The next morning, Sef woke up briefly and I took him to the washroom. Even that small exertion exhausted him beyond belief and he was asleep again before I could get dressed and tell him that I would bring him some food. He had shown no surprise at either seeing me nor being in this strange place but he was not quite himself yet and I wasn’t at all sure that he didn’t simply think that he was dreaming.
Downstairs in the kitchen, Marani was scrubbing some vegetables in a large earthenware pot filled with water. She glanced up quickly and startled at my appearance but then recognised me and just went back to her work, without a good morning or even a nod.
I wondered why she didn’t like me and had another go at making friends with her.
“May I help you with that, Marani? Would you like me to see to these?” I said, pointing to a bunch of bushfruit which needed their shells breaking so you could extract the small dark seeds inside.
She just shook her head and said nothing in reply, just her scrubbing of the roots became more furious still. I tried again. “Is there something else I can do? Do you mind if I take some bread and water for my brother?”
She stopped then and looked up at me. A strand of hair had come loose from her untidy bun and she pushed at the grey streak with the back of a wet dirty hand.
“The morning meal will be served soon,” she said in an unfriendly tone but upon seeing my face, she sighed again and said, “You are an apprentice. I am the housekeeper. You do whatever you do, and I do my work.”
I couldn’t help it then. I sat down on one of the many stools that were tucked under that huge table all the way along and said, “I am sorry if I have displeased you, Marani. Please forgive me. I don’t know what to do here, it is all so strange.”
She dropped the root she’d been holding and washed her hands off in the tub, dried them on her dirty apron. With yet another sigh she said, “You haven’t displeased me and there’s nothing to forgive. Do you want a mug of berry tea to get you started?”
I nodded rapidly and smiled at her. “Yes, please,” I said and then added on for good measure, “thank you very much, Marani.”
She shook her head and put a large cast iron kettle onto the huge range of iron that spanned the entire back of the kitchen. Feasts for the whole village could be prepared on that range, I thought, and my eyes traced all the dusty, cobwebby pots and pans that hang from hooks high up above the range itself.
Watching her bring out two simple earthenware mugs from a cupboard and a lidded jar that contained a combination of dried leaves I could smell all the way from where I was, I asked, “Does the master have many apprentices?” for I thought if there was a constant coming and going of the likes of me it might account for her being fed up with me on sight.
Strangely, the old woman stopped in mid movement in the shovelling of the tea leaves with a big brass spoon into the pot as though she had frozen in time. She continued the movement and said, “No,” and that was that.
“Who else lives here?” I asked next, for even if she was only giving me yes-no answers it would eventually lead to some form of information I could do something with to arrange this place to some kind of sense inside my mind.
“No-one else,” she said and peered into the pot to ascertain the level of leaves and its correctness.
“Does Master Lucian have a wife?” it occurred to me to ask and there I had reached the level of the old woman’s forbearance with my many questions for she put the pot down with a hard crash.
“Now listen, young one,” she said and turned to me, looking at me straight on and properly for the first time since we’ve met, “I don’t know what you are doing but I am too old for bad jokes. Serein or no, find someone else for your sport or be away with you. I will bring the morning meal to the boy’s room later on.”
For a moment I was completely at a loss until I managed to figure out that she must have mistaken my robe for meaning that I was Serein. And then it occurred to me that she considered the idea of Master Lucian having a wife as a bad joke.
It was my turn to sigh. “Marani,” I said, “I’m not Serein. I just borrowed a cloak. I’m from Meyon. I have no idea what is going on, I was told yesterday that I had go and come here. Please do not be so unkind to me. I will do my best to help out and not give anyone any trouble.”
The woman’s eyes widened and her mouth dropped open fractionally. She blinked and then quickly turned away and started to fuss with the tea pot and the cups, neither of which needed any further attention spent on them. I got up from my stool and went over to her, stood close behind her and looked over her dusty shoulder. I was quite a bit taller than her and my shadow lay over hers on the brown mugs.
She wasn’t angry at me. She was tired too, just like he had been, and sad also, and not wanting to be here. Beyond that I couldn’t make sense or pick up any clear thoughts from her and so I said, pleadingly, “If we have to live here and work here, can you not tell me what it is I have to do to please you? For I don’t know and I - I feel really lost.” I stopped there because my voice wasn’t steady anymore but the old woman turned around and now the feeling of sadness was nearly overwhelming.
Her voice was rough and entirely different as she said, “Young one, go and sit down. The kettle has boiled and I will make us both some tea. And something to eat. You’ll feel better, then.”
Obediently, I went and sat down again and said nothing more until she had brought the two steaming mugs and taken a seat next to me.
For a while, we drank tea and didn’t speak, and finally, she said, “Who send you here?”
“The Serein,” I told her, so glad that we could talk, that I could talk. “They woke me up and told me to get going immediately so I may begin my training.”
At that, the old woman gave a half snort, half laugh that could have even been a sob and shook her head. Then she said, “How do they choose, I wonder, who they send to be trained by the Lord of Darkness?”
I thought it somewhat disrespectful of her to talk of Master Lucian in that way and then it occurred to me it might be some kind of loyalty test, so I said carefully, “Surely Master Lucian isn’t all that bad.”
She snorted again and threw me a strange look which stuck on my face and then her entire posture changed, her entire being, as she said in a half whisper, “Don’t tell me they never told you.”
A streak of ice ran down my back and I put my mug down, all of a sudden very uncertain.
“Told me what?”
“Who you are apprenticed to.”
I shook my head in non-understanding. “No, they didn’t tell me his name.”
“Not his name,” she said impatiently, “WHO he is.”
I was even more confused. “Who is he, Marani?” and the old woman gave a groan and stood up from the table and turned her back to me.
I got up too and I was now really scared. I touched her on the shoulder and she turned so quickly that I flinched back.
Straight into my face, she said, “He is Lord Lucian Tremain. The Lord Of Darkness, the Dark Lord. The one and only. That’s who he is!”
I heard the words.
I understood the words on some level but on many others, I could not.
I thought for a moment she was jesting or just trying to frighten me, or make me look a fool but one single glance at her face told me that she was not lying to me.
I thought for a moment that she was trying to tell me that Master Lucian was a dangerous man, a wicked man, an evil man but one glance at her face told me that that wasn’t what she meant.
Then there was really nowhere else for me to go then as to a place where such a thing as the Lord of Darkness was a reality as opposed to a curse or a proverb. A place where there really was magic and where there was good and evil.
A place where the Holy Serein had seen me, and judged me, and decided that I was fit to be apprenticed to such a one, and that it was such a one who would be the perfect – the only possible! - teacher for me.
When that place spun close to my heart, the room started spinning also and I couldn’t breathe. When I recovered myself, I was on the floor with Marani kneeling painfully by my side, rubbing my hands in hers.
She looked down at me and smiled the most unhappy smile I have ever seen on a person’s face.
“I’m sorry, young one,” she said quietly. “I shouldn’t have said anything. It wasn’t my place to say anything. I tried not to talk to you but you would keep going on and on at me.”
I stared at her and couldn’t contain the beating of my heart and the pure horror of all that was in my mind.
The horror and terror and then, the anger.
I was not evil.
I don’t care what anyone says.
I don’t care what anyone thinks and how anyone judges me.
I am not evil. I try to do the best with what I’ve got, and the creator knows, it isn’t much, and I don’t have a sweet temper and I’ve been a bad daughter to my parents, I’ve been lazy and tried to avoid the work, and I’ve been disobedient – oh! so many times! – when I shouldn’t have been, and I’ve stolen goldenfruit and once, a small coloured ribbon from a market stall.
I set the common on fire by accident.
Yes. I’ve done many bad things but not because I wanted to or was happy about being bad. In the contrary. I know that I try harder to do the right things than any of the other children and even any of the other people I have ever known, perhaps with the exception of Dareon.
I am not evil and I won’t let anyone make me so. There is nothing in all of creation, no power, no magic, no wizardry nor the temptation of all that learning, all those understandings that would make me change my mind about that.
I would rather die than be the apprentice to the Lord of Darkness.
I would rather die and have Sef die as well than that.
I turned over and got on my feet. The room span still but my heart was slowing its frantic beat with my decision and my fate. I held out my hand to Marani and helped pull her into an upright position too.
When we were both eye to eye, I said to her, “I am most grateful to you for telling me. I might even owe you my very soul. Whatever happens, you must know that is the deepest truth I have in me.”
Her sadness was all around me as she said, “Young one, you must know you cannot defy him and live.”
I nodded and gave her hand which was still in mine a little squeeze.
“I know. But I also know that I can never remain here and have him be my master. Never.”
I let go of her hand and stepped back, turned and made for the door. In the doorway I stopped and looked around.
The fat old woman with the grey straggly hair looked as though she was far beyond crying.
“May the sisters protect you, young one,” she said and I found a smile for her and a loving, nodded and turned to find the Lord Of Darkness himself, to tell him of my decision and to await my punishment.