In Serein

3-8-2 The Gifts

The room was large, even with all the children, the big table in the middle, there was enough room for a hundred people more. Carran stayed by my side and assumed a position of attention. I nodded to the scribe who cleared his throat and began with the ritual.

When it came to the part where he called for the child’s father, I stepped forward and said I stood in his place. When it came to the part where called for the child’s mother, I stepped forward again and said I stood in her place. When it came to the part where he called for the child’s champion, I stepped forward once more and said it was me, and gave my name for the third time. The scribe was just about to start with something else when Carran stepped forward and said he was the child’s second champion and gave his full name.

We placed the child on the table and the scribe asked for the name to be spoken.

I said it and looked down in embarrassment when Carran shot me a swift glance of surprise.

The scribe cleared his throat again before pronouncing the child’s name, too. I guess not too many babies these days get to be named Sondra.

He then called for the witnesses and Guenta and Shern came forward, scared and excited both at this honour that would have their names inscribed on a scroll.

The scribe declared the name to have been given and he would write it down so it would be official. Customarily, now everyone would pass by the child and give a gift, money or something valuable, only we didn’t have anything to give, so it had been decided that each one of us would give him an imaginary gift, something special that each one would give if they had it within their power to do so.

As planned, Vona went first, being the youngest. She stepped up to the baby who was getting tired of lying on the hard table all by himself and told him she was giving him a golden horse that would be so fast it would seem that it had wings.

We nodded and she gave the baby a quick kiss on the forehead, then ran back to the safety of the group, smiling excitedly as she did.

Taray gave him a magical sword to slay monsters with, Jilean gave him light so he would never be in the dark, Ricco blushed furiously and in the end said that he would give the child a brother who would stand by him, always.

Reyna looked at the child for a long time before finally saying that she wished him a field of stars, Shern who was nothing if not practical gave him an unbreachable castle set in fertile lands, and then Guenta blew everyone away by saying that she would give him the gift of being as strong and wonderful as his father.

That created a silence that lasted for an uncomfortable time and during which I noticed that Cyno hadn’t taken his turn yet. I called him up gently and he came forward, out of sequence as he always was, and he wished the child in a very quiet voice that he should be as magical as his mother.

I was about to step forward for my gift when Carran beat me to it and surprised me yet again. He had declared himself a champion and that was already an enormous honour for us, but I had not expected him to actually get involved in what I thought he must have found to be a very silly game played by a bunch of people so poor, they didn’t even have a copper coin to place at the child’s head as was the proper custom.

Yet there he was, in full dress, immaculate in blue and silver, regal and very seriously, he looked down on the child and he wished him that he should know his father’s love and admiration.

It silenced us all most profoundly for too many reasons all at once that he could have no conception of, but he made the blessing sign over the child and came back with measured steps to stand next to me again.

It was my turn and whatever I’d thought about saying yesterday evening in the kitchen was no longer anywhere in my head. Damn. I was going to be the only one who wouldn’t know what to say or say something idiotic and stupid. I wished I wasn’t the last one to speak here tonight as I made my way over to the table.

The child was near crying now, moving around hard and fast, kicking his fat little legs and fists flailing. I stared at him and didn’t know what to say. Sisters, help me out. I need to say something, something good, something important, something that’s just right. And there is nothing in my mind. I’m completely blank and I can feel that I’m starting to sweat. The longer I stand here and say nothing the more profound they will expect what I will say to be, in the end.

As I look at him, look at his eyes that are so much more of his mother than they are ever of his father, I can hear her speaking about failure, and about having lost everything and somehow finding the courage to go on nonetheless. I don’t remember the exact words but I understand it more now than I ever did then, and so finally, I say, “I give you the courage to never be broken by your failures.”

There is deathly silence as I return, eyes down hard, to my place.

The baby starts to cry at last at the same time as the scribe declares that the naming is complete save for the making of the marks and Carran, I, Shern and Guenta go over to his desk where the parchment roll lies, filled with his neat and tidy writing and scrolly first letters to each sentence.

I am so pleased that I can write my name with a flourish and don’t have to make that scratchy twist anymore. I pass the quill to Carran who signs his name and then Shern and Guenta do their scratches, carefully and white knuckled lest they should blot the parchment, whilst young Sondra of Tremain is screaming in all seriousness now in the background.

The scribe nods to us and we turn to each other, all four of us, and exchange a smile before Shern rushes off to collect the baby and appease him with her nipple. Guenta goes to start serving out the food and I and Carran go to get some more wine.

At first, the children huddle together away from the strange knight but as we eat and talk and laugh they relax around him and so do I.

I like him. At one point, I say to him, “You must think this is a very sorry affair for the son of a lord,” and he looked at me and replied in all seriousness, “I have been at a number of namings but this has been the most impressive by far. If any child can be blessed, this one has been this night.”

Sometime later, Guenta sings and claps and Ricco and Reyna have a little try at dancing, Vona dances anyway even when there’s no-one singing, and then the scribe, by then considerably worse for the wine he’s had, joins in as well.

I sit in a corner with Carran and tell him some of the things I’ve heard about, he asks questions and I even ask him how he feels about Eddario being the High King.

He shrugs and says, “Rather him than me. I have no taste for politics. I’m a soldier. I’ve always known I had to rule Solland one day and never liked it much, but it was as it was. Niccosia begged me to take the Dukedom back at least. I might, at that. It is no good to have an empty throne and in truth, he can’t rule both the kingdoms and Solland.”

I nod and ask him, “Did you know about Niccosia?”

He smiled and briefly raised his eyebrows. “Yes, of course,” he said. “One of my father’s many worst kept secrets. We served together as lieutenants for a time. He’s a good man, honest.”

Another bottle of wine later, and I can finally ask him about Camu.

He shrugs and falls serious. “She is seriously ill. She cannot eat. Niccosia told me that the head medic had told him there was very little chance the child would make it to another month, and that she will die as well.”

I remembered Eddario at Manoranta, worshipping the very air in a room our little Camu had been in.

“How’s he taking it?”

Carran sighs deeply. “Not well. If she dies, I don’t know what he’ll do.”

Everything is mellow by now, I’m sleepy and I just ask without thinking, “Do you have a wife? Children?”

Even with the wine, I can tell I shouldn’t have said that. Carran seems to fall inside himself and holds his head in his hands for a long time before he finally says, “I used to.”

Later on, when I’m in my own bed and the dark room spins around me in many colours, I can’t keep the thoughts and pictures from coming. About Carran, about what happened to his wife and his children. What Trant did to that family. Then I have to throw up.

I can’t sleep, I’m dog tired, I’m sick, but I can’t sleep. I drink water and roll around in the bed until I think I’m going crazy and in the end, I go to their room to be with my lady. This might be the night. This might be the night when she finally, really goes and there’s no-one there to bring her back.

I’m so damned tired. I sit on the bed beside her, find her hand and hold it, try to give it some warmth. I can’t keep my eyes open and find myself nodding off, drooping. Sometime later I notice that I’m lying half on top of her and next thing I know, it is morning and I’m lying between them both, turned towards her, with my arm over her stomach.

Oh sisters, stand by me!

The light is killing me, my head is killing me, my mouth is grating dry and disgusting, my stomach wants to leave through my bowels and I don’t think she’s breathing any more. For a moment I stare at her and can’t see properly and I fumble for her pulse and she’s not dead yet, not yet but it is so near, I can feel it through the pain in my head, I can see the shadows closing in on her.

I roll over Tremain and stumble forward, just open the door, start shouting to everyone.

This is our last chance. Come and do something. I don’t care what you do just do something. Magic, healing, calling her altogether in a group, what do I know. Cyno is there as if he appeared from the floorboards and then Carran in shirtsleeves and tumbled hair and Jesei right behind him. I don’t care anymore. I call for Reyna at the top of my voice and I’m dimly aware that Carran takes hold of my shoulders and pushes me back into the room, against the wall by the door, and I’m still screaming for Reyna, and then for Marani.

He hits me hard enough for my head to bounce hard off the spiky stones behind me and for a moment everything loses focus and he holds me up and shakes me.

His eyes are hazel.

Reyna comes into my field of vision and Guenta is there, too. I close my eyes and try to lean against the wall, try to think through the pain in my head. Far away, I hear Carran taking charge and Reyna speaking with him. I don’t know what they’re saying. It goes quiet and I force myself to look. Everyone is standing around the bed apart from Carran who is in front of me still, one hand up and ready to steady me or grab hold of me or hit me again.

I see the children, I see Reyna lean over my lady and I see Ricco, on the far side of the bed, on Tremain’s side and I see the knife, a big, straight knife, and I try to shout and throw myself forward but Carran catches me, holds me and I scream, no, Ricco no! and the girls start screaming and Carran sees what’s happening and lets me go but by the time I get there he has pushed the knife up to the hilt with everything he’s got into Tremain’s stomach, through the tapestry, pushes it in deeper and twists it around and I grab him and hit him and he’s out cold and when I look at Tremain, its just in time to see him open his eyes with a gasp.

His body tenses rigid like a bow under the cover and he opens his mouth to draw in a convulsive breath. The knife is stuck right in his stomach, just the black hilt coming up from the tapestry.

I stand and stare, hands outstretched, and Guenta comes running and I shout at her, "Don’t touch him, don’t you touch him, none of you touch him!" He hears me and focuses on me and there’s his touch inside my head, this alien old presence that he is, dusty, everywhere:

Catena. Kill me.

I shake my head before I know what to do and I say out loud to him, “Tremain, she is dying. There is no time. Restore yourself, now. Come on man, we need you. She needs you.”

He convulses again, worse this time, and coughs. The pain from the knife wound transmits to me and I double over with it, have to find my balance by holding on to the bed with both hands.

His face is totally impassive as he brings with enormous effort a hand from under the cover and holds it up to me. It is trembling.

Guenta moves again and I turn round to her, furiously.

“Stay away damn you woman! You touch him and you’re dead.”

She shrinks back from me and takes a step back, then another, wringing her hands, but her eyes are for him alone. I turn back towards him and he’s still holding out his hand.

I go to him and our eyes lock. He is not sending anything, just holding out his hand.

It is true.

What good have I ever been to anyone.

I have always been and I will always be a nobody. I’m nothing. Nothing compared to him and even more nothing compared to her. My life is worth nothing. If he can use it to restore her, then this is more than I would ever amounted to in a hundred years.

Still, I am afraid. I wonder if it will hurt but then, I’ve seen him do it. It’s quick. Much quicker than Ty, crying and sobbing in my arms because he couldn’t stand the pain and the beat of the horse jarred him every heartbeat, more and more.

I take his hand then, cold it is and hard. Close my eyes and wait for it.

A tingling takes place in my hand and I’m afraid again. Creator, I’m sorry for everything. If you’re there, I’ve always tried to do my best. There is a sharp pain in my hand that shoots up my arm and then this red hot wave travels into all of me and I am totally disorientated before I get it that he is putting something into me rather than drawing it out.

Understand, Catena. You must kill me. Do it now before it is too late.

He releases my hand and convulses again, this time half sitting up with it and his legs dislodging the tapestry. Beneath it, the linen sheets are soaked in blood, so much blood that it is overflowing and sliding down the wooden bed frame and dripping to the floor.

When the spasm has ceased and he lies, eyes still open, still on me, I step forward, pull the knife from his stomach and he cries out in pain. I don’t know why I wipe it first on the pillow. I undo his shirt and bare his chest. Slowly, I find his ribs and lean the tip of the knife between two in the place where his heart is still beating strongly.

He holds his hand out again to me and I take it. There is an immediate contact but it is only an awareness there, a coiled waiting, a holding of breath. Gently, I slide the knife between his ribs and straight into his heart. His lids flicker and he closes his eyes, tightens his grip on me so much that my hand creaks under the strain, and then I can feel him going away. Swiftly, lightly. He just went and a shudder ran through my entire body.

The room is full of rapid breathing. But my eyes are on Isca. She is moving, random, tiny movements, her eyes are moving below her closed lids and then she takes a deep, gasping breath, then another. I leave Tremain and push my way through the onlookers to get around the bed to the other side. I push the tapestry back and reach for both her hands, holding them tightly, just in time for her to slowly open her eyes.

With the raising of the lids she is travelling up my arms, her being is there, I am holding her and it is really her, she is returning. Her unfocussed stare, slow blinking shifts in waves rising as does her energy that I am holding, feeling in every part of me and then her mind comes up like from the deepest depth, a sleeper awaking at long last and the very first thing is a whisper I understand from her.


Oh my lady, my lady.

Lucian? Oh Lucian, where are you?


Through that bond with her his absence is an unbearable darkness that descends, an indescribable brokenness and wrongness, a terrifying failure of proportions I cannot begin to understand. She is falling into the abyss and I cry to her to stop her, to halt her, to reach her.

I embrace her and steady her somewhere in that nowhere of wherever it is we are and hold her tight to me, give her some of that red fire he gave to me and she recognises it and it gets through to her, she holds on to me in return now and drinks the red from me until it is all gone, but she continues to draw from me and she takes other colours, orange, gold, white, and I give her all I am, take me, feed from me, live for me, my lady, have it all.