In Serein

2-2-1 Different Forms Of Torture

Part 2 - Not Quite Home Or Even Dry

From the warm steadiness of wind and grass, we materialised, hand in hand, into an explosion of movement and of rain, driving rain, cutting sharp wind and sounds, minds, noise, confusion all around us.

I was utterly disorientated but Lucian just pulled me off my feet and dragged me physically to the side, holding my entire unbalanced weight by one wrist.

Oh there was everything – the rain, the sky so cold, so grey, and yes, the familiar building of Tower Keep and the surrounding trees and overgrown pastures, the pebble drive but there were soldiers, many soldiers in dark green uniforms. There were horses too, and dirty grey army tents and wagons.

I could feel Lucian lifting me, setting me upright, then pushing me behind him so I stumbled and nearly fell.

I just about regained my balance and saw him straightening up to his full height and issuing a multi level command that froze the very rain sheets descending upon us –

“Stand to attention!”

All fell silent in an instant, all those minds in shock and unthinking, and before they had found recovery in the passing of time, Lucian commanded, “Group leader, to me, now!”

There was a scrambling, over my left shoulder, coming from the house, and around the back, from the kitchen entrance, a man came running heavily. I shook my head. I had sealed the front door but never thought to secure the other entrances when last I left here. I was an inefficient fool.

Lucian’s broad black back turned before me, unveiling the closest of the soldiers, each and every one frozen to attention still. They were of good quality, hard tall men all, and wore uniform, a deep forest green with a triple crown badge in red and brown trousers, stirring an uncomfortable recognition I couldn’t quite place.

A crunching made me turn my head in time to see the officer in charge skid to a halt about two men’s length in front of Lucian and automatically fall into the rigid salute to a superior.

I moved slightly so that I was behind Lucian’s shoulder but visible at his side and stood up straight as well, devoiding my face of any movement at all and as my lord snapped, “Report!” I took my time to look at the officer with care.

The man before us wore the same colours, but his dress was made of far finer fabric, and immaculately clean save for the drenching of the driving rain. He wore no gloves, no cloak,  no sword or weapons and thus must have been relaxing inside when we arrived.

He was about middle age, short and wiry in build, with dark hair plastered to his forehead and cut short. A neatly trimmed moustache and beard covered what might well have been an otherwise quite unimpressive face. In his right ear sat a single pearl for decoration. He was blinking hard into the rain that went straight into his face and could not suppress a shiver, whether caused by his proximity to Lucian or the cold rain, I would not care to say.

He swallowed hard, twice, and licked his lips but no words came from him until Lucian repeated, angrily and with a painful slap across the man’s mind, “Report!”

With unsteady voice but loud, the man responded by giving his name, rank and the name of his detachment but I was no longer listening. Inside the house, there was a familiar mind, familiar to me and someone was watching through the window high above.

I recognised who it was and translocated myself straight up to the tower room, careful in my destination control lest I should fall or stumble on landing.

Thoran of Thelein had his back to me and was engaged in the last of a sharp intake of breath and recoil, probably caused by my sudden disappearance from the yard below. I stood quietly and said or thought nothing. A shiver went through the thin frame of the man, dressed in a sombre brown of immaculate cut, and very slowly, with the look of someone who doesn’t want to see in case there might be something to see and fear, he turned his head and noticed me standing right in the very centre of the painted circle on the wooden floor, white swirls of steam spiralling slowly about me as I dried my hair and robe.

Lucian touched with me briefly and I informed him that I was gathering information on a different level. He was happy for now to sort out the soldiers who were an undisciplined rabble in his opinion, and the short exchange gave Thoran a chance to centre himself and find some form of composure, torn as he was between looking at the Lord of Darkness himself and my presence here in the room.

Dryly, I spoke.

“What are you doing in my home?”

He endeavoured to keep his mind blank but unfortunately for him, I was no longer the simple young thing he had met on the road to Pertineri. All that he was lay before me, wide open, a landscape viewed on a perfect day from a vantage hill.

“Lady Isca,” he said and gave a courteous bow, trying to play for time. “What an unexpected pleasure.”

I picked up a little fabric of my robe and experimentally swirled it lightly. It was quite dry and my hair felt better, too.

“Thoran of Thelein,” I said reproachfully and made his very name sound like I was tutting. “Now of all the rewards for your treachery, all the treasures, the riches, the keeps and palaces you might have chosen, what in the Kingdoms possessed you to think you could ask for this one?”

He turned a greenish pale and one of his nervous spider hands found the windowsill behind him for steadiness.

I flexed my shoulders and walked leisurely across the room, to one of the tables just below the banister that circled the tower and led to the higher walkway. On it, open, lay one of Lucian's – mine – old manuscripts. I recognised it well enough. So old that it was written on single pieces of parchment that were kept in rolls, it was one of the lesser known treaties on the raising of demons. There were some symbols on the sheet on top, the curling edges held in place by a glass lens on one side, and the tube cover, ancient metal burnished dark and heavily inlaid, on the other. I touched one of the symbols, an utterly useless childlike, naïve attempt at representation of a pattern far too complex to be described in ink on a flat surface, even if the one who had drawn this had understood it fully in the first place.

Thoran was very afraid now yet his mind raced hither and thither, like a rat trapped and the floods were coming. He was searching for a way out. I watched him with interest and a strange lack of compassion, even a tingle of enjoyment which began to dance a little at the thought of what Lucian would have to say, or more importantly, do, on the matter.

“My lady,” he said, and his voice, well schooled and well educated, was nowhere near as steady as he would have wished or willed it to be, “My lady, I am here at the King’s request.”

I couldn’t help but laugh, a real Lucian laugh which had not the slightest trace of humour whatsoever.

“Trant, that would be?” I asked although there was no need to ask.

He bowed his head briefly and corrected me, “King Trant the First. Our mighty ruler of all the kingdoms.”

This time, I actually giggled. I nudged the glass weight with my mind and as the round glass object slid off the edge of the old parchment, it curled up immediately until caught by the roll covering. I nudged that one too and the other side curled up as well.

It would be simply wonderful to have wine in the morning room again. And food. Real food. Thoran did not travel without a cook, not if there was no need any longer to be stealthy.

I turned and walked happily across the painted circle, up the stairs and around towards the exit without so much as a backward thought at the dark haired man who was quite rightfully fearing for his life. He had felt himself safe in Trant’s protection.

The winding stone stairs felt so much smaller than I remembered them to be. It was good to be here. Real hard stone was so comforting after all that malleable material the Serein and their predecessors build their dwellings from. The door at the bottom of the stairs was open, and the tapestry had been removed. I didn’t think that Lucian would approve.

I stepped out into the grey hallway, where boxes and rolls of things that did not belong there lay by the door they could not open and two soldiers stood, peering out of the small stained glass windows from behind the shelter of the wall. The place smelled all wrong, of wet soldiers and the unfamiliar scent of cooking. With personal consternation I noticed the presence of unlit torches in the holders on the wall where magicals should be dancing. I shook my head. Never mind Lucian. I didn’t like this intrusion one little bit and would look forward very much to removing every trace there had ever been such a thing. There were people in the kitchen who had not dared emerge, and I tasked them fiercely to bring wine and food for two to the morning room.

I walked across the hallway and opened the door. The room was as I had remembered, save a number of extra stools, chairs, objects, and goblets and the remnants of other people’s food. And save for three men in uniform, once again with their backs to me and staring through the window at what was transpiring outside in the rain.

This was just too much.

“Get out!” I shouted at them, and they near jumped out of their skins and when they saw me and thought that there was no danger from a single woman, I set a terror upon them so they ran, and scrambled, and fled for their lives, and I lashed another after them so they would not stop running until their legs gave out and they were miles from here.

I reached out to create a net that would catch every single thing that did not belong into this room and became aware of what was happening outside. I stepped to the window myself.

Lucian was furious.

“On what authority?” he was shouting physically at the officer before him. “You dare stand and ask me on what authority I claim your forces? I could claim your forces on the authority that I should strike down every single one of you, down to the last kitchen whelp, in an instant, but what I will do instead is to stand for the name of Malme The Great who gave me title and deed to be the High Commander of the forces of the Kingdom until the end of my life. Do you question this? Do you think you would address a ghost?”

The officer was now on his knees, one hand to his heart and the other extended  in a gesture of seeking forgiveness and mercy both.

I watched and was amazed. I wondered why Lucian would go down on this level of communication, when he could have made the man think anything, be anything, do anything, he ever wanted. Why was he even arguing with this nobody?

“My Lord, I beg forgive my ignorance. My forces are at your disposal. In all ways.”

Lucian’s anger receded fractionally. “It seems that I have been away for far too long,” he said out aloud and with passion at the officer and loud enough to be heard by all the motionless soldiers in the yard. “Now, get this rabble off my lawns and have them set a clean and decent camp in those fields yonder. You do remember how to set a soldier’s camp? Or has this too, now been forgotten?”

“No my Lord,” the officer shook his head rapidly. “It will be done immediately and to your satisfaction.”

“Then get to it!” Lucian shouted at him and the man nearly fell over backwards, scrambled to his feet and ran around Lucian, shouting orders at the rigid soldiers, still standing to attention in the ever sheeting rain, as soon as he had cleared enough distance. Lucian looked briefly over his shoulder with a half suppressed smile, and made towards the front door.

I hastily unlocked the fastenings I had laid on them, and disappeared the mess of baggage that would bar its smooth opening just in time for him to place his command for the two wings to swing wide.

By the time he stepped through the door, wet and with a whole new happy aspect I had not before observed, there was nothing waiting for him in the room but me, our two chairs, and the low table.

He was about to speak when there was a most timid knock on the door, and a small brown haired boy of about 7 or 8 years of age entered, carrying a bottle and two long stemmed glasses.

Lucian glanced across his shoulder and froze instantly. His face hardened and a deep, deep tremble began inside him that I recognised only too well. Quickly, I strode across to stand between the child and Lucian, took the bottle and glasses and tasked him to never enter our presence again. The child ran backwards into the wall, spun and dashed from the room.

I turned to face Lucian.

I had only once before seen such uncontrollable rage on his face. That morning at the Serein monastery when he had told me he never wanted to see me again. This was a cold, fearful rage, nothing like his anger and insanity in the tower, a deadly thing that lived to destroy only, a force over which there could be no control.

Like a thick blanket, I laid relaxation all over him, and when that did not work, turned the relaxation into a draining of his will and energy against which he struggled wordlessly until he lost and slowly sank to his knees. When I had drained the last of the murderous rage away, he was kneeling on the floor, and very minutely, began to relax,  his clenched fists straightening a little at a time. Finally, he gave a deep sigh and was back to his ordinary awareness.

I noted that my hands were trembling when I poured his wine and steadied myself so he would not notice.

He sat up, took it from me and emptied it immediately. I poured him another, then another and finally, he slowed down enough to begin swirling the wine in the glass and I had a chance to have a glass myself.

I sat down in my chair, stretched out and soaked the wine into myself. It was an utter pleasure. We had never managed to get even close with our attempts at the horse peoples ferment. We just thought we had. We had deluded ourselves that we had when in fact, we had been a million leagues off the mark.

“Are you alright?” I asked out aloud and he passed a hand across his forehead, frowned and then nodded. He got up and slightly miscalculated; his usually smooth motions ragged and with less control than he would have liked.

I watched him flex and regain mastery of his body and with clean ease once more, he walked across and threw himself into the other chair.

He swirled his remaining wine and then looked at me, his eyes brighter and more intense than they had been for a long time.

“You keep that kind of vermin out of my eyesight and I am perfect,” he said, low and with a vicious undertone in his voice.

He really, really did not like children.

“I have found the cause of this invasion,” I said, taking the conversation to a different area altogether with clarity.

He made a tiny motion of shaking his head, and when he responded, he was once again his normal self. I surprised a sigh of relief.

“Tell me,” he said and I showed him Thoran, where I first met him, his undoubted part in the betrayal of Selter at Pertineri, and his intention to study magic, supposedly at Trant’s command but far more likely, of his own decision in his quest for our kind of power.

I guess it was all my fault. I should have not repaired his spine, should not have shown off before the servants at the inn. It was me who gave him the taste for it in the first place.

Lucian made an impatient gesture of cutting through the air.

“What’s done, is done. Stop taking upon yourself the very rising of the sun itself. The man had every choice and undoubtedly, is a creature a snake would be ashamed to call his son. That whole damned line is like that. Liars and traitors, born, bred and trained.”

I felt him track through the house, avoiding the kitchen area and locating Thoran of Thelein who was still trying to work out his next move in the tower room.

“What will you do with him?” I wondered, and Lucian shook his head whilst at the same time draining the last of the wine from his glass.

“Let him whimper for a while longer. I would eat.”

I nodded agreement and said, “I will go to the kitchen myself and set things in order there.”

He tacitly agreed and I got up a little too fast, the rich wine on my empty stomach making the floor have holes and dents where there should not have been any.

Like he had done, I took my time to re-arrange all of my limbs and my head into some kind of working order, and then left him stretched out in the chair whilst I walked across the hallway, past the stairs and to the corridor that led to the kitchen.

Inside, there was a cook, fat bold man in shirtsleeves exposing hairy arms with a cloth around his waist, the boy still trembling, crouched by the back door, and two young men not quite old enough to be soldiers yet mercifully too old to be called a child.

I hardly recognised the room. They must have cleaned and scrubbed it; the windows were clean and bright and the surfaces filled with vitals and implements. On the kitchen table, ready laid out, lay the two trays with plates and bowls, already assembled to take the food I had ordered.

Four pairs of eyes rigidly fixed on me, I gave them my instructions.

“The boy must leave immediately. Lord Tremain does not wish to see children. You – “ and I pointed at the taller of the two half grown ones, for he was squarely set, long brown curls that reached beyond his shoulders, with large hands and trying hard for a small moustache yet seemed to be a little more together than the other, a washed out blond with straggly hair and a most vacant expression and many red sores covering his face and neck – “you will serve us at all times. You do not knock and you never come unless you are commanded to do so or we have placed an order.”

The brown haired youngster nodded rapidly.

“What is your name?”

“Matus, my lady,” he replied, blushing all over and dropping his eyes. They were a not unattractive blue, ringed with a darker circle of black. He might well grow up to be a very handsome man.

This thought distracted me momentarily and I caught from him the concern about the small boy who was his brother. They had no home beyond each other and Matus feared for the small child amidst the roughness of the soldier’s camp beyond, if they would take him in at all, the boy being far too young to be of much use.

I made a decision and lightly reached into his mind, steadying him for the unusual act and transfer that was to follow. The young man was very bright and had honour, sense of responsibility and not a little valour. He had taken care of the child since his mother, a whore following the Thelein regiment, had died in giving birth.

I gave him the instructions as how to find the house where the Serein children were living, exactly what messages to pass along and my personal assurances as to his little brother’s well keeping until Lord Lucian was no longer around.

He received it all with utter amazement yet was quick thinking enough when I had finished to attempt to form a message of gratitude and sincerity in return. I acknowledged and severed the link, causing him to giving a loud gasp and stumble backwards into the range.

Out aloud, I said, “Serve our meal now as quickly as possible. Bring another bottle of wine (and here I transmitted the instructions as to where Lucian’s special vintage was to be found) and then you should leave on horseback. Return as soon as possible.”

He bowed his head to me rapidly a number of times in acknowledgement and I left the kitchen.

In the hallway, I hesitated. Lucian was alright, finishing the wine and recovering from what had happened earlier in his own silent way. Thoran was still quaking upstairs and waiting to be summoned. The soldiers had all left the house and were trooping down the approach road to set up camp elsewhere, with only a few stragglers left behind to clean up the grassy area adjacent to the house.

Then I spotted another mind that had previously escaped me for it was faint, burning low and hardly conscious.

In Lucian’s room, there was a girl. She belonged to Thoran who had chosen to make that room his own.

I was stunned and hoped very sincerely that Lucian would remain too busy with himself for a while longer. Quickly, I made my way up the stairs – oh! so wonderfully familiar under my strides, the creaking of the old black wood a real homecoming sound! – walked along the corridor quickly and opened the door.

She was lying on the bed – the creator be thanked, no sign of the red tapestry – beneath a silky brown blanket which painted her outlines strongly. She was younger than me, a fey looking little thing with extraordinary masses of curly long hair, the colour of old wheat. She would have been very beautiful indeed if it had not been for her blank expression and the bruises around her mouth, beneath her eyes.

When I entered the room, she turned her head away from me and kept her eyes closed. In doing so, she revealed a collar about her neck, and from there I traced a thin chain that was fastened to the bedpost.

That awful little man had to tie up his lovers so they would not seek to run away!

I was about to reach and touch her mind, when something else took my attention and I had a real sensation of horror.

Thoran had tipped up all of Lucian’s belongings and rooted around in them, the carved ancient chests cracked and piled up in the corner by the window. He had not known how to open the magical seals and had hacked them to pieces.

Items that had more value than the entire kingdom itself lay discarded, trampled, amongst shards of wood and general filth, the floor covering crumpled and pushed aside. Lucian’s clothes were carelessly piled by the fire place, and the open wardrobe door revealed possessions that did not belong there.

As I stood and contemplated the depth of Thoran’s stupidity and carelessness – had he really thought that Lucian would never return? Or take to this with generosity, forgiveness or with kindness? – I could hear heavy steps and I knew that Lucian was on the stairs.

Before I could do or re-arrange anything, he had opened the door, looked inside and froze to the spot. His face became entirely expressionless as he scanned the room, his breathing deep and regular. On the bed, the girl had opened her eyes, noted that we were not Thoran, and upon looking at Lucian, withdrew slowly under the covers until only the top of her golden brown head remained visible.

Lucian stepped carefully into the room and looked down. He bend and picked up a small piece of parchment, dog eared and torn, dirty. He straightened, gazing at it. I stared at it too, a handwritten note from Sepheal in the most ancient of languages warning him of treachery on the eve of the Battle of Carranda. It had been delivered disguised as the reverse of a label on a bottle of special wine.

He turned the piece of past in his hand, then held it up between his fingertips. It caught fire and began to burn rapidly, a strange green edge to the flame, burning down closer and closer towards his skin but he did not drop it in spite of the pain this had to be causing. Utterly calm, he held out the other hand and dropped the remaining piece, still burning brightly, into the palm where it turned to ash entirely. He closed his hand into a fist and when he opened it again, there was nothing but smudges of black remaining. He wiped it off on the side of his trousers without a thought.

Then he turned his attention on the girl. I stepped back a little as he moved up towards the bed, placed his hands around the chain and, with a rapid motion, snapped it cleanly. Then he pulled on it and produced the girl who was not resisting very much, like a pinky white fish from a brown silky sea.

She really was exquisite, naked, fine boned and perfectly shaped and I could feel a strand of jealousy running up my back. She stared up at Lucian with huge, grey eyes that had no emotion, not even fear, as he reeled her in tighter until she was stretched upright on her knees and her face close up to his.

I edged in on him to ascertain his motives and experienced a sense of shock as he just  punched brutally through the layers of misty defence, down through all the barriers that kept her self surrounded and laid her mind wide open to all the memories of pain, degradation and hardship she had suffered, and I was horrified to realise that she was one of Selter’s grandchildren, a royal princess of Malme’s very own line.

She had been part of Thoran’s rich rewards and so little did he think of her that I had not even noticed a trace of her existence when I had scanned him in the tower room.

Lucian stared at her, with nostrils flaring. I could feel that he wanted her. I could feel that he wanted her in the old way, and still, it hurt me to see it; yet I could think of nothing that I might say or do that would not make me feel even worse than I already did.

His lids flickered briefly and he moved his head back. He released the chain and the girl collapsed on the bed, curled herself into a tight shape with her arms around her legs and her head tucked in, eyes closed again.

We both watched her do this and then he turned to me.

“Our food should have been served by now,” he said calmly and touched my upper arm with a half stoking motion, brief but welcome reassurance nonetheless. I bowed my head and he led the way back downstairs, me following a short way behind.

As we turned the landing on the stairs, I asked him, “Do you have any designs for the girl?”

I couldn’t see if he was smiling, and did not want to link to find out in case he was.

“What would I want with her?” he replied carelessly.

“May I see to her?”

He laughed and opened the door to the morning room, standing aside so I might pass in front of him.

“Since when are you given to be asking my permission in your actions? This is a turn for the better, indeed!”

I stopped in the doorway and looked up at him. I did not know if it was the house, or the other people here, but I felt unsure again, scared, small, useless somehow.

“Small yes. Useless – never.” He smiled down at me and placed a light kiss on my forehead, chaste and patronising, put his arm about my waist and steered me into the room where our place settings were laid out on the table which had a acquired a white cloth for the first time ever, and the chairs had been turned so they were facing, either end. He actually escorted me to my seat, pushing the chair unexpectedly into the back of my legs which caused me to half collapse into it and shoot him a disconcerted glance. He was surprised at my reaction, then smiled.

“Isca,” he said, “that is how a gentleman helps seat a lady. It isn’t meant to be a mean trick.”

He meant it kindly but I coloured deeply and put my hands on my lap and stared down at them. I guess it was one thing riding around in forests and moping in dusty towers. Here, amongst even the vaguest traces of people, I was hopelessly lost and just as ineffective as I had always been.

He took his place opposite me and I could feel him looking at me across the fine dishes, starry silver cutlery and the sparkling clean wine goblets.

I was just not enough in these surroundings. How many more of these women would there be to take his attention, how many more of these things that I couldn’t know how to cope with?

Control yourself, please do. You are behaving like a petulant child.

He never spoke to me like this when we were alone together.

That is because you don’t behave like a petulant child when we’re alone together! What is it with you? You are you wherever you go. Adapt to your circumstances, do the best you can. Whining and winging will not serve any purpose.

Before I could compose a response, the door opened and Matus entered, carrying a large tray full of serving dishes and looking extremely scared.

Lucian broke the link between us and sat tense and waiting, watching the brown-haired youth trying hard to cope with his trembling hands and making a good job of it. I felt him tracking Matus closely and his approval of the young man's efforts to appear calm and controlled.

In a rush, I understood. It was not a question of being unbalanced or even incapable. All that mattered to Lucian, what would gain his approval beyond all things, was that one would try and try and try again, no matter what level of adversity. On certain matters, I gave up far too easily.

Matus had managed to place all the serving dishes on the limited amount of free space on the rather small table without spilling anything, dropping anything, or even making much of a noise. He now reached for the first of the hammered pewter lids but Lucian stayed him with a tiny gesture of halt and dismissal.

The young man instantly took on a military posture of salute, turned and walked quickly from the room, taking great care to keep his strides even. We both watched him go and close the door very softly behind himself.

“A good choice,” Lucian remarked and reached for the wine, momentarily holding the slim black bottle lovingly in his large hands. He then leaned across and poured me a glass. I still sat with my hands in my lap and try to think of something to be trying to appear normal. Eventually, I put my hands in my pocket and withdrew the glacier bird, placing it on the table behind my plate, turned it so that its tapered beak was facing towards me.

Just seeing it there reminded me of a great many things and made me feel enormously much better. I picked up the wine glass in time to see Lucian replace the bottle after having filled his. He raised his glass to me and said, “To endeavour.”

I raised mine in turn and our eyes met. Softly, I said, “To endeavour,” although I didn’t really understand what he meant by it. We drank, then I began opening some of the lids at random, to discover what lay beneath. Thoran had a fine cook. Well, I guess there’s no-one who did not have at least one good point. The thought made me smile, and I set to placing various vegetables and meats and sauces in a higgledy piggelty fashion on my plate.

Across the table from me, Lucian was watching me and smiling to himself.

To be truthful, I would rather have a comrade in my witch queen than a great lady.

I ignored him and picked a largish spoon that would deposit good quantities of food into my mouth without too much trouble and started to eat.

But in time, I see that she will be the greatest lady of them all.

I kept my movement smooth and closed my mouth deliberately around the spoon, sliding the spicy meat and gravy off with my lips and tongue. But I could not hide a small smile, in spite.

We ate then in silence on all levels, from the same dishes, yet I was eating flavours and textures that were simply wonderful and surprising each, and Lucian ate sparingly of earth and dust.

Upstairs in the tower room, Thoran had come to the conclusion that he must flee at once if he was to save his life and limb and live to betray someone else another day. He finally found the courage to start creeping down the tower stairs and I knew well that Lucian was tracking him as keenly as I was, and wondered what kind of action he would choose to take.

Thinking of the girl upstairs and the ruined priceless chests, no punishment would be too severe in my opinion. I nearly chastised myself for the thought but then let it go.

I was full and pushed the plate, still piled high because my eyes had been much more hungry than my stomach, back in a gesture of defeat. I drank a little wine.

Just beyond the door, Thoran of Thelein was creeping out from the tower door and trying to pick his way against the wall and down the hallway to the kitchen for his escape. His heart was beating high and hard and he had given up any idea to return to the upstairs rooms to retrieve any of his things. Even there, he never gave the girl a single thought and was concerned only with his personal belongings and his notie books.

Lucian let him get as far as to actually put his hand on the latch of the kitchen door before he commanded him to “COME”. The man nearly had a heart attack of shock and briefly tried to make a run for it; when he realised that his legs would not work in that direction, he turned and, his mind screaming in panic, made his way to the morning room.

We both looked at the door expectantly just before the handle turned and it opened with a slight creak. Clad in his brown traveller’s outfit, ghostly pale and eyes wide open, Thoran walked stiffly into the room and stopped halfway between the doorway and the table.

Lucian turned his attention to his plate, where a half eaten piece of freshly baked bread was sitting all by itself. He flicked it with his finger and asked me to have the table cleared. Then he poured himself another glass of wine, pushed the chair back a way and crossed his legs, relaxed.

I set a quiet command to Matus as not to startle him too much, and only a few seconds later, he arrived with a very large tray. He glanced nervously at Thoran, who was standing completely still yet with sweat pouring from his temples in rivulets and gave him a wide birth. He cleaned the table quickly and efficiently. I thanked him with a small thought and then bade him to listen for further instructions.

He did so, threw a swift sideways look at Lucian then concentrated on me. Silently, I tasked him to retrieve the girl from upstairs and convey her to the same place where his brother was to go, and to find her some suitable travelling clothes. Leave at once, I told him, and noted that Lucian was tracking the conversation with traces of detached interest. He did not interfere, however, and Matus left, capably balancing his tray stacked high, circumnavigating Thoran once more as though he was a tree left in the middle of a road, and even managing to close the door on his way out with a quick turn of his foot.

I too pushed my chair back and stretched my legs out long. On the table, on the white cloth that now carried a few stains and remaining crumbs, there sat my little bird, all alone, save for the wine and the two glasses. I held out my hand and had it float to me, imagining that it had grown wings that unfolded and fluttered to land safely in my palm.

Thoran’s heart was beating so loud and fast it was nearly audible in the silence, and I was wondering how long Lucian would go on torturing the man in this way.

Oh my little queen! Your choice of words is most amusing.

Well. There are many forms of torture.

(Laugh) I sincerely hope that this form is the one you will encounter, if ever you must. All this does is give you the measure of a man.

And so what of Thoran’s measure?

What is your estimation?

He is not doing very well at hiding or controlling his fear. But then, his fear is great.

What else do you observe?

I tuned in more closely and still, Thoran’s mind was racing like crazy, trying to find a way to come out of this situation with his life intact. He had quite given up on any other option.

I’m not sure what it is you want me to see?

He is still concerned with manipulating me – us. He has not come to accept the reality of his situation. And that is the reason for why his fear is as great as it is.

I considered the statement but it didn’t make a lot of sense to me.

So what are you going to do with him?

(Sigh) I don’t know. I don’t really care to give this creature a great deal of my time or effort. Still, he has walked into what is my house, and he has destroyed many objects that are mine by rights. It was most careless of him.

I nodded.

I thought so too. What made him think you would not return, would not find out? Perhaps not now, but ever?

Lucian turned his head to look at Thoran and put that question straight into his mind.

A torrent of excuses and feeble reasoning descended upon us both in an instant, like a flood of dirty water.

I shook myself physically and saw Lucian narrowing his eyes. Unlike myself, he had withstood the unpleasantness and trawled the mess of rubbish for truths and information.

It seemed that Trant himself had promised protection from Lucian and any repercussions of Thoran’s stealing of our house and its contents.

I felt Lucian’s disbelief strongly and observed him going straight into Thoran’s mind to ascertain the details of this supposition, and sure enough, the memory was clear, and real, and true.

Trant must be far more deranged than either of us had previously imagined.

Wait. It may also be that he knows something we don’t know, or has developed a weapon or plan to use against me/us. It never serves to underestimate your opponents.

I acknowledged the rightness of this in principle, but still could not imagine for the life of me how Trant proposed to rid himself of the Lord Of Darkness. As overestimated as the reports of Lucian’s being and doing were, Trant surely must have had some respect for the former general who fought with Malme and whose demonic powers were legendary.

Lucian went along with my train of thought and agreed. He put the question to Thoran directly, speaking it out loud

“How is Trant to protect you from me?”

A wild churning of chaos answered us from Thoran’s mind and once again, I could not handle it and backed off, closing in on Lucian instead and getting whatever information there was, nicely filtered and presented, second hand.

There were suppositions, and rumours; there were ideas and whispers; there was tittle tattle and guessing, but at the end, none of it was meaningful except for the one single fact that stood out straight and clear, namely that Trant was not afraid of Lucian and discounted him as a problem or even a potential problem, entirely.

Lucian pushed the link to Thoran away like he was wiping dirt from his face and I experienced and expressed my relief by blowing out a breath strongly through pursed lips.

This one is the second nephew  of the current Lord Chancellor. We shall send – ah, probably best to send his hand to Thelein, at this stage. And a message. To Lord Trant.

It took me a moment to understand that Lucian meant to imply that he did not recognise Trant as the rightful ruler.

Lucian, what are you doing? I thought you were not interested in getting involved in this kind of thing?

He swirled his wine slowly and then looked at me most directly.

Trant has declared war on me. Personally. Very personally. Although I do not understand his reasoning. But there are other factors now, besides.

We dropped into a link and considered what we knew of the situation.

On the one hand, Trant was suggesting, at least to his underlings, that he was not afraid of Lucian. On the other hand, he had placed a direct challenge at him by having Thoran invade his home. What was the purpose? Lucian had no dealings with any of the high kings for a considerable time, had not attended any state occasions for at least a hundred years, had not been active for nearly as long and when he had been doing anything, they were only small sorties at the behest of the Serein council and very localised, dealing with perhaps just one individual or at the most, a single outpost, tribe or power point.

Why should Trant be interested in him at all? To all intents, Lucian was no more than a rumour to him – or was there a personal connection?

As we both scanned our memories to find a reason and failed, I noted that Lucian disliked the situation more, the more he thought about it.

There’s only one way we can find out. We shall have to go to Pertineri.

For some reason, that thought struck me as intensely dangerous and rather than telling him, I send him my feelings on the subject. To my surprise, he agreed.

Yes. I have an idea too that there is something more afoot than appears to be, on the surface. Still. These are strange times. Without the Serein, who is to say what will transpire?

He raised his head and turned it towards the window. Outside, Matus was half carrying and half dragging Thoran’s female up the drive, his little brother anxiously following on his heels. I checked but Lucian remained detached, tracking their progress for a while, then dismissing them from his thoughts entirely.

I hid a sense of relief but not quite successfully enough, for a tight questioning came from him to me that lasted but a single heartbeat before he withdrew.

Thoran was swaying slightly and sweating profusely still.

As one, we turned to look at him.

This house has no dungeon, he thought with a languid practicality, then warned me to back up which I did just in time before he shouted at top level across the mindscapes for the officer to present himself, and to bring a ten man guard.

Even with the warning, at such close range it was enough to rock Thoran unsteadily on his feet, and me, it nearly blew my head from my shoulders and spiralled me into the old times, when his call had been my utter demon and destroyer.

I gave a real groan, ducked and covered my ears helplessly with my hands before I had any chance to suppress it.

Lucian apologised. I will return to having messengers.  I – am unused to being in the presence of one such as you in these circumstances.

Thank you. I would be most grateful.

My head still hurt and he send me a gentling that was more precise and more efficient than all his previous attempts.

There are many things for us to learn to do and be differently, he send me with a small amusement and I returned it with grace. He was only too right. How many things, only time would tell.

I steeled myself to not wish for the forests and the wilderness again.

Lucian made a movement with his hand, and Thoran was unbound and sank to his knees immediately. He opened his mouth and drew a breath as though he would start to speak, and with another small gesture, Lucian detached his vocal chords, causing the man to choke and wrap his hands around his neck, doubling up in pain and placing his forehead to the cold flagstone floor, his long black hair fanning out around him. His shoulders began to shake and I knew he was crying now.

Could you consider to be merciful?

Could you?

I am always considering to be merciful!

(Laugh) I tend to be practical.

Can it not sometimes be the same thing?

(More laughter) Not in situations where I am concerned.

Is there really no alternative to killing?

(Amused) Oh of course there are, many. You can maim, blind, castrate instead. And let them live.

What about dispensation?

You choose strange words, my dear. Dispensation means giving someone the opportunity to do the same thing again, later.

Is it not possible that someone may learn their lesson, that they may change and become – better?

Are you willing to take the risk?

(Sigh) What of those who are blatantly innocent in the first place?

You are surely not referring to our friend here?

Well, in a manner, perhaps. He would never have come here had he not been promised protection by the king.

(Annoyance) Do not call that – creature – king. He is nothing of the sort. Can any gutter rat poison an old man and lay claim to the title? The title held by Malme?

You have much respect for him.

Indeed, I do. He was …

Our thoughts drifted off and the truth of it was, that if Lucian had ever allowed himself to admire or even, banish the thought, love another, it had been Malme. He had served the man with a fierce loyalty that went way beyond the constructs of duty, or of honour.

Still. Thoran is but a messenger. What, in the end, is his crime?

Lucian snapped out of it and re-focussed on the present.

His crime, my dear, is that he is finding himself, today, here, very much on the losing side.

I could see that there was no merit in going further with the argument as far as Thoran was concerned, yet I was not ready to lay the whole context aside.

What of that small boy then, the one who brought the wine? What exactly was his crime?

Lucian got out of the chair in a fluent, explosive motion and threw the half empty wine glass across at the fire place with such violence that it exploded and rained tiny splinters on me, even though I was a good way away, causing Thoran to briefly raise his head and catch a glimpse of proceedings, noticed by me but not by Lucian who was struggling to control himself enough to send me a silent, hard hitting thought command instead of shouting it out loud:

Will you cease your endless questioning of me!

It nailed me right against the back of my chair and pushed the breath out of my lungs. Luckily for both of us whatever I might have planned in reply was short cut by the sound of many horses hooves right outside the window, crunching on the drive, and soldier’s voice raised loud in an order to dismount.

Lucian stared at me for another moment, unwavering and angry still, then he forced his eyes away from me, ran his hand over his hair and straightened out in time for the knock on the door.

His voice betrayed no strain or any touch of emotion as he commanded out aloud, “Enter.”

The door was opened and the same bearded officer marched, army style, into the room, followed by two soldiers who flanked him behind, their eyes straight and seemingly unseeing beyond us.

He halted a step in front of Thoran who was still cowering on the floor, never even flicking a single glance towards him, and gave his salute.

Lucian stood straight and perfectly contained in front of the fire place.

Then he made Thoran get up. The man had no choice in the matter, and when he turned towards the soldiers, the tear streaks on his face and red rimmed eyes were clearly visible to the officer who noticed and paled but managed to keep his face solid.

“Your sword,” Lucian said quietly yet with the authority of ages behind his words like a coil of irresistible power. The officer did not hesitate but drew his sword immediately, laying it across first one palm, then sliding the other underneath so he was presenting it horizontally.

With a slow, shaking, unnatural movement, Thoran reached out and his fingers struggled to not grasp the hilt, claw-like, shaking and strained, until they folded around it so tightly that the knuckles turned pure white and the veins on the back of his hand stood out like ropes.

He turned away from the officer and kept turning until he was directly facing me, the sword still horizontal across his body. Then he held out his right hand that bore a great golden signet  ring, held it out further until the whole arm was at full stretch, trembling terribly. In slowest motion, he raised the sword with the other, croaking sounds coming from his lips and his eyes ringed white, his head shaking in desperate struggle against what was not in his power to stop.

At highest stretch, he brought the sword down on his own arm with such force that he severed most of the hand from the wrist but because of the angle, the sword became stuck in the bone closest towards him and the impetus of the downward strike knocked him to the floor.

The office stepped back hastily to avoid the blood that was spurting all over the stone floor from the severed arteries and we observed as Thoran dropped the sword, gripped his half severed hand and twisted it this way and that, until the bone finally broke and it was just held by a long strand of flesh, bloody skin and white sinews. On his knees, he picked up the sword again and hacked away until the hand at long last fell clear to the floor.

I sensed Lucian reach into the wound but instead of healing it, he boiled the blood, cauterising the entire area of the ragged, shredded, sharded stump and such terrifying agony did this cause to Thoran that even though he was not supposed to, he lost consciousness nonetheless. Lucian woke him up immediately with a sharp whip of annoyance.

The soldiers were breathing heavily, their eyes wide and scared in the presence of this unnaturalness. When Thoran rose to his feet again, one of them lost his discipline and took a step back, making unconscious warding off gestures which I had seen Marani do often enough in this very house. Lucian looked at him briefly and the man stopped instantly, assuming a rigid attention position instead.

Thoran bent and picked up his own hand from the pool of blood in which it lay, trailing pieces of vein and meat, red blood dripping, and stared at it in a madness that Lucian allowed him to experience to the fullest extent whilst himself retaining control over the man’s body.

Then he spoke.

“Lord Thoran of Thelein. I have been merciful this day. I would bid you return to your uncle and have him give a message to Lord Trant, vile usurper of King Malme’s gracious throne.”

He paused and we all waited, breath held, what this message might be. I noted his amusement and he gave it another count of 1 – 2 – 3 before he spoke it clearly and with power.

“Lord Lucian Tremain does not recognise his claim.”

The soldiers gasped as one and I had to stop my mouth from falling open. This sentence was a most old one, and the context in which it first appeared was when Malme the Great would conquer kingdom after kingdom, and have a messenger sent to each local authority with those very words.

What it meant was that Lucian was challenging Trant for the throne.

The officer was shaking when Lucian tasked him straight to take his forces and escort Thoran of Thelein to Pertineri at once.

There was a strange silence that lasted for perhaps a minute, then Lucian said gently, “Dismissed.” The officer spun on his heels immediately and nearly dived for the door; the two soldiers grasped Thoran by his upper arms and half carried the man between them, still clutching his cut off hand to his blood-soaked chest, as he would be and could be doing no other until his message had been delivered to his uncle. For his sake, I sincerely hoped that the weather would remain cold throughout the journey.

“I think we should keep the cook and that useful servant,” Lucian remarked after the front door had fallen shut with a resonant boom behind them, and the horses hooves were once more churning up the stone flakes on the drive.

I sighed, shook my head and tasked them both to that extent; the blond one fled with gladness in his heart and ran after the disappearing soldiers as fast as his gangly legs would carry him, the cook sank onto a chair in the kitchen with a sense of terrible foreboding and the “Why me?” question rolling around in his mind like thunder.

“Are you really going to take the throne from Trant?” I asked him after everything had fallen silent around us.

He gave a sigh and leaned against the fireplace.

“How can you be queen if I am not to be king?” he replied and it was only very partially a joke.

I shook my head in non-understanding.

“But only – well less than a half day ago, you laughed at me when I suggested it!”

Lucian looked across the table – blood splatters now too on the white linen and pieces of glass from his wine glass, small splatters of red wine from the opposite direction, a minor battlefield in all – to where a generous pool of Thoran’s blood still slowly tried to soak into the flag stones, and dark footsteps seemed to disappear to nowhere on the way to the door.

He put his head to the side fractionally and the blood on the floor began to bubble and boil, turn black and then just drift away.

“That – is such a useful trick,” he remarked and moved over to where the slim black wine bottle sat, picked it up and held it up to the light, then shook it. Apparently, there must have been a little remaining, for he put it to his lips and upended it, draining it of its last contents.

“Well?” I prompted him, somewhat annoyed at his unpredictable behaviour.

“Well what? Well what else was there to be done, to be said? I have no interest in being king, but I can take it from Trant and hand it over elsewhere. I’m sure we can find one of Selter’s many bastards still alive and well somewhere.”

“And then what? Then Malme reigns again?”

He shook his head and shot me a dark glance.

“I wish Trant had stayed away from me.” That is what he said, but then I heard the thought that followed, loud and clear, I wish I had someone to give me my orders.

He snapped the thought away angrily and made to throw the empty bottle to the ground but curtailed himself and instead, stood it very carefully on the table.

“This is chaos,” he said. “Madness. What is befalling this land? Sincerely, I do not know what tomorrow can hold anymore. I used to think …”

“That one sunset was the same after the next,” I finished our favourite expression for him and he could not suppress a small smile.

“Not even that is certain anymore.”

And indeed, it was not. Did I find this thought comforting or disturbing?

Perhaps it was both.

I rose from my chair.

“I would go and visit the children and Marani at Headman’s Acre in the morning. If you have no objections.”

He half closed his eyes.

“I will accompany you.”

I nearly dropped the bird I was about to place back into my pocket and truly couldn’t help but stare at him.

“Lucian, that isn’t even beginning to be funny.”

He smiled at me. “It wasn’t meant to be.”

I did not know what to say or think. The thought did not bear even approaching from a distance.

He came across to me and picked up the birdless hand, put it to his lips and kissed it.

“I would no sooner have you on the roads alone, especially in view of the current situation, then I would place my own head right beneath Trant’s sword.” he said, sincerely. “And this does not denote any doubt in your courage, or ability to defend yourself most bravely; it simply represents too high a risk.”

What I was experiencing as I stood there, one hand held in his and the other clasped around the iciness of the bird so hard that it hurt my fingertips, can only be described as a complete internal stalemate.

Whether he was unaware or just chose to take my silence for agreement, he kissed my hand again and smiled.

“I will personally burnish every trace of that little bastard from my room and see to some repairs,” he said. “Perhaps you might like to take a bath?”

I nodded thoughtlessly and he gave my hand a final squeeze and walked out through the door.

I felt faint, became aware of the bird and pocketed it. Then, I sat back down on the edge of my chair, drew a tight cloak around myself and in the silence within, tried to work out what was going on and what had happened to us in the short time since we had come back from our year long exile.

I could not possibly believe that he seriously intended to challenge Trant for the throne. Neither could I seriously believe that he wanted to come along to visit the Serein children. What was he doing? Was he merely as insane as he had been when first I found him and had simply shifted into a different form of madness?

I thought I really had his measure, that we had made some immense progress towards an understanding of each other, yet here I was, in a way just as helpless and hopeless before him as when I first arrived at this his house. Was it the house? Had the soldiers brought out in him an elder state he sought to retrieve?

And what of me? I had so long concerned myself with him alone, I did not really know what I wanted, or what I thought anymore. I knew so little of anything, and what I did know was not only second hand through him, but most likely distorted by him and his view rather than it being real or any form of truth.

There was really only one thing I could be certain of, and that was that Lucian was far more unpredictable than I had thought, and far harder to contain than I had imagined. In the chaos of disorder and disturbance of what had been a balance of sorts for so many hundreds of years and beyond that, right into Sepheal’s times; in the absence of one who gave him orders and expected compliance, what choices would he make if left to his own devices? Who was to stay him or to steady him, if not me, and I kept failing in this task, bound by my own contortions and my love and fear for him?

Thoran had, indeed been very lucky this day. Lucian had said that he was acting mercifully, and although Thoran might think of it as a bitter joke, he had spoken quite honestly – I knew well enough what he could do, had done a thousand times and think no more of it than I would think of stepping on a patch of grass. But truly, it was not that what frightened me the most. This kind of retribution was all conscious, straight and serving a purpose, extreme in its delivery for maximum effect yet aimed and well controlled.

Not so his rage at seeing the serving boy this morning.

That was something else. That emotion, fully unleashed, was an enormous danger – and thanks to me, a danger to us all, to every single forsaken soul that walked these plains and mountains, kings and courtiers and the lamest beggars starving below the spires of their palaces.

What if this rage was triggered and I wasn’t there to help extinguish it? What in a few years time, when he had come to practice and to hone his powers and extend them, would I be enough to stem him then?

The thought was truly frightening and it was there, as the driving rain hit the window pane in shushing waves, the silence of the house complete and my heart beating loud enough to fill my ears with thunder that I first thought that it may well have been my duty to have killed him for the greater good of all.

That I should do it now, when he did not suspect, whilst I still could, whilst it was still in my hands to do so, and before it was too late and there would be no-one, or nothing, that could stand between the world and Lucian’s rage.

I folded my hands in my lap and stared down at them, twisting them together, catching sight of the flashing diamond on my middle finger that was the colour of his eyes. I should not even think such thoughts. I wish I could unthink these thoughts for what if he would catch them, quite by chance as we would lie asleep or linking deeply for a task we both would undertake? Quite rightly, he would judge them for betrayal and bitterly accuse me of disloyalty once more, of saying one thing and then doing another, of speaking of love and then planning to destroy him.

Yet all these thoughts were mote. Even if I could have been assured by a great authority that he would indeed bring the whole world to an end in one year’s time from now, on this precise moment, I would not, could not harm him. For in the end, what did I care about the world? Without him, there was no world to be had, and if he would end it, I would end it with him and that would be the end of it. And who was to say that he would end the world? And who was to say that if he did, he did not do it right in keeping with the plans of the Creator; for as the Creator had made the sun and the sky, so the Creator had made Lucian, and made me for him to teach him as I had.

I did not know, nor could I know, if I could be of help. If I could stand against him, no, stand with him, and with my own will divert the course of his. I had done so before but what it took to get it done was first and foremostly for me to not be trembling in fear, not to doubt my own purposes, and not to lie down like a child or cry and stamp my feet.

He once tore at my throat like a maddened beast, and now he lay with me with tenderness and passion. I had achieved this, we had achieved this together. There could be change and I could bring it to him, but I had to be of single mind and most of all, I had to cease to be afraid.

I would stand up to his rage and if he was willing at all, together we could conquer it and make it so that he would be in charge of his temper and would have the freedom to decide what he would burn and tear, and what he would not.

“Well world,” I said out loud but in a whisper, “that is the best you can expect from me.”

With a deep breath and a sigh, I got to my feet. I took the last few moments and those thoughts and buried them somewhere, deeply amongst Lucian’s own memories, deep and deeper still until I quite forgot myself what I had been musing over. It was no matter. I would go upstairs and take a bath. And perhaps, somehow the time would come quite soon when I could get to wear a different gown. This one was comforting but truly, it did not befit a lady.