A/N: HA! I finished the bastard! To everyone who actually read this thing, to everyone who put it on story alert even though I hadn't updated in months, to everyone who commented to encourage me: thank you. Thank you for sticking with me even though it took me a year to write only about 20K words. You are awesome people, and you should feel awesome.
We'll see how long it takes me to start a new project. I think I'm so used to having a long-running Old Kingdom fic that I can neglect and abuse that I don't know if I can live without one now.
When Sabriel returned to the Bridge where the townspeople had once huddled, miserable and hopeless, the scene had changed considerably. There was noise now, of movement and conversation. The people had spread out onto the banks on either side of the river, and they were packing what few belongings they had retained. There was an air of optimism about them now.
As Sabriel approached, a great cheer went up that did not stop for several minutes.
The old woman Sabriel had met before, who she now knew to be Pashiel, ran forward to greet her. "We saw the flash of light from the Stone," she said breathlessly, "And the Dead who remained in the woods have all fled. We knew you had succeeded. It's a miracle! Abhorsen, we are forever in your debt."
Sabriel took the woman's frail hands and said, "You owe me nothing. It was my duty and my pleasure to help you." She hadn't thought that she would ever be able to describe those awful weeks she had spent hard at work on the Stone as a pleasure, but now she changed her mind. The sight of the people of High Bridge setting out to reclaim their homes, of children running through grass for the first time in who-knew-how-long, of shell-shocked silence transformed into joyful noise, suddenly convinced her that it had all been worth it.
"Please," said Pashiel, "You must let us give you something for your trouble. It would be disgraceful to let you go without payment."
Sabriel was about to refuse again when she suddenly stopped. She thought for a moment, then said, "There is something you can do for me."
"Declare your allegiance and send your support to King Torrigan," she said.
The smile left Pashiel's face as she considered this for a moment, then she said, "If the Abhorsen trusts him, then that's good enough for me. Let it be known that High Bridge recognizes Torrigan as King of the Old Kingdom. We have no soldiers or supplies to spare, but when we do we will send a token of our support."
"I cannot ask for more," said Sabriel, putting an expansive hand on Pashiel's shoulder, "Now, allow me to escort you home. I think you will be interested to hear about a certain someone who saved my life while I walked in Death."
Sabriel did not stay in High Bridge for long. As soon as it became clear that Pashiel and her people would thrive in their now-protected home, Sabriel quietly took to the road once more.
She walked easily and confidently, as she had when she first left Belisaere, stopping only occasionally to feed Mogget and herself. She walked as far as she could before she came to the final fork in the road that would force her to choose a destination. North, to Belisaere? Or South and East, to Abhorsen's House?
After she had stood staring at the fork for nearly ten minutes, Mogget popped his head out of her pack and nosed her ear. "Are you waiting for someone to make the choice for you?" he sighed.
"I need to go home," said Sabriel quietly.
Mogget huffed as he said, "I notice you've worded it so to be completely unhelpful. Where do you consider your home to be?"
"That's the question, isn't it?" Sabriel muttered. Then, even more quietly, "I miss him so much that it physically hurts. I didn't even know that was possible."
"Then go back to him," said Mogget, the picture of practicality.
"How do I know if that's the right choice?" she asked.
"You don't," said Mogget, "You never do. If you didn't already know that, then there's little I can do to help you. Now leave me alone. You have been exceedingly trying lately, and my job description does not extend to being a consultant on your love life." With that, he curled up and very pointedly went to sleep.
Sabriel stood a while in thought. She was reminded of what she had said to all those ambassadors back at the castle, when they had expressed doubt or reluctance.
The Old Kingdom had a choice to make, and so did Sabriel.
So she made it, and began to walk northward.
When she arrived in Belisaere, the weather was beginning to change. There was a chill in the air that hadn't been there when she left. As she walked through the capitol, she pulled a traveling cloak around her to try to hide her identity as best she could. It didn't matter. She was recognized and greeted at every turn, and by the time she reached the castle the outpost guards were clearly on the lookout for her. They welcomed her with raised swords and happy shouts. Sabriel saluted them in return, glad to see her friends again.
She didn't even need to request entry as she normally did. As she approached the heavy main doors to the castle, they crashed open, and Sabriel had to leap back to avoid being hit in the face. However, she could not avoid the thick arms that flew from between the doors to sweep her up in a bone-crushing embrace.
"Hello, Karstel," Sabriel managed to choke out.
"Thank the Nine you're back!" Karstel bellowed into her ear, "He won't listen to me. He won't eat. He won't sleep. You have to talk sense into him!" Then she put Sabriel down, brushed her off embarrassedly, and added, "It's also very good to see you again, milady."
After her travels, Sabriel had been looking forward to a hot bath and a long rest, but the urgency in Karstel's voice quickly rearranged her priorities. "Where is he?" she asked.
And then, in a flash of insight that should have come to her long ago, Sabriel suddenly knew what Karstel was going to say before the words left her lips.
Minutes later, she was descending a staircase that she had ever only had cause to use twice before: the staircase that led to the underground chamber housing the ruins of the Great Charter Stones. The first time she used it, she had gone to save her father. The second time, she had returned to recover his corpse. Now she padded down the cold stone steps one more time, fighting the familiar rise of bile deep in her throat.
Of course this was where Touchstone had gone. Of course he was trying to repair the Great Stones. Sabriel mentally chastised herself for every time she had seen the tired, wrecked expression on his face without realizing what he was putting himself through. Didn't she know him best of all? Wasn't it just like him to throw himself at a task without worrying about his own safety, using himself up without so much as reaching out for help?
She stopped and leaned against the stairwell for a moment, heaving ragged breaths. The corruption here was so much greater than at the ordinary Stone she had repaired in High Bridge. It crushed her. It made the rock under her feet tilt and sway. She hated it here. After leaving this place for the second time, she had hoped that she would never have to return. It would never in a thousand years have occurred to her to try to repair the damage here. It was bigger than her. Bigger than Touchstone. It was impossible.
But then, she and Touchstone had both proved the impossible possible before.
A few more stairs, and she was rounding the corner into the great chamber. The light was dim, but she could clearly see the spires of the Stones standing in the center of the shallow lake. There was a figure at the base of the largest one: a human form, crumpled and shivering. Touchstone. Sabriel almost feared the worst before he raised his head at her approach.
"Sabriel!" His eyes lit up, hardly daring to believe what they were seeing. But by the time Sabriel reached him, wading out of the water and onto the platform that held the ruined Stones, he had composed himself. He seemed to remember that he was no longer greeting a lover, but acknowledging a fellow scion of the Charter. "Abhorsen," he corrected himself.
Sabriel knelt before him and reached out to touch the face she knew so well, which was now lined and darkened with pain, exhaustion, and despair. As if no time had passed at all, as if nothing had ever changed, she leaned forward and kissed him.
With one touch it occurred to Sabriel that she had been falling, and Touchstone's kiss had caught her. She had been wandering in the desert, and his kiss was the ocean. She had been buried in snow, and his kiss was fire.
She said, her lips still brushing his, "You can call me Sabriel."
She joined him in reclining against the Great Stone, settling herself down with an uncomfortable sigh. She thought she could feel the corruption of the Charter creeping over the skin of her back. It made her shiver, but she didn't dare complain. Touchstone had endured it for much longer than she had, after all. The layers of dried blood smeared on the Stone above him and the rows of scars on his arms in various stages of healing (ranging from faint to still-bleeding) spoke volumes about how long and hard he had worked at this task.
She tried to gather her thoughts, to put them into the words that would make him understand all that she had learned in the time that she had been gone and all that she felt at that moment. She settled on, "You are such an idiot."
Touchstone smiled as though he understood perfectly. "It's been said," he replied weakly.
"Why didn't you tell me?" Sabriel demanded.
"Telling you would have been the same as asking for your help," said Touchstone," I couldn't ask you to come back down here. Not after what happened."
He looked so fragile, and his voice was so pained. Sabriel resisted the urge to reach out to him and cradle his body against hers. After all, despite the kiss, he didn't belong to her anymore. She settled for moving her hand over enough so that their fingers could entwine. "But if I had only understood…" she sighed, "It would have saved us so much trouble."
Touchstone gripped her hand gratefully. "Perhaps not so much," he said, "This wasn't the only thing working against us. Think about it. We had expectations for ourselves, and for each other, that we couldn't meet. Would you really have stayed, even if you had known?"
Sabriel was silent as she thought. Maybe she would have stayed, and maybe not. But either way, she was glad she had gone. Her time away from Belisaere had given her a clarity of purpose that she had been missing. "You still should have told me. If I need you to protect me from something, I'll ask."
"I'll always protect you," Touchstone promised, the chivalry evident in his voice even though he was so weak that he could barely speak above a whisper, "If I'm worthy of you, you should never need to ask."
"If you're worthy of me," said Sabriel definitively, "You should respect me enough not to keep things from me."
"You're right," he said, his voice getting weaker as he slumped against her shoulder, "I'm sorry." At first Sabriel thought he was trying to embrace her, but she soon realized that he simply couldn't hold himself upright anymore.
Sabriel stood with an awkward motion, her hands on Touchstone's shoulders to keep him from falling. "What do you say we get out of here?" she suggested.
"Yes, please," he mumbled in reply, grasping her wrist and letting her pull him upright.
Though he had seemed on the verge of passing out, Touchstone brightened with each step they took out of that hellhole. By the time they emerged from the top of the staircase, he no longer needed to lean on Sabriel. He did, however, keep a hold on her hand.
"Did you repair the Stone at High Bridge?" he asked, his voice clearer now.
"Yes," said Sabriel, "Though it took me weeks to think of using my own blood. You seem to have worked that out too."
"Weeks ago," he confirmed, "But it doesn't seem to be making a difference. The damage is just so great. It's hard to imagine that it will ever be repaired."
Sabriel spoke without thinking, "I'll help you."
Touchstone only smiled, and when he said, "No," he didn't sound like he was being stubborn or petulant. He sounded as though he had thought this through. "Royal blood for Royal blood," he said, "This is my task. You have enough of your own."
"That's true," Sabriel sighed, her heart sinking at the thought, "Belisaere is flourishing, but everywhere else there are still so many Dead. So many broken Stones."
"With more still being broken," Touchstone added, "It's too much. How can we fight this? How can we survive?"
Sabriel tightened her grip on his hand and pressed closer to him, lending him her strength. "By working together," she said, "By outweighing the bad with good. By outweighing the destruction with our repairs."
"Then we'll be repairing things for the rest of our lives," Touchstone observed dryly.
"That's the idea," said Sabriel, "Or did you think it would be easy?"
"Is it worth it to you?" he asked, and for a moment Sabriel couldn't remember if they were talking about the Kingdom or something else entirely.
It didn't matter. The answer was the same either way. "Of course," she said, "Of course it is."
They had made their way into the upper levels of the castle, but somehow they had encountered no guards. Sabriel got the impression that Karstel might be ensuring that they be left alone.
Touchstone must have gotten the same impression, because he finally asked outright what had clearly been on his mind. "Abhorsen," he said, "Sabriel. Did you come back for me?"
She had made her choice. She had made it days ago, and yet somehow the question sucked the air out of the hall. "I…" she started to say before she choked on her words. She stopped walking, and let go of Touchstone's hand. He leaned against the wall, looking nervous as he waited patiently for her to collect her thoughts.
Sabriel paced for several minutes, choosing her words carefully, before she said, "Yes. I came back for you. But I didn't crawl back. I wasn't wrong to leave, understand? I chose to leave, and I chose to return, and somewhere in between I figured out what I want. Royalty and Abhorsen and the Kingdom aside, I want…"
And then her face flushed unexpectedly as she continued, "I want you. I want to marry you, Torrigan. One day. But for now, we just need to focus on making this work. I'll be with you whenever I can, but I still have a job to do - a job that's every bit as important as yours. And even after we're married, I'll always be the Abhorsen first, and the Queen second. If there's any part of that you can't accept, then we shouldn't be together." Her heart pounded as she waited for his answer, but she knew she had to hold her ground. This was too important to give even an inch.
Luckily, she didn't have to. The relief on Touchstone's face melted her heart. "Are you joking?" he laughed, running a shaking hand through his hair, "I'll take you any way I can have you. Whether you marry me or not, whether you can be here with me or not, I don't care. I just need to know that you still love me. That you'll always come back to me. And for goodness's sake, call me Touchstone."
"I do love you," she said, "Of course I do. Touchstone."
She couldn't tell whether she had fallen into his arms or he into hers, but suddenly they were embracing as if no time had passed at all. He clung to her like a drowning man clings to a piece of driftwood. Her head rested on his shoulder, and of their own accord her arms wrapped themselves around him, pulling him into her. Her body remembered him, his shape, his smell, his taste. She had missed this. Suddenly her armor, in which she had come to feel so at home, felt thick and cumbersome. Anything that separated his body from hers was nothing but a hindrance.
He spoke into her ear in a voice that was surprisingly awkward and unsure. "I… I suppose we still have some things to discuss," he stammered, "We'll talk tomorrow. Should I have someone prepare a guest room for you?"
She loosened her hold enough to turn her head and kiss him. "Don't be stupid," she said. Linking arms with him, she led him toward his bedroom. That night, there would be no appearances to maintain, no duties to uphold. She would have no rank or title. The future could fall as it may, but that night she would sleep beside the man she loved as herself, as Sabriel, and enjoy a rare moment of happiness in an uncertain world.