Actions

Work Header

Chasing Shadows

Work Text:

Even among mages, rumors travel faster than magewind; and so Vetch hears whispers about the new student well before he first sets eyes on him, and for a long time after. Some say he is a shy awkward goat-herder who will not last long before fleeing back home; some say he is a nobleman's son, surly and irritable and proud; some say he is a master wizard in disguise, come for some unknown test.

Vetch, for his part, says little, but he listens to the rumors with little concern. Sparrowhawk is Sparrowhawk, and he needs no more than that.

His first perception of the other boy, when Jasper brings him to the Long Table the first noonmeal, is that he is proud and stiff and ill-at-ease, and is easy to take offense and reluctant to forgive. There is also power to him, of the sort that gives sharp edges to shadows and light, and Vetch thinks he will either go far or burn out fast, and he can't tell which.

But there is another side of Sparrowhawk that is not seen by most of the school. By the softer werelight of their evening chats, talking of home and of nothing and of everything, Sparrowhawk relaxes, becomes more human. And when Sparrowhawk goes off to study under the Master Namer, an isolating and grueling task, Vetch finds himself missing his company, and his world stabilizes again when Sparrowhawk returns.

After a time, it occurs to Vetch that he is perhaps a bit in love with Sparrowhawk.

Not entirely, of course, because wizards are by their very nature in love with their craft more than anything else, and nothing can surpass that. But he does come to Sparrowhawk's room one night, bearing a gift. For Sparrowhawk had returned from his time with the Master Namer with a companion, a wild untamable otak that the other students are envious of, or afraid of, or scornful of; in Vetch's eyes, the otak is an essential part of him.

It had taken Vetch time, amidst his studies, to carve a small wooden figure of an otak, and longer still to carve a second one when he finds he is dissatisfied with the first. The end result is just an approximation of an otak, but pleasing to hold, and Vetch brings it to Sparrowhawk and then halts before he reaches the open door, mentally cursing himself, for what would Sparrowhawk want with a wooden otak when he has the real thing?

But a flicker of werelight comes floating out of the door, casting dancing shadows everywhere, and Sparrowhawk's voice with it, drowsily cheerful, saying, "I know it is you, Vetch; come in, there is no need to wait on ceremony."

Vetch enters, and because he doesn't have the eloquent words that another might use, he simply holds out the carving, and says, "I made this, I thought maybe--" and Sparrowhawk murmurs a word and plucks the carving out of Vetch's hand. It flies steady through the air until it is trapped in Sparrowhawk's slender fingers, and then there is silence, as Sparrowhawk regards the carving with a curious expression that seems like mistrust.

"If you don't want it," Vetch says awkwardly, "you don't have to-- I mean, it isn't very good, and--"

Sparrowhawk shushes him, still staring intently at the carving as though it might give him answers to an unspoken question, the otak on his shoulder regarding Vetch with a similar expression. Vetch settles into silence, and then Sparrowhawk lifts his head and gives Vetch a brilliant smile, and Vetch feels warm inside.

#

Vetch tries to visit Sparrowhawk after the incident on Roke Knoll, but the Master Herbal does not let him; and so instead he talks to the otak, and wonders, once or twice, if part of Sparrowhawk's spirit has wandered into the little beast while his body recovers.

He wonders this again when he does finally sees Sparrowhawk, because it's a better explanation than some for what he sees; all of the pride and strength and everything that made him Sparrowhawk isn't there any more, just a hollow shell of scars and insecurities, head tilted to the side to half-hide the scars that stand out white and angry against the red-brown of his skin. Vetch stands tongue-tied for a moment, because this is not the Sparrowhawk he knows

The otak doesn't have Vetch's hesitation, but goes to Sparrowhawk like it's going home. Vetch misses the warmth on his shoulder, but he is glad to see the otak where it belongs, nestled against Sparrowhawk. Maybe, he thinks, it will whisper secrets to him in the dark of night, even though the otak makes no sound (except for once, a scream that Sparrowhawk had been unable to voice, that night when everything had been torn apart).

Vetch wants to stay longer than he can. It is unfortunate that this, the first time he has seen Sparrowhawk since the incident, is also the last, for he is to leave Roke. He wants to stay, but he cannot, and so he gives Sparrowhawk the gift of his name, his true-name. Sparrowhawk returns that gift, and there is a wild startled caution in his eyes that hurts Vetch to see.

When he turns to leave, Sparrowhawk says, "Wait," and Vetch does. "You should--" Sparrowhawk says haltingly, and hesitates, and says, "I--", and shakes his head, and then he is holding out the little otak carving. "It's to remember me by," he explains, awkward, "I have no skill, and I--" He falters, falls silent.

Vetch thinks he understands, but he does not yet reach out for it. "What do you have to remember me by, then?"

Sparrowhawk looks straight at him for a moment, and there is something in his expression that Vetch cannot name. "I can never forget you," he says, the words stumbling a little.

Neither can I, Vetch thinks.

"Take it," Sparrowhawk urges, and Vetch does; it is warm from the heat of Sparrowhawk's body, and Vetch curls his fingers around it. Sparrowhawk has half turned away again, shadowing the scars. Vetch reaches out and puts a hand on his shoulder, ignoring the flinch, and says, softly, "Thank you."

"You should go," Sparrowhawk mumbles, "your ship is waiting," and Vetch lingers for a moment more, as long as he dares, and then leaves.

#

It is years before he sees Sparrowhawk again, but he recognizes him on sight when he shows up in the village Quor. Vetch hails him, but there is no response. "Sparrowhawk," he calls, louder, but again, there is nothing; he does not stop, or turn, or speak. Vetch's steps slow; he feels cold. "Ged," he whispers, Sparrowhawk's true-name, and he thinks he sees a twitch, but it is likely as not his imagination; and when he hurries to catch up, Sparrowhawk is gone, leaving only shadows.

It is a strange thing indeed, and troubling, and so when he shows up three days later in Ismay, just as silent, Vetch puts his staff up as warding against whatever it might be. But this Sparrowhawk is not the same; he falters, looks uncertain, and says in a low uneasy voice, "I thought you would know me, Vetch."

And slowly, Vetch lowers the shield of his caution. "I do," he says, and something of Sparrowhawk's tension eases. This is not the strange not-Sparrowhawk that was in Quor, and yet also not the Sparrowhawk of Vetch's remembrances; there is a leanness to him, and a grim confidence.

But still it is Sparrowhawk, and Vetch is glad to see him.

They talk until dawn, speaking of trivialities and of things of great import, and Vetch has been home for years but this makes it more like home. It is comfortable, and a part of him wants to keep this moment forever, but that is not possible, would not be possible even if Sparrowhawk were not on this strange shadow-hunt.

Vetch isn't sure whether Sparrowhawk's hunt will be fruitful, but he does know that he'd follow him to the ends of the earth -- or beyond, which they end up doing, far beyond any existing land, until they wind up in the middle of deep water grounded on shadowland that could not possibly be. Sparrowhawk goes to fight the shadow that has been chasing him, and he becomes the shadow or the shadow becomes him, Vetch isn't quite sure, until he wakes and is himself, his true self, and Vetch is able to relax for the first time in days.

Sparrowhawk, too, seems more relaxed, but exhausted. He sleeps a lot on the way back (sixteen days to travel westward a distance that had taken three days to come eastward; things are strange, here, and do not follow the proper rules, as if the edges of the world do not have equilibrium), and Vetch spends time watching him sleep.

The otak, Vetch knows, is gone; Sparrowhawk had told him what happened, fragmented half-memories and uncertain truths. Vetch has been carrying the crude little otak carving with him, and he brings it out now, presses it into Sparrowhawk's palm. The shadow had completed some part of him, but not the same part that the otak had served, and even in his sleep, even though it is a carving and not the otak itself, Sparrowhawk seems to relax.

Vetch sleeps, and wakes again, and watches Sparrowhawk.

Now that the shadow-hunt is over, now that they are not pursuing or being pursued by the nameless dread, it is safer to use his powers, and so sometimes Vetch summons werelight to send a soft glow along Sparrowhawk's skin as he sleeps. It reminds him of being in school, and he remembers and feels old, and wonders if Sparrowhawk feels the same way.

And then at one point Sparrowhawk half wakes and murmurs something. Vetch bends close to hear better, but all that gets repeated is his name, his real name, Estarriol; he feels lips brushing his cheek, and he realizes that Sparrowhawk is holding his hand.

"I am glad you are with me," Sparrowhawk says, his voice thready with exhaustion.

"I could not be anywhere else," Vetch says, and it is the truth.

#

Vetch means to write a song of Sparrowhawk's shadow-hunt, and he does, but it shows too much of himself; and so he writes it out on parchment and then burns it and scatters the ashes into the shadows of the sea.