Chapter Twenty: Departure
Written in collaboration with Silver Midnight
As it turned out, Hemlock managed to keep his snide comments to a minimum, and he didn't laugh at her at all. Shoel hadn't imagined him to be particularly patient-- though she supposed he'd have to be, to be skilled at potions, she just hadn't seen it in evidence-- but he wasn't to frustrated by her lack of knowledge. And, to her relief, he was quite polite about where he put his hands in the process of helping her get armored up and pointing out how things buckled-- which, as of course would be the case, wasn't quite as simple as it looked. By the end of the hour or two of lessoning in the art of putting on armor, she was almost ready to call him a good teacher.
They didn't see each other much the next day, largely because Shoel was restlessly walking the city for most of it, trying to relax but only getting her mind furiously running through plans, strategies, and possibilities for the trip. It was a good kind of anxiety, though, so she didn't mind too much. Unfortunately, her mind didn't want to shut down for bedtime, so she also didn't get as much sleep as she should have, and morning came far too early.
"Always better to be doing something," she muttered to herself as she trudged to the bath house attached to the building, as if that could justify getting up before dawn and then traveling by horse-- or avicorn, in her case-- for the whole day. An avicorn which hadn't shown up the day before, so she expected would appear in the stables that morning, right before they left. She was supposed to meet Hemlock an hour after dawn in the stables, packs packed and ready to load up, and she expected the creature would be there, then.
Getting clean woke her up considerably, as did a quick, hot breakfast. She'd done most of her packing the night before-- of course-- but she checked everything again, just to be sure, before suiting up in the armor-- fitting her bell bandolier over the top of the metal had taken some work, but she'd finally figured out how to manage it-- hefting her things, and clanking downstairs to check out. The innkeeper seemed relieved to finally see her leaving. Then it was to the stables, partly excited, partly anxious, and partly hoping she'd even be able to ride this avicorn, whatever it was like.
The necromancer had been busy that morning-- busier than she had, Shoel noted with a twinge of guilt-- for when Shoel found him he already had both equines loaded with their packs and saddled up. Hemlock himself had found a seat on the side of a trough and was whispering to Vesper in his own tongue, the black stallion seeming attentive to his words. For a moment, she didn't even recognize him, as he didn't look quite the same in the dark silvery armor of an Alliance officer. To further change his image, he'd actually taken the time to brush the tangles out of his hair leaving it glossy, if still rather wild. But it couldn't be anyone else, and he obviously knew her.
"All ready?" he called when he caught sight of her. "I was hoping to cover some distance today, and it's best to start long before sunset."
"Well, sunset isn't for a good twelve hours, so I'd say we're set," she called back, taking in the sight of the avicorn. She hadn't even had a horse in years, an avicorn would be something quite different....
Hemlock smirked, seeing the look on her face. "He won't bite you, you know."
"Actually, I wouldn't," she answered vaguely, approaching and pulling off one gauntlet to stroke the creature's nose tentatively. It lipped her fingers, then butted its muzzle against her breastplate; at least it was friendly. "I don't know much of anything about avicorns."
Like the rest she'd seen, this avicorn was large, the size of a warhorse. As Hemlock had said, "it" was a male-- not as big as Atma, but certainly big enough. He was largely gray with faint dappling, much like Atma had been, though each of his feet were socked in white, and when he twitched his long tail around while she scratched his ears, she noted both it and his mane were black, like the feathering around his hooves and the spiraled horn. His wings were folded, but the tips of his pinions were barred black, white, and gray. "Did he come with a name? Or do you know?"
"Unnamed, fairly young I'd say," the necromancer answered, scrutinizing the creature. "Usually only those that have been given to a rider bear names, chosen by their master. Or in your case, mistress. I'd say that's up to you."
"Hmm. That'll take some thought." She gave the avicorn a final scratch, and eyed the tack. Mounting would be interesting; she'd never ridden anything this big before. In fact... the whole saddle was interesting, rigged to fit around and in front of the wings, with a set of fixed stirrups-- or more like raised straps, probably for mounting-- in front and adjustable ones in what looked like an awkward position behind the wings. "Have you ever ridden one of these?"
"Nope," Hemlock replied, grinning. "I've seen them ridden, though, if that's any help. You mount like any other equine, but when you're on you tuck your legs behind the wings."
"I suppose that makes sense," she agreed, "given how it's set up." She gave the avicorn a final pat-- I wish he came with a name; I haven't named anything since I made my house-sending, and even he has a stupid name, she thought-- and set about fixing her belongings to the appropriate snaffles and straps on the saddle, tying the compact bedroll and the bundle that was her single change of clothing behind the cantle. "So we ready, then?"
Hemlock nodded, sunlight glinting off the embellishment along the raised crest of his helmet. He stood, ran his gauntlet-covered hands over the chain mail on his thighs, then walked around to mount his own horse. "Was just waiting for you to be ready."
"Then we're good." Please don't do anything stupid like fall on your tail, she pleaded with herself as she prepared to heft herself into the saddle. The avicorn held placidly still while she considered her own flexibility in armor compared to reaching the stirrups, though she caught him watching her out of the corner of his eye. Finally she just screwed her courage up, somehow made her foot reach, and swung up into the saddle, all without falling off, tangling up in her sword, or kicking-- oops, so much for that. Her foot connected, thankfully lightly, with the avicorn's opposite wing, and he twitched it, snorting. She found the way the saddle meant her to sit, found it not quite as uncomfortable as she imagined, and got settled before she finally gave him an apologetic pat on the neck and stroked the offended wing. "I'll get the hang of it soon, I promise," she whispered to him, and received a whicker and a tail swish in response.
Hemlock was, of course, snickering. Not just chuckling, snickering. He gave her a smirk in response to her glare as he mounted Vesper. "Well, if you're ready then we should probably set off."
"Certainly," she replied coolly, pleased, at that moment at least, that her mount was a good two hands taller than his.
Then she forgot about being one-up on Hemlock, forced to wondered how, exactly, one guided an avicorn, when one's knees and heels weren't in much of a position to do much of anything, locked back as they were. Where avicorns mainly mouth-driven? That didn't seem right. Perhaps... hmm. She gave a little clucking noise and twitched the reins, rewarded pleasantly when the avicorn shook his mane and started walking. Voice and neck-reining, then.
The necromancer reined his own mount in to follow Shoel's out, smiling for some unknown reason. "I trust you brought firebrands and other such things with you?"
"A couple," she shrugged. She honestly thought her Charter marks would suffice for protection from wraiths, and against the dark. Besides, firebrands were heavy, especially given there would be trees to take branches and deadfall from for the bulk of the trip, until they reached the desert.
"Good." Hemlock nodded his head in satisfaction before urging his mount into a canter first to beside Shoel's avicorn, then a little ahead as he turned to lead the way south. Her own mount shook his head and sped up of his own accord, pulling up to not quite beside Vesper, letting the horse and necromancer take the lead but keeping close enough for conversation, albeit loud conversation, over the sound of hoofbeats. "About how many spells can you do a day?"
"It depends on the spell and the day," she said. "The more powerful or energy-draining a spell, the fewer I can do and the less they last. And it depends on the Charter." She frowned faintly, thinking, then added, "Though I don't think that will be too much of a problem... spelling your sword didn't take as long, or as much work, as I thought it might."
"Can you create fire?" Hemlock called back, turning his head slightly so he could see her. "I know you can do light."
"In an emergency? Yes. Every night for camp or torches? I'd really rather not; I would hate to wear myself out with fire marks, and then have something Dead find us in the middle of the night."
Hemlock rolled his eyes at that, mouthing something. "Gods, woman. Why would you think I'd have you create fire for light or camping? Wraiths don't like fire."
Shoel shrugged. "I've never camped here; for all I know, you'd want a ring of fire around the campsite. Besides, if we stop before sundown, we should be safe-- and they don't like light, either, and that's worlds easier than fire. Anything with heat-- that's one of the hardest to maintain."
"As enticing as creating a ring of fire--" there was a smirk at that, and it was only then that she realized the unintentional pun of the dragonry's name, "--around the campsite is, it wouldn't really be very conservative. It's not the heat that keeps them away, though. Something about the balance of fire and shadow in this realm. Here it's deemed as purifying, though there are some creatures of shadow and flame together."
"Hmm." She nodded, thinking with chagrin, Maybe I should have read those books on this world before I left.... "Well, it's easier for me to draw a mark to set a spark to tinder or a ready torch than to hold a flame, itself. If we need it and don't have time for a conventional fire, I could always do that."
Hemlock nodded shortly, then turned again to grin at her. "You know, if there's anything you'd like to know I can do my best to tell you. I haven't spent centuries in Fantasa for nothing, you know. Though I'm a boor, I'm not uneducated, either."
That was more charitable than she'd expected-- though, to be fair, he hadn't given her all that much trouble yet today, and he'd been the closest to kind she'd ever seen him, helping her with her armor the day before yesterday. Maybe time to start being charitable, yourself, Shoel, she told herself, and smiled. "Thank you."
Shoel's abilities and homeworld are copyrighted to Garth Nix.
Quote borrowed from Garth Nix's book, Lirael, from The Book of the Dead.