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by blood and breath

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After Orannis’ defeat, it was clear that it was past time to reclaim the lost portion of the Old Kingdom. Sam didn’t regret his promise to the Southerlings that they would have citizenship if they obeyed him during that last, desperate battle, but it did mean that they had to reclaim the land to be given to them first. The first step would be to reforge the Charter stones. Sam knew that his father had been doing that for almost two decades. He was surprised to see how tired and worn he looked. The cuts on his hands Sam had grown used to seeing over the years, but the more obvious signs of the strain were frightening. His father had never looked so old, with lines carved into his face and grey hairs coming in thick. It was hard to believe that he was not quite forty.

“Ellimere,” his father said, carefully. “You’ll be responsible for things while I’m away.”

“Of course,” Ellimere said quickly, the pinch between her brows making it quite clear that she saw the same signs that Sam did. She glanced quickly between her parents before saying forcefully, “though are you sure you can’t wait one more day?”

“No, we’ve waited long enough.”

Sam and Ellimere exchanged worried looks, and it was this that spurred Sam to speak.

“No,” he said. “I’ll go.”

There was a moment of absolute silence.

“What about Aunt Lirael’s hand?” Ellimere said, looking utterly scandalised. “Honestly Sam, you can’t leave things unfinished. Especially not the future Abhorsen’s hand. I’ll go.”

“How is her hand going, Sameth?” Touchstone said. “I’ve heard you’ve been asking all the guards to lend you their hands.”

Sam winced. Over the last few weeks he had been asking various members of the guard to let him draw Charter marks on their hands so that he could study how their hands moved to compare it to the hands of his family. He hadn’t thought that news would travel to his father so quickly.

“I…” he started and then took a breath. “I need to do something else while I think about it. I’m stuck.”

“All right,” Touchstone said. “Ellimere, are Sameth’s responsibilities something that can be delegated?”

Ellimere looked unhappy at this, but she nodded. “I can do them.”

“No,” Sam said. He remembered Mogget saying that Ellimere took on all responsibilities because she believed only she could do them and the world would fall down around them otherwise. The old Sam might have gone along with it, but the new Sam knew better now. It was time to grow up. Besides, it turned out that the cases for adjudication were quite interesting, and Sam had enjoyed reading those and deliberating which one was telling the truth, or how much of the truth had been told at all. “I’ve done most of them already, and the rest will be fine.”

Ellimere blinked in surprise. “Are you sure?” she said.

“Yes,” Sam said firmly. “I’m sure.”

“All right then,” she said, sounding very dubious. Sam wasn’t sure that he would have noticed the uncertainty before helping to save the world from Orannis. Maybe growing up meant becoming more perceptive of others. “But he can’t go alone. I should--”

“I’ll accompany him,” Sabriel said, her hand touching her bandolier briefly. “It’s been far too long since an Abhorsen walked that part of the Kingdom.”

“Mother!” Ellimere said sharply. “You’ve only just come back! You need to rest.”

Sam had to agree. There was grey in her hair that had not been there before, and while he had personally drawn the Charter mark on her leg, she was still limping while it worked to repair torn muscle. His own leg ached in sympathy, and he had no idea how she was still standing.

“Mother, it’s fine,” Sam said quickly. “I’m just restoring the Charter stone and coming back. It won’t take long.”

“Sameth,” Sabriel said with a faint smile. “When you’re older, you’ll understand that nothing is that simple.”

*

They left just before dawn, as that was the easiest time to whistle the winds to lift the Paperwing. Whistling the winds had always come easily to Sam, and he spared a moment to wonder why it took him so long to realise what he was meant to be. Perhaps Lirael wasn’t the only one who had wilfully closed their eyes to what they should be.

Once aloft, Sam pulled a small wind-up windmill out of a belt pouch. He whistled to it once, then set the blades in motion with a finger.

“It’s not very good at steering,” Sam said, placing it on the bow of the Paperwing so that the adhesive marks bonded windmill to Paperwing. “But it’ll carry this course until it’s told to stop.”

“Is this the toy Ellimere said you were working on?” Sabriel said, leaning forward to examine the windmill as it turned.

“Yes,” Sam said, the corner of his mouth lifting in a self-deprecating smile. “It’s a prototype for Father’s birthday gift. I thought if he didn’t have to worry about steering the Paperwing in the air, he wouldn’t be as exhausted when he returned home.”

“He’ll appreciate it,” Sabriel said, taking a step back. “As I did with the frog.”

Sam didn’t know what to say to this. “I hope so,” he said awkwardly. “I just want the things I make be useful. Even if they are just silly little toys.”

“You are useful,” Sabriel said. He didn’t know how to respond to this, so he focused on steering the Paperwing to the land past Edge.

*

“We’re close,” Sabriel said a few hours later. Sam nodded. He could tell.

Even at this distance, Sam could feel the broken Charter stone. When he was much younger, he had fallen out of a tree at school and broken his arm, and he still remembered the sick, dizzying pain that had radiated up his arm. This was much the same, only centred on what made him Sam as opposed to just his arm, and he remembered the old rhyme about how the Charter stones were part of what was left of the Wallmakers before him. It was a sobering thought.

“It will get worse,” Sabriel said, resting her hand on his arm.

“I could protect the Paperwing’s Charter marks, so that we could fly longer.” The necessary marks sat at the tip of his tongue, and while he didn’t recognise them, he knew they would insulate the Paperwing’s marks of flight from the corrosive effects of the broken Charter stone.

For a moment Sabriel said nothing, and eventually Sam looked at her. She was regarding him carefully. The only sign of her surprise was the way that her brows knit together.

“Mother?”

“Yes,” she said finally. “May I watch you do it?”

“Yes, of course.” Sam could feel his mother’s regard as he sketched out the marks and spoke them aloud but didn’t let that distract him from his task. He wasn’t sure where the marks had come from, which happened sometimes when he used the Charter. He asked, and the Charter gave him marks of shielding and protection, and of generating a protective membrane of life around them. The marks were tricky and powerful, and made all the more so by the way that the Charter felt wrong around him. He heaved a sigh of relief when the spell took hold, sheathing the Paperwing.

“That was remarkable,” Sabriel said. “Well done.”

Sam smiled then, ducking his head. “Thanks. I’m just relieved it worked.”

“I don’t think many Charter mages could do that,” she continued. “You walk a strange path, Sam.”

“You said something like that before,” Sam said, returning his gaze to the horizon.

“Yes, I did,” Sabriel said. “I’d been concerned when we thought you were going to be the Abhorsen after me. You would have done your duty, and I would have been proud of your accomplishments, but I don’t think you would have been happy.”

“No,” Sam said. While the realisation that he was not going to be the Abhorsen after his mother had come as a great relief, confessing to his mother that he would have been miserable still felt uncomfortable. “No, I wouldn’t have been happy at all.”

“And now you’re something that we haven’t seen for a thousand years,” she said. “Do you know what you’ll do now?”

“I think so,” Sam said. “Aunt Lirael’s hand is harder than I thought it would be, and there are more broken Charter Stones than I realised. After that … I’m sure something will come up.”

“Yes,” Sabriel said. “Something always does.”

The Paperwing soared through the air, and Sam’s attention was diverted towards maintaining the Charter marks protecting them instead of thinking about what his mother had said. As they flew closer to the Charter stone, the marks would begin to unravel, and he would have to recast them or hold them in place by will so that they didn’t fall from the sky. He sensed the Paperwing’s descent and blinked in surprise. He hadn’t noticed his mother guiding the Paperwing to ground.

“You’ll need that strength later,” Sabriel said with a faint smile as she ruffled his hair. “You’ve done well; we’re only a few hours’ walk away.”

*

When they had set off from Belisaere, Sam had thought that the walk to the Charter stone would be difficult but not overwhelmingly so. He had read the accounts of people who lived near broken Charter stones, how the wrongness made you feel sick to your stomach, how it drew the Dead. He thought he was ready.

“How do you do this?” he said, swallowing hard as they came up to the hill overlooking the stone. As they came closer to it, Sam started to shiver. The encroaching chill meant that the Dead were near. “You and Father? You’ve been doing this for decades.”

“We’ve had two good reasons to press on,” Sabriel said, her jaw tight against the nausea.

It took Sam a long moment to realise what she meant. “Oh,” he said. “We can help now.”

“You are,” Sabriel said. “The Dead are quiet for now.” She pulled Ranna from her bandolier. “Do you know what to do?”

Sam nodded and ran. He could hear the peal of Ranna behind him as his mother rang it, and prayed to the Charter that that would be enough. His sense of Death never went away, but it didn’t increase either, though that might have something to do with how pervasively wrong the Charter became closer to the Charter stone.

Now that he was in front of the broken Charter stone, Sam thought he might understand in time what the Wallmakers had done to make it. Now wasn’t the time to think about that though, and he cut his hand open and smeared his blood onto the stone, drawing the Charter marks with his bloody fingers.

“By Wallmaker blood you were made, and by Wallmaker blood you will be remade,” he said as his fingers finished the marks.

Repairing the Charter stone wasn’t like how he thought it would be. It wasn’t difficult at all. It was like building his home, each brick imbued with everything that made him Prince Sameth of the Old Kingdom, with each brick also being a channel for the Charter magic that made him up.

He could stay here, he realised. It might be best to. The old Wallmakers had slipped into the Wall and the Charter stones a thousand years earlier to safeguard the Old Kingdom and Anceltierre from the threat of the Dead. This could be what he was born for, what he was meant to do. It was a tempting thought, to have a purpose like how everyone in his family had one. Being a Wallmaker was what he was, not what he did, and he had no idea what he was meant to do now. Maybe casting his life into the stone was what he was destined to do.

But then he remembered Ellimere, determined to rule the Kingdom at least as well as their parents, who would burn herself out if she didn’t have a younger sibling to share the workload with. He remembered his father’s gift that was still in pieces in his workshop, the Charter marks for the lift and thrust of the Paperwing lying quiescent until he brought them to life. He remembered his parents, slicing off pieces of their lives to protect the kingdom and, he realised, him and Ellimere. And he remembered Lirael, who had helped save a friend and the world, and who would never be able to complete her task as Abhorsen without both hands.

He couldn’t abandon them, not and remain Prince Sameth, even if he didn’t yet know who that person was. If he abandoned them now, he never would know what he could be, and he refused the offer to stay inside the Charter stone. Having decided this, he had the most peculiar feeling of having passed a test as he withdrew from the Charter and stood, blinking, at the afternoon sun and the diamond of protection that his mother must have drawn around him. He didn’t know what had tested him. Maybe it was his predecessors. Maybe he had imagined it. What he did know was what was in front of him: his mother, frowning in concern, a bell in hand. His vision was too blurry to identify which one.

“It’s done,” he said, his voice strained, and sat down heavily on the ground.

“The first is always the hardest,” Sabriel said, kneeling down next to him. Sam leaned against her and closed his eyes.

“We’ve never really understood you, have we,” his mother mused. He could feel her smooth his hair away from his face. “You need to stop trivialising your inventions as mere toys. Though I suppose we’re also to blame for that.”

“Not really,” he said. He realised after saying this that he meant it. “I wanted to follow you.”

“I’m glad you tried,” Sabriel said.

Sam sighed. Everything hurt, and he wasn’t sure what to do about any of these epiphanies. He was, however, aware that he didn’t want to think about them in the middle of a valley. He pushed himself upright, using his mother’s shoulder for balance.

“If this is how it is for Father all this time, you’ve left giving it to us far too long. Let’s go home.”