It took a good week for me to recover to the point where I could get down the stairs and go for a brief walk in the garden. But it took a tenday for me to start talking to Marani at last.
I told her everything that had happened and I cried on her shoulder about how he had dismissed me after all we had been through together as though I was nothing and he hated me.
She had no good advice for me, no suggestions as to what to do, and she didn’t ever understand why I would want to be near him, but she accepted it as given and it was so good to have her there with me I couldn’t find words to express it. The only fear I had constantly with me was that he would recall her and I would have to be alone with my misery once more.
But he did not, and the days of clear autumn became colder, and our household was easy, companionable and happy in its own tranquil way. The villagers had stopped spitting at my servants and Dory had been re-accepted into her family in return for tales of what we were doing up at the farm. I was aware of this but considered it a fair trade in exchange for information about the village and the greater world beyond.
It seemed that renewed unrest had broken out across the land, old blood feuds that had been settled or negotiated after the great war now being challenged once more. In the west, a young prince was gathering an army to revenge himself on a neighbouring group of Lords who had apparently conspired to kill his father during a tournament, although others were saying that he died of natural causes, having been well over 80 years of age and with a fondness for drink to boot.
There was no word about Lucian nor of the Lord of Darkness.
I did get to hear that there was much talk about me living here in such luxury and not even giving my poor family a piece of bread. I considered this for a while, and eventually decided to extent orders with Farmer Mollen to have food sent once a week to my mother’s house as well. They had fed me, after all, for a good many years and although I didn’t feel I owed them anything beyond this, it stilled that one rumour and partially settled at least that one score.
The autumn storms came, and Marani was still with us. She was happy to be here although she missed her own house and seeing her daughter and her grandchildren. I had Farmer Mollen dispatch a good harvest selection to them and Marani was most overcome with joy by that, in spite of the fact that I told her repeatedly that it was the least I could do and would do much more if just for the asking.
It was around that time too that the first villagers started to arrive at our door, asking for healing of their sick. It started with Farmer Mollen’s own youngest child by his fourth wife, who was a boy and sickly since birth. He was much occupied by this when he came by with his food delivery – I think he liked to see for himself what we were doing and so delivered the food himself, rather than sending one of his men, although it was possible that they refused point blank to have contact with the witches, as we were known amongst them.
I offered to help and he accepted with grateful surprise. I wrapped myself in a cloak and entered the village for the very first time since we had arrived which caused much staring but otherwise no unpleasant incidents, and was able to help the child most easily – there was just a single pattern out of place inside his tiny body that caused his heart to beat irregularly and all his other sicknesses flowed from there. I corrected it and also removed all the accumulated symptoms, soothed his mind into a restful sleep and was done in less time than it takes to tack a horse.
This small act of healing changed everything for all of us.
We turned from witches into holy folk, and were beleaguered with sick people from thereon in.
It wasn’t a problem and in fact I was glad to have some use for my talents. I had both Reyna and the two boys, Jilean and Taray, be in link with me whilst I did the healings so they would learn the patterns. They did so, very rapidly, and practised what they had learned on their own on wildlife and farm animals unbeknown to their owners who thought it a strange blessing that their beasts seemed to be healing of sores and lameness of all sorts.
One day, I invited Marani to try the healing link and she was dismayed, astonished and yet utterly fascinated at the idea. She stoutly refused to believe that she could ever learn, but eventually said that she wouldn’t mind just watching, and I took her into a light link whilst I mended the devastation an infection had caused in the body of an old man.
She was overcome by the experience and couldn’t stop talking about it for days. A week later, and she asked me sheepishly if I really thought she could learn to do this by herself. I saw no reason why she could not and in fact the healing itself was no problem, for once you could see the patterns it was self explanatory where they were broken and needed mending, the thing she couldn’t do was to drop into the patterns without my help.
Clearly, she needed her own singing stone and I considered various options of acquiring one for her. Eventually, I called Virayan and he found a whole sack full amongst his people and had it sent round by a reverent traveller family in a beautifully painted wagon. Amongst the large family that ate with us that day was one very pale skinned golden haired girl who spoke their language well and addressed the big traveller woman as “mother”.
Marani chose a tiny little stone, no bigger than a thumb and longer than wide, and bonded it with my help. After that, she changed subtly, day by day, until she was a very different person altogether, as though the stone had given her a something she had been missing her entire life. After that, she could also heal most things on her own as long as they were not too far gone, although she refused to learn anything else, not even how to light a fire without the misery of flints and kindling.
All through that time I kept my thoughts entirely on things of the household, things that I could see and touch with my hands and with my mind. I slept well and hardly ever remembered what I dreamed about. There were places in my mind that I would not enter or even glance in their direction, keeping myself confined to a small circle of routine and safety and pretty patterns.
Sometimes I would explore the new world the Serein children had revealed to me, which lay beyond or above the pattern world I inhabited by choice, and where things were far more complicated and much further removed from the hard, as they called waking reality of living, with food, drink and stone walls for shelter against the rain and storms.
I learned that you could make changes to the hard from the Serein world, but that it was a most difficult, difficult thing, made more so because there was a time lag between changes at that level, and any repercussions it would have on the hard. I found it also unpredictable and couldn’t seem to work out just what the relationship actually was between these superfine elusive strands and the patterns of my world, which lay in between Serein and the hard and I was never really sure what the outcome would be if I worked with them. It hurt my head to do so and was such an effort that I left these experiments to sleepless moments, late at night, when I needed something to tire my mind.
It explained a lot, such as why the Serein would take 25 years to train a healer who could close a simple wound, something which even little Vona, the tiny girl with the bones and voice of a small bird and a mind like a giant sponge that wanted to know, see, eat, touch and experience everything preferably by yesterday, could manage with more ease than she could comb her own hair.
I found it very puzzling as to why that would be. The kind of pattern control I used was obviously a very useful thing indeed, and I could not see why anyone would want to turn their backs on such skills, as the Serein had obviously done, and done for a very long time.
The first snows fell and we awoke one morning to a beautifully changed world all around us. The children were absolutely delighted and ate the stuff, rolled around in it and scattered it high, watching the low golden white winter sun catch it and set it into diamond against a flawless blue winter sky.
Marani and I watched them from the dining room windows and kept their body temperatures adjusted whilst they played, until their joy had created a resonance of such intense sadness in me that I couldn’t stand it anymore and had to leave and sit in my room with my stone until Marani had called them back inside and their joy had been muted to the residue of having had a wonderful experience dancing between them.
I felt sorry for the small boy, Cyno. He loved me with a vengeance and I couldn’t bear to look at him, never mind address him. He knew this well enough and kept his distance but his love for me never wavered, and neither did his desire to be close to me. I knew too well that I was doing a terrible thing to this child because it became apparent that he had resolved that he must have done something so unforgivable but he didn’t know what it was, and sometimes I caught a feeling from him that it wasn’t something he’d done at all, but something that he was, that was stamped onto his very soul and which made me hate him so unbearably.
Many a time, all through the autumn and beginning of winter, I tried to make myself ease his suffering somehow, but he was outside my circle of safety and I simply could not even turn and look in his direction without beginning to undo my very self again. It was simply more than I could bear, and defeated, time and time again, I retreated back to my safety and the next day, ignored him anew.
As we were approaching the midwinter festival season, the storms were howling outside and the snow had become a living monster, extinguishing life wherever it could. There was no more travel, no more news and everywhere people were reliant on what they had stored up, in the way of strength, good humour, as well as their actual roots and salted meats.
Our house was a fairyland. I had created another set of windows, thick and pure, to cover the stained glass windows that had admitted the cold. I had sealed the cracks and changed the inside layers of stone to a whole new substance that was milky white and that the cold could not penetrate. The fires in the house were all of the magic variety, for this allowed us to control their colour and the amount of heat they gave with absolute precision and of course, they didn’t smoke.
We had all the food we needed, and when the goldenfruit began to go limp and wrinkly in the cellar, the children took turns to revive them so they were as fresh and new as though they had only just been picked.
As there was little to do, I taught everyone how to read and write. Poor Dory had a terrible time of it, not because her mind was any worse than anybody else’s but because of the blocks she had set into her own way. She would look down at a symbol and not see it the way it was, but hallucinate it out into some kind of evil crawling spider that kept changing shape. Reyna took much time with her and learned in the process how to soothe such patterns; I could have seen to it in the wink of an eye but Reyna’s incredibly careful and gentle approach was probably just what Dory needed to gain her confidence on the subject. Reyna learned in return that sometimes you have to push a little to get things done, and her mental work became much more focussed and confident in return as well.
At nighttimes, we would set small coloured fire creatures to rush around in the black dark outside, have them dance in patterns and sometimes, chase snowflakes and melt them in mid air where they froze into teardrop shapes as soon as the fires moved on.
We played games where we tried to move things and push them with our minds, lift them and float them, stack up impossible constructions until they collapsed and the children would clap delightedly. Only Cyno didn’t play much and kept himself to himself mostly, but he loved to play with the coloured fires.
I often offered Demma the chance to take part, but she always shook her head resolutely and refused to open her mind to any of it, not even when she saw Marani’s healing and Dory’s writing taking shape. She was happy to be with us and to cook for us, so I left her be.
Just before the mid winter festival, one night when storms stood sideways and send great clouds of fine distorted snow rushing at the window barriers, there was a heavy banging on the door.
We were in the middle of a game that involved changing a piece of wood into different structures and in the middle of laughing because Marani’s attempt had created a pool of oozing slime where the wood had been that seemed to burn into the rug below, and everyone rushed to the door at once to check the disturbance, me holding back because I could feel a desperate stranger.
The door was opened to the black and whirling white outside and through the doorframe pushed a tall, bearded soldier with his hair and shoulders covered in frozen snow, his eyes rimmed red and staring, carrying in his arms, the corpse of a man who must have been dead for hours, his arm locked around the bearded man’s neck which gave the illusion he was still clinging on to him.
The soldier stumbled heavily into the hallway, trembling with exhaustion and could not speak. I indicated him to follow me up the stairs and he did, at the end of his strength and resolution, carrying the other with a desperation and in spite of the dead pain in his arms and shoulders.
I led the way to my room and laid back the covers.
The soldier’s legs buckled into a kneeling position as he laid the dead man onto the bed, and as he did so I reached into the dead man’s patterns and unlocked his limbs so they fell loosely from his comrade’s shoulders and his long legs stretched out easily.
There was a large gaping hole in the dead man’s stomach, old enough for the blood to have dried, frozen and congealed.
I gently pulled the white Serein blanket and covered him up to the neck and looked down at what had been a very dark skinned man in his prime, a well cut face with a straight strong nose, long black lashes and softly curling black hair where ice and snow were now melting and glistened like tiny stars.
He looked most peaceful, and it seemed to me that he had the gentlest touch of smile on his lips, dying as he did somewhere out in the black storm of the frozen night, in his brother-in-arms strong embrace. It struck me that that was not a bad way to go.
The warrior gave a sob-like sigh and sought and found the dead man’s cold hand under the sheet, pulled it out and held it with both hands, dropping his forehead to it.
He began to speak in a hoarse whisper, low and urgent, “We’ve made it, I told you I would get you here. I told you to hold on. We made it now. Now they’ll take care of you and you’ll be right again, just you see.”
I stood and looked down at his head, black wet leather helmet with strands of blond hair escaping here and there, melting, dripping, his coarse cloak spread behind him like the wings of a broken bird.
I touched him gently on the shoulder and spoke into his desperate mind, Here, sit in this chair. Take your cloak off and I will bring you something to eat and drink.
He just shook his head and didn’t move, kneeling by the side of the bed, his head on the dead man’s hand, utterly exhausted and at the end of his journey, at the end of his road.
I left him be and softly closed the door behind me on my way out. Everyone was clustered in the hallway, and the children were crying.
I gathered them in the big family room and Reyna asked me, “How does he not know his friend is dead? Is he mad?”
“Yes, I guess he is that,” I answered her slowly, for this man’s pain was stirring things at the edges of my awareness and I would not, could not allow these to come to me.
“Let us sit and get our stones and gentle him,” I suggested, turning with force to practicalities.
We sat in a circle on the thick rug before the fire place, everyone apart from Demma who excused herself with the necessity of getting a broth on the go in case he needed it, and Marani, Reyna and I brought forth our stones. We dropped into an easy link, and even Cyno was not rejected by me this night so he hovered cautiously and in extreme gratitude at the edges of our communal awareness.
I let Reyna lead us as we eased in on his tortured mind and tortured body, and there was a part of him who knew full well the exact moment when his friend had left him, and had not been able to stand it and had to shut it out just as I shut out what I could not face within myself.
I let myself drop out of the link – it was too much to bear for me. The others would know enough to soothe him, sleep him, dry him and ease him best they could.
Beyond this, we did not intrude on him in person. I did not sleep that night for I did not dare to relax my focus and kept vigil, and when he awoke in the morning he knew what had come to pass, and although he could not accept it and the fires of guilt and agony were ravaging his mind and body, he was no longer mad.
When the pale winter sun sat as high as it could go on the low horizon, he came down the stairs, carrying his brother as he had arrived, and we opened the door for him so he could walk out into the thick, deep snow that lay in beautiful waves like a frozen ocean. He pushed his way through our yard and struggling, half falling, towards a small copse of trees in the angle where our drive met the road above. He laid down the body with exquisite gentleness into the deep white and began to dig at the snow with his hands, then with his sword, and I went out to him, through the thick dry snow, following in his footsteps and stood by his side.
He knew I was there but would not show me his face for it was wet with tears that a man such as he should not be crying. Gently I reached to him and took the sword from his red and frozen hand, and laid it aside.
I reached into the snow in front of me, and through it into the frozen ground, melting away the water and then the very earth and sand and stone itself until there was a dark hole, deep, black, and it was large enough to take the man’s body.
As though he had clearly heard me, the warrior said, “His name was Ty Sidra. My brother-in-arms.”
“Ty Sidra.” I repeated, the words painful in my throat and hard across my lips in a sigh of white in the frozen air.
I lifted Ty Sidra very carefully, so that his body remained entirely straight and true, floated him across to the grave and held him there to allow the final farewell.
The warrior stood motionless for a time, tears streaking down his face. He picked up the sword, stepped closer and balanced it carefully on the shrouded dead man’s chest.
“A braver man never …” his voice broke and he could not speak. As carefully and gently as I could, I lowered the white shape into the ground, deeply, until it settled on the bottom and when I released it, seemed to snuggle into the ground like a sleeper finds the most comfortable position.
I moved my hands gently in time to the edges of the grave began to waver like the horizon on a hot summer’s day, and as the dark earth closed in around the shrouded shape, voiced a benediction that came to me from nowhere:
“May you sleep and rest, and may your spirit rise refreshed and knowing that you did well in this life, and that you left behind those who admired you and loved you.”
I made the snow move to cover over the earth that had been disturbed and then there was only a smooth white, just the same as all the other white around, in front of the three black bare trees with their gentle load of frozen snows and tiny icicles that caught the winter sun behind our backs and made our shadows turn blue on the ground.
I remained by his side for as long as it took for him to become aware of the deep, bone crunching cold that had long crept through the thin leather soles of his riding boots and moved up to his knees and then into his thighs.
He could not reconcile his memories of the man Ty Sidra with the silence and the white and in the end, I moved in front of his desperate eyes and held out my arms to him lightly, and the tall man wrapped himself around me and cried until my shoulder was wet and cold with his tears.
I soothed him very gently and with much respect for his grief was his right and not to be trifled with by anyone. Finally, he was ready to have me lead him back to the house.
On the doorstep, he hesitated and tried to say something to me but his voice would not let him speak.
I send him a small and respectful understanding that widened his eyes momentarily, took him by the hand and led him back into his life, and our household.