Back to Index.

Disclaimer: The Chronicles of Chrestomanci and The Homeward Bounders and their characters do not belong to me. I'm just borrowing them for my and (I hope) my readers' amusement only and have no intention of trying to make money off of them in any way, shape or form.

Warnings: None to speak of.
Fandom: Chronicles of Chrestomanci/The Homeward Bounders
Rating: G

Author: The RCK
Last updated: 8 October 2013

Thanks to Jan Levine for beta reading.

Written for russian_blue in the 2013 Exchange at Fic Corner.

Measure Every Grief

Christopher had just settled in with a pot of tea, a plate of biscuits and a new detective novel from 12B when he felt the itch that was the castle's way of letting him know that someone was asking for him. He sighed and leaned back in his chair, intending to ignore the summons. Whoever it was probably wasn't serious. The castle was often overzealous about calling his attention to casual mentions of his title. After that business with the delegation from India, I deserve a half day.

The castle pulled at his attention again. Carefully marking the page, he set down his book. He gave the castle his attention. At least see who's calling--

"Christopher, darling, I need you." Millie's voice sounded urgent.

Not the castle being overzealous. By the time he'd finished the thought, he was out the door, heading in the direction the castle's magic indicated. He took a shortcut, folding space just a trifle to put himself into the garden.

Millie knelt beside a flowerbed. There was a rather bedraggled figure lying sprawled face down across the bed. Christopher wasn't sure at first whether the figure was male or female. Then he saw that it was wearing trousers, and he decided on male. The trousers were loose and red and topped by a brown jacket belted at the waist. Christopher couldn't see much of the jacket because a large backpack covered most of it.

"Oh, good." Millie pressed on the figure's back even as she met Christopher's eyes. "He's coughing up water, and he's soaked to the bone. How he got here, I can't imagine." She paused a moment to push a strand of hair back from her face. "He's very young."

"What would you like me to do?" Christopher knelt next to Millie. "I could get that backpack off him if that would help."

"Would you? I thought about doing it myself-- it's in the way-- but I thought I'd better get the water out of him first."

Christopher laid his hands on the wet fabric of the pack. He dug in his fingers and pulled, willing the straps to insubstantiality so they'd pass through the boy's shoulders. The pack was heavier than it looked and dripped water. He set it down and started to undo the flap that closed it.

"Leave that until we get him to the castle," Millie said. She rocked back on her heels. "Where are the gardeners? I shouldn't have been the first one to find him."

Christopher checked the security spells around the perimeter of the grounds. "He didn't come through the defenses."

"I know. Look at the prints." She pushed the boy's hair back off his face.

Christopher stood up and looked. There was a single dent in the bed, as if the boy had jumped into the flowers and collapsed as he landed. But he's in no shape to have jumped. He's in no shape to have walked. QED. He just landed here. "That's supposed to be impossible."

"Obviously not." Millie looked up at Christopher then down at the boy again. "We need to get him out of those wet clothes. He's breathing well enough now, but that was a lot of water came out."

Christopher looked down at the boy, lying amid broken flowers and mud, and considered his clothing. "I suppose I can carry him," he said dubiously.

"You?" Millie laughed, not unkindly, but Christopher felt a little hurt. "You can find a gardener or two. You may carry the backpack if you wish."

When they lifted the boy out of the flowerbed, a small device fell out of his hand. Christopher picked it up and examined it. One side looked rather like a compass, but the needle swung around wildly as if unable to locate north. The other side had a meter with the needle pointing close to zero. Christopher turned it over twice then shrugged and stuck it into the backpack.

Once back at the castle, Christopher left Millie to get the boy cleaned up and into dry clothes. She'd do a much better job without his interference. He found a work table that wouldn't be damaged by water and started pulling things out of the backpack.

Ten minutes later, he had three piles, things that could, at least theoretically, have come from this world, things that couldn't possibly come from this world, and things that needed laundering. The backpack was made of some sort of waterproof material, but water, a lot of water, had got in anyway. The blanket and sweater now in the to be laundered pile had soaked up a lot of it, but there was still some for Christopher to tip out the window after the backpack was empty.

Christopher frowned at the pile of things not from this world. There was food sealed in bags that had to be plastic. There was fishing line made of a clear substance that he thought was also plastic. He didn't recognize the synthetic from which the rope was made, but it definitely wasn't any natural fiber he'd ever encountered. Finally, there was a tube shaped device that he thought was a torch. He wasn't sure if immersion had destroyed it but rather thought that he'd better let it dry out before he fiddled with it.

"So he's traveling worlds. He's prepared for wilderness, but he's also--" Christopher's eyes strayed to the small pile of silver and gold coins. "--prepared to meet people." Silver and gold weren't good on all worlds, and some worlds, like 12B, tended to ask pointed questions of anyone turning up with such coins. "The question is why and how?"

Deciding that staring at the things wasn't going to tell him anything, he called a maid and asked her to see that the clothing, blanket and backpack were properly cleaned. Then he went back to the garden. Staring at the flowerbed was only marginally better. There was a gardener there, attempting to save the crushed plants. Christopher didn't feel that he could step into the bed himself, not while that was going on. He didn't care all that much about the plants, but he didn't want to offend the gardener, who obviously did.

He satisfied himself with standing at a distance and letting his magic grope around for signs of the boy's passage. The castle had been built at a place where the walls between universes were weak, but those walls didn't feel any weaker here than usual. However the boy had passed through, he hadn't left a hole or even a scar. He frowned and stepped into The Place Between.

It hadn't changed since he'd last been there. The rocky ground was still steep and slippery. He could feel the Anywheres stretching around him. None of them seemed closer than usual, and he didn't see how the boy could have walked through, not given the state in which he'd arrived. Christopher supposed that someone might have carried him. Christopher himself could have done it.

Though I wouldn't with his lungs still full of water. Christopher picked up a few loose stones and let them fall, one by one, from his hand. No. Wherever he came from, there was water there, water deep enough to drown in.

His clothes were still a bit damp from the water that had been on and in the backpack. He considered whether that might be enough. Sometimes, he could track things to their world of origin. He pulled the water from his clothes so that it sat cupped in the palm of his hand. He gave it half his attention and let the other half of his mind drift, trying to see if he could get a direction.

When the pull came, it went three ways. He blinked and shook his head to clear it. Not all from the same world. What on earth was he doing to get soaked on three different worlds? He dipped a finger into the water in his hand and tasted it. Salt. He tipped his hand and shook off the last drops of water. I shall have to talk to him. I was always going to have to talk to him, but I hoped-- I should be able to discover more about him.

For several hours, Millie kept Christopher out of the room where she'd put the boy. At first, she was simply too busy to be bothered with him. The boy needed washing and clean, dry clothes and any number of other things that Christopher wouldn't have thought of. Then, the boy needed to rest before talking to anyone.

Christopher acknowledged that all of this was true, but it didn't satisfy his own need to know what was going on. The boy was a mystery, and Christopher wasn't comfortable leaving that mystery for later. He did take the precaution of putting some monitoring spells around the room. He'd know if the boy tried to leave. He had to trust Millie to look after herself inside the room. She wouldn't thank him for intruding. He told himself that he had no reason to think the boy was dangerous, and himself told him right back that he had no reason to think he wasn't.

"He says his name is Jamie Hamilton," Millie told him when she emerged from the room to order food.

"So he can talk?" Christopher replied.

"A little." Millie rubbed her face with one hand. "He's wary. He's not scared, but he is wary. He hasn't asked any questions but what my name is and what happened to his things. I'm having his things brought to his room." She considered for a moment. "I'm not sure why, but I think he was surprised that I spoke English."

"He's obviously traveling from world to world," Christopher said. "There are many places on many worlds-- infinite worlds-- where no one speaks English." He took her hand in his and started rubbing it.

"He doesn't look nearly so young when you can see his eyes. I mean, he still looks young, but there's a look to him like he's seen too much. You know how people get."

"I've met children with that look before." Christopher shoved memories of worlds where he'd done too little too late aside. He's here now. We can do something. "I do need to talk to him."

"I know, darling, but it's not as if he's going anywhere. He needs some food and some sleep. Find something else to do until morning."

So Christopher took himself off. He thought about his book, but then he remembered the peculiar little box and decided to experiment with it. He walked around the garden and watched the needle spin. When he reached the apple orchard, the needle swung straight, pointing back into the garden. It shifted a bit as he wandered off course, but eventually it directed him back to the flowerbed. As he approached it, his magic told him that this was a path for leaving the world, one that wouldn't need much of a push to get through. Not something one wants to find in one's garden. Will the children be wandering through it? No, if they were going to, they'd have done it by now. It needs the right approach and a bit of intent. At least, now I know the how. More or less. I just need the why.

He spent the rest of the afternoon distracting himself with work he'd meant to put off until the next day. At dinner, everyone wanted to know more about the mysterious boy. Christopher listened to the speculation but refrained from adding his own thoughts to the conversation. After the discussion came around to the same points for the third time, Millie insisted on a change of subject.

Christopher was reluctant to go to bed. He knew he wouldn't sleep well, not with so many unanswered questions. Still, he knew better than to stay up when Millie was waiting for him. She wouldn't consider curiosity an excuse. He stayed up for a little while, reading in bed, until Millie sleepily demanded to know when he was going to turn off the light.

At about three in the morning, one of his monitoring spells went off. He slipped out of bed, grabbed a bathrobe, put on slippers, and moved himself to the room where the boy had been sleeping.

The door was open, and the bed was empty. Christopher could hear careful footsteps in the dark hallway outside. He's probably trying not to run into anything. One smashed vase might bring the whole castle out. Christopher padded out of the room. He thought he could move more quickly than the boy could. At least, I think I recall where everything is. And he can't know which way is out. I suppose I should be glad he didn't go out the window. He probably considered it, but it's a fair way down.

As he moved silently down the hallway, Christopher considered tactics. Speaking might make the boy run. Grabbing the boy, physically or magically, might make him cry out. And if he yells, everybody wakes up. Somehow, I think this is best kept private.

"Jamie Hamilton," he said softly, "I don't think you'll get far without your little box, and that's in my study."

The other set of footsteps went still. After several seconds, a voice came out of the dark. "I'd like that back. It's better all around if you give it to me." The boy didn't sound frightened, just tired.

Christopher conjured a light. "Come to my study, then, and you can tell me why I ought to give it back to you."

The shadows made reading the boy's face difficult. He hesitated then nodded. "You'll have to lead the way."

"I can do that." Christopher brushed past the boy and walked down the hallway. He led the way to his study without saying anything further. When he got there, he opened the door, turned up the lights then dismissed the magical light. "Sit anywhere," he told the boy.

The boy took a chair near the fireplace. He didn't take off his backpack.

"Are you cold? I can start a fire. I just wouldn't normally in August." Christopher studied the boy. No. Call him Jamie. He has a name. "Those boots can't be completely dry."

"No, no fire," Jamie replied. "And they're not, but it was easier to wear them than to carry them."

"No, you've quite enough to carry." Christopher opened a drawer in his desk and pulled out a tin of biscuits. He took the lid off and offered the tin to Jamie. "Help yourself."

Jamie studied the contents of the tin then selected two. He held them balanced in one hand, making no move to eat them.

Christopher leaned against the edge of his desk. "Was our hospitality so unwelcome? Millie will be hurt."

"That wasn't my intention." Jamie met Christopher's eyes then looked away. "She was kind. It's just safer not to get involved with people."

"Safer?" Christopher's attention sharpened.

Jamie waved his empty hand. "It's nothing to worry about. It's just that I should be moving on."

"Judging by the contents of your backpack, you do nothing but keep moving on," Christopher said mildly. "Surely you can afford a day or two here. You did very nearly drown."

Jamie shuddered. "I was afraid I'd never find dry land. Bounds on water nearly always lead to more water, and there wasn't land in sight."

"Bounds?" Christopher looked over Jamie's head. "Is that what you call them? Disconcerting thing to find in one's garden. The children might fall through."

Jamie swung his feet back and forth. "That wouldn't happen. I've never known anyone to go through accidentally."

"Do I have to worry about other travelers popping in from elsewhere? Or people breaking through our protections to get to this Bound?"

"I shouldn't think so. I'm the only one now." Jamie stilled his feet and took a bite of one of his biscuits.

Implying that there used to be more. "We have no records of strangers appearing in or disappearing from the garden. It seems like the sort of thing we'd note."

Jamie shrugged and continued eating his biscuit.

"It's a novel way of going from one world to another. I'll give it that. I think I prefer my own way of doing things. I like to have a look at where I'm going before I get there."

Jamie swallowed. "I'd like that. How do you manage it?" For the first time, he looked more interested than wary.

"There's a place between the worlds. All the worlds, well all the worlds I know, can be reached from it. It's an odd place. It doesn't seem large, but you can go anywhere at all from it. I can show you, but unless you've magic of your own, I doubt you can get in without help." Why am I offering that? Because I don't like the idea of a child going blindly from world to world.

"Oh." Jamie's shoulders sagged. "I don't have any magic. We hadn't any where I come from."

"I'm sorry." Pity. "Magic makes as many problems as it solves." Christopher suspected that that was cold comfort. "I'm Chrestomanci, by the way. At least, that's my title. My real name is Christopher Chant, but that doesn't generally matter to people."

Jamie showed no sign of recognizing the title. He ate his second biscuit.

"You don't have to go on, you know." Christopher felt he had to offer. "Our world may not be what you're used to, but we have taken in people from other worlds before, and we know of many other worlds. One of them might suit you better."

Jamie's expression closed in. "I can't stay," he said.

Christopher thought he heard a hint of longing in the words. "Why ever not? Are you cursed? I'm quite good at breaking curses."

Jamie took a deep breath, as if to steady himself. "It's not a curse, not precisely. It's more of a... a duty. Yes. A duty." He raised his chin. "There isn't anyone else."

"A duty," Christopher repeated. "What sort of duty?"

Jamie looked away. "It doesn't matter. I should be going."

"I'm not giving you that little box until you explain why you need it."

"I don't recommend keeping it from me." Jamie's tone was matter of fact. "Bad things happen to people who steal from me."

"That sounds like a threat." Christopher wasn't impressed.

"It's not. It's just the way things work." Jamie shrugged. "It's one of the rules: No interference. You can't steal from me or imprison me. I can't hurt you directly."

Rules? I need to know more about this. "It seems to me that we interfered when we pushed the water out of your lungs and hauled you out of that flowerbed."

"That sort of thing seems to be allowed. I can, for example, get a job, earn money and buy things. People can give things to me."

Christopher looked at Jamie's clothing. It was something, he thought, that used to belong to Roger. "And you can steal from us." He kept accusation out of his voice.

Jamie followed Christopher's gaze and looked down at himself. "I can. This doesn't fit very well, but I'll stand out less if I wear it than I would with my other clothes."

"If you're just heading for the garden, that hardly matters."

"I don't want to use that Bound." Jamie shuddered. "It might lead back to water. I'm surprised you never had the Dutchman through." He shook himself. "You don't have to worry about that now." His smile was barely there.

I suppose it makes sense that there are other thin spots. "You'll need money to get anywhere. Convince me that you should go, and I'll give you something to help."

"You're going to make me tell you everything?" Jamie closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair. He looked almost as if he were about to disappear. "It's complicated."

"I have all night."

"Once upon a time," Jamie began, "there were creatures-- I don't want to call Them people, though I suppose by some definitions They must be. Anyway, They learned how to make the worlds less real so that They could manipulate the worlds and the people within them. They played games-- wars, quests, politics, famines, plagues, natural disasters-- all of that was Them."

Christopher held up a hand. "Are you saying there wouldn't be any earthquakes with out these... beings?" Not to mention the rest of it. He believes it. I don't know that I do.

Jamie shook his head. "There has to be the potential for earthquakes before They could use them somewhere. I imagine they used some things as chance factors that might affect the outcome of play without anybody deliberately setting them up." He yawned. "Do you know a world called Uquar? The people there know something about how all of this works. They might explain it better than me. Making things real and unreal-- Well, you might believe it better from someone who looks older than I do. I understand how They did it, but I don't look like I ought to."

On the other hand, if he's right, there's an immense threat that we know nothing about. Christopher turned to look out a window. "You're using the past tense about these beings. Are they gone?" Such things don't just go away. They have to be driven out.

"Years back, I can't really be sure how many, They made a mistake that let us drive Them out of Their real place. They're undoubtedly looking for ways back in. They'd have to start over, but They can do that. Or They could. They're sealed out as long as I walk the Bounds and don't think of anywhere as Home."

Christopher continued looking out the window as he considered Jamie's words. "How old are you, Jamie?" How long have you been carrying this? Whether it's true or not, it drives you on. Can I afford to assume it's not true?

"I don't rightly know. When we drove Them out, I'd been walking the Bounds for one hundred years. Since then, people I knew who stayed on one world have grown old. I still look like I'm thirteen."

"And you're doing this alone." It wasn't a question. "Do you have to do it alone?"

"There's no reason I have to, but I wouldn't ask anyone else to do it. I've given up everything except the hope that I'll be able to keep going and keep Them out. It's my gift to all the people who'll never know."

"There are worse things than wandering. I suspect that, if you looked, you could find someone with no reason to stay where he was, someone for whom life as you live it would be an improvement."

"Someone older would try to run things," Jamie replied. "Someone younger or even the same age-- Well. It's no life for a child."

"Jamie," Christopher said gently, turning his gaze on the boy, "you appear to be a child. You say you're older, and I've no reason to doubt you, but when I look at you, I see a child. This would be a terrible burden for anyone. You're asking me to accept you as an expedient sacrifice."

"I'm not asking for anything except my Bound finder back. It doesn't matter what you think, what anyone thinks. I volunteered, and I'll see it through."

"Stay with us for a few days. Let your boots dry. Let us find some clothes that fit you better than these do. I can help you, too. I can arrange travel to wherever on this world you need to go." Let me make things a little better, for a while. I can't stop you going on, not without imprisoning you.

Jamie looked dubious. "Staying just makes leaving harder. I've supplies enough for now. More or less. I could use a new torch. The sea water got into the old one and destroyed it."

"There is this, too," Christopher said. "Even in other worlds, you can call me, and I'll come. There may be worlds too far away, but in many places, I'll hear you. Just find a quiet place and say 'Chrestomanci' three times. If I can come, I will. Even if you're really going on for centuries, there should always be a Chrestomanci to answer. It just won't always be me."

"Chrestomanci," Jamie repeated. "I'll remember."

"I'll give you back your little box," Christopher said, "but I would like more detail about reality and unreality and all of that. It sounds like something I ought to know."

Back to Index.