In Serein

2-3-2 Conna

They carried me away, and all I know of this are flashes of light and moments of respite and glorious darkness amidst a sea of pain that was all encompassing, and then there was a greyness and a coldness and a nothing, and when I opened my eyes again I was looking up at an old man who smelled terribly and was clad in the filthiest rags I had ever seen, a dirty grey beard covering his face and yet he had kind eyes and he was smiling at me and I felt safe to have him be there.

There was much pain, and much non-understanding and drifting. Here and there I remember hearing voices but I could not understand what those voices were saying, and sometimes I awoke because the pain was lancing through me like a sword or red raw lightning. I remember calling for Lucian, and at one point he did come and take me in his arms and that was good and all was well and as it should have been.

Terrible thirst was another thing that I remember, terrible, terrible thirst.

And finally, only the Creator knows how much later, I became conscious enough to really know how hurt I was, and that I was alive, and that I was actually somewhere, in a context, on a floor, somewhere.

The somewhere was a filthy heap of straw, on a filthy, muddy, wet slimy cobble stone floor. There were voices and terrible sounds all around, and it was so dingy dark that I could only see a few hands width from my face.

I felt worse than I had ever felt in my life and wanted to cry out but could not, yet I heard an eerie sound and it took me a moment or two to realise that I was moaning.

I tried to find my arms, my legs, and move them but could not, and then a rustling was there and behind me, a voice said, “It’s alright, lady, shhh, I’m right here.” And through all the strangeness and numbness, I could feel a warm hand on my bare shoulder, giving me a first point of reference as what had happened to the rest of my body.

I tried to speak; at first I could not and then I managed to say it, “Lucian?”

The hand on my shoulder went still and the voice said, “I’m afraid not.” It rushed around in my head for a time before it came around to me that he was not there, there was a strange man beside my and I tried to get away and heard my own voice, distorted, scratchy hoarse, from far away, “Lucian! Lucian!”

The stranger held me in his arms and talked soothingly and after a while, I ceased to struggle and tried to hold some kind of focus but could not seem to think.

“What is your name?” he asked me and I tried to think and could not.

“I don’t know. I can’t remember.”

He sighed deeply and slightly tightened his embrace of me. He was warm. Everything else was so cold, so painful, so deranged. I leaned into him for an anchor.

“Who is Lucian?” he asked after a while and that was something I knew and could answer.

“My husband. Where is he?”

He stroked my back lightly and answered gently, “He is not here. No-one of this name came since they brought you.”

I shuddered and he held me closer to his chest. Rough texture against my cheek, like sackcloth.

“When did you see him – Lucian – last?”

“There were so many soldiers. They took him away.” I shivered again and something clicked into awareness then. That room. White Serein. Trant. Lucian. My mind did a strange thing like the attempt of going outside itself and there was nothing there, nowhere to go. I shook my head and tried to bring my hands up to my face but could not because the strange man was holding me tightly. I had nothing to fight him with. I accepted this and lay still.

“You were – are – very badly hurt,” the voice above me said and his chest resonated in time with the words. Yes. I was badly hurt.

“I’ve been watching over you since you were brought here.”

A question arose and I found the words to speak it. “Where is here?”

The man sighed very deeply. “Here is the dungeons below Pertineri Palace,” he said and his tone was low and painful. He hesitated, sighed again and then continued, “You should not be here. This is not a place for a woman. I don’t understand why they brought you here.”

I didn’t understand anything at all.

“I am thirsty,” I said.

He sighed again and answered gently, “We all are, dear.”

I accepted that, too.

I must have slept at some time for when I opened my eyes again, the blackness around me was complete. There was a strange sound in the cold, wet air, a howling and it was answered by many voices. There was coughing, too and feeble scratchings all around me and I was really afraid, the fear you have in dreams. I was so cold. I was so hurting in every shape or colour and my bones seemed to be made of shards of broken pottery, cutting deeply into me, every one of them it seemed. My mouth was full of dried leaves, swollen, and I thought I was going mad until from far away I became aware of a promise of warmth at least and I sought it, painfully inching towards the source of heat until I had found it.

The body beside me shifted and a rough, deep voice said, “Are you awake?”

I could only answer in a whisper. “I am. Who are you? Where am I? What is this?”

I tried to perceive anything at all in the total darkness and could not, so I strained to hear and sense instead and make a picture in my mind from the sounds of rustling, the seeking touch of a hand, then two, and a drawing towards a warmth that caused me to shiver uncontrollably.

“I am Conna,” said the voice. “Who are you?”

I thought for a moment and then answered him cautiously, “My name is Marani.”

“Well, Marani,” he said and his voice grew straighter, more aware, “that is a good sign. You might yet live and recover. Last time we spoke, you did not remember your name.”

I had a vague memory return to me then about having met him previously. My voice did not work at all so I had to keep at the whisper, “The dungeons under Trant’s palace, right?”

“Yes! That’s right! You remember! How are you feeling?”

I attempted an automatic laugh which caused a thousand shooting pains all through out me and cut it well short. I had to lie and breathe for quite a time before I could answer him, “Never better, Conna.”

“Well, you’re a one,” he said with a smile in his voice I could not see in the darkness. “So tell me, Marani, how did you get to be here? I have been watching you for days now and I’d really like to know.”

I couldn’t imagine who this man was but he seemed kind, and sincere. He had attempted to sooth me and he was warming me now in a most companionable fashion. I would have to be cautious in what I told him. For a fleeting moment, my mind turned to Lucian and I shut it out, viciously, brutally squashing the thought deep down and far away. Not now. Not here. There was nothing to be gained. Focus and take it one moment at a time. Focus.

“My husband was too loyal to Salter,” I whispered to the man and felt him nod understandingly in return.

“Yes, that would be the tale of most of us who still survive,” he said with bitterness, and after a short pause, added, “yet you would not find our wives and daughters down here. What is this?”

I tried to keep my thoughts together to be able to come up with a believable explanation for this man Conna that would keep him by my side yet satisfy his curiosity. It was very hard to think.

“He got Trant to promise to incarcerate me,” I said in the end. “I guess that is Trant’s revenge and counter-punishment.”

The man said nothing for a while, and behind us, the howling started afresh and with it, sounds and other voices raised in anguish and in anger.

He moved so his mouth was close to my ear and said, “Who is this husband of yours that Trant would make a promise, and who are you so high born that you would refer to the High Kings as Trant and Salter?”

Conna then was no fool and must have been of rank himself. I sighed and when the howling had abruptly stopped and the background noise had receded back to the low moans and coughings and stirrings, I whispered to him, “It might be best if we left that subject alone. It doesn’t serve us and might be of danger to you.”

He laughed out loud at that, not a happy sound at all.

“Tell me, Marani, if that is your name indeed, how can it get any worse than this? None of us will ever see the light of day again. From here, the only escape is death – execution, starvation, sickness, but there is only death and the only question that remains is how long do we have to suffer this? Now, I do not blame you for your reticence, but here, we are all already dead. And what is it to have rank and secret amongst the dead?”

There were words that came to me from somewhere and I allowed them to be spoken.

“You are warm and alive, Conna, and so am I. I have seen death and this is not it. This is not it.”

He withdrew slightly from me and when he spoke again, his voice was quite different.

“Who are you?”

I nearly shook my head but the memory of how painful my last attempt at movement had been was enough to curtail the gesture.

“I am one who would thank you for your great kindness and your care. Beyond that, I am not at liberty to say.”

He said nothing in response and time slowly slipped down in waves of moans and cries through the darkness. I lay and remembered a colour, a colour of blue and green and brought it clearly and more clearly still to my mind until it was so bright and beautiful that you could dive straight into it and be absolutely cleansed, absolutely healed, absolutely soothed and wonderfully energised.

The next time I opened my eyes, the greyness had returned and I was by myself on the pile of disgusting straw. Very slowly, I tested out response in my various extremities, and although the pain was intense, I could move my toes and fingers, and even managed to shift my legs and hips into a new position. My neck was still in intense agony and I presumed that it would not bear the weight of my head as yet, so I left that part of my body well alone. But my mind was bright and clear and I was able to take stock of the environment.

I was wearing what appeared to be a man’s shirt, stiff with filth, that did not cover my legs beyond my thighs. I was lying on a thin layer of flattened straw on a stone floor near the wall of a very large room with low ceiling in arcs. There were steps up to a higher level, and on that level there were a number of doorways with metal bars and it was from there that the little light that lost its strength more and more, the further into this dungeon it tried to penetrate, was entering.

I could see no guards and no other entrances, exits or windows. There must have been nearly a hundred men in this room, in various stages of dishevelment and dissolution, many just lying propped against the wall or in the middle of the rooms, some clustered together in small groups. I cast my eyes around as best as I could and noted that the back part of the room, cave like, receded into gloom and blackness altogether. It made me shudder to contemplate what might be found there if one would walk there with a torch.

Around the area where I was lying, there was a noticeable lack of anyone sitting, walking or lying, save for one single man who was sitting on the ground about a man’s length from my feet, with his back to me and his arms wrapped about his knees. He was wearing the remnants of an army uniform and his long, straggly hair was fine and very pale blond. I was wondering if he was sitting guard over me.

I carefully scanned the other men, trying to ascertain if I could make out the one called Conna who had kept me warm in the night, but everyone looked much the same to me, all bearded to a man, all rags turned to the same colour with dirt and the dingy greyness of the light, all walking and sitting and standing in the same stooped, defeated posture.

The stench in the air was overwhelming and I ordered it to be shut out.

With no immediate action required from the environment, I turned to a visual inspection of what I could see of myself.

My hands and arms seemed alright, scratched and very, very dirty but basically undamaged. My ring was on my finger, turned inward so only the back of the gold was showing like a plain wedding band. There was swelling and deep bruising around it as though someone had tried to remove it, which could not be accomplished. I brought up one hand with some difficulty and began to trace my upper arms, wincing as I came across thickly encrusted, welted scars. My neck was a disaster area, the necklace stuck firm and agony wherever I touched. My face, likewise, must have been unmentionable. I felt my nose and it was broken and crooked – the wry thought occurred to me that this might be the Creators way of telling me I should have re-set Chay’s nose properly when I had the chance, and that led me straight to think of what I must not consider and I shut down hard on that track, pressed on my cheekbone and used the intense pain that shot into my eye and head immediately to help me re-concentrate on the here and now. I continued my exploration. My chest and as far as I could touch towards my stomach, too, was crisscrossed with half healed scars, some of them oozing most unpleasantly and some of them being stuck to the shirt I was wearing.

I can’t have possibly been a pretty sight.

Experimentally, I tried to turn my head but this caused so much agony in my neck that I cried out involuntarily. The soldier with the straggly blond hair turned his head and on seeing me holding my head with both hands, got up and came over and stood, looking down at me with a questioning expression.

He was quite young in spite of the beard that covered the bottom half of his face and had a refined bearing about him which contrasted sharply with his unkempt and filthy condition.

“Conna bid me tell you that we will find you food and water as soon as we can.” he said, and his voice was nice, well modulated and carrying an unconscious authority that is acquired by high rank and compounded by study.

I nodded carefully to him, feeling extremely exposed and the need to pull a sheet over myself.

The blond aristocrat hesitated for a moment, then he turned and walked away, towards a small group of men who were sitting in a circle just by the stone stairs made from big boulders square shaped that led upwards towards the barred doorways.

He bent to one and pointed towards me, and the man he had been speaking to got slowly and quite painfully to his feet and came over. A few of the others also rose and followed him.

I recognised Conna although in consciousness I had never really seen him before.

He was older than I thought, his hair a dirt streaked oily grey as was his beard and moustache, and in spite of whatever pain he had that caused his difficulty in walking, he moved with an uprightness and intention that marked him for the leader amongst these desperate men.

I noted with interested that he was wearing just an open buttonless jacket of ragged cloth and unconsciously touched the shirt that was covering me barely. It must have been Conna’s.

He had arrived at my side and looked down at me much like the younger man before him had done – were they related? Father and son, perhaps? It was a possibility – and smiled, which caused his skin to crack into a hundred sharply defined lines around his eyes.

“Well, our mysterious lady is awake,” he said, quite fondly, and carefully lowered himself into a squatting position, reached out and put a dirty hand to my forehead. His touch felt hot on my cool skin.

He nodded, satisfied.

“No fever. You are actually mending. But my, you are a tough one. I have seen grown men succumb to injuries a quarter as severe.”

I tried to swallow and moisten my lips, but my tongue and mouth were too dry and neither had any effect. With some difficulty, I whispered, “They would have lived if you had cared for them, Conna.”

Behind him, four other men, including the blond one, had assembled into an escort. These men were clearly under Conna’s command, acting as his lieutenants even if they had not been when he arrived.

All were skin and bones over their muscles, and with their wild beards and long hair looked quite like savages. I glanced at them but briefly and concentrated on Conna instead who was speaking about the possibility of water and food being delivered this day.

“Water would be nice,” I managed to whisper and he stopped smiling and sighed.

“Be assured, you will be the first to drink here today. We will see to it.”

I nodded my gratitude and he carefully moved over and sat himself down on a level with my hips, then looked up at his attendants and gestured them to go. As one, they turned and walked back to the place at the bottom of the stairs where they stood, talking and glancing over their shoulders at us. As I tracked them, I became aware that almost every pair of eyes that was not closed in sleep or turned inwardly to their own suffering was directed on us and it caused me a moment of deep discomfort. This was extreme exposure with not a chance to escape it into privacy.

Conna spoke and provided, yet again, a safety anchor amidst this insane situation.

“Is there anything I can do for you? Within the constraints of –“ he made a gesture to include the entire dungeon, - “the means at my disposal?”

I tried a smile for him. “I’d like to try and sit up,” I whispered, and he nodded and carefully placed his hands under my arms, then reconsidered and used one arm around my back and one hand with care at the base of my neck to lift me into a sitting position.

The pain was excruciating but this time I was ready for it and did not cry; yet it became apparent that I could not sit up by myself and so he just held me against his chest.

I did not like feeling this out of control, and after a short breather made another effort to straighten. He supported me gently and eventually, I was able to keep myself upright with minimal help from him, although he stayed right close to me to catch me should I fall.

From this new vantage point I could see my thighs and legs, a mess of filthy ragged scars and wounds. If it wasn’t for this damned field around me, I could have healed all of that in a few moments, and there would be none of this suffering and unpleasantness. The thought made me quite angry and gave me the energy I needed to attempt to move my neck a little, this way and that.

Conna was watching my with extreme interest all the while, and eventually, he said, “That is an extraordinary necklace you are wearing there. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”

I couldn’t suppress a smile. He was still fishing for information. I continued to exercise my neck against the screaming sinews and muscles, and it became a little easier, a little less painful.

And then, he said unexpectedly, “Who is Lucian?” and with that, he crumbled my defences around the subject as one strikes a sword straight into the unprotected flank of an enemy.

I stopped dead and the breath caught in my throat.

How long had I been here? From the state of my wounds, it must have been many days. Was he dead? Could it be that he was dead? Helplessly, I cast again to find his pattern, to find an answer to the question and the grey silence that killed the magic levels dead were all there was to be found. Without the magic, would I know? Could I know? Would he have died days ago, called out for me, and I had no way of knowing, no way of hearing it?

Silently, I screamed for him in my mind and the screams fell flat to the floor and I couldn’t help myself, I just couldn’t stop it, I began to cry, harder and harder until Conna had to hold me and rock me like a baby and I hated it but I just couldn’t stop. When I had finally managed to cry myself  to a point where I could regain some measure of control, Conna said, “I am sorry. It is hard for all of us here. We have all lost our loved ones, in one way or the other.”

I shook my head and whispered, “I don’t know if I have lost him yet. I don’t know.”

He nodded and stroked my hair, slowly. “That is also so for many of us. In a way, it is worse than the other.”

I sighed. “You are a very kind man, Conna.”

He stopped stroking my hair and patted my shoulder self consciously instead. “You are a very brave lady.”

I was exhausted from the brief efforts and the crying and indicated I would lie down again. With great care, he lowered me back down onto the cold, mouldy straw, his grey eyes on mine as he did so, adjusting his movements in response to the slightest sign from my body as to discomfort.

He then re-arranged the shirt and pulled it down as far as it could go, and took my hand in his.

“I will not question you, from now on. If you want to be called Marani, so be it. It makes no difference here, anyway. And for what it’s worth, I will take your man into my prayers too. Whoever he may be.”

I felt like crying again but was far too tired now to do so.

“Thank you,” I managed to say and he sat and held my hand until I had slipped away into darkness once more.

The next thing I knew, there was screaming and clattering and so much noise that I shot up and immediately doubled over in pain.

There were brightly coloured red and gold and white, clean shaven, clean cut soldiers, and were coming down the steps, four with weapons drawn, then two arrying a large trough between them, then another four behind them. Up above, six more were standing guard by the main entrance which was open now, the barred gates wide, drawing my eyes like a bird would fly.

Everyone who could walk, crawl or scramble pushed towards the soldiers and they lowered their swords and kept the filthy hordes at bay. I noted that Conna and his lieutenants were in the very front row of events, and spaced out amongst the throng in strategically placed positions.

The soldiers set down the trough and extracted from it two buckets and a largish sack which they upended. A mess of objects fell to the filthy floor. They replaced the bag into the trough, picked up the two carrying handles and turned around to leave. The last four soldiers turned around, now becoming the leaders, and started their way back up the stairs, the four with their swords held out in front of them backed away from the buckets and the bits of food strewn on the floor. There was an instant rush forward but it was held back by Conna and his men who took up position, shoulder to shoulder, around the objects. I left them and tracked the retreating soldiers. On the same level with the gates, three still ragged bodies had been deposited. These were dragged through the door by the hair and then the gate swung shut with a deep metallic ring which was clearly audible even across the shouts and shuffling from the food crowd below and the soldiers disappeared, as did the corpses they were dragging behind.

A howl rose up and there was a shoving and pushing, and the young blond aristocrat came through and straight towards me, bearing in his outstretched hands with extraordinary care a small grey metal cup, beaten and oddly shaped, knelt before me and offered me the water.

I guided his hand with the cup towards my mouth and tried to drink, but my mouth was so cracked and dry I could not swallow and set to coughing instead. On the second attempt I managed to drink a little, and then drank greedily until the small cup was empty and my thirst had not began to recede in the slightest.

It took some self control to let his hand go and I looked up into his eyes.

“Thank you,” I said, and he nodded, go up rapidly and went back to the knot of people.

From my bed of straw, I observed how Conna and his men rationed out the first bucket of water and the food, against the protests of the recipients and with the threat of violence from his attendants giving him the authority he needed to give each starving, parching man a hundredth of what it would have taken to satisfy him.

Then, the blond aristocrat went around and distributed water and food, a cup at a time, to those who couldn’t move or walk, and finally, Conna and his group themselves got to drink from the single cup and take their share of food. The last dredges from the first water bucket were carefully distributed, and the food that was left picked up with the greatest of care, down to the last crumb, on their hands and knees.

The whole operation took quite a while, and eventually, the second water bucket and the food was brought over to where I was lying and which seemed to be the headquarters of Conna’s operation.

Conna himself gave me a second cup of water which I accepted after the briefest of hesitations, and he stopped me when I had drank but half of it, and used the other half to crumble the stale bread and some scraps of ancient vegetables into a disgusting, slimy mess, which I licked off my fingers from the cup. Little as it was, it gave me the strength to rise and with Conna’s support at first, to stand.

To relieve yourself, you had to walk into the darkness.

It was truly awful. I was never so grateful again for anything as I was for the fact that Trant, Thoran and the soldiers had left my boots on. It was worse in a way than the beating, or the pain. It made me feel as though I was no longer human at all and I began to understand why Conna had come to the conclusion that we were, indeed, the dead.

I wished I had to never eat or drink again so I would never have to walk into that darkness again.

When I returned from that journey, I sat on the straw and said to Conna, “I will tell you anything you wish to know. My name is Isca.”

Conna looked at me with some surprise and nodded lightly. “Well met, Isca,” he said, and held out his hand to me. I ignored the handshake offered and placed my hand on his arm in the soldier’s greeting, so deeply familiar to this my body, and he startled and looked at me once more as though he saw me for the first time, then his large hand went around my wrist in return.

I released him and carefully lowered myself until I was resting on my side, my arm supporting my head.

He was watching me, waiting, and so I took a deep breath and told him, “Lucian is Lord Lucian Tremain.” Then I waited for the usual response.

It happened as it usually does. First, the narrowing of the eyes and the wrinkling of the brows, the question if he could have heard it right, then the clicking into place of all the various pieces of information that would only make sense if what I said was true.

He shook his head and exhaled sharply.

Seeing that he was ready for the rest, I said, “Trant lured him into a trap. Us. He lured us into a trap. With the help of those forsaken bastards, he had Serein there. White Serein. And about a thousand soldiers. We never stood a chance.”

I was surprised how bitter my voice sounded, and how under all the confusion and fear for Lucian, how bitterly angry I was. Angry at Trant, angry at the Serein who must have watched us somehow to know where and when we would be, and most of all, most of all, angry at Lucian and at me for having been so stupid, so careless, so overconfident.

In truth, we deserved little better than what we had reaped.

Conna rubbed his hand through his wild dirty white hair, hard.

“And he was alive when you saw him last?” he asked me, probably to give himself more time to think.

I made a helpless gesture with my left hand.

“I am hoping that Trant will try and amuse himself with torturing him or keeping him for a pet, rather than killing him outright. As long as he is still alive, we have a chance.”

I could read the old man’s thoughts easily and without magic. He was sure I was deluding myself,  that I hoped somehow that Lucian would ride into this dungeon on a white horse – or even a black one, for that matter! - and rescue me. As appealing as the idea was, it had not figured in my plans. With us, it was usually the other way around.

Conna sighed and looked at me again, putting his head slightly to one side.

“And you, Isca? Who are you? How does one come to be the lady of the – of the Lord Tremain?”

I smiled because he had wanted to use Lucian’s other title there.

“Have you met him?” it occurred to me to ask. The man was obviously of rank and old. He might have been around during Lucian’s active service period.

Conna shook his head. “No. I have never – shall we say, I have never had the pleasure.”  He shook his head again and looked at me straight out. “But you have not answered my question.”

I lay back on the straw and tried to find a position that would allow my aching neck to attain some measure of comfort, looked up at the dark, vaulted stones in the ceiling above me and answered, “I was his apprentice, sent to him from a Serein monastery. I had – have – a measure of talent in the magical arts.” Before he would ask, I added, “There is shielding in this building against the use of any form of magic. That is how they could take us as they did, and that is also why I can do no magic here. None at all.”

After a considerable length of silence, Conna finally said, “I know now why you were reluctant to tell me. Perhaps it is best if this is kept between us, for now.”

I nodded and turned from the ceiling to look at him. He was a good man, one of whom even Lucian would approve. “What of you then, Conna? Who are you? And that blond one, the one who guards me and brought me the water, is he your son?”

His face stilled into an unreadable expression for a moment, then he replied slowly, “You are as sharp as you are courageous. Lord Tremain has chosen well in you, I will give him that. The blond one as you call him, Eddario of Niccosia, is indeed my bastard son. No-one here but he and I knows this though. He was a group leader in my section when we fought and lost under Salter’s flag.”

“And you are?” I prompted him, and he sighed and said, “In a better time, I was known as Conna of Solland.” This meant nothing to me but my Lucian memories supplied the necessary background. He was the duke of Solland, descendant of the kings from whom Malme had taken their empire, but sworn to his own flag with sovereignty over their previous dominions, and one of the eight dukes who sat on the highest council.

I contemplated him, one of the most powerful and influential men in all the kingdoms, brought to this, and the parts of me that belonged by rights to Lucian and my own mind aligned in a deep sense of disgust at Trant’s treatment of this man. He should have at the very least have had a decent execution.

We talked about a few things after that, him naming his other lieutenants, high born ranking men all, kept here in these circumstances side by side with the commonest of criminals for Trant’s amusement, yet under Conna’s leadership they had established order even in this destitution and kept their values alive.

The one thing they had lost was the will to fight back.

And with me, this will had returned with a vengeance.

Two days passed, three; then it was difficult to keep a count and I stopped. I kept practicing and pushing my limits of endurance with the hindrance of not enough food and not enough water. I kept watching with care as the daily routines unfolded, as men fought with each other over crumbs of harvested stale food and Conna’s soldiers restored order. I listened to what they were talking about amongst each other, and I watched the weakest and oldest die. Twice, new ones were added to our number, broken men from torture; one died and the other just lay in his own filth, twitching and moaning, heedless of the basic ministrations visited upon him by Conna and his men.

Through the blackness and fearfulness of the nights, I lay with Conna, warm in his arms and kept myself closely focussed as not to go into a state of torture and despair at the thought of the one who should have been by my side instead.

One morning, I called Conna to me and laid out my plan for our escape.

He was horrified and deeply revolted by what I was proposing and it took me another day and another night to whisper, argue, cajole and push until he finally saw the sense of it.

The next day, he called his men together and told them of the plan.

They, too, were aghast yet their resistance was not as profound as Conna’s had been; further, they trusted him entirely and respected his opinions to the exclusion of their own. The only one who took a full stance was his son, Eddario. It wasn’t hard for me to take him aside and talk with him for a while, and when I was through with him, Eddario too was shaken yet determined to make the effort, to take this last stand.

That night, in the blackness, Conna broke the neck of the one of the men who lay dying and we drank his blood in silence, sharing it out in the metal cup, warm from his veins.

Conna and his men silently killed all the weak ones, the deranged ones, the insane ones – there were twenty less than when the night had began, and in the morning’s first grey, their bodies were carried into the dark, one by one. When the lieutenants returned, they were white and trembling, yet with a terrible resolve too that my Lucian mind well knew would never leave them again.

I felt guilty at using these men in this way, but they were my only hope.

Those in the dungeon who were neither too insane to notice, nor of Conna’s chosen men, sat and watched in petrified silence and said nothing as we set about a regimen of exercise to bring back flexibility and sharpness into the dried out bodies. When the next food delivery was brought, the body of a sick man whose blood had  provided nourishment for us in the night lay pale by the gate and there was enough food for all of us, and enough water; this time, we ate and drank in preference and nothing was given to the silent watchers. There was no argument from them; they were more terrified of us by then than they were of the guards, or of their own hunger and dying.

As the days wore on, some of the silent ones rose and asked to join us, and Conna accepted them into the group.

Slowly, the condition of my soldiers improved, then it began to improve noticeably. They were moving swiftly now, fighting each other in mock combat, running up and down the stone steps to improve their stamina, taking turns for lookout in case the guards might bring another to our number. I, too, kept building my flexibility and when another tenday had gone by and another food delivery was imminent, I suggested to Conna that the time had come.

There were no more men left for us to sacrifice in consciousness, and time was passing; it was now or never.

There were always 8 soldiers down below plus the two who brought the food and six at the gate, a total of 16 well fed, well trained armed professionals.

With the new men who had joined us, Conna’s men numbered 12 and then, there was me.

I had explained that if someone could get a sword to me, I would be a major assett; by this time, Conna would have believed that I could turn myself into a bat and fly straight through the walls if I had told him it was so.

We had a final conference of war in the morning, rehearsed the procession of events another half dozen times, and then I, Eddario and his best friend Leron moved as lookouts at the top step. We waited silently for what seemed to be forever, and finally, from far away, the sound of soldiers boots in unison could be felt and heard approaching, and we took up our positions as the corpses of the day.

Below, Conna gave final tense instructions to everyone and addressed the remaining silent ones briefly, warning them to behave normally and that if one should so much as make one false move, when the darkness came, their lives would be forfeit.

I lay with my eyes closed and my heart beating like thunder, half buried beneath Eddario and Leron, face down and tracked the steps that seemed to take a hundred years to arrive at the gate and grew so loud, I could swear they were marching right across my head.

The time we had practiced for was at hand. The gate clanked and grated open, the orders were given and the front half of the convoy was making their way down the stairs in rhythmic clip clop.

They halted and then, with a single blood curdling scream made from many voices as one, Conna and his men attacked them. I turned my head carefully to see what was transpiring; as I had hoped and prayed, the soldiers up above rushed through the gate as one, swords drawn and towards the steps to enter the melee below.

“Now!” I hissed at my comrades and the three of us exploded upwards, me heading straight for the gate, pulling it shut with all my strength. I turned just in time to see that Eddario and Leron had thrown themselves at the last two soldiers on the steps and caused them all to go tumbling down.

Leron, a short broad man with masses of brown hair that stood like a cloud around him, rolled off the steps and found a sword abandoned. I saw him pick it up and hesitate, but he remembered his orders well enough and even as by the side of him, one of the soldiers got to his feet and struck him forcefully in the back, he threw the sword in a high, glistening arc and I let go of me and allowed myself to become him and my body moved forward swiftly and without volition and I caught the heavy sword easily. With the same forward movement, I jumped off the main high walkway, landing next to Leron’s writhing shape and with two easy slices, dispatched the soldier, spun and went into the general fight. The sword was heavy and my body tearing wounds afresh as I danced amongst them and took out whatever came into my way, and it seemed only seconds and there was me, spinning on the spot, sword held out with both hands, and no-one left to strike down.

There were soldiers down everywhere, and everywhere, there were ragged men like beasts on top of them, pounding them, striking them, tearing at them.

It was over.

Breathing heavily I looked around for Conna and found him slumped against the step.

I dropped the sword and rushed to him.

“Conna!” I said and made to reach for him, but he just smiled at me and shook his head. Beneath his hand, clasped to his heart, black blood was oozing. I cursed the shielding bitterly. I could have healed him, restored him, so easily.

But as things stood, the old man was only a few moments away from death and I rose and cast around, finding Eddario and calling to him. He came running across and fell to his knees by the side of his dying father, taking a limp hand in his. I turned my back on them both and left them to the moment, feeling sick inside.

I knew that there was no time to lose.

I called to the remaining men and they ceased eventually and stood and turned to hear my orders.

“This is only the first step,” I said, clearly. “Now find the keys to the gate, it must be amongst those there who came last, swiftly. Arm yourselves, and all who will come now, get ready.”

One of the men cried out and produced the bunch of keys from the very soldier’s body who had slain Leron and I picked up my sword once more and ran over to him, took the keys and behind me, the men came up the stairs, a dark horde of bloodstained savages. Such an army you have never led, Lucian, I thought, as I forced my trembling hands to stillness, felt around behind the great lock, inserted the key and turned it as hard as I could. It snapped open, and many dirty hands reached past me to push it open wide.

There was no point in stealth now, even if I could have held them back. Surprise was our only weapon and so we ran along the stone passage, towards a doorway that admitted the super bright light of day atop a steep flight of many stairs. I held back then and let them pass me, some of them wearing the fallen soldier’s helmets and waving their swords and knives and I turned and looked down the corridor to see Eddario running, his face streaked with tears painting a mask of rage and grief.

He saw me and stopped briefly. I thought he would attack me for having brought death to his father and friend, but instead he said, “My father says to thank you for his honourable death. He would wish for nothing more.”

I nodded briefly in surprise and then both of us fell into step and first walked, then ran, towards the stairs.

Bursting out into the brightness of a walled courtyard, where a handful of soldiers were already encircled and about to be massacred, I cast around for any indication of where we were and finally, a memory arose of the huge complex that was Pertineri Palace.

We were at the back of the east wing, just a stone’s throw from the actual perimeter of the palace walls. I stopped and shouted to Eddario. He spun around and came back to me, both of us breathing heavily after the exertion of the stairs.

“I need to get beyond the palace walls. Get me there and we will all be saved. It’s that way – “ and I indicated with the sword towards the furthest of the entrances in the courtyard. He narrowed his eyes but nodded briefly and called to the rest of what had been Conna’s lieutenants. They obeyed him without question and six men and I made for the narrow side exit about at the same time as the other prisoners burst out into the outlying yards through the doorway straight ahead, undoubtedly thereby alerting every one of the thousand soldiers in the palace compound as to what had transpired.

It was a clear run of about a hundred strides across short grass to the white perimeter wall. There was no discernible doorway anywhere nearby but I saw that there were shrubs, bushes and trees that might be used for ladders.

I started to run and Eddario and his men followed right behind.

From the corner of my eye, I saw a movement, and as I glanced around, I saw a pouring of soldiers coming towards us from the main eastern yard where the stables lay. They would not reach us in time if we could get me up and over that goddamn wall.

We stopped at the base of the wall and gasping, turned to face the approaching soldiers. There must have been three dozen or more, in their red and gold uniforms bright against the green grass.

I looked up. The wall was no more than perhaps two men’s height, and there was a tree growing with near it with a climbable branch at half that level.

I pointed at the branch. “Lift me up there,” I said to Eddario and he bent and made a stirrup shape for me to step into. I expected him to raise me but instead, he threw me up in an explosive movement and in disorientation, I nearly missed the branch, then came down on it with my stomach and nearly fainted as the half healed wounds ripped open as my hips and thighs grated against the bark.

There was no time for pain. I scrambled up on the branch, climbed into a higher one, a higher one still and was now above the wall which had a rounded top terminating in a serrated edge made of sharp stones set into its apex.

I did not care anymore and launched myself from the branch, struck the top of the wall with tremendous force, ripping flesh from my thighs and feeling the bones in my hip shatter and then fell out of control into a bunch of shrubs on the other side of the perimeter.

Suspended and half impaled by their branches only a little way above ground level, I cast for patterns amidst the howling pains and there was still nothing, still this nothing silence – by the Creator! Was the whole of this damned city ringed by standing stones?

I nearly gave into the pain then and lay there but I could not. From behind the wall came the sounds of shouts and the clash of swords and I knew there was Eddario and the last of his brave men, dying for me, dying on my word. I rolled myself from the bushes and crawled out and away from the wall, dragging myself along with my fingers digging into the soil and at last, at last, there was the first indication of the storm that made the magic barrier, and I pushed with my broken legs then too, the pain immaterial, out further into the storm and then through it and out into the other side where I could begin to hear and see once more all there was, where I was me at last again.

I rolled on my back, closed my eyes and traced the barrier, finding the nodal points that sourced it all around. With all the energy I could muster, I called the lightning down onto the nearest of the nodal points and from far, far away I heard a terrible crashing, and a terrible screaming. Yet the nodal point at first expanded and drew in the lightning’s energy but I kept on calling forth more and more, more still and even more, until the nodal point expanded beyond its own capacity and exploded with such force that the pattern world seemed to shatter all around me and at the same time, the real world shook like a kitten in a giant’s fist and then it fell to nothing.