Lucian’s voice was cold and hard as steel. “How many soldiers, exactly?”
Marani dropped her head for she just could not look him in the eye and said, “I’m not sure Master, they were a long way away.”
“Damn you woman, how many? Ten, a hundred, a thousand?”
She shrank further into herself at his voice and just shook her head.
“Lucian, back off,” I said, and he growled but did as he was told, nonetheless; a fact that did not escape Marani and she cast me a quizzical glance.
I put my hand on her arm and said calmly, “Tell me exactly what you saw.”
With a small sideways glance at Lucian she took a deep breath and then answered me directly. “I was going up the hill to the house when I turned around for no good reason and I saw this cloud in the distance. Made me feel ill at ease it did, and so I stopped and looked some more, and then I saw them, horses all in rows, and blue robes, too. Young one they will be here very soon, they were moving very fast!”
I nodded and thought of a way to get the prerequisite information from her somehow. “Were there more there than people in the village?” I asked, and she shook her head rapidly. “No, not that many. Perhaps as many as –“ her face brightened as she found a comparison – “you would have at the elder’s meeting, perhaps a few more than that.”
Behind us, Lucian said, “A single headman’s group, then. They can’t be thinking much of me if that’s all they’re sending.”
Marani ducked at the sound of his voice and then, to me she said urgently and in a low tone, “You must be going, right away, they’ll be here soon.”
I glanced at Lucian and we both shook our heads at the same time.
“We can’t leave here yet,” I said. “We haven’t figured out how to stop them from burning us outside the circle.”
Lucian growled again and scanned the horizon with his eyes, a sharp fold between his brows. He must be even more frustrated than I was at his inability to see beyond, having lived with it so much longer than I could even imagine.
“Send her away,” he snapped at me. “she’s no good to us and might as well save her scaly hide.”
I dipped my head to hide a small smile. He was concerned for Marani’s well being. This was actually better than I had imagined. The Lord Of Darkness was slipping up again. There was hope for all of us.
I looked up at Marani on the sweating pony’s driver’s seat and put my hand across her gnarled and wrinkled one.
“You must leave now,” I said. “You have done everything you could be expected to do, and more besides. Whatever the outcome here, I am most grateful to you, and I thank you. And so does he, if only he hasn’t the good manners to say it in that way,” I added, indicating Lucian who looked like an emperor in the red tapestry flashing gold and exotic colours, wrapped around him like a cloak, with a nod of my head.
The old woman looked down at me sadly.
“You sure you can’t come away with me now, young one, leave him behind and I can hide you in my house, it isn’t much but …”
I shook my head firmly at her and squeezed her hand with mine.
“They’re after me as much as they are after him now, more so perhaps, and there’s nowhere I can run now. My only hope is with him. Together, we might be able to pull off a miracle.”
I saw Lucian straighten out even taller from the corner of my eye and we all turned around and saw a dust cloud, half chopped off, approaching the plateau and growing closer. My stomach lurched but I fought it back and said to Marani, urgently, “Go. Now. Be safe. If there’s anything to be done after, I’m sure you’ll see to it.”
Reluctantly, she nodded and picked up the reins. In mid movement she stopped and turned to me once more.
“The creator, the sisters and all the kind and benign forces may be with you, young one. I wish you well.”
I just nodded my thanks for I couldn’t rightly speak to answer, and then she flicked the pony into action and drove it away, rapidly, in the opposite direction to where the clouds of dust were becoming sharper, nearer and closer just above the green cut off point of the plateau. When she had gone, I fancied I could feel the drumming of the coming horses through the soles of my feet, and then the first ones appeared and I could hear them clearly now, too.
They made straight for the stone circle and I made straight for Lucian.
“What can we do?” I asked in a whisper, watching the horsemen swarming into existence and streaming towards us. There were many and the hooves of their horses now shook the ground.
Lucian looked down at me briefly. He was totally calm, totally controlled and I understood that this was his world, where he felt perfectly at home.
“You go and hide yourself,” he said quite off hand and easily. “I can’t fight with a clear back if I have to worry about you.”
I wanted to argue but knew it was pointless. He was absolutely right. I was about as much use in a straight fight as a wooden leg, perhaps even less so. And I would put him in danger by distracting his focus. Reluctantly, I backed away from him and sought refuge behind one of the standing stones at the back of the circle, a long way too far away. I couldn’t see him properly but the first of the giant war horses with their riders were nearly upon the outer barrier, and I looked at the standing stone and decided that I could climb it to the top for a better view and possibility of hiding (I used to hide in trees from the bigger children and they never once thought to look up above their heads). It was not difficult, I was a good climber and the wind and rain had made these stones cracked and ragged, providing many an easy foothold. The top of the stone was uneven and about the size of a large double bed. There was plenty of room for me to lie down flat and peek over the top.
Lucian had backed away towards the centre of the circle. The horses, splendid in their elaborate harnesses were spinning and dancing, not liking the barrier and refusing to enter beyond its reach, their riders big, hard faced men in armoured uniforms and leather helmets, cursing and trying to control them. Beyond them, I saw a row of five Serein, traditional blue type, hovering at the far outside edge of the barrier. They could not bear to enter even into the beginnings of the storm, and never mind the circle itself, at all! Of course! For if they did they would just become the dried up, thin, helpless people I had observed all around the monastery.
A tall man with a long mane of black hair and not wearing a leather helmet shouted an order over the general din, and they backed away from the circle until their horses calmed down. Just below me I saw Lucian gracefully and easily mount the altar stone and standing upright on it, the tapestry still around him like an emperor’s cloak. I looked down upon his white head and send him all my love and power and wished I could send him more instead.
Outside the circle, the riders had dismounted and formed themselves into a ragged semicircle. They drew their swords and, led by the black haired man who had to be their headman, began to advance into the stones, slowly and cautiously but steadily and without hesitation. Lucian stood perfectly still and my heart began to beat so hard that I could feel it shaking my hands and my whole body in time.
Everything fell silent as the headman stopped about three mens length away from the altar stone and called out to Lucian.
“Lord Tremain, we are here at the High Councils command. Surrender yourself and you will not be harmed.” The man’s voice was rough and he was trying to sound authoritative, but a tremble in his voice when he pronounced his intended victim’s name gave him away. He was as afraid of Lucian as the villagers had been, although he was alone, unarmed and even undressed. For the first time, I saw a glimmer of hope.
Lucian answered him in his resonant, sarcastic voice that only betrayed a vague amusement and nothing more.
“It’s Cardier, isn’t it? Last time we met, you were nothing but a slop boy to the Lord Ghamein.”
The headman Cardier stiffened and turned red enough for me to see this clearly from my observation point. Clearly angry now, he shouted back, “Yes, Headman Cardier, as it is now. And in the name of the high council I command you to surrender yourself, of we will take you by force.”
Lucian put his head back and laughed. The sound was a scary one, and it had the requisite effect on the headman and his men, one or two of which actually took a small step back, others exchanged brief but clearly nervous glances.
Lucian stopped laughing and with an extravagant gesture, flung the tapestry to the side, causing all the soldiers below to raise their swords in automatic defense as one.
“So, Cardier, you will take me by force? An experience surely to be savoured,” he said and with a fluent movement, jumped off the altar stone and naked as he was, entirely relaxed, moved towards the headman with easy, powerful strides, crossing the distance between them as though it wasn’t even there. The headman raised his sword high and there was a blurring speed of movement and Lucian stood up straight, with the sword in his own hand, and the headman writhing on the floor with blood spurting from his face. I don’t know what expression Lucian was carrying as he stood with his back to me, but the soldiers were horrified and obviously scared of what they saw when he simply plunged the sword vertically, two handed into the writhing headman on the floor.
“Who’s next?” Lucian called, a note of such delight and eagerness in his voice that I hardly recognised it, and they rushed him as one. I pushed my fist into my mouth and bit down hard on my knuckles not to scream out and the world stopped for me entirely as I watched him dance, easily distinguishable from his clothed opponents, amongst them, killing them without effort and never once being touched by a single blow, never once being there when a sword came crushing down, or a fist, or a slamming body. When there were only three or four left who could fight he slowed his dance and stood lightly, and powerfully. They circled him at a good distance, crouched low, swords raised as though they were shields that might hold him at bay. One of the men had already taken a strike to the face, a deep wound glistening red across his cheek and jaw, but he was still up and still following his orders. I took a breath up above and noticed that I was no longer afraid for him. Lucian was magic in this realm where there was no magic. He had been right. To send a single headman’s group was an insult to what he could do in this his very own domain. The man with the sword cut screamed and broke for him, swinging his huge sword wildly. Lucian didn’t even to have moved, he just flowed to the side and seemed to stroke at the passing man with his sword, lightly and gently. The tendons in his legs having been thus severed, the man fell to his knees, then flat on his face, the sword spinning from his hand, his surviving comrades taking a step back now, swords held wide out before them.
Lucian was smiling with an otherworldly delight that send shudders through me. He walked around to stand in front of the fallen man who tried to right himself by bringing his arms underneath him and levering himself up into a kneeling position. He raised one hand in a gesture of warding and in a plea for his life. Lucian smiled at him with what could only be described as a tender loving expression. He grasped the sword in both hands, flexing his finger tips, and raised it up high, high above his head, his entire body at full stretch, every muscle and sinew tautly defined. The man found his voice and brokenly began to plead for his life.
Lucian smiled down at him one more time, then he brought his head back, closed his eyes and brought the sword down with such force that it split the man in half from the shoulder down and buried the tip of the sword deeply into the ground to boot.
“Yesss!” he said out loudly and pulled the sword free. Blood was running down the length of the blade, onto his bare arms, and blood was splattered all across his body. He turned his gaze at the remaining soldiers and they just turned and ran, one of them throwing away his sword, first towards the horses, then they changed direction and ran away from the Serein as well. Lucian watched them for a while to make sure they would not come back, then with the bloody sword still in his hand, he walked up to the edge of the invisible circle, beyond which the Serein hovered uneasily. The abandoned horses caught the scent of blood and shied away as he approached.
“You are next,” he shouted to the Serein. “I am coming to get you. And I will kill you all!”
With that he took the bloody sword and slammed it deeply into the earth where it stuck, vibrating backs and forth. He turned his back on them and returned into the stone circle.
“Isca?” he called out as though he had just returned from a pleasant stroll. “Where are you?”
I raised myself on the stone and waved to him. He smiled at me happily and waved back with a bloody hand. My god, I thought, but how he loves to kill. How he loves to kill. I shut out the thought and made my way back down to ground level.
The circle was a slaughterhouse. At ground level, it all looked so much more real and I could smell blood and excrement and rancid sweat on leather from the soldier’s bodies scattered randomly across the grass. Here and there was a moaning, a movement, feeble scratchings, one particularly drew my eye as there was a man trying to crawl across the grass, leaving a huge swathe of glistening brown in his trail. Blood was pouring from his mouth and nose and every breath blew red bubbles, yet he persisted and kept on drawing himself along by his strong arms.
I felt Lucian’s presence by my side rather than saw it and heard his voice, “This is courage for you. A good soldier, there.” He moved past me and into my field of vision. By the soldier, he crouched down and took the man’s head in his hands. Looked into the dying man’s eyes and then with an easy, gentle movement, broke his neck. A single spasm went through the man then he was absolutely still. Lucian wiped his bloodstained hands on the man’s back and rose easily.
His eyes found mine and I could see his challenge. I could feel his excitement and an aliveness around him that had never been there before for me to see. He wanted to kill some more. There was no trace of resignation, no trace of hopelessness, no thought of giving up or giving in, and I knew that if we were ever going to have a chance to fight the Serein, now was the time, now and here, before he had a chance to fall back into his doubts and regrets and dark memories, here and now was the time and the place when he was all he could be and more.
“Let’s go get them,” I whispered and he smiled at me with delight. “Let’s tear them apart, you and me, together.”
“My lady,” he said and held out his hand to me. It was stained with blood, some of which was beginning to dry already, some still incredibly red and alive, and I stared at it for a moment then placed my own hand in his and as we tightened our grip it felt like the blood was soaking into my own skin, into my own hands as well and the war was now really and truly come to pass.
We turned and headed straight for the waiting Serein.