The flowing stream
They walked in silence for a while, both of them wrapped up in their own thoughts. They saw no sign of Reynard. Several times, Ciaran looked behind him, half hoping to see Elias rushing up behind them after all, but the forest remained still and silent. Elias was out there, but he was hidden from view.
Oliver spoke first. "Isn't it good to see him on his feet again?"
Ciaran glanced at him, and saw that he was smiling. Despite everything, he found himself smiling in response. "It is." Their eyes met for a moment. Then Ciaran turned away, but the smile still lingered.
"He's so brave," Oliver said, as they passed the first of the outlying tents. "You have a jewel of an apprentice, Ciaran Morgan. I don't think you realise it."
Ciaran's smile disappeared. "And you are thieves, and you steal jewels."
Oliver stopped walking. "We're not trying to steal him from you." He sighed. "I know how hard this is for you. I'd be scared, too, if I was thrown into a strange world, and forced to throw my lot in with a people who seemed to go against everything I knew about justice."
"That's not the half of it," Ciaran shouted. Then he took a deep breath. "I'm not scared. And I don't want your understanding."
Oliver looked down at his hands. "That was not a good thing that you did today," he said, twisting them one way, then the next. "Elias had something to tell us, but you wouldn't let him speak. You saw how it ended. It might not have ended better if you had allowed it to start differently."
Ciaran held his staff with both hands. "Reynard upset him, not me. And it had to be said. He had to hear the truth."
"I'm as much to blame as you are," Oliver admitted. "I should have stopped it. Like you, I thought it needed to be said. I hoped Reynard would say too much, and that would force Elias to challenge him and say no. I got what I wanted, but now I wish I hadn't."
"Reynard in open rebellion against you? Your House divided?" Ciaran laughed. "Yes, I can see why that might be something you wish hadn't happened."
"It's for his sake that I wish it," Oliver said, and there was a sudden hardness in his look, "and that will never change now. I have sworn it."
Ciaran started walking again, hurrying back to the camp. "Reynard could be dangerous. I don't care what he does to you. I don't care if he splits you down the middle and you all kill each other. But I do care what happens to Elias."
"I know you do," Oliver said, from behind him. "I understand that much. And that's why I can never hate you."
Ciaran was using his staff like a walking stick, jamming the end into the ground with each step. "Hate me if you like. I don't care." He remembered how often Elias had looked at Oliver during the argument, and how seldom at Ciaran, his own master. "Because I hate you," he growled, slashing at a plant that dared try to block his path.
A youth wandered across their path, and Ciaran wished he could strike him aside as easily as he had crushed the plant. "Yes." He stopped walking. Oliver had challenged Reynard, risking death for Elias's sake. Elias had been dying, and Oliver had helped Ciaran save his life. For a while, in Elias's hut, the two of them could almost have been friends. "No," he admitted. "I just..."
"I know," Oliver said, very softly.
Ciaran swallowed hard. He could lower his hand, look Oliver in the eyes, and talk to him. This is how I feel, he would say, and Oliver would listen, and understand, and would not judge him. I felt so helpless when Elias was dying, he could say. I feel so lost. I'm losing Elias. No-one wants me here. I wanted the sword so badly. It should have been me. "I want to go home," he whispered.
"I know." Oliver touched him on the shoulder. "Elias will find a way home. He's only begun to realise what he's capable of. Give him time."
"Time?" Ciaran lowered his hand, and clenched it into a fist. "How much time?"
Oliver shook his head. "I don't know. But a month here is hardly more than a day in your world. You could stay long enough to change our world, but still go home and find that everything just as you'd left it."
"I don't want..." Ciaran swallowed. "I don't..." He whirled round suddenly. "Don't touch me!" he yelled. "I won't listen to you! Reynard. Where's Reynard?"
Oliver was trying to distract him, trying to trick him, to make him relax and accept what was happening here. Every day here was a day of misery. Every day saw Elias getting more and more trapped. So what if it was only an hour in his own world, or a minute, or a second? He would never stand by and allow Elias to be hurt. The foolish boy had been tricked into making rash promises, but they weren't real. Ciaran would extricate him from the trap he had become enmeshed in.
"Reynard!" he shouted. He started to run, leaving Oliver trailing behind him. He burst into the camp. There were people there, and they looked up as he approached. "Reynard," he demanded. "Where's Reynard?" He grabbed a woman by the upper arms, dragging her round to face him. "Where's Reynard?"
She shook her head. "I don't know." Her mouth opened and closed again. He was hurting her, his fingers digging into her arms, but she was not afraid of him.
He let her go. "Where's Reynard?" he shouted, loud enough for them all to hear.
"We haven't see him," a man spat, standing up and dusting down his clothes. "And why should we tell you if we had?" Then he looked beyond Ciaran. "By the Makers, Oliver, I wish you hadn't made us swear not to hurt this one."
Ciaran whirled on Oliver. "You made them swear? I don't need your oaths. I can look after myself."
"And how would Elias feel if he came back and found you dead?" Oliver said coldly "You provoke them so, and Reynard is not the only one who thinks with his sword."
Ciaran grabbed Oliver's wrist and dragged it up. "Did Reynard swear?"
Oliver looked uncomfortable. "No," he admitted. "Reynard did not." Then he raised his voice, speaking to the group by the fire. "I need to speak to Reynard. Are you sure you haven't seen him?"
"No," the man said, and his voice was entirely different now. "I've been here for nearly an hour, and he's not been here."
"Then he's gone straight to his tent," Ciaran said. He dropped Oliver's wrist. "I'm going there."
Oliver sighed. "I suppose we must." He showed no signs of relishing it, but Ciaran was fiercely glad. When he found Reynard, he would fight him, and everything would be decided. He would fight for Elias, and he would win, and oh how good it would feel, just to be fighting an enemy, with right on his side!
He turned and stalked away, and he was smiling. Anger was pure. Hatred was uncomplicated. Elias was lost in the big dark forest, and Ciaran was going to save him.
Elias was running. No-one was following. No-one was watching. The trees had arms that snatched at him as he passed, but then they yielded and let him go. Nothing could stop him. The camp was far behind him. It didn't even exist. None of them existed.
He saw nothing but the pounding blur of the ground beneath him. Sometimes his feet slipped on grass that was still damp with dew. His heart was hammering in his chest, and sharp pains were shooting up and down his legs. He was crying, he realised, but he was laughing, too. His blood was coursing through his body, and the enchantment was a flame of exultation in his mind.
Strange, he thought, how good it felt to be by himself. He had always been so scared of being alone. His family had left him, and one day his master would too. He was always alone in the terrible dreams, too, all alone with the monsters who knew his name and wanted him. But now people with known faces and human voices had taken the place of the monsters. It was safer to be alone than to be with Reynard and Oliver and, yes, even Ciaran. They all wanted things from him that he couldn't possibly give them, and their disappointment was impossible to bear.
Thorns scratched at his sleeves, and drew blood on the back of his hand. Pain stabbed between his eyes. And Ciaran... Ciaran was the worst of them all, worse even than Reynard, who scared him. It was terrifying, the thing the Kindred wanted him to, but it was so much harder for having to fight Ciaran every step of the way. Ciaran wanted to go home. He wanted to have a meek apprentice again. He lashed out in anger, but deep down he was miserable and afraid.
Had Ciaran always been like that at heart, but Elias had never seen it, not until the enchantment had opened his eyes? Or maybe Ciaran was simply unravelling in this world, and the Brother who had always been so strong and implacable was becoming just Ciaran, who was falling apart. Whatever the reason, Ciaran could only be happy if he went home. But Elias could never go home. And part of Elias only wanted to surrender himself into his master's care, and that was the worst thing of all.
A long tendril of bramble snagged his cloak, and brought him up short. He tried to desperately untangle it, but it was tightly caught, and his efforts only got himself more trapped. He pricked his thumb on a thorn, and sucked it, frowning accusingly. Then he chuckled, suddenly aware of how absurd he looked.
"Have it your own way, then," he muttered. Leaving his cloak tangled, he twisted round and picked a blackberry. It collapsed into a juicy mass in his hands, for the fruit was at the very end of its season, but he ate it anyway, and it was good. He picked another one, and another, heaping them in his palm. Then he ate each one, until both hands were smeared with dark red liquid. He licked his lips, and, from the sweet taste of them, supposed that his face was similarly stained.
Only when he had eaten every berry on the branch did he turn his attention back to his cloak. This time he worked calmly and carefully, and he extricated himself easily. Smoothing his cloak down, he stood still, and looked around him, truly noticing his surroundings for the first time. The trees above him were beautiful, he realised. Their branches were strange stark patterns against the dappled sky, and the shadows they cast made the forest floor constantly alive with shifting light and darkness.
He set off again, but this time he was walking slowly, aware of every step. He paused often, sometimes crouching to look at the delicate veins of a skeletal leaf, and sometimes to peer up to the treetops to follow the flight of a darting bird. There was no desperation to his movements now. His troubles faded. They were still there, and he would never forget them, but for now the only thing that mattered was the beauty of the forest, and the enchantment that surrounded him like an embrace.
The forest was alive, and infinitely varied. It was not like a storybook forest, where the ground was flat, and the trees so dense that the light never penetrated the dark canopy. This was a sprawling place of deciduous trees, interspersed with dense scrub land and coarse clearings. There were hills and secret valleys and narrow rocky streams. There was a lot of sunlight, and a lot of beauty. It was a safe hiding place for the Kindred not because it was dense and dark, but because it was vast and sprawling, and it would take a lifetime to learn its every secret.
Running water sounded ahead of him, and soon he came to the edge of a stream, where a narrow path snaked down to the water's edge, in the shadow of a massive boulder. He followed the path down to the water, and crouched down precariously to wash his hands. When they were clean, he spread his fingers, and felt the water push against them, the current trying to make them bend back.
He closed his eyes, and let his mind drift with the current. He imagined that he was a fish, following the current all the way to the distant ocean, or looking up through the mirrored surface of the water to see a human face peering down at him from a world that he could never enter. Then something tugged his thoughts from the water, and he soared up high, flying as a bird through the clouds, where the stream was a strand of silver thread far below. Men were mere dots on the ground, and their concerns were petty, and the only thing that mattered was the feel of the wind in his wings.
He shivered, and snatched his hands out of the water, rubbing them dry on his cloak. The skin was red and tingling with the cold. A cloud had passed in front of the sun. Blackness was welling up in the south, and the sunlit promise of the morning would soon be washed away by rain.
It was time to go back. He had asked for time alone, and he had been given it, and it had done him good, but there could be no running away. The thing with Reynard was not finished, and he had to face Ciaran again, and wanted to. They had never been far away. Even when he had been running so wildly, they had been close enough to hear him scream. If anything bad had happened, they would have come rushing out to help him, and perhaps there was nothing wrong in taking comfort from that.
He hesitated for a moment, unsure of which direction to walk in, then realised that he would always know the way back, if he remembered to look for it. The enchantment told him where people were, because their minds and emotions were like glowing flames of light. He knew the way home, and it wasn't far. Home, he thought. Perhaps one day it would feel like home. In a tiny way, it already did.
Just as he turned to go, he heard someone scream.
Elias froze. The water trickled, faint and constant, like a fading dream, but he heard no other sound. He breathed in, and out. The water grew louder, and a crow cawed a warning of impending death. The clouds above him were edged with black, like a letter bearing bad news, but he sensed no fear, in either enchantment or Shadow.
Perhaps he had only imagined it. His master had always called him a fanciful child, quick to imagine monsters, and always jumping at shadows. "Just my imagination," he said aloud, but then the scream came again, and this time it was louder, and unmistakably real. The bird cried out again, then rose up from a branch, its black wings flapping noisily. When Elias clawed his way to the top of the rock, he could see a flash of movement on the far bank, some way upstream. Two people were struggling, and one had the other one on the floor, and was hurting them. Hurting her, for it had been a woman's scream.
This time he did not pause. He hurled himself forward into the water. He landed well, but the weakness from his illness made his knees sag after landing, and he fell almost to kneeling. The water surged up to above his waist, and its coldness made him gasp.
Now there were words in the scream. "Help me!" she was begging him. "Please, somebody, help!"
"I'm coming!" Elias started to run, but the water pulled at his legs and resisted him, and the current was surprisingly strong, trying to drag him away from the girl who needed his help. His feet sank into the mud, and there were invisible stones and rocks on the river bed, trying to trip him up. As he ran, water surged up like a cascade, filling his eyes and his mouth, and drenching him all over.
It seemed to take forever, and all the time she was screaming. And then he was on the far bank of the stream, and his feet were slipping on the muddy slope. Coldness slammed into his body as the air touched his wet clothes, making them adhere to his skin. His limbs felt immensely heavy, resisting his every desperate step.
"Help me!" she screamed, and he was blind, his eyes hurting from the slaps of water. He clawed at them, gouging away any water that remained. The trees were thicker on this far bank, and he couldn't see her. The branches swayed in the wind, and whenever he thought he could see something, they moved again and hid it from sight. Even the enchantment had deserted him, for he felt the life of the trees, but could feel no fear to go with the abject terror of that voice.
His mouth was dry with fear of his own. He licked his lips, and tasted the sickly sweetness of blackberries. He couldn't sense her calling to him in his mind, and Sophie had fallen silent, too, because she had died before he could reach her. But this girl was still screaming aloud, begging for him to come and save her.
"I'm coming!" he gasped, as he ran. "I'm here. Where are you? I'm coming!"
With every step, the sky seemed darker. Beneath his feet, the fallen leaves were still damp with dew, and his boots were wet and slithery. Twisted branches reached for him, and the roots were exposed and slippery, where soil had slipped down the bank into the stream. Harsh bark scraped his hands where he grabbed at the trees, using them to hasten his weaving passage through the obstructed river bank.
She screamed again, and she was close now, so close. He burst out of the trees, and found himself in a small clearing that seemed even darker than the forest, for there was nothing between the ground and the black clouds above. And there, at the heart of the darkness, as exposed as on a stage, a woman was about to be raped.
"No!" Elias screamed. He rushed forward, and the man, the attacker, looked up and saw him. The woman, too, turned to face him, moving only her head. She looked familiar, and Elias realised she was the girl who had stood and watched him while he and Oliver had been talking the night before. She was a few years younger than Elias. Her wrists were frail, held pinned above her head by the man's strong tanned hand, and her thighs were very pale.
"Stop it," he commanded. "Leave her alone."
"And why should I do that?" the man sneered. He was young, too, and it gave Elias a shock to realise that he was probably a little older than this rapist, who had seemed like such a strong, ferocious man, at first. His chestnut hair was trickling out of a ponytail tied with a leather thong, and he was still fully clothed. There was a large sword at his belt, and the tip of its sheath was digging into the woman's leg.
"Because it's wrong," Elias said.
The young man laughed derisively. "What do right and wrong count for round here? Justice is written by the man with the sharpest sword."
Elias placed his hand on the hilt of Albacrist, sheathed at his side, and not drawn for days. "My sword is sharp." He tried to conceal how exhausted he was, and how he wanted to suck in every breath, desperately needing air.
The girl was lying very still, just staring at him, her eyes expressionless. The young man released her wrists, but she did not move her arms. When her attacker stood up, she made no move to cover herself up. She just kept on staring at him.
Ignoring the man, Elias walked over to her, and crouched down. "I won't hurt you." Keeping his eyes averted, he pulled her skirt down. His fingertips brushed her flesh just above the knee, and he felt it trembling. "I'm sorry," he murmured, mortified. She had been through a terrible ordeal, and then he had blundered along and touched her.
"Oh, so you're going to enjoy her now?" the young man taunted. "Not so noble now, are we?"
"I am not." Elias stood up, and turned to face him, keeping his body between the girl and her attacker, protecting her even from the sight of him. "And I will keep you from hurting her."
The man drew his sword. "And who are you to stop me? What right do you have?" He started to walk, moving forward with tight steps of controlled menace that seemed vaguely familiar to Elias, though he could not place the memory.
"Any man has the right to interfere when innocents are at risk." Elias tried to keep his voice level as he spoke the lesson that Ciaran himself had taught him. "It is his duty."
"But what right have you?" the man insisted. He raised his sword and brought it down hard, slashing at the air an arm's length in front of Elias's face. "It's none of your business. You speak with the values of your own world. Go back to it and leave us alone."
Elias kept his hand on his sword, but did not draw it. The man reminded him suddenly of his oldest brother, Evan. Elias had never stood up to his childhood tormentors, but he would stand up to this man. A girl would suffer if he did not. "I will not," he said.
"We don't want you," the young man shouted. "You have no right."
"I have this as my right," Elias said. He drew Albacrist, but held it with its blade pointing straight down, showing it as a token rather than as a weapon. The blade glowed faintly white, and seemed to suck the light out of the rest of the clearing. The sky was very dark, and the first drops of rain started to fall, as heavy as stones thrown by a bully. Elias moved his lips, first whispering the words, then saying them aloud. "I am your king, and I order you to leave her alone."
The man gave Elias no time to wonder at the enormity of what he had just said. "No!" he shrieked. "We don't want you! Go home! Or just die. Then we'll be free."
Elias still did not bring the sword up. "I can't," he said. "I had no more choice in this than you did."
"You could have said no!" The man slashed at the air again, cutting through the falling rain. "Five hundred years doing nothing, denying ourselves, waiting for some stupid king who never comes. If you go away, we'll be free. So we won't have a king any more, but so what? We don't need a king. We can choose our own leaders. We don't need a stranger to lead us. It's not fair."
The girl was still there, sprawled on the ground behind him. Elias dared to glance over his shoulder and saw that she was scrabbling backwards, trying to crawl away, but still too traumatised to stand up. "Run," Elias urged her, raising his sword and holding it in front of him, ready to defend himself. "I'll make sure he doesn't follow you."
The girl looked at him for a while, then pushed herself to her feet, moving surprisingly quickly now she had found the courage. Without another word, she ran away, and disappeared into the trees.
Elias turned back. "I don't want to fight you," he said.
"What?" the man sneered. "No more orders? No lofty defence? You're quick to flaunt your title, but you're too cowardly to fight me."
Elias sighed. His wrist ached horribly just to hold the sword with its tip on the ground. "I came here because she called for help. That's all."
Without another word, the man attacked him, bringing the sword down with both hands. Elias twisted and brought his sword up, only narrowly deflecting the blow. Pain jolted up his arm with the force of the clash.
"Save her?" the man laughed. "How noble." He was like a bully, kicking over Elias's shining tower of bricks, and laughing at the ruins. He made all Elias's ideals seem pathetic and tawdry. "But now you'll face me, and we'll decide this, once and for all."
The man feinted to the left, then swept his sword in a broad arc that would have cut Elias's feet away from beneath him, if Elias had not jumped back. He swung again, and this time Elias jumped forward, surprising him. The man's body was undefended, but Elias hesitated, reluctant to strike anything approaching a killing blow. Instead he stepped back again, lowering his sword. Let the man acknowledge that Elias could have killed him, and the fight would be over.
Instead, the man howled with fury, and came at Elias with his sword slashing wildly, raining uncontrolled blows down at his head, that Elias only narrowly deflected. There was no control in the man's fighting, but it was effective. Elias was too exhausted. He had no desire to harm the man, so landed no blows of his own. Holding Albacrist in both hands, he used it like a shield. He could repel the first few attacks, but sooner or later one would get through, and then he would die. It was as simple as that.
"I don't... want to... fight you," he gasped. It was true, and would have been true even if he had been at full strength, but increasingly it sounded like a plea to live.
"Too bad." The man came at him fiercely, one, two, three - a blow to the head that he narrowly deflected, one to the side that snagged in his clothing and scraped the thinnest of lines across his side, and one to his throat that only missed killing him because he threw himself backwards just in time. "With you gone," he crowed, "everything will be as it ought to be." Their swords skittered against each other, one sharp edge sliding down the other. Rain fell heavily onto Elias's hands and neck. "It will be me!" the man hissed.
Elias retreated, step by tiny step. His wet hair was sticking to his cheeks, and his clothes were heavy and clung to his body, hindering movement. Rain and sweat ran down his face and pooled in the corner of his mouth. It tasted of salt and blackberries, and it made him feel sick. He had been very stupid. He should have run away as soon as the girl had gone. He had thought he could control this, or else he hadn't truly believed it would come to a fight. It was still so new to him, knowing that people could really want to kill him.
He sank to his knees, his legs simply refusing to hold him any more. And then, in the moment of defeat, he remembered the Shadow, and dared to hope again.
He had forgotten it. Albacrist had always done that to him, burning so fiercely with enchantment that he had stopped using the Shadow while he held the sword in his hand. But once he had been a Brother, who had never held a sword, or felt the wild fire of enchantment. Those days had gone, but the Shadow still remained.
Still kneeling, he let the sword slip from his fingers, yielding enchantment for Shadow. He could be Brother or king, but not both, not at the same time. Please, he begged, and the blue waters of his Garden were like the faintest ghost of a memory, slashed through with thick rain and a silver sword. The Shadow shimmered, and it was hardly there at all, rendered useless by his exhaustion and his fear.
The man brought his sword down for the killing blow, and Elias thrust forward with both palms, and the faint strands of Shadow drew together like gossamer blown in the wind. The deadly sword was on the very point of plunging into his throat, but it stopped, checked by a woven mass of Shadow that only Elias could see, and even he only vaguely. It slid sideways, and the man's wrist strained. He cried out, and the tendons on his wrist stood out stark and white.
Patches of mist floating over Elias's vision. It should have been easy. Disarm the man with a thought, with a quick push of Shadow. Easy. But he was too tired, and could hardly hold it. The sword was so close. So close...
There was fear in the man's eyes now, and his lips were pulled back from his teeth. Sweat was seeping from his grip, and his hand was sliding on the hilt of his sword.
I won't give in, Elias whispered. He closed his eyes, and forced himself to still the rapid beating of his heart. He saw his Garden, faint and far away. The door of the white tower was half open, but he turned his back on it, and gazed out to sea. The waves were a deep blue, and they broke onto the beach with a soothing sound.
There, on the beach of his Garden, he stood up, raising both arms above his head. Then, in a rainy clearing a world away, he opened his eyes to see the sword flying from the man's hands in a cascading arc. It smashed against a branch, then fell heavily at the base of a dark tree. Long before it had landed, Elias dismantled the wall of Shadow, and let everything go.
The man was had been straining forward with all his strength, but suddenly he was fighting a wall that was no longer there. He cried out, and plunged forward. Even as he fell, he tried to transform it into an attack, lunging at Elias with his fists. His right fist struck Elias on the cheekbone, beneath his right eye, and silver pain surged through Elias's head.
Elias had reached the limit of his endurance. He had nothing left. His head was pounding, and his vision was turning black. But I want to live! he screamed, and pushed the man away with everything that had still had left to him. All that mattered was getting rid of him. All that mattered was to be free, so he could sink into the darkness and be safe.
Then the last of his strength flowed from him like water. He didn't even know if he had been successful. Maybe a hand would grab his hair, and a dagger would lovingly sever his throat. Maybe, but nothing could keep him from the darkness. He had given his all, and this was it.
Reynard was not in his tent. An man with a grey-flecked beard said that he was looking for him, too, for Reynard owed him an answer. A group of three young men were standing in an awkward huddle, and seemed reluctant to meet Oliver's eye. When the rain started to fall, they began to slink away, but did not go far.
Ciaran sat down with his legs crossed, there on the cold, damp ground. "So we wait." Reynard's little clique even had their own small fire. A heavy iron cooking pot was suspended over it, but the fire had gone out, and the food was congealed and cold. There was a stoppered bottle beside it, and Ciaran sniffed it, and found it was only water. He took a long mouthful, and it tasted good.
Oliver crouched beside him, his forearms resting on his knees, and his hands loosely clasped. "I'm not sure this is wise."
"Well, I'm doing it, anyway," Ciaran snapped. He took another swig of water. "You can't stop me."
Oliver stood up again. He started talking to the grey-haired man, who looked strong, like a warrior. It was the man who had told the story about his brother's death, just before Oliver had told them about the last king. Ciaran had forgotten his name, but Oliver called him Ranulf. Oliver was summarising what had just happened, but he was telling it all wrong. Reynard was the villain of his story, it was true, but Oliver painted Elias as the hero, when all the boy had done was sit and say nothing, then slavishly give in to Oliver's demands. As for Ciaran, his name was barely mentioned at all.
"I will face him," Ciaran said, and said it again until the two men looked at him.
"I know you will." Oliver looked like an adult who was accepting that a child was going to do something stupid, and that there was nothing he could do to stop him.
Ciaran unfolded his legs. "I'm not moving."
As he said it, a girl burst out of the trees, her hair in disarray, and her clothes covered with mud. She was dry-eyed, but she was screaming. Oliver rushed towards her, and she threw herself into his arms, her head lashing desperately from side to side.
The young men edged forward. One of them looked at another. One smiled, and one looked at the ground.
"What's the matter, Blanche?" Oliver was asking, his voice pitched low yet firm, like a strong protector. "You're safe now. What's happened?"
She pulled away from his arms, and wiped her eyes, though her face was wet with nothing more than rain. "You have to stop him," he cried. "He's killing him!"
Oliver frowned. "Who?"
"Him. The boy. The king." Ciaran stood up. The girl pressed her fist into her mouth, then covered her face, so her voice was muffled. "I was with Isembard. We weren't doing anything wrong. We were just kissing a bit. But then he came up to us. He said he wanted me. He said he was king and it was his right. He wanted to rape me. Isembard tried to stop him, but he drew his sword, and... Oh, stop him. It's horrible!"
Oliver grabbed her by the arms. "Where?" His voice was suddenly very cold.
"By the stream," she said, eagerly. "Just downstream from the bridge. On the far side." She stamped her foot. "Hurry!"
Oliver let her go, and began to walk away. "Come." He nodded at Ranulf. The young men followed, too. One was eager, but one hung back. The third one stopped completely and stared at the girl. She peeped through her fingers at him, then looked away.
Ciaran hurried to Oliver's side, and found his voice at last. "He wouldn't. He didn't. He never would."
"I know," Oliver said, in a tight voice, as he started to run.
Ciaran grabbed his elbow and tried to pull him back. "He wouldn't!" he shouted.
"I know!" Oliver screamed. He wrenched his arm free, and just stood there, breathing very fast. He closed his eyes, then opened them again. "It's a lie." He started to run again, thorny undergrowth whipping at his legs.
"Then why are you doing what she said?" Ciaran demanding, matching his pace.
"Ask yourself," Oliver said, breathing fast, "what reasons she might have had for lying. Ask yourself what she expects us to find when we get to the stream." He smashed aside a branch that blocked his path. "He's killing him, she said."
Ciaran felt as if he had been struck. "Elias," he breathed. She expected them to find the aftermath of a battle. Elias would be dead, struck down by a man who was rightfully defending his woman's honour. Murder would seem like self-defence. "Elias!" he cried. He sought their link through the Shadow, but the boy did not respond. Elias always responded. No matter how distracted he was, Elias always answered his master's call and found time for him.
"Elias!" Ciaran bellowed, and ran like he had never run before.
It was so slow, his return to life. His eyes were open, but all they could see was dark mist, pulsing with sharp colours from his headache. Then, very slowly, the mist faded, until it was only a shimmering smoky grey. He blinked, and even the greyness dispersed, and the world came into focus.
He had not truly fainted. There was always been the vague awareness of the world around him. His hands, though, had felt as heavy as mountains, and moving them had been an impossibility. His eyes had been open, but he had been unable to see. But he had not even fallen. He was slumped forward on his hands and knees, and his head drooped so low that his hair brushed the ground.
Elias raised his head, and even that felt like a terrible effort. Rain ran into his eyes from his sodden hair, and his hands were half buried in leaves and soil. He pushed them even deeper into the ground, using them as leverage to sit up. Slumping back on his heels, he turned his face to the sky, as if the rain could wash away his exhaustion.
"I'm alive," he whispered stupidly. His thoughts were sluggish, and it still felt as if his body was not quite his to command. The fight was a series of sharp intense images in his memory, each one detached from the one that went before, and he even wondered if the whole thing had been a dream, but then he saw the pattern of footprints in the earth, and knew it had all happened, just as he remembered it.
The girl had gone. He hoped she was safe. His attacker, though... Where was his attacker? Standing behind him, savouring his triumph, waiting for the right moment to let his sword fall? Lunging for Albacrist, he whirled round, but there was no-one there. His attacker had gone and left him, sparing his life, and that was strange, and he couldn't think why it might have happened
Elias pushed himself to his feet, and stood there swaying. His feet slid in the mud, for their fight had taken them to the very brink of the river, and the bank was steep. As he struggled to regain his balance, he looked down, and cried out in horror.
"No," he sobbed. "Oh no." For the man had fallen. In his last desperate struggles, Elias had struck him, and he had fallen, sliding down the bank and into the water. He lay very still. He was held up by a boulder beneath the stomach, and his limbs bobbed lazily in the current.
Elias sprawled down the bank, and plunged to his knees in the water. The stream was wider here than beneath the great rock, but shallower. Elias landed on his hands and knees, and the water barely came up to his elbows. But deep enough to drown a man, if he had first been attacked, and had fallen onto his head.
"No," Elias kept on sobbing, over and over, with deep wrenching breaths. He heaved the man over, and dragged him into his arms. Water poured from his clothes and his open mouth. The tie around his hair had slipped free, and his hair hung down like a sodden curtain. There was a gash on his forehead, dark to the point of blackness, but the water around it was only the faintest pink.
Elias touched his face. "I'm sorry," he sobbed. "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to." He struggled to pull the man clear of the water, but his legs gave way. They both fell together, and he almost lost his grip. He sat down in the water, and cradled the man close. He had healed a woman and saved her life, but this man was dead, and there was nothing he could do. Even in death, the man still hated him. The water took his legs and began to pull them downstream, and Elias had to strain to keep hold of him.
This was his kill. He had struck blindly, then sunk into lazy forgetfulness, without sparing a thought for his victim. As he had drowsed, this man had been dying, gasping his last in two feet of water. Elias had killed. He had not intended to, but he had killed.
"I didn't mean to," he moaned, but it was no defence. He rocked to and fro, and just let the current take him. It made him sway forward, then he wrenched himself back. Forward and back. Forward and back. His head slumped, and he started to cry.
And then, at long last, someone called to him. "Elias," they said, and he dragged his head up, and stared miserably at them. They lined the far bank, and they were all tall, and the only emotion in any of their faces was horror.
The silence was torn apart by a scream. The girl had trailed them after all, and she was the first of them to move. Shrieking, she lifted her skirts and plunged into the river. She started to claw at Elias's face, screaming and spitting. "Let go of him!" she screamed. "Don't you dare touch him!"
Elias sat there stupefied. He did nothing to defend himself from her attacks, but, when she tried to take the body from his arms, he snarled, and tightened his hold, hugging it close.
"Elias!" Ciaran shouted. He waded through the stream, and crouched by Elias's side. "Elias, let him go. It's over. Please, Elias, let him go."
"It's over?" Elias turned a tear-streaked face towards him, bleak and pleading. "No, it's not. I killed him." Elias closed his eyes, and two tears welled up beneath his eyelids. "I didn't mean to. Don't let the water take him."
"I won't." Ranulf was there now, and Oliver. They wanted to lift the body out of Elias's arms. Ciaran remembered how tightly Elias had clung to Sophie, and how he had resisted, even when the girl's mother had tried to take her away from him. "They have him now, Elias," he said. "You can let go."
Elias did, his arms falling to his sides and hitting the water heavily. "I killed him. I'm so sorry."
"Come on." Ciaran put his arm under Elias's shoulders and helped him to stand up. Elias drooped, leaning heavily against him. As Ranulf and Oliver carried the dead man to the opposite bank, Ciaran led Elias out of the stream. Tenderly, Ciaran unfastened his dripping cloak, and put his own cloak around the boy's shoulders. The bottom half was wet, but at least the top was dry, while Elias was wet all over, and already beginning to shiver.
"I killed him," Elias whispered. "I didn't mean to. I didn't even realise."
The girl was clutching her dead lover, wailing. Ciaran thought they should drag her away in chains, for the lies she had told about Elias. He stiffened with anger, but Elias saw it, and moaned in the back of his throat, so Ciaran forced himself to relax again. There would be a time for retaliation later.
Oliver came up to them. "I'm sorry to have to do this to you now, Elias, but it cannot wait. You should know that this girl, Blanche, has accused you of trying to rape her. She says this man was trying to defend her, and you drew your sword on him. She's accused you of murder."
"I killed him." Tears were pouring down Elias's cheeks, though his face was carved from stone. "I didn't mean to. I didn't want to fight him. She was screaming for help. I thought he was raping her. I tried to stop him, but then he started shouting at me. He said you didn't need a king like me. He wanted me to go home. Just die, he said. He fought me. I tried to stop it, but I was so tired."
Ciaran pulled him close. "It's over now, Elias." Then, "Leave him alone," he hissed, at Oliver. "Hasn't he been through enough?" Soft again, to Elias, he whispered, "You're safe now. I believe you. It wasn't your fault."
Elias's hands fluttered, as if he was still searching for the body, desperate to hold it. Ciaran enclosed his right hand in his own, and held it tight. "I didn't attack her," Elias said, in a stronger voice. Ciaran had wondered if he had even heard what Oliver had said, but apparently he had. "She called for help, but I couldn't sense any fear. Now I know why. But no." He shook his head, despairing and betrayed. "Why would she do this?"
"It was a trap for you," Oliver said. "Isembard has always been... difficult. He thought we should name a king from our own people, and end our years of waiting. It was the cause of much... ill-feeling between him and his father. But I thought he was accepting it. I knew there could be trouble, but I didn't expect it to be this extreme. But it wasn't your fault. He spoke against the idea of a king long before you came."
"He said it would be him," Elias said, still staring at the dead man.
Oliver paused before answering. "I think he had hopes. He would have been heir to an office."
Elias closed his eyes. "She was crying for help. Screaming. Help me, she said. Help me please. And it was just a trap."
Ciaran clenched his fist. It was wrong, and so cruel. Elias would always be helpless in the face of a girl crying out for help. Sophie had died, and then he had almost died himself, rather than let a woman go unhealed. This woman and her lover had turned that noble sentiment against him, and used his own generosity as a weapon. She had called for help, then tried to ruin the poor brave boy who came to save her.
"They don't deserve your sympathy," he told Elias. "He had only himself to blame."
"But I killed him," Elias said. "I didn't mean to do it. I was fainting, and I pushed him away, and when I woke up I found he was dead."
Ciaran could bear the sight of his misery no longer. "Come here, Elias." He dropped his staff, and pulled the boy close with both arms, giving him a hug. His apprentice pressed his face into Ciaran's shoulder, and shivered. "It wasn't your fault," he said into Elias's hair. "Please don't think it was."
"Perhaps it wasn't," Elias said, pulling away a little, and turning his head. Ciaran knew that he was still staring at the dead man. "But I still killed, in a way. Nothing can change that. And maybe it shouldn't." He sounded very bleak, and far older than his years.
"Let's get you back." Ciaran adjusted the cloak, so it would cover Elias more completely. "You're still not strong, and if you fainted..." He grabbed Elias's arm. "Did he hurt you?" Then, when Elias shook his head, he sighed with relief. "You almost died a few days ago, Elias. And when Oliver told me what we might find..." He snapped his mouth shut.
"I'm fine," Elias said, and touched the back of Ciaran's hand, as if he was the one offering comfort.
Ciaran shook his head, but managed to smile. "I don't believe that. You need to sleep. I'll help you back to the camp."
He tugged at Elias's arm, and Elias resisted for a moment, then started to follow. They walked close to the dead man, and for the first time Ciaran saw his face.
He stopped. "Master?" Elias asked.
It was the boy he had talked to outside Reynard's tent. It was the boy he had urged to fight Elias's kingship. You don't need him, he had told him. It should be you. And the boy's eyes had lit up, and he had nodded. Had it been then, in that moment, that he had conceived this idea? While Ciaran had been walking away smiling, had this boy been plotting to murder Elias? Had he, Ciaran, caused all this?
"Master?" Elias's voice was urgent.
Ciaran could not bring himself to look him. "Nothing," he mumbled, but Elias was tugging at his sleeve, demanding that he turn round, and he had no choice. Normally he would have resisted, but not today, not now.
Reynard was standing there, silent on the far bank of the stream. His dark hair was sodden, and his eyes were burning in his lean face. And it was a face that was echoed in the dead boy's face, for all that Reynard was cruelly handsome, while the boy had been petulant and beautiful.
The boy was Reynard's son. Elias had caused the death of Reynard's son. Or maybe Ciaran had. Maybe Ciaran had killed him, striking at his enemy in a way he had never intended. Even his hatred seemed tawdry now, in the face of death and a father's grief.
Everyone else stood very still, just watching. Oliver had bent down to pick up the boy's sword, but now he drew his hand back, and would not touch it. Elias just stood there, drowned by his master's cloak. The girl pressed her hand to her mouth, and shrank back on her heels.
After an age, Reynard moved. He was across the stream in half a dozen steps, crossing it as easily as if it was smooth paving. His fists were tightly clenched, and his arms were stiff and rigid.
Ciaran put his arm round Elias's shoulder and pulled him close, letting everyone see it, but Reynard just walked right past them, with eyes only for his son. When he reached the boy's side, he just stood there. There was no wail of grief. He did not fall to his knees and take the boy's hand in his own. He simply came to a halt, as if his feet were bemused by the sudden obstacle in their path. He stared down, and his hands clenched and unclenched compulsively.
Oliver started to move, but Elias moved even quicker, wriggling away from his master's grip. He moved to Reynard's side, and stood there, his hands folded in front of him, like a prisoner awaiting sentence.
Reynard did not look round, but he knew Elias was there, for he spoke to him. "You did this?" His voice was like the snap of a whip.
Elias nodded. "I did."
"They have told me," Reynard said, "what Blanche had to say. Do you have anything to add?"
"It did not happen quite as she says," Elias said, raising his head.
The girl howled in outrage and hurled herself at Elias, her fingers curled into claws, but Reynard whirled on her, his movements lightning fast, and deeply violent. "Leave him!" he snapped, in a tone of utter command. "You have had your say. This is for me to deal with." There was still no faltering in the mask of cold anger. There was still no sign of grief. Perhaps, Ciaran thought, he was afraid that, if he let go of his anger, he would just collapse weeping, and he wanted no-one to see that.
Reynard turned back to Elias, and rested his hand on the hilt of his sword. "So how did it happen? How did he come to die?"
"We were fighting," Elias said, his voice quiet but clear. "I was very tired. I was about to faint. I pushed him away. When I... When I woke up, he was dead. I must have pushed him into the water. I didn't realise."
Reynard's eyes narrowed. "And before that?" He thrust his left hand behind him, ordering the girl to stay silent.
Elias clasped his hands behind his back, and Ciaran could see how deeply he was digging his nails into the flesh, twisting the fingers painfully. "She was screaming and calling for help. I thought he was raping her. He drew his sword on me when I tried to stop him."
"So it was his fault?" Reynard's voice was dark with menace, and he began to draw his sword from his scabbard. Ciaran crouched and touched his staff, though he did not yet pick it up. The only thing keeping him from attacking Reynard now was the sight of his dead son at his feet. "It was his fault," Reynard repeated. "Is that what you're saying?"
"It was a... misunderstanding," Elias whispered. "An accident."
"No!" Reynard howled. The whipped out his sword and held it at Elias's throat, moving before Ciaran could even pick up his staff. "Stop lying," he hissed. "Stop doing this."
"He's lying," the girl said, eagerly. "I said so."
Reynard lunged at her, slashing at her with his sword, only narrowly missing her breast. "You called for help, and he came. Are you pleased with what you did? He thought he was saving you. Even though he was exhausted, he was still ready to fight for you, because he thought you needed it."
Her eyes were very wide, and she blinked. "Isembard..."
"Oh, I know it was his idea," Reynard sneered. "It always is. He's no son of mine, and now he is dead." He turned back to Elias. "Did he hurt you?" He hurled it like an accusation.
Elias shook his head. "It was only because I was tired." His lips hardly moved, and he swayed where he stood. Ciaran rushed to his side, and supported him with his body. Elias was blinking stupidly, and hardly seemed aware that Reynard evidently believed him. Ciaran felt absurdly proud of him, for how he had stood so tall and steady in the face of Reynard's violence, and confessed what had happened without making excuses.
With a strangled cry, Reynard cast his sword aside. His hands fell to his side, clenched in tight fists of fury. For a moment he just stood there, then he fell to his knees and slapped his son across the face, first once, then twice. The pale skin did not redden, and the head lolled to one side, and stayed there.
Ciaran found himself clenched tight with horror. This was wrong. This shouldn't be happening. He clung tightly to Elias, and wanted to look away.
"You are no son of mine," Reynard spat. The rain was easing, and the wind was suddenly still. Even if he had whispered, everyone on the river bank would have heard the words no-one should ever hear. "As I cast you out in life, I cast you out in death. You are a traitor. You have drawn a weapon on your king, and would have killed him, had not very nature rebelled and sent stone and water to take your life. You shame me, and you shame your House. I curse both your name and your memory."
Ciaran and Elias touched hands. I will never do that do you, Ciaran thought, and Elias's touch told him that he would never give him cause to.
It was not yet over. Reynard touched his son's face, his palm pressed flat against his nose and mouth, and fingertips on his closed eyes. Then he rose and walked to the river. Crouching on the bank, he plunged both hands into the water. "Thus do I wash away your stain," he cried, a declaration for all to hear. "Thus so easily are you gone."
Somewhere in the trees, a bird flew away noisily, screaming. A flurry of dead leaves fell from the branch where it had been.
No-one moved. Several, Oliver among them, had closed their eyes. The girl was noisily weeping.
Reynard stood up and walked to where his sword had fallen, his every step speaking of his fury. He picked up his sword, then paused, and looked at them, each one, one by one. When he looked at Ciaran, there was no challenge in his eyes. Last of all, his eyes fell on Elias, and their expression was unreadable. He raised the sword higher, and for a moment Ciaran thought he was going to kill himself. Then, sheathing it, he turned and walked away.
They all watched him go, but nobody followed him.
"They were estranged," Oliver said, a long time afterwards, when Elias was wrapped in warm clothes, sitting staring too deeply into the candle flame. "He had a few followers, but not many. He tried to make them follow him because of who his father was, but not many did. I know it might surprise you, Master Morgan, but Reynard is a man of honour. He holds oaths very sacred. Isembard had all his father's violence, but none of his honour. I might not always agree with his methods, but everything Reynard does is for the cause of the Kindred. Isembard was far too set on personal gain."
Oliver turned to Elias, though Ciaran thought Elias was barely listening. "He was too blind and arrogant to see your coming as anything other than a threat to his status. Reynard's been making his plans for war, as you know, but he wouldn't let Isembard join him. He must have decided that, if he couldn't be part of his father's plans, he would hatch a plot of his own. But Reynard did not encourage him. They have hardly spoken in two years, though they almost came to blows the first night you were here."
There was little more to the story. Ciaran, who could have added a missing chapter to the tale, kept silent. At last, Oliver left them alone.
After he was gone, they sat in silence for a while. I'm sorry, Ciaran thought. He tried to open his mouth and say the words, but could not. Elias would ask what he was apologising for, and how could he tell his own apprentice that he had encouraged Reynard's son to try to kill him? The boy had twisted his words, and Ciaran had intended no harm by it, but he knew Elias would still be hurt to hear it.
"He is grieving," Elias said, at last. "I know. For all his angry words, he's still grieving. Isembard was still his son."
Ciaran nodded. "Yes." He was sitting next to Elias, and their shoulders were touching. Ciaran tugged at a blanket, pulling it more snugly over Elias's legs.
"I think he will hate me for it." Elias's voice was soft.
"And you think he is right to?" Ciaran demanded. He knew the boy too well.
"He is grieving." Elias said it as if it excused everything.
"Don't make excuses for him," Ciaran rebuked him. "It was inhuman, what he did. If a man can't even be loyal to his own son, who can he be loyal to? Certainly not his king."
Elias plucked at the furs. "He did it for me. I didn't want him to do it for me, but he did. He could have killed me, if he had wanted to, and not even you could have stopped him."
"Not for you." Ciaran shook his head. "He did it for his own reasons. And now he's an even stronger enemy than before. He has the perfect weapon against you, Elias, in your own guilt. Whenever you look at him, you'll remember that his son is dead, and the part you played in that. You won't dare contradict him now. He'll play the martyr, and make out that you owe him everything." He grabbed Elias's wrist. "This morning's discussion was never finished, remember. We're still waiting for his answer. We're still waiting to hear if he's going to go to war. Well, I think he will now, even if he wasn't going to before."
"I'm not sure he will." Elias's eyes were closed. He had not properly slept since his ordeal, and he was slowly drifting away.
Ciaran let the subject drop. "You should sleep, Elias." He gently guided him backwards onto the bed, and covered him with blankets for the third time in as many days. Elias resisted for a second, then subsided with a sigh.
Ciaran sat beside his bed for a very long time, until Elias slept, and then afterwards. Outside, the rain drummed against the roof, and night came early. Ciaran wondered if he should hunt down Reynard, but decided not to. Elias was sleeping, and everything could be decided tomorrow.