For a few days, I was very busy re-building, or rather, re-growing the old house that used to be called Headmans Acre. The Serein children and later, after they had gotten over their initial shock, Demma and the young maid, Dory, watched me in fascination as I grew glass into the windows, created stout structure from rotten wood, and made the stone walls bubble like liquid and fuse the old blocks together so they were seamless and the wind could never penetrate them again. The straw covered roof went through a similar procedure and ended up smooth and hard, like horn in colour and in feel – a little strange but very functional, I thought.
It was easy enough if somewhat tedious but the results were good, especially when I found out to make the glass in different colours and created stained glass effects everywhere, suiting the colours in the windows to the moods of the rooms. We took receipt of coarse linen and I turned it into a good replica of Serein type stain repellent, silky warm/cool fabric for our beds, and taught the children how to change the colours of their tunics and shifts. They picked it up quick enough and the boys figured out how to apply the principle to changing the fabric of the stone walls; I admonished them that it might not be safe and had them confine their efforts to a few surface layers. In the largest of the rooms on the second floor, they created mosaics that looked much like what I had seen on the floor of the Serein halls, in lovely blues, golden oranges and yellows.
The villagers avoided us like the plague, apart from a few nosy children who would slink up close to the outer fence and peer inside, shuddering deliciously and telling each other horror stories of what would happen to them if we might catch them. I featured large in their stories as the wickedest of witches, and it was said that I feasted on the bodies of small children.
Demma and Dory suffered from this greatly. Their friends and families were in the village and would not talk to them any longer; Dory had actually been spat at by an aunt right outside the village inn, for all to see.
The men had returned and with them, terrible stories of the burning of the Serein corpses and the Lord of Darkness himself, dancing madly amidst their burning bodies.
I doubted that version of events somewhat.
Yet, when the evening came and the children went to sleep, I would sit in my room and look out of the multicoloured window towards the peaks in the distance, towards the monastery.
I couldn’t think of – him – or why he had sent me away. I could not think of Sef. I could not think of the future and even less of the past. I would lie down on my bed and make a gentle contact with Orimono Virayan and get his progress report and a great deal about his life beside, but he never knew that. The travellers had set to work with a vengeance, and only the most far flung places needed still to hold on for their dark skinned pony riding rescuers to arrive. In truth, these contacts with Virayan soothed me in a strange way and allowed me to get undressed, take my stone to bed with me, to focus on it entirely and let its gentle waves of blue and green take me away so I would sleep and never think and never dream.
But dream I did, and every night, I dreamed of him.
Sometimes I was running after him across a green landscape and call his name but he would ride too fast and I could not keep up. Sometimes I would find him in some setting, asleep, and I would go to touch him with great gladness and excitement but as soon as I reached out for him, he would be gone, or turn into a charred corpse that fell to dust before my hand ever reached him.
Night after night I would awake and my face and pillow would be wet with tears and still I couldn’t bear to think of him when I was awake, and pushed all thoughts away.
Yet I dreamed again, and we would lie like lovers and he would stab me with a great black sword straight through the heart, and at another time I dreamed that he was chasing me and the children, killing one of us at the time until there was only me left and he would kill me as well.
I knew it was making me sick. I didn’t want to eat any more, and I didn’t want to drink. I drew energy from the stone when necessary and worked my magic in the house, then the dilapidated stables and outbuildings. I spent three days painstakingly creating a fantastic mural from the cobblestones in the yard and when it was finished, I burst out into tears because my mind longed for the repetitive pattern work to keep it from falling into an abyss of desperation.
In the end, Reyna was dispatched as a delegate on behalf of everyone in the house to speak with me.
I felt her coming and I knew well enough why she was coming, but I simply couldn’t stop myself re-creating the entire boundary fence, a post at a time, by interlacing the original strands of the wood in a new way to make a stronger substance that looked fascinating to boot.
“Lady Isca,” the child said after having stood and watched me patiently on many levels for a good long time, “I wish to be of assistance. Will you tell me what ails you so?”
I released the strand of wood I had been holding in my mind and came back into my body. I had been kneeling in the same position since sunup and there was no feeling at all in my legs. My back was in spasms, my stomach hollow and aching and my mind sore and flat.
I glanced into her ever serious eyes and said tiredly, “I appreciate your offer, but there is nothing to be done.”
The girl bit her lip and forced herself to speak on.
“You are making us all sick,” she said, without accusation but just as a simple statement of fact, yet I felt a flash of anger nonetheless.
Coldly, I said to her, “Be away with you. I will be sure to adjust my shielding,” and gave her a mental push of dismissal as well.
The girl flinched as if I had physically struck her and looked at me in surprised horror. She turned on the spot and walked away from me as fast as she could without being seen to run.
As promised, I drew a tight cloak around myself and contained myself within it from that moment forth.
I didn’t want to go to sleep anymore at all, but in the end found a remedy. If I drank enough wine prior to going to bed, my sleep would be leaden and there would be no memory of any dreams.
I used the stone, and the wine, and the endless patterns offered by the space beneath the surfaces of the outside world to forge a new reality for myself, one in which I could continue to breathe yet never think. That was the first order of things, the first commandment. When I gave up contacting Virayan, the enclosure was complete. I remained in my room then, and lived through the stone and inside the patterns that were everywhere and finally the blessed moment came when me ceased to exist altogether and there was, finally, peace all around.
Sometimes I wonder if the coming of the strange children and the young woman we called Lady Isca was the worst thing or the best thing that ever happened to me.
I remember often praying for a change, but such a change as this!
Still, here she was and here were the children, and she was magic herself. The things she could do! Yet she was unhappy and grew more and more so, with every day that passed.
I had the room right above her and I could hear her cry and sob in the night, and I wondered just what had happened to her to make this so, but she never talked about anything beyond the next meal or what work needed to be done, not to me, not to anyone. She stopped eating and took to drinking too much wine, and got to look like a ghost of herself.
She upset the children very badly. They were a strange lot, so sensitive to everything – the sun, the cold, rough clothes, cold water and most especially, to rough voices and rough words. I learned it soon enough that even looking at them and thinking bad of them would make them ill and so me and Dory learned to keep ourselves at least calm, if not merry, when we were around them.
Having the Lady Isca sobbing and crying through the nights and all around the place inside herself in the day played havoc with them, and they had her nightmares in turn. The big girl, Reyna, tried to talk to her about it and things got much better for the children after that, but much worse for Lady Isca herself. She took to her bed and never got up again.
After a day and a night, I went to her room to check if she needed anything. It worried me that I hadn’t heard a thing, not even the usual crying at night.
She was senseless, and very sick, burning up with fever and at the same time, white as a ghost. We didn’t know what to do. We tried to give her some water, and the girl Reyna did what she could with the healing but it wasn’t any good and she cried terribly because she wasn’t any better at it.
She faded more and more, and then, in the middle of the night, a strange man came to the house who terrified the children and scared me and Dory too. We had never seen him before, a great big soldier man he was, all dressed in black, and his face was terrible.
He went up into her room, we did not even try to stop him as we were too scared. I feel guilty about that but at the time, and in the night, and with her dying and the children going crazy, it was all too much for me. I don’t know what he did in there, but he left a short time after and she seemed a little better, breathing more easily when we rushed to check on her once we could be sure he was really gone.
The next day, this old woman came knocking on the door, telling us that she had travelled all through the night and had been told she was to take care of Lady Isca, who was said to be sick.
We talked about it, Dory and me, and it was our guess that she was sent by the soldier man. She said her name was Marani and didn’t half order us around as though she owned the place. To say the truth, we were glad that she was there and we had no longer to worry about what to do for the Lady Isca.
And for another truth, that woman did make her better, in the end.
In amidst the swirling black and white, there was Marani. I was back at Tower Keep and everything was alright again. I was waking up in the stone circle and Marani was wiping my face with a wet cloth. Everything was alright.
Eventually, I came to enough to know that it wasn’t. It was many days before I had the strength to ask her were she had come from, and she replied very guardedly that she had been told to come.
“Did he send you?” I asked her in a whisper and she looked at me with friendly pity and stroked my hair. Her thoughts were overly loud as she made a real effort to be sure that I would hear: I am not to tell you that he sent me.
I let myself sink back into the cushions and closed my eyes. He had known that I was sick and he had sent Marani, the only person in the world who would know me well enough and who would understand, to nurse me.
He was still keeping tracks on me and he didn’t want me to die.
The relief was so enormous that I lost my senses and when I awoke again, it was raining outside and Marani was asleep in a chair by my side, snoring heavily. I nudged her awake with a gentle touching of her mind.
She wiped her eyes and yawned and then saw me watching her with my head turned.
“You awake at last?” she asked and stood up, stretched her back and rotated her neck to free the stiffened muscles. I gave them a little sooth and she smiled and looked at me.
“You did fix my back that night, didn’t you?” she asked and I smiled and managed a small nod.
“Well that alone will get you my undying gratitude,” she said positively and then came over and sat down by the side of my bed. She stroked my hair and looked down at me.
“How are you feeling, young one?” she asked gently.
“Tired,” I answered her. “Worn out.”
“Well it’s little wonder, lying here for days and not eating and drinking properly. Now you stay right here and I’ll go and get that lazy Demma woman to get some soup on the go for you, and some bread too you can dip in. We’ll soon have you up and on your feet again.”
She got up and I watched her waddle from the room and shout down the stairs.
Silently and carefully, Reyna slipped into the room behind her back.
She wasn’t as pale as she had been, nor was she as thin anymore. If it hadn’t been for her enormous too dark brown eyes, she would have looked just like any well turned out daughter of a reasonably rich home, her brown hair caught in a ribbon and her pale blue pinafore dress and bare feet.
She tiptoed up to my bed and looked at me searchingly.
“You’re not going to die?” she asked in a whisper.
I smiled weakly and shook my head. “Not this time, it seems,” I said to her.
“I will go and tell the others right away,” she said and turned to leave. Halfway to the door, she stopped and turned around.
“I am glad you’re not going to die, Lady Isca.” she said quickly, then hurried from the room.
Marani returned. “That little one bothering you, was she?” she asked, looking after the disappearing Reyna and shaking her head.
“No bother,” I said with difficulty, my mouth being as dry as ash.