In his blood
Ciaran turned his head to one side. He was lying on his back, his bound hands on his chest, and straw was prickling his neck. "To save Elias?" he whispered.
"No." Reynard stood above him, his hands on his hips. "To save you, as I promised him."
So Elias was dead, then. Dimly, Ciaran had heard the clock strike ten, and the sound of baying crowds. Bound and wounded, he had simply lain in the straw, and closed his eyes. What else could he do? It was all Reynard's fault. Ciaran had tried to save Elias, and had done everything that could be expected of him, but Reynard had stopped him. Ciaran bore no responsibility for any of it.
"Up." Reynard jabbed a toe into his side. "We can't waste any time. The soldiers are searching everywhere. If we don't get through the gates now, we'll never get out."
"Good." Let the soldiers capture Reynard and kill him, for he deserved it, every last agonising second of it. For Elias was dead, and Reynard had killed him.
"I promised." Reynard heaved Ciaran up by the shoulders and started dragging him to the door. "They saw your face. They didn't see mine." He gasped as he tried to manhandle Ciaran to his feet, and said nothing else.
He could hear the crowd, shouting in furious outcry, but he could not make out any words. A horse neighed and stamped its foot, and Ciaran saw that the cart had been parked just outside the door. He blinked at the pile of straw in the back, and thought he understood. Reynard was going to bury him alive beneath the stinking stuff.
"No." He started to struggle. "Elias..." He was crying, and it didn't even seem shameful, for Elias was dead. Elias was dead, and Reynard had stopped Ciaran from saving him. If it wasn't for Reynard, the boy would be safe by now. If it wasn't for Reynard... "Elias," he sobbed. His boy was dead. "Please..." He hadn't even said goodbye. Elias had died all alone, thinking that his master had abandoned him.
Reynard shoved him against the back of the cart, bundling him in as if he was nothing. "How does this help him?" Reynard hissed, his face clenched tight with fury. "He wants to find you alive."
"Alive," he echoed. "Alive?"
"He escaped." Reynard climbed into the cart and dragged Ciaran further in. "Like I always said he would. I never doubted it, no. I should have known you were lying when you said he wouldn't manage it. You never trust him, do you?"
"Alive?" Ciaran went limp. "He escaped." He rolled onto his front and tried to push himself up with his elbows. "So where is he? We have to go to him."
Reynard forced him down again. "No. I tried. He changed his face. I lost him in the crowd. He can use enchantment to stay hidden, but we can't. Right now, we're in more danger than he is."
"Enchantment," Ciaran breathed. He wanted to wipe his face, where the tears were hot and painful. Was it his imagination, or was the noise of the crowd getting louder?
"Lie still!" Reynard commanded him. "I have to cover you. If you do a single thing to give us away..." He did not complete the threat.
His head hurt. "We can't go. How will he find us?" He remembered the vision again. Elias had escaped from the scaffold, but he had been badly hurt, and very afraid, and all alone. "Was he injured?" he asked, urgently. "Was he hurt?"
Reynard paused a little before answering. "No. And he'll find us. Remember the place outside the city where we camped for the night? If things went wrong and we got separated, he said, we'd meet up there. It was his own idea."
Ciaran frowned. "When? I didn't hear it. He didn't tell me."
Reynard was piling straw over Ciaran's body, and Ciaran's couldn't see his face. "That last morning," he said, "before you were awake."
"So he'll find us," Ciaran whispered into the straw. "He's not hurt. He escaped." And his head hurt very much, and the crowd was very loud, and Reynard said the soldiers were coming for him, and knew what his face looked like.
Reynard jumped down from the cart, making it jolt, then climbed back on again. "Don't make a sound. If you do, you die. And it won't be me killing you, but them." As if in response to his words, the noise of the crowd reached a new crescendo. "If you want to be able to help Elias, then you stay quiet. You understand?"
Ciaran glared at Reynard, but Reynard did not look away. He nodded, but Reynard was still there, his face thrust into Ciaran's, demanding an answer. "I won't make a sound," Ciaran rasped. He had never hated Reynard more than at that moment.
The cart started to move, jolting over the cobbles, the wheels creaking. As it rattled across the courtyard, silence spread through the crowd like a wave. Perhaps the Duke himself had come to address the crowd, but, if so, Ciaran could not hear him. The sudden silence was somehow more chilling than the shouting had been.
With his eyes open, he could see light filtering through the straw. When it went dark, he knew the cart had gone beneath an archway. Through the archway and further on, he could hear people talking, close enough to catch snatches of their words. They were wondering what was happening, what all the noise from the square was. Maybe the sorcerer was taking a long time to die, someone said. He'd tried to go along and watch, but there was no more room and the guards had turned him away.
Ciaran only had Reynard's word for it that Elias had escaped. He had escaped in the vision, yes, but that was only when Ciaran had been there to tell him how to do it. This time, because of Reynard, Ciaran had not been there. Elias could still be alive, in terrible need, while Reynard dragged away the only person who could help him.
Someone said "soldiers," and Ciaran heard the sound of marching feet, but Reynard shouted to the horses, and the cart sped up. A woman cried out in protest, and Reynard shouted an apology and slowed down. He wanted to make a fast getaway, but he couldn't risk drawing too much attention to himself. He had to lead the horses in a slow walk through the crowded streets of a city that wanted to kill him. It would be much easier for him if he abandoned the cart and slipped away on foot. Why hadn't he done that? Because he had to keep Ciaran with him as a prisoner, to keep him from saving Elias, of course. But wouldn't it have been easier just to kill Ciaran? Why take all these risks by keeping him alive?
A bell started to ring, high and urgent. "Escaped," he heard someone exclaim. Escaped, he thought. So Reynard hadn't lied after all. Elias had escaped, and they hadn't found him yet. Maybe he was here, walking beside the cart, his face disguised to mingle with the crowd. He wouldn't even know that his master was so close to him, not unless Ciaran sat up and called to him. Then Elias could snuggle under the straw beside him, and then they could fight Reynard together outside the city, when they were safe.
Elias, he called, reaching for the thread-like link that sometimes bound them. But the head injury made it impossible to find it, and perhaps Elias wouldn't be listening for it anyway, not if he thought he was abandoned. Reynard had done that, too. If Reynard hadn't kept Ciaran prisoner, Elias would never have been left to face death alone.
"You there," a hard voice commanded, as another bell joined in with the first, just behind them. "What have you got in that cart?"
The cart trembled to a halt. "Potatoes and straw," said someone who had to be Reynard, though Ciaran hardly recognised the voice. It was higher, with a completely different accent. "Potatoes I bought from the market. Straw cos I brought some animals in yesterday. Sold 'em, though."
Ciaran lay very still as someone prodded the straw near his feet. The questions continued, and Reynard answered each one, describing market traders by name, and citing street names. Ciaran was sure the guard uncovered his leg, but perhaps he was only rummaging round the straw in a half-hearted fashion, without looking, for nothing was said. It was strange about the potatoes, though. Ciaran couldn't remember seeing any sacks in the cart.
"You may pass," the guard said at last. Ciaran let out a shaky breath as the light was blotted out, and he knew they were in the darkness of the gatehouse, and safe for a moment. Then he gasped, for the gatehouse was a long way away from the square, and they were leaving the city behind. It was really happening. They were running away from Elias, and Ciaran hadn't done a single thing to stop them.
The light was there again, filtering yellow and brown through the straw. The cart started going downhill, and Ciaran slid a little bit, until he was pressed up against the front edge of the cart. Reynard would be very close, sitting with his back to Ciaran. All Ciaran needed to do was to surge to his feet where he was, and loop his bound wrists round Reynard's throat. Then he would gain control of the horses and take the cart wherever he wished, all the way home.
There were voices here, too. A woman ran past them, screaming gleefully, proud to be the first with the news. "Back to your houses and shut the doors! The sorcerer's at large! He's coming this way! I saw him kill a man with my own eyes."
Coming this way, he thought. So Reynard was right about that, too. But Elias would never kill anyone, so maybe the woman was lying. Still, if Elias was coming this way, he wouldn't want to find his master arrested or dead. That was one more thing that Reynard was right about. But, no, Reynard only said such things because he was sneaky and evil. Ciaran was a Brother. If he fought, he would win. Elias would burst through the gates to find his master neither dead nor captured, but triumphant, standing over the bodies of Reynard and anyone else who had tried to stop him.
The slope of the cart increased, then began to level out, and Ciaran realised they were already near the river, approaching the bridge. The bridge was the last barrier, like a second gate to the city. Once they crossed the bridge, they were out of Eidengard, and Reynard could make the horses gallop wherever he wished, not stopping until he reached his treacherous friends in the mountains.
A bell started ringing, very close. There were at least a dozen sounding in the city, he realised, all combining to make one continuous clangour of urgent sound. He could hear the panic the sound engendered in the street around him. Women called their children home, and men gathered friends and weapons and went to join the hunt, but none of them stopped the cart. It seemed as if the alarm was always one step behind them, the bells starting to ring just after they had passed by. Behind them, the city would be in a ferment by now, and they had slipped out just before the jaws of the trap had snapped shut.
Hurry, he found himself urging Reynard, but the cart slowed down, and stopped. "Hurry," he moaned. "Don't stop." But Reynard was talking again, answering the guard's questions, the same as he had done at the gate. The guard sounded far more efficient than the ones they had seen on the way into the city, but Reynard still managed to deceive them. How did he do it, Ciaran wondered. He would have expected Reynard just to kill them and make a run for it.
"Pass," the guard said, at last, after a quick search of the straw that inexplicably turned up nothing, though that was probably because Ciaran was lying so still and quiet, not even breathing.
They moved on, rumbling over the bridge. When the sound of the wheels changed, and Reynard shouted to the horses to speed up, he knew they had reached the far side. They were in open countryside now, out of the city. They were safe. They had left Elias behind, and they were safe.
The soldier's name was Lankin, and he was about to make a vow that would only be broken by death.
Thomas was standing beside him, and he elbowed Lankin in the side. "What are you doing?" he asked, out of the side of his mouth, then let out a breath. "Oh, you can't..."
"I can," Lankin told him. "I will."
"But we've been given our orders..."
"And I will fulfil them, never doubt that."
In the immediate aftermath of the sorcerer's impossible escape, the gates to the square had been blocked, but the people's panic had grown until it seemed positively cruel to confine them there, trapped along with a man so foul, hidden in their midst. Soon Darius had relented, and let them return to their homes. Some of the Soldiers of Light remained to search and question everyone who left, but the others, Lankin and Thomas included, had been ordered to change out of their uniforms and mingle with the citizens, to find the sorcerer in the places he least expected to be found.
Thomas grabbed his arm. "But someone will see you."
"I don't care if they do," Lankin said. Lord Darius, he thought, might even be pleased at his devotion and daring, even if Captain Gresham saw it as presumption and disobedience. He reached the scaffold, and climbed onto it, in full view of any of the crowd who cared to look.
"You can't," Thomas fluttered. "Have you gone mad?"
"The sorcerer's blood," Lankin breathed. There was a pool of it on the scaffold, dark and sticky and untouched even by footprints. He crouched beside it and reached out his hand.
"You can't touch that!" Thomas gasped. "You'll be cursed."
Lankin swallowed. "I will take that risk."
It was whispered by some that a sorcerer could perform magic through their own shed blood, and exact a terrible revenge on anyone who touched it, but Lankin didn't care. If the sorcerer was somehow linked to him by it, then so much the better. Lankin would suffer the cruel magic willingly if the made it easier for him to find the foul creature.
He touched the blood, and nothing happened. He let out a shuddering breath, realising that he had been afraid after all, a little. Emboldened, he spread out his whole hand, covering it with blood from fingertips to wrist. He raised his hand and held it up, palm outwards.
"I swear," he said, "that I will not rest until the man whose blood this is is dead. I dedicate myself utterly to hunting him and his kind, and this vow will only end with his death, or mine. By his blood, I swear it." As he swore, he pressed his open hand against his chest, making a bloody imprint on the black uniform. No-one would be able to see it, but he would know it was there, and never forget.
"You?" He turned to Thomas. He felt stronger, able to take on the whole world, and win.
Thomas was looking nervous. "I swear it, too," he said, but he did not stoop to touch the sorcerer's blood.
Coward, Lankin thought, and for a moment he almost despised his closest friend. The feeling made him reckless. "Do you here me, sorcerer?" he bellowed. "I will find you, one way or another. We will come face to face, and then you will tremble. Are you afraid?"
"I've sworn it, too," Thomas said, in a strange voice. Taking a visible breath, he touched the blood with one fingertip, and pressed it against his chest. "Brothers?"
Lankin could not bring himself to give the old response. They had always sworn always to hate the same people and follow the same cause, but this was different. The sorcerer felt like his own personal enemy. He wanted to push Thomas away and say, "No, he's mine." Of all the people in the city who had sworn their own private oaths to capture the sorcerer, Lankin was sure his own oath was the most special. No-one else had touched him. No-one else had grabbed for him in the darkness, almost had him, then felt him slip away.
"Why?" Thomas asked, almost plaintively, as they began to walk back to the barracks. "Why did you do it?"
"How can you ask?" Lankin made himself sound irritated, but in reality he was barely listening. There were so many people in the streets, and every face needed to be examined, and every voice listened to. "Every Soldier of Light should have done the same."
"No," Thomas persisted. "It was more than that. I've never seen you like this, Lankin."
Lankin did not reply. How could he? He would confess it to Darius, but to no-one else. If they knew that he had come so close to capturing the enemy but had let him go, they would hate him, and with due cause. If only he'd held on a little harder… If only he'd been strong enough to resist the fear of that unnatural darkness… But Lankin knew he could undo his mistake. He would devote every waking hour to the task, and never rest, not until the sorcerer was captured again, and safely dead. Nothing else would do. He had sworn it.
It went further than that, though. Even before the sorcerer's escape, Lankin's hatred for him had been personal. There was little time for levity in the ranks of the Soldiers of Light, but there still too much of it for Lankin's taste. "He looks like you," Matthew had remarked, as they had watched the captured sorcerer being led through the courtyard.
Perhaps it had not been unkindly meant, but Lankin not liked it one bit. "He doesn't look like me at all."
"Yes he does. Better looking than you, though, I grant you that."
The memory still infuriated him. How dare they even suggest that he and the sorcerer had anything in common? He would show the world that nothing could be further from the truth. Where the sorcerer revelled in evil, Lankin killed only to preserve good. "Not like me at all," Lankin would cry, as he kicked that repulsive handsome face into a pulp, and ripped out handfuls of that golden hair. And everyone would watch, and know that he, Lankin, had done it. Lord Darius would smile, and admit him further into his confidence, and that would be the best reward of all.
He still remembered every detail of his first meeting with Lord Darius. Lankin had been in the regular army then, though it scarcely deserved the name. He had joined it at sixteen, full of innocent dreams of righteousness and glory, but he had been cruelly disappointed. There were great wrongs in the world, but the army never seemed to be fighting them. It was full of lazy youths and drunken old men, and it marched up and down with shining weapons, but never did anything worthwhile.
For five years, Lankin had docilely followed orders, and not said a word about his discontent. Then, on his twenty-first birthday, he got horribly drunk. Early the next morning, his head still pounding and his eyes blurry, he was summoned before Lord Darius.
"So you have come," Darius said, when Lankin was shown into his chamber. He made it sound as if Lankin had had a choice.
Lankin managed to stand tall, and give a salute. "My lord." He had never been so close to Lord Darius before, though he had seen him many times at the parade ground and the barracks, a silent watcher who saw everything.
"I will come straight to the point," Darius said. "One of my agents had some very interesting things to say about you last night. Apparently you had a lot to say about the way the Duchy is run. Things that some might call treasonable. I'm wondering if you stand by what you said, or if you're going to tell me it was the drink talking, and swear that you didn't mean a single word of it. Or maybe you were only repeating what someone else had said to you - someone you will be very eager to name to me."
"I..." Lankin licked his lips. "I was drunk, yes, and I can't remember everything I said. But..." He raised his chin, and willed his stomach to stop churning. Perhaps he was very stupid, but he was no coward, and no liar. "But the opinions were my own. I am sure that I said nothing that I do not believe, my lord, though perhaps I said it more emphatically than I should have."
"A bold one, I see." Darius gave a slow chuckle. "Shall I refresh your memory of what you said?" He picked up a scroll from the table and carefully unrolled it. "The Duke is either a fool, or blind. His advisors are traitors. There are sorcerers in high positions in our institutions, corrupting our way of life. Some of the merchants are in league with the bandits, so they will attack their rivals caravans and spare their own." He looked up. "Is that all?"
"I said..." Lankin clasped his hands behind his back and dug the nails into the palms. "I probably said that the army is useless and good for nothing, commanded by idiots. I probably said that the bandits could attack tomorrow, and we'd run around like girls, and not be able to do a thing to repel them."
"And that you suspect that there are many in the Palace who would not want to repel then," Darius reminded him, with a sardonic smile.
Lankin's hands were sweaty and trembling. "Yes, my lord."
"And then you went on to list all the ways you would rule differently, if you had the chance." Darius dropped the paper onto the table, and it curled up with a snap. "Was that a threat to assassinate the Duke, Lankin? Are you planning rebellion?"
Lankin shook his head. "No, my lord. I just... I just think the Duchy isn't what it could be. I think it's become soft. The enemy is still out there, and we aren't doing anything. Why is that?" He snapped his mouth shut. He had condemned himself ten times over already, and what was the point of saying anything more? All that remained was to face his punishment.
Darius walked towards him. "I will put you out of your misery, Lankin, and let you into a little secret." He leant inwards and spoke in a whisper. "If you are a traitor, then I am, too."
Lankin pressed his lips together and resisted the urge to speak. It's a test, he thought, or a trick.
"I share your concerns," Darius said, "and I am in a more fortunate position than you, able to see even more of the truth. I, too, love the Duchy and all it stands for, but it grieves me to tell you that you are right. There are traitors in our midst. They have taught the people to grow complacent and lazy, unable to see the true threat. We are hastening towards disaster, Lankin, and only a few of us can see it."
Darius picked up another piece of paper from the table, but this one he did not unroll. "Here are your transfer papers, Lankin. You are to be transferred to a force of my own creation. Perhaps you have heard of them. Some people are calling them the Soldiers of Light." He gave a strange smile. "Soon our time will come, and then everyone will have heard the name, and know what they stand for, but for now much of their work is in secret. There will be little glory in it at first."
"I don't care about glory," Lankin burst out. "All I want to do is serve."
"And serve you shall." Darius sighed. "It is a hard life, the life of service. I serve ceaselessly, night and day, striving only for the good of the Duchy, but there are many who work to undo me. And they are the ones wearing gold and brocade, while I live the way you see now." He gestured to the austere room, littered with maps and papers, with no sign of comfort anywhere in it.
"I will serve you, my lord," Lankin vowed. He wanted to promise to help him, too, but thought that would be presumptuous, so did not.
"Not me." Darius shook his head, lowering his eyes humbly. "The Duchy and its people. And the Duke, too, who had been misled by false friends."
He offered Lankin a badge taken from his own clothes, and Lankin swelled with pride to receive it. "Lightning," Darius explained. "It brings destruction, but it is also light, pure light. A fitting badge for the Soldiers of Light, don't you think?"
Lankin cherished that badge above everything else, but now he had a second badge, made out of blood. For the first time, he found himself eager to kill. Like many of the Soldiers of Light, he did not normally revel in killing. Darius was not a cruel man, and the men he had hand-picked were men of conviction, not men of violence. They cared passionately for the well-being of the people, and wanted to create a better world. The traitors who stood in the way had to be removed, but a soldier who loved indiscriminate violence had no place in their ranks. Killing was a regrettable duty, and that was all.
"You haven't heard a word I've said." Thomas's petulant voice cut into his thoughts.
They were almost back at the barracks, where they would change into plain clothes, then rush back into the city to tear it apart until they found their quarry. Lankin started to run. He might not enjoy killing, but the sorcerer was different. He deserved every torture, and Lankin wanted to be the one to wring the screams from his foul body. "I was thinking about killing him," he shouted over his shoulder, "and how good it will be." He stopped and spread his arms. "Are you afraid, sorcerer?" he shouted. "You should be." And then he smiled again, and dreamed of what it would be like when he found him.
Ciaran had had a little sleep, curled beneath his cloak in the cool outdoors. He had managed to drink some water, taking it from a flask that Reynard had offered him. Then he had felt hungry, and Reynard had given him some bread from his pack, and Ciaran had managed to eat it without being sick. He felt a lot better, but still Elias had not come.
They were camped in the same place as before, on the ridge several miles from the city. Reynard had gone in a different direction first, then lost the cart in the middle of a dense thicket, before proceeding on horseback to their hiding place. He had not untied Ciaran's hands, and Ciaran had clung desperately to the saddle, as the horse's jolting steps sent waves of painful dizziness through his head. He had needed all his energy just to stay in the saddle, which was why he hadn't fought.
The first thing Reynard had done upon arriving was unearth his sword and attach it to his belt with a sigh of relief, but that had been hours ago. How long had they been here? By the sky, it looked like late afternoon. Sometimes the wind brought the distant sound of bells, and he knew that all the bells of the city were still sounding their ceaseless call to action. It would be hard to live with that sound and not be driven to a frenzy of violence, desperate to do anything just to make them stop.
"So they haven't caught him yet," he murmured. "But why isn't he here?"
"He should be." Reynard had his back to him, lying flat on the ground, peering over the edge of the ridge. Ciaran knew what he was seeing - just an empty plain where there should have been a solitary traveller, coming towards them. If he stared at the city and willed it hard enough, would Elias come walking from the city, walking back to him?
Ciaran crawled to his side. He felt so much better now, able to move without his stomach lurching, and to look at the light without cringing. It should have been a wonderful thing to feel the pain lifting, but concern for Elias was like claws clutching at his heart. "Did he really say we'd meet here?"
Reynard nodded. "He did. Even though he hoped his plan would work, he wanted to make sure we got away if it didn't, but he knew you wouldn't obey, which is why he only told me." He spoke with a weary sort of bitterness, as if he hated Ciaran, but was too tired to fight him.
But if Reynard was tired, Ciaran was bursting with new-found energy. "I think you’re lying," he accused him.
Reynard sighed. "I don't care what you think."
"Why are you waiting here?" Ciaran demanded. "What are you getting out of it?" He already knew the answer, but he wanted to hear it from Reynard's own mouth. Reynard had done everything he could to stop Ciaran saving Elias, going to considerable effort to drag him out of the city. Despite all Reynard's efforts, Elias had managed to escape the scaffold. If he managed to escape the city, too, Reynard would be lying in wait for him, either to kill him himself, or to masquerade as a friend, ready to betray him later. He would have a good explanation for every little bit of treachery he had performed.
"He will come," Reynard said. "He has to."
Soon, Ciaran promised. Soon he would be fully healed, and the Shadow would come to his command, and he would be free of these bonds. "So you're waiting for him to come, so you can... What do you want to do to him when he comes, Reynard?"
"Help him," Reynard spat. "Take him home. I..." He bit back whatever he had been about to say.
"Help him?" Ciaran echoed, feeling very cold. "Was he hurt? Did you lie about that, too?"
Reynard closed his eyes. "He was hurt. But he could still stand. I only told you he wasn't because I needed you to come quietly."
"You..." Ciaran began, but it was as if he had awakened something in Reynard, for the man whirled round, his face a mask of fury. "I would have waited for him!" Reynard screamed. "If it wasn't for you, I'd never have left. I'd have found him or died looking. But I left, all because of you, because of my promise. So don't you dare accuse me of being a traitor. Don't you dare! You stopped me from saving him. You."
"Is that what you're going to tell the others?" Ciaran shouted. "You'll tell them you did everything you could, but I know the truth. You'll have to kill me, too, to stop me telling. Because I will tell. You stopped me from saving him. You stopped me!"
"You didn't even try," Reynard sneered. "Do you really believe the lies you tell yourself? Oh, you shouted a bit, yes, but did you ever struggle when you were in that cart? You could have. What was stopping you?" He jabbed a finger into Ciaran's chest. "Yourself. You didn't struggle because you knew you would fail, and you hate that. You didn't struggle, because it was easier just to lie there, and then tell yourself it was all my fault."
"You're lying!" Ciaran screamed. "You stopped me! I could have saved him, but you stopped me!"
"I don't think he needs your kind of saving," Reynard said, suddenly quiet. "You who as good as admitted that you'd taught him to believe he couldn't do anything well. Better for him if he never saw you again." He drew his sword a few inches from the scabbard, the threat unmistakeable. "But he doesn't seem to realise it," he said, slamming it back in. "So I won't kill you, not yet. I obeyed him this time, and will until he releases me from my promise, but I will never make such a promise to him, never again, or obey him, not in things like this."
"So you admit you're a traitor," Ciaran said. He pulled at his bonds, but they did not yield. He forced his anger down, and managed to hide it. He would pretend he was still beaten, then call on the Shadow in the dead of night, and overwhelm Reynard when he least expected it.
Yes, he thought. Better to wait. And perhaps Elias would come soon.
It was a terrible thing to be dying in the middle of a crowd. Elias walked in a weaving gait, his arms clutched to his middle, braced against a cold that no-one else seemed to feel. He had escaped from the square, but through a different entrance from the one he had entered the day before, and had soon got lost. Several hours had passed, he thought, and he was no safer than he had been when he had plunged from the scaffold.
Bells were peeling relentlessly, their wild cacophony making him want to scream at them to be quiet. People kept looking at him, then looking away hastily. He had the appearance of a beggar, and no-one wanted to be near him. Even those who looked kind kept their distance. They thought an evil sorcerer was loose in their midst, and it was making them wary, wanting only to look after themselves and their families. He was glad at their selfishness. If they came too close, he didn't know what he would do.
The soldiers were everywhere, searching private houses and interrogating everyone they thought suspicious. Worse than the soldiers, though, were the common people who had taken it upon themselves to police their own city. Fuelled by the bells, they were fired up with anger and hatred, and knew no moderation. A young man was beaten to the ground and his shirt half ripped from his back by a mob looking for a sword wound on his side. Elias would have intervened, but then they tired of it, and moved on, leaving the young man beaten but alive.
He was staggering along a squalid street. He had no idea where he was. People watched him from the overhanging windows, but no-one came for him. I'm a beggar, he willed with the enchantment, an old man who you've seen many times before, but never really looked at. He had become part of the city architecture, of no more account than the filth in the gutter.
I'm lost, master, he thought. Why don't you find me? Reynard and Ciaran were not men to give up and admit defeat. They would look in every nook and cranny until they found him, and then he would be safe. But he'd told Reynard to take Ciaran and leave the city, hadn't he? But since when had Reynard obeyed him? Since when had Ciaran allowed himself to be pushed around by Reynard? They hadn't been able to do anything to save him from the scaffold, but they wouldn't let him get lost in the city, not them. They wouldn't let him die here, all alone. They'd come for him, and that was that.
He emerged from the foul street into a larger one, and that one took him to a place where five roads met. It was open to the skies and pretty, like a different city from the alleys only a few minutes away. He remembered thinking how beautiful the city was, but now that seemed like only a façade. Five minutes away from the main streets there was as much misery as in the back streets of Conisborough. Perhaps everything good was like that. Scratch the surface, and the true awfulness was revealed beneath. His hope had died, and his courage, and his ideals. Darius had made them all disappear in minutes, and beneath that shining surface lay something rotten and festering, and he would never forget it.
There was a fountain in the middle of the open space, with a carved stone horse emerging from the clear water. He made his faltering way towards it, and clung to its rim. A bronze beaker sat on the edge, and it wasn't even chained to stop it from being stolen. Elias wiped his hand on his clothes, removing the worst of the blood, and filled the cup. His hand trembled and he spilled a bit, but what he drank was cool and lovely. He drank another cup, then another, but then he remembered that the last drink he had taken had been from Darius's own hand, and he dropped the beaker and was almost sick.
I can't go any further, he thought, when the trembling had passed. He picked up the beaker and set it back in its place, then turned to face the city, his hands clutching the stone rim behind him. His side was still bleeding, staining his clothes and something dripping even to the ground. Although he could hide the blood with illusion, it was still there, and he was weakening with every minute. When he walked away, the bloody smears would remain on the stone for all to see them. It was too much to hide every last drop in every meandering alley.
Minutes passed, perhaps even an hour. He sat down, but that only made it worse, for his head wanted to loll back against the fountain, and sleep tried to carry him away. Need to go, he thought. Get somewhere safe. But where was safe? Nowhere in this city, nowhere in this world, nowhere in this life. Darius was alive, and how could he ever feel safe in a world that held Darius?
Master. He pressed his face into his raised knees. Please come for me. Please make it all go away. He had saved himself from the scaffold all by himself, but he couldn't do it now, not any more. Albacrist had hurt him, because he wasn't really a king, only a boy who badly needed help. He was lost, and needed someone big and strong to show him the way. Please don't leave me here all alone. Last time he had cried in the gutter, Ciaran had come striding out of the sunset to save him. Please come. I've done what I can, but I can't find my way out.
A sound alerted him, and he opened his teary eyes to see a pair of booted feet standing before him. He looked up, and there was a soldier peering down at him. "Move along now, old man," the soldier said, not unkindly.
Elias's throat went as dry as paper. If he spoke, would his voice condemn him? What mistakes had he made? Was this a trick, and they knew who he was already?
"Other people want to use the fountain," the soldier said, "and today is no day to be out loitering in the streets. A sorcerer is at large, or haven't you heard? You should go back home."
I'm trying to, Elias thought, but I don't know the way. He bit his lip and fought the urge to ask the soldier to help him. He could tell him he lived by the bridge and had managed to get lost, and could you tell me the way out of the city, please, and thank you very much.
The soldier stood there impatiently until Elias managed to struggle to his feet and take a tiny step. Then, satisfied, he turned and walked away. Elias let out a breath. Have to go. Have to move on.
The soldier had left bloody footprints, nice and easy for Elias to follow. But if he followed them, he'd end up in a nest of soldiers, so he'd turn his back and go the other way, where there were no footprints at all. He started to walk, then terror hit him like a fist. The footprints! The soldier had been standing in Elias's blood, and Elias had forgotten to hide the blood that stuck to his boots. If the soldier turned and looked back... And someone could have been watching from a window and seen it all...
He started to run, shambling along with his hand pressed to his wounded side. He sought nothing but darkness now. He chose the darkest street, and the darkest alley that led off it. His breath sobbing in his throat, he found himself in a small deserted courtyard, with tall buildings on either side. He passed through it, along a narrow passageway on the other, then moaned aloud, for he was back in the square again, and the scaffold was still there, with black-clad soldiers waiting for him. No. Please no. He recoiled and staggered back, back to the courtyard, so dark and squalid, and so close to the merry facades of the tall houses on the square.
Hide, he thought. Can't go any further. He pushed open a door, and found himself in a stable, and how wonderful it was, because suddenly he could sense his master here. "Master!" he called aloud. He shut the door behind him, and plunged forward into the straw. "Master!" He rummaged deeply and his hands found the colourful clothing that Ciaran had worn when they had entered the city. Elias buried his face in it and inhaled deeply. "I'm here, master. Please look after me."
Clutching the clothes tightly to his chest, he collapsed onto his side, snuggled into the straw, and fell asleep.
It was night when Elias woke up. His wound burned like fire when he moved as much as a muscle. Claws were scraping at the soft lining of his throat, and his stomach was cramping with thirst and hunger.
He pressed the soft clothing against his cheek and his lips. If he closed his eyes, he could tell himself that his master was here with him. If he burrowed very deep into the straw, it felt warm, like strong arms holding him safe. And it was dark there, too, and that was good. No-one could see him in the dark.
Somewhere a bell rang, but only one. That wild pealing had stopped some time while he had been asleep. Not because they've given up, he thought, but because it's impossible to live with them all sounding all at once. They would still be searching for him. They wouldn't give up, not until they'd found him. And here he was, trapped in the middle of the city, unable to get out. But why should he want to get out? Better to hide. Hiding was good. Darius couldn't find someone who hid.
"I don't feel very well, master," he whispered to the bundle clothing in his arms. "I'm allowed to stay here, aren't I? Everything will be all right?"
Sometimes he was sure that Ciaran was with him, but there were times, dark times, when he knew that Ciaran was not. He had gone, and only his clothes remained, and the sense of his presence grew fainter every time Elias looked for it. His master had been here once, but had gone, and now he was out in the big city, looking for Elias. Maybe Elias should make it easier for his master to find him. He should go outside and stand somewhere obvious, so Ciaran could see him.
Yes, he thought, he would do that. He stood up, then cried out when he dropped the clothes. "Master!" He groped for them, and fell down again, head first into the straw. The wound on his side was still leaking blood, and he knew it had not even begun to heal. With the Shadow he could knit the edges of wounds together, but the Shadow had never come to snivelling boys like him. A king's enchantment could drive away infection, but Albacrist had wounded him, and Albacrist was enchantment itself, so it felt wrong to try to heal the wound it had inflicted. It had judged him unworthy, and struck out at him, and he had to bear his punishment.
Bells sounded the steadily increasing hours, two, and three, then six, and seven. Grey light began to filter into the stable from the high window, and he moaned and turned away from it. Light was his enemy, for Darius could see him in the light.
He pulled his knees up to his chest, biting his lips against the pain of movement, and curled as tight as tight could be, as small as a mouse, as a speck of dust "Why haven't you come?" he whispered into the clothes. "Why are you leaving me?" For the sense of his master was growing fainter, and soon he would not be able to pretend, even in his most confused moments, that his master really was here. He wanted one last moment with him before he left.
"I hate you," his master had said. Or had he? Dreams and reality mingled and he had no idea what was true. He had pushed his master away. "You made your choice," Ciaran had said, "and now you have to face the consequences. It was your own fault. You were the one who let Darius break you. You were the one who pushed me away when I was trying to help you. By doing so, you told me that you didn't want me any more. So I've gone. You're all alone."
"I didn't!" he wailed. "I just wanted you to be safe. But now I need you."
"You can't have it both ways," his master said, folding his arms.
Elias buried his face in the bundle of clothes, so his own blood smeared on his cheek. "Can't I?" It didn't seem fair, but why would his master lie to him?
"Of course you can," his master crooned, suddenly soft and gentle and everything Elias had ever dreamed of. "And I'm here for you. I've found you. Just lie still, and I'll do everything else. There's no need to worry about a thing."
Footsteps sounded outside the door, and he heard someone lift the latch. But Ciaran was here. Ciaran would look after him. All he had to do was lie still. That's what Ciaran had said, and Ciaran was his master, and why would he lie?
It was the blood that alerted him. Lankin pressed a finger to his lips, and gestured silently at the red smear on the ground.
Thomas's eyes gleamed. They had been searching for two whole days, with barely an hour's sleep. They had searched everywhere, and questioned everyone. Everyone had a story to tell, and Lankin had listened with growing impatience to ever more wild tales of near-escapes and sightings. In many of the stories, the sorcerer was a fearsome monster, with slavering jaws and sharp teeth, but Lankin knew that the truth was far worse. The sorcerer was a fellow man, and it was a terrible thing to know that a man was capable of such evil.
Many of the regular soldiers were growing despondent, and had started muttering that the sorcerer must have escaped from the city on that first morning, and was half way home, while they all ran around in circles locking doors after he had bolted. But the hounds had searched the two roads that led from the city, and found no trace of him. A scout had reported seeing two travellers camped on a ridge a few miles from the bridge, and that was potentially interesting, but Lankin was sure the sorcerer had not yet left the city.
He had had one short interview with Darius. "I heard about your oath," Darius had said. "It pleases me. Your devotion to your cause does you credit."
The events of the past days weighed heavily on Darius, and he had spoken quickly and to the point, sounding not at all like his normal self. He looked strained, and sounded tired. He was like a shepherd who knew that a wolf was loose amongst him flock, and was unable to sleep until they were safe again. Even the unobservant Thomas had realised that Lankin had reasons for his oath, but Darius, who normally let nothing escape him, had not even asked.
It had left Lankin feeling uneasy, for Darius's omniscience was one thing all Soldiers of Light knew as a fact. It had made him offer up what Darius should have already known. "He landed right next to me when he jumped from the scaffold. I should have stopped him."
"And I should have made sure he didn't escape in the first place, instead of..." Darius had broken off suddenly, and turned away. "When this is over, I will call for you, Lankin. Be ready. The call will come at any time."
"I am always ready, my lord."
"I know." Darius had turned back to face him, and it had been the old Darius, the one Lankin had always known. "The Duchy needs more of your kind. You are a rare person, Lankin, ready to sacrifice everything to good of others."
"As are you, my lord," Lankin had said hotly.
"As am I." Smiling thinly, Darius had nodded, then waved his hand. "Return to your duties now, Lankin. We have a sorcerer to catch."
That had been two days ago. Now, on the morning of the third day, Lankin felt the thrill that came from knowing once again that he might be close, that this might be the one, after so many disappointments and false leads. It was only a smear of blood at waist height, as a wounded man might leave if he staggered a little and brushed against the wall. It was only chance that had let it survive, for the overhanging roof had protected it from the rain that had washed away any trails on the ground.
"Probably nothing," he whispered, but his heart was beating fast as he led Thomas along the alleyway. Doubtless other soldiers had searched here that first afternoon, for it was close to the square itself, but where would the sorcerer feel safer than in a place that had already been searched?
Gesturing again at Thomas to be silent, he lifted the latch of the stable door, and went in. It smelled inside, of old straw and horses, and perhaps of something human, like sickness and filth. He crept forward eagerly, and there, in the darkest corner, he saw something move.
There were two of them. They weren't wearing uniform, but Elias thought they were probably soldiers anyway, who had changed their clothes to confuse him. One of them had fair hair, and the other was dark.
He wriggled his hands and his feet, trying to burrow a little deeper into the straw that hid him all, except for the little patch, all criss-crossed with yellow, that he could see through. The fair-haired soldier started at that, and whirled towards him.
He heard me, Elias told his master. He knows I'm here. Do something. The sudden fear was like cold water thrown on his face. Ciaran wasn't here at all. No-one would protect him. The soldiers had come for him, and he was alone.
Please, he thought. A mouse. A mouse, burrowed deep in the earth, who could snuggle all safe, or scuttle so fast that no-one could catch him. A mouse. Hide.
The fear was bright and loud, and his whole body was burning with fever, so like the white fire of enchantment. The soldiers looked away. "Only a mouse," the dark-haired one said, "or a rat. Did you see it?"
"I thought I saw something else," the other one said. He started wading through the straw, heading for Elias.
Hide, he pleaded. His heart was racing so fast he thought the straw must be heaving with the beat of it. Enchantment was like fire, and hard to control. What if white light was blazing from his skin, betraying him? It was hard to do small things. It was hard to know where he stopped, and the fire began.
"Nothing there," one of them said. The fair-haired one was peering into the straw, and Elias stared back at him.
With a cry of fury, the soldier stepped back. "Only a rat. You're right." For a moment he looked furious, but then he took a deep breath, and even managed a smile. "Yet another false alarm."
"Another one to go on the report to Lord Darius," said the other one. "He might see things that we've missed."
Darius! Elias echoed, as they walked away and shut the door. Darius coming here. Darius reaching through the straw and touching him. Darius.
He lay very still until the footsteps receded, in case they were sneaky and decided to come back for him, then he sat up. He had to go. He'd rested here for too long. Ciaran wasn't here, and no-one was coming for him. He had to go out in the world and find Ciaran by himself. Even though I don't know the way. Even though I hurt so much.
"Good bye, master." He gently covered the bundle of clothes with straw and smoothed it down. "I've got to go now." But Ciaran wasn't here, was he? Ciaran was outside somewhere, that's why Elias was going out to find him. His head hurt with thinking. It was hard to remember what was true and what was only a dream.
The clock struck eight times. It was sunny outside, and the light could not hide him, and the stable was nice and dark. But Darius was coming, and somewhere outside there was a gate, and beyond the gate was a bridge, and beyond the bridge was a whole world. Ciaran was there, and Reynard, and Oliver, all waiting for him, like parents holding their arms out to a baby, saying, "Walk to me."
"I'm coming," he said aloud, in a voice that was hardly there at all. With every step, he felt as if he was being torn apart. His wrists were inflamed and puffy around the thick red wounds, and he didn't dare look at his side, but he wouldn’t stop, not again. He would walk and walk and walk, until he was safe, until Darius could never touch him, never again.
Two nights and a day. By the morning of the third day, Elias still had not come. Ciaran was almost healed now, though he cherished that truth as a secret, husbanding it as he did his returning ability with the Shadow.
The second day had rained, but the third was bright with a thin sunlight. Morning light glittered on the weapons of the dark mass of men who scoured the banks of the river, scything down the reeds that could hide a man. The bells had fallen silent, but the sight of those soldiers told Ciaran that Elias had still not been captured, and there was still hope.
No-one left the city except those soldiers. Ignorant travellers arrived at the bridge and were let in, but no-one went the other way. Reynard and Ciaran must have been among the last to be let out. If Reynard had not moved so fast, and if Ciaran had fought a little harder, they would be trapped in the city, unable to escape.
Ciaran's wrists were still bound. Reynard looked haggard and exhausted, and had said very little through all the time of waiting. Once, a group of soldiers with hounds had crossed the river, and Reynard had tensed up, his hand going to his dagger, but the hounds had failed the find the scent they were looking for, and the party had returned. They seemed very sure that Elias was still in the city.
"There are other ways out for him," Reynard said, once, "if the stories are true." He did not explain what he meant. "He might be heading home already, while we wait for him, putting ourselves in more danger with every hour we wait. It's only a matter of time before they've looked everywhere in the city and come out in force. If they do, they'll find us."
"So you're thinking of going?" Ciaran said, but Reynard gave no answer, and said nothing else for several hours, not until a fresh party of men crossed the bridge and set out purposefully along the road.
"Why?" Reynard wondered aloud. The soldiers' hounds were baying joyfully, though they were not following a scent. The horsemen were following the road, and their hiding place was well off that route, but they were close enough to make Ciaran feel uncomfortable.
Still Elias did not come. Ciaran had his strength back now, and reached for the link in his mind, calling Elias by name. He thought something stirred a little in response, like a drowsy kitten pushing into a soft touch, but that was all. "Elias!" he called aloud, until Reynard stopped him with a hand over his mouth.
"Two days," Reynard said, after releasing Ciaran. "We've given him two days. There will have to come a time when we just can't wait any longer."
"He's still alive." Ciaran closed his eyes, and sought the strength of the Shadow. He had to quell his hatred of Reynard, for the Shadow disliked anger. It was hard. He tugged at the knots with the Shadow, but even the slightest thought of the ropes that bound him made him want to howl with fury.
He heard Reynard slither away, full length in the grass. "They're leaving the road," he said. "It might be coincidence. I kept watch every night, and don't think anyone saw us..." His voice trailed away doubtfully. Reynard looked permanently exhausted now, and maybe he had fallen asleep, and some straying traveller or scout had found their camp, and rushed to the city bearing news. He must know that as well as Ciaran did.
"So it was you who led to us being captured, and not me at all." Ciaran's voice was vague, as he concentrated on the Shadow and the knots. When the ropes fell away, he made no sound at all, and kept his wrists pressed together, so Reynard would not see.
Reynard pushed himself down the slope, then stood up. "We have to go now. We can't risk it."
"No." Ciaran stood up, and let Reynard see that he was free. "Not me. Not this time."
Reynard gave a quick bark of laughter. "And what do you mean to do? Present yourself to them and expect mercy? Make your way back to the city to look for Elias, with twenty soldiers blocking the way? I think not."
Ciaran clenched his fists. "I don't care what you say. Our ways part here."
"Do they?" Reynard arched one eyebrow. Then he sighed, and seemed to weary of taunting Ciaran. "I haven't got time for this. Much as I would love to leave you here for them to find, you're coming with me, and that's final."
With another weary sigh, he launched himself at Ciaran, knocking him to the ground before he had time to react. Ciaran's head jarred painfully against the ground, and suddenly didn't seem healed at all. Reynard smashed the heel of his hand into Ciaran's chin, then heaved him over onto his front. As the distant sound of hounds grew louder, Ciaran felt his arms wrenched behind his back, and tied tightly at the wrists.
"Reynard," he screamed into the ground. He kicked his legs and tried to throw him off, but Reynard clung on. "You're a traitor! I'll get you for this! Elias! I can't leave Elias!"
Reynard held his ankles together with surprising strength, and bound them, too. "I have to," he said, "and so do you."
It was still early, with few people out in the streets. Perhaps that was good, because it meant there were fewer people to jostle him and talk to him, but perhaps it was bad because it left him exposed. A woman opened her shutters high above him, and leaned on her folded arms, watching him pass. He briefly met her eyes, then looked away, wishing he could sink into the ground and hide.
He was shuffling along slowly, sure that every step would be his last. The sky seemed to be pulsing with strange colours, and he kept hearing the sound of hooves, echoing off the walls in the narrow streets. Several times he almost fell, but he kept close to the buildings, and never took his left hand from the wall, and that gave him something to lean on. Ciaran had told him a story long ago, about a hero who had found his way out of a maze. "He just kept one hand on the wall," he had explained, "and never let go. It takes a long time, but sooner or later you always reach the way out. It cannot fail."
Eidengard was a maze, and Darius was the monster at its heart, and the guardian who tried to look the door, but if Elias held on, he would find the way out. Even if he had to walk forever, he would find the gate.
His path took him into dark courtyards that he knew were dead-ends, but he walked round them even so, terrified of taking his left hand from the wall. After a while, he found himself in richer streets, where women frowned at him for trailing his hand over their front doors. "Move along now," they shouted. What would they say if they knew who he was? There was not a single person in the city who did not despise him and want him dead.
A party of men on horseback passed him, and he pressed his back against the wall, turning his face so his cheek was against the stone. They wore black uniforms, and their horses were muscular and built for speed. They're going on a journey, he thought. Out of the city. Looking for me.
That meant a gate. Why would they be riding this way unless the gate was near? But then they turned right, and he could only follow them if he took his left hand from the wall, and that would break his system, and he would be lost again.
He walked a little further, then stopped. There has to be a gate. Taking a deep breath, he removed his left hand from the wall, and stepped out into the exposed middle of the street. It felt very cold all around him, and the street felt very wide, but he managed to cross it, and headed down the road the soldiers had taken.
And there, ahead of him, was the gate. He hurried towards it, but it was closed. He pulled back into a dark doorway, and watched it, his heart beating fast. It was closed with a great metal latch, and there were soldiers guarding it. As he watched, a woman approached the soldiers and started to remonstrate with them, but they just shook their heads and refused to let her pass. "No-one goes out," they said, "unless they have special dispensation from Lord Darius."
Elias slid to his knees. How do I get out? Part of him just wanted to weep. I did everything I could, it whimpered, but now the gate is locked against me, and I can't get out. But he was so close now. If he got through the gate, he would be out of Darius's lair. I have to try. I have to do something. That part of him wanted to run screaming, battering himself against the gate again and again, pounding it with his fists and shrieking, "Let me out! I have to get out!"
Hide, he thought. It was hard to make himself completely unseen. To look like a beggar, he only had to create the image of the old man, but to go completely unseen he had to create an image of the things a person would be able to see if he wasn't there. It was different for every person, and changed with every step.
Someone hammered at the door from the other side, and shouted something Elias couldn't hear. Taking a deep breath, he pushed himself out of the doorway and walked towards the gate. Nobody paid any attention to him.
One soldier unbolted a smaller door set in the enormous gates, wide enough to let two men walk abreast, and Elias could see a man on the other side, about to step through. The other soldiers readied their weapons, in case any-one from the city used it as an opportunity to escape. None of them noticed when Elias darted through the door. One of them started a little as if he heard something, and the travellers whose clothes he brushed against frowned with puzzlement, then shrugged.
And that was it. He was free. I did it! he thought. The door clanged shut behind him, and he was safe. He was out of the city, and he had done it all by himself. Darius was still inside, locked inside, contained by the beautiful walls built by the old kings. Elias had escaped.
He started to walk, and his elation trickled away. He still had such a long way to go, and he was still alone. The city walls towered behind him, and they would be manned with soldiers and sentries, and the slightest slip could still betray him. He looked only at the ground, seeing nothing more than his next step, but there would be a thousand thousand such painful steps before he was safe. Master, he thought. I've done nearly all of it by myself. Please help me just with this last bit. Please.
He had told Reynard to leave the city and wait outside, so Reynard and Ciaran would be close. "I'm coming," he whispered. "Wait for me." He raised his eyes to look for them, then cried aloud, and sank to the ground. This isn't right. Where was the river? All he could see ahead of him was scrubland, scattered with gorse and brambles. He blinked, willing it to change back to how it should be, but it stayed the same. Was it a cruel trick? Darius had moved things around to confuse him. Elias had gone through the gate, but he was as lost as ever.
And then there was shouting behind him, and he peered round to see the great gates thrown open, and hounds come surging through, baying joyfully. How did they find me? What did I do wrong? But what hadn't he done wrong? He had forgotten that a city had to have more than one gate, and he had come out in the wrong direction. A wide river and a great city lay between him and safety. Ciaran and Reynard could wait and wait, but he had gone the wrong way, and would never find them.
He stood up and started running, but there was no hiding place, and no shelter. The walls behind him were very tall, and an arrow landed just behind him. Could they see him? Had they seen him all along, but just pretended not to, to let him have his tiny moment of triumph before bringing him crashing down? That was the sort of thing Darius would do. Oh! Is Darius there?
Sobbing, he threw himself to the ground, and wriggled into the depths of a clump of prickly gorse. He put his hands over his head, and drew his knees up to his chest. Hide, he thought. Hide.
But this was the end, and there was no hope for him. They were close, far too close. "The dogs think he went this way," he heard, "but I can't see anything." "There's fresh blood here," another said. And then they were all speaking at once. "I felt something at the door, I know I did." "The woman said the old man just disappeared into thin air." "Even if we can't see him, he's still here."
They started jabbing at him with spears and pikes, cutting through the thick gorse, stabbing into the ground. The dogs surged towards him, eager to touch him. Go away, he sobbed. They're going to kill me, but I didn't do anything. And, although he had surely sacrificed all right to any respect from the creatures of the enchantment, the dogs pulled back, whining piteously as if in apology. One of them snarled and turned on his master.
"He's enchanted the dogs," someone cried in disgust.
"You do yourself no good, sorcerer!" another shouted. "All you do is prove beyond doubt that you're here."
A dog screamed, and Elias felt a surge of pain in his mind, and knew the dog's master had killed him, rather than let him live under a sorcerer's spell. I did that, Elias whispered. That was my fault. Perhaps he should just roll over and surrender, and let them do what they wanted with him. He couldn't hide here, and he couldn't run, not fast enough to escape. Even if he ran invisible, he would leave behind a trail of bloody footprints from his bare feet, and they would be able to follow him to the end of the world. This was the end.
But if he surrendered, then there would be Darius. "No." He pressed his fist to his mouth. His fingers were cold and grey, and the wounds at his wrists were unhealed and packed with dirt. There were dozens of wounds under his clothes, each one inflicted by Darius, and far worse wounds deep inside, on his soul. He couldn't face Darius again, he couldn't.
"I want to find my master," he whispered, as the spears stabbed through the branches and nearly found him. If he closed his eyes, he could pretend. Ciaran and Reynard on the ridge on the far side of the city, waiting for him, and the path towards them was like golden sunset, soft on his bleeding feet. They were waiting for him, and all he had to do was find them.
"I'm coming," he cried. But he couldn't run, for the soldiers would follow his footprints. He would fly like a bird, far above the pains of the ground, born by the wind, until he found his master.
A spear plunged in, just where he was lying, but he was no longer there. His arms were wings, and his cold flesh was all covered with soft feathers, and he was soaring high, far above the dead rags that had held his body. The sunlight air bore him up, and he was free.