The King's Road
They were two days in the lowlands, heading south towards the distant mountains. On the afternoon of the second day, Elias turned to Ciaran, a huge grin on his face. "I know what my horse is called."
Ciaran laughed. "You've finally thought of a name, you mean."
"Maybe." Elias gave an innocent shrug. "But she's called Sunfall." He leant forward and whispered to the animal, his breath making her ears twitch. "And you're beautiful, aren’t you, girl?"
Ciaran looked at him, and something seemed to catch in the back of his throat. The sun was still high in the sky, and Elias had pushed his cloak back and rolled up his sleeves. He looked genuinely happy, handsome and confident.
"And it's beautiful here," Elias said. He sat upright ahead, and spread his arms, the reins falling across the lap. Just seeing it made Ciaran tense up. He always clung tightly to the reins, and sometimes to the saddle as well. "Imagine what it would be like in the summer. But it's lovely even now."
They were in a flat bowl of a meadow, that curved gently up to the foothills of the mountains. It was thick with coloured seed heads and broad grasses, and there were a few trees coloured all the rich colours of autumn. Above the plain the mountains were grey and placid, with white clouds fluffed around their peaks.
"It reminds me of..." Ciaran stopped. His Garden, he had been about to say, but a Brother's Garden was special and private, and not to be shared with anyone. Ciaran had only ever told one person about his Garden, but he had said many things to that person that he would never say again to anyone. Besides, it didn't even look much like his Garden after all. Nowhere in this alien world could truly resemble the glory of his special place in the Shadow.
"I like it." Elias urged his horse forward, and suddenly he was galloping across the meadow. His cloak surged back from his throat, flying like a black banner. Ciaran followed him with his eyes, holding the reins tightly. His horse shifted anxiously beneath him, then stepped forward unbidden, as if it wanted to join in with this wild gallop. "No," Ciaran urged, although it never obeyed a word he said. "Elias," he said, a little louder. "Stop."
Elias circled the meadow twice before he stopped in front of his master. His eyes were shining and his cheeks were very pink. A strand of hair clung to the side of his neck, and his pulse was fluttering in his exposed throat. He looked very alive. "It's wonderful, master. It's beautiful here."
Elias was galloping in his Garden, so joyful and alive. Ciaran's throat tightened with a strange pain. "He's getting tired of waiting," he said, gesturing with his chin at Reynard, who was sitting on horseback and watching it all.
"I'm sorry." Elias hurried towards Reynard, looking so instantly chastened that Ciaran found himself wishing that he had not spoken.
"Don't be," Reynard said. He gave a rare smile, and Ciaran looked for duplicity in it, but could see no sign of it.
"Where now?" Elias looked up at the distant peaks. "Right over the top?"
Reynard's smile changed. "Almost." He looked smug and gleeful. "We have a secret way. There's a road that goes that far," he said, pointing at the foothills, "but no higher. It takes the long way round, hugging the lower slopes. And most of them don't even use that road now. They stay on the main road, out there." He pointed out to the west, where the plain was wide and flat. "But we're going over. It's a road that no-one but us can follow."
Elias stared up at the mountains, and frowned, as if he was struggling to see something that was hidden there. "What are they called?" he asked. "The mountains, I mean."
"The Grey Mountains," Reynard replied.
Elias burst out laughing. "The same as at home." At home, the railway stuck to the plain, and Ciaran had only ever seen the mountain range from through the window. "They have as little imagination here as they do there. I bet Oliver could come up with a better name."
"Come on." Reynard started along the path. Elias had offended him, Ciaran thought. "There's somewhere I want to be before dark."
Elias smiled at Ciaran, and the two of them exchanged a look. Side by side, they followed Reynard into the mountains.
The ground rose steadily, and the horse's plodding gait made Ciaran lurch from side to side. These were not the fertile green hills they had travelled through two days before, but the rugged foothills of high mountains. The grass was coarse and dark, scattered with shards of grey rock that had fallen from higher up the slope. As his horse trudged on, he stared straight ahead, watching the unrelenting grass. It never changed, and he began to feel his eyelids drooping shut and his head lolling.
He was dimly aware of Elias and Reynard, exchanging desultory comments as they travelled, the man a little in front of the boy. Elias was asking questions, and Reynard was answering, but Ciaran could detect no threat in his tone, so he barely bothered to listen. Probably just simple things about the road, and who else travelled this way. For the last two days they had travelled furtively, dodging round the back of walls, and sneaking past distant farmhouses. They had never set foot on anything that looked like a road, but now it was very obvious that they were following a path that others had walked before them.
Why was that, he wondered. He blinked, and tried to shake away his sleepiness. At least two hours had passed, he thought, and the sun was getting low in the western sky. While he had drowsed, had Reynard led them into a trap? There were clear hoofprints on the track before him, and high peaks towered above them, with ledges and crags that could conceal all manner of watchers.
Just as Ciaran was about to speak, Reynard raised his hand. "Stop here."
Elias stopped instantly, but Ciaran's horse walked a few more steps before he was able to pull it to a halt. "Why?" he demanded. He looked up, craning his neck, and realised just how high the mountain was above them. Their path skirted the base of a sheer cliff, and it felt very small, to be standing at its base, looking up at its dark heights. A few yards on, the path twisted away from the cliff, and it seemed much brighter there, with tiny yellow flowers, and no sharp stones. It looked inviting and pleasant, and he wanted to move on. Why did Reynard have to stop them here, at the most horrible part of the path?
Reynard dismounted. "Stay." He looked at Ciaran as if he knew what he was thinking. "Watch." He walked to the edge of the path, and right up to the cliff face.
"Oh," Elias breathed. "It's wonderful."
Ciaran frowned, looking first at Elias, and then at Reynard. The man had drawn his sword, and was holding it high and ready. His other hand was pressed against the rock.
"There's nothing there," Elias said.
Reynard looked over his shoulder, cocked his head, and frowned. Then, still looking at Elias, he stepped forward and disappeared into the rock.
"What?" Ciaran kicked his horse, but it would not move. Angrily, he slid from the saddle, but the animal shifted a little as he did so. He landed heavily and almost stumbled. "Where are you, Reynard?" He turned round a full circle, then hurried back to the horse, untying the knots that bound his staff to the side of the saddle.
"He'll come back," Elias said. He was smiling. Why was Elias smiling? "He's not gone far."
"He's hiding. Is he hiding?" Ciaran slashed at the last place he had seen Reynard standing. "Is this a trick?" He had always thought that Reynard possessed none of the cruel magic of the Kindred, but perhaps he had been a fool to believe it. It would be just like the man to keep his powers concealed, ready to unleash them just as Ciaran was drowsing on his horse's back. He had used enchantment to blend in with the rock behind him, and he was watching Ciaran even now, smiling, his sword about to descend on his neck.
"It's not real." Elias was grinning, and looked as happy as he had looked when naming his horse, but this time Ciaran had no idea of the reason for his happiness. "It's beautiful."
Ciaran whirled on him. "What?"
Elias's smile faded. "Please put your staff back, master."
Ciaran clutched the staff tighter, but Elias's words left him feeling awkward. He saw himself for a moment as Elias might be seeing him - a man slashing wildly at the empty air, screaming at the rock face. Reynard in his fury was always controlled and devastating. Ciaran had charged through the camp, spitting fury at the very mention of Reynard's name, and he had thought that everyone had been afraid and impressed, but maybe they had only thought he was being foolish.
He lowered his staff, and took several deep breaths, trying to force calm. How dare they laugh at him? But he would not let them laugh at him again. He would bide his time. He would watch Reynard, all dignified calm. He would be ready to fight him, but he would do it quietly, without threats.
"It's clear," Reynard said, and there he was, back again, just where they had last seen him. He looked pale, and his muscles were very tense. Sheathing his sword, he looked searchingly at Elias. "But you knew that, didn't you. That's what you meant when you said there was nothing there?" He spoke as if Elias's answer was very important.
Elias nodded, but it was Ciaran that he turned to. "It's like a gate," he said gently. "Most of the cliff isn't really there at all. It's there to... to confuse pursuers?" He glanced at Reynard, and Reynard nodded. "The real road is on the other side."
Ciaran reached out and touched the rock face. "Not there?" He gave a shaky laugh. "I can feel it."
"Illusion works on all the senses, not just sight." Elias placed his hand on the rock just beside Ciaran's, and sank into it up to his wrist. Ciaran felt sick just to see it, but Elias smiled. "It's not real."
Ciaran had to look away. He wrenched his hand from the cliff, and walked a few steps along the path, where the yellow flowers reflected the warm sunlight.
"The path's an illusion, too," Reynard rejoiced in telling Ciaran. "It makes people think the road carries on that way, when the real road goes a completely different way. It has an illusion of prettiness. The weak-minded find it hard not to follow it."
"Not weak-minded," Elias said, with a touch of reproach in his voice. "I don't want you to say such things to my master."
Ciaran wrapped one arm around his body, and the other clutched the staff close. Was everything around him a lie? The sky above him and the ground beneath his feet could all be an illusion painted on nothingness. Nothing was real and certain, nothing at all. Even the plain was veiled in haze. Beyond the haze, hidden in the north, a proud and savage people were waiting on the outcome of this journey of theirs, but nowhere, not even in the endless miles beyond, was a place that was his home.
"We need to go through now," Reynard said. "There's a watchtower in the mountains, an hour from here. It's best if we approach it in daylight."
Ciaran frowned. "Why?" he asked, but Elias was already speaking, and no-one heard him.
"Who did this?" Elias was asking. "Was it your people? The last king, Alberic?" He said his name with reverence.
"No." Reynard was rummaging in his saddlebag, looking for something. "Not him. He could never have done anything like this. We certainly couldn't." He pulled out a black cloth, and buckled the bag up again. "Oliver can tell you more. All I know is that it was a very long time ago, during a war with the Fishers on the northern coast. With great enchantment, we hid the quickest road from their lands to ours, so no enemy can ever find it. They have to take the long way round, across the plain."
"And it's lasted ever since?" Elias breathed. "Oh, he must have been amazing. For an illusion to last a thousand years and still be strong... The power he must have had!"
"Yes," Reynard said gruffly. "He did. But we must get on, rather than talk of him."
"I'm sorry," Elias said. Ciaran turned round just in time to see him give a quick pat to his horse's neck. Then, before Ciaran could cry out, Elias rode forward into the rock and disappeared.
Reynard whirled on Ciaran and grabbed hold of his wrist. "He saw it," he hissed. His eyes were glittering with excitement, and he was acting as if Ciaran was an ally, not an enemy. "He saw right through it. No-one does that. No-one."
Ciaran stared at the last place he had seen Elias. His wrist quivered in Reynard's grip, and all he wanted to do was tear himself free and hammer at the cliff, begging Elias to come back to him.
"And he took the horse through." Reynard looked very pale, with two splashes of colour on his cheeks. "It went through without being blinkered, without being led." He shook his head. "Amazing, he said. He's the amazing one. An hour ago, I would have said it was impossible."
Ciaran pulled away. "How do you go through, then?"
"It's not pleasant." Reynard gave a bark of laughter, and began to sound like Reynard again. "We know where it is, because we're taught it, but we see it no differently from how you see it. We have to trust, and walk into solid rock. It even feels like solid rock." He laughed again. "You'll hate it. I advise you to wear a blindfold if you don't want to become a gibbering wreck from terror."
"I can do it," Ciaran said. He swallowed hard. He scarcely believed in the powers of enchantment, but here he was, about to walk through solid rock because an enemy told him it was only illusion. He was going to do something he would always have thought was impossible. Where would that leave him when he reached the other side?
But Elias was on the other side. Elias was there, by himself, and Ciaran had to reach him. If Reynard could go through, Ciaran could.
Something moved on the rock face, as if the stone itself had taken shape and become a hand, a foot, a face. Like a figure dragged from thick mud, Elias stepped out of the cliff, and there was a moment when Ciaran could see the whole front half of him, in half and just stuck onto solid rock. It was repulsive.
"It will be difficult for you, I think," Elias said to him. "Hold my hand. I can see through it."
Ciaran raised his head. "I can do it." He moved forward, and Elias moved with him. Their fingers brushed, but Ciaran did not grab hold of his hand.
He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and walked into the cliff. There was a moment of resistance, as all his senses told him that he had indeed walked face first into solid rock. Then, just as he was about to turn round and say it had not worked, it gave way shiveringly. It was like bursting through the thick skin of something cold and congealed and disgusting.
The rock clung to him, gripping him like a shroud. It encased his limbs and snaked into his mouth and up his nostrils. It pressed against his eyeballs and crushed his lungs. It imprisoned him and choked him. It was everywhere. It was the small of things dead for a million years, fossilised in rock. It was the ashes of ancient volcanoes. It was death, buried beneath the ground, clawing at the coffin to try to get out, to see daylight again, to live.
He ran out of breath, and there was no more air to breathe. Illusion, he told himself. Not real. But he had never believed in illusion. There were no mysteries that a Brother did not know. How could something so strange be true?
Something brushed against his hand, and he started, sucking in a breath of solid rock. But it felt good, as if it had really been air.
"Master," Elias said, from so far away, for he was walking on the surface of the earth, and Ciaran was buried alive beneath his feet. "You're nearly through. Keep going. It's not real. None of it's real."
Not real. If he thought it hard enough, the illusion would all fade away. Reynard had said only the weak-minded believed it, and he was not weak-minded. If he willed it, he would see through the illusion. He would be like Elias, who saw only a broad open road, with a picture of rock painted on veils that shimmered and swirled in the air.
Nothing changed. He thought it with all his strength, but nothing changed. He couldn't see through it at all. It was a lie, a trick. He was encased in stone, and he would die here. He opened his mouth to scream, and the rock poured down his throat like water, and his lungs swelled like a sponge.
"Nearly there," Elias said again. He had caught hold of Ciaran's hand, a man on the shore reaching down to another who was drowning far beneath him.
Please, Ciaran begged. Help me, Elias, please.
"Close your eyes," Reynard had told him, and he had refused to listen, disobeying out of stupid bravado. He wanted to close them now, but the rock was viscous and all encompassing, and it solidified when it touched his eyeballs, and he couldn’t even move his eyelids. He was trapped with his eyelids pinned open, his screaming mouth full of rock. He was dying.
Then, suddenly, there was light, exploding in his eyes like death. Collapsing to the ground, Ciaran retched. He brought up bile and half-digested food, but no grey rock came flooding out of his lungs. He was trembling, shivering with icy cold. Elias was kneeling beside him, wrapping him in his arms, pulling him close. "It's over, master," he was crooning. "You're through. You're safe." Ciaran felt tears prick his eyes, and pressed his face into Elias's shoulder, so the boy would not see them.
"I told you to cover your eyes," Reynard said, with laughter in his voice.
"Don't you dare!" Elias shouted. His apprentice whirled on the man, and Ciaran felt the fury quivering through his body. "You hated it, too!"
Reynard was silent for a moment. "I did," he admitted, at last. "I know men who cried like babies after their first time through, and others who have never yet dared it."
"Then don't say a word," Elias said.
Ciaran blinked, and wiped his eyes furtively on Elias's cloak. He stood up on trembling legs. Reynard was pale and the moisture of fear was on his brow, too. The horses were blinkered, but both were flecked with sweat and clearly afraid. Elias walked up to each one of them in turn and touched their faces, and they seemed to quieten a little, though they still looked nervy.
Ciaran sucked in great gasps of air. The illusory cliff towered behind him, cutting out the sun, but sunlight still painted the tops of the mountains, making them pink and vivid. The road ahead was broad and hospitable. A long time ago it had been paved with interlocking square tiles, but years of frost and wind had shattered them, so only a few remained. Despite that, the road was level, and the land was far more attractive than the wild barrenness of the foothills. Or maybe, he thought, it was just that everything would seem more beautiful now, as long as it had skies above it, and fresh air to breathe.
"This is the King's Road," Reynard said, mounting his horse. He pointed to the side of the road, where a column still stood, as tall as a man. On a plinth at the top was a bird of prey, carved out of stone. Its wings were outstretched, and its head was tilted to one side, alert and watchful. Reynard took up his reins in both hands. "Let us ride!" he cried, and kicked his horse into a canter.
Shakily Ciaran clambered into his saddle, and followed him. What choice did he have? It was follow his enemy, or go back through the rock face, alone.
The painter was right, and she hated him for it. "It will prey on your mind," he had said, his eyes burning into hers with an intensity that made Annis want to scream and shrink away, just at the memory. And that was another reason to hate him, too. He was right, and he had made her afraid.
She resisted for two days. After leaving his tower, she had gone about her tasks for the rest of the day as normal, and tried to forget him. That night she had lain awake, clutching the blanket to her throat, and stared at the darkness. In the morning, she had smoothed down her skirt, tossed her head, and walked out into the courtyard with a harsh word for everyone she met.
But he had changed everything around her, just with a few words. Things that had always hidden in the shadows, insignificant and dismissed, suddenly loomed to the fore and became vivid and significant, like the bird in the painting.
It was early evening now, and she stood just outside the gate, looking over the roofs of the city. Faint clouds of dust still stirred above the broad path from where a man on horseback had galloped past, heading towards the Citadel. "Who was he?" she asked, without turning round. "He wasn't dressed like you."
The young soldier answered her more quietly that she would have expected. "One of Lord Darius's elite," he said. "They don't mix with the likes of us. Think they're too good for us. They call themselves the Soldiers of Light."
She turned towards him, and saw the expression on his face. He was bitterly jealous, she realised. He and his fellows sneered at them and pretended to despise them, but only because they would have given anything to be one of them.
Annis had always thought the soldiers a bit of a joke. The guarded the gates, and sometimes they stamped around a bit, when there were disturbances in the taverns, but that was all. The one she was talking to was young, but at least he looked keen, with his belt polished and his back rigid. "What do they do?" she asked him.
"They hunt traitors." He leant towards her, his eyes narrow and cruel. "There are more of them than we ever knew, hiding in plain sight and plotting our undoing. The so-called scholars in the universities, they say. But the sorcerers most of all."
"There... There haven't been many burnings," she stammered. "Not for a few years."
"Not because sorcerers don't exist," he said. "Because they have gone into hiding. Because they have been allowed to go into hiding. But they will all be exposed to the light. Not a single one will escape."
She backed off. When she had gone half a dozen steps, she turned and hurried back into the courtyard. Her mother had said something about Lord Darius leading an offensive against people like her. Even her mother, a stupid woman, had known about this before Annis did.
"You are in more danger than most," the painter had said. It was no good. Pressing her fist to her mouth, she hurried through the archway that led into the kitchen block. Beyond the storage rooms was the winding staircase that was the only way for a servant to enter the main buildings of the Palace. Scooping up her skirts, she ran up the stairs, and was panting by the time she emerged into the small antechamber at the end of the Hall of Statues.
There she forced herself to stop. She pressed herself against the wall and listened, because she was here without permission and could be whipped for it. All she could hear was her own breathing, and the rhythmic clatter of a window that had not been properly shut. She counted to twenty, then thirty, then ran the short distance to the painter's tower. Her hands were sweating as she pulled desperately at the door handle, and her heart was pounding.
The door burst open, and she all but tumbled into the room. She took a few tottering steps, and managed to stop, her arms flailing to keep her balance. Dark shapes circled her, all sharp and angular. They were paintings on easels, she thought, and the strange rattling sound, like knuckle bones rubbing together, was the sound of the dangling mirrors that hung from the window.
The last time she was here, she had thought that it would stay light forever. As long as there was any light left in the sky, the glass and mirrors would take it and multiply it, and this place would never be dark, for as long as there was single star in the sky. But the mirrors reflected the darkness as well as the light. The sun had set and twilight was racing in. Instead of reflecting the light that remained in the west, the mirror closest to her showed the darkest patch of sky above her, and doubled it.
She wrapped her arms around her body, and shivered. Despite herself, she walked to the window and looked out. There was a single candle burning at the top of the Duke's tower, and a dark hunched figure was sitting on the edge of the parapet, staring right at her. "I'm allowed to be here," she breathed. "I was asked. I have every right."
A hand fell on her shoulder. "Of course you do, dear."
She whirled round, gasping, and her hands came up ready to strike at the intruder. A light was kindled, and immediately the mirrors made it into ten dancing flames. Each one fell on the painter's lined face, turning him into something inhuman.
"You came," he said. "I knew you would."
She tossed her head. Already the fear was subsiding, and she felt only righteous anger. "I came because I chose to."
He grabbed her wrist. "There's no time for your foolish pride, girl." With those words, he looked mighty and commanding. But then, as he sighed and turned away to light a candle, he looked only tired and old. "Time is running out," he murmured.
"Time?" she scoffed. "Time for what?"
He passed his hand over his brow. "Why did you come?"
She swallowed. "Because..." Because I was afraid, she wanted to whisper. "Because you made an accusation," she said, thrusting out her chin. "And I demand to know what you mean to do about it. I warn you, I will stop you if you try to denounce me. I'll denounce you back. No-one trusts you. They’ll believe me in an instant. Then you'll be the one to burn."
The painter folded his hands. "I am no traitor."
"That's not what it looked like," she laughed. "I saw your picture. And I heard you use the word conspirator."
He lashed out at her, grabbing her wrist again, and thrusting his face in hers. "I am no traitor, girl. Can the same be said of you?"
"Let go of me!" She did not like the tremor that she heard in her own voice. She tried again. "Let me go!"
To her surprise, he obeyed her. He tottered over to the only chair in the room and sank down upon it. "Let me tell you a story, Annis," he said, quietly. "Please listen to me."
She tossed her head and folded her arms, and made no promises. The Duke was still in his tower. The candle was behind her, so she would be clearly visible to him, limned with light. If she had to accuse the painter of treason, then, the Duke himself would be witness to the way he had assaulted her and poured out his lies, and she had not used a single bit of sorcery against him.
"I am no traitor," the painter said, "neither to the Duchy nor to the Duke. When he was a child, he used to come to my workshop as often as his father allowed him to. He was just fascinated with my painting." He gave a soft chuckle. "The music master would have said the same. And the master architect. He had no skills with painting himself, nor music, nor any of the other arts he loved so much. He just liked things of beauty, and he loved to see them being created.
"And then he became Duke," he continued, "and he saw it as a glorious opportunity to fill the whole world with the things he loved. He wanted everyone, even the lowest of his subjects, to live their lives surrounded by beauty. Over the years, the city was transformed. You've never known anything else, but believe me, girl, the city was an ugly place forty years ago. Our forefathers took delight in destroying beauty, to show that the old ways were finished. They produced a harsh city, and we lived with that for over four hundred years. In our mind, we were still at war. But our Duke taught us that we were harming no-one but ourselves. We could lower our guard and relax. We could make this a golden age, and no-one could stop us."
Annis turned round. "Why are you telling me this? What has this got to do with..."
"I love him," the painter said, firmly. "I am his devoted servant. He did great things for the Duchy, and I would die rather than see anything overturn that. I was there at the beginning; I cannot bear to see it all die."
Annis flapped her hand. "But a moment ago you seemed to be in league with the bandits, with all that talk about the old kings."
"Do you see everything so narrowly?" the painter demanded. "In common with my friends at the university, I believe that we did ourselves a disservice when we turned our back on the past. Many good things were lost because of it. But.." He gripped the arms of his chair and leant forward. "But I am not in league with them. Some things we lost were best forgotten. I would never wish to see the land ruled by sorcerers again, and, if a bandit showed his face in this city, I would stand with all other right-minded folk and try to kill him. The world has moved on now. We are at the dawn of a new age, and I have no desire to go back. My Duke has a vision of how the world should be, and that is the world I wish to live in."
Annis started to edge around the room, her back to the window. When she glanced over her shoulder, she saw that the Duke had gone. Had the painter given him prearranged signal, so he was coming here to arrest her? "So you tricked me here," she stammered. "You're going to denounce me."
"No," he cried, sounding desperate and almost broken. "You're a sorcerer. I don't share your power. I don't even like your power. But I need you. I need your help."
She stopped. "Why?" She tilted her head to one side, frowning at him appraisingly. He had no powers, but he had recognised hers. My first petitioner, she thought, even as she wondered if she could trust him.
"You saw the truth in the painting." He stood up and gestured at one of the covered pictures. "You know the name of the enemy that threatens everything I hold dear. He is a threat to you, for a different reasons."
"Lord Darius," she breathed. It had been his face she had seen in the picture. The cruel bird that pecked at the window had suddenly blurred and changed and looked like Lord Darius, clawing at the glass with taloned fingers.
"Lord Darius," he whispered, as if he was afraid to say the name aloud. "I am afraid for my Duke. I have not been allowed to see him face to face for weeks. It broke his heart when his son died, but that was two years ago, and he was recovering. He's not an old man. He shouldn't be like this. And Lord Darius..." He darted a nervous look over his shoulder. "Everywhere the Duke should be, there Lord Darius is. And no-one seems to notice."
Annis tightened her gip on the windowsill behind her. "What do you want me to do?"
The painter gave a shuddering sigh. "I don't know. There are so few people I can trust. Already Darius has started arresting my friends at the university, claiming that they're traitors. The Duke I knew would never have allowed that, so all I can assume is that he doesn't know about it. Every day, I wonder if I will be next. Are they coming for me even now?"
In the sudden silence, Annis listened. Was that the sound of footsteps on the stairs? She breathed out, and her breath sounded very loud in the small room, that hung suspended beneath the starlight.
"And then you came here by chance, and saw the picture, and I knew you understood the truth. I've known for years that you were a sorcerer. I was just so relieved to find someone else who knew the truth. Just because of what you are, Lord Darius is your enemy. You have no choice but to help me fight him."
"No choice?" she echoed. "I always have a choice."
"To survive, you have to make him your enemy." He continued as if she had not spoken. "It's a wonder you've survived so long, for you've been very indiscreet. Carry on as you have always carried on, and you will be exposed within months, or even weeks. You have to become a conspirator."
"With you as my leader, I suppose?" she asked.
He shook his head. "I don't even ask that. But you're in a better position than I am. There is no hope for me. If Lord Darius is plotting what I think he is plotting, then my death warrant has already been signed. But you are beneath his notice. You're only a servant, just one of several hundred. He's used to seeing you around. If you walk through a room, the lords and ladies don't even see you. You're like the furniture of the Palace. You can spy and hear things. And then you can pass them on."
"A piece of furniture?" she scoffed. "I have gifts..."
"Small ones." He flapped his hand impatiently. "Small powers, used in a petty way in childish squabbles. If I thought you could be a true danger to anyone, then I would have denounced you long before now, never doubt that."
She drew herself up to her full height, her hands on her hips. "I'll have you know that my powers are mighty. And there have been portents. My time is coming. Something marvellous is going to happen."
"Is it? I know nothing about portents. All I know is that you are in a position to overhear things, and together we can pass on what we hear. I can put truths into paintings for people with eyes to see, and you can create illusions of things that are not there. You can use those lying gifts to show the world the truth about Lord Darius."
"And what then?" she demanded. "You hate sorcery, you said. After I've played your game, what will you and your Duke do with me then?"
"Reward you?" He smiled. "You'd like that, wouldn't you. You think you deserve a reward. A reward from the Duke, or... No. You think you're better than him, more worthy than he is of ruling. Can you possibly be dreaming even now that he will make you his heir if you help free him from Darius's plots? Why, I believe you are."
"How dare you?" she screamed, for he was looking into her secret thoughts, and was laughing at what he saw.
"If I thought you had any chance of success, I would never have asked you in the first place." He pressed his fingers together, and smiled again. "But I've read a little bit about the power they used to call enchantment. You really possess very little. Didn't you realise that?"
"I hate you!" she shrieked. "Shut up! I'll denounce you!"
He sighed, and passed his hand across his face. "I'm sorry," he said. "Not the best way to go about winning an ally, is it? I just believe so strongly that Darius is threatening everything we hold dear, yet you're standing before me, so full of your own petty desires and selfish dreams."
"I won't do it," she said. It was strange how bleak she felt inside when he said how much he despised her. She had never had a friend or a mentor. In the stories, the young hero always had an older man who taught him and nurtured him and died for him, but she had been forced to learn everything by herself. She had never had anyone who truly understood her. I'm lonely, she whispered, deep inside. I want someone to like me. "I won't," she said, firmly, silencing that thought.
"I hope that you will," he whispered. He looked drained. "I will not attempt to force you. I will not betray your secret. I just hope you remember, and do what you can to show the world the truth. It's too late for me. You are my hope now." He gave a wry laugh. "You. Strange how things turn out, isn't it?" His eyes slipped shut. "They're here," he whispered.
A moment later, she heard them, their feet pounding on the stairs. She pressed her hand to her mouth to stifle a scream, and then they were hammering at the door. "Master Albrecht," they shouted. She had never known his name before. He had always been just "the painter", a pathetic old man in a flapping robe.
"Lie to them," the painter whispered, without opening his eyes. "Say what you need to say to stay alive."
The door burst open and the soldiers rushed in. One knocked against the table, and the candle toppled over and went out. Annis was left in darkness, jostled and ignored. There were a lot of them. They smelled of smoke and sweat. They started shouting crisply to each other, and she moved her head from side to side in the darkness, trying to track the voices.
"We have him."
"Is he resisting?"
"Oh yes." It was a cold laugh. "Definitely resisting."
The painter said nothing. If they had come for her, she thought, she would have stood up like a queen, and poured scorn on them. She would have screamed a denunciation. She would at least try to protest her innocence and tell them the truth. But the painter said nothing. As she pressed her back to the window and edged towards the door, she heard the dull slapping sound of flesh being grabbed, and a sharp exhalation. That was all, and then there was a heavy thud.
She made herself as small as possible. When they come for me, she thought. When they come... She would stand tall. She would not be afraid. She would use her power, and her man would shield her with his body and would die for her. Die for her, and it would be tragic and wonderful and good, but now somebody was sheathing their sword, and there was a horrible wet rattling sound, of someone trying to breathe through shattered lungs. Then the sound stopped, and that was worse.
She pressed both hands to her mouth, and felt sick. It was completely dark now, and there was nothing between her and the vastness of the sky above her. The stars were looking down, and the soldiers were between her and the way out, and the painter was dead. Dead, and she had been talking to him just minutes before. Dead just yards away from her, so she would touch his blood if only she crouched and reached out a bit. Dead. His last words had been to protect her, urging her to save herself, and that made it horrible. She wanted to cry.
Glass shattered, and she screamed into her hand. Darius, she whimpered. The bird. Beak pecking the window, and death in his eyes. Darius, who hid in the background, so no-one knew he was there until it was far too late.
Someone found her, a strong arm grabbing her by the waist. She screamed and pounded at his chest with his fists, sobbing and shouting. He laughed and pushed her away, so she crashed into the windowsill, then slid to the floor. Paint and brushes cascaded all around her, wet and sticky on her hand like so much blood.
She started crying. She pulled her knees up to her chest and tried to make herself as tiny as possible. Light flared in the darkness, but light was even worse. It was orange and rancid, made by fierce flames devouring a paint-covered canvas. Someone laughed. "Burn them all," a man shouted. "The work of a traitor, every one of them."
The painter was dead. Someone crouched beside her and grabbed her face, fingers digging into her cheeks. Her vision was swimming with tears, and each one was like a new mirror, reflecting death and flame. The painter was lying on his front, and his face was turned to one side, staring at her with blank eyes. The pool of blood was enormous.
"What have we here?" her captor said. He pulled her face around, then dragged her to her feet, hauling at her face and her wrist. She sagged in his grip. "A fellow conspirator, perhaps? Or a whore he was using to keep his bed warm."
"A... a servant," she stammered, then coughed, choking on smoke and terror and the bitter taste of bile. "I'm nobody. Only a servant."
"A servant? At this hour?" The soldier shook his head. His uniform was black, and he had a silver badge on his chest. He was a Soldier of Light, one of Darius's own.
The painter had told her to lie. "I was cleaning here in the morning," she said. "I lost my brush. I came back in case I left it here. I didn't know he was here. He... He was talking to me. I couldn't leave, not without his permission. You know that."
The soldier tightened his grip on he wrist. "Talking? And what was he talking about? He was a traitor, girl. Did he perhaps try to poison your mind with his lies?"
"He didn't say anything." He was holding her wrist high, and her knees were sagging, so most of her weight hung from that arm. "He was talking about the stars and his mirrors. How it helped him paint. He told me about the fountains. I've always wanted to see the Courtyard of the Fountain, but I'm not allowed. You know that."
"I know that." The soldier gave a cold smile. "Again you ask me that, as if you want me to give my approval to your lies." He leant closer, and cupped her breast. His breath was hot on her face. "But how about this, girl? Sleep with me, and I'll believe you. I'll let you go."
"No," she moaned, struggling against his grip. "Please leave me alone. I didn't do anything. I swear."
The man kissed her, hard and deep. His tongue plunged into her mouth, and his hand started pushing up her skirt. He pressed her back, pinning her against the window, so she was crushed under the hot weight of his body. She screamed into his mouth, and squirmed, fighting his grip. "So hot," he said, freeing her mouth just for a moment. "Wriggling against me like a little whore." He leant forward and kissed her again.
"No," another voice said. "Leave her alone."
Her attacker released her, leaving her panting against the window. She wiped at her mouth, but could not wipe away the taste of him, not at all.
"You know the orders," her saviour said. He was a young officer with fair hair, and his eyes were not unkind when they looked at her, though they were utterly without mercy when they looked at her attacker. "We do the job, quick and clean. We are not common soldiery, to rape and loot. Lord Darius would have you cast out if he heard of this."
He crouched down, and Annis realised she had fallen to the ground when the man had released her, and was cowering there like a terrified child. The officer touched her gently on the arm. "Did he hurt you?"
Mutely she shook her head. Her eyes found the painter's body, and she could not pull them away.
The officer looked over his shoulder, following the direction of her gaze. "He was a traitor," he said quietly. "He was plotting to undo everything we hold dear. He was in league with the sorcerers and the bandits. He was plotting to poison the Duke with the powders in his paint. He might have looked like an old man, but he was a monster."
"Are you going to kill me?" She started shivering, and could not stop.
"I regret that you had to see his death," he said. "He would have been taken to trial, but he resisted arrest, and we had no choice but to kill him. But you are an innocent, accidentally caught up in all this. Why don't you run along now. If anyone asks, tell them that old master Albrecht was a traitor. The Duke was duped, but Lord Darius saw through it. Lord Darius saved the Duke's life tonight."
"You're letting me go?" She clawed her way to her feet. "Please," she quavered. "Let me go now."
"I will." He took her elbow, showing her to the door like a lady. The other soldiers stood back to let her pass. She could not stifle a sob when she saw her attacker, but the officer hushed her. "He will be punished by Lord Darius himself, rest assured of that. The Soldiers of Light are the people's protectors, and no right-minded citizen is in any danger from us."
The moment he released her arm, she fled. The echo of her own footsteps sounded like the marching of an army, following her. They were playing with her, she thought. They had pretended to let her go, only to chase her and pluck her back, just at the very moment she thought she had reached safety.
She burst out into the Hall of Statues, and ran sobbing for the staircase back to the kitchens. Back to her own kind. To people who knew what it was like to have their whole life depend on the whim of someone else. To people who might dislike her, but at least did not want to kill her. To a place where there no-one had to make any big decisions, and other people gave the orders and decided how the Duchy was to be run.
Half a dozen steps from the door, she heard footsteps. She gasped, and hurled herself back, pressing herself into the recess between two statues. There were torches in brackets on the walls, and one of them was far too close. She tried to shrink into the shadows, but there was too much light. If they looked, they would see her. She pressed her hands against the wall and curled her nails into the wood panelling, and bit her lip until it bled.
There were two sets of footsteps. One was faint and shuffling, like someone walking on a carpet with soft slippers. The other was even quieter, but twice as fast. A man in soft boots was hurrying after another, catching up with him effortlessly.
"My lord," said a voice. "You shouldn't be out of bed."
"I was up the tower." This was an old man's voice, trembling and frail. "There was someone in there with Albrecht. Who was it? I haven't seen him for so long. I wanted a chat with my old friend."
"And you shall have it, my lord," the first voice said, "but not tonight. You know you're not well."
"Not so ill that I can't see my old friend." There was a faint spark of command in the voice of the man she knew must be the Duke himself. "Let me past, Darius."
"I can't do that," Darius said, like a parent crooning to a child. "I care for your well-being, my lord, even if you do not. The people need you well again. Have a good night's sleep, and you can see him in the morning."
The Duke sighed. "You're too good to me, Darius."
"I'm only doing what anyone else would do, my lord," Darius said. "Let me help you back to your chambers, my lord. I'll bring you a nice mug of tea. That will be good, won't it?"
"Yes." The footsteps were receding, and Annis dared peep out from her hiding place. The Duke was touching his brow with shaky fingers, as if he was unsure of exactly where he was. He looked faded and frail, as if someone had sucked all the life out of his body, leaving him as no more than an empty husk. Lord Darius was taller than him, and had him tightly held by the elbow. He was thin and silent, and the torches gave him two shadows, as dark and cruel as the bird in the picture.
"Lord Darius," she breathed. "The enemy." Then, as they reached the end of the hall and moved out of sight, she let out a shuddering sigh and fell to her knees, sobbing.
It was almost dark when they reached the watchtower. Ciaran peered into the dusk and saw it looming high above him. There was a tower on either side of the road, topped with a pointed roof that seemed to prick holes in the night sky. They were joined together by a low gatehouse that arched over the road like a bridge. Any traveller on this road had to pass beneath that arch, where watchers in the towers above could track their every move.
"No-one lives there now." Reynard cut into his thoughts. "It's a ruin, but it still serves as a shelter. We all use it when we come this way. We use it as a meeting place, too. It's protected."
Protected by the illusion of the rock, of course. Even after an hour of riding on the open road, battered by mountain winds, Ciaran still felt suffocated by the memory.
"We built it not long before they turned against us," Reynard said, glancing at Ciaran. He seemed uncharacteristically talkative, offering explanations without being asked. "We never really manned it. It was a symbol, really, of the king's protection over his road. See?" He gestured with his chin at something at the top of the arched gateway, but it was too dark for Ciaran to see what it was.
The road dipped a little, heading for the gate. The mountain rose sharply from the left side of the road, and fell away in a tangle of trees and undergrowth on the other side. For the half mile before the tower there had been a low wall on either side of the wall, and it looked better maintained than Ciaran would have expected.
"We'll stable the horses in the west tower," Reynard said, nodding towards the tower that clung to the top of that precipitous downwards slope. "It's more ruined. The east tower is a better place to sleep. It at least has a bit of roof left, and the staircase is still intact." As he spoke, he was doing something with his hands, but his body was shielding it well, so all Ciaran would see was the movement of his elbows.
As soon as they were under the arch, Reynard swung himself easily from the saddle. "I'll deal with the horses," he said. "You two get the fire ready. The path's round there." He unfastened one of the saddlebags and dumped it in Ciaran's arms. "I'll bring the others when I come."
Ciaran almost argued, but Elias tugged at his sleeve. "Come on, master. Let's do as he says." Still holding Ciaran's sleeve, he started walking, first through the arch, and then following a narrow path round the back of the left-hand tower. A doorway led into the tower itself, and it was immensely dark. When Ciaran stood too close to it he could smell mustiness and earth, and there were small rustlings in the darkness.
I don't want to go in, he thought. It was too like being encased in rock. He wanted to camp outside, where the air could touch his face, and he could see the stars.
"Only bats," Elias said. Still tugging at Ciaran's sleeve, he disappeared through the door, but Ciaran snatched his hand away, and did not follow. Inside, Elias drew his sword, and the pale white light of the blade illuminated his face, giving it an unearthly grey cast.
Inside the doorway, just to the left, was another opening, through which he could see the bottom two steps of a spiral staircase. It was intact, Reynard had said, right up to the top. "I want to go up there," he said. "I'll check out the lie of the land."
Elias nodded. "I'll get the fire started."
Ciaran dropped the saddlebag, and entered the dark staircase. He climbed as quickly as he could, feeling each step gingerly with his toe before committing himself to it, and supporting himself with both hands, one on the outer wall, and one on the central pillar. It was utterly black, and stone was surrounding him on all sides, but he could feel the cold of the open sky ahead of him, and knew there was a way out.
Even so, he was breathing fast when he reached the top. He emerged on a circular rampart open to the sky. Up here, he could see the remains of light in the western sky, and the faint silver of the stars. There was nothing between him and the night, and the wind ruffled his hair and his beard, and surged through his cloak.
There was just enough light to see by, and he walked slowly round the rampart, three quarters of the way round. The rampart skirted the base of the conical roof, but most of the tiles were long gone, only a few still clinging to the beams. He leant forward and peered through a gap, and saw a flash of orange far below, with a figure bent over it. Elias had got the fire started and was labouring there, not knowing that his master was watching him from so high above him. Ciaran almost called to him to see if he would hear and look up, but did not.
He moved to the crenellated outer wall, where he rested his hand on the stone ledge and looked out, just as he used to do in the Basilica garden. He gazed out at the dark outline of the mountains, and wondered what they would look like in daylight. Somewhere, far away, a wolf howled, and another answered, not too far away.
He hardly started at all when Elias appeared at his side, moving as silently as a ghost. "I saw you," Elias murmured. "I saw your shadow move in front of the stars." His feet had been so soundless that Ciaran had not heard him, but now he could feel rather than hear that Elias was breathing fast. He must have run up the stairs, moving effortlessly through the total darkness.
There was just enough space for the two of them to stand side by side, both of them looking out over the wall. It came to Elias's chin, but he stood on tiptoe and pulled himself up with his arms, so he was draped over the wall, one arm outstretched over nothingness. "The fire's started," Elias said, with a smile. Then, more quietly, he asked, "What were you looking at?"
They seemed very close in the darkness. "Outside," Ciaran said. "The mountains. The night."
Elias slid back down, his feet hitting the ground with the barest whisper. Folding his arms flat along the top of the wall, he rested his cheek on his forearm. "It's very beautiful," he whispered, looking up at Ciaran.
"Yes," Ciaran breathed. His hand brushed against Elias's cloak and the touch, so gentle, made his skin tingle. "Better than the rock," he admitted. "I don't think I'll ever be as fond of being indoors, after that."
"I never want to live indoors again," Elias said. "Or, rather, I'll live there, but I'll spend most of my time outside. It's so much more beautiful out here. So much more alive. But..." He sighed, and did not finish what he had been about to say.
"What?" Ciaran touched his hand. "What, Elias?"
Elias blinked. "It scares me, too," he said. "There's so much out there. We're on top of a tower half way up a mountain. How many hundreds of miles can we see from here? And how many people live there? How many of them hate me just because of what I am?"
"It will be all right," Ciaran told him. He wanted to stroke his hair like he had so long ago, when Elias had been a child of nine, sobbing into his master's embrace. "What does it matter who's out there? You've got me."
"I've got you, yes. I know." Elias sighed, and raised his head. He seemed to lean a little closer, so the folds of their cloaks were pressed up against each other, even though not an inch of their bodies were touching. "And I like it here, with you, now. It's night out there. I can't see anything but you."
Something wild and exultant raised its head, deep within Ciaran's soul. "It will be like that again. I promise."
"No." Elias gave a sad smile. "It won't be. It never can be. But we can still have moments like this, can't we, master?" His voice went from wistful to urgent within the space of a few words.
"We can. Moments like this, again and again." Had he ever taken Elias into the gardens in the Basilica, and leant on the wall together, side by side? He thought he had not. None of his memories of the Basilica had Elias in them, and precious few of his memories of Greenslade. When they got back home, he swore, he would show Elias everything, and take him to every place that was dear to him. He would not risk losing him again.
But Elias was at his side, here and now, and the darkness was hiding so much, breaking down barriers. Trapped in the rock, he had been more scared than he had ever been in his life. He wanted to confess it all, to tell Elias everything. I wanted to do something great with my life, he would say. I wanted it to be me. And then, hiding his face in the darkness, he would confess how lonely and lost he felt, stranded in a world where nobody needed him. I want you to need me again. I'm like a ship cast adrift without it.
The silence dragged on, and still he did not speak. Something moved below them, and the moment of confession was passed. "We should go back," Elias whispered, though he did not move away from the wall. He looked down to where a solitary man walked beneath the tower, his shoulders hunched when he thought no-one was looking at him. "Reynard's ready."
"Leave him," Ciaran said, sharply. Stay with me. He grabbed Elias by the wrist. "He can cope by himself for a little bit." Don't outgrow me.
"He can," Elias said, "but he shouldn't. No-one should be alone, unless by choice."
"He deserves it." Disappointment made him brutal. He was angry - angry with himself for almost confessing, and angry with himself to hesitating so long that the moment was lost. And angry, too, with Elias for interrupting him, and Reynard for being the cause. It had felt almost magical, their little time together at the top of the tower, but now it was all spoiled.
"No-one does," Elias said. He felt for Ciaran's hand, squeezed it gently, and did not let go. "Come on, master. Let's go down there together. And after dinner..." He smiled back over his shoulder. "Tell me a story, master, just like you used to do. Please?"
Despite the bitter taste in his throat, Ciaran smiled. "I will. Which one do you want?"
"Whatever you want to tell." Elias turned round, one hand resting on the edge of the ruined doorway. "They're so long and dark, these evenings. We should talk more."
"We should," Ciaran agreed, and he followed Elias down the stairs to where Reynard was waiting.
Elias licked the spicy grease from his hands, one finger at a time. This was the first evening when Reynard had allowed them to keep a fire lit, and they had enjoyed a veritable feast. The last of the cakes had been demolished, and they had each had a long sip of the fruity drink in Oliver's flask. Elias felt full and content, and a little sleepy.
He sucked the last finger clean, and leant back against his pack, his legs stretched out towards the fire. It was burning well, the smoke rising high into the ruined roof, and escaping into the night. The faces of his companions were orange painted on black, as if the fire was the only light in the whole world.
Elias looked at Ciaran. "Now, master, please?"
"Your story?" Ciaran arched his eyebrow, but he looked pleased to be reminded. It was obvious to Elias that he had already decided what story to tell. He seemed not even to mind that Reynard was there, his legs stretched out across the door, listening to every word.
As Ciaran cleared his throat and stretched, going through an elaborate show of settling himself down, Elias wondered what the story was going to be. One with an obvious message, he thought, that was pertinent to Elias's own situation. Perhaps he shouldn't have asked at all, but he had such happy memories of Ciaran's stories. As a child huddled in his master's cloak, he had loved hearing his master's voice, meant for nobody but him. Ciaran's eyes were always so alive when he was telling stories, and was warm and mellow for hours afterward.
Then the story started, and Elias smiled just to hear the first words, for it was not a lesson couched in a story after all. It was Ciaran's favourite story of all. He had told it a hundred times, and Elias knew it as well as Ciaran did, but that only made it all the more precious. Every turn of phrase had a memory attached to it. It was a connection to home and to the vanished past, and he cherished it fiercely, refusing to let it go.
It was the story of Finbar and the City of Bronze. Eight hundred years ago, when Finbar had lived, the world had still been ruled by savage tribes and fierce proud civilisations, and the City of Bronze was the most fierce of them all. There the Blood-Priests ruled, performing sacrifices in the name of their merciless god. When it began to encroach into the lands of the horse clans inland, stealing their children for sacrifice, the horse lords appealed to the Basilica, asking for Finbar by name, although he was growing old.
Finbar tried everything, but for a while it seemed as if this would be his first failure. He could not declare war on a whole city, and he could not persuade the Blood-Priests to change their ways. It was only right, they said, that the hills be brought into the bounds of the holy civilisation, and the gods demanded blood. The Brothers had always claimed to tolerate the practices of all religions, they said, so would Finbar prove the entire Brotherhood a liar, by preventing them from worshipping their own gods as they chose?
Before Finbar's eyes, they dragged out a man, strongly bound and already beaten half to death, and Finbar recognised him. It was a bandit king, a sworn enemy of Finbar himself, and one he had vowed to bring to justice. The Blood Priests knew it well. If Finbar prevented the sacrifice, then the integrity of the Brothers was tarnished. If he let it proceed, then they would spread the word that the great Finbar compromised his ideals for a grudge.
Confronted with two impossible paths, Finbar chose the third. "You will not kill him," he said, stepping forward. He lay down his staff, and took off his cloak, standing only in his tunic, his white head uncovered. "I will take his place. If your gods demand blood, then shed mine."
They looked at each other. They had been confident and sure, but now they faltered. Even the most savage of warlords respected the Brothers, and the Blood-Priests knew that their names would be uttered like curses if they chose to harm one in cold blood.
"Take me," Finbar said, lowering his head. He reached out through the Shadow, and nudged the arm of the executioner, bringing his knife close to his throat. The knife quivered in the executioner's hand. It touched Finbar's throat, and a small drop of blood rose up at the tip. Ever afterwards, the blade was never clean of that blood, no matter how often it was washed.
Right at the end, their nerve faltered. The executioner cast the blade aside, and they turned aside, hiding their faces. Finbar could have struck the priests down, but did not. "I am no enemy of your gods," he said gently. "If your religion demands sacrifice, then make it, but sacrifice those who believe, who will die joyously, believing they are serving their gods." He spread his arms, as the sunset framed him in glorious fire. "But if you shed the blood of those who do not believe, you will find that it is my blood you have shed." And the specks of blood on his white tunic seemed to glow, reminding them that they had done just that.
Shamed, they never sacrificed again, and the City of Bronze went on to become one of the shining glories of the west, as famous for its culture as for its gentle pacifism of its citizens.
"And thus ends the tale of Finbar and the City of Bronze," Ciaran said, and Elias whispered along with them, for the story always ended like that, in a long line of memories stretching all the way into his childhood.
"Thank you, master," Elias said, when the silence was long enough.
Ciaran smiled, but it was an unguarded smile, that did nothing to hide the emotion in his eyes. Ciaran loved his stories, but Elias realised now that there was always an underlying sadness in the way he told the tales, for the glory days of the Brothers were gone, and Ciaran had never been able to change a world. Ciaran was mighty and respected, but only in a small village left behind by the tide of time, and that was not enough, for all that he told himself it was.
With one last look at his master, Elias turned to Reynard. "Do you have a story to tell?"
Reynard gasped, as if Elias had caught him off guard. Just as Elias thought he was about to decline, he gave a slow nod. "I do. Not a story, as such, and Oliver could tell it better, but..."
His voice trailed away. When he spoke again, his voice was different. It was low and harsh, and the tale it told was like a chant without rhythm, with long moments of silence. Each word alone demanded to be heard. Together, intoned in a ruined tower that belonged to a broken people, they were devastating. Elias thought he would never forget them.
The rain thickens the mud. Blood stains it dark.
Soon will be an ending.
It was not always like this.
Once we lived in halls of stone.
Swallows danced in the eaves. Women smiled. Children lived.
In spring, I wandered in fields of flowers. I courted a girl and red petals drifted like rain on her white dress.
In summer, I laughed as we practised with swords, my brother and I.
Sunlight was heavy.
My king walked bare-headed and knew my name.
In autumn, the river ran golden. Flowers died, and leaves were thin bones.
Life swelled in my woman's belly.
Animals hoarded for winter, but what did we need to hoard?
Smoke drifted in the air, and the moon was swollen.
In winter, snow was crisp and pristine and beautiful. My baby son's skin was whiter still.
The stars had never seen so bright, and my breath frosted the branches with glory.
Now the year is new.
My brother lies dead at my feet.
My son's fists closed once, twice, on the air, and then he too passed from this world.
My king is gone, he has left me, he is gone.
The enemies come close. Their eyes are blue beneath pale helms. Their swords are frosted with blood, like the branches in winter.
They circle us. There is no way out.
They are many; we are few.
My comrades press against me, back to back, elbow to elbow.
The rain falls.
Who will mourn me? Who?
Our banner is the trees above our head, our shroud is fallen leaves, our grave the earth.
Who will sing our song?
Blood is sticky on my hand.
Once they honoured us. Once we loved them.
They are blind to the beauty of the earth. They are deaf to the singing of the stars. They see with only half their souls.
And we will stand. While we breathe, we will stand. Though death is the only end, we stand.
And there it ended. The flames guttered and seemed to be on the point of dying. Darkness welled, and still the echo of the last word hung in the air, waiting for a resolution that never came.
Elias had been weeping almost from the start. "Oliver could tell it better?" he said, when the silence became unbearable. "No-one could tell it better, Reynard."
Reynard was making no attempt to hide the tears that were spilling from his own eyes, but when Ciaran shifted and started to speak, he turned away bodily, and stared out of the open doorway.
"You should tell a story, Elias," Ciaran said.
Not now, master. Not after that. Elias wiped his eyes, and swallowed. "I don't," he whispered, then stopped.
"It's only fair," Ciaran said. He was speaking loudly, with exaggerated lightness. "You made us both tell stories. It's your turn now."
"I don't know any. Only ones you told me." It was not strictly true, but true enough. He knew a hundred different snatches of superstitious tales, all things that could fuel a child's fears. He had heard bawdy stories from the youth in Greenslade, but would never speak them aloud, least of all in his master's hearing. There were stories he still remembered from dreams, but they were too scary to think about in this dark place.
Too many stories were true. Oliver had told the story of Alberic, but it had been intense and personal to him, every word reminding him of just how important a task had been laid upon him. A year ago, Elias might have listened to the tale of a boy who drew a magic sword and became king of a distant land, and thought it an exciting story. So maybe that was another reason why he had been so anxious to hear a story, not just to prolong the moment of closeness he had shared with his master on the tower, but because stories were about other people, people who were not him. He wanted to escape into something that had never been true.
All he had left was his own story. "The story of a boy," he murmured, "who was asked to save a whole world. He didn't know how to do it. He was very scared. But he had a master, who had always had all the answers."
He stopped, and realised they were both staring at him, with faces that were mirrors of each other. A breath of cold air came in through the door, and the fire crackled.
He could tell it all, he realised. He could pour out all his hopes and fears, and frame it like a story, but he thought he would start to cry again if he did so. He picked up a charred stick from the floor. "I don't know it all," he said, drawing patterns in the dust, "but I know how it ends."
"And how does it end?" Ciaran sounded wary.
"He went to the city," Elias said. "He had to find a man there, a mighty Duke. There were lots of gardens and flowers, and... and peacocks on every street corner." He had never seen a peacock, and had always wanted to. "The Duke was sitting at the top of a white tower, where a fountain fell like raindrops."
"That's not possible, Elias." Ciaran shook his head, smiling.
"I don't care," Elias said. "It happened. There was a fountain at the top of the tower, and the boy thought it was very beautiful. The Duke was wearing blue and grey, and he frowned to see the boy, because he'd always known who his enemies were, and the boy seemed to be the worst of them. But then the boy started talking. He had magic, you see, the boy. He showed the Duke, and who can see such magic and not realise how wonderful it is? Not the Duke. He realised that everything he had ever thought was right was... not wrong, but skewed, out of balance."
"Did he?" Ciaran raised his eyebrows. Reynard was leaning forward, gazing intently at Elias, and there was no trace of amusement on his face at all.
"He did," Elias said, and only then did Reynard smile. "He knew that the magic was something to be cherished, and he had his messengers decree it that very hour. And then he sent his fastest riders to the corners of his realm, inviting all the outlaws to come back home, where they would be welcomed with open arms. And they did. All of them. And they were all very happy ever after, every last one of them."
Ciaran gave an indulgent laugh. "That's a good ending, Elias."
Elias clutched the stick hard enough for it to crumble. "It's not just a story, master. It's what I hope."
"It is not a story," Reynard said, and Elias started at the ferocity of his voice. "We will make it happen, and that will be our ending. Anything is possible now, now you have seen through the wall of stone, and walk the King's Road."
"Yes." Elias wiped away the ashes from his palms. "Everything's possible now." He smiled, first at Reynard, and then, more lingeringly, at his master. "I am beginning to feel hopeful," he said, though the words seemed an inadequate way to describe what he was feeling.
Smiling, Ciaran shook his head. "Happily ever after." He sighed. "I hope it will." And that, to Elias, seemed far more comforting than all his master's firm promises that everything would be well.
"I hope so, too."
The three of them shared a smile, all of them united by the same hope, and, in that moment, Elias truly believed that it.