Sangromancer

by Melissa Mead
 


"Here you are, Mister Jonathan." The potioner handed over a carefully-packed parcel. "Sorcerer's Balm, Powder-of-Opal, and opium." The man's voice took on a note of amusement and incredulity at the last item. No true Sangromancer would ask for such a common painkiller. Jonathan didn't reply.

"Right. Well, that'll be seventeen and three, then."

Jonathan handed over the silver, thanked the man, and left, barely taking time to adjust the handkerchief over his mouth and nose. He could see the potioner's quivering eagerness to start the gossip running: It's true! Young Silverhall's nearly thirty, yet he can't craft a simple bloodspell without taking opium first. Cowardly-not like his brother. Now there's a Sangromancer for you. Andrew Silverhall's got the bloodline to end this drought, if anyone does. Pity about Mister Jonathan.

It would sting less, Jonathan reflected sourly, if it weren't so nearly true. On impulse, he turned off the path and jogged down to the riverbank. Every step kicked up more of the fine dust that covered Westfall these days. Powdery grit, coating hair and clothing, stinging the eyes, crackling between the teeth with every breath. Facemasks didn't help much. Even the littlest children looked wizened and ancient beneath the pervasive gray coating.

Crimson-jacketed Sangromancers lined the banks beneath the dying trees. The river, Westfall's lifeblood, crept between its banks in an atrophied trickle. Dried leaves and scraps of paper floated on the surface.

Paper! How could he have forgotten something as basic as the paper? Jonathan approached one of the Sangromancers-a broad-shouldered, bearded man, his dusty face marked with lines of kindness and concern. He was chanting over a scrap of opal-dusted paper, his voice rich and resonant. Jonathan paused and listened.

"Blood of Silverhall,
Life of the river's lands,
Westfall's heart
Rests in your hands."

At the last word, the man dipped a finger in a bowl of sparkling Sorcerer's Balm, then nicked the finger with a scalpel. A drop of blood fell to the paper, and vanished with a barely-visible flash. The man sent the paper fluttering down to join the others in the river, watched for a moment, and sighed.

"Nothing, Andrew?" said Jonathan softly.

Andrew turned. His face lit in a brief smile, then sobered.

"Nothing. If each drop of blood we've shed today were a drop of water, we might have done some good, but all we're getting is a mass of paper pulp."

Up and down the river, voices rose and fell in polyphonic chant. Jonathan shook his head.

"To think we used to swim in there. Do you have any paper, Andrew?"

The older man hesitated. "Jon . . ."

"Just let me try."

He sighed, and handed over a square. "All right."

Working carefully, Jonathan dusted the paper with opal. He repeated the chant, paying attention to every change of rhythm and tone. He dipped a finger in Sorcerer's Balm, nicked it, and let the blood-drop fall just in the center of the paper. It glowed-faintly, but steadily. Hardly daring to breathe, Jonathan let the bloodspell drift to the river and waited for the faint tingle that was supposed to follow a successful cast.

Nothing.

Jonathan sighed. One hand drifted toward the pocket that held the opium. "Maybe it's because I'm left-handed?"

Andrew shook his head. "So is Uncle Edwin. So were Mother and Father. Don't be so hard on yourself, Jon. Not everyone can . . ."

"Jonathan!" Cousin Emily ran up, laughing, and flung her arms around his neck. Under her Sangromancer's coat she wore a paint-spattered smock. A daub of Cobalt Blue smeared one cheekbone. Even the handkerchief protecting her face had bright flowers embroidered on it. In the monochrome ghost-city that Westfall had become, she glowed like a rainbow in storm clouds.

"Do you strangle all your cousins, Em, or just me?" Jonathan laughed. Emily released her grip, instantly contrite.

"Sorry, Jonathan. I was glad to see you, that's all. Andrew says . . ."

Jonathan wasn't listening. He was staring at Emily's hands, scarred with deep crimson gashes.

"Tell me that's alizarin paint, Emily," he said quietly.

She hid her hands behind her back, but returned his look defiantly. "I'm old enough!"

"Barely. And those cuts! Em, if you hit the wrong nerve or tendon, you'll never hold a brush properly again."

"I don't care! The river's dying-it even smells rotten! I have Silverhall blood too. I'm a Sangromancer. I'll do what I have to. Just because you can’t . . ."

She froze. Andrew looked grim. Jonathan shoved both hands in his pockets to hide his clenched fists.

"I didn't mean . . ."

"It's all right, Em." Jonathan forced a smile. "Just be careful, all right?"

She nodded, still downcast. Jonathan checked his pockets to make sure everything was still there, and strode toward Silverhall Manor.

#

Once he was safely home, Jonathan tore off his facemask and hurled it to the floor.

"Emily!" he exclaimed. "Andrew, what were you thinking?"

That Westfall needs every Sangromancer it has, he answered himself. That the river is dying, taking the city with it, and the Silverhalls are bound to serve the river.

Even if they're barely more than children.

Jonathan stalked through the Portrait Hall, searching each picture from his father back to Amelia Silverhall herself for some clue to whatever inner fault made him different from the others. Nothing in face or expression stood out. Only the hands: strong, long-fingered, scars proudly displayed. 

That must be it. His hands. Hands that never scarred. Hands that could bleed red and never activate even the simplest healing charm. Still, he was a Silverhall, bound to serve the river. If his hands weren't enough, well, Emily had said it:

"I have Silverhall blood too. I'll do what I have to do."

#

With trembling fingers, Jonathan arranged the materials on his writing desk: knives, needles and thread, gauze and bandages, pen, writing paper and powdered opal. He filled a syringe with his mixture. Two parts Sorcerer's Balm-and one part common opium, for cowards like himself.

Sterilize, hypnotize . . . inject. Shuddering, Jon unbuttoned his waistcoat, slid the needle into his abdomen, and pressed the plunger.

None of the others talked about the nauseating sensation of metal inside one's body. None of the others mentioned that Sorcerer's Balm burned before it soothed. Jon withdrew the needle and leaned back in his chair for a moment, waiting for the anesthetic to take effect and trying to swallow the bile rising in his throat. He stood and paced. After a few tries, he managed to light a fire in the grate. Despite the heat outside, he felt cold. Dizzy. Numbness crept along his belly and side. His vision blurred at the edges. Must be the opium, or the opium and Sorcerer's Balm together. Lessons had never mentioned this, because true Sangromancers didn't need such things.

His entire right side was numb now. No point in putting it off any longer. Only . . . he was afraid.

Jonathan turned away from the implements on the desk-then turned back and picked up the largest knife. He hesitated, listening. Not a sound from outside. If his brother caught him at this . . .

"Stop stalling!" he muttered. "Don't think. Just do."

Jon shucked off his waistcoat, vest, and shirt. Chills ran along his skin. He touched the cold edge of the blade to his side, just below the ribs. Don't think. A little more to the right . . .

He slashed, as deep and hard as he dared. The shock punched through him. Warm wetness ran over his fingers. He dropped the blade, fumbling in places he didn't dare think about. Slippery. And how could everything inside feel so hot, when he was so cold? And dark. And spinning.

Jonathan fell to the study floor. Someone was groaning. Horrible sound. Someone should help . . .

#

"My god, Jon-what were you thinking?"

Jonathan winced. "Don't shout, please, Andrew," he whispered. What was his brother doing here? Where was here, for that matter? And why did he feel as though he'd swallowed half-a-dozen fishknives? He opened his eyes.

He lay in his own bed. Someone had bandaged the gash in his side. Pale, dusty sunlight filtered through the window.

Andrew bent over him, his face crimson from anger and concern. Jonathan bit his lip to keep from chuckling. Wisps of opium and Sorcerer's Balm still fogged his mind. Everything felt oddly distant, impossibly funny.

"Don't get so worked up, Andrew. Raises your blood pressure." Talking hurt. Jonathan lay back on the pillows and watched his brother struggle to control his temper.

"Hang my blood pressure! You're not the one whose little brother just spilled his guts on the carpet. You're dashed lucky Aunt Caroline's doctor was on hand. You . . . you're . . ."

"A Silverhall," Jonathan put in quietly.

"But not a Sangromancer," Andrew retorted. Jonathan winced. "I'm sorry, Jon, but there it is. You want to stop this cursed drought as much as any of us, I know, but you just don't have the knack."

"I thought I could do it, Andrew. I really did. The chant . . . I thought something . . . deeper . . . might do the trick."

"It says heart, not liver!" Andrew snapped. Jonathan laughed-and folded in on himself, spasming and breathless. Andrew stared, aghast.

"Good lord, man!"

Jonathan dragged in a breath. "I missed," he wheezed.

Andrew pulled up a chair to the bedside, and took his brother's hand in his. Andrew had true Silverhall hands, Jonathan reflected bitterly. Like their father's. Strong, capable, each scar a testament to his efforts to save Westfall from slow desiccation. "Jon, we've thought of that. The next time you see Uncle Edwin, don't ask about his eye."

Jonathan shuddered. Things deep inside him pulled and hurt.

"And Emily . . ."

"What about Emily?" Jonathan jerked upright. The sudden movement wrenched his gut. He clenched his teeth.

"A finger. A pinky-she can still paint. I was getting some more Balm when I found you."  Andrew turned away, looking grim.

"You let her?" Jonathan sat up, ignoring the shock. "At her age?"

"Jon, I didn't "let" her, any more than I let you do this."

"That's different."

Andrew chuckled. his stern look softened.

"You look like Death's cat in a rainstorm, Jon," he commented. "Rest. I'll have Cook send up some beef tea."

"I'd look like Death himself, to get the rainstorm," Jonathan retorted. "I don't need beef tea. We can't spare the water. Don't baby me, Andrew."

"It's what elder brothers do. You'll have to live with it."

Jonathan didn't argue. It took too much energy. He barely noticed when Andrew left, shutting the door softly behind him.

#

He slept, and dreamed. Of Cousin Emily, all her deft artist's fingers gone. Uncle Edwin, blind. The coughing, grey-faced children outside the potioner's door. And Andrew-standing beside the ever-shrinking river, with a silver knife poised over his heart.

He woke with a start that sent blood trickling under his bandages. The room lay in blue shadow, except where fingers of moonlight slid through the curtains. His right side felt stiff and hot, and the cool light did nothing to soothe it.

Andrew had left the promised tea, now cold, on the bedside table. Jonathan took a sip, savoring the liquid, but nausea assailed him and he set the cup down. For long moments he lay trying not to move. Both the opium and the Sorcerer's Balm had worn off, leaving him feeling battered and torn. Even drawing a deep breath took effort.

Why hadn't it worked? Why did it never work? Any other Silverhall could heal injuries far worse than his own with a single drop of their blood. All he ever got was that faint, stubborn glow. No flash. Could a person have "slow blood?"

He shifted, restless, feeling cold and hot together. Visceral aches cramped his muscles, constricted his breath. He was willing to bet that Death's cat-that wretched, bony creature-had never felt this bad. And all for nothing.

"Stupid idea," he muttered to the empty room.

Only, it should have worked. That much blood should have done SOMETHING. If he’d had even an ounce of Sangromancy in him, the river would've risen. A real Sangromancer, like Andrew, would've flooded Westfall.

Jonathan's nightmare came back to him with a rush. Andrew! The river. A knife.

"No, you don't, Andrew," Jonathan muttered. "This family already has a fool."

Gritting his teeth, he slid out of bed. He pulled one of Andrew's larger, looser shirts over his head, each movement considered, measured. The effort contorted his insides. Getting fully dressed, wasting precious minutes, was unthinkable. Jonathan wrapped himself in his father's faded red dressing-gown, tied one of his mother's handkerchiefs over his nose and mouth, and hobbled downstairs, hoping to find Andrew reading in the study.

The room lay quiet, seemingly unchanged except for the dark stain on the carpet. Andrew was always so painfully tidy. His Sangromancer's tools lay in regimented order on the desk-but the flask of powdered opal was half empty, and the largest knife was gone.

#

The nightmare urged Jonathan on, through the dust-choked streets of Westfall. The wind rose, stirring grit into the air. Half blinded, he stumbled toward the river.

Upstream. It felt right. Until now, all the Sangromancers had sent their charm-traces downstream on the river's sluggish current, hoping to spread whatever power they had across the withering land. Jonathan went the other way, along paths he hadn't followed since he and Andrew were boys, following faint glints of moonlight on water whenever the dust parted. Past the homes of the other Silverhalls, past the shops, the market and the outlying cottages he went, staggering, his breath coming in hitches. He'd never known anyone to come so far this way before, except himself. And Andrew, once, on a dare.

He reached the outlying forest, and found himself a branch sturdy enough to lean on. The wind lessened-but so did the river, dwindling to a mere creek. Jonathan followed the trickle until it vanished. He stood a moment, dazed and bewildered, searching for the lost water. All he saw was the chiaroscuro pattern of branches dappled with moonlight and shrouded in darkness. More branches crackled underfoot. Clumsy from pain, Jonathan snapped one. The crack echoed like a rifle shot.

"Who's there?"  The voice came from behind a seemingly impassible mass of bushes. Andrew!   Forgetting caution, Jonathan pushed through the wall of dying vegetation. Thorny branches slapped at him, dry as old bones, brittle, crumbling even as they scored his face. Leaf mold and dusty bark choked the air. Jonathan bent to suck in a breath, and coughed blood. Sparks flashed in his vision. He spat, scrambled up, and forced his way through the thicket. The thorny claws gave way abruptly, releasing him into a clearing.

Jonathan rubbed his eyes. Behind him stood forbidding, skeletal trees. Ahead lay a pool. Almost familiar. Deep, dark and cool, with feathervine fringing the edges, and slender branches dipping green tips in the water. Clear, cool water. Jonathan's side burned, more fiercely with every gasping breath. He edged toward the water. Was it an illusion? Some sort of fever dream? His eyes stung, and the breeze raised chills wherever it touched him.

"The opium must not've worn off yet." Jonathan declared to no one in particular. "Funny; I always thought opium dreams were a little more exotic."

"Jon!" Jonathan looked up. His brother rushed toward him, looking horrified.

"I thought I heard you, Andrew." Jonathan smiled, bemused. "What are you doing in my dream?"

"What are you doing out of bed?" Andrew retorted. "And how did you ever get here, in your condition . . . Good lord!"

Jonathan followed his brother’s stare. In the moonlight, his entire right side was stained red.

"Bit of a mess, isn't it?" Jonathan agreed. “This is one of your shirts, too. So sorry."

"Never mind that! Sit down . . . no, not in the dirt! Here. Tree stump. Sit."

Exhausted, obedient as a child, Jonathan sat.

Andrew had been holding a cloth bag. He shook out its contents, folded it, and held it to Jonathan's bleeding side. "Press down, and don't move. Now, tell me why you're wandering about the woods, in your underclothes, in the middle of the night."

"Because . . ." Jonathan's vision swam. He felt queasy, and burning hot. The air smelled like rust. "I dreamed . . ." His gaze wandered to the pile Andrew had spilled. The largest Sangromancer's knife glittered on top. Faster than he would have thought he could move, Jonathan launched himself forward and grabbed it. He hit the ground, and curled around the blade in mixed agony and triumph.

"Jonathan!"

"No you don't, Andrew," he grunted. "What were you going to do with this?"

"Forget that! Let me help you. Here-give me the knife."

"No."

"I'm older than you, Jon. Let me do what needs to be done."

"Does it?" Jonathan uncurled slightly. "Look at the pool, the trees." He fumbled to untie his facemask, breathed the clean air until his side spasmed and he coughed.

Andrew looked around, and then looked at his brother with a new kind of alarm.

"Jon," he said slowly, "you're delirious. The trees are dead. There is no pool, just a puddle at the bottom of a pit."

"Don't you see it?" Jonathan was shaking now. "Don't you smell it? The water, and the green leaves?"

"It hasn't been green here since. . . Jon, I'm taking you home. Do you understand? We're going home now." He laid a guiding hand on Jonathan's shoulder. Jonathan shook it off, and listened. He'd heard a new sound, coming from the pool. Gurgling, rippling, bubbling. Like a sleepwalker, he approached the edge.

"Jon, where are you going?"

Andrew's voice sounded far away. The rippling grew louder. Jonathan knelt at the edge of the pool.

"Jonathan! Have a care-you'll fall!"

Rings formed on the surface of the pool, radiating outward from . . . nothing. No, wait. Something glowed in the center, a brightness like a melted star. Through the brightness rose a form, silvery, nearly transparent. A woman, draped in flowing garments. Jonathan couldn't tell how old she was. The waterfall sweep of her hair was neither black nor white. Her face looked as though she'd seen ages pass her by, but her movements seemed too graceful for a being with anything so crudely solid as bones and joints. She cast no reflection. She turned toward the bank, and smiled at Jonathan. Her voice echoed from the rocks, low and musical.

"Are you a Silverhall? Has the river called you?"

Jonathan startled, nearly falling into the water. Only the sudden shock of pain pulled him back.

"I'm Jonathan Silverhall, yes," he answered, his voice hoarse. "But I'd be of no help to the river."

"Jon, who are you talking to?"

"Andrew is the Sangromancer," Jonathan continued. "My brother."

""Blood of Silverhall, life of the river's lands," murmured the woman.

Jonathan nodded. "Westfall is dying." He gestured to his side, where the red stain was spreading. "I tried to help, but . . ."

The water-woman gaped at him with a very human look of horror. "Has all the family become so literal-minded?"

Hands clutched Jonathan's shoulders. Andrew's hands. Jonathan had a sudden, nauseating sensation of being pulled back from a height, without really having moved at all. When the world rebalanced he still sat at the edge of the pool, with the silver woman on one side and Andrew, horror-stricken, on the other. He felt stretched between the two.

"Jon? Lord, you're burning up. Who are you talking to?"

"Calm down, Andrew." Leaning on his brother's arm, Jonathan struggled upright. He managed a clumsy half-bow to the woman, and said "May I present my brother Andrew, Miss . . . Ma'am . . ." He broke off in sudden consternation.

The river woman laughed. "They used to call me Amelia. Or Miss Silverhall. That will do. I'd certainly prefer it to "Infinitely-great grandmother."

“Amelia? Andrew, it’s Amelia Silverhall herself!”

"Jon," Andrew hissed in his ear, "there's no one there! It's a hole in the ground. Come on."

"Wait," said Amelia Silverhall, her voice low and commanding. Jonathan stopped short. So did Andrew, looking around and muttering "Thunder? Without lightning?"

"You're confusing him, Miss Silverhall," said Jonathan to the silver woman.

"I never meant to. He can’t see me, or any of this. This will help."

The sense of being stretched across an unbridgeable gap receded. Andrew still stood on the riverbank, but he might as well have been frozen on the other side of a glass. Jonathan no longer felt his brother's touch on his shoulder.

"What did you do to him?"

She smiled. "Nothing. He’s where he always was-in the world as it is. We’re in the world as it might be. It will be easier for us to talk this way."

Jonathan shook his head. "Am I dreaming this?"

"No, you are not." Her look turned solemn. "Jonathan Silverhall," she whispered, "what is the chant?"

Wondering, Jonathan repeated:

"Blood of Silverhall,
Life of the river's lands,
Westfall's heart
Rests in your hands."

The silver woman nodded. "Do you know what it means?"

Jonathan shook his head.

"The river must have a guardian, a spirit bound to it, to live. The Silverhalls’ bloodspells, the river’s gift, are the other side of the bond."

"My bloodspells," said Jonathan wryly, "couldn't bind paper and glue."

"The Guardian laughed.  "Jonathan! I'd forgotten what it was like, having family to talk to. It's been so long. I almost don't want to ask you."

"Ask me what?" Tremors ran through Jonathan, a terrible, wonderful chill that had nothing to do with fever.

"I'm old, Infinitely-great Grandson. I've been Guardian of the river since Westfall's founding. I'm tired. But I'm bound to the river until a new Guardian cuts the bond."

For the first time, Jonathan realized that what looked like a lace border on the river-spirit's dress was a shimmering chain, like drops of water, circling her wrist, her body, and vanishing beneath the pool's surface. He began to tremble.

"Your bloodspells don't work because . . . " The Guardian smiled sadly.  "Well, for others to receive the gift, someone has to give it."

"Me."

"Yes. I'd thought Andrew might-he came here once, long ago-but he can't see me. You came here several times. Do you remember?"

Flashes of memory-sneaking away from his tutors on hot summer days to swim in a pool that he'd forgotten how to find. This pool. "Yes. But . . ."

"Yes?"

"Why is it green here, when everything else is dead?"

"It isn't. You're seeing what the river will become if it takes a new Guardian."

"But if I refuse, if I just go back home . . ." Jonathan's nightmare returned full force. His family eyeless, handless, powerless, while Westfall shriveled and died.  He shivered, and winced. "What must I do, Miss Silverhall?"

Her face lit with gratitude and relief. "You do understand-you'll be bound to the river in my place?"

"I understand."

"Take the knife, and come here."

Jonathan closed his hand around the hilt. The movement shattered the barrier between him and his brother. Andrew cried out, and leapt, but Jonathan slid feet-first into the pool.

Coolness wrapped around him, soothing fever, washing away pain. Jonathan laughed aloud in delight. A few strokes brought him to the Guardian's side. Close to, Jonathan looked at her, seeing her portrait in the hallway. Seeing the generations of Silverhalls that came after her, living and dying without ever knowing she was there. He shuddered in sudden doubt. From the bank, Andrew watched in voiceless bewilderment.

"It's your choice." The Guardian laid a hand atop Jonathan's. Her touch was cool, her fingers long and slender. Like Emily's. The chain brushed his hand, smooth and cold.

"Jonathan!" Andrew called.

"He would take your place," said the sprit, "if he understood."

"But he can only see What Is." Jonathan raised the blade, pointing the tip toward his heart. The Guardian shook her head. Gently, she turned the knife away and held up her arm, indicating the chain.

Jonathan took a deep breath. He turned and waved to his brother.

"Andrew," he called. "Watch your step when you're walking home in the rain!"

The Sangromancer's knife split the chain. Jonathan heard Andrew's shout, the Guardian's cry of joy. Cold links twined about him, pulling him down. He gasped. Water rushed into his mouth, his lungs-and through him, and beyond him. The river rose, renewed and clean. His spirit rushed along the tide to the sea.

And as Jonathan Silverhall's brother sat weeping by the Guardian's Pool, it began to rain.

# # #

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