It was just early afternoon and getting towards twilight when my tireless black reached the crest in the road beyond which it was only a short way to Tower Keep. On the left lay the standing stones, invisible here in the greyness of the day, misty banks hiding the shrub covered ground and driving sleet. I steadied him for a moment and reached out in that direction, but even at the Serein frequencies, there was nothing there at all. A part of me wanted to go there, walk amongst the stones and re-experience both the storm and the emptiness beyond, but I resisted.
It wasn’t the right time. I urged the black on and down the road, eager now to return. He felt my desire for the homecoming and stretched himself readily enough, remembering the road from before and skimming surefooted across the snowfields that still lay in the long driveway under the shadow of the bare trees, still weaving their leafless arches criss cross above my head.
When I saw the grey house and tower sitting still and ready through the last bend in the road, I felt a most peculiar sadness and gladness. I knew that Lucian wasn’t there, yet there was something about the house itself which held his presence within the very stones of the walls themselves, and it was my starting point in the search for him.
When I dismounted from my steaming, panting black, I had to force myself to stop long enough to create the doorway and send him home in gratitude, so desperate was my desire to open the big black wood doors and go inside once more.
With the horse safely gone, there was utter silence around. The only sounds were tiny swishings as the sleet struck the ground, a million million tiny noises placed one upon the other, and it made the stillness ripple.
I opened the door and stepped inside.
All lay in semi-darkness as it had before.
The big square hallway with the doors on either side, the great staircase with the windows on the landing where it turned to the left, and as my eyes accustomed to the gloom, details such as the iron holders on the wall, and the old grey green tapestry behind which the entrance to the tower room was hidden from direct view.
I hesitated to awake the house but it was my right and also my duty and so I set two single flames, one on the left, and one on the right, to light the way.
Then I couldn’t stand it anymore and ran up the stairs, as fast as I could, past my old room and through a rushing of memories straight to Lucian’s room. The door was ajar, I stepped inside.
It was too dark to see properly. I set a fire in the hearth and dropped my cloaking shield that kept me separate from outside conditions.
Immediately, the cold damp rushed at me all over, the bone chilling cold of stone that has not been heated by the sun or any other means all through a freezing season.
The small fire made no impact on this old cold and I raised it higher at the side of my awareness and looked around.
I saw and as I saw, it touched not just my mind but with a cold hand, pushed at my stomach, that the red gold tapestry was covering the huge bed, abandoned, stiff with a wet cold and it shouldn’t have been there.
I never went anywhere without it.
With a sense of deep concern, I checked the chests first for their presence, and they were all there, all five of them, the three big ones and the two small ones, which held objects that had been companions to me for a very long time indeed.
I opened the chests and the items inside were untouched. There was nothing missing. I had left and taken nothing with me.
The thought confused the Lucian me and it scared the Isca me. I spun sharply to see that both of the ancient Tadara swords sat on their pegs above the fire place.
I slowly walked across the floor and to the dark wood wardrobe, opened it.
Mentally, I counted off the clothes inside and there were none missing bar what I had been wearing the day we left for the monastery.
I had left everything, even my favourite travelling cloak, a thing acquired in a cold foreign place high up in the mountains of Ecito, made from tiny skins of many tiny animals and light as feathers, yet utterly impervious to storm, wind and rain.
I ran my hand across its strange surface, worn but still perfectly serviceable, a dark brown brought to black by countless days and nights of wild weather, in some ways second close to my own skin, and could not conceive of why it was abandoned here.
I took off Chay’s cloak and laid it carefully, lovingly, across one of the chests beneath the windows. The cold from all the stone, all around, assailed me forcefully in spite of the fire touching hot a small strand of my left side.
I re-covered myself in a shell of protection and left the room. In the dark, abandoned kitchen there was only mouldy heaps where once had been fruit and cheese, and I dared not even look at the meat box. How silly of me to have sent the horse back without emptying the saddle bags first. Still.
There was the wine cellar, and I went down the steep, thin steps, setting fires dancing in mid air as I went. The cellar was all but completely abandoned in time and space, musty freezing, dank, dirty, a main square space leading off into corridors into the dark with rounded ceilings where the stone had been put together to form arches. It was quite low but I was short enough to be able to walk in the rooms themselves, though I had to duck my head through the arches.
The wine cellar was right at the end. I passed abandoned objects, bowls, a three legged stool, a roughly hewn together chest of planks on its side. Mould grew in the corners and the walls glistened wet in the magic flames.
I opened the heavy, stiff door and sent a clear white flame ahead to reveal the familiar sight of the wooden racks, most of them empty and cobwebbed, and made my way to a niche I knew well enough, where bottles rested on their sides like bodies in a crypt.
There were less than a dozen left, black glass bottles with long slender necks and dark red sealing wax poured liberally across their corks, deeply covered in fine dust.
I remembered well where I had first acquired them and the thought of the villa on the high hill, overlooking the luscious vegetation and sheer cliffs and the incredible view across the bay, far away in time, gave me a small sense of regret and pleasure both.
I took one of the bottles and returned to Lucian’s room where I simply severed the bottle’s neck with a clean thought and then drank from it deeply.
Thick and rich like blood, too cold but wonderful nonetheless, this was the stuff that gave you life, nourished you in all ways and set your senses and your body to rights when nothing else would.
I adjusted my body automatically to be able to cope with the wine in the absence of food, sat down on his bed and began to think about what to do next.
My original plan had been no further, in truth, than to come here. I had had a vague notion of looking up the exact location of shielding places on his aged maps and secret bindings, but really, somehow, I had expected to find him here.
I snorted and took another drink.
Had I truly expected some token, some notice as to where he had gone? Perhaps a piece of parchment nailed to the kitchen door with a dagger, x marks the spot, here I am if you are looking for me, I’m waiting for you, Isca?
Still. It was a worry to consider that he had never returned here, in all these months. Where could he be? Had he gone to one of the hidden places and just died there, and I had never known and would never find him now, save his bones bleached under some foreign sun?
I tightened my grip around the bottle, its smooth black glass strong and resistant, warming beneath my hands, and took another drink to keep the rising sense of unease at bay.
I let my senses reach and drift and stretch into all dimensions then, as I had done so many times before since the midwinter, expanding out and across further, further and further still, until I became a web so fine that I hardly retained consciousness of my self and feeling, searching, blanketing all for his familiar patterns.
But there was nothing. Nothing at all.
For the first time, I let myself call him then, on all levels, in all ways.
Lucian, answer me.
Where are you?
I am seeking you, my lord.
But there was nothing, nothing at all, and regretfully, I returned to my body once more.
I drank and sat and thought, and eventually decided that there was really nothing else left to do at this point but to try and re-trace our steps in the last days we spent together. I knew enough of him, was enough him, to hopefully pick up some trace of what had happened after the monastery morning.
All this time I had been longing for the indoor pool, yet now I was in no mood for it. It was too cold and I was to unhappy to make the effort. I rolled myself in the tapestry, closed my eyes and willed the morning to come so I could carry on with my search.
It was still some hours to dawn when I re-emerged from my self imposed time warp, and I just could not wait any longer. I ordered the black to be made ready immediately and, leaving Chay’s cloak on the chest, took one of the swords from the wall, light and beautifully balanced in my hand in spite of it’s impressive size. For a moment I stood looking at the single black stone set into the hilt at the bottom of the hand guard, noted that it was never meant for a hand as small as mine, then tucked it under my arm resolutely. I took Lucian’s travelling cloak which sat lightly about my shoulders, what was left of the wine and went downstairs. I found his book in the library on the table, just where we had left it all those months ago, and with the fine remembrance of the imprint of my own mind on the lock still.
After a moment’s hesitation, I picked it up. I knew well enough what was inside and also had all the requisite memories of the shielding places, but there may be times when I did not want to access those and might prefer a straight knowing to having to relieving how this knowing was acquired. Mostly I could, but I still never knew when I would be thrown back into some battle, some devastation, some nightmare from anywhere out of Lucian’s endless progressions of sunrises and sunsets.
I went outside to call the black. He snorted and sent me a respectful welcome. He was becoming used to me and it seemed that he liked our developing relationship. In the saddle bags, untouched and undisturbed, were Marani’s food parcels. I would eat on the road. I walked around the enormous horse and slid the sword into the holder at the front of the saddle, and put the book into the saddle bag where it joined my own little bundle from Headman’s Acre. When I picked up the reins, the black went to his knees without having been asked to do so which caused me to send him a small ripple of gratitude. He was trying to help and I appreciated that.
I mounted and we rose up. I turned to the house, grey and abandoned once more and disappearing into the darkness that was thick and wet all around, and placed a guarding over the door that would not have been easy to break by anyone bar Lucian and myself. It would safely take care of the tapestry and his things until we would return. Then we made off into the black tunnel of the trees.
The faintest tinge of lessening dark was in the sky when we drew up at the level with the circle of stones and I directed the black off the road and towards where the plateau lay.
It was so dark that I couldn’t really make out anything much of the ground, yet on another level I could track the patterns made so long ago by Marani’s pony cart and the soldier’s horses and our own as though they had been painted into the ground and remained there. The black also reached forward with all his senses, and I helped him see so we moved easily through the shrubby bushes and the stones and patches of glass hard ice with steady confidence.
He took the rise to the plateau easily and up ahead, I could just perceive the outlines of the stones against the slightly less black sky from which no star shone this morning. As we approached the boundary, he became nervous and through him, I became aware of the scattered remnants of the bodies that had been dragged and spread across, dismembered by the small animals who fed on such things out here in the shrub lands.
This was were the Serein had died, and in the pattern world, each corpse was imprinted in multicoloured outlines on the ground, ghosts oozing into the soil and into the air above as well.
I soothed us both and guided him steadfastly around the ghosts and into the beginnings of the storms that marked the barrier.
I noted with some satisfaction that the barrier was no problem to me now, it didn’t even intervene in my concentration much and when we broke through into the utter silence beyond and stepped into the circle of stones, I was actually glad that I could no longer perceive the patterns, glad that I was on my horse far above the ground and glad that he was the one who was nervously stepping, carefully as not to tread on scattered swords, helmets, bodices, bones and little bits of fabrics fluttering here and there in my imagination as I stared down to the dark ground. I guided him with no connection other than to what exists in physical horsemanship all around the circle of stones, half expecting to somehow or somewhere see in the shadows Lucian’s body, white and pale amidst the towering blackness, and chiding myself for the childishness of such imaginings.
There was nothing much I could see and nothing much than the intense silence that the circle provided. I didn’t know why I had come here. I halted the black and turned my head to face the direction in which the sun would rise soon enough, a band of pale beginning to slowly, slowly shift into awareness and breaking up the black horizon of the land below and the black sky above. I sat motionless, thoughtless for a long time, until my stomach growled and I came to. The light was brighter now, and strangely pink clouds, reflecting a light that had not yet arrived, chased swiftly across the sky.
Without dismounting, I reached behind me and fished for what I could from the food pack. The first thing that came to hand was a piece of cured meat, tough and stringy but also good for my hunger. I chewed it thoroughly and then continued on to eat whatever next came to hand as the sky became brighter and brighter still, bands of purple fading into blue, pink orange, beautiful, until finally, finally a sharp shimmer on the far horizon lit up like a flood wave all that lay before me, and I had to avert my eyes.
Another sunrise. Another day. I wiped my mouth and took a last drink from the water flask before stuffing it back into the saddle bag whilst the black beneath me waited patiently and stood as still as the altar stone itself which was now clearly revealed once more. Tipped over on its side lay Marani’s food box and from there, my eyes went to the remnants of that day’s slaughter, spread far and wide across the central space before the altar stone.
It was not unlike my imaginings from before, apart from the fact that one or two of the soldier’s skeletons were much better held together after all these months and the snows than I had expected, nor that they would still have their hair, giving them a strange air of just resting there and getting ready to rise up at a moment’s notice. Then a bright flash caught my eye and I tightened my legs briefly around the black to move him forward in that direction.
I looked down on the yellowed winter grass and there, right next to the black’s huge front hoof lay cleanly and innocently the hair slide Lucian had taken from the market stall, the triple bands of woven metals glowing brightest orange gold in salutation to the rising sun.
I slid down from the horses back and reverently picked it up, turned it in the palm of my hand. Somewhere deep inside me was a small pain, and I allowed myself to place it briefly to my lips before resolutely fastening it above my left ear. I touched it one more time with my fingertip before turning back to the horse. In the silence, he was unaware that I wished to mount him and in truth, the time for kneeling was long over. I smiled, picked up the reins, placed my foot into the stirrup and mounted him easily and lightly. Surprised, he flicked his ears at me and I briefly patted him on the back, then turned him and we left the silence of the circle of stones in a wide arc, avoiding the body fields and cantering easily along the plateau, back into the shrub lands and out onto the main road.
I had no idea why the visit to the stone circle had needed to have been, but as we rode easily through Lucian’s village, where all were still asleep this morning, and out onto the wide road beyond, the sense of terrible urgency had somehow gone from me and I felt different, as though I was doing everything in the right order and at the right time. We cantered on and past empty winter fields and villages under an ever brightening light and although it was cold, it felt far more like an early spring morning when just yesterday, it had been winter still.
By midmorning, I came across a band of soldiers just about to break camp by the side of the road.
They were on foot, unshaven middle aged men in dirty leathers with thick necks and hard faces, their leader not a headman but just the toughest one amongst their group.
I halted the black and they stopped the gathering of their blanket rolls and possessions and slowly drifted menacingly towards me.
I addressed the leader, a tall muscular man with many scars on his face, an eagle nose and closely set eyes under heavy black eyebrows.
“Wherefore are your orders?”
They had gathered in a loose line on the rise above the road, staring at me, the horse in its glorious tack, tracing the blue black sword and my body beneath the cloak with hard eyes.
The big man spat on the ground before him and put his hand to the hilt of the sword he had stuck through a thick leather belt.
“Who wants to know?” he challenged me and set up a grinning and rib pushing amongst his underlings.
That was an interesting question. I weighed up the possibilities of answers that would satisfy the man and then, the part of me that was Lucian just reached brutally inside the man’s mind, forcing him to his knees, causing his hands to wrap around his neck and his eyes opening wide in shock, to retrieve the relevant information without further ado.
Angrily, I snapped the strategy back to where it had come from. I would have to watch this in future. I glared at the shocked soldiers who were now stepping back automatically, leaving their gasping leader in a space by himself, still choking and coughing, and commanded the black to move along.
He exploded straight into a canter from the spot, and as we sped down the track with the soldier’s eyes at my back I forced myself into deeper relaxation and to simply consider what I had learned from the brief rape of the big man’s mind.
It seemed that there was an all out war on now, and that Lord Trant’s armies were laying waste to the countryside. The king’s troops were losing and withdrawing, leaving rich merchant cities unprotected, and troops under Trant’s banners had the privilege of taking for themselves whatever they wanted.
These men had been of King Selter’s outpost guards and had killed their own headman prior to taking to the road in order to join Trant’s army which was amassing outside Pertineri, for their part of the riches of the king’s own city and the chance for once to be on the right winning side.
I considered that it was highly unlikely that I would have been given this information voluntarily and so Lucian had probably been right that using such unsubtle methods got you what you wanted quickly and efficiently. Still, I silently admonished all of myself to allow me the final say on what I was doing at any given time. I didn’t like to be possessed, no matter how much the advancement in efficiency.
Eventually, we turned off towards the mountain road that led up to the monastery, and I was glad of my magical black, for he made the steep rises seem to be of no importance at all, showing no signs of failing or tiring.
I negotiated him right up the stone steps that led to the artificial base for the monastery building.
The pure flat marble like surface had a huge, oval darkened and discoloured area on it, all the way from the building’s wall to the end of the platform. I realised that this must have been where Lucian had ordered the bodies of the Serein to be burned. I could only guess that he had the ashes pushed off the platform to fall down amongst the rocks into the valley afterwards. I would have to speak to the men who had been here if no better clues to his whereabouts could be found.
The monastery had been sealed by Lucian when he left here; I recognised his pattern easily and traced it lovingly with my mind, longingly, before breaking it apart so I could open the door.
I stepped inside the white pink building’s profound silence and focussed right away on one thing only, and that was the traces of Lucian embedded in the stones and textures.
He had crossed the hall many times, and it took me a little while to adjust and fine tune to tell which tracks were older and which were younger.
I chose the last set of tracks, the ones he had left as he had left here for the last time, and followed them in reverse up the spiral ramps and back into the great tower hall.
It was just the same as I last visited it; even the time of day was very similar with the sun getting ready to move in to the horizon, orange already turning towards red and flooding through the huge windows across the central floor space with its inlaid symbols, casting sharp black shadows where the uprights between the window frames broke its light.
There was one important difference in that the burned body of the Serein were no longer on the reclining chairs that now stood waiting, white and square with their inlaid thick arms, ready for new occupants, arranged in their eternal circle.
I looked at the patterns of Lucian’s movements.
He had been here for a long time to have covered nearly every part of the room so thoroughly. He must have stood by each of the main symbols in the floor for a good time, because the his tracks and presence were deep there, like hot spots. But the last thing he had done before leaving was to have spent a considerable time in the chair straight across from the entrance, the one that was right in line with the huge singing stone that sat as dead as ever, still on its sweeping plinth.
I followed in his footsteps, looking down at the symbols, allowing myself to let him come over me, so I would see what he saw, and knew that what he knew, and find what his thoughts might have been.
Of course, I recognised all the symbols well enough.
They were symbols of power, handed down from time immemorial. Some were meant to protect, and others meant to energise. They were of a world of patterns that was neither mine nor that of the Serein, a strange and ancient world where patterns had a reality and an identity of their own that went way beyond simple existence. These patterns had an awareness of self within them that made me shiver, a purposeful intent that I had never encountered before.
I had encountered them before.
Lord Sephael knew how to control these patterns.
I had asked him to teach me on many occasions, and his answer had always been the same:
“You are not ready to begin this work. There are other things that are more important.”
So I learned about warfare and politics and all manner of things, yet never about the patterns. And then he died as was commanded by my own hand and still, he had not taught me. I suspected he had not wanted me to know, because he knew that I did not have what it takes to navigate them in safety.
I had always lacked talent for this kind of work.
I shook myself out Lucian’s memories and considered the patterns once more with my own mind. I could see that they were complex and certainly dangerous to one like Lucian who felt unsure and had little feel for the subtleties of their organisation. Yet I also didn’t believe that Sephael had not taught him because he had so little talent. Lucian was only bad with patterns because he had never been taught, apart from having being told repeatedly that they were beyond him, not the other way around. I shook my head slightly and brushed the intriguing thought away as to why Sephael had wanted to hamstring his apprentice thus, for there were more important things to be discovered.
I sat myself cautiously into the main chair and brought up my legs, placed my arms on the jewelled sides and let myself relax into the support of the marble around me. There was an uncomfortable buzzing on my skin and eventually it occurred to me that I would have to drop the shielding that kept the cold at bay in order to really get a feel of this what I was supposing to be a magical instrument, designed to support and strengthen the workings of its occupant.
I had grit my teeth and dropped the shielding. Immediately, the intense winter cold of the room assaulted me and the icy cold of the stone chair began to seep even through Lucian’s fur cloak and the Serein garment and on into my skin.
I forced myself to breathe calmly and relax into the cold rather than to try and fight it, and as soon as I did so, the chair began to warm and resonate to my body.
I closed my eyes and became Lucian once more, here in this chair, whilst outside, on a huge bonfire built entirely out of bodies, the remnants of the Serein lay smouldering ….
Why does this triumph not feel like a triumph but as though I’m dead? Those who have controlled me all these centuries are gone. Those who have taken my mind and had me forged to do their work are gone. This should be freedom and instead it is the barren uselessness of the sword that has no hand to wield it, nor a mind to command it.
I cannot make this work.
I cannot make any of this work.
Damn you, Sephael!
Damn you to the deepest pits of the blackest hells where no doubt you must reside.
Why did you not teach me? Why wasn’t I worthy?
Did I not strive to do anything, everything you ever wanted of me, without complaint, without resistance, without fear, without anything at all, did I not bleed to do everything you ever asked of me?
The Serein chose me. They must have thought I could at least understand some of it beyond the children’s games of making fire and pushing objects with your mind. Damn you Sephael. Couldn’t you have at least given me the chance, couldn’t you have at least tried?
Why wasn’t I good enough?
With that question still resonating in my mind and body, and tears of angry desperation in my eyes, I came back to myself once more. Beneath me, and all around me too, the chair buzzed with power, an amplifier, powerfully built to launch its occupants across time and space to do what they would, to erase mountains or to knit minds, and for a second I was tempted to lie back and explore this power at my fingertips.
But all of that was meaningless now.
I knew where Lucian had gone.
I knew where he was.
He had returned his childhood home.
To Lord Sephael's keep in the North Mountains.