Chapter fifteen

His people

 

 

Elias woke up, and knew that he was utterly safe. He could tell without opening his eyes that it was another beautiful day. The day after day of dismal rain they had endured in the camp seemed as if they belonged to another world, where everything was cold and wet and miserable. Now everything was bright and hopeful, as he lay on the side of a mountain in the protection of the great enchanter who had built the King's Road and guarded it still.

He sat up and stretched, then slid his boots on. The others else was still asleep, or else Ciaran was still asleep, and Reynard was pretending. Although Reynard had his eyes closed as he lay stretched across the doorway, Elias thought he might be awake and listening to every sound. Not that it mattered. Nothing could harm Elias here, in the arms of the great enchanter.

Pausing only to grab his sword and cloak, Elias walked towards the door. Ciaran stirred in his sleep as he passed, but did not wake up. Elias hesitated before stepped over Reynard, and almost whispered to him to tell him where he was going, then clamped his mouth shut. He had the right to go wherever he wanted, without having to argue it out with Ciaran and Reynard beforehand. Nothing bad could happen to him here, and he was only going for a walk. If he kept asking permission, then he gave them the right to deny him.

Elias buckled on his sword and threw the cloak around his shoulders. He took one step, then stopped again to scoop up the generous hem, bunching it up and draping it over his arm. Holding his breath, he stepped over Reynard's body. He did not look down. If the man was looking at him, he did not see it. If Reynard tried to grab his ankle, he did not give him chance to do it. As soon as he was outside, he ran.

Down the path he ran, and through the dark tunnel of the gateway. A horse whinnied, and he thought a quick hello to it, but did not stop. Still running, he retraced the way they had come the night before, following the road. When he saw a place where the wall had crumbled to little higher than his knees, he bounded up onto it. The stones shifted and he flailed for balance, then managed to transform it into a wild leap. He ended up on top of the wall, his arms spread extravagantly, and wobbled giddily.

Keeping his his arms spread, and raised his face to the sky. The world around him pulsed with gleeful life in a way he had never known before, and the enchantment was such a vibrant, happy thing. He sensed the playfulness of sparrows and the twitchy noses of rabbits. He felt the joy of riding the currents of air, and the contentment of a mouse emerging from her nest. He might have a great task before him, but he was alive, in a world full of a thousand thousand living things, and that in itself was marvellous.

Laughing, he tip-toed along the wall. After a few steps, he turned and looked back at the tower, seeing it in daylight for the first time. It was made of a milky grey stone, that glittered with specks of quartz even now, when the bulk of the mountain hid the morning sun. In the afternoon, he thought, it would shine as if it was made of pure silver, and he wished they could linger here for the whole day just to see it.

There was the statue of a man above the gate, and he squinted, trying to see it more clearly. For a while it was indistinct, but suddenly the air seemed to shift, and it took shape, like a real man striding towards him out of the mist. He was tall and thin, dressed in a long robe that was belted with a simple rope. His head was bare, and his white hair was swept back from his brow, falling in soft waves to his shoulders. He had a neat beard and heavy brows, beneath which deep-set eyes shone like silver stars. A heavy sword hung from his belt, and his right hand rested on it, as if to say, I can use it to defend, if needs be. But his left hand was outstretched, palm outwards, to say, but to all those who come in peace, I give my welcome and my protection. Around that hand the stone was solid quartz, like white fire flooding forth at his command.

"It's him," Elias breathed. It was the great enchanter who had made the hidden gate in the cliff, and protected this place still. "And he was a king," he realised, and the road had been named after him, called the King's Road for ever more. He looked exactly like a king ought to look - wise and strong, kind and commanding.

Elias reached out his hand. "Come to me," he pleaded. He was a real man, striding towards him, his robes swaying as he walked. But even as he reached for him, the magic faded, and it was only a statue, eroded by centuries of winters.

He shivered, and pulled his cloak tightly around his body. It was sunny, but it was still early morning, and he stood in the shadow of a great mountain in late autumn. His cloak was not really made for a journey like this, but he refused to change it. A Brother's cloak was only a symbolic garment now, for the days were long gone when the Brothers undertook great quests in the wilds. It was made of flimsy fabric, and it billowed prettily, but gave little warmth. A cloak such as the Kindred wore would be far more fitting, Elias knew, but he thought the day he discarded his Brother's cloak would be the day he lost his master, and gave up all chance of ever going home again.

With one last glance at the faded statue, he turned and teetered along the narrow wall. A few trees clung to the edge of the road, but they lived a hard life, battered by the prevailing wind. In the valleys, the trees still had many of their leaves, but here they were bare, arched over until they almost touched the ground. He jumped down, and wove between the trees, ducking to avoid the branches, and then he was out on the open mountain.

It was vast. Although he was standing far above the plain, he had to crane his neck to see the top, and even then he thought the true summit was higher still, hidden by nearer peaks. The whole mountainside was carpeted with strong yellow grass, with numerous outcrops of grey rock. There were no paths that he could see, and no hedges or signs saying keep out. He could walk in any direction he liked, and end up who knew where.

Somewhere, not far away, there was running water. He would start with that. Following the sound, he began to climb, tracing a diagonal path across the mountain. It rose and fell, and sometimes he had to use his hands to scramble over the rocks. Some of the rocks had flowers growing in deep cracks, yellow, like stars. He held one gently between his thumb and forefinger, then let it go without picking it. Life could endure even in the most harsh conditions, and still find time to be beautiful. The whole mountain was like that, he thought, and he wanted to see it all and touch it all, and still not stop climbing.

He reached the level of the tower roof, and passed it. When he paused and looked down, he was amazed at how small it looked already. If Ciaran woke up and climbed to the top again he would see Elias only as a distant figure, as small between his thumb and forefinger as the flower had been.

The stream was calling to him, and he turned his back on the tower, and started to run. There was still a faint residual weakness from his illness, but only a little, and he grew stronger every day. A week ago he had been dying, and now he was here. "Alive!" he shouted, and a bird squawked in indignant protest, but he protested right back at it. "Alive, and so are you. All of you. Everywhere."

He found the stream at the bottom of a steep valley, and he slid down the side, skidding on the damp grass. A brown bird with a white chest was standing on a rock in the middle of the stream, and it bobbed at him, and he laughed. "Hello," he said, nodding back, but he would leave it to its breakfast. From the sound of it, there was a waterfall a little way upstream, and he thought he would follow the bank, wading if he had to, until he found it.

There were more trees up here, and soon they were hiding what lay around the next corner. They bent low over the water, but the high sides of the valley sheltered them, and there were still leaves on their branches. Ovals of yellow and orange floated down the stream, and more fell as he walked past. Winter was not far away. He wondered if the yellow flowers managed to cling on to life even in the snows of winter.

All the while, the noise of falling water grew louder, but he still gasped when the valley took another sharp turn, and there on the other side was the waterfall. It looked like strands of white gauze, sprinkled with a dusting of silver. The rocks at its back were specked with quartz and slick with water. It would be at its most beautiful in moonlight, he realised, when the silver quartz met the silver moonlight, and it all shone ethereal and white. Like the home of enchantment on earth, he thought, then laughed at himself, though only a little.

At the foot of the waterfall there was a pool, three times wider than the stream itself. Elias was standing on a large flat rock that reached halfway across the stream, forming a natural barrier. The water was white and rough as it squeezed past the constriction, but the pool itself seemed smooth and safe.

Elias knelt on the stone and touched the water, then snatched it back, gasping. "Cold!" He shook the hand briskly, then flexed the fingers. The skin felt very alive, tingling with sensation. Gritting his teeth, he tried again, and this time managed to make a cup out of both his hands and bring out some water. He lapped it up like a dog, and it felt lovely and pure. For too long he had drunk warm bottled water from a flask, and it felt like days since he had been able to wash properly.

He looked round guiltily, but nobody had followed him. He removed his cloak and his boots. Still shooting little nervous glances over his shoulder, he stripped off completely. He bundled his clothes in his cloak, and laid them on the rock. As an after-thought, he unsheathed his sword and laid it across the top of the bundle, so it would be there if he needed it. It was there for show more than anything else, for there could be no danger here, on this mountain of enchantment, but Ciaran and Reynard would not understand. "See," he would be able to say, if they found him here and decided to accuse him of being incautious. "I had it ready at all times."

He wrapped his arms around his body, and tested the water with one quivering toe. The cold was even more shocking than it had been when he had touched it with his hand. He started to shiver. He had never been naked outside before, never in all his life. Even though he was alone, he felt himself blushing.

There was nothing for it. He could stand here for hours, edging in an inch at a time, or he could jump. Taking a deep breath, he did just that. For a moment, he sank to the bottom, water closing over his head, then he kicked upwards and broke through. The second his mouth cleared the surface he threw back his head and screamed.

Oh, but it was cold! It was agonising, but it was exhilarating, too, for it was immense, and it washed everything else away as if they were no more than tiny smears of mud on the hands. Nothing existed but the coldness and the water.

He started to swim, and covered the width of the pool in only a dozen strokes. The far bank was higher, forming a sheer cliff that curved round the edge of the pool, and overhung slightly. The water at its base was very dark, and colder even than the rest of the pool. It had never seen sunlight, he thought, and wondered what manner of slow slimy thing it was that moved in the depths and tickled his toes.

Grimacing, he swam back. Already the water was beginning to feel almost warm. When he stood in the shallows so his upper body was out of the water, the air felt colder than the pool. His hair clung to his neck and lay in points on his collarbone, and rivers of water ran from each point and snaked down his chest. He tossed his head back, and droplets of water speckled the water like rain.

Spreading his arms, hthrew himself backwards into the water. Kicking vigorously, he managed to stay afloat, and more or less stationary. Above him, the yellow sky of morning had deepened into blue. As he watched, a large bird of prey came into sight, hovered for a while directly above him, then flew on.

He turned onto his stomach and swam to the waterfall. Immediately the spray tried to fill his lungs, and the sound of falling water drowned out everything else. Clamping his mouth shut, he swam beneath the cascade. It fell onto his back and shoulders like a million daggers, trying to push him under and overwhelm him, but he fought through, and emerged on the other side. With his arms on either side to keep himself floating, he pressed his back against the eroded rock, and the waterfall was like a glorious white curtain. It was like being encased in the enchantment, seeing the world through a living white veil.

I want to stay here, he thought. No-one would find him here, hidden behind the waterfall. He should swim back and get his clothes, and bring them back with him, so they wouldn't even have any clues. It would be as if he had dropped of the edge of the mountain, gone without a trace. But all the while he would be here, in a shining silver place, protected by the magic of the man in the statue, who would save the world in his place. Every day would be just like this, with the laughter and the yellow flowers and the shining spray.

It lasted only for a moment. "No," he said, aloud. He swam back through the falling water, and this time it felt easier, as if this was the way he was supposed to be going. He would not hide, and he could not leave his master like that. He had a job to do, and even that was not so very hard, not really. The Duke was a reasonable man and would listen to him, and the weather was lovely, and even this bare mountainside was vibrant with living things, each one like a joyful whisper in his mind. If he walked away from his duty, all those living things would be under threat, and the beautiful places in the world would be destroyed.

Just before leaving the water, he paused, looking down at his body. There were scars there that he had not worn a few weeks before. That one there had been made by Reynard's sword, and that one too. And here, in his hand, was the double scar made by the swearing of his oaths. The story of his destiny was already mapped out on his body.

He was changed now. Even if he could go back home, he would bear these scars forever, and that was only right, for he had been marked in an even greater way inside. He would never be able to be the untried boy he once had been. He had fought, and stood his own, and survived. He had defied his master, and spoken up for what he thought was right. He had touched the enchantment, and it was so marvellous he wondered how he had lived before he had known about it. And, while every step along the way hurt and left wounds, the wounds would heal, and soon would be only faded white scars.

Somewhere, not far away, a bird screamed, and he jumped, suddenly aware of just how long he had been standing, lost in thought. The water on the upper half of his body had evaporated, and his flesh was covered with goose pimples. Shivering, he climbed out of the water, and shook himself like a dog. The stone beneath his feet felt surprisingly smooth and warm, and he curled his toes into it briefly. He rubbed his hands up and down his upper arms, chafing the skin into a semblance of warmth.

Stooping, he grabbed his cloak and used it like a towel to wipe the last drops of water from his legs. He pulled on his shirt, and it felt as warm as the sun, like soft hands on his flesh. He wriggled into the rest of his clothes, then fastened his cloak. His boots he left until last, not relishing the task of squeezing damp feet into tight woollen socks and snug leather.

Just as he was about to pick up his sword, there was a blur of movement and something shot past his hand. An arrow, he thought, stupidly. It had passed so close to him that its feathers had skinned the back of his knuckles, and embedded itself deeply in the ground. Its feathers were dark grey with black bars.

It felt like a dream. Nothing was supposed to hurt me here. He moved his head slowly, trying to trace where the arrow had come from.

"Do not touch the sword," a voice said. "The last one was a warning. This one will not miss."

Elias cradled his bloodied hand, and edged backwards. The man was standing on the far bank, his back to a tree trunk. His bow was fully extended, but his arm did not tremble even the slightest bit. "Stay where you are," the man warned him, and Elias nodded, eager in his agreement. All the while his eyes were flickering from side to side, trying to find a way out. He could jump into the water and hide in those dark depths beneath the overhang, but the man would know exactly where he was and be able to hunt him down. Perhaps he could run away into the trees behind him, and trust that there was enough undergrowth to fool the man's arrows, but he knew already that the trees were sparse, and he would have to scramble up the steep sides of the valley, hanging there like a target pinned up for shooting practice.

"There's no escape, you know," the man said. On cue, two more men stood up behind him and grabbed his arms, one on each side.

"Who are you?" Elias croaked. "What do you want? I wasn't doing anything."

"It doesn't matter who we are." The man lowered his bow, and returned his arrow to the quiver on his back. "All you need to know is that you have strayed into our net, and we have you know. Rest assured that we are quite prepared to kill. We have done so before, and they claimed to be innocent travellers, too." All the while he was talking, he was bounding easily downstream, where the high cliff sloped steeply to the level of the water. Just as the water drowned out his voice, he jumped the stream, leaping from rock to rock in the middle of the rapids. He made it look as easy as a child skipping down a country lane. As he landed, he smiled, as if murder was a no more than a game to him.

"What can I do to stop you killing me?" Elias stammered.

"Oh." The man flapped his hand airily. "Come with us. Let us take you into our lair. Meet our leader. He's killed more people than anyone, you know. He hasn't killed for a while. I think he's getting hungry."

Elias glanced to either side, where the two men who holding him were standing with solemn faces, as stern and this man was light. When he struggled, they tightened their grip, digging their fingers into his arms so tightly that the blood stopped flowing to his hands.

"Give me his hands," the man with the bow said. He was tall and agile, with dark hair and a hawk-like nose. As the two men wrenched his arms round and slammed his wrists together, the tall man unstringed his bow. "Waste of a good bow string," he grumbled. With a sigh of regret he bound Elias's hands, lashing the string several times around his wrist. It was thin and hard, and it dug in mercilessly deep. Elias had to bite his lip to stop crying out with the pain.

"Now," the tall man said, "will you walk with us?" All three men drew daggers and held them pointed towards him.

Elias swallowed. "I need to put my boots on." And my sword, he thought.

"You won't need them," the man said. He scooped up the boots, and then the sword too. "After all, you can't really run away from us if you haven't got any boots on. Your poor little feet will get all cut up." He gave a strangely childish laugh.

Elias started walking, wincing at the rough ground beneath his bare feet. It's not supposed to be like this, he wanted to cry. How had everything gone so horribly wrong? The mountain was supposed to be safe, watched over by a master of enchantment. He had been so aware of all the animals on the mountainside, but completely blind to these men who had sneaked up without him noticing. But really, he thought, he hadn't looked for them, because he hadn't expected to find anyone. Even if he had sensed them, he would probably have smiled, thinking he was sensing the mind of a hunting wild cat or a mountain stoat. He had constructed an idealised picture of the mountain in his mind, and had twisted reality so it fitted that picture.

Master, he called, trying to reach his mind through the connection between them, but there was no response. There never was. Ciaran lowered the walls in his mind only when he chose to, and he was the one who initiated all their mental touches. There would be no help, no bold rescue attempt charging up the mountain. Even if he screamed, he was too far away from the watchtower for anyone to hear him. He was on his own.

"Stop dawdling, boy." The tall man swatted him lightly on the back of his knees. "Get a move on."

"It's hard to climb without any hands," Elias protested, then wanted to laugh at himself. It was something a child might say to an adult who told him off unfairly.

"Well, maybe you have something else you can use in place of hands." The man gave him a sharp look, and Elias went cold. He hadn't used enchantment in an obvious way in the pool, had he? Maybe this was a patrol from the city, who had come here to hunt sorcerers. In the Duchy, anyone with enchantment was burned, just for having it, even if they had done nothing bad with it at all.

He swallowed, his mouth very dry. "I don't know what you mean."

"Oh?" The man leant forward conspiratorially. "I think we'll take you to Gerhard, anyway," he whispered. "Let him find out why you're here."

Elias stumbled on the steep slope. He twisted as he fell and managed to take most of the impact on his shoulder, but it still hurt enough for him to cry out. He rolled onto his back, and the bowstring cut into his wrists. The men reached down to drag him to his feet, but he glared at them, and they backed off. He stood up unaided, then saw that the tall man was laughing, and suddenly it felt like no triumph at all.

"That's what comes of talking," the man said. "Not looking where you're going. We want you to be in one piece for Gerhard, don't we? He will want to kill you personally. Though I suppose he could still do that if you had a few bits missing."

Elias started climbing again, concentrating hard on each treacherous step. The men flanked him, their knives still held in their hands, but did not touch him. They both had bows slung to their backs, and there was no real cover on the bare mountain side. There were places where he could go to ground, but their arrows would be ready to find him when he broke cover and made his desperate run for safety. With enchantment or Shadow he could break his bonds, but he could do nothing about his bare feet. The pain would slow him down, and he would be more crippled by the lack of a simple piece of footwear than by any extravagant restraints.

"Nearly there," the tall man said, after a while. Elias was almost grateful to him. He talked too much, and made his threats, but there was something almost unreal about it. It felt like a play on the stage. Surely you wouldn't talk like that to someone you were really going to kill, would you?

With every painful step, Elias felt his confidence returning. His feet and his wrists were bleeding, but no-one had hurt him badly, and they could have killed him many times over by now. The sun was still shining, and there was a magic about the mountain, and he refused to accept that all of it had been no more than nave imaginings. He would let this Gerhard talk to him, and make his escape if things really were bad. He was letting himself be led as a prisoner, but he was not conquered.

"Here," the man said, when they reached a bowl-like depression surrounded by crags. He waved the boots before Elias's face. "See what I do for you, carrying your stuff up the mountain. Do I look like a mule to you?" He put them down on the ground, and stood up again. "There. That's better." He frowned in exasperation. "You can stop walking now, you know."

"Where?" Elias asked, before he could stop himself. He looked around. The two men who had grabbed him were standing there stolidly, like guards at a doorway. There were a lot of people nearby, Elias realised with a start.

"More cover than you thought, eh?" the man laughed. "I saw you, earlier, looking around, trying to leave us." He shook his head in mock hurt. "And that wouldn't be polite, would it?"

"Stop playing with him, Blaise."

Elias heard the voice before he saw the man. The moment he saw him, all his confidence bled away, and he realised that he was going to die.

A moment before, the crags had been empty, but now they were lined with men. They stood on ledges and rocks, and never on the skyline, and they wore grey and green, the colours of the mountain itself. They looked like statues carved into the rock, that had taken a step forward and become men. Their faces were hard and scarred, and they were all armed.

Cruellest of all was the man who was walking towards him. He had dark hair flecked with grey, and a clipped beard. His eyes were small, but they glittered like pebbles of quartz from beneath heavy dark brows. This had to be Gerhard, the leader who would decide his fate. A man like this, moving with the sleek confidence of a panther, would never accept the leadership of another man.

"Who is this?" Gerhard asked. "Why have you brought him here?"

"I told him you might want to kill him," Blaise said. Then, when Gerhard cautioned him with a look, he held out Albacrist. "He was carrying this."

"Give it to me." Gerhard snatched it from his hand as if it was his by right. He drew the sword from its sheath, then froze for a moment. With a quick wondering look at Elias, he drew it fully, and held it high for everyone to see. A gasp rippled round the crags, like wind rustling grass.

With a slam, Gerhard sheathed it. "A pretty weapon," he said, dismissively, but Elias had seen that moment of shock when he had first seen the blade, and knew he was trying to deceive.

"Pretty indeed," Blaise said, "so I bound him, as you can see, and brought him here to answer for it."

"I see." Gerhard nodded. "Wise." He fixed Elias with his predatory gaze. "So, boy, shall I kill you and take this pretty sword for myself? Rest assured that I can do it. These men are obedient to my every command."

Elias raised his chin. "I have friends. They'll be coming even now."

"Two of them." Gerhard gave a withering look. "Fast asleep. Not here. Did you wander away from your warders, boy? And straight into the hands of my men. You can't be anything much, not if you let them take you. I can't see a scratch on any of them."

"He was meek," Blaise said. "Afraid. He didn't fight. An idiot could have resisted better. He didn't hear us coming, and he didn't try to escape. He fell over once."

Gerhard looked at him appraisingly. "Just as he looks, then. A foolish boy, despite the sword." He lashed out, swift as a striking snake, and grabbed Elias's chin. "Is that it, boy? You just found this pretty sword and stole it for yourself? It's not yours?"

"It's mine," Elias forced out through squashed lips.

"Really?" Gerhard released him and took a step back. There was something strange in his eyes, and Elias could sense it all around him, seeping from the crags like water. The whole place was alive with the same mingled hope and hatred that had lurked beneath the smooth surface of Gerhard's words. "Can you prove it?" Gerhard asked him.

"No," Elias lied. He could grasp the sword and the blade would shimmer with light in a way it did for no-one else, and these men would recognise it as magic even if they knew nothing about the history of the sword. Even with his hands bound he could make illusion, but he had no desire to. He was tired of having to prove himself. Everywhere he would ever go in this world, people would hate him or revere him purely because of the sword he bore and the things he could do. No-one would ever see beyond that.

"Really?" Gerhard started to circle him, walking with slow measured steps. When he went behind Elias's back, Elias tensed, suddenly sure that he was about to be killed. Invisible behind him, Gerhard leant in and whispered into his ear. "I think you can. Or prove beyond doubt that you are lying, and have no right to that sword."

"What's so special about the sword?" Elias stammered.

Gerhard laughed. "You wouldn't be trying to trick me, would you? You're trying to make out you're ignorant so I let you go. Let me tell you something, boy. I know more than you think I do, and I know the name of one of your companions. In fact, I seem to remember once promising to kill him."

"You know Reynard?" Elias asked, then wished he had not. He felt as if he had walked into some trap, although he was not sure what sort of a trap it was, or how to escape from it.

"Reynard... Yes." Gerhard nodded. "He is my enemy. Is he your friend? I think I should kill you in his place." He whipped out his knife and plunged it towards Elias's throat.

"No!" Elias screamed. He brought up his hands and thrust outwards, the bowstring dissolving in a blaze of white fire. He dropped to his knees, ducking the knife, and rolled to the side. "No," he gasped. Dark, he thought. So dark they won't find me, not ever. Darkness boiled up from his hands and surged upwards, until the whole valley was as dark as midnight. Only Elias was able to see, though even his own vision was grey and blurry, showing him an echo of what his own illusion looked like to others.

He crawled towards his boots and snatched them up, though he had no time to put them on. Gerhard was still holding the sword, and Elias tip-toed up to him, ready to make a grab for it. Not even these men, who looked as if they were born from the mountain itself, could strike unerringly in total darkness. He might have damned himself as a sorcerer, but they had to catch him first, didn't they?

"Finish it," Gerhard said quietly, just as Elias was about to snatch the sword. "Raise the illusion."

Elias said nothing, refusing to give the man a clue to where he was. Without breathing, he took the sword from Gerhard's hand, and the man did not resist at all, just yielding it as if he had expected it to be reclaimed. It felt wonderful just to be holding it again. The light from the blade shone in wispy streamers, and no-one else could see even the slightest hint of its brilliance.

He started to run. "Don't go," Gerhard called after him. "Can you see me? Then watch what I do now, and know the truth."

It was a trick, Elias thought, but he looked round all the same. Gerhard was going down stiffly on one knee, and bowing his head. All unseen in the darkness, Elias pressed his hand to his mouth.

"I had to be sure, my lord," Gerhard said. "We do not give our trust lightly. That way lies death."

It was the fight with Reynard all over again. "Are you Kindred?" he asked, grateful that the darkness hid his face. They had wanted him to fail. They had wanted him to be no more than an ignorant boy who had picked up someone else's sword. Just one look at him, and they knew he was not the king they wanted. They tested him and hurt him, and thought there was nothing wrong with it, as long as they knelt to him afterwards.

"We are your people," Gerhard said.

"Oh, stand up." Elias let the illusion go, and daylight flooded over the crags like a sunrise. "Don't kneel." They had shown him no respect as a prisoner caught wandering on the mountains, and it was wrong that they pretended it now.

Gerhard obeyed. "You showed no sign of your powers. Would the real king let himself be captured? We needed proof."

"Don't try to justify it," Elias said. "I know why you did it." And it would happen again and again. There were eight Houses of the Kindred, and each one would demand proof. In his time with Oliver's people, he had forgotten that the battles he fought there would be repeated again and again. He had come to think of them as the whole of the Kindred, but they were not. He would have to swear his oaths again and again, and feel the disappointment and distrust in every first meeting.

"Come." Gerhard gestured with his chin. "Have breakfast with us." It sounded like a command.

The crags hemmed him in. He looked back the way they had come, but even that was hidden by the slope. Ciaran and Reynard were in the watchtower, far away.

Elias sat down and pulled on his boots, but could not prevent himself from gasping when they scraped against the cuts on the soles of his feet.

Gerhard seemed to take his sitting as a consent. It was probably beyond his comprehension, Elias thought, that anyone would disobey him. He snapped his fingers, and two men came forward, one carrying a jug, and the other a wooden platter of food.

"Set it down here." Gerhard sat down and leant back against a rock, stretching out his legs. No-one else joined them. There was a ritual feel to it all, like a king being served dinner in his palace, but this was Gerhard's court, and he was one who was king, and not Elias.

Gerhard picked up a lump of meat and ripped it in half with his teeth. There was a thick scar over the knuckles of his left hand, and it rippled as if it was alive as he tugged at the meat.

Elias picked up a square of the brown bread, but did not bite into it. It was flecked with green herbs from where it had brushed against the meat, and it smelled good. "Why did you say Reynard was your enemy?" he asked.

"Because he is." Gerhard took a generous swig from the jug, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "He signalled to us last night. Did you know that? Once when you were riding in, and neither of you even noticed. And then again when he went to stable the horses." He took another bite from the meat. "But he didn't breathe a word about who you were," he said, while chewing. "That was something he wanted to keep hidden from us. But we found out. You're ours, now, not his."

"I was never his." Elias put the bread back down again. "And I will never be yours."

Gerhard seemed to find it funny. "We'll see." He drank from the jug again, dark liquid trickling down into his beard. With his shirt open at the neck and his studded jerkin, he looked like a fierce bandit leader, who would eat the flesh of his enemies, and laugh at the memory of their screams. "So what do you make of us?" he asked. "Do you despise every last one of us? Has he taught you that?"

"If you mean Reynard, he didn't even mention you," Elias said, stiffly. "And no-one else did, either."

"Not even Oliver? He's normally so quick to tell stories. Likes the sound of his own voice, like some others I could mention." He glanced at Blaise. "Though Oliver at least has useful things to say, most of the time." He licked his fingers, then grabbed another lump of meat, covering them instantly in juice again. "Have they told you anything, then, the First House? Think they're so important, but they don't tell you a thing, and send you out without an armed guard. And where are you going? To Eidengard? How could they let you?"

"They've been very good to me," Elias protested. "Especially Oliver. He's my friend, and I won't have you saying bad things about him. And as for me coming here... That was my choice. Oliver wasn't happy with it, but I talked him into it."

"And he at least shows the respect and obedience due to his king? Is that it?" Gerhard threw back his head and laughed. "No, lad, you're doing very well. It's good that you're standing up for Oliver. And I like him, too, despite what I said. He's one of the few people I'd actually welcome to my land, but he never comes. Instead I get Reynard."

"Which House are you?" Elias asked. His cheeks felt hot. Despite what Gerhard had said, he thought he had sounded very childish when he had defended Oliver.

Gerhard's face turned cold. "We are of no House. The passes need to be defended, and eyes are needed to watch the road, and that is the task we have pledged ourselves to, leaving behind our homes and Houses."

There was a stiffness in his voice that told Elias that he was lying, or else hiding a lot, but he did not challenge him. "And you are their lord?" he asked quietly.

"I am." Gerhard's eyes gleamed. "They would all die for me. They follow my orders above anyone else's, no matter who he may be." There was no attempt to hide the threat this time. "Oliver has the right to try," he said, "but he never would." He chuckled. "Another thing they didn't tell you, is it? Every House has its leader, but Oliver is more than that. He's our seneschal, descended from the seneschal of the last king."

"He is?" Elias was unable to keep himself from smiling. There were eight Houses of the Kindred, but no matter where he went, Oliver would have a place at his side, as his friend and adviser. He was not going to be dragged away, forced to live with some distant House, become some stranger claimed more right to him. He would have to meet the rest of the Kindred and hear their demands, but the places that had already begun to become familiar would be his home.

"He is the seneschal." Gerhard's voice grew quieter and more deep. "Alberic's seneschal refused to leave the place where his lord had disappeared. He never stopped hoping that the king would come back, and he would be the first to greet him. And so his House still lives in the forest, in the least protected hiding place of all of us. And so we are here, as the seneschal's guardians. If ever armies come out of Eidengard again, we will see them and give warning."

"For five hundred years," Elias whispered. It would be so cold on the mountain in winter, and there were no women or children here, or even an echo of laughter and happiness.

"Come on." Gerhard flapped his hand. "Eat something. Don't offend me. You're my guest."

Elias picked up some bread, and was about to eat it when someone called Gerhard's name. Gerhard looked up, and some message seemed to pass between him and the man who had spoken. "Ah, yes," he said, returning to his eating. He raised one fingers. "Wait, and see."

Elias looked over his shoulder, but saw nothing unusual. A few men who had sheathed their weapons had now drawn them again, but that was all.

Gerhard stretched. "Reynard's coming," he said, "but we're ready for him, aren't we?" He drew his dagger and twisted it from side to side, assessing it like an art collector with a beautiful relic. In the same conversational voice, he said, "Put that sword away, Reynard. You're just making yourself look silly."

Reynard stalked down the slope. Ciaran was a few steps behind him, staff in hand and cloak billowing, and he was like a thundercloud, set on dark violence. While Reynard saw no-one but Gerhard, Ciaran had eyes only for Elias. Ignoring the armed men, he hurried to Elias's side and crouched down, putting his body between Elias and Gerhard's sword arm.

"Elias," he said. "I was so worried. Never go off like that again. Who are these people? They could have killed you. But I'm here, Elias. They'll have to go through me. Oh, your poor wrists. Give them to me. I'll look after them for you."

Elias smiled. "I was never really in danger. They're Kindred."

"No danger?" Ciaran touched his bloodied wrists. "Look at that, Elias. There was blood on the rocks. Reynard kept pointing it out to me, every bit. He's a good tracker. When I woke up and found you gone... He tried to tell me nothing was wrong, but I said I'd come and look for you no matter what he did."

And he would have come even if Elias had only been wandering across the mountain, looking at flowers, and having a little swim. He would have stormed up, and shouted at Elias for worrying him so. "I'm sorry you were worried," Elias said, but that was all he would apologise for.

Reynard was circling Gerhard, who was still leaning against the rock, the picture of confidence. "So, Reynard?" Gerhard raised one sardonic eyebrow. "Were you planning on showing us this trophy of yours?"

"They won't hurt you again," Ciaran crooned. Settling down beside Elias, he took his wrist in both hands, and ran his thumbs across the unbroken skin on one side of the red line, then the other. "What did they tie you with? Wire?"

"A bowstring," Elias said. "I want to listen. They're talking about me."

"If I kept him hidden from you," Reynard said, "then this is why." He thrust out his arm, pointing at Elias. "What have you done to him?"

"Nothing that was not necessary," Gerhard said, "given that you concealed his existence from us. We had to test him for ourselves. You were wrong, Reynard. But, then, you never did know how to behave, did you?"

"You dare say that to me?" Reynard cried. "You? You're not even Kindred! I know you. And I will keep him from you, if I have to kill you to do it."

Gerhard picked a shred of meat from between his teeth, and spat onto the ground. "Posturing, Reynard? You couldn't do it. Look at my men, loyal until death. Make one move against me, and you die."

"I don't even need to. Your own deeds have condemned you. They were merciful last time, but this time you will meet the death you always deserved." Again Reynard pointed at Elias. "He is all the evidence I need. You shed his blood. You hurt him."

So did you, Elias wanted to say. All the while, Ciaran was stroking his wrist, soothing his hurts with the Shadow. When Elias tried to pull away, he only held him tighter.

"And you let him blunder into our hands," Gerhard said. "Not a good guardian of your treasure, are you? He slipped away from you, and now we have him."

"I let him go," Reynard shouted. "I saw him leave, of course, but I let him. I'd signalled and asked for safe conduct, and received assurance in return. I underestimated how far you have fallen. I thought he would be safe."

He let me, Elias thought. He pulled harder, trying to escape Ciaran's healing touch. "Later," he pleaded.

"You signalled, yes." Gerhard flicked his hand contemptuously. "But you withheld the only important thing you had to tell. What were you planning, Reynard? To keep us in the dark forever? To have enough time with him to whisper all your lies in his ear, and have him thinking the way you want him to think?"

"Would you have me take him on a royal progress?" Reynard hissed. "There's no time for that."

"You have the excuses ready, I see, to cover the fact that you are turned traitor." The last word was a sudden shout, and he jabbed the dagger into the ground as he said it, only inches from Reynard's feet.

Reynard's face was murderous. "You are the traitor, not me. You bound him. What's your excuse for that? Maybe he's only untied now because you saw me coming. You accuse me of things you were doing yourself. He was to be your prisoner, kept away from the world, subjected to your lies until he clung to your every word and hated us."

"Ah yes. You're sensitive about that, aren't you, Reynard?" Gerhard gave a hard laugh. "It makes you bandy about foolish accusations."

Reynard pointed his sword at Gerhard's chest. "Fight me," he said. "Let us see who's the traitor."

"No," Elias whispered. He tried to stand up, but Ciaran tugged at him, trying to hold him back. Elias whirled on him. "Let me go! I have to stop them!"

"So let them fight. One of them dies. I'm sure they both deserve it." Ciaran tried to grab his wrist again.

"No!" Elias screamed. He snatched his hand away, and white fire crackled from his skin, making Ciaran recoil. "No!" he screamed. "Stop it!"

They both stared at him. Reynard faltered first, lowering his sword. With a low laugh, Gerhard sheathed his dagger. Even Ciaran was gazing up at him, his eyes wide and his face frozen.

"Stop it," Elias breathed. He felt very exposed, very aware of all the eyes that were all focused on him. "I can see you hate each other," he said, "but you're fighting over me, and that makes it my business. And I don't want you to do it."

"No." To Elias's amazement, Reynard thrust his sword back in its sheath. He gave a quick nod. "I apologise."

"As do I." Gerhard gave the exact same nod. "It is possible for two men to hate each other, yet still serve the same cause."

"And do you?" Elias asked. "Do you serve the cause?"

"I serve the cause in my own way," Gerhard said. "As does he. You will not find him easy to master."

"I don't want to master anyone." The hatred that bound Reynard and Gerhard together was a tight cord, and Elias was bound into it, too.

"I'm sorry, too," Blaise said, and, just like that, the cords snapped, and Elias was free. He could look away. "I shouldn't have tied you up. It hurt you more than I thought it would. And I wasted a perfectly good bowstring. They don't come cheap, you know. There aren't many shops up here."

Elias laughed. "I don't imagine there are."

Blaise stepped forward, close enough to whisper. "But you did well. Don't let their squabbling put you off."

It was true, Elias realised. He had been afraid, but he had stood his own. His first thought had been to cry for help, but in the end he had managed to escape without needing anyone to rescue him. Ciaran and Reynard had arrived too late, and even then Elias had refused to abandon himself to his master's care. He had spoken, and they had listened to him, and stopped fighting. Even Ciaran had listened.

"Elias?" Ciaran faltered. He looked hurt.

Elias knelt down beside him. "Thank you," he said. This time he offered his wrist up by himself, entrusting it to Ciaran's care. Despite everything, it was good to have someone to look after him, and part of him still craved nothing else.

"So, Gerhard." Reynard sat down and started to help himself to the food. "Do your job. Tell us what your scouts report. We are going to Eidengard. What lies ahead of us?"

"There's little news," Gerhard said, looking at Elias rather than Reynard. "Rumours of some illness, but there's no panic. The Duke's stayed in the city since his son died. The roads have been quiet."

"Tell us everything," Reynard said. "I shall be the one to judge what is important and what is not."

Gerhard poured himself a drink, and started to talk.

 

Afterwards, they walked in silence down the mountain. Reynard was a short distance ahead of them, moving easily over the uneven terrain. Since leaving Gerhard, he had been even more surly than usual, snarling at both Elias and Ciaran when they had tried to speak to him.

Gerhard had spoken for a long time, but had said very little of any importance. Ciaran had listened for a while, wanting to find out what dangers lay ahead that he could protect Elias from, ready to snatch an excuse to stop the journey there and there. As Gerhard droned on, less and less of what he said had seemed relevant to Ciaran, and after a while he had just let his mind drift. If there were troubles in this land, it was nothing to do with him.

Throughout it all, Reynard has asked sharp questions, seeming to want to pick a fight, and the mere sound of his voice had been a constant irritant, dragging Ciaran out of his drowsiness.

Ciaran quickened his pace until he was close enough to Reynard to be heard. "How do you know Gerhard? Why does he hate you so?"

Reynard's stride checked just for a moment, but he did not stop walking. "It's none of your business."

"I think it is, Reynard." He hurried forward until he was walking in step with the man.

Reynard stopped, his hand slapping onto his sword hilt. "It is not. It never will be. I owe you nothing, Ciaran Morgan. No explanations. Nothing."

"But you owe it to Elias," Ciaran said, very quiet and deadly. "You were arguing about him up there as if he was just a pretty jewel for men to squabble over. As he said, that makes it his business."

To his amazement, Reynard nodded, though his eyes blazed as he did so, and he looked as if it hurt him. "Perhaps it does. But it is not something I wish to tell."

"Why?" Ciaran sneered. "You did something very bad? You wronged him so terribly that you're afraid Elias will hate you forever if the truth comes out?"

Elias was tugging at his arm. "Leave him alone," he pleaded. "He doesn't have to tell, not if he doesn't want to."

"He owes it to you, Elias." Ciaran sighed impatiently, and shook his arm free. "They put you in danger up there, the two of them."

"I wasn't in any danger." Elias seemed very sure of it, though Ciaran knew he was deceiving himself. "And they both apologised. People are allowed to hate. I'd rather they didn't, but they're allowed to."

Ciaran grabbed Elias's arm. "He's keeping secrets. What do you really know about his past? There might be all sorts of dark little secrets in there."

Elias raised his chin. "I don't know anything much about your past either, master," he murmured. He flushed and swallowed hard, a nervous gesture quite at odds with the way he was looking at Ciaran.

"That's different!" Ciaran shouted. He looked round and saw that Reynard had stalked off, leaving them alone on the mountainside. "You let him get away," he accused, "with your distracting me."

Elias gave a small smile. "He's going back to the watchtower. He won't be hard to find over the next few days."

"And you'll make him talk?" Ciaran demanded. "They talked about you as a trophy, Elias. A trophy. Don't you want to challenge him about that?"

Elias just looked at him. His lips moved, but he did not speak. He clenched his fists and walked a few steps, and only then did he turn round and make his reply. "Why do you even care?" There was little anger in his voice, only sadness. "It's only because you hate Reynard, isn't it, and want to see him discomforted."

"It's because of you!" Ciaran cried. He tried to grab Elias's arm again, but Elias hugged it to his chest, making a show of nursing his wrist. "You're supposed to be their king, but they treat you awfully. They hurt you and trick you and they never show any respect. The way they were talking about you... That's not the way you talk about your king."

"I thought you'd be happy," Elias muttered. "You don't want me to be king. And I don't think they treated me much differently from how you did."

"Why do you always defend the people who hurt you?" Ciaran screamed. "You do it all the time. Well, I won't let it happen this time. Either you confront Reynard, or I will."

"Don't," Elias pleaded. "Please don't make it worse. I killed Reynard's son, master. He has every right to dislike me."

"That's no excuse." Ciaran folded his arms. "He knows he's got you right where he wants you. Before you know it, he'll have you agreeing to this war of his, and willingly handing over your sword, and offering up your throat for the knife. He's the king in this, and you're just the servant."

Elias bit his lip. He looked small and miserable, hunched in on himself, just like he had looked back at the camp before they had started the journey and he had started blooming. It was all Reynard's fault.

Ciaran tried to smile. The last thing he wanted was Elias to be unhappy. "I'm only saying this because I care about you, Elias. I don't like seeing people treat you badly. You've promised to give them everything, but you won't accept anything in return. If you were a true king, you would expect loyalty and respect for your followers. It's only right. If they want you to be their king, they can't be allowed to get away with things that are close to treason."

Elias gave a crooked smile. "Defending me? You don't want me to be king. And I never asked for any of this. You know that."

"I do," Ciaran conceded. "It's just that I hate to see you being taken advantage of. You have the right to make demands of them. It goes both ways, Elias." He was surprised by the strength of his own feelings, and could understand Elias's surprise. He would never have expected to be standing here, urging Elias to act more like a king.

Elias sighed. "I know. And I did stand up to them today, master. You heard some of it. I stopped them fighting. And I'm sure that Reynard is loyal. I'll challenge him if I have to, but I just don't think this is something important."

"But it is," Ciaran protested. "I'm afraid for you," he confessed. "They make such demands on you, and you don't know how to say no. They've been doing this all their lives, and you've been here less than two weeks. You're too weak and too young. You haven't got a chance against them."

"Weak," Elias echoed. He wrapped his arms more tightly around his body. "I wish you could decide what you want me to be, master. A moment ago, you wanted me to be a king."

Ciaran bridled. "I just want you to be safe and happy, Elias."

"I know." Elias sighed. "And how can you know what you want me to be, when I don't know myself. This morning I was happy, then I thought I was stupid for being happy. Then I was scared, and wanted you to save me. Then I did it all by myself, and wished you wouldn't. I was thinking about how I'm doing things I'd never have dared to do, and it felt good. But other times it feels scary, and then I don't know."

"It's only natural to feel confused," Ciaran said. "You've been through a lot. You're saying things you don't really mean."

"Am I?" Elias sighed again. He started walking. "I'm glad you came for me, master, really. And I don't think I was stupid for being happy. I found a lovely place, you see, and moments like that are important. I still think we have every chance of success."

"Good." Ciaran hurried after his apprentice. "A lovely place? Will you show me?"

Elias looked up at the sun, high in the sky above the peaks. "I don't think we've got time. But I'll show you on the way back. It's a waterfall. It'll be lovely in late afternoon, I think."

"A waterfall?" Ciaran smiled. He realised they had come close to arguing, but they had pulled back from the brink, and that was good.

"I swam." Elias blushed.

"In your clothes?" Elias's blush deepened, and Ciaran pretended to realise the truth. "Naked? Shameless boy."

Smiling, they walked side by side down the mountain, and it was as if Reynard didn't even exist.

 

In the end, the truth came out without anyone needing to ask.

"Will you help me with the horses?" Reynard asked gruffly. "You," he said, nodding at Elias. "Not him."

Elias knew what was coming. "You don't have to," he started to say.

"I have chosen to." Reynard's eyes dared him to argue. "Do not deny me."

Elias glanced at Ciaran, but his master was bundling up blankets and wrapping them in tarpaulin. He gave no sign of having heard the exchange.

Reynard stepped outside, then stopped and gestured at Elias to go first along the path that was too narrow to allow two people to walk abreast. As he walked, Elias could hear Reynard's tight breathing, too close behind him, but the man did not speak. Elias kept his mouth shut, and said nothing to prompt him. He had not asked for this confession, and was fairly sure he didn't want to hear it. It would be dark and horrible, and then Ciaran would start demanding to hear it, too. They had been closer to the brink than Ciaran knew, earlier. Elias had nearly screamed things that his master would hate him for, and would sever things between them forever. He wanted nothing else to threaten their hard-won closeness.

Just as they reached the darkness point of the path, Reynard grabbed him, his hard fingers digging into the fleshy part of his shoulder. Elias gasped, held the breath for a few long seconds, then let it out. I killed his son, he thought, and did not tell Reynard that his grip was hurting, or order him to let him go.

"It is a simple tale. I will not waste words." Reynard tightened his grip, holding Elias still and preventing him from turning round and seeing his face. "He probably told you that they volunteered for the noble and dangerous task of protecting those softer members of the Kindred who stay at home. Am I right?"

"Something like that," Elias said. "You don't have to tell me. I don't need it."

"But I do," Reynard hissed. "I wronged you, and this is my confession. I need to show you that I have good cause to hate him. I have to warn you against him."

Not a confession at all, then, Elias thought, but all he said was, "Speak, then. I am listening."

"He lied when he told you that," Reynard said. "They're exiles, and there was nothing voluntary in it, not for most of them. Some of them are just young men eager for adventure, but most are not, Gerhard least of all. Like most of them, he is a condemned criminal."

"What did he do?" Elias asked, when the silence grew too long.

Reynard did not answer him. "We are harsh in our punishments," he said. "We have to be, for one traitor could bring down everything we have worked for. But we recognise that a man can commit a crime against a fellow, but still be loyal to the cause. We are scarce enough that we do not wish to start culling our own ranks, so such criminals are offered an alternative to death. If they so choose, they are sent away to serve the Kindred in a comfortless place. Some are sentenced for life, but some only for a few years. When they have served their term, they return home, and everything is forgiven. I have no argument with most of them."

Once again he fell silent, and once again Elias had to prompt him. "But Gerhard is different."

"He was not sentenced," Reynard said. He released Elias's shoulder, and drew his dagger, a faint rush of metallic sound. "He was not condemned, although I said that he was. He chose exile before his case had even been heard. And it is no punishment for him. He always knew how to make men follow him. He's lord of the mountains, now, ruling his own little kingdom." He scraped the blade along the stonework, making it shriek. "It was no punishment at all. It wasn't fair."

"What did he do to you?" Elias asked. Although he was free to turn round, he did not. He dug his hands into his sleeves and stared straight ahead, to the patch of blue sky that was peeping through the leaves.

"He stole..." Reynard jabbed his dagger into the wall so hard that a lump of mortar fell to the ground with a thud. "He stole my wife. I was out on patrol, working hard, doing my duty, and he lounged around the camp and stole her love. He seduced her, and even my baby son loved him more than he loved me." It was all said in a rush, in a voice tight with fury. "I challenged him to fight, but he laughed, and claimed exile. It was accepted, so he was protected, and I wasn't even allowed to touch him. My wife chose to go with him. He laughed at me. He'd stolen my family, he said, but I could have his cast-offs. I could have the office that was going to be his. It didn't matter. He was going to a place where he would have far more power."

"Office?" Elias asked, then gasped, understanding it just before Reynard gave his explanation.

"He was my brother," he spat, as if the word was poison. "My half-brother, fifteen years older. He did everything first. Nothing I ever did..." He stopped speaking.

Nothing he ever did was good enough. Elias had seen enough to Gerhard to know that he was a natural leader, able to switch from charming to deadly in an instant. Reynard had spent his whole life in his brother's shadow. So many things Gerhard had said to Reynard had been deliberate provocation. How much of the man Reynard was now can come about in an unconscious desire to emulate the older brother he hated, and could never quite measure up to?

" My wife died in that first year, killed by the winter, killed as surely as if he had killed her himself. My son he sent back to me. See if you can keep him, he wrote, for you couldn't keep anything else." Reynard was speaking in a harsh monotone. "And then my father died, and I became cup-bearer. I took over the leadership of men who had worshipped the ground my enemy had walked upon, and I won them over. His name is never spoken now. He is dead to us all. And that is the story. That is all."

Without another word, he shoved past Elias, and went to get the horses. Elias stared after him, but did not follow.