The doorway connection in the grasslands is worth all the riches in the kingdoms, piled one on top of the other.
Ah! By all the damnations of all eternities pushed together into a single space, what a waste of effort and energy all these thousands of hours on horseback, slogging through mud and sweating under my armour, chafing my skin red raw. All those times we drove on like maniacs in a desperate race against time – sometimes we won, sometimes we lost but it was all a total waste of effort save for a little trick, if only we had known it.
If only we had known it.
Sepheal you bastard, you have much to account for.
I flashed from the Abbey Gardens into the grassland circle with no more effort than it takes to take a single step, and immediately began to look for the requisite exit as to be able to pass through unnoticed when I stopped myself and cursed myself briefly.
I will not hide and run from these – well, creatures would be a kindness.
I turned around and actively called for the old man instead.
He appeared as quickly as his rickety limbs would allow. I observed him and it occurred to me that she had condemned me to that fate, as well. The time would come, soon enough, when I would stumble around in much the same fashion, roach backed, fleshless, cloudy eyed and feeble of mind.
I don’t know why that thought caused me to smile for surely there was not much humour in such a fate.
With him came his apprentice.
I watched their slow progress and looked at the youth, small, orange as they all were, giving rapt attention to his master, never even daring to glance at me.
Now there was an apprentice who knew how to behave himself. Quite unlike my own. Still, a horse is only as well schooled as his rider will permit and I had my responsibility to shoulder for the unfortunate turns of event.
I curtailed that track of thinking and instead, concentrated on sending the old man a simple enough picture so he would understand what I required. Since the vanquishing of the other tribe, the subservience here was at a comfortable level. There would not be a minute’s hesitation and hopefully, when next I came here, I could do so with a modicum of privacy.
The instructions in place, I turned my attention to the doorways above. They were so obvious, so easily reached now that I knew they existed, I had to shake my head at Sepheal’s blindness again. I had worshipped a fool. For hundreds of years. What did that make me?
Tower Keep was found easily enough. I stepped out and through, landing straight and easily outside the main door and for once, it wasn’t raining in that forsaken part of Merina.
I automatically checked the immediate environment and found a single mind which startled me momentarily until I remembered that soldier boy we had taken for a cook when it became apparent that Marani would no longer serve such purposes.
It was surprising he was still here.
There wasn’t much of value in this place yet quite enough for one such as him to make it worth his while to pile up what he could and make off into a better life.
I edged in on him with care as not to have him realise just yet that I was here to ascertain his purposes in waiting here, with no payment nor a word as to what had become of us, for all this time. It must be three or four times a tenday since – her – and I set off on our most ill fated expedition.
I don’t know why I even bothered. The information retrieved was the same wherever I went. He was still here because of her. Damnation. I tried to curb the flash of anger that arose from nowhere. Just stand her by the side of the road, and soon enough, she’ll assemble an entire court that revolves around her alone.
Fools, all of them.
And me, of course. I couldn’t help but laugh then. Lord of Darkness, indeed. Lord of Fools would be a far more fitting description. Perhaps I could find a suitable translation in the ancient language and use it for my title, and as a new family motto.
Now I should not have thought that. Indeed, I should not think at all, for what could a fool be thinking of but further foolishness?
Get a hold of yourself, I commanded then, shook myself like a dog and entered the house.
The emptiness and the greyness inside were soothing after the brightness of the various mornings I had traversed within the last few minutes. The solidity of the old walls, their weight and coldness that would never quite recede were calming to my very centre.
I stood in the entrance hall and breathed in the presence of the house.
In truth, it had always felt like a natural home for me since first I stepped inside, how long ago was this, two hundred years ago, three hundred? In those days there were still a handful left who studied magic outside Serein, this one here and his tribe amongst the last, and rumoured to have been one of the most powerful.
I laugh as I remembered how anything other than powerful the pathetic worm had been, muttering spells in a language that he blatantly did not understand. In the tower room, he had held up a strange configuration of metal spikes to me and said, “Your head a fruit in distance!” repeatedly. I really had tried to keep a straight face but it had been too much.
When I had stopped laughing, I asked him what it was he had been trying to say and he didn’t even know that, and I remember thinking how the effort of raising my hand in signalling one of my men to put an end to his senseless existence seemed too much by far.
I remember taking his wife – she didn’t last very long – and turning his daughters over to the soldiers. I never had a liking for the very young ones.
I never had a liking for the really young ones.
I shake my head and force myself to focus on sensory impressions only, anchoring myself firmly in the here-and-now. My hand around the hilt of the Tadara that killed Trant. The other hand touching the rubbery material that my armour has become. My feet firmly placed on the flagstone floor and before me, the ancient blackwood stairs, bent and worn towards the centre.
The stairs are a great deal cleaner than I remember them to be.
It pleases me and yet it sets up the conflict – what is it to be? Clean steps which means a never ending scuttling of servants and domestics with their intrusive thoughts and minds or cobwebbed steps and a comfortable silence?
I had settled for the silence, more and more, as the years went by. Marani got older and did less and less, and I did not pick up the slack in the reins and let her get away with it.
This soldier boy had kept himself busy waiting for the wondrous lady to return who saved his brother and whose glorious smile was entirely impressed upon his memory, imbued with a halo and did I see twinkling stars in her hair?
I shook my head and felt tired all of a sudden. It is not even time for midday and I am tired. I am tired of thinking and not being able to move forward as once I used to, swiftly, easily, with intention and without these goddamned thoughts that intrude from everywhere, no matter what you do, no matter what you look at, no matter where you turn.
Slowly, I ascended to the second floor, then took the turn to the smaller steps that led to the third floor where the unused servants quarters lay and the entrance to the attic.
To climb the attic stairs, I had to let go of the sword. I was noticing in passing how resistant I was to deleting Trant’s blood from it prior to inserting it in the holder, but I overrode myself and evaporated it into a fine mist that I then had to stop myself from breathing in.
I noted that my hands were shaking slightly when I reached for the first rungs of the steep attic ladder. To find another focus, I looked carefully at the wooden treads and shifted my view so I could discern the patterns and with that, it became very apparent how many had entered here within recent memory. There were my own tracks, I recognised them well enough, they were different to those of the living, and beneath and across, five or six imprints that were not mine.
At least, they were not hers. A small blessing amidst a sea of insanity.
I climbed up and into the steeply gabled attic, set a couple of lights into mid air, and walked along amidst the boxes and shrouded items held there in perpetuity right to the end, where an old, worm pricked wardrobe stood.
I opened it and began to slowly divest myself of the armour that was no more a real armour than I was a real knight. I briefly thought about returning it to its original state but even that was too much effort.
Inside the deep wardrobe, custom crafted shapes of light wood took each of the pieces, one by one. One had to place them in the right sequence or else they would not fit; when they were all attached, they formed a kind of body that would stay in its upright coffin, until re-animated by my stepping back inside it.
I stared at the armour for a long time, sought to find a passion within me to have it be right again, to have it be as once it was, and could find no more of that emotion than I could in the dungeons when I tried to re-kindle my hatred of Trant and his men.
Eventually, I gave up and stripped from the underclothing that belonged to the armour, folded it precisely and inserted it into the tight shelf created for this purpose at the top of the wardrobe, then I closed it.
Next to the wardrobe, on an old wooden chest, were my usual clothes and my boots, ready for the transformation from knight to – what?
What was that uniform I had been wearing so relentlessly, so unceasingly, for so long that I can no longer hold it clearly in my mind any longer?
I could not find the slightest inclination to get dressed, nor even to move towards the clothes to pick them up.
I took the belt that held the double Tadara and, entirely unclothed, left the attic.
I made for the bathroom on the second floor and stood in the doorway for a moment, the green blue light so forcefully reminiscent of her, a picture of her, eyes closed, floating just below the surface, with lights dancing around the room overlaying the reality of the empty bath.
I would not bathe here.
I would get dressed and go to the tower room, have the soldier boy bring up some wine.
I would take one of the old books there, perhaps a one that used to give me sleepless nights before I met her, and I would open it and look at it afresh, and I knew, I just knew, that all would come together, an exploded mosaic that flies reversing through time so all the pieces just slot one by one into their rightful places and the picture emerges that the artist wanted you to see.
And I knew that as soon as this was so, I would resent it a thousandfold for it was not my own endeavours which had led me to this understanding, but her – her knowledge, her abilities, her memories, her damn structure that was so interlaced with my own now, I was no longer able to know or tell where one began and the other ended.
I dropped the Tadara to the floor which caused a sharp clatter. I closed my eyes and leaned against the doorframe, then slowly slid down to sit on the tiled floor, halfway across the threshold.
I want my life back.
I want me back.
I want to be back in time to a time before that damned blue robed whelp walked into my house with that straggly little bitch in tow.
I want to be back in time to a time when time was essentially meaningless, when I knew myself and my own responses in all situations that could possibly arise, had arisen so many times that I knew them all by heart, by bone, by marrow, by soul.
I want to go back in time to the time when I was slave to the Serein, when they told me where to be and what to do and other than that, left me well enough alone to be me, to do as I pleased, to come and go as I would.
I want to be back in control of myself. Even the control that I could not control. At least it was mine. At least it was mine, even if it was Sepheal who made me into what I was, at least I was.
Here I sit, and I want.
I didn’t used to want. Truly, I didn’t know the meaning of the word. I would desire, here or there, and take. Sometimes I would need – to eat, to drink, to find a nothing little whore somewhere to discharge myself upon, to learn, to ride. But I never wanted anything.
That was a good place to be. For if you want, that is when you begin to create illusion around you. That is the moment when illusion and delusion take their hold of you and then begin their stranglehold that will choke who you are right out of you.
Can I really be honest and truthful?
Can I be honest enough to admit that there were flashes of time when, indeed, I thought I might be king and she my queen, that I could become like Malme, adored, loved, cheered and mourned by all when he left us behind?
I can feel a sharp pain in my arms and open my eyes to notice that it is my own hands that have clawed into my lower arms, deep enough for the nails to draw blood. Strangely, it relieves me and soothes my confusion to see that I have blood inside me still, at least it looks like blood, and hell, it probably is real blood. The little bitch turned me into a man.
I find my mouth aching with what could be a smile. The Serein judged me and condemned me and in an amusing way, my little apprentice became their executioner after all.
I increase pressure and the pain flares up brightly, strongly, satisfyingly. I dig in my nails more deeply, flex my fingers and scrape to get deeper still. It feels good and is a countermeasure to the pain it gives me to admit to my delusions and the depth of my own foolishness.
I stood in the grasslands and called Sepheal a fool.
He was no fool.
He knew everything about delusions and his training was designed to protect me from my unfortunate propensity to fall head first into them at the slightest opportunity.
I wonder what he would have said if I had told him that I had imagined falling in love, taking my virginial bride, making her my wife, living happily ever after - in all the deepest damnest pits of hell!
I wonder at the look on his face as I told him that I believed in her abiding love for me alone, that I worshipped her and turned myself inside out for her.
I wonder what he would have done to me after he had stopped laughing so much he would have ended up coughing and retching.
I can’t make the pain in my arms bright enough anymore, no matter how much I dig into the wounds. It is just a dull ache now, nowhere near enough to combat the pure pain of the shattering of my illusions and her unutterable betrayal of – me? Us?
“I had a healing in Serein,” she said when she transformed herself in the dungeons.
As though nothing had ever happened.
“I want you,” she flashed at me on the stand and then went on to love Catena with her eyes.
Just like nothing had ever happened.
As though she never moaned and writhed in ecstasy beneath Conna of Solland and urged him on by shouting out his name.
As though she never was the main attraction to every one of those men who gathered each night under the shielding of the dark, tightly, silently, closely, to partake in Conna’s communal fuck-for-all.
Ah and they all remembered as soon as they laid eyes on her, and they wanted her, and imagined themselves on top of her instead, and I could hear them, feel them inside my head as they do it, every one to a man and Niccosia most of all.
My virginial bride.
I drop my head in my hands and smell the blood and I raise my arms and wipe my face with it, my neck, my shoulders, covering my body in my own blood and I know it is insane but I can’t stop, and there isn’t enough blood to wash all of me so I pick up the Tadara from the floor, unsheathe them and place two deep cuts across my chest and then two more, and another two until the blood pours freely and there is enough to wash myself all over at last.
The kitchen garden was taking shape and I was proud of it. The lady would be amazed when she returned. With the house in order, there was not much else left to do bar a daily round of dusting and airing and I enjoyed working in the garden. I liked the exercise and the fresh air. The house was too dark and gloomy, and I was used to tents all my life.
That morning, I had a strange feeling and I kept looking up and listening, but there was no-one around.
The feeling got stronger though, to the point that I thought I heard noises and I kept thinking someone might have crept into the house; all the villagers knew that the Lord Tremain had been gone for a good time now. But they gave me food and anything else just for the asking. They were petrified of him and only ever talked about him in whispers. I got to hear all sorts of stories that made me glad that Ricco was safely tucked away in that place where all those strange women and children lived.
I gave myself a day off each tenday and visited him there. He changed so much that I hardly recognised him. They fed him well and he was quite in love with a girl there, a strange one called Reyna. On my last visit, he admitted that he was learning how to do witchery and I was not as shocked as he thought I might have been. I had known all along that that was a house full of ‘em, and the Lady Tremain was the queen of them all.
I don’t know how or why, but I know, deep inside, that she isn’t evil. I would trust her with my life and I trusted her with my own brother’s life. Perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps I just have a thing for her and it blinds me to her virtues or lack thereof, but I can’t believe she would knowingly hurt any of us.
Now the Lord Tremain, that was a different matter.
And it was him I found, stark naked and covered in blood, upstairs in the strange room with the coffin shaped box they used for bathing when I finally had to go and look around the house, and saw that the door was open, and found a stout piece of wood and went to check all the rooms, one by one.
Lucky for him that I came when I did.
Lucky for him that I knew of field dressings and of plants you can use in an emergency to stop the gangrene from going into a wound.
Lucky for him that I’d never seen him be anything other than friendly with her.
Lucky for him that I knew she would lay down right next to him if she found out I let him die.
I did have my moments though. There was no-one here, no-one anywhere near; all I needed to do was to go back downstairs, pick up the shovel and start digging for another hour or so and that was the end of the Lord Tremain and the villagers would throw a festival that would last for ten tendays.
I thought about it.
I try to do the right thing, and I was pretty sure that the right thing would have been to turn my back, just a little while longer, and the world would have gone on minus one foul tempered bastard that frightens little kids half to death and thinks he has a right to it because he was born with a crown on his head.
Then I saved him.
Slowly, I became aware of my surroundings again and there was the soldier boy, close by, watching me, wrestling with himself over the regrets of the opportunity to let me bleed to death and having failed to have taken it.
In all the hells.
I had bathed in my own blood.
I am absolutely insane.
I open my eyes and ask him, “What time is it? What day?”
Soldier boy startles and knocks over the stool he’s been sitting on. I’m still in the bathroom, stiff with cold, close up against the wall. It seems dark but I cannot be sure of this. My eyes are not focussing properly.
I feel a flash of anger at his inefficient thought processes but it won’t do to scare him any further; I re-phrase my question instead.
“Is it the same day I arrived?”
He nods and then says, “It is evening, my lord. The sun will go down soon.”
I sigh with relief. No-one will notice my absence; I can hide this outburst. All I need to do is dispose of the only witness and store the memory amongst similar ones from the North Tower and she will never know.
“Bring me wine,” I tell soldier boy and then turn my attention to repairing my injuries. By the time he comes running up the stairs with what must surely be one of the very last bottles of my special vintage, I have unravelled all the bandages and scraped most of the green stuff off my newly healed skin.
His shock at the restoration is well contained and well concealed; without any ado, he kneels swiftly by my side and offers me the bottle, already uncorked, and the glass.
I ignore the glass and drink straight from the bottle, greedily, and as though this wine can replace the blood I spilled so senselessly on the tiles earlier this day.
I have not eaten for a while and the wine hits me immediately, stronger, hotter than usual. I must pace myself with care here. I have not been reeling drunk in centuries and have no wish to release whatever controls there are left to me.
The blood loss has made me weak.
I need to eat.
I look towards soldier boy and he is, of course, the answer to all the problems at hand.
I make a stark white light appear above the bath so I can see him more clearly and he recoils and raises his arms to shield his eyes.
He is still wearing the Thelein colours.
I look into his eyes and taste his fear and then his terror as he knows my purposes and understands that his life has come to an end.
I shift to the place where he becomes a pattern of tightly intercoiled vortices and I, I am a hungry storm who draws these into itself, one at a time, wispy and inevitably drifting towards me, raising me, filling me, nourishing me.
In the hard, I am aware that I am smiling as I can hear his fading thoughts.
A man’s last words should be chosen with care, Sepheal always said.
This one had chosen profoundly well.