Chapter Twenty-Three: A Little Personal History
Written in collaboration with Silver Midnight
There had been no more conversation for the rest of the morning and well into the afternoon, and the surrounding area seemed to follow its lead, slowly but surely approaching night. The light was growing dimmer as the sky overhead, seen through branches and leaves, faded to a red-gold and gilding the muggy rain forest the colors of fall and fire. It would have been pretty, if not for the wraiths. As the light decreased, the activities of the wraiths increased, making Shoel's skin crawl and fingers itch with the desire to free Saraneth, Kibeth, even sweet little Ranna, anything that could put to rights the sense of wrong that the Dead awoke in her. She could feel them, Dead and congregating, their attention more and more focused on the riders and their mounts with the coming sunset, and she could see them, occasionally flitting among the trees, trying to be unnoticed and failing. They didn't seem willing to nearer yet, still weak even in the presence of the dying sunlight, but soon it would be sundown.
Eventually, Hemlock's alertness seemed to become more focused, as well, as he came out of whatever thoughts he'd been lost in for most of the day. He looked around the path before shaking his head. "Not the ideal campsite, but I suppose it's wide enough for a small fire."
"I'll trust your judgment," Shoel told him, drawing her avicorn-- still nameless though she'd thought off and on all day about a name for him-- to a stop with a gentle pull on the reins.
"You're going to have to, if you plan on continuing with this idea." The words were entirely emotionless, so much so that Shoel frowned at him as he dismounted, drawing his new sword from the scabbard at his side. Were the wraiths making him as edgy as they were making her? Without another word, he began to chop at the vegetation on the path and at the sides, clearing out a space for a campfire. Shoel shook her head a bit, and set about the process of dismounting from something she'd never dismounted from before. It didn't take her so long as to be embarrassing, but it did take her a try or three before she made it to the ground. This time she managed not to kick her mount's wings, though only barely.
Charter, I'm sore.... At least it was a brief distraction from the ever-present twitch of her Death sense at the hungry, watching presence of the wraiths.
By then, Hemlock had finished clearing, and was stripping branches and picking up fallen wood for kindling and fuel. "Unless you're worried about being attacked, you can probably take off your armor and rest a bit," he said.
"I can't imagine what good armor would do against wraiths," she answered, stretching her legs out slowly with a little groan, "and that's the only attack I'm worried about. But I'll handle the animals first." Only fair, since he had the fire. She gave one last stretch, and turned to take Vepser's reins as well as the avicorn's. They'd need a good brushing, the saddle girth's loosened-- or entirely removed, if there was a handle place to put the saddles, and if Shoel thought she and Hemlock could figure out the avicorn's enough to put it back on-- and their bits removed, so they could forage.
"Make sure you keep them near the camp; wraiths like horses as well," he warned, looking up from the small pile of wood he'd collected. "Unless, of course, you don't mind losing your mount."
Shoel shivered at the memory from home, of a necromancer on a Dead horse. "Was planning on it," she answered briefly, leading both of them to the edge of the clearing Hemlock had made and tying them loosely to a pair of tree branches close to where he'd begun laying out the fire. She and Hemlock could sleep on the other side of it, so the four of them could all be close enough to it, she hoped, for protection.
By the time both four-foots were briefly groomed, relatively comfortable, and pulling at the leaves and grass around them, Hemock had a crackling fire going. Shoel tossed their bedrolls onto the other side of it and he looked up at her. "Do you want first watch or would you rather sleep?"
If I thought I had the energy, neither of us would have to take watch, she thought with a little annoyance. She'd intended to put up a diamond of protection, but that, it seemed, would have to wait until she'd gotten more used to traveling all day, and perhaps gotten a full night's sleep beforehand. That reminded her, though: "If I pass out after marking us both, then you'll take first watch. If not, then I will. How's that?" She grinned a bit at him, crossing to his side of the fire.
"If you're still going to do that I'm going to take watch anyway," Hemlock said with a blink, gazing at the surrounding area again. "You won't be able to do much good except wake me if you're still going to cast those spells."
"You're right, I suppose," she admitted. "Though they're not all that strong, really. That's why I want to start this early and let them accumulate; takes less energy that way." She sat down with a clank of armor, setting down a bundle of food supplies they'd brought between herself and him, and set about unbuckling her armor. Hemlock watched her with some interest, smirking just a little when she made a mistake in trying to separate her breastplate from the chain underneath, earning himself a light glare.
After a few moments, he lost interest and grabbed the food bundle, digging through the contents. "Hopefully we have enough for the duration of this trip."
"I expected we'd save some of the dried goods for the desert," she said, "and after a few days of travel in the forest, try to live mostly off what we can find. Then we'll be sure to have plenty, with enough supplies to last even if we have bad days in the forest."
He frowned at the fruit he pulled out of the sack, setting the rest off to the side. Briefly he spared a glance beyond the circle of firelight where the wraiths lurked, which she was trying hard not to do, then sighed to himself. "Travel all day, no time to hunt at night."
"If we stop just before sunset, we ought to have enough time for a brief hunt," she said. "We won't loose much time-- I did calculate a little time aside for finding food into our travel time-- and besides, this is a rain forest. There's more than just game: there's all kinds of fruit and nuts and the like. I saw some even today. We'll be fine."
Shrugging off the chain mail and setting it behind her, Shoel was down to her actual clothes at last. It felt wonderful. She caught the fruit he tossed her-- they'd brought a few fresh as well as dried, to eat in the first few days before they went bad-- and chuckled at the distasteful frown on his face. "Fruit and nuts. Bleh."
"You could always hunt dragon-formed while I take the path," she suggested. "I'm sure you'll move faster than I would, and you could catch up. Especially if you fly."
"Hm, true," Hemlock said in agreement, looking down at the fruit in his hands. He set it down on his knees, pulled off his gauntlets, then picked it back up to do a trick spinning it on one finger. She watched while she peeled hers, mildly amused. "You know, I'm sure Drakonus told you quite a bit about me. I, however, know next to nothing about you except that you-- in my mind-- are quite an untraditional necromancer."
Shoel blinked at him, amusement gone, then looked back at her fruit, a little embarrassed. It was true, he didn't know much about her except that she hated the Dead and was wary of necromancers. But she hadn't really talked about everything, except once with an official at Star City when he interviewed her for citizenship, and that was with professional distance. "It's... mm... kind of complicated."
"And mine's not?" Hemlock said with a snort. "Though there is more than even Drakonus knows, and I'd rather not share right now. I would, however, rather like to hear your story. If you want, later I'll tell you more of mine in compensation."
"I might as well, I suppose..." she sighed. "The long and short of it... my aunt, the Abhorsen, she exiled me."
In response to that, Hemlock gave Shoel a cold look. "I asked for your story, not a one sentence summary."
"I've never talked about this before, all right?" she snapped back. "Be patient." He didn't snap back, at least, but he did shift restlessly, leaning back against the tree behind him and folding his arms with the soft clink of armor. Somewhere nearby, a mournful cry almost sounding like the wind split the air-- but there was no wind in the humid forest. Shoel glanced around, but the necromancer just smirked; it must have been a wraith.
"I don't know what the planet's name is," she finally began again, as much to break the silence before another howl sounded. As she spoke, she pulled out her knife and neatly quartered the peeled fruit; she always could think better when she was doing something with her hands. "But we just called where I lived the Old Kingdom, separated from the rest of the world by a great wall, by weather and strange time differences, and by our magic. The Dead don't travel into any other part of the world, because the only place where the magic that keeps them alive is, is the Old Kingdom. My family is one of the magic bloodlines, the line of Abhorsens, the people who 'keep the Dead down'. My aunt was the Abhorsen at the time, my brother the Abhorsen-in-Waiting, her successor."
As she paused to take a bite from one of the sliver's of fruit she'd cut, Hemlock remained silent, waiting, except for what little sound he was making by peeling his own piece of fruit. He wasn't looking at her, but she thought he was listening. He'd better have been listening; she wasn't telling this story for her own health. After another couple bites, finishing that quarter, she continued. "There hadn't in all of history been two Abhorsens-in-Waiting. But I had the talent and the will, too, as strong as Capsen-- my brother-- even though he was older. No one really knew what to do with me, and everyone was afraid I'd turn against the Charter and the Kingdom, become a real necromancer. Chlorr knew I'd never do that, but when the Clayr started seeing warnings of imbalance and fear... well, she was always over-cautious."
"And so she banished you," Hemlock finished quietly, tossing the peelings out of the circle of light. A few gray, doglike wraiths scrabbled towards where it landed, more staring at them from the darkness, and Shoel looked quickly back at her own meal, making short work of another quarter. "I don't see how, though, you ended up in Star City."
"It's... hard to explain." She thought a moment, taking another bite of the fruit. "She did something... sent me into Death, but from there, directly into the Charter... I don't know how she did it, I didn't know it could be done. I almost rather she'd have just forced me past the Ninth Gate... I'd have gone, if she told me to, especially if I'd known what it would be like. It wouldn't have been--" She shook her head a bit, shivering. "It wasn't comfortable, to say the least. I don't know how long it lasted, but the Charter finally let me out on one of the planets of the Nexus. I was picked up by one of the world travelers and, after a year or two of wandering around, I ended up at Star City, and then on Atu, once my apartment on the station started falling apart."
"Magical planes are often unpredictable, linking the worlds and other planes together. These Death and Charter planes you speak of are likely only two variations." Hemlock took a bite out of his own piece of fruit, glaring back at a wraith that was looking straight at him. "Sometimes the body follows the soul."
"Hmm." Chewing on another bite of fruit, Shoel stole another glance out at the Dead wraiths beyond the firelight. At least fire kept them away; in her own world, not even that would be enough. "Is there something we can do about those?" she finally exclaimed.
"Yeah, ignore them," Hemlock said with a small laugh. "As I said, they don't like fire. There's really too many for us to fight off."
Popping the last of her meal into her mouth, she gave the massed creatures a glare of her own. "I'm going to need that spell to knock me out, if I just want to get to sleep," she muttered, then licked her fingers clean of fruit juices. "I might as well mark us now, then try and get some rest."
At that Hemlock paused from his eating, turning his head from the shadowy wraiths to look at her. "Oh," he said quietly, actually sounding a little nervous. "What do you want me to do?"
She smiled reassuringly. "Nothing at all, just be still a moment," she told him, closing her eyes a moment and reaching for the marks she needed. The Charter was comfortingly easy to find, and dipping into it was comforting, especially in the presence of so much Death. Sighing a little, she opened her eyes and reached over to Hemlock, tracing two circular Charter marks on his forehead with a glowing finger. The sensation was one of warmth and light, which she hoped would be not at all unpleasant for Hemlock, even if he wasn't of the Charter itself. He didn't flinch away, at least, only rolling his eyes up to try in vain and see what she was doing. The marks held, instead of slipping away, proving that even if he was magical and a necromancer, he wasn't really of Free Magic. That was more comforting than she had thought it might be.
Sitting back, Shoel traced the same marks on her own forehead: health and purity. All four marks flared briefly, on each of them, as she put a drop of power into them, the flare momentarily overshadowing the light of the fire. Then they dimmed to a very faint dusting of light to prove that the spell held, and would hold for as long as the marks remained visible. "There," she sighed, pleased and wearied all over again. "I'll renew them in the morning."
The necromancer raised one hand to his forehead and lightly touched it as though expecting to feel the runes there. Then he looked to Shoel, nearly expressionless; she wondered absently what he was thinking. "And what about you, how are you feeling?"
"Tired," she admitted. "Though not as bad as I'd been afraid I'd be. The Charter was easier to reach than it has been in years. That's odd, but I'm not about to question it, as long as it lasts."
"Well, go ahead and sleep," Hemlock suggested. "Unless you want to talk about something." He drew his sword from its scabbard and stuck it tip down in the ground, resting his hands on the crossguard.
"I feel like I've talked more tonight than I have in years," she chuckled wearily, unrolling her bedroll slowly. "I'm ready for some sleep. Wake me when it's my turn to watch."
"All right," he answered, returning his gaze to where the wraiths lurked just beyond the boundaries of the light. He rested his chin on top of the pommel, staring out at the wraiths with eyes half-closed. Shoel took one last look at him, sitting there in the armor he'd hated only three days ago, staring into the darkness, before she wrapped herself in her bedroll, curled up on the ground before the fire, and, though the Dead were still close, fell asleep almost immediately.
Shoel's abilities and homeworld are copyrighted to Garth Nix.
Quote borrowed from Garth Nix's book, Lirael, from The Book of the Dead.