In Serein


2-1-5 Triple Spiral

I turned my horse and rode out into the darkness. Behind me, the red star extinguished and I could feel Lucian stretching his horse a little to catch up with me. He was impressed.

For a while, we rode along next to each other in silence, then he slowed us both to a trot.

Behind us, the whimpering and chaos of the minds stood out like a carnival on an open field, and when Lucian picked up on my thought, he stilled them all with a deep sleep instantly.

Silence was around us then, bar the wind, of course, and the rushing of the eternal grass.

Lucian spoke out loud to me.

“That was done well.”

When I did not answer, he asked, “How do you feel?”

I considered the question carefully and went inside for an answer.

Partially, I felt sad that this thing had to be done. Partially, I felt unhappy that I could not have thought of a more kindly solution. Partially, I was satisfied with how it had been handled and that justice had been accomplished.

Lucian laughed.

“Don’t get into that, I tell you! There is no justice. Only power. That’s all.”

That made me sad.

“If there is no justice, what was that just then?”

“That was you using your power as you saw fit. Justice does not come into it. Unless, of course, it is your own justice.”

“Tell me something,” I said, stretching on the back of the horse, tired all of a sudden and wishing I could lie down and close my eyes.

“Tell me why this amuses you so.”

Lucian fell thoughtful. “I should think,” he said eventually, slowly, “ I should think it may be because I have never had the opportunity to watch another be faced with my kinds of choices and decisions.”

I reminded him of himself when he was first starting to do his kind of work. That was just wonderful. So I was still the Lord Of Darkness in training?

“Not quite,” he said and there was a smile attached again, “To the other tribe, you will be quite the hero.”

“Have you never been the hero to the other tribe?”

He did not answer, and from deep within me arose a memory in response to my own question. I did not wish to get involved with Lucian’s past life at this moment, and to be honest, I was tired of the whole subject. The repeated lightning strikes had caused considerable energy expenditure, even though I just facilitated it and directed it, not created it from scratch.

I stopped the horse and slid from its back.

“I am tired, Lucian,” I said and stretched again.

“We are better to rest here this night than in that rubble of a village,” he agreed and dismounted too, giving the horses leave to go and try to find a water hole amongst the dark hills. The blacks merged into utter invisibility very swiftly.

I sat where I had stood, then lay right down.

There were little crawlings in the grass which I extinguished and then it was comfortable, very comfortable indeed. Lucian knelt and took my boots off which was nice of him. I had thought of doing it but didn’t feel like making the effort.

He stroked my hot feet and between his touch and the cool night wind, it was a most pleasant sensation.

Then, with a sigh, he threw himself next to me, rolled over and looked up into the night sky as well.

It had little changed from what we both remembered it to be. The darkness upon which the tiny lights lay like decorations on a rich woman’s dress was subtle and of purple hue; it seemed impossibly far away. If you looked for long enough, it was as though the tiny far off stars began to move in a random order, random dance; and he had never been quite sure at all if they really moved or if his eyes were playing a trick.

The wind flowed over us evenly.

Lucian said, “I question the wisdom of turning their judgement to you, now.”

Mentally, I translated his words. He was so careful with words. He picked them as though he was making a mosaic and had to search for the right colour tile amongst a pile of them first; placing the correct one into the wet clay and tapping it down once it had been correctly arranged.

As I had not responded, he cleared his throat fractionally and continued.

“You should not be burdened with such things. As a woman.”

The statement nearly choked me dry and I had to sit up.

“As a woman?” I asked him, incredulously.

“It is true,” he said and although I could see no more than a shadow highlight I could make out that he put his arms beneath his head and flexed his body, “you are to be my wife. I go to war and you stay at home. You stay safe and far away from all that might disturb your equilibrium.”

It took me at least a whole breath’s length to work out that he was teasing me, laughing at me, well concealed indeed behind a calm and steadiness designed to make me be at ease and set me up just right for this.

I cast around for something to throw at him, something to hit him with in return, but there really wasn’t anything but grass and wind in this place so I imagined a large pail of water, made it as real as I could and threw it over him through the link.

He gasped, reflexively curled up and brought his hands up to protect his head; whilst I watched smiling and well satisfied, he tested his hair and clothes for real moisture and when he found none, relaxed onto his back once more and laughed.

He reached out his hand to me and touched my knee and I could not resist to turn and lie with him and snuggle to his chest and into a full embrace.

Sincerely. I should have not have you do what you did. It is nothing to me and for you, it questions too much of who you are.

Perhaps. Perhaps it was as well. Be still now, for what is done, is done.

(sigh) That is in truth a statement that will soothe a multitude of pains and aches.

Nonetheless, it is true. It is very true indeed. And it doesn’t mean we cannot learn our lessons.

And what lessons, tell me lady, have you learned this day?

I thought about it for a while.

I have learned that it isn’t safe to destroy the surfaces you stand on.

(Wince, embarrassment)

I have learned that I have much to learn if I am to be your wife.

(smile) You are – you were – not born to high. But you are very young and I have the notion that you will find the palaces and gowns of richest colour and material not too hard to get used to, in the end.

I followed his thoughts and could feel a grimace on my face and shook my head before I even thought.

I wish it would be like it is now, always. Just you and me. No people watching, no having to try and walk like a queen when you are stumbling down a hill and want to flail your arms. And you not hurting my head when I am thinking or doing or saying something that would be embarrassing to you.

He closed the link in response but before I had time to say or feel anything, he had tightened his embrace of me, rolled me over so that he was now on top of me, looking down at close range. I could only see the merest tiny reflection of light where his eyes would be and his outline, deep in black against the starry sky beyond him.

We both have things that we by need will learn to do in a new way.

He was heavy on me, hot and I moved my hips and spread my legs so I could lie in more comfort under his weight.

It is a strange thing indeed. To return from a mission and to lie with your comrade-in-arms.

I giggled. To lie on your comrade in arms!

(Smile) Well that I have before. But never have I had a comrade remove their gown and dance for me under the stars.

I lay quite still and tried hard to make him out with my eyes in the darkness but failed.

Is this a request, my lord?

It is just a musing, a passing thought. That’s what he sent, but in his mind, the picture stood strong, and in his body, it set up a strong reaction that touched mine in return. Yet I was tired and had no wish to move out from beneath his soothing weight, so I compromised for now and placed my hands to his neck, drew his head down onto my shoulder. He relaxed into it after a brief struggle, gave a deep sigh and somehow, became even heavier still.

His hair beneath my palms and fingertips. If you brushed one way, it was quite spiky; if another, it was smooth as the hide of a thoroughbred. I turned my head and placed my lips on his forehead, breathing through my nose, scenting him deeply. Beneath me, the ground soft, cool, moist, and above me, just Lucian. I felt a trembling begin, it came from nowhere and there stood this unbelievable sadness of loving him so much that I could just not understand, but there it was, and for once I didn’t fight it, did not try to avoid it, did not try to turn it into another thing, anything else but what it truly was.

I feel it too.

What is it? I know I love you but how can this be love?

I don’t understand it. None of it. Never have.

I thought to love would make you happy. (Garlands flying, swinging skirts, laughter and bright colours, summer hay golden and a vibrancy that spreads through your bare feet, touches all the earth and then the sky)

Perhaps it is an illusion. Perhaps we are forbidden to enter there.

We lay in deep silence and the sadness began to recede, a slow soft motion, falling away to nowhere now it had been named and made its presence understood at last, satisfied with the rearranging of the land the flood left in its wake, expressed and delivered, and free to go back into the oceans where the all merged into flowing blue and green.

As one, we took a deep, deep breath and simultaneously became aware of our physical situations and made adjustments to our postures. He slid his hips and legs off me but kept his head on my chest, and I in turn tightened my embrace briefly to let him know that he would be welcome to remain there forever.

What will we do when the morning comes?

That is still far away.

His hand is playing along my side, I am brilliantly aware of its presence as though it was an entity detached, a strange thing that had come from nowhere, out of the dark grasslands beyond that were unseeable, hot and hungry.

You have such strange notions.

He pulls his head away from my chest and leans on his elbow, then searches for my lips and finds them with his. Very cautiously, he begins to taste me.

Can I compare to wine?

No, richer, deeper and a thirst that cannot be fulfilled, not now, nor ever, not even if I drank your blood itself. I have been warned of this. I have been warned that there is a time, and a place, where you can stand at the edge of an abyss and you might fall into its depth, never to return. It is here, and it is now. Am I free to choose, one way or another? It has been self ordained that I am not, as I have never been. The time will come when I will bitterly curse myself for this foolishness, this lack of sense, the giving in to what is beckoning me here. But how can it be worse? I am so tired of fighting. I am so tired of war. I am so tired of the pain and the darkness.  A brief respite would be the most of welcome things. A brief stay in the abyss, devoid of anything, devoid of me. Can you devoid me of me? Or is that not the question I should ask but rather, can I devoid myself of me? Can I in truth master this fear, or admit at least that the suffering has simply become too great to bear? That I have failed again and accept my failure?

Accept your failure and I will accept mine in return. And from two failures we can right a wrong of sorts, and who can know? There may just be a difference.

A difference, indeed. A promise of a difference. Yet why do I still lack the courage to take that step, and what is the right direction?

Once, you stood alone. I stood alone there too – remember? – outside the raven gates of Sepheal’s tower. What direction would have been the right one? Who’s to say, who is ever to know? You stood and you did not choose either way. But here tonight, there are no servants that would carry you in one direction or the other.

I did the wrong thing then, and I have been suffering through the centuries for that one choice.

Then make another, and the suffering might be worse than any you have known so far.

With a deep sigh, he released my lips.

What a promise you are holding out to me!

It is the best I have.

I would ….

Shh. I know. Whatever you can, whatever you will, I am here. I made my decision. I made my decision a hundred times or more, for better or for worse. Whatever you can find to give me, give me. Truly, I hunger for more, but just to be here now with you is so much more than I would otherwise be offered. Times are hard, and we are difficult. This land – this entire universe – and all its times are deranged and nothing is as once it seemed to me. Is it not enough we do the best we can? Can we do any better, at any time? Can you ask more of me, or of you?

I can. I always have.

Then that, too, is as it is.

Silence.

Your father told you – told us – that you would have to be strong. That one day, you would be the ruler of the land. You have always been as strong as you could know to be, and I admire your strength above all. I don’t have a hundredth of it. I am not one amongst a hundred times a thousand.

My father? I don’t remember.

Ah Lucian, but truly now, the time for such games must be past between us! I rebuked him and moved away and out from under his embrace.

(Startled, injustice, non-understanding)

I hesitate and tune more tightly to him.

Your father? In the main hall? He wore a cloak of midnight blue and his hunting leathers?

(Total confusion, total non-understanding) I don’t remember anything about my father. You must be mistaken.

He was entirely truthful. I checked him again on all levels but he was not playing a game with me at all. He did not know that he had the memories of his father I had re-lived what seemed a thousand years ago during that winter at Headman’s Acre.

The realisation truly disturbed me and I drew away from him entirely, sat up and wrapped my arms around my knees. What else did he not remember?

Cautiously, I said out loud, “Do you remember your father’s castle?”

He sat up too and thought about it. I tracked him carefully and got brief flashes of the elder ruin, far in the distance, he had never thought to seek out for a closer look when travels took him in that direction, and then, a very clear memory indeed that had some strange vibrations attached of approaching the castle on horseback – he noted my presence and said sharply, shattering the image instantly, “That was just a dream.”

I drew a cloak around myself then and tried to make sense of what I had discovered. I wondered what else I knew about him that he didn’t know about himself – and what would happen to him if he ever did remember. I could not even begin to imagine.

“What is going on?” he said out aloud with clarity and an authority that shocked me out of my thoughts and caused me to drop the cloak briefly.

He instantly linked to me tightly and I struggled to keep focussed on anything other than what I remembered of him and he did not, the very act of not thinking about it causing brief flashes of this and that to occur without me being able to control it. In the end, I forced myself to strongly focus on an image of the standing stones, when we first approached them, wearily and exhausted after the nightmares of the grey land. I don’t know why I choose that memory of all but it worked and was there, strong and powerful and deleted the other things that he was searching for in my mind.

Frustrated, he dropped the link, then said, “You remember my father?”

I nodded but perhaps he couldn’t see it in the darkness, for he said it again, louder and with an urgency, “You remember my father?”

Keeping myself shielded without seeming to be rude to him, and very grateful for the option of the cloaking of speech, I answered him, “Yes, I do.”

He slid across the distance between us, and put his hands on my shoulders, hard, giving me a shake.

“Tell me! Show me!”

I was afraid and yet, he had a right to know. These were his belongings, after all. What was I but a mere custodian, the keeper of the warehouse? With a sigh, I opened myself to his insistent attempts to link and remembered …

Wild rushing of greens of many hues, thunder in my ears. I am very scared but also so happy  that I could cry out aloud. My very first hunt. I am big now. I am no longer one of the little children that run alongside the howling hounds and the stomping horses for a little way and wish the years away so they could go as well. I am one of the chosen ones, and my pony tries to keep up, my father’s huge grey pumping his thighs by my right shoulder. I take my eyes of the path for an instant and look up to see him looking down at me – our eyes meet and he smiles. He is proud of me! Then, he points to the path with a stern gesture of admonishment and quickly I tighten my grip on the pony, just in time to have it jump across a small log in our way that doesn’t even break my father’s horses giant strides …

Lucian gasps and releases my shoulders. I can’t see him properly in the darkness but I can feel his utter confusion and turmoil of emotions the memory is evoking in him. Carefully, I make a small glow at my feet, a ghost of a campfire, not enough to hurt my wide open eyes that are desperately soaking up the meagre light of the far away stars but enough so I can see what he is doing as well as feel it in my stomach.

He is sitting amidst the flattened grass, one leg folded beneath him, the other drawn to his chest. One hand is at his temple and the other half held in a warding off gesture. His eyes are wide open and dark black with shock.

I move closer to him and try to catch his gaze in mine, to steady him to the now. I take his hand and hold it firmly with both of mine. It feels colder than it did just moments ago.

“Lucian?” I call him gently and he startles and focuses on me.

I didn’t know … I thought I had forgotten ….

Shhh. It’s alright.

Do you – can you - …

I didn’t know you had forgotten these things. I am very sorry. Really, I didn’t know.

Oh … He removes his hand from mine and sits up straighter, looks at me intently and with an expression I have not seen in him before.

Don’t be sorry, no. I often thought I wish I could remember something beyond Sepheal’s tower. But there was nothing there. Sepheal used to try and have me remember but I … I remembered some things about the monastery, but there was nothing further back than that. Is this real? Is this really … was that really my father on the grey?

I can’t think who else it might have been. In the memories, your memories, it is always the same man. And he is so much like you. It seems real enough.

Lucian shook his head and closed his eyes, wearily. Slowly, he said, his resonant voice rough around the edges, “I heard he was a great man.”

I did not know what to say to that, and after a time, he continued, “There was a war and a siege. I heard about it. The castle was taken and destroyed, and my family’s lands became part of the crown’s estate. Malme offered it to me, years later but I had no use for it. I had no use for it.”

“Where were you, during the siege?” I asked him gently, knowing full well that the time would come, sooner or later, when this question would arise.

He shook his head. “I told you, I don’t remember anything before the monastery. There is nothing there.”

A picture. A fluttering bundle flying through the air, against a night sky flaring with orange flames. Sounds. Insane screaming and shouts, weapons clashing upon one another.

Any siege. Any war. Any time. Any where. Any when.

Not anywhere.

It is my brother, there, flying through the air. He is so small. He is always cold and wrapped in many layers of thin fabrics as not to chafe his fragile skin. They don’t think he is going to live. Above me, there is our nurse at the narrow window, flames behind her, framing her. She has thrown my brother from the window and I cannot run to catch him for I am crouched behind a section of the fallen wall, and my legs won’t move. I can’t hear above the screams and the noise but I feel in my body  the crunch as he strikes down hard amongst the stones, bounces high and falls, lies still. A brightness catches my eye and I see the nurse, her hair and dress on fire, her arms and legs wildly thrashing, fall from the window, straight down to lie and twitch and burn amongst the corpses of the guards.

Gently, I embrace Lucian in a steadying link.

It is a long time ago, my love. We are here, now, you and I.

How could I forget this?

I don’t know. Perhaps you had to forget what happened so you could go on living.

I should have saved him. Anneas. His name was Anneas. My brother. I should have caught him, ran off into the night …

Lucian, listen to me. You could not save any of them. You were a child yourself. There was nothing you could have done better, or differently.

I should have tried. I just sat there, behind those stones. I was too afraid to move.

Shhh. I send him steadying, softening, and deep inside, was beginning to become truly afraid in case he wanted to learn the rest of it, or that those other memories would return unbidden. He would not be able to forgive himself.

I remember. I sat behind the stones and I sat there all night. The noises were terrible and I tried to shut them out but I could not. Then the day came and soldiers came and they found me. They dragged me out and were going to kill me but one of them said about my clothes and that I might be worth something. They took my belt for the buckle and my shoes. They hurt me and laughed at me.

I knelt by his side and placed my arms around his shoulders, my cheek against his head.

It is a long time ago, Lucian. A very long time ago. What’s done is done. Perhaps these things are best left in the past.

He blinked and moved his head uncertainly, looked around at the small glow in the grass and then at me.

“What’s done, is done?” he said, uncertainly and it sounded more like a question. I wasn’t at all sure anymore but firmly I replied, “It is a long time ago, Lucian. It’s done. It was done hundreds of years ago. It is over. Let it be so.”

He gave a deep sigh and leaned into my embrace. For a while, nothing was said and he did not return to the memories, nor did they return to him. Eventually, he asked, “Have you lived these things? As I live your life, right now and here, when it comes upon me?”

I sighed too. “Yes. I lived these things.”

Incredulously, he looked at me and said, “And you still – you still sit here, by me?”

There seemed no answer to this. I said nothing, just snuggled him a little tighter. The night wind was cold now, the mists penetrating and chilling. I created a space of warmth and safety that spread out from the small light in the grass. Around us, the night.

“We can re-build your castle,” I spoke the thought that came out of nowhere.

He withdrew from me and shook his head.

“What would that accomplish?”

“It would set things to right. Those are your lands by right. Your true heritance.”

He shook his head again. “That was all over and done with a very long time ago. I want nothing of this.”

Slowly, I spoke the thoughts that formed in my head.

“I don’t remember if you remember that I promised I would take you home. And where is home, but your own lands, the lands your father said were yours before it was all taken from you with fire and sword?”

Slowly, he unravelled his position and stretched his long legs out before him, leaning back supported by his elbows.

Carefully he replied to me. “I don’t think of home as a place. There is no sense in that. Is your home your mother’s and father’s hut? Is that where you would go back to as your choice of home? Or would you rather make your own, of your own decision, in your own place, in your own way?”

As he spoke, I felt a grimace come to me at the thought of going home to my father’s house. He was quite right. Re-building his father’s castle was too easy by far and would lead into more past rather than into a future. There may have been a time for either of us where we could have chosen to make our homes the way our elders had done, but neither of us could do so any more, or ever again. To many things had befallen us, too much time had passed.

He sensed my understanding and acknowledgement well enough, so he continued, “I can understand how one would want to erase the past by re-building the ruins of that castle. Indeed, I have tried such a thing myself – if in a different connotation – and I have watched it being attempted many times. But that is not how it works. Raising or erasing buildings does nothing to change anything, although it might create illusion of control in such matters.”

I was most relieved to hear him talk so sensibly. It did not solve his problems or mine, but at least he was reasonable and rational.

“I shall build you a brand new castle, then,” I said. “I shall raise it from the ground for you especially, in a most favourable place, and you come home to this, and to me.”

He smiled. “And thus you would have fulfilled your promise and your obligation. You do know I would not hold you to such a thing, spoken as it was near raving and from a place where logic had long since abandoned hope?”

“It is what you said you wanted.”

He smiled again.

“Come here to me,” he said. “Lie like a pet across my lap and let me feel your hair beneath my hands. I shall stroke you and wonder how your head can hold all these things without making you just a little crazier still. You talk of strength? I cannot cope what I have inside me, and I have both the practise and the constitution.” He reached out with an open gesture and I smiled, shook my head and obediently laid my head into his lap, wrapping my arms about his strong thighs and snuggling in close. He began to stroke my head, heavy, slow strokes.

“Do you remember,” he said reflectively, “do you remember the coronation of Lemos?”

The pictures came first, and they were bright and full of contrast. I closed my eyes and became one with the stream of information that grew ever richer and denser until it merged unnoticeably into the now and here.

I am standing at an open window, my hands resting on the thick stone sill. From below, there is a great noise of crowd, sometimes individual voices standing out briefly before being swallowed up again in a roar or cheer.

The vast central space surrounded by the royal buildings in Pertineri is packed with people, commoners, soldiers, tradesmen, and a seemingly never ending stream of carriages. Cavalry riders and knights on horseback, resplendent in their feathers and multicoloured tunics, are bobbing along, fighting their way towards the overflowing quarters.

Pickpockets would have the day of their lives today.

Tomorrow, Lemos would be crowned king. This was an occasion so very different from the last time I had been here, when his father had succeeded King Malme The Great. Then, there was no celebration. The mourning had stood in the air like a stern bird of prey. The colours had been muted and the cheers lacked heart and soul. I would have been very surprised if any tears had been shed at the passing of Malme II – if they had, they may have been tears of sheer relief, I would wager.

Mad Kort, as he was referred to by all, had been a twisted and bitter thing, with no hope of winning any of the unbounding adulation his father had walked upon by right. Malme had a charm, a presence, a fire that his son could not have hoped to aspire to, and the countless songs and tales of his heroic pursuits must have crushed what little spirit Kort may ever have possessed. He had been quite insane for the last 15 years of his long life, but by then, the kingdom had been run by the clerics under the stewardship of the Lords of Thelein  for decades.

Lemos was the illusion that Malme had risen again. Tall, arrogant, headstrong and handsome, he was nothing like Malme had been, but then, who would know?  He matched the portraits well enough with his red locks and flashing eye and no-one was alive now who knew Malme as a young prince, who had sat with him in muddy tents, shared his wine and listened to his visions of a better world.

I was feeling more out of time that day than ever.

Truly, there was no longer a place for me here, and standing at the windows of what had been my quarters for centuries on state occasions in Pertineri, I was well aware of the problems my presence was causing.

I was no longer the High Commander of the army and had not been for five score years or more. The latest High Commander had perforce been allocated much lesser rooms in the East Wing, and would undoubtedly be furious. I knew him not yet I had known his grandfather.

Peace was an interesting thing.

There had not been anything but minor skirmishes for 60 years and for all that time, everyone was busy forgetting about the unpleasantness of war. I was a most unfortunate relic, a walking reminder, and a threat to their versions of events at every turn.

Of course, I never spoke.

The time had long since gone where I would have been angry or amused at the nonsense, the utter idiocy and ludicracy of what desire and hunger for illusion twisted the stories of real men into, real events that I had lived, that I had seen, that I had known.

They had no idea now of what had really happened.

They were basing learned books and plays to teach their descendants on a pile of rubbish.

I would be there and watch their lofty spires fall in due course, once again, of course.

Being here again brought home to me how I had not replaced the friends of old I had left behind. There was no-one sitting here on my bed, laughing about the pomp and ceremony; no comrades or fellow commanders to drink with, not even an attendant to sleep at the foot of my bed.

It was impossible now to bridge the gap between me and them. We had become too different and I had stopped trying to find comfort in speaking with others, trying to find a like mind, for simply, there wasn’t one to be found.

A huge roar caught my attention.

A carriage in white, inlaid with pearl and painted gold was being escorted by many guards towards the main palace entrance. I did not know nor care too much, but recognised the carriage and supposed it would contain a female who would have the dubious pleasure of being the new queen of the kingdoms.

Flowers were thrown at the carriage and fell ineffectually to the ground; it did not shy the four royal greys.

Ah, but I was so out of it. I didn’t even know the name of the girl that Lemos would be marrying upon his coronation. I would have guessed it would have to be one of the daughters of the old kingdoms, to cement a unity that existed nowhere at all but in the heads of the tax collectors.

Saranis still hated the Northlanders with a fury, and both of those distrusted the Marcantians and  Sollanders  who would slit each other’s throats or burn each other’s houses at any opportunity they may get.

Marrying royal folk across the divides did nothing whatsoever to stop the centuries if not millennia of racial hatred, prejudice and strife that was sucked up with their mother’s milk and every step they ever took.

I was so bored with it all.

I was so bored with my life.

And even more bored with theirs.

Everything repeating the same, all over again. You hang around long enough in this forsaken theatre and you know the plays by heart, the plots by heart and even the lines become nauseous, no matter how stirring they might have sounded at the first reading, no matter how they might have fluttered your vanities or quickened your breath or how profound they seemed, once  upon a time.

I turned my back on the window and stood in the room, with nowhere to go and nothing to do. I was nowhere. I should have shouldered my sword and walked into the mists of memory with Malme and the Black Wing, letting my outlines be softened and like boiling lead or silver be shaped into what the story tellers needed to be sure of getting a few coppers into their wooden bowls on that particular occasion.

Unfortunately, I did not and was still here. I shook my head and wondered why they had send me an invitation in the first place. Most likely it was that somewhere in the bowels of this palace, where the ratfaced monks scurried and squinted over rolls of  parchments, their fingers  permanently stained with ink and their faces sallow, there was some list of Lords and Dukes and Earls. I guess they crossed them off when they died, replaced them with their son’s names if they were different, and I remained on that list, always there, copied from one year to the next, ad infinitum.

Lord Lucian Tremain.

Lord without land, lord without deed, without sons and without  purpose bar the tasks I was given by the Serein council, now and then, few and far apart, meaningless actions I did not understand, inconsequential, disjointed.

I shook my head. There was nothing to be gained by such musings.

I lay on the bed and stilled my mind to vigilance and unknowingness. It would pass the time until my appearance tomorrow. I would do my duty, take my place on the bench at the left hand side of the throne, the man who had been placed next to me carefully keeping his distance from me and quaking lest I should move too fast or unexpectedly.

I would stand motionless throughout the ceremony, keeping my eyes fixed onto a relief on the other side of the throne room, a relief I had stared at throughout many other ceremonies. It depicted a scene from ancient lore, a hunter who had stabbed the deer which turned out to have been a princess, beautifully executed in marble and softened just by reverent cleaning throughout the ages. This relief was older than I was and that was a comforting thing.

Yet so, I would feel their eyes upon me, and upon the naming of my name the wave of fear and hatred, in these latter days now tinged with superstitious nastiness and disbelief, would assault me once again then ebb to a constant vibration that never quite would go away.

There was a time when I had enjoyed this, and played to it in a fashion. I barely remember it now. It is not even an inconvenience. Once the formalities had been concluded, I would take my leave and return to my chambers, waiting for the night to fall so I could leave and not be riding through a crowd. Not that it bothered me; it was simply more convenient and I was tired of their stares, of their attentions and their intrusive thoughts.

I would return to Tower Keep and into the routine of grey and study of the ancient manuscripts, and quietness and wine.

I must be older than I think I am.

I stretched on his lap and turned so I could fully see his face.

“You were pretty miserable, hm?” I said to him without thought and saw him raise an eyebrow briefly.

“No,” he said, eventually and slowly. “Never miserable. Just bored and tired.”

“I would love to see a King’s coronation,” I said, thinking about the wonderful carriages, the ladies in their sparkling riches and the Dukes and Lords in all their finery. “Actually, I would love to see it with my own eyes, and not through yours. It isn’t much fun the way you see things.”

He smiled and leaned down closer towards me, stroking my cheek with the back of his hand.

“Wait a few hundred years and see if you can still find fun in pomp and ceremony.”

I smiled back. “Why spoil my fun today with thoughts of how it’s going to be boring in a hundred years? Kiss me, why don’t you. In a hundred years we might well have grown most tired of this sport.”

He gave a small laugh and obediently touched his lips to mine. I laid all thoughts and memories aside and concentrated on his feel, and we lay with each other in the circle of warmth and light amongst the huge night around us and it was very different, new, nearly shy, careful of each others great fragility.

It was very nice and doubly so for it was absolutely new to me as well as new to him. Both of us had so little experience in loving with your body, or your mind, and it did not seem to matter much that there was such a difference in our ages.

Lucian picked up the thought.

“I have lived a long time, that is true. But it begins to seem to me that that is not what makes for knowing, or experience. Perhaps if you were to take out all the repetitions, where nothing was new, and nothing was learned, and took that time and threw it away, you might reduce me to a simple veteran, a man of 60 or of 65.”

“A mere babe in arms, indeed,” I laughed at him, and held him close with lightness. “Old man, be sure I shall not trade you for a younger lover, well, not for a hundred years or so …”

He replied easily, “And I shall find your lover, and I shall tear him limb from limb with my own hands, and then I put you on my knee and beat your bare behind with the flat of my sword until it is striped red and raw and you beg my forgiveness.”

I laughed out loud. “I shall look forward to this day, my lord.”

He held me close against his warmth. “I shall not,” he said, “for no amount of beating of you would cure my devastation if you were to chose another over me.”

“Never, my lord.” I said sincerely and marvelled at the deep formality of the words we were exchanging; as so often, there were a great many layers to what we were saying and what we were meaning beyond.

“Don’t say never, young one,” he whispered into my hair. “And let us not talk of a hundred years, or of eternity. Was it not you who told me that the only place to be is in the now?”

So we fell silent, and we lay in the now, quite holding on to one another amidst the oceans of darkness and we merged and mingled in our sleep, our dreams weaving in and out of short awarenesses of movement and of change of light.

When we both awoke, it was day once more and we had no idea as to where to go from where we were.

The now is an interesting place to be, but sometimes, without a next, there is really nothing to be done at all!

In the absence of food, we recharged ourselves through the grasses and the small creatures who lived there, dressed and quietly wished for Serein washrooms, wine and fluffy breads with butter and light slices of meat.

We were a very long way indeed from any such comforts.

“I guess there’s nothing else to be done but to go back to the mountains and make our way to somewhere from there,” I said with a deep sigh, the thought of having to make that awful journey once again to Tower Keep leaning heavy on my disposition.

Lucian was buttoning his jacket and didn’t look in my direction.

“Unless we want to stay here forever, I would agree.”

“What shall we do? Where are we to go?” I wondered out aloud and he straightened and looked across to me with a small smile.

“Whatever my lady commands, wherever my lady wishes to go.”

“Oh that’s a help,” I said, a little exasperated. “You are the general round here, you are the one who gives the orders.”

“Ah,” he said and stepped a little closer, putting his head fractionally to one side as he had a habit of doing when he was observing me closely. “That is where you are wrong. A general or even a high commander is a soldier still who follows orders, nothing more. The only difference is you get to work out the best way as to how to follow the orders you are given.”

“So how is it that a general may challenge the king?” I wondered.

“For this to happen, the general must think of himself as a one who would give better orders than the king.” Lucian was smiling, and I had no idea what he found so amusing.

“Have you ever thought what you would do if you were king?”

He gave me a glance I could not interpret and stopped smiling.

“No.”

He turned towards the grassland and called for the two blacks. They were not far from us and soon, their great heads appeared first over a grassy mound right in line with the low bright orange sun which made a fascinating picture.

Lucian stepped up behind me and put his arms around my waist. I laid my head back onto his chest and into my hair, he said softly, “You would have me challenge Trant for the kingdom, you little witch who would be queen.”

For a moment, I did not actually understand although I had heard the words, and as an added distraction, the two blacks were now upon us, reverently lowering their huge heads just a few handspans from my face.

Then it finally sank in and I caught my breath as I considered what he had said, and to my amazement, found that he was quite right.

Yes.

Indeed, I would have him challenge Trant for the entire kingdom. Why not? Did we have anything better to do? Trant was a rat, worse, a dangerous lunatic who had thought nothing of devastating the entire land for his own ambitions. He did not deserve to sit on Malme’s throne. Without the Serein council to keep him in check, there was no telling what he would visit upon the kingdoms and the people within.

Why should Lucian not be king, indeed?

He released me from his hold and started to laugh, a little bit at first and then he laughed out loud, harder and harder still until he was doubled over, holding his arms to his side and coughing and gasping.

I felt like stomping my foot.

“What’s so funny about that?” I demanded of him, but he could not answer and just shook his head.

It took quite a while for him to recover his composure.

Finally, he straightened out and said, with tears in his eyes, “In all truth, I cannot remember ever having laughed so much. Not in my life. Girl, get on your horse. Let us return to the freeze and snow of the North Mountains, perhaps the cold winds there will blow some sense into your head.”

“No!” I said and nearly stomped my foot for real. “Why do you find the idea of taking Pertineri so funny? What’s wrong with being king?”

He didn’t laugh again, just shook his head at me and refused to be further drawn into the conversation. He beckoned the black to him and mounted with his usual graceful power. Looking down at me with a half smile, he said, “See you at the portal,” then spun the horse on its hindquarters and streaked out into the wide grassland, flowing under the morning wind like velvet when a hand brushes across it.

Angrily, I made my horse kneel and raced off after him. Unfortunately, the horses were perfectly matched and far too strong for my weight advantage to make much difference; I could not close the gap between us without resorting to some trickery.

As we rushed across and up and over the low waves of land beneath us, I tried to keep my anger intact and work out why he thought it so preposterous to wear a crown; yet I could not do so for the ride under the orange morning sun was too extraordinary, too real and now and simply too much fun to keep my musings and the anger in my body.

By the time we had reached viewing range of the destroyed settlement of the horse people, Lucian had slowed his horse to a walk to allow me to catch up and I had more or less laid the argument aside.

Our horses fell into step and the villagers, busy with repairs and clearing operations, stopped at our arrival and fell to the ground as was customary. I noted in passing that behind us the old man emerged from a hut in a hurry but Lucian gave him no heed and headed straight for the circle at the far end of the village.

If truth was told, I was not looking forward to landing in the snow, not even with the support of the horses once again restored.

We entered the circle and Lucian began to cast immediately for the opening of the doorway. I followed him habitually in his endeavours. He linked into our return path and was about to open it up for us to move through when I saw something. I stayed him and widened my perception and what I saw beyond the immediate return channel was not just one but many, many possibilities.

In fact, each single place from which a doorway ever had been opened had been recorded in the strange patterns of the circle in which we stood.

It was extraordinary.

There was a dense mass of possibilities before us, some pathways thicker and deeper than others, and Tower Keep stood out like a flare for it was here that the most recent doorways had been opened with the greatest regularity.

But also, every single point of my own journey across the land was there, as was his before me, and with extreme interest I noted old connections that were deeper and stronger still than the one to Tower Keep.

For a while, I did not know what to make of these old connections until it struck me that these must have been the ones the kings of old would have used when magic was still commonplace and they had used the horses for themselves – there were doorways here to all the old centres of power in the kingdoms, and even ones so old that not even Lucian knew a kings castle or court had ever existed in these places at all.

This is astonishing.

How on earth did Sepheal not see this?

I cannot imagine. This is a strategic miracle!

We can go from anywhere to anywhere, instantly! All we have to do is come here first and go from here! Oh I wish I had known this! I could have saved myself months of hardship/unhappiness/suffering!

Months? What about me? Have you any idea of how many times I have traversed that road and how many others beside!

I can’t believe how Sepheal missed this. The man was such an unbelievably narrow minded fool!

Lucian dropped out of the link and we both centred back on the now, in the circle, with the wind pressing on us and the blacks standing  patiently and hot beneath our legs.

“Where would you have us go?” he asked me but did not look directly into my eyes. For me, at this moment, there was only one possible answer.

I wanted to go home.

Go home with him to Tower Keep.