Shoel's Story

Chapter Twenty-Seven: The Desert of Misunderstandings

Written in collaboration with Silver Midnight


The next week passed uneventfully. The wraiths didn't return, to Shoel's relief, though sometimes she'd sense them on the edge of her awareness, lurking just beyond range. Hemlock left again twice to go hunt fresh food and was gone most of the day both times, but even when he was present, he seemed unusually stand-offish and quiet, even for him. He answered her questions about magic, magical creatures, her armor, and anything else she could think up, and spoke to her when she wanted conversation, but he would lapse into sullen silence every time she let him. And she didn't wake up to his dragon form draped across her legs again, as if he'd taken her jest to heart. She wasn't sure what exactly she'd done wrong, especially since he'd seemed to be warming to her after the battle with the wraiths, but he had turned into a somewhat depressing traveling companion.

The forest had begun to thin the day before, trunks spacing out and vegetation growing more thin and sparse. Now, though, they'd finally reached the desert, and even after living the past six years on a desert planet, Shoel still felt a little awed by it. Spreading out before them was an expansive plane of cracked, dry earth, choked with brambles and baked by the sun. The skeleton of a large predator lay nearby, the bones bleached white by the beating sun. Beyond the cracked land was what seemed an endless sea of sand, the dunes rising before sloping steeply back into the parched, golden ocean.

"Home sweet home," she sighed, staring out across it. "Do you want to start across today, or wait until tomorrow? We've got a couple hours of daylight left, but...." She was reluctant to cross out from under the small protection of the trees.

"I'd prefer to start today, to carry on with this as soon as possible," Hemlock said quietly, grimly. He urged Vesper onwards, the black stallion and armored rider emerging into the harsh desert sun, the former soaking up light and the latter reflecting it, making him hard to look at. Shoel had no choice but to follow.

The avicorn, finally named Steady for his cautious nature and easy paces, snorted at the sun in his eyes, and she agreed. She, however, had a remedy, and after a moment of digging into one of her packs, removed and unrolled her desert-style hat. Her helmet she hung carefully on the saddle's pommel, a handy stand for it, and she replaced it with the floppy, wide-brimmed hat she'd squirreled away from her home on Atu. At least it would keep the sun from her eyes, and keep her from burning too badly.

Ahead of her, Hemlock suddenly reined his horse around so that the stallion eased to a stop parallel to the skeleton. Steady snorted at him for taking such a strange course, and Shoel frowned, stopping the avicorn where she was and watching Hemlock through eyes narrowed with confusion. For a few moments, he did nothing, just staring at the skeleton, but then he began chanting and waving his hands about in a manner that looked... strangely familiar. What was he--

Her Death sense, which had been wonderfully quiet the past week, twitched at her, and she nearly swallowed her tongue in shock and fear. "Charter take it, Hemlock, what do you think you're doing?" she bellowed across the skeleton at him before clicking Steady into a leap and then a race towards the man. If she could get to him before he finished the spell, it would come to nothing, just like in the hatching bay when he tried to bind Skelemis. He didn't answer her, not that she'd really expected him to, too focused on the spell.

The skeleton was already starting to glow, and Steady skid to a stop, wings flaring and spraying sand everywhere, right next to Vesper. Though she was tempted to simply launch herself at him and knock him off his horse, she didn't really want to hurt him, even if he was raising the Dead for who-knew-what-reason. So she just grabbed his arm out of one of those sweeping gestures and yanked, hard. Hemlock came toppling out of the saddle towards her, slamming into the ground quite a bit harder than she'd intended; she winced in sympathy.

The necromancer-- she had managed to forget, for a time, that, that was really what he was; now he had rather forcefully reminded her-- groaned, sitting up and putting a hand to his forehead. The spell had, indeed, been interrupted, causing the skeleton Hemlock had been working with to disintegrate into ash. "What'd you do that for?!" he demanded.

"What did I--" The sympathy vanished. "What did you think you were doing??"

"Raising a skeletal minion so we'd have some help when we encounter something that wants to do us in!" Hemlock snarled, getting to his feet and staggering a bit, still clutching at his head. He leaned against Vesper's flank, pressing his eyes shut and twining his metal-covered fingers into the horse's mane.

Well, at least he hadn't decided to turn on her, which had been her first fear. "You can't go raising dead things, Hemlock! It's not right-- things are dead for a reason, and they're suppose to stay that way!"

"Suppose to stay that way," Hemlock repeated mockingly, his face twisting into a sneer, and she flushed, angry and embarrassed; he hadn't looked at her like that since before they'd left, and she'd hoped she wouldn't have to see him to it again. "I don't usually raise souls, I use what's left held together by magic. It's not even really undead, just a hollow shell."

Which, of course, was the exact opposite of how any necromancer she'd ever heard of did things. "How was I suppose to know that? You've never told me anything about how to do your magic!" Not that she'd asked; she hadn't thought to, assuming she already knew. "You didn't even warn me, you just-- started spell-casting! What was I suppose to think? You've hardly said two words to me all week except when I've tried to get them out, and then you suddenly start raising Dead on me. You know what the first thing I'm going to think is, dammit!"

To her complete surprise, Hemlock flinched, a pained expression fleetingly crossing his face before sliding into an imperfect blank mask. Without answering, while she stared at him, he climbed back into Vesper's saddle, almost falling off the other side, and began to start off again, head drooping. Shoel blinked after him, and Steady snorted, unsure whether he was supposed to be following or not. Finally she kneed him into a trot to catch up, and slowed only when she reached Vesper and leaned over to grasp his reins, stopping him. "Hemlock, talk to me. Don't just go all silent on me again. Don't do it."

"About what, what do you want me to say, Shoel?" Hemlock said low, angrily. He had his eyes pressed shut again, trying to get the aching in his head to go away. "What do you want to hear about now?"

A little hurt, she released Vesper's reins and backed Steady up. "Nothing, I suppose. Never mind." Without prompting, Steady turned and trotted back to the trees. Hemlock didn't follow, though she expected he would after a while, if just out of boredom. It would do him good to get out of the sun. So, she just dismounted and set about making a camp for the evening.

Actually, he didn't follow her for quite a while. In fact, he just walked Vesper in circles, presumably to avoid talking to her. By the time Shoel had gotten out of her armor, she decided to give up watching him. If he didn't want to come out of the sun and end up with heatstroke, or give his poor black horse heatstroke, just to avoid her, that was his problem. She settled down against a tree with her bandolier across her lap, some leather oil, and a cloth; if she was going out in all that sun, she wanted to make sure the leather was in good shape, so it wouldn't crack.

When Hemlock finally did ride towards the trees, it wasn't towards her that he rode. He struck off parallel to the tree-line, presumably to find himself another camp. Shoel glared a bit after him as he disappeared, then went back to her bandolier with perhaps a bit too much force. So he wasn't going to talk to her. She had to have done something-- long before pulling him off his horse in the middle of a spell-- to make him get so cold again. Unless the camaraderie after the battle was just that: a momentary weakness that he didn't want to happen again. He was a necromancer, after all, and she had tried to kill him more than once. She supposed she couldn't blame him, not wanting to be friends with her, but it had been a nice idea to consider, however brief it had been. Going against Galarin with an honor-bound bodyguard was one thing, but going against him with someone she could trust and work with was something else entirely.

It was about an hour until sunset when she finally gave up on Steady's tack-- her bandolier she'd finished long ago, but she'd just moved on to the rest of the leather she had with her, starting with her boots, even though she only wore them when she wasn't in her armor, and then moving on to Steady's tack. She'd reached the end of her thoughts halfway through his saddle, and even the avicorn's friendly nibbling on her hair wasn't helping. She hefted the saddle back on, cinched it up, and climbed aboard, leaving armor and supplies behind within a small diamond of protection to keep them safe. If Hemlock wasn't going to talk to her, then maybe she could talk to him, and maybe he'd eventually respond. She at least wanted to know the truth, even if it was that he hated her and would have killed her days ago if not for Jasien's vow, so she could know how far she could trust him against Galarin. And if she'd done something to offend him, well, maybe she could make it right.

So, she rode along the tree-line, herself, in the direction he'd gone, in search of where he'd set up his own camp. She found him not too far away. The necromancer had already set up his own fire, and taken off Vesper's tack as well as his own armor. The black horse was grazing peacefully while the man was sitting against a tree, arms folded across his chest and head leaned back, eyes closed. She dismounted, much more gracefully than she had those first couple days, gave Vesper a passing pet, and paced over to Hemlock. After a moment of looking at him in silence, she began, probably stupidly, "I didn't mean to pull you off your horse, you know."

"You think I care about that?" Hemlock answered coldly without opening his eyes.

Sighing, she dropped into a crouch, to be at eye level with him. Not that it mattered. "That's the problem. I don't know what you care about. Did I do something? Is that why you've hardly spoken to me in a week? Or did I totally misread you after the battle with the wraiths, and you really still hate me?"

"I never hated you," Hemlock said, his voice sour. Still he didn't look at her.

"Could have fooled me. Then why? What happened?"

"Nothing you need to concern yourself with, it's my problem." He sighed in exasperation.

"How am I supposed to trust you when you don't talk to me!" she exclaimed, frustrated.

"You don't trust me when I do talk to you. You also don't seem to get the idea that I'm not very sociable."

"Oh, I don't know, I thought we were doing really well for about ten minutes, or so, six days ago," she told him. "And I'm not particularly sociable, either, but there's something called companionable silence, and something called awkward silence. I'm getting a little tired of the awkward kind. Do I need to go tackle another cloud of wraiths before you'll treat me like an equal instead of baggage again?"

Hemlock opened one eye, glaring at Shoel. "I have been treating you like an equal. If I weren't I'd be trying to tell you what to do and chewing you out like before."

Well, he had a point, but if this was how he treated equals, she didn't really want him to treat her like one. She rose. "Maybe we should go back to that, then. At least then I knew where I stood, with you." And then she moved off to gather up Steady again. "We can leave at dawn. I'll come find you again when I'm ready."

"Whatever," Hemlock sighed, closing both eyes again. "I don't see what you're so worried about. You'll banish this undead, go back to RoF, bond, return home, then you'll never have to see me again."

"And good riddance," she growled to herself, climbing into the saddle and nudging Steady back towards her own camp.

Well. That went well, didn't it, she thought sourly as she left him behind again. Just one more fight. Fine. It's like he said, it's not like I ever have to see him again after this. At least I know he's not out to kill me, or anything, even if that's just because he doesn't care a jot.

Even so, it was an awfully lonely camp she returned to, with nothing but Steady, the leatherwork, and her book on Charter marks for company.


Chapter Twenty-Eight



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

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