What he asked for
Elias had a secret.
You can't tell them, something whispered deep inside him, like a poisonous echo of the way the enchantment used to talk to him, before he knew what it was. They won't believe you. They won't be able to help you. No-one can help you now.
The ground beneath him seemed to heave sickeningly. He fell forward, but his master clutched at him and eased him gently against the side of the nearest wagon. Elias lowered his head, trying to silence the roaring in his ears. "I stood up too fast," he muttered. "I just need a little time."
Ciaran's face danced briefly into view, large and close. "I'll take care of you."
"I know," Elias said. There was blood in his mouth, and Ciaran had put it there. But his master was strong and had stopped him from falling, and that was kind of him, surely.
There were other people talking, not far away. Ciaran's face disappeared. There was a narrow step on the edge of the platform, and Elias reached behind him and clutched it with both hands. His knees did not want to bear his weight.
Dying, the voice taunted him. You're dying. How long do you think you have? Hours? A day? You saw how it would be. The vision surged again, painted on the drifting rain. He saw himself carried dying into the camp, and knew that it was his own fault, that he had brought it upon himself.
"No." His lips moved soundlessly. He clung more tightly to the wood. "No." He refused to believe it. If he didn't say it aloud, then it wouldn't be true. If he didn't tell anyone, he could forget about it.
It wasn't true. It couldn't be true. Death was not dispensed like that, as a result of a desperate promise in a covered wagon. He was tired, and the confrontation with his master had made him too emotional and prone to stupid fears. It was all in his imagination. Already the things that had happened in the wagon with the dying woman seemed cloudy and hardly real. He had healed her, and that was all that mattered. He wouldn't think about it any more.
He raised his head, and forced the world to stop swaying. He thought some considerable time had passed since Ciaran had left him there, but he couldn't be sure. Ciaran was not far away, crouching beside one of the fallen guards, feeling his neck for a pulse. He looked up and caught Elias looking at him, and frowned.
"You didn't believe me," Elias whispered.
Ciaran hurried over to his side, all brisk and confident and unyielding. He had never apologised to Elias for hitting him. Perhaps Elias had deserved it, but he had never apologised, though he was acting as everything was forgiven. "I believed you," Ciaran said, "but I didn't put it past Reynard to kill them when your back was turned." Elias knew he was lying, and wasn't sure whether to feel grateful to his master for trying to protect his feelings, or hurt. He wished Ciaran had believed him. Didn't Ciaran know him at all?
Ciaran wiped the mud from his hands. His cloak was stained at the hem, and that was from when he had knelt beside Elias and helped him to his feet. He touched Elias's cheek with a hand that was very cold. Elias shivered, remembering the vision of his master's death, and how he had pressed his master's dead hand to his cheek and wept for him.
Elias closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them again. His cheek was still cupped in his master's hand. "I'm feeling better," he said. If he said it often enough, perhaps it would be true.
His master drew a little closer. "I'll take care of you," he promised.
Elias's head slumped forward, and he was supported utterly by his master's embrace. The sounds of the forest faded to nothing. The rain still fell, but he felt warm and protected, held by strong arms that would fight away any enemies that threatened him. All he felt was the smooth fabric of his master's warm cloak against his face, and the beating of Ciaran's heart.
You said you'd cast me out, he wanted to cry. You said you didn't care. You said you hated me. You left me alone, just like they did. His lip throbbed, just like it had when his father had hit him, before they had all gone away and left him alone. But now his master had come back for him and everything would be alright. The cruel voice taunting him in his mind didn't know what it was talking about. His master had promised to take care of him, so he would be safe.
He pressed his lips into a fold of his master's cloak. "I'm scared," he breathed, reluctant to say the words aloud, but hoping his master would hear them nevertheless. "Please don't leave me."
Ciaran took a step back, and a sudden squall of rain hit Elias full in the face. He shivered.
"We need to go," Ciaran said. "They say it's dangerous to stay on the road. If we get a move on, we'll be at their camp before dark. There'll be dry clothes for you, and a roof over your heard. I know it's hard for you to walk now, but it'll be for the best. Trust me, Elias," he said, when Elias was slow to respond. "I know what's best for you."
"Yes." Elias nodded. His master sounded different, and it was good to hear. He was no longer the broken man who clung to his staff and watched the world with silent misery. He still hated the Kindred, but he spoke of "we", and here he was, as strong as ever, telling Elias what to do. He was no longer the outsider, overlooked by everybody, but he was included and making plans, and he liked it.
Ciaran was looking at him intently. "Everything's going to be fine, Elias. I'll make sure of that." But almost at the end he looked away, and Elias felt very cold, and not reassured at all.
No-one can help you, the voice taunted him. Him least of all.
"Elias?" Ciaran asked, seeing him shiver.
Elias pushed away from the wagon and managed to stand unaided, though his master only let him do so for a second before he was grabbing him, holding him upright with a grip that was almost painful. Rather than protected, he felt suddenly trapped and afraid, but he hid his disquiet, for he knew his master only wanted to help him. "Thank you," he said. He looked at his master and smiled, and Ciaran smiled back, and, despite everything, it felt good.
Ciaran was happy. He hummed a tune under his breath, a song they sang in the taverns of Greenslade, about rain and trees and a happy ending. He used his staff to beat down his path ahead of him, and dead leaves fragmented under his every step.
This day, that had started so horribly, was turning out alright, he thought. He felt a lightness of spirit that he had not felt since Elias had obtained the sword and had started to change before his master's eyes. He felt no need to defend his mood. He deserved a little happiness, after all these days of being ignored and threatened.
Things had come to a head today, and now was a time for healing. Elias had defied him, and that has been horrible, but the boy had begged his forgiveness, and it would never happen again. The whole thing had shocked Elias into realising just how badly things had gone out of kilter, so perhaps it was a good thing that it had happened. Without the intensity of that awful confrontation, things might have dragged on for weeks, getting worse and worse with each day.
Elias walked beside him now, and he was subdued and chastened. He seldom spoke. When he did speak, he spoke more often to his master than to Oliver, who walked too close to his other side, unwanted. When he stumbled in his weariness, Ciaran supported him, and the boy leant briefly against his body, as if to say, I need you, master. I'm so sorry for what I did.
They were two again, and this sorry adventure was nearing its end. Oliver, with his tricksy bard's tongue, would try to explain away the raid, painting the Kindred's actions in a noble light, but even Elias knew the truth now. He had seen them lay an ambush for a party of innocent travellers, rob them of all their possessions, and threaten to kill them. "I only did it to save lives," Elias had sobbed, and his face had been a picture of desperation and revulsion at the very idea of killing. There was no way he would consent to be the king of a people who murdered innocent people.
It was only to be expected, he supposed, that Elias should let himself be ensnared by the Kindred's lies. He was young, and saw things with a child's naiveté. Elias had always taken other people's suffering very personally. It had been so easy for Oliver to exploit the boy's generous nature. He had laid an unconscionable burden of guilt on Elias's frail shoulders, so the boy felt he was personally murdering the Kindred if he failed to do everything Oliver asked.
And, perhaps, deep down Elias had liked it. He was a shy boy who had never done anything exceptional before, but the Kindred called him king, and told him that he could do great things. For a short time, he had been the centre of attention. He had been somebody, and part of him had liked it. He looked very sad, Ciaran thought, now he was confronted with the collapse of that brief dream of kingship.
Next time Elias stumbled, Ciaran caught hold of him by the elbows. The boy looked so bleak and miserable. "I'm sorry," Ciaran said, suddenly desperate to see a smile on those sad features.
"Sorry?" Elias echoed. He looked at Ciaran, then down at the ground.
Ciaran stepped back. "I know it's hard for you." He tucked his hand beneath his robe, trying to protect it from the persistent rain. "But, really, it was for the best that you found out the truth sooner rather than later."
Elias blinked in confusion. "Truth?" he echoed. He was acting as if he was barely hearing Ciaran's words, and certainly not understanding them.
Ciaran hated to see Elias hurt. Ever since he had first come across the boy weeping in the gutter, Ciaran had felt strong and protective towards him, and nothing had ever changed. No-one could ever fulfil all the hopes of an exiled people who had waited for him and dreamed about him for five hundred years. No man alive could do it, least of all an untried boy from another world. All Ciaran's opposition stemmed from that fact. Everything he had ever done in this world had been for Elias's own good, to protect him.
"All will be well, Elias," he soothed him now.
"Well?" Elias licked his lower lip, and blood smeared on his tongue and trickled pink down his chin. Once he had looked at the cut, Ciaran found it hard to look away. On impulse, he reached out and touched the boy's chin, fingertips almost brushing the injury, but not quite. "I'm sorry I had to hurt you," he said, then he gave a wry laugh, for that wasn't right either. "I'm sorry I hit you."
"It doesn't matter," Elias whispered. There were smears of darkness under his eyes. His lips moved again, but Ciaran could not hear what he said.
Oliver was just ahead of them, looking back intently. The three of them were trailing behind the other walkers. It was harder to disguise the tracks of a horse, so Reynard and two others had taken the stolen horses by a longer route, doing all they knew to hide the trail. The two parties would meet up at a predetermined point, and from there Elias would be able to ride. If Reynard had not led the horsemen, Ciaran might have insisted that Elias went with them from the start, but he had wanted to keep the boy safe at his side.
"We can rest for a while," Oliver said doubtfully. He looked first at Elias, then at Ciaran. It had been like that ever since the ambush. He had given Ciaran a look of such quizzical intensity that Ciaran had wanted to squirm and look away, but after that he had been different. When he spoke about their plans for the day, he made a point of talking to both of them equally. Ciaran was no longer excluded.
"I'm fine," Elias said. He walked a few steps, moving like a blind man, then teetered to a halt just before crashing into a broad tree trunk. He turned a half circle on the spot, and his hand rose quiveringly, massaging the bridge of his nose, as if his head was hurting badly.
"Elias." They both cried out his name. They both rushed forward and both grabbed him. Elias sagged first towards Oliver, then towards Ciaran, then managed to claw himself upright again.
"You need to rest," Oliver pleaded. He was still holding Elias's arm, but Ciaran no longer minded. Oliver had already lost. What did it matter if he gave Elias a little support now? It didn't have to mean anything. He was no longer a threat.
"No," Elias said. "I'm fine." He started to walk away, and Ciaran found himself exchanging a glance with Oliver, before they both walked on behind him, both close enough to catch him if he fell.
After a long time of silence, Elias stopped walking, damp rags of his cloak clutched inadequately to his body. "Oliver," he said.
Oliver stopped. One hand rose towards his mouth, then fell again. His shoulders were very stiff, and he did not turn round. "Yes."
Ciaran was standing so close behind him that Elias could feel the warmth of his body. He was taller and broader than Elias, and, if he wanted to, he could fold him arms round him from behind and Elias would be hidden from the whole world. Swallowing hard, Elias took a short step forward, away from that protection. Rain trickled down his neck and the wind was cold on his back.
"You know what I'm going to ask," Elias said.
Oliver gave a barely perceptible nod. He still did not turn round.
"You should have told me before." Elias was too tired to muster up much reproach." I shouldn't have had to ask. The moment it was over, you should have explained."
"Yes," Oliver said, and it was a new thing, strange and scary, to tell someone older than himself that they were wrong, and have them admit it.
"Explain, then," Elias commanded. He took hold of Oliver by the upper arm and dragged him round to face him. "I don't know what you think, Oliver. That I chose you over my master? That you've won? That I'm siding with you in everything now, regardless of what you do?" He shook his head. "It's not like that. I did what I did to stop people dying. I didn't like what you were doing."
Oliver pulled at his lower lip with his teeth. "No." He shook his head. Rain was snaking down his cheeks like tears.
"Then tell me," Elias shouted. "My master said you were doing this all wrong, keeping secrets, telling me things backwards. He was right." He glanced at Ciaran and saw that he was looking at Oliver as he would look at a defeated enemy. Elias turned back to Oliver. "So tell me," he said, more gently, for he had not liked what he had seen in his master's face. "Tell me everything. Tell me why you robbed those people. Tell me..." A sudden shiver seized him, like someone shaking him and rattling his spine. Oliver was peering at him with concern. "You have reasons?" Elias said, and thought he sounded very pitiful and pleading.
Ciaran took hold of his shoulder, just as Oliver reached for his wrist, so for a moment he was held between them, tugged both ways. "Of course they don't have reasons," Ciaran said. "Just common robbery and blood lust."
Elias turned to him. There's no point, something cackled inside him. No point arguing it at all. You'll be dead by tomorrow. "I need to know, master," he said, managing to keep his voice level. "I can't condemn them without knowing."
"And if you find that they're only common criminals?" Ciaran folded his arms.
Ciaran thought it was the perfect solution, Elias knew. If the Kindred were exposed as worthless criminals, then he thought Elias would be freed from any responsibility towards them. He thought Elias would be able to go back to his old life, and nothing would have changed. He would never again be tormented with the thought of the screaming innocents he was failing to save. He would never again quail before the enormity of a task that he knew he was inadequate to fulfil. It would be over. The prison gates would swing open, and he would walk through them and return to the daylight.
"Then…" Elias's shoulders slumped. He was too tired to argue it, and what was the point? It wouldn't be over at all. How could he live with himself if he stayed and served a people who were morally despicable? But how could he walk away? Who was he to judge them and condemn them forever? Even if he walked away, his master was already wrong. Nothing would be the same again. Already he had changed and done things, and he could never be the Elias he had always been, and home would never be the place it once was.
And he wanted to like Oliver. For all his lies, Oliver had seemed to show a genuine sympathy that not even Ciaran had ever shown him. He wanted Oliver to tell them there were good reasons behind the attack. He wanted to love the Kindred, whose story had made him weep the night before. And how strange that was, because, by wanting this, it meant he was wanting those prison gates to slam shut again, and this time be locked forever.
"Reasons," Oliver said. His voice was rusty and reluctant. He turned his hands palm upwards and stared at them. "He's right." He shuddered. "I have committed murder."
Ciaran took a step closer to Elias's side, but Elias discreetly edged away. He would stand alone in this. This was not the two of them, Brothers together, against Oliver. Neither would he stand at Oliver's side and exclude his master. But he was glad that Ciaran was there, and that they were hearing this together. Until now, Ciaran had always refused to be there when Oliver was talking to him. Or maybe they had been at fault, and Ciaran had wanted to come, and been miserable and alone because he thought they did not want him.
"Murder." Oliver clenched his fist. "We all have. We have all murdered unarmed men. All of us. We have killed so many in five hundred years."
Behind him, Ciaran snorted. Oliver looked so unhappy that Elias found himself wanting to back away, to say, "No, don't tell me. Not if it hurts you so much." Did it matter if he knew the truth or not? You're dying, the voice taunted him, swirling like dark motes of dust between the sodden trees. What difference does it make?
Elias wanted to shrink to the ground and press his hands to his ears to block out the voice, but the voice was inside him, shrieking and exulting through his blood. And it lied. It was telling lies. It had to be. It was the voice of his own waking nightmares and wild imaginings. Of course he wasn't dying.
"I need to know," he said, more gently. He reached beneath his cloak and pressed his hand against his side. There was a pain behind his ribs, and his heart was beating very fast. "You have to tell me. You ask so much. So much, and I don't know how..." His voice cracked a little. "You have to tell me. I need to know who you are. You owe me that much. You want me to give you everything, but now I don't know if..."
"We deserve it?" Oliver gave a bark of bitter laughter. "No. Perhaps we don't deserve it. Perhaps the best thing I can do is release you from all oaths and make you go home, to live your life, and forget us. And as for us..." He sighed. "We will pass into the darkness. We have fallen far in five hundred years. There is nothing left of us that is worth preserving. We were once peaceable and true, but we have become hardened killers who thirst for blood and vengeance. If we had a king again, we would unleash civil war on the land. Then we would wade through the bloody streets of Eidengard and seize the throne. We would raise our banners high. Tremble, ungrateful ones, for the Kindred have seized back what is theirs, the banners would proclaim, and let no-one dare stand against us." His voice was risen almost to a shout, but then it turned quiet again, and regretful. "No," he said. "We do not deserve you. The time of the Kindred is over. We should accept it, and pass away, and be forgotten."
"But you don't want that." Elias spoke quietly. "You don't believe that."
Oliver clutched a fold of his cloak, pressing his fist to his chest. "No," he moaned. "No. I don't. I want us to know hope again. I think we deserve it. I believe in our cause."
Elias pressed his hand harder against his side. The pain in his head was making his vision pulse. "Then tell me," he urged. "Tell me why. Tell me the bad things, and the good things too. Tell me why you believe you're right." He glanced at Ciaran, who was frowning. "Just don't lie to me," he said, and Ciaran's frown relaxed just a little. "Tell me the truth, even if it makes you look bad."
Oliver took a deep breath. His face was pinched, and he spoke as if each word came hard to him, and quite unlike the practiced eloquence of some of his speeches. "We do it to live. That's the heart of it. You heard the story I told. We're exiles. This," he said, gesturing at the dripping trees and the forest floor that offered so little shelter and comfort, "is our home. This is where raise our children, and nurse our sick. If we don't rob, how can we clothe our children? If we don't rob, how can we arm ourselves?"
"Then don't arm yourselves," Ciaran said. "If you can't buy food like ordinary people, then you don't eat. If you rob and kill, then of course you're outlaws. Society judges people by their own behaviour. You've only got yourselves to blame."
"Didn't you hear what I said last night?" Oliver shouted, rounding on Ciaran. "They drove us out! It was never our choice! They killed us. Even now, they hate us. If we as much as showed our face at a market, we'd be killed. They give us no choice!"
"They kill you because it's justice," Ciaran shouted back. "They kill you because you prey on innocent travellers. They treat you as you deserve. You were cast out of power five hundred years ago, and you just can't forget it. You kill to get revenge. You're killing innocents because of what their ancestors did, and it's despicable."
"Master," Elias pleaded, grabbing Ciaran by the wrist. "Please, master. I need to hear what he's got to say." And, amazingly, Ciaran let out a long breath, and took a step back. He stared at Oliver with an exaggerated tolerance, as if he was willing to listen, but had already decided what his reaction would be.
"They hate the enchantment," Oliver said. "They're afraid of it. They call it sorcery, and they burn anyone they can find who is gifted with it. And it's not just us, not just us murderers, Master Morgan. It's their own mothers, their own children. They turn on their own flesh and blood, just because they're gifted with a beautiful power they don't even try to understand."
Ciaran laughed derisively, plainly disbelieving it, but Elias shivered inside. He believed Oliver, and it scared him.
Oliver took a step towards Ciaran. "You're a Brother of the Shadow. You serve the people. You put their needs before your own. All you want is to help them and protect them." Ciaran nodded, though warily, scenting a trap. "That's what our forefathers did," Oliver said. He was standing very close to Ciaran, and it was a moment of communion that was almost intimate.
"They served," Oliver said, "just as the Brothers serve, and as you serve. But the people turned against them. Imagine it, Master Morgan. What you always thought was service, they throw back in your face and tell you it was tyranny all along. They kill you all. Your master, who taught you to put the people's needs before your own, is butchered as you watch. Then they kill your apprentice, your boy, for no other reason than that he can sense the Shadow. He screams for you, but you can't save him. When you try, they laugh at your desperation, and delight in his agony. Then they build a world that despises the Shadow, in which it is a crime even to mention the name of the Brotherhood, or to say that it was good. The Shadow, which you know is good and beautiful, they call evil, and every day there are fewer left alive who can sense it, and soon there will be none. No-one left to know that power. No-one left alive who could pass on the stories of the Brothers. No-one."
The trap had closed. Ciaran was not aware of it, perhaps, and afterwards he would doubtless deny it, but he was nodding, agreeing with Oliver's words, believing them.
"But, just before the end," Oliver continued, in that quiet relentless voice of his, "you manage to gather together a tiny band of survivors. You are very few, and your lives are hard. But there are children there, and they are your hope. Knowledge of the Shadow will live on for another generation and the Brothers will not be forgotten. But one day a traveller stumbles upon your hiding place. He has been taught lies by the new rulers of the world. He has been told to hate you and everything you stand for. There is a large reward for anyone who gives information about the hiding place of the evil Brothers and foul perpetrators of the Shadow. He has a knife, and he starts to attack you. Or maybe he turns to run. He's going to run and bring the guards. There are hundreds of them, and they're well armed. They will kill you all, and with you dies all hope, and all memory of the Shadow. What do you do?"
Ciaran opened his mouth as if to speak, then shut it again. He closed his eyes.
"Once, when times were good, you would never have considered killing an innocent," Oliver said, "but times have changed. If he attacks you, you have to defend yourself. If you kill him, then he can't raise the alarm. If you kill him, then your children are safe, and the truths you are teaching them will be preserved. If it was only your own life, it would be different. But there's so much more at stake. You'll be killing him to save your children. You'll be killing him to ensure that someone lives on who knows the glory of the Shadow, because what would the world be if all such people had gone?"
"I would..." Ciaran opened his eyes. For a moment, his expression was soft, and he looked at Oliver as if he understood him. Then he stepped back with a hoarse cry. "I wouldn't..." He swallowed, clutched his staff tightly, and said nothing more. Elias was afraid that that one moment of understanding would harden into a condemnation even more ferocious than before. Ciaran would hate Oliver for making him sympathise with him, even if just for a moment.
"Is that how it is for you?" Elias asked, wanting to speak before Ciaran did. "Truly?"
Oliver could not meet his eye. "Mostly." He wrapped his arms round his body. "It's how it started, anyway. If we hadn't fought in our own defence, we would have been wiped out in those first few weeks. For the first few generations, they hunted us very badly indeed. We had to become hard and brutal. It was the only way we could survive. And we all believed very badly that we, and the things we believed in and knew, were worth preserving." He gave a bitter laugh. "We had a king to wait for. It was only for a little time, we told ourselves. We'd kill just this once, but soon the king would come back, and we wouldn't need to do it any more. It would only be a few weeks, or maybe months. It would soon be over."
"And it took five hundred years." Elias wanted to cry for all of them, for everything.
"And it's still going on. It's a way of life now." Oliver frowned. "Some of us like it. I can't pretend any more. You saw Reynard today. When you've suffered for five hundred years, it's easy to hate the people who forced it upon you, and to find yourself eager to strike back."
"But you hate killing," Elias said. That much was obvious to him, for all that Oliver started, as if Elias had stumbled on a well-kept secret.
"I do," Oliver admitted. "But I... understand why people like Reynard feel as they do. I don't like it, but I understand."
"You said they hunted you badly for the first few generations," Ciaran said. "So they don't hunt you at all now? For centuries, you've been the sole aggressor? They'd have left you alone, if only you'd let them? All that lofty talk of self-defence... You were trying to trick me. It's not like that any more. If you'd kept hidden, that caravan would have ridden right past. They were never a threat to you. They weren't even rich, but you robbed them of everything. You should have left them alone."
It seemed as if all Oliver's anger was spent, for he just sighed. "You're right. We should. It all happened before I could stop it. But it's hard for us. Winter's coming, and we need supplies. Not rich, you say, but those people live in a luxury we can only dream of. They have homes. They're free to trade. If they have a gift, they are free to follow it." He pressed his hand to his chest, where the enchantment burned, beautiful and irresistible. "Just because of the blood that flows in our veins, we are excluded from all that."
"So you attack them out of jealousy," Ciaran said. "They aren't the ones who made the rules."
"No," Oliver said. "They're not. And the current Duke is a peaceful man. He prefers to fund art rather than armies. It's been years since they've come against us in any force. For the most part, we avoid their lands, and they avoid ours."
Ciaran folded his arms, as if to say, that settles it, then. But Elias saw the sadness in Oliver's eyes. He was still hiding things. Before, he had hidden the bad things the Kindred had done, because he had wanted to win Elias to his cause. Now he was bitter and fatalistic, and had given up fighting for Elias's loyalty.
"Tell me," Elias urged him. He felt a sudden desperate need to know everything. He wanted to understand. They wanted him to give everything he had, and how could he do that without the complete truth? If he was going to die for them, he had to know the truth about the cause that had killed him. "Please." He touched the man's brow, as if he could physically drag the truth from his mind. "Please," he said, and this time it was a command.
"Yes," Oliver breathed, his eyes widening. Elias could feel the fluttering of his pulse in the veins on his temple. He reached out and clamped his hand on Elias's shoulder, holding him tight and dragging him forward. His lips moved, but Elias no longer heard him. His eyes were deep and intense, but Elias no longer saw him.
The forest disappeared. The rain stopped, and it was a pale spring day, with sunlight glimmering through translucent leaves. He was standing at the very edge of the tree-line, looking out over green fields specked with yellow flowers. A small boy was beside him, reaching barely up to his chest. "I'm afraid, Oliver," the boy quavered. "We shouldn't have come this far. They'll be cross with us. And the bad men might get us. Let's go home."
He had wanted to see the open sky and the fields. He had wanted to be in a place where you could see all the way to the far horizon, and nothing enclosed you, nothing at all. He had heard stories, but he had never seen it. He had never seen the sky without seeing it through the branches of trees. He had never set foot outside the forest, and the stories of the world outside filled him with longing. He had wanted to come, and Amalric, who followed him in everything, had tagged along.
"Oliver," Amalric urged, tugging at his cloak. But now he had seen this beautiful glimpse of the hillside, he wanted to stay forever. He didn't want to go back. Somewhere out there were mighty cities, and high mountains, and the ocean. There were the places of stories, and he wanted to walk and walk and never look back, not until he had seen them all, and made stories of his own to tell of his travels.
"Oliver," Amalric cried. And he looked up, but it was too late, for the man had seen them, and was coming towards them, his teeth bared like the teeth of a wolf.
"What have we here?" The man had a knife in his hand. "Two whelps who have strayed from the pack? You know what a wise shepherd does to wolf cubs when he finds them, don't you? He kills them, so they don't grow up and threaten his flock."
Scared, he used the enchantment, trying to summon up illusion as he had been taught, but the illusion was pathetic, and the man only laughed. "Your powers can't hurt me, little boy. They just prove to me that you deserve to die."
The man drew his sword and Amalric screamed. He tried to run, but tripped and slid almost to the man's feet. "Oliver!" he screamed. "Help! Please! Oliver!"
He had a knife at his belt. He had never used it before, except on the little things, like whittling wood or cutting ropes. The man hadn't noticed it. The man was bending over Amalric, ready to grab him by the hair, ready to cut his throat. And then the knife was in his hands, slithering on his sweaty palms. He thrust forward, and there was a moment of resistance that made his hand tremble, then the knife sunk in, and noise was horrible, like squelching mud, and the man was making a horrid strangled sound, and Amalric was sobbing, and there was blood everywhere, everywhere blood.
Blood, and Oliver was speaking, very faint and far away. "I killed a man when I was twelve years old. He was about to kill my brother."
My fault, he was crying, in the memory that Elias was never supposed to see. We should never have left the forest. I was disobedient, and he followed me. If I hadn't wanted to leave, none of it would have happened.
Then it was winter, and all the trees were encrusted with frost, and he had wandered far away from the camp, amazed at how a forest he knew so well could still surprise him with its cold beauty. He touched a branch and took some perfect snowflakes onto his fingertips, then held them up and watched them melt. He smiled, and walked on, then stopped, pressing his icy hands to his mouth.
A woman was lying there, half covered with the frost. Blood stained the snow pink, and all around her the ground was churned up with horse's hooves, thick ridges of mud showing through the light dusting of snow. Her skirts were bunched around her waist, and her naked legs were blue with cold. Dried blood clung to her thighs.
He fell to his knees beside her and touched her face, closing her eyes gently. He had strayed too close to the little-used road, hours away from the camp. The woman must have done the same, perhaps chasing the same rare glimpses of beauty and happiness that had led him here. He could imagine how it had been. A group of horsemen had decided to pass this way, knowing it was dangerous but fancying a little risk. They were nervous and edgy, but that only fuelled their bloodlust. And when they had seen the woman...
"Sometimes their young men come seeking us, just because their friends dare them to," Oliver was saying, speaking as if from another world. "They want to take back a trophy. A head, perhaps. Hair from the head of the woman they raped. A dead child. They laugh as they kill us, and vie with each other to be the most ingenious and cruel."
He was in the square of a small town, beneath a heavy grey sky. The houses were tall and built so they overhung the dirty streets. The square was cobbled, and a large water trough stood at one end. Several horses were placidly standing beside it. Freshly ploughed fields were visible behind the houses, sloping up to gentle hills.
In the middle of the square was a post, and a young man was chained there. His grimy shirt was drenched with blood, and his head was sagging onto his chest. Stony-faced men were piling bundles of wood around his feet, and a chattering crowd had already gathered to watch the burning. There were children there, their eyes shining.
He was standing in the crowd, and the hair he normally wore long was hacked close to his skull. No-one knew who he was. He was travelling the land, and, although he had seen moments of beauty, much of what he had seen was terrible. He was hastening home as fast as he could, and had passed through this town, little different from so many others in the Duchy. Beside him was a woman with mild grey eyes, but even she started to smile when they lit the fires beneath the man. "He was sweetheart of mine," she confided. "I never knew he was a sorcerer. He could have killed me. I had a lucky escape." There was a small posy of flowers tucked into the lacings of her bodice, and the heady smell of them hit him suddenly like a wave, though it was not enough to drown out the stench of burning flesh. Nothing would ever be enough.
Then it was winter again, but this time there was no snow. There was no beauty left in the world. Their fire was cold and dead, for the scouts had reported a party of travellers coming too close, and they did not dare risk the smoke being seen. Families were huddling together for warmth. A woman was holding two children close to her side, one beneath each arm, pulling them into the pathetic warmth of her cloak. She was crying. "Here," he said, offering her his own cloak, but she shook her head. "It's too late," she said, "and we need you most of all." Beneath her cloak her baby lay dead, killed by this winter that seemed to have no end.
Quickly, then, the vision faded, and there he was in the summer sun, watching as a stern warrior folded silently into a sword thrust, fell forward and died. Then it was spring, and a woman was screaming as her fingers were broken by a thin-faced man in a dark prison cell. "Tell me who the others are," he was demanding, and she was sobbing and saying that she had done nothing wrong, oh please don't hurt me, please.
"No," Elias pleaded, but there was no end to it. A thousand dead men were lined up patiently, waiting to tell their tale. They were clutching at him with the dead hands, weeping and pleading like the dead in the ruin. They were the people Oliver had seen die, and those he had only heard of, and those he had barely begun to imagine. They were his memories and his nightmares, and now they were free.
He wanted it to stop. He couldn't bear it. He had to see it, but it was horrible. Everywhere there was death. How could he bear it?
"How can we live like this?" Oliver was asking, in a memory from long ago. He was kneeling by the door of a battered tent and there were smears of blood on his clothes. "It's too horrible. I hate it. You feel like I do. How can you bear it?"
"Because we have no choice," the old man said. It was his master, who had taught him the stories that were the heritage of their people, and the only things that kept the truth alive. "We have to live. We have to live, and we have to do anything necessary to make sure that we stay alive. We cannot die."
"But..." He looked at his blood-stained hands. "It's been so long. This is not the life I want to life. It's wrong. Maybe we should just say that no, we won't do it any more. If they kill us, then so be it. Better to die than to become the very thing we hate."
"No." His master grabbed his wrist. "No, Oliver. Never let me hear you saying that again. We have to live, and you most of all. It is a sacred trust that we bear. One day, the king will return, and he will need us. Imagine what would happen if he returned, and we had all laid down our arms and given in to death. He would be alone in a hostile world. He would wander innocently into the nearest town, and they would see his powers, and they would kill him. Would you betray your king, Oliver?"
"No." He shook his head. His master's grip was painful, and the old man had never raised his voice against him before. "I wouldn't..."
"Yet you would betray the whole world, if you gave up," his master said. "You know what we believe. A great evil threatens the world, far worse than the petty hatreds of the ignorant men of the Duchy. Only enchantment can prevent it from triumphing, and no-one in this world knows the enchantment but us, and every day we decline more and more, and know it less and less. Perhaps the king is the one who must face this evil, but, if so, he will need us to stand at his side and support him. Or perhaps the evil time is far in the future, and all the king will do is to create a world where enchantment is favoured again, so our children's children are strong enough to face the evil when it arises." He shook his head. "I do not know."
"It's been five hundred years," he said. "Perhaps it will be five hundred more. Perhaps it will be..." He stopped talking. No-one ever uttered aloud the terrible dread that the king would never return, and it had all been in vain.
"He will come," the old man said. "Not in my time, perhaps. Probably not in yours. But one day he will come, and he will need us to guide him. You are part of the sacred trust, Oliver. I have passed my stories on to you, as my master passed them on to me. You carry the memories of our people, as a single torch of truth shining in a world of darkness and ignorance, and, when the time comes, you will pass them on the next generation. When the king comes, he will need that truth. Unless those memories live, how will he know what he must do? Do you expect him to fight his battles alone?"
"But it's so difficult," he protested. He knew his master spoke the truth, but he had killed today, for only the second time in his life, and he hated it.
"Yes," his master said, folding his hands in his own. But someone was shaking his shoulder and crying out in an urgent tone, calling "Elias," which was not his name, for he was Oliver, and there was no-one else near him but his master. "Yes," the old man said, smiling sadly. "But we expect the king to give us his life. Is it not right that we give the same?"
The voice was back again, shouting urgently. Another voice joined it. Something struck him violently on the shoulder. Something else bore him down to the ground. He lay there. The old man was still talking, but all the thousand dead were pushing forward again, eager to show him how they had died. There was a child of five, dragged away by a laughing youth. There was an old man, blinded in one eye, who would never fight again. Dreams were ripped to shreds. Nothing he had hoped for had ever come true.
"Elias," someone hissed in his ear. "Come back. Let it go."
"I'm so sorry," another voice was babbling. Oliver, he thought, but how could that be, for wasn't he Oliver himself? "I didn't mean it. I didn't realise."
"What did you do?" thundered the first voice. It was strong and ferocious, like a wild animal protecting its cub.
"I didn't know," the person who might be Oliver said. "I didn't realise it was happening at first. He's just so strong."
A hand touched his brow, and he flinched, but the hand would not move away. It was a cool hand, and it felt nice. It eased his headache a little, and made the dead draw back a bit. The person with the cool hand was trying to close a door in their faces and bolt it, he thought, though it was difficult, like trying to make a river flow backwards. It was kind of them, though, whoever they were. At first he had wanted to hear the stories the dead had to tell, but now he just wanted them to go away. He was so very tired.
"Elias," the person with the kind hands said, in a voice that reached into his mind, easing everything, commanding the jabbering voices to silence.
He ran his tongue over his lip and tasted blood. Everything was dark. There were no more people. There was no falling snow and deep shadows and dappled light falling through the trees and making blood shine like glass. There were no more dead. But his eyes were closed, and perhaps that was the reason why. Cautiously he opened his eyes, and blinked slowly. He was lying on his side, his knees drawn up to his chest, and his hands raised, like a bare knuckle fighter assuming his defence.
Ciaran was beside him, looking down at him with a naked fear in his face that he so seldom showed. Oliver was on his other side. "I'm so sorry," Oliver said. Elias looked at him, and, when he looked back at Ciaran, his master's face was hard and composed, as if the look of fear had never been there.
"I'm sorry," Oliver said. "I didn't... Oh, but you are so strong... I didn't know how it would be. You just... you sucked them out of me, things I had never wanted to show you, things worse and worse. I couldn't stop. I couldn't." Oliver's voice was high and desperate. This man, with his bard's gift at weaving words, had been reduced to this near hysteria, and he, Elias, had done this, without even meaning to. He had plundered another man's mind, stealing his memories, and now the man was actually apologising to him.
"I'm sorry." He moistened his lips again, but nothing made any difference. His throat was raw and pulsed with pain. "It's not your fault."
"It is," Oliver moaned. "I should have told you all this yesterday. I knew I should, but I was scared to. We've waited so long for you to come, and I was afraid. I was afraid that you'd leave us if I told you the truth about us. I didn't want you to despise us. I was trying to win you over. I was manipulating you. I lied to you."
"I know the truth now," Elias said.
Above him, there was a latticework of dark branches, weaving their prison bars between him and the sky. Rain fell on his face. He wondered if this was the last place he would ever see. He knew he lacked the strength to stand again.
"No." Oliver refused to stop. He needed to confess, Elias realised. He hated what he had done, and he wouldn't feel clean until he had poured it all out. "You still don't know all of it. The atrocities you saw... It's not just the enemy. Some of us enjoy killing. Don't make martyrs of us. The people of the Duchy tell tales of our cruelties, and not all of them are false."
Elias thought of how Reynard had smiled as he had approached the guards. "I know," he said, "but I know you try to stop them. You can't be held responsible for the sins of a few of your people."
Oliver stared at his hands. "You saw it, didn't you? You saw what my master said. You heard what we need you to do. You heard what it is that keeps us alive." He looked very fragile, without the protection either of his lute, or of the ritual words of storytelling. "We believe in prophecy," he said, and those simple words made Elias want to shiver.
"A great evil," Elias breathed, "and I'm going to have to face it. And, at the very least, I've got to heal five hundred years of hatred. I've got to make a world where enchantment is tolerated, so the evil thing will stay away." He might have laughed if it had not been so terrible. How could anyone do such a thing? How could he?
"It might not be for centuries," Oliver said, in the forced brightness of someone trying to find hope in a situation where there was none. "It might not be you."
No, the voice whispered, coursing through his blood and making his head pound mercilessly. I am here already. I have known you for years, before you knew yourself. Already you are mine, and soon the world will follow in your wake.
"But that's why we have to do what we do," Oliver said. "We have to stay alive. We have to preserve enchantment, and it's declining so fast now. It was declining long before we were exiled, but now it is hastening towards its end. The Duchy kills anyone in their realm who is born with it, and so many of our children die before becoming men. We believe we are the hope of the world. We cannot let ourselves die."
They stayed alive because they were waiting for their king. They had done it all for him. All the deaths, all the killings, had been for him. They had to live, so they could stand at his side and guide him. He had to live, because he had to heal the rift between the Kindred and the Duchy, and defeat an evil that had already won. He had to live, but he was already dying.
"What if I can't do any of it?" he said aloud. "What if I die before it even starts?"
Maybe the Kindred were wrong. Perhaps they had suffered in exile for so long because their prophecies were flawed. Perhaps he was never the one to save them. Perhaps it would have been better for them to give up waiting and take their destinies into their own hands. Perhaps dying was the kindest thing he could do to them. It would free them from the tyranny of waiting. Better that than that they follow a foolish king, who was only a boy, and didn't know how to do what he was expected to do.
Yes, the voice shrieked, surging inside him so he almost fainted with the pain of it. Better that you die. Far far better.
"You are my king." Oliver pulled himself clumsily to one knee and bowed his head. "Do you forgive me, my lord?"
"Don't," Elias moaned, Oliver did not move. He needed this, Elias realised, and it would be cruel to deny it. Not daring to look at his master, he touched Oliver on the bent head. "I forgive you, seneschal." Then his hand fell heavily to the ground, and he closed his eyes. The last thing he heard was his master calling his name.
The pain in Ciaran's back was almost unendurable. He walked in clumsy shuffling steps, and his breath came in tight gasps through his teeth. Twigs and branches slapped him in the face, for he had no hands to push them aside. Oliver held some of them back, but not all of them. There was a scratch on Ciaran's forehead that trickled blood down into his eye, and the rain tickled his face and could not be wiped away.
"Let me help," Oliver asked, as he had asked so often before. "Let me carry him for a while."
Ciaran just shook his head, unable to speak. Oliver was as slight as Elias, and lacked the strength to carry the boy. Even if he had been a strong man, Ciaran would not have entrusted Elias to anyone else, not for all the gold in the world. Oliver could carry his staff, and anything else that mattered, but not Elias. The boy was so still, with lifeless arms and his head slumped back so his poor throat was fully exposed to the rain. No matter how often Ciaran tried to heft him up again, he could not get him to look comfortable.
A horse whinnied, very close. Ciaran stiffened, and Oliver raised his hand in instinctive warning. Elias just lay there, seeing and hearing nothing. Ciaran didn't know what was wrong with him, and it made him want to cry aloud in frustration.
"Reynard," Oliver said, turning to Ciaran with a relieved smile. He signalled to him to walk on, while he hurried on ahead.
Ciaran would never have thought to be eager to see the man he hated. He distrusted the Kindred as much as ever, but Elias needed warm clothes and shelter. The Kindred needed Elias alive for the things they wanted him to do. Reynard might be different, but Oliver would make sure Elias was well looked after.
The path was sloping downwards, sinking between two high banks. Ciaran could not see his feet, and frowned with concentration. The ground was wet with rain, and the footing was treacherous. Trees clung to the side of the bank, and their roots were prominent and dark, banked one on top of each other. Their branches arched above him, like two hands that wove their fingers together and made a thick lattice that could not be breached. Not even Elias's body against his chest could ease the cold.
Then, a moment later, he was out in the light again, on a flat valley floor beside a slow stream . There were no trees, and the grass was cropped short by rabbits, and easy to walk upon. He glanced up, and it was good to see the sky again. It was like the sudden lifting of a long persistent headache.
Reynard was mounted on one of the horses, standing arrogantly on the bank of the stream. Two more horses grazed nonchalantly as another man stood and watched them, ready to grab their reins. The rest of the party were standing in a loose half-circle.
"Only three?" Oliver started forward, frowning. "Where's the fourth?" They had been discerning in their thievery, selecting only four horses from the many that had travelled with the caravan. They had not even freed the others, but had tethered them to the wagons, close to the sleeping soldiers.
Reynard shook his head. He looked distracted, and he eyes never once left Elias's still form. "I sent Julien ahead to tell them we're coming," he said, then, "What's wrong with him?" If Ciaran hadn't known better, he would almost have thought the man felt genuine concern.
"Exhaustion," Oliver said emphatically. "That's all. He did too much too soon.".
Ciaran pulled Elias a little closer. He wished he could do something to stop the rain pouring over the boy's face.
Reynard nodded, accepting the explanation. "We have to hurry. They're expecting us today. They'll gather to meet the king at twilight. If we ride on, you and me and him, we will be there in good time."
Oliver splayed his fingers, stark and pale against the darkness of the horse. "Master Morgan comes too," he said.
Elias stirred a little, and murmured something under his breath. Ciaran tried to kneel down, but Elias was too heavy, and it turned into a graceless tumble. He ended up on his knees, and pulled Elias close to his body with one arm. The other arm fell limply to the ground, trembling with pain.
"I wish you hadn't sent Julien," Oliver said in a low voice. Perhaps he thought Ciaran was occupied with Elias and unable to hear. "We could have slipped in overnight, and they needn't have known until the morning."
Reynard's head snapped up. "They need to know. It's cruel to make them wait. You said that yourself." He clenched his fist. "It's finally happening, Oliver. All these years stagnating, bound to inactivity because of Alberic's order... We're finally free to act. Things are changing now. There's so much to do."
"Sharpening our swords for war?" Oliver asked. "Forming a nice orderly queue of petitioners who will each tell him exactly what they need him to do for them? And you have to start today. You can't even give him one night of freedom."
"You agreed. We planned it, remember? Our cause is more important than anything, and we use any weapons that we have. You had your part to play, just as I had mine."
"And that part is over," Oliver said. "I see things differently now. I've come to realise just what it means to him, the things we demand. Would it make any difference to them to live without a king for one more day after five hundred years? No. But it would make a difference to him."
"He is..." Reynard began, sharply. Then he snapped his mouth shut, and glared fiercely at Ciaran. When he spoke again, his voice was too quiet for Ciaran to hear. He said a few hissing sentences, leaning down so his face was almost level with Oliver's. Once, he gestured to Elias, with a quick thrust of his fist.
"No," Elias murmured, lashing his head from side to side. "No." His lips moved against the fabric of Ciaran's tunic.
Oliver turned away angrily. "Master Morgan," he called, while Reynard glowered behind him. "Can you ride?"
Ciaran swallowed. He did not like horses. They had a noble place in history and legend, but he preferred them to be beasts that were ridden by other people and not by him. In the saddle, he knew only too well that the horse was in control. If it decided it wanted to gallop wildly any way it pleased, it would simply do it, and Ciaran could shout all he liked, but it would make no difference.
He swallowed again. "Yes," he said stoutly. He hated horses, but Elias needed him to ride. Elias needed him to be strong, and he would dare any danger for Elias. He would even ride alongside Reynard, and follow that man's lead, if he had to. He would do anything for Elias.
He stood up, painfully hefting Elias up in his arms. Oliver, he saw, was smiling at him, and nodding as if he approved of something, and Ciaran almost smiled back.
Right at the very end, when it was too late to make a difference, the rain stopped. When Ciaran stepped at last into the camp, there were patches of clear sky above him, growing bigger with every second.
The moon was still behind the clouds. The only light came from flickering torches, patches of dancing orange in the darkness. There were two hundred people, and they were all just standing there, just staring into the darkness, entranced. Perhaps they had scouts who had reported their coming, plunging through the undergrowth and shouting, "He has come! The king has come!" Or perhaps they had just stood here since Reynard's man Julien had brought the news, standing there in the rain as the sun had set, not moving even when night deepened around them.
It was uncanny. Ciaran felt a strange creeping along his spine, and found he didn't want to walk on. He was too far away to see their faces. All he could see of them were their outlines, like black statues against the orange light of the torches. They were strangers, and they were waiting in the darkness, watching with the utmost hunger.
Oliver was walking on one side of him, and Reynard on the other. They had ridden their horses along the stream, but then they had dismounted, for horses were not allowed near the camp. It was a half mile from the stream to the camp, and once again Ciaran was carrying his unconscious apprentice. Oliver had offered to go ahead and bring back a litter, but Ciaran had refused.
With every step, he saw the watchers a little more clearly, but still they did not move. Ciaran and his companions were the only ones alive, moving through a people who had been turned to stone. A twig snapped under his feet, and a torch spat and crackled, but no-one spoke. A woman had her hand pressed to her mouth, and a child clung to her skirts and stared. A cooking pot lay on its side behind her, pushed slightly into the soft mud.
Why weren't they saying anything? If they thought Elias was their king, why weren't they cheering or weeping? They had waited five hundred years for this, and now they were just standing still and doing nothing. It was something so immense that they did not know where to begin, he realised. They were in shock. It was something they had never truly believed to see in their lifetimes, yet now it was happening before their eyes, and nothing in their whole lives had prepared them for this.
Make them move, he wanted to plead. Say something. Just make them move. They were like an army of the dead, just waiting for Elias to touch them and bring them back to life.
They were staring at Elias as if he was the only thing that existed in the world. Most of them had glanced briefly at Ciaran, but their gaze had slid off him as if he was nobody, before settling on the young man in his arms. Why? Ciaran wanted to demand. How did they know? Elias didn't look like a king. He, Ciaran, was tall and strong, striding from the darkness into the circle of light with his fallen apprentice in his arms. Why did no-one even look at him? Why didn't anyone think, even if just for a moment, that it was him?
He couldn't bear it any more. "Send them away," he begged, turning to Oliver. "It's not fair that they see him like this." Elias was unconscious, and they stared at him so intensely. It felt wrong, like a violation.
"I thought so too." Oliver spoke quietly, leaning towards Ciaran so that no-one else could hear. "But I think good can come out of this. It would be so easy for them to forget that their king is human. At least this way they will know. It might change things for them. It might make things easier for Elias."
Ciaran held Elias tight. "But they'll despise him." He remembered how Reynard had looked when he had found out that his long-awaited king was only a boy, not a mighty warrior. Elias was no king, but he didn't want these people to hate him.
Oliver began to answer, but Elias's eyes suddenly fluttered open. His head moved weakly, looking first to one side, then to the other. He did not look at Ciaran, or seem to realise that he was there. "I saw this," he whispered. "I'm dying. It's true, then."
"Oh no." Ciaran shook his head, and managed to smile. "Don't be silly, Elias. You're not dying. You're just exhausted. You'll be fine." But Elias's eyes had slid shut long before he had finished.
"There's no need to say anything," Oliver whispered. He looked uneasy at the exchange. "I'll talk to them afterwards." He guided Ciaran through the sparser trees of the camp. It was a slight thinning of the forest rather than a true clearing, and there were trees scattered between the tents and low wooden huts. Oliver led Ciaran towards the fire that glowered in the largest clear area, and then past it. Reynard stalked behind him like a silent and unwanted shadow.
"This one's his." Oliver stopped outside something that was halfway between a tent and a hut. It was made of wood, but roofed with canvas, and thick hides and furs hung over the doorway.
Ciaran turned round. The fire blazed behind him, casting its grotesque orange light even onto the side of the hut. Reynard's face was all deep shadows, and his eyes were gleaming. Oliver was just standing there, holding Ciaran's staff, gripping it and ungripping it rhythmically.
"Thank you," Ciaran said. He meant it as a dismissal. Turning his back on them, he carried Elias inside. The furs fell back over the door, and they were alone.
Elias lay there for a moment, floating in nothingness, but slowly the sense of hearing returned to him. There were a lot of voices, wordless and far away, like running water. When he listened, he heard one voice rise above the others, arguing with them. It was a familiar voice, and all the others quietened to hear it, leaving only one harsh voice to argue back. He was too far away to hear what they were saying.
He opened his eyes, and added sight to the things he could sense. He was staring up at a low dark ceiling in a very small room with little light. There was a vertical line of flickering orange, and that was firelight seeping past a badly fitting door. The only light inside the room came from a single yellow candle flame. A draught made it waver, and the circle of light it cast was lurching as if it was sick.
The candle was standing in a silver candlestick, covered with shining leaves. It rested on a dark wooden chest, and that too was carved with leaves and trailing flowers. The chest was beside the bed, and beyond it, against the far wall of the tiny room, was a plain table with two high-backed chairs. His bed took up almost the whole width of the room.
His master was sitting on one of the chairs, hunched over the table so Elias could not see his face. He was resting his chin on one hand, and the other was tracing the grain of the wood, up and down, up and down, pressing very hard.
Elias tried his voice. "Master?"
Ciaran whirled around, pushing the chair back so hard that it toppled over onto the furs that served as a carpet "Elias!" He gave a smile of genuine joy such as Elias had seldom seem, and knelt beside him. He clasped Elias's hand, and still the smile did not fade. "You've been unconscious for hours. How do you feel?"
Elias licked his lips, and swallowed. He had to lie very still. If he thought too much about his body and his limbs, he would become aware of the pain that lurked there, just waiting for him to notice it. His mind was teetering along a very narrow path, but on either side was a vast chasm, ready to consume him if he fell.
"Not too bad," he managed. He tried to smile. "But I think it will be a different matter if I move."
Ciaran was still holding his hand. "Then lie still," he soothed. "I'll look after you."
He was all tenderness now. It was hard to believe that this was the man who had hit him on the road. That was over now, Ciaran had said, and they were never to speak of it. Ciaran thought you could ignore something, and that meant it was healed and could never hurt you again. He thought you could put things from your mind, and they would never be able to work their mischief from the place where you had locked them.
Ciaran just kept on smiling. He was back in a situation he knew. Elias was hurt and weak and in need of protection. Things were well between them, for Ciaran was the master, and Elias was the child. When Elias had tried to be strong, and had stood up and spoken out, Ciaran had hated it. There had been nothing but ill-feeling between them for two days, but now Ciaran was happy, because Elias was sick and needed him.
"Elias?" Ciaran was frowning.
Elias shook his head, and the movement sent tendrils of pain down behind his eyes. "Nothing," he said. It was good to be looked after, even if the reason was worrying. His master couldn't hate him, not if he looked at him like this.
"You should sleep," Ciaran said.
"I don't want to." Elias wanted to stay awake, just lying like this, with his master at his side. The rest of the world was outside, locked out of this small room, where there were only two people in the yellow circle of the candle. No-one was watching him, wondering if he was going to fail them. The pain was lurking just out of reach, but for now it stayed away. If he tensed his muscles, he knew he would start to shiver uncontrollably, but he stayed relaxed. If he breathed deeply, it would hurt, but he made his breathing as light as a feather. If he looked away from his master, something horrible would flood his mind, and he would be lost.
Ciaran smiled at him. "I know." He touched Elias's cheek, and his smiled faltered a little. His fingers felt cool. "But you're exhausted," he said, recovering. "You need the sleep." He passed his hand over Elias's eyes, forcing his eyelids shut.
It scared him, the sudden darkness, the unyielding imposition of his master's will. He flailed for balance, but he was falling, falling, tumbling off that narrow path, plunging into the chasm. He opened his eyes and saw the candlelight through slits between his master's fingers, like prison bars. There was a voice in the darkness, and he remembered. He remembered it all, and knew that the thing that he had kept at bay was not just the pain, but the truth as well.
"No," he pleaded. He sucked in a breath, and his lungs flared in agony. He lunged for his master's hand, but the movement sent his muscles into a spasm of shivering. His head tore into two, and he almost screamed.
Ciaran called his name, his face frozen into a mask of horror. The darkness seemed to suck all the colour from his skin.
"I'm dying," Elias whispered. "I remember now. I tried to forget. I tried not to believe it. But I'm dying. It's all my fault. It's what I asked for."
Ciaran grabbed hold of his wrist, holding him with a grip that hurt. "You're delirious, Elias. You don't know what you're saying."
But it was true. Death had been bought and sold in a small wagon on a muddy road in the rain. The woman had been dying. He had knelt beside her, but he hadn't known what to do. Delirious, she'd attacked him with a knife, scratching him in the upper arm. He had made his master hate him because he had wanted to save lives, and he had to make it mean something. If she died, it was all for nothing. If she died, he had thrown away the best thing that had ever happened to him, and all for a hollow dream.
"I didn't know how," he said, as his master called his name and demanded to know what he was talking about. "I tried. I really did."
He had learnt how to make the bird, and the ropes he had used to bind his master had come so easily. He had put the soldiers to sleep without even knowing how he did it. But he had been unable to heal her. The power had refused to come. Her skin had burnt beneath his cold fingers, and she had pleaded to him, sobbing, begging him to leave her alone, to stop, please stop.
"I had to save her," he said. "I had to. You know that? You understand? You know why I had to do it?"
He stepped back into the memory and lived it again. I can't do it! he screamed with all his soul, pressing his fists to his brow. Sophie had died because he had been unable to save her. The cut on his hand throbbed, reminding him of how he had sworn that he would never again let anyone die. Please let her live. I won't let her die. I refuse to. Let it be me. I'll take her place. Please.
Something surged in response, like fast and sweeping wings. Everything sheeted white, and he flung out a hand to keep himself upright. It closed on a greasy hanging, and he clung to it as if it was the only thing keeping him alive. When his vision cleared he was on his knees beside the woman, and only his grip on the curtain had kept him from falling on top of her.
He blinked, and blinked again. The woman was breathing easily, her eyelids quiescent on her cheeks. As he watched, she rolled over, sighing in her sleep.
I healed her, he thought. The whiteness had been the light of his power, responding to his desperate need, just as it had flared so bright when he had brought his master into the world. He had healed her, and the promise had meant nothing. It wasn't true. It couldn't be true.
But something had uncoiled deep inside him, as if it was newly arrived and just beginning to look around. It spoke with a cruel voice, and it liked what it saw. It had crept inside him when he had touched the woman, and it had rejoiced when it had heard his rash promise. It was death, and it had come to claim him.
"I asked," he whispered, "and I got what I asked for. I couldn't heal her after all. All I could do was to take her illness into my own body. I'm dying of it."
"You asked for this?" Ciaran said, in a strangled voice. "You wanted to die? That would trap me here, Elias. I can't go back without you. You know that."
He wanted his master to smile at him again, even if the smile meant I'm glad you're weak. I'm glad you're hurting. "I'm sorry," he moaned. He had been so stupid. He had saved the woman, but it had not been noble at all. He had only wanted to make himself feel better about Sophie's death, and to justify the monstrous thing he had done to his master. He had never thought about the consequences. The Kindred placed their hopes in him, and he had thrown his life away as if they were nothing. He had imprisoned his master in a world he hated, that was so vast and dark outside this small room of candlelight.
"I'm so sorry," he sobbed, but what else could he have done? How could he have walked away and let her die?
But it was too late. It was all too late. The decision had been made, and now there was no going back. Death rose up cackling, and its tongues of dancing flame reached out and claimed him utterly.