One their own
This way, Reynard commanded with one jerk of a peremptory arm. He did not speak, and did not check to see if Ciaran was following him. Leaning down from the saddle, he flung over an unlatched gate, and kicked his horse on through the gap, scattering a flock of sheep that had been standing disconsolately in the ploughed field.
Ciaran followed behind him. The thick soil clung to his horse's hooves, but there were fresh cart tracks in the gateway, showing that someone else had been here, and not long ago. A dead crow had been nailed by its feet to the wooden gate, a limp rag with black feathers that stirred as the gate swung, in a pathetic semblance of life. Thin smoke rose to the right, and Ciaran saw the yellow roof of a farmhouse. Too close, he thought. We'll be captured. "No!" he called aloud. "It's not safe." Then he remembered that he wanted Reynard to get captured, and wondered why he had said anything.
"Doesn't matter," Reynard hurled back at him without turning round. "I think we've lost them." He was bent over his horse's neck, urging it through the heavy soil up hill, away from the farmhouse and the track. "They've given up, and are making straight for the road to cut us off there." He twisted in his saddle and flashed a savage grin. "They don't know that we can cross the mountains without going near their road."
For long hours, the pursuit had been close, forcing Reynard to lead them through streams and tangled woods, rather than the straight course he clearly longed to travel. The pursuers had clung to their trail for longer than Ciaran would have thought possible, but now he had to concede that Reynard was probably right. There had been no-one behind them for over an hour, and they had seen no people.
Reynard had made only one concession. On their last brief stop to spare the horses, he had untied Ciaran's legs and let him sit astride the horse, rather than ride slung like a heap of rags over the animal's back. "Hold on tight," Reynard had said, ignoring the curses Ciaran had spat at him, "and follow me."
His horse waded through the panic-stricken sheep, lurching through the thick earth of the field. Ciaran's hands were still bound tightly behind his back. To hold on, his fingers had to cramp themselves round the back of the saddle, and stabbing pain was shooting up his wrists even to his shoulders, and even then he was sure that he would fall off. If he fell off, he would die. If he threw himself off the horse, he would land badly and Reynard would leave him in the dirt, bound and crippled. So he had to hold on. He had to sit tight and follow Reynard, or he would die, and how would that help Elias?
Reynard reached the top of the ridge, and Ciaran saw what happened perfectly, black outlines against a grey sky. A man surged up from a crouch, and lunged up at Reynard with a pitch fork. Reynard flung his body to one side, and the points missed him, but only just. The farmer had put too much effort into his attack, and flailed for balance, and that was when Reynard killed him, cutting him open with a merciless swing of his sword.
The farmer fell to his knees, and Ciaran screamed. "No!" he cried, as the farmer slumped forward onto this face. "No!" He crested the rise, just as Reynard wiped his sword and thrust it back into its scabbard, sparing not a single glance for the man he had just murdered. "You have to help me," Ciaran pleaded, for the farmer might not be dead at all, or might have friends lurking in the grass, too scared to come out. "I'm not on his side. I'm his prisoner. Can't you see? It wasn't me." The farmer's eyes seemed to seek him out and find him, and his lips moved. "It wasn't me," Ciaran said, as the farmer gave a shuddering breath, and died.
Reynard gave a bark of laughter. "Strange how you only ever speak up when it's too late." He kicked his horse and rode on, and Ciaran's horse plunged after him.
"Murderer!" Ciaran screamed. "Just wait until I tell Elias. Elias will never stay with you now." And then he screamed again in a hatred too deep for words, for Elias could be dying, and Reynard had made Ciaran leave him.
He wanted to escape. The moment he had a chance, he would do so. But Reynard kicked his horse into a gallop, and Ciaran's followed, and once again Ciaran's world narrowed to only one thought. Mustn't fall. Mustn't fall. Every jolt of the horse made him moan, and the sight of rough ground ahead made him grip onto the saddle so tightly that he thought his fingers and arms would never recover from the pain.
They reached the top of a hill, and zigzagged down the other side, where gravity dragged Ciaran towards the horse's head, and he had to use all the strength of his fingers to haul himself back. There was a small wooded plain ahead, and beyond that lay the mountains. Soon Ciaran would have to pass through the rock for a third time, but this time without Elias to guide him.
He looked down at the jagged ground that would be the place he died if he fell, if he did anything at all to fight for Elias's life. Or he would die trapped in the rock, while Reynard laughed and left him there, suffocating on something that was not really there, searching and searching for a way out, but finding only darkness.
I'm afraid, he admitted to himself, and he thought it was the worst thing Reynard had ever done, to force him to feel like this. Closing his eyes, he clung to the saddle, and let Reynard lead him ever further away from Elias.
The bird came to rest on a grey slab of rock. A squall of cold rain ruffled its feathers, and it shivered, thinking of arms wrapped around its body, keeping it warm. It was hungry, for the thought of eating live animals repulsed it, and it had passed over the small creatures that had cowered in terror in the grass, and had let them live.
Dusk was deepening around the bird, but its eyes were keener than they had ever been, and it could see faint patterns in the rock, mostly hidden by the grass and lichen. Milestones, it thought. Milestones along the King's Road, now fallen and hidden, so that not even Reynard had known that they were there. All he had to do was go from stone to stone, and he would be safe.
There were bad things behind him, but he had escaped them, and now they were far, far away. There were men with spears who had stabbed at him through the gorse, and a man in black who did terrible things, and he didn't want to think about that, not now, not ever. They were all in the past, and now he was free, up in the mountains, protected by the magic of the old kings.
Elias, he thought. His name was Elias, and he was a man. He had no idea how he had become a bird, but there was no need to stay that way any longer. A bird's wings had carried him to safety, but his name was still Elias. He had come close to forgetting that. Perhaps it was dangerous to stay in the form of a bird for too long.
"Elias," he said, and it came out as a high shriek, uttered in the voice of a falcon. "I am Elias." And then he was tumbling off the low rock, sprawling in the grass, back in a body that was his own, but somehow seemed strange and awkward and too big for him. Part of his mind was still flying, he thought, and would take a while to remember that it was now bound to the earth.
He rolled onto his side, and pulled his knees up to his chest, trying to give himself the warmth he had lacked as a bird. He was naked, with nothing to protect him from the rain and the prickly grass. He wanted to sleep, but was too cold.
Perhaps there was shelter somewhere. He stood up, tremulous as a new-born foal struggling to find the way of its new body. His thoughts kept trying to slip away, telling him that he could fly, urging him to find a roost on a high ledge and eat raw meat.
He had been here before, he realised. They had ridden here together, Elias and his master and Reynard. Ciaran and Reynard had argued beside the spring, and Elias had sat down in the road and found himself surrounded by birds. It had been wonderful, if a little scary, but Ciaran had hated to see it. He had stood just here, and demanded to see Elias's wrists. He had held his arm just here, and stroked his wrists, and tucked his cloak around his body, making Elias feel warm and smothered.
"Where are you, master?" he murmured. He wrapped his arms around his body, but he had no clothes, and he was shivering badly. There was nowhere for him to stay, and no real shelter, except for the steep cliffs themselves. It was no fit place for a camp, Reynard had said.
"I have to carry on." He kept speaking aloud, for that reminded him that he was real, that he had a voice, that he was a man. He couldn't stay here, and he still had to find his master. If he hurried on and walked through the night, would he reach the watchtower by morning? There would be shelter there, and he could make a fire, and there might even be kind people nearby who would help him.
He started to walk along the road, but his feet were bare and the ground was stony, and soon he was sobbing with pain. Rain snaked into his open wound, and he cringed away and tried to protect it, but all he had was his own arms, and it hurt when he touched it, bad enough to make him scream. It looked horrible, too, and he wanted it covered with clothes or soft feathers.
"Please heal," he whispered. He slumped to his knees, then fell further, so he was curled onto his side. He had been a Brother once, long ago. Perhaps he could heal himself a little bit. He tried to find his special place, and for a moment he thought he saw it, all gold and blue, with warm sunlight and beautiful waves, but the door of the white tower was wide open, white light pouring over the scene, bleaching it to nothing. It was far too late to close the door, but the light hid the beauty of the beach. If he tried to use the Shadow, the white light from the tower would rush in and entwine itself around those gossamer strands, and the Shadow would never be pure again.
"I can't," he sobbed, as both tower and beach faded, leaving him colder than ever, for they had both of them been warm, and now they were gone. He had made his choice. It had been either king, or Brother, but not both at once, and he had chosen to turn his back on his past and commit himself utterly to his new life. The moment he had commanded Reynard as a king, he had become someone that the Brothers would never allow back. He had opened the tower door, and chosen the world of enchantment and kingship, and there was no going back, not even now he had failed.
Trembling, he tried to stand up again, but what was the point? Night was coming, and it would get colder with every minute. There was no way he could walk to safety, naked and wounded as he was. "I'll just stay here," he said. "Master will find me."
He closed his eyes and tried to sleep, but it was too cold. After a while, he opened his eyes, and saw that a bird was looking at him. Was it a carrion bird, come to peck at his bloody flesh? He raised his head weakly, trying to show it that he was still alive, but it only came closer.
"Are you going to eat me?" Elias murmured. His breath caught in his throat, and he gave a choked sob. "I'm so cold."
The bird was fearless. It watched him with its head tilted to one side, its fierce yellow eye raking him all over. Not far away, something screamed in agony, and Elias knew that the bird was not alone, and its fellow hunter had snared its prey.
Elias let his head slump back. People used birds to carry messages, didn't they? He wished he could send the bird to find his master for him. It would be there in no time, riding the air currents swiftly and majestically, like the bird he had dreamed about so long ago. Not even the cold would bother him, for he would be protected by feathers, like a snug blanket and a soft embrace.
On silent wings, the second bird landed, a dead mouse clutched in its talons. It dropped the mouse in front of Elias, next to his mouth. "No, you eat it," he said, though he knew it could not understand words. "Master's coming for me soon."
But there was a horse's hoofprint in the thin mud, heading the way he had been going. Someone had passed by not too long ago, and Reynard said very few people travelled this road. Was it his master? Was Ciaran just ahead of him, moving away, leaving him behind?
"Wait for me," he pleaded, pushing himself to his feet. He reached out one hand, while the other one he kept clutched to his body. "I'm not far behind you. I'm coming." He was too cold, and if he stayed here, he died. He needed warm feathers and the wings of a bird. He had to change again.
"But I don't know how to." He had no idea how he had done it, but he had to do it again, or he would die here, naked and alone. He had just wanted it passionately, hadn't he? He had been cowering terrified in the gorse, longing to fly away from danger, and suddenly he had found himself in the air.
He turned in a full circle, raising his arms like wings. I need to fly away, he thought. Then he screamed it aloud. "I need to fly!" Nothing happened. He closed his eyes, and sought the enchantment of the white tower, but nothing happened. He fell to his knees and sobbed, but nothing happened.
A bird screamed at him from a ledge, some twenty feet above him. Was it trying to show him the way? He staggered to the base of the cliff and started to climb, though the handholds were slippery with rain, and the rock scraped his bare skin. His feet were bleeding, and he was sobbing, struggling for breath. But what does it matter? he thought, with a wild laugh. A bird had feathers to hide its wounds, and a bird could ride the currents of the air, and it didn't matter how badly its feet were bleeding.
When he reached the ledge, he didn't even pause. He hauled himself onto it, and crouched there on hands and knees. Then, before he could even catch his breath, he pushed himself over the side, and fell.
On the second day of their flight, another man rose out of the grass to stop them. He was armed with a sword, and he jumped down onto the road and blocked their path. Reynard drew his own sword, and rode forward to meet him.
It was morning, and they had been travelling for two hours, through merciless rain and a wind that raced through the grey crags and battered them with coldness. They had travelled through the high pass an hour before dusk the night before, but this time they had not stopped. Ciaran, who had hated it on a warm and sunny day, had found it less horrible in the rain. The whole world was hideous, and the pass only a little more so.
They had spent the night at the foot of the pass. "I would like to press on and reach the watchtower," Reynard had said, "but the ground's too treacherous for the horses to travel in the dark. And we're safe here. It might be an inhospitable place, but it's still the King's Road."
Ciaran had spent a miserable night huddled against a rock that provided hardly any shelter. His cloak was soaking wet, and Reynard had only been able to obtain one blanket before they had left Eidengard. Ciaran had refused Reynard's offer of sharing its paltry warmth, and Reynard had snorted in disgust, and said that he didn't intend to freeze out of stubborn pride, even if Ciaran did. "I promised to keep you alive," he had said, "but I didn't say anything about keeping you comfortable."
Despite the blanket, Reynard had not slept, but had kept a silent watch on Ciaran all night. The last thing Ciaran had seen before dark had been Reynard's sword, with his hand resting on the hilt, and that had been the first thing he had seen in the morning, too. Reynard had stayed utterly silent all night, without fidgeting or even seeming to breathe. The only sound Ciaran had heard had been a screaming chorus of birds, and the cries of night-time hunters.
Ciaran had not expected to sleep, but he knew that he had done so, because he had woken up from a dream. In the dream, Elias had escaped from the city and was one step behind, pleading to Ciaran to wait for him. But Ciaran was being dragged away by Reynard, dragged through a solid wall of rock. It closed around him and suffocated him, flooding his lungs when he tried to scream, as Reynard walked away, whistling.
Then Elias was there, radiant with white light. He walked with a bounce in his step, and his white robes clung to his body. "No-one else was strong enough to save me," he said, "so I did it by myself. I don't need anyone any more." He moved through the rock as if it was nothing but a sheet of sunlight, and wrinkled his nose with disgust when he passed Ciaran's decaying body. "Poor master. He wasn't strong enough, and now he's dead." He touched Ciaran's hand, then walked on, and his trailing cloak brushed against Ciaran's body and made it crumble to dust.
Ciaran had woken with a gasp, to find Reynard looking at him with a half smile. "Did you save him this time? How disappointing it must be to wake up and find yourself still here." He shrugged. "You talked in your sleep," he explained, "when you were in the stable. I saw your darkest secrets. You hate that, don't you?"
"I hate you!" Ciaran had screamed, but in his mind he had seen Elias's face, and not Reynard's at all, for the dream had been slow to fade.
"I know," Reynard had said, lazily raising his sword. "But you're going to get on that horse, even so."
That same sword was in his hand now, as he jumped from his horse and stalked up to the man who blocked their path. "No!" Ciaran shouted. "He's going to kill you! Run!"
Reynard turned to look at him, and rolled his eyes. The other man lowered his sword. "Reynard," he said, nodding a greeting. "Where's the king?"
"He left him behind!" Ciaran shouted. His horse stopped behind Reynard's, and Ciaran took his chance. Swinging his leg over the saddle, he slid to the ground, lunging for the Shadow like a dying man grasping at a life line. It responded. The knot slithered apart, and he was free, on his hands and knees in the dirt, but free.
"You have to listen to me!" Ciaran pleaded, crawling towards the newcomer. He loosened the bonds at his wrists with his last tendril of Shadow, before anger and urgency thrust him out of his Garden. "Elias was captured. Reynard wouldn't let me save him. He wouldn't wait. He dragged me away. Look." He showed the man his raw wrists. "He tied me up because I tried to stop him."
The man raised his sword. "Is this true, Reynard?"
"Yes," Reynard admitted, to Ciaran's amazement. "Everything he says. But I had reasons."
"Reasons?" the man said, but Ciaran heard the tremor in his voice and saw how his feet were shifting anxiously, and felt a little of his hope die. This man would be no match for Reynard's guile. "My father had a vision."
"A vision?" Reynard sounded as if he had been struck. "Of the king?"
The man hesitated a little before replying. "Of the king in the danger."
"It was Reynard!" Ciaran shouted. "Reynard's the one who put him in danger!"
"Listen to me, Amalric." Reynard moved to the man's side, close enough that they could whisper without being heard. Ciaran saw the man called Amalric begin to nod, first a little hesitantly, then with more enthusiasm.
He knew what was happening. Reynard was giving his own version of what had happened, painting himself as the loyal liegeman following his king's orders, repeating his lies about Elias finding his own way home. Or maybe he was freely admitting his guilt, and buying Amalric's silence with a bribe, promising his a position at his right hand if they deposed the king. Amalric looked like a weak man, lacking the strength to stand up to Reynard even if he wanted to.
Neither of them were looking at him. Ciaran scrambled up the bank beside the road, and saw the top of the watchtower not far ahead. They were in Gerhard's territory, and Gerhard hated Reynard as much as Ciaran did.
Ciaran started climbing, slipping on the loose stones, stumbling on legs that were unused to walking, catching himself with arms that were a mass of pain from fingertips to shoulders. Before he had gone nearly far enough, he heard Reynard shout out behind him.
"Gerhard!" Ciaran screamed. "Listen to me! Reynard's a traitor! He's left Elias behind! You have to stop him! Help me!"
But he was a stranger in a hostile world, and even nature was his enemy. The grass seemed to coil like a living thing, catching him around the ankles, bearing him down. He fell heavily onto his shoulder and scraped his cheek. He thrust out one hand, but there was Reynard, bounding easily over the rocks, stopping only to stamp on Ciaran's hand and hold it trapped, crushed against the ground.
"He will not listen," Reynard sneered. Amalric had not caught up, so Reynard could allow his true evil to show. "Whatever lies between us, he is kin. Kindred will always believe Kindred, and you are a stranger."
"And so is Elias," Ciaran rasped, "which is why you hate him."
Reynard crouched down. "The king a stranger? How little you understand how things have changed." For a moment he looked different, and almost vulnerable, but then Ciaran realised that Amalric had come up behind him, and knew that it was only an act.
"What's this, Reynard?" Gerhard strode into view, and he and Reynard faced each other, like giants towering into the sky. "Did you mislay something in the city? You never were good at hanging on to people, were you?"
"There's no time for this, Gerhard," Reynard said wearily. "I've tolerated this long enough, but we're facing something far greater than any petty enmities. Stop your sniping, for I will no longer rise to it. The past is done with. There is only now and the future, and everything is going to be different."
"How?" Gerhard reacted as if a small animal had suddenly developed claws and lashed out at him. Ciaran glanced from Gerhard to Reynard and back again, and thought they both looked changed. Reynard was suddenly the master here, with folded arms and a face carved out of stone.
"Listen." Reynard unfolded his arms and jabbed Gerhard in the chest. "Hear what I have to say, then do what I tell you. I have been through things this last week that you will never experience, and I refuse to let you spoil things now, just out of spite."
Ciaran blinked. Reynard stepped off his hand, and he snatched it back to his chest, massaging the crushed fingers. "Don't listen to him," Ciaran shouted, rolling onto his back. "It's all lies. You have to stop him."
"Has he been like this all the time?" Gerhard said conversationally to Reynard. "Then I don't envy you. Are you going to shut him up, or shall I?"
"Help me tie him up again." Reynard gave Gerhard a hard look, and emphasised the words in a strange way. He drew his sword, and Gerhard drew his. Amalric moved a little closer, like a shy child eager to join the big boys in their gang, and the three of them lowered their sword points so they were pointing at Ciaran's chest.
Ciaran turned his head to one side. "Why don't you just kill me?"
"You know we can't do that," Reynard said, as they closed on him, holding him down with cruel hands, lashing together his struggling wrists. Then they threw him down on the ground, and sat in huddle and laid their plans.
Ciaran tried to listen, but found himself growing drowsy. He had done everything he could, but they had robbed him of all choice. He hated them. But, as he drifted towards sleep and muttered words of hatred under his breath, the face he saw most clearly did not belong to any of the conspirators, but was the face of his apprentice.
You started this, he thought, as Elias smiled in his dreams. Elias had disobeyed his orders. Elias had pushed him away in the square, and refused to accept his help. Elias had saved himself from the scaffold, but he hadn't come to find his master afterwards, though Ciaran had waited for two days.
Reynard kept on saying that he was doing what Elias had ordered him to do. Perhaps it was true. "Tie him up," Elias had whispered to Reynard. "I tried that once, and it worked. Hit him on the head if you need to. Just keep him from meddling. I don't need him any more." And then he had turned away and revelled in his new-found enchantment, casting off his old life like ill-fitting clothes.
It's all your fault, Ciaran thought. You did this to me. He shifted position and the ropes dug into his wrists, tighter than ever. "It's his fault," he whispered, "and I hate him."
The bird was a wanderer, and this was not his home. He had stayed here for a few days, but only because he was very tired, and something bad had hurt him.
He had a memory of falling from a cliff, plummeting to the ground without wings, only to curve skywards at the last minute, screaming exultantly. Then he remembered being surrounded by other birds who had forced him towards a higher ledge, and had screeched at him until he had landed there. Then he had fallen asleep.
When he had woken up, there had been dead animals arrayed in front of him like gifts. He hadn't wanted to eat them, but hunger had been like a fist clutching his stomach, and by evening of that day he had forgotten why he had been so reluctant to eat the tasty meat. He had ripped open the small animal, and its flesh had been good.
He had spent much of his time sleeping, and he felt stronger than he had felt for ages. He was still badly hurt, but he could fly for miles now, maybe all the way to the wonderful thing that he was looking for, the thing that was called master. Only when he had found master could he stop journeying, and finally know that he was safe.
Pausing on the brink of the ledge, he looked back at the birds who had helped him. Thank you, he told them. The bird wasn't sure why it said that. There were things called words, and there was a thing called a language, and he knew them, but didn't know how. They felt as if they came from another world, perhaps from somewhere he had glimpsed in a dream, or from a sunny valley on the far side of the mountain.
One word was different from the others. It was "Elias," and it was his name. He was called Elias, but what did that mean? The name made the bird think of lots of things. Elias meant a cowering boy who wept on the carpet of a man in black, and a child who followed a big man like a shadow. Elias was a tall man saying "I hate you." Elias was a name the dark-clothed man had whispered in the darkness of a prison cell, as the person who bore that name had cringed and screamed.
I don't want to be him, the bird thought. The dark-clothed man was called Lord Darius, and he had done very bad things to the boy called Elias, but he had never done anything nasty to a bird. The bird could fly free on the winds, and Lord Darius would be the tiniest speck far below him, running around like an ant in tiny circles, but he would never find Elias again. The bird had soft feathers to keep himself warm, and could fly away from all dangers. Perhaps, if he flew very fast indeed, the things he saw in his memory would stop being true as well, and that would be the best thing of all, except perhaps for finding master.
The bird started to fly. Some of the other birds followed him for a little while, but soon he was alone, flying steadily above the mountains. He liked it best when he could ride the up-currents of warm air, because then all he needed to do was hold his wings still and float, and it was soothing and utterly silent. When he had to move his wings, his side hurt. It was still bleeding, drops of blood falling onto the mountainside far below.
As the day wore on, he grew hungry, and came closer to the ground to look for prey. Instead he found two men, walking side by side. Perhaps they were hunters, too, and rivals for the same mouse. The bird moved on slow circles, getting ever lower. He felt strangely drawn by the men, and something was whispering in his mind, saying, Go to them. They'll help you.
There was a tall tower on either side of the road, and the bird stopped on the roof, resting on a crumbling parapet. I stood here, he thought. Master and me. We stood side by side and looked out at the mountains. Master's hands had rested just here, by those shiny specks in the stone. Thinking of it, the bird opened its beak and screamed with a loss it could not even begin to comprehend.
The men paused beneath the tower and looked up. One was young, a boy even younger than the boy Elias who was somehow connected to the bird. Both of them peered up at the top of the tower, the boy cupping his hands around his eyes to see better.
Go to them, the voice whispered again. Gerhard will know you. They'll heal you and keep you safe. It's not yet too late, but it will be, soon. You have to change back now.
Gerhard, the bird thought. Gerhard was a name, too. Gerhard had hurt the boy Elias. He had let his men bind Elias's hands, and the ropes had hurt him. Gerhard had threatened to kill him, and called him a trophy. Men liked carrying trophies, dead birds dangling from their wrists.
The wind brought voices up from the foot of the tower. "I think it's hurt."
"Shall we rescue it? I've always wanted a falcon to hunt with."
"Let them stay free, Thurstan. Since when have the Kindred of the mountains needed any help in bringing down their prey?"
"We should help it, anyway."
The bird shrank back, pressing itself against the pointed roof. There was a smoky smell through the holes in the tiles, but no fire down below, though perhaps there had been one not long ago. I don't want to be found, it thought.
You must, the voice told him, urgent and shrieking and painful. You'll be lost if you don't.
But master was somewhere ahead, and there could be no delaying. Men were treacherous and cruel. All the bad things that had happened to Elias had been done by men, and that meant the bird had to hide from them.
But you are a man, the voice said.
The bird screamed. How could he be a man? If he was a man, that meant he was Elias, and horrible things had happened to Elias, and they had to be forgotten. If he was a man, then all the other things were real, too, and he had to leave his master and try to save the world. The Kindred would be waiting for him, expecting him to help them, and he had to come back and tell them he had failed them.
If he was a man, he was lost. If he was a man, he was trapped here, naked and cold, with bleeding feet and a wound that would not heal. If he was a man, he could not get home. If he was a man, he would have to throw himself on the mercy of Gerhard, and perhaps Gerhard would look after him, but perhaps he would just try to kill him.
I'm not a man, it sobbed. Maybe I was once, but not any more.
As the boy burst out of the staircase and came to a halt beside just steps away, the bird launched itself from the parapet and flew away. The boy reached for it, but the bird was far too fast for him, far too fast for anyone.
Master! it screamed, as it rose into the air. The bird circled one last time, looking down on the world of men that it was leaving behind. The boy was leaning over the edge of the parapet, holding it with both hands, squinting into the light. The man was standing beside him, staring upwards in horrified recognition. Not far away, someone was washing their clothes just upstream from a waterfall, but he did not look up. Sheltered by high crags, a lean man was sharpening a sword, and he looked up with a start, and let the sword fall. Springing to his feet, he bellowed orders, shouting something about enchantment and the king.
But that's not me, the bird thought. Not any more. Very deliberately, it forget every word it had ever known, and locked away every memory that belonged to the boy called Elias. The only word it left intact was "Master." The only memory it kept was of a man with dark blue eyes and broad shoulders, who came striding out of the sunset, and was warmth and home and everything he had ever wanted.
It was finished. Oliver threaded his needle back through his stitches, securing his final stitch, then bit off the end of the thread. He tucked the needle into his own jacket to keep it safe, and held up the finished garment in both hands, shaking it to straighten its folds.
It was finished, but still Elias had still not come. Oliver had counted every day in his mind, picturing where Elias might be. In his mind, Elias had reached the city, spent a day there, and begun the journey back. That journey had ended two days ago, but Elias had not returned. Oliver had allowed him an extra day in the city, or a long night of rest in the safe haven on the watchtower, but that extra day had come and gone, and still Elias had not appeared. Now it was the third day, and Oliver was running out of reasons. His father's vision lay heavily on him, and he wished he had gone in Amalric's place.
He had started making the cloak the day after Amalric had left. He had gone from person to person until he had found a woman with a roll of black cloth. As soon as he had told them it was to make a cloak for the king, she had handed it over willingly. She had offered to make it, too, but Oliver had insisted on doing it himself.
Oliver had modelled the cloak on Elias's Brother's robe, but he had made it out of thicker material, and with a few changes designed for practicality. Elias could still dress like a Brother, even as he lived through the winter with the Kindred. He only hoped Elias would understand the message of the gift. You are one of us, the cloak said, but we will never make you be like us, or forget where you came from.
He sighed, and draped the cloak over his arm. He would give it a quick wash, he thought, to get rid of the creases and stiffness ready for Elias to wear it. Maybe then he would come. He glanced up at the sky, and decided that the day was going to be dry. Wrapping his own cloak around his shoulders, he hurried to the stream.
A woman was standing there, one hand on her hip. Her dark brown hair was pinned up on the back of her head, but was already slithering out, making her look like a young girl who was too fond of climbing trees. She looked up as Oliver approached, and gave him a look of unnerving directness.
Her name was Adela, and she was no young girl, but five years older than Oliver. As seneschal, Oliver knew everyone by name, and as a bard he knew a little about each one's lives. Adela had never married, and had no special friends. Everyone liked her, but she always seemed to be set a little apart. Sometimes Oliver had seen her staring wistfully into the fire, and wondered if he had once had a sweetheart who had died long ago, when Oliver was still a child and too young to notice.
In all the years Oliver had been seneschal, Adela had never spoken to him. Long ago, though, before his father's accident, he remembered having conversations with her, and she had smiled then.
"Is it finished, then?" Adela said.
Oliver glanced down at the cloak, surprised that she knew about it. "It is." Then, when she seemed to expect something more, he found himself admitting the rest of it. "I'd hoped he'd come back when I finished it, but he hasn't."
She did not ask who he was talking about. "So now you've come to wash it and make it all clean for him. And you're going to expect me to do it for you. I am a woman after all."
"I wasn't," Oliver protested, then realised that Adela was smiling, and it had only been a joke. He was not used to people teasing him. For ten years, his life had been deadly serious, and he had gone for whole weeks without even wanting to laugh.
"Can I look at it?" Adela asked, in a way that showed that she understood that the cloak was important to Oliver, even if she did not know exactly why. Oliver passed it to her, and was surprised to find himself almost nervous, eager for her opinion, but afraid that she would not like it. She tilted her head to one side, and narrowed her eyes appraisingly. "It's good, for a man," she said, after keeping him waiting for far too long, and deliberately so, he was sure of it. "He's lucky to have a seneschal like you."
Oliver felt himself blushing. Once again she had switched from teasing to serious in the space of a heartbeat, and it left him feeling as if the ground was not entirely stable beneath his feet. He found most people easy to predict, but with Adela he felt that anything could happen. It was unsettling, but strangely refreshing.
"And you're lucky to have a king like him," she said, fixing him with her clear grey eyes. "You're the first seneschal in five hundred years to have a king to serve, and he's a good one. Why else would you make him that cloak and hoard it so jealously? And don't lie to me," she admonished him, with mock anger. "I can see all the little pin pricks on your fingers. It was quite a struggle to finish it, wasn't it?"
"It was," he admitted, "but he's worth it." She looked at him as if she expected him to say more, and he found that he wanted to make her pleased with him, and see her smile again. And, in the wake of that realisation, came something else, nudging at his mind, demanding to be heard. It was something that would change his life, casting the past ten years into a different light, rewriting the path of his future. He took a deep breath, and shied away from the vastness of that thought. "When he comes back," he began, but he never got to finish.
"Oliver!" It was a young fighter, red-cheeked and out of breath from running. "They've been sighted. They're coming back."
Oliver whirled round and grabbed his upper arms. "All of them? How many are there?"
"Three," the messenger replied, and only his grave face stopped Oliver's shuddering sigh of relief. "Reynard, the stranger, and your brother. The king isn't with them."
Oliver dropped the cloak and started to run.
They were surrounded. As the armed men blocked their escape, Oliver strode forward from the trees and stopped them with a raised hand. His chest was heaving as if he had been running, but his face was a cold mask of tight control.
"What's this, Reynard?" Oliver demanded. "Can you explain this, Amalric?"
The men who flanked Oliver had naked swords in their hands. "Ranulf, Julien, sheathe those swords," Reynard snapped. They were men that Ciaran had seen with Reynard before, but they did not obey him.
"They are doing it on my order, Reynard," Oliver said. "You must understand why. You would order the same, if you were in my position, and I was in yours."
Reynard let out a long breath, and he looked smaller, as if some of his vitality had seeped away from him, never to return. "Yes, I would."
"But they will not strike without hearing your explanation," Oliver said. "So explain, Reynard. Explain why you have come back without your king." Nothing Ciaran had seen could have prepared him for this. Oliver was normally so gentle, but now he was as stern and unyielding as the commander of an army, whose voice was impossible to disobey.
Reynard grew even smaller. "He's not back, then." Ciaran echoed the words, and felt the death of a hope he had no idea he had been cherishing.
"Should he be?" Oliver folded his arms. When he tucked his hands in, Ciaran saw that they were trembling. "How did you come to lose him, then?"
"It all went wrong," Reynard said. "He got himself arrested. I tried to rescue him, but he was too heavily guarded, and his last words had been to order me to keep Ciaran Morgan safe. He ordered me, and he's my king!" It was almost a wail. "I knew he had great powers and I thought he would save himself. And he did. He freed himself from the scaffold, but I lost him in the crowd. I waited as long as I could, but it was too dangerous. I had my orders." He jabbed his chin towards Ciaran. "And this one here is still alive because of me. My promise is fulfilled."
Oliver was very pale, his lips almost grey. "And you were satisfied with this explanation, Amalric?"
"I was," Amalric stammered. "I am. Should I be? I..." He swallowed. "The king's gone, but he'll come back. Won't he?"
"The king's..." Oliver turned away, and pressed his hand against his brow. Then his hands slumped to his side, and he turned back. "We have to talk more, Reynard, but I'm sure you did everything you could. Why don't you rest now?"
Reynard gave a deep sigh, and slumped forward, drooping in the saddle. As he did so, Ciaran found that the ropes were no longer binding him. He raised his hands and stared wondering at the wrists. The pain in his arms was very real, and his fingers were cramped from clinging onto the saddle, but there was no blood at his wrists.
"Yes," Reynard said, with a faint smile. "You didn't know I had enchantment, did you? I don't have much skill, it's true, but more than enough to defeat you. You haven't really been tied up for days. That's why you couldn't escape, not even with that Shadow of yours. It was only illusion, but you never really tried to fight it, did you? It suited you to have me to blame."
"I did fight it!" Ciaran protested, but the words tasted like ashes. Since the watchtower, he had ridden along placidly, resigned to the fact that he would never escape. He was the wronged victim, and Reynard and Amalric and Elias were the men who bore the blame for his situation. What was it that Reynard had said outside the city? Reynard had accused him of not even trying to escape, because if he escaped he would have to face the fact that even his best efforts were not enough to save Elias.
I hoped he would be here, he whispered to himself. Despite everything, part of him had hoped that Reynard was right, and Elias had somehow got ahead of them. "I have to go back for him," he said aloud. Reynard was wrong about him. Ciaran had done everything he could to escape. It wasn't his fault that Reynard had cheated. Ciaran would show him. He'd go back and find Elias, and then Reynard would have to eat his words.
"Sheathe your swords," Reynard commanded, ignoring Ciaran completely. The men did so without waiting for Oliver to confirm the order. "Then come with me. We have things to do."
"You should rest first, Reynard," Oliver said. "I know how hard it must have been for you. I understand..."
"You don't understand anything!" Reynard shouted. He struck himself on the chest with his fist. "Nobody will. But I will never forget." He kicked his horse's flanks, and drove it through the circle of Kindred, scattering them to either side.
"I'm going back for him," Ciaran said, at the top of his voice. "None of you can stop me."
"No we can't." Oliver was staring after Reynard, and was slow to turn round. "But I'm coming with you."
"No you are not," a new voice said. An old man was walking slowly towards them, leaning heavily on a young boy's shoulder. Where his eyes should have been there was nothing but twisted scar tissue. "I have had a vision, Oliver."
Oliver reacted as if he had been struck. "A dark one?"
"Not dark, and not the future." The old man smiled. "No need for it to be dragged screaming from my memory this time. I saw what is happening now, where the forest meets the hills."
"What?" Oliver demanded. The boy stepped away, ceding his place to Oliver. "Was it Elias?"
"It was the king." The old man nodded. "He's on his way home. I saw him as he is, and then I saw as he sees. He is thinking of here. His mind is full of the word master, and this place calls him."
"Nearly two days' ride," Oliver said. "If we leave now we'll meet him half way."
"No," the old man said firmly. "If you go now, you'll miss him. If you go now, you won't be here when he needs you. Because he will need you. You most of all, Ciaran Morgan."
That night, Oliver sat a little apart and watched them from the edge of darkness. Of all the Kindred around the fire, he was the only one who knew that this could be the last night of his life. Not even Amalric knew the truth. Reynard and Ciaran Morgan, both sitting hunched up in solitary misery, could never be told. His father had whispered the truth to Oliver, and to him alone.
"He had changed himself into a bird," he had told him. "He has no memory of being a man. All he has is a primitive memory of home, but nothing else. He won't be able to turn himself back."
Oliver had closed his eyes, and despaired. "No-one else can do it, if he cannot."
"Perhaps Ciaran Morgan will be able to do it," his father had said. "He is the one person the king remembers. Maybe he'll be able to awaken the king to who he is and call him back."
"Maybe." But Oliver knew Ciaran Morgan better than his father did, and doubted it. Perhaps the man would surprise him, but he thought Ciaran would refuse to even contemplate that a bird could hold the soul of his apprentice. If that happened, Oliver would have to try to bring Elias back himself. He would give everything he had, but there was a strong possibility that the effort would kill him.
He clasped his arms around his knees, and watched them all. He saw Ciaran first, sitting close to the fire, toying absently with something he was holding in his hand. His whole posture radiated anger and misery and a desire to be left alone. He had promised not to go after Elias for two days, but the promise had been won by shameless manipulation. He was ignorant of the fact that tomorrow he might have to save his apprentice's life, and that Oliver had already marked him down as someone who would fail that test.
Reynard was sitting on the far side of the fire, surrounded by his lieutenants, but not really part of them. He looked wretched, but when he caught anyone looking at him, he stiffened and glared at them. Amalric was standing with his arms folded, surveying the camp as if everyone was an enemy.
There were others, too, hidden in the darkness out of sight. His father was in his tent, trapped in a darkness that was only occasionally lightened with the flash of an unwanted vision. Few people ever entered his tent, and even fewer spoke to him, and he had done nothing to deserve it. Not like the girl Blanche, who would be an outcast forever because of her treachery. Even as he thought of her, he saw her, stalking through the middle of the camp. Everyone turned away from her as she passed, and she shivered as she sat down by the fire, in her own little circle of solitude.
They were all alone, Oliver realised. Not one of them was really talking to any other. Some of them, like Ciaran and Reynard, were wrapped up in anger and guilt, and drove away anyone who tried to talk to them. But even the ones who had no guilt to bear were alone, worrying and waiting. For a single night, when Elias had sworn his oath, they had been united and hopeful, but now all that was gone.
He sighed, and fought the urge to weep. He turned his head from side to side, desperate to find just one person who could give him hope. Most people who saw him looking at them looked away. Did it make him look different, the knowledge that tomorrow he might die?
Amalric started to walk towards him. As he did so, Oliver noticed Adela. She smiled at him, and showed him Elias's cloak, neatly folded in her lap. She must have picked it up when he had dropped it, and kept it safe for him. He smiled his thanks, and wished he could go over to her, but Amalric had nearly reached him.
"What are you going to do?" Amalric asked, standing between Oliver and the firelight, with his hands on his hips.
Oliver sighed. Adela gave him another smile, then shrugged in sympathy. "Wait," he said. The smile he had given Adela carried over into his voice. Without speaking a word, she had managed to ease his melancholy and make him feel a little less alone. "It's what I've done these last two weeks, after all."
"Ciaran Morgan's dangerous." Amalric touched the hilt of his sword, but it looked like the gesture of a child imitating an adult, when Reynard could make the same movement seem deadly. "He might betray us all."
"Yes." Oliver looked at Ciaran as he sat beside the fire. "But he has cause, I think. Reynard treated him very badly. Worse than you know." Oliver knew the man better than Amalric did, and knew how terrible it must have been for him to be physically bound and dragged away from helping his apprentice. It would have been bad for any man, but intolerable for a man like Ciaran Morgan.
"Was I wrong not to free him?" Amalric asked. "I sided with Reynard against the stranger. I thought that was what you wanted."
You helped them run away and leave Elias behind, he wanted to scream. You left him there all alone, lost and afraid, and none of you seem even to care. It was all about blame, and veiled accusations of treachery. It was Ciaran Morgan's wounded pride, and Reynard's sulky justifications. It was a people who wanted their king back to show them the way. Not one of them had even asked if Elias had been wounded in the seer's vision.
"You did what you had to do," he said, at last. "Reynard only did what the king ordered him to do. He did his duty."
"And tomorrow the king will be back." Amalric's voice was strange, and Oliver remembered his suspicions that his brother disliked Elias.
"Yes." Oliver sighed. "Tomorrow the king will be back."
"Have you spoken to Reynard?" Oliver shook his head, and Amalric continued. "He's keeping secrets. No-one knows how to talk to him. He needs to be shown where his loyalties should lie."
Something made Oliver ask, "And where should his loyalties lie?"
"With his seneschal," Amalric answered. "He's plotting against you. I should..."
"No," Oliver interrupted. "Leave him to me." He was too weary even to point out to Amalric that Reynard should be loyal to the king, and not to Oliver at all.
"You'll do it now?"
"Yes." Oliver stood up. "Alone," he said. "Just him and me."
He walked towards Reynard, and silence flowed behind him like a wake. Perhaps this was what everyone had been waiting for, and not for Elias after all. When Oliver stopped in front of Reynard, the tension around the fire was palpable. They were expecting him to arrest Reynard, he realised, or else for Reynard to draw his sword and attack him. Amalric was not the only man who had drawn his sword.
Oliver crouched down. "Come with me, Reynard." He regretted letting Amalric goad him into this. It would have been better done in private, when they could have slipped away without anyone seeing. "There are things we need to talk about."
"Are you arresting me?" Reynard spoke quietly, with no fight in his voice. "Have I been judged?"
"I just need more answers than you have given," Oliver said. "He's my king. It's my duty to ask."
"And mine to answer." Reynard stood up. "I know that. I expected this." He held back, letting Oliver lead the way, and followed him with a docility that Oliver knew would not last.
Oliver led him into the woods, away from the camp. As they left the circle of firelight, a hum of conversation started up, and Oliver found himself almost hating his own people. The merest whisper of the word treachery had always been able to tear them apart, and make them turn on their own. The girl Blanche was a living example of that, as was Reynard's own dead son, cursed by his father and buried without a single mourner. Elias had been the only one to want mercy and forgiveness, but people like Reynard would only ever see that as a weakness in him.
It seemed lighter in the forest, away from the glare of firelight that made the twilight seem black by contrast. Oliver led them to the place where they had gathered with Elias to discuss their plans. It seemed like the only right place. Here Reynard had defied Elias and declared rebellion, but here, too, Reynard had promised to obey him and lay aside his dreams of war. Reynard had been both traitor and loyal liegeman in this place, and he would remember both.
"So," Reynard said, when they stopped walking. "Just you and me, alone, and no-one to see what happens. Are you going to kill me?"
"No." Oliver shook his head sadly. "It's always been you who could kill me. You've always known that. You're a master swordsman, while I..."
"You use your sword as if it's a lump of wood," Reynard said. "And you're soft. You'd never have been able to do what I had to do."
"I would kill, if I thought I could save my king by doing so," Oliver said, with an edge to his voice. "But I don't think he would thank me for it. Elias hates to see people hurt."
"He's soft, too," Reynard said scathingly.
"But you obeyed his order." Oliver sat down on the fallen tree. He had never found it easy to confront Reynard about anything. They were just too different. Reynard respected the rank of seneschal, and admired Oliver's skill with enchantment, but disagreed with him in so many things. If it ever came to open confrontation, Oliver had no idea who would win. "He told you to leave him, and you did."
"I did," Reynard spat. "I did. I never will again, I have sworn it."
Oliver closed his eyes. "You're so sure he'll come back." He tried to phrase it as a question, but could not. "You're so sure we can recover from this."
Reynard rounded on him, and there was no submission in his voice now. "And you aren't? What do you know?"
"He's turned himself into a bird."
Reynard cried out exultantly. "I knew it! I saw him in the pass, the way he looked at them."
"He's turned himself into a bird," Oliver repeated. "He doesn't know how to turn back. He'll be here tomorrow, and we'll have to save him. I don't know if I can."
Reynard grabbed him by the shirt front. "You mean he might be lost? That if I'd waited I could have stopped it before it happened?" He pushed Oliver away, and drew his sword. "Is that what you're saying?" He pressed the sword against Oliver's throat, hard enough to hurt, though not quite hard enough to break the skin. "Tell me that it's my fault," he hissed, twisting his hand so the blade bit deeper. "Tell me."
"It was nobody's fault," Oliver whispered. "It just happened. There was no good ending, from the moment I let him go." And perhaps that was his answer after all. When held at sword point he let slip the truth, and that was that he blamed himself. The king should have ridden out with his seneschal at his side. Elias should have travelled with someone who cared about him, not with Reynard and Ciaran, who both wanted to control him in their own different ways.
"It wasn't your fault." Reynard snatched the sword back, and swung it with both hands, smashing it into the fallen log. "It was mine." He wrenched it out and swung it again, so the blade sank deep into a the tree and stuck there. He screamed with exertion as he tried to drag it out.
"Perhaps it was nobody's," Oliver said. He looked at the darkening clearing, and remembered how Elias had looked when he had sat there. Their longed-for king was real, and had been here, but now he was gone, and the places he had been were now empty, devoid of his presence. The Kindred were just as they had always been, forced to sit and wait for a king who might never return to them. They had borne it for five hundred years, but now it was a hundred times worse, coming as it did after such a brief flowering of hope. This time it was not a faceless king who was lost to them, but a real young man.
"I played my part," Reynard said. "I tried to stop him, but he's stubborn when he wants to do something. He has a strength I never expected when I saw him first."
"You should have expected it." Even though his misery, Oliver found he could smile. "He'd shown what he was made of again and again."
"He stood up to me." Reynard continued as if Oliver had not spoken, caught up in his own need to confess. "He insisted on trying to save a girl who was being burnt. He pushed through the crowd, and I lost him. When I found him again, he'd somehow managed to take the girl's pain into himself, but she still betrayed him. She pointed at him, and the soldiers saw what he was doing. When they came for him, the last thing he did was to push me and Ciaran Morgan away and give us new faces with illusion. He ordered me to keep his master safe, and I promised. I promised."
"And you kept your promise," Oliver reminded him. "I just need to know why you made that promise."
He half expected Reynard to attack him again, but Reynard stood very still, his sword trailing limply at his side. "I thought he was strong enough to save himself," he whispered. "I didn't know what else to do. I've never met an enemy I couldn't fight, but there were so many of them."
Oliver clenched his hands together, and forced himself to speak it. "There are some who might say that you never obeyed him before, so why did you choose this one time? There are some who might say that you resented having a stranger as a king, and a boy at that, and you wanted him out of the way. There are some who might remember that he was the cause of your son's death, and he made you give up your dream of war. There are some who might say that you have become a traitor."
"Some," Reynard echoed. He raised his sword again. "Are you one of those people, Oliver?"
Oliver held his breath. "Why did you leave him, Reynard? Really?"
Reynard stalked up to him, close enough for Oliver to feel his breath. "I could kill you now, Oliver, and no-one would be able to stop me. They'd know it was me," he said, before Oliver could reply, "but maybe it would be too late. I'm a master swordsman, as you said. I know how to kill myself."
"Do you want to kill yourself?" Oliver hardly dared to breathe.
Reynard sank to his knees, and did not answer. "He ordered me," he said, at last, in a terrible voice. "I obeyed him. The first time I've obeyed an order against my better judgement. And now you say he's lost because of it."
"Not lost," Oliver managed to say. "He could well come back."
"Lost," Reynard repeated. "Don't patronise me. He's lost, and it's my fault. I should never have made that promise. If I hadn't, I would have been free to fight for him. I'd have found him. He'd never have been alone."
"But Ciaran Morgan would be dead."
"I wish he was," Reynard spat. "He does the king nothing but harm. I should have let him have his own way that first day, and watched as they cut him down." He sighed, and passed his hand over his brow. "It's been so hard, Oliver."
Oliver knew how rare the confession was, and how seldom Reynard admitted his feelings. "I know it has. And I don't blame you. I will make sure that no-one else does."
Reynard stood up. "But what does it matter? I do."
"I'm sorry." Oliver sighed. "I don't blame you." But I do! he cried. "I think, if it was anyone's fault, it was Elias's. He did it willingly. He chose to sacrifice himself."
"He shouldn't be allowed to." Reynard was pacing again, sword in his hand, and the moment of self-reproach was gone. "He's our king. He shouldn't be allowed to make choices."
Oliver closed his eyes, as a wave of immense sadness swept over him. Is this what they had become in their five hundred years of exile? It was very possible that he would die tomorrow, but he wanted to set one thing right before he died, and set at least one wound on the path to healing. "Do you blame him for your son's death?" he asked.
Reynard stopped his pacing. "No."
"If Elias hadn't come, your son would still be alive." Oliver was the ruthless seneschal, trained by his father to drag dark visions and truths out into light. "You would still be estranged, but there would be a chance of reconciliation in the future."
"He's dead." Reynard sank to his knees, and Oliver felt like a murderer. He knew without a doubt that no-one had ever seen Reynard with his emotions laid so bare, except perhaps the wife who had left him so long ago.
"Dead," Oliver repeated. "Dead because of Elias." He stood up. "I'm not accusing you of treachery. I don't think you set out to betray Elias because of your son's death. I just think you can't serve him properly, not with this issue between you."
"I did not betray my king," Reynard forced out. "Failed him, perhaps, but I did not betray him."
Oliver sighed. "I fear for the future, Reynard. I fear for you." He held up a hand to stop the other man interrupting. "Your son died, and you cursed him. You denied your grief, and all in the name of loyalty."
"He was a traitor."
"He was your son." Oliver almost touched Reynard's shoulder, but held back, for he knew Reynard would not like it. "Your son, Reynard. Out of loyalty to your king, you cast him off and refused to mourn him, but you needed to see that sacrifice justified. You needed to prove that you weren't like your son. When the crisis came, you had to prove yourself loyal. You had to obey your king and cling to that promise, even though everything inside you screamed out at you to disobey. You wanted to be able to blame him. He gave the order, and all you did was follow. If everything fell apart because of it, it was his fault."
"No!" Reynard screamed. "I never blamed him! I'm not a traitor!"
Oliver started to circle him. "Are you sure?"
"I'm not a traitor," Reynard whispered, "but I blame him. Not for my son's death, no. But for ordering me away. You've no idea what it was like, Oliver. I had to slink away like a pathetic child. I had to run away when my king was in danger. And all because of him."
"Say his name," Oliver breathed. "Say your son's name. Forgive him. That has to come first."
Reynard buried his face in his hands, and Oliver turned away, and pretended not to see. "Isembard," he whispered.
"A boy who made a mistake," Oliver said, "in a difficult time. Your son. Elias forgave him. Why can't you?"
A few hours later, Reynard sought him out again. He was carrying a candle, shielding the flame with a cupped hand.
"I have done it," he said. "I visited his grave."
Oliver was sitting on his hands on the log. In the hours since Reynard had left him, he had not moved. "I am glad," he said. He hoped Reynard had left a candle on his son's grave, for the night was very dark.
"I feel better for it," Reynard admitted. "Thank you."
They would not mention it tomorrow, Oliver knew. Tomorrow, Reynard would be the strong man of the sword, and no-one but Oliver would know that there was another side to him. The flickering candlelight showed that he had been weeping.
He did not ask if Reynard had received an answer. Elias had told him once that he could sense the dead, and Oliver had said nothing, nothing to show just how remarkable a revelation it had been. None of the Kindred could sense the dead, and some of them had stopped believing that they lingered at all. How terrible it would be if Reynard's son was still there, desperately trying to speak to his father, but Reynard was unable to hear him.
"He will come back?" Reynard asked. This time Oliver knew he was not talking about his son.
"I hope so." He didn't breathe a word about his belief that he would have to give his life tomorrow, and that even that sacrifice might not be enough to bring Elias back.
"Do you know what I always used to think," Reynard said, "when the old bard used to talk about the coming of the king?"
"You needn't tell me," Oliver started to say, but Reynard carried on regardless. It was as if his grief to his son had made Reynard unguarded, and he wanted to pour out all his emotions in the dark, before buttoning them up again and being the same as he always had been, when the night was over.
"I used to dream of the perfect commander." Reynard started to pace. "A master swordsman, who knew everything that there was to know about tactics. He would be enchantment made flesh, but he would be the greatest warrior the world had ever known. He would lead us to triumph on a black charger, and all the world would tremble to see us."
"We all had dreams," Oliver mumbled uncomfortably. "Every one of us expected the king to be something different." And it was such a tragedy for Elias that every person of the Kindred held those expectations. He would never be allowed to be just a mortal man.
"When I first saw him," Reynard said, "I wanted it to be a mistake. He was so young. I wanted him to step aside, and show the true king who was standing behind him. When I challenged him to a fight, part of me truly wanted to kill him. I wanted him to die, so the true king would reveal himself."
"I know," Oliver said, and he had. Elias had known it, too, and that was the saddest thing of all. "But I believe he has the potential of becoming a great king. Not the sort of king any of us dreamed of, perhaps, but maybe even greater. But he's human, Reynard, and that means he will make mistakes. He'll suffer and need help. Some of us will die to protect him." His voice trailed away, and he wrapped his arms around his body to stop himself shivering.
"He threw everything away for her, a woman the Duchy," Reynard burst out.
"One of us," Oliver corrected him. "A woman with enchantment." Not that it mattered. Cruelty was cruelty, no matter who the victim was.
"She was not one of us," Reynard spat. "And she betrayed him. He should have let her die. If he had, none of this would have happened."
"He chose to save her," Oliver reminded him.
"Yes." Reynard's voice was harsh. "And he shouldn't have. He knew what hopes we placed in him. Did it even matter to him, that he was condemning us if he died? He threw it all away for her. His life isn't his own to throw away. It's ours."
Oliver shook his head sadly. Despite his brief moment of confiding, Reynard was still a man who had little in common with him, and they would never be friends. "I think," he said, slowly, "that I would not be as willing to serve him if he had not done as he did. It does him credit that he would risk so much for someone else. Remember, Reynard, that kingship was always based on service and sacrifice. Kings are closer to enchantment than any of us, and enchantment is all about life and empathy and feeling. Could a true king have stood by and let a woman burn to death? I think not."
"He should have done so," Reynard persisted. "He's our king, not theirs."
"Enchantment knows no boundaries. I know you revere enchantment, Reynard, but you know less of it than I do, and I know less than Elias does." He sighed. "I dislike it as much as you do, though for different reasons. I hate to think of Elias suffering like that. But I think he showed himself a truer king for doing so."
"But if he saves one girl," Reynard protested, "only to condemn us all..? How can that be good? He didn't even save her life. And if he threw his life away to do so... If we're lost, without any hope of salvation...?" He was silent for a long time. "How can that be good?" he said, at last.
"I don't know," Oliver admitted. "But if a man can walk away from one person in pain, he can walk away from a thousand."
"It doesn't matter!" Reynard shouted. "Whether it's right or wrong, he's gone. And now you tell me that it might be forever, and he might not recover from it." He stopped pacing. "What will we do?"
"We will be on our own." Oliver looked up at the sky. "After five centuries waiting, we will be on our own." But if that happened, he thought, he wouldn't be alive to see it. He would give his life before they gave up on Elias.
"Without hope." Reynard kicked a tree stump.
"Yes. Without hope. And perhaps..." Oliver sighed. "Perhaps we have always depended too much on that hope. Perhaps were have depended too much on prophecy and stories. Perhaps we should find our own strength, or just accept our decline and death. Perhaps it is all we deserve, if we can take someone like Elias, and destroy him so quickly. He thought of Elias, snatched from his home and overwhelmed with demands, then sent unprepared into the city, and abandoned there. "Sometimes I think we do not deserve a king."
"But mistakes can be undone," Reynard said. "Errors can be atoned for. Oaths can be sworn."
Oliver closed his eyes. "Yes," he whispered. "Yes they can."