Chapter eighteen

His own sword

 

 

       They threw him in a cell and left him there. Elias fell heavily onto his shoulder and chin, and tasted blood. He lay very still, and did not struggle. He made no protests as they walked away, only watching the receding smear of light through the peephole in the door. When the footsteps finally faded, the darkness was absolute.

       There had been no trial. He had clung onto consciousness all the way, even though his mouth had flopped open and his head had lolled. Through tiny slits of eyes he had watched the cobbles swaying from side to side, jolting with the rhythm of the guards who dragged him along. People had been screaming. Men with loud voices had shouted about searching for a man in yellow, so that meant Reynard and Ciaran had not been caught. As they had dragged him through a courtyard in a place full of soldiers, they had been calling for men to assist in the search, so that meant Reynard and Ciaran were in danger, but safe.

       His hands were bound behind his back and his sword, all invisible, jabbed him in the leg. If he rolled onto his back, he could feel the floor with his fingers, but it hurt his arms. If he rolled onto his front, he could feel it with his lips, but that made him feel sick, for the floor was filthy, seeped through with other people's pain. His legs were shackled, and he could not stand, but he could wriggle along on his side and measure the size of his cell. But then he kept losing his way in the dark, finding fresh smears of blood in places he thought he had not get visited, so he gave up and just lay there.

       Time passed. He had no idea how long. Darkness swallowed up all sense of time, consuming minutes and hours as if they were all the same. He tried to find the blue sea and white tower of his Garden, but it kept darting out of reach, like a shy child who was afraid of him. He tried to find his master, but there was no-one there, though there was nothing unusual in that, and it didn't have to mean anything bad. He tried not to remember the colour of flames, but that was impossible.

       A girl had died, and he had killed her. Two deaths to his account now, or three if you counted Sophie. The agony of the flames was only a sickening memory, and that seemed wrong. He ought to be burning still. The girl was dead, and death was without end.

       Someone walked towards his cell, a smear of yellow light growing enticingly. He strained towards it, yearned towards it, but it passed him by. Light dwindled into dark, and the footsteps faded to silence. He wanted them to come to him. He had always been so very scared of being alone.

       He crawled on his belly towards the place where the light had been, and huddled against the door. A thin sliver of warm air touched his face, and he breathed it in. It smelled of wood smoke and stew. When he pressed his ear to the crack, he heard distant voices. Someone was whimpering in despair. "Master?" he whispered, but the voice was all wrong. Not master, not Reynard. No-one had marched past dragging a new prisoner, and no cell doors had slammed shut. They were still safe. He had to believe that.

       He closed his eyes and rolled away. Perhaps he slept, because the next thing he knew was voices, and the square of light was back, criss-crossed with black bars, and this time it had come for him, to bring light to his darkness.

       "Look at him," someone said.

       The light disappeared, blocked out by someone's head. Bring it back, he whispered, lips moving silently against the stone floor. There were horrible things in the darkness. Darkness was a laughing voice in his dreams, telling him that the monsters were coming to get him. There were things he had to do, and he would do them, but not in the darkness, not without light.

       "Darius's men brought him in this morning. Said he's a sorcerer. Gave no orders on how to treat him, though."

       "I've never been this close to a sorcerer before," a second voice said.

       The first man laughed. "What you looking so scared for? They're as human as anyone, for all their evil. When it comes down to it, you can break them, easy as anything. Same way I break any man. And there he is, all trussed up in iron, ready for me. Oh, he'll scream, but he won't be able to stop me. Sorcery can't work through iron, you know."

       "I heard that wasn't true. Just an old wife's tale. I wouldn't risk my life for an old wife's tale. I don't want to die under a sorcerer's curse, thank you very much."

       "You're just scared," the first man scoffed. "Well, I'm not. Watch." There was the sound of someone sorting through a bundle of keys, and then the lock was turned. A bolt scraped back, and the door was opened.

       Elias pushed himself up to his knees. Sweat was trickling down his bound hands, and his throat was very dry. "The duke will not look kindly on you mistreating me," he said, in a voice that miraculously managed to stay level.

       The man laughed. "Why should the duke care?"

       "There is no evidence against me," Elias said. He had spent years listening to Ciaran talking to the people of Greenslade, and tried to emulate something of that imperiousness. "I am an envoy from a rich territory seeking an alliance with your duchy. Is this how Eidengard treats its guests? My people will not be pleased to hear it. They will raise an army to avenge this insult. Do you want to be responsible for bringing war to the streets of your city?"

       "Why did they arrest you, then?"

       "I don't know. I saw lots of people dressed for a festival, so I followed them out of curiosity. I ended up watching a woman being burnt to death. I wanted to see more of your way of justice, so I pushed to the front. The smoke made me feel sick and I almost fainted. Then, for some reason, she pointed at me, and your soldiers came to arrest me." He gave them an affronted look. "They hurt me."

       The two men exchanged looks, and neither of them made any move to touch him. "You're claiming you'd never met her before in your life?" One of them gave a nervous laugh. "That you're no sorcerer?"

       "I had never met her before in my life," Elias swore, investing it with all the truthfulness he could muster. "And I have never practiced any foul crafts of sorcery." He feigned outrage. "Why am I even arguing with you? A condemned traitor points at me, and for that alone I am arrested. Is this the famed justice of Eidengard? The case would be laughed out of court in any civilised town in the world."

       "It's not our job to decide who's innocent or not," the second man said. "We just..."

       "Do your job. I know." Elias smiled at him. "So I do not ask you to release me, merely to tell your commanding officer what I've just told you. I am innocent. I came to Eidengard to see the duke on a matter of great importance. All I ask is to be allowed to see him. If it is proved that I committed crimes against your city, then I will submit myself to punishment. But let me be heard first." He bowed his head. "That is all I ask."

       They backed out of the cell, and he could hear them whispering. Then one walked away, while the other reached in and closed the door, without showing his face. They were giving him no promises, but neither were they giving him threats.

       When the last vestige of light had gone, he gave a great shuddering sigh and slumped against the wall, sliding down on his bound hands. He felt drained, shivery with reaction. The guards had to convince their officer, who had to convince his own commander, and so up all the way to the duke, but it was a start. He had done it. The darkness and the fear had begun to unravel him, but he had held himself together, and grabbed the chance when it came.

       It hadn't been a mistake, getting himself captured and dragged to this cell. Of course it hadn't. He had done it for his master's sake, of course, for the soldiers would be too busy chaining their captive to notice the escape of two people wearing unfamiliar faces. But you could have used illusion to hide your own escape, too, something creeping and insidious whispered in the darkness of the cell. Why didn't you? Because it wouldn't have worked, of course. Because there was nowhere safe to run to, and the soldiers would never have given up the search. Because he had to lead the danger away from Ciaran, by any means necessary. Because Ciaran and Reynard would have died to protect him, and how could he have lived with that?

       And… And there were sensible reasons, too. Reasons not even Reynard could have argued with. If he had used enchantment to disappear, the whole city would know that he was a sorcerer, and that would be the end of all hope. He would be killed on sight if he presented himself at the Palace, and the duke would never hear his plea. As a fugitive sorcerer, he would never be heard. As a wrongly-imprisoned innocent, perhaps he had a chance.

       So it was all part of the plan, albeit a hastily-constructed part, resorted to out of desperation. Everything was still on course. He would get to see the duke, and Ciaran and Reynard were safe. And if the duke refused to listen to him, he would just have to escape, the same way he had escaped from Gerhard. Despite what the guard had claimed, he knew that iron bands could not hold him. If all hope was lost, he would escape, and meet up with Ciaran and Reynard outside the city. They would ride like the wind, and get away safely, and return to the forest to think up another plan.

       He let himself drift again, moving only when the tingling in his bound hands became unbearable. He practiced the things he would say to the duke, the kindly duke of the old woman's tales. He wished he could tell Ciaran that he was all right, but there was no response when he tried. Reynard was the one he was more worried about, though. He hoped the man wasn't throwing his life away in an unnecessary rescue attempt. He had ordered Reynard to keep Ciaran safe, but never really expected him to obey. Reynard would act in the way he thought best, and that probably meant violence. He might want to kill his own king, but he would never stand by and let the enemy kill him instead.

       At last the footsteps returned, and with them the light. He struggled to his knees again, as the door opened and a tall officer entered the cell, followed by a guard carrying a flickering torch. "So you claim you're innocent?" His face revealed nothing. "You want to see the duke?"

       "I am. I do." He swallowed. His throat had dried up since he had talked to the guards, and he realised suddenly that he was very hungry, and desperately thirsty. Perhaps it had been even longer than he had thought.

       "Come, then." The officer unshackled Elias's legs without looking at him. "Follow me." He did not untie Elias's hands, and offered him no help in standing. "Don't think of escaping. I have a guard of six men outside to escort you to the Palace."

       Elias followed him along the low corridor, past cells that exuded a miasma of misery, as tangible as if the stone walls were breathing out rank breaths. Pain bolted through his skull, making him sick and dizzy. The light from the torches was too bright and hurt his eyes, but he stared fiercely at the flames and refused to look away.

       He tried to follow all the twists and turns of his route, but the dizziness and the flames started to carry him away again, and he started losing things. He focused on the officer's back, and tried not to stray. Every step took him closer to the duke, and the realisation of a dream. Then he could go back to his master, and everyone would be smiling and hugging each other, finding friends where they had once seen enemies. Oliver would come to tell his stories in the halls of Eidengard, and Elias could find somewhere safe and go to sleep, and then his head would stop hurting.

       "Palace," he whispered. Then the clouds thinned a little, and he raised his head. "Are you taking me to the palace?" he demanded in his Ciaran voice.

       "Oh yes." For the first time the officer smiled, and Elias smiled back.

       Up some stairs and through a door. Gravel crunched under his feet. He heard a bird sing cheerily, and that was good, for the birds were his friends, and they wouldn't be so happy if everything was going wrong, would they? There were soldiers wearing black, all around and everywhere. Six of them fell in behind him, rigid with pikes. There were tall yellow towers with dark red pointy roofs. The Kindred made these, he thought, and smiled.

       Past hedges and through a garden, wild and free, and then into a garden that was all straight lines, with yew trees. They said in Greenslade that yew trees were poison. Did the duke know there was poison in his garden? Perhaps Elias would tell him. The sky was grey and hurt his eyes, and fine rain was falling, but refused to fall on his tongue when he stuck it out. He heard a fountain. It was like the waterfall in the mountains, and that had been cold and lovely. Would the duke let him swim in it when they were friends?

       The Palace was pretty with lots of windows. Through a white door, and up some stairs with dark blue carpet, patterned with swirly things. Two soldiers stayed behind. The light hurt less here, but at the top of the stairs he staggered and nearly fell. He hit the wall with his shoulder, and cried out. The officer glared at him, and that awoke something in him. I'm not well, he thought. Head hurts. Must be careful. He would push the dizziness to one side and meet the duke with his mind intact. A drink of water and a sit-down would cure the worst of it, anyway.

       "Here we are," the officer said. He knocked on the door, and opened it when someone inside told him he could. "I've brought the prisoner, my lord."

       "Good," the duke said. "Bring him in, then leave us. Stay near. I might need you later."

       They pushed him in, and the doors shut behind him, as gentle as a whisper. The duke was standing in front of a window, his hands folded behind his back, but Elias could not see his face. The room was simple to the point of austerity, without any of the beautiful art that duke was supposed to like so much, but maybe that was just the sort of man he was. He gave all the beauty to his people, but kept none for himself.

       Elias licked his lips. Perhaps he should speak, but this was the duke, and a ruler would be used to going first. He would be inclined to distrust Elias, and Elias would do nothing that would compound the initial bad impression he had made. This was not the end of his journey, he was quickly realising, but the beginning of a new battle. He was in the presence of the duke, but he still had to get every word and action right, or everything would fall apart.

       Why didn't the man speak? Elias shifted on his feet, and closed his eyes when the movement sent a stab of pain through his skull. When he opened them again, the duke had turned round and was regarding him steadily. "What is your name?" His voice was smooth and pleasant.

       "Elias." It was little more than a croak. There was a jug of water on the table with a glass beside it. When he looked at it, his throat only became more painfully dry. "Elias Ward." How did you address a duke? Should he speak to him as a petitioner, or as an envoy, equal to equal?

       "Well, Elias." The duke walked towards him, his hand still folded behind his back. He paused by the water, but did not pick it up. "You made quite an impression today, didn't you?"

       Elias licked his lips. The duke was an old man, wasn't he? The duke was old and tired, but this man was tall and strong and not much older than Ciaran. He had dark blonde hair, combed back from his pale face, and his back was proud and straight. "You're not the duke," Elias stammered.

       "Did I say I was?" The man spread his hands and smiled. "I am Lord Darius."

       "I need to see the duke." He tried to sound commanding, but it came out as a squeak. "Please take me to the duke."

       Lord Darius folded his hands like a benevolent priest. "The duke doesn't go out much nowadays. I am his eyes and ears." He smiled. "He's lucky to have me to take such good care of him."

       "Take me to the duke. Please. It's really important. I have to. Or... Or let me talk to you instead. Listen to me, then tell the duke what I said. Oh please can I have a drink of water?" The plea slipped out without him meaning it to.

       Darius poured him a tiny drop, and fed it to him, his cool hand pressing against the back of Elias's neck to support his head. The glass jarred against Elias's teeth, and the trickle of water did nothing to slake his thirst, and was a torment rather than a relief.

       "Now," Darius said, stepping back. "What did you want to say?"

       "I... I know things." He tried to keep his breathing under control. "Important things. Things the duchy forgot when they threw away their kings. You're heading for destruction."

       "Is this a threat?" Darius arched one eyebrow. "It sounds like one to me."

       "No, no. Not a threat." He wished Darius would stop staring at him. It made all the rehearsed words fly out of his mind, and without them he was only a stammering boy trying to do the impossible. "Something's coming. We need to band together to fight it. You're killing the only people who can save you. They're not even your enemies. Please talk to them. They're not like you think they are."

       Darius frowned. "I'm not sure I understand. I assume you are talking about the sorcerers, oh and why not the bandits as well? Let's make it even more ridiculous. We have to make friends with them and face some threat that you conveniently won't tell us about. And I assume you'll be the one to lead us in this endeavour? You alone can save the world? If we kill you, we kill our last hope?" He yawned. "How tiresome. I thought you might have a better story than that."

       "It's true!" he protested. "Please let me explain."

       Darius steepled his fingers. "Let's drop the charade, shall we? I know who you are. I know what you did this morning. You think I don't? You really think I'm that stupid?"

       "I... I didn't do anything."

       "Look at it from my point of view. Can you do that?" Darius started pacing round the room. "There is a girl, a condemned sorcerer, and she is burning nicely. She should be screaming, but she isn't. Why is that? And then I notice that she is smiling, and her lips are moving as if she is talking to someone. Strange, is it not? And then she points at you, standing there so blind to the world, cringing with agony as if you were the one being burned. That was helpful of her, wasn't it? I might have missed you if it wasn't for her. Ironic, though, that she was the one to betray you, after you'd suffered all that pain for her."

       "She didn't!" he cried. "I was the one who..." He broke off, but Darius was still pacing, and had not noticed his slip.

       "And so my men come to arrest you." Darius stopped by the table and ran his fingers down the edge of the water jug. "In those last moments you push away your friends, and use sorcery to hide their true faces. Once again you let yourself suffer to protect someone else. I suppose you think that makes you very noble. But nobility is just the name the foolish give to stupidity, don't you think?"

       "I didn't." Something struck his bound hands and he realised he had been backing towards the door, and now he could go no further.

       "I saw it, Elias. You shouldn't lie to me." Darius looked at Elias as if he was a child with sugar all over his face, who persisted in denying that he'd touched the cakes. "I was watching it all from the town hall. I saw the new faces you gave them, even if my men did not. Rest assured that every soldier in the city knows those faces now."

       Elias pushed himself away from the door and stood without support. Ciaran and Reynard had not been captured, then, but they were in terrible danger. If Elias let the illusions go, they'd be safer. The soldiers would be looking for the wrong faces, and would never find them. Darius hadn't won, and Elias could still regain control of the situation, if he remained calm. "You can't prove any of it," he said, as he relaxed all the illusions he had made.

       Darius shook his head, and smiled pityingly. "Your face is proof enough. You have a child's transparency, Elias. You should leave dissembling for the grown-ups." He paced around Elias and stopped when he was behind him. One hand grasped his shoulder, and the other snaked slantwise across his chest and down to his hips, tight as an embrace. Elias could feel his breath on the back of his neck. "And then there is this, of course. This pretty thing you have been hiding from me. But you quite forgot about hiding it just now, didn't you?"

       Albacrist slid from the sheath with a soft whisper and passed in front of Elias's face. Elias moaned, and yearned towards it, but it moved away. My fault, he thought. He had not been calm at all. Darius had made him panic and he had ended all his illusions, and had completely forgotten that Albacrist hung hidden at his side. But maybe Darius wouldn't know what it meant. Maybe he wouldn't know.

       Darius walked over to the window, and twisted the sword from side to side, admiring the reflected light. "Very pretty." He sighed, and turned back to Elias. "There you are, standing so hopeful and childish. It would be nice to prolong your agony, but time is pressing, and I think I will put you out of your misery instead. I know what this sword means. I know more than you think. A wise soldiers studies the ways of his enemy before engaging him, and that is what I have done. The Kindred have few secrets from me."

       Elias slumped back against the door, and slid to the floor. Albacrist was lost, and what had he just done to Ciaran and Reynard? He hadn't thought it through. What if they had been talking to someone, and suddenly their faces had changed? He could have killed them.

       "Shall we leave for you to imagine just how I get my information?" Darius was saying. "Suffice it to say that I have known many prisoners in my time, and there is no man alive that I cannot break. Some have been quite a challenge, not like you."

       Elias bit his lip and moaned. "I'm not..." He raised his head. "But if you know about the sword, then you know who I am. You know how important it is to listen to me. I didn't have to come here. It's really important. You have to stop killing people who have enchantment."

       "You're their king, aren't you?" Darius laid the sword down on the table, but did not remove his hand from the blade. "The greater leader they've been waiting for all these years, who will come from another world to save them? How disappointed they must have been to end up with you. Why did they send you here, I wonder. I expect they were hoping you would get yourself killed. That sounds like the most reasonable explanation, don't you think?"

       His head was pounding. The room was shattering into a thousand pieces and spiralling away in every possible direction. "They... they didn't…"

       "What? Lie to you? So you're not insulting my intelligence by denying the rest of the story? That is good." Darius picked up the sword again, and Elias winced at the light of the blade, all needle-like reflections from the window.

       Elias tried not to start crying. "I didn't come to hurt anybody. You have to believe that. I know I come from people you think are your enemies, but they're not. I'm not. Please don't be afraid of me."

       "Afraid of you?" Darius laughed. "Why should I be afraid of you? Oh, I know the foolish populace out there believes terrible things about sorcery, but I know the truth. It's despicable, but it's all lies in trickery and illusion. You can do nothing to hurt me. And even if you could..." He laughed again. "True power doesn't lie in magic tricks. Did you think it did? Give a child great powers, and he's still a child. Even if you had greater powers than anyone who has ever lived, you would still be lying here snivelling on my floor, because that's who you are. You did everything wrong, from the moment you entered the city. You are nobody."

       Elias toppled forward and landed on his face. The grain of the carpet dug into his cheek and got into his mouth. "My head," he whispered.

       "What?" Darius knelt beside him and stroked his hair. "Your head hurts? Is that it." His fingers found the wound behind Elias's ear. "Not that it excuses anything, of course," he said, caressing it and sending bolts of pain through Elias's skull. "Do you really think you could have got the better of me even if you had been well?" He shook his head. "No, I thought not."

       "Let me see the duke," Elias whispered. "Please."

       "Why should you want to see the duke, unless..." Darius rocked back onto his heels. "You really thought you had a chance to convince him? You?" He threw back his head and laughed. "Oh, how wonderful."

       He really had. He had looked on the sunlit towers of Eidengard and smiled, thinking everything was hopeful and sunny. He had skipped on the mountain like a child, and told his stupid happy ending in the watchtower. Had they been laughing at him all along, Ciaran and Reynard, who were older and wiser and knew him for what he was? He was just a stupid child who, for a moment, had thought he was something else. He was a worm who dared to believe he was an eagle, soaring high in the sky. His home was the dirt. His brothers had told him so all along, and Ciaran had never once contradicted them. Darius had seen the truth at once, and it was a truth Elias had always known, though he had let himself forget it for a little while.

       "But, deep down, you knew the truth, didn't you?" Darius was his conscience, whispering in his ear. "You knew you were nobody, didn't you? That's why you let them arrest you. You knew you deserved it. Because you killed that girl, didn't you?" It was almost tender, the way he said it. "So you deserve to be here now, grovelling in chains at my feet. You deserve it all. You made one mistake after another, and now you have betrayed your friends to death." His hand closed round the back of Elias's neck. "Everything is your fault."

       "Yes," Elias breathed. "Yes."

       Darius stood up and brushed his hands together, grimacing. The change in him was like a slap in the face, and Elias groaned. "Let's have you taken back to your cell now, shall we?" He opened the door and shouted for the guards, then turned back to Elias. "But I will come and visit you tonight, rest assured of that. I am looking forward to it very much. Aren't you?"

      

 

       Ciaran woke up to a stale smell of straw and horses. He rolled onto his side and curled up, groaning at the pain in his skull, like claws sinking into his brain. It was enough to drown out all thought, and he couldn't remember why he might be lying here, hurt and alone.

       Why wasn't anyone looking after him? His bed was made of dirty straw, and it didn't smell at all nice. It wasn't like the last time, when he had fought the highwayman and been wounded on the forehead badly enough to leave a scar. He had been bedridden for three days after that, and the people of Greenslade had trooped into his house one by one and brought him little gifts of fruit and pretty things. That was before Elias had come to live with him, of course.

       Long ago, he thought. That was long ago, but long ago seemed easier to recall than nowadays. His head hurt very badly. Someone had struck him down in a place full of crowds, but maybe that was a dream, because it wasn't possible for a man to wear three different faces, was it? Reynard. That was the name of the three-faced man.

       Something moved high above him, and he rolled onto his back and struggled to see what it could possibly be. He seemed to be lying in the straw in a deserted stable, that had not been used by horses for many a month. The only windows were high up in the roof, and were really no more than small holes in the wall for light and air. The ceiling was vaulted with great beams of dark wood, and that was where the movement had come from. There was something up there, creeping along the beam, poised above him, ready to drop down upon him and hurt him.

       But it doesn't know I'm awake, he thought. It doesn't know what I am. Even a wounded Brother was stronger than any normal man. He clenched his fists ready to attack.

       "Don't move," the thing said, and it was Reynard's voice, of course it was Reynard. "I hit you harder than I meant to. I thought I might have killed you."

       "I'll move if I want to." Ciaran tried to sit up, but his hands would not come apart. His wrists were bound with rope, and they hurt when he pulled at them.

       Reynard swung his legs over the edge of the beam, and slithered down a rope that had been lashed around it. He landed very lightly, with barely a tremor in the straw, then crouched to pick up a bottle of water. "Do you think you can keep a drink down?"

       "You hit me," Ciaran said. The pain in his head made thinking slow, but how could he ever have forgotten his hatred of this man? "You've shown yourself in your true colours now, haven't you?"

       Ciaran's quiet words were the small spark that started an explosion. "I knocked you unconscious, yes," Reynard spat, pressing his face into Ciaran's. "I carried you here, through a crowd that wanted our blood, and you were heavy, and they kept talking to me and asking questions and I had to think of a story and speak it in this voice of mine that no enchantment can disguise. I could have dropped you and left you behind for them to tear apart, but did I? No. I could have left you and escaped on foot and be safe by now, but did I? No. I stayed with you and struggled to keep you alive. Why did I bother?"

       "I didn't ask you to," Ciaran shouted. "I don't want you here. Just do me a favour and go."

       Reynard folded his arms and glared furiously at him, but when he spoke his voice was quiet. "I will not."

       Ciaran strained at the ropes on his chafed wrists. He would use the Shadow soon to free himself. He just needed a little rest first, so his head got better. He just needed Reynard to go away and stop making him so angry.

       "It's been seven hours," Reynard said. He looked up at the beam. "I can see a little out of there, but not much. They've already searched here once."

       Ciaran breathed in, then out. "Why didn't they find us?" Simple questions, he told himself. Little things, so his heart would stop pounding, and his head would stop throbbing, and the Shadow would be his once more.

       "I hid us. It was a close thing." Reynard offered no further explanation. Ciaran saw that his neck seemed very tense, and his face was old and tired.

       "Where are we?"

       "The stable block of an empty house that fronts onto the square." Reynard walked over to the door and pressed his ear against it, listening. "They haven't come back. I don't think they really care too much about catching us. It's not us they want."

       "But Elias is." Ciaran felt sick. "They took Elias. I tried to save him, but you stopped me. If they hurt him, it's your fault."

       Reynard pressed both hands against the door. "I did what my king commanded." He spoke into the wood, his voice all on one note. "Better one person taken than three."

       "You stopped me from saving him!" Ciaran screamed. "You have to let me go! Please! Please, I need to go to him, I need to, I demand it, please."

       "He ordered me," Reynard said, without turning round. "He could have stopped them taking him, but didn't. That means he has a plan. He's going to get himself out, and we have to be here, alive and waiting for him."

       "You're lying!" Ciaran cried. "It's all lies to justify your crimes. You've never obeyed him before, so why now? You did it because you want him dead! That's why you dragged me away. That's why you're not letting me rescue him."

       "What could we do?" Reynard's voice sounded dead, and his face was still averted, his fingernails digging into the splintery wooden door. "I have never met an enemy I couldn't fight, but even I can't take on a whole barracks full of soldiers, or unlock solid doors." He whirled round, his face savage. "Don't you think I'd have done so if I could? I tried. While you were asleep, I went up to the citadel. Twenty guards on the gate and no cover. I couldn't do it."

       "I could."

       "Then you're a liar, as well as all the other things that you are. If we tried to rescue him, we would die, and how would that help him?"

       "At least he'd know that were we there," Ciaran sobbed. "At least he'd know we hadn't forgotten him."

       "He'd know that he'd got us killed," Reynard said. "Would you do that to him? Is that how much you care about him?"

       "But they'll kill him," Ciaran wailed. Kill him just like in the vision, just like they had killed the girl.

       "They won't." Reynard looked away, hiding his face. "They won't be able to. He'll escape."

       "He's Elias!" Ciaran strained at his bonds until his hands were bleeding. He needed to be free, needed to pound his fists into Reynard's body, needed to slam his hands into the floor. "You don't know him at all. He's not this great king of yours, with powers like something out of a story. He can't get out of this by himself. He needs me. He needs me." It ended as a sob, trailing away to nothing.

       Reynard crouched down. "He is my king. I might not trust his judgement in many things, but I believe in his powers. I've seen them with my own eyes. So I believe he can get out of this by himself, and that is why we're waiting here, so we can be there for him when he does so."

       "Lies," Ciaran whispered, as his head slumped forward onto his chest. "Lies to justify your betrayal. Are the lies just for me, or do you even believe them yourself?"

       "They are not lies," Reynard said. "I..." But he stopped there, and didn't say that he believed them.

       The pain in his skull was surging up, threatening to drown him. Ciaran lay limply on his side, and spat weakly at a shred of straw that had got into his mouth. He thought he was going to be sick, and he thought he was going to faint, and then he would be in Reynard's hands. How Reynard would laugh to watch him choking on his own vomit.

       "I won't let you die, Ciaran Morgan. But I am not afraid to hurt you, if that's what it takes to keep you alive." His voice was weary, but the threat sounded real. "I will not have you ruining everything, not now."

       Oh, I'll ruin everything, Ciaran vowed into the dirty straw. I'll ruin every plan you have ever made, and every hope you have ever held. I promise you that. Then his eyes slid shut, and he slept.

      

 

       The nightmare was horrible. A sleek man was asking him questions in a honeyed voice, and smiling all the while. His master was torn to pieces when his face changed in full view of a market full of people. A girl stood trembling on the edge of a cliff, and he pushed her off, and she died. She pointed as him as she fell, and said it was him, that he was the one. Oliver was staring after him with despair in his eyes, his last hope thrown away by a foolish boy. His brothers kicked him while he lay curled on the floor, and kicked him again when he cried.

       Elias opened his eyes, and the darkness was no different. He was consumed in a vast bubble of blackness, all shot through with voices and memories. There was not even the comfort of waking up and saying, It's all right. It was only a dream. Darius was real, and he had told the truth. And here Elias was, still lying where they had thrown him, his face stiff with blood and tears.

       Once, someone walked past and paused long enough to say, "You're dying tomorrow, sorcerer. You've been condemned and sentenced." He saw a flicker of torchlight, and screwed up his eyes against the light, but no-one came in to see him. Perhaps Darius had ordered them not to. Common soldiers weren't allowed to paw their commander's possessions.

       His mouth felt shrivelled, like autumn leaves, all full of ashes. He had been sick on the way through the courtyard, and had been hit in the face for it. After that, though, he had felt a little better, and the dizziness had receded. The pain in his head had faded to a dull ache. As Lord Darius had said, he didn't even have a head injury to blame for his failure. He had done that all by himself.

       Footsteps came again, this time cold and hard, like bones clicking together. The light they brought was very small, and something metallic was clanking delicately in time with the footsteps. They stopped outside his cell, and the door opened.

       "I said I would visit you," Lord Darius said. He knelt down and laid his bag of metal things carefully beside him. "How you have spent the time since I last saw you? Thinking on what I said, I hope."

       He had been. He had thought of nothing else. "I... I need a drink of water." There was no shame in asking. Pride was for big people, not for people like him.

       "I can give you one, but you need to say please."

       "Please." He had begged on his knees for them to stop hurting him. Please, Evan. Please, father. Please. They had laughed and hit him again, for they liked to hear him plead, but they hit him even harder if he didn't. "Please give me water. Please."

       "Maybe," Darius said. "Soon." He pulled the bag onto his lap, and caressed it, making the metal things shiver and shift. "I can hurt you, Elias. I can hurt you very badly, but leave very little evidence of it, except inside, on your soul. I will be part of you for as long as you live. Which, in your case, is only until tomorrow, for which you should be very thankful."

       "Please don't hurt me."

       "But I will." Darius stroked his cheek. "And I will give you a drink when I've finished, if you're a good boy. You'd like that, wouldn't you?"

       How did he have to please him? "I'm so thirsty." Please don't hurt me. He tried to move away from Darius's hand. Something was sharp and shining in the opening of the bag, but he couldn’t see what it was.

       "I just want to hear you say something," Darius crooned. "Just a few magic words." He brought out a blade and ran its tip delicately over Elias's collar bone. When Elias trembled, it hurt worse. "I want you to think about what I said. How you killed that girl. How you betrayed your friends. How you threw away the last chance the Kindred had to be saved. How you made a mockery of their five hundred years of waiting."

       The knife slithered over his skin, and then withdrew. Elias squeezed his eyes shut, and strained at his chains, needing to cover his ears. But Darius's words were like seeds falling on the fertile ground of his mind. They grew and became monstrous. True! they shrieked. Every word is true. They showed him the images of his waking nightmare, and Ciaran dead in a hundred ways. They showed him the agony of fire, and a girl dying, and Ciaran saying, "I hate you."

       Darius grasped Elias's chin, his fingers digging into his throat. His other hand closed on Elias's chest, as if he was going to rip his heart out. "But you know the truth, don't you?" Darius said, his voice growing higher and higher and louder and louder until it filled the whole world, and he could never be free of it, even if he had wings and could fly away from the cell. "You know that you deserve this. You know that you want it. It's the only thing you're good at. The only thing you have to offer is your suffering, and it's still not enough. It wasn't enough for that girl, and it wasn't enough for your friends. You suffered for them, but did it save them?"

       "Don't," Elias gasped. "Don't hurt them. Please."

       "Them or you," Darius spat. "What would you choose?"

       "Me!" Elias shrieked. "Not them! Me!" Hurt me because I failed. Hurt me because I deserve it. Hurt me because I can't bear to see them hurt.

       Darius raised his eyebrow. "So you want it? That's good." He moved his hand round to the back of Elias's neck, and dragged him up so he could whisper in his ear. "Remember," he breathed, in a voice that could reach into dreams, "that you asked for this, you begged for this. When I am here, and here, " he whispered, touching Elias first on the chest and then the brow, "and you can't get rid of me, remember that you let me in. You caused this. Let that be the thought you carry to your grave."

       Holding Elias close, he reached into his bag.

      

 

       The clock struck six.

       In a silent house, a woman sat on an uncomfortable chair, and stared into the cold hearth that had once held a fire. She had not moved since they had killed her daughter. She sat with her hands tightly clenched, and waited for them to come for her, but no-one did.

       With the ornamental knife that was good for nothing, Reynard was hacking brutally at his own hair. When it was done, he stood up and slipped out of the stable, shutting the door silently behind him.

       Asleep in the straw, Ciaran was dreaming. He smiled and crooned his apprentice's name, and Elias looked up at him with his big blue eyes and said how grateful he was to his master for saving him. The sun was shining in Greenslade, and everything was snug and nice and happy.

        The clock struck six, but Elias did not hear it. Lord Darius was rewarding him with a drink of water, but he vomited it up as soon as he had finished it. Darius went tut tut and scooped him up as tenderly as a parent with a child, and fed him some more, all the while caressing the back of his neck with insistent fingers. Then he stood up and kicked him away with a sharp-toed boot, which hurt.

       "You die at ten," Darius said, but it didn't mean anything. What time was it now? Darius had been with him for weeks, for years, for a lifetime. "Because you screamed so prettily, I will reward you with this, just so it's not a nasty surprise when it happens. You will die by fire, but first we will stab you. We will be using your own sword to do that. It seems fitting, does it not? The sword symbolises the trust the Kindred placed in you, the trust you betrayed. Even the sword hates you now, and is eager to hurt you."

       Darius yawned, tapping his mouth with his fingers. "Now, I need to get myself cleaned up. You've messed up my clothes with all that blood, and it would never do to be seen in public looking like a monster. I've missed a night's sleep, but it was worth it, was it not?" He opened the door. He had not even locked it behind him when he had entered. "I'll come back soon." He spread his hands when Elias moaned and bit his lip and whispered no please no. "You didn't think I'd let you face your death alone, did you? Of course I'll be there. I wouldn't miss it for the world."

       His footsteps clicked as he walked away, but Elias knew he hadn't gone away, not really. He never would.

      

 

       He was alone. The stable was empty, and Reynard had gone.

       Ciaran struggled up onto his elbows, and looked around. His head was hurting as badly as ever, but this time he would not let it overcome him. He would fight through it. He would be strong.

       There was no disorientation this time. The moment he had woken up he had remembered everything, and knew just what needed to do. He had to rescue Elias. Whatever it took, however he had to do it, he would save him.

       First, though, he had to forget him. Thinking about him made him sad and angry and anxious, and they all blocked the Shadow. "Calm," he whispered. "Must be calm."

       Nothing happened. His head hurt, and he kept on seeing Elias crying, Elias hurting, Elias broken on the floor of a prison cell, rocking to and fro with despair. The smell of the straw made him feel sick, and he kept on smelling burning flesh and acrid smoke and the sweat of the jeering crowd. Sight and smell and sound, and the Shadow was only a memory, far away and impossible to reach.

       "No," he sobbed. He tore at his bonds with his teeth, and twisted his hands one way and the other, pulling, straining. The skin scraped and tore, and his fingers prickled with lack of blood. Once he managed to get the rope halfway down his hand, but it was stopped by the bone at the base of his thumb. He spat on the skin and licked the ropes, and they slid a tiny bit further, but would go no further.

       He crashed to the ground, dizzy and sick and panting. On elbows and knees he crawled to the door, pushing straw ahead of him like a mounting wave. "Elias," he croaked. "I'm coming to save you, Elias."

       Cool morning air from outside touched his face, and he felt it work its magic. He rolled onto his back, and imagined he was lying on his own bed, with the windows open and the curtains flapping in the breeze. Elias was in the next room, or busying himself in the kitchen making a breakfast of toast and honey and runny eggs. "Calm," he whispered. "Calm."

       The Shadow came to him, shivering into view, filling the dark stable with its gauzy perfection. Ciaran smiled, and moved through the meadow that flowered in the shade of the grey mountain. He delighted in the sun for a moment, but that was all he could afford. "Release me," he whispered, raising his bound wrists. The Shadow gave him a second pair of hands, and these ones were not bound. He untied the knots, and the ropes slithered to the ground, and he was free.

       He released his hold on the Shadow, and it raced away like water out of a cracked jug. The pain in his head made it hard for him to stand, and his worry for Elias was a tight knot in his belly, hurting him physically. But he managed to stand, and he managed to walk, and the knot loosened a little, for he was on the way, he was doing something.

       Ciaran fumbled for the latch and found it. He pulled, but nothing happened. Bolt, he thought. A sharp corner of metal dug into his finger, and his wrists hurt whenever he moved his hands, but he managed to draw back the bolt. It was loud, metal against metal, and it hurt as if the bolt had been shot between his own eyes.

       He opened the door, but he swayed and had to cling to the twisted metal door handle. It dug into his palm, and his knees hit the ground and the side of his head hit the edge of the door. Moaning, he tried to get to stand again, but his feet kept slipping in the straw, and it was very cold outside, all swirling with dark red mist.

       "Going somewhere?" a voice asked him.

       A man was looking down on him from the driving seat of a flat-backed cart. He had two horses, one pulling the cart, and one attached by a leading rein to its foot. Both horses were dark brown, and looked solid and dispirited. The man himself was wearing dark brown and black, and had short hair. Ciaran was slow to recognise him as Reynard.

       "Only two horses," he rasped, as he finally managed to stand. "You just try to lie about your intentions now."

       "It was all I could manage. Two horses and a cart. And don't you dare say a word. It wasn't easy." His cheek was scuffed and bleeding, and when he jumped down from the cart, he winced as he landed.

       Ciaran summoned all his strength. He clutched the door, ready to push himself away from it and pounce. He would strike Reynard down, or just swerve around him and escape. No-one could stop him.

       "Get back inside," Reynard said, wearily. "We've got three hours."

       "Three hours before they kill him?" Ciaran's mouth was suddenly dry.

       Reynard swung the door fully open, and Ciaran came with it, and fell heavily to the ground. Reynard stepped over him and bent to pick up the bloody ropes that lay just inside.

       "No," Ciaran pleaded. "Three hours. Three hours to save him. Only three hours." He tried to scrabble to his feet, but his head wouldn't let him.

       Reynard crouched beside him, pressing him down with a hand on his shoulder, and the face peering down at him was Reynard's own. It had been all along, he realised, and he hadn't even noticed. The illusion Elias had placed on it had fallen away, but didn't that mean that Elias was already dead? "Your face," he breathed.

       "The illusions disappeared yesterday afternoon," Reynard said, in a voice devoid of emotion. "He must have had his reasons. It doesn't mean anything. I had already obtained new clothes for us, and I wasn't outside at the time, so it didn't matter. It doesn't mean we should give up, and it makes no difference. I look like Kindred, but I can hide my accent, and get by. Did you think I couldn't?"

       "I don't care," Ciaran said. "I just want..."

       "What?" Reynard breathed, as he bound Ciaran's wrists again. "What do you want?"

       Ciaran rolled onto his side, and did not answer.

      

 

       The clock struck eight.

       The soldiers were already in place in front of the scaffold. One of them, his silver badge gleaming wonderfully on his new uniform, counted all eight chimes, and was disappointed that there was not a ninth. He couldn't wait to see the sorcerer die. He wanted to dip his fingers in the foul monster's blood, and he hoped Lord Darius would allow him.

       Crowds were flowing into the square, eager to get a place near the front. News had spread through the taverns, and they knew this was no ordinary burning. This man was some sort of sorcerer king, and his death would be something to tell the grandchildren about.

       In a dingy street, a drunken man collapsed on the doorstep of the house that had once been his home, and sobbed. "I never told a soul," he wept. But he hadn't gone back, either, and now it was too late.

       An ornamental clock chimed eight, and an old man looked at the carvings, and remembered buying the clock from a craftsman long ago, when beautiful things had seemed important. He didn't feel well, and his head felt musty. He thought he would just climb his tower and look at the sky and wait for Darius to bring his breakfast. Darius took care of him very well.

       Far away, in a place where there were no clocks, Oliver sat beside the stream and stared at his reflection in the water. Elias should be in the city now, and if anything happened to him, it would be Oliver's fault for letting him go. Then someone called to him, and he dashed his hand across the mirror, and the image fragmented.

       The clock struck eight, and Darius rested his hands on the windowsill and surveyed the morning that belonged to him. Life was very good, he thought.

      

 

       Ciaran could hear Reynard talking to someone. "All going according to plan," he was saying. "His master won't be able to stop it happening. As soon as he's dead, we'll make our move. You know what to do."

       He opened one eye a slit, and peeped through the straw. Reynard was standing with a bloody sword in his hand, and another at his waist. He was gouging chunks of mortar out of the wall with his wicked dagger, so bloody fragments fell on the carpet. The man he was talking to was wearing the black uniform of a soldier, but his face could have belonged to Reynard's twin.

       So that's it, Ciaran thought. Reynard was a traitor to the Kindred, in league with the soldiers of Eidengard, and that was why he was always so loud in his hatred for them, to put people off the scent. Or maybe the black-uniformed men who had dragged Elias off weren't soldiers at all, but Kindred in disguise. They had sneaked into the city, killed the real soldiers, and taken their uniforms, and lurked there by the scaffold until the moment came to whisk Elias away.

       Ciaran knew what he had to do. His head didn't hurt any more, and the Shadow was bright and rich around him, like shimmering strands of silver. As always, it responded wonderfully when he reached for it. It untied the ropes at his wrists with gentle invisible hands, and he stood up, his arms spread wide.

       Reynard snarled like a wolf, and dropped into a crouch, ready to spring. Ciaran didn't give him a chance. He smashed Reynard to the floor, and ground his foot into his face. He stamped on his hands, breaking the bones of his fingers so he would never again be able to hold his sword. "You will never hurt Elias again," he spat into the broken face of his conquered foe.

       The soldier had gone away. Ciaran strode past Reynard's body and hurried out into the square. The sky was black like a bruise, and the air was thick with smoke from the factories over the river. The crowd was immense, all of them gathered to see Elias die, but they shrank back when they saw Ciaran. Only one man dared to block his path, and Ciaran struck him down with the end of his staff, and made his mouth gush blood. After that, nobody stopped him.

       Elias was bound in chains, slumped on his knees, bleeding badly. Ciaran called his name, and his head snapped up, hope blossoming in his eyes. But the fire was already reaching for his ankles, and time was running out.

       Ciaran jumped onto the scaffold and swung his staff in a wide arc, felling enemies like skittles. There were a dozen of them, all wearing black, all pretending to be soldiers, but really they were Reynard's men. Ciaran picked one of them up bodily and threw him into the crowd. "Look at his face!" he commanded them. "See how you have been tricked!" They did what he ordered, and bayed in outrage.

       Then he turned to his fallen apprentice, and scooped him up tenderly. The bleeding stopped as soon as he touched it. "Elias," he crooned, as the sun set behind him in a blaze of glory, and everything was painted with gold. "I'm here. Everything will be all right. I've come to take you home."

       The boy was tremulous in his arms. "I was lost, but you found me," he whispered. "I was scared, but you comforted me. What would I do without you, master?"

       With Elias in his arms he strode through the crowd, stepping over Reynard's broken body without even looking down. He carried him through the gate, past the factories, and away into the sunset that made the hills of Greenslade so pretty and pink. But the grass in the meadows smelled like rotten straw, and his head was hurting. Elias grew heavier and heavier in his arms, and suddenly he wasn't there at all.

       He woke up with a cry, and just never stopped. "Elias!" he screamed. "I have to go to him!"

       "No!" Reynard snapped. He jumped down from the beam and landed heavily, falling onto his hands and knees. He groaned as if the fall had hurt him. "You can't. Not now. It's about to happen."

       "What?" Ciaran managed to stand and charged at the door, but he had no hands and he couldn't open it, and he crashed into it and it hurt, it hurt so badly. "What's going to happen?" he wailed. He banged his head against the wood again and again and again, and each blow made him feel sick.

       Reynard imprisoned him, one arm on either side of his neck, hands pressed against the door. "He's going to escape. And I've got his master here for him, safe, just as he ordered me to."

       "But he won't escape." Ciaran slid down the door and slumped sideways at Reynard's feet. "He can't. I never told him. It's all happened before, but I didn't tell him."

       Reynard grabbed his chin. "Didn't tell him what?" His voice was as sharp as a knife.

       "He had a vision." Ciaran was rocking to and fro, barely aware of Reynard, not even caring that he was humbling himself so. "It was when he was sick. I went into his vision to save him. He was being burnt, and it was here, it was Eidengard, and even the houses were the same. I recognised it yesterday."

       "And you didn't tell me?" Reynard screamed. "You didn't tell me?"

       "They just kept killing him again and again. He was so scared. He was just standing there. Oliver said he could save himself, but he didn't know that, you see? He doesn't think like you or I think. He doesn't try to do things, because he doesn't believe he can succeed. When people hurt him he... he curls into a ball and believes all the bad things they say. He doesn't know he can stop them. He just lets them do it. He doesn't think he can do anything."

       "But his enchantment..." Reynard sounded genuinely shocked. "I've seen it. He's... I know he's only young, but..."

       "He doesn't know," Ciaran sobbed. "I never told him. I never told him when I was proud of him, or when he'd done well. And I told him... I told him so many bad things. I made him cry. I even said it to him. You think you're worthless, don't you, I said. I never told him that it wasn't true, that he wasn't."

       "He can't..." Reynard's hands slumped to his side. "He doesn't know that he can escape." He grabbed Ciaran by the throat. "Is that what you're telling me?"

       "He doesn't know that he can escape," Ciaran whispered, but the words would still be true even if he said them too quietly to be heard. "He didn't in the vision, and they killed him again and again. He didn't know until I told him. That's why he needs me. That's why I have to go to him. That's why you have to let me go. You have to. Please." He sobbed and gulped and retched. "Please," he gasped, with every breath. "Please."

       Reynard drew his dagger. "I will hurt you badly if you don't shut up." He spat in Ciaran's face. "You disgust me. How could you do this to him?" He kicked Ciaran in the ribs, emphasising his shrieking words. "How could you?"

       "I need to go to him." Ciaran pushed himself to the feet and lurched to the door. Reynard grabbed at his ankles, but Ciaran kicked him, his legs flailing wildly, hitting his chest, his throat, his face. He heard Reynard cry out, and knew he had hurt him. Good.

       "No you don't." Something heavy landed on his back, and he fell onto his bound hands, and his head hit the ground, and he screamed. A hand ground his face into the dirt, pushing down on the back of his neck, and the flat of a blade pressed against his cheek. "If you struggle," Reynard hissed, "I am not responsible for where it cuts you."

       Ciaran bucked, but Reynard clung on, and the point of the dagger sunk into Ciaran's cheek, just in front of the ear. The blood flowed downwards, trickling into his nose and mouth. Reynard did not remove the knife, so his every movement sent the blade deeper into his flesh. Even breathing hurt.

       "I won't," Ciaran whispered, at last, and knew that this was it, that he would never fall lower than this. "I won't fight you."

       "Good." Reynard stood up, but did not sheathe his blade. "So, Ciaran Morgan, we have an hour until the execution, and now you tell me that he won't know how to save himself, thanks to you. So what do we do in this hour?" He towered over Ciaran with his hands on hips, then his legs seemed to give way, and he slumped to the floor. His head sagged, and his hands lay beside him, lifeless in the straw. "What do we do?"

      

 

       They came for him in silence. Their faces were solid, and they were more brutal than Darius, yet more kind. They hit him, and the pain was uncomplicated and without shame. When they dragged him to his feet, their grip was firm and impersonal. They handled him like an object, and they never looked at him. He liked them for that.

       Without saying a word, they shoved him against the wall. One held him there by his throat, and the other brought out his shiny new chains. Darius had undone his old chains in the night, and his hands were hanging like dead things at his side.

       He wished they would talk to him. Silence left him alone with the memory of Darius's voice. Darius was inside him. He was filled up to the brim with Darius, and his words were sloshing around in his brain like water, seeping into every pore. He wanted them to scream at him and abuse him, louder than Darius, as loud as possible.

       They threw water over his face, and washed it with a cloth. When they were finished, the water was stained pink. They straightened his clothes and combed his hair, tugging cruelly at the blood-matted tangles behind his ear and bringing tears to his eyes. They left him his breeches and doublet, but his cloak and boots were taken from him. The water dripped down his neck and made him shiver.

       "Hands," one of them said in a gruff voice. He offered them his wrists, and they cuffed them with shiny silver. The shackles hurt badly, and he groaned. That made them laugh. "Wicked little spikes on the inside," one of them explained to the other. "They'll hurt him if he struggles. But only a little uncomfortable if he's nice and placid like."

       "Is it... Is it ten, yet?" His voice was a tiny thread, broken from too much screaming. "Are you going to kill me now?"

       They didn't answer him. They seemed a little scared of him, and would not meet his eye. Hadn't Darius told them the truth? Silly men. They still thought he was somebody powerful who could actually do things.

       They led him out of the cell, one on each side of him, holding him by the elbows. It wasn't fair, because he was being good, not struggling at all, but the jolts of their walking were making his wrists tug at the shackles, and blood started to trickle down his hands. It hurt a lot, but he didn't cry. It was the nicest pain that had happened to him all night, because Darius had nothing to do with it.

       He concentrated on staying upright, on putting one foot in front of the other. If he fell over, the guards would pull him upright, and his wrists would be shredded. He didn't want to lose his hands. It wouldn't be fair if he did, because he really was trying very hard to do what he had been told. "You will walk prettily onto the scaffold on your own two feet," Darius had told him. "You will have no visible injuries, except the unavoidable ones from your arrest. I am in the business of justice, not cruelty, and no prisoner of mine is ever abused. You will give them no reason to doubt these things." And he had been truthfulness itself, for he hadn't hurt Elias in any way that could show, not when his clothes were back on.

       An officer met him at the end of the corridor, but he was not Darius. When he reached outside, twenty men were drawn up in lines, and he looked at every face, but none of them were Darius. An empty cart was standing in the courtyard, and two strong horses were harnessed to it. One of them looked at him, and shied away, disgusted.

       They pushed him up the lowered back of the cart, then raised it and bolted it into place. "Remain standing," they ordered him. The soldiers fell into formation around him, armed with pikes and swords. Someone started a low beat on a drum, like a funeral march, and the cart started to move. Elias wobbled and swayed, and the pikes angled towards him a little, warning him of what would happen if he fell.

       The cart took him beneath the towers that had been built by the Kindred, and blessed with the magic of enchantment. Perhaps King Alberic had walked in this very same place, before he had gone to another world and passed on a sacred trust to a boy who would do everything wrong, and betray it. Darius now owned Alberic's sword, and the king's people had waited five centuries in vain.

       He could only see the back of the man who was driving the cart, and beyond him the sad-looking ears of the horses. People were shouting not far away, then burst out in full force when the cart passed through the gateway. They screamed at him, their faces twisted up in masks of hatred. He saw a woman move to one side, to give her small children a better view. A man was eating an apple. Someone threw something rotten, but one of the soldiers stationed along the route put a stop to that.

       Why do you hate me so? he wanted to shout. I was never dangerous. I'm nobody. A pretty girl screamed insults at him. A family were dressed up in their party clothes, and the father knelt beside his daughter and pointed out the blood on Elias's hands. I was never going to hurt you. It was a stupid plan and I messed it up, but it wasn't going to hurt anyone. I'd die rather than hurt anyone.

       The horse pranced, startled by the noise and disturbed by the hatred. It's all right, Elias told it. It's not you they hate. It stilled at once, but the driver was slow to regain the reins, and the cart rolled to a halt. Some of the people surged forward to mob him, and others shrank back, more afraid of him now he was not moving past them. He heard snatches of the things they were saying. "His followers are still at large," someone was saying. "I heard that he can rip people's faces off, and steal them for his friends. His followers look like you or me. They could be right next to you, and you wouldn’t know."

       Still at large, he echoed, as the cart rumbled on. Darius had led him to believe that they were captured, and that he was sparing them from torture if he let himself be tortured instead. But they were still at large. Still safe.

       "Master?" He turned his head from side to side, searching longingly for a familiar face in the crowd. He needed someone grown-up to come and save him. They would have devised a rescue, as cunning as it was unstoppable. Perhaps the man driving the cart, the man whose face he hadn't seen, was really Reynard. Perhaps he would whip the horses into a gallop and plunge through the crowd, leaving the soldiers far behind, and not stopping until they were home.

       The cart was going downhill, past the Palace gatehouse, and down towards the roofs of the city. He saw a woman with a sprig of lavender in her bodice, and a girl with her arm draped round the shoulder of a handsome man. Someone tried to spit at him, and some just stared. It made him feel naked.

       Had they shouted like this at the girl the day before? He didn't know her name. He had killed her, but he didn't know her name. Had she ridden in the same cart, past the same crowds, all dressed up in their finery? They had all gathered to see her die a terrible death, and it was all so cruel and horrible. She had done some bad things in her life, but she hadn't deserved to die like that. No-one did.

       They were leaning out of the windows, too. He peered upwards, and some of them pulled their heads back in when he looked at them. Was Darius there? He had promised to be there for Elias's death, but where was he?

       The soldiers were Darius's men. The one nearest to him was very young, with sandy hair and a pink and white face. His uniform was a little too big for him. Elias wondered if he had killed anyone before. Sometimes he glanced sideways at Elias, all nervousness mixed with pride. He believed in his cause, and thought he was playing his part in exterminating evil from the world. He wasn't cruel.

       But his commander was, Elias thought, and he frowned, for he had never really realised it before. Darius was cruel through and through. He had boasted of how good he was at breaking even the strongest of men, and he took delight in causing pain. He had hurt Elias terribly, and he had enjoyed it. Darius was leading a campaign against sorcerers, but there had been no justice in his activities in the night. He was a cruel man who liked pain, and Elias was his latest victim.

       On all sides, people screamed at him, hurling accusations. A man was jabbing his finger at him, just like Ciaran had done many times, ramming his finger into Elias's chest, telling him off. Once he had been shouted at for dropping a cup. Once he had been sent to bed without any supper because he had fallen asleep in the garden instead of coming in for a lesson, and the bad dream from the garden had followed him inside, because there had been nobody to talk to about it and banish it. Not too long ago, Ciaran had looked at him coldly and catalogued his weaknesses. He made excuses for people, his master said. He was weak and trusting and believed what people said. Sometimes they were just bad people, and it was nothing to do with him that they hurt him.

       The houses were taller here, painted white and pink and lots of pretty colours. There was a gateway ahead, high and ornate. It led into the city square, where he was going to die. He ducked as the cart went through, though there was no need. He had a brief moment of darkness, then was out in the light again.

       The crowd filled the square, like a dense field of flowers, every colour under the sun. He could smell herbs and sweat and wood smoke, and lots of good smells, so different from the stench of his own cell. The sky was white, sheeted over with cloud, but the sun was only thinly hidden. He couldn't see Ciaran or Reynard, but they had to be here, hidden near the front. They wouldn't let him die, would they? He was their naughty boy who had strayed away from them, but they would snatch him back and keep him safe, even as they scolded him.

       The soldiers lowered the back of the cart and told him to step down. There was a six inch gap between the cart and the ground, and he paused on the edge. The paving stone he would land on was chipped in one corner, and had a dark stain worked deeply into the grain. He stepped forward, and it felt like falling off a cliff, like flying, like plunging through space, far away into another world. But then, only an instant later, his foot touched the ground with barely a jolt, and he started to walk.

       There were steps up to the scaffold, and he walked them. He walked as Darius had told him to walk, with his head high and his eyes lowered. "Good boy," someone murmured, and there was Darius, smiling a thin benign smile as he waited for him at the top of the steps.

       I never asked for it, Elias thought, as he stared at Darius's feet. You tricked me. You manipulated me from the start. I was stupid and fell for it, but that doesn't make what you did right.

       Darius spread his arms and hushed the crowd. He was wearing black silk gloves. Perhaps the blood would never wash out of his pale hands, and he would have to wear gloves forever. They accused Elias of stealing faces, but Darius was the one who was wearing a mask. He was speaking to the crowd, all regretful that evil was once more in their midst, but pleased that one more sorcerer would now be no more. "However onerous and unpleasant, it is a duty that must be done," he said, "and I will never rest while a single sorcerer is alive to perform his evil works."

       The pyre was already kindling, and there was no stake. A masked man was holding Albacrist, and another stood ready with a vat of oil, ready to throw it on the flames. It would not be a slow death, like the one the girl had suffered. A quick run through with the sword, and then physically thrown into the blazing fire. It would be over in seconds. Why was he being treated differently? Because they knew his master was coming to rescue him, he thought, and they wanted to finish him off quickly.

       He swallowed, fighting a sudden surge of sickness. His palms were sticky, and he realised that his hands were completely encrusted in blood. He had barely noticed the pain in his wrists, for memory held so much worse than that. I don't want to die, he whispered. I don't want to be hurt any more.

       "Most of you have heard the stories by now," Darius was saying. "You know that this boy, this unlikely-looking boy, claims to be the heir of the kings of old. The bandits have set him up to be some kind of prophesied leader. Well, today you will see what the world today thinks of prophecy. Today we drive the final nail through the coffin of those sorcerers and their minions. Today we say once and for all that we are not afraid of them. Their time is over. The world belongs to the duchy of Eidengard, and to the light."

       Everyone cheered. "Darius!" they cried. "Darius!" They loved him very much, their cruel lord. No-one called for the duke.

       Darius turned to him. "Stand there," he said, pointing to a spot on the wooden scaffold. Then he gestured to the largest soldiers. "Keep him there."

       The soldier was holding a fine chain, and he threaded it through the short chain that linked Elias's wrist shackles, and wrapped the end three times around his wrist. If Elias tried to struggle or escape, the soldier just had to tug, and the spikes would gouge into his wrists.

       But Darius hadn't chained him in the night. He hadn't even locked the door. He had done nothing at all to stop Elias escaping. Why?

       The masked man moved forward, the crystal sword dull in his hands. Something was fluttering in Elias's stomach, a creature with claws and wings, struggling to escape. Why wasn't Ciaran here? He saw every face on the front row. A plump girl was trying to pin a love token to the sleeve of an oblivious guard, and a woman was standing with her apron pressed to her mouth.

       I've seen them before, he thought. I've been here before. In his fever dream, he had died on this scaffold. It was different in detail, but too much was the same. Darius had been there, and that girl, and that woman, and that stone slab, again and again. And so he was even more stupid than he had thought, for he had seen a vision of what would happen if he came to the city, and had ignored it. This was always going to be the end of his journey. Small chances and decisions along the way had changed the details, but the essential truth remained. He had failed, and here he was. It was inevitable because of the sort of person he was.

       The executioner raised the sword, and the crowd gasped at its impossible blade. "The sword he was wearing," Darius told the crowd. "After today, it will never be used, for it is a foul thing of sorcery. It will become an heirloom of our duchy, a trophy of a defeated enemy."

       Albacrist would shine white, and would refuse to hurt him. Please, he whispered. Please.

       The sword struck him in the back, slid past his ribs, and came out through his side. The pain was enormous, and he sank to his knees, gasping with betrayal. The chains at his wrists dragged him up, and then the executioner's hand was in his hair, plucking his head up and backwards, exposing his throat to the crowd.

       "And thus he is struck by the hand of man, and hurt by the weapon he would have used against us," Darius intoned. "Thus we know that he has been rendered powerless, for even those closest to him have turned their back on him, decreeing him worthless."

       It hurt, oh how it hurt. And Albacrist had done it to him. Albacrist had betrayed him. No, he had betrayed Albacrist. He had forgotten to keep it hidden, and he had failed to prove worthy of the sacred trust that it represented. He deserved its condemnation. It was only right.

       "Only right," Darius was whispering to him. The executioner let his head drop, and Elias slowly raised it, frowning in confusion at Darius. What had he been saying?

       "What...?" he murmured, through pain that blinded him, but Darius was already walking away.

       This was the end. No-one was coming. Ciaran and Reynard had abandoned him because he was worthless. Albacrist had hurt him because he had betrayed the Kindred. He wasn't going to be saved. He would die in the flames, and this was the end.

       His knees were sticky with blood. There was a thick line of soldiers at the base of the scaffold, and their weapons were turned on the crowd. Maybe Ciaran wasn't there because it was too dangerous. Maybe Ciaran wanted very badly to come, but couldn't, not without dying. And Elias had been the one to push Ciaran away, and not the other way round. It had been his own decision. He had ordered Reynard to put Ciaran's safety above everything, and maybe he had obeyed. Maybe they was waiting for Elias in a safe place, waiting for him to come to them.

       The fire roared, and he could smell burning oil. Darius was speaking, but his words were pulsing in and out, and the words he had said last night were louder. But those words had been trickery. Darius was wicked, not Elias. Elias had made some bad decisions and had let everyone down, but he had never taken delight in causing suffering. His intentions had been good. He had killed the girl, but he had saved her, too, rescuing her from pain like this. He had suffered for her, and he had saved Ciaran and Reynard, too. He had made mistakes, but he needed to be alive to atone for them and try to make things better. 

       The girl hadn't deserved to die. No-one deserves to die like this, he had thought. So that meant he didn't either, didn't it?

       But there's nobody to save me, he whimpered. How had he been saved in his fever dream? Ciaran had come to rescue him, hadn't he? But he couldn't remember. There were gaps in his memory of the dream, and Ciaran had looked awkward when he had mentioned them. Oliver had tried to tell him many times that he was capable of more than he had ever let himself believe, and maybe it was true. He kept forgetting to try things, because he just assumed that they would not work.

       They took hold of him under the armpits, and began to drag him towards the fire. Another soldier stood ready to grab his ankles.

       Why didn't Darius lock the door? Because he knew I wouldn't escape. I wouldn't even try. I just believed everything he told me, and gave up. He liked it better that way. Anyone could chain someone up, but it was an even sweeter triumph to hold them prisoner without chains, so they didn't even try to go, even when the door was open. Darius had done that, and Elias had become an accomplice in his own captivity.

       He could feel the heat of the flames on his face. Darius was smiling, but he thought he saw a nervous tightening of the muscles around his eyes. He knows I can still escape, if only I remember to try.

       "No!" he shrieked. White fire came to his command, and the chains at his wrists burned away to ashes. Images of all the monsters he had ever seen in his dreams surged out of the wooden floor of the scaffold, and Darius was there too, and his father and his brothers, and everything horrible that he had ever known. The soldier carrying him recoiled in horror, and dropped him. Elias screamed as he landed, and curled over his wound.

       "They're not real!" Darius was trying to shout over the screaming, but only Elias heard him. With a snarl of fury that turned his face into something unrecognisable, Darius strode towards him, ready to take him again.

       "No," Elias moaned. "Please no." Anything but that. Anything but to be in Darius's hands again, feeling his touch, screaming because the man wanted to hear him scream, hearing his soft voice and the sickening sound of flesh. Safe, he thought. Far away and quiet, where Darius can't find me. His hands fluttered against the wood, as it he could burrow through it and hide deep in the ground. No. Not this. Run. Hide. Safe in the dark.

       With a small desperate sigh, he brought darkness down on the square. Struggling to his feet, he shuffled to the edge of the scaffold, and plunged down to the ground, six feet below. He landed on his hands and knees. Someone grabbed at him, feeling blindly in the darkness, and he kicked them away. He started to crawl, but someone stood on his hand, and someone else kicked him on the side of his head.

       No-one could see a thing, and they were all panicking. People would get hurt. He pressed his bleeding hands to his face, and whispered a silent plea into his palms. When he lowered his hands, his face was different. When he was on his feet again, he released the darkness, and pretty daylight filled the square.

       Everyone was screaming and shouting and pointing, but none of them noticed the old man who was standing near the front, seemingly aware of nothing but the ground at his feet. Those who were nearest of him might have glanced at him briefly, but they found him of no interest, and soon looked away.

       As his blood flowed through the fingers he had clamped to his side, Elias plunged into the crowd and lost himself in their hatred. Darius was raging behind him, and he had no idea where to go, and he wasn't even free, for he never would be, not now. But he was safe from the flames, and that was good.