The men moved like trained assassins, instinctively avoiding those small twigs that would crack under their feet and betray their presence. They had dark hair and worn faces, and their clothes were made of leathers and earthy fabrics, that blended into the night. Their mouths were thin slashes of cold anger, and their eyes were implacable. Elias thought they hardly looked human.
In Greenslade they told stories of beings they called the Others, who lived in the woods, and could lure a traveller to his doom, if he was not wise to their tricks. They were ancient and utterly without mercy. They could take human shape, but they could never disguise the cold inhumanity of their eyes. If a man looked into their eyes, he was doomed.
It's them, Elias thought. As a bead of his blood slithered down the sword, he fought the urge to laugh the hysterical laugh of approaching insanity. He had been found by the Others, and this was the end of it. He had already looked into their eyes, and he was lost forever.
The beings ringed him, as tall as men, forming a closed circle with Elias trapped at the middle. He had been here before. Years ago, brothers and their friends had invited him to join in their games, and he had been pleased. They had made him stand still, and had formed a circle around him, singing the meaningless words of a childish game. But then their song had turned to screaming insults. Elias had turned and turned, but there had been no way out. Horrible faces had pressed up against his, spitting curses, and he had been unable even to breathe. When they had released him, he had collapsed to the ground, shaking and sobbing, more terrified than he had ever been in his life. None of their other cruelties had ever affected him as badly as that one had.
No, he moaned. Please no. They were spirits or devils indeed, to know exactly which long-forgotten fears to awaken, to make him a child again, to make him terrified and weak to their deadly tricks. They kept him imprisoned, too afraid to move. He did not even dare look over his shoulder for his master, in case he was not there, and Elias was alone.
Like those cruel boys so long ago, the attackers moved as one. No-one appeared to give any orders. They raised their swords as if controlled by one mind, and their eyes were the same implacable black. Had they rehearsed it, or had they done this so many times that it came as easily as breathing. How many deaths lay on those black-gloved hands of theirs?
Then one of them stepped forward an extra step, declaring himself as the leader, the one who would cement his doom. His eyes were pools of darkness, and his skin was ghostly silver in the moonlight that filtered through the skeletal trees. He was breathing fast, his chest visibly moving, but even that was done in utter silence. He did not speak, but his eyes held a silent challenge, and a threat.
Elias took a tiny step back, and the dead leaves made no sound beneath his feet, as if he was not truly part of the forest. The sword hilt felt like liquid silk in his right hand, whispering excitedly of hope and home. His left hand throbbed, and the blood that dripped from his fingers felt shockingly cold. It trickled, hung at the end of his fingers, and fell. Did it land on the curling dry leaves, or on the woven matting of the hearth a world away? He did not know, and did not dare look down to find out.
He was beside a standing stone, almost as tall as he was. It was carved with a pattern of snaking coils, and covered with patches of dark moss. A sprig of crimson berries lay at the base of the stone, and Elias knew it had been placed there deliberately. It was a sacrifice stone, he thought, and here he was, already in place to die.
The leader raised his eyebrows and tilted his head a little. He was about the same height as Elias, and his long hair was uncombed, tugged back into a rough ponytail but escaping at the sides. He looked about forty five, though his face was marked both by the hands of the elements and his own perpetual frown of cruelty. The only thing of beauty and polish about him was the naked blade of his weapon, which looked old and well used, but scrupulously cared for.
He was a man, of course. Really, Elias had known it all along, for all his thought of otherworldly creatures and stories. He was a man, and this was another world, and the sword had finally shown Elias the way. It had been easier to believe that he had been entrapped by the old familiar spirits of home, than that the sword had given him what he had begged for, only for it to be so horrible and wrong.
This was a man, but he was an enemy. His sword was deadly and a splash of blood showed in the small gap between his glove and his sleeve. A scar marred his right cheek, twisting it into a permanent expression of cruel mockery, and proclaiming him to be a killer, utterly without pity.
The man stared at him, and still no-one spoke. He arched one eyebrow mockingly, and flashed his teeth in a savage smile, and no-one spoke. Then his face was all cold stone again, unyielding and merciless. And no-one spoke. They watched him and watched him, and no-one spoke.
Elias clenched his wounded hand, using the pain to break the spell of terror they had woven around him. Blood welled up and began to drip through his fingers. He looked at his own bloody fist, then dared to turn around. And Ciaran was there, just half a step behind him, and a little to the right. Ciaran too was imprisoned in the deadly circle, and Elias was not alone.
But the air seemed to be shimmering around his master. Elias could see the trappings of their house around him, like a painting on gauzy fabric. There was the back of his master's chair, and the flickering pool of candlelight. There were the dancing shadows cast by the hurricane lamp, and the crude wooden horse on the mantelpiece, that he had carved as a child.
They were as faint as a dream, and growing fainter. It was as if he had stepped into this new world, but he had not yet quite finished crossing the threshold. A very small part of the old world remained, and there was still the possibility of stepping back. If he chose, he could make the candlelight and chair and the horse become real, and the trees and the men with their deadly eyes would be the ones to fade away and disappear, like smoke borne on the wind.
Ciaran, too, was part of that old world. He was more real than the furniture of their home, but he was less fully in this new world than Elias was. If Elias had almost crossed the threshold, Ciaran lingered behind, and looked back. When Elias looked at him, he could almost see through him to the men who stood on the far side of the ring.
If he spoke, Elias thought, which world would hear him? Was he truly in either of them? The forest was so unnaturally silent, but maybe he was just deaf to its sounds. Maybe he was trapped forever between worlds, unable to go forward or back.
The man saw the panic in Elias's eyes, and smiled again." And you are...?"
Elias shifted a little, and this time he heard the soft crackle of brittle leaves beneath his feet. It was midsummer at home, but here the leaves were orange and brown, and many had already fallen. There was no green in this world, and no signs of life. The only true colour was the red of the berries and the splashes of blood that fell from his hand, spattering the dead leaves and the base of the grey stone.
He moved again, and crackle of the leaves was as loud as a taunt, gleefully showing him that he was here in the flesh after all, and his home was gone. If he turned round now, he thought, would his master even be there at all?
"No words for us? No words we can pass on to..." The man's face twisted with something that could have been scathing amusement, and could have been disgust. "To your people," he spat out at last.
Elias licked his lips. How cold the night was, seeming to suck the very life and moisture from him.
"Or am I wrong, boy? Tell me I'm wrong." The man jabbed with his sword, almost striking the white blade Elias held limply in his right hand. "Tell me you're not who you seem to be." There was a strange look of urgency on his cruel face. "Tell me this sword has another master, and you just picked it up by chance. Tell me it's a mistake, then go your way and live."
Elias tried to speak, but his throat had closed up. He wanted the sword to show him the way. He wanted his master to guide him.
"And still you do not speak." The man gave a sharp bark of laughter. "Silence will not save you."
They were enemies. Their swords glistened, pristine and deadly. There were twelve and he was one, and they were enemies.
Elias had failed after all. He had finally found the world of the sword, only to fall headlong into the arms of the enemy. These were the people who had wounded the man who had brought the sword to the Basilica, and made his people scream. Twenty one years ago this man who now threatened him would have already been an adult. He recognised the sword, that much was plain. Was he the one who had wounded the last bearer of the sword, come to finish the deed by killing the next?
"Speak." The man was so close that Elias could feel his breath on his cheek. He had no fear of Elias's sword.
Elias looked back, but his master was hardly there at all. There would be no help there. Elias was on his own.
"Why do you bear that sword?" The voice was quiet, but there was more menace in that quiet than in most men's shouts. "Why have you come here?"
Elias moved his left hand, so he was holding the sword with both hands. The blood from his slashed palm smeared on the back of his right hand and began to trickle down the blade, but it felt reassuring, somehow, to be bleeding onto the sword and not the vast unfriendly ground.
"I ask you for the last time," the man said. "Will you speak?"
The words must have been a signal. Before he had even finished speaking, the other men readied themselves for the kill. Without taking a step, they went from being silent figures of menace, to fighting men, ready to shed blood. They held their swords a little more tightly, or put their weight onto the balls of their feet. Only one of them, who alone had not drawn his sword, looked uneasy. He clenched and unclenched his fists at his side, and seemed to be trying to catch the leader's eye, but Elias could not tell what message he was trying to deliver.
Elias swallowed, and managed to find his voice, though it sounded rusty and weak. "I came here because I swore an oath." The pain in his hand was enough to make him feel sick, reminding him that an oath was unbreakable.
"An oath?" The man made it sound tawdry and dirty. "For what? To use that sword to gain your birthright? To crush us?"
"An oath..." Elias swallowed again. "To do whatever I could to protect people. And if you've hurt them..." He stopped, aware of how foolish he must look, a boy trying to threaten a dozen killers.
"You'll what?" the man said, more quietly. There was a slight shifting of mood about the circle, as if Elias had finally done something right. "You'll fight us? You?"
Elias clung tightly to his sword. "If I have to."
He thought the man would laugh, or strike at him, but instead he looked away, towards the man who had not drawn his sword. That man was frowning slightly, as if he disagreed with how his leader was handling things.
Elias took the opportunity to look around, to see what manner of a place would be his grave. Since his arrival in this world, nothing had existed outside the imprisoning circle, but now he was able to see beyond it.
He saw a fire, and packs and bedrolls scattered around it. There was an abandoned musical instrument face down in the earth, and skidding footprints in the leaf-strewn mud. He saw a stick protruding from the fire, and the black smoking lump on its end that had once been a small animal held in the flames for cooking. A half-eaten hunk of meat was abandoned and half buried not far behind the leader. A knife lay close by, stained with blood and pale brown fur, and suddenly even the blood on that man's clothes suddenly seemed less threatening, with an easy explanation.
They were not inhuman killers, Elias realised. They were not the personification of all things evil, just as his master was not the personification of wisdom. They were just normal men, as real and complex as all others. But they could still kill him, and undo everything he had hoped for.
The man turned back towards him again, and his face was even more implacable. Elias thought that the unarmed man's challenge had made him all the more determined to assert his supremacy.
"I ask you again," the man said. "Will you fight me?" He smiled. "Know that I am the best of my people. Know that I have never lost a fight. Know that I have killed more men than you could dream of."
Elias felt he was trapped in a nightmare. He never enjoyed fighting, and he had no strength left. If he fought, he would die, and the people of the sword would be lost.
The man leant forward until he was hissing almost in Elias's ear. "You can still leave, boy. The door is still open a crack. You can still go back. Walk away. Be safe." Go back and live, or stay and find out what true suffering is. It is your choice.
Elias wanted to sink to his knees and sob. Master, he cried out silently, reaching for the quiescent link that he had never been able to summon himself. He knew Ciaran could not hear him, but still he called. Help me, master.
He could walk away. He could live in safety for the rest of his life. I tried, he would tell himself, but what could I do? I passed the tests, but the task was too great for anyone. I did what I could. The enemy had already triumphed, and the people of the sword had died years ago. He had been born too late. Even if they still lived, the doorway to their world was too heavily guarded by the enemy for any one man to fight through. He would lay flowers every midsummer to mourn the dead, but there was nothing else he could do.
He looked over his shoulder at his master. Ciaran's ghostly lips moved. "Come back," he seemed to be saying. "Choose."
Elias closed his eyes. His palm hurt with a bone-deep ache, and Sophie's screams were still echoing in his ears. For a moment, when he had sworn, the sword had shone with pure joy, and he had known that he had passed its test, awakening a magic that was still very much alive.
What if the people of the sword were still alive, too, and still waiting for him, still needing him? What would happen to them if he took this offer of safety, and turned his back on them? There would be no second chances. If he walked away now, the way would be forever closed to him. He had been chosen by the sword, and, while he lived, no-one else could wield it. If he stayed and fought and died, perhaps the sword would pass to another, just as it had passed to him after its previous holder had died. If he died, there would still be hope for them. If he walked away, they would still be waiting for him for the whole of his life, but he would have betrayed them, and would never come.
And it would destroy him if he ran away now. The last six months had been a torment, and by the end of it he had genuinely feared for his sanity. How could he live with himself, if he walked away? It would be a thousand times worse than those six months, because then he had had something to strive for, but now he would have to live with the knowledge that he had deliberately closed the door, and it would never open again, no matter what he did. Every time he looked in the mirror he would see something evil. Every time he looked at his hands he would see the scar, and be reminded of a broken oath. Every sound he heard would be coloured with the memory of screams.
There was no way back for him. There would never be a way back. It was better to die doing his duty, than to walk away and condemn others to death. His master had taught him that.
"Master." He raised his left hand as if to touch that ghost-like cheek, then let it fall back to his side. This was a farewell. He would die now, and he would never see his master again. He would die alone, for the sword had chosen him alone, and nobody could share the burden or ease it. There were so many things he wanted to say, but he could not say even a tiny part of them, even if he had time for a million words.
Blinking back tears, he turned his back on Ciaran's ghost, and faced his killer. "I will stay," he told him. "Kill me if you have to. Hurt me if you want to. Do what you like, but I will stay, for I have sworn it."
The man smiled, cold and gleeful, as if Elias had said exactly what he craved to hear, and had given him license to hurt him as he longed to. "Then you will die," he said, and attacked.
His apprentice was being murdered, and all Ciaran could do was watch. He was trapped behind thick glass. Everything was blurred and distant, and the voices were muted, as if they were filtered through water. He was seeing the world that lay through a mirror, but he could not get through. There was nothing he could do.
"Elias," he cried. "Please, Elias. Stop this. Come back. Stop it." But he knew Elias could not hear him. Elias had been snatched into another world, and Ciaran had been left behind. Elias had walked through the doorway, but all Ciaran had been given was this glass-covered window, where he could look into the world beyond his own, but never touch it.
Elias was going to die. His opponent was a masterly fighter, and Elias could never have beaten him even if he had been fresh. What had possessed Elias to stay and fight such a man, when he was so exhausted? Elias moved like a puppet whose strings were pulled by a blind man. Whenever the swords clashed, he winced, and fresh blood rained down from his hand. He was drained both physically and emotionally, and he had never fought a real duel before, against an enemy who wanted to kill him.
"Elias," he begged again. "Please come back."
He was fading. With every second, the glass of the window into the other world became more dark and clouded. If Ciaran turned slightly to one side, he could see his own house, almost as real as it had ever been. If he wanted to, he could turn away from the window, and it would be as if it had never been. His house would be his only reality, and Elias would be gone.
He turned back to the shadowed window. "Elias," he called. "Come back with me. Please." His voice cracked, and he clenched his fists furiously. "I order you, Elias. I'm your master. You have to come back."
Elias was losing. There was fresh blood on his tunic and a new rent in his cloak, but still he fought. Why didn't he run away, back through the door that was still open to him? Why did Elias refuse to save himself?
The boy had become a stranger to him. This was not Elias. The Elias that Ciaran knew was a boy who needed above all things to feel safe and cherished. His family's rejection had taught him that. The Elias that Ciaran knew would never turn his back on his master, and stay to die. He would not even have hesitated.
Elias fought doggedly, but he was permanently on the defensive, and only just managed to deflect several killing blows. As Ciaran watched, his attacker's sword slipped through his guard and a new line of blood opened up on his shoulder. Elias staggered from that, and another blow landed on his side, deeper this time. Biting his lip against the pain, he took his left hand from the sword hilt, and pressed the arm against his body, protecting both the wound in his side and the slash on his palm.
He was dying, but he showed no sign of using the Shadow. There was a chance that it did not exist in this alien world, but Ciaran thought it probably did, for all worlds were part of creation, and the Shadow was the echo of creation itself. Elias could have used the Shadow and fought like a Brother, but he did not. He could have wrenched the sword from his opponent's hand with his mind, or used the woven threads of Shadow to help himself leap out of the way, but he did not. He could have used it as a weapon, but he fought only as a frail and mortal man, and he would die because of it.
"Don't do it, Elias!" Ciaran screamed. "Don't throw your life away!" Elias was wilfully making a martyr of himself. There was an arrogance to self-sacrifice. It was stupid and meaningless and indulgent, and Elias was a fool not to have taken the chance of safety. If he died, it was his own fault.
If he died... Ciaran pressed his hand to his mouth. An arc of blood marked the brittle leaves. One leaf curled upwards slightly, forming a shallow cup, and dark blood settled at the bottom. Small dark lines radiated from it, following the veins that had once held life and sap.
Sickened, Ciaran turned away. If he didn't look, perhaps Elias would suffer no further hurt. He would watch the things that gave him strength - the firm and continuous reality of the home he had made for himself in a small town that wanted him. The candle flame was bright and more beautiful than anything in the forest world.
A knocking started at his door, and someone spoke. The voice was louder and more real than any of the sounds of the forest, but not quite real enough for him to make out the words, or the identity of the caller. It was someone who needed him, though. It was someone who sought him out, not someone who had been offered the chance of coming back with him, and had chosen to turn his back.
I should answer it, he thought. The villagers were his people and his responsibility. Elias had made his choice, and declared himself no true Brother. He had ceased using his staff, seldom touched the Shadow, and tormented himself with dreams of a people who were not his own. He had declared his allegiance. There had been a farewell in the boy's eyes when he had turned round and announced his choice. He had never expected to see Ciaran again, and had not even wept.
The boy's farewell had been wordless, but Ciaran was not that petty. Although Elias would never hear him, he would speak the proper words. "You've made your choice, Elias," he said. "You have chosen, and so have I. It is a shame it has to end like this, but it was your choice."
Elias stumbled and fell at Ciaran's feet. Despite himself, Ciaran reached out, wanting to touch the boy's shoulder, but his hand seemed to go right through him, and Elias gave no sign of feeling the touch. He was bleeding heavily now, and the battle was nearly over.
I can't turn my back on him, Ciaran whispered. I can't. He had sworn to protect the boy, and he wanted to protect him. It was just so wrong, that it should end like this.
The knocking at the door faded a little. Ciaran knew he should go to it, but he could not bring himself to take the decisive step. Nothing physical was stopping him, but his own mind simply could not give the command for his body to move. He could hear both the knocking and the sound of swords, and both were equally unreal, balanced like a set of jeweller's scales, ready at any moment to tilt completely to one side. If he stepped back, he could make it tilt towards the knocking, but nothing he could do would make it tilt towards Elias and the battle he was losing.
He was powerless to save him. "Elias," he whispered, and closed his eyes.
It was over. Elias was on his knees, and there was no way in the world that he could get up again. As the man bore down on him for the death blow, Elias raised the sword over his head, but it was more as a shield than a weapon. He had no strength left. There was nothing he could do to save himself.
Nothing? something whispered inside him. He sighed, half way between a laugh and a moan. He could use the Shadow and fight back for a little while, but he would still die. He could even use that deep power that the sword had begun to awaken inside him, but what was the point? If he won this fight, there were eleven more enemies, and he would never win against all of them. He felt very strongly that it was wrong to use such a power against a man who did not possess it. If someone else's life depended on it, then perhaps he would do it, but not merely to prolong his own life for a few short minutes, before he died anyway. He would fight only as himself, and die as himself.
This was the end. Elias let the sword slip from his fingers. By dying, he was proving himself unworthy of its trust. It would pass to another now.
It was not even hard, dying. It should have been difficult. Never before had he fought in earnest, against an enemy who meant to kill him. Never before had he faced such hatred, or seen his own blood on another's blade. Never before had he known that his victory could be at the cost of another man's life, or that his defeat meant death.
At least it would be over. All those months of striving, and constantly being unworthy. Who was he, to think he could save a whole people? Even if he had won this fight, he would have failed them sometime in the future. It was better this way, that he was killed off early, so someone better could come along and be the saviour they needed. If they were even alive. The man's eyes were so implacable and his sword so skilled. It seemed impossible that anyone could have stood against his kind, who moved invisibly through the forest, and killed without a thought.
"Do you surrender?" his conqueror asked, pressing the flat of his blade against the side of Elias's throat. All it would take was a tiny flick of his wrist and the sword would twist and Elias would be dead.
If he nodded, Elias thought, he would drive his own throat into the sword. Would that count as suicide? He swallowed, and even that hurt a little, pressing his flesh against the cold blade that was already sticky with his own blood. "What happens if I do?" he whispered, barely moving his lips.
"If you surrender?" The man raised his eyebrow mockingly. "Why, I will let you wonder. I have been known to hurt prisoners very badly. Some of them begged me to kill them, days before I finally did. At least if you fight on your death might be swifter."
"But if I surrender..." He looked at the white sword, quiescent in the leaves. His master was behind him, like the faintest of shimmerings on the air, but perhaps he was still enough in this world for these men to hurt him. "What will you do to my master? And the people..." He blinked, very close to tears. "There were people who depended on me. I was supposed to save them. Have you killed them all?"
Behind his conqueror, the other men were pressing forward eagerly, not wanting to miss the slightest moment of his death. Only the unarmed man looked uncomfortable, though he watched as intently as the others. Their boots were stained with Elias's blood.
"I can't," Elias whispered, as the sword pressed harder against his throat, and the man who held it smiled. "I can't surrender, not if it will make a difference..." Talking was painful. "If you will... If people will..."
"We would hurt nobody of yours." The unarmed man spoke suddenly, his voice clear and surprisingly pleasant. "You have my word."
Elias looked at him, as if he was the only light in a world of darkness, but the man he had fought twisted the sword, forcing his head back. Unless he wanted his throat slit, there was nowhere he could look but into that man's cruel eyes. "Yes," the man sneered. "If you yield to me now, perhaps it will be bad for you, but that will be the end of it. But if you continue to defy me... Oh, if you continue to defy me..."
His eyes glittered, promising cruelties unimaginable. He knew who Elias was, and knew the people who had depended on him. If Elias dared to fight on, he would wreak a terrible vengeance on the last remaining dregs of those people. Elias would get an easy death, but they would die in agony.
Perhaps there was one thing he could do for the people of the sword after all. If he surrendered, he would be tortured, but they would be spared this man's cruelties for a while. He had no reason to trust this man's word, but the man who bore no sword had seemed sincere. They had not attacked him all twelve against one, so they had at least some honour. Even if there was just a chance that they would keep their promise, it was a chance he had to take. He had thought that he would serve the people of the sword with his deeds and actions, but instead he would serve them with his death.
He felt suddenly as if the whole world was waiting for his answer. There was no sound at all, and even the deep power of the sword was silent.
"Then," he said, "I surrender. Do what you like to me, but hold to your word, and do not harm them."
There was a sigh like the whispering of wind in the trees. Winter branches rattled like bones and he felt a bead of blood run down his throat. He knew his master would hate him very much for what he had just said, but, even so, he wished he could turn and see his face just one last time.
The man stepped back, lowering his sword. Elias offered him his wrists, ready to be bound.
"No," the man rasped. He sheathed his sword with a violent jab, and turned away.
The unarmed man walked forward, and stopped beside the man who had fought Elias, putting a brief hand on his shoulder. He whispered something, but Elias did not hear it. He wondered if he would ever learn the names of these men who were his captors and would soon become his torturers.
The man who had defeated him turned round, and he looked at Elias with something close to hatred. "By all the kings, boy, stand up."
"You're not our prisoner," the other man said. He seemed unwilling to look Elias in the eye.
Elias licked his lips. He felt very tremulous inside, presented with a hope he did not dare believe. "I surrendered..."
The man crouched beside him, his hands clasped between his knees. "Reynard fought you. You surrendered. You did so because you would rather suffer torture than betray those who have waited so long for your coming." He paused. "Is that not so?"
A dozen faces watched him, so utterly still that it was as if they were not breathing. "I... did." It sounded like such a foolish thing, said out loud, like the silly indulgence of a boy who thought he mattered.
"And you held back in the fight and did not use your true powers, because..."
"It felt wrong," Elias said, then realised that the man had also said these same words, and they had spoken together, their voices in perfect unison. He looked down at the ground and watched his own blood falling, which at least was real and unchanging.
Leaves crackled as the man shifted position. "We are your people." His voice was very gentle. "We are the ones who have waited for you for so long. We have placed such hope in you. There was too much riding on it for us to give our trust on sight, without knowing a little something of who you are. We had to see that you were worthy."
Elias looked up, and saw that the man was kneeling. All round the circle, men were falling to their knees. Only the man called Reynard showed no sign of wanting to kneel, and stood with his legs apart and his arms folded, his chin jutting defiantly.
"Don't," Elias gasped. He struggled to stand, but he was too weak and too badly hurt. His head spun sickeningly, and his hand slid in his own blood. On his knees, he managed to turn round, and found he had fallen at the very feet of his master, so faint and far away.
They said they were his people, and that it was their voices he had imagined screaming for him for so long. They said they had waited for him, but they had tricked him and hurt him and threatened him. They had been testing him, they said, but it had felt real to him, and it had hurt. The wounds Reynard had inflicted were real, and the scars would never fade.
"Master," he whispered. He pawed at the empty air where he saw the misty outline of his master's cloak.
Without really being aware of it, he reached out with his wounded left hand, and touched the discarded sword. Immediately it began to glow with a deep inner light such as he had never seen before. It had come home, and it rejoiced, but where did that leave him? He was alone, and the people he was supposed to live amongst were cruel-faced and deadly and had tricked him.
He wanted his master. He was badly hurt, and the night was very cold, and how could he bear it, if he was alone?
Perhaps the sword lent him a tiny bit of strength, for he managed to clamber to his feet. Ciaran was barely visible. His head was half turned away from Elias, but his eyes were staring with a strange and painful longing. The fingers of one hand were spread, as if he was reaching for something, but did not quite know what it was.
"Master," Elias managed again. His voice cracked, and he knew without the slightest doubt that he had fought this battle by himself, but would never find the strength to survive what was to come if he remained alone. Even if it was just one last time, he needed this. "Master. Help me. Please..."
White light flared, and all strength drained from him. His knees buckled and he fell. But just before he hit the ground, strong arms grabbed him and held him up, and he knew they were his master's arms His master was solid and here and real, and, just for a little while, he was safe.
He closed his eyes, and sank into the darkness.
"So you're his people, are you?" Ciaran snapped. "You're on his side? You want him to help you?"
The man who had fought his apprentice to the brink of death stood with his arms folded, a picture of arrogance. He looked at Ciaran as if he was a little thing totally beneath his notice, and gave a sharp nod, then turned away.
Disgusted, Ciaran turned back to Elias, who was still unconscious, his body resting over Ciaran's knees and his head nestled in the crook of his arm. Ciaran fumbled with his clothes, but was hampered by the weight of the boy's body, and his own clumsy fingers. He was a large man, and had always been better at things that needed strength, rather than softness. Elias's hand looked like a child's hand compared with his.
"Here," another man said. "Let me help." It was the man who had not drawn his sword. He, too, had tried to catch Elias before he fell, but Ciaran had been quicker. Now he was crouching beside them, and he was too close, for all the anguish that he wore plastered over his face.
Ciaran held Elias tighter. "No. I can do it. He doesn't need anyone else."
The man almost touched the boy's limp hand, but seemed to think better of it. He clasped his hands awkwardly. "I've got herbs in my pack, and fresh water." Some seconds later, he stood up and walked slowly backwards, never taking his eyes off Elias.
"You'll be fine," Ciaran whispered to Elias, when he knew he would not be overheard. "I'll make sure of that. I'll look after you."
He lifted the boy slightly towards him, then realised he had been about to kiss his brow. He lowered him again and turned his attention back to his clothes. He managed to untie the lacings at his throat, but the tunic was held in place at the waist by a broad leather belt. That needed to come off before the tunic could be pulled over his head and the wounds exposed. Without abandoning Elias to the cold of this alien ground, he could not do it.
The crowd of men still ringed them, as threatening as they ever had been. A few of them had not yet sheathed their swords. Ciaran was very aware of how unprotected his back was, as he bent over his wounded apprentice and tended to him. Only the man who had caused Elias's wounds had his back turned, and did not watch.
"His people," Ciaran snapped, refusing to let him hide from his culpability. "Is this some sort of joke?"
The man called Reynard turned round slowly and stalked towards them. He crouched down and thrust his face into Ciaran's. "You have no right to ask anything of me! I don't even know who you are. You are nothing. You understand nothing. I did what I did, and I gave my reasons. That is all." There was something in his eyes that dared Ciaran to say it was not so.
"Reasons?" Ciaran scoffed. "There is no reason I will ever accept. You fought him. You lied to him. You hurt him." His voice caught a little over the last two words, for Elias's blood was thick on his hands, and the boy had never been so badly hurt in all his life. "You could have killed him!"
"If I'd intended to kill him, he'd be dead now." The man waved his hand dismissively. "And I had no choice," he said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, and absolved him of all blame. "He needed to be tested."
"He's been tested already," Ciaran shouted. He started forward, and Elias slid in his grasp until his back was over Ciaran's thighs, and his head was lolling backwards, the throat painfully exposed. "He's already been tested," he said, pulling Elias back into his arms. The boy moaned a little, but did not open his eyes. "You say I don't know anything, but you're the one who's ignorant. You don't know anything about how this boy here has already been tormented because of you. And you don't deserve it." "You know nothing," the man repeated, spitting out every word. "Nothing of how we have lived. Nothing of what we have suffered. Nothing of what it is like to wait five hundred years for someone who may or may not come, and, even if he does, might fail us all."
"Five hundred years?" Ciaran laughed, pleased that he could expose this man's lies. "Don't talk nonsense, and expect me to believe it. It was twenty-one years since that sword was brought to us. I know, because I was there."
"Five hundred years," Reynard said, in a strange voice. For a moment, he did not sound angry. "It was five hundred years of waiting. Waiting for him." He looked at Elias, and there was something different in his eyes. If Ciaran had not known better, he might have thought it was need.
A crackle of dead leaves made him start, and he saw that the other man had returned, carefully balancing a full bowl of water and a pouch of herbs. Ciaran glared at him. For a moment, it had felt like an intensely personal battle between him and Reynard, with the prize being Elias's soul. The rest of the forest had ceased to exist, but now the man had brought it back. It was cold and horrible, and not his own world.
"We need to get those clothes off," the man said, in a soft voice. He did not look at Ciaran, but only at Elias. He inclined his head a little, in a slight hint of a bow. "My name is Oliver."
Ciaran refused to respond by giving his own name. He tried to decide whether to exaggerate Elias's injuries so he could reproach these men even more, or play them down. "He's not badly hurt," he said, at last. "We don't need your help."
Oliver put down the bowl of water, though he kept hold of the herbs. He frowned, a small furrow between his eyes and his lips slightly parted. His eyes went distant and unaware. Perhaps he was an idiot, Ciaran thought. He had read about primitive cultures where idiots and madmen were made into priests and healers, by people who believed that their madness came from the gods.
"Five hundred years," Reynard said again, as if Oliver was not there. "And now he is here."
Ciaran looked at him sharply. "And you tried to kill him."
"As I've said," Reynard spat, "I have no need to explain myself to you. He can hate me if he likes. It's all the same to me."
Elias stirred a little in his arms, twitching with a pain so deep that it could penetrate unconsciousness. Ciaran held him tighter, gathering the ends of his cloak around his poor body. "He won't hate you," he murmured, as Reynard's words made him realise something about the boy he had trained. "He never does. He never hates anyone, no matter how much they deserve it." It was something he would have to tackle Elias about, and soon.
But Reynard was not even listening to him. He was looking at Oliver, and frowning. Combined with his scar, it made him look immensely savage. "Can you…?"
"No." Oliver shook his head. His shoulders slumped and he closed his eyes. "I can't. I think it's true after all."
"Can't what?" Ciaran demanded. He hated these people, but he refused to be left out, and to sit by while they plotted their little conspiracies.
Oliver opened his eyes. "Heal him," he said, meeting Ciaran's eyes for the first time.
"Then you're not much use, are you?" Ciaran snapped. He had the satisfaction of seeing Oliver wince, and Reynard begin to reach for his dagger. He'd expose them in their true colours soon enough.
"Please," Oliver said. "He's hurting."
"All thanks to you." Ciaran jabbed a chin at Reynard. "So give me no apologies."
Reynard pulled his dagger out, just enough to show a flash of metal. "Careful how you speak to me. You're in my territory now. He might be protected because of who he is, but you are not."
"And just who is he?" Ciaran laid Elias on the ground, and stood up. He shouted the words as a challenge. "Tell me what he is to you."
Reynard slammed his dagger back into its sheath. "He's our king." He spoke the words as if they tasted horrible.
"Your king?" It was the only thing that could have taken the edge off Ciaran's fury. He gaped, then knelt back down, beside the young man lying in his bed of dead leaves. His black cloak lay around him like a pool, and the skin exposed at his throat was very pale. "Your king?" Ciaran echoed.
He threw back his head and laughed. In the stories, kings were old and wise, dispending judgements and rulings in their high towers, or they were mighty warriors who could inspire men to follow them even into the fires of damnation. In the sad, declining world of today, kings were petty things of pomp and arrogance, who lived in gilded palaces and passed their times with fripperies, but could order a man killed on a whim. Elias fitted none of the images of a king. He was shy and young, and he disliked fighting and had never had to make a judgement in his life. He was no king, and the very idea was laughable.
And what a delicious irony it was, now he came to think about it. This war-like people had been waiting five hundred years, if what they said was true, and they ended up with someone like Elias. No wonder Reynard had wanted to kill him. For all his claims that it was only a test, there had been true hatred in his eyes as he had first struck at the boy.
"What?" He shook his head in disbelief. "King of… what? Twelve men, in a kingdom that's only a dirty little square of forest?"
"We are the of First House of the Kindred." Reynard bristled with furious pride, with a strange dignity, too. "There were two hundred of us. There are seven more Houses. But our kingdom once covered the best part of the land, and it will again."
"Unless we die first," Oliver murmured. "All things come to an end, Reynard, even long years of hoping."
Reynard whirled on him. "But what comes after?"
Oliver shook his head. While Ciaran had been talking he had taken over, removing Elias's tunic. Ciaran stared, too startled by Elias's appearance to rebuke the man for his interference. Elias had lost a lot of weight since midwinter. His ribs showed on the pale skin, and the wounds on his side and shoulder were dark and horrible.
"Cover him up," Ciaran said, hurriedly, but Oliver had already done so, pulling Elias's cloak over him and tucking it in, arranging it so that only the wounds were exposed.
"I'm sorry," Oliver murmured, "but I need to wash the wounds. It will hurt, but I'll be as gentle as I can."
Irritated, Ciaran frowned. "Why are you talking to him as if he's awake? He can't hear you."
Oliver pressed his lips together in a tight line, and did not speak. He shook his head again, and his eyes were grey shadows. He carried on tending to Elias, and still he said nothing.
Elias opened his eyes. "Because I am awake." Even his voice was frail, like the distant whispering of a ghost. "I woke a little while ago, master." His hands fluttered, managing to find two handfuls of cloak. He pulled it close around him, and shivered.
Ciaran crouched beside him. "So you heard what they expect from you, these people who..." He struggled to find the words to describe just how much he despised them. "These people who lied to you and hurt you," he finished.
"Yes. I heard." Elias struggled to sit up. Oliver rocked back on his heels and would have let him, but Ciaran would not allow it.
"You're hurt," he insisted. "Lie down. Let me look after you." He would hold the boy close and whisper comfort to him, and let anyone dare stop him. Elias needed only him, and any demands they made on him were meaningless now. Their own actions had made them so.
"No." Elias's voice was distant and vague, but he shook his head quite firmly. "No, master. Don't..." He swallowed, his every muscle tight with pain. "I need to..."
"Elias," Ciaran rasped. He clenched his fists until they shook. "Don't..."
"Is that your name?" Oliver interrupted. Ciaran glared at him, but the man was oblivious. "Elias." He spoke it well, as if it was poetry.
Elias was about to answer, but Ciaran spoke first. "His name is Elias Ward. I am Master Ciaran Morgan, and he is my apprentice. I am his master." He stressed the word, meaning this man to understand that Elias was his charge, and he would make anyone pay who made him suffer needlessly.
Reynard gave a cruel laugh. "Yet he's the one we want, Master Morgan." He, too, emphasised the title. "Him, and not you at all, for all that you're his oh-so-mighty master. You hate that, don't you?"
Ciaran started forward, ready to strike this insufferable man. "How dare you judge me? Take that back!"
"Master," Elias pleaded. "Stop it. Please. Please stop it."
Elias was hurt. Elias needed him. It wasn't as if he was yielding, just saving his retaliation for later, when Elias's need was less urgent. "Lie down, Elias," he commanded him, as he sat back down beside him.
Elias sat up and wrapped his arms around his knees. He looked small and miserable, but the very fact that he was sitting up showed that he was defiant. Ciaran folded his arms, but felt cold and hollow inside. The storm that had been gathering since midwinter had finally broken, and everything was horrible now.
But I will change it back, he swore. He would not let these people steal Elias and destroy him, with their deceit and their impossible demands. He had been dragged against his will into an alien world, but he would fight his way home, and he would bring Elias back with him, and everything would go back to the way it had always been. He would not accept it any other way.
"Elias," Oliver said. "My king. Elias."
Elias was very cold, and the pain from his wounds seemed to have sunk sharp claws into his flesh, that scratched against his brain. "I don't want to be king," he whispered.
Oliver looked at him searchingly. "I'm sorry." Then he looked back over his shoulder. "Reynard?"
Reynard took two stiff steps towards him. "I apologise. I hurt you. It was not planned." His voice was almost surly, and he did not say that he regretted it, or that he had not enjoyed it. He had obviously expected a stronger king, who could have held his own in a fight, and would not have been wounded at all.
"I accept your apology." Elias thought his own voice sounded very faint, lost somewhere far away, as distant as a dream. "I understand why you did it."
Another man walked up. They were all watching him, Elias realised. All of them, with cruel and vivid flames at their back, and their faces all sharp light and shadow. Their eyes allowed him no freedom. One or two looked away guiltily when they caught him looking at them, but most of them met his gaze defiantly. They were not sure whether to revere him or hate him, he thought.
"My name is Ranulf," the newcomer said. His hair was grey and he had a black-flecked beard. He was carrying a dark shirt in his hand. "Have this. I've warmed it by the fire for you."
He held it out to Elias, and, after a while, Elias took it. "Thank you," he whispered, in that far-away voice of his. The fabric felt coarse, but it was warm, and he pressed it against his cheek. Perhaps there had been genuine kindness in the gift, and that made it feel nice, but it could never be enough to warm him. He felt as if his heart had been replaced with a massive lump of ice.
"You must have lots of questions." Oliver touched Elias's hand. His skin felt as cold as Elias's, and now it was stained with his blood. "It must be very hard for you."
Elias wanted suddenly to sob, but he swallowed hard, and managed to keep it in. "Not as hard as it is for you, I think." "Elias," Ciaran said. He sounded impatient and cross.
Elias blinked, and managed not to cry. The sword lay where it had fallen, and he had no desire to touch it, not now.
Five hundred years. They had been waiting for five hundred years, their people reduced to less than two thousand. When the man had brought the sword to the Basilica, things had been dire for his people. How much worse must things have become in the next five centuries. But all the time they had been waiting, sustained by their hope that a mighty king would come back to save them and lead them to glory.
How cruel a disappointment it must have been for them. No wonder Reynard had fought him so earnestly, with hatred glittering in his eyes. No wonder Reynard had urged him to go back home. Because the sword had chosen to shine for him, they gave him the title of king, but every man here was disappointed, and wished he was someone else.
"Elias," Ciaran said, again. "You don't have to listen to them, Elias."
"No." Elias shook his head. He squeezed his eyes shut and knew that, if he opened them again, tears would begin to trickle down his cheeks. "I don't want..." He swallowed hard. "I'm cold. I want to sit by the fire." He pressed his unwounded hand to his eyes. "I'm tired. I want to be alone. Can I be by my own?"
Even with his eyes shut, he knew that they were all watching him. What expressions were on their faces, now he could not see them? They would be disappointed and contemptuous, and perhaps they would even hate him, because he could never be what they needed him to be.
They had expected someone wonderful, and instead they had ended up with him.