We stepped out into the early morning light and the alive reality was even more of a shock this time than it had been on the mountain top. As before, Dareon took the lead and we walked and walked. I was feeling much, much better this day and did not need to retreat into the white oblivion the stone could provide when called upon. There was much to see, much to think about and the morning wind whipped my combed hair. People were staring because they had probably never seen anyone who was wearing the blue of Serein but with their hood down, a face to be seen and their long hair blowing freely in the breeze. It made Dareon uncomfortable but he did not stop or say anything, and all the knowing I had from his discomfort was a drawing in of his shoulders that was slight and only noticeable to someone who had walked a long time looking at his back.
All morning we walked amongst fields of one kind or another, and saw but a few people on the road and a few workers and farmers and a few stray children along the way. As the sun was getting high, we approached what might be a larger town in the distance. There were houses now not so widely interspersed, and different kinds of houses not just farm buildings, and then, on a large piece of fallow land we came by an encampment of travellers.
Travellers did not farm and they lived in their carts which were like houses. They were rumored to have strange powers and anything that ever went missing was said to have been taken by them, may it have been washing from the line, some apples from the tree, a small golden haired child or a favourite daughter’s virginity. They traded in horses and in cloth, jewellery and nick knacks and had a terrible reputation for wild songs and merrymaking.
I had never been allowed to see a travellers camp and none had ever come to our small hamlet in my knowing, but at one time we had gone to a market fair and they had been there. My mother often told the story how I had tried to run away to join them in their colourful and godless ways when I was just a tiny thing that could hardly toddle and would cite this as a clear indication of the lack of character I had always displayed from birth.
But there was no merrymaking the day we passed by, but wailing and screaming and cursing the likes of which you’d never heard. A whole knot of travellers was in the centre of a ring of strangely shaped and many coloured wagons. I stopped and craned my neck. Dareon continued onwards, shoulders tight and possibly a bit faster than he had walked the previous day and a half. I turned my attention away from him and back towards the happenings beyond the verge of the road, when a woman saw me, and pointed and began to run towards me, screaming, “Help me, help me!” in strange tones and an accent that made it sound as though her language was not my own.
Stunned, I stood until she was right upon me. The woman, elderly and dressed in many different kinds of cloth of many different kinds of colours and textures, her grey hair long and unbound like that of a young girl, many golden bangles and beads around her neck and wrists, flung herself into the road in front of me, raising her wrinkled hands to me and actually clutching at my robe.
“Holy Serein, please help this unworthy one, “ she said and the words tumbled from her fast, “not me, not for me, my grandson, he fell and now he must die if you don’t help!” and soon, we were surrounded by many more of these dark faced strangers, all of them bigger than me, all of them shouting and begging, the woman crying and the men cursing. Mentally, I called out in desperation, Dareon! Dareon help me!! when all of a sudden, the furthest ones went quiet and then the quiet spread to them all and even to the old woman at last. They moved aside and through them slid Dareon, complete with distortion across his face (although it span and fell, span and fell) and Serein hover just off the ground. I sensed the incredible effort it took him to keep it up and knew I must distract the people somehow before he faltered and they would see they just had two children on their hands and be enraged or wreak revenge for old slights and misdoings, imagined or real.
“What is the problem?” I said authoritatively into the silence and took their attention away from Dareon that way.
A man stepped forward and removed his cap. He was short and dark and looked very strong, square shouldered and with deep black curly hair and beard. His eyes were nearly black and intense. “It is my son, Jamuel,” he said, respectful and hesitant, “He fell from a horse and was trampled. He must surely die if you don’t help us, holy ones.”
My mind raced a hundred miles in a second, and why I shall never know, but I reached out for Dareon and shouted across to him in silence, Can we help them? Can you heal? and received his reply, I don’t know but we must not be seen to fail here. The accompanying picture he sent across of the smouldering remnants of blue robes trampled under foot of angry horses followed quite my train of thought as well.
There was no way out so I decided to go forward. I took a deep breath to keep my voice steady and said, “Show me to the child.” The crowd parted, the man whose son was dying led the way, and the old woman scrambled to her feet, continuing to clutch at my shoulder and to mutter and cry.
The procession with Dareon remaining well in the rear, entered into the wagon circle.
In the centre was a large fire that was still burning down from a much bigger one the night before, and by it lay a pale dark child, no more than five or six years of age (oh Creator - just like Sef my little brother - how are you coping without my protection? I should not have left you behind!). His head was cradled in the lap of a dark exotic woman whose face was wet with tears and who was rocking him ever so slightly. She looked at my approach with hope and fierceness and I felt so inadequate and such a fraud in my blue robes. Under my left hand, the stone began to sing re-assurance in a shade of gentle purple and blue and that gave me the strength to make the last few steps and crouch down by the side of the child.
As soon as I looked closely at his face, pale in spite of the dark colouring, set off against ringlets of pitch black curls which hid a river of now nearly black blood coming from the side of his head, all the rest of it – the people, the mother, the fire and the camp – started to recede and kind of fade out of awareness until it was all gone and there was this space that contained just the child and me. It was a strange feeling of a kind I was unaware of having experienced before, then a sensation at the back of me caught my attention and it was Dareon, joining us and crouching down beside me. He was not looking at the child, but at me instead, and seemed to be different – older? taller? more knowledgeable? – than I remembered him to be.
They did not tell me that you could reach Serein? he said, with a wonder in his voice. I broke off from my attention to the child and looked at him, surprised. Serein? Reach Serein? This – this strange place is Serein? I asked, an understanding beginning to take shape in my mind somewhere. Dareon nodded, still staring.
Not a place, a state of being, he said. I felt a reeling sensation and re-focussed on the child. It too looked different, ghostlike, not solid, nearly see-through. There were colours coming from his body and around the left side of his head, a black vortex swirling angrily, seemingly sucking out colours that were beginning to distort towards it from all over his body.
Do you see that vortex? I asked Dareon, and felt his reply yes. Do you know how to stop it?
He hesitated. I have not learned the art of healing yet.
There was a greenish yellow beginning to be drawn from around the child’s chest and the first part of it was nearly reaching the vortex. I had a strong feeling of fear and foreboding and I knew that if this green was to be sucked into the vortex, all the other colours would follow like a waterfall and the child would be lost.
Do something Dareon, I said urgently and felt his hesitation and then his fear. He didn’t know what to do, or if he did, he would not do it now. The green was edging into the outside of the vortex with every pulse that must have been the beating of the child’s living heart somewhere not in this space, yet linked and one in a way I did not seek understand right now. I put my hand into my pocket and drew out the singing stone. Tightened my fingers around it and urged it to help me somehow. Vibrations spread through my fingers and palms and up my arms, and the now familiar waves of blue and green began to build up. I don’t need this now, how do I give this to the child? But the stone’s vibrations remained for me and strengthened and calmed me at the same time, and the green was nearly there now, two more heartbeats and it would all be over.
No! I thought, hard and desperate, and in my mind, began to tug on the green to somehow bring it back. It moved back a little bit and Dareon gasped by my side.
How are you doing this? I felt him exclaim, and I told him to just grab the green and try and pull it back into shape. His mind joined mine and together, we pulled the green back towards the child’s centre, yet as soon as we let go, it would inevitably begin the slide towards the vortex anew.
You keep pulling the green back, I instructed Dareon, I will try and do something to the vortex itself. I focussed on it and could feel the pull of it, the strength of it, and for a second I panicked and thought that it might pull me into itself just as surely as it would the livingness of the child. I resisted the pull and pulled back but that did not do anything other than expend my energy. A picture: a fox once caught by my father in a trap, pulling against the trap and tearing itself apart because the trap would not move - This is not the answer.
Frustrated, I sat back on my heels and considered the vortex.
Do something, came from Dareon, I don’t know how much longer I can hold this.
I focussed him away and reduced the situation even more. Now, there was no Dareon and no child, and no green in danger of being swallowed any more. Reluctantly, I tuned out the singing stone as well and reduced it all to just me all by myself and the vortex itself. I edged in until I could feel it pull on me and gave in a little. The tension reduced immediately and noticeably, and I gave in a little more. The vortex began to take on a familiar feel as we were no longer separate but beginning to merge and it was then that it occurred to me that if I became the vortex, I would be able to understand what it was, and then perhaps could choose to change its nature and direction. A part of me was afraid of that idea but still, it was too intriguing a proposition to resist. I relaxed a little more into the vortex, then more and more still until I let go completely and merged with it entirely. I felt its hunger and desire for harmony and I understood why it wanted the green from the child in a way that can never be explained in speech alone and I also knew that this hunger could not be stilled in the way it sought to fulfill. Being the vortex and with volition I broadened the scope, and found the blue and green of the singing stone instead. Here was true green – all the green in the universe, endlessly renewing.
As the vortex I began to feed and sate and then go beyond satiation into bliss and then ecstasy, the green kept coming and all of a sudden, there was a switch into a profound silence so deep and all-encompassing that I ceased to be at all for a short while or perhaps an eternity – I am not sure. All I know after that is that I could feel a pushing at my shoulder and there was Dareon, and the child in the interim space, and the vortex was no longer there, but a small field of stars instead above the child’s head, feeding all the colours in his body and re-shaping them as to where they should be, strengthening them and giving them a wondrous luminosity.
Dareon reached across to me and somehow, my eyes opened and we were back in the travellers camp, in a silence of breathing and heartbeats and a crackling fire; before me lay the child and his eyes were open, and he was smiling at me.
I smiled back at him and as I did so, he reached out a very grubby little hand which I lovingly took in mine. At my peripheral vision I could see Dareon standing, and then one by one, all the travellers sank silently to their knees and folded their hands in front of their faces in the reverence.
The child’s mother just put her face into the boy's hair and sobbed. I leaned forward and turned the child’s hand in mine and gave it a small kiss, then let it go. Stood up and turned and walked away from the fire and the kneeling travellers with Dareon falling in step by my right shoulder. On the road, I turned to look back. No one had moved, but the little boy was still smiling, and seeing me look to him, waved a child’s farewell to me. I acknowledged it with a lifted hand in return, and we went on our way.
For a few miles we walked in absolute silence. I was struggling to understand what had happened back there, and how this must have been what Serein was all about – to be able to enter a space where you can do magic at will.
I was remembering the starfield above the child’s head and thought of poor little Sef, the daily beatings and the lack of love and I wished him a starfield from the very well of the bottom of my heart, and sent it and Dareon stumbled and fell, flat on his face at the same instant and snapped me out of my sadness.
I rushed to his side and tried to help him up, brush some of the dirt off his blue robe but he shushed me away with an impatient gesture.
“I’m sorry Dareon,” I said helplessly, “really sorry. For everything.” I was not quite sure what I meant by that, but for some reasons tears came and I started to cry and couldn’t stop. The stone hummed in alarm and I could hear Dareon’s voice and then feel his arm around my shoulders but I still couldn’t stop crying for a long while. In the end, Dareon just led me a little way off into a field away from the road and sat me down under a tree until I had exhausted myself with the sadness for now and the crying had turned into ragged breath and hiccups instead.
“I’m sorry,” I said again, but this time, Dareon actually answered in the spoken word, his voice so strangely childlike again.
“Don’t be sorry. I don’t care about my orders after that. I don’t know what’s going on with you and the council, but I swear the High Masters themselves couldn’t have done any better than what you did back there. I have never seen anything like that, haven’t even heard of anything like that – it was wonderful. Wonder full. A miracle. Who was your teacher? Where did you learn how to do this?”
I still couldn’t speak properly through the sniffling and hiccups but it did bring me back again.
“I … didn’t. I just do stuff.”
Dareon sat back on his heels, for once the Serein silence and rigidity gone from his posture. He brushed the hood off his head and fluffed his pale white blond long hair. The sun caught it and made him look like an angel again.
“You are a wild one, then,” he said slowly.
“A wild one?” Funnily enough, I had been called that before. Never in this context though. It made me smile through the sniffling.
Dareon nodded seriously. “Some very few people can get into Serein without training. But they don’t know what they’re doing and are very dangerous. To themselves and to others. Most of them go mad.” He broke off and I had the distinct impression he wished he hadn’t said that yet it made me smile again.
“Yes well, most people think I’m mad. And dangerous. So it’s quite right then.” I sighed and after a moment’s consideration, used the sleeve of the holy blue Serein robe to wipe my nose. Dareon shuddered and I grinned and felt very much better all of a sudden. “I’m officially a wild one.”
There was a cricket chirping, leaf rustling silence following that statement which lasted a considerable time. Finally, Dareon said hesitantly, “Could you teach me to do that? What you did? Make a custom starfield for a child?”
I considered the request and shrugged my shoulders. “Frankly, I would love to but I have no idea what I did back there or how I did it. I became one with the vortex. That much I know. You couldn’t fight it, you had to merge with it. That was the answer.”
Dareon creased his brows which looked funny on his very young and angelic face but nice too because it made his so much more human than the icy Serein detachment behaviour he was trying so hard to model and perfect so much. “I have never heard of merging with a disturbance for illness. I thought you have to fight them away. That was what I was taught. And also, that I’m not allowed to do it under any circumstances because I haven’t had enough training yet.”
“How much training do you need?” They used the word disturbance for the vortex. Interesting.
“Oh,” said Dareon, unconsciously relapsing into a more upright Serein posture, “at least 25 years or more. To make the first grade in healing.”
“Oh well,” I said. “In that case, we better go back to the travellers camp and tell them to wait that long until we’ve been taught what to do!”
Dareon looked very shocked and even a little scared. I had seen that look before in my friends when I had taken something too far and was in violation of something or other they had been told was the truth all their lives. From experience, I knew better than to proceed any further with this kind of talk, at least for now.
“Come one, let’s get going. We must be way behind schedule by now if I have learned anything about Serein business on this trip.” I got up and brushed a few dried leaves and twigs off the robe. Funny how the thing didn’t seem to stay dirty for more than a second or two at the time. A useful thing that would be for a harassed mother with many little children who are always playing and falling in the dirt. But they wouldn’t be able to afford such fabric. As was the way of the world.
Dareon got up as well and re-assumed his silent straightness. We didn’t exchange a single glance and talked no more all the way to the next safe house.
That night, asleep in my cell, I dreamed.
I was standing on the top of a hill and looking across a landscape that seemed to go forever – there was no horizon. There was no sun, either, but a general luminescence that made everything look very bright and crisp, like the world looks after a thunderstorm in summer.
I heard laughter and I turned around and saw three blond children of different ages, playing and running a short way below where the slope of the hill on which I was standing merged into a meadow of soft grass and impossibly shaped and impossibly coloured flowers.
One of the children dressed in white tunics was Dareon, and on closer inspection, it turned out that the other two were very much like him in their aspects and being – were they his brothers? Never had I seen such a striking resemblance and it took out a moment or so until I understood that it was Dareon in three versions all at the same time here in this meadow.
I called to him and the children stopped playing. The two smaller ones ran off and Dareon came up the hill to meet me.
He looked relaxed and extremely beautiful. He even seemed pleased to see me.
“Hi there,” he said, straining up the last few steps before joining me on the hill top. “What brings you here?”
I had a strong desire to reach out and touch his silky hair but repressed it.
“Where is here?” I asked, and he smiled and made a sweeping gesture with his extended arm, encompassing all of the landscape and the strange too blue sunless sky.
“Welcome to my world!” he said and then he bent forward and kissed me lightly and sweetly on the lips.
I was so shocked that I sat bolt upright and wide awake in my monastery cot instantly, and it took a great deal of soothing purple from the singing stone to help me get back to sleep after that.
In the morning, I searched Dareon’s face for any sign that he had any kind of knowledge of what had transpired, but he hardly looked at me and did not offer to talk at all, and so I put it down to some strange girlish fancy and tried to put it behind me as our journey continued.
This day was cooler than before, and at the edge of the sky, thunderclouds threatened. We walked more briskly than before, but it was fine – I was somehow well rested and sparklingly awake and aware. The distances between hamlets seemed to become larger as we walked and walked, and the hamlets themselves becoming smaller as if to make up for that.
The landscape began to change too, imperceptibly, but the fields were much less lush now, the trees much less stately, and the grass seemed less green than before, although this may have been an illusion of the light failing as the clouds became darker, and greyer, and thicker, and the scent and feel of impending rain became stronger as the temperature continued to drop.
Once or twice, Dareon actually glanced up at the sky and quickened his pace further still, and it amused me to think that he obviously did not care to get wet, in spite of all his endeavours to remain detached from all things in the physical world. I wondered how far we still had to go, and I wondered so much that it became very difficult to stop myself from asking him. I fought silently in my resistance and as is so often the case when you try to resist anything at all, the desire got stronger and stronger still until I was quite ready to grab hold of Dareon, shake him and yell at him.
Thunder was now rolling and lightning began to flash. Not long later, and the first thick, fat splats of water began to fall from the sky, and soon after that, we were struggling through a curtain of freezing water on a road that had turned to slimy mud with tricky stones creating miniature waterfalls and sharp edged hazards under my softened feet.
Dareon did not stop and continued on, nearly doubled over against the driving rain, and I did my best to keep up. How long we struggled on like this I don’t recall, but all of a sudden I became aware that the familiar blue shape in front of me was no longer there, and I stopped and looked around in a sudden panic of realisation that Dareon had disappeared.