We hurried inside and found Guenta in a state of frantic flapping. She nearly threw herself around my neck with relief when she saw me coming in and told me that she’d put two high ranking officers into the library who had come to see the Lord Tremain.
“Did you say anything to them?” I asked and she shook her head and pouted at me.
“What do you think, I’m stupid? What are you going to tell them? Who are they?”
I put my hand on her shoulder and smiled although I didn’t feel like it. “Easy there, Guenta. I’m going to find out and then we see what needs to be done. Leave it with me,” I said and then I had to grin properly because I was being quite the master of the house, wasn’t I.
Leave it with me.
I looked down at myself and I was a mess.
I’d been wearing the same shirt for a week and been sleeping in it, too. It showed. I was sweaty and dusty from the ride and had nothing to change into that would begin to be on a level with two high ranking officers. I looked at the door to the library for a moment, then sighed and asked Guenta if she had brought them any refreshments yet. She shook her head.
“I just wanted to get away from them as quick as possible,” she said. “I was afraid they would ask me something and I wouldn’t know what to say.”
“Bring some wine – the good stuff. And make sure the glasses are clean.”
She pouted again and made off, which left me with no other way than forward. I straightened myself and opened the door.
There were two officers, both in Solland blue and silver and immaculate to the last polished silver button and high shine riding boots. One was sitting in the window seat and got up when I entered, the other stood looking at the books on the shelves on the other side of the room.
Both looked at me with some astonishment and I had to fight the urge to salute them. Then, the one by the books took my eye and I was riveted.
I knew this man. He was about my height, a few years older than me, brown hair cut short with a touch of white beginning over his ears. Stern of expression, a seasoned warrior type. I knew him yet I couldn’t place him, I had never fought anywhere near any Solland detachments, had he changed allegiances? Did I see him with Niccosia in Pertineri, or at Manoranta?
The man raised his head, uncomfortable under my direct staring and the silence had been too long. I cleared my throat and said, “Welcome to Tower Keep, gentlemen. I am Chay Catena, Lord Tremain’s - …” and then I couldn’t think for the life of me what I was and simply shut up.
The man from the window seat, a younger, slimmer guy with long dark hair stepped towards me and offered me his gloved hand.
“An honour, Sir Catena, to meet the King’s Champion,” he said and for a moment I thought that he was taking the piss and before I got it that he was being entirely serious. But by the sweet creator. It’s like I had forgotten about that altogether. It seemed so – unimportant, so far away.
I took hold of myself and shook the man’s hand meaningfully.
“Balan of Jesei, at your service,” he said and blushed.
The sisters stand by me. The man blushed. Luckily for us both, the other guy came around the writing desk, undoing his glove and holding out his hand to me, “Carran of Solland,” he said and then I knew who he was.
He was the man Isca had me buy for her in the slave market.
I couldn’t help it but my mouth dropped open.
I forced myself to shake his hand and to say, “It’s a pleasure,” and cursed my voice for sounding feeble and fake.
Carran of Solland. Conna of Solland’s eldest son and heir. Isca had picked him out from everyone in the whole world and brought him back from the dead. Where everyone thought he was. Where everyone thought everyone with the second name of Solland had been for a year, at least.
I shook my head to stop thinking of the repercussions of this for Eddario, for the kingdoms, for everyone concerned and forced myself to concentrate more clearly on the man before me.
He had no idea who I was or that I had sat guard over him at Delessa’s house for a day. Well. Give or take a few hours. He had no idea that I knew some of where he’d been or what he’d been through.
I stood and stared at him and couldn’t begin to imagine what he must be like inside, how he could walk around, how he could wear that uniform again.
And I couldn’t begin to imagine what he was doing here.
“Gentlemen,” I said, “please have a seat. I will have refreshments brought immediately. You have had a long ride.”
Carran gave me a lingering glance from beneath his lids before turning and taking a seat with some care in one of the two upholstered tapestry chairs that faced the huge black writing desk. The other guy, unimportant and forgotten, sat down in the other and that gave me no option but to have to go and stand first, then actually sit in what must have been Tremain’s position behind that massive desk. On it and in front of me lay a huge book with copper bindings and a lock without a keyhole. I moved it aside so I could place my elbows on the desk and said to Carran, “What brings you to Tower Keep, gentlemen?”
The man was involved in slowly pulling off the left hand glove, a finger at a time and just about took a breath to answer me when the door opened and Guenta arrived, in a fresh dress, with more breast out than in and flashing eyes and a tray that held the wine I had ordered.
I was relieved to see that the glasses were clean.
She made a deal of placing the glasses in front of each of us, bending deeper than was necessary under any circumstances in the filling of them but I didn’t mind because it gave me an opportunity to seize up Carran and watch his reactions to her.
He was cold as ice and didn’t even seem to see her. Self contained and with both hands folded in his lap, absolutely still, keeping his eyes on the glass in front of him until Guenta had left the room and closed the door behind her, then raising them to meet mine.
I took my glass and held it up.
“To the kingdoms,” I said and hoped it was a fairly safe bet.
They both responded, one calmly and the other with a youngster’s fervour, “To the kingdoms.”
We took a drink. That wine was nothing like wine should be, at least not what I know wine to be. It was thick as blood and nowhere near sweet enough. But Carran of Solland stopped and raised an eyebrow, nodded appreciatively and said, “This is a superb vintage, Sir Catena.”
I said nothing to that just smiled and forced myself to drink a little more.
With some reluctance, Carran placed the glass very carefully on the desk, sat back in the chair and said, “We are here with a message for the Lord Tremain from the High King. Do you expect him any time soon?”
The High King. Dear creator. The High King, his younger bastard half brother. He would have been the High King if he had been found earlier, if anyone had known he was still alive. Had he lost his lands, too? I don’t know about these things but they swore Eddario in at Manoranta as the Duke of Solland. Can this be undone?
I looked down on my glass and took another slow drink to give myself time to stop worrying about the Solland’s family problems and to start thinking about what I should or should not say to him.
In the end, I said carefully, “The Lord Tremain is not available at this time. We do not know when he will return but it is possible that he will be absent for a considerable period.”
The two men exchanged a fast glance and Carran said, “It is of utmost importance that we speak to him as quickly as possible. Much depends on it.”
I couldn’t help but sigh. I leaned back in my chair and found Carran’s eyes. They were dark yet not brown. They were closed yet fierce. They had hell in them if only you knew it. There was a time when I wouldn’t have recognised it but now I do and I have respect for him. He deserves some sort of explanation.
Slowly I say, “Sir Carran, how much do you know about the Lord Tremain?”
He half shakes his head and makes a small, tightly contained movement with his hands, doesn’t answer me. How much does anyone know about that old demon?
So I continue. “Lord Tremain and his movements are a mystery to me, I will be frank with you, Sir. I cannot tell you where he is, or what he is doing. I have no way of contacting him. He may come back, or he may not. I would be of service to the High King in every way I can but I cannot help you with your errant.”
Carran lets out a deep sigh and his shoulders drop. He puts a hand to his forehead and rubs between his eyes. When he looks back to me he is clearly unhappy, perhaps even distressed.
“I will speak frankly with you also, Sir Catena,” he says. “The Queen is with child and extremely ill. It is feared for her life and there – was some hope that Lord Tremain would allow his wife to attend her. Is she here?”
This man surprises me. He is on an errant like any junior officer for the wife of what must be his bitter rival for his father’s lands and on top of that, the entire rule of the Kingdoms. Yet he seems sincerely interested in Camu’s health.
I can’t even begin to think of that little girl as having to suffer as my lady did. I can’t go there. I shake my head hard and say to Carran, “The Lady Isca goes where Lord Tremain goes. They are together and as unreachable as each one of them.”
Carran frowns and sighs and I have to add, “I am very sorry. I know – the Queen and would do whatever I could to help.”
“She will die, then,” he says, picks up the wine glass and closes his eyes before taking a slow, long drink.
I don’t like the idea of Camu dying. Oh damn it to all the deepest, blackest pits of hell. Marani might have been able to help. I should have learned the stuff when I had the chance. We have got to wake those two upstairs. Damn it, and there’s not a thing I can do about any of it.
And on top of that, there’s a scribe somewhere in the house to perform a naming ceremony for the baby when the sun’s gone down. Which is probably sooner than me finishing this glass of wine. And Carran is no fool. He will know for sure that there’s something very wrong with us lot looking after Lord Tremain’s only son and having a naming ceremony in a kitchen and without any pomp or circumstance, nor either his mother or father being in attendance.
I can’t send them on their way. It is dark already. They must be offered shelter for the night, both of these and the soldier outside. Oh man how did I get into any of this!
I get up and the other two do so as well. I stay them with a gesture.
“Gentlemen, dinner will be served in a short while. I will have a servant show you to your rooms and help with the stabling of the horses. I have some matters to attend to and will meet you in half an hour, let’s say, in the dining room?”
There’s a part of me that hears me speak as though I was Tremain himself and just shakes its head in disbelief, and yet both of them accept what I’m saying easily and without anyone jumping up and shouting, who the hell are you, you trumped up low ranked grunt, what’s going on here, where’s the real authority?
I am the real authority. That is a frightening thought to be having, because if I am, we’re all well and truly shafted.
The two men just stand there and watch me leave and I have to curtail a desire to close the door behind me, lean against it and start to whimper when I’m out and through the door.
Guenta is hovering and a few children’s faces are peeking from upstairs and from the kitchen. I put my finger to my lips and indicate a meeting in the kitchen.
When we’re all assembled, and that includes the twitching scribe, I tell them all to tuck themselves away for now and until the strange men have gone, apart from Guenta, Shern, Ricco and Reyna who might get away with being mistaken for proper servants.
Shern is the only one with any real serving experience and she is well proud to be chosen to show the knights of the realm to their rooms once they have been prepared. The boys are set to help with that and a mad scramble ensues as everyone rushes to their tasks.
Luckily, Guenta had already prepared a good meal in anticipation of the naming feast and she and I dragged a couple of tables and some chairs as quietly as possible from the dining room to the morning room which was about the only useful place where a dinner could be served. I can’t begin to think what Carran must have made of Lord Tremain’s household arrangements but we all hid in the kitchen when Shern was dispatched to show them their rooms.
Unfortunately, they had to pass the padlocked door of Tremain’s quarters which were the third along the corridor but noone asked her although both men stared.
The soldier and Ricco were tending the horses and he said he wanted to stay with them in the stables. Thank the sisters that I had cleaned them out and there was fresh hay and bedding to be had; Ricco volunteered to look after the soldier and organise some food for him to make sure he wouldn’t be wandering around and seeing things he shouldn’t be seeing by accident.
Which left me with the problem of how to get dressed for dinner.
I cautiously unlocked the door and Reyna and I slipped inside. I took a shirt from Tremain’s wardrobe and that wasn’t too bad but his jackets just didn’t fit me. The arms were way too long and I felt like a drowning rat and oppressed as well as though his shadow was squeezing the air out of my lungs.
We settled for a fresh shirt then, and Reyna did her best to scrub out my pants whilst I did what I could with my boots and shaved with Tremain’s gear, in his bathroom.
I combed my hair and looked at myself in the mirror. That’s as good as it’s gonna get tonight. I shook my head and let us both out again. I locked the door and we heard movements and spooked and ran as fast as we could down the stairs.
When my guests arrived, I was standing calmly by the fire place with a glass of wine and Shern was engaged in putting the food on the table. They had even found a table cloth somewhere and put an array of cutlery about that probably wasn’t at all in the right order.
I don’t know if Carran noticed this, probably he did, but he made no sign or comment and we ate mostly in silence. His side kick tried to start up a conversation about the weather in Merina and such a few times but I wasn’t in the mood and Carran didn’t say anything at all. When we had finished up and Guenta came to clear away the dishes, this probably meaning that Shern was otherwise engaged and on more important duties, one might say, Carran dismissed the younger man.
Then, we were alone in the room. From beyond the closed doors came some noises, some subdued voices and footsteps.
The fire in the hearth crackled every so often. There was wood there but it wasn’t burning. One of the boys must have put it there to create the illusion of a normal fire.
Carran sat in silence for a long while before finally, he said, “Tell me about Lady Tremain.”
I refilled my wine glass slowly, turned sideways on in the chair and laid my knees across one of the arms, leaning against the other. This turned my face away from him and towards the fire. I didn’t want to look into his eyes, not now, not ever.
I took a slow drink, then leaned my head back and closed my eyes.
Tell him about Lady Tremain.
I found myself smile a little. Did he have, oh, say, a thousand years or so?
I noted that he moved from his chair and stood up. He walked across to the fire place and stood before it, holding out his hands towards the flames, with his back to me. He didn’t repeat the question, nor ask another in its place. He just stood there.
I didn’t know what to say, how to go on from here. I could say, what do you want to know, so I could lie more specifically. I could say, She is a great lady, very special, and let it go from there. I could say, she is upstairs, dying. I could say anything and ended up saying nothing at all.
So there was silence once more. Outside, the wind blew. The house was quiet, other than that. When he started to speak, low and rough his voice, he startled me.
“I was told in Pertineri that Lady Tremain had – recovered me. I do not remember anything. I do not remember her. I – wondered if she had – mentioned it.”
I thought about that and she had. We had talked about that day and him many times in the prison. We had wondered about his story and what he would be doing now. Where he was. If he was free. If he was mad. I still did not know what to say to him. What would be for the best. I didn’t want to lie to this man. I didn’t want to have to.
When I thought that, he turned around slowly and looked at me. There was no expression in his face I could read or lay an emotion to, but there was something that unlocked my mouth and my tongue, and I said, “Yes. She did mention it.”
He closed his eyes and drew in a breath through his nose. Turned back to the fire and it was some time before he asked the next question.
“Who sent her?”
I startled and sat up straighter. “Who sent her?”
“Yes,” he said, with intensity. “Who sent her? Tremain? Only Trant knew where I was kept. Only Trant knew it and Thelein. The keepers didn’t know who I was, no-one else did.”
Slowly, I began to understand his reasoning. He thought that Isca or Tremain or both were in league with Trant, in his best confidence. I couldn’t help but shake my head in dismay.
“No-one sent her. It was an accident. She didn’t know who you were.”
“Is that what she told you?” he asked calmly but with an undertone that showed me clearly how deeply convinced he was that he had worked out the deep, dark truth in the matter.
I held his stare this time and said, “No. I was there.” When he didn’t seem to understand what I meant by that, I added, “I was there when she found you and restored you. We didn’t know who you were.”
His eyes widened and he took a moment to control himself. “Where did you – she – find me?”
I sighed and said, “At Pertineri Market. She saw you and she was appalled at your injuries. She made me buy you for her and then restored - healed you.”
He looked at me with intense attention but still didn’t show that he understood or believed me. So I continued. “I thought you were dead. I asked her to leave it be but she would not. She ordered me to buy you and then we took you to the Lady Delessa’s house because Lady Isca wanted someone reliable to take care of you upon waking. She thought you were a slave and left some money with Lady Delessa so you could buy clothes and go where you needed to.”
“You are seriously trying to tell me it was nothing but a coincidence? A fortuitous accident? Am I to believe that Trant ordered me to be put up for public sale? Do you take me for a fool?”
I shook my head and said gently, “Look, Carran, believe what you must. You were not on public sale. You were on the fire cart, buried beneath half a dozen corpses.” Damn, but I was back there. I could see it, smell it. I could feel her freeze by my side, her horror touching me and making me really see those slaves, perhaps for the first time ever. I took a swift drink to clear the stench from my mouth and nose.
Carran of Solland shook his head too, small, helpless movements. He reached up to the mantelpiece as if to steady himself. Roughly, he said, “On the fire cart.”
I saw no reason to repeat it again so I said nothing.
“Why? Why did she choose me? Why? Why bring me back? Why didn’t she just let me die?”
I sighed deeply and wished deeply I was elsewhere. I should not be having this conversation. I can’t help this man. He can stand there all night and ask me why and in the end, only the creator can know the answers. I don’t know the why’s of anything, I’m the last man in all the kingdoms to ask anything. But he is desperate and I feel deeply sorry for him and so I answer him with what she said to me.
“I asked her that question too and, to be truthful, you were so far gone I thought it would be a kindness to just put you out of your misery. But she said, no Chay, he’s holding on. He wants to live. He doesn’t want to die.”
He turned away sharply at that and now leaned over the fire place supporting himself with both hands, hanging his head.
“It can’t have been just an accident,” he said so quietly that I hardly heard him but I guess he wasn’t speaking to me.
I don’t know about that, either. Perhaps it was the creator taking a direct hand in affairs, like she had said to me, when she said that the creator had brought me to her house that night. Perhaps it was important to his plans that Carran should live. Perhaps the only reason I ever met her was that when we went into Pertineri that day I would make her go to the slave market so she would see Carran and restore him.
Perhaps we all lived just for him alone. I shook my head and laughed a little at myself. It was madness, that’s what it was. The creator sat there somewhere and laughed at us all. He would play his little games, just now and then showing us that he was still there, still planning everything, still in charge.
Carran straightened and turned to me. “I want to see her,” he said with conviction and I don’t know why, I swung my legs round, got up, put the glass down and said, “Follow me.”
Silently, we went up the stairs and I unlocked the door to their room.
I opened it and set two fires, either side of the bed. His startled response was short cut by a sharp intake of breath when he saw the man and the woman, side by side, under that red and gold tapestry cover.
I stepped inside the room. It was so cold. It shouldn’t be that cold. I set a fire in the hearth and the two swords came to life in response. I turned to see Carran stand and stare, frozen still in the doorway.
“Close the door,” I said to him and he blinked and returned to himself. He obeyed my instruction and then hesitantly, came a little closer to the bed.
I went to her and touched her forehead with a fingertip, then couldn’t help but stroke her cold cheek. She was nearly there. There wasn’t much time left for her. Softly as if not to disturb her, I said, “This is Lady Isca.”
“Are they – dead?” Carran said in a whisper back and came a little closer still. I didn’t like him looking at her. I shouldn’t have brought him here. He had his own hell but that didn’t give him the right to share in theirs, in ours.
Still, I answered him. “They will be, soon enough. We don’t know how to wake them.” With difficulty I took my eyes away from her and looked at Carran instead. He was looking at her with such seriousness, such awe.
“What happened?” he whispered and looked across to Tremain. He shook his head and sought and found my eyes as though they were a haven of sanity. But I had no re-assurance for him, no help. Tiredly, I said, “I don’t know what happened. She went into this state and he couldn’t wake her. In the end, I think he just joined her there. They can’t be without one another.” I heard myself say those last words and a sadness descended upon me that was truly unbearable. She could be without me, but she could never be without him. As he could not be without her, no matter what he might have thought, might have done.
Carran made the last step and knelt by the side of the bed.
“I would that I could do for her what she did for me,” he said quietly and I wasn’t so sure if was speaking in blessing or meant this to be a curse. I stood up and straightened out.
“Now you know,” I said to him and watched him rise. “Tonight was going to be the naming ceremony for their son. Would you be a witness to this?” As I said it, I wondered about what I was doing. Sure, the scribe was still here, asleep somewhere, and all the kids and the women might be abed by now. It seemed a stupid thing to do and yet, somehow, I wanted the boy to be named this night and I wanted Carran to be there and take part, perhaps as a representation of the noble folk to which this child did belong by rights and not us band of vagabonds, no-ones, that had by accident fallen into a role of care taking.
He looked at me with surprise but nodded immediately. “It would be an honour,” he said.
I led the way from the room, without a backward glance. I did not extinguish the lights nor the fire. The thought of leaving them in the dark was not something I could do. I locked the door with care and then went to knock on Reyna’s door to get her to assemble the children.
Guenta was still up, putting away the last of the dishes from our dinner, and the scribe was still in the kitchen with her, drinking my wine. They both started with great alarm when I walked in with Carran by my shoulder but I told her that he would join us and the ceremony would take place after all.
Carran surprised me. He acted not at all like a nobleman and actually helped bring in the tables from the morning room to the dining room that didn’t look quite so bad when small fires danced all around the walls. He showed a sincere interest in the baby when Shern brought him down, taking him from her and standing with the child in his arms whilst we ran all around him to get the room ready, bring the food, stools from the kitchen and the scribe set up his writing stand in front of the large fireplace.
I looked at him in passing numerous times and thought how incredibly different he was from Eddario. How much more of a High King, born and bred. And I couldn’t help but wonder who he had been before he went to hell. At one point he smiled at the baby and transformed. It lasted only for a flash before he was back in his dark self but I saw something there which would have made me follow this man into battle without a second glance.
With all that noise and activity, it was little wonder that Jesei appeared eventually, sticking his head around the corner of the upstairs banister and staring down at Carran with the baby in astonishment.
I walked over to Carran and said quietly, “Is he trustworthy?”
Carran looked up from the baby which was holding on to one of his fingers with a tightly clenched fist and said, “No. He will talk anytime, anywhere.” Louder, and addressing himself to Jesei, he said with authority, “Return to your room. I will see you in the morning.”
There was no doubt and no room for argument. The man’s face at the banister fell visibly but he retreated immediately.
“Thank you,” I said.
He did not respond and then Guenta came cautiously closer and said, “We’re ready.”
Carran turned and held out the baby to me. I took him automatically and drew him close to me, getting a fierce struggle and sounds of protest in return.
I walked into the dining room.