here. They lived the year around knowing that when the hot, dry days of summer returned, disease would pick them off as remorselessly as any enemy marksman. Like any battle-hardened regiment, they looked askance at the newcomer, wondering how long he would last a
nd if, when the battle were joined, he would fight or break. I had been green and I had not known it until then. We were at war with the Specks, and today marked my first skirmish. How had I ever doubted it? I had lived in the midst of this graveyard and never truly seen what it meant until then.

  “Let’s finish it,” I said quietly, and picked up my shovel. With a grunt, Ebrooks stooped to take up his and Kesey followed.

  I was smoothing the last mound with the back of my shovel when I heard the creak and clatter of another wagon coming. I looked up in dismay. The sky had begun to turn pink in the west; the light would soon be gone. Over an hour ago, the coffin-builders had left their yield and departed for town. Only the three of us remained.

  I didn’t recognize the driver until Kesey grunted and said, “More joy to come. It’s Sergeant Hoster. ” Ebrooks uttered a muffled obscenity. I said nothing at all, but my heart filled with dread. Yet when they picked up their shovels and went to meet the wagon, I forced myself to trail along after them.

  Hoster pulled in his team alongside the row of empty coffins and sat waiting for us to approach. His vinegar-soaked mask was crusted brown with road dust. “Got a few more deaders for you. The docs don’t want them lying around the infirmary. ”

  “Couldn’t they have waited until morning? Night’s coming on fast,” Kesey objected.

  “You don’t have to bury them tonight. Just get me unloaded so I can head back to town. There’s a double Gettys tonic waiting for me, and one of Sarla’s whores, on the house. ” He scratched the back of his neck and then pretended to notice me for the first time. “Well, well. I thought you’d run off and joined the Specks by now. You would have if you were smart, Burv. But then you probably think you are smart. So smart that you think you covered all your tracks and no one can prove what you done. But I can, Tubs. And you won’t get away with it. This outbreak of plague may give you a bit of a reprieve, long enough to dig more graves. But when it’s all over, we’ll still find time to deal with you. I promise you, in the end you’ll be filling a grave up here. Justice will be done. ”

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  “I haven’t done anything,” I retorted, but even as I said the words, I knew them for a lie and could almost taste the untruth in my mouth. I’d killed those three men and now I’d just lied about it. Hoster laughed skeptically. “Keep saying that. See how much good it does you. Bet you’re wishing you could bury me, aren’t you, Fats? Shove me under a shitpile like you did that poor whore. I’ll admit one thing. I’d love to know how you done those men. ”

  “I don’t think he had anything to do with it,” Ebrooks defended me suddenly. “He didn’t even know their names. He said he got jumped and someone stole his wagon. ”

  “You don’t have to know a man’s name to kill him, stupid. Now shut up and unload this wagon. ”

  He had the stripes. We did as he told us. There were three bodies, loosely shrouded in sheets. The first was a woman. We set her in her coffin, and while Kesey put a lid on top, Ebrooks and I went back for the next body. The cloth came free of his face and I was shocked to recognize the barber who had shaved me when I first came to Gettys. I hadn’t know him well, but having the plague take an acquaintance was a sharp reminder that it could strike much closer to me. No one I cared about was safe. I was setting the lid in place on his coffin when I heard Kesey exclaim, “Damn! Buel Hitch. I never figured him to die from plague. ”

  Sergeant Hoster laughed. “I always thought a jealous husband would do him in. Or that Speck whore I heard he had. ” He lifted his mask and spat over the side of the wagon. “Get him out of there. I want to go home. ”

  He drove off as soon as the body was clear of the wagon. I stood, stunned and numb, and let Kesey and Ebrooks carry the scout to his coffin. As they set him in, Kesey said quietly, “He must have gone down fast. He’s still wearing his uniform. ” With unlikely tenderness, he reached down and tugged Hitch’s collar straight.

  “Or as much of the uniform as he ever wore. ” Ebrooks gave a small, fond laugh. “Damn the luck. That’s a shame. That man had the spirit of the old regiment in him. Not many of us left like him. It’s too bad to see him go like that. ”

  I had picked up another coffin lid. As I approached the coffin, I wondered if I wanted to look at Hitch’s face one last time or not. The choice was taken from me. Kesey had reached in and covered him over, and I found I couldn’t bring myself to touch the cloth. I set the wooden-planked lid in place.

  Ebrooks spoke quietly. “You keep good watch over him tonight, Nevare. Don’t let no Specks come and steal him. He may have walked the line, and yes, we all know he crossed over it more than once. But he was ours, he was cavalla, and he ought to be buried here, not stuck to some tree somewhere. ”

  “He had a Speck woman, I heard,” Kesey added sagely. “She or her kin might come for him. You keep good watch, Nevare. ”

  “You aren’t going to help me bury them tonight?” I was dismayed at the thought of letting the corpses lie unburied all night.

  “Tomorrow’s soon enough,” Kesey said, glancing at the sky. “Light’s going. I don’t fancy filling in graves in the dark. Ebrooks and me, we got a long drive back to town. We don’t leave now, it’ll be too dark to see before we get there. But we’ll be back tomorrow. Probably with more bodies, may the good god save us. ” He shook his head at my shocked expression. “Nevare, you’ll get used to it and more’s the shame. When they really start dropping, there’s no keeping up with it. You done your best to get ready for this, but before the week is over, you’ll be digging a trench and covering them any way you can. And no one will think the less of you for it. ”

  I could think of no response. I watched them mount the wagon. Kesey slapped the reins on the horse’s back and they drove away. I was left standing beside three coffins in the gathering dark.

  CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

  THE MESSENGER

  I couldn’t stand it.

  The thought of going to my cabin, eating, and then trying to sleep while the dead lay in boxes outside my cabin was too much for me. I looked at the darkening sky and resolved to try to bury them.

  The problem was moving the laden coffins to the graves with neither Clove nor my cart to help. The woman’s body had been the lightest, so I began with her. I could not lift the laden coffin; the problem was not the weight. The size and shape prevented me from getting a firm grip on it. Dragging it was difficult and nearly disastrous. I crabbed along backward, dragging the coffin over the uneven ground. The hasty workmanship of the coffin builders was soon evident, as the flimsily built box began to give way. I stopped and, muttering an apology to the dead woman, removed the lid from the coffin and lifted her body out of the box.

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  I tried to be respectful as I lay her loosely shrouded body on the bare earth. I could not restrain myself from hurrying as I carried the empty coffin to her grave site and then all but ran back to fetch her body. Once I was at her grave, I discovered a new awkwardness. I could not lower the laden coffin gently into the earth by myself. I did what was expedient. I put the open coffin in the grave and then lowered her body into it. I cringe when I think of how awkward it was to straddle the coffin while I put the lid on it, and then step on top of it to clamber out of her grave. I had acted with the best of intentions, and yet I still felt as shamed as if I had deliberately been disrespectful to her.

  The whole process had taken far longer than I had expected. I shoveled earth in the darkness, working to cover her coffin more by feel than by sight. When I stood beside her grave to offer a simple prayer to the good god on her behalf, I realized I didn’t know her name. The sergeant had not give me a list. I cursed him for his callousness. Then I added a prayer for myself, that no matter how many bodies I buried, I would remain properly respectful to the dead.

  Shovel on my shoulder, I went back to my cabin. The light leaking out from the shutters was a welcome bea
con as I trudged past the freshly mounded graves. I wanted to put this day behind me, to rest, and then find strength to move forward through the dismal days ahead of me.

  I planned to go inside, wash my hands, and then use one precious sheet of my journal paper to carefully make a record of the folk I had buried that day. I decided I’d record the woman as “unknown woman victim, blonde hair, of middle years, delivered to cemetery by Sergeant Hoster along with the bodies of Scout Buel Hitch and the barber whose shop was by the west gate. ” If anyone came looking for them, perhaps the date of death and that brief description would be enough. I realized I faced a long winter of making grave markers.

  I wondered if I dared try to sleep that night. No. I feared I’d dreamwalk again if I did. And I had to guard Hitch’s body. My heart sank as I considered his death. I’d lost a true friend. I took a breath and closed my heart to the grief that tried to hollow it. I needed my strength for the next few weeks. Later I could give way to mourning. I pushed open my door.

  In the same moment that I recalled my cabin should have been dark, I saw Hitch sitting beside the little hearth fire he’d lit. I froze where I was. He turned to me and grinned apologetically. His face had lost flesh from the plague, and there were dark hollows under his eyes. His voice was hoarse. “Come on in and pull up a chair, Nevare. We need to talk. ” The foul smell of the plague, familiar to me from my own experience with it, wafted to me on his breath.

  I took two steps backward. Then I turned and ran to the two coffins I’d left by my tool shed. The lid from Hitch’s had been kicked aside. It was empty except for a rumpled sheet in the bottom. I went back to my cabin. At the door I hesitated, then resolutely shook my foolishness away. He hadn’t been dead. That was all. Dr. Amicas had been aware of such incidents; plague victims sank into comas so deep they were mistaken for death. The doctor had insisted on bodies being held overnight to prevent anyone being buried alive. Spink and I had both been “dead” for a time. I pushed my superstitious fears aside. “By the good god’s mercy, Hitch, I’m so sorry. I thought I was imagining you there. ” I hurried past him to my water cask and began filling my kettle. “We all believed you were dead. It’s only the sheerest luck that I didn’t bury you tonight. I’m so sorry, man. Do you feel all right? I’m making coffee. Do you need water, food? To wake up in a coffin! What could be worse?”

 
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