Shoel's Story

Chapter Forty-Four: The Plague

Written in collaboration with Silver Midnight


The faint orange in the sky before sunset finally saw the two travelers well out of the swamp. It seemed the area really wasn't that big, and soon it had given way to rainforest again: hot, humid rainforest, but at least it was better than plodding through mire in the even more humid and much darker swamps now to the west of them. It wasn't too long, either, before they came across the welcome relief of clean water.

The waterfall roared down from the north, not any taller than twenty-five feet; it would be cold, but at least it was clean, likely from a source in the mountains. In the heat of the forest and after traveling all day, Shoel thought it would feel heavenly. Just below the falls was limestone, beaten by the pounding of the waters over time. Beyond the stone directly beneath the waterfall was a shallow basin, perhaps only five feet at its deepest point. Peering downstream, Shoel saw that further south the river took back up its running course, rushing over shallow slanting rapids until it deepened out again to a sluggish flow. This was, she had to imagine, the perfect spot to rest, perhaps for more than just the night, and recover from their ordeal.

One of the small creatures Hemlock had brought back on his first hunt almost two weeks ago started from its drink when they came into the small clearing, then bounded off back into the forest. Shoel wished faintly for some kind of throwing device for fresh meat, but she hadn't thought to bring her small crossbow-- and she wasn't much of a shot, anyway-- and she was far too slow in reaching for her dagger. The necromancer himself, however, despite his preference for fresh meat and the length of time since he'd had any, didn't seem to take any notice. He didn't even seem to have noticed the scenery.

In fact, Hemlock hadn't taken much notice of anything as they'd traveled, slumped in the saddle with his head against Vesper's neck and fingers tangled in the stallion's mane. It was a wonder he'd stayed in the saddle all day. Shoel was really starting to get concerned about him, but she hadn't had a chance to address it yet. Maybe now that they had somewhere to set up camp, she'd be able to do more than just guess and worry. Like try and determine whether it was the wound draining him of energy, or if he'd actually caught Galarin's plague. Or, even worse, both.

Steady came to a stop of his own accord at the side of the pool, dipping his head to drink, and Shoel slid down with a look to Hemlock. He looked half-dead, or at least half-asleep. "Hemlock?" she asked tentatively, approaching him and Vesper.

Hemlock shakily pushed himself a sitting position, obviously and futilly trying hard to seem as though nothing was wrong. He looked pale, except for little patches of red on his cheeks and across his forehead, fever-spots. He looked, in a word, terrible. As if, in the span of a day and a night, he'd gotten very sick. "Hm?" he asked vaguely.

"We're at a good place to camp and rest a while," she answered the questioning tone. "We're stopping for the night." She wanted badly to help him down from his horse, because he didn't look like he could make it, himself, but she knew his pride.... Hemlock nodded dimly, and did manage a shaky dismount, though Shoel stood nearby just in case. But then he just left Vesper standing, wandering over to sit by the side of the pool on one of the rock shelves. The black stallion snorted then went to join Steady on the shore for a drink.

Shoel let him rest, for the moment, setting about unloading the four-foots, brushing them down, starting a fire, and putting up the habitual diamond of protection. By then, she couldn't think of anything else to do, so she just got out some more of their dried food and made her way over to Hemlock with it. "Dinner," she said, announcing her presence before sitting down cautiously beside him. He'd folded his legs under him since he'd sat, and now his head was resting in his hands.

"I'm not hungry," Hemlock replied faintly, not moving from where he'd been sitting.

"You haven't eaten since yesterday morning. You need to eat, Hemlock."

Hemlock was silent a full two minutes, but Shoel refused to leave, and he finally lowered his hands, rubbing at his eyes. "All right... I suppose you're right, I should eat something." He sounded a little reluctant to admit it, but there was also something of knowledge in his voice.

"You're sick, Hemlock," Shoel said worriedly, probably just voicing what he was thinking. "Either that wound going bad, Galarin's plague, or both, but you're sick."

"I know," he answered, resigned. "Mostly the illness, but the wound too. I'll live." He seemed certain about that, at least.

"But if you get any worse, you can't possible ride, unless you ride with me," she told him. "And I can't imagine you letting me hold you in the saddle. So we're staying here a while." She offered him the jerky and journey-bread she'd brought him. "Tomorrow I'll see if I can't do some hunting, and get some fresh fruit."

"I won't be in much condition to ride at all," Hemlock said quietly, chewing on the food she gave him reluctantly. "Hopefully it won't be longer than a few days lost, though. Unless you want to try to ride."

"There's no rush getting anywhere," she shrugged, starting on her own meal. "And this is a nice enough place. Do you eat fish, or just red meat?"

"Fish is a preferred meal," Hemlock said with a slight, dazed-looking smile. If she hadn't known it was because he was feverish, she might even have thought the expression cute. "Partially because where I come from it's rather plentiful, but we like to eat it anyway. Also like red meat when we can get it, but we'll eat almost anything edible and fresh."

"Oh, good. Fishing is worlds easier, and more relaxing, than hunting. Especially when all you have is a dagger and a sword. Besides, then I can keep an eye on you, in case you get worse." Taking another bite of the journey-bread, she patted his good arm.

"Keep an eye on me?" Hemlock responded, slightly amused even though he couldn't quite focus at the moment. He was still forcing himself to eat, though he looked more like he'd rather just drop it in the water and return to sitting there. "Why, afraid I'm going to die on you now?"

"You seem awfully certain you're not going to," she replied with a quirk of a grin.

"Then why keep an eye on me?" he asked wearily, shaking his head. "Not like there's much you can do even if I was going to die."

"Because you're my friend." Shoel would have thought that was fairly obvious. "Obnoxious bastard that you are, I still sort of like you, and if there's anything I can do to help while you're sick, I'll do it."

"Oh," Hemlock said softly, sounding oddly child-like though he was so much older than she was; right now, he didn't seem very obnoxious or bastardly. He looked down at his hand, twiddling the small piece of way-bread he had and looking uncomfortable; if not for that, she might have patted him again, but she didn't think he'd appreciate it. Instead, she finished off the jerky and rose, dusting off her hands. "Well, how are you going to fish, then?" he asked.

"What, have you never made makeshift fishing poles? It's not hard. You can even help, if you like, it doesn't take any energy at all. Once I'm clean, anyway," she added firmly, moving to her packs and giving Steady a pat en-route. "You could probably stand a bath, too. Get that wound clean, get the mud out of your hair... it's cold, too, it ought to help your fever."

Hemlock tossed the remains of his meal downstream for the fish to have their way with. "Tell me when you're done bathing, I guess, and I'll take a bath as well. I'm sick of looking like a swamp monster."

"I am, too." She felt so filthy that she almost didn't care that the necromancer was there. Almost, anyway. She dropped the Southmark in her diamond and went a little ways downstream, just beyond the pool but well before the river's current grew too strong for comfort, mostly to make sure she didn't pollute the pool with the marsh muck-- which was probably infected with Galarin's poisons, even though she was currently immune to them-- but also because it provided a half-way decent screen of foliage. It took her a good half an hour to scrub the mud out of her hair and clothing, but she finally came back to the camp feeling something like herself. A chilly, shivering, still-wet self, but herself.

"Have a good bath?" Hemlock called when he saw her, probably out of the corner of his eye as he had his head down again, staring into the water. At least he hadn't passed out, or anything.

"I did. I actually feel halfway normal again." She lay out her wet spare set of clothes to dry on some rocks in the last patches of sun, sitting beside them, not far from Hemlock, to dry herself out. The longer she stayed wet, the less chilly and the more sticky she'd feel, in this humidity. "Your turn?"

Mumbling, Hemlock stripped off shirt and boots, tossing them off to the side near the packs before he shakily got to his feet. "Mind if I borrow your soap? I don't feel like digging mine out."

"Of course not." She rose to offer it to him, frowning a bit. "You think you can walk that far? You don't look too steady."

"I hope so," Hemlock muttered wearily, taking the soap from her and walking upstream to the shallower part of the pool. As his foot caught on a tree root he fell forward, just managing to catch himself on the tree. He straightened up quickly, leaning against the trunk for support while he caught his breath. Shoel watched, biting her lip as he almost fell, then shook her head and caught up the few steps between them and ducked under his arm.

"Come on, I don't want to be fixing a broken nose on top of everything else," she told him. "I'll at least make sure you get there without hurting yourself, all right?"

"You're lucky I don't have the energy to argue," Hemlock grumbled at her, though he gratefully leaned against her while she walked him slowly to the water's edge. "Damn illness-- I hope you won't expect to be allowed to do this again."

"Wouldn't think of it," she promised. "Besides, I expect any other time you'd just try to bite me again. Here you are, this far enough?" They were closer to the waterfall and shallower water, but Shoel thought the current was active enough to keep the muck from stagnating.

"Thanks," Hemlock said, quickly moving away from Shoel, though he was careful not to trip and nearly fall on his face again. He dropped down into the water, not at all carefully and without bothering to remove the rest of his clothing, and cringed. "Gods, it's cold!"

"Mountain-fed, I think," she admitted, sitting down and politely turning her back to wait. "Might help bring your fever down some, though." He finished much quicker than Shoel had and scrambled out, partially brought out of his daze by the chill of the water. Shoel peeked over her shoulder at the sound of him emerging, and rose. "Well, you look a little more awake, at least," she commented, offering her shoulder to lean on again and taking the soap from him. "Feel any better?"

"Somewhat," Hemlock answered, handing back the soap before folding his arms both out of sudden self-consciousness and an attempt to warm himself up. "I... think I'll walk. Hopefully not tripping over anything else."

"You sure? I'm warm, at least," she said with half a smile. Hemlock muttered something that sounded rather rude, though Shoel couldn't catch what exactly it was. He stalked across the bank, managing not to nearly fall on his face again, though he did stick his foot on some rather unpleasant surfaces. He grabbed the same tunic he'd put on just that morning, threw it back on, then sat down with his back to a tree to replace his boots.

"I'm warm, at least". Charter, why in the world did I say that? Ah well, not like it matters-- he wouldn't let me help him twice in a row, anyway, she thought, shaking her head, and wandered after him, back to the fire she'd started but which was starting to die from neglect. She poked a few sticks into it to revive it, then looked around for a good thorn bush or a thin-stemmed vine, or both. The former was easy to find, and she harvested a few of the larger thorns, but the vines she could see were too thick to be of much use as a fishing line, so she simply unlaced her boots and tied the laces together. "See?" she smiled, "fishing line."

"Uh-huh," Hemlock responded automatically, though he hadn't actually looked. He hadn't bothered to move from where he'd sat to put on his boots, leaning back against the moss-covered tree with his eyes closed. "You'd just better hope now that any fish you catch aren't diseased, or you don't get sick from being close to me."

"I've still got my spell protecting me," she promised, getting up and starting barefoot for further upstream, above the falls. "And I'll be careful of the fish!"


Chapter Forty-Five



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

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