Chapter Fifty-Eight: Friendly to Not-So-Friendly
Written in collaboration with Silver Midnight
After another half an hour and two exchanges, each of which had ended with her on her rump, Shoel was thoroughly chastised, out of breath, and sore. Another fifteen minutes and two more, much briefer, exchanges later, she was very ready to plead for mercy, like he'd jokingly suggested the evening before. "All right, all right, you win!" she gasped from the ground at the last, with his sword-point hovering over her mid-section and her own sword well out of reach. "I'm not only a horrible swordswoman, I'm arrogant and over-confident!"
"You're not that horrible," Hemlock assured her, moving his sword point away so he could lean on the blade with an amused smirk. "You had me the first round, after all; I never expected that. If you're arrogant and over-confident, than I was just as much so."
He pulled the sword from the ground and resheathed it before offering her a hand up. She took it gratefully and with a groan, climbing slowly off the ground. "I hurt," she complained with a sigh, pausing once on her feet to examine the ruined shirt. At least she hadn't worn her tunic; that was a bit more difficult to replace. "I really am out of fighting trim, what little of it I ever had."
Hemlock just grinned at her, pulling his sleeve up over his hand and mopping sweat off his forehead with his wrist. "No one ever said it didn't take energy. Doing it right uses all your muscles, not just those in your arm that you use to swing the sword."
"I know." She tried very hard not to snap. It was embarrassing to be so soundly trounced, especially after her unexpected win at the beginning, but it was her own fault, and she didn't need to take it out on him. "I just haven't been doing much practicing in over a month, so I'm out of shape."
"Well, if it makes you feel any better, I think I'm going to have a bruise on my lower back where you shoved me," Hemlock said with a small snicker, retrieving Shoel's sword for her. "Think you're in any condition to go for a swim?"
"Charter, salt-water on open cuts...." Wincing, she shook her head, sheathing her sword. "I'll be fine, after the first few minutes, I suppose." She'd probably be numb by then. I wish I'd thought to bring something other than light colors, she grumbled to herself, unbuckling her swordbelt and scabbard. I hope he doesn't look too closely. She tossed it and the gauze down on the sand with her boots; she could bandage up after their swim. She'd only managed to score on Hemlock once after that first round, and it was barely a nick; he wouldn't need it nearly as much as she did.
Hemlock got to his feet, removing his vest to toss it with his belt and boots. "Most sea creatures don't come up this far, but even so watch your step."
"Of course," she sighed, rubbing carefully at one particularly painful cut on her shoulder and bracing herself to get in. The waves lapped at her toes, then her ankles. It was warmer than the oceans she remembered on her own homeworld, probably in fitting with the tropical climate, and didn't seem to have too much of a tug. It stole sand from beneath her feet, though, which felt decidedly odd.
The necromancer strode up next to Shoel, folding his arms and looking out across the water, just as another step and a larger wave washed up around her calves and she yipped and hopped back in surprise at the burning in the half-closed cut there. It had stopped bleeding ages ago, but it still hurt! "Don't do anything you don't want to just to try to impress someone or because you don't want to look like a fool," Hemlock warned then turned away, wading out into the water.
Bastard, she thought darkly after him with a little glare at his back. Then with a little sigh, she bit her lip and followed, much more slowly and trying not to be even more annoyed that it didn't seem to bother him any. After the first shock of water against wounded flesh, though, it wasn't so bad. It was no warm, soothing Charter healing, but it certainly could be worse: alcohol on wounds was far more painful than saltwater.
Hemlock was already much further out, riding the waves or swimming against them. To her mild, and somewhat guilty, satisfaction, she noted that he wasn't any better a swimmer than she was. She wasn't in any mood to actually make much of an effort against the current, so she got past the worst of the aquatic turbulence where the water met the shoreline, then lay back and floated with her eyes shut, letting the combination of water and sun relax her. Tropical waters weren't nearly as rough as the colder oceans of her homeworld, or the choppy turmoil of Atu's seas, and the waves hardly moved her. Her only real worry was whether it was late enough in the day that she wouldn't burn, but she guessed it was, so didn't worry too much about it.
After an indiscriminate amount of time-- minutes? hours?-- Shoel had drifted into a half-awake doze, contentedly floating along and not caring if she ended up sunburned. She'd been lazily considering making her way back to the shore, or at least looking to see what happened to Hemlock, when a sudden shadow passed over her, much too dark to be a cloud. And besides, the sky had been cloudless when she'd first closed her eyes. Then what...?
Shoel opened her eyes to see a shadowed face looming over her, and gave a little squeak of surprise, losing her buoyancy and dunking under the water. Someone grabbed her sides and helped her surface again and she came up, gasping and sputtering, to the sound of Hemlock laughing uproariously. She blinked water out of her eyes once she'd gotten her footing on the shallow, sandy bottom, then pulled her hair-- which had largely come free from its braiding-- out of her face irritably to glare at him. He only laughed harder, which didn't help her annoyance.
Then a thought struck her, and with a malicious grin, she grabbed him around the waist, kicking his feet out from under him, and dragged him under the water. With a yelp Hemlock went under, not quite quick enough on closing his mouth or ending his astonishment. He flailed around, and she let him go, laughing, now, herself. She swallowed it, though, when he stood up, coughing and sputtering at the water. His dark hair was in complete disarray, hanging down in his face in tangles. "Stop trying to drown me!" he managed to spit, then returned to coughing and trying to catch his breath. She pounded helpfully on his back and pushed some hair out of his eyes.
"I was not trying to drown you," she chuckled. "Just dunk you for a minute! Now we're even."
"Hmph, even," Hemlock grunted, then suddenly grinned and gave her a strong shove, which she fell with, laughing. The grin had given him away, so she was ready, and she didn't go under, just shot backwards a little through the water, making waves.
"Now I'm going to have to get you back for that, too!" she warned playfully.
"Oh, what, actually drown me?" Hemlock taunted.
"Well, that wouldn't be even, now, would it?" she retorted, then took a quick breath and dove under, circling him under the water until she was coming at him from the side, and made a grab for his ankles, another attempt at pulling him down with her. She got a hold of him, all right, but he was waiting for her and had both hands on her head, pushing her away and down. She squealed under the water, appearing as a cloud of bubbles, and clung to his feet, kicking under the water in an attempt to resist the pressure. In desperation, she wiggled a couple fingers under his foot and tickled.
Instantly his hands let up on her head, and he tried to stumble backwards away from her. She couldn't let go fast enough, and he ended up submerging with a tumultuous splash. Shoel surfaced immediately, gasping and laughing. Hemlock surfaced just after, shaking his tangled hair out of his face again. "That was dirty!" he exclaimed breathlessly.
"I didn't know you were ticklish!" she protested between laughs.
"You still tickled me!" He swung his arm at the water, sending a wall of it towards her. She tried to block with her hands, sputtered when it hit, then return-splashed. In the water's wake, she pounced, hands extended for his sides to tickle, again. She caught him, and he let out a strangled squawk full of held-back laugher, shoving at her and trying to get away.
"There's no escape!" she crowed, and kept on tickling. She was stronger than he was, and this time she had the upper hand!
"You're cruel!" Hemlock gasped, laughing despite all his attempts to strangle it. In a desperate last attempt to flee, he threw himself backwards and into the water, taking her with him with a little yelp of laughing surprise. She released him, then, and swam out of the way, giggling.
"All right, no more!" she promised, grinning widely once he'd surfaced again.
For the third or fourth time Hemlock forced his wet hair out of his face, getting rather annoyed with it. "Now you're going to use that against me forever...."
"I will not!" she protested cheerfully, back-stroking back towards shore. "Just every once in a while!" Hemlock frowned at her, then suddenly, before she could even guess what the expression meant, tackled her. She went under with a yelp, then lost what little air was in her lungs into an explosion of silent laughter bubbles as he proceeded to mete out the same "punishment" she'd just given him, tickling her stomach and sides in very successful attempt to get even.
Thankfully, he let her up before she drowned herself-- though it was a close thing!-- and she swam away from him as quickly as she could, gasping. "Bastard!" she laughed breathlessly, meaning it quite less spitefully than she had thought it earlier.
"Can't you think of anything better to call me?" Hemlock called, swimming towards her. "Like, I don't know, bitter old fogey?"
"But 'bastard' is just so expressive!" she called back, angling for shore again. "Besides, 'bitter old'-- what was that? Fogey? It hardly applies! Since when does tickling make anyone bitter or old?"
"I just thought it might be more fitting than 'bastard'!"
Shoel's pumping arms found sand, and she levered herself to her feet, splashing the last few feet to shore and dropping down to sit in the sand, facing the water, and catch her breath. "If it really bothers you, I'll stop."
"I'm just messing with you." He followed her out of the water not soon after, trying in vain to keep his wet hair out of his face. "Ugh, I need a haircut...."
"Oh, it's not so bad," she countered lightly, lifting a hand as he sat down beside her to brush it back, herself. He looked a little surprised, and she dropped her hand again, folding her arms over her knees. "If you kept it back, it wouldn't be such a hassle." Not that she could really say much; her own had been braided back, and it was still fairly messy. Not as bad as his, or course, but she expected it to curl around her face in a very haphazard manner once it dried.
"Would also be less trouble if it were shorter."
"You'd hardly look like you with short hair."
"How's that? I'd still have the same face, just less messiness."
Shoel shrugged. "I don't know... it's just part of you, I guess. Like me chopping all my hair off. It wouldn't be the same."
"You'd look like a man, probably."
"A very curly-haired man," she agreed. "But I like your hair."
"Why do you like it?" Hemlock asked, pulling a tendril down to glare at it. "It's always tangled and in the way."
"Why do you like my hair?" she retorted. "It's always tangled and unmanageable, too."
"I like long hair on girls," Hemlock said with a shrug. "Mine just makes me look that much more feminine, though."
Shoel shook her head. "Never mind. You can cut it, if that's what you want. I'm not stopping you."
"Don't see why you care, anyway," Hemlock grumbled. "You'll probably go back to Atu soon, then I can go back to being a total bastard."
"Probably not, actually," she reminded him, resting her chin on her arms across her knees. "If I bond, I'm staying a couple years, until it's grown. But you can go back to being a total bastard if you really want to; after the hatching I can't imagine Jasien will make you shadow me anymore...."
"He said until you return home," Hemlock reminded her, picking sand out of his hair with a frown.
"Mmm." She gazed out over the water. "Well, I won't report you if you get tired of it and decide to leave...."
"Well it's not like I get my possessions back until you leave," he sighed. Shoel couldn't think of an answer to that, so she didn't try. They'd gone from playing around in the water to talking about him being free from the obligation of her. She felt vaguely like she'd missed something, but she just silently chalked it up to just not understanding people, Hemlock least of all.
"Aren't you ready to go home yet?"
"I suppose the peace and quiet would be nice... but I don't really do much of anything, at home. Read, sword practice, magic practice, take a job now and then...." She shrugged a bit. "At least here there's company, and something worthwhile to do."
"Not particularly good company," Hemlock responded dryly.
"Oh, I don't know. We were having fun a few minutes ago. Or, I was, anyway."
"Rare occasion," he said, rolling his eyes.
"Charter take it, Hemlock!" she exclaimed. "How can you go from wanting to be touchy last night, to horsing around today, to now insisting I shouldn't even enjoy your company? You're more moody than I am!"
" ... Touchy?" he gave her a look out of the corner of his eye, raising an eyebrow. "You make it sound like... gods."
"Don't even try to change the subject. You know what I meant."
"So what if I am?" Hemlock retorted in answer to her original comment, glaring at her. "I just realized how strange it is."
"Strange? That someone actually likes spending time with you? I'd have thought you'd be pleased. I sure would."
"More like someone when I met them tried to kill me," Hemlock growled, swiping at the sand. "At best you should be afraid I will enthrall your Shadow Hand or something."
How many times do I have to tell him I know I was being an idiot back then? Charter take it, either he's an idiot or I still am. She got up and trudged across the sand towards her things. "Fine, whatever. If you don't want my company, I've got a new book just begging to be read."
Hemlock remained sitting on the beach, not even looking at her. It wasn't until she'd already buckled her sword back on that he asked, "A book on what?"
"Folk tales, if you must know," she answered glumly, picking up her boots and stuffing the unused gauze into her belt.
"Why bother to read about those? They're mostly just nonsense."
"Because they're interesting," she shot back, and stalked off across the sand, back towards the inn.
"Well, enjoy rotting your brain," Hemlock called after her, laying down in the sand. She ignored him and left him there, to do whatever it was he did in his free time.
Shoel's abilities and homeworld are copyrighted to Garth Nix.
Quote borrowed from Garth Nix's book, Lirael, from The Book of the Dead.