Chapter twelve

Blood and earth

 

 

       Two things he had to do in the morning, and neither of them could be avoided.

       He found Oliver first, crouched over a small fire, prodding it to try to produce a flame. The seneschal tried to ask him how he was feeling. How does it feel, Elias, to have killed someone yesterday? How does it feel to know that Reynard could declare war today, because of you? Elias wanted to laugh bitterly, but instead he gave a small shrug, as if to say that he was as well as could be expected. He had not come here to discuss his health. "What's going to happen to the girl?" he asked.

       Oliver prodded the fire again, then gave up. "She will be judged."

       "Harshly?" Elias did not know what sort of judgement the Kindred meted out, but he imagined it would be merciless. Oliver's stories had painted a picture of an idyllic past and a gentle people, but exile had changed them, and the realities of survival had made them cruelly pragmatic.

       "Do you want it to be harsh?" Oliver asked. "You are the one most wronged by her."

       Elias did not hesitate. "No. She's lost the man she loves. Isn't that the worst punishment of all, to lose someone?"

       "You would forgive her?" Oliver was looking at him strangely. "After what she did to you?"

       Elias sighed. He remembered how his master had tried to tell him that forgiveness was a weakness. "I want to talk to her," he said.

       Oliver looked as if he was about to argue, but then he nodded. "If that's what you want." He crouched again, and started jabbing his stick into the damp embers. A faint spark sizzled, but not enough to give any warmth. "Do you want me to be there with you?"

       "I think I need to do it by myself," Elias said carefully. He felt as if he and the girl were bound by some intimate connection, as the only survivors of a dreadful tragedy. No-one else had been there, in that terrible scene by the river bank. She had looked him deep in the eyes, and screamed, and lied.

       Oliver stood up and grabbed his wrist. "Be careful."

       "I will."

       Elias turned and walked away. It was a horrible day, with fine rain that got everywhere, and low cloud that allowed no light to seep through. The greyness of the morning seemed to leech all the life and colour from those who were foolish enough to venture out into it. It was the sort of weather that ought to have people clinging to their homes, watching the rain through glass windows, but it made no difference to the Kindred. Life carried on, whether nature helped or hindered. The Kindred could be called upon to fight for survival even in the worst of storms.

       Elias peered up at the eastern sky, striving to see the sun, but there was no break in the leaden clouds. He grimaced, and belatedly pulled his hood over his head, though the dark fabric clung to his face, and his hair was already soaked inside it. Yesterday, in the sunlight, the forest had seemed beautiful to him, but now it only seemed bleak and depressing. The day before, just putting one foot in front of the other had seemed like an immense joy. Now he walked and barely noticed where he was going. The dark hood restricted his vision, and all he could see was an ever-unfolding patch of mud at his feet, criss-crossed with footprints and tufted with crushed blades of grass.

       Today they would hear from Reynard. Things had been left unfinished the day before, even before Elias had killed Reynard's son. Reynard wanted to go to war, and today they would hear his answer, but Elias had something to do first, and it had nothing to do with the future of the Kindred or the world. He had to face Reynard and speak to him, not as king to war-leader, but as a boy to a grieving father.

       And then, as if he had been summoned by Elias's thoughts, Reynard was there, uncurling from where he had been crouching. He was not wearing a cloak, and he was soaked to the skin. His hair had been dragged back into a tight ponytail, and it made his face look very severe.

       "I've been waiting for you," Reynard said. "I would speak to you."

       Elias swallowed hard. "And I to you."

       "But not here." Reynard gestured sharply with his chin. "Come with me."

       Elias followed him. Reynard wore no cloak, and Elias was very aware of the sword and dagger he wore at his belt. In a world made entirely of dull grey, the weapons were the only things that seemed to shine. Reynard walked with a straight back and a blank face. Elias knew that the fear on his own face was only too obvious, but his hood was pulled well forward, so maybe Reynard had been unable to see that.

       Everyone watched them. They lined the path, and seemed to shrink back a little as they passed. He wondered what they were seeing. Reynard, like a grim-faced executioner, leading the man who had wronged him to judgement and death, perhaps. They would not want to be part of it. They would not want to get in Reynard's way, and risk his wrath. They would not want to meet the eyes of a condemned man.

       Elias looked over his shoulder, but there was no longer any sign of Oliver. Ciaran was still asleep. Elias had looked at him for a while, and then climbed over him, and out into the bleak, cold world. The rain trickled down the back of his neck and he shivered, but still no-one came.

       "Here." Reynard stopped in front of a low tent, and pushed aside the thick leather that hung over the door.

       Elias ran his tongue over his lips, and pushed his hood back. He was entirely in Reynard's power now. Reynard had brought him to his own little kingdom, where the tents were clustered close, turning their backs on the rest of the Kindred. The men in the neighbouring tents watched him, and they did not look away.

       Reynard was looking at him expectantly, and Elias took a deep breath, and entered the hut. The leather did not want to let him pass, and scraped against his cheek and shoulder. It was cold and slimy with rain, and he could not suppress a grimace.

       It was very dark inside, and Elias blinked fiercely, trying to force his eyes to adapt. Perhaps he wasn't alone. Perhaps Reynard had an accomplice who was waiting inside with a sword, ready to kill him. Maybe that was why Reynard wanted him to go in first. He blinked again, and rubbed his eyes. He was breathing very fast, and his fear made it sound doubled and trebled, like the breathing of many men.

       Then Reynard was beside him, and the leather slapped back over the door, and, even if he had been alone a moment before, Reynard was there with him now, close beside him in the darkness.

       "Will you sit?" Reynard said, and Elias heard the sound of his footsteps moving easily through the darkness.

       Elias blinked, and, slowly, forms took shape in the darkness. A thin sliver of light framed the edge of the door, and it was enough for him to see the vaguest outline of the man who faced him. He turned his head from side to side, but still could not see anyone else. He reached out blindly with his hand, and found the edge of something that felt like a chair, but he did not sit on it.

       "What I had to say to you can wait," Reynard said. "What would you say to me?"

       Elias gripped the back of the chair. Darkness could hide more things than threats. It hid Reynard's face, and allowed him to say things more easily than in the sunlight. He began to speak. "That I am sorry."

       "And why," Reynard asked, his voice quivering with right control, "do you apologise to me? To placate me? Because you are afraid of what I might do and by grovelling you hope to stop me? I have not forgotten what lay between us yesterday morning, before my... before that boy got in the way."

       "I am apologising," Elias said, holding the chair tighter, "because it's what I feel. I am sorry. And I want you to know that."

       "And what are you sorry for?" Reynard was suddenly close enough for Elias to feel his breath on his neck. He had not heard the man move. "Tell me, boy. List all the things you have done to wrong me."

       "I am sorry for your son's death." Elias swallowed, for it was hard to speak about it without wanting to cry. "I know it was a trap. I know he forced me into the fight and that he wanted to hurt me. But I should have tried harder to stop it. I should have realised it was a trap and stayed away. I should have made sure he was all right. I pushed him away, and then I forgot him."

       "Tell me, boy," Reynard asked, in a strange voice. "Do you always confess your failings so readily?"

       Elias thought of his master, so quick to tell him when he was doing things wrong, and his family, who had despised him. "I have a lot to confess," he whispered.

       Reynard exploded in fury, hurling something against the wall. "Don't do this," he howled. He was visible now, facing Elias, his hands on his hips and breathing hard.

       Elias was about to speak, but Reynard pounced on him, grabbing him by the shoulder, and clapping his other hand to Elias's mouth. "Don't," he hissed. "Don't say another word."

       Elias gripped the chair tight enough to hurt, and tried not to breathe. Reynard's hand was cold and rough, and the fingers dug into his cheeks.

       "There is no need," Reynard said, stepping back, and letting his hands fall. The wind made the edge of the leather door-hanging twitch, and Elias caught a quick glimpse of a man who thought his face was safely hidden in shadow. There was nothing impassive about it now. It was the face of a man who was half wild with grief, facing something that challenged everything he thought he knew about himself.

       "You speak, then," Elias said, turning his head away and pretending he had seen nothing. Reynard had started this formally, with a few spare words, and perhaps that was what he needed. "You said you had something to say to me." Elias inclined his head. "I am listening."

       Reynard sat down, his back very straight, and his head high. If Elias had been able to see his face, he knew, that terrible expression would be gone, driven away by the formality of Elias's words. "We left something unfinished yesterday," Reynard said, in a voice utterly without emotion. "I wanted to go to war, and you opposed me. You gave orders. I walked away."

       Something scraped, and it sounded like wood, but Elias could not see what it was. "Yes," was all he said. Reynard had rehearsed this, he thought, remembering how he had felt the morning before. As long as Elias allowed him to say what he needed to say, he would get through this, and still remain the man he wanted to be.

       "I gave no answer," Reynard said, "as to whether I would bow to your wishes, or go to war despite you. And now you are wondering whether this business with Isembard changes anything about my answer."

       Elias gave a slight nod, but said nothing. He was barely breathing.

       There was another scrape, and then another. In the gloom, Elias could see that Reynard was driving something into the floor, again and again. "It does," Reynard spat, jabbing harshly to emphasise his words. He stood up, and his chair topped behind him. "It changes everything."

       Elias closed his eyes.

       Reynard's voice continued. "Nothing you said made any difference to me. You had the title of king, but you were a boy, and a stranger. You knew nothing, yet you dared stand before me and give me orders. You dared presume that you knew what was best for us, when it was obvious to me that war was the only course open for us. And then you even managed to get Oliver on your side, so our House would be divided if I went to war. Look at me, boy!" he shouted. "I want you to hear this."

       "I am listening." Elias lowered himself into the chair, fumbling like a blind man. He clasped his hands in his lap, and wet clothes made him feel as if he was encased in ice.

       "I was going to go to war, anyway." Reynard gave a harsh laugh. "Nothing could have changed my mind. I wanted war, and I was going to have it. If Oliver opposed me, I would denounce him. Many would follow me. Then I would ride to the other Houses, and raise armies in the name of the king. No need to tell them that the king was a squeamish child afraid of a little bloodshed. They would flock to my banner, and at last, after all this time of sitting idle and watching injustice, we would be able to strike back."

       Elias shivered. The rain drummed on the roof like the drums of war, and he could hear the distant clash of swords.

       "And then Isembard did what he did, and it was an atrocity. He plotted against his king, and, by doing so, he betrayed his people. I despise him for it." Reynard stated it as a simple fact, without anger. "But afterwards I wondered if I should bear a share of the blame. Was it very different from what I'd been planning myself? Did he say things to you that he had overheard me saying?" He stooped and picked up the chair, carefully placing it upright again. Then, with a bellow, he hurled it across the tent. It destroyed things as it fell. "Was he me?" he shouted, as everything broke around him.

       Elias bit his lip, and turned his face so his chin was pressed into his own shoulder. "It wasn't your fault."

       "No?" Reynard laughed again. "Maybe not. But was he any different from me? I was plotting to rebel against the king chosen by enchantment. Oh, he did it because he wanted to glory of leadership," Reynard said. "I would have done it for the Kindred, or so I would have told myself. But the result would have been the same. We both opposed you. And..." He sank down to the floor and lowered his head. "And you said some wise things yesterday, and you are my king, and that should be enough for me."

       Elias stood up. "It shouldn't. I don't want it to be."

       "Too bad." Reynard raised his head. "Because I will make my oath to you, Elias Ward." He pushed himself to his knees. "You are my king. Albacrist does not lie. You are my king, and I am Kindred, and my duty is clear."

       "No," Elias breathed. There was dark canvas around him and above him, and there was no escape. Reynard was between him in the door, and he was trapped. "Please don't."

       "Do not deny me this!" Reynard cried. He drew his sword and held it up in both hands, the blade horizontal and level with Elias's belly.

       Elias pressed his fist to his mouth. "I'm sorry."

       "You are my king," Reynard said, his voice tight with some hidden emotions. "Against my judgement, I bow to your will. While you live and command me, I will not raise the Kindred to war."

       I don't want this! Elias wanted to plead, but Reynard had begged him, and Reynard needed this. It had cost him a lot to kneel, and Elias could not demean his sacrifice by denying it.

       Reynard lowered the sword. "Forgive me, my lord."

       What could he say? There was nothing he could do except play the part of a king. "You are forgiven," Elias said.

       Reynard rocked back on his heels, the oath over. The door quivered, and Elias saw that his eyes were gleaming silver. He was fierce and expectant. See? his whole stance was saying. What have you got to offer me, to match the great sacrifice I have just made?

       Elias pressed his hands to his chest, where his heart was pounding like a prisoner hammering on iron bars. "I will do everything I can to find another way," he vowed. "I will serve the Kindred with everything I have. I promise you that."

       In the half-light from the doorway, he saw that Reynard's mouth was curving into a smile.

       "I do want to help you," Elias said, in a rush. "I just don't want war to be the way."

       "I know." Reynard was no longer smiling. "And I still want it, but I am giving you a chance. Show me your other way. Show me that it works." His voice trailed off, and was unmistakeably a threat.

       All Elias could say was, "I'll try."

       Reynard brushed his hands together, just as he had done after washing away his son's stain in the stream. That's that, then, the movement seemed to be saying. His face was blank, wiped clear of emotion.

       He will hate me for this, Elias thought, more than ever. Reynard had knelt before someone he still thought of as a boy, a stranger, and a disappointment as a king. Because of Elias, he had lost his son, and been forced to sacrifice his dream of war. Over the weeks, would his words of loyalty fester and become bitter hatred? Wherever Elias went, he would feel Reynard's eyes boring into his back. I sacrificed so much for you, those eyes would say. Make my sacrifice mean something.

       Reynard had knelt, but he had not yielded. And now Elias was bound by a fresh promise of his own, and by the weight of guilt, just as his master had said. For all Reynard's concessions, he felt as if a battle had just been fought, and that he had lost.

       There was nothing left to say. He paused in the door, looked back, then walked out. The leather flap fell heavily into place, and the rain squalled into his face. He almost pulled his hood up, then decided not to. He was wet enough already that a bit more rain would make no difference, and it felt good to feel it on his face. Perhaps it would wash away the stifling memory of Reynard's tent.

       He began to walk back, his leaden steps scuffing in the broken grass. Someone walked past him, giving him a deliberately wide berth, and he thought they were hurrying into Reynard's tent to receive his report, like carrion birds picking over his bones before he was even dead. He saw something sitting in the doorway of a tent, and saw that it was the girl from the day before.

       He closed his eyes for a moment, then walked towards her. "Come to gloat?" she asked. She thrust her hands forward and he saw that they were tied together at the wrist.

       "No." He stood looking down at her, then crouched, so they were on the same level. He supported himself on fingers splayed in the mud. "I'm truly sorry about Isembard."

       The day before, she had screamed at him and clawed at his cheeks with her nails. Now she only laughed. "I never really liked him, you know."

       But he was dead, and she had wept for him. She was trying to be brave and defiant, but he thought she was probably very scared. Her pulse was racing in her wrists, fluttering against the cruel ropes that bound her. He remembered the feel of the chains in his own dream. "Are they treating you badly?"

       "They tied me between them, wrist to wrist, last night," she said. "They're watching me all the time. They'd catch me if I tried to run. And where could I go?"

       The mud was swelling up between Elias's fingers, sticky and dark. He flexed his hand, and stared at it. The words burst out before he had intended them. "Why did you do it?"

       "It was his idea," she spat. "It wasn't my fault."

       Elias looked at her. "Did he force you?"

       The mask cracked, just for a fraction of a second. "No," she admitted. Then the mask was back again, and she laughed. "It seemed like a good idea at the time. I didn't know you at all, and I knew him. He was so handsome when he was angry. I wanted him. I thought I might as well go along with it."

       "So you didn't even believe the things he was saying?" Elias felt very cold. He gouged his fingers deep into the mud, pushing it behind his nails, meeting the hardness of buried stones. "You did all that, and you didn't even have a reason?"

       "I wouldn't do it now." Her voice was surly, as if this, too, was his fault. "You seem nice, now I've seen you." She changed in an instant, and shimmied towards him, leaning into his shoulder. She raised both bound hands and touched his cheek. "Prettier than him."

       He stood up and stepped back, all in one movement. "You had no reason." He felt as cold as ice, and sick. This girl had trampled on something very dear to him, and all for no reason at all. He had failed Sophie, but this girl he had been able to save. But then it had all been revealed as a sham, and it felt like a knife in the stomach, wielded by someone who should never have struck him.

       "They'll kill me," she wheedled, touching his thigh with her poison hands. "I didn't mean it. Please don't let them kill me."

       He turned away and started walking.

       "Please," she screamed, and suddenly there was real fear in her voice. Screaming, screaming, just like she had screamed the day before, begging him to save her. "They've accused me of being a traitor. They'll kill me. Please don't let them kill me."

       He stopped, and closed his eyes, his hands like dead weights at his side, with limp useless fists. "They won't kill you. I won't let them." He sighed. "I don't want you punished at all, despite everything. I think my master was right."

       The rain trickled cold down his neck, and he no longer wanted to feel it. He wanted to hide his face from the world, and let nobody see him. Leaving her screaming behind him, he walked away, his hood pulled so low over his face that the world was only the tiniest slit of light, and all the rest was darkness.

      

 

       Elias woke him up, touching him on the shoulder and holding his hand there until Ciaran gave in and opened his eyes.

       "Master." Elias's voice was emotionless. He smelt of rain and outside, and his hood was half up, showing his face, but framing it with shadow.

       Ciaran sat up, and Elias snatched his hand back. "What time is it?" Ciaran asked.

       "I don't know. Late morning. Please get up, master. I want you there."

       "Late morning?" Ciaran threw back the blanket, and stretched. He was always an early riser. In Greenslade, there was always something to get up for, and something to do. Here, days were only long hours that had to be endured, before he could go home again. "How long have you been up?"

       Elias shrugged. "A while. Hours." He grabbed Ciaran's wrist. "Come on."

       "Why?" Ciaran had slept fully clothed. He pulled on his boots, then reached for his cloak and his staff. His eyes felt bleary, and he wanted to wash his face, and rinse his mouth out with water.

       "Please," Elias said, but there was something cold in his voice, cold and distant. It was not really a plea at all.

       Ciaran stood up. "What's happened to you, Elias?" This Elias was a stranger. This was not the trembling boy he had soothed to sleep the night before, then watched over until he had been unable to keep his eyes open any longer.

       "Nothing." Elias went out of the door, and, after a pause, Ciaran snatched up his staff and followed him.

       It was raining, and Ciaran grimaced, pulling his cloak as tight as he could. It was an ugly morning, and Elias was already walking away from him, heading for the trees. "Where are we going?" Ciaran demanded.

       Elias did not look round. "The same place as yesterday."

       "In the rain?" Ciaran grabbed Elias's elbow, and was surprised when Elias did not resist, and allowed himself to be dragged round. His eyes looked bleak to the point of despair. "In the rain?" Ciaran said, more gently. "That's stupid, Elias."

       "Perhaps I am," Elias said, with a sad smile, "but it's the right place." He turned and walked away, his arm dragging behind him until Ciaran belatedly released it. "It should be finished where it began."

       Ciaran hurried after him. "Are you going to get Oliver, then? And Reynard?"

       "They already know. They're waiting for us. I've already spoken to them."

       Spoken to them while Ciaran was still asleep. Stepped over Ciaran's body and sought them out, alone. Ciaran pursed his lips, and jabbed his staff into the ground. "You spoke to Reynard?"

       Elias stopped walking. He turned round, and seemed to really look at Ciaran for the first time. "Please don't make trouble with Reynard, master. He's promised not to go to war after all."

       "Promised?" Ciaran gave a bark of laughter. "What did he say to have you believing that?"

       "He promised, and I believe him, yes. He... said things to me that I think were confidences, and it would be wrong for me to tell you what they were. But I believe him." He sighed, and at last there was a glimpse of the true Elias on his face. "So now I need to find a plan. I need to find some way to help the Kindred. I need to give Reynard what he wants, but without war. I need to. I promised." The last two words were a mournful little plea.

       Ciaran took his arm. "You don't have to."

       "I do." He smiled again, even more bleak than before. "They're waiting for me." He turned once more and walked away. He seemed to tolerate Ciaran's touch, but did nothing to encourage it. After a few steps, Ciaran withdrew his hand. Immediately Elias wrapped his arms around his body, hugging himself close.

       Ciaran watched him for a while. He wanted to command Elias to stop, but he knew the boy would not obey. "Why are you like this today?" he asked, when he could no longer keep silent.

       "Like this?" Elias laughed. "Today it becomes real, master," he said, which was no answer at all.

      

 

       It was different today, Elias thought. Many things had died beside the stream, and the whole world had changed. Yesterday they had felt like Makers, and their smallest deeds had felt like something from a bard's song. Today was bleak and grey, and the rain fell relentlessly. No-one sat down. They stood with dripping hair and lank cloaks, and no-one seemed willing to look at anyone else. This time, Elias had not rehearsed a thing. He had no idea what he was going to say. He opened his mouth and spoke Oliver's name.

       "Yes, Elias?"

       "Tell me about the Duchy." He floundered for words, and for the memory of a conversation they had had a week ago, before he had almost died, and before he had killed a man. It seemed like a year ago. "You said the Duke's a well-intentioned man. You said they don't come against you in force any more."

       Oliver nodded. He clasped his hands before him, and told it like a story. Perhaps, Elias thought, he felt safer that way. It could be a protection, like a man swearing an oath in the dark interior of a tent, or a boy pulling his hood over his face as he walked away from a screaming girl.

       It had not been a Duchy at first, Oliver told him. Had the rebellion taken place only in Eidengard, perhaps the Kindred could have survived it, but the leaders had arranged risings in every other major city, too. A dozen separate states had emerged from the ashes of the kingdom, each one ruled by a committee of the chief rebels, but Eidengard had been the rotten core of the rebellion, spreading its poison across the land. Without the leaders in Eidengard, the kingdom would never have fallen.

       Eidengard had never forgotten that. Soon they had been creeping over the countryside, swallowing up smaller towns and farmland. Most were persuaded to willingly hand over government, and they did so with little argument. The towns had been part of a kingdom for centuries, and seemed to want the security of being so again. Within a generation, the Duchy of Eidengard ruled over an area little different from the kingdom it had displaced. A generation later, and the title of duke had become a hereditary one, borne by a man who wore jewels and rode in a golden coach. 

       "They cast us out for that." Reynard spat on the mud, and ground the spittle into the earth with the heel of his boot. "They cast out our true kings, who ruled with enchantment for the good of the land, and replaced it with that... that thing of hollow pomp and ceremony."

       "Yes." Oliver gave a sad smile. "They were quick to accuse us of tyranny. Yet I think their Dukes are everything they ever accused us of. You can understand why it makes us angry."

       "Angry?" Reynard spat again. "This goes beyond anger, Oliver, and you know it."

       Oliver held up one hand to silence him. "Yet, as with every hereditary office, some Dukes have been good men. Some have put the good of their people first."

       "Their people," Reynard scoffed. "Not ours." He was jabbing the heel of his boot into the ground again and again, making a deep hole of earth and broken leaves. "That makes none of them good. Not like our kings were good. Our kings never needed golden robes and sycophants. Our kings had enchantment."

       "Some were good," Oliver repeated, not looking at Elias. "And the present duke is the best of all. He's a reasonable man. He's built lots of new towers, and they're not like the towers we used to build, but they're beautiful. He welcomes scholars from all over the world. He's even allowed them to begin to study our histories. Not because he sympathises with us, mind you, but because he doesn't believe any knowledge should be forbidden, though he still forbids the practice of enchantment. A cradle of culture. That's what he says he wants his city to be. His dream is a world where everyone is soft and gentle, enjoying music in an elegant, ordered garden."

       "Who would want that?" Reynard demanded. "And his so-called reforms tear down the buildings that we built. He calls them uncouth. He likes to build in straight lines. Where's the life in that? Does enchantment go in straight lines? Enchantment is not courtly. Life is not courtly." He struck his chest with a single clenched fist. "He makes people forget what they truly are."

       Oliver licked his lips, but did not back down. "He is a good man. I might not agree with him, but I can see that. He means well."

       "Has he told you what this Duke of his does to us?" Reynard whirled on Elias, thrusting an accusing finger into his face. "Has he told you how they burn even their own children, if they have any skill with the enchantment? Has he told you that? That is their so-called courtly pleasure. That."

       "He has told me." Elias's voice sounded very faint in his own ears. He remembered what it felt like to burn to death. It was something he would never forget, not for as long as he lived.

       "And that happens, yes," Oliver said, stepping forward as if to distract Reynard from Elias. "If he was here, now, he would order our arrest, and sign the warrant that condemned us to death. But I still say that he is a good man. He only does it because he genuinely believes we are a threat to his people. He has been taught nothing else. And in a way he is right. We are a threat. If he was here, now, he would not live to utter that order, would he, Reynard?"

       "Have you met him, Oliver?" Elias asked, before Reynard could reply to that.

       "I've seen him." Oliver smiled. "I went to the city once, in disguise of course. One day I heard him speak from the balcony in the town hall. He spoke well. Everyone cheered. If I had been born in the city, I thought, and knew nothing of enchantment, I would have served him eagerly, and loved him." Oliver sighed, wearily. "And yes, Reynard, you've now heard something I never dared tell anyone before. Make of it what you will, but I know it makes me no traitor."

       Elias plucked at a loose thread on his sleeve, twisting it round his finger "But no-one has ever tried to talk to him? You haven't tried to show him that they're all wrong about enchantment? You haven't told him that only enchantment can save the world?"

       "Tell him that?" Reynard laughed. "He'd have us killed before we even opened our mouths."

       "I'm afraid Reynard's right." Oliver looked apologetic. "It's hard to convince someone who doesn't want to believe." His eyes flickered towards Ciaran, and Elias tensed, expecting his master to react, but maybe Ciaran had not seen it. "And we look like Kindred. It's hard to live in the wilds for your whole life and not be marked by it. We sound different. We look different."

       The thread on Elias's sleeve snapped. It was wound so tightly that his fingertip was almost purple. "I don't," he said.

       Oliver grabbed his arm. "No!"

       "Yes." Very slowly, he started unwinding the thread. It felt sticky, coming out of deep scored grooves in his finger. "I made a promise, and this is how I will keep it. I don't look like you. I don't sound like you. I'm a stranger. I can tell him the truth as I was told it myself. I'll know what questions he needs answering, because they're questions I had, too. I'm not one of you, so he'll have no reason to think I'm biased."

       "He has more reason to kill you than anyone," Reynard protested, but his voice was unusually soft, and there was no anger in his eyes when he looked at Elias.

       "I won't let you do it." That was Ciaran, just a second after Reynard.

       "You mustn't go alone," said Oliver.

       "It might not work." Elias looked at each of them, his eyes rising no higher than their chests. "I know that. But I have some powers. I don't know what I'm capable of, but I'll learn. I'll learn enough so I can get away, if it all goes wrong."

       Oliver sucked in a breath. "There's a chance it might work."

       "But you won't go alone," Reynard said.

       Elias hazarded a glance at his master, but Ciaran was not looking at him. "I don't want to go alone," Elias said. "I don't know the way."

       "Then I'll go with you." Reynard touched his sword hilt, and moved to Elias's elbow. "I think it's a fool's errand with no chance of success, but I'll keep you safe through it nevertheless." He laughed, with a levity that sounded entirely forced. "And maybe the man who bears Albacrist can do the impossible, and make fools of all who doubt him."

       Ciaran still said nothing. Once again, Elias tried to meet his gaze, but Ciaran's eyes passed right over him without seeming to see him.

       Reynard was already making plans. "I'll bring my best fighters. We'll form a war band to protect out king. It's not war, but it's second best. At least we'll see the towers of Eidengard again." It was the closest he had come to mentioning the promise he had made in the tent.

       Elias dug his fingers into his palms, for, once again, he had to oppose this man. "No. I want to slip in quietly. There should be nothing to make him think he's under attack. If I give him my trust, then he will be more ready to give him mine."

       "You are very wise," Oliver said, "and very brave," and Elias wanted to cover his face with his hands and beg him not to say such things, for they couldn’t possibly refer to him. The more hopes people placed in him, the more he would let them down. "And I will come with you."

       Elias turned to face him. He was just standing still, turning from one to the other, but still Ciaran did not look at him. "Not you, Oliver," he said, though he would ten times rather have Oliver with him than Reynard. "You're seneschal. Someone needs to stay with your people." Both Reynard and Oliver had said that they would be killed on sight if they tried to speak to the Duke. Reynard was a fighter, and could take that risk, but Elias would die rather than lead someone like Oliver into such danger.

       "So it's just you and me, then." Reynard spoke before Oliver could argue. He seemed very quick to accept everything Elias said, and it made Elias uneasy.

       Ciaran said nothing. "Yes," Elias whispered.

       "I want to come with you." It was Oliver again.

       "And I want you to stay here." Elias forced himself to sound like a king. It was an under-hand stroke, he knew, but he thought it was the only way he could get Oliver to obey him. With every word, he just bound himself more closely to his unwanted role. "You have enchantment, Oliver," he said, "and we need people like you. You're the repository of all your people's memories, and I want to hear your stories one day. You stay here, and I will come back to you."

       "I don't..."

       Elias touched his hand. "It's more dangerous for you than for me. You said as much yourself. I'm not trying to throw my life away, Oliver. It's not that. I really think it could work, if the Duke's the sort of man you say he is. But, if it doesn't, I'll make sure I can get away."

       Oliver blinked. When he opened his eyes again, there were damp with unshed tears. "Then I will stay, my lord, and serve you here." The formality shattered, and he clasped Elias's hand in both of his own. "Be careful, Elias."

       "I will try to be."

       And still Ciaran did not speak. There would be a hundred small details to work out, but for now it was over. Reynard walked away first. Oliver went next, disappearing into the grey wall of rain. There were no formal closing words. It had all been just a tiny episode in a long morning, that started without fanfare, and trickled away without any sense of ending. The future had been decided, and it had only taken a few minutes.

       It was real now, and he was committed, but still his master did not speak.

      

 

       The next few days had something of the quality of the dream. Sometimes people came up to him and spoke to him, and he said what was needed back to them, but after a while each one of them went away. For the most part, he wandered aimlessly through the forest, or else just sat down, pulled his knees to his chest, and stared at nothing.

       The rain stopped late in the afternoon on that first day, but it was too late to make any difference. There was a scant hour of sunset, and it was low and weak, and not enough to dry out the sodden earth. The hut was damp, and his clothes were even wetter. The Kindred had given him fresh clothes, but even they picked up moisture from where they were stashed in the chest beside his bed. His cloak never truly dried out, but he refused to wear anything other than the Brother's cloak that had been his in a world he would never see again.

       He met Alicia once, who had asked him for a squirrel and made him feel a foolish hope. She chattered away for a while, then tried to hold his hand. "I like you," she confessed, sounding suddenly shy.

       "I like you too, Alicia."

       He met Blanche, too, who had screamed for help, and it had all been a lie. Her hands were no longer bound. Everywhere she went, people watched her, and hated her, and judged her. She was an outcast amongst her own people, and Elias thought it was a terrible punishment, even if that was the only thing they did to her. She talked to him, and her calculating eyes said the same as Alicia had said aloud. I like you. But Elias remembered how pale her thighs had been as she had lain screaming on the ground, and turned away, sick at heart.

       He had wanted to attend Isembard's funeral, but Oliver told him the boy had been buried beside the stream, while Elias had allowed his master to soothe him to sleep. Reynard had refused to attend, and Blanche had not been allowed to. His friends had been too afraid of catching the taint of his treason, and he abandoned him. Ranulf had dug the grave, and Oliver had been the only one to stand and watch. "Did you say something?" Elias asked. He had no idea what words the Kindred normally said over their dead, but even Isembard deserved the dignity of a proper burial.

       Oliver nodded. "I said the right things. I would deny that to no man, not even one who hurt you."

       But Isembard had only been a boy, and younger than Elias. He had died alone, and been buried alone. He had been cast out by his father, and left with no-one. "I wanted to be there," Elias said.

       "I know," Oliver said, "and that is why we did it when we did. It would have done you no good to be there."

       But perhaps it would have done. Elias felt as if he was living only half a life, waiting for some culmination that never came. He had a wound inside that would not stop bleeding. If he had watched Isembard being buried, it might have been able to seal over, though it would always leave a scar. Or maybe the spadefuls of earth would just have fallen heavily on his soul, as if he himself was the one being buried. Perhaps it would only have made it worse. Still, it was something he should have done, but Ciaran had led him away, and Oliver had denied him.

       Reynard was busy with his preparations, but Elias could not even do that. Once, Elias came across him as he was surrounded by a circle of attentive men, arranging all the patrols for the time he would be away. On the second afternoon, he came up to Elias and started talking about horses. The horses were allowed to wander free on the other side of the stream, he said, though none were allowed near the camp, for even the most unobservant of enemies could follow a horse's heavy hoofprints.

       "You need to choose a horse," he said. He had a saddle and harness in his arms. "Come on."

       Elias followed the man across the stream, crossing by a bridge made by a fallen tree. Reynard strode across it as if it was broad road, not even holding his arms out for balance. Elias followed more slowly. Just downstream was the clearing where Isembard had died. He peered through the trees, and remembered how the girl had screamed, and how the dead boy's limbs had twitched in the water with an illusion of life. He wanted to see the freshly-turned grave, and whisper some last message on the wind.

       Reynard reached on the other side, leaping from the bridge and landing effortlessly. "Can you ride?" he asked.

       Unable his take his eyes from that clear patch through the trees, Elias crossed the bridge, and followed him. "A little." A farmer in Greenslade had given him a few lessons, after coming upon him stroking the horse's flank in shy wonder. Elias had enjoyed it, and the farmer had always told him he was taking to it well, but Ciaran disliked horses, and the lessons were soon discontinued.

       The land rose swiftly on this side of the water. As it rose, the trees thinned out, and a fine drizzle started to blow into Elias's face. This was scrubby upland, scattered with brambles and low clinging hawthorn. The grass was wet and wind-swept, and there were horses, huddled together against the rain.

       Elias looked at them all, and touched them all. Some were coarse-haired, and looked wild, but others were tall and noble, and he knew they had been stolen from the people of the Duchy. He chose quickly. "This one." It was a small strawberry mare, with mild eyes. She whickered when he touched her, and nuzzled his cheek.

       Reynard said nothing to approve or disapprove of his choice, but merely saddled the horse. "You should practice. We have a long journey ahead of us."

       Elias rode for a little while, then dismounted. Reynard nodded once, curtly. "Not bad." Elias thought he was surprised, though he was trying not to show it. "You should come again. It's always good to get your body used to being in the saddle." He gave a sudden laugh. "I have seen men who should know better, groaning in misery by the camp fire on the first night of a journey."

       "I will," Elias said. They turned to go, and there was Ciaran, watching it all with a frown. He must have followed them, keeping an eye on Elias from behind, but still not saying what Elias so badly wanted to hear.

       Ciaran barely looked at Elias. "Give him time," he snapped, glaring at Reynard. "He's not completely better yet. He gets tired very easily."

       Reynard put his hands on his hips. "I know that as well as you do, Ciaran Morgan. We go in two days. Is that long enough for you?"

       "Come on, master." Elias plucked at Ciaran's sleeve, anxious to avoid a confrontation. "It's cold up here. Let's get back."

       They walked down together. Reynard stayed behind, and Elias thought he was riding his own chosen horse. He had seen the man patting a large chestnut, with a muscular body and a proud step, and just the sort of horse Elias would have chosen for Reynard himself.

       "How are you feeling?" Ciaran asked him on the way back to the camp. Elias replied with some vague comment about his physical health, which said nothing about how he was feeling inside. Then they talked about the weather, and about horses, and that was all. There was something Elias needed to say to his master, but Not yet, please, not yet. He had faced all the other things he needed to do, but this was something he would run from for as long as he possibly could. He just wasn't ready.

       Back at the camp, they parted. Ciaran went to get some food. Elias hugged himself against the rain, and walked in a meandering path through the tents. Everyone looked up as he passed, but their faces were all stranger's faces. He had never been introduced to them, or told their names. He had never even stood before them and told them his own name. He had been carried unconscious into the camp, and now he was living amongst them. Each one had their own very personal idea of what sort of a man they wanted him to be, and their own private dreams of what a king would do. He wondered what were they seeing as they looked at him.

       He said as much to Oliver, the following morning. Instead of answering, Oliver said, "I was going to ask you something, though I didn't want to. And now you come to me with this."

       "What were you going to ask me?" It all sounded stiff and formal. This was a walking dream, with no true emotion in it. Everything was grey, and this would be yet another day with no sunshine.

       "To stand before them and let them see you, before you go," Oliver said. "They need it very badly, I think. The king has returned, and that is a dream come true for them, but it doesn't quite feel real to them. We are a people who cling to our traditions..."

       "Traditions," Elias echoed. "There will be a ceremony?" His hand came up and touched his brow, imaging the icy touch of a crown.

       "There's no need for you to say anything, not unless you want to," Oliver reassured him. "I'll say a few words. They might kneel. I'm sorry, Elias, but I cannot in all conscience stop them. I serve them, as well as you, and their needs cannot be forgotten."

       "I know." He felt nothing, nothing at all, except a sudden rush of affection for this man. "And I will do it. Tonight."

       "Tonight." Oliver embraced him suddenly, pulling him close, then letting him go, but he said nothing to explain why he had done so.

       Tonight, then, Elias thought, but there was something he needed to do first. He spoke to his master for a little while, but an hour later he had already forgotten what they had said. He spoke to Oliver about what the Duke looked like, and tried to picture his face, and wondered what he would say to him, but there was only blankness where there should be words. He approached Reynard and asked for a saddle, then rode his horse across the uplands for many hours, until his legs and back were all one sharp pain, and his face was whipped by the wind and rain. Then he slid from the saddle and sat on the ground, as the horse chomped grass and idly watched him.

       He raised his hands. He couldn't do it. He pushed them forward, and wrote shapes in the air. He remembered how it had felt like to make illusion, and called on the same power, but nothing happened. The grass trembled, but the air remained utterly still. After a while, it blurred and shimmered, but only because he was viewing it through his own tears.

       The light was beginning to turn grey. It had become late afternoon, and he had not even noticed. Sighing, he picked up the saddle and headed back. The horse followed him all the way to the stream, but did not cross it. He knelt down beside the water, and it was there that his master found him.

       "I've been looking for you." Ciaran looked angry. "I've been looking all over for you. I was worried."

       Elias raised his head. "I can't do it."

       Ciaran sighed. "What?"

       "Open a door." The stream seemed to suck all the light from the afternoon. The water was dark and did not reflect. "I've been trying. I opened the door that brought you here. I'm the only one who can send you back. But I've tried and tried, and I can't do it."

       "You can't?" Ciaran sat down beside him. The water did not reflect light, but it reflected his master's frowning face.

       Elias closed his eyes. "I can't. I'm so sorry. But I'll find a way as soon as I can. I promise." Even his promise sounded leaden.

       "You don't want me to come with you?"

       Come with me? "To Eidengard?" Elias stammered. "Is that what you mean?"

       "Of course." Ciaran sounded impatient. "I'm coming with you. Didn't you know that?"

       You never said. "No," he murmured. I gave you chance after chance after chance, and you never said.

       "Of course I'm coming." Ciaran clenched his fist. "I'm not letting you go off with that man all by yourself. I don't trust him an inch. What sort of a master do you think I am?"

       I don't know what to think about you any more. "I didn't think you wanted to," he whispered. "I know you hate being here. I know you hate the Kindred. I know you want me to walk away from them, but instead I've made promises."

       "I know." Ciaran grabbed Elias's hand, and Elias realised that he had been digging it into the mud of the riverbank, gouging his fingertips against the pebbles. One nail was bleeding, and he hadn't even noticed. "Look, Elias," Ciaran said. "I can't pretend to like any of this. Sooner or later, I want to go home. But I accept that you think you have a certain responsibility to these people. I'm willing to let you try this plan of course. It will take... how long?"

       "One week," Elias said weakly. "A week to Eidengard, or even less."

       "Two weeks, then. Two weeks is nothing. Less than a day, at home. I can stay here for two weeks, Elias. We'll go to the city. Perhaps it will work, and perhaps it won't. Then it'll be over, and we'll come back."

       Do you really think that? You really think it will be over? But he said nothing, only, "I'm glad you're coming with me, master," and he meant it.

       For the first time, Ciaran smiled. "Of course I'll come with you, Elias. I won't let Reynard get away with anything." He touched Elias's cheek. "I promised ten years ago that I would protect you, Elias, and I still hold to that promise. For you, I... I'll even get on a horse."

       Elias laughed. He hadn't laughed for days, he realised. He looked up at the sky, and it was still raining, but the clouds felt further away. There was space to breathe now, where before they had pressed heavily down on him, like a suffocating blanket.

       But there was still one more thing to do. He was still caught a little in the twilight. He had made his promises to Reynard and Oliver, but tonight he would stand before the whole Kindred and repeat those promises. It would be the final seal on his commitment. Until he spoke those words, the doors of his prison were not fully locked. He was still neither one thing nor the other.

       "We have to go back." He did not stand up.

       "Yes." Ciaran said. Elias wondered if he knew what was going to happen tonight. Perhaps he did, and was planning to stop it, and this was yet another thing he just assumed Elias knew.  Perhaps Ciaran would rescue him from his own promises, but he no longer knew if he wanted that to happen, or not.

 

 

 

       As they walked back to the camp, Ciaran tried to make conversation. "Does it always rain here?" He gave an exaggerated shiver. "I don't think I've been warm ever since I got here."

       "It rains at home, too," Elias said, from behind him. "Remember that summer, two years ago? It rained right through the Green Blade festival. Everyone was wet, but they never stopped dancing. I remember thinking how strange it was, but nice, too."

       Ciaran frowned. "I know it rains at home." But not like this, he thought. He had seen the stars, and had read their message. This world had similarities to the one at home, but it only a pale copy. It had gone horribly wrong some time in its past. No-one here knew about the Shadow, and that made it a hollow world, falling far short of the glory it might have attained.

       "But you're right, master." Elias gave a forced laugh. "I've never been this wet. I wish we could see the sun."

       Ciaran carried on walking. He had gone half a dozen steps before he realised that Elias was not following him. He frowned again, and turned round. Elias had always been his silent shadow, tagging along behind him whenever he was wanted. Ciaran had never even needed to tell the boy where they were going.

       "Tonight," Elias said, even before Ciaran started to walk back towards him. "Something's going to happen tonight."

       Ciaran closed the gap. "What?"

       "They're all going to gather together. I'm going to stand in front of them. They want to see me. I'm going to talk to them." He was looking at the ground, peering nervously up through his eyelashes. "I wanted you to know, before..."

       "Before I suddenly find myself confronted with it," Ciaran interrupted, "and am forced to realise that my apprentice has been arranging it behind my back?"

       "I wanted you to know," Elias persisted. "I wish you could..."

       "Oh, Elias." Ciaran sighed. He thought he knew what Elias was going to say. "You know I can't like what's happening here. But I've promised to support you for the next two weeks. I'll stand beside you, if that's what you need."

       Elias gave a tentative smile. "It's what I want."

       Ciaran smiled back, and then the smile turned into a full-bodied laugh. It felt good. Something had changed today. The things he had said to Elias beside the stream had been true. Two weeks, he told himself. He could put up with this for two weeks. He would stop fighting everything he met. He would even tolerate Elias's making of foolish promises to strangers. He would humour the boy, and let him have two weeks in which to realise how this wild venture could only fail. Barely a day would have passed at home, and he could give his apprentice a day of his life. Two weeks turned something vast and unmanageable into something he was prepared to face. Two weeks set clear boundaries. He was not condoning Elias's kingship or throwing his lot in with the Kindred, but he was putting his opposition to one side, just for two weeks.

       And fighting it only hurts him, something whispered deep inside him. Elias had been so desolate, weeping in the river, clutching a dead boy to his chest. Other people bore the chief blame for that, but perhaps, just perhaps, Ciaran had contributed to the tragedy when he had attempted to free Elias for the Kindred once and for all. He had been genuine in his desire to protect Elias, but it had rebounded, and Elias had been hurt. He hated seeing Elias hurt. The boy had such a sweet smile, but for days he had been like a ghost, bleak and unsmiling.

       But now he was smiling again, and Ciaran had done that. He had promised to come with Elias to Eidengard, and that was enough to make the boy smile, and to rekindle the light in his eyes that had been extinguished for so long.

       Two weeks, he said to himself. He thought he could put up with anything, if it was only for two weeks. And it felt good, like a weight lifted from his heart. It was so wearying, he realised, to hate everything you saw.

       He moved to Elias's side, shoulder to shoulder, and companionable. "Come on," he said. "Best get you back. It'll be dark soon, and they don't want to keep them waiting." He fussed at Elias's hood. "And your hair's a mess, Elias. It's too long. You can't appear before them like that."

       And, as they walked, it was just like it had always been. Elias wanted his master at his side, and it would be over in two weeks. It was still raining, but Ciaran thought it suddenly looked lighter, and that the forest looked almost pretty.

      

 

       It happened at sunset, but there was no mystic symbolism about it. The clouds did not suddenly part and let the sun shine through in a sudden burst of glory. The rain fell without cease, in a fine drizzle that reached into every pore. If anything, if fell even more heavily than it had for the rest of the day.

       Elias knelt in the largest clearing, not far from the fire, but too far away to feel its heat. He was not wearing his cloak, which came from another world, just the dark shirt and breeches he had been wearing all day. He was making an offering of himself, just as he was. If he could do anything to help them, it would come from within. If they wanted him to serve them, they had to want him, Elias, and not their own dreams of a storybook king.

       Two hundred pairs of eyes watched him. Oliver stood close by, and spoke without even raising his voice. The hush in the clearing was such that even a whisper would have carried to all ears, but Oliver was a bard, and his soft voice could insinuate itself into a man's soul.

       "We are gathered together today to bear witness to the coming of the king," Oliver said. "We have waited long for this moment, and our forefathers would envy us for living to see this day. He is Elias Ward. As it always was in the old days, Albacrist came alive in his hands and marked his choosing. And I, your seneschal, have witnessed his worth."

       Albacrist was unsheathed on the ground before him. Elias tip-toed his fingertips towards the blade, and just barely touched it. It did not shine. Raindrops beaded the crystal and made it dull. Was this it, then? Was it all a cruel joke, and here, before them all, the sword would be dead in his hand, showing them all that he was only a boy pretending to be something he was not? He had failed the last test, and now he was cast out and exposed.

       Utterly silent, they watched him. No-one had noticed him touching the sword. No-one knew about his fear, and his failure. What did they see as they looked at him? What did his master see? He fought the urge to turn round and look for him.

       "I have heard his promises on your behalf," Oliver was saying. "Tomorrow, he rides to Eidengard, where he will do what none of us have dared to do."

       Elias swallowed hard, and raised his head. He slithered his fingers from the sword. "I swear," he said, but it was only a broken breath, and no-one heard it. He touched the sword again. "I swear," and this time it was a hoarse cry, and Oliver whirled round and looked at him.

       No. Oliver's grey eyes were soft with sympathy, and he shook his head slightly. No, Elias. Elias could read his message as clear as if he had spoken aloud.

       But he had to. He had no choice. Oliver was trying to make it easier for him, but it was all wrong. There were some things he had to swear with his own voice, not with Oliver as proxy. Every one of these people had their own hopes and needs. They needed to hear his oath with their own ears. He could not deny them that, just because he was afraid.

       He stood up, and found that he had grabbed hold of Albacrist after all. He had never stood before so many people before, and had never had to make a speech. Until now, all his oaths had been wrung from his heart, except for the promise he had made in the veiling darkness of Reynard's tent.

       He couldn't look at Ciaran. He couldn't look at Oliver. He couldn't look at the sword, and see if it was shining for him. If he was to save them, he had to find strengths deep within him, and that could depend on nobody else, and nothing else.

       "I swear," he said, and finally he found his voice. Perhaps there were ritual words for the oath a king swore to his people, but Elias would not ask. He was swearing this himself, just as he was, and the words would be his own. He was no king from legend, and neither would he ever be. He was just Elias, but perhaps even Elias could do something to save them. "I swear that I will serve you with all my strength," he said, and something seemed to transmute his voice so it filled the clearing and nobody could escape it, least of all himself. "I swear that I will do all in my power to heal this land, whatever the cost to myself. I swear to be true. I can not promise to be everything you want me to be, but I swear to strive always to be worthy of the trust placed upon me, by King Alberic so long ago, and by you."

       Days ago, and years younger, he had sworn in ignorance, before he had known the cost. But, as he had done then, he did now. He raised his hand, palm outwards, then brought it down sharply on the blade. It slid gleefully through his flesh, and the pain was sharp and shocking. When he held his hand up, the blood poured down his wrist, even to the elbow.

       "I swear it on my blood," he declared, "and on everything I love and believe in. I ask you to bear witness to my oath."

       "It is witnessed." Oliver stepped close to him, and sorrow passed across his face.

       The sword was glowing white and glorious, and Elias had not even noticed. He had sworn his oath as himself, without needing its validation, but now it seemed to fill the world. It made the rest of the Kindred into faint ghosts, barely existing beyond the circle of light. Even his master had faded into the darkness, and Elias was alone, though Oliver was there, always, at his side, as befitted a gaoler and a friend.

       It was not over yet. They needed more. Some deep buried impulse whispered to him, and he knew what he had to do. Crouching, he rubbed his wound on the ground, letting the earth mingle with his fast-flowing blood.

       "I was not born here," he whispered. Stranger, Isembard had screamed. We don't want you. "I was a stranger to your land," he said, "but now the land is in my blood." He stood up and showed them the wound, and it hurt terribly, enough to bring tears to his eyes. Not even enchantment could protect him from the consequences of his promises, and his oaths meant suffering. "I will bear this scar to show that you are my people, and your cause is mine. I am bound to you now. There is no going back."

       Oliver moved towards him as if through thick water, and his face was very strange, as if this was something he longed for and hated, both together. "Touch the sword," he breathed. Elias could hardly hear him. "It needs your blood," he said, and, "Trust me."

       But Elias already knew what was going to happen. He could not have stopped this now, not if his master had come up and hauled him backward. Even as his body was dragged away, his bleeding hands would still be reaching for the sword.

       No-one came. No-one stopped him. Ciaran was just one more face in the crowd that watched him, frozen in time between one breath and the next. Only Elias moved. Closing his eyes, he raised the sword and pressed it to his chest, holding it there like a living extension of his own beating heart. Blood welled between his palm and the blade, and white light rippled through him, and left him changed where it passed.

       Then Oliver was tugging at him gently with his cool fingers. Elias's hand was grabbed and held aloft, imprisoned in Oliver's tender but inescapable grip. "If any of you had doubts, let them cease now," he said, but to Elias his voice was far away, a dead thing after the glory that was enchantment. "Albacrist confirms its choice. The earth has taken him as its king, and enchantment seals the joining."

       Clothing whispered like the wind in the leaves. Elias opened his eyes, and saw that every one of them was kneeling before him. Of all in the forest clearing, Ciaran was the only one still standing, but even he was faltering. Even Ciaran was close to kneeling.

       "No," he murmured. If Ciaran knelt now, he would hate Elias for it in the morning. Don't kneel! No! This isn't me! He wanted to run as fast as he could. He would snatch his master as he passed, and they would run into the dark forest, and never stop, not ever.

       He tugged against Oliver's ruthless grip, and Oliver yielded. The moment he was free, Elias pressed his blood-stained hand to his chest, and covered it with his other hand. "I'm sorry," Oliver said in a soft breath. He shielding Elias from the crowd a little with his body, but not enough. His face was sad and Elias wondered if he was disappointed in him. "You find it so easy to swear yourself to them," he said, but it wasn't true, because it wasn’t easy at all.  "You sacrifice everything to them. Can't you accept their fealty in return?"

       "I can't," Elias pleaded. "It's not me." Elias Ward was not a boy who received honour, but service he knew about, because Ciaran had made him swear an oath to the people of Greenslade, and perhaps the oath he had just sworn had not been in his own words after all, but an echo of the words Ciaran had taught him long ago. A Brother could serve these people, and still be able to go home, but a king had no place in Ciaran's home, and the Brothers would cast him out.

       Oliver looked at him, then nodded. Perhaps there was disgust in the way he turned his back, or perhaps there was sympathy. What Elias could not do, Oliver did. The words that Elias could not say, Oliver said for him. He gave the people what they needed, while Elias could only watch and long for them to go.

       "Your king thanks you for your fealty," Oliver told them, "but he asks this of you: that you swear to him as you would swear to your sword-brother, but make no oaths to him as king. Our people are in exile and a threat hangs over the world, and it is a time for service, not honours. Only when the land is safe will he accept the fealty due to a king. Only when he stands before us in the citadel of Eidengard will this ceremony be completed, or not at all."

       He saw their faces, then, those ghosts in the crowd who knelt before him. Why weren't they recoiling with disappointment at his inability to be the sort of king they wanted him to be? They were still kneeling, and the look in their faces was too terrible to see.

       Elias faltered backwards, but there were people even there, encircling him on all sides. He kept his head high as he walked between two of them, a woman and her child, and no-one tried to stop him. As soon as he was out of sight, he started running, but the land was part of his blood now, however far he ran.

 

      

 

       It was long after dark when Ciaran finally found him, sitting with his back pressed against a tree and his pale face turned up to the sodden sky. Ciaran crouched down, but did not speak, not yet. He had brought Elias's cloak, and he draped it around the boy's shivering shoulders, and all the while Elias did not give a single sign of noticing him.

       Only when Ciaran had settled down on his heels did Elias speak. "Was I wrong to refuse them?" It was the faintest whisper. It was hard to believe that this was the man who had stood before the Kindred, bathed in white light, and very beautiful.

       Ciaran weighed his reply. "No," he said, at last. For the first time, he thought he truly saw the depths of his apprentice's fears, and wondered if he had failed him somehow, by never understanding before. "I can't pretend to like the burden that has been placed upon you. I can't pretend to like what they demand of you. I can't even pretend to like your oath, but I know that you did the right thing when you refused their homage. A king can be no apprentice of mine."

       "No," Elias breathed. His voice was heartbreaking in his sadness. "I was wrong to run away, though. Are they very disappointed in me?"

       "They are charmed by you," Ciaran had to admit, though charmed was not the right words for the things he had overheard them say in the aftermath of the ceremony. But that was over now, and there were still things he could do for his apprentice, even after he had sworn his life away to strangers. "Let me look at your hand. No," he chided, for Elias flinched and tried to hide the hand beneath his cloak. "There could be all manner of infections in the earth, and you're still weak." The sight of Elias's blood made him speak the truth. "I can't face that again, Elias."

       "You won't have to, master." For all the bleakness in his voice, Elias's face was strangely serene. Ciaran did not know whether to be pleased or disturbed at it. Elias had been visibly distraught as he had left the ceremony. Until a few days ago, he might have thought that Elias had been calmed down by the mere presence of his master, but now he was not so sure. Still in the same voice, he said, "Didn't you understand, master? They saw. Didn't you?"

       As he spoke, he pressed the blood-stained palm to the blade of the sword. "It hurt me, and then it healed me," he said, and only then did he raise his hand and let Ciaran see the truth he had known already. There was a faint scar in the middle of his palm, but nothing more. "It was like Oliver said. The circle of choosing is closed. The oath is sealed."

       Ciaran pressed his hand to his mouth. Two weeks, he reminded himself, as he closed his eyes to shield them from the sight. Two weeks. Standing in the clearing, he had seen the glorious light, like a living image of everything beautiful that he could never have. He had seen Oliver raise Elias's hand like a trophy, but Oliver could lie, and enchantment could create illusion. It couldn't be true, he had thought. It was all lies.

       "Not all wounds Albacrist inflicts can be healed with its touch," Elias said. "This, but not all..." His voice trailed off, and he snatched the sword to his chest and held it like a jealous lover who feared he was going to betrayed, but could not stop loving.

       "How do you know this?" Ciaran demanded. Elias seemed to be constantly ahead of him now, flitting away like a spirit through the trees, so Ciaran could only reach out, and chase him, but could never touch him.

       "I know." Elias looked at him, but his hands quivered on the sword, and all life in his body was there, with the enchantment, and there was nothing left in his eyes, for Ciaran. "It's real now. Everything has changed."

       Only hours before, he had made Elias smile, and now that only seemed like a distant memory. Like a drowning man, he grasped for it. "We're going to the city tomorrow, Elias, you and I."

       Elias's smile was watery, but it was there. "Yes."

       "We have to pack. You need a good night's sleep. You must be freezing."

       "Yes." Elias sighed. "Yes," he said, and stood up without his master's aid. Absently, he said, "I'm glad you're coming with me. Have I said that before?"

       He sheathed the sword and started to walk back towards the camp, with his master at his side, but alone.

      

 

       They slipped away in the grey dawn, like a dream fading at the first touch of day. There was no ceremony. Of all the Kindred who had stood in their masses and watched as Elias had sworn his oaths to them, only one came to see them go. The others would wake up, rub their eyes, and blink, wondering if the coming of their king had been no more than a dream.

       "A dream," Ciaran murmured. Elias had woken him up, before even the first threads of light had filtered through the darkness. He had been holding the candlestick in his right hand, so the flame was illuminating his face and nothing else, but he had blown it out as soon as Ciaran had opened his eyes, and his face had disappeared.

       "We need to go now," Elias had whispered. "Oliver wants us to start early."

       "To make the most of daylight, I suppose," Ciaran said, as he pulled on his boots. 

       They had walked through the wood, just the two of them together, as they had often walked to the market in Sherborne, but two men had been waiting for them by the stream. One was to go with them, unwanted, and the other had come to bid them farewell. Reynard was already mounted on his muscular chestnut, and he was holding two other horses by the reins. One was the strawberry mare Ciaran had seen Elias riding a few days before, and the other was large and dark brown with a white star between its eyes.

       Elias rushed up to his horse and petted it, whispering greetings in its ear. "So what's your name?" Elias asked, as the horse nuzzled into his shoulder.

       "It doesn't have a name," Reynard said. "We use them; we don't name them. Though the children might. Or ask Oliver. He might have given them names."

       Oliver was clutching a darkly wrapped bundle. "The one I ride, yes," he said, absently. "Name her yourself."

       "I will." Elias looked strangely solemn. "But not yet. When I know her better, then I'll know what she's called."

       Nonsense, of course. It was all nonsense, even though Elias and Oliver were looking at each other and smiling, as if they understood each other perfectly. They must have arranged it between them, Oliver and Reynard and Elias, to all be standing here at dawn, ready to go. When had they found time for it? Ciaran had been the one to follow Elias after the crowning, not either of them.

       "I've got something for you," Oliver said. He glanced at Ciaran. "Both of you." He crouched and unwrapped his bundle. "Food," he said. "Drink. I know you've got supplies packed, and you'll find meat on the way, but here are a few treats. Money, too, for the city. A soft blanket." He looked at Elias. "I have a hundred such as these back at my tent, far more than you can carry. They're gifts from the Kindred to you. They want to ease your journey. They would have given them in person, but…"

       "I'm slipping away," Elias said. "Not saying goodbye. Not giving them what they need."

       "No." Oliver grabbed Elias's wrist. "You gave them what they needed last night. They know that, and I know that. It was my idea to do it like this, without them. I serve both you, and them. Last night was for them, but you have this morning, and every day that comes after."

       "I know that, Oliver." Elias sighed. "It's just…"

       "No." This time it was Ciaran who was firm. "They don't belong here." Just you and me, he thought, and last night didn't even happen. This was not the triumphant departure of a king, who rode along an avenue of cheering subjects, while petals rained down on his crowned head. This was a boy and his master slipping away in the morning, leaving behind a place that should never have existed at all.

       "They'd have come with you, Elias," Oliver said. "I heard them last night. Twenty of them, thirty, even more. They were collecting their weapons already, and talking about how they'd kill anything that threatened you. Do you want to face that argument again, thirty times over?"

       Elias turned his head away. "So you're protecting me."

       "Yes," Oliver said. "Yes I am. And, yes, I will continue to do so. Is it so wrong?"

       Elias pressed his hand against the horse's shoulder. "I don't know," he whispered. He looked as if he was in pain.

       Oliver approached him. "I wanted to come with you, Elias, but you asked me not to." He spoke softly, as if this whole farewell was just between the two of them, and no-one else existed "You made the choice, and I am abiding by it, though I hate to see you riding away into danger."

       "Yes." Elias turned round, and smiled, though Ciaran had no idea what Oliver had said to cause this sudden lightening of mood. "Thank you, Oliver. Thank you for everything."

       Ciaran frowned, not understanding. Then Elias mounted his horse, and Ciaran stared balefully at his own, knowing he would have to do the same, but Elias would far exceed him in grace.

       "I have no gift for you," Oliver was saying, as Ciaran struggled into the saddle. "Everyone else gave something, but I have nothing. I tried, but nothing seemed right."

       "I don't want gifts from you, Oliver," Elias said. "You've given me so much already."

       Oliver stroked the horse's flank. "Go with my thoughts, Elias. I am a bard, so perhaps words should be my gift to you. So I say this to you. You are a good person; never doubt that. You have strengths far greater than you have ever let yourself realise. You have changed so much even since I first knew you, and it amazes me. It's wonderful to see. And it's you, Elias. It was always there. If I could give any gift to you, it would be the ability to see yourself as I do."

       Ciaran could only stare in amazement and suspicion. As he finished speaking, Oliver reached up and clasped Elias's arm, and Elias leant forward in the saddle, and, for a terrible moment, Ciaran thought they were going to kiss. But then Elias straightened up again, and a lock of hair fell across his blushing cheek, hiding the skin that Oliver's lips might have touched. Oliver's hand slid down his arm and squeezed his hand. He was like that with everyone, Ciaran knew, for he had seen him about the camp, always ready to touch or embrace, but he hated seeing him with Elias, and Elias so quick to respond. Elias had always clung to him, but he had never realised that the boy was so fond of human touch.

       Oliver stepped back. "Ride well," he said, his voice slipping into the formal intonation he used when telling a story or speaking ritual words. "Go with our thoughts and our hopes. May the light of enchantment be your constant companion, and may you have success in all your endeavours."

       "Goodbye, Oliver." Elias's voice cracked a little on the name. His horse walked a few steps, but already he was looking back over his shoulder, as if regretted leaving.

       Ciaran felt no such regret. The quicker they started, the sooner it would be over. Ciaran kicked his horse, and it lurched forward. He rode past Oliver without looking at him. "Come on, Elias."

       "Yes." Elias shook his head, a small furrow between his eyes. "We need to go." He did not move. Reynard had paused at the edge of the tree line, and was looking back impatiently. Ciaran kicked his horse again. At last, with a small sigh, Elias turned back, and, side by side, the two of them began to ride away.

       The air was moist and grey. Above them, the forest birds were beginning to stir, shaking heavy drops of rain from the branches. No-one spoke. Behind them, Oliver was standing with his hand raised, but no-one was looking at him. He was the one who was left behind. His part in this was over.

       The trees grew thicker around them, and the sound of the stream faded. The forest was a curtain, drawing tight and thick over the Kindred and hiding them from view. It was like the end of a play. The actors carried on their little lives behind the curtain, while the audience stood up and went home and forgot them.

       "No!" Oliver shouted suddenly, as if he could read Ciaran's thoughts, and refused to let himself be forgotten. "Elias, listen to me!"

       Elias sucked in a sharp breath, and turned in the saddle. His horse stopped without him giving any sign. Ciaran tried to rein in his horse, but it disobeyed him and plodded stolidly on.

       "I didn't mean it," Oliver cried. "I shouldn't have said what I just said. They're formal words. They don't mean anything. Just come back. That's all that matters. It doesn't matter if you fail. We've waited a long time and can wait a little longer. Just stay safe. Don't risk yourself for us. Please, Elias. Stay safe. Promise me that."

       But Elias just turned away, and said nothing. Only Ciaran saw the expression on his face, and, although he did not understand it, it troubled him. Then, before Ciaran could say a word, Elias rode past him and away into the forest. He did not look back, and all Ciaran could do was follow him.