Things were not as they should be.
Demma was gone and I had no fancy to return to cooking; I feel at my age, I have done my share of that. I tried to get a new woman from the town but should have saved the time and trouble. Not a one there would have a thing to do with any of us.
They needed us alright when their bones were broken or their children crying – yes, then it was all bowed heads and offers of whatever they could afford, but as soon as they could run and hobble, they would be away as though the Lord of Darkness himself was swinging his swords at their heels.
So I came back to the house, still alone, and we did the best we could and shared the chores around.
Reyna was a dear child, really.
She was always ready to do what needs be done, and never once complained that it was below her or beneath her. She was good with the magic, too and it helped to have her mend and clean things and chase after little Vona who was a firebrand and always in trouble in one way or the other.
It was too much for me, I often thought.
There used to be four of us, young Lady Isca, Dory, Demma and me.
Now there was only me and I didn’t know what would happen if something happened to me.
At least, one day quite out of the blue, Chay came back and I was much relieved to see him. He was not his own happy self though and I thought I was going to faint when he told me that Lady Isca was said to be with child and had taken herself off somewhere quiet to rest up, that he didn't believe a word of it and suspected the master of having done something to her.
He told me at night about it, when the children were supposed to be asleep, but then Reyna came down and said she was worried about Lady Isca too because they could feel the bad man clearly enough but not her and she wondered if he might have ended her, like he had ended Ricco’s brother.
I remember clearly what she said next.
“We have often not felt the Lady Isca but they were always together. Now, there’s only him. And he comes and goes. It doesn’t feel right,” she said and Chay dropped his head in his hands and looked real unhappy.
Poor lamb that he is. He was always mad about her, no matter what else he got up to. As for her, I didn’t like it either. I knew –him – well enough and I never trusted him an inch, no matter what she said or how they made a show of playing at turtledoves, giving her pretty presents and such.
He had no problem half killing her when he first knew her – well, more than half killing her! – and to tell me he’s changed just like that for the sake of pair of pretty brown eyes, well, sorry, I don’t believe it. Not after what I’ve seen of him over the years.
I don’t say it out loud but Reyna of course hears absolutely everything and Chay knows enough about the witchery now to look from her to me and know there’s something I’m not saying.
He tells us of the banquet at that castle where all the lords meet up and kings and such, how beautiful she looked and how happy she was, and how that’s the last time he ever saw her.
We all sat around for a time, sighed and shook our heads but there was nothing that could be done, not then and not in the days that followed.
Until one night, Reyna comes storming into my head and she is really upset.
Apparently, she has heard the lady and she is not at all well, “There is something terribly wrong with her, Marani, she is in terrible pain,” Reyna said and very nearly cried which is something she just doesn’t do, ever.
We get up and all gather together in the sitting room below and get into the group, even Chay is coming and he is actually surprisingly strong and very careful. Reyna takes us to where she found the lady and I recognise her well enough but the girl is right.
There’s something terribly wrong with her.
I can’t put my finger on it, it’s her alright but like it isn’t, at the same time.
We try and call her and –dear sisters, have mercy! – HE comes swooping down on us and hits us so hard that I thought he had killed the little ones.
After that, I was doubly afraid.
Afraid for her and afraid for us.
I knew a little of what went on when he and she killed the Serein, and I knew jolly well that he only let the children live because she made him, somehow.
He finds us snooping on him like that and he’ll come down here for sure and put an end to us all.
We spent the rest of the night trying to soothe the little ones and me trying as best as I could not to think of it. I was right fond of all of them by now and on top of that, I was not at all sure he would make an exception for me any more.
He never liked it that I had an understanding with Lady Isca. He never liked it and he broke it up quick enough when he still could.
Perhaps now, she is ill and he can do what he wants again, without her interfering.
The thought makes my blood run cold.
And it doesn’t help a bit when Chay starts asking about where that grey house is that we saw and I know it’s Tower Keep and he knows I know and has me by the shoulders, shaking me hard until Reyna comes and tells him where it is so he won’t hurt me anymore.
I try to get through to him that he has not a chance, that he must not go there, that he must not even think in the master’s direction and he’ll know and put an end to you. But he won’t listen to me and gets his cloak and storms out of the house in the middle of the night.
It was already getting light when I finally had the children in bed and then I sat in the kitchen and couldn’t sleep for dread that he was already on his way here. That he would put an end to us all. That he could appear outside any second now, right here if he wanted to.
I was right back there when I was not much older than the Lady Isca was and I was so terrified of him, I thought I would die a thousand times.
Only now, there really was nowhere left to run or hide.
He would find those children anywhere at all, and she had given him a magic like he never had in my days.
I sat in my dread and prayed to the sisters then to protect that foolish boy on his foolish errand. I prayed to the sisters that the master would spare the children and made up my mind to talk to Reyna so they would never, ever go near him again, Lady Isca or no. She was doing what she had to do. She couldn’t take these ones with her into her marriage with darkness.
Much as I cared for her.
Chay Catena speaks.
Gold has its uses.
I got a horse in that scrappy town and started on my way to the place we had seen her at.
Tower Keep. Great name. Just right for the cosy home of Lord Demon.
Truthfully, I was shitting myself.
I was not that much of an idiot to not know what he could do to me if he so much as blinked. I learned my lesson about him, true enough.
But I also needed to know if she was alright.
I needed to see for myself if she was well cared for.
I had to see her.
The horse wasn’t what you would call a great mount and I had to pace it. Sunrise came on the road and midmorning, I came to the town Reyna had told me was just a half hour from Lord Demon’s hideout.
I stopped to give the horse a drink and get one for myself. The local tavern was a shack but it was there, it was open, and I wasn’t the only one in there even though it was nowhere near midday yet.
They were talking in there.
They were talking about three women who had gone missing, a widow woman and her two daughters, and the tale went that they had been taken in broad daylight from the road by the Dark Lord.
They were talking about the missing servant, a young soldier, who just disappeared from the face of the earth and they were talking and saying that the Dark Lord had returned and all would fear for their lives.
I asked them if they had heard anything about Lady Isca, and they had not and asked me questions about her. They had seen her only briefly, more than a year ago, dressed in green, they said and they spoke of her respectfully, very kindly, saved old Wellum’s hide, she did.
I drank up quickly and got my horse and rode like hell.
I wouldn’t have found the place if I hadn’t had Reyna’s description of Marani’s memories she wouldn’t tell me about. What gave it away was that there were high trees too close together and that was the drive up to the house.
I reigned in the sweating horse and wished I could do stuff with my mind.
I looked into the corridor of trees where no sunlight made its way and shook my head.
I was an idiot, riding blindly into this trap. He would know I’m here, hell, he probably did already.
I am an idiot. I know that. I’ve been told enough times and by enough men who knew better than me – and women, too – so I have come to accept it.
Only an idiot would ride up there.
I kicked the horse and went into the tunnel of trees, trotting up until I could see the grey house of the dream.
This was from the outside.
In the dream, I had seen it from the inside.
It was so damn silent.
No birdsong, no wind, not a breath of air.
I got off the horse and let it stand and slowly made my way up to the house, that damned stone stuff crunching so loud it would have woken a snoring grandmother.
I made my way around the side of the house and found the servant’s entrance.
It was unlocked and I went inside, thinking, I am an idiot, I am an idiot, with every sneak step pressed up close against the cupboards and shelves.
It is cold in that grey house. It is big. And its so silent you can hear your own breath and your own heart beating in your ears. I hate that. This is worse than stupid. You can’t sneak up on Tremain. Not like that, anyway.
I take a deep breath, straighten myself up and call out loud, “Tremain! Where are you?”
My voice frightens myself there, so damn loud, and I swear it echoes in the stairwell.
But there isn’t a sound in return, nothing.
I can’t get myself to call out again and instead, I open the doors, one by one, and look inside.
The place is clean enough and there’s not a soul anywhere.
I guess I’ve come to late, or we just got the wrong house or something. With these damn magic things, how do you ever know what’s real or imagined?
I’m here now so I might as well check upstairs.
As I carefully step up the sides of the stairs to keep down the creaking, I have this feeling that I’m not alone here. I stop and listen but there isn’t anything.
I turn the corner on the landing, keeping real close to the right hand side and my hand on the wall. I can now see the floor of the corridor ahead, long it is, wide, doors either side.
There is that feeling again, or was it a noise so low I didn’t hear it properly?
I make myself take the rest of the stairs swiftly and push open the first door.
Empty room, bedroom.
I try the next which is just the same.
An open door to the left, green light in there. Empty except for a tiled bath and a pile of ashes and an upturned stool.
Next door, on the right. I open it, look inside and freeze.
In the furthest corner, behind a stack of carved chests, is a huddle of a naked woman holding another, younger one with brown hair. For a second I think it’s her then I see that it is not, look around the rest of the room and on the bed, damn it, on the bed there lie the remnants of that golden dress she’d been wearing last time I saw her.
I go over to the bed and look down on what is no more than a rag now, torn, bloody and filthy, stinking.
I straighten it out some and stare at it.
The long sleeves are black with dried blood that has soaked into the fabric in overlaying waves, from thick encrusted black fading to washed out browns at the furthest edges.
I have seen this before.
I have seen this before, not on a dress but on the shirt of a man, on the shirt of a corpse. The corpse of a man who had been hanging in irons for a long time.
I nearly stumble with the thought that he had taken her from the banquet and put her in irons. I am trembling, why, I don’t know. I can’t think properly and look away from the dress, look at the two women. Then, I run from the room and open every single door in that forsaken place, but they are all empty, long empty.
She isn’t here.
She was here and now, she isn’t here anymore.
If she is anywhere at all still.
I run back to those women then, I have to hit the older one to let go off the young one who is either out cold or dead, drag her off her and pick up the girl, throw her over my shoulder and get the older one as well and drag her behind me by the wrist, down the stairs, out of this place, just away, come on, let’s get away from here while we still can.
I put the young one across the saddle and help the older one up, give her my jacket to cover herself and take the horse by the bit and run like fuck to get us away, out through that black tunnel of dense trees, out onto the road and then off the road and into the scrubland, away and away until we can’t see the road or the trees anymore, what good that is, he can find us wherever we go, and I run and stumble with the horse until I can’t breathe anymore and must stop.
I stand doubled over until I can breathe again but I still can’t think clearly.
The horse starts to nibble at a low bush and I make myself concentrate on the two women.
They were there. They might know something. And, damnation, they sure could do with some healing.
I say to the older one, “I’ll take you somewhere safe for now, ok?” but she won’t look at me, looks down at the naked girl across the saddle and strokes her back instead.
So I take my shirt off and put it over the girl best as I can and tuck it in underneath her.
I’m not sure if she is alive but I can’t hang around here.
I keep us off the road until we get to the village. I get them both down and as before, the woman just wraps herself around the girl and doesn’t move from the place. I go and buy another horse, a skinny thing on its last legs with ears like a donkey, and they are tutting and wondering at my state of undress but take my coin nonetheless. I have them throw in a couple of thin blankets.
When night falls, I take back to the road, leading the thin horse with the two women although I know it’s pointless to try and hide from him. At least there’s no-one else around to stop me and ask questions. I make the best speed I can get out of the nags and when the dawn breaks, we get to Headman’s Acre and a welcoming committee for they already knew long ago what I had found and were expecting me.
I had kept the dress away from my thoughts and didn’t mention it until much later, when the women had been put to bed – into the same one because the older one wouldn’t let go of the younger one – and Marani served me with hot wine in the kitchen.
I told her what I’d seen and what I thought and she nearly cried.
“He’s done that before,” she said and then collapsed on the kitchen table, holding her head under her hands. “He’s done it before.”
I was so relieved when the children told me Chay was coming back. I was amazed about the women, though.
I was amazed that they were alive and had as few bruises between them as they did.
Now I’ve never seen that before. If you exclude her, that is. Perhaps she did change him some because by rights, they should both be dead.
When Chay told me about the dress and that he thought you only get those kinds of blood stains from hanging in irons though it all went together in my head and I thought my heart would break for young Isca.
A long time ago, my daughter was only a little girl then and still living with me in that forsaken house, he brought in a young woman for his sport. He didn’t do it very often, perhaps one or two in a season, but it shuddered me every time because it reminded me of what I always tried not to think about.
Now usually, they came and went within the day. Came as in, were dragged in by their hair or between a couple of soldiers or such, and went as in, were disposed of by the servants or the soldiers, broken, crushed, bloodied, dead – of course.
I always waited for him to do it to me but he never did. I think that wasn’t my purpose or perhaps I wasn’t pretty enough for him – either way, I am eternally grateful to the creator he made me just the way I was.
This one was different though and he kept her chained up in the tower room for a long time. I used to hear her screaming, crying, pleading sometimes from far away or when the wind was still and I was in the garden. Then I didn’t hear her anymore and I thought he’d finally put her out of her misery but he had not.
A while after that, he ordered me to bring some nice clothes and brought her down, for me to wash her and dress her up real nice.
The girl was alive and she was not. She never spoke and followed him wherever he went. He would talk to her in the evenings as though she was listening or could understand, sometimes in our usual language and sometimes in others. I dressed her throughout that time, combed her hair, everything because she did nothing on her own accord, a fair thing she was, pretty and very pale, and she never spoke or looked at me even. She looked at nothing, she looked straight through everything and obeyed every little thing you would tell her to do without hesitation.
She lasted for half a winter before one morning, the soldiers came and took her body away.
He was absolutely furious for a good tenday after that and I was lucky to escape with nothing more than a broken arm from that time.
Then he got another of the usual kind and things went back to the way they had been.
Well, actually, come to think of it, they did not really go back to how it had been.
There were fewer women after that. And then it stopped altogether, oh I don’t know when, really. I do know that when they brought young Lady Isca I was surprised because I thought he’d given up on it. And it’s true, he treated her differently from all the others right from the start.
So what by all the sisters and their mysteries had happened to have him go back to the old ways?
Had she tried to leave him? The thought made me shudder. I had tried that, just the once and he made me wish I’d never been born. He found me, brought me back and then kept me awake for a threeday or more by shouting into my head about betrayal and disloyalty every time I dropped off. In the end I cried and begged him to stop and I think he believed me then when I promised I would never try to run again.
He had broken me.
That is what he wanted from her, too.
He wanted to break her so she wouldn’t run and do what she was told.
He had tried before and it hadn’t worked, so now he was trying it again.
But, here was the thing.
Those two women were still alive.
He had been absolutely furious with himself for killing that girl back then. I am sure he didn’t want to and it had been an accident.
He would try and break her but leave her alive. He wanted her alive. He always had.
I thought about it some more and the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. For some reason, it gave me great comfort to think of it. He had broken me, or so he thought, but not really. He had made me petrified of him, made me hate him, but I still had my own mind.
I was as sure as you can be that young Lady Isca would find her own way out of it in the end.
I prayed to the sisters to help give her strength and then I set about trying to console poor Chay without letting him hear too many details or how I had come to think the way I did. He would have run straight from the house again, waving his sword around. He was sweet but dear sisters! What an idiot.