Across the border
Annis Ryder was a queen in exile, and this was her time of trial. She reminded herself of that fact every morning, while peering into the cracked mirror, and every evening, lying restlessly in her narrow bed. She whispered it under her breath a hundred times in between, when they forced her to do something particularly degrading, or when anyone sneered at her or annoyed her.
On a morning just like all the others, she threw back the blankets and swung her legs out of the bed, wincing then they touched the cold floor. Padding over to the window, she peered out, and smiled to see that it was going to be another sunny day. She picked up the small mirror, and tilted her head to catch the light. "I'm special," she told her reflection. "One day I will rise above them all."
Bess would be the first one she humbled. Annis looked at her now, the girl who had shared her attic room for over a year. Bess was still asleep, her mouth wide open and drooling on the pillow. Annis gave a delighted laugh. "Not so beautiful now, are you?" Bess was dimpled and pretty, and knew it well. She had been insufferable lately, boasting about the wealthy lover she had ensnared, and taking delight in listing all the reasons Annis was without a man of her own.
Annis combed her hair, smiling with secret glee. How wonderful it would be when her patience was rewarded and she came into her own! "I never knew!" Bess would gasp. She would fall to her knees and clasp her hands, her soft face slashed all over with ugly tear tracks. "Forgive me for all the things I said. I'll be your servant. I'll do whatever you want, just don't hurt me." Perhaps Annis would forgive her, and perhaps she wouldn't. In some of her daydreams she was merciful, and it others she was regal and terrible, but she was never less than mighty.
"You're doing it all wrong," Bess said, and it took Annis a moment to pluck herself out of the dream, and realise that it was the real Bess who had spoken.
Dropping the comb, she glared at the girl. Bess had sat up in bed and was pushing the sheets down with her legs, revealing the perfect curves beneath her thin shift. How Annis hated her!
"I've been watching you." Bess pulled her blanket around her shoulders like a cloak. Of course she had to make sure that it slipped off one pale shoulder and that the light from the window fell on her blonde hair. "You're combing your hair all wrong, Annis. You look into the mirror, but you're not really thinking about what you're doing. Better to put the mirror down and use both hands." She picked up the comb and carefully removed a few strands of Annis's brown hair from between the teeth, then started to comb her own hair. "See? Think about the hair, not about yourself. Forget the mirror."
"What does it matter?" With brutal fingers, Annis split her hair into three hanks, and roughly plaited them. Then she coiled the plait around and pinned it to her head, then covered it with the white linen coif. "No-one can see it now, anyway."
"No reason not to take care of yourself," Bess said. "You could be pretty, Annis, if only you tried. Why don't you let me help you? Richard has friends..."
Annis whirled on her. "I don't need your cast-offs! I don't need a man at all."
"You wouldn't say that if you had one," Bess said dreamily. "I'll marry him and he'll take care of me, and I'll never have to be a servant ever again. He'd never have noticed me if I'd been like you, scowling at the world. Men like women who smile at them. They like women who make the effort to show off their natural advantages."
"So you're pretty, yes," Annis sneered. "We all know that. You keep telling us."
Bess blushed in a sickening pretence of modesty. "I tried hard, and you could, too.
What have we got to look forward to, Annis, you and me? We're servants, in a world set up for people with money, and women, in a world set up for men. Do you want the rest of your life to be full of nothing but cleaning grates and scrubbing floors and curtseying? The only way out of it is to marry."
"I don't need a man to make something of myself. I'm..." Annis stopped suddenly, realising that she had almost said more than she should. Recovering quickly, she turned sly. "So you don't love him, then. You're just using him."
"Oh, I do love him," Bess gushed. "He's handsome and... and tender, and loving, and..."
"Yes. I know. You've told me." Annis pulled on her bodice, and tugged sharply at the lacings. "Did he make you pregnant? Is that why you think he's going to marry you?"
Bess gasped. "I'm not! Although…" She blushed and simpered. "We've done… you know. Several times."
"Oh." Annis wandered over to the window and leant out, oh so casually. "If it's such true love, I'm wondering why he's out there with another girl."
"You're lying," Bess cried. She seldom raised her voice, and Annis smiled to hear it. "Why are you so… so horrible? I've never done anything to you. You're just jealous."
"Jealous?" Annis whirled on her, hands on hips. "Jealous?"
"Jealous, yes." Bess nodded her head. "Just because you haven't got a man. Just because everyone hates you."
"I have got a man, so there!" Annis screamed. "And he's far more handsome than yours. He's the most handsome man in the whole of Eidengard, and he's mine, and you'll never get your hands on him, never!"
"Oh?" Bess raised one golden eyebrow. "And to think that a moment ago you were telling me you didn't need a man at all. And now you have one, or so you say."
Annis desperately tried to regain her control. She had already blurted out one of her most treasured secrets. While she longed to see Bess's face when she discovered the truth, now was not the time. Her triumph would be all the more sweet for being long awaited. "No wonder Richard's tired of you," she said, turning back to the window.
"Stop lying, Annis." Bess sounded suddenly weary, as if Annis was beneath her notice and not worth arguing with.
"He's there." Annis ran one finger across the window, making meandering patterns in the condensation. "See for yourself."
She won't be able to resist, Annis thought. She'll try to. She won't want me to think she believes me. But it'll torment her, and she'll give in. She started counting in her mind. When she reached twenty, and was about to goad her again, Bess moved. "There'll be nothing there," she said. "I'll prove you're a liar."
Annis smiled. "See?" She moved aside, wanting nothing to spoil Bess's view of the courtyard. As for herself, she leant back against the wall, wanting to see every last detail of Bess's expression. She knew without looking what Bess was seeing, for she had put the image there herself. Bess's lover, her Richard, was walking across the gravel courtyard, his arm tightly round another girl's waist. As they passed beneath Bess's window, they kissed each other deeply and hungrily.
"Oh!" It was an interesting sound, somewhere between a cry and a groan. All the light went out of Bess's face, and she sank to the ground, clinging to the windowsill with white knuckles. She started crying straightaway, fat tears rolling indulgently down her cheeks. "It can't be true."
It can't be true, Annis mocked. Oh, Richard. No, no, no! She pulled on her cloak, and deliberately walked over Bess's sprawled form. Not so pretty now. Not so smug, either.
"Still think he's going to marry you?" she taunted, as she opened the door. Bess just looked up at her, her face red and blotchy, and her mouth wide open in a silent scream of pain. Annis smiled sweetly. "Don't look at me like that," she said. "It wasn't my fault. I did you a favour by showing you the truth. Let's just hope you're not pregnant after all. Nobody wants damaged goods. A servant for the rest of my life? You won't even be that. It would never do for a fallen woman to be a servant in the Duke's household, now, would it?"
Still smiling, she closed the door behind her, and walked jauntily downstairs, her brown cloak trailing on the stone stairs. Their attic room was four floors up, and the staircase was unlit, and dark even in daylight. There was a small landing on each floor, with four or five rooms opening off it. Most were empty and silent, for the Palace servants started work before dawn. But this was Annis's day off, and she always liked the feeling of rising late, and being at leisure when everyone else was working.
She emerged into the courtyard, and stood there for a little while, enjoying the feel of sunlight on her face, then headed for the gate. As she walked, she glanced up at the window to see if Bess was gazing out of the window, but there was no-one there.
The two young soldiers at the servants' gate were lounging against the wall and chatting, but they looked up when she approached them. "It's Annis," one of them said. "Sour-faced as usual."
They barred her path. "Off to see your lover, Annis?" the other one shouted, and they both laughed raucously at the mere idea.
She had no idea what their names were, and didn't want to know. They were nobodies. Or rather, she thought, narrowing her eyes, they had been nobodies, but now they were enemies. They had belittled her. The last person to belittle her lay snivelling in an attic room, wailing that her love had left her.
"Let me pass." She raised her chin in her best regal manner.
"Of course," they said, stepping back mockingly, as if she was the last person in the world they would want to linger with.
Their voices followed her down the road. "Say hello to your lover from me, Annis." They laughed. "Hello, and good luck."
Idiots, she thought. They were cruel and small-minded and ugly. She knew from the other girls that most of them were only interested in one thing, and lost interest as soon as they got it. Why on earth would she ever want someone like that? She was special, and there were things in her mind and her heart that no man could share. She was no whore, to sully her gifts by giving her body to the first attractive man who asked. Something rich and precious was not cast before brute animals, but was treasured and kept safe until someone came along who could appreciate it.
Sometimes, though, she found herself wondering what it would be like to have a husband. She didn't need to love him, of course, as long as he loved her. He would give her rich things, and buy her everything she asked for. He would adore her, and at least he would be willing to die for her. If her secret was betrayed and the soldiers came to get her, her husband would shield her with his own body, letting them cut him to pieces rather than see his beloved wife taken. It would be the greatest gift anyone had ever given her, like a subject laying down his life for his queen.
But then, when the wind battered at the windows of her attic room, and the laughter of the other servants filtered up from the courtyard, she thought it would be nice just to have a friend. Someone to talk to and share whispered confessions. Someone who would smile to see her, and just liked spending time with her. Someone who liked her, even if they were beneath her. Just someone.
These daydreams were deeper, and tinged with sadness and longing. They reached into her dreams, where they took shape and showed her the face of a man. In the morning, after those dreams, she was crying with yearning, her pillow wet with tears.
She had dreamed of him first when she was seven years old, and a dozen times since then. It was always the same. She was standing in a high place, raised above the crowd, and they were all watching her, but their faces were flat and unreal. He, her man, was the only person who truly existed, and he was staring at her with such passionate intensity that she wept to see it. He reached out his hand towards her, and she strained to reach it, to clasp it, to kiss it. There was love in his eyes, and he knew her. He knew everything about her, but still he loved her. The moment he looked at her, her whole life changed.
When she was seven, he had been a grown-up and his love had seemed to her like a father's love, but now she was nineteen, she knew he was only a young man of around her own age. He was the sort of man who would have Bess and her friends sighing dreamily and pretending to swoon, but he would never be theirs. He belonged to Annis. He was her man - the husband who would die for her, and the companion who would whisper confidences in her ear.
Someone shouted, and she whirled round, glaring at the young nobleman who was standing too close to her, shouting cheerfully after a friend on horseback. He frowned when he saw her, and suddenly his lively face was all cold lines. "Watch where you're going, girl." In his eyes, she was a servant girl who had come too close to someone above her station.
"I'm sorry," she mumbled, for this was her time of trial, and she had to play the part well. She had to clean the grates and polish the cutlery, and be grateful for the roof over her head and the two meals a day they graciously dispensed to her. She had to wear dull clothes and an apron, and lower her eyes when those who thought they were better than her deigned to look in her direction. She suffered every day, and her lot was very hard, but one day she would be rewarded.
Just before rounding the corner, she looked back at the palace. It was a beautiful building, made of imported red stone, finished with a cream-coloured trim of native rock. It was built around two great square courtyards, and each side of the square was made up of opulent state apartments whose many windows sparkled in the sun. Beyond it, lowering over the western walls of the city, the old citadel looked primitive in contrast.
Long ago, before the people had risen up and cast them into the dirt, kings had ruled in Eidengard, and the citadel had been their home. When Annis was queen, though, she would choose to live in the palace. The citadel was all very well as a barracks for rough soldiers, but she thought she would tear it down and replace it with beautiful gardens that nobody else would be allowed to enter.
She knew little about those ancient kings, for it was still treason to ask too many questions, even though the boring old scholars were new allowed to study those times a little. Annis already knew all that she needed to know. Anyone weak enough to let their own subjects overthrow them deserved everything they got. The kings had squandered their time of greatness, and were a thing of the past, forgotten.
But not everyone wanted the past to be forgotten. The bandits who lived in the forests of the north were somehow related to the old kings, although Annis wasn't sure exactly how. Descendents of those who were cast out, she assumed, who refused to accept that their time was over. But they were cruel and savage, and there was nothing royal about the way they lived. Older children delighted in scaring their little brothers and sisters with tales of their excesses. They roasted children on spits, and lived like animals, grunting rather than talking. Even the adults knew such things as truth.
Annis, though, recognised a story born of fear and weakness, and knew how the frail-minded conjured up terrors from the unknown. The bandits were her enemies, of course, but she thought they were probably just men, sulking in the forest over their lost power. Wild with jealousy, they struck out at the decent, stupid folk who wandered too close to them, and dreamed their ineffectual dreams of glory. Perhaps their leader, the most savage fighter of them all, took the name of king, and lived for the day when he could fill the streets of Eidengard with bloody vengeance. They were cruel and bad, yes, but also a little pathetic.
One thing all the stories were agreed on was that the bandits practiced dark sorcery, as the kings had done so long ago. They worked terrible magics that could curse a man to death, or bind him as a mindless slave. If a man died with his stomach ripped out by a bandit's sword, he was lucky, they said. The bandit sorcerers could dispense things a hundred times more terrible than death.
Such powers were not confined to those with the blood of the bandits in their veins. Every year, new sorcerers were found from among the citizens of Eidengard itself, and a similar tale was told from all the towns and villages of the Duchy. They were vipers, ready to sink their poisonous fangs into the hands that had raised them. Some were in league with the bandits, they said, but most were just evil all by themselves. Some of them had hidden their powers for years, and had taken wives and raised families, all the while being sorcerers of the utmost evil, plotting the undoing of all that was decent.
All nonsense, of course. It made Annis laugh to hear such talk. Perhaps the bandits had some small gift of sorcery, but they could hardly have the mighty powers the gossips talked about. If they could do even a tenth of the things people said they could do, they would have escaped from their forests long ago. Their powers must be puny indeed for them to be living in such squalor. And those who had burned on the scaffold of Eidengard... They too had been weak and pathetic, to have allowed themselves to be caught. She looked around the city and saw no signs of any magic they had done. They had died, and that was a shame, but they had been nobodies.
Annis was a sorcerer, of course. She had known the name of her power from the very start, learning it from her mother's horrified squawking. She had the power of sorcery that many others had burned for possessing. She had the same power as the old kings and the bandits, but hers was far greater. Unlike them, she had not been discovered, and she could cast illusions as easily as thought, and they lasted, sometimes, for two whole minutes, or even more. If they ever came to arrest her, she would use her powers to free herself in an instant. If she was ever exiled in a cold forest, her powers would mean she could trick her way out. If she was ever a ruler, she had powers enough to confuse any rebel and ensure that she ruled till death. Could anyone else say as much?
A queen, then, she called herself, and with justification. Perhaps she would never hold a worldly title, but a queen was set above the common man, and that she most certainly was. If the old kings had been the strongest sorcerers of their time, then she, the strongest of her time, was a queen. It was only right and just.
But perhaps her time was coming, after all. Changes were coming in the Duchy, and who could tell what lay in the future? The Duke was prematurely old, and had no heir. The scholars were digging into the past, and new ideas were finding favour. The first Duke of all, they said, was a lowly man who had worked his way to high position through sheer skill and patience. Stranger things could happen than a servant girl becoming a queen. And if that servant girl possessed magical powers surpassing all others... Well, nothing was impossible for such a one.
There had been portents. Ten days ago, she had been cleaning the grate in one of the smaller drawing rooms when something had whispered in her ear. It had been like a distant song, just too far away to be heard. Her mind had filled with pearly white light, and a sensation of such beauty that she had wanted to cry. Something's coming, she had breathed. Oh, come to me, please...
Afterwards, her eyes stinging with bereft tears, she had realised that she had recognised the sensation. Whenever she performed an illusion she felt the faintest whisper of such a distant music. Her sensation beside the hearth had been the same, but tenfold. "It was as if... As if sorcery itself was rejoicing," she had found herself whispering. "Rejoicing to see me," she had added, firmly, after a few more ragged breaths. "Me."
"Something's coming," she reminded herself, as he walked jauntily along the street. She had passed some test by enduring the years of servitude, and now her reward was on its way. The future presented endless opportunity, and she was going to be at the heart of it. And perhaps even her old dreams would come true. One day, soon, she would stand on that platform above the crowd, and that beautiful young man would fall instantly in love with her, and would be devoted to her for ever after, even till death.
She would like that very much, she thought.
An hour later, she was sitting opposite her mother in the dingy room, enduring the visit she had to perform every week. How long, she wondered, before her mother would ask the usual question? She sipped at her tea, and then, sure enough, the question came, as tired and predictable as her mother herself.
"Have you got a man yet?"
Annis sighed. "Is that all everyone thinks about?"
Her mother's hands were constantly working, the fingers twisting together almost audibly. She perched on the edge of a dark wooden chair, just out of the circle of firelight. Her skin was pale and her wispy hair even more dull than Annis's own.
"I worry about you. Every day, I can barely rest for worrying." Her mother glanced anxiously around, although they were in her own home, and Annis was the only person to walk through the front door from one month to the next. "I hear them talking through the window, sometimes. There's talk of a fresh offensive against people like you. Lord Darius himself is leading it. I don't like you being in the palace, so close to him. You need a man to protect you."
Annis gave a harsh bark of laughter. "Like father?"
Just for a moment, the hands stilled, and gripped each other so tightly that the knuckles were bone white. Then her mother let out a shaky breath. "He hasn't betrayed us yet. He can't have, or they'd have come for you."
She wanted to answer harshly, but didn't have the heart. She despised it as a weakness, but her father's absence was a wound that still bled, sometimes, in her darkest sleepless nights. Instead, she tossed her head, and said, with a voice that carried almost as much conviction as she would have liked, "I don't need a man. I've already had this conversation once today."
Her mother leant forward. "I know why you say that, but you should compromise." Even that was said in a near whisper, without any intensity. Once, she had been a strong woman, fierce in her love for her daughter and her desire to protect her. Over the years, the fear had leeched the vitality from her, piece by piece. She was a woman of the shadows, now, and barely distinguishable from them.
It confused Annis. Sometimes she wanted to hug her mother and weep, sorrowing for the loss of the woman she had once been, and loving her for all that had been stolen for her. Other times, she only felt a vague sort of contempt, that she had been so weak as to let them do this to her. She would never bow down and let herself be broken by fear. If they did come for her, she would make her last stand like a warrior queen, and force them to cower and respect her.
She said nothing of this, and neither sneered, nor moved forward with an embrace. All she did was to sit on her hands, and say, "I can't risk it." That at least was something her mother could understand, even if it was a lie. "Another man like father, who knows who I am, and can betray me? No thank you."
Normally it would be enough to silence her mother and make her move onto something else, but she was in a strange mood today, her eyes sad and dreamy. "You're missing so much, Annis." She pressed one hand against the middle of her brow, nursing her permanent headache. "More than you know." When she lowered her hand there were tears shining in her eyes.
Annis saw a sudden flash of her young man's face, so intense and beautiful, and so in love with her. "You mean love?" she scoffed, refusing to let her mother see the longing in her heart. "Love like you had with father?"
"Yes, love." Her mother's voice was stiff with anger. "Twenty-two years ago today that we were married. Or have you forgotten that, too?"
Annis sighed. "I'm sorry," she said, and she really was. Long ago, her mother had been bright and carefree, and she and her young husband had loved each other very much. Annis's own birth had started the slow decline, and now her mother sat in a darkened room starting at every noise, her heart full of the ashes of a love that had gone from her.
The tiniest hint of that old vitality burnt in her mother's eyes for a moment. "Nobody is so great and mighty that they don't need love, Annis. You should remember that, before you drive everyone away."
But what did her mother know about greatness? She would never know what it was like to be singled out for some great destiny. She was locked outside the lighted ballroom, pressing her face against the glass, watching her daughter dance beneath the jewel-encrusted candles.
"I don't need anyone." Annis tossed her head. "You were the one who told me that, remember." Her mother had always kept her away from other children, terrified that Annis would give herself away. You're better than them, she had always told her, when she had asked to play with the children in the street. Do you really want to play with children like that?
"I did," her mother said, "and maybe I was wrong. Fear stopped me from doing so many things. Look what's become of us." She peered at Annis through the gloom. "I know you miss your father."
"I don't." Annis dug her nails into her palms hard enough to hurt. "Why should I? He's nothing to me."
He had been a weak man, unable to live with the fear that any day the soldiers could come for his family and himself. He had not trusted his daughter's discretion Every day he had woken up and wondered if this would be the last day of his life, and the only way he had been able to face it had been with a drink in his hand. A peaceful man before Annis's birth, he had become violent, lashing out with his fists with only the slightest of provocation. In the end, like the coward he was, he had just run away, when Annis was seven.
And that was it. End of story. There was nothing more to say and no reason to think about him. So what if she sometimes woke up from dreams of him, and found herself crying in the night? She wasn't crying for him. She didn't miss him. Why should she? No doubt he was still out there somewhere, trying to forget that he had ever had a family. Perhaps he was dead. If he was still alive, at least he had not denounced them, not in twelve years.
Her mother still missed him and loved him, but she hated him too, and blamed him. "Every day I live with the fear," she had once said. "Just one careless word when he's drunk, and they'll come for you." But Annis was sure he was no danger. He had protected her for seven years, and would not denounce her now. Besides, she had not been given her gifts only to die on the scaffold, betrayed to death before her story had truly started.
"He's nothing," she said again. "And you should forget him, too."
Her mother's eyes narrowed, and for a moment she looked almost disgusted. "Is your heart made completely of stone?"
She opened her mouth, but could find no words. She thought of her young man, and the beautiful refrain she had heard a snatch of, and known as the very essence of sorcery. They were things worth weeping for. I feel things, she wanted to protest. If I hide them, it's only because you taught me to hide the most important thing of all.
"I gave up so much for you," her mother screamed, and Annis could not have been more shocked, not if her mother had turned on her and hit her. "My whole life, devoted to keeping you safe, to worrying about you, fearing for you. I lost my husband because of it. All for you, because I love you, and I don't regret it. I'd do it again - of course I would. And that's love, Annis. A thing you've never felt, and say you never will."
Annis frowned, confused and hurt. "What am I supposed to say? Why are you trying to tell me?"
"I hope one day you work it out." Her mother's eyes were tightly shut. "I want to sleep now," she said, and sounded not accusing, but broken. "Please go."
Annis left the room, and left her to the darkness.
Reynard crouched down beside the path, and brushed the grass away from a dark block of stone. It was carved with faint patterns, but long years of wind and frost had made them fade away, and Elias could not tell what they had once depicted.
"This is the border," Reynard said. "The edge of the Forest of Vigil, as set down by the kings, when the forest bore another name, and the trees had not yet begun to reclaim the farmland. Our enemies seldom cross the border. There, where you stand, you are in our land. Beyond the stone, the world is changed. We are strangers in a land that was stolen from us. It is a world of enemies, and there is nowhere to hide."
He stood up and walked past the stone. Elias followed him. He almost expected to feel a physical change as he passed it, but nothing happened. The birdsong continued without a pause, and the air was just the same.
"And now," Reynard said, "you are in the land beyond. The danger is real, now." He turned round, suddenly fierce. "But I will guard you with my life, my lord."
"I know," Elias said, but he knew that Reynard's loyalty was complicated, and came with the weight of too many expectations. It was liable to lash out at him and insist that he acted this way, and not that.
He licked his lips nervously, and moved forward, deeper into the unknown land beyond the boundaries. Once again, he was standing on the threshold of an enclosed room, contemplating the vastness of the outside. The forest had its dangers, and it had never felt like home, but it was familiar, and the trees offered a wealth of hiding places. Already the trees were thinning, and there were great patches of blue sky above them, where birds flew lazily, and could stare down and see him, standing so exposed.
I don't want to leave, he thought, as his horse walked steadily towards the unbroken light that was the true edge of the forest. What would he find? Green hills, perhaps, and jagged mountains. Smoke from many farms, and they would have to tiptoe through gardens and clamber over walls, while dogs yapped at their heels. A plain where armies waited for him, or merely a land like any other land, full of life and beauty, but lacking something that only he could give, though he did not know how.
The path rose, and then fell. There was a small clump of trees, then a wide swathe with none at all. They skirted a thicket of hazel and hawthorn, and a rabbit sat back on its haunches and stared at him. Only when Ciaran hurried noisily to Elias's side did it turn and run away, its tail flashing white. It disappeared into a hole between the roots of the last tree of all, a solitary giant with protective arms spread wide. Elias looked up as he rode beneath its shadow, then drew in a breath, and went out into the sunlight.
"I know this place," he said, before he could stop himself. "I've been here before."
They were green uplands, all undulating hillocks and gentle slopes. From the edge of the tree line, the land sloped upwards, peaking in a limestone ridge a few miles away. The grass was well grazed by rabbits, and the slopes were scattered with patches of gorse and smears of bare yellow rock. The skyline was a series of gentle overlapping curves, set against a rich blue sky. He had never stood beneath this tall oak tree before, but he knew the sight of those hills.
"How?" Ciaran was asking, and "I don't recognise it." Reynard was looking at him with something close to suspicion.
And then Elias remembered. He had seen this place in Oliver's memory. Not far from here, beneath different trees, Oliver had looked at the same skyline, and killed a man for the first time. His brother at his side, he had stared at the hills, and seen only a world of infinite promise. The forest had been his prison, and the world stretched ahead of him, full of places he had only heard of in song. He had wanted to explore that world so very badly, but instead he had become seneschal, bound to stay in the forest with his people. And now Elias, too, had made him stay behind. The least he could do for Oliver was to go into the world with hope and confidence, ready to love it.
He smiled, and shook his head. "No," he said. "Oliver was here, once. I saw it in his mind." He would say no more. Oliver's secrets were his own, and Elias should never have seen even a glimpse of his memories.
Neither of them seemed entirely satisfied, but Elias rode past them, letting the horse choose her own pace. The hillside dipped and curved, but rose steadily. Within a few minutes he was high enough that he could twist in the saddle and see the forest laid out behind him, like a woven carpet of infinite greens and browns, covering all the lower slopes of this expanse of hills, then fading away to dark grey, stretching far further than the eye could see. There, nearly two day's journey away, were the Kindred in their camp.
He wondered what they were doing, and if they were thinking of him at all. Even if none of the others were, he thought Oliver would be, at least some of the time. He was surprised by how much he missed Oliver. The two days of travelling had been tense and largely silent. Too many conversations had ended up as an exchange of sniping insults between Ciaran and Reynard, with Elias hunched in the middle. After a while, he had just given up talking, except when he knew one or the other of them was out of earshot.
Even then, there was little comfort. When he looked at Reynard, he remembered the obligation he was under to this man, who had sacrificed his dreams of war for him. As for Ciaran, he hovered close by, and sometimes his presence was a comfort, and sometimes it felt like a prison. Elias had been so desperate for Ciaran to come with him, and he would still feel bereft if Ciaran abandoned him, but he thought now that Oliver would have been better company. Oliver treated him as if he was worth something, and wanted him to make choices for himself.
Ciaran was at his side again, frowning down at him from his taller horse. "Elias."
Ciaran shook his head. "Nothing." He had just been checking up on him, saying his name like a command to make sure that Elias would still respond.
Elias rode faster, and soon he was at the top of the ridge, and the lands to the south were spread out before him. It was barely a summit at all, and the slopes on the far side were just as gradual as the hills he had already climbed. Like soft waves on a beach, the hills lapped onto a broad green plain. The afternoon sun was hazy, but Elias thought he could see a pale road, and smears of smoke from farmhouses and villages. A line of grey on the far horizon could have been a range of mountains, but might just have been haze.
"We have to be careful," Reynard said. "We're heading into inhabited land."
"Yes." Elias nodded. Half a dozen steps down from the flat summit, and the forest was hidden from sight. There were people living in the foothills and the plain, and every step took him closer to them, and further away from friends.
He wondered what they were like, these people of the borderlands. There were few towns of any size within a day's ride of the forest, Reynard had explained, just scattered villages with little connection to their central government. Like the people of Greenslade, they were sheep farmers, who lived as they had lived for centuries. Elias had wondered if they made them more inclined to like the Kindred, but Reynard had shaken his head. "They hate us more than most." Only a day's ride from the lands of their enemy, they had probably suffered more than most, too, though Elias had not spoken this thought aloud.
Although Eidengard was four or five days away, Elias found himself peering into the haze, trying to see a faint gleam of its towers. The previous night, he had lain awake for hours, worrying about how the city would be. In his imagination, it had become a place of nightmares, with sleek stone houses inhabited by people with cruel eyes. As soon as he entered their gates, they would know he was different, and they would press in on him, like the flames that had lined the avenue in his fever dream, and they would be impossible to resist.
But it was only a city, he told himself, full of ordinary people, and they were doubtless carrying on their lives in complete ignorance of the fact that he was on his way, trying to change everything they knew about right and wrong. Maybe a few of them, though, had enchantment in secret, and had managed to hide it from the authorities. Maybe they were doing secret good with it, healing and helping others. Maybe some, like Oliver's father, had the gift of Sight and knew he was coming after all. Perhaps he would ride down from the hills and approach the distant gates, only to be greeted by a small knot of people who had already prepared the way for him, and would guide him through the unfamiliar streets. But he would visit the Duke by himself, he thought. He would not let them risk the fires. They were good people, but he would not be responsible for any deaths, whether of good people or bad.
Ciaran's voice cut into his thoughts. "What are you thinking about?"
"The Duke," Elias said. "The city."
"It's too soon to worry about that," Ciaran said. "We've got a long way to go."
So what should I think about? Elias wondered. This journey was for a purpose, and he would never forget it. It was no mere pleasure trip, but was deadly serious. Everything rested on what happened when he and the Duke came face to face. He, Elias, had to find the right words to make a man change the beliefs of a lifetime, and trust something he was deeply afraid of. Oliver should have come after all, he thought. Oliver knew how to use words well, and had made even Ciaran change his hard-held beliefs, if only for a moment.
"I don't even know if I'll fit in," he confessed. "I don't look like the Kindred. Oliver says I'll blend in. But I don't know. What if something I do betrays me? Something about the way I speak, or some tiny thing I'm not even aware of..."
"Then don't go," Ciaran said. "Don't walk blindly into danger."
Elias just looked at him. "You know I can't do that, master," he murmured, at last.
But Ciaran was right, he thought. It was stupid to walk blindly into the city, without knowing a thing about it. He needed to practice first. He needed to do something, to dare something, just to prove that he could. The first germs of an idea started to grow deep in his mind, though he said nothing to his master. Tonight, he told himself. Tonight.
It was still light when they stopped for the night, though the sun only shone on the higher slopes now, and left the valleys in shadow. "Early, I know," Reynard said, "but this is a good place. Safer than anything we'd get if we carried on."
Elias watched as the two of them dismounted. Ciaran was trying to hide his relief at the early halt, but was unable to conceal his discomfort as he eased himself painfully from the saddle. Reynard landed lightly on his feet, and was immediately striding away, his arms swinging jauntily at his side. He flashed a sly sideways glance at Ciaran as he passed him, and Elias knew without a doubt that he was showing off, trying to make Ciaran feel inadequate for his lack of riding skills. It made him want to leap to his master's defence. Ciaran had skills that Reynard could never match, for all that Reynard had evidently decided that such skills were worthless.
"Here." Reynard gestured at a dense thicket of overhanging branches and tangled thorn. There were apple trees there amidst the hawthorn, suggesting it had once been a well-tended orchard. "We can camp inside," he said. "We clear it every summer. It's open inside, like a tent."
"Does anyone live here?" Elias asked, still looking at the apple trees.
Reynard snatched at an apple, bit into it, and grimaced. It was over-ripe and turning brown. "Not any more. They found it too near the forest for comfort. There's a ruined farmhouse nearby, but we prefer it here. Less obvious."
Elias's horse pulled at the reins, wanting to chomp at the grass, and Elias let it. "How far away from people are we?" he asked.
"A few miles, but they don't come this way. And we're sheltered here. They won't see our smoke." Reynard turned back to his horse and started unbuckling the saddlebags, then disappeared into the thicket with an armful of supplies.
Elias pressed his hands into the small of his back and stretched. His horse shifted placidly beneath him. "Get down from there," Ciaran said, a little tetchily. Elias knew he hated it when he took both hands off the reins.
"I want to explore a bit, master." Elias looked Ciaran full in the face. "Only for a while. My horse isn't tired. I won't go far."
Ciaran winced. "I don't..." Of course he didn't finish. He would never come out and say that he hurt too much to contemplate getting back in the saddle. Elias managed a reassuring smile. "I'll be fine, master. I won't go far. I'll be back in no time."
Ciaran might still have protested, but, with a smile and a wave, Elias rode off, heading very deliberately away from the direction Reynard had indicated. He knew Ciaran was staring after him, hands on hips, and knew his master would be cross with him when he returned. Reynard, perhaps, would be angrier still, but he would face that when it came. This was something he had to do.
He reached the top of the slope, winced at the sudden assault of sunlight, and began to descend the far side. Here, on the very edge of the uplands, the hills were like the spread fingers of a hand, reaching out into the plain. Their camp lay in the valley between one finger and the next, but this was a new valley, very different in character. He descended carefully, whispering soft words to his horse. The sides of the valley were not smooth, but ribbed with tiny terraces of sliding turf. There were rocks and gorse and animal burrows, and small pieces of stone slithered beneath his horse's feet.
There was a stream at the base of the valley, lined with old yellow flowers that were shrivelled and turning brown. On impulse, Elias dismounted and scooped up a handful, drinking a little, but letting the rest trickle down his face. A bird cried sharply overhead, and he looked up, water dripping from between his fingers. The sunlight gleamed like gold on the top of the slope he had just descended. The limestone looked very white, and suddenly he was back again, home, and Greenslade was in the next valley, and nothing had changed, nothing at all.
"It's there," he breathed. His fingers suddenly clumsy and fumbling, he grabbed for his horse, and clawed his way back into the saddle. Soft hills of limestone and grass, with rabbits and sheep and streams lined with dancing kingcups. A blue sky and a sunset. This valley that was strange to him, but Greenslade was just around the corner. Smoke from his master's cottage, and a blue-painted door that opened to his touch, to warmth and a fire, and his master, turning to face him in his high-backed chair.
It was home, and it was here. At night, the stars were the same, or almost the same. Here, in this world, was the little patch of land that had been his home for ten years, for all the half of his life that mattered. He would find the stream he had watched from his bedroom window. He would see the familiar skyline of the hills, and it would be the same, it would be home, even if the only creatures that lived there were the rabbits, and no man had ever walked there.
He found he was galloping, splashing through water, pounding up hillsides, weaving through willows that snatched at his flesh. "Faster," he gasped. "It's there. It has to be there."
The valley opened, the slopes levelled out and faded away to nothing. Everywhere he looked there were ghostly snatches of familiarity. On, they told him. Round the next corner you'll find what you seek. It was the sight of pale stone fragments beside the path, and the smell of a fox. It was the curve of a hill, drawn in soft green pencil. It was the smell of the air, all earth and moist grass and wood smoke.
But, like a dark skein of laughter in a dream, there was a wrongness in the familiarity. Nowhere, a voice whimpered deep inside him, and he knew it was the voice of realism, the voice that knew there was no escape from duty. Home is so far away you will never touch it again, though you will see things that remind you of it forever.
He pulled the horse around, desperately seeking, blinking through tears he had no memory of shedding. The smell of the fox lingered, but a fox could live anywhere, couldn't it? Limestone hills were hardly unusual, and grass was the same the whole world over. And the stream had gone, twisting away from him, slithering treacherously away from his grasp. It was going in the wrong direction, to the south and the west, while the stream at home flowed north-west and everyone knew that. Through hills all the way to the sea, and there was no great plain near Greenslade, only green hills and valleys and peacefulness.
"No," he cried. In the west, the sun was dying quietly, and the light was fading like a gradual drifting into sleep. "No," he sobbed, and galloped back, skirting the edge of the hills. He saw distant smoke, and the lines of tended hedgerows. There, catching the very last light of the day, he saw a roof of moss-covered limestone tiles. His master's house had a roof like that, and smoke from the chimney speaking of warmth by the hearth. They had neighbours, and people in the streets would smile at him and wave. None of them had ever knelt to him and they had never told him that he alone could condemn them forever, if he failed.
"I want them," he sobbed. He slid from the saddle and fell heavily, his hands sliding away until he was flat on his face. His horse, alarmed, carried on for a while, then slowed to a trot, and began to circle him nervously.
He pushed himself up onto his elbows, and pressed his face into his hands. Then he lowered his hands, holding them cupped as if they held water, and stared into them, as if the water was a mirror. "People," he whispered. "Friends. Companions. A smile that means nothing, but is just a smile."
Light started to coil like swirling smoke. Motes of silver settled on his hands. He saw faces, and he wanted them, wanted more. He saw a smile. A tanned hand offered him a drink. Someone laughed and asked him to dance, just one couple in a whirling crowd of carefree people. He shook his head, but it was nice to have been asked. Then someone tugged at his hand, and he looked down, and saw Alicia, her face alight with smiles. "I like you," she said, and it meant nothing more than that.
"I'm lonely," he gasped, as the whiteness blossomed and became pure light. Lonely. Alone. Alone, and he would forever be alone now, because people knelt before him, and expected things of him, and the only way he could ever be free was when he walked alone. Alone, because his master was miserable here, and one day Ciaran would go his way and Elias would go his, and Greenslade was so impossible and unattainable, and this was forever.
He bit his lip. "Lonely." He opened his hands, shattering the mirror, and the figures faded like the illusion they had been. Friendship and happiness could never be more than this, a transitory hope in dreams. Greenslade was gone, and this was a world of enemies and strangers, and, "Please," he begged. "Please."
He closed his eyes, and threw himself wildly on the surging wings of enchantment. White light blazed behind his eyelids, and he felt as if he was standing on a high cliff overlooking the world. Light was streaming from his body, pouring onto the land like rivers of blood from his pierced heart. They trickled and turned, no longer rivers but reaching hands, desperately longing to touch something that would respond. They passed over a hundred thousand tiny people without them pausing for even a moment in their work, but, here and there, there were people who looked up, and gasped, and shivered. "I felt something," they breathed, but they did not know what it was.
But some, a very few, reached their hands out in return, struggling to hold on to his touch. Someone said his name, and knew him, and said something wordless that made Elias smile and be comforted. Someone started, recognised him, but did not like what he was doing. A few, far away, said, "Who are you?" Someone wept with joy and incomprehension, and urged him to come. "So he is here," someone said, quite distinctly. "The time has come at last."
"What are you doing here?" a voice asked.
"Reaching," he whispered. "Wanting. I don't know..."
"Are you all right? Are you lost?"
A patch of yellow surged, darkening the white light like a stain. He opened his eyes and the white light disappeared. He was lying on his back in a field of damp grass, and a man was standing over him. The yellow light came from his lantern, and the afternoon had darkened to pale twilight.
"I..." Elias swallowed, and licked his lips. He tried to stand up, but pain stabbed in his head and his side. He had bruises from his rough landing, and his muscles hurt.
"Horse threw you, right?" The man looked wary, though his words were not unkind. He had a dog at his heels, Elias realised, that was easily big enough to tear him apart, though it seemed placid enough for the moment.
"Right." Elias nodded. He pulled himself into a sitting position, and the sword jabbed painfully into his shin, reminding him of the danger he was in just by wearing it. The misty white illusions had been real, visible to anyone who was close enough, and perhaps the white light that had blazed behind his eyelids had been real, too. How much had this man seen?
"Are you travelling?" the man asked. "Or are you new here? I've not seen you before."
"Travelling." Elias stood up, and the horse came unbidden, allowing him to lean discreetly against her flank. He felt weak, as if he had just performed some massive feat of enchantment, rather than merely a desperate daydream born of loneliness.
"Where from?" The man took a step back, and lowered his lantern. He whistled under his breath, and the dog moved closer to his feet, though it never once took its dark eyes from Elias's face. "Where to?"
"To Eidengard," Elias said. He had no idea how to answer the other question. Eidengard was the only place name he knew in this world. His master was right, and Reynard, and anyone else who thought he was only a stupid boy, travelling on a fool's errand. He knew nothing. He hadn't even worked out a story to explain who he was, and where he came from. He couldn’t even answer such a simple question, so what on earth made him think he had a chance of ending the hatreds of five centuries?
The man's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Where from?" He had a cudgel at his belt, and he looked solid, more than capable of felling Elias with a blow.
"From a place called Greenslade," Elias stammered. "Far away. You won't have heard of it. I'm never going back."
To his surprise, the man laughed. He was probably a farmer, Elias realised. "Running away, eh? Off to the big city to make a name for yourself? So what was it? Got a girl into trouble, and running away before her daddy can make you marry her? Running out on a hard master?"
"Something like that," Elias mumbled.
"And what you going to do when you're there?" the farmer asked, his words seeming to circle Elias that angry crows, trying to peck at his face. "Try to serve the Duke in the Palace? Enlist with Lord Darius? Or is it money you want? A handsome lad like you will have no trouble drawing attention to yourself, I'm sure. You'd be the favourite of some fat merchant, or the toy of some bored gentlewoman. Quick way to riches and influence, they say." He spat on the ground. "They're a decadent lot in the city. All this new-fangled stuff. Art, music, baubles like that. What's wrong with the old ways?"
"I... I don't know."
The farmer jabbed his hand at Elias's chest. "Go home, boy. Don't waste yourself in the city. Go back home, to where you belong. Home, where your people have tended the land for centuries, and will never be driven out, not by any army. And, besides..." He changed tack suddenly, launching an offensive on a flank Elias had not thought to cover. "It's dangerous, travelling. You're not far from bandit country. Have you ever met one of those scum, lad?"
Unable to speak, Elias shook his head. He had made a terrible mistake. He had been naďve and stupid to think this could possibly be a good thing. I'll seek someone out, he had thought. Talk to them, just to prove to myself that I can. He had just wanted reassurance that his accent and his appearance would not betray him. He had just wanted to practice on someone less important before he came face to face with the Duke. And so he had lied to his master, and let himself fall apart when a tiny bit of landscape reminded him of home. Nothing was going as he had planned.
"They used to rule this land of ours," the farmer said, "and they won't let go. They practice dark magics. They steal our supplies, and sometimes they raid our farms. They killed my cousin, twenty years ago. The Duke in his ivory tower might think we should live and let live, but he doesn't have them snarling at his doorstep." He spat again. "They're the wolf that prowls round our flock at night, to be killed on sight."
Elias felt sick. "I didn't..." He swallowed. "I came the long way round. They didn't trouble me."
"Well, you mind out for them." In the yellow light of the lantern, the farmer's face looked inhuman and distorted. "Be ready to kill. I see you have a sword. Don't sleep without it to hand. Anyone practicing dark sorcery should be killed without a thought." He leant forward, his hand on his cudgel, and the dog growled in the back of its throat, baring its teeth. Another figure approached from the side, walking easily through the twilight without a lantern.
It was all a trick, Elias thought, desperately. The farmer had seen his enchantment, and had intended to kill him all along, but was talking to make him relax his guard, or to wait while reinforcements came.
"I didn't," he whispered. Then he dug his nails into his palms and took a deep breath, reaching for calm like a drowning man reaching for a lifeline. "I will." He edged around the horse, then mounted quickly from the other side. "Thank you for your advice. I need to get on. There's still an hour before it's too dark to travel." His voice sounded unnaturally high and his words stilted, and he was sure his fear was obvious.
The farmer's shoulders relaxed. "You're sure you're all right to ride? It must have been quite a tumble."
The dog stopped growling, and trotted forward, looking eagerly up at Elias. It had been growling at the farmer, Elias realised with amazement, and not at Elias at all. It, too, had interpreted the man's tone as a threat, and it had sided with Elias over its own master. Ciaran had sometimes commented on how Elias had a way with animals, but it had never been so extreme before.
He caught his breath, as so many fragments came together in his mind, making something marvellous and strange. I want to go back, Elias thought, filling his mind with a picture of Ciaran, waiting beside the thicket. Then, when the horse started walking, he corrected himself. No. That way, across the plain, for as long as the farmer's watching. Although he did not touch the reins, the horse changed its course.
It understood him. Throughout the journey, it had come when he wanted it, and he had directed it with only the faintest wisp of a thought. Enchantment was emotion and instinct and the fire in the blood of all living things, and the animals could sense it, even if most humans could not. It was... Nice, he thought, and the horse whickered softly, as if it was agreeing.
He turned in the saddle, and saw the farmer, still watching him. He had been joined by his wife, and they had their arms around each other. The dog had run forward and was standing there, looking over its shoulder, visibly torn between two masters. Go back, he thought, unconsciously echoing the farmer's own words. Go back to where you belong, with the master you love. Go back, because I cannot.
The dog trotted back, and soon the darkness took them all, and he was alone. But somewhere, no far away, were Ciaran and Reynard, and they would be worrying about him. They'd be angry, but at least they cared. And he was connected to this world now, able to touch the minds of animals and people far away. For it had not been a daydream, that vision on the cliff. He had reached out and there had been people out there who had felt him and responded. He was part of a great network of enchantment, and that meant he would never be truly alone.
And the farmer had not suspected him after all. He had seen nothing amiss in Elias's speech or behaviour. Yes, he had expressed a deep and implacable hatred for the Kindred, but, now he thought about it, Elias found it strangely reassuring. It was just as he had thought. This man hated the Kindred but only because he was afraid of them and their magic. He was a decent man who only wanted to protect his livelihood, and decent men could be reached where evil ones could not. All Elias needed to do was prove to them that enchantment was good, and that this continuing hatred was endangering the world.
He rode back slowly, walking the horse in a wide circle through the plain, then doubling back into the hills. He felt very tired, but, strangely, he felt happier than he had felt for days.
"You let him go," Reynard had snarled.
Ciaran had nodded defiantly. "He's not going far. And it's not business of yours, what I allow my apprentice to do."
But an hour had passed, and then another. It was fully dark now, and even the fire had been extinguished. Reynard had lit it, and then gone striding off to hunt a rabbit. He had returned within minutes, cooked it, and eaten it, along with the fruit and cakes that had been intended as gifts for Elias. As soon as the darkness had deepened so much that the fire would be visible from a distance, he had doused it with water. Ciaran had eaten nothing, though he could have taken something, had he chosen to ask.
He supposed Reynard was sitting there still, just where Ciaran had last seen him, before the darkness had grown too thick. He had been sitting with his knees pulled up to his chest, just staring along the valley. His face had been sharp and alert, but he had looked strangely disconsolate. But that was only because of the way he was sitting, Ciaran told himself. Elias often say like that, hugging his legs with a look of misery on his face. There was nothing sad and needy about Reynard, for all that he chose to imitate the posture of a needy boy.
With a low growl, Ciaran stood up. "I'm going after him." He would never have allowed Elias out of his sight, but he had been too sore to want to accompany him, and the boy had slipped away before he could find the words to forbid him. Not that Reynard would ever know the truth of it. Let Reynard think that Elias had asked his master's permission, and received it.
"He's alive," Reynard's voice said from the darkness. "Or he was. Practicing his enchantment all alone, without us." He sounded bitter, but Ciaran thought he was taunting him, reminding him of how little Elias needed him.
"How do you know?" Ciaran put his hands on his hip, and turned a full circle, then stopped, teetering as if he was on the edge of a cliff. It was completely dark, darker than it ever got in Greenslade, where there were always merry squares of light at cottage windows. He had no idea which direction he was facing, or where Reynard was. He had no idea what lay out there, waiting for him, if he moved.
Elias, he thought, seeking the faint link in the Shadow that sometimes bound them. Where are you Elias?
Their link was never in words. Here, he heard, but it was only a stir of movement in his mind, like someone raising their head and rustling their clothes ever so faintly. Even that seemed faint, as if Elias was forgetting how to respond, and the link with his master was something old and rusty, and soon to be quite forgotten in all the heady fires of enchantment.
"He's alive," Ciaran said, more to himself than to Reynard. "And coming back."
"Good," Reynard said, and Ciaran had to stop himself from echoing it in just the same tone. The two of them had sat on either side of the burnt-out fire, just waiting for Elias to come back, as if neither of them were truly alive without him. It made them seem almost like allies, sharing the same thoughts. But he would share nothing with this man. They were completely different people, with nothing in common.
He began to hear the sound of an approaching horse. Just as he was about to shout to guide Elias to his side, Elias spoke, closer than he had thought. The darkness played tricks and warped sound, making distant murmurs sound like looming threats, and the horse's steps sound far away.
"I'm here." He swallowed. "Where did you go? Are you all right?"
"Late for dinner," Reynard said. A package rustled, and Ciaran's nose pricked at the sudden smell of spices and herbs. Reynard had kept food for Elias, and perhaps for Ciaran, too. "It's cold, but that can't be helped. We can't risk a fire after dark."
Elias dismounted, and Ciaran could heard the leathery sounds of him removing the horse's saddle, as easily as if it was daylight. "Cold's fine," he said. "There's a farmer a few miles away. He doesn't know we're here."
"A farmer?" Ciaran lashed out in the direction of Elias's voice, and by some chance found the boy's wrist. "Did he see you? Did you speak to him?"
"I did." Elias's voice was slightly dreamy, hinting at things untold. "He didn't suspect a thing. He didn't, and neither will the Duke. I can pass as one of them. I've proved it now."
"Is that what this was about?" Ciaran demanded. "You did this deliberately? Elias, you could have been killed."
"Deliberate?" Elias sighed. "I'm sorry, master. I rode further than I meant to. I..."
"What?" Ciaran squeezed Elias's wrist. "What, Elias?"
"I saw something that reminded me of home," Elias mumbled. "I wondered... I thought it might be nearby, this world's Greenslade. I was looking for it. I was... chasing a dream."
Ciaran's hands fell to his side. "Oh, Elias." He clenched his fists. "Is it?" His voice sounded hungry.
"No," Elias whispered. "Not here."
Elias was homesick, too. Somehow, in all of this nightmare, Ciaran had forgotten that. Greenslade was Elias's home, too, and he had been snatched from it as surely and as suddenly as Ciaran had. It was so easy to think that it was different for Elias, for he had people hanging on his every word, and new powers to explore.
Ciaran reached out again, found Elias's shoulders, and pulled him into a clumsy embrace. "You miss it?" he whispered. He imagined Elias riding desperately for miles and miles, searching for the home that he would never find, not in this world. "We'll go back. And I'm here. Your home is with me."
Elias extricated himself from Ciaran's embrace. "We can look at the stars tonight, master. There's so much life here. Animals. I saw flowers, just like at home. We might hear a fox or maybe an owl. I wonder what they're like to..." He stopped.
"You're babbling, Elias." Ciaran laughed fondly. The darkness was merciful after all, for it hid Reynard from them, and it was just like the old days, with the two of them together.
"I am." Elias sighed, and then Ciaran heard the sound of him eating, biting into something crunchy that smelled of syrup. "But something changed for me today, and I think... I think it's a good something."
"Good," Ciaran said, and he meant it. Something had changed for him, too, he thought, in that moment of realisation about Elias's homesickness. He no longer felt so alone. In the camp, there had been whole days when Elias had barely seemed to need him at all, but Elias still longed for Greenslade, and that meant that the Kindred had not won him yet.
"Let's have some dinner," he said, "and then talk about home." And the sat down together, the two of them, and ate, and Ciaran thought both of them were smiling.
Annis slept badly the night after her visit to her mother. Bess lay sobbing noisily on the other bed, and would not be quiet, not even when Annis screamed at her. "Don't be stupid, girl," she came so close to shouting. "I made it up. It was sorcery. It never happened. He loves you, and always did."
Instead, she tossed from side to side, covering her ears with her pillow, sighing angrily. Just after dark, something had happened, but she refused to think about that. Instead, her mother's words nagged on in her mind, and followed her into her dreams, where they told her she was heartless and selfish and would never be loved. In her dreams, too, she wandered through the city square, peering at every blank face, pulling men round by the shoulders and asking them if they were the one, but everyone just recoiled from her. "I'm not surprised," one woman said to another, while they nudged each other and pointed. "She always was full of poison. Didn't even know what love was, they say."
In the morning, she stamped out of bed, and saw her own reddened eyes peering back at her from the mirror. With a defiant glare at the sleeping Bess, she combed her hair with no more than her fingers, then dressed carelessly. Bess was twitching in her sleep, dreaming, no doubt, of her supposedly faithless lover. Annis shook her roughly by the shoulder. "Wake up. You're late." Then she strode from the room.
Her duties had been changed, and this was the first day of her new tasks. Instead of lighting the fires in the drawing rooms, she was cleaning the southern wing. Nothing about a servant's life was good, but she had to admit that this was one of the better jobs. Some of the rooms overlooked the courtyard with the fountain, where elegant lines of flowers bloomed in the summer. No household servant was allowed to set foot in that courtyard, and Annis savoured every glimpse of it. When she came into her own, she would surround herself with flowers and beautiful things.
"The painter's tower as well?" she had asked, when the under-housekeeper had told her of her new duties.
"Of course," she had been told, "if he lets you. He doesn't like people interfering with his work. Scared they'll knock paint over, or something."
She worked quickly, and the sun was fully up by the time she reached the doorway at the base of his tower. She had never climbed it before. It was one of two towers that stood at either end of the central wing of the palace. The painter had the southern tower, and she had seen it from outside, sparkling with light and reaching high above the gabled roofs. The other tower was dark, with few windows, but that one was part of the Duke's personal quarters. There was a metal rail around it near the top, and sometimes a man could see seen there, leaning over the edge and staring west, towards the distant sea.
She pressed her hand against her chest. Why was her heart fluttering? He was only a pathetic old man, who scurried through the corridors with his robe flapping, and rolls of canvas escaping from his arms. They were all used to him, and the way he just stood and stared, watching a young soldier drilling, or a servant gathering herbs. He was half mad, she thought, to see such interest in such ordinary things. So what if he had eyes that seemed to see right through you? He was a painter, and that's what painters did. They stared at things, and put them into their pictures. It was harmless enough.
The staircase was narrow and twisting, made out of pale stone without any covering. Her feet sounded too loud, echoing up to the top of the tower, where they doubled and came back at her. At the top there was another door, this one small and wooden. There was a piece of paper nailed to the door, but Annis could not read.
She knocked tentatively. "Hello?" she tried, when there was no answer. Then she shouted it again, louder. No-one spoke, and when she pressed her ear to the door, she could hear no sound, so she opened it and went in.
One step over the threshold, and she froze, and all the breath was plucked from her chest. The light! She wanted to cower. It was everywhere and all around her, and it was almighty, and she was tiny and dull and nothing before it. She pressed her hand to her mouth, dimly aware of the clattering sound of her brushes hitting the floor. She turned on the spot in small tight steps, but there was no escape. The light was everywhere, and it was blinding her, and there she was, just like she had been the evening before, dwarfed by beautiful light.
It had happened at twilight. Annis had been leaning from her window with her chin propped on her hand, when suddenly she had felt something so overwhelming that she had cried out. It had been a glimpse of something profound and wonderful. White light had flooded her vision, and she had shut her eyes, wanting to hide from it, then opened her eyes again, longing to see it even more intensely. But it had faded and gone from her, leaving her in the dull flatness of her normal life.
It overturned things, that glimpse of light. The fire had been sorcery, mighty and strange, but there had been a voice in there, too. There had been a person, and that fire was his to command. He had reached for her, seen her, and then moved on. Come back! she had pleaded. Come back to me, please.
But it had not come back, and she had rubbed fiercely at her tears, and smoothed down her skirt, and resolved to forget it. It had probably been no more than a dream. It couldn't be true. If it was true, then it meant that her powers were tiny, like a frail candle flame against the vast white fire of sorcery. If it was true, it meant that someone else in the world could command those powers in ways she had never dreamed of. If it was true, it meant she was a nobody.
"And I'm not a nobody," she said aloud. She clenched her fists and walked across the room, stamping hard with each quick step. There was nothing magical about the light, she realised. It was a cruel trick of glass and mirrors, and nothing more. The tower was eight-sided, and each side was more window then wall. Each window was many-paned, separated by a silver-coloured metal, but even the metal cast no shadow, for prisms and mirrors hung suspended in front of each window, reflecting light from all sides. For as long as there was sunlight in the sky, this tower room would be alive with light. There were even mirrors on the floor, scattered in place of stone slabs as if they wanted to lead her on a magical trail. Standing here, she could think herself alone in the universe, floating in space, but it was only a trick.
She walked to the window and looked out, resting her hands on the windowsill. Below her was the square of the great courtyard, and the three wings that made up the court of the fountain. She saw the gardens, where the yew avenue led to the old city walls, and the mouldering Citadel. There were tall towers in the city, as each merchant family strove to outdo the others, but the Palace was on a slight hill, and she thought no-one was higher up than she was, not for a hundred miles in any direction. The Duke's tower seemed very close, close enough that she could open the window and shout to anyone standing at its top, but there was no-one there.
With a sigh, she pulled back from the window, and gathered up her brushes and cloths. She was here to clean the room and light the fire, and nothing else. This was a place of tricks, and the sooner she was out, the better.
There were paintings propped against the wall, she noticed, as she walked towards the hearth. Most of them had their backs to her, revealing only plain wood, some scrawled with letters. A few were facing outwards, and she glanced furtively at one, then stopped, and looked more closely. It showed a boy and a girl dancing, their faces flushed, and flowers in their hair. Looking at it, she could almost see the movement of the girl's skirt, and hear their laughter. Their faces were familiar, and she realised that the painting showed a real scene from one of the festivals in the servant's courtyard. It looked very real and full of life, and she found she wanted to see another.
Her cleaning forgotten, she moved on to the next picture. This one was all soft greens and yellows, and it felt muted and sad. It showed the Citadel, as glimpsed through the trees in the Palace gardens. The only true colour in it was the flowers that seemed to thrust themselves out of the picture. The Citadel itself looked old and tired and forgotten.
The next one made her smile, for it showed the two soldiers who had accosted her the day before, lounging at the gate in a clear neglect of their duty. If their officer saw the picture, they would get whipped. She wondered if they knew they had been observed so closely, their every failing put so uncompromisingly on canvas.
Still smiling, she moved on. The next picture was facing the wall, but she wanted to see them all, so she turned it round. As soon as she saw it, she frowned, for it was unsettling, though she was not sure why. It showed the Duke himself, sitting in a chair with his hands folded in his lap. He was wearing rich ceremonial robes, but the room he was sitting in was bleak, dull brown from the walls to the floor. The only furniture was the comfortless chair he was sitting in, and his hands looked frail and old. He was not even the centre of the picture, but was positioned a little to the left. "He should have stood closer," Annis murmured, for the picture had been painted from too far away. The Duke looked small, drowned by the bleak colours of the room.
Yet the picture pulled at her, making her lean forward. The Duke's eyes were dark and sad, like the eyes of a prisoner trying to communicate a last desperate message. Then she gasped, for she had heard something at the window behind her. Something was there, at the window, watching! Something that was going to get in... Cold, it was, like bone, tapping at the window with skeletal fingers. If it got in, it would shred her to pieces, trapped as she was in that hard chair in a barren room. There was no escape. It was going to kill her. It was death, and nothing could stop it.
"No," she moaned. "No," and she managed to claw herself back from the brink of terror, and she didn't understand it at all. There was nothing at any of the windows but the everlasting blue of the sky. Behind, she thought, and to the left, and high above me. She turned her head to check, and it was if she was in the picture itself, and by turning her head she had seen something that she had not seen before.
There was a window in the picture, just behind the Duke, and to his left, and high in the wall. Just where I knew it was, she thought. It was so small that not even a child would be able to fit through it, and there was a bird perched in the outside windowsill, its beak pressed to the glass. The bird was the same dark colour as the walls, which was why she had not noticed it at first. It filled the window, blocking out the light, and it was pecking at the glass, so that a crack like a spider's web had blossomed on its surface.
But then, as she stared as it, the bird had gone, and in its place was a human face. His eyes and the bird's eyes were the same, and his bony fingers were tapping on the window, so that one nail had already cut through the glass and was reaching in like a talon.
"Do you like it?" a voice said.
She whirled round, and it felt like coming to life again. The light was beautiful and welcome, and there was blue sky above her, and nothing at the window at all. She glanced over her shoulder again, and the picture was only a picture. It was strange, showing the Duke as it did, but it was flat and rather boring, with all its dingy browns.
"No." She turned back, and dared to meet the painter's eyes. He was an old man, with grey hair straggling out of his dark cap, and she was not afraid of him. "It's horrible."
The painter gave a crooked smile. "Ten minutes you've been standing there, so close that you're almost touching. You must have seen something in it."
"Nothing," she snapped. "Just the Duke. You made him look old and useless. If I were him, I wouldn't allow it."
Again he gave a sad smile, though his eyes seemed totally without mirth. "I speak the truth. I am an artist, and can do nothing else. Artists have eyes, and see things that few others let themselves see."
Annis swallowed, and took a step back. "I need to clean your room," she said, and for the first time in her life she was grateful for being a servant, for having this excuse to move away from him.
"You can't hide things from me, my dear," the painter said, his eyes twinkling. "I saw how you saw the truth."
"It was sorcery." She thrust out one accusing finger. "There's dark magic in your pictures."
"Oh no." The painter shook his head. "I am no sorcerer. I have the magic that all painters have. I can see things as they truly are, and open people's eyes to the truth. The bards of old had the same skill, they say, and we painters are the bards of the new age."
"You shouldn't speak of the old days," Annis stammered. She had no idea why she was so afraid. It was only a stupid painting, for all that it made her want to start at shadows, sure that death was pecking at the windows behind her. "It's treason."
"I think you of all people should be wary of accusing people of treason," the painter said mildly.
She had almost reached the door, but now she paused. "What do you mean?"
"You know what I mean." There was nothing mild in his eyes now. "You have seen the truth in my painting. It will prey on your mind. You will start to look around you, and see all the small signs you have seen for months, but have never put together, until now. And then you will come back."
"Why should I do?" she asked, grasping hold of the door frame.
"Because," he said, as if it filled him with sorrow even to speak it, "you are more in danger than most, and you will want an ally, a fellow conspirator. Because you will be unable to keep away, not without finding out what I know about you."
"You don't know anything about me," she blustered.
"Oh, I think I do." He turned away, so she could not even see his face as he delivered his final blow. "You are Annis Ryder, and you are a sorcerer."
Pressing her hand to her mouth, she turned and fled. He did not follow her.