Forest mage, p.9
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       Forest Mage, p.9
 

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

  “I didn’t choose this, Yaril. You might stop for one moment to think of my feelings. ” All the resentment I felt at my father’s harsh treatment of me was blossoming into fury at Yaril’s childish concern for her dignity. “You’re such a selfish little girl. Every letter you sent me, you begged me for gifts. And fool that I am, I sent them. And now that I’ve returned home after nearly dying in the filthy city, you disdain me because of my physical appearance. A fine welcome I’ve received from any of you! The only one who has shown one jot of sympathy for my situation is Mother!”

  “And why shouldn’t she?” Yaril flashed back at me. “You were always her favorite! And now that you’ve ruined yourself for being a soldier, she can keep you here with her always! Carsina won’t have you, fat as a hog, and when she looks around, she and her family will take Remwar away from me! He was her father’s first choice for her anyway. You’ve ruined it for everyone, Nevare, you selfish pig!”

  Before I could even reply to that, she played a woman’s trump card. She burst into tears and then ran off into the darkness, sobbing into her hands. “Yaril!” I called after her. “Come back here! Yaril, come back!”

  But she did not, and I was left standing alone by the stupid fish pond that I’d helped to build. At the time it had seemed like an enchanting concept. Now I saw it for the folly it was. The fish pond and fountain were completely at odds with the land that surrounded us. To build something that could not be sustained save by daily effort was a vanity and a waste and an insult to the beauty of the true nature that surrounded us. What had seemed a shady retreat from the harsh plains that surrounded our home now seemed foolish self-indulgence.

  I sank down onto Yaril’s bench and considered the words she had flung at me. She’d been angry and she’d used her best ammunition to wound me. But how much of it was true? Would Carsina ask her father to break his agreement with my father? I tried to worry about it, but a wave of hunger washed through me, leaving me feeling both nauseous and hollow. I rocked forward over my belly and embraced it as if it were an ally instead of my enemy.

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  I was in that undignified posture when I heard a light footstep on the pathway. I straightened up and prepared for battle, but it wasn’t Yaril returning. Instead it was my mother, holding a lantern to guide her steps as she came softly down the walk.

  “There you are,” she said when she saw me. “Why didn’t you come down to dinner?” Her tone was gentle.

  “I thought it better to stay away. ” I tried to make my voice jovial. “As you can see, perhaps I’ve had too many dinners of late. ”

  “Well. I won’t deny that your appearance surprised me. But I did miss you. I’ve scarcely had a chance to speak to you. And…” She hesitated a moment and then went on delicately, “I do need you to return to the house and come to my sewing room with me. ”

  I stood, grateful for an ally. “Are you going to let out my cadet uniform to fit me?”

  She smiled but shook her head. “Nevare, that is simply impossible. There isn’t enough fabric to let out, and even if I could, it would show badly. No, my son. But I have several folds of a very nice blue fabric, and if I put the seamstresses to work on it tonight, we should have something presentable by the wedding. ”

  My heart sank at the thought that I was hopelessly too large for my uniform, but I squared my shoulders to bear the truth. Presentable. My mother would help me, and I would not look ridiculous at my brother’s wedding. “Seamstresses?” I asked, keeping my voice light. “When did we become so prosperous as to employ seamstresses?”

  “Since your brother decided to wed. The decision has little to do with prosperity and more to do with necessity. I sent for two from the west two months ago. I was fortunate that I did, for between making new curtains and hangings and bedclothes for your brother’s chambers and ensuring that the entire family would have wedding clothes as well as ball gowns for your sisters, well! It would be impossible for your sisters and me to do that much sewing in such a short time and still have time for all the other preparations. ”

  She led the way, holding her little lantern up to guide us. I watched my mother’s trim figure as she stepped lightly along and I suddenly felt monstrous and misshapen, like some great beast hulking after her. The house was quiet as we went down the hall to her sewing room. I imagined that my father and Rosse had settled down to quieter talk and that Elisi had gone off to bed. I thought of mentioning that I’d spoken with Yaril and she’d run off in tears, but my old habit of protecting my little sister was still strong. My mother would scold her for being outside at this hour on her own. Annoyed as I was at Yaril, I still had no desire to get her in trouble. I let it go.

  I had a very uncomfortable session in the sewing room as my mother measured me and jotted down her notes. She frowned as she did so, and I knew that she tried not to be shocked. As she was measuring my waist, my stomach rumbled loudly, and she actually jumped back from me. Then she laughed nervously and went back to her task. When she was finished, she said worriedly, “I hope I have enough blue fabric. ”

  A pang of hunger cramped me. When it passed, I said, “Carsina was particularly hoping that I would wear my uniform to the wedding. ”

  “And how would you know that?” my mother asked with a sly smile. Then she quietly added, “Don’t even hope for that, Nevare. In truth, I think we shall have to have a new uniform made for you when you go back. I don’t know how you managed to wear the one you brought home. ”

  “It fit me when I left the academy. Well, it was tight, but I could still put it on. Mother, I truly don’t understand what is happening to me. I’ve traveled hard and eaten no more than I ordinarily would, but even since I left the academy, I’ve put on flesh. ”

  “It’s that starchy food they feed you at that school. I’ve heard about places like that, trying to save money by feeding the students cheap food. It’s probably all potatoes and bread and—”

  “It’s not the food, Mother!” I cut in almost roughly. “I’ve only gained this weight since I recovered from the plague. I think that somehow the two are connected. ”

  She stopped speaking abruptly, and I felt I had been rude to her, though I had not intended to. She rebuked me gently for lying. “Nevare, every young man that I’ve ever seen who has recovered from the plague has been thin as a rack of bones. I don’t think we can blame this on your illness. I do think that a long convalescence such as you had, with many hours in bed with little to do save eat and read, could change a man. I said as much to your father, and asked him not to be so harsh with you. I cannot promise you that he will heed me, but I did ask. ”

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  I wanted to shout that she wasn’t listening to me. With difficulty, I restrained myself and said only, “Thank you for being my advocate. ”

  “I always have been, you know,” she said quietly. “Now when you finish your work tomorrow, take care to wash well and then come here for a fitting. The ladies will be here to help me then. ”

  I took a deep breath. My anger was gone, consumed in a dark tide of dejection. “I shall take care to be clean and inoffensive,” I told her. “Good night, Mother. ”

  She reached up to kiss me on the cheek. “Don’t despair, son. You have confronted what is wrong, accepted it, and now you can change it. From this day forth, things can only improve. ”

  “Yes, Mother,” I replied dutifully, and left her there. My stomach was clenching so desperately with hunger pangs that I felt nauseous. I did not go up to my room, but went to the kitchens instead. I worked the hand pump at the sink until cooler water came, and then drank as much as I could bear. If anything, it made me more miserable.

  I went up to my room and tried to sleep until just before dawn. I was standing with the rest of the crew when the wagon came for us, and went out for another day’s work. The catalogue of my misery: blisters, hunger, aches, nausea, and, roiling beneath it all, a sens
e of bewilderment and outrage at the injustice of life.

  By the second half of the day, I was staggering. When the rest of the work crew broke out their simple packets of meat and bread for their noon meal, I had to walk away from them. My sense of smell had become acute, and my stomach bellowed its emptiness at me. I wanted to wrestle the food away from them and devour it. Even after they had consumed it all and I came back for my share of the water, it was difficult to be courteous. I could smell the food on their breaths when we huffed and strained to lift the larger rocks, and it tormented me.

  When we finally received the signal to quit, my legs were like jelly. I did not do my fair share at the final unloading of the wagon. I saw the other men exchange glances over it and felt ashamed. I staggered back to the wagon and barely managed to climb aboard.

  When the wagon dropped us off, the other men strode toward the town. I tottered up the drive and into the back door of the house. I had to pass the kitchen. The air was thick with wonderful smells; the cook had begun to prepare the special cakes and breads for the wedding. I hurried away from that torture. My father had not told me to fast entirely. I could, I knew, have a small meal. But that thought seemed a weakness and a betrayal of my determination to change. Fasting wouldn’t kill me, and I would return to my normal self that much sooner.

  The steps to my room seemed long and steep, and once there all I wanted to do was curl up around my miserable belly. Instead, I stepped into the low tub that had been left for me and washed myself standing. I stank. Now that I was heavier, I sweated more and the sweat lingered in every fold of my flesh. Left too long, the perspiration made a scald mark on my skin, painful to touch.

  Rosse’s old clothes, freshly washed and newly let out, awaited me. They felt tight and awkward against my damp skin. My cadet haircut had begun to grow out. I toweled it dry and then, mindful of embarrassing my mother, I shaved before I went down to her sewing room.

  My mother awaited me with the two seamstresses. The last time I’d been measured for clothing, the tailor had done it and I had been fit and trim. It was inexpressibly humiliating to undress to my small clothes and then have three women hold pieces of fabric against me, pinning the parts together around me. One seamstress glanced at my belly and rolled her eyes in disdain at the other seamstress. I went hot with a blush. They pinned my new clothing around me, stood back, consulted like hens clucking in a barnyard, and again surrounded me, moving pins and having me turn and lift my arms and raise my knees. The fabric was a very somber dark blue, nothing at all like the brave green of my cadet uniform. By the time I retired behind a screen to get dressed again, I felt that nothing worse could happen to me.

  I climbed up the endless stairs to my room. With grim determination, I decided to avoid the dinner table entirely. I did not think I could withstand the wonderful aromas of cooked food. I went to bed.

  In my dream, I was my other self, and I was ravenously hungry. I recalled with sorrow all of the magic that had been wasted at the Dancing Spindle. I was proud that I had halted the Spindle’s dance and ended the Plainsmen’s magic, but I regretted that I had not been able to absorb more of it into myself. It was a bizarre dream, filled with the elation of triumph underpinned with a grating hunger for foods that would properly nourish my magic. I woke at dawn still feeling both hungry and vaguely triumphant. The first I could understand; the later made me feel ashamed. I shook the cobwebs from my head and faced my day.

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  That day was a repeat of the previous one, only more miserable. I felt dull and weak. I was late to meet the wagon, and it took a great effort for me to lever myself up into the back of it. Terrible hunger cramps wracked me. My head pounded. I crossed my arms on my stomach and slumped over them.

  When we reached the field and the wagon stopped, I jumped down with the others, only to have my legs fold under me. The rest of the crew laughed, and I forced myself to join in. I staggered upright and took my levering bar from the back of the wagon. It felt twice as heavy as it had the day before, but I set to work. I tried to jab it into the hard soil at the edge of an embedded stone, but it only skipped across the surface. I wanted to shout with frustration. I felt no strength in my arms. I used my weight instead, and spent a miserable morning. After a time, I got my second wind. The nagging of my hunger receded slightly. My muscles warmed up, and I devoted myself to doing my share of the work. I still walked apart from the men when they took out their noon packets of food. My sense of smell had become a special torment. My nose told me all that my mouth was forbidden to taste, and my saliva ran until I thought I would drown in it.

  I tried to remind myself that this was not the first time I had fasted, or even the longest time. Certainly in my days with Dewara, I had eaten very sparsely and still retained a leathery energy in my body. I was at a loss to explain why I now suffered so acutely when I had previously been able to discipline myself and endure. I came to a reluctant conclusion. I had lost self-discipline at the academy. From there, I had to make the next logical assumption: that I had brought this on myself. It was foolish for me to go on insisting that since I had only eaten what had been placed before me, I had no culpability for what I had become. It did not matter that my fellow cadets had not gained weight as I had. Obviously what was enough for them had been too much for me. Why had I stubbornly resisted seeing that? Hadn’t the doctor attempted to point that out to me when he so carefully asked me what I’d been eating and how much? Why hadn’t I taken alarm then, and cut down on my food?

  My father was right.

  I had only myself to blame.

  Strangely, with the guilt came an odd relief. I’d finally found a cause for what had befallen me, and it was myself. Suddenly, I felt I had control again. Before, when I’d been unable to admit I’d been doing anything wrong, the fat had seemed like a curse, something that had befallen me, an effect with no cause. I thought of how I’d wanted to blame it on the plague and shook my head at myself. If that were so, then every cadet who recovered from the plague should have been affected as I had. I took a deep breath and felt the strength of my resolution surge within me. I’d finish out my fast today.

  Tomorrow, I’d rise and go to my brother’s wedding. I’d face the humiliation that I’d brought upon myself, and I would practice great self-discipline in what I ate, not just on that festive day, but on every day that followed. When I returned to the academy, I intended to go back as a thinner man. And I promised myself that by high summer, I’d be moving the buttons on my uniform back to their proper positions.

  With determination strong in me, I returned to the afternoon’s work and drove myself relentlessly. I raised and broke new blisters on my hands, and didn’t care. I rejoiced at how my back and shoulders ached as I punished my recalcitrant body with hard work and deprivation. I thrust my hunger pangs out of my mind and toiled on. Toward the end of the day’s work, my legs literally shook with fatigue, but I felt proud of myself. I was in charge. I was changing myself.

  That was my attitude when I returned home, washed, and went down for a final fitting. The seamstresses were both tired and frenetic as they rushed me into my new suit. They had brought a mirror into the room, for my sisters were likewise having the final touches put on their clothes. What it showed me rattled me. I did not look any thinner than I had when I arrived home. The weight made me look older, and the sombre blue made me look middle-aged and staid. I glanced at my mother, but she was preoccupied with picking stitches out of something pink. There was no reassurance for me there. I could not focus on the seamstresses as they pinched and tugged at the fabric, poked in pins and marked lines with bits of chalk. I stared at my own face, round as a full moon, and my stout body beneath it. I did not recognize the miserable man who stared back at me.

  Then they all but snatched the clothes off me and chased me from the room, ordering me to return in two hours, for Elisi was waiting her turn. I gathered from their talk that a neckline ha
d gone wrong and would require many tiny stitches to alter. As they turned me out of the room, Elisi rushed in.

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  I trudged up to my room. Only an hour ago, I had felt I’d recovered control. Now I had to confront that the wedding was tomorrow, and Carsina was not going to find a dashing and handsome young cadet waiting to escort her. No. She’d find me. Fat me. I thought of Gord’s girl, and how she seemed to adore him despite his fat. Then I thought of Carsina and didn’t even dare to hope for the same response. Gord, I suspected, had always been fat. Cilima had probably never seen him any other way. But Carsina had seen me fit and lean. I hated how I appeared now; how could she not also hate it?

  I was light-headed with hunger. All the fasting, all the toiling of the past three days had done nothing. It was so unfair. I tried not to think about all the rich and wonderful things that were simmering in the kitchen or stored in the pantry right now. The wedding day would be at the bride’s home. We’d arise early and ride there in the carriage for the ceremony. But the festivities that followed, with dancing and eating and singing, were to be held here at Widevale Hall, and the food and drink necessary to such an occasion now awaited the guests. At the thought of it, my stomach growled loudly. I had to swallow.

  I rolled over on my bed and stared at the wall. At the appointed hour, I roused myself again and went back for the final fitting. I wished I hadn’t. In the hallway, Elisi rushed past me in tears, calling over her shoulder, “Then I shall look like a cow! That’s all that can be said, I shall look like a cow!” As she passed me, she snarled, “I hope you’re satisfied, Nevare! But for you and your stupid belly, there would be plenty of time to reset the neckline of my dress!”

  Confused and alarmed, I entered the sewing room. My mother was sobbing into her handkerchief as she stood in the corner of the room by the window. The seamstresses, both of them red-cheeked, were endeavoring not to notice. Their heads were bent over their tasks and their needles winked in the lamplight as they diligently sewed. I sensed that I walked into the aftermath of a storm. “Mother? Are you all right?” I asked her gently.

 
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