Elias crawled out from under the tangled blanket. "Poor master." He picked it up with one hand, and tried to smooth it over Ciaran's sleeping body. "This will be keep you warm."
He sat down on the floor and pulled his knees up to his chest. Then he realised that his legs were naked beneath a knee-length tunic, so he tugged at his cloak until his legs were completely shrouded, even to the toes.
"Poor master." He wormed one hand out of the snug cave of black cloth and touched the blanket at Ciaran's throat. "I heard you crying. I'm so sorry you were reduced to that. But I came back," he whispered. "As soon as I knew, I came back for you."
Ciaran moaned in his sleep, snuggled deeper into the blanket, and sighed. He did not wake up.
Elias clutched a double handful of cloak in his one good hand and twisted it so the cloak pulled tight, wrapping him even more snugly. Even so, he felt a shiver starting deep inside him. Suddenly he wanted to breathe fresh air and see the sky. He threw back the cloak, and crawled to the door. It was dark outside, but he could see the fire, and a small cluster of people not far away. He wondered where Oliver was. He wondered how many days he passed. The air felt very cold, but it was too dark to see if there were any leaves left on the trees.
He let the door covering fall back, and turned to face Ciaran. "We could go out there together, master," he murmured. "You and me, supporting each other. That would be nice, wouldn't it?" Because the only reason he had come back had been because Ciaran needed him, because Ciaran was hurting and only Elias could make it better, but that didn't make him strong. He still wanted to curl up small have someone tell him that he would safe now, that the monsters aren't real, Elias, of course they aren't, and nothing can get you now, because I'm here.
He swallowed, but his mouth was dry, and he realised how thirsty he was. The only jug he could see was empty, the dregs at the bottom dried up to nothing. There was a platter with some bread and cheese, but both were solid, and the bread was beginning to go green. "Haven't you been eating, master?" Elias asked. "I'll get you some food. Then we can eat it together. Drink, too. I need drink first."
He stood up, and swayed as a wave of dizziness grabbed him by the throat, making him feel sick. He lunged for the wall with his hurt arm, and the pain of that made him cry out. He whirled round in sudden fear, but Ciaran did not wake up. Slowly, he allowed himself to relax, breathing in and out, and out again.
The wounds that he could remember no longer hurt, except for the one at his side, which hurt with a dull ache that showed that it was healing. His wrists were still bandaged, but he twisted his hand from side to side, and nothing hurt. The only wound unhealed was his arm, which had been bound to his chest, but if his arm was broken, there was only one way it could have happened, and that meant that everything was true, didn't it?
He plunged forward, clawing at the door covering, and went outside. He turned back, breathing fast. "Just for a moment, master. I need air. I'll get a drink. I'm not leaving you."
He began to walk forward, then realised that he was still clinging to the thick hide that was the door, pulling it along behind him, stretching it taut. He let it fall, and stood unsupported, swaying a little, but not falling. He was outside now. If he turned round, he would no longer see his master.
There was a cluster of men not far away, and he squinted into the dark to watch them. They were the only people outside, and he realised it had to be very late at night. Elias tiptoed forward, keeping out of the firelight. He would skirt the edge of it until he was on the other side of the fire, then he would have to dart quickly into the light to reach the well, but he would only need to be there for a minute, and then he could hide again.
The men gave no sign of seeing him. There were seven of them, he realised. They were standing in a circle, and six of them had naked swords in their hands. One by one, they lowered their swords, until the blade tips of all six touched. The seventh looked around the circle and said something. "May your swords shed blood," Elias heard, but there had been something else before that. "Return with the full moon, for we will be waiting."
The voice seemed familiar, and Elias realised that it was Reynard. While the other men wore their long hair pulled back, Reynard had cut his hair brutally short. As Elias watched, Reynard untied a black ribbon from his upper arm, and tied it round the sleeve of one of the men. "The task that was once mine is now yours," he said. "I am sworn to a new cause, and I am bound by it until.." He turned his head away, and maybe the wind changed direction and stole his words, or maybe he did not finish at all, for Elias heard no more.
Elias edged forward, but his foot turned noisily on a pebble, and he looked at the men in frozen horror, and he saw the very moment when Reynard looked up and noticed him. Reynard's face broke into an enormous grin and he cried out wordlessly. But then, an instant later, he looked like himself again, hard-faced and savage, and Elias would never have known that he had smiled at all, had he not been looking at him at exactly that moment.
Reynard hurried up to him, gesturing behind him for the other men to stay back. "You're back." He said it brusquely, without even an echo of that joyous smile. "You have to go to Oliver."
"Oliver?" Elias echoed. His voice sounded rusty, for the things he had said to his master had only been whispered under his breath. He cleared his throat, and tried again. "What's happened to Oliver?"
Reynard frowned. "Didn't he tell you?" He spat the question angrily, and jabbed his chin towards Elias's hut, so Elias knew he was talking about Ciaran.
Elias wanted to defend him. "We haven't talked. He's asleep. What's happened to Oliver?"
"He's... lost. He changed you back, but he had to lose himself to do it." He sounded almost resentful as he said, "He sacrificed himself for you."
Elias grabbed Reynard's arm. "Where is he? Show me? I have to go to him."
"Lean on me. I'll take you there. But," Reynard said, suddenly, "you mustn't risk yourself to save him. You won't do that." It sounded like an order, not a question.
But Oliver had sacrificed himself for him. What else could he do? It was his fault that Oliver was suffering, just as it was his fault that Ciaran was crying. Coward-like, he had hidden in the form of a bird, and others had been forced to suffer to bring him back. "I won't," he said, without looking at Reynard. "Leave me here," he said, when they neared Oliver's tent. "I can walk by myself."
Reynard was slow to let him go, and even slower to leave him. "I won't let it happen again," he said, looking back over his shoulder. The other men were watching, black ribbons tied around their arms. Another ribbon, red as blood, trailed from a pouch at the belt of their leader.
The tent was glowing with inner light, and Elias paused outside the door. He closed his eyes, pressed his hand to his chest, and opened his eyes again. "Can I come in?" he called softly. "It's me, Elias."
Although he had said his name, he thought he heard the sound of a sword being drawn and quietly laid down on a table. "You can come in," a voice said.
He pushed open the flap that covered the door, and was immediately assailed by the light. There were candles everywhere, resting on every surface, some covered with glass shades, and some unshielded. The air was thick with the smell of hot wax and flowers, strong enough to catch in Elias's throat. There were bowls of warm water with petals floating in them, and clusters of dried flowers hung upside-down above the flames.
The man was sitting beside Oliver's bed looked haunted, his eyes rimmed with red, and his fingers bitten until they were bleeding. "He's not going to die," he said. He picked up a bunch of dried herbs and pinned them to Oliver's pillow, frowning intently at his work. The breeze from an open door made a candle gutter, and he turned round angrily, looking at Elias for the first time. "He needs the light. How can he find his way home without it?"
"I'm sorry." Elias let the door close behind him, but did not enter any further in. His eyes were only slowly adapting to the light, and he wondered just how long he had been lost in his own body, cowering in the darkness.
"Why have you come here?" the man demanded. "This is all because of you."
Behind him, out of sight, Elias touched the wall of the tent. "Yes," he murmured. "Yes, it is." He tried one more step. "Are you his brother?" Amalric, he remembered. He had seen the young Oliver kill a man to save his brother's life.
"I am." Amalric stroked Oliver's brow. "I've been looking after him. He'll come back, just like you did. They were about to give up on you, but you came back. So that means Oliver will, too." He clenched his fist. "It wouldn't be fair if he didn't."
"He will," Elias promised. "If there's anything I can do to help him, I will do it."
"He gave everything for you." Amalric tucked the blankets ever more snugly around Oliver's body. "I've looked after him."
Elias knelt down beside the bed. "I know you have. He will know that, too."
Oliver was covered with thick blankets all the way up to his throat, but he was deathly pale. His hair had been combed and he was clean-shaven, but his eyes were closed and he was barely breathing.
"Can you save him?" Amalric hunched a little closer over his brother, as if he was reluctant to yield him to anyone, least of all a stranger. "I've tried everything, but he won't open his eyes."
Elias swallowed. "I hope so." He raised his hand. "Can I touch him?"
Amalric's eyes narrowed, but slowly he nodded. Elias thought there was hatred in his eyes, and thought he knew the cause. "But I'm staying," Amalric said.
"I would never ask you to leave." Elias reached under the blanket and pulled out Oliver's slack hand. I don't know how to do this, he thought.
Amalric took hold of Oliver's other hand, and glared at Elias expectantly. Heal him, his eyes said, or I will hate you. Heal him, and I will hate you anyway, because it should have been me.
Please, Elias thought, don't look at me like that. But there was Oliver, pale and cold and lost, and all because of him. I'll save you, he swore, just as you saved me. I'll give no less than you gave for me. But, he whispered, I don't know how.
"Oliver," he whispered, but that was all he could do, just say his name, over and over. "Oliver, please come back." Don't die for me. Please don't die.
The place was a tiny square cut out of the world, and expanded forever. Nothing changed, no matter how far Oliver walked. If he walked upwards, the gentle hillside never became high majestic crags. If he turned and walked down the slope, he never found the fertile valley below. He could hear running water, but had never been able to find it. The slope was always the same, and the sky was never anything other than grey. Even the grass was grey, and it crackled when he touched it, and dissolved into dust.
There was no-one else here with him. He had shouted until he was hoarse, but no-one had responded. He had no memory of how he had got here. If he could remember how he had arrived here, perhaps he could find the way out, but there was nothing there. All he knew was that he had been standing on the threshold of happiness. He remembered realising how pale and grey his life had been, and promising to live it in a new way. He remembered learning how to find pleasure in places he had never expected to find it. But this wasn't happiness. Somehow, he had opened the wrong door and ended up here, in this grey place of misery without end.
He had tried walking down the slope, but he always ended up just where he had started. He had run and he had screamed, he had clawed at the air and he had hurled himself bodily down the hill, but nothing ever changed.
Now he was just sitting still, arms wrapped round his knees, shivering. It was always cold here. It was never day, just a perpetual twilight that felt as if it was just about to rain, but never did.
No-one came after him. If one of the Kindred was lost in the dark, the others would come after him with torches, all shouting his name. They would not rest until they had found him. So why did no-one come for him?
Maybe they didn't know where he was. They would be searching the forest close to home, not knowing that he was somewhere far away. "I'm here!" he screamed. He had screamed this before, too, many times. "I'm here! Please find me!" But no-one did.
He rested his forehead on his folded hands, and knew that he wouldn't try again. No matter how much he walked down the slope, he never found the bottom. No matter how much he shouted, no-one ever heard. His legs were exhausted, growing weaker all the time, and the grey air was growing ever more difficult to breathe. Screaming made him dizzy, and made his head hurt.
"I'm going to die," he whispered. Here, alone, where nobody knew how to find him. Here, in a place of endless greys and no way home. Here, where nobody would even find his body.
The greyness thickened. There was not even the faintest hint of any other colour left in the world. When he held up his hand and looked at it, it seemed almost transparent, with grey mist coiling inside him where his blood should have been. The place had almost claimed him completely.
"I wonder if I could have been happy," he murmured. His eyes hurt, but he had no tears, as if the place had sucked all moisture from him. "I wish I could have found out. I would have liked that."
He lay back, and even the hillside had been transformed into mist, so he was supported only by grey clouds, floating in space. Grey hands reached up from all sides and closed around him and seeped inside him. He stared up, up into the grey, and there, almost too faint to see it at all, there was a thin line of pale light.
He paused. Just on the brink of surrendering into death, he stopped and looked. The line was like a tiny crack on an eggshell, and, as he watched, it started to spread and branch.
Oliver let out a shivery breath. With immense delicacy, and utterly silent, the world was shattering. It was like a sword thrust through glass, or a hand plunged into a still lake. As the pale lines spread, the greyness faded, like mist burnt away by the sunlight. White light was pouring through the cracks, and soon there was nothing left of the greyness at all.
And someone was calling to him. "Oliver," they said, and the light pulsed with the sound of their voice. "Come back. Please. Can you see my hand? Come to me."
Oliver stood up. The slope was bathed in light, but it was still barren, and it still had no end. The place was still horrible, and the light only made it seem worse. "Where are you?" he shouted. "I don't know the way."
"Here," the voice said.
"Where?" Oliver whirled round, turning in a full circle, desperately seeking, and then he saw it. Twisting out of the side of the slope was a path. It was not beautiful or green, and it was not made of sunlight. It was made of stones and dark things, and it pulsed a little, as the nasty things buried beneath it struggled to get out.
"Please," the voice said. "It's all I can do. But I won't let you go."
Oliver stepped onto the path, and it held him. It was soft and felt like springy grass beneath his bare feet. He felt laughter bubbling up inside him as he took his second step, and his third, and then he was running, eager as a child. Then the light blinded him and he could see nothing at all. When it faded, he found he was lying on his back, and somebody was holding his hand.
The light was faint and yellow, and he realised that his eyes were closed. He was far too hot, and he could smell candles. He opened his eyes, and the candlelight made him flinch. It was less bright than the white light that had guided him, but it seemed harsher and dirtier, and it hurt his eyes, while the white light had just been beautiful.
Someone called him name, and he felt his hand raised in a hot grip, and pressed against a damp cheek. It was Amalric, but Amalric had not been the one to call him back.
He closed his eyes again. Who saved me? he wondered, then realised that he already knew the answer. It was my king. He thought of the statue on the watchtower in the mountains, with eyes so wise, and a hand that radiated light. He thought of the all the ways he had imagined his king would be. He was a carved statue, and an image from a song. He was every man's hopes, and enchantment and strength flowed in his veins where other men had blood.
Amalric was clutching his hand with both of his own, but someone was touching the back of his other hand. The touch was cool and it trembled slightly. Is that my king? he thought. He opened his eyes a slit and peered into the candlelight, and there he was, young and handsome, his hair shining like a crown in the candlelight.
The king spoke his name. "I'm glad you came back, Oliver."
My lord, Oliver thought, but the glamour of the moment held him as if in a spell, and he could not speak aloud. My king.
"I'm so sorry you had to suffer this for me," the king said.
Suffer? Oliver had a vague memory of a place of endless grey, and he knew it had not been a nice place, but he was safe now. It had been like a dream, that seemed terrifying when it was happening, but faded quickly upon waking. He tried moving his limbs, and found that they all worked, and none of them hurt. He had a faint headache, but that was all.
"You should go," he heard Amalric saying. "Let him rest."
The gentle hand was withdrawn, and somebody moved, setting the candles flickering. Oliver felt a brief touch of cold air, and then Amalric was leaning over him, pulling the blankets even higher up to his throat.
"I'm not cold," Oliver said. He opened his eyes. "I'm not sick or injured. In fact," he smiled, "I feel completely well."
"I've not left your side," Amalric said, "not once."
Oliver gave a vague nod. How beautiful everything was! After that grey world, every single object in his tent seemed beautiful and full of stories. He had few possessions, but even the empty spaces seemed beautiful, for they were just waiting for him to fill them up with the story of his future.
"You were gone for a week," Amalric was saying. "Everyone thought you were going to die, but I knew you wouldn't. I never gave up."
Oliver frowned. "Let me sit up." The king had gone, like a dream disappearing in the morning. "A week?"
"It's the first day of winter tomorrow," Amalric said. "Reynard said the ceremony would still happen. He said it was more important than ever, but I said it wouldn't be right, not without you."
"He's right." Oliver tried to sit up by himself, and pushed the blankets down to his waist. "It should always happen.
"Reynard's cut all his hair off," Amalric said. "No-one knows why. He's changed. I'd keep an eye on him, if I were you."
Oliver licked his lips. "Is there any water?" Amalric turned round to get some, and Oliver frowned again, struggling to think. The grey world had stolen so many memories from him, but they were slowly returning. "A week?" he repeated. There was a blood-stained feather on the table by the bed, pinned down by a pewter candlestick. He saw it, and remembered. "The king," he gasped. "He was..."
"You saved him," Amalric interrupted. "You nearly died to save his life. So it was only right that he do the same for you. That's what I told him."
The king had been terribly wounded, trapped in the form of a bird. "I brought him back?" Oliver asked, smiling. "It worked?" The smile faded. "So why did it take a week?" He knew his king, and knew that Elias would have called him back immediately, if he had been able to. "What went wrong?" He grabbed Amalric's hand. "Why didn't he come sooner?"
"Nothing's wrong," Amalric tried to reassure him. "He saw him for yourself. Stop thinking about him. You're the one we've all been worried about. Just rest, Oliver. Get your strength back."
"You're wrong," Oliver said, throwing back the blanket. "I didn't see him at all." He had been slow to remember, and had been seeing through the eyes of a vision, still half imprisoned by that grey world. He had seen a king from a story, and not even noticed Elias. He had dreamed of statues and legends, and never even looked beneath the glamour to see the fragility and need that must surely lie beneath.
He stood up, and Amalric tried to stop him. "No," he said, for he was seneschal as well as older brother, and Amalric had to obey. "I'm going after him. Please wait here." Amalric's eyes narrowed, and his face turned almost venomous. But there was no time to wonder about it, and even less time to talk. "I'll come back," Oliver reassured him, but Amalric's expression did not change.
Oliver went outside, and quickly found that he was not as strong as he had thought he was. His limbs were shaky from lack of use, and his head swam with every step, but he closed the door behind him, careful that Amalric did not see his weakness. After standing still for a moment, sucking in lungfuls of air, he started walking.
He found Elias almost immediately. His king had managed only half a dozen steps after leaving Oliver's tent, and was sitting on the ground. He was looking up at the sky, and showed no sign of hearing Oliver's approach. Oliver stood over him, just watching him. Then he crouched down, careful not to betray his dizziness.
"You saved my life," Elias said, without looking at him. "I'm so sorry. You almost died because of me."
Oliver sat down, stretching his legs out in front of him. "You would have done no less for me, or for anyone."
"I don't want you to do anything like that again," Elias begged him. "I don't want anyone to."
Oliver knew that he had to be cruel. He would never make a promise that he could not keep. He looked Elias full in the face, and said, "I can't do that. It was my choice to make. If you had died, and I had known that there was something I could have done, but had not... Could you ask me to live with that?"
"But it was my fault," Elias protested. "My fault. I'm so sorry."
"You risked your life for that girl in the city," Oliver said. "That was your choice. If you'd been forced to walk away, how would you have felt?" He touched the back of Elias's hand, his voice soft even when his words were hard. "That's how I would have felt if I hadn't given everything I had to save you."
Elias swallowed. "But please don't do it again. Not for me." He clenched his fist. "I'll make sure you never have to."
Oliver frowned, but decided to let it pass, for now. Instead, he said, "Thank you for bringing me back. I heard you calling. I saw your light." He found himself smiling, for the wonder of that moment would never fade, even now he knew the one calling him had only been Elias.
"I didn't know how to do it." Elias looked down at the ground. "I never know how to do things. I just wanted it badly, and I kept on calling for you." He closed his eyes. "I felt as I was the one who was lost."
The smile faded, chased away by tears. Oliver remembered how the narrow path had been pulsing with the dark and horrible things that lay beneath it. Had that been Elias's guilt and pain? Elias had made the path seem soft and lovely beneath his feet, but all the while it had only been built on suffering. "But you found me," he said. "You did it."
A drop of rain fell on Oliver's cheek, and he brought his hand up to touch it. It was followed by another and another, but neither of them moved. An owl passed above them, heading for home. A figure watched them from near the fire, but did not come closer.
"You don't know what I did," Elias burst out. "I betrayed you all."
Oliver sat very still. "How?"
"I let myself get captured. I thought... I thought I had everything under control. I thought I'd be able to get to see the Duke, and he'd listen. But there was another man there instead. He saw me as a child. He laughed at me. And then he..." He moaned, and pressed his hand to his mouth. "I let him break me," he whispered. "I just broke, as if your cause was nothing. I was so scared. I escaped, but it hurt so much, and they were so close. I don't even know how I turned into a bird. But it felt safer like that. I could forget things. So I stayed like that, and you nearly died because of it."
Oliver could have wept for him. "You didn't betray us, Elias. If anything, we betrayed you, by letting it happen."
"I had such stupid hopes." Elias carried on as if Oliver had not even spoken. "He laughed. And now I've ruined everything. I've lost Albacrist."
"Albacrist is just a symbol," Oliver told him. "It responds to the magic of a king, but it's not magic in itself. And we've been without it for five hundred years."
"But the Duchy hates you more than ever, and all because of me. They'll never listen to us, now."
"Then we'll find another way." Oliver took a deep breath, and dared to ask, "Did he hurt you very badly, this man?"
"Lord Darius," Elias breathed. "He..." He closed his eyes. "I don't want to talk about it."
Oh, Elias, Oliver thought. The mighty king who had called him back looked so frail, hunched on the floor, shrouded in misery. What have we done to you?
"I'll make it up to you," Elias swore. "I'll do whatever I can to make it better. I'll get Albacrist back, even if I have to... if I have to see him again. I... I don't know what I can do, but I'll try to learn. I'll do anything I can. Anything."
"You don't need to." Oliver put his arm around Elias's shoulders and pulled him close. "Please don't think like this, Elias. You have nothing to atone for. I'm just so sorry you had to go through what you did." Elias was shivering, and Oliver realised that his legs were bare beneath a long tunic and a awkwardly belted cloak. "You need to rest," he said. "Here. Let me help you home."
"Home?" Elias echoed. He shook his head. "I can do it by myself. You're the one who needs to rest."
Oliver stood up. "Then we can lean on each other," he said. "Is there anything wrong with that?" Elias gave a faint smile, and Oliver smiled back, absurdly pleased to see even that. "Take my arm. We'll hobble along together like old men. And look," he whispered, conspiratorially. "There's Reynard over there, like a cat about to pounce. He won't let us fall. And I'm sure Amalric's watching us, too."
They walked along together in silence, but just before they reached the door of his hut, Elias pulled his arm free from Oliver's. "Thank you," he murmured, "but I can do it by myself now." He hesitated, as if he was unsure about letting Oliver walk back alone, but then Amalric was hurrying up behind them, just as Oliver had know that he would.
Oliver let himself be led away, but he heard not a word of Amalric's chatter, and looked over his shoulder almost all the way.
Ciaran opened his eyes to see Elias sitting on the bed, plucking listlessly at the blankets. He smelled of outside, and his hair was damp. "You've been out?" Ciaran demanded. "You went out without me?"
"I just wanted some air," Elias mumbled. "I'm all right now."
Ciaran's eyes hurt, and his throat was sore. He knew he had broken down, and fallen to the very bottom, for only the second time in his life. Worse, Elias had seen it happen. There was no way he could pretend it hadn't happened, not this time.
Elias's voice was as listless as his hand. "I heard you calling." He looked at him for the first time. "I'm sorry you had to go through that. I would have come back sooner, but I couldn't hear you, and I didn't know the way."
So it had been Elias, then. Ciaran had not been the strong master, reaching in and plucking Elias back. It had been Elias all along. Elias had brought himself back, when Ciaran had fallen sufficiently far for Elias to consent to hear him. You could have come back days ago, Ciaran thought, but I hadn't lost enough then. I broke your arm, and you wanted to see me really suffer before you would come back. Then he pressed his hand to his mouth, as horrified as if he had said the words aloud. That wasn't what he believed, was it?
"You did save me," Elias said, as if he could read Ciaran's doubts. "I would never have found the way without you."
But was that supposed to make it feel better? Elias was back, and that was good, but oh how Ciaran wished he had not been forced to sacrifice so much in order to save him.
"Master?" Elias asked, his voice suddenly tremulous.
"I'm fine," Ciaran said, harshly. He wiped his hand over his face to dash away the last remnant of tears, ran his fingers through his hair to smooth it down, and straightened out the folds of his clothes. It helped, but not enough. Memories were not so quick to be wiped away, and he was not the man he had been a month before.
"You were the only thing I remembered," Elias whispered. "All the way home, you were the only one."
But that was all. He did not break down in tears, and burrow into his master's arms, begging for comfort. His eyes were dry, and he had left the hut without waiting for his master to support him. Elias had chosen to come back because Ciaran had confessed his need. Elias had been saved by Ciaran's weakness, not his strength, and Elias knew it.
Elias gazed into a dark corner, as far away from Ciaran as he could find. "Would you have told me about Oliver?"
"Oliver?" Ciaran frowned. "How do you know about him?"
"Reynard told me." Elias sighed. "I went to his tent. He's going to be fine."
"You saved him." Ciaran disliked the taste of the words. Leaving his master asleep, Elias had gone straight to Oliver and saved his life. He could have died in the attempt, and then Ciaran would have woken up and found himself alone, without even a word of farewell.
"I did." Elias looked at him, and the expression in his eyes was strange. "He saved me first. You should have told me about him. It should have been the first thing you did."
How could Elias accuse him so? As if a few minutes would have made a difference to Oliver. I sacrificed everything for you, Ciaran wanted to cry. Far more than Oliver. Because Oliver would be fine, or so Elias said. He would carry on with his life as if nothing had happened, while Ciaran would never be able to be the same again.
Elias gave a faint smile, and changed the subject. "I went to get some water, but I forgot. Are you thirsty?"
Ciaran swallowed, and found that he was, very much so. "No," he lied. "Are you? I'll get you some if you like."
Elias seemed to be about to stand up, but then he sank back, leaning heavily against the wall. He traced patterns on the blanket with his fingertip. "Yes please. I'd like that." As Ciaran stood up, Elias grabbed at his sleeve. "You did save me, master. And please don't worry. Everything will be all right, I promise."
But Elias shouldn't be the one to make that promise. "Yes, it will," Ciaran said, as he tugged his sleeve free, and went outside to get his apprentice some water.
Elias lay awake and stared into the darkness, listening to Ciaran's breathing. When morning came, he stood up, and went outside.
Ciaran did not call after him. He did not sit up and say, "It was true, Elias, what I said last night. I'm nothing without you at my side." Instead, there was just the memory of the reproach Elias had seen in his eyes throughout their brief conversation. I sacrificed everything for you, Ciaran had been telling him. And now I'm miserable, and wish it had never happened.
"It will never happen again," Elias swore, as he started walking. He had sworn the same thing to Oliver, and he meant to keep both promises. Both of them had the same first step. For both of them, he had to face his fear.
It was still raining, but only just. A fine drizzle hung in the air, and drops of moisture splashed up as he walked. The sun had not yet risen, but Elias thought it would burn away the clouds and the rain, and the day would be a beautiful one. He only wished it could make a difference. A few weeks ago, it would have. A few weeks ago he had ridden with his sleeves rolled up and his face turned up to the sun, and he had let the warm weather lull him into all kinds of foolish hopes.
A man was sitting by the fire, hunched over a sheathed sword. He looked up as Elias passed, and his eyes widened, but he did not say anything. There are my people, Elias thought. He moved his head from side to side, taking in the sun-bleached tents of coarse fabric, and the squat wooden huts. This is home.
He remembered looking down on it from above, though at the time he had hardly been aware of what he was looking at. How tiny it had looked! Only a few leaves still clung to the dark branches, but they were enough to hide the camp from above. Even the smoke was smothered by the canopy of trees, and the tents and huts were made from the natural material of the forest, and blended into the background. If he had not been drawn there by the siren call of home, he might have passed over it without noticing it.
The land was vast, and these people, his people, were as tiny as insects crawling on the side of a fallen log. The forest dwarfed them, and the forest itself was only a square of dark fabric cast on the green and golden expanse of the world. Their exile confined them to such a tiny place, and they had never been able to step out of its shadow and live as they ought to live, without prison bars or boundaries.
Yet, at the same time, how enormous they were! Their cause dwarfed him and overwhelmed him, and he had no chance of escape. A single man could change the world. A single man, living in a forgotten corner of the world, could speak the words of a prophecy that would bind a whole people to an entire way of life. And one boy, all alone, could betray them.
"This is my home," he said aloud. "Here."
The path twisted downwards, and he followed it, clutching at a frond of brown bracken to keep his balance. He had no idea where he was going, or where he would stop. Somewhere secluded, he thought. Somewhere where no-one would be able to see him if he broke down and cried. But when he turned round he saw that he had left clear footprints in the dew, like a silver path for anyone to follow. Perhaps that was a bad thing, but he smiled to see it, and thought of Ciaran striding along after him, coming to tell him that he was wrong, that there was no need to do this thing after all.
He began to feel faint warmth on his cheek, and he knew that the sun had risen, behind the clouds. Despite it, he shivered, wrapping his one good arm around his body. He walked a few more steps, and even that hint of sunlight disappeared. Sprawling walls of bramble and hawthorn rose up, forming a solid wall between him and the light. He pushed through the branches and came out on the other side, in a tiny clearing that he thought no-one had ever found before.
He knelt down in the middle, and looked up at the sky. Somewhere, not too far away, a bird screamed, and he shivered at the sound.
He remembered everything. How ironic it was! He remembered everything he had done as a bird, but, as a bird, he had forgotten everything that made him a man. He remembered what it was like to tear living things apart and eat them while they were screaming. He remembered longing for his master, even when he had forgotten what the word meant. He remembered how overjoyed he had been to reach home, and how his master had struck him down and despised him. He remembered seeing his master's boot coming down towards his head, and how it hadn't seemed to matter much any more that he was about to die.
"It was all my fault," he said. He remembered how he had clung to the form of the bird because it offered him forgetfulness. He remembered how the Kindred and their cause had ceased to exist, and the only thing that had mattered to him had been his master, and the selfish need to be safe. His master had been right to despise him and strike him down, and perhaps it was for the best. If Ciaran had held him tight, Elias would never have been able to tear himself away from those arms ever again.
He would never let himself be comforted again. He would never let himself be weak, driven only by the fear. If he was terrified and wanted to run, then he would stand, because he had to. If he wanted to sob and ask for help, he would wipe his eyes clean, and go out into the night. He had saved himself on the scaffold, but then he had forgotten about it, and curled up in the stable and waited for his master to save him. Oliver had almost died because of his weakness, and Ciaran had suffered so much. He would never be weak again. No matter how much he longed for comfort, he would push the need aside, and put others first.
"I will be strong," he said aloud. His voice trembled, but it was only from the cold, wasn't it? "I can do this."
The first thing he had to do was the lesser one, the easier one. He looked up at the sky, and watched the currents of air moving, and the birds that were beginning to explore the day. He stood on tip-toe, raising his arms, and let the soft wind stir his clothes. He thought of soft feathers, and the feel of the air supporting his wings. He closed his eyes, and thought of enchantment, all white fire in his blood.
Nothing happened. After a few minutes, he opened his eyes again, and knew that he was still standing. He tried again, straining with all his strength, but he couldn't do it, he couldn't change. But I want to, he wailed. I want to fly away! I want to forget like last time! And then his body almost left the ground, and he screamed, "No!" and only just managed to stop himself from changing.
He realised that he was shivering, quaking from a cold knot in the middle of his chest. The blood in his veins felt like ice. His clothes felt awkward on him, as if he was in a body he was not supposed to be inhabiting. Deep down, part of him wanted to be a bird, to fly away, to forget everything bad.
"I can't." He slumped to the ground, and bent over so low that his forehead was touching the earth. "I'm scared." So scared that he had almost changed out of fear. So scared that he had almost taken the chance to fly away and forget. So scared that he had almost turned his back on everything he had sworn, and made himself into a liar. To run away and leave the people he had failed. To run away and make Ciaran and Oliver sacrifice themselves to bring him back. To run away...
He was weak and pathetic. It was the first test, and the easiest, and he had failed. He had wanted to prove to himself that he could deliberately change, and change back again, but the temptation to fly away was just too strong. If he became a bird, Darius would no longer exist. If he became a bird, he would be able to forget the reproach in Ciaran's eyes, and the sight of Oliver's unconscious body. He would forget it all, and oh how much he wanted that!
"But I can't," he moaned. "I can't."
He stood up, wrapping his cloak around his body in a vain attempt not to feel the cold. He had failed the first test, but he would not let himself fail the second. It was more important than ever. He would do what he had to do, whatever the cost. He had to.
Ciaran woke up, and found that Elias was gone.
He ran outside and grabbed the first person he met. "Where's Elias? Have you seen Elias?" They shook their head, and tried to pull away. Ciaran moved onto the next person, and the next, but the response was the same. Someone called Reynard's name, and Ciaran growled, hurling himself at the a woman who was kneeling by the fire, and grabbing her shoulders. "Have you see him? Where's he gone? I've lost him?"
Reynard hurried up to him. "Let her go."
"You've stolen him again," Ciaran accused him. "Where is he? What have you done with him? I've only just got him back."
"We've not done anything to him." Reynard folded his arms. "Perhaps you should keep a better guard on him, if you're going to be so quick with your accusations."
"So where is he?" Ciaran was breathing hard, but he forced himself to speak quietly, vaguely aware that he had made a fool of himself again, and once again Elias was the cause. His breakdown of the night before still felt like a raw and bleeding wound in his mind. "Do you know where he is?"
"Of course." Reynard nodded. "We will always watch him now, all the time." He pointed into the trees. "He went for a walk very early this morning. He stayed there for a while, then went to the stream. He's still there."
Ciaran pushed past him, and hurried through the forest. A few people watched him pass, but most of them did not look up. But now he knew that they were all watching Elias all the time, all plotting to destroy him. The sooner Ciaran and Elias were out of this horrid place, the better.
He found Elias kneeling by the stream, in exactly the place where Ciaran had bathed him. Did Elias remember that, he wondered. He hoped not, for he had hit the boy and shouted at him, and then wept. If Elias did not remember it, that left only Ciaran, and one person by themselves could forget something, as long as there were no reminders.
"What are you doing, Elias?" Ciaran asked. "I couldn't find you."
Elias looked up slowly. "I was washing your cloak." He was wearing only the knee-length tunic that Ciaran had dressed him in, and his feet were still bare. "I wanted it to be nice and clean when I gave it back to you."
"You don't have to give it back to me." Ciaran stopped behind Elias, where he towered over him. "Stop that, Elias," he said, irritably, for Elias was struggling to wash the heavy fabric with only one hand. "I'll do it."
He knelt down beside Elias and reached for the cloak, and for a moment their hands touched. Elias was the first to pull away, a small sigh escaping his lips. He seemed to be about to speak, but he said nothing. Ciaran suddenly realised that Elias wished he was alone.
Has so much changed? Ciaran wanted to ask. Have you moved so far away from me? Elias had heard him snivelling, and that had been what had brought him back. Elias had come back like the saviour, scooping his crying master up from the gutter and promising never to leave him again. Everything was turned upside-down, and Ciaran didn't think he could bear it.
"Elias," Ciaran blurted out. "Can you take me home?"
Elias froze. He sucked in a breath, then let it slowly out. "I think I can. I thought it was the sword that did it before, but now I think it was me. I didn't have the sword when I changed. So I'm sure I can. If I want it very much. I still can't do things until I want them. I still don't really know how I'm doing them." He looked at Ciaran. "I didn't mean to change into a bird. I didn't even realise I was doing it. But, once I'd done it..."
"You didn't want to turn back," Ciaran said. "I know. You were hiding." He had seen that much in Elias's mind, when the link between them had exploded into light. Now the link was hardly there at all. Was Elias shielding himself from it? Ciaran was, he knew that. It was intolerable for Elias to see just how much in turmoil he still was.
"Do you want to go back?" Elias asked, looking away.
Ciaran let out a breath. "I do." And how badly he wanted it! He wanted it with a fervour that felt like a physical hunger. He had promised to stay here for two weeks, but the two weeks had long since come to an end. This world had driven him to the edge of insanity, and he would only be whole again when he was back home, surrounded by the people of Greenslade, where the only magic was the Shadow that he knew.
Elias closed his eyes. "I thought you did. You want to go today, don't you?"
"I do." Ciaran grabbed Elias's arm. "There's no reason to stay. I promised to stay until you'd come back from the city, and you've done that now. And you've failed. If you tried again, it's not likely to happen any differently, is it?"
Elias shook his head. "There's a man called Lord... Lord Darius. I think the Duke only rules in name, and Darius is the real ruler of the Duchy, and he despises me. Everyone in the city knows my face, and they'll kill me if they see me."
"So that's settled, then." Ciaran gave a sharp nod. "You did what you could. You nearly died for this cause of theirs, but you failed. So now Reynard will have his war. You did your duty, but now it's over. The Kindred should be set free to do what they want."
"You really believe that?" Elias sounded shaky, like a child who had been offered hope, but was afraid to accept it. "I don't."
Ciaran smiled. "I do, yes, and you know I'm right. You can walk away without guilt. It's time to go."
Elias tugged the cloak out of the water and rested it over his bare knees. "You were always miserable here, weren't you, master?" he asked, as he ran his hand over the wet cloth. "You could never be happy here."
"Of course not." Ciaran spoke softly, his tone matching Elias's. "This isn't my home." He took a deep breath. "Look, Elias, I know something happened last night. I know you heard me say things that I shouldn't have said. I'm going to have to sit down and think about things. I have to think about what will change, and what will stay the same. But I can't do that here. It's all too close." He thought of how he had rushed around the camp like a madman, searching for Elias. "There's too many reminders," he admitted. "I need to get away, or I'll never have a chance to heal."
"You'll heal if you go home," Elias said. "You'll be happy."
"Yes." Ciaran nodded. "I believe I will." The memory of the night before was still too close, and he found himself confessing things he had not intended to confess. "I won't be the same as I used to be, I think. I might even be happier. But I don't know. I need time to think about it."
Elias was looking away, and Ciaran could see how he was swallowing again and again, as if he was fighting tears. He supposed it was hard for the boy to admit that he had failed, and to run home with his tail tucked between his legs. For a short time, Elias had really believed that he could change a world. He was bound to find it hard to say goodbye.
Ciaran decided to offer him a gift. "It doesn't have to be today, Elias," he said. "I can wait until tomorrow. They're having a ceremony of some sort tonight. That will be a good place to say goodbye, don't you think?"
"Goodbye," Elias echoed. He pressed the sodden cloak against his chest, seemingly oblivious of the wetness. "Tomorrow morning?"
"Tomorrow morning," Ciaran said. He smiled. Everything important in his life was at home. He tried to explain it to Elias, for the boy looked so bleak and bereft. "It's not that I hate the Kindred, not any more. It's just that they're not my people. I have to accept that the enchantment is real, but it makes me uncomfortable. I just want to go home, Elias. Is there anything wrong with that?"
"Everyone is happiest at home," Elias murmured, "but it means such different things. Sometimes it's a person. The Kindred think their home is Eidengard, but they've not been there for five hundred years. Would they even like it if they found it?"
Ciaran laughed. "How wise you sound, Elias." The laugh faded, and not even a smile remained.
"No." Elias shook his head. "I was just... thinking."
Ciaran eased the cloak from Elias's grip. "It's not like that for me. I really do want to go home." He had never expressed his wants so clearly to Elias before. "I know I've not always been as supportive as I should have been, Elias." It will change, he promised. Many of the things he had done and said over the past few days would be forgotten, but he would never let himself forget that Elias was important to him. Just as soon as I get home. Just as soon as I've had time to think. Just as soon as this whole sorry mess is forgotten.
Elias was dragging his fingers up and down in the water, first against the current, and then with it. "That's all right, master. It doesn't matter."
"But it does." Ciaran grabbed Elias's arm. "Do you think you can be happy, Elias, now all this has happened? I want you to be."
Elias would not look at him. His eyes looked as blank as they had been for the whole past week, as if nothing had changed, and Ciaran had suffered all that he had suffered for nothing, and Elias was still lost to him. "Don't worry about me, master."
"But I do," Ciaran said, pulling Elias to his feet. I gave everything for you, he thought, to bring you back. So of course I worry about you. I have the right.
Elias smiled. "I'll be fine, master."
"You will be tomorrow," Ciaran promised. For tomorrow it would all be over. Tomorrow they would be home.