Chapter ten

One step

 

 

†††††† The darkness was cold on his cheek, but the rest of him was as warm as toast, all safe and snug and comfortable. He could hear laughter, but it was not the cruel laughter of his dream, even when he strained breathlessly to make sure of it. That mocking voice had gone for ever, never to return, if it had even existed at all, and not been the product of his feverish imagination.

†††††† Elias wiggled his toes, because it seemed nicely cautious to start there, to make sure they didn't hurt, before risking something more essential and immediate. As he did so, something moved through his hair, and he realised that there had been a hand resting there, so still that he had not even noticed it. He smiled a little, because he knew whose hand it must surely be, but did not open his eyes.

†††††† The laughter swelled, and someone sang a line of raucous song, and someone else whooped in exultation, but another voice shushed them. "He's asleep," they said, and the other noises were broken off instantly. Elias wondered who was asleep, that they were so anxious not to disturb. It had to be someone very dear to them, he thought, or they would not have let their carousing be ruined so.

†††††† Well, his toes didn't hurt, so maybe he should try his arms. He moved his hands, and something stirred at his throat, tickling him. He was completely covered in furs, he realised, swaddled tightly right up to his chin. Someone had tucked him in carefully, making sure there was not even the slightest gap for the cold air to get in.

†††††† He opened his eyes, and saw a great pool of blackness, with stars pricked out in silver. It was framed by trees, like a leafy border around a dark mirror. As he looked at them, a single voice rose in song, and it was as if the stars themselves were singing. It was quiet music, with an undertone of sadness. The voice that sang it was a light tenor, with a slight hoarseness to it that made it less than perfect, but more moving than perfection could ever have been. At the end of each verse, other voices joined in the lilting chorus, singing quietly, and not all of them in tune. Although he could not hear the words, he thought it sounded very real and sincere, and he liked it.

†††††† The hand on his head moved again, twisting a strand of his hair, so the end tickled his forehead exactly in time with the music. His master was listening to the same things he was, and watching the same things too. They were together again, like those winter nights so long ago, when they had sat side by side on the top of a hill and Ciaran had pointed out the stars. Here the stars were subtly different, and many things had changed, but some things were still the same, and he drew a fierce comfort from that.

†††††† Above him were the outstretched wings of the constellation that had always seemed the most special to him. It was only a few sparse beads of silver, but in his mind it had always been a great tawny bird of prey, with bright golden eyes. It had come to him sometimes in his dreams, but at times he had seemed to be that bird of prey, riding in its body far above the fields. Those had been the most exhilarating dreams of all, leaving him breathless and yearning for things he could never name.

†††††† "I wonder if the Kindred see it as a bird," he mused aloud.

†††††† Ciaran's hand stilled, but he gave a soft chuckle. "It's a bow and arrow, Elias. How many times do I have to tell you?"

†††††† Elias turned his head, letting himself see more than just the stars. He was lying with his head in his master's lap, he realised, and the two of them were alone. There were other people not far away, but Elias was hidden from them by the bulk of a wooden hut. There was little light, but enough to see that Ciaran looked different. The skin beneath his eyes glistened softly as if he had been crying, but Ciaran Morgan never cried.

†††††† "Master," he said, but he did not dare say more. If his master was crying, then the world was too strange. It wasn't real, and he was back in his nightmare, about to die.

†††††† Ciaran smiled, and looked like his master again. "I've got you, Elias. Everything's going to be fine."

†††††† But the furs encased him, pinioning his arms. He was too hot, and remembered flames, far away, and chains on his wrists. Before that, he had lain in a small hut, enclosed by walls and smoky candlelight, and faced the reality of imminent death. Ciaran had held him by his wrist, and there had been no air and no escape.

†††††† He tried to free himself from the furs, but Ciaran stopped him. "No, Elias. You need to keep warm. You've been very ill."

†††††† "But I need to feel fresh air," Elias told him, and Ciaran frowned, but let him go.

†††††† "Be careful," he said. "You mustn't get cold."

†††††† Beneath the furs, Elias saw that he was wrapped in Ciaran's own cloak. He extricated his arms from its tight folds, and the cold air bit into the backs of his hands. It seemed like the most lovely thing he had ever felt.

†††††† "I won't get cold," he said, smiling happily. "I feel wonderful." And he did. Weak as a baby, but free of pain, and with a whole life stretching ahead of him that he had thought he would never see. It was marvellous how that could change the way you looked at things. He was alive!

†††††† He wanted to sit up, to feel the fresh air all over. He wriggled, lifting his head from Ciaran's lap. "Elias," Ciaran fussed. "Lie still."

†††††† "No." Elias shook his head, and even that movement felt brand new. "I want to sit up. Besides," he said, "you'll have pins and needles from me lying there so long."

†††††† "I haven't," Ciaran said, and, "I don't mind," which Elias thought seemed to contradict each other. But when he had helped Elias into a sitting position, his jaw clenched, and Elias knew he was fighting the pain of blood rushing back into his legs.

†††††† Elias rested his head against the wall of the hut. "You healed me," he said, when they were shoulder to shoulder, arm to arm, and hidden from the world.

†††††† "Can you remember what happened?" Ciaran asked, in a tight voice.

†††††† Elias raised one hand, and spread the fingers, letting the cold air flow between them. "A little," he lied.

†††††† Ciaran grabbed his wrist. "Don't think about it," he urged him. "It was only a dream. It will fade away if you don't think about it. Dreams always do."

†††††† But Elias's dreams seldom did. Didn't Ciaran know that? His childhood nightmares had been as real the day after as they had been in the dead of night, and they faded over time only in the way that all memories faded, and sometimes even slower. Elias licked his lips. "I don't remember all of it," he said. "I don't remember how it ended."

†††††† Ciaran did not answer. He was reaching down beside him, picking up a large mug of water. "You're thirsty. Drink this." It sounded like a command.

†††††† Elias did so, then wiped his mouth with the back of his head. He felt the water travelling down his throat, and his body greeted it like the first rain after a drought. He took another mouthful, then another, until he had drained the mug, and Ciaran was shaking his head, belatedly tutting that he should have taken it more slowly.

†††††† "You saved me." Elias refused to be diverted. He had struggled in vain against the chains that had bound him, but had been too weak to break them. Ciaran must have found a way after all. He remember Ciaran walking away, and he remembered dying in the flames, but nothing after that, until his wakening beneath the stars.

†††††† "I... did what I could," Ciaran said. Why did he look embarrassed to be reminded of what he had done? He had single-handedly taken on death, and won. Ciaran was never modest about his achievements, and normally swelled with contented pride when he was thanked.

†††††† "You saved me, master," Elias said again. "I was so sure I was going to die."

†††††† "Enough," Ciaran snapped. "Don't talk about it. It wasn't real. None of it was real, and now it's over." He looked away, out into the forest.

†††††† All the time they had been talking, the singing had continued. "Is that Oliver?" Elias asked, accepting the change of subject. Ciaran had saved him, and it had probably been a very hard fight, and he had the right to say that some things were just too painful to talk about. Dying was easy, when locked in unconsciousness and tormented only by dreams. How much worse it was to be the one had to watch it all happen, bearing the responsibility of healing. Ciaran had had the hardest time of it, and he was innocent of all blame. Elias had brought it all on himself, and Ciaran had been the one to suffer, for... "How long?" he asked, completing the thought aloud.

†††††† "Two days," Ciaran said, in a strangely stilted voice. "Two nights since we came here and you told me you were dying. One night since you fell ill again, after I thought you were better. This morning we knew that you would live. This is the start of the third night."

††††† Ciaran had looked after him for all that time. Elias touched the back of Ciaran's hand lightly, then leant sideways and looked round the side of the hut to the dark shapes around the fire. It was the first time he had seen either the Kindred or their camp, though he had been here for two days, and perhaps they had all seen him. He was supposed to be their king, and here he was, peeping round a corner to snatch a stolen glance of them, then retreating again into the shadows.

†††††† "What a lot of them there are," he whispered, and imagined a large crowd like that, all staring at him.

†††††† "They're not all there," Ciaran said. "The younger children are in bed. A lot of the men are missing. Reynard's not there, for one."

†††††† Elias peeped round again, only one eye and two fingertips showing past the hut. Just as he did so, someone started up a lively song, and the others joined in after a few words, some with voices and some with instruments. They seemed to have quite forgotten that they were trying to be quiet.

†††††† "They're not normally this noisy," Ciaran said. Ciaran had lived here for two days, and already knew a little of their ways. He knew more than Elias now, and could instruct him. He would like that, Elias knew, and Elias liked it too, because if his master was happy, he might stay with him a little longer. "They're celebrating. They must think they're very safe, to risk it."

†††††† Elias's toe was tapping in time with the jaunty music, and he smiled. Part of him yearned suddenly to be part of the crowd beside the fire, linking arms with the men on either side, singing the chorus, all of them together. If he walked over now, they would stare at him, but they would welcome him, too.Even though they would only be welcoming him because they wanted him to do impossible things for them, he thought he could still like it. He had always been the outsider, watching the banter and easy companionship of others, but the Kindred wanted him as one of their number. And, besides, he liked their music. Perhaps it was a foolish reason, but it seemed important.

†††††† "But I don't like the fact that Reynard's missing," Ciaran said, then shook his head briskly. "But don't worry about that, Elias. I'll take care of everything. You just think about getting better."

†††††† "Yes." Elias leant against the wall of the hut, and a contented sleepiness washed over him. Ciaran had saved him, and he was alive, and the Kindred were there, and he liked their music, and that meant that they couldn't be that bad, could they? Perhaps he could find a home here, and his master was here beside him, so he didn't have to face any of the bad things alone. He had been given a second chance at life. He had died in the fire, but he had come out of the other side, and all the things that had seemed so important and terrible suddenly seemed like nothing at all, when put against the enormous realities of life and death.

†††††† He was alive, and there were beautiful stars above him, and joyful music all around him, and his master beside him, and for now that was all that mattered.

††††††

 

†††††† Ciaran strode through the camp, and people made way for him as he passed. Sometimes he accosted one of them, grabbing children by the wrist, or holding the adults captive with the force of his gaze. "Where's Reynard?" he demanded. Some looked afraid, and some pointed this way, and some that. They disgusted him, so he let them go, and strode on.

†††††† It was early afternoon, and Elias was asleep. Ciaran had watched over him for a while, and arranged and rearranged the blankets around him, but there was only so much that he could do. Several times he had been tempted to shake Elias awake, so he could ask him what he needed his master to do for him. He wanted to see Elias awake again, alive, and smiling up at him.

†††††† As he had sat at Elias's bedside, the Kindred had been outside, or plotting in dark corners. I'll take care of everything, Ciaran had told Elias the night before, but he had done nothing to keep that promise, just sit uselessly beside a boy who could not see him, his hands folded in his lap like an old woman.

†††††† So at last he had decided to tolerate it no longer. "I'll be back soon," he had told the Elias, and he had come stamping out into the daylight, his staff in his hand. How good it felt! He had a purpose again. He should have done this a day ago, as soon as it was clear that Elias was going to live. Instead he had just sat there, letting the day drift by, feeling numb and lost. He had been like a man cast up on the shore after a great storm, unable to do anything but lie there with his eyes closed as the waves washed over him.

†††††† In the end, Elias had saved himself. Ciaran had been unable to do anything to save his own apprentice. He had fought and fought, but Elias had come in and snatched the glittering prize. He would have taken on all the enemies in the world and fought them for Elias's sake, but he had been robbed even of that. Elias was alive, and that was wonderful, but Ciaran had done nothing to save him, and that was horrible.

†††††† But he was doing something now. He was wresting control back where it should be. Elias had saved his own life, but now it was up to Ciaran to ensure that his life was a good one. Reynard was plotting, and poor Elias would take his first faltering steps out of his hut, and Reynard and the others would pounce on him, like wolves surrounding a new-born lamb. Perhaps Elias had some strange power that had allowed him to save his own life, but he was too naÔve and vulnerable to save himself from Reynard and his kind. This was a battle that only Ciaran could win, and it was a battle that he would fight willingly.

†††††† "Where's Reynard?" he demanded, again and again. Did they see the fire of righteous violence in his eyes? He left a youth who refused to answer him sprawling in the dirt. Let them know that Ciaran Morgan would not sit by and let his apprentice be threatened! Let them see the knife at his belt, and the staff in his hand, and know that he would fight for the boy!

†††††† At last he met someone who gave him an answer. "I don't know where he is," the old man said, "but I know where his tent is."

†††††† "Show me," Ciaran commanded, and the old man did, though he glowered with resentment. Ciaran had half expected someone to draw a weapon on him by now, they all glared at him so, but no-one did. Perhaps Oliver had stuck his nose in and given orders that he was not to be harmed. Ciaran would have liked a fight, but he would get one soon enough, when he came face to face with Reynard.

†††††† "Here," the old man said, when they reached a small cluster of tents and huts a little way away from the others. Their doors all faced outwards, towards the forest, as though they wanted to turn their backs on the rest of the Kindred and live apart.

†††††† Ciaran dismissed the man and stalked forward. "Reynard!" He struck a flat stone with the heel of his staff. "Come out and face me, Reynard!"

†††††† The old man stopped and turned to stare at Ciaran, his eyes narrow with hatred. Ciaran lashed out at him, though the man was far too far away for him to touch. The man stalked off, his head held proudly, pretending that he was not running away.

†††††† "Reynard!" Ciaran shouted again. "You know who I am, Reynard. I have things to say to you." Things to say, and he didn't care if the whole camp heard them. Let Elias wake up, weak and tremulous, and hear his master's voice filtering through the trees, and know that Ciaran was fighting for him.

†††††† Someone was walking towards him through the trees, and Ciaran brought his staff up, but it was not Reynard. It was a boy of about nineteen, with full lips and large eyes and dark chestnut hair curling around his face. He was very good-looking, and Ciaran thought he was all too aware of the fact. There was an arrogance to his walk, and a look of sulky petulance about his face. He sauntered up to face Ciaran, then stopped, his hand on his hip. "He's not here." He made no attempt to conceal his dislike.

†††††† "Where is he?" Ciaran rammed his staff into the ground. "I will find him or wait for him."

†††††† "Not here," the boy said again. "Gone to make his plans with the others." There was a dark fire of resentment in his eyes, and Ciaran suddenly wondered if he was angry as much with Reynard as he was with Ciaran.

†††††† Perhaps it was a weakness Ciaran could exploit. "Plans?" he said, a little more quietly. "What plans?"

†††††† "What to do now the king has returned." The boy might as well have spat in the ground, so clear was his disgust.

†††††† Ciaran took a step forward. "You don't like that, do you?" he said, leaning so close that the boy would either have yield a step, or feel uncomfortable. "What part of it do you like the least?"

†††††† "All of it." The boy took a step back after all. Then he turned away. "I'm not telling you."

†††††† "You don't like that Reynard's left you out of it," Ciaran guessed. "Or you don't like Elias. You don't want a king. You think you can do very well by yourself. After all, you've coped by yourself for this long. What right does a stranger to come along and change things? And a boy, no less, no older than you. What's he done to deserve this honour? What can he do that you can't do better?" He grabbed the boy's shoulder. "Why him and not you?"

†††††† "Get off me!" The boy whirled round, smashing Ciaran's hand aside. Inside, Ciaran felt a flame flare up, fierce and exultant. He could have his fight after all. He almost struck him with his staff, then forced himself to step back. He took several deep breaths. This boy was a potential ally, he reminded himself. He had touched a nerve with his words. There was one more person in the camp who had no love for Reynard, and no desire to see Elias as king.

†††††† "I was only speaking the truth," Ciaran said mildly. "Wasn't I?"

†††††† "I need no-one to show me the truth." The boy thrust out his chin, and pushed his cloak back, showing the sword that hung at his belt, its hilt worn with much use. "I can see the truth by myself."

†††††† "But what will you do with it, now you know it?" Spread the word, he hoped. Whisper it around the camp that the Kindred had no need of a king after all. If Ciaran couldn't make Elias walk away from the Kindred, then he would make the Kindred walk away from Elias. He would use every weapon he had. He was fighting a war, and Ciaran Morgan never gave up until he was victorious.

†††††† Ciaran had come looking for a fight, but instead he had planted a seed, and it was a seed that would grow. It was a good thing that he had done today, he thought. He was smiling as he walked back to the hut, and at last his mood matched the warmth and sunniness of the day.

††††††

 

†††††† Elias threw off the blankets, and stood up, then had to grab hastily for the wall to stop himself from falling down again. He stood there with his head bowed, waiting for the dizziness to pass. Then, slowly, he raised his head again, and moved gingerly towards the door.

†††††† He paused for a little while there, with one hand on the door hangings. He moved them a little, letting the orange light of sunset creep into the hut's dark interior. The light fell on his master's face, but Ciaran did not awaken. He was asleep on the floor, lying on his back with his arms and legs sprawled, and his head awkwardly positioned under the table. He had obviously been moving in his sleep, for the one blanket that covered him was tangled, and had half slid away from him.

†††††† Elias let the curtain fall again, and the twilight darkness once again hid his master's face. Perhaps he should sit down again after all, and wait for Ciaran to wake up. Then they could go out into camp together, side by side. Ciaran would make sure nothing bad happened to him, and if he stumbled, his master would hold him up.

†††††† Cold air wafted in from the door. Elias remembered how good the air had felt the night before, and how his master had tried to hold him beneath the stifling blankets and keep him from moving freely. Ciaran had saved his life, yes, but Elias was well again now, and nothing had changed. The Kindred still needed him. Ciaran would keep him wrapped up in furs, but Elias remembered how for a while his master's protectiveness had felt like cold chains.

†††††† Before he could regret it, he pushed the door open, and walked out. It was cold outside, despite the clear sky, for the sun had almost set and was too low to give any real heat. He had expected to see all eyes turn towards him, but no-one looked at him. He saw several of them scattered around the camp, but they were all immersed in their tasks, and none of them had noticed him emerge. They would see him soon, though. It would only take one to see him, and then they would call to the others, and then...

†††††† No, he wasn't ready to face them, not just yet. He glanced around, looking into the forest behind his hut. If he darted to that tree over there, and then to that one, he could run a zigzag path deep into the forest, and no-one would see him, not if he was careful. There would be nothing around him but trees and soft sunlight, and they wouldn't even be able to follow his tracks.

†††††† Feeling like a naughty child sneaking away from his parents, Elias pushed himself away from the hut and started to walk. After the third step, the dizziness gathered itself up into a fist and jammed itself between his eyes. By the sixth, he was hunched over, his forearm pressed tight against his stomach. By the tenth, his legs felt like rubber, and he was shivering. Not darting after all, he thought, with a wry laugh. But he frowned with determination, and did not stop walking.

†††††† Twenty-seven steps it took, and he counted every one. "There," he gasped, when he reached the tree that had been his first milepost. He touched it with his hands first, then guided himself round the trunk. When he was sure that no-one from the fireside could see him, he sank back against it with a long sigh, and closed his eyes. His head was pounding, but inside he was smiling. He was alive, and he could walk, and he had come this far alone, without anyone helping him. But he was not really hidden, and if he fainted here they would be able to find him, and probably that was good too.

†††††† He opened his eyes, and the smile spilled over onto his face. His little expedition of twenty-seven steps left him feeling like a mountaineer who had scaled a peak no-one else had ever climbed, and now stood there staring down on a bright new world. The sunset made even normal things extraordinary, lit with dark golden light and with shadows that stretched to the edges of the world. It came through the trees in long slashes of perfect light, and Elias thought he had never seen colours so rich as where this light fell. There were a hundred different gradations of shade merely in the lichen on the bark beside his face.

†††††† He had almost died, and now he lived. He was alive, and it was amazing how new and beautiful everything looked in light of that simple statement. He saw the veins on the few leaves that still clung to the trees, and smiled to see how bravely they stayed green, even though the brown was eating away at their edges. And he was here to see it, walking by himself, refusing to give up even when it had started to hurt. There had been no-one to say, "Stop, Elias. You have to rest. You're not up to this." There had been no-one to say, "can't", and so he had done it. He was alive, and there was nothing he could not do.

†††††† Oh, he knew it couldn't be for long. He knew he was living on borrowed time. Tomorrow he would have to face the Kindred, and hear their demands, and once against have to live with the terror of failing them, but even that knowledge could do little to ruin his mood. That was tomorrow. Yesterday he had been dying, and tomorrow everything would be horrible again, but today was just for revelling in being alive.

†††††† A twig cracked behind him, and his smile froze on his face. He stood very still, fear fluttering in his chest. Where he had seen only the sunlight, now he saw only the shadows, deep and very long. It wasn't enough, just being alive. It wasn't enough at all. He swallowed. "Who's there?"

†††††† "Me," said a voice, and Elias let his breath out in a rush, because it was the voice of a young girl. She rounded the tree to stand in front of him, and she could see that she was around nine years old. She had dark hair that had once been neatly combed into a braid, but which had long since escaped in straggling strands. Her clothes were well mended, but her face was dirty, and her nails were black.

†††††† Elias smiled at her. "And who are you?" He liked children. When he had been a child himself, they had scared him, but as soon as he had become old enough for the little ones to see him as a grown-up, he had started to feel comfortable with them, far more so than he could ever feel with adults.

†††††† She clasped her hands demurely, though Elias was not taken in for a minute. Someone had taught her that this was how she should behave, but demureness was not in her nature. Her eyes were lively and intelligent, and she stared him full in the face. "I'm Alicia," she said. "Are you really the king?"

†††††† He chewed his lip, wondering how to answer. The idea of someone like him claiming the title of king was absurd, but, at the same time, if he denied it too hotly he would be giving the impression that he was turning his back on them. He would help the Kindred in any way he could, because the sword had chosen him for that responsibility. And perhaps, he thought, remembering Oliver's story, that was what kingship meant to the Kindred, and not pomp and ceremony and jewels.

†††††† He had still not decided what to say when she spoke again, rescuing him from the need to answer. "I know you are." She nodded, a very decisive movement with her sharp chin. "It's obvious."

†††††† He smiled at her, thinking this was just the fancy of a child. "Why is it obvious?"

†††††† "Because you look different," Alicia said, as if stupid even to have asked. "There's enchantment in your eyes, and you're pretty, like someone from a story."

†††††† Elias felt himself blushing. He wanted to cover his face with his hand, but she was only a little girl, seeing with a child's eyes. "I'm just me," he said, staring at a branch so she could no longer see his face.

†††††† "You're the king," she said, as if it meant there were no questions left to ask. "You're going to save us."

†††††† "I don't know how to," he whispered, as the last light withdrew from the leaves, and the forest was grey and dark and plain.

†††††† "You'll find out." She edged towards him. "Are you better now?"

†††††† He dared to look at her again. "Almost." He lowered his voice, like a conspirator trusting her with a secret. "But I think I'd fall over if I let go of this tree."

†††††† Her face twisted with worry, and he wished he could take the words back. He had wanted to show her that he was only a boy, and that she should turn her hero worship to someone else. "Can I help?" She looked over her shoulder, and all her bravado and confidence was gone. "I'll get someone."

†††††† "No." He shook his head, and smiled again. "I'm sorry. I'm fine."

†††††† "Good." She nodded, because he was her king, and she would believe him even if he said that black was white. What a terrible power he could have over these people, if he wanted to. Reynard was right to hate him. "The seneschal told us not to bother you until you were better," she confided. "He shouted at them. I've never heard him shout before. My father was very cross. I heard him afterwards. Nobody knew I was awake. There were lots of them. Reynard was speaking the most."

†††††† "What was he saying?" Elias felt very cold, as if his cloak was suddenly as thin as gauze.

†††††† She frowned, clasping her hands like a schoolchild reciting a lesson. "There can be no delay," she said, in an attempted mimicry of a man's voice that would have been comical at any other time. "We act now, the way we want to. His coming is a sign, and finally we are free to do what we have always longed to do. We won't let him fail us. If he tries to stop us..."

†††††† "What?" he asked, but it was only a faint croak. He cleared his throat. "What did he say then?"

†††††† She looked embarrassed. "They found me. They put me back to bed. Reynard had his sword in his hand." She raised her head eagerly, anxious to make up for her ignorance by offering the things that she did know. "They said other things before that. They said you needed to be educated or coerced." She hesitated over the unfamiliar words. "They're worried you're going to do it all wrong. They said you're too young. But you're not young. You're grown up. And the king can do anything. Why did they say that?"

†††††† You can do anything. He had thought the same himself, not so long ago. He had walked twenty-seven steps, and thought of it as a great achievement. A stupid boy indeed. "So what would you like the king to do?" he asked, knowing that her demands would be as impossible as all the others. "Of all the anythings, what do you want?"

†††††† "Nothing," she said, without a moment's hesitation. "I like it here. I like climbing trees. I couldn't do that in a palace. There's stone everywhere in the cities. There's no grass. You can't smell the trees. You have to wear dresses with tight laces and you can't run around. You have to be ladylike." Her nose wrinkled with disgust. "I like playing chase with the boys."

†††††† "It's home," Elias said. "You don't want anything to change." He understood. Greenslade had felt safe, even when his days were friendless, and his nights were full of nightmares. "You'd be happier if I'd never come, wouldn't you?"

†††††† "Oh no." She shook her head fiercely. "You're the king. Everything will be wonderful now. When you're the king in Eidengard, I'll just live here for ever and ever. I'll be safe, because that's what the king does. He makes everything safe for us."

†††††† Elias closed his eyes. It was over. Tomorrow, he had told himself, resolving to spend one night just revelling in the joy of being alive. But it had just been minutes after all, and now it was over. Alicia, in her innocence, had killed his good mood, and now there was no beauty in the world, only dark undergrowth that lurched and glowered.

†††††† There can be no delay, Reynard had said. That had been the night before, when he had drowsed in his master's lap, staring stupidly at the stars. Ciaran had told him that Reynard and the others were absent, but Elias had thought little of it. And now it was a whole day later, and who could tell what harm had been done? The moment he had entered this world, everything had changed. Reynard was using his coming as a license to wage war, and the bloodshed would be terrible.

†††††† "There is something," she said, interrupting his thoughts. "Something I want you to do."

†††††† He opened his eyes and gazed at her bleakly. "What?" So many things, and all of them impossible.

†††††† She pointed up into the tree. "There's a squirrel up there. Can you get it down for me? I've never stroked one before."

†††††† Surprised, he looked up, and saw a flash of soft orange fur above him, half lost in the twilight, and too far for him to reach. "I'll try," he said, doubtfully. He reached out one hand, and made soft encouraging noises. "Come on," he urged it, and, to his amazement, it hopped neatly down the branches and landed on his outstretched arm.

†††††† Alicia clapped her hands with pleasure, then pressed one hand to her mouth, afraid that she had startled the animal, but the squirrel seemed unaware of her. It stared at Elias, and its tiny eyes spoke to him of freedom and treetops and the wind ruffling through fur, even as it had chosen to forsake that freedom and come willingly to his hand.

†††††† "Why don't you stroke him?" Elias whispered. Alicia leant forward, and the end of her braid brushed against his hand. She stroked the squirrel's side with two tentative fingers, and its quivered a little, as if it liked it, but was fighting its natural instinct to flee. It kept looking at Elias. "We won't hurt you, little one," he murmured, and the quivering stopped. Its fur was lustrous and very beautiful, and its tail moved like a silk ribbon.

†††††† Alicia stroked it one more time, then stepped back. The children of Greenslade might have asked to keep the animal as a pet, but she seemed to recognise it as something that could be stroked for a while, but had to be allowed to run free. "Thank you." She pressed her hands together, and looked at him as if he was the most wonderful thing she had ever seen.

†††††† Elias had no idea why. All he had done was hold his hand out, and, by some lucky fluke, the animal had come to him. He raised his arm, holding it up to the lowest branch, and the squirrel hopped neatly into the tree. It paused on a broad branch and looked down at him, then, with a quick flick of its tail, it disappeared. High in the tree, the branches shivered, and a dry leaf fell in lazy circles, drifting to Elias's feet.

†††††† Pressing one hand against the tree, Elias turned round, looking back towards the fire. There were more people there than they had been, and some of them were standing quite still, looking at him.

†††††† It was time to go back, but it no longer scared him. Alicia, who had all unwittingly reminded him of all that was bleak and awful about the world, had stepped in at the end and given him a ray of light. She had wanted such a little thing from him, and it had been easily given, and now she was beaming with delight. And it had been such a little thing, such a tiny thing.

†††††† Perhaps it would all be like that, he thought. The Kindred wanted him to save them, and the magnitude of the task was terrifying, but, when it came down to it, perhaps it would be only a series of small decisions and tiny tasks, each one easy. A thousand thousand tiny steps made an enormous journey. You could travel to places that were impossibly far off, but all you had to do was to put one foot in front of the other, again and again and again.

†††††† Twenty-seven steps, and Ciaran would have told him that he was too weak and urged him to turn back, but Elias had not turned back. He had reached his destination, and he would walk back, too. One step at a time, and this was the first.

†††††† He turned to Alicia. "Can you help me find Oliver? I need to talk to him."

†††††† She nodded, visibly swelling with pride at being asked to do something by her king. Elias felt uncomfortable to see it, but he could see it was making her very happy, and surely that was what mattered, wasn't it? She went ahead, the proud little leader with the important job, and he followed. As they passed his own hut, where his master lay sleeping, she turned and looked at him, imitating the expression of a concerned mother. "Do you want to hold my hand?"

†††††† "No," he smiled, shaking his head, though he felt as if his knees were about to buckle and tip him over onto the ground. "I'm fine." He would do this on his own two feet, without help, or what was the point of all his fine-sounding resolutions?

†††††† She started moving again, but suddenly there was Oliver, striding towards him past the fire, grinning broadly. "Elias!" He clasped Elias by the upper arms, almost pulled him into an embrace, then pushed him away again, holding him at arm's length and devouring him with his eyes.

†††††† Elias quite deliberately did not meet his gaze. Instead he turned to one side and spoke to Alicia. He had known even before he looked at her that she was feeling dejected, robbed both of her task, and of her king's attention. "Thank you, Alicia." He had the satisfaction of seeing her head jerk up, and a smile suffuse her face.

†††††† Oliver did not release Elias, but he, too, turned towards her. "That was well done, Alicia, looking after him like that. But your mother's looking for you. Best find her now. We don't want her spanking the king here, for keeping you from your chores."

†††††† She giggled, but was slow to run off, seemingly incapable of taking her eyes off Elias. When at last she was gone, Elias found himself swaying, and for a moment was afraid he was going to faint.

†††††† "Are you sure you should be up?" Oliver was looking at him with concern. "I was about to sit down and eat. Will you join me?"

†††††† "I will," Elias mumbled, and crumpled into an inelegant heap, his knees collapsing and his body following. "I'm not quite better yet," he admitted. Oliver had framed it as a question, giving Elias the chance to refuse. It made it easier to admit the truth. Ciaran would just have looked sternly at him and ordered him back to bed, or would have scooped him up in his arms and not taken no for an answer.

†††††† Oliver went over to the fire, and came back with a platter of food in one hand, and two tankards in the other, held by their handles, and both spilling a little. "I'm so glad to see you up," he said, as he settled down beside Elias's side. No-one else would know that Elias had simply collapsed here. All they would see was two people who had chosen a slightly unusual place to sit and have their dinner.

†††††† Elias bit into a lump of meat. It was moist and tasty, and he suddenly realised just how hungry he was. He took another mouthful, chewed it, and swallowed. "Now I'm well again," he said, "there's something I need to do. Something we need to talk about."

†††††† Oliver grabbed his wrist. "No."

†††††† "Why not?"

†††††† "Because you're still not well," Oliver said. "Because I sat and watched while you stopped breathing again and again, and no-one who was that close to dying just yesterday should have to do something like that today."

†††††† "But Reynard..." Elias began. "He's started things already. Just one more day..."

†††††† "You need one more day far more than we do," Oliver said gently. He released Elias's wrist, but gave the back of his hand a quick squeeze.

†††††† "I need to do it today," Elias said, a little desperately. It would never be easy, but tonight he was ready. Tomorrow he might have lost his nerve. He had returned to the camp full of determination, resolved to see this thing through. He was no leader, and never would be, but people would listen to him because of the sword that he bore. It was scary, but it was good, too. He had been nobody for so long, while others suffered in the world, and he had been too little and shy to do anything to help them. It was a fine thing to know that he had the power to save a woman's life, and to make a young girl smile. He could make a difference. He really could.

†††††† But half an hour could change his mood utterly, and how much more could a whole day do? Tomorrow, he might want to run gibbering in terror at the very mention of the word "king." Tomorrow he might wake to find Reynard at his door with an army, or Ciaran standing over him telling him that this was it, he was going, it was over now, goodbye. Tomorrow, his whole life might have changed.

†††††† "I know," Oliver said, "but I also know that I have to stop you. That is my right as seneschal. You can hardly stand, Elias. The only thing I will let you do tonight is rest. We've been so quick to tell you all the things we want you to do for us, but that's over now. I was wrong. I refuse to stand by and let this become a precedent."

†††††† "Precedent?" Elias asked. He felt pinned by the force of Oliver's sudden unexpected emotion.

†††††† "For you sacrificing yourself," Oliver almost shouted. He slammed the tankard down on the ground. "For you putting our needs before your own. I watched you die, Elias. I won't let you suffer for us. I refuse to. It ends right here, before it begins."

†††††† Elias twisted his fingers hard enough to hurt. "But what choice have I got?" he asked, miserably. "I either betray you, or I..."

†††††† "No," Oliver interrupted. Then he sighed, shaking his head. "I know there are things you have to do. And, even though I know that it will cost you, I cannot bring myself to say that I would wish them not done. I want my people to be safe. I want it more than anything. Our hope is a heavy burden to you, and I regret that, and may all the kings forgive me, but I would not wish to see you lay it down completely. But I will make it as light as I can. If there is anything I can do to help you bear it, I will."

†††††† "I know," Elias whispered. He blinked, for his eyes were stinging. "But I need to take it up today, just so I know what it is. It's not real yet." It was just too huge and overwhelming. He had a whole world to save. Couldn't Oliver see? Elias needed to sit down and map out the first step on the journey, just so he knew where to start. Even saving the world had to start somewhere, with a first opening of the door, and an easy walk across the yard.

†††††† "No," Oliver said, again, and Elias knew that he was meaning to be kind, but also that he had completely failed to understand. "Forget about our needs for a night, Elias. Concentrate on getting well. Just be yourself. Do something that makes you happy." He touched Elias's hand again. "Please, Elias. It's very important to me. I don't think I could bear it I allowed you to do this thing, so soon after almost dying."

†††††† Elias picked up a lump of bread and tore it in half. Inside it was coarse and grainy, but it smelled good. He was too tired to argue with Oliver, so he just took a mouthful, and said nothing.

†††††† "If you stay here with us," Oliver said, "you must make sure never forget your own needs. I want you to be happy. Whatever else you are, you are still Elias. What does Elias want?"

†††††† Elias stopped, the second mouthful almost to his mouth. "I don't know." To be safe and to be loved, he had always thought. Never to be alone in a world where nobody cared. To see everybody happy around him, and to know that nobody was hurting.

†††††† "What do you like doing?" Oliver asked. "If there was a whole day ahead of you, and there was nothing you needed to do and nobody who was going to judge you at the end of it, how would you spend it?"

†††††† Elias's eyes flickered from side to side, but all he could see was other people, standing in the twilight and watching him. "I don't know." He had never had such a day, not in all his life. There was such fervour in Oliver's voice, but Elias had no idea how to give him what he wanted. He would fail, and Oliver would be disappointed in him. "Was that you singing last night?" he asked, suddenly desperate to change the subject.

†††††† "It was." Oliver inclined his head. "I prefer to tell plain stories, but sometimes the occasion seems to call for music. I can't do anything about my voice, and I should practice the lute more, but I enjoy it."

†††††† "I liked it." Then Elias suddenly realised that perhaps he could give Oliver what he wanted after all. "I like singing," he confessed. "Sometimes, when I know there's no-one around to hear me, I sing when I'm outside." So now Oliver knew something about him that not even Ciaran knew. "I probably don't do it right, though."

†††††† "There is no right and wrong," Oliver said. "A song is what you want it to be. But they are better shared, I think. There is something very sad about telling a tale when there is no-one to hear."

†††††† "I'm sorry," Elias whispered, chastened.

†††††† Oliver sighed, as if Elias had said something wrong. "There's nothing to be sorry about," he said, wearily. Then he gave a bright smile. "Do you want me to teach you one of our songs?"

†††††† Elias stared down into his drink, swirling it around so the pale twilight danced on the surface of the liquid. "I think so," he said. It would be good to join in the choruses, at least, even though the idea of standing up and singing by himself was terrifying.

†††††† His shyness was probably only too visible on his face. "Later, then," Oliver said. "Or just learn by listening. If we start singing later, come and join us. Cover your face if you like. It does the heart good, Elias, to be part of a circle, all singing the same words."

†††††† But Ciaran wouldn't sing. Ciaran wouldn't even join the circle. Elias sighed. They were all watching him, even here. A pair of girls around his own age were standing with their arms linked. When they saw him looking at them, they nudged each other, and walked away, whispering. Another girl was standing by herself, slowly edging forward. She was staring at Elias so intently that he felt himself blushing. He thought she was going to come right up to them and start talking to him, but suddenly she turned and walked away.

†††††† Further away, lost in the twilight, there was a cluster of young men. Suddenly two of them drew their swords and started to fight. Elias gasped, but no-one else made any move to stop them. It was only a practice fight, he told himself. Even so, the sound of swords clashing together made him uneasy, reminding him that there was far more at stake here than whether he learned the Kindred's songs.

†††††† He turned back to Oliver. "Tomorrow morning, then. We can't wait any longer. It's already started."

†††††† Oliver just looked at him. "Yes," he said, at last. He gave a shaky laugh. "I'm scared, you know, Elias. Reynard is a hard man to deal with. When the sun goes down tomorrow, we might be in a state of war. Or we might be staring into the future, with our king at our side, and have to admit that we have no idea what to do now." He shrugged. "Perhaps it's not only for your sake that I stopped you doing it tonight. Five hundred years waiting for this, and now I only want to delay it. I want it to happen in daylight." He looked up at the sky. It had become dark so quickly, and the smoky breeze made Elias shiver. "I want it to happen in the sunlight."

†††††† "Tomorrow, then." Elias took a mouthful of meat, and then another, and another, so many that there could be no more talking.

††††††

 

†††††† Some time later, he was sitting on the edge of his bed, his knees drawn up to his chest, hugging them close. The food had left him feeling a bit stronger, but his eyes hurt and his head felt fuzzy, thoughts slithering out of reach. He had rehearsed a hundred different openings for the speech he would have to make in the morning, but each one had trailed away after a few words. After a while, he just sat there, staring unseeingly into the depths of candle flame, while random words wove incoherently through his mind.

†††††† And then Ciaran was stirring noisily, and Elias jumped, his head snapping up. The candle was a good inch shorter than it had been when he had last noticed, but he had no idea how much time that meant he had lost.

†††††† "Elias?" The end of his name was lost in a yawn. Ciaran rolled over, so he was resting on his elbows. His short hair was tousled, and his lips were slightly parted. He looked soft and unguarded, with all the usual hard lines of his face relaxed.

†††††† Don't change, Elias wanted to cry. Stay like this forever. Then he noticed that Ciaran was only wearing his thin summer robes beneath the single blanket. "Are you cold?" Elias asked. His voice was hoarse, and he cleared his throat. "Master, are you cold?"

†††††† Ciaran frowned, and there, as easily as that, all the hard lines were back. "No. I'm fine."

†††††† "Youíre cold." Elias persisted, for he could see the goose pimples on his master's skin. He reached to his throat and unclasped the cloak. It was his master's cloak. When he had ventured out into the camp, he had been wearing his master's cloak, and had looked ridiculous, trailing a good six inches of spare material behind him as he walked. At the time, he had simply clutched it close, and not even noticed. "Here," he said, holding it out. "Have it back."

†††††† Ciaran did not take it. "You keep it, Elias. You need it more than I do."

†††††† "I've got my own cloak," Elias said. "I can wear that."

†††††† "No." Ciaran sat up. "You can't wear that, Elias. You can't."

†††††† Something in his master's voice made Elias pause, and he wondered what he had said wrong. Ciaran had always been prone to reacting angrily to the most innocent of things, as if they meant far more than Elias had ever realised. "It's only a cloak," he said. Then he thought he understood. "I'll still be wearing a Brother's cloak, master. I'm not wearing one of theirs."

†††††† Ciaran stared at the ground. "You can't wear it. It's got blood on it, and it's muddy from where you fell. I wrapped you in it and there was no place clean on it. I..." He stopped suddenly, and looked away.

†††††† "I'll wash it," Elias said. "You won't be able to tell." If he had seen his master almost die, he thought, perhaps he too would be reluctant to see the blood-stained clothes that reminded him of that dreadful time.

†††††† "Wear mine until then." It sounded like an order. Perhaps Ciaran saw it as a mark of ownership. If Elias went out into the camp wearing his master's over-large cloak, all the Kindred would see that he was still a child, still dependent on his master. And how apt it was. The Kindred tried to push honours and responsibilities upon him, but he was only a small boy wearing a giant's clothes, and he would never grow to fit them.

†††††† He blinked, and his hand crept up to the bridge of his nose, where his headache was pounding like a living thing. "Thank you, master. Thank you for looking after me so well." It sounded stilted, but he meant it sincerely. Even if Ciaran's reasons were not entirely pure, Elias could not bring himself to resent it. Part of him longed to snuggle up in his master's cloak, and never have to make any decisions for himself. "But only until tomorrow. I'll wash mine, and then you can have yours back."

†††††† Ciaran stood up. His head almost touched the ceiling. "Fine." He snatched up a dark bundle from the table, and Elias realised that it was his own cloak. "But I'll wash it for you. It'll be as good as new." He smiled, but it was more like a grimace.

†††††† "Not yet." Elias reached out one hand, then let it fall again. "I need to talk to you first."

†††††† Ciaran froze. He breathed in very slowly, then breathed out again. "What about?"

†††††† "About tomorrow." Elias twisted his master's cloak in his hands. "I've got to make decisions. I've got to talk to Oliver and Reynard about what we do now. I've been here for days, but we've made no plans, and it's not fair to anyone. This thing's huge, but it's happened, and now we're all just... just wandering in the dark, overwhelmed by how vast it is. I need to mark out a path." He swallowed, aware that he was making little sense. He tried again. "I used to think it would all be over, as soon as I found Albacrist's people. The Kindred have spent five hundred years just waiting for their king to come back. Neither of us thought about what would happen after that. We thought it was an end, but it was only a beginning... And... I just need to talk to them, master."

†††††† Ciaran sat down stiffly on the wooden chair. "So you've decided, then," he said, not looking at Elias. "You're staying. You're going to do everything they want you to."

†††††† Elias kneaded his forehead, shading his eyes from the light. "I haven't decided anything," he said, but perhaps it was a lie, because of the hundred different openings he had practiced had all said the same thing. "That's why I need to talk to them." His hand fell into his lap. "I'm not choosing them over you, master."

†††††† Ciaran ignored him. "And they still want you?" he asked, leaning forward in his chair. His eyes were glittering, like they always did when he was angry.

†††††† "Yes." Elias remembered the things Oliver had said. "Yes, they do."

†††††† His master snatched the cloak from his hands, and Elias had been holding it so tightly that the fabric burnt his fingers. "Give me the cloak, then, if you won't wear it." He put it on, and suddenly, just like that, he was Master Morgan, who ruled Greenslade so completely, and would never concede a thing.

†††††† "I was only telling you," Elias said, in a faint voice, "because I wanted you to be with me tomorrow. I wanted you there. I still do."

†††††† Ciaran looked down on him. "Then I'll be there." He said it casually, as if it meant nothing.

†††††† "I want you there," Elias said, thinking Ciaran must have misunderstood. He had expected some reaction, at least. "I'm not asking you to make promises. It doesn't have to mean anything. I just want you there tomorrow morning. There with me. Please."

†††††† "I said I would." Ciaran sounded impatient. Then he gave a sudden smile, showing his teeth in the candlelight. "I wouldn't miss it for the world, Elias."

†††††† Elias let out a long breath, surprised at how relieved he was. His head swam, and suddenly there was his master, easing him down onto the bed, gently covering him with blankets. "Go to sleep, Elias," Ciaran said. He touched Elias on the cheek, soft, yet perfunctory. "I'll get your cloak washed for tomorrow."

†††††† Elias caught hold of his master's wrist. "I'm glad you'll be there with me, master."

†††††† Ciaran gave a quick smile. "You sleep, Elias." He looked at Elias for a little longer, then stood up, snatched up the muddy cloak, and walked out of the door.

††††††

 

†††††† Elias was the first one up in the morning. Rubbing his eyes, he walked out into a watery mist, where everything was grey and ghost-like. He found his cloak draped over a clever arrangement of branches, and picked it up, but it was limp and heavy, soaked through with dew. Shivering, he pulled it on, where it clung to the skin at his throat and brushed against the insides of his wrists.

†††††† He walked over to the fire, and sat down on the wet ground. There was just enough residual heat in the embers to keep him from shivering too badly. On the far side of the thick curtain of mist, the sun was starting to rise, and specks of pale yellow glistened in the whiteness. After a while, he saw dark grey figures begin to move. No-one seemed to see him. He pulled his knees up to his chest, and rested his chin on his folded hands.

†††††† His eyes were gritty, and his headache still lingered. Perhaps he had slept a little during the night, but he thought he probably hadn't. For long hours he had just stared at the ceiling, rehearsing the things he was going to say, and worrying about the reactions he would provoke. When his master had come back in, Elias had closed his eyes tight, and Ciaran had blown out the candle and settled down on the floor without a word. After a few minutes, he had been snoring peacefully. Elias had looked at his dark outline for a very long time, and had tried to lull himself by emulating the rhythm of his breathing, but sleep had still eluded him.

†††††† Oliver had meant kindly, Elias knew. He had gifted Elias with one last day of freedom, but Elias thought it would have been better for him if the gift had never been given. He had spent a whole night worrying about this, imagining all the ways it could go wrong. He had spent a night without sleep, and he was more afraid of it than he had been the evening before.

†††††† He sighed. He stood up, the damp cloak slapping against his legs, and walked in a half circle around the fire. At the far side he stopped, and crouched down beside a whetstone.

†††††† The sun rose higher. The distant yellow began to suffuse the mist, and he could feel the beginnings of warmth on his face. Even his own hut was outside the small circle that he could see, as invisible as the forest and the distant cities.

†††††† A man stalked past him, drawing his sword as he walked. When he reached the whetstone, he bent down and started to sharpen it, but surely it was sharp enough already, sharp enough to draw blood and to kill. The wound on Elias's side testified to that.

†††††† Elias stood up. He spoke the man's name. "Reynard."

†††††† Reynard did not respond, just dragged the sword along the whetstone, making it shriek. Maybe it was a trap, Elias thought, with Reynard as the bait. Other men might be surrounding him, hidden in the mist. When Elias edged close enough, Reynard would grab him by the wrist, and the other men would fall on him with their swords, killing him for not being who they wanted him to be. The mist would hide their deeds, and no-one would know.

†††††† Elias pressed his hand against his side, where the wound ached with the dampness of the morning, and said Reynard's name again. He was alone, and that was how it had to be. Reynard had to see that he was more than a little boy who couldn't venture out without his master. If Elias couldnít even approach him by himself, what hope did he have in the coming confrontation? The morning was going to be difficult, so he had to make sure it started right, with Reynard willing to listen to him, and Elias brave enough to speak. He was doing it to prove something to Reynard, but also to prove something to himself, too.

†††††† "Reynard," he said, for the third time. He was close enough now to see the droplets of water that clung to Reynard's hair, making it lank and heavy. He was close enough to see the sinews on his wrist, and how strongly and effortlessly they held the sword.

†††††† Reynard ran the blade across the whetstone one last time, then turned round. "What?"

†††††† Elias clasped his hands in front of him. He found it hard not to look at the sharp edge of the blade. "We need to talk."

†††††† Reynard ignored him. He raised his sword and twisted it one way and the next. Licking his finger, he touched the edge appraisingly, then nodded with satisfaction. He sheathed the sword slowly, and only when it was fully sheathed did he look at Elias. "Then," he said, making no attempt to hide the disdain in either his look or his voice, "let us talk."

†††††† "Not here," Elias said. "And not alone. Oliver needs to be there. And..." He raised his chin, and did not waver. "And my master."

†††††† He had expected Reynard to object, but the man simply nodded. "Lead on, and I will follow," he said, and Elias tried to find mockery in the tone, but could not. Perhaps Reynard respected him a little after all, if only for daring to approach him alone, and making demands.

†††††† Elias turned to walk away, and only then did he see them. Oliver was standing on the other side of the fire, his hands clasped tightly in front of him, just watching him. Ciaran was striding forward, ready to clap his hand on Elias's shoulder and intervene. He had not been alone after all, but watched over, like a child whose parents let him pretend he was grown-up, but hovered always in the background and made sure nothing bad happened to him. Reynard had probably seen them there all along, and had been mocking him after all.

†††††† "What did he say to you, Elias?" Ciaran demanded.

†††††† Elias sighed. "Nothing," he said, wearily. "We're ready," he said, when Oliver joined them. At least Oliver had hung back.

†††††† "Then follow me." Oliver looked tired, and Elias remembered that he, too, was afraid of what might happen this morning. "I know where we can go."

†††††† They started walking, and then Ciaran was there, walking at Elias's side. "You should have woken me up, Elias."

†††††† "I was going to."

†††††† Oliver turned round and smiled at him. "How are you feeling today?"

†††††† "Better than yesterday," Elias told him. Although he had barely slept all night, he felt stronger. He still had a headache, but he could walk without dizziness. If his master supported him, he could walk for miles and miles. But when Ciaran's arm brushed against his, he moved discreetly away. Ciaran instantly closed the gap.

†††††† The mist was thinning, burnt away by the sun. The pale grey trees grew darker, and the individual details of bark and leaves began to appear. Now that he was awake to it, Elias sensed enchantment all around him, flowing like blood through the veins of every plant and animal in the forest. Despite everything, it felt good to be outside, to be alive in a place that was so rich with life. Even if they were returned to their cities and stone halls, he thought many of the Kindred would be like Alicia, and choose to spend most of their lives outside.

†††††† Oliver felt it, he thought, even if Reynard and Ciaran did not. Why else had he insisted that they do this thing outside, in the sunlight? Enchantment was at the heart of the Kindred, and enchantment was very much about life. It felt wrong to make the decisions they were going to make inside, with dark walls cutting them off from the rest of the world.

†††††† They walked out of the camp, beyond the furthest tent. A child watched them pass, two small hands clutching the curtain and holding it apart just enough for a pair of bright eyes to peer through. A squirrel darted along a branch, its tail undulating elegantly, and Elias fought the urge to call out to it, just to see if it would come. He wanted his master to see it, and Oliver too.

†††††† His steps grew slower. Ciaran noticed and grasped his elbow. Oliver, leading them, slowed his pace, but did so without comment, and without even looking back. Reynard strode on, slowing for no-one, and soon was ahead.

†††††† "Here," Oliver said, at last, when he stood at the bottom of a small slope, and Elias was still at the top. It was a natural valley, a scoop taken out of the ground, with steep slopes on three sides. The broad trunk of a fallen tree sealed off the fourth side. Its branches had been cut off to stumps.

†††††† Elias slithered down the slope. The background noise of the forest faded as if a door had been closed. The fallen tree blocked the only level way out. The slope was easily climbable, but it served as a barrier, defining the limits of the place where they would do their talking. If anyone tried to overhear them, they would be visible, silhouetted above them on the edge.

†††††† Oliver sat down first, choosing an outcrop of pale rock for his seat. Reynard turned round and slowly walked back, climbing effortlessly over the fallen tree. He leant back against it, but remained standing, his arms folded. Elias chose a sawn off branch close to the ground. It was low and uncomfortable, but it kept him off the wet ground. Ciaran was the last one to choose his position, and his long legs allowed him to reach the top of the fallen tree trunk. He sat with his back very erect, towering above the rest of them as if on a throne.

†††††† Elias looked at them all, and thought he would remember this forever. He had rehearsed this so many times, and now the moment had come. It seemed unreal, as if this was only another of those endless practices in his imagination. This is it, he thought. There was only the faintest smear of mist left, and the sunlight shone on the four of them in all its morning purity.

†††††† "Makers," Oliver murmured. "There were four Makers, and they came together to dream a world. We are four, and the world will be changed because of what we do." Like Elias, he was watching them all intently, but Elias knew he was doing so in order to describe them in a song, to be passed down to future generations. However this morning turned out, it would become part of the Kindred's history. Elias was the hero of a story that he should never have appeared in at all.

†††††† Well, he thought, at least he could write the next line. All he had to do was open his mouth and say it. He glanced at Oliver, then down at the ground. There was a brown leaf there, and it lay utterly still. Elias stared at it. He took a breath, and opened his mouth to speak.

†††††† "Well, Reynard?" Ciaran demanded, from where he was enthroned above them. "I think it's time you spoke. Enough of this plotting in secret. Tell Elias what you want him to do."

†††††† Elias looked up at his master. Please, master. No. Ciaran's face was hard, and his eyes glittered with hatred. Elias tried to speak again, but Ciaran whirled on him. "No, Elias! Let Reynard speak. You need to hear this before you commit yourself to anything."

†††††† "I already know, master," Elias said, but his voice was a whisper, lost in the storm. Ciaran was shouting, and then Reynard was, too, pushing himself away from the tree and stalking forward.

†††††† "Stay out of it, Ciaran Morgan," he shouted. "You're nothing here. Nothing."

†††††† Ciaran lowered his voice. "Tell him." He looked at Elias, but, if he saw the expression on Elias's face, he didn't care. "Listen to this, Elias. Watch it, and learn."

†††††† Reynard put his hands on his hips. "You want me to tell him?" He whirled on Elias, his expression the twin of Ciaran's. "You want to hear?"

†††††† "No," Elias whispered. He twisted his fingers, and looked at the dead leaf. No-one was even trying to hear his answer. No, he pleaded, silently. I don't want to hear it. I know it already. I wanted to speak first. Please.

†††††† "Reynard wants to go to war," Ciaran said, with evident relish "He's been away with his cronies, plotting with them even as you were dying. He's going to kill innocent people, Elias - little girls like that one who died in the fire. And he's going to do it because of you. He's going to force you to go along with it. He'll tie you to your horse and make you ride at the head of the army, as a figurehead. You'll see them all die, and everyone will blame you."

†††††† Reynard put his hand on the hilt of his sword. "I want to go to war, you say? Yes, I do." He started pacing, his steps quick and violent. "Why should I deny it? It's the only thing to do. We've been robbed of our rightful position for so long. Now is the time to fight to get it back. Now is the time to make them pay."

†††††† "And you have it all planned out?" Ciaran asked, with deceptive mildness.

†††††† "Yes." Reynard nodded. "Alberic ordered us not to fight. If we fought without a king to lead us, we would die. We've always known that when the king came back, we would finally be free to fight. I've planned it for a lifetime, as did my father, and everyone before him. We've dreamed of nothing else."

†††††† "I haven't," Oliver said, so quietly that only Elias heard him. For a moment, their eyes met.

†††††† "The moment he came, we were ready," Reynard said, proudly. "I've sent to the other Houses, so they will be ready to march on my command."

†††††† "On your king's command, surely?" Ciaran said. "On the command of this boy you despise. On the command of this boy you didn't even bother to consult." His voice rose high and shrill. "On the command on this boy who was dying, even as you made your plans. Dying because of you!" He thrust out one accusing finger.

†††††† Reynard laughed. "How was that my fault?"

†††††† "Because you robbed those people," Ciaran said, folding his arms. He looked supremely sure that he was right in every single thing that he said and did. "Because, if you hadn't, Elias would never have been exposed to the illness that he nearly died from."

†††††† Reynard shrugged. "There are always risks in the way we live. That's why we need war. Let them live as exiles, watching their children die. See how they like it!"

†††††† "You're so sure of victory?" Ciaran scoffed.

†††††† "There are two thousand of us, and we've lived for this moment. With Albacrist as a token, and the king's name as our rallying cry, there is not a man in the Kindred who will not join us. We have enchantment, and the king has more. He's a boy, yes, so it falls to us to provide the leadership and make the decisions, but we will not fail. The Duke's a soft man, and the armies are run down. They've grown used to us skulking in the forests and only attacking to repel them when they get too close. They've never seen us ride out in force." He grinned. "We'll trample then beneath our feet."

†††††† "I won't do that," Elias whispered. "I won't."

†††††† But Ciaran was already speaking, scything through his words. "You hear that, Elias? That's what the future will be like, if you stay here." Then he turned back to Reynard, and spoke like a conspirator. "And you, Reynard. You'd rather go to war without him, wouldn't you? You'd rather he just left you the sword, and let you get on with it. Why should he have the title, when you're the one doing all the planning? Better get rid of him and be done with it. At least then you'd be free to conduct the war however you liked."

†††††† Reynard's eyes narrowed, and he looked very dangerous. "He's not what we expected, but he's still the king. Without him, no-one would agree to war. We need his name, and perhaps we need him, too. He might be useful. He has powers beyond mine, and beyond yours, too, Ciaran Morgan."

†††††† Elias looked up at him, peering into the sunlight. "I'm not," he said. "I don't want to be king."

†††††† "Useful?" Ciaran laughed. "You hear that, Elias?"

†††††† Why won't you hear me? Elias thought. He had rehearsed it all, but his master had ruined it, and now it was all horrible, and no-one was even listening to him. Even Oliver was silent, clearly hating the argument, but letting it happen all the same. He probably thought it was better that these things were said openly, and no-one had any secrets. But not even Oliver knew the secret Elias carried. Not even Oliver knew what Elias had been going to say.

†††††† "He's my apprentice," Ciaran said to Reynard. "I won't let you hurt him. I won't let you treat him like this." And he said it sincerely, too, as if he was genuinely unaware that he himself had hurt Elias more than anyone. The realisation made Elias want to cry. Before very long, he thought, he might come to hate his master, and that would be the worst thing of all.

†††††† He blinked, and raised his head. "I'm not going to be king, master."

†††††† "You have no choice," Reynard said, speaking through Elias's words. "He's been chosen as king, and we all just have to live with that."

†††††† "I'm not going to be king!" Elias screamed.

†††††† Everyone stopped. Everyone looked at him. Ciaran froze in shock, and then smiled. Reynard's face was unreadable. Oliver looked as if Elias had just struck him hard in the stomach, and it was his face that Elias found himself incapable of looking away from.

†††††† "I'm not going to be your king," Elias said, more quietly. "I'm sorry, Oliver. I can't."

†††††† Oliver clasped his hands together, the fingers interweaving and the knuckles very white. "Why not?"

†††††† Elias touched his own chest. "Look at me. I'm no king. I can't take that title. I don't even know what the forest looks like beyond those trees over there, let alone the world outside the forest. I don't even know much about my own world. I don't know about people. I can't just come here and lead you. It's not right."

†††††† "You're thinking of us," Oliver said, with a sigh. "Aren't you." It was not a question.

†††††† Elias tried to explain, but all the rehearsed words had gone, and he could not find them again. "It's wrong. You've waited for five hundred years. You shouldn't just.. throw yourself on the mercy of someone like me, and kneel to me, and follow me."

†††††† "You wrong us, Elias," Oliver said mildly, "if you think we would do that. Perhaps you think we have been idle for five hundred years, just waiting for the king to come and wave a magic wand and make things right again? We've waited, yes," he said, before Elias could answer, or apologise. "Perhaps we've lived in the past rather more than we should have done, but we had little choice. A people is nothing without memory, and we have more need of it than most. But we have not been idle. Every day of our lives is a fight."

†††††† "I'm sorry," Elias said. "I didn't mean it. I'm sorry."

†††††† "We bought our own survival." Oliver clenched his fist, and spoke as fiercely as Reynard had spoken. "We could have just given up and died, that day our king left us. There were enough enemies around us who would have obliged. But we fought to live, and to live the way we thought was right. And we will still fight for that. We will never slavishly follow any king. We will respect him and honour him, yes, but we will also advise him and correct him, and suffer alongside him. We will remain responsible for our own actions."

†††††† "I'm sorry." Elias ran his thumb along the scar on his hand, the scar he would bear for his whole life, never letting him forget the oath he had sworn.

†††††† Oliver gave a shaky smile. "Oh, Elias, I'm not angry with you. You have nothing to apologise for." He said it as if he meant it, even though he thought Elias was going to walk away and leave them forever. He didn't even try to make him change his mind, though Elias knew how sincerely he believed that his people were lost without a king.

†††††† "I will not be your king," Elias told him, "but I will not leave you. If I have powers, I will use them in your cause. I will live as you do. I will be your servant, but I will not be your king. I cannot take that title. I just... can't."

†††††† Ciaran said nothing. Elias had expected him to explode into a furious denial, and order Elias to change his mind, but his master, who had had so many words for Reynard, had none for Elias. His lips were pressed together in a tight line, and he was glowering. The argument would come later, Elias knew, when no-one else could hear.

†††††† Oliver looked almost apologetic. "Many kings said the same, or so the stories say. Enchantment chose the king, but he was often young, gifted but inexperienced. That's why we were there, the Kindred, to advise him. And they say that several kings tried to deny their title, saying that others deserved it more."

†††††† "But they ended up as kings after all." Elias sighed. "So you're saying I have no choice?"

†††††† "The king is the servant of the whole kingdom," Oliver said. "The title means duty. We always understood that, even if the people did not, and cast us out because of it. And each king in turn has realised that, and has accepted the title willingly. The title confirms the oaths he has sworn."

†††††† "So I have no choice," Elias said again. Although he had already resolved to stay with the Kindred, he felt trapped, as if Oliver was a gaoler who slammed a door in his face. But he still had some choices left to him. "But, whether I stay here as king or not," he said, "there are still things that need to be decided."

†††††† Oliver nodded. His eyes were shining, but his hands were very tense. He knew what was coming. Oliver seemed to understand him in ways that Ciaran never did.

†††††† "Reynard." Reynard's head snapped up. "I know you want to go to war," Elias said, just as he had rehearsed in the night, although it was a stupid thing to say, for the whole thing had just been shouted across the forest and was no secret now.

†††††† Reynard's eyes narrowed. "I do, and most people are with me. It's what you're here for."

†††††† "It is not." Elias clasped his hands and squeezed them very tightly. "I don't like fighting," he said, aware that he sounded like a little boy. "I don't like seeing people hurt. I told you as much on the road, when I stopped you killing the guards."

†††††† Behind him, Oliver sucked in a warning breath. It was unwise to remind Reynard that he had already yielded to Elias once before, but Elias had done so deliberately. It gave him strength, remembering it.

†††††† "You don't know anything," Reynard said, after a pause, but his voice was subtly different than it had been when hurling similar accusations at Ciaran.

†††††† "No," Elias conceded. "I have a lot to learn about your world, and I mean to do so. But I say this to you, Reynard: I will not serve you in any way, not if you use my name as a licence to wage war. Perhaps I don't know anything, but by using my name, you involve me. You're doing it because of me, and, as my master says, that makes it my fault."

†††††† "We have to fight," Reynard protested. "There's no other way."

†††††† "Maybe there are many other ways," Elias said. He was trembling inside, forced to confront a man who had threatened him and made him bleed. "Have you ever thought about that?"

†††††† "We've had five hundred years!" Reynard shouted. "We've thought about everything! If there was a way, we would have found it."

†††††† Elias swallowed. "I have powers, Oliver says. Maybe I can find a way." He glanced at Oliver. "If you help me."

†††††† "You won't," Reynard sneered. "War is the only answer."

†††††† Elias took a step forward, so they were standing face to face. "I will not let you fight."

†††††† "And can you stop me?"

†††††† "Yes," Oliver said, without standing up. "Look at his belt, Reynard. He wears Albacrist. You know what that means. You would not be Kindred unless that meant everything to you."

†††††† Reynard rounded on Oliver. "Guide him. Correct him. You said so yourself. The king has the enchantment, but the Kindred have the experience. That is what the seneschal is for. And, in a time of war, I am your equal, or have you forgotten that?"

†††††† "I do not want a war," Elias said. No-one stepped forward to stand at his shoulder. Ciaran and Oliver were still sitting down, just watching him. He was facing Reynard alone after all. "Perhaps," he conceded, "things might change, and there will come a time when a war is a necessary evil, and there is no other way. But that will only be when I am satisfied that we have tried all other possible options. Until then..." He raised his chin, and felt the sunlight on his face. "Until then, Reynard, I want you to stop using my name as a call to war. Nothing will ever be done in my name that I do not want to happen."

†††††† "We've waited so long." Reynard looked strangely vulnerable. "We've held back for so long." They had endured exile, because a long dead king had ordered them to, and they had only heard his words in a story. Despite what Oliver said, Elias still thought the depth of their belief in their kings was terrifying. "We just want everything to be the same as it used to be."

†††††† His master only wanted the same, Elias thought, but perhaps some things had to change. It was frightening standing here by himself, but did he really want to be the old Elias again, who cowered behind his master, and never had the power to make a difference to people's lives? "But it wouldn't," he said, gently. "Oliver told me how it used to be. You never saw yourselves as rulers, but as servants. But if you impose your rule by war, then you become tyrants. You'll have to kill to stay in power. Everyone will hate you. You'll be less safe in power than you are here, in exile."

†††††† Reynard drew his sword. "But we'll be fighting back. We'll be doing something at last."

†††††† "I plan to do something," Elias said.

†††††† "What?" Reynard demanded.

†††††† Elias shook his head. "I don't know yet. We need to talk about it. I want to listen to ideas. I want to decide it today, here, now."

†††††† "Listen to your master, you mean," Reynard sneered, "and do what he says, as usual?"

†††††† "No." Elias shook his head. Ciaran had his own reasons for the things that he did. So did Oliver. So did everyone. They gave advice, but they were only human, and sometimes they were wrong. Elias could listen to them and be swayed by them, but, in the end, he had to make up his own mind and do what felt right. "No," he said, again, "though I will listen to him, and to you, too."

†††††† "I will not change," Reynard hissed. He still held his sword drawn in his hand. "I want war, and I will get it, one way or another." He lunged towards Elias, and Elias was suddenly convinced that the man was going to run him through and kill him, just like that. But Reynard just shouldered him aside, and stalked past him, slamming his sword into the scabbard.

†††††† And then Oliver was on his feet, blocking Reynard's escape. "You would have to kill me first." His voice was cold steel. "Many would stand with me. Go to war, and first you would have to fight your own kin. I stand with Elias on this. But he has more courage than I have, for I would just have sat there, while he said what needed to be said."

†††††† "So you would have us give up?" Reynard demanded. They were standing very close, close enough for Reynard to kill Oliver in an instant. "You want us just to accept defeat and not be saved after all? Are you a traitor, Oliver?"

†††††† "No, I am no traitor, Reynard," Oliver said, "and it demeans you to make such an accusation. I would never accuse you of such a thing, even though I think the course you want to set us on would destroy us utterly. I want to see us saved, but I believe salvation might be reached in a way we have never expected."

†††††† Reynard snarled, and pushed Oliver aside. Without another word, he climbed the slope and disappeared into the forest.

†††††† "I meant it," Oliver said, when he had gone. He turned to face Elias, and sighed. "When my father said the king was coming, I was as overjoyed as anyone else, but I also dreaded it a little, because I knew Reynard would push for war, and I feared that I, as seneschal, would have to ride at my king's right hand into battle. I argued with Reynard from the start, but not often enough, and not loud enough. I thought it would be dangerous if he finally lost all respect for me. He will take many with him."

†††††† Elias kept staring after Reynard, half expecting him to come back with an army already arrayed behind him. "Will there be trouble?" he asked.

†††††† "Perhaps." Oliver grabbed hold of Elias's right hand, and knelt. "You are my king, and I will serve you. And not just because of the sword you bear. You showed yourself to be a true king today, a king I can serve with all my heart."

†††††† Elias blinked, and tried to pull his hand away. "I didn't do anything."

†††††† "You really believe that?" Oliver smiled. "Look back on it, Elias, and think."

†††††† Elias tugged his hand free, and walked away. Ciaran slid down from the tree trunk, and stood there, his hands on his hips. Once - yesterday, even - Elias might have gone to him and drawn comfort from his strength.

†††††† "I want to be alone," Elias whispered, wrapping his arms around his body. "I'm tired. I've got a headache. I want to think."

†††††† "No." Ciaran grabbed his arm. "You're coming back with me."

†††††† Back to the camp, Elias wondered, or back to Greenslade? He did not ask. "Please, master."

†††††† "We have a lot of things to talk about, you and I." Ciaran sounded like a stern parent.

†††††† "Soon," Elias pleaded. "Just not now. Please." Then he thought he knew how to persuade him. "Someone needs to follow Reynard and keep an eye on him."

†††††† It worked, and how sad it was, Elias thought, that Ciaran could be persuaded so easily when Elias offered him an enemy to hate, and not at all by his apprentice's pleas. "I'll go, then," Ciaran said. He touched the back of Elias's hand, and his touch turned suddenly gentle. "But be careful, Elias. You're not strong yet. Come back soon. Don't get cold. Have you got your sword? Good. It might be dangerous, even here. I'm only concerned about you, Elias," he said, a little testily.

†††††† Elias managed a smile. "I know."

†††††† "It won't be dangerous," Oliver said to Ciaran. "And I'll come back with you." His eyes met Elias, promising him that he would keep Ciaran out of trouble.

†††††† Ciaran began to walk away, but he stopped after a few steps, and looked back. "You'll be all right, Elias?"

†††††† "I will." Elias smiled. "I'll be back soon. I'll find you."

†††††† After they had gone, his smile faded. He sat down, resting his chin on the heel of his hand. The mist had gone, and the sun was shining, and a bird swooped low from the branches, singing.