Gentle darkness was all around me, and beside me, Lucian was snoring lightly. One of his arms was painfully trapped beneath my back and I moved it out of the way and settled myself back into the bed, then, disliking the cold and in the absence of a blanket, snuggled myself closer to him and his warmth. Far below us, the Serein children were asleep and dreaming deeply and I noted their presence with a tremendous sense of relief. I closed my eyes and let myself drift away once more.
When I awoke the next time, it was already late afternoon and Lucian had gone but he had taken the time to replace himself with a silky Serein blanket under which I now stretched luxuriously. I made a small decision to be more grateful in future for the simple pleasure of sleep and a comfortable bed and then began to scan around for Lucian. He seemed to be a great distance away which troubled me yet as he was there to be perceived, it didn’t trouble me so much that it would have caused me to get up and leave the warmth of this nest.
The children were awake too, terribly hungry and in great distress because the small ones had soiled themselves now to the point of flooding. They could not leave the room for it would have meant having to walk past the bodies which they could not undertake, not even courageous Reyna. I would have to come to their aid.
I got up and used the Serein bathroom facilities, second nature to me now and so very different from that time when I had come here from my village and it had all frightened me so much. Feeling rested and refreshed, if extremely hungry as well, I made my way back through the corpse strewn corridors and down the ramp to the room where the children were.
The stone had kept them reasonably calm but they were desperately joyful at my appearance and scrambled to their feet. The baby in Reyna’s arm lay limp and feeble and made no movements. I reached for it and there was nothing much wrong that a small amount of healing and a large amount of suitable food couldn’t fix soon enough.
I picked up my stone who hummed a delighted welcome and placed it back into the pouch around my neck, then I addressed Reyna exclusively by extending a separate link to her.
The halls are full of the dead elders, and you will have to walk amongst them to get out of here, I told her and noted her struggle with her deep horror and fear. Her royal reserve won out in the end aided by an immense sense of responsibility for the other children. She was an amazing child.
I will walk amongst them, she said.
I suggest we cloak the other’s eyes and minds so they may not see/remember. We will have to lead/carry them.
I will do as you say.
Excluding Reyna and the baby, there were four other children. The small elfin girl that reminded me of Dareon, two little boys with curly brown hair who tried to be brave but found it difficult not to cry because they had wet themselves repeatedly in the night, and a very small fair boy with the hugest green eyes I ever saw.
I picked up the very small boy and sat him resolutely on my hip in spite of his feel and smell, and then the little girl. I reached them with a soothing and put them to sleep. Reyna held the baby and instructed the two boys to hold on to her gown and to close their eyes as soon as we left the room. I created a shielding around their minds that frightened them at first but then they made contact with the sense of their fingers on Reyna’s robe and their feet on the ground and became steady and still.
All the way up to the ground level, I kept a close link to Reyna and steadied her mind and her faltering steps as we picked our way amongst the corpses on the rising spiral. The two children I was carrying were light as birds in my arms and so we finally made it up to the main entrance hall where all was white and still and safe, and I awoke them and set them down.
“Where is the food kept in this place?” I asked of Reyna and she sent me a very precise map of the eating and storage areas, one floor below.
I instructed the children to remain and went back down, following the girls instructions and found the kitchen and the dining area and the kitchen, and I found both food and water, the same type of dried up, shrivelled stuff that I had eaten at the safe house with Dareon. It would have to suffice for now. The only thing that troubled me was how to feed the baby which was much to small to eat such fare.
I was on my way back with a clothful of food and a large jug of water precariously balanced on my hip, when from above wild screams of panic ensued on all levels simultaneously. I rushed around the bend of the spiral and saw that the children were scrambling in all directions because Lucian stood in the middle of the space with the doors open behind him. He must have had entered the hall through the front door, presumably seen them and had said or done something to frighten them badly.
I gave a sharp mental cease command and everyone stopped in their tracks. I ignored the children for now and addressed Lucian brightly.
“Good morning,” I said into his pitch black rage. “Sleep well?” placing the pitcher and the cloth containing the food on the floor beside me.
He relaxed fractionally but made no attempt to answer my smile.
“Yes, indeed I did,” he replied formally. Behind me, a child scuttled and he scowled instantly.
He really, really didn’t like children.
“Where have you been?” I asked for a change of tack, looking for a connection, some form of acknowledgement of our extraordinary closeness and the deeds of the night before, but he was shielded up to the hilt and responded curtly, “Outside. Calling up re-enforcements.”
I thought it might be best to get him away from the children and leave it up to sensible Reyna to distribute the food for now, so I walked past him through the doors in the hope that he might follow me. After a short hesitation, he did so and we stepped out of the artificial silence into a bright yet sunless midday on the mountain top plateau.
It was very still and windless. The land lay below us and seemed very far away, the trail to the monastery disappearing like an uneven snake into the trees at the low distance and then re-emerging as it wound its way into the valley. Far down, I could see some movement on the road.
He stepped up beside me and I pointed down. “Is that your re-enforcements?” I asked.
He just gave a brief noise to the affirmative.
“What kind of re-enforcements are they?”
He let out a heavy sigh as though he was sick of me and my stupid questions.
“I’ve ordered the villagers up here to clear out the building,” he said curtly.
I moved in front of him and turned to face him, although this brought me perilously close to the edge of the Serein-made plateau which was artificially straight and about a man’s length deep, then turned into a sheer drop down of normal mountain side that went on for a very long time indeed.
Over his shoulder I could see some movement through the wide open monastery doors and guessed that the children would by now have taken possession of the food and were making off into a quiet corner to consume it.
I looked up at him but he ignored me, continuing to stare straight over my head and into the distant skies.
“Lucian, what’s wrong?” I asked him and lightly put my hand up to where his shoulders swept into his neck, and where the high collar of his jacket gave way to skin.
He continued to ignore me, did not answer and kept his shielding high and his eyes in the distance.
I let my hand drop away and felt strangely scared.
Again, I addressed him.
“Lucian, why are you ignoring me? Have I done something wrong?”
Finally, he let his eyes come down to me. They were hard and cold and inaccessible.
Then he spoke.
“I suggest you take the Serein whelps away with you and be gone now. You know how to change metals so you won’t have to go hungry.”
I couldn’t believe what he was saying.
“What are you saying?” I asked, confused and more scared still.
“What I am saying is, this apprenticeship is now officially terminated.” He turned around and made as to walk off, then he stopped and looked briefly over his shoulder at me. There was absolutely no friendliness of any kind there, no companionship, no recognition, he addressed me like you would a total stranger.
“Keep those whelps out of my way. If I see them again, I will kill them.”
And with that, he just walked away from me.
I teetered briefly on the edge of the plateau and took two rapid steps so I wouldn’t fall. I was beyond shocked, horrified and astonished. I couldn’t believe it. Had he just really dismissed me, after all we’d been through? I shook my head. He had to playing a strange sort of game, putting me to a test, trying to frighten me or something. Surely he couldn’t mean it. I was as much a part of him now as he was of me, and the shared memories and mergings were only the least of it. I’ll make him link with me and let him know I’m not best pleased about such cruel games, I thought and reached out for him as I had done so many times before. He slapped me back so viciously that I would have fallen down the mountain if I’d still been that close to edge, and as it was, I fell to the hard cold marble and hurt my knees and my hands.
Lucian, I shouted, what are you doing? and the reply came cutting into my mind, as hard as it used to be when I very first entered his house and as uncompromising – Be gone. If you are still here when the villagers come through the trees I will kill you and the whelps.
It was then that it finally came through to me that he meant it. He was ordering me to leave and threatening to kill me if I did not. I still refused to believe that he would do that, but perfectly believed the threat about the children. Something had happened whilst I slept happily and dreamed of fields of stars. Something had happened that had turned him against me.