The village was much smaller than I remembered it to be, and more run down to boot.
It held only a few handfuls of straggly houses by the side of the roadway, some outbuildings, the common on which a few goats were grazing with its oval mill pond and brook, and a small stone prayer meeting building with a low square tower and the unfenced graveyard behind.
There were only five houses built of stone – the mill, the slaughterer’s yard, Farmer Mollen's family house who worked most of the land around and employed everyone, the prayer building and the inn. The rest were ramshackle constructions of part wood, part stone, and mud bricks. Amongst the poorest ones was that where my family lived with the other farm labourers who were in Farmer Mollen's bond.
At the back of each house lay criss-crossed plantings of all kinds, the kitchen gardens that supplied as much of the staple food as you can wring out of any small piece of ground. It was the end of summer and much had been harvested already, leaving only the winter crops and the late autumn ground roots to look forward to now.
As we rattled slowly towards the village, people spotted us who stood in small groups of women and elderly men and were no doubt talking excitedly and in hushed fearful tones the adults reserved for such occasions, what had happened when Lucian had called his so called re-enforcements, and had abandoned the day’s labours to wait for the return of the men of the village.
They didn’t come exactly running, more like a cautious drifting and a craning of necks as they lined up at the side of the road. I was recognised soon enough and a tittle tattle spread amongst the hushed whispers and half supressed shouts.
I had known nearly everyone here at least to look at all my life, and was related to many of them through my father’s line who had lived here since his great-grandfather brought his family after the great battle of Epille, yet I felt very little connection and even less friendliness for the people. I had never really been one of them at all.
I swept the village for my mother and found her inside the house, wearily grating grain for the midday meal. My little brother Sef was nowhere to be found, even though I searched strongly for him; and instead of finding him, I found the dislike and resistance and fear and hatred of the people, lining the side of the tracks and staring down at me and at the huddle of Serein children in the back. Reyna was incredibly scared, far more so than the smaller children who truly did not know what was happening but she managed to cloak it fairly well. She drew a lot of comfort from my presence.
I halted the cart near the inn with a tired command to the old man and looked around.
Behind us, the villagers were closing in, slowly and cautiously, yet threateningly because they were many and we were few.
A familiarity to the situation swept softly through me, crept through my thoughts and emotions and into my attention and awareness, and with it came a bright cutting intentionality and ruthlessness.
I sought out amongst the familiar and half familiar faces one in particular and found Farmer Mollen’s fourth wife, a bland fat blond woman with all the intelligence of a slaughterbeast in her vacant features.
It was upon her I laid a thought brand with the ease born of a thousand previous experiences, instructing her to vacate her house at once and take her children with her.
She turned on the spot and waddled away, fast towards her two story house which towered above the others and even boasted a purely ornamental front garden, as if to boast how much ground they had to spare – see, we can afford to grow flowers because we have so much food already!
I cast around for another errand and found a young boy whom I vaguely remembered as being one of a herd of children belonging to the blacksmith and who had on one occasion, thrown mud balls at me and Sef on the way back from the market.
I branded him easily with his task and he sped off down the road, bare feet flying and scrawny arms pumping.
Then I helped the children off the cart and instructed Reyna to lead the children into Farmer Mollen’s house.
There were four scared and grovelling servants to be indentured to me personally and the children secondarily which took as long as it took to think about it – a middle aged cook who was a thin and dried out woman, a sturdy girl not much older than me than me which I remembered as belonging to one of the small holders who scratched a living in the shrub land at the very foot of the mountains, a slightly older girl who was the nursery maid and a crippled older man who saw to the garden, upkeep and the stables.
I set the nursery maid and servant girl at once to washing, cleaning and feeding the children, and dispatched the cook to find a wet nurse for the baby, which Reyna refused to give up to anybody, not even for a moment.
I sternly commanded her to get herself washed and changed, and when the wet nurse arrived, made her part with the baby. She gave me little resistance and seemed glad that I could easily best her, and with a sense of relief she passed on responsibility for everyone to me from thereon in. A short while later, dressed in a white linen dress that had belonged to one of the previous occupants of the house until I had de-possessed them, she joined me in the study.
“At last,” I said. “You and I are the only ones here who can do what we must do now, and this is urgent.”
She send me a questioning tinged with a small amount of fear and uncertainty.
“You were not the only children left in monasteries full of dead elders,” I informed her and steadied her as the horror of that realisation swept across her.
I continued calmly. “These monasteries lie all across the lands, and even the nearest one is many day’s ride away from here – we cannot physically reach any of them in time. I have made a plan so that as many as possible may be saved, but in the meantime, we must sustain them as best we can from here, and give them instructions as how to survive, and hope of rescue.”
Reyna said in a small voice that was quite unlike her usual regal bearing, “I am but of lowest grade, Lady Isca.”
I turned to her and looked into her eyes. “You and I are all there is of now. We are all the chance they have. We will do the best we can.” And in spite of the most serious doubts, she understood the situation and nodded her agreement.
There were four tapestry covered chairs with wooden arms, and I took two of them and placed them, facing each other across a low table.
I placed my stone on the table and indicated for the girl to sit opposite me.
She settled into the chair, her legs straight before her on the large seat, put her arms on the side rests and looked at me with her enormous dark eyes.
I took a breath and reached out to link with her and nearly smashed her fragile inner senses in doing so, used to Lucian as I was and with no experience of the exquisite frailty of real Serein interactions. I backed off and reached out again, this time far more gently and searchingly and she came forward and we wove a link unlike I had experienced before at all, not now, not in all the history that I had known if not experienced.
It was fragile yes, but also amazingly wide reaching, revealing layers and stratas of reality entirely unbeknown to me yet still vaguely, vaguely familiar like a ghost of memory and welcome strafing through my mind. I noted the children we had brought from Meyon Heights and used their templates to search the infinitely complex strands and webs for similar patterns, and soon found nodes of these patterns like little stars in many places.
Experimentally, I focussed in closer on one of these clusters and drifted up closer, straight up. Through the link Reyna expressed that one was supposed to travel on the strands, not straight across them. I let her show me how to enter into one of the fine and incredibly complex pathways stretching between the nodes and once we were inside, I immediately felt an easy current which travelled us along it with ease and delicate precision. The cluster ahead became more distinct and I could make out a group of ten children, ten individuals, frail and fragile as Reyna herself, striving for containment. There were three that burned more brightly than the rest and they were linked so tightly that they appeared as one. I addressed myself to them and information passed between us in a way that I didn’t understand at all – it was instantaneous, non-language, non-picture, light and fleeting yet profound. I moved back and let Reyna do the communicating, for fear that I might be telling these children things I didn’t want them to know, things they surely mustn’t know about. She instructed them how to find food, how to stop being afraid of the dead, and to wait near the main entrance until they were collected. Concerns were returned to us as to the state of health of two of their group, and as I could see no way of healing in this strange and fragile space I suggested a slowing down that would freeze the ones affected and extend the chance of a rescue being affected in time.
We detached and moved to the next node, but I noticed that we were taking a new strand with us that had not previously been there, as though we were a spider weaving a whole new web from node to node. The information exchange and procedure repeated, faster now as we became more aware of what exactly needed to be done, with Reyna speaking for us and me providing our energy and travelling us across from node to node. Behind us, the groups of children we had visited began to communicate with each other across the new lines we left behind, and as we went on and on, a group mind began to form that took on strength and form with each new node that was added to the web.
When we had completed about a quarter of the groups that were apparent in the space, the web behind us began to resonate and then grow on its own accord. I halted us and moved into midspace and from there we watched as the web reached out and encompassed the other islands mind communities, one by one, with gathering speed and conviction and soon, they were all linked together, all in communication with each other, all knowing what we had told them to do, and all drawing strength from each other.
I dropped back into myself and snapped the link to Reyna who gasped and put her hand to her head. I sent a small apology. I wasn’t used yet to the tenderness of Serein communications, but I was beginning to have some respect for the difference and effectiveness of what they did, and how they did it.
It was hardly any wonder at all that we had so easily torn their whole universe asunder. Whatever Lucian and I had been doing, it was a very different level and way of getting things done. The Serein were far more different from us than I had expected them to be. But still. The children were safe for the moment and comforted with each others presence and their instructions, and I was learning.
I got up and made for the door. Halfway, I turned back and looked at Reyna with an apologetic smile.
“That was excellent,” I said to her and she steeled herself against an onslaught of extreme pleasure and pride at my compliment, but only succeeded partially. “I could not have done this without you.”
Nothing more needed to be said and so I opened the door and stepped out of the room and into the hallway panelled with pale wood, intent on checking physically and with my own eyes as to whether the children were being cared for and all was well.
The nursery maid, dark hair scraped back into a bun, sallow skinned but well fed, in a clean but very plain undyed homespun dress and apron and carrying a large stack of sheets, froze to the spot in mid-stride on her way across to the stairs which ran up the side of the wall and across to a gallery on the first floor, pulled in her shoulders and ducked her head.
I looked at her and recognised both her posture and her expression. It was exactly how Marani responded whenever Lucian was around in person. It shocked me more than I expected. What was even more disturbing though was the real sensation of both amusement with a small thrill of delight and that feeling of despising her for her fear and lack of courage.
Were these thoughts and feelings mine, or were they …
Resolutely, I cut the train of thought and walked past the frozen woman who could have well been an older sister to me and, ignoring her completely, made my way up the stairs and to the nursery on the third floor. The door was open and a very peaceful scene was brought to an abrupt winter’s freeze as I walked in.
In front of a large fire place that was already well stacked with wood for the evening to come and covered with a safety guard of wrought iron on a low stool sat a vaguely familiar looking black-haired buxom woman, the Serein baby asleep yet still firmly latched onto one of her large, blue veined breasts that emerged from unbuttoned bodice. The little girl and the boy, both wearing ordinary children’s cloth, were asleep side by side curled up like cats on a rug at her feet.
The two older boys were playing with brightly coloured bricks and small painted wooden carved animals that had seen much wear and tear, and the servant girl was frozen in mid movement whilst putting dishes on a tray on a waist high dresser under a slanted roof window.
I addressed the two Serein boys.
“Are you well cared for?”
They looked at me with their huge eyes and nodded, seriously.
The slightly taller one answered me formally in a high thin voice, “Thank you, Lady Isca.”
“Follow the advice of your care takers here for your own good,” I said to them and again, they nodded and the older one answered me formally, “We will, Lady Isca.”
There was really nothing much left to be said. Without a major effort on my part which I was too weary to make at this point, life would not return to this room until I had left it.
So I did, freezing the nursery maid once more in mid stride on the stairway at my passing.
I ignored her and went to the kitchen. The thin cook, with a scarf around her greying hair which straggled from it here and there, her hands red, her nose thin and pinched, her mouth tight, was busy stirring in a very large black cast iron pot which I knew by smell and then by sight to be containing the children’s Serein clothing. She glanced at me briefly as I entered the room and then doubled back, into a half bowing position which was hampered by her white knuckled grip around the wooden laundry spoon still stuck in the pot.
I was getting wearier of this nonsense by the minute and gave a deep sigh.
“Oh do stand up straight and get on with your work,” I said to her. “What’s your name?”
The woman straightened herself out as best she could whilst still trying to keep her head low and her shoulders drawn in. Super consciously, she set to stirring the laundry in the pot again and trying not to flick me glances from the corner of her eye. Under different circumstances, it would have been quite funny to observe.
“Demma, my lady Serein,” she answered me in a frightened voice.
I looked around the kitchen and located the usual wooden box where the bread was kept. I made for it and extracted half a loaf. The cook glanced around nervously and nearly had a fit when she saw what I was doing.
“My lady Serein,” she spluttered, “I will make you food immediately, please, how can I serve you?”
I placed the bread on the kitchen table with a light smile to myself.
“You can serve me, Demma, by first of all calling me by my own name, which is Isca.”
Turned towards me, with a cloth around her hand behind her back as she was trying to push the big black pot with the washing to the side of the range where there was no fire underneath the iron plates, to avoid it overheating and to be able to leave it for now, the woman was utterly confused and so afraid of me, it virtually paralysed her.
I shook my head, pulled out a stool from under the table and sat down on it heavily.
“Demma,” I said tiredly, “listen to me. I am all of 15 years old. I was born in this very village – you might know Jode the labourer, second son to Redar, and Nillessa, his wife? Well, they are my parents. I left and some strange things have happened to me, and I have learned to do some things that might seem unusual. But I am not the Lord of Darkness himself –“ I stopped there and shook my head again, shutting out any thoughts that came crowding at my careless use of that common phrase –“and I am not Serein, just because I wear their garments. I am tired, my head hurts and I want something to eat. And most of all I want you and the rest of the servants to stop having a fit every time I walk into a room.”
The cook stared at me in utter astonishment all the way through that speech and was battling with her recognition of me in context of my parents and her fear of all things Serein.
“And another thing I want,” I said into her confusion with a tired smile, “for the sweet creator’s sake, take that washing off the range before you boil those garments into nothingness.”
With a start she turned around and hastily shifted the heavy black pot across to the safety of the cool side of the hearth. She gave the clothes inside a final poke then turned back towards me and dried her hands on her off white apron which protected a plain grey homespun dress.
Hesitantly, she said, “Is it true? You are Nilessa’s daughter?” and I caught her thought of, Nilessa’s wayward daughter, the one that disappeared overnight, ran away with the travellers, they said, the whole village was talking about it for weeks …
I smiled again. So I had ran away with the travellers? Not far wrong, in their own way. I could literally hear the blacksmith’s wife and the innkeepers wife, the worst ones in the village for spreading gossip and rumour, “Oh but it was always plain that she would come to no good …”
I broke out of my reverie and fixed back onto Demma and the present.
“Yes, it’s true. I am Nilessa’s daughter. Only, I didn’t run away with the travellers. I went to Meyon Heights instead.”
The woman’s eyes grew large and round at that and I could feel intensely how very much she wanted to know all the details of what had happened and where the children had come from and why the men had been called there …
“Later, Demma,” I said. “I’d really like some food now and most importantly, something to drink. Is there any wine in the house?” and as soon as I’d said it, I looked back at that statement in amazement. Wine? I asked her for wine?
“Oh yes, right away!” she said and nearly ran from the room.
I dropped my head on my arms whilst I waited for her return and thus felt, rather than saw or heard, Reyna entering the room.
She pulled out a stool and sat down primly beside me, waiting for permission to address me.
I gave it but didn’t feel like moving otherwise.
She spoke into my mind and said, I wanted to thank you, Lady Isca, for all you have done for me and for mine.
You didn’t have to. The statement came complete with the underlying question as to Why? Why kill all the elders and then go to so much trouble to save us/me?
I gave my answer to her a finality, an edge that warned her not to approach me on the subject again.
I did not mean to kill anyone. It was an accident I would undo if it that was in my power.
I sat up and rubbed my eyes, conscious of the girl’s eyes and mind on me still. But she had understood my order/request and was silent and kept herself within herself.
Demma came back into the room at speed with a dusty bottle of wine and a large chalice made of blue glass. She stopped and looked uncertainly at the Serein girl but then set to expertly uncorking the bottle. She placed the glass on the table in front of me and poured the wine. It was red, thick and sat black as blood in the dark blue chalice.
I picked it up in both hands, looked at it for a moment, gave it a small swirl and then drank it thirstily, greedily. It slid easily down my throat and into my stomach, filling me with a familiar and comfortable warmth that shuddered through my entire body.
I placed the glass down and found both of them staring at me.
I smiled and raised an eyebrow and a hand.
“Demma, meet Reyna. Reyna is a little girl, about 8 years old, and she tries to pretend she knows all and can cope with everything. She was raised by some very strange people in a very strange way and all of this is very scary to her. Her parents and all her relatives are all dead and apart from this house, she has no home.”
Demma looked surprised but softened noticeably towards the little girl who had put her head down in embarrassment and resentment at being described thus by me.
“Reyna.” I said with some amusement and took another deep drink of the wine – cheap stuff though it may have been – “Reyna, meet Demma. Demma is an elderly, childless woman who has never left this village in her life. She is seriously afraid of things she doesn’t understand, and especially Serein business and magic which she would call witchery. Demma also has no home, for she only has this roof over her head as long as she can continue to work her drudgery for those she serves.”
Now it was Demma’s turn to colour uncomfortably and for Reyna to look upon her with a level of interest and compassion.
I reached across the table for the bottle of wine and hesitated momentarily – did I want to take the risk of slowing my senses and my awareness? Oh what the hell. I poured another glass and drank from it deeply.
Beyond me, the two other females in the room exchanged a glance which set the beginnings of a relationship. Demma picked up the bread that I had placed on the table and sliced it, then brought forth butter on a large slab and cold roasted meat that was spicy and smelled delicious still.
I ate hungrily, closely watched by Reyna. It occurred to me that the dried up stuff I had come across in the Serein houses might be the only foods she had ever tasted, so got a small piece of bread and put a similarly small piece of meat upon it, and put the morsel in front of her like you would tempt a bird to peck.
She touched it, sniffed it and eventually put it in her mouth, chewed it and her surprise and delight at both the unfamiliar textures as well as the tastes radiated right through me.
Even Demma must have felt it because she stopped and looked at Reyna with a smile.
“Would you like some of your own,” she asked her, and Reyna nodded with repressed eagerness. Demma made her a plate with very thinly sliced pieces of meat and the small ends of the bread, and the child set to eating what might have been her first real meal in her life with a delight that delighted both of us who were watching her in return.
When she had finished her plate entirely and even picked up the tiniest crumb with great care, she looked at me and smiled radiantly.
“Lady Isca,” she said in her serious child’s voice, “I think I might like it here.”
I was about to answer, when a rapid knocking on the front door startled us all.
Flying footsteps were heard as the maid ran to her duty. I reached over towards the door, noted that my sense was definitely dulled and put out of focus by the wine and food, but recognised the vibration nonetheless.
The maid came into the kitchen, face flushed and half afraid, half excited she said, “There’s a traveller man out front! Come to see the Lady Isca!”
I rose slightly unsteadily. “Bring him in at once, “ I instructed her and my voice wasn’t quite willing and able to keep up with my thoughts but the girl understood well enough, or perhaps didn’t know me well enough to even notice there was anything amiss at all, and ran off.
She returned with a tall slim man, very dark of complexion, thick eyebrows and beak nose, curly black hair down to his shoulders in stark contrast to a bright white shirt and wearing criss-crossed, a leather harness across it which held a number of large knives.
He looked me straight in the eye, bent his head briefly, and said, “Lady Isca? Orimono Virayan, at your command.”
I smiled and held out my hand to him. He took it in his dark, strong, sinewy one and we exchanged a strong, meaningful contact.
“I thank you for coming at such speed, Virayan,” I said and he bend his head briefly again in acknowledgement.
I indicated the table and sat back down on my stool.
“Would you take some wine with me?”
He pulled out a stool and sat down easily.
“It would be an honour, my lady,” he replied.
Demma had already procured a pewter tankard which she placed on the table. With a small gesture of dismissal, I picked up the bottle myself and filled it for him, then poured the rest into my own glass.
We raised our drinks in salutation of each other, drank, and put them back on the table in unison. The maid was still hanging around in the doorway, Demma skulking in a corner and the small Serein girl sat by my side with eyes wide open on the traveller.
I tuned them out and reduced the world to the man in front of me who regarded me steadily and without fear, yet a great amount of respect. He was dying to know what I wanted yet well controlled and even better versed in the art of striking a good bargain.
“Virayan,” I began, “I have a very great request to make of your people.”
“Of my people?” he asked, puzzled.
“I’ll be straight with you. This is how it is. A great disaster has befallen the Serein – a plague, if you will – which has killed all the adults, leaving only children, such as this one –“ I indicated Reyna and he looked at her quizzically for a moment before returning his attention back to me, “alive in the monasteries and in their safe houses, all across the land. I would have your people collect them and take care of them until something permanent can be arranged to safeguard them into adulthood.”
I touched his mind as he spiralled through the meanings and possibilities of what I had just told him. His people were no more fond of the Serein than any other people in the lands, yet his people loved and cared for their children with a passion and a vengeance as was often not the case with others. Then there was the thought of the possibilities of riches to be found, entirely unguarded in the monasteries …
“That’s very true,” I said to him directly at that point and his eyes widened as he realised that I had been reading his thoughts. “There are many things of value which would of course be yours in return for your kindness, labours and expenses this venture would necessarily entail. But there is far, far more than that.”
I linked directly into his mind and showed him the possibility of learning about healing, and stone craft, and metal craft, and about the dept of gratitude and the bonds between the next generation of Serein and what that would entail for his people in the future.
He gasped out loud and swallowed hard as I dropped the link.
“There it is, Orimono Virayan. What is your decision?”
“I will have to inform the elders,” he said, his mind in a whirl at the incredible possibilities of the opportunity I had offered his entire people.
“I know. But Virayan, know that speedy action is of the essence. We do what we can to sustain the children by magic, but time is running out. It has already been a threeday since they were left abandoned.”
He nodded and rose, as did I.
“Lady Isca,” he said, “I cannot speak on behalf of the elders, but I assure that I will personally do what can be done, as will my direct family.”
I nodded and held out my hand to him, once more. The red ruby ring flashed on my finger and he saw it too, but took my hand, shook it firmly, and left in fast, ranging strides.
That was that. I could do no more at this time. I felt a deep sense of relief, for I was as sure as you can be that the travellers’ network would never be able to resist such a proposal, such a bargain. I just hoped they moved fast enough and their lines of communication were as good as common gossip held them to be.
I turned to Reyna and said, “Would you like to come with me to meet my mother?”