Chapter four

His own choice

 

 

†††††† Elias had never forgotten the night his master had first told him about the other worlds. It was the night he had first heard the monster.

†††††† It had started with stars. They had been walking back from Upper Greenslade, and Ciaran had suddenly stopped and looked at the sky. "How bright the stars are tonight," he had said, and Elias had looked up, too, so the two of them had stood together, both just staring. The silver specks had seemed so much colder than the distant golden lights of home, and there was a vastness of darkness between them and Elias, where he stood on the surface of the earth, looking up at them. But then his master was talking, pointing out stars by names, teaching him about constellations, and his words kept the fear away.

†††††† "The stars are distant suns," Ciaran said, "and perhaps some are orbited by planets just like ours. There might even be life there. Just think, Elias. Someone could be standing out there just like you are, looking out into the dark and wondering if anyone is looking back."

†††††† Looking at me, Elias echoed. Winter fingers touched his neck, and whispered, Looking at you.

†††††† Ciaran warmed to his theme. "But the are worlds in other places, too, not just out in space. Some of the wisest Brothers in the past thought they caught glimpses of them, sometimes. They sensed... openings. But they could never walk through them, or see what lay beyond. They were worlds like ours, close enough to touch, but invisible." He chuckled. "And there's another thing for you to think about, Elias. Someone could be living on this very patch of earth, passing through you, touching you, but you will never see them."

†††††† The icy fingers ran down his spine. "But what if they can see me? What if they can get out? We wouldn't see them until it was too late."

†††††† "Nothing can get through," Ciaran said. "If the Brothers of old couldn't open the door, then no-one can."

†††††† He doesn't know anything, the monster said, when it came to him in his dreams, a voice without form, made of darkness. Things can get through. I know you now, little one, and I will not forget you.

†††††† There were still stars above him, as he lay in a forest years away from that night, and impossibly far. There were small cracks in the clouds, and stars glided across the dark patches of sky like silver petals on a pool, but he could not see enough of them to know if they were the familiar stars of home, or ones he had never seen before. Was this one of those other worlds in space, a cold lump of rock orbiting a silver speck in the night sky of Greenslade? Or was his home close enough to touch, but locked behind a door that only the sword could open? Not that it mattered. The sword had brought him here, and there would be no going back.

†††††† He rolled onto his left side, biting his lips against the pain of his wounds. His hand brushed against the sword, but he screwed his eyes shut, refusing to see if it still shone for him. He pulled his knees up towards his chest, and felt the touch of the sword against his thigh. When the pain faded enough for him to let out a breath, his lips brushed against something shocking and cold, and he knew that too was the sword. If he tried to speak, the sword might take a sliver from skin from his lips. If he curled his fingers into the ground, it would bite into his palm. If he curled up tighter, wrapping himself around the blade, it would cut him in two. It had tasted his blood already, and had seemed to like it. What more would it demand, before the end?

†††††† He rolled onto his back again, and opened his eyes. They felt raw, and he wondered how long he had been lying there, just staring at the stars.Had he slept at all? He thought not, but then the moon seemed to lurch in the sky, as it would do if several hours had passed in an instant. Time was moving strangely. There were a thousand thoughts clamouring for attention in his mind, but they were simply too overwhelming. His mind did not know where to begin, and sometimes got a little lost. It was like a vast crowd of people, all of them shouting commands, and no one single voice audible above the cacophony.

†††††† Maybe he had fallen asleep after all. Maybe someone had crept up to him while he was asleep, and placed the sword beside him where he could embrace it like a deadly lover. Maybe his master had come to try to comfort him, but had found him asleep. He peered into the darkness, but could not see his master. Everyone was asleep, dark shapes by the fading fire, except for a sentry who sat as still as the standing stone beside him.

†††††† Words echoed in his mind, as men told him what they expected him to do, and his master said don't be silly, of course he can't, he's only Elias. He felt the sword beneath his fingers. A blade of grass sprouted near his face, its tip crushed by his own feet. Above it all, there were clouds, so similar to the smoke of some distant and immense destruction.

†††††† Perhaps not of it was real. Perhaps he had fallen asleep after all, and all of this was a dream born of fever. Everything would be better in the morning.

†††††† A figure moved, a dark shape rising from the ground. If it had feet, they made no sound. If it had eyes, they did not gleam. Blackness shrouded it, but it moved fluidly, like creeping evil. The moon hid from it, withdrawing behind a cloud, but the figure did not falter in the sudden darkness. It knew where it was going. I know you, the monster had always told him. One day I will come for you. Just you wait, little one.

†††††† Elias did not move. Pain dragged wavering fingers over the fringes of his vision. A star above him was as red as blood. The figure walked on, passed the fire, and became a man. Of course it was a man. Elias did not know his name.

†††††† See if you can find out my name, little one, the monster had whispered, once. Speak my name aloud, and I will have you. Which was so unfair, because in all the stories, bad things were powerless if you commanded them by name.

†††††† As the man moved, a few of the sleepers raised their heads, looked at him, then lay down again. In the wilds, of course, men needed to wake at every sound that could mean danger, and fall asleep the moment they knew it was safe. Elias could never be one of them. He always found it difficult to fall asleep, but, once asleep, slept deeply, often trapped in dreams he could find no way out of.

†††††† His journey finished, the man knelt beside one of the sleepers. The sentry, who had watched his progress with lazy interest, looked away, satisfied.

†††††† Elias strained to see. The kneeling man reached out a hand, but the sleeping man rolled over onto his back before he could touch him. Maybe he had been awake already. Maybe no-one was asleep after all. Maybe there were twelve of them, all pretending to sleep, all passing the long hours of darkness in solitary wakefulness.

†††††† The man who had walked across the camp was Reynard, Elias realised. "Reynard," he mouthed, not quite saying the name aloud, but saying it none the less. Nothing happened. There, he said, telling his fears how silly and groundless they were, for remembering a childhood nightmare and thinking it real. In the morning, he would look back at this long night and realise he had been a little delirious.

†††††† Reynard leant forward and whispered something. Elias heard the sibilant sounds of the words, but nothing more. The other man pushed himself up, his arms supporting his weight behind him. He shook his head vehemently in response to whatever Reynard had said.

†††††† Reynard spoke again, protesting something. I want to hear, Elias thought, almost casually. And perhaps some distant noise in the forest fell away, or perhaps the men suddenly spoke a little louder, for he found that he could.

†††††† "No," the other man was saying. Elias could not tell who he was. "We did it your way. I know the reasons you gave for doing it, but..."

†††††† "The reasons I gave?" Reynard managed to give the impression of shouting loudly, while not raising his voice over a whisper. "They were real reasons. Everyone else shared them. Only you spoke against me."

†††††† "Are you sure?" the other man demanded. "You wouldn't put his life in danger, you said. Enough to test him, you said, but never enough to kill him. You promised that. I would never have agreed otherwise. But when you fought him you looked..." He sighed, shaking his head. "I just want you to be sure, Reynard. Sure of your reasons for doing what you did."

†††††† Reynard clenched his fist, in a gesture that reminded Elias suddenly of his master. "I'm sure."††††††††††† "Good." The man nodded. He glanced towards Elias, and Elias quickly closed his eyes. The man gave no sign of realising that he was awake, and carried on speaking, his voice dreamy. "This night has been... Oh, such a night as this has never been. We've waited five hundred years, and now it is here. We're bound to... feel things."

†††††† "He's so young," Reynard said, and Elias thought that he, too, was looking at him. "He's not what I expected."

†††††† "He's not what any of us expected. Could anyone have been? No. Will he be capable of doing what we need him to do?" The man was silent for a long time. "I don't know, but the sword chose him, and that means he has already passed tests greater than anything we could ask of him. It should be enough. Now we just have to..."

†††††† "Bind him." Reynard's voice was harsh. "Make sure he cannot fail us."

†††††† "I was not going to use those words."

†††††† Reynard flapped his hand, as if it made no difference. "So whose task is that?"

†††††† "Mine." Elias lay with his eyes screwed shut, but he wished he could open them, so he could see who was speaking, and beware of them. "We did it your way, but now we do it mine."

†††††† "As long as the end is the same," Reynard said, with a note of truculence in his voice. "Our cause is more important than anything."

†††††† "Yes." The other man sighed. "Yes, I know that. We have lived and died for it for five hundred years. How can anything ever be more important?" But he sounded weary, as if it gave him little pleasure.

†††††† "So don't forget it," Reynard said, and perhaps it was even a threat. "Get us what we want, whatever the cost."

†††††† "I hope there is no cost," the other man whispered.

†††††† "To us?" Reynard demanded. "No cost to us, do you mean? That's all that matters. If anyone else has to pay a price, that's not our problem. You know what matters."

†††††† The other man was silent for a very long time, while Reynard stared at him, his cloak pushed back, and his hand on the sword at his belt. At last he spoke. "I do," he said. "Of course I do."

†††††† Reynard turned and walked away, and this time Elias heard the brittle crumbling of dried leaves beneath his feet, each one something that had once been living.

††††††

 

†††††† Reynard was going to kill Elias. He was crouching close to him, a dagger in his hand. His face was very fierce and intent, and his eyes glittered, never once leaving Elias's face. There was the faint yellow light of dawn behind him, but everyone else was still asleep. He thought he was unwatched. He thought he could kill Elias, then... what? Claim it was self-defence? Claim an enemy had slipped into the camp in the night? Or just fold his arms and defy anyone to speak against him, as he claimed the white sword for his own?

†††††† Well, Reynard would find out that he could not threaten Elias and get away with it. Reynard didn't know that Ciaran was awake and watching him. He didn't know that Ciaran could be such a dangerous and relentless enemy. He had called Ciaran nothing and a nobody, but what did he know?

†††††† Ciaran coiled up his strength, readying himself to attack. He reached instinctively for his staff, but it wasn't there. His staff, that he had never been parted from in fourteen years, had not come into this hateful world with him. He had propped it up against his chair, and then had been torn away from it. He had no weapon. He was alone, cold, incomplete. No, he thought, shaking his head sharply. He could still fight. He could still win. He was Ciaran Morgan, and he did not need a piece of wood to make him strong.

†††††† He sprang to his feet. "You keep away from him."

†††††† Reynard looked up, and Ciaran had the satisfaction of knowing that he had startled him. Reynard, who surely prided himself on never being taken by surprise, had been lost in his murderous contemplation of Elias and had not realised that Ciaran had woken up. For a moment his face looked naked and unprotected, almost vulnerable with some need. Then that look was wiped clean, replaced with hot, defensive anger.

†††††† "I can go near him if I want to," he said. He stood up. Almost unconsciously, the two of them began to step to the side, moving away from the others. "You have no right over him any more, whatever you say. He is ours now."

†††††† "Yours to kill?" Ciaran scoffed. "Is that what you do to your kings here? No wonder your old one left you."

†††††† Reynard's eyes blazed. "I was not going to hurt him."††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† "Really?" Ciaran gave a bark of laughter. "So that's why you creep up on him with a dagger in your hand?"

†††††† Reynard angled the tip of the dagger towards Ciaran's face, though he did not thrust it forward. He wanted Ciaran to be afraid and to step back, but refused to give him that pleasure. "I was on watch," Reynard said. "I had my dagger drawn, because that's what we do, on watch. I wanted to..." He gave an angry sigh. "I owe you no explanations."

†††††† Ciaran lashed out at his arm. He was too angry to see the Shadow clearly, but it was enough to make his blow harder than it would have been for a normal man, and enough, he hoped, to make Reynard fear him and think he could perform mighty magics. "Stay away from him," Ciaran hissed. "If you hurt him again, I will kill you."

†††††† Reynard did not drop his dagger, and showed no fear. He lunged forward with his left hand, and Ciaran found himself held by the wrist, by a man half a head shorter than him. But he could pull himself away any time, if he tried.

†††††† "And I swear," Reynard was saying, so fiercely that Ciaran felt drops of spittle on his face, "that I will kill you if you do anything to prevent him from becoming the king we need him to be." He narrowed his eyes. "I have killed before. No-one fights better than I do."

†††††† "So you'll kill to keep him, will you?" Ciaran sneered. "Not so long ago you seemed almost eager to kill him. You didn't seem to want him then, when you saw just how badly this king of yours fought."

†††††† "Any fool could see that he was exhausted," Reynard retorted. "He could barely stand even before he started fighting. And, even so, he held his ground against me for longer than some have managed to do when fresh. So don't you be too quick to put him down."

†††††† It struck Ciaran as hilarious, that this man, this enemy, could defend Elias to his own master. "Oh, you're defending him now?"

†††††† Reynard shook his head. "Speaking the truth. Perhaps you should do the same."

†††††† Ciaran was desperate to fight the man here and now, and pummel his hateful face into a bleeding mess, but Reynard had a dagger and was surrounded by friends, and Ciaran was without his weapon. One day, he promised. Soon. He would make this man pay for hurting Elias. But then, he remembered, he hoped he would be long gone from this world by then, and Elias with him. That would be his punishment, too. This man wanted Elias, and Ciaran would be the one to rob him of his prize.

†††††† "Stay away from him," he commanded. "Just keep away. All of you."

†††††† Reynard jabbed his chin in the direction of the fire. He looked amused and dismissive. "You really think you can stop us? Twelve of us, and only one of you, and without a weapon? I think not."

†††††† "We'll see about that." Ciaran stamped away, back to where Elias was sleeping. He bent down and shook the boy on the unwounded shoulder, then pulled him by the wrist. "Come here, Elias," he said, no longer really caring who heard him. "I want to talk to you." The boy had asked to be alone the previous evening, and he had never done that before.

†††††† Elias rolled onto his back, and groaned. Ciaran pulled harder at his wrist, but the boy resisted, the weight of his body refusing to follow after the arm. He blinked stupidly, and looked more than half asleep.

†††††† "Elias," Ciaran urged him. "Come on. Where the others can't hear us."

†††††† "I..." Elias licked his lips. "I don't know... Why?"

†††††† Elias had never questioned his orders before, either. "They're enemies," Ciaran explained patiently. "Come where they can't hear us."

†††††† The boy blinked, and looked at the moon. "I'd only just fallen asleep," he whispered. "I couldn't, not before."

†††††† He looked very young and very vulnerable, and he was Ciaran's apprentice, and Ciaran had protected him for ten years. "Are you still in pain?" Ciaran asked, a little more gently. He knew already that the wounds, although painful, were not mortal. They had bled a lot, but had penetrated no internal organs. They would leave scars, but they would heal.

†††††† "What do you want to say?" Elias asked, not answering the question, though his pallor and evident weakness was all the answer Ciaran really needed.

†††††† "You should tell me when you're hurting, Elias." Ciaran laid the boy's hand back down on the ground. "And we can talk here. You needn't move." It would do no harm, he thought, if these people heard him after all.

†††††† Deliberately, Ciaran sought out Reynard. While speaking his soft words of comfort to Elias, he had lost the sharp edge of his anger, and the sight of Reynard would make it return. "I want you to promise me something, Elias," he said, still looking at Reynard, making sure the man heard it, and knew what it meant.

†††††† "What?" Elias shifted position, and sighed, as if he was giving up on finding anywhere comfortable.

†††††† "I want you to promise that, whatever they ask of you, you will refuse." Ciaran turned back to Elias. "I know you've spoken often of having a duty to them, and being unable to turn your back on it, but that's all meaningless now. Duty runs two ways. Think of it as a contract. You paid your part, but they failed to, and that means the contract is void."

†††††† "Contract," Elias echoed. His eyes were flickering to and fro in sleepy confusion Ciaran was glad to see that he did not once reach for the sword that lay beside him in such pretended innocence.

†††††† "They say you're their king," Ciaran continued, "but that means they are your people, and owe you loyalty. But they lied to you, Elias. They lied to you, and hurt you. They made you believe you had to choose between torture and condemning innocents, and will you ever be able to forget just how awful it felt, facing that choice?" He jabbed at finger at Elias's side and shoulder, though he was careful not to touch them. "Those will scar you forever. You have suffered so much already, trying to be worthy of these people, but they don't deserve a... a single drop of your blood, or a moment of effort."

†††††† "I don't know enough to judge them," Elias said. "They might have reasons."

†††††† Ciaran slammed a fist into the ground, making Elias wince. "Reynard could have killed you!"

†††††† "He had reasons, too." Elias's lips barely moved. "I understand them."

†††††† "Understand them?" Ciaran took a deep breath, forcing himself not to sound as angry as he felt. He folded his hands deliberately on his lap, and spoke in the voice he always used as a teacher. "You always say you understand things, Elias. It's a failing in you. I should have spoken to you about it earlier. Even your parents and your brothers... They abused you for years. You used to wake up crying every night, from the nightmares they had left you. But if I asked you why they did it..."

†††††† "They had reasons," Elias whispered miserably. "When she was young, my mother..."

†††††† "No!" Ciaran smashed his fist against the ground again. "They did it because they were cruel! Because they were bad people. They had no reasons. It is not for you to understand them. If you understand them, then..." He paused, struck with a sudden thought. "You think they were right, Elias? Is that it? You think they were right to hate you? Is that why you make excuses for everyone who hurts you? You think that, basically, they are right, and you deserve nothing better?"

†††††† Elias swallowed and swallowed again, but said nothing. He was still staring upwards, but now his eyes were very still.

†††††† "It is a weakness, Elias." Ciaran returned to the lesson, folding his hands once more. "It makes you too trusting. It makes you too ready to give to people who don't deserve it. It sets you up to be exploited and deceived and abused. Sometimes, no reasons can excuse someone's behaviour. You should just hate them, and walk away. They deserve nothing else."

†††††† "I can't." Elias closed his eyes, and spoke in the faintest of whispers. "I have to hear them, at least. I don't know... I'm scared, master. I'm so sure I'll not be able to do what they need. I'll fail them and destroy them, but..." He opened his eyes again, and they were surprisingly clear. "I have to at least try. I have to hear what they want of me. I have to find out who they are."

†††††† "But if what they are is evil? If what they want is something that you cannot do, not without betraying everything I've ever taught you is right?" Ciaran grabbed Elias's arm. "What then, Elias?"

†††††† Elias bit his lip, then released it. "Are you commanding me, master?" he whispered. "Are you ordering me to walk away from them right now?"

†††††† Yes, Ciaran wanted to say, but found that he could not. Without another word, he stood up and walked away.

††††††

 

†††††† At last, when it was fully light, someone came to him. Just a voice at first, speaking from beside him. Elias has his eyes closed, the voices in his head were louder than any of the real sounds of the camp. His master was speaking, and Reynard, and the man who had once borne the sword. They told him how stupid he had been, and he believed them, for they spoke the truth.

†††††† "What are you thinking?" the voice asked him, and this was the real voice, the person who was really there beside him. All morning people had whispered about him, but no-one had approached him, not even his master.

†††††† Elias wrenched his eyes open, and looked towards the voice. Oliver had settled himself cross-legged on the ground beside him. He was smiling, and his concern looked genuine.

†††††† Elias was far too tired to dissemble. "That I've been very stupid."

†††††† "Oh?" Oliver arched an eyebrow. "How so?"

†††††† "Because..." Elias looked down at his right hand. "I swore an oath in my own blood, and I can never break it. But I hadn't really thought about what it meant. I wasn't thinking clearly." His voice caught a little, remembering the terrible aftermath of the fire. "I didn't know what I was swearing to. I just... I thought of it as an end in itself. I just had to find you. I thought I'd do anything just to find you."

†††††† "And you wish you hadn't found us? Now you've seen the sort of people we are, you don't want to help us?"

†††††† Elias shook his head. "Whether I want to or not, I have no choice."

†††††† "Because you believe an oath is binding?" Oliver was leaning forward eagerly.

†††††† "My master taught me so. And the sword... glowed. It accepted it." He said nothing more, suddenly shy of speaking of what it had felt like, sometimes, to hold that sword. It had a magic too great to be betrayed.

†††††† "Don't look so sad." Oliver touched him gently on the sleeve. "Perhaps it's not so bad. Many men would love to be a king."

†††††† "I don't." Elias shook his head. "I just... I..." Not far away, a bird sang, and he listened to it until the cascade of notes had faded away into silence. "Six months ago, I found the sword. I was told what the man who had hidden it had said. I knew there were people somewhere waiting for me, but I couldn't find it. It was horrible." Even speaking about it, he wanted to shiver. "I would have done anything to find you. And then a girl died, and I swore..."

†††††† "You swore never to let anyone else die," Oliver finished for him. "You swore it because you were hurting. You thought it would make you feel better."

†††††† Elias gasped. Oliver understood him, and this sudden understanding where he had expected only hard demands undid him in a way that not even Reynard's blows could have done. "But it didn't," he moaned. "It was only the beginning. Now I'm here, and I'm bound forever. A king is forever. It wasn't the final test, but only the first. This is my life now. It's not over, and there's all of you, and you're real..."†††††††† Oliver touched him again, offering comfort. He had a kind face. He was around thirty years old, and he wore his dark hair loose, falling down straight to his collarbones. His eyes were the same grey as his cloak, and he was the only one of the men in the camp who had bothered to shave, revealing a lean face with fine cheekbones. On the ground beside him, Elias noticed suddenly, was a musical instrument that looked like a lute, made of pale wood and decorated with an inlay of even paler leaves.

†††††† Elias found he wanted to talk to him. The night before, he had asked to be alone, but he had not really wanted it, even then. All he had wanted was for their demands to go away. He had wanted to hide from the people who looked at him and saw their king. He had wanted his master, but he had known that a master was a luxury he would have to learn to do without. The moment he had heard Reynard say he was supposed to be their king, he had known that he was condemned to a life alone. He could never be a child again.

†††††† "I can help you, if you like." Oliver said. "I can be your friend. I know it's all overwhelming for you. Do you want to talk about it?"

†††††† A friend, he thought. An adult could have a friend, to give advice as an equal. A king could have an adviser. He could never whimper in his master's arms again, no matter how young and lost he felt, but perhaps he did not need to be alone. Oliver made no demands. Unlike Ciaran, whose comfort always came with an undertone of command, Oliver merely asked, and left the choice in Elias's hands. He was bound prisoner by oath and duty, and it felt so wonderful to be given a choice, even if in such a small thing.

†††††† "I'm afraid," he admitted. "I'm so scared that I'm going to fail you all. The man who brought the sword said I might. He said I could destroy you. How can I not destroy you?"

†††††† Oliver folded his hands in his lap. "Why should you?"

†††††† "Look at me." Elias gestured fiercely down at his body with his chin. "I'm too young. I've never done anything in my life. I don't know anything. And you're all so..."

†††††† "Big and strong?" Oliver laughed, not unkindly. "Is that how you see us? That we couldn't possibly need anything from someone like you?"

†††††† Elias nodded. In his imaginings in the ruins, the people of the sword had always been women and children, defenceless and calling to him. He had never thought of them as grown men with sharp swords, their faces the harsh weather-beaten faces of born warriors.

†††††† "If skill with the sword could save us," Oliver said, "then a thousand men like Reynard could do what was needed, but there are many others forms of skill. In my eyes, you have shown yourself to be something special already. The sword responded to you, and that makes you a being of rare talent. And there are not many men who would have chosen to die by torture rather than risk the chance that some strangers might possibly suffer. That showed courage and strength and a nobility of spirit, and every one of those is a kingly virtue."

†††††† Elias was not used to receiving such praise, and he felt himself blushing. "But I'm so young," he found himself stammering, more to fill the awkward silence than anything else.

†††††† "So?" Oliver smiled again. "How old are you? Nineteen? Twenty? Twenty-one?"

†††††† "I'm twenty. Just."††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† "And I was twenty-one when my father passed his office onto me," Oliver said. "And I doubted my abilities, and wanted to turn it down, but I soon accepted it." But he looked down at his clasped hands, and Elias knew suddenly and without a doubt that he was lying about something.

†††††† "No you didn't." The words slipped out before he could stop himself.

†††††† Oliver's head snapped up and he blinked. For a moment he looked very different, as if Elias's words had ripped away some mask he was wearing. Then he swallowed, and the look was gone. "And the stories tell that many of our kings were called to office when they were young, and knew little of what was expected of them. That is how the rank of seneschal arose. The king had the skill and the sword recognised his inner worth, but the seneschal had experience, and would advise him."

†††††† "That's you," Elias cried. Things he had not quite understood started to make sense. "You're the seneschal. You're their leader, and not Reynard after all."

†††††† Again there was a slight flicker of the mask, as if Elias had once more managed to surprise this man. After the briefest of pauses Oliver inclined his head. "I am. I am seneschal of the First House of the Kindred, the latest in a long line." He raised his head, and his eyes shone, darkly earnest. "But Reynard is cup-bearer, which means second in command. I have little skill at the sword, so we have agreed to divide responsibilities. He has the last word on all things to do with fighting. In this time of constant struggle, he is our leader in a very real sense, so do not forget that."

†††††† Do not cross him, he meant, but Elias thought it was more a warning than a threat, and was meant kindly. Oliver was wearing a mask, but he seemed friendly underneath it, a good man. †††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† "You take the sword," Elias burst out. "If you're their leader, it's yours. It belongs to your people, not to me. You've been waiting five hundred years for it. It's only right."

†††††† He reached beside him and picked the sword up, touching it properly for the first time since the fight, and thrust it towards Oliver. His eyes gleaming, Oliver reached out to take it. His hand trembled.

†††††† "Look," Oliver breathed. Elias's hands fell back to his side, letting Oliver take the full weight of the sword. As he watched, Oliver grasped the hilt and raised it, holding it vertically before him. Then he twisted it round, so the point was towards Elias. "Look," Oliver said, again. "What do you see?"

†††††† Elias swallowed. He had given the sword away, but nothing felt different inside. "The sword..." He swallowed again. "You."

†††††† Oliver frowned. "Why did you give it away? Because you think that this way you'll be free?"

†††††† "No." Elias shook his head. Nothing had changed inside. There was still that white crystal whispering in his blood, and the wound on his hand showed what he had sworn. "I just..."

†††††† Oliver took pity on him. "It isn't shining for me, Elias. It's dead." It was true. The sword would always be beautiful, but in Oliver's hand the beauty was like the beauty of a cloudy morning, when Elias had seen it shine like the beauty of the first sun after the rain. "Now you take it." Oliver pushed it towards Elias.

†††††† He didn't want to. All night he had refused to touch it, but why? Because he didn't want to see it shine, and remind him that he was bound and trapped to an impossible duty? Or because he was terribly afraid that it would never shine for him again, because how could it find someone like him worthy of being a king?

†††††† "Go on," Oliver was relentless. It had not been pity at all, Elias thought, for all that his voice was still kind. "Take it."

†††††† Elias looked once over his shoulder, but Ciaran was still asleep, and there would be no help there. Instead, he met Reynard's intense gaze, and there was nothing he could do but to turn back to Oliver. He felt like someone being offered poison, and finally seeing no choice but to take it.

†††††† He took the sword in his right hand, and immediately it shone, those distant and impossible colours coiling at the heart of its blade, and deeper, snaking round his arm, seeping through his skin, embracing his heart and his soul and his mind.

†††††† Elias looked pleadingly at Oliver. "Why does it shine for me?".

†††††† "You make it shine," Oliver smiled, and Elias was amazed to see that there were unshed tears in his eyes. "It's not a magic sword, not like in children's stories. It has a certain power, but in the wrong hands it's nothing. All it can do is recognise true power where it finds it. It's like a conduit. It... responds."

†††††† "But I have no power," Elias protested. "Only what the sword gave me."

†††††† Oliver shook his head. "Perhaps the sword awakened you to powers you already had, but, without you, it is... not nothing, no. Never nothing. But you are the true power."

†††††† He wanted to deny it, but Oliver's words had been seeds, and Elias was powerless to stop them growing. The voice from the sword that had sneaked inside him and taken residence... Hadn't it been familiar even then, speaking with a voice had heard whispers of even in childhood? The tendrils of power that coiled through his veins, issuing from the sword in his hand... Now he was forced to admit the truth, he could no longer deny that they went the other way. They started deep within him, and they flowed eagerly to the sword and it shone in gleeful response.

†††††† And there was more. There was the way he had heard Sophie calling, when his master had been unable to. There was the way he could sense the dead in the ruin, louder and more intensely with every day he spent fighting with the sword and learning what he was capable of.

†††††† "I donít know what to do," he breathed.

†††††† Oliver said nothing. As Elias laid down the sword, Oliver picked up his lute, and started to pluck the strings gently. Despite himself, Elias started to listen, glad of the excuse not to think any more. The music made no demands on him.

†††††† He found himself closing his eyes. Somewhere in the distance he heard a bird singing, delicate and joyful. The music cascaded like a cool waterfall, almost too quiet to hear. Sunlight was reaching down like a caressing hand, warming his cheeks, and making him drowsy. Even the warmth spoke with the tongue of music.

†††††† Waves of tiredness surged through him, and his head drooped. His eyes hurt, and fine dots of light were dancing against the darkness. As time passed, though, they expanded and joined together, until they became one warm and restful light, like soft white sheets, or summer sunlight.

†††††† Lulled into drowsiness, he lost track of how much time passed. For the first time in six months he could truly rest. He could lay down his burden and sleep. The sunlight would keep him safe, and the birds of the skies would watch over him. Even his master was close, and had not left him. It had always soothed Elias's nightmares just to know that Ciaran was close, ready to keep the monsters away.

†††††† But that was long ago. The happy times with his master were all memories. His master had been tender to him when he had been a child, but now he was harsh and distant. He was only a man, and he could not fight all monsters. Elias had never even told him about the worst one of all, that spoke in his dreams.

†††††† Elias opened his eyes, and the music was only music, plucked on the strings of a lute in a damp forest. He knew now that Oliver had put magic in the melody, trying to urge him to sleep. Elias needed sleep desperately, but he would not accept it like this. He had never been given a choice in any of this, but he would keep his will in the little things. How could he stay sane unless he did so?

†††††† "You didn't ask," he reproached him.

†††††† Oliver stopped playing, stilling the music with a hand across the strings. "I'm sorry. I could see how tired you were. I can see how hard this all is for you." He put the lute back down, arranging it on a fold of his cloak. He busied himself about it, and spoke without looking at Elias. "In all these five hundred years, since our last king left us alone, every one of us has thought a lot about what it would feel like, to live to see the king return. I don't think anyone has ever wondered what it would feel like to be that king. I certainly didn't."

†††††† It was true, Elias thought, but not the whole truth. There had been another reason behind Oliver's attempt to make him sleep, but he was too tired to confront him about it, and still too afraid of his ability to know these things.

†††††† Oliver turned back towards him, and raised his hands, fingers spread, and palms facing each other. He fluttered his fingers, and there, between his hands, the air was shaped into birds of all colours, each one very beautiful. All around them was autumn, but these were creatures of spring, full of life and hope.

†††††† One bird was all over black, with feathers that seemed to reflect in an iridescent array of every colour, and another looked as if woven from spun gold. One, though, had a damaged feather on its tail, and that seemed the most marvellous thing of all, and the final proof that this was no mere cheap illusion, but something wonderful and real. A lesser man would have created a show of gaudy perfection.

†††††† As he watched, Oliver gave the slightest gesture, and two birds moved together in courtship, the male puffing up his scarlet breast feathers, and the female ducking her head coyly. Then he flicked the ends of his long fingers, and all the birds burst into song. They sang with all tones, some high and rippling, and some low and hoarse, but each disparate noise combined together to make a symphony that was as pure as it was unexpected.

†††††† Everything else was forgotten. Elias laughed aloud with sheer joy, marvelling at the beauty of the magic. The birds looked real enough to touch. Experimentally he reached out his right hand, and found that he could indeed touch them. He opened his palm, and wished one would land upon it, and found not one, but two of them there. He could curl his thumb around and touch the soft feathers at the back of their necks, and they were so tiny and delicate, yet so replete with life. Their minute hearts were beating like a constant vibration against the flesh of his thumb, many times faster than his own steady beat.

†††††† He laughed again, and shook his head wonderingly. This was like nothing he had ever seen before, or imagined. There could be nothing terrifying or sinister in a magic that could do this. All powers could be used for evil, but the power itself was mighty and beautiful.

†††††† "That's why you didn't draw your sword yesterday," Elias said. This man had a power that could make the sick at heart smile, and the despairing find joy again. "You didn't need to. This is more powerful than a sword."

†††††† "Enchantment," Oliver said, and he smiled, although his expression had been strange before it. "That is the name of the magic. And, no, I am no master." He waved his hand, and the birds flew to him, lining up on his shoulders and arms, eyeing Elias solemnly. "These are only an illusion. Illusion is like the shining surface of the river that is the enchantment, but the waters beneath are deep and vast."

†††††† "Enchantment," Elias echoed. He reached out a hand, and the broken-tailed bird came to him again, although Oliver made no gesture of command. He wished that it would sing again, and it did, though it seemed sorrowful and empty, without the accompaniment of the others. "You're the only one who can do this?"

†††††† Oliver's face darkened. "I am not the only one, no, but there are far fewer of us than there once were. I'm the strongest, but even I only have a strength that in the old days would have been counted as tiny indeed." Perhaps unconsciously, his voice had grown more solemn, speaking in the formal words of a story. "For the enchantment is declining, and soon, perhaps, it will be gone from the world. So little remains."

†††††† It seemed too tragic to bear, that such a beautiful power should die. "Why is it dying?" He would do anything he could to preserve it, he swore.

†††††† Oliver shook his head. "No-one knows. Some of it we know, because we live in a world that is ruled by those who have no love for the enchantment. If they find anyone practicing it, they kill them. But the stories tell us that it was fading long before that, when the kings still ruled the whole land, and we were loved."

†††††† Elias leaned towards him. "But why...?"

†††††† Oliver held up his hand. "You will hear the whole story soon, for it is not one to be rushed." The birds faded from his shoulders, and the joy of the illusion was all gone as if it had never existed. Oliver looked tired, and even a little ashamed. "But you possess the same power, and far stronger than I do. Stronger than has been seen in this land for a thousand years." He spoke hurriedly, as if the words were dirty, though Elias could see nothing in them that could have caused him pain. He was sure the man believed what he was saying.

†††††† "How do you know?" he asked.

†††††† Oliver sighed. He seemed to have lost all heart for this. "Because I cannot heal you. Because you could control my illusion, and did so, when you called my birds to your hand, and had no idea at all that you were doing something unheard of." He looked Elias full in the face. "And because you opened the door between worlds, not only for yourself, but for your master too. You asked him to stay, and he was pulled here, only on your word. The light of it almost blinded us."

†††††† "Me?" Elias felt sick. "I did that?" For a horrible second, he felt terrified to move, sure that if he moved a finger or spoke a word some immense power would arc from him, and have untold and horrible effects. If he truly had power, it was one he neither understood nor could control. Like a child flailing for the support of a parent, he sought the Shadow, and it, too, was still there, familiar and soothing as it had ever been. He felt as if he was the confluence of two deep rivers, torn apart by the flood, and he didn't know what to do.

†††††† The bird with the broken tail was still perched on his hand. It seemed to be looking pleadingly at him, as if asking for his permission to blink out of existence like its fellows, but he did not know how to grant that. He wished it would go back to Oliver, and, the moment he had thought it, it did. Oliver flicked his fingers, and the bird disappeared.

†††††† Elias looked round. Where was his master? Ciaran was still asleep, his back to Elias, or maybe he was only ignoring him. Elias knew Ciaran had been annoyed with him for asking to be alone the night before. On the other side of the clearing, Reynard stood with one hand pressed against a tree trunk, and watched the tableau before him. He was frowning, and his lips were pursed into a thin tight line.†††††††††††††† My way, he remembered hearing in the night. Oliver had been the man Reynard had been talking to, he realised. Reynard and Oliver served the same cause. The murderous blows and the honeyed words were all the same end. His master was right. Elias was stupid, and trusted too easily. Between the two of them and his own stupidity, he was trapped. Oliver offered kindness, but it was all a trick. He spoke gently, but only because he wanted to win Elias's trust. He encouraged him to believe in himself, but only because he wanted Elias to serve them, and he showed him the beauties of enchantment purely to make care about it so much that he burned to fight for it.

†††††† His hand was shaking. Please wake up, he thought, but Ciaran did not. He looked small, suddenly, lying on the ground in the middle of a camp of men who were awake. There was nothing in this world for him to wake up for. He wanted to get home as soon as possible, and leave Elias behind, with these men who lied and tricked and deceived.

†††††† "My lord?"

†††††† But the voice was gentle, and the face that spoke the words was kind. Try as hard as he might, Elias found it difficult to think badly of Oliver. He had only done it because his people needed it, and he had seemed uncomfortable with it towards the end.

†††††† Oliver bowed his head. "You are my king," he said, "and I am your seneschal. Your burden will be great, but you will not bear it alone." His voice cracked and lost the solemn formality it had so often fallen into. "Please don't think you'll bear it alone, Elias."

†††††† Elias bit his lip. No, he wanted to whimper, and release me, and show me. Show me how to use the enchantment because I can't be happy until I know. Unable to say any of them, he just shook his head. "Don't kneel," he whispered.

†††††† He spread his hands, fingers shaking and bleeding palm turned to his face. Could these hands create marvels? He pressed the hands to his face, and felt close to crying. "I'm so tired," he whispered. "I want to sleep now. Please help me sleep."

††††††

 

†††††† For a moment, when he woke up, Ciaran could not remember where he was. He opened his eyes, and saw branches above him, and wondered why he had spent the night in the woods. Then someone spoke, and the horror of remembering made him want to scream with fury. He was here, in this savage world, full of evil men who wanted to get their claws into Elias. The trees might try to trick him for a moment into thinking he was at home, but they were nothing like the trees of Greenslade. Even the air was different here, and breathing it did not nourish him. He felt parched and sore, and cold beyond all hope of warmth.

†††††† Throwing the thin blankets from his body, he stood up. He almost strode over to Reynard, to smash his fist into his face, then decided to seek out Elias, who was always pleased to see him. He found him quickly, then frowned to see how close Oliver was sitting to him, close enough to touch. Elias was fast asleep, and Oliver was sitting beside him like a thief watching over a jewel he had waited his whole life to steal.††††††† Ciaran hurried to Elias's side, and stood above him, as stern as a schoolmaster. He was about to speak, but Oliver spoke first. "Please don't wake him. He's only just fallen asleep.""He always sleeps deeply." Ciaran deliberately did not lower his voice. He had known the boy for ten years, and was not to be told by some ignorant stranger how to act around him.

†††††† He crouched down to examine the boy, but Oliver refused to go away. "You told us you were his master. What does that mean?" There was a certain stiffness to his voice. "Is he your servant?"

†††††† "He is my apprentice," Ciaran said, without looking up. "I am his master. And it means... It means that I have taught him everything he knows. I'm his mentor. He depends on me. I'm the one person in the world who will always put him first." He turned towards Oliver, challenge in his eyes. See? he told him. I will fight for him.

†††††† Oliver's eyes flickered away. When they looked at Elias, they softened, although his voice was still stiff. "How long before he finishes his apprenticeship?"

†††††† "Never." Ciaran grabbed Elias's lifeless fingers, curling up lifelessly from the bandages, and held them tight."Never?"

†††††† A cold breeze made the dead branches rattle, and ruffled the short hair on his scalp. "Strictly speaking, he will finish his apprenticeship in a year," Ciaran admitted. A year... He had never considered it before. "But you don't know Elias as I know him. He won't want to leave me. Why should he? He's not the sort of person who can survive out in the world. He needs a quiet life, with someone to guide him." Elias moaned in his sleep, and tried to pull out of Ciaran's tight grip. "Oh no. He'll never want to leave me."

†††††† Oliver seemed about to speak, but Ciaran rounded on him, Elias's hand slipping from his grip as he did so. "You don't like that, do you? You thought you just had a boy to deal with. You didn't reckon on him having a master. I'm not so easy to trap. I will fight you every step of the way if you try to take him away from me."†††††† Oliver plucked absently at the lowest string of his lute. "But for whose sake are you fighting?"

†††††† Ciaran could have struck him. "For his sake, of course." Very deliberately he leant over Elias, physically pushing Oliver aside as he did so. "Now leave me. I need to tend to him."

†††††† Oliver moved a little to one side, but refused to go. "He's very brave."†††††††††††††††††††††††††† Ciaran pursed his lips. Oliver had no right to be here, and he would ignore him. He needed to see Elias's wounds with his own eyes, and tend them with his own hands, and no strangers could be entrusted with the task. Elias was his to protect.

†††††† He tugged at the ties at Elias's throat. Although Elias was still wearing his scorched Brother's cloak, beneath it he was dressed in the dark shirt and leathers of these uncouth people. His white tunic had been too badly slashed and stained with blood, and was unwearable. For as long as Elias stayed in this world, he would not look like a Brother.

†††††† The boy's skin cool to the touch, but his pulse was steady and only a little more rapid than was normal in sleep. The bandages at his shoulder and side were stained with small blossomings of fresh red blood, and further smears of dried brown. Someone had laid out a grey cloak on the ground to be a bed for him, and carefully tucked the ends of his black Brother's cloak around his body, making sure he was as comfortable as possible.

†††††† Ciaran turned to Oliver. "You." The man was obviously cold without his cloak. What an extravagant gesture it was, designed to prompt gratitude. Everything these people did was part of their calculated plan to ensnare Elias.

†††††† "He was in pain," Oliver said. His intense grey eyes stared at Ciaran, and made him want to squirm with discomfort. "I could tell he was, although he said nothing."

†††††† "He never does," Ciaran said, without thinking. It was true, although he had never thought about it before. Elias had learnt from his childhood to bear physical pain in silence. If he complained, his tormentors would laugh in triumph, and only hurt him more. In all their time together, the boy had hardly even complained of being hurt or sad. But, then, he had a master to look after him, so why should he be unhappy?

†††††† "I wish I could heal him." Oliver was oblivious to Ciaran's thoughts. "I really wish I could."

†††††† Ciaran turned round, one hand resting lightly on Elias's hand, the boy's slim fingers interweaving with his own. "Are you a healer?"

†††††† Oliver traced one finger in the dirt. "I have a certain... power," he said. "Not strong, but stronger than others of my people. Although I say healing, it isn't really healing. I can just... create an illusion. An illusion of no pain. The wound remains, but the person believes that it is not hurting, so they can sleep and relax and let the body heal itself."

†††††† "But you can't do it on Elias."†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† "No." Oliver shook his head. He had written coiling patterns in the dirt, like the marks on the standing stone. As Ciaran watched, he wiped them away with one quick sweep of his hand. "I can't heal him. He... resists. He just sees right through the illusion. He doesn't even realise he's doing it, not yet. Maybe later, when he trusts me..."

†††††† "I have a power too," Ciaran interrupted. "It's called the Shadow, and I'm strong. I can heal him."

†††††† Oliver just looked at him, and there was some sort of challenge in his eyes. He seemed to be waiting for Ciaran to make some response, but, just as Ciaran was about to say something, he spoke. "So do it." Ciaran thought he saw some anger in the man's eyes, at odds with the tone of his quiet voice.

†††††† "I was going to." Ciaran's voice was rough. Who was this man to presume to think he could remind him of his duty?

†††††† No-one could erase all trace of a wound, or bring back a life that was already lost. Not even the strongest Brothers of the past could work miracles. But the Shadow allowed a degree of healing. Ciaran could do little to ease pain and could not replace blood that had been lost, but he could knit the edges of a wound together and set Elias on the course of healing.

†††††† To heal through the Shadow he had to forget the world. He had to still his emotions, and enter that special place where the Shadow connections were strong and visible. He would have to lower his guard and forget about Reynard and the others, and only see Elias.

†††††† "Elias," he whispered, and closed his eyes. "Elias."

†††††† It was difficult. The Shadow was as if shot through the blank patches, like drifting fog on a summer's day. The world was at fault, he thought. The world made him unsettled and troubled and it took a calm mind to see the Shadow clearly.

†††††† "Elias..."

†††††† Such cold skin, lying cold and unresponsive beneath his touch. The faintest of breaths issued from the boy's parted lips, barely enough to make a single blade of grass quiver. So tiny and fragile was man's hold on life - just a tiny whisper of air. His own hand was broad and tanned and strong, and he could clutch that life and guard it and cherish it. He could make such a difference.

†††††† Oliver shifted, just a little, and at any other time Ciaran would not even have noticed it. He neither saw it nor heard it, but sensed it as a ripple in the Shadow. It was distracting. The only thing that stopped him from whirling on the intruder and demanding that he be left alone with his apprentice was the knowledge that, if he did that, he would lose control of the Shadow utterly.

†††††† "Elias," he breathed, as his special place shimmered into being around him. Every Brother had a special place, unique to them, and it never changed throughout their life. No-one ever found the place in reality. It lived only in the mind, a place of power. As he walked in his mind through the verdant field of flowers, he saw the Shadow in its true form, and only there could he do his work.††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† Beyond the lowland field was a grey mountain capped with snow. As a child, he had wanted to climb that mountain, but he had long ago learned to turn his back on it, and love only the grass and the flowers. It was still his special place, his Garden, and the Shadow still responded, despite it. But still the mountain loomed there, a sun-touched shadow at his back.

†††††† He shivered. He was losing his grip on it. He saw Elias, and touched his wounds through the Shadow, and did what he could. Then the glimpses of green faded utterly, and he was cold and useless in a dark wood, watched by strangers and trapped by a prison of stark trees.

†††††† Oliver was staring at him. "You..."

†††††† Ciaran sighed, and passed the back of his hand across his brow. "I have started it." He knew, without needing to look, that the wounds beneath the bandages were as healed as they would be after a day of deep restful sleep. What he would never say was that he should have been able to heal him so much more, but had been unable to do so. This horrible world got in the way and ruined everything.

†††††† Oliver reached over and pulled Elias's Brother's cloak up over his exposed chest, tucking it in under his throat with a familiarity that Ciaran bridled at. With his own stronger hand, he reached out and took the cloak from the other man's hands, completing the job.

†††††† "That was the Shadow," he said. It was stronger and more effective than any power this man possessed. "Do you know about it?"

†††††† Oliver shook his head. "We know of only one power. We call it enchantment."

†††††† Ciaran nodded in triumph. "Well, the Shadow is here, even if none of you can see it."

†††††† He had not really needed any proof, but it only served to confirm for him that he was right about these people. Not one of them could see what was before their very eyes, and sense the wonder of the Shadow. In his world, barely one in a thousand could sense the Shadow, but those few had been enough. They had banded together as Brothers, and had changed the world. The Shadow was here, too, but in this foul world its glory went unnoticed. It was a beautiful display put on for a world of blind men. A glory that no-one knew about seemed such a sad and pointless thing.

†††††† "Does Elias have this power?" Oliver paused a little before saying Elias's name.

†††††† Ciaran nodded. "Yes. It's very much part of him. He can't really be happy unless he's with people who share it."

†††††† "Oh." Oliver swallowed. Once again he started tracing patterns in the dirt. "Why didn't you heal him last night?" he asked suddenly. His voice was raw and nasty with accusation, though he was too cowardly to meet Ciaran's eye with it.

†††††† "Because," Ciaran hissed. He sighed. "Because..."

†††††† How could he answer? His mouth felt dry. Why hadn't he healed him? He didn't know. Because Elias had asked him to go away? Because he had wanted to heal him, but had not dared take his eyes off Reynard, for fear that the man who kill Elias the moment Ciaran lost himself in the Shadow? Wounded, Elias had clung to him and needed him. Ciaran could tend to his poor apprentice, and some things would never change, even in this foul world.

†††††† With an angry cry, Ciaran turned away, but all he saw was the dark wall of thorny undergrowth that hid the all manner of dangers, and the way strange men with hard faces were standing in ones and twos against the dark trees and watching the sleep of the boy they thought was their king. One of them was Reynard. His head snapped up when he caught Ciaran looking at him, and, with a quick kick of one foot behind him, he pushed himself fluidly away from the tree he had been resting again. After two steps, though, he froze.

†††††† Ciaran frowned. When he turned back, he saw that Oliver, too, had turned round. He was crouching like an animal frozen helpless in the path of danger, but the expression in his face was not meek. Commanding and sharp, he had stopped Reynard's approach with a single look. Then, a moment later, he had turned back round again, and the expression was gone, so Ciaran wondered if he had imagined it.

†††††† Oliver blinked, and again he sighed. He looked very tired. "Don't judge Reynard too harshly."

†††††† Ciaran clenched his fist, but said nothing.

†††††† Oliver rested one hand on the lute. "We have waited so long for our king. We have suffered so badly. So often, we have almost lost hope. Can you begin to imagine what last night was like for us? For five hundred years our whole life has been about waiting, and then... It was nothing you could ever understand. You looked at us and saw only cold calculated killers, but there was nothing rational in it. It was all about need."

†††††† Ciaran let his fingers trickle down Elias's arm, and came to rest on his hand. He took those pale fingertips in his own, and enclosed them utterly. He almost told Oliver to shut up, that he didn't want to hear this, that he didn't care what they felt. But he listened, even so. At least Oliver was talking to him, wanting to explain things as if he mattered. "But Elias was the one who suffered," he said.†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† "Yes." Oliver plucked a string, making a low musical note, then gasped, and stilled it. It had not been intentional. Ciaran saw that his fingers were trembling minutely. "And how could Reynard hurt him like that, and still call him king, you are wondering. But there was no way he could call him king and not test him that way. If I had not allowed it, it would have been setting up trouble for the future. He had to be sure. We all had to be sure."

†††††† "A test," Ciaran murmured. "He said that."

†††††† "Any man might make promises to a people who offer him all praise and honour, but lead them only to damnation. We..." Oliver shook his head sadly. "Perhaps I shouldn't tell you this, but I know how much you distrust us. It was not my way. I knew that the king had already passed tests greater than any we could set him, but Reynard wanted it, and so did the others. They are men who live by the sword, and expect to die by it. They needed to test him that way, cruel as it might seem, and there can be no division and no doubts, not on something this important. Loyalty and trust must be absolute. They needed to test him in this way, so I allowed it. "

†††††† "A test," Ciaran echoed, again. "It looked as if he meant it." The blood on Elias's bandages was so very real. "The hatred was real. The anger was real. Elias will never recover from it. For him, it was real."

†††††† Oliver closed his eyes briefly. "Perhaps he did mean it, a little. He has his reasons. He is... more complicated than he seems. I do not fully know him. But he is loyal." He seemed to hesitate over the words, and Ciaran thought he was lying. He would never believe a single good thing about Reynard. Oliver sighed. "He might be loyal to the name of the king, but he is a man whose true devotion will need to be earned."

†††††† "Earned?" Ciaran laughed, knowing that Elias would never be able to earn the devotion of a man like Reynard.

†††††† "Yes. Earned." Oliver looked briefly up at the sky, where reaching black branches lunged for the sun. "Can a stranger ever understand what it is like for us? We have lived for five hundred years with this forest as our only home, simply waiting. But, although the king bears our hopes, we have changed in that time. Of course we have. For generations, we have learnt how to live and survive without leadership. We know what it is to decide if someone lives, or dies. We know what it is to decide which hungry mouth most deserves the one small portion of food. We have seen murder in the eyes of our enemies."

†††††† "You have grown independent." Ciaran thought he understood. "You want a king as a figurehead, but nothing more. Men like Reynard will question his every action and command, thinking that they know better."

†††††† "No." Oliver shook his head, but there was no fervour in his denial. His face seemed stiff with weariness. "It is... complex." In a sudden, almost desperate movement, he lunged towards Elias, but stopped just short of touching him. Instead, his fingers found the edge of his own dark cloak that formed Elias's bed, and held it as tightly as a relic. "For myself, I say this. I need no further proof. I have spoken to him, and I have seen his worth. I will serve him as my king."

†††††† Ciaran frowned. Elias was only a boy, and surely there was nothing in him to inspire such sudden and intense loyalty in a grown man. Or maybe that was the point. "You mean, you've spoken to him, and found out how young and inexperienced he is," he said. "You've found him weak and pliant. You will pretend to serve him, only because you know he's weak enough to manipulate. You will bend him to your will in everything."

†††††† "Why are you always putting him down?" Oliver demanded. "You're supposed to be his... his mentor, you said. You treat him terribly. I told him how well he'd acted, and he blushed like a child, as if no-one had ever praised him before, and he didn't know what to do, or didn't think it could really mean him."

†††††† Ciaran shook his head. "I'm not putting him down. I'm just speaking the truth. He's only a boy. And you expect him to... what? There are two thousand of you, you said, in a world that's how big? You live in a forest. Your last king lost his kingdom, but you have lived on, waiting for someone to come and regain it for you. You want him to lead you back to power and crush your enemies? Is that it?"

†††††† "Back to power... Some want that," Oliver admitted. "Safety is what we dream of. A world where we are not killed just for what we are. And there is more, too. Something terrible is threatening the whole world."

†††††† Ciaran threw back his head and laughed. "And you think one boy alone can do all this? You're mad. You're setting yourself up to be disappointed" He rubbed his eyes, and the laughter faded. "And it's not fair to him. I know Elias. If he tell him he has to do some impossible task, he'll blame himself so badly when he fails that he'll be unable to bear it."

†††††† "What makes you so sure he will fail?" Oliver's voice was stiff. "I think there is more to your apprentice than you let yourself see."

†††††† "He doesn't like fighting." Ciaran started to count off Elias's short-comings on the fingers of his right hand. "He's shy. He has no experience with people. He..."

†††††† "He seemed to understand me well enough," Oliver interrupted. "He understood something about me that few others have realised, even after knowing me for years." He looked strangely vulnerable, but Ciaran refused to be taken in.

†††††† "Well, perhaps he has learnt things from watching me," he admitted, "but he has never put any of it in practice. He never even opens his mouth when he watches me go about my work." ††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† "It will be difficult, yes." Oliver brushed his fingers along Elias's sleeve as if he owned him. "But he will not have to do it alone. I will help him. We all will."

†††††† "We don't need your help," Ciaran snapped.

†††††† Oliver clasped his hands together. They seemed to tremble a little. "I would never force him," he said. "It has to be his own choice. When our last king left us and spoke the prophecy, that was what he said. The one so chosen will retain his free choice, for how else will rightful salvation come about?"

†††††† Ciaran was taken off guard. He had heard those same words from the mouth of the dying man, when he had been so sure that the sword would change his life, and had wanted it to happen. "You don't offer him free choice," he rasped, disguising his discomfort. "You lie to him. You try to make him believe he can be a king, when he can't. What more are you going to do? Tell him an exaggerated story about your need, so he feels there's no way he can walk about? You want to play on his guilt and his generous nature. You call it free choice, but all along he'll be dancing to your tune."

†††††† Oliver opened his mouth as if to speak, then closed it again. He looked down at his clasped hands, and Ciaran knew it was a sign of guilt, and told him so. "I'm on to you. You're as dangerous than Reynard. More, even. At least he makes no secret of his enmity. But you... You pretend to be gentle. You pretend to care about him. You ensnare him with soft words."

†††††† He had expected Oliver to lie and deny it, but the man gave a sad nod. "It's true, or it was. I approached him with that in mind, yes. I said things that seemed kind, but were designed only to win him over. But..." He smiled. "I ended up liking him. My duty was clear, but already it is..." He shook his head. "Not quite so clear," he finished, weakly.

†††††† Ciaran leant forward, seeing a chink in this man's armour, and determined not to let it pass. "Then release him. Leave him alone. Make no demands on him. Never talk to him. Let him learn about you by living with you, and not by any arguments that you give him. Let his choice be truly of his own free will."

†††††† Oliver tilted his head to one side. "And if he chose to stay with us and help us, would you accept it?"

†††††† Ciaran tried to meet his eyes, and tried to nod. He would use their own weapons against them. He would lie. He had no intention of letting them get their claws into Elias, but if, by lying, he could make this man leave Elias alone, then he would do so. He opened his mouth, and almost spoke the words of a pretended promise, but then Elias started to move again, and the moment was passed.

†††††† "He's waking up," Oliver said. "I had hoped..." He shook his head and the words trailed away.

†††††† Elias moved again, and whimpered softly. The hand that Ciaran still held twitched a little, but did not pull away. He began to turn his head, then, with a sigh, let it slump back again. He was still facing away from Ciaran.

†††††† "Elias," Ciaran whispered, squeezing his hand gently.

†††††† Elias turned his head, moving it fully in a slow half circle. His eyes skittered over Oliver without even a pause, and came to rest on his master, only on his master. Ciaran smiled to see it.

†††††† "You healed me, master." Elias smiled. He lay in the shade, but his pale blue eyes were more bright and beautiful than any sunlight. They were smiling, and still he sought his master.

†††††† Ciaran smiled. This was how it ought to be, and he was glad that Oliver could see it. These people would never have Elias. "I did, Elias."

†††††† Just for a moment, Elias's eyes seemed to flicker towards Oliver. He reached out with his free hand and, even without looking, managed to find the hilt of the cruel and beautiful sword.

†††††† It was not important. All the things Oliver had said were not important, not now. Perhaps there would be a battle ahead for Elias's soul, but in the end Ciaran would win, and he needed to know what would happen then. For both of their sakes, he needed to know. The first thing to do in any new place was know the way out, even if it would become a door not taken for years.

†††††† "How..." He broke off, for if he said it as a question, it would mean that Elias knew something that Ciaran did not. "We need to know how to return home." Elias stiffened, but said nothing. His eyes, so bright and grateful a moment ago, became shadowed. Oliver, too, reacted strangely. He sucked in a breath, as if he knew something that Ciaran did not. He and Elias together, knowing a secret.

†††††† "They need us," Ciaran persisted. In the night, he had told Elias all the reasons why he should not stay here, and now he would tell him all the reasons why he should go home. "People died in the fire. You know only too well that one family is without their daughter today. Even more are homeless. You swore an oath to them, remember. Even if you don't go to them today, surely you want to know that you can go back?"

†††††† Any trace of a smile was gone from Elias's face, wiped out utterly when his master mentioned the fire, and the young life claimed by the flames, but it was a necessary pain. Elias would be happier if he forgot all these silly claims of kingship, and Ciaran would use any weapon he had to use to make that happen.

†††††† "We need to know." He held Elias's hand tight, resisting the way it pulled against him and seemed to think it wanted to escape. He hazarded a glance at the sword. "Will it take us back? Can you control it?"

†††††† Elias pulled, and there was a strength in his arm that was totally unexpected. He clutched his freed hands protectively to his chest.

†††††† "Elias." Hurt, and a little angry, Ciaran spoke. "Why..."

†††††† "It was me." The words sounded as if they had been wrenched from Elias's throat. "It was me, master. Oliver says..."

†††††† One hand was reaching, still feeling it should be holding Elias's quiescent fingers. His empty palm felt cold. "What...?"

†††††† "It was me." Elias rolled over to one side. His hair drooped over his face, as if even those golden tendrils were conspiring to hide his face from his master. "It wasn't the sword, it was me. I brought you here, and you hate it. You're miserable. If it wasn't for me, you'd not be here. But I don't know how I did it. I don't know how to send you back. I... I'm so sorry, master."

†††††† Ciaran's hand moved, just a tiny bit, then withdrew. There were so many things he ought to be saying, and no words that would come. "You," he choked.

†††††† "Don't," Oliver began, but Ciaran whirled on him, standing up, lashing out at him.

†††††† "Don't you talk to me!" he screamed. "Leave us alone!"

†††††† Oliver recoiled, but did not step back. He was closer to Elias than Ciaran was. As for Elias, his face was twisted up in pain, his eyes squeezed shut. Then, as if he was aware that his master was looking at him, he opened his eyes. He stared at Ciaran, and his lips moved uselessly, but he had nothing more to say inhis defence. A moment later, he had turned away again, hiding from his master.

††††††††††† Ciaran stepped over his body, and strode away.