Chapter six

The door opens

 

 

       It came for him in dreams. The first he knew of it was a prickling on the back of his neck, and a sudden certainty that he was not alone. He was walking along the pale beach of his Garden, his own shadow reaching ahead of him like a long arm. Someone's following me, he thought, and he whirled round, but all he saw was his own footprints, black against the silver of the wet sand. Then a wave surged up the beach and when it withdrew, no footprints remained. The sand was as smooth as a mirror, and he could no longer see where he had come from.

       He walked on, but the air started to stir around him. Tiny wisps of wind stroked the slopes of the sand dunes, and the bleached grass trembled. He turned round again, but there was still nothing there behind him, not even footprints.

       The sky was a perfect blue, but misshapen shadows glided across the sands, cast by clouds that were not there. The tower, Elias thought. If he reached the white tower on top of the dunes, he would be safe. He tried to run, but the sands shifted and mired him down. The coarse dune grass whipped at his ankles. Behind him, the placid surging of the sea became the roaring of a creature with blood-stained teeth and cold breath. It wanted him, and it was gaining on him.

       "Help me," he pleaded. His chest was being torn apart from the effort of running on the sand, and his mouth tasted of blood. The wind was cold and putrid, and spoke with many voices. He heard a sharp bark of laughter, and that was Ciaran, laughing at the thought that one such as Elias could be a king. There was Oliver, singing of sorrow and loss, and Reynard, promising to kill him. "It's only a matter of time," Reynard said. "My sword knows the taste of your blood and wants more."

       The tower was so close now, but the grass had hands and they snatched at him, pulling him down. He fell headfirst onto the sand, and the breath was driven from his lungs. He started to crawl. The sky looked sick with approaching thunder, and drops of warm rain fell on his neck. "Help me," he croaked, as he reached the tower and touched it with a bleeding hand. At least he was safe now. "Let me in."

       You think you're safe? Of course you're not safe, not here. The disparate voices of the wind came together, and they spoke the truth. The tower in his Garden had always been locked. He could hammer at the doors until his fists were shredded, but the door would never open. It never had. He was trapped outside, and who knew what horrors lay across the sea, or in the unknown lands beyond the tower?      

       His useless hand fell to his side, and he closed his eyes, but as he did so something touched his cheek, like sunlight on a winter day. He snatched his head up, and saw something so incredible that he gasped aloud. The door was opening after all! The tower had always seemed white, but the light peeping out of the door made it look faded. The sight of it lanced through him, and emotions poured out of the wound it left. He wanted to weep, and scream, and laugh with joy.

       "Oh, open all the way," he breathed, then clasped his hand over his mouth. The door quivered, but did not open. Elias reached out and touched the light that escaped from the slit, as narrow as a knife blade. When it touched his fingers, the bleached grass beneath him burgeoned into life, rich with every shade of green.

       It would open, he realised, if he asked it to, and really meant it. At his command, the door would open, and the light would consume him until nothing was left of him that was not of the light. Or he could close it. He could throw himself bodily against the door and hold it shut with all the strength in his shoulders, but he would not be able to lock it. He would have to stand there forever, forcing it shut. The thing inside had tasted freedom, and would not easily submit itself to a prison. All his strength would go into holding the door closed, and he would have nothing left to fight the things that approached in the wind and the sound of the sea.

       Turn your back, something inside the tower said, and you die. Lock the door, and you die, for there are things out there that know you now, and their memories are as long as the years of all the worlds.

       Biting his lip, he struggled to stand. Rain plastered his hair to his skull, and he was very cold. The swirling voices in the wind were as loud as ever, and the sky was tinged with yellow and purple.

       "If I let the door open," he gasped, "will they go away?"

       White light touched his cheek, and he moaned at the touch of it. The door trembled and opened a little further, and all the hate-filled voices shrieked, as if they hated him even more because of it. No, the light whispered. You are who you are, and there is no refuge.

       "I don't want it." He fell to his knees and closed his eyes. "I don't," he said, as he opened his eyes again, and saw stars in a velvet sky, cut across with branches like the spread fingers of a skeletal hand. "I don't," he breathed, pressing his hand into the ground beside him, then curling the fingers so earth gouged beneath his nails and the wound on his hand stabbed with pain.

       He had woken up, but the dream had not dispersed. He remembered it all, and the waking was so seamless that it did not feel like waking at all. The dream felt real, and he swallowed, testing to see if he could taste blood in his mouth. There was none there, and his legs did not ache from struggling to run on the treacherous dunes. He touched his hair and found it dry.

       "A dream," he whispered. He sat up, then stood, one hand instinctively going to his side, where Reynard had wounded him. "Only a dream."

       He could hear the sound of breathing, like something terrible watching him from the darkness. He walked a few steps, past the faint embers of the fire, all dark orange streaked with black. Everyone else was asleep, and it was only their breathing that he could hear, his master's loudest of all. The only one awake was a sentry, who looked up sharply as Elias passed, and did not relax even after recognising him. 

       Everyone lay apart. When Oliver's story had ended, even Ciaran had been slow to speak. There had been no conversation, and no further stories. Oliver's words had lain like lead on the hearts of everyone present, but it made them turn away from each other. The story would seep into their dreams, Elias thought, and the morning would be terrible.

       He walked into the shadow of a great tree, where the darkness was lightened neither by the fire nor starlight. Someone was lying in the heart of the darkness, he realised, watching him as he passed, a silhouette against the trees. Whoever it was, they did not want him to know that they were awake. As he passed, Elias heard the faintest whisper of metal, but nothing more.

       Perhaps it was Reynard, and perhaps Reynard wanted to kill him, for being a stupid boy when he had wanted a mighty king. Perhaps Reynard wanted the crown himself. Perhaps they blamed him for coming five hundred years too late. Perhaps, before he had walked half a dozen steps, Reynard would kill him from behind, stabbing him between the shoulders or slitting his throat. Perhaps all these things would happen, but he couldn’t bring himself to care very much. It would be an end, and he could think of far worse endings. Better to die now than live to fail them.

       He walked quietly, and counted softly. Twenty, and no-one had come. He told himself he would not look back, but found himself stopping and turning. There was no-one there. The embers of the fire looked a very long way away. The branches above him moved, slow and stately, and he remembered the wind in his dream, and the words it had been saying.

       He edged backwards until he felt thick roots beneath his feet. Something touched his back, and he gasped, then forced himself to relax. He had backed into a tree. Its bulk felt solid and comforting, and he pushed against it, arching his spine so that even the small of his back was pressed against it. He spread his hands on either side of him, flat against the bark.

       The moon was hidden by clouds that were marching in from the west, and there was moisture in the air that spoke of rain to come. He could see the stars through the lattice-work of branches above him, but soon they would be consumed.

       They were the stars of home. He gave a hoarse gasp, loud enough to set some small creature scurrying away in the undergrowth, though too quiet to bring the sentry to his side, or Reynard with his sharp sword. They were the stars of home, and he hadn't even noticed. He had seen them upon waking, but they had just been so natural and expected that he had barely noticed them.

       He was very aware of his breathing as he edged forward, tottering away from the tree, his palms still spread stupidly beside him, marked with the imprint of the bark. How could they be the same stars as at home? How could fate be so cruel? Whenever he looked up, he would see the stars of home, reminding him of all he had lost. Beneath stars like these, he was an apprentice who knew his place in the world, whose master would never leave him. Now, beneath the same stars, he was bound to a people his master hated, and everyone expected him to save them. 

       He clenched his fist, mercilessly hurting the wound on his palm. He glared at the sky, and then absurdly found himself laughing, for he had spotted a difference. There was a bright jewel of a star in the middle of the constellation of the horse, which made it into something different entirely. And there was a star missing on the warrior's sword, and there, yes, another difference, where the curve of the maiden's hair was smoother and more dispersed.

       These were the same constellations, but not the same. These were how the stars at home might seem in a thousand thousand years, or how they might have seemed a million years in the past. It was a world like home, but it was not home.

       And really, he told himself, a world was shaped by the people who lived in it. Perhaps this world had once been the same as the world of his home, but time had worked differently upon it. The little hollow in the hills where Greenslade lay would exist in this world, but perhaps no-one here had ever cleared the forests, and it was lost in deep woods. Perhaps there was a mighty city where Conisborough lay, as beautiful as the city of his birth was ugly, or maybe it was just a deserted swampy piece of ground beside a great river, where no man had ever walked.

       There would be no going home. He would not round a corner one day, and see Greenslade spread before him, the stream sparkling in the sun. He would never again come home at evening to his own cottage, its door open and a fire in the hearth. There would be glimpses, perhaps, of a curve of hillside or a distant view of mountains that would make him think of a place in his own world, but no more than that.

       He dashed roughly at his eyes, wiping away the tears that still came easily, loosened by Oliver's story. He turned round and stood facing the tree, staring down at the ground. He was still aware of the stars, like sharp pinpricks in the back of his neck. But the wind was rising, and the faint moisture in the air was beginning to feel more and more like rain. Soon the clouds would cover the whole sky and the stars would be hidden.

       He rubbed his eyes again, then stopped, his hands trembling just inches from his face. In his dream, the light had touched his fingertips, and the world had suddenly become more beautiful. What would it have been like if he had opened the door all the way? He lowered his hands and held them in front of him. The cloud diffused the light of the hidden moon and made the whole night one dark grey. His hands were only bare smudges in the darkness, but, even so, he studied them, first the back, and then the front. He curled the fingers, and the wound across his palm cried out in protest.

       Oliver had told him that he could work marvels with these hands. He had a power called enchantment, and it had always been there, though he had never known it. Oliver had said so, and Elias could not deny it. He understood the meaning of the dream. The white tower, forever locked, contained the enchantment. Now it was open a crack, and there was no going back. If he turned his back on it, the dream had told him, he would die. Something huge and horrible knew him now, and enchantment might be his only defence.

       But he didn't know how to use it, not deliberately. He had taken control of Oliver's illusion, but he had no idea how he had done it. He had sensed the dead in the ruin, but it had just happened, and he had never chosen to do so. He had called Ciaran into this world, but only because he had wanted it so badly, and he hadn't even realised that it was all his fault until Oliver had told him.

       He could do it, but without knowing how. To save the Kindred, he had to know the truth about his powers. He had to open that door, and face whatever it was that lay within there, and withstand the howling hatred of whatever it was that clamoured outside, wanting him. He had to do it, and it was beautiful and wondrous, and he wanted to do it, but, oh... I'm scared, he cried. I don't know how. I'm not strong enough.

       Scared? He swallowed hard. He had no right to be scared. He had a duty, and duty over-rode everything. He would do what he had to do. He had no choice.

       He cupped his hands loosely, and thought about the air that they enclosed. One day in Greenslade he had discovered, quite by accident, that he could work wood. He would wander the hedgerows and run his hands over the twisted branches and, at length, one of them would speak to him, telling him what figure lay within the wood. The carving was not an act of creation, but an act of revelation. Was illusion the same? Did he hold a handful of air, and let his mind go blank, and ask it what shape it wished to reveal? Or was this infinitely stronger? He could not force wood. A piece that held a horse could not be coerced to reveal a man or a fish. Oliver had implied that the air could be anything he wanted it to be, and more.

       "A bird," he murmured, remembering how Oliver had wrought birds out of the air between his long fingers. "Be a bird. Please."

       Nothing happened. There was no illusion. Dew clung to the backs of his hands, but nothing formed between them.

       "I don't know how to do it," he whispered to the night, when he had tried again and again, and failed every time. Maybe it was because he so desperately tired. Maybe his fear blocked it, and he would fail the Kindred because he was afraid. Maybe he was all wrong. He had the potential for power, but was flawed in some way so would never be able to use it.

       One more try. No-one was watching. It didn't matter if he looked stupid. He thrust out his cupped hands, and this time he did not plead. "I have a bird in my hand," he simply stated. "I can see it."

       And he could. Feathers tickled his palms, and something warm fluttered against his cold skin. He raised his hands and bade it fly, and it did. He turned his head, trying to follow it in the darkness, then realised that it was following him, flying wherever he looked. When he wondered if it would sing, it opened its beak and did so, singing a tune his mother had sometimes hummed under her breath long ago.

       He smiled, but that was not enough. Despite the night and the fact that everyone else was sleeping, he laughed aloud, spreading his arms with a joy that was as fierce as it was unexpected. He could do it, and there was no terror in it. The tower door was open the tiniest slit. Inside was the vast white light that was terrifying in its immensity and its demands, and outside were horrible things that would hurt him one day, but he could push them to one side. For now, for this one moment, there was only pleasure. Beneath the cruel stars of a world that was not his home, he had taken a handful of cold night air, and created from it an image of beauty.

       He laughed again, and let his hands fall to his side. He ended the illusion, silencing the bird mid-song. The night seemed darker without it, more bleak than it had been before. Turning, he walked back to the fireside. He glanced up once, and saw that the stars were mercifully hidden. Nothing had been solved, but, even so, he thought he had clawed back a little peace of mind. Perhaps he could sleep now.

       "No," someone said.

       He froze, then crouched down, hunching his shoulders to make himself as small as possible. There was a tingling in his hands from where he had crafted the illusion.

       "Why did you tell it like that?" Reynard demanded. "You made it sound as if it was our fault. You even made excuses for those scum."

       "Perhaps it was our fault," Oliver replied. "I told it the way I have always wanted to tell it, Reynard. I didn't lie about that. Haven't you ever felt doubts?"

       "I feel no doubts," Reynard said. The sound of his voice always made Elias cringe with the memory of being wounded by him. "I never have and I never will." Elias could see them now, crouching beneath an overhanging tree.

       "No?" Oliver shook his head. "I wish I had your confidence. Or perhaps I pity you. I do not know."

       "You'll make him hate us, Oliver. Is that what you want? To drive him away? He'll never do what we want now. You were supposed to woo him to our cause. You were supposed to have him eating out of your hand by now. You've ruined it all. All that talk about it being our fault..."

       Oliver sighed. "You're wrong, Reynard. Perhaps if you'd looked at him last night, rather than looking daggers at me, or glaring at Ciaran Morgan, you'd have seen it too. He wept for us, Reynard. He wept as if his heart was breaking. He's bound to us until death now. I did that. Me."

       Elias stood up and scuffed at the undergrowth with his foot, deliberately making a noise. Let them see him and know that he had heard. He was too tired even to feel angry or betrayed. They were talking about him and he was enmeshed in a web of intrigue, helpless as they squabbled over him. But he had just made a beautiful bird out of enchantment, and found a moment's pleasure because of it. He would cling to that a little longer. It was a tiny glimmer of light, and it mattered.

       He walked on, and his steps were dragging now, for he was weary and his wounds were hurting. Something grabbed him by the ankle, and he only let out a small moaning sigh. It was an enemy, he thought, come to get him, and this long nightmare would be over. Then he realised it was his master, but the dull fear remained. Ciaran did not let go of him. His hand held him trapped, unable to walk on without falling.

       "Elias," Ciaran hissed. "I woke up, and you were gone. Where were you? What were you doing?"

       Elias closed his eyes. He tried to remember the beauty of the bird, but the memory was fading, slipping out of reach like a speck of light on a flowing water.

       "Have you found a way home yet?" Ciaran demanded. "You must find it soon. You can't stay. These people are dangerous."

       Had Ciaran seen the stars, Elias wondered. Had he seen those cruel teasing echoes of the constellations they had watched together at home, in happier times? "Not yet," he admitted. "I will, master. I'll send you home, I promise."

       "But you'll come too?" Ciaran tugged at his ankle, and Elias almost fell. The half-healed wound in his side flared with pain as he tried to remain standing. "You can't mean to stay, Elias, not now. Oliver himself said it was all their fault. They brought this fate on themselves. You owe them nothing."

       Bound until death, Oliver had said. Elias's eyes still felt sore and swollen from weeping for them. "I owe them everything."

       "But they don't deserve it," Ciaran spat. "They're killers, all of them. I know the truth about them, even if you refuse to see it. It's wrong to stay with them."

       "They waited five hundred years." Elias thought his voice sounded so faint and distant that it must surely belong to someone else. "I swore..."

       "You swore nothing," Ciaran snapped. "Nothing binding. Perhaps if they were good people you might have a certain duty to them, but not now. They were tyrants and want to be tyrants again. Do you want to be the puppet king of a band of tyrants? Does that sound good to you?"

       Elias felt cold and faintly sick. "No," he breathed.

       "Then it's settled." Ciaran brushed his hands together, a brisk one two, as if he was wiping the dirt of this whole world from his hands. "We'll go home. We'll forget it all happened."

       Elias started to walk away. If he stayed he would begin to cry, and he wanted to be alone. Ciaran, his strong master who could take all hurts away, was only making things worse. Elias felt like a very small animal, who could only hide in the grass and quiver while vast predators argued over who would tear him apart. Reynard and Oliver and Ciaran. The white tower and the voices in the wind. They watched him and wanted him, and no-one cared that he hurt so badly inside that he wanted to scream and scream and never stop.

       "Elias," Ciaran commanded. "Don't walk away from me."

       Elias paused, but did not turn round. "Please," he whispered. "Please, master." He walked a few more steps, then sat down, pulling his knees up to his chest and wrapping his arms around them. His chin sank forward and he closed his eyes. He tried to remember what the bird had looked like, but couldn't even remember what colour it had been. The joy he had felt to hear it sing had gone so utterly that he could hardly believe it had ever been real.

       "Elias." There was a sharp edge to Ciaran's voice that reminded Elias suddenly that one of the cruel voices in the wind had been his master's.

       He did not open his eyes. "I'm very tired, master. I want to sleep."

       Ciaran gave an angry sigh, but said nothing more, and soon his breathing slowed, and Elias knew he was asleep. Elias curled up on his side, and lay still, as the darkness slowly turned to pale grey, and then to the light of morning. He did not dream, because he did not sleep.

      

 

       In the morning they walked again, just like before. Oliver stayed close to Elias, sometimes so close that their fingers brushed together. Reynard walked a little ahead, but he kept on turning to stare at Elias, with eyes that pierced deep. More than ever, Elias felt like a prisoner under arrest. His master watched him from behind, but would not talk to him.

       They walked steadily, and after a while their path started to climb slightly, heading for a ridge that was dense with trees. Damp leaves clung to Elias's boots. The air was thick with moisture, and the grey sky was like a low ceiling, just touched by the topmost branches of the trees. The rain promised in the night had not yet come, but would come soon.

       The ridge ahead was like the edge of the world, and beyond it everything was unknown. Perhaps he would pause on the top and look out on some gentle lowland plain, with smoke drifting from pleasant cottages. Perhaps there would be vast armies arrayed against him, eager to kill the king they had awaited with hatred for five hundred years. Or maybe it would just be the gentle slope downwards on the other side, and even more dark trees, stretching on for an eternity without ever showing him a true sight of the sky.

       Oliver would know, of course, but Elias was reluctant to ask. Oliver pretended friendship, but there was a reason behind everything he said and did. He wanted to be Elias's mentor, who offered comfort and dispensed careful answers to all Elias's questions. At heart he was kind, Elias thought, but he still controlled what Elias knew, and was not to be trusted. That was the message of the night-time conversations. Oliver was manipulating him for his own ends, and Ciaran was, too. Elias had to make up his own mind about what was right and what was wrong. He had to stand alone.

       He clutched his cloak still closer, seeking a warmth that he would never be able to find. Beside him, Oliver stiffened. "No," he breathed. "Oh no. Not now."

       Elias did not ask what the matter was. What was the point? Oliver would tell him, and perhaps it would be the truth, and perhaps it would be a lie. And then Ciaran, if he spoke to him at all, would frown and hiss angrily that they were murderers the lot of them, and Elias had to come back home right now and forget them all, and be the placid apprentice who knew nothing that his master had not chosen to tell him.

       Oliver pressed his finger to his lips, ordering Elias to silence. The rest of the group had already reacted. Without anyone bidding them, they fanned out, approaching the ridge in a wide and practised line. They were as dark and dappled as the forest that as their home. If Elias half closed his eyes, he could almost convince himself that he was alone in the forest, and no-one else was near him in all the world.

       He swallowed. His heart was beating fast, and when the first drop of rain fell, fierce and heavy on his shoulder, he found himself starting with the sudden violence of it. Beneath his cloak, his fingers found his sword. Somewhere, away to the right, a bird cawed, but there was no sound of great black wings, and no branches moved, so he forced himself to relax again. He began to walk forward, aiming for a clear spot on the top of the ridge, where he could see what lay beyond it.

       That was when Oliver attacked him. He was a slight man, but he had the advantage of surprise. Before Elias could react, he was held and pinioned, forced down to the ground. Elias fell heavily to a crouch, then toppled forward onto his knees, driven down by the pressure of the deadly embrace around his neck and shoulders. He caught himself on his hands, the heels sliding painfully through the prickly leaves.

       Oliver was crouching beside him, and Elias twisted his head round to look at him. Any colour that had once been in the man's face was gone. His fingers dug painfully into Elias's shoulder, and the muscles were so tightly clenched that they were trembling. "King or no," Oliver hissed, into his ear, "Reynard's way would have been less kind."

       The grip lessened, and Elias moved forward, freeing himself. He knelt in damp leaves, and did not stand. Reynard was watching him from a little to the right, he saw, and his eyes were dark pits of malevolence. If Elias had made it to the top of the ridge, Reynard would have struck him down. He would claim good reason for it, and he would apologise afterwards, but he would have enjoyed hurting him.

       "I won't stand up," Elias whispered to Oliver. The air pulsed with danger. Death lay just over the ridge, he knew, and they had to hide from it. Was this enchantment, that gave him warning? In the night, the door had begun to open, and there were new senses stirring in his mind. He sensed wrongness and pain, and a fierce dark flame of hatred. Death lay around this place like a miasma.

       Footsteps sounded behind them, shockingly loud in the silence of the forest. Still on his hands and knees, Elias turned round. His master stood behind them, and seen from the ground, his head was higher than the tallest tree. He was holding his staff in one hand, and the other hand rested on his hips.

       "Down!" Oliver jerked his head violently to indicate the ground. Elias joined in, pressing his finger to his lips to demand silence. His heart was beating very fast. If Ciaran refused to obey, terrible things would happen.

       Ciaran frowned, but he did not speak. Elias heard himself breathing, and felt every hectic beat of his heart. The undergrowth trembled with falling raindrops, and still Ciaran remained standing. "Please," Elias breathed, but Ciaran was already beginning to crouch. His eye brows were raised sardonically, like an adult condescending to join in a child's game.

       "Stay here," Oliver whispered. "Both of you. Please."

       "What?" Ciaran asked, too loudly.

       Elias sucked in a sharp breath. This new sense, now awakened, was as clear as sight. It seemed inconceivable that Ciaran could not sense it. Danger pulsed from every tree, and the raindrops were arrows falling on the back of his neck. With every word his master said, death, grinning on its spectral horse, rode a little closer. Ciaran would bring death to this place. If he shouted aloud, darkness and destruction would spew from his mouth. Elias knew this. He knew this as surely as he had ever known anything.

       "No," he begged. "Don't. Please, master. Do as he says."

       Ciaran glared at him. "I follow orders from no-one, Elias. Not from a lying murderer like him, and certainly not from my apprentice."

       "Please." Elias's voice was broken. Death was jubilant. There were images painted on the rain and the lowering clouds and the rustling dead leaves. He saw hints of visions, that took form out of mist just for a moment, wavered, and faded away.

       He saw Ciaran lying dead, while Reynard stood above him with a bloody sword. He saw himself kneeling at his master's side, weeping. Rain plastered Ciaran's hair to his skull, and his hand was so very cold as Elias pressed it to his cheek and tried to warm it with his own tears. There was a piece of withered leaf on Ciaran's lips, and Elias gently removed it, as his tears and his wailing were drowned out by the storm.

       He saw innocents strewn dead on a muddy road, spilled from a toppled coach. Horses churned up the mud, but there was no-one left alive to calm them. A hoof crashed into Reynard's skull, but he was dead already, sprawled at the roadside. Oliver lay nearby, and all the others, every one of them, all dead. At the top of the bank, frozen in  horror, stood Elias, all alone and stained with other people's blood.

       And then that, too, faded away, and he saw a vision that was soundless and still, as if he was watching it from far away, drifting over the treetops. He saw a camp with a fire at its heart. He saw people, women and children, pressing their hands to their faces, edging forward, heedless of the cooking pots and discarded toys that they knocked over as they moved. They were all of them staring, white-faced and stupefied, at a hooded figure who walked in their midst, carrying in his arms a dying man. Elias saw the man's face, and recognised it. It was him. The dying man was Elias.

       He blinked, but the last vision was slow to fade, lingering even after he clawed at his eyes and tried to rip it away. He felt sick. He heard a sound in his head like the chittering of a thousand black insects, and someone was laughing.

       "Elias." Oliver's voice made the images go away and the laughter vanish. He touched Elias on the shoulder, and spoke his name again. Was it a farewell? Oliver looked sick with dread. His father was a Seer, Elias remembered. Perhaps he knew the signs of a vision of death. Perhaps he knew what Elias had seen.

       "Elias." Oliver glanced along the ridge, and back again. His eyes were smears of charcoal in a chalk face, crudely drawn by a child. "I should have told you... I should have... How we live. The reasons we have. But I was afraid to. I didn't know how." His gift with words had run out, and he looked more vulnerable than Elias had ever seen him. "Do nothing. Whatever you see, do nothing. Do you trust me?" he asked, then, immediately, shook his head. "Of course you don't. I've given you no reason to. I'm so sorry, Elias." The last words were painful, almost a sob.

       Elias raised his hand, opened his mouth to speak, but Oliver had gone. His hand touched only the falling rain, but, stupidly, he held it there a while, where the man's shoulder had been.

       Soft as a whisper, he heard the sound of footsteps behind him, and turned to see an arrowhead pointed at his heart.

      

 

       "What is this?" Ciaran demanded. But, really, he thought he knew. This was some elaborate trap. Oliver had got them kneeling, and then had slipped away, his part done. This bowman had been planted by Reynard to make sure they did not move, while, somewhere hidden, the last stages of the elaborate treachery were concluded.

       He tightened his grip on his staff, making a pretence of leaning on it heavily. The Kindred thought it was only a prop, but they could not know what mere wood could become in the hands of a Brother. He could defeat them all in battle, and they would never have seen it coming.

       "Elias," he whispered. At least they were in it together, the two of them against the world. He would order, and Elias would obey, and they would stand against the enemy as if nothing had changed. These men were not expecting Elias to fight them. After they had won, the two of them, Ciaran and Elias together, would talk back the way they had come, and go back home. "Elias," he hissed, a little louder, when Elias still did not turn round.

       "Quiet," Elias whispered. "Please be quiet." He looked drawn and ill.

       "Why?" The rain was falling more heavily now, noisy on the leaves. Ciaran spoke a little louder because of it.

       Elias's face twisted with pain. "You really can't feel it?" He shivered. "Death. If you speak, if you do anything..."

       "Nonsense," Ciaran scoffed. What had Oliver been saying, poisoning Elias's mind as they walked so close together all morning?

       "So cold," Elias breathed. His eyelids were sliding shut, as if he had been snared by some cruel enchantment and trapped in a dream. "It laughed."

       "Quiet!" The bowman raised his bow, the arrow swinging from Elias to Ciaran and staying there. Water dripped off its tip, bleeding into the carpet of leaves. 

       "Quiet," Elias pleaded.

       As if the whole world was responding to the desperation in Elias's voice, everything fell silent. The rain lessened, and the wind in the high branches stilled, just for a moment. The whole forest held its breath, and, in that moment, Ciaran heard it, and, at last, he understood.

       A horse neighed merrily, not far away. A moment later there was a harsh wordless shout, and the sound of a whip. A carriage was approaching, he realised, and the Kindred, killers as they were, had heard the signs before Ciaran had heard them, and had acted. The ridge ahead was the edge of a road, where innocent travellers rode in ignorance of the murderous trap that had been laid for them.

       "They're going to rob it," he gasped. He glanced at the bowman, and then at Elias. "Did you know this?"

       The horror on Elias's face showed that he had not. "How we live..." he breathed, and pressed his hand to his mouth. He had refused to recognise the truth in the night, but he would have no choice but to see it now. The boy owed nothing to a band of highway robbers.

       Well, Ciaran thought, he would stop their murderous game, just as he did at home. In his own world, highway robbery was mostly a thing of the past, but Ciaran himself had fought one near Greenslade, staff against cudgel. It had been the first time he had ever killed a man, and he still bore the mark of that encounter on his brow, in a small scar on the hairline.

       He touched that scar now, and swore an oath in the name of that memory. These men were nothing more than common thieves. They dressed their cause up in high language and told their tales of exile and suffering, but they deserved only punishment. This went far beyond his desire to get revenge on Reynard, or to reclaim Elias. It was his duty as a Brother to stop them. He could do nothing else.

       The arrow did not waver, pointing at his heart. He clenched his teeth in grim purpose, and awaited his moment. The timing would have to be exact. Leave it too late, and people would die. Cry the warning too early, and he would be silenced before the men in the caravan heard him.

       He knew he could die for this. Even if the arrow did not kill him, Reynard and the others, their crimes thwarted by Ciaran's intervention, would seek to kill him in revenge. But the cause was just, and worth dying for. The caravan was driven by innocent people just like the folk of Greenslade. In this corrupt world, they needed one such as Ciaran to protect them and stand up for what was right.

       If by some miracle he lived, all would be well. Even Elias would have to admit that he could not serve these people now. Ciaran would be saving his apprentice, as well as the innocent people on the road. He was being as noble as Finbar had ever been, facing death for what was right.

       The wheels were louder. Several wagons, he thought, and they were close enough now that they would hear his warning, but not yet close enough for the Kindred to attack. It was time. He sought the Shadow, and found it, though only just. Enough, though, to do what he needed to do. Thrusting outwards with his hand, he knocked the bow from the man's hand with the Shadow. It fell far below them on the slope, slid a little, and buried itself in a pile of leaves. It felt so good to be striking out against these people! With an exultant smile, Ciaran sprang to his feet, and plunged up the slope.

       The man grabbed him from behind, grappling him down. Ciaran dropped his staff, and his control of the Shadow shattered, and he could not regain it. An arm snaked round his neck, and he couldn't breathe. His enemy's breath was hot against Ciaran's neck. The man was not as tall as Ciaran, but he was very strong. As Ciaran struggled, a foot hooked round his ankle and brought him crashing to the ground. He fell heavily, but landed in soft mud and leaves, and the caravan continued on in ignorance, not hearing his fall.

       The man forced him onto his front, hauling his wrists behind his back with one hand, covering his mouth with the other. The ball of his thumb pressed into Ciaran's nostrils and the tips of his fingers dug into his cheeks.

       "Try that again," the man hissed, "and I kill you."

       Where was Elias? The carriage wheels still rumbled along the track, and one of its drivers laughed, oblivious to the death that lurked in the undergrowth. Still time, then. Still time. Why didn’t Elias strike? He was probably paralysed with fear. He was only a boy and would have been a cruel blow to him to finally realise that he cause he thought himself bound to was only a worthless sham. Ciaran was on his own, and he would fight for both of them.

       For a moment, he feigned defeat, letting all his muscles slump, but his captor was not fooled, and did not release him. So Ciaran started to fight, bucking with his body, and wrenching with his arms. The man's grip on his wrists slid away, though he did not release his hold on Ciaran's mouth. Ciaran struggled to reach his staff but it had fallen too far away, and the man was sitting on his back, pinning him to the ground. He managed to roll over, and the man came with him, his knees gouging into Ciaran's body. Ciaran scrabbled with his reaching fingers, and found a stone embedded in the earth, hidden by the leaves. He tried to get a grip on it, tried to prise it free so he could smash it against the man's skull.

       A knife pricked at his throat. The man leant forward, kneeling on Ciaran's left hand, grinding it against a pebble in the earth. He still pressed his left hand against Ciaran's mouth, but now he was holding a dagger, plucked from his belt. Something trickled down Ciaran's neck, and he thought it was rain. Then, a moment later, he felt the prick of pain and knew that the dagger had pierced him, just a little, just enough for a warning. He had felt the blood before the pain.

       It almost felt good, the blood. They could hurt him all they liked, but his cause was just. He sought again for the Shadow, and this time it obeyed him. It took the merest thought, and the dagger fell away from his throat, plucked from his assailant's nerveless hands. The man gasped with amazement, and Ciaran felt a cold satisfaction at the sight. Never again would these men under-estimate Ciaran Morgan.

       He wrenched his hand from underneath the man's knee, feeling skin tear as the stone dug into his flesh. He raised his hands, brought them together, and prepared to thrust out with his power, smashing everything that lay before him. And then Elias was beside him, staring at him with huge eyes and a look of sick horror. He was kneeling, and something dark was slithering through his hands.

       "Please," Elias begged him. "Please stop fighting."

       "I will not," Ciaran hissed into the man's hand. The words were smothered, but Elias would see the defiance in his eyes.

       "Please." Elias looked more deeply hurt than he had looked after Reynard had wounded him. "For me. If I ask you to. Please. I have... seen things. You have to let it happen. If you try to stop it, it will be horrible. You'll die. They'll all die."

       "I'll die?" Ciaran wanted to say. It was a price worth paying for what was right, and Elias ought to know it. But the man's hand stole his voice, and the man's body kept him pinned.

       Elias closed his eyes for a moment. "Please trust me," he whispered. "Please. I'm begging you, Ciaran. I'm afraid. It will be terrible, and you'll have caused it."

       He had never called him by his name before. Ciaran was filled with a cold burning fury. He struggled, but the man only pressed his hand harder into his mouth, digging torn nails into his cheeks.

       Elias raised his hands, and Ciaran saw that he was carrying rope. "I don't want to do this," Elias said, hoarsely. "Please, master. Please. Just stop struggling."

       Ciaran lashed his head from side to side, trying to dislodge the hand. He was still clutching the stone, and he threw it suddenly. It glanced off the man's forehead, and fell uselessly to the ground. With a snarl, the man clenched his fist, ready to smash it into Ciaran's face.

       Elias whirled on him with utter ferocity. "Don't you dare hurt him! Don't you dare!" Elias and the man glared at each other, each one tense and crouching, one an enemy, and one a traitor. The tension between them was tangible and jangling.

       The rain fell heavily, and, on the road below, someone screamed. Reynard's voice sounded from the trees. "Stop! You are surrounded. Lay down your weapons."

       Too late. It was too late, and it was all Elias's fault. The man subsided, but Ciaran barely saw him. The man moved away, and the hand was gone from Ciaran's mouth. Now only Elias knelt above him, and his eyes were like the eyes of a stranger.

       "I'm so sorry, master," he was saying, but he was lying, because he was binding Ciaran's wrists together with his cruel rope, and Ciaran was so unmanned by his treachery that he did not even struggle until it was too late.

       "Elias," Ciaran rasped. "Stop this, I order you." Elias only shook his head, a tiny moan escaping through his clenched lips. "Stop this," Ciaran urged. "It's over, I tell you. I'll hate you forever. I'll fight you. I'll kill you." He spat in Elias's face, but he could not even muster enough spit, and it dribbled down his chin, making him look foolish. "No." He turned his face away. "I won't hate you. You'll be nothing to me. I won't even care. Live with them and be their king, and die in the misery and squalor you deserve. You won't find me caring."

       Something landed on his hand, warmer than rain, and he knew that Elias was crying. He deserved it. Ciaran's hands were held so tightly he could not move, though the ropes did not hurt, and were almost gentle, like water lapping around his wrists.

       "You want glory?" Ciaran sneered. "Is that it? I've nursed a traitor for all these years. One mention of the word king, and you're ready to give up everything I've taught you. You want to be leader of a band of killers, so you side with them, even though they're killing innocent people down there, and I would have stopped them. You've chosen them over me. You are no apprentice of mine."

       Elias stood up. Ciaran was bound by his wrists, and even the roots of the forest had joined in, roused by the evil magic of the Kindred. They twisted and coiled and imprisoned his ankles, and he was pinned motionless. Despite himself, he felt his throat constrict with fear. The forest had come alive and claimed him. This hostile world had consumed him, and he would be imprisoned here, forced to hear the dying screams of the people he had been unable to save.

       "Guard him," Elias said to the man who had attacked Ciaran, "but do not hurt him." The last words were said with a ferocious snap of command such as Ciaran had never thought to hear from his apprentice.

       The man grinned, his teeth like the teeth of a wild animal who had tasted blood. "I can gag him."

       Elias shook his head. "No," he said, but now his voice sounded only weary. "It's too late for that. It's already begun."

       He walked away then, and did not once look back.

      

 

       Elias crept to the brow of the ridge. He touched the hilt of his sword, but did not draw it. As he crouched down, he caught a glimpse of the hand that had crafted the illusion that had bound his master. He felt sick. He wanted to chop that hand off rather than live with the reminder of what he had done.

       It had all been so easy. At night, he had made a bird, and now the skill, once learned, would never again be anything other than effortless. He could make things of beauty, but he could make terrible things, too - things that allowed him to betray his master, and ruin everything forever.

       He wanted to slam shut the door of that tower, and run whimpering away. Ciaran would hate him now. Even if he could return to his own world, they would be no home for him there ever again. He could never be a Brother, and he would never be Ciaran's Morgan's apprentice. Ciaran hated him, and he was alone forever.

       The dark whisperings of premonition had quietened a bit, but had not gone away. It was like a clamouring crowd of people. When Ciaran had fought, the crowd had surged and shrieked, as if death itself was riding down from the sky to claim them all. Now his master was held, the crowd had drawn back and its voice had stilled to faint whispers. It was still there, and waiting, but the danger was less.

       Ciaran was safe. His master would never accept it, but Elias knew without a doubt that he had saved his master's life. He had wronged him terribly and committed a crime that could never be forgiven, but he had saved him. If Ciaran had ruined the ambush, Reynard and the others would have killed him, before dying themselves at the hands of the caravan's guards.

       Everyone still lived. The first two visions would now never come to pass. Ciaran and the Kindred were safe for now, but the danger was not over yet. Elias had to watch. He might want nothing more than to bury his face in his hands and weep, but he could not turn his back now.

       On the road below stood the caravan, halted in disarray. There were several covered wagons and a few open carts. A group of armed riders stood watchfully at the front, and there was a cluster of horses tied to the back of the rear cart. He could not see the Kindred at first, but found he could tell where they were hidden, and that, when he looked at each hiding place, he could see them after all.

       "This is your last chance," Reynard shouted. "Lay down your arms, or face the consequences." He was lying along a thick dark branch, that was flat enough to collect a carpet of fallen leaves. The branches took his voice and made it seem to come from everywhere, and nowhere.

       The four guards exchanged glances. One of them was very young, and he was swallowing again and again. The other three were older, with world-weary faces. They wore a rough uniform, but had a cheap and unkempt look about them. This was a modest caravan that could afford no better guards.

       It was true. Elias closed his eyes briefly. At least some of Ciaran's accusations were true. When he had first heard the wagons, he had hoped desperately that it was a band of cruel marauders, their swords dripping with the blood of innocents. He wanted to understand the Kindred. Despite everything, he wanted to like Oliver. He wanted their ambush to be justified. But these were innocent people. He had heard a woman scream, and wondered if there were children there, in the covered wagon. They were innocent people, and the Kindred were going to rob them, and maybe even kill them.

       He had silenced his master, but he would never be able to condone this. Oliver had urged him to do nothing, but he refused to stand by and watch while innocents were murdered. But for now, he told himself, he would just watch. There had been a sincere misery in Oliver's eyes. Reynard might relish bloodshed, but Oliver, he was sure, would do everything he could to stop it. It would not happen. It could not.

       "All right," one guard shouted, at last. The screaming had died away to occasional whimpers, but now that same female voice sounded in a cry of betrayal and outrage. The guards ignored it. "Watch." Very deliberately, they threw their swords to the ground. Two landed on top of each other, and clashing with a sound that made Elias shiver.

       "Very good." Reynard smiled, though only Elias could see it. There was no smile in his voice. "Do not move an muscle. Move and you die."

       Only two of the Kindred had bows, although they must surely be hoping that the guards thought there were more. They lay flat on their bellies, one ahead of the caravan, and one slightly behind. Elias was between the two of them. The haste of the ambush meant that there was nobody on the other side of the road, and that was their great weakness. Their position was strong, but not unassailable.

       No-one moved. Just as Elias thought they were going to stay hidden forever, the undergrowth parted, and Oliver stepped out. He bore no sword, and he looked slight and vulnerable in the vastness of the forest. The rain made his hair stick to his skull, and darkened it, emphasising his pallor and making his eyes look black. As he walked slowly down the ridge towards the road, he stumbled a little, but managed to regain his balance.

       Elias pressed his hand to his mouth, and let his breath hiss through his fingers. Unable to look away, he watched as Oliver reached the road and stood there, at the mercy of so many eyes. He started walking, and leaves and mud clutched at his feet, as if they were trying to pull him back. Oliver was a child of the forest, and he was walking to his death, and even nature wanted him to live.

       The guards watched him approach. The young one licked his lips nervously, but there was trickery in the eyes of the oldest.

       Close now, Oliver knelt, falling gracefully down onto one knee like a man making his obeisance to his lord. His cloak pooled behind him in the mud, but it did not get stained. With his right hand, he reached out for the hilt of the first abandoned sword, and his fingers closed around it.

       The oldest guard's hand darted to the side of his saddle, and came up again. A dagger shot through the air like a flash of silver, and buried itself in Oliver's chest.

       Elias gasped. He chewed the flesh at the ball of his hand to stop himself crying out. Do nothing, Oliver had said. Had he seen this coming? Had he known he was going to die? While Elias had seen his own visions of death, had Oliver, the son of a Seer, seen his own?

       Still kneeling, Oliver looked up, a faintly quizzical look on his face. He showed no sign of pain, and neither did he clasp the wound. No blood rained on the mud, but his clothes were dark, and he could bleed to the point of death, and no-one would see. His movements steady and fluid, he reached for the second sword.

       Another guard threw his dagger, and the weapon sank into Oliver's right side. Oliver stood, but did not try to defend himself. The third dagger would have missed Oliver entirely had he not seemed to deliberately turn a little, catching it in the flesh of his upper arm. With an incoherent scream of hatred, a woman thrust her head out of one of the wagons, a crossbow in her hands. She shot it blindly, but it went true nevertheless. The bolt hit Oliver in the throat, just beneath the clasp of his cloak.

       But still he stood. Was he using illusion to hide the blood, to hide from everyone the fact that he was in agony and dying? Had he known this was going to happen? He was sacrificing himself to save the others. His last words to Elias had been an apology. He had lied to Elias, and this was his way of atoning.

       "I don't want this," Elias whispered. Until two days ago, he had never seen violence or death. Now he was seeing blood enough to haunt his dreams for a lifetime. Why was no-one rushing forward to save the man who was their leader?

       "More?" Reynard asked mockingly, and another dagger, and then two more bolts, hit Oliver's body, and more shot uselessly onto the track. "Is that all you can do?"

       There was fear on the faces of the guards now. Their hands were empty. They had thrown away their hidden store of weapons on just one man, and he refused to die, or even to falter. They had no idea what to do. They were terrified, where, a moment before, they had felt hope. They thought they were doomed, and knew that only the most terrible of magics could cause their attacker to still remain standing. They feared this magic like nothing before.

       "Now," Reynard hissed, and to the guards it was nothing more than the sound of wind in the trees, but to the Kindred it was a clear command. They knew what to do.

       Two men stepped forward, ropes in their hands. The bowmen rose from their hiding places, speaking their threat as loud as words. Harm these men and you die.

       In the middle of them all, Oliver stood with his head raised high, looking the guards in the eye, one after another. Each one lowered their eyes as if his gaze hurt them.

       "Dismount," Elias heard one of the Kindred say, when he came close. With an impotent look of terror, the youngest guard slithered to the ground. He volunteered his own wrists for tying, at pains not to look at Oliver. Any fate was better, he must surely be thinking, than the attentions of such a man.

       Reynard swung his legs over the edge of the branch and dropped lightly to the ground, though the fall was more than twice his height. His eyes were burning coals, and he ran the tip of his tongue hungrily over his lower lip.

       The guards were bound, and the Kindred were prowling further, seeking the people who were hiding in the wagons. One wagon concealed the second, and Elias did not see what happened when they passed behind it, but he heard the scream.

       And, in the midst of it, Oliver merely stood. There was still no blood. Frowning, Elias looked at him, and then almost laughed aloud. An illusion. Of course it was an illusion, and he had been a fool not to see through it. Oliver was still concealed in the trees, with his right hand pressed against a tree trunk, and his head drooping slightly. It tired him to cast an illusion such as this.

       The illusion was good, though. Had Elias thought to look, he could have seen the truth in an instant, and, now he knew it for what it was, it faded away like mist in sunlight, as if it had never been. By the way the guard's wary eyes still flickered everywhere but at the spot the illusion had been standing, he knew that to everyone else, it was still very real. He could make himself see it again, he found, though it seemed pale and flimsy now, and never to be confused with the real thing.

       "Do nothing," Oliver had said, and this was why. If Elias had rushed forward to intervene, he would have been as deadly to the Kindred as Ciaran. The guards would have thrown their daggers at him, but his death would have been real. The Kindred would have been slaughtered trying to defend him.

       They were all out of concealment now. Some had sheathed their weapons and now sifted through piles of goods with looks of grim delight. Others were still armed, although the guards were all bound now. Reynard was approaching the oldest guard in a strange meandering step, like a suitor playing court to his partner in a formal dance. His smile was mocking, and his sword was high. I will hurt you, the smile said. But you will not know when. Any. Time. I. Choose.

       "Do nothing," Oliver had told him, but that was before they had won. "Do nothing," Oliver had told him, but that was before he had seen murder in the eyes of a man who claimed to follow him. "Do nothing," and that was before he had seen hatred in his master's eyes, and known that he had fully earned that hatred, even though he had been trying to do what was right.

       No-one would die on this day, not if Elias could prevent it. He had thrown away everything that mattered to him simply because he thought that, by doing so, he was saving lives. If he crouched here in concealment and let a man die, then it was all for nothing. He had lost his master, and all for nothing.

       He rose to his feet, and skidded down the bank to the road. He did not draw the sword, though he was very aware of it, ready and attentive at his side. The guards' swords lay untouched on the ground where they had first fallen, and the daggers that Elias had seen embed themselves in Oliver's flesh were scattered across the track, unstained by blood.

       Reynard looked up as he approached. Still in concealment, Oliver started too, and as he did so the illusion winked out. One of the guards saw it, and cried out, realising how they had been tricked. 

       "Oliver told you to stay put," Reynard snapped. "You could have got hurt."

       "I know." Elias almost laughed. What else had he to lose? He had already earned the hatred of the only man he had ever truly known. Why should he care if he earned the hatred of this man too, for the sake of a principle? "Will you kill them?"

       Reynard swore, a guttural oath. He gestured Elias away a few steps, and spoke in a harsh whisper, so the guards could not hear. "What else can we do? They'll tell. They have to die."

       Elias narrowed his eyes. His heart was hammering in his chest, and he had never been more aware of how young he was, and how he had always been so shy of other people. This was not the place for shyness. If he stood firm before Reynard and spoke up, perhaps he could save a life or two. "Is that the real reason?" he asked, very quietly.

       Reynard sucked in a sharp breath. He was a dangerous man to provoke, and never more so than now. He had been tightly coiled up, ready for danger and action, and his whole mind and body screamed out to fight. "You saw," he hissed, and almost his hand closed on Elias's wrist, but then, just at the last instant, withdrew. "They would have killed Oliver without mercy. Why should we show them mercy in return?"

       "Because we are better men than they are."

       Reynard gave a harsh bark of laughter. "How little you know. We wouldn't be alive now if we showed mercy."

       Elias looked round, seeing the calm professionalism with which the Kindred were emptying bags of provisions from the wagons. "How much of this do you actually need, and how much is common thievery?" He used the derogatory word deliberately, hoping to goad Reynard into some sort of reply.

       "We need little." Oliver appeared at his side. He looked exhausted, barely strong enough to speak. "We need the horses. Those goods that we can use or wear. Nothing else. Luxury goods are of use only to people who can sell them, and we can't. They'd kill us if we even showed our faces at a market."

       Elias felt his face soften as he turned to Oliver. Until he had seen Oliver dying, he had not realised how much he liked him already. The man wanted what was best for his people and that meant he had to do anything he could to win Elias to his cause, but his sympathy seemed genuine. "Would it be dangerous to you to let the men go?" he asked him.

       "I don't think so, no." Even exhausted as he was, Oliver was able to flash a sharp glance at Reynard, silencing him. "It's no secret that we live near here. It's a big forest, and the camp's far enough away, and we know how to hide our tracks. As long as they don't follow us, it will do us no harm if news of this attack gets out." He frowned. "Most people avoid this road. They knew they were taking a risk, coming this way. I wonder why they did it."

       "Then leave them." Elias had little time for patience. "Leave the goods you don't need, and leave the men unharmed. If I am to be your king, then it is for me to give orders," he said, in the face of Reynard's furious denial. "If you are only common bandits and murderers, then I will not serve you. I will give you nothing. You are on your own." He paused. "So, tell me. Are you?"

       "But they betrayed us!" Reynard cried. His left hand was a curled fist, and the sword in his right was pale silver, hungry for blood. "You saw how they surrendered, then attacked under the flag of truce. They betrayed us, just like their forefathers did."

       "No." Elias waved Reynard aside, but Reynard stood firm and did not move. If Oliver had not tugged hard at Reynard's arm, and had not Reynard yielded to the man he was accustomed to obeying, Elias did not know what might have happened. But, for now, all that mattered was that Reynard had stepped aside, and how desperate Elias was for this to be over. His question was not answered, but he would save these men, even if it was the last act he ever performed in this place before going home.

       Elias walked up to the nearest guard, who looked at him, and gave a contemptuous laugh. "You can't be their leader, boy." The look in his eyes reminded Elias of his father, who had beaten him and called him worthless. This man was scared of Reynard and even of Oliver, but Elias he just dismissed.

       Oliver said nothing, but he was there, close beside Elias. His hand brushed briefly against Elias's shoulder. I am here, the touch said. I will stand by you.

       Strength flowed from Oliver's touch. Oliver would follow him, even if no-one else did, and it was amazing what a difference such a little thing could make. Simply by having someone who believed in him, he became someone who mattered, someone with power. For years, he had said nothing, because no-one had wanted to hear what he had to say. Now he could speak, and someone would listen. He had powers he had never thought possible, and he could make a difference.

       Elias raised his head, and looked the guard full in the face. He remember how Oliver had lulled him into sleep with music and enchantment, and the power of illusion already came so easily to him, as if he had been born to do it. He could do this. He had to do this.

       "Sleep." He raised one hand, fingers spread, and waved it, though he thought it was probably not necessary. In time, he would do this with just a thought, and the prospect scared him. "Sleep."

       The man's knees folded, and he slumped to the ground. Elias felt his mouth fall open with wonder and horror, but he could not stop. He stepped over the man's body, and moved on. "Murderer!" the youngest guard screeched. "You'll burn for this!" He screamed, high and shrill. "No! Keep away from me! Don't kill me! Please!"

       They tried to run, but the Kindred stepped forward to hold them still, trussed up and ready for the sacrifice. Some of them laughed as they subdued their terrified captives, but Elias had to look each guard in the eye, and bear the full brunt of what he saw there. This was terror, and he had caused it. This was hatred, and he deserved it. He was torturing them, taking away their free will, and it was the most hateful thing he had ever done. But he would be punished for it. He would be punished, and he would deserve it.

       "I'm not killing you," he tried to reassure them. "It's only sleep. You'll wake up tonight, and we'll be gone. No-one's going to hurt you. You'll still have your swords to defend yourself with."

       They did not believe him. They screamed, and he did it anyway. He forced them to sleep when they did not want to. "It's either this, or Reynard kills you," he tried to tell them, but his voice was cracked and did not work. He realised he was leaning heavily on Oliver's arm, but Oliver had looked close to collapse himself, so that was wrong, too.

       He took a shaky step away from Oliver. "How many more?" he managed to ask, when all four guards lay on the ground. The Kindred were just watching him now. Some of them bore naked swords, and they looked as if they wished the blades were bloodied. There were many things unsaid in the watchful silence of theirs. Reynard's eyes pierced him. Elias had sided with the enemy, and not the Kindred. Had they decided that he was no longer their king, and now they were going to kill him?

       It no longer really mattered what they thought. If they wanted a king who could condone murder, then he would have nothing to do with them, whatever the consequences. He had been chosen by  prophecy, but he would not serve an evil cause. This whole episode had shown him at least this much. He was bound by duty, but he was not powerless. He could set limits on what he would do for them. He could give orders and be obeyed. He was a king, not a slave, and he could choose how he wanted to lead them. 

       "There's three more in the wagons." Oliver paused for a moment. "One woman's very sick. Maybe she's the reason they decided to risk this road, despite its dangers. It's a quicker route to the cities in the north than the road the caravans normally use."

       "Dangers," Elias echoed. Dangers caused by the Kindred. Dangers because the Kindred were the sort of men who laid an ambush and would have killed people who were only trying to save a woman's life. He let out a long shuddering breath. "I must heal her."

       "Oh." Oliver shook his head, and the sound was a small anguished one, such as a man would make when he did not know what to say or do. "Oh, but..."

       "I must heal her," he cried. He had imprisoned his master, and violated men's minds so that they were forced asleep against their will. He had to atone. He had to make it worthwhile, all the terrible things he had done. He had to.

       "But..." Oliver gripped Elias's arm. "You can't... You don't..."

       "Don't have the strength?" Elias smiled, aware even as he did so that it was the kind of smile an idiot might make before rushing into some pointless death. He shook himself free from Oliver's grip. "I think I do." He laughed suddenly, and it was closer to tears, and... oh, what was happening to him? He pressed his hand to his mouth, and forced calm. "I can't? You said I had powers that you had never seen. I have to learn them some time, don't I?"

       Oliver chewed his lip. "But..."

       "No." To Reynard, he had been king, and given an order. He did so to Oliver now, though he thought it was killing him a little inside, each time he did it. "Leave me, Oliver. I will do this." I have to, he added silently, or maybe aloud.

       Turning, he walked alone towards the wagon.

      

 

       Bound a prisoner by the treacherous brat who had once been his apprentice, Ciaran had been forced to lie there and listen to it all.

       He had heard Reynard shouting his mocking commands, and known that blood had been shed with each word. He had heard voices, and, amongst them, had recognised the voice of the boy, Elias. His voice had been peremptory with command, as if these killers were his own men, and all their murdering was done at his order.

       Then, for a long while, there was silence, and then, suddenly, the ropes faded from him wrists as if they had never existed, and he was free.

       He moved in an instant, far too quickly for the man guarding him to stop him. Ciaran smashed him to the ground as he leapt passed him, and felt a bright flare of exultant satisfaction inside him. It felt good to strike back. He would repay every hurt in kind, but Elias was the chief wrong-doer, and Elias would be punished more than any man had ever been punished.

       "Elias!" he roared, as he barged down the slope. "Elias!" His voice was both a command and a punishment. Because of the childhood he had endured, the boy had always hated to be shouted at.

       Beside one wagon, Oliver stood, pale and tense. Meeting Ciaran's eyes, he shook his head.

       "Where's Elias?" Ciaran demanded.

       "Here, master."

       A pale hand pushed aside the curtain, and there was Elias, looking as if the slightest of breezes would blow him over. As he stepped down to the ground, he stumbled, but Oliver grabbed at him and stopped him from falling. It might have been enough to take the edge off Ciaran's anger, but instead it only fuelled it. Elias leaned into Oliver's support as once he had leaned into Ciaran's. In the other hand, he bore a bloody knife.

       "Elias." Ciaran strode forward. "Do you anything to say for yourself?"

       Elias swallowed hard. "I had to, master." His voice was like paper. "I'm so sorry. So sorry. I had no choice. I begged you, but you wouldn’t listen."

       Ciaran slapped him in the face with the flat of his hand. He could have hit him harder, but he did not, for this was just punishment, not revenge. "So it's my fault, is it?" He hit Elias again, and the heel of his hand smashed Elias's lips into his teeth. His mouth welling blood, Elias fell to the ground, his knees simply folding beneath him.

       "Not your fault." Elias continued speaking in that terrible weak voice, like the dying autumn leaves beneath his feet. He seemed unaware of the fact that his master had just struck him, or that he was sprawled in the dirt. "I tried to explain. There wasn't time. I should have tried harder. I didn't think you'd listen. I didn't think you'd believe me. I'm so sorry." He closed his eyes, his eyelids almost translucent against the smudged skin beneath his eyes.

       Ciaran crouched beside him and grabbed hold of his chin, digging his fingers into Elias's flesh and forcing him to look at him. "I wanted to stop all this," he said, gesturing with his chin towards the bodies on the ground. "I would have saved them. You wouldn't have stopped me with words, Elias, because I knew I was right. So you resorted to treachery. And because you stopped me, they all died. You betrayed me, and murdered them. Are you happy, Elias? Are you pleased with what you did?"

       Elias did not fight him. When Ciaran let go of his chin, and head fell back against the ground, exposing the pale skin of his throat, like a sacrifice waiting for the knife. "I saw a vision," he whispered. "I saw death. You would have died. I had to stop you. I didn't want you to die. I didn't want anyone to die."

       Ciaran stood up, and jabbed his toe into Elias's side. "Get up. I didn't hurt you badly. Stop making out that I did." He was disgusted at the boy. "You've never had visions before, so don't expect me to believe that excuse. And, even if you had, I am a Brother. I'm prepared to die for what is right. I thought I'd taught you to feel the same, but evidently not."

       "Stop it!" Oliver commanded. He stepped between Ciaran and Elias and physically pushed Ciaran backwards. There was a look of pure hatred in his eyes. "Don't you dare hurt him again, Master Morgan," he spat. "You keep away from him!"

       "You have no right!" Ciaran screamed. "He's mine!"

       Oliver just shook his head, and sighed. "He saved them all, Master Morgan. No-one died. He sent them to sleep with enchantment, that's all. And he did more,  but you will never see it, because you never bother to look. Just as you don't even behind to understand why we do the things we want to do, or who we are."

       "I know who you are," Ciaran sneered. "Thieves and killers, and now you've made Elias just like you. I hope you're satisfied. You're welcome to him now. You're as bad as each other."

       Elias said nothing at all, not even a plea for his master to relent and take him back. Oliver spoke for him, standing over him like a master over a beloved apprentice, defending him from all harm. "There was a woman in that wagon who was very sick. She was dying from it. Elias saved her, too. She attacked him with a knife and hurt him, and it took all his strength to heal her, but he did so. He saved even her."

       Ciaran hated him. He pushed him away, and knelt at Elias's side. He grabbed the boy's wrist. "Is it true?" he demanded. "Is he lying?"

       And then Reynard was standing there on Elias's far side, a naked sword in his hand. "It's true," he sneered. "He saved them. He stood before us like a true king. What do you say to that, Ciaran Morgan?"

       They were united against him, and he was the enemy. Oliver and Reynard and all the others were ferocious and protective, ranged around Elias as if he, Ciaran, was the snarling enemy who wanted to harm him. There was blood on Elias's lip, and he, Ciaran, had put it there.

       "Is it true, Elias?" he said, more quietly.

       Elias closed his eyes, but he nodded. "No-one died. But now..." His voice faded away, and he bit his bleeding lip, drawing more blood.

       "You tied me up." Ciaran narrowed his eyes. The ropes had not been real, he knew now, and they had faded away to nothing when Elias had dropped the illusion. Elias had used a power Ciaran had never seen before. It was a horrible magic, and he had used it against his own master. Foul magic had slithered over Ciaran's wrists, binding him. He swallowed. "Did you really have a vision? Is that really why you did it?"

       "To save your life," Elias whispered. "And theirs. And you said..."

       "Nothing," Ciaran said, firmly, taking hold of Elias's hand. "Forget about it, Elias. I said things. They're over now. I forgive you."

       Elias licked his lips, smearing the blood there. Ciaran had hit him, and caused that. But they would not speak of it. This whole sorry day would be forgotten. Ciaran would forgive Elias for the things he had done, and Elias would forgive Ciaran for hitting him. They had both committed wrongs, and the only thing to do was to move past them.

       "Come on," Reynard said, beginning to walk away. "We can't stay here. If we get moving, we'll be home before dark."

            For the first time, Ciaran was grateful to hear the man's voice. He helped Elias to his feet, and Elias clung to him, and nothing more needed to be said.