Chapter 2/1 - Dareon
Outside, the day was bright and breezy cold. We were high up and the air had a bite to it. Below us lay the rough mountain path winding in and out of sight, through tall trees which turned to scrub and then the valley below with little hamlets dotted here and there and the squarish outlines of stone bordered fields.
Outside, there was sound. It hit me with amazement as soon as the huge doors had magically closed behind us (there had not been a single soul in sight on our way from my room – were they hiding from me?) how incredibly silent the inside of the monastery had been.
Here, there was movement and rustling and whistling and bird sound and I fancied I could even hear the mountains creaking around me. Everything was so alive. So changing and so exciting and so much righter and so different from whatever the Serein had created there in their strange white tomb.
I could not stop smiling and breathing the air. The robe was amazing and more like a shield to the cool and edge of the wind as well as to the background searing of the sun than such thin fabric had a right to be. If I hadn’t been so hungry or so thirsty, I would have felt absolutely perfectly happy.
It was funny really, I thought to myself as we began the steep descent towards the valley, young Dareon giving up any attempt at half floating and just carefully picking his way down the slope, holding on awkwardly to the hood of his tunic which the wind was pulling and teasing, much too large for his head, that I should have so wished to be able to get into the Serein monastery only such a short time ago, and how heartily and deeply grateful I was now for being allowed to leave it again. The wind whipped my hair and my feet were healed and flexing lightly across the stones, the moss and broken branchlets, and I was happier that I can remember being for a very, very long time.
Every so often, the path would flatten out and become easier to navigate. The trees were now high, thick trunked straight and ancient, a cathedral forest with wondrous shafts of living light intersecting here and there.
The path was cool and wet and we walked in shadow.
I drew alongside Dareon and started up a conversation.
“How old are you?” I asked, as one youngster would another.
He gave me a scared sideways glance from under his hood which he insisted on having right across his forehead. I had a feeling of an insight and understanding.
“Did they tell you not to talk to me?”
He looked around this time, flashed me a nervous look and nodded, biting his lip.
I felt his youth and felt sorry for him at the same time. He was escorting a dangerous monster for all he knew. I wondered how much he did know.
“Did they tell you not to listen to me?”
He looked surprised, thought about it and then a smile broke out across his pale face that fairly set it alight with an angelic beauty. He shook his head.
I smiled back at him. “My name is Isca,” I said. “And you are Dareon, right?” He nodded and then, very sweetly and shyly, held out a thin white hand to me. I took it and squeezed it while we walking along and noted with amusement that he was blushing furiously.
“So, are you twelve? Thirteen? Fourteen? Fourteen years old. Have you always been with the Serein?” As I said it, Dareon stopped dead. I stopped too and he turned to me. For the first time since we met, he looked directly at me. He had amazing wide eyes, a light grey that reflected the dark green of the trees in the strangest way.
Hesitantly, he spoke.
“I really must not talk with you.” He said it hesitantly yet seriously and with some resonance of power and conviction behind his own shyness that was more than he himself. I couldn’t help but think that one day, he would be an impressive prince before whom many lesser ones would shudder and cover their faces.
“I have been warned to not make – a relationship with you.” There was a little trace of sadness there but also, I could understand that this warning was serious and that he meant to keep to it. This in turn, made me feel strangely sad. I understood that after my performances at the monastery, of course they would hold me to be a very bad influence indeed, and especially on a young one such as this. Yet why send him with me and not a more experienced Serein?
I sighed and the other became a very young boy again, instantly.
“It doesn’t mean that I don’t like you, “ he said quickly and blushed. “It is just …”
I sighed again and looked beyond him, at the forest enclosed, narrow road that was falling away from view at very short horizon. Only a few steps and it might end in nowhere. Only the nowhere keeps turning beneath you on approach and so the road keeps going on in spite of how it seems at the time.
“Listen,” I said. “Can you just tell me where we’re going, and how long it’s going to be until we get there, cause, I’m hungry and I don’t know what is going on anymore. I promise if you will just tell me that I will be silent and not bother you at all for the rest of the journey.”
There was a sincere kindness in his eyes and face, something I had not seen the single once amongst all the grown Serein in the monastery, a connection and an honesty that rendered my defences inadequate. I was vulnerable to kindness. I guess I never had enough practice in learning how to defend myself from an enemy who attacked so rarely that you hardly know their moves.
“I’m sorry that you are hungry,” he said and then added, “We are going to the outpost of Tower Keep. It is a journey of a twoday. But before night falls, we should have reached a safe house where we can rest and you will be able to get something to eat.”
I was very aware that it would have been easy to make him disobey his orders. In a way, he already had. He was not to make a relationship with me, yet he felt sorry for me and was concerned about my stomach now. I felt a strange sadness rising and decided that he should not in any way be put at risk because of me. So I just nodded and looked down to the floor. After a short hesitation, he turned and began walking again and I followed in his wake.
Wordlessly and relationshiplessly, we continued down the path and down the mountain, into the valley. Now there were crossroads, and the path turned into a rutted track, churned by the wheels of many carts. The morning passed into midday and we came across people who did not look in our direction. We went close by my own village and I followed Dareon's example of pulling the hood far across my face and hiding my hands in the pockets of the garment. The white stone was softly singing to me all the while and the further we went, the further away from walking and hunger and feet now being painful again I went as well, a white cloudness across me and keeping me away from all that was outside. I did not think then, nor did I observe but just walk-floated along through fields and hedge rows and copses and fields again and edging villages and passing people and sometimes waiting for carts and riders to clear the road for us.
We never stopped for rest nor really broke the rhythm of our walk until the shadows were so long they disappeared into the semi darkness behind us and finally Dareon turned off the path and up a track that led to a light in the near distance. When we walked into the yard of a silent and dark stone built house of middle proportions, the white cloud which had been carrying me all this time seemed to recede and I was dropped back into a bone crunchingly tired reality on the cobblestones, night dew slippery.
Dareon approached the door and before him, it opened, light bursting out in a sharp triangle right towards my dirty feet. We entered.
A Serein safe house. From the outside, a stone building just like any farm in this area. On the inside, a miniature replica of the monastery on Meyon Heights. The same marble was cladding the walls, the floors, and the same white silence reigned. A single Serein woman – thin, about the age of my mother but dried looking – stood in silent welcome. Without a word having been spoken, Dareon led the way to a white marble bench and table in the far corner near a fire place in which no fire was burning. Sitting down on the cold hard stone was a blessing and although I tried to copy his immovable detachment which gave away no trace of tiredness nor of having walked all this way without food nor drink nor rest, I failed and sagged into myself, putting my arms on the table in front of me and letting my head drop onto them. I was so exhausted I wanted to cry. A warm resonance reminded me of the singing stone’s presence and I really felt the need to have it warm me with its friendliness, so although it was such an effort I managed to raise myself enough to draw the stone from my pocket and place it on the table top in front of me.
A sharp intake of breath from Dareon made me look up. His big eyes were riveted and fixed to the stone. It must be a very important thing I thought but was too desperately tired to think any furtherl. I just put both my hands around the stone and rested my head on it. Instantly, a wave of blue and green washed over me, right through my body and my mind (like plunging into the water of the pool on that summer day) – healing and cleaning and rinsing, moisture to parching dryness, soothing and healing, regenerating, refreshing. I let out a deep sigh that sounded overly loud in the Serein silence and could feel the whole day draining away, leaving me light headed and my body light and easy once more. Thank you, I thought-whispered to the stone. Thank you thank you thank you.
I sat up and put the stone away. Looked up and straight into Dareon’s amazed and amazing eyes. It was such a shame that we cannot talk. There is so much I would have liked to have known about you and I could have shared the stone with you. You would have liked that. I was on the verge of reaching out to him in thought, word or deed, when the Serein woman virtually appeared at the side of the table with a tray. Deftly, she put a plate and glass before each of us, then turned and walked away. I watched her leave silently through a door to the side of the fire place in which no fire burned then focussed my attention on the meal before me.
How long had it been since I had some decent food? I cannot remember. I can’t remember eating in the monastery and before that, things are fragmented and in splinters. On the plate (white, plain, flat) was a small brown loaf like thing, all by itself, and the glass contained what appeared to be water. I was incredibly thirsty so I picked it up with both hands and drank it all in three greedy swallows. Dareon was watching me and when he saw how I reluctantly put the empty glass back down, he pushed his glass towards me. I looked up at him in surprise. Are you sure? You must be thirsty too? He pushed the glass with his fingertip just a little further and I picked it up quick, before he could change his mind, and emptied that, too. He smiled and got up from the bench, went to the door through which the woman had disappeared, and returned a very short while later with a large pitcher full of water with which he refilled both our empty glasses. I drank the third, and then a fourth, and half way through the fifth glass my thirst began to slowly recede into a wanting rather than a needing. I finished that glass slowly, savouring the bright fresh taste and texture of the water on my tongue and cool in my mouth. Across the table, Dareon was breaking small pieces of the brown loaf and I became aware of my hunger now, a sharp stabbing pain in my stomach. It took all the will power I could muster not to stuff the whole thing into my mouth at once and I followed his example, breaking off little pieces and chewing them carefully, one at a time. The little brown loaf that tasted like stale nuts did nothing to even take the edge of my hunger and I was debating with myself as to whether to give up and ask Dareon if he could procure some more, as he had done with the water, but it proved to be unnecessary. He could tell well enough how hungry I was and he went and came back with a plate full of pale round things that vaguely looked like flattened cakes or bread. They too tasted stale and hard, but after having eaten them all and chased the crumbs with a moistened finger tip, the hunger was stopped as well.
Now I was tired. Funny how this went like it did. First the water, then the food, and now sleep. With all of those necessities fulfilled, what was next in line of those demands, I wondered briefly.
Dareon got up and I followed his example. He walked over to a seemingly empty wall and touched it with his flat hand. A door opened within it, and behind it was a corridor into which he stepped. There were cell like rooms with a small bed in each and no windows. Dareon half entered one, then turned to me to indicate I follow him. He showed me how a part of the wall would slide away if you touched it just so, and behind it was one of those strange things that made your waste products disappear, and a wash stand that mysteriously spouted water out of a metal ring set in the wall when you turned a handle. I was fascinated by this as there had been one of those in my room at the monastery too but I had not understood what it was or how to work it. I held my hand under the water and then with both hands splashed my face and when I looked up, the exit door was closed and Dareon had gone.
Beneath the wash stand was a shelf with a cloth and – oh wonderful! – a simple comb made out of golden brown horn, smooth and semi-transparent. I washed myself and then, feeling much cleaner and happier than I had in a long time, sat with my stone friend by my side and combed my hair for a while, until my eyes kept closing and my arms dropping without me knowing it, and sometime later I must have been asleep for a while, I crawled under the thin and silky blanket, wrapped myself around the lightly buzzing stone and knew nothing more until a hollow knock awoke me an unknowable time later.
I dressed hastily and then found I couldn’t figure out how to open the door. In frustration, I banged it with my fist and a short while after that, it slid to one side and Dareon stood before me. He looked at me with some surprise – I guess he had not seen me clean and combed before, as well as fed and rested – but silently led the way back to the meeting room where breakfast was already waiting in our places. More water, and more brown loaf. It didn’t bother me and I didn’t need any extra this time. We finished our food at the same time and then just got up and walked out.
I didn’t see the dried Serein woman again.