I stood beneath the giant moon on the endless desert plane and felt calmer and more clearly balanced than I had for – well, I don’t remember the last time I really felt like this.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be calm. Perhaps I should be a racing mind, full of thoughts of why and how and what, but for now, all seemed well.
I didn’t even question why I should have manifested white Serein of all entities to come and help me here.
I walked a way through the soft sand, my feet bare and white and loving. The velvet stillness was soothing and to be able to breathe again, deeply, and rhythmically in time with my steps, was a minor revelation in and of itself.
I fancied to find an oasis in this desert and obediently now, one arose immediately a way off to the left, about two hundred steps away. A few strangely shaped trees and bushes around a central still, flat pond that clearly reflected the gigantic moon above.
I found the size of it irritating and shrunk it down until it felt more comfortable, more fitting. Then it occurred to me that it might be nice to have more than one moon, and that I would like some stars in the sky above.
These things sprang into being instantly and without hesitation.
Why is it like this, I thought, that when you don’t need it, it’s all there, right there but for the mere thinking of it? What is it that stops things from coming to you when you most need them?
When I first arrived here, I could change nothing, could make nothing happen that would have been of comfort or of help to me. Now, that I don’t need these little comforting controls, they were right there. Let’s see -
Instantly, he appeared by the side of the pond, with his long white hair and his blue robe perfectly reflected. I approached a little closer and waved at him, intrigued as to how far you could take such a fantasy and how real you could have it become.
He smiled at me and gave a wave in return and watched me as I entered the circle of dispersed greenery and joined him at the pond, remaining on the opposite side.
“Hello Dareon,” I said experimentally and to my surprise, he replied immediately, “I have waited for you to come. What took you so long?”
Defensively and in a reflex, I said, “I didn’t know you were here.”
He shook his head and started to walk around the pond, towards me.
“You know so little of Serein,” he told me as I watched his approach with some trepidation, for he appeared entirely real, entirely as I remembered him, perhaps a little older, and I knew him to be long dead, of course.
He halted perhaps a man’s length in front of me and I really found it difficult to look into his clear grey eyes. From nowhere, thick tears came rushing hard and burning painfully.
I couldn’t speak.
He looked down, sadly, and into my mind, he said, All is well. There is truly no need for sadness, or regret.
That didn’t help me. My throat was thick and hard, my stomach hurt. There was something that I wanted to say to him and I couldn’t think of the words. The pressure built more profoundly and until I thought I must fly apart, then I knew what it was that needed to be spoken.
“Dareon, I’m so sorry …”
As though a dam had been burst with those words, tears flooded through and out and I had to go to my knees and cover my eyes before him.
I am so sorry.
I am so sorry that I spoke to you when I shouldn’t have. I’m so sorry about what happened. All of it. It was never my intention to hurt anyone, truly it wasn’t. And you least of all.
When I finally looked up again, he was no longer there and I knew he had gone away so that I would not be reminded of this sadness and this guilt and grief.
I recalled him.
Dareon, I said, are you inside him too?
He sighed and said, Yes, of course I am.
Are you waiting for him, too?
Yes, of course I am.
Are you still alive?
He thought about it for a time, then instead of answering, he showed me a reality of Serein which clearly included what he was, inscribed and created for eternity.
Are the others still there then, too?
Sadly, he shook his head. No, they burned. I – remain – because of you and him.
Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
He smiled brightly and said, It is the way it is.
What’s done, is done.
You could say it like that.
I thought about the strangeness of it all and then said, It is the three of us, then? Forever?
Now, now. He shook his head and stopped smiling, looking down at me very seriously all of a sudden. You don’t know what you don’t know, that’s your problem. And, don’t you think it is time you returned now? You have achieved what you came here for and he is waiting for you.
In the dungeons. With Thoran of Thelein.
Dareon said nothing and looked to the still surface of the oasis pool where quietly, the two small moons sat skimming inside its depth. I followed his glance and the pool seemed to ripple, waver and I was right back there, my hand in Lucian’s firm grasp as he steadies me cautiously. I step into the cell where Thoran is hanging from his chains, demonic in the torch light.
Lucian recoils through our link as the me that was blinks out of existence and the me that is flicks into its place instantaneously and nearly drops my hand.
I send him a gentle soothing and the note that I will explain later. He accepts but remains very cautious, very suspicious as I look upon the prisoner and find I can breathe deeply in spite of the stench that surrounds us all here and it is alright.
It is fine.
I check my memories and they are there, I am perfectly clear on what happened, what he said and what he did, but they no longer hold any fear or pain. I step a little closer to him and he starts to shout at me, cursing me with vile words until Lucian disconnects his vocal chords once more with a tearing rather than a clean cut. My lord would protect me if he was given the opportunity. I send him a thank you which makes him more suspicious still.
Let us go now, I say to him. There is nothing left to do here. What is next?
He tracks me, probes me, tries to find unsteadiness, lack of control but I am smooth and relaxed throughout. Easy, still, calm. I think it frightens him so I say lovingly, All is well, indeed, with me. I had a healing – in Serein. Please let us leave here now?
He acknowledges and leads the way from the cell, along the corridor where the guards snap to the tightest of attentions, up the stone stairs and through the anterooms out into the sunrise that is about to happen. It is already quite bright.
There are many minds, many more than when first we came, and more assembling still.
There is an excitement in the air that touches Lucian and he is becoming more strictly focussed, laying aside temporarily his disconcertment with my mental states.
I have a surprise for you, he sends me.
A surprise? Automatically, I try to search him for the required information but he fights me off with a small amusement.
Don’t cheat, he chides me. All will be revealed when the sun has risen. Come now, let us take our places for the spectacle.
We walk out and make our way towards the central courtyard where a kind of arena has been erected from wooden benches that encircle a central space. There is a raised area outside the main entrance and the walkway to the Abbey, a man high platform draped in splendid green cloth and tapestries with upholstered individual chairs for the guests of honour, and another raised area in the centre of the arena with a chopping block for the other guests of honour. Soldiers are guarding the courtyard, outside of which a mass of people are assembling as we walk along the sides where the fallen columns have been removed and some replacement constructions of wood and metal shore up the buildings for now.
As before, there are so many spectators in the windows and galleries all around us, but this time, I find their attention unthreatening and not of any particular importance this morning. It is easy to have them recede into a comfortable distance of mind and enjoy the fresh touch of morning wind on my face instead.
Lucian leads the way towards the stand, behind which Eddario and the new court are already assembled and talking excitedly amongst themselves. At our approach, they nudge each other into instant silence and they all bow their heads deeply.
Eddario greets us both individually. He looks most resplendent at this early hour, dark blue and silver his armour and a deep blue flowing cloak. The Solland colours. The creator alone knows where he acquired his outfit but it suits his colouring more than I could ever imagine it could have Conna’s who was darker of complexion. He and Lucian exchange a few words and I look around myself on this ever brightening morning and it is the strangest thing.
I am feeling safe in myself and in my own skin.
Eddario gives a brief sign to one of the soldiers and an order spreads along. Soon, people are coming in fast, taking their places on the wooden benches. I recognise some of the most outrageous ones from the judgement – here are the Guild masters, the true rulers of the city of Pertineri, fluffed up with their own importance and their ladies, so excited and so grateful to be allowed to be here on this momentous day. The clerics appear like their shadows by comparison. They scuttle which sets off the measured upright steps of the army commanders and high ranking officers most interestingly.
Lucian steps up beside me and looks up to the sky.
Nearly time, he sends and there is a small smile around his lips. He wants to put his arm about me but is held back from the gesture by being in public and by not being sure of how I might respond, both in equal measure.
I briefly lay my cheek against his still giving armour and send him a gentle loving. It startles him and he won’t let himself be pleased by it but instead, holds out his arm to me. I place my hand lightly on him and he leads me to the front of the platform, where a set of wooden steps give us entrance. We take our position in the centre and stand before a chair each whilst Eddario and the new court do likewise. I was hoping he would sit next to me but he is of course, at Lucian’s right hand side instead. My neighbour is a very young man, dark haired, very handsome indeed and extremely nervous of me. I give him a small smile with a resonance of re-assurance before tuning him out entirely.
It seems that the last of us as assembled on the platform exactly on time with the sunrise that floods us all instantly with extreme brightness and sets out sharp black shadows long across the courtyard.
Lucian sits and we on the platform follow suit; then the ones below sit too.
I can see that from behind our stand a youngish man dressed in impressive black robes with fur trimmings and golden chains enters the arena, flanked by a headman’s group of palace guard soldiers in red, white and gold. He is followed by a large man also dressed in black, but of a much more simple kind and lacking a cloak, who is wearing a very large, shiny silver axe across his shoulder. It must be heavy, I think, but the man is strong and his face is entirely expressionless.
They make their way to the execution platform.
The axe man and the – officer of the court? Is that his correct title? – step up onto the platform. They and the soldiers turn to face us and there is a movement in the crowd as the prisoners are brought in, each one with his own escort of six men, shackled hand and foot, in neck braces with double chains.
Thoran is the second to last, and Corranor the last to be brought forth thus. Trant is not here yet. He will get to make one more very special entrance later.
I look at the dishevelled prisoners and can’t help but throw a quick sideways glance at Lucian. He is shielding from my touch but looks well contained enough, if not actually comfortable and quite pleased. His eyes are tracking Corranor in preference and he is tapping the finger that holds my lightening band with a tiny motion of which he is probably entirely unaware.
I trace his profile, strongly outlined in this clear early morning brightness and a small shiver runs across my shoulders. I find myself taking a deep breath through flared nostrils and it strikes me with force that whatever happened there in Serein, whatever I had hallucinated or experienced, had put at least this one thing to rights.
He becomes aware of my attention upon him and loses his track of thoughts, turns around and our eyes meet momentarily with a flash. In spite of his shielding he is entirely aware of the reality of this charge and responds with a minute raising back of his head and an inadvertent closing of his lids. Very nearly, he even speaks, then sends instead an uncompromising message of Later! before resuming control once more.
I too move my head and eyes back to the arena before us and yet there is a part of me that jumps from the chair, waves her hands in the air and dances with sheer delight.
Silently, I give sincere gratitude to the creator and its infinite powers to restore and to recharge. I might not deserve it, and I am sure I don’t, but to be able to look at him and feel so straightforwardly and profoundly attracted to him on all the levels, all the levels, was a gift of priceless proportions to me. I am of the hard, I think. I am a woman, here in the hard. And I need to be able to love you here in the hard, the hard way, to have us be what we are meant to be. This is the final circuit, the one that the Serein didn’t want or didn’t know, the one that Sepheal never understood, perhaps because he was Serein and too deeply programmed with their ways of old, this is the link that brings it all together and that sources our power beyond what has ever been.
Silently, I sit as the first man is put to death by a dull ringing sound as the executioner’s axe embeds in the wooden block and resonates with the stand below, and the crowd screams insanely and louder still as his head is raised from the wooden box and held up for all to see, and the Officer of the Court moves his mouth unheard by anyone; silently I sit and for the first time ever I think that we can overcome it all, that we have a chance to transcend ourselves and who we are and to do something together that is how it was always meant to be.
The executioner is good. So it is surprising that it takes him five – five! – blows to finally chop the rest of Thoran’s head off. One can only wonder if there was some small piece of magic at work from someone in the audience that made his hand, his grip, his aim just that fraction too unsteady to deliver the clean death blow. I don’t think it was me although who can ever be sure? There’s nothing big enough to raise to the audience for this one so embarrassed, the axe man picks up the limp arm with the claw and gives a mock wave “Farewell!” to the crowd instead. It produces much amusements and I find myself smiling too and having to resist waving back.
The wooden stand is dripping in blood and ten soldiers stand, a head each on their spikes, arms wide outstretched and staring straight ahead. I’m quite pleased that Thoran is not amongst them.
Corranor is brought forward and the crowd is going wild. Objects are flying through the air and striking the soldiers instead of him. He is fairly well contained and walks more upright than most of the others had done, puts up no fight, shows no fear.
Beside me, Lucian rises to his feet.
Surprised, I stand too and of course, all the rest of the court must follow suit.
It takes a while for the screeching crowd below to notice that we are standing and as they, too, get to their feet the noise recedes, becomes a single hysterical clear cut cry of Traitor! Butcher! here and there until finally all is silent.
Corranor turns and looks at Lucian. He half raises his hand as though he was starting a greeting, or a salute but then does not complete it and starts to walk towards the platform instead, forcing the surprised soldiers to have to follow him as the chains take up the slack.
The officer of the court gets to read out the charges and be heard for the first time this morning. High treason and regicide. There is a groundswell murmur from the crowd that vibrates like far off thunder but they are not screaming, not raising their voices now.
Corranor needs no help to kneel in the mess of blood and the body parts of his nephew. With only the slightest of hesitations, he lowers his head, turns it sideways, closes his eyes and lays his cheek against the bloody tree stump.
The executioners axe is straight and true and I fancy the booming sound it produces as Corranor’s head just flies away and he is no longer here with us in the hard is far louder than it was for any of the others. But it might have been just so because of the comparative silence.
There are a few single yells which extinguish very swiftly.
Lucian remains standing for as long as it takes for Corranor’s head to have been displayed and passed along to the soldiers who insert the lance into his brain, raise it to the vertical and turn his head so it faces the same way as the others, more or less. When the soldier who has the honour of being in charge of Corranor’s head has stiffly marched across and joined the row of his comrades, Lucian sits and we all follow his example.
Stout servants, men in dark tunics and bare feet, come running into the arena and swiftly, they dissemble the platform and carry it away in sections. Sawdust is strewn where it stood and in the wake of the soldiers as they leave with the heads, covering their bloody footprints on the pale stone of the courtyard. The executioner leaves with them, followed by a single man who scatters sawdust from his pail, walking backwards, as flowers might be strewn in the path of a bride to be.
We watch them and it occurs to me that I have no idea of what will happen next.
The Officer of the Court clears his throat and calls out in a loud voice that is not entirely steady, “Bring forth the prisoner!”
Trant has not six guards, but what appears to be a hundred. In effect, is two headmen’s groups, 36 soldiers in all but it seems a lot for a single man. I can’t make him out properly for all the red and white uniforms; then, even more soldiers enter the arena and take up station, shoulder to shoulder, between the spectators and the arena itself.
It reminds me uncannily of the scene we had materialised into when first we arrived here, and it made me shiver. Automatically, I put a warming barrier around me which did not quite alleviate the physical sensation of having grown very cold all of a sudden, but still served to insulate me from the scene better and thus had the required effect after all.
It takes quite a while for enough soldiers to have assembled to create a full ring. When it is complete, Lucian rises and the crowd virtually jumps to their feet in relief so that they might see beyond the barrier of the red backs in front of them.
The officer of the court reads out the charges and the judgement. I’m sure I am aligning with everyone in the place as I will the cordon of tightly packed guards to move aside. I want to see him. I want to see his face, his bearing, what he is thinking at this time.
Lucian remains quietly by my side. I am wondering if he should not get ready, and then it strikes me that he might not fight Trant himself at all, and that Trant might not get to fight either – trial by combat allows the substitution of proxies, of course.
He said he had a surprise for me.
Movement catches my eye and in the rustling, predatory multi-silence there is the clear sound of clanking chains. They must be unshackling Trant now. I glance at Lucian but he is impassive and fully shielded and makes no movement either way.
If Trant is fighting himself …
The red and white soldier wall parts and into the arena walks a blond man, dressed in Solland blue and silver. For a second I am confused and think it must be Eddario, but then I recognise him only too well.
Lucian has brought Chay to fight against Trant.
I go very still and cold inside. I want to look at him, ask him what he was thinking, why? Why Chay? Why are you not taking him on yourself?
Chay casts around and finds my eyes. He smiles at me, gives me a small wink, then kneels and salutes Lucian deeply. I wonder how many of the court saw him do it and I’m getting colder still.
I look across to see that Trant is now free from his shackles and free from the guards who have made a second line. He is wearing dark trousers and a simple linen undershirt; presumably, his purple robes were discarded before he arrived here. He is rubbing his wrists that are marked in red and stares across the arena to where Chay still kneels, with his back to him.
The Officer of the Court pronounces him as Sir Catena, the court’s champion, and he rises, proud and happy, and he looks like a child.
Lucian, why are you sending this child to fight a vicious madman who has nothing to lose, and a reputation for being one of the toughest men the kingdoms have ever seen?
I don’t know what games you are playing, my lord, but rest assured that Chay will not die this morning. Even if he should die, it will only be for a heartbeat or two and he’ll never even know he missed a few moments of taking his rightful breath.
Thinking these thoughts makes me feel much, much better and I find I am raising my chin and keeping myself as shielded as Lucian has been throughout.
A soldier hands Trant a sword, cautiously, arm at full stretch. Trant takes it and flexes his shoulders, rotates his neck. He must be very stiff from his preceding trials and tribulations, I think but then see him step swiftly towards Chay, coiled, intent, so very present and absolutely a force to be reckoned with.
Chay feels this too and stops smiling, gets a focus, draws his own sword. It flashes a blue black shine and I can’t believe my eyes for a moment, then glance carefully at Lucian to ascertain whether he did indeed, give Chay one of the Tadara. There is no sword in the holder on my side.
Chay unclasps his cloak with one hand whilst keeping his eyes totally on Trant, lets the cloak fall to the ground. A scuttling soldier runs to retrieve it and as he is just about to pick it up, Trant attacks flat out.
I am not sure what I expected or what I thought, but for a moment I felt a small shame that I underestimate Lucian’s sword skills that I had transferred to Chay so most bitterly.
Trant is hacking and Chay is in the dance. He flows so beautifully, so fast that sometimes I can hardly see him move from one place to another, and he plays with Trant, lightly slicing him here, cutting him there, at will and in complete control.
Trant is no match for him, would not have been even if he had been well rested and well exercised. As it was, he was overwrought, tired, half mad with all that had transpired and it wasn’t long before he lost all control and just went into a blind rage of flailing attacks which Chay avoided as easily as you would step out of the way of a very slow trundling cart, not even bothering to bring his own sword into play nor using it for defence, just holding it at an angle away from his body whilst dancing around Trant who kept up well in spite of his exhaustion and desperation.
The crowd loved it.
They laughed and clapped and cheered him whilst the bold man who had been their tyrant and their greatest fear, bleeding from too many tiny wounds to count them now, became slower and slower against his will and desire, his face a terrible sight as he tried to drive himself on again and yet again.
Chay had no mercy with him. Slowly and taking his time, he disabled Trant piece by piece, laying carefully criss-crosses wherever he wished, making it last.
Finally, Trant dropped his sword because he could not hold it anymore, and dropped to his knees because he couldn’t stand anymore. Taking no chances, his broken nose a fine lesson in good stead, Chay kicked the sword away from him swiftly, then kicked the bold man hard in the back and sent him crashing to the ground. The crowd roared as one and then fell silent as he stepped on the man’s back and without a moments hesitation, brought the Tadara double handed down straight between Trant’s shoulder blades, once, twice, three times.
Then he stopped, turned and found my eyes.
Raised the sword and shouted, “For Ty Sidra!” and everyone went wild, cheering, waving their hats, shouting, then chanting, Catena, Catena!
Impassive as ever, Lucian stood throughout it all. Chay came across to us, took two steps up to the platform with one swift stride, his long blond hair flying and all of him dancing with life and excitement. He halted in front of Lucian, saluted him and then held out the sword to him, slippery with Trant’s blood.
Lucian took the sword by the hilt and gave him the curtest of nods in return, then turned and started to walk forward and surprised, I had to push past Chay and hurry to keep up with him as he led us all down the stairs. Chay fell in behind me which resulted in him and Eddario being side by side, both in Solland colours, both blond yet very different men indeed and wary of each other.
We just left without ceremony and followed Lucian through the main entrance and to the walkway that led to the Abbey, out of sight from everyone. Here, he halted us.
“Niccosia, get rid of the rest of that rabble.”, he said, indicating the court.
They hastily retreated on Eddario’s orders and then there was just the four of us left.
Lucian relaxed fractionally and looked down at the bloody Tadara he was still holding. He raised the blade towards his face, looked at the thick red brown sliding upon it. Slowly, he raised the other hand, extended his fingertips and touched the blood, bringing his hand back to examine the bright red smears close up. He stared at his hand for a moment, then it seemed that the blood just disappeared but I knew he had taken it inside himself, for whatever purposes, I wouldn’t want to guess.
He looked up and focussed on Chay who was as entirely riveted on him as we all were.
“Good work,” he said and Chay fought and lost his battle against blushing and having to drop his eyes.
Lucian placed his gaze on Eddario.
“You, too, have brought matters along most satisfactorily. This concludes our business in Pertineri for now. I will ride for Manoranta in the morning. Make the necessary arrangements.”
“Yes, my lord,” Eddario said fervently.
Without a further word, Lucian turned abruptly and made down the corridor in long strides, swinging the sword lightly from his wrist. I had no option but to follow him in haste, which did not give me an opportunity to say or do anything with Chay at all and I could feel his disappointment burning between my shoulder blades.
We exited into the bright light of the Abbey Gardens and I called him to a halt then.
He stopped in mid stride and slowly turned to look at me. He said or sent nothing in return and I became uncomfortable under his gaze and his silence, so I tried again.
You are satisfied with all the outcomes?
At last he responded.
Yes, indeed I am. Everything went as it should have done.
Why did you bring Chay? Why did you not fight him yourself?
I chose not to, he replied in such a way that questioning further would have led into trouble for sure, so I left it be.
What will we do now?
You may rest in our quarters this day. I have some business to attend to and will meet you there later.
His dismissal was absolute and I found it quite stunning and surprising. He had been so – kind and helpful not so long ago, so concerned with my well being. What had happened, yet again?
I started the call but he had already gone, and I was left by myself and had this strange feeling of vertigo that only he could induce in me with his peculiar changes of mood.
The Abbey gardens were old and only semi-formal, for the trees and shrubs had found their own way to shape themselves and would not be controlled into squares and rectangles. I found that rather soothing today. I was still fairly relaxed and even quite happy in myself; Lucian and his moods had not managed to destroy the good feeling of being me again and free of what had happened to me here altogether. His moods. They weren’t really moods but the results of some unfathomable reasonings that made perfect sense to him in some way and led him to the most bizarre conclusions. And it was upon these conclusions that he based his decisions to feel unloved, or unwanted, or rejected, or whatever it was he thought he needed to feel.
Ah well, I thought and had to smile in spite of myself. I guess we all do it. Eventually I’ll get to find out what exactly was upsetting him and then we would be able to work it out.
The sun shone and there was no wind in this sheltered garden. It was very nice, even the Abbey power structures which provided a kind of shield against too many minds which still lay all around.
I considered to go back and find Chay, congratulate him on his wonderful victory, but thought that would not be seeming for Lord Tremain’s intended and might cause more speculation and more rumour still.
I was hungry.
I would go to our quarters and get something to eat for now, and then we would see what must transpire.