I awoke in deepest dark. Deepest dark and deepest silence, and for a long, long time I just rested in the dark and silence and thought not at all, then slowly a few awarenesses came to me.
I reached out immediately but Lucian was not there and I sat up with a frightened start that spun my head.
It wasn’t that dark, there was a small far away pale moon above and a few stars, far away and up high. Lucian lay by my side, partly covered by the tapestry and for one awful moment I thought he had left me behind.
But he was breathing, and he was warm, and it was just the effect of the stone circle that I could not touch him or feel him in my mind.
We were alive. I let out a long, long breath I didn’t know I had been holding, and lay back beside him, snuggled into his warmth, pulling the tapestry over us and let myself drift away in the silence and the sound and feel of his heart beating, his chest rising and falling, safe, we are alive and we are safe …
The next time I awoke it was day. I panicked at the brightness but then relaxed when I remembered where we were and that it was just the sun, halfway up the sky, just the sun and nothing more.
I sat up and checked Lucian, who looked most peculiar in this light, skin pale and see-through to the tiny veins beneath, and his face hardly recognisable in the absence of eyebrows and hairline. It would grow back in time, I thought, if there is time, that is.
Resolutely I pushed the thought away. We’re safe for now. That’s all that matters. They can’t get us here and that is all that matters for now. The deep, snakelike wound on his neck and chest was closed over and looked black but there seemed to be no infection. This would heal up without any further interventions on my part, if he was careful and didn’t tear it open with too much movement. I touched him gently, and turned to myself.
My body felt stiff but alright, and I became aware that I was starving. I slipped out from under the tapestry and stood up carefully.
By the side of the central altar stone stood a wooden crate. I went to it and opened it, and with delight I saw that it held all manner of food stuffs, and including a number of bottles of wine, and a covered jug of water.
I drank greedily from it, and used a little to wipe across my face, aware that we were now entirely dependent on Marani’s good will to procure more and bring it to us.
I took the jug and some bread, cheese and fruit and returned to Lucian’s side. The morning was fine, blue sky, a light wind not unpleasant across the flat green plateau that seemed to extend all the way to the horizon. I ate and drank and felt life returning into my body and into my mind. I carefully lifted his head and put a little water into his mouth too, but I wasn’t sure if he swallowed any of it or if it just ran down the corners of his mouth. I stroked this head and the sides of his face, but there was really nothing else I could do for him now.
I returned the uneaten food and wandered around amongst the stones, enjoying the morning and the feel of the wind on my face. After a while, I carefully walked out of the protective ring and into the energy storm that formed the barrier which shielded us from attack by the Serein. At the outer edges of the boundary, where my abilities to detect patterns returned, the fear returned too with a vengeance, and I hastily retreated, back into the shielding storm which was safe and comforting by comparison.
I returned to the centre of the circle, ate some more food and watched over Lucian. With nowhere to go, and nothing I could do, my mind began to drift into all kinds of directions, many of them too disturbing and where I did not want to go.
Most especially not what had happened to us during that night – was it last night? The night before that? How much time had passed?
Did they know where we were? The must know, I thought, this place is extraordinary and if I was Serein, I’d sure make it my business to know about all such places in the land, places where my powers to reach out and punish anyone I wanted to, failed so completely.
But by all the wonders of creation, they must be absolutely furious with me now. I hadn’t quite realised how furious they had already been, and how much trouble I actually had been in for pushing that old Serein woman in their monastery or for taking the stone, for that matter. It occurred to me then that they had not sent me to Lucian because they wanted me to be the next Lord of Darkness, but because all his apprentices died regular as clockwork.
Of course. They knew well enough he was killing the apprentices rather than inflicting his fate on them, they had known this all along. And had done absolutely nothing to stop it from happening. Thoughts/memories that were not mine nudged at my awareness, some insight that belonged to Lucian instead of me, about the crossovers between what the Serein were doing and worldly affairs of kings, and lords, and rich merchants in the land, about power and corruption, hostages, blackmail and evildoing.
I knew nothing of such things, and was too young to know much about the great war but there was sometimes talk about it amongst the older people in the village, stories of how the whole world had been in upheaval and how we were so lucky to be living in a place that must surely have been one of the very few to have escaped the endless fighting, killing and burning that had reigned all across the world for a hundred years or more. It was generally attributed to the fact that our village was so remote and so far away from the town or castle of any lord or king.
I snorted. That, or the fact that one of the Serein monasteries was in the mountains just above our valley. There would be no war where they didn’t intend it to happen. And they didn’t like it to happen on their own doorsteps.
Now that I came to think of it, it all made perfect sense. Why there were no highwaymen we heard so much about on our own roads. Why there were never any warlords making inroads nor roaming parties of old soldiers laying waste to the countryside. Why our village had never even needed a sheriff’s post because there was never any great crimes of murder or of cattle theft. To us children, all these tales of such happenings were no more than fairy tales. I guess if we had lived just a little further down the valley, they would have been reality instead.
As I sat and contemplated my life in the context of what I was beginning to understand just fractionally, I realised that my parents and all the people in the village had absolutely no idea of how the Serein were controlling everything about their lives, how much power they were actually wielding, how, in fact, absolutely nothing really happened anywhere across all the kingdoms unless they made it happen in the first place.
I had had a very small taste of the power that lay in the Serein knowledge, the power to heal and to rebuild, to soothe and to grow, to make things better, easier, more wonderful and I sat in the stone circle amongst the beautiful morning and could not comprehend why they would choose to turn to war and suffering instead, why they did not help us with their knowledge?
I shook my head. It didn’t make sense to me, but it was not right. It was wrong. As it had been to presume to judge us, Lucian and me, without giving us a chance to defend ourselves or even listen to us in the slightest. As it had been to presume to judge us at all.
I sighed very deeply. This was no good. I could not resolve any of this by myself. I wished Lucian would wake up so there would be more than just me in this stone circle that may be our sanctuary but might as well have been a prison with bars instead.
The morning passed excruciatingly slowly. I had nothing to do and didn’t want to think about things too deeply. I wanted to do some more repair work on Lucian and could not, so I spend some time just touching him and massaging him carefully. He showed no signs at all that he was beginning to wake up, or that he was aware of my presence. When the sun got higher I dragged him across the grass and into the shadow of the altar stone, so the sun would not burn his delicate new skin.
I wanted to practise fire making and colour changing and material changing and I could not. I wanted to know how he did that thing where he just appeared in one place, but I didn’t want to get into his memories too deeply for fear of what else I might find, how it would affect me and that it possibly might disable me, so I could not. I wished I had a crystal pattern to trace or some old musty book to translate or even some dishes to wash or some windows to clean, with my mind or an old cloth soaked in vinegar – anything!
I was going crazy with boredom and frustration.
If only Marani would come back. I wished she would come in fervent hope for a long while, but there was only the plateau, and the wind, and the sun rising steadily higher, and nothing to do but wait.
I tried sleeping but although my mind was still bitterly tired, my body was not and I could not relax. What if the Serein sent men on horseback, soldiers like the ones I had seen/known with Lucian’s eyes, to just drag us from the protective circle? I got up again and climbed up on the altar stone, scanning the horizon in all directions, and wishing bitterly I could scan with my mind again. It was as though more than half of my sensory input had been cut off inside this circle, and I began to understand that I could never be happy again with just seeing the world like I had done before.
Eventually, I ended up back by Lucian’s side, just sitting guard by him and watching him sleep. I matched his breathing and this was soothing enough to calm me into being able to relax, a little bit at a time, and somehow slip into that state of mind where time passes like water flows down a slow river and you are quite still within and all is well.
The sun was arcing towards the other horizon when I heard a sound and was instantly snapped into brightest, sharpest heart pounding awareness. Automatically, I reached out with my mind and of course, once again there was nothing but absolute nothing on that level. I got up and listened, half crouched behind the altar stone. There it was again. Hooves and crunching from the left. I ran across and hid behind one of the standing stones and looked out, but could see nothing but the empty plateau. Anything below it’s own level was perfectly hidden as though it wasn’t even there, and there could have been an army approaching from all around and I would not have been able to see them until they had climbed the slope and were rising as from nowhere.
The sound drew closer and I tried to calm my galloping heart. This is no army. Chances are, this is Marani with her cart. Just the one pony and cart. And right so, there appeared the bent head and back of old Marani, pulling on the reins of the pony to drag it up the steeply rising incline.
Oh but was I happy and relieved to see her!
I had to hold on to the standing stone to stop myself from running to her and with hopping excitement watched her slow progress across the plateau towards where I stood.
Finally and when I judged her to be within the swirling barrier I let myself go and I raced across the green and quite frightened the pony into shying and a stomping of hairy hooves.
“Marani,” I said, one hand on the cart and another touching her leg through her skirt. “Thank you for coming back. Oh thank you.” And then burst out into tears which I could not control.
She clambered painfully from the seat and stood looking at me cry for a moment, then she came forward and put her arms about me, strong old fat arms that had soothed crying children before.
“Hush, young one,” she said and stroked my hair. “It’s gonna be alright, now you hush and stop your crying.”
I continued to sniffle on her dusty bosoms for a good while longer and she didn’t push me away but waited patiently until had pulled myself together again. Apologetically, I said, “I’m sorry, about all this, but … oh I’m just so glad to see you.” and had to really hold on not to start the crying afresh.
Marani took charge of me.
“I brought you some cloaks to cover – him - , and some bread and suchlike.” she said as she led me and the pony towards the inner circle of stones.
“Will you please stay and have some food with me?” I asked her beseechingly. She patted me on the arm and smiled.
“Sure I will, sure I will.”
We spread one of the cloaks, big heavy black things made of a stiff and dense material, on the ground, a good way away from where Lucian lay for Marani’s comfort and peace of mind, and both sat down on it and Marani unpacked a wrapped parcel of food. There was some bread, still warm in it’s very centre, and freshly made pastries which were still quite hot even. I ate hungrily.
“So what are you gonna do now?” Marani asked of me after watching me eat for a while with a mixture of satisfaction at my enjoyment of her food and uncertainty as to the entire situation.
“Truly, I do not know.” I swallowed a piece of pastry that all of a sudden seemed to have become lodged in my throat and reached for a corked bottle of water. I drank deeply from it.
“Marani, what do you know about the Serein?” I asked.
She made a quick warding off gesture and glanced about herself as though she expected Serein to emerge from behind the standing stones at the very mention of the word.
“Who knows anything about their weirdish ways?” she asked in return, uneasy and scared at the whole subject. But I needed her to understand what we were up against.
“It’s like this,” I began, trying to make it easy as best as I could.
“The Lord Lucian and I have – well shall we say, seriously displeased the Serein.”
Marani’s eyes were wide open now and she nodded seriously. “Stands to reason,” she said, “When that young one died, well I had a real bad feeling about the whole thing from then.”
“That’s right. They blame us – Lord Lucian mostly – for his death. His name was Dareon.” I added, although I did not know why.
“So they burned him,” said Marani slowly.
“Yes. They tried to burn him to death. But I stopped them and got us away. There is this strange place where the Serein go, not of this world, and they pull you into it and there, they have light that can burn you like it did the Lord Lucian, you saw him.”
Marani frowned deeply and shook her head. “I have never seen such an awful sight,” she said. “I heard the screaming and smelled it too. I nearly fainted when I walked into that there room that night. Never seen such a thing.”
I remembered too but brushed the thoughts away immediately.
“They will try – have tried already – to pull us both back into that place and this time, they will not give me a chance. They’ll be warned that I will fight them, and they will kill us both. This place here is the only place where they can’t do it. It is a protected place.”
Marani thought about this for a good long while whilst chewing on a piece of bread. Finally, she said, “So if you can’t leave here, what will you do? You can’t stay here forever?”
“I just wish Lucian would wake up. He might know something we can do. I wish I could finish healing him but in here, there’s no witchery possible. No witchery of any kind, neither good nor bad.”
Marani smiled and looked around at the standing stones with a whole new respect. “I never known that,” she said. “Well that’s a good thing to remember.”
After some consideration, I said carefully, “Would you do me a really big favour?”
She blinked at me suspiciously. “What do you want now, young one?”
I sighed. “I can only do – well, I guess you could call it Serein type healing. That’s all I know, and it’s no good here at all. I’ve never looked after someone who’s sick before and I don’t know what to do. Could you look at Lord Lucian and tell me if he is alright, if there’s something else that needs doing? Something to help him get better quicker?” The old woman drew back as I spoke and was already shaking her head, so I added on best I could, “Please, Marani? Please, for me?”
She eventually agreed although not happily. I really didn’t know what exactly her history with Lucian was and why she would agree to serve him when no-one else could even stand upright in his presence and resolved to ask her sometime about that. It seemed more respectful somehow than to retrieve the information from Lucian’s memories directly, and also a great deal safer. Things were bad enough without me having to re-live any further atrocities, misery and pain just now.
When we finally walked over to where Lucian lay in the shadow of the great altar stone, I was watching her carefully. Her face was set in a grimace of distaste and deep dislike as she peeled the tapestry that was covering him back with the minimal touch, holding the fabric between finger and thumb, her arm stretched out as far away from her as possible.
This old woman must really like me, I thought, because she hates him so much and yet she is doing this. She deserves rewards for this, although how do you reward such loyalty, such devotion? She could have just taken the valuables from the house and never bothered with us again. She could have just left that dreadful night and turned her back and would have been perfectly justified in doing so, saving herself a great deal of bother in return but she had not.
Marani looked down at him, his naked, entirely hairless, entirely too-pink-for a man body and clucked and shook her head.
“If I didn’t be seeing this with my own eyes, I’d never believe it,” she said under her breath and glanced briefly up at me, hovering nervously above. “You are surely the greatest healer in the land. Surely. If not the greatest healer that ever lived. To have got him back to this – after what he was … “ She looked up at me again and there was a whole new expression about her as she expressed the thought that had just come to her, “You must be blessed by the creator himself to be doing such as this. This is no work of evil, this is pure righteousness.”
Her words struck a strange chord and brought a lump to my throat. I didn’t want to know or ask what it was about so I re-directed her attention.
“Is there something we can do to wake him up? Is he going to be alright?” and when I said that, it made me understand that I really just wanted Marani to say to me, “Yes he’s going to wake up, and he will know what to do, and everything will be fine, and we will all live happily ever after, there, there, dear, it’s all going to be alright.
Marani glanced at me and she knew it too. She sighed heavily and then resolutely reached out and raised one of Lucian’s eyelids wide. There were no eyes inside, just plain white orbs like marble and with a hiss she snatched her hand back and scrambled away from him, backwards, and got to her feet hastily.
“Oh dear creator, give me strength,” she whispered and made signs, backing further away all the time.
I felt as though I was sinking into the grass and a huge wave of fear threatened to fall upon me and swallow me up altogether. He was not repaired enough. He would never wake up. He would lie like this forever, her in this damned sanctuary that was our prison, he would never wake up, I had failed him, failed us both …
I felt Marani shaking my shoulders. “Snap out of it, come on, young one, this no good to start awailing now, never done anybody no good at all.”
I opened my eyes and managed to focus on her and her wrinkled face that was a reality I could hold on to.
“I didn’t repair him enough,” I whispered the thoughts that were crashing in my mind, “he’ll never wake up, never …”
“Come on, now, come away from there,” said Marani resolutely, and put her arm about my shoulder and took my hand in hers. She started to walk me away from the altar stone and towards the edge of the stones, and walked me around the perimeter of my prison sanctuary. After a while, I calmed down enough to slow my breathing, and I squeezed Marani’s hand to let her know that I had come to my senses.
“I’m sorry,” I said, lamely. We stopped and she turned towards me.
“Look, young one,” she said sincerely. “I know nothing of this witchery business, I know nothing and I don’t want to know nothing of what the master does and to be sure, I don’t care if he lives or dies.” She stopped briefly and we both knew she had just spoken a lie – if Lucian was to die this instant, she would probably heave a huge sigh of relief, but we both let it pass and she went on, “But I do know that you have brought him back from the dead, and he’s living now of sorts, and when you get a chance, surely you can get to finish up and give him eyes back?”
“I can get to finish up and give him his eyes back,” I repeated slowly, as this new thought replaced the ones of fear of hopelessness that had overwhelmed me.
“You can do that, for sure, if you can turn a shrivelled corpse into living flesh like you did.” Marani said, making a real effort for my sake to sound steady and convincing on a subject that would have her run away by preference.
“I can do that,” I repeated slowly, and a plan began to form in my mind. With Marani’s help, it might be possible to accomplish just that and have me finish the healing before the Serein could get to us. There wasn’t that much left to do, actually. Perhaps twenty or so outer layers, no more than that, if I remembered the structures I had been working on before I was interrupted by their attack.
“Marani,” I said with a deep breath, “Marani, if we ever make it through this, I promise you that I will give you whatever you want, and I will, on my honour and my life, make sure that Lucian will never, never trouble you again in the slightest way.”
She blinked and let go off my arm, and a small smile spread across her lips. “Now that would be a blessing, indeed,” she said but I could tell she didn’t believe a word of it.
She will be shown, I thought, then focussed on my plan.
“There is only a small space between the outside world, where I can see patterns and do the healing, and the barrier of the circle of stones,” I said and she listened to me with earnest intention.
“It’s no more than 12 paces or so. I think that if the Serein attack, and if we were to somehow get back into the circle, their hold on us would be broken.”
Marani shook her head in a gesture of non-understanding.
“What we need to do is for Lucian and I to be on the cart. You drive the cart forward across the threshold until I can work again. You must watch me carefully, and if the Serein get hold of us, you must bring the cart back into the circle as quickly as possible and before they have a chance to burn him again.”
She looked very scared.
“What if it doesn’t work?” she asked. “What if I drive your bodies in here and you stay behind in their fire place?”
Yes. I considered the possibility of them jumping on us the instant we appeared at the edge of the protective barrier, all kinds of things that could go wrong, all kinds of things that would lead to us both burning up screaming whilst the Serein swirled and triumphed around us. I considered all kinds of possibilities, but in the end,
“I don’t see what else we can do,” I said sadly, and touched Marani on the arm, lightly.
“Without Lucian, there’s nothing I can do, there’s nowhere I can go and I might as well be dead. Either it works, or it doesn’t, either way, there will be some forward movement. I can’t be stuck here anymore. One morning was too much already.”
She shook her head and sighed, took my hands in hers.
“If you’re sure that’s what you want to do, young one.”
I nodded. “I’m sure.”
So it was. Marani brought the hesitant pony into the ring of stones and backed the cart up. This time, and with me well rested and strong, it was much, much easier to load Lucian’s body onto the back although he was still extremely heavy even for the two of us. I resolved that if ever there was a chance, I would properly restore Marani’s aching spine and joints and make them as good as new. That was the very least I could do for her.
I climbed on the back and took up position with my knees supporting Lucian’s head. I took the stone from it’s pouch around my neck, and it lay flat and white, just like Lucian’s eye had appeared, non-responsive and dead. I hoped sincerely that it would have recovered and it would work for me when we had cleared the barrier. Marani climbed into the driver’s seat and looked over her shoulder at me.
I nodded to her. “Ready,” I said and she flicked the reins and the pony started up quickly, glad to get out of this strange space.
“Slow down,” I called to her, and she reined in the reluctant pony right down to a very slow walk. We passed the outer ring of stones and the storm in my head struck with a vengeance. I forced myself to breathe through the storm and the fear that was rising with every step, every turn of the old wooden wheels. I focussed on the storm and the stone in my hand. As the storm began to recede, I could feel the first fine thrumming of the stone in my palm and fingertips with a huge sense of relief. Without it, I don’t think that I could do what needed to be done. The pony edged forward and the stone hummed stronger, and the storm receded to a whisper. I reached out through the whispering mental winds towards Lucian but could not clearly perceive him yet although there may have been a shadow of his presence.
“Stop!” Marani brought the pony up sharply and turned around to me, looking now very white and concerned.
I tried to keep my voice steady.
“From here, just one step at a time,” I said to her. “This is nearly the edge. Count to ten between each step, and when I say stop next time, I’ll begin work immediately.”
She shuddered and bit her bottom lip.
“Are you really sure you want to be doing this?”
I nodded. “Yes. If they come, I will try and give you a sign, but I might not be able to. Watch me carefully. If you have any sense at all that something is wrong, take us back to the stones right away.”
Marani shuddered again.
“If that is what you want,” she said very low and quietly.
“It is what I want,” I said as steadily as I could muster.
She nodded but hesitated still, so I reached up to her and touched her back briefly.
“Whatever happens, Marani, please know that I am more grateful to you than I have ever been to anyone.” I said and now really had to struggle to keep my voice from breaking. “I know that whatever can be done, will be done by you. Thank you.”
She said nothing to that and turned away. I focussed on the stone in my hand, and the cart moved forward a short way then stopped.
The whispering was still there. On the count of ten, we moved forward another step. I could feel Lucian now, nebulous and insecure but very much there. I reached for his pattern but there was still too much interference.
One more and then there was a sudden emergence into brilliant clarity. I could perceive again and the sheer relief at that blanked out my fear of discovery completely.
Stop, I said straight into Marani’s mind. And the pony skidded to a sharp halt in mid step.
I called upon the stone and it responded readily, still a little weaker than normal but there and at my command. I focussed completely on Lucian and dived straight into his patterns, deep and deeper within until I reached the strata where the incredibly thin and fragile spider strands became visible and I followed them up through the layers I had already repaired. It was so easy this time in comparison. I had done it before and knew what I was doing, I was well rested, deeply concentrated and my focus was complete. I repaired the patterns right the way to their ends, and then repaired invisible things that were not of his body yet prescribed through the spider strands and what they were, I did not know. They were complex and very different yet important. I worked fast and with total concentration, and then spun around and around to check all the patterns were in place, and it was done.
There was just one thing left to do. I went to the place where I had shored up the embers of Lucian’s mind and created a safe space in which he lay contained. I opened the barriers easily and let him rush forth and flood back into his restored body, hesitantly at first and then with gathering speed and conviction, sliding along pathways that extended throughout his pattern, filling all of it with a new vibrancy and strength, feeling him become once more and getting ready to leave and form our usual link when:
The blinding light knocked me off my balance and send me reeling straight up and straight towards itself with a powerful current that was much, much stronger than I had experienced before.
I dived immediately for the blue ice layer and the sword that would be mine if I could reach it, but they learned from there experiences and I was spun upside down and could not find the blue ice in my confusion and I yelled out with everything in blind panic, “Marani!” before I materialised in the blinding light with Lucian staggering by my side. I saw the Serein in front of us and felt their pulsing in my head just for an instance before everything went out of focus, became darkened and blurred and I was falling again and became aware that I was:
In the back of the pony cart, and it came to a stop right by the altar stone, and Marani, with utter terror in her face, turned around, caught my eyes and shouted, are you alright? And all I could do was nod, yes, yes, we’ve made it we got away in time!
Beside me, a movement drew both our attention and Marani backed off and gave a gasp.
Lucian, complete with hair, in fact complete with hair that he had not had before, sat up beside me with a pained expression and rubbed his temples with his hand. The covering tapestry slid down to his lap and revealed a muscular body, scar-less perfection in an otherwise perfectly normal skin, and the deep grooves in his neck and shoulders quite gone.
He opened his eyes and oh! The relief! There they were, present and correct, his usual pale predator’s stare slightly off set by his confused and unfocussed look, and even Marani heaved a deep sigh of relief. He half shook his head then looked at Marani, who hastily turned away, then at the surroundings, then at his hands, arms and body, then at me.
“I burned,” he said and narrowed his eyes, suddenly all suspicion yet mixed with non-understanding.
I just stared at him, happy beyond words, relieved beyond words, released beyond words. He was back. He was him. He was suspicious and he was him. I had won him back from the Serein.
“You burned,” I finally said with a happy smile beginning to creep into the corners of my mouth. “You did. And I repaired you.”
He held my eyes for a heartbeat, then looked down at himself again, touching his shoulder, his face, sliding the tapestry aside and looking down at his thighs, his stomach.
He looked back into my smile and shook his head.
“You repaired me,” he said, and there was wonderment in his voice such as I’d never heard from him before.
“You got me out of Serein, and you restored me. How is that possible? How did you do that?”
I wished I could link to him and have him just see it and sighed.
“Don’t worry about that now,” I said and wanted to hug him, my happiness bubbling all through me. “Marani helped too. Without her, I wouldn’t have been able to do it. You –we – owe her our very lives.”
He glanced briefly at the old woman’s back, who sat very still and with shoulders drawn in, trying hard to be completely invisible, then flexed his shoulders and moved his neck.
“Everything working alright?” I asked.
He moved his hips and drew up his legs under the tapestry, gathered it about himself at the waist and stood up in the cart. After a moment’s hesitation, he stepped off the platform and jumped down onto the soft grass within the circle, staggered slightly, collected his balance and straightened himself into his normal upright posture.
“Yes, “ he said, “Everything’s working fine.”
I stood up too, put my arm briefly about Marani’s drawn in shoulders and whispered, “Thank you so much,” close to her ear. She briefly looked at me and gave me a wink before resuming her drawn in, I’m not here at all posture.
I jumped off the back of the cart lightly and half danced across to Lucian, who was standing very upright and looking out beyond the stones and towards the horizon, deep in thought.
Close up, he was so much taller than me. He finally noted my presence and looked down at me. All contained and all restored, his reserves back in place, yet I reached up towards him and touched the side of his neck lovingly. He wrapped one arm around me and drew me to him and we embraced silently for a wonderful time. We were back together again.
Eventually, he let go of me and put his head to one side.
“You don’t have any clothes for me?” he asked dryly, gathering the tapestry closer around him with as much dignity as he could muster.
I smiled at him.
“I don’t think so,” I said, “but we could ask Marani to go back and get some for you. She did bring some cloaks.”
His eyes went past me, back to the horizon.
“Yes,” he said absently. “Send her. Her presence is bothering me.”
I thought about telling him that he should show some gratitude towards her, to say something to her, but I reconsidered. That would be not in his understanding at this point. Reluctantly, I left him standing and gazing out towards the now setting sun and went to see Marani.
“Can you manage one more trip?” I asked her and she sighed and gave me a half smile.
“Of course I can,” she replied. “He – “ with a head gesture towards Lucian, “He’ll be wanting his clothes now, tell me I’m wrong why don’t you.”
I grinned at her. “You do know him well enough.”
“Aye, that I do. It’s been many years. Ah well, I’ll get going then. Is there anything else you need for this coming night?”
It occurred to me that a fire might be a nice thing.
“Could you bring a little fire wood? And a few more blankets?”
She nodded. “I’ll be off then, there’s not so much of the day left now and I hate doing this drive in the darkness, that’s for sure.”
“Thank you,” I said sincerely and she just gave a little wave and sksed the little pony forward with a flick of the reins. I watched her clear the plateau and get off to lead the pony down the slope, and then she had disappeared from our prison sanctuary world as though she’d never existed.
Lucian was still standing exactly as I had left him, his eyes on the horizon, upright and self contained, authoritative and regal in his bearing in spite of the colourful tapestry wrapped about his waist, trailing long on the grass behind him.
I moved up beside him and slipped my arm through his. He broke out of his thoughts and looked down at me but said nothing. He did not return my desire for physical contact but he did not move away either.
“What now?” I asked of him.
He raised his eyebrows slightly.
“I have no idea,” he said with a dry note of humour. “To be fair, I have not quite … “ He focussed in closer on me and put his head slightly to one side, looking at me with curiosity. “You are quite the fighter, aren’t you.”
I felt myself blush but he was quite right, of course. I was.
“You don’t have any idea of what you’ve done, have you?” he continued in the same tone of dry amusement. “Oh but by all the ancient gods, they must be going mad!” He threw his head back and laughed out loud, then patted my arm on his before stepping away from me and continuing,
“Commoner Isca, fourth apprentice, indeed.”
He shook his head and started to laugh again. “Ah, this is good. You whipped them, you broke their judgement and made off with the accused. Such a thing has never been known since the dawn of time.” He leaned back heavily against one of the big standing stones which dwarfed him by comparison and re-arranged the tapestry around his hips.
“I cannot conceive of what kind of punishment they will bestow on us when they get us in the end.” The smile around his lips twitched and died. He laid his head back against the stone and closed his eyes. “I will be wishing I had burned instead.”
This comment made me angry.
“So I should have just let them burn you and purge me, is that what you’re saying? That we’d be better off if I hadn’t done anything at all?”
“In truth, that would be most certainly the case. Before, they were just intent on destroying – me, and you, but that will never be enough now. You have rattled their honour, their total domination. They will make an example of us both the likes of which has never been seen.”
My stomach had been sinking deeper and deeper with every word he said, but I could feel my own old and familiar anger returning, too. I welcomed it like you would a long lost friend.
“Let them try. I will fight them all the way. And I will never give up, no matter what they will try to do.” For good measure, I added on: “And it would really help if you would stop presuming that they will get us in the end, for this is by no means certain. I keep being told that ‘this has never happened before’ well, perhaps we can beat them somehow. Just because it has never happened before does not mean we cannot make it happen or have a hope at least, somewhere, that it’s worth attempting.”
He opened his eyes and smiled tiredly at me.
“Well, count me in to your war. We have got our backs to the wall, you might say, and there is nowhere left to go.”
My war? The realisation flooded through me that it was, indeed, my war. He was perfectly happy to let himself be judged and burned and damned for all eternity because that’s the way things had always been. In some way, he was just as blind as they all were to what was wrong, and lacked just as much as everyone else I ever knew the desire to change something, anything, just to make a change, to stop all this what was supposed to be inevitable from unfolding and to give it a whole new direction, a whole new meaning, a whole new life.
My war. He was the first victim of my war. I stood in the beautiful golden evening sun amongst the ancient circle of stones and understood something of my purposes at last. I also understood that he was more than just the first victim of my war against the Serein but that he was also my first ally, my general who lead the troops into battle under my banner, no matter how doomed the enterprise might turn out to be. And then I remembered Dareon and so Lucian had not been the first victim, after all. Perhaps he would never become one. It was my responsibility to see to that in any way that I could. And perhaps at some point it could become our war and he would understand that you can be fighting for something and not just fighting because that’s what you did as a matter of course, like a blinded mad dog that was lifted and would attack in the direction someone place it when its feet hit the ground, no matter what, no matter whom.
I looked at him in a different way and said slowly, “So, you will be my general in my war? Do you pledge yourself to that duty?” and my voice was strange, not like I was speaking at all.
He noticed it too and went very serious indeed. He pushed himself of the standing stone and approached me. When we were about at touching distance, he stopped and to my utter amazement, lowered himself slowly and with control onto one knee, looking up at me.
“My lady,” he said, “I pledge myself to you in all ways, to serve you in all ways, as you desire. I pledge myself to this duty.” Then he placed a hand on his heart.
He was absolutely serious. I had no idea what he was thinking, or what had just happened between us, only that I must have touched something that was a very real part of his character, thinking and nature. I looked down at him, and the words came from nowhere,
“I accept you and your word, Lord Lucian.”
Then he bent his head to me and I snapped out of this strange ritual we had woven between us. I stepped a little closer and caressed his head and shoulder with my hand, and when he looked up, bent to him and placed my mouth on his and kissed him gently, lovingly. He responded very submissively, and once again I became aware of the huge shift that had taken place between us and it made me wonder for a moment, insecure for moment and I broke the kiss and stepped back.
“Please do get up,” I said uncomfortably. “I don’t like to see you like that.”
He gave a small smile and a light shake of his head and pushed himself back into the standing position.
“So, my liege, what is the plan?” he said and I was not sure whether I detected a note of sarcasm in his voice, but then chose to ignore it if there had been.
“The plan is that you should eat something, and drink. And you should tell me what options we have, what magic you possess which might be of use to us, of devices that might help us, of other places such as this one that can be used for hiding in, and we will decide what to do.”
He nodded. “A sound plan, indeed.”
Side by side, we walked across to where the black cloak still lay on the grass and the opened parcel of food Marani had brought. He arranged himself and his tapestry to one side, and I brought him wine and water and fruit from the box by the altar stone.
He ate with efficiency and without the slightest indication of enjoyment or even awareness of what it was he was placing in bite sized chunks into his mouth. The wine was the only thing that caused him to very temporarily lose this detachment and he drank deeply from the bottle, and then twice more before reluctantly willing himself to put it down.
I was too fascinated by him and his every movement of his arms, jaw, neck and gesture to have given any thought to anything else but him, and so his voice startled me when he began to list a number of options and possible courses of actions he must have been thinking about all through the eating.
“There are actually many such places as this one. There are even some that very few, if any, know about because they are ancient and well hidden. I have studied these all my life and know of many. They exist all across the lands, and many have old temples such as this one built around or over them. Others are lost in wilderness but I have marked them all whenever I have passed. I will be able to find them again, easily.
“So the question remains of what to do when we are not in such a place, and how to protect ourselves from being pulled back into Serein. What did you do to keep them from taking us straight back after the burning? How did you get us out in the first place? I don’t really remember much beyond …” He stopped there and his face grew hard as a mask at the memory of the burning, and the pain. I thought that once we were out there again, back where I could be all that I was, I would have to soothe that memory which still burned brightly in his mind and no doubt hurt just as much as the real thing had. Repairing his body was not all that needed to be done.
“Are you listening?” he said with an impatient gesture of his hand, and I shook myself out of my thoughts.
“Yes. Sorry, could you repeat your last question?”
He sighed. “How did you get us out and how have you stopped them from pulling us back in?”
I told him of the vortex I had used to escape, how I used the sword on the first attempt, and how the second attempt had nearly cost us our lives if it hadn’t been for Marani and her pony cart and her fast and reliable response.
Lucian nodded and picked up the wine bottle again. After a moments hesitation, he upended it and drained it dry.
“They are learning not to take any chances with you. They know now that they underestimated you and won’t give you another chance, next time.”
I knew that already. “Listen,” I said, “The magic that makes the storm here in this place, do you know how to do it? We could create shields such as this for ourselves if we could understand the pattern.”
He glanced at me and I realised that this was not really an answer. Shielded like that we had no magic of our own, and what good where either of us without our magic?
Still, it would be a useful thing to be able to shield from the Serein at will. I saw him consider it and finally he said, “Yes I think it could be done. I was trained in shielding arts, and although whatever is here – “ he moved his hands in a circular motion to indicate all of the standing stones which caused the ruby ring on his hand to flash brightly and hypnotically for a moment, “is very different, very alien and much stronger, I think you with your ability on patterns might be able to re-create something similar. Its just a question of how long we can keep it up because if we waver just the once, they’ll have us.”
I had another thought.
“When they tried to pull us in, just after I brought you back and started to repair you, I stabbed at the light with the ice blue sword. It caused the light to collapse and it was quite a time before it came back.”
“You stabbed at it?” he replied with amusement in his tone.
“Well what do I know of swords,” I answered testily. I hated it when he was amused by my efforts, which were, after all, good and true and had saved his skin well enough in the realest sense of the word.
He became thoughtful. “I happen to know a great deal about swords and how to use them, Serein as well as real life ones. What would happen if …”
“… we really merged and became one?” I finished the sentence with the thought we had shared simultaneously.
“You are so much stronger than me,” I said and started a rapid exchange, hampered by having to use words which went something like this:
“You can navigate patterns that I can’t even see”
“You have so much experience, you know so many things.”
“You have a knack for knowing just what to do which I’ve never had.”
“You can fight and kill without hesitation I could never do that.”
“You can heal and restore and I cannot.”
“You are so old and powerful.”
“You have the unbroken power of your youth.”
“Your control of emotions is amazing.”
“Your raw talent is extraordinary.”
“You know so much about so much, and about the Serein.”
“You are so unafraid of the Serein and have no respect for anything!”
There I stopped the mutual congratulation party and said, “Look, no that isn’t true. I respect things but they have to be worthy of my respect. Not just because someone tells me I should respect them. That is not enough. That is never enough!”
He smiled wryly and said, in a last word on the subject way:
“And you have a desire for justice as I have never known in any man,” he saw my face and added on, quickly, “or woman.”
We both laughed a little then and fell silent as we contemplated a total merging with the other.
I cannot know what he thought about it, but I was certainly scared at the thought. I had seen the things that Lucian had done, well, a tiny little edge of it, at least. I did not want to become such a one that would feed on others pain and destruction, that would derive happiness from another beings suffering. Worse, I would not ever want to be a one who would inflict such suffering without a second thought, the way of the Serein, who didn’t even care one way or the other, for whom people like Lucian and me were nothing more than blades of grass which must perforce be trampled in their passing like it was a law of nature itself.
I had a notion that this merging might never be entirely undone again. We had been once one, for a short time, without volition and in an emergency, and it had left me with so much that was he that sometimes I didn’t rightly know what were my feelings on a subject, and which were his. I would never be the same again.
And then there was the question, what was to happen to our bodies? Could they be merged too and we would be just the one? (and yes, I knew they could, and that in fact it would be easy enough to resonated the spider layers and place them side by side, having two bodies in the space of just the one, there was more than enough room in the pattern).
Was there any other option? I thought of it and could not see one. Was it the right thing to do? I was not sure. I looked up at him and saw that he had reservations too. Whatever happened, we would never be the same again.
“It might work,” he said slowly and resistantly.
“Does the thought frighten you?” I asked of him with a sigh.
He flashed me a look from piercing pale eyes.
“I am not afraid,” he said back as in a reflex, then, more slowly, “but it is a severe step to be taking. We would never be the same again.”
A thought occurred to me and I gave it permission to be spoken.
“Perhaps that would be a good thing, anyways.”
He smiled at that and nodded. “As far as I am concerned, I’m sure it would be.”
“So shall we try it?” I asked, nervously.
He nodded slowly.
“Its our best chance to ever get out of here. If not our only one.”
We sat gazing at each other, enmeshed in our own private thoughts. I wanted him in a very physical way, I always had. Whatever else there was between us, there was that too and there was no denying it. I could feel my desire rising to feel him beneath my hands and my lips, and to feel him on my skin in return. Oh but he could make me feel so good …
He moved across the food and empty wine bottle and pulled me into his arms, one arm around my neck and one around my waist, pulling me forward and off balance into an embrace I could do nothing to back out of if I’d wanted to. I melted into him and he kissed me hard, hungrily, predatorily and for a second I was afraid of him and thought to fight him, then let go of my resistance and moved into him instead.
He turned me over and rolled me onto the grass beside the cloak with the food, with himself on top of me. He was very heavy and he held me so tightly that my arms hurt. He kissed me again, too hard, and bit me. I tried to pull away but could not, pinned down by his weight and his hands. He was trembling now, his fingers digging more and more painfully deep into my muscles, his knees forcing my legs apart, his mouth now on my neck, his teeth on my neck, and then, all of a sudden he let go off me and backed off, sitting right back on his heels, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. He shook his head slowly.
“I can’t do it,” he said darkly. “I can’t do it without wanting to hurt you. And I can’t hurt you.”
I only half paid attention to him as I was entirely riveted by his erect penis, dark, reaching up his belly. It was huge. Surely it would never …
He rose fluently and picked up the tapestry, flung it over his shoulder and walked away from me.
I lay back for a moment, the pain in my lower lip stinging with the movements of my mouth and a hollow and unhappy feeling all over me. I touched my chin and felt the blood. My upper arms and my neck hurt. I knew exactly what had happened. I knew exactly what it felt like for him, the fire, the heat and the overwhelming desire to destroy. I sighed deeply and sat up. Perhaps it couldn’t be done. Perhaps I should stop teasing him into trying to lie with me, make me his woman because he would be tearing me apart like a lion instead. The thought made me extremely sad and to banish it, I set to picking up the rest of our meal and putting things back into the wooden box. I re-folded the cloak and put it on top, then closed the box and sat down on it, unhappily. I was watching my toes wriggle on the grass when a sharp shout from Lucian snapped me out of my thoughts.
He stood looking out behind one of the stones and I ran across to join him. At the edge of the plateau was Marani and her cart, and she was whipping the pony into a full out gallop, bouncing wildly behind. She was waving and shouting and I knew this was not a good sign at all.
The pony careered to a halt and I rushed up to her with Lucian walking in measured steps behind as soon as she had cleared the outer protection shell.
Her breath was rapid and her eyes wide with fear as she gasped, “Soldiers! Lots of them! And Serein! Coming this way, I saw them on the road from the hill!”