Actions

Work Header

By breakwater and river

Work Text:

After some of the dust had settled regarding Touchstone and the long-abandoned regency, Sabriel had brought up the village of Nestowe. Touchstone had begun the restoration of the broken Charter Stones, especially the Great Stones in the reservoir, but with so many Stones destroyed, few defenses remained. Outside the little circle that the restoration of Touchstone as king and Sabriel's power encompassed, the kingdom was still in turmoil. And Sabriel knew this because hawks and messengers and little delegations arrived daily, having heard that an Abhorsen and a king were in residence. Refugees were still coming into the crowded royal city.

With some of the same sentiment that had led her to try to rescue Touchstone without waiting to refresh herself, she proposed the venture to Touchstone. Nestowe had rescued them, after all. Without the island shelter Nestowe had made--and then the boat, to escape the Mordicant--they might have perished then before they could have reached Belisaere. And Sabriel had promised.

"It's far," he said doubtfully.

"It has to be dealt with eventually, and things here are going well," Sabriel said, "and putting the Charter Stones back will help us more than anything else."

Touchstone rubbed his eyes. "One of us has to stay here," he waved a hand to indicate the damage Kerrigor had done, the general condition of the surrounding area, and the political confusion that still reigned, "And I suppose that will be me. I don't like the thought."

Sabriel thought of reminding him she was the Abhorsen, but he just needed to convince himself. He was right; they were both needed, everywhere and now. She dropped into the nearby chair to rub at her own eyes. Touchstone was exhausting himself restoring the Great Stones in the reservoir. He would go down every morning and emerge bloodied and drained, to face the rest of the duties that ran ever into the future--clearing out infestations of Dead, meeting with the tradesmen and guilds that partly controlled Belisaere during the anarchy, and rebuilding, always rebuilding.

"Tell them we appreciate what they did," said Touchstone reluctantly, and Sabriel got up to kiss his cheek.

"I will. It won't be long--I'll be back in a few weeks."

--

Someday she would learn to make the Paperwings, but for now she was using one of the silvery-painted ones that the Clayr had lent her. Sabriel kept in contact with the Clayr by the hawks, owing to the distance, but she hadn't heard anything from them about Nestowe. Perhaps her journey wasn't critical, just another patch of the kingdom to fix.

She hugged Touchstone, squeezing him tightly for a second, and then clambered into the Paperwing. She whistled the opening notes to bring wind swirling up from nearby roofs, dislodging snow clumps, and the craft skimmed cleanly off the balcony. Once she had risen high enough to make the town of Belisaere seem like a toy, she swung about to her correct heading and let the Paperwing have its head.

The villagers of Nestowe had not ventured from the island, Sabriel found. Landing with considerably more grace than she had the first time, she left the Paperwing on the mainland and walked to the crossing, trying to feel for the Dead as she went. There was no horrible stench that had accompanied the Mordicant, nor any feeling of immediate death, but that could mean nothing. Clever necromancers or mages could have recalled their lackeys. From this distance the archers looked exactly the same as they had before, bundled in thick coats. Only the tops of their heads were exposed. She brushed the accumulated snow off her surcoat and shouted across the gap: "I am Sabriel, Abhorsen! Don't shoot!"

The archers seemed to confer for a moment, and then one of them shouted back, "Come closer, we can't see your face!" Picking her way across the rocks, she pushed the hair out of her face and squinted at the other shore. The breakwater was vigorous and sloshed perilously close to her feet.

"It's her, all right," she heard faintly, and then the bridge was lowered across the break. The men who lowered it seemed jumpy, even though it was still bright daylight, and Sabriel hurried across. Their mood was infectious.

When she asked for the Elder, she found that he had been confined to one of the huts. Spring was coming slowly to the Old Kingdom, but the air was chilly, even by the seaside. As she walked to see him, she saw that the villagers had begun work enlarging their living space. There was newly spliced wood stacked untidily next to one of the smaller shacks, and she noticed the shore of the breakwater had been partly built up to provide cover.

"You're back," said the Elder, when she had stepped inside the smoky but warm room. The conversation in the hut had stopped abruptly at her entrance, and in the silence Sabriel said, wishing her voice were stronger, "Yes, I am."

"The Abhorsen returns. Are you here to clear away the Dead like you said you would? We haven't had others cross the water since the thing killed Patar, but we cannot move to our old place without a Stone and someone with Charter Magic to defend ourselves."

Some of the villagers around him nodded, faces set. The intervening time hadn't lowered their suspicion of the Dead; Sabriel didn't even know if they'd had news about anything that had happened since she, Mogget and Touchstone had left in the night.

"Have you seen anything go by? On the shore, something dark or hard to see at night, something that doesn't really have a shape?"

"You would have to ask the archers for details, but sometimes they see things in the night." The Elder shrugged. "They think they see something, but it might be imaginary things in the night, preying on tired eyes. But we do not dare risk it either way."

She could sympathize. "Then I will talk to the archers and look at the surrounding area. I can repair the stone, but it will take time."

A dozen eyes watched her closely. She had fulfilled one of her promises--to come back--but the rest was still uncertain, and the fear that the opposite shore represented seemed to flicker in their eyes. The attack that had descended on their town had almost destroyed it, and she had come alone, unaccompanied. The Paperwing would have fit two, but she and Touchstone were short on Charter mages to help.

Murmurs arose as she went out to find the archers. Perhaps it had been nothing, an illusion in the night like the Elder had said, but she wanted to know before she rushed headlong into danger.

She searched in and around the village--some of the houses ruined and roofs destroyed from what she guessed was the weather--before she reluctantly went up the road to the cloven Stone. This Stone, with moss encrusted on the surface and flecked with very ordinary crystals, was the thing she had come for. She swallowed down the uneasiness that it generated.

She walked around it slowly, breathing in and out carefully to steady herself. The break had gone all the way through the massive stone, splitting it unevenly in half and scattering the other half's pieces down the hill, as though a tremendous force had hit the stone at one spot and shattered it by spraying the force throughout. The edges of the break were rough and tiny crystals caught the sun. It must have made an almighty crack when it had been broken, but for now the area around the village was peaceful.

And yet, even standing under the physical warmth of the sun, Sabriel felt the same sensation that had overwhelmed her last time she was at Nestowe: the door to Death was open. It had been slowly opening then, but a few months' time had let it gape wide, and Sabriel knew it fashioned a perfect, enticing entrance into Life for any Dead thing clever or powerful enough to claw through the Gates.

There was no one in the village, though; no hint of Death seemed to be about, except for the Charter Stone. Sabriel walked down the hill, looking over the flooded fields and the still buildings. Nestowe had plowed and cleared land for their building and farming, but the forest surrounded the whole area, providing shade for anything that was sensitive to the sun. Sabriel slowed her walk to concentrate on her surroundings. She felt nothing except the Charter Stone, thrumming uncomfortably in her mind, but she was uneasy. The last time she had been here, the Dead had seemed very eager to get onto the island. They had caught Patar. How could they have disappeared? What if she brought Nestowe's inhabitants back into the village, if she got them killed at the first nightfall?

 

---

She cut her finger on the knife and stepped through into Death.

The sudden transition from daylight to the foggy, flat lighting made her blink and she braced herself against the pull of the river, gather herself. She had checked her bells and sword before stepping through, but she touched them again to make sure. Seven bells, and the handle of her sword was solid under her palm.

Following the current's urging, she walked carefully towards the First Gate. Whoever had controlled those Hands was in Death, and she wanted to try to see at least who it was. She had walked out of the village to look for other Dead things, but all she had found were lackeys: Dead and Shadow Hands, all weak and biddable under the right master. Such a crowd further south convinced her that they had exited into Life from here and not Nestowe's Stone. After drawing a diamond to protect herself, she had stepped into Death. Their master couldn't be far.

She walked through the First Gate without seeing anyone, hearing nothing but the massive rush of the gate as the water poured into the Second Precinct. She wished, suddenly, that she had another pair of eyes at her back to keep watch. But her father had done it by himself and she could too, if she were careful.

She spelled the Second Gate open and saw that on this side, dark shapes were faintly visible, fading in and out of her field of vision as the fog roiled. Still no one disturbed her, although the last wave might have swept them out of the precinct. Feeling even more unnerved, Sabriel sprinted for the next gate. If she couldn't find anyone in Death beyond the fourth or fifth precinct, she would turn back. Turn back and maybe enlist someone to help, because the entire affair was beginning to feel larger than simply repairing a single Charter Stone and removing some Dead. First there was nothing around the village itself, the Stone abandoned as a wide-open portal. Yet farther from the village, she had found a whole group of Hands, engaged in some project that had them of them carting dirt and digging, building a tower. Still more strange was the absence of some controlling power. Simple Dead Hands like that would be aimless and selfish--or killed by the sunlight--without someone to direct them.

In the Fourth Precinct, however, she did find someone. Something.

The strong sense of burning ozone hit her as she sprinted past the Third Gate. She hadn't even known any strong scentscould occur in Death; the light was so muted and the surroundings so indistinct she'd assumed most of her senses were dampened too. The cold current tugged at her ankles, though, and she refocused her attention as she tried to find the source of the burning smell.

She drew her sword silently and moved, broadening her search horizontally along the gate instead of through. Sabriel stopped short as she saw a large shape emerge suddenly. It was not like any beast or fowl she had seen, but it didn't seem to have the same inhuman corruption that Dead creatures eventually succumbed to. Her throat felt sore with the acrid taste of Free Magic. This was some creature, some Free Magic creature, that had hid in Death--perhaps to conduct its activities in secret. Whatever it was, it had four long arms and a tall, thick frame, towering over her. Sabriel groped in her mind for Charter marks of binding, wishing that she had a duplicate of Mogget's collar on her finger.

"Abhorsen..."

She swung at one of the arms with her sword as it tried to grab her, and was gratified as it retracted its arm; the Charter marks on the blade glowed as it made contact. Sabriel thought the marks for a simple binding and let the words burn through her throat as she spoke them, but they seemed to slip off the creature in a moment. She jumped back to avoid a pair of arms. She coughed and deflected another hand, backing up, praying there were no sinkholes behind her.

But as she kept backing up, kept slashing at the hands that reached out for her, she became increasingly convinced this creature was only intimidating, but had been handicapped somehow by the atmosphere that surrounded Death. The reach of the Free Magic creature made it dangerous, as was the proximity to the final gates, but her sword was sufficient to keep it at bay for now. Most creatures that went into even the First Precinct rarely re-emerged the same way; Sabriel had thought Death was hostile to her, but it occurred to her that it was dangerous for any creature.

The river current strengthened as she stepped back, so she stopped and fumbled for Charter marks again. The bells were meant for Dead things, not for Free Magic creatures, but there were marks that she had found for binding Free Magic creatures too.

The problem was the broken Nestowe Stone, making it harder to reach for Charter Magic. She stabbed at the thing's lower body as it sloshed forward, and rearranged the strange script of the Charter marks in her mind. The collar that had gone over Mogget and then Kerrigor was a construct made from Free Magic and had been drawn from unimaginable power, but she didn't have either of those at her disposal.

Instead, after the near-calamitous battle in Ancelstierre, she had tried to find information about that collar. The Palace had burned down along with its library, but the Clayr had their own extensive library that Sabriel had visited more than once. Now she struggled to bring the marks into her mind. Sabriel was still fending off the Free Magic creature with her sword and monitoring the dark shapes of the other lesser Dead, and it was affecting her concentration. For some reason her mind returned to the ghostly pages of the Book of the Dead, useless to her, as she saw other denizens of the Fourth Precinct get close enough to be identified.

The Charter marks glowed behind her eyes as she plucked the correct ones out of the stream. She didn't have the luxury of time to check them, but stabbed forward and let them erupt out of her. The fire in her sword seemed to brighten as the marks ran down the blade, and the Free Magic creature shrieked.

It shook, thrashing as it tried to shake off the circle tightening around it. She had copied Mogget's collar as much as she could, in case something in its shape had helped its properties, and it seemed to be working. Sabriel sloshed back as much as she could, trying to get distance before the spell finished.

The ring made its way down the creature's body and she shielded her eyes as it seemed to dissolve in a white-hot shower of sparks. As it did, Sabriel saw the thin strand that connected the creature and its lackeys out in Life start to burn too, bubbles bursting out of the water as it somehow flamed in the river. The Dead things she had seen in her peripheral vision had vanished, and she was left with the sputtering last sparks as the creature was carried away from her, towards the Fourth Gate.

Satisfied that the creature was gone--she doubted it could reconstitute itself while in the river, and the Ninth Precinct would lead it to die a true death--she began her journey back into Life. There were still some unanswered questions, and she would be glad to get out of the oppressive land of Death.

--

Sabriel emerged into Life as the sun was beginning to set. Shrugging her shoulders, she brushed the ice off herself and was pleased to see that the diamond of protection had held. Before she stepped out, she stretched a little, checking that she hadn't injured herself and not noticed, and then she scuffed out the North mark and stepped out.

For a moment she thought to go after the Hands and dispose of them for once and for all, but she checked herself; it would be dangerous to do so at night, and she could afford to wait. The severing of the control line from the Free Magic creature had probably weakened them, too; they would wander off and die under the sun tomorrow and she could come back then.

She squinted at the sun and moved northwards toward Nestowe, hastening her steps.

This time the archers didn't question her, only stared into her eyes intently as if they could divine her true nature. If she had been harbouring something Dead under her cloak like Patar had, they had no way of knowing. Did no one venture off the island, ever? Sabriel tried smiling to reassure them, but it didn't really work. She had gotten rid of a puppet-master adept, and that would make Nestowe safer. Better if she could repair the Stone so that the Charter Mages in the village--if any of them had survived--could draw on the power, but she would have to try that later.

The Elder hadn't moved from the place she'd seen him last. Seeing Sabriel approach, the rest of the village had crowded into the hut, and watched as she gave the news.

"There was a Free Magic construct south of here, and it was controlling a whole group of Hands. I think it was trying to build a base here, maybe to take advantage of the broken Charter Stone and use it as a headquarters to consolidate power."

"What kind of Free Magic creature?" It was one of the villagers, with a heavy, stocky build.

"I don't know," said Sabriel. She'd never seen anything like it before; most of what she had dealt with had been Dead things of one sort or another--Hands, Mordicants, the like. Things involving Free Magic were rarer. "It was hiding in Death, but controlling the Hands in Life with spells."

"Then you know it's gone?" Back to the Elder.

"As much as I can. It went past the Fourth Gate and I know it couldn't have fought against the current at all--" The people around her shifted at the talk of currents and Death. Necromancy, even in the form of Abhorsen's work, was frightful, and Sabriel realized that they probably did not know about the current that flowed through Death or the Gates. "It would have passed the final Gate and been destroyed."

"And the Charter Stone?

Sabriel shook her head. "I came out of Death when the sun set, but I will try to get rid of the Hands nearby tomorrow morning and look at the Stones afterward." There was a little murmuring as the people at the back of the crowd asked their neighbours to repeat what she had said, but the overall mood seemed to have lifted. They had been confined to this island a long time, and now Sabriel was holding out hope: real, solid hope.

"Then we can lodge you tonight and as long as you need. Did you leave a horse out there, or a boat?"

"Ah, I came by Paperwing." It would've been too difficult to land the Paperwing on the island, but she wished she had tried. It would be a very long journey back if something happened to it.

The Elder frowned, but made no comment. "Halin, find the Abhorsen somewhere to stay tonight. And tell the archers to stay alert. They're not to change anything about the watch tonight, understand?" This last remark was to another fisherman, who ducked out immediately. Sabriel permitted herself to be led away, her meeting obviously concluded.

The island was awake and moving by the time she woke up in the predawn. At this hour, bleary-eyed sentries were coming back from the breakwater to trade shifts. Out on the sea-facing shores, men and women were drawing water and reviving fires for breakfast and the day's tasks. She stumbled out of the fishy-smelling hut and rubbed her eyes.

She arrived at the site of upturned dirt and rock that she had seen the day before, but it was almost empty; none of the organized building and carting activity that she had seen yesterday remained. She spotted a Hand lurking aimlessly under a tall beech tree, in the shadow, and reached for her bells reflexively. It had obviously not seen her approach.

Saraneth rang and the Dead jerked around to face her. The morning air was crisp and the bell rang even more sharply, commanding immediate obedience. Kibeth sent it out of Life, the Hand collapsing. Sabriel stood still and felt for other creatures, but the area seemed abandoned.

She skirted the structure cautiously, keeping her distance. It was obviously a building of some sort, half-built so she could see rough wood inside supporting even rougher walls. Huge chunks of stone and timber lay scattered across the clearing, as though they had been flung out of the top of structure suddenly. The echoes of Free Magic lingered over the whole site, and Sabriel realized that the structure had been held up partly with magic. It must have broken apart when she had killed the Free Magic creature. Nevertheless, without Dead creatures crawling all over the construction site, she could inspect it properly: it looked like one of the watch towers that the Crossings Point might have sported, if they had come so rough-hewn that leaves were still sticking to the wood. Dug in a wide circle around the tower was a deep ditch, with the tower built on newly piled dirt. It looked like the beginnings of a fortification. A Free Magic creature trying to shore up power while the Abhorsen was busy, the kingdom in anarchy, and the Stones broken by Kerrigor? She hoped other creatures hadn't had the same idea.

Sabriel walked a wide arc, looking for other Dead creatures. But other than a couple she dispersed with ease, the rest had either scattered or truly died again. Further south and inland the tree cover shrank and disappeared, which would have made it hard for them to hide from sunlight. She went back to Nestowe and climbed up the hill to the Charter Stone, pulling with her the biggest fragments of the shattered Stone and arranging where they seemed to fit. She fussed with it awhile, but eventually she stilled her hands; it would not get easier with waiting. She pushed down the nausea of the broken Stone and thought of the Charter Marks that Touchstone had formulated while he was down in the reservoir healing the Great Stones, and then she let her blood drip onto the Stone in fat droplets. She almost lost control at the quick flare of pain, but the pressure coming from the broken Stone had lessened. Back and forth across her mind the two forces fought; the Stone had been broken with the murder of a Charter mage, and had been well-split. It felt like she was trying to fuse together two plates of wobbly gelatin by pushing them together. She clenched her fist to squeeze out another drop and applied more pressure on the spell. Then, impossibly, she felt the halves meld, throwing her back without warning.

When she picked herself up she saw that the Charter Stone looked as though it had stood there as one piece forever. She approached slowly, but it didn't reject her; the huge splits had vanished without a trace. Even the lichen she had noticed before was still clinging to the stone. The nausea had vanished and she felt safe next to the Stone; it would be far easier to draw any Charter magic here than anywhere for miles. The Stone looked as though it had sat there forever.

Sitting there a moment, she savoured the victory. Then she rose, and went to find the elders of Nestowe.