The voice of the wind
The wind was speaking to him, screaming at him, calling to him. "Come," it said, offering him a hand like a skeletal branch, ripped from a tree. "Follow. See. Remember."
Was it a vision, or merely a dream? Somehow, Ciaran knew that he was asleep, even as the voice of the wind led him further away and deeper, but the things that the wind showed him were no dream, but had really happened, many years before.
He was dragged into the past and deposited into a body that had once been his. Snowflakes were flurrying against his face, and he opened his mouth to taste them, as he had done so long ago. It made no difference, knowing what was going to happen. The body that he inhabited did exactly as it had done fifteen years before, and Ciaran could do nothing to stop it.
He was leaning on the wall of the Basilica, near a place that, in summer, would be alive with white flowers. It was the first snow of winter, and the young Ciaran thought it very beautiful, though years later he would stand beside his apprentice and sneer at the thought of seeing anything beautiful in such a season. He had been naive then, and stupid. "No", the wind told him. "Just innocent, and there is nothing wrong with that."
Innocent, then, he looked down at the silent city. It looked so pure. All the nasty smoke and grimy streets were covered with perfect whiteness, and it seemed as if the whole city was reverent, gazing silently up at the light that topped the Basilica.
"Look." The young Ciaran turned to the man who stood behind him. He moved over a bit, just as he would do on the watchtower, making a space for his apprentice in the dark. "Isn't it beautiful?"
The man behind him did not move. No, Ciaran wanted to scream to his younger self, so innocent and so unaware that his world was about to end. Just walk away now. Be the one to finish it. Don't stay to hear the next words. Don't do what you're about to do.
But the young Ciaran did not hear him, and it was Ciaran's own voice that spoke. "Stand beside me, my love. I want to watch it with you beside me." He turned round and smiled, offering his body for the holding. "Or even closer."
The man who stood behind him laughed. "Do you really believe the things you say? You're such a romantic. You want every moment of pleasure to be true love."
The wind blew the snow into his face, and suddenly its coldness hurt him. "Because it is true love," he said. "Isn't it?"
"Oh no." The man behind him laughed. "True love? Just a passing diversion. I enjoyed being the first one to bed you."
The young Ciaran gave a shaky laugh. "You don't mean this."
They had spent months together, sharing dreams of the future. Lying in bed, propping himself on his elbows on the rumpled sheets, Ciaran had confessed all his secrets to the one he had thought was his soul-mate
"Oh yes." The man laughed. Even in dreams, the name would never be spoken. "You didn't really think I could love you, did you? You're such an innocent, Ciaran. Exciting to seduce, fine for a few months of amusement, but true love? I think not."
Ciaran fell to his knees. I don't want to watch this, he wailed, pleading with the voice of the wind. It happened. I don't want to remember it. But, "You have to watch," the wind told him. "It holds the key. As long as you hide from it, you will never be happy."
"Please," the younger Ciaran was sobbing, but the older Ciaran was sobbing along with him, for the hurt was just as strong as it had ever been. "Please don't say this. We had something special. We did."
"We had some good times in bed," the treacherous one said. "There's nothing quite like turning an innocent into a wanton, but the novelty wears off after a while. Now you're just tiresome."
Ciaran crawled through the thin snow, wrapping his arms round his lover's ankles. "I'll change. I'll do whatever you want. Just please don't leave me." And his older self pleaded, too, begging the wind to spare him. I know what happens, he wailed. I know what I said.
"Do you?" the wind asked him. "Have you ever let yourself remember it? The man you became was created that night in the Basilica, yet you never let yourself admit it. You forget that you could ever need another person so badly as to beg."
"Because I never want it to happen again!" Ciaran screamed. "I never want to feel like that again. I thought I was going to die, it hurt so much."
But still the past kept on unfolding, and the treacherous one only laughed, and shook Ciaran away from his foot like a piece of dirt, and walked away. "No," Ciaran sobbed then, and "no," he pleaded now, unable even to close his eyes and hide from it.
"Hide," the wind taunted him. "Yes, you always want to hide, don't you. All this thought of tomorrow. Tomorrow, you say, you'll think about things, and you'll change. But you won't, will you? As soon as you're home, you'll find ways to forget. You'll be the same as you've been for fifteen years, needing nobody, and never happy. For Elias's sake, you have to face it. For your own sake, you have to face it. If you don't, it will haunt you, and one day it will find you and hold you at bay, and then it will destroy you."
"I don't want to," he whispered, as the body of the younger Ciaran lay sprawled in the snow, sobbing and wailing. "I'm afraid," he confessed, as the Crux bell rang out, biding him believe in a Shadow that was devoid of emotion, and a ceremony that taught that endings were a thing of hope.
The voice of the wind was heartless. "Come with me," it said again. "See where that night took you. See where it will take you still. See and understand, before it is too late."
The snow swirled thickly, hiding everything. When it cleared again, Ciaran found himself was standing in an ugly city, all brick and dirty stone. People were struggling home, lashed by the wind that howled between the buildings. Grit stung his eyes and made him blink, and something was creaking, though he could not see what it was.
"See?" the wind shrieked at him. "See what you did, and know why you did it."
He rubbed his eyes against the dirt that the wind hurled at him, and started to walk. He knew what he would find, and he hurried towards it, for there was no shame in this memory. The sun was setting behind him, and his shadow was long and dark, stretching across the street. Hurry, he urged his younger self, for Elias was just ahead of him, curled in on himself, desperate for help. He needs you.
His younger self saw Elias, and stopped walking. He stared at him, then took a few steps back. Elias was crying, tears pouring down his face. All he needed was someone to take care of him and love him.
"Why doesn't he go to him?" Ciaran asked the wind.
"Because he's afraid," the wind told him. "But you know that, don't you, Ciaran? You were afraid. You wanted to approach him, but you were afraid of letting anyone close. From that first day, you were afraid that one day he would move away from you and leave you sobbing in the garden, just like the other had done."
The younger Ciaran made up his mind and hurried forward. He crouched down beside Elias, and started to talk, and the young boy looked up, his face a tearful mask of gratitude and adoration.
"See?" Ciaran told the voice of the wind. "You were wrong. I was never afraid. I went to him."
"Ah yes." The wind laughed, buffeting him so he could scarcely stand. "You went. But only because he was safe. He needed you so badly that you thought he would never betray you. You vowed never to be dependent on anyone else for your happiness, but, with Elias, you told yourself that you were not. He was the one who needed you, not the other way round."
"It's not true," Ciaran cried, as, at the same time, his lips moved, speaking the words that had bound Elias to his side so long ago.
"It is," the wind whispered, plucking at his clothes as tenderly as a treacherous lover. "And it remains true. And you will lose Elias because of it." The wind became a shrieking torment, and black clouds scudded in front of the sun. "Find the courage to face the truth, Ciaran. Take the plunge. Dare to risk everything. Know yourself for what you are. Stop letting one bad love affair ruin your life. You know what Elias is planning," it screamed. "Open your eyes, Ciaran. Stop it now, before it's too late. Do you want to see what the future will be, if you continue on this course?"
"No," he moaned, but the wind only swelled until it filled the whole world. There was shouting, too, and something was hammering like the feet of an army running on stone. The creaking was louder than ever, and someone was shaking him. "Master," he heard. "Master."
He opened his eyes, but could see nothing but darkness. The sound was all around him. "Elias?" he cried, for there had been something about Elias in his dream, something terrible.
Searing white light flared, and for a moment he thought it was Elias's enchantment, but then he realised that it was only lightning, with thunder almost simultaneous. "You have to get up," Elias told him, still shaking him. "It's a storm, a bad one. People need help. I've been trying to wake you for ages."
Ciaran sat up and rubbed his eyes. "I was dreaming..."
"There's no time," Elias said, already heading for the door.
"A dream," Ciaran echoed, as Elias went out into the storm. "Only a dream." Nothing important. Or, if it was, it was something he could think about tomorrow.
"Is it bad?" his father asked.
Oliver took one step out of the door, and a squall of cold rain smashed into him, hitting him full on. Grimacing, he stepped back into the tent. "It's bad. I have to go out and see if everyone's all right." He extricated himself from his cloak. Perhaps it was stupid to be undressed in order to go out in a storm, but the cloak would be no use to him wet. At least he would have a dry cloak to return to, when it was all over.
"A storm," his father murmured, his voice almost drowned out by the shrieking wind outside. "So it's tonight, then."
They had sat beside each other and talked for hours. They had talked about little things and big things, and things of no importance at all. He felt faintly guilty that they had not asked Amalric to join them, but there would be many more nights for Amalric. Tonight, Oliver had had his father all to himself, and was glad of it. "Tonight?" Oliver echoed, falling to his knees in front of his father. "Have you seen something? Is this something we don't survive?"
His father gave a faint smile. "Oh no. I'm sure you'll survive. After all, what cruel fate would destroy us in a storm, just after the king has returned?" He patted Oliver's hand. "Go now, Oliver. Do what you need to do."
Oliver stood up. "I'll send someone to you." Their tents of leather and waxed cloth were more or less waterproof, but there was a very real danger of trees falling. If that happened, his father needed someone with sight to lead him to safety.
"I'll be fine." His father folded his hands in his lap, completely calm. "I've enjoyed tonight, Oliver. I'm glad we had this time together. I'm glad you're happy."
Smiling fondly, Oliver paused in the doorway and looked back at his father's tent. It was bleak and austere, with even fewer possessions than Oliver's stark tent. Looking round the tent, Oliver saw not a single thing from his father's former life as seneschal. Oliver was not the only one whose life had ended on that day ten years before. His father had gone from being the leader of his people, to being an outcast. He must have destroyed every single thing that reminded him of the life he had lost.
"We're more alike than I ever realised," Oliver said sadly.
"More alike than you know." His father smiled. "Because I, too, have become content. Never forget that. Whatever happens tonight, please cling on to your happiness. It's more important than anything."
"I will," Oliver swore. In the faint light of the candle, his father looked like a warrior resting after a long day in the saddle, his hands folded as he awaited the call that would bid him take up arms and fight his next battle. His scars were in shadows, and his face showed no fear and no sadness. Outside, the storm was raging, but his father was untouched by it.
"Go, then." His father flapped his hand, teasingly impatient. "This is no time to stand talking. Get out in the rain, boy."
"I will." Oliver opened the door. "But I'll come back."
Ciaran caught up with Elias in the embers of the fire, where faint glimmers of orange tried in vain to survive against the drenching rain. Elias was standing there, his fist pressed to his mouth, oblivious to how the fire tried to surge up beneath his feet.
Ciaran grabbed him and pulled him backwards. Elias came bonelessly, and fell heavily against his chest. Then, with a low cry, he pawed with his one good arm and managed to twist himself round, so he was pressed against Ciaran's body, his face nestled in his shoulder. Awkwardly, Ciaran raised his arms to embrace him, and felt just how badly Elias was trembling.
The wind and rain seemed to cut them off from the rest of the world, so nothing existed but each other. I want us to be like this forever, Ciaran thought. Elias sighed, and Ciaran thought he was thinking the same thing, but Elias was the first to push away, pressing his hand against Ciaran's chest, fighting his embrace. "I can't," he moaned. "Got to go."
Ciaran's empty arms fell down to his side. "You wake me and tell me there are things to do, but here you are just standing in the fire, doing nothing."
"I felt it," Elias said. Lightning flared and showed his face totally bleached of all colour. "It knows me. I just got... overwhelmed."
Ciaran grabbed his arm. "What are you talking about?"
"The storm." Elias started clawing at the sling that bound his broken arm to his chest. "Help me undo it. I need both arms. I can't do anything with only one."
"You can't. It's too soon," he protested, but Elias was almost desperate, struggling to undo the knots with only one hand, so Ciaran stepped forward and helped him, undoing the knots while Elias held his hair off the back of his neck.
When the knots were free, Elias pulled away briskly. "It almost doesn't hurt. I won't use if I can help it, but at least now I can."
The wind smashed into them like a fist, and lightning flared once more, then there was total darkness. Before, there had been a constant flickering of distant lightning, and even the roiling clouds above had gaps in them, letting in the moonlight. The lightning stopped in the same moment the clouds covered the moon, creating a darkness that was absolute. The only sound Ciaran could hear was the screaming wind and the lashing rain.
Ciaran reached out, but couldn't find Elias. He reached out again, and fought the urge to scream his name. Someone bumped against him, and he nearly fell. Reynard and his cronies would have eyes well adapted to the dark. They could be creeping up on him even now, planning to kill him, so Elias had nothing left to live for outside the Kindred's world.
He tried a few faltering steps, but tripped over something. He fell to his knees, tangling himself up in the thing he had fallen over. It was warm and alive, and he realised that it was a child, sobbing desolately. He groped in the dark, and managed to scoop it up into his arms. "It's all right," he whispered into its ear. "I know it's scary, but I've got you now. I'll look after you."
"Are you scared, too?" the child whispered, its face pressed into his neck.
"No." Ciaran stood up, hoisting the child into his arms. The wind howled, and he couldn't see anything at all. "Yes," he admitted. "I am, a little. I think everyone is." But he felt stronger just having someone else to share it with, someone else to cling to, someone else who was more afraid than he could ever be.
Lightning flashed again, and he saw a single frozen image of the Kindred, fighting the destruction of their camp. The trees were stark, bent over almost on to themselves. Someone was hunched on the ground, their head in their hands. Others were working as a team, struggling to lift the ruins of a tent and release the person trapped beneath.
Ciaran started to stride out with increasing confidence. Reynard wasn't trying to kill him, of course. He knew that really. He could never like the Kindred, but they were not the inhuman villains he had seen them as in the early days. They were too busy fighting for their own survival to worry about him. And he was strong, with skills that none of them shared. Perhaps he could help.
Away to his left, he saw a faint glow of light that did not flicker. It came closer and he saw the hand that held it, and the face that looked down on it. It was Elias, bearing a white light crafted from enchantment in his cupped hands. Everyone looked up as he passed, and Ciaran was reminded suddenly of their winter ritual, when everyone had watched so reverently as a young boy with a torch had brought them light and hope.
"Master," Elias said, looking up at him. "I lost you."
"I found someone else." Ciaran tightened his grip on the young child. She seemed a little afraid of Elias's light, for she snuggled closer into Ciaran's neck.
Elias smiled, and looked beyond Ciaran. "I think her mother's come for her now."
Ciaran let the child be taken from his arms, and listened to the mother's tearful thanks. "I'm glad I could help," he said, truthfully. The woman was thanking him, only him, but the thanks seemed less important than the fact that he had made the child stop crying, and that she had clung to him.
The wind surged, and a tree toppled with a scream. "It's not safe out here," Ciaran shouted over the noise.
"Nowhere's safe." Elias gasped with pain, and there was suddenly blood on his face. "Just a twig," he said. "Only a scratch. But I'd rather be out here than inside. At least here there are places to run. At least here we can do some good."
Still bearing his unearthly light, he ran towards the fallen tree, and Ciaran followed. Everyone looked up gratefully, and moved over to make room, but no-one stopped working. "There's someone under it," they shouted, but they had already formed themselves into a team to help the wounded, and nothing changed because their king had come. Ciaran was glad to see it. He stored it up in his memory to point out to Elias later, when the boy felt guilty about leaving them. They could take care of themselves, and he would make sure that Elias knew it.
All around them, the wind and the rain battered them like an assault. Ciaran joined in with the rest of them, clawing at fallen branches with his bare hands, until he was sore and bleeding. He used the Shadow when he could, and he knew that the others were yielding to him, recognising him as the strongest of the rescue party.
Time passed in a blur of exertion and the screaming wind. At last, far down the line, someone cried out, and he saw a body being dragged out from beneath the tree. Beside him, Elias moaned, and Ciaran turned towards him. His apprentice looked terrible. He had kept the light shining, but he had worked with both hands, and his eyes were wild and his chest heaving. He looked possessed, and close to collapse.
"I have to heal her," Elias cried, struggling to his feet.
"No." Ciaran grabbed his arm. "I can do that. So can they. They've got their own healers. Leave her. You need to rest."
"I have to." Rain was slewing over Elias's face, but Ciaran thought there were tears there, too. "Please don't stop me."
"Elias." Ciaran pulled him close, but he still had to shout to be heard over the wind. "You have to learn where to draw the line. You have to know when to walk away."
"Never," Elias screamed. "I never can. I have to make it all worthwhile."
Ciaran shook him, and Elias's head jolted back and then forward, and then the light went out, and Ciaran could no longer see him. "Make what worthwhile?" he shouted into the darkness.
"Everything," Elias sobbed. "I've done so much damage. I have to..."
"No you don't," Ciaran said firmly. "You owe them nothing."
Elias lunged forward and grabbed him, pulling his head down so he could shout in his ear. Ciaran grabbed him to steady him, and felt his shivering body beneath his sodden clothes. "Would you say the same if we were in Greenslade, master?" Elias demanded.
Ciaran pushed him away, suddenly furious. "That's different!"
"Yes it is," Elias said. "It's different. So let me go, Ciaran. Let me pass."
"Go then," Ciaran sneered. "Risk your life again for strangers. I don't care." He folded his arms and turned his back. "It will all be over tomorrow," he said, "so what does it matter?"
"Over?" Elias echoed, and Ciaran realised that he had not pushed past him after all, but was still standing there. "It will never be over. Why can't you see that?"
Ciaran rounded on him. "It's over." He jabbed his hand up at the sky. The moon was back, flickering hectically as the tree branches lashed over its surface. The rain seemed less heavy, and the wind a little less strong. They had weathered the storm, and it must surely be almost morning. Tomorrow was almost here.
"No." Elias wrapped his arms around his middle, and stared up at the sky. "It's out there. It sees me."
"The storm?" Ciaran shouted. "You think the storm is meant personally for you? Don't be ridiculous, Elias. Not everything is about you. Some things just happen."
"You don't know anything," Elias said sadly.
With an angry sigh, Ciaran turned and walked away.
Elias could almost see the malevolence that boiled in the dark clouds. He could almost hear the laughter that shrieked in the wind. The branches of the trees were accusing fingers, pointing at him, telling him that this was all his fault. You, it said. I came for you, to destroy you. The others just got in the way.
He had walked into the woods and tried to sleep beneath a tree, trying to get himself accustomed to the darkness and the solitude that would be the story of his future, but the wind had grown, tearing at his clothes, drenching him in water. He had almost welcomed it at first, for it had been like the music and the dance, filling the whole world so that nothing else existed. By the time he had realised that the Kindred were in danger, it had already begun. People had already lost their homes. They had been screaming in the wreckage, and he had not even noticed. He had closed his mind to everything except the sensation of the storm.
"Please," he sobbed, as the Kindred's home was devastated all around him. "Please don't hurt them any more." He was open to them now, intimately aware of their every terror. When they cried, it hurt him. When they bled, he tried to heal them, but it only left him drained. He owed it to them, for he had betrayed their trust. Besides, his comfort and safety in a storm were such little things, compared with the terrible magnitude of what he had to do tomorrow.
"I have to give them everything," he moaned. "Everything. I have to atone." And perhaps he would die, and then tomorrow would never happen. Perhaps he would be close to death, and Ciaran would find him and cry over him again, and hold him forever.
Lightning flared, and blinding light filled the clearing. Elias whirled round, and saw a tree limned in flame, torn apart and burning. "No!" he screamed. He opened his arms and summoned light, and blazed his defiance to the storm. "You will never defeat us, for we have our own light."
Everyone turned to look at him, pinned and spread by the light, but they were not the only ones who saw him. With a rumbling sound, the storm turned on him, as if all the clouds where whispering to each other, There he is. He's the one we want.
As the wind tried to tear him apart, Elias heard someone screaming, and with the screaming came a vision that told him the truth. The storm could hurt them, but what was coming from the west could destroy them.
He started to run. He was dimly aware of Ciaran calling his name, and Oliver tried to pluck at his clothes. People jostled him, heading desperately for the stricken tree. A woman screamed the name of her child, and someone was sobbing. Everyone else was rushing to help the people in need, and he was the only one who was running away.
The storm followed him. Never, it laughed at him. You will never be able to run away. Wherever you go, I will find you. You are mine.
He became aware that he was wailing as he ran, his broken arm jolting against his body, his strength all burnt out and incapable of producing light. He ran through darkness, tripping over branches, sprawling, scratching his face, sobbing. Someone kicked him by accident, but it should have been deliberate, because he had brought death to the camp tonight. Ciaran was right to push him away and hate him.
Oh yes, the storm shrieked, forcing pictures into his mind, pictures of what was closing on the camp in the west. You know what awaits you, don't you? And you know why they are here. You know what brought them here.
"I did," he sobbed, clawing himself to his feet again. He grabbed hold of someone in the darkness. "They're coming. Please help," he cried, but the person pulled away, not recognising him, not hearing him.
He clambered over a fallen tree, catching his cloak on a torn branch. He tugged at it, and it came free without tearing. The rain made it impossibly heavy and it slapped at his legs and pulled at his shoulders, driving him into the ground. He tugged it off and threw it down, but the pressure on his shoulders did not ease. The wind itself seemed to be alive, trying to crush him and suffocate him. The rain drove into his mouth and his lungs, and the darkness closed around him like velvet walls. He lashed out, clawing at the suffocating layers, struggling to free himself, and screamed. No-one knew. He was alone, fighting a battle that no-one else could see.
Far ahead, he could still hear the screaming. Far ahead, someone needed him. They had got lost in the dark, and stumbled on the armies that were arrayed against the Kindred. They were pinned there, too terrified to move, screaming for help just as Sophie had screamed, curled in the white sheets that smelled of lavender.
Lightning flared, and he saw something at his feet, a pale face that he had been about to trample. He reeled backwards, arms flailing, and fell to his knees. His fingers slid across the man's wet face and sank into his throat. Dead. Of course he was dead. If he'd been alive, Elias would have sensed him. But there was no sign of any wound on the man's body, so maybe Elias was wrong, made blind in his panic. Maybe he was alive. If he felt a little bit longer, he would find the pulse...
Elias scooped the man up in his good arm, holding him close to his chest, touching his throat with the other hand. "Please don't be dead. Please be alive." He touched the man's cheek and then his lips. "Please feel this."
Closing his eyes, he hurled himself into the white fires of enchantment, holding nothing back. Please, he whispered. Please don't let anyone die.
"Everyone has to die," a voice said.
Elias opened his eyes, but not to the reality of the forest. He was far away, on a threshold that glowed with light, like the doorway of his own white tower. A man was standing there, and his warm brown eyes were very alive. With one hand already on the door, he turned and looked back at Elias.
"You could bring me back with you," the man said, "but please do not. I saw this coming and chose not to run from it."
"You want to die?" Elias asked, shielding his eyes from the glory of the light.
"I would live if I could," the man said, "but this is my time to go. If you brought me back, it would kill you, for you are not yet fully grown into your power. You should not throw away your life for this."
"Because I need to stay," Elias said heavily. "Because they need me. Because I need to make it up to them."
The man walked towards him, and Elias felt as if he was being lifted up. "Because you are too ready to sacrifice yourself, and that is wrong. Please learn the lesson my son has learned, and be happy."
"One who loves you," the man said, "and now I see why. Tell him that I felt no pain. Go back now, and tell him that I loved him. Go back, for you do not belong here. Go back, and live."
Then, with Elias on his knees and reaching for him, the man walked through the door and disappeared without looking back.
"No," Elias called after him. "Please don't die," he begged, but how could he ask such a thing, when the light had been so glorious? But he was speaking only to an empty voice of nothingness, shimmering a little with white misty light. As it swirled around him, dark stains spread through it, and it became harsh, tugging at his body, hurting him. He screamed as he sprawled on his back, the man's body heavy and limp on top of his. He felt drained, and pain hammered behind his eyes.
It had never been like that before. He had seen the dead before, but never so close as to hear their words and see their faces as if they were real. "Go back," the man had said, as if Elias had somehow travelled almost to the gates of death.
You did, taunted the wind, laughing at his foolishness. How foolish you are. You nearly died, and didn't even realise it. You nearly died, and no-one will ever know.
"Get your hands off him!" someone screamed. A body launched itself at him, smashing him sideways. Elias sprawled onto his face, and tasted a mouthful of dirt. His attacker pounded him about the shoulders then hooked a foot into his stomach, kicking him away. "Leave him alone," the voice shrieked. "Don't you dare touch him."
Coughing, Elias rolled onto his side. A man was crouched over the dead man, pulling him into his arms, pawing at his face, struggling to find a pulse.
"Dead," Elias whispered. "He's dead. I'm sorry."
"Dead." The man held the body close to his chest. "Father."
Elias pushed himself up onto one elbow, and coughed again. "I'm so sorry. I tried, but it was too late. He felt no pain."
The man whirled on him, and Elias saw that it was Amalric, Oliver's brother. "What did you do to him?" Amalric screamed.
"Nothing." Elias crawled a little closer, and tentatively raised one hand.
Amalric was crying. "Were you holding him when he died? Did you hear his last words? Was it you?"
Elias could hardly being himself to speak the words. "He was dead when I found him. I'm so sorry."
"So he died alone." Amalric dragged his father's body up, so his head was nestling against his throat. "All alone. And then you found him. What were you doing to him?" he shrieked.
"Nothing." Elias shook his head. He could still hear screaming. The threat in the west was massing, and nobody knew about it but him. He had to leave. He had to walk away.
"How dare you even touch him?" Amalric screamed. "Why can't you just leave us alone?"
"He said he loved you," Elias said, though the words had surely been meant for Oliver, who was also the dead man's son. There had been no messages for Amalric. "I saw him after he had died. I heard him speak. He was happy, and he said that he loved you."
"You saw him?" Amalric shouted. "You? Why not me?"
Elias wanted to touch him, to offer him comfort. "I don't know," he murmured, as all around him the wind wailed its own accusations. "But he said that he loved you." It was the most important thing of all, he thought, for Amalric to know that.
"I don't want to hear," Amalric wailed. "Not from you. Why couldn't he speak to me? Why was he happy to leave me?" He shook his father's body by the shoulders, his fingers digging in harshly. "Why?"
The wind rose to a peak, and Elias heard a great rending sound, a tearing shriek. Crouched on the ground, like a small animal cowering beneath a predator, he looked up.
"Run!" he cried. He grabbed Amalric by the shoulders, his broken arm screaming at the exertion. Amalric fought him, struggling, kicking. Elias managed to pull him a few paces, but he was still clinging onto his father, so the dead man's body dragged along the ground, arms dangling limply. "We have to go," Elias pleaded. "The tree's about to fall."
Amalric snarled, and kicked himself free, crawling away from Elias, his father pressed to his chest with one arm. Their limbs got tangled, and he fell onto his face, pressed body to body with his dead father.
"It'll kill you!" Elias shouted. Amalric grief was terrible, but he had to ignore it, he had to save at least one night tonight, even if he could save no others. He grabbed Amalric's shoulders and heaved him back. Amalric resisted, but then he lost his grip on his father, and fell backwards, suddenly limp. Elias hauled him a few steps, then they fell together and, crawling, he dragged him a few more. Then even his arms gave way, and he fell forward, still wrapped around Amalric, and the two of them sprawled on the ground together.
The tree crashed to the ground only inches away, and twigs and leaves pelted down on Elias's back. A larger branch pinned him across the legs, and he kicked limply, struggling to escape. Even as he did so, Amalric hauled him up by the hair and punched him on the jaw.
"You took him away from me," Amalric sobbed. "You stole him away, just like you steal everything." He kicked Elias in the chest, leaving him choking. "When will you be satisfied? When you've stolen everything that's mine?"
"I haven't stolen anything," Elias began, but then he stopped. Why try to defend himself? If hitting him made Amalric feel better, then let him hit him. Elias deserved it well enough, and there was an honesty about the violence, not like Darius's horrible touches, all done without a hint of emotion.
"I hate you!" Amalric screamed, punching him in the side, making Elias double up in agony around the wound there hat had not yet fully healed. "I'll kill you."
Kill me, Elias echoed, as fresh blows landed on his ribs, and spittle splashed into his face from Amalric's furious shrieks. Then Amalric pushed him away so he fell onto his back, and drew his dagger from his belt. Lightning made the blade shine silver, and turned Amalric's face utterly savage.
Elias wriggled backward, gasping. All around him, the wind wailed, but the screams of terror were still there, though quieter, as if the person was giving up hope of every being heard.
If Amalric killed him, what would be the point of it? He was willing to die, if his death could save someone's life. He was sacrificing his future for the Kindred, because it was the only right thing to do, but his death at Amalric's hands would not bring Amalric's father back, or ease his grief. It would do nothing at all.
"No," he gasped, pushing himself to his feet. Hissing, Amalric crouched, dagger held ready in two trembling hands. "I'm sorry for your loss, but this isn't the answer."
With an incoherent cry, Amalric launched himself at him, and the tip of his dagger caught Elias across the collar bone, cutting the thinnest of lines. Elias grabbed his wrist and held it tight, pushing his arm away. Their bodies were pressed together, close enough to feel each other's breathing. "You will sleep," Elias whispered, as white mist swirled around them, as delicate as if the grass was breathing. "Sleep until someone finds you. Sleep until you're safe."
Amalric's knees buckled and he slumped in Elias's arms. His eyelids flickered, and, with an almost delicate movement, he pushed forward with the dagger, and its blade glided into Elias's flesh. Tangled in each other's arms, the two of them fell together.
It was nearly over. Oliver put his hands on his hips and gazed up at the sky, sighing with exhaustion and satisfaction. The thunder was only a distant rumble, and the lightning a faint flickering far away. The wind was less noticeable, and the rain had eased away to almost nothing. The clouds had fragmented into dark patches drifting across the grey sky, and the silver moonlight shone forth unhindered.
He turned a full circle, surveying his people. They had been savaged by the storm, but this was nothing that they would not survive. At least half of the tents and huts had been felled, but they could be rebuilt. Every spring, the Kindred moved to a new camp site, so there was nowhere in the forest where they made a permanent mark. They were used to rebuilding from scratch, and had few possessions to lose. As long as they were alive, they would count themselves fortunate.
The survivors were already struggling to their feet, collecting up the remains that could be salvaged. Oliver watched as a woman knelt beside a child and whispered something that made the boy's head rise proudly, and sent him rushing off to help rebuild his family's life. He saw an old man gently tend to his injured wife, supporting her head as she drank some water.
They would survive. They always did. It was the first day of winter, but no winter was so terrible that spring did not come. Light came out of the darkness, and the hunters wore the white ribbon of hope, entwined with the red ribbon of suffering.
He saw Ciaran Morgan standing by himself not far away, stained with mud. He had worked hard, striving along side the Kindred to save anything that could be saved, and Oliver had warmed to him more than he had ever done before. "Where did Elias go?" he asked him now, walking over to his side.
Ciaran shook his head. "I don't know." He turned to face Oliver, and it was as if his face had been stripped of the masks he habitually wore. "We fought. I don't know why. I said things I shouldn't have. Why do I keep on hurting him?"
"It's hard to think clearly in weather like this." Although it was dying away, the wind was still strong, and Oliver had to shout. Emotions were close to the surface when you had to shout, he thought. When you were screaming just to be heard, it was easy to scream things that should never be said.
Someone grabbed his arm, shouting breathlessly, calling his name. Their face was silver with rain, and their hair was black, plastered to their skin.
"What is it?" Oliver asked.
"Your brother," the boy panted. "You have to stop him. I saw him. He's killing the king."
"Elias!" Ciaran cried. "Where?" He pounced on the messenger, grabbing him by both shoulders. "Tell me where. Show me."
The boy pointed. "There. Not far away. You'll find him. Or I can show you."
"No," Oliver said, as Ciaran tore himself away and raced off. "Get Reynard. No," he said, quickly, for Reynard would be likely to kill Amalric where he stood. "Get whoever you can find, but don't tell them why. Just make them ready in case I call."
Oliver tore after Ciaran, clambering over fallen branches, sliding on slick mud. They soon reached the edge of the camp, but there was still so sign of Elias and Amalric. Why had Elias come this way, Oliver wondered. There was nothing in this direction but dense forest leading to narrow part of the stream, difficult to cross.
A tree had fallen ahead of them, its roots rising high into the air, jagged and ugly and dripping earth. Ahead of him, Ciaran stopped quite still, and spread his arms a little. He was seeing through the Shadow, Oliver realised, and trying to find things that were hidden. He was looking for Elias.
"Where is he?" Oliver asked, coming to halt beside him. He spoke in a whisper, but he remembered how Elias had been able to hear him, even while he had been immersed in the Shadow.
Ciaran shook his head. "Not here. But there is something."
Without another word, he simply leapt over the fallen tree, lifting himself in the air higher than any normal man could manage. Despite everything, Oliver felt his mouth fall open. Is that the Shadow? he thought. Could he have done things like that all along? They had never looked twice at Ciaran, but all along he had been able to perform feats like this. If only he had tried, Oliver thought, if only we had encouraged him, he could have shone with a light of his own, even though he's not Elias.
Hidden on the far side of the tree, Ciaran cried out. Oliver hurried after him, squeezing through the gap between the exposed roots and the next tree trunk. Mud scraped against his face and filled his mouth, and he was spitting when he emerged at the other side. "Don't hurt him!" he was shouting, before he could even see. If Amalric had hurt Elias, Ciaran could very well kill him.
He saw two figures, one of them bending over the other. The one kneeling was Ciaran, but he could not see the face of the one who was lying as if dead. "Who is it?" he shouted as he ran. "Who is it?"
Ciaran took hold of the body's shoulders, cruelly pulling him up, then slamming him down onto the ground. "Where is he? What did you do to him?"
"Amalric!" Oliver cried, skidding to a halt and falling to his knees. Amalric was asleep, but there was no blood.
"Look!" Ciaran's voice was fierce, like a slap. He snatched a dagger from Amalric's slack hand and thrust it into Oliver's face. "Blood on the blade. What did he do to Elias? Where is he?"
"Amalric." Oliver shouldered Ciaran away and took hold of his brother's arm. "Wake up. What happened?"
Amalric stirred and blinked. "He stole," he moaned. "He took him away." His eyes found Oliver. "Father," he sobbed. "Father's dead. He took him away from us."
Father's dead. It hit him like a blow, but he had to keep his face cold. "Are you accusing Elias of killing our father?"
Amalric lashed his face to one side. "He stole him. Tore him from my arms. The tree came down. He dragged me away."
"He saved your life, and you tried to kill him?" Ciaran sounded disgusted, and Oliver thought he was going to hit Amalric in the face, so tightly were his fists clenched.
"Father was already dead," Amalric said. "I came too late. He was holding him. He even pretended he cared. He said he'd spoken to him. He said father loved me and was happy." His face crumpled. "How dare he?"
All Oliver wanted to do was weep with him, but Elias was still missing, and there was blood on Amalric's dagger. "What happened, Amalric?" he said, his voice quiet and deadly.
"I fought him." Amalric sounded as surly as a child. "He did something to me, sent me to sleep. But I hurt him before he could do it." He smiled. "I hurt him." Then he burst into tears.
Oliver's eyes slid shut. "Where did he go?" Tears were burning him behind his eyelids.
"I don't know." Amalric fought his grip and sprang into a crouch. Oliver opened his eyes and saw him, groping for the dagger, slashing it in front of him, striking at nothing. "I know you're here!" he bellowed. "Invisible. Watching me. Laughing at me. Come out and face me like a man!"
Oliver tried to grab his flailing hands. Ciaran smashed Amalric's legs away from beneath him, and he tumbled into Oliver's arms. The dagger fell from his hand, and Ciaran snatched it up. "I don't think he's here," he said, not looking at either of them. "He was going something..."
"Father's dead," Amalric sobbed, as all the fight washed out of him. "I just wanted him back. I couldn't bear it."
Oliver soothed him, stroking his hair. "It's all right," he crooned. "I know you didn't mean it, and he will, too."
Amalric stiffened at the reference to Elias. "He's dead, Oliver. I just wanted to hold him a little longer. Can't you understand that any more? Or is he all that matters to you now, more than your own family?"
"Of course I understand." Oliver lowered Amalric gently to the ground, where he curled up, weeping. "And I mourn him as much as you do."
"But you're still going to go."
Oliver nodded, and it felt like one of the cruellest thing he had ever done. "I have to. We don't know where the king has gone. We don't know how badly you've hurt him. His death won't bring father back." He touched Amalric's shoulder. "If you've killed him, I won't be able to save you. They'll kill you. I've already lost my father tonight. Please don't make me lose my brother, too."
Amalric rolled onto his back. "So you're doing it for me?"
Oliver stood up, and looked over his shoulder. Ciaran had already gone, plunging into the forest, screaming Elias's name, and Oliver knew he had to follow.
"Yes," he lied, looking down at Amalric. "For you."
Thorns and bracken lashed at Elias's face as he ran. He had fragments of leaf in his mouth, and he kept on trying to spit it away. A strand of bracken caught his foot, and tugged him back when he tried to run on. He fell headfirst, but pulled himself up onto his elbows, and lunged forward, legs sliding on the earth.
Always, in his mind, he heard screaming. After a while, he heard it with his ears, too, a real human voice crying out for help.
"I'm coming!" he shouted, though the wind stole his words and made them return to him. He cupped his hands over his mouth. "Hold on!"
Too late, the wind told him. You'll be too late, just like you always are.
Pressing his hand to his bleeding side, he scrambled on. He knew he was doing it all wrong, stumbling in his panic, risking injury in his headlong rush. It would be more effective to walk, but how could he do that, when someone was ahead of him, screaming for help?
And perhaps he was running away, too. Behind him was a place of death, where a dead father lay crushed beneath a fallen tree, ripped out of the arms of his grieving son. Behind him was a man who hated him badly enough to want to kill him. Behind him was Ciaran, who was leaving him. Behind him was Oliver, whose tentative happiness would fall apart because Elias had been unable to save his father. Behind was failure, but ahead was someone who could still be saved. Ahead was a tiny glimmer of redemption.
A tendril of bramble lunged at him, grabbing his shirt. He clawed at it, trying to untangle it, and a thorn opened up the palm of his hand. It hurt badly enough to make him cry out, then bite his lip against any further cries.
Amalric had hurt him, too, his dagger sliding over his collar bone, then glancing across his side. It was not a serious wound, but it had bled. If there had been a little more force to the blow, or if Elias had been standing in a slightly different place, the dagger might have killed him. Even the innocent brambles could make him fall and hit his head, and his death would be just as complete as if he had been killed by some malevolent power's grand design.
The screaming fell abruptly silent, and Elias plunged forward with a cry, sure that the person he was seeking was dead. He would arrive too late, just in time to see a grinning enemy with a body impaled on his sword. Too late, the wind had told him. Too late.
Suddenly there were no more trees. The forest ended as abruptly as a wall, and he was on the bank of the raging stream, in an open stretch some twelve feet across. There, pressed against a tree, was the girl who had been screaming, her head slumped forward on her chest.
Elias took a deep breath, then another. He rubbed his palm on the back of his shirt, wiping away the blood. She was still breathing, and he could hear faint sobs, such as the truly heartbroken make, when they think there is no help for them. Crouching down beside the girl, he began to talk to her in a soft voice, though he did not yet touch her.
It was Alicia, though her terror made her look years younger than the confident young girl he had spoken to earlier the same night. "I'm here," he told her. "You're safe now."
She looked up tremulously. "You?" Her face crumpled into fresh sobs. "Elias ran off. I couldn't catch up. It was so dark. Then I lost him." Crushed in her hand was a frayed piece of rope, and her palm was bleeding, rubbed raw by the effort of holding onto the leash.
Elias opened his arms and she fell into them, clinging to him, accepting any comfort he could give. "You're safe," he crooned, though he knew what it was that had scared her so. He could feel their hatred, as they gazed at his unprotected back. They could be about to tear him apart from behind, but Alicia came first, and he would not turn his back on her.
"I was so scared," she whispered. "I couldn't move. I forgot where home was. But now you're here. Tell them to go away."
She had given him the signal, and he could not hide from it any longer. Still holding onto her, he turned around, and he saw.
The stream was angry and boiling, surging in peaks of white, and roiling in troughs of darkness. It was a sickly yellow colour, like decaying mud, or an old bruise. The noise it made was tremendous, racing between the high rocky banks. It carried rocks with it, and anyone who slipped into its waters would be drowned.
On the other side of the bank, patient and watchful, were the massed ranks who had come to kill him. They were not human.
"Send them away," Alicia murmured. "Please. I don't like them."
Elias pressed his face into her hair. Sophie, he thought, and the girl on the scaffold whose name he did not know. This one at least he could save. "I will," he said, "but I want you to be very brave. I need you to find your way home." He glanced up at the sky, and saw no clouds near the moon. In the east, beyond the trees, was the first faint light of approaching down. "The night's almost over," he told her, "and it's not far. Just keep calling and they'll find you."
"I can be brave," she said, thrusting out her chin, and of course she could, for she was Alicia, who had talked to her king without fear when all her elders had still been eying him with awe.
"Good." He rocked back on his heels, holding her at arm's length. "Go, now, and don't look back."
Head held high, she started to walk towards the trees, but there she disobeyed him, for she turned and looked him full in the face. "You'll be all right?"
Elias smiled. "I'll be all right."
He gazed after her for a long time, until he could no longer see her through the trees. Then, with a slow sigh, he turned round and faced his fate.
There were hundreds of them, lined up on the far bank of the stream, and as far away as he could see. There were wild cats and wolves, polecats and weasels. They opened their jaws and showed their teeth, and the cats hissed and made their fur prickle, and the wolves snarled.
He opened himself to them, in the way he had reached the farmer's dog and the squirrel and the birds in the pass. As soon as he did, their snarling became a cacophony, and he pulled back as if burned. They knew who he was, and they hated him for it. They had come here purely to kill him.
The cats on the front row were sitting with their tails curled delicately around their feet. Waiting, he thought. They were waiting for me. It had all been a trap for him. They could have surged upstream and crossed at the bridge, pouring into the camp, but then there would have been two hundred people to fight them off. They wanted him alone. They could have killed Alicia, but they preferred to wait, while her screams brought him running to her side. As soon as she was too far away to hear the noise of the attack, they would surge forward to kill him.
And don't pretend you didn't know this, laughed the running water, taunting in his head. You knew what you were going to face. You just want to play the martyr. Part of you wants to die.
"No," Elias moaned, and suddenly they were onto him, pouring down the bank, plunging into the river. But the current was too strong for them. The first rank were swept away, and so were the second. One of them was smashed against a boulder. The one who followed it trampled over its still-living body, driving it beneath the water, but then the stream caught it, too, and it died.
Elias had no sword, for Albacrist was lost. All he had was the short dagger that he used for eating. Running to the trees, he heaved a branch, pulling at it until the bark tore. He positioned himself on the river bank with the branch held out in front of him, ready to repel anything that reached his side.
But nothing did. Hundreds must have died, swept away by the stream, but still they surged on. Some of the dying managed to reach their home bank again and scramble half up to safety, but others used them as a step to stand on. At last one managed to reach Elias's bank, but it was exhausted and sodden, and it crawled up to Elias's feet and lay there panting. Elias knew he should shove it back into the water, but could not bring himself to do so. Keeping the branch in position, he crouched down beside the wounded animal, and touched its flank.
It snapped at him, and he snatched his hand back, but the brief touch seemed to open some link between them. Blood, he saw. Blood raining from the sky. Blood as a trail to follow. Follow, although we have no rest. Follow, although we have no food. Follow our prey, because we have to. Food at the end of it, but not him, whose blood is a taint, which sickens us. Tear him apart, and let others eat him. Then sweep past his broken body and claim our reward in the flesh of his pack. Eat, and then we will be free.
"Free?" Elias fell to his knees, retching at the taint of the contact. There was something very wrong. The wolf's mind was there, but swamped, smothered by something else, something horrible. He retched again, but nothing came up, only a thin strand of saliva that bled into the river. The branch slipped from his hand and slid into the water, where it was grabbed by the water and jammed slantwise across the narrow stream.
They had a bridge now, though it sagged beneath their weight, and many more fell off and died. It sank beneath the water, and some died still clinging to it. Those that followed them trampled over their corpses, and soon the bridge was made of bodies. None of them reached the end, but they were coming closer and closer.
"Go back!" Elias commanded. He brought his hands up, the base of his thumbs pressed together, and pushed out with his palms. White light flared, pouring from somewhere deep within, coursing through his veins like fire, tearing out through his hands.
The light hit them, but it only seemed to give them strength, inflaming them with hatred. Elias sank to his knees, and let his hands fall, for he couldn’t use enchantment to cause pain, and even less to kill. Enchantment was emotion and empathy, and the thing he desired most in the world was for everyone to be happy. A childish desire, perhaps, but it was entwined so deeply in his enchantment that he could not bring himself to do harm with it.
Desperate, he crawled backwards, and pushed himself to his feet. He tore at the tree again, pulling off a fresh branch, but he knew there was no way he could hold them off forever. If he ran, he would lead them straight to the camp. If he stood and fought, they would overwhelm him soon enough, and the Kindred would still be attacked. He needed help. If they fought all together, perhaps they could fight off the attack.
"Help!" he shouted, as loud as he could. Again he made the light course through his body, but this time he sent it out into the air like a beacon. "Over here!" And, in his mind, he reached for the old link that had never yet responded to his call, but opened only when Ciaran wanted it to. Master! I need you!
And Ciaran responded, so strong and close that Elias wondered if his master had been reaching for him all along, and that he, Elias, had been responsible for closing the link.
"Here!" Elias shouted, both in his mind and with his voice. The first animals reached the bank, but suddenly there was Ciaran, leaping from the trees with a dagger in his hand.
"Elias!" he was crying. "Are you hurt?"
"They're attacking." Elias jabbed with the branch, and pushed a wild cat back into the water. "Got to stop them."
Ciaran fell to one knee and thrust his arm forward, stabbing a cat in the chest. It snapped at his arm, and its teeth grazed his wrist, but then it fell back dead. He looked up at Elias, his expression fierce and urgent. "Are you hurt?"
Elias shook his head. "Nothing serious."
A wolf launched itself at him and he copied Ciaran's move, dropping the branch and lunging at it with his dagger. Blood splattered the back of his hand and his face, and it tasted horrible. The dying animal lashed out, its teeth catching his sleeve. As it sank back into the water, it clung on, and Elias was dragged forward. His fingers touched the water, and he gasped at its shocking coldness. Then, as Elias's face almost touched the ground, the wolf let go, and Elias's hand was free. He rocked back onto his heels, gasping.
Instantly another one landed, having leapt from the far bank. Elias whirled round, the dagger held in front of him. "Sleep," he pleaded, as he had done with Amalric, but it made no difference. He cast an illusion, trying to make the wolf think he was elsewhere, but it seemed oblivious to it. Its deadly eyes fixed on his, and it snarled, readying itself to pounce. Screwing his eyes shut, Elias brought up the dagger, impaling the animal on its point. "No," he sobbed, as he twisted the point deeper. "No," as blood poured over his hands.
"I have him," Ciaran said, and Elias opened his eyes to see Ciaran standing with a bloody dagger over the corpse of the animal. Their eyes met, and Ciaran smiled. Elias only felt sick.
Another animal crossed, and then another. Ciaran took one, and Elias took the other, but Elias was moving slowly, hampered by exhaustion and his own revulsion at killing. While Ciaran dispatched his wolf quickly, Elias struggled. While Ciaran whirled round and cut down a second, Elias fell backwards with a screaming cat at his throat. He tried to push it away, but his broken arm flared with hot pain, and his grip failed.
Ciaran called his name. Armed with only one dagger, he was fighting two wolves. Ignoring them, he plunged to Elias's side, and stabbed the cat between the ribs, tearing it off Elias's body. "Are you all right?" But, in saving Elias, he had left himself undefended, and a wolf sank its teeth into his calf. "No!" Elias screamed. He threw himself forward, hurling himself at the animal, and pulled it away with nothing more than his arms. Rolling together, they reached the edge of the stream, and Elias teetered there, while the wolf fell in.
"Thank you," Ciaran said, helping Elias to his feet. He had killed the second wolf while Elias had been struggling with the first.
Elias flashed him a weary smile. Despite everything, it felt good to be fighting at Ciaran's side, facing the same foe, both of them able to save the other. Then the smile died, for of course this would be the last time, as well as the first.
It was only the briefest of respites. More animals launched themselves over the river, and Elias and Ciaran stood back to back, armed only with short daggers and a torn-off branch, ready to face them. Perhaps they would die here together, Elias thought, and it seemed a little less lonely than dying alone, even though he hated to think of his master being killed.
The dead bodies piled up around them. The two of them together were unstoppable, and it seemed as if there was nothing that they could not do. Perhaps they wouldn't die after all, Elias thought, but then he smelled fire, and heard shouting, and the animals, enraged, launched the biggest attack yet, ten animals reaching the bank all at once.
"Don't back down, Elias," Ciaran urged him, sounding like he used to sound when he had taught Elias how to fight. "We can do this."
Elias crouched down, his back pressed against Ciaran's legs, and killed an animal at his feet. The shouting grew louder, and he looked up to see an orange blaze of torches, flickering in the wind, and a surge of people pouring out of the trees. He saw Oliver there, and many more whose names he did not know. They all had swords, and they were quick to use them, striking the animals down.
Elias threw his head back and laughed. He was no longer alone. Ciaran was beside him, so close that they were touching, and his people were with him, fighting on either side. They had faced the threat and conquered it, for dawn was almost here, and the ranks of animals on the far bank were ragged and thin. The attack was almost over, and twenty men with swords lined the edge of the stream, ready to protect their homes.
The animals seemed unaware that they were defeated. With the same single-minded hatred that they had shown when they had plunged to their deaths in the water, they leapt forward, making always for him, and never for the men further down the line. After the first few attacks, the Kindred regrouped, forming themselves into a circle around Elias. Sometimes, an animal was pierced by half a dozen swords at once, coming together like a many-pointed star.
Elias stood up, then slumped to his knees. He was surrounded on all sides by men who were fighting for him, but none of them were looking at him. He pressed his hands against his knees, looked up at the sky, then down at the ground. It's over, he thought. Tonight is over, and now it is tomorrow.
"It's over," someone else said at last, echoing his own thought. He saw swords being wiped and sheathed, and the living shield around him widened, then moved away. Some of them turned round and looked at him, but all Elias could do was stare across the stream to the empty far bank.
"Over," he said, aloud. He lacked the energy to move. He turned his head weakly, looking for Ciaran, but Ciaran was cleaning his dagger on a clump of grass, and did not look up.
He could hear them talking. "Why were they attacking like that?" they were wondering. "I've never seen wild animals act like that." "It was the king they wanted, always the king."
Something moved on the far bank, and Elias heard a distant drumming. No-one else seemed to notice.
"Is it safe?" they were asking. "We should leave someone behind to guard it." "What about the camp? There could be more of them."
The drumming grew louder, and still no-one heard it. Elias was kneeling on the blood-stained ground, his folded his hands in his lap, and it felt as if he was kneeling on the executioner's block, awaiting sacrifice.
His cloak flapping, Ciaran walked over to him. He said something, but Elias did not hear it. He moved in front of Elias, then to his other side, but as he did so, his cloak obscured the view of the other side of the stream.
It must have been in that brief moment that the horseman burst out of the trees, for, when Ciaran moved away, the horseman already had his spear levelled. The tip of the weapon was pointing at Elias's heart.
I should move, he thought. Clasping his hands a little tighter, he just stared up, into the mask-like face of approaching death.
The others had seen the horseman now. Someone drew their sword, and Ciaran bellowed. When Elias still sat there and did nothing, Ciaran shrieked at him. "Get out of the way, Elias!" But where could Elias run? They would find him wherever he went, and he was just so tired.
The horseman hauled at the reins, pulling his horse into a jump. The arm came back, ready to throw the spear. Ciaran threw himself at Elias and the two of them went down together, not safe at all, for Ciaran managed to trip on his own cloak, and all he managed to do was to drag Elias into the horse's path, and himself as well.
The horse's front legs left the ground. From his place on the ground, Elias saw it all. Ciaran clung him close, but then an arrow hit the horse, and it screamed. It plunged into the water, and its rider struggled to hold his course, but failed. He threw his spear, but it fell short, quivering into the bank. The water drove him up against the concealed bridge, and there the second arrow took him in the chest. The water around him turned red, and his head slumped forward and he died. He had fine cheekbones, and his hair was so fair that it was almost silver.
Oliver spoke first. "Amalric." His voice was hoarse.
Elias twisted out of Ciaran's grip, fighting the arms that tried to hold him close. He pulled himself up onto his knees, and his hands fell limply to his sides.
Amalric was standing there, a fresh arrow already in his bow. Very deliberately, he raised it and pointed it at Elias's heart. His eyes were like cold glass. I could do it, they were saying. Two arrows I shot to save you. How easily could the third kill you, and no-one would be able to stop me.
Elias made no attempt to defend himself, just knelt there and looked at the man who had saved his life, the man who could kill him.
Amalric gave a cold smile. Maybe I will, the smile said. One day. You know I can. Equally deliberately, he lowered the bow, leaving Elias in no doubt that his life had been spared only because Amalric had chosen to spare it. As his brother called after him, Amalric turned and stalked away into the forest.
"Elias," Ciaran was saying. He had not seen Amalric's threat, Elias realised. None of them had, only himself and Oliver. They were all crowding around the stream, tugging at the spear and wondering about its origins, and trying to haul the dead man to the bank. None of them knew how close Elias had come to being killed by one of their own.
Swallowing hard, Elias turned towards Ciaran. "I'm fine," he said. "He didn't hurt me a bit." He stood up, and was grateful for Ciaran's arm at his elbow. There was so much blood on the ground, so much blood. "I just want to leave this place."
"So do I," Ciaran said. He looked up at the sky, where the yellow light of dawn shone on leafless trees that hardly swayed at all, for the storm was over. "And now it's morning. Tomorrow's come, Elias. Tomorrow's come."