In Serein

3-9-6 Autumn Forests

Lucian Tremain speaks:

She was right. She was absolutely right. Strength through courage. Only, this is no courage, nor it is strength. I don’t know what it is, what that is when one is left broken and in pieces, utterly destroyed yet again, unable to make a difference, no matter how hard one might try, no matter what one might do, there’s nothing that can be done to to escape the next failure, the next punishment.

What I had was not courage. Never that. Just experience of suffering and so much failure that it truly didn’t matter anymore to add to it, it was so overwhelming already. It looked like courage from the outside, but I knew that it was no such thing. It was nothing. It was the faint reflexive spasms of a thing that had died long ago. When there is no more fear then there cannot be any courage, either.

The family motto should have been strength through failure. Or how about, strength through pain. Yes. That would have been far more appropriate. It was an interesting insight to note how Lord Sepheal’s training was in truth not at all different from that of my own father’s. I had stopped caring about either strength or courage a long time before I was carried into his tower that night. Those had both died a long time before that, perhaps during the riding lessons, the sword lessons, the leadership lessons, I don’t know. I don’t remember much of that, still I don’t, flashes here and there, but one thing I do remember now looking down at Catena right where I left him, curled up tight in a bundle of misery on this plane I constructed to pass on one of my father’s lessons.

I do remember that when I lay like that, no-one ever came and stood and wondered what to say to me. I do remember that my mother was absolutely forbidden to interfere with me in the slightest from when I was about two years old and I was not to play with my sister, lest it made me weak. Indeed, I was not to play. That was somewhat difficult to control and I gave my tutors the slip often enough, and I used to play in my head, where no-one could check on me.

But that was, indeed, a very long time ago. All of it is immaterial apart from its emergence in my dealings with Catena here, unexpected as it was, quite consuming and what still remains so astonishing is that at the time these old entrainments run, they seem natural, they seem the only possible choice. And they seem so right. Any argument can be found to support one's actions and have them be right and true.


Here he lies, bleeding still from all those imaginary wounds I inflicted on him with an imaginary practice sword. My own used to be quite real, treated by the quartermaster afterwards with a salt tincture and supervised carefully by the Lord Tremain himself, lest I should take a deep breath or cry out or suchlike demonstration of weakness in public.

I note again and with some consternation that I am resentful of this, of the fact that I had to go through this and that this man here did not; that when I lay in darkness and pain, unable to sleep and terrified of what the next day would bring, he would lie happily in perfect exhaustion, after a day’s running freely here and there, - ah, I remember. The soldiers loved me. They used to let me ride with them on short trips between the camp and the market, and one made me a wooden sword. I would go round all the mess halls and get fed anywhere and everyone would laugh and clap and give me coppers when I did a bit of parading and standing to attention. I knew all the dogs by name, all the women, all the secret entrances to all the store rooms and life was great.

I snapped out of it and looked down at him again. He wasn’t even aware I was here.

With a deep sigh, I cautiously squat by his side and touch his shoulder lightly.

“Chay,” I say to him and have to fight his name off my lips.

He shrugs away under my touch but brings his hands away from his head and looks at me. His face is swollen with my handprints marked out blood red. I shake my head.

What to say to him? What can I say to him? I look to some insight on the matter, anything, even a strategy from our lady of the swift and plentiful words. But nothing comes to me.

He turns his face away from me and wraps his arms around his shoulders.

I try and think of something. I can’t take him back like this, quite rightfully she would be accusing me of all manner of unpleasant things.

I sit down on the soft, velvety ground next to him and try and think of a way to – not apologise, for it was not my attention to dissolve him or even hurt him, but to – somehow educate him, to ...

I shake my head and sigh again. This is Serein. I can have anything here. I can be or do anything here. What can I give him to repair things, balance matters between us? A thought comes to me, unbidden and I shake it away, try to focus on my concerns for releasing old entrainments and finding a level where – Chay and I may relate as equals, with some clarity, and in mutual support for that is of course the task required of us; a task much harder in many ways than just living with pain, or failure. Those I am very familiar with; this here is a challenge I am very unsure as how to even begin to approach.

I breathe deeply and try to focus again, and once again, into my mind bounces that same unwanted memory of a fascinating toy that belonged to my sister. It was a six sided tube made from smooth wood and inside it, it had some kind of magic – mirrors, I must now presume – to create shapes of colours that changed endlessly when you turned the tube. I stole it and hid it beneath a loose brick in the base of the furthest of the perimeter towers. I rub my hand across my face and chide myself for such foolishness. What is it with these memories, you access one, and then there’s more, stuck together and dragging more and more along, well it is enough. Enough. Centuries have passed, centuries, in all the damnedest pits of hell. Focus, damn you. Think. And immediately, that damned toy is back in my mind, clear, so clear, so sharp and clear that you’d think ...

I stare down at my hand and I am holding it. It is here, manifest. I turn it in my hands, it is smaller, much smaller than I remember it to be but other than that, exactly right. Red brown wood. Small swirls engraved at the wider end, and a ring of shiny brass at the narrow end through which you look. Light and very well made. I stare at it, turn it, hear the small clicking sound, rustling sound the small pieces of glass inside it make as they fall into new positions and then I note that Cate – Chay has turned over and is looking at it, too.

“Here,” I say and hold it out to him.

He raises himself on an elbow, hesitates then takes it from me, looks at it.

“What is it?” he asks, uncertainly.

I sigh and note that I feel nauseous. “It is a toy,” I answer him and my voice is dry, cracked.

He glances up at me, swiftly, with his beaten face and shakes his head.

“Why are you giving me a toy?” he asks incredulously and continues to turn it in his hand, looking at it, looking through it from the wrong end, then the right end and he goes, “Oh!” as the bright symmetrical patterns I remember so well and can see in my own mind’s eye clearly as day become apparent to him for the first time.

He turns it and as they change, exclaims again and then turns to me with a radiant smile that freezes me from the inside out, “Hey that’s amazing!” Then he sees the look on my face and his smile dies, he looks down, embarrassed, unsure again.

I look down at my hands and find that I say, “No matter how many times one would turn it, one will never see the same shape twice.”

There is silence for a time, save for the rushing sounds as he tries my statement for himself. I concentrate on the wedding band and trace the lightning that plays inside it, trace her patterns there, dancing with such joy and lightness and refreshing, re-charging from within its own dance, now until forever.

I hear him say, “This is a wonderful thing. Thank you – Lucian.” He has trouble with that word, and I don’t hold it against him. I have trouble with that word too. It is designed to designate me but it designated my father too and I am not like him. It seems to me it is a generic designation which would lead me to the unfortunate conclusion that I didn’t have a name of my own at all.

The other seems worried about my lack of response and it prompts him to say, very hesitantly, “And thank you for kicking some sense into me. I’m sorry I’m such an idiot. I try and do better, I promise.”


No, this is all wrong. It was wrong then and it is wrong now. He should not be thanking me for that. He should hate me for it. Hate me for it and come after me when I sleep and slit my throat and walk away thinking that he had done exactly the right thing and proved me wrong, in deed and act and shown some true courage and intelligence, too.

I raise my head and find him looking at me, insecure and seeking to know just what he has to do to gain a modicum of my approval. This is Serein but still, at least I can make a gesture. I would heal all the injuries I have inflicted on you today, visible and invisible both, heal them now and heal them profoundly. As I think it, a silver bright light flows across him and he gives a quick gasp; it is only a flash but when it has passed, he is entirely restored and appears as perfect as he was when first we arrived here.

I get up and hold out my hand to him in invitation. He takes it and I pull him to the standing position. He is considerably shorter than me and the closer we are, the more apparent this becomes. But all of this is essentially meaningless. I retain my grip on his hand.

“Chay,” I say to him, pronouncing the word with great care, “we need to return and discuss our findings. These – games, past times, they are nothing but a distraction. I think that all of us prefer to play these games rather than to look at what we learned yesterday, and try and come to terms with it, and try and decide on some forward movement from here. Isca is waiting for us and quite impatient by now, if I know her at all. I would – that we should both ignore these outbursts and concentrate on what is really important. What do you say?”

He looks at me most seriously and nods as I speak. “Yes, Lucian,” he says meekly and it doesn’t become him but I do not comment on it and say, “Let us return then,” shake his hand hard, twice, then let him go. He steps back and puts both hands on the toy, wondering if it will go back with us. I don’t know but enfold us both and take us back, and when we arrive in the garden, he is still holding it and it looks entirely real to all intents and purposes; only if one was to ascertain its nature on a different level does it have some very unusual properties that did not quite make sense.

Isca looks from him to me and back again and relaxes when she notices our relative alignment. Chay goes and shows her the toy. She too is absolutely delighted in a true and pure Isca way, perhaps more so than he was for she is most fond of pretty colours. They laugh together and I tell them that I will take a brief ride up the lane, that I wish for some movement after the long confinement and I will re-join them after Chay has taken his morning meal.

She isn’t entirely happy with it, wanting us all three together and to start discussing, talking, arguing, merging and all of that, but she is respectful of me and my needs to an exquisite degree this day and does not seek to delay or dissuade me. I set a call for a black which will be delivered by the time I have walked through the garden and house.

I turn and walk away, stretching my stride. I glance up at the sky. The perfect morning is coming to an end, castle clouds coming in, brilliant white and steadily growing and the wind is becoming more urgent now, touching with an edge of coldness.

I walk past the various dilapidated garden ornaments and the ponds and wonder if I should do something about that at last but it is only a fleeting thought. Someone has sought to clear up the kitchen garden and removed the deep weeds from the terrace outside the dining room; some very rough repairs have been attempted to the broken windows and the doors with their rotten woodwork. I cannot remember ever even having seen the house from this angle as I walk onto the flagstone path that leads to the kitchen door.

Halfway to reaching for the door and opening it, I change my mind and walk around the house instead, around the tower and call the horse without seeking any further dress or preparation. It dances through the doorway in a state of stress and the remnant memories of many brown hands frantically throwing on the tack and I don’t know why but it makes me smile. I steady the black and pat its neck, get into the saddle and seconds later, I am off, speeding through the avenue of trees that are losing their leaves by the millions, fast wind and tight rushing, and a sense of tremendous relief and momentary freedom.

At the bottom of the drive, I turn the horse to the right without a second thought and drive up and out into the old road, a direction I have not taken for so many years I don’t know how many years it has been since Jaralea fell into ruin and there simply was no longer a reason to go there any longer. One of the benefits of Tower Keep to me had always been the fact that there was virtually no traffic on that old trade road, when once it had been busy, bustling and supporting many villages along its run into Jaralea main, the forest kingdom then. Now it was yet another forgotten corner of Solland, much like the Tremain estates up to the North East, just an area on a map, bordered by the Southern ranges as it was, Merina to the East, Solland to the North and the great lakes to the West.

I powered the black through the scrublands that began already to turn to forest, patches of it here and there, denser and older patches and then the road rises as it closes in on the footlands of the Southern range, and there in truth is really no road now for the deciduous trees have shed most their burdens and all is covered in autumn leaves, deep and moist enough to make no sound beyond a rushing beneath the horse’s flying hooves. The leaves cover the ground as snow would, covering the sweeps and rises by the side of the road which is much like a shallow riverbed, trampled down through millennia of passing feet and rolling wagons and although the wagons roll no more, have not rolled for two hundred years or more, the road remains and winds amidst the light forest here, not dense but fresh and open, without undergrowth beyond some shallow things that are now covered under leaves as well, just like they will be covered when the first snows will arrive.

The black is beginning to dig into reserves and sweat is thick and white on his neck, on his legs. The ground is rising still and it begins to come to my awareness that I am already an hour away from Tower Keep, that I am in no mood at all to even slow in the slightest and that Chay will now have finished both his morning meal and making love to her who used to be my wife and that they both might wonder where or why I’d gone.

Wonder if you will, wonder if I will. The forest is still and only the highest branches tell of the winds above, leaves are fluttering here and there, and the rhythmic snorts and jolts of the black are soothing and tranquil. I leave up marginally to conserve his strength and get a kind of sullen gratitude in return, in fact I know full well that it is not a question here of much difference in speed but rather that the slight decline will make the horse go twice as far, with ease and without effort.

On a rising ledge, startled forest creatures turn and flee from our approach, small wild deer that lives here, sometimes poached upon by men from the village when the need is high, tough and difficult to catch they are, and not the kind of sleek and subtly cared for and protected creatures that my father raised to hunt for sport.

As I ride on, alone in this autumn forest, out of the sun and out of the wind, semi-shadowed and in gentle silence, I can feel myself relax, fractionally at first, then more profoundly and more deeply still with every forward strike the black is taking, every stride away from Tower Keep, every stride a little further from them both and the thought of duty and return, all of that fading as the distance increases and I ride on west.

I ride on and let my mind drift where it will, and it drifts into one of Chay’s memories. When it happens, for a moment my riding position changes and that is like a pain all across me in an instance and it snaps me back to full awareness and a tightening grip that briefly falters the horse’s even strides.

I say it’s like a pain but that is not correct. Shifting my riding position IS pain. It is pain remembered from the riding master who held three things in his gloved hands as he stood in the centre of a circle, prescribed by the long reins on the horse upon which I sat. He held the long reins, of course. He held a whip for the horse and another for me, and he would use it to remind the body parts that were not in the right  position of their mistakes. The thought makes me smile and I find a memory from Chay deliberately, a fast ride memory, a dispatch mission. I ease myself into it, my body easing into his remembered postures and as soon as it happens, the pain comes again and throws me clear off the memory. The black is flicking his ears at me nervously and I consider that it must be disconcerting to change riders yet no rider has been changed; I admonish it to keep its stride and forward attention and I try again, getting a little further each time until eventually, there is a breach and I become him, different balance, different posture, so much looser, so much less control, untidy all over and yet this is exciting, slightly dangerous and seems so much faster, so much more at the mercy of the rushing ground and horse beneath me, a most startlingly novel experience all around that keeps me riveted and deeply lost within it, right until before me, a figure rises unexpectedly, waving hands and throwing me back to myself and shying the black into a half rear and a spin.

I turn the black into a tight circle and steady him.

A woman in reasonable dress and wearing a long blue travelling cloak with a hood is standing in the forest leaves, looking wide eyed and fearful towards me, gloved hands pulling on a lace handkerchief.

I am a little disconcerted by this intrusion and not a little surprised and caught off guard. I don’t get flagged down by women on the highway as a matter of course; indeed it would be truthful to say that I cannot recall such an incident in consciousness. I halt the black and look down towards her. She is fairly young, plain but not unattractive, brown hair scraped tight into a simple knot.

“Sir,” she addresses me nervously and quite loud to get above the snorting, blowing black, “I apologise profoundly ...”

She glances over her shoulder and I see the cause of her presence. The roadway turns an arc here to avoid an outcrop of rock rising steeply and just beyond her, a slithering leaf free trail of loam revealed points out the fate of an upturned carriage beyond the embankment, just the tops of the wheels visible from where I sit on the horse.

I nudge the black towards the verge and look down. The horse that pulled the carriage must have broken its neck in the process, or was dispatched soon after; either way, it lies motionless half across the broken shafts, legs sticking out stiffly. By the side of the carriage sits an elderly man, presumably the driver, holding his arm and with blood from a head wound dark black on his shoulder. I can see a movement beyond the carriage and ascertain there are two further persons; a young boy and another woman, hiding on the far side.

I turn in the saddle and I can feel a strange joy beginning to come to me. The woman is still standing, fearful of me yet in hope that I might provide rescue and safety, wondering who I might be, no weapons nor formal travelling dress yet blatantly not a highwayman and in possession of a superb horse with expensive tack.

There was a time when I sought such amusements. When I used to ride forth, dressed plainly and visit markets and out of the way places where my face and name were quite unknown, for various forms of sport and entertainment. I shake my head minutely for it is a mystery to me quite how and when that stopped, or simply faded away to the degree that I just did not think to do that anymore.

The potentiality of the situation is excruciatingly delightful. She does not know who I am, and even if I was to tell her, she probably wouldn’t believe me. Time is a fascinating thing indeed and it can and does cover up a multitude of crimes, even mine. I could rescue her. I could do some magic for her, revive the horse. I could take her in a thousand different ways or let her go untouched. I have to breathe deeply and close my eyes for a moment. Such choice. All of it mine, at least until I have made my choice, taken my pick and decided on one particular course of action.

I feel a profound urge to spur the horse and just ride on, leaving her to find her own way. Eventually, she must get weary of sitting here by a road that no-one ever seeks to travel and she will pass on her weary way past Tower Keep and stumble into that dirty little village. A few hours walk, even at a slow pace, that is all.

She is most uncertain by my lack of conversation and steps towards me, wondering if I had heard her plea, wondering if I spoke the language of the kingdoms and I ease in on her to find out what she is doing on this road. When I do, smile and grimace do battle for my facial control and I turn swiftly and take my time dismounting, bringing the reins over the black’s head and moving him away from the ledge and back towards the road and the woman.

It was quite amusing, really. This lovely lady here was the wife to Trant’s governor of Jaralea, now deceased or should I say, put to death most slowly by his ungrateful subjects after his rather short and unpopular reign. He had seen it coming and managed to get his wife, her sister and their young son away and they had waited, tucked away in a forest cottage, for a time when they might make the break for Merina and escape into obscurity. This good woman here is related by marriage to the former High King Trant, although the ex governor can’t have been close or a favourite because Jaralea is a rat hole these days and no prize for anyone. I’m not sure if that thought would turn out quite enough to save her.

Either way, it was certainly a most interesting situation.

I won’t ride on. It’s too good to pass up.

I stop before her, bow my head and say, “My lady. Dareon De Catra, at your service.” It is a good thing that I chose to bow for I am absolutely shocked at the name I have given her, that just came out of my mouth in response to not wanting to speak my own, that I had no intention of saying nor any recollection of ever having heard – oh. Yes. I heard it twice. Once when I stood accused of having brought about his premature alleviation as they called it, and the second time when they accused her of the same.

I straighten and cloak myself in ordinariness, slumping my shoulders a little and relaxing my knees to make my size somewhat less apparent and only briefly glance at her for my eyes give me away beyond anything and I have never truly found an answer as to how to hide what I am in direct eye contact. Even beasts feel it and back away.

The darkness and shadow of the forest might be of help, my shielding better than it was or the woman was simply far too relieved to have found the possibility of assistance; either way she responded with a relieved closing of her eyes, then a smile and a hasty introduction of her own, “Lady Derring. Travelling to Merina, with my son. We had quite an accident, as you can see.”

Her name was as false as mine and I had to smile and nod. Oh but what am I going to do with you and your brood? I was keen to take a look at her sister who was apparently a virgin still and very shy of men. I encourage her to talk more by asking details of the accident, if she was hurt, sending confidence and steady gentling at the underlying levels. She is entirely unknowing of any of this and calls to her dependents who come out from behind the carriage. The old driver looks up at me and he has more sense than all of these together. He tries to formulate a warning to them but strangely, finds that he cannot speak and sets to coughing instead which causes him so much pain that he faints.

The sister is quite delightful, not too young for my liking and very attractive, even though they made an effort to conceal this with tying her hair back severely too and dressing her down in dowdy loose grey woolens. I watch with some considerable enjoyment that is mounting as she scrambles cautiously up the embankment, followed closely by a skinny dark haired boy of about four or five years.

I leave the horse and go to meet her, hold out my hand to her for the last step up and our eyes meet as she takes it. Her eyes widen and she tries to draw back but I have her slim hand firmly in mine and pull her up easily, unbalance her deliberately so she falls to me and struggles rather deliciously to be free. She is a great deal more sensible and sensitive than her sister would ever believe and now she nearly runs to hide behind the older woman. The boy finishes the climb, runs past me with a curious look and joins them too, so there they are, all three of them and I am nearly licking my lips with the delight of it all.

Who would have thought?

Here I was, out for a little ride, just relaxing away from the pressures of home, and the creator puts these, well one could say, straight into my lap.

I drop my head briefly to hide a smile and when I look up again, even the good lady of Trant’s governor is picking up on the fear of the others and getting somewhat unnerved.

I come a couple of steps closer and say to them all most sincerely, “So, what are we going to do now?”

The pretty virgin steps back involuntarily and her fear crests. I focus on her and truly, she does create a resonance in me that I have not felt for years, an absolute delight and it is indeed far deeper and better than ever it used to be for there are so many more options these days, so much more control, indeed, I could take her as Catena would, now that would be an interesting experience, if his riding was anything to go by!

“Sir,” the governor’s wife says hesitantly, “How far is it to the nearest inn? We have been travelling for two days, and ...”

I spot a comfortable looking boulder just behind where they stand and walk over towards it, causing them to quickly step out of my way and stay clear of me. I turn and sit down on it, cross my leg, then lean an elbow on it, rest my chin on my hand and look at them.

“You might not know this,” I say and wonder what I’m going to say next but decide to go with whatever comes on this fine morning, without reservation, without trying to control this new and delightful order of things, “You might not know this, and indeed, I would be most surprised if you did, but I am not particularly fond of Trant, nor of his relatives.”

The governor’s wife gasps out loud and brings her handkerchief to her mouth; the boy looks up at her and holds on to her skirt and behind her, the pretty virgin tries to be calm but then has to wrap her arms about her shoulders as though she was trying to hug herself.

“The reasons that this is so are manifold,” I speak the words calmly. “One of them is the rape of my wife on his orders, her imprisonment amongst a hundred men.” The two women are beginning to step back from me, their fear taking on a whole new dimension as I continue, “Another is the slaughter of King Selter to whom, it could be said, I have blood ties that are deeper than blood. The death of the Duke of Solland to whom I personally owe a great deal. In a roundabout way, the destruction of Pertineri Palace and in a less roundabout way, the near destruction of the kingdoms themselves. And, of course, lest we forget, my own personal experiences.”

They are so terrified now, they’re not even thinking of running or arguing that I might be mistaken in their identity. I sit up a little straighter and contemplate them minutely, in every sense, on every level. It is a strange thing.

“It is a strange thing,” I say it out loud to allow them to share my thought processes, “that of all the people in all the kingdoms, you should come across me this morning. I do believe there cannot be very many relatives of Trant left alive now, if any at all. I would wager that there are those in the kingdoms who would pay most handsomely for a chance to take their turn on you.”

The governor's wife sinks slowly to her knees and raises her hands in a praying gesture, tears falling from her eyes and her voice broken in terror, and I really don’t want to hear what she has to say. I get up and make a sharp gesture that silences her instantly, stride across towards them and curtail the virgin who is about to break and run with a thought that welds her to the spot.

They are absolutely helpless before me.

Of course they are. They always are. They always were, long before I had the magic that I feel in my fingertips today, building now and I know that if I was to make a gesture I would be trailing that starry substance Sepheal used to underwrite his more important speeches to me.

I want to explode them where they stand, I want to rip them to shreds with a profound longing and the only reason I’m not doing it is because it would be too quick, would be unsatisfactory, would not and could not ever fill my desire to have them be in such pain, suffer so totally that their suffering would somehow heal me, somehow fill my hunger and sate it or even begin to alleviate it.

And the truth is as I have always known that all the screaming they could do, and not just these here in front of me but all the ones they stood for, worlds upon worlds of these, screaming for all eternities would not begin to fill me, could never even begin to satisfy me.

I feel as though the ground is beginning to turn beneath me and I have to close my eyes and steady myself, bring myself back to some control and some kind of understanding of what this about, of why I am here with these, of what I am doing and what I am supposed to be doing, what I want and what I can achieve.

What I can achieve, and how.

In the trench, the old coachman dies and brings me back to the moment.

To the moment and the two women and the child, in helpless terror before me.

Then the virgin speaks.

Her voice is high, unsteady, but her words are spoken well and I hear her say, “Sir, I don’t know who you are, and I cannot comprehend how you found us or how you know who we are, but I know that nothing you can do to us will – can – undo any of what has happened. Please, Sir. Take me but let the boy go. He has no fault, no guilt. He is but a child.”

Ah but how many times have I heard this plea.

Ah but how many times.

I have to shake my head for it is always the same tale, over and over again. Please, just spare the child. He is so innocent, so sweet. I promise he won’t grow up to come after you to take your head for this for he well remembers your face, will carry it with him in every nightmare, in every daydream, from now until he is a man grown tall and strong enough to cut your throat.

Gently, I say to her, “I will take you and then kill the child. Or give him to someone who has had their child tortured and disembowelled by your brother-in-law’s uncle. Don’t you think that would represent a fine form of justice?”

The governor's wife is collapsed in on herself, the boy kneeling and trying to crawl into her skirts. She is sobbing uncontrollably and the virgin, standing alone now, her face streaked with tears too, shakes her head slowly and says, “It is your choice, Sir. I can only beg you to be merciful.”

Merciful. It is beyond a joke. It is so far beyond any joke that I have ever known that the concept itself implodes into meaninglessness even as I shake my head and try to come to terms with any form of response to the very idea.

“Come to me,” I tell her and she obeys immediately, picking up her skirts and walking around the sobbing woman and her child, coming to a halt within easy reach and slightly off to to the right, eyes down, hands still on her dress, standing quietly and accepting.

I put my finger under her chin and raise her head so she is looking up into my eyes. Into her mind, I say, I am Lucian Tremain. It doesn’t mean anything to her at first and then she knows and remembers for the news of my capture and containment at Trant’s hands had spread even to the miserable corners of Jaralea and she sinks into herself and starts to cry afresh. I angle my head slightly and kiss her, soft light pink lips, scared mouth locked shut beyond. She forces herself to comply with me, opens her mouth slightly, hesitantly, unsure as to what I might require, trying to find a way to please me, to leverage me, to soften me. I kiss her hard and bite her bottom lip lightly, just enough to draw blood. I have one fingertip under her chin still and the other hand resting by my side, daring her to move away from me or pull back, but she does not and remains accepting of my intrusions, forcing hard will against instinct, terror and disgust.

I let go of her chin and take her by the upper arms, drawing her towards me, finding her neck and kissing it lightly, then biting it hard, biting down hard and she cries out and tries to struggle away but I hold her in position easily and bite down harder still, tasting her blood and noting a want rising to tear at her.

I straighten from her and look down at her, knowing well that her blood is on my lips and on my chin and she is beyond terror, staring up at me, failing to understand who or what I could be, failing to understand what I could be wanting from her, doing to her, and with a dawning realisation that she did not truly appreciate the reality of this morning on the forest road.

Blood is flowing freely from her neck wound and soaking into her dress of grey. I look at the wound and watch it close and disappear with some interest, watch the blood begin to swirl, detach and lift away in a fine mist, from her white neck and angled collarbone and from the wooly cloth.

I reach across and my fingertips investigate the fastening of her hair. Under my touch, the pins and metal clips disintegrate to nothing and her hair falls rapidly under its own weight. It is not dissimilar in colour to Isca’s but much thicker, stronger, wavy where Isca’s is cat fine, cat silky.

The girl is shaking and nearly falls; with a moment’s thought, I lock her into position so now I have both hands free. I trace from her neck across her shoulder with an outstretched fingertip and where I do, the cloth of her cloak, the woolen shift and the undergarment beneath lose cohesion and open up like a layered scar, revealing her skin beneath. I run my finger down her arm, stopping short of her wrist, and half her clothes fall off and hang loosely, revealing one breast, her rapidly moving rib cage and the top of her hip bones.

I back away and go back to my seat on the boulder. She stands still, of course, she can do no other, half undressed, half ready in body but quite unready in mind, and behind her, the woman and the child grovel on the floor and don’t even think to look at the proceedings.

Do you know how many before you have stood thus before me? I ask into her mind and she flinches and seeks to hide herself even further inside herself, an endeavour that is blatantly doomed to failure.

There is nowhere to hide, my dear.

I dissolve her clothing altogether and she stands, naked and her arms slightly away from her pale body, in her shoes and fallen stockings. Around her neck is a long chain that falls all the way between her breasts, well concealed until now, with a pendant of considerable value, an emerald it seems, tear drop shaped.

Her mind is uproaring, unhinged, not just by fear but also by confusion, by my use of magic and my soft words, by nothing and nothing at all that had ever happened to her, even been whispered to her and which could have served to have her be prepared for this moment, this encounter.

I soothe it with a clean elegance and lightness that surprises me fractionally. There seems to have been a point in my development where I no longer had to try to do these things, they came willingly to me, an innate understanding that was entirely comfortable, a mastery of sorts that is beyond endeavour, beyond learning, beyond force of will or concentration.

With the recession of fear and confusion, the virgin’s mind re-asserts itself. Reasonable faculties of logic and insight are once more at her disposal; she has a good mind, or perhaps I should say, the promise of a good mind coupled with a desire to make use of it, a one not very often found amongst her kind.

She stands as she cannot help but do and considers her situation, considers me and tries to come to some form of understanding of me. She wonders if it is true that I was who I said I was, wonders if there was any reason for me to say it if it wasn’t true, considers the small magical interventions, and yet cannot quite reconcile my appearance, sitting quietly here on the bolder in a simple shirt and watching her so calmly, with her thoughts of a Lord of Darkness who was nothing but a ravening beast for the sport of Trant’s court in Pertineri.

I look upon me through her eyes and now I cannot help but wonder at the meaning once again of this encounter, at what it represents in terms of learning, of disattachment from the old, the used to be, of that I described to Isca as old and long out grown suits of armour that are shackled to your ankles, dragging you down, dragging you back, filling your ears with their clanking, grating noises so you cannot even hear yourself think any longer.

I look upon her through my eyes and note the physical response to her presence, note all the different strands of desire, many of them conflicting, counterbalanced, pulling in opposite directions, yet all of them under very much control this day. I could turn away from her easily, there would be hardly any application of will necessary to achieve it, it is just a matter of choice. Of decision.

The light darkens and a flurry of leaves occurs as a stronger, colder wind sweeps through the forest. The virgin shivers.

What shall I do with you, I ask her. How shall I take you? Shall I have you writhe and scream beneath me, in agony of physical and mental invasion, so you can be Isca and I can be Thelein? Shall I have you writhe in desperation before me, your controls set aside and your body mad with cravings you cannot comprehend, that girl Sepheal had for me in the North Tower, my first training whore, well you don’t forget, do you, your first proper horse, your first sword.

Or I could make you love me, make you want me in a very personal way, play with you until you cannot help yourself and you fall to me, moist and desireful, like she fell to Conna?

I could change and step into Catena’s mode of being, teasing you, touching you here and there with a smile and a nudge, gentling you like a yearling foal, taking my time with you until you overcome your reservations and submit to my touch with shivering expectation and no little fear?

Ah, there is so much more! I could take you in Serein, I could be a demon made flesh and real, with wings of leather and tearing claws or I could be an angel, pure light that would invade you and sing you to heights of harmonies. I could change you, too and you could be a goddess golden, or we could be horses, wild on the plains.

Ha! Well, my little virgin. What do you think that I should do? I would that you would share your thoughts with me for I am truly overcome by all these choices, all these modes of being, doing, having, taking.

Her mind is reeling from tracking through the pictures, thoughts and feelings I have thrown at her and she is fighting to retain a sense of self, of steadiness, within the insanity I am prescribing. Eventually, her thought is clearing and repeating that she fears the pain. She fears the pain and all else beyond survival is of no importance, and I smile and nod because she has released all thoughts of honour and of duty now, considering herself in pure physicality, just the here and now, and nothing much beyond.

Would my lady accuse me of torturing her with this situation? Oh but with certainty, she would! With certainty she would tell me I was being cruel, that I was playing with this one who had no direct fault or flaw beyond the fact that she was powerless and came across my path.

I call her to me and she comes across, somewhat unsteadily and halts before me. Her light, small nipples stand out stiffly and she is goose bumped all over. Carefully, I run the back of my hand over her pubic hair, light it is and growing close to the lips, making a line of hair that is distinctively not a triangle. I look up and smile at her. She is very serious, not crying anymore, and her eyes are brown, reminiscent of another pair of eyes I know so well and yet entirely different for they hold no challenge, no call to arms nor that magnetic force that makes me want to dive into their very depth.

This one here is just a young woman. One of many, immaterial and yet quite real.

What did you think, I ask her seriously, what did you dream about in your bed? Did you wait for a rich husband to take you on your wedding night, or perhaps a dashing soldier who would come in moonlight, silently helping you descend a ladder and a heartbeating stumble in the dark to the waiting horses and a life of passion?

She is wide open and doesn’t resist me to any degree, if even she would know how to do such a thing and I am surprised in truth that these and a thousand other scenarios are what are in her mind, so many different men and ways and little stories, a treasure house of dreams and fancies, and she is quite ashamed of them all and none of them go any further than a chaste kiss, a meaningful holding of hands, for she really doesn’t know what happens next and cannot make a connection between what she has seen the beasts do in the street and a loving couple.

Ah, I say to her with a smile, reach for her hips, turn her and sit her sideways on my lap, pulling her to my chest with a hand cupped around her cold and rounded shoulder, ah now the reason you cannot yet make this connection is because there are so many different degrees in between, so many stepping stones.

I pick up the emerald pendant and raise it to my eyes. She follows it too, and I move it so that it brings her into my line of vision and catch her in my gaze and hold her there whilst I return the pendant and lightly touch her breasts, pushed together as they are by her position and my holding her tight.

My hand is easily large enough to cover both her nipples at the same time and I let the warmth of my hand slowly seep into her skin, link her tighter to me in mind, bring her in closer to me until she is entirely aware of my sensations and I am entirely aware of hers, as though they were my own.

You see, I say to her, you may think what the beasts do in the street to be an end result, a base animal behaviour that is the end but you are quite wrong because there is more, there is a beyond, and I have experienced it once, just once, and that was enough to unhinge my mind. It was in the Abbey at Pertineri Palace, you have never been there, have you? Here, let me show you. I link her tighter still and allow myself to become the memory, the waking after that resurrection that had left me weaker and more devoid than I had ever been before, the waking beneath her and into her, and her taking me to a place where physicality transcended through all the layers, all the levels aligned, and I remember and with my memory, her memory and there is even the third perspective as Chay, forgotten and on guard duty still, is there and lives it too, all sides merging into a prism that focusses the impossible power and discharges into the girl here in my arms and it overcomes her entirely and washes her from her self, leaving a burned out body that no longer breathes when I re-orient myself to the place that I used to think of as now.

She is silent and perfect, her long lashes lying on her cheeks and her mouth is a little open.

I stroke her hair, hold her close to me, fold myself around her and feel a sadness, a sadness that I know and it isn’t mine, it is that sadness that Isca brought to me this morning, or perhaps she brought it at some other time, perhaps it came with her when she walked into my life and it was then I came to share it.

Reluctantly, I release the hold I have on the girl and let her slide from my legs into the leaves at my feet where she settles gently and easily. I reach down and unclasp the chain, take the emerald pendant and get up. I step across her and call to the black who has wandered off in search for a shrub or drink of water. The woman and the child remain huddled on the floor, still unaware of what is happening around them.

The black comes through the trees, makes his way up the incline and bows to me. I place the pendant in my pocket, mount and turn him back towards Tower Keep, taking an easy pace into the gathering winds and falling light that threatens rain, or storm, or both.