Forest mage, p.71
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       Forest Mage, p.71

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

  Her last words quenched me. I felt a selfish brute. Over the last few days, I’d allowed myself to forget about Yaril’s plight. Betrothed to Caulder Stiet; if my father could force that on her, she was completely under his dominance. I discovered that I had been toying with the idea of fleeing to the Specks because I suddenly recognized how selfish that decision would be. No. I had to endure life at Gettys and make something of myself, and that included providing a home for Yaril where she could have some say in her own future. My resolve hardened. “I will do better,” I said aloud, and the words surprised a feeble smile out of Epiny.

  “You had better,” she warned me, “for I can’t imagine what you would have to do in order to do worse. ” She surprised me with another hug. “Hurry along. We both have to get back to our patients. ”

  She had turned and was walking away when I called after her, “Are Amzil and the children still all right?”

  She stopped short and turned back to me, and this time her smile was stronger. “They’re fine, Nevare. And now that I know they’re yours, I’ll look after them even better. ”

  “What is that supposed to mean?” I demanded, but the door had closed behind her.

  I tucked the two herb bags into my jacket pocket. Then I went to the regiment’s stable area and after a short search found Clove crammed into a stall that was too small for him. I found a hackamore that would fit him and strapped a blanket to his back for makeshift tack, and we were soon on our way home. No one saw us. It had been a long time since I’d ridden him that way, so the only pleasant part of the journey home was how swiftly it went compared to my long walk there. Even so, we did not gallop along, but went at a sensible pace through the moon-silvered darkness.

  Light still glowed faintly from the windows of my cabin as I approached it. I dismounted, put Clove up hastily, and then, with a small shiver, hurried past the two coffins to my door. “Hitch, I’ve brought medicine for you,” I called.

  And stopped.

  I didn’t need to cross the room to know he was dead. He lay on my bed, one thin hand stretched out toward me as if pleading for understanding. His face had fallen on his bones, and his jaw hung slack and awry. When I did cross the room and touch him, he was still warm, but it was the fading warmth of a recently vacated chair rather than the warmth of life. Still, I shook him and called his name and even bent to put my ear to his chest, but it was useless. Scout Buel Hitch was gone.

  “Oh, Hitch. What have you done to me?” I asked his empty shell. It offered me no answers.

  He wasn’t a small man, and I was weak with both weariness and despair. Nevertheless, I managed to carry him from my bed back to the cold wooden coffin that awaited him. I draped him again with his sheet, and set the lid once more on the box. Then for a time I stood there, staring down at it and wondering at what moment life became death. I set my hand briefly on top of his casket but could think of no prayer nor even a final word to utter. He had been wrong at the end. I hated not him but the magic that had poisoned him. I settled for “Good night, Hitch,” and left him there.

  Tired as I was, I still had a hard time bringing myself to lie down on the bed where Hitch had finally died. It seemed slightly macabre and more than a little unlucky to sleep in a dead man’s last bed, but I finally decided that my luck was already so abysmal that I couldn’t worsen it. I thought I would have a hard time falling asleep, for my mind whirled with worries and conflicts, but I think I slept almost as soon as I closed my eyes.

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  I had no dream that night. I awoke when the dawn pried its way though the cracks in my shutters. For a time I lay in my bed, wondering how I’d face this new day. Hitch was dead. I’d never realized how comforted I’d been to know someone else who was as infected with Speck magic as I was. While he had lived, there had been hope to clear my name. That was gone now. If Hoster lived, I’d face a court-martial. I pushed my fear down. I tried not to be the sort of man who would hope for another’s death.

  I washed, cooked, and ate some porridge, and then emerged to a fine summer morning. The sky was an infinite, unclouded blue. Leaves on my hedge fluttered in the early-morning breeze. Birds were singing, and the summer day smelled new and alive. In anyone else’s life, it would have been a beautiful day, rich with promise. I went to fetch my shovel to finish filling in the woman’s grave.

  The lid was crooked on Hitch’s coffin.

  I didn’t have to look inside to know his body had been taken.

  At one time, it would have been a hard decision. That morning, it wasn’t. I carried the empty coffin and lid out to the next available grave, lowered it in, and buried it. By the time Ebrooks and Kesey arrived with the first two corpse wagons of the day, I had Hitch’s coffin covered and had smoothed the mound over the woman I’d buried the night before.

  “Looks like you got an early start on the day’s work,” Kesey observed.

  “Looks like it,” I agreed.



  T he days creaked by on corpse-laden wagons. There was no respite from the parade of death that stopped at my door. Every morning I arose to bodies awaiting burial, and every evening I had to leave the dead in boxes outside my cabin. All day long, the tack-tack-tacking of the coffin makers was a steady counterpoint to the scrape of my shovel as I dug it into the earth. The bodies went from the wagons to coffins and quickly into the waiting graves. Whoever was in charge at Gettys sent us two more men to help cover the graves. The empty holes filled at an alarming rate.

  The gallows humor of the first few days gave way to an unremitting gloom of spirit for all of us. We didn’t talk much. Most of my conversations were with Ebrooks and Kesey, and limited to the logistics of our tasks. How many coffins we had, how much wood was left, how many empty graves, how many coffins filled but unburied, how many bodies in the latest wagonload. I doggedly kept my tally of names, though often enough bodies came to the cemetery with little identification. Still, I logged them in as best I could: Old man, toothless, wearing worn cavalla trousers. Child, female, about five years old, blue dress, dark hair. Mother and infant, in nightwear, mother with red hair. The fourth day was hard for me. It seemed a day of dead children, and the little bodies looked lonely and abandoned, one to a coffin. Worst of all, mourners came that day, doggedly following the corpse wagons like hungry dogs hoping for a final bone. They watched us take the bodies from the cart and set them in the coffins, and their eyes seemed to blame me for taking their children from them. One mother, her eyes bright with fever, insisted that she must comb her little girl’s hair before I could put the lid on. What could I do but let her? She sat the child on her lap for that final grooming, and smoothed her hair and straightened the collar of her little nightshirt before tucking her into the coffin as if it were a truckle bed. Her husband took her away after that, but late that evening, on the final corpse cart of the day, she returned to us. I wished I could have buried her with her child. I kept dreading that I would recognize Amzil or one of her brood, but I was spared that.

  The only body that I selfishly welcomed with relief came on the third day after I’d visited town. Sergeant Hoster arrived with his arms crossed on his chest, his eyes closed, his hair combed, and his face washed. A shiny whistle on a chain was enfolded in his stiff hands. Pinned to his shirt was a note in Epiny’s hand. “Bury him well. He was a good man. ” She’d signed it with a simple “E. ” For her sake, I did just that, though I privately thought that he had deceived her and the other women of the town with a fair face over a foul heart. The brief prayer I said over his grave was to the good god, and not for his mercy on Hoster but that Hoster’s accusations against me might be laid to rest with his bones.

  Occasional mourners brought their own dead to the cemetery or followed the corpse cart. Usually they were parents mourning children. I dreaded to see them come, for I knew the burial they would see would offer them little comfort. There was
no music, no solemn prayers, no bouquets or memorial of any kind, simply the efficient lowering of a coffin into the earth and the shoveling of soil down onto it. Perhaps that was all they came for, to be able to return to Gettys knowing the body of the one they had loved had been safely consigned to the earth.

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  I lost no more bodies to the Specks, and never mentioned to anyone else that Hitch’s body had been taken. Several times Ebrooks or Kesey spoke of how well I guarded the cemetery, for in years past the theft of plague bodies had been a horrific addition to all the other troubles of the plague season. I scarcely felt I deserved their praise, for I had done nothing to deserve it. I had no idea why the Specks were respecting our dead; I only felt vaguely grateful that they did, even as it gave me an ominous sense of impending disaster.

  Sometimes I thought of Hitch and wondered who had come for him and carried him off in the night. I hoped he had his tree and wished him well of it, despite his betrayal of me. I knew only too well the lure of the magic and how strongly it could affect a man’s mind. I told myself that I would never fall as low as Hitch had done. Yet as I looked back over my behavior of the last few months, there was much in it that was reprehensible. The worst, I think, was that I had let my sister suffer uncertainty for so long.

  I threw caution to the winds. I would no longer wait for a secret letter to reach me through Carsina. I wrote Yaril not one, but three letters posting them days apart in the hopes that at least one might get through to her. I told her that I was alive, a soldier, stationed at Gettys, and dealing with the most current outbreak of plague. This I described to her in detail in the hope that she would immediately see how impossible it was for me to send for her. In the closing paragraph, I counseled her to consider all decisions carefully and to be true to her own heart. I hoped it would give her the courage to defy my father and refuse Caulder Stiet. I hoped such advice was not too late.

  Kesey took the letters to town for me and sent them off with the couriers who daily rode west. He also took it upon himself to bring me food from the mess hall each day. It wasn’t especially appetizing; the cook staff was reduced, and the food was usually a cold serving of soup and bread in a dinner pail that had arrived on a wagonful of corpses. But I ate it, and little else. Anyone else would have lost flesh on such a regimen of constant work and reduced food. I changed not at all.

  I didn’t return to town. Much as I longed to see Spink and Epiny, my days were too full of backbreaking labor to make me want to give up a night’s sleep to a long ride there and back. I almost hoped that Epiny or Spink would come out to see me, but I recognized that we lived in dangerous times. I hoped that Epiny’s nursing of Sergeant Hoster had not endangered her pregnancy, and that she was not suffering too much in the endless parade of hot days the summer had brought us. I was grateful that she had the sense to stay home and safe, even as I hungered for the sight of a friendly face and a kind voice. I had not known how much I missed Epiny before that chance encounter.

  All I knew of Gettys was what I heard from Kesey and Ebrooks. Some of it was very bad, for the plague continued to rage as if the hot, dry days fueled it. The sadness that flowed from the forest into the town seemed to deepen. We buried suicides as well as plague victims, people who, having lost loved ones, saw no reason to continue. Kesey and Ebrooks told me tales of sordid crimes, too, of scavengers who robbed the dead left out for the corpse carts, and thieves who robbed homes before the eyes of people too sick to stop them.

  Yet there was news that gave me hope and renewed my faith in my fellows. Gettys was a town that had known plague before, on a yearly basis, and had learned to cope with it. Those who had the plague in years past kept the town running. Several of the stores remained open, though the merchants allowed no one to enter. Customers had to shout their requests from the street, and then deposit the coin to pay for their purchases in a pot of vinegar outside the door before the shopkeepers put their purchases out in the street for them to collect. It sounded like a complicated process, yet most customers were grateful to be able to get supplies at all.

  A different order emerged in the town. Men and women judged too feeble to be employed at any other part of the year were now in demand. These former plague victims could nurse families, care for livestock, and perform other chores for households where the plague was rampant. I saw a different side of Gettys. I had wondered previously why the regiment kept within its ranks so many soldiers who suffered impaired health due to previous bouts of Speck plague. Now I understood, as they became the backbone of the regiment during a time when the hearty and hale were either in hiding from the plague or succumbing to their first bouts of it. The plague that the Specks had thought would drive the Gernians away had, indeed, “winnowed” us, so that those who remained in Gettys were stronger than before. As the people here acquired immunity, they found a niche in the society. Surviving the plague in Gettys actually increased the chance that folk would remain in the town, for only there could they have their yearly season of strength.

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  The town and the fortress had immediately gone under “plague rules” from the time of the first outbreak. Public gatherings were forbidden. Alehouses and taverns closed their doors. Funerals were forbidden for the duration of the plague season. It was forbidden to touch the bodies set out for the corpse carts; only the men designated for that duty could handle the dead. Those men lived apart from the rest of the regiment for that time. Food was set out for them, but neither Ebrooks nor Kesey was permitted to go into the mess hall.

  I suspected Epiny when I heard that the women had organized a system of taking hot meals to homes marked with plague flags. There was a grimmer duty for one crew of men. They knocked daily on the doors of plague houses, and then stepped back into the street to await a response. If there was none, the corpse handlers were dispatched, for it was assumed that the entire family had perished there.

  But for every evidence of adaptation and cooperation, there were horrible instances of failure. A young widow fell ill and before it was discovered that she had died, her infant had starved in his crib. A former prisoner was caught sneaking into the homes of the ill to burgle them of valuables; he was flogged and then hanged in the town square. In times of plague, even relatively petty crimes were punished more drastically, lest others follow the example of the criminals.

  The prisoners lived in conditions far more crowded and unsanitary than the military barracks. The plague burned through the place like wildfire. In the second day of the fever and fluxes, those of the prisoners who could offer resistance had rioted, believing that plague was only in their prison and that their guards were deliberately confining them in a death hole. They’d overcome their guards and almost a hundred had escaped. Several dozen had attacked the town, looting supplies from untended businesses, but most had simply gone to the stables, stolen horses, and ridden off. A lieutenant had rallied a small force of mixed soldiers to reestablish order. The prisoners who had been foolish enough to remain in the town were shot down in the streets, and summarily consigned to the lime pits behind the prison barracks. The ones who had fled were pursued, not for themselves but for the horses they had taken. The pursuit had been successful.

  The upper echelons of our command had been devastated by the plague. Ebrooks told me one day that Major Morson was now in charge, but didn’t know it, as he had sunk into his fever before death bestowed command on him. “But having an unconscious commander isn’t much different from what we’re accustomed to anyway,” he added with sour humor, and I was forced to agree.

  I lost track of time, not just hours but days. The plague season ran together into a time of endless work for me. By the third day, I had become so accustomed to the stench of death and decay that I scarcely needed the vinegar and rag mask, not that it had worked very well in the first place. There came a day when we ran out of both ready graves and materials to make coffins. We did what
was expedient, which was to put one body in each coffin and another on top of the coffin in each grave in the final row of waiting holes. I logged their names as best I could, and told the coffin makers to join me in digging a ditch for mass burial. I was surprised when they grudgingly complied. That night, before I closed my eyes for sleep, I took a small moment of pride in how they, as well as Ebrooks and Kesey, had accepted my leadership. I had no stripe on my sleeve and less seniority than any of them. I recalled with regret how I had angered Colonel Haren. Had he truly considered me for promotion? Well, I thought grimly, the plague was forcing a change in command; I’d have a second chance to impress my superiors when all this was over and I once more knew who they were.

  Nights brought me no rest. The row of unburied dead outside my small cottage was not even contained in coffins anymore, but only in coarse white sacking. The scavengers of the forest ventured forth to feast. I did what I could. I set pitch torches in a protective ring around the bodies. That seemed to keep most of the larger predators away, but nothing seemed to discourage the rats. Often it was only when we went to move the bodies to their grave that the rodents would scamper away, bellies bulging with human flesh. I hated them and killed them when I could.

  The carrion birds had become a constant. Red-wattled croaker birds skirmished with crows over the open-pit graves. They followed the corpse carts and gathered in the trees, watching while we placed the bodies in the pit graves and covered them with a thin layer of quicklime and earth. As soon as we stepped away, the croakers would descend. Kesey brought out a shotgun and killed a dozen of them one day. He tied the bodies to tall stakes and set them around the pit grave. The bird bodies served as a deterrent to the rest of the flock, but they quickly rotted and stank in the hot sun, attracting both buzzing flies and wasps. Worse, they reminded me of the horrible little bird carousel at Rosse’s wedding. The croaker birds seemed especially incensed by Kesey’s murder of their fellows. They recognized him and would dive on him when he was driving the corpse cart, stabbing at his hat and croaking loudly. Every evening, other creatures ventured out of the forest to dig in the newly covered graves. Not even the quicklime we used in the pit graves deterred them completely. Every morning, I made a brief tour of our most recent graves to fill in little tunnels and holes dug during the night. I felt as if I were under siege. My growing hedge, lovely as it was, would never keep out such creatures, and I reluctantly concluded that Colonel Haren had been right; a stone wall was needed.

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