A/N: This is another little story featuring a past Abhorsen, and it is a bit darker than usual. One of my favourite moments in the books is when Sabriel calls the guardian spirit of her mother. This was unabashedly inspired by that magical and touching scene.
Disclaimer: Ancelstierre, the Old Kingdom, and anything within are the rightful property of Garth Nix. I do take responsibility for Embriel, but that's about it.
The dwarf was perched high in a tree with one knobbly hand curled around the branch. He peered between his dangling feet at little Embriel, who was utterly unaware that he was being watched. The young boy jerked his head to shoo away a dragonfly, keeping his hands clamped on the fishing rod. The dwarf sighed and idly kicked his legs. He hated everything about his current situation. The Abhorsen had told him to watch over the children, so here he was playing nanny to the two brats.
The boy stood up and the dwarf looked at him sharply. If Embriel had somehow hooked a fish, perhaps he could steal it without being noticed. Charter knew he had been sitting on this branch all morning, and he could use a snack. But to the dwarf's bitter disappointment Embriel dropped the fishing rod, pulled off his boots, and waded out into the shallows. Ah, of course. His sister had sent him one of those ridiculous paper boats again.
The dwarf watched in disdain as the boy splashed back to shore and unfolded the paper boat, giggling as he read the message his sister had sent to him. Embriel looked up and waved, and the dwarf glanced upriver to see the girl waving back. Verchiel was four years older than her brother and did not require the dwarf's close supervision. The Abhorsen's daughter grinned and held up a string of plump silver trout for her brother to see, and the dwarf scowled. Curse the little boy for being a rotten fisherman – he should have stayed with the girl instead and pilfered some compensation for his dreary baby-sitting duties.
Embriel pocketed the paper boat and clumsily pulled on his boots before making his way back to the path. The dwarf soundlessly jumped down from his perch and stalked after the child, being careful to stay hidden among the trees. As the siblings made their way downriver to the House and waterfall, the dwarf watched them with his bright green eyes, and listened to every word that passed between them.
"How many did you get?"
"Five," said the girl, swinging the fish from their line.
Embriel looked up at his sister admiringly. "Father will like that. Just make sure Whitey doesn't steal any."
The dwarf scowled at the children's nickname for him. Whitey, like a mere house pet. How degrading.
Verchiel ruffled her brother's hair affectionately and gazed through the trees at the shimmer of water. "I bet there are lots more fish in the river," she murmured. "Maybe we can get father to take the boat out. Wouldn't that be nice, Embriel?"
A smirk spread over the dwarf's face. The Abhorsen was a very busy man who could not take his children out fishing – hence his assigning the unpleasant task of watching over them to yours truly. Sorry, little Abhorsen offspring. Any grand plans of taking the boat out with daddy would be eternally put on hold.
Everything was blurry and grey and wet. Embriel couldn't see, but he could hear, as if from far away, a strange high-pitched wail – and realised that it was coming from him. He quickly stuffed his fist into his mouth and the terrible sound stopped. Snivelling and whimpering around his fingers, he raised his other hand to his eyes and wiped away his tears.
Kneeling on the bank of the river, dripping from head to toe, was Embriel's father. Whitey stood at his shoulder like a green-eyed ghost. And Verchiel – she was lying in the mud, her face as pale as the Abhorsen's but horribly still.
His father pinched Verchiel's nose and forced more air into her lungs, and Embriel watched her thin chest rise. Her sodden tunic was green embroidered with little flowers, but soaked through it was almost black, and the flowers looked like lopsided stars describing strange constellations in a crumpled sky.
Embriel's father ignored the dwarf and leaned down to give another breath.
"Abhorsen," Whitey repeated, a little louder this time. "You have done all you can."
"Get her a blanket," said Embriel's father. His voice was harsh. "She will be freezing when she wakes up."
The dwarf did not move, and Embriel stared, wide-eyed, between them. Whitey had never disobeyed one of his father's orders before. "She will not wake up," the dwarf said firmly. "You already tried Charter magic, and you tried going into Death. It's been –"
"Get her a blanket!" the Abhorsen bellowed, wild-eyed and pale and ferocious. He leaped to his feet and took a menacing step towards Whitey, who stood his ground. Embriel's father raised his hands and for a moment Embriel thought he was going to strike the small albino, but the man paused. After a long moment he lowered his hands and sank to the ground, slumping forward in miserable defeat.
The boy crawled through the mud to his sister, reaching out with a small hand to brush her bluish cheek. Her skin felt like a frog's underbelly, and Embriel shivered. It was cold. He looked at the painted rowboat that had drifted into the reeds further downriver. One oar was missing, and the other stuck up from the boat like a lightning-struck tree, an oar far too long and heavy for a child to manage.
"Charter help me," his father gasped. His face was in his hands, and black tracks of mud smeared unnoticed over his skin and hair. Embriel walked over to his father. He could make this better.
"Is Verchiel in Death?"
Embriel's father took a shaky breath and looked up at him. "Yes."
"Then you can bring her back."
The boy was enfolded in a pair of strong arms. "I tried, Embriel. I did. When I found – when I pulled her out, I could not heal her. So I looked for her spirit in Death. I looked through four precincts before I had to return. It had been too long – I was too late –"
"You can still bring her back!" Embriel protested, pulling himself free.
His father was shaking his head. "If I did, it would not be her. She would be changed."
The boy stared at the one man who could bring his sister back to him, the man he had believed could do anything in the world. "So she's really gone?" he asked, voice low and trembling. His father could only hold him close in answer.
The dwarf peered silently around the door. The bedroom was lit by a dozen Charter marks which burned near the ceiling, and Embriel was standing with his back to him. He was leaning over his desk and muttering something under his breath. It sounded a bit like an incantation.
Sidling into the room, the dwarf gazed around at the colossal mess. Books were piled untidily in a corner, and more lay open on the floor. Papers literally covered the room: neat piles of carefully-written notes, torn scraps with a few words scribbled on them, and crumpled balls tossed to the side. He had seen the bedrooms of young teenagers before, but this one was by far the worst.
Approaching the desk, the dwarf's sharp ears caught the words the boy was repeating to himself: "Death is a river… Death is a river…"
The boy straightened up and turned around. Even standing at his full height he was slightly stooped, owing to the hours spent hunched over his desk in study. "Hello Whitey. Did my father send you?"
"You know that he is away," said the dwarf. He cocked his head to the side. "Actually, I sent myself. The sendings are getting anxious, and I have respected the locks on your doors long enough. What are you doing up here, taking no food and no rest, with your Charter light burning through the nights?"
"They shouldn't be anxious," said the teenager. The smile on his thin face looked ghastly beneath his bloodshot eyes. "I have a solution."
The dwarf looked at Embriel sharply. "I have seen many of your line grieve for the loss of a loved one." He chose his next words with care. "In situations such as these, an Abhorsen is often tempted to use his control over Death for… personal gain. But it has been nine years since your sister drowned, and your attempt would fail in the worst way."
The boy froze, and the dwarf watched as he took a deep breath. "You think I would turn to Free Magic," Embriel said quietly.
It was not a question, but the dwarf nodded. "It is possible for an Abhorsen to fall," he said guardedly, "even an Abhorsen-in-Waiting."
Embriel plucked something from the top of his desk and held it up for the dwarf to see: it was a folded paper boat. A red spot on the prow stood out like a glowing eye. The dark-haired teenager was smiling, but the expression on his haggard face was frightening. "I will not fall, Whitey," he said, and his long fingers shook as they stroked the paper boat. "This is Charter Magic, and Death is a river."
The dwarf stared at him. "What have you done?"
The boy placed the boat on his desk and started to pace. "You know about vestigial magic left behind by loved ones, especially mothers. It can be summoned by Charter Mages using complex rituals to draw power from the Wall or the Great Stones – as long as it's not done too often." He was speaking rapidly, excitedly, gesticulating with his pale hands. "When Verchiel died, she left a protection over me similar to those left behind by mothers. Our mother had passed away when I was a baby, so the usual connection between parent and child was formed between the two of us, especially with father gone so often and so long…"
Embriel sounded slightly hysterical, but the dwarf listened in attentive silence.
"Upon discovering this, I created a safer and easier way to summon my sister's remnant," the boy continued, still pacing to and fro. "In the river of Death I will be closer to her, and I do not need the Wall or Great Stones because my blood contains the Charter. My only real problem was to devise a way to send the summons to her, and now I have found it." He snatched the paper boat and held it up triumphantly. "Death is a river, Whitey. How do you send messages on a river? My sister taught me that."
The dwarf stared at him. He was afraid for the Abhorsen's son and what he might do, but he was also impressed. "You mean to try it now," he guessed, hoping that he was wrong. When Embriel said nothing, the dwarf burst out, "You are in no condition to attempt any sort of spell to summon the Dead!"
The boy reached for the cloak slung over the back of his chair. "If you think that you can stop me, you are wrong." He waved his hand to extinguish the Charter marks, and the room was plunged into darkness.
The wind was blowing sprays of cold rain into his face, but Embriel ignored this. He hopped across the stepping stones with the ease of long practice, landing safely on the bank. It was not quite night yet, and everything was painted in curious shades of silver and grey. He turned his steps upstream, keeping one hand on his sword and his eyes on the surrounding trees, squinting against the driving rain. After a while his feet stopped of their own accord, and he found himself standing at the lip of a small shallow bay. Verchiel's favourite fishing spot.
The Abhorsen-in-Waiting drew his sword and closed his eyes, pulling the four cardinal Charter marks to the forefront of his mind. It was more difficult than usual, for Embriel was exhausted after three sleepless nights. He buried his weariness and traced the marks in the soft mud of the bank, allowing them to flow through his hand and down his dripping sword to burn golden on the ground. With the diamond complete, he drew Ranna from his bandolier, and plunged into Death.
It was quiet here. The river was cold and strong, but Embriel could hear nothing but the flow of water, and the roar of the First Gate. Satisfied that he was alone, the boy sheathed his sword and reached into his tunic. He used his teeth to open the paper boat, and balanced it on his hand.
His breath sent it gliding out over the water and skidding as it touched the rippling surface. The white paper was radiant against the tired grey of Death, and it glided along, looking like a delicate ice-boat chipped from the Clayr's Glacier. Embriel's feverish eyes followed it on its course, and soon it was out of sight.
Now all he had to do was wait. He stood, a thin dark figure in the pallid light, head slightly bowed. His lips were moving in silent prayer and his hands shook, causing Ranna to send out a faint silvery call before he could still it. The Sleepbringer's notes washed over him and once again he became aware of how desperately weary he was. It would be so easy to lie down and let the current take him, to leave his cares behind and drift for days until finally succumbing to oblivion. And who knew? Perhaps he would see Verchiel again…
The distant roar of the First Gate went suddenly silent, and Embriel was brought out of his dark thoughts. He drew his sword and took up a guard stance, preparing to face whatever was coming through from the farther Precincts. All ideas of surrendering to Ranna's call were swept away by the more immediate threat, and the recollection of his duty.
A pale light was floating towards him, and Embriel tightened his grip nervously on his sword. He had never seen anything like this in Death before. The light stopped some distance away, and his heart pounded as he realised that it was vaguely human-shaped, and about the height of a ten-year-old girl…
The greeting seemed to blur and echo strangely in his ears, but the affection in the word was unmistakeable. The boy's mouth was open in wonder, and tears came to his eyes.
A/N: I loved the idea of the paper boats when I first read that scene in "Sabriel". I've been meaning to write about their invention for some time, but it took me a while to figure out who their maker was. For reference, I see Embriel as being about six or seven in the first two scenes, which would make him around fifteen in the last two. Reviews, as always, are most welcome.