In Serein

2-2-5 The Duel

Chay, dark trousers and his brown boots and white shirt immaculate, was warming up with a ritual kata.

It was a dry and bright morning, quite cold yet not cold enough for his breath to steam as he flowed through the prescribed figures like young gold. The turquoise and gold mosaic at the front of the house was slippery with dew, yet the raised inlays gave him good leverage to turn and move with surety and lightness.

There was no comparison between the man I was observing this morning from the shadows of the stable building to the clumsy soldier showing off for me these many month ago.

Lucian stepped through the front door, the whiteness of the day hurting his eyes, with one of the Tadara pair lightly held and pointing to the ground before him. He did not look at me or seem to notice me and his shielding was tight to total shut off point. He obviously intended to meet his opponent entirely man to man, and had divested himself of his magic.

He, too, was wearing just his black trousers and white shirt and as he walked purposefully up the drive towards where Chay was practicing and into the same view, I was struck with forceful surprise at how similar they were in many ways.

Truly, they could have been father and son, meeting here in the courtyard for a morning’s sword practice before breakfast.

Lucian had halted a couple of lengths away from Chay and now stood, with his back to me, watching Chay go through his paces, the Tadara sword carelessly resting on his shoulder. There were dissimilarities between them, too.

Although obviously very strong, Lucian’s body lacked the sharp definition of Chay’s. Where Chay was a lingering golden brown still from playing bare-chested all through the summer, Lucian was extremely pale after a year spent inside the tower. Something that did nudged me with worry then was the difference in their attitudes.

Chay was tightly focussed and his intent was like a torch; Lucian on the other hand seemed vaguely disinterested, bored, as though he didn’t really want to be here at all.

From the corner of my eyes I noted Marani and Demma sidling from the main entrance and along the wall to join me. I flashed them a brief greeting, momentarily glanced up at the house above, where undoubtedly the children were clustered tight around a window that was coloured from the outside but from the inside would be clear as melted ice. In spite of all the shielding, I could feel the vibration of their group excitement and their fear.

Chay had finished his sequence and turned towards Lucian, giving him the formal salute in the briefest of versions, a small insult that was not unnoticed.

Lucian returned the salute and without a word being spoken between them, nor any further circumstance, Chay attacked him with force and high skill, immediately and explosively and my hands turned wet and reached for the support of the wet cold wall behind me as the swords rang out powerfully with their metal voices.

The exchanges were so fast and furious it was hard to see what they were doing, both men flowing around each other with eyes for one another only and striking hard and with intent to harm.

This was no practise fight.

This was absolutely real, right here, right now and my heart began to beat in pain in my throat, a pressure building up inside me that became thicker and more threatening as Lucian began to slowly, imperceptibly at first, lose ground against Chay’s continuous onslaught.

I forced a deep breath and tried to steady myself, calling deliberately on my second hand knowledge of matters of war and as I began to breathe more freely, the lethal patterns they were weaving began to slow to my eyes and make sense.

Seen like that, it looked even worse than when I had just been an innocent watcher.

Lucian was entirely on the defensive, stretched fully with just keeping Chay at bay and with no opportunity to begin an offensive of his own. If his reflexes had not been as extraordinary as they had been, the fight would have been over a few seconds after it had begun. He was playing for time, hoping that Chay would exhaust himself and start to make mistakes, conserving his energy and avoiding and deflecting at the far end of his range this morning.

I shook my head and became aware that my fists were clenched so tightly it hurt. I wished to the Creator that Lucian would allow himself access at least to his ability to distort time, to give himself a chance to control this fight. If Chay got lucky or if Lucian made a mistake, there was a real possibility that he might be killed and I would be unable to restore him.

Slowly, slowly, Chay was driving Lucian before him, away from the house, towards the approach road. And then the unthinkable happened.

Lucian stepped back and the heel of his boot sank deeply into the soft muddy soil beyond the tiled courtyard, unbalancing him unexpectedly. Chay seized the opportunity immediately; with Lucian’s defences down for just an instant he lunged forward and delivered a slicing blow aimed at Lucian’s neck.

At the last possible moment, Lucian managed to somehow bring the blue black sword into the way; the Tadara could not stop the power of the strike but managed to deflect it along the length of its shining blade and Chay’s sword cut deeply into Lucian’s shoulder and upper arm, severing muscles and sinews, the white shirt splitting like the skin below and brilliant vermilion spreading instantly.

I cried out involuntarily and stepped forward to see Lucian switching his sword to the left hand and striking at Chay’s legs, causing the younger man to jump back and defend, which gave him the opportunity to scramble to his feet and back up further into the muddy drive.

For a moment, they circled each other warily, Chay taking stock of what he had accomplished so far.

Lucian’s right arm hung limply, soaked in red, with blood dripping off the curled fingertips rapidly. He was breathing hard and there was sweat on his forehead. He was holding the sword in his left, comfortably and easily, but he was not as light on his feet as he had been.

Chay called at him.

“Say your prayers, Tremain, you are going to hell!” and lunged afresh for him. Hampered by the arm that was a dead weight now, and with the slippery mud underfoot making it difficult to manoeuvre, Lucian was doing the very best he could to not be beaten into the ground. He was losing quantities of blood and losing ground fast now, they were nearly up to the boundary fence.

It was then that my racing mind, trying to find a way to help him that would be acceptable to him, touched the joy of those others who were watching the battle.

There was a deep pressure of delight and a hot desire to see Lucian be killed this morning, to raise Chay upon their shoulders and to feast him for the hero to end all heroes, the one to have taken the head of the Lord Of Darkness himself.

I am not sure what happened or why, but I was free to move and I ran across the courtyard and into the mud myself then, and shouted at the top of my voice, “Lucian!”

It distracted them both momentarily and caused no unfair advantage either way; both shot me bitter glances and then ignored me and resumed their war, which was becoming more unbalanced as each second passed, as each quantity of Lucian’s blood dripped and splattered into the mud.

I stood, and with focus, began to chant his name, as loud as I could, in two-syllable pulses, putting into it all my desire for him to win this day, to somehow overcome this, to remember his previous victories, to find his own intensity and put an end to this exhibition: “Lu-cian! Lu-cian! Lu-cian!”

Was it fair? Was it right? Was it witchcraft? If it was that, it was the oldest of all kinds, one that each man and woman is born with, that comes naturally without ever having to try. They both heard me, of course. One of them heard me and responded with renewed determination and it served to energise him; the other heard me and responded with bitter anger and it served to unbalance him.

Chay was holding the sword in both hands and with all his power, striking down at Lucian, who could hardly keep the Tadara from being knocked from his hand, twice, thrice, and on the fourth downward strike, Lucian let himself fall forward into the mud, rolled into Chay and knocked him off his feet. Before Chay had a chance to recover, Lucian had swung around swiftly and hit him with everything he had behind the hand gripping the sword rigidly, smashing the hand guard straight into Chay’s nose. Chay dropped his sword and howled in pain, clasping both hands to his face. Lucian then dropped the sword as well and punched him as hard as he could in the stomach, causing the blond man to double up, blood spurting from  his broken nose in an arc against the bright morning light as he fell to his knees. Lucian struck him on the base of his neck, collapsing Chay face first into the mud, then with a swift double movement stepped on the younger man’s neck, hard, whilst at the same time bending to sweep up his sword from the ground. He threw it up and caught it in the grip required for a straight downward plunge.

A howl came from the stables and Marani came running. In the house, the shielding was being dropped as the children had made up their minds to intervene on Chay’s behalf; before they could half organise themselves to a coherent action, I had swiped them into silence with such force that no doubt their collective heads would hurt for a week.

Lucian stood poised with the sword, cool and intentional beneath his own blood and sweat and the mud that fair covered him from head to foot. Chay lay absolutely still and in complete submission.

All was silent then as we awaited his decision.

He took a deep breath and looked up, searched for me and found my eyes. He let the shielding dissolve.

He is yours, my lady. Would you care for his head, or his heart?

I smiled.

I think I probably had both already and I am quite weary of either, my lord. Let him live and tell the tale of how a one armed man half fainted with blood loss broke his nose in the mud.

He raised a small smile in return and gave the briefest of nods in acknowledgement. He withdrew his boot from Chay’s neck and gave him a kick in the side.

“Get Lady Isca’s horse, boy,” he said carelessly. “We’re leaving.”

Chay remained where he was and did not respond beyond a small movement of pain.

Lucian stepped right across him and up to me. He looked relaxed now and I reached up and stroked his neck, radiating hot and awash with clear sweat it was and the power of the battle and the joy of victory both washed right into me and unbalanced me with its sheer aliveness for an instant and until I could center myself to the now once more. Then, I took the sword from him and he released it to me without resistance. Gently, I let the healing flow from his neck across his shoulder and into his arm, binding the patterns that were broken from the inside out with ease and caressingly, lovingly. He rotated his shoulder, flexed his arm and stretched his fingers out long.

“Very good,” he said with a light smile and took my free hand, turned it and brought it to his lips.

“My lady, I apologise for this truly unfortunate spectacle. I am obviously far more out of practice than I had presumed myself to be. Will you forgive me?”

I smiled at him, with relief that it was over, with even more relief that he was taking his near defeat with a good measure of grace.

He released my hand and concentrated on his clothing. I tracked along as he considered to clear out all the blood and sweat and dirt, then decided to run the shirt back in time instead. It was a far easier option and interesting to observe as the shirt turned see-through for a moment the re-appeared as bright and fresh as it had been before the fight had ever began.

He smiled and repeated the operation on his boots and trousers too. Then, he held out his hand for the sword.

“Get the horses ready, my lady. I will get dressed. I would we leave here soon.”

I nodded my agreement and he walked straight and purposefully back to the house whilst I watched him go and Demma scrambled to get as far away from him as possible.

Once he was out of sight, I re-shielded the children upstairs who were still in shock and admonished them sternly to stay where they were until we were absolutely gone; in the meantime, Marani and Demma were picking poor Chay out of the dirt.

He was heartbroken, utterly defeated and feeling extraordinarily sorry for himself. And he was a sight! His broken and cut nose was giving him agony, a bloody mud mask plastered all over him and into his hair, his blue eyes staring out at me reproachfully.

I shook my head and grabbed him forcefully by the fabric of his shirt and used a little extra magic to raise him fully to his feet.

“Come with me,” I said, and half carried, half dragged him across the courtyard to the horse trough and water pump. He tried to resist me and behind me, I could hear Marani’s protestations, but I just stuck him forcefully under the pump and made the freezing water spurt down on him, hard. He spluttered and tried to fight away from it, but I held him strongly in position with my mind whilst with my hands, I rubbed the mud from his hair. I healed his nose, resetting it deliberately in such a way that he would carry a memory of this day, and when he was entirely soaked and entirely clean, I stopped the pump, moved him out away from it and dried him magically.

He was most highly resentful of all of it and when I released him from his bindings, he shook himself like a dog and wiped at himself to get rid of the sensations, then cautiously touched his face to find it all well and the skin smooth as it had been.

“There you go, Chay Catena. Good as new,” I said to him.

He shook his head, setting his long blond hair flying and glared at me.

“You made me lose! It wasn’t fair!”

“Well what do you expect me to do?” I shouted back, exasperated. Marani and Demma had drawn close and joined us in a circle by the water pump.

“After all I’ve been through, do you really think I stand there and watch you – you! Of all people! – kill my husband to be? You are damn lucky I have so much respect for Lucian, else I would have whipped you myself from here all the way to the North Mountains.”

“I could have taken him down,” Chay said sullenly, angrily.

I shook my head, torn between anger, exasperation and being simply tired of his childishness.

“Chay, do you see this jewel around my throat? Do you know what that is? That is the fire from below the mountains in the North Mountain range. Lucian took this fire, compressed it and fashioned it into a necklace for me. And here, look at this.” I produced the white bird from my pocket. “This was once an entire glacier.”

I floated the bird in mid air and all three of them stared at it in disbelief. Marani reached towards the pattern and made warding off gestures I thought by now had been left in the past, immediately.

“It’s true,” she said in an awed tone to the other two who were looking to her for confirmation and as the last authority on all things magical.

“That – “ and she pointed with an unsteady finger at the my milky white bird suspended lightly in the centre of our circle at eye level, “that was once an entire … oh good Creator, it is a pattern like I have never known, and it holds his signature.”

I retrieved the bird and put it back into my pocket.

“Lucian is just as foolish a man as the rest of them,” I said to Chay who was blinking and trying to re-gain his focus and balance. “Just as foolish as you are in his own way. He wanted to beat you man-to-man. Although he could have turned you into a little lake of quivering fluid in a heartbeat. He laid down his magic for this fight. And even so, he broke your nose. But don’t you dare walk away from here even beginning to think that you could have taken him down if he had not allowed you to do so.”

Chay blinked again as what I said began to dawn on him. He swallowed and said, “He is that powerful a magician, then?”

I nodded very seriously. “Yes, Chay, he is. I saw him erase mountains for practice and he re-arranged the entire mountain range with a lightning storm I thought would bring the world to an end.”

Chay swallowed again, and Marani said, in a whisper, “He finally learned it then. How to control the old magic. He has been trying in vain for as long as I have known him.”

I turned to her and made eye contact.

“Yes. I showed him the way.”

She said nothing but the thought stood clearly in the circle, to be read by anyone who could understand such things,

Oh young one. What have you done.

I sighed and without thinking, made a gesture that trailed a fine starry red luminescence behind it in its wake. They all saw it and shuddered as one and I knew then that my time with them was well and truly over now. They would remain my responsibility and I would hold my love for them, but we were no longer friends, or equals. If we had ever been. Perhaps I had deluded myself that I could ever belong here with them, and truthfully, I had never really felt as though I did, although I had tried my best to ignore the facts before me.

I dropped my hand and the luminescence faded. With a sigh, I said, “Get my horse tacked, Chay. We must leave. And both you and Demma are to start learning the ways of magic, immediately. And the boy and Camu, too. There are things afoot which do not bode well. I might as well have you know that Lucian has challenged Trant for the throne and we are therefore at war with him. Your connection with me might become known and they might like to use you for hostages or in retribution. It is of the essence that you all learn to work together properly to defend yourselves. You cannot beat a troop of soldiers with swords, but you can easily beat them with magic. See to it that this is done.”

All three were utterly speechless. Chay was the first to recover.

“Trant? You – you are at war with Trant and his entire kingdom?” he said, incredulously.

“Technically, not at war with his – well it isn’t even his! - kingdom. Just with Trant himself, really.” I sighed and decided to give just a little more background so they would at least have some understanding as to why an army might have assembled over night on their doorstep.

“Lucian was Malme’s army commander. Yes, Malme the Great. That is perfectly true, he really is that old. What is not known generally is that he was also Malme’s friend, and he promised on his deathbed that he would look out for Malme’s sons and their son’s sons. He takes this kind of thing quite seriously, so he has decided to take the throne from Trant and restore it to a rightful descendent of Malme.”

Marani said, weakly, “And he has the power to do it. Now.”

I nodded at her and gave a tired smile. “Yes. He has. And I will be guarding his back whilst he does it.”

Marani considered for a moment, then she sighed and said, “Isca – my lady Isca, it is hard for me to consider – him – engaged in a just and rightful cause. But to remove Trant would really be such a cause. I wish you well on your endeavour.”

The other two nodded their agreement, and I felt there was not much more that could be said, so I smiled at them all and then made my way back to the house, placing the order for Lucian’s horse to be delivered from the other side, as I went to collect my cloak and make ready for the journey from here but to where I did not yet know.

I was about to enter when I heard a sound behind me. Chay had run across and waylaid me by the door. He looked quite different and strange with his nose at a new angle and a small lump where it had been perfectly straight and shapely. It made me smile slightly. It did suit him well enough and gave him an added air of rakishness and an attraction.

He was serious and I let the smile drop and looked at him questioningly.

“Lady Isca,” he began faltering now that he had my attention.

I send him a small wave of gentling and acceptance. It steadied him enough to say what I had already clearly taken from his mind.

“I am – sorry – I behaved like I did. I was jealous and spoiling for a fight. I spend all those months you were gone thinking of a good speech that would turn your heart from him to me. I did – did not know that you were engaged in such high matters of state, nor for such honourable reasons. I know what it is like to hold a promise to a friend, ..” he stopped briefly and glanced at the three trees straight across, painted starkly against the pale blue winter sky.

“I would ask your forgiveness, and …” here he swallowed hard and had to fight with himself to say the words, “and Lord Tremain’s, too. I had no business challenging him like I did.”

I looked into his sincere blue eyes and remembered why I loved him as fondly as I did.

“Chay,” I said and took his hand in mine, “you are a most honourable man. I know how hard that was for you to say, and I accept your apology sincerely on behalf of myself and on behalf of my Lord. I would invite you to give us your allegiance. I would be proud to count you amongst our number and to be the first to declare his loyalty to the rightful king, when we are to find him.”

He nodded rapidly, entirely delighted with the prospect to be part of a company once more, to be able to fight on the side of righteousness once more. He and Lucian would be so shocked if they ever discovered just how much they had in common.

We were just standing there, looking at each other, when I noted Lucian approaching from the other side. At the same time as he stepped through the doorway, his black materialised on the courtyard, causing a flurry as both Demma and Marani scuttled for safety.

Lucian was back to himself, all dressed in black, right down to the gloves, his swords by his side and bearing my cloak across his left arm. He was stern and unapproachable, shielded and Chay backed away from him to give him room.

I took my cloak from him and placed it about my shoulders although it wasn’t needed on this bright day. I fastened the clip and send a request for communication to Lucian.

He accepted it after a brief hesitation.

Chay wishes to apologise to you and pledge his allegiance to the new and rightful king of Malme’s descending line, I send him formally and waited with interest for his response.

He was a little surprised but showed no outward sign whatever as he turned from me to place his gaze on the younger man.

You gave the man a crooked nose!, he send me with a smile attached whilst outwardly remaining icy as ever.

I laughed back. No, you gave him a crooked nose, I just set it. Don’t you think it makes him look tougher, more warrior like?

My nose is straight!

You look warrior-like enough even with a straight nose, my lord.

A real laughter was now bubbling up in him and he had to strain to keep his bearing entirely passionless.

A crooked nose doth not a warrior make. An old saying.

Yes, about 2 seconds old!

We stopped because Chay came forward hesitantly, somewhat disconcerted for he had noted something was going on without being able to put a reason to it. I followed Lucian’s track as he read the man.

Chay had indeed, experienced a change of heart, and what had done it was the deathbed promise story to Malme.

You told him about that??

I’m sorry but it seemed – appropriate to explain your motives.

What are you doing explaining my motives to a stable hand??

Can we argue about that some other time? What’s done is done.

He gave the mental equivalent of a deep growl but turned his attention back towards Chay, checking him for falsehood and pretence and was somewhat disturbed that he could not find any trace of either.

Although Chay was still very concerned about all the tales he had heard about Lucian, he had also experienced him as an honourable and resourceful fighter who had fought fairly and squarely and overcome high odds in the end to defeat him. And although he found Lucian to be cold and threatening, he had well noticed how the Lord Of Darkness softened around the edges in my company; he was not mistreating me and Chay had revised his opinion of our relationship entirely. It was perhaps even more painful than his previous fantasies of dark enslavement had been before he had seen the reality of us together, but it was also more acceptable to him.

It was the combination of Lucian having spared his own life on a promise to me and the thought that Malme, the wisest and greatest of kings, had entrusted Lucian with the care of his descendants, that had completely overturned Chay’s previous views.

Lucian shook his head fractionally, and I knew that he found the swing from dark avenger to white knight just as disconcerting as I did. Gently, I send him a reminder that not many people can hold darkness and light in consciousness at the same time, and need to make a decision one way or the other, deleting in the process all evidence to the contrary as they are replacing one illusion with another.

Hesitantly, Chay went down on one knee, put his hand to his heart and bend his head to Lucian in the full and formal posture of offering his services and if need be, his life.

Lucian looked down on the young man’s golden head and I could feel his consternation. Had ever someone knelt before him thus, with no fear of him other than that of his rejection, with no intentions other than that which was stated?

I could not find such a memory.

Yet Lucian’s voice was perfectly steady and his face absolutely devoid of emotion as he spoke the formal words to accept Chay Catena’s pledge of allegiance, and the young man began to glow as Lucian bestowed upon him an officership, which, had Lucian had an army at his command, would give Chay leave to lead 6,000 men. As it was, to me it seemed an empty honour, yet not so for Chay, and neither was it for my Lord. They both took it very, very seriously indeed and as I watched them both go through their motions, I wondered about the games of men.

The formalities absolved, the newly declared officer ran to saddle my horse and bring it from the stable building whilst Lucian and I stood in the bright morning, by ourselves, on the turquoise tiles, side by side, and had a conversation.

Where will we go?

We cannot yet head for Pertineri. I intend to use the nexus on the horse plains, but Thoran will not yet have arrived. It is a seven day journey from here, and more with wagons and those men on foot. We will return to Tower Keep for now.

That reminds me – Marani should stay here.

That is already understood and settled.

I was a little surprised by his response but did not seek to enquire further. She and I both had our desired outcome and what else was there to say?

Lucian looked across the courtyard with his eyes narrowed against the white sun. I glanced at him and wondered what he was thinking about, what exactly he was planning to do and how things would unfold after we left here in a moment. It didn’t really matter, though. Ever since that night I left my father’s house for the last time to seek refuge in the Serein Monastery, my life had been a sequence of uncontrollable events that no longer seemed quite real anymore. Most of the time. Once in a while, there were flashes or touches of realness, and those were always and only when I was with him. I sighed and caused him to take note of me, but just then Chay clip-clopped the hand tacked second black from the stable building and we both turned as one and headed for the horses.