Lord Darius Debenham stared at the lush plants growing in a convincingly arid desert and wondered if his father's gardeners had really developed such skills in the short time he'd been away at the war.
Short time.... It seemed like years of boredom, tension, excitement, fear and shocking brutality. He couldn't regret taking up arms against Napoleon, but he wished to heaven there was no need for war...
He swiveled his head cautiously -- he had the devil of a headache -- wondering where he could be. This place was clearly far away from the battle, from Wellington, Napoleon, Blucher and his own comrades in arms. How could he have been moved so quickly to a place of blinding sunlight and abundant growth?
Was this what it was like to go mad? Was he sitting in a squalid hut somewhere near Brussels gibbering about sun and plants while other sufferers nearby tried not to be embarrassed by the idiot he'd become?
Or was he thrashing in delirium on a foul cot, burning with fever, waiting for the amputation saw? He hastily scanned his body. As far as his disordered senses could tell, he was whole and mostly undamaged. The jacket had gone, and the rest of his clothes were torn and stained with blood and mud, but he saw no serious wounds. His head, though. He clutched his pounding skull.
He couldn't remember pain like this even after the worst night's drinking of the foulest brew. He shook his head to clear it.
That was a big mistake.
He cried out and gripped it, desperate to stop it from exploding with torment. He breathed deep and rough, praying for some release, any release, even death.
The agony settled at last to a drum-beat of agony contained by a band of iron. Dare opened aching eyes, looking for a place where he could rest. How could he rest in this absurd landscape?
Stark rocks and desert. Burning, scorched-sand desert. Yet here, among the five boulders flourished three munificent bushes not unlike huge trailing azaleas. They grew out of dry sand, with no sign of irrigation.
In this heat….
But it wasn’t hot.
He tilted his head cautiously and through slit eyes saw a sun that blazed like a blast furnace. Saw desert shimmering in the heat. There was no shade, no water, and yet the air was cool and just slightly moist. It was impossible.
He lowered himself very carefully onto one of the boulders, brushing a trailing stem out of his way. A perfume danced out to flicker down his senses, leaving a fragment of ease. He moved the stem again. The same thing, like a carillon of smell, disturbingly alien to his senses, but still powerfully soothing. He played the plant idly, intrigued....
Cool fingers fairy-stepped across his bare nape. He swiveled sharply, then gasped and froze when his head clamored again.
A woman walked around to face him and said something he did not understand. She was more of the dream, dragged up from some bizarre corner of his brain. He'd never even used opium, dammit. Where could all this be coming from? He should never have gone to see that Fuseli exhibition.
She had bright blue hair, for God's sake. Hair with all the subtlety and complexity of shading to be found in chestnut or blonde, but in this case in shrieking shades of blue. She had dead white skin. No, that sounded like a drowned corpse and this creature was vividly alive. Her skin was like a pearl, alive with red blood somewhere under its density. The blood was more obvious in her lips. When her tongue flicked out to moisten those lips, it was a natural deep pink. Her interested eyes were also blue -- a light, bright, intense blue unlike anything he had ever seen in a human.
She was not human.
Dare shrank back, then reminded himself that this was a dream, a delirium. Nothing here could hurt him. She smiled and reached for his genitals.
Dare jerked away. Cried out as his head jangled with agony. Tried to clutch at it and fend off his attacker at the same time.
"Kirili, stop. And you. Be still. You make it worse."
It was a male voice. Thank God. The doctor had come at last. Even an amputation would be better than this.
Dare opened his eyes. The speaker was another blue-haired thing.
Dare came to consciousness in a cell -- a small, plain, windowless room with smooth stone for floor, walls, and ceiling. It was surprisingly clean and tranquil, but something bothered him. Something his dizzy brain couldn't pin down....
Was it a prison cell? What had he done? Or a room in an asylum for the insane? One of the modern, progressive ones, thank God, and the hallucinations were over. No more impossible heat and blue-haired people.
He was lying on a plain, firm bed with a pillow beneath his head. There were no covers, but the air was pleasantly warm.
He sat up, then clutched his head again, cursing as he waited for the pounding to settle to dull agony. This time his fingers detected the stickiness of blood, and a goose-egg swelling. No wonder it hurt so much.
He tried to remember the battle and what might have happened to him. Guns, horses, blood, screaming. He could remember all that. But not getting this injury....
Part of a wall shifted and a blue-haired figure entered the room. Dare registered dazedly that that was what had bothered him. No doors. But the blue people were back. He was mad.
This one was a man. His shifting, iridescent draperies made no attempt to disguise the fact, even though he had a woman's hair, and almost a woman's beauty. The blue hair rippled thick down to the small of his back; rippled, it almost seemed, with a life of its own. Dare blinked, desperately trying to dispel this picture and find reality.
The young man's skin was that same dense, vivid white as the woman's, his eyes the same startling blue. He was young, which was what gave him the look of feminine beauty. Seventeen? Eighteen? Why was he trying to make sense of a detail like that.
He was perfect. Even as Dare's tattered mind rejected the vision as unnatural and wrong, it accepted perfection. Like a classical statue made of pure white marble...
"You must let me heal you."
The words were distorted in some way. Perhaps this was the doctor, mutated by his damaged brain. Dare almost laughed at the thought of one of the brusque, snuff-stained army doctors being transformed into this unnatural creature.
He tried to act as if he was seeing things right. "What's wrong with me?"
"I don't know. I haven't examined you."
"I need your permission."
This seemed extremely strange. Army doctors did not wait for permission.
"Where am I?"
He saw a flicker of expression cross the young man's face – the doctor’s face -- and thought it could be evasion. "You need not concern yourself about that, but-"
"Where am I?"
The doctor moved forward with a gesture that spoke clearly of impatience. "You are damaged quite badly. I can heal you. I may not heal you without your permission. Give it."
"No!" The shout became almost a scream as his head echoed the noise like a belfry shaken by bells.
"You want to live with this amount of pain?"
"No, but I want to know where I am and who you are." Dare gave up pretence. "You see, sir, I'm having hallucinations. This place looks peculiar. And you, you don't want to know what you look like."
The doctor sat on the bed beside him. "You have these hallucinations often?" He gently pushed Dare back, and it did seem a good idea to lie down. It hurt, but in a moment his pain settled a little.
"No. I've never had them before."
"Then they must be the result of your wound. Presumably if you let me heal it, they will go away."
"What can you do for a cracked head? I would like some laudanum if there is any."
"I can heal it. All I need is your consent."
The voice was pleasantly soothing, and Dare found that as long as he kept his eyes shut matters didn’t seem so wild. The doctor’s voice still seemed young, but it conveyed competence. And if something didn't lessen the agony he was going to batter his head against a wall to try to get it to stop.
"Very well. Do your worst."
"What a peculiar thing to say."
Hands cradled his head, one at the base of his skull, one at the forehead, and the pain stopped. Dare let out a whimper at that extraordinary relief. He kept his eyes tightly shut, not wanting anything to disturb this miracle. The hand on the back of his head found the wound. Dare braced for the pain of the examination, but there was none; only a lightening of a weight he had hardly noticed and a release of all the tension in his neck and shoulders.
He murmured a soft prayer of thanks.
He was smoothly moved into a sitting position. He stiffened, expecting pain, but felt nothing. The doctor's hand began to wander down his spine, touching, probing, bringing warmth and the tingling that reminded Dare of an electricity machine. Then it pressed at the base of his spine.
"What the devil!" Dare jerked away. He froze, bracing for the agony. But found none. He opened his eyes to see the beautiful young man looking at him as if he were the exotic specimen.
"What's the matter?" the youth asked.
"I don't… I don’t do that."
The young man smiled with lively understanding. "Nor do I mostly. Is such a touch part of your customs in those matters? I am sorry to have offended. I merely wanted to check your functions. But I have healed your major hurt, so I will not trespass further."
Dare touched his head cautiously. Not only was there no pain and no tenderness, there was no sign of a wound at all. He looked once at the strange creature beside him and knew he had to get out of this room. He stood and walked toward the wall. There was a door. He’d seen a door. He came up against solid stone and groped right and left. Nothing but smooth stone. He rested his head wearily against the cold solidity of it. "What is to become of me?"
The young man was beside him, touching him lightly on the shoulder. "Nothing bad. I will explain everything. Please be calm."
Dare swung around. "Calm! Either I'm mad, or I'm transported the faeryland or some other benighted spot. How can I be calm? I see you with blue hair!"
The young man shook his head, then made a small evocative gesture.
An elegant Bond Street exquisite stood in the small room, complete with fawn pantaloons, dark blue coat with rather large buttons, and brown hair in a carefully arranged Windswept. Every detail was correct, even the skin tone, and he looked extraordinarily out-of-place in the plain room. Another gesture and the room was a cozy lounge in a man's club, complete with leather chairs, gleaming mahogany, and a snuff box on a table.
The young man looked around with interest, then sat in a chair and crossed one leg over the other with just the right air. "If you're wondering," he said, even achieving a little of the drawl such a person would affect, "I'm taking this from your head. But it's real enough in its own way. Wouldn't you like to sit?"
Dare stayed pressed against the wall, but it even felt like wood paneling now. "I want to know what's happening to me. How.... Lord save me, but I don't know that I have words for this!"
"It's all my fault," said the young man ruefully. "but my intentions were good. I put you in the garden while I went to talk to my mother. It is a place of tranquility and healing but it didn't seem to work for you. Of course, it didn't help that Kirili found you there. When I moved you inside, I made the room plain because I couldn't decide what setting would be pleasant. Your mind was very disarranged. If this environment upsets you, I can make something else."
Dare wanted to laugh, but knew if he did it would be the giggle of a lunatic. He walked to the pie-crust table and ran his finger around the walnut. He would swear it was real. He picked up the silver snuff-box with the enamel of a hunting scene set in the top. He recognized it. It was the one his father kept on his desk at home.
He flicked open the box and found snuff inside. He moved to take a pinch then paused. "I've heard stories of faeries. If I eat or drink anything here, I'll be ensorceled for ever."
"I know nothing of faeries, but I give you my word that we do not want to keep you here. My bringing you here has already caused trouble."
"I'm not supposed to do things like that. Tell me," the youth said with naked curiosity, "do you really put that powder in your nose?"
Dare smiled at the adolescent interest. Despite what he knew, the familiar setting and look of his companion was soothing him. "Yes. Peculiar, ain't it? My name is Lord Darius Debenham. May I have yours, sir?"
"Quiriniac Ic Syril, but people generally call me Rorcha."
"I suppose." He grimaced like someone about to make a confession. "It means master-mage in our old tongue."
Master mage. Why balk at that. He was mad, and the madness was more pleasant than he would have expected. "And are you?" Dare asked.
"Oh yes." Dare recognized a depth of meaning behind that and could not fathom it. This Rorcha -- if he existed at all -- appeared perfect and apparently had the powers to do anything do wanted, create anything he needed. So why did he seem troubled?
"How can I understand what you say? If you are as you seem, and a.... foreigner, let us say?"
"I am speaking to your mind. If you will let me, I can make it easier."
Dare ignored that and closed the snuff box with a snap. "I need to know what is happening. You brought me here, which is something you are not supposed to do. Why, then, did you do it?"
And why am I trying to make sense of nonsense?
Quiriniac Ic Syril gave a shrug that was so like a schoolboy trying to explain a jape, that he had to suppress a smile. "I am involved in some investigations. It is all very complex." He seemed to abandon that line of explanation. "You should understand that others are not like me. I am a mage. They are only magickers. Mages don’t exist.”
So that was it. He was locked in with another lunatic. Except that this one had healed his head. He thought.
"I am encouraged to keep out of the way and occupy myself in matters that won't upset the harmony of Ztreng," Quiriniac continued, "so I have been exploring ways to other places. There seem to be many. Generally, I find nothing in particular going on. Today, I found terrible things. Such death and suffering that I almost blacked-out. From the need in me to stop it, to heal. I had to leave before I did something too..... Did something. Anything. I am not allowed to do anything!”
He bit off that cry of frustration but was on his feet, pacing, hair and wispy clothing seeming to writhe like snakes. "I had to leave. I couldn't stay. But you fell on me. You were unconscious and five horses were about to trample you. I could not bear to leave you, so I brought you back. I am sorry for doing such a thing without consent."
"I can't see that you had the chance to ask."
"But it is our law. If I could not gain consent, I should have left you."
"Seems a damned funny law."
"But think what I can do," Quiriniac said.
Dare flicked open the snuff box again, and as a gesture of trust, took a pinch. It was good snuff, but in some way it dissatisfied. He realized that was because he felt extraordinarily well.
"Whatever you are, you’re a good healer."
"I'm a good everything," Quiriniac said bleakly. "Now, you have to decide what you want to do."
“Go home?” Dare suggested warily.
“But that would be to the moment before you were trampled to death by horses.”
As they used to say, that's all folks! You never know, though. I might revisit this, if only for fun. It would be great to let Rorcha loose on Regency London.
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