†††††† Ciaran had never seen a more desolate place. High walls of rock hemmed them in, and they were herded along the narrow road, given no choice about where to go. The wind was cold and the sunlight non-existent.
†††††† "Stop!" Reynard shouted, and Ciaran realised he was kicking his horse, determined to get through the pass as quickly as possible. There, where the coldness clung to the path like a living thing, Reynard was dismounting, preparing to make himself at home.
†††††† Ciaran pulled his horse to a halt. "You can't mean to stop here?" They still had several hours of daylight ahead of all, for all that the sunlight never penetrated past the high crags, and the pass was shrouded in the gloom of premature twilight.
†††††† "No." Reynard was unsaddling his horse, and Ciaran noticed that Elias had almost finished doing the same. "But they had a hard climb, carrying us up here. They need a rest."
†††††† Grudgingly, Ciaran clambered down from his animal, and stormed over to Reynard. "How much further?" he demanded. Reynard told them very little about their journey ahead. Five days had gone already from the two weeks Ciaran had agreed to give.
†††††† Reynard spoke to the horse, crooning words of comfort as he tended to it. Only when he had finished did he consent to answer the question. "We will spend one more night on the King's Road. When we pass through the rock face at the far end, Eidengard is a day and a half away. But we will go slowly, and spend another night in the countryside. They pay less attention to travellers who enter in the morning. And I have no desire to stay in an inn, or be accused of vagrancy for sleeping in the streets."
†††††† Normally Reynard ignored Ciaran's questions, or else answered with a bald-faced insult. "What did you tell Elias about you and Gerhard this morning?" he fired at him, hoping to follow one victory with another.
†††††† "Ask him, then, because I will never tell you," Reynard snapped. Pushing rudely past Ciaran, he walked to the edge of the road, leading the horse behind him.
†††††† "He won't tell me," Ciaran shouted after him, then realised his mistake, for Reynard looked back over his shoulder and gave a gloating smile.
†††††† "Is that so?"
†††††† Ciaran flapped his hand at him. "Go, then. I don't care." He stormed over to Elias, who was whispering nothings into his horse's ear. "Tell me what Reynard said," he commanded. "What is it between him and Gerhard?"
†††††† Elias's hand froze, his fingers splayed against the horse's neck. "I can't tell you, master. I... I don't think it's right to tell someone else's secret against their will."
†††††† "I won't take lessons in morality from my own apprentice," Ciaran said tightly. "I'm your master. It's your duty to tell me."
†††††† "Please, master." Elias turned to face him. "It was a personal thing. He has good cause to hate Gerhard, but none of it has anything to do with me. It makes no difference to what we're doing, I promise you that. And Gerhard was the one who wronged him, not the other way round."
†††††† Ciaran gave a harsh laugh. "Well, he would tell it that way, wouldn't he?"
†††††† Elias did not back down. "He told me things that were hard for him to speak about, things about past betrayals, about the way they made him feel. You of all people should know how hard that was for him."
†††††† "What's that supposed to mean?" Ciaran pinned Elias against the horse's side, holding him there with an arm on either side of his body. "Speak it aloud, Elias. Say what you mean."
†††††† Elias licked his lips. He looked nervous and young, and he yielded. "I'm sorry, master. I just... Please don't order me tell, because..."
†††††† "Because you won't," Ciaran said. "And it will all be over between us."
†††††† "It will be over soon, anyway," Elias whispered.
†††††† With a wordless snarl, Ciaran pushed away, leaving Elias staggering. He stamped off the path, heading for Reynard. He had never been in a place so cold and so horrible. The wind was cold fingers on his scalp, and the plants were fleshy and parasitic. Far above, the sky was a delicate blue, but it felt no more real than a painting on the ceiling.
†††††† Reynard did not look up as Ciaran approached. He had found a spring that bubbled between two boulders, and was crouched beside it, splashing water over his face. "A good place for an ambush, isn't it?" he taunted, as he rubbed his hands dry. "A dangerous place."
†††††† "Why did you bring Elias here, then?" Ciaran demanded. There had been another path they could have taken, that curved gently around the lower slopes, all green and sunlit, but Reynard had led them ever higher into the savage pass.
†††††† "Not dangerous to us." Reynard gave a savage smile. "This is our land. No-one else can get through the rock face. And if they are foolish enough to climb up the sheer cliffs that rise from the plain... Well, we would be waiting, ready to would cut them to pieces before they even saw us."
†††††† "Because you're killers." Ciaran folded his arms. "You prey on the innocent, as I know well. It's nothing to be proud of. I know your true nature."
†††††† Reynard took a flask from his belt and held it beneath the spring, letting it fill with water. "Is this all you've come here for?" he said, feigning boredom. "For more of the same old argument. You hate me. You want your Elias to be at your beck and call for ever. You put him down, then say you did it for his own good. You make me the enemy because you're too blind to admit that it's really you."
†††††† Ciaran almost hit him. "How dare you? At least I care about him. As for you... I'm on to you. You wanted war, and then suddenly, overnight, you didn't. You were all agreement, all promises of loyalty to a mere boy. You even made a show of kneeling before him. So what's the real reason you're here, Reynard? Not because you suddenly agreed with him, not that."
†††††† Reynard drank from the flask, refilled it, then stoppered it up. He was breathing very fast as he did so, and Ciaran knew he had made him furious. Reynard wanted to fight him, but was suppressing the urge, giving himself time to construct his latest lie. Perhaps Elias was watching, and Reynard wanted to present him with the image of a placid man being menaced by an unreasonable attacker.
†††††† "Why is it," Reynard said, at last, "that you find it so impossible to believe that I might actually respect him?"
†††††† Ciaran threw back his head and laughed. "You'll have to do better than that, Reynard. A man like you. A boy like him..." He shook his head, chuckling.
†††††† Reynard fastened the flask to his belt with hands that trembled. "I made no secret of the truth when I talked to him. He knows I still want war. But I'm giving him the chance to prove himself, to show me that his way works." He gave a strange smile. "And, sometimes, I even think it might. And, stranger still, I find myself wanting it to."
†††††† "Work?" Ciaran laughed again. "A fool's errand, you called it. A boy who can barely speak to strangers without blushing, and a Duke who's ruled for half a lifetime. A Duchy where they've hated your kind for five hundred years... I think not."
†††††† "And so he's already failed, in your mind." Reynard turned his back, tending to the horse. "You have it all mapped out, don't you. I know you, more than you think I do. You think he's going to fail. 'So that's that', you'll say. 'All done. Over. You tried, and failed. Come on, Elias. Hold my hand like the little boy you are. We're going home.'"
†††††† "And what's your picture of the future, Reynard?" Ciaran spat his name like an insult. "What do you dream of as you lie awake at night, watching him. Oh, I know you do it. I've seen you. What are you plotting?" He jabbed a finger into Reynard's shoulder, but still the coward did not turn round, did not oblige Ciaran with a fight. "What do you think will happen when we reach Eidengard? You want it all to go wrong, donít you, so there will be no alternative but your war. You're pretending to help, but all the while you're pushing Elias along the paths you want him to walk, encouraging him with lies, making him hope. Then, when it all comes crashing down, he'll be powerless to resist you."
†††††† "Oh?" Reynard turned round. His face was very pale and there was murder in his eyes, but still he did not draw his weapon. "Care to accuse me of anything else?"
†††††† "Yes," Ciaran cried, triumphantly. "I think it's worse still. Elias goes in alone to meet the Duke, and you advise him to go in unarmed, as a sign of trust. He gives you Albacrist, and you take it. Of course, the Duke won't listen to a word Elias says, and has him killed, just as you knew he would. And there you are, with everything you've dreamed of. You have the perfect excuse to raise the Kindred to war, to avenge their dead king, and you have the sword, and will use it to claim the right to succeed him. There'll be no more boys from another world to boss you around, and no more waiting for a stranger to come and save you. You'll have it all. And you'll like that, wouldn't you, Reynard?"
†††††† "And if I would?" Reynard gave a cold smile. "What would you do about it, Ciaran Morgan?"
†††††† "Kill you."
†††††† "You can't do that." All the laughter left Reynard's face. "I'm better armed than you. We are being watched even now, though you will never see them. I know Gerhard, and he would never have let us leave his land without sending men out to follow us. If it came to a fight, they would defend me, not you, despite what lies between Gerhard and me."
†††††† "I am not afraid," Ciaran said hotly.
†††††† "No?" Reynard arched one eyebrow. "You should be, and not just of their vengeance. If Elias saw you murder me in cold blood, he would hate you forever. He actually trusts me. I don't know why." He shook his head, and for a moment Ciaran thought he saw a hint of real wonder.
†††††† "Fight me, then." Ciaran began to circle Reynard. "A fair fight. You provoked it. I had to defend myself."
†††††† Reynard's eyes flickered over Ciaran's shoulder. "I won't fight you," he said, quietly, "much as I would love to. Not now. Maybe later. It would give me much pleasure to hurt you."
†††††† "I'll tell Elias everything," Ciaran promised.
†††††† "Don't!" Reynard grabbed hold of his wrist, and his grip was strong and violent. "He's so hopeful," he hissed. "Why tell him that both his companions are expecting him to fail, and maybe even hope that he does?"
†††††† "So it's true, then," Ciaran crowed. "You denied it earlier."
†††††† "True or not, that's how you would tell it." Reynard released his wrist. "I don't care what lies you believe about me, but I care what he believes. He needs to think he has a chance."
†††††† "So he can fall into your trap."
†††††† Reynard yawned theatrically. "You get very tiresome, Ciaran Morgan." Before Ciaran could speak, Reynard gestured lazily back at the road. "All this talk about wanting to protect him, but have you once thought to look at what's happening on the road. You don't know him at all, do you?"
†††††† Ciaran whirled round, and cried out. Elias was standing in the road, and a mass of black crows was boiling around his head, screaming at him. As Ciaran started towards him, a bird of prey plummeted from the sky, heading straight for Elias's face. The crows scattered. Elias flung up an arm, and the bird landed on it, its talons surely shredding the boy's flesh.
†††††† "Elias!" He ran towards him, stumbling on the rocks, slipping on the fleshy leaves. "Shoot it!" he screamed. If Gerhard had sent watchers, they would have bows. Why weren't they helping? Unless they, too, wanted Elias dead.
†††††† "Master." Elias turned towards him. A black feather clung to his hair. With a high scream, the bird of prey spread its wings and flew off. Ciaran could see no blood.
†††††† Ciaran skidded to a halt. He felt as if he had run into the eye of a storm, and found everything peaceful where he had expected raging death. Elias's horse was munching on a tuft of grass, and looked up placidly.
†††††† "Elias." Ciaran grabbed his apprentice's wrist, and pushed up his sleeve, looking for wounds but failing to find any. "What happened?" he asked. "Are you all right?"
†††††† "You have discovered it, then," Reynard said from behind. "How long?"
†††††† "I have." Elias plucked the feather from his hair and ran it between his fingers, giving a tremulous smile. "That night we camped in the orchard, when I rode away."
†††††† "You know what it means?"
†††††† "What?" Ciaran asked, still soothing Elias's wrist, searching for wounds that were not there.
†††††† Elias swallowed. "It's part of the enchantment? I like it." He gave a nervous laugh. "But it can be a bit scary. I never thought they'd all come like that."
†††††† "How far does it go?" Reynard knelt beside Elias. He looked sharp and eager, and not like Reynard at all. "Is it full talking? Oliver never knew. He said the tales were lost."
†††††† "What?" Ciaran asked, a little louder. He turned his attention to the other wrist, plucking at his sleeve and worrying over his flesh, but Elias seemed not even to notice.
†††††† "Not talking," Elias told Reynard. "Not even thoughts. Just an... awareness. Perhaps they pick up more from me. Sunfall seems to. She knows where I want to go." He shook his head. "I didn't mean to call them all. I think they were a bit irritated. They'd been eating. A goat, I think. They've gone back to it now."
†††††† "What?" It came out louder than Ciaran had intended. He grabbed Elias by the shoulders and shook him, so his head snapped forward and back. "What are you talking about?"
†††††† "Enchantment is life," Reynard intoned. "Emotion without thought. Instinct without intelligence. Or so it is in its elemental form. A master of enchantment can shape it. But the animals and birds have it in their blood, and hear it like their language. They can do no magic, but they can recognise a master. The beasts of the kingdom always honoured the true king, it is said. Not a single one of them would hurt him."
†††††† Ciaran remembered the animals in the tapestry, and how they had grieved to see Alberic depart, but that was a legend, made fanciful over time, and this was only Elias. "Is it true?" he demanded. "You've been able to sense the animals, and never told me?"
†††††† Elias shrank into himself. "I didn't know how to put it into words."
†††††† "It sounded easy enough the way Reynard said it."
†††††† "But he hasn't felt it." Elias pressed his hand against his chest. "It's like... like feeling life all around me. It feels like I'll never be alone. They can't help me, but they're there, and that's good. I'm part of the world, as if... as if I was woven deep into it."
†††††† Ciaran suppressed his irritation. It was so very cold here, and he pulled Elias's cloak tighter around his body. "You never are alone, Elias. I'm here."
†††††† Elias looked down and did not answer. His silence could hide too many things. That's not enough for me anymore, or, yes, but for how much longer, or, I don't need you at all. I've got a new life now.
†††††† "Don't get complacent," Reynard said. He pushed himself to his feet, and his face grew hard. Earlier, when he had been talking about the enchantment, he had looked as dreamy as Oliver. "I said that no animal would harm the king, but that's not strictly true. Sometimes, when they're sick, they forget. They strike out at everyone, but the king most of all, for his enchantment is like a light that dazzles them. And they say that, long ago, there were great masters of evil, who could enslave beasts to their will, so they hunted him without mercy. But," he said, briskly, as he started to saddle his horse, "that was long ago."
†††††† Elias stood up. "Sunfall hasn't had a drink."
†††††† Ciaran took a deep breath, and decided not to say any of the things he might have said. Instead, he took hold of his own horse. "There's a spring over there. Shall we take them together?"
†††††† Two days more, Ciaran thought, as they started walking. Two days until they got to the city, and then what? They were adding up, the things he and Elias would have to talk about one day. His defence of Reynard, and refusal to tell his secrets. His concealment of his powers. The things he had come close to accusing his master of, several times now, with his hints about Ciaran's past.
†††††† But not yet, he told himself, as his horse lowered its head to drink, and Elias gave him a shaky smile. There was too much to lose. When they had been at odds with each other on the journey to the camp, had it made him happy? Even when he was right, it felt bad to argue with Elias. Side by side on the top of the watchtower, just smiling together, was better, and it was a memory he wanted to happen again and again.
†††††† Elias's horse finished drinking, and started to move away. "Wait for me," Ciaran said.
†††††† "I was going to." Elias looked grave, as if he thought the plea meant more than it did. Perhaps he was right.
†††††† Ciaran's throat was suddenly very dry. "I only want you to be happy. You do know that?"
†††††† Elias looked at the ground. "I know."
†††††† "And I'm coming to Eidengard with you. You know I can't agree with the Kindred's cause, but I'm coming with you." It seemed very important that Elias knew that. Reynard hadn't told the truth about him, no, not at all.
†††††† "I know."
†††††† Ciaran almost grabbed his wrist, then remembered the wounds. His hand fell limply to his side. "Does the enchantment really change everything? Does it make you... different? Happy?"
†††††† Elias looked at him. "It was always there, but I never knew it. I'm not changing. I'm... I'm being the person I always should have been, and I can't change back. There was a chance for it, days ago, but I chose not to take it. I opened the door. I would never want to live without the enchantment now. It's part of me now. It is me."
†††††† But it's not, he wanted to cry. You're not Elias, not any more. Sometimes he was wholly the boy he had always been, but some days there were only glimpses of his true self. He was changing, moving away. Ciaran wanted to keep him safe from everything, but how could you protect a wisp of sunlight that danced away whenever you tried to catch it?
†††††† "But I am still Elias," Elias said quietly. "I'm still me, and you're still my master. Sometimes I feel nine years old again, afraid of everything." He spread his arms and whirled around on the spot. "And sometimes I feel as if I can change the world," he cried. He whirled to a halt, and his arms fell back to his sides. "I don't know which one is more real."
†††††† "Sometimes the humblest person can change the world, Elias. It happens in all the stories." The words were hard to say. Those stories had been the cornerstone of his life for most of his childhood, until the sword that Elias wore so innocently had made them all come shattering down.
†††††† Elias gave him tremulous smile, his eyes alight with hope. Ciaran felt his heart stop beating. "Do you really think I can, master?"
†††††† If he said yes, the smile would deepen; if he said no, darkness would fall on Elias's face. Ciaran still had the power to change things for him. "I think you can," Ciaran said. He did not look over at Reynard as he spoke. If the man was near enough to hear, he made no sound. "You undoubtedly have powers. And stranger things have happened in stories. I think you have every chance of success."
†††††† Elias's smile filled his whole face, and Ciaran was glad that he had lied.
†††††† All day long, Annis was hardly aware of the sunlight. "What's the matter?" Bess asked, her mouth all turned down with concern. "Got some bad news, Annis?" the lounging soldiers at the gate shouted as she staggered blindly through the courtyard with a heavy bucket. She ignored them all.
†††††† Rumours spread, too. A boy came charging into the kitchen, bursting with the news. The painter had been arrested in the very act of trying to poison the duke, though he had died resisting arrest, which was a shame, since it was too long since they had watched justice at work in the square. Everyone told a different version of the tale, but no-one mentioned her. No-one spoke of a girl discovered in the tower with the painter. Her part in it was ignored. She was nobody.
†††††† She spent the day in a daze. The under-housekeeper boxed her ears for spilling some water, and she had her wages docked for dropping a mug. In every footstep, she heard the black-clad soldiers coming to get her. With every voice, she heard the proclamation of her own arrest.
†††††† "You don't look well." Bess fussed over her again. She was all smiles now. Her man had persuaded her that it hadn't been him at all, only someone who looked like him. He had friends to back him up, and foolish Bess believed him. She was loved again, and could afford to be magnanimous.
†††††† I failed, Annis thought, as she scrubbed the hearth. Her chance had finally come, but she had frozen in terror. A man had been murdered before her eyes, and she had just whimpered in the corner, and let a brutish man assault her.
†††††† All the gossip on the staircases was of the painter's arrest. Annis bit her lip, and did not scream the truth. He was innocent, she could tell them. He had been murdered on trumped-up charges, because he knew the truth about Lord Darius. And what truth was that, they would ask her. That he was evil, she would say. He acted the loyal subject, but he was plotting to gain the dukedom for himself. He had the Duke in power, no doubt drugging him with his own concoctions. Annis had seen it all.
†††††† †"Terrible, isn't it?" Bess said, as they undressed. "Did you ever talk to him at all?"
†††††† "I didn't know him," Annis replied. It wasn't as if she missed him, or anything. He was an old man, and had been nothing to her. So what if Darius took over the Duchy. It was their own stupid fault for believing his lies. Idiots. And he couldn't be so clever, for he was as blind to her true powers as the rest of them.†
†††††† She tossed in her bed, throwing the blankets off, then on again. When she closed her eyes, she saw blood. She had never seen violence before, not even in her dreams. She had dreamed of vengeance and victory, but her vanquished foes had never looked quite so dead.
†††††† When the night was as dark as her day had been, she sat up in bed and smiled. Blood could erase blood. If she took control, it would silence the dreams. No-one could humble her and get away with it. She would kill the soldier who had attacked her so. No, she would kill Lord Darius, because he wanted power, and power should be hers. Or maybe both of them, one after the other. Their eyes would widen in terror, as they realised they were facing their deaths. She was no mere servant girl, to be fondled, and then dismissed as a nobody. She would show them. She would show them all.
†††††† Still smiling, she pulled on her cloak. There was a knife under her mattress, stolen so long ago that everyone had given up looking for it, and she removed it now. No-one knew the Palace like a servant. She hurried down the stairs, through the empty kitchen, and into the Hall of Statues. The entrance to the painter's tower was barricaded off, and still smelled of smoke. She had forgotten to put any shoes on, and the stone was cold beneath her feet. The knife in her hand was warm and slithery. Soon it would be sticky with blood.
†††††† Along the hall. She pressed herself into the niche beside a statue, and peered round the corner, but there were no guards. The upper floor of the Palace was as empty as a graveyard, and everyone was sleeping. Had the lesson of the painter taught them nothing? They guarded the outer gates, but any of the servants could be assassins in their midst, and they did nothing to keep them out. Tomorrow, though, everything would be different. They would be mad with terror, and utterly demoralised. This time they were facing a different enemy, who could slip into the most secret places, strike swiftly, and leave without a trace.
†††††† She tiptoed up to Lord Darius's door. Still no guards, though she held her power close, ready to strike with an illusion, in case they were there but just being sneaky. Checking the grip on her knife, she tried the door. Locked. She cursed under her breath, and her knees went weak. She fell to the ground, clinging to the door handle. Locked. No power on earth could break through a locked door. She kicked it, and felt herself about to cry.
†††††† "No," she whimpered. She stood up, almost tripping on the hem of her nightgown. Sobbing, she ran along the hall, down the stairs, and out into the courtyard. Instead of turning into her own staircase, she took the archway into the gardens. There were yew hedges, ghostly in the darkness. She pelted past them, then through the little wicket gate that led into the wilder parts, that had once been the gardens of the Citadel.
†††††† Grass whipped at her ankles, but still she ran. She had never been here before. It was the old Citadel, adjacent to the Palace. For a long time it had been a prison, but now it was a barracks, too. The soldiers were clearing the wild ground, turning them into parade grounds and punishment yards. Soon, they said, the walls would go up, and there would be no entrance at all from the Palace gardens.
†††††† There were guards here, standing tall on either side of a narrow doorway. She cast the dagger into the bushes, and ran her hands over her face, trying to hide her tears. Calm, she told herself. This was her moment. She was made for greater things than this.
†††††† They hailed her. "What do you want?" Not a proper military greeting. As stupid as the rest of them, then. Easy to fool.
†††††† She lowered her hands, and showed them Bess's face, cast in perfect illusion. Let this story get back to that little tramp's lover, and see her talk her way out of this. "I'm here for the boys." She simpered at them, and let her cloak slip to one side, showing her thin nightgown. "Let me in, and maybe you'll get a turn, too."
†††††† They let her in. Fools. It was so easy for someone with her powers. How dare anyone think they could get the better of her!
†††††† She was inside the barracks. Everything was moving so fast; destiny was guiding her. She heard the sound of drunken carousing, but did not follow it. Darius's men kept themselves apart, she had been told, thinking themselves above the common soldiery. Pressing herself to the wall, using illusion to blend into the shadows, she chose the deeper corridors, through doors that invited people not to pass.
†††††† Once, through a half-open door, she caught a glimpse of a black uniform hanging on a peg, and smiled. She was going in the right direction. Of course she was. Destiny had a hand in this. She was meant to succeed, and nothing would happen to stop her.
†††††† Quiet as a mouse, she tried one door. Two men sleeping, and two empty beds. One was young and fair, the other young and dark, and they looked innocent when they were asleep. Perhaps she should kill them anyway, though they had not been there in the tower. In the silence that followed she heard the racing of her own heart, and felt her own breath tremble in her throat. She shut the door gently, and carried on.
†††††† She had no weapon, but what did she need with a weapon such as normal people used? The foolish ones said that sorcery could kill, and today they would find out just how right they were. She would strike the soldier down with a sword crafted from her magic, and he would die. Nothing was beyond her power tonight.
†††††† The path to him was like a shining road, for this was all meant to happen. He lay behind the fourth door she opened, and he was alone. She walked in, and shut the door behind him. She could smell his sweat. He had smelled just like that when he had pinned her against the window ledge and...
†††††† "No," she whispered. "That was not me. Today you will see me as I really am."
†††††† She brought her hands together, and a sword formed between them, shimmering and silver. It had a jewelled hilt, with sapphires and emeralds and rubies, and lettering burned like fire on its blade.
†††††† She brought the sword down, plunging it into his stomach. His eyes snapped open. "Die," she hissed, twisting the blade. He was everyone who had ever hurt her. "Die." If he died, then none of it had happened - the cowering in the tower room, and the brutal kisses. His blood would wash it clean. "Die," she whispered, for no blood was flowing, none at all. "Please."
†††††† The door opened. "Die," she sobbed, as footsteps sounded harshly on the floor. "Die," as a hand grabbed her wrist, and her arm was twisted behind her. Someone else grabbed her around the throat.
†††††† "What have we here?" spoke a voice of creeping menace.
†††††† The man on the bed jumped to his feet. "It's the girl from the painter's room, sir. Seems she was in league with him after all. She used sorcery against me. Conjured up the image of a sword to attack me with." Yet he did not cower in terror and gibber that his soul had been enslaved. He was calm, giving his report.
†††††† "Did she?" the voice asked. Someone twisted her hand even harder, and she cried out in pain. "A sorceress? Well well well. It seems like we'll have a burning after all, to make up for the one the painter so rudely deprived us of."
†††††† She struggled and spat. Things burst into life around her, bloomed, then faded. She cast fierce men to rescue her, and flailing weapons. She cast the Duke himself, but somehow he only looked sad. She even cast her beautiful young man, to throw himself in front of their swords and die for her. All of them just faded away, and someone laughed.
†††††† "Finished?" the voice said. "You do nothing but prove your guilt, my dear. And, really, we've all seen far stronger sorcerers than you."
†††††† She shrieked, but strong arms bound her wrists. She spat, but then something struck her hard on the side of the head, and that was it, the end.
†††††† Oliver was contemplating a flower when they came to get him. It was a tiny and blue, blooming a full month after the other blossoms on the same plant had turned brown and faded with winter. It was so delicate that the gentlest of touches would make it fall from the slender stem that bore it.
†††††† He heard their footsteps behind him, but did not turn round. This is important, he thought. No-one would ever convince him that it was not, even though he could so seldom convince others that it was. This beautiful speck of blue, blossoming long after the forest had given itself up to autumn, was important. The orange crackle of leaves, and the smell of wood smoke, and waking to find sunshine on your cheek... It was what made them Kindred. He could preserve this moment in a song, so all the future generations would know what it was to be alive, in this instant of history, now.
†††††† They called to him quietly, and did not use his name. He looked at the flower one last time, then let the short grass spring up again, hiding it from view. He still did not turn round. Kneeling with his back to the people who had come for him, everything he saw was beautiful. He felt as if he was seeing it all with new eyes, with an air of delicious discovery. He could have shown it all to Elias, and experienced it all for the first time through him. But Elias had never seen the forest in sunlight, only in grey rain that hid all its beauty. The king had ridden away, and summer had come rushing in in his wake.
†††††† They were only boys, and they were nervous of talking to him, and all the more so since Elias had arrived. He was seneschal of the king, now, and not just the seneschal of the Kindred. He gave them a sad smile, and broke the silence for them. "It's my father, isn't it?"
†††††† Of course it was. They nodded, and waited for him to follow them. He let them lead him, although he knew the way. He walked this path too often, and for the same reason.
†††††† Ten years, it had been like this. Ten years, and the first time was as clear today as it was the day it had happened. How could he ever forget the day that had changed his life? As he walked, he slipped into the memory. He had been writing a poem when they had come for him then, too, though with very different intentions. He had been twenty-one years old, and he had thought himself in love. He had been walking through a sunlit glade, thinking of pretty rhymes for his beloved's hair and smile and tinkling laugh. Surely the sun had never been as beautiful in all the ten years that followed, as it had been on that glorious afternoon, the last day of his life.
†††††† They had been urgent when they had come to him. "Oliver," they had called. "Come quickly. It's your father."
†††††† The flowers he had gathered for his sweetheart scattered in the grass, and petals blew on the wind. "Is he..." He could not say the word.
†††††† "Not dead. Badly hurt. You must come." There was dried blood on their clothes and hands, and one of them grabbed his wrist, and then there was blood on his own hands, too.
†††††† He staggered after them, his body wanting to move faster than his legs would allow. People looked up as he passed through the camp, then hastily looked away, and he realised he was showing something on his face that no-one else wanted to see. He had never been good at hiding his feelings, though, in the ten years that followed, he had learnt it well.
†††††† They had led him to a clearing all warm with fire and sunlight. A man was lying on a litter, a grey blanket draped over his body. Oliver whirled on the men who had brought him here. You've brought me to the wrong place! he wanted to cry. That's not my father! Because his father was a strong man, and this man was broken. His father was tall and constantly in motion, and this man was withered and still. His father was not an old man, but this man had deep lines on the part of his face that could be seen beneath the bloody bandages.
†††††† "Oliver?" the man rasped, in a tiny grating wisp of a voice. "Is that you?"
†††††† Oliver's legs deposited him on the ground. He grabbed the hand of this stranger who was his father, but was unable to speak.
†††††† "I'm glad you came," the man said, his father said.
†††††† Oliver found his voice. "Can't you at least put him in his tent?" He was one of the few people who knew just how private a man his father was, and how much he kept from the Kindred who thought they knew him so well.
†††††† "I asked for it, Oliver," his father said. "I want to feel the sunlight. I'm not useless yet. I can still make that choice for myself."
†††††† Oliver clutched his hand. "I'm sorry."
†††††† The flies were fascinated with his father's wounds. Amalric knelt on his other side and flapped them away with a leafy branch, but they just came back, they always came back. Amalric had a pinched look about him, as if he had been sick, and wanted to be sick again.
†††††† "How..." Oliver's voice trembled. "How are you feeling?"
†††††† His father smiled, then gasped with the pain that came from moving his face. "Foolish," he said. "I don't know how I did it. A crack in the bow, or I strung it badly, or the string broke. How many times in my life have I shot a bow? It was my own fault. I was stupid."
†††††† "Not your own fault," Oliver cried. "It was an enemy. Tell me it was an enemy."
†††††† "Just an accident." But it was all so wrong! His father had spent his life protecting the Kindred, devoting every breath to their cause. If he'd been wounded for the sake of the cause he had lived for... If some good had come from it... I can't bear it! he thought. He wanted something to hate, something to blame, even something to forgive.
†††††† "Two days ago it happened," someone said. "It was a wide patrol. He was getting us rabbits for dinner. We did what we could, but it was a slow journey home, and the infection spread to the less wounded eye. Nothing could be done."
†††††† "Nothing could be done," his father echoed, in that fragile voice so unlike his own voice. "It was an accident." He turned his neck to one side. "Thank you, Amalric, but I need to speak to Oliver alone. You too," he said to the men who stood guard over him.
†††††† They hurried away. Amalric went slower, and with great reluctance. When he got to the edge of the clearing, he looked over his shoulder. Oliver nodded at him, giving permission to stop there, too far away to hear, but close enough to see. With a grateful smile, he sank to the ground, hunching over his knees. He was sixteen, and he did not remember the man who had wept night after night for his dead wife, only the strong warrior who had emerged from those dark days.
†††††† "Have they gone?" his father asked quietly, and that seemed like the worst thing of all, the moment when it all became real. His father would never see again. "Have they gone, Oliver?"
†††††† "They have," he managed to say, through his tears.
†††††† "Listen well, Oliver," his father said. "What I have to say concerns the future of the Kindred." He shifted position on the litter, sucking in a breath with the pain. Oliver's hands fluttered uselessly over him, not knowing how to help. "I can no longer be seneschal, Oliver," he said, as he settled himself down again. It was almost lost in a painful breath.
†††††† Oliver shook his head. "You're not going to die." Was he hiding from the truth, or genuinely stupid, to misunderstand so? His father's wound changed nothing, he thought. It hurt him terribly, and that was bad, but everything would carry on as it always had done. Nothing would change, nothing at all.
†††††† "A blind man cannot lead them, and I am blind now." He sounded regretful, but Oliver never knew it his regrets were for his own lost office, or for what he was doing to his son.
†††††† Oliver grabbed his sleeve, his arm, his shoulder, and started to babble. "He can. There was even a blind king once. I don't know his name. Another thing that got lost in the fall. But he was a great king. Blind from birth. What does it matter?"
†††††† His father stopped him, grabbing his wrist. "Stop it, Oliver. Please." And that was doubly strange, for his father never pleaded, and seldom touched, not like Oliver, who liked to touch with every kind word or greeting.
†††††† He found he was sobbing. "You're still seneschal, father."
†††††† "No." His father's voice was commanding, and it seemed like a mockery, trying to trick him into thinking things were just the same when they were not. "You are my heir, and today you come into your inheritance."
†††††† No. Oliver bit his lip. No. Oh, he had always known it would happen one day, but one day was the same as never. One day was far far in the future. He had so many stories to learn from his master, and so many years to tell tales of his own. There was a whole world to explore, and places to go that he had only dreamed of.
†††††† His father released his wrist, and Oliver's arm fell to his side like the arm of a dead man. "I don't want to be seneschal," he whispered. So what if it sounded selfish? His father would hear it, and change his mind. He would tear of his blood-crusted bandages, and his eyes would be whole, their usual slate grey.
†††††† "I know," his father said, gently, "but you have no choice. It is the lot of the Kindred, to be without choice. History and duty bind us all our days."
†††††† Don't quote the stories at me! Oliver wanted to scream. You don't know anything! You don't understand it, not the slightest bit!
†††††† "It is a sacrifice, I know," his father said. "All leadership is sacrifice. The day after your mother died, I had to wipe away my tears and be the leader my people wanted me to be. It was the hardest thing I have ever had to do. So I understand more than you think."
†††††† No you don't. Oliver dug his nails into his palms. So duty was hard, was it? But his father had never had a burning ambition, a desire that eclipsed everything else. As a bard, Oliver felt truly alive. How could he give that up? ††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††
†††††† "Some things go beyond choice, Oliver," his father said. "Like you, I have no choice but to assume the new role that I have been chosen for." He sighed. "I have become a seer, Oliver. The moment they told me I would never see again, I saw."
†††††† "A dream," Oliver protested. "You were fevered..."
†††††† "A vision," his father said firmly. "When you have one, there is no possibility of doubt. We have been blind for too long, since the last seer died, but now we can see. And do you know what my first vision was, Oliver? I saw you."
†††††† His father smiled, and this time it seemed not to hurt him. "I saw you, Oliver. I saw you facing an army, armed with nothing more than your voice. I saw more, but it has gone. Visions love the dark, and do not like to be brought into the light of day."
†††††† "Facing an army?" Oliver echoed. "I'm no leader. I can't fight. That can't be me."
†††††† "Leadership does not lie only in the sword. You have it in you to be a great leader. You've already learned how to speak and hold your hearers captive, ready to be shaped as you wish."
†††††† "It's a bard skill," Oliver cried. "I'm a bard."
†††††† His father was relentless. "It is a leader's skill. People already trust you, more than they trust me, I think. You are good with people."
†††††† Oliver swallowed. "Then I'll be both. Seneschal, if I must, but bard as well. A bard's as important as a seneschal, or even more important. He keeps our memories alive, and without our memories, we are lost."
†††††† "Perhaps," his father conceded, "but you are born to the office of seneschal. That is your duty, and it cannot be done with only half the mind. Let others tell the stories."
†††††† "I don't want to!" he wailed. He gouged at his eyes, wiping away the tears as if he wanted to strike himself blind as well. "I can serve them better as a bard than I can as seneschal."
†††††† His father was silent for a very long time, and Oliver suddenly realised what he was doing to his own father. He thought it was his own fault that he had lost his eyes, and his accident had propelled Oliver into this office. Every word Oliver said about how hard it was for him was like another stab of pain for a man who was already hurting badly. His father had caused this, and the least Oliver could do was pretend not to mind.
†††††† He folded his trembling hands in his lap. "I will be seneschal, then," he said, in a voice that sounded unutterably dull. "I am no warrior, so..." He frowned, and took the first solution that came to him. Oliver scarcely knew his father's second-in-command, but he knew his reputation. "I will ask the cup-bearer to be war leader. I will defer to him in everything that relates to fighting."
†††††† "Reynard?" His father nodded. "He's a good fighter. Not easy to get on with. I preferred his father and his brother. But, still, I don't see how you could choose anyone else. He'd do the job well, though..." He sighed. "Be careful of giving him too much power. He has very definite ideas of the way we should be."
†††††† "I will be careful."
†††††† "So it is settled, then." His father's head sank back more deeply into the litter, and his breathing grew slower. He was exhausted, Oliver realised, but had been forcing himself to stay awake until Oliver had consented.
†††††† "Go to sleep," he whispered, touching his father's hand. "I'll take the office. Forget what I said. I was just surprised. I don't mind." He held his father's hand for a very long time, then whispered, half to himself, "You must never blame yourself. Never think that you made me unhappy."
†††††† And now, ten years on, they were once again leading him to his father. This time the eyes that followed him through the camp were open and friendly. Several people shouted greetings, while others just smiled. He knew they liked him, and he supposed that was good. None of them seemed to realise that their seneschal betrayed them every single day, simply by wishing he had been allowed to live a different kind of life.
†††††† His father was sitting up, his long legs stretched in front of him. It was the lazy pose of a man enjoying the sunlight, though Oliver could read the signs now, and knew it was anything but. His father needed the sunlight like a dying man needed a drink. Trapped behind his damaged eyes, everything was dark, and never darker than after a vision.
†††††† The rest of the Kindred subtly shunned him. Apart from the two boys who tended him as a duty, no-one liked to approach him. It was a superstition as unfounded as it was understandable. They feared to cross the path of a seer in case he saw their deaths. If they even breathed the same air as him, their fate would somehow get woven into the tapestry of his vision, and they would be tied to some dark future they would otherwise have escaped.
†††††† Oliver always hated to see his father so shunned, and had argued passionately with the Kindred, but his father had quickly stopped him. "Whatever you say, they will still fear me. It has always been so with Seers. Don't force them to do something that makes them afraid. Their lives are uncertain enough without that." Amalric had still raged, but Oliver had come to accept it. "I don't even mind," his father had confided once. "I find I am needing people less and less. As seneschal, I was never allowed much solitude."
†††††† Oliver stood above his father with his hands on his hips, blocking the light. His father felt the sudden coldness on his face, and moved his face from side to side, but Oliver did not let him find the sun. His father sighed. "You have come, then."
†††††† "I have." His voice was harsh. "Why have I been dragged here. A vision? I hope it's good."
†††††† "I hope so, too."
†††††† "It was a dark one, then. I can see by the way you seek the sun."
†††††† "Dark. Yes." His father's throat worked convulsively. "Like darkness crawling under my skin. I don't want to remember it. Leave me in peace."
†††††† Oliver lashed out and grabbed his father's wrist, pulling him towards him bodily. "It is your duty to remember, seer. Would you betray your people by your silence? Does a warrior cower away and whimper that it hurts?"
†††††† "I am no coward," his father hissed. "How dare you accuse me of that? You, a seneschal who never fights, a leader who leaves the defence of his people to others."
†††††† "Tell me," Oliver commanded. "Do your duty, or be called a traitor."
†††††† His father shoved him away. "I am no traitor. I saw a man." Both were said in the same surly hate-filled tone. "A young man, with golden hair, and fair skin. Is that enough for you?"
†††††† "It is not enough." His fingers were talons on his father's shoulders. "Tell me more."
†††††† "A black cloak with a hood. A sword at his belt. It was the king."
†††††† "It could have been," Oliver scoffed. "It could be any number of other people. What use it that?"
†††††† "It was the king." His father's voice was the thrust of a sword. "Do you dare argue with the certainty of a seer?"
†††††† "So you saw the king?" Oliver cast his father away as if he was despicable. "You summon me here to tell me that?"
†††††† "Foolish boy. I saw more than that. I saw him fall."
†††††† "Fall?" Oliver darted forward, and both hands closed on his father's arm. "How?"
†††††† "He was standing on black stone steps. He was scared. Danger was surging around him like a living thing. But he was standing against it. He was triumphing, but then he was betrayed."
†††††† "Betrayed?" A cloud must have passed before the sun, because he was very cold. "Who by?" He shook his father's shoulders. "Tell me!" he shrieked. "Who was it?"
†††††† "I did not see a face. I saw a hand smashing him to his knees. I felt the tearing of an oath breaking. I saw him scream."
†††††† "Does he die?" Oliver dug his fingers into the flesh of the man's shoulders. "Is it now, or far future? Is it true, or distant possibility?"
†††††† "How should I know?" his father said, bitterly. He no longer fought Oliver's grip, as if he too was slipping into death. "I saw it, and now I have told."
†††††† "Tell more!" he shouted. "I am your seneschal and I command you."
†††††† His father turned his head away. "A seneschal who stays behind to wander in the flowers, while his king goes into danger. A seneschal who does nothing to stop his king falling. Maybe you are the traitor, Oliver. Maybe it would have been your face in that vision."
†††††† "How can you say that?" His voice trembled. The very quietness of his father's voice made it sound real.
†††††† "I can, easily." His father burst into life, his slack body suddenly dangerous. His arm locked around Oliver's neck, and dragged him to the ground. He struck him hard on the jaw, then pressed his fingers into his cheekbones, making his eyes hurt. "Shall I poke your eyes out, seneschal? Then you will know what it's like. If you have visions, I will take pleasure in tormenting you until you tell them."
†††††† "I know it hurts," Oliver gasped, not fighting his father's grip. "I know they want to be forgotten. I know the vision itself fights you, and wants not to be told. But try. You have to try. Please remember who betrays him. Please."
†††††† His father let him go. "I have told you everything. There is nothing else. And I will kill you if you do not release me. That is all."
†††††† "I release you." Oliver was breathing in great wrenching sobs. "I release you, Seer. You have done well." He pushed himself up onto his knees, then sagged forward again. His face and throat hurt, and he felt sick.
†††††† "I didn't see anything else." His father looked like an old man. He was sprawled on the ground, and there was no colour in his face. Even his hair was a lifeless grey, and where his gleaming eyes should be there was only twisted scar tissue. "I did try, Oliver, but it wasn't there to see."
†††††† "I know," Oliver whispered. He pressed his hand to his mouth, and breathed silent words into his palm. I'm so sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. His father had screamed at him when he had heard him apologising, once.
†††††† His father groped for his hand, and echoed the words he could not have heard. "I'm sorry, Oliver. Sorry for all of this."
†††††† "It doesn't matter. I know why it is necessary." Bleak words, for he knew, but how could he ever like it?
†††††† Warm fingers stroked his hand. "Necessary for me, perhaps. But what have I been doing to you, over the years?"
†††††† "The Kindred need to see," he said, dully echoing something his father had once said. "It is my duty to everything I can to help the visions come out into the light."
†††††† Dark visions were the ones that carried warnings, and they wanted to be forgotten. It hurt his father to see them, and hurt him even more to tell them. The first time he had seen such a vision, Oliver had soothed him. "Don't try to remember it," he had murmured, "not if it hurts you." His father had shouted at him as if he had said something terrible. "I suffered to see this," he had cried, "and the least you can do is to help me remember."
†††††† "It was for my own sake, not the Kindred's," his father said, now. "I lost everything to become a Seer. If none of my visions were remembered, then there was no point to anything at all."
†††††† His father had been a warrior for his whole life, and he was a warrior still. He had commanded Oliver to fight him. "Insult me," he had said. "Threaten me. Make me furious. The vision will become my sword. I will draw it to fight you, and then it will come out into the light and be known."
†††††† Oliver had always hated it. His father had commanded him to be cruel, and it was all an act, but it felt as if it was real. Afterwards, he always felt as if his hands should be dripping with blood. Sometimes his father fought back, and Oliver never knew if he meant the things he said. When it was over, his father never apologised.
†††††† "I think I was very selfish," his father murmured. "I always knew how hard you would find it. Perhaps there was another way."
†††††† "It doesn't matter." Oliver stared at a fold of fabric on his cloak. "I've got used to it. It's the least I can do. You suffer worse."
†††††† "Do I?" His father sighed. A shadow passed in front of the sun, and Oliver looked up, and saw that clouds were racing in from the north. Their stolen days of summer were coming to an end. Responding to the sudden cold, his father pulled his cloak tighter around his body. "I have only just come to realise just how much I resented you," he said, as if it was a throwaway remark that meant nothing at all.
†††††† "Me?" Oliver's head snapped up.
†††††† "I was not ready to give up my office," his father confessed. "I often thought of it as a heavy duty, but I missed it when it was gone. I was a warrior, one of the best, and a leader, and suddenly both of these things had been stolen from me by one moment of stupidity. And you took up my position, and didn't even want it. You hated me for it."
†††††† "I didn't," he protested, but his father held up his hand.
†††††† "You did," the old man said. "It was my fault that I was injured. If I hadn't been injured, you'd have been free."
†††††† Oliver closed his eyes. Hadn't he thought such things himself, so many times? Two months after his father's accident, his master had died, and Oliver had not been there at his side. The bard had died before he had passed on all his stories. Oliver's father's accident had kept him from his master in the last lonely days of his life, and now the songs were lost forever. Oliver could not even tell the story of the bard's last day, for he had not been there to see it. The old man had died alone, and that, too, was his father's fault.
†††††† He clasped his hands together, kneading them together painfully. "I have never hated you for it."
†††††† His sweetheart had left him. There had been no time for poems written in meadows, and for gathering flowers. Life was all cold duty now, and there was no room for love. After six months of his silence, she had transferred her affections to someone who had time for her, and now they had three children together, and were happy.
†††††† "I would understand if you did," his father said. "Sometimes I resent you so badly I want to hurt you. And now the king has come, and it's everything we have ever dreamed of. It should be me standing at his side, guiding him, but instead I am here, cast on the fringes, unable even to see his face. It should be me. I want it to be me."
†††††† "I wish it was you, too," Oliver whispered. But, even as he said it, he realised it wasn't true. Something had changed in the last week, and how strange it was, and how unexpected.
†††††† His wonder was surely visible on his face, but his father could not see it. "And that is why I accuse you," he said. "I say all those cruel things about you neglecting your duty and betraying him. If I was seneschal, I tell myself, I would do things differently. I would never have let him go off alone. But, then..." He sighed. "I never was good at winning trust. I was a better war leader than you will ever be, but maybe I would be a worse adviser to the king, and a worse friend." His hand closed on Oliver's, the fingers interweaving tightly. "Don't believe the things I say when we are fighting, Oliver. You are a good seneschal. Don't let an old man's foolish jealousy make you doubt yourself."
†††††† There was something about his father's tone, and the way he was suddenly so quick to touch him. "Why are you saying this?" he said, sharply. His father had never questioned the things he made Oliver do, not for ten long years. Why would he do so now, unless he thought he was going to die, and this was his way of saying farewell? "Have you seen something else?"
†††††† "No." His father smiled. "I know what you're afraid of, and I haven't seen that, no. The return of the king after such a long time of waiting... It makes a man think, Oliver. It makes him question where he is going, and how he came to this place."
†††††† It makes a man think... Oliver sighed. He wanted to have time alone. He felt as if he was fumbling around the edge of some revelation, but was unable to grasp it.
†††††† "What are you going to do?" His father's voice told him that their conversation was over. They were back as they had been at the end of the vision, and it would be as if they had never spoken of anything more. The next time his father had a dark vision, it would be exactly the same, and he would have to fight him for it, and would hate it. "What are you doing to do about what I saw?"
†††††† Oliver stood up. "The only thing I can do. Betray my king."
†††††† Amalric found him as he was filling a flask from the stream. "I heard," he said. "Was it dark?"
†††††† Oliver nodded. "It was."
†††††† "And you are going away because of it?"
†††††† "I am." This time he stared straight ahead, and did not nod.
†††††† "I am going to Eidengard." He watched the water flow past him, silver and black. It was going to rain soon, but the bad weather was coming from the north, and Elias was far south. He hoped it was still sunny where Elias was.
†††††† "Why?" Amalric grabbed his shoulder and tried to pull him round. "What did he see? It was him, wasn't it? The king."
†††††† There was a strange tone to Amalric's voice as he asked his question, and Oliver thought he knew what it was, but why would Amalric dislike Elias? He stood up and faced his brother, wanting to see if the emotions was reflected in his face. "He saw the king in danger," he said. "I have to go after him."
†††††† "He ordered you to stay here," Amalric was quick to remind him. "He wanted you to. You can't disobey him."
†††††† Betray him, he thought. He was disobeying a direct order, and doing something Elias had begged him not to do. He was doing it for all the right reasons, but it was disloyalty nevertheless. "I have no choice," he said. "I can't stay here, knowing what I know."
†††††† "Why rush? Some of his visions don't come true for years. Some never do. Some are just warnings. A million small decisions can lead to a vision never coming true. You've told me that yourself often enough."
†††††† "I know." Oliver forced himself to smile. "I'm being like an over-anxious mother, and there's no danger at all. But..." He sighed, unable to sustain the smile. "You know how his visions always speak something true about character, even if they don't show true events. Someone close to the king has it in them to betray him, and it could be now. If he's warned, it might make all the difference. He saw Elias betrayed, Amalric. Struck down by someone he trusted. You know what Reynard's like. What if it's him? What if I've let my king ride off with a man who is going to betray him?"
†††††† "Or Ciaran Morgan," Amalric said, with distaste. "Or even you. He trusts you, doesn't he? He trusted you to stay here. If you go after him, then maybe you're the one who makes him fall, by trying to save him."
†††††† Oliver picked up his bag and started walking up the slope towards the horses. "Perhaps," he conceded. "But I need to go after him. I have to warn him."
†††††† "Let me go," Amalric burst out. "Please. That way you can obey him by staying here, but he still gets his warning."
†††††† Oliver wanted to push him away and scream at him. How can you steal this from me? Do you think I can sit idle for two more weeks, not knowing what's happening? You don't even know him.
†††††† "Please." Amalric grabbed him by the arm and pulled him round. "You've travelled before, Oliver. I never have. I've been stuck here. Let me do something important, please."
†††††† "I don't..." Oliver closed his eyes. "I want to do it," he whispered. But Amalric was twenty-five years old, and had no real friends. His father had visions and had once been a mighty warrior, and his brother was gifted with enchantment and the ability to tell a story. Amalric had never kissed a girl, and had never been chosen to go on patrol. He was always left out, and had never done anything remarkable.
†††††† "I'll go," Amalric said. He smiled, and he seemed a little taller than he normally did. "I'll bear the message from Seer to king. And you can stay here, the seneschal with his people. It's the right way to do things, Oliver."
†††††† Oliver swallowed hard. "You're right," he said, though the words tasted like dust. Once again duty kept him trapped. "You can go. If you're sure..."
†††††† "I can find the way," Amalric said, flapping a hand to dismiss his brother's concerns. "I've heard your stories, and I know the signs. I know where the gate through the cliff is, and I know how to signal to Gerhard. I'll get there, as quick as you would have, or quicker."
†††††† "You do that," Oliver said weakly. He thought he understood Amalric's eagerness, but there was also a note to it that he did not understand. Amalric had never before shown any sign of being so desperate to leave the forest. He had seemed to want nothing more than his brother's attention and his father's respect.
†††††† "Are you going to tell them where I've gone?"
†††††† "No." Oliver doubted that anyone would notice his absence. "I don't want anyone to know what father saw. If they know someone is going to betray the king..." He let his voice trail away, for nothing more was needed. The Kindred despised traitors, and some of them were already too quick to see treachery in the most innocent of statements, on in every expression of doubt. It could tear them apart, putting brother against brother in a nightmare of distrust.
†††††† "Even better that it's me who's going, then," Amalric said, brightly. "They'd have demanded explanations from you. You wouldn't have been able to keep it secret." He reached out a hand, asking for Oliver to hand over his bag. "Do you want me to bring him straight back with me?"
†††††† Oliver shook his head. "He might be on the way back already," he admitted, "by the time you catch up with him." Or he might be dead. "He should be reaching the city today, or maybe tomorrow." Stone steps meant a city, not open countryside. "Just tell him what father saw. Keep it from Reynard and Master Morgan, but try not to distrust them. It could be anyone, years from now. It could be me, as you said. It could be you."
†††††† "Me?" Amalric whirled on him, anger flooding his face. "I am no traitor. I'm your brother. Have you forgotten that?"
†††††† Oliver raised his hands placatingly. "I wasn't accusing you. I just... Oh, Amalric, I wish you didnít have to go. I wish Elias was home, safe. I should never have let him go. Father said as much."
†††††† Amalric turned his back and started walking up the hill. "I will find him," he said, without looking round. "I will give your warning."
†††††† "That's all I ask." The first drops of rain started to fall. Oliver grimaced, and wrapped his arms around his body. "And for you to ride safely."
†††††† "But that's less important than keeping him safe, isn't it? I can die, but he's the king, and he cannot."
†††††† "Amalric," Oliver began, but Amalric cut him off.
†††††† "There's no point coming any further. You're not dressed for the rain. Go back. I'll load up the horse by myself."
†††††† "I need to say goodbye," Oliver protested.
†††††† "I'm not a child any more, Oliver." Amalric hefted the heavy bag onto his back, as if to demonstrate his own strength. "I can do this by myself."
†††††† Oliver's steps grew slower and slower, and then they stopped. Amalric wove through the trees, and soon was gone.
†††††† "Ride well!" Oliver shouted after him. Come back with him, please.
†††††† For a very long time he just stood there, but Amalric did not come back, and the rain grew heavier and heavier, and very cold. At last, with a sigh, he turned and walked back to the camp, alone.
†††††† The noise of rattling keys made her open her eyes. Lord Darius bestrode her.
†††††† "You burn tomorrow, you know," he said, pleasantly. "You have been condemned."
†††††† "You condemned me, you mean," Annis said. "Have you killed the Duke yet?"
†††††† He smiled. "Not yet, no."
†††††† "But you will." There was nothing left. All was lost. None of this was supposed to happen, she still whimpered, in the nights and days that were all one, down in these cells where no light could ever reach.
†††††† "You are nobody, but interesting." He crouched over her, wrinkling his nose at her stench. "Why would you be as foolish as to do what you did, I am wondering. But, then, I suppose I will never know. And I don't care, not really. You failed. You're nothing."
†††††† He grabbed her face, and for a moment, she thought he was going to kiss her and make his triumph complete, but then he shoved her away. "You flatter yourself, girl."
†††††† "You won't get away with this," she screamed. The pain in her head was a dull ache, but her terror was enormous. She was going to die tomorrow, and everything she had ever believed had come crashing down like a tower made of straws. "You won't," she sobbed. "I won't die. I can't. Something will happen to save me."
†††††† "Better double the guard, then," Darius said, waving his hand dismissively.
†††††† She remembered the vision of pure white light, and the sense that there had been a person out there, at the centre of all that glory. "Something's coming," she hurled at him, "and then you'll be sorry."
†††††† Darius paused in the act of opening the door. "Is he?" He looked over his shoulder. "Then I will be ready for him."
†††††† The door clanged back, and there was nothing left for her but despair, and the promise of the flames to come.
†††††† For two days now, Elias had suspected it. He wondered if Ciaran had suspected it too, but he never asked. They spoke only of insignificant things, the two of them, as if both of them knew the danger of saying things that would shatter the content between them.
†††††† It was late afternoon, and they had passed through the rock face the previous morning. They had ridden over a small ridge of dark hills, forded a shallow river, then crossed a plateau full of sheep, criss-crossed with dry-stone walls
†††††† "There are more people about," Reynard had warned them. "Best be careful."
†††††† Ciaran had looked sharply at him. "There's no safer way?"
†††††† And that had been the end of the argument Ciaran had been trying to start. Reynard was constantly pulling away. Maybe he was like a child playing a taunting game, tagging his victim, then running, or maybe he was genuinely trying to avoid a fight. Whenever Elias thought he got an insight into Reynard's character, the man slithered away and changed. Ciaran still distrusted him terribly, but Elias was not so sure. If Reynard betrayed him in the city, Elias would not be too surprised. But, at the same time, if he sacrificed his life to save Elias's, he would not be too surprised, either.
†††††† The weather was glorious. Flowers bloomed in the wayside, and birds sang. They passed through a beech wood, and the autumn leaves made the sunlight blaze like copper, and Elias jumped from his horse and kicked his way through the fallen leaves. So what if it was childish? Reynard might despise him for it, but he would find pleasure in this world, whether the Kindred liked it or not. Oliver would understand, he thought, even if no-one else did.
†††††† After the beech wood came a steady climb, up a green slope covered with brambles. He tried to scavenge some blackberries, but they had all rotted away or been eaten by birds. Despite the warm weather, it was almost winter.
†††††† "We're almost there." Reynard was whispering although there was no-one in sight. He dismounted, and gestured to them to do the same. He tied his horse to an ash tree, but did not remove its saddle. "Come to the top of the ridge. You'll get your first sight of Eidengard."
†††††† His words were for Elias alone, but Ciaran came too. Side by side, they walked up the ridge, then lay down, and covered the last few yards on their stomachs.
†††††† "Eidengard." Reynard said with name with reverence. This was the heart of the old kingdom, and the true home all the Kindred longed for in their exile. Whatever else Reynard was, he was a man who revered his ideal of the past. He had spoken more passionately in defence of the enchantment than even Oliver had done.
†††††† Elias looked. He was lying on the edge of a steep escarpment that cascaded down to a wide plain. Away to the right was a broad road, and quick flashes of reflection were the travellers upon it, hurrying to the city before dark. A river crossed the plain, and he could see the turrets of a fortified bridge, and the roofs of houses. On the far side of the river, the land rose sharply. Eidengard stood on top of the hill, overlooking the river crossing. Even from this distance, Elias could see the broad walls that surrounded it, and the pale towers that reached up from within the walls.
†††††† So it was true. "Do you see it, master?" he breathed.
†††††† Ciaran frowned. "The city?"
†††††† But he had never really known it. He had passed through once, lingered long enough to change a young boy's life, then left it behind. "It's Conisborough," Elias said, blinking back sudden tears. "It's the same place."
†††††† Long ago, Conisborough, too, had been a fair city on a hill, but over the centuries, the city had moved its centre of population, first to the river bank, and then to the other side of the river, were it was free to expand over the plain like a stain. "There." Elias pointed at a place some way to the east of the bridge, on the near side of the river. "That's where I was born." What would it be like to find the very spot, he wondered. He could wade through grass, and know he was trampling on the spot where his brothers had hurt him, and smell fragrant flowers and know they were growing where the factory had been, in another world. Would it expunge the past, or just remind him?
†††††† Reynard was looking at him with naked shock on his face. "The two worlds are the same," Elias explained. "The same landscape, anyway, though everything that is made by human hands has gone a different way. In the world I was brought up in, this was a city called Conisborough. I was born there."
†††††† "That is only right," Reynard managed to say. He still looked deeply shocked, as if Elias had said something that changed something very fundamental about the way he thought. "It's the royal seat, and you are the king."
†††††† "Kings never ruled there in our world," Elias said, though maybe it was untrue. The name meant "king's town" in one of the old languages of the world. Maybe a king had ruled there, and only the place name survived, when everything else about him was forgotten.
†††††† "It's prettier than Conisborough," Ciaran said, gruffly.
†††††† Elias looked at him, but Ciaran seemed unaware of what he had just said. Elias grinned. It was no black fortress, full of screams and fired and gibbering death. All it was was a real city, small by the standards of the world he had grown up in, and beautiful. Every distant smear of smoke came from the hearth of a real person, little different from anyone in Greenslade.
†††††† He rolled onto his back. "I can do this," he said, spreading his arms.
†††††† Tomorrow, it would all begin. He would walk through those gates, and stand at the very heart of the civilisation that Reynard despised, but all around him would be† normal people, going about their daily business. The farmer hadn't noticed anything strange about him, so why should they? Somehow, he would get to see the Duke, and he would stand firm before him, like he had stood before Gerhard. If things went wrong, he would escape from him, too, as he had escaped from Gerhard, but he hoped they would not.
†††††† "Tomorrow," he said. He rolled onto his stomach again, and looked first at Reynard, and then at Ciaran. "It will all happen tomorrow." Tomorrow, perhaps, he would heal a whole world.
†††††† Ciaran was propped up on his elbow, looking down at him, and Elias smiled at him. "All will be well, master," he said, echoing Ciaran's own favourite reassurance.
†††††† Ciaran gave a slow smile. "Yes."
††††††††††† Reynard slipped away to tend to the horses, but Elias just gazed over the plain, watching the specks of light that were people on the road, riding to Eidengard.