Wet on my face, hands on my shoulders, Marani’s voice, urgently.
“Young one, wake up. It is time.”
Reluctantly I untangled myself from the memories. What I was witnessing - living - had taken place many lifetimes ago and yet it was as bright and real as anything I felt and saw around me now, perhaps even more so. Lucian’s images had always been clearer, sharper, tighter than my own.
“Isca, wake up. Come on, wake up. It is time for dinner.”
I blew out a breath through my pursed lips and got up from the bed.
How much time had passed?
If she was here, then it must have been a number of hours.
I made myself look at her and centre to her. She was concerned for me, and did not like whatever it was that I was doing.
“You should come down to the kitchen to eat something,” she suggested, urging me to leave the room and get in touch with this reality we shared at this time.
There were so many others, it was beginning hard to tell what was what, and which was which.
I wished I was at Tower Keep and I could take a bath in the tiled pool. And lay and have this memories come to me on his bed, upon his tapestry, the only rightful place to do this work.
Marani tutted and put her hand on my arm, half squeezing, half shaking me gently.
“Now come on, wake up properly and let’s go,” she said in a half hearted attempt at taking cheerful charge of me, but it was good enough to cause a small smile and I shook my head to clear the thoughts and followed her down the stairs and into the kitchen.
Mercifully, the children were elsewhere and there was just Demma, resting at the table with her head supported in her hands.. From the layout of the dishes and the state of the hearth, I deduced that it must be afternoon, the light already fading fast.
I sat beside Demma who made to rise but Marani had her sit down again and served me herself instead. I wasn’t hungry but thought I’d better drink something so I poured a glass of water. It tasted awful, metallic, hard, hurting my throat as though I was swallowing metal shards.
I put the glass back down on the table and said resonantly, “God damn you woman, bring me wine. You know I can’t abide this swill.”
Demma sat up stock straight and there was a resounding crash as Marani dropped the platter of bread and small morsels she was just about to set down on the table from too great a height.
Into the profound silence that sat in the kitchen, and into Marani’s horrified eyes, I said lamely in my own voice, “I’m sorry Marani …” letting the sentence drift away helplessly.
Marani whispered, never taking her eyes off me, “You are doing his memories, aren’t you. That’s what you are doing up there. That’s why all the protection …”
Demma looked from one to the other and didn’t understand what we were talking about. This had happened to her many times before and she deeply resented feeling left out and not in our confidence.
I reached for a piece of cheese that had rolled across the table and put it in my mouth. It tasted dry and like I was chewing on earth and straw. I went through the motions of eating it and swallowed it without a thought.
Marani was re-assembling the food with shaking hands, then picked up what had fallen on the floor.
Demma got up and nervously asked me, “Do you still want me to bring you some wine?” I fixed her in my gaze and saw her drawing in and back.
“Bring it,” I said and turned my attention back to the food.
In utter silence, I ate. Everything tasted the same, exactly the same, and everything had the texture of earth and straw. Everything was dry as dust in my mouth and it didn’t matter. I ate methodically until Demma arrived with the wine and I swirled it briefly in the glass before taking a deep drink. This alone was moisture, gentling inside my mouth, easing the dryness, filling me with life, easing the dull ache of the food in my stomach.
From the corner of my eye, I could see Demma twitching on the spot.
“Leave,” I commanded her and experienced a small sense of relief as she did.
Marani stood before the table, her eyes wide and scared. I looked at her closely. I remembered her when she was a young woman. She had been beautiful in an animal sort of way, unconscious of her beauty, moving easily and her big breasts bouncing. She had followed with the army to be with her man and he had taken a lance to the throat in one of the untidy skirmishes that had followed the clean up operations after the Battle Of Epille had been fought and won and lost, depending where you stood at the time. I sometimes used to wander about the battlefields and amongst the troops, wrapped tight in a brown cloak, trying to re-capture something that eluded me, had eluded me for many years now.
I saw her scraping at the stony ground to dig a grave for her man, her simple mind filled with a purity of grief like that of a dog when their master has died. I decided to take her. My last housekeeper had died some years previously and it was hard to find a one that did not excite me or appall me, both equally deadly and not useful in the context of having someone around long term who would learn to know how to organize things to my satisfaction.
She was with child and I decided to let her keep it. For now, at least. I ordered her to finish up and come to my tent with her belongings in the morning.
The memory receded, leaving Marani with tears now running down her wrinkly cheeks, dimmed against the darkening light of the short winter day.
“You are becoming – him,” she said with reproach and a terrible sadness.
I gazed at her steadily. She loved him just as much as I did, more so perhaps, because she was not given to doubt and that quality of purity I had first seen in her on that battlefield all those years ago was still with her, a part of her, woven into her very being. I had often wondered what had made that so. It was that quality that had kept her alive, both her and her child, even when things very nearly got out of hand.
The truth was, she would gladly die for him. I put my head slightly to one side and considered what would happen if she ever realised that.
She spoke into my thoughts again, “By the holy creator, you even look like him. Oh young one, what have you done?”
I leaned back in my chair with a deep sigh and swirled the wine prior to taking another slow and luxurious taste of it.
“Tell me about your husband, Marani,” I said. “Tell me about your child. Tell me about what it has been like all these years to serve Lucian as you have. I’d really like to know.”
She sat down then, and hesitantly at first, then with gathering intensity as one memory after the other crowded to her for attention and mention, told me many things as the light failed into a soft blue black darkness, and then an entire darkness that I relieved with a single small candle flame on the table between us. I tracked her words and tracked her mind, and gained a further perspective on myself, no, on Lucian, one which he would have never thought to seek or wanted to acquire.
It had been nearly 60 years, and in this time the one strand of development that was gathering speed and momentum was his unpredictability. In the beginning, he had sought a tight routine and in all he was doing, had a way of doing things. Slowly, this began to break down, and the steadiness she had found became a world of uncertainty and constant fear. When he killed his last apprentice within two days of the boy’s arrival, she knew that soon, time was running out and what had been held together in some order for all those years had unravelled beyond the point of no return. It was then that he took up residence at Tower Keep, burying himself in the study of old books and seeing no-one and not riding out with the soldiers anymore.
The Dark Lord could no longer hold it together. His time had come. He had been on the forefront of the battles the Serein drew up in secret silence for too long.
Marani had been silent for a while and deeply lost in thought. She startled when I spoke softly into the semi-darkness.
“You have no idea how much he depends on you, have you.”
“Depends – on – me?” she said, incredulously.
“Just take my word for it,” I said tiredly. There was really no point in trying to explain to her. I wished again with a vengeance for the pool, the calming, clearing water. I wanted to go home.
I got up slowly, bone weary although I had hardly moved around all day, and warned her with a short thought to keep everyone away from me.
Her sadness came back, deep and profound, but I brushed it away and went back to my room. I wanted to sleep yet I also wanted to know.
I needed to know.
I stretched out long, folded my hands about my stone, and let the name drift through my mind.
My master, Sephael.
My master, my teacher and the one man who I hated nearly as much as I hated myself.