Silent in agreement, we set about preparing for the journey while the rain lashed the house in violence.
We had enough horses. The largest and strongest, a bay gelding that had once belonged to Carran would be able to cope with Lucian; Chay chose the soldier’s horse, a sturdy brown mare, and I decided on repairing one of the village horses that Chay had commissioned along the way, a nice little grey mare who, all the way across the fields and through the storm, could be heard to scream in delight as the pain in her spine ceased for the first time in years and she could breathe cleanly and deeply again.
We had enough gloves too and did not resort to creating them from memory. Chay needed the most in the way of clothing and equipment and we used as little magic as we could. Lucian and Chay nearly came to blows over how to wrap a blanket roll properly but managed to contain themselves enough to let everyone use their own system. I preferred Lucian’s way and Chay sulked when I gave my blanket to Lucian to wrap in preference.
One thing we absolutely did not have was money. Lucian never needed it, Chay and I never had any. Silently, we decided that in the spirit of things, tomorrow was the start and today, we let Chay manifest the golden coins with a little surreptitious help. He was very happy that he could do it, and then went down into real depression because he couldn’t use it anymore. I made a silent pledge to myself that if we were to find a good whorehouse on the road, I would make sure he’d have a chance to spend at least some of them.
The others in the house were very quiet and subdued as we went about our business, and as the grey day wearily merged into a proper darkness and my lights danced in the iron torch holders, I went to the kitchen and asked for a meal to be served for all in the main dining room.
In preference, Chay was outside with Ricco, making sure the horses were fed and stabled this night and the tack was ready for the morning. Lucian was in his red and black study, saying farewell in his own way no doubt and I went upstairs and sat in the room I used to live in when I was still an apprentice here and tried to come to terms with some of it by myself.
We had to order our affairs.
I was very sad about Headman’s Acre. It had been a most special place that had provided sanctuary for so many. Ty was still there, too, all lonely now with no-one left to guard. I sat on my bed in the darkness and wondered at myself, why I would make myself even more depressed with such thoughts, which in truth were really nothing but a small child’s unimportant fancies and indeed, as Lucian would say, quite immaterial.
Still, in the context of putting affairs in order, I wanted something to be done about Headman’s Acre. I was weighing up various options, when I became aware of an approaching. I widened my senses and found a woman and a child, utterly soaked, exhausted and at the end of their forbearance, dragging from the road into the drive, attracted by the lights of Tower Keep.
I reached for them and send them a strengthening that put some meaning back into their stumbling walk and went downstairs to alert Guenta that there would be two more to feed tonight.
There was much movement in the entrance hall and kitchen was hot, wet and hectic. Guenta had taken my instructions to prepare a meal for all as either the opportunity or task to make a feast of some sort; the children were scurrying with silverware and bed sheets that were to serve for table cloths and such.
I nudged her gently and she turned, flushed from the heat of the range, pink and exciting, and her usual fear of me caused her to freeze. I shook my head and told her of the woman and the child who would be at the door within minutes; to put on some berry tea and have some morsels of food ready and some blankets for them, and removed Reyna from the kitchen work so she would take care of them this night.
Lady Isca, who are these strangers? Reyna asked me as we went to the door to wait for them. I read them and couldn’t find that much beyond fear, cold, confusion and desperate hope that we would not turn them away. Then the knock on the door came.
Reyna opened it manually and the wet and wind drove in with force, pushing at our skirts and our hair. The half drowned woman on the threshold, carrying an exhausted child in her arms, couldn’t speak and blinked painfully into the light. Reyna and I stepped forward. Reyna took the wet boy which the woman released after a short struggle, and I took the woman by the arm, closed the door to the wild night and led her to the morning room, surreptitiously drying her a little and setting the fire to be ready when we walked in through the door.
We sat her in one of the tapestry chairs and put the boy in the other, pushing them together so they could be close. Reyna went to fetch the tea – Put some wine in it, I think she needs something a little stronger – and I stayed behind and gave them both a little cautious recovery and revival.
The woman tried to focus on me and with extreme gratitude, said, “Thank you so much for offering us shelter this night,” reached over and took her son’s hand in his. The boy was already half asleep, dark wet ringlet curls about his face, and I was struck by her true devotion to him and his well being. It touched me strangely but before I could fall into musing about this, Lucian walked into the room, stopped, stared at our visitors and started to laugh.
The woman shot upright and stared back at him and in a torrent, I learned something of what had happened on his outing this morning, including the terrible image of the naked body of a beloved sister amongst the autumn leaves.
Lucian was still laughing and shaking his head. “This,” he said cheerfully, “this was of course to be expected but is amazing nonetheless. A perfect end to a perfect day,” and for some reason, he thought that was so funny, he started laughing again.
Bring me some wine! His thought command to Guenta was so loud that Reyna, on her way back from the kitchen with the berry tea, nearly dropped the tray and had to run to recover the balance, stumbling head first into the room and into Lucian.
She froze just before she hit him with the tray and looked at him much with the same expression our wet guest was wearing. It occurred to me that I, too, once had had that expression. I could see myself with that exact expression of pure fear and helplessness, many times, many different situations, emblazoned in his memories.
I sighed and nudged Reyna back into action before something unfortunate would befall her and she quickly side stepped him and came over to where I was sitting on the low table. I took one of the mugs and put it next to myself as the child didn’t need it, asleep already and unknowing of what was happening around him. The second one I held out to the woman who was still rigidly staring at Lucian, too terrified to even breathe. It took quite some time for the scent and presence of the mug under her nose to come to her awareness; when it did, she startled badly and looked to the mug, to me, to him and then started to cry.
“Here, take it,” I pushed the mug closer towards her and habits of old took over and she wrapped her hands around it. “Drink,” I told her and underlined the words with a command that caused her to comply immediately.
Lucian stood, arms folded, looking at her steadily. He was still very amused and wondering as to the meaning of it all, whether there was one at all, and deep inside, there was the multiple desires for pain, for revenge and so much more, shadows shifting rapidly and vying for attention.
It is of no concern.
Truly, it is not important. Tomorrow, we are riding for Pertineri.
Lucian. Tell me.
Reluctantly, he send, I didn’t mean to kill the virgin. Not like that, at any rate. I just remembered – something and she died from the force of it. She just died.
No, not that. What you think the meanings have to do with it.
He looked at me and let out a long breath, then came across and sat carefully down next to me on the table. It creaked a little in protest but then settled to his weight sturdily enough.
I am unsure as to the meaning. If all is as planned as we think it is, then what is the purpose, at this stage, of this woman, the virgin, and all of that? Truly this is very late to make any impact, any changes?
I am wondering about that too. Perhaps, I think slowly and trying to find the right way to express myself, perhaps it is one of these things that have to do with ordering your affairs.
Lucian sits up straighter as Guenta enters the room with the wine on a small tray and a single glass. She has eyes for him alone, has taken the trouble of taking her protective cloth off, washing her hands and even fastening her hair. That she doesn’t kneel before him in adoration is about all.
Lucian laughs a little. Jealousy, my dear? But that is too sweet. He kisses me lightly on the cheek and takes the glass from Guenta’s tray, holds it out to her. I note that the woman’s breathing is fast and that Lucian resonates her, remembering things about her, what she used to feel like, taste like ...
I take myself away from this with some effort and concentrate on the other woman who is still trying to drink in small sips on my command but whose hands are shaking and whose entire system is on the very brink of collapse. It would be easiest to have her go to sleep too, starfield her and leave her to her own devices.
It’s too many choices, Lucian says unexpectedly into my mind. This is one night, I am but one man, and there are three women here, five really if you count your little princess and the wet nurse girl, who could delight me in their own various ways, who could delight various strands of my desires, all of which clamour to be fulfilled.
Well, I respond rather too dryly for my own liking, kill them all swiftly and you still have the whole night to do some more of the same. It doesn’t take much, does it.
I can feel him rather than see him raising an eyebrow at my snide comment and in turn he says aloud, “This wine is good. Shame there’s only one glass.”
Guenta, who is still standing head bowed before him, turns bright red and glances at me with shock and embarrassment. She had never for one moment even thought to bring two glasses. I had not occurred to her at all when she received his orders.
Lucian reaches out a hand towards her, open and an order or invitation to place her hand in his. Guenta draws a breath in deep shock and is spinning, her deep fear of me doing battle with her intense desire to go to him.
I turn my head away and that decides it. She gives him her hand and he pulls her close towards him, wraps his arms about her waist and places his head into her skirts.
I am not prepared for the intense emotions this produces inside me. Here I was, explaining to him about Chay and how it had nothing to do with our relationship. Now, with the tables turned, I have to fight a veritable whirlpool of old fears and furious anger, and I am feeling as though I am slipping and losing control. Lucian kneels her before him and carefully reaches and pushes her breasts over the top of her dress, taking a deep breath and emanating pure delight as he does so. He leans forward and kisses her and I am simply washed away by how much she loves him, how she has waited for him, and I have to bite my lip again for the sadness that this is causing is threatening my equilibrium so much more than the jealousy, anger, whatever that was that I don’t know how I can be here at all any longer. I get up and turn to the wet woman who is still holding her mug. She is in deep shock and not thinking anymore and I can’t help but wish I could be the same. I take the mug from her and shift her to unconscious; it is exceptionally easy for she wishes for it so profoundly that all I have to do is the barest of touches and she goes, rapidly and willingly.
I leave the morning room and close the door softly behind me, shield Lucian away inside it and don’t know where to go or what to do. In the end, I sit down on the stairs with the half empty mug, turn it so the handle faces the wrong way and drink a little of the still warm tea.
The girl Shern comes from the kitchen, full of fear because there is food in the oven and spices to be added and the one who knows how to do these things and tells her what to do has disappeared.
I briefly wonder if I know, but the truth is I don’t. I don’t because I don’t, Chay doesn’t and Lucian doesn’t either. It makes me smile and shake my head but there is at least a structural help I can give her.
“Take everything off the fires and cover it well, so it will not burn and can be continued later,” I say to her and she jumps because she didn’t see me there, then curtseys rapidly and says in her mouse voice, “Yes, my lady,” and flees.
The front door opens a little later and Chay and Ricco arrive, companionable although the boy is noticeably sad. Chay must have told him that we are leaving and won’t be back. The boy glances at me and I feel a reproach that everything was my fault. Perhaps it was. Chay comes over to me and sits next to me, hot and smelling of horses and sweat, a very physical intrusion in a way. He gives me a little nudge, cautiously, and says, “What’s up?”
I look down at my hands and don’t really know how to answer him. Instead, I send him a flash of what I saw/heard/experienced and what now took place well shielded in the morning room.
He sighs and keeps his thoughts under control but I know full well what he is thinking. Fair is fair. I have no grounds for complaint. I know I don’t, and I’m not complaining. I’m just sad. Sad for me, sad for him and incredibly sad for her. I know what it’s like to love him like that, I do know, oh by the sisters, I do. At least there were times when he loved me back. There’ll be nothing for her, not even hope.
Chay gets up and stretches, overly dramatically, designed to break the mood, break my mood, wake me up. “I think I’m going to try that pool thing upstairs. Do you want to show me how it works?”
You know how it works.
I know I know. Wash my back?
I just curl up into myself and hold on to myself and fight the damned tears with everything I got. I will do what I want, I won’t hide and I won’t give in to this. I force a deep breath, then another and it comes to me how you relax yourself, a tense sinew at a time, breathing steadily, getting a straighter posture, and you can feel it falling away, you can just feel it drifting to the sides and then it is gone and you can function again. Ah Lucian, you knew all about that, didn’t you. I’ve seen you do it a hundred times or more.
I rise steadily, turn and look at Chay who is trying his best to be steady, not to show concern or sympathy for he knows me too well.
“Your back needs washing, for sure,” I say to him and we go up the stairs together, straight to the pool room where I set a few random lights in mid air and he closes the door and leans against it whilst I put the wooden water stopper thing in position and open the water flow.
When the water has reached a good level, I swirl it and make it sparkly, warm; steam rises and mutes the lights, gives them halos. I sit down at the window end on the edge of the pool and Chay pushes himself off the door, starts to unbutton his shirt. Lucian’s shirt, that is. He drops it to the floor and kicks his boots off, struggles from his trousers and quickly makes to the pool, puts a hand in it. It occurs to me to place some lights in the bottom, pale turquoise to match the tiles, and all the water becomes a green crystal substance with tiny bubbles swirling amongst it. Chay can’t help a smile and carefully steps over the edge, into it and then lies down with a deep sigh of contentment.
I link to his experiences and feel tension releasing that I was not aware I was carrying in my neck, my shoulders. His warmth and comfort become my warmth and comfort, and his delight at being lightly buoyed by the bubbly water becomes my delight.
All is silent in the room save the odd water splash as Chay stretches, flexes and turns. The coloured lights are pretty, and it is warm now. I wish I could be happy. I wish I could feel, allow myself to feel but I know if I do, all there will be will be sadness, fields of sadness, stretching out beneath a never-ending sky.
Gently, he says, Come to the now. It is the only place to be. If you stay in yesterdays, or live in the tomorrows, there is nothing that can be right here and please you, not now, not ever.
The trouble is there is nothing that can be right here and please me, not now, not ever.
There is nothing that Chay can say to contradict that or argue with it and so he just turns over and floats, face down in the water, blowing bubbles and turning his head side to side as he does so.
I’m sorry, I send him. I’m being very miserable.
Ah, I don’t blame you. I can’t begin to understand what it’s like being you.
And I can’t understand how you can be you. How you can remain so – cheerful.
He surfaces and gasps for breath, rubs his hair from his forehead, water from his eyes and sits up in the pool.
I’m just lucky. Always have been. I’ve led what you might call an enchanted life.
Until you met me.
“Ah,” he says out aloud and turns sideways and around so that his head is now at the bottom where I’m sitting, looking up at me, “but that was when I went from enchantment to true magic. I wouldn’t trade it for all the gold and all eternity. Not any of it.” Silently, his thought went on, not even him.
I smile down at him then and run my fingertips over his wet face, feeling the hard stubble around his mouth and tracing his lips. “I will clean your clothes and get you some towels,” I say and kiss him on the nose before getting off the side of the pool. Those small practical tasks are a welcome diversion for the moment.
It would be some time before dinner was ready.