Forest mage, p.70
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       Forest Mage, p.70

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

  The annual invasion of the plague had created its own traditions for the town. The dead were put out almost as soon as they had expired for the corpse wagons that would make a circuit of the town three times a day until the plague season ended. People, I thought to myself, learned to cope; there was nothing so strange, so heartbreaking, or so horrifying that people could not eventually become accustomed to it.

  The wooden walls of Gettys stood tall and black against the night sky. There was a lone sentry on the gate. A torch burned low in a sconce beside him, making inky shadows at his feet. He drew himself up straighter as I approached and then commanded me to “Halt!” When I did, he announced, “This post is under quarantine. No one may enter who is sick with the plague. ”

  “That’s the most useless measure I’ve ever heard!” I exclaimed. “There’s plague both in and outside the walls. What is the use of a quarantine now?”

  He looked tired. “Colonel Haren gave the order before he took ill. And now that he’s dead and Major Elwig is raving with fever, there’s no one to rescind it. I’m only doing my duty. ”

  “And I’m doing the same. I’ve come in from the cemetery. And I’m not bringing any sickness that isn’t already here. Scout Buel Hitch was sent out on a corpse wagon a bit prematurely. I think that if a doctor could come to his aid, he might recover. ”

  He laughed. There was no joy in it, or even bitterness. He laughed because I so casually suggested the impossible. “The town doctor is dead. Both the regiment doctors are overwhelmed with the sick already. Neither will leave the infirmary to go to treat a single victim, regardless of who he is. ”

  “I have to try,” I said, and with a skeptical nod, he passed me through.

  I found my way through the darkened post to the infirmary where I had brought Hitch on my first day in Gettys. Lanterns burned on either side of the entry. Outside it, a double row of draped bodies awaited the corpse wagons. I walked carefully around them and entered the building. The same boyish soldier who had greeted me the first day was asleep at the desk in the anteroom, his head pillowed on his arms on top of a thick book. Even in his sleep, he looked pale and frightened.

  I knocked gently on the desk to awaken him. He lifted his head immediately, his mouth hanging slack. It took a moment for his eyes to focus. “Sir?” he asked me vaguely.

  “Not ‘sir,’ just ‘soldier. ’ I need a doctor for Scout Buel Hitch. ”

  He looked sleepily confused. “Scout Hitch is dead. I logged him into the record myself. ” He gestured at the ledger he’d been using for a pillow.

  “He revived at the cemetery. I think that he’ll live if he can get a doctor’s care. ”

  His eyes widened slightly. He sat up straighter and looked more alert. “Lieutenant Hitch is a walker? Ah. Well, if anyone would be, it would be him. But I doubt he’ll live. Walkers hardly ever live. They only revive for an hour or so, and then die again. Dr. Dowder and Dr. Frye argue about it all the time when Dr. Dowder is sober. Dowder says they just go into a deep coma, rally briefly, and then die. Frye says they really die and then come back. He wrote a big report for the queen about how the Speck magic makes them wake up a final time after their first death before they die their final death. She sent him a present for writing it. The big green ring he wears on his left hand. ”

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  “You seem to know a lot about it. ”

  He looked a bit ashamed. “I don’t eavesdrop. The walls here are thin and they often shout at one another. They shout a lot, about everything. Today Dowder wanted to bring the sick prisoners here so that they could treat everyone in one place. Frye was angry about that. He says that soldiers shouldn’t have to die alongside felons. Dowder said that three infirmaries for two doctors is ridiculous. And he said that a sick man is a sick man and deserves to be treated as well as they can manage. They fight about the prisoners a lot. Almost all the prisoners who get sick die. They lime-pit the bodies from the prisoner barracks. Dowder says they should be given a decent burial. ”

  I’d never even stopped to wonder why dead prisoners never arrived at the cemetery. Now I knew. Work on the King’s Road, die, and be flung into a pit full of quicklime. A sordid end for anyone. “Three infirmaries?”

  “The officers’ mess is an infirmary now for the visiting delegation from Old Thares. Every one of them sickened. Dowder says they’re all going to die because they haven’t been east long enough for their bodies to adapt to the humors of this region. Frye says they’ll die because the Specks hated them the most. ”

  I was beginning to think that I needed to have a long conversation with Frye. He was disturbingly close to what I perceived as the truth. I wondered if he might lend his weight to my plea that we stop cutting the ancestor trees to end our war with the Specks. Could he make Colonel Haren see that we truly were at war? Then I remembered that Haren was dead. I didn’t have time to feel anything about that. Callously, I wondered if our next commander might be more open to the truth.

  “I need to speak to Dr. Frye or Dr. Dowder. Can you take me to one of them?”

  He shook his head. “I’m not supposed to leave my post. ”

  “Can I go in there and look for one of them?”

  The boy soldier yawned hugely. “Dr. Dowder took a Gettys tonic and went to bed. You won’t be able to wake him. Dr. Frye is spending the night in the officers’ ward. You won’t be able to get in there. ”

  “Is there no one else who can help me? Or at least advise me what I should do for Scout Hitch?”

  The boy looked uncertain. “There are orderlies on duty, but I am not certain how much they know. And some townspeople have come to help. ”

  “I’m going to see if there is anyone who can help me,” I announced.

  He shook his head at my determination. “As you will,” he conceded. Before the door had closed behind me, his head was pillowed on his ledger again.

  The infirmary ward was dimly lit. A few hooded lanterns burned on small side tables between the beds, but the room was still shadowy and dim. I walked into a wall of smell. It wasn’t just sweat and waste and vomit. The plague itself seemed to exude a sour stink of illness from the bodies it consumed, just as a fire gives off smoke as it devours fuel. My nightmarish memories of being confined to a plague ward slammed into reality around me. For an instant, I felt again the fever and disorientation. All I could think of was fleeing. I knew I couldn’t.

  I made the mistake of trying to take a breath through my mouth. I tasted the plague then, a foul miasma that coated my tongue and throat with the taste of death. I gagged, clamped my mouth shut, and furiously took charge of myself.

  When I had first delivered Hitch here, the infirmary had been a clean, sparsely furnished room washed with sunlight. Now the windows were heavily draped against the night. Twice as many beds lined the walls, and litters had been brought in and set haphazardly on the floor. Each bed and pallet held a feverish victim. Some tossed and groaned; others lay deathly still, breathing hoarsely. The door to the next room was open. In that room, someone raved with fever.

  Three upright figures moved among the fallen. A woman in a gray dress was making up an empty bed. A man was going from bed to bed, emptying noisome basins into a slop bucket. Closer to me, a woman in blue bent over a patient, applying a wet cloth to his brow. I made my way awkwardly toward her, stepping around the litters on the floor. I had nearly reached her when she straightened up and turned around. For a moment, we simply regarded one another in the dim light.

  “Nevare?” Epiny whispered furiously.

  I was caught. I could not flee without treading on sick men. I stood staring down on her. She had always been a slight woman. Now her face was even thinner. Her features were sharper than I recalled, and she looked as if she had aged much more than the one year since I’d last seen her. I suddenly recalled that she was in the early months of a pregnancy.

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>   “You should not be here, in your condition,” I rebuked her.

  Her mouth dropped open in shock. Then she reached across the patient who lay on the floor between us and seized my upper arm in a painful pinch. Keeping a grip on me, she walked me along the patient and then tugged me after her as she picked a path through the beds and pallets.

  “Epiny, I—”

  “Sshhh!” she hissed furiously.

  Still not daring to speak, I followed her out into the anteroom and then out onto the dark street. The boy soldier at the desk didn’t even stir as we passed through the room.

  Once we were outside, she turned to face me. I braced myself for harsh words. Instead, she flung herself at me in an attempt to hug me. Her arms couldn’t span my girth, but it still felt good, until I felt her shoulders heave in a sudden sob. Then she pushed herself back and looked up at me angrily. The lantern light picked up the streaks of tears on her face. “I shouldn’t be nursing plague victims while I’m pregnant? But it’s fine for me to be submersed in grief at such a time, I suppose! I thought you were dead, Nevare! For weeks I mourned you as dead, and you let me think that. And so did Spink! My own husband would rather keep faith with a friend than ease his wife’s agony of fear. I will never, never forgive either of you for what you’ve put me through. ”

  “I’m sorry,” I said immediately.

  “Of course you are! You should be. It was despicable. But being sorry doesn’t change anything about the shameful thing you’ve done. And your own poor little sister, all this time thinking you’d gone to your death, imagining your body rotting unburied in a ditch somewhere. How could you do that to us, Nevare? Why?”

  And in that moment, all my excellent reasons suddenly seemed shallow and stupid and selfish. I tried them anyway. “I was afraid it would ruin your reputation if people knew you were related to me,” I said awkwardly.

  “And I’ve always cared so much for my reputation and what other people thought of me!” she fumed at me. “Did you truly think I was so shallow as to put such things ahead of family, Nevare? You are my cousin! And you saved both Spink and me, at great risk to yourself. Do you think I would forget that, and shun you because of what the Speck magic has done to you?”

  I hung my head. She had taken both my hands in hers, and that simple act of honest affection in the midst of her anger moved me terribly. I spoke simply. “Sometimes I think you need to be protected from your good intentions, Epiny. Now is one of those times. You may have the moral fiber not to care what others think of you. But what others think of you may well cost Spink a promotion, or you may find that other officers may not wish their children to play with yours. Think of what it would do to your status among the women you have championed if they found out you are related to a man they have accused of the two most heinous crimes that exist. I think you must know by now that I’ve been accused of murder. Until I can prove I am innocent, I do not think our connection should be revealed. ” I squeezed her hands affectionately, wincing at how thin her fingers felt, and then let them go.

  “No, do not argue with me about this now,” I cautioned her when she opened her lips to speak. “I’m on a desperate mission tonight. The one man whose testimony could prove my innocence has just escaped premature burial. He’s what they call a ‘walker. ’ He’s in my cabin recuperating, but he’s still very weak. I need to get a doctor to come out to see him. Or, failing that, I need to know what I can do to help him recover. My life depends on this as well as his. ”

  She began shaking her head slowly before I’d even finished speaking. At my final words, a look of despair crossed her face. She spoke softly. “I don’t know of anything you can do, Nevare, other than the obvious. Give him water and thin soup, if he will take it. I’ve seen one other ‘walker. ’ A woman came into the infirmary tonight, trailing a shroud sheet. She begged us all to leave Gettys forever for the sake of her children. She begged us to make sure her children were taken safely west. Then she lay down and died again. Someone recognized her and went running for her husband. The poor man came racing to the infirmary in shock. He said she’d died hours earlier and he had put her body out. We had to tell him that she’d died again. Dr. Frye only made it worse when he tried to tell the man that his wife had never revived, that it had only been an evil Speck magic reanimating her body. I wanted to throttle the man. ”

  “Dr. Amicas knew about ‘walkers’; remember how he insisted on waiting before he sent bodies off to be buried?”

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  “Well of course I do! You were among those who ‘died’ and returned. As were many whom you sent back across the bridge. As was Spink. ”

  “Where is Spink tonight? Does he know that you’re here?”

  “He doesn’t. He was called away from our home early today. So many of the higher-ranking officers have become ill that the junior officers are being called in simply to keep some kind of chain of command functioning. He didn’t want to leave us, but he had to go. Some sort of trouble with the prisoners. It was his duty and I understood that.

  “When a runner came to our door tonight saying that a sick man was asking for me by name, I knew it was my duty to come here. The man in that bed in there has no one else. His wife died in childbirth the year after the regiment came here. I was shocked the first time I called a meeting for the women of the post to talk about improving out safety on the streets, and he walked in. I thought he came to mock us, or perhaps worse. But ever since then, he has been one of our staunchest supporters. He was the first man to join in our promise that if ever he heard a woman blowing a whistle for help, he would stop whatever he was doing and come to her aid. And he has kept that promise, more than once, even if the woman was a common prostitute. He has been faithful to our cause. So, you see, now that Sergeant Hoster is the one who needs help, I must return that faithfulness. ”

  “Hoster?” I was shocked and amazed. It couldn’t be the same man. “But I saw him just a few hours ago. He drove the wagon that brought Scout Hitch’s body to the cemetery. ”

  “You know how suddenly the plague can strike, Nevare. And taking bodies to the cemetery might be how he became infected. We know so little. ” She gave a sharp sigh of frustration. “And I should get back to him and ease his discomfort what little I can. He’s very ill, the sickest man I’ve seen tonight. It’s a shame to see such a charming, gentle man so stricken. I fear he may die, and I should be shamed if there was no one at his side when it happened. ”

  My mind was reeling with that description of Sergeant Hoster. It did not seem the right time to disillusion her. His deception of her made me despise him more than ever.

  “I’ll let you go, then. And you think there is nothing I can do for Scout Hitch?”

  “Nothing except pray that he has a strong constitution. Wait. I’ll give you one of the powders we’ve been using. Willow bark, feverfew, and a bit of sulfur steeped with simper leaves. We’ve been brewing it up as a tea. To be honest with you, I can’t tell if it helps or not. I’ve been spooning it into Sergeant Hoster for an hour now, with no change that I can see. The only certain thing I know is that people who drank the Bitter Springs water as soon as the fever came on seem to be recovering. Slowly, that’s true, but their fevers are not as extreme and they aren’t hallucinating. ”

  “Do you think Bitter Springs water would help Hitch?”

  “If we had any left, we could try it. But I’m afraid I’ve given it all away. I doubt it would be of much help. The small quantities we brought with us only help if taken at the first sign of the disease. I had one extra bottle that I had kept in reserve. I sent it to Colonel Haren when I heard he was stricken. He died anyway. I think the disease was too well established in him to yield to so small a quantity of the water. ”

  My last hope fluttered and died away. “Well. Can I get one of those powders from you for Hitch, please? And then I must be on my way back out to him. ”

  “Of course. Wait here.
I’ll fetch it for you. ”

  She went back into the infirmary. I was left standing outside. I tried to fit my image of Sergeant Hoster with the man that Epiny had described. Obviously, he showed such a very different face to the ladies. He’d always been a tyrant to Ebrooks, Kesey, and me, but what sergeant is not seen as a tyrant to the men beneath him? I tried to pare away his dislike of me to see what sort of a man he might have been. I didn’t have enough to go on. Nevertheless, I had to admit to myself that I’d felt a flush of relief at Epiny’s news that Hoster seemed to be dying. He was the one who most ardently believed in my guilt. Once he was gone, perhaps everyone else would let the matter drop. I could hope. I felt a twinge of guilt at hoping for the man’s death, but consoled myself that the feeling was mutual.

  Epiny appeared a short time later clutching two little muslin bags of herbs. “Steep one bag in boiling water, and be sure you squeeze it well to make sure that it reaches full potency in the drink. I’ve given you two. If the first one helps him, then give him the second one, and come back to town for more. But, Nevare, don’t hope too hard. This round of Speck plague is the most vicious I’ve seen. It’s worse than what you had at the academy and even worse than the sort that hit Bitter Springs. ”

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  “Epiny, I fear for you. What if you catch the plague again?”

  “I don’t think I shall. Everyone I’ve talked to says that if you’ve had it twice and not died of it, it won’t bother with you again. Besides, I don’t see you cringing and hiding from your duty. You’re handling all the dead from this plague, and from what you’ve said, you’ve a sick man in your own home. Why do you think I should do less?”

  I smiled regretfully. “That’s a discussion that we have no time for just now. ”

  She narrowed her eyes at me. “There are several discussions that are going to have to wait. Just because I’ve spoken to you civilly, don’t assume that I’m not still furious with you. And hurt by what you and Spink have done. It’s going to be a long time before I trust either one of you again. ”

  “But Epiny, I—”

  “No. Not now. ” She was adamant. “But when this is over, Nevare, I intend to give you no quarter. And I do not think that your sister will think kindly of you when she hears of how she has been made to suffer by your silence. ”

 
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