In Serein

3-7-5 Gathering Stones

Tremain’s reputation had its advantages. Everyone knew who I was and that I served him and this time, I didn’t ask for volunteers. I said it was his orders and that was all I needed to say to get two decent horses and a young woman who had a baby at her breast and a bundle under her arm forcefully marched towards me.

She was hardly older than Reyna, skinny and terrified, crying. She had no husband and it seemed that she was superfluous to requirements in the village. I dispatched Ricco with her and a good supply of victuals back to Tower Keep and started my way down the road to try and locate some travellers.

As usual, when you want something, it is nowhere to be found.

I could swear that every single traveller family in the area had just disappeared over night. I rode all day, asked at inns and farmsteads, and no-one had seen any.

Finally, and as I was just about to give it up for a lost cause and turn back, I found a small group of them encamped on a field by the side of the road.

They were suspicious of me at first and nothing I said made much difference until they spotted the ring Isca had bought for me in Pertineri Market. Then they believed me and asked me many questions about her. I lied to most of them. I had to drink rough wine and eat with them before finally an old woman brought out a bundle and opened it carefully. Like in the market, it contained those magic stones.

They all crowded around and watched as I reached out for one and got such a kick into my hand from nowhere that I cried out and fell backwards. Naturally, they had been waiting for this and laughed at me until they had tears streaming from their eyes.

I tried again, this time with the left hand because the right one stung still like crazy, very slowly and carefully and this time, there was very little resistance and I could pick up one of the smaller ones with no problem at all. I found that a bit confusing until it occurred to me that it might have something to do with the fact that the hand that could pick them up wore the ring. I tried with the hand without a ring and I was right. Another shooting pain and recoil agreed with my idea on the subject.

There was a problem in how to pay them for the stones. They wanted a horse for each one and there was no way I was going to make that trade. It took a bit but eventually they accepted three horses for the whole bag full of the stones they could nothing with, about a dozen or so including a really big one, darker than the rest and easily the size of my fist.

We shook on it and two of the men accompanied me all the way back to the village near Tower Keep where I commandeered a further three horses in Tremain’s name. Those villagers were not a happy lot and there was murmuring that they might as well all up and leave before Tremain took the very ground from underneath their houses.

I thought they didn’t deserve any better. If I’d been any of them, I would have left long ago rather than live with that shadow on my doorstep and every day in fear of what might happen next.

By the time I got back to Tower Keep, it was long since dark and I was tired and saddle sore. Ricco took care of the horse and I found everyone bar Guenta and the new girl had gone to bed.

The new girl was feeding the nameless son of Lord and Lady Tremain from her small and insignificant breasts, less scared than she had been but still very unhappy indeed.

Her name was Shern and her baby was a little girl, the result of an unfortunate encounter with a group of soldiers on the way to market. Her parents had reluctantly fed her and not a day had gone by when she had not been reminded of how much of a burden she was. This was told to me by Guenta while I ate some meat and bread standing up in the kitchen. After, I went straight to my own room, a few doors along from Tremain’s room. I felt strangely better and more alive this night, in spite of my weariness, than I had for weeks.

Next morning, I called the children together in what once must have been a big dining room, fit for feasts and such.

There wasn’t much in it in the way of furniture apart from a whole heap of old chairs stacked along the sides, but there was a big old rug in the centre and the windows right down from floor to ceiling with patches of wood over the broken panes let in the light and the green of the gardens beyond and it was perhaps the most cheerful room in this entire miserable house.

I put the stones in the middle and said, “It’s time you children got to work and started with your magic again. I don’t know anything about it but I know you can do it, learn to do it, re-learn to do it, whatever. If we are to get the Lady Isca back, now or ever, magic is going to be the only way and you’re the only ones who have any chance of doing it.”

Reyna looked better this morning and said in her formal way, “We will do what we can, be assured of that, Chay.”

I nodded to her and smiled, then left them to it. Whatever they were going to do, there was nothing I could do to help.

Next, I went to the kitchen where Guenta and Shern were talking and the two babies were lying side by side in the drawer crib I had made. Tremain’s son was at least twice the size of the frail little girl baby although it looked considerably older. I glanced at the thin little girl and wondered if she could ever find enough nourishment for one of these children, never mind the two of them.

There was nothing I could do to help there, either.

I spend the morning with the horses which was a nice way to take my mind of things and around midday, Ricco came to see me and tell me that the children were making a little progress towards establishing a connection with the stones that was not based on that space that Tremain had destroyed, whatever that meant. He also asked me very seriously if I minded if he cut Tremain’s throat whilst he lay sleeping.

I truly have no idea why the thought appalled me as much as it did.

With him gone, we would all be safe.

There was no reason on this or any other possible plane of existence why he should not be dispatched as swiftly as possible. In the contrary. Ricco would be doing the kingdoms a favour that would be celebrated possibly forever.

Yet and in spite of all of that, the thought appalled me.

What was it about that old demon that made me want to save him, made me want to serve him, even?

It was completely idiotic for me to think like that, feel like that and it made no sense at all but it was real enough.

I asked Ricco not to kill him, and when the boy asked me why, I had no answer for him other than to say that Isca would miss him and the baby would wonder what had become of his father when he was old enough to wonder.

“I miss Matus,” he said simply in return, stared at me with resolve and anger and then marched off.

After the midday meal, I constructed a simple lock for their door from a padlock found in the stables and an old bracket and locked them in for their own safety. For his safety. I put the key on a piece of string around my neck and hid it under my shirt.

At the evening meal I told everyone that we would think of a name for the baby and have a naming ceremony the next evening. Everyone was astonished at first but then they came around to the idea and even became excited about it, apart from Guenta who took me aside and asked me if she could come with me to check on them.

I asked her straight out then what the deal was with her and Tremain and she finally told me she had been his mistress in a strange place surrounded by water.

When I heard that, I had the desire to just give Ricco the key and help him get down the Tadara – we could stab Tremain simultaneously in case he had two hearts or just one black one but on the wrong side of the chest. It didn’t last that long though and I even thought then that Tremain had been quite fair in his own peculiar way – he had lain with Guenta and had send me to keep his wife company.

Who can begin to understand what goes on in that old demon’s mind?

Not me, that’s for sure. I couldn’t help but ask for more details from the big breasted woman and although she refused to tell me more, the shine in her eyes and quickening of her breath when she spoke his name told me enough. I shook my head and wondered how he could enchant women to love him like that. It wasn’t his charm or pretty manners, that was certain.

I took her upstairs to their room and Cyno joined us as well. The three of us stood in the cold room as though we were visiting an altar to something – our loves, I suppose.

I sat on Isca’s side and Guenta sat on Tremain’s. They were both breathing slowly and their hearts were beating but I had the strong sense that it wouldn’t last very much longer. Already, Isca was taking on that pallor and fallen skin she had displayed just before she died in our prison and Tremain looked dead anyway, pale his hair, his skin, his lips, worn away to skin and bones over the past weeks.

I said to Guenta, “We have no chance, you know.”

She said, “To make them better?”

I smiled at my lady and stroked her fine, silky smooth hair. “To make them love us.”

She sighed and said, “I didn’t even know he had a wife.”

“You should have seen them together, in the Abbey, on the night of their wedding,” I said and shivered with the remembrance. “They are not like us.”

“They’re highborn.”

I laughed a little. “No, Guenta, that’s not it. They are not human. Neither of them.”

She threw me a glance and carefully traced his cheekbones with her fingertips. “Human enough,” she said and bent forward and kissed his pale lips with a longing so deep that I could feel inside my own stomach.

Human enough.

I looked down at my lady and felt something that I had to fight, fight it hard or else I would fall apart, cry like a baby and beg her to come back to me.

I felt Guenta’s hand on my arm but I couldn’t look at her. I couldn’t close my eyes either for this would have caused the tears to fall. She came around the bed and I turned my face away from her, but could not prevent her from leaning across me and putting her arms around my back. Close to my ear, she said in a whisper, “I know what it feels like. It must be so much worse for you. I’m sorry, Chay Catena.”

I focussed on Tremain’s pale face, still it was, calm. He looked so different when he was himself. As though that which possessed him and drove him on to do what he did wasn’t there. Whatever demons possessed him, they had gone. Behind me I could feel the woman’s breath in my hair and the warmth of her body and her hands. Perhaps the time had come. Perhaps I should call it a day. Perhaps that time was here now, to put them both out of their misery and draw a line under the last year and a half, the craziest of times, absolute madness, put it away as though it never happened, as though it was a drunken fantasy or perhaps a story you have been told that is outrageous you must laugh or else, you must lose your mind altogether for it cannot be real.

Guenta let me go and stood up with a sigh. She patted me on the shoulder, twice and then left the room. I heard her close the door and looked to make sure she was really gone and found Cyno crouching in the corner by the entrance to the washroom.

I shook my head at him. “You don’t give up, do you,” I said, tiredly, not expecting a response. The boy looked at me with his weird big green eyes and said, “She promised me she would explain everything. She said that she would talk to me and explain everything to me. I am waiting for her to talk to me.”

I didn’t understand him. We had been locked up together for months and he had talked to her every single day. “You talked to her forever in the prison,” I reminded him.

He shook his head rapidly and got up. Came a little closer. Clearly, he said, “She wasn’t there. That wasn’t her. Not even in the beginning. She is more than that, and it’s all of her I want to talk to. As she has promised. And I know she will keep it, she wouldn’t lie to me.”

“Shouldn’t you be downstairs then, with the others, trying to make your magic work to bring her back?”

The skinny little boy shook his head, differently, more convinced and very serious this time. “You can’t bring her back. She has to want to come. She has to come. We can only invite her.”

A strange sensation touched me and I said, “How do you know that? What makes you think that?”

“I don’t think it. I – just know, that’s all.”

I finally got up off the bed myself and arched my back. “I have to lock the door, Cyno.” I told him.

He nodded and said, “So that Ricco can’t get to Lord Tremain.”

I walked up to him and put my hand on his bony shoulder. The boy looked up at me with intense seriousness and said, “You must lock up tight. He must not be hurt.”

“I know,” I said and there was a strange understanding between us that I could not explain, no more as I could explain why I didn’t, no couldn’t, contemplate the thought of killing Tremain and ending this misery once and for all. But the truth was that I was guarding them both and that I would do whatever it took to keep them from harm.

Not just her.

Both of them.

And that didn’t make any sense at all.