Chay Catena sat on the bed next to me, and Marani stood behind him, holding an ordinary household candle.
I looked at them both and stretched into my – this – body which demanded to be emptied and then filled afresh.
The never ending hell of sunrises and sunsets.
Chay said something that I couldn’t make out and I looked at him closely. There was an undeniable respect for the man, he had conducted himself in an honourable fashion in the matter of his brother-in-arms. He was to all intents and purposes, a fellow warrior.
A fellow warrior.
The closest I had ever come to a connection was right there, amongst the bloody battlefields of the unification wars, the twenty year war, the outland wars, and finally the great war. When that ended, it ended me too and I was never the same again after that.
When the day came I did not want to leave Sephael’s keep. I was conscious and aware that even though he said I was ready for my next step in training, I did not really feel as though I was.
Yet, and of course, I mounted the large horse that the soldiers had brought for me and went off with them, ostensibly as one of them, to the training camps that covered the Denorean Plains at that time.
Along the way, we picked up more recruits, second, third and fourth sons of country gentlefolk and low aristocracy, soft weak creatures with fuzzy growths on their chins who thought that they were men.
King Malme (who would come to be known as Malme The Great) was raising an huge army to unify the known lands and all the kingdoms, fiefdoms, city states and strongholds that waged war constantly among themselves.
His approach to the problem was novel and would prove to be highly successful in time – instead of just gathering together a lot of man folk and letting them loose armed often with not much more than a pitchfork or a pole cut from a tree on another hapless lot of the same type, he was using older soldiers to train the new ones, and had paid from his own estate to ensure that each man would have at least their own sword.
By the time I joined his army, it had already conquered a quarter of the known world, irresistibly smashing through all the little hordes that came at him or tried to defend what used to be theirs and adding whatever he needed for his own efforts to his ever growing fighting machine.
The camp looked like a swarming flat anthill from the distance, resolving on approach into knots of sweating men hard at work with practice swords, hand to hand combat, groups of horses churning up the dust, tents, wagons, camp followers’ quarters strewn amongst them, cooking fires, branding fires, and along the surrounding hillsides, the colour tents of the section commanders and the officers flying their bright banners, the higher up the hill, the larger and the higher up in rank.
Sephael had seen to my mental training and I was well versed in the arts of warfare played out on yellowed parchment maps and antiquities of strategies that drew their learning from a dying of the multitudes across the ages.
Now my practical training was beginning and I was sensing an excitement. I was 16 years old, taller than most men by a head and my body was strong and obedient to the last muscle, the smallest sinew.
And I was given a new master.
Headman Craine, the most feared, the most sadistic, the toughest, hardest of all the vicious bastards that were put in charge of the new officer recruits, was, of course to be my destination, for he alone trained the ones that would in the end fight and die with the Black Wing.
We started off with fifty or more and after the initial weeks of continuous abuse, sleep deprivation and sheer physical labour of one kind or another that pushed the others to the brink of insanity, there was just a handful of us left.
I enjoyed all of it on a level, moving through the challenges swiftly and easily, the injuries and torn muscles the merest trifling inconveniences, my mind always alert and focussed, tightly coiled within myself.
But it was admittedly an easy thing for me.
One of my favourite memories from this time was a night exercise, where we were set a group task to cover a certain distance carrying each a huge beam of rough wood. My comrades – there were 7 of us then, myself included – had a hard time of it as none of us had slept or even sat to rest in a threeday.
One by one, they fell and tried to crawl or rise once more to drag their beams somehow up the long, steadily rising slope at the top of which Craine was waiting for us.
I was by then in a state of sensuous delight, drawing power from the intense pain in my shoulders and back, my mind light and freely soaring, everything so clearly drawn and sharply defined, a beautiful clarity in thought and being.
I threw the beam at Crain’s feet and then went back to fetch the first of my fallen comrades, carrying him easily up the slope, his body over one shoulder and the beam under my arm on the opposite side.
I laid him down at the top, a couple of steps away from Craine, and had just dropped the beam when my legs went from under me. Craine had struck me across the back of the legs with his sword, severing the sinews of one leg but missing the other and just laying open a large gash through which the blood poured down and into my boots.
His face was contorted with pure hatred when I turned around to face him and his mouth was open so I must presume that he was screaming but I never even heard his voice, and limped back down the hill to fetch the next man and his log.
By the time four bodies and five beams lay neatly in a row, Crain’s expression had changed into one of fear and when I brought the last man and half hopped, half dragged across to stand in front of him, give the king’s salute and told him “Mission accomplished, Headman,” he was so petrified of me that he nearly wet himself.
I had lost a lot of blood that night but I didn’t give it any heed; my leg knitted well enough in time save for a scar or two, and on a horse's back what does it matter if you limp or not?
All seven of us were duly initiated into the black wing as junior riders, and I acquired my first nickname. They called me Cia which was in part a play on my name and also happened to be what the Northern tribes would call a demon.
The vibrations were urgent, painful and eventually I became aware that someone was shouting at me, right into my face and shaking me hard by the shoulders.
I opened my eyes and didn’t recognise the man in front of me. Blond, low ranked by the cut of his shirt and trousers, a common soldier?
Where was I?
What was this?
I looked down at myself in horror as I realised that the body I inhabited was not mine but that of a – woman?
What insanity? What magic?
I swished the commoner away to get some room to think and figure out what was happening. He flew across the room and crashed into the far wall, taking a wooden dresser, a mirror and a whole host of objects with him cascading to the ground.
My eyes fell on a second presence in the room and I recognised Marani.
A sense of profound relief.
I sat up or rather, tried to sit up as the strange body in which I found myself did not respond to my instructions and its dimensions were all wrong. I couldn’t orientate myself in this space with precision.
Grimly I forced calm upon the entire system I comprised and with some difficulty gained some form of control over the powerless spindly limbs that seemed to be everywhere and hardly held together.
Then I really noticed the breasts and that was just too much.
I let myself fall back onto the bed and laughed and laughed.
I let the sensation run through me and sought not to stop it. When it had receded to manageable proportions, I collected myself and began flexing my puny new muscles, one at a time, trying to gain an understanding of their location and modes of operation.
Eventually I was satisfied that I would be able to work this body enough to move around with some degree of accuracy and sat up again, swivelled at the hip and brought my feet – good god they were so thin! So long! So – fragile! – into contact with the floor, experiencing a shockingly disproportionate and intense sense of the texture of the rug below me that unbalanced me again momentarily.
I flexed myself again all over but decided not to try and stand just yet. Information was required. I reached out and around and noted that the room was deeply shielded and all I could make out was the commoner, just rising now and rubbing his head, and Marani, who was in a state of even more advanced hysteria than she inhabited by norm.
I traced the shielding and it was of a very unfamiliar kind, the likes I had no recollection of touching before. This confused me. I had a strong notion that I should know by now all there was to know, but how and why?
Let me back up here. Let me see and try to understand.
I am Lucian Tremain, apprentice to the Lord Of Darkness. I am 18 years old. I have just begun my training with the Black Wing, in fact the last thing I remember is standing at the initiation ceremony and watching my blood from a complex cut in the shape of two stylised wings flood into the ceremonial bowl. The bowl passes on and I receive a shallow dish of purple black ink instead into which I lay my wrist, then rubbing the thick stuff deeply into the wound. As I rub it in, the wound seems to close, the blood and black disappears, I’m touching well healed skin that shows a clear black outline below, and now the skin is different, dryer, darker and the outline begins to fade away, fade more …
I snap my eyes open and focus on Marani. I know her. She is my housekeeper but I don’t have a house. I don’t have a house, I’m riding with the Black Wing into battle tomorrow for the first time, she shouldn’t be this old, where is her baby?
“Marani,” I whisper in a foreign voice.
She approaches cautiously but she comes, and she takes that hand that is not mine at all and yet it is, and she holds it as a clumsy link begins to touch my mind, very clumsy, bad workmanship, not enough attention to detail, the master will make her regret such an unfortunate attempt and she is sending such untidy thought forms through the link, coarse and so twisted, non-balanced, ugly, Lady Isca, Lady Isca, Lady, Young One, Isca, Isca …
Many voices calling to me, on many levels there’s a tugging and a pulling.
Faces without names.
Leave me alone.
Weird colours assail me now, ugly slanted greens and washed out blue blacks, no, that’s all wrong, look, this is what a blue should look like, and here, that’s a true green. Now watch, we’ll merge them into a jade that contains the highest skies and the deepest oceans, the deepest still ponds on hot summer days …
I am standing by the side of the village pond. The sun is clawing at my back, shredding my skin like a living animal, like a weight that is becoming unbearable.
Around me, things fly and buzz, big winged things, little skitting silver things.
Below me lies the pond, jade blending to black.
I know that I cannot swim, but salvation lies at the bottom of this pond.
If I can find the courage, it will be mine and I will be healed and whole.
I spread my arms wide and plunge face first into the still water.
It enfolds me, takes me into its cool embrace, and there is all the healing in the world here, all the understanding and all the desires gone and gentled, and all will be revealed at last if only I can keep myself from breathing, I must stay here, must hold on, must get beyond that awful needing to fill my lungs with something, water or air it matters not …
With a terrible gasp I shudder into awareness, a terrible regret that I am still alive.
I am still alive.
All around the bed are faces.
They are waiting for me to tell them who I am.