Sam emitted a low whistle and the paperwing adjusted its wings. Below him the kingdom was leaving behind the patchwork quilt of farms and fields, dark green forests taking over, swollen streams visible even from the paperwing. The sun was high in the sky and there were only a few scattered clouds, tiny white puffs of insignificance.
He looked over his shoulder, at Lirael, her hand glowing even brighter under the late spring sun. Lirael squinted slightly even through her goggles and Sam made made a note to bring a glove next flight. The gold had seemed an inspired choice at the time but he didn't want her to be blinded by her own golden hand mid air. As the hand's maker he'd probably be complicit.
Then he sighed, turning back to the paper in front of him. He muttered a few phrases, nothing distinct, shuffling several sheafs of paper about. He said a phrase several times, each time stressing a different word, before he sighed heavily, the paperwing rocking slightly as he leaned forward.
“I'm never going to get it right,” Sam muttered. “It feels like an impossibly hard Charter mark. At least it won't burn my tongue off if I say it wrong, though,” he added, sounding somewhat more upbeat. “No, no instead I could create a diplomatic incident.” He slumped into his seat, the little hammock swaying alarmingly under his weight.
“That would be unfortunate,” Lirael agreed.
“Ellimere would be so much better at this than me,” Sam said, “Oh and we'll want to start going left here. The air currents tend to be much more disagreeable up ahead.”
Lirael nodded, whistling several notes and the paperwing tilted left.
“I thought you were here last year?” Lirael asked.
“Oh yes,” Sam said, shrugging. “But last year they hadn't sent an envoy to Belisaere who insists on tutoring me in some of their language.”
“I remember,” Lirael said carefully, “You being pursued by a man in blue. Occasionally.” Her tone implied it was many times. But Sam was still getting to know Lirael, so he didn't comment.
“And I have tried,” Sam said, “But between all my other work, what happened in the North – I've only mastered a few phrases and they all just feel wrong.” He sighed heavily, feeling even guiltier that he was blaming an invasion he had barely had a role in.
Sam sighed again. He thought he heard some muffled laughter. He raised his head half heartedly.
“I'm sure it'll go fine,” she said, “And that...” her voice trailed off, and Sam's head jerked up. Both their gazes were drawn to the tall streams of smoke tearing through the clear blue sky. It was barely a smudge at the horizon but it was also exactly where they were heading. “That doesn't look normal, does it?” Lirael asked, biting the inside of her mouth.
“No,” Sam said slowly.
“Back in the Glacier… Growing up in the Clayr's Glacier, I'd never really seen chimney smoke. It was all funneled away somewhere, as foreseen by Clayr eons ago. But that doesn't look like chimney smoke.” Lirael started, her shoulders hunching further as she spoke.
Chimney smoke tended to be a light grey, tall streams arcing up into the sky for isolated homesteads. Smoke hanged over a town, houses squashed tightly together, a hundred or thousand chimneys all gushing out. This smoke was a dark grey, acrid tasting on the tongue, even this far away. Sam's stomach was heavy.
“No,” Sam said again, peering around her shoulder. He muttered several Charter marks in quick succession, Lirael watching with curious eyes. He made a note to tell her the marks later. Unlike Ellimere, or even really his mother or father, Lirael had an interest in the Charter that extended beyond the what could be useful. And Sam had been meaning to ask her more about Charter skins anyway. He shook his head, shaking away the thoughts swirling around his head. He needed to focus.
“Free Magic,” she gasped, nose twitching.
“It's near the Southerling settlement as well,” Sam said worriedly. “I can't see what's up ahead exactly, there's something distorting everything, but it looks like there's been an attack.”
The rest of the flight was largely conducted in silence, Lirael checking her bells and sword, Sam checking his sword, occasionally muttering a Charter mark of protection that wove around Lirael's hair, her surcoat. They were both wearing mail, fortunately, events hadn't settled enough for them to be foolhardy enough to go without.
As the paperwing approached the smoke, the paperwing jerked under under them, veering to the right. Lirael frowned, whistling several disappointing sounding notes. The paperwork dipped its wing, a sort of apology, and continued flying. They circled the smoke, several buildings destroyed, jagged wood like bones tearing into the air.
They saw no sign of life.
“I don't feel any Dead around,” Lirael said, not saying anything when Sam shuddered with relief.
“That's something,” he said, hating how his voice shook.
“We'll have to land,” she said and he murmured his assent before whistling for the paperwing to descend. Lirael whistled at the same time and the paperwing dipped a wing disapprovingly. Sam cleared his throat and shrugged his shoulders.
“Habit,” he said, the clouds zooming above them as they descended.
They landed in a dirt patch several yards away from the last traces of scorched earth. They exited slowly, Lirael going first while Sam watched, one hand on his sword. When Sam landed next to her with a soft thud, Lirael jerked her chin to the destroyed buildings. “We'll check this out before searching the surrounding area,” she said.
Sam nodded. Lirael looked at him, wide eyed and he smiled at her. She swallowed and nervously stepped forward. There was an odd line to her shoulders. He followed her, not saying a word as they searched through the remains. The corners of his mouth down turned when he noticed several distinct blue headscarves, stained grey by the ash, scattered in the dirt.
“No bodies,” Lirael said, the words tumbling out of her lips like a fast moving creek. "It doesn't feel like anyone has died here. Not for years."
“No,” Sam said tensely.
Nothing but ash and smoke and the acrid smell of Free Magic warping their lungs.
“Has,” Sam bit his lip, “Has anyone been into Death nearby?”
Lirael paused, shut her eyes for a moment before decisively shaking her head. “No,” she said.
It did nothing to shake the uneasy feelings at the pit of their stomachs.
There's nothing really left, just the husks of new buildings, scraps of blue fabric. Nothing that tells them what happened. They get back into the paperwing quietly, Sam buried his head in notes, the text blurring in front of his eyes.
“We'll find out what happened,” Lirael said, turning her head slightly so that their eyes meet.
The paperwing rose quickly, Lirael whistling alone this time, Sam lost in his thoughts.
The rest of the flight passed quickly, Sam theorising a thousand possibilities about what could have happened – only sharing the most likely with Lirael. She nodded or hummed when he mentioned something, adding her own aside when she thought she could add something useful. But soon silence settled in between them.
Lirael stared grimly ahead, her golden hand glowing softly as the sun shifted from the peak of the sky. She swallowed her throat dry, tasting ash and her stomach flipped. It was times like these that she felt most unworthy to be the next Abhorsen. She didn't know the answers and it bit at her.
When it was almost time for them to land, the sky streaked orange, smoke threaded through the setting sun rays, Sam spoke again. “It just doesn't make sense,” he murmured, sinking deeper into his hammock like seat.
“They often don't,” Lirael said and for a moment she sounded like his mother and Sam was both awed and horrified. She was going to be the next Abhorsen, he thought, when mother died. And the thought, the idea, twisted in his head. He'd grown up thinking that when his mother died – darkly thinking that it would be sooner and later, his mother couldn't be lucky forever – he'd be the Abhorsen. That wasn't his path now.
“We're nearly there,” Sam said, pointing to the small village. He had another path now.
But first he'd have to find it.
There's a quiet gathering of Southerlings awaiting them. Even from the sky they seem solemn, faces upturned like flowers, solemn as night owl. When Lirael and Sam dismount from the paperwing, Lirael can hear someone sobbing gently, off in the distance. Two people approach them quickly, a man and woman, both middle aged. The man's eyes were rimmed red and the woman had a nervous smile playing across her face.
Lirael stepped back, letting Sam speak. They don't wince at his terrible accent, but the woman's eyes dart to his feet, ash still on his boots. Sam didn't seem to notice, stringing his hands together and giving them both a mournful look. He's worried about his accent, Lirael realised.
“You already know what happened,” Lirael said, watching carefully. The man jumped, the woman stepped back, they exchange hasty glances.
The man opened his mouth – to lie, Lirael had already decided – when the woman roughly shook her head, cutting him off.
“Not here,” she said quietly, so it couldn't travel beyond the four of them. “Somewhere quieter,” she said over her shoulder, turning and facing the crowd, a smile frozen on her face. The crowd watched them as they walk through, Sam stumbling through greetings that sound wrong even to Lirael's ears. He only gets a few replies, the people's faces too ashen. Eventually he stopped.
They follow, Lirael running a hand down the bells on her chest, people cringing away from her. She dropped her hand, the gold dulling as the sun set. The night came quickly, winter not too far behind them.
The people disperse slowly, suspicious glances, angry looks passing over their heads. Lirael breathed out slowly. Sam was frowning, shoulders drawn up high. She spared a worry for the paperwing but if things truly did get that bad, Lirael would have a dozen other more important things to worry about.
They settle in one of the biggest buildings in the small settlement. The fire was heaped with logs, warm against Lirael's back. The windows are small and high up in the walls. Lirael hasn't seen all of the old kingdom but she suspected that was a Southerling tradition. The woman set out four mugs, then the man poured out mulled wine.
The woman said for a while, staring at the wine, her gaze unfocused. “I am Sira and this my cousin Tomas. I came with the first wave. My brothers had already ventured across the Wall. They never came back. We couldn't even bury their bones.”
“Burying the dead is very important, back home,” Tomas added. “But here the Dead can emerge the next day.”
They both shuddered, dread palpable, shoulders hunched.
“Some keep to the old traditions,” Sira said slowly. “Secretly, in the silent night, they bury the bodies. They're scolded the next day,” she said, shrugging carefully, “But it was what our people have always done. We've had to change so much, who could blame them when they wanted to keep one tradition,” she murmured.
Lirael stayed silent. Sam was staring at the two with shock on his face, hands spread wide on the table.
“Niko was troubled,” Lira breathed, “She had witnessed so much before, been made to do terrible things. She didn't settle well here, longed for home.”
“She's the one responsible for the burnt out houses,” Lirael said.
Sira nodded tightly.
“We didn't find any bodies,” Lirael said.
Tomas turned in on himself, sobbing, hands covering his face. Sira sighed heavily, seeming to age a decade, before she spoke again.
“And in the night, the earth started to move and bodies vanished,” Sira said, hanging her head. “We started burning bodies, most of us,” she said. “It was only a few days ago we discovered that Niko had been, had been doing something impossible.”
“Why didn't you tell us earlier?” Sam broke in, frowning over steepled fingers.
Sira shrugged slowly.
Meeting his gaze, Lirael shook her head quickly and he exhaled, settling back into his chair.
“We'll sleep for a few hours, wait till the moon has risen,” Lirael said, standing. “Then we'll find this Niko.”
“What will you do?” Tomas asked, hands clasped around his mug, wine on his lips. His hands were shaking but his eyes didn't look away from Lirael.
Lirael paused. “If she has been raising the Dead or communicating with Free Magic creatures, it breaks the highest laws of the land.”
Sira and Tomas exchanged heavy glances.
They are shown a place to sleep. Sam didn't say anything for long moments after the final candle was extinguished. Lirael had her eyes open though and could see him moving restlessly on the other bed.
“If we'd come a few days earlier, maybe they could have been saved,” Sam whispered.
Lirael was silent, hands clenching under the covers. She though anyone else would have been better at this than her. Nick would have said some pithy and comforted Sam. Ellimere would have brushed away his worries. Touchstone and Sabriel would have known the perfect thing to say, surely they must have questioned themselves a thousand times before.
"They were already dead," Lirael murmured and she felt immediately that it was the wrong thing to say.
"Still," Sam said.
“Maybe,” Lirael said. “But we can't be everywhere at once.”
“No,” Sam said. “I suppose I haven't invented that device yet.”
They didn't say anything else until someone knocked at the door. Lirael started, hand reaching for the bells, her sword. Before she realised it was just a wake up knock. She relaxed, muscles untensing. She had barely noticed falling asleep. She yawned. And her body had barely noticed her getting any sleep, she though wryly. She swung her feet onto the ground, wincing at the cold wood. She knew she should have kept her socks on.
She walked over to Sam, who was still turning restlessly in his bed. She cleared her throat. Sam seemed to bury deeper into his blankets. Lirael hesitated and then placed a hand on his shoulder, gently shaking him. Sam gasped, lurching up, face white in the limited light. He stared sightlessly for a moment before his gaze swiveled to Lirael.
“The moon has risen,” Lirael said, jerking her head to the window. Through the blue curtains a sliver of light slid into the room.
They got dressed quickly, backs turned after Lirael had lit a candle. When the bells were placed across her chest, Lirael took a deep breath, running her hand up and down the bells, from smallest to biggest, silently saying their names from Ranna to Astarael, hand resting longer on Kibeth.
Tomas and Sira were waiting for them after they had descended the stairs. From their ashen expressions, Lirael guessed neither had slept. Tomas rushed over, eyebrows lowered.
“There's been signs of fire out west,” he murmured quickly. “About half a mile away from here. No one has settled there, yet, but the young ones used to go over there.”
“You always need space from your elders at that age,” Sira said, shrugging her shoulders sadly. “I've never been there. It is up a hill.”
Of course it was, Lirael thought. So whoever was watching, possibly Niko, would be able to see whoever was approaching.
“Thank you,” she murmured, bowing her head to them both. “You've been very helpful.”
Sira nodded, drawing herself up. “We're not all like this,” she said, casting a sidelong look to Sam, “Just a few who don't know any better.”
“There's always a few like that,” Sam said, almost absently, his hand on his sword, his gaze at the door. “But then there's people like you.”
Sira let out a long shuddering breath, turning away from Sam. Her head lowered, blue scarf hiding her features.
“We'll hopefully see you in the morning,” Lirael said, standing.
They left the village quietly, only a few candles in the windows behind them. The moon was high in the sky, stars glittering down coldly. Bright enough that Lirael wasn't willing to risk a few Charter marks to light the way.
It was easy enough to find the path Tomas had said they would find. The children, young adults really, hadn't hid it. Lirael squinted at the soft dirt in front of her. There were footprints but in the moonlight she couldn't tell if they had been made hours ago or days ago.
It was a slow and winding path, thickets and bushy trees on either side of them.
“How do you think we should approach this?”
Lirael felt her stomach drop. “Um. Well. I thought we'd see what faced us and then. Stop it from happening again?”
“She's only a kid,” Sam said, sighing heavily. Lirael's lips quirked. Sam was barely twenty but he'd spent the last few months referring to anyone younger than him as a 'kid'.
“Then we'll see what we can do to save her,” Lirael said, feeling uneasy. She looked down at her bells, wishing there was one for turning back time.
They were both silent after that.
Near the top of the hill, Lirael started to see orange flickers through the leaves. She paused, Sam stopping closer enough that she felt his breath on the back of her neck. She pointed up ahead.
“Understood,” Sam murmured. Then Lirael hissed.
The girl was sitting by the bonfire, brown hair on her shoulders, staring aimlessly into the flames. But it wasn't her that made Lirael unnerved.
It was the Free Magic creature on her shoulder.
Small and grey, reddish patterns snaking down its twisted torso. Its tongue flickered out, the edge touching the girl's cheek. The girl shivered but her gaze didn't shift the fire. There was a glazed expression on her face.
“I've only read about them,” Lirael murmured, edging closer to Sam. “They're deep underground Free Magic creatures. They used to be found when the Clayr were first evacuating the Glacier. But they haven't been found in centuries.”
“Can they be killed? Or bound?” Sam asked.
“The old Clayr used to bind it with starlight and breath,” Lirael said quietly. “The language was old and hard to read. I'm not sure if I remember the details correctly.”
They stared across at Niko and the Free Magic creature. Lirael's stomach felt thick and heavy, as if she had just swallowed a chunk of lead.
The creature jerked its head to the side, eyes narrowing across the circle of dirt to where Sam and Lirael were standing.
“Do you think it saw us?” Sam whispered, hand clenching on his sword, other hand half raised, ready to cast a Charter spell.
“Yes,” she breathed out.
The girl started as the creature hissed, raising itself off her body, long tail lashing at the ground. Niko stared wild eyed into the trees, blinded by the bonfire. Lirael's lips curled at the taste of Free Magic, thick and heavy in the air, overpowering the smoke.
“We'll try and separate them,” Lirael said, barely waiting for Sam to nod. She darted forward, the bells a heavy comfort against her chest.
Her sword was out fairly smoothly, only catching on the scabbard briefly and Lirael promised to herself she would train with Touchstone, next time she was back in Belisaere. The fire lit up the blade, Charter marks flaring strongly. Niko scrambled back, eyes wide.
“I didn't meant it,” she yelped. "They were my friends! My family!"
But Lirael only had eyes for the Free Magic creature. It had risen on its thin legs, long tail sweeping harsh patterns into the dirt.
The fire crackled between them and when the Free Magic creature lunged, its body seemed to stretch and multiply. Lirael squared her feet, shoulders up, sword between her and the creature.
It rebounded off her sword, curling in on itself. It hissed at her before launching herself back at Niko. It wrapped its body around Niko's body and growled into her ear. The girl looked between Lirael and Sam, her whole body shaking. Then she started to hum.
The hair on the back of Lirael's neck rose.
“Sam!” she exclaimed. “I can sense the Dead.”
She thought she only sensed two. Only Dead Hands. They were clad in Southerling blue and lumbered toward Lirael but she knew they were stronger than they looked.
“Take care of her, I'll handle the Hands,” and Lirael didn't wait before darting forward, golden hard flashing under the fire light. The Hands were weaker than she was used to. And it wasn't because she had gotten so much better at fighting or Charter magic.
Niko wasn't good at controlling them. Lirael's gaze flitted to the Free Magic creature. It was glowing blue, bright blue Charter marks running up and down its body. Niko was screaming, twisting her body with agony, the marks leaving vivid red splotches across her cheeks.
The air twisted between them and Lirael stepped forward, almost losing her footing. The Dead were close enough that she could smell them, rotting flesh sliding off their bones.
The air rippled and the breath was taken from Lirael's throat. Sam was screaming and the trees above them bent out of shape, exposing the moon and the stars above them. The fire roared above them, flames flaring out. The fire lapped at the flesh of the Dead Hands and Lirael forced herself to move, sword and Kibeth chiming to force them into the fire. Above it all the Free Magic creature was shrieking, a sound that rattled Lirael's bones.
Then just as quick, everything settled, and the fire shrank.
Lirael blinked several times, wiping away ash. The smoke stung at her eyes, water streaking through the grey smudges on her cheeks.
Sam had already gotten a glass container out of his bag and after muttering several Charter spells, the Free Magic creature shrank further, body slithering into the glass container. Only when the stopper was placed back on the glass contained did Lirael relax slightly.
Niko lay between them.
Lirael looked over to Sam. He stared down at her.
“Is she,” Lirael started and stepped back when Niko groaned, twisting on the ground. She stared blankly up at the sky. The left side of her face, the side facing the fire was red. She blinked, slow.
“Should we take her back to the village?” Sam asked.
Lirael bit her lip before shaking her head.
“She broke the kingdom's laws. We'll take her to Belisaere,” Lirael said. She watched the girl sit up and stare hallowly up at them. She was younger than them both, a kid, barely more than a slip of a thing. But she had still summoned the Dead. Lirael exhaled, trying to rid the taste of Free Magic from her mouth.
“I didn't mean it,” Niko muttered, wrapping her arms around herself. “Everything was so strange,” she shuddered, sobs emerging from her throat.
“I'm not sure if she would be welcome back, right now, but maybe,” she turned to Sam, shrugging. Tomas and Sara hadn't wanted her to kill Niko but she wasn't sure if they would welcome her back either. And after communing with a Free Magic creature, Lirael didn't trust Niko here, on the edge of the kingdom, far away from Charter Stones and Charter Mages.
But he was nodding watching Niko cry with a sad look on his face. She still stank of Free Magic, enough that it curdled the air in Sam and Lirael's throats.
“They said they would obey the laws of the land when they settled here,” he said said but then he frowned, looking disappointed. “But I haven't told them all they should know.”
Lirael watched him for several moments.
“I'll take her,” she said, deciding. “You remain here. When I return, I can bring you back to Belisaere.”
“Maybe I was staying there too much,” Sam mused. “Wallmakers used to journey amongst the people.”
Lirael stared up at the night sky. The stars didn't call her name.
She looked over at Sam.
“I might join you,” Lirael said, her lips quirking up. “I haven't see much of the kingdom.”