The heart of the kingdom
†††††† Ciaran could hear them before he opened his eyes, talking in low voices, sharing secrets they didn't want overheard. Once Elias gave a quiet laugh, and he heard something jingling, and a bag being opened and shut.
†††††† He sat up, scooping his cloak around his shoulders like a blanket. "What are you doing?" he asked.
†††††† Elias glanced over his shoulder and smiled. "Trying to get the creases out of this doublet. I should have hung it up over night."
†††††† "It's not like you to take such care about your appearance," Ciaran teased him. "Hoping to meet a pretty girl in the city?" Ciaran had watched closely for years, but Elias had never shown any signs of being interested in the girls in Greenslade.
†††††† Elias blushed, as Ciaran had known he would, but there was a slight edge to his words. "No, but I've never had to convince a Duke not to kill me on sight before."
†††††† Before they had left the camp, Oliver had brought them armfuls of clothes that had been stolen in various raids. When they reached Eidengard, he said, they would do well to wear clothes that would allow them to blend in. Ciaran had chosen something at random, barely looking at it, for he had not planned to actually wear it. Elias had put a lot more thought into his selection, matching up colours, and taking various selections away to try on for size. Ciaran had not seen his final choice.
†††††† "Are you going to put it on, then?" he prompted, when Elias did not move.
†††††† Elias's blush deepened. "Not with you watching."
†††††† Ciaran turned his head to one side. "I won't." But he heard the sound of footsteps brushing through long grass, and knew that Elias had taken the clothes and gone away, to a place where nobody could watch him, even if they were tempted to peek.
†††††† Ciaran sighed and tugged his own clothes out of his bag. Perhaps he'd wear them after all. It didn't have to mean anything, that he put aside the appearance of a Brother so completely. He was just playing along, like an actor putting on a costume. Besides, he thought, noticing the true garishness of the colours he had chosen, perhaps they might make Elias smile. He had never realised how much he liked seeing Elias smile until he had spent months without seeing it.
†††††† He hurried towards a thick tree of his own, chuckling a little as he went at how coy they all were, clinging to their little bits of privacy. Reynard was the only one who seemed not to care. As he walked, Ciaran caught a glimpse of his muscled back, slashed over with old scars.
†††††† He got changed quickly, and had to admit that it felt good to be wearing clean clothes, rather than the dirty tunic that really should have been changed two days ago. The shirt was made of a finer fabric than the Brothers ever wore, and the scarlet doublet was soft and warm. The purple breeches were a little large, but he tucked them into his boots. As he started to button up the doublet, he heard a burst of laughter. He fumbled over a few more buttons, then decided to stop. Flinging his cloak over his shoulder, he hurried out, wanting to share in that laughter.
†††††† Elias turned to face him, and laughed again. "You too, master."
†††††† Ciaran frowned, but it turned into a smile when he saw Reynard. The man was wearing a doublet of buttercup yellow, with frothy lace at the throat, and golden embroidery on the sleeves. He had dark orange breeches, with silver buckles, but he had not changed his worn boots and his thick sword belt. His sword looked as if it came out of a more violent age, and his face was harsh and scowling. He looked like a badly assembled puzzle.
†††††† "It's what they wear in the city." Reynard sounded like a pouting child. "At least I don't look as if I've stolen bits from two different costumes."
†††††† There was nothing Ciaran could say in the defence of his clothes, so he turned to Elias. "You can't laugh, Elias. You look..." He stopped, and blinked. He moistened his lips. "Not like you."
†††††† Elias had chosen a dark red doublet and tawny breeches, and they went together perfectly. The doublet was longer than Ciaran's, fitting him snugly above the waist, then flaring out into loose folds down to his thighs. He had combed his hair, pushing it away from his face with wet fingers, and it fell down to his collar. There was no embroidery on his clothes, but Ciaran thought he looked like a noble, while Reynard's showy clothes only made him look awkward and tawdry.†
†††††† "Not like me?" Elias echoed. He looked down at his clothes. "Will I do?"
†††††† "Better than either of us," Reynard said. "You fit the part perfectly. You look like one of them." There was a strange note to his voice.
†††††† Elias took a step towards him. "I'm not one of them. I promise you that."
†††††† Ciaran frowned. Tiny things could be more significant than big things, sometimes, and a simple matter of clothes could be enough to make a man take the final step into outright treachery. Whenever Reynard looked at Elias, he would see the hated enemy. Elias's clothes were further proof to Reynard that he had to die.
†††††† "But you don't look like them," Elias said, ignorant of the truth behind Reynard's words. "It takes more than clothes to carry out the charade."
†††††† Reynard shook his head. "I look like Kindred, no matter what I wear, but it can't be helped." He narrowed his eyes. "If you dare try to go in without me..."
†††††† "You'll what, Reynard?" Ciaran leant towards him. "Say it."
†††††† "May I?" Elias said in a shy voice, ignoring Ciaran utterly. He raised his hand, and held it palm outwards, as if he was going to stroke Reynard's face, his fingers just inches from his brow.
†††††† Reynard swallowed. "You may." He swallowed again. "Please."
†††††† Elias's eyelids slid shut, and his lips parted, languid and drowsy. Reynard mirrored him exactly, and Ciaran could hear the soft sigh that escaped him, and saw the shiver that passed down his neck. In that moment, it was as if something slipped from his face, like water removing a painted mask. The deep line between his brows went smooth, and the muscles of his jaw relaxed. When he opened his eyes and smiled, the smile reached his eyes, and had no cruelty in it. A moment later, the eyes had changed, and the face they illuminated was different, but the change had come before that, Ciaran was sure. For a while, it had still been Reynard's face, wearing an expression that transformed him. Reynard had looked like a stranger even before Elias had worked his magic on his face.
†††††† "I felt it," the stranger breathed, in Reynard's voice. "I felt it. I saw it. It wasn't like... It was..." He shook his head, as if he was unable to find the words.
†††††† Elias had changed him. Reynard now had a solid face with a square jaw, and a slightly haughty look. He looked about fifty years old, with light brown hair, and the beginnings of a beard. It was a face that went well with the rather fanciful clothes. He looked like a provincial farmer who had come to the city to look for a wife, and would spend the day blissfully ignorant that all the city sophisticates were laughing at him behind his back.
†††††† The farmer touched the big sword that looked so incongruous at his side. "How long will it last?" It was Reynard's voice, and Ciaran found it faintly surprising. The illusion wanted to be believed, he realised. Even Ciaran, who had seen it happen, was finding it hard to remember that this was Reynard, and not some puffed-up farmer.
†††††† "As long as it needs to," Elias said. "Until I release it, or until I..." He broke off, and stared up the to top of the ridge that hid the city. "I don't think it's good, casting illusions on someone else."
†††††† "Because I could be stuck like this for my whole life, unless you choose to release me." Reynard took a step towards him, standing very close. "I could beg for my true face back again, but you could withhold it. You have power over me, now."
†††††† Elias wrapped his arms around his body. "Yes."
†††††† Reynard stepped back. "But it is necessary. As is this." He unbuckled his sword, and offered it mutely to Elias.
†††††† "You can't do this." Elias looked horrified. "No, Reynard. Please."
†††††† "Do not deny me," Reynard commanded. "We're doing this your way. And so I give you my sword."
†††††† Elias shook his head from side to side. "I'm not leaving you undefended, Reynard. Is that what you think I'm doing?" Ciaran suddenly got the impression that they were talking about far more than a sword. It made him want to rush forward and join in, simply so he was not the only one pushed out, the only one who did not understand.
†††††† The sword in Reynard's hand did not tremble. "My sword shows me to be Kindred as much as my face." He spoke as if he was explaining something to a child. "I have to leave it behind. I would hide it myself, but I am offering it to you, as a..."
†††††† "I know why you're doing it." Elias looked more miserable than he had looked for days. "But I will not take it. Hide it yourself, so you can find it, even if you come back here alone." He sighed. "I would never take your sword from you, Reynard."
†††††† "What about your sword, Elias?" Ciaran asked, glad to have found something to say. Both of the strangers looked at him as if he had pushed brutally into something very private. At least the expression in Reynard's eyes was recognisably his own. Elias's face was the same, but the transformation wrought by his elegant clothes seemed even greater than the magic of Reynard's new face. "Are you going to leave it behind?" he stammered. "The sword, I mean. Albacrist. If Reynard has to leave his..."
†††††† "Albacrist must never be left behind," Reynard cried. "Never."
†††††† "Albacrist is made of enchantment," Elias said. "It's easy to hide. See?" There was no sword at Elias's side. Ciaran had not even seen a flicker of movement. It was gone as if it had never been there, but then, a second later, it was back again, just where it had been.
†††††† "I'll bury mine," Reynard said. Ciaran wondered if his true expressions showed on the illusionary face, or whether it was like a mask, that hid everything beneath it. Maybe the face could smile, while all along Reynard was glaring with murderous fury. Maybe Elias had give his worst enemy a gift, allowing him to plot in concealment.
†††††† By the look on Elias's face, it was clear that the boy thought Reynard was sacrificing his only defence for his sake, giving away the sword that was like part of his soul. But Ciaran knew that Reynard had daggers concealed in his clothes, and devious plots concealed behind his mask. He was sacrificing nothing. This was all done only to make Elias feel even more beholden to him. There was nothing genuine in the act at all.
†††††† "Come on," Ciaran said, unable to watch the charade any longer. He took hold of Elias's elbow. "Let's get going. He can catch us up."
†††††† Elias did not even look round. "We're going together," he said vaguely, and shivered.
†††††† Ciaran frowned. "What was that for? Are you cold?"
†††††† Elias looked at the sky, where the grey clouds promised rain to come. "It was like summer," he murmured. "For a while."
†††††† Reynard scraped the earth back over his sword, then stood up and brushed the dirt from his hands. "There." His voice was husky.
†††††† "We'll be back in no time," Elias said, though the brightness in his voice sounded a little forced. "No time at all. All of us. You wait and see."
†††††† Nobody stopped them. Three abreast they approached the bridge, and Elias was so tense that he was trembling, but nobody stopped them. A guard was lounging back on the low wall, flirting with a girl, and he barely glanced at them, before his eyes returned to her low bodice. She stared at them for a little longer, but perhaps that was only to be expected, given the rather striking colours they were wearing. She looked Elias full in the face and smiled, but the guard rather peevishly called her name, and she looked away.
†††††† The other guard was older, with a face that would never draw the attention of female travellers, whether old or young. "Going to the square?" he asked, before adding sourly, "I bet it rains. My day off tomorrow, you know, and this is what happens." He raised his eyes to the sky, and humphed.
†††††† The bridge was cobbled, and the noise of their horses's hooves made Elias nervous. After only two weeks with the Kindred, the need to travel in secret was almost an instinct, and this was the most dangerous point of all, for the river had only one bridge, and they would have to cross it again to leave the city. It could be so easily blocked by just half a dozen men standing arm to arm. A man could be lured onto the bridge, perhaps by guards who pretended not to care, and then the jaws of the trap would snap shut at either end, and he would be pinned there and easily killed.
†††††† He looked over the shoulder, and made sure there was nobody else on the bridge with them. "Your people built this?" he whispered, leaning towards Reynard. With its turreted gatehouses at either end, it reminded him of the watchtower in the mountains. The parapets were smooth and eroded with age.
†††††† Reynard nodded. "They did." Elias saw his new face only as a vague shadow overlaying his true face. It made him uncomfortable, as if he was spying on a naked man. He hoped Reynard realised he could see through the illusion.
†††††† Elias dismounted and walked to the parapet. No-one stopped him. In Conisborough, the river was foul with pollution, drifting sluggishly past the backs of factories. Here, so close to the city, it flowed happily through meadows. There were birds in the reeds on the far bank, and small boats tethered to wooden jetties. A slipway led down into the water just downstream of the river, and he watched a woman walk carefully down the slippery surface, and crouch to fill a pail with water. She had a brown skirt on, but her bodice was the same yellow as Reynard's doublet.
†††††† "You were right," he said with a smile. "It's what they're all wearing."
†††††† Instead of mounting his horse, he led it, letting Ciaran and Reynard tower over him as he walked between them. It was easier to get the feel for a place when on foot, he thought. There were guards at the far end of the bridge, too, but they were busy arguing with a peddler. A small circle of irate people were all talking at once, claiming that he had robbed them, and the guards were to cast him into the holding cell until someone from the Citadel came to deal with him. The peddler was protesting his innocence, but Elias was pretty sure he was lying. The women in the crowd smelled of a variety of perfumes, and Elias wrinkled his nose, preferring the natural smell of the outdoors. Someone smelled strongly of fresh bread, and another had a well-groomed dog that barked happily as he passed and strained at the leash, struggling to lavish attention on Elias's ankles.
†††††† Once over the bridge, they entered a busy suburb, outside the city walls, where all the houses looked new. This was how Conisborough had once been long ago. In time, the city would spill along the river bank, and flood over it, but they had come at the very start of that process.
†††††† Reynard led them into a cobbled side street, where the gutters were dark with dirt. "A public stable," he explained. "Oliver told me about it. They don't take much care of the horses, but that's for the best. Fewer questions." They had hidden everything from the saddle bags that might label them as Kindred, but it was still better to be cautious.
†††††† They paid their coins to the drunken ostler, and left their horses there. Elias felt his spirits sagging again. The horses in the stable were bored and hungry, and they nudged at his mind, asking him if he had come to take them away, oh please say yes. Elias caressed Sunfall's nose. "I'll come back for you," he whispered. "Tonight, or tomorrow. I promise."
†††††† Outside, the day seemed suddenly brighter, in contrast with the dark stable where everything smelled sour. The sun was not far behind the clouds, and he could still see the grass beyond the river. The people who jostled him in the streets were ordinary people, just as he had thought they would be. There was an old woman grumbling under her breath about her lazy lackwit son, and a girl fumbling to tie up her cloak as she ran headlong for the bridge. There were women with empty baskets over their arms, trudging up the hill to market, and a crowd of people dressed for a festival. "Go on ahead!" someone shouted from an upper window. "I'll see you in the square."
†††††† They followed the crowd up the hill, but quickly overtook them. The road zigzagged, and they soon climbed above the rooftops of the suburb. Ciaran started to falter, but Reynard was springing along as easily as if he was level ground. He kept pulling ahead, eager to see the city of his forefathers for the first time. Elias almost looked at his face, then turned away. He could see beneath the mask, and read emotions Reynard thought were hidden. If this was an intensely profound moment for Reynard, Elias had no desire to eavesdrop on it.
†††††† Just before the gatehouse, the road levelled out. The gate was a tall arch, leading into a tunnel that seemed to have no end. Reynard paused before entering the darkness, and Elias could see him swallowing hard. His fingers brushed his belt, but his sword he had left far away, sacrificing it to prove that he was throwing himself on the mercy of Elias's plan. Elias wanted to go to Reynard and say he knew how hard it was for him, but he thought Reynard would hate him if he offered sympathy. Reynard was a man who fought his battles alone, and let no-one watch his struggles.
†††††† "We have to," Reynard murmured. "This is it."
†††††† They walked forward. The guards watched them a little more closely than they had done at the bridge, but they were not stopped. No-one asked them for papers, or interrogated them about where they were going.
†††††† The tunnel was very cold, but after two steps into it Elias no longer felt it. He stopped, and Ciaran slammed into his back. "Elias," he said crossly, but Elias turned to him, grinning. "I can feel it," he whispered. "It's in the stone. It's all around."
†††††† "Dark and cold and damp," Ciaran grumbled. "Dripping with water, and who knows what else. Hurry up, Elias."
†††††† Elias smiled, and hugged himself with delight. The tunnel bent at a right angle, and the light from the other end came flooding in. Reynard was already there, tapping his foot as he waited for them. He was standing right next to a guard, but the guard was supremely uninterested. The only travellers they were questioning at all were the young and pretty ones.
†††††† Elias linked his arm in Reynard's. He felt the man stiffen, but he did not pull away. "There was enchantment in the walls," he whispered, when they had moved away from the gate. "It's still here, protecting the city."
†††††† "Protecting the enemy," Reynard sneered. "They live here, fat and affluent, protected by a power that despise. And look at them. Call themselves soldiers? Give me just half the fighters of the Kindred and we could take this city in a day."
†††††† "But that's not what we're here for," Elias reminded him.
†††††† He let go of Reynard's arm and ran a few steps, exclaiming in delight at a fountain in the middle of the street. He was playing the part of a young traveller from the provinces, amazed at the glamour of the city, but his laughter was real. He had been to so few places in his life, and had never seen a truly beautiful city before.
†††††† Hardly anyone in the street was armed. A few nobles rode by on horses, and they had decorative swords at their sides, but that was all. Even the guards looked slack. Oliver was wrong, Elias thought, when he had claimed that the hatreds of the past were as strong as ever. The Kindred might live as if they were in a permanent state of war, but the citizens of Eidengard looked as if they went for months without sparing a thought for the Kindred. They had lowered their guard, and blossomed into a city of art and culture, where old hatreds were quite incompatible with daily life.
†††††† "Where first?" Reynard asked him. There was a slightly pinched look to his face beneath the mask.
†††††† The street was broad, lined with tall houses with flat fronts and ornate gables, their facades painted in many colours. Each one had a garden, and some had walled courtyards at the front. "To market," Elias said, suddenly realising what he needed to do.
†††††† The market was a little further along the street, on the left. Elias doubted it was the city's main market, but rather a scattering of stalls that had rushed to fill a small public square. There were carefully edged flower beds in the middle of the square, and stalls two deep around the perimeter. Most people hurried past without stopping, but enough of them were browsing round the stalls for Elias and his companions to blend in without notice.
†††††† "Why?" Reynard demanded in a low hiss.
†††††† "I want to talk to someone," Elias said. "Get a feel for the place before I go rushing in."
†††††† Reynard grabbed his sleeve. "We've already told you what you need to know. Don't you trust us?"
†††††† "No," Elias said, gently. "I'm not saying you've lied to me, but you've never been here. Even Oliver only came here years ago. And things might seem very different to you from how they look in the city. There are two sides to every truth."
†††††† "They'll lie to you," Reynard warned him. "That's all it'll be. From beginning to end, a pack of lies."
†††††† And you didn't? Elias thought. Even Oliver had lied to him at the start, keeping things from him so he would be more amenable to their demands. Because of the Duchy, the Kindred lived in exile, cold and hungry and in constant risk of their lives. Even if he was telling the whole truth as he saw it, there was no way that Oliver could be anything other than biased.
†††††† "I just need to know," he said gently. "It could make the difference between life and death." He remembered how easily he could have betrayed himself to the farmer, just by not knowing the names of any villages, but he said nothing about it. Neither Ciaran nor Reynard knew how close they had been to losing him that night.
†††††† "And after you've listened to what they say?" Reynard folded his arms.
†††††† "Ask for an audience with the Duke. Use enchantment to get in if I have to. Talk to him. Hope for the best." It sounded like such a flimsy plan, put like that, but he had to believe it could work.
†††††† He started to walk through the stalls, and Ciaran followed him. "It's not what I'd expected," Ciaran admitted, as they walked past a stall covered with rolls of garish cloth, even brighter than Reynard's doublet. "I've never liked cities, but this one's different. Not at all like they led me to believe." Elias glanced at him, wondering if he was saying it to get at Reynard, but Ciaran looked sincere, and a little wistful. His master hated this world, Elias knew, but here he was, walking through the streets of a city that was more to his taste than any city at home.
†††††† Elias paused by a stall that was selling books and printed pamphlets. He wondered if printing was a recent invention, for the Kindred seemed to know nothing of it. He picked one up, but put it down when the shop-keeper glared it him. "Read it after you buy it," he snapped. "It's the speech Lord Darius made just last week. Hot off the presses. Only available here."
†††††† "I can't afford it," Elias mumbled, and moved on. There were stick-like trees at the far end of the square, planted only in the spring, and lightly covered with brown leaves. The flower beds also looked freshly dug, and the tall white towers that peeped over the rooftops were shiny and white. Only the outer walls and the bridge dated from the time of the Kindred, he thought. The city as it stood today had been built in the last generation, but it was no brutal rejection of the past. The people of the Duchy had turned their back on enchantment, but the life they lived was a good one, with much that needed to be preserved.
†††††† He looked at the faces of both of companions. Ciaran was staring around with a fierce grin, and Elias could read him as clearly as if he had spoken. Reynard was his enemy, and Eidengard had been built by the enemy of his enemy, and therefore it was good, even if was in a world far away from home. To Ciaran, every smiling face was proof that Oliver had lied. Standing beside him in the same place, Reynard was seeing something else entirely. Every burst of laughter was an insult to him, reminding him that Eidengard's prosperity was based on the suffering of the people who had been cast out. Its shining new towers were ugly to him, because they had been built on the ruins of the old. Ciaran saw a gleaming city of light and perfection, and Reynard saw a dark fortress where murder lurked round every corner.
†††††† Elias had to tiptoe between the two of them, and walk the middle path that was the way to the duke's heart. He had to understand both sides. And maybe, he thought, that was why it had to be someone like him, born in another world, without the prejudices of either side.
†††††† Sighing, he walked over to a stall against the back wall of the square. The old woman sitting in front of it caught his eye as he approached her, and perked up in the unmistakeable way of a talkative person sensing a likely audience. "Have you come to buy, young man?" she called. "Pretty ornaments for pretty ladies. A carving of your own sweet self to give to your true love."
†††††† "Wood carving." Elias smiled. "I tried that myself, once. I liked it." He looked at the exquisite carvings arrayed on the stall. "Nothing like as good as these are, though."
†††††† "If I was a gambling woman, I'd bet that you were good enough," the woman said, looking him up and down appraisingly. "Narrow hands, good long fingers, bright eyes. But why not buy one of these for your sweetheart, and tell her you did it yourself? He does the best work in the whole Duchy, does my old man." She gestured at the old man who was sitting behind the stall, carving busily, as silent as she was garrulous.
†††††† Elias felt himself blushing. "I haven't got a sweetheart."
†††††† "A handsome lad like you? Get away with you!" The woman flapped her hand. "Maybe a secret love you're not telling anyone about, eh? Go on. For you, I'll sell it for half price. You know, we took our wares into the Palace itself, once, and the Duke himself bought half of what we had. Oh, that was a good time, that was."
†††††† "This is my first visit to the city," Elias admitted. "I've never met anyone who's met the Duke face to face. What's he like?"
†††††† It was like opening a door and letting in the sun. The woman beamed, and settled down for a long storytelling. All Elias had to do was nod and smile and occasionally prompt her with words she barely heard.
†††††† The Duke was a lovely man, the woman told him, and so devoted to his people. Oh, the stories she could tell about him... What about the time she had taken her children to watch him lay the foundation stone for the new town hall, and that was, oh, twenty years ago, or more, for her lads were grown up now, with strapping sons of their own. They had been standing on the front row, and Dickon had cried at the quietest part of the ceremony, but the duke had looked right at him and smiled, and his crying had stopped just like that. And that wasn't all...
†††††† Elias made his eyes shine, as story followed story. "He sounds wonderful," he said, when she had paused for breath long enough for him to speak. "What if I wanted to see him for myself...?"
†††††† She sucked in a breath. "Harder than it was, once. He's not been the same since his wife and son died, poor man. He doesn't go out much. He's old now - older than me, and I'm getting on now. My old bones creak in the winter, you know."
†††††† "You don't look old," Elias assured her, and she blushed, and fluffed herself up with contentment. It was kind of him to say so, of course, and he was a born gentleman, so rare to find in the youth of today, handsome and charming and kind to an old lady like her, and what else did he want to know, for she could talk all day when she had such a good audience. Did he want to hear about her grandchildren? She had four, now, and only yesterday the oldest one had...
†††††† Elias smiled and nodded. Reynard had wandered off, but Ciaran gave an angry sigh. Elias moved away from him, trying to distance himself from his master's impatience. "I dote on them," the woman said, after a long narrative of their childish charms. "I can't begin to imagine what it was like for the poor duke, his son dying before him. And so unexpectedly, too. It well nigh broke his heart." The woman dabbed at her eyes. "We hardly ever see him now. He stays in his Palace. Lord Darius looks after him well, and that's good. But I'd like to see his face again."
†††††† Had he come to see the duke, she asked. Well, she wished him luck. They came to Eidengard in their thousands, dazzled by the stories of its glory. It was the true heart of the duchy. No, it was the duchy. The strangest thing of all was to think that there were still some places that resisted being brought into the duchy. They clung to their independence, voluntarily choosing the darkness of ignorance over the light of culture. But there was nothing stranger than folk. If they wanted to live like that, she supposed they hurt nobody but themselves. The only ones she had any argument with were the bandits in the forest, who wanted to tear everything down and fill the streets with blood and brutality.
†††††† "Bandits?" he asked, but she shook her head, and said he must know all about them, for who didn't? Had they troubled him on the road? Had he banded together with the others because there was safety in numbers? It was clear that she had taken Reynard's measure and dismissed him, and thought there was no way he could be anything more than a chance companion.
†††††† "We met no trouble," he mumbled. It was time to go. If he pushed her, she would grow suspicious, and perhaps she had already studied his companions more closely than he had realised. She was a keen observer, that much was plain from her storytelling.
†††††† As he turned to go, the old man spoke for the first time. "Take this, lad." He held out a wooden doll towards Elias, but did not stand up, so Elias had to lean halfway over the stall to take it.
†††††† The doll was jointed, its limbs fastened to its wooden body with thin wire. The wood was golden with a prominent grain, and the whole figure was about nine inches long. The body was crude, but the face had been carved expertly, with swirls in the wood for hair, and clear eyes that looked very alive, even though they were only unpainted wood. Its cheekbones were a sweep of smooth wood, and it had a small furrow between its brows, and a wan little smile on its lips.
†††††† "I can't," he stammered. He fumbled for the pouch at his belt. "How much...?"
†††††† "It's a gift," the man said. "Besides, the figure was flawed. I couldn't have sold it. And it's good to carve what I want to carve, not these fripperies that sell well. And you were just calling out to me to be carved, standing so still. My wife does so love an audience, and you're a good listener, with an interesting face. But you should smile more. You like as if you bear the weight of the world on your shoulders, lad. Ah, what it is to be young..."
†††††† Ciaran took the figure from his hand and rested it on his palm, so the limbs hung down on either side and the head was nestled against his fingers. "It's you, Elias. Didn't you realise? He's got you just right."
†††††† Elias felt himself blush "It's beautiful." Then he realised what he had said, and blushed deeper.
†††††† "Yes, it is." Ciaran stared at it for a moment longer, then crushed it in his palm. His voice changed. "I'll take care of it for you." He thrust it into the bag he wore strung at his hip.
†††††† "Thank you," Elias said, but the man flapped his hand and returned to his carving, and Elias was forgotten.
†††††† The bell chimed again, striking the half hour, and Elias realised he had been talking to the woman for over an hour, and had ended up knowing a lot more about her grandchildren than he knew about how to get into the Palace to see the Duke. He turned to Ciaran, ready to give him a wry smile, but Ciaran still looked disturbed. He plucked at Elias's sleeve, as if to hurry him away.
†††††† "Yes," the woman said. "He's right. You should hurry, though you're probably too late already. They've been pouring up the road all morning. All the best places will be long gone. You'll be lucky even to fit into the square at all."
†††††† Elias pulled his sleeve from Ciaran's grip. Reynard sidled up, a new ornamental dagger prominently attached to his belt. "What's happening in the square?" Elias asked.
†††††† "You haven't heard?" The woman's eyes widened. "It's a burning, the first one in years. They were far more common when I was a girl, but they said the sorcerers are almost extinct now." She leant forward conspiratorially. "I don't think their dark arts can bear the light, you know. They shy away from all this beauty, and sorcerers can't even be born in the city as it now is. Do you have a problem with sorcerers where you come from?"
†††††† Elias swallowed and shook his head. "I've heard stories. That they were declining. That they... they weren't even powerful any more."
†††††† "Of course, Lord Darius says otherwise," she said, unable to resist contradicting him with a tale. "He says the burnings have stopped because we've got less good at finding them, not because they're any less plentiful. He says they're everywhere, laughing at us. Why, only last week it was proved that the Duke's own painter, a man he let into his private rooms, was a traitor plotting to bring him down. Lord Darius himself exposed him."
†††††† Elias felt very cold. "Who... Who's being burnt? The painter?"
†††††† "Not him. He died. This one's a girl. A servant girl from the Palace, no less, with the whole run of the place. She got into the duke's bedchamber, they say, and came this close to killing him with sorcery. I dread to think what would have happened if Lord Darius hadn't been sleeping across his master's door. He risked his life to save the duke, and the girl was captured. Heads are rolling at the Palace, they say. Everyone who could have stopped it, but did not. Lord Darius is calling it a purge."
†††††† "A girl?" Elias sought out with his mind, and found her. She was lost and afraid, terrified of the pain that was to come. Hatred surrounded her like a black cloud. "I have to go."
†††††† The woman laughed. "Good luck, lad, but you'll be too late, you mark my words."
†††††† "I won't." He started to run. "I can't be."
†††††† He bumped into someone and they protested angrily. He swerved round the flowerbed, and thought he saw flames laughing on the whitewashed wall ahead of him. Someone was screaming. A woman with a basket of herbs thrust some lavender in his face, and he almost retched on the spot, for the smell was death and fire and ashes, and a girl unmoving in his arms.
†††††† "Well extricated," Ciaran said, catching up with him. "I thought we'd never get away. You certainly charmed her, Elias. I don't know how you did it."
†††††† "Lavender," the woman cried. "Rosemary and thyme and all things sweet. Pin it to your sweetheart's breast."
†††††† "But you shouldn't have let him carve you." Ciaran snatched hold of Elias's arm. "If he's done it once he can do it again. If things go wrong..."
†††††† "Let me go!" Elias screamed. He wrenched his hand from Ciaran's grip, and pelted across the street, only narrowly avoiding a cart. Ciaran got caught up in the crowd, but Reynard pushed through them and threw himself bodily at Elias, smashing him backwards into the wall.
†††††† "No." Reynard hissed. "You are not going."
†††††† "I am." It was more like a sob. "I have to."
†††††† Reynard grabbed his chin, his fingers digging in cruelly. "You are not going. If I have to hold you here with brute force, you are not getting involved in this."
†††††† The fingers hurt, and the thumbs dug into his throat and made speaking difficult. "Let me go, Reynard. That's an order."
†††††† Reynard laughed. "I take no orders from you. I wear the face you gave me, remember, and that name no longer belongs to me."
†††††† "I can see your true face," Elias gasped. "I can make it so everyone else can."
†††††† "Is that a threat?" Reynard thrust his face into Elias's. "You'd strip me of it, and leave me here exposed for what I am, with no choice but the fight my way out?" He gave a bark of laughter. "I think not."
†††††† "Please." Elias struggled against Reynard's unyielding grip, while screams tugged at his mind. "I have to try."
†††††† "And I have to stop you." Reynard turned suddenly soft, like a tender killer toying with his prey. "Order me all you wish, but I will still fight you. You must understand that. I only follow orders that make sense."
†††††† "Which makes obedience meaningless," Elias murmured, but then Ciaran was there, full of righteous fury. He smashed at Reynard's arm with his staff, the staff he had never once offered to sacrifice, even when Reynard had given up his sword.
†††††† "Do you even know what this is about?" Reynard demanded, in a furious hiss. "Ask him, Ciaran Morgan. Ask him what he's about to do before you judge me."
†††††† "I won't listen to you." Ciaran clawed at Reynard's wrists, trying to break his grip. His eyes met Elias's, but they seemed faint and far away, overlaid with the flickering of flames. "Is he hurting you, Elias?"
†††††† "He's trying to get himself killed," Reynard said, in a disgusted voice. "He's planning to rush onto the scaffold and save that girl's life. He's planning to throw everything away."
†††††† Ciaran's hands fell to his sides. "Is this true?" He gasped, pressed his hand to his mouth, and breathed out slowly through his fingers. "It's true. It's all about that girl, isn't it. What was she called? Sophie?"
†††††† Elias brought both hands up and pushed at Reynard with all his strength, knocking him to the ground, and falling over with him, so he was kneeling over the man and holding him trapped. "Don't try to stop me," he begged. "Please."
†††††† "You're not thinking right." Reynard rolled over to his side, and Elias let him. The two of them crouched face to face, as if they were about to fight. "You don't know anything. You're blinded by emotion. It's a child's trait. You'll grow out of it."
†††††† "I will not!" Elias cried. "I will never let anyone die when I can stop it. And if you donít understand that, you don't understand a thing about the enchantment you claim to love so much."
†††††† "She's not worth it," Reynard sneered. "A girl from the Duchy. Gifted, perhaps, but not one of us."
†††††† "Not one of us? She's alive. She's hurting. She's scared." Elias flung his arm wide, gesturing at the street. "Aren't these people human? Not the way you talk. They don't want a king, so somehow that makes them worthless, to be trampled under foot by you and your friends? They're happy. They've made a beautiful city. Do you want to crush all that? To fill the streets with blood, as that woman said. To force them to accept a king, and kill anyone who disagrees?"
†††††† Reynard spat into the dirt. "The way they live is an abomination."
†††††† "No." Elias spoke gently, and shook his head. "It is their way. I will do everything I can to make the Duke change his mind. I will argue your cause. I will get enchantment accepted in the world again. But I will never force them to accept a king in Eidengard, or let the Kindred rule over an unwilling populace. The Duke is the rightful ruler here, and the people love him."
†††††† "They'll love you more," Reynard rasped. "Don't throw your life away. Please."
†††††† "I am not planning to," Elias managed to say. He started to edge away, thinking the battle won.
†††††† Reynard pounced, grappling him bodily to the floor. "You'd trick me? I thought so." He knelt on Elias's chest, and looked up at Ciaran, speaking through clenched teeth. "Care to join me in holding him down?"
†††††† Ciaran wrapped his arms around Reynard's throat and pulled him backwards. "Let him go!" he hissed. "Don't touch him! He's for me to discipline, not you."
†††††† "Stop it!" Elias shouted. He struggled to his feet, and backed away, hands held out as if he was placating a pair of savage animals. "You canít stop me." Please don't stop me.
†††††† "I have every right to," Reynard said. Ciaran's eyes gleamed darkly, and said the same.
†††††† "You have no right!" Elias screamed. "You made me king. I never chose it. You forced it on me, and the least you can do is obey me. Just let me do this one thing. If you can't, then it's over. Kill me now and find another king, who's content to be your puppet. I won't even fight it, as long as you allow me to do this thing first."
†††††† Reynard looked as if Elias had slapped him. "You are my king," he said, in a strange voice. "I won't kill you. Don't say that."
†††††† Elias felt sick. "I have to go." Blindly he turned to run, and, for the space of a heartbeat, no-one followed him. He bumped into a woman, and she recoiled from him. Someone grabbed his elbow, but he shook them off, crying hoarsely.
†††††† "Elias." The hand grabbed again, and it was Ciaran. "Don't go. Leave her. She isn't worth it. A criminal, that woman said. Someone caught in the act of murder. Don't make her into an innocent martyr."
†††††† Ciaran's hand was like a monster's claw, holding him back from what he needed to do. "Even if she is," Elias cried, "she doesn't deserve to be burned to death in public. No-one does."
†††††† "I know why you're saying this," Ciaran declared. "You dreamed about being burnt, that's why you're sensitive to this, and I know how upset you were about Sophie. But it's not worth risking your life over it. Because that's what you'd be doing, Elias, and for nothing."
†††††† "Only because every second you delay me makes it harder!" Elias screamed. "If I die, it's your fault!"
†††††† "If it happened, it would be no-one's fault but your own," Ciaran said stiffly.
†††††† All the anger drained from Elias, leaving only ashes. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I didn't mean that. But please try to understand. Enchantment isn't like the Shadow. There's a... a certain coldness in the life of a Brother. The Shadow works best in the absence of emotion. A Brother sees the overall connections between things, and he knows that if this person here dies, it is for the best overall. You know that, master. You've killed, several times. You thought hard before doing it, but, once you had decided it was right, you did without guilt."
†††††† "Because I killed people who deserved it." His master's face was cold. "As this girl does. Perhaps the way is cruel, but who are we to interfere in the ways of strangers? You said as much to Reynard just now."
†††††† "I have to." Elias was close to tears. The girl's fear was clawing at his mind, demanding to be let in. "Enchantment's not like the Shadow. I feel it here." He struck himself on the chest, then pressed his fingers to his brow. "Everywhere. She's part of me. I've come here to save people like her, master. To make enchantment accepted again, to let it grow. I've sworn oaths. I can't walk away. I just... I can't."
†††††† He had not reached Ciaran, not even in the slightest bit. "You have to." Ciaran grabbed both of his wrists and dragged him towards him. "I order you to."
†††††† "Then I must disobey you," Elias breathed. "I'm so sorry, but I have to. Please understand. This isn't about you. I'd hate myself if I walked away."
†††††† Ciaran pushed Elias away, and he staggered, falling heavily against a wall. "And I will hate you if you do not," Ciaran said coldly.
†††††† Elias spread his fingers against the wall, grinding his flesh into the grainy stone, then pushed himself away with both hands, and ran into the crowd. This time nobody followed him.
†††††† This was the end of everything. No miracle happened to save her, but she hadn't expected that, had she, not after Lord Darius had told her the truth?
†††††† I'm nobody, she thought, as they bound her to the stake. Pathetic little powers. Tiny. He laughed. They've seen far stronger.
†††††† A thousand people were gathered to watch her die. Ten thousand, a thousand thousand, the whole world, all melted into a endless sea of faces that hated her. They were wearing bright colours, with flowers pinned to their breasts. Elegant ladies stood at the high windows and watched her, their hands pressed together with excitement.
†††††† And so she was noticed at last. Her name was the name on everybody's lips. She would be written about in pamphlets and remembered in songs, and no-one would be talking about anything else in the taverns tonight. She was on a platform elevated above the crowd, and everyone was staring at her.
†††††† "I want to be small," she whispered. "I want to be nobody." She had always been special to her mother. Why had she ever wanted more? She had sobbed in the cell, and wanted nothing in the world except for someone to hold her and love her and comfort her.
†††††† They bustled around her, piling wood at her feet. A brazier was already burning on the far end of the scaffold, and a solid man was standing there with a mask over his face. The fire was to burn away her sorcery, but they were taking no chances. The man who killed her would never show his face, to keep her from cursing him after her death.
†††††† "But I don't know how," she wailed. "I never did. I'm no danger to you." But they only laughed. Any sorcerer was a danger, even such a little one.
†††††† She saw Bess in the crowd, standing with her arm linked through her lover's. He was shouting obscenities along with the others, but Bess looked as if she had been crying. As Annis watched, she snatched her arm away from her lover's, and turned away. So maybe she had broken them up after all, in a way, though she could take no pleasure in it. She thought Bess had probably only ever tried to be kind to her, and had persisted long after most people would have given up.
†††††† Someone stepped forward and said a few words. It was not Lord Darius. Perhaps he was watching from afar, but he was not showing his face. That's how unimportant you are, he was telling her. I'm not even going to bother to watch you die. Or maybe he was off killing the Duke, taking advantage of the empty corridors in the Palace. Perhaps she should shout the truth aloud and go to her death denouncing him, but what good could it possibly do? No-one would believe her, and it would only make her death more cruel.
†††††† The wood was set alight. It didn't hurt, but the smoke made her cough. The air was damp, and the wood was reluctant to burn. Someone said something about getting oil, but someone else said it was better when it was slow. They were talking as casually as if they were on a picnic.
†††††† It couldn't really be happening! This was a dream, that's why she was seeing everything through a veil of smoke. A dream of standing in a high place, with every eye upon her, none of them really existing. "Oh." She gasped aloud. Her cherished dream of glory had been a dream of her own death. She had seen it years ago, and never understood. She had started walking this path long ago, and now it was come to an end.
†††††† The flames rose higher. She felt pain, now, as the skin smarted on her hands and her legs behind the thin shift. The fire was not yet touching her.
†††††† But he'll come for me, she thought. The young man in her dream had pushed forward, loving her so much he was ready to die for her. Was that him, there, moving in the crowd, pushing forward? Was that him making the soldiers lower their pikes and shout "back"? Those fingers of fear unravelling her mind... Were they his?
†††††† The sky darkened as the smoke poured over her, and met above her head, like two gigantic hands. A puff of wind swept over the square, and the flames turned towards her. Her shift caught fire, and she screamed. Thunder tore the city in two, sounding like a vast cheer. She screamed again, and clawed frantically at the stake with her bound hands, trying to climb it.
†††††† Something whispered in her ear, soft and gentle, soft like a mouse, with velvet fur against her neck. "Where do you want to be?"
†††††† She turned her head to look for it. "I don't understand." But maybe some part of her deep down did, for suddenly she was in a meadow beside the river, with a blue sky above her, and insects buzzing indolently around the flowers. A boat was pulled up on the muddy bank, and laughter echoed in the air. She had come here once as a child, on a rare and wonderful summer's day, when her parents had packed up their things and decided to act like a normal family.
†††††† "Where am I?" She threw her arms wide and turned in a full circle. The towers of Eidengard twinkled on the distant hill, and the river sparkled silver.
†††††† "Safe," the whisper-voice assured her.
†††††† She looked down at her clothes, and hazy and blue as they had been on that long-ago summer festival. "I was burning."
†††††† "Nothing will hurt you."
†††††† "Safe," she echoed. It was just like the memory, but everything was shimmering white. There was a richness to everyday things that she had never seen before. She touched a petal and saw all its veins. A bee circled her, and she followed it with wondering eyes, and knew exactly which flower it would end up on. "Is this the heart of sorcery?" she breathed.
†††††† "Enchantment," the velvet voice said, and the petals shivered to hear it, and even the bees turned to look. Or maybe the voice spoke through all those living things, and the earth itself. "It's true name is enchantment. And this is a place of enchantment and your own memory, but it is real, too, in a way."
†††††† "Who are you?" She ran to the river in case he was lazing in a boat, and searched through the reeds in case he was hiding. "Let me see you."
†††††† "I can't." He gasped, then let out a slow breath. "I can't come here, not in the way you can, though I can see what you are seeing."
†††††† "Come here," she demanded. "Please." Then, when the petals seemed to shudder and shrink with the echo of something he said, she asked, "Are you even human? Why won't you let me see you?"
†††††† "I can't." The voice sounded strained, as if it was struggling with pain. "I'm human, yes."
†††††† She knelt by the river and touched the water, but her hands just sank into nothingness. The only thing that felt real was the square of grass she was standing on, and the rest was only a picture. "I'm not really here," she said. "I'm still dying."
†††††† "You are. I'm sorry. I'm keeping you from the pain of it. That's why I can't come."
†††††† She stood up. "Save me." She stamped her foot. "If you can bring me here you can save me."
†††††† "I..." He sucked in a breath. "Can't. There are too many people, too many guards. A whole city to get through, where even the good people hate us. I would if I could, but we'd just get captured again. You'd die twice as cruelly."
†††††† "And you'd die, too?" she shouted. "You're scared of that? You'd rather let me die than risk yourself?"
†††††† "There's something very important I need to do." He broke off with a sob. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I'm trying to... So hard. Oh..." He moaned. "Important. To stop anyone ever dying like this again. They said it didn't matter to me, that I'd throw myself away, that I was stupid. But I just... Oh, please..."
†††††† "Why haven't they burnt you too?" she asked bitterly, "if you have this enchantment of yours? At least I tried to do something."
†††††† "Did you?"
†††††† "I did." She put her hands on his hips and nodded triumphantly. The river was black and silver and the flowers were curling away from her, shrivelling from her lies. She collapsed to her knees and buried her face in her hands. "I didn't. The painter tried to make me see, but I didnít, not until it was too late. I never did anything great. I just struck out at people who made me feel small."
†††††† "I know," the voice said, and the flowers turned towards her and smiled. "But it doesn't matter now."
†††††† She raised her head. "It was you," she breathed. "The vision I had. The white light. Someone was reaching out. It was you." Something's coming, she had thought, but Darius had smiled, and said, I will be ready for him. She gasped. "You have to be careful. Lord Darius..."
†††††† "Don't worry about me." The voice was little louder than a breath.
†††††† Very faint and far away, she thought she could smell smoke. "You're killing yourself for me." The words made her feel sick. After all her dreams, it was a horrible thing to know that someone would die for you. "That's why you can't be here. You have to stay there so you can feel my pain."
†††††† "Don't worry about me," he said again. The voice stirred the hairs on the back of her neck.
†††††† "Bring me back!" she cried. She clawed at the invisible wall of nothingness on the riverbank. "Please!"
†††††† Everything she had ever believed about herself was a lie, but the truth was no longer bitter ashes, but something shining and wonderful. She had been touched by greatness after all, for someone with great powers had cared for her, and forgiven her, and shown her a glimpse of the glory of enchantment. It was a beautiful power, strongest in selflessness. It shone, and the very fact that it existed was cause for joy, even if she had the smallest powers of anyone in the land. This powerful being said he intended to make the world safe for people like her, and that was a good cause to die for, surely, far better than any she had ever fought in her life.
†††††† "Take me back!" she screamed. "And tell me your name!"
†††††† "Elias," he murmured, "and I would never make you stay anywhere against your will."
†††††† The meadow faded away, and she was back, trapped behind a wall of flame and smoke. "Show me," she sobbed." Let me see you." And, whether in response to her plea or through some lucky chance of the wind, the flames parted enough for her to see into the crowd.
†††††† "It's you!" she screamed. The ropes had burnt through and she pointed, thrusting her arm through the flames, feeling nothing. "You're the one!"
†††††† It was the man from her dreams, and not a powerful being at all, but a young man crippled with the agony that should have been hers. For he was still holding her safe, she realised, protecting her from all pain with strong arms of enchantment. Her flesh could be charred to cinders, and still she would not feel it. And he would keep on doing it until it killed him.
†††††† Elias. He had been the only man for her, from the moment he had first appeared in her dreams so many years ago, and they would die together unless she stopped it.
†††††† Let me go, she whispered, knowing he was still in her mind and would hear it. I don't want you to do it any more. I don't want you to die for me.
†††††† I won't, he lied.
†††††† Were men always such impossible liars, so full of bravado? Or was it only him, so foolishly brave even if it killed him? She felt suddenly older than him, and impossibly fond, too, as if she had known him for years. "Then I'll have to do it, if you won't."
†††††† She did it by herself this time, so perhaps Lord Darius had been lying, and her powers were not so small after all. Not that it mattered now, not at all. Instead of a meadow, she made a clifftop, specked with pale flowers and patches of snow. She dragged herself from the fire, and it was easier now Elias had shown her the way, and managed to reach the edge of the cliff. But there were ropes around her ankles, and dark gibbering things calling her back. People were shouting. The snow was cold, and cold was good after the fire. She knew she had to jump, but she couldn't move her feet, not even one little tiny step.
†††††† "Elias," she begged. "Please help me. Please. You have to push me. I can't do it by myself. Please."
†††††† He broke then, and screamed, a sound of pure agony. She was terrified to open her eyes, knowing it would drag her from the clifftop and she would be back in the flames, watching him die from the pain that should have been hers.
†††††† "Please," she begged. "I want it. It's all I want. For me. Please." And, inside, she hugged herself close and whispered, for you, so quietly that he would never hear it.
†††††† She felt it as the softest of touches on her back, and then her arms were spreading out like wings, and she was falling from the cliff, falling, falling.
†††††† There was a lake far below, and she broke through its surface, and it was beautiful and cool and silver, and, beyond the water, there was light.
†††††† There were people everywhere. Colourful backs, trailing cloaks, and bunches of flowers with cloying scents. Elbows jabbing in his side, and voices shouting.
†††††† "I didn't mean it!" Ciaran shouted, though his voice stood no chance over the sound of a thousand people screaming. "I don't hate you! Please come back!"
†††††† Reynard pushed his way to his side, and Ciaran wanted to smash his fist into that deceitful face of his. Reynard had been the one to make Elias angry, so Reynard had caused the argument between Ciaran and his apprentice. And neither of them had managed to stop Elias from disappearing into the crowd and getting lost.
†††††† "You let him go?" Reynard asked.
†††††† "So did you."
†††††† "Only because I thought you would stop him. You're not bound by the oaths that bind me."
†††††† Ciaran struck Reynard in the middle of this chest with the heel of his hand. "Don't you dare say it was my fault. And it suits you, doesn't it. Elias throwing his life away over something so stupid."
†††††† Reynard didn't even fight back. "Save him first, then fight over it."
†††††† "Oh, I'll fight him," Ciaran muttered, as he shouldered his way through the crowd. He was taller than most of them, and let anyone dare stand in the way of a Brother who had his mind set on something. So he was wrong to say he hated him, but that didn't mean he couldn't be furious with him. He wanted to wring his ungrateful little neck, though after he found out that he was safe, of course. Until that time, let anyone who threatened the boy beware.
†††††† The crowd shouted, and Ciaran shouted along with them, for it was easier that way. The smell of smoke was very strong, and he thought the girl was close to dying. "Shame she's not screaming," he heard someone say, but his friend said she was glad. "It's harder to remember they're not really human when they scream. It makes you almost feel sorry for them."
†††††† He pushed past them, striking hard at the man who had spoken first, and sparing his companion. A woman backed into him, standing heavily on his foot, making him exclaim. She shoved her aside, and shook off someone who tried to drag him back. He jabbed down on toes with the heel of his staff, and pushed people back with its edge. No-one could stop him.
†††††† "Elias!" he shouted, but his voice was still swallowed up by the crowd. With every step the anger was fading, replaced with cold fear. With every step, the truth became more clear. The way the people were dressed, the shape and colour of the houses, and mingled smells of perfume and smoke...
†††††† He knew this place. Oliver had tried to tell him, but he had dismissed it. This was the square of Elias's fever dream, but Elias had forgotten the end of the dream, and Ciaran had never told him. Elias had gone charging into danger, never knowing that he had had a vision to warn him against this very moment.
†††††† "Elias!" he screamed.
†††††† Reynard saw him first. Reynard, who was shorter than him, and an enemy, saw him first, and plucked at his sleeve. "There he is."
†††††† Ciaran pushed with all his strength and the wall of bodies gave way. Someone struck out at him, their fist landing heavily in Ciaran's side, and hurting him. "Some of us have been waiting here since last night, you know," a woman shouted, but he screamed at her that he didn't care. Reynard slipped ahead of him while he was shouting, slithering through gaps like a snake. With a howl of fury, Ciaran pushed after him. Sometimes his legs found gaps that his body could not fit through, and he thought he was going to fall over backwards and be trampled. Sometimes his body barged through with brute force, but his feet tripped and he almost fell.
†††††† Reynard's yellow arm waved over the head of the crowd. Clenching his jaw, Ciaran aimed for it. He pushed between two women, and almost fell bodily on top of Elias.
†††††† "He doesn't seem to hear me," Reynard was saying. He was shaking Elias's arm, but Elias was not responding in any way.
†††††† "Elias." Ciaran wrapped his arms around Elias's shoulders, and pulled him close. Elias sank into his embrace, but gave no sign of being truly aware of him. "I'm here. You're safe now." Elias's body felt fever-hot, and his pulse was racing. "At least we found him before he did anything stupid," he said to Reynard.
†††††† "I donít think we did." There was none of the expected fury in Reynard's face, unless his mask was concealing it.
†††††† Elias gave a shuddering groan, and began to fight Ciaran's embrace. Ciaran tried to resist, but Elias tore from his arm, and plunged forward. He landed on his knees, then dragged himself up to his feet, sobbing as if with agony. As he did so, the girl on the scaffold screamed something, and the crowd went wild. Her arm was thrust through the flames like a denunciation, pointing straight at Elias. Elias screamed, and clutched his own wrist to his chest. He hunched over it, rocking to and fro.
†††††† Ciaran scooped him up into his arms, half carrying him, half holding him upright. Elias pressed his face into Ciaran's chest, moaned, but said nothing.
†††††† "I'm here," Ciaran crooned. "Come with me, and no harm's done." He tried to drag Elias back through the crowd, already preparing his muttered excuses - too much drink, overcome by the crush - but Elias fought him wildly, then went completely still. Taken by surprise, Ciaran dropped him. Elias fell to the ground, and lay there sobbing.
†††††† "Dead," Reynard said. "The girl's dead. It's over now."
†††††† "What did he do?" Ciaran demanded. "You know, don't you? What did he do?" He grabbed Elias's arm and shook it. "What did you do, Elias?" Elias screamed at the touch, and Ciaran dropped his arm, recoiling. "What did he do?" he whispered.
†††††† "Too late," a voice said, far away.
†††††† Elias curled on his side in the heart of the fire, and charred wood crackled beneath him like breaking bones. People were shouting, and he choked on the ashes that were his bed. He was surprised to see the five pale fingers of his hand, for surely it had all burnt to black ashes, so only a charred stump remained. The pain of that memory was still a living thing, clutching at his throat, robbing him of breath.
†††††† "They're coming."
†††††† There was a name to that voice. Ciaran, he thought. Ciaran Morgan, his master. He sounded afraid, and Elias didn't want Ciaran to be hurt.
†††††† He tried to open his eyes, and was faintly surprised that he could still see. Even if the fire had not scoured them, he had killed a girl today, and his eyes should be plucked out as a punishment. So what if she had begged him to. Perhaps cowardice had played its part, for her death meant freedom from pain. He deserved no forgiveness. His master was right to hate him.
†††††† "Elias." Ciaran was tugging at his arm, and he moaned, imagining his master's strong fingers breaking through the blackened flesh and making it all dissolve into ash. "Be strong for me, Elias. You have to stand. I'll do what I can to protect you, but there are so many of them."
†††††† "Many?" He blinked. "Who?"
†††††† "Soldiers. They're coming for you. She pointed at you before she died, you see, Elias. She betrayed you. I told you she wasn't worth it."
†††††† "Don't you dare say that!" he rasped, as he struggled to his knees. "It's not true."
†††††† "There's no time for this," Ciaran hissed. "The crowd's slowing them down a bit, but it will slow us down even more if we try to get away. I'll fight. I won't let them take you."
†††††† "And then you'll die." Another death on his hands. All lives were precious, but Ciaran's was the most precious of all to him. "Please go, master."
†††††† "And leave you?" Ciaran raged. "I'd never do that, Elias."
†††††† No, Elias thought. You won't, not when I want you to. Only when I don't, when I long for you, when I need you. But this was the last time he would ever see his master, so he forced himself to smile. "Thank you, master. I do love you, you know."
†††††† Ciaran turned his back, hefting his staff in both hands. "Not now."
†††††† Elias heard their tramping feet, and the fluttering sounds of ordinary people being pushed away by soldiers. If they suspected he was a sorcerer, they would keep him alive to be burned, but Ciaran and Reynard would be killed on the spot.
†††††† They were coming. They were here.
†††††† "No," Elias said. He stood up, and staggered, bumping heavily into Reynard as he did so, sending him flying into the crowd. He stooped as if to pick him up, and hissed a few words into his ear. "Keep Ciaran safe. As your king, I order you. Go." Everyone was staring at the soldiers, and no-one saw what happened, there on the ground at their feet. No-one saw Reynard's face change.
†††††† Ciaran called his name, but Elias whirled on him, just as the soldiers burst through the crowd. "Get away from me!" he shrieked. "You won't take me. Not you, not the soldiers, not anyone!" He shoved Ciaran back with all his strength, and the crowd parted to let him through, just as the soldiers came for him.
†††††† "I wouldn't be so sure of that," a cruel voice hissed. Something hard struck him behind the ear, and he fell to the ground, not quite unconscious, but lost.
†††††† A stranger grabbed him, and tried to pull him away. "No," Ciaran sobbed. "Please. I have to go to him. I have to."
†††††† Elias screamed. If anyone had been looking at Ciaran, now all their heads snapped round, and they had eyes only for Elias's torment.
†††††† "You're coming with me," the stranger commanded, in Reynard's voice. The face was different, and even the clothes were a nondescript colour that seemed to encourage the eyes to pass over the man who was wearing it.
†††††† Ciaran tried to crawl on his belly through the legs that were like prison bars, hiding Elias from him. Reynard grabbed his foot and dragged him back, and the stone slabs scraped his palms. "I have to," he sobbed. "They're going to kill him."
†††††† "They will not."
†††††† The sorcerer had two minions, a soldier was shouting. Did anyone know where they had gone? They did not give Ciaran and Reynard another glance as they tore through the crowd, interrogating and searching.
†††††† "We're going." Reynard clapped his hand over Ciaran's mouth as the black-clad soldiers moved away, dragging Elias with him. His head was sagging, and blood was dripping onto the stone.
†††††† "Elias," Ciaran breathed into Reynard's hand. The moment the man yielded just a little, he bit it, but Reynard did not let go.
†††††† "We have to go," Reynard said, when Elias was gone, dragged bleeding to his death, with no-one to defend him or even to shout out words of hope.
†††††† "No," Ciaran sobbed. "We have to stop them. We have to rescue him. There's still time."
†††††† Reynard dragged him to his feet. "How can you even think of doing that to him?" he hissed into his ear. "He gave himself up to save us both. How do you think he would feel if you threw that gift away and he had to watch you die before his eyes?"
†††††† "But they're going to kill him." He felt himself begin to cry, and he never cried, just as he never felt fear.
†††††† "He ordered me to take you to safety," Reynard said coldly, with not even the slightest sign of emotion. "Those were the last words he said to me."
†††††† "How convenient," Ciaran sneered, through his treacherous tears. "You've never obeyed before." He fell to his knees, then tried to use that weakness as a surprise attack, pulling away from Reynard's merciless grip.
†††††† "I'm sorry," Reynard murmured, as something came down hard on the back of his head. "I can't let you do that." There was another blow, and then everything was black.