What can you do when you have nothing to do, and what can you think about when every single thought threatens you, ready and waiting to turn into quicksand or a stream that will wash you towards the ocean and you must disappear beneath the waves forever?
Where can you go when there is no-where left to run to, or even run away from?
What do you do when you fear both the sunset and the sunrise with equal intensity?
What do you do when you are me and I am …
What am I?
“I am Isca,” I said out loud, as though that would explain anything at all.
I used to have a mother and a father, and two brothers and a sister who died when she was just a baby. I used to have long hair. I used to be proud of myself, and I used to run swiftly and lightly across the dry hillsides, just skimming the ground with the barest touches of my feet I could get away with and pretend that I was flying like the Serein did.
I used to climb a tree at the back of the common and hide on a high branch amongst the leaves, looking down with my arms and legs securely wrapped around the hard stout branch I made my home on.
I used to look across the common, across the fields to the blue hills far away in the distance, slowly sweeping from the near to the far and imagining that my body would follow my eyes if I focussed hard enough.
That all seemed so far away, no more of me than a dream that might have once belonged to Dareon, or perhaps even …
Focus on the now.
I am standing on the top landing, wrapped in a soft towel. Below me, my feet are very white on the dark wooden floor, and just beyond the very tips of my toes, there is a precipice, a drop down towards the flagstones, much steeper than I remembered it to be.
In my right hand hums the stone but I don’t understand it and I don’t want to listen to it.
Slowly, step by step, I descend into the deep, it is hard to keep up straight whilst moving my legs at the same time.
“I am Isca.” I say aloud on each step. But the sound bounces flatly and it still doesn’t mean anything.
There was a time, I’m sure there was a time when I had a centre. It used to be there and everything else was outside of it, arranging itself in concentric circles around me, dancing around me, performing for my entertainment and my amusement and my suffering, too.
The flag stones are very cold and the view has changed. Now the mountain of stairs behind me rises formidably and I think I can hear a whispering, just on the outer edges of my awareness.
I tried to listen more closely but it evades me. They are talking about me again. About whom? The whispering grows louder and is all around me now but I still cannot make out a single word that is being said, this is a foreign language that I don’t understand and it’s too loud, and I wish it would stop but it continues to grow louder and louder still and I must run away from it now.
There is the door. It is huge, so much bigger than I remember it to be, and the voices now shouting all around me, I am trembling and my free hand is shaking as I try to open the latch. In my other hand, the stone is vibrating so hard it is hurting me but not as badly as the cacophony of the howling, screaming voices.
I drop the stone onto the floor and cover both my ears with my hands, but the voices are inside my head, inside me, hurting my flesh, my bones, ….
From nowhere, a huge black blanket is thrown across me and the voices stop.
Everything is black and still and I can see nothing, hear nothing, feel nothing, remember nothing at all.
Silence. So silent after the roaring of the voices, itself painful now. I turn slowly, steadily, round and round and there is a light above me, far above me, like I was trapped in a well. I start to move towards, a climbing sensation, and then I can’t move any further. From below, a hand reaches towards me. It is a man's hand with a ring on the middle finger, a gold ring with a bright red ruby. I reach to touch it and the hand fastens itself on mine and begins to pull me up, up, my body hurting with the sensation for being dragged through solid rock. The light gets brighter and finally, I burst free.
I stagger and fall against Lucian who catches me in his arms. Over his shoulder I see Marani, wringing a towel that is knotted around her waist like a makeshift apron, craning her neck to see, her eyes round and frightened.
My towel is on the floor and I am absolutely naked in his arms.
My head rocks backwards as the memories overwhelm me – flesh, flesh I am flesh! I am what you feed on and what you destroy, I am the other side of the coin, I am the reality of your victims, I am that which you destroy, I am that which you …
His command is clear and slices through me in all ways and I can see/feel Marani ducking against the wall and then sliding away.
I look up at him and try and see and understand who he is and how it all fits together but my mind cannot work now, I’m not sure who’s mind it is that isn’t working and I’m falling again …
He is right inside my head now.
“Isca, focus,” he commands and I follow his guiding gesture to a familiar place of friendliness which I cannot recognise. I drop away again but he catches me and brings me back.
Isca, focus on the stone. Follow me.
He surrounds me and sweeps me off towards the singing feeling that welcomes and embraces me. I snuggle up to the singing and feel a smile spread through me from everywhere at once. He backs away but I reach out and draw him back into the singing and the smile but he cannot be here, he shakes himself free, and leaves me happily snuggling against the patterns of blue and green, grass and sky, here and there, me and you, there is nothing left to do for you ….
When I regained a sense of my surroundings this time, I was in one of the resting chairs in the morning room, my feet trailing on the floor and the towel placed over me and tucked in like one tucks a sleepy child in at night.
On my stomach is my stone, warm and wonderful, gently pulsating warmth and aliveness all around my body. I stretch carefully, and yawn. I am so hungry. I think of sitting up but a pain comes out of nowhere, right across the back of my head and I relax back into the chair because I have no option. Very gingerly, I try to sit up again, and although the pain rises with a deep throbbing, I make it this time.
Looking around the room, there was no-one there at first but then I felt him approaching in the normal way by walking.
He sees me sitting up and sighs.
“How are you feeling?”
“Hungry. My head hurts when I move too much.”
He nods. “I’ll have Marani bring you something to drink.”
He sends out a thought form to Marani, simple and brightly symmetrical so that she might receive it easily, then rubs his hands and hesitates.
“Can you use the stone to remove your head pain?”
I consider that and nod very carefully. My fingertips find the stone on my lap and I let its slow vibrations travel up my arms, across my shoulders and into my spine. From there, they begin to wash out the denseness and the shards of pain, gently, slowly, waves on the shore when the tide comes in. I sigh deeply and lean back into the chair.
Lucian nods approvingly. “That is good,” he says. “Very good.”
There is sound and Marani appears, carrying a heavy tray like a shield behind which she might hide. She makes the widest possible arc around Lucian who is still standing well away from me and in the middle of the room, nearly to attention in his upright bearing, his hands clasped behind his back. My eyes are drawn to him and I take my time tracing all across him, first in general and then in detail. He frowns and makes a minute shift in his posture, but lets me get on with it, whilst in the background, Marani bustles nervously with transferring the dishes and mugs onto the table by the fire place.
I keep gazing at him, just staying with the outer shell that is his body beneath his clothes, his posture, where his muscles are bunched and locked tight (neck and shoulders, calves, lower arms), the lines in his face, deep ones and tiny ones, created by repeated expressions over the years, very specifically each telling a story of a dominant emotion or a state of being that became frozen upon him and that could be read like a book by those who might understand such things, no matter how detached he might think he would appeared.
The waves from the stone have now reached the centre of my head, and there is no more pain left. Yet they continue forward, and it is soothing and it changes my perception as I resume my study of him.
His skin is pale, and his hair is white. It is receding slightly at the front and thinning on top but the close cropped short soldier’s cut hides this rather well. The stark contrast to his black clothing and the symmetrical lines of the cut of his jacket and trousers makes him stand out sharply against the bare stone wall behind him, and the light from the leaded window to the right bleaches out a part of his profile to white. I begin to see a shimmering radiance around his head and back that weaves in and out of perception, and extends a good three hand spans all around him.
Marani coughs and what I see collapses back into just him standing there, looking now distinctly uncomfortable but with his jaw set and determined not to let it show.
I smile and think briefly on how difficult it is to be looked at in this way by anyone at all.
“You are very brave,” I send to him.
He returns a mental snort and that makes me smile more.
Marani scuttles from the room, unheeded, and closes the door behind her.
We are alone again.
He pushes himself from the spot and takes a chalice from the table. Fills it with wine and holds it up to the window, swirls it slightly before sitting down deeply in the second chair. He is not looking at me but keeps his focus on the glass in his hand, the wine as red as the ruby ring he wears ….
I feel the spinning sensation but this time, I stop it there and then.
With a deep breath, I admit to him.
“Your memories …” I start slowly, and he suppresses a flinch and intensifies his study of the wine swirling in the glass before him .
“You were probably right about … what you said,” I finally brought it over my lips.
I can’t remember ever having voluntarily admitted to anyone that I was wrong about anything. I used to be scared of that. The thought nearly made me laugh, because it was ridiculous in comparison to the things I had to be scared of now. Telling the truth really did seem harmless in comparison.
“I don’t think I know how to handle … this,” I finished off lamely and waited for his response.
He said nothing but stopped swirling and finally took a sip from the glass. One sip, then he put it back to his lips and drank the whole glass in one draft. He got up and re-filled the glass from the decanter, drank that too, and filled it again. He turned back to his chair but then stopped and picked up a mug of berry tea and handed it to me without looking me in the eye. I took it and started drinking it right away, glancing at him over the edge of the rim whilst he finished his wine and re-filled it yet again, before dropping back into the chair with a deep sigh.
“I don’t know what to say to you,” he finally remarked slowly. “I can’t … imagine, “ he broke off and finished with a thought instead that encompassed a great deal more: How you cope with what I can’t cope with, and I’ve had these many years of experience and these many years of time to get used to living this way.”
Out loud, he said, “And also, you have done nothing to deserve this. At least I did …” and broke off altogether there. I felt too fuzzy to try and track him.
“Have you looked at my memories?” I asked of him.
He glanced at me briefly and our eyes met. A something transferred between us momentarily then he went back to his wine and said, “Yes. It is a very strange experience.”
“Telling me,” I said and was amazed at the underlying bitterness in my voice. He noted it too and shrugged his shoulders. Leaned right back in the chair, stretched his legs out long and closed his eyes, the wine glass balanced with both hands on his stomach.
I felt his energy shift and realised that the wine must have started to kick in. Actually, this felt more comfortable. His intensity and hard borders were beginning to soften around the edges, and I found it easier to talk to him now.
“Have you found that having my memories change the ways you look at things?” I asked.
He nodded. “Yes. It is immediately obvious when there is something of yours – the colours brighter, overwhelming.”
I had noticed that too, in reverse. “Funny how that is,” I said. “Where do you keep my memories? Yours are separate and down below my own, heavier and darker.”
He snorted at that. “Stands to reason, doesn’t it," he said easily. “Yours are flighty things, they get into everywhere and everything. Quite annoying, actually.”
I laughed and automatically tried to imagine how that would be but then that was too close to places I really did not care to go and the laughter just died in my throat and in my mind.
He sighed. “And then there’s that Serein boy.”
Dareon. I saw Dareon melt into his mind. Yes, of course. I sat up straighter. “You have Dareon’s memories?” I asked, feeling a strange excitement that I did not know how to place or why.
He shook his head. “No, not like that. It is - a presence, ah I don’t know.”
If I hadn’t been so absolutely unwilling to get involved with any of Lucian’s memories on any subject at all at this point, there would have been a real temptation to go diving for Dareon’s presence which I would have acquired as well.
I willed myself away from that whole topic and got up, trying to sort out the towel with one hand whilst holding my darling stone in the other. Eventually, and regretfully, I placed the stone onto the seat of the chair and had my hands free to wrap myself up sufficiently to be able to cross to the table and get some food.
As before, I just knelt down before the table, picked things out and put them on my plate and started to eat hungrily.
“Do you ever eat at all?” I asked through a mouthful of pastry filled with meat and gravy.
He didn’t answer and thus the question stood, and thus the memories pertaining to the subject were faithfully delivered to my consciousness instead.
Yes, he did eat, and no, he didn’t enjoy it at all. He had a bad relationship with food and just even tuning into it ever so slightly turned the previously delicious pastry into sand and straw in my mouth. I gagged and fought silently to send the memories away and even though I succeeded more or less right away, the pastry was history and I had to spit the rest of it back onto the plate and hurriedly wash my mouth with more of the berry tea.
“Oh the sisters stand by me!” I exclaimed exasperatedly. “Isn’t there anything at all in all the world that you like, that gives you pleasure?”
He didn’t answer again and I quickly put up a block to any helpful insights on that matter that might arise from within myself. I shook my head and carefully picked up a bit of sliced fruit. Smelled it and made sure that I was in the right frame of mind (remember Aunt Dano’s garden, at harvest time, the golden fruit just right and ripe, and we could not wait to come and help her pick them) before I bit into it. It was wonderful and delicious, not quite as wonderful as the golden fruit from my memory but a close enough match to make me have a little shudder of enjoyment. Thank goodness, I thought, and then, well, I guess it will be useful to have access to both ways of dealing with things. If everything tastes of straw, why I might have even been able to eat my mother’s awful fat bean casserole and would have escaped many a beating.
I smiled and ate some more fruit.
Lucian said behind me, “You are the most extraordinary creature.”
I picked up a piece of fruit and held it out to him.
“Here,” I said. “Eat that but from within one of my memories. Look for Aunt Dano’s garden, big green goldenfruit trees, you can see them from the road just poking up bright green behind the darker green boundary hedges that no-one ever trimmed.”
He blinked one eye open and sat up straighter.
“Why would I want to do that?” he enquired, dryly.
I pushed the slice of fruit closer up towards his face.
“Because …” I cast around for a good answer, and half a dozen came all at once, “because I want to see if you can, because it’s nice and you should know how nice it is, because we may both be dead by this time tomorrow and then you’ll never have really tasted a golden fruit, …”
“Enough, enough!” he exclaimed but he was smiling and took the slice of moist fruit from my fingers. He held it up before his eyes as though it was a worm or something similar and his expression changed to one of near pain.
“Aunt Dano?” he asked with a sigh.
I nodded firmly. “Yes, Aunt Dano. Golden Fruit trees. Harvest time. Get on with it!”
He sighed again but quite obediently, closed his eyes and concentrated. I edged in with the barest touch so just to keep in touch with what he was doing and to make sure he gave it some effort. There was a lot of resistance to the very idea of an Aunt Dano even existing, never mind having anything to do with such an entity, but he was trying hard to shut that out and focus on the task in hand. He cast around for one of my “flighty” memories and there was a touch of one and then he drew it into himself (he does it differently from me, I fall into his) and then the most extraordinary thing happened as he became me in front of my eyes.
His face changed entirely as did his entire posture. A softening went through his very being from head to toe and when he opened his eyes, there was the strangest thing of recognition/bonding/amazement/recognition-beyond-form as I saw myself in him regardless of his outer hull.
He put the fruit under his nose and sniffed it exactly as I always did with food, and a shudder of delight went through him which I shared through the link. Slowly and languidly, he closed his eyes (I never noticed before that he has long dark lashes in spite of his white hair) and moistened his lips with the tip of his tongue. Slowly, he placed the piece of fruit into his mouth, breathing in deeply at the same time, and letting it melt inside his mouth. Ecstasy rippled through us both at the same time, golden pleasure, warmth remembered and then there was some kind of detonation which threw us both back into our respective seats and we were firmly each other again.
He blinked and passed his hand across his eyes. “Extraordinary,” he said with a near helpless quality in his voice and looked at me fully and deeply. “Your world … is extraordinary.”
“Did you enjoy the fruit?”
He nodded, still quite at a loss from the experience. “Extraordinary,” he said again and shook his head.
I understood how he would think that from where he was yet I could not help but say, “No, not extraordinary at all. That’s how it really is.”
He looked at me with a mixture of surprise and sadness.
“That’s how it really is - for you.”
“Hm,” I said, considering the statement which made sense but was vaguely unsettling. My world was very different from his, that was sure, but how different was it from people like my brother, say, or Marani? Rather than to get caught in the repercussions of that idea, I picked up two more slices of fruit and held out one to him.
“Try it and see if it tastes any different now, to you, in your own world,” I said.
He leaned forward and took it from me, making sure that our fingers wouldn’t touch by accident (shut it out, shut it down, stay in the moment, stay with the fruit). He sniffed it and there was a ghost of the familiar delicious tingle. Resolutely, he stuck the whole thing into his mouth, chewed it and swallowed it.
“Indeed,” he said after some reflection. “Not bad at all. Nothing like …” he stopped and cast around for a suitable word, then smiled and went on, “nothing like the Isca experience but certainly a great improvement on my previous encounters with that particular thing.”
I smiled back at him and we automatically dropped into a link.
We can change our experiences of things through each other.
We can incorporate each other’s memories into our own and learn from them.
There’s so much we could do if we had the time to find out.
I could learn so much from you.
I could learn so much from you.
Simultaneously we backed off and retreated into our own selves.
For a time, there was just silence on all levels. I got bored and ate some cheese which I broke off in untidy small lumps, then played with the crumbs, picking them up with a moistened fingertip and placing them onto my tongue one by one.
Eventually, I got tired of the silence and the cheese and asked him, “How long do you think it is now before the night falls?”
He shrugged. “Six hours, maybe seven. They might not come until much later, could be any time before dawn.”
“What shall we do until then?”
He shrugged again and didn’t answer.
“Is there anything we can do to prepare, I mean, what exactly is going to happen? Are they really going to kill us both?”
I couldn’t really get my head around the whole concept of there being potentially only a limited time left for me to live. It didn’t make any sense to me. It was day, I was breathing, I was eating and drinking and talking with him and there was so much I didn’t know or understand, it was simply not possible that it could just all be over so soon.
He picked up on my disturbance and send me a kind of gentle nudge.
Slowly, he said, “I’m sorry that you have to go into this, your first battle, without any preparation, without any training, without a sword or a shield nor even without any hope of carrying home the victory and the spoils. That is a hard thing to try and face. But that’s it, it is both our worlds now, and the only question remains is if you can take it like a man.”
If I could take it like a man? Well I wasn’t one, although I’d often wished I had been born to be one, and I really wasn’t so sure of what he meant by that.
He noted my unspoken question and went on.
“Try and understand, it’s like this. You do what you have to do, and you do the best you can. That’s the only truth in the end. And if it’s dying, then you die the best you can.”
I thought about it, and deep in my stomach there was a painful knot of fear. But there was also a determination and my stubbornness and I understood on a profound level what he meant by dying the best you can. It occurred to me to say, “I think I can die the best I can by your side.”
He smiled at me. “I will be by your side, too.”
And then somehow, it wasn’t all that bad anymore. It was not so bad.
“I promise you that I will do the best I can,” I said to him, and I meant it.
He nodded. “I promise you likewise.” he said, and it made me strangely proud and happy and I knew that I could trust him as a comrade in arms in the upcoming battle which he was sure we could not help but lose.
He stood up from the chair in an energetic and fluid motion.
“Can you ride?” he asked me.
I nodded half heartedly. “Not like the noble folk, but I can stay on a horse and get it to go where I want it to go.”
He smiled down at me. “That is all a soldier needs to be able to do. Go and get your clothes on. There is not much left of this day and there is nothing to be gained by sitting here looking at the shadows creeping along the walls. Let’s take a ride.” And that would have been very much more cheerful indeed if there hadn’t been the tag on thought that I heard as clearly as any spoken word, for the last time.