In Serein

3-8-5 Travels With The Witch

Carran of Solland speaks.

I am entirely aware that I misused the Lady Tremain for an anchor and a focus to keep my mind. I have done so ever since I awoke in that harlot’s house and I was entirely healed, entirely whole and there was not a single scar on my body to substantiate my claim of suffering and torture.

Sometimes I wondered if I had dreamed everything, one long nightmare broken into flashes that lasted or seemed to last every eternity there could ever be.

How could any of it be real?

I was told she brought me and healed me.

I was given money so I might buy myself a horse to return to my place of origin.

I was given food and friendliness.

I was convinced she was Trant’s handmaiden. How else could she have known where to find me?

Later, when I went to the palace, unquestioned and un-recognised, across the extreme destruction of the perimeter walls and the semi-ruins of the palace itself, in the garrisons of the guards where I walked as though I belonged there and in the mess halls where I pretended to drink and find the information that I needed to orientate myself, I heard such stories about her.

Such stories. And they had to be stories, for what women can bed a hundred men in a dungeon, whip them into a revolt that shook the palace down, lie with the Lord of Darkness himself? And again and again I heard stories that she wore out the old Duke of Solland with her passions so he had a heart attack and just dropped dead.

I walked about and sometimes slept in abandoned cots in soldier’s barracks. I tried to come to some understanding of who I was and why I was still alive. I thought about killing myself and then found I could not. Not before I had seen this woman for myself, questioned her as to her relationship with Trant, why she went back on her deals with him. And whether it was true that she had killed my father.

Then the Lords came back from Manoranta and I watched my little bastard half brother ride in with his wife to be. I watched them from amongst a cheering throng and I knew he was afraid. But you had to know Eddary well enough to understand that.

He was crowned High King and I only thought for a short time to seek to speak with him before the event and his marriage. I decided against it. It would have served no purpose.

I waited quietly for another three days, then gave the name of his old headman when we first trained together in the camps to gain an audience.

He couldn’t believe it when he saw me and then he hugged me and he cried.

He took me to his private rooms and at first we found it hard to speak. But then he told me many things, and a new version of events as to our father’s last few days emerged. Eddario said a hundred times if he said it once that Conna was convinced that I was dead, although he needed to apologise to me and make it clear that it was not his fault that he had been there and held our father’s hand and heard his dying words.

He was ready to hand me everything, the crown, Solland, the titles, everything bar the young girl he had married. She was shy but beautiful and those two were made for one another.

Until she became sick.

And Eddario said that the Lady Tremain must be brought at once.

I took the chance immediately and volunteered to seek out the Lord of Darkness on his behalf.

And so I came here and met these strange people and now I’m standing in the hallway and Lord Tremain’s wife and Sir Catena’s lover is slowly descending the stairs, her impossible eyes on mine and the feeling that she is drinking my soul.

I cannot look at her and not wonder what it is about her that has Catena in such devotion and that caused my father to risk his life and that of all his men and his last surviving son on her say so.

She’s young, much younger than I had imagined. Why, she can’t be two tenyears yet, if that. She is pale but that is explained by her long illness and the birth of her child. Her hair is artfully arranged and she is wearing a dress that could be a Solland uniform for females.

Is she having a joke at my father’s expense?

She halts on the stairs, about three from the bottom and says softly yet very clearly, “I would never joke at your father’s expense. He was the most extraordinary of men. He saved my life and I hold him in the highest regard, as well as in eternal gratitude.”

I would like to but I cannot not believe her.

“What is your name?” she asks softly and nods before I even speak.

“Carran. He talked about you,” she says and sighs, then steps down and stands in front of me, looking up, searching me. I know that look. I’ve had it all my life. People try to find my father in my face and they are disappointed in general.

She smiles and says, “Carran, I am not disappointed. You are you. And you have some of him. Don’t try to compete. Neither of you could win.”

I shake my head involuntarily. She reads my thoughts again.

“Yes, Carran, I do. So be careful what you think about!” she says and laughs, makes a strange gesture in the air to the side of me and walks away, towards the room where they serve food here. I remember why I came as I stare at her stepping lightly and confidently, disappearing through the doorway. I must make haste and inform her of Queen Camaruna’s plight. Too much time has already been lost.

I start to walk towards the room as well when I hear the clattering of rapid footsteps on the stairs. Jesei is still buttoning his neck and looks around nervously.

I cannot begin to imagine what tales he will add to the already overflowing repertoire of Lady Tremain stories.

We enter the room and find Lady Tremain standing quietly, her hands folded before her, watching the two strange serving women, the pretty one and the skinny little one, laying out the last of the food.

Before they are hardly done, she moves forward and takes a long, slender bottle and pours herself some wine. Wine with a morning meal. She closes her eyes and drinks the whole glass in three greedy gulps, then pours herself another. Halfway through that one her eyes raise and meet mine and she stops and carefully places the glass back on the table, leaving it with a lingering, stroking touch of her long fingers.

The door opens behind us and I turn to see Catena walking into the room. The man seems to dislike jackets and proper attire, all I have ever seen him in is a shirt that doesn’t quite seem to have been made for him.

Lady Tremain moves towards him, swiftly, and they meet in the middle of the room. He takes both her hands in his and I expect him to kiss them but she intercepts him and they kiss deeply, passionately, in full view of myself and Jesei, as though we weren’t here at all.

I cannot believe what I am seeing here. This woman is the wife of the so called Lord of Darkness? I grew up with tales of him, stories to make your blood run cold. I saw him assassinated upstairs and re-surrected. An old man. I saw Catena trying to protect him, I saw them talking, I was there when Catena gave him a mercy death, intimate they were, more than allies. How can this be, how can Catena be standing there with her and I’m just waiting for him to raise her skirts and take her, right here in front of us?

I shake my head and turn away, turn towards the table with the food and the wine, sit down in a chair that faces with its back to them and pour myself a glass. This house, these people, I had not known anything like this and so I might as well lay convention aside and join this madness and drink Tremain’s extraordinary wine with my morning meal.

Jesei comes and crouches by the side of my chair. He is as much at a loss as I am with the situation; who is going to believe his tales though they were absolutely true this time?

From the corner of my eye, I see her blue shape approaching. When she passes by me and takes a seat in the left chair, I see that she is flushed, her lips are moist and she is breathing deeply. Catena soon arrives and takes up station leaning on the back of her chair. She throws her head right back to look at him and they exchange another lover’s smile.

In the meantime, my brother’s wife lies dying, crying out in agony as she was, writhing against a pain that no-one knew how to alleviate. Whilst these …

“Hush now, Carran,” she speaks into my thoughts, her voice darker and rougher than it had been when we met in the hall. “I know your errant and I will accompany you to Pertineri after the morning meal. All will be well.”

“I’m coming too,” Catena said, forcefully but she looked up at him again and shook her head.

“I won’t be gone for more than a day at the most, my love,” she says gently. “I need you to stay here and guard Lucian.”

Catena struggles with this but finally sighs and comes forward, kneels by the side of her chair, picks up her hand and kisses it deeply. He will, of course, do as he is told. I have to shake my head again. She won’t be gone for more than a day? Why it’s at least a five day ride to Pertineri, and that is not accounting for a carriage for the lady.

Catena turns to look at me and smiles. “Don’t worry about that, Sir Carran,” he says. “There’s no need to ride anywhere. You go by magic.”

Damn the creator, but does everyone in this unnatural abode just read my thoughts as though they were stamped in ink on my forehead, plain for all to see?

Both the lady and Catena look at me with wide eyes and at the same time, begin to speak, they stop, start to speak again and then they both laugh. She makes a precedence wave to him and he finally says to me, still grinning, “We apologise, Sir Carran. It is not often that we have visitors who are not – familiar with our forms of communication. We will retain our distance unless invited.”

I don’t answer for what can I say? If I trust them or not, how can I stop thinking? Catena gets up and gets two plates of food, one for him and one for her, and sits on the arm of her chair whilst they both eat, exchanging glances every so often and grinning and giggling at each other.

Jesei too gets some food and finally, I join in the morning meal ritual. It serves to establish something in the way of standards and normality, though nowhere near enough to help me with this strange feeling of being entirely out of control again, of being entirely at another’s mercy.

The Lady Tremain has no sooner cleared the last piece of bread from her plate and drank the last drop of wine from her glass and she rises, stretches and smiles at me.

“As soon as you’re ready, Carran,” she says and I flinch at the informality of her address. Does she think that bedding my father gave her the right to talk to me that way?

“Hmmm…” she says and steps a little closer, looks down at me.

“Do you know,” she says very softly and I have to stop avoiding her eyes. “Do you know, I might make a claim on you. I bought you in Pertineri Market.”

I can’t help but stare at her, utterly disconcerted and flushing hot. I truly can not believe she said that to me.

She doesn’t smile, just puts her head a little to one side then turns her back on me and slides into yet another embrace of Catena who is willing and ready.

I find that I am not breathing and when I move to replace my plate onto the table, my hands are shaking. I try to control it but find that I cannot and Jesei is watching me, mouth open.

“Get your stuff,” I snap at him and he starts and immediately jumps from his chair, flees from the room. I get up more slowly but there is no instruction or guidance as to what is to take place available from that woman. She is too busy with her lover.

I shake my head and leave the room, leave the door open. In the hallway, two children, boys both, freeze as they see me and stand and stare. I remember them as those who gifted Tremain’s child, if indeed that boy was Tremain’s child, blond and fair as he was, with a sword and an eternal flame. One of them reminds me of my own son. No, he wasn’t like my son. This one here with the brown hair is so much thinner, more serious, straighter, finer hair, different face, my son’s eyes were blue grey and this one here has eyes that are a most peculiar colour, a strange blue, near violet. It is a totally different child, another man’s child. I nod to the boys and they both nod back, very seriously and very un-childlike and I have to get out of this insanity, out of this house of grey stone and madness, I open the heavy doors and walk out and it takes a moment before I can breathe properly, the air is wet and cold and it is windy today. Grey skies. But it is a relief to stand here.

The soldier who escorted us comes running and salutes me. I know he wants his orders, whether he is to get the horses ready, but I don’t know. I haven’t had mine yet. We will go to Pertineri by magic and it will only take a single day. I tell him to stand by and dismiss him, then I turn my back on that damned house and look over Tremain’s property, lost and unkempt it is, speaking clearly of an entire absence of regard or effort on anyone’s behalf to maintain it even. Those trees that line the drive cannot have been trimmed in twenty years or more. The grass cannot have been cut in ten. Weeds are on the drive, in some places have taken over the drive and it is impossible to guess the original outline below.

I hear the door behind me and glance across my shoulder to see Jesei with both our bundles and my cloak across his arm.

He comes to stand by me, offers the cloak, wants to make conversation but I cannot talk, nor do I want to. He is a good enough young man, of a sort, eager and keen to be liked and willing to do what it takes to fulfill his assignments, but I can’t talk to those like him. There is something between me and them that cannot be breached, cannot be stepped across. Eddario, that was different. We were not on the same side exactly but there was an unspoken understanding that allowed us to float words on the back of it. I finally take the cloak from Jesei and put it around my shoulders, turning so that the wind will aid me in this endeavour which seems a burden on this day.

Then the door opens again and the woman appears, hand in hand with her lover. Behind her is a crowd of faces, all the children and servants are there too, and I am no longer sure that there are servants at all in this house or who or what these people are.

She steps off the threshold stone but her hand is still in Catena’s and she lifts her head for a final kiss. He bends to touch her lips then uses both hands around her head and kisses her deeply. Jesei twitches by my side and I avert my eyes and then turn away completely so I face the driveway again.

Not long later, I can hear her steps on the gravel and she stands beside me, an absolute presence, the wet wind teasing at her hair, dislodging fine strands, here and there.

“Call your soldier, Sir Carran,” she says to the roadway and the horizon. “You can leave your horses.”

I nod to Jesei and he takes a few steps, then shouts for Nennet, who comes running at the double.

She turns to me and says, “We will all need to hold hands.”

I find myself very uncertain of all of this again but I don’t show it and when Jesei and Nennet have arrived, I order them to hold hands with each other which they obey, surprised but without question. I take Jesei’s hand with some difficulty as he is carrying our bundles under his arm, the Lady Tremain smiles at Nennet and picks up his free hand which is hanging limply by his side and his mouth is open in shock, then she holds out her other hand, bearing a great diamond in an old setting, to me.

I have to will myself to touch her and wished I was wearing my gloves but force myself to allow my hand to make contact with hers. It is cool, extremely soft and a small tingle spreads up my arm and into my spine immediately and I try to let go but she is holding on with surprising strength.

Into my head, she says, It will only last for a minute at the most. Hold on, and there is the most peculiar sensation of rushing, cold and hot, and a strange sound before I open my eyes and find myself in the Abbey at Pertineri and Nennet is screaming, his voice echoing and amplified in the circular empty space.

She slides her hand from my tight grip and makes a small movement towards Nennet who falls silent immediately.

Here, the sun is shining brightly, midmorning sun, bathing the Abbey in multicoloured lights. I have only been here once, when I was a young man, for the naming ceremony of one of Selter’s last children. It was at night and I remember wondering what this building would look like when the sun shone through those strange round windows.

Now I know.

The Lady Isca looks as though she is listening to something, then, before I know it, she has reached for my hand again and this time there is a tearing, freezing pain and we are immediately surrounded by an unpleasant smell of medicines and in the midst of many people who cry and back away from us.

She has taken us straight into the queen’s bedroom.

I stand and try and work out what part of me is damaged and find nothing to account for the pain I just experienced and she is moving swiftly around the bed, sweeps her night blue cloak and sits down by the side of the queen, who looks like a corpse with palest lips and darkest bruises beneath her eyes.

I watch the young woman pull a large dark object – what is that, a stone or something? – from her cleavage and hold it in both hands, and it occurs to me that only a day ago she was a corpse herself. This magic is unnatural. What kind of thing is this? It is not of this world, it is not right. She had no right to do this to me what she is doing without permission to Eddary’s wife, it seems to me as though she walks against the creator with her will and her unholiness that masks as healing and as kindness.

I don’t know if it is my thoughts that cause me to shiver or if the temperature in the room is really falling, yet all the women and the medics are backing away, further and further to the edges of the large white room with the golden furniture and soft pink drapes and coverings.

I keep my eyes on the queen and it is as though her colour changes, no, her colour is changing. The dark circles under her eyes are fading away and her lips are blushing soft shell pink. She breathes deeply and just moments later, her lids flutter and she opens her eyes, looks up at the witch with her stone and smiles at her.

She tries to speak but the witch holds a slim finger to her lips. I hear her say, most softly, “It’s alright, Camu. All is well. I’m just sorry I couldn’t be here sooner.”

The queen moves her hand and the witch puts down the stone and holds it in both of hers, raises it to her lips and kisses it. They smile at each other and I am reminded of her and Catena. I shake my head. This witch has everyone under her spell. If Eddario was to come in and smile at her like that as well, I would seriously begin to be afraid for the kingdoms.

“Rest now, Camu dearest,” she says and puts the queen’s hand down, pulls at the blanket. “I’ll leave you the stone for a while. Sleep. All is well.” Obediently, the enchanted queen closes her eyes with a smile and a deep sigh, turns over and curls up under the sheet and soon, is obviously deeply asleep.

The witch strokes her hair lightly, once, with the back of her fingers and gets up. Everyone in the room moves back even further but she doesn’t seem to notice and comes straight at me.

“You and I, Carran,” she says sincerely and not at all friendly, “you and I will have to talk.”

Before I can do anything about it, she has touched me on the upper arm, and I have the rushing dark feeling again and stumble as I find myself out in the open, the creator alone knows where, under a stormy sky and with deep, soft grass underfoot, in the ruins of an old castle on a hilltop.