That was how Chay Catena came to us, and it simply happened that he stayed.
That very evening, a blizzard set in and it lasted for well over a tenday. Movement outside was out of the question, and it forced Chay Catena to come to terms with his grief and terrifying guilt because there was nothing else left to do.
I was strangely comfortable in his presence, and he in mine. I understood him and there was no need for him to tell me that his brother-in-arms had been everything to him, his strength, his family, his home, none of which he had ever known outside of having Ty Sidra by his side. I understood why he could not let go of the fact that he had promised Ty that he would bring him to the healer women and then had sworn he would save his life and that all would be well.
During the blizzard, I sat with him and sometimes, I would hold him like you hold a brother. We said very little and I did very little, although it often occurred to me that I could simply take all his pain away with nothing more than a few adjustments here, a few memories dispersed there. But beyond a gentle soothing, I did nothing and his grief took its own course.
He tried to say numerous times what it meant to him to have me there during those dark hours but could not find the words but eventually I made him understand that it was alright and slowly, slowly he began to heal on his own accord.
One day, when his frost burns had mostly healed and leaving just pale pink fading patches, he shaved his face and cut his hair with his hunting knife and beneath it all there was a very handsome young man, if it hadn’t been for his blue eyes that carried a shadow and a knowing. This lightened sometimes when he watched the children play and I also saw this when he watched Dory go about her business, bending down and picking up objects from the floor, or stretching and reaching to put them up on the shelves again.
She was crazy about him right from the start.
Living here with all us women, Dory was the only one who seriously missed the lack of male company. She was 17 years old and lively by nature; it was her one big worry that she would end up like Demma and Marani instead of having a husband, a house, and children of her own.
She shone when Chay was around and would blush continuously, keeping her eyes to the ground and when he wasn’t looking, gazing at him with rapt attention.
Chay was not unaware of this and he would often make a point of being the last to rise from the dinner table, toying with a remnant of food to have an excuse to be with Dory as she flitted around the kitchen.
I watched them with a mixture of amusement and an ever-growing pain and bitterness.
They played at the courtship game, the rules coming so naturally to them both, like the elegant dance of the large birds by the village pond in the autumn sunshine. Their glances now sometimes met, and their bodies moved with an ebb and flow, a give and take when they were around each other, in ever decreasing circles towards a certain outcome.
The children giggled about them, Demma tutted but said nothing beyond that, Marani smiled wistfully in memory of her own exploits to this end, and I could no longer stand to be in the same room with them.
We had set a time and day for the midwinter celebrations and there was much excitement of one kind and another in the house, small magical gifts, surprises and a feast prepared. Chay fashioned a simple harp and this delighted the children – and Dory – unspeakably, and he taught them all the least rude of his soldier’s songs. There was laughter, and excitement and I, I got to feeling more and more pain and took to walking in the dark and snow, safely protected and warm in a sphere or protection, or I sat in my room and would play with patterns or simply drown myself in the green and blue of my stone.
I never touched wine these days.
That night, I walked from the brightly lit house with a sigh of relief and into the still, cold night.
It was snowing softly, big huge flakes that fell and fluttered like moths, yet there were stars too far above and small and white in the endless sky.
I walked to the trees that marked Ty Sidra’s grave and wished myself into the embrace of dark and silence he had found there. I’d never known the man, but he had taken on a life as though he was an old friend of mine, a stout comrade who had stood by my side in the deepest hells of battle.
Behind me, the lights in the house shone brightly, multicoloured through the stained glass windows, throwing huge halos around each other and merging with each other as my eyes began to fill with tears.
I knelt by the side of the grave, sinking deeply into the softness of the white and finally started to speak, my voice drifting softly amidst the dancing snow.
“Ty Sidra, my friend, here we are, you and I. I hope you don’t mind that I come here to you tonight, and speak with you, for I don’t know who else to talk to, who else might listen or who else might understand.”
The silence that responded to my words resonated with the answer that I could not look at.
There was just one who might understand. Who would understand. There was just one in all the world and in all the times spent, there was just the one.
But he did not listen.
He had sent me away.
And I could now not say or even think is name.
I let myself stretch and ease into the snow fully and then removed the shielding.
Instantly, the icy night assailed me from above and the freezing ground from below fell in all around me and caught my breath in my throat. It was beautiful. I welcomed it hungrily and burrowed closer into the soft, fine snow, laying my hot face against it as though it was a lover’s chest. I extended myself outwards with my mind and merged into the wonderful patterns, frozen and superb, a place where there was no pain and no more running from it, such perfection, such stillness, such completeness for which I hungered with my heart and soul.
There was a heavy disturbance, all levels, upheaval, distortion and was back in my body, shaking from head to foot, and a hand on my shoulder, shaking me, then two hands on my arms, lifting me from the snow.
Chay Catena said, “Lady, what are you doing?” and I looked up at him and this time it was me, crying like a child whilst he knelt in the snow, rocking me in a deep embrace.
He tried to take me back to the house but I send him a negation, so he settled himself down, wrapping his rough soldier’s cloak about the both of us and waiting patiently for me to show him what I wanted, what I needed.
What I needed. I cried floods and he asked me if it was his fault, if he had upset me, if I wanted him to leave.
I couldn’t answer him but kept on crying and he fell silent and just held me until I couldn’t cry anymore, snuggled into his warmth and his arms around me that were his arms and not where I wanted to be, needed to be, couldn’t go on without being.
Chay spoke into my thoughts, “When Ty had died, I thought I couldn’t go on without him. But you helped me through it, you gave me a place in your home, and you stayed with me. And now I know that I can go on, and that Ty would even want me to. Hell, if he was here right now, he’d laugh and say, lots of time for regrets when you’re six foot under.”
He fell silent for a moment, then continued, his voice rougher but intent. “I don’t know what happened to you, my lady. I don’t know what it was that broke your heart, but you can go on too. You are the most – “ he broke off, searching for the right word, “the most amazing woman - living, person, I have ever met, and you should know that I owe you everything, and whatever I can do to help, I will. In the name of the creator, I will.”
Without volition, I said the words:
“It is the hardest thing of all, the one thing that will show if you have the one true courage. To know that you have failed, that your best efforts have been defeated, to not be able to stand it, to not be able to go on and yet to go on nonetheless.”
Chay took a deep sighing breath. “Yeah that’s true. Who told you that?”
And I whispered into the darkness,
“Lucian. Lucian told me.”
Gently, Chay asked, “Was he your lover?”
I shook my head against his shirt.
“He is my love.”
“Did he – die?”
“He sent me away.” I said it and then sighed deeply, so deeply the sigh nearly turned into a yawn. There. I had said it out loud. I had spoken the truth out loud and the world had not stopped, the sky had not fallen. I felt a hugely disproportionate sense of relief. Nothing had changed, but just having said it to Chay had taken a burden from me I never even knew I was carrying.
“Does he love another?” Chay said it very gently and carefully as not to upset me, and then added when I didn’t respond right away, “for if he does, he is a fool and never worthy of your love.”
“I’m not sure if he loves at all,” I replied sadly and became aware of how cold Chay was, sitting there in the snow that was melting around his bottom and legs, soaking his trousers freezing cold.
We should go back inside, I thought, and then became aware of how very much I wanted to tell someone, talk to someone, have someone listen and ask these questions in return, how much I needed to start on the road into that country I dare not enter by myself. I was too afraid. I was too weak. I couldn’t do it alone.
“Chay,” I said and it hurt to say but my need was so great I could not back away now, “Chay would you sit with me this night?”
He tightened his embrace of me reflexively. “Of course I would,” he said. “Of course I will. This night, and any night.”
We untangled and rose stiffly. The house was too bright, too noisy and full of questioning eyes and minds but they knew better than to intrude on me at any time so no-one said a thing and those who could shielded themselves as Chay and I retired to the library room.
I send to Marani to bring two bottles of wine and when she had retired, we drank silently, across from each other, with a magical fire in the hearth and it felt nearly right if only the wrong man was in the chair across from me.
I didn’t know how to begin or what to say to a one such as Chay who knew nothing of patterns, or damnation. He waited silently, taking a drink from his wine now and then, and when the house had grown quite silent about us as the women and children began to dream in their beds, I finally said,
“The first time I saw him I thought he was old. He was old and had white hair. He was big and dressed in black and his eyes were pale and had such fire in them as I never saw. I never knew I could love like that.”
Chay had remained very still throughout my words, like one who sits in wait and watches a deer, afraid his smallest move will make it bolt and run away, never to be seen again.
I reached for my wine glass and the ruby on my hand flashed in the fire’s shine. Chay saw it too.
“Is that – his – ring you are wearing still?” he asked carefully.
I looked down at my hand and wondered as to that question. It wasn’t strictly his ring. His ring was still somewhere, on his own hand, flashing in response to a fire he might be sitting in front of right now, with a glass in his hand just the same. This was not his ring. This one was mine. I had earned it, had earned the right to wear this ring in a way that was profoundly not like a bride would wear her intended’s gift or pledge of troth. Chay would not understand this and there wasn’t enough time in the world to make him understand.
Sighing deeply, I said, “He gave it to me.”
Chay’s eyes were fixed on the ancient ruby and I could feel him calculating its value and trying to come to an understanding as to what kind of man would give a gift of such worth and then send away a one like me.
“He was of high birth?” he enquired eventually.
I half shook my head and felt a half smile. Lucian of high birth. It had really never occurred to me as such although it was right there in his title. I had to shake my head again. It was there in both of his titles. I had tried to lie with a Lord. Me. Commoner Isca. It was inconceivable really, when you looked at it from this angle.
“He is a lord,” I said and I could hear my feeble voice die at the end of the short statement.
Chay raised both eyebrows and looked at me questioningly.
“A lord? Lord Lucian? What is his full name? I can’t remember a Lord Lucian? It is an unusual enough name, and who would name their son after …”
He stopped in mid sentence and then I could feel him explode inwardly with the realisation. His eyes widened and his mouth dropped open.
Swallowing rapidly, he said, “You surely cannot be talking about the Lord Lucian Tremain?”
I cradled my left hand and looked down at the dancing ruby on my middle finger, consciously aware of it and letting it fill my awareness for the very first time since I left Meyon Heights that morning.
“The Lord Lucian Tremain.” I said softly, stroking each word with my breath, my tongue and my lips as I spoke them.
Across the room from me, Chay Catena fought desperately for self control. I didn’t track him closely and just waited until he had regained some semblance of equilibrium.
“You – “ he whispered, with a look of pure horror on his handsome face, “you were lover to the Lord Of Darkness?”
I shook my head sadly and sighed deeply, letting my index finger contact lightly the surface of the oval smooth ruby and moving it around in a small circle.
“Never his lover. He would not take me, for all my efforts.”
Silence sat in the room, bar the light static crackling of the magical fire.
“Can you still be my friend, Chay Catena?” I asked of him and did not expect how difficult it would be for him to answer in the positive.
He stared at me as though he had never seen me before.
“I don’t know,” he said and shook his head, desperately torn between loyalty and this new information which he could simply not reconcile. Eventually, he had to ask me, “How can you love the Dark Lord? Don’t you know what he is, what he has done, what he does?”
I looked steadily into his blue eyes and answered honestly and without any mental pushing or persuading.
“Lucian is a man. What he has done, and what he does, is in the end between him and the creator and not for me to judge.”
“No,” said Chay, shaking his head strongly, “No, no. No you can’t say that. He’s no man. He is a demon made flesh, a monster …”
“Wait,” I said and interrupted him with a hand raised. “I am not here to defend him. That is not for me, as I said. And he might be a monster, whatever that means, but he is no demon. He breathes and bleeds like you and I do.”
Chay shook his head again, and had to get up, no longer able to contain himself.
“Lady Isca, please forgive me for speaking my mind but I have to say this to you – he has you bewitched, bedevilled, placed under some sort of charm. The Dark Lord is no man. No man can …”
“… be that cruel?” I finished his sentence for him, “Oh come on Chay Catena, you are a soldier. You have seen cruelty, I wager, perpetrated by men upon men, well enough, without calling in the demons to have an excuse for what men do to each other.”
“No,” he said again. “No, no you don’t understand. The – things – the Dark Lord brings upon people, they are not …”
I got up too now and faced him squarely.
“… not what? Not in any man’s repertoire? Not in a man’s mind, in their nightmares? You tell me what Lucian does that does not happen in battle, when a city is ransacked, when the enemy is tortured and their wives and children made sport of viciously.”
Chay stared at me, eyes wide open and said, helplessly, “He feasts on babies.”
I shook my head and suppressed a tired laugh.
“He doesn’t feast at all, Chay Catena. Fruit and cheese and meat. Plainer fare than you would find in a poor man’s house.”
“He lied to you.” said Chay, sticking firm to his belief that Lucian feasted on babies.
For the first time, the very first time in many moons, I allowed myself to access the memories I was still carrying with me, heavy and deep and dense within me. I asked the memories for the truth of the matter and obediently, a memory arose, of a roasted baby, like a suckling pig on a platter, served to his father and mother at Lucian’s table.
No-one had eaten of it, naturally.
That had not been the point of the exercise.
I shook my head tiredly.
There was no merit in explaining the differences between roasting a baby and serving it on a platter to break a political opponents moral spine, as opposed to doing this in order to experience a new and unusual delicacy.
Perhaps there wasn’t much difference, in the end, as to why the terrible thing had been done. What’s done is done. I shook my head again. It wasn’t much of an excuse or even an explanation. What’s done is done.
“Lucian can’t lie to me, Chay,” I said tiredly. “I carry his memories.”
His eyes narrowed and he put his head to one side.
“His memories?” he said, uncomprehendingly.
“Yes. His memories. All his memories. Up until the point when it happened, this spring.” But oh my god it seemed a thousand lifetimes ago.
Chay picked up the bottle of wine and instead of pouring it into a glass, drank straight from the bottle. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and sat down heavily in the chair again, his elbows on his knees spread apart wide and dangling the bottle by the neck.
“Why did he do that to you?” he asked, not understanding any of this, yet both fascinated now and still bound by his promise to me to help me spend the night.
“He couldn’t help it. I was sick and he tried to save my life. In order to do this, we had to become – merged. And I ended up with his memories and he ended up with mine. It was an accident that neither of us really wanted, at the time.”
“How do you live with that?” Chay said in a whisper and I had to smile in pain.
“I shut them out. It is hard and harder each day that passes. But the hardest thing of all is that he sent me away. I must have displeased him so.” I sighed deeply.
Chay kept shaking his head. “I can’t imagine what you are saying. The Dark Lord trying to save your life. He kills to keep himself alive and drinks virgin’s blood.”
“He drinks red wine,” I said and picked up my glass and swirled it by the stem, to make the contents go around first one way, then another. This movement was his, not mine. It comforted me strangely.
“It can’t all be untrue,” Chay said uncertainly now, his firmly held truths beginning to crumble at the foundations. “No-one says such things about anyone if there wasn’t a reason somewhere.”
“Without fire, there’s no smoke.” I sighed deeply. “Lucian has done things and ordered things to be done that are probably worse than the rumours about him. That’s certainly true. He also has had far more time to do more of these things than mortal men, unprotected by Serein witchery, that is. I also believe that he might have fuelled the rumours deliberately, because the more afraid his enemies are of him, the easier they are to vanquish.”
Chay nodded at that. “Yeah,” he said, “That’s well enough used as a strategy, from bar room brawlers to the headmen of the ranks. They are afraid of you and half your work’s already done before the first blow is ever struck.” He took another swig from the bottle, wiped his mouth again and went on to say, “But that still doesn’t explain why anyone would fancy to love such a one, even if only the smallest part of what is said about him, is true.”
I sighed deeply. It was the crux of the matter.
“I don’t know why I love him, or why I only live when I am near him. I don’t know why I am incomplete without him, I just know that it is so. Perhaps, some day a man will come and he will judge Lucian, and that will be his duty. For me, it is to love him, and I don’t know what else I can do.”
Chay played with the now empty bottle in his hands, then looked up at me and a smile came across his face. He had an extraordinary smile, like the sun came from behind the clouds. It lit up his face entirely and made him look boyish, charming and quite irresistible.
“Well,” he said, “if you feel like that, what are you doing here, hiding yourself away? I always thought you women folk had your way to get your way with us, if you put yourself to it.” He grimaced . “If you’re right about the Dark Lord being a man, that is …” and shook his head once more.
I stared at him and swallowed hard as an understanding came to me in response to his words. I hadn’t really tried very hard to change Lucian’s mind. In fact, I hadn’t tried at all. Yes, he had surprised me and hurt me deeply with his rejection and hardness. But I had not put my best efforts into discovering what had transpired between the night and the morning, I had not demanded an explanation, had not stood up to him in any way.
The answer was unfortunate, painful yet clear. He had not done this alone, but I had aided him in our separation, played along and left out of my own free will. Even struck as I had been on the mountain top, I had known then that he would not, could never, kill me. Even if he wanted to, he physically could not hurt me unless I allowed it to happen. In a direct conflict with me, he couldn’t win. He simply wasn’t flexible enough in the navigation and understanding of the patterns that were second nature to me as though I had been born with their knowledge and remembrance.
I had left him as surely as he had told me to go.
“You’re right, Chay,” I said in a whisper. “I just walked away and decided to feel terribly sorry for myself and terribly abandoned and terribly guilty and terribly helpless.”
He reached across to me and patted me on the knee. “We all do stupid things, sometimes.” he said in a sweet and innocent attempt at consolation and support which touched me more than he would ever know.
“You’re a good man.” I said to him, and he blushed – he actually blushed! – and drew back deeper into his own seat. “I am very, very grateful to you for …” and there, the words ran out. For being the right person at the right time to have said the right words so I would finally come to face what the real truth of the situation was? How do you thank someone for that?
Before he had a chance to say something, I got up and walked across to him. I lightly touched him on the shoulder and said, “I thank you sincerely, Chay Catena. Perhaps the creator himself had a hand in it when he directed you to me. Know that my house will always be your house.” and the thought tacked on the end was, and if you wish to lay with Dory, you have my blessings.
He caught my hand and kissed it like a reverend gentleman. Half way through the touch of his lips hot on the back of my hand, he raised his eyes to me and looked at me deeply. But my, this one was so easy to love, I thought, and a deep sigh of regret went through my entire body. I smiled down into his deep blue eyes, recovered my hand and left him behind as I went to my room to sit at the writing desk and looked out into the dark night beyond.
It was time to take down the barriers. It was time for me to take a deep, close look at everything that I was, that Lucian was, that we were when we were together. It was time to decide whether I would choose to love him, or to choose to really walk away this time, for good, without regrets.