Chapter nine

The long night

 

 

       "Is it over?"

       Ciaran opened his eyes, and even that simple movement hurt, like grit beneath his eyelashes. The light was mingled orange and grey, and he wasn't sure where he was, or who was speaking to him. His cheek was on fire, and, when he raised his head, he realised it was the heat of lying pressed against another person. "Elias," he gasped. He had slumped forward over his apprentice's body, and slept there. When he moved, the numbness in his limbs dissolved into stabbing pain, and he could not hold back a groan.

       Elias had been very ill, but Ciaran had saved him. He pushed himself away from the bed and stretched his stiff limbs. The light outside told him that it was almost dusk, and he knew he had laboured all day with the Shadow and the healing. Never before had he done anything like this. Never, as far as he knew, had anyone done something to compare with this.

       Oliver reached past him to touch Elias's cheek with the back of his hand, and let out a tremulous sigh. "He's cooler. He's breathing easily." He touched the boy's face a second time, withdrew, and then was back for a third lingering touch.  Only then did he smile. "He really is better." He still did not take his hand from Elias's face.

       Ciaran scrabbled with his hands until his back was against the wall, and unfolded his legs so they stretched out in front of him. He pressed his head against the solidity of the wood. "Yes. He's better."

       Oliver sank to the ground beside him, imitating the way he was sitting. They sat side by side, looking for all the world like best friends resting together after an arduous day's work.

       Away from Elias's warmth, Ciaran felt very cold. Was he naked? He clawed at his cloak and pulled it tighter, then tighter still, but of course he was clothed. Why had he been so sure suddenly that he was not? He had only the vaguest memories of how he had healed Elias, for deep Shadow visions were too profound to linger in everyday life, but some of the things he remembered were strange, like snatches of an impossible dream. He thought he remembered scrabbling desperately at the floor, seeking clothes that were not really there, sobbing, "I need them back," and, "Never again," but that made no sense, and he would not think about it any more.

       "I healed him." Ciaran liked the sound of the words. This, after all, was all that mattered. "He was dying, but I healed him with the Shadow." Dying. The word could be said aloud, now it was no longer true. "He said he was going to die, but he was wrong. He even tried to make me feel guilty about it. He said it was all because of me, that he did what he did. I'll have to talk to him about that when he wakes up. But it's over now. We'll just forget the whole sorry affair."

       It was only towards the end that he realised that he had been speaking aloud, saying far more to Oliver than he ought to have done, but Oliver was not even listening. "It's wonderful," the man said, wiping his eyes. "What a day it's been! I kept looking in, but there was no change. You were just sitting there, your hand on his face, staring at nothing. I thought we'd lost you both."

       He ought to mind that Oliver had watched him when he was unaware and defenceless, but it didn't seem to matter. The Kindred would not be able to deny that Ciaran Morgan, the man they had ignored, had been the one to heal Elias. "It was a hard battle," he admitted, "but I won. I healed him with the Shadow. The enchantment couldn't do it, could it?"

       "No." Oliver shook his head, and did not angrily defend his magic, as Ciaran had expected him to. "The two powers are different, it seems. Enchantment is…  No, I cannot do it justice. I'm a bard, and words are my gift, but it goes far beyond words. Like the Shadow, I think." He looked at Ciaran. "Can you explain the Shadow to someone who can't sense it? Could you explain it to me?"

       Ciaran frowned, considering the question. He had never tried to explain it to anyone except Elias, and Elias had been able to sense for himself the things that Ciaran was showing him. People who were blind to the Shadow never needed to have it explained to them. He had never explained a single mystery of the Shadow to anyone in Greenslade. "I could say something," he said, at last, "but it wouldn't really explain it. It would be like..."

       "Explaining colour to a man who has been blind from birth, as the old saying goes," Oliver said, with a wry smile. "Yes. But Elias has told me a little. Of course I'll never truly understand it, but I think I can see a little of what it is, and how enchantment is different."

       "How?" Ciaran wanted Oliver to carry on talking, he realised. It wasn't as if he was throwing his lot in with the Kindred by just listening. Oliver had clearly been upset by Elias's near death, and he probably needed the company, to stave away the thoughts that would come if he was alone in the cold darkness. Ciaran didn't need such things, but he could grant the man that, at least. Besides, the Kindred used enchantment as their weapon, and it was better to understand the weapons of the enemy before engaging them in battle.

       "You probably think it's a trivial thing. Child's play. A game of illusions and nothing more. But it's so much more than that. From what Elias has told me, I think the Shadow is like still water, constant and cool and nourishing. The whole world and the life of every man is reflected in the pool, but nothing disturbs its surface. It is just... there. It holds all life together, for everything is reflected in its silver mirror."

       "Yes," Ciaran breathed, despite himself. "That's it." His throat thickened. The Shadow was the heart of existence for a Brother, and he had loved it once, and revered it still, even though he saw it so seldom. He was such a long way from home, and this man was a stranger, but no Brother could have said it better. A bard's gift was treacherous indeed if it could bring Ciaran Morgan close to tears.

       Oliver leant forward slightly, and his eyes burned. "The enchantment, though... If the Shadow is calm water, the enchantment is wild fire. It burns in the blood. It is a thing of feeling and emotion and life, and we do not understand it and never will. Your Shadow is the still reflection of life, but the enchantment is life, in all its chaos and pain and beauty. Yours is the silver mirror; ours is the fire and the colour and the living essence of the things that the Shadow reflects."

       "It..." Ciaran began, but Oliver interrupted him. "I speak as a bard. This is what I was taught, and it is what I feel. The enchantment is fading, and we are fading still faster. Its true glory is forever out of reach, and none of us see even a hundredth part of it." He was staring at the thin candle. A faint breeze came through the doorway and made the flame flicker. "All we see now, in these twilight days, is the light of a single candle, lit from the great white fire that is enchantment. But we know how mighty and great the fire truly is, even if we will never see it. Even when we perform the slightest illusion, we feel a hint of that power. It makes us want to laugh for its beauty, and weep because we are reminded every time of just how much we have lost."

       "A power based on feelings," Ciaran said. Of all the things Oliver had said, this one small bit had struck him as the most important. It was a cruel power that was based on feeling, he thought, as he pulled his cloak tighter still.

       "Oh yes." Oliver was smiling like a love-struck fool, his eyes wide and shining. "Enchantment is all about life and feeling and empathy. The Shadow... Elias says you can't see it at all if you feel too strongly. You understand it, and know how it works. You know that if you pull this thread here, that will move." He gestured with his head as he spoke, first to the left then the right. "With the enchantment, you just feel. The more intensely you feel something, the stronger it is. But it is draining. No man can know enchantment and remain cut off from the world. It makes you give everything of yourself and lay yourself bare, both to the power itself, and to the people who are affected by it. The Shadow links all things together because they are all objects in Creation, but enchantment links all living things together, because they live and breathe and feel. It demands total abandonment."

       Ciaran wrapped his arms around his body, and shivered. Despite the spell of Oliver's words, he was left feeling faintly sick. It sounded horrible. It was a power for a fierce and primitive people who knew no moderation.

       "Ask Elias," Oliver said. "He'll be able to tell you better than I can."

       Ciaran looked at Elias. The boy was still sleeping, though one hand twitched every now and then, seeking something. He shouldn't have asked Oliver, Ciaran thought, and he definitely would never ask Elias. "He's going to wake up soon." He tucked the pleading hand under the blanket and held it there, imprisoned beneath the furs.

       "Yes," Oliver said. "But you should get some rest."

       "No." Only one candle was burning. Ciaran reached for an unlit one and touched it to the flame, lighting it. He pressed it into the crude candlestick, and lit another. The light showed Elias's peaceful sleeping face, and each one he lit showed it only more truthfully. Earlier, light had seemed to be the enemy, but now it was a friend.

       When he had lit them all, he leant back against the wall. For the first time, he truly let himself see the place that had been his world for a night and a day. His memory of the last day started and finished with Elias. The small bed of furs could have been all the furniture in the world, with himself kneeling beside it on a vast featureless plain, beneath the black dome of empty sky.

       Now, in the evening of his new hope, he sat and saw things for what seemed to be the first time. He had seen the furniture like dark warped shapes, and had dimly noticed that there were hangings on the wall. Now he saw that they were tapestries. Some were brightly coloured, with jewel-like flowers arranged in neat patterns between elegant symmetrical branches. Only one was different, worked in grey and white and colours of earthy brown. Animals prowled around its sides, and they were crudely worked yet very real - a few swift lines telling more eloquently of the spirit of the creature than a work of infinite sterile detail.

       A man stood at the heart of the picture, and the animals watched him. The man was walking away, but had paused a while to look back over his shoulder. A naked sword was in his hand, trailing so its point stirred up the leaves at his feet. Blood stained his clothes, and his eyes were sorrowful.

       "That one's ours," Oliver told him. "The others are... stolen." There was that small hesitation, but no real sign of apology or shame. "When they heard the king was coming, they wanted the best for him."

       Ciaran found it impossible to look away. The man's eyes seemed to stare straight into his soul. They were commanding, yet very human. Perhaps Elias's illness had made him vulnerable, for he felt a lump forming in his throat. This was a man who was saying goodbye to everything he loved. He was leaving his home for ever, and he was hardly able to bear it, though he still walked away.

       "That's the last king." There was a catch in Oliver's voice. "He is leaving with Albacrist, leaving us behind."

       "No," Ciaran said. "He didn't look like that."

       A hand closed on his wrist, fierce and fervent. "You saw him?"

       Ciaran swallowed, and nodded. He was surprised how trapped he felt.

       "What was he like?" There was a look of hungry longing on Oliver's face. "Tell me." Then, like a sleeper awakening, he looked down at his hand, white-knuckled on Ciaran's wrist, and shook his head. He relaxed his grip, and stood up, passing the hand over his brow. "I'm sorry."

       Ciaran cradled his wrist in the other hand, and said nothing.

       "Can you imagine it?" Oliver stepped back and sagged blindly into the chair, only finding it by chance. He leant forward, his forearms resting on his knees. His head slumped forward for a moment, and then he pulled it back up, looking steeply upwards to meet Ciaran's eyes. "Can you imagine how it is for us?"

       On the bed, Elias gave a low moan, and Ciaran's head whipped round. The boy moaned again, struggling weakly to wrest his hands free from the furs, then lay still. He was still deeply asleep, but maybe he was dreaming.

       "He left us," Oliver sounded as if he had been personally betrayed by this man who had left his world five centuries before his birth. "Our king left us in our greatest need. It was the only way to save us, he said. A new king would come to us if only we waited, he said. We thought he only meant a few months. It's been five hundred years, but we never stopped waiting, because we gave him our word. Five hundred years we've been bound by our oath to him, and we don't even know what he looked like."

       Something about the man's voice touched Ciaran. He knew what it was to long always for a golden age in the past, and to draw strength from stories. He had not wanted to feel even this scrap of fellow feelings, but he found himself nodding. "I understand," he began, still looking, not at Oliver, but at Elias.

       "No you don't!" Oliver cried. Then, softer, he said, "I am a bard. I tell the stories. I learnt them from my master, who learned them from his, who learned them from his. How many mistakes can be made in five hundred years? Every time I tell the story of the king it confirms us in our faith, reminding us that there is a purpose behind our exile. But, every time I tell it, I..." He sighed. "And how many of the people listening to me feel the same, though they keep it secret, in case they get called traitors?"

       Elias stirred a little, and Ciaran soothed him. Oliver kept the silence hanging for a very long time. When Ciaran glanced round he saw him sitting with his eyes tightly shut, his face very tense. "Feel what?" he asked, at last.

       "That it isn't true," Oliver whispered. "What if the whole thing is only a silly little story made up long ago to stop us from despairing? What if we've spent five hundred years waiting for a king who will never come?" Oliver shook his head. "I felt these doubts, though I've never spoken them aloud until tonight. I think we all did, sometimes. We still believed - we had to, or everything would fall apart and we would have nothing - but we always had that fear."

       "He was real," Ciaran said gently. "I saw him. He brought the sword, and he said the same things he did in your story, and Elias found the sword, and now he's here. It is true."

       "What did he look like?" Oliver sounded hungry, but broken.

       "Not tall." Ciaran looked at the king on the tapestry. "Not white-haired like him. Younger." He frowned, trying to remember. "Older than he looked, perhaps, but his hair was dark, only slightly peppered with grey. He... He looked a bit like Reynard. His eyes were dark, but you didn't really notice the colour, only that they were more intensely alive than other men's eyes. It was impossible not to look at him."

       "Was he badly wounded?"

       Ciaran nodded. "Yes, and desperate, but he never begged. His people were lost, he said, but one of us could save them, if he chose to take up that destiny. He hid the sword in a way that was strange. Then he died."

       "Was he buried with honour?" There were tears unashamed on Oliver's cheeks.

       "Yes." His master had gone to the funeral, but Ciaran had not. "We didn't know his name, and we knew the Basilica was not his home, but Grand Master Jerome said we would honour him as if he was our own. He lies in the Basilica crypt, beneath a stone carved with a sword." Ciaran had visited the grave only once.

       "In a crypt," Oliver echoed. "Beneath stone arches, not buried beneath the stars, with the wind howling over your grave, and the wolves sniffing around for blood. But in the darkness, underground, in a place far from home, where nobody knew his name."

       Ciaran frowned. He seldom remembered that day, but Oliver had made him talk about it. "What else should we have done?" he demanded. "We could have done much less. He invaded our most sacred ceremony." He ruined my life! he wanted to scream.

       "I know. I'm sorry." Oliver looked down at his clasped hands. "It's been five hundred years for us. Five hundred years. And yet you are here, and, for you, it is the memory of half a lifetime. It's hard for us. I look at you now, and I just think of all the generations that have died, and how long we waited, but for you it was hardly any time at all. It makes it seem as if we died for nothing. If only it had been anyone other than Elias." He slammed his fist on the arm of the chair. "Why did it have to be him? Anyone but him. Anyone but a child not yet born, in a world where each day is a month for us."

       "Anyone but him, yes," Ciaran agreed. He watched Elias's restless sleep, and was glad the boy was not awake to hear Oliver's words. He knew how the boy would react. If he had been quicker to master the sword, he could have spared the Kindred ten more years of waiting. On that midwinter's day in the cloisters, Oliver would have been no older than Elias, a boy on the brink manhood, and full of hope.

       Oliver sighed. "But it is him, and the story was true after all, and the time of waiting and doubting is over. He's alive.

       Ciaran stroked Elias's brow, and the boy moaned, nestling into the touch. "But he might not stay," Ciaran said. "And he might fail you. Better anyone but him, you said."

       Oliver stood up. "I do not believe that," he said. "Not now. Better for us if he could have come centuries ago, but that was not to be. Albacrist always chooses well. It's better to wait five hundred years for the true king, than wait a dozen for a false one who will fail us."

       "I don't see how he can do anything other than fail you," Ciaran admitted, for he had heard the enormity of the thing that Kindred wanted Elias to do.

       "You should have more faith in him." Oliver sounded angry. "You're always putting him down. It's no wonder he believes himself to be worthless."

       "At least I care about him," Ciaran retorted. "He's just a thing to you. All you see in him is the things you have hoped for. You want to trick him, and put him into a song full of your lying words, and soon he'll end up on a tapestry looking nothing like he is. You say the enchantment is all about feelings, but you're heartless, all of you. Elias is a tool to you. He's no king. He's only a boy."

       "He is more than you think he is." Oliver's voice was tight. "I am guilty of some of the things you accuse me of, but you should not be so quick to accuse, Ciaran Morgan, not without accepting that the accusations apply equally to you."

       Ciaran snorted. "I don't know what you mean."

       Oliver sighed. He clenched his fists, then very deliberately relaxed them again. "Then it is not my place to tell you. What you believe about yourself is your own affair. But I tell you this, Ciaran Morgan. If you hurt him again, then I will fight you."

       "Fight me?" Oliver was no Reynard, and the threat was laughable. "If we fight over him, Oliver, then there will be no contest. I'm his master. He's known me for years."

       "That wasn't what I meant," Oliver said. "I didn't mean a fight over him, as if he's a possession will no will of his own. All I mean is that..." He sighed and crouched down beside Elias, although it put him in a weak position relative to Ciaran, standing so tall above him. "I acted badly when I first met him. I offered friendship, but only as a way to win him to our cause. But I'm getting to know him now. He's our king, yes, but he's a very brave young man, who seems to think he has no right to be happy. I'm no longer fighting to gain possession of a king. I'm fighting for him, for Elias, and for him to be happy."

       "Get out," Ciaran hissed. "I don't know what you're talking about." He put his hands on his hips. "Get out. I'm no threat to him. I healed him. I healed him."

       Oliver touched the back of Elias's hand. "I'm glad you did."

       Ciaran pointed at the door. "Get out!"

       Oliver stood up. "But you won't keep me away." He was no warrior, but there was steel in his voice just like Reynard's. "Elias can, but you can't. I won't stand by and watch him be hurt."

       "He will never be hurt," Ciaran hissed. "Not when I am by his side." He turned his back on Oliver, sat down beside Elias's side, and settled down to wait.

      

 

       The light cast six different shadows. Elias forced his eyes to focus, and saw the light was made of six candle flames, but even they were not enough to prevent the smear of darkness that still lurked in the corner above his bed. As he watched, one flame guttered, rallied bravely for a while, and then went out. It made little perceptible difference to the light.

       His master was slumped sideways on the rug, fast asleep with the shoulders driven uncomfortably against the wall. But he shouldn't be here. His master had been in some other place, strong and majestic, but he had walked away, leaving Elias to face his death alone. But here Ciaran was, asleep on the floor and so close beside him that Elias could reach out and touch him, so the other memory had to be nothing more than a dream.

       Reach out and touch him. Yes, he could do that. He could brush his cheek gently with his fingers, and Ciaran wouldn't wake up, and would never know. It would be a stolen touch, and there was a secret thrill in that, and it would show that he was alive and that he could move, and that he was really here beside his master, and the dream was not true.

       He raised his hand. He moved it an inch, and then another. A wisp of cool air from the door touched his skin, but then his hand passed in front of his master's mouth, and the air there was warm with his soft breathing. 

       I found him, he thought. He heard soft distant laugher. I caught up, and here he is. It's over. He had been very ill, but now he was getting better, and his master was beside him, and he would live.

       "Master," he whispered, as the laughter crept a little closer. "Master." A pain started deep in his chest. The blanket slid off his shoulder and he shivered.

       The laughter surged and broke over him like a wave, vast and terrible. Master! he shrieked, but the laughter was a hand clamped over his mouth, keeping him from screaming aloud. Please wake up, master! It's come for me! It's here!

       Ciaran sighed, snuggled his head into the crook of his arm, then lay still. Then jagged darkness clawed at Elias's eyes, and he could see no more.

      

 

       He was attacked while he was sleeping. Cold water flooded his face, and Ciaran woke in an instant, his hand snapping to the dagger at his waist. He coughed and pawed at his stinging eyes. "I'll get you for that," he vowed.

       His vision cleared enough for him to see a pair of legs, and he lashed out at them, grappling his assailant to the floor. The man fell heavily, smashing something beneath him as he fell. Ciaran pounced on the man, thrusting one knee between his legs, and leaning heavily on his chest. Something crunched, and the man groaned. Ciaran pressed the dagger against his throat, and saw that his attacker was Oliver.

       "I see it now," Ciaran sneered. He spat into the man's face, and water dripped from his sodden hair and fell on Oliver's eyes and mouth. "You pretend you're Elias's friend, but you just want me out of the way, just like Reynard." He leant with his full weight on Oliver's chest, enjoying the sound of shards of earthenware breaking beneath him, all with sharp edges digging into the man's back. "Well, I won't go, not that easily. You won't have him. If you want him, you have to come through me, and I'm not easy to defeat."

       "None of us will have him," Oliver gasped, "unless you let me go. Wake up to the truth. Look at him."

       Ciaran was too clever to fall for that trick. "Go away and don't come back."

       "Look at him!" Oliver screamed.

       Ciaran sneered. "He's better. I healed him. I saved his life. We don't need you."

       "He's not better," Oliver said. There was a bead of blood at his throat. "Look at him, Master Morgan. Please. If nothing else, look at your hand."

       Ciaran couldn’t help it. His eyes flickered away from Oliver's face, and onto the hand that was pressed against Oliver's chest. It was speckled with blood, some of it old and drying, and some of it new. When he moved his hand a little, he saw he had left a bloody hand print on the front of Oliver's shirt.

       Blood. Elias's blood. Ciaran pushed himself backwards, smearing the bloody mark on Oliver's chest. His neck felt very stiff as he turned to look at Elias.

       The boy was loosely curled on his side, his face overhanging the edge of the bed. The blanket had fallen away from his shoulder, and his hair was dark and matted with sweat. The blood was that trickling from his parted lips was the only colour on his porcelain skin, and he was struggling to breathe. It was just as it had been before, only twice as bad, for coming a second time.

       "He was better," Ciaran gasped. He rubbed his eyes, but all he did was smear Elias's blood over his own cheekbone. "You saw it, Oliver. He was better."

       Oliver was struggling to sit up, wincing with pain. "I know." There were specks of blood on the shards of broken jug that lay on the floor. "I don't know how long he's been like this. I thought he was better. I should have checked earlier. Then I came in and I couldn't wake you up. You were sleeping so deeply."

       Sleeping, and all the while Elias was bleeding on him. Elias had tried to reach for him, but he hadn't been there. It had taken Oliver to come in and see the truth, and even then it had taken a violent assault to awaken Ciaran to his apprentice's need. "So that's how it is," Ciaran snapped. "You're blaming me?"

       "It doesn't matter." Oliver dragged himself to Elias's bedside, moving as if he was in pain. "Nothing matters. Only that he gets well."

       "I can't do it again." Ciaran shook his head, and found he simply could not stop, and neither could he stop speaking, admitting things to this stranger that he should not be speaking aloud. "I did everything I could. I can't do that again. I can't." It had exhausted him like nothing he had ever done before, and he had given so much, and all for nothing. Even though he had slept, his limbs still ached, and the Shadow was faint and far away.

       "What happened?" Oliver spoke with surprising brutality. "How did this happen?"

       Ciaran clenched his fist, and it ached with the need to strike someone. Instead, he pressed it into his brow, forcing the knuckles into the bridge of his nose hard enough to hurt. "But I have to do it," he said. "I'd do anything for Elias." He looked round at Oliver, daring him to disagree, but Oliver just nodded, as if he understood everything.

      

 

       Elias was chained again, but he did not know how it had happened. Like before, he had just opened his eyes, and here he was. The pain was like a crouching beast gathering itself to spring. It was quiescent for now, but he knew it would come soon, and it would be terrible.

       His hands were cuffed behind him, and his feet were bound. Blood tickled the backs of his hands, and he realised that there were tiny spikes inside the metal bands, and they cut him unless he stood quite still. His shoulders didn't hurt, but he remembered what it felt like to be torn apart, and he would never forget that torment, not ever, and would never be the same again. He remembered burning, and he could still smell smoke, but this time it came from a large bonfire, not impossible living flames. The slab beneath his feet had a chip in its top left corner, and there was a dark brown stain worked deeply into the grain of the stone.

       Someone was laughing, as it was like distant thunder passing from one cloud to the next. He raised his eyes and looked beyond the stone slab, and he could see a thousand people, all watching them. Some of them looked familiar. A guard with a pike stood with his chin thrust forward, and ignored the girl who laughingly pulled at his sleeve. A woman pressed her apron to her mouth, and her eyes were wailing. An old man held his fist high, and shouted obscenities.

       Behind them there were buildings, framed by a cold blue sky. Grey-tinged clouds hung lazily at the horizon, and smoke drifted up from stone chimneys. The buildings were high and painted white, and they had many-paned windows and decorative facades. They were taller than they were wide, and women in rich clothes stood on the high balconies and pressed handkerchiefs to their faces as they watched him.

       Exultant, the fear sprang forward and seized him by the throat. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled, and his stomach clenched.

       This was real. The thing before had been shocking, but it had been like a like something drawn from nightmares, with grotesque living flames and faceless men and torture that should have killed him ten times over. This, that seemed so gentle and homely, was infinitely more dangerous. Every tiny human detail spoke more eloquently of terror than all the shrieking flames of the other place. Death, when it came, came while human life carried on on all sides, under a blue sky, and not in a nightmare landscape of unreality. True terror lay in the most ordinary of things. It lay in the way a girl's face dimpled as she smiled at her lover, and the way a child was being scolded by her mother for tearing her skirt. It lay in the fact that all these ordinary people had come to watch him die, but, to them, it was only a tiny happening in their day.

       He closed his eyes. The moment he did so, he heard the soft scraping of booted feet on the scaffold beside him. His eyes snapped open, and there, before him, was a man who wore the black mask of an executioner, with Albacrist held in his two gloved hands.

      

 

       Ciaran knew the way now. He was as weak as a new apprentice, but he could still see pale forms of Shadow, and, because he had found it before, the way into Elias's blood was like a broad highway. But he could stride up and down it all day, and it would still be useless. Better, he thought, if the way had been barred. Better if he was blind and could not see.

       He let his hand fall, and it fell onto his other hand with a sound like a slap. "It's impossible."

       "What?" Oliver breathed.

       Bloody tears trickled down Elias's cheeks, seeping from under his closed eyelids, like liquid flame in the candlelight. Ciaran winced, and looked away. "It's as if it has... adapted. I did the same things, but it was useless." He shook his head. "Diseases can do that, sometimes. They learn about the drugs we use against them, and become resistant to them. But it takes years. It's never like this. Never."

       The sky in his Garden had been choked with the falling specks of darkness. He had raised his hand, in shaky imitation of the command he had performed before, but it had simply come on and on, thickening all the time. It had swirled gleefully round his hand, and settled like dust on his skin.

       "Last time I drove it back," he said, "and he was getting better. But it's as if it used that to test my defences and see what I was capable of. It studied my weapons, and devised a defence against me. Now I can't do anything." He slammed his fist against the wall. "Nothing!"

       "You're speaking as if it's something alive." Oliver's voice was low with horror. "You're speaking as if this isn't an illness at all, but something attacking him."

       There had been laughter in that swirling black ash. Ciaran swallowed hard. "Of course not. It's just... what it seemed like," he finished, weakly. He clenched his fist. "But it can't be true."

       "No." Oliver shook his head, slow and sad. "But, whatever it is, there's nothing we can do to save him."

       And, as if the disease in Elias's blood heard the words and thought they were good, Elias gave a choked gasp, and stopped breathing.

      

 

       "This is real," a woman shrieked. She had a smear of dirt on her cheek, and a tiny feather clung to her bodice. "This is real," an old man spat, and the deep lines around his eyes spoke more clearly than any words could speak. "This is real," a child laughed, sitting on his father's shoulders and waving his arms with delight. "This is real," they said, though they all spoke with the same voice, and their mouths moved awkwardly, as if someone else had borrowed them to speak these words.

       "He didn't really save me," Elias said, and they cried, "No!"

       "You only let us think that he did. You only pretended to free me. It was a trick."

       They laughed, and cried "yes," with a soft sibilant hiss, but they paused a little before they said it.

       "And now it is real."

       There was no pause this time. "Yes," they exulted. "Yes!"

       And they were still shrieking their wild affirmation, even as the executioner thrust the sword, point first, into Elias's chest. But he did not die, and what came afterwards was the worst thing of all.

      

 

       "No!" Ciaran cried. One flailing hand knocked against a candle, and wax spattered over the back of his hand, though he barely noticed the burn. "No!" He clawed at the blankets that covered Elias's still body, and pressed one hand against the boy's heart. He did not move it, just twitched his fingers slightly with the rhythm of beat. He could keep Elias's heart beating with the Shadow. Even an apprentice could have done it.

       "Can I...?" Oliver asked, but his voice seemed to come from immensely far away. Ciaran pressed his mouth against Elias's blue-tinged lips, and tasted blood. He breathed into him, gifting him with his own breath, his own life. Please don't die, he thought, over and over, with the rhythm of every breath. Please.

      

 

       This is the second time, Elias thought. He was bound on the scaffold, and a thousand people awaited his death. He thought a sword had impaled him, and then he had been cast into the fire and burnt alive, but he felt little pain. He frowned. This has happened before.

       "There," a guard said, adjusting the cuffs that bound him. He stepped back, and turned away. In that moment of turning, Elias saw that his face was his master's.

       His master had bound him here. His master. It was his master.

       He lashed his head from side to side, and started shrieking, screaming, pleading, fighting...

      

 

       Ciaran wiped the blood from his lips. "There," he said, with a sigh that used his whole body. "He's alive."

       "You can't..." Oliver's voice was strained, almost disgusted. "It's not..."

       Ciaran rounded on him. "He won't die. Listen." He flung his hand out, pointing with one finger. "He's breathing. I can do it again. I will do it again." Elias would live, even if he had to force him to, moving his limbs like a puppet's, and breathing into his lungs for his every breath.

       "But it's not real." Oliver was still sitting on the floor, his legs drawn up to his chest. He was rocking slightly, and the back of his head kept touching the wall with a slow and deliberate thump. "It'll just happen again. There comes a time when we have to give up hope, even if... even if it's been the only thing we've lived for for five hundred years." The last words were a low whisper, and Ciaran thought they were not even meant to be heard at all.

       "It's not over." Ciaran's clenched fist shook. "He's not dead."

       Oliver closed his eyes, and then, in the silence, Elias started to scream. "No!" he shrieked. He thrashed in the bed, his head lashing from side to side. "No! Stop!" He flung his arm in a wide arc, and white flame seemed to trail from his fingers, too bright and searing to look at.

       "Elias!" Ciaran grabbed his apprentice's upper arms and tried to hold him still, pinioning him against his own body with brute force. Elias fought with surprising strength. His nails scratched at Ciaran's chest, hard enough to hurt even through his clothes. "Lie still," Ciaran begged. He drove him into the furs, fighting him like an enemy. Caught in his grip, Elias was moaning, but his struggles were weakening now, for Ciaran had him defeated.

       If Ciaran had held him a little tighter, he might have killed him. He gasped, and let the boy go. Elias fell back limply, lying where Ciaran had dropped him, and this time he did not fight. The only part of him that moved was his eyelids, flickering in some nightmare. There were dark scorch marks in patches on the blankets and a patch beneath his hand was burnt right through.

       Ciaran licked his lips, and still tasted Elias's blood. He swallowed and tasted it again. "Elias," he croaked. He touched his cloak, and cried aloud in horror as a huge golden bird of prey surged at his face, massive talons reaching for his eyes. A moment later, he was blinking with confusion, for the golden feathers were only the brooch at the throat of his cloak, and the talons were the tip of the pin that had worked through the fabric and pricked his finger.

       The rug was smouldering. Elias moved one pale finger, and a tongue of flame lunged towards Ciaran, and closed round his wrist like a red hot iron band.

       Somewhere behind him, Oliver gasped, and it sounded triumphant. Of course he would be glad, Ciaran thought. Ciaran was being hurt, and Oliver would enjoy seeing that, because Ciaran was just an obstacle in their path, keeping them from owning Elias utterly.

       Ciaran snatched his hand away from the flame, and nursed it. A broad red band went two thirds of the way around his wrist, and was already rising into blisters. The pain made his eyes sting.

       "Yes," Oliver breathed. "That's it. Of course."

       Ciaran closed his eyes. This time, when Elias stopped breathing, it was so silent and gentle that Ciaran did not even notice it.

      

 

       He died, and it was the second time. He died, and his master stood and watched him, with eyes that were unmistakably his, but a face that was different. He wore a hooded cloak, and there was another man beside him, tugging at his cloak.

       Elias reached out his hand, stiff and pleading and black in the flames. Master, he pleaded, and died.

       The very last thing he saw was his master turning and walking away.

      

 

       "Keep him alive!" Oliver hissed urgently in his ear. "Breathe for him again. You have to."

       How long had it been? The pain in his wrist faded to nothing. Deep inside, something cried out in agony. Elias was so very still, and his lips were blue. Ciaran's hand shook as he touched his skin, and still shook even as he found it was still warm.

       "There is still hope." Oliver's voice was high and childish. "Just bring him back one more time, and then..."

       "How?" he snapped, just before putting his lips to Elias's. The first breath he sent into Elias's lungs felt cold and tainted by the ugly tone of that word.

       "He can save himself," Oliver said, as Ciaran breathed, in and out, in and out. "I said enchantment couldn't save him, but it's not true. My enchantment can't. How could I have been so stupid? He's stronger than me. I knew that. We can't save him, but maybe he can save himself."

       Ciaran coaxed Elias's heart with the soft touch of Shadow. It felt so easy and familiar. Was this really only the second time? It felt as if he had been doing this for all his life, trapped in this tiny dark hut, watching Elias die again and again and again. Was it really possible that there could be any living creature outside this tiny square of candlelight?

       "Illusions have power," Oliver said. "If the mind truly believes it has suffered a mortal wound, it can die, even if the wound is only an illusion. We ease pain by giving the sufferer the illusion that they're not hurting. Just believing that can be enough to save them."

       Elias breathed into Ciaran's mouth, shuddered, and started coughing. But he was still deeply unconscious, and soon he would die again, and there would come a time when not even Ciaran would be able to bring him back. It might take a week. He could still be sitting here in a week, panting from the effort of making Elias breathe again for the thousandth time, unless he finally faced the truth. This really is the end, he thought, unable to hide from it any longer. Elias is going to die.

       "But an illusion leaves no scars." Oliver's voice was shaking with excitement. "If I cast an illusion of fire, you will see it burning, and you will smell it and hear it, and even feel it burning you if you touch it. But, after the illusion has run its course, that's it. You might have thought you had seen a house burnt to ashes, but it will still be standing. There will be no pain."

       Ciaran's wrist was red and weeping. He pressed his hand to Elias's face, and even the unbloodied skin on the back of his hand had ten times more colour that Elias's skin. He felt light-headed from breathing for two, but Elias was still going to die.

       "Look." Oliver pointed at the charred furs, and the wound on Ciaran's wrist. "It was real. It was no illusion, Master Morgan. It was pure white fire, that comes from the truest and deepest of enchantment. Who knows the limits of his powers?"

       "What do you mean?" Ciaran asked wearily. He had barely been listening to Oliver's ramblings.

       "True healing is beyond our skill," Oliver said, "but we are weak. Once, long ago, there lived people who could do things that now we would call wonders. Elias has their powers. He can heal himself. He has to."

       At least Ciaran spoke. "He couldn't heal that woman. That's what started all this. Because he couldn't."

       "He tried too hard," Oliver said. "Enchantment's like an instinct, and it doesn't work if we think about it too hard. He couldn't discover how to heal her, but it doesn't mean it was beyond his power."

       Ciaran took hold of Elias's hand and held it tight. "He's unconscious. Even if you're right, it's too late."

       "Please." Oliver grabbed him by the shoulder. "Even if you don't believe it, we can't miss this chance. He won't even know to try. We have to tell him. We have to get him to heal himself."

       Ciaran shook his head miserably. "He can't even breathe for himself."

       "Try," Oliver hissed. He made as if to touch Elias himself, to touch his brow and channel his hateful pictures into the boy's mind, to traumatise him and hurt him like he had done in the forest.

       Ciaran's head snapped up. "No," he hissed. He smashed Oliver's hand aside. "No," he snarled, spreading his arms as if to shield his apprentice with his own body from all enemies. Then he sighed, and felt himself crumble. He managed to keep control, but only just. "I'll do it," he said. "Me."

      

 

       The third time. But, this time, his master paused in his walk, half way between the scaffold and the back of the crowd, and turned to face him.

       "Elias," he whispered, though that simple word seemed louder to him than all the baying and laughter of the crowd a thousand strong.

       Even though the sword was high and glinted cruelly in the sun, Elias smiled.

      

 

       They were linked in mind, the two of them, by their long years together, and by the child's unstinting devotion to him. If Ciaran needed to, he could call to Elias though his mind and convey a carefully-regulated impression of his thought. He had strong walls in his mind against such contact, and only let them down occasionally, but Elias was always open to him, and always quick to respond whenever Ciaran called.

       It was no different this time. "Elias," Ciaran whispered, as he sat by his apprentice's bed in the candlelight. "Let me in. Hear me."

       And then the whole world fell away, and he was in another place entirely. Elias's dreams, he told himself, but it seemed and felt so real that immediately he began to doubt.

       There was fire there, positioned on a platform so it was the first thing he saw. The platform stood above a square, and the square was full of people. They were all shouting, and pressing forward to get as close to the fire as they could. Ciaran was caught up in the crowd, pushed forward by the weight of their bodies. It was hard to stand alone in a crowd and not do what they were doing. "Die!" they shouted, and Ciaran echoed it faintly, so no-one would think he was not one of them. He would play along for now until he knew how things stood. "Die," he shouted, as he used his superior strength to elbow his way towards the front of the crowd. Then he forced himself between two tall men, and saw Elias.

       His apprentice was kneeling on the platform, bound with heavy chains, and blood was falling from his hands with a sickening drip drip. A black-masked man stood near him, a white sword in his hand. Another man was shovelling wood onto the fire, making it crackle and surge eagerly, and a tall man in black and silver stood and watched, smiling thinly. There was blood on Elias's clothes, and he looked very scared.

       Ciaran barged to the front of the crowd, knocking people over in his haste, not caring that he was making himself a target for their violence. The people were blades of grass in a field, to be waded through and trampled. Elias was all that mattered, and the boy had seen him, and a smile broke on his face, beautiful to see. "Elias!" Ciaran cried. "I'll save you, I promise!"

       Instantly, Elias's smile faded. His eyes flickered upwards, and a blade of reflected light fell on his face like a knife cut. "No." His voice was dull with despair. "It is too late, master. Please don't start it again. I want this to be the last time."

       "No!" Ciaran tried to move forward, but if the crowd was grass in a field, now they were tangled vines, dragging him back. Something was whispering in his ear, and he could not hear the words, but it sounded like his own voice.

       The executioner's sword descended, and Ciaran could only watch. Elias crumpled, and the bloody sword tip appeared at his back. He didn't even scream, but his mouth was a gaping hole of red. He would have collapsed, but the executioner grabbed his hair and wrenched him up, like a butcher holding up a severed head. 

       "First the sword, and now the fire," said the man in black and silver. "Let him be killed twice over. Let the abomination that is his sorcery be burnt from the world."

       Ciaran lunged for his apprentice, but the crowd were tugging at him, ripping them apart. "No!" he screamed. "Let me save him!" He rounded on them, lashing out with his staff. A child fell with a cry. How dare they try to stop him? He struck again and a woman fell to the ground, bleeding from the temple, and was trampled by the crowd.

       "Master," Elias said, from behind him on the scaffold. He spoke it very simply, without pleading or hope. He knew he was going to die. He had no faith in his master. Ciaran had promised, but Elias didn't believe him. He hadn't even expected Ciaran to come at all.

       Still slashing at the crowd, Ciaran turned round, but he was too late. The last thing he ever saw of his apprentice was a skeletal hand, stiffened in agony, burning to ashes.

       And then the crowd overwhelmed him and dragged him down, and he bellowed, screaming that he was dying for what was right, that they would never make him surrender, that he would kill them all for what they had done to Elias. Something kicked him in the face and he shouted again, and then he was back in the small hut, pressed against the wall, with his legs pulled to his chest and his fists clenched defensively in front of him. Oliver's nose was dripping blood.

       "I tried," he said, lowering his fists only slowly. "I got into his dreams. They're killing him with fire. That's how his mind sees his fever. I tried to save him, but he died. I don't think he even wanted to be saved." He frowned at the memory of that betrayal.

       Wordlessly Oliver pointed to the bedside. Elias had stopped breathing again. Ciaran sighed and pushed himself away from the wall, landing heavily on his knees beside Elias's bed. Once again, for the third time, he started to breathe for him.

       Oliver placed his hand on Ciaran's shoulder. "You don't have to save him," he said, though his voice sounded far less real than the heaving breaths that were filling Ciaran's whole world. "I know it's hard for you. But it's not you. You have to step back. All you need to do is tell him to save himself. Accept that it's not you this time. Please."

       Oliver fell silent, and Ciaran breathed for Elias, forcing breath into the body of a lifeless puppet. It felt so wrong. If only Elias would sit up! If only Elias would do something for himself, even if it was only to defy his master.

       "Please," Oliver begged him. "Try again. I'll give you any strength that I have, if you'll accept it." He pulled Ciaran round to face him, draggin him close. "I know you dislike me. I know you don't trust me. But please. Together we're stronger. He needs us both."

       Ciaran pulled away. "I don't like you, and I don't trust you." But he was nodding, belying his words. "I can do this by myself, without any of your enchantment..."

       His voice trailed off, but Oliver seemed to understand what it was that Ciaran was incapable of saying. "I'll help you," he said, "and Elias will live."

       Ciaran shook his head miserably. "I don't think he wants to. He told me to stop."

       "He's just grown so used to thinking that he's nobody. It's never even crossed his mind that he can fight this."

       "What makes you think you understand him?" Ciaran asked, but it was weary now, and without any real anger.

       "Just do it," Oliver said. "Please."

       Sighing, Ciaran placed his hand on Elias's brow, and closed his eyes. Elias, he called, and there he was, back in the crowded square again, and it was so easy and effortless, as if there could be a wonderful closeness between his apprentice and himself, if only he said the right word to open the closed door between them.

       The fire was burning merrily, and Elias was still chained and kneeling on the scaffold. Nothing had changed. The masked man smiled as he ran the sword blade lovingly through his fingers. The crowd was shouting for Elias to die. Elias was kneeling there, still alive, though his eyes looked a little older and his face more deeply etched with misery.

       Did Elias remember every death? Each time Ciaran brought him back, was he chaining him not to hope, but to the same torment all over again, with death the only end? Elias had died three times, and, unless Ciaran could save him, would die a fourth, and it would be Ciaran who had condemned him.

       Ciaran pushed to the front of the crowd. "Elias," he called, and Elias wearily raised his head to look at him. This time he did not smile.

       The masked man raised the sword high, and it fell, just as it had fallen before. Ciaran dug his nails into his palms and did nothing to stop it. There was something he had to do, but the crowd was baying and the fire was acrid and choking, and someone not far away was laughing, plucking thoughts from his mind and casting them into the flames.

       "Elias," Ciaran choked. But then it was as if someone had wrapped a veil round his mouth, protecting him from the smoke. Someone was standing close behind him, whispering to him that he was not alone. He heard a bright cascading sound, and saw there was a fountain beside the scaffold, all carved in white, with very pure water. He was sure it had not been there before.

       He raised his head. "Elias," he said. "Listen." They were unchaining him and dragging him towards the flames. Ciaran wanted to leap on the scaffold and fight for him, but there was something he had something to say first. He pressed a shaking hand to his brow, struggling to find the words that the cruel laughter was dragging from his mind.

       But you won't, it cackled. You can't. Not you. You just can't say it. Admit that he's stronger than you are? Admit that there's something you cannot do? Never.

       Water burst free from the fountain, arcing over the fire and dousing the nearest flames. The voice stilled, and Ciaran saw a flicker of hope in Elias's eyes.

       Ciaran strode forward. "I can't rescue you, Elias," he said. The words fell like stones from his mouth, and despite the flames, he wanted to shiver. But this was his last wild chance. It wasn't real. It didn't have to matter. He made himself cruel. "I won't."

       Elias looked stricken. Before Ciaran's horrified eyes, he raised his bound hands and thrust them into the flames. Then I am lost already, his eyes seemed to say, because you were my only hope.

       "No!" Ciaran screamed. Elias was so young and hurt and needed him. He should stride onto the scaffold and take him in his arms, and tell him that his master had come for him, even if the crowd cut them down and they died together.

       Out of the pale blue sky, it started to rain. The flames sizzled, and the raindrops struck Ciaran on the face, and each one was a reminder.

       "No," he moaned. "I can't save you, Elias. It's beyond me. But you can save yourself. Can't you see? Oliver says you can escape. You have to. Have you ever tried it, Elias? Have you? Or have you just waited for me to come and save you?"

       Elias's face crumpled. "I can't. I'm not anybody."

       Ciaran stood tall, putting his hands on his hips. If Elias was to live, he had to use any weapon left to him, even if that meant lying and cajoling and saying things he would never normally say. "You are my apprentice, Elias, and that makes you somebody. Make me proud of you. Don't just snivel here and expect to be saved. Fight for your life, Elias, because it is worth living. Many people will mourn you if you die."

       Elias lay very still. Time was frozen, Ciaran realised, as he fought for his apprentice's life. The crowd were statues, locked in jeering poses. In Elias's hair, the executioner's thick fingers were claws of stone. The only movement came from the slow drip of blood from Elias's wounds, and the heavy drops of rain. "Will you mourn me?" Elias whispered.

       "Of course I will," Ciaran snapped. "I'm your master."

       Elias tugged at his lip with his teeth. "How do I do it?"

       "I don't know," Ciaran had to admit. The rain was dying away, and already the flames were surging more fiercely, and the dark-edged laugher was back. There was very little time left, and he had to be cruel. "But Oliver says you can do it, and maybe you can, but you've never even tried, and I'm ashamed of you, Elias."

       Elias winced. "I'm sorry, master. I didn't know. I didn't mean to. I'll do better, I promise." He raised his shackled hands, and it was as simple as that. The chains fell away as if they were made of flimsy gossamer. White fire blazed from his hands, making the orange fire seem tawdry and pathetic, and the executioner fell motionless to the ground.

       Ciaran tried to call his apprentice's name, but the white fire robbed him of his voice. Elias gave no sign of seeing him. The boy took one faltering step, but the blood was still gushing from his wounds, and he could barely walk. His eyes were darting around the frozen crowd, seeking some escape, but they never once fell upon Ciaran. The possibility that they could escape together had never crossed his mind. Ciaran had done his job too well, and Elias thought he was on his own.

       There was movement at a high window, and a flash of weapons. Pursuit was being prepared, and it would be merciless.

       Come to me, Ciaran screamed silently. Let me carry you.

       Elias fell to his knees, and crawled, one hand held outstretched, blindly seeking something that was just out of reach. With an inhuman effort, Ciaran broke the paralysis that had been cast on him, and managed to grasp hold of Elias's hand. He fell to the ground beside his apprentice, and rolled onto his back.

       Floating from a cold blue sky, the first flakes of snow started to fall, and everywhere there was the sound of running water.

      

 

       Long after, and a lifetime away, Elias slept.

       "What happened?" Ciaran asked. He was deeply weary and it was a struggle even to sit upright.

       Oliver's face was grey and marked with lines of pain. He had been unconscious when Ciaran had come back, slumped against his back and still clasping tightly to his shoulders. "I saw very little of the vision," Oliver said, slowly, "but I got the impression of fire, so cast an illusion of water." He rubbed the bridge of his nose, wincing as if he had a dreadful headache. "I've never attempted to plant an illusion in a... a dream before. The effort was too much for me. I'm sorry."

       Ciaran looked at him. "I couldn't have done it without you." Tomorrow, Oliver would be the enemy again, and Ciaran would be fighting him, but today, together, they had helped bring Elias back from the dead. Suddenly embarrassed, he changed the subject. "Why did you hesitate before saying it was a dream?"

       Oliver looked down at his hands. "It was more than a dream, and you know it. When he resisted death on the scaffold, he was fighting the sickness. I could see him, on the bed, more clearly than I could see what you were seeing. There was white light everywhere, all coming from him. The battle he was fighting was real."

       As a bard, Oliver possessed a honeyed tongue that could charm the birds out of the trees with insincere words, but as a man, he was a poor liar. "That's not what you meant," Ciaran said, though he could muster little real anger. He had walked through the fire of emotion, and was an empty husk, unable to feel anything that was not muted with weariness.

       "No." Oliver shook his head, admitting his lie. "It didn't see much, but it looked to me like the main square in Eidengard, the capital of the Duchy. They execute their sorcerers in that square, and in just such a way. And he's already shown a gift with foresight. Why would he see it if it wasn't...?"

       "No," Ciaran interrupted. "You hardly saw it. It could have been a hundred other places. He probably saw Eidengard when he saw your memories that day, and I know he saw a sorcerer being burnt, because that's what you were talking about. So you put that horrible image in his head." He shook his head. "And, besides, there are lots of places in my world that look like that, too. Lots and lots of places. It could be anywhere."

       "Yes." Oliver nodded his head vigorously, and smiled. "You're probably right. I'm seeing fears where there aren't any." He touched Elias's hand. "I'm glad he's going to live. He deserves every happiness. He deserves far more than we can give him. I wish I could free him, but it's too late for that."

       Oh, but surely he was under some spell tonight, not saying any of the things he would have expected. All he heard was the sadness in Oliver's voice, and he had to accept that it sounded real. "You see something of yourself him in, don't you?" he asked. His voice was quiet and dull, for he was too drained to truly feel anything ever again, not until this long night was finally over.

       Oliver sighed. "None of us are free. Not him, not me, and not anyone. Are you truly free, Master Morgan? Or are you ruled by duty, and your own past, and promises made to the cause of men who are long dead? We are. You know our story. Long ago, our king bound us with a promise, and we are still prisoners of that oath."

       "No." Ciaran shook his head. He had attacked this man and hurt him, but then they had fought for Elias's life, side by side, sharing each other's pain. Maybe they would end up as friends, and maybe as enemies, but they could never be strangers again. "It's more than that, isn't it? It's something closer to your heart."

       Oliver looked at his hands, a long agonising look. When he raised his head, there were tears in his eyes. "I am a bard. I am the repository for the tales of our past, and the maker of our memories. That was all I ever wanted to do. But instead… Instead, I became seneschal. For as long as I live, that is my duty, and there's nothing I can do about it, however much I might dislike it."

       There were a hundred things Ciaran could have said, or he could have stayed silent. Instead, he gently touched Elias's hair, granting Oliver privacy in which to dash the tears from his eyes. He had sacrificed everything this night, and had nothing more to lose. But, at the same time, there was no cost. In the morning, everything would be right again, and he would face the world as Ciaran Morgan.

       "I believe you mean well," he said, still not looking at Oliver. "Whatever I believe about your cause, I believe you are a good man, and that you would never deliberately harm Elias. If any man here has to be seneschal and make claims on him, I'm glad that it's you."

       Oliver was silent for a little while, then he stood up, his feet scuffing as if he could barely walk. He pushed the door open a slit, and grey light surged into the hut, stronger than the guttering candle flames.

            "It's nearly morning," Oliver said, and Ciaran nodded. After the long night, day had almost come.