High up, very high up a mountain side, standing on a black platform, a sharp morning wind with the taste of ice and snow cutting away at you, drifting your cloak and your hair.
Behind you, a sheer drop down, straight into the clouds for we are above them now and they look like a pale pink winter ocean that stretches on forever more.
To your left, the road winds out of sight amidst huge boulders, covered in ice, made from ice, grey rock rising steeply and vanishing into the distance.
To your right, the sun is rising pure pink and orange, flooding and shadowing the mountains that are marching off into the distance.
And in front of you, the tower.
Here is the base, slightly easing out in a semi-circle from the stone with which it is eternally bonded. There are no windows and it rises straight up to about five men’s height. Put your head back and sweep your eyes up to the high reach of the tower that overlooks the peaks either side, silver black, eternal, it has been here when the world was young and will be here when the stars die and fall all around us.
But the doors. They are the entrance to the very worst of hells you could ever begin to imagine. A place of such suffering as you could not conceive of or it would simply blast through your mind and leave it a desert, a desert that never ends.
This is my home.
I have come home at last.
I unlock the doors with a complex twist that is burned into the very marrow of my bones and they simply disappear, leaving an opening in the silver black smoothness of the walls that is the gateway to oblivion.
Oh but I remember the first time I stood here, small and trembling against the cold in my filthy rags, my teeth shattering so hard they echoed back from the very walls of the mountains.
Oh but I remember how my frozen feet refused to move, bonded themselves, grew roots down into the stone and I was so afraid. After all I had seen, done, received I could still taste the fear of this place. The young Serein who had brought me here disappeared into the darkness and I could not move. I stood there until every part of my body had turned into crisp ice that burned me to pieces and I stood there until the night storms clawed at me with their vicious hands and I prayed that I would die but I could not move.
How many times have I thought of that moment.
How many times have I thought of that moment and wondered.
Wondered what would have happened if I had found the courage to move my feet, step back, another step, and another, until I would step into freedom.
Sometimes I saw the ledge drop away from me as I slid into nothingness, crashing against welcome rock, clear pain and the shattering of my bones and limbs taking away the fear that I could not stand to bear.
But I did not take those steps.
I did not take the only chance I could have had to escape the damnation of the sunsets and the sunrises.
I just stood there until the servants came and they carried me inside.
I never fought them, and I had lost my chance of salvation.
It was morning, I stood outside the doors and the tears on my face were freezing. My feet were not bonded to the stone below me, in fact, I could it feel it’s depth vibrating, age old, and trace the twistings that had created this platform from the grey rock, flowed it like wax and set it with intention.
I raised my hands and looked at each one in turn.
They were chaffed, red, calloused but very much my own long thin woman’s hands. I turned my left wrist to let the diamond catch the ever more yellowing rays of the rising sun.
Sephael, I thought, Sephael, you cannot rule me with fear like you ruled that child. I am more than enough to take on your memory. I have come to claim from you what is mine by rights and I will not fear you.
Still, and to be honest, my heart beat high when I stepped through the entrance door into the familiar gloom of Lord Sephael’s keep.
I smiled wryly and put it down to having passed through the intense waterfall-like curtain of energy that ran inside the very walls and cascaded across the open door, keeping all the screams on the inside and the outside well at bay and unknowing of whatever might transpire here.
Lucian had never felt it like this. Keep this thought, for although and yes, he remembered this place in his ways, I was not him and I experienced things that he could not.
I took a deep breath and halted in the hallway, casting around with mind and eyes.
The silver black stone from which everything was composed here was covered in deep dust. Centrally across was the lifting shaft that shot straight up to the levels of the tower itself, and down into the depth of the core mountain rock below. There were no stairs here, and the illumination ledges that ran across the corridors and walls were dead, thickly covered in dust which made them look like white streaks across the top part of the walls and disappearing into the gloom of the lower level rooms, where busy scribes and servants once were engaged in the business of running entire kingdoms.
That was a very, very long time ago though.
Now, all was intensely silent.
I searched for the best way to light the tower, and found a pattern that connected them all together and into a power source that lay deep in the base of the rock below. A few adjustments later, and the tower sprang into an eerie greyish light, softened by the many layers of dust that began to lift at the edges and dance lightly as the lights began to warm from the freezing that surrounded everything, seeped into everything, was steeped into every smallest pattern that resided in this ancient place.
The dusty light revealed footprints to me, leading towards the lifting shaft and I cast around strongly for Lucian’s familiar patterns amongst the cross currents of the living tower and its sub-entities. It was confusing, unbalancing and strange and then I found him.
He was down in one of the lowest levels.
He was in the dungeons.
For a moment, a fear that was never mine rose with a howl and I stilled it with gentleness rather than to push it back as I had previously done. Shush, I said to the memories like you would say to a frightened child. Shush, you be quiet now and let me take care of it.
I walked amongst his footsteps and into the lifting shaft, for the first time and for the hundred thousands time alike, and all that was me really had to fight my own fear then, the fear of falling into the lightless black where there is nothing under your feet, nothing for your hands to hold on to and nothing for your eyes to see.
Carefully keeping the balance between retaining myself yet giving over enough to remember how to make the adjustment in your mind that would make you sink down instead of rising up, I descended through the darkness, the exits to the other levels gently dropping by, one by one, keeping tight control of the memories of each, until the second to last level was reached and I stepped from the shaft and into the dust once more.
More footprints. I followed them, holding on tight and not letting anything other come to me now, past the cells with their torture equipment, all now blanketed in a sheet of grey, followed the footsteps until they entered the central room, circular, no windows, with the symbolic floor I remembered so well, sigils set in silver and in white and black, and the power points in red gemstones, no!
I stepped through the door, and saw for real instead now.
I had finally found him.
The room was an ocean of dust, the floor unseen beneath, the surface of the ocean churned here and there.
He was here, on the ground against the far wall, his clothes covered in dust, and around him, empty bottles seemingly floating abandoned as though he was an island that was drifting apart.
I stepped through the doorway and walked up towards him, halted about a man’s length away.
But my, did he look old. I had never seen his face so dry, so deeply lined, so fallen. His hair powdered with the dust, his black jacket was open, grey and smudgy and so was his usual white shirt, stained with blood but no, with wine, that would be. His trousers were half undone and he was not wearing his boots. I could not see them anywhere.
He raised his head and looked at me. His pale eyes seemed to glow in the semi-dusk around us, rimmed red and dark below so they were like shining from caves. With difficulty, he raised the bottle he was holding by the neck in a mock salute and in a hoarse voice that was hardly more than a whisper, said to me, “Ah. If it isn’t my wayward apprentice. Come to finish the job?”
I sat myself into the dust before him, cross legged, and pushed a couple of the empty bottles away.
When I looked back at him he was still staring at me, unwavering and unblinking, and I said, “I could do with some of that wine. It’s dusty in here.”
He blinked then, half shook his head. There, he said into my mind and directed me to a chest on the opposite wall, where one or two bottles still survived intact in layering of straw.
I reached out for one, lifted it with ease and floated it across to where I was sitting, right into my waiting hands. I flicked the patterns so the bottle top simply fell off and disappeared into the dust, raising a small cloud as it settled. I watched this then drank straight from the neck. It was an excellent vintage.
There he was, right across from me.
I had traversed the lands to be here, to find him.
I had been so afraid that I would be too late, that I would not be able to ever see him again.
And now, there he was, and I had no idea why I had come, or what to say to him.
So I just drank the wine in deep drafts, golden red and thick, burning down into my centre, making me aware of the screaming nerve endings in my body, how weary I was, how tired, how I could not think anymore, here in this place of all places. I could not risk reaching out for him and we sat in silence for what seemed an eternity of unchangingness, of our silence and then beyond the circle of our silences out into the silence of the torture chambers where no victims moaned nor torturers laughed, and across that into the silence of the rising tower that had lost its purpose and its voice when Lucian broke Sephael’s neck all those years ago in the King’s own Abbey at white Pertineri.
“Did you love him?” I asked.
Lucian had one knee drawn up, one elbow resting and his head upon that. He shook his head minimally and spoke into my mind like a whisper.
I can’t remember.
I took his thought and his being, and drew both towards me, trying to make that familiar contact between us, and he shoved me back hard. He raised his head and let it fall into his neck, looking at me with his weary pale eyes from below his lashes and said out loud, even though it cost him a considerable effort,
“I thought I was rid of you. Damn you. What do you want from me?”
I want you to love me as much as I love you, I thought, and at the same time knew that there was no point in either saying it or wanting it.
Instead I said, “You knelt before me in the circle of stones, and you pledged me your allegiance.”
He raised his head and seemed to make an effort to focus on my words, so I went on.
“This is what you said to me, I said, and let the memory come to me strongly of that moment just before our battle with the Serein. “You spoke these words: ‘I pledge myself to you in all ways, to serve you in all ways, as you desire. I pledge myself to this duty.’ And I accepted your pledge of allegiance, Lord Lucian.”
A wave of pain passed across his face, he blinked again and tried to focus on me.
“Will you deny you made that promise?” I asked formally.
He shook his head unconsciously.
“Will you break your pledge to me, Lord Lucian?” I asked formally and kept my breath forcing in and out, in case I held it for if he said that he could break his word, I would not know how then to reach him at all and I had in truth arrived here far too late.
He shook his head again, barely visibly and with enormous effort, brought the near empty bottle of wine he was still holding to his mouth, closed his eyes and drained it dry. With even greater effort, he forced himself to his feet with the aid of the wall behind him, gathered his balance and then threw the empty bottle hard across the room so it shattered on the floor well clear of me and caused a dust explosion right up to the ceiling.
Straightening himself to his full height, he was at least recognisable for himself again to me, and he even managed the beginning of a sarcastic twist across his lips as he said, “So here I am. What are your orders?”
I got up from the dust and held his glance across the swirling distance that still lay between us.
“Eat,” I said coldly. “Eat, drink, rest and clean yourself up. You are no use to me in this condition.”
He straightened even further and met my eyes with the same remote coldness, yet the smile on his lips was now clearly visible. With the hand that bore the red ruby still, he made a tight circular movement.
“There is nothing but dust here, my Lady.” The emphasis on my lady was heavy, sarcastic and sounded like an insult yet I gave him no satisfaction and remained perfectly still as he continued, his voice now more controlled and speaking smoothly,
“Would you have me eat the dust?”
I closed my eyes and reached into the patterns around me, the humming tower building above and the power source below, criss-crossing waves of threads and fields of distortion everywhere, and in response began to swirl the dust in this room where we were standing, swirling it and controlling it into a unity of being that followed my command.
I opened my eyes and kept the link to the patterns. All around us, the dust was rising from the floor and moving like liquid sand, forming vortexes, spirals and whirl pools. In the very centre of the room, I opened a rift into a place I did not know yet it was powerfully drawing on the dust patterns, stretching them towards itself, reaching them and pulling them into itself as the dust obeyed and ran, ran across the floor, ran from the shelves and ledges, rained down from the ceilings itself, crept off our clothes and from our hair and dropped to the ground where it joined the exodus.
When the last fragile banners of dust smoke had whisped and disappeared, I closed the rift.
The silver, black and white floor lay clearly visible, with its power points marked in brilliant red. The illumination was stark bright and clear once more, and I noted that Lucian and I were both standing in a sub circle formed by shell-like shapes of a clear white, interspersed with streaks of a white black stone.
I put my eyes upon him once more, and the sarcasm had gone from his face. He was a tried old soldier who strives to keep himself upright, born down by war wounds and by sheer fatigue, held together by the force of his will.
“No, Lucian.” I said softly. “I would not have you eat the dust.”
He staggered slightly and I realised that to keep him functioning for long enough to get him back together in some way, I would have to remain his commander – I would have to be to him what Sephael once was, and deeply as this thought disturbed me, I could not think of another way from here and so I addressed him formally and coldly once again, “Follow me to your quarters.” spun on my heels and without checking back to see if he would follow, strode from the room.
Once a pattern has been done for the first time, it has been learned on some profound level and is easy then to replicate. As we walked out and through the rows of cells, I set simple rifts, much smaller than the one in the main room but effective rather than spectacular, to clear the building of the dust of half a millennium. I walked purposefully and Lucian struggled to keep up with me.
Our footfalls rang through the ancient silence of the building, and where we went, the dust swept in currents into oblivion, leaving just the silver black of the walls, the ceilings and the floors, vibrating with their own strange life and power.
I had to support him lightly in the central shaft to accomplish the journey to the quarters level, the third highest in the tower and I walked forward and towards the room where he had spent the silent nights of his becoming.
It was clear of dust by the time he dragged through the doorway.
A single silver black base in the empty square cell and a Serein type wash arrangement in silver and black. High above head level was a thin rectangular section I knew could be turned opaque to let in the light of day or night, high enough so one could not see the outside no matter how one would jump or turn this way or that.
Without hesitation, the tall man walked past me, sat on the bed and then lay down on the stone, assuming a very straight position with his hands resting by his side. He closed his eyes and his breathing deepened automatically.
Lucian was not asleep and when I gently edged in to him on the Serein layers, unbeknown and not understood by him, I saw that he was caught in an old ritual that was as ingrained in his body and his mind as the very act of breathing itself.
He was a child again and I was Lord Sephael, standing in the doorway in my dark robes, watching him, tracking him, devoiding him of any and all space he might call his own, watching my creation unfold and become, watching him rest and revive once more for the next sunrise, or the next sunset, it was all the same in this place where the ancient times stood their last guard against the drift of time and space and where I was the very last to know it’s ancient secrets.
I would reconstruct him in body and would leave his mind to face the challenges in its own way.
For a moment, the silver black room swirled around me and I had to put a hand to the doorframe to steady myself. The diamond flashed white and gold and blue and green in the bright white light and steadied me, calmed me, drew me into itself and through itself, back into my own self.
I was Isca.
I wore my own ring and I had my own power.
And whatever Sephael had wrought from Lucian, I stood and swore that moment that I would undo it, that I would reclaim him, and that he would be our battlefield on which the final challenge would be played out, no matter what the blood, the dying or the tears.
It would end here.
I took Lucian’s unresisting mind and gentled it into the deepest, most profoundly dreamless sleep there could ever be, strengthened his body as best I could and repaired the worst of the ravages of starvation and dehydration. Then I left him, white as a corpse and as motionless on that black slab and went in search of some home comforts.
Five hundred years are a long time for a fabric to hold its cohesion.
Sephael’s rooms, one level up, where luscious, even with the enormous time span that had passed in the interim. With the dust removed, the entrance hall shone in the lights, huge golden statues of misshapen beings, bejewelled objects from times I could not even conceive of, wall hangings and tapestries that now had fallen under their own weights, and strange tables and boxes made from materials I did not recognise.
Nothing had ever been touched by a living hand since Sephael’s death, and as long ago as it had been, his patterns were here, strong and you could nearly smell them, enmeshed and interwoven in every strange item and work of art or magic, in the furniture and in the fabric of the tower walls themselves.
I entered his main bedroom and this was a revelation.
Lucian had never set foot into this place, not in all the time he had lived here, nor had he sought to enter it in the time he had spent here this winter. He had no idea of what the room contained, and what it contained was basically a perfect replica of the bedroom I had had at the Serein monastery.
It really took my breath away.
The same type of bed, the same mattress of springy dense material, the same bedside table of white and pink marble type rock and not a trace of the silver black that was prevalent everywhere in his own tower.
The huge window, from the ceiling to the floor, overlooking the sea of mountains and clouds below, facing right into the sun, I remembered this so well.
I stood and shook my head in non-understanding.
But there were additions and I set aside the similarities and focussed on what Sephael had chosen to surround himself with, from all the objects in all the known worlds and all known times he could have chosen to acquire.
On the wall opposite the window was a set of five thin shelves, each row supported by a square of Serein pink and white marble stone. Carefully arranged upon these shelves stood what appeared to be crystal or glass shapes, round ones, square ones, square ones with their corners squared, and pyramids, all basically see through but some just lightly tinged with all the colours of the rainbow. There was something very strange about these and although there was a barrier guarding them, I could still feel them even through that guard, stretching out into all kinds of unexplained dimensions.
I had no idea what they could be, but somehow there was a hint of thought that they were books of some kind, that they contained knowledge like the world had never seen or known. It made me shiver slightly and I had to turn myself with some reluctance to see what else there was, promising myself to investigate these crystal books when the immediate crisis had been negotiated.
In front of the window, on a sweeping stand which was the exact mirror of the one in the Serein monastery tower room, stood a great singing stone, deeply asleep, small opalescences playing across its surface as it dreamed. My heart started to beat faster and I had to pull all the shielding I knew to create around myself to stop me from reaching out with hungry eagerness and to awaken it at once, to make myself known and to tell it that its long loneliness was finally at an end.
Between my breasts, my own stone began to hum in recognition and in resonance, and I soothed it and admonished it to be silent for now. Our time would come, soon enough. For now, there was other work to be done.
At the bottom of Sephael’s bed lay, rolled up, a tapestry cover that was very reminiscent of Lucian’s own tapestry back at Tower Keep, but the background was a dark royal blue on which the strands of silk, gold and silver had been inlaid. I went across and reached out to touch the tapestry. As soon as my fingertips contacted it ever so slightly, they sank straight through the brittle fabric and caused it to crumble. I withdrew my hand quickly and reached into it with my mind instead, tracking back through time into the pattern and the faint remembrance as to how it once was constructed, when there had been moisture in its making and in the atmosphere of the tower. It wasn’t hard, and when I was done the tapestry was fairly jumping with energy, power and glowing colour, the only thing alive in this room, the only thing I had so far awakened.
With reluctance, I left the room and took the tapestry to where Lucian lay motionless, drawn and pale, on the unforgiving slab. I took my – his – cloak from my shoulders, rolled it up until it made a fair pillow, and gently levitated his head so I could place the pillow beneath it. On second thought, I levitated him entirely which was not much of an effort as I was becoming more used to the energies of the tower which could actually buoy me up and seemed to amplify my strength if I just let it, and removed his jacket, then his filthy shirt, too. After a brief hesitation, I removed the rest of his clothing and settled him back down onto the stone. I reached into the fabric of the stone and it was amazing, infinitely morphable, a base pattern that could be stretched and shaped with absolute ease into anything you could want it to be. With a smile of recognition and delight, I tried a few patterns until the stone slab had become a bed, had become softly resistant, gentle, warm and supporting to a body that needed all the warmth, support and gentleness you could possibly give it. With the change of the surface, a change appeared in Lucian. His posture relaxed and his head rolled to one side, one arm coming across his bare chest and a half movement of his hips and legs suggested that he wanted to turn over but was far too deep inside his sleep to be doing so.
I spread the blue tapestry over him lovingly and with great care, admiring its richness, colour and beauty, then I dimmed the lights down low, and the tapestry turned into a night black blue with the silver and gold threads sparking softly like so many stars.
I half turned for the door and then realised that I couldn’t possibly leave him here by himself.
I couldn’t walk out and leave me by myself, either.
The thought made me smile and I came back into the room, closing the door to the bright corridor behind me.
In the semi-darkness I stood for a time and looked at Lucian sleep beneath the tapestry and I don’t know why it took me so very long to realise that he needed starfields around him to have any hope of coming through this nightmare alive. The tapestry was just a reminder to me to go ahead and do this now.
I sat down on the cold silver black stone floor and spun a starfield for him, beautiful it was too, of a richness and depth and density that I never knew I could and I rained it upon him, let it surround his body and his entire self, and his breathing became deeper and I could hear it now across the room as he breathed in the starfield’s aroma and its essence, deep into the very core of his starving being.
When there was nothing left to do for him, I formed myself a bed on the wall opposite and sat down upon it. I wished for a bath and some food but there would be plenty of time for that later. I needed to rest, rest properly and deeply and happily for the first time in oh so many months. I snuggled myself into a ball on the gentle surface of the material I had created from the stone, softened it some more until I half sank into it, placed a warming shield around me and let go, allowing myself to drift across to Lucian who was not dreaming inside the starfields that were dancing for him still.