We rode slowly into the yard. The house lay in the last rays of sun before us and felt perfectly like home to me. Lucian stopped directly before the main entrance and dismounted.
I joined him and he took the reins of my horse from me. Sent a small wave of appreciation/comradeship and then the horses flickered and were gone.
I hoped that wherever they went, they would be well taken care of.
We entered through the unlocked door and Marani stuck her head around the kitchen door. She was wiping her hands on the rag that served as an apron nervously.
I wondered why she was still here and Lucian informed me that he had thought to have her stay until the morning, just in case her services were needed in any way (a vague impression of care taking, of doing physical things when one could not do them for oneself). I thought of Dareon and a sadness began to fill my chest and made breathing difficult.
Silently, we walked through to the morning room and Lucian set a fire in the hearth, unthinkingly. The sun was now dropping below the horizon and the sky still burning with its passing, set off beautifully against the black tree tops through the window.
On the first chair lay my stone, waiting for me like a pet. It was a glad distraction to pick it up, sit down with it and hold it on my lap and under my hands. It vibrated delightedly in return and soon, my sore inner thighs and knotted muscles in my back, legs and shoulders began to ease. I leaned back and immersed myself in the pleasure of it.
Lucian had filled a fresh glass of red wine and, after a short hesitation, took the whole bottle with him before sitting down across from me. He placed the bottle within easy reach by the side of his chair and took a drink.
So here we were, in our easy chairs in front of a cosy fire at the end of a long day, the lord and lady of the manor.
Lucian let the illusion stand for a little longer than I would have expected of him, then brushed the cobwebs of normality away with a gentle mixture of sadness and amusement.
"We should get cleaned up, get a change of clothing,” he remarked.
I stretched luxuriously under the stone's ministrations. "Nah," I said, and thought I would not want to wash the feel of his hands on my body away. It would be good to have that with me, a little good luck charm, in whatever was to come.
Lucian re-filled his glass and glanced across to me.
"Would you like some?” he asked (perhaps not the best thing but what the hell, it might help her keep her calm).
"Thanks," I said but made no attempt to move. I was too relaxed now physically to try to attempt to stand. He got up and took the bottle to the table, poured a little into the second glass that stood ready and waiting, then, after a short hesitation, filled it to the top.
Wordlessly, he handed it to me. It was an effort to take it, but as soon as I put it to my lips, I was glad I had. The thick red wine slid readily across my tongue and I could track its progress all the way down my throat and into my stomach. I drank some more.
"How long now, do you think?"
He shrugged his shoulders.
"Could be anytime, could be hours. They like to have their sport."
"Lucian," I said, "Lucian, I am scared."
He said nothing and stared into his wine glass.
I was just about to say something, anything, to fill the silence, when he spoke in a low voice.
"You don't need to be afraid. You have the ice inside of you. It will protect you. You will feel no pain, and all will be as it should."
The words offered me little comfort; I knew that he was right but felt like crying anyway.
I hope they don't separate us, he thought and immediately, I was hurtled right back to the crest of the hill, frantically seeking him with all my senses and the panic rising that was entirely irrational, yet entirely real.
I struggled to contain the panic, tried to force myself to breathe, reach out for the stone and in my hurry to do so, I spilled the wine and then dropped the glass. It shattered in slow motion on the stone floor, diamond splinters and drops of red like feathers on a still day.
I was only dimly aware that he had come over until I could feel his hand on my shoulder. It steadied me enough to fight through the waves of fear and return myself to myself.
My breathing was laboured and still too fast.
“I’m sorry about the wine,” I said.
“This has all been too much for you.” (and it’s all my fault, all my fault).
“I’m sorry.” (I’m always falling apart, I can’t hold myself together, I am a liability).
He sat down on the arm of my chair and stroked my hair lightly, then embraced me and drew my head into his chest.
“You are doing the best you can. That’s all you can do. The best you can. That’s all I can ever ask of you.”
“But it’s not enough!” (I am not enough, I am not good enough, I am not good enough and I thought I was and I cannot stand it …)
“It is the hardest thing of all, the one thing that will show if you have the one true courage. To know that you have failed, that your best efforts have been defeated, to not be able to stand it, to not be able to go on and yet to go on nonetheless.”
“Is that what you do?”
“It is what I have been doing all my life.”
We were silent for a time and I listened to the beating of his heart. It soothed me and saddened me both and I started to cry softly.
“I can’t be without you.”
“I’ll be with you for as long as there is a breath in my body.”
I cried more.
Hesitantly, unsure, he moved closer in the link and send me a kind of embrace which was strange, the way one man would embrace another when there was nothing else left to do, high emotion and hard esteem, reluctant contact yet beyond significance.
It touched me strangely and gave me a unusual sense of pride and togetherness, a feeling which I had not experienced nor even had suspected its existence.
“Thank you,” I said and sent him a grateful hug of my own in return.
I could feel him sighing.
“I wish you would stop thanking me. I have nearly killed you, inflicted my memories upon you, treated you like you would not treat a vanquished enemy, and essentially brought you to the point where you will …” He stopped himself. “I should have let you go when you first thought about running. I should have let you go then.” (but I could not).
“There is nowhere I would rather be.” (than here and now, with my head on your chest and your arms about me, not now, not ever).
He hugged me tighter and we were silent for a time. The sky behind the treetops was now so dark it was hardly distinguishable any more from the silhouettes in front of it, and night was with us now, all around us now, barely kept at bay by the old stone walls and a magical fire that burned in the empty hearth.
“There’s one question I would ask of you before we go,” he said eventually. I had felt his fight prior to deciding to ask and simply lay with him and waited for his decision without interference.
“How is it that you continue to be here, how do you go on – being here, with me?” (after all you felt/saw/heard/remembered/experienced/KNOW about me now).
I searched for an answer to this question within me and felt him keeping in contact ever so carefully as not to be apparent or hinder the search that was sweeping all across all that I was.
“I don’t know,” I finally admitted. “I don’t know how or where or why, just that it is so.” (as it has ever been, long before we ever met, and as it will ever be, long after all of this is long forgotten silent dust as the stars themselves lie dying).
He shuddered at the intensity of me and I could feel from deep inside him, a sadness rising, a sadness so deep and so black and so old that it could not have been born of this world. He fought it wordlessly and it receded, slowly, thickly, but the memory of it remained in both our minds.
I could feel him closing his eyes, and into my mind he said, I would build great golden statues to you, the like of which the world has never seen, and bridges that span across time and space.
A me that was not me but another, older one that knew so much more than I ever would responded, And I would have you do these works lest they would take you away from me.
The exchange echoed through our minds, confounding us both and linking us together in a profound shared sadness the reason for which neither of us understood or comprehended. Then this too receded and we were us again, separate bodies, lightly linked minds, bonded by the fact that we were here together both and at the same time, and that we were both waiting for what neither of us really understood as yet.
Reluctantly, he released his hold on me and stood up.
“We should be getting ready, prepare ourselves,” he said with resignation.
I picked up my stone and stood up too, grateful for the boots on my feet which allowed me to walk on the broken glass on the floor.
“What should we do?” I asked.
He considered and I followed his train of thought. We would be out of our bodies, probably for good, so it would be sensible to have them be in comfort somewhere.
We sighed together and he led the way out into the very dark hallway. I started to set a light but a small negation from him stopped me, so we ascended the stairs in darkness instead, side by side. We walked along the corridor, our steps loud and in time in the dark silence and I followed him into his room where he set a light to a single glow orb by the window.
I sat down on his bed and took the pretty pouch from my pocket. The gold coloured glass beads caught the light from the orb and I moved it a little in my hand to see the tiny stars spark from them. The stone was hot and hummed as I slid it into the pouch, then I knotted it around my neck so it hung just above my breasts on the flat part of my chest. Lucian was kneeling by one of the strange looking caskets under the window sill and raised what appeared to be a very heavy lid. I already knew what he was seeking as well as I already knew what the casket contained, and there was a touch of happiness although not surprise when he handed me a ring, very like his own, set with an identical looking ruby of deepest, darkest blood red.
He glanced at me questioningly. This ring was a sign, a bonding to a something that was old, and dark, and potentially dangerous. It was also not entirely me, yet if I was to stand with him, it would help to bring us closer together and make our purposes unified should I chose to accept it.
I caught his outstretched hand that cradled the ring in mine, took the ring from it and then kissed his palm where it had lain. Then I tried the heavy golden ring on the middle finger of my left hand, the same place where he wore his, but it was far too big. As I was still looking down on it, Lucian reached out and touched it lightly with his fingertip, and the gold became warm, then liquid and snugly shaped itself around my finger in such a way that I knew it would never slide off or even fit over the joint above it, either by accident or by intention.
We took a deep breath as one and looked at each other. I could feel the ring throbbing around my finger and sending a strange new energy up my arm like water flows through a dried up river bed and all round my neck and shoulders, up into my head and down into my spine, bringing a heat and strength with it that was entirely new to me, entirely unfamiliar but exciting too and powerfully stabilising, pulling me right into my body and into the moment with a sharpness and clarity I was not used to experiencing.
It was the right thing to have done.
Abruptly, he turned away and went back to the chest. I got up with strong and youthfully powerful limbs of which I had never been aware to this extent before and crossed to the side door that led to his wash room.
Setting two small flames into mid air either side of the mirror, I saw myself for the first time that night. My hair seemed to be more red than it had used to be, and my eyes a much darker brown, huge and deep as wells. My lips seemed redder too and bigger than I remembered them, and my skin paler and different somehow. He called me a child but I was not that, not any more.
“I am Isca,” I said to the mirror and the woman moved her lips and agreed in her mirror silence.
For a while I let water run across my hands and over the ruby ring that now was entirely of me, as much a part of me as the finger on which it lived. Then I washed my face, combed my hair with his comb, drank some water from a cupped hand and finally was ready to return to him.
He was lying on the bed, over to one side to keep room for me, with his hands by his side and his eyes closed. I stood in the doorway, extinguished the flames behind me and looked at him for a long time, letting emotions flow gently and easily with my thoughts, from things bodily to the notion that he might look just like this when he was dead and gone and just a last physical reminder would remain for a short while.
The emotions did not hurt or frighten me, they just came and were and passed. When they had all gone and only the deep strands of connection to him remained, he opened his eyes and turned his head towards me.
I walked up to the bed, took off my boots and sat down. I touched his lips lightly with my finger tips, then I lay down by his side, in my rightful place. All was right, and all was peace and silence.
I closed my eyes and he turned out the light.
I will fight for you, Lucian.
I will not let you go so easily, this time.
This time, I will not hesitate.
I will not hold back.
I will do whatever it takes.
Whatever it takes.
To the very end, I will keep on fighting.
And you will know.
And I will save us this time.
And finally set the time to rights.