Forest mage, p.72
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       Forest Mage, p.72

         Part #2 of The Soldier Son Trilogy series by Robin Hobb
 
Page 267

 

  I had not slept well any night since Olikea and I had quarreled. I still dreamed of her, and dreamed too of the wondrous foods from that “other side. ” But I couldn’t quite reach them. I walked there, but I walked there knowing it was a dream. The food I ate in those dreams was substanceless and unsatisfying. I would see Olikea, but always at a distance. If I called to her, she did not turn her head. If I followed her, as I inevitably did in those dreams, I could never catch up with her.

  The days became weeks, and then a month. We toiled on, barely able to keep ahead of the dead. The stink of decay and the burning of lye in my nostrils became one sensation in my mind. Even when I heated water and washed with soap, I could not cleanse the smells of my profession away. The lime we sprinkled in the ditch graves drifted and made raw patches on my skin. Worst of all was the terrible hunger that burned in me constantly now that I no longer had the forest foods that Olikea had brought me. The food I ate should have been enough to sustain me; instead it was not even a taunt to the deeper hunger that devoured me from within.

  And in the midst of death and stench and plague, summer blossomed around us. The days were lovely, long and bright under blue skies. Butterflies danced above the flowers I had moved into the graveyard, and songbirds sang in the trees at the edge of the forest. My “hedge” flourished, and smaller bushes sprang up in the shade my little trees provided.

  The bony hands of the plague respected neither age nor rank. We filled one ditch grave and started another. We buried tiny babies and old men, delicate little girls and brawny men. That long hot day had brought the body of Dale Hardy. He was the rowdy who had put himself forth as the man to give me a beating the day that Carsina had said such foul things about me. The plague had taken him down swiftly, Ebrooks told me. He hadn’t lingered to die of the fever but had choked to death on his own vomit the first day he sickened. I thought of how he had stood in the street and threatened me that day. I could have taken satisfaction in his death. Instead I only pitied him, felled in his prime so ignominiously.

  It was late afternoon when we finished filling the second ditch. In an obscene way, it reminded me of watching the cook in my father’s kitchen layer ingredients into a casserole. Instead of meat and gravy and potatoes and carrots, we layered bodies and lime and earth and bodies and lime and earth until we finally mounded earth over the whole of it.

  “That’s it,” I decided when the mound was patted smooth as a pie crust. I took my vinegar mask from my face and wiped my brow with it. With the last bodies covered, the air smelled almost clean. “That’s enough for today, boys. Tomorrow we’ll dig a fresh ditch and begin again. ”

  “Pray the good god that it’s the last pit this season,” Kesey suggested, and “Amen,” both of my carpenters-turned-gravediggers responded.

  “It has to stop soon. Doesn’t it?” I asked them.

  “It’ll stop when it stops,” Kesey replied. “The rains always end it. But sometimes it stops sooner. I heard a rumor in town about some special water that might cure it. Some spring water that a doctor back west has been trying on people. The courier that brought the news said he’d heard from the courier before him that they were trying to get some to us here, before the end of the plague season, to see if it really worked or not. ”

  “Did you hear the doctor’s name?” I asked, wondering if Spink had written to Amicas and if he had acted on it.

  Kesey shrugged and shook his head. We had shouldered our shovels and were making our way back to the tool shed when we heard a sound we all dreaded: the clop and creak of a team pulling a laden wagon up the hill to the cemetery. “Can’t they just stop dying for one day?” Kesey asked me pathetically.

  “I think they would if they could,” I replied, and one of my diggers smiled grimly.

  “Those poor devils will just have to lie bare under the moonlight for tonight,” Kesey observed, and I shrugged. It would not be the first time that shrouded bodies had had to wait for a fresh grave. But like Kesey, I prayed it might be the last.

  Ebrooks was the driver. He got down stiffly from the cart. “You boys had better help me unload if you want to ride back to town,” he suggested, and we began our grim task. There were seven of them. Ebrooks, knowing my insistence, handed me a list of names. I thrust them into my pocket and helped the other men drag the corpses from the cart. Three men, a boy, and three women we laid out side by side. Kesey had brought a fresh supply of pitch torches from town. Ebrooks helped me set up a circle of them around the unburied bodies. Then the others climbed up on the wagon, bade me farewell, and headed back to town as the long-awaited night began to flow across the land. I hoped it would bring a little coolness with it. I kindled the torches. They burned straight, nearly unwavering, in the calm summer evening.

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  I went back to my cabin, washed my face and hands, drank deeply, and then turned to the cold meal Kesey had brought me. There was bread and meat and cheese. It was good enough food, and I devoured it hungrily but as usual felt no satisfaction in it. It was only food, and I’d learned that the hunger that burned me most was not a hunger for food. I forced myself to set aside a portion to break my fast the next day, and left my table as hungry as when I’d sat down.

  I washed up my few dishes and set them aside. With a sigh, I took out what had become a ledger. I opened it to the current page, and unfolded the scrap of paper that Ebrooks had given me. He was not a lettered man; most often he depended on the family of the dead or whoever was on duty at the infirmary to write down the names for him. Sometimes there was only a tally mark on the page. I entered the names as he had given them to me. They’d go into a ditch grave tomorrow; there was little point any more in worrying about the order in which I wrote them down. And so I logged Eldafleur Sims, Coby Tarn, Rufus Lear, Joffra Keel, A Retired Soldier, Carsina Thayer—

  I set down my pen. I looked at the name on the list, and the name my hand had so obligingly written. Hadn’t my Carsina been betrothed to a Captain Thayer? My nervous fingers scrabbled lightly against the tabletop. Carsina Grenalter. Carsina Thayer. Many couples wed hastily in the face of the plague. My friend at the academy, Gord, had done so. It seemed likely that Carsina had wed her handsome captain. No matter how foolish or shallow the attraction had been, Carsina had meant something to me. My first romance, and my first heartbreak. And today her body had been unloaded from a corpse cart and somehow I hadn’t even noticed. I rubbed my face and took up my pen again. Reddik Koverton was the last name, and I carefully entered it into the ledger. I blew on the ink to dry it and then closed it.

  Did I want to look on her again, dead?

  No. Of course not.

  Yes.

  However we had parted, whatever I had discovered about her, she had been my sister’s friend, a longtime friend of my family, and the first girl I’d ever kissed. Her love letters to me at the academy were still bundled in with my soldier son’s journal. Tears found their way to my weary eyes. I wouldn’t bury her in a ditch, with strangers tumbled beside her and lime eating away her flesh. I’d dig her a separate grave myself; she would not lie in a common hole.

  I put my face in my hands and sat like that at my table for a time. I knew that I was going to go out to look at her tonight. I could not decide if I was motivated by sentiment or morbid curiosity. It probably didn’t matter. I took my lantern and went out into the darkness.

  The circle of torches still burned. Nonetheless, I heard a squeak of alarm and then a rustling as I approached. Rats. I held my lantern high as I entered my torch circle. The seven bodies lay as we had left them. Of the three women, only one could be Carsina. I knew her by a single blonde curl that had escaped her shroud. Unlike the others, she was not wrapped in coarse white sacking. A fine fabric enveloped her, white linen with white lace worked along the edge of it, and someone had wound the sheet around her with care. I went down on one knee beside her and reached a hand toward
her face. Then I drew my hand back. It wasn’t that I feared to see how the disease had ravaged her. I suddenly felt that I intruded. Someone had lovingly prepared her for the grave; who was I to loosen that cloth and look into a dead face that no longer belonged to me? Her name on the papers indicated that she had been a married woman at her death. I should respect that. I bowed my head and asked the good god to guide her into peace. Then I said simply, “Good night, Carsina. ” I went back to my cabin.

  It was a warm night. The little cook fire in my hearth was down to a few coals. I gave it another two sticks of wood, more for the company of its light than for any other reason, sat down at my table again, and made my day’s entry in my journal. I closed it and put it away. Too tired to change, I lay down on my bed in my earth-stained clothes. For a time, I watched the shadows mirror the dance of my little fire in the corners of my ceiling. I thought of the women I’d loved in my life, not just Carsina and Tree Woman, but my mother and sisters and Epiny, even Amzil. I tried to work out why I’d loved each one and which sorts of love were real, but came to no solid conclusions. I’d been born to love my mother and sisters, and perhaps I had to include Epiny on that list as well. Tree Woman I’d loved; I knew that without knowing the details of how my other self had bonded to her. I loved her still, in that other place. Amzil I loved perhaps for no better reason than that I thought she needed someone to love her. I even thought of poor, unfortunate Fala. We’d shared no more than an evening of closeness. Did the brevity of that relationship mean that I couldn’t call it love? It had certainly been something beyond lust.

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  And Olikea? Yes. I loved her. Not as a good Gernian loves his good Gernian wife, not with romance and vows and a shared hearth until the end of my days. I loved her as I had come to love her forest, as a thing that gave me delight but never offered me mastery or any degree of control. I had no partnership with Olikea. She did not want me to provide for her or protect her. On the contrary, she had seen herself in the role of provider. I wondered if we could ever truly know one another, and concluded the opportunity for that was gone. I’d forsaken her in this world, and she’d turned away from me in that other world. We knew remarkably little of one another. But did I really know any more of Amzil than I did of her? I knew Amzil better only in that we shared a culture. She was still as great a mystery to me as Olikea was.

  The shadows were fading as my fire died. I repeated my prayer for Carsina, and added one for my mother and Elisi as well. I thought of the women who had passed beyond my reach and the women who remained to me, and resolved that I would treat Epiny, Amzil, and Yaril better while I had the opportunity to do so. On that thought, I turned my lamp wick down as low as it would go and closed my eyes for sleep.

  Perhaps my evening thoughts had paved the way to her. I dreamwalked strongly that night, and my footsteps led me not in pursuit of Olikea, but to a stump in the old forest. The tree that had grown up from the fallen trunk of Tree Woman’s tree stood straight and tall. I now recognized that my hedge trees were of the same kind, and that they were growing very well indeed; I touched it fondly, and felt an echo of Tree Woman’s presence. I walked slowly to the stump and sat down with my back to it. “I miss you, Lisana. I miss you terribly. ”

  “Oh, you are a cruel one,” she rebuked me, but still she reached to take my hand. “To call me at last by my name at such a time. Did you know how hearing that from your lips would wring my heart? But it is too late, Soldier’s Boy. I can do nothing to spare you from what is to come. You’ve brought it on yourself. Still, if I could, I would save you somehow. ”

  She was not there in the old way she had once been. She was a dream within a dream. I could feel the warmth of her hands around mine, but I could not enfold them. When I turned to embrace her, I felt only the rough bark of her fallen tree’s trunk. I drew back from her. If I could not touch her, at least I could see her. She was in the first guise in which I’d ever seen her. She was an immensely fat woman in her middle years. Her streaky hair tangled against the bark of her tree as if it were tendrils uniting her with it. And, of course, they were. Her eyes smiled at me; they remained unchanged regardless of what guise she showed me. And I discovered that truly her body no longer mattered to me. She was as dear to me in this form as she had been in those unremembered times when we had first come together. She had folded her hands on top of her ample belly. Her hands reminded me of little cat’s feet. They were small, and the skin on the back of them was sooty dark, fading to a lighter speckling on her forearms. I wanted to kiss them; the most I could do was hover my hand over hers, feeling a ghost warmth. “Why aren’t you here?” I demanded.

  She smiled in a bittersweet way. “Someone used iron magic here, and cut down my tree. It fell in both worlds; you have noticed this, perhaps?”

  I lowered my eyes in shame. “But it did not kill you. ”

  “No. But it weakened me. A hundred years from now, perhaps I shall have a quarter of the strength I once had. Then, perhaps, we can kiss and touch as we used to. ”

  “It seems a very long time to wait. ”

  She nodded, not in agreement but confirming her own thoughts. “And that is where our worlds do not align, Soldier’s Boy. A hundred years from now, if our people prevail, the soil here will be a bit deeper, the girth of the trees will be greater, and little else will have changed. The same flowers will bloom, the same pollen will drift, and the same butterflies will float among the foliage. I am happy to wait a hundred years for that. What will be here if the intruders prevail, Soldier’s Boy? What will you wait a hundred years to see?”

  I thought of the Gernian answer to that. A wide road up into and through the Barrier Mountains would lead to the land beyond and eventually the sea. The king was open about his ambition. Those lands were largely unsettled. Gernia could have a new seacoast with access to trade. Goods would flow from the eastern seaboard into Gernia. There would be growth and prosperity. New farms, burgeoning towns. None of that was bad. But I could no longer say with certainty that it was better than what was here now.

  “People could live in prosperity and peace. The Specks would benefit from the trade. They would have everything they need. ”

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  She puffed her cheeks lightly at me. “We already have everything we need, Soldier’s Boy. And we still have our forest and the ancestral trees. When we have lost our shady places and the land that loves us has been cut wide open to the sunlight, will we truly have everything we need? Or will we simply have the things that you think we need?”

  I couldn’t think of a response. A slight breeze or a ghost hand stirred my hair. I lifted my eyes to look into hers and asked, “What do you think I should do, then?”

  “You know what I think. You have known from the beginning what I think. ”

  “You say I should do what the magic wants me to do. And you say I should have done it by now. You’ve told me that over and over. But I truly don’t know what that means. ”

  “Perhaps the magic does not speak to you more clearly because you have avoided it so earnestly. Perhaps if you had not resisted its efforts to fill you, perhaps if you had come more promptly to its calling, you would know what you were to do. Now, I fear, it is too late for you to seek the magic. ”

  “What do you mean?”

  “I mean that I feel the magic reaching out to take you, Soldier’s Boy. ”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Just what I said! Always you ask me, what do you mean? You hear my words. When you don’t understand them, it is because you do not wish to understand them. It is the same way that you resist the magic. Why?”

  I didn’t even have to think of a reply. “Perhaps I want to have my own life, the way I envisioned it, the way it was promised to me! Lisana, from the time I was small, I was raised to be a soldier. I expected to go to the academy, to be well educated, to become an officer and distinguish myself in battle, to
have a lovely wife and children, and eventually to return to my home and retire with honor. The magic took all of that away from me. And what has it given me? A fat body that is awkward and ugly to live in. A power that comes and goes, that I don’t know how to use or control. What good has it done me?”

  She looked at me sadly for a moment. She lifted her arms as if to display her body to me. “Awkward and ugly,” she said, and when she took the words to herself, it cut like a knife that I had uttered them.

  “I didn’t mean—” I cried out, but “Hush!” she scolded me. “I do not pretend that I don’t understand what you say! I know what you meant. What good has the magic done you, you asked. I could say that through it, you came to know me. And that you have come to know the forest in a way you never could have before. But the real answer is that the magic is not for your good, and so it does not matter if it does things that make you happy or not. ” She cocked her head at me slightly. “Don’t you remember, Soldier’s Boy? I held you over the abyss and told you that you must choose. I told you that you must say you wished to be taken up to this life. And you said you did, and I brought you here. ”

  “But I did not know what I was choosing. I only knew that I feared to die. ”

  “None of us ever know what we are choosing when we choose life. If certainty is so important to you, than you should have chosen to be dead. That is a certain thing. ”

  “Look at the life I am leading, Lisana. I’m a soldier in name only; what I truly am is a gravedigger. Tomorrow I am going to bury the woman I was once supposed to marry. Did you know that? How cruel a fate is that? For her, as well as for me, because if the magic had not intervened in my life, I am sure Carsina would be safe at her home and awaiting me still. I am lonely and alone, my body hampers me, I am always hungry—”

 
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