His final choice
Oliver stood at the very edge of the fallen tree. The soft breeze stirred the end of the branches, and they scratched at his boots like a dead man's pleading fingers. Leaves fluttered around his feet, but most of them were loose, no longer attached to the branches. In all the forest, barely a single leaf still clung to any tree. They had all been torn away and lay bunched up in sodden little piles. The bare branches seemed very thin, and there was sky everywhere.
He shivered. He had not yet retrieved his cloak from his father's tent, though this was something he would have to do, and soon. His father's tent was still standing, and there were many people in need of the shelter. Barely hours after learning of his father's death, Oliver would have to sort through his meagre possessions and hand his home over to someone else.
"I can't do it," he whispered. "It's too soon." The attack had come too quickly, and he had been given no time alone with the reality of his father's death. As soon as the animals had been defeated, he had rushed back to the camp, where everyone had crowded around him, wanting help and advice. He had smiled at them and given them the answers they wanted, but all he had wanted to do was scream at them and push them away. His father was dead, the only casualty of the terrible night. His father was dead, but Oliver was seneschal, and he had no time to mourn him.
Wrapping his arms around his body, he began to move forward. Small twigs cracked beneath his feet, and larger ones scratched at his ankles. After two steps, his footing was already treacherous, standing on criss-crossed piles of broken twigs. Ahead of him, the large branches reared as tall as any tree. With a sword, perhaps he could hack them down, but it would be the work of hours, if not days.
Instead of walking, he fell to his knees. Branches surrounded him like the bars of a prison, and twigs dug painfully into his knees. "I can't find you," he cried. "I can't reach you." But perhaps he already had. He had no idea how deeply his father was buried. Maybe the trunk had fallen on him, crushing him right at the heart of the tree, or maybe he was only buried by a thin covering of branches, very near the edge. Maybe Oliver would touch him, if he just reached out a little further. Maybe he had found him already, and the crunching of twigs beneath his knees was really the cracking of bones. If he walked even one more step, would he be standing on his father's dead face, crushing it beneath its blanket of branches?
He crawled backwards, his hand pressed to his mouth. When he could see the ground beneath the thin twigs, he reached out, caressing the air was if it was his father's cheek. "I can't find you," he whispered. "Are you here?"
There was no answer. He had spoken to Elias only once since the attack. Elias had uttered not a word of complaint about Amalric, and had talked only of Oliver's father, and how sorry he was for his loss. "I can see the dead sometimes," he had admitted, "but this was like nothing I've seen before. I spoke to him. He said he's accepted his death. He said he was happy, and he wanted you to know how much he loved you." Elias's eyes had filled with tears. "It was so beautiful, the place he was going to. It was pure enchantment, so white."
Oliver closed his eyes. Why had Elias been the one to see him, and not Oliver? It was a selfish desire, but he felt it nonetheless. He would never resent Elias for it, but he understood why Amalric did. His father lay dead, and he had not only given his last words to another, but Oliver couldn't even see his body. He couldn't hold him and weep over him and gently touch his face. He was lying so close, but Oliver would never see him again.
"Why?" said a harsh voice behind him.
Oliver opened his eyes, but said nothing. He had no answers to give.
Amalric walked forward, crunching fine twigs beneath his feet. Oliver just wanted to be left alone, but Amalric had every right to be here. Oliver had spent that last night with his father, and Amalric had not, and now never could.
"Why was he out here by himself? Why did he die, Oliver?"
Deeply weary, Oliver shook his head. "I don't know. I left him in his tent. I was going to send someone back to him, but everyone was so busy, and there were so many people who needed helping. I thought he was safe. I never thought he would leave."
"Maybe someone forced him," Amalric said darkly. Oliver heard him play with his dagger, jabbing it in and out of the sheath. For Amalric, the enemy always had to be someone else. He never once thought to blame Oliver for failing to send someone back.
Oliver shook his head. "I think he saw his death in a vision," he said, for he had pieced the clues together and this is what he believed. "He knew it would be tonight, and that there was no way to avoid it, so he went outside, preferring to die outside, beneath the sky."
"Why didn't he tell us?"
"Because we couldn’t stop it." Oliver had both arms wrapped round his body. "Because it would just make us sad, and he wanted his last days to be happy." He turned round, suddenly desperate to see his brother's face. "And his last day was happy. He said so. Isn't that the most important thing of all?"
"Not to me." Oliver hardly recognised his brother. There could be two deaths in his family as a result of this night. His father was dead, but in the aftermath the relationship between his two sons could shatter beyond repair.
"It should be," Oliver said.
"I don't believe it," Amalric spat. "Our father wouldn't just meekly lie down and die. Something happened. Maybe he heard someone crying for help, and went out to help them, then got lost on the way back. Maybe he had a vision, and was trying to find you to tell you. Maybe it was an accident." He shook his head from side to side. "Just don't tell me that he let it happen. Don't tell me that he chose to leave us."
"I don't think we'll ever know for sure," Oliver said, truthfully. Perhaps Amalric was right. Maybe his father had seen the attack by the river, and rushed out to bring warning. Maybe he had seen something even worse, that lurked far in the future, and now they would remain forever ignorant, blundering blindly towards disaster. But he thought not. If that was so, his father would have tried to tell Elias. His father's death had been peaceful and expected. His last day had been happy, and he had gone to a wonderful place.
Despite what Amalric believed, he thought it was most important thing. His father had known that he was going to die, and he could have despaired, but he had not. He had accepted the things that he could not change, and made good things come out of the tragedy. And that was how Oliver would remember him. His father's last and dearest wish was that his sons could be happy, and so Oliver would not let his father's death undo his own new-found happiness. He would mourn him and weep for him, but he would continue to cling to hope, like a single torch flame in the darkness. True to his father's wishes, he would not be broken by this.
"I just want him back," Amalric said. "He was stolen from me."
Oliver shook his head. "There is no enemy in this, Amalric. It happened. Mourn him. Be happy that he lived, and that he was content at the end. But don't seek enemies. Don't treat him like a possession that was stolen from you."
Amalric turned his back and stalked away a few steps. "I knew you'd come back to this. I wondered when you'd say anything."
"I can't not say anything," Oliver said, though he had hoped to avoid this, here at least. He had come here to grieve for his father. The confrontation with Amalric was supposed to come later, when it could not taint the grief. "You tried to kill your king. You tried to kill Elias, when all he was trying to do was save your life."
"Is that what he says?" Amalric did not turn round. "Does he accuse me?"
"He accuses you of nothing," Oliver said, "but I saw you. I saw the blood on your knife, and the wound on his side that matched it. I saw how close you came to shooting him."
"So he hasn't accused me," Amalric sneered. "Of course he wouldn't. I forgot just how perfect he is. He'll oh so graciously forgive me, but I'll always know that everyone else thinks I should be punished, and I'll always know that I owe him my life."
Oliver struggled to his feet. "It won't come to that." He touched Amalric's shoulder. "You were provoked. It's hard to think clearly in a storm, and grief can do terrible things. Say that you didn't mean it."
Amalric stood very still. "I meant it," he whispered at last. "I hate him. I wanted him to go away. I wanted him to die."
Oliver wanted to fall to his knees. He wanted to seize his brother and shake him, and strike him in the face and beat him into taking his words back. For the first time, he understood Reynard's extreme reaction to his son's betrayal. When someone you loved behaved abominably, it felt like a personal hurt.
"He's taking you away from me." Amalric hugged himself tightly, his clenched fists thrust beneath his arms. "He's all you think of, and it used to be me."
It was never you, Oliver thought, sadly, for he had never been as close to Amalric as Amalric had wanted him to be. Amalric was devoted to his family with an intensity that was almost frightening, but Oliver had always felt a little uneasy around his brother, sensing that they had little in common except shared blood.
"I'm Kindred," Amalric said. "I know what the coming of the king means to us. I knew you'd have to serve him as seneschal. I knew you'd have to give him your time. I just never expected you to give him your heart."
"It's not true," Oliver started to say, but he could not get the words out. "We're family." Amalric stalked away a few more steps, then whirled on Oliver, his face all tightly clenched misery. "That should be the most important thing of all."
It wasn't about Elias, Oliver realised. Amalric would be the same no matter who Oliver had become close to. He thought of Adela, and how he had started to hope he could get to know her better in the months to come. Doubtless Amalric would hate her, too. It was jealousy, and it was understandable, but it was wrong.
"I don't think it should be," he said slowly. He was treading carefully, reluctant to cause a rift too deep to be healed, but it would be wrong to lie, and bring about a false reconciliation. There had to be a degree of honesty, or things would be poisoned between them forever. "Other things come first, both to us as Kindred, and to us as people. Other people matter, even if they are strangers. No one person owns another. I can care about Elias, but it doesn't mean I don't care about you."
"You don't," Amalric said. "You think I did wrong."
Oliver swallowed. "You did do wrong. I think you know it. Even if Elias had wronged you, even if you had good cause, would it ever be right to kill the king we have waited for for five hundred years? The cause comes first. You are Kindred, and surely you know that."
Amalric's face crumpled. "I know," he whispered. "I just wanted someone to blame. It hurt so much."
Oliver pulled him into his arms. "Please don't hate him," he murmured. "Mourn our father, but do not hate."
"I couldn't bear it, that someone else had heard his last words, not me."
"I know." Oliver rubbed his brother's back, between the shoulder blades, trying to soothe him. "I understand."
Amalric looked up. "Do you?"
Amalric sank to his knees, pulling Oliver down with him. "I am loyal," he protested. "I am. Do you know what I feathered my arrows with? His own feathers. I thought it would be a noble thing to have the king's feathers on my arrows, but at the same time, it made me feel as if I had some power over him, and that felt good. I hated him so much. But I'm loyal. I would never betray my people. You know that."
"I know," Oliver said, but the words sounded hollow, as if he was lying.
"It's so difficult." Amalric pounded his chest with his fist. "It hurts so much."
"I know." This time he meant it. "I wanted to find his body," he confessed. "I just wanted to touch him, but I can't find him. I can't find him."
"We should dig him out."
Oliver thought for a while, and realised that he knew what to do. "No." He shook his head. "We burn him. The tree will be his pyre." The wood would be damp, but Elias would be able to set the fire with enchantment, and they would make sure that it burned.
"Now?" Amalric looked fierce and wary, and Oliver was not sure if he hated the idea, or welcomed it.
"Tonight," Oliver said, and knew it was the right answer. "We have a lot of healing to do, all of us. We have all lost something, and we need to come together, and see how there is light, even in the midst of death."
"I don't want to share it," Amalric said. "He's our father, not theirs. They're nothing to do with us."
"It's only right," Oliver told him. "It won't make our loss any less. We can still say our private farewells, as the smoke rises. But let him die as he lived for so many years, loved by his family, and at the centre of his people."
Amalric lowered his head. "Do you hate me now? Have I lost you, too?"
Oliver shook his head, but he could not lie. "You are my brother," he said, gently, "and I love you, but he is my king, and my friend. I can't change that, and I don't want to."
"I know." Amalric's voice was very small. When he was not strengthened by anger, he always looked younger than his years, and a little ungainly. "I... I just..."
Unable to hold back any more, Oliver seized him in an embrace. "It will get easier," he whispered. "It will. I promise it will."
And it will, he swore to himself. I won't let this bring us down. We'll get through this. We will.
The summons would come at any time, Lord Darius had told him. When it finally came, two weeks after the sorcerer's escape, Lankin was instantly ready. He straightened his uniform, and walked out of the barracks room without telling anyone where he was going. He would not share Lord Darius's secrets with anyone.
He entered Darius's austere study, and the doors glided shut behind him on silent hinges. Darius said nothing to greet him, merely walked over to a table on the far side of the room, and picked up the sorcerer's sword. It had been wiped clean of the sorcerer's blood that had stained it last time Lankin had seen it, and he thought it was a shame. Although his own jacket had been washed since the execution, he had plucked out one single thread that was stained with the sorcerer's blood, and wore it twisted around his silver badge. Every day, as he put his uniform on, he touched the evil one's blood, and renewed his oath.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" Darius said, without turning round. He walked to the window and held the sword up to the light. "Come closer, Lankin. Take a look."
Lankin stepped up to Darius's side. He wanted to hate the sword, but then it glimmered with some deep and pearly light, and he caught his breath. It was indeed beautiful. At first glance, it seemed white, but when he stood close he saw that there were many other colours beneath the surface, but they were frozen, when he thought they should be alive. The sword only gleamed because the sunlight fell on it, and the colours inside the blade only reflected back the one colour of the sun.
"This was his sword," Darius said. "And, yes, it would shine all the more if he was holding it. I will not lie about that. In the eyes of the bandits, this sword proclaims him king. Every bandit in the country will follow his cause. His powers are very real."
"But evil," Lankin said. He turned his head away from the beauty of the sword. "Sorcerers seduce us with images of beauty, but they're only tricks."
Darius put the sword down. "So you prefer an austere life, Lankin?" He walked to the table and picked up one of the books, but did not open it. "I have studied the histories, Lankin. No, don't look so shocked. Know your enemy, that's what I believe. And I do. I do know my enemy. I know his evil and his weaknesses, but I also know his allure."
"Allure?" Lankin thought of the handsome body that had housed the evil sorcerous soul, and wondered if Darius had human weaknesses after all.
"Allure." Darius put the book down and leaned on it. "They called it enchantment, the thing we call sorcery. They said it was the most beautiful thing imaginable. They think we live a very sad life, cut off from its glory. They think we're only half alive. Blind, they call us. Even as they hate us, they pity us." He started to pace, coming to a halt just behind Lankin. "So you see, Lankin, there is a time of choice coming for us all. We have to decide whether we can face a life of privation and service, or whether we give into sensation. It may be that we will all face that temptation. Who will rise past it, and who will give in?"
Lankin swallowed. "I will never give in." He swallowed again, and took the risk of saying more. "I would even smash all the statues. I'd tear down the playhouses and rip up the books of poetry. It just makes us soft. It seduces us from our true course. Until sorcery is defeated, we must be utterly dedicated to service. Our comfort means nothing."
"A hard life," Darius mused. "That would be your chosen future for us?"
"A hard life, but a righteous one. I think we have become too like the sorcerers we claim to despise. We are... We are soldiers who have laid down their weapons and been distracted by drink and girls. Fifty years ago, we would never have let the sorcerer slip through our fingers like that. We have lost our way, and I think..." Lankin clenched his fists by his side, and dared say the worst thing of all. "I think it's the Duke's own fault. He didn't mean it to happen, but it did."
"Really?" Darius walked to the window again and stood there with one hand pressed to the glass. "I have tragic news, Lankin. The Duke died this morning. He died in his bed, but I'm sure some will whisper and make accusations of foul play. Would you care to repeat what you just said about him?"
"I didn't mean..." Lankin stammered. Was Darius accusing him of assassinating the Duke? "I wouldn't..."
"No." Darius turned to face him, and Lankin had never before noticed how pale his face was, and how deadly his eyes. "I know that. But will the whisperers? What will they say if they heard what you just said, I wonder?" He raised his hand, stopping Lankin from speaking. "Now, I know how the Duke died, so I can silence the whisperers, at least as far as you are concerned. I was there. He died in his bed, snuggled into his pillows like a baby. He's not been well for a long time. You know that. You know how I've been taking care of him."
Lankin nodded. "I know, my lord."
"There is something else," Darius said, his eyes boring into Lankin's. "The Duke has no heir, as you know. Maybe there are some distant cousins, but they're miles away, and won't be here for weeks, and many things can happen in a few weeks - a bandit attack, perhaps, or an assault by the sorcerers, on a state without a leader, a body without a head. A country can be undone in just a matter of weeks." He picked up another book, running his hand over its cover as he spoke. "And you know, too, that the Dukedom was not always hereditary. In the old days, the days you so admire, the title went to the one best suited to bear it. It went to the one who would best serve his people."
Lankin nodded. It seemed as if he was incapable of doing anything else. Darius turned back to the window, and this time he pressed both hands against the glass, like a prisoner striving to see daylight. It spoke more eloquently than anything else of how much Darius gave up for his people, and how completely he dedicated himself to duty.
"Just before he died," Darius said, "the Duke asked me to succeed him. He lived just long enough to put his signature on the deed that named me Duke." His voice was subdued, for he was not a man to take any glory in such an honour. "But the whisperers - the same whisperers who might accuse you of complicity - will say that he was coerced, or even that the signature was forged. The whisperers will deny my claim. They will argue the claim of some spoiled nobleman from far away, who's never shed blood for his country, and it will be the undoing of us."
Lankin touched the hilt of his sword. "I will fight anyone who says so, my lord."
"You will?" Darius gave a weary sigh, sounding as vulnerable as Lankin had ever heard him. "It does me good to hear it, Lankin. Loyalty is hard to come by in these shallow times."
"I'll support you," Lankin said, hotly. "So will all the Soldiers of Light. Let anyone dare dispute your claim."
"I cannot lie to you," Darius said, spreading his hands. "It could be a hard fight. The whisperers are strong. They will try to stir up the people. You will have to make yourself unpopular. The people will cling to their life of luxury, and will be too blind to see the need for martial rule. They have become accustomed to freedom, and will not understand why they need to be gagged."
"I will support you in everything, my lord." Lankin fell to his knees, belatedly realising that he had been talking in such a free manner to a man who was no longer merely his commander, but his Duke. "I devote myself to you in everything."
Darius gave a self-deprecating laugh. "Oh, stand up, Lankin. We’re companions at arms, you and I. In the cause that we're fighting, there is no room for ceremony. Any man who dedicates himself to the cause of light is my brother."
Lankin could not stop himself from smiling. He knew he should be mourning the old Duke, but he had never met the man, and his death had ushered in an age of righteousness. At long last, the duke would be someone who ruled because they were worthy, not because they had been born to privilege.
"It will be a hard course," Darius said. "There will be no spoils of war, not for a long time. There will be no rest for us. The whispers and ignorant ones will always try to stab us in the back, and the bandits will be rallying even as we speak. A great battle is coming."
"Then let us ride today," Lankin cried. He had raged for a whole day when the search for the escaped sorcerer had been called off and he had been robbed of his prize. They had been so close! In the days that followed, his hatred had grown into an inferno. He had vowed not to rest until the sorcerer was caught, and the sorcerer's escape had made his oath seem foolish, for of course he had rested after all.
Darius shook his head, looking pained. "It is not the time. I was the one who called off the search, Lankin. No, don't look at me like that. It was the only right thing to do. He used his sorcery to fly away, and how could we follow him like that? We would have had to cast our net so wide that we would have become vulnerable, like stray seeds blown every which way by the wind. They would have picked us up one by one. And, besides, I doubted our own soldier's strength of purpose. Even if they had found him, they would have let him slip away."
"I was strong of purpose," Lankin cried.
"I know," Darius said. "But you were an exception. We have a long way to go before we are ready to face the bandits in open battle. The army will be purged, and we will raise a new army, dedicated utterly to what is right. We will train them ruthlessly, and they will become unstoppable. And then, and only then, will we ride against the sorcerers. But, when we do..." He smiled, pressing his long fingers together. "When we do, they will fall beneath us like grass in a field."
"Yes," Lankin breathed. He pressed his hands together, unconsciously echoing Darius's stance, though his own was more fervent. "When do we start?"
"The battle starts today. The news of the Duke's passing will be proclaimed in the streets today. We will mourn him." He spoke the words very firmly. "I will not be seen much, so great is my grief. When the people recover from the consternation that the news will surely bring, they will find that the whisperers are nowhere to be found. They knew their wickedness had been exposed, and so they fled. Do you understand?"
Lankin nodded. "I do." Some deaths would be necessary, he knew, but he thought most people would accept Darius as Duke. He was a hero of the people, for he had risen through the ranks, and they all knew how hard he worked for the common good. Nobody knew where he had come from, except that he had arrived in the city aged seventeen, with no more possessions than the clothes on his back, and had risen from there.
Darius walked over to a desk and wrote a few lines on a sheet of paper, then handed it to Lankin. "Take this to your captain. Tell everyone you can trust the things I have told you. We will make the proclamation this afternoon, and there is much to prepare."
"I will." Recognising that he was dismissed, Lankin headed for the door, but at the last minute he paused, unable to resist asking, "And the sorcerer?"
"The sorcerer..." The new Duke opened his hand, palm upwards. "The sorcerer," he said, "will come back for his sword, sooner or later. He'll delay for a while, because he's afraid of me, but he won't be able to resist it. He will come back, and we will be ready for him. We will let him, we will watch, and then..." He snapped the hand shut, making a tight clenched fist. "And then we will crush him."
The blood lay thick, and nobody had cleared away the bodies. When Ciaran found him, Elias was already heavily stained with it, although he had put clean clothes on since the night. He was kneeling beside a dead wolf, his hand pushing through its fur, so that silver-grey tufts stuck up between his fingers. As Ciaran watched, he raised that same hand to his lips, as if he was trying to tell something by the taste of the blood.
"They just came on and on," Elias said, though Ciaran had stood very still and had made no sound. "Hundreds of them died. On and on, just dying. They didn't want to do it."
Ciaran crouched beside him. "They were wild animals, Elias. They attacked because that's what animals do."
"They don't attack me," Elias said, stating it as a simple fact, without trace of arrogance. Even so, Ciaran stiffened to hear it, and pulled back the hand that had been about to touch Elias's shoulder. "They shouldn't have done it, but something was making them. They followed my blood, did you know that, master?"
Elias wrapped his good arm around his body; the other one had been freshly bandaged and bound to his chest. "When I was a bird, I was bleeding. I remember it. I looped around, and came in there, over that bit of stream. I probably bled on that far bank. That was probably the last drop."
"Don't talk about it," Ciaran urged him. "It's over."
"They followed it." Elias carried on as if his master had not spoken. "I don't know how. No normal animal could have done it, because the drops were so tiny, so far apart. They were led by something that could see what they could not. And so was the horsemen. Just a normal, innocent man, forced to get on his horse and ride through the storm to kill me."
"Stop it!" Ciaran surprised himself with the force of his cry. He pressed his hands together in his lap. "It's over."
Elias shook his head. "No it's not. It will never be over. Lord Darius isn't the real threat. He's only a man. He's cruel and terrible and I'm so scared of him, master, I'm so scared..." He sucked in a sobbing breath, and carried on, hunched forward and resisting comfort. "Kindred and Duchy need to stand together against the threat that's coming. As long as Darius is there, that will never happen, and so he's dangerous. Normal men can still kill us. Men like Amalric. It's not only great evils. Normal men. Normal men under Darius. They can still destroy us."
Ciaran tried to raise him up. "You're babbling, Elias. Come with me."
Elias pulled away with a cry. "But they're not the real threat. There's something else out there, something terrible. It spoke to me. It knows me."
"Don't be silly, Elias." Ciaran shook his head. "You're overwrought. I don't blame you, but it's over. It doesn't matter any more."
Elias whirled to face him, his expression terrible. "Didn't you hear it, master? It was in the voice of the storm. It was laughing when I was sick. It was there. It was everywhere. It invaded those animals' minds, and forced them to obey." He struck himself on the chest. "And it was in me. Inside."
"Come with me, Elias," Ciaran pleaded, but his own voice was desperate now, for hadn't he heard someone laughing at him when Elias had been sick? Hadn't he thought, for a while, that the sickness was something alive?
Elias let out a sighing moan, and made a desperate attempt for control. "So it's not over," he said. "It will never be over until I'm dead. But then it will only be over for me, because the thing will still be out there, and it will stride over my body and tear the world apart."
"It won't," Ciaran tried to convince him. "You're tired. You've been through a lot. It was only a storm, and storms can turn animals mad with fear. It happens at all the time. It's nothing more sinister than that."
Elias struggled to his feet, and his face looked shuttered. "If you say so." Only the bleakness in his voice kept it from sounding insolent.
"It's over." Ciaran took hold of Elias's elbow. "And it's tomorrow now. It's time for me to go home." You promised, he almost added, but did not.
"You still want that?" Elias was looking down at the ground.
Ciaran frowned. "Of course I do. We talked about it yesterday."
"I just thought..." Elias sighed. "I thought you might have changed your mind. The Kindred have lost so much. They need help. I didn't think you'd want to go away and leave people who needed help."
"Don't you dare try to make me feel guilty about it." Ciaran rounded on Elias. "I played my part last night." He raised his hands, scratched and bleeding from all the work he had done. "I did as much as any of them."
"I know you did," Elias said. "I watched you. That's why I thought..."
"No," Ciaran said, firmly. "It's Greenslade I'm sworn to help, not here. All sorts of things could have happened while I was away. The Kindred are strong enough to help themselves, but my people aren't. They need me."
"They need you," Elias echoed. He pulled away, walked a few steps, then stopped, staring into the trees. "And perhaps I hoped... After last night..." He sighed. "I enjoyed our walk last night. Did you?"
Ciaran frowned. "I did, but I don't know what difference that's meant to make. So I enjoyed last night a little more than I thought I would. That doesn't change anything. There's nothing you can say that will make me want to stay here, Elias."
Ciaran gave an angry sigh. "How many times do I have to say it, Elias? I want to go home." His voice began to crack, but it said it nevertheless. So what if it made him sound weak? He would be home soon. "I just want to go home."
"I know you do," Elias murmured.
"I know I judged the Kindred unfairly at first," Ciaran admitted, for Elias looked so miserable, as if he wanted something more from him. "I wish then well. But everything important to me is at home. Everything that makes me who I am."
"I know." Elias was speaking through a hand pressed to his mouth.
"Do it now." Ciaran was suddenly unable to wait any longer. He grabbed Elias's hand and pulled him round. "Now. No more goodbyes. Just do it."
Elias blinked, as if Ciaran had just asked for something terrible "No more goodbyes?"
Ciaran shook his head, caught up in the excitement of the moment. He was finally going home! He had been pushed around by others for so long, but he was finally taking control of his own future. "No. Now. With no-one else watching. I've got nothing more to say."
Part of him would have liked to have said a goodbye to Reynard so scathing and perfect that Reynard would have had no possible retort, but he could not think of the words. If he saw Oliver, he would probably end up confessing that he liked him. But none of the others meant anything to him. Better just to walk away without a word. The more he talked to them, the more they became real people. If he said too many goodbyes, he might wonder in the months to come what had happened to them, and even finding himself wishing he could find out. In a few minutes, these people would be part of his past. Let that start now. From this moment, they no longer existed.
"I don't want to do it here," Elias said. "Not with all these bodies around."
"Then go into the woods," Ciaran said. "I presume you can do it anywhere?"
"I don't know." Elias shook his head. "I don't know if the door will open to your living room, because that's where it was last opened, or because that’s where you belong and want to be. Or maybe it will be to the place in our world that corresponds to here, wherever that is."
"I don't care." Ciaran clenched and unclenched his hands, as excited and impatient as a child. "Just do it."
Elias led and Ciaran followed. The ground was thick with fallen branches, and they had to step over them, ducking to avoid the strands of bramble. Through the naked branches, he could see the sky above, all pale grey and washed-out blue. Even the colours would be richer at home, he thought. No-one should try to make a home here, in such a terrible, bleak place.
Folding his arms in his cloak, he smiled, for every step was taking him closer to his home.
I don't want to stop, Elias thought. If he just kept on walking, Ciaran would follow him, and would not stop until Elias did. They could walk together to the end of the world. But it would be a silent walk, with no companionship. Ciaran was behind him, chafing with impatience, desperate to go home.
Elias closed his eyes, whispered a silent plea for strength, and stopped walking. "Here," he said. "This will do."
There was a slim silver birch on his left, a carpet of leaves at its foot. When he looked up, he saw a bird far above, flying free, like he himself had done for such a short time. The ground was stony beneath the leaves, and he saw a few footprints in the mud. People had come this way not long ago. Maybe someone would come by in the middle and see him. Maybe Oliver would grab his arm and make him stop.
"Why?" Ciaran was frowning. "Why here? It doesn't look any different from all the other places we went past."
Because I didn't have the courage to stop in those places, Elias thought. And, if I walked another step, I might never have found the courage again.
Ciaran's arms fell to his side, then half rose. "What do I have to do? Do I have to stand any particular way?"
Ciaran wanted to go home very badly indeed, Elias thought, to be asking questions like this, as humble as a small child. He was submitting himself to a magic he distrusted, and admitting that his apprentice alone had the power to send him home. Even a few weeks ago, he would never have acted like this. He had changed a lot. But not enough! Not enough! But why should he? It was only understandable that Ciaran would want to go home. There was nothing keeping him here, nothing that mattered.
"No." Elias shook his head, and even managed to smile. "Any how. No magic words. No circle of arcane symbols on the ground. All I have to do is..." He closed his eyes, and could not speak another word.
"What?" Ciaran asked him. "What do you need to do?"
"Want it," Elias whispered, because all his great works of enchantment had been like that, done without conscious thought, but only because he wanted them to happen so desperately.
Ciaran moved towards him, his eyes soft. He must have seen the sadness in Elias's face that he was incapable of hiding, for he took hold of Elias's hand. This is it, Elias thought. He's going to change his mind. But all Ciaran said was, "I know it's hard for you. It's never easy to say goodbye. It's never easy to... to close a chapter, to walk away with things unfinished. I know you had such high hopes."
High hopes, he echoed. Yes. I hoped you'd never leave me. I hoped I could grow to be strong and a man, but always with you at my side.
"You did what you could," Ciaran was saying. "Whatever happens now, you can look back and know that you tried. I have been proud of you, though I haven't said it as much as I should have. You used your powers for good, and refused to be led by men like Reynard, who wanted war. You stood up for what you thought was right, even if you got hurt."
"I couldn't have done it without you," Elias confessed. "I know you thought I was moving away from you. I know there were times when I had to face things alone. But you saved my life. You gave me strength." And you could do so again, he wanted to cry. Not in the way you have done for the last ten years, because I can't be like that again, but in a new way, fighting back to back, like we did beside the stream. Giving strength to each other. I just need someone who thinks all the world of me. That's all everyone wants, even you. "I said I loved you, once," he said, aloud. "And I did. I do."
"I know." Ciaran touched his cheek. But he did not say it back. He had said it once, a desperate cry wrung from a mind close to breaking, but now it was forgotten. Even the touch was fleeting, for he pulled his hand away, and his arm fell again to his side. "Do it, then."
Elias raised his hands. It was time. He had to do it. But I don't know how. He had to want it. But I don't. I want it less than I want anything in the world. It's like tearing out my heart.
"What are you waiting for?" Ciaran asked. "Why aren't you standing closer?"
He had to want it. He had to want to send his master home, and carry on in a world without him. He had to want to live alone in a land that held Lord Darius, where a still greater evil knew him and hungered for his blood. He had to want to be abandoned, cast aside, pushed weeping into the gutter, and this time there would be no tall saviour to pluck him out.
His hands were raised, but no power came. If it came at all, he realised, it would be in a surge of white light that sealed the doors forever, and bound Ciaran forever to his side, an unwilling prisoner. Enchantment responded to the things he longed for, and how could he ever long for this?
"I don't think I can do it," he whispered, and Ciaran heard him. "You can't?" he shouted, his words following straight on after Elias's, harsh following soft. "Of course you can. You have to do this. Please."
He was so harsh, so insistent, so blind. It didn't matter to him that Elias was hurting. He didn't care. All he wanted to do was go home, back to Greenslade, where he could stride through the streets in his billowing robe, and watch everyone fawn over him. He loved the fact that they revered him. He exercised his control over every area of their life, and it made him feel good.
That's all that matters to you, isn't it, master? Elias accused him, silently. That why it's so important to you to go back. You can't bear it here because they don't all look up to you. They're real people who answer back, and all you want is a walking, talking doll. That's the only reason you ever wanted me. I was so pathetic, so hopeless. I just clung to your every word, looking up at you with my big needy eyes. You were everything to me, and you loved that, didn't you?
Ciaran was an enemy, as dangerous as Lord Darius. Ciaran wanted to drag him down, to make him nothing. Ciaran undermined him in everything he did. If Elias came to him, flushed with excitement about the enchantment, Ciaran just told him it was nothing. When Elias tried to confront Reynard, Ciaran just stepped in front of him and ruined everything. When Elias risked everything to save a life, Ciaran said that he hated him. Ciaran hated Elias for saving his own life. He hated him for finding the sword. He hated him for being king. He hated him when he was strong.
You let me down, he wanted to scream. Time and time again, you betrayed me. I flew to you, but you smashed me to the ground. You knew it was me, didn't you? They'd all told you, but you were too stubborn to admit it. It was impossible for you to admit that your apprentice could do something beyond your comprehension. So you hurt me. You betrayed me. You have done more harm to me than anyone else.
Ciaran was a coward, who ran away whenever things were difficult. Elias had heard the gossip in the Basilica, and knew that Ciaran had run away from a broken love affair years ago, and that he was hiding still. Whenever bad things happened, Ciaran hid from them. He had broken down and sobbed for Elias to come back, but then he'd simply turned his back and pretended that it made no difference.
And nothing would change if you stayed, would it? he accused him. You say you're going to change, but you won't. You'll find excuses to stay the same as ever. You'll pretend it never happened. You'll convince yourself that you never begged for me to come back, that you never told me you loved me, that you never said how much you needed me. You'll be the same as you always are. So it's just as well that you're not staying, isn't it?
When Ciaran left, Elias would be alone, but there was a safety in solitude, as his master had long ago learned. There would be no-one to betray him, no-one to turn their back when he longed for them. Never again would be fly as a bird, desperate only for the one person who could keep him safe, for never again would there be a person like that. But never again would he be smashed out of the sky by a gentle arm turned cruel.
I'm better off without you, he said. His raised hands were beginning to tremble, but still the light did not come. I want you to leave me. Please.
But his master had sobbed for him, had clung to him, had apologised. He had broken down, and Elias had only come back because his master needed him. He was deeply miserable here. He had been dragged here against his will, and, if he hated it, who could blame him? Who was Elias, that Ciaran could give up his home for his sake? Ciaran, his big strong master, was just a person, like Sophie or Alicia or the girl on the scaffold. He was a person who was hurting, and Elias could make him better, and would do so no matter what the cost, because it was right.
"I'm sorry," he whispered, his voice little more than a breath. He had no idea if Ciaran could hear it. "I don't hate you. I never could. But..." He raised his head, and whiteness began to speckle his vision. "I want this to happen. I want it!" he screamed.
White fire blazed...
And Ciaran was consumed by it, immersed in it, held captive as he had been held so many weeks before, unable to move. Behind him, he thought, a door was opening. If he turned round, he would see the green fields near home, or his own staff resting on his chair, just ready for him to take it up.
The light bleached his vision, but he could see Elias, and saw that he was crying. Why would he be crying? What was there to cry about in going home?
He tried to raise his hand to comfort the boy, but his arm would not move. And then Elias was speaking, his voice loud and everywhere, as if even the white flames spoke with the voice of Elias.
"Goodbye, master," the fire said, lapping around his body with its chilling and beautiful touch. "Goodbye," but it was Elias who was speaking, Elias who was saying such a thing to him.
Frozen, pinned by the flame, Ciaran could only stare. Aren't you coming with me? He could not move his lips, and he could not speak.
"I only want you to be happy," Elias said. "You know why I have to stay."
I thought you were coming with me. The flames burned, and enchantment was the living fire of emotion, or so Oliver had told him, and Ciaran was immersed in it. It fuelled his emotions, and that was the only reason he felt like crying.
"Please be happy," Elias begged him.
Treacherous, Ciaran spat. Deceitful. Elias had tricked him. Elias had betrayed him. He had lied, promising Ciaran that he would come back with him, that they would forget all this together, but all the while he had been plotting this betrayal. Ciaran was an inconvenience, to be packed off home, leaving Elias free to play the king with all his new friends. He had chosen people like Reynard above the master who had cherished him for so long, and he hadn't even had the courage to confront Ciaran with his choice.
"It was no trick," Elias told him, but this time he was speaking in his mind, speaking through their old link that had been strengthened by the hateful fire. "I thought you knew. I only did it so that you could be happy."
"What do you know about what makes me happy?" Ciaran screamed in his mind, knowing that Elias could hear him. "You're just a coward, seduced by the glory of a crown. I was in your way, wasn't I? You couldn't wait to get rid of me. Everything was a lie, wasn't it? And after everything I gave up for you. Do you know what I gave up for you, Elias? Do you?"
"I know," Elias whispered, "and you will never to do it again. You're free, master. I'm so sorry."
"No, I never will," Ciaran shouted. "Give up anything for you? You disgust me. You betrayed me," he screamed, "just like he did."
Elias pressed his hand to his mouth. "I did it for you. I didn't want to. For you, master. For you. I thought you knew. I thought you knew."
Ciaran remembered the voice of the wind. You know what he's planning to do. Nothing worth remembering, he had thought. He would think about it tomorrow. He would push everything behind a wall in his mind, and think about it tomorrow, when he was home.
"And you do want to go home," Elias said. "I know you do."
"I do." But without Elias? Without the person who shared his home and his life? There was not a single place in Greenslade that was not deeply imbued with memories of Elias. I don't know! he cried. He wanted to go home with Elias. Given the choice of staying here with Elias, or going home without him, which would he choose? He wanted to press his hands to his face, but the magic still bound him. I don't know.
"I do," Elias said, quietly. "I know what your choice would be." He stepped closer. "Goodbye, master."
The white fire flared impossibly bright, and Ciaran felt himself slipping away. There were noises behind him, and he knew they were in a different world. The branches of the trees were only the faintest of shadows. Elias was a little more clear, but even he was fading.
I didn't mean the things I said, Ciaran thought. I don't hate you. I never could.
And then only Elias remained, his hand outstretched. He could take that hand, Ciaran realised. Elias had given him his freedom back. He could still step forward. He could emerge from the light, take Elias's hand, and face a future in a world that was not his home. He could still change things. He still had a choice.
Behind him, someone started knocking on his door, calling his name. "Master Morgan," the called. "Are you there?"
Ciaran turned round to look, and saw his own living room, just as he had left it. His staff was propped against the chair, and there were drops of Elias's blood on the stone floor, long since turned brown. Though an open window, he could heard birds singing, and bright blossoms from shrubs in the garden were pressing at the glass. The person knocking at his door needed his help, and this was his home. This was where he belonged.
"Goodbye, Ciaran." Elias's voice came from impossibly far away.
Ciaran whirled round, but there was nothing left, only the far wall of his room. The white fire had gone. The doorway had been closed, and he was home.
The knocking grew more insistent. Ciaran dashed his hand over his eyes, and slumped down into the chair. Gripping the arms, he pressed his head into the hard wooden back, and closed his eyes.
"Master Morgan!" they were shouting. They sounded urgent.
Ciaran stood up. Reaching for his staff, he went to open the door.
He had no idea how long has passed before someone touched his arm. He raised his head. "Master?" But he knew that it was not.
"You're freezing cold," Oliver said. "You're shivering."
Cold. Yes. He would be cold even in the summer, now. He was alone, and this was forever.
"Come back with me." Oliver's voice was gentle.
Elias's hand closed round a small pebble, and held it tight. He would never forget. He would never forget why he had done this, and what it meant. "Ciaran's gone home," he said.
"Gone?" Oliver knelt beside him. "Oh, Elias. I'm so sorry you had to do this. I would have asked you not to."
"I know." Despite everything, Elias managed to smile. Oliver was a good friend. He was a better friend than Ciaran was, but Ciaran was Ciaran, and he had lost him, and no-one would ever take his place again.
"I would have begged you to go with him," Oliver said.
"I know. But I wouldn't have. I couldn't. I can't."
Oliver put his arm around his shoulder, pulling him into an awkward embrace. Elias was stiff, and did not return it.
"Come on," Oliver said, standing up. "They've got the fire going again. Dinner's ready. You need to eat."
Elias felt that food would turn to ashes in his mouth. But he stood up, and let Oliver lead him home. He would eat, because he had to. He would eat, and face the day ahead, and the day after that, and the months and years that followed them. And he would get through them, because he had to. He had made his final choice, and this was what he had chosen.
Clutching the stone in his hand, he stopped walking, and gave a laugh that he scarcely recognised. "I have to," he said, when Oliver turned to him questioningly. "I have no choice."
"There are always choices," Oliver said. "We can choose what we make of the things that happen to us. Even when things look terrible, there is always the chance of happiness."
"Yes," Elias said, but he did not look at Oliver as he said it. Then, with Oliver at his side, he walked back to the place that was now his only home, where his people were waiting for him.