Chapter one

Child of shadows

 

 

The day before the Crux was a holiday, a time to spend with friends, but Elias Ward had no friends, and always spent the day alone.

       Every year was much the same. In the morning, he sat in the uncomfortable window seat of whatever room he had been put in that year, slowly turning the pages of a book, or watching the way the antique glass in the window made the city outside look unreal and warped, like something from one of his dreams. Whenever he heard footsteps near his door, he held his breath, wondering if his master had decided to spend a few minutes with him after all, but the footsteps always passed by.

       By the time afternoon came, he was always so stifled by the small room, and so weary of disappointment, that he ventured out into the Basilica. It no longer scared him much, the thought of all these strangers looking at him. He had learnt by now that there were some people who got noticed, and some who did not. Elias was one of the invisible ones. He could walk through the Basilica for days, and no-one would remember his face.

       Wherever he wandered, he always ended up in the same place. There were dark corners in the cloisters, and it was possible to slip in, sit there for hours, and leave without anyone even seeing you. Elias had his own special place at the foot of an ancient statue of some hero whose name had been forgotten. It was in the shadows, but it afforded him a view of those who lived their lives in the light.

       He called them the golden ones, these young men who would one day change the world. The open space at the centre of the cloister was their playground, where they chatted beneath the magnolia tree, or sparred together with their staffs. They were everything Elias would never be, and he had always been fascinated by them.

       There were four of them there today. The only one whose name Elias knew was Joachim, who was handsome and gifted and destined for great things. Elias found it hard to look away from him, but as he stared, hidden in the shadows, Joachim seemed to glance his way and beckon him closer.

       Elias hardly dared to breathe. No, he had misunderstood. It hadn't been meant for him. He pressed himself back against the wall, but then it came again, this time with a note of impatience. Elias clasped his moist hands together. Perhaps he should go back to his room. Maybe his master had decided that he wanted him after all. He was always irritated if he called for Elias, and Elias wasn't there, waiting for the call.  

       Before he could move, Joachim was on his feet, walking towards him. Even the sun seemed to love him. Light shimmered around his head like a silver crown, but then it was even more strange, for Joachim walked on, but the shimmering patch of light remained where it had been, hanging in the air beneath the magnolia tree. When Elias looked fully at it, though, it disappeared.

       Joachim was already speaking to him, and Elias scrambled to his feet, hoping he could answer well. "Why don't I know you?" Joachim demanded. He looked at Elias as if he was to blame for Joachim's ignorance. "I know everyone."

       "I don't..." Elias hadn't spoken to anybody in two days, and his voice was an ineffectual croak. He cleared his throat. "I don't live here. I'm only here for the Crux."

       Joachim frowned, then snapped his fingers in triumph. "I know who you are! You're Ciaran Morgan's apprentice. You're..." He tried for Elias's name for a moment, then gave up. "Why haven't you come here before?"

       "I'm Elias. Elias Ward." Behind his back, he pressed both hands against the cold stone wall. "I've come here every winter for ten years."

       "How old are you?" Joachim asked. Two of his friends had joined him by now, just in time to see Elias's humiliation. "Seventeen? Eighteen? You're taking your vows tomorrow, like Caleb here?"

       Elias looked at the ground. "I'm nineteen."

       Joachim's eyes widened. "Nineteen?" His surprise said everything. At eighteen, all trainee Brothers made their vows of dedication, or else left the Order. Elias's master had never sat him down and said, "Elias, you haven't got what it takes to be a Brother." He had simply said nothing about it at all, and Elias had never dared ask, in case Ciaran just hadn't yet got round to casting him out as worthless.

       The fair-haired young man called Caleb elbowed his way forward. "So what's Ciaran Morgan like? We're dying to know. We've heard all the stories, of course."

       Elias pushed himself away from the wall. "It's not fair, how people talk about him. They don't know him! He's the best master. He's..."

       "Easy." Joachim spread his hands and chuckled. "No need to leap to his defence like a faithful little terrier." He glanced over his shoulder at his friends, then back to Elias. "So, do you want to fight me or not?"

       "Fight you?" Elias retreated back to the wall. "Over what?"

       "Practice, of course. I've fought all this lot already today. Beat them all, of course. I need a new challenge." He leant forward. "Are you a new challenge, Elias Ward?"

       Elias moistened his lips. He had his staff with him, of course, but he had no love of fighting. Ciaran was a good teacher, but he always struck at Elias as if he meant it, and his eyes glittered like chips of ice whenever Elias landed a good blow. Elias always tried to lose as soon as possible, so his master would stop looking at him as if he hated him.

       Joachim tapped him on the chest in mock challenge. "Come on. Show us that you're right about your master. Show us that he's not been wasting his time in that backwater of his, but has produced an apprentice worthy of being called a Brother."

       But he hasn't, Elias thought. His master had done everything he could, but not even the wisest man in the world could turn lead into gold. It wasn't Ciaran's fault if Elias would never amount to anything much, no more than it had been Elias's parents' fault that that he had been a child impossible to love.

       "No?" Joachim arched one eyebrow. "Never mind, then."

       How still it was, Elias realised. The old men on the benches had fallen silent, and Joachim's friends were just watching him, waiting. The shimmering was back beneath the magnolia tree, and suddenly it seemed as if the whole world had come to a halt, and everyone in it was waiting to hear him decide whether to fight or not. Then Joachim turned away, and the spell was broken. Noise resumed, and, somewhere far away or deep within him, something gave a little sigh of hopelessness.

       He really didn't expect me to, Elias thought. He knows I'm a child of the shadows, not a golden one like him. But the sunlight was shining so magically in the centre of the cloister. How lovely it would be to have friends who smiled at you when you spoke. How amazing it would be to think that you could do something worthwhile with your life in the years to come.

       Elias had lived his life in a shadowed room, looking through the window at the sunlight, but never venturing out of the door. He was invisible, but he had never tried to make himself seen. He had never tried to do anything, because he had always expected to fail. It was better that way, he had always thought. He was who he was, and he couldn’t change that. He would never be one of the great ones. All he could hope for was that he would always have a home, and at least one person who cared for him a little. All he could long for was that he would never again be truly alone.

       Joachim was walking away. By tomorrow, he wouldn't even remember Elias's name. He would look at Ciaran during the Crux, and think, This is the master who raised the most worthless apprentice of all.

       But maybe it didn't need to be true. If he never tried anything, of course he would fail. If he never spoke, then he never gave anyone the chance to listen. Nothing would ever change unless he had the courage to take the first step. The future had to hold more than this.

       Elias made up his mind. Grabbing his staff, he stepped out into the light. "I'll fight you."

       Joachim's face broke into a jubilant grin. "You will?" Something else seemed to say the same, raising its head in renewed hope, and catching Elias by the throat.

       It left him off-balance, afraid to start. He slowly removed his cloak, and one of Joachim's friends reached out a hand to take it. Joachim was already bouncing on the balls of his feet, eager to get started, but Elias hefted his staff in both hands, trying to feel the placid waves of Shadow that were deeply imbued in its smooth grain. I don't have to win, he told himself. All he needed to do was hold his own for a little while, enough to show Joachim that Ciaran Morgan was a good teacher after all.

       "Ready?" Joachim sounded impatient.

       Elias opened his mouth to reply, but something was there, striking him between the eyes, making him sway with dizziness. He almost dropped his staff as he brought his left hand up to his brow. When he lowered his hand, nothing looked quite real. Diamond needles pricked his eyes, and Joachim's face was a flimsy mask of paper that would tear apart if he reached for it.

       "What is it?" Joachim was asking, but Elias was incapable of answering, and could barely hear him. Something was whispering in his mind, speaking words he could not hear. "Nothing?" Joachim's lips said. "Then we're starting. Now."

       He lunged forward, and Elias parried it blindly. The voice was still there, and, I don't know what it is! he wailed. Where's it coming from? It swelled louder and louder, and it hurt, and something was tugging at him from the inside, and he thought he was going insane. Master! he pleaded, but he was on his own, no-one to help him, alone.

       Joachim's next blow struck home, and perhaps that was the only thing that saved Elias. The pain was sudden and fierce, but it was a normal pain, and he understood the cause. As his elbow throbbed and his left hand went numb, the voice in his mind ebbed like the tide.

       "That would have killed you," Joachim taunted him, "if we were fighting for real. What are you, boy? Are you a Brother?"

       Elias clenched his jaw. "I am a Brother." He was saying it as much to the voice as to Joachim. I am a Brother, and you cannot claim me.

       "Then act like one." Joachim tapped the end of his staff. "Strike me, boy."

       He wanted to flee the cloisters and never go back. Nothing would follow him into his barren room, and there he would be safe, and soon his master would be there to tell him that the voice was just his imagination, and what had he been thinking of, to try to fight someone like Joachim? But he wanted to stay, too. He wanted to be a Brother, and to know what it felt like to have done something well. As long as the door was always open to go back, he wanted to stay in the sunlight for a little while.

       Elias struck at Joachim, and struck him well. Joachim parried, but Elias attacked again. The other boy's eyes widened, and his face changed. Until now he had been toying with Elias, barely trying, but now he was fighting to win.

       I've passed the first test, Elias thought, but then he shivered, as if his words meant more than he could ever know. Even as he had dared to think it, his vision wavered and something skittered across his mind like insects with sharp dark feet. He could still see Joachim's staff, but the cloister behind him was swimming with milky mist that pulsed with wild voices. The mist was smeared with blood and patches of darkness, like the discarded cloaks of dead Brothers, fluttering in a desolate wind. Far away, he heard a man's voice, speaking words he could not hear. Beyond that, and so distant that it disappeared as soon he sought it, a thousand people were screaming.

       "Stop it," he pleaded. Joachim heard him, and thought he was pleading to him, but only smiled, and fought harder.

       As if in response to his plea, something of the shroud lifted, and he could see again the magnolia tree, and the faces of Joachim's friends. Some of them were calling Elias's name, and telling him that he could do it, that he was doing well.

       He feinted to the left, then struck to the right, taking Joachim by surprise and almost disarming him. The muscles around Joachim's eyes tightened with anger.

       He could be an enemy, the voice whispered in Elias's head, terrible like your darkest dreams. Would you fight him then?

       Fierce silver sheeted across his vision, then cleared. He found himself in another place. Joachim was still there, but his staff was set with sharp spikes, and a single touch of it would be agony. His dark hair was braided outlandishly, and his black cloak was clasped with silver, just like the villain in a story that had given him nightmares as a child. A girl lay at his feet, her face twisted with fear and pain. His eyes dared Elias to intervene and promised him an eternity of suffering if he tried to stop him, and failed.

       "No!" Elias screamed, flinging himself forward. The studded staff twisted round, as quick and deadly as a coiling whip, and jabbed into his ribs. Pain grabbed him by the throat, and he cried out, but he did not retreat. The girl needed him, and the thought of failing her hurt far worse.

       Even if he hurt you? the voice asked, very quietly.

       "Of course!" he sobbed, as the blood flowed down his side. The girl screamed, and the silver light sheeted again, and he was back in the cloister, and Joachim was only a young Brother, and nothing more. Elias's ribs felt bruised, but there was no blood.

       It had never happened. The vision and the voice were the symptoms of some delirium. There was something very wrong with him. He fell to his knees, and pressed his hands to his ears. He was dimly aware of Joachim crouching beside him. "Did I hurt you?"

       "I'm not well," Elias whispered. He wanted his master. He should never have got involved in this fight. He would never be one of the golden ones, and it was wrong to pretend, even just for a moment, to be something he was not.

       "I'm sorry," Joachim said, more in a taunt than an apology. "I thought you were stronger."

       I'm sorry, something whispered in his mind, gentle and alien and horrible. It touched him, and it was like a stab of pain between his eyes. He moaned, but then the touch was gone, and the voice was silent, and he was free.

       Free. He stood up, and flailed blindly for his staff. "I feel better now. Can we carry on?"

       The voice was gone. He was like a man awakening from a sick bed, to find that spring had come while he had been confined inside. He could see everything a little more clearly. He could remember the reasons he had for fighting Joachim, and he wanted to do it. If he gave in now, the whispering voice had won.

       For the first time, Joachim looked at him with a kind of respect. "All right. Call that one a warm-up. Now we fight for real."

       Elias's palms were damp and he could feel a minute trembling beneath his skin. He held the wooden staff tightly, and willed himself to be calm. This time he would fight like a true Brother, with the full strength of the Shadow. There would be no more distractions and no more impossible voices. He had not been well for a moment, but that had passed, and the danger was over.

       He would fight, and perhaps he would win, and perhaps he would lose, and maybe Joachim would respect him a little. He wanted him to, he realised. He wanted to be normal. He wanted to have friends, and to have the confidence to speak up. He wanted to become a Brother. He wanted his master to smile at him and say he had done well. He wanted to show Joachim that no-one could say bad things about Ciaran Morgan. He wanted to go to bed feeling that, for once, he had done something moderately impressive. He wanted to know that he had a future. He wanted to know that he would never be alone. He wanted things to be different, and he didn't want anything to change.

       This was only one fight. It didn't need to mean anything. He would fight to the best of his ability, and see what he was capable of. That was all, and in a few minutes it would all be over, and everything would be grey and cold and safe and normal, just like it always was. But, because of the things he had wished for today, perhaps, one day soon, he would start to make them come true.

       "Ready?" Joachim asked him.

       Elias swallowed. "Ready." And perhaps, he thought, he really was.

      

 

       Ciaran Morgan hated coming to the cloisters, but he had spent an unsatisfying day, stuck in a place far from home, where people whispered about him. Normally he endured the day alone, but he had suddenly felt the urge to see Elias, who always looked at him as if he was the most wonderful person in the world. But Elias had not been in his room, and that alone had made Ciaran frown, and stride off to find him. He had tried the garden and the public places, and had frowned even more. Surely Elias wouldn't have left the Basilica without permission? Surely Elias wasn't laughing in some young man's room, with friends he had never admitted to?

       Only the cloisters were left, and if Elias wasn't there, then one of these things was true. As Ciaran strode through the archway, a young boy glanced up at his face, and shrank away. Ciaran glared it him, suddenly furious at whoever it was who had been telling such tales about him that even the children judged him.

       The cloisters were full of tale-tellers. The old men were there on their benches, engaged in futile debates. The young men were in the middle, fighting with staffs, pretending that it made them glorious, though none of them would ever go out into the world and fight in earnest. The dark-haired combatant fought as if he was performing for some decadent court. The fair-haired one, though... Despite himself, Ciaran leant forward a little, watching him. There was something about him that drew the eye. He was not technically accomplished, but he was quick and graceful, and he was determined, too, not flinching from risk or pain.

       Despite himself, Ciaran watched him for a while, then noticed that the old men around the cloister were watching him, too, and seemed to like what they were seeing. Ciaran snorted in derision, and was about to turn away, when the combatants circled each other, and he caught sight of the young man's face. It was Elias! Elias, his apprentice, always so shy with strangers, was showing off in front of everyone, vying for their admiration. How wrong it was!

       Elias was a simple child, and Ciaran knew everything about him. He knew his limitations, and the extent of his dreams. Elias was his apprentice, bound to him by gratitude and devotion. He had changed little in the ten years they had been together. He had grown taller, and had learnt those things that Ciaran had chosen to teach him, but he was still a child. He could always be relied upon to be there when needed, and to stay away when Ciaran needed to be alone.

       But a child like that could never have fought like this. Elias would never even have left the shadows at the edge of the cloisters, not unless his master had ordered him to. Elias hated being the centre of attention, and he had always seemed to dislike fighting, too. Ciaran always defeated him and left him gasping on the ground. Why had the boy been hiding this talent from him? How many other secrets did he have hoarded up in his heart?

       It was cruel. Cruel of the boy to have come to this horrid place, just so his master had to follow him. Cruel of the boy to fight like this. Cruel of him to... Ciaran gasped, and, despite himself, he found himself stepping forward. What had happened? For a moment, Elias had been mirrored, a flimsy second image of him standing just to his side, trying to trick the opponent into striking the wrong one. Then it was gone, and Ciaran leant back against the pillar. His heart was beating fast. How dare Elias make him feel like this?

       There was no end to it. Some of the old men were standing up now. "It's only Elias!" Ciaran wanted to shout at them. "Stop looking at him!" The young men were always fighting here, and the old ones never gave them more than a passing look. Ciaran had once tried everything he could to draw their attention, but failed. Why was Elias different? Why were they whispering to each other and asking his name? Elias, the silent and overlooked shadow at his master's side, had suddenly become something marvellous, and it just wasn't right at all.

       Ciaran hated them all. He hated the cloister, where he had been teased with false promises, and then betrayed. He hated the Crux. He hated having to leave his home, and drag himself to the Basilica, just because it happened to be the shortest day of the year. He hated the old men who pursed their lips when they saw him, and hated them all the more for the way they were looking at Elias.

       Even Ciaran found it impossible to look away. The towers of the city claimed the setting sun, but it reserved its last lingering touch for Elias. His light blue eyes were grave, and his lips were parted slightly in concentration. He had always been a pretty child, but now he looked beautiful. He would win this fight, and it would make him arrogant. He would be beautiful and arrogant and cruel, and he would break hearts, and ruin lives. He would spoil everything. Such people always did.

       It was Ciaran's duty as a teacher to bring him down, to teach him a lesson. How could he live with himself if he let Elias become an arrogant destroyer? For ten years, Elias had meekly bowed his head and obeyed his master, but now something terrible was bursting out of the locked door of his heart, and it had to be stopped.

       With a final sequence of blows, Elias disarmed his opponent and was victorious. The dark-haired youth fell onto his back, and his staff flew out of his slack hand. Painfully he raised his head, but Elias held the end of his staff against his throat in the traditional declaration of victory.

       The youth's eyes blazed with furious fire. His chin jutted forward, and he refused to speak the ritual words of surrender, acknowledging his opponent's mastery. Elias should have walked away, but it seemed there was no end to his arrogant and hurtful show. Instead of walking back into obscurity, he knelt beside the young man, and offered him his hand. As he had doubtless planned, the masters exchanged glances, and nodded with approval at his show of humility. It was a look Ciaran had once longed to see bestowed on him, but now never would.

       He blinked. Something was stinging in his eyes and the back of his throat, and it tasted like cold ashes. He swallowed, but the taste would not go away. He had nurtured Elias and given him everything, and this was how he was repaid. It was wrong of an apprentice to try to surpass his master. It was wrong of Elias to race gleefully towards independence, and cast him aside, unwanted.

       Well, he thought, grimly, Elias still had a long way to go before he would be capable. This glimmer of rebellion would be crushed, and everything would return to the way it had always been. Elias would be happier that way. He was the sort of person who always needed someone stronger than him to show him the way. He wasn't really made for a life of greatness. If he got his hopes up now, he would only be setting himself up for disappointment.

       As Ciaran watched, his clenched fists held tight and trembling, the dark-haired youth spurned Elias's hand, and turned his head away. Elias's shoulders were heaving. He had fought hard, and was exhausted. His fair skin was even paler than normal, flecked with patches of red on his cheekbones. He had already begun to learn his lesson, for his victory had cost him dearly.

       Ciaran smiled grimly. And it will cost you more, before the lesson is finished. He cleared his throat, and called his apprentice's name. It will cost you more, before I am done with you, he thought, but it is for your own good.

       Elias hurried over to him, his blue eyes large and strange, and Ciaran readied himself to teach.

      

 

       In the moment of victory, Elias realised the truth.

       The voice had never gone, not at all. Instead, it had insinuated itself deeply within him, so intimately that he had stopped being aware of it. It was inside him, and he could not be rid of it, not if he clawed at his eyeballs and ripped apart his veins, and shredded himself from the inside out. He was conquered and claimed, and he didn't even know the name of his enemy.

       Not enemy. It stirred inside him, and spoke like a glimmer of his own thoughts. And I was always part of you. You just never knew it before. You never let yourself. You believed what they said about you, and made it true. Until now.

       You're not part of me! he screamed at it. I don't know what you are.

       He was trapped. Stupidly, he had left the safety of his shadowed house, drawn by the sunlight outside, but the sunlight had changed, and storm clouds had blotted out the light. Now terrible things wailed in the darkness, and claws were grasping for him. Cold wings brushed against his face, and something more terrifying than human thought could conceive was calling his name, wanting him.

       "Elias!" His master called to him, had come for him, would save him. Ciaran was the way home. Ciaran was the door back into the house, which was shadowy, yes, but because it was shadowy, it was warm and safe.

       Elias hurried to his side. Ciaran would know what to do. It was nothing to worry about, he would say. It had happened before, to other people, and they'd all got better. And then they would return to Greenslade together, where there were no whispering voices, and no golden youths who tempted him to try to be something he would never be.

       Perhaps Ciaran knew already. "Did you see?" he asked. Did you see the shimmering light? Did you hear the voice? Do you know how to save me?

       Ciaran gave a sharp nod, his mouth in a tight line. "I saw."

       Elias slumped against the wall with relief. "I don't know what it was." He almost said more, but Joachim was watching him, waiting for him to fail, and Elias could not quite bring himself to throw away his victory by pleading for help.

       Ciaran took hold of Elias's shoulder, and must have done so harder than he had intended, for it hurt. "But now it's time for you to fight me."

       "What?" Elias blinked. His legs felt weak and shuddery.

       His master raised his dark wooden staff. "You heard."

       The door slammed shut, and the warm light was gone forever. Elias was locked out in the darkness, and the wild creatures there were screaming for his blood. Nothing could save him now.

       "Come." It was a curt command, from the mouth of his master, and he had no choice but to obey. Pushing himself away from the wall, he walked forward with heavy steps. The sun had set, and the cloister was vast, cold beyond all hope of warmth. Small ripples of whispering ran between the other Brothers, but they were faceless men, as insubstantial as spirits. All Elias really saw was his master's broad and merciless back.

       "Elias!" It was a snap of command. Ciaran stood tall, alone beneath the orange-streaked sky. He tugged at his black cloak, coiled it loosely around one arm to catch up the voluminous folds, then cast it slithering away.

       Joachim was still on the floor, trying to look as if he was just lounging there by choice. He looked at Elias with cold hatred, but his followers had backed away from him a little. One of them smiled nervously at Elias, and another was chewing at his lip. They looked as if they had reached the end of a dance, only to find that the music had changed, and they had no idea where to go. Then Joachim pulled himself to his feet. He groped for his staff, and found it at the second attempt. He snapped something to his friends, and they all moved back into the shadows. The darkness hid the faces of everyone who was not Ciaran.

       Elias's last chance had gone. The strange thing that had affected him left him with no doubts about that. In the last hour, there had been many moments where he could have changed things, and escaped his fate. He could have run from Joachim's challenge, and hidden from the voice. More than one door had slammed in his face and condemned him. He had failed at every chance. Now his doom was decided, and there was nothing he could do but wait for it to claim him.

       "Now."

       Elias managed to speak, but even his voice sounded strange to him, as if the thing that had possessed him had already started to change him from within. "I'm ready." What else could he say? His master would despise him if he refused to fight. Nothing could save him, but he still wanted his master to like him.

       His master's staff met his own. Dark wood met light, and the Shadow coursed through the fibres, as if everything was normal, and he was not standing on the very brink of the end. It would be a short fight. Elias had fought one battle already, and he was exhausted. The Shadow was all jangling discord in his mind, impossible to grasp. He could no longer stave off his fear. Had it been a real fight, and an innocent life had depended on his skill, perhaps he could have found hidden reserves of strength, but not against his master, fighting as if he had no thought but to destroy Elias. Ciaran had never been a warm man, but he had never been like this before, so cold and furious, like a stranger.

       Maybe it would all be over as soon as Elias lost. Ciaran would have gained his victory, and this strange anger would drain from him. He would be himself again, and Elias would be able to talk to him. And so he simply stopped trying. A few minutes earlier, he had won a fight, and now he would lose. Joachim would gloat, but it didn't matter. Pride was nothing.

       With a cry of triumph, Ciaran plucked his staff from his unresisting hand, then brought his left arm round, striking him across the face and knocking him backwards. Elias fell heavily, and the breath was driven painfully from his lungs. He gasped, but the tip of a dark wooden staff was pressed into his throat, and he was unable to breathe. There was murder in Ciaran's eyes. He was tall and strong and he had killed before.

       Elias shut his eyes. It was finished.

      

 

       "I win," Ciaran declared. It felt good. Elias had won his victory and had been the shining star in the foolish eyes of the old masters, but now their star was eclipsed.

       Elias looked young and sad, but it had been only right that Ciaran crushed his burgeoning pride. "Do you yield?" he demanded. "Have you learned?" He raised his weapon from Elias's throat, and the boy sucked in a choked breath, but Ciaran was sure that he had hardly hurt him at all. It was the traditional way to finish a fight after all. Ciaran had done nothing anyone could reproach him for.

       Triumphant, Ciaran turned his head in a slow semi-circle, scanning the old men around the fringes, and the young men who had just seen how a master could fight, but their eyes were cold and their lips pursed with disquiet. Even the youth Elias had bested, who was flashy and dark-haired and therefore without mercy and pity, looked troubled, as if he had started something as innocent fun, and seen it grow into something massive and terrible.

       Ciaran thrust out his chin. The first beads of sweat started to form beneath his hands as they held onto the staff.

       Who were these people with their ignorant disapproval? He didn't even remember their names. He had grown up with them, but had never really been one of them, right from the start. As boys, they had had families to visit, and had known a life outside the Basilica. Of course he wasn't jealous, he had always told them, for it just meant that they were less committed than he was, and he would grow up to be a truer Brother than they were. And now he had his own life in Greenslade, and they still whispered about him, but he knew he was better than any of them. What did they know about anything? What did it matter, if they condemned him yet again?

       Angry, he turned away from them, and back to his apprentice. Elias had pulled himself up into a sitting position, but head was slumped forward, and his hair fell over his face. He looked like a picture of misery.

       "You were tired, I know," Ciaran said, a little louder than necessary, so those who watched him would know that he was never unreasonable and could still be kind. "But a Brother must always rise above mere tiredness. Innocent lives can depend on our skill. People could die if you give in to your tiredness, or get distracted by hurt pride. You would betray every vow you have ever made."

       Elias looked at him, young and hurting and broken, just like the boy Ciaran had rescued from the gutter ten years before. "Master," he whispered.

       With that simple word, everything changed. Elias was hurting, and Ciaran, his master and protector, had caused it. He had not been very kind at all. The lesson had been necessary, yes, but had it really needed to be so harsh?

       He went down on one knee beside the boy. "I'm sorry," he tried to whisper, but the words would not come. It was hard to humble himself. He was not normally cruel. Elias would understand that, for he always did. The least said about it, the quicker it would be forgotten. He had been harsh, but he would show his apology with gentleness. Everything would be the way it had always been, and that was good.

       Elias blinked at him. "Master," he whispered. "Help me."

       Ciaran managed to smile at him. "I'll help you," he crooned. "Come on." There were too many people watching them here. He would lead Elias away to their assigned quarters, and they could talk about whatever it was they needed to talk about. Elias had tasted victory and he had tasted defeat, and his master could help him plot his course between the two of them.

       He offered Elias his hand, and Elias accepted it. He showed no shame at needing to be helped up. He was humble in defeat, yet strangely dignified.

       "Come on, Elias," Ciaran said, again, when Elias was standing.

       Elias just stood there. He turned his head slightly to one side, and gave a tiny gasp. His right hand fluttered, as if he was trying to catch a piece of thistledown. Ciaran could not see his face.

       "Elias," he urged.

       Elias let out his breath in a sigh that was closer to a moan. He turned round, and pinpoints of silver light rested on his hair like dew. There was a shimmering, and a distant sound like autumn trees.

       In his hand Elias bore the white sword, and it was as beautiful as it had been twenty years before, when it had crushed Ciaran's dreams and changed his life.

       Ciaran pressed his hand against his mouth and managed not to cry out. The others were less silent. There were over a hundred of them now, he realised, drawn here by some impossible sense that something amazing was about to happen. Had everyone known except for him? He was still the outsider, and he always would be.

       "Master?" Elias blinked, like someone waking from sleep to find that the world had changed. Ciaran had never told him about the man from another world, and the sword he had brought. Elias was the only one in the cloister who had no idea what this moment meant. Or perhaps, he thought, when he saw the fear in his apprentice's suddenly too-old eyes, Elias knew the significance all too well, and it was the rest of them who would never understand.

       Ciaran swallowed. "Elias." He reached out his hand, and it was only with the utmost control that he stilled the trembling.

       "Master." Elias's blanched lips spoke with barely a movement. His eyes flickered desperately from side to side. "Master. Take it, please. There's still time. You'll do it better than I can."

       Everything went utterly still. Ciaran did not dare even to breathe. He felt his lips part slightly, but even his voice knew that this moment was too solemn for sound. Then he was aware of nothing but his own hand as it closed round the hilt of the sword he had once longed for.

       As it left his hand, Elias gave a low moan, as if it hurt him beyond imagining to lose it. But perhaps he was unaware of it, for his eyes showed only relief.

       Ciaran held the sword that had haunted his dreams for so long when he was young. Its milky crystal blade was pristine and unmarked. How easy it would be to claim it. He would hold it aloft and wield it in glorious deeds like the heroes of old. He would do so much good. The whole world would love him and need him, and everything would be perfect.

       He found the beginnings of a smile curl around his lips.

       "Brother Morgan?"

       He turned round. Grand Master Jerome had arrived. Dark-skinned, with a clipped white beard, he walked with a pronounced limp. Ciaran had once been told that Jerome had not always limped, but he had never been able to find out what it was that had wounded him. If it was something heroic, then why did the Grand Master remain so silent about it? Ciaran had never understood it as a child, and still did not.

       "Brother Morgan?" the Grand Master asked again, in a tone that demanded an instant answer. Even the way he addressed Ciaran was calculated to make him uncomfortable. Ciaran thought of himself as a master, but the title had never been officially conferred, and Jerome was deliberately reminding him of how the others thought of him.

       "The sword," Ciaran said, hoarsely. He held it tight, unconsciously pulling it closer to his chest.

       Jerome's eyes narrowed. "Was it you?"

       Ciaran ran his tongue over suddenly dry lips. Would he have done it, he wondered. If they had been alone when Elias had found the sword, and there had been no witnesses, would he have claimed it as his? Elias would never have breathed a word. "Yes, it was me," Ciaran could have said, "and the whole lot of you don't know a thing. I always knew it would be me." And they would hasten to appease him, they who had always looked at him with such a repulsive blend of disapproval and pity. He would be justified, and the world would fall in place behind his beliefs. The Brothers would rise again, in the image that he chose for them.

       No, he thought. No, but...

       He turned the sword over in his hand, and the beauty of the blade still brought an ache to the back of his throat. He remembered how he had sworn to hate it, and the one who eventually came to bear it. And now his own apprentice was the one who was so chosen.

       Ciaran swallowed. The sword in his hand was dead. It was not his. His apprentice had surpassed him indeed. He shook his head. "Not me. Elias." He held the sword out to his apprentice.

       Elias looked like a man accepting his own death. His eyes had never seemed so deep, or his skin so pale. But he did not flinch. As he reached out his hand, it did not tremble.

       As it touched Elias's hand, the sword seemed to come to life. As it had done in the hand of a dying man so long ago, a heart of living colour danced in the blade.

       It was too strong, too marvellous, for one frail boy. As the light inside him consumed him, Elias moaned. "It's called Albacrist," he whispered. Then, before Ciaran could even begin to move to his side, he slumped to the ground in a faint.

      

 

    Someone was touching his hand, their thumb kneading the skin on the inside of his wrist. Fingers brushed against his hair, pushing back a strand that lay across his forehead. Someone else was pacing up and down, their footsteps almost silent as they crossed a rug, then louder as they reached bare stone. The sound of the steps was irregular, as if the person walked with a limp.

       Elias lay still, and did not open his eyes. There was something very big and terrible just out of reach, but he could still hide from it, and then it would slink away in disappointment and never come back. He just had to lie still, and not name it.

       "Elias." Ciaran must have heard his breathing change. "Are you awake?"

       Why did his master sound afraid of him? Elias opened his eyes, and there was Ciaran, sitting beside his bed, stroking his hand. A Brother he did not know was the one who had touched his hair. The one pacing up and down was Grand Master Jerome himself. He supposed he should have known that from the limp, but it was just too amazing, that the Grand Master was concerned with someone like him.

       Ciaran gave the faintest hint of a smile, and his eyes were gentle and sad. "How are you feeling, Elias?"

       As long as he didn't move, he would be all right. As long as he didn't think. "I feel well." There was a crack in the curtains and he could see the moon. It was swollen and orange, as if it was sick.

       It was Grand Master Jerome who answered. "I am glad to hear it, Elias." He pulled up a chair and sat down. "What has your master told you about the sword?"

       Something fluttered in his chest, like imprisoned birds trying to escape. He swallowed, then swallowed again. "Sword?" he breathed.

       There was whispering. There was a blade of shining white, and it had plunged through his heart, and now the whiteness was in his blood, as beautiful and merciless as any sword blade. He moved his head to one side, and there it was, lying innocently on the table beside the bed. He remembered everything, and knew he would never be free, never again.

       "It happened at the Crux," Grand Master Jerome began, "twenty one years ago."

       Ciaran looked down at his hands, folded in his lap. He was no longer touching Elias. "I was fifteen," he said. "I saw it."

       "A man came." Jerome's voice was clear and merciless. "He came from another world, and he brought the sword. He said his powers had passed, and the sword was no longer his. One would come, he said, who would be able to find the sword again. The sword itself would know him. We all tried, but it was none of us."

       "He died," Ciaran said. Elias looked at him. "I was touching him as he died."

       The other Brother spoke. He was probably a healer, Elias thought. His eyes were dark brown and his neck was scrawny. "I remember every word. He said his people were lost. He was badly wounded. When I looked at him, I... I almost seemed to hear the echo of countless thousands of people screaming."

       Elias had heard screaming, too, red behind a silver mist. He looked at his master, whose face was all hard lines, and whose hands were clenched so tightly they seemed to tremble. If he stared at him very hard, everything else in the world would begin to blur, and would become less real. Only his master would remain.

       "His people were lost." Ciaran's voice was very bleak. "His land was ruled by men who could not see. The one who could wield the sword would be the only person who could save them. But he could destroy them too, if he chose not to take up his responsibilities, or failed along the way."

       "We all tried," Grand Master Jerome said. Elias turned to face him. He stared at him, and this time his master was the one to blur and go out of focus. "The sword had gone, and none of us could find it. And now it has come to you. You are the one."

       "He would have powers greater than anyone," the healer said, in a husky voice, "as long as he had the strength and wisdom to learn them."

       Elias stared at him, then at his master, then at Grand Master Jerome. Three faces, leaning towards him, filling his vision, speaking words. The more he stared, the less real they became. They were faces drawn on paper, and they spoke meaningless sounds. The sword on the table was more real than any of them, shining like a white blaze through the greyness of existence.

       "Twenty one years ago," he whispered, closing his eyes. "They've been lost for twenty one years." Twenty one years could hold a million deaths. "A whole generation lost. Just waiting."

       "That is true," Jerome said.

       Elias opened his eyes in time to see Ciaran glare at the Grand Master. "It's not his fault," his master snapped, moving closer to Elias's side as if he could protect him from everything bad in the world. Until today, Elias had thought that he could.

       "And I'm supposed to save them." Elias caught hold of a handful of bedclothes, and squeezed them tight. "Another world, you say. Where? Where are they? How can I save them if I don't know where they are?"

       His master grabbed his hand and forced his convulsing fingers to relax. "Hush," he soothed him, just as he had always soothed him as a child. "No-one's expecting that of you. No-one's blaming you. It's absurd."

       Elias lay very still and let his master stroke his hand. A gust of wind set a skeletal branch tapping against the window, and a finger of cloud touched the edge of the swollen moon. A klaxon sounded in a factory, and he thought of the white-faced children who worked there, knowing nothing of light or hope or happiness.

       "I can't do it," Elias burst out. "I can't."

       "No," his master soothed. "No-one's going to make you." Fierce, and still stroking Elias's hand, he turned to Jerome. "Stop telling him these things. Can't you see how tired he is? He needs to sleep."

       Elias turned his face to the wall. He heard people leave. His master remained for a little longer, but then he left, too. After Ciaran blew out the candle, Elias rolled over and lay there in the darkness, just staring at the moon.

      

 

       Although he heard the footsteps approach him on the gravel, Ciaran did not turn round. His arms resting on the smooth gravel wall, he stood as he had been for hours, just staring out across the city from the Basilica built high on its rock. 

       "You heard," he said, when the sound had ceased. It was not a question.

       "I did."

       Matthias took his place on the wall beside him, his usual arm's length away, but then his master surprised him, for he moved closer and touched Ciaran gently on the back of his tanned hand. "I did know, Ciaran."

       Ciaran's mouth was suddenly dry. "Know?"

       "How sure you were that it was going to be you."

       He closed his eyes, but, when he opened them, nothing had changed. His heart was beating very fast. "You think I resent him for it? You think I'm that... petty?"

       "I'm not accusing you of anything, Ciaran," his master said, gently. "All I know is that whispers are running through the Basilica, and they all speak the name of your apprentice. The younger ones envy him, of course, and the wiser ones pity him, but they're talking about it as if he's the only one affected by this. But he isn't, is he, Ciaran? It's as hard for you as it is for him." He touched Ciaran's hand again. "I made mistakes when you were wrong. I failed you, I think, in some ways. But I always cared for you, and I still do."

       It was a long speech for his master, and Ciaran felt unexpected tears make his throat ache. He had never cried, though, since that terrible autumn night so many years before, and he refused to cry now. He struggled for control, aware that his master was looking at him, and it was his turn to speak. He should acknowledge what the old man had said, and say something in return, but he wanted the words to be just right, and his voice to be level. He swallowed hard, and stared at the specks in the granite wall.

       His master turned away, and looked out over the city. Ciaran had struggled for too long, and the moment had passed. Ciaran wasn't sure whether to regret it, or to feel relief. There were clear boundaries in his life, and very clear paths that he walked. Too much had been overturned already today.

       "So, how is Elias taking it?" Matthias asked, in a different sort of voice. "Does he know?"

       Ciaran pressed one palm on the wall and the other on top of it. "If you mean about the sword and the man who put it there, yes." He took a deep breath, and, when he spoke again, his voice was tight. "If you mean did I tell him about my own hopes, then, no. He's going to find this hard enough anyway, without knowing that."

       "So it was for his own sake that you didn't tell him?" Ciaran frowned and looked at his master, but saw no criticism on his face, only genuine enquiry.

       "Yes." He nodded. "I would never let anything hurt that boy. You know that."

       He felt a small creeping of guilt as he spoke, but it was the truth. He knew he had caused Elias a little pain earlier in the day, but he had been the boy's protector for ten years, and now Elias needed his protection as he had never needed it before. Ciaran had been right to hate the man who had brought the sword. It was wrong to lay such an impossible task on such frail shoulders. Elias would want to save the people he was supposed to save, and would blame himself when he failed. And of course he would fail, because he was only Elias, Ciaran's apprentice, and no hero. It was Ciaran's clear duty to prepare him for that moment, and to protect him from those who wanted to make him feel guilty for failing to achieve the impossible. Elias was his apprentice, and Ciaran only wanted what was best for the boy.

       "What did he say?" Matthias asked.

       "Not much." At Elias's bedside, Ciaran had stared down at his own clasped hands, and seen the whiteness of bone at the knuckles. Now he looked at those same knuckles in the darkness. "He's asleep now."

       His master spoke mildly. "Perhaps you should tell him. Tell him everything, I mean. At least it will..."

       He shrugged, but Ciaran heard the implication in that hanging sentence. Explain why you're surely going to let him down, his master meant. Like all the others, he, too, thought Ciaran had lost his way years before, and never found his way back again.

       Suddenly furious, he clenched both fists and slammed them down on the wall. It was hard enough to hurt, but nothing could make a difference, nothing. "He's still a boy! He's going to be expected to... to save a whole people, somehow, and we don't even know how to find them. He's not..." He shook his head, at a loss for words to express the hollow dread inside him. "It's not fair," he finished, weakly.

       "And you think you'd have been such a better choice?"

       "Anyone would have been a better choice," Ciaran burst out. Then he frowned, and shook his head. "I mean, no-one would have been better. It's a responsibility that should never have been asked of anyone." At fifteen, he had seen only the glory of it, but he would never forget how lost and swamped Elias had looked when they had told him the truth.

       His master said nothing. Ciaran gazed over the city, but found it suddenly impossible to bear. It was so noisy and ugly, full of people who were rushing headlong towards their so-called progress, and turning their backs on the most important things of all. Towering above them was the Basilica, where every stone was ancient, but the beacon that had once guided the world was now shrouded with smoke, and few people ever saw its light.

       The world had changed, and the Brothers had been cast up on the shore like wreckage after a storm. Once, they had stood at the heart of the world's affairs. They had advised kings and princes, and stopped wars. They had ruled in disputes, and protected the weak and innocent. Everyone had revered them, for they alone could sense the Shadow, and perform feats that the ignorant called magic. Now the same magic was greeted with distrust, as a relic of an older time. Those who still revered the Brothers did so only because they remembered that their grandparents had done so. The rest of the world just laughed, or else had forgotten them entirely.

       When had everything started to change? It had been so slow and subtle that no-one had noticed it happening until it was too late to stop it. Was it when the first gun had been made, allowing men to kill each other without seeing the face of the person they killed? Was it when people began to talk about science and progress, and despise as superstition the things they had once admired?

       Ciaran did not know. All he knew was that he despised the change, and would not accept it. A decline could be reversed. A lost people could be brought back to the light. All it needed was the right hero to come along, and the beacon would shine forth again for everyone to see.

       Ciaran had long since lost his childhood dreams that he could be that hero, but he knew that he was doing good work. Unlike the others, he refused to accept the changes in the world. He would never give up and devote himself to a life of silent contemplation, like so many of the older ones did. Neither would he do what the younger ones were doing, who laid aside their staffs and went into the world, and took positions in the corrupt governments and law courts and served that way.

       In Greenslade, Ciaran mattered. It was a delightful village, where the people lived just as they had always lived. At least they still remembered the value of a Brother, even if no-one else did. They were like charming children, and they needed Ciaran very much. He might not be able to be a beacon to the corrupt modern world, but at least he was a beacon to a few hundred people. His life there was a noble one, and who else amongst the Brotherhood could truly say the same? He knew they whispered about him, but he also knew that he was right.

       Down in the city, a bell clanged, sharp and tinny. How Ciaran wished he was back home! Greenslade was pretty and quiet, and he could go for months without the slightest reminder of the modern world.

       "You look so sad," his master said. "I don't think you've ever been happy, have you, Ciaran?"

       Ciaran stood very still. "Of course I have," he said, as smoke drifted from a chimney and blotted out the purity of the sky. "I do good work."

       "That's not what I meant." Matthias's voice was very soft.

       On the edges of his vision, Ciaran saw the white flower that always stirred memories. He screwed his eyes shut. "It's not about me. It's all about Elias now, isn't it?"

       His master touched his shoulder. "It's about both of you, Ciaran. You and him, because you're his master, and you're the person he'll look to for help. Can you be sure that you'll help him sincerely? If you're still troubled by..."

       "What sort of a master do you think I am?" Ciaran shouted. "I'll help him. I'll protect him. Of course I will. That's all that matters."

       Gravel crunched as Matthias took a step back. "It's the Crux tomorrow night. It's a time for laying the past to rest, and accepting whatever lies in the future."

       Ciaran curled his hand into a fist, and ground it against the balustrade. "I know."

       Matthias seemed to be waiting for Ciaran to say something else, but at last he sighed, and said, "It has happened. You can't change it."

       Ciaran passed his hand across his brow, then turned it into a more violent movement, rubbing deeply at his eyes. "I just wish it hadn't happened," he said, suddenly too weary to lie.

       And, side by side, in a garden that still dreamed of the past, the two of them stood and watched the city of the future, and had nothing more to say to each other.

      

 

    The sword lay on the table beside him, and Elias stared and stared at it, but did not touch it. He never wanted to touch it again.

       They had told him everything, then left him alone and expected him to sleep. "I can't do it," he had said, and none of them had argued. They, who knew him best, had just accepted it as truth.

       "I can't do it," he told the sword. "Choose someone else." He wriggled out a hand from underneath him, and touched its blade with one finger. It glowed cheerfully, as if it enjoyed his touch. "Aren't you listening?" he cried. "I can't do it! Look at me!"

       Spreading his arms, he showed the sword the sort of person he was. He would never be tall or broad shouldered. He had the sort of face that was more suited to a poet than a warrior. When he spoke, he still spoke with the accent of his home town, not in the cultivated tones of a courtier or king. Some of his nails were chipped, and he had forgotten to neaten them up again.

       The sword still glowed. Pick me up, its light was urging him. Hold me again. Accept your destiny.

       "I can't," he wailed. He threw himself open to it, showing it everything. What sort of a person was he, that even his own parents had hated him? He showed it what his childhood had been like, and how pathetic he had always been. He told it that his oldest brother was a thief, and perhaps even a murderer. He told it how his sisters were prostitutes. He told it how his father used to drink the wages his children earned. He told it about his mother, who had once dreamed of something better, but was now more cruel than any of them, because of disappointed hopes.

       "You see?" he told it. "That's the blood that runs in my veins. And, as bad as they are, I was worse, because even they could not love me."

       He told it how he had come home one day to find the house empty, and everyone gone. He told it how he had broken down and cried, and had refused to believe it, even when a neighbour said that they owed three months rent, and would never be coming back. He told it how he had hurried back to the factory, in case they had come to collect him and he had missed them. Then he told it how he had collapsed to the ground and despaired.

       "I would have died there," he said, "if my master hadn't found me." Because Ciaran Morgan had come striding out of the sunset, and had spoken to him, asking him if he wanted to become a Brother of the Shadow. "So I gave my life into the hands of a stranger," he told it, "just because he smiled at me, and because he looked strong. And he's been everything to me ever since. Everything. I'm nothing without him."

       But still the sword shone; still the sword waited for him.

       Elias let out a shuddering breath. He had no choice. It had chosen him, and it wanted him, and the fact that he knew he would fail made not the slightest difference to him.

       Was there any possibility of refusing? If he turned his back on the sword, would choose someone else instead, someone who would do better? Perhaps it would, but perhaps it wouldn't. The man who had brought the sword had said that the one who was chosen could destroy his people, if he chose not to take up his responsibility. That implied that there was only one. If Elias turned his back on the sword, no-one else would come along to take his place. The people who had been screaming in pain for twenty years would be lost forever, just because Elias refused to take up a sword in a room a whole world away. And they would never know. Every day, they would wake up and wonder if today, perhaps, was the day their saviour would come. They would carry on hoping, years after Elias had made hope die.

       He had no choice. For reasons of its own, the sword had chosen him, and there was no way he could say no. There were people out there somewhere who needed him. If he tried and failed, he destroyed them, but if he didn't even try in the first place... No, he had to try. How could he do anything else? There was no turning back now. He had chosen to step out of the shadowy house into the sunlight, and he could never return, not even when the sunlight became night, and untold horrors were gibbering in the darkness.

       Elias placed his hand on the blade of the sword. "I will try," he swore. "I promise I will do whatever I can to prove worthy."

       He had glad his master was not here. Ciaran would have argued. "Of course you can walk away," he would have said, and, "you're silly even to try. You're just setting yourself up for disappointment," and Elias would believed it, because he always did believe his master. Then he would have left the sword behind and let Ciaran lead him back into the shadowy house, and there he would stay forever.

       He had made his decision, he realised, and he had made it without Ciaran. If his master came back, of course he would discuss it with him, and he would question it, but it would make no difference. Nothing Ciaran said would change what he had to do, and it felt strange, and a little sad, to realise that.

       With a sigh, Elias closed his hand round the hilt, and took up the sword. It shone so brightly, and resonated inside him so deeply, that he had to close his eyes, but that made no difference at all. He belonged to the sword now. 

      

 

       Ciaran had never felt so uneasy just to be in the same room as his apprentice. He had never been so unsure of what to say. He sat down on the hard wooden chair beside the bed, but Elias did not turn round. "Did you sleep well?" he asked.

       Elias moved his head a little bit, somewhere between a shake and a nod. "I slept a little."

       The sword lay across his lap. From behind, Ciaran could see the hilt protruding from the left of Elias's body, and the end of the blade from the right. Ciaran wanted to touch the back of Elias's neck. The boy would lean back into his touch and let himself be held and protected. He looked so pale and small, as if someone had dropped him on the bed, and forgotten him.

       "I don't know what to do now," Elias said, in a sudden rush. "I've taken up the sword, but I don't know how to find the people I'm supposed to save. Who knows how to find the way to another world? How can I do it?"

       Ciaran bit his lip. He knew what he wanted to say, but something was stopping him. Forget it, he wanted to tell the boy. Don't let it torment you. It's an impossible burden, and not fair.

       Elias shook his head, and gave a wry laugh. "I think it was testing me, yesterday. I was aware of it, in my mind, for a while before... before I held the sword. There were lots of times when I could have... failed. If I'd refused to fight Joachim and had run away... If I'd refused to fight for the girl even though it threatened to hurt me... It wanted to watch me win, and it wanted to watch me lose, and see how I behaved in each. Every time I made a choice, it was like one more lock closing on my prison cell. If I'd made different choices, do you think it would it have chosen someone else?"

       The chair was far too hard. Ciaran moved to the bed, sitting on the other side from Elias. "If it was a test, you passed." His voice was very tight.

       "But they were small tests." Elias laughed again. He sounded like a stranger. "Tiny ones. Now it thinks I'm worthy of something so much greater, and I don't know what to do. I can't fail. But I don't know how to succeed. I don't know how to do this. I don't know what the next step is."

       "I hate this!" Ciaran suddenly shouted. He drove his fist into the bed. "It's not fair, what that man did to you."

       He could see how the future would be, and saw no way out of it. The dying man had said just enough to bind Elias into this terrible duty, but not enough to help him fulfil it. Elias would strive and strive, but the man was dead, and could never show him the way to his world. Elias was too generous a boy to be able to turn his back on the people he thought needed him. Every day that passed, for his whole life, he would wonder if yet another person was dying in agony because of his failure.

       It was so wrong! Ciaran cursed the memory of the man who had done this. If marvels happened, and he ever did get to meet the people who expected Elias to save them, he would hate them on sight. It was wrong to do this to a boy. It was wrong to expect so much, while giving so little.

       Elias turned fully to face him, his knees pulled up to his chest, and his feet on the bed. The sword he laid at his side, but even now it held Elias captive, for he did not remove his hand from the blade, but kept it there as if it was glued there.

       "Whether it's fair or not, it's happened," Elias said. "And I have no choices left. It's real. There are people out there, waiting for me, and suffering. Every day I fail to understand is like an eternity of pain for them." His eyes were like pale cold fire. "I know this, master. It is more important than anything."

       Never before had his apprentice spoken to him in such a way. Never before had Elias seemed so sure of something, so certain that he was right, even if his master thought otherwise. For the first time, Ciaran realised just how much had changed, and how nothing would ever be the same again. Unless I take steps now to change them back, before the damage is too great. He clenched his fists, and said nothing.

       "I'll have to learn things." Elias started to shake his head from side to side, as if, without knowing it, he was still searching for a way out. "I'll have to do things. I'll have to become different. I'll have to face things I've always been afraid of. There are new worst things, worse than anything." He looked like he used to look, when he had just woken from a nightmare. "How can I do it, master? What shall I do?"

       Ciaran twisted his fingers uselessly. Elias was looking at him as if he had all the answers. This was his chance. Ciaran could soothe him, and Elias would listen. He could tell him that the magic had faded, and he would never find the people he had to save, who were probably long dead now, anyway, and were no concern of his even if they were still alive, for he had not even been born when their leader had chosen to leave them. The only sensible thing to do would be to forget all about them, and go back to being just Elias again, whose master could ease all hurts. The sword would be an interesting relic, and nothing more, and that was that.

       Yes, he thought. It was for the best. He would say the words, and that would be that. No good could come out of saying anything else.

       "Elias," he began, but he could go no further.

       The man from the other world had died, and Ciaran had been touching him. He had been proud and wounded and desperate, and he had given away something he had loved, because he thought his people would be served by it. The magic had been real, and Ciaran had felt it, however much he had tried to deny it afterwards. Somewhere in another world, the man's people needed a saviour, and Ciaran was a Brother, sworn to protecting those in need. He had raised Elias that way, too. He had created the boy who sat here now, so desperate to do his duty.

       But why Elias? If the duty needed to be done, why couldn't it be anyone but Elias? Why not someone who at least has a chance of succeeding? Why not me? So maybe he had to tell Elias to forget about the people who needed him, then take up the sword in secret and do it himself. That way, duty would be done, but Elias would be spared the responsibility and the guilt of failure.

       He tried again. "Elias. You should..."

 Jealous, his master had as good as accused him. He had longed for the sword as a child, and had wanted it to be him. He had sworn to hate the one who managed to attain it. The magic of the sword was real, and, for whatever reason, the magic had chosen Elias, and passed Ciaran by. Elias might fail, but Ciaran would only fail all the more completely.

       Ciaran took a deep breath. "What should you do?" He began to speak. They were cautious words, not committing them to anything. There would still be time to go back, to take either of the roads he had chosen not to take for now. "Be patient. Start from the beginning. Learn, and show yourself worthy, and perhaps the next step on the path will be revealed to you."

       Elias blinked. "What do you mean?"

       "I mean... For ten years, Elias, you've stood in that cloister, and the sword didn't appear. Why do you think that is?"

       "It was waiting." Elias's eyes widened. "It was waiting for me to grow up. It was waiting for me to..."

       "Show you were ready," Ciaran said, a little harshly. This was not easy for him. "And, for all those years of waiting, it never did choose someone else. It waited for you, Elias, for you to be ready. So perhaps all you need to do is live, to carry on as normal, and let the waiting start again."

       "Waiting," Elias echoed. "I don't think I can."

       Ciaran closed his hand over Elias's wrist. "You have to. What else can you do? It tested you, you said. It tested your courage and your dedication and your... your humility. Perhaps now it's testing your ability to wait, to stay true to your purpose when given no reward."

       "I don't want a reward," Elias said. "I just want... I don't want to fail. I want to be worthy."

       Ciaran could not bring himself to look at the need in Elias's eyes, where normally he relished it. For the first time, it was a need that Ciaran was powerless to ease. "Just be ready," he said. "Live your life as normal, and one day, perhaps, in a way you had never expected, the test will come, and then you will see what needs to be done."

       Or maybe, he thought, as the weeks go by, and the months, and the years, you will know you have failed, and just forget.