The day outside was dripping wet and bright, although the rain itself had stopped. I sniffed and looked around on the threshold. What time of year was it? It could be late autumn, a mild part of winter, or late spring. I really had no idea at all and it was interesting that it didn’t matter, of course.
Lucian was standing a little way off with the two blacks which I recognised to be the same we had ridden across the flowing plains. One day, I would give them all names, I resolved, and then I can mourn you in a more specific way than your comrade who was cut up for meat by the travellers on the desert approach for my ill-treatment of him.
The presence of the shiny tack on the blacks told me that all was well once more amongst the horse people; what had been looted had been returned to rightful ownership and rightful use.
I walked across to Lucian and he raised his eyebrow fractionally at seeing me in his cloak. I halted beside him and said, “I hope you don’t mind?”
He smiled and said, “Not at all. But in truth, we must acquire some clothes for you. Befitting of your station.”
I asked my black to kneel and settled myself in the saddle. Lucian came to my aid to help untangle the cloak and my robe too, and stroked my thigh when it was done, a light touch of familiarity. I leaned to him and kissed him gently in return and for a moment, we were there like innocent lovers at a village dance. A sound caused the black to flick his ears and as one, we broke off and turned our heads towards the drive.
Matus came running, breathing hard, his trousers covered in mud, absolutely drenched. He must have run all the way from Headman’s Acre and I was frankly astonished to see him.
He came to a halt at a distance from us and bowed his head deeply, his shoulders moving rapidly with the breath.
As I said. A good choice.
Thank you. May I instruct him?
Now now. You do not trust me not to frighten the lad into running after the cook?
(Sigh) Ah my lord. I trust you in all ways.
(Laughter) In truth, no-one may accuse you of not trying, nor of remembering every single word we speak to bring it back and haunt me with it. Deal with him and be swift. I would be on our way.
I raised my black and guided him steadily over to where Matus was standing, drew level with him and looked down upon his wet black head.
“Have you safely delivered your brother and the girl?” I asked him and he nodded, afraid to look at me. I gentled him and suggested that he could. Cautiously he raised his head enough so he could just about catch a glimpse of my face by turning his eyes up as far as they could go.
“Lord Tremain and I will be gone for a day or two. Have the house in order on our return, and keep yourself safe.”
“Yes, my lady,” he said rapidly and blushed, dropping his head again.
“Now go and be dry and I will see you on our return.”
The young man bowed his head again, quickly, and took off towards the kitchen entrance.
Lucian came alongside me and reigned in his horse.
“We need guards,” he said and thought, I can’t believe I would ever live to see such a day!
“Would you have me seal your room, at least? And the tower?”
He gave an impatient sigh and said, “I find the thought revolting but under the circumstances, it would be the wisest option. Do so.”
I tried to come up with a magical sealing solution but failed to do so, what with Lucian dancing his horse impatiently around me. In the end, I just fused the doors themselves into the surrounding walls and changed their consistency to a very strong pattern that would resist battering rams, fire and any other effort bar tearing down the whole building. He tracked me and nodded his approval, and as soon as the last strand was in place, he unleashed his black down the drive, setting me scrambling once more to keep up.
As we were tearing along the roadway, mud flying, so familiar yet so different, we kept a light connection to each other but gave ourselves the privacy to think our own thoughts by mutual agreement. When we passed the turn off to the standing stones, I fell to thinking about the past and drifted quite with my own thoughts in that nothing state of travelling that I had learned from him and practiced to perfection on the road to the North Mountains.
Later that afternoon, we caught up with the Thelein soldiers, ponderously marching at the speed of their supply wagons. Lucian and I were aware they were ahead for a long time before we could actually see the last of the stragglers, and I asked him with concern if we might not best avoid them altogether.
He just smiled and didn’t even respond to me.
I would have to wait and see.
He never slowed the great strides of our horses but send ahead a thundering that was heard by everyone in the long, drawn out train and caused men and beasts alike to turn their ears and heads. When we were close enough for them to see us clearly, he send a knowing who it was that was approaching, and that was quite enough, without any added terror branding, to cause everyone to scramble into the ditches and up the sides of the verge in a mad panic. There was one wagon which had been abandoned by the drivers, a cart loaded high with provisions, left right in the middle of the road and I could feel him gathering himself with joy as he lashed out hard and the wagon exploded in a shower of wooden shards, grains and metal crockery that covered those nearby and caused them to fall to the ground and protect their heads. It was beautifully timed because by the time we passed on by, there was just swirling dust of flour remaining and we rushed through it without any hindrance. Further along, some of the foot soldiers were actually standing to attention which was noted by Lucian with a small satisfaction, and the up on the banks, the riders of the company, their nervous horses in tightest check, saluted him as one.
I spotted the officer, hand to his heart in full salute, and Thoran, sunk and oblivious to what was occurring, tied to the saddle of a horse, enmeshed in terrible pain, still clasping his severed bloody hand. Before I could even think about how I felt about this, Lucian send me a very decisive, NO HEALING! and we were past and the road ahead was clear once more.
Once the soldier minds had receded to the distance, I took up the matter with him.
I am not well pleased that you will tell me who I may heal and who I may not heal.
(Annoyance) What would be the point of sending a healed one to deliver our message?
(More annoyance) I thought you told me you would be queen. Make up your mind.
That is immaterial. You are not to tell me who I can or cannot heal. It is not within your rights. You may argue with me, or give me your reasoning which I may or may not follow, but do stop telling me, no, ordering me around as though I was one of your soldiers!
(Annoyance fading to amusement) The spirited lady speaketh!
No, Lucian Tremain. This is where I make my stand. Thoran of Thelein, or whoever else. This is between me and them. You keep out of it and you respect my opinions, choices and decisions in the matter, as I will respect yours when it has nothing to do with me.
What are you saying? I cut people’s arms off to make a point and you go round behind my back fastening them back on again? You might as well go see if Trant has any room for you in his lodgings or his bed!
Now I was getting annoyed.
Why is having an opinion of my own the same as a betrayal in your mind?
He was annoyed as well.
Why is being sensible a task beyond you at most times?
I shook my head. Outside of our argument, the horses were still crashing across the muddy, puddled road and our bodies automatically adjusting in all ways to keep the rhythm of the speed.
Why are you presuming I would heal him completely? What if I just wanted to make sure he was well enough to deliver your message at all?
Ah – do not endeavour to confuse me with what ifs. You were feeling sorry for the man! Admit it! And about to dress in your soft hearted disguise and ease his pain, which he deserved far more richly than was given, in the end.
And why, pray, is that such a bad thing?
He is our – my – enemy.
And I should feel nothing for him because of that.
Lucian did not answer this but shut down the link so hard that it hurt my head and spurred on his horse to stretch further and faster. It was now not far to the turn off for the village and the house; he was not precisely aware of the location and I was angry with him and slowed my horse to a trot, then a walk.
The road was bending and winding here, amongst small copses of twisted trees and shrubs that grew right into the road in places. The verge rose and fell without rhyme or reason, and there were deep river-like puddles along both sides. The light was fading fast now on this grey day and beyond the trees, mists were beginning to rise amongst the shrublands. It was very still and silent save for the breathing of the horse and the splashing, churning sounds his hooves made on the soggy ground.
My knees and robe and cloak were splattered with mud, as were the lovely black’s legs, up to his thighs. I amused myself distantly by dislodging it and having it drop off us, allowing the small wet mud entities to rejoin their sticky universe from where they had come, but still, underlying it all I was angry with Lucian.
I was also angry with myself at not understanding why he would not give me leave to do things in my own way – it really came down to betrayal for him, every little thing. To mind came the incident where he had turned my robe to black and I had changed it to blue green instead. He had viewed that as a betrayal. One thing was for sure – this would have to be sorted out, one way or another, and before a number of years passed by and I would get used to doing everything as he wished for fear of angering him. I had seen this before, amongst the people in the village. Just a small disapproval, over long enough time, can turn a happy, outgoing woman into a grey thing that never leaves her house if you are not very careful.
Still. What had been his major accusation? That I felt sorry for Thoran? What was so bad about that? Was I to not feel ever anything for anyone but him? I shook my head at the thought, for as ridiculous as it sounded, I had a notion that this was what it was all about. Jealousy. He wouldn’t even share that much of me to take a tiny little bit of Thoran’s suffering away. I shook my head again and sighed.
Obviously, I did not yet have the measure of the man.
We walked on slowly through the wet evening and soon enough, there was the turn off to the village. By the turn off, very silent and very contained, stood the black four square and Lucian sat motionless, hands perfectly still resting on his thighs. He was fully cloaked and did not even look at me as I steered my black down the turn off and onto the even muddier track that fell towards the village below.
I could feel him behind me as I made my way past the rickety houses and the few stone structures, aware of many eyes from within cosy, fire lit places staring out at us as we passed by.
I moved my horse into a trot for the last couple of miles, eager now to be home and dry, eager to see Marani, the children, and, of course, Chay. The thought made me smile before I quickly distracted it for fear that Lucian might hear it and be more angry still. But he himself was under the tightest of cloaks and shields he could muster and showed that he had no intention of even wanting to know what I might be thinking.
There were the cluster of three trees that seemed to be grown from one and I reigned in my horse.
Lucian drew alongside me and glanced at the trees.
“This is where you buried the warrior?” he asked me and I took it for a peace offering.
“Yes. Ty Sidra.” I replied and absentmindedly scouted ahead to the house beneath the road. From here, you could not see it yet and I moved my horse closer and began the descent down into the approach way. The moment I saw the boundary fence of alien gold, and those inside the house became aware of my presence, rain started to pour as though a bucket had been upended.
I halted the black half way up the incline and looked back to Lucian, who was motionless at the top on the road, having watched my progress. The rain drove down hard and the sky was becoming blacker by the moment.
Come inside if you will. This is no night to be riding any further still.
You have your errands, I have mine.
At least, do not leave with this anger between us. I do not like it.
(The slightest of softenings)
When will you return?
I will call for you the day after next.
Will you go in love, and in safety?
I will. (Hesitation) Call upon me if you need my assistance. I am near enough for translocation.
And you will do the same?
(Smile) Indeed, I will.
Then I bid you farewell. Return to me swiftly.
He spun the horse and like a flash, was gone. I bit my lip and then had to blink as the driving sheets of rain went into my eyes; I forced myself to stop staring into the dim dark where he had been but a moment ago and turned my mind and eyes to the twinkling lights below.
A flooding of light occurred and the door was opened. People running across the courtyard, into the mud, laughing, shying the tired horse, minds everywhere.
I detached a part of myself to go ahead and smile and greet everyone and make comments and even let Marani embrace me, whilst my true self searched for Lucian, riding alone through the darkness and rain and upon finding him, sighed with relief as though a pain had been undone.
The children wanted to keep the horse and begged me not send it back and I allowed them to take it into the stable rooms, to take off the tack and dry and feed it by hand. The black was a little disconcerted but of good enough humour and I had to do little to have his full co-operation.
Finally, we got to be inside – this house was so bright, so colourful, so lively, it was a shock after the environments of late – and I was put in the main sitting room in front of a merry magical fire and asked what I would like to drink, to eat. Everyone looked extraordinary well and happy, and it was just too much for me to cope with all these excited minds, all probing me, prodding me for insights as to where I’d been, overflowing with things they needed me to know, and all as one demanding my attention.
I sent a call for help to Marani for she would be the one to understand and soon the old woman sternly took control and cleared the room from everyone bar herself and Chay who simply pretended he did not understand her instruction and sat cross legged on the floor by the fire, trying to blend into the background.
I placed a triple shield across the room – base, magical and Serein at once – and finally there was containability and some degree of silence.
I sighed deeply and closed my eyes for a moment. When I opened them again, I saw Chay looking straight at me with a most strange expression. I had quite forgotten how handsome he was, more so than I remembered, more sleek and smooth from good care and exercise and with a different air of presence. A small something passed between us and I quickly shifted my attention to Marani who took a seat on a soft bench type affair across from me.
“Thank you,” I told her most sincerely and then found myself sighing again. How did I ever live amongst all these minds and keep my peace?
“Would you like some food, a hot drink perhaps? You are soaked. At least let me take your cloak,” she said, forever practical. I considered this but the effort was for the moment too great and I just dried my clothes and hair in the usual way. Marani’s eyes widened for a moment and before she could say or ask anything about my new found skills, I said, “I would like some wine right now. Food a little later, perhaps. I am – tired from the ride.”
Automatically, she tried to place a connection to Demma in the kitchen but could not reach beyond my barrier. She looked across to Chay who ignored her and thus had no option but to get up herself and leave physically on that errand.
Before the door had fully closed on her, Chay had risen and came across to kneel by the side of my chair, and had taken my hand and placed it to his lips.
I looked down on his wavy blonde hair with astonishment and did not know what to think or to say, when he raised his eyes to me and looked at me with utter intent.
“My lady,” he whispered and took my hand in both of his, “I have waited so for your return.” Then he set to kissing my hand again, turned it over and began sucking my wrist.
His mouth was red hot and wet against my cold wrist and a fire bolt travelled right up my arm, into my spine and set my body alight at once.
“Chay!” I said hurriedly and tried to pull my hand free but he held it fast and tight, raising his treacherous mouth at least but he continued to massage my hand in his.
“My lady, you are here at last. I cannot believe it. And now that you are here, let me speak my mind at once, for I can’t wait another second to declare my intentions for you.”
I was simply stunned. “Chay, please! Do contain yourself! Don’t speak any further, for if you are about to say what I think you are, there is no point to such a declaration. You know well that I am spoken for already.”
He raised himself a little higher and leaned on the arm of my chair, letting go of my hand so he could touch my hair instead. He was looking at me intently throughout and I was unbalanced by his closeness, his touch and my body’s unwanted responses. He slowly slid his hand down my cheek, then to my throat and I could not suppress a resonance and an intake of breath.
Low and slowly, he said, “Don’t pretend to yourself any more that you don’t want me just as much as I have always wanted you. Let go and have you want and need from me, I am here, I am right here and I am for you, in all ways, in every way you want me.” And before I had a chance to respond he had moved his hand around the back of my neck and his mouth was on mine. For just a second, I was dissolved in the pure pleasure of his touch and taste, then I drew back and pushed him away by the shoulders, hard and resolute.
Luckily, at that point Marani came banging in with the wine and he straightened but did not rise.
She looked at us with questioning or rather, looked at me, as though she had been well aware that such an ambush would take place upon my honour and my constitution.
I was annoyed with myself and highly annoyed with both of those co-conspirators.
“What do you think you’re doing, Chay? I am betrothed to Lord Tremain! He has asked me to be his wife, and I have accepted it with every grace. We are to be wed at Pertineri in the summer.”
Marani, who was about to pour some wine for me nearly dropped the bottle in shock.
“He has – what? Young one, don’t jest with me!”
I shook my head and kept myself entirely focussed on her in my response, yet it was mostly for Chay Catena to hear, loud and clear and with finality.
“I love Lord Tremain as I always have. He has asked me to be his wife, and I cannot conceive of a greater honour, nor of a greater happiness.”
Chay got up quickly, stood to face the fire for a moment, then he struck the mantelpiece with the flat of his hand and spun around, pointing at me and nearly shouting:
“You cannot – you can not – this is not a man but a monster! Isca, truly, what madness has befallen you? I have sought to find out more about this Lord of yours and wherever I turn, whatever I hear it becomes – unbearable. He is a demon, a unnatural monstrosity that kills for lust and fun! In the Creators name, they called him Malme’s butcher hundreds of years ago! What can there be but evil, and wickedness, and loss of soul for you my lady? How can you expect me, who loves you as I do and dreams of you each and every night, to stand by and see you destroy yourself in such a foolish choice as this?
"When first you came here, you were bright and wonderful – look at you now! There is no pleasure in your face, your dress is black like his and you can’t even find a welcome for the children in your heart who each have longed for your return with desperation and tears aplenty. “
Chay came closer and once again knelt by the side of my chair, picked up the hand without a ring that said so clearly to whom it was that I was promised, and continued in a lower tone of voice, with more entreatment.
“My sweet lady, I beg you, reconsider and make another choice. Make it now, make it tonight, to save your soul and your love, for that you think you love can never return your tender feelings; it may pretend to play with you most cruelly, but in staying with that monster just another day will surely be another day straight on your road to hell!
"My lady, my darling, I entreat you. Leave off and come with me, tonight if necessary. I know you find me favourable and look upon me kindly; let this feeling you have now as I hold your hand flow through you and become a flood. I will protect you with my life, I will be everything and anything you will have me be, I will aid you raise a palace in the greenest lands and we can live together in the light and raise children of our own and you will experience the happiness you deserve so rightfully.
"You and I are common born both. You and I can understand each other and be friendly and lovers too, there is no difference between your ways and mine and I know, I know with all my heart that I could make you happy. I entreat you, my lady. Leave him and come away with me. For my sake but most of all, for you. What do you say?”
Throughout his impassioned speech, I had been aware of two things. One was his hands around mine, hard and hot and the continuing response of my body to his closeness and his heat. The other was a tight shadow in the pit of my stomach for he had spoken to my deepest, darkest fears and, at the same time, gave me an alternative to save myself.
I considered the idea of living with Chay and bearing his children. There would be, indeed, an aspect there of what he had called living in the light. There was no doubt that we could well create a harmony between our minds and bodies, a unity of practicality and fun, and laughter too.
He would play with our children on the lawns and pretend to be a horse for them, or have them jump on him and wrestle him to the ground, and I would watch them with a loving smile.
I need not fear Lucian’s wrath of me, for he would turn and walk away without a single backward glance if I told him that such was my decision. He would not seek to punish me nor punish Chay and probably would even through the ages guard our offspring from afar. I really did not know how I could think this given all the ins and outs of Lucian’s mind and states of mind, yet I felt somewhere that he was expecting such an action and on many levels, would approve me taking it.
And there it was.
There it was.
No sooner could I reach into my own chest and tear out my heart and throw it to the ground before me than I could look into Lucian’s eyes and tell him I preferred another.
For it simply was not ever any possibility, regardless of my fear of loss of soul, regardless of a knowing that to be his wife could never be anything other than hard, and that there would be little laughter, little joy, at least not of the kind that Chay would promise.
I had thought all these many things quite rapidly and yet there had been a silence that lasted too long and Marani had to speak.
“Please listen to him, young one. I have lived with – him – for many, many years, so long it seems I’ve spent my whole life creeping around in the shadows of walls for fear of him and his dark moods and wrath. Do not go there. Go to a real life. Do save yourself for I don’t know what he told you or what witchery he has put upon you, but don’t believe a word he says. He is a cruel and ruthless thing, of such violence and terror as you could not conceive. He kills without a thought and draws amusement from the suffering of those around him.”
I felt an anger with her words and replied, “Yet you are here, quite alive, after all these years – how many did you serve him, Marani? Is it 55 or nearer 60? And in all that time the one of whom you speak with such venom and with such vengeance, did he ever harm you? Or your daughter? Even when it might have thought to have been well deserved?”
She held my eyes only for a heartbeat before she dropped and shook her head.
“No,” she said in a low dry voice. “He has never hurt us. Although there were many times when I thought that he would and I was always so afraid. I still am so afraid of him.” She looked back at me then with a new challenge. “And what is it, a recommendation that he did not kill us? That he made an exception and just terrified us both we could not speak for days and weeks on end? That my child – my only child – a woman twice or thrice your age still to this day cannot be left alone in darkness, and the smallest noise will make her start and her eyes showing their whites, stare around herself? Her husband is a patient man to bear with it, and her own children have had passed on much of this fear too. You are right, I should be grateful that he left us alive, did not tear us to pieces, but sometimes, just sometimes, I just wish he had and ended this fear that has been weighing on my shoulder for as long as I can remember and it never, never leaves me.”
Chay joined in again, impatient to stack the odds some more. “Marani has told me of his hatred of children, and how he kills them on sight – you brought the children here to protect them from him, did you not? A murderer of children! Is that what you wish to have your husband be? The blood of multitudes on his hands, the screams of the multitudes in his hair, sins so great that there is no punishment to wash them clean away, not even death or torture or fire? Why, this creature could stand trial and be killed a thousand times, each time worse than the one before, and come to life again to face his charges yet afresh, it still would not suffice to bring back justice!”
I felt a coldness move into my neck and chest and with extreme volition, withdrew my hand from his and stood up from the chair. He had to straighten to give me room for movement and I walked across and stood by the fire with my back to them both. Into the flames, or to the flames, I spoke.
“He has been killed already in the manner of which you speak, and brought back to life to face the charges yet afresh, the only problem being that when justice as you call it was being done, he had not yet committed the crimes for which he was being punished.
"You are both right in what you say, and yet you are both wrong.
"Lucian is a man and not a monster. His crimes have been most great indeed and yet he has already received his punishment in full, in whole and it is now complete. He does not yet know or really understand this, for I do believe he thinks like you both do and not the way I have come to understand the matter.
"I lay with him this morning and I know his love for me is great, great enough to let me walk away from him without a single word of hindrance or a single threat of retribution. I know things about him that you both will never know, nor ever understand, most likely for the reason that you would be too afraid to see the things that I have seen and look again, closely, to try and understand the whys and wherefores, the patterns and the reasons, and beyond, I have my love for him to shield me from this fear.”
I turned around then to find them both transfixed, confused and scared of my rejection of their schemes. A small compassion came to me and with a voice much softer, I continued.
“I have been most blessed to have fine people, honourable people, like you are so plead with me for my own salvation as you did. Yet neither of you knows, or understands, my connection with Lord Tremain. I am sad for your affections, Chay, but I will wed Lord Lucian Tremain in Pertineri. I will wed him because it is ordained that I should do so, and there was never any question in my mind from the very first moment I saw him at Tower Keep.”
Both were shaking their head in unison and Chay spoke sharply, angrily, “It is not ordained! That is a nonsense that the priests would use to keep us down and paying for their finery! Nothing is ordained but what you will decide must happen. Isca, for the love of the Creator, please consider. You were so young. You had never seen one of his bearing, of his state, and you misplaced your heart in that instance, holding so honourably on to a decision that was made in surprise and without proper thought. Oh would that we were in the old days where a bride was given with some common sense by elders who knew better than a virgin girl with all her strange and maddening fancies!”
“Oh Chay! You may be an authority on virgin girls and their maddening fancies, and I’m sure you are, what with your flashing smile and pretty face, but do not dishonour me with such statements. I have never been your virgin girl, not even when I first wore skirts instead of shifts. And as to what is meant to be and what is not, you are in no position to have even the most tiniest of understandings of the worlds in which I move. Entreat me no further. I have clearly stated my choice in the matter. If neither of you can accept this, I will leave and not return.”
My back was hot from the fire and I watched Marani bend her head and look at her hands, old now they were and spotted brown and crackled like worn leather, when I remembered them to be firm and easy. Inside me sat a sigh, a sadness, that I did not know to treat her any differently, that I did the best I could to be the kindest I could be and still it had never been enough.
I remembered the time when Rosea ran into the study, straight into the study with her yellow curls flying, crying that she was not going to do the things Marani wanted her to be doing in her high pitched children’s voice. I looked up from my script and saw her and felt the destruction come to me, and there was Marani in the doorway and on the desk sat a triangular metal knife I used to pry apart stuck pages of the older books and manuscripts.
I took it carefully. Below the level of the desk, out of sight, I embedded it deeply into my thigh, twisting it this way and that and letting the pain do battle with the destruction, waylaying it just long enough to give the woman a chance to snatch up the child and run from the room, from the house, and run and run.
I cleaned the chair and floor myself that night, concealed the wound from her and the bandages until it was healed once more. The child never returned to Tower Keep but Marani did, she was there to make my morning meal. It was never mentioned and I had not really thought of it in many years or once since it had happened.
A timid knock on the door broke the silence and Marani rose to answer it.
She received a tray through a narrowly opened door from someone who was not discernible beyond the shielding I had placed around the room, and brought it to the low table by the side of the fire place where the forgotten wine was waiting still.
I joined her there and watched her pour my wine. She held it out to me but never glanced in my direction. Gratefully, I took it and gratefully, I drank it, a re-union of both of me coming together here in the appreciation of its comfort and its sheer sensuality.
The small plate of food did not appeal to me, and I wondered why it was that here in this house his memories were so much closer, so much more readily at hand, than they had been for such a long time.
Chay sighed and laid himself into what had been my chair, sideways with his long legs across one arm and his back leaning against the other. As a peace offering, I took the bottle to him and held it out.
There was a most accusing look in his eyes, a darkness about him that did not fit him well and eventually, he allowed himself to take the bottle and then to take a drink from it, a small sip at first then a long and thirsty draft.
I was about to say something when the door crashed open and Reyna flew into the room, her eyes big and wide.
“The black man is coming! He is coming back!”