Have you any idea of just how far it is from Merina province to the North Mountains?
Have you any idea at all how that journey crosses all the known worlds, all the kingdoms, all the lands, every one of the great rivers, the great desert, mountain ranges and the plains, as well?
I stared down on the yellowed, fold-crossed map with eyes that had seen these things, had traversed them not just once, but many times, and those eyes thought little of that journey beyond a rational acceptance.
I stared down on the map with eyes that had never been any further than the market at Jakardra, had exhausted themselves on a single day’s walk on familiar roads, and those eyes filled with tears at the sheer impossibility of such a journey.
I searched frantically in my mind and in his for a possible shortcut to that journey, of translocating myself across that distance or using a doorway, and there was no such shortcut.
The only known doorways were few and all led to places that were stranger still and more barren still than the land of the magic horses, and translocating yourself across any distance further than a stone’s throw was an effort that would tear your mind in half.
The roads would have to be travelled.
But oh! I was so scared of that endeavour, even with my Lucian knowledge and experience below me, a steady pulse of strength and support and the memories of being able to do such things with ease and never a second thought.
In the end, I gave myself up to those memories and rested in one of the Serein rooms for the night, washed up in the morning and called for the black to be delivered.
I rode steadily, pacing the black with far more care now in view of how far he would have to travel me. I slipped into a mode of being all soldiers on the long roads must acquire or simply go insane instead, a sitting right back inside your mind, in a place where time just happens like water washes down a river, without a care, and your thoughts just drifts from one thing to another whilst a part of you is wide awake and on duty like a tireless guard.
When the first night had long fallen, wet and cold on a road unknown to my own eyes yet familiar of old through the other view that overlaid my vision and understanding, I sent the black home and took refuge in an abandoned and dilapidated cattle shed.
I ate what was left of Marani’s stale provisions, created a circle of safety and slept in my cloak.
The next morning, I awoke, relieved myself, called the horse, and on we went.
It was really as simple as that.
Where we passed, sometimes people stared, and when there was a village or a trading post, I would likely cloak us both and we passed by unnoticed, like the ghosts we were, re-tracing footsteps and hoof prints we had made ourselves a hundred times before.
Wherever we went, there was familiarity and memories, if I only wanted to call upon them. I had known this road for many times a hundred years and it had changed little, if at all. I knew every trading post and every inn along the way, every holy site and every monastery, and if called upon, I could have recounted to you the precise lineages of all who occupied the castles and the keeps, and the high towered rises.
For a number of days I neither ate nor drunk at all and just refreshed myself by drawing on the patterns of the air and at night, of the ground on which I lay and where I healed what needed to be healed and restored what needed to be restored.
When the plains gave way to winter fields, some barrenly awaiting their summer seed, some covered with wilting winter greens, and pastures where the new spring grass was just about to show like a tiny shimmer of green across the surface in the light, there were more houses, and more people on the roads. The towns grew larger, and many of them had packs of soldiers lounging around the market squares.
We passed on by.
My black was showing signs of weariness and I exchanged him for another. They kept 12 ready for Lucian's exclusive use at at all times and I did not have to be concerned with wearing them all out if they were kept in sensible rotation. We went on and on and eventually I had to concede that I would have to eat again, or else I might get lost in this grey of movement and forget just where I was going, or why.
When evening had fallen, I found an inn, well on its own and well away from any town or hamlet, its lights like fireflies in the distance at first, then on approach, resolving to a pouring of many lights from small crooked windows, and voices, and horses, and the chicken laughter of women, too.
For a time, I stood the black in the dark and just watched the place, grey walls, saddle backed roof and stables.
I saw men coming out and relieving themselves carelessly against the wall.
I saw a man and a woman with her breasts bursting from her bodice, her voice loud and shrill, his hands all over her rump and waist and they ducked into the stable building.
I wanted to remain here and resolved that from this night on, I would acquire food and carry it with me so I would not have to walk into such a place, not have to cope with all those people and the lights too bright and the noise of their untidy minds and their untidy voices.
I slid from the horse, thanked it for its day’s work and sent it to its well earned rest. Then, with a deep sigh and a deliberate straightening of my attitude and bone weary body, I walked across the muddy, hoof churned space that separated the inn from the road.
Bad enough as it was from the outside, stepping through the open crooked door frame roughly hewn from unfinished logs of wood, the stench and noise and comparative brightness of the place assaulted me so physically that I reeled on the threshold and had to fight to take the next breath. My Lucian mind nudged, ever ready and willing to relieve me of my burdens and tonight and in this place, I was too tired to resist its call and let it loose to do what must be done.
From the viewpoint of a child riding on his father’s back, I observed myself striding easily into the inn, across the dirty sand and straw strewn floor, creating a space for me that pushed the people in my way aside (dirty red faced farmer, wine stains down his open shirt, masses of chest hair curling, leaning to talk to two old soldiers, one blind and one as thin as a skeleton, but both drunk, a group of young men, farmhands, in the middle a serving girl with worn out features making no attempt to smile as they pat her behind and make lewd gestures and their drooling smiles).
Silence becomes as I walk through them and to the bar, old barrels supporting a plank of wine stained wood and reach straight inside the innkeepers mind to both extract the whereabouts of his best room and leave instructions as to have me bring his finest wine and food to eat for now and pack provisions for my journey.
The man, big, double chinned, sweating, dirty brown skin and grey receding hair, turns a greenish pale and starts to tremble and I leave him and make for the rickety wooden steps to find the room reserved for any passing noble folk and close the door behind me.
I create a fire for the first time since I’ve left Tower Keep behind and with a deep, deep sigh, let myself sit on the bed, a rough platform covered in lumpy bags filled with straw for mattresses and rough sheets made from homespun linen, uneven texture, grating like bark under my hand.
I take off my cloak and will use it to shield me from the bed and whatever may live there.
I take off my boots for the first time in a tenday, avoid the filthy straw that covers the floor, draw my feet up on the bed and stretch out long. It is a revelation. There is a poor washstand in the corner and I reach and find the keeper’s mind once more to order having his largest container brought up with clean and freshly boiled water to be delivered, right away.
I lay on the bed and there is a timid scratching on the door. I send a brief acquiescence and the door opens fractionally, a bottle of wine appearing and then a dirty thin white arm as though the tiny serving maid who finally sidles into view is waving the white flag of truce.
I turn my head towards her and for the first time since I did begin this journey, look at another human, woman to woman, girl to girl.
She is about my age, but much smaller than I am and terribly thin. She has huge dark blue eyes burning like Serein eyes in her wasted face. Her hair is washed out brownish blond, straggly, ill kept, never having known a comb for weeks if not months, and she is wearing a shift too big for her made from the cheapest, coarsest sacking. Her face is dirty and her neck near black with streaks of pale skin where her fingers, sweat or tears made rivers in the dirt.
I have her come closer to me and hold out the uncorked bottle and the tankard she was hiding behind her back.
She is petrified but has no choice. My Lucian mind is stirring lazily, rippling waves of an appetite beginning to build and I control it with a sharp whiplash command that sends it whimpering.
I look at the girl again and now I can see her shaking and I know her somehow, from somewhere.
I gentle her easily, take the wine but not the tankard. I use my sleeve to clean the bottle’s rim and automatically check for the presence of poison. I take a deep drink of the bitter, sour stuff and ask her name.
“Bet, my lady,” she whispers and I see she has teeth missing and broken in the front of her mouth.
Inside me, something else is moving now, rising and rippling and I am about to send it back again when I note with surprise that this is not a Lucian emotion but one of my own, a terrible anger and a rage at those who had brought this girl to this, to this what she presented in her body and her mind to me on this night.
I took a deep breath to steady myself and for now, dismissed the girl Bet. Gratefully she ran from the room and half a bottle of wine in slow and steady sips later, she returned with another woman, which I recognised as the sour faced servant who had been the sport of the farm hands, carrying platters of meat, a jug of gravy, steamed vegetables in a serving dish and a loaf of bread. I had them put it on the bottom of the bed in the absence of a table and began to eat with care, whilst they left and returned with a large and heavy dull grey tub of beaten metal and then proceeded to make many journeys with jugs and buckets to fill it with hot water.
I ordered fresh drying cloth and washing cloth from them and Bet arrived, breathing hard, with those objects; they were washed but not clean but I would suppose that they would have to do.
I sent her away and set a seal on the entire room at every level so that I could be alone.
The tub was neither a river, pool or the wonderful Serein pond from Lucian’s house, but it sufficed so I could sit in it with my legs drawn tightly against my chest and wash the road from my skin and from my hair.
I carefully re-heated the water a number of times until I was quite satisfied and my fingers and toes well water wrinkled and soft.
I stepped from the water that was no longer see-through with a smile, wrapped myself in a sheet and placed another sheet by the fire place, so I could sit there, dry and remain clean.
The fire was lovely on my skin and eventually, I dropped the sheet from around me and let my naked body move in front of the flames, luxuriously soaking up the warmth, stretching and relaxing any tenseness from my muscles.
The memory flashed of the fire at Tower Keep when I had first met Lucian; my memory of stretching my body to the fire and his memory of watching me doing so.
It caused a deep intake of breath and a tingle throughout me, a rising of the same sensation I always felt when I watched Chay for too long and my eyes were drawn to his skin and the play of his muscles beneath them. I touched my own weak soft arms and shuddered deliciously at the touch, then stroked my neck, my breasts (they were getting rounder, heavier), my stomach and lay down to stretch out my legs.
Another memory – his hands on my thighs in the silent circle of the standing stones. I retraced his movements as I remembered them on my legs and between my legs, in the soft parts that hurt for wanting to be touched when from somewhere I heard his low voice stating evenly, “You needed to discharge.”
I stopped and took my hand back, sat up and looked at the fire.
I did not need to discharge. The powerful building sensations inside me that demanded release were a powerful source of energy. I would keep them circulating as I had with Chay and they would recede in a few moments, leaving me clear and tensely ready for – well, for whatever.
No more discharging. Not ever. Not until and unless Lucian lay with me and finally made me his wife.
I sighed and wrapped the sheet around me once more, partially with a feeling of regret and partially with a feeling of triumph, yet I knew somehow that what I was doing was the right thing, that there would be time when I would know why it had been the right way to proceed, and that it was all correct and as it should have been.
I slept well and entirely as myself that night, dreamless and in comfort.
I slept so well in fact that the dawn had come and gone and a bright crisp blue morning was well under way outside.
With some reluctance I dressed in my dirty clothes, more dirty in thought than in structure for nothing much could ever cling to the Serein fabric, no matter what you threw at it, and with even more reluctance I put my feet back into my boots.
I found ready outside the door a generous way bundle of cheese, dried fruit, dried meat and bread in slices, wrapped tight in cloth and tied round with rough string. I went downstairs with it and to my relief, this morning there was only a single man in a dark cloak and the sour faced serving maid in the bar room downstairs.
Stale smells hung densely around every item and aspect and persisted in spite of the open door and its cold fresh breeze ruffling the filthy trampled straw that covered the floor.
The maid and the traveller at morning meal both froze and stared at my arrival. My eyes went to the plate of eggs and fried meat that the falcon faced man had half consumed and my nostrils flared. I would like some of that too before I went back into the nothingness of roads and riding.
The Lucian self offered to set the tasks but I felt like myself this morning and so spoke out loud to the serving woman, “I would have this meal brought to me,” pointing at the dark haired man’s plate.
She nodded, curtseyed and half ran from the room towards the back where the kitchen would be found, and half way remembered she was supposed to ask if would want some form of chargeable beverage to go with my meal. She stopped and hesitated, afraid to address me, afraid of the witch queen that had come to stay.
I smiled at myself and lightly shook my head. Princess perhaps but queen? Well let us hope the day will come to pass sooner, rather than later.
Out loud, I said, “I would have a berry tea if you have such a thing,” and she nodded rapidly and rushed from the room with huge relief and yet the fear that I just might have read her thoughts.
There were a number of tables, stools and benches around the outsides of the room, all similarly badly put together, some old, and some old with new parts hastily tied into them to make them serviceable once more. The only clean table was the long rectangular one at which the second traveller was sitting, with two long benches either side.
He was watching me intently and I turned into his eyes. He held my gaze.
“May I join you?” I asked and he nodded and rose from the bench with some difficulty.
“An honour, my lady,” he said in a very precise and well spoken way that told me from old he had some education and no matter what his current state of affairs, had been born well.
I sat myself on the bench not quite directly opposite him and placed the cloak and food parcel by my side.
The man had sat down again and kept his hands still by the side of his platter on the table.
“Please do resume your meal,” I said formally and he gave a small nod and picked up a piece of bread, wiped it on the plate and placed it into his mouth.
I decided to give him some attention.
He was only about 30, but a bad injury in his hip had made him lame when he was but a boy and it never really healed completely. His hands were surprisingly slender for a male and gave away that he did not use them for work of any kind, may it be warfare or farming. I knew the type well. He was probably a scribe, or an ambassador or messenger to some lower lordling, baron or landowner.
He had a tight, ascetic look about him and in spite of his relative youth, sharp, deep groves between his eyebrows and down the side of his nose and mouth. His hair was black and springy, cut short at the front and falling long to his shoulders at the back.
His clothes were of good quality but deceptively simple, as though he was trying to hide the fact that there was money at his disposal.
He looked up and his dark brown eyes – intense eyes, secret eyes – met mine again.
“May I introduce myself, my lady?” he asked and I gave a reserved smile as my yes.
“Thoran of Thelein at your service, my lady.”
A flash of memory. Thelein was a lineage that had controlled the councils of the King’s chambers for a very long time, even before Malme’s time and that was a long time indeed. An inherited post with a Lordship attached and great landholdings around Pertineri itself, and tremendous power over the administration of almost everything in the King’s land. The Thelein Lords had it at their fingertips to bestow rank, favour, pervert the course of justice and of trials, determine which matters ever reached the King's attention in the first place, and were feared and hated by everyone.
This one was not the current Lord Thelein, but perhaps a third or fourth son, or perhaps a bastard son or cousin. He was taking a grave risk in telling me his name for there would be a great many who would be happy to gouge out his eyes or try and trade him for a favour or two, no matter how tenuous his link to the King’s chancellor.
He briefly looked down on his plate, noting my reaction and noting also that I knew about things of state and government. Then looked at me again and waited for my introduction in turn, so that he could similarly place me in rank, title and status. My clothing and my speech, my youth and my bearing and the effect I was having on the folk in the inn must have had him intrigued and confused, and he had glanced repeatedly at the ancient diamond on my finger.
I took a controlled breath and said, “Isca, consort to Lord Lucian Tremain.”
I watched in some childish delight as the man first stopped and checked himself if he had heard correctly, then when the realisation hit him, his eyes widening in surprise and fear and then his fight to control himself followed by a real problem as to how to deal with me from there.
Luckily for him, at this time my berry tea and platter of eggs and meat arrived, as did some extremely fresh bread and a slab of butter.
I was hungry and happy and started eating right away, giving him time to observe me and to come to some decision as to whether he had misheard me, whether I had been joking, or whether I could really be who and what I said I was.
The mid morning meal was surprisingly good, as was the berry tea. I sighed happily and put the mug down.
“This is much better than I had expected,” I said cheerfully to Thoran of Thelein, just as you would to a comfortable companion who has shared many a road with you in the past.
He wrestled with himself and played his long fingers nervously along the rim of his now empty platter, then he asked as casually as he could muster, “Do you have a long journey ahead, Lady Isca?”
I noted that I was quite glad of this conversation, the first one I’d had for what seemed an eternity, and could see no harm in speaking truthfully.
“I am travelling to the North Mountains.”
He could not hold back a look of surprise.
“That is a very long way, my lady,” he said, hesitated, and then added, “who are you travelling with?”
I smiled and stretched my legs out long.
“I am travelling with my horse, Thoran of Thelein.”
He shifted uncomfortably on the hard wooden bench, his injured hip sending him the usual nagging pains that he had learned to ignore if necessary.
“Are you aware, “ he hesitated again, and then completed the sentence, picking each word with great care, “are you aware that there are unfortunate developments in between here and the North Mountains?”
“You mean the war between Trant and Selter for Pertineri and the crown?”
He smiled and gave me a respectful bow.
“Indeed my lady. These are most – uncertain – times. The roads are not safe for anyone these days.” And he let the sentence drift away without speaking the attached sentiment out loud, and never mind for a single woman.
“So why are you travelling alone and without escort?” I pricked him just so he would think of the answer, but this man was very good in containing that he wished to contain. His mind went quite blank and he smiled me a warning.
“I am but a harmless traveller,” he said. “I have no riches and no attraction of any kind. My chances of arriving intact are better than most.” And here he didn’t keep his thinking well enough controlled and I had a glimpse of a chamber which I recognised to be that of the Lord Chancellor himself.
The thought flashed clearly into my mind then that this man was a messenger who communicated between Lord Trant and the King’s own chancellor. A very risky business indeed, and one that if discovered, could lose not just his head but that of everyone and anyone who was associated with that ancient families name, right down to the last serving wench’s bastard babe in arms.
Those contemplations were a Lucian thing, and he must have seen the shift in my face and bearing which always caused Marani to get most upset and now he was extremely uncomfortable and not a little scared, even beginning to suspect that I had been sent specifically for him at the orders of the Dark Lord himself.
I checked around for any listening ears and found none.
Low and clear I said to him, “I have no interest in this war, and neither has my Lord for all I know. We have matters of our own concern that need to be addressed and which are the reasons for my travel. What you do here and why you are going where you are going is none of my concern. I wish you well in your endeavours and do rest assured that I have never met you here, nor even heard your name.”
It did nothing to make him feel any better, but at least he rallied round enough to ask me the question that had burned him since I first told him who I was, “Are you indeed, the lady of – Lord Tremain? The Lord Tremain?”
I held his eyes and said, “I am indeed.”
He shook his head and then shook it again.
“I have never met Lord Tremain myself,” he said eventually, shaking his head again, and there were a thousand questions burning behind his lips that he simply didn’t dare to ask.
I looked down at my mug of berry tea. There was about one third remaining.
“You may ask me freely what you would know about Lord Tremain,” I said with a smile. “When this tea has been drunk, I will leave on my way and the opportunity is past.”
Thoran’s mind was a whirl. He was an information gatherer, a spinner of complex intrigues and knowledge to him was power. What I had offered him was a few moments to choose from a treasure cave as big as a cathedral, and then years of bitter regret that he had chosen unwisely.
He looked around and said in a half whisper, “Is it true he is as old as it is said? That he is a demon?”
I smiled and took a dainty sip from the mug. “He is just over 600 years old. But he is no demon. It’s a Serein thing.”
Thoran bit his thin lower lip and his fingers moved nervously. “Is it true that he killed the Serein because they tried to punish him for all his evil doings?”
That one caused me to stop smiling and I could feel myself going angry and hard. Why did everyone always turn everything so it would be all his fault?
Straight into Thoran’s nervous eyes I said, “The Serein tried to judge him for the death of one of their own, for which he was not responsible. An accident happened that caused all who were in the link at the time to die. It was not Lord Tremain’s desire nor his wish and others besides him were involved in the accident.”
As he contemplated my statement, I took another drink from the mug. Hurriedly, he asked, “Is it true that he took his orders from the Serein?”
“Now that is indeed the first intelligent question you have asked of me,” I said but it wasn’t me who said it and Thoran well noticed and got nervous again. Forcing some control over the interaction, I said, “Yes, that is absolutely correct. The Serein created him so he would do their dirty work. As did the one who held the title before him.”
His eyes were big and round and wide open now. His nerves forgotten, he said with a sigh, “This proposition has been discussed in whispers for centuries and no-one believed that it could possibly be true. Are you sure about this?”
I nodded. “I am sure of this. I was present when the judgement took place, and the accident.”
“If he was serving the Serein, who is he serving now?” asked Thoran and I picked up the mug and emptied it in one last draft.
I placed in on the table before me and got up.
Thoran looked up at me, halfway between wonder and shock and I said to him with a smile something that I had not known myself until that moment,
“Why, of course, he serves me.”
I picked up my cloak and food parcel and walked through the door into the bright yellow sunshine from a pale spring sky. The sun had gained just a touch of power and I could feel its warmth through the cold air, gaining in intent once more.
I knew Thoran was behind me and that the kitchen girls and serving maids were watching, as was the stable boy and the innkeeper from his window above and very deliberately, I created the doorway and my current black stepped through, out into the mud of the yard, towering, shiny and extraordinarily beautiful, the gold spirals on his leather tack sparking tiny stars.
I knew they were watching me as I placed the food into the saddle bags, laid Lucian's cloak across my shoulders and mounted him easily.
I knew they were watching me as from the height of the horse, I turned him on the spot to look at them all and reached out and with a simple flick of intention healed Thoran’s hip and set his twisted spine to right, replaced Bet’s teeth and brightened her spirits, cured the innards of the innkeeper so he would live on beyond the next fall and corrected the small distortion in the servant girl’s body that precluded her from having babies.
For effect, I threw a little fire star high into the air by the way of farewell, turned the black and had him jump to the road, lengthening the distance with every stride.
The legend of Lady Isca had been born.