The last king
Blood would be shed before the day was over. Ciaran hoped Reynard would be the first to bleed, but he would enjoy smiting Oliver to the ground, and all the nameless ones who watched Elias with such hunger. He would willingly take wounds himself, too, rather than let them hurt Elias again. The forest would be bathed in blood before he let them steal Elias away.
First, he needed a weapon. The men who called themselves the Kindred all had swords and daggers, and Ciaran watched one of them as he cleaned his knife blade on a clump of grass, staining the blades red. The man's strong hand held onto it tightly, and Ciaran gave a scornful laugh. How weak they really were! They were nothing without their weapons. They clung onto them like old men clinging to their sticks. Only a coward hid behind the sharpness of his steel.
Cowards, he reminded himself, as he forced himself to approach the man. Far beneath me. Yes, the man had something Ciaran needed, and that put Ciaran in a weak position, but he was not yielding superiority, not really. He was not humbling himself. He was asking because he had to. Sometimes it was necessary to demean oneself in order to triumph later.
The man looked up. "What do you want?"
The words were hard to force out, but Ciaran managed it. "Your knife. I want to... borrow it."
"Why?" It was just short of blatant rudeness. If Elias had been the one asking, this same man would have been all oily politeness. They had dismissed Ciaran as a nobody, and didn't even bother hiding their true colours from him.
Oh, but they would learn. Ciaran Morgan could be a mighty enemy. Soon, he reminded himself, squeezing his fingers tight behind his back, to stop them flying out and striking this man. He would play along for now, watching their weaknesses as he pretended to smile. Besides, he had more chance of taking them on if he had a weapon, and for that he needed a knife.
"To cut a staff," he said. He released his fingers and gestured towards a tree. "For walking," he added, when the man still made no response.
The man's mouth tightened in scorn. He thought Ciaran was as unsteady on his feet as an old woman. He thought Ciaran needed a prop to help him through the dark and tangled undergrowth, so thick that it could hide all manner of dangers. He thought Ciaran was a weak sort of person, who felt cold and incomplete without his staff to lean on. But I know the truth, Ciaran reminded himself. And it's better that they underestimate me. It will just make my victory all the sweeter.
"Here," the man said, at last. He handed the knife over, but it pained him to part from it, for his eyes never left the blade. Ciaran took it without a word, and walked over to the tree. All the time, he thought, the man was still watching him.
He worked quickly, cutting, then shaping, then polishing the staff quickly with a light touch of the Shadow. If it was a real staff, he would work it for hours while immersed in the Shadow, and the wood would resonate and be bound to him by ties that would last a lifetime. But this was dead wood from an alien world. He needed it as a convenient weapon, but he would never accept it, just as he would never accept anything of this world.
When it was done, he held it in his hand, and his eyes slid shut. He let out a long breath. It felt good. His hand was made for holding a weapon such as this. This was how the Brothers of the past were pictured in their annals and graven statues, standing strong with a staff in their hand. With a staff, Ciaran could protect Elias, and would never be weak. He would be invincible again, and nothing could hurt him.
The voice made him start. The man was standing with one hand on his hips, and the other one outstretched, waiting for the knife. The tip of his tongue darted out, snake-like, and licked his lips hungrily. On the far side of the clearing, Elias was watching him, a small furrow between his brows. Reynard was watching, too, his hand resting on the hilt of his sword in a way he was pretending was an accident.
Ciaran felt a thin smile play about his lips. He should keep the knife and see what happened. If they decided not to challenge him, then he had a new weapon. If they drew their swords and attacked him for it, then Elias would see it all and know the truth about the people who called him king. Until now, Reynard's threats have been whispered in the dark, and Elias had not heard them. Elias had been ensnared by Oliver's soft words, and was blind to their true evil, but even Oliver's trickery would be powerless to explain away an open attempt at murder.
"The knife," the man said.
Reynard's eyes narrowed, and his hand tightened on his sword. Elias's lips moved, but Ciaran was too far away to hear what he said, if indeed he said anything. Oliver was beside him, standing far too close. Elias turned to him, no longer even looking at Ciaran, and said something urgent. Oliver touched Elias's shoulder, spoke a few words, then walked quickly towards Ciaran, and was speaking before he had closed the distance.
"You can have mine." Oliver unbuckled the short sheath from his belt. "I hardly ever use it, anyway." Something in his voice belied the smile that was plastered over his face. "No-one here would feel safe without a weapon, so it's unfair to expect you to be the only one without one."
Ciaran looked at the sheathed knife, lying so innocently in Oliver's smooth hand, and hated Oliver more than ever. Oliver had cast himself in the role of the good man, the conciliator, generously offering up a valued possession. If Ciaran refused he would be the unreasonable one, picking a fight for no reason.
He swallowed hard. He was very aware of Elias watching them, his eyes flickering nervously from Ciaran to Oliver and back again. He swallowed again. "Thank you," he said, quietly enough that Elias would not hear the hostility in his tone. He held out the man's knife, and let him take it. Then, still clutching the staff in his right hand, he snatched at Oliver's knife.
Oliver looked at him for a while, and seemed to be about to speak, but then he sighed, and walked back to Elias's side. Elias was still staring at Ciaran. As he watched, the boy began to step forward, one hand slightly raised, but then Oliver was beside him. The man's lips moved, as he said something that only Elias could hear. That questioning hand fell back to Elias's side, stilled by those unheard words.
Unable to bear it, Ciaran turned away.
"We need to leave," Oliver said. "I'm sorry. I'd give you more time if I could."
Elias stopped, but he did not turn round. On the far side of the clearing, his master turned his back. "Leave," he echoed. "Where?"
"To the main camp of our House. We should be there by tomorrow night."
Distracted, Elias shook his head. His master had dug the end of his new staff into the ground, and was holding on as if he was expecting the earth to tilt and try to throw him off.
Oliver's voice changed. "The stone is the Vigil Stone. It was in this very spot that our last king left us, five hundred years ago. The stone was raised to mark the place."
Elias shivered. Even with such simple words, Oliver knew how to imbue his voice with a power that demanded that you listen to it, no matter how much you wanted to think about something else. He was kind, but devious, and his words had the power of chains, and could drag Elias's thoughts away from Ciaran, and keep him all alone, where no-one could save him.
He tried to haul himself free from Oliver's words. "How did you know?" he demanded. "If you don't live here, why were you all here, waiting for me, at just the right time?"
"My father is a Seer," Oliver said. From what he had said earlier, Elias had got the impression that his father was dead. "Two weeks ago, he saw the Vigil Stone in a vision. A door opened beside it, suffused with white light, and a white crystal sword appeared in the rift. A crystal sword... We all know the stories. What else could this mean but the coming of the king? But of the man who was holding the sword, my father saw nothing, just a dark shape against the light. Until you stepped forward last night, none of us had seen the face of our king."
King? I'm not your king. Elias had more questions, but could not bring himself to ask them.
"Of course," Oliver said, "he didn't know when it would be. Some of his visions come true within hours, while some take years, and some never come to pass. But the colour of the leaves on the trees made him think it would be soon. So we came, set up our camp, and waited. One week, just sitting and waiting, watching, hoping..."
Hoping. And now they were stuck with Elias as the fruition of all their hopes.
"But the others don't know," Oliver said. "They're still waiting. They've waited five hundred years, perhaps you think, so what does it matter if they wait just one more day? But it matters. Waiting is terrible. I love my people, and am sworn to serve to them. I want them to know."
Ciaran was turning his head from side to side. Was he searching the sky for some impossible rent to open up and be his doorway home? He did not once turn back to face Elias.
Elias dug his nails into his palms. "Yes," he said. He walked over to his master. "Oliver says we need to go," he said to Ciaran's back. "It's a two day journey to their camp." Ciaran still did not turn round. "I'm sorry," Elias burst out. "I don't know how to find the way back, but I will. I'll find it, I promise." He looked at the place where they had come through, where light dappled so pale and innocent. "When I know, we can come back here. Or maybe it can work anywhere. Oliver says I'm..." He swallowed. "Oliver says..."
"Oliver says," Ciaran sneered. "He speaks lies, but you like the sound of them, so you believe them. It's all him now, isn't it?" Then his mouth snapped shut, as if he had already said more than he had intended.
Elias looked at his master's broad back. "If I called you through," he managed to force out, "it was only because I wanted it so badly."
Ciaran just walked away, and did not look back.
Ciaran was leaving a trail of destruction wherever he went, hacking the undergrowth with his staff, trampling grass and autumn flowers beneath his feet. So far, Oliver had stopped Reynard from confronting Ciaran about it, but Elias was worried about tomorrow. The nearer they got to their camp, the more important secrecy would become. Reynard would stop him by force if they had to. The Kindred lived in hiding, that much Elias knew, with enemies who would kill them if they found them. Ciaran, if he carried on, could be the death of them all.
What would happen, Elias wondered, if he went to his master and begged him to heed Reynard's commands. Would Ciaran relent, or would it make him only the more determined to carry on as he was? He suspected it would be the latter.
They were walking far apart. Sometimes Ciaran forged ahead, passing Elias without a glance, and sometimes he stayed at the back. When that happened, Elias was sure that Ciaran was staring intently at him from behind, scrutinising everything he did, but Ciaran always snapped his head away when Elias turned to meet his gaze.
Master. Elias almost spoke the words aloud. Please walk with me. I want you to. Show me the way, like you always have. But those were the words of yesterday. Those were the words a boy who had not yet found a sword and, with it, a destiny. They were the words of someone who could afford to be weak. Two thousand people had placed their hopes in him, and that meant that his own needs could no longer matter, not even the tiniest bit.
The sword had changed everything. Elias had learnt to see that his master had faults, but he had also learnt to see that his master had fears. Ciaran was only human, and he was deeply miserable here. His master needed to be loved, and was terrified of living in a place where no-one looked up to him. He had always told Elias that the people of Greenslade needed him, but Elias now knew that Ciaran needed the people of Greenslade. The Kindred had claimed Elias, but there was nothing for Ciaran here. Greenslade was his home, and the place he needed to be.
I'll send you back, he vowed. As soon as I know how, I'll do it. A year. A month. Tomorrow. Today...
"Today." He echoed it aloud, under his breath. Today, if he had to. Today. Soon. Now. Without a word.
There were so many things he needed to talk about. There was the enchantment, so new yet so old, part of him since birth, but never acknowledged. There was Oliver telling him that he could do amazing things. There was the terrible crushing fear of failure, which wasn't just a fear, but a certainty, for how could he possibly save these people from an enemy they had failed to defeat in five hundred years? How could anyone? How could he?
He would not speak even a single word of it. Ciaran didn't want to hear such things. Ciaran hated this place and everything in it, and it would be cruel of Elias to inflict such talk on him. This was not Ciaran's world. It was up to Elias to face his fears alone.
Alone. Such a cold and sorrowful word. Alone. Duty was a solitary thing. It was selfish to want it to be otherwise. Ciaran was miserable here. Ciaran wanted to leave him, and that meant that Elias had to send him home. Ciaran hated the Kindred, so Elias would not talk to him about them. His fears would be a thing of gibbering thoughts in the darkness, clutched close to his breast, alone.
"Do you need to rest?" The voice was compassionate. Not his master, though. It had never been his master all day. But maybe Ciaran was hurrying up from behind him, ready to solve everything, strong and concerned. If only Elias turned round, he would see him. But if he turned round, and his master was still angry, he didn't think he could bear it.
"No." Ahead of him was a small patch of white wood where some animal had scraped a patch of bark off a tree. He would watch that. If he stared at that as he walked, then he would not turn round. "I'm fine."
"You don't look well," Oliver said. "It's been too much for you."
Elias let out a shuddering breath. "Why me?" The question came out in a rush, without him really planning it. "Why did it have to be me?"
Oliver stopped walking, and sighed, his face clouded with anguish or pity. "I..."
"I was just wondering," Elias said quickly. He did not think he could take Oliver's pity, not right now, not when he so badly wanted him to be someone else. "Why me? Why no-one in your world? Why me?"
The words carried on inside him, screaming. Why me? It's not fair! I never wanted this! I just wanted to be Elias, Ciaran's apprentice. I never wanted to change the world. People will die, and it will be my fault, and it's not fair!
Oliver had been about to touch his arm, but let his hand fall. Had he seen Elias's selfish thoughts on his face, and been disgusted by them? When he spoke, though, his voice was measured. "The sword Albacrist has always been the means by which new kings are chosen. Kingship was never hereditary. Even the wisest of men could never predict who the next king would be. Enchantment runs in the blood, it is true, but also in ways that no man can ever know."
Elias could understand that, for the ability to sense the Shadow was just as rare and unpredictable, but it did not answer the questions that were crying out inside. "Yes, but why me?" He struck himself on the chest with his fist. "Why?" Why not someone better? Someone who might succeed? Someone who lived five hundred years ago?
Again, Oliver shook his head, but there was sympathy in his eyes. It made Elias want to look away. "That I do not know," he said. "Were you born to it, or did it happen later? Was Albacrist waiting there for the first person it saw who was worthy, and if you had not been there, it would have found someone else in the end? Or was it always going to be you, right from the start? I think it probably was."
"But that doesn't make sense!" Elias cried. "It was only chance that I became a Brother at all. I could so easily have died at the age of ten, and never come near the sword. What would have happened then? It seems so stupid. If it could only ever have been me... It all hinged on a thousand chances, that I was in a position to find the sword. If any one of them hadn't happened, then you're saying that the sword would have stayed there forever..."
"And we would never have seen our king," Oliver finished for him. "I believe that, yes. It was you, or nobody. If you had died as a child, we would have lived our life for five hundred years more, still hoping, never knowing that our king had died before he could come to us."
Elias wanted to weep for them, and scream to the treetops in anger. "I can't believe that," he forced out. "If I hadn't been there, or had failed that day, someone else would have been chosen." Maybe Joachim, so confident and gifted. Joachim would know what to do. Joachim would go striding through this world, the handsome young king of anybody's dreams.
"Maybe." But Elias thought Oliver was only placating him. "But does it matter? You found the sword, and you are here, and our hopes are answered. And I will always be here, Elias. You won't have to bear it alone."
I am here, with you, always. One day I will claim you. The memory hit him with the force of a physical blow. The monster from his childhood nightmares had spoken so. Why had the monster's words, half-forgotten for so many years, suddenly come back to him on the very day he had crossed over into another world? Because the monster lives here, he thought, and it always knew I would come.
Thoughts whirled in a tight whirlwind of cause and effect. Voices had always come to him in dreams. His dreams had been one of the reasons his family had hated him. If they had not hated him, they would not have cast him out, and Ciaran would not have found him. Enchantment had been part of him since his birth, though he had never known it. Destiny had whispered in words he had not understood. The terrifying enemy and the king with the sword had both known that it was going to be him, and he alone had been blind and innocent.
"But if it always had to be me," Elias said, "then what happens when I fail? Is that it? Your last chance gone? I'm bound to fail. There's a thousand ways I can go wrong, and if there's a right way to go, I can't see it. If I fail now, then does the sword go to someone else?"
"Don't lie to me!" Elias cried. "I'll destroy you. That's what the man said when he brought the sword. He said I'd save you, or destroy you. He didn't say anything about a middle way. It has to be me, doesn't it? If I fail, that's then end."
Oliver twisted his toe in the ground, making the dead leaves crumble. He was slow to speak, and when he did, the words came slowly. "I think so. It 's how we tell it. We have clung to life for five hundred years, living in the twilight. We always knew that when the king came back, our fate would be decided. Either he would lead us back into the sunshine, or we would pass into the darkness of full night. And now the time of choice has come. The long waiting is over, and nothing will ever be the same again. Last night, our whole world changed."
"Choice," Elias echoed. The other words were too terrible to repeat. "I never had a choice. Neither did you."
Oliver grabbed his wrist. "You have choices. Nothing is foretold and nothing is preordained. You can still choose to say no. And, even if you choose to stay with us, you have the choice of how to act."
"No." Elias shook his head. "I have no choice. If I walk away, I condemn you. You just said as much. So how can I walk away?"
Oliver closed his eyes. "I'm sorry," he whispered. But what use was sympathy when it made no difference?
They walked into the twilight, and from there into the dark.
Several times, Elias was plucked out of a dream by Oliver's voice, telling him that they would rest soon. More than once a quick hand on his arm righted him when he stumbled. His thoughts were flowing like water, and all he saw was dark branches overlaying the grey light. Sometimes someone told him that they would stop right here if he needed to, and so what if Reynard said the best campsite was an hour away. A voice that sounded like his own replied that no, he was alright, thank you very much for asking.
"...about the Shadow?" Even when Elias played them back in his mind, he had no memory of the first half of the question.
He supposed it was only fair that Oliver wanted to know, since Oliver had told Elias about the enchantment. He realised that Oliver was only trying to make conversation to drag him out of his depression, but knowing the truth made it no less comforting.
"It's not magic," he said. "The Shadow exists, but only a few people can sense it. It's a sense, just like sight or touch. It's... " He was starting it in the middle. He took a deep breath, and started again. "How do you believe the world was created?"
"We have a story," Oliver said, "of four Makers who lay down on a river bank and fashioned the world in their dreams. In the Duchy, though, they tell a different tale. I am a bard, and I tell the stories, but I do not know what I believe."
Elias smiled. "Neither do the Brothers. Maybe the universe was created by a god, or maybe by science, but the Brothers don't think it matters. To them, the mere fact of creation is all we need to know. They see the echo of that moment in everything around them."
With the words came the memory of a crackling fire, and woodsmoke in his nostrils. Wrapped in his master's cloak, he had curled up at the foot of his chair, and his master's words had been his whole world. As he passed that long-ago lesson on to Oliver, some of the words were his master's, but some were his own. Was this why Ciaran had taken an apprentice? When you were passing on knowledge to someone else, it made you feel a little stronger, as if you had at least some of the answers. It held the darkness at bay, being the one to tell a story.
"In the moment of creation, everything was one," he continued. "Whether in the mind of a god, or because all matter was one atom, we do not know. But everything was one." He spread his hands wide, indicating the trees, the sky above, and his far distant home. "And it has not forgotten that. It is still one."
"Still? Even here?" Elias understood the pain in Oliver's eyes. "Yes, even here," he said, "though it does often seem that man is always trying to tear things apart, in my world as well as yours. There's war and hatred, and even friends hide their true feelings behind half-truths. I think there's a sadness in the heart of all Brothers. The Shadow shows them how perfect everything could be, yet everywhere they go they see discord. They preach acceptance, but deep down, I think, they mourn what they see. But it's beautiful, Oliver. It's only an echo, a pale Shadow, of that moment of creation when everything was one, but it is still so... so wonderful. To see the ties that bind us together..."
Oliver's eyes shone. "You see them?"
"Not with my eyes, no. But I sense them, and in a way that's stronger and even more intense than sight. Not all the time, though. I am not that wise. I have to... to consciously look."
Just a tiny step in his mind, and he was there, wandering through the shallows of his calm blue sea. "Everyone who senses the Shadow has a special place in their mind," he told Oliver. "It's called the Garden. I don't know why. Maybe the first ever Brother saw his as a garden of flowers, but I don't know. We all see a different place. No-one knows why we see the place that we do, but it never changes. I saw the sea, before I even knew that such a thing existed, or had a word for it."
"You're there now," Oliver said, and it was not a question.
Elias nodded. His eyes were open, and, when he looked at Oliver, he was truly seeing him, although all his vision was overlaid with the shimmerings of the special place and the tendrils of Shadow. "I am. But I can still see you. I see you more clearly than before. I can't explain it. I'm there, but I'm also more here than I was. It's not a place to escape to, to forget the world. It can be, though. I used it that way when I was young, before I knew better. I've had to learn how to be in both places like this."
He reached out a hand. "Here, I can see the links. Imagine everything in existence is bound together by invisible strands of gossamer. When I'm seeing through the Shadow, I know how to grasp them." His hand closed, though only to demonstrate the point, for the strands of the Shadow could be grabbed by just a thought. As he pulled at the invisible string, a fallen branch first twitched, then rose from the ground and into his hand.
Oliver gasped. Elias stepped out of the Garden, and the intense awareness of the Shadow faded. He stooped to place the branch back on the ground. "So that's what it is," he said, "as well as I can explain it. It's far more than I can put into words. The wise ones say it's a way of seeing the world, rather than a source of power. We can use it to move things, as you saw, or hold them still, but only whole objects. We can move a stone, but not a mountain. In principle, the power of the Shadow should be able to reshape even the atoms that make up objects, but that is far beyond the strength of man, and I think that's a good thing. We shouldn't want too much power."
The darkness gathered around them. Ciaran walked past, glanced at them standing silent, and carried on. Elias didn't know if his master had heard what he had been saying. By the end, his words had been entirely his own, and he had found himself saying things that Ciaran would not have approved of. Ciaran thought there should be no limits to what the Brothers could do.
"People are objects," he said, his eyes on Ciaran's departing figure. "We can hold them still, or move them, but they have a will of their own, so can resist. We can't call them back. We have little power over people. We can't read their minds. Strong emotions leave a sort of resonance in the Shadow, and we can sense that, but nothing more. A man's private thoughts are outside the oneness of Creation, for they are his own creation, and always remain his own."
It was not entirely true. There were other links that bound people together, and that was the thing that made people special, and not mere objects like stone and metal. There were links of blood, and links of friendship and links of love, and the Shadow could enhance all three. A very few times, Ciaran had been present in Elias's mind in a way that was marvellous, but that had not happened for a long time, and it was not for Oliver to hear.
"Enchantment allows a glimpse into other men's minds," Oliver said. "At its heart, enchantment is about the connection between living things, but because they are alive, not because they are objects. It's all about feeling."
Elias remembered how intensely he had felt Sophie's terror, when Ciaran had been unable to, and he remembered occasions when Ciaran had seemed to misjudge the mood of a villager. How many things that he had always put down to the Shadow had actually come from the enchantment that lurked unrecognised deep within him? And so he had come back. Oliver had brought him back. It was just like it had been an hour before, when they had spoken of choices at the dying of the day.
Ciaran was going to leave him. It was always going to be him. Oliver might try to distract him with talk of the Shadow, but there was no escape. Even the Shadow was a thing from the past, and the Brothers were a people he would never see again.
He looked up at the sky, and watched the dark clouds blot out the twilight, and let them seep like ink across his thoughts, hiding everything beneath them.
After dinner, Reynard called for a story. He exchanged a glance with the men closest to him as he did so, so clearly they had plotted this beforehand, and it was the first stage of some foul plan.
Oliver shook his head slightly at Reynard, but took up his lute nevertheless, and began to tune it. "A story," he said, as he tightened the pegs and made changes to the sound that Ciaran was unable to hear. "Who will start?"
The man called Ranulf told the first, though it was no story, but a lament for a brother, killed far from home, and buried beneath strange trees. Despite himself, Ciaran found it affecting in its simplicity. There was no flowery language, and no polish, but it seemed genuine. The man was a killer, but his voice grew hoarse with tears, and he showed no shame for it. To Ciaran's surprise, even Reynard looked moved. He would have expected him to look at the man with disgust, despising him for weakness.
After Ranulf had finished, another man took his place. He was sitting at Reynard's left hand, and Ciaran did not know his name. His tale was a little more mannered than Ranulf's, and less affecting, although it told a tale even more tragic. Ciaran thought it was a little too deliberate in its attempt to move the hearers. It spoke of massacre and loss, but the teller kept looking at Elias, and Ciaran did not like it.
Frowning, Ciaran turned towards Elias now, and watched him. Elias had refused to walk with him all day, huddling close to Oliver, but at least the boy was sitting beside him now. Elias had not looked at Ciaran, but he had not looked at Oliver either. He had barely eaten anything, and had only mumbled a reply to any question. Now the stories were being told, he was chewing on his lower lip, and clutching his hands tight enough for the knuckles to show white.
Too late, Ciaran realised what was happening, and what the point of the story-telling had been. Even the tears were staged. It was all just another attempt to bind Elias to their cause.
"It's not fair," Ciaran burst out, speaking over the last line of the story.
Everyone turned to look at him. Reynard had been holding his drawn dagger, jabbing it again and again into the ground between his feet. Now he pulled it out of the ground, and held it still, while he glared at Ciaran with narrowed eyes. Even Elias stared at him, his head snapping up with a gasp. He looked wide-eyed and afraid, and Ciaran was the only person alive who could save him.
Oliver held up one hand, silencing the other men's protests. "What isn't fair, Master Morgan?" he asked, reasonably.
Ciaran would match his staff with Reynard's sword, and he would match Oliver, too, with his chosen weapon of honeyed words. He would beat him at his own game. "This," he said. All this." He pointed at Elias. "Look at him. Look at what this is all doing to him." Elias closed his eyes, and looked down. "Every word you speak is calculated to make him feel terrible if he walks away from you. You're destroying him and it's deliberate. All this talk about how sorrowful your lot is... It's not fair. You're doing the whole thing backwards."
Again Oliver silenced Reynard's outburst. "Backwards?" His voice sounded stiff. "How should we have done it, in your opinion?"
"Said nothing, right from the start." Now he had started the subject, Ciaran found he had strong feelings on it. Elias looked so miserable, and it was enough to make Ciaran forget just how uncomfortable he himself felt in this world. "Let Elias find the sword and think it's a gift, with no strings attached. Do you even know what it was like for the poor boy?" he shouted. "He knew he had to save you, but no matter what he did, he couldn't find you. He lived with that torment for six months."
"But he's found us now." Reynard spoke as if that simple face negated everything Elias that had suffered before.
Ciaran took a deep breath, and forced himself not to shout. Play by Oliver's rules, he reminded himself. "But nothing has changed," he said. "It's still backwards. As soon as he gets here, you tell him he's your king. You tell him that he has to save you. You ensnare him. It's all wrong. You should have welcomed him as a guest. Not a word about needing anything of him. Let him live amongst you for a while, and learn who you are, and what you need. If he chose to stay, it would be entirely by his own free will. If he chose to leave, you would let him, and never even tell him what you had hoped he would do for you. Let him life the rest of his life in ignorance, happy."
"Backwards." Oliver touched the strings of a lute, but did not sound them. "Perhaps you're right." He looked at Elias. "Is that how you feel?"
Ciaran thought Elias would be too shy to reply, and was about to reply for him, when the boy slowly raised his head and looked at Oliver. He spoke so quietly that only those nearest to him would hear him. For the others, the forest sounds would swallow up his words.
"You keep telling me I have to save you," he whispered. "I knew that months ago, but I couldn't find you. Now I've found you, but I still don't know. I know I have no choice, and that I can never go home, but I don't know what I have to do. I don't know who you are. I don't know what your world is like. I don't even know why you need saving, or what I have to save you from. I don't know anything."
"No," Oliver breathed. "No, you don't." He seemed to be trying to convey some message with his eyes, but Elias was looking down again, and did not see it. "I was going to tell you this story tonight anyway, but I will tell it sooner, rather than later. It is the story of the man who brought you the sword. It will tell you who he was, and why he was forced to do what he did. It will tell you something of our need, and how we have lived for these last five hundred years." He changed his voice subtly so it carried to the entire circle of men, although it seemed no louder. "I will tell the story of the last king. I will tell the story of Alberic."
There was a shifting around the fire, as if everyone knew that this was the culmination of the evening. As the small noises faded away, Oliver took up his lute, and struck a strange and deliberate open chord. When the story began, though, it was not a song. He spoke in a low voice, like a chant. The words were not musical, but at times he accompanied them with chords, strange and stark and atonal. It was like nothing Ciaran had ever heard before, and it made him want to shiver.
"Come all ye wanderers and warriors," Oliver said. "Come all ye, and harken to my tale, for it is the tale of our people, and it is a tale of unnumbered tears. It is the tale of Alberic and the beginnings of the long twilight. It is..."
The last chord lingered, stark and open, then faded into silence, as Oliver's eyelids drifted shut, and he lowered his head. Ciaran found himself clenching his fist, wanting to demand more.
The faces round the fire were tense and rapt. Orange light flickered on sun-tanned skin. They looked more alive than Ciaran had ever seen them, and even Elias seemed to have roused from the lethargy that had consumed him during dinner. The fire spat. Somewhere, in the treetops, a creature moved, and a tiny twig fell down with a rippling whisper. Elias gave a minute start at the noise of its landing, but did not take his eyes off Oliver. And still Oliver did not speak. The echo of his last words hung in the air, then faded away to nothing.
This was something different, Ciaran realised. This was the real thing. The other stories had been told by untrained men, struggling to tell a tale to the best of their ability. But Oliver was their bard, and there was a cruel magic in his words. Even with no more than a few chords he had almost caught Ciaran in his spell.
"No," Ciaran burst out, though his voice was no more than a hoarse gasp. He had made a grave mistake. He had spoken only to protect Elias, but he had ended up playing into their hands, giving Oliver the perfect excuse to weave his web of lies, and ensnare Elias with his story.
Just as he spoke, Oliver lay down his lute. He did so slowly, with utter control, but Ciaran thought his hands were shaking. He gave no sign of having heard Ciaran's outburst.
"No," Oliver said. "I will not tell it like that. I will not tell it in the way it has always been told. I will tell it the way I have always wanted to tell it, though some of you will not like it." He seemed to be looking at Reynard as he spoke. "It has never been more important than tonight, I think."
And then he began, his voice little more than a whisper, and Ciaran was ensnared like an animal in a net, unable to escape from the power of that voice, and the story it told.
It started with a question.
Could we have stopped it? Could we?
Treachery, we say it was. Treachery, like a bolt of lightning from a clear sky. Treachery, that destroys the innocent, and can never be the fault of the one betrayed. Treachery, the worst of all crimes. Treachery.
But could we have stopped it? Could we have changed things?
We tell of those last glorious summers of the time before, and in our stories there are no shadows. So my master told it to me, and so his master told it to him, and back through five hundred years of telling. But who amongst us has not wondered? Who has not lain awake on a winter evening and felt, not anger, but the cold stab of fear? Have any of you truly never heard the tiny creeping voice that whispers, "What if we brought about our own fall? What then?"
We thought it would last forever. We thought we were inviolable. Our kingdom was ancient and strong, and enchantment bound us to nature and the Makers. The great enemies had long been defeated, and we walked in the light. It was how it had always been, and how it was meant to be. No power on earth could fell us. Even the plottings of the most terrible of traitors seemed to be of no more account than a pinprick on the skin.
But the pin was poisoned, and the skin was already diseased. The shadow was there, but we chose not to see it. For generations, enchantment had been fading from the world, like leaves that turn brown at the very cusp of autumn. Children were born blind and deaf to its glories even in families where enchantment had once flowed as surely as blood. Even those of us who shone brightest were not as they once had been.
Did we seek to ignore our decline? When a child was born blind to the enchantment, did his father simply shrug, and pretend that his grandchildren would rediscover the gift? Was it so gradual that we did not even notice it until, not until after the exile when it could no longer be ignored? A disease multiplies in the blood, and, by the time the first symptom shows itself, is already past the point of curing.
Was it something that we did? At some point in our past, did we take a giant step off the shining path of enchantment, and spend generations walking ever deeper into the wilderness, thinking it was still the right way? Was the power still there, but we unwittingly forgot how to truly see it? Or was is that the enchantment came into the world with the Makers, and is something so wondrous and divine that it cannot survive too long in the crude flesh of mortal existence? Is it a borrowed power that is here upon the earth for such a little time, and then is forever gone?
In those last summers, when we smiled and loved and thought nothing in the world could touch us, were we already dying?
Like children, we played in the sunshine, and laughed and were happy. The king was called Alberic, and he was stronger in enchantment than any king had been in a hundred years. His seneschal was a silent man who felt other people's suffering very deeply, and his councillors came from all parts of the kingdom, representing all the people. All were skilled at the enchantment, but they spoke for those who were not, or so they thought. Every one of us has the blood of one of those councillors in our veins.
Alberic was a quiet man, but wise. He sent envoys to the Southern Principalities, who had no liking for the wild nature of the enchantment, and persuaded them to tolerate us enough to trade with us. The land grew rich and plenteous. Like a flower opening in the sun, we unfolded and learned a new life of comfort and wonder. We learned how to paint, when all we had known before was carving in stone. We learned how to make towers taller than any before, and to drink strange wines and flavour our food with marvellous spices.
We, did I say? No, it was never us who enjoyed the rebirth. It was never us. The king laboured to make the treaties and protect the trade routes, but it was the merchants who brought the goods. For as long as the kingdom had been, those with the most enchantment had been asked to lead, and those with less had chosen to follow. This was how it had always been, and how we thought it would always be. Enchantment was our guide and our shield. Enchantment bound nature together, and linked men's minds to the world. Who else could serve as king but the one strongest in the power that was the very essence of life itself?
But gold, not enchantment, built the towers. Merchants became rich, and then richer. Once, they would have had a son or a brother or a wife who knew enchantment, and could tell of its glory and rightness; now most knew no-one. Enchantment became a strange thing to them. Money was all they understood, and that they had in plenty.
They began to question truths that had been accepted since time immemorial. Why should the few, the declining few who could wield enchantment, rule the many who were blind to it? Why should they, who brought such wealth to the kingdom, be without title? They deserved more, and demanded it.
Ungrateful, we say now. Ungrateful and treacherous, turning against the very power that brought peace to the kingdom and allowed them their precious trade. They thought rule was a glory, while we thought we were sacrificing our freedom and happiness to a life of duty to the people we loved, and saw no glory in it. Their fathers had asked us to lead them, and their sons tore us down. We are taught to hate them and their children and their children's children, and our warriors spit on their names, and there will never be peace between us.
Is this right? Were we the blind and foolish ones, refusing to see that the world had changed? The kings had always ruled over people who willingly deferred to their wisdom, and desired no other king than one strong in enchantment. They all possessed a little enchantment in their blood, and revered the wisdom of one who possessed so much more. No king, strong in enchantment, could ever be anything other than selfless.
Once, everyone had understood that, but things were changing, and we were too blind to see. Enchantment grew more rare with each generation, and the needs of those without it were different from those who had it. They did not see that the kings ruled for the good of the people, sacrificing themselves for their happiness. They knew no-one with Sight, and did not see how a small hardship now could lead to a reward reaped tenfold a year later. There were people who saw the kings as strangers who knew nothing of their needs, and we did not see it, or listen.
We did not want it to change. Enchantment, not gold, was the wealth of our kingdom. Our old men shook their heads, and would not taste the wines and spices. The merchants rode to new lands, and we wandered in fields of flowers and smiled at the sky. Everything was changing, and we wanted it to stay the same. Our world was wrought with enchantment, and what else could we want? How could we begin to understand those who wanted something other?
Now, Alberic's father had sired a bastard on a merchant's daughter in the city. The boy's name was Jehan, and he presented himself at the citadel just after his father's death. He was ten years younger than Alberic, who was then thirty three, and as different from him as night and day. But Alberic, who had no other siblings and no children, welcomed him and gave him his entire trust. Jehan was one of the few people he loved.
Alberic was a quiet man. Perhaps this, too, was a cause of it, and none of it would have happened had the king been another type of man. He was a good king to us, and strong in enchantment, but words did not come easily to him, they say. He let few men truly close to him, and did not have the gift of talking easily to strangers. He was content in his own company, and would often wander as a simple man through the fields by the river, taking delight in nature.
Jehan was like quick darting flame to the king's quiet morning sunlight. He had no enchantment, but possessed a bard's skill with words. He was handsome and charming, with a smile that few could resist. Alberic could call the birds from the trees to him with enchantment, but Jehan could charm them to his hand with a smile and a word.
Had he planned treachery from the start? Had he left his mother's house and come to the citadel with betrayal in mind, and then had patiently bided his time for so many years? Or had he been genuinely loyal for all that time, and simply fell to temptation in a moment of madness? Was he bought, or coerced, or did he act out of the belief that he was doing the best for the land and its people? There are many causes of treachery, and often evil intent is the least of them.
No bard was present at the meeting that started it all, but tales are still told. The tale I have always heard tells that Jehan, clad in black and crafty as a serpent, leant towards the king, and whispered, "I can make things better. Give me the authority, and I will do it."
The merchants' demands had spilled over to the people, and the mutterings had begun to move into open violence. It was little more than brawls and stone-throwing, but it threatened to become more. We thought they were no true threat to the order of things, but we could not ignore it. It pained us to see discontent.
"I can speak with the voice of the merchants," Jehan said. "I was raised as one of them. They will listen to me. I can persuade them to cease their demands, and everything will return to normal."
But perhaps it did not happen like this. Perhaps Alberic himself sought out Jehan and asked him to do this thing. We prefer to think of our king as an innocent tricked and betrayed by someone he had every cause to trust, but perhaps it was his idea, or his seneschal's. Did they, in their ignorance, utter the words that damned us all? We wanted nothing to change. What is easier than to ask another, never quite one of us, to do our work for us, and ensure that nothing changes?
Jehan did his work well. He met the merchants in closed council, and what words were said there no-one knows, but the merchants came out smiling and well content. Their demands ceased. When they looked upon the king and his nobles there seemed to be a deep stillness in their look, which we saw as a new respect. We thought Jehan had done his work well. He thought he had opened their eyes to the truths that we thought were self-evident - that enchantment is the true heart of our land, and that those strongly gifted with enchantment can see the needs of the land and the hearts of the people more truly than anyone else.
We never questioned that truth, and never will. Enchantment is our strength and our shield and our nourishment. When it passes from the world, life is dull and pale and not worth living. I would not be part of such a world. Perhaps we lost ourselves along the way, and allowed ourselves to become complacent, but this truth remains - that enchantment is something rare and precious that we would give our lives to preserve. This is the heart of our faith, and the flame that we carry in the darkness of our exile. This is the truth that binds us, and the cause every one of us will die for.
The merchants did not see it, and we thought they did. We thought the fact that enchantment is beautiful is as obvious as saying that the sky is blue, or night is black. We thought it needed only a few words from a man like Jehan to show them that we ruled not for our own glory, but for them and for every man.
We did not understand. We thought rule was such a little thing, and to them it was everything. We thought that they were the favoured ones, and that we were their servants. We worked to protect the trade routes, but they were the ones who enjoyed that wealth. They built the tall towers and clad themselves in gold; we dressed still in simple cloaks of wool and linen and lived a hard life of the sword and of contemplation. We thought kingship was a sacrifice and a service, and saw no glory in it. We did not understand how genuinely they craved it. We thought they were content, and still revered the enchantment they could not sense.
We, who understood so much of the world, understood so little of human nature. That, too, was our failing and our fault.
Three more summers were left to us, and no more. They were summers like none before, or since. Fragrant red blossoms grew thickly in the water meadows, where no flower had grown before. The sky was like velvet, and children played without their cloaks even in the midst of autumn.
That autumn, the sunsets were deep bleeding red, so beautiful that we felt tears well up in our throats. We did not know it was the sunset of our lives. We did not know that we would never see another spring.
On the first night of winter, we came together as we always had. In the stone-flagged hall we gathered, men, women and children all together, who thronged from all corners of the kindgom. All our best and mightiest were there, and those who would be our future.
In darkness they stood, in a silence so intense that it felt like coiling smoke on the skin. Children squeezed their mothers' hands, and men moistened their lips. Even now, when the ritual is so changed, we all know the mixture of hope and fear that is the winter festival. It is never easy, waiting for the whisper of soft boots in the stone. It is never easy, waiting for the light.
For them, the light never came. Some of them died in that darkness, and never saw the light again. In silent darkness came the slithering metal of sharp merciless daggers, slipping between ribs and severing throats. Mothers screamed as their children's hands were torn from their grasp, and warm blood gushed onto their cheeks.
It was murder. We were wrong, did I say? We were complacent and brought about our own end? Maybe so, but, if we had been the worst monsters the world had ever seen, we would not have deserved that. To this day, the memory of that night is a festering wound on our souls. For some things, there can be no forgiveness. I will not hate the descendants of those killers, for they were not the ones who held the knives, but I can never condone that deed.
Jehan had led them there. When they had looked at us with that silent consideration, they had been studying our weaknesses, and judging how best to kill us. They had licked their lips to see the pale flesh at the throat of our children, and sharpened their rich jewelled daggers while chanting curses upon our names.
Jehan had planned it masterfully. The strongest and most ruthless of them slipped into the Palace and slit the throat of the one who would have brought the light, then turned to the rest of us, hacking us down in the darkness, not caring who they killed. All the while, outside, the ignorant mod seethed in the street, armed with sticks and hatred and the nails on their fingers. A whole cityhad turned against us, and we did not see it coming. We were blind. We saw what we wanted to see, and nothing more. We looked to the sky and the sunsets, and never into the hearts of the people who surrounded us.
And we were lost.
Half of us were slaughtered that night. Half of us, before the king brought light with the power of his hands, and his seneschal brought mist to confuse the foe.
"Go," the king commanded, his voice strained with the horror of the thick blood that coated the broken bodies on the floor. "Go now. I will hold them."
I will not tell of the fighting, and how half of the survivors fell leaving the city. I will not tell of the unnumbered tears that fell, and the grief of those who survived. I will not name the dead. I will not, for this tale is still a tale of hope, though the hope is like a candle flame in the midst of a mighty storm, almost overwhelmed by the darkness that surrounds it.
That terrible first morning of winter dawned grey and cold, as if the very sun was sickened to see the blood and sorrow of the night. A new banner flew over the citadel, triumphant over our dead and dying who lay in the chambers beneath. They called it a revolution, yet within a hundred years they were ruled by hereditary Dukes, few of whom have ever been wise. There are beggars in the streets, and a prison for dissenters, while we knew neither of these. They have a lavish Palace, with guards at the gate, while our king lived in chambers as plain as any man's, and let all approach him. They killed us all, and what did they gain?
That first morning, we, the ragged band of survivors, woke up in the wilderness, cold and bereft. Barely a quarter of us survived, and every one of us had suffered the loss of a loved one. We had fled without any of our possessions. Our king had Albacrist, and his seneschal had suffered a deep gash to the cheek in order to save our banner, but nothing else survived.
Perhaps we could have averted it even then. We could have fought. The power flowed strongly in Alberic's veins, and he could have made a stand. Instead of fleeing like children in the face of a storm, we could have stood and fought, and prevailed. And, in that first morning, there were some who said as much.
Alberic, though, was firm. He had sworn never to use the enchantment to harm his own people, and the oath was sacred and would never be broken. He would defend the innocent, but he would not be a king who ruled through the sword and terror.
One man, more crazed by grief than the others, spoke up. Even then, they all knew that those they had left at home had not been spared. Every city in the kingdom had seen slaughter that night. "There's no-one left but us," he said, gesturing at the band of shivering travellers on the bleak hillside. "If we die, that is the end. There will be no-one left with enchantment. There will be no-one to remember us. How can we refuse to fight, if fighting is the only way enchantment can stay alive?"
The king was silent for a very long time. "Yes," he said, at last. "We will have to fight. To live, we will have to fight. All of us..." He looked searchingly at every man there, and his look made them shiver. His power had never been more evident than in this moment. "All of us will shed the blood of men we have once thought of as brothers."
Did he say this because he had been gifted with some glimpse of the future? Or did he know the truth of the danger that we still only guess at? Did everyone know, then? We believe that some terrible danger from the past will return, and that only enchantment can save the world. We believed that the lives of every man on earth, friend or foe, rests on our survival. But what the danger is, and what form it will take, we do not know. How many stories and histories were lost forever in that terrible night? How many tales bled onto the cold stone?
"We must live." He clenched his fist and held it aloft like a promise. Tragedy had loosened his words, and now he spoke like a bard born, thrilling every man who heard him. His words have been lost, and what a loss this is to us. We have had so many dark and terrible winters. It is said that men who had been overwhelmed by despair cheered when Alberic finished his speech. How desperately we have needed the memory of his words! We are but pale shadows of our last king, and none of us have the words to bring such hope to the darkness.
"We must live," he said, but as the days went by, it looked as if, for Alberic, there was only death. He had been wounded in the escape from the Citadel, and the wound festered, and no enchantment and no human skill could heal it.
The hope, so fragile, was almost lost. Men whispered and bit their lips, and wept in the darkness. No-one dared to speak their fear aloud, for it was too terrible. Many of their best and strongest had died in the massacre. If their king died, and Albacrist found no-one worthy, what hope would they ever have left to them, what hope?
His seneschal, Engelard, at last found the courage to say the words aloud that no-one else dared even to whisper. "My Lord," he said, kneeling beside him as he lay on a pallet of branches and soft grasses. "Is it time for the trial?" Both he and his king knew what he meant by these words.
Alberic was silent for a long time. For a dreadful moment, Engelard almost feared he had passed from this life, for his eyes went distant, and, though he shook his liege's shoulder, the king did not respond. He is gone from us! his heart cried. But, being the man he was, he simply say beside the unresponsive body, silent and waiting.
At length Alberic spoke, and Engelard knew then that his lord had been granted a vision. "No," the king said, in slow wonder. "No-one alive can succeed me."
"Then how will we survive?" Engelard burst out, although he knew that his lord spoke from the gift of insight. He had a wife and children, and the thought that they would live without a king and protector was terrible to him.
Alberic took his hand in his, as he had done long ago, when they had sworn mutual loyalty and protection. Even through his pain, his eyes were clear. "I can name a successor, but Albacrist will not know him. I could name him even so, and we are so desperate that everyone will follow him. But what will happen then? If the king is someone who is not strong enough, he will lead our people to a war we can not win. We will be crushed utterly. I have seen it."
He sighed, a terrible grief in his eyes. What terrible things had he seen of the future that would be if we did not heed his words? Could they really have been more terrible than the future he was condemning us to, by bidding us wait? Did he knew what we would suffer without him? Did he leave us even so, even knowing this?
"There is no good future for us, Engelard," he said. "The only way for us to live is if we live in hardship, here in the wilds. We will be outlaws. Many of our children will never see adulthood. We will sleep under canvas, and the winters will be terrible."
Engelard shuddered. "How long?"
Alberic closed his eyes. "I do not know," he confessed. "But, if we endure, one day one will come who is destined to lead us. He will have the power within him, but it will remain his choice as to how he wields that power. He will have the choice to decline, for the salvation of our people must never be bought by trampling on a man's free will. He will save us, or damn us. Nothing is certain. He might lead us unwisely and cause our death. Even if he succeeds and wins our redemption, it will only be bought by his own willing sacrifice."
"How will we know him?" Engelard spoke urgently, for he saw that his lord was weakening.
"Albacrist will know him." Alberic pushed himself painfully to his feet, and raised the white sword. "I have little strength now. I have never had much power, Engelard. Nothing like the kings of old. After I am gone, enchantment will survive in our people, but will grow less and less with every generation, just as it has been declining for hundreds of years and we have not let ourselves see it. Only when the one chosen for kingship returns will true power once again be seen in this land."
"Power?" Engelard leant forward and asked eagerly. "Power like the kings of old? Will everything be restored?" He did not know, and still we do not. Is there hope for us? When the king returns, will enchantment once again flourish in the land as strong and beautiful as in the days of the great enchanters, or will he be a solitary flowering, holding back its inexorable decline only for the littlest time?
Alberic had no answer. Before Engelard's eyes, he seemed to fade. "What strength I have, I use. I will take Albacrist to your king." Solemnly, he touched Engelard's arm. "I will have no strength to return. Time is different where I go. It may be that the king has not been born there, and maybe will not be for generations of our time. But, when he comes, Albacrist will know him, and, if he is worthy, will bring him to you."
Engelard fell on his knees, and lowered his head, hands spread wide, as once, long ago, he had knelt before his young king and sworn that all his gifts, all his loyalty and heart belonged to his liege and the land. "Farewell, my lord."
But, when he looked up, king Alberic had gone. Engelard was alone, and weeping, in the darkness of a winter night.