He woke up to the most astonishing headache. His vision swam and his stomach churned: it must have been a really excellent night. Lucien tried desperately to access the memories of how he got to this bed that was quite clearly not his own, but his brain was just as rebellious as his innards. The high ceilings of the room were hidden above a thick haze of incense that smelled of poppies and violets. Its purple fingers caressed the heavy silk curtains that lined the bed with a touch that was both lustful and loving.
There were certainly worse places in which to wake up, mused the swordsman. To his left, a beautifully jewelled butterfly mask lay hastily discarded. A vase of peacock feathers waved gently in a breeze he could not feel. Lucien stretched luxuriously and noticed the soft warmth of two sleeping figures next to him. He could not see their faces but a profound sense of tenderness overtook him. It was good when family made up after an argument, he thought, but he had no notion of why that might have sprung into his mind at that moment.
A nagging sense that he was supposed to be somewhere forced the reluctant S’forza out of bed, but not before he had left a tender kiss on the cheeks of both sleeping figures. His favourite duelling shirt and breeches lay freshly pressed on a chaise longue at the end of the bed. As he pulled them on he felt the pleasant tingle of peppermint caress his skin; clearly he was in the care of a benevolent host.
The air in the hallway was cool and fresh, cutting through the haze of the bedroom. A figure stood at the doorway, hooded and dark. He was dressed as if ready for the hunt, but he made no move to depart. Lucien wondered if he might be a guard, but as the thought entered his mind, the figure threw his head back and laughed, as if tickled by the idea. Nothing helpful to be gained here, he thought, and moved on, aware at the periphery of his senses that the shadowy figure watched him leave with a predatory smile.
“Where are you going, friend? Perhaps you travel my way.” The voice had the same deep, resonant quality as drums made of hide, and yet had a sibilant edge that reminded Lucien of soft footsteps in the forest. He stopped, and without turning, addressed the figure behind him.
“I have always preferred to walk with friends. If that is what you are, then I would appreciate the company. In truth, I do not know where I am.” It seemed at that moments like the shadows in the corridor pulled in towards the swordsman, flickering appreciatively. Again, a nagging sensation fluttered like a trapped bird in his gut. He felt that he knew this figure, but the name sat just out of reach.
“Then follow me. There is someone who wants to see you.” Lucien obliged, as he experienced the sense that perhaps he owed the figure something, but in any case a warm sense of trust had settled upon him. It was the right thing to do. They walked up stairs and through great halls, seemingly endless in number, until Lucien wondered if all his life had been following this shadowy figure. They talked of everything, and of nothing at all; it was a comfortable, reassuring closeness normally born of many years’ friendship, and yet occasionally Lucien would catch a sideways glimpse of that predatory smile. At those times it seemed that the figure was simply waiting for the moment to strike. Still, he could not shake the feeling that they belonged side by side.
Finally, the corridor opened out into a grand banqueting hall. At the far end sat two thrones at the head of the long table laden with food. Roasted venison steamed in silver bowls making Lucien realise just how hungry he was: it took all of his self-control not to reach out and grab a whole quail and stuff it onto his mouth. Fruits from every corner of the forest glittered and sparkled, enticing him with their plump softness.
It took a moment before Lucien realised that a woman sat in one of the thrones. He tore his gaze from the bountiful table, unwilling to appear discourteous in front of his host. Hosts, he realised, as his guide moved towards the second throne. The woman was dressed in the finest Estragalian silks, their voluminous folds accentuating rather than hiding her gentle curves. She was clearly and very proudly carrying a child. Her face glowed with beauty and kindness but was streaked with tears of sadness; Lucien realised too late that he was staring. At her feet, mushrooms and autumn leaves shook gently as if agitated by a forest breeze. A nagging, tugging sensation in his chest. It felt as if those leaves had been by his cheek just moments ago, and he had the overwhelming urge to lie down at her feet and fall asleep.
Anger flashed across the woman’s face when she saw Lucien. She stood as if to strike him and a great wind howled through the banquet hall. The air was thick as if gathering together for a storm, and the floor trembled violently. The man dressed for the hunt stepped firmly but gently between Lucien and the woman, bowing with deep and sincere respect.
“This one is mine. He walks in my shadow: do you not see how the darkness lurks around him? When I gathered him up he had led a great hunt: one of the greatest of this age that brought down a quarry so powerful that the songs of Estragales, and Lyonesse, and all the world changed in an instant. His song is discordant and dark, but so is mine. He knew that final hunt to be more dangerous than any before and still he ran to it. He fell with sisters and brothers he loved because he knew in his heart it was right. And the hunt before that? The hunt which causes these tears now to flow? I sounded the horn. If you strike him, you must strike me too.”
A bolt of lightning exploded from the sky in a blinding flash that drained all colour from the room. Thunder boomed all around in a crescendo of rage and pain. Wind howled through the room, tearing food from the table and hangings from the wall. And then, in an instant, it was peacefull. Dappled sunlight fell softly through the windows and birdsong swelled happily from the trees. The woman wiped away her tears and walked towards Lucien. Taking his face in her hands, she looked into his eyes. It was an experience unlike any he had ever felt: exquisite and searching and all-consuming. He opened his mouth to speak, but closed it again as he realised she knew all there was to say. His eyes sparkled with tears too: not of regret, for there was none in his heart, but with understanding of the pain she felt. He savoured the feeling and did not fight against it. She kissed him gently and held him close.
It seemed that Lucien’s body started to fade. For the very first time, real fear was written across his face. As his form slowly melted away, he stood and adjusted his shirt. He bowed deeply to the woman then turned to the hooded man and knelt in deference, presenting his sword with the greatest respect before a soft wind blew through the room and he was no longer anywhere to be seen.
It may have been simply a trick of the light, but it seemed, just for a moment, that the eyes of the hooded man flashed purple and black. He turned to the woman.
“It is better when families do not fight or impose their wishes without thought for the other. You must do what you know to be right.”