Everyone in Greenslade knew that the castle was haunted. They told stories in the taverns about its ghosts, and even the boldest of youths avoided it. Although a cart track led past the ruins, the villagers hurried by with their faces averted, for they knew that anyone who drew the attention of a restless spirit was doomed.
Ciaran believed in ghosts, for the Brothers knew that spirits could linger after death. He had sensed them sometimes, long ago, feeling their presence like a whisper in the Shadow, but never more than that. No-one would ever see them, or hear their voices. The tales of voices wailing in the wind were just tales, and the stories of unwary travellers snatched by walking skeletons were just the horror stories. His people were child-like in their simplicity, and it was the nature of children to make stories out of their fears.
But, still, he had never gone there. On winter nights, he closed the shutters and made the fire roar, to drown the sound of the wind. Every morning, when he left his house, he turned right, into the village, and not left, to cross the bridge and follow the overgrown path to the ruins. No-one did.
No-one except one.
Ciaran was not afraid. He bludgeoned at the plants that tried to impede his path, scattering red petals like blood. Grass pollen hazed the air. Hidden beneath the grass, the ground was uneven. Someone had walked this way often in the winter mud, and the shape of their footsteps had been baked hard by the summer sun.
Not just someone. Elias. Every night for six months, Elias had slipped out into the darkness. He wants to hide how sad he is, to cry alone beneath the stars, Ciaran had thought, and he had almost forbidden him to leave, but Elias had always returned, and so Ciaran had said nothing. Then, when spring came, and the evenings were light enough to see, Ciaran had watched Elias from the window, and seen him head not for the open fields, but for the ruins. Even then, he had said nothing. It wasn't as if Ciaran believed the stories, or was scared of the place. If he said something, perhaps Elias would think that he was.
But tonight, he thought, I will say something. Tonight I will bring him home and keep him there, if I have to drag him there screaming.
Had he really believed that everything could carry on as normal? For a while, it seemed that he truly had. Ciaran had slipped back into his life in Greenslade, and had expected Elias to do the same. In the familiar surroundings of his home, the sword had seemed far less magical than it had seemed in the Basilica, and the memory of the man who had brought it had slipped away.
They had never spoken of it again. The only concession Ciaran had made was to teach Elias how to fight with a sword. For an hour every morning, they fought together with bluntened practice swords, but spoke never a word about why they were doing it. After they had fought, Ciaran had taught Elias about the Shadow, or had let him tag along while he did his duties in Greenslade, or had simply ignored him, just as normal.
But Elias had refused to be normal. He was as obedient as ever, but his expression was frequently distant. There were times when Ciaran thought that Elias wasn't even listening to him at all, but he had said nothing about that, either. A problem ignored usually went away. Of course Elias was listening to him. Of course everything was normal. He just had to teach him a little more, to bind the boy to his side from dawn to dusk, to demand his attention at all times, and everything would be well. In six months, he had taught Elias more than he had taught him in years, but still Elias refused to be the boy that Ciaran had always known.
Tonight, Ciaran would force matters. He could not pretend any longer. He was fighting a battle for Elias's soul, and he refused to lose it, though his enemy was strong and wily. The ghost of that terrible day in the Basilica had a long and terrible reach, and it held Elias in its possession. It was trying to become the most important thing in Elias's life. It was trying to make him forget all the things that had always mattered to him. It was turning him into a ghost himself, with a wan face and haunted eyes, and Ciaran was going to stop it. For Elias's own sake, he would confront the enemy at last, and he would win.
Why tonight? Because it was midsummer's eve, and six months to the day since Elias had found the sword. It was a fitting time to bring things to an end. In the old calendar of this province, midsummer's eve was the last day of the old year. Tomorrow, the new year would start with flowers and sunlight and hope, and winter would be a distant dream, and almost forgotten.
Ciaran paused just outside the gatehouse. Dark brambles clung thickly to the base of the limestone walls, and ivy snaked up the towers. The statue of a grotesque beast guarded one side of the gateway, its eyes curiously untouched by the coiling greenery. On the other side of the gate a similar beast lay, fallen face down and half covered by brambles. The ground seemed scratched at its base.
"They watch you," Ciaran had heard a man declare in the tavern, "and, when you've gone by, they lumber off their perches and follow you." He had put his tankard down and pressed his hand flat on the table, showing the ridged scar across his knuckles. "Me, I ran fast enough, but only just."
Not that Ciaran believed a word of it. The ghosts were real, but it was nonsense the believe that stone could walk. The castle was just a place of tumbled walls and betrayed spirits. He even knew their story. Three centuries before, in a brutal civil war, a whole garrison had been betrayed by their lord, abandoned to the enemy's bloodlust. They had not even been granted burial. Scratch the ground, the villagers said, and no matter where you did it, you would find bones.
The gatehouse was a dark tunnel, with black shapes littering the floor. No plants grew beneath the arched passageway. As Ciaran began to walk into the embrace of darkness, the eyes of the statue seemed to flicker towards him, but he wasn't afraid. He ran his tongue over his dry lips, and walked with his head high. Stories. They were only silly stories. The only thing that awaited him was Elias, and Elias was his apprentice, and it was absurd to think that Ciaran might be nervous of meeting him tonight.
Once through the gatehouse, he let out a breath. The sunlight was a rich dark yellow, warm on his cheek. Things crunched under his feet, but they were only pebbles, not skeletons buried beneath a thin layer of blown earth and drifting seeds and time. Something snagged at his cloak, and he whirled round, but it was only brambles. Of course it was only brambles.
Ahead were the central buildings of the castle, where an arched doorway led into what must once have been a courtyard. There were signs of Elias everywhere. Undergrowth had been flattened into a path, golden in the setting sun, and fallen masonry had been cleared away from the door. Weeds were already growing in the indentations where the stone had rested for centuries. Some of the rocks looked very heavy. What had Elias been thinking, to try to move them by himself? He should have asked for help.
Ciaran frowned as he headed for the doorway. Why couldn't Elias see how wrong this all was? He was too malleable. He had let the sword possess him, and now he had let this evil place cast a spell over him. His bedroom overlooked the long-ago road to the castle, and he had let the ghosts call to him and lure him. He was lucky he had a master to save him and bring him home.
He passed through the archway, and stopped. Elias was there, of course, and he was alone. Not a lover's tryst, then, Ciaran thought, and was surprised, for it was not a possibility he had been aware of considering.
Elias was not yet aware of his master's presence. He was standing on a pedestal in the middle of a green open space, bathed in the light of the setting sun. Two towers cast shadows on either side of him, but he stood golden in the sunlight. His own shadow was long and commanding, reaching half way across the courtyard.
It was a calculated pose of glory, as arrogant as a king. Elias looked beautiful, as if he wanted everyone who saw him to fall down in awe. And that was it, Ciaran realised. Elias thought the ghosts could see him. They had been betrayed by their master, and so he stood before them, offering himself as their new lord. See how glorious I am, he told them every day. I have been chosen for greatness. Worship me now. And perhaps they did, for the hem of his tunic was shivering, as if the dead were kneeling at his feet and fawning over him.
Ciaran pursed his lips. Elias was a victim of the cruel magic of the sword, but he was not blameless. Ciaran would rescue him, but he would also punish him. For the first time in his life, Elias had been set above everyone else around him. He had been singled out and chosen, and he had let it go to his head. He thought he was too good for Greenslade now, so he shambled through the streets with distant eyes, seeing nothing, barely hearing his master.
"Elias!" he called, but his voice was a croak, his throat was thick and choked. He coughed, but Elias, lost in dreams of glory, did not hear him. The boy's head sank forward. A faceless statue stood on the pedestal, and Elias was clutching at it both hands, heedless of the thorny roses that twined around it and made him bleed. His shoulders heaved as he struggled for breath. He still shone in the sunlight, but all the light was reflected, and was not his. He was pale, and swamped by it.
Everything drifted apart, then was reassembled again in a different shape. Not arrogant at all, Ciaran realised. Elias was exhausted and broken. If a human enemy had dared hurt Ciaran's apprentice so, Ciaran would have smashed him to the ground and beaten him bloody. Well, he swore, he would do no less this time, although the enemy was only a voice that spoke deeply in Elias's soul.
Ciaran jabbed his staff into the ground, gouging a hole in the mud, tearing blades of grass asunder. How could Ciaran fight an enemy he could not see? He scraped a crushed worm off with his boot, then jabbed at the earth again. Elias would be the battleground, and the fight could destroy him. But better that, than this. Better anything than this.
Elias was still unaware of him, or perhaps he knew Ciaran was there, but was ignoring him. Perhaps the voice of the sword had told him to stop caring whether his master was with him or not. As Ciaran watched, Elias started to walk away from him. He was trying to keep his head high, but his steps were faltering, and he was weaving a little. After three steps, his knees started to buckle, and he almost fell. A fourth and a fifth, and then he was down, like a marionette cast aside by a careless puppeteer. After a few seconds in the mud, he made a clumsy attempt to push himself up. He ended up sitting, his knees pulled up and his arms wrapped around them. His head slumped forward, and his hair brushed his clasped hands, concealing his face.
Ciaran hurried to Elias's side. Elias raised his head wearily, and gave his master a bleak stare. For all the childlike pose, it was the face of a man, with eyes that Ciaran did not know.
"Elias." Ciaran cleared his throat. "Why do you come here?" It sounded almost plaintive, and not at all how he had intended it.
"Practising." Elias was absently running his left thumb over the palm of his right hand. There were two puncture wounds there, trailing smears of blood. As Ciaran watched, the thumb rubbed harder and deeper. "Trying..." He swallowed. "Trying to master the sword. Trying to past its next test."
"But why here? Why..." Ciaran spread his arm, gesturing at their surroundings, then shrugged, needing no words. In the orange light of sunset, the ruins were almost pretty, with their carvings and statues and traceries windows, but Elias would know its reputation as well as Ciaran did.
"There's space here. And everyone's afraid of it. No-one comes here. No-one... watches."
"But it's a bad place." Ciaran walked a half circle around the boy, until he had his back to the sun, and Elias was sheltered in his shadow. "The dead still walk here, Elias."
"I know." Elias frowned, and his eyes drifted far away. "I can see them. They're the reason..."
"You can't see them," Ciaran interrupted. "No-one can. Don't talk nonsense."
"They're here," Elias said, in a bleak little voice. "They're waiting for their lord to come back. They can't believe that he would betray them. They have little sense of time passing. They don't understand. They're screaming. He can save them. If only he came back, he would save them. But he never comes. He failed them. He's somewhere else, and they'll never be free, they'll never be saved. Never."
"Elias!" Ciaran grabbed Elias's shoulders and hauled him up towards him, forcing him to stop. "Don't talk like that," he said, more gently. "I understand, of course. I know you see the connection between their situation and yours. But can't you see how wrong it is? You're letting this place destroy you, Elias. It's not healthy."
"I have to do it," Elias muttered, looking at the ground.
"No." Ciaran let him go, and stepped back, folding his arms. "It has to stop."
"No!" Elias half clambered to his feet, then subsided, so he was kneeling back on his heels. "Master," he whispered, clasping his hands in his lap. "Please."
"It's doing you no good, Elias," Ciaran said. "Can't you see?" Night after night, alone in these haunted ruins, Elias had even come to believe that he could see the dead and hear their message. In his mind, they had become the lost people of the sword, waiting for him to come and save them. It was worse than Ciaran had thought. Elias needed help, and needed it now. "I should have stopped it long ago," he said.
"Please," Elias whispered. He raised his head, and his eyes were very clear and utterly bleak. "Don't order me to stop, master. Please."
Ciaran shook his head. "It's the best thing for you, Elias."
Elias pressed his hand to his face, as if he wanted to hide from the whole world, just for a moment. "Don't," he said, lowering the hand. "Please don't command me. Don't make me choose."
"Choose between what?" Ciaran grabbed his chin, holding his face with strong fingers digging into his cheek. "Choose between that sword, and me?" Despite the sunlight, he felt very cold.
Elias blinked, and a tear welled from each eyelid. "I don't want to choose, master. Please don't make me choose. Not yet."
Was he saying that he would choose the sword? If Ciaran gave him a direct order to lay aside the sword, would he disobey? If Ciaran insisted that he chose between a people who were far away and never seen, and the master who had given him everything, would he really choose the former? No, he thought, and shook his head fiercely. Elias was not saying that. He couldn’t be. But Ciaran wouldn't ask him, even so. If he said nothing now, then they would never know the answer. He would go on believing the truth, and that was that Elias would always choose him.
"Please, master," Elias said urgently. "Please do one thing for me. Just one thing. When it's done, then I... I might not need to come here ever again. I'll come back with you. I'll stay in tomorrow night, and the next one, and..."
"What is it?" Ciaran asked, his voice sounding strangely hoarse. Behind him, he heard the sound of Elias pushing himself to his feet, and retrieving the hateful sword from the grass. Did it shine for him, beautiful in his hands? Ciaran did not turn round to see.
"Fight me," Elias said.
Ciaran laughed. "We've fought lots of times."
"No." Elias stood close behind him, and Ciaran could hear his breathing. "Fight me, here. Your staff against my sword. Now."
It was not an impossible request. A Brother's staff was made of wood, but it was no ordinary wood. In the olden days, the superstitious had said that a Brother kept his soul housed in his staff. It was not true, but it was not too far from the truth. A Brother touched a thousand trees until he found the one that responded to him, and carved the staff through the eyes of Shadow. It became stronger than mere wood, and more than capable of being wielded against a sword.
Ciaran had never been parted from his staff in fourteen years, and felt incomplete and uneasy without it. Elias should have been the same, but the boy had barely touched his staff for months. Ciaran had become so accustomed to seeing him without it that he hadn't even noticed what he was seeing until now.
He turned round, clutching his staff close to his body. "Why?"
"I have to do it." Elias looked down at the sword, held so treacherously in his hand. "I always knew I'd have to do it. But now it has to be today. The day you followed me here. The day you made it end."
Ciaran wanted to slap him. There was something almost otherworldly about the way he was talking, and he was staring at a point slightly to one side, as if he could see things that no other eyes could see.
Ciaran swallowed, and managed to hide his anger. He was not cruel, and he could see how much Elias was hurting, and how desperately he needed a master who was strong and kind. "You really need this?"
Elias nodded. "I do," he said, as solemn as if he was swearing a vow.
"Then," Ciaran said, graciously, "we will fight."
The dead were watching him, ranged in shimmering cold lines, reaching with the hands that never stopped pleading.
Elias struck at Ciaran's staff, and saw his master wince at the jolt of the blow. Ciaran stepped back, and almost lost his footing on the grass, then regained it, and went back on the offensive. He was frowning.
Unnoticed, the wind had started the rise. It wailed through the ruined stone, and the dead sighed in response, making the hair prickle at the back of Elias's neck. The dying sun was very bright. When Elias fought with his back to the sun, his master's face seemed to radiate light; when he fought facing it, it dazzled him, and cast Ciaran's face into a deep and featureless shadow.
His sword glowed white. When it shone like that, it was a sharp burning in the back of his throat, and a stirring deep in his blood. It made him fight better. It made him drive his master hard. It made him both exultant and afraid.
The dead stood in the long shadow of the tallest tower. I will win for you, he vowed silently.
He knew who they were, of course. They were not the people of the sword, and it was too late to help them. He could see them a little more clearly every day, but they were never more than wispy shadows without faces. Their reaching hands were just shimmerings in the air, and their cries were wordless, carried by the wind. If he won or if he lost, they were still condemned.
Yet, at the same time, he needed to win before them. He felt very strongly that this was the only place where this battle could be fought. In an unknown somewhere far away, a whole people were screaming, waiting for him to come and save them. Every day of failure condemned them. He lived every night with the knowledge that he had betrayed them once more, like the lord who had walked so heartlessly away from the men who had sworn to die for him.
He spun in the air, catching Ciaran off guard with a sudden blow to the left. Ciaran stumbled, and something flickered in his eyes. For a moment, he almost seemed to hold back, letting Elias land a sequence of quick blows that he parried only weakly.
"Don't let me win," Elias gasped, suddenly afraid. He took his attention from the weapons and looked fearfully at his master's face. "It has to be real."
Ciaran smashed his staff against the back of Elias's wrist, and Elias cried out, keeping hold of the sword only with a desperate effort of will. "I would never do that," Ciaran said, through gritted teeth.
And, no, he wouldn't. Many things had changed for Elias in the last six months. The sword had opened his eyes to a wider world, and, as his eyes had opened, he had begun to see things clearly that, before, he had refused to see. His master was one of the first things that had seemed different to him. Although Elias loved him as much as ever, he no longer thought of him as being without fault. Ciaran was fiercely protective of Elias, and sincerely wanted to protect him from harm, yet he seemed oblivious to all the small hurts he himself inflicted. He said he wanted to help, but his own needs came first. He always had to win, even if Elias was the one he crushed underfoot by doing so.
Pushing past his exhaustion, Elias concentrated his attack on the lower right side that his master always left a little undefended. The edge of his blade gleamed like white death, and Ciaran's dark staff slid along it as he fumbled to divert the blow. Pushing his advantage, Elias landed a blow there, and a slash there, making Ciaran respond as he wanted him to. Ciaran yielded a step, then thrust forward with both hands. He was taller than Elias, and far stronger, and even Elias's usual advantage of speed was eroded by his tiredness. Ciaran could still overwhelm him with sheer brute force.
Elias gritted his teeth, and defended himself. This was the final test. All day, something had been gathering, like a distant summer storm. It was a certain intensifying of sensation, and a pricking along his spine. It was a watchfulness about the air, and the hectic brightness of the sunset. It was the way the sword glowed with a new and tremulous light. It was the whispering of the ghosts, louder than ever before.
In the cloister, it had been a voice, speaking in his mind. That voice had long gone. If it spoke to him still, it spoke so deeply within him that he no longer heard it as words, but as sensation, inseparable from his own being. It whispered truths so deeply that he simply knew them. Something's coming, he had felt, as he had looked at his master against the setting sun. It will be tonight. Even his master must have felt something, to have followed him tonight of all nights, like a player arriving on a stage at just the right moment for the act to begin.
Tonight, Elias would pass the test, or fail forever. Things died at midsummer. After tomorrow, the year would hasten to its close, the days growing shorter and the nights more dark. If he failed tonight, he didn't know what he would do.
He yielded to Ciaran's attack, taking a slippery step backwards. Ciaran cried out with triumph, and took the place he had vacated. He was now firmly between Elias and the sun, exactly placed so that Elias was dazzled at every move. He lashed out violently with his staff, ensuring that Elias could move neither to the right nor the left, but was pinned there, forced to squint into the sun.
Good, Elias thought. He launched a series of delicate attacks, stabbing forward with the point, as if he was desperate and cornered. Slowly, without Ciaran even being aware of it, he made each lunge a little longer, so that, countering them lazily, Ciaran was driven backwards, inch by inch. The base of the statue was only a few feet away and the tangled briar at its base was eager to trip him.
Elias hardly dared breathe. It was a gamble, but he had to win, and he was too tired for a long fight. A Brother fought while immersed in the Shadow, seeing those connections that no normal man could see, and using them to perform feats that could look like magic. When fighting with the sword, Elias had slowly stopped using the Shadow, for the sword seemed to have a magic of its own that sprang to life when he touched it.
As he used the Shadow less and less, he had become aware of something he had never noticed before, and that was how little Ciaran himself used it. He did not fight as he had taught Elias to fight. His connection with the Shadow was fractured, blocked by emotion. The nearer he came to the end of a fight, the less he was able to use it. A Brother, seeing the glorious shimmerings of Shadow that connected all things, would be aware of the statue behind him. An ordinary man, scenting victory and seeing only through normal eyes, would not. And his master, once so mighty in his eyes, was only an ordinary man. He could be blind, and he could make mistakes.
Elias felt almost sad as Ciaran stepped backwards, and found himself pinned against the pedestal. He almost whispered an apology as he saw his master's eyes widen. He almost held back as he struck the winning blow, plucking his master's staff from his startled hand. He almost cried out an apology as Ciaran, unbalanced, fell to his knees, then over to one side.
Almost, but not quite, for he was victorious. He had won. He had passed the test, and proved himself worthy. It would be tonight after all. Tonight, he would know the way.
He stood over his fallen master and raised the sword over his head. "Look!" he shouted, his voice echoing off the walls of the courtyard and making the dead stir like fluttering dark wings. "Am I ready? Is this enough?"
Ciaran pushed at his feet, trying to move him away. Without looking down, he stepped to one side, letting his master sit up. He knew Ciaran's eyes would be blazing.
The sun sank behind the tower. For a moment it showed as a thin line of the darkest red, and then it was gone. The ruin was cold and dark, lost in sudden night.
Elias lowered the sword and held it in front of him, one hand on the hilt and the other under the tip of the blade. Pale light played along the blade, teasing him with its suppressed power.
There were no answers. He had fought, and he had won, but nothing had changed. He had been so sure that all doors would open to him, if only he won this last battle. The lost people of the sword would be revealed to him, and at last he would be able to do his duty, instead of labouring here, failing every day.
He had failed. He took a few faltering steps backwards, holding the sword at arm's reach. Blind, he stumbled, and the sword cut him for the first time ever, slicing a sliver of skin from his palm. The blood seemed to burn, and he felt sick.
"Master," he breathed.
It was so cold, and he was so lost. He wanted his master to look after him and find a solution. The sword had forced him to change, but inside he was still the same. Inside, he was still shy and insecure, crying out for someone strong to lead him. But duty came first, and anything else was unthinkable. If Ciaran had really forced him to choose between the sword and his master, he would have had no choice but to choose the sword, but it would have destroyed him to do so.
"I've tried everything," he whispered, as Ciaran stared at him, nursed his staff, and said nothing. "I really thought it would be tonight. I thought..." He was shamefully close to tears. "What else can I do, master? I've tried and tried, but it's not enough. It's never enough."
Not far away, a rook started to scream. The sound was taken up by one, then another, until the whole tree of roosting birds was sounding, as if to celebrate his defeat. The dead joined in their chorus, wailing that it was too late, that it would never be enough, that everything was lost, all lost.
"No," he moaned. "Please. Please give me something. Please show me the way."
Silence greeted him. Silence. Only silence. There was no stirring of knowledge inside him, no touch in his mind, no summons. Nothing. The sword was useless in his hands, because he lacked the understanding to unlock its secrets. Even the dead had turned away, disgusted at his unworthiness.
"Come on, Elias." Ciaran's hand fell on his shoulder. Gentle as a mother with her child, he draped Elias's cloak round his body, and tied it at his throat. The back of his hand brushed against Elias's skin, and Elias shivered at the coldness of the touch. "It's time to go home. There's nothing more you can do here."
Ciaran had been defeated, but he showed no anger. The only thing Elias could hear in his voice was pity. Only failures received pity.
He sheathed the sword, and a little more light seemed to go out of the world. Twilight claimed even the clinging dead. "Yes, master," he murmured.
Ciaran clapped him on the shoulder again, and sounded as if he was about to say something. Then he cleared his throat, and began to walk away. "We'll talk about it when we get home. This is no place for it. You shouldn't have come."
Elias started to walk, trailing after his master, who alone could lead him back to the light from this twilight place of death. Night always fell earlier in the ruins, where the towers blocked out the last of the sun. Beyond the gatehouse, where the fields ran smoothly to the green hills of the horizon, it would still be day.
Ciaran paused a little in the doorway, but did not turn round. "You did as well as you could, Elias. It's not your fault. It was impossible all along."
Elias shook his head. "Yes, master."
If he had still been a child, his master's words would have been enough. Elias could cling to the hem of his master's cloak, and Ciaran would lead him safely, even if packs of monsters snarled at either side of the road. If Ciaran told him something, then it was true. If Ciaran said it wasn't his fault, then it wasn't.
Perhaps it could still be like that. If he followed Ciaran like a perfect apprentice, he would think as a child again, and his master would have all the answers.
"I'm coming, master." He caught Ciaran up, following so closely that he could touch the back of his cloak, if he wanted to. All he had to do was reach out, and his master would be there.
His body was hardly there at all. He heard the sound of his footsteps, but the feet belonged to someone else. There was a veil between him and the whole world, and only his master was real.
"Things will be different now, Elias," Ciaran said, as he entered the darkness of the gatehouse. "I promise you that."
He reached out with his right hand, deliberately letting it scrape against the rough wall of the passageway. It hurt, but he could not press hard enough to break the skin. A moment later, the pain was gone, as if his hand had only belonged to him for those few seconds of hurting.
The dead were silent now, but other things were calling to him, taunting him. He heard snatches of a dying man's challenge, spoken in the voices of Ciaran and Grand Master Jerome and a nameless healer. He heard his brothers teasing him, calling him stupid. He heard the deep voice of the sword, waiting breathlessly for him to prove himself worthy. Every hour of every day, he lived with those voices. He had been so sure that tonight would be the end of it, and how could he live with his failure?
I don't know! he wanted to scream, clapping his hands against his ears, though to silence the voice of the sword he would have to tear his heart from his chest with his own nails, for its white fire had possessed him so completely. Either show me the way, or release me. I can't bear it.
"We'll find a way out of this, Elias, you and I." Ciaran walked out of the darkness of the gatehouse, into the light that still lingered in the fertile fields of Greenslade.
"Yes, master." Elias closed his eyes. He grasped Ciaran's cloak with the tips of his fingers, and let himself be led. Only his master was real. If Ciaran talked very loudly and for a very long time, perhaps it would drown out the constant call of the sword.
"You've tried." Ciaran's voice was more sure and confident now he was out of the ruins, heading back to the village he ruled. "What more can you do? Perhaps the... magic has faded. Perhaps there's no way of ever finding a way into this other world of his. It's probably best that you forget it."
Elias opened his eyes. His master was not so much taller than him, and Elias was twenty years old, and could never be a child again, no matter how much he longed to. There could be no hiding places, and no answers. The power of the sword was real and alive, and he could never forget it. Even if he failed and failed until he was a hundred, he could never stop striving to pass its next test.
He raised his hand and looked at it, seeing the small cut in the palm, and the pink scrapes on the back of the fingers. His boots were dappled with pollen and a petal was clinging to his hem. There were purple thistles by the path, and bats were beginning to stir in the ruins behind him. The grass was flattered by a hundred lines of his own footprints, and the single path of his master's, interweaving with his own, but following their own course.
This was the here and now, and the sword was part of it, never to be denied. It was as real as the grass and the sky and the village that nestled in its fertile valley, beneath soft green hills. It was real, and it taught responsibility, and that he could never turn his back on the world and seek to hide.
He turned and looked at the village, and, as he did so, someone screamed. With a wordless cry, he started to run.
Ciaran snatched wildly, and managed to catch hold of Elias's trailing cloak.
"No!" Elias struggled to escape, and the coarse fabric began to slip through Ciaran's fingers, straining the muscles and hurting the skin.
"Elias." He made his voice stern and reasonable. "You can't run from this! You have to face your failure. You won't find peace if you run away."
"Let me go, master," Elias hissed. His movements were close to panic. He struggled violently, lashing out with both his fists. Had he been a little closer, they would have struck Ciaran, but they fell short, hitting only empty air. "Please, master. Let me get to them. I have to save them."
"No!" Ciaran pulled harder, and his hands were shaking, very white against the black cloak. It must have been half strangling Elias. "You can't!" he shouted. "Leave it, Elias. Let it go!" The strain had clearly made the boy lose his mind. He wasn't trying to run away from his failure after all. Instead, he had come to believe that he could find the lost people of the sword, if only he ran far enough. "They're not in this world," he cried. "You can't find them by running."
"Not them!" Elias screamed. "Listen!" He flung his arm out towards the village, as violent as a sword thrust.
Ciaran frowned. "What?"
That tiny moment of confusion was all Elias needed. He gave one last violent tug at the cloak, pulling with his whole body, and broke free. He ran desperately, and with little control. After just a few steps he stumbled, and his cloak was like a black pool around him as he fell. Before Ciaran could take a step to his side, he was up again, heading not for their home, but towards the heart of the village.
"Save them?" Ciaran muttered, then shouted it after Elias's retreating figure. "Save them? Save who?"
He listened, but could hear nothing except the normal sounds of a rural night time. Belatedly, he tried to see as a Brother alone could see, seeking the connections of the Shadow, but there was nothing there. How could Elias have seen something that he could not?
Frowning, he started to run after Elias in a steady trot. The sky was darkening rapidly and unevenly, like a black hand reaching up from the west, trying to grasp the emerging moon. The sun had set, but a dull red glow clung to the horizon in the north-west. The wind was rising, and brought with it a sharp smell of smoke.
"Fire," he gasped. There was fire in Greenslade.
He started to sprint. With every step the smell of smoke grew stronger, and the red glow resolved itself into vivid flames. Soon he could hear shouts, and the sound of wild bells ringing. It was a mile to the village, and he covered it quickly, but Elias remained far ahead of him.
The fire was in a row of weaver's cottages. Flowers had always climbed merrily up the limestone walls, and the weavers' children had sat on the doorsteps teasing wool, or paddled in the shallow stream across the little-travelled road. It had been a pretty street, but the cottages were all in a row and a fire, once started, could spread without hindrance. By the time Ciaran arrived, the whole street was in flame.
"Elias!" he shouted, but his ringing cry caught on the smoke, and ended up so much less than it should have been.
He couldn't see Elias anywhere. There were people in the street, darting against the flames, or hanging back, their hands pressed to their mouths, but none of them were Elias. He was too late.
"Elias," he whispered. He tried to sense his presence in his mind, but there was nothing there. Brothers who shared each other's lives always had a link, that allowed them to sense the other's presence, or even a hint of feelings or words. There was such a link between himself and his apprentice, but Ciaran generally kept it closed. On the rare occasions when he had sought Elias mentally, the boy had always responded. Why had he never once tried to reach Elias this way since midwinter? As he tried, now, and found only absence and silence, he knew the reason. Elias had shut him out. If he had sought him months ago, he would have known it earlier, and known himself rejected.
Someone grabbed his arm and he whirled around, but it was only Edward Johnson, the blacksmith. "Your apprentice went in there." Johnson pointed at the house where the flames were the thickest. "Didn't hesitate at all. Just went in." He shook his head, and whistled.
Ciaran stared at the flames until they hurt his eyes. Even when he closed his eyes he could still them. He's trying to kill himself, he thought. Elias saw no way out but death. Rather than live with failure, he wanted to die.
He opened his eyes again, and took a step towards the fire. The flames surged, and there were patches in the fire that were almost black. They looked like anguished figures, pleading for help. Was it Elias, needing him, screaming, dying?
"Mistress Alexander didn't get out either, poor old dear," Johnson said.
With an almost physical wrench, Ciaran pulled his gaze away from the flames that had claimed his apprentice. He looked where Johnson was pointing, and saw an old man crawling on arthritic knees towards the a house further along the row, where the door billowed smoke. Two men held him back, but still his body strained and his arm reached. His clothes were scorched and blackened, and he was coughing uncontrollably.
He was sworn to these people to death. "My life is yours," he had vowed, kneeling on the village green on a moonlit night fourteen years ago. No-one had been there to hear him speak his oath, but he considered it binding nevertheless, and he still did. From the very start, he had impressed upon Elias its solemnity, taking the boy to the same spot and making him swear the same words. "Duty comes before everything, Elias," he had said. "We should always be willing to die for them, and to sacrifice what is dear to us. They come first, whatever the cost."
His duty was clear. Who was Elias but just another person dependent on him? Elias was a Brother, and had sworn to die for the people of Greenslade, but Mistress Alexander had sworn no such oath. Elias had made his choice, and Ciaran would make his, not matter how hard it was. And it was right. It shouldn't be hard. If Elias died, it should hurt him no more than if the old woman died in the flames.
"I'll go in and look for her." With one last look at the flames that had claimed Elias, he walked towards the struggling old man. Everyone looked up as he passed, and their eyes brightened a little to see him. "I'll bring her out safely," he told the old man. "You rest. I'm here now."
The old man subsided, for Ciaran was their Brother, and they had faith in him. Ciaran stepped over him, and strode into the billowing smoke. The flames seemed to mock him with images of Elias, fallen, deserted, dying, needing him. But he did not once look back.
Something black and heavy plunged towards him. Elias hurled himself bodily to one side, but a tongue of flame surged up eagerly for him, just where he was about to land. He twisted desperately, flailing with his arms, and just managed to avoid it. His hands hit the floor first, just inches from his face. In that second, he saw every detail of them, those useless hands that could never save anyone. There were smudges on the back of his hand, and scrapes on his knuckles, and the nail on his index finger was torn and bloody. It looked painful, but he had no memory of it happening.
He clawed himself to his knees, scooping up the voluminous folds of the cloak. His master had tied it there, as tender as a loving parent, and how strange it was that he could still draw comfort from that memory, even in this place of red death. He coiled the mass of fabric around his forearm, and the heat immediately assailed him stronger than ever, and he lost the fight with his lungs. He coughed once, then again. He pressed his hand to his mouth, but thought he would never stop coughing. Already his vision was wavering, though perhaps it was just the laughing flames.
She was still screaming in his mind. He had heard her even in the shadow of the gatehouse, screaming in terror for someone to come and find her. Her screams had drawn him like a beacon. When he had reached the fire, he had seen a woman wailing in the arms of her husband, crying for her little girl, her Sophie. "She's alive!" he had hurled at her, as he plunged into the flames. The dead in the ruin and the people of the sword had all screamed at him, but this one girl perhaps he could save. He had to.
"Sophie!" he cried, but his voice was swallowed up by the roaring flames. He fell to his knees and crawled. "Sophie!" Light and flame and heat and smoke... Something surged and roared, and red pain lashed across the back of his left hand. He gasped, then coughed again. His eyes were streaming, and there was nothing in the world but the cruellest light.
Terror surged like a red hot wire of pain, and it was not his own, though his own fear fed on it and grew. It screamed for help, and it was suffocated by blackness. It wanted its mother, its master, its somebody who could keep it safe and make everything bad go away. It had hidden from the scary fire, but now it couldn't breathe. The bad thing was getting in, sneaking through the cracks where the light was.
"Sophie!" he screamed. "I'm coming!"
Surely he had never been able to sense other people's emotions so intensely before. The flames burnt the Shadow away, and, although he could use it enough to endure where no normal man could have lived, it was not enough to explain what he was feeling. Her terror burnt like a beacon, leading him to her hiding place.
She had hidden herself in a heavy chest, and pulled the lid shut. His eyes streaming, he clawed at it, ripping his torn nail, bursting blisters. As he opened the lid, smoke surged out hungrily, and he choked. For a moment, he couldn't see anything at all, and he gouged desperately at his own eyes, trying to clear them.
She was curled on her side, knees drawn up to her chest, lying on folded white sheets. Her hair was long and fair, and she wore a pristine white night-gown. There was a sprig of dried lavender crushed beneath her cheek, and he could smell its scent even through the smoke. He knew he would never again be able to smell lavender without feeling sick.
He clawed at the fastenings of his cloak, tugging it off so he would have something to wrap her in and keep her safe. "Sophie," he whispered. Just as he reached out to her, her mind fell silent, no longer swamping him with her terror. He touched her, and felt nothing at all. She had let herself slip away. She knew she was safe and was relaxing and content, he thought. That was it. That had to be it.
He smiled, and held her close.
The old woman was rescued, but still Elias had not come out of the flames. Ciaran tended to the wounded, and comforted the homeless, and promised that he would help them rebuild, for he was their Brother, and he looked after his people.
But what about Elias? he thought. Why can't I look after him? In his mind he called for him constantly, but there was never any answer, never any answer at all.
And then someone pulled at his sleeve, and shouted, "There he is", so perhaps he had been calling for him out loud after all. He whirled round, and there was Elias, alive, a small child held in his arms, cheek to cheek with him. The flames surged and reached for him, as if they had tasted him and liked what they tasted, and refused to let him go.
Around Ciaran, grasping hands fell away. Everyone stepped back, as if granting him permission to go to him. Even so, he hesitated. It did not do to make these people believe that he, their protector, held his own apprentice as more important than their own needs.
A woman ran to Elias and clutched at the child, then wailed, a sound of grief louder than all the roaring fires. Elias shook his head a little, and looked at her, a small furrow between his eyes.
Although he didn't remember making the decision to go to him, Ciaran was suddenly at Elias's side, a player in the scene of grief. He placed one hand on the boy's shoulder, and the other on the girl's cheek. She was dead, although there was no mark upon her. She smelled of smoke and lavender, and her hair was fine and freshly washed.
The woman was sobbing, clawing at the girl and trying to hold her, but Elias still clutched at her, pressing her against his chest, tenderly pressing the trailing ends of his cloak around her body as if to warm her. Caught between the two of them, the girl's night-gown almost tore.
"Let her go, Elias." Ciaran crouched at his side. "There's nothing more you can do."
Elias tilted his head to one side, as if he was seeking something he could no longer find. His lips moved silently. Then he closed his eyes, and pressed his lips against the girl's face.
"She's gone, Elias. Let her go.
Elias looked up again, his face bleak with uncomprehending betrayal. "Dead? I thought... She wasn't..." But his desperate grip on her body weakened a little, letting the mother haul the girl's body into her own arms. Still wailing, she rocked her to and fro. The cloak slithered from the girl's body and pooled on Elias's lap. "I thought she was alive." Elias clutched the empty cloak with both arms. "She stopped calling to me. I thought it was because she knew she was safe. I didn't know it was because she'd died. If I'd been a second earlier..."
Ciaran prized the cloak from Elias's tight fingers, and draped it round his shoulders for the second time that day. "You did all you could." He hugged him perfunctorily with one arm, then let him go. Elias needed more, he knew, but they had so little time, for the fires still raged and were threatening to spread. There were whole families made homeless, and the risk of more to come. Each death was to be mourned, but their priorities lay with preventing other deaths and easing the living. Elias, as a Brother, would realise that.
Elias was staring at the dead girl. "Did I?"
"Yes," Ciaran said. And, walking away, he returned to his duty.
Had he really thought it could be that simple? Could he have changed it, just by spending a little longer with Elias then, beside the flames? Had those minutes left alone beside a dead girl and a grieving mother been the moment of truth for Elias, the moment he had made his last and most desperate resolution?
Could he have stopped it? When they returned to their house, deeply weary and walking in silence, it was already too late, though at the time he did not know it. In silence they opened the door. The moment it was shut, Elias fell to his knees on the rug before the hearth, and knelt there with his head bowed, a picture of desolation.
"You couldn't have saved her, Elias," Ciaran said, at last, when the silence had stretched between them and become unbearable. He propped his staff against the back of his chair, and walked to the dresser, where he lit a new candle from the guttering light of the old hurricane lamp.
Elias's head stayed hunched, and candlelight flickered on the exposed back of his neck.
"You did all you could," Ciaran said, uselessly. It was a hard thing, to have powers that could make the difference between life and death, and to be sworn to service. Even the greatest of Brothers sometimes had to accept failure, and Elias was no different. This was the first time he had ever tried to save a life, and the first time he had seen anyone die. It was bound to hit him hard, but he would get through it.
"You saved yours." Elias's voice was dull, scoured by smoke and exertion. His hands shook.
Ciaran nodded. "Yes, I did." He almost left it at that, but then said more. "But she was easy to save. She was almost out anyway. I was in and out of there in no time. You had a much harder job. Even I would have found it hard to save her. You mustn't blame yourself."
Elias gave no sign of hearing. He looked up suddenly, his eyes very large and dark. "No-one else shall die because of me."
Soft words of comfort would be meaningless. Ciaran said nothing.
"They're all dying," Elias said, "just like Sophie. I struggled and fell. I wasted time. And all the while she was hidden away, lost, terrified, dying. She died. She died because I couldn't save her." He looked at Ciaran so intensely that it felt like a physical touch, hurting his chest. "I can't face that again, master. Not for a single minute more. Not ever."
"Don't think like that," Ciaran said. "Don't blame yourself. You'll feel better in the morning."
Painfully, Elias stood up, and drew the sword from the scabbard at his belt. "I swear," he whispered, before his voice cracked. The sword in his hand was white and shining, casting everything in a cold silver light, with deep shadows. Elias seemed carved from stone, painted all over with the grey unearthliness of the sword's light. Something about the set of his shoulders reminded Ciaran of the man who had brought the sword to the cloisters.
As Ciaran watched, unable to move, Elias raised his burned left hand, palm outwards. His hands were not shaking now, and, when he spoke, his voice was low and clear. "I swear this oath by the Shadow, and by everything I hold sacred and love and believe in. With them as witness, I swear that no-one will ever again suffer because I am lacking. I swear that I will do all in my power to be worthy of the trust that has been placed upon me."
The paralysis broke. "No!" Ciaran cried. It was an oath made to an unknown cause, spoken without the slightest comprehension of just what it would entail, and leaving no way out. "How can you swear that?" He grabbed at the boy, shaking his shoulders, tearing at his arms, clawing at the wrist that held the sword. "You don't know what you're swearing to. You don't know what price you'll be asked to pay."
"You think I don't know that?" It was a terrible, pain-filled cry. Then Elias's face crumpled, and he spoke in little more than a sob. "How can I do anything else? Anything is better than this. I... I think I might go insane with it, master, with this not knowing. I think I'm already beginning to."
Ciaran wanted to take that cursed sword and slam it against the stone wall until it broke into a thousand pieces, but he knew that Elias would shatter along with it. "Oh, Elias..." He shook his head despairingly. "You don't even know if the cause is just."
"But I have been chosen for it, even so." There was no pride in Elias's voice. His face was bleak with misery, but he spoke it as a fact.
Quick, before Ciaran could reach to stop him, he brought his left hand down, hard and fast, slashing it across the blade. Blood welled, trickling down the metal, bathing the white crystal with dark red. In response, the deep colours of the blade came alive as never before, cruelly gleeful. It knew that it had him now, trapped forever.
"I swear it by my blood." Elias's voice was low and resonant. "Here, with my blood, I pledge myself to my destiny."
Ciaran clenched his useless fists at his side. He tried to call Elias's name, but the magic in the air was so thick that it robbed him of his voice. Even his arm felt heavy as he reached out, trying to bridge the chasm that seemed to separate him from his apprentice, a man he no longer knew. His fingertips touched Elias's wrist, but the heel of his hand brushed against warm blood, and he grimaced, closing his eyes.
When he opened his eyes, he was somewhere else entirely.
He was in a forest, and it was almost winter. A ring of cruel-faced men were watching him, swords in their hands.
No, he realised. Not me. They're not watching me at all. It's Elias. It will always be Elias.
The men stepped forward, like hounds closing in for the kill. Their swords were sharp and they left no gaps in their circle, and no chance of escape.