The roads were passable once more, and life resumed. People came for healing again, and with them came reports of fighting and skirmishes that were breaking out everywhere.
There were rumours that the Serein had died of a terrible plague and left King Selter flailing, unable to control his council of lords, unable even to protect his very own domain from encroachments of all kinds.
It was said that Lord Trant, an ambitious man for whom it was not enough to simply lead the council but who wanted the crown for himself, was raising an army. He was saying it was for the king and to protect Pertineri’s precious walls and riches from the unrest but everyone was convinced that the troops he assembled were loyal to him in person, and there were enough that felt that King Selter was a weakling, unworthy of the throne of the world, and a coward to boot.
There was not a single word of Lucian or his whereabouts.
Ever since my midwinter explorations, I had been thinking about what to do about him. There was no question whatsoever that I would have to try and find him. Whatever the creator decreed, he was mine as much as I seemed to have been especially crafted for him, and whatever our work was here in this time, it was not yet complete.
I scanned for him, carefully and on levels that he would not know how to shield himself from, and was very worried that I could not find him anywhere. I was concerned that he might be dead, but it just didn’t feel right. After all of this, it wouldn’t have made any sense, and he was not inclined to take his own life, no matter whether he was falling apart in other ways. The other possibility was that he was keeping himself to sites such as the circle of stones which entirely blanketed out communications, so he could not be found.
If he was hiding, the unfortunate conclusion I had to draw was that he was hiding from me.
With the Serein dead and gone, there was no-one left now who could stand against him.
He was free.
The thought made me smile. Poor Lucian. Free up until I caught up with him.
I had long made up my mind that I would go and find him as soon as the roads were open again.
This particular morning, there was a dull grey freezing rain ineffectually rushing against my magic window panes and no doubt, it was freezing cold outside, just on the border where it might as well be snow. I took the time to look out from my bedroom and across the drab grey brown countryside.
Here and there were still stubborn small patches of sheer ice that resisted the warming of the ground and the washing rain. The trees were bare and spindly, revealing the nests birds had thought were well hidden when they made them at the time. Our boundary fence stood pale orange gold, beautifully alien, not really of this world at all, as in truth it was not, and marked the entrance to a realm that stood astride the border of the hard and the pattern world. Just beyond it and where the driveway merged into the road, the clump of three trees that seemed as though they were grown from one, stood guard over Ty Sidra who slept deeply and beautifully, snug in the dark, our invisible guardian. I could easily imagine him standing by the road, with his sword in a strong brown hand, head proudly angled back and black eyes flashing, challenging those who would enter our domain.
I knew that the time had come.
At the morning meal, I took the time to look at each one who was at the table with leisure and that special focus you give to that which you are about to leave behind. That way of looking at someone reveals things to you about the nature of your relationship with them that every day meetings and fleeting contacts and routine encounters cannot help but bury under a mountain of ordinariness.
The children were entirely changed from when they first arrived. They talked easily and with grace, laughed much and wore extraordinary clothes, made by themselves in pattern work, and expressing their current fascinations and mindsets. Reyna was still the little princess but her reservation was different now, yet her deep sense of responsibility for all and sundry would remain. She would feel the burden more strongly still when I was gone.
Demma was less angular than she had been, and had even accepted gifts such as the re-patterned tiny pebbles, made beautifully opalescent and strung for a necklace, her dress a rich deep forest green that suited her skin and eyes. She still worked far too hard but even that was beginning to ease up in the general atmosphere of lightness and enjoyment that pervaded the house.
Dory was noticeably pregnant and ate like a horse. She had grown in far more than just width through this winter, having acquired a new sense of self and of the way of things. With Marani’s help, she could become the mother to all of these, and she would do a great job of it.
Marani herself was a different woman altogether. She was now the main healer who was the first to be called upon when any arrived at our house, and she could handle virtually everything by herself. It had given her a calm confidence and strength that befitted her perfectly, her power and purity finally set free to be as she could be. I would have to task her to teach others the arts of healing and the patterns so she would never think of it as a burden that she alone would have to bear.
Beautiful Chay, his thick wavy blond hair re-grown to shoulder length, handsome body beneath the white shirt, teasing Demma by taking all the bread from the basket with both hands instead of just the one slice, laughing his delightful little boy’s smile at her. Easy with the children, easy with the old women, easy with the young ones. A good man if ever there was one, and reliable, too. He and Ty would protect them all with everything he had to give, and he and his bright energy filled in the practical blanks neither the women nor the magic could cover successfully.
They would work fine as a group, I decided, and allowed myself a small tingle of satisfaction at what I had achieved.
Reyna startled me by addressing me directly.
“Isca, what is it with you this morning? What are you doing?”
I turned my attention to the Serein girl that would have looked perfectly like a normal child now with long slightly curling brown hair held back by a bright orange ribbon, sun yellow dress and well nourished arms and features, if it hadn’t been for her enormous eyes that seemed to changed colour with the light and her moods.
Kings and princes would fight great battles over you one day, I thought with a smile, then took a deep breath and addressed them all.
“I have decided to leave.”
Everything stopped frozen for a moment, smiles locked and left, Demma turned around sharply in mid movement from clearing some dishes from the table.
Marani was the first to speak.
“I must go with you,” she said, knowing full well why I was leaving.
I shook my head.
“There is no point as yet. I will let you know as soon as I …” I let the sentence drift but we both knew perfectly what I had not spoken. As soon as I have found him.
She considered, then nodded.
Chay was next.
“You are going to find the Lord Tremain?” he asked unhappily, a sharp line between his eyebrows.
I nodded. “Yes, Chay. It has been too long.”
He raised his chin slightly and his fists clenched, making the muscles ripple in his lower arms on the table beneath his rolled up sleeves.
“I will of course accompany you, Lady Isca.” he said firmly.
Dory gave a half gasp and drew into herself, wrapping her arms protectively about her stomach. The children just all looked with their huge eyes but didn’t dare say anything at all.
“I will speak with you later, Chay,” I said cleanly and without leaving the slightest room for discussion.
“Now as to all of you, you are fine people, and more than that, you are a great family now. Every one of you – yes, that includes you, little one,” I added as I picked up a negative thought from elfin fair Vona,“ has their contribution to make, and their work to do here. For you young ones, that is to grow and learn things. To continue your studies and to keep yourselves safe until you are no longer children. For you older ones, it is much the same. Marani, you especially have much work ahead of you.”
Everyone listened to me intently, but they were not at all happy. They were used to the idea of being able to rely on me to sort things out if the worst came to the worst.
I continued, “Now there were times in the winter where I was not happy, and I was very ill. During these times, you proved many times that you can not only care for yourselves well enough, but for me as well, so I have no doubt at all that you will be able to do just fine until I may return.”
There was still a great deal of doubt around the table, and most especially from the children. I reached them into a very light link and repeated, “I will return if it is in my power to do so, and I will remain your guardian in all ways if the creator has it to be so.”
There were many questions, pleas and queries bubbling in everyone’s mind, but I gently swept a block all around the table.
“This is all I have to say on the subject. I will leave tomorrow morning, at first light. I will take my individual farewells and taskings with you tonight after the evening meal. Until then, there is no more to be said about this.” I got up from the table and looked at them all with a light smile. They would do just fine without me. It was a relief.
“Come Chay,” I said and walked from the kitchen, out into the hallway and opened the door to the assault of freezing wet and dreary grey.
I allowed myself the shock of the cold for just a few heartbeats, then cloaked myself in protection and the rain and wind ceased to exist within my immediate space. I began to walk across the lovely mosaic of blue, green and gold that covered the courtyard and still looked vibrant, even in this poor light, even with shallow pools of water rippling as repeated rain sprays were striking their surfaces.
Behind me, Chay was struggling with his traveling cloak and swearing softly as the wet cold assaulted him. I considered for a moment extending my protection about him but then dismissed the thought. He was a soldier and a grown man and would not thank me for such condescension.
I led the way across the courtyard, choosing to walk into and through the puddles rather than floating above them, and out past the boundary fence towards where Ty Sidra waited for us both.
There was no telling where exactly the grave was, the ground, wet black, dead brown leaves, clumps of dead flat grass, stony, gave no indication of an outline or disturbance of any kind.
I stopped and reached down through the surface and into the ground, found the sword, found Ty Sidra well preserved in his white shroud. Beside me, Chay stood, no longer shivering from the cold, silent and glad of the rain that covered his face with wetness.
“Chay, you must remain here,” I said gently and without taking my eyes off the ground before me. It was holy ground, now.
He did not answer because he was unsure of his voice. It pained me to feel his pain, so honest and simple. It reminded me of Marani’s pain that first day I saw her on the battlefield.
I turned to face him, put my hand up and lightly touched the tear streak on his cheek.
“You are a good man, and nothing would please me more than to have you by my side on the road. Truly, I can’t think of another – man, friend, comrade, who I would rather have with me.”
He managed to look at me directly now, his blue eyes dark and I could see myself reflected in his pupils. I turned my hand and stroked his check with the back of my hand, lovingly.
“You must know that I can defend myself well enough, if not with a sword.”
He couldn’t help but smile at that even though he didn’t want to and I smiled back at him and took his hand in mine.
“You are needed here. You and Ty, you need to take care of the women and children, you need to be their army in these uncertain times. They have no other.”
“My lady,” he said brokenly.
“Will you do as I ask of you?” I asked him gently.
He nodded and tightened his grip on my hand. “Upon my word of honour,” he said.
I nodded in return. “Your word of honour is worth that of a dozen other men,” I said to him and felt his response of deep pride suffusing his sadness in response.
“Will you allow me to give you a gift?” I asked and let go of his hand.
He rubbed at his eyes and pushed some wet hair from his face, shivering now again against the driving rain that was beginning to turn partially to snow.
“Lord Tremain was – is – a masterful fighter. I can have you know what he knows, if you will accept it."
His eyes widened in shock. His thought stood out loud and clear, I want nothing of the Lord of Darkness, and I responded with a gentling and said, “It has nothing to do with any darkness. He was trained by the Black Wing fighters and has more battle experience than any living man. It is a simple set of skills that I offer you this day.” and added unspoken, As I would never, never offer you anything else.
He struggled with himself and within himself, but the overriding factors were the thought of the skills of a Black Wing fighter which were still legendary amongst the soldiers and the little boys who dreamed of becoming soldiers, and the fact that he trusted me completely.
Eventually, he blinked rain from his eyes and said, “If you feel it would make me into a better protector for – everyone, I would gladly accept your offer of this gift, my lady.” and bowed his head to me in submission.
I reached out to him and lightly placed my hand across his temple. Sought and found the patterns within myself, stripped them off any mnemonic content, reduced them to straightforward body memories that reside in the very smallest parts of the muscles themselves, and gently and carefully transferred the requisite patterns to him, merging them with his own, overwriting the old, ingrained, existing ones.
It was done.
I took a deep breath and stepped back. Chay shook his head and touched his own hand to his temple, then caught sight of his hand and flexed and stretched it. He looked at me questioningly, all sense of cold or wet forgotten.
I smiled. “Would you like to try it out?” I asked and he nodded, slowly at first, then strongly. We set off and went into the empty stable building, wonderfully still and warm in comparison to the grey world outside.
The building was a large barn with one third of the surface area at the left hand side built to accommodate ten horses in separately build boxes, with gates of ordinary wood separating each one. It was empty and completely clean now, and the space where carriages, feed and tack would have been was used by the children for running play in foul weather. Small rectangular windows set close to the roof let in light from both sides.
Chay’s sword and my wooden practice sword both stood resting against the wall next to the double entrance door. He flung off his wet cloak and just let it fall to the ground with a slapping sound, picked up his sword and held it, wonderingly, looking at his arm and making a few easy movements.
“It feels so – different,” he said and experimentally, switched the sword into the other hand. “Oh, my,” he said, moving it lightly backs and forth with small flicks of his wrist.
I dropped my cloaking and allowed the calm cold of the stable to penetrate my feet and skin. It was invigorating.
I picked up the wooden practice sword, roughly whittled from a single flat piece of hard wood and shaped as the shadow outline of a living sword would be. Reaching into its structure, I began to melt together the resident patterns and weave them strongly, shift them across and ripple their surface, until I held a light sword like object in my hand that was a reasonable approximation of the blue black swords that lived inside my memories, yet also very different in that it looked more like a flowing organic thorn, shaped into my hand and with a protective rise across my thumb and knuckles. I stretched into it and inside me, the knowing and remembering stirred luxuriously like a great beautiful beast and awoke to full, bright and wonderfully powerful awareness. I let it enter me this time, excitement, acceptance, rightfulness, even flow, no more chaining it back.
I turned to Chay and heard myself give a small hiss.
He looked at me in surprise and was even more surprised still when his body danced out of the way with incredible speed and grace as my organic sword swished into the space he had occupied just a fraction of a heartbeat before.
And then we fought each other. And it wasn’t clumsy, useless Chay fighting hapless, helpless Isca, but Lord Lucian Tremain fighting himself, finally and at long last, an enemy worthy of himself, blurring speed of cut and thrust, pre-empting ten moves ahead and so did the other, beautifully evenly matched and incredible in the pure beauty of its dance.
We fought each other until my untrained body could no longer sustain breath, and beyond that into the next space where you continue on regardless on sheer willpower, and then into the space where willpower resolves and you continue on a different level of unawareness, and then into the space where the body had nothing whatsoever left to give and I just fell to the ground, my arms twitching uncontrollably, unable to breathe at all.
Chay was upon me in an instant and his scarred soldier’s sword came hissing down towards me, stopping with incredible precision exactly on the skin of my throat so that I could feel it there yet it did not cut me.
He held that position for a heart beat then whirled around and held his sword up high and let out a joyful scream.
“Yes! Yes! Oh creator that was amazing! Oh creator that is the best!”
I was still trying to breathe somehow and eventually, the first gasps came and with it, my lungs exploded red and black and I doubled over with the terrible pain in my sides, coughing, choking, spluttering. In a flash, Chay was by my side, rubbing my back, patting me, soothing me with sounds that were noises rather than words.
Eventually, I had regained enough composure to be able to just about sit up and try and talk.
“Was that fun or what?” I rasped and laughed which caused me to cough again and once again, brought painful slapping on my back from Chay, who was now grinning from ear to ear.
He let himself collapse next to me on the freezing stone floor and laughed out loud.
“My lady, this is incredible. Incredible. Oh but we could take on an entire army if we fought side by side!”
His careless statement sobered the both of us immediately and I sighed deeply. But oh! did every part of my body scream with hurt. I would have to lie down for a while and heal myself, I thought.
I looked at him just as he sat up straighter again, and our eyes met deeply and unexpectedly.
“My lady,” he said in a whisper, “I would follow you to the ends of the earth, and into hell itself, if you would but take me with you.”
I resisted the urge to touch him again and sighed.
“And I would be proud to have you with me, Chay Catena,” I said with much regret.
Nothing more needed to be said. I had done what I could to ensure the safety of everyone concerned that was under my protection here, and when I could, I had Chay carry me back to the house and deposit me on my bed so I could rest and heal the damage I had caused to myself. I gave a painful grin and thought that it had been well worth it though. Even without the added wonder of actual life and death battle, the dance itself had been wonderful, the most alive I’d felt for such a long, long time, the most alive I’d felt since …
I shut out the thought and focussed on the here and now. I rested until evening meal, and as I’d promised, spoke to each member of the household individually, one by one, gentling their fears, tasking them appropriately and instructing them on what I expected of them for the future.
Then I returned to my room, and in my mind, opened the door to that far away place where Lucian kept his horses. I reached through it with familiarity and found the one on the other side who was the current recipient and who would understand my instructions. He was an old man now, grown long used to unexpected orders in the depth of night, and in order not to confuse him, I shaped myself so that he thought I was Lord Lucian himself, and set the order for a black to be ready by a half day from now. One day, I would go to that place myself and walk amongst the waist high soft grasses under that enormous sky, I thought after the door had been closed and the link severed.
Too many thoughts crowded through my mind, so I let myself go there now, in my memories, to that place that was so far away that no-one actually knew just how to pin point it on any known map, yet that had served Lord Sephael, and his master before him, and Lucian himself for all these many years. They were strange people there, their skin a peculiar tone of bronze and their features most unusual. They lived amongst the huge grass lands and had the deepest knowledge of horses anywhere in the world. Their horses were magical beasts in many ways, and the only drawback was that if they were kept in our world for any length of time, away from the grass land of their birth, they would eventually sicken and die. It was for that reason that the door link had been established by some magician way back in the mists of time, and passed on as a special privilege to very few. As far as Lucian knew, he was the only one now who knew and used the doorway, and had been for hundreds of years, or since Lord Sephael had died, and he himself had never left his tower.
In my mind, I let myself drift into the memory of being there for the first time, the bronze workers writhing on the ground in abject terror, choosing a colt from a herd of horses where each one was a wonder to behold, a pitch black shiny colt that already stood higher than its own mother. Watching him run and kick and rear, tail up like a flag, nostrils flaring wildly. Beautiful. Pleasure. Rare contentment. Lying in the grass like a wide ocean all around me, with my hands behind my back, looking up at the unfamiliar stars whirl across me in a sky that seems so close you can touch it, fall into it, deeply into the space between the stars ….
I awoke well before dawn and packed a small bag with my belongings. There was still not very much to hold me down. I took a dozen spare singing stones in case I needed extra protection, a comb, my spare shift and that was that. I wrapped it all up in a small bundle and went down the stairs. The children were still asleep, but in the kitchen were Marani and Chay, talking low amongst themselves. I had a notion that neither had been sleeping this last night.
They fell silent when I entered and no-one said anything for a long time, whilst I took my usual seat and Marani served me with fruit, bread and meat. On the side of the hearth was a big package and a water flask, and two bottles of wine. I smiled to myself. Just in case I lost control of my Lucian within me. How thoughtful of her.
I ate steadily and with intent. My mind was already on the road ahead and I was very grateful that neither of the two other people in the room made any attempt at conversation. As soon as I had done eating, I rose.
“Now to see if I can get my transport to arrive,” I said with a smile, and went outside. I need not have had any doubts. I knew well enough from hundreds of years of doing this thing how to find the doorway, how to open it wide, and how to call the horses to step through. I remembered one particular black, a great-great-great grandfather of the current incarnations, who had panicked at the last moment and come charging through, trampling three of my attendants at the time. This one here was well trained and ready used to the procedure.
One moment, there was just the empty courtyard, shimmering under its own translucence lightly beneath the heavy dark blue sky at the verge of dawn, the next moment, there stood my huge black, tacked beautifully in gold inlaid leather, beginning to steam instantly in the freezing cold and with huge plumes of steams coming from his flaring nostrils. He didn’t like the abrupt change in temperature, swished his floor length tail impatiently and threw his massive head back, stomping his hooves with a thunderclap and cracking the mosaic in the process.
“Good god,” Chay whispered and Marani said nothing. She’d seen it a hundred times and had disliked it just the same.
I turned to them.
“Time for the road,” I said lightly and cheerfully, and in order to mask the small stabbing sadnesses at leaving these people behind, who had been my strength, support and shield through many a dark night.
Marani stepped up to the black, unlaced the saddle bags and began stuffing my provisions inside. The horse calmed at her approach and stood perfectly still apart from his twitching ears, as if not to frighten her. They were beautifully trained, I thought.
Chay spoke to me.
“Lady, I know you can – shield yourself from the cold, but I would be easier if you were to take this with your.” he said and held out his soldier’s cloak of heavy, tightly spun wool. I smiled at him and he placed it around my shoulders. It was huge, heavy, scratchy on my cheek and neck and touched the ground all around me, but also comforted me in the strangest way.
“Thank you, Chay,” I said and had to make an effort to keep my voice steady, clear and light. He held out my little bundle to me I had left on the kitchen table and I took that from him too.
I held out my hand to him, and as he went to shake it, I intercepted and led him into the soldier’s handshake instead, wrist to wrist, given to respected and trusted comrades. He returned it firmly then stepped back.
Marani stood, shoulders drooping, by the doorway. I could not stand her sadness and I could not use clumsy words for her, so I touched her mind instead with a representation of my gratitude for all she had done for me, for all she had done for him, and for all she meant to us both. I had to gentle her afterwards because she burst out into tears and wrung her skirt in sheer unhappiness.
I turned purposefully to my horse and asked him to kneel for me, which he did readily in spite of his reluctance to touch the cold wet stone below. I settled myself on his back, pushed my bundle into the saddle bag and asked him to rise.
I could feel Marani and Chay at my back and couldn’t deal with their thoughts and emotions, so I blocked them out and asked the black to make towards the road. He did so, powerfully restrained, and carefully picked his way across the courtyard mosaic, relieved and ready to go when he felt the more familiar earth and ground of the driveway beneath his feet.
We were moving swiftly towards the main road when a shout came from behind.
I stopped us and turned around. Chay came running up behind us.
“My lady,” he called out, “my lady, you forgot your sword!” holding out the blue black weapon, hilt first as he skidded to a halt by my black’s side.
I smiled down at his earnest face and supressed the desire for the umpteenth time to reach out and touch him in some way, keeping my hands still on the supple leather reins.
“Chay,” I said lovingly. “I have no use for it. Show it to the children. Have them make their own. And then use what you now know to teach them. The dance is so beautiful, share it with everyone you see fit.”
His face fell and he looked down, feeling foolish, rejected and most of all, hurting at wanting to make me stay and being powerless to do so.
I took him into a full link then and showed him how I saw him, how much I loved and respected him, how wonderful I thought he was, and how I could not, simply could not ever do anything other than what I must do.
When I released the link, we were both crying. He reached up to me and we held hands briefly, not like comrades but as lovers would, then I gave the release to the black and he felt him gather beneath me for the forward rush.
Within seconds, we had passed the silent guard of Ty Sidra and headed out into the dark slippery road, and I turned my mind with clear volition from what might have been and what lay behind me, to what might become and lay ahead.