Chapter Three: Seven-Hundred-Eighty-Four
Note: To everyone who has reviewed, thank you for your patience, and the plot should become more apparent soon. Things will draw together. Also, I haven't read the latest Nix Novella, on account of being entirely unable to find it, so forgive me if this fic turns AU without my knowledge.
It took hours for blue-and-green eyes to open. They were glued together from blood that came from no wound, dried hard and fast. Pale lashes stuck to the tops of cheeks.
By the time vision returned, the only things seen were bodies of Clayr.
A full half of them lay dead.
"Something must be done."
Kirrith looked up at steel-voiced Vancelle with almost childish awe. Still shivering and swaying on her feet, Nine Day Watch headdress hopelessly askew and somehow hooked around her ear, the middle-aged woman felt battered and pathetic. The Head Librarian, surveying the broken-flower-pattern of fallen figures, showed no such weakness, even if one square hand did rest gently on Ness' shoulder.
Over everything, within everything, there was Ryelle. Her screams had died away in time, but the noise of the woman was incessant, clinging like fog and dripping into the blank space of Kirrith's mind. She gibbered.
Vancelle drew herself up, apparently unhearing, unfeeling. "All who can walk, come with me," she said, and Kirrith was one of those who found themselves trailing in her wake as the woman left the cavern, looking up in silence as cold sunlight touched her face.
There were gasps as the Clayr discovered the Axe-Guard.
"You, too? Oh, Erimael…."
Annisele stepped forward. She was the only one among them who had tears in her eyes. They ran down her face, tinged pale red. She had known Erimael before she had been made Guard. They were nearly the same age.
Erimael stood unblinking, the beautiful sword unwieldy in her leather-guarded hand. Her voice, when she spoke, had lost all traces of hard-learned ritual. "Who Saw this?" she whispered.
Vancelle's rough 'no one' made them all shudder, Annisele reaching out a hand to brush Erimael's arm.
The sentry hissed, flinching back.
Ryelle was still audible, gasping and chittering behind them, echoing off glacial walls.
"Now is not the time," Vancelle managed to speak easily over this chorus, chin jutting, "for grief. For hysterics. For imagination. If we are alive, then I doubt we have the luxury of seeking out the reasons for it. We need to function, first."
The narrow space of the Entrance was crowded with people who felt endless empty space all around them, and they stared at the Librarian almost as a single, entranced being. "Those of you who are fit enough will head back to their tasks, or help those of us who cannot move to the infirmary. Kirrith?"
Kirrith started, eyes huge. "Van-Vancelle?"
"The…the children." All Kirrith could do was mouth the words stupidly. "The children."
"They might," here, Vancelle swallowed. "They might still live."
The Guardian of the Young hitched up her stained skirts, staggering and stumbling as she headed towards the Halls, leaving the dead behind.
There were several enclosed gardens within Belisaere palace, and in the one Nick took a turn in every other morning he invariably saw Lirael though one of the arched, lead-embellished windows. Lirael, drawing back curtains and then suddenly closing them again. Lirael sitting at a desk. Lirael staring at nothing. Lirael pacing. Lirael, staring at a new hand that was always in some state of general disrepair; Lirael brushing her straight hair back from her face with the other one.
Nick had taken to waving at her; the day before yesterday, she had waved back.
It had been a curiously mechanical gesture even when given by living joints and she had looked distinctly uncomfortable—there had certainly been no waving on her part the following day, begod—but it had been a strange and pleasant surprise all the same. Sam had taken him aside a week back and told him, rather sheepishly, Nick thought, that his aunt was avoiding all contact with the Ancelstierrean because his Free Magic taint was simply too much for the tenuous links of her golden hand. It made him feel like a leper.
If the woman was prepared to make eye contact and raise a hand now and then, she mustn't be taking things too personally. It was a definite relief. Looking up, Nick could see that Lirael's back was to the window. Did she ever leave the room? Grinning bemusedly, he waved, knowing it would be unseen.
"And good morning to you, too!"
Nick felt that he had jumped about a foot before turning to face the owner of the unmistakable, mellifluous voice, currently full of hearty-undertones.
Ellimere, daughter and heir apparent to King Torrigan and regent before his return seven months previous, was smiling brilliantly at him, her brown curls unbound and shining down her back. Recovering quickly—Nick had grown used to this woman's mystifying ability to pop out of nowhere over their lengthening acquaintance, just as he'd almost become accustomed to the stern-faced guards that even now were standing in her shadow—he smiled in return.
The royal chuckled. "You're improving, Master Sayre. Sam is still being an abominable host and leaving you to your own devices, I see."
"Appalling as usual," said Nick, very dry. "Aren't you supposed to be holding court this morning?" He had been instructed in the most firm terms to call Ellimere by her first name months ago now, an embarrassment he usually escaped by avoiding any form of address at all costs.
"Father's in," she said simply. "I intend to go riding. How are you as a horseman, Nick? I know you learnt at Somersby."
"The dodgy end of passable, I'm afraid," he demurred. "I mean, I know which end is which, but I've always been more keen on horse power if you—"
"—That will not do." Ellimere's eyes flashed and she gave a full-blooded grin, tossing back her head. Nick blushed.
"Oh dear, I've embarrassed you." Ellimere's colour faded a little, and she looked genuinely contrite.
Nick, who's own rosy tinge had more to do with his sudden glimpse of the strong, graceful arch of her throat than any belittling of his equestrian prowess, made a series of strangled noises. "Really…s'nothing. Nothing at all."
"It's nothing to be ashamed of, Nicholas. Of course there's less of a chance to ride in Ancelstierre." A look of simply radiant purpose filled her face, and she clapped him hard on the shoulder. "I'll teach you, and that's all there is to it." Another head toss, hair flying back from her face. Nick had never seen it undressed before. The whole effect was quite mesmerising.
"Really, m'…Ellimere. There's no need."
"But there is." The woman was impassioned. "Don't you see? You just can't be expected to wilt away here until your taint wears off with nothing to do."
"I…but I-I read!" Triumphant, Nick tilted his head to the side. Ellimere was an inch taller than he was. "The Charter books you gave me…my word they're fascinating stuff, and—"
"—You haven't read a word, I know," she replied calmly. "It's completely understandable. But riding has nothing to do with the Charter. It's irrelevant. Besides," here was the third smile of the morning, slow and sincere. "I'm not going to bite you."
Somehow, under the weight of it all, Nick felt himself giving in. "Lead on," he said, bowing with a flourish.
From her window, Lirael, who had turned around, watched the two of them go, slowly lifting a hand to wave. As she managed to open shutters to let the warmth in, she could hear Nick's voice floating up and back to her.
"You really are an extremely intimidating woman."
The Abhorsen-in-Waiting was just about to close the shutters again when Prince Sameth burst in through the door, wild eyed and distraught.
Sabriel, landing the blue-and-silver Paperwing on the Clayr's glacier, was not surprised when there was not a single soul out to meet her. She had felt the dead from a mile away, vast in number, and by the time she had touched down the Abhorsen felt as if there was no chance for life at all, except for the barest flickerings of it she felt beneath the walls of ice. Word, she hoped, would reach Belisaere soon.
Shivering, breath hanging in the air inches from her face, Sabriel trudged on and down, not bothering to close the hangar door.
Miraculously, Kirrith still had her keys to the Halls of Youth, and they slipped as easily into the oiled lock as ever, as if nothing had even happened.
This illusion was shattered, however, when waist-high little bodies surged forward and clutched at her, their legs entwining with hers and almost dragging her down to the cold floor. Older children hung around the edges, reaching out wondering hands, shying back at the blood.
"Kirrith, Kirrith, Kirrith."
The fidgety Guardian was rarely touched and never hugged, but these frightened mites in blue tunics were making up for it now, clinging and whimpering. "What's happening?"
Vancelle had re-entered the cavern; someone needed to name the dead. Walking slowly, reaching down to touch each of them gently on the forehead with one large finger, the sound of her footsteps was accompanied by a constant stream from Ryelle; she was the Clayr Vancelle reached last.
"What are we going to do with you," she murmured, voice betraying her pain at last. "Nothing Seen; no crypts for anyone…." The woman bent over Sanar's unmistakably dead form, reaching under her to lift the Voice—a body, now—so that at least she wouldn't be lying in what looked like a pool of her own semi-frozen blood.
That was before a familiar, anguished voice rang out, echoing in the enclosed space. "Do not touch that woman!"