I went in search of Marani and my clothes. The black Serein cloak was spread out wide across the stone wall by the back of the kitchen door and it occurred to me most strongly that I did not feel like wearing this colour today, which was reserved for mourning the dead where I grew up and never for any other purpose.
Ignoring Marani at my back, I reached into the fabric and tried that colour change technique. It was as easy as it had been before, and again, I produced a putrid browney greeney grey that rippled all across the garment. I tried once more, adjusting the first ripple slightly and set the process in motion. This time, the effect was more leaning towards a dusty brown which was still unsightly but an improvement nonetheless. I kept trying all sorts of different patterns but all the colours were washed out, nasty, dim looking things that did the beautiful fabric not a favour in the world, and were certainly nothing to present myself in to Lucian, not to speak of the High Council.
I gave an exclamation of frustration and stepped back, rubbed the hand that wasn’t holding the towel together through my wet hair sharply and became aware of Marani who was watching me with great intent.
“I just can’t do this right,” I said to her, nearly stomping my foot in child’s frustration.
“You learning the witchery then,” observed Marani, daring to come a little closer and finally going over to the cloak which was now somewhere between purpley green and grey and prodding it very carefully with an outstretched finger.
“It looked better when it was black,” she said, and I swayed between anger and annoyance for a moment, but then couldn’t help but start to laugh.
“Yes it definitely did, didn’t it,” I spluttered, and Marani’s face cracked a smile too and then we were both laughing like mad about my inept attempts at the witchery.
When we had recovered, Marani asked, “What colour were you trying to make it, then?” and I stopped short.
This could be the answer! “Oh, goodness, I hadn’t thought of that at all,” I exclaimed, “Marani, you might have just solved the puzzle.”
I tuned into the pattern of the fabric one more time, and asked for a colour to come to my mind. Immediately, the wonderful soothing brilliant jade appeared that occurred when the waves of blue and green in the singing stone were merging with each other. Holding the colour and its vibration steady in my mind, I imprinted it on a small part of the pattern and opened my eyes right away to see that the exact colour started in the centre of the cloak and spread right out and over its entire surface, a gorgeous shade of jade that worked wonderfully well with the Serein material and highlighted its sheen to the degree that it sparkled in the daylight.
We both stood staring at it for a moment, and then Marani said in a most impressed voice, “Well if that isn’t the best colour I ever saw.” And I nodded my agreement, wholeheartedly.
“It is beautiful!” I said happily and couldn’t wait to put it on.
Marani said, “Ah that looks right good on you. It makes your hair look near red.”
I looked down at myself and spun on the spot, letting the robe fly out to it’s full extent.
“You know, Marani, I couldn’t have done that without your help,” I said to her, gratefully.
She looked amazed at that and shook her head. “I never knew that you have to learn the witchery like you learn cooking or something. I thought you be born with it all.”
That comment once again set something off in my mind, and I begun to contemplate the possibility that this was something anyone could learn to do, or at least to do some of the things that were so easy, like the colour changing, the fire starting and the window cleaning, if only you knew how.
Marani spoke again, breaking my train of thought. “Can you do that only with that kind of cloth, is it magic or something?”
“I don’t know, I haven’t tried it on … Oh yes, I have. Yes. Remember the cloth we had on the table where we laid out Dareon?”
I probably shouldn’t have reminded her of that as she quickly made the warding off of evil sign and stepped back from me, the easy understanding we were having being broken in an instant. I couldn’t unsay what I had started so I just went on and hoped she would recover, “Well that’s nice cloth but it wasn’t Serein material, and I changed that from black into a dreadful shade of green easily enough.”
Marani stopped making signs in the air and said, “Oh is that what it was? I found it in the cupboard and couldn’t for the life of me understand where that had come from.” Then she had a little giggle. “It was a dreadful green, for sure.”
I grinned too, remembering that part of the night briefly.
“Do you want me to have a go at your skirt?” I asked her and Marani thought about it for a while, looking down at her faded brown homespun skirt that was all frayed and frazzled round the seams, and patched in many places from years of washing and bashing and hard wear.
“Ooh, I dunno,” she said, frowning, yet also quite excited at the possibility of this. “Could you just make it brown again all over? Like when it was new?”
I nodded although I wasn’t altogether sure of that. “I need to see an example of the colour though so I can have it clear in my mind.”
Marani looked around, and then said, “I know!” and went off into the kitchen. I followed her to see that she took a brown plate from the cupboard and showed it to me.
“That’s the colour,” she said.
It was a deep reddish brown, like you sometimes see on horses, a lovely colour of earth and warmth. I fixed it in my mind’s eye and felt for its specific vibration, then reached into the fabric of Marani’s skirt to begin the transformation. But oh dear, the fabric wasn’t as even a pattern as Lucian’s sheet or the Serein material, it was all over the place and instead of rippling through the whole thing, the colour just went a little way and then stopped dead.
I opened my eyes to see that there were a couple of small, uneven patches of the chestnut colour at the side of Marani’s skirt. That would never do.
I focussed again and took the colour and stamped it in rapid procession everywhere across the fabric which flowed and stretched a great long way this way and that, finally coming up with the idea of enlarging the colour in my mind as to cover more of it at once. It seemed to take a long time, but finally it was all done and the new surface pattern was everywhere, clear and unbroken.
I opened my eyes and saw that Marani’s eyes were shut too, tightly squinted, and her hands were tightly balled in front of her chest.
The skirt looked fabulous, apart from the patches and the torn hem.
“I did it!” I exclaimed happily, and just as Marani looked down at herself and gasped with delight, Lucian’s touch washed across my mind.
“Ready and waiting for you. Out front.”
I quickly smiled at Marani who was still looking amazed and stroking her refreshed skirt and ran off through the house and out through the open front door.
Two huge blacks fully tacked stood in the driveway, held by Lucian near their bridles.
They were breathtakingly beautiful, horses such as I had never seen before, horses like you would see belonging to a king or a perhaps a great general who rides into battle.
Lucian did a double take as I came running from the house and I got a strong conflict from him between annoyance that I had abandoned his uniform of black and dared to meddle, and a real sense of admiration of the colour and me in combination.
I was pleased with his response and gave a twirl for him.
“Look! I know how it’s done now!”
He struggled for a while longer and then dropped his shoulders with a sigh and shook his head, but there was a small smile playing around the corner of his lips.
“You’re such a child,” he chided me but without unfriendliness.
He passed me the reins of the first horse and said, “So, let’s go.” walked around the other and drew himself up into the saddle in a smooth and effortless motion.
I looked up at the enormous horse and the enormous height of it and had no idea how to get up there. The working fell ponies and plough horses I was familiar with were nothing as big as this, nor had I any idea of how to cope with the tack this shiny beast was wearing. Lucian watched me with amusement and offered no help. I wondered if he would ever get over having to do these kinds of things to me, and felt a tight little resolution arise that I would not ask him to lift me up onto the horse.
I considered the options. I could walk the horse over to the fence and use that to give me enough height to reach onto its back, but that operation was fraught with many difficulties and the very real possibility of me falling flat on my face.
I wondered if there was some form of magic that could be employed and very cautiously put out a call to any form of helpful horse related information he might possess. Numerous insights came rushing through my mind and there was one amongst them upon which I seized.
I gently felt for the horses mind and touched it. The horse reared its head sharply, snorted and stomped one huge iron shod hoof very near to my bare feet on the pebbled ground.
I send sweet soft waves of friendliness and the horse dipped its head in acknowledgement.
Then I asked it if it would be so kind as to kneel for me so I could get into the saddle.
For a moment, there was a non-understanding as to the nature of my request and I tried to work out a way in which I could make the horse understand. A body memory from Lucian arose, a way of leaning your weight right back and a way of moving your legs in such a way that a trained horse may understand what was required. I was still contemplating this when the huge black horse dipped its head deep and slowly and carefully, lowered itself onto its knees, first at the front, and then the back came down so it was level with my hips.
Thank you! I sent to the horse sincerely and easily stepped across, pulling the Serein garment between my legs so there would be something between me and the shiny black leather saddle with the gold spiral inlays and settled myself comfortably. My feet did not reach the stirrups but that didn’t bother me, as I had never ridden a horse with a saddle before anyway.
I felt the horse waiting for instructions from me and became aware of the rising discomfort in its knees on the gravel. Please, get up. I held on to the front of the saddle as the great beast rose gratefully and brought me to the level with Lucian.
“Ready,” I said and tried not to smile triumphantly. He picked it up of course nonetheless and smiled slightly, then bowed his head in acknowledgement.
Without any visible movement, he instructed the horse through a tiny adjustment in his body to begin moving towards the drive and mine followed suit. Their hooves scattered the stones and crunched on the drive as they broke easily into a trot and we were off.
I must confess to being very scared. The slippery Serein material made it very difficult to find a hold in the saddle, the sheer girth that gave me no leverage to hold on with my legs and the great height of the horse and its jolting speed were highly uncomfortable to me. I was clinging on to the saddle front and dropped the reins down on the horse’s neck and held on like grim death, yet was slipping off to one side with every bounce and lurch.
In desperation, I called upon Lucian’s body memories again and let them come without censorship of any kind. Instantly, my body shape changed, my feelings about the exercise turned from out-of-control panic to the deepest sense of familiarity with the movements of the horse beneath me. I straightened in the saddle and easily picked up the reigns, moving forward into the sensation of actually riding the horse, rather than being carried. The horses ears flicked back at me and I thought I noted a sense of relief that there was no longer any danger of its hapless load simply slithering to the ground.
I asked for a little more speed to close the widening gap between me and Lucian who was quite a way ahead in the tree enclosed roadway, and the horse stretched fractionally. So much strength, so much power, part of me and at my command here. This was a wonderful feeling. I relaxed into it and enjoyed it, letting myself flow with that knowledge and understanding that wasn’t mine yet was mine to learn, and use, and integrate.
I caught up with Lucian and he looked across his shoulder to me.
Wait, he signalled to all of us, and the horses came to a rapid halt.
He slid from the saddle and walked over to me. I looked down on his white head and square black shoulders as he deftly adjusted the stirrups and then picked up my foot and place it onto the cold metal. A small shiver went through me and he instantly released my foot as though he had been burned.
Wordlessly he went around to the other side and repeated the shortening of the straps, but this time indicated to me to try it for myself. I found a hold with the ball of my foot and nodded to him.
He re-mounted and without a word, we were off again. This was more comfortable and secure still, and I just melted into the experience of moving this fast, this powerfully, my hands keeping light contact with the horse through the reins that had become an extension of myself, the wind rushing, and shadow and light flashing past. Lucian stretched his horses’ stride even more and we hurtled side by side down the forest path and out into the main road, both horses turning the corner sharply to the left and as though they were of one mind, which of course, they were.
We were all four of one mind by then.
We tore down the hill I had struggled up so wearily such eons ago behind Dareon’s blue outline in the rain, the memories mingling with the afternoon which was brightening, with a high wind and clouds chasing by briskly, a sun already vaguely lower on the horizon, and on and out on the highway, the horse’s strides just eating up the distance, a wonderful feeling of freedom and wide ranging power. Slowly, Lucian reduced the pace until we were trotting, then walking in the middle of the highway, with the wild grasses and short shrubs either side and far in the distance, hills rising. Unbidden, a cornucopia of images came upon us – so many roads, dusty roads, snow-covered ones, ancient cobblestone, forest trails, tight mountain passes, and endless roads under the sun from nowhere to nowhere. More than a lifetime of roads could possibly begin to contain …
Lucian firmly send the images away and there was just us again, in the here and now, and the hot horses with white sweat on their shoulders.
Wordlessly, I asked him, How old are you?
A sigh came in return. Sometimes I think I have lived forever.
Is it by magic? Are you immortal? and I wished I hadn’t said that for it reminded me of what we both were seeking to forget.
He brought our focus onto the first question, very directly.
Partially, yes. I have lived about ten, twelve average life times (of a soldier).
I tried to work it out but failed. Numbers beyond how many fingers were on my hands were something of a mystery to me.
He heard that thought and laughed out aloud.
“In this instance, that’s perhaps a good thing, too.”
We were riding through fields now. There must be a village nearby, I tried to remember from my journey with Dareon but there was nothing but rain and misery then. It was late summer, and time for harvest must surely be approaching fast. The grain in the fields was already golden brown.
A little while later, we came upon a family of farming people digging roots from the ground. There was a thin man, a thin little pony with a ramshackle wagon, a worn out looking woman with a baby tied to her back, and a whole range of dirty children from a tall spindly girl to a couple of very small boys who were wearing nothing but shifts.
One of the children pointed to us, and the whole scene exploded into frantic activity. The woman and man herded the children together, snatching up the smallest ones, and all of them huddled together and fell onto the ground, pressing their faces into the soil. One of the small boys started to cry but his cries became instantly muffled by a hand over his mouth.
Lucian kept his eyes straight but I was absolutely astonished and reined in my horse to a stop. I couldn’t help but stare at these people, grovelling in the dirt because we were simply riding by. Their fear was so strong, I thought I could smell it. Lucian had turned his horse around and drew up beside me.
He reached for me and linked to know why I had stopped.
“What on earth did you do to these people?” I asked in utter disbelief.
A tired negation came back.
Nothing, he sent. But I do believe my reputation precedes me. Wherever I go.
I still couldn’t believe it and wanted to do something, say something to the family to stop their fear, but became uncomfortably aware of the fact that by simply stopping and standing here, I was multiplying that very fear manifold.
Lucian noted my hesitation and used to it to move me along.
Come on, he sent to both me and my horse, which immediately followed the instruction and picked up pace once more. Behind me, I could feel the uniform sigh of relief at our leaving from the straggly family.
It bothered me. It nagged me. Wherever I go? I had never heard of him, no-one in our village knew him at all. Was this a local phenomenon?
A tight laugh came from his direction.
“I take it you have heard of the Lord of Darkness?”
And with a gasp, it all fell into place. And I couldn’t believe it.
“YOU are the Lord of Darkness?” (the one whose name must not be spoken for fear that he might hear it and come and take your soul and eat your children and set fire to your village ...)
I don’t think that I truly and fully understood until that moment what it was that the Serein had thought me worthy of learning to become. I had honestly thought that the references to the Lord of Darkness were meant as a comparison, like one would say, that child is the very spawn of the lord of Darkness himself.
Lord Lucian Tremain was the Lord of Darkness himself.
“Shocked, apprentice of mine?” he enquired dryly and with a tinge of amusement.
Shocked wasn’t really the right word. I was incapable of reconciling my personal experience of the man Lucian with the idea of the Lord Of Darkness I had grown up with, in spite or probably even because of my brushes with his memories.
But you are … just a man! If thoughts could splutter, mine surely did so then.
He send me a wave of dismissal, grey and weary.
Not in their worlds, I’m not.
I considered this and nodded slowly. We rode on quietly and in mental silence whilst I tried to come to grips with the idea that I was the heir apparent to the Lord of Darkness himself.
I really and completely failed to do so and in the end, gave up and shut the whole subject out of my mind and focussed on the here and now again.
The first ramshackle huts appeared now on the outskirts of the village.
As we passed, people hid and ran and stumbled, and if there was nowhere to run, they just pressed themselves flat to the ground in abject terror. Barking dogs fell silent too.
It was eerie yet in a strange way a powerful sensation that I had never experienced before. It made me angry, too, and there was an aspect of despising them all for their fear and weakness.
I was surprised at myself and wondered if these were truly my thoughts or Lucian’s but it was becoming harder and harder to tell them apart, the longer we continued on our way.
We rode steadily into the silent village. Carts and burdens lay abandoned in the road - we were a wave of destruction that targeted humans only, making them disappear like a strange plague in a concentric circle all around that, a circle that moved along with us at the epicentre.
It was market day. Five meagre stalls were in the market square around the well, and a few abandoned blankets on the ground where local people displayed their dusty goods and handmade items for sale or trade. Far away a baby was screaming loudly, then muffled as the boys in the field had been. You know what happens when the Lord Of Darkness hears your crying … How many times had my mother said that to me, to my brother, was still probably saying it to the baby right now, right now as we slowly rode through the deserted main street which was just a trampled, rutted track, with stone cottages either side.
Lucian rode right into the centre of the market place and elegantly dismounted. He led his horse to a trough near the well and dropped the rains down over its neck. I followed suit and did the same. I looked around and could not cope with the townspeople, some of which I could see clearly, quaking on the ground, others which I could sense, hiding best they could and praying they would not be discovered.
Lucian called me over and I went to him walking a little gingerly on legs that were cramped and unsteady from the unusual experience of the ride. He was standing in front of one of the stalls, which obviously belonged to a travelling tradesman because it was decorated with colours and gold paint and cleverly designed to be a cart that could be converted into a proper market stall.
It held all manner of fascinating things of much more variety and also of much better quality than the other things available in that miserable market, such as coloured belts, hair slides made of fine horn, combs, bracelets, colourful blankets and cloth, and even wraps and laces. No-one here could surely afford most of these things, but I remembered well the excitement of just looking at them and coming away knowing that such things existed in the first place, and having something new to add to your dreams in the coming night times.
The owner was hiding inside the cart beneath a heap of fabrics. He was not quite as senselessly petrified as the villagers were, but still scared enough. There was something vaguely familiar about this man, and as I searched around for the reason for this familiarity, it came to me that he had been amongst the gathering of travellers on that common where I had healed the child. I reached towards him a little more. He never noticed that I extracted his name and some further knowing. He was called Orimono Manoy, a proud name from a proud line of travellers which stretched all the way back to the day the world had been created. I smiled at the insight into his world, then Lucian nudged me mentally and pointed to a range of soft shoes and leather boots, well crafted and nicely decorated.
I was delighted at the notion and chose a pair of plain yet nicely made brown ladies boots with slightly pointed tips. I tried them on and they fitted nearly perfectly, apart from two small pains at the backs of my heels and a tightness across the sides of my feet. That would be easy to live with in exchange for such luxury, but Lucian chided me inside my head and did something to the structure of the boots which made them flow for a moment and then shape so perfectly to my feet that I thought they had gone altogether for a moment.
Thank you, I sent him with a smile. That is amazing.
It never does to have badly fitting boots, he sent back and there was also a small smile attached. Choose what you will, he went on, and get one of those pouches for your stone.
There were a range of wonderfully decorated soft leather pouches on display, and one that was a good dark green colour with golden raised areas and small flashing yellow glass stones set into them. It was wonderful and I picked it up. It had long leather ties which would allow me to wear the stone around my neck under my clothes in safety.
I really couldn’t think what else to want and smiled brightly at Lucian.
“Thank you so much,” I said and he shook his head at me in wonder.
“You are such a child,” he said for the umpteenth time today but it didn’t bother me because I was too child happy with the pretty pouch and the real ladies boots on my feet. He studied the stall for a moment and then picked up something that flashed in his hand.
It was a small golden hair slide with an intricate interlacement of golden, silver and copper strands of metal. Lucian stepped up to me and expertly put it into my hair, just above my left ear.
“There,” he said. “Now we can go.”
He turned and made as if to leave.
I called him mentally.
Lucian, you have not paid the merchant.
He stopped as though he had run into an invisible wall, and I got a flash of the improbability of such a thing as the Lord Of Darkness purchasing a hair slide from a travellers stall. Lucian didn’t buy things. He took things and people were extraordinarily grateful that he hadn’t taken their livers, loved ones or their lives.
Behind me, there was a movement. We both turned and looked. An old man had no longer been able to keep still in the crouching position he had assumed on our arrival and fallen over, knocking into the cart behind which he was trying to hide in the process. He was now lying on his side, his eyes white and staring and his heart racing so fast it sounded like a single drawn out buzz in my mind. Then it seemed to stumble over itself, bounced and went still.
Without thought I walked over to him and threw a soothing blanket all around him. Nudged his heart a couple of times until it started up again, then massaged it softly until it beat calmly and steadily once more. I opened my eyes and the old man was blinking and drawing in a breath deeply.
“Be calm, father,” I addressed him in the respectful manner of an older stranger of equal status. “Rest for a while before you try and get up.”
He stared at me and swallowed and nodded twice. I made a small sign of blessing over his head then straightened and turned around to see that Lucian had already re-mounted and was heading out of town, leaving me quite behind without so much as looking over his shoulder.
I felt a small stab of anger but did not hurry after him. Deliberately, I went back to the travellers stall and called out the man’s name.
The heap of fabrics shifted and a tree brown face appeared which contrasted sharply with very whites of his scared eyes. The traveller had long, wild black hair and there were strands of coloured thread tied to both sides of his temples to keep the hair from falling into his eyes.
He stared at me in disbelief.
“I have things that are yours,” I said, “and I would have you know that I intent to pay you for them.”
Although just how this was to be accomplished, I had no idea at all as I said this. I guess I’d just have to promise that I would somehow, sometime …
Well that would not do.
Orimono wrestled free of the fabrics and stood up. He looked at me quizzically and then he recognised me, and a light came over his face.
He took a breath to start to speak but I held my hand up and he swallowed the words right back.
My eyes fell to a special display box with a real glass set into the top. Inside, there were small earrings and bracelets and such, and they were made from precious metals, silver and gold.
Silver and gold. A memory nudged me and experimentally, I reached into the pattern of a plain golden band, then into the pattern of silver. There were interesting differences to the two, and also a strange similarity which confused me at first but then it occurred to me that both the metals had been mixed with a third, and in no small degree.
I grinned a little. So it was true what they said about traveller’s gold. Not every rumour is built on nothing. I felt for the third metal pattern and tried to bend it a bit, this way and that, until I got the hang of it and figured out just how to push it so it would change to match the pattern of the gold.
The structures shifted easily enough and I grinned again. One lucky customer would get a great deal more than they bargained for when they bought this plain band made from traveller’s gold.
This also solved the problem of how to pay Orimono.
I opened my eyes and shook my head a little to clear it. I became aware of stealthy movement behind me and around me, people creeping closer, not as fearful of me as they had been of Lucian but still very unsure indeed.
I ignored them and looked around the stall. There, at the front lay a number of simple iron knifes, cheap and they would wear away soon enough from repeated sharpening into thin slithery things like you would find in my mother’s kitchen.
They had plain wood or bone handles and the iron was perfect. I picked up one and held it in my hand, heavy and coarse and dull it was, and I could smell the iron rusting from here. I reached into the structure with purpose, pushed it and quickly opened my eyes to see how the dull black began to quiver and unfold into fresh, bright, shiny gold.
As it did I could feel it becoming heavier and there was a communal intake of breath from those who were watching from a distance, as well as from Orimono.
I held the knife out to him, handle first. The setting sun struck it and caused a wonderful flash.
“Take it,” I said, “it is real enough. Will this do for the shoes and the purse and the hair slide?”
Hesitantly, he took it with one hand, then held it in both. He wanted to bite into it but restrained himself.
The dark traveller looked at me very quickly before lowering his deep black eyes again.
“My lady, there is no need for payment for anything for you, ever. I owe you a debt of blood that cannot be repaid lest it is in kind,” he said quietly.
I smiled at his sincere speech and also that no-one had ever called me My Lady. Who was My Lady?
“Orimono Manoy,” I said sincerely and friendly, “You owe me nothing but I owe you for the workmanship and the materials. Please accept the trade so I may go and follow my master who will be ill pleased at my lingering.”
His eyes flashed to me in alarm at the mention of “my master” and he nodded rapidly.
“Whatever is your wish, my lady. Whatever is your wish.”
I smiled at his bowed head and felt complete. I walked firmly in my new ladies’ boots over to where my horse was waiting, feeling the eyes of the entire village burning holes into my very back. I asked the horse to kneel which it did most gracefully, re-mounted and turned it around easily. People withdrew once more but it was nowhere near as panic struck as before, and I was grateful for that. Without looking back I asked the horse to move along at its best speed and from the stand still, the black exploded, nearly unseating me, and the houses and faces rushed by at blurring speed. Soon we had left the village behind us and I was stretching my senses to try and find where Lucian had gone.