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.