People of Twilight

 

Book One

 

Prologue

 

Part One

Chapter One: Child of shadows

Chapter Two: Never enough

Chapter Three: Surrender

Chapter Four: His own choice

Chapter Five: The last king

Chapter Six: The door opens

Chapter Seven: What he asked for

Chapter Eight: The first burning

Chapter Nine: The long night

Chapter Ten: One step

Chapter Eleven: The flowing stream

Chapter Twelve: Blood and earth

      

Part Two

Chapter Thirteen: Across the border

Chapter Fourteen: The King's Road

Chapter Fifteen: His people

Chapter Sixteen: Dark vision

Chapter Seventeen: The heart of the kingdom

Chapter Eighteen: His own sword

Chapter Nineteen: In his blood

Chapter Twenty: On their own

Chapter Twenty-One: In the palm of his hand

Chapter Twenty-Two: Home

Chapter Twenty-Three: White and red

Chapter Twenty-Four: The voice of the wind

Chapter Twenty-Five: His final choice


Prologue

The first and the last

 

 

       The man appeared from nowhere, blood on his clothes and a sword at his side. The air shimmered like strewn silver, and then he was simply there, standing beneath the ancient magnolia tree that shaded the corner of the cloisters. He glanced at the black-robed figures who had yet to notice him, and sighed, his eyes closing as he gathered his strength for what was to come.

       Ciaran Morgan saw it all. As he watched, the man opened his eyes again and turned his head, looking back the way he had come. For the briefest of moments, Ciaran saw movement, like ghostly swaying trees and sheeting rain. The shadow of a man was kneeling, reaching out despairingly with one hand, and the branches keened, "No! Don't leave us. Come back." Then the wounded man turned back to the cloister and stepped forward, and Ciaran could see nothing but the old familiar tree and the worn paving stones beneath it.

       The man stopped after two steps, and passed his hand over his brow. It looked as if he was fighting tears, and Ciaran frowned, for grown men should never cry. Ciaran hazarded a glance at his master, but the older man was still standing with his head bent, lost in the words of the ritual. They all were. None of the old ones had seen what Ciaran had seen. Not one of them knew that an armed man had appeared in such an amazing fashion, and crept up behind them in their most sacred place. They thought they were so wise, but Ciaran knew something they did not know.

       Perhaps he should shout a warning, Ciaran thought, but he could not bring himself to do so. He tightened his grip on his staff, and wondered if he could disarm the man all by himself, if he had to. Everyone would whirl round and there he would be, standing over a defeated enemy they had not even been aware of. Ciaran would have saved them all, and he would be a hero, just like Finbar.

       The man stood still for a moment longer. His hair was a dirty black and his straggly beard was peppered with premature grey. His skin was stained with mud and blood, and Ciaran could see weeping flesh through a rent in his shirt. Ciaran had never seen a dying man before, but he thought this man was close to death. There was a sunken greyness to his face that spoke of a long illness without hope of a cure.

       As Ciaran stared, the man became aware of him. Their eyes met, and the force of the man's gaze felt like a physical touch. Despite himself, Ciaran took a step closer to his master. Something horrible shivered down the back of his neck, and he wondered if this was what a premonition felt like. This man will change my life, he thought.

       His master felt his movement, but did not turn round. "Attend, Ciaran," he whispered, as stern as if Ciaran was still a little child, not fifteen years old and taller than the man who taught him. They were still ignorant, the whole lot of them. The old ones who lectured Ciaran about day-dreaming and called him arrogant. The young ones who laughed at him and called him different because he had no home outside the Basilica. The cowardly ones who have given up on changing the world. All of them. They were lost in their ritual. Not one of them knew what Ciaran knew.

       "On this day, one year dies," Grand Master Jerome intoned. "On this day, a new year is born. So it is in all things. Be true to the Shadow, and learn the lesson of the Crux: that things pass, but there is still the Shadow. The things that we cannot change, we accept, for the Shadow endures, and all things are one. "

       Ciaran clenched his fists. But I don't want to accept them! The heroes of the past had never been ones for meek acceptance. There were many evils in this horrid world of electricity and machines, so why did the Brothers skulk in their cloisters, rather then stride out to right all wrongs? In six years, Ciaran would be free to go where he wished, and then everything would change. He had read enough stories to know that a single man could change the whole world, if he was strong and noble and true.

       Grand Master Jerome spread his arms. The Shadow lapped in gentle waves over the bowed heads of the massed Brothers. Even though Ciaran resisted the call of the ritual, the sense of the Shadow was almost tangible, tugging at his thoughts, trying to still his rebellion. "Hear my words, Brothers," he said.

       The wounded man strode forward. "No." His voice was a stone dropped into the smooth pool of the cloister. "Hear mine."

       The man was no longer Ciaran's. In ones and twos, the Brothers pulled themselves out of their meditations and turned to face the intruder. Some jerked to instant awareness, but others blinked sluggishly, like sleepers slow to awaken.

       "Who are you?" the Grand Master demanded. "Why do you invade our sanctuary? Speak!"

       Few could meet Jerome's gaze without faltering, but the man kept his chin high and haughty. "I come to you from another world."

       Another world? Ciaran's looked at his master, and Matthias gave a slight nod, as if to say that yes, it was possible. But how could it be? The existence of other worlds was recognised in the Brothers' philosophy, but even in their days of greatness, no Brother had ever found a way to travel to one. And if the Brothers, who were the best of men, could not do so, then nobody could.

       "Do you bring peace, or war?" Jerome gestured behind his back as he spoke, drawing the man's attention to the strong Brothers who flanked him with their weapons ready. Something about the way they were standing told Ciaran that they were afraid.

       For the first time, Ciaran became aware that his palms were sweating and his pulse was fluttering in his throat. Another world? He wanted to hold his master's hand, but he was too old for such things. He was too old to feel fear, too, so he very deliberately took a step away from his master.

       "I bring a challenge," the man said, with an arrogance that made Ciaran stiffen. "A test."

       "A test." Jerome raised one eyebrow. "And if we fail?"

       "All but one of you will fail. Perhaps all of you will fail, but I hope not."

       "And the one of us who passes? What of him? What will you ask of him?"

       The man gave a strange smile. "I ask nothing, for my time has passed. The one who passes the test will be the heir to a great destiny, but he will hear neither plea nor challenge from me. Though I urge him to choose well, he will retain his free choice. If he did not, then we would not deserve to be saved."

       Jerome inclined his head. "You speak in riddles."

       "My people are lost. I am dying. My land is ruled by men who do not see." The man drew his sword, and a gasp rippled through the assembled Brothers, for it was made of an impossible white crystal. Its existence was cold and disturbing, but it was achingly beautiful, and Ciaran wanted it. "I have borne this sword," the man said, "but my power has passed. There is nothing more I can do for my people. But I have been granted a vision of how things will be, and I know that one will come after me. He will have powers far exceeding my own, but only if he has the strength and wisdom to learn them."

       "Why do you tell us this?" Jerome asked, in a voice as calm as the Shadow itself.

       "The one who comes after me will not be one of my own people, for our strength is fading." The man's face twisted with a pain he could not hide. "He will be one of you. It may be that he turns his back on his potential, or fails at the first test, and never becomes anything more. This is the risk I take, for the future is never written, and hinges on choices and chance and failures. He can save my people, or he can destroy them utterly."

       The man raised the sword, and pressed the blade to his lips, whispering a word that no-one heard. Then he stretched out his hand, and unfolded his fingers, as if he was releasing a tiny flower to the wind. Like soft waves lapping over a stone at the edge of a lake, the air rippled over the sword, and seemed to consume it. There was the faintest shimmer, and then it was gone. Ciaran shivered, as something once again touched him on the back of his neck. It whispered to him that this moment would change his life, and it spoke with a voice that had to be believed.

       Without the sword, the man seemed lessened. His shoulders sagged, and his head seemed too heavy for his neck to bear. His eyes dimmed, and he looked like a dying man, where a moment earlier, he had looked like a king.

       "It chose me," the man whispered, "and now it has gone." Then he raised his head, and there was still steel in his gaze. "Gone from me. Shrouded. Veiled. When the one who is chosen comes near to it, all veils will melt away, for no barriers will stand against him in the fullness of his power. You will see him stand with the sword in his hand and the light of choosing in his eyes, and you will know him." His knees sagged, and he fell heavily to the ground. "Please let him do well," he whispered.

       "No," Ciaran gasped. The man was dying. He, Ciaran, had been the first to see him, and he had felt the shiver of destiny when the man had hidden the sword. Ignoring his master's restraining hand on his arm, he pushed forward, elbowing through the crowd. He fell to his knees, and crawled to the man's side.

       Ciaran touched the tips of his cold fingers with his own. The man looked at him, and Ciaran thought he saw his eyes brighten with recognition. His lips moved just once, and then he stopped breathing. He died, and Ciaran was still touching him.

       I was the first, he thought, as others, who were older than him, bustled around him, and tended to the body. He didn't want to let go of the man's hand. I was the first, and the last. Was it by chance that the man's dying hand had seemed to reach out directly at him, as if pleading for a saviour?

       "Everyone will try," Grand Master Jerome said, some time later, when they had removed the body, and the great ones had talked in hasty council. Ciaran still crouched where the man had died, feeling small and overlooked, but nurturing his secret certainty of greatness.

       The other Brothers whispered, unsure. Their ritual had been interrupted by something they could not comprehend, and now they had to stand in the middle of the cloister, and raise their hand, and see if the impossible sword would appear. Some of the younger boys laughed, and even the older ones looked uncomfortable. "We respect all prophecy," Jerome rebuked them, "and believe in destiny and service. We are not so arrogant as to believe that we understand everything."

       They all tried, and no-one found the sword. Of course they wouldn't, for the sword was Ciaran's to master. But he supposed it was only right that they tried. It happened in all the stories. The old and arrogant tried and failed, and the young and overlooked triumphed when all hope was seemingly lost.

       "Calm." His master's hand briefly pressed down on his shoulder, and Ciaran felt that rare gentle touch in his mind. But how could he be calm? This was his moment. This was the start of everything. The man had spoken of destiny, and everything was changed forever.

       "That was the last of us," someone said. Ciaran raised his head, ready to protest, but his master pre-empted him.

       "What about the children?" he asked mildly, and Ciaran clenched his jaw, for he was fifteen, and on the threshold of glory, and was no mere child.

       They started with the oldest, of course. Ciaran smiled to himself, and tried to picture how it would be. They would gasp with awe, and those who had begun to drift away would whirl round and see him in the glory of his choosing. He would stand for a little while, with that beautiful white sword held high above his head, so everyone could see him. Then, humble, he would kneel, and modestly accept his destiny. Even Grand Master Jerome would look at him with respect and jealousy as he stood again, and went striding off to save a world. Not even Finbar had lived so wonderful a story.

       "Ciaran," his master prompted, and he realised that he had been called, and that everyone was watching him, crouched on the floor and lost in dreaming. Some of the boys were sniggering.

       He thrust out his chin, and stood up. Clenching and unclenching his hands at his side, he walked forward, trying to emulate the man's kingly bearing. When he came to the place the sword had disappeared, he slowly raised his hand, palm outwards, and closed his eyes.

       Would the hilt be cold in his hand, or warm? Would its power course through his veins, and show him wonders in his mind? Would he look different to those who knew him? He thought he would.

       "Come on, Ciaran," his master murmured, touching him on the elbow, trying to steer him away.

       Ciaran opened his eyes. There was nothing in his hands, and the next boy was already standing impatiently beside him, ready to try. Ciaran looked into his eyes, and it was like looking into a mirror. This boy was as certain and hopeful as he had been, and Ciaran wanted to strike him across his smug face.

       "It wasn't you, Ciaran," his master whispered. "Come on."

       He was trying to save him from himself, and Ciaran could have hated him, too. His master understood him all too well. Matthias knew everything about his stupid hopes, and knew his disappointment. He knew everything, but still did not love him.

       Ciaran swallowed, and clenched his fists at his side, hard enough to hurt. He would not show disappointment. Disappointment was a weak thing to feel. The glory that the man had offered had been nothing, really. He had broken into the Basilica like a common thief, and had pretended it was something miraculous. He had spoken of destiny, but it had all been lies. They were fools to believe him, those pathetic children who still stood there with their hands raised, trying to clutch an impossible sword out of the empty air.

       "It wasn't real," he said, not realising that he had spoken aloud until his master answered him.

       "Yes it was," his master said. "It was real, and it was important, but it is a story for someone else, and not for us."

       If it was real, Ciaran thought, as he followed his master along the darkening corridors of the Basilica, then he hated it. He hated the sword, and the man who had brought it. He hated that lying whisper of foresight that had told him that this sword would change his life forever. And, above all, he would hate the person who managed to draw the sword.

       Oh yes, he thought, with a grim smile. I will hate him.


Chapter one

Child of shadows

 

 

The day before the Crux was a holiday, a time to spend with friends, but Elias Ward had no friends, and always spent the day alone.

       Every year was much the same. In the morning, he sat in the uncomfortable window seat of whatever room he had been put in that year, slowly turning the pages of a book, or watching the way the antique glass in the window made the city outside look unreal and warped, like something from one of his dreams. Whenever he heard footsteps near his door, he held his breath, wondering if his master had decided to spend a few minutes with him after all, but the footsteps always passed by.

       By the time afternoon came, he was always so stifled by the small room, and so weary of disappointment, that he ventured out into the Basilica. It no longer scared him much, the thought of all these strangers looking at him. He had learnt by now that there were some people who got noticed, and some who did not. Elias was one of the invisible ones. He could walk through the Basilica for days, and no-one would remember his face.

       Wherever he wandered, he always ended up in the same place. There were dark corners in the cloisters, and it was possible to slip in, sit there for hours, and leave without anyone even seeing you. Elias had his own special place at the foot of an ancient statue of some hero whose name had been forgotten. It was in the shadows, but it afforded him a view of those who lived their lives in the light.

       He called them the golden ones, these young men who would one day change the world. The open space at the centre of the cloister was their playground, where they chatted beneath the magnolia tree, or sparred together with their staffs. They were everything Elias would never be, and he had always been fascinated by them.

       There were four of them there today. The only one whose name Elias knew was Joachim, who was handsome and gifted and destined for great things. Elias found it hard to look away from him, but as he stared, hidden in the shadows, Joachim seemed to glance his way and beckon him closer.

       Elias hardly dared to breathe. No, he had misunderstood. It hadn't been meant for him. He pressed himself back against the wall, but then it came again, this time with a note of impatience. Elias clasped his moist hands together. Perhaps he should go back to his room. Maybe his master had decided that he wanted him after all. He was always irritated if he called for Elias, and Elias wasn't there, waiting for the call.  

       Before he could move, Joachim was on his feet, walking towards him. Even the sun seemed to love him. Light shimmered around his head like a silver crown, but then it was even more strange, for Joachim walked on, but the shimmering patch of light remained where it had been, hanging in the air beneath the magnolia tree. When Elias looked fully at it, though, it disappeared.

       Joachim was already speaking to him, and Elias scrambled to his feet, hoping he could answer well. "Why don't I know you?" Joachim demanded. He looked at Elias as if he was to blame for Joachim's ignorance. "I know everyone."

       "I don't..." Elias hadn't spoken to anybody in two days, and his voice was an ineffectual croak. He cleared his throat. "I don't live here. I'm only here for the Crux."

       Joachim frowned, then snapped his fingers in triumph. "I know who you are! You're Ciaran Morgan's apprentice. You're..." He tried for Elias's name for a moment, then gave up. "Why haven't you come here before?"

       "I'm Elias. Elias Ward." Behind his back, he pressed both hands against the cold stone wall. "I've come here every winter for ten years."

       "How old are you?" Joachim asked. Two of his friends had joined him by now, just in time to see Elias's humiliation. "Seventeen? Eighteen? You're taking your vows tomorrow, like Caleb here?"

       Elias looked at the ground. "I'm nineteen."

       Joachim's eyes widened. "Nineteen?" His surprise said everything. At eighteen, all trainee Brothers made their vows of dedication, or else left the Order. Elias's master had never sat him down and said, "Elias, you haven't got what it takes to be a Brother." He had simply said nothing about it at all, and Elias had never dared ask, in case Ciaran just hadn't yet got round to casting him out as worthless.

       The fair-haired young man called Caleb elbowed his way forward. "So what's Ciaran Morgan like? We're dying to know. We've heard all the stories, of course."

       Elias pushed himself away from the wall. "It's not fair, how people talk about him. They don't know him! He's the best master. He's..."

       "Easy." Joachim spread his hands and chuckled. "No need to leap to his defence like a faithful little terrier." He glanced over his shoulder at his friends, then back to Elias. "So, do you want to fight me or not?"

       "Fight you?" Elias retreated back to the wall. "Over what?"

       "Practice, of course. I've fought all this lot already today. Beat them all, of course. I need a new challenge." He leant forward. "Are you a new challenge, Elias Ward?"

       Elias moistened his lips. He had his staff with him, of course, but he had no love of fighting. Ciaran was a good teacher, but he always struck at Elias as if he meant it, and his eyes glittered like chips of ice whenever Elias landed a good blow. Elias always tried to lose as soon as possible, so his master would stop looking at him as if he hated him.

       Joachim tapped him on the chest in mock challenge. "Come on. Show us that you're right about your master. Show us that he's not been wasting his time in that backwater of his, but has produced an apprentice worthy of being called a Brother."

       But he hasn't, Elias thought. His master had done everything he could, but not even the wisest man in the world could turn lead into gold. It wasn't Ciaran's fault if Elias would never amount to anything much, no more than it had been Elias's parents' fault that that he had been a child impossible to love.

       "No?" Joachim arched one eyebrow. "Never mind, then."

       How still it was, Elias realised. The old men on the benches had fallen silent, and Joachim's friends were just watching him, waiting. The shimmering was back beneath the magnolia tree, and suddenly it seemed as if the whole world had come to a halt, and everyone in it was waiting to hear him decide whether to fight or not. Then Joachim turned away, and the spell was broken. Noise resumed, and, somewhere far away or deep within him, something gave a little sigh of hopelessness.

       He really didn't expect me to, Elias thought. He knows I'm a child of the shadows, not a golden one like him. But the sunlight was shining so magically in the centre of the cloister. How lovely it would be to have friends who smiled at you when you spoke. How amazing it would be to think that you could do something worthwhile with your life in the years to come.

       Elias had lived his life in a shadowed room, looking through the window at the sunlight, but never venturing out of the door. He was invisible, but he had never tried to make himself seen. He had never tried to do anything, because he had always expected to fail. It was better that way, he had always thought. He was who he was, and he couldn’t change that. He would never be one of the great ones. All he could hope for was that he would always have a home, and at least one person who cared for him a little. All he could long for was that he would never again be truly alone.

       Joachim was walking away. By tomorrow, he wouldn't even remember Elias's name. He would look at Ciaran during the Crux, and think, This is the master who raised the most worthless apprentice of all.

       But maybe it didn't need to be true. If he never tried anything, of course he would fail. If he never spoke, then he never gave anyone the chance to listen. Nothing would ever change unless he had the courage to take the first step. The future had to hold more than this.

       Elias made up his mind. Grabbing his staff, he stepped out into the light. "I'll fight you."

       Joachim's face broke into a jubilant grin. "You will?" Something else seemed to say the same, raising its head in renewed hope, and catching Elias by the throat.

       It left him off-balance, afraid to start. He slowly removed his cloak, and one of Joachim's friends reached out a hand to take it. Joachim was already bouncing on the balls of his feet, eager to get started, but Elias hefted his staff in both hands, trying to feel the placid waves of Shadow that were deeply imbued in its smooth grain. I don't have to win, he told himself. All he needed to do was hold his own for a little while, enough to show Joachim that Ciaran Morgan was a good teacher after all.

       "Ready?" Joachim sounded impatient.

       Elias opened his mouth to reply, but something was there, striking him between the eyes, making him sway with dizziness. He almost dropped his staff as he brought his left hand up to his brow. When he lowered his hand, nothing looked quite real. Diamond needles pricked his eyes, and Joachim's face was a flimsy mask of paper that would tear apart if he reached for it.

       "What is it?" Joachim was asking, but Elias was incapable of answering, and could barely hear him. Something was whispering in his mind, speaking words he could not hear. "Nothing?" Joachim's lips said. "Then we're starting. Now."

       He lunged forward, and Elias parried it blindly. The voice was still there, and, I don't know what it is! he wailed. Where's it coming from? It swelled louder and louder, and it hurt, and something was tugging at him from the inside, and he thought he was going insane. Master! he pleaded, but he was on his own, no-one to help him, alone.

       Joachim's next blow struck home, and perhaps that was the only thing that saved Elias. The pain was sudden and fierce, but it was a normal pain, and he understood the cause. As his elbow throbbed and his left hand went numb, the voice in his mind ebbed like the tide.

       "That would have killed you," Joachim taunted him, "if we were fighting for real. What are you, boy? Are you a Brother?"

       Elias clenched his jaw. "I am a Brother." He was saying it as much to the voice as to Joachim. I am a Brother, and you cannot claim me.

       "Then act like one." Joachim tapped the end of his staff. "Strike me, boy."

       He wanted to flee the cloisters and never go back. Nothing would follow him into his barren room, and there he would be safe, and soon his master would be there to tell him that the voice was just his imagination, and what had he been thinking of, to try to fight someone like Joachim? But he wanted to stay, too. He wanted to be a Brother, and to know what it felt like to have done something well. As long as the door was always open to go back, he wanted to stay in the sunlight for a little while.

       Elias struck at Joachim, and struck him well. Joachim parried, but Elias attacked again. The other boy's eyes widened, and his face changed. Until now he had been toying with Elias, barely trying, but now he was fighting to win.

       I've passed the first test, Elias thought, but then he shivered, as if his words meant more than he could ever know. Even as he had dared to think it, his vision wavered and something skittered across his mind like insects with sharp dark feet. He could still see Joachim's staff, but the cloister behind him was swimming with milky mist that pulsed with wild voices. The mist was smeared with blood and patches of darkness, like the discarded cloaks of dead Brothers, fluttering in a desolate wind. Far away, he heard a man's voice, speaking words he could not hear. Beyond that, and so distant that it disappeared as soon he sought it, a thousand people were screaming.

       "Stop it," he pleaded. Joachim heard him, and thought he was pleading to him, but only smiled, and fought harder.

       As if in response to his plea, something of the shroud lifted, and he could see again the magnolia tree, and the faces of Joachim's friends. Some of them were calling Elias's name, and telling him that he could do it, that he was doing well.

       He feinted to the left, then struck to the right, taking Joachim by surprise and almost disarming him. The muscles around Joachim's eyes tightened with anger.

       He could be an enemy, the voice whispered in Elias's head, terrible like your darkest dreams. Would you fight him then?

       Fierce silver sheeted across his vision, then cleared. He found himself in another place. Joachim was still there, but his staff was set with sharp spikes, and a single touch of it would be agony. His dark hair was braided outlandishly, and his black cloak was clasped with silver, just like the villain in a story that had given him nightmares as a child. A girl lay at his feet, her face twisted with fear and pain. His eyes dared Elias to intervene and promised him an eternity of suffering if he tried to stop him, and failed.

       "No!" Elias screamed, flinging himself forward. The studded staff twisted round, as quick and deadly as a coiling whip, and jabbed into his ribs. Pain grabbed him by the throat, and he cried out, but he did not retreat. The girl needed him, and the thought of failing her hurt far worse.

       Even if he hurt you? the voice asked, very quietly.

       "Of course!" he sobbed, as the blood flowed down his side. The girl screamed, and the silver light sheeted again, and he was back in the cloister, and Joachim was only a young Brother, and nothing more. Elias's ribs felt bruised, but there was no blood.

       It had never happened. The vision and the voice were the symptoms of some delirium. There was something very wrong with him. He fell to his knees, and pressed his hands to his ears. He was dimly aware of Joachim crouching beside him. "Did I hurt you?"

       "I'm not well," Elias whispered. He wanted his master. He should never have got involved in this fight. He would never be one of the golden ones, and it was wrong to pretend, even just for a moment, to be something he was not.

       "I'm sorry," Joachim said, more in a taunt than an apology. "I thought you were stronger."

       I'm sorry, something whispered in his mind, gentle and alien and horrible. It touched him, and it was like a stab of pain between his eyes. He moaned, but then the touch was gone, and the voice was silent, and he was free.

       Free. He stood up, and flailed blindly for his staff. "I feel better now. Can we carry on?"

       The voice was gone. He was like a man awakening from a sick bed, to find that spring had come while he had been confined inside. He could see everything a little more clearly. He could remember the reasons he had for fighting Joachim, and he wanted to do it. If he gave in now, the whispering voice had won.

       For the first time, Joachim looked at him with a kind of respect. "All right. Call that one a warm-up. Now we fight for real."

       Elias's palms were damp and he could feel a minute trembling beneath his skin. He held the wooden staff tightly, and willed himself to be calm. This time he would fight like a true Brother, with the full strength of the Shadow. There would be no more distractions and no more impossible voices. He had not been well for a moment, but that had passed, and the danger was over.

       He would fight, and perhaps he would win, and perhaps he would lose, and maybe Joachim would respect him a little. He wanted him to, he realised. He wanted to be normal. He wanted to have friends, and to have the confidence to speak up. He wanted to become a Brother. He wanted his master to smile at him and say he had done well. He wanted to show Joachim that no-one could say bad things about Ciaran Morgan. He wanted to go to bed feeling that, for once, he had done something moderately impressive. He wanted to know that he had a future. He wanted to know that he would never be alone. He wanted things to be different, and he didn't want anything to change.

       This was only one fight. It didn't need to mean anything. He would fight to the best of his ability, and see what he was capable of. That was all, and in a few minutes it would all be over, and everything would be grey and cold and safe and normal, just like it always was. But, because of the things he had wished for today, perhaps, one day soon, he would start to make them come true.

       "Ready?" Joachim asked him.

       Elias swallowed. "Ready." And perhaps, he thought, he really was.

      

 

       Ciaran Morgan hated coming to the cloisters, but he had spent an unsatisfying day, stuck in a place far from home, where people whispered about him. Normally he endured the day alone, but he had suddenly felt the urge to see Elias, who always looked at him as if he was the most wonderful person in the world. But Elias had not been in his room, and that alone had made Ciaran frown, and stride off to find him. He had tried the garden and the public places, and had frowned even more. Surely Elias wouldn't have left the Basilica without permission? Surely Elias wasn't laughing in some young man's room, with friends he had never admitted to?

       Only the cloisters were left, and if Elias wasn't there, then one of these things was true. As Ciaran strode through the archway, a young boy glanced up at his face, and shrank away. Ciaran glared it him, suddenly furious at whoever it was who had been telling such tales about him that even the children judged him.

       The cloisters were full of tale-tellers. The old men were there on their benches, engaged in futile debates. The young men were in the middle, fighting with staffs, pretending that it made them glorious, though none of them would ever go out into the world and fight in earnest. The dark-haired combatant fought as if he was performing for some decadent court. The fair-haired one, though... Despite himself, Ciaran leant forward a little, watching him. There was something about him that drew the eye. He was not technically accomplished, but he was quick and graceful, and he was determined, too, not flinching from risk or pain.

       Despite himself, Ciaran watched him for a while, then noticed that the old men around the cloister were watching him, too, and seemed to like what they were seeing. Ciaran snorted in derision, and was about to turn away, when the combatants circled each other, and he caught sight of the young man's face. It was Elias! Elias, his apprentice, always so shy with strangers, was showing off in front of everyone, vying for their admiration. How wrong it was!

       Elias was a simple child, and Ciaran knew everything about him. He knew his limitations, and the extent of his dreams. Elias was his apprentice, bound to him by gratitude and devotion. He had changed little in the ten years they had been together. He had grown taller, and had learnt those things that Ciaran had chosen to teach him, but he was still a child. He could always be relied upon to be there when needed, and to stay away when Ciaran needed to be alone.

       But a child like that could never have fought like this. Elias would never even have left the shadows at the edge of the cloisters, not unless his master had ordered him to. Elias hated being the centre of attention, and he had always seemed to dislike fighting, too. Ciaran always defeated him and left him gasping on the ground. Why had the boy been hiding this talent from him? How many other secrets did he have hoarded up in his heart?

       It was cruel. Cruel of the boy to have come to this horrid place, just so his master had to follow him. Cruel of the boy to fight like this. Cruel of him to... Ciaran gasped, and, despite himself, he found himself stepping forward. What had happened? For a moment, Elias had been mirrored, a flimsy second image of him standing just to his side, trying to trick the opponent into striking the wrong one. Then it was gone, and Ciaran leant back against the pillar. His heart was beating fast. How dare Elias make him feel like this?

       There was no end to it. Some of the old men were standing up now. "It's only Elias!" Ciaran wanted to shout at them. "Stop looking at him!" The young men were always fighting here, and the old ones never gave them more than a passing look. Ciaran had once tried everything he could to draw their attention, but failed. Why was Elias different? Why were they whispering to each other and asking his name? Elias, the silent and overlooked shadow at his master's side, had suddenly become something marvellous, and it just wasn't right at all.

       Ciaran hated them all. He hated the cloister, where he had been teased with false promises, and then betrayed. He hated the Crux. He hated having to leave his home, and drag himself to the Basilica, just because it happened to be the shortest day of the year. He hated the old men who pursed their lips when they saw him, and hated them all the more for the way they were looking at Elias.

       Even Ciaran found it impossible to look away. The towers of the city claimed the setting sun, but it reserved its last lingering touch for Elias. His light blue eyes were grave, and his lips were parted slightly in concentration. He had always been a pretty child, but now he looked beautiful. He would win this fight, and it would make him arrogant. He would be beautiful and arrogant and cruel, and he would break hearts, and ruin lives. He would spoil everything. Such people always did.

       It was Ciaran's duty as a teacher to bring him down, to teach him a lesson. How could he live with himself if he let Elias become an arrogant destroyer? For ten years, Elias had meekly bowed his head and obeyed his master, but now something terrible was bursting out of the locked door of his heart, and it had to be stopped.

       With a final sequence of blows, Elias disarmed his opponent and was victorious. The dark-haired youth fell onto his back, and his staff flew out of his slack hand. Painfully he raised his head, but Elias held the end of his staff against his throat in the traditional declaration of victory.

       The youth's eyes blazed with furious fire. His chin jutted forward, and he refused to speak the ritual words of surrender, acknowledging his opponent's mastery. Elias should have walked away, but it seemed there was no end to his arrogant and hurtful show. Instead of walking back into obscurity, he knelt beside the young man, and offered him his hand. As he had doubtless planned, the masters exchanged glances, and nodded with approval at his show of humility. It was a look Ciaran had once longed to see bestowed on him, but now never would.

       He blinked. Something was stinging in his eyes and the back of his throat, and it tasted like cold ashes. He swallowed, but the taste would not go away. He had nurtured Elias and given him everything, and this was how he was repaid. It was wrong of an apprentice to try to surpass his master. It was wrong of Elias to race gleefully towards independence, and cast him aside, unwanted.

       Well, he thought, grimly, Elias still had a long way to go before he would be capable. This glimmer of rebellion would be crushed, and everything would return to the way it had always been. Elias would be happier that way. He was the sort of person who always needed someone stronger than him to show him the way. He wasn't really made for a life of greatness. If he got his hopes up now, he would only be setting himself up for disappointment.

       As Ciaran watched, his clenched fists held tight and trembling, the dark-haired youth spurned Elias's hand, and turned his head away. Elias's shoulders were heaving. He had fought hard, and was exhausted. His fair skin was even paler than normal, flecked with patches of red on his cheekbones. He had already begun to learn his lesson, for his victory had cost him dearly.

       Ciaran smiled grimly. And it will cost you more, before the lesson is finished. He cleared his throat, and called his apprentice's name. It will cost you more, before I am done with you, he thought, but it is for your own good.

       Elias hurried over to him, his blue eyes large and strange, and Ciaran readied himself to teach.

      

 

       In the moment of victory, Elias realised the truth.

       The voice had never gone, not at all. Instead, it had insinuated itself deeply within him, so intimately that he had stopped being aware of it. It was inside him, and he could not be rid of it, not if he clawed at his eyeballs and ripped apart his veins, and shredded himself from the inside out. He was conquered and claimed, and he didn't even know the name of his enemy.

       Not enemy. It stirred inside him, and spoke like a glimmer of his own thoughts. And I was always part of you. You just never knew it before. You never let yourself. You believed what they said about you, and made it true. Until now.

       You're not part of me! he screamed at it. I don't know what you are.

       He was trapped. Stupidly, he had left the safety of his shadowed house, drawn by the sunlight outside, but the sunlight had changed, and storm clouds had blotted out the light. Now terrible things wailed in the darkness, and claws were grasping for him. Cold wings brushed against his face, and something more terrifying than human thought could conceive was calling his name, wanting him.

       "Elias!" His master called to him, had come for him, would save him. Ciaran was the way home. Ciaran was the door back into the house, which was shadowy, yes, but because it was shadowy, it was warm and safe.

       Elias hurried to his side. Ciaran would know what to do. It was nothing to worry about, he would say. It had happened before, to other people, and they'd all got better. And then they would return to Greenslade together, where there were no whispering voices, and no golden youths who tempted him to try to be something he would never be.

       Perhaps Ciaran knew already. "Did you see?" he asked. Did you see the shimmering light? Did you hear the voice? Do you know how to save me?

       Ciaran gave a sharp nod, his mouth in a tight line. "I saw."

       Elias slumped against the wall with relief. "I don't know what it was." He almost said more, but Joachim was watching him, waiting for him to fail, and Elias could not quite bring himself to throw away his victory by pleading for help.

       Ciaran took hold of Elias's shoulder, and must have done so harder than he had intended, for it hurt. "But now it's time for you to fight me."

       "What?" Elias blinked. His legs felt weak and shuddery.

       His master raised his dark wooden staff. "You heard."

       The door slammed shut, and the warm light was gone forever. Elias was locked out in the darkness, and the wild creatures there were screaming for his blood. Nothing could save him now.

       "Come." It was a curt command, from the mouth of his master, and he had no choice but to obey. Pushing himself away from the wall, he walked forward with heavy steps. The sun had set, and the cloister was vast, cold beyond all hope of warmth. Small ripples of whispering ran between the other Brothers, but they were faceless men, as insubstantial as spirits. All Elias really saw was his master's broad and merciless back.

       "Elias!" It was a snap of command. Ciaran stood tall, alone beneath the orange-streaked sky. He tugged at his black cloak, coiled it loosely around one arm to catch up the voluminous folds, then cast it slithering away.

       Joachim was still on the floor, trying to look as if he was just lounging there by choice. He looked at Elias with cold hatred, but his followers had backed away from him a little. One of them smiled nervously at Elias, and another was chewing at his lip. They looked as if they had reached the end of a dance, only to find that the music had changed, and they had no idea where to go. Then Joachim pulled himself to his feet. He groped for his staff, and found it at the second attempt. He snapped something to his friends, and they all moved back into the shadows. The darkness hid the faces of everyone who was not Ciaran.

       Elias's last chance had gone. The strange thing that had affected him left him with no doubts about that. In the last hour, there had been many moments where he could have changed things, and escaped his fate. He could have run from Joachim's challenge, and hidden from the voice. More than one door had slammed in his face and condemned him. He had failed at every chance. Now his doom was decided, and there was nothing he could do but wait for it to claim him.

       "Now."

       Elias managed to speak, but even his voice sounded strange to him, as if the thing that had possessed him had already started to change him from within. "I'm ready." What else could he say? His master would despise him if he refused to fight. Nothing could save him, but he still wanted his master to like him.

       His master's staff met his own. Dark wood met light, and the Shadow coursed through the fibres, as if everything was normal, and he was not standing on the very brink of the end. It would be a short fight. Elias had fought one battle already, and he was exhausted. The Shadow was all jangling discord in his mind, impossible to grasp. He could no longer stave off his fear. Had it been a real fight, and an innocent life had depended on his skill, perhaps he could have found hidden reserves of strength, but not against his master, fighting as if he had no thought but to destroy Elias. Ciaran had never been a warm man, but he had never been like this before, so cold and furious, like a stranger.

       Maybe it would all be over as soon as Elias lost. Ciaran would have gained his victory, and this strange anger would drain from him. He would be himself again, and Elias would be able to talk to him. And so he simply stopped trying. A few minutes earlier, he had won a fight, and now he would lose. Joachim would gloat, but it didn't matter. Pride was nothing.

       With a cry of triumph, Ciaran plucked his staff from his unresisting hand, then brought his left arm round, striking him across the face and knocking him backwards. Elias fell heavily, and the breath was driven painfully from his lungs. He gasped, but the tip of a dark wooden staff was pressed into his throat, and he was unable to breathe. There was murder in Ciaran's eyes. He was tall and strong and he had killed before.

       Elias shut his eyes. It was finished.

      

 

       "I win," Ciaran declared. It felt good. Elias had won his victory and had been the shining star in the foolish eyes of the old masters, but now their star was eclipsed.

       Elias looked young and sad, but it had been only right that Ciaran crushed his burgeoning pride. "Do you yield?" he demanded. "Have you learned?" He raised his weapon from Elias's throat, and the boy sucked in a choked breath, but Ciaran was sure that he had hardly hurt him at all. It was the traditional way to finish a fight after all. Ciaran had done nothing anyone could reproach him for.

       Triumphant, Ciaran turned his head in a slow semi-circle, scanning the old men around the fringes, and the young men who had just seen how a master could fight, but their eyes were cold and their lips pursed with disquiet. Even the youth Elias had bested, who was flashy and dark-haired and therefore without mercy and pity, looked troubled, as if he had started something as innocent fun, and seen it grow into something massive and terrible.

       Ciaran thrust out his chin. The first beads of sweat started to form beneath his hands as they held onto the staff.

       Who were these people with their ignorant disapproval? He didn't even remember their names. He had grown up with them, but had never really been one of them, right from the start. As boys, they had had families to visit, and had known a life outside the Basilica. Of course he wasn't jealous, he had always told them, for it just meant that they were less committed than he was, and he would grow up to be a truer Brother than they were. And now he had his own life in Greenslade, and they still whispered about him, but he knew he was better than any of them. What did they know about anything? What did it matter, if they condemned him yet again?

       Angry, he turned away from them, and back to his apprentice. Elias had pulled himself up into a sitting position, but head was slumped forward, and his hair fell over his face. He looked like a picture of misery.

       "You were tired, I know," Ciaran said, a little louder than necessary, so those who watched him would know that he was never unreasonable and could still be kind. "But a Brother must always rise above mere tiredness. Innocent lives can depend on our skill. People could die if you give in to your tiredness, or get distracted by hurt pride. You would betray every vow you have ever made."

       Elias looked at him, young and hurting and broken, just like the boy Ciaran had rescued from the gutter ten years before. "Master," he whispered.

       With that simple word, everything changed. Elias was hurting, and Ciaran, his master and protector, had caused it. He had not been very kind at all. The lesson had been necessary, yes, but had it really needed to be so harsh?

       He went down on one knee beside the boy. "I'm sorry," he tried to whisper, but the words would not come. It was hard to humble himself. He was not normally cruel. Elias would understand that, for he always did. The least said about it, the quicker it would be forgotten. He had been harsh, but he would show his apology with gentleness. Everything would be the way it had always been, and that was good.

       Elias blinked at him. "Master," he whispered. "Help me."

       Ciaran managed to smile at him. "I'll help you," he crooned. "Come on." There were too many people watching them here. He would lead Elias away to their assigned quarters, and they could talk about whatever it was they needed to talk about. Elias had tasted victory and he had tasted defeat, and his master could help him plot his course between the two of them.

       He offered Elias his hand, and Elias accepted it. He showed no shame at needing to be helped up. He was humble in defeat, yet strangely dignified.

       "Come on, Elias," Ciaran said, again, when Elias was standing.

       Elias just stood there. He turned his head slightly to one side, and gave a tiny gasp. His right hand fluttered, as if he was trying to catch a piece of thistledown. Ciaran could not see his face.

       "Elias," he urged.

       Elias let out his breath in a sigh that was closer to a moan. He turned round, and pinpoints of silver light rested on his hair like dew. There was a shimmering, and a distant sound like autumn trees.

       In his hand Elias bore the white sword, and it was as beautiful as it had been twenty years before, when it had crushed Ciaran's dreams and changed his life.

       Ciaran pressed his hand against his mouth and managed not to cry out. The others were less silent. There were over a hundred of them now, he realised, drawn here by some impossible sense that something amazing was about to happen. Had everyone known except for him? He was still the outsider, and he always would be.

       "Master?" Elias blinked, like someone waking from sleep to find that the world had changed. Ciaran had never told him about the man from another world, and the sword he had brought. Elias was the only one in the cloister who had no idea what this moment meant. Or perhaps, he thought, when he saw the fear in his apprentice's suddenly too-old eyes, Elias knew the significance all too well, and it was the rest of them who would never understand.

       Ciaran swallowed. "Elias." He reached out his hand, and it was only with the utmost control that he stilled the trembling.

       "Master." Elias's blanched lips spoke with barely a movement. His eyes flickered desperately from side to side. "Master. Take it, please. There's still time. You'll do it better than I can."

       Everything went utterly still. Ciaran did not dare even to breathe. He felt his lips part slightly, but even his voice knew that this moment was too solemn for sound. Then he was aware of nothing but his own hand as it closed round the hilt of the sword he had once longed for.

       As it left his hand, Elias gave a low moan, as if it hurt him beyond imagining to lose it. But perhaps he was unaware of it, for his eyes showed only relief.

       Ciaran held the sword that had haunted his dreams for so long when he was young. Its milky crystal blade was pristine and unmarked. How easy it would be to claim it. He would hold it aloft and wield it in glorious deeds like the heroes of old. He would do so much good. The whole world would love him and need him, and everything would be perfect.

       He found the beginnings of a smile curl around his lips.

       "Brother Morgan?"

       He turned round. Grand Master Jerome had arrived. Dark-skinned, with a clipped white beard, he walked with a pronounced limp. Ciaran had once been told that Jerome had not always limped, but he had never been able to find out what it was that had wounded him. If it was something heroic, then why did the Grand Master remain so silent about it? Ciaran had never understood it as a child, and still did not.

       "Brother Morgan?" the Grand Master asked again, in a tone that demanded an instant answer. Even the way he addressed Ciaran was calculated to make him uncomfortable. Ciaran thought of himself as a master, but the title had never been officially conferred, and Jerome was deliberately reminding him of how the others thought of him.

       "The sword," Ciaran said, hoarsely. He held it tight, unconsciously pulling it closer to his chest.

       Jerome's eyes narrowed. "Was it you?"

       Ciaran ran his tongue over suddenly dry lips. Would he have done it, he wondered. If they had been alone when Elias had found the sword, and there had been no witnesses, would he have claimed it as his? Elias would never have breathed a word. "Yes, it was me," Ciaran could have said, "and the whole lot of you don't know a thing. I always knew it would be me." And they would hasten to appease him, they who had always looked at him with such a repulsive blend of disapproval and pity. He would be justified, and the world would fall in place behind his beliefs. The Brothers would rise again, in the image that he chose for them.

       No, he thought. No, but...

       He turned the sword over in his hand, and the beauty of the blade still brought an ache to the back of his throat. He remembered how he had sworn to hate it, and the one who eventually came to bear it. And now his own apprentice was the one who was so chosen.

       Ciaran swallowed. The sword in his hand was dead. It was not his. His apprentice had surpassed him indeed. He shook his head. "Not me. Elias." He held the sword out to his apprentice.

       Elias looked like a man accepting his own death. His eyes had never seemed so deep, or his skin so pale. But he did not flinch. As he reached out his hand, it did not tremble.

       As it touched Elias's hand, the sword seemed to come to life. As it had done in the hand of a dying man so long ago, a heart of living colour danced in the blade.

       It was too strong, too marvellous, for one frail boy. As the light inside him consumed him, Elias moaned. "It's called Albacrist," he whispered. Then, before Ciaran could even begin to move to his side, he slumped to the ground in a faint.

      

 

    Someone was touching his hand, their thumb kneading the skin on the inside of his wrist. Fingers brushed against his hair, pushing back a strand that lay across his forehead. Someone else was pacing up and down, their footsteps almost silent as they crossed a rug, then louder as they reached bare stone. The sound of the steps was irregular, as if the person walked with a limp.

       Elias lay still, and did not open his eyes. There was something very big and terrible just out of reach, but he could still hide from it, and then it would slink away in disappointment and never come back. He just had to lie still, and not name it.

       "Elias." Ciaran must have heard his breathing change. "Are you awake?"

       Why did his master sound afraid of him? Elias opened his eyes, and there was Ciaran, sitting beside his bed, stroking his hand. A Brother he did not know was the one who had touched his hair. The one pacing up and down was Grand Master Jerome himself. He supposed he should have known that from the limp, but it was just too amazing, that the Grand Master was concerned with someone like him.

       Ciaran gave the faintest hint of a smile, and his eyes were gentle and sad. "How are you feeling, Elias?"

       As long as he didn't move, he would be all right. As long as he didn't think. "I feel well." There was a crack in the curtains and he could see the moon. It was swollen and orange, as if it was sick.

       It was Grand Master Jerome who answered. "I am glad to hear it, Elias." He pulled up a chair and sat down. "What has your master told you about the sword?"

       Something fluttered in his chest, like imprisoned birds trying to escape. He swallowed, then swallowed again. "Sword?" he breathed.

       There was whispering. There was a blade of shining white, and it had plunged through his heart, and now the whiteness was in his blood, as beautiful and merciless as any sword blade. He moved his head to one side, and there it was, lying innocently on the table beside the bed. He remembered everything, and knew he would never be free, never again.

       "It happened at the Crux," Grand Master Jerome began, "twenty one years ago."

       Ciaran looked down at his hands, folded in his lap. He was no longer touching Elias. "I was fifteen," he said. "I saw it."

       "A man came." Jerome's voice was clear and merciless. "He came from another world, and he brought the sword. He said his powers had passed, and the sword was no longer his. One would come, he said, who would be able to find the sword again. The sword itself would know him. We all tried, but it was none of us."

       "He died," Ciaran said. Elias looked at him. "I was touching him as he died."

       The other Brother spoke. He was probably a healer, Elias thought. His eyes were dark brown and his neck was scrawny. "I remember every word. He said his people were lost. He was badly wounded. When I looked at him, I... I almost seemed to hear the echo of countless thousands of people screaming."

       Elias had heard screaming, too, red behind a silver mist. He looked at his master, whose face was all hard lines, and whose hands were clenched so tightly they seemed to tremble. If he stared at him very hard, everything else in the world would begin to blur, and would become less real. Only his master would remain.

       "His people were lost." Ciaran's voice was very bleak. "His land was ruled by men who could not see. The one who could wield the sword would be the only person who could save them. But he could destroy them too, if he chose not to take up his responsibilities, or failed along the way."

       "We all tried," Grand Master Jerome said. Elias turned to face him. He stared at him, and this time his master was the one to blur and go out of focus. "The sword had gone, and none of us could find it. And now it has come to you. You are the one."

       "He would have powers greater than anyone," the healer said, in a husky voice, "as long as he had the strength and wisdom to learn them."

       Elias stared at him, then at his master, then at Grand Master Jerome. Three faces, leaning towards him, filling his vision, speaking words. The more he stared, the less real they became. They were faces drawn on paper, and they spoke meaningless sounds. The sword on the table was more real than any of them, shining like a white blaze through the greyness of existence.

       "Twenty one years ago," he whispered, closing his eyes. "They've been lost for twenty one years." Twenty one years could hold a million deaths. "A whole generation lost. Just waiting."

       "That is true," Jerome said.

       Elias opened his eyes in time to see Ciaran glare at the Grand Master. "It's not his fault," his master snapped, moving closer to Elias's side as if he could protect him from everything bad in the world. Until today, Elias had thought that he could.

       "And I'm supposed to save them." Elias caught hold of a handful of bedclothes, and squeezed them tight. "Another world, you say. Where? Where are they? How can I save them if I don't know where they are?"

       His master grabbed his hand and forced his convulsing fingers to relax. "Hush," he soothed him, just as he had always soothed him as a child. "No-one's expecting that of you. No-one's blaming you. It's absurd."

       Elias lay very still and let his master stroke his hand. A gust of wind set a skeletal branch tapping against the window, and a finger of cloud touched the edge of the swollen moon. A klaxon sounded in a factory, and he thought of the white-faced children who worked there, knowing nothing of light or hope or happiness.

       "I can't do it," Elias burst out. "I can't."

       "No," his master soothed. "No-one's going to make you." Fierce, and still stroking Elias's hand, he turned to Jerome. "Stop telling him these things. Can't you see how tired he is? He needs to sleep."

       Elias turned his face to the wall. He heard people leave. His master remained for a little longer, but then he left, too. After Ciaran blew out the candle, Elias rolled over and lay there in the darkness, just staring at the moon.

      

 

       Although he heard the footsteps approach him on the gravel, Ciaran did not turn round. His arms resting on the smooth gravel wall, he stood as he had been for hours, just staring out across the city from the Basilica built high on its rock. 

       "You heard," he said, when the sound had ceased. It was not a question.

       "I did."

       Matthias took his place on the wall beside him, his usual arm's length away, but then his master surprised him, for he moved closer and touched Ciaran gently on the back of his tanned hand. "I did know, Ciaran."

       Ciaran's mouth was suddenly dry. "Know?"

       "How sure you were that it was going to be you."

       He closed his eyes, but, when he opened them, nothing had changed. His heart was beating very fast. "You think I resent him for it? You think I'm that... petty?"

       "I'm not accusing you of anything, Ciaran," his master said, gently. "All I know is that whispers are running through the Basilica, and they all speak the name of your apprentice. The younger ones envy him, of course, and the wiser ones pity him, but they're talking about it as if he's the only one affected by this. But he isn't, is he, Ciaran? It's as hard for you as it is for him." He touched Ciaran's hand again. "I made mistakes when you were wrong. I failed you, I think, in some ways. But I always cared for you, and I still do."

       It was a long speech for his master, and Ciaran felt unexpected tears make his throat ache. He had never cried, though, since that terrible autumn night so many years before, and he refused to cry now. He struggled for control, aware that his master was looking at him, and it was his turn to speak. He should acknowledge what the old man had said, and say something in return, but he wanted the words to be just right, and his voice to be level. He swallowed hard, and stared at the specks in the granite wall.

       His master turned away, and looked out over the city. Ciaran had struggled for too long, and the moment had passed. Ciaran wasn't sure whether to regret it, or to feel relief. There were clear boundaries in his life, and very clear paths that he walked. Too much had been overturned already today.

       "So, how is Elias taking it?" Matthias asked, in a different sort of voice. "Does he know?"

       Ciaran pressed one palm on the wall and the other on top of it. "If you mean about the sword and the man who put it there, yes." He took a deep breath, and, when he spoke again, his voice was tight. "If you mean did I tell him about my own hopes, then, no. He's going to find this hard enough anyway, without knowing that."

       "So it was for his own sake that you didn't tell him?" Ciaran frowned and looked at his master, but saw no criticism on his face, only genuine enquiry.

       "Yes." He nodded. "I would never let anything hurt that boy. You know that."

       He felt a small creeping of guilt as he spoke, but it was the truth. He knew he had caused Elias a little pain earlier in the day, but he had been the boy's protector for ten years, and now Elias needed his protection as he had never needed it before. Ciaran had been right to hate the man who had brought the sword. It was wrong to lay such an impossible task on such frail shoulders. Elias would want to save the people he was supposed to save, and would blame himself when he failed. And of course he would fail, because he was only Elias, Ciaran's apprentice, and no hero. It was Ciaran's clear duty to prepare him for that moment, and to protect him from those who wanted to make him feel guilty for failing to achieve the impossible. Elias was his apprentice, and Ciaran only wanted what was best for the boy.

       "What did he say?" Matthias asked.

       "Not much." At Elias's bedside, Ciaran had stared down at his own clasped hands, and seen the whiteness of bone at the knuckles. Now he looked at those same knuckles in the darkness. "He's asleep now."

       His master spoke mildly. "Perhaps you should tell him. Tell him everything, I mean. At least it will..."

       He shrugged, but Ciaran heard the implication in that hanging sentence. Explain why you're surely going to let him down, his master meant. Like all the others, he, too, thought Ciaran had lost his way years before, and never found his way back again.

       Suddenly furious, he clenched both fists and slammed them down on the wall. It was hard enough to hurt, but nothing could make a difference, nothing. "He's still a boy! He's going to be expected to... to save a whole people, somehow, and we don't even know how to find them. He's not..." He shook his head, at a loss for words to express the hollow dread inside him. "It's not fair," he finished, weakly.

       "And you think you'd have been such a better choice?"

       "Anyone would have been a better choice," Ciaran burst out. Then he frowned, and shook his head. "I mean, no-one would have been better. It's a responsibility that should never have been asked of anyone." At fifteen, he had seen only the glory of it, but he would never forget how lost and swamped Elias had looked when they had told him the truth.

       His master said nothing. Ciaran gazed over the city, but found it suddenly impossible to bear. It was so noisy and ugly, full of people who were rushing headlong towards their so-called progress, and turning their backs on the most important things of all. Towering above them was the Basilica, where every stone was ancient, but the beacon that had once guided the world was now shrouded with smoke, and few people ever saw its light.

       The world had changed, and the Brothers had been cast up on the shore like wreckage after a storm. Once, they had stood at the heart of the world's affairs. They had advised kings and princes, and stopped wars. They had ruled in disputes, and protected the weak and innocent. Everyone had revered them, for they alone could sense the Shadow, and perform feats that the ignorant called magic. Now the same magic was greeted with distrust, as a relic of an older time. Those who still revered the Brothers did so only because they remembered that their grandparents had done so. The rest of the world just laughed, or else had forgotten them entirely.

       When had everything started to change? It had been so slow and subtle that no-one had noticed it happening until it was too late to stop it. Was it when the first gun had been made, allowing men to kill each other without seeing the face of the person they killed? Was it when people began to talk about science and progress, and despise as superstition the things they had once admired?

       Ciaran did not know. All he knew was that he despised the change, and would not accept it. A decline could be reversed. A lost people could be brought back to the light. All it needed was the right hero to come along, and the beacon would shine forth again for everyone to see.

       Ciaran had long since lost his childhood dreams that he could be that hero, but he knew that he was doing good work. Unlike the others, he refused to accept the changes in the world. He would never give up and devote himself to a life of silent contemplation, like so many of the older ones did. Neither would he do what the younger ones were doing, who laid aside their staffs and went into the world, and took positions in the corrupt governments and law courts and served that way.

       In Greenslade, Ciaran mattered. It was a delightful village, where the people lived just as they had always lived. At least they still remembered the value of a Brother, even if no-one else did. They were like charming children, and they needed Ciaran very much. He might not be able to be a beacon to the corrupt modern world, but at least he was a beacon to a few hundred people. His life there was a noble one, and who else amongst the Brotherhood could truly say the same? He knew they whispered about him, but he also knew that he was right.

       Down in the city, a bell clanged, sharp and tinny. How Ciaran wished he was back home! Greenslade was pretty and quiet, and he could go for months without the slightest reminder of the modern world.

       "You look so sad," his master said. "I don't think you've ever been happy, have you, Ciaran?"

       Ciaran stood very still. "Of course I have," he said, as smoke drifted from a chimney and blotted out the purity of the sky. "I do good work."

       "That's not what I meant." Matthias's voice was very soft.

       On the edges of his vision, Ciaran saw the white flower that always stirred memories. He screwed his eyes shut. "It's not about me. It's all about Elias now, isn't it?"

       His master touched his shoulder. "It's about both of you, Ciaran. You and him, because you're his master, and you're the person he'll look to for help. Can you be sure that you'll help him sincerely? If you're still troubled by..."

       "What sort of a master do you think I am?" Ciaran shouted. "I'll help him. I'll protect him. Of course I will. That's all that matters."

       Gravel crunched as Matthias took a step back. "It's the Crux tomorrow night. It's a time for laying the past to rest, and accepting whatever lies in the future."

       Ciaran curled his hand into a fist, and ground it against the balustrade. "I know."

       Matthias seemed to be waiting for Ciaran to say something else, but at last he sighed, and said, "It has happened. You can't change it."

       Ciaran passed his hand across his brow, then turned it into a more violent movement, rubbing deeply at his eyes. "I just wish it hadn't happened," he said, suddenly too weary to lie.

       And, side by side, in a garden that still dreamed of the past, the two of them stood and watched the city of the future, and had nothing more to say to each other.

      

 

    The sword lay on the table beside him, and Elias stared and stared at it, but did not touch it. He never wanted to touch it again.

       They had told him everything, then left him alone and expected him to sleep. "I can't do it," he had said, and none of them had argued. They, who knew him best, had just accepted it as truth.

       "I can't do it," he told the sword. "Choose someone else." He wriggled out a hand from underneath him, and touched its blade with one finger. It glowed cheerfully, as if it enjoyed his touch. "Aren't you listening?" he cried. "I can't do it! Look at me!"

       Spreading his arms, he showed the sword the sort of person he was. He would never be tall or broad shouldered. He had the sort of face that was more suited to a poet than a warrior. When he spoke, he still spoke with the accent of his home town, not in the cultivated tones of a courtier or king. Some of his nails were chipped, and he had forgotten to neaten them up again.

       The sword still glowed. Pick me up, its light was urging him. Hold me again. Accept your destiny.

       "I can't," he wailed. He threw himself open to it, showing it everything. What sort of a person was he, that even his own parents had hated him? He showed it what his childhood had been like, and how pathetic he had always been. He told it that his oldest brother was a thief, and perhaps even a murderer. He told it how his sisters were prostitutes. He told it how his father used to drink the wages his children earned. He told it about his mother, who had once dreamed of something better, but was now more cruel than any of them, because of disappointed hopes.

       "You see?" he told it. "That's the blood that runs in my veins. And, as bad as they are, I was worse, because even they could not love me."

       He told it how he had come home one day to find the house empty, and everyone gone. He told it how he had broken down and cried, and had refused to believe it, even when a neighbour said that they owed three months rent, and would never be coming back. He told it how he had hurried back to the factory, in case they had come to collect him and he had missed them. Then he told it how he had collapsed to the ground and despaired.

       "I would have died there," he said, "if my master hadn't found me." Because Ciaran Morgan had come striding out of the sunset, and had spoken to him, asking him if he wanted to become a Brother of the Shadow. "So I gave my life into the hands of a stranger," he told it, "just because he smiled at me, and because he looked strong. And he's been everything to me ever since. Everything. I'm nothing without him."

       But still the sword shone; still the sword waited for him.

       Elias let out a shuddering breath. He had no choice. It had chosen him, and it wanted him, and the fact that he knew he would fail made not the slightest difference to him.

       Was there any possibility of refusing? If he turned his back on the sword, would choose someone else instead, someone who would do better? Perhaps it would, but perhaps it wouldn't. The man who had brought the sword had said that the one who was chosen could destroy his people, if he chose not to take up his responsibility. That implied that there was only one. If Elias turned his back on the sword, no-one else would come along to take his place. The people who had been screaming in pain for twenty years would be lost forever, just because Elias refused to take up a sword in a room a whole world away. And they would never know. Every day, they would wake up and wonder if today, perhaps, was the day their saviour would come. They would carry on hoping, years after Elias had made hope die.

       He had no choice. For reasons of its own, the sword had chosen him, and there was no way he could say no. There were people out there somewhere who needed him. If he tried and failed, he destroyed them, but if he didn't even try in the first place... No, he had to try. How could he do anything else? There was no turning back now. He had chosen to step out of the shadowy house into the sunlight, and he could never return, not even when the sunlight became night, and untold horrors were gibbering in the darkness.

       Elias placed his hand on the blade of the sword. "I will try," he swore. "I promise I will do whatever I can to prove worthy."

       He had glad his master was not here. Ciaran would have argued. "Of course you can walk away," he would have said, and, "you're silly even to try. You're just setting yourself up for disappointment," and Elias would believed it, because he always did believe his master. Then he would have left the sword behind and let Ciaran lead him back into the shadowy house, and there he would stay forever.

       He had made his decision, he realised, and he had made it without Ciaran. If his master came back, of course he would discuss it with him, and he would question it, but it would make no difference. Nothing Ciaran said would change what he had to do, and it felt strange, and a little sad, to realise that.

       With a sigh, Elias closed his hand round the hilt, and took up the sword. It shone so brightly, and resonated inside him so deeply, that he had to close his eyes, but that made no difference at all. He belonged to the sword now. 

      

 

       Ciaran had never felt so uneasy just to be in the same room as his apprentice. He had never been so unsure of what to say. He sat down on the hard wooden chair beside the bed, but Elias did not turn round. "Did you sleep well?" he asked.

       Elias moved his head a little bit, somewhere between a shake and a nod. "I slept a little."

       The sword lay across his lap. From behind, Ciaran could see the hilt protruding from the left of Elias's body, and the end of the blade from the right. Ciaran wanted to touch the back of Elias's neck. The boy would lean back into his touch and let himself be held and protected. He looked so pale and small, as if someone had dropped him on the bed, and forgotten him.

       "I don't know what to do now," Elias said, in a sudden rush. "I've taken up the sword, but I don't know how to find the people I'm supposed to save. Who knows how to find the way to another world? How can I do it?"

       Ciaran bit his lip. He knew what he wanted to say, but something was stopping him. Forget it, he wanted to tell the boy. Don't let it torment you. It's an impossible burden, and not fair.

       Elias shook his head, and gave a wry laugh. "I think it was testing me, yesterday. I was aware of it, in my mind, for a while before... before I held the sword. There were lots of times when I could have... failed. If I'd refused to fight Joachim and had run away... If I'd refused to fight for the girl even though it threatened to hurt me... It wanted to watch me win, and it wanted to watch me lose, and see how I behaved in each. Every time I made a choice, it was like one more lock closing on my prison cell. If I'd made different choices, do you think it would it have chosen someone else?"

       The chair was far too hard. Ciaran moved to the bed, sitting on the other side from Elias. "If it was a test, you passed." His voice was very tight.

       "But they were small tests." Elias laughed again. He sounded like a stranger. "Tiny ones. Now it thinks I'm worthy of something so much greater, and I don't know what to do. I can't fail. But I don't know how to succeed. I don't know how to do this. I don't know what the next step is."

       "I hate this!" Ciaran suddenly shouted. He drove his fist into the bed. "It's not fair, what that man did to you."

       He could see how the future would be, and saw no way out of it. The dying man had said just enough to bind Elias into this terrible duty, but not enough to help him fulfil it. Elias would strive and strive, but the man was dead, and could never show him the way to his world. Elias was too generous a boy to be able to turn his back on the people he thought needed him. Every day that passed, for his whole life, he would wonder if yet another person was dying in agony because of his failure.

       It was so wrong! Ciaran cursed the memory of the man who had done this. If marvels happened, and he ever did get to meet the people who expected Elias to save them, he would hate them on sight. It was wrong to do this to a boy. It was wrong to expect so much, while giving so little.

       Elias turned fully to face him, his knees pulled up to his chest, and his feet on the bed. The sword he laid at his side, but even now it held Elias captive, for he did not remove his hand from the blade, but kept it there as if it was glued there.

       "Whether it's fair or not, it's happened," Elias said. "And I have no choices left. It's real. There are people out there, waiting for me, and suffering. Every day I fail to understand is like an eternity of pain for them." His eyes were like pale cold fire. "I know this, master. It is more important than anything."

       Never before had his apprentice spoken to him in such a way. Never before had Elias seemed so sure of something, so certain that he was right, even if his master thought otherwise. For the first time, Ciaran realised just how much had changed, and how nothing would ever be the same again. Unless I take steps now to change them back, before the damage is too great. He clenched his fists, and said nothing.

       "I'll have to learn things." Elias started to shake his head from side to side, as if, without knowing it, he was still searching for a way out. "I'll have to do things. I'll have to become different. I'll have to face things I've always been afraid of. There are new worst things, worse than anything." He looked like he used to look, when he had just woken from a nightmare. "How can I do it, master? What shall I do?"

       Ciaran twisted his fingers uselessly. Elias was looking at him as if he had all the answers. This was his chance. Ciaran could soothe him, and Elias would listen. He could tell him that the magic had faded, and he would never find the people he had to save, who were probably long dead now, anyway, and were no concern of his even if they were still alive, for he had not even been born when their leader had chosen to leave them. The only sensible thing to do would be to forget all about them, and go back to being just Elias again, whose master could ease all hurts. The sword would be an interesting relic, and nothing more, and that was that.

       Yes, he thought. It was for the best. He would say the words, and that would be that. No good could come out of saying anything else.

       "Elias," he began, but he could go no further.

       The man from the other world had died, and Ciaran had been touching him. He had been proud and wounded and desperate, and he had given away something he had loved, because he thought his people would be served by it. The magic had been real, and Ciaran had felt it, however much he had tried to deny it afterwards. Somewhere in another world, the man's people needed a saviour, and Ciaran was a Brother, sworn to protecting those in need. He had raised Elias that way, too. He had created the boy who sat here now, so desperate to do his duty.

       But why Elias? If the duty needed to be done, why couldn't it be anyone but Elias? Why not someone who at least has a chance of succeeding? Why not me? So maybe he had to tell Elias to forget about the people who needed him, then take up the sword in secret and do it himself. That way, duty would be done, but Elias would be spared the responsibility and the guilt of failure.

       He tried again. "Elias. You should..."

 Jealous, his master had as good as accused him. He had longed for the sword as a child, and had wanted it to be him. He had sworn to hate the one who managed to attain it. The magic of the sword was real, and, for whatever reason, the magic had chosen Elias, and passed Ciaran by. Elias might fail, but Ciaran would only fail all the more completely.

       Ciaran took a deep breath. "What should you do?" He began to speak. They were cautious words, not committing them to anything. There would still be time to go back, to take either of the roads he had chosen not to take for now. "Be patient. Start from the beginning. Learn, and show yourself worthy, and perhaps the next step on the path will be revealed to you."

       Elias blinked. "What do you mean?"

       "I mean... For ten years, Elias, you've stood in that cloister, and the sword didn't appear. Why do you think that is?"

       "It was waiting." Elias's eyes widened. "It was waiting for me to grow up. It was waiting for me to..."

       "Show you were ready," Ciaran said, a little harshly. This was not easy for him. "And, for all those years of waiting, it never did choose someone else. It waited for you, Elias, for you to be ready. So perhaps all you need to do is live, to carry on as normal, and let the waiting start again."

       "Waiting," Elias echoed. "I don't think I can."

       Ciaran closed his hand over Elias's wrist. "You have to. What else can you do? It tested you, you said. It tested your courage and your dedication and your... your humility. Perhaps now it's testing your ability to wait, to stay true to your purpose when given no reward."

       "I don't want a reward," Elias said. "I just want... I don't want to fail. I want to be worthy."

       Ciaran could not bring himself to look at the need in Elias's eyes, where normally he relished it. For the first time, it was a need that Ciaran was powerless to ease. "Just be ready," he said. "Live your life as normal, and one day, perhaps, in a way you had never expected, the test will come, and then you will see what needs to be done."

       Or maybe, he thought, as the weeks go by, and the months, and the years, you will know you have failed, and just forget.


Chapter two

Never enough

      

 

       Everyone in Greenslade knew that the castle was haunted. They told stories in the taverns about its ghosts, and even the boldest of youths avoided it. Although a cart track led past the ruins, the villagers hurried by with their faces  averted, for they knew that anyone who drew the attention of a restless spirit was doomed.

       Ciaran believed in ghosts, for the Brothers knew that spirits could linger after death. He had sensed them sometimes, long ago, feeling their presence like a whisper in the Shadow, but never more than that. No-one would ever see them, or hear their voices. The tales of voices wailing in the wind were just tales, and the stories of unwary travellers snatched by walking skeletons were just the horror stories. His people were child-like in their simplicity, and it was the nature of children to make stories out of their fears.

       But, still, he had never gone there. On winter nights, he closed the shutters and made the fire roar, to drown the sound of the wind. Every morning, when he left his house, he turned right, into the village, and not left, to cross the bridge and follow the overgrown path to the ruins. No-one did.

       No-one except one.

       Ciaran was not afraid. He bludgeoned at the plants that tried to impede his path, scattering red petals like blood. Grass pollen hazed the air. Hidden beneath the grass, the ground was uneven. Someone had walked this way often in the winter mud, and the shape of their footsteps had been baked hard by the summer sun.

       Not just someone. Elias. Every night for six months, Elias had slipped out into the darkness. He wants to hide how sad he is, to cry alone beneath the stars, Ciaran had thought, and he had almost forbidden him to leave, but Elias had always returned, and so Ciaran had said nothing. Then, when spring came, and the evenings were light enough to see, Ciaran had watched Elias from the window, and seen him head not for the open fields, but for the ruins. Even then, he had said nothing. It wasn't as if Ciaran believed the stories, or was scared of the place. If he said something, perhaps Elias would think that he was.

       But tonight, he thought, I will say something. Tonight I will bring him home and keep him there, if I have to drag him there screaming. 

       Had he really believed that everything could carry on as normal? For a while, it seemed that he truly had. Ciaran had slipped back into his life in Greenslade, and had expected Elias to do the same. In the familiar surroundings of his home, the sword had seemed far less magical than it had seemed in the Basilica, and the memory of the man who had brought it had slipped away.

       They had never spoken of it again. The only concession Ciaran had made was to teach Elias how to fight with a sword. For an hour every morning, they fought together with bluntened practice swords, but spoke never a word about why they were doing it. After they had fought, Ciaran had taught Elias about the Shadow, or had let him tag along while he did his duties in Greenslade, or had simply ignored him, just as normal.

       But Elias had refused to be normal. He was as obedient as ever, but his expression was frequently distant. There were times when Ciaran thought that Elias wasn't even listening to him at all, but he had said nothing about that, either. A problem ignored usually went away. Of course Elias was listening to him. Of course everything was normal. He just had to teach him a little more, to bind the boy to his side from dawn to dusk, to demand his attention at all times, and everything would be well. In six months, he had taught Elias more than he had taught him in years, but still Elias refused to be the boy that Ciaran had always known.

       Tonight, Ciaran would force matters. He could not pretend any longer. He was fighting a battle for Elias's soul, and he refused to lose it, though his enemy was strong and wily. The ghost of that terrible day in the Basilica had a long and terrible reach, and it held Elias in its possession. It was trying to become the most important thing in Elias's life. It was trying to make him forget all the things that had always mattered to him. It was turning him into a ghost himself, with a wan face and haunted eyes, and Ciaran was going to stop it. For Elias's own sake, he would confront the enemy at last, and he would win.

       Why tonight? Because it was midsummer's eve, and six months to the day since Elias had found the sword. It was a fitting time to bring things to an end. In the old calendar of this province, midsummer's eve was the last day of the old year. Tomorrow, the new year would start with flowers and sunlight and hope, and winter would be a distant dream, and almost forgotten.

       Ciaran paused just outside the gatehouse. Dark brambles clung thickly to the base of the limestone walls, and ivy snaked up the towers. The statue of a grotesque beast guarded one side of the gateway, its eyes curiously untouched by the coiling greenery. On the other side of the gate a similar beast lay, fallen face down and half covered by brambles. The ground seemed scratched at its base.

       "They watch you," Ciaran had heard a man declare in the tavern, "and, when you've gone by, they lumber off their perches and follow you." He had put his tankard down and pressed his hand flat on the table, showing the ridged scar across his knuckles. "Me, I ran fast enough, but only just."

       Not that Ciaran believed a word of it. The ghosts were real, but it was nonsense the believe that stone could walk. The castle was just a place of tumbled walls and betrayed spirits. He even knew their story. Three centuries before, in a brutal civil war, a whole garrison had been betrayed by their lord, abandoned to the enemy's bloodlust. They had not even been granted burial. Scratch the ground, the villagers said, and no matter where you did it, you would find bones.

       The gatehouse was a dark tunnel, with black shapes littering the floor. No plants grew beneath the arched passageway. As Ciaran began to walk into the embrace of darkness, the eyes of the statue seemed to flicker towards him, but he wasn't afraid. He ran his tongue over his dry lips, and walked with his head high. Stories. They were only silly stories. The only thing that awaited him was Elias, and Elias was his apprentice, and it was absurd to think that Ciaran might be nervous of meeting him tonight. 

       Once through the gatehouse, he let out a breath. The sunlight was a rich dark yellow, warm on his cheek. Things crunched under his feet, but they were only pebbles, not skeletons buried beneath a thin layer of blown earth and drifting seeds and time. Something snagged at his cloak, and he whirled round, but it was only brambles. Of course it was only brambles.

       Ahead were the central buildings of the castle, where an arched doorway led into what must once have been a courtyard. There were signs of Elias everywhere. Undergrowth had been flattened into a path, golden in the setting sun, and fallen masonry had been cleared away from the door. Weeds were already growing in the indentations where the stone had rested for centuries. Some of the rocks looked very heavy. What had Elias been thinking, to try to move them by himself? He should have asked for help.

       Ciaran frowned as he headed for the doorway. Why couldn't Elias see how wrong this all was? He was too malleable. He had let the sword possess him, and now he had let this evil place cast a spell over him. His bedroom overlooked the long-ago road to the castle, and he had let the ghosts call to him and lure him. He was lucky he had a master to save him and bring him home.

       He passed through the archway, and stopped. Elias was there, of course, and he was alone. Not a lover's tryst, then, Ciaran thought, and was surprised, for it was not a possibility he had been aware of considering.

       Elias was not yet aware of his master's presence. He was standing on a pedestal in the middle of a green open space, bathed in the light of the setting sun. Two towers cast shadows on either side of him, but he stood golden in the sunlight. His own shadow was long and commanding, reaching half way across the courtyard.

       It was a calculated pose of glory, as arrogant as a king. Elias looked beautiful, as if he wanted everyone who saw him to fall down in awe. And that was it, Ciaran realised. Elias thought the ghosts could see him. They had been betrayed by their master, and so he stood before them, offering himself as their new lord. See how glorious I am, he told them every day. I have been chosen for greatness. Worship me now. And perhaps they did, for the hem of his tunic was shivering, as if the dead were kneeling at his feet and fawning over him.

       Ciaran pursed his lips. Elias was a victim of the cruel magic of the sword, but he was not blameless. Ciaran would rescue him, but he would also punish him. For the first time in his life, Elias had been set above everyone else around him. He had been singled out and chosen, and he had let it go to his head. He thought he was too good for Greenslade now, so he shambled through the streets with distant eyes, seeing nothing, barely hearing his master.

       "Elias!" he called, but his voice was a croak, his throat was thick and choked. He coughed, but Elias, lost in dreams of glory, did not hear him. The boy's head sank forward. A faceless statue stood on the pedestal, and Elias was clutching at it both hands, heedless of the thorny roses that twined around it and made him bleed. His shoulders heaved as he struggled for breath. He still shone in the sunlight, but all the light was reflected, and was not his. He was pale, and swamped by it.

       Everything drifted apart, then was reassembled again in a different shape. Not arrogant at all, Ciaran realised. Elias was exhausted and broken. If a human enemy had dared hurt Ciaran's apprentice so, Ciaran would have smashed him to the ground and beaten him bloody. Well, he swore, he would do no less this time, although the enemy was only a voice that spoke deeply in Elias's soul.

       Ciaran jabbed his staff into the ground, gouging a hole in the mud, tearing blades of grass asunder. How could Ciaran fight an enemy he could not see? He scraped a crushed worm off with his boot, then jabbed at the earth again. Elias would be the battleground, and the fight could destroy him. But better that, than this. Better anything than this.

       Elias was still unaware of him, or perhaps he knew Ciaran was there, but was ignoring him. Perhaps the voice of the sword had told him to stop caring whether his master was with him or not. As Ciaran watched, Elias started to walk away from him. He was trying to keep his head high, but his steps were faltering, and he was weaving a little. After three steps, his knees started to buckle, and he almost fell. A fourth and a fifth, and then he was down, like a marionette cast aside by a careless puppeteer. After a few seconds in the mud, he made a clumsy attempt to push himself up. He ended up sitting, his knees pulled up and his arms wrapped around them. His head slumped forward, and his hair brushed his clasped hands, concealing his face.

       Ciaran hurried to Elias's side. Elias raised his head wearily, and gave his master a bleak stare. For all the childlike pose, it was the face of a man, with eyes that Ciaran did not know.

       "Elias." Ciaran cleared his throat. "Why do you come here?" It sounded almost plaintive, and not at all how he had intended it.

       "Practising." Elias was absently running his left thumb over the palm of his right hand. There were two puncture wounds there, trailing smears of blood. As Ciaran watched, the thumb rubbed harder and deeper. "Trying..." He swallowed. "Trying to master the sword. Trying to past its next test."

       "But why here? Why..." Ciaran spread his arm, gesturing at their surroundings, then shrugged, needing no words. In the orange light of sunset, the ruins were almost pretty, with their carvings and statues and traceries windows, but Elias would know its reputation as well as Ciaran did.

       "There's space here. And everyone's afraid of it. No-one comes here. No-one... watches."

       "But it's a bad place." Ciaran walked a half circle around the boy, until he had his back to the sun, and Elias was sheltered in his shadow. "The dead still walk here, Elias."

       "I know." Elias frowned, and his eyes drifted far away. "I can see them. They're the reason..."

       "You can't see them," Ciaran interrupted. "No-one can. Don't talk nonsense."

       "They're here," Elias said, in a bleak little voice. "They're waiting for their lord to come back. They can't believe that he would betray them. They have little sense of time passing. They don't understand. They're screaming. He can save them. If only he came back, he would save them. But he never comes. He failed them. He's somewhere else, and they'll never be free, they'll never be saved. Never."

       "Elias!" Ciaran grabbed Elias's shoulders and hauled him up towards him, forcing him to stop. "Don't talk like that," he said, more gently. "I understand, of course. I know you see the connection between their situation and yours. But can't you see how wrong it is? You're letting this place destroy you, Elias. It's not healthy."

       "I have to do it," Elias muttered, looking at the ground.

       "No." Ciaran let him go, and stepped back, folding his arms. "It has to stop."

       "No!" Elias half clambered to his feet, then subsided, so he was kneeling back on his heels. "Master," he whispered, clasping his hands in his lap. "Please."

       "It's doing you no good, Elias," Ciaran said. "Can't you see?" Night after night, alone in these haunted ruins, Elias had even come to believe that he could see the dead and hear their message. In his mind, they had become the lost people of the sword, waiting for him to come and save them. It was worse than Ciaran had thought. Elias needed help, and needed it now. "I should have stopped it long ago," he said.

       "Please," Elias whispered. He raised his head, and his eyes were very clear and utterly bleak. "Don't order me to stop, master. Please."

       Ciaran shook his head. "It's the best thing for you, Elias."

       Elias pressed his hand to his face, as if he wanted to hide from the whole world, just for a moment. "Don't," he said, lowering the hand. "Please don't command me. Don't make me choose."

       "Choose between what?" Ciaran grabbed his chin, holding his face with strong fingers digging into his cheek. "Choose between that sword, and me?" Despite the sunlight, he felt very cold.

       Elias blinked, and a tear welled from each eyelid. "I don't want to choose, master. Please don't make me choose. Not yet."

       Was he saying that he would choose the sword? If Ciaran gave him a direct order to lay aside the sword, would he disobey? If Ciaran insisted that he chose between a people who were far away and never seen, and the master who had given him everything, would he really choose the former? No, he thought, and shook his head fiercely. Elias was not saying that. He couldn’t be. But Ciaran wouldn't ask him, even so. If he said nothing now, then they would never know the answer. He would go on believing the truth, and that was that Elias would always choose him.

       "Please, master," Elias said urgently. "Please do one thing for me. Just one thing. When it's done, then I... I might not need to come here ever again. I'll come back with you. I'll stay in tomorrow night, and the next one, and..."

       "What is it?" Ciaran asked, his voice sounding strangely hoarse. Behind him, he heard the sound of Elias pushing himself to his feet, and retrieving the hateful sword from the grass. Did it shine for him, beautiful in his hands? Ciaran did not turn round to see.

       "Fight me," Elias said.

       Ciaran laughed. "We've fought lots of times."

       "No." Elias stood close behind him, and Ciaran could hear his breathing. "Fight me, here. Your staff against my sword. Now."

       It was not an impossible request. A Brother's staff was made of wood, but it was no ordinary wood. In the olden days, the superstitious had said that a Brother kept his soul housed in his staff. It was not true, but it was not too far from the truth. A Brother touched a thousand trees until he found the one that responded to him, and carved the staff through the eyes of Shadow. It became stronger than mere wood, and more than capable of being wielded against a sword.

       Ciaran had never been parted from his staff in fourteen years, and felt incomplete and uneasy without it. Elias should have been the same, but the boy had barely touched his staff for months. Ciaran had become so accustomed to seeing him without it that he hadn't even noticed what he was seeing until now.

       He turned round, clutching his staff close to his body. "Why?"

       "I have to do it." Elias looked down at the sword, held so treacherously in his hand. "I always knew I'd have to do it. But now it has to be today. The day you followed me here. The day you made it end."

       Ciaran wanted to slap him. There was something almost otherworldly about the way he was talking, and he was staring at a point slightly to one side, as if he could see things that no other eyes could see.

       Ciaran swallowed, and managed to hide his anger. He was not cruel, and he could see how much Elias was hurting, and how desperately he needed a master who was strong and kind. "You really need this?"

       Elias nodded. "I do," he said, as solemn as if he was swearing a vow.

       "Then," Ciaran said, graciously, "we will fight."

      

 

       The dead were watching him, ranged in shimmering cold lines, reaching with the hands that never stopped pleading.

       Elias struck at Ciaran's staff, and saw his master wince at the jolt of the blow. Ciaran stepped back, and almost lost his footing on the grass, then regained it, and went back on the offensive. He was frowning.

       Unnoticed, the wind had started the rise. It wailed through the ruined stone, and the dead sighed in response, making the hair prickle at the back of Elias's neck. The dying sun was very bright. When Elias fought with his back to the sun, his master's face seemed to radiate light; when he fought facing it, it dazzled him, and cast Ciaran's face into a deep and featureless shadow.

       His sword glowed white. When it shone like that, it was a sharp burning in the back of his throat, and a stirring deep in his blood. It made him fight better. It made him drive his master hard. It made him both exultant and afraid.

       The dead stood in the long shadow of the tallest tower. I will win for you, he vowed silently.

       He knew who they were, of course. They were not the people of the sword, and it was too late to help them. He could see them a little more clearly every day, but they were never more than wispy shadows without faces. Their reaching hands were just shimmerings in the air, and their cries were wordless, carried by the wind. If he won or if he lost, they were still condemned.

       Yet, at the same time, he needed to win before them. He felt very strongly that this was the only place where this battle could be fought. In an unknown somewhere far away, a whole people were screaming, waiting for him to come and save them. Every day of failure condemned them. He lived every night with the knowledge that he had betrayed them once more, like the lord who had walked so heartlessly away from the men who had sworn to die for him.

       He spun in the air, catching Ciaran off guard with a sudden blow to the left. Ciaran stumbled, and something flickered in his eyes. For a moment, he almost seemed to hold back, letting Elias land a sequence of quick blows that he parried only weakly.

       "Don't let me win," Elias gasped, suddenly afraid. He took his attention from the weapons and looked fearfully at his master's face. "It has to be real."

       Ciaran smashed his staff against the back of Elias's wrist, and Elias cried out, keeping hold of the sword only with a desperate effort of will. "I would never do that," Ciaran said, through gritted teeth.

       And, no, he wouldn't. Many things had changed for Elias in the last six months. The sword had opened his eyes to a wider world, and, as his eyes had opened, he had begun to see things clearly that, before, he had refused to see. His master was one of the first things that had seemed different to him. Although Elias loved him as much as ever, he no longer thought of him as being without fault. Ciaran was fiercely protective of Elias, and sincerely wanted to protect him from harm, yet he seemed oblivious to all the small hurts he himself inflicted. He said he wanted to help, but his own needs came first. He always had to win, even if Elias was the one he crushed underfoot by doing so.

       Pushing past his exhaustion, Elias concentrated his attack on the lower right side that his master always left a little undefended. The edge of his blade gleamed like white death, and Ciaran's dark staff slid along it as he fumbled to divert the blow. Pushing his advantage, Elias landed a blow there, and a slash there, making Ciaran respond as he wanted him to. Ciaran yielded a step, then thrust forward with both hands. He was taller than Elias, and far stronger, and even Elias's usual advantage of speed was eroded by his tiredness. Ciaran could still overwhelm him with sheer brute force.

       Elias gritted his teeth, and defended himself. This was the final test. All day, something had been gathering, like a distant summer storm. It was a certain intensifying of sensation, and a pricking along his spine. It was a watchfulness about the air, and the hectic brightness of the sunset. It was the way the sword glowed with a new and tremulous light. It was the whispering of the ghosts, louder than ever before.

       In the cloister, it had been a voice, speaking in his mind. That voice had long gone. If it spoke to him still, it spoke so deeply within him that he no longer heard it as words, but as sensation, inseparable from his own being. It whispered truths so deeply that he simply knew them. Something's coming, he had felt, as he had looked at his master against the setting sun. It will be tonight. Even his master must have felt something, to have followed him tonight of all nights, like a player arriving on a stage at just the right moment for the act to begin.

       Tonight, Elias would pass the test, or fail forever. Things died at midsummer. After tomorrow, the year would hasten to its close, the days growing shorter and the nights more dark. If he failed tonight, he didn't know what he would do.

       He yielded to Ciaran's attack, taking a slippery step backwards. Ciaran cried out with triumph, and took the place he had vacated. He was now firmly between Elias and the sun, exactly placed so that Elias was dazzled at every move. He lashed out violently with his staff, ensuring that Elias could move neither to the right nor the left, but was pinned there, forced to squint into the sun.

       Good, Elias thought. He launched a series of delicate attacks, stabbing forward with the point, as if he was desperate and cornered. Slowly, without Ciaran even being aware of it, he made each lunge a little longer, so that, countering them lazily, Ciaran was driven backwards, inch by inch. The base of the statue was only a few feet away and the tangled briar at its base was eager to trip him.

       Elias hardly dared breathe. It was a gamble, but he had to win, and he was too tired for a long fight. A Brother fought while immersed in the Shadow, seeing those connections that no normal man could see, and using them to perform feats that could look like magic. When fighting with the sword, Elias had slowly stopped using the Shadow, for the sword seemed to have a magic of its own that sprang to life when he touched it.

       As he used the Shadow less and less, he had become aware of something he had never noticed before, and that was how little Ciaran himself used it. He did not fight as he had taught Elias to fight. His connection with the Shadow was fractured, blocked by emotion. The nearer he came to the end of a fight, the less he was able to use it. A Brother, seeing the glorious shimmerings of Shadow that connected all things, would be aware of the statue behind him. An ordinary man, scenting victory and seeing only through normal eyes, would not. And his master, once so mighty in his eyes, was only an ordinary man. He could be blind, and he could make mistakes.

       Elias felt almost sad as Ciaran stepped backwards, and found himself pinned against the pedestal. He almost whispered an apology as he saw his master's eyes widen. He almost held back as he struck the winning blow, plucking his master's staff from his startled hand. He almost cried out an apology as Ciaran, unbalanced, fell to his knees, then over to one side.

       Almost, but not quite, for he was victorious. He had won. He had passed the test, and proved himself worthy. It would be tonight after all. Tonight, he would know the way.

       He stood over his fallen master and raised the sword over his head. "Look!" he shouted, his voice echoing off the walls of the courtyard and making the dead stir like fluttering dark wings. "Am I ready? Is this enough?"

       Ciaran pushed at his feet, trying to move him away. Without looking down, he stepped to one side, letting his master sit up. He knew Ciaran's eyes would be blazing.

       The sun sank behind the tower. For a moment it showed as a thin line of the darkest red, and then it was gone. The ruin was cold and dark, lost in sudden night.

       Elias lowered the sword and held it in front of him, one hand on the hilt and the other under the tip of the blade. Pale light played along the blade, teasing him with its suppressed power.

       There were no answers. He had fought, and he had won, but nothing had changed. He had been so sure that all doors would open to him, if only he won this last battle. The lost people of the sword would be revealed to him, and at last he would be able to do his duty, instead of labouring here, failing every day.

       He had failed. He took a few faltering steps backwards, holding the sword at arm's reach. Blind, he stumbled, and the sword cut him for the first time ever, slicing a sliver of skin from his palm. The blood seemed to burn, and he felt sick.

       "Master," he breathed.

       It was so cold, and he was so lost. He wanted his master to look after him and find a solution. The sword had forced him to change, but inside he was still the same. Inside, he was still shy and insecure, crying out for someone strong to lead him. But duty came first, and anything else was unthinkable. If Ciaran had really forced him to choose between the sword and his master, he would have had no choice but to choose the sword, but it would have destroyed him to do so.

       "I've tried everything," he whispered, as Ciaran stared at him, nursed his staff, and said nothing. "I really thought it would be tonight. I thought..." He was shamefully close to tears. "What else can I do, master? I've tried and tried, but it's not enough. It's never enough."

       Not far away, a rook started to scream. The sound was taken up by one, then another, until the whole tree of roosting birds was sounding, as if to celebrate his defeat. The dead joined in their chorus, wailing that it was too late, that it would never be enough, that everything was lost, all lost.

       "No," he moaned. "Please. Please give me something. Please show me the way."

       Silence greeted him. Silence. Only silence. There was no stirring of knowledge inside him, no touch in his mind, no summons. Nothing. The sword was useless in his hands, because he lacked the understanding to unlock its secrets. Even the dead had turned away, disgusted at his unworthiness.

       "Come on, Elias." Ciaran's hand fell on his shoulder. Gentle as a mother with her child, he draped Elias's cloak round his body, and tied it at his throat. The back of his hand brushed against Elias's skin, and Elias shivered at the coldness of the touch. "It's time to go home. There's nothing more you can do here."

       Ciaran had been defeated, but he showed no anger. The only thing Elias could hear in his voice was pity. Only failures received pity.

       He sheathed the sword, and a little more light seemed to go out of the world. Twilight claimed even the clinging dead. "Yes, master," he murmured.

       Ciaran clapped him on the shoulder again, and sounded as if he was about to say something. Then he cleared his throat, and began to walk away. "We'll talk about it when we get home. This is no place for it. You shouldn't have come."

       "No, master."

       Elias started to walk, trailing after his master, who alone could lead him back to the light from this twilight place of death. Night always fell earlier in the ruins, where the towers blocked out the last of the sun. Beyond the gatehouse, where the fields ran smoothly to the green hills of the horizon, it would still be day.

       Ciaran paused a little in the doorway, but did not turn round. "You did as well as you could, Elias. It's not your fault. It was impossible all along."

       Elias shook his head. "Yes, master."

       If he had still been a child, his master's words would have been enough. Elias could cling to the hem of his master's cloak, and Ciaran would lead him safely, even if packs of monsters snarled at either side of the road. If Ciaran told him something, then it was true. If Ciaran said it wasn't his fault, then it wasn't.

       Perhaps it could still be like that. If he followed Ciaran like a perfect apprentice, he would think as a child again, and his master would have all the answers.

       "I'm coming, master." He caught Ciaran up, following so closely that he could touch the back of his cloak, if he wanted to. All he had to do was reach out, and his master would be there.

       His body was hardly there at all. He heard the sound of his footsteps, but the feet belonged to someone else. There was a veil between him and the whole world, and only his master was real.

       "Things will be different now, Elias," Ciaran said, as he entered the darkness of the gatehouse. "I promise you that."

       "Yes, master."

       He reached out with his right hand, deliberately letting it scrape against the rough wall of the passageway. It hurt, but he could not press hard enough to break the skin. A moment later, the pain was gone, as if his hand had only belonged to him for those few seconds of hurting.

       The dead were silent now, but other things were calling to him, taunting him. He heard snatches of a dying man's challenge, spoken in the voices of Ciaran and Grand Master Jerome and a nameless healer. He heard his brothers teasing him, calling him stupid. He heard the deep voice of the sword, waiting breathlessly for him to prove himself worthy. Every hour of every day, he lived with those voices. He had been so sure that tonight would be the end of it, and how could he live with his failure?

       I don't know! he wanted to scream, clapping his hands against his ears, though to silence the voice of the sword he would have to tear his heart from his chest with his own nails, for its white fire had possessed him so completely. Either show me the way, or release me. I can't bear it.

       "We'll find a way out of this, Elias, you and I." Ciaran walked out of the darkness of the gatehouse, into the light that still lingered in the fertile fields of Greenslade.

       "Yes, master." Elias closed his eyes. He grasped Ciaran's cloak with the tips of his fingers, and let himself be led. Only his master was real. If Ciaran talked very loudly and for a very long time, perhaps it would drown out the constant call of the sword.

       "You've tried." Ciaran's voice was more sure and confident now he was out of the ruins, heading back to the village he ruled. "What more can you do? Perhaps the... magic has faded. Perhaps there's no way of ever finding a way into this other world of his. It's probably best that you forget it."

       Elias opened his eyes. His master was not so much taller than him, and Elias was twenty years old, and could never be a child again, no matter how much he longed to. There could be no hiding places, and no answers. The power of the sword was real and alive, and he could never forget it. Even if he failed and failed until he was a hundred, he could never stop striving to pass its next test.

       He raised his hand and looked at it, seeing the small cut in the palm, and the pink scrapes on the back of the fingers. His boots were dappled with pollen and a petal was clinging to his hem. There were purple thistles by the path, and bats were beginning to stir in the ruins behind him. The grass was flattered by a hundred lines of his own footprints, and the single path of his master's, interweaving with his own, but following their own course.

       This was the here and now, and the sword was part of it, never to be denied. It was as real as the grass and the sky and the village that nestled in its fertile valley, beneath soft green hills. It was real, and it taught responsibility, and that he could never turn his back on the world and seek to hide.

       He turned and looked at the village, and, as he did so, someone screamed. With a wordless cry, he started to run.

      

 

       Ciaran snatched wildly, and managed to catch hold of Elias's trailing cloak.

       "No!" Elias struggled to escape, and the coarse fabric began to slip through Ciaran's fingers, straining the muscles and hurting the skin.

       "Elias." He made his voice stern and reasonable. "You can't run from this! You have to face your failure. You won't find peace if you run away."

       "Let me go, master," Elias hissed. His movements were close to panic. He struggled violently, lashing out with both his fists. Had he been a little closer, they would have struck Ciaran, but they fell short, hitting only empty air. "Please, master. Let me get to them. I have to save them."

       "No!" Ciaran pulled harder, and his hands were shaking, very white against the black cloak. It must have been half strangling Elias. "You can't!" he shouted. "Leave it, Elias. Let it go!" The strain had clearly made the boy lose his mind. He wasn't trying to run away from his failure after all. Instead, he had come to believe that he could find the lost people of the sword, if only he ran far enough. "They're not in this world," he cried. "You can't find them by running."

       "Not them!" Elias screamed. "Listen!" He flung his arm out towards the village, as violent as a sword thrust.

       Ciaran frowned. "What?"

       That tiny moment of confusion was all Elias needed. He gave one last violent tug at the cloak, pulling with his whole body, and broke free. He ran desperately, and with little control. After just a few steps he stumbled, and his cloak was like a black pool around him as he fell. Before Ciaran could take a step to his side, he was up again, heading not for their home, but towards the heart of the village.

       "Save them?" Ciaran muttered, then shouted it after Elias's retreating figure. "Save them? Save who?"

       He listened, but could hear nothing except the normal sounds of a rural night time. Belatedly, he tried to see as a Brother alone could see, seeking the connections of the Shadow, but there was nothing there. How could Elias have seen something that he could not?

       Frowning, he started to run after Elias in a steady trot. The sky was darkening rapidly and unevenly, like a black hand reaching up from the west, trying to grasp the emerging moon. The sun had set, but a dull red glow clung to the horizon in the north-west. The wind was rising, and brought with it a sharp smell of smoke.

       "Fire," he gasped. There was fire in Greenslade.

       He started to sprint. With every step the smell of smoke grew stronger, and the red glow resolved itself into vivid flames. Soon he could hear shouts, and the sound of wild bells ringing. It was a mile to the village, and he covered it quickly, but Elias remained far ahead of him.

       The fire was in a row of weaver's cottages. Flowers had always climbed merrily up the limestone walls, and the weavers' children had sat on the doorsteps teasing wool, or paddled in the shallow stream across the little-travelled road. It had been a pretty street, but the cottages were all in a row and a fire, once started, could spread without hindrance. By the time Ciaran arrived, the whole street was in flame.

       "Elias!" he shouted, but his ringing cry caught on the smoke, and ended up so much less than it should have been.

       He couldn't see Elias anywhere. There were people in the street, darting against the flames, or hanging back, their hands pressed to their mouths, but none of them were Elias. He was too late.

       "Elias," he whispered. He tried to sense his presence in his mind, but there was nothing there. Brothers who shared each other's lives always had a link, that allowed them to sense the other's presence, or even a hint of feelings or words. There was such a link between himself and his apprentice, but Ciaran generally kept it closed. On the rare occasions when he had sought Elias mentally, the boy had always responded. Why had he never once tried to reach Elias this way since midwinter? As he tried, now, and found only absence and silence, he knew the reason. Elias had shut him out. If he had sought him months ago, he would have known it earlier, and known himself rejected. 

       Someone grabbed his arm and he whirled around, but it was only Edward Johnson, the blacksmith. "Your apprentice went in there." Johnson pointed at the house where the flames were the thickest. "Didn't hesitate at all. Just went in." He shook his head, and whistled.

       Ciaran stared at the flames until they hurt his eyes. Even when he closed his eyes he could still them. He's trying to kill himself, he thought. Elias saw no way out but death. Rather than live with failure, he wanted to die.

       He opened his eyes again, and took a step towards the fire. The flames surged, and there were patches in the fire that were almost black. They looked like anguished figures, pleading for help. Was it Elias, needing him, screaming, dying?

       "Mistress Alexander didn't get out either, poor old dear," Johnson said.

       With an almost physical wrench, Ciaran pulled his gaze away from the flames that had claimed his apprentice. He looked where Johnson was pointing, and saw an old man crawling on arthritic knees towards the a house further along the row, where the door billowed smoke. Two men held him back, but still his body strained and his arm reached. His clothes were scorched and blackened, and he was coughing uncontrollably.

       He was sworn to these people to death. "My life is yours," he had vowed, kneeling on the village green on a moonlit night fourteen years ago. No-one had been there to hear him speak his oath, but he considered it binding nevertheless, and he still did. From the very start, he had impressed upon Elias its solemnity, taking the boy to the same spot and making him swear the same words. "Duty comes before everything, Elias," he had said. "We should always be willing to die for them, and to sacrifice what is dear to us. They come first, whatever the cost."

       His duty was clear. Who was Elias but just another person dependent on him? Elias was a Brother, and had sworn to die for the people of Greenslade, but Mistress Alexander had sworn no such oath. Elias had made his choice, and Ciaran would make his, not matter how hard it was. And it was right. It shouldn't be hard. If Elias died, it should hurt him no more than if the old woman died in the flames. 

       "I'll go in and look for her." With one last look at the flames that had claimed Elias, he walked towards the struggling old man. Everyone looked up as he passed, and their eyes brightened a little to see him. "I'll bring her out safely," he told the old man. "You rest. I'm here now."

       The old man subsided, for Ciaran was their Brother, and they had faith in him. Ciaran stepped over him, and strode into the billowing smoke. The flames seemed to mock him with images of Elias, fallen, deserted, dying, needing him. But he did not once look back.

      

 

       Something black and heavy plunged towards him. Elias hurled himself bodily to one side, but a tongue of flame surged up eagerly for him, just where he was about to land. He twisted desperately, flailing with his arms, and just managed to avoid it. His hands hit the floor first, just inches from his face. In that second, he saw every detail of them, those useless hands that could never save anyone. There were smudges on the back of his hand, and scrapes on his knuckles, and the nail on his index finger was torn and bloody. It looked painful, but he had no memory of it happening.  

       He clawed himself to his knees, scooping up the voluminous folds of the cloak. His master had tied it there, as tender as a loving parent, and how strange it was that he could still draw comfort from that memory, even in this place of red death. He coiled the mass of fabric around his forearm, and the heat immediately assailed him stronger than ever, and he lost the fight with his lungs. He coughed once, then again. He pressed his hand to his mouth, but thought he would never stop coughing. Already his vision was wavering, though perhaps it was just the laughing flames.

       She was still screaming in his mind. He had heard her even in the shadow of the gatehouse, screaming in terror for someone to come and find her. Her screams had drawn him like a beacon. When he had reached the fire, he had seen a woman wailing in the arms of her husband, crying for her little girl, her Sophie. "She's alive!" he had hurled at her, as he plunged into the flames. The dead in the ruin and the people of the sword had all screamed at him, but this one girl perhaps he could save. He had to.

       "Sophie!" he cried, but his voice was swallowed up by the roaring flames. He fell to his knees and crawled. "Sophie!" Light and flame and heat and smoke... Something surged and roared, and red pain lashed across the back of his left hand. He gasped, then coughed again. His eyes were streaming, and there was nothing in the world but the cruellest light.

       Terror surged like a red hot wire of pain, and it was not his own, though his own fear fed on it and grew. It screamed for help, and it was suffocated by blackness. It wanted its mother, its master, its somebody who could keep it safe and make everything bad go away. It had hidden from the scary fire, but now it couldn't breathe. The bad thing was getting in, sneaking through the cracks where the light was.

       "Sophie!" he screamed. "I'm coming!"

       Surely he had never been able to sense other people's emotions so intensely before. The flames burnt the Shadow away, and, although he could use it enough to endure where no normal man could have lived, it was not enough to explain what he was feeling. Her terror burnt like a beacon, leading him to her hiding place.

       She had hidden herself in a heavy chest, and pulled the lid shut. His eyes streaming, he clawed at it, ripping his torn nail, bursting blisters. As he opened the lid, smoke surged out hungrily, and he choked. For a moment, he couldn't see anything at all, and he gouged desperately at his own eyes, trying to clear them.

       She was curled on her side, knees drawn up to her chest, lying on folded white sheets. Her hair was long and fair, and she wore a pristine white night-gown. There was a sprig of dried lavender crushed beneath her cheek, and he could smell its scent even through the smoke. He knew he would never again be able to smell lavender without feeling sick.

       He clawed at the fastenings of his cloak, tugging it off so he would have something to wrap her in and keep her safe. "Sophie," he whispered. Just as he reached out to her, her mind fell silent, no longer swamping him with her terror. He touched her, and felt nothing at all. She had let herself slip away. She knew she was safe and was relaxing and content, he thought. That was it. That had to be it.

       He smiled, and held her close.

       The old woman was rescued, but still Elias had not come out of the flames. Ciaran tended to the wounded, and comforted the homeless, and promised that he would help them rebuild, for he was their Brother, and he looked after his people.

       But what about Elias? he thought. Why can't I look after him? In his mind he called for him constantly, but there was never any answer, never any answer at all.

       And then someone pulled at his sleeve, and shouted, "There he is", so perhaps he had been calling for him out loud after all. He whirled round, and there was Elias, alive, a small child held in his arms, cheek to cheek with him. The flames surged and reached for him, as if they had tasted him and liked what they tasted, and refused to let him go.

       Around Ciaran, grasping hands fell away. Everyone stepped back, as if granting him permission to go to him. Even so, he hesitated. It did not do to make these people believe that he, their protector, held his own apprentice as more important than their own needs.

       A woman ran to Elias and clutched at the child, then wailed, a sound of grief louder than all the roaring fires. Elias shook his head a little, and looked at her, a small furrow between his eyes.

       Although he didn't remember making the decision to go to him, Ciaran was suddenly at Elias's side, a player in the scene of grief. He placed one hand on the boy's shoulder, and the other on the girl's cheek. She was dead, although there was no mark upon her. She smelled of smoke and lavender, and her hair was fine and freshly washed.

       The woman was sobbing, clawing at the girl and trying to hold her, but Elias still clutched at her, pressing her against his chest, tenderly pressing the trailing ends of his cloak around her body as if to warm her. Caught between the two of them, the girl's night-gown almost tore.

       "Let her go, Elias." Ciaran crouched at his side. "There's nothing more you can do."

       Elias tilted his head to one side, as if he was seeking something he could no longer find. His lips moved silently. Then he closed his eyes, and pressed his lips against the girl's face.

       "She's gone, Elias. Let her go.

       Elias looked up again, his face bleak with uncomprehending betrayal. "Dead? I thought... She wasn't..." But his desperate grip on her body weakened a little, letting the mother haul the girl's body into her own arms. Still wailing, she rocked her to and fro. The cloak slithered from the girl's body and pooled on Elias's lap. "I thought she was alive." Elias clutched the empty cloak with both arms. "She stopped calling to me. I thought it was because she knew she was safe. I didn't know it was because she'd died. If I'd been a second earlier..."

       Ciaran prized the cloak from Elias's tight fingers, and draped it round his shoulders for the second time that day. "You did all you could." He hugged him perfunctorily with one arm, then let him go. Elias needed more, he knew, but they had so little time, for the fires still raged and were threatening to spread. There were whole families made homeless, and the risk of more to come. Each death was to be mourned, but their priorities lay with preventing other deaths and easing the living. Elias, as a Brother, would realise that.

       Elias was staring at the dead girl. "Did I?"

       "Yes," Ciaran said. And, walking away, he returned to his duty.

       Had he really thought it could be that simple? Could he have changed it, just by spending a little longer with Elias then, beside the flames? Had those minutes left alone beside a dead girl and a grieving mother been the moment of truth for Elias, the moment he had made his last and most desperate resolution?

       Could he have stopped it? When they returned to their house, deeply weary and walking in silence, it was already too late, though at the time he did not know it. In silence they opened the door. The moment it was shut, Elias fell to his knees on the rug before the hearth, and knelt there with his head bowed, a picture of desolation.

       "You couldn't have saved her, Elias," Ciaran said, at last, when the silence had stretched between them and become unbearable. He propped his staff against the back of his chair, and walked to the dresser, where he lit a new candle from the guttering light of the old hurricane lamp.

       Elias's head stayed hunched, and candlelight flickered on the exposed back of his neck.

       "You did all you could," Ciaran said, uselessly. It was a hard thing, to have powers that could make the difference between life and death, and to be sworn to service. Even the greatest of Brothers sometimes had to accept failure, and Elias was no different. This was the first time he had ever tried to save a life, and the first time he had seen anyone die. It was bound to hit him hard, but he would get through it.

       "You saved yours." Elias's voice was dull, scoured by smoke and exertion. His hands shook.

       Ciaran nodded. "Yes, I did." He almost left it at that, but then said more. "But she was easy to save. She was almost out anyway. I was in and out of there in no time. You had a much harder job. Even I would have found it hard to save her. You mustn't blame yourself."

       Elias gave no sign of hearing. He looked up suddenly, his eyes very large and dark. "No-one else shall die because of me."

       Soft words of comfort would be meaningless. Ciaran said nothing.

       "They're all dying," Elias said, "just like Sophie. I struggled and fell. I wasted time. And all the while she was hidden away, lost, terrified, dying. She died. She died because I couldn't save her." He looked at Ciaran so intensely that it felt like a physical touch, hurting his chest. "I can't face that again, master. Not for a single minute more. Not ever."

       "Don't think like that," Ciaran said. "Don't blame yourself. You'll feel better in the morning."

       Painfully, Elias stood up, and drew the sword from the scabbard at his belt. "I swear," he whispered, before his voice cracked. The sword in his hand was white and shining, casting everything in a cold silver light, with deep shadows. Elias seemed carved from stone, painted all over with the grey unearthliness of the sword's light. Something about the set of his shoulders reminded Ciaran of the man who had brought the sword to the cloisters.

       As Ciaran watched, unable to move, Elias raised his burned left hand, palm outwards. His hands were not shaking now, and, when he spoke, his voice was low and clear. "I swear this oath by the Shadow, and by everything I hold sacred and love and believe in. With them as witness, I swear that no-one will ever again suffer because I am lacking. I swear that I will do all in my power to be worthy of the trust that has been placed upon me."

       The paralysis broke. "No!" Ciaran cried. It was an oath made to an unknown cause, spoken without the slightest comprehension of just what it would entail, and leaving no way out. "How can you swear that?" He grabbed at the boy, shaking his shoulders, tearing at his arms, clawing at the wrist that held the sword. "You don't know what you're swearing to. You don't know what price you'll be asked to pay."

       "You think I don't know that?" It was a terrible, pain-filled cry. Then Elias's face crumpled, and he spoke in little more than a sob. "How can I do anything else? Anything is better than this. I... I think I might go insane with it, master, with this not knowing. I think I'm already beginning to."

       Ciaran wanted to take that cursed sword and slam it against the stone wall until it broke into a thousand pieces, but he knew that Elias would shatter along with it. "Oh, Elias..." He shook his head despairingly. "You don't even know if the cause is just."

       "But I have been chosen for it, even so." There was no pride in Elias's voice. His face was bleak with misery, but he spoke it as a fact.

       Quick, before Ciaran could reach to stop him, he brought his left hand down, hard and fast, slashing it across the blade. Blood welled, trickling down the metal, bathing the white crystal with dark red. In response, the deep colours of the blade came alive as never before, cruelly gleeful. It knew that it had him now, trapped forever.

       "I swear it by my blood." Elias's voice was low and resonant. "Here, with my blood, I pledge myself to my destiny."

       Ciaran clenched his useless fists at his side. He tried to call Elias's name, but the magic in the air was so thick that it robbed him of his voice. Even his arm felt heavy as he reached out, trying to bridge the chasm that seemed to separate him from his apprentice, a man he no longer knew. His fingertips touched Elias's wrist, but the heel of his hand brushed against warm blood, and he grimaced, closing his eyes.

       When he opened his eyes, he was somewhere else entirely.

       He was in a forest, and it was almost winter. A ring of cruel-faced men were watching him, swords in their hands.

       No, he realised. Not me. They're not watching me at all. It's Elias. It will always be Elias.

       The men stepped forward, like hounds closing in for the kill. Their swords were sharp and they left no gaps in their circle, and no chance of escape.


Chapter three

Surrender

 

 

       No-one spoke.

       The men moved like trained assassins, instinctively avoiding those small twigs that would crack under their feet and betray their presence. They had dark hair and worn faces, and their clothes were made of leathers and earthy fabrics, that blended into the night. Their mouths were thin slashes of cold anger, and their eyes were implacable. Elias thought they hardly looked human.

       In Greenslade they told stories of beings they called the Others, who lived in the woods, and could lure a traveller to his doom, if he was not wise to their tricks. They were ancient and utterly without mercy. They could take human shape, but they could never disguise the cold inhumanity of their eyes. If a man looked into their eyes, he was doomed.

       It's them, Elias thought. As a bead of his blood slithered down the sword, he fought the urge to laugh the hysterical laugh of approaching insanity. He had been found by the Others, and this was the end of it. He had already looked into their eyes, and he was lost forever.

       The beings ringed him, as tall as men, forming a closed circle with Elias trapped at the middle. He had been here before. Years ago, brothers and their friends had invited him to join in their games, and he had been pleased. They had made him stand still, and had formed a circle around him, singing the meaningless words of a childish game. But then their song had turned to screaming insults. Elias had turned and turned, but there had been no way out. Horrible faces had pressed up against his, spitting curses, and he had been unable even to breathe. When they had released him, he had collapsed to the ground, shaking and sobbing, more terrified than he had ever been in his life. None of their other cruelties had ever affected him as badly as that one had.

       No, he moaned. Please no. They were spirits or devils indeed, to know exactly which long-forgotten fears to awaken, to make him a child again, to make him terrified and weak to their deadly tricks. They kept him imprisoned, too afraid to move. He did not even dare look over his shoulder for his master, in case he was not there, and Elias was alone.

       Like those cruel boys so long ago, the attackers moved as one. No-one appeared to give any orders. They raised their swords as if controlled by one mind, and their eyes were the same implacable black. Had they rehearsed it, or had they done this so many times that it came as easily as breathing. How many deaths lay on those black-gloved hands of theirs?

       Then one of them stepped forward an extra step, declaring himself as the leader, the one who would cement his doom. His eyes were pools of darkness, and his skin was ghostly silver in the moonlight that filtered through the skeletal trees. He was breathing fast, his chest visibly moving, but even that was done in utter silence. He did not speak, but his eyes held a silent challenge, and a threat.

       Elias took a tiny step back, and the dead leaves made no sound beneath his feet, as if he was not truly part of the forest. The sword hilt felt like liquid silk in his right hand, whispering excitedly of hope and home. His left hand throbbed, and the blood that dripped from his fingers felt shockingly cold. It trickled, hung at the end of his fingers, and fell. Did it land on the curling dry leaves, or on the woven matting of the hearth a world away? He did not know, and did not dare look down to find out.

       He was beside a standing stone, almost as tall as he was. It was carved with a pattern of snaking coils, and covered with patches of dark moss. A sprig of crimson berries lay at the base of the stone, and Elias knew it had been placed there deliberately. It was a sacrifice stone, he thought, and here he was, already in place to die.

       The leader raised his eyebrows and tilted his head a little. He was about the same height as Elias, and his long hair was uncombed, tugged back into a rough ponytail but escaping at the sides. He looked about forty five, though his face was marked both by the hands of the elements and his own perpetual frown of cruelty. The only thing of beauty and polish about him was the naked blade of his weapon, which looked old and well used, but scrupulously cared for.

       He was a man, of course. Really, Elias had known it all along, for all his thought of otherworldly creatures and stories. He was a man, and this was another world, and the sword had finally shown Elias the way. It had been easier to believe that he had been entrapped by the old familiar spirits of home, than that the sword had given him what he had begged for, only for it to be so horrible and wrong.

       This was a man, but he was an enemy. His sword was deadly and a splash of blood showed in the small gap between his glove and his sleeve. A scar marred his right cheek, twisting it into a permanent expression of cruel mockery, and proclaiming him to be a killer, utterly without pity.

       The man stared at him, and still no-one spoke. He arched one eyebrow mockingly, and flashed his teeth in a savage smile, and no-one spoke. Then his face was all cold stone again, unyielding and merciless. And no-one spoke. They watched him and watched him, and no-one spoke.

       Elias clenched his wounded hand, using the pain to break the spell of terror they had woven around him. Blood welled up and began to drip through his fingers. He looked at his own bloody fist, then dared to turn around. And Ciaran was there, just half a step behind him, and a little to the right. Ciaran too was imprisoned in the deadly circle, and Elias was not alone.

       But the air seemed to be shimmering around his master. Elias could see the trappings of their house around him, like a painting on gauzy fabric. There was the back of his master's chair, and the flickering pool of candlelight. There were the dancing shadows cast by the hurricane lamp, and the crude wooden horse on the mantelpiece, that he had carved as a child.

       They were as faint as a dream, and growing fainter. It was as if he had stepped into this new world, but he had not yet quite finished crossing the threshold. A very small part of the old world remained, and there was still the possibility of stepping back. If he chose, he could make the candlelight and chair and the horse become real, and the trees and the men with their deadly eyes would be the ones to fade away and disappear, like smoke borne on the wind.

       Ciaran, too, was part of that old world. He was more real than the furniture of their home, but he was less fully in this new world than Elias was. If Elias had almost crossed the threshold, Ciaran lingered behind, and looked back. When Elias looked at him, he could almost see through him to the men who stood on the far side of the ring.

       If he spoke, Elias thought, which world would hear him? Was he truly in either of them? The forest was so unnaturally silent, but maybe he was just deaf to its sounds. Maybe he was trapped forever between worlds, unable to go forward or back.

       The man saw the panic in Elias's eyes, and smiled again." And you are...?"

       Elias shifted a little, and this time he heard the soft crackle of brittle leaves beneath his feet. It was midsummer at home, but here the leaves were orange and brown, and many had already fallen. There was no green in this world, and no signs of life. The only true colour was the red of the berries and the splashes of blood that fell from his hand, spattering the dead leaves and the base of the grey stone.

       He moved again, and crackle of the leaves was as loud as a taunt, gleefully showing him that he was here in the flesh after all, and his home was gone. If he turned round now, he thought, would his master even be there at all?

       "No words for us? No words we can pass on to..." The man's face twisted with something that could have been scathing amusement, and could have been disgust. "To your people," he spat out at last.

       Elias licked his lips. How cold the night was, seeming to suck the very life and moisture from him.

       "Or am I wrong, boy? Tell me I'm wrong." The man jabbed with his sword, almost striking the white blade Elias held limply in his right hand. "Tell me you're not who you seem to be." There was a strange look of urgency on his cruel face. "Tell me this sword has another master, and you just picked it up by chance. Tell me it's a mistake, then go your way and live."

       Elias tried to speak, but his throat had closed up. He wanted the sword to show him the way. He wanted his master to guide him.

       "And still you do not speak." The man gave a sharp bark of laughter. "Silence will not save you."

       They were enemies. Their swords glistened, pristine and deadly. There were twelve and he was one, and they were enemies.

       Elias had failed after all. He had finally found the world of the sword, only to fall headlong into the arms of the enemy. These were the people who had wounded the man who had brought the sword to the Basilica, and made his people scream. Twenty one years ago this man who now threatened him would have already been an adult. He recognised the sword, that much was plain. Was he the one who had wounded the last bearer of the sword, come to finish the deed by killing the next?

       "Speak." The man was so close that Elias could feel his breath on his cheek. He had no fear of Elias's sword.

       Elias looked back, but his master was hardly there at all. There would be no help there. Elias was on his own.

       "Why do you bear that sword?" The voice was quiet, but there was more menace in that quiet than in most men's shouts. "Why have you come here?"

       Elias moved his left hand, so he was holding the sword with both hands. The blood from his slashed palm smeared on the back of his right hand and began to trickle down the blade, but it felt reassuring, somehow, to be bleeding onto the sword and not the vast unfriendly ground.

       "I ask you for the last time," the man said. "Will you speak?"

       The words must have been a signal. Before he had even finished speaking, the other men readied themselves for the kill. Without taking a step, they went from being silent figures of menace, to fighting men, ready to shed blood. They held their swords a little more tightly, or put their weight onto the balls of their feet. Only one of them, who alone had not drawn his sword, looked uneasy. He clenched and unclenched his fists at his side, and seemed to be trying to catch the leader's eye, but Elias could not tell what message he was trying to deliver.

       Elias swallowed, and managed to find his voice, though it sounded rusty and weak. "I came here because I swore an oath." The pain in his hand was enough to make him feel sick, reminding him that an oath was unbreakable.

       "An oath?" The man made it sound tawdry and dirty. "For what? To use that sword to gain your birthright? To crush us?"

       "An oath..." Elias swallowed again. "To do whatever I could to protect people. And if you've hurt them..." He stopped, aware of how foolish he must look, a boy trying to threaten a dozen killers.

       "You'll what?" the man said, more quietly. There was a slight shifting of mood about the circle, as if Elias had finally done something right. "You'll fight us? You?"

       Elias clung tightly to his sword. "If I have to."

       He thought the man would laugh, or strike at him, but instead he looked away, towards the man who had not drawn his sword. That man was frowning slightly, as if he disagreed with how his leader was handling things.

       Elias took the opportunity to look around, to see what manner of a place would be his grave. Since his arrival in this world, nothing had existed outside the imprisoning circle, but now he was able to see beyond it.

       He saw a fire, and packs and bedrolls scattered around it. There was an abandoned musical instrument face down in the earth, and skidding footprints in the leaf-strewn mud. He saw a stick protruding from the fire, and the black smoking lump on its end that had once been a small animal held in the flames for cooking. A half-eaten hunk of meat was abandoned and half buried not far behind the leader. A knife lay close by, stained with blood and pale brown fur, and suddenly even the blood on that man's clothes suddenly seemed less threatening, with an easy explanation.

       They were not inhuman killers, Elias realised. They were not the personification of all things evil, just as his master was not the personification of wisdom. They were just normal men, as real and complex as all others. But they could still kill him, and undo everything he had hoped for.

       The man turned back towards him again, and his face was even more implacable. Elias thought that the unarmed man's challenge had made him all the more determined to assert his supremacy.

       "I ask you again," the man said. "Will you fight me?" He smiled. "Know that I am the best of my people. Know that I have never lost a fight. Know that I have killed more men than you could dream of."

       Elias felt he was trapped in a nightmare. He never enjoyed fighting, and he had no strength left. If he fought, he would die, and the people of the sword would be lost.

       The man leant forward until he was hissing almost in Elias's ear. "You can still leave, boy. The door is still open a crack. You can still go back. Walk away. Be safe." Go back and live, or stay and find out what true suffering is. It is your choice.

       Elias wanted to sink to his knees and sob. Master, he cried out silently, reaching for the quiescent link that he had never been able to summon himself. He knew Ciaran could not hear him, but still he called. Help me, master.

       He could walk away. He could live in safety for the rest of his life. I tried, he would tell himself, but what could I do? I passed the tests, but the task was too great for anyone. I did what I could. The enemy had already triumphed, and the people of the sword had died years ago. He had been born too late. Even if they still lived, the doorway to their world was too heavily guarded by the enemy for any one man to fight through. He would lay flowers every midsummer to mourn the dead, but there was nothing else he could do.

       He looked over his shoulder at his master. Ciaran's ghostly lips moved. "Come back," he seemed to be saying. "Choose."

       Elias closed his eyes. His palm hurt with a bone-deep ache, and Sophie's screams were still echoing in his ears. For a moment, when he had sworn, the sword had shone with pure joy, and he had known that he had passed its test, awakening a magic that was still very much alive.

       What if the people of the sword were still alive, too, and still waiting for him, still needing him? What would happen to them if he took this offer of safety, and turned his back on them? There would be no second chances. If he walked away now, the way would be forever closed to him. He had been chosen by the sword, and, while he lived, no-one else could wield it. If he stayed and fought and died, perhaps the sword would pass to another, just as it had passed to him after its previous holder had died. If he died, there would still be hope for them. If he walked away, they would still be waiting for him for the whole of his life, but he would have betrayed them, and would never come.

       And it would destroy him if he ran away now. The last six months had been a torment, and by the end of it he had genuinely feared for his sanity. How could he live with himself, if he walked away? It would be a thousand times worse than those six months, because then he had had something to strive for, but now he would have to live with the knowledge that he had deliberately closed the door, and it would never open again, no matter what he did. Every time he looked in the mirror he would see something evil. Every time he looked at his hands he would see the scar, and be reminded of a broken oath. Every sound he heard would be coloured with the memory of screams.

       There was no way back for him. There would never be a way back. It was better to die doing his duty, than to walk away and condemn others to death. His master had taught him that.

       "Master." He raised his left hand as if to touch that ghost-like cheek, then let it fall back to his side. This was a farewell. He would die now, and he would never see his master again. He would die alone, for the sword had chosen him alone, and nobody could share the burden or ease it. There were so many things he wanted to say, but he could not say even a tiny part of them, even if he had time for a million words.

       Blinking back tears, he turned his back on Ciaran's ghost, and faced his killer. "I will stay," he told him. "Kill me if you have to. Hurt me if you want to. Do what you like, but I will stay, for I have sworn it."

       The man smiled, cold and gleeful, as if Elias had said exactly what he craved to hear, and had given him license to hurt him as he longed to. "Then you will die," he said, and attacked.

      

 

       His apprentice was being murdered, and all Ciaran could do was watch. He was trapped behind thick glass. Everything was blurred and distant, and the voices were muted, as if they were filtered through water. He was seeing the world that lay through a mirror, but he could not get through. There was nothing he could do.          

       "Elias," he cried. "Please, Elias. Stop this. Come back. Stop it." But he knew Elias could not hear him. Elias had been snatched into another world, and Ciaran had been left behind. Elias had walked through the doorway, but all Ciaran had been given was this glass-covered window, where he could look into the world beyond his own, but never touch it.

       Elias was going to die. His opponent was a masterly fighter, and Elias could never have beaten him even if he had been fresh. What had possessed Elias to stay and fight such a man, when he was so exhausted? Elias moved like a puppet whose strings were pulled by a blind man. Whenever the swords clashed, he winced, and fresh blood rained down from his hand. He was drained both physically and emotionally, and he had never fought a real duel before, against an enemy who wanted to kill him.

       "Elias," he begged again. "Please come back."

       He was fading. With every second, the glass of the window into the other world became more dark and clouded. If Ciaran turned slightly to one side, he could see his own house, almost as real as it had ever been. If he wanted to, he could turn away from the window, and it would be as if it had never been. His house would be his only reality, and Elias would be gone.

       He turned back to the shadowed window. "Elias," he called. "Come back with me. Please." His voice cracked, and he clenched his fists furiously. "I order you, Elias. I'm your master. You have to come back."

       Elias was losing. There was fresh blood on his tunic and a new rent in his cloak, but still he fought. Why didn't he run away, back through the door that was still open to him? Why did Elias refuse to save himself?

       The boy had become a stranger to him. This was not Elias. The Elias that Ciaran knew was a boy who needed above all things to feel safe and cherished. His family's rejection had taught him that. The Elias that Ciaran knew would never turn his back on his master, and stay to die. He would not even have hesitated.

       Elias fought doggedly, but he was permanently on the defensive, and only just managed to deflect several killing blows. As Ciaran watched, his attacker's sword slipped through his guard and a new line of blood opened up on his shoulder. Elias staggered from that, and another blow landed on his side, deeper this time. Biting his lip against the pain, he took his left hand from the sword hilt, and pressed the arm against his body, protecting both the wound in his side and the slash on his palm.

       He was dying, but he showed no sign of using the Shadow. There was a chance that it did not exist in this alien world, but Ciaran thought it probably did, for all worlds were part of creation, and the Shadow was the echo of creation itself. Elias could have used the Shadow and fought like a Brother, but he did not. He could have wrenched the sword from his opponent's hand with his mind, or used the woven threads of Shadow to help himself leap out of the way, but he did not. He could have used it as a weapon, but he fought only as a frail and mortal man, and he would die because of it.

       "Don't do it, Elias!" Ciaran screamed. "Don't throw your life away!" Elias was wilfully making a martyr of himself. There was an arrogance to self-sacrifice. It was stupid and meaningless and indulgent, and Elias was a fool not to have taken the chance of safety. If he died, it was his own fault.

       If he died... Ciaran pressed his hand to his mouth. An arc of blood marked the brittle leaves. One leaf curled upwards slightly, forming a shallow cup, and dark blood settled at the bottom. Small dark lines radiated from it, following the veins that had once held life and sap.

       Sickened, Ciaran turned away. If he didn't look, perhaps Elias would suffer no further hurt. He would watch the things that gave him strength - the firm and continuous reality of the home he had made for himself in a small town that wanted him. The candle flame was bright and more beautiful than anything in the forest world.

       A knocking started at his door, and someone spoke. The voice was louder and more real than any of the sounds of the forest, but not quite real enough for him to make out the words, or the identity of the caller. It was someone who needed him, though. It was someone who sought him out, not someone who had been offered the chance of coming back with him, and had chosen to turn his back.

       I should answer it, he thought. The villagers were his people and his responsibility. Elias had made his choice, and declared himself no true Brother. He had ceased using his staff, seldom touched the Shadow, and tormented himself with dreams of a people who were not his own. He had declared his allegiance. There had been a farewell in the boy's eyes when he had turned round and announced his choice. He had never expected to see Ciaran again, and had not even wept.

        The boy's farewell had been wordless, but Ciaran was not that petty. Although Elias would never hear him, he would speak the proper words. "You've made your choice, Elias," he said. "You have chosen, and so have I. It is a shame it has to end like this, but it was your choice."

       Elias stumbled and fell at Ciaran's feet. Despite himself, Ciaran reached out, wanting to touch the boy's shoulder, but his hand seemed to go right through him, and Elias gave no sign of feeling the touch. He was bleeding heavily now, and the battle was nearly over.

       I can't turn my back on him, Ciaran whispered. I can't. He had sworn to protect the boy, and he wanted to protect him. It was just so wrong, that it should end like this.

       The knocking at the door faded a little. Ciaran knew he should go to it, but he could not bring himself to take the decisive step. Nothing physical was stopping him, but his own mind simply could not give the command for his body to move. He could hear both the knocking and the sound of swords, and both were equally unreal, balanced like a set of jeweller's scales, ready at any moment to tilt completely to one side. If he stepped back, he could make it tilt towards the knocking, but nothing he could do would make it tilt towards Elias and the battle he was losing.

       He was powerless to save him. "Elias," he whispered, and closed his eyes.

      

 

       It was over. Elias was on his knees, and there was no way in the world that he could get up again. As the man bore down on him for the death blow, Elias raised the sword over his head, but it was more as a shield than a weapon. He had no strength left. There was nothing he could do to save himself.

       Nothing? something whispered inside him. He sighed, half way between a laugh and a moan. He could use the Shadow and fight back for a little while, but he would still die. He could even use that deep power that the sword had begun to awaken inside him, but what was the point? If he won this fight, there were eleven more enemies, and he would never win against all of them. He felt very strongly that it was wrong to use such a power against a man who did not possess it. If someone else's life depended on it, then perhaps he would do it, but not merely to prolong his own life for a few short minutes, before he died anyway. He would fight only as himself, and die as himself.

       This was the end. Elias let the sword slip from his fingers. By dying, he was proving himself unworthy of its trust. It would pass to another now.

       It was not even hard, dying. It should have been difficult. Never before had he fought in earnest, against an enemy who meant to kill him. Never before had he faced such hatred, or seen his own blood on another's blade. Never before had he known that his victory could be at the cost of another man's life, or that his defeat meant death.

       At least it would be over. All those months of striving, and constantly being unworthy. Who was he, to think he could save a whole people? Even if he had won this fight, he would have failed them sometime in the future. It was better this way, that he was killed off early, so someone better could come along and be the saviour they needed. If they were even alive. The man's eyes were so implacable and his sword so skilled. It seemed impossible that anyone could have stood against his kind, who moved invisibly through the forest, and killed without a thought.

       "Do you surrender?" his conqueror asked, pressing the flat of his blade against the side of Elias's throat. All it would take was a tiny flick of his wrist and the sword would twist and Elias would be dead.

       If he nodded, Elias thought, he would drive his own throat into the sword. Would that count as suicide? He swallowed, and even that hurt a little, pressing his flesh against the cold blade that was already sticky with his own blood. "What happens if I do?" he whispered, barely moving his lips.

       "If you surrender?" The man raised his eyebrow mockingly. "Why, I will let you wonder. I have been known to hurt prisoners very badly. Some of them begged me to kill them, days before I finally did. At least if you fight on your death might be swifter."

       "But if I surrender..." He looked at the white sword, quiescent in the leaves. His master was behind him, like the faintest of shimmerings on the air, but perhaps he was still enough in this world for these men to hurt him. "What will you do to my master? And the people..." He blinked, very close to tears. "There were people who depended on me. I was supposed to save them. Have you killed them all?"

       Behind his conqueror, the other men were pressing forward eagerly, not wanting to miss the slightest moment of his death. Only the unarmed man looked uncomfortable, though he watched as intently as the others. Their boots were stained with Elias's blood.

       "I can't," Elias whispered, as the sword pressed harder against his throat, and the man who held it smiled. "I can't surrender, not if it will make a difference..." Talking was painful. "If you will... If people will..."

       "We would hurt nobody of yours." The unarmed man spoke suddenly, his voice clear and surprisingly pleasant. "You have my word."

       Elias looked at him, as if he was the only light in a world of darkness, but the man he had fought twisted the sword, forcing his head back. Unless he wanted his throat slit, there was nowhere he could look but into that man's cruel eyes. "Yes," the man sneered. "If you yield to me now, perhaps it will be bad for you, but that will be the end of it. But if you continue to defy me... Oh, if you continue to defy me..."

       His eyes glittered, promising cruelties unimaginable. He knew who Elias was, and knew the people who had depended on him. If Elias dared to fight on, he would wreak a terrible vengeance on the last remaining dregs of those people. Elias would get an easy death, but they would die in agony.

       Perhaps there was one thing he could do for the people of the sword after all. If he surrendered, he would be tortured, but they would be spared this man's cruelties for a while. He had no reason to trust this man's word, but the man who bore no sword had seemed sincere. They had not attacked him all twelve against one, so they had at least some honour. Even if there was just a chance that they would keep their promise, it was a chance he had to take. He had thought that he would serve the people of the sword with his deeds and actions, but instead he would serve them with his death.

       He felt suddenly as if the whole world was waiting for his answer. There was no sound at all, and even the deep power of the sword was silent.

       "Then," he said, "I surrender. Do what you like to me, but hold to your word, and do not harm them."

       There was a sigh like the whispering of wind in the trees. Winter branches rattled like bones and he felt a bead of blood run down his throat. He knew his master would hate him very much for what he had just said, but, even so, he wished he could turn and see his face just one last time.

       The man stepped back, lowering his sword. Elias offered him his wrists, ready to be bound.

       "No," the man rasped. He sheathed his sword with a violent jab, and turned away.

       The unarmed man walked forward, and stopped beside the man who had fought Elias, putting a brief hand on his shoulder. He whispered something, but Elias did not hear it. He wondered if he would ever learn the names of these men who were his captors and would soon become his torturers.

       The man who had defeated him turned round, and he looked at Elias with something close to hatred. "By all the kings, boy, stand up."

       "You're not our prisoner," the other man said. He seemed unwilling to look Elias in the eye.

       Elias licked his lips. He felt very tremulous inside, presented with a hope he did not dare believe. "I surrendered..."

       The man crouched beside him, his hands clasped between his knees. "Reynard fought you. You surrendered. You did so because you would rather suffer torture than betray those who have waited so long for your coming." He paused. "Is that not so?"

       A dozen faces watched him, so utterly still that it was as if they were not breathing. "I... did." It sounded like such a foolish thing, said out loud, like the silly indulgence of a boy who thought he mattered.

       "And you held back in the fight and did not use your true powers, because..."

       "It felt wrong," Elias said, then realised that the man had also said these same words, and they had spoken together, their voices in perfect unison. He looked down at the ground and watched his own blood falling, which at least was real and unchanging.

       Leaves crackled as the man shifted position. "We are your people." His voice was very gentle. "We are the ones who have waited for you for so long. We have placed such hope in you. There was too much riding on it for us to give our trust on sight, without knowing a little something of who you are. We had to see that you were worthy."

       Elias looked up, and saw that the man was kneeling. All round the circle, men were falling to their knees. Only the man called Reynard showed no sign of wanting to kneel, and stood with his legs apart and his arms folded, his chin jutting defiantly.

       "Don't," Elias gasped. He struggled to stand, but he was too weak and too badly hurt. His head spun sickeningly, and his hand slid in his own blood. On his knees, he managed to turn round, and found he had fallen at the very feet of his master, so faint and far away.

       They said they were his people, and that it was their voices he had imagined screaming for him for so long. They said they had waited for him, but they had tricked him and hurt him and threatened him. They had been testing him, they said, but it had felt real to him, and it had hurt. The wounds Reynard had inflicted were real, and the scars would never fade.

       "Master," he whispered. He pawed at the empty air where he saw the misty outline of his master's cloak.

       Without really being aware of it, he reached out with his wounded left hand, and touched the discarded sword. Immediately it began to glow with a deep inner light such as he had never seen before. It had come home, and it rejoiced, but where did that leave him? He was alone, and the people he was supposed to live amongst were cruel-faced and deadly and had tricked him.

       He wanted his master. He was badly hurt, and the night was very cold, and how could he bear it, if he was alone?

       Perhaps the sword lent him a tiny bit of strength, for he managed to clamber to his feet. Ciaran was barely visible. His head was half turned away from Elias, but his eyes were staring with a strange and painful longing. The fingers of one hand were spread, as if he was reaching for something, but did not quite know what it was.

       "Master," Elias managed again. His voice cracked, and he knew without the slightest doubt that he had fought this battle by himself, but would never find the strength to survive what was to come if he remained alone. Even if it was just one last time, he needed this. "Master. Help me. Please..."

       White light flared, and all strength drained from him. His knees buckled and he fell. But just before he hit the ground, strong arms grabbed him and held him up, and he knew they were his master's arms His master was solid and here and real, and, just for a little while, he was safe.

       He closed his eyes, and sank into the darkness.

      

 

       "So you're his people, are you?" Ciaran snapped. "You're on his side? You want him to help you?"

       The man who had fought his apprentice to the brink of death stood with his arms folded, a picture of arrogance. He looked at Ciaran as if he was a little thing totally beneath his notice, and gave a sharp nod, then turned away.

       Disgusted, Ciaran turned back to Elias, who was still unconscious, his body resting over Ciaran's knees and his head nestled in the crook of his arm. Ciaran fumbled with his clothes, but was hampered by the weight of the boy's body, and his own clumsy fingers. He was a large man, and had always been better at things that needed strength, rather than softness. Elias's hand looked like a child's hand compared with his.

       "Here," another man said. "Let me help." It was the man who had not drawn his sword. He, too, had tried to catch Elias before he fell, but Ciaran had been quicker. Now he was crouching beside them, and he was too close, for all the anguish that he wore plastered over his face.

       Ciaran held Elias tighter. "No. I can do it. He doesn't need anyone else."

       The man almost touched the boy's limp hand, but seemed to think better of it. He clasped his hands awkwardly. "I've got herbs in my pack, and fresh water." Some seconds later, he stood up and walked slowly backwards, never taking his eyes off Elias.

       "You'll be fine," Ciaran whispered to Elias, when he knew he would not be overheard. "I'll make sure of that. I'll look after you."

       He lifted the boy slightly towards him, then realised he had been about to kiss his brow. He lowered him again and turned his attention back to his clothes. He managed to untie the lacings at his throat, but the tunic was held in place at the waist by a broad leather belt. That needed to come off before the tunic could be pulled over his head and the wounds exposed. Without abandoning Elias to the cold of this alien ground, he could not do it.

       The crowd of men still ringed them, as threatening as they ever had been. A few of them had not yet sheathed their swords. Ciaran was very aware of how unprotected his back was, as he bent over his wounded apprentice and tended to him. Only the man who had caused Elias's wounds had his back turned, and did not watch.

       "His people," Ciaran snapped, refusing to let him hide from his culpability. "Is this some sort of joke?"

       The man called Reynard turned round slowly and stalked towards them. He crouched down and thrust his face into Ciaran's. "You have no right to ask anything of me! I don't even know who you are. You are nothing. You understand nothing. I did what I did, and I gave my reasons. That is all." There was something in his eyes that dared Ciaran to say it was not so.

       "Reasons?" Ciaran scoffed. "There is no reason I will ever accept. You fought him. You lied to him. You hurt him." His voice caught a little over the last two words, for Elias's blood was thick on his hands, and the boy had never been so badly hurt in all his life. "You could have killed him!"

       "If I'd intended to kill him, he'd be dead now." The man waved his hand dismissively. "And I had no choice," he said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, and absolved him of all blame. "He needed to be tested."

       "He's been tested already," Ciaran shouted. He started forward, and Elias slid in his grasp until his back was over Ciaran's thighs, and his head was lolling backwards, the throat painfully exposed. "He's already been tested," he said, pulling Elias back into his arms. The boy moaned a little, but did not open his eyes. "You say I don't know anything, but you're the one who's ignorant. You don't know anything about how this boy here has already been tormented because of you. And you don't deserve it."       "You know nothing," the man repeated, spitting out every word. "Nothing of how we have lived. Nothing of what we have suffered. Nothing of what it is like to wait five hundred years for someone who may or may not come, and, even if he does, might fail us all."

       "Five hundred years?" Ciaran laughed, pleased that he could expose this man's lies. "Don't talk nonsense, and expect me to believe it. It was twenty-one years since that sword was brought to us. I know, because I was there."

       "Five hundred years," Reynard said, in a strange voice. For a moment, he did not sound angry. "It was five hundred years of waiting. Waiting for him." He looked at Elias, and there was something different in his eyes. If Ciaran had not known better, he might have thought it was need.

       A crackle of dead leaves made him start, and he saw that the other man had returned, carefully balancing a full bowl of water and a pouch of herbs. Ciaran glared at him. For a moment, it had felt like an intensely personal battle between him and Reynard, with the prize being Elias's soul. The rest of the forest had ceased to exist, but now the man had brought it back. It was cold and horrible, and not his own world.

       "We need to get those clothes off," the man said, in a soft voice. He did not look at Ciaran, but only at Elias. He inclined his head a little, in a slight hint of a bow. "My name is Oliver."

       Ciaran refused to respond by giving his own name. He tried to decide whether to exaggerate Elias's injuries so he could reproach these men even more, or play them down. "He's not badly hurt," he said, at last. "We don't need your help."

       Oliver put down the bowl of water, though he kept hold of the herbs. He frowned, a small furrow between his eyes and his lips slightly parted. His eyes went distant and unaware. Perhaps he was an idiot, Ciaran thought. He had read about primitive cultures where idiots and madmen were made into priests and healers, by people who believed that their madness came from the gods.

       "Five hundred years," Reynard said again, as if Oliver was not there. "And now he is here."

       Ciaran looked at him sharply. "And you tried to kill him."

       "As I've said," Reynard spat, "I have no need to explain myself to you. He can hate me if he likes. It's all the same to me."

       Elias stirred a little in his arms, twitching with a pain so deep that it could penetrate unconsciousness. Ciaran held him tighter, gathering the ends of his cloak around his poor body. "He won't hate you," he murmured, as Reynard's words made him realise something about the boy he had trained. "He never does. He never hates anyone, no matter how much they deserve it." It was something he would have to tackle Elias about, and soon.

       But Reynard was not even listening to him. He was looking at Oliver, and frowning. Combined with his scar, it made him look immensely savage. "Can you…?"

       "No." Oliver shook his head. His shoulders slumped and he closed his eyes. "I can't. I think it's true after all."

       "Can't what?" Ciaran demanded. He hated these people, but he refused to be left out, and to sit by while they plotted their little conspiracies.

       Oliver opened his eyes. "Heal him," he said, meeting Ciaran's eyes for the first time.

       "Then you're not much use, are you?" Ciaran snapped. He had the satisfaction of seeing Oliver wince, and Reynard begin to reach for his dagger. He'd expose them in their true colours soon enough.

       "Please," Oliver said. "He's hurting."

       "All thanks to you." Ciaran jabbed a chin at Reynard. "So give me no apologies."

       Reynard pulled his dagger out, just enough to show a flash of metal. "Careful how you speak to me. You're in my territory now. He might be protected because of who he is, but you are not."

       "And just who is he?" Ciaran laid Elias on the ground, and stood up. He shouted the words as a challenge. "Tell me what he is to you."

       Reynard slammed his dagger back into its sheath. "He's our king." He spoke the words as if they tasted horrible.

       "Your king?" It was the only thing that could have taken the edge off Ciaran's fury. He gaped, then knelt back down, beside the young man lying in his bed of dead leaves. His black cloak lay around him like a pool, and the skin exposed at his throat was very pale. "Your king?" Ciaran echoed.

       He threw back his head and laughed. In the stories, kings were old and wise, dispending judgements and rulings in their high towers, or they were mighty warriors who could inspire men to follow them even into the fires of damnation. In the sad, declining world of today, kings were petty things of pomp and arrogance, who lived in gilded palaces and passed their times with fripperies, but could order a man killed on a whim. Elias fitted none of the images of a king. He was shy and young, and he disliked fighting and had never had to make a judgement in his life. He was no king, and the very idea was laughable.

       And what a delicious irony it was, now he came to think about it. This war-like people had been waiting five hundred years, if what they said was true, and they ended up with someone like Elias. No wonder Reynard had wanted to kill him. For all his claims that it was only a test, there had been true hatred in his eyes as he had first struck at the boy.

       "What?" He shook his head in disbelief. "King of… what? Twelve men, in a kingdom that's only a dirty little square of forest?"

       "We are the of First House of the Kindred." Reynard bristled with furious pride, with a strange dignity, too. "There were two hundred of us. There are seven more Houses. But our kingdom once covered the best part of the land, and it will again."

       "Unless we die first," Oliver murmured. "All things come to an end, Reynard, even long years of hoping."

       Reynard whirled on him. "But what comes after?"

       Oliver shook his head. While Ciaran had been talking he had taken over, removing Elias's tunic. Ciaran stared, too startled by Elias's appearance to rebuke the man for his interference. Elias had lost a lot of weight since midwinter. His ribs showed on the pale skin, and the wounds on his side and shoulder were dark and horrible.

       "Cover him up," Ciaran said, hurriedly, but Oliver had already done so, pulling Elias's cloak over him and tucking it in, arranging it so that only the wounds were exposed.

       "I'm sorry," Oliver murmured, "but I need to wash the wounds. It will hurt, but I'll be as gentle as I can."

       Irritated, Ciaran frowned. "Why are you talking to him as if he's awake? He can't hear you."

       Oliver pressed his lips together in a tight line, and did not speak. He shook his head again, and his eyes were grey shadows. He carried on tending to Elias, and still he said nothing.

       Elias opened his eyes. "Because I am awake." Even his voice was frail, like the distant whispering of a ghost. "I woke a little while ago, master." His hands fluttered, managing to find two handfuls of cloak. He pulled it close around him, and shivered.

       Ciaran crouched beside him. "So you heard what they expect from you, these people who..." He struggled to find the words to describe just how much he despised them. "These people who lied to you and hurt you," he finished.

       "Yes. I heard." Elias struggled to sit up. Oliver rocked back on his heels and would have let him, but Ciaran would not allow it.

       "You're hurt," he insisted. "Lie down. Let me look after you." He would hold the boy close and whisper comfort to him, and let anyone dare stop him. Elias needed only him, and any demands they made on him were meaningless now. Their own actions had made them so.

       "No." Elias's voice was distant and vague, but he shook his head quite firmly. "No, master. Don't..." He swallowed, his every muscle tight with pain. "I need to..."

       "Elias," Ciaran rasped. He clenched his fists until they shook. "Don't..."

       "Is that your name?" Oliver interrupted. Ciaran glared at him, but the man was oblivious. "Elias." He spoke it well, as if it was poetry.

       Elias was about to answer, but Ciaran spoke first. "His name is Elias Ward. I am Master Ciaran Morgan, and he is my apprentice. I am his master." He stressed the word, meaning this man to understand that Elias was his charge, and he would make anyone pay who made him suffer needlessly.

       Reynard gave a cruel laugh. "Yet he's the one we want, Master Morgan." He, too, emphasised the title. "Him, and not you at all, for all that you're his oh-so-mighty master. You hate that, don't you?"

       Ciaran started forward, ready to strike this insufferable man. "How dare you judge me? Take that back!"

       "Master," Elias pleaded. "Stop it. Please. Please stop it."

       Elias was hurt. Elias needed him. It wasn't as if he was yielding, just saving his retaliation for later, when Elias's need was less urgent. "Lie down, Elias," he commanded him, as he sat back down beside him.

       Elias sat up and wrapped his arms around his knees. He looked small and miserable, but the very fact that he was sitting up showed that he was defiant. Ciaran folded his arms, but felt cold and hollow inside. The storm that had been gathering since midwinter had finally broken, and everything was horrible now.

       But I will change it back, he swore. He would not let these people steal Elias and destroy him, with their deceit and their impossible demands. He had been dragged against his will into an alien world, but he would fight his way home, and he would bring Elias back with him, and everything would go back to the way it had always been. He would not accept it any other way.

      

 

       "Elias," Oliver said. "My king. Elias."

       Elias was very cold, and the pain from his wounds seemed to have sunk sharp claws into his flesh, that scratched against his brain. "I don't want to be king," he whispered.

       Oliver looked at him searchingly. "I'm sorry." Then he looked back over his shoulder. "Reynard?"

       Reynard took two stiff steps towards him. "I apologise. I hurt you. It was not planned." His voice was almost surly, and he did not say that he regretted it, or that he had not enjoyed it. He had obviously expected a stronger king, who could have held his own in a fight, and would not have been wounded at all.

       "I accept your apology." Elias thought his own voice sounded very faint, lost somewhere far away, as distant as a dream. "I understand why you did it."

       Another man walked up. They were all watching him, Elias realised. All of them, with cruel and vivid flames at their back, and their faces all sharp light and shadow. Their eyes allowed him no freedom. One or two looked away guiltily when they caught him looking at them, but most of them met his gaze defiantly. They were not sure whether to revere him or hate him, he thought.

       "My name is Ranulf," the newcomer said. His hair was grey and he had a black-flecked beard. He was carrying a dark shirt in his hand. "Have this. I've warmed it by the fire for you."

       He held it out to Elias, and, after a while, Elias took it. "Thank you," he whispered, in that far-away voice of his. The fabric felt coarse, but it was warm, and he pressed it against his cheek. Perhaps there had been genuine kindness in the gift, and that made it feel nice, but it could never be enough to warm him. He felt as if his heart had been replaced with a massive lump of ice.

       "You must have lots of questions." Oliver touched Elias's hand. His skin felt as cold as Elias's, and now it was stained with his blood. "It must be very hard for you."

       Elias wanted suddenly to sob, but he swallowed hard, and managed to keep it in. "Not as hard as it is for you, I think."       "Elias," Ciaran said. He sounded impatient and cross.

       Elias blinked, and managed not to cry. The sword lay where it had fallen, and he had no desire to touch it, not now.

       Five hundred years. They had been waiting for five hundred years, their people reduced to less than two thousand. When the man had brought the sword to the Basilica, things had been dire for his people. How much worse must things have become in the next five centuries. But all the time they had been waiting, sustained by their hope that a mighty king would come back to save them and lead them to glory.

       How cruel a disappointment it must have been for them. No wonder Reynard had fought him so earnestly, with hatred glittering in his eyes. No wonder Reynard had urged him to go back home. Because the sword had chosen to shine for him, they gave him the title of king, but every man here was disappointed, and wished he was someone else.

       "Elias," Ciaran said, again. "You don't have to listen to them, Elias."

       "No." Elias shook his head. He squeezed his eyes shut and knew that, if he opened them again, tears would begin to trickle down his cheeks. "I don't want..." He swallowed hard. "I'm cold. I want to sit by the fire." He pressed his unwounded hand to his eyes. "I'm tired. I want to be alone. Can I be by my own?"

       Even with his eyes shut, he knew that they were all watching him. What expressions were on their faces, now he could not see them? They would be disappointed and contemptuous, and perhaps they would even hate him, because he could never be what they needed him to be.

       They had expected someone wonderful, and instead they had ended up with him.


Chapter four

His own choice

 

 

       Elias had never forgotten the night his master had first told him about the other worlds. It was the night he had first heard the monster.

       It had started with stars. They had been walking back from Upper Greenslade, and Ciaran had suddenly stopped and looked at the sky. "How bright the stars are tonight," he had said, and Elias had looked up, too, so the two of them had stood together, both just staring. The silver specks had seemed so much colder than the distant golden lights of home, and there was a vastness of darkness between them and Elias, where he stood on the surface of the earth, looking up at them. But then his master was talking, pointing out stars by names, teaching him about constellations, and his words kept the fear away.

       "The stars are distant suns," Ciaran said, "and perhaps some are orbited by planets just like ours. There might even be life there. Just think, Elias. Someone could be standing out there just like you are, looking out into the dark and wondering if anyone is looking back."

       Looking at me, Elias echoed. Winter fingers touched his neck, and whispered, Looking at you.

       Ciaran warmed to his theme. "But the are worlds in other places, too, not just out in space. Some of the wisest Brothers in the past thought they caught glimpses of them, sometimes. They sensed... openings. But they could never walk through them, or see what lay beyond. They were worlds like ours, close enough to touch, but invisible." He chuckled. "And there's another thing for you to think about, Elias. Someone could be living on this very patch of earth, passing through you, touching you, but you will never see them."

       The icy fingers ran down his spine. "But what if they can see me? What if they can get out? We wouldn't see them until it was too late."

       "Nothing can get through," Ciaran said. "If the Brothers of old couldn't open the door, then no-one can."

       He doesn't know anything, the monster said, when it came to him in his dreams, a voice without form, made of darkness. Things can get through. I know you now, little one, and I will not forget you.

       There were still stars above him, as he lay in a forest years away from that night, and impossibly far. There were small cracks in the clouds, and stars glided across the dark patches of sky like silver petals on a pool, but he could not see enough of them to know if they were the familiar stars of home, or ones he had never seen before. Was this one of those other worlds in space, a cold lump of rock orbiting a silver speck in the night sky of Greenslade? Or was his home close enough to touch, but locked behind a door that only the sword could open? Not that it mattered. The sword had brought him here, and there would be no going back.

       He rolled onto his left side, biting his lips against the pain of his wounds. His hand brushed against the sword, but he screwed his eyes shut, refusing to see if it still shone for him. He pulled his knees up towards his chest, and felt the touch of the sword against his thigh. When the pain faded enough for him to let out a breath, his lips brushed against something shocking and cold, and he knew that too was the sword. If he tried to speak, the sword might take a sliver from skin from his lips. If he curled his fingers into the ground, it would bite into his palm. If he curled up tighter, wrapping himself around the blade, it would cut him in two. It had tasted his blood already, and had seemed to like it. What more would it demand, before the end?

       He rolled onto his back again, and opened his eyes. They felt raw, and he wondered how long he had been lying there, just staring at the stars.  Had he slept at all? He thought not, but then the moon seemed to lurch in the sky, as it would do if several hours had passed in an instant. Time was moving strangely. There were a thousand thoughts clamouring for attention in his mind, but they were simply too overwhelming. His mind did not know where to begin, and sometimes got a little lost. It was like a vast crowd of people, all of them shouting commands, and no one single voice audible above the cacophony.

       Maybe he had fallen asleep after all. Maybe someone had crept up to him while he was asleep, and placed the sword beside him where he could embrace it like a deadly lover. Maybe his master had come to try to comfort him, but had found him asleep. He peered into the darkness, but could not see his master. Everyone was asleep, dark shapes by the fading fire, except for a sentry who sat as still as the standing stone beside him.

       Words echoed in his mind, as men told him what they expected him to do, and his master said don't be silly, of course he can't, he's only Elias. He felt the sword beneath his fingers. A blade of grass sprouted near his face, its tip crushed by his own feet. Above it all, there were clouds, so similar to the smoke of some distant and immense destruction.

       Perhaps not of it was real. Perhaps he had fallen asleep after all, and all of this was a dream born of fever. Everything would be better in the morning.

       A figure moved, a dark shape rising from the ground. If it had feet, they made no sound. If it had eyes, they did not gleam. Blackness shrouded it, but it moved fluidly, like creeping evil. The moon hid from it, withdrawing behind a cloud, but the figure did not falter in the sudden darkness. It knew where it was going. I know you, the monster had always told him. One day I will come for you. Just you wait, little one.         

       Elias did not move. Pain dragged wavering fingers over the fringes of his vision. A star above him was as red as blood. The figure walked on, passed the fire, and became a man. Of course it was a man. Elias did not know his name. 

       See if you can find out my name, little one, the monster had whispered, once. Speak my name aloud, and I will have you. Which was so unfair, because in all the stories, bad things were powerless if you commanded them by name.

       As the man moved, a few of the sleepers raised their heads, looked at him, then lay down again. In the wilds, of course, men needed to wake at every sound that could mean danger, and fall asleep the moment they knew it was safe. Elias could never be one of them. He always found it difficult to fall asleep, but, once asleep, slept deeply, often trapped in dreams he could find no way out of.

       His journey finished, the man knelt beside one of the sleepers. The sentry, who had watched his progress with lazy interest, looked away, satisfied.

       Elias strained to see. The kneeling man reached out a hand, but the sleeping man rolled over onto his back before he could touch him. Maybe he had been awake already. Maybe no-one was asleep after all. Maybe there were twelve of them, all pretending to sleep, all passing the long hours of darkness in solitary wakefulness.

       The man who had walked across the camp was Reynard, Elias realised. "Reynard," he mouthed, not quite saying the name aloud, but saying it none the less. Nothing happened. There, he said, telling his fears how silly and groundless they were, for remembering a childhood nightmare and thinking it real. In the morning, he would look back at this long night and realise he had been a little delirious.

       Reynard leant forward and whispered something. Elias heard the sibilant sounds of the words, but nothing more. The other man pushed himself up, his arms supporting his weight behind him. He shook his head vehemently in response to whatever Reynard had said.

       Reynard spoke again, protesting something. I want to hear, Elias thought, almost casually. And perhaps some distant noise in the forest fell away, or perhaps the men suddenly spoke a little louder, for he found that he could.

       "No," the other man was saying. Elias could not tell who he was. "We did it your way. I know the reasons you gave for doing it, but..."

       "The reasons I gave?" Reynard managed to give the impression of shouting loudly, while not raising his voice over a whisper. "They were real reasons. Everyone else shared them. Only you spoke against me."

       "Are you sure?" the other man demanded. "You wouldn't put his life in danger, you said. Enough to test him, you said, but never enough to kill him. You promised that. I would never have agreed otherwise. But when you fought him you looked..." He sighed, shaking his head. "I just want you to be sure, Reynard. Sure of your reasons for doing what you did."

       Reynard clenched his fist, in a gesture that reminded Elias suddenly of his master. "I'm sure."       "Good." The man nodded. He glanced towards Elias, and Elias quickly closed his eyes. The man gave no sign of realising that he was awake, and carried on speaking, his voice dreamy. "This night has been... Oh, such a night as this has never been. We've waited five hundred years, and now it is here. We're bound to... feel things."

       "He's so young," Reynard said, and Elias thought that he, too, was looking at him. "He's not what I expected."

       "He's not what any of us expected. Could anyone have been? No. Will he be capable of doing what we need him to do?" The man was silent for a long time. "I don't know, but the sword chose him, and that means he has already passed tests greater than anything we could ask of him. It should be enough. Now we just have to..."

       "Bind him." Reynard's voice was harsh. "Make sure he cannot fail us."

       "I was not going to use those words."

       Reynard flapped his hand, as if it made no difference. "So whose task is that?"

       "Mine." Elias lay with his eyes screwed shut, but he wished he could open them, so he could see who was speaking, and beware of them. "We did it your way, but now we do it mine."

       "As long as the end is the same," Reynard said, with a note of truculence in his voice. "Our cause is more important than anything."

       "Yes." The other man sighed. "Yes, I know that. We have lived and died for it for five hundred years. How can anything ever be more important?" But he sounded weary, as if it gave him little pleasure.

       "So don't forget it," Reynard said, and perhaps it was even a threat. "Get us what we want, whatever the cost."

       "I hope there is no cost," the other man whispered.

       "To us?" Reynard demanded. "No cost to us, do you mean? That's all that matters. If anyone else has to pay a price, that's not our problem. You know what matters."

       The other man was silent for a very long time, while Reynard stared at him, his cloak pushed back, and his hand on the sword at his belt. At last he spoke. "I do," he said. "Of course I do."

       Reynard turned and walked away, and this time Elias heard the brittle crumbling of dried leaves beneath his feet, each one something that had once been living.

      

 

       Reynard was going to kill Elias. He was crouching close to him, a dagger in his hand. His face was very fierce and intent, and his eyes glittered, never once leaving Elias's face. There was the faint yellow light of dawn behind him, but everyone else was still asleep. He thought he was unwatched. He thought he could kill Elias, then... what? Claim it was self-defence? Claim an enemy had slipped into the camp in the night? Or just fold his arms and defy anyone to speak against him, as he claimed the white sword for his own?

       Well, Reynard would find out that he could not threaten Elias and get away with it. Reynard didn't know that Ciaran was awake and watching him. He didn't know that Ciaran could be such a dangerous and relentless enemy. He had called Ciaran nothing and a nobody, but what did he know?

       Ciaran coiled up his strength, readying himself to attack. He reached instinctively for his staff, but it wasn't there. His staff, that he had never been parted from in fourteen years, had not come into this hateful world with him. He had propped it up against his chair, and then had been torn away from it. He had no weapon. He was alone, cold, incomplete. No, he thought, shaking his head sharply. He could still fight. He could still win. He was Ciaran Morgan, and he did not need a piece of wood to make him strong.

       He sprang to his feet. "You keep away from him."

       Reynard looked up, and Ciaran had the satisfaction of knowing that he had startled him. Reynard, who surely prided himself on never being taken by surprise, had been lost in his murderous contemplation of Elias and had not realised that Ciaran had woken up. For a moment his face looked naked and unprotected, almost vulnerable with some need. Then that look was wiped clean, replaced with hot, defensive anger.

       "I can go near him if I want to," he said. He stood up. Almost unconsciously, the two of them began to step to the side, moving away from the others. "You have no right over him any more, whatever you say. He is ours now."

       "Yours to kill?" Ciaran scoffed. "Is that what you do to your kings here? No wonder your old one left you."

       Reynard's eyes blazed. "I was not going to hurt him."       "Really?" Ciaran gave a bark of laughter. "So that's why you creep up on him with a dagger in your hand?"

       Reynard angled the tip of the dagger towards Ciaran's face, though he did not thrust it forward. He wanted Ciaran to be afraid and to step back, but refused to give him that pleasure. "I was on watch," Reynard said. "I had my dagger drawn, because that's what we do, on watch. I wanted to..." He gave an angry sigh. "I owe you no explanations."

       Ciaran lashed out at his arm. He was too angry to see the Shadow clearly, but it was enough to make his blow harder than it would have been for a normal man, and enough, he hoped, to make Reynard fear him and think he could perform mighty magics. "Stay away from him," Ciaran hissed. "If you hurt him again, I will kill you."

       Reynard did not drop his dagger, and showed no fear. He lunged forward with his left hand, and Ciaran found himself held by the wrist, by a man half a head shorter than him. But he could pull himself away any time, if he tried. 

       "And I swear," Reynard was saying, so fiercely that Ciaran felt drops of spittle on his face, "that I will kill you if you do anything to prevent him from becoming the king we need him to be." He narrowed his eyes. "I have killed before. No-one fights better than I do."

       "So you'll kill to keep him, will you?" Ciaran sneered. "Not so long ago you seemed almost eager to kill him. You didn't seem to want him then, when you saw just how badly this king of yours fought."

       "Any fool could see that he was exhausted," Reynard retorted. "He could barely stand even before he started fighting. And, even so, he held his ground against me for longer than some have managed to do when fresh. So don't you be too quick to put him down."

       It struck Ciaran as hilarious, that this man, this enemy, could defend Elias to his own master. "Oh, you're defending him now?"

       Reynard shook his head. "Speaking the truth. Perhaps you should do the same."

       Ciaran was desperate to fight the man here and now, and pummel his hateful face into a bleeding mess, but Reynard had a dagger and was surrounded by friends, and Ciaran was without his weapon. One day, he promised. Soon. He would make this man pay for hurting Elias. But then, he remembered, he hoped he would be long gone from this world by then, and Elias with him. That would be his punishment, too. This man wanted Elias, and Ciaran would be the one to rob him of his prize.

       "Stay away from him," he commanded. "Just keep away. All of you."

       Reynard jabbed his chin in the direction of the fire. He looked amused and dismissive. "You really think you can stop us? Twelve of us, and only one of you, and without a weapon? I think not."

       "We'll see about that." Ciaran stamped away, back to where Elias was sleeping. He bent down and shook the boy on the unwounded shoulder, then pulled him by the wrist. "Come here, Elias," he said, no longer really caring who heard him. "I want to talk to you." The boy had asked to be alone the previous evening, and he had never done that before.

       Elias rolled onto his back, and groaned. Ciaran pulled harder at his wrist, but the boy resisted, the weight of his body refusing to follow after the arm. He blinked stupidly, and looked more than half asleep.

       "Elias," Ciaran urged him. "Come on. Where the others can't hear us."

       "I..." Elias licked his lips. "I don't know... Why?"

       Elias had never questioned his orders before, either. "They're enemies," Ciaran explained patiently. "Come where they can't hear us."

       The boy blinked, and looked at the moon. "I'd only just fallen asleep," he whispered. "I couldn't, not before."

       He looked very young and very vulnerable, and he was Ciaran's apprentice, and Ciaran had protected him for ten years. "Are you still in pain?" Ciaran asked, a little more gently. He knew already that the wounds, although painful, were not mortal. They had bled a lot, but had penetrated no internal organs. They would leave scars, but they would heal.

       "What do you want to say?" Elias asked, not answering the question, though his pallor and evident weakness was all the answer Ciaran really needed.

       "You should tell me when you're hurting, Elias." Ciaran laid the boy's hand back down on the ground. "And we can talk here. You needn't move." It would do no harm, he thought, if these people heard him after all.

       Deliberately, Ciaran sought out Reynard. While speaking his soft words of comfort to Elias, he had lost the sharp edge of his anger, and the sight of Reynard would make it return. "I want you to promise me something, Elias," he said, still looking at Reynard, making sure the man heard it, and knew what it meant.

       "What?" Elias shifted position, and sighed, as if he was giving up on finding anywhere comfortable.

       "I want you to promise that, whatever they ask of you, you will refuse." Ciaran turned back to Elias. "I know you've spoken often of having a duty to them, and being unable to turn your back on it, but that's all meaningless now. Duty runs two ways. Think of it as a contract. You paid your part, but they failed to, and that means the contract is void."

       "Contract," Elias echoed. His eyes were flickering to and fro in sleepy confusion Ciaran was glad to see that he did not once reach for the sword that lay beside him in such pretended innocence.

       "They say you're their king," Ciaran continued, "but that means they are your people, and owe you loyalty. But they lied to you, Elias. They lied to you, and hurt you. They made you believe you had to choose between torture and condemning innocents, and will you ever be able to forget just how awful it felt, facing that choice?" He jabbed at finger at Elias's side and shoulder, though he was careful not to touch them. "Those will scar you forever. You have suffered so much already, trying to be worthy of these people, but they don't deserve a... a single drop of your blood, or a moment of effort."

       "I don't know enough to judge them," Elias said. "They might have reasons."

       Ciaran slammed a fist into the ground, making Elias wince. "Reynard could have killed you!"

       "He had reasons, too." Elias's lips barely moved. "I understand them."

       "Understand them?" Ciaran took a deep breath, forcing himself not to sound as angry as he felt. He folded his hands deliberately on his lap, and spoke in the voice he always used as a teacher. "You always say you understand things, Elias. It's a failing in you. I should have spoken to you about it earlier. Even your parents and your brothers... They abused you for years. You used to wake up crying every night, from the nightmares they had left you. But if I asked you why they did it..."

       "They had reasons," Elias whispered miserably. "When she was young, my mother..."

       "No!" Ciaran smashed his fist against the ground again. "They did it because they were cruel! Because they were bad people. They had no reasons. It is not for you to understand them. If you understand them, then..." He paused, struck with a sudden thought. "You think they were right, Elias? Is that it? You think they were right to hate you? Is that why you make excuses for everyone who hurts you? You think that, basically, they are right, and you deserve nothing better?"

       Elias swallowed and swallowed again, but said nothing. He was still staring upwards, but now his eyes were very still.

       "It is a weakness, Elias." Ciaran returned to the lesson, folding his hands once more. "It makes you too trusting. It makes you too ready to give to people who don't deserve it. It sets you up to be exploited and deceived and abused. Sometimes, no reasons can excuse someone's behaviour. You should just hate them, and walk away. They deserve nothing else."

       "I can't." Elias closed his eyes, and spoke in the faintest of whispers. "I have to hear them, at least. I don't know... I'm scared, master. I'm so sure I'll not be able to do what they need. I'll fail them and destroy them, but..." He opened his eyes again, and they were surprisingly clear. "I have to at least try. I have to hear what they want of me. I have to find out who they are."

       "But if what they are is evil? If what they want is something that you cannot do, not without betraying everything I've ever taught you is right?" Ciaran grabbed Elias's arm. "What then, Elias?"

       Elias bit his lip, then released it. "Are you commanding me, master?" he whispered. "Are you ordering me to walk away from them right now?"

       Yes, Ciaran wanted to say, but found that he could not. Without another word, he stood up and walked away.

      

 

       At last, when it was fully light, someone came to him. Just a voice at first, speaking from beside him. Elias has his eyes closed, the voices in his head were louder than any of the real sounds of the camp. His master was speaking, and Reynard, and the man who had once borne the sword. They told him how stupid he had been, and he believed them, for they spoke the truth.

       "What are you thinking?" the voice asked him, and this was the real voice, the person who was really there beside him. All morning people had whispered about him, but no-one had approached him, not even his master.

       Elias wrenched his eyes open, and looked towards the voice. Oliver had settled himself cross-legged on the ground beside him. He was smiling, and his concern looked genuine.

       Elias was far too tired to dissemble. "That I've been very stupid."

       "Oh?" Oliver arched an eyebrow. "How so?"

       "Because..." Elias looked down at his right hand. "I swore an oath in my own blood, and I can never break it. But I hadn't really thought about what it meant. I wasn't thinking clearly." His voice caught a little, remembering the terrible aftermath of the fire. "I didn't know what I was swearing to. I just... I thought of it as an end in itself. I just had to find you. I thought I'd do anything just to find you."

       "And you wish you hadn't found us? Now you've seen the sort of people we are, you don't want to help us?"

       Elias shook his head. "Whether I want to or not, I have no choice."

       "Because you believe an oath is binding?" Oliver was leaning forward eagerly.

       "My master taught me so. And the sword... glowed. It accepted it." He said nothing more, suddenly shy of speaking of what it had felt like, sometimes, to hold that sword. It had a magic too great to be betrayed.

       "Don't look so sad." Oliver touched him gently on the sleeve. "Perhaps it's not so bad. Many men would love to be a king."

       "I don't." Elias shook his head. "I just... I..." Not far away, a bird sang, and he listened to it until the cascade of notes had faded away into silence. "Six months ago, I found the sword. I was told what the man who had hidden it had said. I knew there were people somewhere waiting for me, but I couldn't find it. It was horrible." Even speaking about it, he wanted to shiver. "I would have done anything to find you. And then a girl died, and I swore..."

       "You swore never to let anyone else die," Oliver finished for him. "You swore it because you were hurting. You thought it would make you feel better."

       Elias gasped. Oliver understood him, and this sudden understanding where he had expected only hard demands undid him in a way that not even Reynard's blows could have done. "But it didn't," he moaned. "It was only the beginning. Now I'm here, and I'm bound forever. A king is forever. It wasn't the final test, but only the first. This is my life now. It's not over, and there's all of you, and you're real..."       Oliver touched him again, offering comfort. He had a kind face. He was around thirty years old, and he wore his dark hair loose, falling down straight to his collarbones. His eyes were the same grey as his cloak, and he was the only one of the men in the camp who had bothered to shave, revealing a lean face with fine cheekbones. On the ground beside him, Elias noticed suddenly, was a musical instrument that looked like a lute, made of pale wood and decorated with an inlay of even paler leaves.

       Elias found he wanted to talk to him. The night before, he had asked to be alone, but he had not really wanted it, even then. All he had wanted was for their demands to go away. He had wanted to hide from the people who looked at him and saw their king. He had wanted his master, but he had known that a master was a luxury he would have to learn to do without. The moment he had heard Reynard say he was supposed to be their king, he had known that he was condemned to a life alone. He could never be a child again.

       "I can help you, if you like." Oliver said. "I can be your friend. I know it's all overwhelming for you. Do you want to talk about it?"

       A friend, he thought. An adult could have a friend, to give advice as an equal. A king could have an adviser. He could never whimper in his master's arms again, no matter how young and lost he felt, but perhaps he did not need to be alone. Oliver made no demands. Unlike Ciaran, whose comfort always came with an undertone of command, Oliver merely asked, and left the choice in Elias's hands. He was bound prisoner by oath and duty, and it felt so wonderful to be given a choice, even if in such a small thing.

       "I'm afraid," he admitted. "I'm so scared that I'm going to fail you all. The man who brought the sword said I might. He said I could destroy you. How can I not destroy you?"

       Oliver folded his hands in his lap. "Why should you?"

       "Look at me." Elias gestured fiercely down at his body with his chin. "I'm too young. I've never done anything in my life. I don't know anything. And you're all so..."

       "Big and strong?" Oliver laughed, not unkindly. "Is that how you see us? That we couldn't possibly need anything from someone like you?"

       Elias nodded. In his imaginings in the ruins, the people of the sword had always been women and children, defenceless and calling to him. He had never thought of them as grown men with sharp swords, their faces the harsh weather-beaten faces of born warriors.

       "If skill with the sword could save us," Oliver said, "then a thousand men like Reynard could do what was needed, but there are many others forms of skill. In my eyes, you have shown yourself to be something special already. The sword responded to you, and that makes you a being of rare talent. And there are not many men who would have chosen to die by torture rather than risk the chance that some strangers might possibly suffer. That showed courage and strength and a nobility of spirit, and every one of those is a kingly virtue."

       Elias was not used to receiving such praise, and he felt himself blushing. "But I'm so young," he found himself stammering, more to fill the awkward silence than anything else.

       "So?" Oliver smiled again. "How old are you? Nineteen? Twenty? Twenty-one?"

       "I'm twenty. Just."       "And I was twenty-one when my father passed his office onto me," Oliver said. "And I doubted my abilities, and wanted to turn it down, but I soon accepted it." But he looked down at his clasped hands, and Elias knew suddenly and without a doubt that he was lying about something.

       "No you didn't." The words slipped out before he could stop himself.

       Oliver's head snapped up and he blinked. For a moment he looked very different, as if Elias's words had ripped away some mask he was wearing. Then he swallowed, and the look was gone. "And the stories tell that many of our kings were called to office when they were young, and knew little of what was expected of them. That is how the rank of seneschal arose. The king had the skill and the sword recognised his inner worth, but the seneschal had experience, and would advise him."

       "That's you," Elias cried. Things he had not quite understood started to make sense. "You're the seneschal. You're their leader, and not Reynard after all."

       Again there was a slight flicker of the mask, as if Elias had once more managed to surprise this man. After the briefest of pauses Oliver inclined his head. "I am. I am seneschal of the First House of the Kindred, the latest in a long line." He raised his head, and his eyes shone, darkly earnest. "But Reynard is cup-bearer, which means second in command. I have little skill at the sword, so we have agreed to divide responsibilities. He has the last word on all things to do with fighting. In this time of constant struggle, he is our leader in a very real sense, so do not forget that."

       Do not cross him, he meant, but Elias thought it was more a warning than a threat, and was meant kindly. Oliver was wearing a mask, but he seemed friendly underneath it, a good man.        "You take the sword," Elias burst out. "If you're their leader, it's yours. It belongs to your people, not to me. You've been waiting five hundred years for it. It's only right."

       He reached beside him and picked the sword up, touching it properly for the first time since the fight, and thrust it towards Oliver. His eyes gleaming, Oliver reached out to take it. His hand trembled.

       "Look," Oliver breathed. Elias's hands fell back to his side, letting Oliver take the full weight of the sword. As he watched, Oliver grasped the hilt and raised it, holding it vertically before him. Then he twisted it round, so the point was towards Elias. "Look," Oliver said, again. "What do you see?"

       Elias swallowed. He had given the sword away, but nothing felt different inside. "The sword..." He swallowed again. "You."

       Oliver frowned. "Why did you give it away? Because you think that this way you'll be free?"

       "No." Elias shook his head. Nothing had changed inside. There was still that white crystal whispering in his blood, and the wound on his hand showed what he had sworn. "I just..."

       Oliver took pity on him. "It isn't shining for me, Elias. It's dead." It was true. The sword would always be beautiful, but in Oliver's hand the beauty was like the beauty of a cloudy morning, when Elias had seen it shine like the beauty of the first sun after the rain. "Now you take it." Oliver pushed it towards Elias.

       He didn't want to. All night he had refused to touch it, but why? Because he didn't want to see it shine, and remind him that he was bound and trapped to an impossible duty? Or because he was terribly afraid that it would never shine for him again, because how could it find someone like him worthy of being a king?

       "Go on," Oliver was relentless. It had not been pity at all, Elias thought, for all that his voice was still kind. "Take it."

       Elias looked once over his shoulder, but Ciaran was still asleep, and there would be no help there. Instead, he met Reynard's intense gaze, and there was nothing he could do but to turn back to Oliver. He felt like someone being offered poison, and finally seeing no choice but to take it.

       He took the sword in his right hand, and immediately it shone, those distant and impossible colours coiling at the heart of its blade, and deeper, snaking round his arm, seeping through his skin, embracing his heart and his soul and his mind.

       Elias looked pleadingly at Oliver. "Why does it shine for me?".

       "You make it shine," Oliver smiled, and Elias was amazed to see that there were unshed tears in his eyes. "It's not a magic sword, not like in children's stories. It has a certain power, but in the wrong hands it's nothing. All it can do is recognise true power where it finds it. It's like a conduit. It... responds."

       "But I have no power," Elias protested. "Only what the sword gave me."

       Oliver shook his head. "Perhaps the sword awakened you to powers you already had, but, without you, it is... not nothing, no. Never nothing. But you are the true power."

       He wanted to deny it, but Oliver's words had been seeds, and Elias was powerless to stop them growing. The voice from the sword that had sneaked inside him and taken residence... Hadn't it been familiar even then, speaking with a voice had heard whispers of even in childhood? The tendrils of power that coiled through his veins, issuing from the sword in his hand... Now he was forced to admit the truth, he could no longer deny that they went the other way. They started deep within him, and they flowed eagerly to the sword and it shone in gleeful response.

       And there was more. There was the way he had heard Sophie calling, when his master had been unable to. There was the way he could sense the dead in the ruin, louder and more intensely with every day he spent fighting with the sword and learning what he was capable of.

       "I don’t know what to do," he breathed.

       Oliver said nothing. As Elias laid down the sword, Oliver picked up his lute, and started to pluck the strings gently. Despite himself, Elias started to listen, glad of the excuse not to think any more. The music made no demands on him.

       He found himself closing his eyes. Somewhere in the distance he heard a bird singing, delicate and joyful. The music cascaded like a cool waterfall, almost too quiet to hear. Sunlight was reaching down like a caressing hand, warming his cheeks, and making him drowsy. Even the warmth spoke with the tongue of music.

       Waves of tiredness surged through him, and his head drooped. His eyes hurt, and fine dots of light were dancing against the darkness. As time passed, though, they expanded and joined together, until they became one warm and restful light, like soft white sheets, or summer sunlight.

       Lulled into drowsiness, he lost track of how much time passed. For the first time in six months he could truly rest. He could lay down his burden and sleep. The sunlight would keep him safe, and the birds of the skies would watch over him. Even his master was close, and had not left him. It had always soothed Elias's nightmares just to know that Ciaran was close, ready to keep the monsters away.

       But that was long ago. The happy times with his master were all memories. His master had been tender to him when he had been a child, but now he was harsh and distant. He was only a man, and he could not fight all monsters. Elias had never even told him about the worst one of all, that spoke in his dreams.

       Elias opened his eyes, and the music was only music, plucked on the strings of a lute in a damp forest. He knew now that Oliver had put magic in the melody, trying to urge him to sleep. Elias needed sleep desperately, but he would not accept it like this. He had never been given a choice in any of this, but he would keep his will in the little things. How could he stay sane unless he did so?

       "You didn't ask," he reproached him.

       Oliver stopped playing, stilling the music with a hand across the strings. "I'm sorry. I could see how tired you were. I can see how hard this all is for you." He put the lute back down, arranging it on a fold of his cloak. He busied himself about it, and spoke without looking at Elias. "In all these five hundred years, since our last king left us alone, every one of us has thought a lot about what it would feel like, to live to see the king return. I don't think anyone has ever wondered what it would feel like to be that king. I certainly didn't."

       It was true, Elias thought, but not the whole truth. There had been another reason behind Oliver's attempt to make him sleep, but he was too tired to confront him about it, and still too afraid of his ability to know these things.

       Oliver turned back towards him, and raised his hands, fingers spread, and palms facing each other. He fluttered his fingers, and there, between his hands, the air was shaped into birds of all colours, each one very beautiful. All around them was autumn, but these were creatures of spring, full of life and hope.

       One bird was all over black, with feathers that seemed to reflect in an iridescent array of every colour, and another looked as if woven from spun gold. One, though, had a damaged feather on its tail, and that seemed the most marvellous thing of all, and the final proof that this was no mere cheap illusion, but something wonderful and real. A lesser man would have created a show of gaudy perfection.

       As he watched, Oliver gave the slightest gesture, and two birds moved together in courtship, the male puffing up his scarlet breast feathers, and the female ducking her head coyly. Then he flicked the ends of his long fingers, and all the birds burst into song. They sang with all tones, some high and rippling, and some low and hoarse, but each disparate noise combined together to make a symphony that was as pure as it was unexpected.

       Everything else was forgotten. Elias laughed aloud with sheer joy, marvelling at the beauty of the magic. The birds looked real enough to touch. Experimentally he reached out his right hand, and found that he could indeed touch them. He opened his palm, and wished one would land upon it, and found not one, but two of them there. He could curl his thumb around and touch the soft feathers at the back of their necks, and they were so tiny and delicate, yet so replete with life. Their minute hearts were beating like a constant vibration against the flesh of his thumb, many times faster than his own steady beat.

       He laughed again, and shook his head wonderingly. This was like nothing he had ever seen before, or imagined. There could be nothing terrifying or sinister in a magic that could do this. All powers could be used for evil, but the power itself was mighty and beautiful.

       "That's why you didn't draw your sword yesterday," Elias said. This man had a power that could make the sick at heart smile, and the despairing find joy again. "You didn't need to. This is more powerful than a sword."

       "Enchantment," Oliver said, and he smiled, although his expression had been strange before it. "That is the name of the magic. And, no, I am no master." He waved his hand, and the birds flew to him, lining up on his shoulders and arms, eyeing Elias solemnly. "These are only an illusion. Illusion is like the shining surface of the river that is the enchantment, but the waters beneath are deep and vast."

       "Enchantment," Elias echoed. He reached out a hand, and the broken-tailed bird came to him again, although Oliver made no gesture of command. He wished that it would sing again, and it did, though it seemed sorrowful and empty, without the accompaniment of the others. "You're the only one who can do this?"

       Oliver's face darkened. "I am not the only one, no, but there are far fewer of us than there once were. I'm the strongest, but even I only have a strength that in the old days would have been counted as tiny indeed." Perhaps unconsciously, his voice had grown more solemn, speaking in the formal words of a story. "For the enchantment is declining, and soon, perhaps, it will be gone from the world. So little remains."

       It seemed too tragic to bear, that such a beautiful power should die. "Why is it dying?" He would do anything he could to preserve it, he swore.

       Oliver shook his head. "No-one knows. Some of it we know, because we live in a world that is ruled by those who have no love for the enchantment. If they find anyone practicing it, they kill them. But the stories tell us that it was fading long before that, when the kings still ruled the whole land, and we were loved."

       Elias leaned towards him. "But why...?"

       Oliver held up his hand. "You will hear the whole story soon, for it is not one to be rushed." The birds faded from his shoulders, and the joy of the illusion was all gone as if it had never existed. Oliver looked tired, and even a little ashamed. "But you possess the same power, and far stronger than I do. Stronger than has been seen in this land for a thousand years." He spoke hurriedly, as if the words were dirty, though Elias could see nothing in them that could have caused him pain. He was sure the man believed what he was saying.

       "How do you know?" he asked.

       Oliver sighed. He seemed to have lost all heart for this. "Because I cannot heal you. Because you could control my illusion, and did so, when you called my birds to your hand, and had no idea at all that you were doing something unheard of." He looked Elias full in the face. "And because you opened the door between worlds, not only for yourself, but for your master too. You asked him to stay, and he was pulled here, only on your word. The light of it almost blinded us."

       "Me?" Elias felt sick. "I did that?" For a horrible second, he felt terrified to move, sure that if he moved a finger or spoke a word some immense power would arc from him, and have untold and horrible effects. If he truly had power, it was one he neither understood nor could control. Like a child flailing for the support of a parent, he sought the Shadow, and it, too, was still there, familiar and soothing as it had ever been. He felt as if he was the confluence of two deep rivers, torn apart by the flood, and he didn't know what to do.

       The bird with the broken tail was still perched on his hand. It seemed to be looking pleadingly at him, as if asking for his permission to blink out of existence like its fellows, but he did not know how to grant that. He wished it would go back to Oliver, and, the moment he had thought it, it did. Oliver flicked his fingers, and the bird disappeared.

       Elias looked round. Where was his master? Ciaran was still asleep, his back to Elias, or maybe he was only ignoring him. Elias knew Ciaran had been annoyed with him for asking to be alone the night before. On the other side of the clearing, Reynard stood with one hand pressed against a tree trunk, and watched the tableau before him. He was frowning, and his lips were pursed into a thin tight line.       My way, he remembered hearing in the night. Oliver had been the man Reynard had been talking to, he realised. Reynard and Oliver served the same cause. The murderous blows and the honeyed words were all the same end. His master was right. Elias was stupid, and trusted too easily. Between the two of them and his own stupidity, he was trapped. Oliver offered kindness, but it was all a trick. He spoke gently, but only because he wanted to win Elias's trust. He encouraged him to believe in himself, but only because he wanted Elias to serve them, and he showed him the beauties of enchantment purely to make care about it so much that he burned to fight for it.

       His hand was shaking. Please wake up, he thought, but Ciaran did not. He looked small, suddenly, lying on the ground in the middle of a camp of men who were awake. There was nothing in this world for him to wake up for. He wanted to get home as soon as possible, and leave Elias behind, with these men who lied and tricked and deceived.

       "My lord?"

       But the voice was gentle, and the face that spoke the words was kind. Try as hard as he might, Elias found it difficult to think badly of Oliver. He had only done it because his people needed it, and he had seemed uncomfortable with it towards the end.

       Oliver bowed his head. "You are my king," he said, "and I am your seneschal. Your burden will be great, but you will not bear it alone." His voice cracked and lost the solemn formality it had so often fallen into. "Please don't think you'll bear it alone, Elias."

       Elias bit his lip. No, he wanted to whimper, and release me, and show me. Show me how to use the enchantment because I can't be happy until I know. Unable to say any of them, he just shook his head. "Don't kneel," he whispered.

       He spread his hands, fingers shaking and bleeding palm turned to his face. Could these hands create marvels? He pressed the hands to his face, and felt close to crying. "I'm so tired," he whispered. "I want to sleep now. Please help me sleep."

      

 

       For a moment, when he woke up, Ciaran could not remember where he was. He opened his eyes, and saw branches above him, and wondered why he had spent the night in the woods. Then someone spoke, and the horror of remembering made him want to scream with fury. He was here, in this savage world, full of evil men who wanted to get their claws into Elias. The trees might try to trick him for a moment into thinking he was at home, but they were nothing like the trees of Greenslade. Even the air was different here, and breathing it did not nourish him. He felt parched and sore, and cold beyond all hope of warmth.

       Throwing the thin blankets from his body, he stood up. He almost strode over to Reynard, to smash his fist into his face, then decided to seek out Elias, who was always pleased to see him. He found him quickly, then frowned to see how close Oliver was sitting to him, close enough to touch. Elias was fast asleep, and Oliver was sitting beside him like a thief watching over a jewel he had waited his whole life to steal.       Ciaran hurried to Elias's side, and stood above him, as stern as a schoolmaster. He was about to speak, but Oliver spoke first. "Please don't wake him. He's only just fallen asleep."       "He always sleeps deeply." Ciaran deliberately did not lower his voice. He had known the boy for ten years, and was not to be told by some ignorant stranger how to act around him.

       He crouched down to examine the boy, but Oliver refused to go away. "You told us you were his master. What does that mean?" There was a certain stiffness to his voice. "Is he your servant?"

       "He is my apprentice," Ciaran said, without looking up. "I am his master. And it means... It means that I have taught him everything he knows. I'm his mentor. He depends on me. I'm the one person in the world who will always put him first." He turned towards Oliver, challenge in his eyes. See? he told him. I will fight for him.

       Oliver's eyes flickered away. When they looked at Elias, they softened, although his voice was still stiff. "How long before he finishes his apprenticeship?"

       "Never." Ciaran grabbed Elias's lifeless fingers, curling up lifelessly from the bandages, and held them tight.       "Never?"

       A cold breeze made the dead branches rattle, and ruffled the short hair on his scalp. "Strictly speaking, he will finish his apprenticeship in a year," Ciaran admitted. A year... He had never considered it before. "But you don't know Elias as I know him. He won't want to leave me. Why should he? He's not the sort of person who can survive out in the world. He needs a quiet life, with someone to guide him." Elias moaned in his sleep, and tried to pull out of Ciaran's tight grip. "Oh no. He'll never want to leave me."

       Oliver seemed about to speak, but Ciaran rounded on him, Elias's hand slipping from his grip as he did so. "You don't like that, do you? You thought you just had a boy to deal with. You didn't reckon on him having a master. I'm not so easy to trap. I will fight you every step of the way if you try to take him away from me."       Oliver plucked absently at the lowest string of his lute. "But for whose sake are you fighting?"

       Ciaran could have struck him. "For his sake, of course." Very deliberately he leant over Elias, physically pushing Oliver aside as he did so. "Now leave me. I need to tend to him."

       Oliver moved a little to one side, but refused to go. "He's very brave."       Ciaran pursed his lips. Oliver had no right to be here, and he would ignore him. He needed to see Elias's wounds with his own eyes, and tend them with his own hands, and no strangers could be entrusted with the task. Elias was his to protect.

       He tugged at the ties at Elias's throat. Although Elias was still wearing his scorched Brother's cloak, beneath it he was dressed in the dark shirt and leathers of these uncouth people. His white tunic had been too badly slashed and stained with blood, and was unwearable. For as long as Elias stayed in this world, he would not look like a Brother.

       The boy's skin cool to the touch, but his pulse was steady and only a little more rapid than was normal in sleep. The bandages at his shoulder and side were stained with small blossomings of fresh red blood, and further smears of dried brown. Someone had laid out a grey cloak on the ground to be a bed for him, and carefully tucked the ends of his black Brother's cloak around his body, making sure he was as comfortable as possible.

       Ciaran turned to Oliver. "You." The man was obviously cold without his cloak. What an extravagant gesture it was, designed to prompt gratitude. Everything these people did was part of their calculated plan to ensnare Elias.

       "He was in pain," Oliver said. His intense grey eyes stared at Ciaran, and made him want to squirm with discomfort. "I could tell he was, although he said nothing."

       "He never does," Ciaran said, without thinking. It was true, although he had never thought about it before. Elias had learnt from his childhood to bear physical pain in silence. If he complained, his tormentors would laugh in triumph, and only hurt him more. In all their time together, the boy had hardly even complained of being hurt or sad. But, then, he had a master to look after him, so why should he be unhappy?

       "I wish I could heal him." Oliver was oblivious to Ciaran's thoughts. "I really wish I could."

       Ciaran turned round, one hand resting lightly on Elias's hand, the boy's slim fingers interweaving with his own. "Are you a healer?"

       Oliver traced one finger in the dirt. "I have a certain... power," he said. "Not strong, but stronger than others of my people. Although I say healing, it isn't really healing. I can just... create an illusion. An illusion of no pain. The wound remains, but the person believes that it is not hurting, so they can sleep and relax and let the body heal itself."

       "But you can't do it on Elias."       "No." Oliver shook his head. He had written coiling patterns in the dirt, like the marks on the standing stone. As Ciaran watched, he wiped them away with one quick sweep of his hand. "I can't heal him. He... resists. He just sees right through the illusion. He doesn't even realise he's doing it, not yet. Maybe later, when he trusts me..."

       "I have a power too," Ciaran interrupted. "It's called the Shadow, and I'm strong. I can heal him."

       Oliver just looked at him, and there was some sort of challenge in his eyes. He seemed to be waiting for Ciaran to make some response, but, just as Ciaran was about to say something, he spoke. "So do it." Ciaran thought he saw some anger in the man's eyes, at odds with the tone of his quiet voice.

       "I was going to." Ciaran's voice was rough. Who was this man to presume to think he could remind him of his duty?

       No-one could erase all trace of a wound, or bring back a life that was already lost. Not even the strongest Brothers of the past could work miracles. But the Shadow allowed a degree of healing. Ciaran could do little to ease pain and could not replace blood that had been lost, but he could knit the edges of a wound together and set Elias on the course of healing.

       To heal through the Shadow he had to forget the world. He had to still his emotions, and enter that special place where the Shadow connections were strong and visible. He would have to lower his guard and forget about Reynard and the others, and only see Elias. 

       "Elias," he whispered, and closed his eyes. "Elias."

       It was difficult. The Shadow was as if shot through the blank patches, like drifting fog on a summer's day. The world was at fault, he thought. The world made him unsettled and troubled and it took a calm mind to see the Shadow clearly.

       "Elias..."

       Such cold skin, lying cold and unresponsive beneath his touch. The faintest of breaths issued from the boy's parted lips, barely enough to make a single blade of grass quiver. So tiny and fragile was man's hold on life - just a tiny whisper of air. His own hand was broad and tanned and strong, and he could clutch that life and guard it and cherish it. He could make such a difference.

       Oliver shifted, just a little, and at any other time Ciaran would not even have noticed it. He neither saw it nor heard it, but sensed it as a ripple in the Shadow. It was distracting. The only thing that stopped him from whirling on the intruder and demanding that he be left alone with his apprentice was the knowledge that, if he did that, he would lose control of the Shadow utterly.

       "Elias," he breathed, as his special place shimmered into being around him. Every Brother had a special place, unique to them, and it never changed throughout their life. No-one ever found the place in reality. It lived only in the mind, a place of power. As he walked in his mind through the verdant field of flowers, he saw the Shadow in its true form, and only there could he do his work.       Beyond the lowland field was a grey mountain capped with snow. As a child, he had wanted to climb that mountain, but he had long ago learned to turn his back on it, and love only the grass and the flowers. It was still his special place, his Garden, and the Shadow still responded, despite it. But still the mountain loomed there, a sun-touched shadow at his back.

       He shivered. He was losing his grip on it. He saw Elias, and touched his wounds through the Shadow, and did what he could. Then the glimpses of green faded utterly, and he was cold and useless in a dark wood, watched by strangers and trapped by a prison of stark trees.

       Oliver was staring at him. "You..."

       Ciaran sighed, and passed the back of his hand across his brow. "I have started it." He knew, without needing to look, that the wounds beneath the bandages were as healed as they would be after a day of deep restful sleep. What he would never say was that he should have been able to heal him so much more, but had been unable to do so. This horrible world got in the way and ruined everything.

       Oliver reached over and pulled Elias's Brother's cloak up over his exposed chest, tucking it in under his throat with a familiarity that Ciaran bridled at. With his own stronger hand, he reached out and took the cloak from the other man's hands, completing the job.

       "That was the Shadow," he said. It was stronger and more effective than any power this man possessed. "Do you know about it?"

       Oliver shook his head. "We know of only one power. We call it enchantment."

       Ciaran nodded in triumph. "Well, the Shadow is here, even if none of you can see it."

       He had not really needed any proof, but it only served to confirm for him that he was right about these people. Not one of them could see what was before their very eyes, and sense the wonder of the Shadow. In his world, barely one in a thousand could sense the Shadow, but those few had been enough. They had banded together as Brothers, and had changed the world. The Shadow was here, too, but in this foul world its glory went unnoticed. It was a beautiful display put on for a world of blind men. A glory that no-one knew about seemed such a sad and pointless thing.

       "Does Elias have this power?" Oliver paused a little before saying Elias's name.

       Ciaran nodded. "Yes. It's very much part of him. He can't really be happy unless he's with people who share it."

       "Oh." Oliver swallowed. Once again he started tracing patterns in the dirt. "Why didn't you heal him last night?" he asked suddenly. His voice was raw and nasty with accusation, though he was too cowardly to meet Ciaran's eye with it.

       "Because," Ciaran hissed. He sighed. "Because..."

       How could he answer? His mouth felt dry. Why hadn't he healed him? He didn't know. Because Elias had asked him to go away? Because he had wanted to heal him, but had not dared take his eyes off Reynard, for fear that the man who kill Elias the moment Ciaran lost himself in the Shadow? Wounded, Elias had clung to him and needed him. Ciaran could tend to his poor apprentice, and some things would never change, even in this foul world.

       With an angry cry, Ciaran turned away, but all he saw was the dark wall of thorny undergrowth that hid the all manner of dangers, and the way strange men with hard faces were standing in ones and twos against the dark trees and watching the sleep of the boy they thought was their king. One of them was Reynard. His head snapped up when he caught Ciaran looking at him, and, with a quick kick of one foot behind him, he pushed himself fluidly away from the tree he had been resting again. After two steps, though, he froze.

       Ciaran frowned. When he turned back, he saw that Oliver, too, had turned round. He was crouching like an animal frozen helpless in the path of danger, but the expression in his face was not meek. Commanding and sharp, he had stopped Reynard's approach with a single look. Then, a moment later, he had turned back round again, and the expression was gone, so Ciaran wondered if he had imagined it.

       Oliver blinked, and again he sighed. He looked very tired. "Don't judge Reynard too harshly."

       Ciaran clenched his fist, but said nothing.

       Oliver rested one hand on the lute. "We have waited so long for our king. We have suffered so badly. So often, we have almost lost hope. Can you begin to imagine what last night was like for us? For five hundred years our whole life has been about waiting, and then... It was nothing you could ever understand. You looked at us and saw only cold calculated killers, but there was nothing rational in it. It was all about need."

       Ciaran let his fingers trickle down Elias's arm, and came to rest on his hand. He took those pale fingertips in his own, and enclosed them utterly. He almost told Oliver to shut up, that he didn't want to hear this, that he didn't care what they felt. But he listened, even so. At least Oliver was talking to him, wanting to explain things as if he mattered. "But Elias was the one who suffered," he said.       "Yes." Oliver plucked a string, making a low musical note, then gasped, and stilled it. It had not been intentional. Ciaran saw that his fingers were trembling minutely. "And how could Reynard hurt him like that, and still call him king, you are wondering. But there was no way he could call him king and not test him that way. If I had not allowed it, it would have been setting up trouble for the future. He had to be sure. We all had to be sure."

       "A test," Ciaran murmured. "He said that."

       "Any man might make promises to a people who offer him all praise and honour, but lead them only to damnation. We..." Oliver shook his head sadly. "Perhaps I shouldn't tell you this, but I know how much you distrust us. It was not my way. I knew that the king had already passed tests greater than any we could set him, but Reynard wanted it, and so did the others. They are men who live by the sword, and expect to die by it. They needed to test him that way, cruel as it might seem, and there can be no division and no doubts, not on something this important. Loyalty and trust must be absolute. They needed to test him in this way, so I allowed it. "

       "A test," Ciaran echoed, again. "It looked as if he meant it." The blood on Elias's bandages was so very real. "The hatred was real. The anger was real. Elias will never recover from it. For him, it was real."

       Oliver closed his eyes briefly. "Perhaps he did mean it, a little. He has his reasons. He is... more complicated than he seems. I do not fully know him. But he is loyal." He seemed to hesitate over the words, and Ciaran thought he was lying. He would never believe a single good thing about Reynard. Oliver sighed. "He might be loyal to the name of the king, but he is a man whose true devotion will need to be earned."

       "Earned?" Ciaran laughed, knowing that Elias would never be able to earn the devotion of a man like Reynard.

       "Yes. Earned." Oliver looked briefly up at the sky, where reaching black branches lunged for the sun. "Can a stranger ever understand what it is like for us? We have lived for five hundred years with this forest as our only home, simply waiting. But, although the king bears our hopes, we have changed in that time. Of course we have. For generations, we have learnt how to live and survive without leadership. We know what it is to decide if someone lives, or dies. We know what it is to decide which hungry mouth most deserves the one small portion of food. We have seen murder in the eyes of our enemies."

       "You have grown independent." Ciaran thought he understood. "You want a king as a figurehead, but nothing more. Men like Reynard will question his every action and command, thinking that they know better."

       "No." Oliver shook his head, but there was no fervour in his denial. His face seemed stiff with weariness. "It is... complex." In a sudden, almost desperate movement, he lunged towards Elias, but stopped just short of touching him. Instead, his fingers found the edge of his own dark cloak that formed Elias's bed, and held it as tightly as a relic. "For myself, I say this. I need no further proof. I have spoken to him, and I have seen his worth. I will serve him as my king."

       Ciaran frowned. Elias was only a boy, and surely there was nothing in him to inspire such sudden and intense loyalty in a grown man. Or maybe that was the point. "You mean, you've spoken to him, and found out how young and inexperienced he is," he said. "You've found him weak and pliant. You will pretend to serve him, only because you know he's weak enough to manipulate. You will bend him to your will in everything."

       "Why are you always putting him down?" Oliver demanded. "You're supposed to be his... his mentor, you said. You treat him terribly. I told him how well he'd acted, and he blushed like a child, as if no-one had ever praised him before, and he didn't know what to do, or didn't think it could really mean him."

       Ciaran shook his head. "I'm not putting him down. I'm just speaking the truth. He's only a boy. And you expect him to... what? There are two thousand of you, you said, in a world that's how big? You live in a forest. Your last king lost his kingdom, but you have lived on, waiting for someone to come and regain it for you. You want him to lead you back to power and crush your enemies? Is that it?"

       "Back to power... Some want that," Oliver admitted. "Safety is what we dream of. A world where we are not killed just for what we are. And there is more, too. Something terrible is threatening the whole world."

       Ciaran threw back his head and laughed. "And you think one boy alone can do all this? You're mad. You're setting yourself up to be disappointed" He rubbed his eyes, and the laughter faded. "And it's not fair to him. I know Elias. If he tell him he has to do some impossible task, he'll blame himself so badly when he fails that he'll be unable to bear it."

       "What makes you so sure he will fail?" Oliver's voice was stiff. "I think there is more to your apprentice than you let yourself see."

       "He doesn't like fighting." Ciaran started to count off Elias's short-comings on the fingers of his right hand. "He's shy. He has no experience with people. He..."

       "He seemed to understand me well enough," Oliver interrupted. "He understood something about me that few others have realised, even after knowing me for years." He looked strangely vulnerable, but Ciaran refused to be taken in.

       "Well, perhaps he has learnt things from watching me," he admitted, "but he has never put any of it in practice. He never even opens his mouth when he watches me go about my work."        "It will be difficult, yes." Oliver brushed his fingers along Elias's sleeve as if he owned him. "But he will not have to do it alone. I will help him. We all will."

       "We don't need your help," Ciaran snapped.

       Oliver clasped his hands together. They seemed to tremble a little. "I would never force him," he said. "It has to be his own choice. When our last king left us and spoke the prophecy, that was what he said. The one so chosen will retain his free choice, for how else will rightful salvation come about?"

       Ciaran was taken off guard. He had heard those same words from the mouth of the dying man, when he had been so sure that the sword would change his life, and had wanted it to happen. "You don't offer him free choice," he rasped, disguising his discomfort. "You lie to him. You try to make him believe he can be a king, when he can't. What more are you going to do? Tell him an exaggerated story about your need, so he feels there's no way he can walk about? You want to play on his guilt and his generous nature. You call it free choice, but all along he'll be dancing to your tune."

       Oliver opened his mouth as if to speak, then closed it again. He looked down at his clasped hands, and Ciaran knew it was a sign of guilt, and told him so. "I'm on to you. You're as dangerous than Reynard. More, even. At least he makes no secret of his enmity. But you... You pretend to be gentle. You pretend to care about him. You ensnare him with soft words."

       He had expected Oliver to lie and deny it, but the man gave a sad nod. "It's true, or it was. I approached him with that in mind, yes. I said things that seemed kind, but were designed only to win him over. But..." He smiled. "I ended up liking him. My duty was clear, but already it is..." He shook his head. "Not quite so clear," he finished, weakly.

       Ciaran leant forward, seeing a chink in this man's armour, and determined not to let it pass. "Then release him. Leave him alone. Make no demands on him. Never talk to him. Let him learn about you by living with you, and not by any arguments that you give him. Let his choice be truly of his own free will."

       Oliver tilted his head to one side. "And if he chose to stay with us and help us, would you accept it?"

       Ciaran tried to meet his eyes, and tried to nod. He would use their own weapons against them. He would lie. He had no intention of letting them get their claws into Elias, but if, by lying, he could make this man leave Elias alone, then he would do so. He opened his mouth, and almost spoke the words of a pretended promise, but then Elias started to move again, and the moment was passed.

       "He's waking up," Oliver said. "I had hoped..." He shook his head and the words trailed away.

       Elias moved again, and whimpered softly. The hand that Ciaran still held twitched a little, but did not pull away. He began to turn his head, then, with a sigh, let it slump back again. He was still facing away from Ciaran.

       "Elias," Ciaran whispered, squeezing his hand gently.

       Elias turned his head, moving it fully in a slow half circle. His eyes skittered over Oliver without even a pause, and came to rest on his master, only on his master. Ciaran smiled to see it.

       "You healed me, master." Elias smiled. He lay in the shade, but his pale blue eyes were more bright and beautiful than any sunlight. They were smiling, and still he sought his master.

       Ciaran smiled. This was how it ought to be, and he was glad that Oliver could see it. These people would never have Elias. "I did, Elias."

       Just for a moment, Elias's eyes seemed to flicker towards Oliver. He reached out with his free hand and, even without looking, managed to find the hilt of the cruel and beautiful sword.

       It was not important. All the things Oliver had said were not important, not now. Perhaps there would be a battle ahead for Elias's soul, but in the end Ciaran would win, and he needed to know what would happen then. For both of their sakes, he needed to know. The first thing to do in any new place was know the way out, even if it would become a door not taken for years.

       "How..." He broke off, for if he said it as a question, it would mean that Elias knew something that Ciaran did not. "We need to know how to return home."       Elias stiffened, but said nothing. His eyes, so bright and grateful a moment ago, became shadowed. Oliver, too, reacted strangely. He sucked in a breath, as if he knew something that Ciaran did not. He and Elias together, knowing a secret.

       "They need us," Ciaran persisted. In the night, he had told Elias all the reasons why he should not stay here, and now he would tell him all the reasons why he should go home. "People died in the fire. You know only too well that one family is without their daughter today. Even more are homeless. You swore an oath to them, remember. Even if you don't go to them today, surely you want to know that you can go back?"

       Any trace of a smile was gone from Elias's face, wiped out utterly when his master mentioned the fire, and the young life claimed by the flames, but it was a necessary pain. Elias would be happier if he forgot all these silly claims of kingship, and Ciaran would use any weapon he had to use to make that happen.

       "We need to know." He held Elias's hand tight, resisting the way it pulled against him and seemed to think it wanted to escape. He hazarded a glance at the sword. "Will it take us back? Can you control it?"

       Elias pulled, and there was a strength in his arm that was totally unexpected. He clutched his freed hands protectively to his chest.

       "Elias." Hurt, and a little angry, Ciaran spoke. "Why..."

       "It was me." The words sounded as if they had been wrenched from Elias's throat. "It was me, master. Oliver says..."

       One hand was reaching, still feeling it should be holding Elias's quiescent fingers. His empty palm felt cold. "What...?"

       "It was me." Elias rolled over to one side. His hair drooped over his face, as if even those golden tendrils were conspiring to hide his face from his master. "It wasn't the sword, it was me. I brought you here, and you hate it. You're miserable. If it wasn't for me, you'd not be here. But I don't know how I did it. I don't know how to send you back. I... I'm so sorry, master."

       Ciaran's hand moved, just a tiny bit, then withdrew. There were so many things he ought to be saying, and no words that would come. "You," he choked.

       "Don't," Oliver began, but Ciaran whirled on him, standing up, lashing out at him.

       "Don't you talk to me!" he screamed. "Leave us alone!"

       Oliver recoiled, but did not step back. He was closer to Elias than Ciaran was. As for Elias, his face was twisted up in pain, his eyes squeezed shut. Then, as if he was aware that his master was looking at him, he opened his eyes. He stared at Ciaran, and his lips moved uselessly, but he had nothing more to say in  his defence. A moment later, he had turned away again, hiding from his master.

            Ciaran stepped over his body, and strode away.


Chapter five

The last king

 

 

       Blood would be shed before the day was over. Ciaran hoped Reynard would be the first to bleed, but he would enjoy smiting Oliver to the ground, and all the nameless ones who watched Elias with such hunger. He would willingly take wounds himself, too, rather than let them hurt Elias again. The forest would be bathed in blood before he let them steal Elias away.

       First, he needed a weapon. The men who called themselves the Kindred all had swords and daggers, and Ciaran watched one of them as he cleaned his knife blade on a clump of grass, staining the blades red. The man's strong hand held onto it tightly, and Ciaran gave a scornful laugh. How weak they really were! They were nothing without their weapons. They clung onto them like old men clinging to their sticks. Only a coward hid behind the sharpness of his steel.

       Cowards, he reminded himself, as he forced himself to approach the man. Far beneath me. Yes, the man had something Ciaran needed, and that put Ciaran in a weak position, but he was not yielding superiority, not really. He was not humbling himself. He was asking because he had to. Sometimes it was necessary to demean oneself in order to triumph later.

       The man looked up. "What do you want?"

       The words were hard to force out, but Ciaran managed it. "Your knife. I want to... borrow it."

       "Why?" It was just short of blatant rudeness. If Elias had been the one asking, this same man would have been all oily politeness. They had dismissed Ciaran as a nobody, and didn't even bother hiding their true colours from him.

       Oh, but they would learn. Ciaran Morgan could be a mighty enemy. Soon, he reminded himself, squeezing his fingers tight behind his back, to stop them flying out and striking this man. He would play along for now, watching their weaknesses as he pretended to smile. Besides, he had more chance of taking them on if he had a weapon, and for that he needed a knife.

       "To cut a staff," he said. He released his fingers and gestured towards a tree. "For walking," he added, when the man still made no response.

       The man's mouth tightened in scorn. He thought Ciaran was as unsteady on his feet as an old woman. He thought Ciaran needed a prop to help him through the dark and tangled undergrowth, so thick that it could hide all manner of dangers. He thought Ciaran was a weak sort of person, who felt cold and incomplete without his staff to lean on. But I know the truth, Ciaran reminded himself. And it's better that they underestimate me. It will just make my victory all the sweeter.

       "Here," the man said, at last. He handed the knife over, but it pained him to part from it, for his eyes never left the blade. Ciaran took it without a word, and walked over to the tree. All the time, he thought, the man was still watching him.

       He worked quickly, cutting, then shaping, then polishing the staff quickly with a light touch of the Shadow. If it was a real staff, he would work it for hours while immersed in the Shadow, and the wood would resonate and be bound to him by ties that would last a lifetime. But this was dead wood from an alien world. He needed it as a convenient weapon, but he would never accept it, just as he would never accept anything of this world.

       When it was done, he held it in his hand, and his eyes slid shut. He let out a long breath. It felt good. His hand was made for holding a weapon such as this. This was how the Brothers of the past were pictured in their annals and graven statues, standing strong with a staff in their hand. With a staff, Ciaran could protect Elias, and would never be weak. He would be invincible again, and nothing could hurt him. 

       "Finished?"

       The voice made him start. The man was standing with one hand on his hips, and the other one outstretched, waiting for the knife. The tip of his tongue darted out, snake-like, and licked his lips hungrily.       On the far side of the clearing, Elias was watching him, a small furrow between his brows. Reynard was watching, too, his hand resting on the hilt of his sword in a way he was pretending was an accident. 

       Ciaran felt a thin smile play about his lips. He should keep the knife and see what happened. If they decided not to challenge him, then he had a new weapon. If they drew their swords and attacked him for it, then Elias would see it all and know the truth about the people who called him king. Until now, Reynard's threats have been whispered in the dark, and Elias had not heard them. Elias had been ensnared by Oliver's soft words, and was blind to their true evil, but even Oliver's trickery would be powerless to explain away an open attempt at murder.

       "The knife," the man said.

       Reynard's eyes narrowed, and his hand tightened on his sword. Elias's lips moved, but Ciaran was too far away to hear what he said, if indeed he said anything. Oliver was beside him, standing far too close. Elias turned to him, no longer even looking at Ciaran, and said something urgent. Oliver touched Elias's shoulder, spoke a few words, then walked quickly towards Ciaran, and was speaking before he had closed the distance.

       "You can have mine." Oliver unbuckled the short sheath from his belt. "I hardly ever use it, anyway." Something in his voice belied the smile that was plastered over his face. "No-one here would feel safe without a weapon, so it's unfair to expect you to be the only one without one."

       Ciaran looked at the sheathed knife, lying so innocently in Oliver's smooth hand, and hated Oliver more than ever. Oliver had cast himself in the role of the good man, the conciliator, generously offering up a valued possession. If Ciaran refused he would be the unreasonable one, picking a fight for no reason.

       He swallowed hard. He was very aware of Elias watching them, his eyes flickering nervously from Ciaran to Oliver and back again. He swallowed again. "Thank you," he said, quietly enough that Elias would not hear the hostility in his tone. He held out the man's knife, and let him take it. Then, still clutching the staff in his right hand, he snatched at Oliver's knife.

       Oliver looked at him for a while, and seemed to be about to speak, but then he sighed, and walked back to Elias's side. Elias was still staring at Ciaran. As he watched, the boy began to step forward, one hand slightly raised, but then Oliver was beside him. The man's lips moved, as he said something that only Elias could hear. That questioning hand fell back to Elias's side, stilled by those unheard words.

       Unable to bear it, Ciaran turned away.

      

 

       "We need to leave," Oliver said. "I'm sorry. I'd give you more time if I could."

       Elias stopped, but he did not turn round. On the far side of the clearing, his master turned his back. "Leave," he echoed. "Where?"

       "To the main camp of our House. We should be there by tomorrow night."

       Distracted, Elias shook his head. His master had dug the end of his new staff into the ground, and was holding on as if he was expecting the earth to tilt and try to throw him off.

       Oliver's voice changed. "The stone is the Vigil Stone. It was in this very spot that our last king left us, five hundred years ago. The stone was raised to mark the place."

       Elias shivered. Even with such simple words, Oliver knew how to imbue his voice with a power that demanded that you listen to it, no matter how much you wanted to think about something else. He was kind, but devious, and his words had the power of chains, and could drag Elias's thoughts away from Ciaran, and keep him all alone, where no-one could save him.

       He tried to haul himself free from Oliver's words. "How did you know?" he demanded. "If you don't live here, why were you all here, waiting for me, at just the right time?" 

       "My father is a Seer," Oliver said. From what he had said earlier, Elias had got the impression that his father was dead. "Two weeks ago, he saw the Vigil Stone in a vision. A door opened beside it, suffused with white light, and a white crystal sword appeared in the rift. A crystal sword... We all know the stories. What else could this mean but the coming of the king? But of the man who was holding the sword, my father saw nothing, just a dark shape against the light. Until you stepped forward last night, none of us had seen the face of our king."

       King? I'm not your king. Elias had more questions, but could not bring himself to ask them.

       "Of course," Oliver said, "he didn't know when it would be. Some of his visions come true within hours, while some take years, and some never come to pass. But the colour of the leaves on the trees made him think it would be soon. So we came, set up our camp, and waited. One week, just sitting and waiting, watching, hoping..."

       Hoping. And now they were stuck with Elias as the fruition of all their hopes.

       "But the others don't know," Oliver said. "They're still waiting. They've waited five hundred years, perhaps you think, so what does it matter if they wait just one more day? But it matters. Waiting is terrible. I love my people, and am sworn to serve to them. I want them to know."

       Ciaran was turning his head from side to side. Was he searching the sky for some impossible rent to open up and be his doorway home? He did not once turn back to face Elias.

       Elias dug his nails into his palms. "Yes," he said. He walked over to his master. "Oliver says we need to go," he said to Ciaran's back. "It's a two day journey to their camp." Ciaran still did not turn round. "I'm sorry," Elias burst out. "I don't know how to find the way back, but I will. I'll find it, I promise." He looked at the place where they had come through, where light dappled so pale and innocent. "When I know, we can come back here. Or maybe it can work anywhere. Oliver says I'm..." He swallowed. "Oliver says..."

       "Oliver says," Ciaran sneered. "He speaks lies, but you like the sound of them, so you believe them. It's all him now, isn't it?" Then his mouth snapped shut, as if he had already said more than he had intended.

       Elias looked at his master's broad back. "If I called you through," he managed to force out, "it was only because I wanted it so badly."

       Ciaran just walked away, and did not look back.

      

 

       Ciaran was leaving a trail of destruction wherever he went, hacking the undergrowth with his staff, trampling grass and autumn flowers beneath his feet.  So far, Oliver had stopped Reynard from confronting Ciaran about it, but Elias was worried about tomorrow. The nearer they got to their camp, the more important secrecy would become. Reynard would stop him by force if they had to. The Kindred lived in hiding, that much Elias knew, with enemies who would kill them if they found them. Ciaran, if he carried on, could be the death of them all.

       What would happen, Elias wondered, if he went to his master and begged him to heed Reynard's commands. Would Ciaran relent, or would it make him only the more determined to carry on as he was? He suspected it would be the latter. 

       They were walking far apart. Sometimes Ciaran forged ahead, passing Elias without a glance, and sometimes he stayed at the back. When that happened, Elias was sure that Ciaran was staring intently at him from behind, scrutinising everything he did, but Ciaran always snapped his head away when Elias turned to meet his gaze.

       Master. Elias almost spoke the words aloud. Please walk with me. I want you to. Show me the way, like you always have. But those were the words of yesterday. Those were the words a boy who had not yet found a sword and, with it, a destiny. They were the words of someone who could afford to be weak. Two thousand people had placed their hopes in him, and that meant that his own needs could no longer matter, not even the tiniest bit.

       The sword had changed everything. Elias had learnt to see that his master had faults, but he had also learnt to see that his master had fears. Ciaran was only human, and he was deeply miserable here. His master needed to be loved, and was terrified of living in a place where no-one looked up to him. He had always told Elias that the people of Greenslade needed him, but Elias now knew that Ciaran needed the people of Greenslade. The Kindred had claimed Elias, but there was nothing for Ciaran here. Greenslade was his home, and the place he needed to be.

       I'll send you back, he vowed. As soon as I know how, I'll do it. A year. A month. Tomorrow. Today...

       "Today." He echoed it aloud, under his breath. Today, if he had to. Today. Soon. Now. Without a word.

       There were so many things he needed to talk about. There was the enchantment, so new yet so old, part of him since birth, but never acknowledged. There was Oliver telling him that he could do amazing things. There was the terrible crushing fear of failure, which wasn't just a fear, but a certainty, for how could he possibly save these people from an enemy they had failed to defeat in five hundred years? How could anyone? How could he?

       He would not speak even a single word of it. Ciaran didn't want to hear such things. Ciaran hated this place and everything in it, and it would be cruel of Elias to inflict such talk on him. This was not Ciaran's world. It was up to Elias to face his fears alone.

       Alone. Such a cold and sorrowful word. Alone. Duty was a solitary thing. It was selfish to want it to be otherwise. Ciaran was miserable here. Ciaran wanted to leave him, and that meant that Elias had to send him home. Ciaran hated the Kindred, so Elias would not talk to him about them. His fears would be a thing of gibbering thoughts in the darkness, clutched close to his breast, alone.

       "Do you need to rest?" The voice was compassionate. Not his master, though. It had never been his master all day. But maybe Ciaran was hurrying up from behind him, ready to solve everything, strong and concerned. If only Elias turned round, he would see him. But if he turned round, and his master was still angry, he didn't think he could bear it.

       "No." Ahead of him was a small patch of white wood where some animal had scraped a patch of bark off a tree. He would watch that. If he stared at that as he walked, then he would not turn round. "I'm fine."

       "You don't look well," Oliver said. "It's been too much for you."

       Elias let out a shuddering breath. "Why me?" The question came out in a rush, without him really planning it. "Why did it have to be me?"

       Oliver stopped walking, and sighed, his face clouded with anguish or pity. "I..."

       "I was just wondering," Elias said quickly. He did not think he could take Oliver's pity, not right now, not when he so badly wanted him to be someone else. "Why me? Why no-one in your world? Why me?"

       The words carried on inside him, screaming. Why me? It's not fair! I never wanted this! I just wanted to be Elias, Ciaran's apprentice. I never wanted to change the world. People will die, and it will be my fault, and it's not fair!

       Oliver had been about to touch his arm, but let his hand fall. Had he seen Elias's selfish thoughts on his face, and been disgusted by them? When he spoke, though, his voice was measured. "The sword Albacrist has always been the means by which new kings are chosen. Kingship was never hereditary. Even the wisest of men could never predict who the next king would be. Enchantment runs in the blood, it is true, but also in ways that no man can ever know."

       Elias could understand that, for the ability to sense the Shadow was just as rare and unpredictable, but it did not answer the questions that were crying out inside. "Yes, but why me?" He struck himself on the chest with his fist. "Why?" Why not someone better? Someone who might succeed? Someone who lived five hundred years ago?

       Again, Oliver shook his head, but there was sympathy in his eyes. It made Elias want to look away. "That I do not know," he said. "Were you born to it, or did it happen later? Was Albacrist waiting there for the first person it saw who was worthy, and if you had not been there, it would have found someone else in the end? Or was it always going to be you, right from the start? I think it probably was."

       "But that doesn't make sense!" Elias cried. "It was only chance that I became a Brother at all. I could so easily have died at the age of ten, and never come near the sword. What would have happened then? It seems so stupid. If it could only ever have been me... It all hinged on a thousand chances, that I was in a position to find the sword. If any one of them hadn't happened, then you're saying that the sword would have stayed there forever..."

       "And we would never have seen our king," Oliver finished for him. "I believe that, yes. It was you, or nobody. If you had died as a child, we would have lived our life for five hundred years more, still hoping, never knowing that our king had died before he could come to us."

       Elias wanted to weep for them, and scream to the treetops in anger. "I can't believe that," he forced out. "If I hadn't been there, or had failed that day, someone else would have been chosen." Maybe Joachim, so confident and gifted. Joachim would know what to do. Joachim would go striding through this world, the handsome young king of anybody's dreams.

       "Maybe." But Elias thought Oliver was only placating him. "But does it matter? You found the sword, and you are here, and our hopes are answered. And I will always be here, Elias. You won't have to bear it alone."

       I am here, with you, always. One day I will claim you. The memory hit him with the force of a physical blow. The monster from his childhood nightmares had spoken so. Why had the monster's words, half-forgotten for so many years, suddenly come back to him on the very day he had crossed over into another world? Because the monster lives here, he thought, and it always knew I would come.

       Thoughts whirled in a tight whirlwind of cause and effect. Voices had always come to him in dreams. His dreams had been one of the reasons his family had hated him. If they had not hated him, they would not have cast him out, and Ciaran would not have found him. Enchantment had been part of him since his birth, though he had never known it. Destiny had whispered in words he had not understood. The terrifying enemy and the king with the sword had both known that it was going to be him, and he alone had been blind and innocent.

       "But if it always had to be me," Elias said, "then what happens when I fail? Is that it? Your last chance gone? I'm bound to fail. There's a thousand ways I can go wrong, and if there's a right way to go, I can't see it. If I fail now, then does the sword go to someone else?"

       "I don't..."

       "Don't lie to me!" Elias cried. "I'll destroy you. That's what the man said when he brought the sword. He said I'd save you, or destroy you. He didn't say anything about a middle way. It has to be me, doesn't it? If I fail, that's then end."

       Oliver twisted his toe in the ground, making the dead leaves crumble. He was slow to speak, and when he did, the words came slowly. "I think so. It 's how we tell it. We have clung to life for five hundred years, living in the twilight. We always knew that when the king came back, our fate would be decided. Either he would lead us back into the sunshine, or we would pass into the darkness of full night. And now the time of choice has come. The long waiting is over, and nothing will ever be the same again. Last night, our whole world changed."

       "Choice," Elias echoed. The other words were too terrible to repeat. "I never had a choice. Neither did you."

       Oliver grabbed his wrist. "You have choices. Nothing is foretold and nothing is preordained. You can still choose to say no. And, even if you choose to stay with us, you have the choice of how to act."

       "No." Elias shook his head. "I have no choice. If I walk away, I condemn you. You just said as much. So how can I walk away?"

       Oliver closed his eyes. "I'm sorry," he whispered. But what use was sympathy when it made no difference?

      

 

       They walked into the twilight, and from there into the dark.

       Several times, Elias was plucked out of a dream by Oliver's voice, telling him that they would rest soon. More than once a quick hand on his arm righted him when he stumbled. His thoughts were flowing like water, and all he saw was dark branches overlaying the grey light. Sometimes someone told him that they would stop right here if he needed to, and so what if Reynard said the best campsite was an hour away. A voice that sounded like his own replied that no, he was alright, thank you very much for asking.

       "...about the Shadow?" Even when Elias played them back in his mind, he had no memory of the first half of the question.

       He supposed it was only fair that Oliver wanted to know, since Oliver had told Elias about the enchantment. He realised that Oliver was only trying to make conversation to drag him out of his depression, but knowing the truth made it no less comforting.

       "It's not magic," he said. "The Shadow exists, but only a few people can sense it. It's a sense, just like sight or touch. It's... " He was starting it in the middle. He took a deep breath, and started again. "How do you believe the world was created?"

       "We have a story," Oliver said, "of four Makers who lay down on a river bank and fashioned the world in their dreams. In the Duchy, though, they tell a different tale. I am a bard, and I tell the stories, but I do not know what I believe."

       Elias smiled. "Neither do the Brothers. Maybe the universe was created by a god, or maybe by science, but the Brothers don't think it matters. To them, the mere fact of creation is all we need to know. They see the echo of that moment in everything around them."

       With the words came the memory of a crackling fire, and woodsmoke in his nostrils. Wrapped in his master's cloak, he had curled up at the foot of his chair, and his master's words had been his whole world. As he passed that long-ago lesson on to Oliver, some of the words were his master's, but some were his own. Was this why Ciaran had taken an apprentice? When you were passing on knowledge to someone else, it made you feel a little stronger, as if you had at least some of the answers. It held the darkness at bay, being the one to tell a story.

       "In the moment of creation, everything was one," he continued. "Whether in the mind of a god, or because all matter was one atom, we do not know. But everything was one." He spread his hands wide, indicating the trees, the sky above, and his far distant home. "And it has not forgotten that. It is still one."

       "Still? Even here?" Elias understood the pain in Oliver's eyes.       "Yes, even here," he said, "though it does often seem that man is always trying to tear things apart, in my world as well as yours. There's war and hatred, and even friends hide their true feelings behind half-truths. I think there's a sadness in the heart of all Brothers. The Shadow shows them how perfect everything could be, yet everywhere they go they see discord. They preach acceptance, but deep down, I think, they mourn what they see. But it's beautiful, Oliver. It's only an echo, a pale Shadow, of that moment of creation when everything was one, but it is still so... so wonderful. To see the ties that bind us together..."

       Oliver's eyes shone. "You see them?"

       "Not with my eyes, no. But I sense them, and in a way that's stronger and even more intense than sight. Not all the time, though. I am not that wise. I have to... to consciously look."

       Just a tiny step in his mind, and he was there, wandering through the shallows of his calm blue sea. "Everyone who senses the Shadow has a special place in their mind," he told Oliver. "It's called the Garden. I don't know why. Maybe the first ever Brother saw his as a garden of flowers, but I don't know. We all see a different place. No-one knows why we see the place that we do, but it never changes. I saw the sea, before I even knew that such a thing existed, or had a word for it."

       "You're there now," Oliver said, and it was not a question.

       Elias nodded. His eyes were open, and, when he looked at Oliver, he was truly seeing him, although all his vision was overlaid with the shimmerings of the special place and the tendrils of Shadow. "I am. But I can still see you. I see you more clearly than before. I can't explain it. I'm there, but I'm also more here than I was. It's not a place to escape to, to forget the world. It can be, though. I used it that way when I was young, before I knew better. I've had to learn how to be in both places like this."

       He reached out a hand. "Here, I can see the links. Imagine everything in existence is bound together by invisible strands of gossamer. When I'm seeing through the Shadow, I know how to grasp them." His hand closed, though only to demonstrate the point, for the strands of the Shadow could be grabbed by just a thought. As he pulled at the invisible string, a fallen branch first twitched, then rose from the ground and into his hand.

       Oliver gasped. Elias stepped out of the Garden, and the intense awareness of the Shadow faded. He stooped to place the branch back on the ground. "So that's what it is," he said, "as well as  I can explain it. It's far more than I can put into words. The wise ones say it's a way of seeing the world, rather than a source of power. We can use it to move things, as you saw, or hold them still, but only whole objects. We can move a stone, but not a mountain. In principle, the power of the Shadow should be able to reshape even the atoms that make up objects, but that is far beyond the strength of man, and I think that's a good thing. We shouldn't want too much power."

       The darkness gathered around them. Ciaran walked past, glanced at them standing silent, and carried on. Elias didn't know if his master had heard what he had been saying. By the end, his words had been entirely his own, and he had found himself saying things that Ciaran would not have approved of. Ciaran thought there should be no limits to what the Brothers could do.

       "People are objects," he said, his eyes on Ciaran's departing figure. "We can hold them still, or move them, but they have a will of their own, so can resist. We can't call them back. We have little power over people. We can't read their minds. Strong emotions leave a sort of resonance in the Shadow, and we can sense that, but nothing more. A man's private thoughts are outside the oneness of Creation, for they are his own creation, and always remain his own."

       It was not entirely true. There were other links that bound people together, and that was the thing that made people special, and not mere objects like stone and metal. There were links of blood, and links of friendship and links of love, and the Shadow could enhance all three. A very few times, Ciaran had been present in Elias's mind in a way that was marvellous, but that had not happened for a long time, and it was not for Oliver to hear.

       "Enchantment allows a glimpse into other men's minds," Oliver said. "At its heart, enchantment is about the connection between living things, but because they are alive, not because they are objects. It's all about feeling."

       Elias remembered how intensely he had felt Sophie's terror, when Ciaran had been unable to, and he remembered occasions when Ciaran had seemed to misjudge the mood of a villager. How many things that he had always put down to the Shadow had actually come from the enchantment that lurked unrecognised deep within him?       And so he had come back. Oliver had brought him back. It was just like it had been an hour before, when they had spoken of choices at the dying of the day.

       Ciaran was going to leave him. It was always going to be him. Oliver might try to distract him with talk of the Shadow, but there was no escape. Even the Shadow was a thing from the past, and the Brothers were a people he would never see again.

       He looked up at the sky, and watched the dark clouds blot out the twilight, and let them seep like ink across his thoughts, hiding everything  beneath them.

        

      

 

       After dinner, Reynard called for a story. He exchanged a glance with the men closest to him as he did so, so clearly they had plotted this beforehand, and it was the first stage of some foul plan.

       Oliver shook his head slightly at Reynard, but took up his lute nevertheless, and began to tune it. "A story," he said, as he tightened the pegs and made changes to the sound that Ciaran was unable to hear. "Who will start?"

       The man called Ranulf told the first, though it was no story, but a lament for a brother, killed far from home, and buried beneath strange trees. Despite himself, Ciaran found it affecting in its simplicity. There was no flowery language, and no polish, but it seemed genuine. The man was a killer, but his voice grew hoarse with tears, and he showed no shame for it. To Ciaran's surprise, even Reynard looked moved. He would have expected him to look at the man with disgust, despising him for weakness.

       After Ranulf had finished, another man took his place. He was sitting at Reynard's left hand, and Ciaran did not know his name. His tale was a little more mannered than Ranulf's, and less affecting, although it told a tale even more tragic. Ciaran thought it was a little too deliberate in its attempt to move the hearers. It spoke of massacre and loss, but the teller kept looking at Elias, and Ciaran did not like it.

       Frowning, Ciaran turned towards Elias now, and watched him. Elias had refused to walk with him all day, huddling close to Oliver, but at least the boy was sitting beside him now. Elias had not looked at Ciaran, but he had not looked at Oliver either. He had barely eaten anything, and had only mumbled a reply to any question. Now the stories were being told, he was chewing on his lower lip, and clutching his hands tight enough for the knuckles to show white.

       Too late, Ciaran realised what was happening, and what the point of the story-telling had been. Even the tears were staged. It was all just another attempt to bind Elias to their cause.

       "It's not fair," Ciaran burst out, speaking over the last line of the story.

       Everyone turned to look at him. Reynard had been holding his drawn dagger, jabbing it again and again into the ground between his feet. Now he pulled it out of the ground, and held it still, while he glared at Ciaran with narrowed eyes. Even Elias stared at him, his head snapping up with a gasp. He looked wide-eyed and afraid, and Ciaran was the only person alive who could save him.

       Oliver held up one hand, silencing the other men's protests. "What isn't fair, Master Morgan?" he asked, reasonably.

       Ciaran would match his staff with Reynard's sword, and he would match Oliver, too, with his chosen weapon of honeyed words. He would beat him at his own game. "This," he said. All this." He pointed at Elias. "Look at him. Look at what this is all doing to him." Elias closed his eyes, and looked down. "Every word you speak is calculated to make him feel terrible if he walks away from you. You're destroying him and it's deliberate. All this talk about how sorrowful your lot is... It's not fair. You're doing the whole thing backwards."

       Again Oliver silenced Reynard's outburst. "Backwards?" His voice sounded stiff. "How should we have done it, in your opinion?"

       "Said nothing, right from the start." Now he had started the subject, Ciaran found he had strong feelings on it. Elias looked so miserable, and it was enough to make Ciaran forget just how uncomfortable he himself felt in this world. "Let Elias find the sword and think it's a gift, with no strings attached. Do you even know what it was like for the poor boy?" he shouted. "He knew he had to save you, but no matter what he did, he couldn't find you. He lived with that torment for six months."

       "But he's found us now." Reynard spoke as if that simple face negated everything Elias that had suffered before.

       Ciaran took a deep breath, and forced himself not to shout. Play by Oliver's rules, he reminded himself. "But nothing has changed," he said. "It's still backwards. As soon as he gets here, you tell him he's your king. You tell him that he has to save you. You ensnare him. It's all wrong. You should have welcomed him as a guest. Not a word about needing anything of him. Let him live amongst you for a while, and learn who you are, and what you need. If he chose to stay, it would be entirely by his own free will. If he chose to leave, you would let him, and never even tell him what you had hoped he would do for you. Let him life the rest of his life in ignorance, happy."

       "Backwards." Oliver touched the strings of a lute, but did not sound them. "Perhaps you're right." He looked at Elias. "Is that how you feel?"

       Ciaran thought Elias would be too shy to reply, and was about to reply for him, when the boy slowly raised his head and looked at Oliver. He spoke so quietly that only those nearest to him would hear him. For the others, the forest sounds would swallow up his words.

       "You keep telling me I have to save you," he whispered. "I knew that months ago, but I couldn't find you. Now I've found you, but I still don't know. I know I have no choice, and that I can never go home, but I don't know what I have to do. I don't know who you are. I don't know what your world is like. I don't even know why you need saving, or what I have to save you from. I don't know anything."

       "No," Oliver breathed. "No, you don't." He seemed to be trying to convey some message with his eyes, but Elias was looking down again, and did not see it. "I was going to tell you this story tonight anyway, but I will tell it sooner, rather than later. It is the story of the man who brought you the sword. It will tell you who he was, and why he was forced to do what he did. It will tell you something of our need, and how we have lived for these last five hundred years." He changed his voice subtly so it carried to the entire circle of men, although it seemed no louder. "I will tell the story of the last king. I will tell the story of Alberic."

       There was a shifting around the fire, as if everyone knew that this was the culmination of the evening. As the small noises faded away, Oliver took up his lute, and struck a strange and deliberate open chord. When the story began, though, it was not a song. He spoke in a low voice, like a chant. The words were not musical, but at times he accompanied them with chords, strange and stark and atonal. It was like nothing Ciaran had ever heard before, and it made him want to shiver.

       "Come all ye wanderers and warriors," Oliver said. "Come all ye, and harken to my tale, for it is the tale of our people, and it is a tale of unnumbered tears. It is the tale of Alberic and the beginnings of the long twilight. It is..."

       The last chord lingered, stark and open, then faded into silence, as Oliver's eyelids drifted shut, and he lowered his head. Ciaran found himself clenching his fist, wanting to demand more.

       The faces round the fire were tense and rapt. Orange light flickered on sun-tanned skin. They looked more alive than Ciaran had ever seen them, and even Elias seemed to have roused from the lethargy that had consumed him during dinner. The fire spat. Somewhere, in the treetops, a creature moved, and a tiny twig fell down with a rippling whisper. Elias gave a minute start at the noise of its landing, but did not take his eyes off Oliver. And still Oliver did not speak. The echo of his last words hung in the air, then faded away to nothing.

       This was something different, Ciaran realised. This was the real thing. The other stories had been told by untrained men, struggling to tell a tale to the best of their ability. But Oliver was their bard, and there was a cruel magic in his words. Even with no more than a few chords he had almost caught Ciaran in his spell.

       "No," Ciaran burst out, though his voice was no more than a hoarse gasp. He had made a grave mistake. He had spoken only to protect Elias, but he had ended up playing into their hands, giving Oliver the perfect excuse to weave his web of lies, and ensnare Elias with his story.

       Just as he spoke, Oliver lay down his lute. He did so slowly, with utter control, but Ciaran thought his hands were shaking. He gave no sign of having heard Ciaran's outburst.

       "No," Oliver said. "I will not tell it like that. I will not tell it in the way it has always been told. I will tell it the way I have always wanted to tell it, though some of you will not like it." He seemed to be looking at Reynard as he spoke. "It has never been more important than tonight, I think."

       And then he began, his voice little more than a whisper, and Ciaran was ensnared like an animal in a net, unable to escape from the power of that voice, and the story it told.

       It started with a question.

 

 

       Could we have stopped it? Could we?

       Treachery, we say it was. Treachery, like a bolt of lightning from a clear sky. Treachery, that destroys the innocent, and can never be the fault of the one betrayed. Treachery, the worst of all crimes. Treachery.

       But could we have stopped it? Could we have changed things?

       We tell of those last glorious summers of the time before, and in our stories there are no shadows. So my master told it to me, and so his master told it to him, and back through five hundred years of telling. But who amongst us has not wondered? Who has not lain awake on a winter evening and felt, not anger, but the cold stab of fear? Have any of you truly never heard the tiny creeping voice that whispers, "What if we brought about our own fall? What then?"

       We thought it would last forever. We thought we were inviolable. Our kingdom was ancient and strong, and enchantment bound us to nature and the Makers. The great enemies had long been defeated, and we walked in the light. It was how it had always been, and how it was meant to be. No power on earth could fell us. Even the plottings of the most terrible of traitors seemed to be of no more account than a pinprick on the skin.

       But the pin was poisoned, and the skin was already diseased. The shadow was there, but we chose not to see it. For generations, enchantment had been fading from the world, like leaves that turn brown at the very cusp of autumn. Children were born blind and deaf to its glories even in families where enchantment had once flowed as surely as blood. Even those of us who shone brightest were not as they once had been.

       Did we seek to ignore our decline? When a child was born blind to the enchantment, did his father simply shrug, and pretend that his grandchildren would rediscover the gift? Was it so gradual that we did not even notice it until, not until after the exile when it could no longer be ignored? A disease multiplies in the blood, and, by the time the first symptom shows itself, is already past the point of curing.

       Was it something that we did? At some point in our past, did we take a giant step off the shining path of enchantment, and spend generations walking ever deeper into the wilderness, thinking it was still the right way? Was the power still there, but we unwittingly forgot how to truly see it? Or was is that the enchantment came into the world with the Makers, and is something so wondrous and divine that it cannot survive too long in the crude flesh of mortal existence? Is it a borrowed power that is here upon the earth for such a little time, and then is forever gone?

       In those last summers, when we smiled and loved and thought nothing in the world could touch us, were we already dying?

       Like children, we played in the sunshine, and laughed and were happy. The king was called Alberic, and he was stronger in enchantment than any king had been in a hundred years. His seneschal was a silent man who felt other people's suffering very deeply, and his councillors came from all parts of the kingdom, representing all the people. All were skilled at the enchantment, but they spoke for those who were not, or so they thought. Every one of us has the blood of one of those councillors in our veins.

       Alberic was a quiet man, but wise. He sent envoys to the Southern Principalities, who had no liking for the wild nature of the enchantment, and persuaded them to tolerate us enough to trade with us. The land grew rich and plenteous. Like a flower opening in the sun, we unfolded and learned a new life of comfort and wonder. We learned how to paint, when all we had known before was carving in stone. We learned how to make towers taller than any before, and to drink strange wines and flavour our food with marvellous spices.

       We, did I say? No, it was never us who enjoyed the rebirth. It was never us. The king laboured to make the treaties and protect the trade routes, but it was the merchants who brought the goods. For as long as the kingdom had been, those with the most enchantment had been asked to lead, and those with less had chosen to follow. This was how it had always been, and how we thought it would always be. Enchantment was our guide and our shield. Enchantment bound nature together, and linked men's minds to the world. Who else could serve as king but the one strongest in the power that was the very essence of life itself?

       But gold, not enchantment, built the towers. Merchants became rich, and then richer. Once, they would have had a son or a brother or a wife who knew enchantment, and could tell of its glory and rightness; now most knew no-one. Enchantment became a strange thing to them. Money was all they understood, and that they had in plenty.

       They began to question truths that had been accepted since time immemorial. Why should the few, the declining few who could wield enchantment, rule the many who were blind to it? Why should they, who brought such wealth to the kingdom, be without title? They deserved more, and demanded it.

       Ungrateful, we say now. Ungrateful and treacherous, turning against the very power that brought peace to the kingdom and allowed them their precious trade. They thought rule was a glory, while we thought we were sacrificing our freedom and happiness to a life of duty to the people we loved, and saw no glory in it. Their fathers had asked us to lead them, and their sons tore us down. We are taught to hate them and their children and their children's children, and our warriors spit on their names, and there will never be peace between us.

       Is this right? Were we the blind and foolish ones, refusing to see that the world had changed? The kings had always ruled over people who willingly deferred to their wisdom, and desired no other king than one strong in enchantment. They all possessed a little enchantment in their blood, and revered the wisdom of one who possessed so much more. No king, strong in enchantment, could ever be anything other than selfless.

       Once, everyone had understood that, but things were changing, and we were too blind to see. Enchantment grew more rare with each generation, and the needs of those without it were different from those who had it. They did not see that the kings ruled for the good of the people, sacrificing themselves for their happiness. They knew no-one with Sight, and did not see how a small hardship now could lead to a reward reaped tenfold a year later. There were people who saw the kings as strangers who knew nothing of their needs, and we did not see it, or listen.

       We did not want it to change. Enchantment, not gold, was the wealth of our kingdom. Our old men shook their heads, and would not taste the wines and spices. The merchants rode to new lands, and we wandered in fields of flowers and smiled at the sky. Everything was changing, and we wanted it to stay the same. Our world was wrought with enchantment, and what else could we want? How could we begin to understand those who wanted something other?

       Now, Alberic's father had sired a bastard on a merchant's daughter in the city. The boy's name was Jehan, and he presented himself at the citadel just after his father's death. He was ten years younger than Alberic, who was then thirty three, and as different from him as night and day. But Alberic, who had no other siblings and no children, welcomed him and gave him his entire trust. Jehan was one of the few people he loved.

       Alberic was a quiet man. Perhaps this, too, was a cause of it, and none of it would have happened had the king been another type of man. He was a good king to us, and strong in enchantment, but words did not come easily to him, they say. He let few men truly close to him, and did not have the gift of talking easily to strangers. He was content in his own company, and would often wander as a simple man through the fields by the river, taking delight in nature.

       Jehan was like quick darting flame to the king's quiet morning sunlight. He had no enchantment, but possessed a bard's skill with words. He was handsome and charming, with a smile that few could resist. Alberic could call the birds from the trees to him with enchantment, but Jehan could charm them to his hand with a smile and a word.

       Had he planned treachery from the start? Had he left his mother's house and come to the citadel with betrayal in mind, and then had patiently bided his time for so many years? Or had he been genuinely loyal for all that time, and simply fell to temptation in a moment of madness? Was he bought, or coerced, or did he act out of the belief that he was doing the best for the land and its people? There are many causes of treachery, and often evil intent is the least of them.

       No bard was present at the meeting that started it all, but tales are still told. The tale I have always heard tells that Jehan, clad in black and crafty as a serpent, leant towards the king, and whispered, "I can make things better. Give me the authority, and I will do it."

       The merchants' demands had spilled over to the people, and the mutterings had begun to move into open violence. It was little more than brawls and stone-throwing, but it threatened to become more. We thought they were no true threat to the order of things, but we could not ignore it. It pained us to see discontent.

       "I can speak with the voice of the merchants," Jehan said. "I was raised as one of them. They will listen to me. I can persuade them to cease their demands, and everything will return to normal."

       But perhaps it did not happen like this. Perhaps Alberic himself sought out Jehan and asked him to do this thing. We prefer to think of our king as an innocent tricked and betrayed by someone he had every cause to trust, but perhaps it was his idea, or his seneschal's. Did they, in their ignorance, utter the words that damned us all? We wanted nothing to change. What is easier than to ask another, never quite one of us, to do our work for us, and ensure that nothing changes?

       Jehan did his work well. He met the merchants in closed council, and what words were said there no-one knows, but the merchants came out smiling and well content. Their demands ceased. When they looked upon the king and his nobles there seemed to be a deep stillness in their look, which we saw as a new respect. We thought Jehan had done his work well. He thought he had opened their eyes to the truths that we thought were self-evident - that enchantment is the true heart of our land, and that those strongly gifted with enchantment can see the needs of the land and the hearts of the people more truly than anyone else.

       We never questioned that truth, and never will. Enchantment is our strength and our shield and our nourishment. When it passes from the world, life is dull and pale and not worth living. I would not be part of such a world. Perhaps we lost ourselves along the way, and allowed ourselves to become complacent, but this truth remains - that enchantment is something rare and precious that we would give our lives to preserve. This is the heart of our faith, and the flame that we carry in the darkness of our exile. This is the truth that binds us, and the cause every one of us will die for.

       The merchants did not see it, and we thought they did. We thought the fact that enchantment is beautiful is as obvious as saying that the sky is blue, or night is black. We thought it needed only a few words from a man like Jehan to show them that we ruled not for our own glory, but for them and for every man.

       We did not understand. We thought rule was such a little thing, and to them it was everything. We thought that they were the favoured ones, and that we were their servants. We worked to protect the trade routes, but they were the ones who enjoyed that wealth. They built the tall towers and clad themselves in gold; we dressed still in simple cloaks of wool and linen and lived a hard life of the sword and of contemplation. We thought kingship was a sacrifice and a service, and saw no glory in it. We did not understand how genuinely they craved it. We thought they were content, and still revered the enchantment they could not sense.

       We, who understood so much of the world, understood so little of human nature. That, too, was our failing and our fault.

       Three more summers were left to us, and no more. They were summers like none before, or since. Fragrant red blossoms grew thickly in the water meadows, where no flower had grown before. The sky was like velvet, and children played without their cloaks even in the midst of autumn.

       That autumn, the sunsets were deep bleeding red, so beautiful that we felt tears well up in our throats. We did not know it was the sunset of our lives. We did not know that we would never see another spring.

       On the first night of winter, we came together as we always had. In the stone-flagged hall we gathered, men, women and children all together, who thronged from all corners of the kindgom. All our best and mightiest were there, and those who would be our future.

       In darkness they stood, in a silence so intense that it felt like coiling smoke on the skin. Children squeezed their mothers' hands, and men moistened their lips. Even now, when the ritual is so changed, we all know the mixture of hope and fear that is the winter festival. It is never easy, waiting for the whisper of soft boots in the stone. It is never easy, waiting for the light.

       For them, the light never came. Some of them died in that darkness, and never saw the light again. In silent darkness came the slithering metal of sharp merciless daggers, slipping between ribs and severing throats. Mothers screamed as their children's hands were torn from their grasp, and warm blood gushed onto their cheeks.

       It was murder. We were wrong, did I say? We were complacent and brought about our own end? Maybe so, but, if we had been the worst monsters the world had ever seen, we would not have deserved that. To this day, the memory of that night is a festering wound on our souls. For some things, there can be no forgiveness. I will not hate the descendants of those killers, for they were not the ones who held the knives, but I can never condone that deed.

       Jehan had led them there. When they had looked at us with that silent consideration, they had been studying our weaknesses, and judging how best to kill us. They had licked their lips to see the pale flesh at the throat of our children, and sharpened their rich jewelled daggers while chanting curses upon our names.

       Jehan had planned it masterfully. The strongest and most ruthless of them slipped into the Palace and slit the throat of the one who would have brought the light, then turned to the rest of us, hacking us down in the darkness, not caring who they killed. All the while, outside, the ignorant mod seethed in the street, armed with sticks and hatred and the nails on their fingers. A whole cityhad  turned against us, and we did not see it coming. We were blind. We saw what we wanted to see, and nothing more. We looked to the sky and the sunsets, and never into the hearts of the people who surrounded us.

       And we were lost.

       Half of us were slaughtered that night. Half of us, before the king brought light with the power of his hands, and his seneschal brought mist to confuse the foe.

       "Go," the king commanded, his voice strained with the horror of the thick blood that coated the broken bodies on the floor. "Go now. I will hold them."

       I will not tell of the fighting, and how half of the survivors fell leaving the city. I will not tell of the unnumbered tears that fell, and the grief of those who survived. I will not name the dead. I will not, for this tale is still a tale of hope, though the hope is like a candle flame in the midst of a mighty storm, almost overwhelmed by the darkness that surrounds it.

       That terrible first morning of winter dawned grey and cold, as if the very sun was sickened to see the blood and sorrow of the night. A new banner flew over the citadel, triumphant over our dead and dying who lay in the chambers beneath. They called it a revolution, yet within a hundred years they were ruled by hereditary Dukes, few of whom have ever been wise. There are beggars in the streets, and a prison for dissenters, while we knew neither of these. They have a lavish Palace, with guards at the gate, while our king lived in chambers as plain as any man's, and let all approach him. They killed us all, and what did they gain?

       That first morning, we, the ragged band of survivors, woke up in the wilderness, cold and bereft. Barely a quarter of us survived, and every one of us had suffered the loss of a loved one. We had fled without any of our possessions. Our king had Albacrist, and his seneschal had suffered a deep gash to the cheek in order to save our banner, but nothing else survived.

       Perhaps we could have averted it even then. We could have fought. The power flowed strongly in Alberic's veins, and he could have made a stand. Instead of fleeing like children in the face of a storm, we could have stood and fought, and prevailed. And, in that first morning, there were some who said as much.

       Alberic, though, was firm. He had sworn never to use the enchantment to harm his own people, and the oath was sacred and would never be broken. He would defend the innocent, but he would not be a king who ruled through the sword and terror.

       One man, more crazed by grief than the others, spoke up. Even then, they all knew that those they had left at home had not been spared. Every city in the kingdom had seen slaughter that night. "There's no-one left but us," he said, gesturing at the band of shivering travellers on the bleak hillside. "If we die, that is the end. There will be no-one left with enchantment. There will be no-one to remember us. How can we refuse to fight, if fighting is the only way enchantment can stay alive?"

       The king was silent for a very long time. "Yes," he said, at last. "We will have to fight. To live, we will have to fight. All of us..." He looked searchingly at every man there, and his look made them shiver. His power had never been more evident than in this moment. "All of us will shed the blood of men we have once thought of as brothers."

       Did he say this because he had been gifted with some glimpse of the future? Or did he know the truth of the danger that we still only guess at? Did everyone know, then? We believe that some terrible danger from the past will return, and that only enchantment can save the world. We believed that the lives of every man on earth, friend or foe, rests on our survival. But what the danger is, and what form it will take, we do not know. How many stories and histories were lost forever in that terrible night? How many tales bled onto the cold stone?

       "We must live." He clenched his fist and held it aloft like a promise. Tragedy had loosened his words, and now he spoke like a bard born, thrilling every man who heard him. His words have been lost, and what a loss this is to us. We have had so many dark and terrible winters. It is said that men who had been overwhelmed by despair cheered when Alberic finished his speech. How desperately we have needed the memory of his words! We are but pale shadows of our last king, and none of us have the words to bring such hope to the darkness.

       "We must live," he said, but as the days went by, it looked as if, for Alberic, there was only death. He had been wounded in the escape from the Citadel, and the wound festered, and no enchantment and no human skill could heal it.

       The hope, so fragile, was almost lost. Men whispered and bit their lips, and wept in the darkness. No-one dared to speak their fear aloud, for it was too terrible. Many of their best and strongest had died in the massacre. If their king died, and Albacrist found no-one worthy, what hope would they ever have left to them, what hope?

       His seneschal, Engelard, at last found the courage to say the words aloud that no-one else dared even to whisper. "My Lord," he said, kneeling beside him as he lay on a pallet of branches and soft grasses. "Is it time for the trial?" Both he and his king knew what he meant by these words.

       Alberic was silent for a long time. For a dreadful moment, Engelard almost feared he had passed from this life, for his eyes went distant, and, though he shook his liege's shoulder, the king did not respond. He is gone from us! his heart cried. But, being the man he was, he simply say beside the unresponsive body, silent and waiting.

       At length Alberic spoke, and Engelard knew then that his lord had been granted a vision. "No," the king said, in slow wonder. "No-one alive can succeed me."

       "Then how will we survive?" Engelard burst out, although he knew that his lord spoke from the gift of insight. He had a wife and children, and the thought that they would live without a king and protector was terrible to him.

       Alberic took his hand in his, as he had done long ago, when they had sworn mutual loyalty and protection. Even through his pain, his eyes were clear. "I can name a successor, but Albacrist will not know him. I could name him even so, and we are so desperate that everyone will follow him. But what will happen then? If the king is someone who is not strong enough, he will lead our people to a war we can not win. We will be crushed utterly. I have seen it."

       He sighed, a terrible grief in his eyes. What terrible things had he seen of the future that would be if we did not heed his words? Could they really have been more terrible than the future he was condemning us to, by bidding us wait? Did he knew what we would suffer without him? Did he leave us even so, even knowing this?

       "There is no good future for us, Engelard," he said. "The only way for us to live is if we live in hardship, here in the wilds. We will be outlaws. Many of our children will never see adulthood. We will sleep under canvas, and the winters will be terrible."

       Engelard shuddered. "How long?"

       Alberic closed his eyes. "I do not know," he confessed. "But, if we endure, one day one will come who is destined to lead us. He will have the power within him, but it will remain his choice as to how he wields that power. He will have the choice to decline, for the salvation of our people must never be bought by trampling on a man's free will. He will save us, or damn us. Nothing is certain. He might lead us unwisely and cause our death. Even if he succeeds and wins our redemption, it will only be bought by his own willing sacrifice."

       "How will we know him?" Engelard spoke urgently, for he saw that his lord was weakening.

       "Albacrist will know him." Alberic pushed himself painfully to his feet, and raised the white sword. "I have little strength now. I have never had much power, Engelard. Nothing like the kings of old. After I am gone, enchantment will survive in our people, but will grow less and less with every generation, just as it has been declining for hundreds of years and we have not let ourselves see it. Only when the one chosen for kingship returns will true power once again be seen in this land."

       "Power?" Engelard leant forward and asked eagerly. "Power like the kings of old? Will everything be restored?" He did not know, and still we do not. Is there hope for us? When the king returns, will enchantment once again flourish in the land as strong and beautiful as in the days of the great enchanters, or will he be a solitary flowering, holding back its inexorable decline only for the littlest time?

       Alberic had no answer. Before Engelard's eyes, he seemed to fade. "What strength I have, I use. I will take Albacrist to your king." Solemnly, he touched Engelard's arm. "I will have no strength to return. Time is different where I go. It may be that the king has not been born there, and maybe will not be for generations of our time. But, when he comes, Albacrist will know him, and, if he is worthy, will bring him to you."

       Engelard fell on his knees, and lowered his head, hands spread wide, as once, long ago, he had knelt before his young king and sworn that all his gifts, all his loyalty and heart belonged to his liege and the land. "Farewell, my lord."

       But, when he looked up, king Alberic had gone. Engelard was alone, and weeping, in the darkness of a winter night.


Chapter six

The door opens

 

 

       It came for him in dreams. The first he knew of it was a prickling on the back of his neck, and a sudden certainty that he was not alone. He was walking along the pale beach of his Garden, his own shadow reaching ahead of him like a long arm. Someone's following me, he thought, and he whirled round, but all he saw was his own footprints, black against the silver of the wet sand. Then a wave surged up the beach and when it withdrew, no footprints remained. The sand was as smooth as a mirror, and he could no longer see where he had come from.

       He walked on, but the air started to stir around him. Tiny wisps of wind stroked the slopes of the sand dunes, and the bleached grass trembled. He turned round again, but there was still nothing there behind him, not even footprints.

       The sky was a perfect blue, but misshapen shadows glided across the sands, cast by clouds that were not there. The tower, Elias thought. If he reached the white tower on top of the dunes, he would be safe. He tried to run, but the sands shifted and mired him down. The coarse dune grass whipped at his ankles. Behind him, the placid surging of the sea became the roaring of a creature with blood-stained teeth and cold breath. It wanted him, and it was gaining on him.

       "Help me," he pleaded. His chest was being torn apart from the effort of running on the sand, and his mouth tasted of blood. The wind was cold and putrid, and spoke with many voices. He heard a sharp bark of laughter, and that was Ciaran, laughing at the thought that one such as Elias could be a king. There was Oliver, singing of sorrow and loss, and Reynard, promising to kill him. "It's only a matter of time," Reynard said. "My sword knows the taste of your blood and wants more."

       The tower was so close now, but the grass had hands and they snatched at him, pulling him down. He fell headfirst onto the sand, and the breath was driven from his lungs. He started to crawl. The sky looked sick with approaching thunder, and drops of warm rain fell on his neck. "Help me," he croaked, as he reached the tower and touched it with a bleeding hand. At least he was safe now. "Let me in."

       You think you're safe? Of course you're not safe, not here. The disparate voices of the wind came together, and they spoke the truth. The tower in his Garden had always been locked. He could hammer at the doors until his fists were shredded, but the door would never open. It never had. He was trapped outside, and who knew what horrors lay across the sea, or in the unknown lands beyond the tower?                    

       His useless hand fell to his side, and he closed his eyes, but as he did so something touched his cheek, like sunlight on a winter day. He snatched his head up, and saw something so incredible that he gasped aloud. The door was opening after all! The tower had always seemed white, but the light peeping out of the door made it look faded. The sight of it lanced through him, and emotions poured out of the wound it left. He wanted to weep, and scream, and laugh with joy.

       "Oh, open all the way," he breathed, then clasped his hand over his mouth. The door quivered, but did not open. Elias reached out and touched the light that escaped from the slit, as narrow as a knife blade. When it touched his fingers, the bleached grass beneath him burgeoned into life, rich with every shade of green.

       It would open, he realised, if he asked it to, and really meant it. At his command, the door would open, and the light would consume him until nothing was left of him that was not of the light. Or he could close it. He could throw himself bodily against the door and hold it shut with all the strength in his shoulders, but he would not be able to lock it. He would have to stand there forever, forcing it shut. The thing inside had tasted freedom, and would not easily submit itself to a prison. All his strength would go into holding the door closed, and he would have nothing left to fight the things that approached in the wind and the sound of the sea.

       Turn your back, something inside the tower said, and you die. Lock the door, and you die, for there are things out there that know you now, and their memories are as long as the years of all the worlds.

       Biting his lip, he struggled to stand. Rain plastered his hair to his skull, and he was very cold. The swirling voices in the wind were as loud as ever, and the sky was tinged with yellow and purple.

       "If I let the door open," he gasped, "will they go away?"

       White light touched his cheek, and he moaned at the touch of it. The door trembled and opened a little further, and all the hate-filled voices shrieked, as if they hated him even more because of it. No, the light whispered. You are who you are, and there is no refuge.

       "I don't want it." He fell to his knees and closed his eyes. "I don't," he said, as he opened his eyes again, and saw stars in a velvet sky, cut across with branches like the spread fingers of a skeletal hand. "I don't," he breathed, pressing his hand into the ground beside him, then curling the fingers so earth gouged beneath his nails and the wound on his hand stabbed with pain.

       He had woken up, but the dream had not dispersed. He remembered it all, and the waking was so seamless that it did not feel like waking at all. The dream felt real, and he swallowed, testing to see if he could taste blood in his mouth. There was none there, and his legs did not ache from struggling to run on the treacherous dunes. He touched his hair and found it dry.

       "A dream," he whispered. He sat up, then stood, one hand instinctively going to his side, where Reynard had wounded him. "Only a dream."

       He could hear the sound of breathing, like something terrible watching him from the darkness. He walked a few steps, past the faint embers of the fire, all dark orange streaked with black. Everyone else was asleep, and it was only their breathing that he could hear, his master's loudest of all. The only one awake was a sentry, who looked up sharply as Elias passed, and did not relax even after recognising him. 

       Everyone lay apart. When Oliver's story had ended, even Ciaran had been slow to speak. There had been no conversation, and no further stories. Oliver's words had lain like lead on the hearts of everyone present, but it made them turn away from each other. The story would seep into their dreams, Elias thought, and the morning would be terrible.

       He walked into the shadow of a great tree, where the darkness was lightened neither by the fire nor starlight. Someone was lying in the heart of the darkness, he realised, watching him as he passed, a silhouette against the trees. Whoever it was, they did not want him to know that they were awake. As he passed, Elias heard the faintest whisper of metal, but nothing more.

       Perhaps it was Reynard, and perhaps Reynard wanted to kill him, for being a stupid boy when he had wanted a mighty king. Perhaps Reynard wanted the crown himself. Perhaps they blamed him for coming five hundred years too late. Perhaps, before he had walked half a dozen steps, Reynard would kill him from behind, stabbing him between the shoulders or slitting his throat. Perhaps all these things would happen, but he couldn’t bring himself to care very much. It would be an end, and he could think of far worse endings. Better to die now than live to fail them.

       He walked quietly, and counted softly. Twenty, and no-one had come. He told himself he would not look back, but found himself stopping and turning. There was no-one there. The embers of the fire looked a very long way away. The branches above him moved, slow and stately, and he remembered the wind in his dream, and the words it had been saying.

       He edged backwards until he felt thick roots beneath his feet. Something touched his back, and he gasped, then forced himself to relax. He had backed into a tree. Its bulk felt solid and comforting, and he pushed against it, arching his spine so that even the small of his back was pressed against it. He spread his hands on either side of him, flat against the bark.

       The moon was hidden by clouds that were marching in from the west, and there was moisture in the air that spoke of rain to come. He could see the stars through the lattice-work of branches above him, but soon they would be consumed.

       They were the stars of home. He gave a hoarse gasp, loud enough to set some small creature scurrying away in the undergrowth, though too quiet to bring the sentry to his side, or Reynard with his sharp sword. They were the stars of home, and he hadn't even noticed. He had seen them upon waking, but they had just been so natural and expected that he had barely noticed them.

       He was very aware of his breathing as he edged forward, tottering away from the tree, his palms still spread stupidly beside him, marked with the imprint of the bark. How could they be the same stars as at home? How could fate be so cruel? Whenever he looked up, he would see the stars of home, reminding him of all he had lost. Beneath stars like these, he was an apprentice who knew his place in the world, whose master would never leave him. Now, beneath the same stars, he was bound to a people his master hated, and everyone expected him to save them. 

       He clenched his fist, mercilessly hurting the wound on his palm. He glared at the sky, and then absurdly found himself laughing, for he had spotted a difference. There was a bright jewel of a star in the middle of the constellation of the horse, which made it into something different entirely. And there was a star missing on the warrior's sword, and there, yes, another difference, where the curve of the maiden's hair was smoother and more dispersed.

       These were the same constellations, but not the same. These were how the stars at home might seem in a thousand thousand years, or how they might have seemed a million years in the past. It was a world like home, but it was not home.

       And really, he told himself, a world was shaped by the people who lived in it. Perhaps this world had once been the same as the world of his home, but time had worked differently upon it. The little hollow in the hills where Greenslade lay would exist in this world, but perhaps no-one here had ever cleared the forests, and it was lost in deep woods. Perhaps there was a mighty city where Conisborough lay, as beautiful as the city of his birth was ugly, or maybe it was just a deserted swampy piece of ground beside a great river, where no man had ever walked.

       There would be no going home. He would not round a corner one day, and see Greenslade spread before him, the stream sparkling in the sun. He would never again come home at evening to his own cottage, its door open and a fire in the hearth. There would be glimpses, perhaps, of a curve of hillside or a distant view of mountains that would make him think of a place in his own world, but no more than that.

       He dashed roughly at his eyes, wiping away the tears that still came easily, loosened by Oliver's story. He turned round and stood facing the tree, staring down at the ground. He was still aware of the stars, like sharp pinpricks in the back of his neck. But the wind was rising, and the faint moisture in the air was beginning to feel more and more like rain. Soon the clouds would cover the whole sky and the stars would be hidden.

       He rubbed his eyes again, then stopped, his hands trembling just inches from his face. In his dream, the light had touched his fingertips, and the world had suddenly become more beautiful. What would it have been like if he had opened the door all the way? He lowered his hands and held them in front of him. The cloud diffused the light of the hidden moon and made the whole night one dark grey. His hands were only bare smudges in the darkness, but, even so, he studied them, first the back, and then the front. He curled the fingers, and the wound across his palm cried out in protest.

       Oliver had told him that he could work marvels with these hands. He had a power called enchantment, and it had always been there, though he had never known it. Oliver had said so, and Elias could not deny it. He understood the meaning of the dream. The white tower, forever locked, contained the enchantment. Now it was open a crack, and there was no going back. If he turned his back on it, the dream had told him, he would die. Something huge and horrible knew him now, and enchantment might be his only defence.

       But he didn't know how to use it, not deliberately. He had taken control of Oliver's illusion, but he had no idea how he had done it. He had sensed the dead in the ruin, but it had just happened, and he had never chosen to do so. He had called Ciaran into this world, but only because he had wanted it so badly, and he hadn't even realised that it was all his fault until Oliver had told him.

       He could do it, but without knowing how. To save the Kindred, he had to know the truth about his powers. He had to open that door, and face whatever it was that lay within there, and withstand the howling hatred of whatever it was that clamoured outside, wanting him. He had to do it, and it was beautiful and wondrous, and he wanted to do it, but, oh... I'm scared, he cried. I don't know how. I'm not strong enough.

       Scared? He swallowed hard. He had no right to be scared. He had a duty, and duty over-rode everything. He would do what he had to do. He had no choice.

       He cupped his hands loosely, and thought about the air that they enclosed. One day in Greenslade he had discovered, quite by accident, that he could work wood. He would wander the hedgerows and run his hands over the twisted branches and, at length, one of them would speak to him, telling him what figure lay within the wood. The carving was not an act of creation, but an act of revelation. Was illusion the same? Did he hold a handful of air, and let his mind go blank, and ask it what shape it wished to reveal? Or was this infinitely stronger? He could not force wood. A piece that held a horse could not be coerced to reveal a man or a fish. Oliver had implied that the air could be anything he wanted it to be, and more.

       "A bird," he murmured, remembering how Oliver had wrought birds out of the air between his long fingers. "Be a bird. Please."

       Nothing happened. There was no illusion. Dew clung to the backs of his hands, but nothing formed between them.

       "I don't know how to do it," he whispered to the night, when he had tried again and again, and failed every time. Maybe it was because he so desperately tired. Maybe his fear blocked it, and he would fail the Kindred because he was afraid. Maybe he was all wrong. He had the potential for power, but was flawed in some way so would never be able to use it.

       One more try. No-one was watching. It didn't matter if he looked stupid. He thrust out his cupped hands, and this time he did not plead. "I have a bird in my hand," he simply stated. "I can see it."

       And he could. Feathers tickled his palms, and something warm fluttered against his cold skin. He raised his hands and bade it fly, and it did. He turned his head, trying to follow it in the darkness, then realised that it was following him, flying wherever he looked. When he wondered if it would sing, it opened its beak and did so, singing a tune his mother had sometimes hummed under her breath long ago.

       He smiled, but that was not enough. Despite the night and the fact that everyone else was sleeping, he laughed aloud, spreading his arms with a joy that was as fierce as it was unexpected. He could do it, and there was no terror in it. The tower door was open the tiniest slit. Inside was the vast white light that was terrifying in its immensity and its demands, and outside were horrible things that would hurt him one day, but he could push them to one side. For now, for this one moment, there was only pleasure. Beneath the cruel stars of a world that was not his home, he had taken a handful of cold night air, and created from it an image of beauty.

       He laughed again, and let his hands fall to his side. He ended the illusion, silencing the bird mid-song. The night seemed darker without it, more bleak than it had been before. Turning, he walked back to the fireside. He glanced up once, and saw that the stars were mercifully hidden. Nothing had been solved, but, even so, he thought he had clawed back a little peace of mind. Perhaps he could sleep now.

       "No," someone said.

       He froze, then crouched down, hunching his shoulders to make himself as small as possible. There was a tingling in his hands from where he had crafted the illusion.

       "Why did you tell it like that?" Reynard demanded. "You made it sound as if it was our fault. You even made excuses for those scum."

       "Perhaps it was our fault," Oliver replied. "I told it the way I have always wanted to tell it, Reynard. I didn't lie about that. Haven't you ever felt doubts?"

       "I feel no doubts," Reynard said. The sound of his voice always made Elias cringe with the memory of being wounded by him. "I never have and I never will." Elias could see them now, crouching beneath an overhanging tree.

       "No?" Oliver shook his head. "I wish I had your confidence. Or perhaps I pity you. I do not know."

       "You'll make him hate us, Oliver. Is that what you want? To drive him away? He'll never do what we want now. You were supposed to woo him to our cause. You were supposed to have him eating out of your hand by now. You've ruined it all. All that talk about it being our fault..."

       Oliver sighed. "You're wrong, Reynard. Perhaps if you'd looked at him last night, rather than looking daggers at me, or glaring at Ciaran Morgan, you'd have seen it too. He wept for us, Reynard. He wept as if his heart was breaking. He's bound to us until death now. I did that. Me."

       Elias stood up and scuffed at the undergrowth with his foot, deliberately making a noise. Let them see him and know that he had heard. He was too tired even to feel angry or betrayed. They were talking about him and he was enmeshed in a web of intrigue, helpless as they squabbled over him. But he had just made a beautiful bird out of enchantment, and found a moment's pleasure because of it. He would cling to that a little longer. It was a tiny glimmer of light, and it mattered.

       He walked on, and his steps were dragging now, for he was weary and his wounds were hurting. Something grabbed him by the ankle, and he only let out a small moaning sigh. It was an enemy, he thought, come to get him, and this long nightmare would be over. Then he realised it was his master, but the dull fear remained. Ciaran did not let go of him. His hand held him trapped, unable to walk on without falling.

       "Elias," Ciaran hissed. "I woke up, and you were gone. Where were you? What were you doing?"

       Elias closed his eyes. He tried to remember the beauty of the bird, but the memory was fading, slipping out of reach like a speck of light on a flowing water.

       "Have you found a way home yet?" Ciaran demanded. "You must find it soon. You can't stay. These people are dangerous."

       Had Ciaran seen the stars, Elias wondered. Had he seen those cruel teasing echoes of the constellations they had watched together at home, in happier times? "Not yet," he admitted. "I will, master. I'll send you home, I promise."

       "But you'll come too?" Ciaran tugged at his ankle, and Elias almost fell. The half-healed wound in his side flared with pain as he tried to remain standing. "You can't mean to stay, Elias, not now. Oliver himself said it was all their fault. They brought this fate on themselves. You owe them nothing."

       Bound until death, Oliver had said. Elias's eyes still felt sore and swollen from weeping for them. "I owe them everything."

       "But they don't deserve it," Ciaran spat. "They're killers, all of them. I know the truth about them, even if you refuse to see it. It's wrong to stay with them."

       "They waited five hundred years." Elias thought his voice sounded so faint and distant that it must surely belong to someone else. "I swore..."

       "You swore nothing," Ciaran snapped. "Nothing binding. Perhaps if they were good people you might have a certain duty to them, but not now. They were tyrants and want to be tyrants again. Do you want to be the puppet king of a band of tyrants? Does that sound good to you?"

       Elias felt cold and faintly sick. "No," he breathed.

       "Then it's settled." Ciaran brushed his hands together, a brisk one two, as if he was wiping the dirt of this whole world from his hands. "We'll go home. We'll forget it all happened."

       Elias started to walk away. If he stayed he would begin to cry, and he wanted to be alone. Ciaran, his strong master who could take all hurts away, was only making things worse. Elias felt like a very small animal, who could only hide in the grass and quiver while vast predators argued over who would tear him apart. Reynard and Oliver and Ciaran. The white tower and the voices in the wind. They watched him and wanted him, and no-one cared that he hurt so badly inside that he wanted to scream and scream and never stop.

       "Elias," Ciaran commanded. "Don't walk away from me."

       Elias paused, but did not turn round. "Please," he whispered. "Please, master." He walked a few more steps, then sat down, pulling his knees up to his chest and wrapping his arms around them. His chin sank forward and he closed his eyes. He tried to remember what the bird had looked like, but couldn't even remember what colour it had been. The joy he had felt to hear it sing had gone so utterly that he could hardly believe it had ever been real.

       "Elias." There was a sharp edge to Ciaran's voice that reminded Elias suddenly that one of the cruel voices in the wind had been his master's.

       He did not open his eyes. "I'm very tired, master. I want to sleep."

       Ciaran gave an angry sigh, but said nothing more, and soon his breathing slowed, and Elias knew he was asleep. Elias curled up on his side, and lay still, as the darkness slowly turned to pale grey, and then to the light of morning. He did not dream, because he did not sleep.

      

 

       In the morning they walked again, just like before. Oliver stayed close to Elias, sometimes so close that their fingers brushed together. Reynard walked a little ahead, but he kept on turning to stare at Elias, with eyes that pierced deep. More than ever, Elias felt like a prisoner under arrest. His master watched him from behind, but would not talk to him.

       They walked steadily, and after a while their path started to climb slightly, heading for a ridge that was dense with trees. Damp leaves clung to Elias's boots. The air was thick with moisture, and the grey sky was like a low ceiling, just touched by the topmost branches of the trees. The rain promised in the night had not yet come, but would come soon.

       The ridge ahead was like the edge of the world, and beyond it everything was unknown. Perhaps he would pause on the top and look out on some gentle lowland plain, with smoke drifting from pleasant cottages. Perhaps there would be vast armies arrayed against him, eager to kill the king they had awaited with hatred for five hundred years. Or maybe it would just be the gentle slope downwards on the other side, and even more dark trees, stretching on for an eternity without ever showing him a true sight of the sky.

       Oliver would know, of course, but Elias was reluctant to ask. Oliver pretended friendship, but there was a reason behind everything he said and did. He wanted to be Elias's mentor, who offered comfort and dispensed careful answers to all Elias's questions. At heart he was kind, Elias thought, but he still controlled what Elias knew, and was not to be trusted. That was the message of the night-time conversations. Oliver was manipulating him for his own ends, and Ciaran was, too. Elias had to make up his own mind about what was right and what was wrong. He had to stand alone.

       He clutched his cloak still closer, seeking a warmth that he would never be able to find. Beside him, Oliver stiffened. "No," he breathed. "Oh no. Not now."

       Elias did not ask what the matter was. What was the point? Oliver would tell him, and perhaps it would be the truth, and perhaps it would be a lie. And then Ciaran, if he spoke to him at all, would frown and hiss angrily that they were murderers the lot of them, and Elias had to come back home right now and forget them all, and be the placid apprentice who knew nothing that his master had not chosen to tell him.

       Oliver pressed his finger to his lips, ordering Elias to silence. The rest of the group had already reacted. Without anyone bidding them, they fanned out, approaching the ridge in a wide and practised line. They were as dark and dappled as the forest that as their home. If Elias half closed his eyes, he could almost convince himself that he was alone in the forest, and no-one else was near him in all the world.

       He swallowed. His heart was beating fast, and when the first drop of rain fell, fierce and heavy on his shoulder, he found himself starting with the sudden violence of it. Beneath his cloak, his fingers found his sword. Somewhere, away to the right, a bird cawed, but there was no sound of great black wings, and no branches moved, so he forced himself to relax again. He began to walk forward, aiming for a clear spot on the top of the ridge, where he could see what lay beyond it.

       That was when Oliver attacked him. He was a slight man, but he had the advantage of surprise. Before Elias could react, he was held and pinioned, forced down to the ground. Elias fell heavily to a crouch, then toppled forward onto his knees, driven down by the pressure of the deadly embrace around his neck and shoulders. He caught himself on his hands, the heels sliding painfully through the prickly leaves.

       Oliver was crouching beside him, and Elias twisted his head round to look at him. Any colour that had once been in the man's face was gone. His fingers dug painfully into Elias's shoulder, and the muscles were so tightly clenched that they were trembling. "King or no," Oliver hissed, into his ear, "Reynard's way would have been less kind."

       The grip lessened, and Elias moved forward, freeing himself. He knelt in damp leaves, and did not stand. Reynard was watching him from a little to the right, he saw, and his eyes were dark pits of malevolence. If Elias had made it to the top of the ridge, Reynard would have struck him down. He would claim good reason for it, and he would apologise afterwards, but he would have enjoyed hurting him.

       "I won't stand up," Elias whispered to Oliver. The air pulsed with danger. Death lay just over the ridge, he knew, and they had to hide from it. Was this enchantment, that gave him warning? In the night, the door had begun to open, and there were new senses stirring in his mind. He sensed wrongness and pain, and a fierce dark flame of hatred. Death lay around this place like a miasma.

       Footsteps sounded behind them, shockingly loud in the silence of the forest. Still on his hands and knees, Elias turned round. His master stood behind them, and seen from the ground, his head was higher than the tallest tree. He was holding his staff in one hand, and the other hand rested on his hips.

       "Down!" Oliver jerked his head violently to indicate the ground. Elias joined in, pressing his finger to his lips to demand silence. His heart was beating very fast. If Ciaran refused to obey, terrible things would happen.

       Ciaran frowned, but he did not speak. Elias heard himself breathing, and felt every hectic beat of his heart. The undergrowth trembled with falling raindrops, and still Ciaran remained standing. "Please," Elias breathed, but Ciaran was already beginning to crouch. His eye brows were raised sardonically, like an adult condescending to join in a child's game.

       "Stay here," Oliver whispered. "Both of you. Please."

       "What?" Ciaran asked, too loudly.

       Elias sucked in a sharp breath. This new sense, now awakened, was as clear as sight. It seemed inconceivable that Ciaran could not sense it. Danger pulsed from every tree, and the raindrops were arrows falling on the back of his neck. With every word his master said, death, grinning on its spectral horse, rode a little closer. Ciaran would bring death to this place. If he shouted aloud, darkness and destruction would spew from his mouth. Elias knew this. He knew this as surely as he had ever known anything.

       "No," he begged. "Don't. Please, master. Do as he says."

       Ciaran glared at him. "I follow orders from no-one, Elias. Not from a lying murderer like him, and certainly not from my apprentice."

       "Please." Elias's voice was broken. Death was jubilant. There were images painted on the rain and the lowering clouds and the rustling dead leaves. He saw hints of visions, that took form out of mist just for a moment, wavered, and faded away.

       He saw Ciaran lying dead, while Reynard stood above him with a bloody sword. He saw himself kneeling at his master's side, weeping. Rain plastered Ciaran's hair to his skull, and his hand was so very cold as Elias pressed it to his cheek and tried to warm it with his own tears. There was a piece of withered leaf on Ciaran's lips, and Elias gently removed it, as his tears and his wailing were drowned out by the storm.

       He saw innocents strewn dead on a muddy road, spilled from a toppled coach. Horses churned up the mud, but there was no-one left alive to calm them. A hoof crashed into Reynard's skull, but he was dead already, sprawled at the roadside. Oliver lay nearby, and all the others, every one of them, all dead. At the top of the bank, frozen in  horror, stood Elias, all alone and stained with other people's blood.

       And then that, too, faded away, and he saw a vision that was soundless and still, as if he was watching it from far away, drifting over the treetops. He saw a camp with a fire at its heart. He saw people, women and children, pressing their hands to their faces, edging forward, heedless of the cooking pots and discarded toys that they knocked over as they moved. They were all of them staring, white-faced and stupefied, at a hooded figure who walked in their midst, carrying in his arms a dying man. Elias saw the man's face, and recognised it. It was him. The dying man was Elias.

       He blinked, but the last vision was slow to fade, lingering even after he clawed at his eyes and tried to rip it away. He felt sick. He heard a sound in his head like the chittering of a thousand black insects, and someone was laughing.

       "Elias." Oliver's voice made the images go away and the laughter vanish. He touched Elias on the shoulder, and spoke his name again. Was it a farewell? Oliver looked sick with dread. His father was a Seer, Elias remembered. Perhaps he knew the signs of a vision of death. Perhaps he knew what Elias had seen.

       "Elias." Oliver glanced along the ridge, and back again. His eyes were smears of charcoal in a chalk face, crudely drawn by a child. "I should have told you... I should have... How we live. The reasons we have. But I was afraid to. I didn't know how." His gift with words had run out, and he looked more vulnerable than Elias had ever seen him. "Do nothing. Whatever you see, do nothing. Do you trust me?" he asked, then, immediately, shook his head. "Of course you don't. I've given you no reason to. I'm so sorry, Elias." The last words were painful, almost a sob.

       Elias raised his hand, opened his mouth to speak, but Oliver had gone. His hand touched only the falling rain, but, stupidly, he held it there a while, where the man's shoulder had been.

       Soft as a whisper, he heard the sound of footsteps behind him, and turned to see an arrowhead pointed at his heart.

      

 

       "What is this?" Ciaran demanded. But, really, he thought he knew. This was some elaborate trap. Oliver had got them kneeling, and then had slipped away, his part done. This bowman had been planted by Reynard to make sure they did not move, while, somewhere hidden, the last stages of the elaborate treachery were concluded.

       He tightened his grip on his staff, making a pretence of leaning on it heavily. The Kindred thought it was only a prop, but they could not know what mere wood could become in the hands of a Brother. He could defeat them all in battle, and they would never have seen it coming.

       "Elias," he whispered. At least they were in it together, the two of them against the world. He would order, and Elias would obey, and they would stand against the enemy as if nothing had changed. These men were not expecting Elias to fight them. After they had won, the two of them, Ciaran and Elias together, would talk back the way they had come, and go back home. "Elias," he hissed, a little louder, when Elias still did not turn round.

       "Quiet," Elias whispered. "Please be quiet." He looked drawn and ill.

       "Why?" The rain was falling more heavily now, noisy on the leaves. Ciaran spoke a little louder because of it.

       Elias's face twisted with pain. "You really can't feel it?" He shivered. "Death. If you speak, if you do anything..."

       "Nonsense," Ciaran scoffed. What had Oliver been saying, poisoning Elias's mind as they walked so close together all morning?

       "So cold," Elias breathed. His eyelids were sliding shut, as if he had been snared by some cruel enchantment and trapped in a dream. "It laughed."

       "Quiet!" The bowman raised his bow, the arrow swinging from Elias to Ciaran and staying there. Water dripped off its tip, bleeding into the carpet of leaves. 

       "Quiet," Elias pleaded.

       As if the whole world was responding to the desperation in Elias's voice, everything fell silent. The rain lessened, and the wind in the high branches stilled, just for a moment. The whole forest held its breath, and, in that moment, Ciaran heard it, and, at last, he understood.

       A horse neighed merrily, not far away. A moment later there was a harsh wordless shout, and the sound of a whip. A carriage was approaching, he realised, and the Kindred, killers as they were, had heard the signs before Ciaran had heard them, and had acted. The ridge ahead was the edge of a road, where innocent travellers rode in ignorance of the murderous trap that had been laid for them.

       "They're going to rob it," he gasped. He glanced at the bowman, and then at Elias. "Did you know this?"

       The horror on Elias's face showed that he had not. "How we live..." he breathed, and pressed his hand to his mouth. He had refused to recognise the truth in the night, but he would have no choice but to see it now. The boy owed nothing to a band of highway robbers.

       Well, Ciaran thought, he would stop their murderous game, just as he did at home. In his own world, highway robbery was mostly a thing of the past, but Ciaran himself had fought one near Greenslade, staff against cudgel. It had been the first time he had ever killed a man, and he still bore the mark of that encounter on his brow, in a small scar on the hairline.

       He touched that scar now, and swore an oath in the name of that memory. These men were nothing more than common thieves. They dressed their cause up in high language and told their tales of exile and suffering, but they deserved only punishment. This went far beyond his desire to get revenge on Reynard, or to reclaim Elias. It was his duty as a Brother to stop them. He could do nothing else.

       The arrow did not waver, pointing at his heart. He clenched his teeth in grim purpose, and awaited his moment. The timing would have to be exact. Leave it too late, and people would die. Cry the warning too early, and he would be silenced before the men in the caravan heard him.

       He knew he could die for this. Even if the arrow did not kill him, Reynard and the others, their crimes thwarted by Ciaran's intervention, would seek to kill him in revenge. But the cause was just, and worth dying for. The caravan was driven by innocent people just like the folk of Greenslade. In this corrupt world, they needed one such as Ciaran to protect them and stand up for what was right.

       If by some miracle he lived, all would be well. Even Elias would have to admit that he could not serve these people now. Ciaran would be saving his apprentice, as well as the innocent people on the road. He was being as noble as Finbar had ever been, facing death for what was right.

       The wheels were louder. Several wagons, he thought, and they were close enough now that they would hear his warning, but not yet close enough for the Kindred to attack. It was time. He sought the Shadow, and found it, though only just. Enough, though, to do what he needed to do. Thrusting outwards with his hand, he knocked the bow from the man's hand with the Shadow. It fell far below them on the slope, slid a little, and buried itself in a pile of leaves. It felt so good to be striking out against these people! With an exultant smile, Ciaran sprang to his feet, and plunged up the slope.

       The man grabbed him from behind, grappling him down. Ciaran dropped his staff, and his control of the Shadow shattered, and he could not regain it. An arm snaked round his neck, and he couldn't breathe. His enemy's breath was hot against Ciaran's neck. The man was not as tall as Ciaran, but he was very strong. As Ciaran struggled, a foot hooked round his ankle and brought him crashing to the ground. He fell heavily, but landed in soft mud and leaves, and the caravan continued on in ignorance, not hearing his fall.

       The man forced him onto his front, hauling his wrists behind his back with one hand, covering his mouth with the other. The ball of his thumb pressed into Ciaran's nostrils and the tips of his fingers dug into his cheeks.

       "Try that again," the man hissed, "and I kill you."

       Where was Elias? The carriage wheels still rumbled along the track, and one of its drivers laughed, oblivious to the death that lurked in the undergrowth. Still time, then. Still time. Why didn’t Elias strike? He was probably paralysed with fear. He was only a boy and would have been a cruel blow to him to finally realise that he cause he thought himself bound to was only a worthless sham. Ciaran was on his own, and he would fight for both of them.

       For a moment, he feigned defeat, letting all his muscles slump, but his captor was not fooled, and did not release him. So Ciaran started to fight, bucking with his body, and wrenching with his arms. The man's grip on his wrists slid away, though he did not release his hold on Ciaran's mouth. Ciaran struggled to reach his staff but it had fallen too far away, and the man was sitting on his back, pinning him to the ground. He managed to roll over, and the man came with him, his knees gouging into Ciaran's body. Ciaran scrabbled with his reaching fingers, and found a stone embedded in the earth, hidden by the leaves. He tried to get a grip on it, tried to prise it free so he could smash it against the man's skull.

       A knife pricked at his throat. The man leant forward, kneeling on Ciaran's left hand, grinding it against a pebble in the earth. He still pressed his left hand against Ciaran's mouth, but now he was holding a dagger, plucked from his belt. Something trickled down Ciaran's neck, and he thought it was rain. Then, a moment later, he felt the prick of pain and knew that the dagger had pierced him, just a little, just enough for a warning. He had felt the blood before the pain.

       It almost felt good, the blood. They could hurt him all they liked, but his cause was just. He sought again for the Shadow, and this time it obeyed him. It took the merest thought, and the dagger fell away from his throat, plucked from his assailant's nerveless hands. The man gasped with amazement, and Ciaran felt a cold satisfaction at the sight. Never again would these men under-estimate Ciaran Morgan.

       He wrenched his hand from underneath the man's knee, feeling skin tear as the stone dug into his flesh. He raised his hands, brought them together, and prepared to thrust out with his power, smashing everything that lay before him. And then Elias was beside him, staring at him with huge eyes and a look of sick horror. He was kneeling, and something dark was slithering through his hands.

       "Please," Elias begged him. "Please stop fighting."

       "I will not," Ciaran hissed into the man's hand. The words were smothered, but Elias would see the defiance in his eyes.

       "Please." Elias looked more deeply hurt than he had looked after Reynard had wounded him. "For me. If I ask you to. Please. I have... seen things. You have to let it happen. If you try to stop it, it will be horrible. You'll die. They'll all die."

       "I'll die?" Ciaran wanted to say. It was a price worth paying for what was right, and Elias ought to know it. But the man's hand stole his voice, and the man's body kept him pinned.

       Elias closed his eyes for a moment. "Please trust me," he whispered. "Please. I'm begging you, Ciaran. I'm afraid. It will be terrible, and you'll have caused it."

       He had never called him by his name before. Ciaran was filled with a cold burning fury. He struggled, but the man only pressed his hand harder into his mouth, digging torn nails into his cheeks.

       Elias raised his hands, and Ciaran saw that he was carrying rope. "I don't want to do this," Elias said, hoarsely. "Please, master. Please. Just stop struggling."

       Ciaran lashed his head from side to side, trying to dislodge the hand. He was still clutching the stone, and he threw it suddenly. It glanced off the man's forehead, and fell uselessly to the ground. With a snarl, the man clenched his fist, ready to smash it into Ciaran's face.

       Elias whirled on him with utter ferocity. "Don't you dare hurt him! Don't you dare!" Elias and the man glared at each other, each one tense and crouching, one an enemy, and one a traitor. The tension between them was tangible and jangling.

       The rain fell heavily, and, on the road below, someone screamed. Reynard's voice sounded from the trees. "Stop! You are surrounded. Lay down your weapons."

       Too late. It was too late, and it was all Elias's fault. The man subsided, but Ciaran barely saw him. The man moved away, and the hand was gone from Ciaran's mouth. Now only Elias knelt above him, and his eyes were like the eyes of a stranger.

       "I'm so sorry, master," he was saying, but he was lying, because he was binding Ciaran's wrists together with his cruel rope, and Ciaran was so unmanned by his treachery that he did not even struggle until it was too late.

       "Elias," Ciaran rasped. "Stop this, I order you." Elias only shook his head, a tiny moan escaping through his clenched lips. "Stop this," Ciaran urged. "It's over, I tell you. I'll hate you forever. I'll fight you. I'll kill you." He spat in Elias's face, but he could not even muster enough spit, and it dribbled down his chin, making him look foolish. "No." He turned his face away. "I won't hate you. You'll be nothing to me. I won't even care. Live with them and be their king, and die in the misery and squalor you deserve. You won't find me caring."

       Something landed on his hand, warmer than rain, and he knew that Elias was crying. He deserved it. Ciaran's hands were held so tightly he could not move, though the ropes did not hurt, and were almost gentle, like water lapping around his wrists.

       "You want glory?" Ciaran sneered. "Is that it? I've nursed a traitor for all these years. One mention of the word king, and you're ready to give up everything I've taught you. You want to be leader of a band of killers, so you side with them, even though they're killing innocent people down there, and I would have stopped them. You've chosen them over me. You are no apprentice of mine."

       Elias stood up. Ciaran was bound by his wrists, and even the roots of the forest had joined in, roused by the evil magic of the Kindred. They twisted and coiled and imprisoned his ankles, and he was pinned motionless. Despite himself, he felt his throat constrict with fear. The forest had come alive and claimed him. This hostile world had consumed him, and he would be imprisoned here, forced to hear the dying screams of the people he had been unable to save.

       "Guard him," Elias said to the man who had attacked Ciaran, "but do not hurt him." The last words were said with a ferocious snap of command such as Ciaran had never thought to hear from his apprentice.

       The man grinned, his teeth like the teeth of a wild animal who had tasted blood. "I can gag him."

       Elias shook his head. "No," he said, but now his voice sounded only weary. "It's too late for that. It's already begun."

       He walked away then, and did not once look back.

      

 

       Elias crept to the brow of the ridge. He touched the hilt of his sword, but did not draw it. As he crouched down, he caught a glimpse of the hand that had crafted the illusion that had bound his master. He felt sick. He wanted to chop that hand off rather than live with the reminder of what he had done.

       It had all been so easy. At night, he had made a bird, and now the skill, once learned, would never again be anything other than effortless. He could make things of beauty, but he could make terrible things, too - things that allowed him to betray his master, and ruin everything forever.

       He wanted to slam shut the door of that tower, and run whimpering away. Ciaran would hate him now. Even if he could return to his own world, they would be no home for him there ever again. He could never be a Brother, and he would never be Ciaran's Morgan's apprentice. Ciaran hated him, and he was alone forever.

       The dark whisperings of premonition had quietened a bit, but had not gone away. It was like a clamouring crowd of people. When Ciaran had fought, the crowd had surged and shrieked, as if death itself was riding down from the sky to claim them all. Now his master was held, the crowd had drawn back and its voice had stilled to faint whispers. It was still there, and waiting, but the danger was less.

       Ciaran was safe. His master would never accept it, but Elias knew without a doubt that he had saved his master's life. He had wronged him terribly and committed a crime that could never be forgiven, but he had saved him. If Ciaran had ruined the ambush, Reynard and the others would have killed him, before dying themselves at the hands of the caravan's guards.

       Everyone still lived. The first two visions would now never come to pass. Ciaran and the Kindred were safe for now, but the danger was not over yet. Elias had to watch. He might want nothing more than to bury his face in his hands and weep, but he could not turn his back now.

       On the road below stood the caravan, halted in disarray. There were several covered wagons and a few open carts. A group of armed riders stood watchfully at the front, and there was a cluster of horses tied to the back of the rear cart. He could not see the Kindred at first, but found he could tell where they were hidden, and that, when he looked at each hiding place, he could see them after all.

       "This is your last chance," Reynard shouted. "Lay down your arms, or face the consequences." He was lying along a thick dark branch, that was flat enough to collect a carpet of fallen leaves. The branches took his voice and made it seem to come from everywhere, and nowhere.

       The four guards exchanged glances. One of them was very young, and he was swallowing again and again. The other three were older, with world-weary faces. They wore a rough uniform, but had a cheap and unkempt look about them. This was a modest caravan that could afford no better guards.

       It was true. Elias closed his eyes briefly. At least some of Ciaran's accusations were true. When he had first heard the wagons, he had hoped desperately that it was a band of cruel marauders, their swords dripping with the blood of innocents. He wanted to understand the Kindred. Despite everything, he wanted to like Oliver. He wanted their ambush to be justified. But these were innocent people. He had heard a woman scream, and wondered if there were children there, in the covered wagon. They were innocent people, and the Kindred were going to rob them, and maybe even kill them.

       He had silenced his master, but he would never be able to condone this. Oliver had urged him to do nothing, but he refused to stand by and watch while innocents were murdered. But for now, he told himself, he would just watch. There had been a sincere misery in Oliver's eyes. Reynard might relish bloodshed, but Oliver, he was sure, would do everything he could to stop it. It would not happen. It could not.

       "All right," one guard shouted, at last. The screaming had died away to occasional whimpers, but now that same female voice sounded in a cry of betrayal and outrage. The guards ignored it. "Watch." Very deliberately, they threw their swords to the ground. Two landed on top of each other, and clashing with a sound that made Elias shiver.

       "Very good." Reynard smiled, though only Elias could see it. There was no smile in his voice. "Do not move an muscle. Move and you die."

       Only two of the Kindred had bows, although they must surely be hoping that the guards thought there were more. They lay flat on their bellies, one ahead of the caravan, and one slightly behind. Elias was between the two of them. The haste of the ambush meant that there was nobody on the other side of the road, and that was their great weakness. Their position was strong, but not unassailable.

       No-one moved. Just as Elias thought they were going to stay hidden forever, the undergrowth parted, and Oliver stepped out. He bore no sword, and he looked slight and vulnerable in the vastness of the forest. The rain made his hair stick to his skull, and darkened it, emphasising his pallor and making his eyes look black. As he walked slowly down the ridge towards the road, he stumbled a little, but managed to regain his balance.

       Elias pressed his hand to his mouth, and let his breath hiss through his fingers. Unable to look away, he watched as Oliver reached the road and stood there, at the mercy of so many eyes. He started walking, and leaves and mud clutched at his feet, as if they were trying to pull him back. Oliver was a child of the forest, and he was walking to his death, and even nature wanted him to live.

       The guards watched him approach. The young one licked his lips nervously, but there was trickery in the eyes of the oldest.

       Close now, Oliver knelt, falling gracefully down onto one knee like a man making his obeisance to his lord. His cloak pooled behind him in the mud, but it did not get stained. With his right hand, he reached out for the hilt of the first abandoned sword, and his fingers closed around it.

       The oldest guard's hand darted to the side of his saddle, and came up again. A dagger shot through the air like a flash of silver, and buried itself in Oliver's chest.

       Elias gasped. He chewed the flesh at the ball of his hand to stop himself crying out. Do nothing, Oliver had said. Had he seen this coming? Had he known he was going to die? While Elias had seen his own visions of death, had Oliver, the son of a Seer, seen his own?

       Still kneeling, Oliver looked up, a faintly quizzical look on his face. He showed no sign of pain, and neither did he clasp the wound. No blood rained on the mud, but his clothes were dark, and he could bleed to the point of death, and no-one would see. His movements steady and fluid, he reached for the second sword.

       Another guard threw his dagger, and the weapon sank into Oliver's right side. Oliver stood, but did not try to defend himself. The third dagger would have missed Oliver entirely had he not seemed to deliberately turn a little, catching it in the flesh of his upper arm. With an incoherent scream of hatred, a woman thrust her head out of one of the wagons, a crossbow in her hands. She shot it blindly, but it went true nevertheless. The bolt hit Oliver in the throat, just beneath the clasp of his cloak.

       But still he stood. Was he using illusion to hide the blood, to hide from everyone the fact that he was in agony and dying? Had he known this was going to happen? He was sacrificing himself to save the others. His last words to Elias had been an apology. He had lied to Elias, and this was his way of atoning.

       "I don't want this," Elias whispered. Until two days ago, he had never seen violence or death. Now he was seeing blood enough to haunt his dreams for a lifetime. Why was no-one rushing forward to save the man who was their leader?

       "More?" Reynard asked mockingly, and another dagger, and then two more bolts, hit Oliver's body, and more shot uselessly onto the track. "Is that all you can do?"

       There was fear on the faces of the guards now. Their hands were empty. They had thrown away their hidden store of weapons on just one man, and he refused to die, or even to falter. They had no idea what to do. They were terrified, where, a moment before, they had felt hope. They thought they were doomed, and knew that only the most terrible of magics could cause their attacker to still remain standing. They feared this magic like nothing before.

       "Now," Reynard hissed, and to the guards it was nothing more than the sound of wind in the trees, but to the Kindred it was a clear command. They knew what to do.

       Two men stepped forward, ropes in their hands. The bowmen rose from their hiding places, speaking their threat as loud as words. Harm these men and you die.

       In the middle of them all, Oliver stood with his head raised high, looking the guards in the eye, one after another. Each one lowered their eyes as if his gaze hurt them.

       "Dismount," Elias heard one of the Kindred say, when he came close. With an impotent look of terror, the youngest guard slithered to the ground. He volunteered his own wrists for tying, at pains not to look at Oliver. Any fate was better, he must surely be thinking, than the attentions of such a man.

       Reynard swung his legs over the edge of the branch and dropped lightly to the ground, though the fall was more than twice his height. His eyes were burning coals, and he ran the tip of his tongue hungrily over his lower lip.

       The guards were bound, and the Kindred were prowling further, seeking the people who were hiding in the wagons. One wagon concealed the second, and Elias did not see what happened when they passed behind it, but he heard the scream.

       And, in the midst of it, Oliver merely stood. There was still no blood. Frowning, Elias looked at him, and then almost laughed aloud. An illusion. Of course it was an illusion, and he had been a fool not to see through it. Oliver was still concealed in the trees, with his right hand pressed against a tree trunk, and his head drooping slightly. It tired him to cast an illusion such as this.

       The illusion was good, though. Had Elias thought to look, he could have seen the truth in an instant, and, now he knew it for what it was, it faded away like mist in sunlight, as if it had never been. By the way the guard's wary eyes still flickered everywhere but at the spot the illusion had been standing, he knew that to everyone else, it was still very real. He could make himself see it again, he found, though it seemed pale and flimsy now, and never to be confused with the real thing.

       "Do nothing," Oliver had said, and this was why. If Elias had rushed forward to intervene, he would have been as deadly to the Kindred as Ciaran. The guards would have thrown their daggers at him, but his death would have been real. The Kindred would have been slaughtered trying to defend him.

       They were all out of concealment now. Some had sheathed their weapons and now sifted through piles of goods with looks of grim delight. Others were still armed, although the guards were all bound now. Reynard was approaching the oldest guard in a strange meandering step, like a suitor playing court to his partner in a formal dance. His smile was mocking, and his sword was high. I will hurt you, the smile said. But you will not know when. Any. Time. I. Choose.

       "Do nothing," Oliver had told him, but that was before they had won. "Do nothing," Oliver had told him, but that was before he had seen murder in the eyes of a man who claimed to follow him. "Do nothing," and that was before he had seen hatred in his master's eyes, and known that he had fully earned that hatred, even though he had been trying to do what was right.

       No-one would die on this day, not if Elias could prevent it. He had thrown away everything that mattered to him simply because he thought that, by doing so, he was saving lives. If he crouched here in concealment and let a man die, then it was all for nothing. He had lost his master, and all for nothing.

       He rose to his feet, and skidded down the bank to the road. He did not draw the sword, though he was very aware of it, ready and attentive at his side. The guards' swords lay untouched on the ground where they had first fallen, and the daggers that Elias had seen embed themselves in Oliver's flesh were scattered across the track, unstained by blood.

       Reynard looked up as he approached. Still in concealment, Oliver started too, and as he did so the illusion winked out. One of the guards saw it, and cried out, realising how they had been tricked. 

       "Oliver told you to stay put," Reynard snapped. "You could have got hurt."

       "I know." Elias almost laughed. What else had he to lose? He had already earned the hatred of the only man he had ever truly known. Why should he care if he earned the hatred of this man too, for the sake of a principle? "Will you kill them?"

       Reynard swore, a guttural oath. He gestured Elias away a few steps, and spoke in a harsh whisper, so the guards could not hear. "What else can we do? They'll tell. They have to die."

       Elias narrowed his eyes. His heart was hammering in his chest, and he had never been more aware of how young he was, and how he had always been so shy of other people. This was not the place for shyness. If he stood firm before Reynard and spoke up, perhaps he could save a life or two. "Is that the real reason?" he asked, very quietly.

       Reynard sucked in a sharp breath. He was a dangerous man to provoke, and never more so than now. He had been tightly coiled up, ready for danger and action, and his whole mind and body screamed out to fight. "You saw," he hissed, and almost his hand closed on Elias's wrist, but then, just at the last instant, withdrew. "They would have killed Oliver without mercy. Why should we show them mercy in return?"

       "Because we are better men than they are."

       Reynard gave a harsh bark of laughter. "How little you know. We wouldn't be alive now if we showed mercy."

       Elias looked round, seeing the calm professionalism with which the Kindred were emptying bags of provisions from the wagons. "How much of this do you actually need, and how much is common thievery?" He used the derogatory word deliberately, hoping to goad Reynard into some sort of reply.

       "We need little." Oliver appeared at his side. He looked exhausted, barely strong enough to speak. "We need the horses. Those goods that we can use or wear. Nothing else. Luxury goods are of use only to people who can sell them, and we can't. They'd kill us if we even showed our faces at a market."

       Elias felt his face soften as he turned to Oliver. Until he had seen Oliver dying, he had not realised how much he liked him already. The man wanted what was best for his people and that meant he had to do anything he could to win Elias to his cause, but his sympathy seemed genuine. "Would it be dangerous to you to let the men go?" he asked him.

       "I don't think so, no." Even exhausted as he was, Oliver was able to flash a sharp glance at Reynard, silencing him. "It's no secret that we live near here. It's a big forest, and the camp's far enough away, and we know how to hide our tracks. As long as they don't follow us, it will do us no harm if news of this attack gets out." He frowned. "Most people avoid this road. They knew they were taking a risk, coming this way. I wonder why they did it."

       "Then leave them." Elias had little time for patience. "Leave the goods you don't need, and leave the men unharmed. If I am to be your king, then it is for me to give orders," he said, in the face of Reynard's furious denial. "If you are only common bandits and murderers, then I will not serve you. I will give you nothing. You are on your own." He paused. "So, tell me. Are you?"

       "But they betrayed us!" Reynard cried. His left hand was a curled fist, and the sword in his right was pale silver, hungry for blood. "You saw how they surrendered, then attacked under the flag of truce. They betrayed us, just like their forefathers did."

       "No." Elias waved Reynard aside, but Reynard stood firm and did not move. If Oliver had not tugged hard at Reynard's arm, and had not Reynard yielded to the man he was accustomed to obeying, Elias did not know what might have happened. But, for now, all that mattered was that Reynard had stepped aside, and how desperate Elias was for this to be over. His question was not answered, but he would save these men, even if it was the last act he ever performed in this place before going home.

       Elias walked up to the nearest guard, who looked at him, and gave a contemptuous laugh. "You can't be their leader, boy." The look in his eyes reminded Elias of his father, who had beaten him and called him worthless. This man was scared of Reynard and even of Oliver, but Elias he just dismissed.

       Oliver said nothing, but he was there, close beside Elias. His hand brushed briefly against Elias's shoulder. I am here, the touch said. I will stand by you.

       Strength flowed from Oliver's touch. Oliver would follow him, even if no-one else did, and it was amazing what a difference such a little thing could make. Simply by having someone who believed in him, he became someone who mattered, someone with power. For years, he had said nothing, because no-one had wanted to hear what he had to say. Now he could speak, and someone would listen. He had powers he had never thought possible, and he could make a difference.

       Elias raised his head, and looked the guard full in the face. He remember how Oliver had lulled him into sleep with music and enchantment, and the power of illusion already came so easily to him, as if he had been born to do it. He could do this. He had to do this.

       "Sleep." He raised one hand, fingers spread, and waved it, though he thought it was probably not necessary. In time, he would do this with just a thought, and the prospect scared him. "Sleep."

       The man's knees folded, and he slumped to the ground. Elias felt his mouth fall open with wonder and horror, but he could not stop. He stepped over the man's body, and moved on. "Murderer!" the youngest guard screeched. "You'll burn for this!" He screamed, high and shrill. "No! Keep away from me! Don't kill me! Please!"

       They tried to run, but the Kindred stepped forward to hold them still, trussed up and ready for the sacrifice. Some of them laughed as they subdued their terrified captives, but Elias had to look each guard in the eye, and bear the full brunt of what he saw there. This was terror, and he had caused it. This was hatred, and he deserved it. He was torturing them, taking away their free will, and it was the most hateful thing he had ever done. But he would be punished for it. He would be punished, and he would deserve it.

       "I'm not killing you," he tried to reassure them. "It's only sleep. You'll wake up tonight, and we'll be gone. No-one's going to hurt you. You'll still have your swords to defend yourself with."

       They did not believe him. They screamed, and he did it anyway. He forced them to sleep when they did not want to. "It's either this, or Reynard kills you," he tried to tell them, but his voice was cracked and did not work. He realised he was leaning heavily on Oliver's arm, but Oliver had looked close to collapse himself, so that was wrong, too.

       He took a shaky step away from Oliver. "How many more?" he managed to ask, when all four guards lay on the ground. The Kindred were just watching him now. Some of them bore naked swords, and they looked as if they wished the blades were bloodied. There were many things unsaid in the watchful silence of theirs. Reynard's eyes pierced him. Elias had sided with the enemy, and not the Kindred. Had they decided that he was no longer their king, and now they were going to kill him?

       It no longer really mattered what they thought. If they wanted a king who could condone murder, then he would have nothing to do with them, whatever the consequences. He had been chosen by  prophecy, but he would not serve an evil cause. This whole episode had shown him at least this much. He was bound by duty, but he was not powerless. He could set limits on what he would do for them. He could give orders and be obeyed. He was a king, not a slave, and he could choose how he wanted to lead them. 

       "There's three more in the wagons." Oliver paused for a moment. "One woman's very sick. Maybe she's the reason they decided to risk this road, despite its dangers. It's a quicker route to the cities in the north than the road the caravans normally use."

       "Dangers," Elias echoed. Dangers caused by the Kindred. Dangers because the Kindred were the sort of men who laid an ambush and would have killed people who were only trying to save a woman's life. He let out a long shuddering breath. "I must heal her."

       "Oh." Oliver shook his head, and the sound was a small anguished one, such as a man would make when he did not know what to say or do. "Oh, but..."

       "I must heal her," he cried. He had imprisoned his master, and violated men's minds so that they were forced asleep against their will. He had to atone. He had to make it worthwhile, all the terrible things he had done. He had to.

       "But..." Oliver gripped Elias's arm. "You can't... You don't..."

       "Don't have the strength?" Elias smiled, aware even as he did so that it was the kind of smile an idiot might make before rushing into some pointless death. He shook himself free from Oliver's grip. "I think I do." He laughed suddenly, and it was closer to tears, and... oh, what was happening to him? He pressed his hand to his mouth, and forced calm. "I can't? You said I had powers that you had never seen. I have to learn them some time, don't I?"

       Oliver chewed his lip. "But..."

       "No." To Reynard, he had been king, and given an order. He did so to Oliver now, though he thought it was killing him a little inside, each time he did it. "Leave me, Oliver. I will do this." I have to, he added silently, or maybe aloud.

       Turning, he walked alone towards the wagon.

      

 

       Bound a prisoner by the treacherous brat who had once been his apprentice, Ciaran had been forced to lie there and listen to it all.

       He had heard Reynard shouting his mocking commands, and known that blood had been shed with each word. He had heard voices, and, amongst them, had recognised the voice of the boy, Elias. His voice had been peremptory with command, as if these killers were his own men, and all their murdering was done at his order.

       Then, for a long while, there was silence, and then, suddenly, the ropes faded from him wrists as if they had never existed, and he was free.

       He moved in an instant, far too quickly for the man guarding him to stop him. Ciaran smashed him to the ground as he leapt passed him, and felt a bright flare of exultant satisfaction inside him. It felt good to strike back. He would repay every hurt in kind, but Elias was the chief wrong-doer, and Elias would be punished more than any man had ever been punished.

       "Elias!" he roared, as he barged down the slope. "Elias!" His voice was both a command and a punishment. Because of the childhood he had endured, the boy had always hated to be shouted at.

       Beside one wagon, Oliver stood, pale and tense. Meeting Ciaran's eyes, he shook his head.

       "Where's Elias?" Ciaran demanded.

       "Here, master."

       A pale hand pushed aside the curtain, and there was Elias, looking as if the slightest of breezes would blow him over. As he stepped down to the ground, he stumbled, but Oliver grabbed at him and stopped him from falling. It might have been enough to take the edge off Ciaran's anger, but instead it only fuelled it. Elias leaned into Oliver's support as once he had leaned into Ciaran's. In the other hand, he bore a bloody knife.

       "Elias." Ciaran strode forward. "Do you anything to say for yourself?"

       Elias swallowed hard. "I had to, master." His voice was like paper. "I'm so sorry. So sorry. I had no choice. I begged you, but you wouldn’t listen."

       Ciaran slapped him in the face with the flat of his hand. He could have hit him harder, but he did not, for this was just punishment, not revenge. "So it's my fault, is it?" He hit Elias again, and the heel of his hand smashed Elias's lips into his teeth. His mouth welling blood, Elias fell to the ground, his knees simply folding beneath him.

       "Not your fault." Elias continued speaking in that terrible weak voice, like the dying autumn leaves beneath his feet. He seemed unaware of the fact that his master had just struck him, or that he was sprawled in the dirt. "I tried to explain. There wasn't time. I should have tried harder. I didn't think you'd listen. I didn't think you'd believe me. I'm so sorry." He closed his eyes, his eyelids almost translucent against the smudged skin beneath his eyes.

       Ciaran crouched beside him and grabbed hold of his chin, digging his fingers into Elias's flesh and forcing him to look at him. "I wanted to stop all this," he said, gesturing with his chin towards the bodies on the ground. "I would have saved them. You wouldn't have stopped me with words, Elias, because I knew I was right. So you resorted to treachery. And because you stopped me, they all died. You betrayed me, and murdered them. Are you happy, Elias? Are you pleased with what you did?"

       Elias did not fight him. When Ciaran let go of his chin, and head fell back against the ground, exposing the pale skin of his throat, like a sacrifice waiting for the knife. "I saw a vision," he whispered. "I saw death. You would have died. I had to stop you. I didn't want you to die. I didn't want anyone to die."

       Ciaran stood up, and jabbed his toe into Elias's side. "Get up. I didn't hurt you badly. Stop making out that I did." He was disgusted at the boy. "You've never had visions before, so don't expect me to believe that excuse. And, even if you had, I am a Brother. I'm prepared to die for what is right. I thought I'd taught you to feel the same, but evidently not."

       "Stop it!" Oliver commanded. He stepped between Ciaran and Elias and physically pushed Ciaran backwards. There was a look of pure hatred in his eyes. "Don't you dare hurt him again, Master Morgan," he spat. "You keep away from him!"

       "You have no right!" Ciaran screamed. "He's mine!"

       Oliver just shook his head, and sighed. "He saved them all, Master Morgan. No-one died. He sent them to sleep with enchantment, that's all. And he did more,  but you will never see it, because you never bother to look. Just as you don't even behind to understand why we do the things we want to do, or who we are."

       "I know who you are," Ciaran sneered. "Thieves and killers, and now you've made Elias just like you. I hope you're satisfied. You're welcome to him now. You're as bad as each other."

       Elias said nothing at all, not even a plea for his master to relent and take him back. Oliver spoke for him, standing over him like a master over a beloved apprentice, defending him from all harm. "There was a woman in that wagon who was very sick. She was dying from it. Elias saved her, too. She attacked him with a knife and hurt him, and it took all his strength to heal her, but he did so. He saved even her."

       Ciaran hated him. He pushed him away, and knelt at Elias's side. He grabbed the boy's wrist. "Is it true?" he demanded. "Is he lying?"

       And then Reynard was standing there on Elias's far side, a naked sword in his hand. "It's true," he sneered. "He saved them. He stood before us like a true king. What do you say to that, Ciaran Morgan?"

       They were united against him, and he was the enemy. Oliver and Reynard and all the others were ferocious and protective, ranged around Elias as if he, Ciaran, was the snarling enemy who wanted to harm him. There was blood on Elias's lip, and he, Ciaran, had put it there.

       "Is it true, Elias?" he said, more quietly.

       Elias closed his eyes, but he nodded. "No-one died. But now..." His voice faded away, and he bit his bleeding lip, drawing more blood.

       "You tied me up." Ciaran narrowed his eyes. The ropes had not been real, he knew now, and they had faded away to nothing when Elias had dropped the illusion. Elias had used a power Ciaran had never seen before. It was a horrible magic, and he had used it against his own master. Foul magic had slithered over Ciaran's wrists, binding him. He swallowed. "Did you really have a vision? Is that really why you did it?"

       "To save your life," Elias whispered. "And theirs. And you said..."

       "Nothing," Ciaran said, firmly, taking hold of Elias's hand. "Forget about it, Elias. I said things. They're over now. I forgive you."

       Elias licked his lips, smearing the blood there. Ciaran had hit him, and caused that. But they would not speak of it. This whole sorry day would be forgotten. Ciaran would forgive Elias for the things he had done, and Elias would forgive Ciaran for hitting him. They had both committed wrongs, and the only thing to do was to move past them.

       "Come on," Reynard said, beginning to walk away. "We can't stay here. If we get moving, we'll be home before dark."

       For the first time, Ciaran was grateful to hear the man's voice. He helped Elias to his feet, and Elias clung to him, and nothing more needed to be said.


Chapter seven

What he asked for

 

 

       Elias had a secret.

       You can't tell them, something whispered deep inside him, like a poisonous echo of the way the enchantment used to talk to him, before he knew what it was. They won't believe you. They won't be able to help you. No-one can help you now.

       The ground beneath him seemed to heave sickeningly. He fell forward, but his master clutched at him and eased him gently against the side of the nearest wagon. Elias lowered his head, trying to silence the roaring in his ears. "I stood up too fast," he muttered. "I just need a little time."

       Ciaran's face danced briefly into view, large and close. "I'll take care of you."

       "I know," Elias said. There was blood in his mouth, and Ciaran had put it there. But his master was strong and had stopped him from falling, and that was kind of him, surely.

       There were other people talking, not far away. Ciaran's face disappeared. There was a narrow step on the edge of the platform, and Elias reached behind him and clutched it with both hands. His knees did not want to bear his weight.

       Dying, the voice taunted him. You're dying. How long do you think you have? Hours? A day? You saw how it would be. The vision surged again, painted on the drifting rain. He saw himself carried dying into the camp, and knew that it was his own fault, that he had brought it upon himself.

       "No." His lips moved soundlessly. He clung more tightly to the wood. "No." He refused to believe it. If he didn't say it aloud, then it wouldn't be true. If he didn't tell anyone, he could forget about it.

       It wasn't true. It couldn't be true. Death was not dispensed like that, as a result of a desperate promise in a covered wagon. He was tired, and the confrontation with his master had made him too emotional and prone to stupid fears. It was all in his imagination. Already the things that had happened in the wagon with the dying woman seemed cloudy and hardly real. He had healed her, and that was all that mattered. He wouldn't think about it any more.

       He raised his head, and forced the world to stop swaying. He thought some considerable time had passed since Ciaran had left him there, but he couldn't be sure. Ciaran was not far away, crouching beside one of the fallen guards, feeling his neck for a pulse. He looked up and caught Elias looking at him, and frowned.

       "You didn't believe me," Elias whispered.

       Ciaran hurried over to his side, all brisk and confident and unyielding. He had never apologised to Elias for hitting him. Perhaps Elias had deserved it, but he had never apologised, though he was acting as everything was forgiven. "I believed you," Ciaran said, "but I didn't put it past Reynard to kill them when your back was turned." Elias knew he was lying, and wasn't sure whether to feel grateful to his master for trying to protect his feelings, or hurt. He wished Ciaran had believed him. Didn't Ciaran know him at all?

       Ciaran wiped the mud from his hands. His cloak was stained at the hem, and that was from when he had knelt beside Elias and helped him to his feet. He touched Elias's cheek with a hand that was very cold. Elias shivered, remembering the vision of his master's death, and how he had pressed his master's dead hand to his cheek and wept for him.

       Elias closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them again. His cheek was still cupped in his master's hand. "I'm feeling better," he said. If he said it often enough, perhaps it would be true.

       His master drew a little closer. "I'll take care of you," he promised.

       Elias's head slumped forward, and he was supported utterly by his master's embrace. The sounds of the forest faded to nothing. The rain still fell, but he felt warm and protected, held by strong arms that would fight away any enemies that threatened him. All he felt was the smooth fabric of his master's warm cloak against his face, and the beating of Ciaran's heart.

       You said you'd cast me out, he wanted to cry. You said you didn't care. You said you hated me. You left me alone, just like they did. His lip throbbed, just like it had when his father had hit him, before they had all gone away and left him alone. But now his master had come back for him and everything would be alright. The cruel voice taunting him in his mind didn't know what it was talking about. His master had promised to take care of him, so he would be safe.

       He pressed his lips into a fold of his master's cloak. "I'm scared," he breathed, reluctant to say the words aloud, but hoping his master would hear them nevertheless. "Please don't leave me."

       Ciaran took a step back, and a sudden squall of rain hit Elias full in the face. He shivered.

       "We need to go," Ciaran said. "They say it's dangerous to stay on the road. If we get a move on, we'll be at their camp before dark. There'll be dry clothes for you, and a roof over your heard. I know it's hard for you to walk now, but it'll be for the best. Trust me, Elias," he said, when Elias was slow to respond. "I know what's best for you."

       "Yes." Elias nodded. His master sounded different, and it was good to hear. He was no longer the broken man who clung to his staff and watched the world with silent misery. He still hated the Kindred, but he spoke of "we", and here he was, as strong as ever, telling Elias what to do. He was no longer the outsider, overlooked by everybody, but he was included and making plans, and he liked it.

       Ciaran was looking at him intently. "Everything's going to be fine, Elias. I'll make sure of that." But almost at the end he looked away, and Elias felt very cold, and not reassured at all.

       No-one can help you, the voice taunted him. Him least of all.

       "Elias?" Ciaran asked, seeing him shiver.

       Elias pushed away from the wagon and managed to stand unaided, though his master only let him do so for a second before he was grabbing him, holding him upright with a grip that was almost painful. Rather than protected, he felt suddenly trapped and afraid, but he hid his disquiet, for he knew his master only wanted to help him. "Thank you," he said. He looked at his master and smiled, and Ciaran smiled back, and, despite everything, it felt good.

 

 

 

       Ciaran was happy. He hummed a tune under his breath, a song they sang in the taverns of Greenslade, about rain and trees and a happy ending. He used his staff to beat down his path ahead of him, and dead leaves fragmented under his every step.

       This day, that had started so horribly, was turning out alright, he thought. He felt a lightness of spirit that he had not felt since Elias had obtained the sword and had started to change before his master's eyes. He felt no need to defend his mood. He deserved a little happiness, after all these days of being ignored and threatened.

       Things had come to a head today, and now was a time for healing. Elias had defied him, and that has been horrible, but the boy had begged his forgiveness, and it would never happen again. The whole thing had shocked Elias into realising just how badly things had gone out of kilter, so perhaps it was a good thing that it had happened. Without the intensity of that awful confrontation, things might have dragged on for weeks, getting worse and worse with each day.

       Elias walked beside him now, and he was subdued and chastened. He seldom spoke. When he did speak, he spoke more often to his master than to Oliver, who walked too close to his other side, unwanted. When he stumbled in his weariness, Ciaran supported him, and the boy leant briefly against his body, as if to say, I need you, master. I'm so sorry for what I did.

       They were two again, and this sorry adventure was nearing its end. Oliver, with his tricksy bard's tongue, would try to explain away the raid, painting the Kindred's actions in a noble light, but even Elias knew the truth now. He had seen them lay an ambush for a party of innocent travellers, rob them of all their possessions, and threaten to kill them. "I only did it to save lives," Elias had sobbed, and his face had been a picture of desperation and revulsion at the very idea of killing. There was no way he would consent to be the king of a people who murdered innocent people.

       It was only to be expected, he supposed, that Elias should let himself be ensnared by the Kindred's lies. He was young, and saw things with a child's naiveté. Elias had always taken other people's suffering very personally. It had been so easy for Oliver to exploit the boy's generous nature. He had laid an unconscionable burden of guilt on Elias's frail shoulders, so the boy felt he was personally murdering the Kindred if he failed to do everything Oliver asked.

       And, perhaps, deep down Elias had liked it. He was a shy boy who had never done anything exceptional before, but the Kindred called him king, and told him that he could do great things. For a short time, he had been the centre of attention. He had been somebody, and part of him had liked it. He looked very sad, Ciaran thought, now he was confronted with the collapse of that brief dream of kingship.

       Next time Elias stumbled, Ciaran caught hold of him by the elbows. The boy looked so bleak and miserable. "I'm sorry," Ciaran said, suddenly desperate to see a smile on those sad features.

       "Sorry?" Elias echoed. He looked at Ciaran, then down at the ground.

       Ciaran stepped back. "I know it's hard for you." He tucked his hand beneath his robe, trying to protect it from the persistent rain. "But, really, it was for the best that you found out the truth sooner rather than later."

       Elias blinked in confusion. "Truth?" he echoed. He was acting as if he was barely hearing Ciaran's words, and certainly not understanding them.

       Ciaran hated to see Elias hurt. Ever since he had first come across the boy weeping in the gutter, Ciaran had felt strong and protective towards him, and nothing had ever changed. No-one could ever fulfil all the hopes of an exiled people who had waited for him and dreamed about him for five hundred years. No man alive could do it, least of all an untried boy from another world. All Ciaran's opposition stemmed from that fact. Everything he had ever done in this world had been for Elias's own good, to protect him.

       "All will be well, Elias," he soothed him now.

       "Well?" Elias licked his lower lip, and blood smeared on his tongue and trickled pink down his chin. Once he had looked at the cut, Ciaran found it hard to look away. On impulse, he reached out and touched the boy's chin, fingertips almost brushing the injury, but not quite. "I'm sorry I had to hurt you," he said, then he gave a wry laugh, for that wasn't right either. "I'm sorry I hit you."

       "It doesn't matter," Elias whispered. There were smears of darkness under his eyes. His lips moved again, but Ciaran could not hear what he said.

       Oliver was just ahead of them, looking back intently. The three of them were trailing behind the other walkers. It was harder to disguise the tracks of a horse, so Reynard and two others had taken the stolen horses by a longer route, doing all they knew to hide the trail. The two parties would meet up at a predetermined point, and from there Elias would be able to ride. If Reynard had not led the horsemen, Ciaran might have insisted that Elias went with them from the start, but he had wanted to keep the boy safe at his side.

       "We can rest for a while," Oliver said doubtfully. He looked first at Elias, then at Ciaran. It had been like that ever since the ambush. He had given Ciaran a look of such quizzical intensity that Ciaran had wanted to squirm and look away, but after that he had been different. When he spoke about their plans for the day, he made a point of talking to both of them equally. Ciaran was no longer excluded.

       "I'm fine," Elias said. He walked a few steps, moving like a blind man, then teetered to a halt just before crashing into a broad tree trunk. He turned a half circle on the spot, and his hand rose quiveringly, massaging the bridge of his nose, as if his head was hurting badly.

       "Elias." They both cried out his name. They both rushed forward and both grabbed him. Elias sagged first towards Oliver, then towards Ciaran, then managed to claw himself upright again.

       "You need to rest," Oliver pleaded. He was still holding Elias's arm, but Ciaran no longer minded. Oliver had already lost. What did it matter if he gave Elias a little support now? It didn't have to mean anything. He was no longer a threat.

       "No," Elias said. "I'm fine." He started to walk away, and Ciaran found himself exchanging a glance with Oliver, before they both walked on behind him, both close enough to catch him if he fell.

      

 

       After a long time of silence, Elias stopped walking, damp rags of his cloak clutched inadequately to his body. "Oliver," he said.

       Oliver stopped. One hand rose towards his mouth, then fell again. His shoulders were very stiff, and he did not turn round. "Yes."

       Ciaran was standing so close behind him that Elias could feel the warmth of his body. He was taller and broader than Elias, and, if he wanted to, he could fold him arms round him from behind and Elias would be hidden from the whole world. Swallowing hard, Elias took a short step forward, away from that protection. Rain trickled down his neck and the wind was cold on his back.

       "You know what I'm going to ask," Elias said.

       Oliver gave a barely perceptible nod. He still did not turn round.

       "You should have told me before." Elias was too tired to muster up much reproach." I shouldn't have had to ask. The moment it was over, you should have explained."

       "Yes," Oliver said, and it was a new thing, strange and scary, to tell someone older than himself that they were wrong, and have them admit it.

       "Explain, then," Elias commanded. He took hold of Oliver by the upper arm and dragged him round to face him. "I don't know what you think, Oliver. That I chose you over my master? That you've won? That I'm siding with you in everything now, regardless of what you do?" He shook his head. "It's not like that. I did what I did to stop people dying. I didn't like what you were doing."

       Oliver pulled at his lower lip with his teeth. "No." He shook his head. Rain was snaking down his cheeks like tears.

       "Then tell me," Elias shouted. "My master said you were doing this all wrong, keeping secrets, telling me things backwards. He was right." He glanced at Ciaran and saw that he was looking at Oliver as he would look at a defeated enemy. Elias turned back to Oliver. "So tell me," he said, more gently, for he had not liked what he had seen in his master's face. "Tell me everything. Tell me why you robbed those people. Tell me..." A sudden shiver seized him, like someone shaking him and rattling his spine. Oliver was peering at him with concern. "You have reasons?" Elias said, and thought he sounded very pitiful and pleading.

       Ciaran took hold of his shoulder, just as Oliver reached for his wrist, so for a moment he was held between them, tugged both ways. "Of course they don't have reasons," Ciaran said. "Just common robbery and blood lust."

       Elias turned to him. There's no point, something cackled inside him. No point arguing it at all. You'll be dead by tomorrow. "I need to know, master," he said, managing to keep his voice level. "I can't condemn them without knowing."

       "And if you find that they're only common criminals?" Ciaran folded his arms.

       Ciaran thought it was the perfect solution, Elias knew. If the Kindred were exposed as worthless criminals, then he thought Elias would be freed from any responsibility towards them. He thought Elias would be able to go back to his old life, and nothing would have changed. He would never again be tormented with the thought of the screaming innocents he was failing to save. He would never again quail before the enormity of a task that he knew he was inadequate to fulfil. It would be over. The prison gates would swing open, and he would walk through them and return to the daylight.

       "Then…" Elias's shoulders slumped. He was too tired to argue it, and what was the point? It wouldn't be over at all. How could he live with himself if he stayed and served a people who were morally despicable? But how could he walk away? Who was he to judge them and condemn them forever? Even if he walked away, his master was already wrong. Nothing would be the same again. Already he had changed and done things, and he could never be the Elias he had always been, and home would never be the place it once was.

       And he wanted to like Oliver. For all his lies, Oliver had seemed to show a genuine sympathy that not even Ciaran had ever shown him. He wanted Oliver to tell them there were good reasons behind the attack. He wanted to love the Kindred, whose story had made him weep the night before. And how strange that was, because, by wanting this, it meant he was wanting those prison gates to slam shut again, and this time be locked forever.

       "Reasons," Oliver said. His voice was rusty and reluctant. He turned his hands palm upwards and stared at them. "He's right." He shuddered. "I have committed murder."

       Ciaran took a step closer to Elias's side, but Elias discreetly edged away. He would stand alone in this. This was not the two of them, Brothers together, against Oliver. Neither would he stand at Oliver's side and exclude his master. But he was glad that Ciaran was there, and that they were hearing this together. Until now, Ciaran had always refused to be there when Oliver was talking to him. Or maybe they had been at fault, and Ciaran had wanted to come, and been miserable and alone because he thought they did not want him.

       "Murder." Oliver clenched his fist. "We all have. We have all murdered unarmed men. All of us. We have killed so many in five hundred years."

       Behind him, Ciaran snorted. Oliver looked so unhappy that Elias found himself wanting to back away, to say, "No, don't tell me. Not if it hurts you so much." Did it matter if he knew the truth or not? You're dying, the voice taunted him, swirling like dark motes of dust between the sodden trees. What difference does it make?

       Elias wanted to shrink to the ground and press his hands to his ears to block out the voice, but the voice was inside him, shrieking and exulting through his blood. And it lied. It was telling lies. It had to be. It was the voice of his own waking nightmares and wild imaginings. Of course he wasn't dying.

       "I need to know," he said, more gently. He reached beneath his cloak and pressed his hand against his side. There was a pain behind his ribs, and his heart was beating very fast. "You have to tell me. You ask so much. So much, and I don't know how..." His voice cracked a little. "You have to tell me. I need to know who you are. You owe me that much. You want me to give you everything, but now I don't know if..."

       "We deserve it?" Oliver gave a bark of bitter laughter. "No. Perhaps we don't deserve it. Perhaps the best thing I can do is release you from all oaths and make you go home, to live your life, and forget us. And as for us..." He sighed. "We will pass into the darkness. We have fallen far in five hundred years. There is nothing left of us that is worth preserving. We were once peaceable and true, but we have become hardened killers who thirst for blood and vengeance. If we had a king again, we would unleash civil war on the land. Then we would wade through the bloody streets of Eidengard and seize the throne. We would raise our banners high. Tremble, ungrateful ones, for the Kindred have seized back what is theirs, the banners would proclaim, and let no-one dare stand against us." His voice was risen almost to a shout, but then it turned quiet again, and regretful. "No," he said. "We do not deserve you. The time of the Kindred is over. We should accept it, and pass away, and be forgotten."

       "But you don't want that." Elias spoke quietly. "You don't believe that."

       Oliver clutched a fold of his cloak, pressing his fist to his chest. "No," he moaned. "No. I don't. I want us to know hope again. I think we deserve it. I believe in our cause."

       Elias pressed his hand harder against his side. The pain in his head was making his vision pulse. "Then tell me," he urged. "Tell me why. Tell me the bad things, and the good things too. Tell me why you believe you're right." He glanced at Ciaran, who was frowning. "Just don't lie to me," he said, and Ciaran's frown relaxed just a little. "Tell me the truth, even if it makes you look bad."

       Oliver took a deep breath. His face was pinched, and he spoke as if each word came hard to him, and quite unlike the practiced eloquence of some of his speeches. "We do it to live. That's the heart of it. You heard the story I told. We're exiles. This," he said, gesturing at the dripping trees and the forest floor that offered so little shelter and comfort, "is our home. This is where raise our children, and nurse our sick. If we don't rob, how can we clothe our children? If we don't rob, how can we arm ourselves?"

       "Then don't arm yourselves," Ciaran said. "If you can't buy food like ordinary people, then you don't eat. If you rob and kill, then of course you're outlaws. Society judges people by their own behaviour. You've only got yourselves to blame."

       "Didn't you hear what I said last night?" Oliver shouted, rounding on Ciaran. "They drove us out! It was never our choice! They killed us. Even now, they hate us. If we as much as showed our face at a market, we'd be killed. They give us no choice!"

       "They kill you because it's justice," Ciaran shouted back. "They kill you because you prey on innocent travellers. They treat you as you deserve. You were cast out of power five hundred years ago, and you just can't forget it. You kill to get revenge. You're killing innocents because of what their ancestors did, and it's despicable."

       "Master," Elias pleaded, grabbing Ciaran by the wrist. "Please, master. I need to hear what he's got to say." And, amazingly, Ciaran let out a long breath, and took a step back. He stared at Oliver with an exaggerated tolerance, as if he was willing to listen, but had already decided what his reaction would be.

       "They hate the enchantment," Oliver said. "They're afraid of it. They call it sorcery, and they burn anyone they can find who is gifted with it. And it's not just us, not just us murderers, Master Morgan. It's their own mothers, their own children. They turn on their own flesh and blood, just because they're gifted with a beautiful power they don't even try to understand."

       Ciaran laughed derisively, plainly disbelieving it, but Elias shivered inside. He believed Oliver, and it scared him.

       Oliver took a step towards Ciaran. "You're a Brother of the Shadow. You serve the people. You put their needs before your own. All you want is to help them and protect them." Ciaran nodded, though warily, scenting a trap. "That's what our forefathers did," Oliver said. He was standing very close to Ciaran, and it was a moment of communion that was almost intimate.

       "They served," Oliver said, "just as the Brothers serve, and as you serve. But the people turned against them. Imagine it, Master Morgan. What you always thought was service, they throw back in your face and tell you it was tyranny all along. They kill you all. Your master, who taught you to put the people's needs before your own, is butchered as you watch. Then they kill your apprentice, your boy, for no other reason than that he can sense the Shadow. He screams for you, but you can't save him. When you try, they laugh at your desperation, and delight in his agony. Then they build a world that despises the Shadow, in which it is a crime even to mention the name of the Brotherhood, or to say that it was good. The Shadow, which you know is good and beautiful, they call evil, and every day there are fewer left alive who can sense it, and soon there will be none. No-one left to know that power. No-one left alive who could pass on the stories of the Brothers. No-one."

       The trap had closed. Ciaran was not aware of it, perhaps, and afterwards he would doubtless deny it, but he was nodding, agreeing with Oliver's words, believing them.

       "But, just before the end," Oliver continued, in that quiet relentless voice of his, "you manage to gather together a tiny band of survivors. You are very few, and your lives are hard. But there are children there, and they are your hope. Knowledge of the Shadow will live on for another generation and the Brothers will not be forgotten. But one day a traveller stumbles upon your hiding place. He has been taught lies by the new rulers of the world. He has been told to hate you and everything you stand for. There is a large reward for anyone who gives information about the hiding place of the evil Brothers and foul perpetrators of the Shadow. He has a knife, and he starts to attack you. Or maybe he turns to run. He's going to run and bring the guards. There are hundreds of them, and they're well armed. They will kill you all, and with you dies all hope, and all memory of the Shadow. What do you do?"

       Ciaran opened his mouth as if to speak, then shut it again. He closed his eyes.

       "Once, when times were good, you would never have considered killing an innocent," Oliver said, "but times have changed. If he attacks you, you have to defend yourself. If you kill him, then he can't raise the alarm. If you kill him, then your children are safe, and the truths you are teaching them will be preserved. If it was only your own life, it would be different. But there's so much more at stake. You'll be killing him to save your children. You'll be killing him to ensure that someone lives on who knows the glory of the Shadow, because what would the world be if all such people had gone?"

       "I would..." Ciaran opened his eyes. For a moment, his expression was soft, and he looked at Oliver as if he understood him. Then he stepped back with a hoarse cry. "I wouldn't..." He swallowed, clutched his staff tightly, and said nothing more. Elias was afraid that that one moment of understanding would harden into a condemnation even more ferocious than before. Ciaran would hate Oliver for making him sympathise with him, even if just for a moment.

       "Is that how it is for you?" Elias asked, wanting to speak before Ciaran did. "Truly?"

       Oliver could not meet his eye. "Mostly." He wrapped his arms round his body. "It's how it started, anyway. If we hadn't fought in our own defence, we would have been wiped out in those first few weeks. For the first few generations, they hunted us very badly indeed. We had to become hard and brutal. It was the only way we could survive. And we all believed very badly that we, and the things we believed in and knew, were worth preserving." He gave a bitter laugh. "We had a king to wait for. It was only for a little time, we told ourselves. We'd kill just this once, but soon the king would come back, and we wouldn't need to do it any more. It would only be a few weeks, or maybe months. It would soon be over."

       "And it took five hundred years." Elias wanted to cry for all of them, for everything.

       "And it's still going on. It's a way of life now." Oliver frowned. "Some of us like it. I can't pretend any more. You saw Reynard today. When you've suffered for five hundred years, it's easy to hate the people who forced it upon you, and to find yourself eager to strike back."

       "But you hate killing," Elias said. That much was obvious to him, for all that Oliver started, as if Elias had stumbled on a well-kept secret.

       "I do," Oliver admitted. "But I... understand why people like Reynard feel as they do. I don't like it, but I understand."

       "You said they hunted you badly for the first few generations," Ciaran said. "So they don't hunt you at all now? For centuries, you've been the sole aggressor? They'd have left you alone, if only you'd let them? All that lofty talk of self-defence... You were trying to trick me. It's not like that any more. If you'd kept hidden, that caravan would have ridden right past. They were never a threat to you. They weren't even rich, but you robbed them of everything. You should have left them alone."

       It seemed as if all Oliver's anger was spent, for he just sighed. "You're right. We should. It all happened before I could stop it. But it's hard for us. Winter's coming, and we need supplies. Not rich, you say, but those people live in a luxury we can only dream of. They have homes. They're free to trade. If they have a gift, they are free to follow it." He pressed his hand to his chest, where the enchantment burned, beautiful and irresistible. "Just because of the blood that flows in our veins, we are excluded from all that."

       "So you attack them out of jealousy," Ciaran said. "They aren't the ones who made the rules."

       "No," Oliver said. "They're not. And the current Duke is a peaceful man. He prefers to fund art rather than armies. It's been years since they've come against us in any force. For the most part, we avoid their lands, and they avoid ours."

       Ciaran folded his arms, as if to say, that settles it, then. But Elias saw the sadness in Oliver's eyes. He was still hiding things. Before, he had hidden the bad things the Kindred had done, because he had wanted to win Elias to his cause. Now he was bitter and fatalistic, and had given up fighting for Elias's loyalty.

       "Tell me," Elias urged him. He felt a sudden desperate need to know everything. He wanted to understand. They wanted him to give everything he had, and how could he do that without the complete truth? If he was going to die for them, he had to know the truth about the cause that had killed him. "Please." He touched the man's brow, as if he could physically drag the truth from his mind. "Please," he said, and this time it was a command.

       "Yes," Oliver breathed, his eyes widening. Elias could feel the fluttering of his pulse in the veins on his temple. He reached out and clamped his hand on Elias's shoulder, holding him tight and dragging him forward. His lips moved, but Elias no longer heard him. His eyes were deep and intense, but Elias no longer saw him.

       The forest disappeared. The rain stopped, and it was a pale spring day, with sunlight glimmering through translucent leaves. He was standing at the very edge of the tree-line, looking out over green fields specked with yellow flowers. A small boy was beside him, reaching barely up to his chest. "I'm afraid, Oliver," the boy quavered. "We shouldn't have come this far. They'll be cross with us. And the bad men might get us. Let's go home."

       He had wanted to see the open sky and the fields. He had wanted to be in a place where you could see all the way to the far horizon, and nothing enclosed you, nothing at all. He had heard stories, but he had never seen it. He had never seen the sky without seeing it through the branches of trees. He had never set foot outside the forest, and the stories of the world outside filled him with longing. He had wanted to come, and Amalric, who followed him in everything, had tagged along.

       "Oliver," Amalric urged, tugging at his cloak. But now he had seen this beautiful glimpse of the hillside, he wanted to stay forever. He didn't want to go back. Somewhere out there were mighty cities, and high mountains, and the ocean. There were the places of stories, and he wanted to walk and walk and never look back, not until he had seen them all, and made stories of his own to tell of his travels.

       "Oliver," Amalric cried. And he looked up, but it was too late, for the man had seen them, and was coming towards them, his teeth bared like the teeth of a wolf.

       "What have we here?" The man had a knife in his hand. "Two whelps who have strayed from the pack? You know what a wise shepherd does to wolf cubs when he finds them, don't you? He kills them, so they don't grow up and threaten his flock."

       Scared, he used the enchantment, trying to summon up illusion as he had been taught, but the illusion was pathetic, and the man only laughed. "Your powers can't hurt me, little boy. They just prove to me that you deserve to die."

       The man drew his sword and Amalric screamed. He tried to run, but tripped and slid almost to the man's feet. "Oliver!" he screamed. "Help! Please! Oliver!"

       He had a knife at his belt. He had never used it before, except on the little things, like whittling wood or cutting ropes. The man hadn't noticed it. The man was bending over Amalric, ready to grab him by the hair, ready to cut his throat. And then the knife was in his hands, slithering on his sweaty palms. He thrust forward, and there was a moment of resistance that made his hand tremble, then the knife sunk in, and noise was horrible, like squelching mud, and the man was making a horrid strangled sound, and Amalric was sobbing, and there was blood everywhere, everywhere blood.

       Blood, and Oliver was speaking, very faint and far away. "I killed a man when I was twelve years old. He was about to kill my brother."

       My fault, he was crying, in the memory that Elias was never supposed to see. We should never have left the forest. I was disobedient, and he followed me. If I hadn't wanted to leave, none of it would have happened.

       Then it was winter, and all the trees were encrusted with frost, and he had wandered far away from the camp, amazed at how a forest he knew so well could still surprise him with its cold beauty. He touched a branch and took some perfect snowflakes onto his fingertips, then held them up and watched them melt. He smiled, and walked on, then stopped, pressing his icy hands to his mouth.

       A woman was lying there, half covered with the frost. Blood stained the snow pink, and all around her the ground was churned up with horse's hooves, thick ridges of mud showing through the light dusting of snow. Her skirts were bunched around her waist, and her naked legs were blue with cold. Dried blood clung to her thighs.

       He fell to his knees beside her and touched her face, closing her eyes gently. He had strayed too close to the little-used road, hours away from the camp. The woman must have done the same, perhaps chasing the same rare glimpses of beauty and happiness that had led him here. He could imagine how it had been. A group of horsemen had decided to pass this way, knowing it was dangerous but fancying a little risk. They were nervous and edgy, but that only fuelled their bloodlust. And when they had seen the woman...

       "Sometimes their young men come seeking us, just because their friends dare them to," Oliver was saying, speaking as if from another world. "They want to take back a trophy. A head, perhaps. Hair from the head of the woman they raped. A dead child. They laugh as they kill us, and vie with each other to be the most ingenious and cruel."

       He was in the square of a small town, beneath a heavy grey sky. The houses were tall and built so they overhung the dirty streets. The square was cobbled, and a large water trough stood at one end. Several horses were placidly standing beside it. Freshly ploughed fields were visible behind the houses, sloping up to gentle hills.

       In the middle of the square was a post, and a young man was chained there. His grimy shirt was drenched with blood, and his head was sagging onto his chest. Stony-faced men were piling bundles of wood around his feet, and a chattering crowd had already gathered to watch the burning. There were children there, their eyes shining.

       He was standing in the crowd, and the hair he normally wore long was hacked close to his skull. No-one knew who he was. He was travelling the land, and, although he had seen moments of beauty, much of what he had seen was terrible. He was hastening home as fast as he could, and had passed through this town, little different from so many others in the Duchy. Beside him was a woman with mild grey eyes, but even she started to smile when they lit the fires beneath the man. "He was sweetheart of mine," she confided. "I never knew he was a sorcerer. He could have killed me. I had a lucky escape." There was a small posy of flowers tucked into the lacings of her bodice, and the heady smell of them hit him suddenly like a wave, though it was not enough to drown out the stench of burning flesh. Nothing would ever be enough.

       Then it was winter again, but this time there was no snow. There was no beauty left in the world. Their fire was cold and dead, for the scouts had reported a party of travellers coming too close, and they did not dare risk the smoke being seen. Families were huddling together for warmth. A woman was holding two children close to her side, one beneath each arm, pulling them into the pathetic warmth of her cloak. She was crying. "Here," he said, offering her his own cloak, but she shook her head. "It's too late," she said, "and we need you most of all." Beneath her cloak her baby lay dead, killed by this winter that seemed to have no end.

       Quickly, then, the vision faded, and there he was in the summer sun, watching as a stern warrior folded silently into a sword thrust, fell forward and died. Then it was spring, and a woman was screaming as her fingers were broken by a thin-faced man in a dark prison cell. "Tell me who the others are," he was demanding, and she was sobbing and saying that she had done nothing wrong, oh please don't hurt me, please.

       "No," Elias pleaded, but there was no end to it. A thousand dead men were lined up patiently, waiting to tell their tale. They were clutching at him with the dead hands, weeping and pleading like the dead in the ruin. They were the people Oliver had seen die, and those he had only heard of, and those he had barely begun to imagine. They were his memories and his nightmares, and now they were free.

       He wanted it to stop. He couldn't bear it. He had to see it, but it was horrible. Everywhere there was death. How could he bear it?

       "How can we live like this?" Oliver was asking, in a memory from long ago. He was kneeling by the door of a battered tent and there were smears of blood on his clothes. "It's too horrible. I hate it. You feel like I do. How can you bear it?"

       "Because we have no choice," the old man said. It was his master, who had taught him the stories that were the heritage of their people, and the only things that kept the truth alive. "We have to live. We have to live, and we have to do anything necessary to make sure that we stay alive. We cannot die."

       "But..." He looked at his blood-stained hands. "It's been so long. This is not the life I want to life. It's wrong. Maybe we should just say that no, we won't do it any more. If they kill us, then so be it. Better to die than to become the very thing we hate."

       "No." His master grabbed his wrist. "No, Oliver. Never let me hear you saying that again. We have to live, and you most of all. It is a sacred trust that we bear. One day, the king will return, and he will need us. Imagine what would happen if he returned, and we had all laid down our arms and given in to death. He would be alone in a hostile world. He would wander innocently into the nearest town, and they would see his powers, and they would kill him. Would you betray your king, Oliver?"

       "No." He shook his head. His master's grip was painful, and the old man had never raised his voice against him before. "I wouldn't..."

       "Yet you would betray the whole world, if you gave up," his master said. "You know what we believe. A great evil threatens the world, far worse than the petty hatreds of the ignorant men of the Duchy. Only enchantment can prevent it from triumphing, and no-one in this world knows the enchantment but us, and every day we decline more and more, and know it less and less. Perhaps the king is the one who must face this evil, but, if so, he will need us to stand at his side and support him. Or perhaps the evil time is far in the future, and all the king will do is to create a world where enchantment is favoured again, so our children's children are strong enough to face the evil when it arises." He shook his head. "I do not know."

       "It's been five hundred years," he said. "Perhaps it will be five hundred more. Perhaps it will be..." He stopped talking. No-one ever uttered aloud the terrible dread that the king would never return, and it had all been in vain.

       "He will come," the old man said. "Not in my time, perhaps. Probably not in yours. But one day he will come, and he will need us to guide him. You are part of the sacred trust, Oliver. I have passed my stories on to you, as my master passed them on to me. You carry the memories of our people, as a single torch of truth shining in a world of darkness and ignorance, and, when the time comes, you will pass them on the next generation. When the king comes, he will need that truth. Unless those memories live, how will he know what he must do? Do you expect him to fight his battles alone?"

       "But it's so difficult," he protested. He knew his master spoke the truth, but he had killed today, for only the second time in his life, and he hated it.

       "Yes," his master said, folding his hands in his own. But someone was shaking his shoulder and crying out in an urgent tone, calling "Elias," which was not his name, for he was Oliver, and there was no-one else near him but his master. "Yes," the old man said, smiling sadly. "But we expect the king to give us his life. Is it not right that we give the same?"

       The voice was back again, shouting urgently. Another voice joined it. Something struck him violently on the shoulder. Something else bore him down to the ground. He lay there. The old man was still talking, but all the thousand dead were pushing forward again, eager to show him how they had died. There was a child of five, dragged away by a laughing youth. There was an old man, blinded in one eye, who would never fight again. Dreams were ripped to shreds. Nothing he had hoped for had ever come true.

       "Elias," someone hissed in his ear. "Come back. Let it go."

       "I'm so sorry," another voice was babbling. Oliver, he thought, but how could that be, for wasn't he Oliver himself? "I didn't mean it. I didn't realise."

       "What did you do?" thundered the first voice. It was strong and ferocious, like a wild animal protecting its cub.

       "I didn't know," the person who might be Oliver said. "I didn't realise it was happening at first. He's just so strong."

       A hand touched his brow, and he flinched, but the hand would not move away. It was a cool hand, and it felt nice. It eased his headache a little, and made the dead draw back a bit. The person with the cool hand was trying to close a door in their faces and bolt it, he thought, though it was difficult, like trying to make a river flow backwards. It was kind of them, though, whoever they were. At first he had wanted to hear the stories the dead had to tell, but now he just wanted them to go away. He was so very tired.

       "Elias," the person with the kind hands said, in a voice that reached into his mind, easing everything, commanding the jabbering voices to silence.

       He ran his tongue over his lip and tasted blood. Everything was dark. There were no more people. There was no falling snow and deep shadows and dappled light falling through the trees and making blood shine like glass. There were no more dead. But his eyes were closed, and perhaps that was the reason why. Cautiously he opened his eyes, and blinked slowly. He was lying on his side, his knees drawn up to his chest, and his hands raised, like a bare knuckle fighter assuming his defence.

       Ciaran was beside him, looking down at him with a naked fear in his face that he so seldom showed. Oliver was on his other side. "I'm so sorry," Oliver said. Elias looked at him, and, when he looked back at Ciaran, his master's face was hard and composed, as if the look of fear had never been there.

       "I'm sorry," Oliver said. "I didn't... Oh, but you are so strong... I didn't know how it would be. You just... you sucked them out of me, things I had never wanted to show you, things worse and worse. I couldn't stop. I couldn't." Oliver's voice was high and desperate. This man, with his bard's gift at weaving words, had been reduced to this near hysteria, and he, Elias, had done this, without even meaning to. He had plundered another man's mind, stealing his memories, and now the man was actually apologising to him.

       "I'm sorry." He moistened his lips again, but nothing made any difference. His throat was raw and pulsed with pain. "It's not your fault."

       "It is," Oliver moaned. "I should have told you all this yesterday. I knew I should, but I was scared to. We've waited so long for you to come, and I was afraid. I was afraid that you'd leave us if I told you the truth about us. I didn't want you to despise us. I was trying to win you over. I was manipulating you. I lied to you."

       "I know the truth now," Elias said.

       Above him, there was a latticework of dark branches, weaving their prison bars between him and the sky. Rain fell on his face. He wondered if this was the last place he would ever see. He knew he lacked the strength to stand again.

       "No." Oliver refused to stop. He needed to confess, Elias realised. He hated what he had done, and he wouldn't feel clean until he had poured it all out. "You still don't know all of it. The atrocities you saw... It's not just the enemy. Some of us enjoy killing. Don't make martyrs of us. The people of the Duchy tell tales of our cruelties, and not all of them are false."

       Elias thought of how Reynard had smiled as he had approached the guards. "I know," he said, "but I know you try to stop them. You can't be held responsible for the sins of a few of your people."

       Oliver stared at his hands. "You saw it, didn't you? You saw what my master said. You heard what we need you to do. You heard what it is that keeps us alive." He looked very fragile, without the protection either of his lute, or of the ritual words of storytelling. "We believe in prophecy," he said, and those simple words made Elias want to shiver.

       "A great evil," Elias breathed, "and I'm going to have to face it. And, at the very least, I've got to heal five hundred years of hatred. I've got to make a world where enchantment is tolerated, so the evil thing will stay away." He might have laughed if it had not been so terrible. How could anyone do such a thing? How could he?

       "It might not be for centuries," Oliver said, in the forced brightness of someone trying to find hope in a situation where there was none. "It might not be you."

       No, the voice whispered, coursing through his blood and making his head pound mercilessly. I am here already. I have known you for years, before you knew yourself. Already you are mine, and soon the world will follow in your wake.

       "But that's why we have to do what we do," Oliver said. "We have to stay alive. We have to preserve enchantment, and it's declining so fast now. It was declining long before we were exiled, but now it is hastening towards its end. The Duchy kills anyone in their realm who is born with it, and so many of our children die before becoming men. We believe we are the hope of the world. We cannot let ourselves die."

       They stayed alive because they were waiting for their king. They had done it all for him. All the deaths, all the killings, had been for him. They had to live, so they could stand at his side and guide him. He had to live, because he had to heal the rift between the Kindred and the Duchy, and defeat an evil that had already won. He had to live, but he was already dying.

       "What if I can't do any of it?" he said aloud. "What if I die before it even starts?"

       Maybe the Kindred were wrong. Perhaps they had suffered in exile for so long because their prophecies were flawed. Perhaps he was never the one to save them. Perhaps it would have been better for them to give up waiting and take their destinies into their own hands. Perhaps dying was the kindest thing he could do to them. It would free them from the tyranny of waiting. Better that than that they follow a foolish king, who was only a boy, and didn't know how to do what he was expected to do.

       Yes, the voice shrieked, surging inside him so he almost fainted with the pain of it. Better that you die. Far far better.

       "You are my king." Oliver pulled himself clumsily to one knee and bowed his head. "Do you forgive me, my lord?"

       "Don't," Elias moaned, Oliver did not move. He needed this, Elias realised, and it would be cruel to deny it. Not daring to look at his master, he touched Oliver on the bent head. "I forgive you, seneschal." Then his hand fell heavily to the ground, and he closed his eyes. The last thing he heard was his master calling his name.

      

 

       The pain in Ciaran's back was almost unendurable. He walked in clumsy shuffling steps, and his breath came in tight gasps through his teeth. Twigs and branches slapped him in the face, for he had no hands to push them aside. Oliver held some of them back, but not all of them. There was a scratch on Ciaran's forehead that trickled blood down into his eye, and the rain tickled his face and could not be wiped away.

       "Let me help," Oliver asked, as he had asked so often before. "Let me carry him for a while."

       Ciaran just shook his head, unable to speak. Oliver was as slight as Elias, and lacked the strength to carry the boy. Even if he had been a strong man, Ciaran would not have entrusted Elias to anyone else, not for all the gold in the world. Oliver could carry his staff, and anything else that mattered, but not Elias. The boy was so still, with lifeless arms and his head slumped back so his poor throat was fully exposed to the rain. No matter how often Ciaran tried to heft him up again, he could not get him to look comfortable.

       A horse whinnied, very close. Ciaran stiffened, and Oliver raised his hand in instinctive warning. Elias just lay there, seeing and hearing nothing. Ciaran didn't know what was wrong with him, and it made him want to cry aloud in frustration.

       "Reynard," Oliver said, turning to Ciaran with a relieved smile. He signalled to him to walk on, while he hurried on ahead.

       Ciaran would never have thought to be eager to see the man he hated. He distrusted the Kindred as much as ever, but Elias needed warm clothes and shelter. The Kindred needed Elias alive for the things they wanted him to do. Reynard might be different, but Oliver would make sure Elias was well looked after.

       The path was sloping downwards, sinking between two high banks. Ciaran could not see his feet, and frowned with concentration. The ground was wet with rain, and the footing was treacherous. Trees clung to the side of the bank, and their roots were prominent and dark, banked one on top of each other. Their branches arched above him, like two hands that wove their fingers together and made a thick lattice that could not be breached. Not even Elias's body against his chest could ease the cold.

       Then, a moment later, he was out in the light again, on a flat valley floor beside a slow stream . There were no trees, and the grass was cropped short by rabbits, and easy to walk upon. He glanced up, and it was good to see the sky again. It was like the sudden lifting of a long persistent headache.

       Reynard was mounted on one of the horses, standing arrogantly on the bank of the stream. Two more horses grazed nonchalantly as another man stood and watched them, ready to grab their reins. The rest of the party were standing in a loose half-circle.

       "Only three?" Oliver started forward, frowning. "Where's the fourth?" They had been discerning in their thievery, selecting only four horses from the many that had travelled with the caravan. They had not even freed the others, but had tethered them to the wagons, close to the sleeping soldiers.

       Reynard shook his head. He looked distracted, and he eyes never once left Elias's still form. "I sent Julien ahead to tell them we're coming," he said, then, "What's wrong with him?" If Ciaran hadn't known better, he would almost have thought the man felt genuine concern.

       "Exhaustion," Oliver said emphatically. "That's all. He did too much too soon.".

       Ciaran pulled Elias a little closer. He wished he could do something to stop the rain pouring over the boy's face.

       Reynard nodded, accepting the explanation. "We have to hurry. They're expecting us today. They'll gather to meet the king at twilight. If we ride on, you and me and him, we will be there in good time."

       Oliver splayed his fingers, stark and pale against the darkness of the horse. "Master Morgan comes too," he said.

       Elias stirred a little, and murmured something under his breath. Ciaran tried to kneel down, but Elias was too heavy, and it turned into a graceless tumble. He ended up on his knees, and pulled Elias close to his body with one arm. The other arm fell limply to the ground, trembling with pain.

       "I wish you hadn't sent Julien," Oliver said in a low voice. Perhaps he thought Ciaran was occupied with Elias and unable to hear. "We could have slipped in overnight, and they needn't have known until the morning."

       Reynard's head snapped up. "They need to know. It's cruel to make them wait. You said that yourself." He clenched his fist. "It's finally happening, Oliver. All these years stagnating, bound to inactivity because of Alberic's order... We're finally free to act. Things are changing now. There's so much to do."

       "Sharpening our swords for war?" Oliver asked. "Forming a nice orderly queue of petitioners who will each tell him exactly what they need him to do for them? And you have to start today. You can't even give him one night of freedom."

       "You agreed. We planned it, remember? Our cause is more important than anything, and we use any weapons that we have. You had your part to play, just as I had mine."

       "And that part is over," Oliver said. "I see things differently now. I've come to realise just what it means to him, the things we demand. Would it make any difference to them to live without a king for one more day after five hundred years? No. But it would make a difference to him."

       "He is..." Reynard began, sharply. Then he snapped his mouth shut, and glared fiercely at Ciaran. When he spoke again, his voice was too quiet for Ciaran to hear. He said a few hissing sentences, leaning down so his face was almost level with Oliver's. Once, he gestured to Elias, with a quick thrust of his fist.

       "No," Elias murmured, lashing his head from side to side. "No." His lips moved against the fabric of Ciaran's tunic.

       Oliver turned away angrily. "Master Morgan," he called, while Reynard glowered behind him. "Can you ride?"

       Ciaran swallowed. He did not like horses. They had a noble place in history and legend, but he preferred them to be beasts that were ridden by other people and not by him. In the saddle, he knew only too well that the horse was in control. If it decided it wanted to gallop wildly any way it pleased, it would simply do it, and Ciaran could shout all he liked, but it would make no difference.

       He swallowed again. "Yes," he said stoutly. He hated horses, but Elias needed him to ride. Elias needed him to be strong, and he would dare any danger for Elias. He would even ride alongside Reynard, and follow that man's lead, if he had to. He would do anything for Elias.

       He stood up, painfully hefting Elias up in his arms. Oliver, he saw, was smiling at him, and nodding as if he approved of something, and Ciaran almost smiled back.

      

 

       Right at the very end, when it was too late to make a difference, the rain stopped. When Ciaran stepped at last into the camp, there were patches of clear sky above him, growing bigger with every second.

       The moon was still behind the clouds. The only light came from flickering torches, patches of dancing orange in the darkness. There were two hundred people, and they were all just standing there, just staring into the darkness, entranced. Perhaps they had scouts who had reported their coming, plunging through the undergrowth and shouting, "He has come! The king has come!" Or perhaps they had just stood here since Reynard's man Julien had brought the news, standing there in the rain as the sun had set, not moving even when night deepened around them.

       It was uncanny. Ciaran felt a strange creeping along his spine, and found he didn't want to walk on. He was too far away to see their faces. All he could see of them were their outlines, like black statues against the orange light of the torches. They were strangers, and they were waiting in the darkness, watching with the utmost hunger.

       Oliver was walking on one side of him, and Reynard on the other. They had ridden their horses along the stream, but then they had dismounted, for horses were not allowed near the camp. It was a half mile from the stream to the camp, and once again Ciaran was carrying his unconscious apprentice. Oliver had offered to go ahead and bring back a litter, but Ciaran had refused.

       With every step, he saw the watchers a little more clearly, but still they did not move. Ciaran and his companions were the only ones alive, moving through a people who had been turned to stone. A twig snapped under his feet, and a torch spat and crackled, but no-one spoke. A woman had her hand pressed to her mouth, and a child clung to her skirts and stared. A cooking pot lay on its side behind her, pushed slightly into the soft mud.

       Why weren't they saying anything? If they thought Elias was their king, why weren't they cheering or weeping? They had waited five hundred years for this, and now they were just standing still and doing nothing. It was something so immense that they did not know where to begin, he realised. They were in shock. It was something they had never truly believed to see in their lifetimes, yet now it was happening before their eyes, and nothing in their whole lives had prepared them for this.

       Make them move, he wanted to plead. Say something. Just make them move. They were like an army of the dead, just waiting for Elias to touch them and bring them back to life.

       They were staring at Elias as if he was the only thing that existed in the world. Most of them had glanced briefly at Ciaran, but their gaze had slid off him as if he was nobody, before settling on the young man in his arms. Why? Ciaran wanted to demand. How did they know? Elias didn't look like a king. He, Ciaran, was tall and strong, striding from the darkness into the circle of light with his fallen apprentice in his arms. Why did no-one even look at him? Why didn't anyone think, even if just for a moment, that it was him?

       He couldn't bear it any more. "Send them away," he begged, turning to Oliver. "It's not fair that they see him like this." Elias was unconscious, and they stared at him so intensely. It felt wrong, like a violation.

       "I thought so too." Oliver spoke quietly, leaning towards Ciaran so that no-one else could hear. "But I think good can come out of this. It would be so easy for them to forget that their king is human. At least this way they will know. It might change things for them. It might make things easier for Elias."

       Ciaran held Elias tight. "But they'll despise him." He remembered how Reynard had looked when he had found out that his long-awaited king was only a boy, not a mighty warrior. Elias was no king, but he didn't want these people to hate him.

       Oliver began to answer, but Elias's eyes suddenly fluttered open. His head moved weakly, looking first to one side, then to the other. He did not look at Ciaran, or seem to realise that he was there. "I saw this," he whispered. "I'm dying. It's true, then."

       "Oh no." Ciaran shook his head, and managed to smile. "Don't be silly, Elias. You're not dying. You're just exhausted. You'll be fine." But Elias's eyes had slid shut long before he had finished.

       "There's no need to say anything," Oliver whispered. He looked uneasy at the exchange. "I'll talk to them afterwards." He guided Ciaran through the sparser trees of the camp. It was a slight thinning of the forest rather than a true clearing, and there were trees scattered between the tents and low wooden huts. Oliver led Ciaran towards the fire that glowered in the largest clear area, and then past it. Reynard stalked behind him like a silent and unwanted shadow.

       "This one's his." Oliver stopped outside something that was halfway between a tent and a hut. It was made of wood, but roofed with canvas, and thick hides and furs hung over the doorway.

       Ciaran turned round. The fire blazed behind him, casting its grotesque orange light even onto the side of the hut. Reynard's face was all deep shadows, and his eyes were gleaming. Oliver was just standing there, holding Ciaran's staff, gripping it and ungripping it rhythmically.

       "Thank you," Ciaran said. He meant it as a dismissal. Turning his back on them, he carried Elias inside. The furs fell back over the door, and they were alone.

      

 

       Elias lay there for a moment, floating in nothingness, but slowly the sense of hearing returned to him. There were a lot of voices, wordless and far away, like running water. When he listened, he heard one voice rise above the others, arguing with them. It was a familiar voice, and all the others quietened to hear it, leaving only one harsh voice to argue back. He was too far away to hear what they were saying.

       He opened his eyes, and added sight to the things he could sense. He was staring up at a low dark ceiling in a very small room with little light. There was a vertical line of flickering orange, and that was firelight seeping past a badly fitting door. The only light inside the room came from a single yellow candle flame. A draught made it waver, and the circle of light it cast was lurching as if it was sick.

       The candle was standing in a silver candlestick, covered with shining leaves. It rested on a dark wooden chest, and that too was carved with leaves and trailing flowers. The chest was beside the bed, and beyond it, against the far wall of the tiny room, was a plain table with two high-backed chairs. His bed took up almost the whole width of the room.

       His master was sitting on one of the chairs, hunched over the table so Elias could not see his face. He was resting his chin on one hand, and the other was tracing the grain of the wood, up and down, up and down, pressing very hard.

       Elias tried his voice. "Master?"

       Ciaran whirled around, pushing the chair back so hard that it toppled over onto the furs that served as a carpet "Elias!" He gave a smile of genuine joy such as Elias had seldom seem, and knelt beside him. He clasped Elias's hand, and still the smile did not fade. "You've been unconscious for hours. How do you feel?"

       Elias licked his lips, and swallowed. He had to lie very still. If he thought too much about his body and his limbs, he would become aware of the pain that lurked there, just waiting for him to notice it. His mind was teetering along a very narrow path, but on either side was a vast chasm, ready to consume him if he fell.

       "Not too bad," he managed. He tried to smile. "But I think it will be a different matter if I move."

       Ciaran was still holding his hand. "Then lie still," he soothed. "I'll look after you."

       He was all tenderness now. It was hard to believe that this was the man who had hit him on the road. That was over now, Ciaran had said, and they were never to speak of it. Ciaran thought you could ignore something, and that meant it was healed and could never hurt you again. He thought you could put things from your mind, and they would never be able to work their mischief from the place where you had locked them.

       Ciaran just kept on smiling. He was back in a situation he knew. Elias was hurt and weak and in need of protection. Things were well between them, for Ciaran was the master, and Elias was the child. When Elias had tried to be strong, and had stood up and spoken out, Ciaran had hated it. There had been nothing but ill-feeling between them for two days, but now Ciaran was happy, because Elias was sick and needed him.

       "Elias?" Ciaran was frowning.

       Elias shook his head, and the movement sent tendrils of pain down behind his eyes. "Nothing," he said. It was good to be looked after, even if the reason was worrying. His master couldn't hate him, not if he looked at him like this.

       "You should sleep," Ciaran said.

       "I don't want to." Elias wanted to stay awake, just lying like this, with his master at his side. The rest of the world was outside, locked out of this small room, where there were only two people in the yellow circle of the candle. No-one was watching him, wondering if he was going to fail them. The pain was lurking just out of reach, but for now it stayed away. If he tensed his muscles, he knew he would start to shiver uncontrollably, but he stayed relaxed. If he breathed deeply, it would hurt, but he made his breathing as light as a feather. If he looked away from his master, something horrible would flood his mind, and he would be lost.

       Ciaran smiled at him. "I know." He touched Elias's cheek, and his smiled faltered a little. His fingers felt cool. "But you're exhausted," he said, recovering. "You need the sleep." He passed his hand over Elias's eyes, forcing his eyelids shut.

       It scared him, the sudden darkness, the unyielding imposition of his master's will. He flailed for balance, but he was falling, falling, tumbling off that narrow path, plunging into the chasm. He opened his eyes and saw the candlelight through slits between his master's fingers, like prison bars. There was a voice in the darkness, and he remembered. He remembered it all, and knew that the thing that he had kept at bay was not just the pain, but the truth as well.

       "No," he pleaded. He sucked in a breath, and his lungs flared in agony. He lunged for his master's hand, but the movement sent his muscles into a spasm of shivering. His head tore into two, and he almost screamed.

       Ciaran called his name, his face frozen into a mask of horror. The darkness seemed to suck all the colour from his skin.

       "I'm dying," Elias whispered. "I remember now. I tried to forget. I tried not to believe it. But I'm dying. It's all my fault. It's what I asked for."

       Ciaran grabbed hold of his wrist, holding him with a grip that hurt. "You're delirious, Elias. You don't know what you're saying."

       But it was true. Death had been bought and sold in a small wagon on a muddy road in the rain. The woman had been dying. He had knelt beside her, but he hadn't known what to do. Delirious, she'd attacked him with a knife, scratching him in the upper arm. He had made his master hate him because he had wanted to save lives, and he had to make it mean something. If she died, it was all for nothing. If she died, he had thrown away the best thing that had ever happened to him, and all for a hollow dream.

       "I didn't know how," he said, as his master called his name and demanded to know what he was talking about. "I tried. I really did."

       He had learnt how to make the bird, and the ropes he had used to bind his master had come so easily. He had put the soldiers to sleep without even knowing how he did it. But he had been unable to heal her. The power had refused to come. Her skin had burnt beneath his cold fingers, and she had pleaded to him, sobbing, begging him to leave her alone, to stop, please stop.

       "I had to save her," he said. "I had to. You know that? You understand? You know why I had to do it?"

       He stepped back into the memory and lived it again. I can't do it! he screamed with all his soul, pressing his fists to his brow. Sophie had died because he had been unable to save her. The cut on his hand throbbed, reminding him of how he had sworn that he would never again let anyone die. Please let her live. I won't let her die. I refuse to. Let it be me. I'll take her place. Please.

       Something surged in response, like fast and sweeping wings. Everything sheeted white, and he flung out a hand to keep himself upright. It closed on a greasy hanging, and he clung to it as if it was the only thing keeping him alive. When his vision cleared he was on his knees beside the woman, and only his grip on the curtain had kept him from falling on top of her.

       He blinked, and blinked again. The woman was breathing easily, her eyelids quiescent on her cheeks. As he watched, she rolled over, sighing in her sleep.

       I healed her, he thought. The whiteness had been the light of his power, responding to his desperate need, just as it had flared so bright when he had brought his master into the world. He had healed her, and the promise had meant nothing. It wasn't true. It couldn't be true.

       But something had uncoiled deep inside him, as if it was newly arrived and just beginning to look around. It spoke with a cruel voice, and it liked what it saw. It had crept inside him when he had touched the woman, and it had rejoiced when it had heard his rash promise. It was death, and it had come to claim him.

       "I asked," he whispered, "and I got what I asked for. I couldn't heal her after all. All I could do was to take her illness into my own body. I'm dying of it."

       "You asked for this?" Ciaran said, in a strangled voice. "You wanted to die? That would trap me here, Elias. I can't go back without you. You know that."

       He wanted his master to smile at him again, even if the smile meant I'm glad you're weak. I'm glad you're hurting. "I'm sorry," he moaned. He had been so stupid. He had saved the woman, but it had not been noble at all. He had only wanted to make himself feel better about Sophie's death, and to justify the monstrous thing he had done to his master. He had never thought about the consequences. The Kindred placed their hopes in him, and he had thrown his life away as if they were nothing. He had imprisoned his master in a world he hated, that was so vast and dark outside this small room of candlelight.

       "I'm so sorry," he sobbed, but what else could he have done? How could he have walked away and let her die?

       But it was too late. It was all too late. The decision had been made, and now there was no going back. Death rose up cackling, and its tongues of dancing flame reached out and claimed him utterly.


Chapter eight

The first burning

 

 

       Ciaran wasn't afraid. Of course he wasn't afraid. It was such a simple thing, just walking through a door. And he had to do it. He had run out of water, and the candle had almost burnt down. He would just pop out quickly, and be back again in no time, back with Elias. He wouldn't look at them, the strangers who lurked outside, confident in their home territory. Out, and back. It would be over in no time. He wasn't afraid.    

       Taking a deep breath, he pushed aside the heavy door hanging, paused for a moment, then stepped out into the sunlight. The air was cool and seemed unbelievably fresh after the close confines of the hut. He filled his lungs, and had to admit that it felt good. When he looked out towards the forest, the scene was positively cruel in its perfection. The last drops of rain were still beading the golden leaves like diamonds, but the sky was blue, with clouds as white and fluffy as in a child's painting. As he watched, a small speckled bird darted down to a puddle, and silver drops of moisture rose in a gleeful arc as it fluttered its wings in the water.

       Ciaran propped his staff against the side of the hut and stretched, weaving his fingers together and pushing his arms out in front of him, then over his head. His joints cracked, and he felt the strength coursing back into his muscles and limbs. When he took hold of his staff again, it was with a firm grip. He was ready now. He would see this alien camp for the first time in daylight, and meet the stares of the people who wanted Elias to be king.

       He turned slowly from side to side, and frowned. There were people everywhere, but none of them were looking at him. A burly man was chopping firewood, intent on his work, and a group of youths were sparring with swords, watched by a pair of pretty girls. An older woman was kneeling beside a stone-edged hole, filling an earthenware jug with water. She hoisted the brimming jug into her arms, and walked away, not spilling a drop as she deftly avoided the obstacles in her path. She disappeared into the trees, and Ciaran followed her with his eyes, but she still did not look at him.

       There were more tents beyond the trees, he saw, though their colour made them hard to see. Most of the tents were solitary, with trees as their only neighbours. The Kindred had made no attempt to tame the forest. Undergrowth threatened always to reclaim the camp, and there were no clear paths. Even so, children darted between the brambles, ducking behind trees, playing a game of hide-and-seek. There was no shrieking laughter as they played. They were silent as no human children had ever been, but not even they spared a glance for Ciaran.

       A young woman passed him as if he was invisible, walking arrogantly towards a tent nearby, on the fringes of the central clearing. As she pulled back the hangings across the door, she turned and shoot a quick glance at Ciaran. When she caught him looking at her, she blushed and looked away.

       With that one quick glance, everything changed. They were all looking at him, he realised, though they were pretending not to. They were feigning interest in their innocent pastimes, but all the while they were watching him from the corners of their eyes. Even the children were in on the deception. He saw them now, hiding behind the fronds of bracken, staring at him with large eyes.

       Ciaran stamped over to the well. Oliver had put them up to this, he thought. He had heard the bard, arguing with the others late into the night, persuading them to be party to some new plan. It was all a trick. They wanted him to relax and lower his guard on this treacherously pretty morning, all the better to catch him later.

       He unhooked the jug from his belt and slammed it down, then placed his staff  more carefully beside it. The well was little more than a hole in the ground, lined with moss and stones, but the water seemed clean enough. The bucket was heavy and slippery, and difficult to pour from. Water splashed over his feet as he filled the earthenware jug.         

       "How is he?"

       Ciaran started, and almost dropped the bucket. When he looked up, he had to squint into the sun, which made it hard to see the face of the man who towered over him, looking down. He threw the bucket back into the well, and stood up quickly. The bucket landed with a splash that was far too loud.

       "How is he?" Oliver asked, in exactly the same tone as before. "He's better after a good night's sleep. Isn't he?"

       Ciaran clenched his fists as tight as he could. Tendrils of cold were racing through his veins, starting from the fingers that had touched the cold water, but reaching all the way to his throat. "Why?" he demanded. "So you can put him on display? So you can start weaving your new trap around him? So you can trick him and suck him in and change him and..." His voice was cracking. "And everything," he finished, just in time, though he knew it sounded weak and stupid.

       Oliver's face was pale and tight. "I was worried. How is he?" He was playing with his sleeve, dragging the material fiercely through his fingers again and again.

       Ciaran wanted to press his face into his hands, and knead the truth away with his strong fingers. This man was a trickster, he told himself, and he hated him. But Ciaran had lived half the night with the reality of Elias's suffering, and, really, that was bigger and more important than anything else. "He's not well," he admitted.

       "It's bad?"

       Despite himself, Ciaran nodded. He felt very alone and exposed, subjected to Oliver's relentless questions, and in the middle of a camp of enemies. "He says he's dying. He says..." He swallowed, and could say no more.

       "Is he?"

       Water from the jug was falling onto his feet, slapping rhythmically against the leather of his boots and the stone around the well. Forcing his hand to remain steady, Ciaran turned his back and began to walk away.

       "Is he?"

       "Of course not," Ciaran snapped. "No. Of course. He isn't. No."

       Like an evil spirit whispering on his shoulder, still Oliver followed him, still he asked his questions, always his questions. "Then why would he say so?"

       "Stop it!" Ciaran whirled on him. The jug slipped from his hands and shattered. "Stop it. Just leave us alone! He's not! It's not true!"

       "I'm sorry." Oliver was standing too close to him, looking at him with sympathy.

       How dare he? How dare Oliver pretend he understood, when this was all his fault? "Stop it!" Ciaran screamed. He was dimly aware of a hundred shocked faces watching him, but that only served to fuel his fury. He snatched up his staff and held it in a battle stance. "Stop it!"

       Oliver just stood there, mild and mute. He looked at the staff, and moistened his lips with the tip of his tongue. That, and only that, betrayed his fear. But he did not back down, and he made no attempt to reach for any weapon or summon help. He was just going to stand here and let Ciaran strike him, just like Elias had.

        He lowered his staff, and found that both hands were trembling slightly. He looked at the ground. The water from the jug had bled into the already-sodden earth and been consumed.

       Very gently, Oliver reached out and touched his sleeve, and his face was still ruthlessly sympathetic, and Ciaran still hated it.

       Ciaran shook him away. "He's going to die," he said. Anger was no defence, not from this, and he didn't know where to turn. There was only him, small and useless, standing against the vast dark maw of the truth, and it was about to overwhelm him. "He says he tried to heal that woman," he said, in a small voice that sounded like someone else's, "but couldn't do it. He says he took her illness into his own body, and there's no cure, and he's dying, and there's nothing we can do."

       Oliver frowned. "Why is he like this?"

       Ciaran stiffened. The anger was returning, and it was better, far better, than what had briefly taken its place. He would cling to it and never let it go. "Why's he like what?"

       "Like..." Oliver shook his head. "If you don't know, then it's not my place to say it."

       "What?" Ciaran lashed out a hand and grasped Oliver by his upper arm, digging the fingers in cruelly. "What do you mean?"

       "Why does he think he's worthless? Why is he so willing to sacrifice himself for strangers? Why is he like that? How could you let it happen? Or can't you even see it?"

       Ciaran let go of his arm as if it burned him. He pressed the hand against his face, and something warm and wet smeared on his palm. "Because of me," he hissed, hidden safe in the darkness behind that hand. "He says he did it because of me, to justify the things he did to me, and I will never forgive him for it, never." But, even as he said it, he thought that, if Elias lived, he would forgive him for everything.

       "He might be wrong." There was a false brightness in Oliver's voice. "It might not kill him. It might not even be true."

       Ciaran turned away and stalked back to the hut. He pressed his hands against the damp wood, and dragged his thumb along the grain, driving a splinter into his flesh. "Of course it's not true. He just thinks he did it. But he always was a fanciful boy. It can't be true."

       Oliver's hand fell onto his shoulder from behind, and squeezed it firmly. Ciaran whirled on him, raised his staff a few inches, then let it fall. "Can I see him?" Oliver's voice was very low.

       They were watching him openly now, the Kindred, with their cruel faces and hungry eyes. Ciaran looked at them, then back at Oliver. The hut was snug and protected, hidden from their eyes, but Elias was in there, suffering, so inside was even worse than outside, and he had felt very alone as night had slowly dragged its way towards morning. And Oliver seemed to genuinely care, and he had asked, giving Ciaran the chance to say no. Sometimes it was good to have someone else beside you, even if you could do perfectly well without them. He didn't even like Oliver, so it wasn't as if he was depending on him, unable to face the reality of Elias's sickness without him.

       He began to open the door, and said nothing, neither yes nor no. But Oliver followed him, and Ciaran made no move to stop him.

      

 

       The darkness was golden brown. Elias opened his eyes, and the darkness resolved itself into a single square of reddish-brown stone, chipped at one corner, and charred by fire. A fine layer of grey ash covered it, but the gap around the edge of the slab was a thick deep black, hiding infinite secrets.

       There was a sound, too, pulsing around and through the red earthy darkness. Realisation came like a slowly surging wave on a shingle beach. For a very long time, understanding welled just out of reach. Then, as the wave broke, he knew that the sound was his own breathing, and the pulsing of his own blood in his head.

       He had a body. It seemed like an amazing discovery, and one that had required great thought, but a moment later it just seemed pathetically obvious, and he laughed at how stupid he had been to forget it. He had a body, and was standing with his feet apart and his head bowed, able to see nothing more than the single slab at his feet. Still smiling, he flexed his hands, and revelled in the power of that simple act. Raising his head required a little more concentration, but he did it, and the view shifted and changed.

       He was standing on the very brink of a paved avenue. It was as broad as a city highway, and lined not with buildings or trees, but with darkness and mystery. Its stone slabs stretched out ahead of him as far as he could see, and he stood at the very first. Behind him...

       "No," he said, his voice thin and insubstantial in the vastness of the world around him. He felt the moisture of terror start on his palms, and something stabbed deep in his stomach. He would not look back. He would not look behind him. He would not see. There was something horrible there, but, if he did not look at it, it would not see him.

       Licking his dry lips, he started walking. His feet fell soundlessly on the ash-covered slabs, and small puffs of dust welled up from every footfall. Each slab was the same, he saw, even down to that irregular chip at the top left corner, and the spreading stain that was the mark of fire.

       Movement flickered at the fringes of his vision, and he turned his head, first to one side, and then the other. Small wisps of light were gathering at the edges of the avenue, beautiful and fragile. As he paused to watch them, they grew, until they were swirling vortices of light, each one as tall as a man. They were glorious people wrought of flame, bright and divine and wondrous. The surge of flame was their laughter, and the heat that caressed his cheek was their words of comfort. As he watched, they linked hands to form two solid walls of flame, lining the avenue on both sides as far as he could see. As one, they dipped their heads, and the two walls arched towards him, bending almost to the ground.

       "No," he said, in that fragile voice that was nothing before the majesty of these living flames. "Please don't bow."

       Laughing, they obeyed him. They stood up straight, and raised their arms above their heads, then leant forward to join fiery hands with the ones oposite, making an endless row of arches, with Elias so small in its midst. The arches merged and became one solid tunnel of flame. Black ash skittered on the stone slabs, recoiling from the heat. Elias shrank from the heat, but even when he curled on the ground, the flames were close enough to sear his flesh. "No," he moaned, but they laughed again, and shone brighter. The only safety lay far ahead, at the distant end of the tunnel of flame, but the path was heavy with burning dust, and every step would be agony.

       Nothing could be worse than this, not even the unknown terror that lurked at his back, following him. He whirled around, ready to face it, but there was nothing there.  Although he had walked a hundred steps, there was only a single slab behind him, marked with his own footsteps in the ash. Beyond that there was only darkness, unrelieved even by the faintest glimmer of firelight. Even as he watched, the edges of the slab he was standing on started to dissolve, as if the darkness was a spreading pool of acid.

       "You can never go back," a voice seemed to be saying, wrought both of shadow and of dancing flame. "You have made your choices. Your choices in the past have made your present, and the choices you make now will shape your future."

       He hurled himself forward, needing only to get off the slab before it was consumed and he plummeted into the great black nothingness. The flames watched his panic, and small giggles rippled up and down the tunnel. They did not try to snatch him, not yet. They knew they had him trapped, and all they needed to do was wait.

       His skin was on fire. He cried out, and slapped at his cheek, terribly sure that he would find real flames, and that his face would crumble into ash and charred bone. But all he found was the usual smooth skin of his cheek, though it was terribly hot to the touch, and it hurt. The smoke made tears start in his eyes, and they poured down his face like molten lead. He blinked, rubbed at his eyes, and blinked again.

       And then he saw the man.

      

 

       As Ciaran stood in the doorway, the full light of morning fell on Elias's face, and it was merciless. With a grunt of irritation, Ciaran let the hanging fall back, and let the darkness once again hide the truth. There was only one stump of a candle left, and the light it gave was yellow and healthy, hiding the worst of Elias's pallor and making the shadows under his eyes look just like the normal deep shadows of candlelight.

       "Oh," Oliver gasped. He sank to his knees, and pressed one hand to his mouth, as if to force back his next exclamation.

       Ciaran touched Elias's damp hair. "It's not as bad as it looks," he murmured, though he wasn't sure if he was speaking to Oliver, to Elias, or even to himself.

       But even if he closed his eyes, there was no escape. Elias was breathing in soft whimpering sobs, each one strained and tortured. A massive invisible hand had closed around his lungs and was squeezing inexorably. His pulse, too, was anguished and erratic, as if his heart was fighting some unseen enemy for every beat. His eyes kept flickering open, but he gave no sign of seeing anything.

       "Is he aware of us?" Oliver asked, his mouth still covered by his hand. His other hand sketched a nervous pattern above Elias's body, but he did not touch him.

       Ciaran swallowed. "No," he said, and on this he would refuse to contemplate any other answer. If Elias was aware of them, then Ciaran could soothe him and comfort him, and that was good. But, at the same time, it would mean that he was feeling pain, and Ciaran wanted to think of him as being far away, in a place where nothing hurt.

       "Look." Oliver gasped, and at last found the courage to touch Elias. The tip of his first two fingers brushed Elias's chin, then were raised high like a shocking trophy. "Look."

       In the delicate warmth of the candlelight, Oliver's fingers shone dark red. The same dark red was issuing from the side of Elias's mouth, a delicate tracery on his pale skin.

       "Blood." Oliver's lips moved, and said the word, but the only sound he made was a inarticulate croak.

       Ciaran shut his eyes. "I know," he hissed, through clenched teeth, for he had already seen it, in that brief moment of merciless sunlight, though he had turned away and told himself it was not true. "Yes."

      

 

       The man stood at the end of the avenue, fire framing his form, one hand held high in prohibition, and the other outstretched in invitation. He stood utterly still, and his hands did not once tremble. Elias could not see his face, only his outline against the fire, but he knew he was strong and mighty.

       Elias started to smile. The man was not burning, and showed no signs of pain. Behind him, at the very end of the avenue, there were glimpses of blue sky. There was a way out, an escape, and this man had come to show him the way. All Elias had to do was walk down that fiery tunnel and reach him, and then he would be safe.

       He pressed his hand to his mouth and started running. Tears bathed his face. Behind him, the darkness cackled as it snatched up each slab as soon as his feet left it, eating up his past, closing all doors behind him. The flames shrieked with the sound of a dying girl's screams and cruel distant laughter, but they held back, and did not touch him. The man's raised right hand did that, Elias thought. A single wordless command, and even the elements obeyed him.

       Was the man a king, who came striding from the past to save him? Was this the rightful master of Albacrist, come to rescue the foolish boy who had found it by mistake? Then he gasped aloud, stuck by a wondrous thought. Was it Ciaran, who had come striding into this place of fire to save him? The sky had been on the fire on the first evening Elias had ever seen him. Ciaran had stepped out of the sunset and plucked him up out of the gutter, and saved his life. 

       Is that you, master? Elias thought, but he had no voice to utter the question aloud. Ash billowed around him, and he coughed, then almost gagged at the stench of charred fabric and hair. His steps were faltering. He fell to his knees, panting and coughing, his body hurting all over. He reached out one pleading hand. Just two steps ahead of him was blue sky and white stone and an end to the pain. It was only two steps, and he'd crawl it. He couldn't stand, so he'd crawl, right up to the feet of the man who had come to save him.

       The man lowered his hands, and pivoted elegantly on the spot. His featureless head nodded, giving orders to someone out in the daylight. He said nothing, and still the only sound was the screaming hunger of the flames.

       "Please," Elias gasped, reaching out like a dying man in the desert. He thought the flesh on his hand bubbled and blackened, but, when he blinked, it was whole again. "I can't..."

       The man laughed, and the flames surged as his laughter surged, and danced away when it faded to silence. He snapped his fingers, once, twice, and two faceless men stepped in from the daylight beyond the flames. They wore dark clothes, and something silver glittered on their breasts. Silently, they bent down towards Elias and grasped him by the upper arms.

       They were carrying him to safety, he thought. He moved his head questingly, his eyes flickering from one to the other, but he was still unable to see their faces. Their hands hurt him. Perhaps they didn't know how hard they were holding him, and how badly he was hurting already.

       "No," he told them. "Hurts..."

       The one on his left gave a sharp bark of laughter, and the one of his right spat brutally into the flames. Something jabbed at his side, and he scrabbled with his feet, trying and failing to find a way to support his own weight.

       Then he was jerked upwards, and his wrists were grabbed and forced into metal cuffs, shockingly cold after the heat of the fire. He heard the sound of chain links moving, and his arms were pulled upwards, to face height, and then higher until they were taut above his head. Then they went higher still, and his flailing feet left the ground. The pain was immense, and he screamed with agony and betrayal, bit his lip, and screamed again. Something wet trickled down his chin.

       His eyes were screwed shut. He opened them, and saw the two bent heads of the men. Flame reflected on their hair, and hid their faces. There were two circles of metal set in the slab at their feet, and they were each working a short length of chain through the loop nearest to them. Their shoulders shook with suppressed amusement.

       Slowly, inexorably, the flames crept forward.

      

 

       The old man's hand stiffened, the splayed fingers digging into Elias's brow. Then they relaxed again, and trailed down over his face, over his chin, before finishing on his chest.

       "No." The man shook his head and the hand finally fell away from Elias entirely, and slumped defeated to his side. "Nothing."

       Oliver slumped back against the wall. He rubbed his face with both hands, and sighed. Ciaran was sitting stiffly on the edge of his chair, his hands clasped between his knees. The small hut was very cramped and the air seemed thin, as if the strangers who touched Elias were stealing all the oxygen and leaving Ciaran with nothing.

       "I can't." The old man stood up. He was as tall as Ciaran and, on the way in, his head had almost touched the ceiling. Now his shoulders were slumped and defeated and he was a whole span shorter. "It's just as you said, Oliver. I can't heal him."

       Oliver lowered his hands. "Don't tell them yet. Please."

       The old man nodded sadly, and left the hut. At that brief intrusion of sunlight, Ciaran winced and turned away.

       Elias was still breathing in great wrenching sobs that sometimes rose almost to hoarse screaming. It was so unlike him. Elias was always so silent in his pain, even as a child. Though maybe, Ciaran thought now, that was only when people were watching. Maybe he had often cried aloud in desperate need, but no-one had found him, and no-one had known. A few days ago, Ciaran would have scoffed at such a thought, but now he was not so sure. The boy he had once thought he knew so well had many secrets, it seemed.

       "Have you?" Oliver asked, relentlessly, and Ciaran realised the man had asked a question, and he had not heard it.

       "So your people can do nothing," he said. "You bring him here, demand everything of him, then simply throw up your hands and abandon him to his fate. If you hadn't robbed that caravan none of this would have happened."

       Oliver did not react, neither with guilt nor defensiveness. He just looked at Ciaran with an unwavering gaze, and suddenly it was Ciaran who found himself wanting to lower his eyes with shame. "Have you tried to heal him?" Oliver asked him again.

       Ciaran narrowed his eyes. "Of course I have." And he had. Of course he had. In that solitary night, he had tried and failed, tried and failed, three times over.

       "Try again." Oliver half reached towards him, then pulled his hand back. He kneaded it with the other hand, twisting the fingers with a force that looked painful. "Please." He took a deep breath. "Elias said that the Shadow..."

       "Of course I will." Who was this man to lecture him about how to look after his own apprentice? He stood, pushing the chair back so hard that it teetered and fell. "Leave me alone with him, and I will."

       Oliver blinked, but simply stood without argument. Just before the door, he paused and looked back over his shoulder. "Please save him, Ciaran Morgan. He cannot be allowed to die."

       "You want him to live so you can keep him," Ciaran said, trying to summon up the old familiar anger. "And you're speaking as if you're the only one who would care if he dies. I would care, you know. I'd care very much." He snapped his mouth shut. He hadn't meant to say what he had just said.

       "I know," Oliver said, gently. Then he went outside, and Ciaran was alone with his apprentice.

      

 

       Elias was being torn apart. His ankles were bound with metal bands, and fastened with taut chains to the loops in the stone floor. Someone snickered behind him, then groaned with exaggerated exertion. The chains at his wrists jerked and tugged, pulling him even tighter. He screamed, and rich laughter rippled beyond the flames.

       All he could move was his fingers and toes. He flexed them and curled them, flexed them and curled them, but nothing gave him any relief. The pain in his joints was scarlet and shocking. His head was slumped forward. He struggled to raise it, but just moving it half an inch felt like pushing a boulder up a mountain. With a groan, he let it fall again.

       Something touched the skin at his collar bone, and it was soft, like a caress. He tried to turn his head to the side, and managed to open his eyes, but, by the time he could see, whoever it was had gone. All he saw was red flame, and dancing faces that were twisted in hatred and harsh laughter.

       He heard the sound of metal against metal, as someone touched the chains. Not again, he begged, but the chain was not tightened after all, and somehow that was even worse, because he knew they would tighten it soon, and the waiting was terrible. Someone said something, and the crowd responded, baying and laughing. He couldn't make sense of their sounds, but he knew they were taunting him, enjoying his torture, placing bets on how long he would take to die.

       He could not survive for long. It seemed impossible that he could hurt so much and still live. Behind him, the flames were surging closer and closer. A tongue of flame fell over his back like a whip, and he screamed, instinctively flinched, and screamed again as the pain erupted in his joints. His second flinch took him back into the embrace of the flames, and he could smell the stench of his own burning flesh.

       His breathing was fast and tortured, and his heart strained to beat. The taut chains seemed to run right through his body, and chafe against his organs, destroying them from the inside. The flames had claws that reached inside him and were burning him to black ash. His heart was a charred blackened lump that would dissolve to dust if touched even with the very end of a finger.

       "It is right," a voice said.

       His eyes snapped open, then closed, opened and closed. His vision was like a light, flashing in tiny rhythmic bursts. He saw flames and blood-red metal link stretched taut on ash-covered stone. Then darkness, then light again, where a faceless man stood against the flames, watching him with his arms folded.

       "Right," the voice said. It was the first voice he had heard in this place that he could understand, and for that reason alone he yearned to hear it again, and trusted it immediately.

       He tried to move his lips in response. "Who are you?" He had meant to ask only that, but everything else came pouring out, fast and desperate and jumbled. "Please... I don't know where I am. I don't know how I got here. I don't know why they're hurting me. I don't know anything. Oh, please..."

       "Right." The voice surrounded him as surely as did the flames. "It is right that you suffer so."

       Right. How was it right? He wanted to sob with betrayal. As his master had said a lifetime ago, he was too ready to trust. "Are you the man who...?"

       "No," the man said. "I am not that man. And neither is he a real man, though the threat he poses to you is very real. He is everything, living and dead, man and beast, that seeks to harm you. He is everything you should fear. There are many forces at work in this place. Some of it is real. Some of it is still to come, if your choices make it so. People wear faces that are not their own. The greatest danger is the one you have not yet seen."

       "I don't understand," Elias sobbed, for he had never felt pain like this, never, and the voice was not helping him, but speaking in riddles.

       "No." Something touched his face, as soft and lovely as a spring morning. Warmth radiated from the touch and eased his pain just a little bit. "I wish I could help you more, child. But it is a right thing and a necessary thing that you suffer so. Power such as yours can bring arrogance, and many in all the worlds have fallen so. If you life to learn your full potential, you will have the power of life and death over a whole world. Unless you have experienced dying, how can you dispense death? Unless you know pain, how can you condemn others to suffer?"

       "Is this a test, then?" Elias felt a surge of hope. A test had an end. If he endured, the chains would fall away, and he would be comforted.

       "Oh no," came the reply, in a whisper that sent a fine prickle of fear up his spine. "You are tested by it, and that is good, but it is no test. A dark hand is at work in the making of it, and your life is guttering like a candle flame in a storm. If you die here, your death is real."

       "Real," someone echoed, like a cold claw on the back of his neck. It was the same voice turned cruel and harsh, or maybe it was a new voice, picking up where the other one had finished. "This is real, little one, and you are mine."

       The chains snatched at him, tearing him apart, and liquid fire ran in his veins. "No!" he screamed. "Stop! Please! No!" But perhaps it was only a whisper; perhaps the fire had burnt his voice to ashes. Perhaps he was screaming and screaming and no-one would ever hear, and he was trapped in silence, burning and dying.

       Somewhere, far away and everywhere, someone laughed.

      

 

       Peace, Ciaran thought. He sat with one hand on his apprentice's cheek, and one on his chest. He was very aware of the sound of his own breathing, shallow and fast. "Peace." It was little more than an unvoiced movement of his lips.

       The Shadow was there, everywhere and always and constant and strong. But he saw only glimpses of it. The meadows of his Garden formed around him, and a soft breeze touched his cheek, but it was a fleeting touch only, quickly withdrawn. He could not hold onto it. It was enough to heal small wounds, but Elias's need was so much greater now.

       "Peace," he spoke aloud. Mocking his words, Elias started to lash his head from side to side, moaning with desperate agony. He kept clenching and unclenching his fists, and smudged bruises were forming under his pale skin. Ciaran lashed out a hand and closed it round Elias's wrist. "Peace," he commanded. The clasped hands were trembling, but whether the tremors were his own or Elias's, he did not know.

       He dropped Elias's hand. It fell to his side, bounced once, and fell back onto the furs. Still it clenched and unclenched, the fingers uncurling into stiff claws then pulling back into a blood-stained fist.

       Ciaran pressed his hand to his brow, and kneaded the flesh on either side of his temples. He had no choice. He had to let it all go. The Shadow was pure and constant, and had no room for anger or fear. Emotions were twisted skeins in the perfect web of the Shadow, or a stone thrown into a still reflective pool. They were a dark storm in his Garden, obscuring the meadow and driving him away.

       He had to give it up. For Elias's sake, he had to lay it to one side. To save Elias, he had to look deep inside himself, and stare whatever he found full in the face, refusing to run from it. He had to be scrupulously honest, and he had never done this, not for years. He had seen only glimpses of the Shadow for years, but nobody knew it, and he had always told himself that it didn't matter, that it was his own choice, that he could see all of it if only he tried.

       "This is all for you, Elias," he said, and his voice sounded loud and accusing in the tiny hut. "Look what you're making me do."

       Anger first. He wore anger like a cloak, visible to all and concealing much, and he had worn it for so many years. It was wrought of all colours, and was crafted of the shrivelled leaves of the forest, and Elias's blood on Reynard's sword, and the white opal of Albacrist. It was coarse and thick, but strangely loosely-woven, and nowhere near as strong as he had thought it was. Taking a deep breath, he unfastened its clasp, and it slithered from him, pooling at his feet. He shivered a little, and ran his hand down his chest, feeling the scratchy fabric that told him he was still clothed.

       Shame came next. Shame he wore like a tarnished silver badge on his chest, cold and vivid when he looked for it, but hidden under the cloak when he was clothed. It was curled into an S, for sorry and shame and sin. The tarnish was the shadow of a bruise on Elias's cheek, and the pin was the memory of how he had struck his apprentice down, then convinced himself that he didn't even need to apologise. It was the memory of Elias's pale face seeking him across a clearing, and him just folding his arms and turning away.

       He wrapped one arm around his body, and his skin rose in goose pimples. The whole world was cold. Elias's burning flesh was the only warm thing that existed.

       "Worry," he whispered. This, too, he laid aside, and it was woven like his tunic and worn close to his heart. It was the surge of protectiveness he had felt in a far away city, when he saw a young boy weep. It was his own strong hand on Elias's hair, and the look of adoration in the boy's eyes, as he silently said, "Look after me, master. Always." It was that same boy's anguished cries as he lashed in the grips of a fever, and said, "Dying, master. I'm dying."

       "Elias." He touched the boy's cheek. "It's just for a moment. It's just to save you. I'll take it back. I'll still feel it. I'll still protect you."

       "No," Elias moaned, and his spine arched in agony. "Stop. Please. No."

       Hope, too, he cast aside. Hope was like a black silk scarf that could be placed over his eyes and tied there forever. It whispered that Elias wasn't dying, that Ciaran need only sit and wait and Elias would open his eyes and get better, that everything would be well. Hope led to inactivity. Hope made him hold back. To give his all in the healing, he had to truly believe that Elias was dying, and that the boy would be taken from him forever, and he would be alone and desolate without him.

       He closed his eyes, but the darkness was too like the touch of a silk scarf, and he snatched them open again. "He's dying," he whispered, and this time his voice was calm. He was stating a simple fact. "He is dying, but, if I do this right, I can save him."

       The Shadow still danced out of reach. It was like trying to grasp water in his bare hands. But he was Ciaran Morgan, protector of Greenslade, and there was nothing he could not do. He had to do more.

       "More," something seemed to whisper, deep inside, and it, too, sounded like his own voice. "There's more. There's..." It paused. "Fear," it whispered at last, like a child telling ghost stories in the night.

       Fear. He clenched his fists. He did not feel fear. He was a Brother and a master and fear did not drive him.

       "Really?"

       The undergrowth clawed at him, and tried to bear him down. A man was walking away from him, his black cloak striking pollen from white blossoms. Elias reached for someone else. "No, I will not," said a villager, as he folded his arms and glared defiantly.

       "Take it," he hissed. He pushed it away with both hands, and it was like tearing his clothes from his body, tearing so wildly that he reduced them to shreds. "I don't want to look at it. I don't want to see."

       He stood naked. His flesh and cold and vulnerable and unprotected, and the world was so very vast. He stood on the threshold, and shivered. He had sacrificed everything, and he didn't know what to do now, oh he didn't know, and he was a master and he always knew everything, but now he was as helpless as a child, and he didn't know anything.

       Sunlight touched his cheek, and seemed to call his name. He raised his chin and blinked, and started walking. He was naked in the meadows of his Garden, and the long grass was ripe and gentle as it caressed his thighs. "Elias," he called. He turned full circle, looking for his apprentice. For a moment, he saw the grey mountain that rose beyond the fields, and he saw it only with a vague detachment, where for years it had made him want to look away. "Elias."

       Somewhere, in a world far away, his hand was on Elias's brow, and he was sitting, fully clothed, in a small dark hut. Somewhere, somehow, he was reaching deep into Elias's blood with his mind, seeking the invader, banishing it, and healing.

       "Elias!" Grass whipped at his legs, and pollen rose in heavy golden clouds, clinging to his skin and dusting it yellow. "Elias!"

       Healing worked best with done with consent, with the injured person welcoming the healer and guiding him to those places that most needed relief. Even a Brother who was deeply unconscious could respond, in some distant way, to the touch of a healer, but Elias did not respond to Ciaran's cries. There was no trace of him at all, as if he was already dead.

       "Elias!" His feet took him to the mountain, the grey mountain he had never climbed. Stone crumbled under his hands, and scraped at his feet, and he hauled at rocks, pulling himself higher. Were there footsteps ahead of him? Was that a smear of blood from Elias's torn feet, and did his apprentice curl huddled on a ledge above him, waiting for him?

       "Elias." Panting, he stopped, and turned to face the meadow below him. He had not climbed far, he saw. Behind him, the mountain was taller than ever, filling half the world with grey stone. The meadow was close enough that he could still see the swaying heads of delicate pink flowers.

       The sky was dancing. Fine motes of dust were drifting in the sunlight, falling to land invisibly on the rock at his feet, and to blanket the flowers. He frowned, and looked closer. The dust was made of fine specks of darkness, like ash after a bonfire. As it fell, like silent snow, the pure colours of the meadow began to fade, then became grey and dirty.

       The ash was a poison to the world, he realised. Below him, the tips of the blades of grass shrivelled and began to turn black. It fell like a disease, and killed what it touched.

       A disease. "Oh," he said aloud, and smiled. "Of course!" Although he was seeing the landscape of his Garden, his mind was wandering through the pathways of Elias's blood. The falling ash was how the disease would look, when seen through the eyes of the Shadow. All he had to do was banish it, and it was easy, for this was his Garden and he was master here, and nothing stayed against his will.

       He raised his right hand in prohibition, palm outwards and as high as his head. "Leave him. Go." His left hand joined the right, and the wind coiled around him, stroking him and whispering its approval. "Go back."

       And, as he stood on a mountain that existed in no place in reality, the black dust began to retreat in the face of his command, and it felt utterly right.

      

 

       Right at the very end, through the scarlet haze of agony and flames that had taken over his vision, Elias saw his master.

       Tall and strong, Ciaran waded through the crowd, and the fire retreated before him as if it was afraid. His cloak was billowing behind him, and there was a sword of cold silver in his hand. His face was very hard, frowning in resolve and firm purpose.

       "Master," Elias tried to say, but the flames had long since taken away his voice. His tears of relief were blessedly cold on his cheeks. You came. Oh, master...

       The flames stood only waist high now, and they were pink and red and cheerful. They had pulled back to open up a wide avenue, and they burned with no more menace than a fire in the hearth on a cold winter's day. Behind them he could see the faces of the crowd that had laughed at his suffering, and saw they were just ordinary people, wearing bright coloured clothes, and carrying bags and baskets. A guard stood with a pike and a breastplate, and he was chatting to a plump girl, who blushed as she pinned a flower to his sleeve. As Ciaran passed, the guard's head snapped round, but he did not move.

       Elias smiled. The pain was as horrific as ever, but he thought he could face anything, now he knew he was about to be freed. Do your worst, he told the invisible man who worked his chains. I'm off. Goodbye. I'm going. My master has come for me. Have you met my master? He's Ciaran Morgan, and he's come for me, he has.

       His master stopped in front of him, standing with his feet apart and his back straight, and Elias saw how strong his legs were, and how the ash didn't even touch the soft leather of his boots. A beam of orange light fell on the chains, then moved across the stone, and Elias realised it was firelight reflected in a sword. He struggled to raise his head, and managed to catch a glimpse of his master standing tall and wonderful, the sword raised high over his head, and a look of utter command on his face.

       Without blinking, Ciaran let the sword fall in a sweeping arc, severing the chains as if they were made of nothing more than flimsy string. Elias fell heavily. Instinctively he lunged with his hands to break his fall, but the surge of agony in his torn shoulders was so great that, for a single shocking moment, he thought his master had pierced them with the sword, one two, just like that.

       He fell face first, and blood filled his mouth. He heard the sound of chain links hitting stone, and he knew that his master had severed the chains that bound his ankles, and knew that he was free. Why, then, did it hurt so much? Why did it feel like a defeat?

       "Come, Elias." Ciaran's voice was leeched of all emotion, as blank as his eyes. "I have saved you. I gave up everything for you, and now you are saved."

       "I can't," Elias tried to say, but he had no voice, and already his master had turned and was walking away from him, walking away.

       Elias tried to raise his arm, just one arm, to plead, to call him back. I can't stand, master. But I'll be better soon. Just wait for me. Just one minute. Please, master. His hand trembled and his shoulder screamed, and all he could do was roll over onto his side and lie there, useless and twitching, like a fish stranded on land.

       "Master," he tried to scream, but all he could produce was a broken whimper. Master! No-one heard him. No-one cared. The guards kept their hands close to their swords, and their mouths twitched as they tried not to laugh. His master's cloak fluttered merrily as he walked away. Master! Don't leave me here! Come back!

        His master thought it was over, but it wasn't over, not in the slightest. It was a trick, and now it was ten times worse, and already, slow and teasing, the flames were reaching for him, and there was nothing he could do but surrender and let them kill him.

       And, all the while, his master was walking away, his cloak swinging jauntily, and the naked sword swinging in his hand.


Chapter nine

The long night

 

 

       "Is it over?"

       Ciaran opened his eyes, and even that simple movement hurt, like grit beneath his eyelashes. The light was mingled orange and grey, and he wasn't sure where he was, or who was speaking to him. His cheek was on fire, and, when he raised his head, he realised it was the heat of lying pressed against another person. "Elias," he gasped. He had slumped forward over his apprentice's body, and slept there. When he moved, the numbness in his limbs dissolved into stabbing pain, and he could not hold back a groan.

       Elias had been very ill, but Ciaran had saved him. He pushed himself away from the bed and stretched his stiff limbs. The light outside told him that it was almost dusk, and he knew he had laboured all day with the Shadow and the healing. Never before had he done anything like this. Never, as far as he knew, had anyone done something to compare with this.

       Oliver reached past him to touch Elias's cheek with the back of his hand, and let out a tremulous sigh. "He's cooler. He's breathing easily." He touched the boy's face a second time, withdrew, and then was back for a third lingering touch.  Only then did he smile. "He really is better." He still did not take his hand from Elias's face.

       Ciaran scrabbled with his hands until his back was against the wall, and unfolded his legs so they stretched out in front of him. He pressed his head against the solidity of the wood. "Yes. He's better."

       Oliver sank to the ground beside him, imitating the way he was sitting. They sat side by side, looking for all the world like best friends resting together after an arduous day's work.

       Away from Elias's warmth, Ciaran felt very cold. Was he naked? He clawed at his cloak and pulled it tighter, then tighter still, but of course he was clothed. Why had he been so sure suddenly that he was not? He had only the vaguest memories of how he had healed Elias, for deep Shadow visions were too profound to linger in everyday life, but some of the things he remembered were strange, like snatches of an impossible dream. He thought he remembered scrabbling desperately at the floor, seeking clothes that were not really there, sobbing, "I need them back," and, "Never again," but that made no sense, and he would not think about it any more.

       "I healed him." Ciaran liked the sound of the words. This, after all, was all that mattered. "He was dying, but I healed him with the Shadow." Dying. The word could be said aloud, now it was no longer true. "He said he was going to die, but he was wrong. He even tried to make me feel guilty about it. He said it was all because of me, that he did what he did. I'll have to talk to him about that when he wakes up. But it's over now. We'll just forget the whole sorry affair."

       It was only towards the end that he realised that he had been speaking aloud, saying far more to Oliver than he ought to have done, but Oliver was not even listening. "It's wonderful," the man said, wiping his eyes. "What a day it's been! I kept looking in, but there was no change. You were just sitting there, your hand on his face, staring at nothing. I thought we'd lost you both."

       He ought to mind that Oliver had watched him when he was unaware and defenceless, but it didn't seem to matter. The Kindred would not be able to deny that Ciaran Morgan, the man they had ignored, had been the one to heal Elias. "It was a hard battle," he admitted, "but I won. I healed him with the Shadow. The enchantment couldn't do it, could it?"

       "No." Oliver shook his head, and did not angrily defend his magic, as Ciaran had expected him to. "The two powers are different, it seems. Enchantment is…  No, I cannot do it justice. I'm a bard, and words are my gift, but it goes far beyond words. Like the Shadow, I think." He looked at Ciaran. "Can you explain the Shadow to someone who can't sense it? Could you explain it to me?"

       Ciaran frowned, considering the question. He had never tried to explain it to anyone except Elias, and Elias had been able to sense for himself the things that Ciaran was showing him. People who were blind to the Shadow never needed to have it explained to them. He had never explained a single mystery of the Shadow to anyone in Greenslade. "I could say something," he said, at last, "but it wouldn't really explain it. It would be like..."

       "Explaining colour to a man who has been blind from birth, as the old saying goes," Oliver said, with a wry smile. "Yes. But Elias has told me a little. Of course I'll never truly understand it, but I think I can see a little of what it is, and how enchantment is different."

       "How?" Ciaran wanted Oliver to carry on talking, he realised. It wasn't as if he was throwing his lot in with the Kindred by just listening. Oliver had clearly been upset by Elias's near death, and he probably needed the company, to stave away the thoughts that would come if he was alone in the cold darkness. Ciaran didn't need such things, but he could grant the man that, at least. Besides, the Kindred used enchantment as their weapon, and it was better to understand the weapons of the enemy before engaging them in battle.

       "You probably think it's a trivial thing. Child's play. A game of illusions and nothing more. But it's so much more than that. From what Elias has told me, I think the Shadow is like still water, constant and cool and nourishing. The whole world and the life of every man is reflected in the pool, but nothing disturbs its surface. It is just... there. It holds all life together, for everything is reflected in its silver mirror."

       "Yes," Ciaran breathed, despite himself. "That's it." His throat thickened. The Shadow was the heart of existence for a Brother, and he had loved it once, and revered it still, even though he saw it so seldom. He was such a long way from home, and this man was a stranger, but no Brother could have said it better. A bard's gift was treacherous indeed if it could bring Ciaran Morgan close to tears.

       Oliver leant forward slightly, and his eyes burned. "The enchantment, though... If the Shadow is calm water, the enchantment is wild fire. It burns in the blood. It is a thing of feeling and emotion and life, and we do not understand it and never will. Your Shadow is the still reflection of life, but the enchantment is life, in all its chaos and pain and beauty. Yours is the silver mirror; ours is the fire and the colour and the living essence of the things that the Shadow reflects."

       "It..." Ciaran began, but Oliver interrupted him. "I speak as a bard. This is what I was taught, and it is what I feel. The enchantment is fading, and we are fading still faster. Its true glory is forever out of reach, and none of us see even a hundredth part of it." He was staring at the thin candle. A faint breeze came through the doorway and made the flame flicker. "All we see now, in these twilight days, is the light of a single candle, lit from the great white fire that is enchantment. But we know how mighty and great the fire truly is, even if we will never see it. Even when we perform the slightest illusion, we feel a hint of that power. It makes us want to laugh for its beauty, and weep because we are reminded every time of just how much we have lost."

       "A power based on feelings," Ciaran said. Of all the things Oliver had said, this one small bit had struck him as the most important. It was a cruel power that was based on feeling, he thought, as he pulled his cloak tighter still.

       "Oh yes." Oliver was smiling like a love-struck fool, his eyes wide and shining. "Enchantment is all about life and feeling and empathy. The Shadow... Elias says you can't see it at all if you feel too strongly. You understand it, and know how it works. You know that if you pull this thread here, that will move." He gestured with his head as he spoke, first to the left then the right. "With the enchantment, you just feel. The more intensely you feel something, the stronger it is. But it is draining. No man can know enchantment and remain cut off from the world. It makes you give everything of yourself and lay yourself bare, both to the power itself, and to the people who are affected by it. The Shadow links all things together because they are all objects in Creation, but enchantment links all living things together, because they live and breathe and feel. It demands total abandonment."

       Ciaran wrapped his arms around his body, and shivered. Despite the spell of Oliver's words, he was left feeling faintly sick. It sounded horrible. It was a power for a fierce and primitive people who knew no moderation.

       "Ask Elias," Oliver said. "He'll be able to tell you better than I can."

       Ciaran looked at Elias. The boy was still sleeping, though one hand twitched every now and then, seeking something. He shouldn't have asked Oliver, Ciaran thought, and he definitely would never ask Elias. "He's going to wake up soon." He tucked the pleading hand under the blanket and held it there, imprisoned beneath the furs.

       "Yes," Oliver said. "But you should get some rest."

       "No." Only one candle was burning. Ciaran reached for an unlit one and touched it to the flame, lighting it. He pressed it into the crude candlestick, and lit another. The light showed Elias's peaceful sleeping face, and each one he lit showed it only more truthfully. Earlier, light had seemed to be the enemy, but now it was a friend.

       When he had lit them all, he leant back against the wall. For the first time, he truly let himself see the place that had been his world for a night and a day. His memory of the last day started and finished with Elias. The small bed of furs could have been all the furniture in the world, with himself kneeling beside it on a vast featureless plain, beneath the black dome of empty sky.

       Now, in the evening of his new hope, he sat and saw things for what seemed to be the first time. He had seen the furniture like dark warped shapes, and had dimly noticed that there were hangings on the wall. Now he saw that they were tapestries. Some were brightly coloured, with jewel-like flowers arranged in neat patterns between elegant symmetrical branches. Only one was different, worked in grey and white and colours of earthy brown. Animals prowled around its sides, and they were crudely worked yet very real - a few swift lines telling more eloquently of the spirit of the creature than a work of infinite sterile detail.

       A man stood at the heart of the picture, and the animals watched him. The man was walking away, but had paused a while to look back over his shoulder. A naked sword was in his hand, trailing so its point stirred up the leaves at his feet. Blood stained his clothes, and his eyes were sorrowful.

       "That one's ours," Oliver told him. "The others are... stolen." There was that small hesitation, but no real sign of apology or shame. "When they heard the king was coming, they wanted the best for him."

       Ciaran found it impossible to look away. The man's eyes seemed to stare straight into his soul. They were commanding, yet very human. Perhaps Elias's illness had made him vulnerable, for he felt a lump forming in his throat. This was a man who was saying goodbye to everything he loved. He was leaving his home for ever, and he was hardly able to bear it, though he still walked away.

       "That's the last king." There was a catch in Oliver's voice. "He is leaving with Albacrist, leaving us behind."

       "No," Ciaran said. "He didn't look like that."

       A hand closed on his wrist, fierce and fervent. "You saw him?"

       Ciaran swallowed, and nodded. He was surprised how trapped he felt.

       "What was he like?" There was a look of hungry longing on Oliver's face. "Tell me." Then, like a sleeper awakening, he looked down at his hand, white-knuckled on Ciaran's wrist, and shook his head. He relaxed his grip, and stood up, passing the hand over his brow. "I'm sorry."

       Ciaran cradled his wrist in the other hand, and said nothing.

       "Can you imagine it?" Oliver stepped back and sagged blindly into the chair, only finding it by chance. He leant forward, his forearms resting on his knees. His head slumped forward for a moment, and then he pulled it back up, looking steeply upwards to meet Ciaran's eyes. "Can you imagine how it is for us?"

       On the bed, Elias gave a low moan, and Ciaran's head whipped round. The boy moaned again, struggling weakly to wrest his hands free from the furs, then lay still. He was still deeply asleep, but maybe he was dreaming.

       "He left us," Oliver sounded as if he had been personally betrayed by this man who had left his world five centuries before his birth. "Our king left us in our greatest need. It was the only way to save us, he said. A new king would come to us if only we waited, he said. We thought he only meant a few months. It's been five hundred years, but we never stopped waiting, because we gave him our word. Five hundred years we've been bound by our oath to him, and we don't even know what he looked like."

       Something about the man's voice touched Ciaran. He knew what it was to long always for a golden age in the past, and to draw strength from stories. He had not wanted to feel even this scrap of fellow feelings, but he found himself nodding. "I understand," he began, still looking, not at Oliver, but at Elias.

       "No you don't!" Oliver cried. Then, softer, he said, "I am a bard. I tell the stories. I learnt them from my master, who learned them from his, who learned them from his. How many mistakes can be made in five hundred years? Every time I tell the story of the king it confirms us in our faith, reminding us that there is a purpose behind our exile. But, every time I tell it, I..." He sighed. "And how many of the people listening to me feel the same, though they keep it secret, in case they get called traitors?"

       Elias stirred a little, and Ciaran soothed him. Oliver kept the silence hanging for a very long time. When Ciaran glanced round he saw him sitting with his eyes tightly shut, his face very tense. "Feel what?" he asked, at last.

       "That it isn't true," Oliver whispered. "What if the whole thing is only a silly little story made up long ago to stop us from despairing? What if we've spent five hundred years waiting for a king who will never come?" Oliver shook his head. "I felt these doubts, though I've never spoken them aloud until tonight. I think we all did, sometimes. We still believed - we had to, or everything would fall apart and we would have nothing - but we always had that fear."

       "He was real," Ciaran said gently. "I saw him. He brought the sword, and he said the same things he did in your story, and Elias found the sword, and now he's here. It is true."

       "What did he look like?" Oliver sounded hungry, but broken.

       "Not tall." Ciaran looked at the king on the tapestry. "Not white-haired like him. Younger." He frowned, trying to remember. "Older than he looked, perhaps, but his hair was dark, only slightly peppered with grey. He... He looked a bit like Reynard. His eyes were dark, but you didn't really notice the colour, only that they were more intensely alive than other men's eyes. It was impossible not to look at him."

       "Was he badly wounded?"

       Ciaran nodded. "Yes, and desperate, but he never begged. His people were lost, he said, but one of us could save them, if he chose to take up that destiny. He hid the sword in a way that was strange. Then he died."

       "Was he buried with honour?" There were tears unashamed on Oliver's cheeks.

       "Yes." His master had gone to the funeral, but Ciaran had not. "We didn't know his name, and we knew the Basilica was not his home, but Grand Master Jerome said we would honour him as if he was our own. He lies in the Basilica crypt, beneath a stone carved with a sword." Ciaran had visited the grave only once.

       "In a crypt," Oliver echoed. "Beneath stone arches, not buried beneath the stars, with the wind howling over your grave, and the wolves sniffing around for blood. But in the darkness, underground, in a place far from home, where nobody knew his name."

       Ciaran frowned. He seldom remembered that day, but Oliver had made him talk about it. "What else should we have done?" he demanded. "We could have done much less. He invaded our most sacred ceremony." He ruined my life! he wanted to scream.

       "I know. I'm sorry." Oliver looked down at his clasped hands. "It's been five hundred years for us. Five hundred years. And yet you are here, and, for you, it is the memory of half a lifetime. It's hard for us. I look at you now, and I just think of all the generations that have died, and how long we waited, but for you it was hardly any time at all. It makes it seem as if we died for nothing. If only it had been anyone other than Elias." He slammed his fist on the arm of the chair. "Why did it have to be him? Anyone but him. Anyone but a child not yet born, in a world where each day is a month for us."

       "Anyone but him, yes," Ciaran agreed. He watched Elias's restless sleep, and was glad the boy was not awake to hear Oliver's words. He knew how the boy would react. If he had been quicker to master the sword, he could have spared the Kindred ten more years of waiting. On that midwinter's day in the cloisters, Oliver would have been no older than Elias, a boy on the brink manhood, and full of hope.

       Oliver sighed. "But it is him, and the story was true after all, and the time of waiting and doubting is over. He's alive.

       Ciaran stroked Elias's brow, and the boy moaned, nestling into the touch. "But he might not stay," Ciaran said. "And he might fail you. Better anyone but him, you said."

       Oliver stood up. "I do not believe that," he said. "Not now. Better for us if he could have come centuries ago, but that was not to be. Albacrist always chooses well. It's better to wait five hundred years for the true king, than wait a dozen for a false one who will fail us."

       "I don't see how he can do anything other than fail you," Ciaran admitted, for he had heard the enormity of the thing that Kindred wanted Elias to do.

       "You should have more faith in him." Oliver sounded angry. "You're always putting him down. It's no wonder he believes himself to be worthless."

       "At least I care about him," Ciaran retorted. "He's just a thing to you. All you see in him is the things you have hoped for. You want to trick him, and put him into a song full of your lying words, and soon he'll end up on a tapestry looking nothing like he is. You say the enchantment is all about feelings, but you're heartless, all of you. Elias is a tool to you. He's no king. He's only a boy."

       "He is more than you think he is." Oliver's voice was tight. "I am guilty of some of the things you accuse me of, but you should not be so quick to accuse, Ciaran Morgan, not without accepting that the accusations apply equally to you."

       Ciaran snorted. "I don't know what you mean."

       Oliver sighed. He clenched his fists, then very deliberately relaxed them again. "Then it is not my place to tell you. What you believe about yourself is your own affair. But I tell you this, Ciaran Morgan. If you hurt him again, then I will fight you."

       "Fight me?" Oliver was no Reynard, and the threat was laughable. "If we fight over him, Oliver, then there will be no contest. I'm his master. He's known me for years."

       "That wasn't what I meant," Oliver said. "I didn't mean a fight over him, as if he's a possession will no will of his own. All I mean is that..." He sighed and crouched down beside Elias, although it put him in a weak position relative to Ciaran, standing so tall above him. "I acted badly when I first met him. I offered friendship, but only as a way to win him to our cause. But I'm getting to know him now. He's our king, yes, but he's a very brave young man, who seems to think he has no right to be happy. I'm no longer fighting to gain possession of a king. I'm fighting for him, for Elias, and for him to be happy."

       "Get out," Ciaran hissed. "I don't know what you're talking about." He put his hands on his hips. "Get out. I'm no threat to him. I healed him. I healed him."

       Oliver touched the back of Elias's hand. "I'm glad you did."

       Ciaran pointed at the door. "Get out!"

       Oliver stood up. "But you won't keep me away." He was no warrior, but there was steel in his voice just like Reynard's. "Elias can, but you can't. I won't stand by and watch him be hurt."

       "He will never be hurt," Ciaran hissed. "Not when I am by his side." He turned his back on Oliver, sat down beside Elias's side, and settled down to wait.

      

 

       The light cast six different shadows. Elias forced his eyes to focus, and saw the light was made of six candle flames, but even they were not enough to prevent the smear of darkness that still lurked in the corner above his bed. As he watched, one flame guttered, rallied bravely for a while, and then went out. It made little perceptible difference to the light.

       His master was slumped sideways on the rug, fast asleep with the shoulders driven uncomfortably against the wall. But he shouldn't be here. His master had been in some other place, strong and majestic, but he had walked away, leaving Elias to face his death alone. But here Ciaran was, asleep on the floor and so close beside him that Elias could reach out and touch him, so the other memory had to be nothing more than a dream.

       Reach out and touch him. Yes, he could do that. He could brush his cheek gently with his fingers, and Ciaran wouldn't wake up, and would never know. It would be a stolen touch, and there was a secret thrill in that, and it would show that he was alive and that he could move, and that he was really here beside his master, and the dream was not true.

       He raised his hand. He moved it an inch, and then another. A wisp of cool air from the door touched his skin, but then his hand passed in front of his master's mouth, and the air there was warm with his soft breathing. 

       I found him, he thought. He heard soft distant laugher. I caught up, and here he is. It's over. He had been very ill, but now he was getting better, and his master was beside him, and he would live.

       "Master," he whispered, as the laughter crept a little closer. "Master." A pain started deep in his chest. The blanket slid off his shoulder and he shivered.

       The laughter surged and broke over him like a wave, vast and terrible. Master! he shrieked, but the laughter was a hand clamped over his mouth, keeping him from screaming aloud. Please wake up, master! It's come for me! It's here!

       Ciaran sighed, snuggled his head into the crook of his arm, then lay still. Then jagged darkness clawed at Elias's eyes, and he could see no more.

      

 

       He was attacked while he was sleeping. Cold water flooded his face, and Ciaran woke in an instant, his hand snapping to the dagger at his waist. He coughed and pawed at his stinging eyes. "I'll get you for that," he vowed.

       His vision cleared enough for him to see a pair of legs, and he lashed out at them, grappling his assailant to the floor. The man fell heavily, smashing something beneath him as he fell. Ciaran pounced on the man, thrusting one knee between his legs, and leaning heavily on his chest. Something crunched, and the man groaned. Ciaran pressed the dagger against his throat, and saw that his attacker was Oliver.

       "I see it now," Ciaran sneered. He spat into the man's face, and water dripped from his sodden hair and fell on Oliver's eyes and mouth. "You pretend you're Elias's friend, but you just want me out of the way, just like Reynard." He leant with his full weight on Oliver's chest, enjoying the sound of shards of earthenware breaking beneath him, all with sharp edges digging into the man's back. "Well, I won't go, not that easily. You won't have him. If you want him, you have to come through me, and I'm not easy to defeat."

       "None of us will have him," Oliver gasped, "unless you let me go. Wake up to the truth. Look at him."

       Ciaran was too clever to fall for that trick. "Go away and don't come back."

       "Look at him!" Oliver screamed.

       Ciaran sneered. "He's better. I healed him. I saved his life. We don't need you."

       "He's not better," Oliver said. There was a bead of blood at his throat. "Look at him, Master Morgan. Please. If nothing else, look at your hand."

       Ciaran couldn’t help it. His eyes flickered away from Oliver's face, and onto the hand that was pressed against Oliver's chest. It was speckled with blood, some of it old and drying, and some of it new. When he moved his hand a little, he saw he had left a bloody hand print on the front of Oliver's shirt.

       Blood. Elias's blood. Ciaran pushed himself backwards, smearing the bloody mark on Oliver's chest. His neck felt very stiff as he turned to look at Elias.

       The boy was loosely curled on his side, his face overhanging the edge of the bed. The blanket had fallen away from his shoulder, and his hair was dark and matted with sweat. The blood was that trickling from his parted lips was the only colour on his porcelain skin, and he was struggling to breathe. It was just as it had been before, only twice as bad, for coming a second time.

       "He was better," Ciaran gasped. He rubbed his eyes, but all he did was smear Elias's blood over his own cheekbone. "You saw it, Oliver. He was better."

       Oliver was struggling to sit up, wincing with pain. "I know." There were specks of blood on the shards of broken jug that lay on the floor. "I don't know how long he's been like this. I thought he was better. I should have checked earlier. Then I came in and I couldn't wake you up. You were sleeping so deeply."

       Sleeping, and all the while Elias was bleeding on him. Elias had tried to reach for him, but he hadn't been there. It had taken Oliver to come in and see the truth, and even then it had taken a violent assault to awaken Ciaran to his apprentice's need. "So that's how it is," Ciaran snapped. "You're blaming me?"

       "It doesn't matter." Oliver dragged himself to Elias's bedside, moving as if he was in pain. "Nothing matters. Only that he gets well."

       "I can't do it again." Ciaran shook his head, and found he simply could not stop, and neither could he stop speaking, admitting things to this stranger that he should not be speaking aloud. "I did everything I could. I can't do that again. I can't." It had exhausted him like nothing he had ever done before, and he had given so much, and all for nothing. Even though he had slept, his limbs still ached, and the Shadow was faint and far away.

       "What happened?" Oliver spoke with surprising brutality. "How did this happen?"

       Ciaran clenched his fist, and it ached with the need to strike someone. Instead, he pressed it into his brow, forcing the knuckles into the bridge of his nose hard enough to hurt. "But I have to do it," he said. "I'd do anything for Elias." He looked round at Oliver, daring him to disagree, but Oliver just nodded, as if he understood everything.

      

 

       Elias was chained again, but he did not know how it had happened. Like before, he had just opened his eyes, and here he was. The pain was like a crouching beast gathering itself to spring. It was quiescent for now, but he knew it would come soon, and it would be terrible.

       His hands were cuffed behind him, and his feet were bound. Blood tickled the backs of his hands, and he realised that there were tiny spikes inside the metal bands, and they cut him unless he stood quite still. His shoulders didn't hurt, but he remembered what it felt like to be torn apart, and he would never forget that torment, not ever, and would never be the same again. He remembered burning, and he could still smell smoke, but this time it came from a large bonfire, not impossible living flames. The slab beneath his feet had a chip in its top left corner, and there was a dark brown stain worked deeply into the grain of the stone.

       Someone was laughing, as it was like distant thunder passing from one cloud to the next. He raised his eyes and looked beyond the stone slab, and he could see a thousand people, all watching them. Some of them looked familiar. A guard with a pike stood with his chin thrust forward, and ignored the girl who laughingly pulled at his sleeve. A woman pressed her apron to her mouth, and her eyes were wailing. An old man held his fist high, and shouted obscenities.

       Behind them there were buildings, framed by a cold blue sky. Grey-tinged clouds hung lazily at the horizon, and smoke drifted up from stone chimneys. The buildings were high and painted white, and they had many-paned windows and decorative facades. They were taller than they were wide, and women in rich clothes stood on the high balconies and pressed handkerchiefs to their faces as they watched him.

       Exultant, the fear sprang forward and seized him by the throat. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled, and his stomach clenched.

       This was real. The thing before had been shocking, but it had been like a like something drawn from nightmares, with grotesque living flames and faceless men and torture that should have killed him ten times over. This, that seemed so gentle and homely, was infinitely more dangerous. Every tiny human detail spoke more eloquently of terror than all the shrieking flames of the other place. Death, when it came, came while human life carried on on all sides, under a blue sky, and not in a nightmare landscape of unreality. True terror lay in the most ordinary of things. It lay in the way a girl's face dimpled as she smiled at her lover, and the way a child was being scolded by her mother for tearing her skirt. It lay in the fact that all these ordinary people had come to watch him die, but, to them, it was only a tiny happening in their day.

       He closed his eyes. The moment he did so, he heard the soft scraping of booted feet on the scaffold beside him. His eyes snapped open, and there, before him, was a man who wore the black mask of an executioner, with Albacrist held in his two gloved hands.

      

 

       Ciaran knew the way now. He was as weak as a new apprentice, but he could still see pale forms of Shadow, and, because he had found it before, the way into Elias's blood was like a broad highway. But he could stride up and down it all day, and it would still be useless. Better, he thought, if the way had been barred. Better if he was blind and could not see.

       He let his hand fall, and it fell onto his other hand with a sound like a slap. "It's impossible."

       "What?" Oliver breathed.

       Bloody tears trickled down Elias's cheeks, seeping from under his closed eyelids, like liquid flame in the candlelight. Ciaran winced, and looked away. "It's as if it has... adapted. I did the same things, but it was useless." He shook his head. "Diseases can do that, sometimes. They learn about the drugs we use against them, and become resistant to them. But it takes years. It's never like this. Never."

       The sky in his Garden had been choked with the falling specks of darkness. He had raised his hand, in shaky imitation of the command he had performed before, but it had simply come on and on, thickening all the time. It had swirled gleefully round his hand, and settled like dust on his skin.

       "Last time I drove it back," he said, "and he was getting better. But it's as if it used that to test my defences and see what I was capable of. It studied my weapons, and devised a defence against me. Now I can't do anything." He slammed his fist against the wall. "Nothing!"

       "You're speaking as if it's something alive." Oliver's voice was low with horror. "You're speaking as if this isn't an illness at all, but something attacking him."

       There had been laughter in that swirling black ash. Ciaran swallowed hard. "Of course not. It's just... what it seemed like," he finished, weakly. He clenched his fist. "But it can't be true."

       "No." Oliver shook his head, slow and sad. "But, whatever it is, there's nothing we can do to save him."

       And, as if the disease in Elias's blood heard the words and thought they were good, Elias gave a choked gasp, and stopped breathing.

      

 

       "This is real," a woman shrieked. She had a smear of dirt on her cheek, and a tiny feather clung to her bodice. "This is real," an old man spat, and the deep lines around his eyes spoke more clearly than any words could speak. "This is real," a child laughed, sitting on his father's shoulders and waving his arms with delight. "This is real," they said, though they all spoke with the same voice, and their mouths moved awkwardly, as if someone else had borrowed them to speak these words.

       "He didn't really save me," Elias said, and they cried, "No!"

       "You only let us think that he did. You only pretended to free me. It was a trick."

       They laughed, and cried "yes," with a soft sibilant hiss, but they paused a little before they said it.

       "And now it is real."

       There was no pause this time. "Yes," they exulted. "Yes!"

       And they were still shrieking their wild affirmation, even as the executioner thrust the sword, point first, into Elias's chest. But he did not die, and what came afterwards was the worst thing of all.

      

 

       "No!" Ciaran cried. One flailing hand knocked against a candle, and wax spattered over the back of his hand, though he barely noticed the burn. "No!" He clawed at the blankets that covered Elias's still body, and pressed one hand against the boy's heart. He did not move it, just twitched his fingers slightly with the rhythm of beat. He could keep Elias's heart beating with the Shadow. Even an apprentice could have done it.

       "Can I...?" Oliver asked, but his voice seemed to come from immensely far away. Ciaran pressed his mouth against Elias's blue-tinged lips, and tasted blood. He breathed into him, gifting him with his own breath, his own life. Please don't die, he thought, over and over, with the rhythm of every breath. Please.

      

 

       This is the second time, Elias thought. He was bound on the scaffold, and a thousand people awaited his death. He thought a sword had impaled him, and then he had been cast into the fire and burnt alive, but he felt little pain. He frowned. This has happened before.

       "There," a guard said, adjusting the cuffs that bound him. He stepped back, and turned away. In that moment of turning, Elias saw that his face was his master's.

       His master had bound him here. His master. It was his master.

       He lashed his head from side to side, and started shrieking, screaming, pleading, fighting...

      

 

       Ciaran wiped the blood from his lips. "There," he said, with a sigh that used his whole body. "He's alive."

       "You can't..." Oliver's voice was strained, almost disgusted. "It's not..."

       Ciaran rounded on him. "He won't die. Listen." He flung his hand out, pointing with one finger. "He's breathing. I can do it again. I will do it again." Elias would live, even if he had to force him to, moving his limbs like a puppet's, and breathing into his lungs for his every breath.

       "But it's not real." Oliver was still sitting on the floor, his legs drawn up to his chest. He was rocking slightly, and the back of his head kept touching the wall with a slow and deliberate thump. "It'll just happen again. There comes a time when we have to give up hope, even if... even if it's been the only thing we've lived for for five hundred years." The last words were a low whisper, and Ciaran thought they were not even meant to be heard at all.

       "It's not over." Ciaran's clenched fist shook. "He's not dead."

       Oliver closed his eyes, and then, in the silence, Elias started to scream. "No!" he shrieked. He thrashed in the bed, his head lashing from side to side. "No! Stop!" He flung his arm in a wide arc, and white flame seemed to trail from his fingers, too bright and searing to look at.

       "Elias!" Ciaran grabbed his apprentice's upper arms and tried to hold him still, pinioning him against his own body with brute force. Elias fought with surprising strength. His nails scratched at Ciaran's chest, hard enough to hurt even through his clothes. "Lie still," Ciaran begged. He drove him into the furs, fighting him like an enemy. Caught in his grip, Elias was moaning, but his struggles were weakening now, for Ciaran had him defeated.

       If Ciaran had held him a little tighter, he might have killed him. He gasped, and let the boy go. Elias fell back limply, lying where Ciaran had dropped him, and this time he did not fight. The only part of him that moved was his eyelids, flickering in some nightmare. There were dark scorch marks in patches on the blankets and a patch beneath his hand was burnt right through.

       Ciaran licked his lips, and still tasted Elias's blood. He swallowed and tasted it again. "Elias," he croaked. He touched his cloak, and cried aloud in horror as a huge golden bird of prey surged at his face, massive talons reaching for his eyes. A moment later, he was blinking with confusion, for the golden feathers were only the brooch at the throat of his cloak, and the talons were the tip of the pin that had worked through the fabric and pricked his finger.

       The rug was smouldering. Elias moved one pale finger, and a tongue of flame lunged towards Ciaran, and closed round his wrist like a red hot iron band.

       Somewhere behind him, Oliver gasped, and it sounded triumphant. Of course he would be glad, Ciaran thought. Ciaran was being hurt, and Oliver would enjoy seeing that, because Ciaran was just an obstacle in their path, keeping them from owning Elias utterly.

       Ciaran snatched his hand away from the flame, and nursed it. A broad red band went two thirds of the way around his wrist, and was already rising into blisters. The pain made his eyes sting.

       "Yes," Oliver breathed. "That's it. Of course."

       Ciaran closed his eyes. This time, when Elias stopped breathing, it was so silent and gentle that Ciaran did not even notice it.

      

 

       He died, and it was the second time. He died, and his master stood and watched him, with eyes that were unmistakably his, but a face that was different. He wore a hooded cloak, and there was another man beside him, tugging at his cloak.

       Elias reached out his hand, stiff and pleading and black in the flames. Master, he pleaded, and died.

       The very last thing he saw was his master turning and walking away.

      

 

       "Keep him alive!" Oliver hissed urgently in his ear. "Breathe for him again. You have to."

       How long had it been? The pain in his wrist faded to nothing. Deep inside, something cried out in agony. Elias was so very still, and his lips were blue. Ciaran's hand shook as he touched his skin, and still shook even as he found it was still warm.

       "There is still hope." Oliver's voice was high and childish. "Just bring him back one more time, and then..."

       "How?" he snapped, just before putting his lips to Elias's. The first breath he sent into Elias's lungs felt cold and tainted by the ugly tone of that word.

       "He can save himself," Oliver said, as Ciaran breathed, in and out, in and out. "I said enchantment couldn't save him, but it's not true. My enchantment can't. How could I have been so stupid? He's stronger than me. I knew that. We can't save him, but maybe he can save himself."

       Ciaran coaxed Elias's heart with the soft touch of Shadow. It felt so easy and familiar. Was this really only the second time? It felt as if he had been doing this for all his life, trapped in this tiny dark hut, watching Elias die again and again and again. Was it really possible that there could be any living creature outside this tiny square of candlelight?

       "Illusions have power," Oliver said. "If the mind truly believes it has suffered a mortal wound, it can die, even if the wound is only an illusion. We ease pain by giving the sufferer the illusion that they're not hurting. Just believing that can be enough to save them."

       Elias breathed into Ciaran's mouth, shuddered, and started coughing. But he was still deeply unconscious, and soon he would die again, and there would come a time when not even Ciaran would be able to bring him back. It might take a week. He could still be sitting here in a week, panting from the effort of making Elias breathe again for the thousandth time, unless he finally faced the truth. This really is the end, he thought, unable to hide from it any longer. Elias is going to die.

       "But an illusion leaves no scars." Oliver's voice was shaking with excitement. "If I cast an illusion of fire, you will see it burning, and you will smell it and hear it, and even feel it burning you if you touch it. But, after the illusion has run its course, that's it. You might have thought you had seen a house burnt to ashes, but it will still be standing. There will be no pain."

       Ciaran's wrist was red and weeping. He pressed his hand to Elias's face, and even the unbloodied skin on the back of his hand had ten times more colour that Elias's skin. He felt light-headed from breathing for two, but Elias was still going to die.

       "Look." Oliver pointed at the charred furs, and the wound on Ciaran's wrist. "It was real. It was no illusion, Master Morgan. It was pure white fire, that comes from the truest and deepest of enchantment. Who knows the limits of his powers?"

       "What do you mean?" Ciaran asked wearily. He had barely been listening to Oliver's ramblings.

       "True healing is beyond our skill," Oliver said, "but we are weak. Once, long ago, there lived people who could do things that now we would call wonders. Elias has their powers. He can heal himself. He has to."

       At least Ciaran spoke. "He couldn't heal that woman. That's what started all this. Because he couldn't."

       "He tried too hard," Oliver said. "Enchantment's like an instinct, and it doesn't work if we think about it too hard. He couldn't discover how to heal her, but it doesn't mean it was beyond his power."

       Ciaran took hold of Elias's hand and held it tight. "He's unconscious. Even if you're right, it's too late."

       "Please." Oliver grabbed him by the shoulder. "Even if you don't believe it, we can't miss this chance. He won't even know to try. We have to tell him. We have to get him to heal himself."

       Ciaran shook his head miserably. "He can't even breathe for himself."

       "Try," Oliver hissed. He made as if to touch Elias himself, to touch his brow and channel his hateful pictures into the boy's mind, to traumatise him and hurt him like he had done in the forest.

       Ciaran's head snapped up. "No," he hissed. He smashed Oliver's hand aside. "No," he snarled, spreading his arms as if to shield his apprentice with his own body from all enemies. Then he sighed, and felt himself crumble. He managed to keep control, but only just. "I'll do it," he said. "Me."

      

 

       The third time. But, this time, his master paused in his walk, half way between the scaffold and the back of the crowd, and turned to face him.

       "Elias," he whispered, though that simple word seemed louder to him than all the baying and laughter of the crowd a thousand strong.

       Even though the sword was high and glinted cruelly in the sun, Elias smiled.

      

 

       They were linked in mind, the two of them, by their long years together, and by the child's unstinting devotion to him. If Ciaran needed to, he could call to Elias though his mind and convey a carefully-regulated impression of his thought. He had strong walls in his mind against such contact, and only let them down occasionally, but Elias was always open to him, and always quick to respond whenever Ciaran called.

       It was no different this time. "Elias," Ciaran whispered, as he sat by his apprentice's bed in the candlelight. "Let me in. Hear me."

       And then the whole world fell away, and he was in another place entirely. Elias's dreams, he told himself, but it seemed and felt so real that immediately he began to doubt.

       There was fire there, positioned on a platform so it was the first thing he saw. The platform stood above a square, and the square was full of people. They were all shouting, and pressing forward to get as close to the fire as they could. Ciaran was caught up in the crowd, pushed forward by the weight of their bodies. It was hard to stand alone in a crowd and not do what they were doing. "Die!" they shouted, and Ciaran echoed it faintly, so no-one would think he was not one of them. He would play along for now until he knew how things stood. "Die," he shouted, as he used his superior strength to elbow his way towards the front of the crowd. Then he forced himself between two tall men, and saw Elias.

       His apprentice was kneeling on the platform, bound with heavy chains, and blood was falling from his hands with a sickening drip drip. A black-masked man stood near him, a white sword in his hand. Another man was shovelling wood onto the fire, making it crackle and surge eagerly, and a tall man in black and silver stood and watched, smiling thinly. There was blood on Elias's clothes, and he looked very scared.

       Ciaran barged to the front of the crowd, knocking people over in his haste, not caring that he was making himself a target for their violence. The people were blades of grass in a field, to be waded through and trampled. Elias was all that mattered, and the boy had seen him, and a smile broke on his face, beautiful to see. "Elias!" Ciaran cried. "I'll save you, I promise!"

       Instantly, Elias's smile faded. His eyes flickered upwards, and a blade of reflected light fell on his face like a knife cut. "No." His voice was dull with despair. "It is too late, master. Please don't start it again. I want this to be the last time."

       "No!" Ciaran tried to move forward, but if the crowd was grass in a field, now they were tangled vines, dragging him back. Something was whispering in his ear, and he could not hear the words, but it sounded like his own voice.

       The executioner's sword descended, and Ciaran could only watch. Elias crumpled, and the bloody sword tip appeared at his back. He didn't even scream, but his mouth was a gaping hole of red. He would have collapsed, but the executioner grabbed his hair and wrenched him up, like a butcher holding up a severed head. 

       "First the sword, and now the fire," said the man in black and silver. "Let him be killed twice over. Let the abomination that is his sorcery be burnt from the world."

       Ciaran lunged for his apprentice, but the crowd were tugging at him, ripping them apart. "No!" he screamed. "Let me save him!" He rounded on them, lashing out with his staff. A child fell with a cry. How dare they try to stop him? He struck again and a woman fell to the ground, bleeding from the temple, and was trampled by the crowd.

       "Master," Elias said, from behind him on the scaffold. He spoke it very simply, without pleading or hope. He knew he was going to die. He had no faith in his master. Ciaran had promised, but Elias didn't believe him. He hadn't even expected Ciaran to come at all.

       Still slashing at the crowd, Ciaran turned round, but he was too late. The last thing he ever saw of his apprentice was a skeletal hand, stiffened in agony, burning to ashes.

       And then the crowd overwhelmed him and dragged him down, and he bellowed, screaming that he was dying for what was right, that they would never make him surrender, that he would kill them all for what they had done to Elias. Something kicked him in the face and he shouted again, and then he was back in the small hut, pressed against the wall, with his legs pulled to his chest and his fists clenched defensively in front of him. Oliver's nose was dripping blood.

       "I tried," he said, lowering his fists only slowly. "I got into his dreams. They're killing him with fire. That's how his mind sees his fever. I tried to save him, but he died. I don't think he even wanted to be saved." He frowned at the memory of that betrayal.

       Wordlessly Oliver pointed to the bedside. Elias had stopped breathing again. Ciaran sighed and pushed himself away from the wall, landing heavily on his knees beside Elias's bed. Once again, for the third time, he started to breathe for him.

       Oliver placed his hand on Ciaran's shoulder. "You don't have to save him," he said, though his voice sounded far less real than the heaving breaths that were filling Ciaran's whole world. "I know it's hard for you. But it's not you. You have to step back. All you need to do is tell him to save himself. Accept that it's not you this time. Please."

       Oliver fell silent, and Ciaran breathed for Elias, forcing breath into the body of a lifeless puppet. It felt so wrong. If only Elias would sit up! If only Elias would do something for himself, even if it was only to defy his master.

       "Please," Oliver begged him. "Try again. I'll give you any strength that I have, if you'll accept it." He pulled Ciaran round to face him, draggin him close. "I know you dislike me. I know you don't trust me. But please. Together we're stronger. He needs us both."

       Ciaran pulled away. "I don't like you, and I don't trust you." But he was nodding, belying his words. "I can do this by myself, without any of your enchantment..."

       His voice trailed off, but Oliver seemed to understand what it was that Ciaran was incapable of saying. "I'll help you," he said, "and Elias will live."

       Ciaran shook his head miserably. "I don't think he wants to. He told me to stop."

       "He's just grown so used to thinking that he's nobody. It's never even crossed his mind that he can fight this."

       "What makes you think you understand him?" Ciaran asked, but it was weary now, and without any real anger.

       "Just do it," Oliver said. "Please."

       Sighing, Ciaran placed his hand on Elias's brow, and closed his eyes. Elias, he called, and there he was, back in the crowded square again, and it was so easy and effortless, as if there could be a wonderful closeness between his apprentice and himself, if only he said the right word to open the closed door between them.

       The fire was burning merrily, and Elias was still chained and kneeling on the scaffold. Nothing had changed. The masked man smiled as he ran the sword blade lovingly through his fingers. The crowd was shouting for Elias to die. Elias was kneeling there, still alive, though his eyes looked a little older and his face more deeply etched with misery.

       Did Elias remember every death? Each time Ciaran brought him back, was he chaining him not to hope, but to the same torment all over again, with death the only end? Elias had died three times, and, unless Ciaran could save him, would die a fourth, and it would be Ciaran who had condemned him.

       Ciaran pushed to the front of the crowd. "Elias," he called, and Elias wearily raised his head to look at him. This time he did not smile.

       The masked man raised the sword high, and it fell, just as it had fallen before. Ciaran dug his nails into his palms and did nothing to stop it. There was something he had to do, but the crowd was baying and the fire was acrid and choking, and someone not far away was laughing, plucking thoughts from his mind and casting them into the flames.

       "Elias," Ciaran choked. But then it was as if someone had wrapped a veil round his mouth, protecting him from the smoke. Someone was standing close behind him, whispering to him that he was not alone. He heard a bright cascading sound, and saw there was a fountain beside the scaffold, all carved in white, with very pure water. He was sure it had not been there before.

       He raised his head. "Elias," he said. "Listen." They were unchaining him and dragging him towards the flames. Ciaran wanted to leap on the scaffold and fight for him, but there was something he had something to say first. He pressed a shaking hand to his brow, struggling to find the words that the cruel laughter was dragging from his mind.

       But you won't, it cackled. You can't. Not you. You just can't say it. Admit that he's stronger than you are? Admit that there's something you cannot do? Never.

       Water burst free from the fountain, arcing over the fire and dousing the nearest flames. The voice stilled, and Ciaran saw a flicker of hope in Elias's eyes.

       Ciaran strode forward. "I can't rescue you, Elias," he said. The words fell like stones from his mouth, and despite the flames, he wanted to shiver. But this was his last wild chance. It wasn't real. It didn't have to matter. He made himself cruel. "I won't."

       Elias looked stricken. Before Ciaran's horrified eyes, he raised his bound hands and thrust them into the flames. Then I am lost already, his eyes seemed to say, because you were my only hope.

       "No!" Ciaran screamed. Elias was so young and hurt and needed him. He should stride onto the scaffold and take him in his arms, and tell him that his master had come for him, even if the crowd cut them down and they died together.

       Out of the pale blue sky, it started to rain. The flames sizzled, and the raindrops struck Ciaran on the face, and each one was a reminder.

       "No," he moaned. "I can't save you, Elias. It's beyond me. But you can save yourself. Can't you see? Oliver says you can escape. You have to. Have you ever tried it, Elias? Have you? Or have you just waited for me to come and save you?"

       Elias's face crumpled. "I can't. I'm not anybody."

       Ciaran stood tall, putting his hands on his hips. If Elias was to live, he had to use any weapon left to him, even if that meant lying and cajoling and saying things he would never normally say. "You are my apprentice, Elias, and that makes you somebody. Make me proud of you. Don't just snivel here and expect to be saved. Fight for your life, Elias, because it is worth living. Many people will mourn you if you die."

       Elias lay very still. Time was frozen, Ciaran realised, as he fought for his apprentice's life. The crowd were statues, locked in jeering poses. In Elias's hair, the executioner's thick fingers were claws of stone. The only movement came from the slow drip of blood from Elias's wounds, and the heavy drops of rain. "Will you mourn me?" Elias whispered.

       "Of course I will," Ciaran snapped. "I'm your master."

       Elias tugged at his lip with his teeth. "How do I do it?"

       "I don't know," Ciaran had to admit. The rain was dying away, and already the flames were surging more fiercely, and the dark-edged laugher was back. There was very little time left, and he had to be cruel. "But Oliver says you can do it, and maybe you can, but you've never even tried, and I'm ashamed of you, Elias."

       Elias winced. "I'm sorry, master. I didn't know. I didn't mean to. I'll do better, I promise." He raised his shackled hands, and it was as simple as that. The chains fell away as if they were made of flimsy gossamer. White fire blazed from his hands, making the orange fire seem tawdry and pathetic, and the executioner fell motionless to the ground.

       Ciaran tried to call his apprentice's name, but the white fire robbed him of his voice. Elias gave no sign of seeing him. The boy took one faltering step, but the blood was still gushing from his wounds, and he could barely walk. His eyes were darting around the frozen crowd, seeking some escape, but they never once fell upon Ciaran. The possibility that they could escape together had never crossed his mind. Ciaran had done his job too well, and Elias thought he was on his own.

       There was movement at a high window, and a flash of weapons. Pursuit was being prepared, and it would be merciless.

       Come to me, Ciaran screamed silently. Let me carry you.

       Elias fell to his knees, and crawled, one hand held outstretched, blindly seeking something that was just out of reach. With an inhuman effort, Ciaran broke the paralysis that had been cast on him, and managed to grasp hold of Elias's hand. He fell to the ground beside his apprentice, and rolled onto his back.

       Floating from a cold blue sky, the first flakes of snow started to fall, and everywhere there was the sound of running water.

      

 

       Long after, and a lifetime away, Elias slept.

       "What happened?" Ciaran asked. He was deeply weary and it was a struggle even to sit upright.

       Oliver's face was grey and marked with lines of pain. He had been unconscious when Ciaran had come back, slumped against his back and still clasping tightly to his shoulders. "I saw very little of the vision," Oliver said, slowly, "but I got the impression of fire, so cast an illusion of water." He rubbed the bridge of his nose, wincing as if he had a dreadful headache. "I've never attempted to plant an illusion in a... a dream before. The effort was too much for me. I'm sorry."

       Ciaran looked at him. "I couldn't have done it without you." Tomorrow, Oliver would be the enemy again, and Ciaran would be fighting him, but today, together, they had helped bring Elias back from the dead. Suddenly embarrassed, he changed the subject. "Why did you hesitate before saying it was a dream?"

       Oliver looked down at his hands. "It was more than a dream, and you know it. When he resisted death on the scaffold, he was fighting the sickness. I could see him, on the bed, more clearly than I could see what you were seeing. There was white light everywhere, all coming from him. The battle he was fighting was real."

       As a bard, Oliver possessed a honeyed tongue that could charm the birds out of the trees with insincere words, but as a man, he was a poor liar. "That's not what you meant," Ciaran said, though he could muster little real anger. He had walked through the fire of emotion, and was an empty husk, unable to feel anything that was not muted with weariness.

       "No." Oliver shook his head, admitting his lie. "It didn't see much, but it looked to me like the main square in Eidengard, the capital of the Duchy. They execute their sorcerers in that square, and in just such a way. And he's already shown a gift with foresight. Why would he see it if it wasn't...?"

       "No," Ciaran interrupted. "You hardly saw it. It could have been a hundred other places. He probably saw Eidengard when he saw your memories that day, and I know he saw a sorcerer being burnt, because that's what you were talking about. So you put that horrible image in his head." He shook his head. "And, besides, there are lots of places in my world that look like that, too. Lots and lots of places. It could be anywhere."

       "Yes." Oliver nodded his head vigorously, and smiled. "You're probably right. I'm seeing fears where there aren't any." He touched Elias's hand. "I'm glad he's going to live. He deserves every happiness. He deserves far more than we can give him. I wish I could free him, but it's too late for that."

       Oh, but surely he was under some spell tonight, not saying any of the things he would have expected. All he heard was the sadness in Oliver's voice, and he had to accept that it sounded real. "You see something of yourself him in, don't you?" he asked. His voice was quiet and dull, for he was too drained to truly feel anything ever again, not until this long night was finally over.

       Oliver sighed. "None of us are free. Not him, not me, and not anyone. Are you truly free, Master Morgan? Or are you ruled by duty, and your own past, and promises made to the cause of men who are long dead? We are. You know our story. Long ago, our king bound us with a promise, and we are still prisoners of that oath."

       "No." Ciaran shook his head. He had attacked this man and hurt him, but then they had fought for Elias's life, side by side, sharing each other's pain. Maybe they would end up as friends, and maybe as enemies, but they could never be strangers again. "It's more than that, isn't it? It's something closer to your heart."

       Oliver looked at his hands, a long agonising look. When he raised his head, there were tears in his eyes. "I am a bard. I am the repository for the tales of our past, and the maker of our memories. That was all I ever wanted to do. But instead… Instead, I became seneschal. For as long as I live, that is my duty, and there's nothing I can do about it, however much I might dislike it."

       There were a hundred things Ciaran could have said, or he could have stayed silent. Instead, he gently touched Elias's hair, granting Oliver privacy in which to dash the tears from his eyes. He had sacrificed everything this night, and had nothing more to lose. But, at the same time, there was no cost. In the morning, everything would be right again, and he would face the world as Ciaran Morgan.

       "I believe you mean well," he said, still not looking at Oliver. "Whatever I believe about your cause, I believe you are a good man, and that you would never deliberately harm Elias. If any man here has to be seneschal and make claims on him, I'm glad that it's you."

       Oliver was silent for a little while, then he stood up, his feet scuffing as if he could barely walk. He pushed the door open a slit, and grey light surged into the hut, stronger than the guttering candle flames.

            "It's nearly morning," Oliver said, and Ciaran nodded. After the long night, day had almost come.


Chapter ten

One step

 

 

       The darkness was cold on his cheek, but the rest of him was as warm as toast, all safe and snug and comfortable. He could hear laughter, but it was not the cruel laughter of his dream, even when he strained breathlessly to make sure of it. That mocking voice had gone for ever, never to return, if it had even existed at all, and not been the product of his feverish imagination.

       Elias wiggled his toes, because it seemed nicely cautious to start there, to make sure they didn't hurt, before risking something more essential and immediate. As he did so, something moved through his hair, and he realised that there had been a hand resting there, so still that he had not even noticed it. He smiled a little, because he knew whose hand it must surely be, but did not open his eyes.

       The laughter swelled, and someone sang a line of raucous song, and someone else whooped in exultation, but another voice shushed them. "He's asleep," they said, and the other noises were broken off instantly. Elias wondered who was asleep, that they were so anxious not to disturb. It had to be someone very dear to them, he thought, or they would not have let their carousing be ruined so.

       Well, his toes didn't hurt, so maybe he should try his arms. He moved his hands, and something stirred at his throat, tickling him. He was completely covered in furs, he realised, swaddled tightly right up to his chin. Someone had tucked him in carefully, making sure there was not even the slightest gap for the cold air to get in.

       He opened his eyes, and saw a great pool of blackness, with stars pricked out in silver. It was framed by trees, like a leafy border around a dark mirror. As he looked at them, a single voice rose in song, and it was as if the stars themselves were singing. It was quiet music, with an undertone of sadness. The voice that sang it was a light tenor, with a slight hoarseness to it that made it less than perfect, but more moving than perfection could ever have been. At the end of each verse, other voices joined in the lilting chorus, singing quietly, and not all of them in tune. Although he could not hear the words, he thought it sounded very real and sincere, and he liked it.

       The hand on his head moved again, twisting a strand of his hair, so the end tickled his forehead exactly in time with the music. His master was listening to the same things he was, and watching the same things too. They were together again, like those winter nights so long ago, when they had sat side by side on the top of a hill and Ciaran had pointed out the stars. Here the stars were subtly different, and many things had changed, but some things were still the same, and he drew a fierce comfort from that.

       Above him were the outstretched wings of the constellation that had always seemed the most special to him. It was only a few sparse beads of silver, but in his mind it had always been a great tawny bird of prey, with bright golden eyes. It had come to him sometimes in his dreams, but at times he had seemed to be that bird of prey, riding in its body far above the fields. Those had been the most exhilarating dreams of all, leaving him breathless and yearning for things he could never name.

       "I wonder if the Kindred see it as a bird," he mused aloud. 

       Ciaran's hand stilled, but he gave a soft chuckle. "It's a bow and arrow, Elias. How many times do I have to tell you?"

       Elias turned his head, letting himself see more than just the stars. He was lying with his head in his master's lap, he realised, and the two of them were alone. There were other people not far away, but Elias was hidden from them by the bulk of a wooden hut. There was little light, but enough to see that Ciaran looked different. The skin beneath his eyes glistened softly as if he had been crying, but Ciaran Morgan never cried.

       "Master," he said, but he did not dare say more. If his master was crying, then the world was too strange. It wasn't real, and he was back in his nightmare, about to die.

       Ciaran smiled, and looked like his master again. "I've got you, Elias. Everything's going to be fine."

       But the furs encased him, pinioning his arms. He was too hot, and remembered flames, far away, and chains on his wrists. Before that, he had lain in a small hut, enclosed by walls and smoky candlelight, and faced the reality of imminent death. Ciaran had held him by his wrist, and there had been no air and no escape.

       He tried to free himself from the furs, but Ciaran stopped him. "No, Elias. You need to keep warm. You've been very ill."

       "But I need to feel fresh air," Elias told him, and Ciaran frowned, but let him go.

       "Be careful," he said. "You mustn't get cold."

       Beneath the furs, Elias saw that he was wrapped in Ciaran's own cloak. He extricated his arms from its tight folds, and the cold air bit into the backs of his hands. It seemed like the most lovely thing he had ever felt.

       "I won't get cold," he said, smiling happily. "I feel wonderful." And he did. Weak as a baby, but free of pain, and with a whole life stretching ahead of him that he had thought he would never see. It was marvellous how that could change the way you looked at things. He was alive!

       He wanted to sit up, to feel the fresh air all over. He wriggled, lifting his head from Ciaran's lap. "Elias," Ciaran fussed. "Lie still."

       "No." Elias shook his head, and even that movement felt brand new. "I want to sit up. Besides," he said, "you'll have pins and needles from me lying there so long."

       "I haven't," Ciaran said, and, "I don't mind," which Elias thought seemed to contradict each other. But when he had helped Elias into a sitting position, his jaw clenched, and Elias knew he was fighting the pain of blood rushing back into his legs.

       Elias rested his head against the wall of the hut. "You healed me," he said, when they were shoulder to shoulder, arm to arm, and hidden from the world.

       "Can you remember what happened?" Ciaran asked, in a tight voice.

       Elias raised one hand, and spread the fingers, letting the cold air flow between them. "A little," he lied.

       Ciaran grabbed his wrist. "Don't think about it," he urged him. "It was only a dream. It will fade away if you don't think about it. Dreams always do."

       But Elias's dreams seldom did. Didn't Ciaran know that? His childhood nightmares had been as real the day after as they had been in the dead of night, and they faded over time only in the way that all memories faded, and sometimes even slower. Elias licked his lips. "I don't remember all of it," he said. "I don't remember how it ended."

       Ciaran did not answer. He was reaching down beside him, picking up a large mug of water. "You're thirsty. Drink this." It sounded like a command.

       Elias did so, then wiped his mouth with the back of his head. He felt the water travelling down his throat, and his body greeted it like the first rain after a drought. He took another mouthful, then another, until he had drained the mug, and Ciaran was shaking his head, belatedly tutting that he should have taken it more slowly.

       "You saved me." Elias refused to be diverted. He had struggled in vain against the chains that had bound him, but had been too weak to break them. Ciaran must have found a way after all. He remember Ciaran walking away, and he remembered dying in the flames, but nothing after that, until his wakening beneath the stars.

       "I... did what I could," Ciaran said. Why did he look embarrassed to be reminded of what he had done? He had single-handedly taken on death, and won. Ciaran was never modest about his achievements, and normally swelled with contented pride when he was thanked.

       "You saved me, master," Elias said again. "I was so sure I was going to die."

       "Enough," Ciaran snapped. "Don't talk about it. It wasn't real. None of it was real, and now it's over." He looked away, out into the forest.

       All the time they had been talking, the singing had continued. "Is that Oliver?" Elias asked, accepting the change of subject. Ciaran had saved him, and it had probably been a very hard fight, and he had the right to say that some things were just too painful to talk about. Dying was easy, when locked in unconsciousness and tormented only by dreams. How much worse it was to be the one had to watch it all happen, bearing the responsibility of healing. Ciaran had had the hardest time of it, and he was innocent of all blame. Elias had brought it all on himself, and Ciaran had been the one to suffer, for... "How long?" he asked, completing the thought aloud.

       "Two days," Ciaran said, in a strangely stilted voice. "Two nights since we came here and you told me you were dying. One night since you fell ill again, after I thought you were better. This morning we knew that you would live. This is the start of the third night."

       Ciaran had looked after him for all that time. Elias touched the back of Ciaran's hand lightly, then leant sideways and looked round the side of the hut to the dark shapes around the fire. It was the first time he had seen either the Kindred or their camp, though he had been here for two days, and perhaps they had all seen him. He was supposed to be their king, and here he was, peeping round a corner to snatch a stolen glance of them, then retreating again into the shadows.

       "What a lot of them there are," he whispered, and imagined a large crowd like that, all staring at him.

       "They're not all there," Ciaran said. "The younger children are in bed. A lot of the men are missing. Reynard's not there, for one."

       Elias peeped round again, only one eye and two fingertips showing past the hut. Just as he did so, someone started up a lively song, and the others joined in after a few words, some with voices and some with instruments. They seemed to have quite forgotten that they were trying to be quiet.

       "They're not normally this noisy," Ciaran said. Ciaran had lived here for two days, and already knew a little of their ways. He knew more than Elias now, and could instruct him. He would like that, Elias knew, and Elias liked it too, because if his master was happy, he might stay with him a little longer. "They're celebrating. They must think they're very safe, to risk it."

       Elias's toe was tapping in time with the jaunty music, and he smiled. Part of him yearned suddenly to be part of the crowd beside the fire, linking arms with the men on either side, singing the chorus, all of them together. If he walked over now, they would stare at him, but they would welcome him, too.  Even though they would only be welcoming him because they wanted him to do impossible things for them, he thought he could still like it. He had always been the outsider, watching the banter and easy companionship of others, but the Kindred wanted him as one of their number. And, besides, he liked their music. Perhaps it was a foolish reason, but it seemed important.

       "But I don't like the fact that Reynard's missing," Ciaran said, then shook his head briskly. "But don't worry about that, Elias. I'll take care of everything. You just think about getting better."

       "Yes." Elias leant against the wall of the hut, and a contented sleepiness washed over him. Ciaran had saved him, and he was alive, and the Kindred were there, and he liked their music, and that meant that they couldn't be that bad, could they? Perhaps he could find a home here, and his master was here beside him, so he didn't have to face any of the bad things alone. He had been given a second chance at life. He had died in the fire, but he had come out of the other side, and all the things that had seemed so important and terrible suddenly seemed like nothing at all, when put against the enormous realities of life and death.

       He was alive, and there were beautiful stars above him, and joyful music all around him, and his master beside him, and for now that was all that mattered.

      

 

       Ciaran strode through the camp, and people made way for him as he passed. Sometimes he accosted one of them, grabbing children by the wrist, or holding the adults captive with the force of his gaze. "Where's Reynard?" he demanded. Some looked afraid, and some pointed this way, and some that. They disgusted him, so he let them go, and strode on.

       It was early afternoon, and Elias was asleep. Ciaran had watched over him for a while, and arranged and rearranged the blankets around him, but there was only so much that he could do. Several times he had been tempted to shake Elias awake, so he could ask him what he needed his master to do for him. He wanted to see Elias awake again, alive, and smiling up at him.

       As he had sat at Elias's bedside, the Kindred had been outside, or plotting in dark corners. I'll take care of everything, Ciaran had told Elias the night before, but he had done nothing to keep that promise, just sit uselessly beside a boy who could not see him, his hands folded in his lap like an old woman.

       So at last he had decided to tolerate it no longer. "I'll be back soon," he had told the Elias, and he had come stamping out into the daylight, his staff in his hand. How good it felt! He had a purpose again. He should have done this a day ago, as soon as it was clear that Elias was going to live. Instead he had just sat there, letting the day drift by, feeling numb and lost. He had been like a man cast up on the shore after a great storm, unable to do anything but lie there with his eyes closed as the waves washed over him.

       In the end, Elias had saved himself. Ciaran had been unable to do anything to save his own apprentice. He had fought and fought, but Elias had come in and snatched the glittering prize. He would have taken on all the enemies in the world and fought them for Elias's sake, but he had been robbed even of that. Elias was alive, and that was wonderful, but Ciaran had done nothing to save him, and that was horrible.

       But he was doing something now. He was wresting control back where it should be. Elias had saved his own life, but now it was up to Ciaran to ensure that his life was a good one. Reynard was plotting, and poor Elias would take his first faltering steps out of his hut, and Reynard and the others would pounce on him, like wolves surrounding a new-born lamb. Perhaps Elias had some strange power that had allowed him to save his own life, but he was too naïve and vulnerable to save himself from Reynard and his kind. This was a battle that only Ciaran could win, and it was a battle that he would fight willingly.

       "Where's Reynard?" he demanded, again and again. Did they see the fire of righteous violence in his eyes? He left a youth who refused to answer him sprawling in the dirt. Let them know that Ciaran Morgan would not sit by and let his apprentice be threatened! Let them see the knife at his belt, and the staff in his hand, and know that he would fight for the boy!

       At last he met someone who gave him an answer. "I don't know where he is," the old man said, "but I know where his tent is."

       "Show me," Ciaran commanded, and the old man did, though he glowered with resentment. Ciaran had half expected someone to draw a weapon on him by now, they all glared at him so, but no-one did. Perhaps Oliver had stuck his nose in and given orders that he was not to be harmed. Ciaran would have liked a fight, but he would get one soon enough, when he came face to face with Reynard.

       "Here," the old man said, when they reached a small cluster of tents and huts a little way away from the others. Their doors all faced outwards, towards the forest, as though they wanted to turn their backs on the rest of the Kindred and live apart.

       Ciaran dismissed the man and stalked forward. "Reynard!" He struck a flat stone with the heel of his staff. "Come out and face me, Reynard!"

       The old man stopped and turned to stare at Ciaran, his eyes narrow with hatred. Ciaran lashed out at him, though the man was far too far away for him to touch. The man stalked off, his head held proudly, pretending that he was not running away.

       "Reynard!" Ciaran shouted again. "You know who I am, Reynard. I have things to say to you." Things to say, and he didn't care if the whole camp heard them. Let Elias wake up, weak and tremulous, and hear his master's voice filtering through the trees, and know that Ciaran was fighting for him.

       Someone was walking towards him through the trees, and Ciaran brought his staff up, but it was not Reynard. It was a boy of about nineteen, with full lips and large eyes and dark chestnut hair curling around his face. He was very good-looking, and Ciaran thought he was all too aware of the fact. There was an arrogance to his walk, and a look of sulky petulance about his face. He sauntered up to face Ciaran, then stopped, his hand on his hip. "He's not here." He made no attempt to conceal his dislike.

       "Where is he?" Ciaran rammed his staff into the ground. "I will find him or wait for him."

       "Not here," the boy said again. "Gone to make his plans with the others." There was a dark fire of resentment in his eyes, and Ciaran suddenly wondered if he was angry as much with Reynard as he was with Ciaran.

       Perhaps it was a weakness Ciaran could exploit. "Plans?" he said, a little more quietly. "What plans?"

       "What to do now the king has returned." The boy might as well have spat in the ground, so clear was his disgust.

       Ciaran took a step forward. "You don't like that, do you?" he said, leaning so close that the boy would either have yield a step, or feel uncomfortable. "What part of it do you like the least?"

       "All of it." The boy took a step back after all. Then he turned away. "I'm not telling you."

       "You don't like that Reynard's left you out of it," Ciaran guessed. "Or you don't like Elias. You don't want a king. You think you can do very well by yourself. After all, you've coped by yourself for this long. What right does a stranger to come along and change things? And a boy, no less, no older than you. What's he done to deserve this honour? What can he do that you can't do better?" He grabbed the boy's shoulder. "Why him and not you?"

       "Get off me!" The boy whirled round, smashing Ciaran's hand aside. Inside, Ciaran felt a flame flare up, fierce and exultant. He could have his fight after all. He almost struck him with his staff, then forced himself to step back. He took several deep breaths. This boy was a potential ally, he reminded himself. He had touched a nerve with his words. There was one more person in the camp who had no love for Reynard, and no desire to see Elias as king.

       "I was only speaking the truth," Ciaran said mildly. "Wasn't I?"

       "I need no-one to show me the truth." The boy thrust out his chin, and pushed his cloak back, showing the sword that hung at his belt, its hilt worn with much use. "I can see the truth by myself."

       "But what will you do with it, now you know it?" Spread the word, he hoped. Whisper it around the camp that the Kindred had no need of a king after all. If Ciaran couldn't make Elias walk away from the Kindred, then he would make the Kindred walk away from Elias. He would use every weapon he had. He was fighting a war, and Ciaran Morgan never gave up until he was victorious.

       Ciaran had come looking for a fight, but instead he had planted a seed, and it was a seed that would grow. It was a good thing that he had done today, he thought. He was smiling as he walked back to the hut, and at last his mood matched the warmth and sunniness of the day.

      

 

       Elias threw off the blankets, and stood up, then had to grab hastily for the wall to stop himself from falling down again. He stood there with his head bowed, waiting for the dizziness to pass. Then, slowly, he raised his head again, and moved gingerly towards the door.

       He paused for a little while there, with one hand on the door hangings. He moved them a little, letting the orange light of sunset creep into the hut's dark interior. The light fell on his master's face, but Ciaran did not awaken. He was asleep on the floor, lying on his back with his arms and legs sprawled, and his head awkwardly positioned under the table. He had obviously been moving in his sleep, for the one blanket that covered him was tangled, and had half slid away from him.

       Elias let the curtain fall again, and the twilight darkness once again hid his master's face. Perhaps he should sit down again after all, and wait for Ciaran to wake up. Then they could go out into camp together, side by side. Ciaran would make sure nothing bad happened to him, and if he stumbled, his master would hold him up.

       Cold air wafted in from the door. Elias remembered how good the air had felt the night before, and how his master had tried to hold him beneath the stifling blankets and keep him from moving freely. Ciaran had saved his life, yes, but Elias was well again now, and nothing had changed. The Kindred still needed him. Ciaran would keep him wrapped up in furs, but Elias remembered how for a while his master's protectiveness had felt like cold chains.

        Before he could regret it, he pushed the door open, and walked out. It was cold outside, despite the clear sky, for the sun had almost set and was too low to give any real heat. He had expected to see all eyes turn towards him, but no-one looked at him. He saw several of them scattered around the camp, but they were all immersed in their tasks, and none of them had noticed him emerge. They would see him soon, though. It would only take one to see him, and then they would call to the others, and then... 

       No, he wasn't ready to face them, not just yet. He glanced around, looking into the forest behind his hut. If he darted to that tree over there, and then to that one, he could run a zigzag path deep into the forest, and no-one would see him, not if he was careful. There would be nothing around him but trees and soft sunlight, and they wouldn't even be able to follow his tracks. 

       Feeling like a naughty child sneaking away from his parents, Elias pushed himself away from the hut and started to walk. After the third step, the dizziness gathered itself up into a fist and jammed itself between his eyes. By the sixth, he was hunched over, his forearm pressed tight against his stomach. By the tenth, his legs felt like rubber, and he was shivering. Not darting after all, he thought, with a wry laugh. But he frowned with determination, and did not stop walking.

       Twenty-seven steps it took, and he counted every one. "There," he gasped, when he reached the tree that had been his first milepost. He touched it with his hands first, then guided himself round the trunk. When he was sure that no-one from the fireside could see him, he sank back against it with a long sigh, and closed his eyes. His head was pounding, but inside he was smiling. He was alive, and he could walk, and he had come this far alone, without anyone helping him. But he was not really hidden, and if he fainted here they would be able to find him, and probably that was good too.

       He opened his eyes, and the smile spilled over onto his face. His little expedition of twenty-seven steps left him feeling like a mountaineer who had scaled a peak no-one else had ever climbed, and now stood there staring down on a bright new world. The sunset made even normal things extraordinary, lit with dark golden light and with shadows that stretched to the edges of the world. It came through the trees in long slashes of perfect light, and Elias thought he had never seen colours so rich as where this light fell. There were a hundred different gradations of shade merely in the lichen on the bark beside his face.

       He had almost died, and now he lived. He was alive, and it was amazing how new and beautiful everything looked in light of that simple statement. He saw the veins on the few leaves that still clung to the trees, and smiled to see how bravely they stayed green, even though the brown was eating away at their edges. And he was here to see it, walking by himself, refusing to give up even when it had started to hurt. There had been no-one to say, "Stop, Elias. You have to rest. You're not up to this." There had been no-one to say, "can't", and so he had done it. He was alive, and there was nothing he could not do.

       Oh, he knew it couldn't be for long. He knew he was living on borrowed time. Tomorrow he would have to face the Kindred, and hear their demands, and once against have to live with the terror of failing them, but even that knowledge could do little to ruin his mood. That was tomorrow. Yesterday he had been dying, and tomorrow everything would be horrible again, but today was just for revelling in being alive.

       A twig cracked behind him, and his smile froze on his face. He stood very still, fear fluttering in his chest. Where he had seen only the sunlight, now he saw only the shadows, deep and very long. It wasn't enough, just being alive. It wasn't enough at all. He swallowed. "Who's there?"

       "Me," said a voice, and Elias let his breath out in a rush, because it was the voice of a young girl. She rounded the tree to stand in front of him, and she could see that she was around nine years old. She had dark hair that had once been neatly combed into a braid, but which had long since escaped in straggling strands. Her clothes were well mended, but her face was dirty, and her nails were black.

       Elias smiled at her. "And who are you?" He liked children. When he had been a child himself, they had scared him, but as soon as he had become old enough for the little ones to see him as a grown-up, he had started to feel comfortable with them, far more so than he could ever feel with adults.

       She clasped her hands demurely, though Elias was not taken in for a minute. Someone had taught her that this was how she should behave, but demureness was not in her nature. Her eyes were lively and intelligent, and she stared him full in the face. "I'm Alicia," she said. "Are you really the king?"

       He chewed his lip, wondering how to answer. The idea of someone like him claiming the title of king was absurd, but, at the same time, if he denied it too hotly he would be giving the impression that he was turning his back on them. He would help the Kindred in any way he could, because the sword had chosen him for that responsibility. And perhaps, he thought, remembering Oliver's story, that was what kingship meant to the Kindred, and not pomp and ceremony and jewels.

       He had still not decided what to say when she spoke again, rescuing him from the need to answer. "I know you are." She nodded, a very decisive movement with her sharp chin. "It's obvious."

       He smiled at her, thinking this was just the fancy of a child. "Why is it obvious?"

       "Because you look different," Alicia said, as if stupid even to have asked. "There's enchantment in your eyes, and you're pretty, like someone from a story."

       Elias felt himself blushing. He wanted to cover his face with his hand, but she was only a little girl, seeing with a child's eyes. "I'm just me," he said, staring at a branch so she could no longer see his face.

       "You're the king," she said, as if it meant there were no questions left to ask. "You're going to save us."

       "I don't know how to," he whispered, as the last light withdrew from the leaves, and the forest was grey and dark and plain.

       "You'll find out." She edged towards him. "Are you better now?"

       He dared to look at her again. "Almost." He lowered his voice, like a conspirator trusting her with a secret. "But I think I'd fall over if I let go of this tree."

       Her face twisted with worry, and he wished he could take the words back. He had wanted to show her that he was only a boy, and that she should turn her hero worship to someone else. "Can I help?" She looked over her shoulder, and all her bravado and confidence was gone. "I'll get someone."

       "No." He shook his head, and smiled again. "I'm sorry. I'm fine."

       "Good." She nodded, because he was her king, and she would believe him even if he said that black was white. What a terrible power he could have over these people, if he wanted to. Reynard was right to hate him. "The seneschal told us not to bother you until you were better," she confided. "He shouted at them. I've never heard him shout before. My father was very cross. I heard him afterwards. Nobody knew I was awake. There were lots of them. Reynard was speaking the most."

       "What was he saying?" Elias felt very cold, as if his cloak was suddenly as thin as gauze.

       She frowned, clasping her hands like a schoolchild reciting a lesson. "There can be no delay," she said, in an attempted mimicry of a man's voice that would have been comical at any other time. "We act now, the way we want to. His coming is a sign, and finally we are free to do what we have always longed to do. We won't let him fail us. If he tries to stop us..."

       "What?" he asked, but it was only a faint croak. He cleared his throat. "What did he say then?"

       She looked embarrassed. "They found me. They put me back to bed. Reynard had his sword in his hand." She raised her head eagerly, anxious to make up for her ignorance by offering the things that she did know. "They said other things before that. They said you needed to be educated or coerced." She hesitated over the unfamiliar words. "They're worried you're going to do it all wrong. They said you're too young. But you're not young. You're grown up. And the king can do anything. Why did they say that?"

       You can do anything. He had thought the same himself, not so long ago. He had walked twenty-seven steps, and thought of it as a great achievement. A stupid boy indeed. "So what would you like the king to do?" he asked, knowing that her demands would be as impossible as all the others. "Of all the anythings, what do you want?"

       "Nothing," she said, without a moment's hesitation. "I like it here. I like climbing trees. I couldn't do that in a palace. There's stone everywhere in the cities. There's no grass. You can't smell the trees. You have to wear dresses with tight laces and you can't run around. You have to be ladylike." Her nose wrinkled with disgust. "I like playing chase with the boys."

       "It's home," Elias said. "You don't want anything to change." He understood. Greenslade had felt safe, even when his days were friendless, and his nights were full of nightmares. "You'd be happier if I'd never come, wouldn't you?"

       "Oh no." She shook her head fiercely. "You're the king. Everything will be wonderful now. When you're the king in Eidengard, I'll just live here for ever and ever. I'll be safe, because that's what the king does. He makes everything safe for us."

       Elias closed his eyes. It was over. Tomorrow, he had told himself, resolving to spend one night just revelling in the joy of being alive. But it had just been minutes after all, and now it was over. Alicia, in her innocence, had killed his good mood, and now there was no beauty in the world, only dark undergrowth that lurched and glowered.

       There can be no delay, Reynard had said. That had been the night before, when he had drowsed in his master's lap, staring stupidly at the stars. Ciaran had told him that Reynard and the others were absent, but Elias had thought little of it. And now it was a whole day later, and who could tell what harm had been done? The moment he had entered this world, everything had changed. Reynard was using his coming as a license to wage war, and the bloodshed would be terrible.

       "There is something," she said, interrupting his thoughts. "Something I want you to do."

       He opened his eyes and gazed at her bleakly. "What?" So many things, and all of them impossible.

       She pointed up into the tree. "There's a squirrel up there. Can you get it down for me? I've never stroked one before."

       Surprised, he looked up, and saw a flash of soft orange fur above him, half lost in the twilight, and too far for him to reach. "I'll try," he said, doubtfully. He reached out one hand, and made soft encouraging noises. "Come on," he urged it, and, to his amazement, it hopped neatly down the branches and landed on his outstretched arm.

       Alicia clapped her hands with pleasure, then pressed one hand to her mouth, afraid that she had startled the animal, but the squirrel seemed unaware of her. It stared at Elias, and its tiny eyes spoke to him of freedom and treetops and the wind ruffling through fur, even as it had chosen to forsake that freedom and come willingly to his hand.

       "Why don't you stroke him?" Elias whispered. Alicia leant forward, and the end of her braid brushed against his hand. She stroked the squirrel's side with two tentative fingers, and its quivered a little, as if it liked it, but was fighting its natural instinct to flee. It kept looking at Elias. "We won't hurt you, little one," he murmured, and the quivering stopped. Its fur was lustrous and very beautiful, and its tail moved like a silk ribbon.

       Alicia stroked it one more time, then stepped back. The children of Greenslade might have asked to keep the animal as a pet, but she seemed to recognise it as something that could be stroked for a while, but had to be allowed to run free. "Thank you." She pressed her hands together, and looked at him as if he was the most wonderful thing she had ever seen.

       Elias had no idea why. All he had done was hold his hand out, and, by some lucky fluke, the animal had come to him. He raised his arm, holding it up to the lowest branch, and the squirrel hopped neatly into the tree. It paused on a broad branch and looked down at him, then, with a quick flick of its tail, it disappeared. High in the tree, the branches shivered, and a dry leaf fell in lazy circles, drifting to Elias's feet.

       Pressing one hand against the tree, Elias turned round, looking back towards the fire. There were more people there than they had been, and some of them were standing quite still, looking at him.

       It was time to go back, but it no longer scared him. Alicia, who had all unwittingly reminded him of all that was bleak and awful about the world, had stepped in at the end and given him a ray of light. She had wanted such a little thing from him, and it had been easily given, and now she was beaming with delight. And it had been such a little thing, such a tiny thing.

       Perhaps it would all be like that, he thought. The Kindred wanted him to save them, and the magnitude of the task was terrifying, but, when it came down to it, perhaps it would be only a series of small decisions and tiny tasks, each one easy. A thousand thousand tiny steps made an enormous journey. You could travel to places that were impossibly far off, but all you had to do was to put one foot in front of the other, again and again and again.

       Twenty-seven steps, and Ciaran would have told him that he was too weak and urged him to turn back, but Elias had not turned back. He had reached his destination, and he would walk back, too. One step at a time, and this was the first.

       He turned to Alicia. "Can you help me find Oliver? I need to talk to him."

       She nodded, visibly swelling with pride at being asked to do something by her king. Elias felt uncomfortable to see it, but he could see it was making her very happy, and surely that was what mattered, wasn't it? She went ahead, the proud little leader with the important job, and he followed. As they passed his own hut, where his master lay sleeping, she turned and looked at him, imitating the expression of a concerned mother. "Do you want to hold my hand?"

       "No," he smiled, shaking his head, though he felt as if his knees were about to buckle and tip him over onto the ground. "I'm fine." He would do this on his own two feet, without help, or what was the point of all his fine-sounding resolutions?

       She started moving again, but suddenly there was Oliver, striding towards him past the fire, grinning broadly. "Elias!" He clasped Elias by the upper arms, almost pulled him into an embrace, then pushed him away again, holding him at arm's length and devouring him with his eyes.

       Elias quite deliberately did not meet his gaze. Instead he turned to one side and spoke to Alicia. He had known even before he looked at her that she was feeling dejected, robbed both of her task, and of her king's attention. "Thank you, Alicia." He had the satisfaction of seeing her head jerk up, and a smile suffuse her face.

       Oliver did not release Elias, but he, too, turned towards her. "That was well done, Alicia, looking after him like that. But your mother's looking for you. Best find her now. We don't want her spanking the king here, for keeping you from your chores."

       She giggled, but was slow to run off, seemingly incapable of taking her eyes off Elias. When at last she was gone, Elias found himself swaying, and for a moment was afraid he was going to faint.

       "Are you sure you should be up?" Oliver was looking at him with concern. "I was about to sit down and eat. Will you join me?"

       "I will," Elias mumbled, and crumpled into an inelegant heap, his knees collapsing and his body following. "I'm not quite better yet," he admitted. Oliver had framed it as a question, giving Elias the chance to refuse. It made it easier to admit the truth. Ciaran would just have looked sternly at him and ordered him back to bed, or would have scooped him up in his arms and not taken no for an answer.

       Oliver went over to the fire, and came back with a platter of food in one hand, and two tankards in the other, held by their handles, and both spilling a little. "I'm so glad to see you up," he said, as he settled down beside Elias's side. No-one else would know that Elias had simply collapsed here. All they would see was two people who had chosen a slightly unusual place to sit and have their dinner.

       Elias bit into a lump of meat. It was moist and tasty, and he suddenly realised just how hungry he was. He took another mouthful, chewed it, and swallowed. "Now I'm well again," he said, "there's something I need to do. Something we need to talk about."

       Oliver grabbed his wrist. "No."

       "Why not?"

       "Because you're still not well," Oliver said. "Because I sat and watched while you stopped breathing again and again, and no-one who was that close to dying just yesterday should have to do something like that today."

       "But Reynard..." Elias began. "He's started things already. Just one more day..."

       "You need one more day far more than we do," Oliver said gently. He released Elias's wrist, but gave the back of his hand a quick squeeze.

       "I need to do it today," Elias said, a little desperately. It would never be easy, but tonight he was ready. Tomorrow he might have lost his nerve. He had returned to the camp full of determination, resolved to see this thing through. He was no leader, and never would be, but people would listen to him because of the sword that he bore. It was scary, but it was good, too. He had been nobody for so long, while others suffered in the world, and he had been too little and shy to do anything to help them. It was a fine thing to know that he had the power to save a woman's life, and to make a young girl smile. He could make a difference. He really could.

       But half an hour could change his mood utterly, and how much more could a whole day do? Tomorrow, he might want to run gibbering in terror at the very mention of the word "king." Tomorrow he might wake to find Reynard at his door with an army, or Ciaran standing over him telling him that this was it, he was going, it was over now, goodbye. Tomorrow, his whole life might have changed.

       "I know," Oliver said, "but I also know that I have to stop you. That is my right as seneschal. You can hardly stand, Elias. The only thing I will let you do tonight is rest. We've been so quick to tell you all the things we want you to do for us, but that's over now. I was wrong. I refuse to stand by and let this become a precedent."

       "Precedent?" Elias asked. He felt pinned by the force of Oliver's sudden unexpected emotion.

       "For you sacrificing yourself," Oliver almost shouted. He slammed the tankard down on the ground. "For you putting our needs before your own. I watched you die, Elias. I won't let you suffer for us. I refuse to. It ends right here, before it begins."

       Elias twisted his fingers hard enough to hurt. "But what choice have I got?" he asked, miserably. "I either betray you, or I..."

       "No," Oliver interrupted. Then he sighed, shaking his head. "I know there are things you have to do. And, even though I know that it will cost you, I cannot bring myself to say that I would wish them not done. I want my people to be safe. I want it more than anything. Our hope is a heavy burden to you, and I regret that, and may all the kings forgive me, but I would not wish to see you lay it down completely. But I will make it as light as I can. If there is anything I can do to help you bear it, I will."

       "I know," Elias whispered. He blinked, for his eyes were stinging. "But I need to take it up today, just so I know what it is. It's not real yet." It was just too huge and overwhelming. He had a whole world to save. Couldn't Oliver see? Elias needed to sit down and map out the first step on the journey, just so he knew where to start. Even saving the world had to start somewhere, with a first opening of the door, and an easy walk across the yard.

       "No," Oliver said, again, and Elias knew that he was meaning to be kind, but also that he had completely failed to understand. "Forget about our needs for a night, Elias. Concentrate on getting well. Just be yourself. Do something that makes you happy." He touched Elias's hand again. "Please, Elias. It's very important to me. I don't think I could bear it I allowed you to do this thing, so soon after almost dying."

       Elias picked up a lump of bread and tore it in half. Inside it was coarse and grainy, but it smelled good. He was too tired to argue with Oliver, so he just took a mouthful, and said nothing.

       "If you stay here with us," Oliver said, "you must make sure never forget your own needs. I want you to be happy. Whatever else you are, you are still Elias. What does Elias want?"

       Elias stopped, the second mouthful almost to his mouth. "I don't know." To be safe and to be loved, he had always thought. Never to be alone in a world where nobody cared. To see everybody happy around him, and to know that nobody was hurting.

       "What do you like doing?" Oliver asked. "If there was a whole day ahead of you, and there was nothing you needed to do and nobody who was going to judge you at the end of it, how would you spend it?"

       Elias's eyes flickered from side to side, but all he could see was other people, standing in the twilight and watching him. "I don't know." He had never had such a day, not in all his life. There was such fervour in Oliver's voice, but Elias had no idea how to give him what he wanted. He would fail, and Oliver would be disappointed in him. "Was that you singing last night?" he asked, suddenly desperate to change the subject.

       "It was." Oliver inclined his head. "I prefer to tell plain stories, but sometimes the occasion seems to call for music. I can't do anything about my voice, and I should practice the lute more, but I enjoy it."

       "I liked it." Then Elias suddenly realised that perhaps he could give Oliver what he wanted after all. "I like singing," he confessed. "Sometimes, when I know there's no-one around to hear me, I sing when I'm outside." So now Oliver knew something about him that not even Ciaran knew. "I probably don't do it right, though."

       "There is no right and wrong," Oliver said. "A song is what you want it to be. But they are better shared, I think. There is something very sad about telling a tale when there is no-one to hear."

       "I'm sorry," Elias whispered, chastened.

       Oliver sighed, as if Elias had said something wrong. "There's nothing to be sorry about," he said, wearily. Then he gave a bright smile. "Do you want me to teach you one of our songs?"

       Elias stared down into his drink, swirling it around so the pale twilight danced on the surface of the liquid. "I think so," he said. It would be good to join in the choruses, at least, even though the idea of standing up and singing by himself was terrifying.

       His shyness was probably only too visible on his face. "Later, then," Oliver said. "Or just learn by listening. If we start singing later, come and join us. Cover your face if you like. It does the heart good, Elias, to be part of a circle, all singing the same words."

       But Ciaran wouldn't sing. Ciaran wouldn't even join the circle. Elias sighed. They were all watching him, even here. A pair of girls around his own age were standing with their arms linked. When they saw him looking at them, they nudged each other, and walked away, whispering. Another girl was standing by herself, slowly edging forward. She was staring at Elias so intently that he felt himself blushing. He thought she was going to come right up to them and start talking to him, but suddenly she turned and walked away.

       Further away, lost in the twilight, there was a cluster of young men. Suddenly two of them drew their swords and started to fight. Elias gasped, but no-one else made any move to stop them. It was only a practice fight, he told himself. Even so, the sound of swords clashing together made him uneasy, reminding him that there was far more at stake here than whether he learned the Kindred's songs.

       He turned back to Oliver. "Tomorrow morning, then. We can't wait any longer. It's already started."

       Oliver just looked at him. "Yes," he said, at last. He gave a shaky laugh. "I'm scared, you know, Elias. Reynard is a hard man to deal with. When the sun goes down tomorrow, we might be in a state of war. Or we might be staring into the future, with our king at our side, and have to admit that we have no idea what to do now." He shrugged. "Perhaps it's not only for your sake that I stopped you doing it tonight. Five hundred years waiting for this, and now I only want to delay it. I want it to happen in daylight." He looked up at the sky. It had become dark so quickly, and the smoky breeze made Elias shiver. "I want it to happen in the sunlight."

       "Tomorrow, then." Elias took a mouthful of meat, and then another, and another, so many that there could be no more talking.

      

 

       Some time later, he was sitting on the edge of his bed, his knees drawn up to his chest, hugging them close. The food had left him feeling a bit stronger, but his eyes hurt and his head felt fuzzy, thoughts slithering out of reach. He had rehearsed a hundred different openings for the speech he would have to make in the morning, but each one had trailed away after a few words. After a while, he just sat there, staring unseeingly into the depths of candle flame, while random words wove incoherently through his mind.

       And then Ciaran was stirring noisily, and Elias jumped, his head snapping up. The candle was a good inch shorter than it had been when he had last noticed, but he had no idea how much time that meant he had lost.

       "Elias?" The end of his name was lost in a yawn. Ciaran rolled over, so he was resting on his elbows. His short hair was tousled, and his lips were slightly parted. He looked soft and unguarded, with all the usual hard lines of his face relaxed.

       Don't change, Elias wanted to cry. Stay like this forever. Then he noticed that Ciaran was only wearing his thin summer robes beneath the single blanket. "Are you cold?" Elias asked. His voice was hoarse, and he cleared his throat. "Master, are you cold?"

       Ciaran frowned, and there, as easily as that, all the hard lines were back. "No. I'm fine."

       "You’re cold." Elias persisted, for he could see the goose pimples on his master's skin. He reached to his throat and unclasped the cloak. It was his master's cloak. When he had ventured out into the camp, he had been wearing his master's cloak, and had looked ridiculous, trailing a good six inches of spare material behind him as he walked. At the time, he had simply clutched it close, and not even noticed. "Here," he said, holding it out. "Have it back."

       Ciaran did not take it. "You keep it, Elias. You need it more than I do."

       "I've got my own cloak," Elias said. "I can wear that."

       "No." Ciaran sat up. "You can't wear that, Elias. You can't."

       Something in his master's voice made Elias pause, and he wondered what he had said wrong. Ciaran had always been prone to reacting angrily to the most innocent of things, as if they meant far more than Elias had ever realised. "It's only a cloak," he said. Then he thought he understood. "I'll still be wearing a Brother's cloak, master. I'm not wearing one of theirs."

       Ciaran stared at the ground. "You can't wear it. It's got blood on it, and it's muddy from where you fell. I wrapped you in it and there was no place clean on it. I..." He stopped suddenly, and looked away.

       "I'll wash it," Elias said. "You won't be able to tell." If he had seen his master almost die, he thought, perhaps he too would be reluctant to see the blood-stained clothes that reminded him of that dreadful time.

       "Wear mine until then." It sounded like an order. Perhaps Ciaran saw it as a mark of ownership. If Elias went out into the camp wearing his master's over-large cloak, all the Kindred would see that he was still a child, still dependent on his master. And how apt it was. The Kindred tried to push honours and responsibilities upon him, but he was only a small boy wearing a giant's clothes, and he would never grow to fit them.

       He blinked, and his hand crept up to the bridge of his nose, where his headache was pounding like a living thing. "Thank you, master. Thank you for looking after me so well." It sounded stilted, but he meant it sincerely. Even if Ciaran's reasons were not entirely pure, Elias could not bring himself to resent it. Part of him longed to snuggle up in his master's cloak, and never have to make any decisions for himself. "But only until tomorrow. I'll wash mine, and then you can have yours back."

       Ciaran stood up. His head almost touched the ceiling. "Fine." He snatched up a dark bundle from the table, and Elias realised that it was his own cloak. "But I'll wash it for you. It'll be as good as new." He smiled, but it was more like a grimace.

       "Not yet." Elias reached out one hand, then let it fall again. "I need to talk to you first."

       Ciaran froze. He breathed in very slowly, then breathed out again. "What about?"

       "About tomorrow." Elias twisted his master's cloak in his hands. "I've got to make decisions. I've got to talk to Oliver and Reynard about what we do now. I've been here for days, but we've made no plans, and it's not fair to anyone. This thing's huge, but it's happened, and now we're all just... just wandering in the dark, overwhelmed by how vast it is. I need to mark out a path." He swallowed, aware that he was making little sense. He tried again. "I used to think it would all be over, as soon as I found Albacrist's people. The Kindred have spent five hundred years just waiting for their king to come back. Neither of us thought about what would happen after that. We thought it was an end, but it was only a beginning... And... I just need to talk to them, master."

       Ciaran sat down stiffly on the wooden chair. "So you've decided, then," he said, not looking at Elias. "You're staying. You're going to do everything they want you to."

       Elias kneaded his forehead, shading his eyes from the light. "I haven't decided anything," he said, but perhaps it was a lie, because of the hundred different openings he had practiced had all said the same thing. "That's why I need to talk to them." His hand fell into his lap. "I'm not choosing them over you, master."

       Ciaran ignored him. "And they still want you?" he asked, leaning forward in his chair. His eyes were glittering, like they always did when he was angry.

       "Yes." Elias remembered the things Oliver had said. "Yes, they do."

       His master snatched the cloak from his hands, and Elias had been holding it so tightly that the fabric burnt his fingers. "Give me the cloak, then, if you won't wear it." He put it on, and suddenly, just like that, he was Master Morgan, who ruled Greenslade so completely, and would never concede a thing.

       "I was only telling you," Elias said, in a faint voice, "because I wanted you to be with me tomorrow. I wanted you there. I still do."

       Ciaran looked down on him. "Then I'll be there." He said it casually, as if it meant nothing.

       "I want you there," Elias said, thinking Ciaran must have misunderstood. He had expected some reaction, at least. "I'm not asking you to make promises. It doesn't have to mean anything. I just want you there tomorrow morning. There with me. Please."

       "I said I would." Ciaran sounded impatient. Then he gave a sudden smile, showing his teeth in the candlelight. "I wouldn't miss it for the world, Elias."

       Elias let out a long breath, surprised at how relieved he was. His head swam, and suddenly there was his master, easing him down onto the bed, gently covering him with blankets. "Go to sleep, Elias," Ciaran said. He touched Elias on the cheek, soft, yet perfunctory. "I'll get your cloak washed for tomorrow."

       Elias caught hold of his master's wrist. "I'm glad you'll be there with me, master."

       Ciaran gave a quick smile. "You sleep, Elias." He looked at Elias for a little longer, then stood up, snatched up the muddy cloak, and walked out of the door.

      

 

       Elias was the first one up in the morning. Rubbing his eyes, he walked out into a watery mist, where everything was grey and ghost-like. He found his cloak draped over a clever arrangement of branches, and picked it up, but it was limp and heavy, soaked through with dew. Shivering, he pulled it on, where it clung to the skin at his throat and brushed against the insides of his wrists.

       He walked over to the fire, and sat down on the wet ground. There was just enough residual heat in the embers to keep him from shivering too badly. On the far side of the thick curtain of mist, the sun was starting to rise, and specks of pale yellow glistened in the whiteness. After a while, he saw dark grey figures begin to move. No-one seemed to see him. He pulled his knees up to his chest, and rested his chin on his folded hands.

       His eyes were gritty, and his headache still lingered. Perhaps he had slept a little during the night, but he thought he probably hadn't. For long hours he had just stared at the ceiling, rehearsing the things he was going to say, and worrying about the reactions he would provoke. When his master had come back in, Elias had closed his eyes tight, and Ciaran had blown out the candle and settled down on the floor without a word. After a few minutes, he had been snoring peacefully. Elias had looked at his dark outline for a very long time, and had tried to lull himself by emulating the rhythm of his breathing, but sleep had still eluded him.

       Oliver had meant kindly, Elias knew. He had gifted Elias with one last day of freedom, but Elias thought it would have been better for him if the gift had never been given. He had spent a whole night worrying about this, imagining all the ways it could go wrong. He had spent a night without sleep, and he was more afraid of it than he had been the evening before.

       He sighed. He stood up, the damp cloak slapping against his legs, and walked in a half circle around the fire. At the far side he stopped, and crouched down beside a whetstone.

       The sun rose higher. The distant yellow began to suffuse the mist, and he could feel the beginnings of warmth on his face. Even his own hut was outside the small circle that he could see, as invisible as the forest and the distant cities.

       A man stalked past him, drawing his sword as he walked. When he reached the whetstone, he bent down and started to sharpen it, but surely it was sharp enough already, sharp enough to draw blood and to kill. The wound on Elias's side testified to that.

       Elias stood up. He spoke the man's name. "Reynard."

       Reynard did not respond, just dragged the sword along the whetstone, making it shriek. Maybe it was a trap, Elias thought, with Reynard as the bait. Other men might be surrounding him, hidden in the mist. When Elias edged close enough, Reynard would grab him by the wrist, and the other men would fall on him with their swords, killing him for not being who they wanted him to be. The mist would hide their deeds, and no-one would know.

       Elias pressed his hand against his side, where the wound ached with the dampness of the morning, and said Reynard's name again. He was alone, and that was how it had to be. Reynard had to see that he was more than a little boy who couldn't venture out without his master. If Elias couldn’t even approach him by himself, what hope did he have in the coming confrontation? The morning was going to be difficult, so he had to make sure it started right, with Reynard willing to listen to him, and Elias brave enough to speak. He was doing it to prove something to Reynard, but also to prove something to himself, too.

       "Reynard," he said, for the third time. He was close enough now to see the droplets of water that clung to Reynard's hair, making it lank and heavy. He was close enough to see the sinews on his wrist, and how strongly and effortlessly they held the sword.

       Reynard ran the blade across the whetstone one last time, then turned round. "What?"

       Elias clasped his hands in front of him. He found it hard not to look at the sharp edge of the blade. "We need to talk."

       Reynard ignored him. He raised his sword and twisted it one way and the next. Licking his finger, he touched the edge appraisingly, then nodded with satisfaction. He sheathed the sword slowly, and only when it was fully sheathed did he look at Elias. "Then," he said, making no attempt to hide the disdain in either his look or his voice, "let us talk."

       "Not here," Elias said. "And not alone. Oliver needs to be there. And..." He raised his chin, and did not waver. "And my master."

       He had expected Reynard to object, but the man simply nodded. "Lead on, and I will follow," he said, and Elias tried to find mockery in the tone, but could not. Perhaps Reynard respected him a little after all, if only for daring to approach him alone, and making demands.

       Elias turned to walk away, and only then did he see them. Oliver was standing on the other side of the fire, his hands clasped tightly in front of him, just watching him. Ciaran was striding forward, ready to clap his hand on Elias's shoulder and intervene. He had not been alone after all, but watched over, like a child whose parents let him pretend he was grown-up, but hovered always in the background and made sure nothing bad happened to him. Reynard had probably seen them there all along, and had been mocking him after all.

       "What did he say to you, Elias?" Ciaran demanded.

       Elias sighed. "Nothing," he said, wearily. "We're ready," he said, when Oliver joined them. At least Oliver had hung back.

       "Then follow me." Oliver looked tired, and Elias remembered that he, too, was afraid of what might happen this morning. "I know where we can go."

       They started walking, and then Ciaran was there, walking at Elias's side. "You should have woken me up, Elias."

       "I was going to."

       Oliver turned round and smiled at him. "How are you feeling today?"

       "Better than yesterday," Elias told him. Although he had barely slept all night, he felt stronger. He still had a headache, but he could walk without dizziness. If his master supported him, he could walk for miles and miles. But when Ciaran's arm brushed against his, he moved discreetly away. Ciaran instantly closed the gap.

       The mist was thinning, burnt away by the sun. The pale grey trees grew darker, and the individual details of bark and leaves began to appear. Now that he was awake to it, Elias sensed enchantment all around him, flowing like blood through the veins of every plant and animal in the forest. Despite everything, it felt good to be outside, to be alive in a place that was so rich with life. Even if they were returned to their cities and stone halls, he thought many of the Kindred would be like Alicia, and choose to spend most of their lives outside.

       Oliver felt it, he thought, even if Reynard and Ciaran did not. Why else had he insisted that they do this thing outside, in the sunlight? Enchantment was at the heart of the Kindred, and enchantment was very much about life. It felt wrong to make the decisions they were going to make inside, with dark walls cutting them off from the rest of the world.

       They walked out of the camp, beyond the furthest tent. A child watched them pass, two small hands clutching the curtain and holding it apart just enough for a pair of bright eyes to peer through. A squirrel darted along a branch, its tail undulating elegantly, and Elias fought the urge to call out to it, just to see if it would come. He wanted his master to see it, and Oliver too.

       His steps grew slower. Ciaran noticed and grasped his elbow. Oliver, leading them, slowed his pace, but did so without comment, and without even looking back. Reynard strode on, slowing for no-one, and soon was ahead.

       "Here," Oliver said, at last, when he stood at the bottom of a small slope, and Elias was still at the top. It was a natural valley, a scoop taken out of the ground, with steep slopes on three sides. The broad trunk of a fallen tree sealed off the fourth side. Its branches had been cut off to stumps.

       Elias slithered down the slope. The background noise of the forest faded as if a door had been closed. The fallen tree blocked the only level way out. The slope was easily climbable, but it served as a barrier, defining the limits of the place where they would do their talking. If anyone tried to overhear them, they would be visible, silhouetted above them on the edge.

       Oliver sat down first, choosing an outcrop of pale rock for his seat. Reynard turned round and slowly walked back, climbing effortlessly over the fallen tree. He leant back against it, but remained standing, his arms folded. Elias chose a sawn off branch close to the ground. It was low and uncomfortable, but it kept him off the wet ground. Ciaran was the last one to choose his position, and his long legs allowed him to reach the top of the fallen tree trunk. He sat with his back very erect, towering above the rest of them as if on a throne.

       Elias looked at them all, and thought he would remember this forever. He had rehearsed this so many times, and now the moment had come. It seemed unreal, as if this was only another of those endless practices in his imagination. This is it, he thought. There was only the faintest smear of mist left, and the sunlight shone on the four of them in all its morning purity.

       "Makers," Oliver murmured. "There were four Makers, and they came together to dream a world. We are four, and the world will be changed because of what we do." Like Elias, he was watching them all intently, but Elias knew he was doing so in order to describe them in a song, to be passed down to future generations. However this morning turned out, it would become part of the Kindred's history. Elias was the hero of a story that he should never have appeared in at all.

       Well, he thought, at least he could write the next line. All he had to do was open his mouth and say it. He glanced at Oliver, then down at the ground. There was a brown leaf there, and it lay utterly still. Elias stared at it. He took a breath, and opened his mouth to speak.

       "Well, Reynard?" Ciaran demanded, from where he was enthroned above them. "I think it's time you spoke. Enough of this plotting in secret. Tell Elias what you want him to do."

       Elias looked up at his master. Please, master. No. Ciaran's face was hard, and his eyes glittered with hatred. Elias tried to speak again, but Ciaran whirled on him. "No, Elias! Let Reynard speak. You need to hear this before you commit yourself to anything."

       "I already know, master," Elias said, but his voice was a whisper, lost in the storm. Ciaran was shouting, and then Reynard was, too, pushing himself away from the tree and stalking forward.

       "Stay out of it, Ciaran Morgan," he shouted. "You're nothing here. Nothing."

       Ciaran lowered his voice. "Tell him." He looked at Elias, but, if he saw the expression on Elias's face, he didn't care. "Listen to this, Elias. Watch it, and learn."

       Reynard put his hands on his hips. "You want me to tell him?" He whirled on Elias, his expression the twin of Ciaran's. "You want to hear?"

       "No," Elias whispered. He twisted his fingers, and looked at the dead leaf. No-one was even trying to hear his answer. No, he pleaded, silently. I don't want to hear it. I know it already. I wanted to speak first. Please.

       "Reynard wants to go to war," Ciaran said, with evident relish "He's been away with his cronies, plotting with them even as you were dying. He's going to kill innocent people, Elias - little girls like that one who died in the fire. And he's going to do it because of you. He's going to force you to go along with it. He'll tie you to your horse and make you ride at the head of the army, as a figurehead. You'll see them all die, and everyone will blame you."

       Reynard put his hand on the hilt of his sword. "I want to go to war, you say? Yes, I do." He started pacing, his steps quick and violent. "Why should I deny it? It's the only thing to do. We've been robbed of our rightful position for so long. Now is the time to fight to get it back. Now is the time to make them pay."

       "And you have it all planned out?" Ciaran asked, with deceptive mildness.

       "Yes." Reynard nodded. "Alberic ordered us not to fight. If we fought without a king to lead us, we would die. We've always known that when the king came back, we would finally be free to fight. I've planned it for a lifetime, as did my father, and everyone before him. We've dreamed of nothing else."

       "I haven't," Oliver said, so quietly that only Elias heard him. For a moment, their eyes met.

       "The moment he came, we were ready," Reynard said, proudly. "I've sent to the other Houses, so they will be ready to march on my command."

       "On your king's command, surely?" Ciaran said. "On the command of this boy you despise. On the command of this boy you didn't even bother to consult." His voice rose high and shrill. "On the command on this boy who was dying, even as you made your plans. Dying because of you!" He thrust out one accusing finger.

       Reynard laughed. "How was that my fault?"

       "Because you robbed those people," Ciaran said, folding his arms. He looked supremely sure that he was right in every single thing that he said and did. "Because, if you hadn't, Elias would never have been exposed to the illness that he nearly died from."

       Reynard shrugged. "There are always risks in the way we live. That's why we need war. Let them live as exiles, watching their children die. See how they like it!"

       "You're so sure of victory?" Ciaran scoffed.

       "There are two thousand of us, and we've lived for this moment. With Albacrist as a token, and the king's name as our rallying cry, there is not a man in the Kindred who will not join us. We have enchantment, and the king has more. He's a boy, yes, so it falls to us to provide the leadership and make the decisions, but we will not fail. The Duke's a soft man, and the armies are run down. They've grown used to us skulking in the forests and only attacking to repel them when they get too close. They've never seen us ride out in force." He grinned. "We'll trample then beneath our feet."

       "I won't do that," Elias whispered. "I won't."

       But Ciaran was already speaking, scything through his words. "You hear that, Elias? That's what the future will be like, if you stay here." Then he turned back to Reynard, and spoke like a conspirator. "And you, Reynard. You'd rather go to war without him, wouldn't you? You'd rather he just left you the sword, and let you get on with it. Why should he have the title, when you're the one doing all the planning? Better get rid of him and be done with it. At least then you'd be free to conduct the war however you liked."

       Reynard's eyes narrowed, and he looked very dangerous. "He's not what we expected, but he's still the king. Without him, no-one would agree to war. We need his name, and perhaps we need him, too. He might be useful. He has powers beyond mine, and beyond yours, too, Ciaran Morgan."

       Elias looked up at him, peering into the sunlight. "I'm not," he said. "I don't want to be king."

       "Useful?" Ciaran laughed. "You hear that, Elias?"

       Why won't you hear me? Elias thought. He had rehearsed it all, but his master had ruined it, and now it was all horrible, and no-one was even listening to him. Even Oliver was silent, clearly hating the argument, but letting it happen all the same. He probably thought it was better that these things were said openly, and no-one had any secrets. But not even Oliver knew the secret Elias carried. Not even Oliver knew what Elias had been going to say.

       "He's my apprentice," Ciaran said to Reynard. "I won't let you hurt him. I won't let you treat him like this." And he said it sincerely, too, as if he was genuinely unaware that he himself had hurt Elias more than anyone. The realisation made Elias want to cry. Before very long, he thought, he might come to hate his master, and that would be the worst thing of all.

       He blinked, and raised his head. "I'm not going to be king, master."

       "You have no choice," Reynard said, speaking through Elias's words. "He's been chosen as king, and we all just have to live with that."

       "I'm not going to be king!" Elias screamed.

       Everyone stopped. Everyone looked at him. Ciaran froze in shock, and then smiled. Reynard's face was unreadable. Oliver looked as if Elias had just struck him hard in the stomach, and it was his face that Elias found himself incapable of looking away from.

       "I'm not going to be your king," Elias said, more quietly. "I'm sorry, Oliver. I can't."

       Oliver clasped his hands together, the fingers interweaving and the knuckles very white. "Why not?"

       Elias touched his own chest. "Look at me. I'm no king. I can't take that title. I don't even know what the forest looks like beyond those trees over there, let alone the world outside the forest. I don't even know much about my own world. I don't know about people. I can't just come here and lead you. It's not right."

       "You're thinking of us," Oliver said, with a sigh. "Aren't you." It was not a question.

       Elias tried to explain, but all the rehearsed words had gone, and he could not find them again. "It's wrong. You've waited for five hundred years. You shouldn't just.. throw yourself on the mercy of someone like me, and kneel to me, and follow me."

       "You wrong us, Elias," Oliver said mildly, "if you think we would do that. Perhaps you think we have been idle for five hundred years, just waiting for the king to come and wave a magic wand and make things right again? We've waited, yes," he said, before Elias could answer, or apologise. "Perhaps we've lived in the past rather more than we should have done, but we had little choice. A people is nothing without memory, and we have more need of it than most. But we have not been idle. Every day of our lives is a fight."

       "I'm sorry," Elias said. "I didn't mean it. I'm sorry."

       "We bought our own survival." Oliver clenched his fist, and spoke as fiercely as Reynard had spoken. "We could have just given up and died, that day our king left us. There were enough enemies around us who would have obliged. But we fought to live, and to live the way we thought was right. And we will still fight for that. We will never slavishly follow any king. We will respect him and honour him, yes, but we will also advise him and correct him, and suffer alongside him. We will remain responsible for our own actions."

       "I'm sorry." Elias ran his thumb along the scar on his hand, the scar he would bear for his whole life, never letting him forget the oath he had sworn.

       Oliver gave a shaky smile. "Oh, Elias, I'm not angry with you. You have nothing to apologise for." He said it as if he meant it, even though he thought Elias was going to walk away and leave them forever. He didn't even try to make him change his mind, though Elias knew how sincerely he believed that his people were lost without a king.

       "I will not be your king," Elias told him, "but I will not leave you. If I have powers, I will use them in your cause. I will live as you do. I will be your servant, but I will not be your king. I cannot take that title. I just... can't."

       Ciaran said nothing. Elias had expected him to explode into a furious denial, and order Elias to change his mind, but his master, who had had so many words for Reynard, had none for Elias. His lips were pressed together in a tight line, and he was glowering. The argument would come later, Elias knew, when no-one else could hear.

       Oliver looked almost apologetic. "Many kings said the same, or so the stories say. Enchantment chose the king, but he was often young, gifted but inexperienced. That's why we were there, the Kindred, to advise him. And they say that several kings tried to deny their title, saying that others deserved it more."

       "But they ended up as kings after all." Elias sighed. "So you're saying I have no choice?"

       "The king is the servant of the whole kingdom," Oliver said. "The title means duty. We always understood that, even if the people did not, and cast us out because of it. And each king in turn has realised that, and has accepted the title willingly. The title confirms the oaths he has sworn."

       "So I have no choice," Elias said again. Although he had already resolved to stay with the Kindred, he felt trapped, as if Oliver was a gaoler who slammed a door in his face. But he still had some choices left to him. "But, whether I stay here as king or not," he said, "there are still things that need to be decided."

       Oliver nodded. His eyes were shining, but his hands were very tense. He knew what was coming. Oliver seemed to understand him in ways that Ciaran never did.

       "Reynard." Reynard's head snapped up. "I know you want to go to war," Elias said, just as he had rehearsed in the night, although it was a stupid thing to say, for the whole thing had just been shouted across the forest and was no secret now.

       Reynard's eyes narrowed. "I do, and most people are with me. It's what you're here for."

       "It is not." Elias clasped his hands and squeezed them very tightly. "I don't like fighting," he said, aware that he sounded like a little boy. "I don't like seeing people hurt. I told you as much on the road, when I stopped you killing the guards."

       Behind him, Oliver sucked in a warning breath. It was unwise to remind Reynard that he had already yielded to Elias once before, but Elias had done so deliberately. It gave him strength, remembering it. </