Forest mage, p.8
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       Forest Mage, p.8

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

  My anger gave way to a greater frustration as I tried to find some clothing that would still fit me. When I had left for the academy, I had emptied my room. My mother, ever thoughtful of such things, had hung two of Rosse’s old shirts and a pair of his trousers in my closet, for my use until my traveling clothes could be washed and pressed. When I put them on, I looked ridiculous. The trousers were too short on me as well as far too tight. I had to let my stomach bulge out over the top of them. Both shirts strained on me. I took them off and vindictively threw them on the floor before putting my travel-stained clothes back on. But a glance in my mirror showed me that they were ill-fitting and dirty to boot. The seams in the seat of the trousers looked ready to part. The shirt was already slightly torn at both shoulders, and barely met over my middle.

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  Well, I decided, if I must look silly, I would at least be clean. I retrieved Rosse’s clothes, put them on, wiped the worst of the dust off my boots, and descended the stairs. The house was silent. My mother and sisters seemed to have vanished completely. I did not even hear their voices in a different room. I tapped at the closed door to my father’s study and then walked in. My father was standing with his back to the room, staring out the window. My brother Rosse was there also. He glanced at me and then away, plainly uncomfortable. My father held his silence.

  I broke the silence at last. “Father, you wished me to come to your study?”

  He did not turn around. He did not immediately reply. When he did speak, he seemed to be addressing the trees outside the window. “Your brother’s wedding is scarcely four days away,” he said heavily. “How can you possibly think to undo in four days what sloth and gluttony have accomplished in six months? Did you give a thought to anyone beside yourself when you were allowing your gut to become the size of a washbasin? Do you wish to humiliate your entire family by appearing at a festive occasion in such a state? I am humiliated to think that you have presented yourself thus to the academy, to my brother, and to everyone who knew your name on your journey home. In the good god’s name, Nevare, whatever were you thinking when you allowed yourself to descend to such a state? I sent you off to the academy a fit and able young man, physically suited to be an officer and a soldier. And look what comes back to me less than a year later!”

  His words rattled against me like flung stones. He gave me no opportunity to reply. When he finally turned to face me, I could see that his quiet stance had been a deception. His face was red and the veins stood out in his temples. I dared a glance at my brother. His face was white and he was very still, like a small animal that hopes not to draw the predator’s attention to himself.

  I stood in the focus of my father’s anger with absolutely no idea of how to defend myself. I felt guilty and ashamed of my body, but I honestly could not recall that I had overeaten since I had begun my journey, nor had my pace been what I would call slothful. I spoke the truth. “I have no explanation, sir. I don’t know why I’ve gained so much weight. ”

  The anger in his eyes sharpened. “You don’t? Well, perhaps a three-day fast will refresh an elementary truth for you. If you eat too much, you get fat, Nevare. If you lie about like a slug, you get fat. If you don’t overeat and if you exercise your muscles, you remain trim and soldierly. ”

  He took a breath, obviously to master himself. When he spoke again, his tone was calmer. “Nevare, you disappoint me. It is not just that you have let yourself go; worse is that you try to shrug off the responsibility for it. I must remind myself of your youth. Perhaps the fault is mine; perhaps I should have delayed your entry into the academy until you were more mature, more capable of regulating yourself. Well. ” He sighed, clenched his jaw for a moment and then went on. “That cannot be mended now. But the mess you’ve made of yourself is something I can remedy. We cannot undo it in four days, but we can put a dent in it. Look at me, son, when I speak to you. ”

  I had been avoiding his gaze. Now I brought my eyes back to meet his squarely, trying to mask my anger. If he saw it, he ignored it. “It won’t be pleasant, Nevare. Do it willingly, and prove to me that you are still the son I trained and sent off with such high hopes. I ask only two things of you: Restrict your food and demand performance from your body. ” He paused and seemed to be weighing his options. Then he nodded to himself. “Sergeant Duril has been supervising a crew clearing stones from the land for a new pasture. Go and join them, right now, and I don’t mean to supervise. Start working off that gut. Confine your appetite to water for the rest of this day. Tomorrow, eat as sparingly as you can. We’ll do what we can to trim some of that off you before your brother’s wedding day. ”

  He turned his attention to my brother. “Rosse. Go out to the stables with him, and find him a mule. I won’t have one of the good horses broken down by lugging him over broken terrain. Take him out to the new alfalfa field. ”

  I spoke up. “I think I could find a mule for myself. ”

  “Just do what you are told, Nevare. Trust me. I know what is best for you. ” He sighed heavily, and then with the first hint of kindness I heard from him, he said, “Put yourself in my hands, son. I know what I’m doing. ”

  And that was my welcome home.



  R osse and I rode silently out to the work site. Several times I glanced at my brother, but he was always staring ahead, his face expressionless. I supposed he was as disappointed in me as my father was. We said a perfunctory good-bye, he rode off leading my mule, and I joined my work crew. I didn’t recognize any of the four men, and we didn’t bother with introductions. I simply joined them at the task.

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  The future pasture was on a sunny hillside by a creek. Coarse prairie grass and buckbrush grew there now. The ground was littered with stones, some loose on top of the earth and others nudging up out of the soil. The larger ones had to be moved before a team and plow could break the thin sod. I’d watched our men do this sort of work before, though I’d never bent my back to it myself. It should have been well within my ability, but academy life had softened me. My first hour of prying rocks from their beds and lifting them into a wagon first raised and then broke blisters on my hands. The work was both tedious and demanding.

  We used iron bars to prise the larger stones from the hard earth. Then each had to be lifted, sometimes by two men, and loaded onto a buckboard wagon. When the wagon was full we followed it as the team hauled the stone to the edge of the field. There we unloaded it in a neat line of rock. It became a rough stone wall to mark the edge of the sown pasture. The other men talked and laughed among themselves. They were not rude; they just ignored me. Doubtless they had decided I wouldn’t last long and that there was little point in getting to know me.

  Sergeant Duril was supervising the work. The first time he rode by to check on our crew, I don’t think he recognized me. I was glad to escape his notice. The second time he rode up to ask how many wagonloads of stone we’d hauled since he last spoke to us, he stared at me and then visibly startled.

  “You. Come here,” he commanded me roughly. He didn’t dismount, but rode his horse a short distance while I walked beside him. When we were out of earshot of the work crew, he pulled in and looked down at me. “Nevare?” he asked, as if he could not believe his eyes.

  “Yes. It’s me. ” My voice came out flat and defensive.

  “What in the good god’s name have you done to yourself?”

  “I’ve got fat,” I said bluntly. I was already tired of explaining it. Or rather, I was tired of not being able to explain it. No one seemed able to believe that it had simply happened and that I had not brought it on myself by sloth and greed. I was beginning to wonder about that myself. How had this befallen me?

  “So I see. But not in a way I’ve ever seen a lad put on weight! A little gut from too much beer, that I’ve seen on many a trooper. But you’re fat all over! Your face, your arms, e
ven the calves of your legs!”

  I hadn’t stopped to consider that. I wanted to look down at my body, to see if it was truly so, but suddenly felt too ashamed. I looked away from him, across the flat plain that soon would be a pasture. I tried to think of something to say, but the only words that came were, “My father has sent me out here to work. He says hard work and short rations will trim me down before Rosse’s wedding. ”

  His silence seemed long. Then he said, “Well, a man can only do so much in a few days, but the intention is what matters. You’re stubborn, Nevare. I would never have imagined that you’d let yourself go like this, but I know that if you’re determined to get back to what you were, you’ll do it. ”

  I couldn’t think of any response to that, and after a short time, he said, “Well, I have to finish my round of the crews. Your da says that a year from now, this will all be alfalfa and clover. We’ll see. ”

  Then he tapped his horse and rode off. I walked back to the work crew. They had been loitering, watching us talk. I went back to levering up stones and loading them on the wagon. They didn’t ask any questions, and I didn’t volunteer anything.

  We worked the rest of the day, until Duril rode past again and gave the sign for quitting time. We still had to unload the rock we had on the wagon at the fence line. Then we all rode on the wagon back to my father’s manor house. The other men went off to the help’s quarters. I entered the back door of the house and went up to my room.

  I blessed my mother when I arrived there. She had left out wash water and towels, and some of my old clothes, along with an old pair of Plains sandals. I could see that she had hastily let out the seams of the trousers and shirt as far as they could go. I washed. When I dressed, I found that my old clothes were still snug on me, but they were bearable and far more presentable than Rosse’s castoffs had been.

  I had come in late and the rest of the family was already at dinner. I was in no hurry to join them. Instead, I crept into my sister Yaril’s room.

  My father had always said that vanity was too costly a vice for any soldier to afford. In my own room, I had a mirror large enough for shaving, and that was all. My sisters, on the other hand, were expected to be continually aware of their appearances. They each had full-length mirrors in their bedrooms. When I stood in front of Yaril’s, I had a shock.

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  Duril was right. The weight I had put on was distributed all over me, like thick frosting on a cake. No wonder others had been reacting to me so strangely. No part of me had escaped. As I stared at my face, I was certain that instead of losing weight on my journey home, I’d added to it. This was not the face I’d seen in my shaving mirror at the academy. My cheeks were round and jowly, and my chin was padded. My eyes looked smaller, as if they were set closer together. My neck looked shorter.

  The rest of my body was even more distressing. My shoulders and back were rounded with fat, to say nothing of my chest and belly. My gut was more than a paunch; it was starting to hang. My thighs were heavy. Even my calves and ankles looked swollen. I lifted a fat hand to cover my mouth and felt cowardly tears start in my eyes. What had I done to myself, and how? I could not grasp the changes the mirror showed me. Since I’d left Old Thares, I’d ridden each day and my meals had been ordinary ones. How could this be happening?

  Prior to looking in the mirror, I had planned to go down and join my family at the dinner table, if only for talk. Now I did not. I hated what I had become and heartily endorsed my father’s plan. I went to the kitchen, intending to get a mug of water. A kitchenmaid and a cook stared at me, surprised, and then looked aside. Neither spoke to me, and I ignored them. The sight of a bucket of fresh milk temporarily overwhelmed my resolve to fast, and I took a mug of that instead. I drank it down thirstily, and yearned for more. Instead, I contented myself with plain water. I drank mug after mug of it, trying to assuage the feeling of emptiness in my belly. It felt as if the liquid splashed into a void. At last I could drink no more, and yet felt no fuller. I left the kitchen and went upstairs to my room.

  There, I sat on the edge of the bed. There was little else for me to do. I had emptied my room before I left for the academy. I had my schoolbooks and my journal from my panniers, but little else. Doggedly I sat down and made a complete entry in my journal. Afterward I sat with no refuge from my nagging hunger or my dismal evaluation of myself.

  I could not recall that I had changed any habit that would lead to this result. I had eaten the same rations allotted to any man at the academy mess, and done the same marching. How had I swollen up to this toadish size? Belatedly, it occurred to me that I’d never seen Gord eat more than what was portioned to us at the mess, and yet his bulk had persisted. I had to wonder if mine would do the same. In sudden fear, I resolved it would not. I had three days before Rosse’s wedding, three days before Carsina and her family would arrive to be guests. I had three days to do something about my appearance before I was disgraced before all our friends. I firmly resolved that not a morsel of food would pass my lips for those days, and yet oh, how I ached with hunger. I rose abruptly, determined to go for a brisk walk to distract myself. Standing up quickly woke every aching muscle in my back and legs. I gritted my teeth and left the room.

  I didn’t wish to face anyone. I stood silently in the hallway for a few moments, confirming that my father and Rosse were in his study. My father was talking, his words indistinguishable but his disapproval plain. Obviously Rosse was hearing a lecture on all the ways I had failed the family. I strode quickly past the door of the music room. I heard Elisi’s harp and recalled that often my mother and sisters gathered there to play music or read poetry after dinner. I opened the front door quietly and slipped out into the Widevale night.

  My father had created an oasis of trees around his house. It was an island of illusion, a way to pretend that we did not live far from civilization on the endless sweep of prairie. Over one hundred carefully nurtured trees cut the wind and screened a nearly flat vista. My father had even had water piped up from the river to form a little pond and fountain for my sisters’ pleasure in their private garden. The soft splashing drew me toward their bower.

  I followed a graveled pathway through an arched gateway. The latticework I had helped to erect years ago was now completely cloaked in vines. Small night lamps with glass chimneys hung from the branches of a golden willow, illuminating their silver reflections in the pond’s surface. I sat down on the edge of the stone-banked pool and peered into the dark water to see if the ornamental fish had survived.

  “Planning to eat one?”

  I turned in shock. I had never heard my sister Yaril sound so sarcastic and cruel. We had always been close as children. She had not only been my faithful correspondent while I was at school, but she had also managed to smuggle Carsina’s letters to me, so that we might carry on a private correspondence away from our parents’ supervision. She was sitting on a wrought-iron bench under a graceful trellis of pampered honeysuckle. Her dove-gray dress had blended her into the shadows when first I approached the pond. Now she leaned out into the light, and anger hardened her face. “How could you do this to us? I am going to be so humiliated at Rosse’s wedding. And poor Carsina! This is certainly not what she was anticipating! The last two weeks, she has been so excited and happy. She even chose her dress color to go well with your uniform. And you come home looking like this!”

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  “It’s not my fault!” I retorted.

  “Oh? Then who has been stuffing food down your throat, I’d like to know?”

  “It’s…I think it has something to do with the Speck plague. ” The words jumped out of my mouth as quickly as the idea had suddenly come into my mind. On the surface, it seemed a silly thing to say. Everyone knew that Speck plague was a wasting disease. But the moment I said it aloud, odd bits of memories suddenly fell into an accusing pattern. A long-ago conversation I’d overhead between Rosse
and my father combined with the dour words of the Fat Man in the carnival freak show tent in Old Thares. He’d claimed he’d once been a cavalla soldier until the plague had ruined him. Even Dr. Amicas’s fascination with my weight gain now took on a darker significance.

  But those seemed trivial clues compared to words recalled from a dream. Tree Woman had encouraged my Speck self to gorge himself on the magical essence of dying people. I suddenly recalled how I had seen myself in that dream; I’d been full-bellied and heavy-legged. Tree Woman herself was an immense woman. In my dreams, my arms could not encompass the rich curves of her body. I felt a disturbing flash of arousal at that memory and thrust it from me, but not before I heard like a whisper in my ear, “Eat and grow fat with their magic. ” I stood absolutely still, my every sense straining, but all that came to my ears was the gentle splashing of the water and the shivering of the leaves in the evening wind. They were followed by my sister’s snort of disdain.

  “Do you think I’m a fool, Nevare? I may have had to stay here and be tutored by some silly old woman from Old Thares while you were sent off to the grand city to learn at your fine school, but I’m not stupid. I’ve seen men who have had Speck plague! And one and all, they have been thin as rails. That is what the Speck plague does to a man. Not fatten him like a hog raised for bacon. ”

  “I know what I know,” I said coldly. It was a brotherly remark, one that I’d often used to end our childhood arguments. But Yaril was no longer the innocent little golden-haired sister I’d left behind almost a year ago. She would no longer be cowed by a simple assertion of superior knowledge.

  She merely sniffed and replied, “And I know what I know! And that is that you are as fat as a hog and you’re going to humiliate all of us at Rosse’s wedding. What will Remwar’s family think of me, having such a brother? Will they fear that I, too, will inflate like a bladder? I was hoping that this wedding might be a chance for me to make a good impression on his parents, so that his offer for my hand might become formal. But they won’t even see me. I’ll be eclipsed behind you!”

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