Shoel's Story

Chapter Eight: Cruel Jokes

Written in collaboration with Silver Midnight


Eventually the deciduous forest turned to rainforest, hot and muggy but not unbearably so; even so, Shoel was glad when the trees quite suddenly fell away, leaving open air and the sound of roaring water. The afternoon sunlight was clear and clean, and took a minute to get used to, but once she could see clearly again, Shoel was impressed. The two necromancers and their mounts were standing at the top of a canyon of colorful cliffs and cool wind, a vibrant river rushing beneath a layer of fog at the foot of the cliff. It was a lovely sight.

Off to their left was a fairly sturdy bridge, wide enough for a cart and stretching across the one-hundred foot or so distance to the other side. Charter, I hope we don't have to go over that, Shoel thought absently. She wasn't exactly afraid of heights-- not phobic, anyway-- but she certainly didn't like them: she liked solid ground under her feet and plenty of room between her and a fall. Hemlock seemed to have no such distaste, however, for he peered into the canyon's depths fearlessly before yanking his horse off towards the bridge. That brought her thoughts into focus as Vesper automatically followed, and she stared anxiously at the bridge itself.

"It could be worse," she told herself and Vesper very quietly, "it could be a rope bridge. At least it looks sturdy...." Even so, as she neared it, she could feel her hands getting colder and she had to resist the urge to look nervously down every few seconds to make sure they were still far enough from the edge of the canyon to be safe.

"Can you swim?" Hemlock asked suddenly, breaking his hour-long silence and looking down again at the misty canyon bottom. The question did absolutely nothing to assuage her nervousness.

"Yes, of course," she answered, a little sharply.

"Good, because I'm not giving you mouth to mouth if you fall and start to drown."

Is he trying to make me more nervous? ... What am I talking about, of course he is.

"Unless you trust Vesper not to spook, I would suggest you lead him." A glance at Hemlock showed him already dismounted, and she cautiously did the same, Vesper's bulk between her and the canyon. It may have been pretty, but it wasn't a pretty she wanted to look at up close.

Determined not to give Hemlock any further reason to poke at her, Shoel took only a moment to rest her forehead against Vesper's warm neck before taking his reigns, steeling herself, and following the necromancer's mare onto the bridge. She even managed to look halfway confident-- for a few steps. In order to make use of the comforting support of the bridge's railing, she had to walk to one side, with the view of the fog-shrouded river far below in plain sight. She'd only taken those first few steps before she looked the first time, and froze for a moment. Just a moment, but when she started moving again, resolutely looking at the chestnut mare's rump, it was much shakier.

It's a river. It's protection against the Dead. Stop being nervous, she told herself firmly, only to ruin it with the unbidden thought, But it's a river that's an awfully long way down.

"It's rather beautiful, don't you think?" The necromancer had paused, she discovered when the mare stopped ahead of her, forcing her to pause, as well. He was leaning over one rail and looking down at the river. "Earlier in the day the mist would have all but covered this bridge."

"Yes, lovely," she replied vaguely, taking comfort by stepping back against Vesper's chest and rather wishing the mist still covered the bridge. Who would have thought I'd wish for mist.

Before she could so much as blink, someone-- Hemlock, obviously-- had grabbed her by the tabbard and tunic, just above the bell bandolier, and had swung her towards the empty canyon. She gave a little scream before she clamped her mouth shut, finding her upper body leaning rather precariously over the bridge's railing. She refused to look down. Focusing fiercely on Hemlock's face, she fought her fear with finding a way to escape: if she grabbed her sword to force him off of her, she might be the one pushed away, and over the edge; even if she were in a mindset to operate the bells, the necromancer's hands were in her way. The only Charter mark that came to mind was next to useless.

"I thought you said-- you weren't going to try and kill me," she managed, hands catching at the railing for support and small comfort. In answer, Hemlock pushed one foot against hers, sliding it off the security of the bridge and into space.

"Hmm, I did say that, didn't I?"

Useless or not, it was the only thing she could do. One hand gripping the railing tightly, breathing fast, she formed the mark in her mind, gave her fingers a twitch, tracing it against the wood of the rail and cupping it in her hand, then shoved palm and mark into the necromancer's face, exploding it with a light far brighter than what she'd playfully thrown at him before. The reaction was immediate: Hemlock released her with a howl of pain, staggering backwards. Shoel's was just as immediate: as soon as she was free, she scrambled away from the edge, and away from him, grabbed Vesper's reigns, and made haste for whichever side of the bridge was closest-- it ended up not being the Ring of Fire side, though she didn't really care, as long as she was on solid ground again.

For whatever reason, Hemlock didn't pursue her. She was just grateful he wasn't throwing bone shards at her again, or catching her and throwing her off the bridge, or anything at all. As soon as wood gave way to earth and stone and grass again, she slowed and sank down to it in relief, trying to catch her breath. View of bridge, necromancer, and canyon hidden by the palms of her hands as she rested her head in them, she didn't notice Hemlock's approach until she heard his horse's hooves on the bridge turn from sharp clops to muffled thumps, and she looked up quickly. He was squinting, as if he still couldn't see-- Serves him right! she thought viciously, glaring at him-- but he didn't do anything except plop himself down on the ground not far from her, wordlessly.

After a moment of silence, she finally demanded, "What the hell did you do that for? Think it's funny to push people off bridges?"

There was a pause before he answered, "Funny to threaten aerophobic people with being shoved off a bridge, yes." Sighing, he settled back down onto the grass, arms behind his head and eyes closed. "Good thing you stopped once you got onto firm ground. Otherwise you might have gotten into real trouble."

"Oh, right. Real trouble. As if traveling with you isn't trouble enough! I should just go back to the Firelancer and have him send me back to Atu. Should have known better to trust you not to get me killed." The last was a grumble as she glared at him, even though he couldn't see her.

"You're not dead yet, are you?" Hemlock drawled boredly. "If I had wanted to, I could have just thrown you off the bridge with that first moment-- but I didn't."

"Enjoying tormenting me too much, that's all it was," she snorted.

"Exactly." She glowered at him again. "You finally seem to be catching on." The necromancer sat up, brushing off his shirt, and climbed to his feet. "Well, we're almost there. It shouldn't be too much farther. I just hope we don't get lost since I can't see the landmarks."

"Your own Charter-forsaken fault," Shoel grumbled, eying him mistrustfully. How could she trust him at all, when he could turn on her and at least pretend he was going to throw her off a bridge-- or anything else dangerous, for that matter-- at any minute? Would it be wisest to simply turn around and go back...? A glance at the bridge made her shudder. No, she couldn't do that, not right now. Maybe later, but by then dark would be falling, and she didn't want to take the chance that he'd been lying about the wraiths. I'll just have to be on my guard, she sighed to herself. Like I should have been, before.

"Maybe I should have dropped you," Hemlock commented with annoyance. "At least then I wouldn't have to put up with your bitching anymore."

"I'd think I have plenty of reason to be complaining," she pointed out coldly. "Even if I liked heights, no one is stupid enough to be happy about being held over a canyon. Even if you didn't mean it, that was cruel and completely unnecessary."

"A lot of the things I do are cruel and unnecessary," the necromancer replied off-handedly, mounting up.

"Why am I not surprised?"

"Are you coming?"

She swung up into Vesper's saddle after giving him a quick cheek-scratch. "Necromancers," she muttered under her breath, silently cursing the whole breed.


Chapter Nine



Shoel's abilities and homeworld are copyrighted to Garth Nix.

Quote borrowed from Garth Nix's book, Lirael, from The Book of the Dead.