Across the room, against the wall, Marani took a slow breath and died.
For a moment, it broke my concentration and for a moment, I considered bringing her back.
I am not entirely sure why I chose not to.
With certainty, I rather needed her particular skills at this moment; there were certain details I would have preferred not to have to attend to yet it was also true that the old woman had served for a long time.
I forced a brief and mutually distasteful link on the Serein bitchlet and transmitted the required information, then turned my attention back to that one who had called herself Isca and continued healing her body from the ravages of the experience.
Without my help in the matter, this child would have never been born.
Her structure was such that without me softening her very bones there would have been no possibility of its passage into the – well I suppose, their term of The Hard was the most adequate description one could put on this world, this life.
I would no longer be able to accuse her of not understanding the true meaning of pain or not having experienced true suffering.
I heard a strange sound and it took me a moment to understand that the child was crying.
I shook my head.
What is this?
This is not my reality, not my life.
This is further from any such thing as I ever was when she took me into Serein itself.
I am holding a woman’s hand, I am healing her womb and her torn and bleeding tissues, and I hear a child crying that is my child.
It takes a certain amount of discipline to move my head in the direction of the sound and let my eyes fall onto the Serein girl who is holding a fat baby, a big baby, in a rough grey sheet stained in wetness and in blood. I am drawn to the mewling thing and I can feel its disorientation, fear, cold, desperation inside my stomach. Hastily, I snap the link and tell the girl to bring the child.
Isca is still deeply unconscious but the girl obeys and brings the child, carefully laying it into my arms.
I hold it somewhat awkwardly and end up tearing the front of Isca’s garment to bare her breasts. They are much fuller than I remember them to be. I bring the child close to one, wedging its body with my knee and hold it’s head so it is pointing in the right direction. It feels soft and incredibly fragile beneath my fingers.
A little while later, the child has found a nipple and begins to feed upon her, calming in the process.
I check her over carefully once more but she is perfectly fine, perfectly repaired and in working order once more. The child too is buoyant and strong. I tell the girl to come and take over the holding of the child. She obeys me without question, even though it involves her being very close to me and touching me as she slides beneath me to replace me by my lady’s side.
I step away, straighten and survey the room.
It is nothing like I remember it to be and there’s her special pet, hovering as usual, burning up with his devotion to her. I look down at the boy and have no objections to his presence this day; he might be of use fetching and carrying.
I reach into the patterns and fabrics on which my lady lies and clear away the remnants of the birth, all visible traces of her suffering and near destruction.
Then, there is Marani’s body.
I consider briefly as to the best course of action, then I dissolve the strands that hold her form together and it dissipates, rises like mist and is gone.
I find myself staring at the place where the form had been for a time, before re-focussing on the now.
I will go to Tower Keep and return by nightfall, before she has awoken. It is time I took responsibility for her myself instead of leaving this with walls, circles, guards and housekeepers, or Catena, for that matter.
In the study at Tower Keep, I sat behind my writing desk, drank wine with great slowness and deliberation and kept a link with her at all times. Perhaps it was done because of concern, perhaps because I was just waiting the time away before I would return as I had decided.
After a time, I got up and left the house.
The air was strange, warm from the sun of the day yet with that tight edge that foretold the cold which would be here a week or so from now.
I began walking down the avenue and noted that the leaves were beginning to show signs of paling, darkening, the autumn was here again.
Many autumns had I known, but as I walked out and onto the road, my mind went back to the time when first she had appeared to me, and that it had been exactly two years since the afternoon I rode with her to keep her thoughts from the coming judgement and dissipate her fears.
I walked on and already knew I was making my way to the stone circle that has saved us both and where I had pledged her an allegiance that I didn’t understand but that felt old and inevitable even then.
How little I had known about myself.
How much had I thought I had known about the patterns of life, of my life and that of others, and how wrong had I been.
I had accused others of illusions. I was the one with the illusions.
I had accused others of foolishness.
I was the fool.
Strangely, in this golden afternoon, bareheaded, cloakless and without even a sword by my side, on foot and making my way across the scrubland, over the sharp stones that bent the thin soles of my riding boots, small thorns and seedpods snagging at my clothes, it seemed not such a threatening position to be in.
The truth was that I had known for a long time that it was over and that I had failed somehow.
I did not understand how one can fail at a task one has not been given, for the tasks that had been set for me where always accomplished with intensity and the quest for perfection.
I had always done my best.
Even in failure, it was not lightly arrived at, nor easily accepted or without a dedication to change and to do better in the future.
Before she came, I had already given up for a very long time trying to deny my own limitations, shortcomings, inabilities, barriers, frontiers.
Further still, I had ceased to try and storm or dismantle or traverse these frontiers, be they physical, of the mind, or somewhere beyond in a place that was neither; I had broken myself in eternity in that fruitless pursuit.
Then she came, and she said those barriers had never even existed at all.
She said it and she held it up to me in every one of her movements, her thoughts, and her actions.
I stop and look to the rise of the plateau upon which, unseen from this angle and distance, the standing stones reside.
Just before me, a small shred of blue is caught on the thorns of a single bare bush.
Carefully, I bend and untangle the piece of cloth and rub it lightly between my fingers.
I used to hate that colour.
Hated it with such a depth and despair, it was hard to acknowledge even to myself that I could have such passion left.
Then she came and she wore it and I could never regain a clarity or purity about my feelings of this colour, ever after. It became worse when that boy – what was his name? Dareon, the answer was delivered faithfully and precisely, as though a voice had spoken it from behind my right ear. I did not need to turn to know there was no-one there.
Dareon. He had worn the blue, and taken me to the place of blue where she was dying.
What were my feelings now towards the blue?
Far away, sensations and emotions moved like shadows but they had no substance left. I held the piece of material up and the wind took it away, lifted it a short while, and it settled briefly on a barren patch of ground, moving a little, this way, then that.
It was of no concern.
In a part of my mind, the link to her, sleeping, stood steady and resonant, an underlying steady strand of purest silver that was so easy to take for granted, to think it of no consequence, of no importance; one truly did need the lesson that it was not unlike the air we breathe without a moment’s thought but cannot live without if surrounded by water, or by fire, its absence should become apparent.
I climbed the steep slope easily and enjoyed stretching into the task.
Then the plateau lay wide and open before me once more.
I watched the stones and the afternoon sun with my eyes and the silver strand connection with another sense as I approached the proximity of the magical barrier.
The silver strand became diffused and disappeared as I entered into the circle and yet, where it had been, there was not emptiness as always I had presumed but something else. A non-emptiness. I smiled and understood then why I had fought so for survival in Trant’s cage and why she had fought so in the dungeons; why I had known it when she died.
How she had found her way to the North Tower. How I had known she was coming.
I walked to the altar stone and rested my hands flat against it. As always, it was intensely cold. I looked around then and noted the few remains of the brief skirmish I had fought here.
It is somewhat painful to admit but I had been so very aware that she was behind me, watching me. I had turned the routine despatchment of that headman’s group into theatre because she was watching.
I turned around and leaned against the altar stone, closing my eyes and letting the cold penetrate my shoulder blades, my buttocks.
What had I thought she was to me, then?
At first, she was a victim. No, less than that. An annoyance, an irritation that should not have been at all. And ah! Did she irritate me! With those frightened eyes and trembling limbs, I was fooled for a time as to her strength but when I saw how she worked and the force of her will and the pure brilliance of her talents, she made me so angry I wanted to kill her every time I saw her.
There was a gradual shift to me accepting her as my apprentice, and then a dawning horror that I could teach her nothing at all. After the merging, it was even more profound – we were not equals, she was my better. I tried to cast her then in the role of my commander but that was blatantly a mistake. Somehow, I must have created the notion that she might be meant to be my mate, and that caused me to nearly go insane with the struggle of not wanting to think of her as that, of wanting her to be just that so much that the intensity of my emotions were unbearable and never before experienced, and of knowing only too well on some level that she could never be.
Lying with her was the worst mistake I ever made. But damn, I was desperate for her to set me free and I had no idea how desperate I had been for some illusion of comfort and normality, how hungry and how ferociously needful of just such comforts as are promised in the words of love, partnership, marriage, even.
If thinking of her in terms of my betrothed and my beloved was a most painful error of judgement, thinking of her as my wife was even worse.
I sighed deeply and pushed myself off the stone behind me, walked across and through the stones and out into the realms of everything once more.
The silver link unfolded from its place of non-existence and she was sleeping deeply still.
She was resting after the birth of the child.
She had born my child and it made her no more the mother of my child as the ceremony in Pertineri made her my wife.
Then what were we to each other?
What could this be?
A simple accident, causing a serial cascade of illusions and delusions?
Or was there a plan to this?
I shook the thought from my head. I knew too well and had known too many who lived their lives by the signs they thought they saw or heard or understood, and all those were nothing more but they themselves creating an illusion yet again.
Don’t ride a horse that was shoed by a cross eyed blacksmith or you will fall!
The more you believe it, the sooner you must fall. Even if a cross eyed blacksmith is indeed, more likely by far to have forgotten a nail, or two.
She had come to me. She had shown me true magic and sides to me that I would never have discovered. I was grateful to her and yet strangely, I was not. She had not done any of those things out of kindness and any other with a clean sharp mind and a foreknowledge of basic patterns could learn and do when linked with her.
Most likely, she was an accident that I interpreted as a sign.
I flexed my mind and reached towards her house. It was a fair way but I was so much stronger than I had ever been. It could be done without evoking the pathways through the horse lands. I focussed and translocated straight to the yard.
A tearing sensation shot through me and I felt as though the skin of my hands and face had burned off, and I stumbled upon landing. But a brief glance informed me that these sensations were not based on physical injury and that I had accomplished the journey across the pathways successfully.
The house was no better than a ruin.
It was virtually unrecognisable from the colourful nest she had created for her dependants, looted and torn as it was of any decoration or refinement.
She should not have been brought here. I should have checked that the house was in order before I sent her back. I presume too much, these days.
Behind me, standing near the roadside in the shadow of three trees that appear to have grown from a single place, is Catena.
I turn slowly and look at him, track him, investigate him.
He has aged considerably since first I saw him, since I duelled with him, here in this yard and yet not here in this yard for this muddy, broken ground bears no resemblance of the too bright mosaic she had created here, no more so than he resembles the headstrong youngster who sought to impress her with his fighting skills.
And I, I wonder if I am as changed as he is, as the yard is.
He walks towards me, no bounce in his stride, his hair cut short and his thoughts severe and dark. Indeed, he is much changed.
As he slowly makes his way down the track and across the mud I wonder how it is that he is still alive and why it is that I always found excuse upon excuse to not remove him from this plane, once and for all.
No man has ever spoken to me like this common soldier and remained alive. No man has ever stood and challenged me in his preposterous way and not paid dearly for such indiscretion.
Catena halts a length in front of me and holds my eyes without fear, without hesitation. He seeks to know me just as I have sought to know him, understand his attraction, understand what it is that he would have that I could not.
My thoughts are mirrored in his own and our mutual conclusions are that I am all the magic that he is not, and that he is all the magic I can never claim or claim again.
If ever I had his kind of magic.
“Have you come to take her away?” he asks of me.
I answer him as though he was an equal. “This place is no longer suitable.”
He looks across my shoulder at the ruined house and nods slowly. Then he says, “Please do not put her back in the prison. She will die again.”
I shake my head before he has finished the sentence.
“It was a mistake,” I say and marvel at my calm and even more at standing here and having this communication with this entity, who is no more a commoner or knight or rival than the woman in that house is my apprentice, or my wife.
He glances at me swift surprise. Slowly, he says, “Where will you take her?” and he does not expect an answer from me.
I think about it.
Where can I take her? The only place that could be home is Tower Keep. There are no servants there, the house is shut up. I note with some dismay that I do not wish to return there for it would remind me of the fact that there is no housekeeper and no-one I could trust with the care taking of her.
I am old and I am weary. I do not wish to concern myself with such things.
“I will take her to Tower Keep,” I say. “Find some suitable servants, a cook and such, and bring them there.”
He takes a step back and is not sure he understands my intentions.
I speak plainly.
“Are you willing to continue guarding her and the child?” I ask him, and his eyes widen.
Forever. Until there is no more breath in my body, he sends me instead of speaking.
I nod and turn away from him and physically make my way into the house that no longer has a front door and up the stairs to her room.
There is a noticeable smell and in the room there are all of the children she brought here.
All of them.
I remember them well from the moment when I walked into the room at Meyon Heights and saw them shivering and quivering against the far wall, the last remnants, the brood of those damned blue robed cretins that had made my life a misery for centuries, in one way or the other.
As I stand in the doorway, one breaks ranks and comes at me with a short knife, about half the length of my thumb. It is a plaything and he attacks me with it, stabbing at my chest and causing little more than minor inconveniences that I heal reflexively as soon as the blade withdraws.
The boy who is attacking me is the brother to soldier boy, our one time house keeper at Tower Keep. I look down at his head and arms, one clasping the toy knife and stabbing, the other clenched into a fist that is hitting me and marvel at his mind and state of being.
Then my glance falls to her, lying still asleep but rising in awareness with the shouts of the boy and the child, moving beneath the covering by her side.
I brush the boy aside and walk across, sit down beside her, look down at her.
Behind me, three other children restrain my attacker and drag him from the room against his cries which are loud enough to break the last barrier of sleep and wake her.
She opens her eyes slowly and her glance is unfocussed. I touch her mind gently just to make her aware of my presence so it will not come as too much of a shock to her.