Book two: The shroud of dreams

 

Part one

 

Chapter one: The last of his people

Chapter two: Two trees

Chapter three: The death of the rose

Chapter four: The path of thorns

Chapter five: The passing of hours

Chapter six: A real person

Chapter seven: Darius's kingdom

Chapter eight: A place of the dead

Chapter nine: In darkness   

Chapter ten: Summer's end  

 

Part two

 

Chapter eleven: An empty house

Chapter twelve: The shroud of dreams

Chapter thirteen: The white tower

Chapter fourteen: Forgiveness 

Chapter fifteen: A single thread

Chapter sixteen: The last enemy  

Chapter seventeen: Promises

Chapter eighteen: The snow melts

 

Part three

 

Chapter nineteen: Alone in the woods

Chapter twenty: No safety

Chapter twenty one: To tell their story   

Chapter twenty two: A man approaches

Chapter twenty three: The field of dead

Chapter twenty four: The road to Ravenstor   

Chapter twenty five: The last night of the world

Chapter twenty six: Hand in hand

Chapter twenty seven: Black stone steps 

Chapter twenty eight: The sun sets

Chapter twenty nine: The white flower  

 


Chapter one

The last of his people

      

    

The attack did not come without warning, but the warning came too late. By the time the breathless scout burst into the camp with the shocking news, the enemy was only minutes away. There was no time to prepare a proper defence. The Kindred were on home terrain and they were peerless warriors, but the enemy outnumbered them two to one. They planned to fight, but they also prepared to die. What else could they do?

Thurstan watched it all. He saw blanched shock on the faces of hardened warriors, when they heard that the unthinkable was happening. No-one understood how the enemy had been able to find them. It was impossible. The Kindred had known for months that Lord Darius, the new duke, would one day send an army to destroy the king, and they had planned how to meet each imagined threat, but this was one they had never foreseen.

None of them spoke to Thurstan. In the last minutes of their lives, they drew their weapons with grim purpose, and did what needed to be done. Thurstan stood in the middle of it, turning this way and that, until his lord found him and gave him his orders.

Thurstan disobeyed them. When the enemy rode through the arch of the watchtower, Thurstan was crouching behind a boulder far away, watching it. He saw the sun gleam on the silver banner, and he saw the pale young faces of the soldiers. He saw their swords, and flinched at the flash of their strange new weapons. He watched the Kindred, his own people, fall on the enemy from their hastily-found hiding places, and he smiled. Then he saw them die.

He saw traps fail, that should have worked. He saw illusions ignored, that should have sent the enemy screaming. He saw strong men fall shrieking to the ground. He saw them killed and captured, one by one by one. They were everyone he knew in the world, and when they were gone, he would have nobody. And they were dying, and he did nothing to help them, just watched.

"I'm sorry." He scraped his hand across the boulder, tearing the skin on his palm. "I'm so sorry," he moaned, pressed his hand to his face, tasting the salt of his tears and the iron of his blood. The blood made him feel sick, and he retched, but nothing came up.

Beneath him, on the steep banks of the road, the grass was steeped in blood. Thurstan's lord stood alone, fighting fiercely, but soon even he was overwhelmed. Thurstan saw the beginning of his torture, then turned his head away, unable to watch. When he turned back, his lord was gone, and he had no idea if he was alive or dead.

Thurstan had a sword of his own, but he did not unsheathe it. Maybe one more sword would have made a difference, but he did not join them in the defence. Maybe they would all have died anyway, but at least he would have died with them, doing his duty as a member of the Kindred. Maybe he could have avenged a few of them before he was killed, and he would have died knowing they were proud of him.

Maybe... He wept, his mouth open in a silent wail. There was nothing left of his life but maybes. Everyone he knew in the world was gone, and he was alone. And he deserved it. He had disobeyed his lord. He had failed them. He had betrayed them.

"I'm so sorry," he whispered, as the enemy soldiers strode across the battlefield, prodding bodies with their feet. Some were left as dead, for the crows to tear apart. Others moaned and stirred, and were hauled up and bound, then cast down again in a growing pile of prisoners. No-one would survive this. Thurstan was the only one left of his people. Everything depended on him now. It was too late for his people, but it was not too late for the cause.

His head fell forward. "I can't," he sobbed. "I don't want to." But they were gone. There was no-one left to scold him for sounding like a spoiled child. There was no-one to take this duty from him. There was no-one left but him.

Scrabbling backwards from the boulder, he pushed himself to his feet, and started to run. He left them behind, those poor, valiant men who had been everything to him. He abandoned them as if they were nothing to him, and ran to seek a man he had never met, a man who was his king. Perhaps the enemy followed him, but his eyes were too full of tears for him to see, and his heart too full of sorrow for him to care.

    

 

Everything blurred into one. Sometimes it was dark, and sometimes it was light, but he lost track of the days. It rained once, and that was not good, for it made the grass slippery. Then sun that followed the rain made the sweat pour down his face, and flies buzzed around him, as if he was already dead. Maybe he was. Everyone else was. His people were ghosts, and he was one of them.

But the pain went away when you were dead, and Thurstan's body was racked with pain. The pollen in the lowland meadows made his eyes stream, and insects bit him, and sometimes that made him cry, because it didn't seem fair that even such tiny things wanted to hurt him. His legs were on fire with a burning pain, and it felt as if a knife was twisting deep into his side, tearing him in half. When it hurt too badly, he had to stop, but only for a while. It wasn't safe.

     Sometimes he ran past people, and they saw him. There were farmers tending their fields, and travellers, white faces peering out of hurtling coaches. They looked at him, but did not speak. Maybe they were agents of the enemy. Maybe they were tracking him all the way, sniggering at how pathetically he kept on running, as if he actually thought he had a chance of success. They would let him run for days before surrounding him and snatching him up just as he thought he was safe. Or they would watch him until he led them to the king, and then they would cut down the king and his people as cruelly as they had cut down Thurstan's lord. Maybe the best thing to do would be to stop right here, and lie down and wait for death. It was easier. It was safer.

But lying down brought sleep, and sleep brought dreams. Dreams were terrible. In his dreams, he saw his lord being cut down again and again. As he died, he screamed at Thurstan and called him traitor. "How could you do this to me?" he shrieked, and Thurstan had no answer, just to sob and turn away.

Soon the dreams followed him into daylight. The friends he had betrayed rounded on him, hurling accusations. His lord, very sorrowingly, told him that he had caused the death of his king. "I didn't!" Thurstan wailed, but his lord only shook his head, blood pouring down his face in rivulets. "You did," he told him. "And he will know it, and they will kill you for it, and you will deserve it." Then Thurstan's sobbed denials turned into wails of truth. "I did," he moaned. "I'm so sorry."

And so he ran, through meadows and hills, to the edge of the forest, and beyond. Every step took him further away from his home, and closer to the king who was the enemy's true quarry.

What was he like, this man who had won the loyalty of Thurstan's proud lord? Thurstan had been away hunting when the king had come to their camp, and afterwards he had pestered everyone to tell him about him, but they had refused. "Many people who would sell their mother's soul for the chance of capturing him," they had told him, "so it's best if as few people as possible know who he is."

"I won't betray him!" Thurstan had been innocent then, and had not yet known how easy it was to betray someone out of fear. "Don't you trust me?"

"I trust no-one with his life," his lord had told him. "Even the strongest man can break under torture, or be tricked into confiding a secret to someone who seems to be a friend. Too many people know already. If they come for us, at least you can say with all honesty that you know nothing. It might save you. It might save him."

"Did you know what was going to happen?" Thurstan asked aloud, speaking to the memory of his lord. Because now his lord was captured by men who wanted to know about the king. Thurstan was seeking the king, but enemies could be following him, and Thurstan could still be the death of him.

He sank to his knees beside a stream, and took in great mouthfuls of water. After that, he felt a little better, and the sun was shining dappled through the branches. His dark dreams receded. The king was all-powerful, or so the legends said. Of course everything would be all right. The king would be sitting on a throne in a moonlit glade, all shiny and white like the quartz statue on the watchtower. As soon as Thurstan told him what had happened, he would wave his hand and magic would flow from his fingers. "You did well," he would tell Thurstan, leading him to sit at his right hand. "Your warning came in time. They're all still alive, and I can rescue them. I can stop things hurting. I can make it so all this didn't even happen."

       Then darkness fell, and there were strange sounds in the forest, and Thurstan realised that he had been lying beside the stream for hours, doing nothing. The branches whispered to each other, telling secrets, but Thurstan knew what they were saying. They were telling him that the king didn't care. The king was a stranger, enjoying fine wines and meats with his people in a fertile glade, and he would just turn away when Thurstan told his tale. "You betrayed them," he would say. "You, not me. Besides, they were all exiles. I won't risk my life to save them. You should have died with them, my boy, not come snivelling to me. It's not my problem."

        Sobbing, he pushed himself to his feet and carried on running. The camp he was seeking moved from year to year, he had been told, but there were always markers that could be followed, by people who knew the secret of how to look for them. A stone carved with a faint curving pattern, like a crack made by the frost. A small square of bark missing from a tree. Two springy saplings knotted together. He saw the first few, but then, for hours on end, there was nothing. No markers. He stopped and turned a full circle, staggering from the dizziness that simple movement provoked. Had he run past them? What if every step was just taking him further away?

       He fell to his knees, then forward onto his hands. Dribble leaked from his open mouth and fell into the grass. Perhaps he would just curl up here. If he took another step, he would just get himself even more lost. The thing to do was to wait. Make himself small so the enemy couldn't find him. Curl up and wait, and the king would find him, or else he would just die, and then he might meet his lord again somewhere beyond death, and his mother, too.

       He let himself fall. His heart was pounding in his ears, making the whole forest pulse with throbbing menace. There was blood on his hands and his knees and his clothes were stinking. "Failed," he whispered, for he knew he could run no further, that he would never be able to stand up again.

       Something jabbed him in the ribs. He opened his eyes sluggishly, and saw a man looking down on him, preparing to kick him one more time. Thurstan blinked, and saw two more men flanking him on either side. Their faces were grim and murderous, and they had bows in their hands, the arrows aimed at his stomach and heart. The man who had kicked him had drawn his sword.

       Thurstan started to laugh. He rolled onto his side and heard his own laughter weaving sickeningly through the grey shadows. He had failed, and now they had come for him. How foolish they must think him. Better far to have rolled onto his back behind the boulders on the mountain, and offer his throat for the cutting. At least then it would have been quick.

       The men were looking at him unforgivingly. "Who are you?" the one with the sword demanded. "What is your business here?"

       But they knew. Of course they knew. They had followed him all the way, toying with him, watching his struggles and his hope. Now he was broken, their sport was over, and they had come to kill him. "I'm the one who got away," he giggled.

       "This is no joke, boy," the man snapped. "I am not a patient man. Tell me your business, or I'll kill you. Simple as that."

       "You're going to kill me anyway," Thurstan said.

       "Maybe." The man gave a cold smile. "That depends on you, and what you say. If you come bringing danger to the one I serve, then, yes, I will kill you myself without a moment's regret. If not..." He raised his eyebrow, inviting Thurstan to fill in the unspoken words. The man had cropped hair and there was nothing soft about his face at all. Thurstan thought that even his mercy would be cruel.

       "I didn't do anything," he whispered. "I did what I was told. My lord told me to come. But I got lost. I had to find the..." He clapped his hand to his mouth. Perhaps the enemy didn't know that the king was nearby. Perhaps they didn't realise just how great a prize Thurstan had almost led them to.

       The man grabbed Thurstan's chin in a painful grip. "Who is your lord?"

       "Was," Thurstan forced out through the pain. "They're all gone. All of them."

       The weapons did not lower, but perhaps they relaxed a little. "Are you Kindred?" the man demanded. "And, if so, of which House?"

       That at least was something he could answer, for he had been taught all his life to take pride in what he was. "Of no single House, but the protectors of all."

       "An exile?" The man's face twisted in disgust. "You're young to be so fallen into evil."

       The fury quite drove away his tears. "I am no exile," he blazed. "I was born in the mountains. The men the Kindred exiled were my family. They were kind to me, and they died. They died to protect the people who had cast them out. So don't you dare despise them."

       The man's eyes narrowed. "The mountains? So is Gerhard your lord?"

       "Dead." Thurstan closed his eyes. "Dead, or taken. The enemy came through the mountains, through the rock. It shouldn't have happened. It was impossible. I was supposed to tell the king, but I can't find him. And now you've found me, and you're going to kill me. I betrayed him. It's all been for nothing."

       "The king?" he dimly heard the man say. "You want to tell this to the king?" Then something hit him hard on the side of the head, and he heard nothing more.

      

      

       He woke up to the sound of voices. Someone was sharpening a sword with long smooth strokes, and Thurstan could smell wood-smoke and roasting meat. He was back home, he thought, surrounded by the sounds and smells he knew better than anything. Nobody was dead. If he opened his eyes he would see them, going about their business, living as they always had.

       He stretched his fingers and toes, and yawned. He rolled onto his side, for he was sleepy and warm and aching, and thought he might be able to fall asleep again, and then he would feel even better when he woke up.

       The voices stopped abruptly as he moved, and he sighed blearily, and brought his hands up to his throat, nestling into them like a sleeping animal. As a child in a camp full of men, he had long since learned how to feign sleep in order to hear secrets that would not normally be spoken of in front of him.

       Sure enough, they started talking again. "I cannot support you on this, Reynard," a deep voice said. "He's only a child, and now he's all alone in the world. It is our duty to take him in and care for him as if he was one of our own."

       "Do you pity him?" came the reply. "Pity is a weakness. The enemy doesn't hesitate to kill children. The cause comes first. Nothing else matters. If we act out of sentiment, then we compromise our cause."

       Thurstan bit his lip to stifle a cry. The voices were strange to him, and his body hurt, so it was true, it was all true. His people were dead, and he was here. But where was here? These men had seemed like enemies, then they had seemed like Kindred, and now he had no idea who they were.

       "He wouldn't say that," the first man said quietly. "He would say that pity is everything. If he only thought of his own safety, then his life isn't worth preserving. I heard him say those very words to you, only a few weeks ago. He says you're killing him, by making him live by your rules, not his own."

       "I know what he said," the man called Reynard said, testily. "I was there, remember. And does this memory of yours extend to remembering what I told him then, and what I will still say now?"

       The other man sighed. "I know. I swore the same oath you did, Reynard, and bear the same scar. I have supported you in things that some might call treason, but I still say that this is going too far. This is one messenger you cannot silence. If you send him away - which, in his condition, means to kill him - then you have to go through me."

       "So it's come to this, then, Ranulf." Thurstan heard the sound of a knife being drawn, and trembled, terrified of attack. "Even you have fallen away from the cause. But I will fight this thing alone. I will never betray my oath."

       "I still believe in the oaths I swore," Ranulf said patiently, "but, this time, the price is too great. If what the boy says is true, the king needs to know of it. Even if it isn't, the boy needs our help. He's one of us, and he's suffered a lot. We are not like our enemies, to harm a child like him."

       "I brought him here, didn't I?" Reynard said in a tight voice. "I could have killed him on the spot, but did not. When he wakes up, I'll listen to what he has to say. Depending on what he says, I might even pass the message on to the king, or part of it. Then I'll wait until he's stronger and give him a horse and send him on his way. But I will not let the king see him as he is now. You know the risks as well as I do, Ranulf. And, on this, I will not change my mind."

       Ranulf sighed. "I know. And I share your concerns, I really do. It's just... It's difficult, this path we have chosen to walk. It goes against everything we've ever been taught. We're traitors, Reynard, or so men would judge us, if they knew what we do."

       Reynard gave a harsh laugh. "I know. And none more so than me. But I do not regret it, and I feel no doubts."

       They fell silent again, but Thurstan lay rigid on his side, his heart racing with terror. I have to get away, he thought. It's not over. I  have to run all over again.

      

 

       But he must have fallen asleep again, for he woke up to find someone touching him softly on the shoulder.

       It was the man with the cropped hair, but this time his face was wiped completely blank. "Do you really come from Gerhard?" he asked. "Or was it a lie?"

       Thurstan's eyes wanted to stay closed. "I do," he mumbled. "Not a lie."

       "Is Gerhard really dead?" the man whispered, his breath close to Thurstan's ear.

       More asleep than awake, Thurstan nodded, and tried to swat the man away. "Dead. Taken. Prisoner. Hurt. I don't know." He rolled over, sobbing into the crook of his elbow. "Gone. Left me. Alone."

       The man went away and did not come back.

      

 

       The next time he woke up, he saw blue sky and golden-tinged clouds. He tried to sit up, and no-one stopped him. He looked from side to side, but there was no-one there. Perhaps he wasn't a prisoner after all, and the conversation he had overheard had only been a dream. He was not bound in any way, and there were no guards watching over him. No-one came rushing out of a nearby tent when he stood up, even though he made a bit of noise, more than Gerhard would have liked him to.

       It made sense, he told himself, that the man called Reynard had distrusted him at first. Gerhard would have done the same, if a messenger had approached him without good proof of who he was. He would have confined him and threatened him until he was satisfied that he posed no threat to the Kindred. When the king's safety was involved, there was all the more need for caution. So that was all it was. They knew now that he was one of their own people. He was free to go now, free to find the king.

       He had woken up beside a small fire at the centre of a circle of tents, but he caught glimpses of other tents beyond the trees, and knew that the main camp was a lot bigger. He wondered where the king was likely to be.

       He started to walk, but it was hard, and it hurt. Every muscle in his body had stiffened, and he winced whenever he put his feet down. After a few steps, he stopped to recover his breath. As he did so, he heard voices from inside the nearest tent. It sounded as if they were arguing, but he could not catch the words. But the mere sound of them made the fear spike though him again. If there was even the slightest chance that Reynard wanted to kill him, he had to run. He had to get to the king. Until he had delivered his warning, he would never be free.

       The fire crackled. The voices fell silent, and he froze. How loud his heartbeat was! His imagination raced, supplying horrid images of the truth. They were guarding him after all, but they thought he was asleep and too weak to move, so they had turned their backs for a little while. But now they knew he was trying to escape. They were picking up their daggers and coming to kill him. Reynard was leading them, and his eyes were cold black death. Thurstan would die, and that would be the end of everything.

       He pressed his trembling hands together, pawed at his belt, and pressed them together again. He was unarmed. They had taken his dagger from him, and he had lost his sword long ago, without even noticing it falling from his hand. He was unarmed, and the sky was so blue above him, and green leaves made little circles of light dance on the ground. He was too hot. He was going to die, and he was too hot.

       The voices started up again, and he started to run, and he could do it after all. "The king," he sobbed. "Where is he? I need to speak to the king."

       No-one followed him. He found the other tents, but there were few people there. The trees were thick, and the tents were scattered between them in ones and twos. Paths meandered between them, but the undergrowth was thick, and the trees were still in full leaf. He could easily get lost. There was no great clearing where the king would be sitting on his throne, his people around him, moonlight illuminating his face. It was all wrong. It shouldn't be like this, he whispered. It shouldn't be like this at all.

       Someone behind him was shouting. He ran faster, clutching at branches and tendrils and leaves. Fresh blood welled up on his palms, stained deep with green sap. He slipped on the grass, and almost fell. He continued to run, but was off-balance, and fell heavily onto his hands.

       "Stop!" someone shouted. Would they shoot at him now? He had thought to die in the mountains, killed by a soldier in black, but instead he would die here in the green, killed by men he had thought were friends, and a king only he knew how to save.

       He crawled forward a few paces, and struggled to stand. A few more teetering steps, and he fell again, his hands lunging forward and sliding on the grass. He rolled onto his side, then pushed himself up to his knees, and once more crawled.

       He was sobbing, panting, moaning, all three at once, making a sound he didn't recognise as human. Something was trickling down his face. He could hear the sound of running water, just ahead of him, and tried to raise his head to see it. But all he could see was the ground. The grass beneath his palms was cropped short by rabbits, and he could see tiny pink flowers on stalks barely half an inch long, valiantly blooming although they would never grow tall. It made him want to cry. But perhaps he was crying already, for himself, and his king, and the whole world that was ending, and it was silly to even notice the flowers.

       He stood, but his back was bent almost double, and his arms were pressed against his middle, and he was heaving great noisy breaths of exhaustion. "The king," he panted. "I need to see the king."

       The stream was just in front of him, and the cropped grass was its bank. There were people on the other side, walking through the sunlight on a bank where the grass grew a foot high and the flowers bloomed freely. A woman walked with her arm hooked easily through a man's arm, and a second man walked half a step behind them. The woman was leaning towards her companion and laughing. The second man had snapped off a stem of a flower and was twisting it between his fingers, first one way, and then the other. His lips were moving as he whispered something under his breath.

       It was another world. Here Thurstan was, hurt and hunted and bearing news that could determine the fate of the world, and these people walked through the flowers like carefree children, caring about nothing important.

       Oh, how he wanted to live in that world! He plunged forward into the stream, and water rushed up to cover his head. It was deeper than he had thought, but then his feet found the bottom, and he was able to stand. It came up to his armpits, but the current was easy.

       I want to be there, he thought. Pollen drifted like gold dust on the other side. But, on his side, people were shouting, and footsteps were pounding. Reynard and his men were chasing him, wanting to kill him.

       The sunlit people, the people of gold, had seen him. The woman had not let her companion go, but all three were looking at him. They didn't know, he thought. They didn't know what danger was, or that he was struggling for his very life as they watched, and that he could die here, just outside their soft place of flowers.

       Thurstan stumbled, and water covered his face. When he could see again, he was almost at the bank, and the second man was kneeling beside the stream, reaching for him with both hands. He had dropped his flower, and there was dirt on his sleeve.

       "No," Thurstan whispered, and, "There. I've got you. There," the man crooned.

       He felt arms pulling at him, and then he was suddenly on his knees on the far bank, where there was mud between the grass, and blades snapped off and damaged, just as there had been on the other side. People were shouting behind him, and, beyond his rescuer's shoulder, he saw armed men who had risen from the undergrowth beyond the flower meadow, and had their bows trained on his chest.

       There was death on both sides of the river, and this was no refuge after all. Nothing had changed.

       "The king," he sobbed. "I need to see the king."

       The shouting behind him stopped abruptly, though he had heard no-one shout an order. There was no splashing, and no sound of anyone giving chase. He looked up and saw the other man, the one who had been walking with the woman. He was looking across the stream, and seemed to be shaking his head.

       "The king," he said again. He started shivering, and the man who had pulled him from the water held his hands and chafed them, as if that could warm him up. Both men had their shirt sleeves rolled up and wore no cloaks, and they had nothing they could offer him to keep him warm.

       "Why do you need him?" the man asked. He had dark hair and grey eyes, and Thurstan thought he looked kind.

       "Warning." He was shuddering with the cold, and maybe something else.

       The other man knelt down beside him too, but it was still the dark-haired man who spoke to him. "Speak your warning. I am Oliver, seneschal to the king."

       But the shivering was driving all coherent thought from his mind. "The king..." he echoed.

       "Speak," the seneschal said, gently. "The king will hear your words. Speak, and then you can sleep. You're safe now."

       "Safe?" He lashed his head from side to side. Mud-streaked flowers clawed at his face. "None of us are safe. Never again. It's over."

       The seneschal glanced at other man. All Thurstan could see only these two men's faces, and then the vast and eternal sky that just looked down for ever, but never cared.

       "The king," Thurstan whispered. The king was carved crystal in the watchtower. He was a pair of eyes that shone with wisdom and light, and an arm that was stronger than any man's. The king would save him. He would speak the warning, and then the king would rise up and act, and everything would be well. It had to be.

       "He's feverish." The younger man spoke at last, and touched Thurstan on the brow. His hand was soft and cool, and the coolness was strangely comforting, although Thurstan had thought himself as cold as ice.

       "Speak," the seneschal urged him again. He looked scared. "I know it's hard, but speak your warning. You can sleep afterwards, I promise you. No-one will hurt you."

       "The king," he breathed. A carved stone statue on a throne, so strong he knew everything already, and couldn't possibly need his warning. He would let himself sleep now. He wished the young man would touch his brow again.

       "He's hurting badly," the young man said. "Let him rest. He's only a boy."

       "And you little older, and do you ever spare yourself?" the seneschal snapped.  "We can't take the risk. We need to know."

       "He's hurting."

       There was such pain in the young man's voice. Thurstan had closed his eyes, but opened them now. The man was looking at him with a compassion so strong that he wanted to weep for it. The men of the mountains were as hard as the rock that was their home, and he had never known his mother, or known care. Never before had anyone looked at him as if such silly things as his own comfort and happiness were the most important thing in the world.  Don't leave me alone, he begged him silently. Please don't.

       The young man smiled at him, a soft sad smile that was for no-one but him. "I won't," he murmured.

       "No!" the seneschal shouted, in a voice that was a slap, a command. He grabbed the young man's wrist. "Don't!" he ordered. "Stop it!"

       The young man shook his head dreamily. "He's hurting."

       "He's exhausted," the seneschal hissed. "He's a little feverish, yes, but his life isn't in danger. He only needs a good night's sleep, and the attentions of an ordinary healer. That's all."

       "He's hurting," the young man said again, and, "Don't touch him," the seneschal ordered, the two coming one after the other, like the clashing of swords in battle.

       Thurstan blinked. He wasn't sure what was happening, or what they were talking about. The king's seneschal was a lofty position, and Gerhard would surely have struck anyone who had disobeyed him in the way this young man had disobeyed Oliver. For the young man was still touching him, and Thurstan found he was barely hurting at all, and his eyes were slipping shut.

       "No," he heard the seneschal say, and it was almost a wail. "It's not worth it."

       And then he slept.

 

      

       His life was all about awakenings. This time, as he blinked, he saw bars of sunlight through the open door of a small hut. His body felt heavy and lethargic, but he felt little pain. Perhaps it was lying in wait for him, ready to leap out at him when he moved. Gritting his teeth, he tried to move his arm, and it responded easily, and the pain was only a vague and distant ache.

       He pushed himself up onto his elbow and looked around, and his eyes met those of the young man from the river bank. He was sitting beside the bed in a wooden chair, his hands folded in his lap. He looked tired, but he was smiling.

       Thurstan licked his lips. "Did you...?"

       "No." The young man shook his head. "Not me. Oliver was right." He gave a wry smile. "As usual. It was mostly exhaustion. You've slept for a whole day and the healers have worked on you, and now you're almost better."

       "What happened?" Thurstan asked. "Why were you arguing?"

       "Oliver doesn't like me to..." The young man shook his head. "We just disagree about certain things. He's as bad as Reynard in many ways. They want to keep me protected from everything. They don't understand that..." Again, he abruptly stopped.

       "Reynard?" Thurstan was unable to keep the disgust from his voice. "I met him."

       "Yes." The young man grimaced. "I've heard about that. Some of it. The truth according to Reynard, anyway, which isn't the same thing. Enough to know."

       "He wanted to keep me from the king. I think he wanted to kill me, even." He frowned suddenly, struck by a memory of something he had thought nothing of in his fever. "Did he know Gerhard?"

       The young man nodded, but did not explain. "Don't be too harsh on him," he said. "He wouldn't have killed you. He just wanted to... to hear what you had to say first, and see if it was true. What better way for an assassin to infiltrate our camp than to pretend to be a messenger with urgent news? Reynard takes the safety of his king very personally. He doesn't trust anyone but himself to do the job properly." He gave a wry laugh. "And he certainly doesn't trust me."

       But Thurstan thought the young man was wrong. The conversation he had overheard had been the plotting of conspirators. Whether meant well or meant badly, they wanted to make the king a prisoner, hearing only those things they let him hear, and committing atrocities in the name of protecting him.

       "No," the young man said, in a surprisingly firm voice. "Don't hate Reynard. I know he's hard to like. But I... I knew someone else who was determined to hate him, and he was wrong, too, and the hatred gave him no pleasure."

       "Why are you telling me this?" Thurstan asked. "Why does it matter what I think? Nothing matters, does it, except what I have to say?"

       "It does matter, how you feel," the young man said, looking at Thurstan with a steady gaze. "It matters very much."

       Thurstan turned his head away. "I just want to see the king. Then I can tell him what I have to tell him. And then I can…" Tears welled up in his throat and stopped him.

       The silence seemed to last forever. Impossible words screamed in Thurstan's head, but he could not speak them. Die, or, Forget, or, Be happy.

       "What can I do?" he sobbed, the words tearing bloodily out of his throat. "They're all dead. Dead or captured. All of them.  I can give him my warning, but what difference will it make? I'm the only one left. Only me. Just me. Me alone. Just me."

       The young man touched his shoulder. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." There was a catch in his voice, as if he too was fighting tears.

       "Tell," Thurstan whispered, though his tears. "I need to... Warning. I must warn him."

       He tried to pull away, straining for the door, but the young man pulled him into an embrace, holding him close with one arm wrapped around his shoulders, and the other stroking his hair. "Tell me," he murmured. "Talk about it. Don't bear it alone. You're never alone."

       The soft comfort undid him. The tears came as if they would never stop. He was sixteen years old, just a boy playing at being a man. He had lost the only family he had ever known, and been given a responsibility that was too heavy for him. Here he was, snivelling like a baby in a stranger's arms, pressing his dribbling mouth into his shirt, and wailing.

       He had dreamed of the moment he would tell his tale, reporting like a scout to his lord, doing his duty in a way that Gerhard would be proud of, but none of that mattered any more. The young man offered comfort, and Thurstan craved it. He poured it out with his tears, the tale that should have been told to his king with voice level and chin high. His face pressed into the young man's chest, he spoke.

        

      

       He had been laughing at the start of it. He remembered that much, although he no longer remembered what had amused him so. His head had been thrown back, and his eyes squeezed shut. His lord had always told him he laughed too loudly.

       "Gerhard," the scout had shouted, his voice fractured and breathless. The urgency of the shout had penetrated Thurstan's laughter, and he had frozen like that, mouth still open, head still tilted back. He must have looked comical, but no-one had looked at him at all. "They're coming," the scout had panted. His hands had been bleeding.

       "Who?" his lord had stood, his left hand on his hip, and his right resting on the hilt of his sword. At the time, still stupidly unaware of how serious the situation was, Thurstan had thought how heroic he looked, how perfect.

       "Soldiers." Someone had passed the scout a flask and he had taken a quick swig of water, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand even before he had swallowed it "About sixty of them, on horses. Coming this way."

       "How far?"

       "Close. Too close. They're riding the King's Road."

       "The King's Road?" The shock of that news had been tangible. Men had looked at each other, and, for the first time, their faces had shown real fear. Scouts watched the plains and the lower slopes of the mountain, but the King's Road, the high road across the mountains, was closed to everyone but the Kindred. It was secure, and they had never thought to guard it. It was protected by something far greater than any man's sword.

       "I only saw them by chance," the scout had gasped. "I wasn't even patrolling the road. And now they're too close. They'll be here in under half an hour."

       Half an hour... Thurstan had found himself drawing his sword and assuming a defensive stance. His sword had scraped against the scabbard, and everyone had turned to look at him, but then they had looked away, their faces cold.

       "They all knew what to do," Thurstan confessed to the young man. "All except me."

       He had rushed to and fro, trying to find answers. Even Blaise, normally so quick to smile, had been grave. "It can't be happening! How can it be happening?" Thurstan had cried, but Blaise had only said, "It doesn't matter. They are coming; we defend ourselves. That is all we need to know. Now leave me. I have preparations to make, and so have you."

       "But I don't know what to do!" Thurstan had wailed, but Blaise had not heard him. "It was as if the enemy had already killed him," Thurstan told the young man, "and I was talking to a ghost."

       Everyone had passed by him, grey-faced men who looked like strangers, their scarred hands gripping their swords. Two men had hurried towards him, but then they had seemed to part around him like flowing water around a rock, before carrying on as if they had not even changed their course. It had been as if they had been living in a different world. They had been ghosts, already condemned to death, while he had been the one trapped in the land of the living.

       When his lord had clapped him on his shoulder, he had screamed and lunged around clumsily with his sword. Gerhard had not cuffed him, or said a word to show how disgusted he was, and that had been the most frightening thing of all. All he had said was, "You must leave now."

       Thurstan had cried out in denial. "Leave? I'm not leaving you. I can't."

       His lord's eyes had been as hard and dangerous as Thurstan had ever seen them. "You will, Thurstan, because I command it. Are you going to disobey me?"

       "But why?" Thurstan had begged. "Is it…? It's because you don't think I'm good enough. You think I'll let you down. But I won't. I've been practicing…"

       "A warrior knows his weaknesses," his lord had said. "Only a foolish boy tries to pretend he is skilled when he is not. And you, Thurstan, are not, neither with the sword not with enchantment. I can spare you the easiest. No, don't sulk like a spoiled child. It's the truth." Then his voice had softened, as much as it ever could. "Besides, lad, you have the most important task of all. Everything depends on you."

       "But to leave you…?" Thurstan had pleaded. "Please don't send me away."

       His lord had slapped him across the face. "Do not question your duty. Do you for one moment believe that we're the ones the enemy wants? No. They've declared war on the king, and we just happen to be in the way. Oh, we'll fight them. Perhaps we'll drive them back, or perhaps we'll merely delay them. Perhaps we'll make no difference at all, and they'll sweep right past us towards the king. But he needs to know they're coming. Would you have your king live in ignorance until the enemy bursts into his camp as unexpectedly as they burst into ours?"

       Yes! he had wanted to cry. Because I don't know him, and this is my home. But his lord would have killed him if he had spoken the words aloud, and so he had bitten his lip and said nothing.    

       "Someone has to carry the warning," his lord had said, "and I want it to be you. Yes, you're the person I can most readily spare from the defence. But you're a good lad. If it is my time to die, I will die easier knowing that you escaped."

       Everything had blurred around Thurstan's tears. "If you die, I want to die with you."

       "Did you hear a word I said? You have no choice. You have the most important task of all. Dying is the easy part, but you have to live. If you don't get through with your warning, it could mean the end of everything we have ever hoped for." His hands had dug into Thurstan's arms. "Everything, Thurstan. Tell him that. Tell him that the last defence has fallen. Darius is coming for him. We stood between him and the enemy, but we fell. They are coming, and he will be next."

       "I don't know where to go," Thurstan had confessed. "Someone else should go. Someone who knows the way."

       "Get someone to tell you the way," his lord had said. Already he had been standing up, ready to tend to things more important than Thurstan, to people he wanted to stay at his side. His hand had fallen one last time on Thurstan's shoulder. "Go. Remember my warning, and don't look back."

       He was dry eyed as he told it. "And so I had to leave them," he whispered to the young man. "I had to turn my back on the only people I've ever known, to bring a warning to a man I've never met. The rest of the Kindred exiled them and hated them, but they gave their lives to protect them. And Reynard doesn't care. The king doesn't care. So I don't care what happens to them. Let them fight their own battles. I shouldn't have left. They were my people and they're dead and I should be dead with them."

       "I do care," the young man said, but Thurstan could not bear to look at him. If he saw sympathy, he would be undone. Anger was the only thing keeping him going. He wanted to hate everyone, even Gerhard.

       "He made me go. He didn't want me to stay." He gave a bitter laugh. "He'd have killed me if I'd said what I just said to him. He was devoted to the king. He used to be different, but in the end he cared about the cause more than he cared about anything else. More than he cared about me," he whispered.

       There had been so little time left to say goodbye to the only home he had ever known. Everyone had been busy, rushing around arming themselves, talking of tactics. He had tugged at their sleeves to say goodbye, but they had waved him away and snapped at him. Someone had impatiently told him about the markers and how to find the king's camp, but no-one had wanted him around their feet. In the end, Gerhard had growled at him from across the camp, fiercely gesturing that he had to leave.       "They were my family," he confessed. "I know many of them had committed crimes, but they were always kind to me. I never knew anyone else. I didn't want to leave them."

       "So you stayed." There was no condemnation in the young man's voice.

       Thurstan covered his eyes with his hands. "I stayed. I went a little way, then doubled back. I hid. I wanted to see. I had to. I couldn't leave them. And I... I don't think I really believed that they'd die. I thought it was all a mistake."

       "I understand," the young man assured him. "I think few here would have done any different. Leaving is so hard. Walking away from someone who needs you seems so... cowardly."

       "But I was a coward." He lowered his hands. "I disobeyed my lord and didn't run. But I didn't stay and fight either. I betrayed them. I just watched. I watched them all die, and did nothing."

       "You obeyed your lord. You made sure his message got out. You made sure their stand wasn't for nothing."

       "They all died," he wailed. They had all died, and he had watched. They had all died, and it shouldn't have happened! The enemy had no enchantment. The thirty men of the Kindred knew the mountains better than anybody, and could lay ambushes for the attackers. A few of them had skill with illusion, and that, coupled with the advantage of surprise, meant that they ought to have won. It should have been easy. 

       When the invading force appeared, not a single man of the Kindred was visible, and Thurstan hugged himself with glee, knowing that the ambush would be successful. Arrows swooped from the secret hiding places, striking the soldiers full in the chest. But few of them fell. They were wearing armour beneath their clothes, and they were armed with strange weapons that gouted fire and dispensed death at a distance. Most terrible of all, they were not deceived by illusion. The Kindred's attack was defeated, and then they revealed the second half of their force, that had crept along high in the mountains, to attack the ambushers from behind.

       Everything fell apart. One by one, they died, cut down by swords and impaled by spikes and felled by the cruel weapons that only the enemy had. At last Gerhard stood alone, surrounded by half a dozen soldiers beneath a cold silver banner. Grim-faced, they beat him to his knees. The hacked at his right arm and almost severed it, and, when he tried to take his sword into his left hand, they stamped hard on his fingers.

       "Bind him!" their captain ordered, with a dismissive flap of his hand. The cruel breeze carried every word to Thurstan's ears. "Lord Darius will have questions for him."

       "Questions," one of the soldiers echoed. He pressed his dagger against Gerhard's cheek, pretending he was about to carve out his eye. "Where is this false king of yours? How is he defended? Oh yes. Lord Darius will get his answers."

       Gerhard spat at him, heedless of the fact that the movement sent the dagger deep into his cheek, scraping sideways along the cheekbone. He wants them to kill him, Thurstan realised, so he won't be tortured and forced to betray his king. Unable to bear it, he turned his face away. When he dared to look again, Gerhard was gone, and the soldiers who had been tormented him gone with him.

       "I don't even know if he's alive or not," he whispered, dimly aware that he was talking to the young man, though Gerhard seemed so much more real, and the screams of battle were far louder than the summer sounds of the forest. "I just watched. Perhaps I could have stopped it."

       "They would have killed you," the young man said. "Would your death have helped him? How would he have reacted if you'd rushed out to try to save him?"

       "He would have hated me," Thurstan admitted, at last. "He wanted the message to get out. If he died, he died thinking his death wasn't in vain, and the king would know the truth. If he's captured, he's thinking the same. If he'd seen me die, then it would have been as if I'd killed him, not them. He placed his trust in me. It was more important than anything to him, but I betrayed him. I didn't run. I stayed. I could have been captured and then... Then he would have died hating me. If he didn't already. He was always disappointed in me."

       The man touched the back of Thurstan's hand. "Was he your father?"

       Thurstan lay very still. "I don't know," he said, at last. "I used to think so. I've always hoped it was true. But he never said. He was kind to me, in his way, but he never hugged me, even when I was little. I used to dream of the day that he'd call me son and say he was proud of me, but he never did, and he sent me away."

       "Did he know you thought you might be his son?" the young man asked. "He should have told you the truth, whatever it was."

       "What difference would it have made?" Thurstan was quick to defend his lord. "I wouldn't mourn him any less as my lord than I would as my father. I loved him, whoever he was."

       "It would make a difference to you, I think."

       Thurstan swallowed. "I never knew who my parents were. I never had a mother. I never knew who I was. I want to know, and now I never will."

       The young man traced a pattern on the edge of Thurstan's blanket. He seemed to be searching for the right words. "Gerhard has kin here. You... look a little like them. It's too close a similarity to be coincidence. I'm sure you were close kin to Gerhard."

       "His son?" Thurstan threw off the blankets. "I have to go after him! If there's any chance that he's alive..."

       The man tried to push him back down. "No, you're in no condition..."

       "I have to go!" Thurstan screamed. "What do you care? You weren't there! They were going to torture him, and all because of your king. He might be my father, and I've never called him that, and never told him that I love him. I have to go. He's all I've got left. Please," he sobbed, for the young man was struggling with him, trying to hold him still.

       "You're not alone," the man was crooning. "You've got a home here."

       "I don't want a home here!" Thurstan shrieked. "I've already got a home. I hate you all! They died for you and Reynard wanted to kill me and you won't let me go after my lord and you didn't even care. You were just laughing in the flowers, but they're all dead, and they'll never laugh again and it's so cold on the mountains at night and there are horrid things that will eat them and you don't care, you don't care."

       "I do." Gerhard would have struck him for such an outburst, but the young man just held him by the upper arms, and spoke in a voice that was firm and soft. "And we will go after Gerhard, I promise. I only tried to stop you because it's too soon. You're too weak. And, besides, you mustn't go alone."

       Thurstan closed his eyes. "But who'd go with me?" I don't want anyone to go with me, he thought. If I can't have the people I want, I don't want anyone. How dare they think they can take my lord's place?

       "I will," the young man said. "I will go myself, as Reynard knew I would, when he tried to stop you from reaching me. We'll go to the city, and, if Gerhard's alive, we'll find him and bring him back."

       Thurstan looked at him and laughed. The man was only a few years older than Thurstan himself, and he was not tall. When he spoke, his voice was quiet, and there was an air of sadness even about his smiles. The only emotions that had truly reached his eyes had been his sympathy and desire to help. It was hard to think of him shouting with fury, and wielding a sword in a whirling circle of red death. Reynard, though Thurstan hated him, would be a better man for a rescue than this one.

       "He won't have talked." It suddenly seemed a very important thing to say, and he hurled it like an accusation. Gerhard was strong, not like this frail man who wandered in the flowers and presumed to think he could rescue a man far greater than him. "They can hurt him all they like, but my lord won't talk."

       The young man looked down at his hands. "But don't be too harsh on him if we find out that he did. Lord Darius has a way of... making you forget yourself."

       Thurstan opened his mouth to scream his hatred, but, just at the last moment, he followed the direction of the young man's gaze, and saw the scars on his wrists. So this man had been captured, too. His life had not always been flowers and sunlight. Perhaps, when this man had been hurting, Thurstan had been laughing as he leapt from rock to rock, and had not known a thing about it.

       "But we'll find him," the young man said. "I promise you. If he's dead, we'll mourn him and bury him. If he's alive, we'll rescue him."

       He clasped Thurstan's hand once, and stood up, and Thurstan saw him fully for the first time. He was wearing dark brown breeches and a plain white shirt, both of them snagged by thorns and stained with old mud that had never quite washed out. He had fair hair just long enough to reach his shoulders, and pale blue eyes, and he was the only man Thurstan had ever seen who bore no sword. He didn't need to, Thurstan realised. His power lay in the hands that could push a man into sleep without him knowing it, and a voice that could utter a command without being raised above a whisper. He was a man who was more powerful without a sword than even Gerhard had ever been with one.

       Thurstan found himself laughing. "You're the king," he managed to say. "You are, aren't you?"

       The young man stood very still. "Yes," he said, at last, inclining his head just a little bit. "But my name's Elias, and that's what you call me."

       Thurstan slid from the bed to the floor, so he was kneeling. He was no longer laughing. "My lord," he pleaded, "punish me for what I did. Punish me for the things I said."

       The king crouched down beside him, and gently raised his head. "Gerhard is still your lord," he said, gently, "and you failed neither him nor me."

       He couldn't help it. He let his head fall forward into those strong and tender hands, and wept.


Chapter two

Two trees

      

 

       The wolf was prancing in the water, as giddy as a puppy, but Oliver held back and did not approach. He had been caught out before. He spread his hands placatingly, but did not speak. The wolf just watched him, and began to drag itself out of the stream, towards the man who lay there on his back, his eyes wide open and staring at the sky.

       "Still afraid of him, Oliver?"

       "I'm not afraid," Oliver protested. "I never was. But he's wet. He's going to shake water all over me, I know it. He's done it before. And you just sat there and smirked. You enjoyed it. I think you put him up to it."

       Elias sat up, smiling. As he did so, the wolf reached his side and shook himself vigorously, showering Elias with silver specks. "Of course," he said, grimacing. "Wet wolf. A weapon woefully under-rated in the annals of war."

       "You were wet already." Elias's shirt was damp and his hair hung in dark twists that stuck to his neck. His back was stained with smears of dirt, and a leaf was tangled in his hair. It would be hard to find anyone who looked less like a king. "You've been playing," Oliver accused. "Splashing around, the two of you, just puppies together."

       "Yes. I did. Not for long, though." The smile left Elias's face, and Oliver cursed himself for once more managing to say something that Elias could twist into a rebuke. Soon, he thought, there would be nothing safe left to say.

       "I wasn't complaining," Oliver said wearily, though he knew there was no point. He knew already how the next few minutes would go. "That animal's good for you. I like to see you two playing. We all do."

       "The boy woke up," Elias said, as if Oliver had not even spoken.

       Instead of replying, Oliver just sighed. Every day he found it harder and harder to be seneschal to this man.

       "A few hours ago," Elias said. "I did try to find you." He said it more urgently than the words merited. Oliver knew he was still trying to apologise for wasting a few short minutes with the wolf, and trying to prevent Oliver from feeling excluded.

       "I'm sure you did." Oliver folded his hands in his lap, and looked at them. He reminded himself that this was his king and he loved him, and he would not get angry with him, he would not. "I was with Adela."

       "I know," Elias said. "And I didn't want to disturb you. So I came here, and found Nightshade waiting for me. He wanted to swim. You know how insistent he can be."

       It doesn't matter! Oliver wanted to scream. Just stop it! Please stop it! Instead he just moved his hands, so the one that had been underneath was now on top, and said, "You can always disturb me, Elias, always. Whatever I'm doing, and wherever I am. Adela understands. I would far rather be able to help you than to find out later that you didn't even ask."

       "I know you would." For a moment there was a trace of real emotion on Elias's face, but then that old familiar ruefulness was back. "But I don't want to. Not for something like this. It wasn't worth disturbing you for. It could wait."

       But you wouldn't have disturbed me even if was desperately important, Oliver thought. Narrowing his eyes, he glanced up at the sky, but saw nothing but a broad streak of blue, skirted on both sides by the many different greens that made up the forest in the summer. There were very few clouds, and even those hung like lazy smears of smoke in the sky, barely moving. "What were you looking at when I got here?" he asked.

       Elias shrugged. "Nothing. The sky. It's so lovely. I was thinking about how you just can't tell. Terrible things can be gathering just out of sight, but here the sun is shining and we don't know about them. It's not like last year, in the storm. At least then we knew. I... I'm not sure which way is better."

       So it was as he had thought. Elias had fallen into his trap, but perhaps he would fall still further, if Oliver trod carefully. "Something's coming, then?" He raised one eyebrow, and spoke lightly. "It's worse than the boy hinted by the stream?"

       "Worse, yes." Elias pushed his hand through the wolf's pelt, raising tufts of fur between his fingers. "I've been sitting here, thinking. I know what I have to do, but I don't know what I have to face. I think there's worse things out there than Thurstan saw." He looked at Oliver. "That's the boy's name. He's called Thurstan."

       "Thinking," Oliver echoed. He clenched his clasped hands tighter. There had been nothing carefree about Elias's swim in the stream after all, yet he had still apologised for it. "But you said it wasn't important." At last the anger began to seep through into his tight voice. "Not important enough to bother me with, you said. But important enough that you've been sitting here all alone, worrying about it."

       "Not important enough to bother you with, no, not straight away." Elias spoke with a stubbornness Oliver would never have expected to see in him when he had first known him. "You said it yourself, Oliver, last year, when I was new here. You said it was important to spend time just being yourself. You said you'd feel guilty if I spent every minute of my life serving the Kindred. But the same applies to you. You need time, too, Oliver, and I'm going to make sure you get it."

       "Because you feel guilty about asking for my help." Oliver sighed. "If anyone does anything to help you, you feel guilty. You think it means you're failing in your duty. You think it means it wasn't worth it."

       "It's not about me." Elias turned away to look at the wolf, but not before Oliver had seen how his eyes had widened with fear, like an animal cornered by a predator.

       Of course it is, Oliver thought, but he was not so heartless as to say it, not when Elias was already vulnerable because of whatever the boy had told him. But it had to be soon. Elias was destroying himself before Oliver's eyes, and no-one else seemed to notice. Sometimes Oliver wanted to scream at them to look beneath the mask and see the truth. The only thing that stopped him was the knowledge that it was not the Kindred's fault, the way Elias had become. He had done it all by himself.

       "It makes me happy, seeing you," Elias murmured, blushing a little, as he often did when talking about anything real. "You were so sad when I first knew you, and now you're happy. I'm so glad you've found Adela. And I can't bear to be the one to make you lose that happiness, Oliver. Like today… I came to tell you, but I could hear you two laughing, and it made me a little happier to hear you. I was going to tell you, just not then. I couldn't bear the ruin that moment. You mean too much to me."

       Oliver touched the back of Elias's hand. "I know. But you have to understand that I feel the same way. I hate it when I find out that you've been doing something by yourself, and it's been hurting you, when I could have helped you and it wouldn't have hurt as much. I'm not speaking as seneschal," he said, when Elias would have interrupted. "I'm speaking as your friend."

       "I know," Elias whispered. "It's just that..." He stopped, and swallowed hard, visibly trying to compose himself. The mask was snapping into place again, as if Oliver was just another member of the Kindred who never saw behind it. "The boy said... Thurstan said that Gerhard and all his men are dead. An army from the city penetrated the path through the mountains. But they won't stop there. I must surely be their ultimate goal. They died because of..." He closed his eyes, then opened them, and started again. "It was only the start. How long before they get here?"

       "Gerhard, dead?" Oliver had never really liked the man, but news of any death was always sad. Gerhard had been so strong and commanding, a man who would never be conquered by death until he was ready for it

       "Or captured. Thurstan isn't sure. He... I think he's Gerhard's son. He worshipped Gerhard and now he's gone. The poor boy's lost everything he's ever known."

       Like you, Oliver thought. The shadow of the old pain was too clear, even behind Elias's mask. Elias had sacrificed everything for the Kindred. He had lost his home, his dreams, and everyone he had ever known. Unlike Thurstan, he had done it by choice, but Oliver knew that only made it worse. Elias had to constantly prove to himself that he had done the right thing, that he was in every way the king the Kindred needed him to be. In his mind, any failure meant that his sacrifice had been all for nothing. Beneath everything he said and did, there was always that misery, that terrible loss.

       "How did they get through the mountain?" Elias hugged his knees to his chest. "Thurstan says they weren't fooled by illusion. He heard them say they were going to take Gerhard back to Lord... to Lord Darius, which implies that they're turning back to Eidengard for now. But maybe that was only a few of them. Maybe they're coming, and we won't know, not now Gerhard's gone."

       "They might have followed the boy," Oliver said. "They might already be here."

       Elias shook his head. "I don't think so. I don't think they know he got away. I think they... Darius will question Gerhard. He'll want him to tell him where I am and how to find me. Then he'll come after us."

       Oliver's shoulders slumped. "You're going after him, aren't you? You've already promised the boy that Gerhard is alive and that you're going to find him, even if you die in the attempt." His voice was deeply weary. "Haven't you." It was not a question.

       "I have to go," Elias protested. "I can't leave him. The poor boy, with nobody... And to think of Gerhard, in Lord... in his hands. And there's Albacrist. I should have gone back for the sword straightaway, but I didn't. I was too afraid."

       He could argue all day and all night, and it would not make one little bit of difference, but he still had to try. "Have you ever stopped to think that it might be a trap for you? They probably expected Gerhard to send out a messenger. They'll be waiting for you. And if they can see through illusion... Elias, you'd be defenceless. You'd be going to your death."

       "You think I haven't thought of that?" Elias retorted. "You think I'm trying to get myself killed? You really believe that of me?"

       Oliver did not answer. Sometimes I do, yes,  he might have said. If you don't want me to believe it, show me it's not true.

       Elias sighed, and did not look at Oliver as he spoke. "I know the Kindred need me alive ,but they also need hope. If the time we have dreaded is about to come, they need Albacrist more than ever. They need to see Gerhard plucked alive from the prisons of Eidengard. Albacrist and Gerhard might only be symbols, but symbols can be more powerful than anything."

       "I know," Oliver conceded, "but let someone else go." Someone we can afford to lose, he thought. Someone who can hear Lord Darius's name without trembling in fear. "Send Reynard," he said. "I know he and Gerhard disliked each other, but they're still family."

       "Reynard can come with me," Elias said. "I'd rather go alone, but it would be cruel to leave Thurstan behind. He's so sure that he let everyone down. It would be torment to him to stay here, left behind. He needs… redemption. And I think... I think Reynard does, too. It would destroy him if I went without him. And he can help take care of Thurstan. I won't let anything happen to the boy."

       Oliver knew that Reynard would die rather than let anything happen to Elias, but it did little to ease his fears. "And you'd let Reynard take risks?" he asked. "Would you really, Elias? If you run into a trap, you'll let him defend you? Or will you just try to save him, no matter what happens to you?" He feared that he knew the answer only too well. "Please don't put yourself in danger. Please stay. Let Reynard chose a party and go by himself. Gerhard won't thank you if you die to save him."

       "I know. I told Thurstan that much." Elias passed his hand over his face. "But Gerhard's hurting. He's being tortured because of me, even as we're sitting here in the sunshine just talking about it. Can't you see that I have to at least try to stop it happening?"

       Once, Oliver might have thought that a king willing to risk everything for one of his subjects was a wonderful thing indeed. Now he could only wish fiercely that Elias was a heartless man, able to turn his back on suffering and selfishly enjoy the sunshine. "But you don't have to," he said. "You don't."

       "But I do." Elias's hands were clenched tightly together, his voice tight with the pain he normally tried so hard to hide. "It has to be me. You know that. Even Reynard would have to admit it, if he was honest. And, really, there's no danger, not to me. You're talking about it as if I'm going to certain death, but I'm not. Whatever happens out there, I will come back. I won't leave the Kindred all alone."

       "But they can see through illusion," Oliver protested. "That's what you said."

       "Perhaps." Elias turned his head to look at Oliver. "But my powers are far greater than illusion. How would Reynard and his men rescue Gerhard? By walking through a city full of people who would kill them on sight, then taking on a whole garrison with their swords? I can go places no-one else can go. And, if it does turn out to be a trap, I can get myself out. I did last time."

       "You nearly died last time!"

       "Only because I didn't understand my own powers. I've learned so much since then. Last time, I forgot that I could do things to save myself. I was… I was pathetic. I just curled up and waited for my… I…" Elias's face closed up. "I won't be like that again," he said, in a tight voice.

       "I still…" Oliver began, but Elias interrupted him, a soft touch on his wrist. "The Kindred this, and I'm the only one who can do it. You know it. It has to be me."

       Oliver wanted to scream his denial, but how could he? It was true. There were other, darker, reasons behind Elias's insistence on going, but Oliver could not deny the ones he was saying aloud. Elias was the only one who had a hope of success, and Oliver thought he probably had powers enough to get himself out of any danger, as long as he tried. But could he trust Elias to try? Given the choice between abandoning his friends and saving himself, or risking himself in an attempt to save them, he thought he knew what Elias would choose.

       And, really, would he want to follow a king who could do anything else? A king who could abandon one person who was suffering, Oliver had once told Reynard, could abandon the whole world. It was easy to rationalise hard-heartedness, to find good reasons to walk away from someone in pain. If Oliver had the sort of power Elias had, and if Oliver had been told that only he could save the world, would he be any different? If Oliver, not Elias, was the only person who could save Gerhard, would he be capable of consenting to stay behind?

       "I wish you understood," Elias said sadly, gazing over the stream. "It's so hard… And you and Reynard…"

       Oliver's head snapped round. "I'm not like Reynard."

       "Not like him, no, but not too far apart." Elias held his gaze. "Neither of you trust me. You both want to stop me from doing what I have to do. You both fight me and make it harder."

       "I just want to help you," Oliver protested.

       "So does he."

       Oliver took a deep breath. "Perhaps you don't know what Reynard does. He has his own little... army is the only word for it. He has you watched all the time. His men patrol the forest day and night. Have you noticed that it's always Reynard who brings envoys to the camp? He intercepts them all. You saw what his men were doing to that boy. Reynard didn't want you to know the message he brought."

       "I know," Elias said. "He does it to protect me. I wish he wouldn't, but it's not worth arguing with him about. I understand why he does it." He gave a sly smile. "And his net isn't woven as tightly as he thinks it is. There are holes."

       "I know why he does it, too." As Oliver said it, he realised that it was true. Oliver had been wrong to think that no-one else in the Kindred saw the truth. Elias was destroying himself, and Oliver and Reynard were trying in their very different ways to stop him. As soon as Reynard had heard Thurstan's story, he had known that Elias would insist on going to Eidengard. Rather than let that happen, he had tried to prevent Elias from hearing the boy's tale. It could be seen as treachery, but it had been done out of a desperate loyalty to a man who was incapable of saying no.

       Even so, he saw the danger in it. "Be careful of him," he said. "I know you think you understand him, but you always were too forgiving. Reynard can never forgive himself for letting you get captured in the city, and, in a way, he's never forgiven you for ordering him to go. He's sworn never to let you get hurt again, even if he has to disobey you to do it. He's sworn to protect you, even from yourself. And that makes him blind. His idea of what's best for you might not be right. He might hurt you, justifying it by telling himself that he does it to save you from something worse. Excessive loyalty can be as dangerous as treachery, Elias. Beware of it."

       Elias looked at him sharply. "Is that a premonition?"

       Oliver swallowed, and shook his head. His father had been a seer, but Oliver had never seen a vision. Elias, he knew, had seen glimpses of the future. Once he had seen that he would die if he pursued a certain course of action, but had done it anyway, rather than let a woman suffer.

       "You're thinking about Amalric, aren't you?" Elias's voice was soft.

       Oliver started. Something had shifted between them again. From being the one who was asking all the questions, Oliver was suddenly on the defensive. He stood up and walked to the bank of the stream, and looked down on his fractured reflection, made up of darkness and glittering light. "I suppose I was, yes."

       "Please don't be too hard on him," Elias said. "On either of them. Amalric..."

       Oliver whirled round. "I didn’t come here to talk about Amalric. And he's my problem, not yours."

       Elias worried at his lower lip with his teeth, and turned his head to one side. He looked just like the old Elias, flinching from one of his master's rejections. "Look at Nightshade," he said. "Almost fully grown now. He's rather different from how he was when I found him, isn’t he?"

       Oliver wanted to sink to his knees and bury his head in his hands. "I don't mind you talking about Amalric," he assured Elias, "but he's not what's at issue at the moment."

       The wolf walked delicately to the edge of the water, and started to sniff around in the reeds and the long grass. "He's going to get wet again." Elias gave a faint smile. "Are you trying to get me into trouble, Nightshade? Remember how horrified they were when I said I wanted to keep you."

       "With good cause," Oliver said, getting drawn into the conversation despite himself. "There you were with blood pouring down your arm from where he'd bitten you... Can you blame them?" Even so, it was a happy memory. Elias had shown such passion and feeling in defending the wolf cub, and it had been one of the few times that he had shown the Kindred anything approaching a true emotion.

       "He was scared," Elias protested. "Weren't you, Nightshade? All those people shouting, saying there was no way I could keep a wolf in the camp and did I want to see all the children eaten alive? And he licked it better afterwards. Anyone might bite the hand that tries to help them, if they're afraid enough."

       "I suppose so. And he's certainly placid enough now." Oliver chuckled. "At least to people who aren't trying to attack you." If anything threatened Elias, though, the animal became as fierce as any of his kind. He was one of the Kindred in that respect. Unlike any of the Kindred, though, he could at least make Elias happy.

       Elias reached out his hand, and the wolf trotted back to him, burying its nose in his palm. "I'm afraid I've got to leave you for a while, Nightshade," Elias told him. "Oliver will look after you."

       Oliver clenched his fists at his side. He knew Elias had set out to distract him, and that he had allowed it to happen, because it was easier that way than to say the things he really needed to say. 

       "I think I should go tomorrow," Elias said, still not looking at Oliver. "I'll go and ask Reynard now. I hope he decides to tell Thurstan than he's Gerhard's brother, but I don't think he will. And I won't do it. He should hear it from Reynard or Gerhard, and no-one else. The poor boy."

       "You're never going to tell me the truth, are you?" Oliver murmured sadly. "You'll never tell me anything."

       "I've told you everything Thurstan said." But Oliver saw how Elias's shoulders stiffened. "I told you what I'm going to do."

       Oliver shook his head. "But you haven't told me the whole truth, have you?" Now the moment had come, he felt only sad and hurt, rather than angry. "I've watched it getting worse for months. I know you, Elias. You're getting better at hiding it, but I can still tell when you're in pain. I do wish you wouldn't hide it."

       "I'm not in pain." Elias lowered his head and stared at his pale hands.

       "Enchantment hurts you." Oliver stood with his hands on his hips, towering over Elias. "I know it does. Not illusion, no, but the deeper things, the things that only you can do. Yet, not five minutes ago, you sat here and told me that you were the only one who could go after Gerhard, because only you could use those powers. But you didn't mention just how badly it hurts you to use them."

       At least Elias did not attempt to lie. "I don't know why it hurts," he confessed. "It didn't used to. I used to find it hard to do, but only because I didn't know how. I've learnt how to do it at will, now, but it's started hurting. It's worse every time. I don't know why." He raised his head. "But it doesn't matter. It won't affect anything. Even if it hurts, I can still do it."

       "Doesn't matter?" Oliver shouted. "Of course it matters! It matters if you do something that incapacitates you for hours afterwards. It matters if you put yourself through that again and again, and all for... for such little things. For healing Thurstan, who only needed a good night's sleep. For helping someone who could be helped just as well in a hundred other ways. You just... You..."

       He brought up the clenched fist. Elias stiffened, but made no attempt to move away from the expected blow. Oliver let out his breath in a rush, and the hand fell back to his side. "I don't know why you do it," he admitted. "I wondered if it's because you want to play the martyr and make us feel in debt to you, but that's not it, because it's not the way you are, and you don't tell anyone about it. All I can think is that you somehow feel that you deserve the pain, just like you wanted me to hit you just now. At least if you're suffering, you're doing something right."

       Elias hid his face with his hand. "It's not like that. It just happened. I don't know why. If I knew why, I'd try to stop it, but I don't. And I can't let it stop me. There are other things far more important than my own comfort. What does it matter if it hurts a bit, if I'm helping someone?"

       Oliver crouched down and touched Elias's shoulder, noticing with sadness how Elias flinched at the contact. "It matters. And, one day, it will matter to you, too. What if you take Thurstan into a dangerous situation, and you end up too weak from the enchantment to protect him? What then?"

       "It won't happen," Elias swore. "It doesn't hurt so badly that I can't carry on. It won't make a difference."

       The wolf snarled and glared at Oliver, clearing thinking that he was threatening his master. And perhaps he was. All Oliver wanted to do was to see Elias happy, but the only way to do that was to hurt him first. Elias was destroying himself, and everyone who loved him was drawn into his circle of pain, forced to plot against him and hurt him in the desperate hope that it would end up for the best. But they were like planets trying to stop the sun from burning up. They could never escape his orbit, and they could never make the slightest bit of difference.

       "Please don't do it," Oliver begged him. "I can't bear to see what you're doing to yourself. It's just not worth it. Perhaps, one day, the situation will be serious enough that you will have to use all your powers, even though they hurt you. But not all the time. Not for all the things you use them for now."

       "Not worth it?" Elias echoed. "But if I can help someone..."

       Elias had always been so quick to help others, but now he did so with a desperation that was terrible to see. He threw himself into it in a way that defied all reason, even for the tiniest of problems. "You can't help the whole world," Oliver said, squeezing Elias's shoulder.

       "Can't I?" Elias whirled on him, and the bitterness in his face was shocking. "I thought that was just what I was supposed to be doing. That's what everyone was telling me last year. I had to do things that terrified me, and none of you told me then that it was wrong. You wanted me to do them. I never had a choice, and you know it. From the moment I found the sword, all this was going to happen." He spread his hands hopelessly, encompassing the whole empty life that surrounded him.

       "It's a hard path to walk," Oliver said. "To walk between the two extremes of selfishness and of sacrificing too much. But there is such a path, a middle way. You can serve us and still hold back. You can... Elias, you can serve us better if you hold back. Let other people help you. Say no."

       "I never had a choice!" Elias screamed, Elias who so seldom raised his voice. "There never was a middle way! I could be a Brother, or your king. I could live there, or here. I could have my..." He broke off suddenly, turned away, and closed his eyes.

       "You could have your master," Oliver finished for him, "or you could be alone. And you chose to be alone."

       "He chose it," Elias said. "He chose to go. And why shouldn't he have gone? There was nothing for him here. And it was nearly a year ago. It's not important."

       This time Oliver said it aloud. "Of course it is. It's important to you."

       "It isn't." Elias's head sank forward into his hands and he started to cry.

       I did that, Oliver thought. He had broken through the mask and found the scared boy that still lurked beneath it. It was what he had wanted, wasn't it?

       "Elias." Oliver sighed. Elias had been through so much, a scared boy forced to do things that would have made a grown man quail. Pain and loss were behind everything he did. And, really, there were worse failings that a man could have than too strong a desire to help others. Elias had won the hearts of even the most implacable of the Kindred. All Oliver wanted was to see him happy, but everything he did only made things worse. "Why do you think it started hurting?" he asked, knowing that anything else would only upset Elias more.

       Elias raised his head, and wiped away his tears. Oliver found it alarming just how instantaneously he went from heartbroken to an outward appearance of total composure. He had always thought that only he saw through Elias's mask, but it seemed as if Elias could fool even him. How often had Elias been crying inside when Oliver had been talking to him, thinking that nothing was wrong?

       "I don't know," Elias confessed. "But it's getting worse. I sometimes wonder if it's the... whatever it was that was laughing when I was sick. We haven't seen any sign of it since the storm, but I don't think it's gone. I think it's spent the time gathering its strength and it's going to come back soon, stronger than ever."

       "Or it's been waiting for you to be powerless," Oliver said. "If the pain keeps getting worse, then you won't be able to use the deep enchantment at all. And if Darius's armies can see through illusion... Don't go," he urged, grabbing Elias's arm. "Please don't go."

       Elias looked at him. "You say you hate seeing me hurting, but the thing that hurts most is sitting here doing nothing when someone needs me. I couldn't bear it if you made me stay. And... And maybe Lord Darius will come here after all and find me, even if I stay. At least when I'm doing something, I feel... It doesn't feel so..."

       "I understand," Oliver had to admit, because it was true, and he did. He hated it, but he understood.

       It was as if his understanding finally released Elias to confide a little of the truth. "But I'm afraid," he whispered, staring at the scars on his wrists. "I'm so scared. Lord Darius... He scares me so much."

       Oliver wanted to touch him, to offer comfort, but knew he could not, not on this. He had no idea what Lord Darius had done to Elias to terrify him so, but he knew how the memory affected him. Sometimes, Elias would stare at the scars on his wrist, then his eyes would slide closed and he would pull his knees up to his chest and hug them close. If anyone touched him when he was like that, he would start with terror. Even soft words made him shiver, as if he found them more cruel than a shout. Always, in the end, Elias would raise his head and find his own way out of the memory, and would never mention it afterwards.

       As Oliver just sat there, his useless hand half raised, the wolf made a sharp sound of distress, and nudged Elias. For a moment, Elias froze, his throat working convulsively, then he just seemed to sink into the wolf's touch. "But I'm going tomorrow," he said, with his face pressed into the wolf's neck. "And I'll bring Gerhard back, even if I have to face Darius to do it. I will."

       Oliver's hand fell back to his side. "I hope you do."

      

      

       She walked beside him for a little while, tolerating his need for silence. Then, when their path narrowed so they needed to walk in single file, she made sure she was the one who led. A branch of springy bramble crossed the path, and she carefully pushed it out of the way, then turned to face him. Smiling with perfect calm, she let the branch go, so it sprang back full at his chest. He started, and took a step back.

       "Are you going to talk to me?" she asked.

       "I don't know."

       "It's Elias, isn't it?" Adela put her hands on her hips. "Of course it's Elias. No-one else leaves you looking quite like that."

       Oliver wanted to step forward, but she had put the barrier there deliberately, and he thought she would want to be the one to remove it. They were separated by a branch of thorns, but there was sunlight on her side, while his was all in shade, and that seemed very fitting. She was always bright, but Oliver was still wrapped in the shadow that was Elias.

       "What's the boy done now?" she asked.

       "Don't talk about him like that," he chided her. "He's not a naughty child."

       "No?" She raised one eyebrow. "You worry about him as if he is."

       "He isn't. He's..." He sighed, unable to stay irritated with her. "I just don't know what to do. I can't bear it, seeing the way he's become. I've done everything I can think of." He sighed again, passing his hand over his brow and through his hair. "He's going to leave us tomorrow morning, Adela. He's going to Eidengard again. And he almost died last time he went there. He says he's not in any danger, but I… I worry about him, and I can't stop him. And he's so unhappy, and I can't do anything. I can't do anything to help him."

       Adela reached over the branch and took his hand. "You underestimate yourself. I think you're helping him a lot. Perhaps I shouldn't tell you this, but he said as much to me, once. It was when he realised you were falling in love with me. He came up to me, and it was sweet, really. He asked me all sorts of questions, trying to make sure my intentions were honourable and I wasn't going to break your heart. I must have said something right, because he smiled and told me to hold onto you and never let you go. He said you were someone very special, and he would be lost without you."

       "Really?" Oliver was touched and strangely embarrassed. "And what did you say to that?"

       "I said, 'I know he's special. Why do you think I went after him?' I was quite forward. He blushed, if I remember correctly. But I've loved him for it ever since, that he could say those things, and really mean them. And he's such a pretty thing, too. Now, if only he were a little older, and I hadn't already found you..."

       Despite himself, he laughed. He stepped forward to hold her, but she took a step back, wagging her finger. "Talk first."

       He ground his toe in the mud of the path, and watched the deep sweeping circles. "That's it. I just... He's going into danger, and I can't stop him. He's miserable, and I can't do anything about it. I'm seneschal, but sometimes I hate my own people, for being so blind to what's happening to him. And sometimes..." He stared intently at the ground, and spoke in little more than a whisper. "Sometimes I hate him, because, although we've done it to him, he's done it to himself even more. He made his choice. It was his choice, not ours, but he's letting the aftermath destroy him."

       "Many would disagree." Adela held up her hand to forestall his objection. "Some would say that their king has changed for the better in the last year. When he first came here, he was a shy boy who thought he needed his master's permission even to smile. Now he's a man who can stand on his own two feet. He speaks without needing to think about what someone else would say in the same situation. He gives orders when he has to, and he doesn't shy away from being a king. In many ways, he's blossomed."

       "Some would say," he echoed. "Who says this? Someone who doesn't know him well, that's for sure, if they believe that front he puts up."

       "Why, it's you, my dear." Her voice sparkled, but her eyes were grave. "Not in so many words, but in the way you speak about him, and the things you say. As a king, I know he's exceeded all your hopes in many ways. Not all the changes in him are bad, that's what I mean to say."

       "No." He sighed. "As a king, he's done nothing I can complain about. I just wish he could be happy at the same time. I just wish I could help him."

       "Shall I tell you a story, my dear?" Smiling, Adela gathered up her skirts and sat down, heedless of the mud and thorns. She folded her hands in her lap, and beamed up at him. "Come on, Oliver. Let the storyteller become the listener for a change."

       "I..." he began, then shook his head, giving up. Careful of the prickles, he settled on the ground. He felt like a little child making a den in the forest, hiding from the grown-ups.

       "I used to know a boy," she began, "oh so long ago. I was an old lady of almost twenty five, and he was hardly a day past twenty. But I liked him. He was rather a silly boy. Liked to spend his days writing poems about trees and trailing around in a daze, things like that. He never noticed me. Instead, he wrote songs about some pretty little thing who had dimples but no brains to speak of." She shrugged. "I can't think why he liked her."

       "Adela," he began, but she pressed her finger to his lips. "Never interrupt a story-teller before the story's finished, Oliver. You should know that. Or do you want me to heckle from the audience next time you sing one of your sorrowful ballads?"

       He shook his head, and she trailed her finger down his face, from mouth to chin, and it was soft and lingering. Trust me, her eyes seemed to be saying. You know I'd never hurt you.

       "Well." She folded her hands in her lap again. "When he was twenty-one, the boy unexpectedly became the leader of his people, and something happened to him. He forgot how to smile. He had a duty, you see. He thought he couldn't lead his people and write poems as well, so he stopped trying to write. His life had changed direction, and he thought that meant he had to sacrifice everything he had ever planned to do. He stopped courting his girl, and she married someone else. Though, of course," she said, with a coy smile, "she'd never really been the girl for him."

       "No," Oliver tried to agree, but something had stolen his voice. He tried to smile, but even that felt frozen.

       "He blamed everyone, did this boy. He blamed the father who had got himself wounded and made him seneschal before his time. He blamed the office itself. He blamed the people. Of course, since he was such a very nice boy, so very noble, he served them perfectly and never once showed them what he felt, but inside he was always sorrowful. All he saw was the things he could no longer be. His duty was a prison. Outside, through the barred window, was the life he could have led, but he thought it was impossible to reach through the bars and touch the sky.

       "But then something happened." A strand of hair had come loose from the braid and fallen down in front of her ear. Very carefully, she pushed it back, and Oliver simply watched her, waiting for the next words.

       "The king came back," she said, at last, "and he was a boy who had lost far more than our boy had lost, and bore an even greater burden. In trying to help him, our boy - though he was a man by now - recognised something of himself. He found he wanted to help him and be his seneschal. He found he could make a difference to the king, and he liked it. He had found a cause worth sacrificing love and song and happiness for. But then, by doing so, he found he had no longer sacrificed anything at all. He served willingly, and it made him happy. Once, when he had thought he was going to die for his king, he looked back on his life and realised the truth. His unhappiness had been his own making. He had sacrificed everything to duty, but no sacrifice had ever been needed."

       "How do you know all this?" he murmured. His voice was husky. "How do you know about this boy?"

       "Because I watched him." There was a glint of triumph in her eyes. "I told you I liked him, didn't I? I saw him sink into his self-created misery, and I knew he wouldn't even know I existed. He was so sure he would never be free to love, so he would have pushed me away the moment he started to like me. Then, when he learnt to smile again, I approached him, and courted him, and won him."

       He felt limp. "I thought I courted you."

       "Oh no." She shook her head, and folded her arms with an air of supreme satisfaction. "I waited eleven years for you, Oliver. I was hardly going to risk losing you when we finally had a chance to get it right. I had it all worked out, you know."

       "You courted me," he said, again. He found himself smiling, incapable of stopping. "I didn't know."

       "So, Oliver," she said, stroking his cheek with the back of her hand. "Do you see the moral of my story?"

       He pulled away from her touch, just a little. "That I was wrong to..."

       "No." She grimaced, and shook her head in exasperation. "That happiness is a way of looking at things. Nothing changed for you. You were still seneschal, and we are still in exile, but, somehow, you learned how you could be happy, just by changing how you looked at things. No-one else could have forced you to that realisation. That's why I just stood back and waited for you to be ready to be loved."

       "No-one else..." he echoed. "So you think I should do nothing?"

       She looked at him for a long time. "No," she said, at last. "Perhaps I was wrong to wait. Maybe I could have helped you come to your senses years before if I'd tried. But I couldn't have forced you, I know that. And you took ten years to learn the lesson. Be patient with Elias. He's lost far more than you did, and it's only been nine months. It'll take time, but you're there for him, helping him more than you know."

       He raked his hand through his hair. "But I'm not helping him."

       "Back to that, are we? You are helping him, Oliver. Everything you say to him... Maybe it doesn't seem to make a difference, but he is hearing you. One day, he'll remember all the things you've said and suddenly believe them. And you'll be there when that happens." She reached for his hand. "But, until then, just be a friend to him, but don't try too hard to change him. Push him too hard and you'll lose him. He'll begin to see you as an enemy, just as you would have done if I'd started lecturing you all those years ago."

       Oliver put his arm round her shoulders and pulled her close. "I wish you'd tried. I might have found you ten years ago, instead of..." He took a deep breath, and the words tumbled out before he could even think about them. "I want to marry you."

       She pulled away and looked at him quizzically. "What brought this on, Oliver?"

       He wasn't sure if he was meant to answer it or not, but decided to do so anyway. "Because I love you," he said, "and should have asked you months ago."

       She swatted at his shoulder. "What makes you think I couldn’t have asked you, master seneschal?"

       "And because Elias is so unhappy," he said, "and I could so easily be like that, but I'm not, and that's because of you. Because Gerhard's men are all dead, and it could be us tomorrow. Because we don't know what's out there, beyond the blue sky above our head. Because... Because I love you."

       She smiled. "I'd have married you whatever your answer was, you know."

       He felt strangely shy. "So it's a yes?"

       She stroked his nose. "Of course it's a yes. But I have only one condition. Oh, don't look at me like that, Oliver. All I ask is that the ceremony is tonight. I've waited long enough for you. I'm suddenly finding that I don't want to wait another day."

       "Tonight?" His first reaction was to say no, because Elias was leaving tomorrow, and this was a time for mourning, not rejoicing. Then, a moment later, he realised just how right it was. Tonight, so Elias would see it. Tonight, so the Kindred had one last night of celebration, even if the darkness closed upon them with the coming of the morning. "Tonight," he said. He felt a sudden urge to cry.

       "Tonight." She nodded, and pulled him into her arms and kissed him, and the green leaves closed over their hears, hiding them from the whole world.

 

      

            The man had not heard Oliver approach. Oliver watched him for a while, and saw him test the sharpness of his sword, and nod with satisfaction with what he saw. When the man still showed no sign of seeing him, Oliver cleared his throat.

       Amalric whirled round. When he saw who it was, he relaxed, but only a bit. "Why are you creeping up on me?"

       "I didn't," Oliver said. "I just walked up normally. You were... busy. You didn't hear me." 

       "Of course I heard you," Amalric stated. "You can't take me by surprise, however hard you try."

       Is that what you really think of me? Oliver wanted to ask him. You think everything I do is only to discomfort you? Instead he gestured awkwardly, shifting from foot to foot. "I hardly recognised you, Amalric. I thought I'd come to the wrong place. You've cut your hair."

       "Yes." Amalric dipped his hand into a pail of water and smoothed his hair down. "I can cut my hair if I want to." Amalric turned his back and picked up his bow. Oliver wondered if he still had any of the arrows that bore the blood-stained feathers he had taken from Elias. He hoped not, but had never dared to ask.

       "I know," Oliver conceded. It didn't have to mean anything, of course, but Reynard and his followers were the only men of the Kindred who wore their hair so brutally short, and in Reynard's case it did mean something. "It's just..." He tried to laugh, but knew it sounded unconvincing. "You don't look like my little brother any more, that's all."

       Amalric threw the bow down, heedless of whether it would get damaged or not. "Perhaps there's a reason for that."

       "Amalric," Oliver began, but his brother interrupted him. "I'm going away tomorrow. Reynard's asked me to come with him. The king's going to Eidengard to get Albacrist back, and he needs good men to defend him."

       "And he asked you?"

       Amalric's eyes glittered. "Is that so hard to believe, brother? Unlike you, some men recognise my worth."

       Oliver sighed. When he had left Adela, he had had a soppy smile plastered all over his face, and had wanted to laugh and sing. Elias's genuine pleasure at the news had only served to increase his good mood. Everything in the world had been warm and beautiful, but now the warmth seemed oppressive and the sunlight too bright. It showed every hard line on his brother's face.

       "I didn't know you'd become Reynard's man," Oliver said. "That's all. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to imply..."

       "Yes you did," Amalric snapped. "You're like the rest of them. You can't understand why Reynard wants me to come. You think I'm going to let down your precious king because I'm not as good at fighting as the rest of them." His face became an ugly mask. "Poor Amalric. Such a shame he's so hopeless. Poor Oliver, with him as a brother. Oh yes, I know what they said, Oliver. But now my time has come. And I'm not going to throw it away, I swear it."

       "I never said those things," Oliver said. "I never thought them. I just... I wish things could be like they were before."

       Just for a moment, Amalric's face softened, and he looked like the boy he had once been, insecure and lost. A second later, it hardened into the cold mask of scorn that had become his usual expression. The change in him had happened so gradually that Oliver had not even noticed. After today, he would never be able to pretend that he knew his brother at all. They were strangers to each other.

       "Talk to me, Amalric," Oliver begged. "Please. It doesn't have to be like this."

    "I'm just finding my own way," Amalric said coldly. "You always wanted me to. You wanted me to go out and make friends and stop tagging along behind you. You hated it when I defended you. You never even liked me much, did you?"

       Oliver reached out a hand towards him. "We used to be close. I used to tell you everything."

       "Out of pity." Amalric kicked over the pail of water. "Because no-one better had come along. Then the king came, and I was forgotten. Oh, you told me everything would be all right, that morning after father died, but you were only saying it. You had your Elias to look after, and he was so sad because he'd lost his master. But I was sad, too," he screamed. "I needed you, too!"

       "I tried," Oliver protested. "I tried again and again. You were... You were impossible. You told me to go away."

       Amalric kicked at the fallen pail. "I didn't want you to." He spoke the words like an accusation. "But it doesn't matter now. I don’t need you any more. I've found someone else who wants me for what I am."

       "Reynard? But you never liked him. You used to warn me about him. You didn't trust him."

       "Things can change. A man can learn the truth about someone he thought he knew." Amalric pulled his sword a few inches from the scabbard, then dropped it back in again. "He makes me feel useful. You never did. I was always your awkward little brother, and nothing more."

       "That's not true," Oliver protested, but of course it was. He had loved Amalric as his brother, but he was not the sort of man he would have chosen for as a friend, if they had not been family. He had confided in him, but only because he was there and willing to listen, and he had been reluctant to confide in anyone else.

       Amalric thrust his face towards Oliver's. "You never forgave me for attacking the king. The king did, and I didn't even want his forgiveness. But you never did."

       "I..." Oliver sighed and looked down at the ground. The pool of water was seeping into the dry earth, disappearing as completely as the closeness they had once shared. "I understood it," he whispered. "I know why you did it. I'm so sorry for the part I played in it. And I..." He blinked back tears. The events of the day had brought his emotions so very close to the surface. "Oh, Amalric. We're brothers. We don't have to like everything about each other, as long as we love each other. And I always loved you. I still do."

       "You told me it would get better." Amalric carried on as if Oliver had not spoken. "Then you went off and found Adela. You just went round smiling and you were so happy, and I wanted to slap you for it, because I didn't know how to share it." He paced up and down, spitting the words out like drops of poison. "You kept coming to me, but then you stopped looking happy, so I knew you didn't want to be with me. I told you to go away. You argued, but I knew you wanted to, so I shouted at you and then you went. And, every time, I'd see you five minutes later laughing with him, or teaching that boy who've taken as your apprentice, or holding her hand and smiling, so I knew I was right."

       "I'm so sorry." Oliver touched his brother's shoulder. Amalric flinched, but did not pull away. "I never meant to hurt you."

       "You didn't." Amalric whirled round, and Oliver's hand fell back to his side. His brother swiped at his eyes, wiping away any tears, then glared at Oliver, daring him to mention that he had seen them. "Nothing hurts me now. I'm going with Reynard tomorrow, and you won't be there, and I'm going to come back victorious."

       "Or dead," Oliver said. "This could be the last time I see you."

       "Why do you just assume I'm going to fail?" Amalric accused him.

       Oliver looked Amalric full in the eyes. "Because I know more about what you might be facing than Reynard told you. Because there are enemies out there than even a thousand men like Reynard could not defeat with their swords. Because I'm afraid you'll all be riding into a trap. Because Elias is... not as strong as he could be."

       Amalric flapped his hand. "Oh, I know all about the king. Reynard told me."

       "Because," Oliver said, clasping his hands together, "I worry about the future, and people I love are caught up in it, and I am scared of what tomorrow might bring." He unclasped his hands and took hold of Amalric's shoulders, one hand on each. "I don't want us to part at odds with each other. This has gone too far. Please can we be friends again, Amalric. I know there's a lot we need to talk about. But, tonight, please..." He swallowed hard. "You're my brother, Amalric. I love you."

       Amalric sighed. "I know. And I'm still loyal. I would never betray you."

       The next thing could seal their shaky truce or else ruin things between them forever. "I'm getting married tonight, Amalric. I wanted you to stand beside me. I didn't want anyone else but you. I hoped you could be happy for me."

       "I can still be happy for you." Amalric gave a tight smile. "I'm still your brother."

       "And will you stand beside me?" Oliver asked. "I would like you to. I don't know where this... this rift has come from, but I would like to heal it."

       "I'll stand beside you," Amalric said, but already he was turning away, tending to some little thing he would possibly need on his journey, and he did not look up again.

      

 

              Thurstan sat with his hands folded in his lap, his head leaning against the wall and his legs stretched out in front of him. Thin lines of sunlight crossed his body like knife slashes. He pulled his legs up and covered them in the dark blankets, but then he was too hot. When he threw them away, he felt cold, and he could not get warm, even when he wrapped his arms around his body.

       People were talking outside, but no-one came in to see him. There was far too much laughter. He clenched his fists and imagined what would happen if he went outside and told them the truth. "My people died so you could be alive to laugh!" he would scream at them. Then he would grab a giggling child by the shoulders and tell them just how Gerhard had bled when they had captured him. He would make them all cry. He would kill all laughter in the camp, because it was only right.

       He threw himself down on the bed, covering his ears. He sat up again and poured himself a drink of water, but his hand shook and he spilled most of it on the bed. The man in the tapestry at the foot of the bed seemed to be staring reproachfully at him. He looked like Gerhard, and his eyes followed Thurstan wherever he went. Why are you just sitting there? his eyes were saying. Come after me. Save me.

       "No," Thurstan moaned. He stood up and tried to tear the tapestry from the wall, but his legs hurt too much and his feet got caught up in the blanket, and he fell. He curled up on his side and started to cry.

       The voices outside fell silent. Thurstan clapped his hand to his mouth, suddenly afraid that they could hear his sobs.

       There was to be a wedding, the king had told him, when he had come back a few hours after Thurstan's confession. "I know it probably seems heartless to you," he had said, "but they need it, and all the more because they're mourning. They're afraid of tomorrow. Your news has reminded them just how precarious their lives are. It's the Kindred's way. In the darkest times, they need to remind themselves why they are still fighting, why life is still worth living. Gerhard would understand."

       He had said more, and Thurstan had even come to believe him. But now the wedding had started he only wanted to scream at them to stop.

       Pushing himself to his feet, he walked to the door. He hooked two fingers round the edge of the thick door covering and edged it to one side, so he could peep out at the scene, but not be noticed.

       It was still daylight, though the sun was sinking in the west and beginning to turn orange. There were fluffy golden clouds overhead, and it felt colder outside than it did in the hut, with a freshness to the air that spoke of bad weather to come. None of the people outside seemed to notice. The women wore flimsy dresses, and even the men had bare arms, their light-coloured sleeves pushed up to their elbows. They looked soft, Thurstan thought, like the valley men that they were, who sat back and let the hard men of the mountains die to protect them. Instead of swords, they held flowers. Instead of weeping, they just smiled.

       The couple who were to be married were walking slowly through the camp, passing in front of every tent, talking a little to everyone. As they walked, people threw flowers in their path, and the woman laughed to see it. They walked as if they had all the time in the world, but every second brought Gerhard closer to death. Every slow step delayed the moment when the king and Thurstan would ride out to rescue him. Didn't they know that? Thurstan clung onto the edge of the door with both hands, and fought the urge to tell them. The only thing stopping him was that the king had allowed this wedding, and he trusted the king.

       As they passed Thurstan's hiding place, the woman whispered something to the seneschal, who shook his head in mock reproof, as if she had said something not at all appropriate to such a solemn occasion. Not at all chastened, she laughed. But then she turned away, and Thurstan, in his hidden darkness, was the only person who saw how tears were glistening in her eyes. Thinking herself unobserved by anyone, she blinked fiercely, then turned back to Oliver, all smiles again.

       Arm in arm, they walked one more sweeping curve, past the last of the laughing watchers. A flower clung to Oliver's dark hair, and the woman reached across him to remove it, but he caught hold of her wrist. "Let it stay there," he said. Thurstan couldn't hear the words, but the meaning was clear.

       They had not dressed up for the occasion. Their clothes were clean and fresh, but there was no luxury about them. The woman's hair was worn in a long braid down her back, and strands had already escaped. Coupled with her pink cheeks, it made her look as if she had just finished a hard day's work, rather than be walking to her own wedding.

       They stopped walking not far from where Thurstan was standing, and he held tighter to the door, wondering if the king had planned it like this, to force him to watch. But then he saw the king himself, and stopped thinking about anything else.

       There was a broad oak tree, growing out of a small rise in the ground. It made a natural platform, raised a little above the small clearing, and framed by the heavy green branches. Wearing neither rich robes nor a crown, the king was standing in front of the trees, his hands clasped in front of him, waiting. The sun filtered through the thick leaves, dappling him with specks of gold, but leaving him mostly in shadow. He was smiling, Thurstan saw, and his eyes were very bright.

       "I call upon you, people of the Kindred," he cried, "to stand witness." He did not step forward. Oliver and his bride stood in full sunlight, and he left it for them, so they did not have to share the circle of light with anyone. Even in the shadows, though, Thurstan thought he dazzled.

       "We have gathered here tonight," said the king, "to see this man and this woman proclaim their love to the world. They will swear vows, each to the other, and we, who hear them, will know that love can still survive in darkness, and hope remains. Their happiness is our happiness. Their hope is our hope. 

       Thurstan swallowed hard. Were they ancient ritual words, or the king's own? He had never seen a wedding before. Had his own mother and father stood smiling beneath a great oak tree and heard the same words spoken over them? He didn't know if his parents had ever been married. He didn't even know his mother's name.

       "They stand before you now," the king said. "Oliver and Adela. Does anyone speak against the joining?"

       There was a man standing behind the seneschal, and he shifted a little from foot to foot, but said nothing. He was carrying a leafy branch in his arms, but held it as if it was a sword. A sturdy girl of around ten stood behind Oliver's bride, and she was swinging her branch in one hand, so the ends brushed the ground.

       "No-one stands against you," the king said. "Who stands for you?"

       "I do," the man said, as he stepped forward. "I do," the girl said, and her voice sounded far more sure and confident than the man's. She thrust her chin forward as if she dared the world to defy Adela's right to marry.

       "And have you found what you were sent to find?" the king asked.

       "I have," the man said, and "I have," said the girl, coming in before the man had finished, though Thurstan thought she was supposed to wait. He found himself smiling, liking her.

       "Take what has been gifted to you," the king said, looking first at Oliver, then at Adela. "Those who stand for you stand for the people. They have sought, and they have found. Their gift is the gift of their blessing. Their gift is the gift of hope and life."

       They weren't branches, Thurstan realised. They were small saplings, carefully dug up, and carried to this place. The man had chosen a beech, while the girl had found a silver birch, with small leaves and white bark. They handed them over, and the couple planted their saplings, digging the holes themselves, letting themselves get stained with earth. Oliver was solemn, but Adela smiled. Half way through, she paused, wiped her face, and smirked at him, a smear of dirt on her nose.

       "Let the trees grow together as a symbol of this joining," the king declared, when the couple had finished. "Let them put down deep roots, and stand here, whispering confidences to each other, so that anyone who sees them knows that these two people knew how to love."

       He raised his arms, and the world changed. Where the tiny saplings stood, two great trees towered, their branches coiled together so tightly that it was impossible to see where one started and the other began. Together they formed a dense green arch over the space between their trunks, and men and women, hand in hand, were passing beneath the archway, whispering their own declarations of love. 

       And then, so quickly that Thurstan didn't notice the change, the archway was pale stone, and the ground beneath it was amber. A man was kneeling there, his hands behind him and his head bowed. His hair obscured his face, but Thurstan knew he was the king. Oliver stood close by, standing so heavily on one leg that Thurstan knew the other one was hurt. A man he had never seen before stood behind the king, one hand outstretched as if he was about to touch him on the back of his neck.

       "No," Thurstan gasped, and tried to step forward to stop that touch, but the moment he moved, the image shattered. In the golden sunlight, Oliver and Adela were standing hand in hand, looking upwards, as if trying to catch the last glimpses of a vision that had now faded. Thurstan could see that she had tears in her eyes, and that, this time, she was making no attempt to hide them.

       Thurstan was clutching the door so tightly that his hand was shaking. The vision of the full grown trees had been an illusion, he thought, crafted by the king for everyone to see. But the vision that had come afterwards... It had been clearer than any daydream. It had felt true. But how could that be? He had never had the slightest glimmer of enchantment about him. He had always been completely blind to it.

       "So now," the king said, and Thurstan clung to that voice like a drowning man to a lifeline, "let the whole world know that you are husband and wife." He smiled, and stepped forward, teetering on the edge of the shadow. "Oh, Oliver, I'm so glad for you." There were tears in his eyes. "I wish..."

       Oliver rushed forward, then. It was surely the moment he should have embraced his new wife, but instead he put his arm round the king's shoulders and pulled him close. His lips moved, but this time Thurstan couldn't hear what was said. Then, with an exaggerated sigh, Adela pushed her way in beneath Oliver's other arm, and snaked her arm around the king's back, so the three of them were hugging together.

       Thurstan blinked hard. He wanted to pull back into the darkness and throw himself face first onto the bed, and not come out until it was over. He wanted to cry. He wanted to be held like that. He wanted to hate them, for daring to be happy. He wanted to be part of them. I want to go home, he whispered, and for everyone there to love me.

       He pressed his fist against his mouth and chewed the knuckles, unable to stop watching. The king broke the embrace first, and then Oliver turned away and reached towards the man who had stood for him. His face was naked and defenceless, his emotions clear to all who watched. He was offering to man the chance to share in his happiness. He was offering him his love.

       The man frowned, and bit his lip. He looked over his shoulder, then back again. Then, with a sigh that looked to Thurstan almost like a sigh of defeat, he stepped forward and accepted the proffered embrace. His back was very stiff.

       "I thank you," Oliver cried, after the man had pulled away from him. There were tears on his cheeks. The men in the mountains had never cried, or hidden it if they had. "I thank you all, for being here for me, for being who you are, for being Kindred living in days like these, and still cherishing hope." His voice carried easily, and Thurstan remembered that hearing that the king's seneschal had once been a bard. There was power and magic in his voice, making it difficult not to listen to him.

       "The time we have hoped for for so long has come," Oliver continued. "But it is also the time we have most feared. The king has returned, but the enemies outside this small circle of light are stronger than ever, and have never been more dangerous. The danger is greater than it has ever been. And tonight, too, we mourn the deaths of those who were our kin, who died for us all."

       He turned in a full circle, as if he was seeking every individual one by one, and making sure they were hearing him. Not even the king was spared from that look. His head snapped up, and he looked trapped, and as vulnerable as any normal man.

       "But there is always hope," Oliver said, his voice almost tender in its quietness. "We are the Kindred, and that is what we believe. Suffering makes us what we are, but hope makes us more than what we could be. Even in the darkest night, there is a flame. It is easy to forget where to look for it, and to forget that it even exists at all, but it is there. None of us are alone. We have people who stand beside us, and feel as we feel, and hope what we hope, and would die for the things we hold dear."

       The people were held captive by his words. A woman was standing with her mouth open, clutching her child to her skirts, and a young man was looking at the girl beside him as if he had never seen her before. Adela was holding her husband's hand, looking up at him with fierce pride. The man who had stood for him was staring at his feet as if he wanted to will them to move, but did not know how to. The king was the only one Thurstan could not see. He had drawn back into the shade and stood with one hand pressed against the tree trunk, his face turned slightly away.

       "This is the faith we have always held." Oliver looked up at the sky, and spread his hands. Clasped in his own, Adela's hand moved with his, but he didn't seem to notice, so quickly had her touch become part of him. "We would not be here today if our ancestors had now known how to hope. They loved, and brought children into the world, though they lived in the wilderness and their world was dying around them. They did not despair. Where there was happiness to be found, they found it. And we are only alive because they had learned this lesson: that love and happiness and hope can flourish even in the worst darkness." He clenched his fist in defiant affirmation. "These three things have to survive. What do we have to live for, if we do not have these?"

       "Yes," Thurstan breathed. At some point, he must have pushed through the door covering and teetered out into the sunlight, for there he was, outside and surrounded by light. The wedding was the best way to honour the dead, he could see that know. He had missed so much in the mountains, living with stern men who never spoke of feelings and thought only with their swords. He had never known that men like the king and Oliver even existed. He had never known men who could talk about love, and weep openly, yet be so strong that it was impossible to look away from them. He had never known a man who could make something true just by saying it.

       Oliver smiled, and the spell was suddenly broken. Thurstan tiptoed back, until he was pressed against the side of the hut. "I married Adela tonight because I love her. She courted me, you know, and who am I to refuse her?" A ripple of uncertain laughter swelled in the crowd, and Thurstan found himself laughing, too. He just needed to prove that he could. "But I am glad, too, for our sake. I could wish for nothing more. Tomorrow, everything is changing." He threw his arms wide. "But tonight, for one last night, let us sing."

       Thurstan pressed his face against his numb hand, and felt the tears on his skin, even though his mouth was open and he was laughing.

      

 

       Oliver knelt on the floor. "Are you asleep?" he whispered.

       "No," she said.

       His voice was hoarse. He had stayed with them for hours, playing music and singing. Adela had sat beside him for a while, then wandered off to talk to friends of her own, leaving Oliver holding court alone. After a few hours, they had started to shout bawdy comments at him, telling him that his wife had gone to bed and was he going to join her any time soon. "Soon," he had laughed. The thought of Adela waiting for him had been intoxicating, but it had been so wonderful by the fire, surrounded by laughter.

       "I just don't want it to end," he had admitted to Elias, in a pause between songs. Elias had been flushed from dancing, happier than Oliver had seen him for months. That alone would have been enough to make the evening infinitely precious to him.

       "I know," Elias had said. Then he had gestured with his chin to a pair of boys on the other side of the fire. "That's Thurstan. He was just watching for a while, but then he started to join in a little while ago. I'm glad."

       Oliver had spread his arms, throwing himself backwards onto the ground. Elias had joined him, and they had stared at the stars together, song and laughter weaving around them.

       "They're our people," Oliver had said, "and they're happy. This is how I want to remember them, always." He had rolled over onto his side, propping up his chin on one elbow. And this is how I want to remember you. I wish you were always like this.

       "You should go to her," Elias had said, a little while later. "It's not every day you get married. Hold on to her. Don't let her out of your sight."

       "I won't," Oliver had said fervently, but then he had sighed. "I just don't want this to end." Because tomorrow everything would be different. Tomorrow Elias and Amalric would ride away, and there would be nothing to do but wait for their return.

       "Look at them." Elias had gestured at the gathering. Many of them had been asleep by then, sprawled beneath the trees or around the fire. Oliver hoped they were all smiling in their dreams. "It's over already." He had nudged Oliver's side. "But it's just beginning for you."

       "I'm sorry," he said to Adela, now. "Have you been waiting long?"

       "For eleven years," she murmured, "so what's a few hours more?"

       "Adela," he began. She always laughed and gave light answers. It did him good to hear her, but sometimes he just needed her to be serious. She teased him, but did it hide real hurt?

       "No." He heard the noise of bedclothes as she sat up in bed. Though it was dark, her hands found his face easily, and held it tight, one hand on each cheek. "Oliver, you're the seneschal. I knew that when I chose you. I know you have duties. I don't need to be the only person you love or to be with you for every waking minute." She kissed him, just once, and it was so soft and quick he wanted to press his fingers to his lips to capture the memory before he started to doubt that it had even happened. "I love you, Oliver. You."

       Blinking back tears, he sank forward into her hands. "I love you so much."

       "And besides," she grumbled, as she tugged him face-first towards the bed, "I could hardly fail to notice that you were seneschal, could I? It was rather obvious. Do you think I'm blind? Stupid?"

       "I think you talk too much."

       She removed her hands from his face, and, unbalanced, he fell forwards onto the pillows. His breath left him in a rush. "Well, what else can I do with my mouth?" her voice said, from above him.

       "I can't think." He frowned, and chewed his lip.  "I've got no ideas at all. Have you?"

       "Oh, I think so," she whispered. "I'm sure I have."

       And, much later, when he could think again, he had to admit that her ideas were very good ones indeed.


Chapter three

The death of the rose

      

 

       Thurstan had never been in a place where there was so much birdsong. Delicate birds flitted through the branches, sometimes darting low, sometimes fleeing up to the treetops, to cascade their melody down onto him from above. Even the ground was like something from a dream, with meandering paths of cut flowers and petals weaving across the glade, cast there in the celebrations of the night before.

       It seemed at first as if he was the only one awake, but soon he started hearing the sound of voices, and seeing glimpses of people through the trees. He heard someone say the words "today," and "he will not fail us." He tiptoed forward to try to hear more, but two small boys barged into him, absorbed in a pretend sword fight, and he veered away, embarrassed at being caught listening. The first thing he saw when he turned was a hard-faced man testing his sword for sharpness, and a woman with quick eyes who moved her head like a hawk, tracking the movement of the boys through the undergrowth. The woman smiled at him when she caught him looking, but the man did not.

       A girl walked up to him, and crouched to scoop up a yellow flower. Her skirts billowed around her, and she never once stopped smiling up at him. "Wear this," she said. "It's good luck. A token of happiness."

       "No," he croaked, but his arms fell to his side and he let her weave its stem through the lacings of his shirt. When he breathed in, he could smell both cloying sweetness and dank earth. He wanted to push her away, but she was pretty, and she was still smiling at him. Then, just as he would have spoken to her, she skipped away, already scooping up another flower for another solitary man.

       He staggered from the camp, forcing his stiff limbs to move. He couldn't understand these people, so soft and carefree, and yet at times so like the men he was used to. How could they be both things at once? Gerhard would not approve. Reynard was a traitor, but at least he was a man like those Thurstan knew from home. The others he… I don't know! he wailed. I don't know what to think!

       His feet brought him to a teetering halt at the edge of the stream, where a willow tree overhung the water, its roots protruding from the bank. Thurstan picked his way carefully down to the water, and sat down with a sigh. The root was smooth and the mud was worn with old footsteps, and he wondered whose secret refuge he had found, half-hidden from the world, and whether they would come back for it and be angry with him for being there. 

       Dragonflies darted low across the water, and a frog jumped in the reeds, sending up a cascade of droplets that shone like jewels in the morning light. Thurstan rested his elbows on his knees and leant forward, looking through the shallow water at the fine pebbles of gold and grey. He tried to touch them with his toe, but when he broke the surface of the water, the image fragmented into shards of light, and he could no longer see the bottom.

       Who do I look like? he wondered. He slid to his knees in the mud, water lapping up to his wrists. The king had mentioned that he looked like someone in the camp, but who? There had to be signs of Gerhard in his face, if he looked hard enough. He frowned and glared, trying out the most Gerhard of expressions, but the water was moving too fast. All he could see were patches of paleness and a smear of dark hair. His eyes looked too big and his mouth was grotesque. He looked like a monster.

       With a cry of frustration, he climbed up the bank again, slipping a little in the mud. He tugged at a clump of grass and some of it tore away, sticking to his wet palm. He walked along the edge of the stream, wiping his hands on his cloak to dry them, stamping a little as he went.

       He had almost trodden on the man before he saw him. Thurstan stopped himself with a gasp, and stood there frozen, looking down on his king. He was fast asleep, curled loosely on his side beneath a sheltering tree. He was half covered with a black cloak, and his hair had fallen over his face, though not enough to hide him. One hand lay close to his face, on the grass. A scattering of delicate white flowers grew beneath that hand, and Thurstan wondered if they had been there the night before, or if the king's touch had called them into joyous life.

       Thurstan sank to his knees. There were even more birds in the trees that sheltered the king than there had been in the camp, and their songs were more proud and more beautiful. As he watched, a rabbit loped out of the long grass and paused next to the king, as if to do homage to him, but it darted off when it saw Thurstan. So this man was why the Kindred could he joyful as well as harsh, and why the camp was so rich in flowers. Beautiful things sprang up wherever the king went, and light shone even in the hearts of the most desolate of people.

       I need your light, Thurstan whispered. He grasped hold of the flower the girl had woven into his shirt, and its petals crumpled in his hand and bled onto the ground. But it was nothing, just a dying thing that had once been beautiful. The king could make living flowers grow. The king could work miracles. The king could bring Gerhard back to life, and make Thurstan happy again.

       With a quiet moan, the king rolled over onto his back, and opened his eyes. Thurstan recoiled, suddenly afraid to be discovered spying, but the king just smiled when he saw him. "Did you sleep well?" he asked.

       "Yes," Thurstan managed. His eyes widened as he realised something. "Did you sleep here all night?"

       The king stretched. There were grass stains on his shirt, and a twig in his hair. "All night, yes. I don't normally sleep this late. I can't normally… I don't need much sleep."

       Thurstan's hand flew up to his mouth. "I'm sleeping in your bed, aren't I? That's why you had to sleep outside. I'm sorry. I didn't realise. I'm so sorry."

       The king smiled. "You are, yes, but I often sleep outside when it's warm. I like it. Enchantment's stronger out here. I like being surrounded by... by everything. It makes it seem very real, as if..." He sighed, shaking his head. "I just like it."

       "You gave me your bed," Thurstan repeated. The hut he had woken up in had seemed so plain, not like anyone's home. The only decoration had been the old faded tapestries that he knew now were probably heirlooms. Surely even a king should have little keepsakes that he kept around his bed, marking it as particularly his own, a place he was comfortable and safe and at home.

       The king stood up, shaking out the creases from his cloak, then flung it over his shoulders. The hem brushed the tip of the blade of grass, and swirled expansively whenever he moved. I've seen a cloak like that before, Thurstan thought, but he couldn't remember where.

       Thurstan closed the short distance between them, trotting up to the king's elbow. "When are you going to leave?"

       "Today," the king said. "This morning. Now."

       Thurstan dared grab his arm. "Take me with you."

       The king did not shake him off. "I would rather you stayed here and regained your strength. You've played your part. You've done well and deserve to rest. I would spare you the dangers of the journey if I could."

       "I want to go," Thurstan protested. "I need to. I..."

       The king cut him off. "I know. You don't need to explain how you feel. I understand, and I know that it would be cruel to force you to stay. So, yes, you can come with me. I expected nothing less."

       Thurstan grinned with anticipation. "Now?" Just the two of them, slipping away from the camp, running away together to save Gerhard's life. Let Reynard stamp and curse, but he would never find them, not until they rode three abreast back into the camp, victorious.

       "Not quite now." The king chuckled. "I need to pack some things." He started to walk back to the camp. "Can you ride a horse, Thurstan?"

       Thurstan nodded stoutly. "A little. And I can learn the rest."

       "Good." The king walked away, more gracefully than any normal man "Wait here," he called over his shoulder. "I'll be back soon."

       Thurstan gazed after him until he was gone, lost in the trees. With a sigh, he returned to the place where the king had been sleeping, and sat down. The grass was still flattened in the shape of the king's body, and Thurstan touched the place where his cheek had lain, then touched the flowers that had bloomed beneath his hands. It was comfortable, as if even the earth had shaped itself into arms, welcoming the man who was its king. Thurstan nestled down into its embrace, and soon he felt his eyes slipping shut.

       How would it be, he wondered. Smiling, he rode beside the king in his imagination. They rode through fields together, and flowers opened up joyfully as the king passed, and long stems of wheat bowed their heads to him. In no time at all, they reached the city, where the king waved his hand and the walls melted away to nothing. No-one could stop them, not even the black-uniformed soldiers who came surging out of a dark fortress, fighting under a silver banner. Thurstan was afraid, then, but he did not run. He drew his sword and fought them, and he stopped an ugly man from sneaking up from behind to stab the king, and the king thanked him.

       Then, side by side, they waded through the scattered soldiers until they reached the place where Gerhard was being held. Gerhard was hurt, but not badly. The king freed him with a wave of his hand, and healed him with a touch. "You came," Gerhard said. "I knew you would. I'm so proud of you, my son."

       Thurstan threw his arms round his father. "I'm so sorry for everything."

       His father soothed him. "You have nothing to be sorry for, Thurstan." He ruffled his hair, and for the first time ever he said, "I love you."

       And, hand in hand, the three of them would stride from the cell, and there would be no-one to stop them, only empty corridors where silver banners hung limp and useless, and broken swords lay abandoned in the corners.

       He smiled, and shifted position, ruffling his fingers through the grass. The breeze touched his hair like a father's hands, and the sun was warm on his face. But horses were stamping and men were calling out in harsh voices. The soldiers weren't gone after all, but hiding, sniggering as the king walked into their trap. With a cry, they surged out of concealment and fell on him, hacking at him with their swords.

       Thurstan's hands flew up to his face, and he lost his grip on both the king and his father. Gerhard pulled out his sword, but a man in black ran him through. The king raised his hands, readying his magic, but the soldiers fell on him and brought him down. Thurstan just stood and watched. Gerhard died, and his killer wrenched out his bloody sword and wiped it, grinning as he did so. The sound it made as it left Gerhard's body was terrible. The king was captured, bound at the centre of a wheel of swords. His face as he looked at Thurstan was empty and dead.

       "No!" Thurstan screamed. He opened his eyes, but they were still there, the men, men in dark clothes looking down at him with sardonic smiles.

       "Still asleep?" one of them said. Thurstan blinked, and saw that he had three swords. Then he blinked again, and saw that it was Reynard.

       Only a dream. Thurstan had fallen asleep and his fears and his hopes and got confused, then spilled over into his waking. Only a dream, but... "Leave me alone," he stammered.

       Reynard looked as if he was about to say something, but then the king appeared, and Reynard's face changed utterly. "You need a sword," he said to the king, his voice crisp, and all cruelty gone from his face. "I don't care what you say. You're wearing it, or we're not leaving this place."

       The king took one of the proffered swords and fastened it to his belt without even looking at it. "I won't use it. You know that."

       "But you have it," Reynard said, "which means that I've done my part. We don't know what we're going to face. If we're attacked, you might even find that you want to defend yourself. Stranger things have happened."

       "I will defend myself," the king said, "just not with a sword."

       "Whatever you say." Reynard turned back to Thurstan. "And you, boy. We found this near where we found you. Is it yours?"

       Thurstan snatched the sword from Reynard's hand and held it close. Gerhard himself had given it to him. "They're going, too?" he asked the king.

       The king looked at him with sympathy. "I was going to tell you, but Reynard was quicker than I thought he'd be. There are… good reasons for him coming. Please believe me on that. You can trust him with your life. And the others, too. Ranulf, Amalric, Julien and Joscelin."

       Thurstan could not bring himself to speak. How could he say that it was a good thing for Reynard to be here, when he was a traitor and a conspirator, and the king was blind to the truth about him?

       The king leant close to Thurstan. "We'll get there," he whispered. "I can't promise victory, not as you might dream of it. But I promise that if Gerhard is alive, I will not leave the city without him. I will hold nothing back."

       "I know." Thurstan nodded. His voice started to crack. "Thank you."

       A horse had been brought for the king, and he mounted it easily. Then Oliver and Adela were there, hurrying out of the trees hand in hand. They broke apart and Oliver rushed forward, and the king rode to meet them. Oliver rested his hand on the horse's neck and he talked to the king, leaning upwards as the king leant down. After a little while, they clasped hands briefly, and parted. As the king rode back, Adela appeared at her husband's side and slipped her hand into his bereft one. He raised their joined hands to his lips and kissed her fingers, but did not take his eyes from the king.

       "It's time to go," the king said. He rode forward, and Reynard's men immediately took up their positions around him, two of them hurrying ahead, and two of them flanking him on either side. Reynard himself rode directly behind him, where he could watch his every move. It had all been as quick and effortless as the dances at the wedding feast, every man taking his predetermined places.

       Thurstan remembered his dream, and something clenched in his chest. The king had been bound as a prisoner, held captive at the centre of a wheel of blades, and his face had been detached and bleak, just like it was now.

       Had it been a vision? He had seen a true vision the night before, he was sure of it. But how could he tell what was a vision and what was just a dream? How could he tell? All dreams now would carry that little seed of fear that perhaps they were not just dreams, but a vision of terrible things to come.

       We should stay here, he thought. We shouldn't go at all. Because Gerhard had to be dead by now, didn't he? He had been badly hurt, and it would be a week before they reached the city, and it was already days since the attack, long days all blurred into one long nightmare of running. The king was risking his life for a man who was already beyond his help, leaving the safety of his woodland glade and riding off in the company of a traitor and his hand-picked men, towards a place where his enemies had already stuck down men who had seemed so unassailable and mighty.

       "Thurstan." Someone was calling his name. He opened his eyes and saw that the king had come back for him. Reynard and his men had moved apart, and stood in a loose line, watching.

       "I'm scared," Thurstan whispered.

       The king did not offer false comfort. All he did was smile, and gesture at the place beside him. "Ride with me, Thurstan. It would be nice to have someone to talk to on the journey." He leant forward and whispered confidingly, "And Reynard's not such good company."

       Amazingly, Thurstan found himself giggling. "I don't suppose he is."

       Side by side, they rode past Oliver and Adela. Adela gave a little wave with her fingers, but Oliver raised his hand and held it high, like a salute. "He stood like that last time," the king murmured, "wishing me success, but wishing I would stay. But he was alone then, and now he isn't."

       The others fell into place around them, like prison bars clanking shut. He's a prisoner, Thurstan thought. It's not a dream or a vision. It's really true. But the king seemed oblivious to it. He smiled when he talked to Thurstan, but the rest of the time he just looked straight ahead, looking like a man riding with dignity to his own execution. He did not touch his reins, but kept his hands in front of him, the wrists crossed over as if they were bound. His horse just followed the ones in front, going wherever they led, and the king had no control over the direction he went in. He might as well have been led by a halter round the neck, Thurstan thought, and be blindfolded and chained.

       But I know, he swore, and I will remember. He had a sword now, and he could protect the king, when Reynard made his move. He had eyes and a voice, so he could keep an eye on the conspirators and tell the king what he saw.

       He moved his horse closer the king's, ready to tell him everything, but the king looked at him with a serene expression that made all Thurstan's words dry up in his throat. "Please don't worry, Thurstan," he said. "It's not how you think it is."

       This was from the man whom even Gerhard had revered, who could set birds to singing and make flowers grow, and could fill a forest glade with beautiful pictures. So who was Thurstan to think that he knew better than the king? Who was he to think the king could not deal with Reynard? Who was he to be afraid, and worry that the king would be overwhelmed when they faced the enemy?

       He was the king, and he could do anything. All Thurstan had to do was ride alongside him and watch as the world fell at his feet, and everything was happy again, for ever after.

      

 

       "This is the borderland," the king said. "I remember Reynard saying that, the last time I rode to the city." He touched the stone slab, brushing away the thick grass with the palm of his hand. "Borders are strange places, caught between two worlds. Who knows what lies across the border?"

       Thurstan's hands swung limply at his side. "Between worlds?" He peered around, half expecting the trees to come alive and leer at him, and strange monsters to take shape in the dark shapes of the branches.

       The king's hand stilled for a moment. "The other world is always close." He looked up, his head tilted to one side as if he was listening. "Living and breathing and moving, so close, but so impossible. I could open a door and step through now, and never come back. And less than week would have passed. He wouldn't even have forgotten me."

       Thurstan frowned. "My lord?"

       The king started, then stood up, brushing dirt from his hands. "I'm sorry, Thurstan. Between worlds? I just meant that this is the edge of the forest. It's different on the other side."

       "Dangerous." They had ridden for a day and a half, and had seen nothing dangerous yet, and who could tell what was waiting for them outside the trees?

       "It's dangerous everywhere," the king said, "but I won't let anything happen to you." He touched Thurstan's arm briefly, then looked away, his mind clearly drifting onto other things. Mumbling something Thurstan could not make out, he wandered off, perhaps to tend to his horse. Thurstan was blessed that the king spent even this much time with him.

       After he had gone, Thurstan knelt beside the stone slab and touched it, following the lines in the dirt made by the king's fingers. Have I been here before? he wondered. He remembered stumbling and sobbing across the grassy plain, and then the grasping branches of trees tangling in his hair as he entered the forest, but it all came only in snatches. He had run for days, but remembered only the torn fragments of a nightmare, shot through with darkness and blood. Maybe, one day, he would see a fork of a tree, or a clump of flowers, or the way the shadow fell on a patch of hillside, and suddenly he would think, yes, I know this place. I was there. But perhaps it was best not to look. Perhaps it was best not to remember.

       Something scraped beside him, leather against. He started, gasping, for it was such a familiar sound, like Gerhard crouching beside him in the mountains.

       "Easy, lad," a voice said. "I'm not going to hurt you."

       It was Ranulf, the oldest one of Reynard's men. He rode with Reynard, and that made Thurstan want to hate him, but his eyes seemed kind. "I didn't think you were," Thurstan said stoutly.

       Ranulf stretched out his long legs, sighing with exaggerated relief. "My old bones don't take so well to riding nowadays. It's good to rest, is it not?"

       "I want to carry on," Thurstan admitted. "I don't want to stop, ever."

       Ranulf looked at him with sympathy. "I know what it's like. I've lost people I love. We all have." Without being aware of it, perhaps, he pushed up his right sleeve and rubbed his forearm with the ball of his thumb. There was an old scar there, ridged and twisting from wrist to elbow. "And I had reason to blame myself."

       Thurstan looked at the scar, but he did not ask the man how he had gained it. He thought Ranulf wanted him to, and wanted to tell it like a story to a child, or a moral lesson to a pupil. Thurstan was no longer a child, and nothing could make things better, especially not the words of a man who had sworn allegiance to Reynard.

       "No." Thurstan turned his head away. "You can't understand. None of you can."

       "Perhaps we can." Ranulf spoke mildly, seemingly unoffended by Thurstan's rejection. His voice was slow and considered, just as all his movements were deliberate. "We are Kindred. We know what loss is." He clapped his hand on Thurstan's shoulder. "I know the king gives you what you need, but beware of depending on him too much. He is not what you think he is. But we are your kin. Some things, perhaps, we understand better even than he does."

       Thurstan whirled on him. "Don't speak about him like that!"

       Ranulf spread his hands. "I have every respect for him. I just worry that... Please try to see past the glamour, Thurstan. Remember the burden he bears, and..." He sighed. "I've said too much. I just want you to remember what I've said. We aren't your enemies, but your kin. I would like to think that you could talk to me."

       "I don't want to talk to anyone."

       He got up and stalked into the forest, leaving Ranulf behind. Brambles scratched at his bare arms and he scowled at them, tucking his hands protectively beneath his armpits. A woodpecker hammered, but it fell silent as he approached, and he caught a glimpse of green as it flew away. Fleeing from me, he thought. Everyone did. They sent him away, and then they died, and left him forever, all alone.

       A sob strangled in his throat, but then he was caught, a strong hand on his elbow, holding him tight. "The Kindred do not walk so loud," Reynard hissed. "I thought you were the enemy. I could have killed you."

       Thurstan wanted to spit in his face. "You almost did, the other day."

       Reynard did not release him. "You heard, then?"

       "I heard."

       "But you cannot understand the truth." Reynard released him, pushing him away so violently that Thurstan almost fell. "You believe the obvious thing. You've puffed yourself full up with hatred. You spend your time dreaming of ways to humiliate me and hurt me. Is that the truth?"

       "I heard you say you were a traitor." It sounded too like the squeaking voice of a scared child.

       "I am, but I am also loyal." Reynard had not sheathed his sword, and circles of light slipped through the leaves and ran up and down the blade. "Make of that what you will, boy, for I owe you no explanations. And hate me, if you like. It's nothing to me." His mouth curved into a cruel smile. "A man came here last year. He hated me, too. He made himself look foolish with his accusations and his tantrums."

       A tree slammed into Thurstan's back, and he realised that he had been retreating, and could retreat no more. "So you killed him." His mouth felt very dry.

       Reynard gave a sharp bark of laughter. "I saved his life. Then he went away. There was something very precious that he wanted to take with him, but we kept hold of it. We kept it, and we will never lose it, not to anyone."

       "I... I don't know what you're talking about," Thurstan stammered.

       "The king," Reynard hissed. "He is ours. And you endanger him with your whining and your pleas and your... your everything. If we'd done it my way, he wouldn't be here. Don't you even care that he could be killed before the week is out, all because you made him leave the safety of the net we had woven around him?"

       "You were going to kill me!" Thurstan hurled at him. "You're a traitor. And he's the king. He's more powerful than anything. He can't die."

       Reynard grabbed Thurstan by the chin, his fingers digging into his throat. "Do you really believe that? For all Gerhard's crimes, I would never have expected him to have raised a fool."

       Hot tears burned a path of shame down Thurstan's cheeks. "Don't say his name," he moaned. "Please, you're hurting me."

       Reynard's grip tightened, and he twisted Thurstan's head one way then the other, raking him with his eyes, his face only inches from Thurstan's. His thumb sank into Thurstan's cheek, and his fingertips dug into the flesh just below his eyes. Thurstan went limp, his whole weight supported by his face. His jaw grated, and his mouth was squashed, dribbling into Reynard's hand.

       "I'm trying to see who your mother was," Reynard growled, pushing Thurstan away so his head smashed against the tree, and his knees sagged, his body sliding down to the ground and pooling there in broken misery. Reynard stalked away a few steps. "Perhaps I should have killed you anyway. It would be a fair revenge."

       Thurstan nursed his bruised face and caught his tears on his fingertips before they could fall. "I don't know who my mother was," he whispered. "Do you know? Do you know her name?"

       Reynard whirled round and came back to him, making Thurstan recoil. "Never think that the king is invulnerable," he said, but it was a colder voice, less brutal than it had been a moment before. "If you believe that, you wrong him far worse than I do. Last time he went to the city, he almost died. I will not let that happen again. There is nothing I would not do to keep him safe. Nothing."

       Thurstan managed to raise his head. "But you keep him prisoner."

       "Better a prisoner and safe," Reynard said, "than free to throw his life away. Only worthless jewels are left lying around, unguarded, and he is the most precious jewel of all. And I promise you, boy, I will kill you if you get in the way of the oaths I have sworn."

       "And I'll expose your treachery," Thurstan vowed. "I promise you that." But Reynard's eyes had burned with conviction and his voice had vibrated with passion. He believes it, Thurstan thought. He hasn't got the slightest doubt but that he's right. And it seemed like a thing to be envied, that he could have such certainty, and no cold fears clawing at him in the dark, telling him that he had done the wrong thing, that everyone had died because of him.

       Someone shouted, but Thurstan could not hear what they said. Reynard's head jerked up. Thurstan caught a quick glimpse of his face. Scared, he thought. He looks afraid. Guilty. But surely that was wrong. Hadn't he just been thinking about how men like Reynard never felt such things?

       They shouted again, and Reynard exploded into life, leaping over Thurstan's body, rushing forward to greet the man who was plunging through the undergrowth. He caught him, hands on shoulders, and screamed into his face. "Back! Get your horse! Go after him!" he bellowed. "Don't let him get away!"

       The king, Thurstan thought, as his head slumped back against the tree, and all the breath left his lungs. He started to shiver, realising just how close he had come to being killed, and how Reynard was gone now, which meant that he was safe. It has to be the king. He's given them the slip. He's escaping.

       He heard the sound of galloping horses. Reynard shouted again. "He's heading out of the forest!" Out of the forest, where armies waited and men in black uniforms laid ambushes and cut people down beneath silver banners. Out of the forest, and Reynard said the king could be hurt after all, and hadn't Thurstan seen the scars on his wrists, so he knew it was true? Out of the forest, and the terrible soldiers who had killed everyone in the mountains wanted the king most of all. Gerhard had told Thurstan that, so it had to be true. 

       "I'm coming," Thurstan cried, as he staggered to his feet, fumbled for his sword, and ran forward to serve.

      

 

       They were shouting behind him. Reynard was shouting to the others to stop him, to bring him back, not to let him get away. Thurstan was calling to him, his voice high and scared. But they grew quieter and further away, drowned out by the pounding hooves.

       He ducked under a branch, and straightened in his saddle as light unfolded around him. He was free of the forest, out in a world of vast blue skies and gentle green hills. He urged the horse forward, splashing across a patch of marsh, specked with yellow kingcups, and towards the hill that rose on the far side. The wind plucked at his hair, stronger than it had been in the forest, as if it had joined with Reynard's cause and it, too, was trying to drive him back.

       "Stop!" Reynard bellowed, not far behind him. Elias twisted in the saddle and saw his pursuers emerging from the tree, with Reynard at their head.

       Elias tried to meet his eyes, and shook his head. "I can't. I can't stop. Can't you ever understand that?" Easy words to say when Reynard would never hear them.

       He veered sideways, skirting the side of the slope. He saw butterflies in the heavy sunlight, and heard the wind whistling in the gorse. The hillside smelled of pollen and almonds, and the memory of Greenslade was suddenly so close that it made him want to cry out. "But that's gone," he told himself. "Gone forever."

       Reynard was closing on him, riding his great black horse ferociously. Elias looked round again, and saw the blood-stained face bearing down on him, teeth bared in a scream of fury. As he did so, an arrow shot past him, only narrowing missing his upper arm. Reynard stood up in the saddle, raising his arm like a declaration of war, and bellowed something to the men behind him. Another arrow came, and Elias has to lunge for the reins and drag on them hard, to keep the arrow from hitting the horse.

       With a cry, Elias hurled himself from his horse, rolling as soon as he hit the ground. It hurt, scraping the skin from his palms, but it would buy him time. Not even Reynard would attempt something like that, he thought. Because even Reynard values his own life more than you value yours. His thoughts spoke in Oliver's voice.

       Elias pushed himself to his feet, but his wrist cried out in protest. Only bruised, he thought, as he clutched it with the other hand and pressed it to his chest. He started to run, scrambling along the slope, slipping and sliding. He glanced over his shoulder. Reynard was riding down Elias's horse, clearly having decided that it was the best way to prevent him from escaping. Without his horse, he could be hunted and reclaimed at leisure.

       There was a hollow in the side of the hill, a dip with a few small trees leaning together round a cluster of stones. There, Elias thought. Half way down, his ankle turned on a stone, and he let himself fall, then hauled himself up to crawl one-handed to the shelter of the trees.

       The man was there, just as Elias had known he would be. He looked as if he had been flung there from the top of the hill and just lay broken where he had landed, but there was a trail of crushed grass that led to the place where he lay, showing that he had crawled.

       "I'm here." Elias touched the man's burning brow. "I heard you. I've come."

       The man flinched, and opened his eyes sluggishly. "Who are you?" His eyes were criss-crossed with red veins. They moved around, searching, and widened as they saw the horsemen who were surely now behind Elias, standing stark against the sky at the top of the slope. "Come to kill me," he moaned.

       "Oh no," Elias assured him. He tried to take the man's head into his lap, and pushed his dirty hair back from his brow. "No-one's going to kill you. I promise you that."

       The man let himself be held, his head slumping back in Elias's lap. Elias's fingers found his neck, where the pulse was racing, then moved over his face. The man let out a shaky breath and closed his eyes, then suddenly they burst open again. "You," he moaned. "I know you. I know who you are."

       "Please stay still," Elias urged him, but the man was in a panic, struggling desperately against Elias's hold. His hand came up, fingers curled into claws, and he scratched Elias's face. He would have clawed at Elias's eyes had not Elias sadly turned away and let the scratch go harmlessly down the side of his neck.

       "Let me go!" the man begged him. "I saw you. I know who you are."

       "Kill him," Reynard commanded.

       "No!" Elias screamed.

       But, "I know you," the man said, and this time his voice was different, and it stole the breath from Elias's lungs and all the warmth from the air around him. "And here you are. And here it begins." He laughed, but the laugh turned into a rattle in his throat, and then he died.

       Elias pawed at his throat, but there was no pulse. He touched his lips, but there was no breath. He was dead. The noise of Elias's heartbeat was the only sound in the world, along with the barren wind that whispered through the grass. "Dead," Elias whispered. "You died, and I was too late to do anything. I'm so sorry."

       He laid the man's head gently down on the ground and passed his hand over his face, closing his eyes. Blood from his palm smeared on the man's face, and he moaned, wiping it off with his sleeve. The man's skin was still warm.

       "Are you finished?" Reynard's voice was very cold.

       Elias closed his eyes, his shoulders slumping as he let out a long breath. He lowered his head, clenched his fist at his side, then raised his head again. He still had his back to Reynard, so his face was hidden. Elias wore a mask as a king, and sometimes the mask fitted him so easily that he found himself wearing it even when alone. But, at times like this, it was almost impossible to wear. He fought the urge to press his face into his hands, physically forcing it into an expression that other people could see.

       Reynard grasped hold of his shoulder from behind, and Elias could feel how he was quivering with fury. "Are you going to say anything?"

       The dead man's hair seemed to twitch in the breeze. Perhaps he could have saved him after all, if he'd been a little quicker, or if he'd resisted the cold shock of the man's last words. He had been impaled by them, and the man had died before he had recovered his thoughts.

       "But you don't need to say anything," Reynard sneered. Elias could hear him pacing up and down behind him. "I know the story by now. There you were, in the forest, when you suddenly heard someone crying for help. You sensed him, in that way you have that no-one else has got, so no-one can guard against. But, rather than telling me, you just leapt on your horse and rode as fast as you could to find him." He stopped just behind Elias and suddenly grabbed his shoulder again, hauling him around. "Didn't you?"

       Elias nodded. "I did. I had to. I... I might have saved him."

       Reynard pushed him away in disgust. "Might have? But who is he, I'm asking myself. Not Kindred, that's for sure. He could have been bait for a trap and you fell right in it."

       "He was hurting so badly." Elias stroked the back of the dead man's hand.

       Reynard kicked the dead man in the stomach. The body folded into the kick, and was driven against one of the rocks. Elias cried out and scrambled to bring him back, to straighten his limbs, but Reynard blocked him with his body. Elias shrank back onto his heels, his hand rising to his mouth. Reynard was towering above him, feet apart, hands on hips.

       "You left the forest." Reynard spat out each word as if they were shards of ice. "You rode out alone. And hadn't we decided that it was too risky? Hadn't we decided to scout it out first? You could have ridden straight into the arms of a waiting army. You could have killed us all. And did you care?"

       "I knew there was no-one there," Elias said. "He was the only one." But you'd still have done it even if there was, something whispered in the back of his mind, as long as you could have made sure that the others wouldn't have followed you.

       "I don't think you even thought about it," Reynard said. "I don't believe you ever think. Sometimes I think you do it deliberately, that you want to die. Sometimes I just think you're very stupid."

       Elias struggled to his feet, wincing at the bruises that were only now starting to hurt. "I'm sorry." But then he raised his head and met Reynard's gaze fully. "But it wasn't wrong to want to help him. There was no danger. How can anyone say it was wrong?"

       Reynard clenched his fists, and Elias was suddenly sure that he was going to hit him. He braced himself for it, but Reynard whirled away, snarling with frustration. He stalked up to Amalric and hit him instead, one fist in the stomach, and one on the chin. Amalric doubled up in pain, his mouth shocking and red and wide open with betrayal.

       "You shot at him," Reynard said. "Stop him, I said, not hurt him. You could have killed him." His voice seemed to crack a little on the last words.

       Amalric wiped his bleeding mouth. "I was aiming at the horse."

       "Never," Reynard spat, as he hit him again, "aim any weapon at your king. Never. Were you trying to kill him? Was I wrong about you?"

       "I was aiming at the horse," Amalric protested. His eyes were shining, and Elias thought he was about to cry.

       "Leave him alone," he pleaded.

       Reynard raked his hands through his cropped hair. "We will return to this later," he promised. He sighed, and touched his sword as if it was his talisman, his own mask. "He must have come from somewhere," he said, gesturing to the dead man. "Find out where. You know what to do."

       Julien and Joscelin nodded and hurried away. Ranulf lingered a little longer, seemingly about to speak, but then he, too, nodded and moved away. Amalric stayed kneeling. "You as well," Reynard said impatiently. Reynard himself did not move. Elias saw Thurstan at the top of the slope, standing frozen and staring at the dead man. His face was very white, so Elias smiled reassuringly at him, and watched his shoulders relax a little.

       Elias began to follow the trail made by the dead man. After a few steps, he stopped and wrapped his arms around his body. He could see the path marked out in broken grass, crushed by a dying man dragging his agonised body up the hill. Elias half closed his eyes, and followed the trail still further with his mind.

       There were birds and mice, tiny insects crawling on thick blades of grass, and golden fishes swimming in cool shadowed water. He felt the wind ruffle a rabbit's fur, and saw how big a flower looked to a butterfly. Beyond that, snaking down through pleasant slopes, he found a place where water lapped against reeds, and swifts darted low through heavy clouds of insects. There was death there, but one man was still alive. His pain was muted, for he was close to unconsciousness, and Elias only found it because he had followed the trail and knew where to look. But it was there. He was there.

       Elias's head snapped up. Reynard was watching him like a hawk. "Another one." Reynard sounded deeply weary. "I knew it. I suppose you want to go after this one, too."

       Elias was already running towards the man, but Reynard grabbed him from behind, wrestling him to the ground. As Elias landed, something rose up and surged back along the trail his mind had followed, attacking him with all the force of a double fisted blow. It was cold and gleeful, and it laughed to see him. "Oh yes," it said. "Come to me, little one."

       "No." He twisted in Reynard's grip, sobbing. Something terrible crept up his arm, crawling along his flesh, making him want to tear at it with his nails to make it go away. Something horrible scraped through the inside of his mind, and he wanted to be sick. "No." But, when he brought his arms up to his horrified face, there was nothing there. When he looked up, he could see only a placid blue sky, with a few clouds of a delicate white.

       He sagged to the ground, and Reynard bestrode him. "Let us handle it." It sounded more like a plea than an order. "Stay here."

       With the dead man, the man he had failed to save? "But it's not safe even here," he whispered. "Nowhere's safe."

       Reynard drew his sword and stalked away a few paces. "But that is no reason to willingly embrace danger. I want you to stay here. Stay with the boy."

       Elias stood up. "You'll kill him, when you find him?" He tried desperately to hide behind the mask, to find the quiet words that marked him as king, but he couldn't, he couldn't. The mask was cracked, and things poured out through the cracks like blood from a dying man's skin, and now Reynard had seen them. Even so, he tried. "He's only one man, not even a soldier. I would like to help him."

       "No!" Reynard screamed. He whirled round, his sword blade sweeping in a broad careless arc. The tip of it caught Elias's upper arm, tearing his sleeve and cutting a fine line across his skin.

       Elias breathed in, then out. This is it, he thought. The end of something, or the start of something new. Even as he thought it, the wind seemed to surge and laugh.

       Reynard looked at his sword, then at the small beads of blood on Elias's shirt. "You were too close," he croaked. His eyes narrowed, on the verge of anger. "But I... I should have known. A good swordsman always knows where his blade is, and I forgot." His face crumpled and he fell to his knees. "Forgive me, my lord. I wounded you."

       Elias started to walk around him. "It has been coming for a long time, I think." Reynard, he knew, responded better to sternness than emotion. "You have opposed me for a long time. Some might say it was deliberate." He could have been more cruel. Never aim a weapon at your king, Reynard had said to Amalric, so he had committed the crime he reviled another for. But Reynard knew it all too well, and it was wrong to be cruel to a man, even if it would free him to save another.

       "No, my lord," Reynard protested. "I have sworn to keep you safe."

       "But you keep trying to stop me from doing what I need to do. You work against me. And that... It hurts, far worse than this little scratch."

       "But I have to." It was close to a wail. Elias had never seen Reynard like this. He had been brought down by a tiny line of blood on a man's sleeve, when not even his son's death had broken him so. "Last time I left you... Last time you went to help someone..." He raised his head, desperately clawing back some pride. "I will not obey you now, not if your commands would only cause you harm."

       "You don't trust me." Elias sighed. "You think I'm a fool. You think I'm trying to get myself killed. You don't trust me to save myself this time."

       "You are still my king," Reynard rasped. "I'd die for you. And you're not a fool. So I don't understand. You say you can save yourself, but you don't act like you want to. So why do you act like you do?" He shook his head. "I don't know. All I can do is try to stop it. All I can do is try to keep you alive. Someone has to. You won't."

       Why can't they understand? Elias thought. Sometimes he felt as if he was still half in another world, watching these people through a veil. He touched them, and the words he said to them seemed to make a difference to them, but none of them could reach through the veil and touch him back. No-one could see. No-one understood. But that's because you don't tell them, he murmured to himself. You don't even tell Oliver.

       "I have to go," he whispered. "I have to try to help this man. I have to." Failed, the dead man's face reproached him. You failed, the other man would scream at him, as he died. Everything was for nothing. It was all for nothing, because you're not even doing good here.

       He started to run, and this time Reynard did not try to stop him.

      

 

       Thurstan kicked at his horse, urging it to go faster. The reins were slippery in his sticky palms. "Please," he begged it. Things were happening ahead of him. There was danger in the valley beyond the stony rise. People could be dying, falling to the ground and screaming, and he wasn't there, just hiding behind the rock watching them fall, then slinking away and leaving their bodies to be picked apart by crows.

       The horse ambled along the path. The king had run ahead, and Thurstan had just watched him. Reynard had flung himself onto his horse and galloped after him, and Thurstan had cried out, thinking he was going to trample the king into the ground, but Reynard had swerved around him and ended up ahead. After that, Thurstan had lost them both. He had been slow to catch his horse, and it had taken three attempts to mount it. And now it wasn't even obeying him.

       The ground began to slope down. There was water at the bottom, little more than a marshy area of wet grass, but the horse saw it and began to trot eagerly towards it. Thurstan hauled on the reins, but the horse doggedly lowered its head and started to drink. Thurstan peered round desperately. Everything was happening just ahead of him, close enough to see. He flung his leg over the horse's back and slid to the ground, sinking into the water up to his ankles. He tried to run, but the water and mud clung to his feet, dragging him back. Water splashed up to his elbows, and clouds of black spread out with every step.

       A coach had fallen onto its side in the water, fifty paces away. The horses were still in harness, straining desperately to free themselves. Thurstan could see two weaving lines of flattened grass, showing where the coach had made its final journey before foundering in the marsh. There was no road anywhere near, or so Reynard had said. Why was it here, except as a trap for the king, as bait? Those black-clothed soldiers would be near enough, smirking beneath their silver banners.

       Everyone else had reached the coach before him. Julien and Joscelin wriggling like snakes through the grass, their faces smeared brown. He could not see Ranulf, but Amalric was standing beside a willow tree, shooting arrow after arrow at the dirty crimson of the coach's roof. Each one bounced off harmlessly, but he just kept on shooting. He only had a few arrows left. Reynard, though, was simply walking forward, his sword held vertically in front of him like a man swearing a promise, his gait sinuous and deadly. "Beware of him when he approaches you like that," they had said of Gerhard, who walked in just the same way. "It means he will be utterly without mercy."

       As for the king... Thurstan stopped and watched him, for the king was coming up last of all. He was walking slowly, his head high, and he was the still centre of the deadly scene, calm and untouched by it all. Surely he had to be in control, because he was the king, but it seemed so strange that he should be walking so, approaching a place of danger.

       Someone screamed. Thurstan's head snapped round. He saw a man lying face down in the water, his hand lost in a clump of yellow flowers. Ripples lapped around him, black water like creeping fingers over the back of his neck. He's dead, Thurstan thought, but he could not see his face.

       The scream sounded again, turning harsh at the end, a screech of fury and hatred. A man crawled through the door of the coach, the door that was now where the ceiling should be, and slid down into the mud. He crawled over to the dead man and turned him over. Thurstan moaned as the man's head splashed into the water, and darkness streamed from his face.

       Reynard did not stop walking. The king raised his hand, but did nothing more. The man pulled a knife from the dead man's belt, and turned round, still crouching. Thurstan thought he would never forget his face, so pale, with two patches of red high on the cheekbones. His hair was sodden, clinging to his neck, and his mouth looked as if someone had slashed his face apart with a sword.

       "You!" the man screamed. "You're the one! You killed them! You killed them all!" He drew his arm back, and Amalric's last arrow grazed his sleeve, and thudded into the wooden roof. He thrust his arm forward, palm opening, and something silver shot from his hand.

       A knife, Thurstan thought. He's thrown a knife. The man had thrown a knife at the king, and the king was hurrying forward, rushing into the embrace of death. Reynard was too far away to push him out of the way. Where was Ranulf? Amalric had shot his last arrow and now had nothing more to give in his king's defence. Thurstan was closest. Thurstan had to be the one to save his king.

       "My lord!" he cried. He plunged forward, water dragging at his legs. He ran, but how could he be fast enough, how could he possibly be fast enough? And then he was falling, floating to the ground, sinking into a bed of white feathers, fragrant as flowers. He rolled onto his back and blinked into pure white light. "My lord," he whispered. He sat up and looked for the king, but he was still dazzled, unable to see. Someone was standing just ahead of him, an ethereal figure with light streaming around it, but surely it could not be a man?

       He closed his eyes, sinking his fingers into the wet grass. When he opened them again, he saw a yellow flower between his fingers, clear in every detail. He raised his head further, but he couldn't see the king.

       I killed him, he thought. I did nothing. I just watched. And now he's dead. The soldiers in the mountains had strange weapons that flashed fire and killed at a distance, and now this man had a knife that exploded in silent white light, turning a man into dust, to be blown away on the wind.

       But I can avenge him. He drew his sword. It slipped in his grip, but he clung into it, and held it. He plunged forward, not daring to look down in case he saw the king's body. They were swarming round the carriage now. Julien had leapt on the roof. Smeared with mud, he looked like a grotesque figure from some childhood nightmare. Ranulf had risen up from the water, hauling himself up by the broken axle, and now stood there frowning. Amalric was scurrying around collecting up arrows.

       The man who had killed the king was dead. Dead, and someone was crying out, mourning him. Dead, and Reynard's dispassionate sword was ripped out of his body, and coming down again for a third blow, and a fourth. Blood was staining the water red, swirling in thick clouds that spread still further when anyone moved.

       Julien jumped from the roof, landing in a crouch beside the body, where he looked up and grinned, his smile the only white thing in his face. Joscelin was already mounting his horse and following the coach's back trail. But that meant that the other man, the man who was kneeling in the mud and reaching out towards the dead man, had to be the king. He was the king.

       Thurstan closed his eyes, letting out a shuddering breath of relief. The king wasn't dead. He was alive, but different. Changed, Thurstan thought, opening his eyes. Because the king's shoulders were slumped, and his hair hung over his face in mud-stained hanks. When Thurstan crept closer, he could see how fast he was breathing, and how exhausted he looked. His face was very pale, and his hands seemed to be trembling.

       He looked like a normal man, but by how could that be? Thurstan pressed his fingers to his eyes, trying to clear his sight so he could see the truth. He went over his memories of the last few minutes and realised what had really happened. The white light had been the king's power. The king hadn't needed Thurstan to protect him at all. He had simply raised his hand and the knife had flashed out of existence, in a blaze of enchantment that had sent Thurstan reeling and confused him for a while.

       Who was Thurstan to think he could save the king? He was only a child in a world of men. He was forever an observer, cowering in the dirt, watching death unfold. He wasn't good at anything. He was a child, ordered early to bed, while the men talked around the fire and made their plans for the morning.

       Thurstan took a deep breath. He wiped his eyes again, smearing mud onto his lips. The taste of it made him spit with disgust, but even that suddenly felt like a childish gesture. The king wouldn't do it. Reynard wouldn't do it. Reynard, although Thurstan hated him, was one of the great ones, for he had won the loyalty of men like Ranulf and Julien. Reynard would never hide behind a rock and watch people die.

       He walked up behind the king, and tried to think of something to say, but the only things he could think of sounded childish, so he bit his lip and said nothing.

       "Why did you have to kill him?" the king was asking.

       Reynard stabbed the dead man one last time. No more blood flowed out of his corpse. "Because he tried to kill you. Not even you can deny that."

       "He did." Thurstan saw how the king was clenching his hands in his lap, the knuckles white beneath the streaks of mud. "But it wasn't him."

       Reynard splashed over to a clump of reeds and wiped his sword, then drew the blade across his thigh to dry it, first one side, then the other. Slamming it into its sheath, he asked, "What do you mean it wasn't him?"

       "I mean..." The king took a deep breath. Thurstan was close enough to hear how it quivered a little. Maybe the king was cold from kneeling in the water. "I think... something was influencing him. Both of them. They... said things. I... felt things."

       Ranulf turned to his men and gave them quick orders. Cut the horses free, but hold on to them. Turn the coach over and search it. Find out who the men were, and where they were going. Only when his orders were being obeyed did he turn back to the king. "It doesn't matter," he said. "He was a threat to you. He might have had another knife. Would you still have taken him into your arms like a child and nursed him? Yes," he answered, before the king could speak. "And so I had to stop that from happening."

       The king raked his hands through his hair, then ran them down his face. "He was very ill. You could have tied him up, if you thought he was dangerous. I just wanted to make him better."

       Reynard gave a bark of laughter. "And then what? Carried him all the way to the city as our prisoner, watching him all the time in case he tried to finish the job he started today? I think not."

       The king sighed, and slumped forward into the water, catching himself belatedly with his hands. He started to rock to and fro, and the water responded to his movement, making the dead man's hair dance. "It wasn’t his fault," he murmured.

       Reynard walked round him in a half circle. "Then whose was it?" he demanded, stopping in front of the king. "Mine?"

       "Not yours." The king's voice was hardly there at all. "I know why you do what you do. I even understand it. I wish you wouldn't, but I know why. But this... It was something else. Something terrible."

       Reynard was about to speak, but Julien appeared at his elbow. "Chests," he said. "Lots of them. Packed with clothes and money and books. Hardly any weapons." He wrinkled his nose. "It stinks. They were sick, the people in there."

       "Sick," the king echoed. "Two of them in the coach, and the coachman. Was he sick, too? Is that why they left the road and ended up here? They'd packed what they could and were running away, hoping to outrun whatever it was that was killing them. But they couldn't. They found me. Or maybe they were led to me."

       "We have to go." Reynard looked genuinely afraid. "We don't want to catch it." His head snapped up. "Led to you?"

       "They both said they knew me," the king said, his voice listless, his eyes staring bleakly at the dead man. "Though maybe they saw me on the scaffold in Eidengard. Maybe that all it means." He wrapped his arms around his body and shivered.

       "Come on." Reynard tugged at his elbows, then tried to drag him up bodily. "We've got to go. If it was a trap, we have to get as far away as possible. Even if it isn't, we can't stay here, not where there's sickness."

       The king swallowed. "Bury them?"

       "No." Reynard shook his head. "No time." But his face clearly said, They're not worth it.

       The king stood up. His cloak was lank around his ankles, and he looked like a forlorn child. "I want to bury them."

       "Put them in their coach with their riches," Reynard said. "Out of the weather, safe from animals, and with all the worldly wealth they chose to bring with them. Gather some flowers and scatter them on their bodies, if it will make you feel better, but there's no time for anything else."

       The king crouched down and started to pick the yellow flowers, his lips moving soundless as he did so. "Yes," he said. "I'll do that."

       Reynard stalked away, and Thurstan was left alone with the king. He was suddenly unsure of how to look at him, but the king paused, holding a bunch of yellow flowers lightly to his chest. He smiled at Thurstan, and Thurstan smiled back, unable to hide his relief. The king was the king again. The strange mood that had fallen over him in the aftermath of the white light had gone, and Thurstan had his king back, and that, at least, was good.

      

 

            It was long after midnight when Reynard relented and let them halt. They had seen no sign of pursuit and no trails left by any marching armies, but Reynard had insisted that they take precautions all the same. They had skirted the edge of the meadowland, taking a longer route through the hills to the west. "More concealed," Reynard had said. "And less predictable. Any of our normal routes may have been marked."

       They stopped in a small cleft in the hillside, where pale roses shone in the moonlight, filling the night with their scent. The air was chilly, for summer was nearing its end. Even so, they did not light a fire.

       Elias sat with his arms wrapped around his knees, and stared at the place where the fire would have been. He yearned for the flames with an intensity that surprised him. He was colder than the night warranted, and he wanted a fire to warm him, and a light to drive away the shadows that seemed to shamble towards him and pluck at his cloak. But he would still feel cold, even in the brightest day. There would still be dark corners in his soul, even if he stood on the surface of the sun.

       Two men had died today, and he had been unable to save them. He had killed them both, and each fresh death brought the other ones back. They glided up to him like ghosts, touching him on the face, forcing him to look at their dead faces. Sophie was there, lost in a fire because he was too slow. Isembard, Reynard's son, whom he had pushed into a stream and forgotten. The girl on the scaffold in the city. All of them dead, and he might have saved them, had he tried harder, had he run faster, had he given a little more of himself.

       But the deaths were not even the worst thing. Something had spoken to him in the dying man's voices. Something had touched him, gleeful and terrible. Something was coming, and it knew him. Like the animals that had attacked him in the storm, the dying men had been invaded and controlled by someone else, led to attack him without any thought of their own safety.  It's going to come back, he had told Oliver, and now it had. It had come back, stronger than before, and it still wanted him.

       Or maybe it really was that they merely remembered him from the scaffold. Maybe his picture was plastered on notices all over the duchy, so every last person knew the face of the man whose dark magic they believed was behind everything evil. Maybe he was just exhausted and hurting from the enchantment he had used, and everything else was only in his imagination.

       He closed his eyes. He wanted someone he could talk to, someone to listen to his fears and tell him what to believe. But Oliver was far away, and he probably wouldn't have told him, anyway. He would have wanted to, but would have held back, afraid that he would break down and cry, and that Oliver would feel bound to stay with him until he felt better.

       I wish you were here, master, he whispered. I need you. But Ciaran was gone, gone without a goodbye, gone and never looked back. His master was gone, and Elias had chosen it that way, chosen to be alone, chosen to make his own decisions, striving to be the best king he could, doing his duty in every way possible. His master was gone.

       Elias was alone. There was no-one here he could talk to. He could see them now, dark shadows in the night. Reynard was staring at his sheathed sword, doubtless brooding about how it had shed his king's blood. Amalric was staring at Reynard, but too far away from him to be anything other than a stranger. Thurstan had scooped up a handful of earth and was trickling it through his fingers. Elias knew the boy was miserable, and that at least was something he could help.

       He stood up and walked over to the boy. "I'm going for a walk," he said. "Do you want to come?"

       Thurstan's head snapped up. "Me?"

       He thought he was nobody, Elias knew, and far beneath his king's notice. He gave a rueful smile. How little he knows. "Yes, you, Thurstan," he said. "I would like some company. Would you do that for me?"

       Thurstan scrambled to his feet. "Of course, my lord." Elias could see that he was beaming, pleased to think he was serving his king. And perhaps he is helping me, Elias thought, for he felt a little warmer for talking to someone, and the moonlight seemed a little brighter now he had made someone smile.

       "I need to thank you," Elias said, as they began to walk. "You were willing to risk your life to save me, earlier. You showed great courage." He said it loud enough for Reynard and the others to hear, and for Thurstan to know that they had heard it. He even managed to keep his voice level when he spoke about people dying for him. With Thurstan, he had to be the sort of king a scared boy needed him to be. He could not let the mask slip.

       "But you didn't need me at all." Thurstan tried to sound casual, but his true misery seeped through.

       "Does it matter?" Elias asked. "You thought I needed you, and you acted. That's what important, not the outcome."

       Thurstan swallowed. "What did you do?" he asked. "There was so much white light. Did you make the knife just... not be there."

       "Did I unmake it?" Elias shook his head. "Not exactly. I suppose the effect was the same."

       "Then you can unmake anything," Thurstan said eagerly. "Chains. Swords. The soldiers. Lord Darius."

       Just wave my hand and all the bad things will go away. Wave my hand and stop Darius from existing, so perhaps I can sleep without dreaming of him. Elias smiled sadly. "It doesn't work like that, Thurstan. I can't unmake things, certainly not living things. But the knife was small, a dead thing that had never been alive. I just... burnt it away with enchantment. Dissolved it. Made it dust." It was a sad thing, he thought, that he could do such a thing with enchantment. He couldn't make things out of nothing, but he could destroy. It was so much easier to tear things down than to build them. It was easier to be wounded than to heal.

       "It was amazing," Thurstan said. "I've never seen deep enchantment before. I wish I could do enchantment - illusion, I mean, like normal people do. I never could."

       "Very few people can," Elias said. "They could once, but not now. It's dying."

       Thurstan sighed. "Where shall we go, my lord?"

       "Elias," he corrected, though he knew there was no point. Only a handful of the Kindred had been persuaded to call him by his real name, and Thurstan would never be one of them. They only saw their king, and Elias was forgotten. "I don't know," he said, shrugging. "Let's just walk and see what we can find."

       He was very aware of Reynard watching them as he walked away. Nothing had been settled between them today. Neither of them had yielded, and they never would. If it was true, and something terrible was reaching its long arm over the world, then Elias would only have to give more and more of himself, and Reynard would have to fight him ever more. He could see no good ending.

       Thurstan walked ahead of him, heading for a narrow sheep track that slanted up the side of the valley. Brambles and roses lined the path, and Thurstan played the gallant, holding them back for Elias to pass. Elias smiled his thanks, and knew it did Thurstan good to be able to do such simple a service. The tension about the boy's neck and shoulders was already easing a little.

       "Is it safe to stand on the top?" Thurstan asked. "I want to see the view. I always loved the view from the mountains at night."

       The mountains that had been his home. The home that would never be home again. "I think so," Elias answered. His hand brushed against a rose, and the petals fell like tears to the ground. "I'd like to see the view, too." But there had not been mountains in his home, just gentle green hills, so like this one. He and his master had walked there on summer evenings and watched the stars together, and those hills had smelled of roses, too.

       "I always liked the stars," Thurstan said. "Nothing changes them."

       "No." Elias paused, and looked more closely at the rose. The petals had fallen off, and the heart of the flower was brown and rotten. The whole branch was dying. He ran his hand along it and the thorns snagged on his skin, raising a flash of a vision in the moonlight, of a barren wilderness beneath a slate-grey sky, where the only plants were dead thorns, and the only remains of life were chunks of dead flesh caught on their barbs.

       He exhaled, and the sound of his breath was like the wind sorrowing through the bones that inhabited that lifeless world. He crouched down and pressed his hand to the earth, but it, too, was dead. The grass was withered and brown, and the worms and ants and spiders that lived beneath the ground were already decaying.

       Dead, he whispered. Dead, and he shivered, as a voice shrieked that same word in the lifeless plain of his vision. It was his own voice, for he was the only person left alive in the world. It had died beneath his touch. He had killed it. He had come to this land as a stranger from another world, and he was poison, like infection in an unsullied body. Death spread out from his every step, like mud billowing up in the marsh. He had killed so many people. He had brushed against a rose, and its beauty had crumbled. He had touched the ground, and now there was a single patch that would be forever dead, the exact size and shape of his hand.

       He raised his hand slowly, twisting it in the moonlight, but there was no stain on it, and no blood. "My lord?" Thurstan croaked, and Elias realised that he was kneeling on the hillside, and that something in his mind was laughing. The barren plain had only been a vision, and not even a true one, he thought. It had been shown to him to torment him, to make him believe something that was not true.

       "It's not me," he whispered. Perhaps the world was dying and one day would be nothing more than that bare wilderness, but he was not the one who was destroying it. He had caused some deaths, but he had saved lives, too, and he had healed things more often than he had destroyed. He had stayed in this world because he had sincerely believed that he could do good here, and he still believed that. He had to. "Not me," he said, again. "But I know you're there. I'll stop you. I swear it."

       For the land was beautiful, and it was dying, and this, this small patch of dead earth the size and shape of Elias's hand, was the very start of it. More would come, he knew it. Perhaps he had known ever since the storm, and had known that the spring and summer were only one last flowering of beauty, to make its passing all the more dreadful.

       But this is the beginning of the end, he thought. He ran his fingers along a blade of grass, and could almost feel the strength of the sap in its veins. He breathed in, smelling the roses, and looked up at the silver stars above him. There were shadows at the foot of the slope, and they were Reynard and the others, each one alive, each one oblivious to what had started on this night.

       All this is passing. He wanted to fling open his arms and embrace the whole world, hugging close everything he could see. It was beautiful, and it was his world now, that he had given up everything for. It was full of pain and hatred, but it was full of people who loved, and gentle people who smiled at beauty. He would give anything to protect it, the world and everything in it.

       "I'll stop you," he swore. "I'll learn to undo the damage you cause. I'll learn how to heal it. I won't let anything die." As he swore it, the laughter surged in his mind, then faded, leaving him alone on the hillside, his head falling forward.

       "My lord?" Not alone, then, for Thurstan was there, shaking his shoulder, his voice high with fear. "What's the matter?"

       "I'm fine, Thurstan." Elias took a deep breath, and opened his eyes. "Come on. Let's take a look at that view."


Chapter four

The path of thorns

      

 

       Darkness fell slowly, the day after the death of the rose. The twilight stretched out, too dark for day, but not quite surrendering into night. Everything was flat, like shapes torn out of grey paper, and there was no detail left in the world.

       We're still in the borderlands, Elias thought. We haven't crossed over, not yet. The future was a road veiled by the mist, but soon the mist would lift, and the road would be revealed, and there would be no turning back, not after they took the first step. It was up to him to decide what that road should be.

       Their small camp was settling down for the night. The men were crouched in a circle, cooking their dinner around the small fire. Elias watched them, but did join them. He listened to their voices talking, but did not hear the words. After a while, Thurstan walked towards him, a piece of meat carefully held on a sooty green stick. "Would you like some meat, my lord?"

       Elias shook his head. "I'm not hungry." He gestured with his hand, inviting the boy to sit down. "But go ahead and eat. I don't mind."

       Thurstan nodded, accepting it. He probably thought that Elias was far too lofty to need food, and could subsist on enchantment alone. There were times when he would almost have been right. Sometimes the white fires of enchantment blazed so fiercely that they burnt everything else to ashes, and Elias never wanted to remember that he was a man. If it wasn't for the pain, perhaps he would have flown free from his body long ago and left nothing behind but a shell.

       "Are they going to tell stories after dinner?" Thurstan asked, through a mouthful of meat. "They used to at home. I always liked them. I remember... There was a man, once. A traveller. He stayed with us one night, and the told the most amazing stories. There was one... I wish I could remember it. Something about an old man at a crossroads, and how enchantment began. I'd love to hear that again. I'd love..." He stopped, and dashed awkwardly at his eyes.

       Elias found it hard to reply. He knew the story. He knew the story, and it was so close to the way he had just been thinking that it was uncanny, as if the boy had been able to hear his thoughts. "Oliver tells that story," he managed to say. Of course, it was only natural that Thurstan's thoughts should be following the same lines as his own. Everyone knew that tomorrow they had to decide their road. "You should ask him to tell it when we get back."

       "I don't want..." Thurstan began. Even in the twilight, his face was clear to read. I can never be a child again, hearing stories in the mountains, so I never want to hear them again. Then he gasped, and his face was transformed. "It was Oliver! Of course! I didn't recognise him the other day, but it was him. He told the story. It was him. Wasn't it?"

       "Very probably," Elias said, with a smile. He knew Oliver had travelled through the duchy when he was younger, searching for songs and  happiness in places that never lived up to his dreams. He was glad Thurstan remembered him with such pleasure.

       Thurstan's eyes were shining with eagerness, now he had discovered that not all childhood memories were dead. "Can you tell me the story, my lord?"

       Elias shook his head. "I'm not good at telling stories." Anything he told turned sad and dark, with words creeping in from the world outside that he had not planned. "But you'll hear it from Oliver, I promise you that."

       They sat in silence for a while, as the sky slowly turned to dark velvet around them. Although he did not speak it aloud, Elias remembered, as clearly as if Oliver himself was sitting at his side, looking at him with his eyes the colour of twilight.

       There were three brothers, Oliver had told him, once upon a time, and not so very far away, and all the other words that made it magical, a story that had never been. Three brothers, because there were always three brothers in stories, two foolish and one wise. It was enough to make the audience snuggle down with contentment, reassured that everything was as it should be.

       One day, in the way of such things in stories, the older brother decided to set out to seek his fortune. He had not gone very far before the road split into two, and he had to choose whether to take the left fork, or the right. But what an easy choice it was! One road was broad and pleasant, like a ribbon laid out on lush meadows. Sunlight paved it with gold, and at the far end, glittering like so many jewels, were the towers of a beautiful city. The other road was narrow and steep, tangled thick with thorns, and marred with patches of darkness. Coldness exuded from it like breath, and although there were footsteps in the dust of that road, not a single footstep came back. Its end was shrouded in shadow, but he knew the end was death.

       Just as the young man was about to set off along the broad road, an old man came hobbling up to him, leaning on a gnarled stick. "Think before you decide," the old man urged him. "Think, and choose well."

       "There is no choice, old man," the young man scoffed. "What sort of a fool would choose a difficult path over an easy one?" Thus speaking, he strode jauntily onto his chosen road, whistling a tune, and dreaming of the glory that awaited him in the city at its end. He never thought of danger. At night, he slept in a bed of flowers, in full view of the road. Robbers slit his throat as he lay dreaming of riches, and that was the end of him.

       When the oldest son did not return, the second son took up his sword and went to seek his brother. He, too, reached the same parting of the ways, and he, too, thought the choice was obvious. The broad road was obviously a trap for the lazy and the dissolute, and he was far greater than that. Only in struggle could men become heroes. Nothing was worth doing until you suffered in doing it, and earned the scars that were the badge of courage. And so, when the poisoned thorns pierced him, he smiled. He was still smiling when he fell on the bleached bones of those who had gone before, and he was still smiling as he died.

       In time, the youngest son realised that he would have to go after his brothers. With a fond farewell to his father, he set off after them, and soon he reached the same parting of the ways. There he, too, was told to choose, but he frowned, and was slow to answer.

       The old man just watched him in silence, and at length the boy said, "I choose neither."

       "Neither?"

       "No. Not the broad road, for it makes promises of pleasure, but asks for nothing in return. That is the path of selfishness. But the path of thorns I will not walk. It delights in suffering, but offers nothing in return. It is the path of pointless martyrdom."

       "What road would you take, then, if you will have neither of these?" The old man did nothing to show if he was pleased with the boy's response, or angry. "The road back home? The road that goes nowhere?"

       "I choose a third path," the boy replied. "I choose a road that has both thorns and flowers. I choose the road that is sometimes difficult, yet sometimes beautiful. I choose the road where much is demanded, but much is given. I choose the only path I can walk with my head held high."

       The old man spread his arms, and his rags fell away, and beneath it he was clad all in white light. "You have opened the way," he said. "The first in all these countless years. Behold the path that you have unveiled, and walk it as long as you and your kind shall live."

       It stretched out behind him, the third road. It was a road of grass and thorns, of mud and flowers. It was beautiful, but never easy. Its end was radiant, but there were patches of darkness, deep and unknown, that had to be traversed along the way.

       "It is the way of enchantment," the old man said, "and you are the first to walk it. Walk it well."

       Of course, Oliver had told him later, it was only a story, not true, though it made a good tale. "It does," Elias had agreed, flushed with the pleasure of lounging round the fire listening to a good story with others at his side. For the space of the story, the hollowness at his core had been suffused with warmth and contentment.

       "And it teaches us a good lesson," Oliver had said. "One the Kindred must never forget." There had been a keen intensity to his eyes that had made Elias turn away, suddenly aware that Oliver had told the story purely as a lesson to him. It had hurt like a betrayal to Elias, and after that, he had avoided Oliver's stories, knowing that he was not safe even there.

       And then Reynard was at his side, crouching down to speak to him, as insistent as Oliver had been. "We have to decide," he said. "We have to decide what we will do tomorrow."

       Elias clasped his hands together, and nodded, unable for a moment to speak. A man at the fork of a path, urging a young man to choose, when a wrong choice could mean death...

       "You know the choices as well as I do," Reynard was saying. "I... I can see arguments for both of them. I can't decide which is best."

       It was a big thing for Reynard to admit that he was unsure of anything, but Elias knew better than the comment on it. On the surface, it was a simple enough choice. Did they veer right and travel through the plains, or turn left into the mountains? A simple choice, but it could make the difference between life and death, and perhaps even more. Elias was king, and the tiniest of his decisions could change the future for ever, and set the world on a different and darker course.

       Elias shivered, hugging his knees tighter. He had been thinking such things ever since the death of the rose. Wisps of premonition had been brushing against his mind, but had never become a full vision. Sometimes he heard laughter, but sometimes just the whisper of wind in grass, and a shimmering in the air, a glimpse of a place he had once known but had now forgotten. Not yet, the dying grass told him, but soon.

        Elias dragged himself back to the question, forcing himself to focus on the shape in the darkness that was Reynard. "They'll be expecting us to go through the mountains," Reynard's voice was saying. "It's what we've always done. If they know that Thurstan got away, then they'll be expecting him to come back with reinforcements. They'll have armies waiting for us. They've probably fortified the watchtower, and filled it with their soldiers."

       "Maybe," Elias murmured. The road across the mountain had seemed inviolable. The Kindred had always thought it so. He, Elias, who had seen so easily through the illusions that protected it, had thought so all the more. He alone had been able to sense the full power of the long-dead king who had raised the protections. But now Lord Darius had breached even that. It shook his every certainty to the core, and made him scared, terrified, to walk that way. What would fall next?

       "We never go across the plain," Reynard said, "and with good reason. There's too many people there. Towns and villages. Roads. Very dangerous. We'll be seen. But maybe we can disguise ourselves." He looked at Elias as he said it, because Elias would be the one to change their faces with illusion. "And at least it won't be soldiers down there, just normal people. They couldn't take us if they tried. But then," he said, after a pause, "maybe that's what they want us to do. They want to make us scared of the mountains so they can set a trap for us in the villages."

       "Maybe," Elias said again. "I don't think we can second guess them."

       "A good warrior always second guesses his opponent," Reynard rebuked him. "He never stakes everything on his guess, but he predicts what they might do, and acts accordingly."

       "So what would you have done if you were them?" Elias asked.

       "I'd have pressed my advantage." There was no doubt in Reynard's voice. "I would have stopped for nothing. I would have tracked Thurstan and tortured him until he told me where the king was. I would be in the camp by now, or here, now, watching you, listening to you make your plans, and laughing at you. I would not let you get away."

       Elias moistened his lips. "Lord Darius isn't like that. He likes to... toy with his enemies. Make them feel hope, then crush it. He takes things slowly. He... I think he would have withdrawn. Back to Eidengard with his prisoners. Weave his slow webs in his lair. Let us relax, telling ourselves it was only a one-off attack and that we're safe. He doesn't just like to win, he likes to win in a... a clever way. He'll bide his time. Only then will he pounce. When he knows he can win."

       "So you're saying it doesn't matter?" Reynard sounded very tired. "He'll win whatever we do. And you're just going to walk into his trap and let it happen."

       Elias swallowed hard, and only spoke when he was sure it wouldn't be a pathetic squeak. "No." No. Not Lord Darius. Not him. Please. The darkness was like a prison cell, cold air like chains on his wrist. "I'm not. I just think... I think both have an equal chance of being dangerous. I don't think we can predict it. So I don't think either of us should make the decision."

       Reynard gave a disbelieving snort. "So who should?"

       Elias looked over at Thurstan. He had retreated when Reynard had started to talk, and sat hunched and miserable, a black shape in the twilight. If they went through the mountains, Thurstan would have to see the home that was no longer his, littered with the bodies of all his friends. He would not force Thurstan to see that, not even if ten thousand soldiers and Darius himself awaited him if he went the other way.

       Elias called him over, and the boy scurried eagerly to his side. "We were talking about the road through the mountains," Elias told him. "Do you want to go back? Or is it terrible, the thought of seeing it again?"

       "I..." The boy swallowed, and thrust his chin forward. "I think I... I would like to see it again. I know there will be... bodies. I know they'll look bad. I know it'll be horrible. But I... I want to say goodbye. I want to do that. Is it wrong, my lord?"

       "Oh no." Elias smiled at him, the smile coming so easily, as if his face was completely detached from what was inside him. "Not wrong at all. Goodbyes are very important. Sometimes, the way we end things makes all the difference."

       "So you're going through the mountains, then." Reynard sounded resigned. Elias would have expected him to argue, but perhaps Reynard, too, had preferred the mountain route all along. At least they knew the way, while the plains were unknown and dangerous. 

       "Yes." Elias sighed and looked up at the sky, where clouds were creeping in from the south. "Tomorrow."

      

 

       Thurstan lay on his back and watched the clouds drift across the blank sky. He heard the soft breathing of men asleep around him, but he could not sleep. He rolled onto his side, then onto his back again. A distant owl screeched. He sat up and rubbed his eyes, and saw the darkness that was Reynard turn to look at him. With a sigh, he lay down again, and closed his eyes.

       Darkness surged around him, and closed on him like a hand in a velvet glove. No, like the illusion of rock that was the entrance to the mountain road. They were there, all of them, in a single line of horses, passing through the rock. Everyone else was nervous, except for the king. He was silver moonlight, radiant and serene. He was more than man, and he would never be afraid, never.

       "It's safe," Reynard told them, and it was. The sun burst out from the clouds and the King's Road shone golden. Thurstan and the king talked of many things, and it was lovely. There were no soldiers, not anywhere. The king sang in a voice like honey, and he stooped in the saddle to pluck up a dead stem of grass, and it turned into rainbow flowers in his touch.

       Then darkness passed before the sun. Thurstan's horse stopped walking. The wind brought to him the cloying smell of meadowsweet, but it turned nasty, like decaying flesh. Dust skittered off the surface of the road, and flew up in a cloud, pricking Thurstan's eyes. When he could see again, he saw the footprints of men and horses that had been hidden by the dust. Hundreds of them, thousands of them, covering every inch of the road.

       Metal flashed in the sunlight before he could cry a warning. A silver banner crested the summit of a nearby crag, so bright that Thurstan winced. Blood tricked between two rocks like a spring, and flowers withered where it touched. Someone hurled Joscelin's body onto the road, and the king's horse pranced to avoid it. Julien died, and his blood cascaded like a fountain, filling Thurstan's mouth.

       Reynard started shouting. Ranulf screamed. Amalric's horse crashed into the king's, and they fell together, and Amalric was the only one who rose. The king lay crushed, blood trickling from his mouth. He moved his hand and white light flickered, but it was not enough, it was nowhere near enough, for a hundred men glided forward from their hiding places and closed on him, smiling their silver smiles. As one, their swords rose and fell, rose and fell, rose and fell. Thurstan tried to scream, but a hand was clapped over his mouth, and a thumb covered his nostrils, and he could not breathe, he could not breathe, he was dying...

       Thurstan lashed out with all the strength of desperation, and the arms holding him lost their grip, but it was too late, for the king was dead, and Thurstan was alone. He was alone.

       "No, you're never alone. I'm here, Thurstan." It sounded like the king, but the king was dead. Thurstan had seen him die. "Thurstan." The voice lifted him up, holding him as softly as his mother might have held him.

       Thurstan's hands found two fistfuls of fabric and clutched hold of them, and he started to cry. "Dead," he sobbed, but the voice said, "No." "Dead," he cried again, but the arms just held him tighter, and the voice still said, "No. It wasn't true. It was a dream. It won't be true. I promise."

       Through the slit of his eyelids, he saw the silver of the moon. Then, as the arms still held him, his eyes slid shut, and he fell asleep.

      

 

       "Wait there," Reynard commanded, when they reached the rock face. "I'll go through first. See if it's a trap. If I don't come back, then fly. Fly as fast as you can."

       The others stopped and waited. "How long does he want us to wait?" Thurstan wondered, as he counted seconds in his head. How long would it take Reynard to die?

       "He's alive," the king told him. "It's safe. There's no-one there." And he was the king, and he was always right, and so Thurstan should have been able to relax at that. So why were tendrils of cold still snaking around inside him, making him want to tremble?

       Reynard came back, and gave a grim smile. "No-one there. I can't see any tracks. We have to be on our guard, but it seems safe for now." Not the words he had said in Thurstan's dream, but close enough to make the coldness surge up inside him like sickness.

       It was as horrible going through the rock as it always had been, but Thurstan stayed close to the king, and that made it easier, even though he could not see him. He was shaking when he reached the other side, but managed to flash a quick smile to the king when he caught him looking at him with concern.

       The smile faded as soon as they started to travel along the road. Reynard had said that there were no tracks, but Thurstan could see no tracks behind them, either. The ground was as dry as bleached bones, and their horses moved over it without leaving any impression. An army could pass and leave no sign.

       The path climbed steadily, but there were crags looming over it on both sides, and cleft filled with dark trees that were bowed over against the prevailing wind, like men who hunched over to hide something they did not want found. Thurstan shifted uncomfortably in the saddle. An army could pass and leave no sign, but it could also be concealed, watching them from behind the crags or beneath the trees. They could be walking into a trap even now, for all that Reynard said it was safe. A trap like in his dream. A trap with no escape. They would all die.

       "Thurstan." The king's voice was a beacon of light in a terrible storm. Just hearing it made Thurstan's fears quieten, though nothing could make them go away. "Stay close," the king said. "It will be all right."

       But the wide sky above him still made him want to shiver, and the smells and sounds of the mountains filled him with sick fear. He looked at Reynard and his men, at their sharp swords and their sinewy wrists, and the way their eyes darted always this way and that, alert for any danger. Reynard won't let the enemy hurt us, Thurstan thought. Then he looked at the king, and remembered his white light, and knew that the king could defend them even better than Reynard. Still, he found his eyes returning to Reynard again, and the sight of him stilled his fear just a little bit. How strange that was, when he knew Reynard was a traitor and he hated him.

       The party moved slowly, never once relaxing their guard. Amalric was at the back, constantly watching the road behind them, while Reynard and Joscelin flanked them. Ranulf and Julien rode a little ahead, out of sight, hoping to draw an ambush onto themselves. Will we even know if they're dead? Thurstan wondered, for ambushes could be utterly silent, just a gentle slitting of a man's throat. Perhaps the king would know, he thought. He glanced at him again, but the king was wearing his usual mild expression. He was looking around him, but only like a casual traveller observing the flowers and the birds.

       He moved closer to the king, and dared to speak to him. "I wish I could be like you, my lord," he confessed. "How can you…" Then he gasped, and the relief that surged through him was like water springing in the desert. "It's because you know there's nothing to be afraid of. If anyone tries to attack us, you'll know. You'll kill them before they even get close. We're safe. We're completely safe."

       The king lowered his eyes, then raised them again. "I do not kill. It's wrong to use enchantment that way, and I… I don't like killing. And I know what they did to your people, but they're just ordinary men. They don't deserve death."

       Reynard was watching him, and his eyes told a different story. His sword would shed blood in revenge for the fallen, and the death of those black-clad soldiers would make it hurt less. Thurstan frowned, and turned back to the king. "Then… Then you know it's safe," he tried. "You know the enemy's nowhere near. I suppose you tried to tell Reynard, but he didn't listen. Gerhard was the same. Gerhard always acted as if things were dangerous, even if everyone else was sure they were not. He said it was too important not to."

       The king sighed. He twisted his hands together, and for a moment it almost looked as if he was a normal man, who didn't know what to say. "I wish I could say that was true," he said at last, "but it isn't. I can't sense any danger, no, but that doesn't mean it's not there. I have to act as if it might be there all along, invisible."

       "But I thought you could sense people. You sensed that man in the coach. Why can't you…?" He clapped his hands to his mouth. "I'm sorry, my lord. I didn't mean…"

       The king reached over and touched his arm. "It's all right, Thurstan. It's a fair question. The reason is… Strong emotions call to me. Hatred, terror, pain… They're like screams in my mind. I know where people are, if they're feeling such things, though I have to listen for them. I can be distracted, if people are talking to me, or if I'm thinking about something else."

       Thurstan lowered his hand. The coldness was back, welling up inside him, and now it was the king who had put it there. "So why aren't you listening now?"

       "I am. All the time. But…" The king sighed, turning his head slightly away. "You said that the soldiers could see through illusion. I don't understand how they could do that. But until I know, I have to… to assume that they can do anything. They might have learned how to hide themselves. They might have learned to school their emotions, or even to veil their presence as living things. I… I never could sense Lord Darius at all."

       "Then why are you so calm?" Thurstan burst out. "Why aren't you afraid? You're never afraid."

       For a moment, the king looked startled. "Not afraid?" Then he sighed, and his face was the face Thurstan knew so well by now. "Everyone feels afraid sometimes, Thurstan. It's nothing to be ashamed of. I do. Even Reynard does. People just show it in different ways."

       As he spoke, Reynard's head snapped up, and Thurstan and the king both followed the direction of his gaze. A streak of brown disappeared behind a rock. Only a stoat. All three of them turned back at the same time, but Reynard did not relax. He kept his dagger drawn, but carefully hidden in the shade of his body so the blade did not reflect the light, just like Gerhard used to do.

       "I'm afraid," Thurstan confessed, still looking at Reynard's watchful profile.

       "So am I," the king whispered. "I know what you dreamed about last night. I dreamed it, too. The enemy, watching us from all sides, and I was blind to them. And everyone died. Just because they had come with me, because of choices I made…"

       "You saw it, too?" Thurstan rasped. "Was it a vision? Is it going to happen?" He lashed his head from side to side, struggling to see. He drew his sword. He wanted to run, to ride far away, or plunge into the mountains and slash at grass, where the enemy lay hidden.

       "No." The king's voice cut into his terror. "I shouldn't have said that. I…forgot." He was doing something with his hands, pressing them to his face, and when he lowered them, he was serene. "It was just a dream. Dreams feed on our own fears. I told you because I wanted you to know that everyone feels fear, and there's nothing to be ashamed of. I'm sorry, Thurstan. I'm so sorry."

       "But what if it wasn't a dream?" Thurstan's voice sounded brittle, the one sound on the vast mountain.

       "It was just a dream," the king told him. The king had spoken, and his word was enough. Wasn't it?

       "But I saw something," Thurstan confessed. "I saw a vision of the future. I'm sure of it. I've never had one before, but I'm sure. And now I just don't know. I keep having these dreams. I keep seeing you… dying. I keep seeing Gerhard alive, but I don't know if they're true or not. How can I tell?"

       "If you have a vision," the king said, "you always know. There is never doubt. The dreams have been just that, just dreams. Dreams can show us our wildest hopes, and our worst fears…" He blinked, and looked away again.

       "It's just so hard," Thurstan moaned.

       "I know," the king said, and he probably did, though he did not share such fears. He had never woken screaming in the night, tormented by terrors. He had never doubted himself. His comfort made Thurstan feel safe, but it made him feel weak, a snivelling child who failed all the time. Someone like Reynard would never need reassurance. Someone like the king would never need comforting.

       "Please don't look up to me," the king said, as if he could hear Thurstan's thoughts. "I feel the same things you feel. It's only human. I… When I was your age, there was a man I looked up to in everything. I was forever feeling weak and pathetic because I couldn't live up to the ideal that was him. But later I found out that he was never like that at all. He was afraid of things. He was sometimes wrong. He made mistakes, just like any man."

       But that man, whoever he was, was not the king. It was kind of the king to say such things, but…

       "No," said the king. "Don't. Please don't. Listen, Thurstan." He took hold of Thurstan's wrist. "I will do everything in my power to keep you safe. I have sworn to bring Gerhard back, if he is alive. I will do those things. You're safe with me. But Reynard will do the same. So will Ranulf, and all the others. So will you. I'm not the answer to everything. I'm not always right."

       Thurstan's mouth twitched. He tried not to laugh.

       "Please don't set me up on a pedestal," the king urged him, and it even sounded as if he meant it. "Not me, not anyone. It's not the way to happiness. Sooner or later, they fail you. They come crashing down. They leave you, and then you've got nothing. You're just a hollow shell, because everything you lived for has gone."

       "You're not going to leave me, my lord?" Thurstan asked tremulously.

       The king sighed. The vastness of the sky above him made him look pale and defeated. "I will not, no. But you have strengths, too. I only wish you could see them. One day, I hope, you will surprise yourself."

       "I can't fight well," Thurstan said, "or use enchantment."

       "But it seems you are a seer, if you saw..."

       "You," Thurstan blurted out. "I saw you. You were kneeling under a stone arch, inside somewhere, in a place with an amber-coloured floor. Oliver was there, and I think he was hurt. There was another man, too. He was coming up behind you. I think he was going to touch your neck."

       "Was I a prisoner?" There was no emotion in the king's voice. "The other man. Was he… tall and thin? Dressed in black and silver?"

       "I don't think your hands were tied," Thurstan said, "but I don't know. I don't know what the man was going to do. But…" He frowned, struggling to remember. "He was tall but broad, too. Strong. He had brown hair and a beard. He was wearing… Oh! I remember! He had a cloak just like yours."

       "Oh," said the king, a tiny little gasp. He wrapped his arms around his middle and stared a while into the distance. "Visions don't always show the future," he whispered after a while. "Sometimes they only show what might have been, but now never will, because of the choices we've made."

       "Who was he?" Thurstan dared to ask. "Was he Lord Darius?"

       The king shook his head. "Not Darius, no. Someone else." But his tone was so bleak that Thurstan felt claws of dread scrape down his spine. The man had to be an enemy more terrible even than Darius, for the king to react so.

       I'll make sure that man doesn't hurt you, he swore. He had been given the vision for a purpose. Maybe his destiny was to save the king from death in that amber hall, one day in the future. Now he knew, he could be on his guard. If ever that moment came to pass, he would hurl himself forward and stop the man from reaching the king.  This time, he would not run.

       It made him feel a little better to know that one day in the future he would have the chance to do something great. But that day was yet to come. For now, he was content to follow the king.

           

 

       The sun was glorious in the western sky, making the whole world shiny and beautiful. Elias had never seen this place in the evening. It had been lovely at dawn, but even then he had known that its true glory would only shine forth when the western sun shone golden. Even now it was a place of death, the flowers still bloomed, bathing joyously in the evening light.

       The statue still stood on the watchtower, strength and wisdom carved in his every line. The setting sun made the white quartz shine like flame. It turned him from someone wise and benevolent into a fierce avenger who would strike down anyone who dared violate his road. Beneath him, the archway cast deep shadows, and turned the road into a sea of black.

       "I always loved the statue," Thurstan said. "I used to think it was his magic that was keeping us safe."

       So did I, Elias thought. In those distant days of winter, less than a year ago, but so far away. A foolish boy called Elias had skipped on the mountains and thought himself completely safe, and made plans for the journey home.

       "I used to imagine him coming to life," Thurstan said. "When people talked about the king coming back, I wondered if this was him, frozen in stone until the time was come. I used to imagine what I'd say to him, and what the others would say when I told them that the king had come back. Then you really did, so I stopped imagining it. It was only a statue, after all."

       "Only a statue," Elias echoed. Only a carved stone image of someone who had once been mighty. The old king had not saved Gerhard or his people. There he still stood, and he would stand there still, even if armies thronged the mountains and darkness swept over the world, killing all life. Only Elias, the king who still lived, could do anything to save them. He was alone.

       "But… " Thurstan heaved in a shuddering breath. His face was so pinched that Elias longed to take him in his arms and shelter him from all the evils in the world. "I'm only talking. I have to do it. I have to… go."

       "You don't have to," Elias told him.

       "I do."

       The road curved beyond the tower, and they could not see it without passing through the darkened archway. Reynard and Ranulf had already ridden through, and had not come back. The others were waiting, waiting for them to return and tell them what they had seen, or to scream a warning with their last dying breath. Thurstan was pale with dread. Elias felt close to fainting. There was something terrible just ahead, clinging to the road like a stinking miasma. Even the animals were afraid of it. Men had died here, and their dying left an echo in the enchantment, a repulsive stain. He didn't want to walk through the archway, not for anything, so of course that was all the more reason why he had to do so. Thurstan needed him to be strong.

       "There are other ways to remember them," he told the boy. "It does nothing to help them, you tormenting yourself. It won't bring them back. Close your eyes, and I'll guide you. I'll tell you when you can open them again. I'll keep you safe."

       Thurstan raised his chin, and there was a sudden flash of Reynard in his eyes. "I do need to see them. I do."

.      "Please don't put yourself through this for no reason. I couldn't…" He snapped the words back. Couldn't bear it to ride beside you and see you suffering, and not be able to help you, not at all.

       "I have to," Thurstan said miserably. "I owe them that much. I didn't die with them. The least I can do is say a few words over their bodies and mourn them."

       "I can do that."

       Thurstan whirled on him. "You didn't know them! I did. And I ran away. I can't run, not this time. I have to… to show myself that I can do this."

       "I understand," Elias told him, and he did. He understood, even as he wished with all his heart that it was not so.

       "Until I see the bodies, I'll always be wondering," Thurstan whispered. "Wondering what they looked like. Wondering how bad it was. Wondering… wondering if they weren't dead after all."

       Tears pricked Elias's eyes, and he blinked them back. "You're very brave, Thurstan. Never think otherwise." He squeezed his hand. "But you can always change your mind. There's no shame in it. If you want me to help you, just ask."

       "I can do it." Thurstan was swallowing hard, fighting tears.

       Cry, Elias wanted to urge him. Don't fight it. He knew the boy was trying emulate him, or the ideal of Elias that he carried in his mind. Elias wanted to grab him by the shoulders and scream into his face. Don't become like me. Don't do that to yourself. Please.

       There was a flicker of movement in the dark gateway, and Reynard appeared.  Thurstan gasped and shrank back. Elias just sat very still on his horse, but his palms started sweating. Reynard trotted his horse along the path and brought it round in a tight circle, instantly ready to go back. Ranulf was not with him, and Reynard looked disturbed, showing it in all those small ways that many people had never learned to read.

       "There's nothing there," Reynard said. "Nothing. No enemy. But no..." He paused only for a second, and his eyes flickered towards Thurstan. "Bodies."

       Thurstan gave a choked cry. "All gone?"

       "We found clear evidence of a battle, but there are no remains." This time Reynard spoke only to Elias, a soldier giving his report. "We found lots of tracks going back the way they'd come. Cart tracks, too. They took everyone back with them, living or dead."

       "Why?" Thurstan asked. It was a tiny squeak, but he still did not cry or scream.

       Reynard began to pull his sword from his scabbard, then slammed it back in. "Why? As trophies, boy. A defeated enemy to mock and degrade. Anyone with a spark of life still in them they'll torture and try to get them to betray their king, then they'll kill them publicly and horrifically. That's how the enemy works, boy."

       Thurstan looked so white that Elias thought he was going to faint. "Reynard," Elias warned, but Reynard was already riding away.

       "I need to see it," Thurstan whispered. He raised his head. "I need to see."

       "Don't listen..." Elias began, but Thurstan interrupted him, spitting out every word. "But he's telling the truth, and I have to face it."

       But I wish I could protect you from it, Elias thought, as Thurstan rode with such courage through the dark archway, and Elias could only follow. I wish none of this had happened. I wish I'd been here, so I could have died in their place, and spared Thurstan this pain.

       Through the arch, the sunlight enfolded them. Ranulf stood forlornly at the side of the road, but he was the only one there. There were not even ghosts. The pain of the dying had left a stain in the enchantment, but their spirits were gone. No dead crowded around Elias, pawing at him with desperate fingers, begging for release. He snapped his head round, hearing whispering, but it was only the wind, only the wind.

       Thurstan had slid from his horse. He tottered a few steps, then stopped and crouched, touching the ground. "Blaise fell here," he said. "He rolled down the bank and a horse trampled him, but I think he was dead already. He was always grumbling, but always laughing, too. He only grumbled when you knew he didn't mean it. And he could do such amazing tricks. He could pull flowers out of your ear, and things like that. It wasn't magic, but a trick. I could never work out how he did it, and I probably never will."

       He lifted up his hand, then pressed it against the ground in a place only inches away. "And Rostand fell here, lying on top of him. He was getting old, but he could fight as well as anyone. His exile came to an end at the start of the winter. He was really excited about going home again. He used to talk about his children all the time. I'd never met any other children, so I used to ask him to tell me stories about when they were young. He used to tell me off for asking many questions, but I knew he loved to talk about them as much as I loved to listen."

       Crawling, he scrambled a few paces, then pressed down with both hands. "Gregory fell here. He took one of the soldiers with him. I never really knew him at all. I was scared of him. He used to stare into the fire and he looked so fierce that no-one came near him. But I think he was probably just sad. I wonder if anyone ever asked him what he was sad about. I didn't. I don't think I ever spoke to him, not ever."

       On it went, and on. Thurstan never once cried. His voice was so flat as to be dead. He walked from place to place, weaving across the road, touching patches of earth where nothing remained to mark the dead. It was impossible to look away. The enemy could have surrounded them and fallen upon them, but not one of them would have noticed. Even Reynard was made defenceless by the sight of a boy's grief.

       "Hubert fell here," Thurstan said, and this was the tenth man he had named. "I saw him fall. He was..."

       And then he just stopped.

       Reynard made a low sound in his throat and made as if to start forward, then pulled himself back again. Elias just breathed, in and out, in and out. The sky smothered him like a dark blanket. The horror of the place was seeping into his mind, reaching in through the broad paths of the enchantment, making his throat dry and his chest hurt.

       "Thurstan," Elias said. He dismounted and walked forward, and the pebbles beneath his feet crumbled like brittle bones.

       Thurstan wrapped his arms around his body, and turned a stark face towards Elias. "I don't know any more. It happened too fast. I couldn't see it all. Some of it was too far away. I wasn't there."

       Elias crouched down beside him, but he had no idea how to act. He burned to pull the boy into his arms and urge him to cry, but Thurstan had tried so hard to be brave. Reynard and the others were watching, and they despised tears. Perhaps in this moment soft comfort would be cruel.

       "No-one will ever know how the others died," Thurstan whispered. "I can't even do that for them." Just as Elias was about to say something, he clenched his fists and pulled away. "I want to find them," he cried. "I want to find them all."

       Elias touched him on the shoulder, and Thurstan leant into his touch, just barely. "We will," Elias told him. "It will get better, Thurstan, I promise."

       Thurstan closed his eyes for a moment, then stood up. "I want to go now."   "Are you sure?" Elias asked. "Take more time if you need it."

       Reynard's horse pranced behind them, and Thurstan glanced at him, then up at the mountains. "I'll say goodbye to the rest of them on the way home. Gerhard will be with us, then. He'll know what to say better than I do."

       Elias had to turn away. Thurstan oscillated between a belief in his nightmares, and a belief in his daydreams. It hadn't helped him, not seeing the bodies, for it allowed him to deny their deaths. Even as he had mourned them, he had talked about them as fallen, not dead.

       "But I don't want to stop," Thurstan said, mounting his horse. "Every minute counts. I need to go. I need to... to…"

       It was Reynard who broke the silence. Pulling his horse to Thurstan's side, he clapped him briefly on the shoulder. "We'll find them, lad. Kindred do not turn their backs on their own."

       Thurstan turned to face him. "Thank you."

       Reynard rode on, and Thurstan followed him. Left behind, Elias mounted his own horse and slowly walked away, looking back over his shoulder as he did so. The dying sun was bleeding in the western sky, and the shadows were deepening, each one dark with the memory of death and dying.

        

 

       Time passed in a haze. Thurstan no longer saw the scenery they passed through, and barely noticed the faces of his companions. He could no longer feel any spark of hatred for Reynard. What did such things matter? Somewhere ahead, closer every hour, were Gerhard and the others. Anyone with a spark of life would be taken for torture, Reynard had said. Few injuries killed outright on the battlefield, and there had been no bodies. Perhaps the enemy, who could see through illusion, had ways of keeping alive prisoners who had fallen over and looked quite dead.

       "No bodies," he whispered under his breath. "No bodies means not dead." And meant that they were waiting for his in their prison cells, and he had to hurry, to get there, to end this.

       Sometimes they did hurry. Sometimes Reynard rode at their head and looked back over his shoulder and snapped a quick rebuke at someone, Amalric, perhaps, or even the king, for dawdling. Sometimes Reynard tapped his foot edgily as the others paused for a drink, then ordered them to kick their horses into a gallop. Those were the times that seemed most real, when the wind streamed through his hair, and the land passed by in a blur of movement, and he knew they were getting close.

       Sometimes, though, they had to stop. Reynard kept them going late into the evening, but at length it grew too dark to travel safely, or so he said. "You'll do him no good if you're half dead with tiredness, lad," Reynard had told him, but it felt so terrible to be stopping, to be doing nothing when Gerhard was ahead of him, still so far away.

       He always thought he would not be able to sleep, but within no time the nightmares are clamouring in his head, and he jerked awake with a start, and knew that he had been sleeping after all. He saw Gerhard and the others, strung up in gibbets and dead for days. He saw them dying an instant before he arrived in their cell, and he would have been in time to save them if he hadn't stopped quite so early to sleep one day. So then he would lie awake again, and listen to the horses in the night, and wish he was brave enough just to grab one and flee. But he knew he could not save Gerhard by himself. He needed the king for that.

       Sometimes, when he woke from his nightmares, the king was there, crooning to him, urging him to cry. Sometimes he did. Sometimes, though he sank into the embrace, he felt as if he could not breathe, as if the king was robbing him of the air he needed. He cried when the king told him to, but afterwards he wished he had not. Gerhard would not be proud of a weeping boy. A weeping boy would never even find the strength to reach his prison cell.

       "Bad dreams?" Ranulf said one morning. Reynard, who heard it, just jerked his chin at him, and told him to saddle his horse, and jump to it, lad, we haven't got all day. Thurstan had wiped his eyes and done just that. For a moment, he felt like a warrior being commanded by a captain who never once doubted that he could do what would be demanded on him. It was impossible to feel that way with the king.

       They had spent one more night in the mountains, then had descended into a tamer world of green and brown. They saw roads in the distance, and smoke from chimneys. Reynard and his men were on edge, as every step took them deeper into enemy territory. Thurstan, although he trembled, was glad. It meant they were getting near. How many thousands of steps did he need to take before he found Gerhard? He started to count, but the numbers slipped away from  him, and he kept having to start again.

       Then they spent a night not very far from Eidengard at all. "Four hours," Reynard said. "Tomorrow morning, we'll plan our campaign. Maybe move the camp a bit closer, and scout out the area. We have to decide whether to go in openly by day, trusting in disguise, or launch an attack on the walls at night." There was a strange edge to his voice, and he was looking intensely at the king, who did not look back.

       They settled down to sleep. Thurstan lay on his back and closed his eyes, and filled his mind with picturing how Gerhard would smile when they appeared at his prison door, and how the light would blaze as the king healed him. Clouds moved sluggishly above him, but the air was hot and oppressive, and he thought it would probably storm tomorrow. Tomorrow... Tomorrow it would all come true. Tomorrow they would enter the city, and find out what was real, the daydream or the nightmare. Tomorrow he would get everything he wanted, or lose the only thing he had left.

        Time passed. Reynard was keeping watch, his sword drawn and ready. Thurstan thought the king was awake as well. He always was. The king had no need of sleep. At night, he sat beneath the silver moon and contemplated the mysteries of enchantment. Thurstan had seen him often, staring into the night. Once, he had caught him kneeling over a clump of flowers, holding a stem so the blossom rested in his hand. As Thurstan had watched, the petals had gently fallen into his  palm, and the king had closed his hand into a fist, and turned his head away. Thurstan had closed his eyes, not knowing what he had witnessed, but knowing it was something he was not supposed to see.

       Thurstan rolled over onto his side. Perhaps he slept for a little while, because his mouth tasted different the next time he opened his eyes, and people were talking in low voices not far away, in a way that showed that they had been talking for some time.

       "Even so, I wish you would tell him," the king was saying. "He ought to know."

       "You tell him, then." That was Reynard, his voice almost sulky.

       "No," the king replied. "It should come from you."

       "After tomorrow, then," Reynard said. "After we know."

       After we know what? Thurstan thought, and he lay very still to hear more, but nothing else was said.

      

 

       Elias lay down, and folded his hands on hands on his chest. He could feel Reynard's tension, seeping through his rigorous watchfulness. Perhaps he shouldn't have spoken to Reynard about the boy, not tonight, but it was wrong to keep silent. Thurstan looked very like Reynard himself, though Reynard refused to admit it. He had conceded, though, that the boy could well be the child of Reynard's own wife, born to her liaison with his brother, Gerhard. That made Reynard the boy's uncle, and Elias thought the boy needed to be told that he still had family left, no matter what awaited him in the city tomorrow. If they all died tomorrow, at least the boy would die knowing his mother's name.

       If they all die tomorrow... He lay very still, and thought of death. The grass was dying all around them, petals falling from flowers weeks ahead of the start of autumn. It wasn't enough for the others to notice yet, but he knew it was there, and that it would get worse. He thought of Thurstan weeping, and how it stabbed Elias through the heart to be so unable to give him hope, and how he had failed to prevent the thing that had caused the boy such grief.

       He thought of Reynard, dying in the city, dying for him. Elias had caused the death of Reynard's son, and their last visit to the city had scarred Reynard forever, making him a man haunted by his past failure and determined not to fail again. That determination would mean that he would be the first to die, but the others would soon follow him. They would all die, and Darius would be there to make it horrible, to stretch the deaths out into months of torment, and break those proud spirits like he had broken Elias.

       He chewed his lip to stop himself from moaning aloud. Above him, pricked out in silver stars, a falcon wheeled with outstretched wings. What would it see, if its starry eyes could look down? The shapes of people who were sleeping badly, worrying about tomorrow, while the man who could save them lay awake and wondered what he should do. Was the answer obvious, when seen from so far above? It probably was. He pressed his hands into the ground, and fought the urge to turn into a bird and fly with that falcon of the stars, far away, to a place where Darius was a tiny grain of dust, and there were no people alive who could die for him.

       He thought of the city, and the prison cells beneath the citadel, where he had been broken. I don't want to go there again. He looked at Reynard, and Thurstan, asleep. But I don't want them to do. I don't want them to die.

       Reynard wanted to talk about it in the morning. Elias would want one thing, but Reynard would block it. His eyes would glitter, and he would say things, horrible things, like, "I am willing to die for you, my lord. We all are. We have sworn it." His hand would close on his sword, but really it would be closing on Elias's heart, squeezing until it wept blood.  

       He will die, a voice spoke in his mind. With the voice came a picture. He saw Reynard lying in a massive pool of blood, face down on an amber floor, dead from a gash to the throat. When Elias blinked, there were only the stars again, high above him and dappled with clouds, but he knew it had been a vision. Not a vision of what would be, but a vision of what could be, if he made the wrong decision. Like the three brothers in the story, Elias had to choose the path. Reynard's death lay at the end of one path, but which?

       "The one I will not take," he whispered, hugging himself close. I will not let Reynard die. Not Reynard. Not any of them.

       Elias was their king, and that had to mean something. He had sworn oaths to protect them, and he had given up everything to keep those oaths. He had chosen to stay because he thought he could make a difference. And he had tried, but there were so many people still crying, and they all spoke in Ciaran's voice.

       "All for nothing," they said. "You betrayed me for nothing. I was right about you. You are useless. If this is all the good you can do, you might as well have come back with me and let the Kindred get on with their lives without you. Look at that corpse," his master said, when anyone died. "You didn't save them. Should have come back with me. Listen to that screaming," he said, when anyone was hurting. "Why aren't you stopping it? That's why you stayed, isn't it? That's why you betrayed me."

       "I didn't!" Elias wanted to shriek, but he pressed his fist to his mouth, and made no sound at all. "I'm trying. I'm doing everything I can."

       "Everything?" his master said. "When Gerhard is being tortured because he's too loyal to betray you? When Reynard's going to die for you? When the whole world is dying and you're just lying here doing nothing?"

       He sat up. His mind was made up. There was no other answer. He had been trained to service, and he would serve. He had been sworn to sacrifice, and he would sacrifice himself. He had chosen the path of thorns, but Oliver was wrong about that road. The thorns hurt him terribly, but they had to. The alternative was far worse. He had chosen this path months ago, and there could be no going back. He had made his choice, and had to prove that it was the right one.

       He would walk the path of thorns tonight, and he would walk it alone, as he had to.

 

 

       Thurstan opened his eyes. He was lying on his side, and the first thing he saw was a dark figure crouching over someone who lay motionless on the ground.

       Thurstan stopped breathing. Where was his knife? What should he do? The crouching figure was wearing a dark cloak, made for concealment, and he was doing something with the sleeping man's face. Slitting his throat, Thurstan thought. How many more had he killed? Was he going to kill them all, one by one, or just kill one or two of them before slipping away into the shadows to watch the terror he had wrought? Was Thurstan going to be next?

       His knife was at his belt, but he couldn't make his arms move to find it. If he lay very still... No, he should move, and stop the assassin from killing any more. He should shout a warning, but he was so sleepy. If he rolled over and went to sleep, nothing bad would happen. He should close his eyes. This was nothing he hadn't seen before in dreams. He should just sleep.

       Through drooping eyelids, Thurstan saw the assassin draw his hand back from the dead man's face. The faint light from the east washed over his face, and Thurstan saw that it was the king. The king, and the body on the ground was Reynard's.

       Thurstan gasped, a grating sound in his throat that didn't want to make a sound. The king snapped his head round, then his shoulders sank a little. "Thurstan," he whispered. "You were asleep."

       "Is he dead?" Thurstan forced his leaden body to sit up. "What happened? Did someone...?"

       "He's not dead." The king shook his head. "Not hurt." It wasn't light enough to see the expression on his face.

       Thurstan's eyes widened. "Asleep? Asleep on watch? Reynard?"

       "They're all asleep," the king whispered. "I left... You were asleep anyway. I thought..."

       "I wasn't meant to see this, was I?" Thurstan felt very cold inside. "What's happened?" What have you done? he almost asked, because the king sounded like Thurstan used to sound, a child caught doing something that he knew he should not.

       "Nothing," the king sighed. "I just... I came to a decision. Reynard would have blocked it, and he would have been wrong. I had to stop him. This was the only way."

       "You made them sleep with your magic?" So that had been the king's enchantment, urging him to go to sleep and forget even when he had thought an assassin was killing Reynard. He had only caught the edge of a magic meant for someone else. He wondered what it had felt like for Reynard, to feel his body falling asleep, when all he wanted to do was fight to protect his king.

       "It was the only way." The king's voice was more sure now. "This is it, Thurstan. The ways part here. I have to do this alone. Reynard wouldn't have been able to see that, so I had to silence him. It's for the best."

       "Alone," Thurstan echoed. He threw off the blanket that was tangled around his feet, and stood up on tottering legs. "You mean to the city? You're going by yourself? You mustn't! You can't."

       "Nothing will go wrong," the king said, in that serene voice of his. "I have more chance of success alone than with other people. It's how things are."

       Thurstan grabbed his arm and clung to it. "But I want to go. I need to. Please, my lord. Gerhard's my father. I've got to go with you. I have to. Please."

       The king did not prize his hands away or rebuke him for his words. He looked at him with pity, but what use was pity when his words still said no? "I know you feel like that, Thurstan. I do understand. But I have to do what is best for us all. Gerhard has a better chance of getting out this way, and you'll be alive and safe, ready to meet him. If you all went with me... If you came..." He glanced away for a moment. "You could die," he whispered.

       Thurstan felt as if he was being torn in two. "You don't think I'm good enough. First Gerhard, now you. Sending me away. Not letting me... help."

       The king cupped his cheek in his cool hand. "That is not true, Thurstan. This is nothing to do with you. Even Reynard has to stay behind for this."

       Tears poured down Thurstan's cheeks. "But it's not fair!" He was no longer whispering, but wailing, and how wrong it was that Reynard did not wake up. Reynard was like Gerhard, in that he could hear even a whisper in the night, and be ready in an instant to defend his people. "Reynard wants to go with you. He'll hate being left behind. They all will. All they want to do is help keep you safe."

       "I'm sorry." The king was already moving away, pulling away from him, ignoring his pleas. "I will be safe, I promise you that. I'm not doing this to hurt you. It's just that there's no other way."

       But Thurstan had seen so many nightmares. He had to see the reality for himself, or how would the dreams ever stop? "Please," he sobbed. "Take me with you. Leave the others, but let me go."

       "No." There was steel in the king's voice. Thurstan felt himself held, merciless fingers clamping hold of his mind and urging him to sit down again. They were soft, but they still hurt, and he tried to sob, but the power that held him wouldn't even let him do that. "I'm sorry," the king said, and his voice was tender, despite the things he was doing, "but I just cannot."

       Thurstan tried to speak, but could not. "Take this," the king said. He pulled something over his head and pressed it into Thurstan's hand. It felt like a rounded stone, with a cord threaded through it. "Show it to Reynard. If nothing else, it will prove to him that you spoke to me and I chose to go of my own free will. Tell him that I have to do this, and he's cruel when he tries to stop me. No, don't tell him that. But tell him that I have to do this. Tell him I have the power to keep myself safe. Tell him I will be back by the time the sun rises the day after tomorrow. If I am not, then he is free to do whatever he likes. But before that... I will not issue any orders. But tell him that I'm asking him as one man to another not to follow me. Tell him that."

       "He won't listen," Thurstan forced out through his frozen throat. "He'll fight for you."

       "Then let him," the king said. "Don't fight him. Tell him what I said, but let him do what he wants." He clapped Thurstan on the shoulder. "I know it's unfair to you, putting you in this situation..."

       "You were going to go without saying goodbye," Thurstan muttered. "If I hadn't woken up, you would have."

       The king closed his eyes for a moment. "I would have, yes. You're right. It was wrong of me. Goodbyes are very important. Only a coward slips away without meeting the eyes of the people he is leaving behind. So perhaps I am a coward."

       Thurstan breathed in and out before answering. "Oh, my lord, I didn't mean..."

       "No," the king said, "but I deserve it, anyway. So this is my goodbye to you. I will come back, and if Gerhard is alive, I will bring him to you. I promise you. And I'm sorry." He touched Thurstan's cheek, then his brow, but then he stiffened, pulling away as if he had been burnt.

       "What is it, my lord?" Thurstan asked, but the king was already shaking his head, composing his mouth into his usual sad smile.

       "Nothing." He started to walk away, raising one arm in farewell. "Goodbye, Thurstan." A few minutes later, Thurstan heard the soft whicker of a horse. He caught a quick glimpse of a figure on horseback, and then the king was gone, swallowed up by the greyness of early dawn, heading south into a city of death. Gone, and Thurstan could only watch. Gone.

       Above him, the sky slowly lightened. The clouds came together over the moon, covered it for a moment, then released it, just as it was about to sink into the west. He clutched the king's stone, then let it fall, tangling the cord in his fingers. After the moon set, thick clouds started to boil up from the horizon. The hairs on his neck prickled with the sense of an approaching storm, but the king did not come back, and the others just slept there lifelessly, and did not wake up.

       Thurstan's daydreams scattered like mist in the morning. There would be no reunion in the prison cell. Gerhard would not smile at him and tell him how proud he was of him for fighting through the guards to free him. He would never be able to save the king from a cruel trap in the city. All he could do was sit here and wait, staring always at the place where the king had disappeared, and wait for other people to bring him his life back again. 

       When it was almost fully light, a hand fell on his shoulder. "Can you explain yourself, boy?"

       He did not even look up. "He went away. All by himself. I tried to stop him, but he... he did something to me. He stopped me, and now he's gone."  

       "Did something to you?" Reynard roared.

       "He did," Thurstan pleaded. "I tried to stop him. I really did. I tried..."

       "I know, lad." Reynard hauled him round by the shoulders. There was fury in his face, yes, but something else, too. His eyes were still bleary with unnatural sleep. It made him look defenceless and defeated. "He did something to us, too."

       "He put you to sleep," Thurstan said. "He said so."

       "Of course he did." Reynard gestured sharply at the others, urging them to hurry. "But he won't stop us that easily. We'll catch him up. We'll teach him to think he can abandon us whenever he wants to."      

       Thurstan stared miserably at the stone pendant. "He didn't want you to. He said he was safer by himself. He said it was the right thing to do. He... He didn't want you to follow him. He really didn't."

       "But of course he knew I would do it anyway," Reynard snapped. "If he was anyone else I'd beat him for this. Perhaps I will anyway, when I catch him. How dare he?" He raked his hand across his brow. "How could he?"

       Thurstan raised his hand, so the stone pendant swung sluggishly, thumping against his knees. "He gave me this. He said I was to tell you that he isn't ordering you to stay behind, but asking you, as one man to another."

       Reynard snatched the pendant from Thurstan's hand, and something seemed to flow out of his as he held it. "I know what this means to him. I... I didn't know he realised that I knew. But why does he think it will make a difference? I always have understood why he acts as he does. It still doesn't make it right. Just as he... he understands me, but he still stops me."

       Thurstan looked up at Reynard, standing tall above him as he sat on the ground. "So you're going after him? Can I come?"

       Reynard was silent for a very long time, just swinging the pendant to and fro. Then he snatched it up and clutched it in his fist, squeezing it so tightly that his fingers went white. "How long ago did he leave?" His voice wasn't like his at all.

       Thurstan looked up at the sky. "Four hours, I think."

       "Four hours." Reynard closed his eyes. "He'll be almost at the city now. Too late to catch him up. Too late, and... He did get out last time. If only I could trust him to remember to do it. But..." He opened his eyes again. "Take the pendant back, lad. Keep it for him, for when you see him again."

       "What does it mean?" Thurstan asked, as he took the stone. It was warm from Reynard's touch.

       "None of your business," Reynard snapped. "Just that he's a stupid, selfish, impossible boy, and I'll wring his neck when he comes back."

       "When he comes back?"

       "Yes." Reynard turned his head away, but the set of his shoulders spoke more eloquently than his face ever could. "It's too late. It's come to this again. All we can do now is wait. That's what he's done to us. Just... wait."


Chapter five

The passing of hours

 

      

            The storm found Elias before he had reached the city. He had watched the lightning flicker in the south, silver sheets that made the towers of Eidengard seem jagged and black against the sky. Now it was upon him.

       Lightning flared, and he cowered, shrinking into the saddle. He fumbled with his hood, pulling it over his face. He was the only figure on the flood plain, and the lightning ripped away all safety and put him on display for all the see. If Darius was on the walls, his claw-like hands curled on the ramparts, watching with narrowed eyes...  It flashed again, and his horse shied, darting wildly away to the left. Elias struggled to control her, trying to reach her with the unspoken link that bound him to all animals, but that only seemed to increase her fear.

       She galloped wildly, and he groped for the reins and found them, just. The rain started to fall, only single drops at first, but striking his face like sharp stones. Thunder sounded, and then it was utterly dark. All he could see was the stark after-image of the last fork of lightning. The horse's hooves pounded, carrying him somewhere unknown in the darkness, maybe to Darius, or maybe to home.

       Someone spoke to him. "Lost," a voice wailed. "Hurting."

       His head snapped round. He hauled at the reins, and made the horse stop. Rain pattered, but there was no other sound. "Are you there?" he whispered. He hunched on the saddle, ready to flee. "Who are you?"

       No-one answered. He moved the trembling horse forward, step by step, and soon he heard the faintest whisper of sound, like something swaying gently in the wind. There was a metallic edge to the sound that made him think of Darius.

       He moistened his lips. "Is anyone there?" Darius watching him, running chains lovingly between his hands... "Do you need... help?"

       "Lost," the voices breathed, but they were not voices at all, for all that they spoke in his mind with the fragility of leaves crumbling in the autumn. "But not alone," they said, and became like ice running in his veins. "Together we are strong. Together we can make them pay."

       "Where are you?" he screamed. His horse danced nervously, wanting to escape, as Elias reached out to one side and then the other, fingers straining in the darkness. He found nothing there, though the sound was so close now, like someone standing in front of him, waiting to snatch him.

       He wheeled his horse around, and it was then that something hit him in the face. It was solid, but moving, for it retreated after landing the blow, then returned for another. He shrank back, clenched his fists briefly, and dared to reach out again. He found it, dangling sluggishly, softly swinging to and fro. It was very cold, and he knew what it was, but, It's not true! he cried. Darkness could hide things. As long as the darkness remained, it didn't need to be real.

       Lightning flared with renewed purpose, and the whole plain was bathed in harsh silver light. It showed him his hand, closed around the foot of a dead man. If he raised his head, he would see the body hanging on the gibbet, swaying in its chains, but the lightning had gone before he could do that.

       He recoiled with a cry, and slid from his horse, falling to his knees at the side of the road. He retched, but nothing came up. He moaned, screaming out his anguish silently in the enchantment, and he was heard. Dead men crowded around him, brushing his neck with skeletal fingers, crying to him of their pain and their hatred.

       They were Gerhard's men. They had fallen in the mountains, but most had not died there. Alive or dead, their bodies had been transported to the city. Some had died on the journey, but some had still been alive when they had been chained up outside its walls, and had died in this place. Even those who had died in the mountains were here, for their bewildered spirits had clung to their bodies and to their dying friends.

       Lightning flared like a pointing finger, and he wrenched his head up and forced his eyes open, making himself see. Gibbets lined the road like a mourners at a funeral, and naked carcasses dangled from each one. The face of the man nearest to Elias was rotten, its eyes sunken and its skin grey. When the lightning faded and darkness covered the earth again, Elias could still see that face and nothing else.    

       The spirits clamoured at him. They did not yet know who he was, only that he was here, and that he could hear them. Perhaps they screamed like this at everyone who passed, and would have remained unheard for centuries if he had not come this way. Maybe they clawed at the eyes that gawped at them, and snatched at the soldiers who gloated over them, but no-one would ever know. Only Elias could hear them. Only Elias could help them.   

       He crawled from gibbet to gibbet, touching the wood, retching again at the foul sense of agony that exuded from the wood. He saw images of how they had died. That one had died in the mountains, and could not understand why his body was no longer there, in the place that had become his home. This one here had been alive until the day before, slowly dying of thirst while travellers watched in curiosity and disgust. If Elias had come a day earlier, he could have been saved.

       The line stretched far ahead, a dozen or more on each side of the road. He started to count them, but horror drove the numbers from his mind. He touched each dead foot and called to the dead spirits to claim the body and give it a name, but their need was too primitive for such words. He screamed aloud, begging to know if any of them were still alive, but there was no answer. He clawed at their legs, thinking he could cut them down and bury them, but they were too high above him, and tied with chains wrought in Darius's prisons. As he touched them, things crawled upon his hands. Rain ran down the back of his neck and it was cold, as cold as death.

       Was Gerhard there? He had to find out, for Thurstan's sake. "Is Gerhard there?" he screamed to the dead, and they wailed and shivered and mourned the loss of their lord. If he was with them, he would lead them home. If he was there, then this horrible reality would end. They were far from home, and their lord had left them. They didn't know where he was. They had followed him here, and then they had lost him. There was no-one to show them the way.

       "I'll help you," he vowed. "I'll do anything, but… but I don't know how." He had never been able to help the dead in the ruins, no matter how badly he had wanted to, but his powers were stronger now. There had to be a way. "Use me!" he cried, throwing his arms open, offering them his powers and everything that he was. "Take what you need. Do what you must."

       Elias stood up, and threw himself outwards, letting the white fire bleed from his body onto the land around it. They felt his power, and surged forward anew, wild with need and hope. Revenge, they urged, with the voice of the thunder. The bodies dripped with agony and repulsiveness, and the dead faces grimaced in the grotesque light. Revenge for this. They snatched at his power and warped it, and clawed at him with talons when he tried to resist. You offered, they told him, and we are taking. When he screamed his revulsion, they ripped through him, gouging, taking, using.

       "No," Elias sobbed. "Please." With all his strength he tried to push them out, tried to reclaim the power he had so recklessly given away. "You don't need to do this. You need to rest," he babbled. "It's over. Rest. Oh, it's so beautiful. I saw it once. Leave the earth and go to it. You'll be together. You'll be home."

       The invading dead faltered for a moment. Home? he heard, at last.

       "Home," Elias breathed. It was the sweetest word. "You're dead," he told them gently. "You're not meant to stay on the earth. But there's an even better world waiting for you. I want to help you find your way there. I'll take care of the world you've leaving behind. If there are things you left undone, I will complete them. I'll find Gerhard. I'll fight for the world, against the evil that's coming. You didn't die in vain."

       Home? they echoed. He saw glimpses of women and children, of kisses and laughter, of flowers and a mother's embrace. He saw a weeping willow by a snowy stream, and the rainbow play of light in a waterfall. He saw warm bread by a fire and flushed faces listening to stories. Home? they sighed, for they had all been exiles, and home had been denied to them in life, though they had never stopped longing for it.

       "Yes," Elias told them, "but the door to that place is nearer for you than for me. I can't find it. Use my powers to… to light your way. Use me any way you need to. Just be at peace."

       They fell upon him, devouring him like starving wolves, tearing him apart. They surged through his veins, and white light blazed where they touched him. Each one broke off a part of him, and hugged it close like a talisman that would open the door to the world that came after. As each one pulled away, he screamed with the pain of the rending. As each one found his way home, he sobbed, because he had nothing left, just the pain of enchantment, and the foulness of violation.

       Then even that faded, and he was left lying on his back in the middle of the road, cold rain pattering on his face and onto his staring sightless eyes.

 

 

       Above him the sky was grey. His lips tasted of ash, but his body felt as if it was floating on water, unable to feel anything beneath it. Even the water was grey, feeling neither pleasant nor uncomfortable. He felt stretched out, and not truly there. But when he moved the pain was real, and slowly the feeling of unreality faded.

       He was alive, lying on his back beneath a wide night's sky that was nearing morning. The ground was wet beneath him, and his hair and cloak were sodden. His horse was whinnying from far away, but his mind was too sluggish to call to her.

       Elias struggled to sit up. A tall wooden gibbet loomed over him, but the chains that hung from it were empty. Where a dead man had once hung, now there was nothing but sticky grey ash trickling into the grass that lined the road. The gibbets on either side were similarly empty, but the ones further away still held their dangling corpses. Elias could look at them without flinching, now. They were only empty houses, left behind by men who had finally found their way home. Where the spirits had once crowded, there was now only emptiness. 

       Elias remembered little of how it had ended. He had offered the power, but the dead had controlled it. He had no idea if the enchantment itself had blazed so fiercely that it had burnt away the bodies of the nearest men, or if the lightning had joined in, attracted by his power. However it had happened, he wished he could immolate them all, but he could hardly sit upright, let alone stand. He would lack the strength for all but the tiniest acts of enchantment for a few hours, if not longer.

       His horse whinnied again, and he moved his head sluggishly, trying to see her. The rain had left him freezing cold, and he pulled the wet cloak around his shoulders, and shivered with the memory of skeletal hands pawing at him, taking him. "But it was a good thing," he said aloud. "They're at peace now, and that's good. I'd do it again," he said, but his voice was shaky and very small.

       He shuffled over to the empty gibbet, and used it to haul himself to his feet. As he did so, he thought he heard the sound of several horses approaching. Had Reynard woken up and insisted on coming after him? That would be good. He needed to curl up and sleep, and have someone strong and loyal watch over him as he dreamed. But, no! It couldn't happen! Reynard would insist on going into the city to try to find Gerhard, and then he would die. Elias couldn't let Reynard find him. He couldn't let Thurstan find this place, and see the horrors that still remained. 

       Have to go away. He put one foot in front of the other, and managed to walk, arms wrapped tightly round his body. After a dozen steps he stumbled, falling flat on his face in the long grass beside the road. He lay there, and the horses were louder, and now there were voices, too. But they were coming from the city. Not Reynard, but the enemy. Darius's men. Maybe Darius himself, coming here, coming for him.

       He stuffed his fist into his mouth to stifle the moan. He tried to stand, but fell again, so pressed himself flat in the grass, wriggling backwards on his knees.

       The man had torches, flimsy tongues of orange that looked dirty after the white of the enchantment. There were half a dozen of them, and none of them were wearing black. One was a civilian in dark brown, but the others wore the faded uniform of the city's guard. One of them looked even younger than Thurstan.

       The lead man stopped beneath the first empty gibbet. Holding his torch high, he turned to face the others. "Gone."

       "Stolen," said the man in brown. "Stolen away by their accomplices. Traitors in our midst, or," he said, looking towards the hills in the north where Reynard was hiding, "allies who want revenge."

       "You didn't see it, sir," another guard said. "I did. The storm… It was like a normal storm, all around us, and then suddenly… It was as if… as if all the lightning in the world suddenly came together in this one spot. And then I saw…" He paused, taking a deep breath, then blurted it all out in a guilty rush. "There was a man standing like this, arms spread. He was the heart of the lightning. He was on fire, but he didn't fall, not for ages. He just stood there. All the lightning in the world…"

       "A storm can't do that," the man in brown snapped.

       "With respect," the first guard said, "I believe it can. I've seen trees struck by lightning. And I once heard of a man who was struck. He lived, but…"

       "Maybe it wasn't natural lightning," another one piped up. "I know they were evil men, but the way they were displayed… It's not right to put them here, where women and children can't help but see them. My little girl has had nightmares all week.. It wouldn't have happened in the old duke's time. Maybe even nature thinks it was wrong. Or so some will say," he added hastily, though too late.

       "Your sentiments will be reported when we return," the man in brown warned. He turned his back on the white-faced guardsman and addressed the others. "I still say they were stolen. The perpetrators can't have got far. They might even come back for the others. We'll find them, and string them up, too, on the gibbets they've so kindly vacated for us."

       "But what if it was sorcery?" the boy mused aloud, his fear making him rash. "Everyone knows the only way to properly kill a sorcerer is to burn them in fire, but these were just hung up. My little sisters came out to look at them yesterday. What if they cursed them? What if they're watching us even now?"

       "It wasn't sorcery," pronounced the man in brown. "Lord Darius himself ordered the bodies to be displayed here. Would he have done that unless he was satisfied that they were harmless? Are you suggesting that he made a mistake?"

       "No." The boy shrank back. "I'm sorry, sir. I didn't mean it."

       "Really?" The man in brown pulled his horse around. "I still say it was the work of man. And we will hunt them, and we will find them."

       Elias pressed himself even flatter against the ground, and tried not to breathe. If the sky grew lighter, they would find him. If they moved towards him, they would find him. He was too weak to run and too weak even to hide. He was completely exposed, shielded only by the last dregs of darkness and grass that wasn't long enough or thick enough to cover him.

       "I still say it was the lightning," the lead guardsman said. "And it's not for us to authorise a hunt, and, with respect, it's not for you either, sir. We should report it to the Soldiers of Light, and they will decide whether Lord Darius needs to be told."

       From the last dregs of the darkness, a voice spoke. "Lord Darius already knows."

       The newcomer stepped forward, his horse walking almost silently on the grass beside the road. He was a slim young man with fair hair, wearing a uniform that was all black. None of the guards had heard him approach, and they turned round sharply, each one sitting or standing a little straighter as they saw who it was.

       The man in brown hurried forward to speak, but the newcomer waved his hand dismissively. "It was lightning," he told them. "That is the ruling of Lord Darius himself. There will be no talk of sorcerers getting revenge from beyond the grave, or bandits at large near our walls. What can be achieved by such talk but fear and doubt amongst the people we serve? Only traitors spread rumours like that, and we are none of us traitors here, are we?"

       "No," they assured him, shaking their heads emphatically.

       "Lord Darius is not cruel," the man said. "Like you, he wishes it was possible to spare women and children from such sights, but he knows it is not possible. We live in dangerous times, and we must all make sacrifices. By such sights as these, traitors are warned of the consequences of their crimes, and the populace are reminded to stay vigilant.  Better a child suffer nightmares, than suffer death at the hands of our enemies." He turned towards the boy, and spoke gently. "Is it not?"

       The boy nodded, and tried to speak, but no sound came out. The man on the horse looked at him for a while, then turned away. "They will be buried this morning," he said. "Lord Darius's orders. They had served their purpose. We have lost nothing."      

       Buried… The grass swayed in front of Elias's eyes, and patches of colour took shape on the stems. There were flowers, thousands of flowers, an oasis of beauty in the middle of a barren plain. He saw the grass turn black and die, as evil triumphed, but still the flowers bloomed, the last thing alive in all the world. Then he saw the first green shoots of rebirth, and the plain turn verdant again, but still the flowers remained, outshining everything around them, for they had been nourished with the pure white flowers of enchantment itself, and could never be diminished. Then the flowers faded, and all he saw was the coarse grass in front of his face, and the soldiers beyond it.

       He rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand. He had told Thurstan that a true vision was unmistakeable, but this time he had no idea if he had seen a vision, or just his hope of how things would be. He was too drained from his outpouring of enchantment to tell apart even obvious things. Even if it was a true vision, then there were a hundred different ways it could fail to come to pass. He held all the threads in the palm of his hand, but had no idea which ones to pull and which to cast aside. By his own choices, he could doom the world.

       The soldiers were riding away. Orders must have been issued and acted upon while he had been lost in his dreams of the flowers. Soon they were no more than orange specks of light, bobbing to and fro with the motion of their horses. They hadn't found him, but it was only luck that had kept him safe. If they had chanced to look searchingly in his direction, they would have found him, and he would have been too weak to fight them as they captured him and dragged him before Lord Darius himself. Then, when he hadn't returned, Reynard would have come after him, and would have been captured in his turn, and everything would have been lost.

       "But they didn't find me," he said, struggling to his feet. He looked up at the remaining dead, swinging so gently on their chains, and knew he had done the right thing. There was nothing else he could have done, just as there was nothing else he could do now but pull his sodden cloak around his body, and walk towards the city.

 

 

       It was grey morning when Elias approached the bridge. Muffled by the rain, the bells of the city were striking six. A miserable guard was hunched at his post, rubbing his hands together in a vain attempt to get warm. When he heard Elias approach, he grasped his pike and thrust it outwards. He was not one of the soldiers in black. He held his weapon awkwardly, and his face was flabby. No danger, Elias told himself. No danger at all.

       Elias edged his horse forward, very aware of her fear. She had come to him when he had left the place with the bodies, and let him drag himself onto her back, but her nervousness had not eased as they had ridden away from that terrible sight. "What are you so scared of?" he had asked her, but there was no way she could tell him. The link he shared with animals never went as far as words.

       "Who are you?" the guard demanded. "Where d'you come from?"

       Elias kept his face hidden in his hood. "A place called Greenslade. It's in the north, a long way away."

       "Never heard of it," the guard said dismissively. "What's your business in Eidengard? Why're you here so early?"

       "The thunder woke me. I was camping back there." Elias gestured vaguely behind him. "Thought I might as well get on the road, rather then trying to sleep through a storm."

       "Hmph." The guard's neck was shrinking into his clothes, as he desperately tried to protect himself from the rain. "Let's see your face. Can't be too careful these days."

       Elias swallowed. He laid down the reins and brought both hands up to his hood. He had hidden his face with a light illusion, and he had changed into city clothes before leaving the small camp in the hills. There was no way the guard would be able to recognise him, no way at all.

       He took a deep breath and pushed the hood back, but the guard was already waving him through, eager to return to the meagre shelter of his post, where a small fire burned in a brazier. "Don't know what you can do so early in the morning," he grumbled. "Nothing'll be open."

       Elias started to walk his horse over the bridge. At the other end of the bridge was the crowded suburb, and then the snaking path that went up to the city itself. Anyone on the walls could watch a traveller crossing the bridge. If Lord Darius was standing there, he would be able to see him, so small beneath him as to be pinched between two of his fingers.

       At the far end of the bridge, he dismounted, but his weak legs almost gave way when he landed, and he had to cling to the saddle to stay upright. He managed to walk, his face turned into the horse's neck, so no-one on the walls would be able to see him.

       The streets were empty. He stumbled along the middle of the road, where a thousand sets of footprints had been turned to mud by the rain. All the shutters on either side were drawn shut, and the cold wind raced down from the city, driving rain into his face. His horse's hooves sounded very loud even on the muddy road, but no-one came to the window and looked out with bleary faces. There weren't even muffled voices from the houses he passed, and the taverns were silent. When he turned round, the guard at the end of the bridge had vanished, lost in the mist. Moisture clung to everything like a grey miasma of death. It was like a vision of the world as it would be if the enemy won, and all life was destroyed, only Elias left to wander through the ruins of the world he had not saved.

       Something moved in a doorway, and his head snapped up, but it was only a dog out rummaging for scraps. When it saw Elias, it came bounding towards him, and thrust its nose into his palm. "Hello, boy," he said, but then it, too, seemed to pick up something of the horse's fear, for it whined and ran away, leaving him alone.

       The road began to rise, and he had to stop to catch his breath. As he did so, something snapped above him, like a trap clicking shut. He looked up, his hood sliding back from his face, but it was only a woman throwing open the shutters. When she saw him looking up at her, she frowned, and withdrew quickly from the window.

       Elias let out a slow breath. She had seen him. He was barely disguised, because Reynard had told him once that disguises worked best if they were close to the part you normally played. He was still a young man, though his hair was a little darker, and his face unremarkable. A boy you'd never look twice at, he projected with the illusion. A boy who will never do anything special. He was playing the boy he had always thought himself to be. He was playing the boy that, deep down, he still believed he was.

       The rain grew heavier as he trudged up the hill. He left the suburb, and the walls of the city itself loomed above him, casting their chill shadow. Something was very wrong with the city ahead of him, he thought, though he could not tell what it was. Maybe it was just the presence of Lord Darius that made him want to shudder and run. He peered up at the battlements. He couldn't see anyone there, but they could still be watching him. The portcullis ahead of him had sharp points, and the gateway was a dark tunnel that could hide two dozen black-clad soldiers.

       "Who's there? You! Come out from behind your horse."

       Elias walked a few faltering steps forward. Just before he raised his head, he changed the illusion. Not a stranger after all. People asked questions about strangers, and sometimes even led them before Lord Darius. Illusion worked in conjunction with the memories and expectations of the person who saw it. A young man, Elias thought. Someone you've seen before. No-one special. Nobody.

       The guards weren't wearing black, and they looked cold and bored. With a wave, they let him through. As he passed, he heard them resume a conversation that was already half way through. "They're definitely preparing for something," one said. "And about time," said the other. "Should have happened long ago, if you ask me."

       Still leading his horse, Elias walked slowly into the city of Eidengard. As he walked past a handsome white house, its shutters opened, and a maid shook a cloth out of the window. A man in the house opposite reached out with one hand and grimaced when he felt how heavily the rain was falling. A door opened, and a woman stepped carefully down the slippery steps of a larger house, helped by an old man. After exchanging a few words, they set off in different directions, the woman heading for the city, and the man for the gate.

       The city was waking up, and Elias was no longer alone in the streets. But the man who walked past him seemed to look a little too closely at his face as he passed. Was he frowning as he walked away, hurrying to tell the guard? Elias walked a little faster, and thought it was probably just his imagination.

 

       The bell sounded in the ornate bell tower, and Elias raised his head listlessly and counted each one. It passed eight, seemed to pause after nine, then sounded one last time. Ten, he thought. Ten o'clock. He had left his horse in a stable, and had been wandering the streets on foot for four hours, the bells tolling the knell of every wasted minute.

       I should go, he told himself. To the citadel. To Darius. Soon. But he was so tired. When he walked, his feet didn't want to lift up properly. When he stopped for too long, the wind clawed at his hair like dead men's fingers, and the cold in his veins was ghosts possessing him and forcing him and taking him.

       He was leaning against a stone fountain at the centre of a busy crossroads, hunched in his hood as he watched people pass. The fountain was no longer working, and the pool was beginning to go stagnant. Once there had been benches around it, but they had been ripped up, leaving ugly scars. There was nothing of beauty left to make travellers pause. Wrapped in their own affairs, they just hurried by.

       Elias sighed, his hand drifting up to his chest. It was an unconscious movement, and it was only when the hand closed on nothing that he even realised he was doing it. The stone pendant was no longer there. He had given it to Thurstan. It had gone.

       His hand fell back heavily to the railing. I need it! He had picked the stone up from the place where he had last seen his master, and worn it ever since. Over the months it had been rubbed smooth, and the leather tie had become supple, like part of him.

       It spoke to him, the stone did. Not in words, of course, and not even with magic, though he knew some people had watched him clutching it so incessantly and wondered if it had powers. It was the symbol of everything he had lost. It was his home and his hopes and his life, all wrapped together in that last sight of Ciaran's face. You gave these things up, it told him, because you believed you had a duty to stay. So do your duty, and never stop. If you stop, if you fail, then you might as well never have given them up in the first place.

       His hand felt so empty. He wanted to sit down beneath the fountain and sleep. He wanted someone to talk to, to plan what to do next. He needed the stone to tell him that he had to carry on even though he was tired, that he had wasted far too much time already, that he didn't need a plan as long as he didn't stop trying.

       Leaning over the balustrade, he sank forward so his empty fingers touched the surface of the water. He caught a glimpse of his fractured reflection, and snatched his hand back, letting the water go still again. His true face was peering back up at him, fair hair falling down in wet strands over his pale face. His eyes looked very large, darting around to see if anyone was watching. But of course he'd seen his true face. He could always see through his own illusions, but it didn't mean that other people would. Everyone else would see what he wanted them to see.

       Elias touched the water again, waggling his fingers in the water. Ciaran had always described the Shadow as being as smooth as a pool of water, reflecting everything in the world, and emotions were the wind that disturbed it. Elias closed his eyes, suddenly hearing Ciaran's voice as clearly as if he was there beside him, teaching him in the rain in the quiet lanes of Greenslade. "I miss you," he whispered. Unbidden, his hand rose to his throat again, but of course there was nothing there. There was no stone to remind him that good had come out of his loss.

       He opened his eyes again, and moved round the fountain, hand trailing behind him. Thurstan had the stone now. Thurstan, a boy who had the ability to sense the Shadow. Thurstan, a boy who needed someone to stand beside him and teach him, as Ciaran had taught Elias. Thurstan, who, in another world, could be a Brother.

       Elias had comforted the boy for days, but he had never realised his gift, not until he had touched him to say goodbye. He frowned, still walking in a slow circle around the fountain. Why didn't I know before? He should have known. Ciaran had recognised Elias's gift from the other side of the street, before he had heard him say a word. Elias should have seen it days ago. He should have known.

       He had made himself blind. He had always been sure that enchantment and Shadow could not co-exist. After Ciaran's departure, he had stopped using the Shadow at all. Ciaran had always hated enchantment, and had made it clear that there could be no compromise, and in many ways he had been right. There could be no middle ground. Elias could live as a Brother, or as a king. He could live in one world, or the other. He could have a master, or he could be alone. From the moment he had made his choice, he had closed the door on his old life and everything that went with it.

       "But perhaps," he thought, "I shouldn't," he whispered,  "have done it." The Shadow was so beautiful and peaceful, and, "I miss it," he murmured. There were things he could do with the Shadow that he could not do with enchantment, and perhaps such things could help the Kindred. It was his duty to find it again. And Thurstan needed a teacher. It was wrong to deny him that. The boy felt like a failure, and he needed to be shown how to use his marvellous gift. Elias should have told him as soon as he had found out, instead of just turning his back and riding away.

       Closing his eyes, he reached out tentatively to the place in his mind where his Garden resided, but all he saw was whiteness, a light that burnt and hurt. In his mind, he tried to run, but he was trapped in a small round room, and there was no way out. He had locked himself inside the white tower, and there was no way back to the gentle beach outside. All he had was a tiny crack beside the door, a thin line in the whiteness. Cool air wafted through it, and he saw the tiniest glimpse of blue sea and silver sands, as lovely as ever. He pushed at the place where the door should be, and it shivered, but did not open. But it can, he thought. If I let it. If I want it.

       Someone shouted, and he tumbled out of both tower and Garden, looking this way and that to see who it was. The shout was repeated, and he saw it was only a young man shouting to a friend. Neither were dressed like soldiers in black, but they glanced at Elias as they passed, and he knew that they had not been the only ones.

       It was time to move on. Perhaps he could open the tower door one day, and perhaps he could walk on deserted beach again, and perhaps things would change, but not today. Today he had to rescue Gerhard. What horrors had Gerhard suffered while Elias had lounged against a fountain and done nothing at all?

 

 

       The square was deserted, the wind surging gleefully around the open space, smashing rain into Elias's face. A few lone people scurried through it, hugging the edges where the tall buildings with the painted facades sheltered them from the worst of the weather. Elias stopped in the middle of the square, and he peered up at the largest building of all, where dignitaries could stand and watch executions. The windows looked black, revealing nothing of what was going on behind them.

       There was no scaffold erected today. Elias crouched, picking up a battered flower that had been dropped, perhaps, by a girl on a sunnier day, when the square had been full of people. Many of the women had worn flowers when they had come to see him killed. Had someone been killed here recently? Still holding the flower, he turned full circle, searching for dead spirits that were crying out to him to help them.

       The soldiers came marching through the archway as he was completing his turn, and the flower slipped from between his fingers. They were marching four abreast, and each one was carrying a pike. Elias stepped back, splashing in a puddle between two irregular flagstones, but the soldiers just kept on surging into the square, marching towards them. They were wearing all colours in no particular uniform, but last of all, side by side, were two horsemen, both wearing black. 

       Elias just kept on edging backwards, pulling his hood over his head, making a pretence of cowering from the rain. He was all alone, exposed in the middle of the great square. Like a single tree on the plain, he would draw the lightning. Even if they hadn't been coming for him, they had found him.

       "Out of the way, citizen," one of the horseman shouted. At Elias? Elias swallowed. He means me. He kept on edging backwards, turning so far into his hood that the wet material stuck to his cheek and his lips. No-one could see his face.

       "Form them up, sergeant," the second horseman commanded. When Elias dared hazard a glance from beneath his hood, he saw that it was the young soldier who had brought Darius's orders to the guards outside the city.

       As the sergeant shouted sharp orders to the men, the two horsemen dismounted, and stood together not far from Elias. "Conscripts," one said dismissively. "I don't know what's worse - conscripts, or the type of volunteers we've been getting lately. The conscripts don't want to be here, but the volunteers… It's a shame their ability doesn't match their enthusiasm."

       "It is not for us to complain," said the fair-haired soldier. "We turn them into soldiers, best we can. We will need every man we can get when we go to war."

       "But on a day like this… Don't you wish we were back at the barracks, nice and warm, rather than out here trying to turn village idiots into soldiers?"

       His companion drew himself up. "A Soldier of Light cares not if a task is ignominious, as long as it serves the cause of Light. Only traitors complain. And you are not a traitor, are you, Thomas?"

       "No," his companion hastened to assure him. "I was only joking. You know that. You won't report me, will you?"

       The fair-haired soldier looked at him for a long time. "Not this time, but be careful of your thoughts."

       Thomas moved towards him. "Why don't you trust me?" he hissed. "What have I done? I know something's about to happen, but no-one will tell me what it is. Lankin, I fought beside you in the mountains. I took down three, as many as anyone. I'm loyal, you know I am."

       The sergeant had finished drawing up the men, and was walking towards the two officers, ready to salute. The fair-haired soldier walked to meet him, but, as he did so, he said softly over his shoulder, "It is not my secret to tell, Thomas."

       Elias realised that his hand had risen to his face, covering everything beneath his eyes. They had fought in the mountains, these two young men. They had each killed someone Thurstan knew. And they could see through illusion. The soldiers in black could see though illusion.

       The soldiers began their drill, and Elias just kept walking backwards. But then behind him was the archway, the archway that led to the citadel, where Darius stalked so silently from cell to cell. It was the nearest way to leave the square, and he had to go through it to reach Gerhard.

       But not yet, he whispered. Not while the soldiers are here. Wait till they've gone. It's only sensible to wait.

       When both the officers had their backs turned to him, he scurried back the way he had come, hand to his face, head bent low. 

      

 

       As he huddled in a gateway, a woman hurried past holding a heavy tray covered with a cloth. After she had passed, Elias caught the scent of freshly baked bread, and realised just how hungry he was. He had forgotten to bring enough money, and had only pennies left after paying for the stable. Reynard had plenty of money in his pack, no doubt, but Elias had never thought to take it for himself.

       With a squeal of a bolt, the gate behind him opened. "Out of the way, beggar," an imperious voice bellowed. Before Elias could even move, a horseman all but knocked him down. Another horseman followed him, his clothes gaudy and his weapons good. After the third one had passed, a servant closed the gate behind them. "Best do as he says," the servant advised. Then, when Elias did not answer, he tried to peer beneath his hood. "You're not sick, are you?" He started to back away, as if the answer was already yes.

       Elias grasped hold of the railings, staring beyond the servant's anxious face, listening to memories beyond his words. The gate was new, sealing in a small courtyard at the back of one of the great houses that fronted onto the square. At the far side of the courtyard was a stable door.

       Elias felt his knees go limp, and for a moment he was only holding himself up with his hands. This was the stable where he had hidden after his escape from the scaffold, where he had curled up and completely forgotten himself, dreaming only of being rescued, and forgetting that there were people he had to save. He had given into weakness and selfish need, and it had been wrong, so very wrong.

       But I was so scared. It hurt so much. I just wanted…

       He let go of the gate, and raised his hand to his throat, but of course the stone wasn't there. Pushing away from the gate, he started to run, but he made it only a dozen steps. Something struck him in the chest, grasped him by the throat, as strong as a physical blow. Crying out, he dropped to his knees, falling bodily over the dying man lying in the doorway.

       "Oh," Elias breathed. "Oh." The man's pain and fear had been like an assault, and it was impossible to stand, to step over him, to ignore him. Gently, his wet fingers trembling, Elias touched the man's face, finding it burning hot beneath the cold skin of rainwater. There was a rasp to his breathing, and his pulse was racing in his throat.

       He was dying. Elias heard footsteps and looked up, his hand still pressed to the man's throat, but the woman who was passing recoiled in disgust and hugged the other side of the narrow alley. Only when she was safely past did she return to the middle, where the mud was less.

       Dying. The man groaned, but did not wake up. When Elias removed his hand, the man's head lolled, a thin line of blood trickling from the side of his mouth. Dying and no-one cared. His clothes were patched rags, and his face had the weather-beaten look of someone who had lived on the streets for years. No-one would miss him when he was gone. They would sneer with disgust and step over his body, until one day, perhaps, someone bothered to look down and notice that it was only a skeleton inside the rags, and the man had died months before.

       Dying. Alone. Elias pulled the man into his lap. "I won't let you die," he promised. "I won't."

       Pressing his fingers to the man's brow, he started to heal him. White light rose in gentle wisps, and he gasped aloud in horror, knowing that the light would draw people, and then they would drag him away and the man would fall from his reaching arms, and he would die because Elias could not save him.

       "Hide," he pleaded. He pulled the white fire inwards, letting it blaze inside him, but remain all invisible, secret, hidden. It hurt terribly, more than he had thought possible. Enchantment was not meant to be contained. It was like damming a river in flood, or holding back a fire with his own body. He threw back his head and screamed silently, cold rain falling into his mouth and the back of his throat.

       Minutes passed, or hours. He heard snatches of voices, and a bell sounded somewhere, low and long. He saw his own hands, fingers splayed on the man's brow. He saw the man's lips parting, and felt the breath that issued from between them. Inside his body, the fire raged, and burning tears poured down his face. The only way he would be free of it would be if he took his hand from the man's face and crawled away. The only way to stop hurting would be the let the man die.

       "Heal," he rasped, his voice burnt to cinders by the storm. "Heal," he pleaded, embracing the white fire and all the pain that it brought, and throwing it outwards, transforming it into a soothing balm as gentle as a placid sea. "Heal," as the enchantment rippled through the man's body, washing away his sickness, sweeping away the thing that had caused it.

       A clock struck, far away, and it seemed that even the dying in this city of so many towers took their cues from the bells, for the dying man twitched, then subsided with a long and peaceful sigh.

       Elias let out a long breath, and slid sideways onto the ground. When he could see again, he saw the man's eyes, only inches from his own. "You," the man whispered. He coughed, and spat a mouthful of saliva streaked with old blood. "You."

       Elias forced his eyes to stay open, forced himself to smile. "You'll be all right," he mouthed, but was unable to put any voice to it.

       "You," the man said again. He scrabbled desperately and managed to sit up. He pushed himself against the wall, his hands spread on the ground beside him, and his chin pushed down almost to his chest, so fiercely did he press his head and neck against the wall. "You."

       Elias tried to sit up, but failed. He wanted to say something reassuring, but it took all his strength just to breathe.

       "I saw you," the man grated. "I know you."

       The illusion had failed. Elias had put all his strength into the healing, and had forgotten to maintain the illusion. The man had seen him with his true face, and knew him. Elias closed his eyes. He restored the illusion, but didn't look at the man again.

       "What have you done to me?" the man rasped, loud enough that anyone passing could have heard. Elias heard him stand up, and heard him run away, but he could do nothing but lie there in the dirt, too exhausted to move.

      

 

       They were talking about him, standing over him in a ring, looking down with faces that were featureless ovals of grey. They spoke with many voices, debating to and fro. Sometimes they sounded like Oliver, and sometimes Reynard; sometimes like Ciaran, and sometimes like Elias himself. They sounded as if they were discussing something they had found washed up on the beach, something that didn't matter much at all.

       "Why does he do it, I wonder?" one of them said. "Look at him, sprawled in the mud. They could be coming to arrest him even now, and what on earth can be possibly do about it?"

       "He won't help Gerhard much when he's dead, now, will he?" An eyeless man shook his head from side to side. "I wonder how many people will die as a result of this day's work. He saved one man, yes. But who can save him? And, when he's dead, who can save the world?"

       "This was bound to happen," they said. "The road he has chosen has always ended here, or somewhere very like it. It was only a matter of time. He could have stepped off that road, but chose not to."

       "And now the man he saved has gone to get the soldiers," another said in a sing-song voice. "Bleating his tale of the sorcerer who brought him back from the dead to enslave his soul. They're coming, the soldiers in black who hate him so much, with Darius at their head."

       "And what's he going to do about it?" The grey faces closed in. "Just lie there? Twice, now, he's made himself helpless, and the day's only half gone. What new stupidities can he manage to do by evening?"

       "And it doesn't even have to hurt him," said Ciaran's voice. "It's his own fault that it does. If only he'd learn."

       "Then show me." Elias opened his eyes and the grey faces disappeared back into a dream. He was alone, still lying in the mud, and the only thing he could see when he rolled over was the overhanging gables of houses, and the grey sky, patched with white.

       He struggled to sit up, and managed to lean against the wall. His head felt impossibly heavy, and it hurt to breathe. It was no longer raining, but he had no idea how long had passed. Not long enough for the beggar to bring soldiers, though long enough, surely, for dozens of people to have walked past and seen him lying there.

       A boy was watching him from a doorway. "Are you all right, sir?"

       Elias tried for a reassuring smile. "I'm fine."

       "Drank too much?" The boy gave a knowing nod. "Have another, that’s what Dad says. Makes you feel better in no time."

       "I might do that."

       He stood up, hands feeling their way slowly up the wall, and the boy sauntered off, satisfied. Elias let his head fall forward. The voices of his dream were still there, whispering at the fringes of his consciousness, but this time they were all speaking in his own voice. "You should go away," they told him. "The soldiers are coming." Then, quiet and treacherous and terrible, his own voice said, "You shouldn't have done it. If you'd left him alone, he wouldn't have betrayed you."

       "But I couldn't," he wailed, hand coming up the clutch at the stone that was no longer there. "I couldn’t leave him there to die. How could I have done that?"

       "A king's choices are never easy." This voice spoke deeply in his mind. It made him think of wise eyes and grey hair and a long white robe that rustled as it moved. "But a true king still makes them."

       "But I did make a choice." Elias drove his head back into the wall hard enough to hurt. "I did. I'm living with it, every minute of every day of my life."

       "Choices never end," the voice whispered, stroking his cheek. "There are branches on every path. It is not too late, but nearly so."

       "Too late for what?" Elias cried aloud, but the voice had left him, and the hand on his face had been withdrawn.

       The alley was empty. Now the rain had stopped falling, the silence was immense. Were the soldiers blocking each end of the alley, laying their ambush for when he walked out? He didn't know. All he could do was walk to the end of the alley and see what awaited him. He wouldn’t creep into that stable and curl up beneath the straw, because how would that help Gerhard?

 

 

       A grey-haired man came pounding out a narrow street, looking over his shoulder as he ran. He collided with a woman, scattering the contents of her basket across the ground. "You must listen to me," he hissed, grabbed hold of her wrists as she stooped to retrieve them. "Listen, everybody!" he screamed. "You have to listen to me!"

       "No," the woman pleaded. She struggled, and he let her go, so abruptly that she staggered. There was a statue of a man on a docile horse at the place where the three roads met, and he hauled himself up onto the low plinth.

       "Listen to me!" he cried. A few passers-by had stopped out of mild curiosity, and a few more paused in response to his plea, but the streets were not busy, and this was an area of town where the buildings were shabby and the shops boarded up. "Terrible things are happening every day, and we don't see it, or we ignore it. But I have seen it. Open your eyes, I beg you."

       "So what have you seen?" a man from the crowd asked, then turned and smirked at his friend.

       "Terrible things. Murder in cold blood. Gentle people cut down." He raised his hands and his robe fell down to his elbows, revealing the blood stains on his white cuffs. "I myself held a young boy of fifteen as he died, stabbed in the chest for the crime of trying to protect an old man who had never hurt a soul."

       "We're fighting the murderers, the despoilers, the shedders of blood," the man in the crowd said. He drew his dagger and waved it around. "We're volunteering today, joining the army. We'll get revenge."

       "No," the man wailed. "Darius killed them, our so-called protector. His Soldiers of Light killed that boy, that shy and gentle boy. He's destroying us."

       "His men only execute traitors," someone else shouted.

       "Traitors?" the man screamed. "A boy studying music? An old man painting portraits? Scholars? People who were invited to Eidengard by the late duke, who served him loyally as he created a beautiful city that was the envy of the world?"

       "Beauty?" A square-faced man spat into the mud. "Beautiful fountains to make us soft. Music to make us placid. The sorcerers and traitors were taking over the government, and we were too ensnared by this beauty of yours to notice. If it wasn't for Lord Darius, we would have been undone."

       The man on the pedestal rounded on him. "Listen to yourself! You can't even use your own words! You're speaking in Darius's voice. You're like sheep, just believing what you're told."

       "Lord Darius saved us!" screamed the woman he had knocked over. "The old duke was leading us wrong. It's a mercy he died when he did, or we'd be overrun by bandits and sorcerers by now. That's what he wanted, I say."

       "So that's what they're saying now?" The man shook his head sadly. "Not even dead for a year, and they've already abandoned their pretence. Darius always said he was loyal to the duke, trying only to liberate him from his evil advisers. How confident he must be, to change his story." He raised his hand, pointing at each one of the sparse crowd. "A year ago you loved the duke. You sang his praises. How can one man have changed so much in so little time?"

       "Perhaps he wasn't bad," a man conceded, "but Lord Darius is better. He isn't afraid to ask us to make sacrifices. And we do so willingly, for we know that we can help wipe out sorcery forever and make the world save for our children. It's a small price to pay."

       "Darius's words again. He cloaks everything he does in lies. He wants power, and he kills anyone who stands in his way. He cares nothing for the people of Eidengard. He murdered the old duke!" he screamed. "He came to power through murder and deceit, and now he's undoing us all."

       "Liar!" the crowd started to scream. A woman threw a stone at him, and it hit him on the side of the head. "Traitor!" The clock joined in the chorus, striking four in an angry voice.

       The man shook his head sadly. "I'm no traitor. None of us were. We hate sorcery as much as any of you. But this isn't the way to fight it. We should cling on to the things that make life worth living - to art and music and learning and charity. But Darius tears down tapestries and makes weapons out of candlesticks. He burns our books. He lets the fountains run dry, but he chains dead men up and makes us take our children to see them. He makes us send our sons to war. He makes us distrust each other, and turn our backs when good men die, because we're scared that we, too, will be denounced as a traitor if we stand up and say that it is wrong."

       "Traitor!" they screamed, not even listening to him. Some of them had edged away, afraid even to be seen listening to him, while others had rushed forward, drawn by the fascination of seeing a man destroy himself.

       "I don't want to live in the world Darius is creating," the man said, as the soldiers marched up to arrest him. "I just want you to listen." They dragged him down and closed around him, but then two of them parted enough for Elias to see the man's shattered face, still screaming his plea. "Just listen. Remember. If only one of you believes me and tells someone else…" The gap closed, and Elias heard nothing more.

       Elias was leaning forward, clinging to the stone railing behind him, held back only by the deadly grip of his fingers that refused to let go. I should go to him. I should stop this. But if he ran forward, his legs would collapse. He had no magic left. There was nothing he could do, not against twenty soldiers and a whole hostile city. Nothing.

       The soldiers began to drag the man away. His head was lolling, but he was still conscious. As he passed Elias, their eyes met. "Remember," the man's lips mouthed.

       Elias tried to rush up to him, but his hands wouldn't let him. The man was doomed, as he must surely have known as he had started to speak. Why hadn't he bided his time, choosing a crowded marketplace where a thousand people could hear him, or an audience that might at least listen? He had thrown his life away for the sake of something he believed in, but what good had come from it? His death would make no difference at all.

       The soldiers disappeared round a corner, hauling their prisoner to the cells, and Elias just watched. The rain started to fall again, and Elias did nothing, and a man was dragged away to his death. He just did nothing.

 

 

       The first bell to strike the hour was a high-toned one in the east. As soon as it finished, the low bell from the square picked up the sound, marking the implacable march of the day. As soon as the last of that sound had faded, another bell started up, tolling a distant funeral.

       "They say it's come here at last," a woman said to her friend, as they hurried home through the rain, their mantles pressed to their faces. "Who will save us now?"

       Elias turned on the spot, following them with his eyes, but he heard nothing more. Then he completed the turn, back to the way he had been facing.

       A man was standing in a puddle, preaching to anyone who heard him. "This is the work of sorcery! Lord Darius is our only hope. Join his army, and fight so that those who have caused this curse will be expunged utterly from the world!"

       A boy of about fourteen stopped and listened, while his mother scurried on without noticing. "Yes," he breathed, his face fervent. "Yes."

       Elias walked on and soon came to a small square beside the main street, filled with stalls. He had walked past it in the morning, and now was come full circle, almost back to the main gate. The winter before, he had stopped here and listened to an old woman's tales about the duke. As he had listened, the woman's husband had carved him a wooden doll, but Ciaran had stuffed it into his pack and Elias had never seen it again. It was probably now mouldering in some ditch, long forgotten.

       "Last chance to buy!" someone called, and he started at the sound of the voice, so sudden and close. It was a tall woman with a basket of fruit, her face pinched. Elias bought an apple from her with his last coins, but she kept the basket between them like a protection and seemed scared of him.

       He bit into the apple, but the sudden burst of sweetness made him feel queasy. He chewed that mouthful slowly, and didn't take a second.

       Most of the stalls were closed. Some had clearly been open earlier in the day, but some looked as if they had been deserted for weeks, and there were more gaps between the stalls than Elias remembered.

       He watched a stall-holder struggle to roll up an awning that was heavy with rain, and tried to offer his help. "No, I'm fine," the man gasped, smiling through his exertion. "Almost done." When he was finished, he looked sympathetically at Elias. "You should go home, lad. You look dead on your feet." His smile faded and he edged away. "You're not sick?"

       Elias smiled and shook his head. "Only tired."

       "The storm, eh?" The man nodded in understanding. "Well, you just make sure you go to bed early tonight. We need our young folk hale and hearty."

       "I will. Thank you." Still smiling, he took his leave.

       Elias meandered through the stalls, trailing his hand along each one as he passed. Each time his fingers reached the end of a stall, he found himself holding his breath, only breathing again when they found the next one. He was not touching them firmly enough to derive any real support from them, yet he felt exposed and adrift without them, as if he was in the middle of the square again, in full view of the guards.

       He found a stall selling books, each one wrapped in waxed cloth. "We don't sell things like that," the stallholder was loudly telling a boy. Then he leant forward and whispered confidingly. "Darius's men were burning them, you see. I thought I'd get in trouble if they discovered them, so I threw them in the river."

       "But there was nothing wrong with them," the boy protested. "It's only history." He was about to say more but a tall man standing behind him clapped his hand on his shoulder. The boy looked up at him. "Tell him, master."

       The tall man shook his head. "Learn to choose your battles, lad. And learn when to keep silent. This man isn't your enemy. But people have been killed for saying less than what you just said." He looked at Elias as he spoke, his grey eyes challenging him to report this to Darius.

       "I won't," Elias murmured. How sad it was to see knowledge proscribed, and history forbidden. Stories of the past helped define a people. If the impossible happened, and the Kindred were returned to power, Elias would make sure that the people of duchy kept their history. No-one would be punished just for what they believed.

       The tall man led the boy away, his hand still on his shoulder. They were teacher and pupil, master and apprentice, like Elias and Ciaran had once been. The boy was about Thurstan's age. Elias sighed as his thoughts returned to the boy, and his undiscovered gift. Thurstan needed a teacher, or he would never learn how to fulfil his potential. He would be as ignorant of the gift he had been born with as Elias had been before Ciaran had taken him under his wing.

       Perhaps, Elias thought, as he started wandering again, there were other people like Thurstan somewhere in the world, just waiting for a teacher to open their eyes. Maybe the Brotherhood of Shadow could be founded here, where it would be a happy Order, full of the joys of new discovery, rather than a sad one, mourning past glories. Maybe Ciaran could lead it. Maybe, if Ciaran knew about Thurstan, he would want to come back for good. Maybe…

       Elias clenched his fists, hurrying forward blindly. He almost crashed into the dingy stall against the back wall, and was about to turn away when he noticed the figure hunched on the ground behind the table. His body and legs created a small area that was protected from the rain, and he was working intently there with both hands.

       It was the old man who had carved the doll. With one hand on the slippery table top, Elias watched him. After a while, the doll-maker looked up. "I've nothing for you." His hand curled protectively around the doll he had been carving, hiding its face. Then he frowned, and looked more closely at Elias. "Do I know you?"

       Elias tried to speak, cleared his throat, and tried again. "No."

       "Oh." The man shook his head, and frowned again. "I thought..." He touched his brow, then looked down again. He pressed his doll against his chest, and held it there, stroking the back of its head with one long finger.

       Elias backed away, his fingertips trailing to the edge of the table, straining there a little, then falling off. The apple fell to the ground and rolled under the table. He had forgotten he had still been holding it.

       Why had the man asked him that? The eyes of an artist were accustomed to seeing the truth, so could they even see something of the truth that lay behind illusion? This man had seen every detail of his natural face, and carved it in wood. Did he recognise him? Elias touched his face, and found his hands were trembling. He had a sudden urge to change his face into something as far as could possibly be from his true face. A woman, perhaps, or a hawk-nosed soldier with a cruel swagger.

       He backed into a stall, feeling the edge of the table ramming into the back of his thighs. He almost over-balanced, but saved himself by sitting down on the table. He lowered his hands and held onto the edge, one hand on either side of him.

       Huddled behind his empty stall, the old man was carving again. He didn't look up, and seemed to have forgotten Elias. Perhaps he had meant nothing by what he had said. Something was wrong with him, Elias realised. Perhaps his wife had died, and he had begun to go insane with grief, returning every day to the old stall to carve her cherished image, then taking it home to rest it on the mantelpiece, beside a hundred other identical ones. Perhaps he only needed someone to smile at him, and tell him there was still life after the one you loved had left you, but Elias was not the person to say such things.

       Elias slid down from the stall, faced into the wind, and walked away.

      

 

       Eight o'clock struck, but faintly, from ornate towers far away. Elias walked past a small open area that had once been a garden, but the young saplings had been broken off, and stray dogs played raucously on the grass. There were few people in the streets, but plenty of noise from the many taverns. Whenever the doors flapped open, Elias could smell smoke and beer, and heard snatches of loud singing.

       "Ooh," a woman shrieked, nudging her friend. "A new face. A gentleman, slumming it, d'ya think?"

       The other woman looked at him, head tilted to one side. "Nice enough body on him, though. I'll give him a go if you won't."

       "So which of us do you want?" The first woman swayed towards him, raising her skirt to her knee. "Or both? Depends on the size of your… purse." She laughed through her red slash of a mouth.

       Elias felt himself blushing, and the illusionary face blushed too. "Ah, he's shy," one of the woman's crooned. "Don't be afraid. We'll take care of you."

       Elias made a strangled sound, and hurried away. One of them wailed in exaggerated hurt, but the other laughed. A door sounded, and soon he heard them approaching another man, trying the same trick on him.

       Eight o'clock, he thought. Eight o'clock, and nearly dark. Nearly night. The whole day gone.

       He stopped walking. "Why am I here?" he said aloud. What possible use could be served by what he was doing?

       Eight o'clock, and what had he done with the day? It had slipped away without him really noticing. No, he corrected himself, he had noticed it constantly, hearing every hour strike, but he still hadn't done anything about it. He had wasted the day.

       "No, I didn't," he told himself. A good leader never rushed in without thinking, but studied the lie of the land first. That's what he had been doing, and Reynard would have been be proud of him. No, he'd been recovering his strength. Helping Gerhard's men find peace had drained him, and it would have been stupid to carry on until he was rested. It would have been a betrayal of Gerhard to try to rescue him when he was weak, likely to fail. It was only right to wait until he was at full strength. Of course it was.

       "Yes." He nodded, and started to stride out, daring anyone to say otherwise.

       But of course that's not true, something whispered inside him in his own voice. Good reasons, both, but neither of them are true.

       His steps faltered again and his hand came up to his mouth. "I'm afraid," he breathed. So terribly afraid of Lord Darius that he was walking anywhere, anywhere at all, to delay the moment when he had to face him. So terribly afraid that his horse had sensed it, and flinched away from his touch. So afraid.

       Of course he was. He had cringed in terror from the mere sight of a soldier in black. Every time he had neared the citadel, he had somehow ended up walking the other direction. When people looked at him, he wanted to hide his face. He was afraid.

       He tried to make himself walk forward again. Darius might not even be in the city any more. He might be miles and miles away, smiling as he tortured some other person. But Gerhard would be in the cells, the cells where Elias had lain and endured Darius's touch. Memory would stalk those prison corridors like a ghost, dragging clinking metal behind him, smiling with a skull-like face, reaching out his cold velvet hand. Even if Darius was far away, Elias would still have to face him.

       "And I don't know if I can," he breathed.

       He raised his face to the sky, hoping the rain would wash something away and cleanse him, but the rain was no longer falling. "But I have to," he said, as he started to walk in a straight line, heading directly towards the citadel. Fear had made him fail, and Gerhard was suffering because of it. The pain of enchantment was something that had to be endured in order to help people, and so was the pain of terror. He had left Reynard and Thurstan behind in order to do this by himself, but had wasted a whole day, and what sort of a person did that make him?

       As he walked, he heard Gerhard reproaching him. "Too late," the dead man wailed, when Elias came upon the mass of tortured flesh that had been alive in the morning. "This wound I suffered while you dallied in the market and ate an apple. They put out my eyes when you blushed to see up a whore's skirts. And then, as you hurried, too late, to save me, he came to me and did what he did to you, and now I will never be free from him, not even in death."

       Elias started to run, whimpering with every breath. Someone shouted, but he didn't turn round. Far louder were the reproaches of a tortured man, a man who could have been saved while he had frittered the day away and done nothing.

      

 

       There was a yew hedge opposite the citadel. Yew trees were poisonous, or so Elias had been told as a child. It seemed like a fitting place to hide, then. Surrounded by poison, Elias watched the place where all hopes died.

       It was fully dark, but a brazier burned on either side of the citadel gate, and that was enough for him to see what he needed to see. It was enough to show the four soldiers in black who stood on guard, none of them relaxing their vigilance, not ever. They never stopped to chat, and never stopped to warm their hands over the flame. They were as different from the guard at the bridge as it was possible to be.

       Gerhard's inside, Elias told himself. If Gerhard was still alive, he would be in the prison cells beneath the citadel, where Elias himself had been imprisoned. If Elias was to rescue him, he had to go in.

       He had told Oliver it would be easy. He could fly in as a bird. But then he would have to bring Gerhard out again, and he couldn't turn Gerhard into a bird, only himself. Besides, the magic of the changing would leave him too drained to do anything else. He would reach Gerhard's cell and collapse at his ruined feet, unable to do a thing. Gerhard would still die.

       What about illusion? Illusion was easier, and he could do it without pain. But these were the soldiers in black, and they had seen through illusion in the mountains. Elias could make himself look like one of them, but what if they saw the truth behind the mask? What if it was even worse, and illusion was like a beacon to them, a flag waving to say, "I'm here!" Elias had power, but swords could still kill him. If he died, Gerhard would die.

       The soldiers marched up and down. A new pair came, relieving two of the old guard. They wore the same expression Darius did. If he went in, Elias would have to confront Darius a hundred times, in a hundred different bodies.

       Maybe he should just try illusion anyway. Maybe Thurstan was wrong, and the soldiers couldn’t see through illusion at all. But Darius had been impossible to trick, and these men were trained by him. This was their home territory and they knew every nook and cranny, while Elias was still weak and unmanned by fear. Darius made him like that. Fear would make him fail, just like it had done last time.

       But I can conquer fear. I can ignore it. I have to, for Gerhard's sake.

       He stood up. He'd do it, anyway. He had to. Gerhard would die if he just cowered here beneath the yew trees and did nothing. It was unbearable to sit and do nothing, when a life was at stake. Even if there was only one chance in a hundred that he would survive, he had to try. He had to.

       The branches rustled as he stepped forward. One caught in his hair, one scraped his face, and they pulled him back, so he sank into a crouch, still hidden.

       How would it help Gerhard if he threw his life away? How would it help the Kindred if he died? He thought of them all, all waiting for him. Oliver had agreed to stay at home only because Elias had promised to stay safe, and Reynard would never forgive himself if Elias died. And the Kindred themselves, who had waited five hundred years for a glimmer of hope... Elias was their hope. If he died, they would be left alone, without their king, just as the danger was at its greatest.

       For something terrible was approaching, destroying hope and life. Just as Darius was raising armies to exterminate the Kindred, some deeper and vaster evil was beginning to destroy living things on the earth. Elias had sworn to fight it. How could he do that if he was dead? If he died in a doomed attempt to save Gerhard, how would that help the world?

       Elias pressed his fist to his mouth to stop himself from moaning aloud. I don't know what to do!  He wanted to save Gerhard. If he turned and walked away, then it would hurt terribly, but wasn't that a selfish reason? If he went into the citadel, knowing that he would fail, then the only reason for going was that it made him feel bad to walk away. He would be like the man who had preached from the statue, who had thrown his life away for nothing, when he could have saved himself and died for a cause that really meant something.

       He shivered, suddenly aware of how alone he felt. There were thousands of people out there in the city, and they would all hate him if they knew who he was. Like tiny beacons of light in the darkness, Reynard and the others were there, on a hill four hours journey away. They would have helped him. They would have cared.

       I don't want to be by myself, he whispered. I want someone to help me decide what to do. Reynard couldn’t, because he saw through his own narrow eyes and was influenced by his own needs, and Thurstan couldn't. But at least they would try. If they had come with him…

       "If they had come with me, they would have died," he told himself sternly. If Reynard had been here beside him, Elias knew what he would say. It was too risky to use illusion, he would argue. "Best rely on swords." He would plan it carefully, give his fighters orders, and try to break into the citadel by stealth and force of arms, and there they would all have died.

       Elias stood up again. So I have to go in. If he walked away, he would have to return to Thurstan and tell him that he had abandoned Gerhard. It would break the boy's heart, and Reynard would still insist on trying again, to succeed where Elias had failed. Once again, there was no way it could end but with their deaths.

       But Reynard was good, he had to admit a little while later, when he had still not moved. Perhaps Reynard had a plan. Perhaps he had always had a plan, but Elias had never bothered to ask him. Maybe Reynard and his men would die if they went in alone, but what could they do if they and Elias went in together, sword backing up enchantment, magic backing up steel?

       If he went in by himself, Elias had to admit, he would die. Only chance had saved him today. He had told Oliver and Reynard that he was safe by himself, but it had never been true. It had been a way to force them to consent to letting him do the things he had needed to do. He had even managed to convince himself, but he would have acted the same even if he had not. Even if he had known the danger, he would have blundered doggedly on, rather than turn his back on someone in need.   

       Sometimes it hurt so much, just living. Death held no fear. He had glimpsed the place spirits went to after death, and it was beautiful. But he didn't want to die. Did he?

       "No," he said aloud. "I can't." He had to stay alive to help the Kindred, to fight the terrible thing that was coming, and, sometimes, the only way to stay alive to fight the big battles would be to turn his back on the smaller ones.

        "Choose your battles," the scholar had said to his apprentice. "He died for nothing," Elias had thought about the preacher. "Stupid," the voices had told him, when he had lain unconscious after giving everything he had to save someone who would very likely betray him. "He needs to come," he had said about Thurstan, recognising that the boy's own peace of mind depended on having a part to play in the rescue of Gerhard. He had said it, but then he had ignored it, leaving Reynard trapped in unnatural slumber, and giving the boy the task of explaining something that was indefensible.

       He began to edge away. The yew branches scratched him like the thorns on the path he had chosen, the path of sacrifice without purpose. It was hard to walk away. It was terrible, and it would torment him, but it was the only right thing to do. The soldiers who guarded Gerhard could see through illusion, and Elias was too weak to use his deeper powers. To carry on would be suicide, a betrayal of everyone who depended on him.

       He needed Reynard and his men, who knew how to move invisibly in the darkness by natural means, without using illusion. He needed men who could hold half a dozen soldiers back with the sword. He needed men who could walk through the corridors of the prison without trembling with terror. Perhaps they would die. Perhaps, by coming with him, they would die, but…

       As the soldiers stood ready at the gate, Elias crept back out of the edge, down the slope towards the city. "I'm going back," he whispered. Even as he said it, he knew it was no rash decision, no desperate attempt to rationalise a terrified retreat. He had been working towards this realisation all day, and had never even known it. He was at the crossroads, faced with the choice of paths. For months, he had followed the path of thorns, but now he had chosen something new. What it was, he didn't know. How hard it would be to walk, he could only find out. It would be difficult, and it would hurt, but he thought it was right.

       As he stepped out of the shelter of the yews, he looked up at the sky. The rain had stopped for the night, the clouds parting to reveal tiny stars like jewels above him. But, as he walked, he looked back. He looked back all the time, but still he walked, beneath the stars in the clear sky.


Chapter six

A real person

      

 

       Morning came, but still he had not come.

       Thurstan sat very still, staring at the place he had last seen his king. At first he had started at every quiver of the grass, every flicker of the leaves, sure that they heralded the coming of the king. By now he had learnt from disappointment not to hope. He's not coming back, he thought. Everything's gone wrong. And I let him go.

       "He said he'd come back by sunrise," he found himself saying aloud, with a desperate glance at Reynard. "He really did."

       Joscelin stood up. "He will come shimmering in a beam of sunlight. Not here one minute, here the next." Thurstan stared blankly at him, but then Joscelin gave a sharp bark of laughter and clapped him hard on the shoulder, so Thurstan knew it had been one of his strange jokes, that Thurstan was never able to understand. He was still a little afraid of Joscelin. 

       "We've waited long enough." Reynard was paring his nails with a dagger. As he spoke, the knife slipped and cut him deep enough to draw blood. He swore, and jabbed the dagger back in its sheath. "Something's happened to him."

       Ranulf looked up. "Go where, Reynard?"

       "After him, of course," Reynard snapped. "Anything could have happened to him. Of course, he's more likely to have forgotten about us. He probably never meant to come back at all, but was too much of a coward to tell us. He'll tell any lie to keep us out of the way."

       "He's not a coward," Thurstan whispered. "He's braver than anyone." But only a tiny sound came out, and no-one heard him.

       "Have you thought it through?" Ranulf asked. Thurstan found it hard to understand how such a man could follow someone young enough to be his son, but follow him Ranulf did. He questioned, but he always obeyed. "We can't hide ourselves, not like he can. If he doesn't want us to find him, then we won't. And if he's captured, what can we do? He saved himself last time."

       "I don't care." Reynard wrapped his arms round his body, hands digging into his upper arms. "Even if it's impossible, we still have to try. Even if we just go in there and die, one by one, we still have to do it. I will not abandon him. I will not give up."

       Ranulf walked to Reynard's side. "Because that's what you did last time?" His voice was so low that Thurstan, sitting forgotten on the ground beneath their feet, heard it only barely, and the others not at all.

       Reynard lashed out with both arms, knocking Ranulf away. "Yes!" he shrieked. He half-drew his sword, his handsome face ugly and terrifying in its anger. "I'm doing this, Ranulf. Does anyone dare stop me?"

       "I'm with you," Julien instantly said, leaping to his captain's side. Amalric swallowed and said, "Let me serve," but Thurstan had watched them enough to know that Reynard would never rely on Amalric for anything. Joscelin only narrowed his green eyes and seemed to be thinking about it. Thurstan swallowed and almost spoke, the words sounding themselves out in his mind, but did not.

       Ranulf returned to his sword and looked down at it without touching it. "If you order me, I will come. But I have no desire to see good men throw their lives away for nothing. I swore with you to stop the king doing just that, but the same applies to you. Give me sound reasons and a clear plan, like you always have before."

       The words broke out. "I want to go to the city," Thurstan squeaked. Reynard's head snapped round to look at him, and Thurstan wanted to shrink into the ground and hide. "Gerhard's my lord," he stammered. "And the king said... He said you would all try to save Gerhard, not just him. He even said… He even said he was sometimes afraid, and that he couldn’t do everything. So I think that means that we can go after him and maybe we might even find him. And we have to try, even if we're scared. He'd do it for us."

       Reynard was just staring at him. This is it, Thurstan thought. He's going to hit me. But then Reynard sighed, his shoulders slumping. "That he would." He gave a quick smile and clapped Thurstan on the shoulder, more kindly than Joscelin always did. "That was well spoken, lad."

       Ranulf was also smiling at him. "It was." Joscelin was as unreadable as ever, but Julien and Amalric were both looking at him with dislike.

       "So, we're going after him," Reynard said. "Anyone else want to speak against it?" He started packing his bag, his movements sharp and decisive.

       Thurstan stood up and walked to the lip of the dell. There was still time. The sun had not quite cleared the trees. He might still be coming.

       "No-one has to come with me," Reynard was saying. "You can cancel your oaths and go home. Live to tell Oliver our tale." He sneered the last words.

       There's still time, Thurstan wanted to say. I know I said what I did, but we have to give him time. We have to wait. If they waited, the king would come to them on the wings of morning, Gerhard and the others smiling behind him. The king would be infallible, and Thurstan would follow him, and everything would be right with the world again.

       The others were moving around behind him. "Horses," Reynard was ordering. "Ranulf, you're not saying anything. Talk to me."

       Metal clinked together, and something rattled. They all froze, but it was only Amalric, dropping his horse's tack. Reynard glared at him, but Julien was slow to relax. "There really is someone coming," he whispered, cupping his hand to his ear.

       Reynard looked murderous, and Thurstan wondered who should have been on watch, and had neglected their post while everyone had argued. "Draw your swords," Reynard hissed. "It's too late to hide ourselves now."

       It's him, Thurstan thought, as if he could make it come true just by wished fervently enough. Please let it be him. 

       Julien's head was to one side, listening intently. "Only one, I think."

       Just one? But the king wouldn't have come back without Gerhard, would he? If there was only one, then it was an enemy. And we're not ready. They weren't true, the things I said. Without the king, they fell apart. While Thurstan had been making his treacherous speech, no-one had been watching for the enemy, and now they were all going to die.

       Julien had slithered up a tree. "An old man," he hissed, his voice like the wind in the leaves. "No weapons, only a cudgel. He's… he's looking at me. He's seen us!"

       Seen us. Thurstan drew his sword and crouched down, ready to act. Some of the soldiers in the mountains had been old. Cruel weapons could be hidden beneath an old man's rags.

       "I'm thinking he's nobody," Julien whispered. "Just an old farmer on his nag. Nobody. I should forget him." He jumped noisily down from the tree, setting the birds twittering in the higher branches. "Nobody," he said, and grinned.

       Amalric let out a shuddering breath, but Reynard only tightened his grip on his sword. Thurstan looked from man to man, and did not understand. "Nobody," Reynard said grimly. "Of course."

       Thurstan could see the old man now, his sallow face first, and then his lean body. He was sitting on his horse like a sack of straw, and his eyes were dull and disinterested as they passed slowly over the assembled group. Only when they reached Thurstan did they change. The sun shone on his face, reaching its fingers through the leaves to stroke his suddenly golden hair. His shoulders were still slumped, and he looked very tired, but his face was young and his eyes were blue. His brown horse was strong and healthy, and proud to bear such a man.

       The king had returned on the wings of morning after all, but alone. Gerhard wasn't with him. Gerhard wasn't there.

       "I think he's still alive," the king assured him immediately. "And we're going back for him, I hope." Then his eyes moved from Thurstan's face, and he dismounted and did the most amazing thing. He stood before Reynard, then went down on one knee, his head bowed. "I have wronged you, Reynard. I do not ask you to forgive me, for forgiveness is a thing that must be earned, but I want to apologise."

       Reynard edged backwards, one hand spread behind him. "Don't do this, my lord."

       The king raised his head. "If a man has done wrong then he must apologise. No-one is so mighty as to be exempt from that."

       Reynard dropped his sword. "My lord," he croaked again. "Please don't." He had called the king a coward and a liar, but as soon as this same man was kneeling before him, he looked as horrified as if the sun had fallen from the sky.

       The king opened his hands in a simple gesture of appeal. "I don't want to make you uncomfortable, Reynard. I just... Please. I was wrong to leave without telling you. I have been wrong so many times. I've made you become something you hate. I've forced you into that."

       "No, my lord." Reynard pressed his fist to his mouth. "You didn’t."

       As Thurstan watched in horror, the king turned from Reynard to him, his hands reached out in supplication. Thurstan looked round desperately, but there was nowhere to escape to. It was so wrong! Like the sun falling from the sky indeed, and the world turned upside-down.

       "I wronged you, too, Thurstan," the king said. His eyes were clear, but his face was so lined and tired, as if he needed someone to cup his cheek in their hand and grant him peace. "I stopped you from doing something that you needed to do, and I left you with a message to deliver that I should have given myself."

       You didn't wrong me, Thurstan wanted to cry. Please stand up. But he clenched his hands behind his back and admitted, "I was angry with you at first. It wasn't fair, what you did." Strangely, his words seemed to make the king relax a little, while Reynard's denial had made him look only more pained. "But only a little bit," he gabbled. "Not for long. And I've... forgiven you." Strange to say such words to a king. "Please stand up, my lord, and... and talk to me about Gerhard."

       "I will." The king's eyes were soft, but he was the king again, who stood while Thurstan knelt, and did magic while Thurstan watched, and gave comfort while Thurstan wept.

       Reynard started forward. "I can't," he rasped. "Can't say it. Can't..."

       "Forgive?" The king's mouth curved in a tiny smile, so desperately sad. "No. I thought you might not be able to. It's all right."

       "You're my king," Reynard pleaded. "It's not for me to forgive you."

       The king was still looking at him with that sad smile. "But you correct me. You draw your sword on me. You keep secrets from me. You call me king, yet you do all those things. No, Reynard, don't look like that. I forgive you for everything. I forced you into it. I deserved it. I just wonder how you can do such things, yet still say that it is not your place to forgive me?"

       Reynard was looking at the king with an expression that Thurstan could not read. "Then I... forgive you, my lord," he said.

       "But you will forgive me more sincerely if it doesn't happen again?" The king gave a crooked smile. He stood up, and stumbled in his weariness, but Reynard caught him, steadying him by the elbow. "Many things have changed, Reynard," the king murmured. "I can't do this alone. We need to decide if we're going in, all of us, or... or what."

       "Going in," Reynard said firmly, his eyes flickering very briefly to Thurstan.

       The king let Reynard ease him down. "But not yet. I need to sleep."

       Thurstan took a step forward, ready to protest, but a firm hand pulled him back. "Shh!" Ranulf pressed his finger to his lips. "Nearly a year we've been waiting for him to say those words. Reynard won't have it interrupted for anything."

       As tender as a parent, Reynard covered the king with his own cloak. The king's eyes had closed, but then they opened again and he started to sit up. "There's something I need to say."

       "No." Reynard was firm, pushing him down with a hand on his shoulder. "Afterwards. Sleep first."

       "No," the king said. He fought Reynard's hand and sat up. "Perhaps some things can wait, but this cannot. Thurstan." He called Thurstan to his side, and his eyes were so tender that Thurstan wanted to run away, his hands clapped over his ears. If it's that bad I don't want to hear it! "Thurstan," the king said again, as Ranulf released Thurstan's arm, letting him teeter forward. "I'm sorry. I found their..."

       "Bodies," Thurstan rasped. He turned away. "How many of them?"

       "Most of them. Maybe all, I don't know. But Gerhard wasn't there, I know that. And they're buried now, and at peace."

       At peace. But how did the king know? Wasn't it just a lie someone might say to a child, to soften the blow? They had died so terribly, cut down, crushed, despairing.

       "At peace," the king said. "I can... Sometimes I can see the spirits of the dead, and I saw them. I watched them pass smiling into a better place. The... violence of their deaths has been... undone. Healed."

       Thurstan covered his face with his hand. The king had seen it? No, the king had done it himself. He had saved them after all. He hadn't been there to stop them dying, but he had helped them after death, and now they were happy. He lowered his hand and turned back to face the man who had done such a thing. "But Gerhard wasn't there?" The king shook his head. "And all the others were? All of them? All dead?"

       The king was looking at him with terrible sympathy, but Thurstan felt very little.  Since finding their bodies gone, he had daydreamed of seeing them all alive again, but deep down he had always known that most of them were dead. But Gerhard... Gerhard was his father. As long as Gerhard was still alive, there was hope.

       "We'll find Gerhard, lad," Reynard said. Then he turned back to the king. "And now will you go to sleep? We will guard you." He murmured it again as Thurstan turned and drifted away, his steps weaving. "We will guard you, my lord."

      

 

            Lankin crunched across the gravel courtyard, the rolled document that contained Darius's orders clutched in his left hand. They were false orders, of course, designed to fool traitors and spies. The true ones would be passed on only in whispers, from one trusted man to another.

       The morning sun turned the towers of the citadel a rich cream. Many people were baffled as to why Darius chose to live here, in this lumpen fortress built by the long-banished kings, when there was an elegant palace just next door, but Lankin understood. The palace was the epitome of everything the old duke had stood for, with its statues and its ballrooms and its fripperies, and Darius could never live in a place like that. His duchy was firm and strong, accepting hardship like soldiers in the field, and Darius lived the way he expected his people to live, in a comfortless room in a stronghold that still reeked with the presence of the enemy.

       Thomas emerged from the barracks door, not wearing his jacket. He was off duty until the afternoon. Lankin was, too, but he never relaxed his vigilance. Sometimes he even resented the hours he needed to spend asleep, for keeping him from serving the cause.

       "You've been to see Darius?" Thomas gestured with his chin to the rolled document in Lankin's hand, where Darius's distinctive seal dangled obviously.

       Lankin nodded. Thomas was not one of those who had been trusted with the truth. When the sorcerer king made his move, Thomas would fight him with the rest of them, but he had not been warned in advance that the enemy was close. He slept peacefully at night, while Lankin stared at the ceiling, his fingers tingling with the urge to hold a sword, and his mind fiercely dreaming of the moment when he finally caught the man he hated more than anyone in the world.

       "Something's happening," Thomas said. "I can tell. You're tense, all of you, all the ones Darius likes most. Why were we all on duty last night? What were you expecting?"

       So he was stupid, as well as being of questionable loyalty. It was obvious, really. Thomas had been with Lankin in the mountains, when they had struck the first real blow in the war that would exterminate the sorcerers. He had been there when they had dragged the bodies back and strung them up, setting them up as bait. He had even heard Captain Gresham talking on the battlefield. "They expected us," their captain had said. "They had time to prepare their defences. And of course they'd have used that time to send out a messenger to that false king of theirs."

       "I'll go after him," Thomas had cried, already pulling his horse round.

       "No." Gresham had held up his hand. "Let him go."

       Everything had happened as Darius had hoped. The sorcerer king had heard the news of the attack on his people, and had come to Eidengard. "All alone," Darius had said. "You learn a lot about a man when you're alone in a cell with him. I've taken his measure. I'm always one step ahead."

       Lankin had been with Darius when news had come of the strange lightning on the plain before the city. "Good." Darius had rubbed his hands in satisfaction. "He's here. But we won't let him know that we know." Lankin himself had ridden out to make sure that no rumours spread through the streets. Darius had no desire to alarm his people. Darius and the Soldiers of Light would capture the sorcerer king, and there was no need for anyone else to panic.

       They could have crushed him there and then, but Darius preferred to toy with him for a while. After nearly a year serving him closely, Lankin had to admit that there was a cruel streak to his duke. "Let him hope," Darius had said. "Make it easy for him. Let him come here, to the place where I broke him before. Just as he thinks he's won, just as he's at his most vulnerable, then we will crush him."

       Later in the day, Lankin had been the one dispatched to deal with a beggar spreading sedition in the taverns. He had found the man in a seedy drinking hole, pouring his story out to a plainly dubious audience. "I was dying, but they all just stepped over me," he was saying. "My own people, but none of them helped me. But he did, and it felt wonderful, though it hurt him something terrible to do it, I could tell. But he still did it, and now I'm as fit as a fiddle."

       "Maybe he enchanted you," they had retorted. "He's making you think these things. He's controlling you like a puppet. Your mind isn't your own."

       "But it is," the beggar had said, his face glowing with a depth of emotion that looked out of place on his harsh lined face. "I was confused at first. It's hard, when you've been told all your life that something's evil, to see that it isn't. But now I know. He's here amongst us, and he's a good man. Everyone's wrong about him.."

       Lankin had chosen that moment to step forward. The crowd had blanched at the sight of his uniform. "Enough of this nonsense," he had declared. "He's clearly drunk, telling you anything in the hope that you'll buy him a drink. Of course the sorcerer king's not here. Do you think Lord Darius would let him stride through our streets in broad daylight? This man can't even be plausible in his treachery."

       He had left them twittering, saying that of course it wasn't true, and what fools did the beggar take them for, expecting them to believe such lies. The beggar he had led outside with a firm hand on his shoulder, taken him back to the citadel, and killed him cleanly. He had looked away at the moment of death, just as he always did. He had never been able to look into the eyes of a dying man, because they looked so innocent, so hurt, just like normal people rather than the traitors that they were.

       But tonight it would be different. When Lankin finally confronted the sorcerer who had stalked his dreams for nearly a year, he would not look away. He would relish every second of it, every agonised drop of blood.

       "What's going to happen tonight?" Thomas asked him.

       Lankin pulled himself with difficulty from his dream. "Punishment," he said, waving the orders beneath Thomas's nose. "Traitors brought to justice." It wasn't even a lie.

       They had expected the attack to come last night, but for some reason the sorcerer king had held off. It had to be tonight. In case he was tempted to delay yet again, they had arranged a little something to encourage him. Darius had assured Lankin that it would work a treat. "I know him, you see. I pull his strings. I have him right here." He had snapped his fist shut.

       Remembering it, Lankin smiled. It would be tonight, and Lankin and the Soldiers of Light would be ready for him.

      

 

            Some time during the day, the sun faded, the shadows growing fainter and fainter until they were not there at all. By evening, everything was the same dull grey. It was hard to tell how close it was to sunset. Soon, Thurstan thought, but he found himself looking at the leaden clouds around him and trying to tell himself that the sun still shone behind them.

       The king was still asleep. Thurstan had watched him now for many hours, his hand closing and unclosing around the stone pendant he had not yet given back. The king's sleep was restless, tormented with bad dreams. Sometimes he moaned and murmured words Thurstan could not make out, and he often made little pleading movements with his hands Once again flowers were growing beneath the king's outstretched hand, and wild clematis shaded his bed, but this time Thurstan knew that they had been growing there already before the king had lain down.

       "We'll let him sleep until sunset," Reynard had said, "then go in at the dead of night. That's the best time anyway, lad. We're not delaying anything."

       The king rolled onto his back, kicking away the cloak that covered him. Thurstan hesitated for a moment, then reached out and covered him again. It was colder now the sun had gone, and the trees caught the chill of the night and held on to it all through the day.

       Reynard was getting the horses ready. Several times he had stood over the king and simply watched him sleeping, his face very fierce. Ranulf had come by occasionally, and had always smiled fondly down at the king. Once Amalric had squatted beside him and made as if to touch the king's face, then snatched his hand back, clamping his mouth shut as he turned away. Even Joscelin had performed his own brief vigil before stalking away to relieve Julien at his post.

       The king moaned again, and Thurstan shuffled towards him without standing up. As Amalric had done, but far more tenderly, he reached out to touch the king's hair. "Stay asleep," he whispered. "Please don't dream." As the first strands of hair brushed his finger, he snatched his hand back. It was wrong for someone like him to be caught offering comfort to the king.

       But he isn't just the king, Thurstan thought. He wasn't just a name from a story, a statue on a tower. He was only a man, and he himself had tried to tell Thurstan in the mountains. Thurstan had refused to believe it then, but it was true. He was a man who had bad dreams, and who tangled his blankets. He was a man who could make mistakes, and have to apologise for them afterwards. He was a man who had insisted on going in all alone to find Gerhard, and had come out without him. Some of the things he did were wrong.

       His hand to his mouth, Thurstan crouched beside the king, torn between touching him and shrinking away. Only a man. A man who isn't what I thought he was. A man who let me down. He's not worthy of my admiration.

       "But of course you are," he murmured aloud, before had had even completed the thought. So the king made mistakes? Who didn't? He wasn't the flawless king who was the fulfilment of every dream, but he had never claimed to be. He had let Thurstan down in a small thing, but he had apologised. Gerhard had sometimes struck Thurstan and bellowed at him for things he hadn't done, but he had never said sorry afterwards.

       With a sigh, Thurstan let his hand fall down so it rested on the king's cloak, close to his arm. "I will serve you," he whispered, "and with my whole heart now, with open eyes." There was nothing admirable in a statue, for it only reflected the skill of the person who had carved it. How much more wonderful was a real man who felt fear, but went ahead anyway, and a man who made mistakes, but admitted them. A statue could be worshipped, but a real man could be loved.

       "It's time." Reynard had approached without Thurstan hearing. He knelt beside the king, but seemed reluctant to touch him. Instead he rounded on Thurstan and demanded, "Why haven't you left him alone? It's not right that you see him like this."

       Thurstan blinked in surprise. "You watch him all the time. You said so."

       "Just because I have to do it, it doesn't make it right," Reynard said. "Don't base your ideas of right and wrong on what you see me do, boy." Then, before Thurstan could respond, his face changed. Softer than Thurstan could have imagined him, he touched the king's shoulder. "It's time."

       The king's breathing checked, but he did not open his eyes. He shifted a little, and grimaced when he moved his left arm. Thurstan thought he had pins and needles. Just like any normal man.

       "It's nearly dark," Reynard told him.

       "Yes." The king opened his eyes and sat up, tugging at the cloak distractedly with his good arm until it was over his knees.

       "We've been talking," Reynard said. "We have some ideas. Not good ones, I admit, but we're willing to try. I'd rather do it without you, but you..." He seemed about to say something else, before he recollected that Thurstan was there hearing every word. "Do you have another plan, my lord?"

       The king pushed his hair off his brow. He still looked very tired. "Yes," he said. "Yes I do."

      

 

            He told it twice. Reynard questioned him on every detail, but in the end even he pronounced that it was the best they could do, and that it might even work. Elias gave a weary nod. He had let Reynard decide which of his men played which role, but the rest of the plan was his. He had never had to lay a plan so carefully before, because it had never mattered, not in the same way. He had always just rushed into things, because the only person he was risking was himself.

       "I need to tell you something," he had said, right at the very start. "I can do illusion. You can rely on me for that. But the rest of it... Greater enchantment... I can still do it, but only with difficulty. It leaves me very weak. You just need to know this. It will affect the things you can expect of me."

       Confession cleansed the soul, or so Grand Master Jerome had always said, but this confession felt terrible, the words almost impossible to get out. It had needed to be said, but it was one thing to realise how wrongly he had been acting, and another thing entirely to try to change. He knew the worst test was still to come. In a few hours he would have to step back and let other people face the danger that should have been his. Other people would struggle on, because they knew now that they could not rely on their king to use the magic that was his gift.

       "I suspected as much," Reynard had simply said, when Elias had told him, but that only made it seem worse. How many people had known the truth about him, that Elias had been blind to. They wove their web around him to protect him from himself, because he was too messed up inside to do his duty and protect them.

       It was almost dark now, almost time to go. Reynard was wiping his dagger on a clump of grass, streaking the green blades with something dark. Without looking up, he said, "There will be deaths. I cannot see how they can be avoided. We will have to kill them, but they will kill us, too. Some of us will die to let a few of us get through. Or even just one."

       Deaths. "I know," Elias whispered. And the one means me. The only one left. There was a smear of pollen on sleeve, and he rubbed at it with his thumb.

       Reynard stopped with his dagger pressed flat against the ground. "Do you?"

       Maybe it wasn't pollen, but just plain old dirt. Elias scraped at it with his nail, but his nails were dirty, too. One of them was torn, and started hurting as soon as he remembered it. He brought his hands up to his face and studied them in the last of the light. The vision of Reynard's death pooled in his hands like a reflection on water.

       "I still remember the first time a man died because he had gone where I had ordered him," Reynard said. "No-one ever forgets a thing like that. I know you think I'm inured to death, but I dream about it sometimes. His name was Thurstan, too."

       Elias recognised the gift that was being offered to him, but he lacked the heart to discuss it. Reynard might understand, but he still saw things differently from Elias. If a man died, he regretted it, but then he moved on, telling himself it happened for the good of the cause. It didn't rend his whole world apart.

       "But people die for the good of the cause," Reynard said, and Elias could have laughed had they not been talking about men with names, men who might soon be dead. "They die, so our children will live. They are sacrificed to give us a future."

       "Thank you," he said, and tried to sound sincere, as if Reynard had made a difference. But of course he hadn't. In the city, Elias had realised that he couldn't do the rescue alone, and that he needed other people. That realisation had been only the first step on a long path, a path that could prove as painful and perilous as the path of thorns he had been walking since the winter.

       He had to find a new way to live. People would die, because he wasn't as strong as he needed to be, because he made mistakes. People would die, and he would have to learn how to live with that, and still carry on giving the Kindred everything that he could give them. Sometimes he would have to walk away, because another person could do the job better, or the cost of stopping to help one person was just too high. But he would never like it. The day he started liking it was the day he stopped being their king.

       "The mark of a good leader," Reynard said, "is the willingness to do what is needed without flinching. A good commander thinks hard before he puts his men at risk, but he is not afraid to do so when it is really necessary. When they die, he does not sully their deaths by letting emotions distract him from the main objective. He stands firm. And so they die content, because they know that their deaths meant something, and that the ones left behind will do something glorious."

       Don't you know me at all? Elias wanted to scream. Sometimes Reynard seemed to understand him all too well, but then he would say something like this and show that they were as far apart as if they lived in different worlds. But all he did was nod.

       Reynard moved towards him. "A king serves his people. You do that. But a king is a leader, too, and a leader makes hard decisions. If he can't..."

       "Then someone else should lead?" Elias finished for him. Ever since Ciaran had left, living had been bearable only because Elias had been able to tell himself that he was giving the Kindred everything they needed from him. The more it hurt him, the more he was serving them.  But he had never stood in judgement and condemned a man. He had never given an order that would affect men's lives. Had he only been half a king? Had he been a coward, afraid to live with blood on his hands? Reynard lived with that all the time, and Elias had never questioned whether that was right.

       "I didn't say that," Reynard said, but the pause before it was too long. "You're our king. You were chosen, and I've seen your power, and you... I..."

       Elias shook his head. "You don't have to say it, Reynard. I know I've done things wrong. I know I've made things hard for you, because you couldn't trust me to… be sensible. I know, and…" Now I don't know what to do. How will I ease the pain inside if I can't do what I've always done? I don't know who I am any more. I need time to think, not to be plunged straight into the battlefield where everything will change all over again.

       "The cause is worth it," Reynard said. "You are worth it."

       "The cause is worth it," Elias echoed. And of course it was. Although they stood here on the eve of setting out to rescue one man, they were fighting a war in which the survival of the world was at stake. If he had to order a few men to die in order to save the world, what would be the greater evil - to let the world die because he could not bear the guilt of their blood on his hands, or to sacrifice them so a million more could live?

       One might be better, he thought, but neither were right. If people died, he would always mourn them, even if their deaths served a greater cause. He would mourn every one, whether friend or foe, and he would hate it, even though he had to do it. He would give them peace after death, and every one would live on his conscience forever. But he would do it. He had to..

       He stood up. "I will do what I have to do. We all will. But..." He clenched his fists hard, and spoke with the tone of command that not even Reynard could resist. "Only if absolutely necessary. And I mean the enemy, Reynard. They're people just like you, fighting for what they think is right."

       Reynard was silent for a little while. At last, sheathing his dagger, he said, "You are my king. It is for you to command us."

       Elias dug his nails into his palms. I don't want to command it! he wanted to scream. I want you to do it out of choice. Out of choice, owing their deaths to no-one but themselves. Reynard was the one who had decided which task every man was going to perform. If they died if was his fault. It wasn't Elias's. All he'd done was come up with the plan, but they'd all chosen to follow entirely of their own free will. He'd begged them not to come, but they'd insisted. It wasn't his fault. It wasn't his fault at all.

       He swallowed hard. "I don't command it," he managed to say, but he could say no more, but it was a child's foolish wish, a coward's attempt to wriggle out of responsibility. 

       "But we obey anyway." Reynard's voice was gruff. "We have sworn oaths. But we're coming because we want to. This is a moment we've been waiting for all our lives. The Kindred to walk the corridors of the citadel again..." He flashed his teeth in a fierce smile. "It will be glorious."

       Glorious, Elias echoed. Somewhere in the darkness, a horse snorted and stamped at the ground. Elias called silently to his own horse, and the animal ambled placidly towards him. As he did so, Elias noticed the forlorn figure standing a little way apart, its arms wrapped around its body. It was Thurstan, so small beside the towering shape of his horse. Trepidation clung to him like a cloud.

       Reynard touched Elias's arm, and leant close, speaking in a low whisper. "The boy should stay behind." So he, too, had been looking in the same direction. "Command him to stay and he will."

       If he gave that command, then Thurstan would stay behind out of danger. He would live, free to discover the Shadow and do marvels. Gerhard's mountain kingdom would live on, as long as one person survived who had been part of it. One, at least, he could save.

       "He's too nervous," Reynard told him. "He's pinned too many hopes on this, and that makes him terrified of what he might find. He can't be relied upon. I need to be able to trust every man to be where he has been told, and do what needs to be done. One weak link can break the whole chain."

       Pragmatic Reynard, seeing things only with a soldier's eyes. Elias could have smiled at the predictability of it. "I commanded him to stay once before," Elias said. "He pleaded to be allowed to come, and I refused. I've apologised for that. How can I do it again?"

       "Of course he wants to." Reynard said. "He's got his dreams of rescuing Gerhard, a lovely reunion in the prison cell. Anyone can see that. If you give him the choice, then of course he'll come, but that doesn't make it right."

       "How can I order him to sit here and do nothing, while we all go off into danger?" Elias was surprised at how strongly he felt it. Why wasn't he agreeing with Reynard? If Thurstan stayed behind, he would be safe. "He had to sit and watch as everyone he knew was cut down before his eyes. How can I ask him to go through that again? And I'll make sure he doesn't let anyone down," he assured Reynard. "I'll keep him close to me. I'll look after him."

       "It isn't right," Reynard said again. "He could betray us all. There's any number of ways it could happen. If we find Gerhard's body, how will he react? Could you hold him back if all he wants to do is rush forward and touch it? I could, but could you?"

       "I will try. I promise you that, Reynard. I won't let him betray us, but I don't think he will. He's too tormented by what he sees as his failure in the mountains. And..." He touched Reynard's sleeve. "I won't let him get hurt."

       Reynard snorted, as if to say, It's nothing to me if he dies, but Elias knew the truth, even if Reynard himself did not. Reynard was growing fond of the boy, the son who could so easily have been his, had things been different.

       Elias walked over to Thurstan. The boy had found the courage to mount his horse, but Elias could almost feel the tension that thrummed through his body. "Are you sure you want to come?" he asked. "Don't come just because you think it's expected of you. If you'd rather not…"

       "I want to come," Thurstan said. "Please let me come. I'll do my best not to let you down."

       Elias brushed a quick touch over the boy's hand. "I know you will."

       He was smiling as he mounted his horse. They were all going into danger, but they were doing it for their own reasons, not just because of him. If Elias tried to prevent them from doing what they needed to do, he would be as unwittingly cruel as Reynard had been to him, when he had tried to stop him from saving people in need. Reynard was living proof of that, still tormented by the fact that he had left Elias behind in the city a year ago. He would have preferred a thousand times to have suffered beside Elias than to be pushed away, rendered helpless while his king suffered alone.

       "Are we ready?" Reynard's voice asked out of the darkness.

       "Ready," Ranulf answered, and "I am," said Julien. "Yes," said Amalric, and so on round the ring. And they were, Elias realised. They were all here where they wanted to be, prepared to face what lay ahead. Reynard was happier than he had been since the winter, and even Amalric sat on his horse with confidence, gleeful about being trusted on a mission of such importance.

       They were still waiting for something, he realised. Waiting for him. "I'm ready," he said, and perhaps, he thought, he really was.

      

 

            It was time to go. Thurstan held on tight to the reins and let the horse carry him. With every step it grew darker, until the people ahead of him were only faint sounds, and sometimes not even that. The blackness surrounded him like a fist, closing round his throat and making it hard to breathe.

       This is it, he told himself. It all happens now. Within hours it would all be over. The king had given his word that he would find Gerhard and everything would be well. And Thurstan was part of it. He had not been left behind, to watch it all unfold from behind a rock. He had not been sent away. He would prove himself, and they would smile at him, Gerhard and the king, and the bad dreams would stop.

       Something sounded to the right of the path, and he jumped, almost crying aloud. Only a bird. But the men of the mountains sent  signals to each other in birdsong, while the enemy smiled stupidly and told themselves that it was nothing, only a bird. It could be a soldier in black, grinning in the bushes. "They're here," the message meant. "They don't suspect a thing. We have them just where we want them."

       His horse speeded up. Something brushed against his foot, and this time he did scream, a choked cry in the back of his throat. Someone hissed at him from the darkness, but the king spoke his name. His voice was close enough to touch. Thurstan had brushed against the king's horse, or against his leg. That was all.

       Thurstan swallowed. "I'm fine."

       The moment had come, so why was he scared? He should have spent the day in an agony of impatience, so why had he watched the slow progress of nightfall and longed for it to slow down, to turn back and never come? Because bad dreams could come true. Hopes could die. He would be tested, and he could fail. He could reach Gerhard, only to find him dead, and then he would never be able to hope again.

       The horse trotted a few steps, then settled into an easy gait. They had come down from the hills, and now the path was flat. He wished the moon would come out. But darkness was good, Reynard had said. When the king had told them his plan, Reynard had looked at the sky and nodded with satisfaction. The darkness was their friend. Moonlight could betray them.

       They walked on, and he heard nothing more, just the distant sound of birds that might not be birds at all. He wanted to call out to the king. Had he taken a wrong turn in the darkness? He was dependent on his horse to know who to follow, and an animal could lead him wrong. Had their throats been slit one by one by a silent enemy, and he was the only one who still lived? Images danced in the darkness, showing him the exact way every one of them had fallen. He ground the heel of his hand against his eyes and willed the picture to go away. Only his imagination. Only bad dreams, and not a vision. Not a vision at all. Not true.

       But fresh fears came cackling up in the wake of the vanquished ones. Had they gone away and left him behind, because they knew he would only let them down if he came with them? He knew Reynard believed that already. The king had forced him to stay behind once, and could do so again, using sneakiness and guile.

       He clutched the reins and had to physically bite back the words, "Are you there?" Then he let go of the reins entirely and reached out with both hands, fingers straining to reach something he could touch. But all he could feel was the chilly night air and the wind that scraped between his fingers. There was nothing there.

       Then the king's voice came like a soft caress of the breeze in his hair. "I'm here."

       Thurstan let out his breath in a shuddering rush. He wanted the king to talk to him all the way, but he knew he could not ask it. None of the others needed it. They just rode ahead and trusted in their own strength. He had failed already.

       A horse came up beside him. "My lord?" Reynard said, speaking to the king with Thurstan between them. "I know the dark will hide us, but I've been thinking. It's not just guards on the walls, it's patrols by the river. I think you need to hide us with illusion, too."

       "But they saw through illusion!" Thurstan gasped before he could stop himself.

       "Saw through it," Reynard asked, "or merely learnt how to ignore it?" Thurstan didn't understand, and Reynard explained. "If the king suddenly had a sword in his hand and struck me with it, my eyes would see it as a sword, and so my instincts would tell me to dodge. But my reason would know that it wasn’t real. Because I have faith and discipline, I could stand still and let the sword impale me, because my mind knew that it couldn't be real."

       Thurstan thought about it. Surely there would always be that small doubt that you were wrong, and it really was a sword. He didn't think he could just stand there without flinching when every sense was screaming at him that he was about to die.

       "You could be right," the king said. "It's the most likely explanation. If they've learnt how to see through illusion completely… If illusion no longer has power over them… That would mean that something is deeply wrong with the enchantment itself, or that someone immensely powerful has given them the gift."

       "If I'm right, it would still make them dangerous men," Reynard said bluntly. "If they've managed to train themselves to ignore what their eyes tell them, then they're brave and disciplined. A dangerous enemy."

       "Can we take the risk?" the king mused. "No-one saw through my illusions in the city, but I didn't try it on the soldiers in black. I didn't dare risk it."

       "I don't think we can risk not using it," Reynard said. "We need every weapon we can get, and illusion is a weapon. You just have to make sure that nothing in the illusion arouses their suspicions. It has to be plausible. Nothing out of place. Nothing appearing out of thin air."

       The king must have stopped his horse, for he was behind them when he spoke. "I thought illusion might be like a beacon to them. I was afraid it would be dangerous, not merely useless. It's why I came back. One of the reasons."

       Reynard gave a sharp laugh. "Oh, you'll still need us there." He, too, slowed his horse and fell behind Thurstan, so his voice grew a little fainter with every word. "You know it's not like that, my lord. How can it be? Not unless they've got someone on their side as strong as you, or stronger."

       "Maybe they have," the king murmured.

       "No," Reynard spat. "There's no enchantment in the city. They burn it all, remember. All they've got Lord Darius, and he's only human. He can't do everything."

       "Sometimes it seems as if he can." The king's voice was very faint. When Reynard spoke in return, Thurstan could hear that his voice was harsh and insistent, but he could not hear the words.

       The moon had still not appeared, but he found that he no longer really minded. The conversation had pushed his fears from his mind, and now he could live with the darkness. He knew there were people around him, and Reynard and the king were thinking about every detail, leaving nothing to chance. And even the king was a little bit afraid. Instead of making him feel uneasy, it left Thurstan feeling comforted. He was just like the others. He was one of them, afraid, but still going forward. There was nowhere else he would rather be.

       His hand rose to his throat, touching the pendant that he wore round his neck. He had tried to give it back to the king, but the king had refused it. "It's a stone from a path I can no longer walk," he had told Thurstan. "I am finding a new one now." He had closed Thurstan's hand around the stone. "Wear it, if you want to. Wear it to remind yourself that your king is only a man, and he can make mistakes.

       He raised his head, looking towards the distant city, and rode forward through the darkness, his companions at his side.

      

 

            As they reached the river, the clouds released the moon. The current was not fast, but the wind made the surface of the water choppy, shattering the reflection of the moon into a mass of silver shards.

       "Here," Elias said, "is where we leave the horses."

       Reynard started to pace up and down the bank, assessing the hiding place for himself. Elias would have expected nothing else. He had taken a slow route back from the city, creeping through the darkness and finding this place. He had gazed up at the shadow of the city, judging how best to approach it, but he was no war leader, and had never planned an assault before. Reynard would be able to judge it better than he could.

       "It will serve," Reynard whispered. "No footsteps except ours. Patrols don't come out this far."

       "They're preparing for war in the city," Elias told him, "but they don't seem to be expecting us to come to them. The guards on the gate were very slack. They're more afraid of dissent within than an attack from without." Unless the beggar had told them, he thought, but he had seen no sign of heightened activity in the citadel. If the beggar's story had been believed, surely the city would immediately have been in uproar, all the bells pealing in alarm, as they had done the winter before.

       "But we can't assume," Reynard said. "We still have to take every precaution."

       Elias had led them in a wide loop, bringing them to the river about two miles downstream of the bridge. The place they were standing was densely wooded, willows drooping low over the water. Nearer the city, the bank was bare, but here the cover was good. They could hide the horses beneath the trees, swim the broad river, and approach the city on foot, hidden by darkness. They would come up against its eastern walls, where the citadel guarded the highest point of the hilltop city.

       Reynard peered upwards. "We should wait. The moon will be gone again soon. Unless you can cover us with darkness..."

       "I will if I have to," Elias said. If the moon suddenly came out, impaling them with light when they were in full view of the guards on the walls, then he would have no choice, but he was unable to shift the fear that Darius's soldiers could see right through it, despite what Reynard claimed. "I'd rather do it naturally."

       He crouched down and dripped his fingers in the water. There was something very final about crossing a river. After you had crossed to the other side, there was no going back. Soldiers patrolled the far bank, and guards looked down from the walls, their weapons aimed at people below. Here, beneath the willows, they were safe. They could still change their mind and go back, and no-one in the city would ever know how close they had come. He could order the others to give up on Gerhard and save themselves for greater battles, or he could slip like an otter into the water, silently swimming away while they were all busy with the horses, and try once more by himself, while the others were safe and sheltered.

       "My lord." Reynard grabbed his roughly by the upper arm, wrenching him back, and Elias realised how close he had been to just sinking forward, sliding into the river and going away. The lights on the river whirled hectically, as if even they were afraid, then faded. Elias peered up and saw that the moon had disappeared behind a broad swathe of cloud. It would be hidden for a while. Long enough to walk nearly two miles to the city? He hoped so, but didn't know.

       "It's time to go," Reynard said.

       Elias stood up, pressing one hand against a tree trunk. This was the point when they began to leave people behind. Amalric was staying behind with the horses, for he was the only one of them who was unable to swim.

       He pushed aside a trailing branch, and looked at the distant lights of the city. The houses were hidden by the tall walls, but beacons burned on some of the tallest towers, lighting the clock faces that were too far away to see. It was after midnight, Elias thought, and most people would be asleep. Elias and the others would slip into the citadel and out again, and be far away before the lights came on again.

       "How will we find our way back?" Thurstan asked. "It's so dark. How will we know where to cross the river? How will Amalric know it's us? We can't shout in case someone's listening. He can't shout, in case we're the enemy."

       "We'll find it," Elias assured him. "Julien's an excellent tracker."

       "But what if he's..." Thurstan's words snapped off, and he did not finish them.

       What if he dies? Elias dug his fingers into his palms, picturing the ragged few that were left of them running desperately up and down the bank as the pursuers got closer and closer, not knowing where was a safe place to cross. "There is something I can do," he said reluctantly.

       His hand rose to his forehead and kneaded the place between his eyes, but he was remembering a time when it had been his hands on another man's face, dragging memories from Oliver's mind, seeing the terrible truths that Oliver had been trying to protect him from. He had lost control of it and been overwhelmed, but that had been in the early days, before he had learnt how to wield his power.

       "There are... links," he began. "Links between people. Ways of being aware of each other without words or sight, or any other sense that you know about. I can sense other people sometimes, if they're feeling strongly. But I can... intensify that link. I haven't done it before, but I know I can do it. I can..."

       "You're not doing anything to me," Amalric cried out. Mud squelched as he backed away. "I don't want you inside my mind."

       "I wouldn't be inside your mind," Elias reassured him. "It would be a... a surface link, and only for as long as we need it. After that, it will fade away, or I'll break it."

       Amalric's back thudded into a tree. "I don't want it."

       "It won't hurt you," Elias assured him. "It won't let me read your thoughts. It would just mean that you could call out, and I'd hear you. And the others, too, if I did the same to them, passing the link on. If a patrol came and you needed to move the horses... If you wanted to warn us not to cross the river yet... Or if we needed to warn you about something, some threat that you couldn't see..." He stopped there, knowing it was unfair to say any more. "If you don't want it, I won't do it."

       "You'll do it." Reynard's voice had all the harshness of a command. "I chose you to come with us, Amalric, and I expect you to do your duty."

       "I don't want to," Amalric whispered.

       Elias wished he had never mentioned it. He knew all too well the fear of violation, and what it felt like to have someone unwanted reaching inside you, doing things against your will. "It doesn't matter," he began, but Reynard interrupted him. "I order you, Amalric. This isn't a game. We all have to do things we don't like, but we do them. Are you Kindred?"

       "I'm Kindred." Elias could hear how Amalric was raising his head, thrusting out his chin, just in the way he spoke those words. There was something between Reynard and Amalric that Elias had never understood. Reynard showed open contempt for Amalric's abilities as a fighter, yet he had still included him on this mission, along with his most trusted of men.

       "Then will do it," Reynard commanded, "or I will publicly denounce you as a traitor. And how will that affect Oliver, a seneschal whose brother was exiled as a traitor? How will that make him feel?"

       Elias thought Reynard cruel, deliberately exploiting Amalric's weaknesses, but then he remembered that Reynard, too, had a brother who had been exiled. Beneath the hatred, perhaps there lurked a stronger shame than Reynard would ever admit to, and he had just let it slip by mistake.

       "He's not a traitor." Elias moved forward, putting himself between the two men. Treachery was a powerful cry, and it was not to be bandied about lightly. In Eidengard, they were killing innocents and justifying it by calling the dead people traitors, but Elias would never let anyone who called him king become like that. "And it doesn't matter. I don't want to do anything he's uncomfortable with."

       "But this is war," Reynard snapped. "We all make sacrifices. You don't spare yourself, so it's wrong to try to spare us. Wrong," he said, slamming his fist into his other hand. "Do you want to risk all our lives, just because you want to spare Amalric from some little thing he doesn't like the sound of?"

       Elias swallowed, wishing more than ever that he had just kept silent. Because Reynard was right. To live, they had to use every advantage offered to them. Sometimes a leader had to order a man to do something unpleasant, if, by doing so, he could give everyone a better chance.

       Amalric slammed his sword into his scabbard, though Elias had not heard him draw it. "Then I'll do it," he said, saving Elias from having to give the order. "But I don't like it." Like a trussed-up victim awaiting his execution, Amalric fell to his knees and offered himself up, as if Elias was a butcher, a violator, a dispenser of death like Lord Darius.

       Elias knelt beside him, knees sinking into the mud. He touched Amalric on the forehead, fingers as light and gentle as he could make them. Closing his eyes, he let his senses reach out, washing over Amalric like rain, passing through but not stopping. It was a gentle magic, close to the surface, using little of the deeper powers that drained him, but, even so, it was harder that it had been the winter before, when Oliver's memories had come surging out in response to his touch. Because I had the Shadow then, he realised, and the two powers together are stronger than either one alone, especially with something like this..

       Amalric stiffened as he thought it, and he wondered if Oliver's brother was sensing a little of his thoughts, even as Elias was being so careful not to pry into his. Amalric's mind was like a vast corridor of closed doors, and Elias could have opened any one of them, but chose not to. He kept to the middle of the corridor, casting a little of the white glittering dust onto the floor as he did so. It was like leaving a footprint in the mud, or a fingerprint on steamed-up glass. I was here, he breathed. I can find my way back.

       Elias closed his eyes, sinking into the magic, but then something impacted hard on his chin, and he flew backwards, landing heavily across a rock. He blinked, dazed, slow to step out of the enchantment. "No!" he heard Amalric rasp. "No more. I didn't like it."

       Elias brought his hand up to his face, feeling the tender spot on his chin. Reynard was already helping him up, demanding to know if he was all right. "Yes," Elias murmured. His lower back hurt where he had struck the rock, and he sucked in a sharp breath as he took his first step. "I'm fine." He pulled his arm out of Reynard's grip.

       He heard the sound of a sword being drawn in the darkness. "You struck your king." Reynard's voice was terrible.

       "I couldn't help it," Amalric whined. "It was horrible."

       It had been gentle and tender, and Elias had gone nowhere he had not been invited. But maybe the dead men who had invaded him and used his power had thought that they were being tender. Maybe the one doing the violating never knew how much it hurt. "I'm sorry," Elias whispered. "I'm so sorry."

       Amalric gasped, and Elias knew that the tip of Reynard's sword had found his chest. "Give me one reason why I shouldn't kill you right now," Reynard demanded.

       "I'm not a traitor." Amalric sounded broken. "I just... I didn't..."

       "Leave him." Elias tried to sound commanding, but he thought he just sounded weary. "He was just defending himself. And we need him." He gave a reason that Reynard would understand. "We need every last man. And it's done."

       "It worked?" Reynard echoed. "Even with his treachery?"

       "It worked." Elias could do the same to the others, now, sharing the new link, binding them all together like the strands in a tapestry. Even if Elias was killed, Thurstan, or any one of them, would be able to call out to Amalric and be heard. "But I won't use it unless you consent to it. I'll wipe it away right now."

       Amalric was silent for a very long time. "I consent," he said, at last. "Pass it on. Do what you have to do."

       Elias was very aware of Reynard's drawn sword, and how distressed Amalric was, despite the way he was speaking. "I'll do it on the other side," he said. Where Amalric wouldn't know, and the wound wasn't so raw. "We'll cross the river first."

       As Reynard sheathed his sword, Elias moved to the river bank, the first of them to cross. Without another word, he waded into the water, and let the river carry him. It was shockingly cold, and the water surged over his ears, cutting him off from all sounds. The darkness hid the people on the bank. There was only the river, enfolding him in its frigid embrace, and he was neither in one world, nor the next.

       The far bank was another world, and he would drag himself into it as sodden and helpless as a newborn. There, he would be a king in enemy territory, leading his men into danger. It was his test. The realisations he had made beneath the yew trees would become real. He would either pass the test, or fail, reverting to his old ways, but he thought passing could be more terrible than failure, if passing meant accepting that people might die while he carried on.

       I should sink under water, he thought, and swim away, away to the sea, where there is no Darius and no Gerhard and no Reynard and nothing at all...

       The river closed over his head. If he opened his mouth, water would surge into his lungs and drown him. If he opened his eyes, he would see nothing but blackness. There was no sound and no sight and no air. Even enchantment felt dull down here, attenuated by the water. The only living things were cold and dark. Little slivers of fish darted past his face, and there were weeds on the bottom of the river that had never seen the light, except as a dirty thing far above.

       It would be so easy to die. All he had to do was open his mouth and breathe in. Hadn't he been bleeding to death for months anyway? Losing his master had been like hacking off a limb, and the wound had been festering ever since. What difference would it make if he took that last little step - such a tiny, trivial little step - and let the water into his mouth?

       He drifted further, and weeds clutched at his ankles, as if they wanted to keep him here, to defeat anything that tried to haul him back to the world of men. Maybe he could live down here in this world of darkness, this waking sleep. Maybe enchantment could breathe for him, and he would stay alive, but in a place where no-one could touch him. The world could die above him, but he wouldn't know. Darius would never find him.

       He opened his mouth a tiny bit, and water seeped in, though he did not inhale it. It tasted earthy and slimy, and he didn't like it.

       Something disturbed the surface of the water far above, and he reacted like the fishes, wondering if it was a predator. Only Reynard, he told himself, or Thurstan, or one of the others, swimming to the other side. In the concealing darkness, they didn’t even know that their king had sunk to the bottom and was thinking of staying there. They would reach the other side and start calling for him. What would they do when they realised he had gone?

       What am I doing here? he wondered. He had told Oliver that he had no wish to die, so why was he here with his starved lungs about to collapse, and his head pounding with lack of air?

       Because it's better if you die, something told him. It's the best service you can perform. You ruin everything you touch. He saw the memory of a rose, its petals withering as he touched them.

       But that hadn't been him. Something else, something terrible, had made the rose die, and he, Elias, was sworn to fight it. He had to live to do that. One day, perhaps, he would have to give his life to save the world, but not yet, not when the battle was only just beginning.

       He pushed himself upwards, but the weeds were loathe to release him. Something swirled in the water, laughing and not defeated. No? Well, there are a thousand other ways to defeat you, aren't there, little one? He kicked again, and then he was free, rising to the surface, where his head burst out of the water, and he sucked in great gasps of air.

       They were talking on the far bank in anxious whispers. "He went before us," someone was saying. "Where is he?"

       "Here," Elias gasped. It wasn't even far. He had come up only yards from the bank. He had been so close to them, even as he had almost died. None of them knew.

       Reynard waded back into the water. "Do you need help? Was it cramp?"

       Elias's feet found the bottom of the river, and he stood up, water up to his chest. The gentle current tugged at him, and his legs were weak, his body still reacting to the lack of air. Reynard groped blindly for him, and found him, helping him to the bank with arms that were surprisingly gentle.

       When he reached the bank, Elias fell to his knees, and Reynard knelt down beside him. "Is he all right?" he heard Thurstan ask. The night air touched his face and was very cold, but it showed him that he was alive. The grass beneath his hands was soft and moist, not parched and dead. His men were surrounding him, and they were worried about him, each one breathing, each one alive.

       "I'm fine now." He struggled to stand. Already it seemed like a dream, the time in the water. That terrible something that was killing the grass had slipped into his thoughts, changing them subtly. The temptation to swim away and hide had been real, but the enemy had taken it and pushed it and turned it into a desire to die. He knew, though, that the enemy had only been able to do it because his own thoughts had been tending that way all by themselves. Elias had provided all the weaknesses that the enemy could exploit. But I won't kill myself, he swore, hoping the enemy could hear him. You'll never trick me like that again.

       "Are you sure you're all right?" Reynard asked him.

       Elias swallowed, still tasting rotten water from the place where something terrible had swirled. "I am." Then, with his men at his back, he started walking towards the city. They had crossed the river, and now they were in Darius's kingdom, and the moment of trial had come.


Chapter seven

Darius's kingdom

 

 

       The clock in the city struck two. Across the courtyard, an open window squeaked in the light breeze. The man who stood there was hidden in the darkness, but Lankin knew he was still there, still watching, as he had been when darkness had fallen so many hours before. When the sorcerer king came, Darius would be waiting for him. When the enemy came…

       "Maybe he isn't going to come after all," Captain Gresham whispered.

       "Of course he is," Lankin snapped. "He was in the city yesterday. Of course he'll come here."

       "I know," Gresham said, "but…" He gestured at the citadel, so silent and expectant. " I know Darius claims to understand the enemy's mind and know how best to catch him, but... Well, maybe he's wrong this time. Maybe we should have taken our chance yesterday, and not waited until today."

       Lankin bit his lip, and fought the urge to nod in agreement. "Lord Darius is never wrong," he declared. Gresham was his superior officer, but Lankin was more favoured of Darius, and Gresham knew it. He would never dare report Lankin's lack of respect.

       "I know," Gresham said, with a nervous glance up at Darius's window. "I just… I wish he'd come soon."

       Lankin sighed. "I do, too."

       He walked a few steps away, careful not to leave the shadows, more for the sake of keeping his face hidden from Gresham than of hiding from the enemy who still did not come. He did not dare look up at Darius. It all suddenly seemed so risky, this elaborate trap that Darius had woven. It almost seemed like the plan of someone who cared more about the manner of his victory, than about the victory itself. Darius wanted to toy with his enemy, let him raise his hopes, then crush them in a series of shattering blows. When Lankin had first heard the plan, it had sounded glorious and thrilling. Now it only sounded… flawed.

       Lankin had indulged in hundreds of beautiful dreams of how he would single-handedly capture the sorcerer, but they were only that, only dreams. The most important thing was just that he was captured, not who captured him, or how they did it. There was no room for pride, not when the safety of the duchy was at stake. But Darius could have tried to capture the enemy the day before, but had chosen not to. If the enemy slipped through their fingers again, whose fault then would it be?

       Gresham strode past Lankin, making his way to the middle of the courtyard, where six guardsmen were chained to bloody posts. They had been flogged at twilight, punished for casual remarks that could be taken as sedition, and would stay there until dawn. Perhaps they would die. If they did, it would be a shame, for they were none of them traitors, and the doubts they had expressed had been tiny ones, such as any man might feel in a time of such danger and change.

       Gresham stormed to a halt beside one of the men, and unfastened the sword at his belt. Without a word, he started the strike the man across the ruined back with the sheathed weapon. The man was still gagged, dried blood staining both sides of his mouth, but he threw back his head and screamed, a choked sound of torment. Lankin turned his head away and tried not to watch, but he could still hear. When the man's cries had faded to quiet sobs, he walked to Gresham's side. "You'll kill him if you carry on," he said. "He's been punished enough."

       His sword trailing blood, Gresham whirled away. Lankin touched the limp man and found him still alive, but barely. He brushed his fingers over his cheek, and looked at his bonds. So easy to let him free. There was a bowl of water not far away, deliberately placed to torment the prisoners. He could bring him a drink, but Darius was watching, and Gresham, too. Darius was unpredictable. He might shout at Gresham for giving in to his frustration, striking out at the nearest target, but he might applaud it, and raise Gresham higher in his favour, and frown a little at Lankin for stopping him.

       "I just wish he'd come," Gresham rasped, as he buckled his sword back on his belt. Across the courtyard, Darius's window closed with a faint click.

       Lankin turned his back on the prisoner, leaving him groaning. He would be dead by the morning, he thought, but he had expressed doubts, and doubts were often the first step to outright treachery, so maybe it was only right and good. Besides, if he died, his death would have served a greater cause. There was a deeper purpose behind his suffering tonight that he would never know.

       "Darius has gone," Lankin whispered aloud. "I wonder if he's heard something."

       Of course they would catch the sorcerer king tonight, he told himself. Darius had said it would happen, so it would happen. Darius had only laid his elaborate plans because he knew beyond a doubt that they could not fail. Everything he had predicted would come true. The sorcerer would enter from the city gate, trusting in his illusion to save him, but the Soldiers of Light would be waiting for him, and they were wise to his tricks. They would not let him escape them, not this time. He would be captured, and then he would die.

      

      

       "We're running out of time," Reynard told him, when they stopped beneath the walls. "The moon is nearly out. We have to hurry."

       Ranulf and Joscelin laid down the heavy ropes on the ground, then straightened up, stretching painful muscles. Julien crouched down, and attached the grappling hooks to the end of both coils. Elias peered up, seeing the faint outline of the battlements above. Beside him, Thurstan was doing the same thing. "They're so tall," he breathed. "How can we climb them?"

       Elias touched the stone, brushing his fingers along its surface. They had been built long ago by the Kindred, under the guidance of a long-dead king, sworn to protect his people. An echo of that enchantment still remained, like the faint warmth from a very old fire. We will not fail, they whispered beneath his fingers. Anything that we protect, we will keep safe. But the Kindred who had lived inside these walls had been massacred long ago, and now the citadel was the home of Darius's soldiers, who trusted in its high walls to keep the Kindred out.

       Reynard stood beside him. "Do it, then."

       Elias let his hand fall away from the stone. There would be times when Reynard or one of the others would bear the responsibility for their safety, but this test was his own. He was the only one who could get them up the walls. They could have thrown the grappling hook, but it would have been too noisy, alerting anyone inside. They had to climb the walls in utter silence, entering the citadel at a place that even Darius would think impossible. There were many guards on the low walls that faced the city, but few guards here, where the walls were deemed impossible to scale.

       He knelt beside the innocent coils of knotted rope, running his fingers over their rough surface. He wondered if Reynard realised that he was going to use a power he had been blind to since last winter. The Shadow seemed so far away as to be impossible to reach, but he had to. Everything depended on it, and he could not fail.

       Closing his eyes, he tried to still his fears. "Thurstan," he whispered, without opening his eyes. "Stay close. I want you to see this."

       Thurstan knelt beside him, shivering audibly. It was too dark for Elias to smile and reassure him. He tried to do it anyway, but could not.

       "Hurry," Reynard urged.

       Elias's palms were moist. He wiped them on his clothes, but they were wet, too. The soothing beach with the white tower was close, but he could not find the way. Once, it had come so easily, without him even needing to think. Now the gateway to his Garden was rusted shut and sealed. He was trapped too deeply in the white tower, and couldn't find the way out.

       "What are you doing, my lord?" Thurstan asked, and, "Quiet," Reynard commanded him, a sharp hiss.

       They all depended on him, but fear blocked the Shadow. Fear of failure, that terrible rending feeling that he would let everyone down, made him blind to its power. Enchantment came easily when he was desperate, but the Shadow was a power for someone content and calm, like the king he tried to appear before the Kindred, not like the man he was inside, not at all. He couldn't do it. He couldn't do it, and they would have to retreat, and Gerhard would die.

       "No," he breathed aloud. He raised his hands. Gerhard would not die. Elias had sacrificed everything for the Kindred, and he could sacrifice a little emotion, calm a little fear, silence the whimpering voice of desperation. He could wipe his face clean of emotion when talking to the Kindred, and he could wear the mask inside, too.

       Very gradually, the darkness turned pale blue. Yellow sand stretched ahead of him, lapped by gentle waves. The tower was ahead of him, where it had always been, and its door was poised, about to open. If it opened, he knew, it would open fully, and the white light inside would flood the beach, and nothing would be the same again, but, "Not yet," he whispered, and turned his back on the tower.

       The sand was cool and delicate, and the waves glittered. It was so good to be back, and oh how he had missed it! In his Garden, Elias spread his arms wide and rejoiced. On the ground at the foot of the walls, he spread his arms and the ropes rose with him. With sight that did not come from his eyes, Elias saw the gossamer strands that connected everything around him. He knew what to tug and what to gently push, and he knew how to make the ropes rise through the air, and how lay down the grappling hook without a sound in just the right place to bear their weight.

       It was done. His arms sank down to his sides as he opened his eyes, letting the inner eyes that could see the Shadow slide shut. His Garden wisped away like the last glimmer of sunlight before nightfall, but he had done it, he had found the Shadow again. He had been incomplete for so long, denying half of his soul, and now he should be complete again, content and whole. It was over. He was healed.

       Thurstan was beside him, bursting with awe. "What was that? It was... I felt... Oh, my lord, what was it?"

       Elias turned a weary head towards him. He wasn't whole at all. He felt empty, his last chance of healing snatched away from him. "It's called the Shadow, and you have a gift for it." He smiled, hands limp in his lap. "You'll learn how to use your gift, I promise you."

       "I'll be able to do things like that?" Thurstan's voice was muffled as he pressed his hands to his mouth.

       He sounded so like Elias had sounded when Ciaran had first shown him the wonders of the Shadow. It had been like a door opening in his mind, showing a glimpse of something more wonderful than he had ever imagined. Ciaran had clapped him on the shoulder and given one of his rare smiles, for the wonders of the Shadow was something that even Ciaran had not been afraid to be moved by. Remembering it, Elias was hit with a wave of misery, missing Ciaran so intensely that he wanted to cry.

       But Reynard was already testing the ropes, preparing to climb. Elias stood up wearily, and readied himself to enter Darius's stronghold. Last time he had been dragged inside in chains, and this time he was going willingly, but it seemed to make little difference. Here, beneath the walls, was the last place of safety. After this moment, there was no going back.

       "You next, my lord," Ranulf told him, when the rope had stopped twitching, showing that Reynard had reached the top. No warning came down through their faint link, but if the enemy was waiting there with a quick knife to slice his throat, perhaps Reynard wouldn't have had time.

       The moon was almost exposed, its light already filtering through the thin clouds. They had minutes, at most, before they would be caught in the full light, dark figures climbing the wall.

       "Now," Ranulf hissed, and Elias did the only thing he could possibly do. Grasping the rope in both hands, he started to climb.

      

 

       The Kindred had never forgotten. In the five hundred years since their exile, many bards had died before they could pass on their stories, and many things had been lost, but they had never forgotten their home.

       The king had described it to them before they had set out. "I know what Oliver has told me," he had said, "and the things I've seen with my own eyes, both from outside the walls, and in."

       He had drawn it in the dirt with a long stick, sketching the shape of the buildings. The great outer walls of the city were shaped roughly like an egg, and the citadel was nestled in the most pointed end. It had walls of its own, like a horseshoe pressed against the curved city walls. The citadel buildings took up most of the enclosed space, but there was a large paved courtyard at the front that had once been open to anyone in the kingdom, but was now locked behind a gate. Hidden at the back, the king had told them, was the jewel of it all, more beautiful than the great hall or any of the towers.

       It was called the inner bailey, but it had never been used for defence. It had been the king's own garden, with fountains and statues and cascades of flowers. Twisting staircases led up to the walkway along the city walls, where the kings often used to lean and gaze out across the countryside, or stroll with their counsellors and friends. The garden was almost completely enclosed by the walls and two wings of the citadel itself, and the only way to enter it was by a narrow path from the front courtyard, or a few discreet doors from inside.

       "I didn't have a chance to see if it's still there," the king had told them, "but I think it is. Certainly there are no new buildings, and most of the citadel lights are on the other side, facing the city. They've probably changed it, but I think it's still there. I can't think of anywhere better for us to enter."

       But it might not be, Thurstan thought, as he hauled himself up the rope. His grip started to slide, scraping downwards until it caught on a knot, and one foot slipped. He swung round, shoulder smashing against the wall, and clung there with stinging palms, one leg flailing. The dust of old masonry skittered downwards, but no-one shouted up at him to be more careful. They were far below him, far far below. If he fell, he would die.

       He scrabbled with his feet and managed to get them both placed firmly on the wall. Sweat was dripping down the side of his nose, and it itched horribly. He tried to wipe it off against his shoulder, then against the rope itself, but that only made it worse. He removed his hand from the rope, but he immediately had to grab it again, lunging for the next knot above his head, and he had no time to wipe his face. As he hauled himself up a few more feet, the muscles in his arms were screaming, but the itch on his nose hurt worse.

       He was nearly at the top, able to see the greying sky not far above him. The moon was almost out, and Ranulf and Julien would be impatient for him to reach the stop so they could start. Joscelin was staying behind to guard their escape route. But the word escape made Thurstan think of desperation and running, cold-faced enemies chasing him, and the bodies of people he had known lying bleeding, left behind.

       No-one would be waiting for him at the top. Reynard had decreed that they were not to remain on the walls for any longer than necessary. He had taken the second rope up with him, and would immediately lower it down the far side of the walls and drop into the garden. So Thurstan would have to reach the top, drag himself over the lip without any help, and descend into blackness, all by himself. He wouldn’t even know if it was safe, or whether Reynard and the king lay dead at the top.

       Almost there. He had reached the last knot. The only thing left to grab was the top of the wall itself. He grasped with one hand, struggled, and managed the other. He had to twist his body to avoid the grappling hook, and for a moment his legs stuck out, dangling over the enormous drop. Desperate, he threw himself forward, falling and rolling, and hit the floor of the walkway hard, sprawling limp and panting.

       There was no-one there. Behind him, the grappling hook started to make tiny noises as someone else started to climb. Julien would be fast, Thurstan thought, and would find him here and despise him for not following orders and getting off the wall as fast as he could. Thurstan's arms didn't want to bear his weight, but he dragged himself to the inner edge of the walkway and peered down, but he couldn't see a thing  He wanted to call out in a whisper for the king, but did not dare.

       On the outer edge, the walls rose to chest height above the walkway, but there was hardly any wall at all on the inside edge. It would be easy to fall in the dark. There were small braziers along the wall, but so far apart that they were only narrow circles of light, with far greater expanses of darkness between them. A soldier on patrol would have to keep one hand on the wall at all times, or else would have to carry a torch. But it was very dark, and none of the lights he could see were moving. No-one would find him here, lying face down in the dark. Better to wait for Julien, after all. Julien disliked him, and would dislike him whatever he did. Better to descend into that darkness with someone else, than to go alone.

       The clouds shivered, and the moon was exposed, brighter than Thurstan would have thought possible. They'll see me! he gasped. But the moonlight showed the grappling hook, holding the second rope in place only an arm's reach from where he was lying. He had to lower himself onto that rope and climb down. It would be a shorter climb, the king had told him, for the ground inside the citadel was higher than the ground outside. It would be an easier climb, and the king and Reynard would be there at the bottom, somewhere safe. Of course they'd be there.

       His arms were trembling as he turned round and began to lower himself over the edge. He let himself drop, dangling from his hands, then dared let go and grab hold of the rope. The other hand followed, and his feet found the wall.

       Was that the sound of someone walking, slow footfalls getting nearer and nearer? He froze, hanging there just below the edge, where a soldier's feet would pass just above his face, so close that he could peer up and see him.

       If it was a patrol, he was supposed to call out a warning to Julien, telling him not to climb over the top until the soldier was gone. He wasn't allowed to shout it aloud, but had to do it in his mind. "It will happen without you thinking about it, when you really need to do it," the king had told him, but what did the king really know about normal people? Thurstan didn't know how to cry a warning, and he didn't know how to hear one. The king could be down there screaming warnings to him, telling him not to come any further, that it was a trap, and he didn't know how to hear them.

       Thurstan hung there, heartbeat racing in his ears, terror clutching at his stomach. His arms hurt so badly that he wanted just to let go and fall. But no-one came. There was no patrol, only fear fuelling his imagination. Letting out a shuddering breath, he started to climb, lowering himself steadily into the garden that was no longer a garden, where anything could be waiting for him.

      

 

              Someone was screaming, and no-one else could hear it. Ranulf was on his knees, thrusting the second rope deep into a prickly bush beneath the walls. Julien had slithered off to scout out to the right, and Reynard to the left. Thurstan was very nervous, showing it by the quiver in his breathing, but was obeying Reynard's orders by standing still. Joscelin had been left outside the walls, to wait all alone and guard the place where they would leave the citadel, when everything was over.

       Someone was screaming. Elias leant towards it, straining in its direction, though his other hand was curled round a branch, pulling him back. The leaves rustled as the whole shrub shook, and Elias snatched his hand away. Still concealed behind the bushes, he took a few steps towards the screaming, and no-one stopped him. With a quick glance round, he walked a little further, until he was too far away to hear Thurstan's breathing or the quiet sounds of Ranulf at work.

       There was more than one person, he thought, and they were all in terrible pain. Their screaming was silent, and Elias was the only one who could hear it, the only one who knew how desperate they were.

       Innocent, they were sobbing. I didn't do anything. I only said a few things. It was a joke. And my friends all watched. I thought they'd come and cut me down as soon as it was dark, but no-one did. They're going to leave me here all night. What will happen in the morning? More things? Worse things? I'm scared. It hurts.

       Elias crept forward, drawn by their pain. Their screaming grew louder with each step, each voice overlapping the others, filling his head with a cacophony of need. I have to help them, he thought. How could he do anything else? Can't leave them.

       He came to the end of the shrubs, and his next step would take him past the entrance to one of the spiral staircases up the walls. Kneeling, he listened, but heard no footsteps. On hands and knees he scurried forward, feeling the ground turn harder beneath his knees, then soft again. He had crossed a well-used path that led to the staircase. The grass on either side was long, not often walked. They had been right about the garden. It was overgrown and empty, and a perfect place to hide.

       Pressed against the wall, he edged forward. A large hall with a rounded end protruded from the main block of the citadel, forming one of the edges of the garden. It seemed darker beneath the hall, so Elias left the concealment of the outer wall and crossed the open grass to reach it. As soon as he was there, it seemed darker back where he had just come from. From where he was standing, he would see the walkway round the walls. Anyone looking down could see him.

       Called by the screaming, he hurried on. The hall was made of smooth stone, and it seemed to tingle beneath his fingers, calling out a message that was drowned out by the screaming. He had left the garden now, and there were more lights on the outer walls. As he moved closer to the front of the citadel, new voices joined in the clamour in his mind. He felt hatred like a silver blade, and a dark bitterness that came from frustration and impatience. The only happiness came from someone who was fiercely thinking, At last!

       I'm coming! Elias called, though he knew no-one could hear him. He crouched in the shadow of a buttress and leaned forward, peering round the corner of the main citadel buildings. Ahead of him, to the left, was the gateway that led into the palace grounds. Opposite that gateway, low in the main block of the citadel, was the door that led to a staircase that went down into the dark. The prison cells were there. Gerhard was there. Darius was there, forever there in Elias's dreams.

       He had to help them! He had to help them, but... He pressed his hand to his mouth, as though pushing back screams of his own. If he went forward, he would soon be in full view of the heavily-guarded front gate, the gate he had resolved not to approach the night before. He couldn't go ahead and leave Thurstan and the others alone, not without an explanation. Sometimes, or so he had told himself, he had to accept that he couldn't help someone, even if he wanted to more than anything. That had been his resolution, and how could he let himself fail at the first test?

       He sank back into the darkness. "I can't," he breathed. He closed his eyes, but made no move to retreat. A noise alerted him and he opened his eyes wearily, but it was too late. Frozen like a rabbit beneath a hawk's stare, he could only crouch there and look up as the guard walked slowly along the walls, heading for the place where they had climbed.

       Someone grabbed Elias by the shoulder, and a hand clapped over his mouth, stifling his gasp. Someone was breathing hotly on the side of his neck, but the person didn't speak, not until the guard had passed and the light of his torch had faded. "What are you doing here?" Reynard hissed.

       "Someone was hurting..."

       Reynard hauled him back bodily. "No!" He slammed Elias into the wall. "There are flogged men on posts. But there are guards watching them. Well-hidden, but there. There's nothing you can do. Do you want to get us all killed?"

       Elias shook his head. "I'd already decided to come back." But why should Reynard believe him? The Elias he had always known would have gone forward, heedlessly embracing danger no matter what the cost. It felt sad not to be that Elias any more. He was walking away from someone who needed help, and he felt sullied by doing it, because it was wrong.

       "They weren't ours," Reynard said. "Soldiers. No-one for us to bother about."

       Which doesn't make any difference at all, Elias thought, but he followed Reynard back into the garden. It was so easy for Reynard, who could walk away from them without a moment's guilt. Elias had resolved to change how he acted, but nothing could change how he felt.

       "We can't go in that way," Reynard said, when they were back in the garden and safe. "Too many guards."

       "I saw the door," Elias murmured. "The door into the prison."

       "There will be other doors."

       Then they were back with the others, waiting for Julien to return and give his report. But the men were still screaming, begging him to come and save them, and that would never stop. Perhaps Elias had faced his first test and passed, but it felt more like a failure.

       "He's been away for too long," Reynard was saying, anxious about Julien.

       Ranulf was pointing out the place he had chosen for his hiding place. He had was going to stay here in the garden, performing the same duty as Joscelin was doing on the outside. Between them, they would make sure that the escape route was safe. Only four of them were going on from here, while seven of them had started. One by one, they were being left behind.

       "A guard went past," Thurstan breathed, "but he didn't see us."

       Elias wanted to clap his hands over his ears and shut out the screaming, but it would make no difference at all. It was hard to concentrate and think. Normally nothing else existed but the person in need, and that carried on until they had been saved, but this time he had to think about Thurstan and Reynard and the others. If he was inattentive, they would die.

       He ran his fingers over a leaf, and tried to hear Oliver's voice, telling him about the garden. Elias, brought up in an ugly city, had been swept away by the tale. "If the Kindred ever return to Eidengard," he had promised, "I'll make sure the garden is as beautiful as ever." He had described how it wanted it to be, and then had looked at Oliver, expecting to find him laughing, but Oliver had said very earnestly that he hoped it came true just as Elias had said. "I hope you get your garden," were the words he had said.

       Elias wandered away from the others, and let himself dream. The fountain would go just there, its crystal water sparkling in a place where there was no screaming. The flowers would bloom there, beneath the windows of rooms that would be open to guests and ordinary people alike. The rounded hall on the far side would be ablaze with light, and couples would stroll the walls arm in arm. There would be torches everywhere, but dark places, too, so people could see the stars or walk hand in hand, or just sit and think.

       It would be beautiful and joyful, but it wouldn't ever happen. Elias sighed, and paused in a doorway in the crumbling wing to the right of the garden. Whenever he had dreamed of a happy future and painted pictures of his hopes, they had been no more than the naïve wishes of a fool. The duchy's hatred of enchantment was too entrenched. Even if the Kindred successfully fought the enemy who was threatening the world, they would never return to Eidengard. It was foolish to dream.

       Like a whisper fading into silence, the pictures of a future that would never happen disappeared. Elias leant back against the door, and his hand closed around the ring-like handle. It was rusty and stiff, but on impulse he tried to turn it. The door strained against bolts on the inside, and did not open. He was about to let the handle go, when he heard the unmistakable sound of the bolt being slipped open from the inside. Someone was there.

       Elias froze, afraid even to move, in case the rusty handle made a noise or his feet scraped on the stone threshold. Illusion, he thought. Hide. But illusion wouldn't work, not if someone came through the door and walked right into him. Illusions could have touch and sound as well as sight, but it the hardest illusion of all, to hide something that was there. And they can see through illusion. Reynard thought they couldn't, but how could he risk it? What if they could really see through it, or, worse, were called by it, as loud as a shout?

       Neither Shadow nor enchantment could help him. He couldn't fly away, because greater works of enchantment left him too exhausted to carry on. He couldn't hold the door shut with Shadow, because the person on the other side would know someone was there and raise the alarm. Reynard would be able to slip away silently. Julien would be able to hide. Elias, who had spent a year closer to the enchantment than to the world of normal men, could do nothing but stand still and be captured.

       The person on the other side was fighting the bolt, easing it along gradually and quietly, but finally it gave. Elias felt the door handle move in his moist palm as the person took hold of it from the other side, and began to turn it.

       Now! he thought. As his attacker turned the handle, Elias did not fight it, but very gently let go. Then, as the door opened a menacing crack, he stepped backwards, then another step, creeping back across the garden to the cover of the bushes.

       He was almost there when the door opened fully, and the man walked through, face hidden by the night.

      

 

       "No sign?" a low voice said behind him.

       It was an effort not to cry out, but Lankin managed it. A good soldier, he should have been alert to every sound, but Lord Darius had caught him dreaming, killing the sorcerer king again and again in his imagination.

       "He will come," Darius said, and walked away as silently as he had approached.

       He will come, Lankin thought. Of course he would, because Darius had said so. Lord Darius claimed to understand the enemy he had once possessed for a night and a day. That was why they had kept the leader of the mountain bandits alive, using him as bait. That was why they had strung up the dead ones, so he would see their bodies and become careless through grief. That was why they had flogged the outspoken soldiers tonight, so he would see their tortured bodies and… and what? Help them?

       Lankin pressed his hand against the wall behind him. Why would a heartless sorcerer care about other people's suffering? Why did Darius think he would waste a moment's thought on such men? He would walk right past them, laughing, wanting only to rescue his henchman from the cells.

       But why did he even want to do that? From the start, Darius had been certain that the sorcerer king would voluntarily leave his hiding place and come to them, if he knew that one his men was in danger. Lankin had just nodded when Darius has told him the plan, gleeful at the prospect of capturing the enemy, and had never stopped to question it, but nothing seemed so certain on this endless night of waiting. Silence brought doubts that he would have killed another man for expressing.

       There were two soldiers in the shadow of a bush, watching the gate. One of them was shifting his weight from foot to foot, feeling the agonising impatience of the wait. Darius had always promised them swift victories and merciless strikes. A Soldier of Light, with his burning devotion to the cause, was not made for just standing still and doing nothing.

       Lankin watched them for a little while. They were new recruits, not yet favoured by Darius. They went where they were told. They had no way of knowing that Darius could have chosen another way to take the enemy, not this trap that seemed more frail by every second. They had no cause to feel doubts.

       He's coming because he wants to stop his minion from talking and betraying his hide-out, he told himself. But wouldn't it be safer for the sorcerer just to move his base, rather than come alone to the stronghold of his enemies? He’ll want to release the flogged men so he can bind them to his cause through gratitude, and create traitors to destroy us from within. But why had Darius been so careful to ensure that the prisoners were in agony, screaming their pain for the sorcerer to hear?

       It made no sense. The never-ending night made it make no sense. The darkness made terrible things whisper in his mind, and made him forget that Lord Darius knew best, and there was probably some explanation that Lankin was too slow to understand. Of course the sorcerer was evil. If he entered the citadel, it would be for his own cunning reasons, and all Lankin had to do was hate him.

       Lankin pushed himself away from the wall. I need to be doing something. I can't just stand here any more. He saw Gresham in the distance, his uniform faint grey in the moonlight, concealed less well than the new recruits he had been watching a moment before, and hurried up to him.

       "Maybe he's coming in another way," he said. "A way we thought was impossible. There are too many of us here, anyway. I want to take a few men and scout outside the walls." He barely framed it as a request.

       "Do it, then." Gresham tried for a little pride, a little concession to the pretence that Lankin needed his permission.

       Without another word, Lankin strode over to the two recruits in the bushes. "Come with me," he commanded them. "We've got a job to do."

       At least when he was doing something, the treacherous doubts would stop whispering in his mind. And, perhaps, he would come face to face with the evil one himself, and then he would never feel any doubts ever again.

      

 

            The man walked forward, lit from behind by a faint flickering light. Reynard pushed past Thurstan to creep forward, very slowly drawing his dagger. It would take a while for the man's eyes to grow accustomed to the darkness, and the cluster of Kindred in the bushes would be invisible to him. He was alone, no other men following him through the door. Stalked by Reynard, outnumbered by the Kindred, he would die. They wouldn't be betrayed. They wouldn't die here, before they had done a thing. Everything would be all right.

       Without turning his back to Reynard's drawn dagger, the man pulled the door shut behind him, closing it without a sound. Although he surely couldn't see the hidden men, he walked confidently towards them, as if he knew exactly where they were hiding. Reynard hurled himself at the man, wrapping his arms around him and dragging him back into the bushes, but he didn't kill him first, or even disarm him.

       "Is it safe?" Reynard hissed, when they were hidden.

       The captured man's voice was muffled by Reynard's hand at his throat. "Soldiers over there, outside." It was Julien. Thurstan let out a shuddering breath of relief. "There's a stable courtyard on the other side of the wing, like the mirror of this one, but busy. Can't go that way in. But they're around the back gate, on the far side. Too far away to hear us."

       Reynard tightened his grip. "How did you get inside?"

       "I climbed. There was a window open upstairs. Lots of gaps between the stones. Empty rooms at the top, just used for storage. I found stairs down, and I found the door. I knew it had to open into the garden."

       Reynard pushed him away. "You shouldn't have done it." The fury in the whisper was tangible. "You should have reported back. It was too risky."

       "I saw the chance. I took it." Julien sounded surly, like a child being told off. "At least I found a way in. I thought you'd be pleased."

       "You shouldn't have done it," Reynard snapped. "This is too important for foolish heroics. If they'd caught you, they'd have turned the place upside-down until they found your accomplices. You could have killed your king."

       Thurstan could hear footsteps, he realised, slow, close. A guard was walking the walls in darkness. Without a torch, he would see more clearly, for torchlight would leave him blind to anything outside the small area that the flame illuminated. How close had he come? Had he heard them arguing?

       "Reynard." Thurstan tried to touch Reynard's arm, but he couldn't find him. "Someone's coming."

       "We know," the king whispered. "Stay still."

       Cowering into the ground, Thurstan waited, not even daring to breathe, as the slow footsteps passed overhead, then faded.

       "You shouldn't have done it," Reynard murmured, when it was safe again, "but it's done now, and no harm has come from it." But his tone clearly said that Julien was not forgiven, and had fallen far in the estimation of his captain. Thurstan felt sorry for Julien. He knew what it felt like to disappoint your lord.

       "The rooms on this side are deserted," Julien said in a flat voice, as he led them towards the door. "Store rooms, mostly. A few torches in the corridors, but dust on the floor, and only one set of footsteps, walking the same path again and again, lighting the torches every day."

       They huddled close as Julien opened the door. Thurstan peered back up at the walls, then at the dark shapes of the bushes. Ranulf was there, staying with the ropes and waiting for them. They'd forgotten to say goodbye. Thurstan wanted to raise his hand in farewell, but Ranulf wouldn't see him, not unless Thurstan stood in the open doorway, framed by the light, and then anyone could see him.

       "Now!" Reynard hissed. The king darted forward, his shape outlined briefly in the doorway, and then he was gone. "Hurry, boy," Reynard urged, and Thurstan took a deep breath and followed the king inside. Then Reynard joined them, and the door was shut behind him. They were inside. They were safe.

       He must have breathed it aloud, for Reynard gave him a dismissive look. "Of course we're not safe, boy. The hardest part's still to come. If you relax now, you could get us all killed."

       The king tried to smile at him reassuringly, but even he looked distracted and scared to be inside the enemy's stronghold. This time, not even the king could reassure him. Reynard's words echoed in his head. Of course we're not safe, as his feet sounded too loud on the stone floor. Of course we're not safe, as he saw the figure of a motionless man watching him, only to realise that it was a discarded statue, dumped in this room to decay. Of course we're not safe, as they left the storeroom and entered the corridor, where torches blazed and anyone who walked there made footprints in the dust that cried out, "I am here!" Of course we're not safe.

      

 

       They were never far away from people. Sometimes they even heard voices, drifting up from the stable courtyard on the far side. If any of the guards chose to open a door that was not often opened, and enter the dusty storerooms, they would be lost.

       Reynard scouted out every room before he allowed Elias to enter. When the corridor ended, Elias drifted up behind him, and pressed his hands to the large arched door that was their destination. He could feel nobody on the other side, but would he really know? Despite the link he had planted, Julien had been invisible to him when he had been unbolting the door, his thoughts and feelings carefully controlled.

       With an angry grimace, Reynard pushed him away. Sword in hand, he opened the door, one hand thrust behind him in a gesture commanding the others to stay back. A few minutes later he returned, beckoning with his whole arm. They hurried through, and yet another door was closed behind them.

       "Upstairs," Reynard whispered, pointing the dark opening of a spiral staircase on the right. "Rooms downstairs are used. Upstairs isn't."

       They entered the darkness, feeling their way up with their hands. The staircase was cold and musty, but the rooms they emerged into were worse. A door had fallen off its hinges, letting them see the chamber beyond. The storage rooms had been deserted, but at least they had been used. These rooms had been abandoned for years. They felt lonely and sad, and Elias wished he could make them happy again.

       Elias walked over to the window and looked out cautiously, keeping himself hidden. They had rounded the corner and were now in the main citadel buildings, in the upstairs rooms overlooking the garden. A guard was walking the walls from right to left, passing into the light of one torch, then disappearing into the darkness, before appearing in the light of the next one, but Elias could not see Ranulf.

       "They were the guest rooms," he said, as Reynard tugged him away. "That's what Oliver says. But one of them was the seneschal's, and one was the king's. His room wasn't any bigger than the others. I wonder if we'll be able to tell."

       Reynard did not tell him that it didn't matter, that they had to hurry. Reynard was as deeply affected by the Kindred's loss as anyone else. He would be finding it as moving as Elias was, if not more so, to be walking through the halls where his ancestors had once lived, the first of the Kindred to revisit them in five hundred years.

       The next room was the same, and so was the next. In none of them did he see a vision, showing him how things once had been. There were no whispered messages from those who had gone before. Perhaps he was standing even now where kings had slept for a thousand years, but they could not reach over the centuries and talk to him, the last of their line. All that was left of them was an empty room, thick with dust and dank with decay. They were gone and forgotten.

       Broken, something whispered. Waiting. Elias stopped walking. Oblivious to him, Reynard was about to open the next door, but a thin line of yellow showed at the bottom. Please come.

         "No," Elias gasped, hurrying forward. Reynard had already opened the door, revealing a small anteroom with two other doors off it. Reynard tried the one to the right, and it opened into a corridor that stretched away towards the front of the building. At the far end of the corridor, Elias could see tapestries on the walls and a carpet on the floor. Reynard shut the door quickly, swearing under his breath, and tried the other one.

       Come, the voice cried. Something grabbed Elias by the throat, making him gasp. Hurry. He felt dizzy and had to lunge for the wall to stop himself from swaying.

       The door opened, and light flooded in. Reynard dropped to the ground and crawled in, but Elias just walked in after him, unable to stop himself.

       "Back," Reynard urged, flapping his hand. "Back!"

       They were on a gallery, edged with carved wood, that overlooked a great hall. It was the curved hall he had seen from the outside, Elias realised, but its tall windows were draped with heavy crimson velvet, thick enough to stop the glorious torchlight from seeping out. The roof was high and vaulted with vast stone arches, and the floor shone like dark gold, the colour of flame.

       "I saw it," Thurstan whispered from behind him. "It was in my vision. You were there, under that arch. Oliver was... Oliver's not here. So it can't be about to come true, not yet."

       And it never would be. Ciaran had been in Thurstan's vision, but he would never set foot in this hall or anywhere near it, for he was a world away and was never coming back.

       "There's no-one here," Reynard said, grudgingly.

       But there were so many torches, and the velvet curtains looked new. At the far end there was a throne. "On a low pedestal of grey stone," Oliver had said, "full of fossils. It was a simple wooden chair, but the seat was covered with dark blue cloth, the colour of the night sky in summer." The king had sat there during ceremonies where he had to preside, but surely it had never been like this, with gold brocade on the crimson cushions, and a drapery of fur-lined fabric arranged like a canopy above it.

       In the middle of the room there was a metal cage. Elias clutched the wooden railing and leant over so far that he was almost falling. Reynard cried out, but he did not grab Elias back. Instead, he climbed over the railing, lowered himself down so he was dangling, and dropped to the floor below. He landed in a crouch, then was lurching forward, legs skidding on the shiny floor, his movements clumsy in his desperation. As he ran, he pulled out his sword.

       "No!" Elias cried. He threw himself from the gallery, landed painfully, but dragged himself to his feet. But Reynard was already there, in front the cage. His momentum had run out, and he was just standing there, shoulders slumped, sword limp. As Elias stood silently beside him, he raised his left hand and pressed it to the bars, his face naked and yearning.

       "I know," Elias murmured. The yearning was in his mind, too, screaming at him, impossible to resist. He brought his hand up beside Reynard's, not quite close enough to touch, and the two of them stood together for a moment, utterly silent.

       "What is it?" Thurstan landed behind them with a crash, but was on his feet again, unhurt. "Oh," he breathed, as he stood beside them and saw the contents of the cage.

       It was Albacrist, the crystal sword, laid out unsheathed on a red cushion, displayed like a spoil of war behind a wire mesh too small for a man to reach through. Around it were arrayed all manner of jewels and trappings of kingship, but Elias barely saw them. All he saw was Albacrist, its beauty muted as it lay captured and caged.

       "They're beautiful," Thurstan breathed. "Are they...?"

       "No!" Reynard whirled on him, snarling so ferociously that Thurstan recoiled. "They're not ours. We never had jewels like that. They're gaudy pieces of metal. Don't you ever suggest that our king should wear them."

       Thurstan was twisting his hands painfully. "Then why...?"

       His hand still on the bars, Elias wrenched his eyes away from the sword. "Darius had them made," he explained. "Or one of the dukes before him. Maybe to help spread lies about the old kings, by showing the people how decadent they were. Or maybe Darius hopes to make himself king one day, and he's made these for himself."

       Thurstan lowered his eyes. "I wanted..." he began, but then he clapped his mouth shut and didn't say what it was that he had wanted.

       "But the sword is ours," Reynard growled, "and it's coming back with us." He raised his sword and started to smash at the metal bars. The noise was shocking, and the bars were barely dented. With an inhuman growl, Reynard tried again, swinging the sword in both hands. The jolt when it hit the unyielding metal made him cry out in pain, but he kept his grip, pulling the sword back for another attack.

       Thurstan was pleading. "No, it's so loud, they'll hear, stop him, please." He tried to grab Reynard's arm but Reynard shook him off, sending him flying backwards to land heavily on the ground.

       "Reynard." Elias touched Reynard's hand, his own hand closing round the white fists on the sword. "Stop it. Please."

       Reynard dropped the sword, his shoulders slumping as it clattered to the ground. "I can't." His head was lowered, but Elias thought there might be tears in his eyes.

       "I think I can get it out," Elias told him, but Reynard pulled away from his touch and trudged away.

       "Guard the door," Reynard commanded Julien. There was a large door beneath the overhanging gallery, and a smaller one in the corner. "See what's on the other side. See if anyone heard." His voice was weary, and he said nothing about how he had been the one to make such a noise. Everybody knew it, and Reynard didn't believe in wasting time on pointless apologies, when more important things needed to be done.

       Julien opened the larger door and walked through it, closing it behind him. Hurry, the sword begged Elias. Please.

       "I think I can get it out," Elias said, pressing one hand to the dented metal. Albacrist called to him, and the power inside him arced towards it, just as it always had. With Albacrist in his hand, it had once seemed to Elias as if there was nothing he could not do.

       "Then do it," Reynard rasped.

       Elias's fingertips curled round the bars. "It won't be easy. I think it'll be easier because it's Albacrist than it would be for anything else, but it's... It will need pure enchantment, the deeper powers. I can't do it without it hurting. I might be..." He took a deep breath. "I might be too weak to carry on."

       Reynard was rubbing his thumb over the scar on his forearm. "I swore to keep you safe. Never to stand by and let you get hurt."

       Hurry, the sword urged. Incomplete. Broken. Lost. Elias bit back a sob. "But it's Albacrist."

       "Yes," Reynard echoed. "It's Albacrist."

       Oliver had assured Elias that the Kindred could live without it, as long as they had their king, but Elias has never really believed him. He only had to look at Reynard's face to know how far from the truth Oliver's words had been. It was only a symbol, and they could live without it, but it was a symbol of hope, and no-one could live without hope. Elias had to get it back.

       "Will it hurt you badly?" Reynard was asking. "If you can't walk, we can carry you. We'll still be able to get out. But if it hurts you..." He twisted his hands.

       "It won't hurt too badly," Elias lied.

       Reynard stalked up to the cage, pressed his fist against the bars, then walked away. "Do it, then," he snapped, without turning round.

       Elias placed his other hand on the glass, and closed his eyes.

           

 

       There was nothing quiet about it, nothing slow and silent and reverent. One moment the king was standing against the cage, sinking yearningly towards the bars. The next moment, there was white light everywhere, so bright that Thurstan had to shield his eyes.

       The bars simply melted away, burning away to nothing beneath the king's palms. The king cried out and sank to his knees. He plunged his hand through the hole, but the sword was too far away. Moaning, he groped above him and managed to grasp hold of the bars and drag himself upright again, all the while reaching. White light flared again, and the king screamed.

       "I can't watch this," Reynard rasped. He glared at the king as if he hated him, and walked out of the room, to join Julien outside.

       Thurstan was left alone. The king moaned again, but then Thurstan felt something deep inside, like a flickering of light, like hope and beauty in the darkness. It was the Shadow. That's what the king had called it beneath the walls. But the king was enveloped in white light, and that meant enchantment, not Shadow, so maybe Thurstan was wrong and it wasn't the Shadow at all.

       He started forward, but the king was standing a little more easily now, reaching through the hole towards the sword. He hesitated before touching it, but only for a moment. As soon as his hand closed round the hilt, he let out a long breath, and slumped to the floor.

       Should I help him? Thurstan wondered. What if I distract him by touching him? The white sword was glowing now, pulsing deep inside with a whiteness that seemed to contain hints of every colour that existed. Could a normal man even touch that blade, or would he die? Was the light of the sword hurting the king, or easing his pain?

       Very slowly, the king drew his arm back through the bars, bringing the sword with him. Still on his knees, he pressed it to his chest. His hair fell forward, hiding his face, but Thurstan thought he could see tears dripping from his chin.

       Just as Thurstan was about to move towards him, something stabbed in his mind, loud and clashing and urgent. There were no words in it, but his head snapped up, and he cried out. "Reynard!" It stabbed again, and this time it was screaming out danger.

       "My lord!" He wanted to grab the king's arm, but didn't dare touch him, not when he was lost like this. As his hands floated over the king's sleeve, the king stood up, hauling himself up by the edge of the cage. He staggered and slumped back against the metal, but didn't fall. He brought the sword up, radiating white light, and smiled the smile of someone completely lost, not even aware of Thurstan's existence.

       Overcoming his fear, Thurstan took hold of his arm and shook it, his hand passing into the cloud of white light and feeling no pain. He could hear them now, outside the door. Someone was shouting and swords were clashing. With his magic sword in his hand, the king could stride out and save Reynard and Julien, but only if Thurstan awakened him to the danger.

       "It's Reynard," he begged him. "They're fighting. The enemy's here. The door's not even locked. They'll be hear any minute."

       Thurstan! Reynard was screaming in his mind, desperation giving his thoughts words. Is he safe yet?

       Safe? Thurstan thought, but it was only an ordinary thought, and he didn't know how to let Reynard hear it. Nowhere's safe. He said so. And the king was still lost in his white light, smiling but so sad, and he'd still be there when the enemy came through the door, and all Thurstan had to defend him with was a sword he'd never been good at using, and his own body.

       But he would do it, he swore. He might not be anybody much, but he could defend his king, or die trying. There was no-one else left. If he died, at least he was doing his duty, like a true member of the Kindred. He would make Gerhard proud of him.

       Something crashed against the door, and Thurstan spread his arms, readying himself to die.

      

 

       They slipped out through the postern gate, Lankin and his two men. "Not a sound outside," the guards assured him, but Lankin held his breath as he stooped through the dark arch, knowing that the enemy could be waiting on the other side, as silent and patient as the Soldiers of Light, ready to kill anyone who came through.

       No attack came. Through the gate, Lankin straightened up, ready to defend himself, but there was no-one there. His two men, Owen and Francis, took up their places on either side of him, and the gate closed behind them. The hinges were too noisy and the bolt was stiff, and Lankin cringed at the noise, before deciding he was glad of it. No enemy could sneak through this gate without the guards knowing.

       "Follow me," he told his men, beginning to lead them around the curve of the walls. He wasn't quite sure what he was looking for, only that it felt good to be doing the looking. They hugged the wall, alert for the glimmerings of impossible illusions, or armies ranged in the darkness. He looked for doorways blasted in the walls by sorcery, or ropes that dangled from the battlements.

       What they found was a man.

       Lankin's arm shot out, commanding his men to stop, but they had already seen the man, and were shrinking deeper into the shadow of the walls, readying their weapons. They were well trained and did not even whisper. If Lankin gave the sign, they would attack without asking questions. All the new recruits were like that, blindly obedient in a way that Lankin sometimes found a little sad, though he was grateful for it now.

       The man had his back to them. He was standing idle, his hands at his side, sometimes glancing in the direction of the bridge. He was hidden in the shadow of the walls, but the moonlight was bright enough that they could see him, even to his dark hair and the broad sword that hung by his side. That meant that they were just as obvious, if he chose to turn round. Lankin brought the flat of him palm down, sharply signalling his men to drop to the ground, and they obeyed him.

       Who was he? Perhaps he was an innocent citizen, but what innocent man would be skulking around the walls in the middle of the night, armed with a sword far broader than the elegant weapons the city gentlemen wore?

       There was no time to hesitate. Lankin made his decision. They would kill him. If he turned out to be an innocent, then it was regrettable, but the man would be a casualty of war, a martyr to the cause. When men as evil as the sorcerer king stalked to earth, it was wrong to take chances. Lankin had no desire to harm the people under his care, but it would be the height of negligence to let an evil man escape, just because of the faint possibility that he could be someone else.

       Lankin drew his sword, as silent as a whisper. Owen had a light crossbow, but Lankin shook his head at him, telling him to wait. He pressed his mouth to Francis's ear. "Keep low. Stay close to the walls. Take him down. Kill him if you have to," he added, realising that they had a very good reason not to rush into a killing. "Hurt him how you like, but it's better if he's alive for questioning."

       With a nod, Francis wriggled forward. Grass rustled and clothing scraped, and Lankin tensed at each sound, but the wind was in their favour, and the man they were planning to kill was oblivious to the danger. Within seconds, Francis was invisible, his location shown only by the quivering long grass that could have been the wind.  After a while, Lankin had had lost any indication of where Francis was. But if he couldn't see him, he reminded himself, the man couldn't, either.

       Then Francis was there, rising out of the grass, sword flashing in the moonlight, but the man wasn't looking, so it didn't matter at all. The sword came sweeping down, but the man nimbly stepped sideways and avoided the blow, and all without turning round. It was casual, elegant. It was sheer luck, Lankin thought. He still doesn't know.

       Francis halted his downward swing without losing his balance. This time he brought the sword up in both hands, planning to impale the man between the shoulder blades, but the man whirled round, and suddenly there was a sword in his hand. Francis fell, slashed across the stomach, hideously wounded, screaming. His murderer flashed a quick smile in Lankin's direction, moonlight silver on his teeth, then sheathed his sword with a casual disdain, turning his back once again.

       He's playing with us, Lankin thought, and a fierce and burning anger began to fill him. Francis had been so young and devoted, and this man had killed him as if he was nothing, without even seeming to try. Lankin gestured sharply with his hand, giving his command to Owen. "Now. Don't hold back. Make him pay."

       The crossbow twanged, and a bolt shot out, aimed directly at the man's back. The man turned round, but too late. The bolt hit him. It had to have hit him. Right in the chest, and there was no way he could have dodged it, not this time. But he didn't stagger, he didn't falter. With a cold smile, he drew his sword and raised it straight in front of his face like a salute, and that was all.

       "Again." Owen loosed a second bolt, and the man twisted sideways, but who could dodge a crossbow bolt in the dark? It had to have hit him, and then the third one, and the fourth. Owen was unbeaten on the practice ranges,  and the man wasn't even far away. There was no way he could have missed. The man was badly wounded, so why was he still standing, why was he sauntering forward with a predatory sway to his gait? Why?

       It was illusion, Lankin thought. It had to be. Darius had told them all about it. Maybe the sorcerer king had greater powers, but his minions knew only illusion. "I... encountered them," Darius had told Lankin, "when I was young, before I came to the duchy. I have always made it my business to know the enemy. It is my duty, is it not?"       Illusion, Darius said, only had power over those weak-minded enough to believe what they were seeing. A Soldier of Light could not see through a sorcerer's tricks, but he had the strength of mind not be misled by the impossible things he was seeing. In the mountains, Lankin had stood still while his eyes had told him that a man was about to impale him with a spear. "Not real," he had whispered, as every muscle had screamed at him to throw himself out of its path. "Not real," as he saw the spear enter his chest, and even felt a phantom of pain. It had been terrifying, but going through the cliff had been worse, when every sense had told him that he was encased in solid rock.

       "It's not true," Lankin breathed, as the man still approached them, even though he must have been mortally wounded. The man had fallen, he told himself. He was even now slumped dying on the ground, but he had created this illusion of an unwounded man, who just kept on walking forward, even as the bolts struck him. It was the only explanation. No man could be so nimble as to dodge crossbow bolts in the dark. No man could be so strong as to keep on walking tall, even when wounded.

       Well, Lankin would show the man what was it was like to meet a Soldier of Light in battle. He would charge at the illusionary man, and laugh as his pretended sword pierced his stomach. Then, as he had done in the mountains, he would fall on the real enemy who lurked behind the illusion. He would show him. He would kill him. He would kill the man who had murdered Francis. Every little treacherous doubt would be avenged on the body of this minion of the enemy.

       "Forward!" he cried, and threw himself on the false sword, the deadly weapon that wasn't really there. But it hurt, it hurt horrendously. He smashed into a body, and the body felt real. As he slumped to the ground, the man wrenched the weapon out, and Lankin screamed.

       Not real! he thought. It can't be real! His mind was weak, believing the pain, tricked into thinking the wound was real, but it wasn't. If only he could stand... He scrabbled with his hands, trying to get up, trying to find the real enemy that lay beyond. But there was blood on the man's face, and a metal bolt was protruding from his shoulder, and the muscles round his eyes were tight with pain. He looked like a real man, a badly wounded man, who had not even flinched when he had been shot. This shouldn't be happening, he thought. How could one man be so strong?

       The last thing Lankin saw was the man looking down on him, blood trickling from his mouth. But he was smiling. "You're not real," Lankin whispered, but the man was still smiling. He was still smiling as he stepped over Lankin's body, and still smiling, Lankin thought, when he killed Owen. "We've lost," Lankin breathed, as the pain surged to fill the whole world, and the terrible smile of his murderer chased him into the gibbering darkness.


Chapter eight

A place of the dead

      

 

       Not even Albacrist made a difference to him. Incomplete, the sword still mourned. Broken. Not whole.

       The sword had not rejected him. It still shone for him, forgiving him for leaving it in Darius's hands. It shone, as if he was a proper king who could use enchantment without pain, and had never walked away from people who needed him. It shone in his hands, but something was still wrong with him, and he was still incomplete.

       Maybe it would hurt forever. He had found the Shadow, but enchantment still hurt him. He had found Albacrist, but enchantment still hurt him. Nothing could heal him. Nothing would ever be right.

       All he had was the faintest glimmer of hope. When the pain had been at its worst, when he had thought he would never be able to reach the sword, something had happened, and the pain had eased. He was weak now, but less weak than he should have been. He had to cling to something for support, but he was still standing.

       He opened his eyes. Sight and sound slowly returned to him, and he realised that he was holding onto the metal bars of the cage. Someone was shouting outside. Thurstan was standing with his arms spread out, as if he was shielding someone with his own body. Me, Elias thought stupidly. He's protecting me.

       He willed the seething colours of the sword to still, and silenced its voice in his mind. The white light drained from his eyes and he became aware of the world outside the sword blade.

       "Reynard!" he gasped.

       Thurstan turned an anguished face towards him. "I thought you were..."       There was pain outside the door, and someone had already died. Elias tried to find Reynard and Julien, but neither of them answered his call. I made the links too faint, he thought. Amalric's reaction had made him shrink from touching their minds, and he had made them as faint as could be. Had Reynard been screaming to him for help, trusting in the link his king had established, never realising that nobody could hear?

       "They've been fighting for a few minutes." Thurstan sounded less afraid than he had sounded since entering the citadel. "Someone fell against the door, but no-one's come in."

       "We must..." Elias's voice was scratchy. He swallowed and tried again, desperately willing himself to find the strength to walk. "We have to..."

       The door opened, and he never finished what he had been going to say. Thurstan pressed himself back against Elias, still protecting him, and Elias raised his hand to protect Thurstan, as a blood-stained sword thrust through the narrow opening, followed by a black-clad arm. The man peered through the gap, then, satisfied, opened the door fully and slipped through, sword held aggressively in front of him. 

       It was Reynard. From Thurstan's sigh of relief, he had been as slow to recognise him as Elias has been. Reynard's hands were steeped in blood to the wrist, and his eyes were wild and staring.

       "You haven't gone?" he said. He gave a sharp nod when he saw the sword in Elias's hand, then turned back to the door, sheathing his sword without wiping it clean. "Help me, boy," he commanded, as he went outside again.

       Thurstan teetered forward, then stopped. Reynard returned dragging a body by its feet. The man's hand trailed behind his body like a drowning man pleading for life, but it was already too late for him.

       "There's more," Reynard said. "We have to hide them. More patrols will come."

       Thurstan glanced back over his shoulder, seeking Elias's approval. Sickened, Elias gave a tiny nod, too weary to do anything else.

       Reynard returned with another one, freshly dead, smothered by Reynard in the hallway while Elias had just stood there and thought dark thoughts. "Don't," Elias managed to say, "kill anyone else," but Reynard wasn't listening.

       Thurstan pressed his hand to his mouth. "What shall I...?"

       "Clean up the blood," Reynard commanded him.

       Elias found the strength to walk forward. There was blood everywhere in the hall. Reynard was dragging away a third man, and Elias found Julien, lying face down, a pool of blood beneath his mouth. Elias touched his throat, but he was dead. Dead, and the last thing he had done had been to displease his commander. He had died before he could win his approval again.

       Still carrying Albacrist, Elias slid his other arm under Julien's body, but there was no way he could carry him. He tore his sword from his scabbard and sheathed Albacrist in its place, then laid the useless sword on the tiled floor. He lost his grip on Julien several times, but managed to raise him up. When his legs gave way, he just crawled, hugging Julien close as he eased him painfully into the great hall.

       "Help him," Reynard growled.

       Thurstan looked up from where he had been scouring at the blood with a corner of his cloak. "My lord..."

       "It's Julien," Elias told him. He pulled the dead man close, so Julien's head lolled on his shoulder.

       "Julien?" Thurstan shuffled over to his side, his face white and his eyes haunted.       Reynard was bringing in another body. The man was large, and his heels caught on the threshold. When he suddenly came free, Reynard almost fell, the two of them tumbling together to the floor. "The blood!" Reynard screamed at Thurstan.

       Thurstan clawed his way out of his cloak, and swept it in broad circles across the floor, smearing the blood and making it worse. With a sob, he rubbed fiercely at a small patch with his fingertip, then looked up, biting his lip. Without a word, Reynard ripped the jacket from one of the dead soldiers and thrust it towards him. This time, when Thurstan rubbed the cloth over the smeared blood, it came up clean.

       Elias laid Julien on his back, folding his hands on his chest. Reynard was dumping the dead soldiers as if they were things that had been scrumpled up and cast aside. As soon as Julien was at peace, Elias would make the dead soldiers lie easily.

       Reynard shut the door and bolted it. "Clean outside," he said. "No sign of anyone else, yet. But they'll be missed." He nodded at the dead men. "And I think someone heard. I think I heard someone shouting from the end of the corridor.

       "But we're safe now?" Thurstan asked. He looked at his hands, as stained with blood as Reynard's were. "The blood's all gone?"

       Reynard strode towards the second door, half the size of the large one. He tried it, but it was locked. The gallery was above them, but they could not climb back up again, not without ropes. Any of Darius's soldiers who approached from above, though, could jump down as easily as they had done themselves.

       "They came out of the panels," Reynard said. "Wooden panels. A false wall. A guard post, completely concealed, guarding the entrance to Darius's throne room. Julien didn't have a chance." He knelt down beside his body. "He fought well." Then he sank even further forward, and fell onto Julien's body and his eyes slipped shut.

       Thurstan was the first to touch him, and it felt like a very long time later. When his fingers left Reynard's throat, they were dripping with blood. "He's dead," he breathed. 

       "Dead?" Elias echoed. "He can't be." Reynard was as strong and durable as the towers of the citadel. He had always been there, striding and confident, right from the very start, and he would be there at the end.

       "We're the only ones left." Thurstan's was staring with horror at the blood on his hands. "Just us."

       Elias had seen Reynard's death in a vision, but visions were only possibilities, and they only came true if he made the wrong choices. He had known that some of them might die if he brought them all into the citadel, but it hadn't been real then, blood and cold skin and lifeless eyes. Reynard couldn’t die!

       "He didn't even look wounded," Thurstan said. "What happened?"

       Elias was pawing at Reynard's throat, fingers sliding in the blood. The wound was easy to find, gouging through his chest and into his throat. It would have felled a lesser man on the spot, but Reynard had kept going until the blood was gone and the door was locked and his king was as safe as he could make him. If he had stopped earlier, Elias could have healed him, but he was too loyal for that. His loyalty had killed him.

       "Are they going to come back?" Thurstan looked with dread at the locked door.

       We should go, Elias thought. Two ways out were blocked, but there was still that third locked door, and doors could yield to magic if he had the strength to wield it. They could tear down the curtains and make them into ropes. They could hide on either side of the door and try to creep out when the enemy burst through. They could call out to Ranulf and hope he understood. For the two of them, there was still hope, but for Reynard and Julien there would never be hope again.

       Tears were trickling down Thurstan's face, carving a white line in the blood that stained his cheeks. "I didn't think I liked him," he whispered, "but I wish he wasn't dead."

       "So do I." Elias's voice sounded rusty, and he still hadn't moved from Reynard's body. Reynard would never be a friend, not like Oliver was, but there was depth to him that few people realised. He passionately cared for the safety of his people, and he held the enchantment in an awe that was almost child-like. He had loved once, and been betrayed, and it had hurt him more than he would ever admit. Elias, too, had hurt him deeply when he had forced Reynard to stand back and do nothing as his king get hurt. And now he had killed him.

       Thurstan stood up, wiping his tears away. "Is there anywhere we can go? We can't stay here. Or can we? Can we fight them when they come?"

       Elias just sank forward over Reynard's body. Thurstan was learning how to conquer his fears, all alone, without help, and Elias knew that he should do the same. He had come here knowing that people might die, and this was the test. But it was Reynard! Reynard had always been there. Reynard couldn't die!

       He scooped up Reynard's body and closed his eyes. I won't let you die, he swore. Julien was beyond his reach, dead for too long, but Reynard had only just died. Nobody could raise the dead, but a spirit was slow to leave a cooling body. If he acted quickly, perhaps he could bring Reynard back before his spirit departed forever. He had to try. He had to.

       White fire engulfed him, and he hurled himself ever deeper into the flames, heedless of the pain. Thurstan cried out, but his voice seemed shockingly far away, as if Elias had travelled somewhere where reality was only a distant memory. "Reynard!" he called. "I've come for you, Reynard. Come back!"

       He found him almost immediately, sauntering over a bridge made of white fire. On the far side of the bridge, the path divided, one path ending in a shining white door, and the other in grey shadows where figures moved. The door was true death, Elias knew, and beyond it lay peace and joy and eternity. Those who died accepting their death found the door easily, but those who died tormented and resisting it could not find it, and stayed on the earth as spirits, clinging to the place they had last lived.

       He called to Reynard again, and this time Reynard heard him. "What are you doing here," he gasped, turning round and staring at Elias in horror. "Go back!"

       Elias took another step forward, and it was like wading through flames, though Reynard was standing there easily, as if the white fire was gentle water lapping around his ankles. Elias reached out his hand. "Come back."

       "No." Reynard turned round and started to walk away. He was half way over the bridge, getting closer to the place where the path divided. When he reached that point, Elias knew, he was truly dead and nothing could call him back.

       Elias dragged himself forward another step, and fell to his knees screaming. The white fire around him turned orange, and suddenly he knew this place. He had suffered here in a dream long before, when he had been dying of fever. Beneath him was that endlessly repeating stone with a crack in its corner, though this time it was shiny amber like the floor of the great hall. On both sides, the path was flanked with flames that bowed their heads towards him and touched him and hurt him.

       Reynard whirled round, grabbed by Elias's screams. "Please, my lord," my moaned. "Please don't do this."

       "Come back," Elias forced out. Flames licked his skin, and the "please" was screamed. "I don't want you to die," he whispered. "You don't have to."

       Reynard tried to run towards him, to pick him up and pluck him from the flames and throw him back into life, but the white bridge rose up like a wall, stopping him. The only way he could come back would be if Elias forced himself on through the flames and brought him back himself. Reynard couldn't do it by himself.

       On his hands and knees, Elias started to crawl, flames feeding greedily on his wrists, heat surging through his veins and hurting worse than anything he had ever felt outside a dream. Inch by inch, Reynard grew closer.

       "Please." Reynard never once stopped his pleading. "I don't want to stay alive. Not like this. It's not worth it. I'm not worth it."

       You are. But Elias's lips were burned away and he couldn't even speak.

       "Go back," Reynard begged him. "Don't do this. Don't leave Thurstan all alone. Don't leave my people without a king. Don't throw everything away just for me."

       Just for a moment, Elias faltered. I'm not, he whispered. It's worth it. It hurts, but I won't die. I wouldn't do that to them.

       "But you're wrong!" Reynard screamed. "You've come too far already. You'll never get back now. I didn't want this. You shouldn't have done it."

       His blood like molten fire, Elias crawled forward and collapsed at Reynard's feet. Everything around him was orange and black, cruel flames devouring him, but Reynard was still standing in his place of placid white. It's because I'm alive, Elias realised, where only the dead are supposed to be. Even the enchantment had turned against him, trying with pain to drive him back. The dead were not supposed to be brought back. Death was not to be idly fought, and never without sacrifice.

       "Please." Elias managed a faint whisper, like ash. "I've opened the way. Go back now. Please."

       Reynard fell to his knees. "And leave you here, my lord?" He was openly crying, he who never cried. Even his face was different here, younger and unscarred. He wore his emotions on his face as clearly as if they were painted there. "I can't do that."

       "I'll come back," Elias assured him. "I need to stay here to hold the path open for you, but when you're back, I'll come. I'll be weak, but I haven't died. I haven't died for you, Reynard."

       "Weak." Reynard bit his lip, his thoughts plain on his face. Weak, perhaps unconscious, his body defenceless and in need of protection. Weak, and Reynard could save his life, if he went back. "You'll be able to come back, if I go on ahead?"

       "I will," Elias promised. His head sank forward.

       Reynard pulled him into a brief hug, and for the faintest moment the flames eased, soothed by the cool white fire of rightful enchantment. "Things seem different here," Reynard whispered, his voice slightly wistful, "but they'll change again when I go back." Without explaining what he meant, he released Elias and walked away, back down the path that Elias had opened for him. Elias tried to watch him go, but the flames surged around him gleefully and claimed him. He tried to stand, but could not.

       As the flames surged around him, he knew that he had been wrong, that he had lied without meaning to, that he couldn't find the way back, not at all. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I'm so sorry." He was a living man but he had deliberately walked to a place where only the dead should go, and now he would pay the price. The flames consumed him, trapping him in the place of fire and agony that was death.

 

 

        Someone tried the door on the other side. "Locked," they said, "and from the inside."

       Thurstan tiptoed to the door, but stopped just short of it. "No sign of the guards," another voice said, sounding very close, though muffled by the wood.

       "No, look, there's blood! There, between the cracks in the tiles."

       The voices suddenly turned to whispers. Thurstan pressed his ear to the door, and heard they say something about an axe. He leapt back with a gasp, expecting to see the weapon crashing through the door where his face was, but nothing happened.

       Footsteps hurried away, but only one set. At least one man was still there, still watching the door, still listening. And Thurstan hadn't cleaned the blood up properly. He'd missed a bit. If he'd done it better, the soldiers might have gone away without suspecting anything.

       He crept back to the king's side, but the king was just lying there, slumped on his back with Reynard sprawled on top of him. Wisps of white fire shimmered across his skin. Thurstan reached out a trembling fingers and touched his cheek. The skin was burning hot, though the white fire felt nice and cool.

       "My lord?" He said it as loud as he dared with the soldiers outside, but he yelped when Reynard's eyes snapped open. "You're dead," Thurstan croaked. "I mean, we thought you were dead."

       "I was." Reynard lifted the king's arm and extracted himself from his embrace. He sat up, but he looked terrible, as if he really was dead, a walking corpse risen from the grave.

       "There's someone outside," Thurstan told him. "I don't know what's wrong with the king. I thought I was all alone. I thought I had to..." He heaved a shuddering sigh. It didn't depend on him any more. Reynard was back, and he would know what do to.

       "Help me," Reynard commanded. "Get me some clothes from one of them." He meant the dead soldiers, the ones Thurstan had been trying so hard not to look at. "I need bandages. He might have brought me back, but I'm not healed."

       "He brought you back?" The king was still lying there unconscious, bathed in flickering fire. "So why...?"

       "He'll come back, too," Reynard snapped. "Now get me bandages. I refuse to die again."

       Thurstan fought the urge to laugh, a high laugh that would have been closer to tears. He closed his eyes as he tugged at a dead man's clothes. Blood smeared on the floor and he wiped at it, trying to clean it up. He hadn't done it well enough last time.

       "Hurry," Reynard hissed. He was sitting down, head lolling, face deathly pale. "Tear them," he commanded, when Thurstan mutely held up the clothes.

       Thurstan tore them into strips, wrenching at them with his teeth, then using his knife when Reynard glared at him. Still the king didn't wake up. No-one started to hack down the door, but he knew they were still there. His fingers fumbled. Reynard didn't move, not even to drag himself towards Thurstan to show him what he was doing wrong.

       "Can you do anything?" There was something almost shy in Reynard's urgent voice. "I heard what he said, about how you can use the Shadow of his. I once saw Ciaran Morgan stop a wound from bleeding. Can you do that?" He raised his head, and his eyes were burning. "If you don't, he will, and it will hurt him again, and I couldn’t bear that."

       Thurstan shook his head stupidly. "I don't know what you mean. I can't do anything." He crawled to Reynard's side, and Reynard snatched the bandages from his hands, and both the shyness and the pained admission were gone. 

       "He'll find his way back," Reynard said, as he pressed a wad of cloth to his wound, showing no more sign of pain than a slight hitch in his breathing. "And I'm going to be ready to help him when that happens."

       "Where is he?" Thurstan watched the king, who lay so still, barely breathing.

       "Where the dead go," Reynard said, "but he'll come back. Of course he will."

       "Why is he here?" someone was wondering. "He's alive."

       A hand brushed against Elias's cheek. "He's been dying for a long time, though. Can't you feel it? Dying from an old wound."

       "Yes," they all breathed, and something else joined in. "Incomplete. Broken."

       While the voices spoke, other figures surged around him, glided over him with oblivious feet, and vanished. Some went through the white door, and some went into the whispering shadows. They were all the people in all the world who were dying at just this moment, he realised. None of them could see him. Even Reynard had been deaf to him at first, until he had called for a second time.

       He hoped Reynard was safely back, and that he and Thurstan were finding a safe way out. At least they would have Albacrist to take back to the Kindred, even if their king was lost. Elias tried to peer down the fiery avenue to see them, but he could not.

       "At least we were whole when we died," the voices said. "We did our best. He could have been so much more, but he died because he wouldn't be."

       "But you know who he is?" so many of them whispered. He imagined them gathering around him in a circle, like children looking down on the dying worm at their feet. "He was the one who was supposed to save our children. He was their hope, and now he is dead."

       No! Elias sobbed. He couldn't die, not with the world in such danger. He had to go back, but it hurt so much, and his body was burnt away, no lungs to breathe with and no knees left to crawl. He had to, but he couldn't, because he was incomplete, and had been for months. Neither the Shadow nor Albacrist had made him whole. I need Ciaran, he sobbed, but even as he said it, he knew that wasn't it, either. He missed Ciaran terribly, and his decision to send him away had almost destroyed him, but he was no longer a child. He didn't need another person to be complete inside. Even if Ciaran came back this instant, Elias would still not be healed.

       I don't know what to do, he sobbed. I want to be whole, but I don't know how.

       "He cannot survive much longer," they said, "not like this." He thought they meant the surging flames that were burning him to ashes, but maybe they were talking about his life in the world outside, and the path he had taken. Even if he escaped the flames, perhaps he was still going to die, because he was broken.

       The flames began to fade, their orange turning soft and white at the edges. It was because he was nearly dead. Soon he would no longer be an intruder in a place of the dead, but a rightful denizen. Then there would be no going back.

       The whispering dead were silent. No-one could help him but himself. "I want to live!" he screamed, and he used everything he had, enchantment and Shadow, all the desperation he had turned to helping others, and the pain that had driven him for so long. "I want to live!"

       And the powers responded. Enchantment flared, burning him, but there was also the Shadow, soothing and placid. He was in his Garden, walking the smooth sands, but the door of the tower had been flung wide open. White enchantment suffused the beach and changed it forever, and the blue sky and soft sunlight filled the tower. Shadow and enchantment merged inside him, and would never be parted. In times of gentle reflection, he would be able to find the enchantment, and the Shadow would not be denied to him even when he was desperate.

       The flames still burnt him, for he was still a living man in a place where no living man should be, but he was able to stand and able to walk, and now the way back was clear.

       He was whole, and enchantment would never hurt him again. He had been incomplete for so long, denying a power that was part of himself, believing that the two powers had to be kept apart. He had been like a warrior going into battle with a gaping wound and a broken sword, and of course he had fallen, but now he was healed, and whole.

       With his head high, singing inside, he walked back to the land of the living, and the flames faded with every step. He felt as if there was nothing that he could not do.

      

 

       They started to knock down the door, smashing at it with their feet and the ends of their pikes. They were impatient, not waiting for the axe to come. The door strained against the bolt, but held.

       "He's not going to wake up in time," Thurstan whispered. "They're coming in."

       Reynard smashed one fist into his other hand. "I shouldn't have believed him. He promised, but since when did that mean anything to him? Of course he hasn't changed. Idiot!" He smashed his fist again.

       Thurstan looked up at the gallery, then at the small locked door. Perhaps he could haul at the handle and break the lock. Perhaps they could open the big door and all the soldiers would fall inside in a great big heap, and they'd be able to slip away before the soldiers sorted themselves out.

       "Pick him up," Reynard commanded. "I can't." He drew his sword. "I'll hold them off as well as I can."

       Thurstan reached for the king and recoiled as he touched his skin. "He's cool!" As he spoke, the king's eyes opened and he moaned, his hand coming up to his head.

       Reynard rounded on him. "So you found your way back. What lucky chance caused that, I wonder?"

       The king's skin was translucent and he looked as weak as Reynard was. "It was harder than I thought," he whispered, "but I found the way. I didn't lie to you, Reynard, not knowingly. And I'm whole again. Enchantment won't hurt me again. I'm stronger than ever."

       "Doesn't look like it," Reynard grunted. They smashed at the door again, louder than ever, and the king raised a weary head to look at it. "Any ideas?" Reynard asked him.

       The king brought his hand up, reaching for Reynard's arm. "It's true. It hurt badly before I found out how to stop it, and my body's still weak from that. It'll take a while to recover. But fresh enchantment won't hurt, so let me heal you. Just to stop you bleeding and make you forget the pain. You need it, and so do we. We need every weapon we've got."

       They smashed again, and the door trembled. "It won't hurt you, my lord? Really?" Reynard kept glancing at the door, where soldiers would burst through any minute, and he was barely strong enough to stand, bleeding heavily from a wound that had already killed him.

       "No." The king shook his head. "I promise."

       "I didn't want you to," Reynard said. "You didn't ask. It was wrong. I saw how much it hurt you." He brought his fist around, stopping just short from hitting the king. "I could hate you, you know."

       "I know," the king said, "and I would deserve it. But I don't regret it. If I hadn't... gone there, I would still be maimed. And it brought you back. I couldn't let you die, Reynard."

       Reynard turned away with a growl, but Thurstan thought he saw dampness shining in his eyes.

       "We haven't got time," the king said. He looked serene, glowing from the inside with a new power, and happy despite the enemy pounding at the door. "Hate me if you want to, but let me heal you. Then we'll face what we have to face."

       Reynard knelt and offered his throat to the king. The king touched the wound, and something flickered, but far fainter than the white fires Thurstan had seen issue from his hands before. Something stirred inside Thurstan's head, but it was different from how it had been beneath the walls, when it had seemed beautiful and familiar, like something he had known long ago and forgotten. This was only an echo of that feeling, and far more strange.

       Frowning, Thurstan touched his brow, but the feeling slipped away and he could not recapture it. Reynard was already standing up, taking up his sword. The king was slower to stand up, and he stumbled as he did so. His eyes slipped shut.

       As an axe head smashed through the large wooden door. A few more blows like that, and the enemy would be through, and it would all be over. Reynard was readying himself to fight, and the king was lost in a dream. Thurstan lurched to the small door beneath the gallery and rattled its handle, but it was locked. There was nothing left to do but face the enemy, and die.

 

      

       Elias had come back to the land of the living, but the dead had followed him. This hall, with its amber floor and its quartz-flecked throne, was as much a place of the dead as the burning bridge had been.

       The Kindred had died here. Five hundred years ago, they had been trapped here and murdered by people they had served devotedly for generations. With a death so unfair and unexpected, how could they be expected to find the shining door and pass through it in peace? And so they had lingered here in their hundreds, clinging together for comfort, not wanting to leave the halls of their home or the people they had lived and died with.

       For five hundred years, no-one had seen them. With every year, they had grown a little more faint, until not even Elias had been able to see them when he had first entered, with his mind closed to half his power. Now he saw them as clearly as if they had only just died, and they saw him.

       They weren't ghosts, the spirits of the dead. They spoke not in real words, only wisps of thoughts that Elias could tell the meaning of. They had no physical form, though sometimes he caught a glimpse in his mind of the memory of a face. He thought they had little sense of time. The dead in the ruin in Greenslade had thought they had been betrayed just yesterday, and still expected their lord to come. It was better that way. To think of them waiting for five hundred years, aware of the passing of every day, would be too terrible to bear.

       It was bad enough. As he raised himself to his feet after healing Reynard, Elias saw them for the first time, like forms stepping out of a grey mist.

       "Grant us peace," they pleaded, plucking at his clothes.

       "I will," he promised, speaking to them in his mind, not aloud. "Take what you need from me. Do it now."

       But the enemy soldiers were nearly upon them, and the dead were agitated and afraid for him. "Not yet," they urged him. "Save yourself first. We can wait."

       "And just by being here, you give us peace," an older voice said, stronger than the others. "You are more powerful than the great kings of old, now you are whole. Just by living, you give us hope. And you need not offer yourself up to us. When all our children are safe, the door will open for us and we will find our own way home."

       "I'll keep them safe", he swore. "I will make that happen, I promise."

       "But you will die without our help," they told him. "You have given too much. They are coming for you, and you cannot stop them. We cannot fight for you, for the dead cannot harm the living, but we will show you the way."

       Like a wave, they surged and parted, showing him the locked door. "There," they told him. The axe smashed at the large door, and he realised that the whole exchange with the dead had taken no longer than a breath. Reynard was preparing to fight, and Thurstan was clinging to the door.

       Like motes of shining dust, the dead brushed their hands over Reynard and Thurstan, but neither of them gave as much as a shiver. "They are our children," the dead said, "and we are proud of them. They are brave in their different ways. Tell them."

       "I know," Elias said, and "I will." But the axe was through the door, and there was no more time. He raised his hands and the padlock on the door simply fell away, opened by the new and amazing merging of enchantment and Shadow that left few things impossible.

       "Come with me," he said aloud, and Reynard and Thurstan obeyed. Once through the door, he picked up the padlock and clicked it back into place. They were in utter darkness, and they were not alone.

      

 

       Darkness surrounded them like a blanket. "Where are we?" Thurstan breathed.

       "Stairs going down," the king said. "Be careful."

       There was a huge crash from the hall they had just left, and men bellowing. A moment later, someone screamed.

       "It leads to the old cellars," the king told him, as if nothing was wrong at all. "They had ceremonies in the great hall, and ceremonies need food and drink, so they had a direct route to the storerooms."

       Someone screamed again, even louder, and Thurstan gasped and clung to the king's arm. It was so dark! Anything could be in here, smirking in the darkness as they crouched at the bottom of the stairs, ready to catch him in their arms when he fell.

       "The Kindred died here," the king whispered. "They fled this way. Something of them still remains. I think some of them are strong enough that they can... appear, in a way. Enough to terrify men who are already afraid of the dark sorcerers who have infiltrated their fortress."

       "They're killing them?" Thurstan asked.

       "No." The king moved down a step, and Thurstan moved with him. "But delaying them, perhaps. Distracting them. Making them think we're still in there, hiding with magic." He took another step.

       "You said they tried to escape this way." Reynard's voice came from at least a dozen steps further down. "Are they here? Can you see them?"

       "They're here," the king said. "Here, on every step. They kept on turning to fight, so the others would have a chance to get away. They can see you. They said they were very proud of you, their children."

       They walked on, and the noises from the hall grew fainter. But the dead were still there. Were they pawing at him in the darkness, feeling his face, slavering over him? Thurstan wanted to scream and claw at the air around him, shouting at them to go away, to get off him. It was so very dark!

       The stairs ended, and the floor was flat, their way mostly unimpeded. It smelled cold and damp, like a coffin shut up for centuries. Something scratched in the darkness ahead of him, and the king told him it was a rat, but Thurstan wasn't so sure.

       The king stumbled, grabbing onto Thurstan's arm to stay upright. His feet were dragging audibly with every step, and he was so exhausted he could barely walk, for all that he was talking so calmly. Reynard was little better, tripping on more things than he ought to have done, and pausing every now and them to stand still, breathing fast. Thurstan was the only one who was unhurt, but how could he lead them?

       Far ahead, he saw a faint glow of yellow. Suddenly the darkness didn't seem so scary after all. A light meant the enemy was near, waiting for them. At least in the darkness they were alone.

       "The old storerooms are now the prisons," the king whispered, holding him back with a hand on his arm. "There's more than one way out of the cellars to outside, and more than one to inside, too. We might be able to get out through an unguarded way and escape. Or," he said, after a pause, "we can carry on this way and find the prisons."

       "And find Gerhard?" Thurstan's throat started to hurt, as if one of the dead was throttling him.

       "I say go on," Reynard said. "Nowhere's safe. The alarm's been raised. Let's hope all the guards are rushing to the throne room, and the prison's left unguarded."

       The king said nothing, just continued walking towards the light. But the hand that gripped Thurstan's arm seemed to tremble a bit more, and he stumbled once so badly that he crashed into Thurstan and nearly made him fall.

       They passed a passageway to the right, where the air seemed a little colder. Outside, Thurstan thought. Safety. The light ahead grew brighter, and then they rounded a corner and found a door. The light was a small candle set in a bracket beside it. The king touched the door, and his eyes slid shut. "The prisons," he murmured.

       What was he feeling, Thurstan wondered. He knew that the king had been confined for a little while in these cells, but nothing could hurt the king too badly. He had escaped all by himself. He wasn't like Gerhard, locked away for so long without hope of escape, enduring all manner of torments.

       Thurstan tugged at his arm. "Is he there? Can you feel him?"

       "Someone's there," the king said. "They're hurting. But there's only one. I don't think there are many guards."

       Reynard grinned. "They're still in the hall. I was right." He tried the door. It was locked, but that was no barrier to the king. "Let's go. Quick in, quick out."

       "Yes." The king sighed. Caught in the candlelight, he looked as terrified as Thurstan had felt in the darkness on the stairs, but now Thurstan was ready and eager to go, for Gerhard was alive, and there was no guards, and Reynard was smiling, and they really could win this and come out alive.

      

 

       They had led him through that door there, on the end. They had walked him past a low row of cells, through a guard room, and thrown him in a cell at the far end. He had waited in the darkness awhile, and then Darius had come and...

       Elias scraped his hands over his face, trying to gouge away the terror of memory. Beside him, Thurstan was eager and nervous, and Reynard was cautious, hopeful but not letting his hope make him careless.

       They walked silently into the prison. Reynard licked his fingers and reached up to snuff out the candle that burned inside the door. It made little difference to the light, for the candle was still burning behind them, through the open door. Slowly, Reynard closed the door, easing the darkness in gradually, but it was nowhere near dark enough to hide them, and there were people talking not far away.

       If he used an illusion of darkness, then they would be hidden, hidden forever, and no-one could find them. He raised his hands, ready to do it, but, no, it wasn't safe. That's what they'd decided. He could have used illusion many times before, but hadn't.

When everything was lost, and there was no further need of concealment and no hope but a desperate one, he would use it, but not before.

       Reynard tested the sharpness of his sword. Thurstan chewed his lip. Elias looked around and tried to see the prison as a king would see it, engaged in an important rescue mission. He saw how the prison block consisted of one long corridor, with cells on both sides. The corridor ended in a guardroom, but an identical corridor continued on the far side. The only irregularity was the place they were standing, where a small passageway led off where a cell should be. If they walked forward a few steps, they would emerge half way between the central guard room and the main entrance, caught between two lots of guards.

       There was no sound of pacing footsteps. The talk was a low mumble, but then one guard clearly said, "You win," and there was the sound of money changing hands, and cards being shuffled.

       Thurstan let out a breath. Reynard slithered forward, glanced round the corner, then slipped back. "Only two of them," he mouthed. "They're not looking." It was dark, for the prisoners were denied even the comfort of light. The guards were playing cards by the light of a single candle. There was not even a light at the main entrance, and Elias realised that the guards had to be outside. No-one escaped Darius's cells, so they needed no guards on the inside.

       Why was there only one prisoners here? There was a lot of old pain in the prison cells, but little new. Perhaps Darius had given up keeping prisoners, and just killed them on the spot. But why? Darius had seemed to enjoy dishing out lengthy torments, and didn't seem like a man who would like a swift death.

       Maybe the real prison had gone elsewhere. It seemed as if Darius was trying to turn the citadel back into a palace. Maybe there was a new building somewhere in the city where the prisoners went, and these prisons would end up as storage cellars again. But, if that was so, why was there still one prisoner here?

       He wanted to creep back, back through the door, and far away. It was a trap. No-one escaped Darius. You just walked through his door, so full of hope, and he smiled as everything came crashing down. The more you hoped, the more he liked it, since you had further to fall. He was the sort of man who would dangle a single prisoner before you as bait, and make you hopeful by removing the guards, and lurk in the shadows, grinning, as he prepared to leap out and trample all hope under foot.

       But Thurstan was leaning forward, desperately hoping that Gerhard was only yards away, and alive. Reynard was creeping back to the corner, ready to kill the guards who were easy prey, wrapped up in their game. Behind him pressed the dead, all of whom had died covering the escape of someone else. How could Elias run now?

       Reynard looked questioningly at Elias, asking his permission to kill. Not too long ago, he would have done it without even asking. If Elias said no, perhaps he would do it anyway, but at least he asked. Elias shook his head. Reynard had killed already tonight, and maybe those deaths had been unavoidable, done in self-defence, but this would be murder.

       Elias tiptoed forward, towards the corridor that Darius had walked, with sharp things in his cold soft hands. If he crept up behind the guards, he could touch them and put them to sleep, and it would be gentle and it wouldn't hurt. But he could hardly walk, not without stumbling, and if they heard him they would call out and Darius would come. Even if they didn't, he would still be killing them, for death would be their punishment for sleeping at their posts, letting a prisoner escape.

       A hand fell on his shoulder and pulled him back. "No," Reynard mouthed. His face showed that he was accepting no argument. "I will do it."

       Before Elias could say a word to pull him back, he threw himself down the corridor, and felled both guards before they could even draw their weapons. The cards scattered, and blood spattered on the faces of the kings and queens.

      

 

       The guards had fallen. One was dead, but the other was still alive. "No," the king gasped, when Reynard tried to finish him off. He touched the wounded man and his cries ceased as his eyes slid shut.

       "I'm sorry," Reynard was saying. Then he raised his chin. "No, I'm not sorry. It was the only way."

       The king was slumped on the ground between the two guards, kneeling on the scattered cards. He looked utterly shattered.

       "But it was me," Reynard said. "I took the decision from you. You couldn't stop me. I killed them, not you."

       "I said no," the king whispered.

       "So did I, in that place," said Reynard, equally quietly. "And you still carried on, though I didn't want you to. You said you knew what was best. And so did I, this time. The situation is too dangerous to be soft. They're soldiers. Dying is a risk they take."

       The king struggled to stand up. "But I wish you didn't like it so much."

       And he was right, Thurstan realised. Reynard had killed the guards for the reasons that he had said, but he had also enjoyed it. He had wielded his sword, and shown that he was alive again. He had struck a blow against the people who had killed his forefathers. He had shed the enemy's blood right in the midst of their own  fortress. He had killed the men who had been guarding Gerhard. I would have enjoyed it, too, Thurstan thought, though the sight of Reynard's sword entering their bodies had made him wince and now he couldn't bear to look at them.

       "Gerhard," the king rasped. Clinging to the guard's table, he dragged himself upright and started to move towards the cells on the far side of the small room.

       Thurstan ran to his side. "Is he here?"

       Reynard strode past them both, holding a ring of keys he had taken from the belt of one of the dead guards. His face emotionless, he walked past most of the cells, before stopping at one near the far end. The key turned noisily in the lock, and the door squeaked as it opened.

       Beside him, the king flinched, and seemed to draw into himself. Reynard walked into the cell, but neither the king nor Thurstan moved forward, not even an inch. Thurstan was paralysed with dread of what he would find, but why would the king feel the same? He wanted to save Gerhard, but his world wouldn’t crumble if Gerhard was dead.

       "He's here," Reynard's voice said. "Alive."

       The paralysis broke. With a wild cry, Thurstan hurled himself forward and threw himself onto his knees on the doorway of the cell, but Reynard and the crumpled form on the floor were at the back, so he had to crawl through the stinking straw, hands sliding on horrid things in the grey darkness. "My lord?" he pleaded. "It's me. Thurstan."

       Reynard withdrew his hand from Gerhard's throat. "I'm not sure he can answer, lad, but he's conscious. He can hear you."

       With every blink, the darkness cleared. With every blink, Thurstan wished the darkness would deepen and hide the truth. Gerhard was lying on his back, as if he had been hurled against the wall and crumpled to the ground beneath it. His right arm had been severed just above the elbow, and the stump was putrid and repulsive. The cut in his cheek had become enlarged and infected, and it had claimed his eye. His remaining hand was shattered, and his joints were black, torn and bleeding on the inside.

       "Oh." Thurstan pressed his hands to his mouth. It was all he could say, a hopelessly inadequate moan. "Oh."

       Gerhard's eye flickered open. His lips moved, just barely, but he wasn't speaking to Thurstan at all. "Reynard?"

       Thurstan wanted to touch him, but couldn't bring himself to do so, in case he felt maggots crawling on the corpse-like flesh. "It's me," he pleaded. "Thurstan." Your son, but he didn't dare say it.

       Gerhard's eye wandered, struggling to trace the source of the voice. "So you got away, lad. I'm glad."

       "He reached the king and brought his warning," Reynard said, his voice surprisingly tender. "He's a good lad. He did well."

       "I hoped he would." Gerhard's head slumped forward again. "Why you here?" slipped from his shattered mouth.

       "To rescue you, of course," Reynard told him.

       "The others?"

       "Dead."

       Talk to me! Thurstan wanted to scream. "But you're alive," he said. "We came in time."

       "Shouldn't have come," Gerhard muttered, but his face was turned towards Reynard again. "Too dangerous. But you never did listen. Always stupid."

       Footsteps sounded at the door to the cell, and Thurstan whirled round, but it was only the king. "The king will heal you," he told Gerhard.

       "The king!" Gerhard struggled to sit up, but he was hurt far too badly. He lashed his head from side to side in consternation. "Go away. Shouldn't have come. That's why I sent the boy, to warn you. Go. Now."

       The king was walking as if every step hurt him badly, clutching to the cell door with trembling hands, but his voice was gentle as he knelt beside Gerhard. "We'll all go, all of us together."

       "No." There was a trace of Gerhard's old fire in the broken voice. "It's too late for me. Can you give me my arm back, or my eye? Can't walk. I'll slow you down. Don't want to... Just want it to end."

       "What did they ask you?" Reynard demanded suddenly. "What do they know? What do we need to defend ourselves against?"

       "He wouldn't talk!" Thurstan cried out, but Gerhard silenced him with a look, just as he had always been able to do.

       "A necessary question, lad. But they asked me nothing. Nothing. They hurt me for pleasure. Darius asked me nothing as he..." He voice faded away, and the king moaned, a terrible sound in the back of his throat.

       "I can heal you," the king whispered through his hand. "I can't take away the memory of him, but I can..."

       "No," Gerhard commanded. "There's only one thing you can do for me now."

       Reynard rounded on him. "How can you ask that? Don't you understand anything at all?"

       The king touched Gerhard's ruined face, that was too repulsive for Thurstan to touch. "We won't go without you, Gerhard. We won't leave you behind."

       "Maybe he was bait," Reynard breathed, standing up and moving to the door. "Why keep him here alone? Why ask him nothing?"

       Thurstan forced himself to touch Gerhard's arm. Why wasn't his father noticing him? He was supposed to call him son and say how proud he was. "Please..."

       "Reynard," Gerhard called, after only the faintest glance at Thurstan. "You know who he is?"

       "Part of it." Reynard did not relax his guard. "You tell me the rest."

       Gerhard gave a ghastly smile. "It seemed like a fine revenge to keep him with him, another thing stolen from you."

       Reynard started towards them. "Revenge? You dare talk about revenge? You were the one who..." He stopped himself suddenly and took a deep breath and then another.

       "I know." Gerhard spat weakly, blood seeping from his crushed lips. "Things seem different here. I know I did wrong and you didn't deserve it. But I..." Only now did he truly look at Thurstan, and his arm moved as if he wanted to caress his face, but could not. "I grew fond of him. I never said. I'm glad you're alive, Thurstan. You did well. Remember me, but carry on living."

       "You're not going to die," Thurstan sobbed. "Don't talk like that."

       "You have to go." Gerhard raised the arm at last, and Thurstan realised that the king had touched him and done something to stop him from hurting so badly. The shattered fingers touched Thurstan's cheek. "It was never me they wanted, lad. I'd slow you down. You have to go."

       "And leave you?" Thurstan sobbed.

       Gerhard looked at the king. "Please, my lord. Grant me this gift. End it for me."

       And then Reynard was there, a glittering dagger in his hand. "I cannot allow that," he said. "You don't know what you're asking of him. It would destroy him."

       Gerhard looked at the blade and then at Reynard's face, and nodded. Reynard leant forward and whispered something in Gerhard's ear, and Gerhard whispered something back, but Thurstan couldn't hear either of them. Then, silent and tender, Reynard slit Gerhard's throat.

       Thurstan tore at Reynard, trying to wrench him away. He slid in Gerhard's blood and fell across his body, then pulled himself up and started to pummel at Reynard with both fists. "I'll kill you!" he screamed. "I hate you! I hate you!"

       Reynard hurled him away so hard that he hit the far wall and slumped down beside Gerhard's dead body. "Be quiet!" he hissed. "Do you want to kill us all?"

       But it was too late. Light flickered in the corridor, and there was someone in the door, and he was smiling.

      

 

       He came as softly as a dream, and as terrible as a nightmare.

       "Well, well," he said, from the doorway of the cell. "This is very sordid, is it not? Brawling in the cell as their executioner approaches."

       Elias was kneeling on the floor, his clenched fists pressed against his chest. Darius had turned his blood to ice, and terror danced before his eyes like clouds of mist.

       "As I was saying just the other day," Darius said, "you are my puppet. I pull the strings, and you dance." He walked over and grasped Elias's chin, tilting it up. "Did you enjoy it so much, last time we were together? Have you come back for more? I've had nearly a year to think of new things to do to you, boy."

       The whole world disappeared, and there was nothing but Darius's smile. Elias wanted to scream, but even that was denied to him, gagged by the terror that choked him. There were half a dozen men behind Darius, but they might as well not be there. Darius alone was enough. Elias had never been able to fight him.

       "And how appropriate that you were taken here." Darius smiled. "Do you appreciate that little touch? The very cell that you were held in last time. How hard was it for you to enter it, I wonder?"

       It had been terrible, fear gibbering around him with every step, memories of Darius surging in response to every sound and small and sight of the place. It had been terrible, but he had conquered it, for Gerhard's sake. He hadn't run.

       Darius stroked his cheek and leant close, whispering into his ear. "Lovelier than ever," he crooned, too quiet for his soldiers to hear him. Darius alone knew that their most-feared enemy was only a scared boy, much to weak to fight him. "But still a fool. You're mine, body and soul. You came to me, as I knew you would. You'll watch your men die, then I'll let my men hurt you a bit - it's only fair, is it not, since they've dreamed of it for so long - and then I'll kill you, inch by inch. But you'll beg for death long before that, I think."

       Elias moaned, his head slumping forward into Darius's cupped hand. Something was trickling down his chin. Had he bitten his lip hard enough to bleed, or had terror made him sick?

       Darius gestured for the soldiers behind him. "Take them," he said, "when I give the order. But leave this one alive for me."

       Thurstan was still, sobbing silently for Gerhard, too afraid to move. Reynard was watchful, assessing the danger with a fighter's caution, judging the best time to attack. In Darius's eyes, they were already dead.

       He thinks he's won, Elias thought. He doesn't doubt it for a moment. He thinks I'm as broken as I was last time.

       And he was. He had never been able to fight Darius. He had only escaped because Darius hadn't been there, and even then he had nearly died. Before that, Darius had crushed his every hope and laughed at them as they had shattered. He had been stronger and cleverer in every way, and Elias hadn't stood a chance. For nearly a year, he had haunted Elias's nightmares. He was his worst fear made flesh, and who could stand against a nightmare?

       But I escaped last time, he thought. I was only defeated because I forgot that I had powers. I was useless only because I was afraid. Despair kept me prisoner, not Darius. As soon as I remembered that I had the power to fight, I was free.

       "Your friends first," Darius said, with a gloating smile. "Killed as you watch. Killed because they know you. Killed for you."

       No, Elias thought. It's not like that. If they died, Darius would be the one who had killed them, because he was cruel. But he knew Elias's weaknesses. He knew just what to say to make him useless and paralysed by fear. He was just an ordinary man, not evil personified. Of course Elias could fight him, just as he could fight any other man. His power over Elias was the power of fear, and nothing else.

       Very slowly, Elias uncurled his fists. He pulled away from Darius's touch and slumped to the ground, feigning utter despair. "The boy first," Darius said, and Thurstan gasped, but Elias knew he had a few moments. The soldiers had not yet started to move forward.

       The hope was slight, but it was still there. He was still too exhausted for much enchantment, even though it would no longer hurt him, and he was afraid to try illusion in case the soldiers could see straight through it. But did it matter if they did? It was worth trying. If they saw through it, they saw through it, but perhaps they wouldn't. He had been afraid to draw Darius to him, but Darius was already here.

       Illusion, then. Illusion of darkness, to hide their escape. If Reynard was right and the soldiers had merely trained themselves to disbelieve what they were seeing, they would still be unable to see in the dark. Darius would be as blind as anyone. He was just a pretty tyrant, who knew how to use a man's fears against him, and enjoyed causing pain. He was nothing more, and he wouldn't win.

       Now, Elias thought, but then everything changed. He raised his head, but one of the soldiers had a gun and it was pointing at Thurstan, and his finger was already on the trigger, and it was firing, and Reynard was hurling himself forward, trying to throw himself at the gunman, but Darius was in the way, and it was too far, far too far.

       "No!" Elias screamed. He hurled himself back onto Thurstan's cowering body, bringing his hands up and round to try to stop the bullet with enchantment, but his exhaustion betrayed him and the magic came too slowly.

       The bullet tore into his right shoulder, but he felt no pain. He tried to push himself up, and heard Thurstan cry out as blood rained on his face. Now was the time. It was the moment of defeat, when all else was lost, and so he summoned illusion, shrouding the whole prison block in a darkness that only Elias could see through. "Go," he sobbed. "Go!" he screamed, though he knew that Darius would know where he was by his voice. "Now!"

       Reynard was bellowing a wild battle cry, and a gun fired again, the bullet smashing into the wall, the moment of light revealing the terrified faces of men who were more scared of sorcery than anything else in the world "Get him, you fools!" Darius screamed, but then he was down, brought down by Reynard in the dark, their tangled bodies blocking the door.

       "Go," Elias whispered, and finally started to feel the pain, screaming through his body with every pulse. Thurstan grabbed his arm, but it was the wounded one, and he shrieked. The soldiers heard him and faced him, their eyes blind in the darkness, but at least one of them looking directly at him.

       But Darius was unmoving beneath Reynard, and Reynard was hauling himself off the body, swinging wildly at the soldiers through the door. Elias could see through the illusion, but even he saw the darkness as shimmering tendrils of grey that made everyone look like walking corpses.

       He saw Reynard kill a man. He saw Thurstan hurl himself forward, almost fall over Darius's outstretched hand, and thrust his knife into a man's heart, clawing with his other hand for the men to get out of the way. He saw one man chase Thurstan, but blunder into a body and fall. He heard Reynard call his name, not his title but Elias, his name. He tried to respond but he could only groan. He saw Darius's eyes open and his hand move, and he was alone with him in the cell, and everyone else was outside, and someone was crashing against the open door and it was beginning to close, and then he would be trapped inside with Darius.

       Wounded arm pressed to his chest, he managed to stand. Darius rolled over onto his stomach and lunged in the direction of the sound, but he was blind and Elias could see. He was weak, and Elias was stronger. Darius was crawling on his stomach, just an ordinary wounded man who had failed to catch his prey.

       Barely able to walk, Elias staggered around Darius's grasping hand, and crashed into Reynard's. "I'm here," he hissed into his ear. "Go."

       Reynard wrapped his arm around him, holding him upright, and they started to flee. Three men were down, but three were still standing, and they had the whole citadel to get through before they were safe, and then the whole duchy ahead of them, and even then there would be no safety.

       But Darius was only a man, Elias thought, and that was something he would never let himself forget. As he fled through the darkness that would never make him blind, through a prison that had haunted his dreams for nearly a year, he started to smile.


Chapter nine

In darkness

 

 

       The darkness was everywhere, all around, and something sticky was trickling down his wrist. They were shouting behind him. "Stop them!" someone cried, and footsteps pounded and echoed. A hand clawed at his clothes, catching an end of his shirt that had got untucked, and Thurstan whirled round, thrusting forward with the knife, its blade hitting something then sliding off. But then something hard hit him in the back and he fell beneath them, the knife slipping from his fingers, and he didn't know what had happened because it was too dark, it was so dark.

       "Leave me alone," Thurstan pleaded, as hands grabbed at him. "Please leave me alone." I don't want to die like Gerhard did. Not like that, stinking, with maggots crawling even though I'm not dead.

       "Get up!" they hissed at him. "I can't carry you both."

       It was Reynard, and Reynard had killed Gerhard. Thurstan whimpered, and clawed at him, but Reynard dragged him to his feet and shoved him forward. "Run!" he told him, a command and a whisper. But Thurstan couldn’t see the way. There should be candles, but he couldn't see them. He could feel cool air ahead of him, as if a door was open, but he couldn’t see any moonlight. The darkness was like a physical thing that scraped at his eyeballs and smothered him and drowned him.

       But he ran towards the door, where the silver moonlight ought to be. He crashed into something that rattled, and it was a cell door, and people had died behind it, their faces horrible and their bodies stinking. He clung to the bar but the door started to open. With a cry, he pushed himself back, and then Reynard was there again, telling him to be quiet, just to run.

       Then it was colder, stone steps beneath his feet, and he couldn't run or he'd fall. He had to feel his way up them, hand on the walls. Once his hand got very warm and he heard the crackling of a torch, but even that flame was burning in total darkness. He snatched his hand to his chest, terrified of that flame that burnt without light, but then he couldn't feel where he was going.

       A door squeaked. "No-one," he heard someone say. It sounded like the king, but so terribly weak, and not like him at all. "He brought them all in with him."

       Through the door, and they were outside, gravel crunching under foot. Someone grabbed him and steered him to the left, and then there was only silent grass. He peered up to where the moon and stars should be, but there was only nothing there, only a great smothering hand of absolute night.

       "I can't," the king was breathing, and, "You have to," Reynard told him. Then he told Thurstan to follow, to hold his cloak, just not to lose them in the darkness.

       Somebody shouted behind them. "To arms!" they screamed. Footsteps pounded on the gravel in the opposite direction. "Sound the alarm!" they were shrieking.

       This wasn't the way they had come, not that long dark passageway that would end in the throne room where Julien was dead. They had come straight outside. Where did they go now?

       "I'm sorry," the king moaned, as Thurstan heard the sound of both of them falling together. "I'll carry you," someone whispered, but surely that wasn't Reynard, for the voice was as tender as anything Thurstan had ever heard. "You can hardly walk yourself," the king said. "I can do it. I just need..."

       Nothing more, and then Thurstan saw light. A slit of light, but getting bigger until it was a shining yellow arch. It ought to have been amazing to be able to see again, but he wanted to shrink away from it. He could see his hand like a grey smear if he held it in front of his face, but that meant the enemy could see it, too.

       "Shining," the king was whispering, "like the door to forever in the land of the dead. Did you see the door, Reynard?"

       "I didn't see a door." Reynard was a faint figure now, struggling to pull the king to his feet, but the king's head was lolling backwards. "Please, my lord. You can rest soon, but not now."

       "Shining." The king sounded almost asleep, speaking in a sad sing-song voice. "I hope you find the door one day." His head moved. "They're all watching us, Reynard. They're saying goodbye. They're so sad. I don't want to leave them."

       Thurstan pressed his fist to his mouth. What was he talking about? A bell started to clang behind him, and when he turned he could see more lights, a beacon on a tower and torches in hurrying hands. One by one, the lights were coming back again, but it wasn't a good thing, because they were collapsed on the ground so close to the enemy, and they had to get up, to run, to get away, now.

       "You have to," Reynard was urging the king. "I can see things. If I can, they can."

       The king looked weakly around, and darkness followed wherever he looked, as if he was drawing a giant curtain across the world. "I can always see," he said, but Thurstan couldn't see him by the end. Every light had gone out. The golden arch was gone, and he realised that it had only been one of the arched windows of the throne room. Someone had pulled back the curtain to let the torchlight illuminate the ground outside, where fugitives might be.

       "Can you stand?" Reynard asked. "Thurstan!" he hissed. "Help me with him." Help the man who had killed Gerhard? But it would help the king, too.

       "I can stand," the king said, as Thurstan crouched there and didn't move. They started moving again, each step taking them further from Gerhard, and people were running around behind them and shouting. Their torches were useless. The darkness was the king's illusion, Thurstan realised now, and it kept them safe.

       They rounded a corner, and a torch was burning on the wall, but the darkness snuffed it out as soon as he saw it. The grass was damp and slippery, but the king led them true, and they didn't bump into anything. But the bell was clanging behind them, and more and more people were shouting.

       That terrible weapon sounded again, but the king's illusion hid the light of it. "What is it?" he asked aloud, for the sound took him straight back to the mountains, cowering behind a rock while his people died. "Called a gun in my world," the king whispered. "Didn't know they had them here. Must have just invented..." But Reynard hissed at them to be quiet. Silence kept them safe. But how could they keep together in the darkness if they didn't talk?

       He saw a star above him. The king had missed it. Thurstan tried to find him to tell him, but found Reynard instead. "A star," he breathed, and Reynard said, "I know." Both were low, and even the king seemed not to hear them. Another star appeared, and a faint dirty smear of torchlight. "He's losing it," Reynard said. "He's too weak. Don't distract him."

       But if the illusion was fading, that meant that the king was dying. Dying, like Gerhard, and the men chasing them were loud and getting closer, and they had to climb down the wall with soldiers at the top, groping in the fading darkness until they found the ropes, so easy to cut with a knife even if you couldn't see them.

       Then someone grabbed him, knife at his throat. "Speak!" a terrible voice commanded. "Who are you?"

       "Don't," he moaned, but Reynard said, "Ranulf" and the knife withdrew, though the arm did not.

       Another star. A smear of torchlight behind them, but none of the walls. The arched windows were blazing light, but that was far enough away to be safe. "Up here," Ranulf told them, pulling Thurstan towards the wall. "Quicker than the rope. No-one at the top."

       The spiral staircase was damp and cold, and something smeared beneath his hands and he felt his way up. "Help me with him," Reynard said again, but Ranulf responded, and his hands were the ones that touched Reynard's killer's hands, holding the dying king upright.

       He ran up. His footsteps echoed horribly, and he paused at the top, but the men behind him were close, urging him to hurry. Taking a deep breath, he stepped out onto the walls, sucking in lungfuls of night air.

       The darkness had almost gone. The king collapsed, and Reynard tried to lower him gently, but instead fell onto him, then twisted to lie beside him. His eyes slid shut, then he was onto his elbows, trying to rise, as strong as ever. All this Thurstan saw in a faint moonlight, overlaid with blackness like a faint mist. The moon was low, but there was a faint line of yellow in the east. They had passed through the night, and it was almost morning. All they had to do was get down the ropes, and they would be safe.

       But there was blood, too. Blood on his hands, on his wrists. He had he killed someone? He couldn't remember. There were great wet smears of blood where the king had fallen, and Thurstan's job was to clean up blood. He hadn't done it well enough before, that's why the soldiers had found them. He couldn't let the blood stay on the walls. But his clothes were bloody and it only made it worse when he rubbed at them. He spat on his hands and spat on the stone, but it only smeared and went red and runny. He lowered his head to spit some more, but his hands were leaving red hand prints, and maybe some of that blood was Gerhard's.

       Instead of spitting, he vomited, his stomach clenching and clenching until it hurt, but he could still smell the stench of Gerhard's cell and see his terrible ruined face, and Reynard's swift knife slitting his throat. He retched again, and then was spitting, dribbling into the blood, and it was still there, still staining the walls, still crying out to the soldiers that they were here so come and kill us.

       Reynard's hand fell on his shoulder. "Get off me," Thurstan sobbed, but Reynard looked kind. "I'm going down first," he said, "to make sure it's safe. Help the king."

       "Joscelin?" Thurstan gasped, but Reynard was gone, clambering over the edge and down the rope.

       "I called," Ranulf said. "He answered. That's all."

       The king had struggled to sit up, but his head was drooping. Streamers of darkness bled from his fingers as if he was trying to maintain his illusion, but was simply too weak. Sometimes he was unconscious and the illusion faded completely. Then his head would drift up and there would be almost total darkness for a moment, then back to that terrible painful trying.

       "He can't climb down," Thurstan said. His eyes met Ranulf's over the king's body, and he knew he had to be strong, or the king would die.

       The rope twitched three times. It was Reynard's signal that he had reached the bottom. But they had been seen. Someone shouted and someone was pointing with a sword. A horn sounded.

       Ranulf was already scooping up the second rope. "Help me," he urged. No need for silence now, only haste. Thurstan was slow to realise what he was meaning to do, and his blood-stained fingers fumbled and were little help. In the end, Ranulf pushed him away and finished it by himself, wrapping the end of the rope twice around the king's body and knotting it well. "We'll lower him down."

       But that was just where the king's wound was, just where the rope would rise up and dig into his armpits, holding all his weight. It would hurt him terribly. "I'm sorry," Thurstan found himself crooning, as if he was the strong one, not the child. "Hold on with your good hand, if you can. It'll be easier."

       The king's sluggish eyes blinked. "Thank you, Thurstan." He managed to support a little of his weight as they lowered him over the edge, and his eyes met Thurstan's just before he went beneath the lip of the wall and was gone.

       The soldiers were on the walls now, so very close. They surged from the top of the stairs at the end of the wall, and one of them had that weapon the king called a gun. He aimed it, but it fell far short, hitting the wall and sending chips of stone flying up. Then he had to stop to do something to it, and couldn’t fire it again.

       Thurstan stood behind Ranulf, lowering the rope, its fibres scraping his hands. Until the king was safely down, he couldn't leave. There wasn't time. The soldiers would surround them and take them, but they couldn't leave their post, or the king would crash to the ground and die. He knew beyond doubt that he would die here, sacrificing himself for his king, as any of the Kindred ought to do. It would be a good death, but...

       They fired again, closer this time, and their swords were sharp and had made even the strong men of the mountains scream. It would hurt horribly and he'd be completely alone, and he'd die in the dark and he didn't want to and... and Ranulf was calling his name. "I can hold him," he was saying. "Go."

       Thurstan blinked. "Go?" Run screaming over the wall, suffering any death rather than death at the hands of those soldiers in black. Run onto the swords and try to stop them?

       "The other rope. He's not too heavy that I can't hold him. And he's helping me." From far below, that strange tingle in his mind that was the Shadow. Even dying, the king could use it. Reynard had told Thurstan that he ought to be able to use it, too. If he knew how, he could help the king, lowering him gently just as the king had raised the ropes, but the stirring in his mind was elusive and impossible to grasp, and he couldn't do it, he couldn't do anything.

       "Go!" Ranulf screamed, and the soldiers were almost there. They would cut the rope when he was only half way down, but anything was better than this. Desperately, he crawled over the edge, and almost fell right there and then, before he managed to grasp the rope. It hurt him, knots digging into his raw hands. He climbed down, and swords clashed just above him. Someone fell, over the top of the wall and past him, and he shrank into the wall to stop them crashing into him. Was it Ranulf? But Ranulf had backed up against the top of his rope and was defending it, keeping the soldiers from dislodging it. Then he was too far down to be able to see any more, though he could see hear it, he could still hear every scream and every clash of a sword.

       A soldier leant over the wall a little way away and tried to shoot him with a gun. Another tried an arrow. Both missed him, but dust and pebbles were raining down onto his face, making his eyes hurt so badly that he had to screw them shut.

       The knots hurt his hands. If it wasn't for the knots, he could have slid down and it would have been faster. Whose idea had the knots been? They had made it easier to climb up, though. But why had they wanted to climb up anyway? All they had found in the citadel was death. It was a terrible place and it had killed them all.

       Something jolted his feet and he screamed and kicked, then realised that it was the ground. He fell to his knees, and the rope came crashing down on top of him, hard and heavy and painful. They had severed it at last. But that meant that Ranulf was dead, overwhelmed at the top of the wall, dead so they couldn't even see his body or hear his last words. There was no way down for him now.

       "Ranulf," Thurstan sobbed. Reynard clapped him on the shoulder and said that he died well, but what did he know? Thurstan wanted to hurl himself at him and shriek at him, for he was a murderer, and he had gone first so he didn't have to die.

       Soldiers leant over the wall, but they couldn’t see them, not pressed against the bottom of the wall. "They'll be sending out men on horseback," Reynard said. "They know exactly where we are now."

       There was still no darkness. "The king?" Thurstan gasped, but then he saw him, lying crumpled on the floor. Joscelin was helping untie him from the ropes, but Joscelin looked terribly wounded. Even Reynard was visibly weak, weaving when he tried to walk. Thurstan was the only strong one, the only one unhurt. But I don't know what to do! I don't know how to lead them!

       "Let me help you." The king's voice was dying autumn leaves that crumbled beneath the lightest of touches, but he raised his head and managed to fumble at the knots. With a blood-stained hand he touched Joscelin's face and did something that made him a little stronger.

       "What happened?" Thurstan breathed, but no-one answered him. The light was enough for him to see the three bodies that lay scattered beyond Joscelin. A patrol had found him and he had killed them all, though he had been badly wounded. He had borne it all without calling for help through the link in their minds, and had stayed at his post, waiting for them to climb back down. Of all the things he had seen this night, strangely it was this one that most made Thurstan want to break down and cry.

       "Help Joscelin," Reynard commanded him, for of course Reynard was going to help the king.

       Thurstan had always been afraid of Joscelin. He crept towards him and whispered, "Take my arm." Joscelin did so without argument, and that was the strangest and scariest thing of all.

       The king was trying to crawl away. "There's someone alive. Two dead, and one alive. I've got to help him."

       "No!" Reynard hissed. "There's no time!" He scooped the king up and they clung together, the king fighting to go, and Reynard trying to drag him away.

       A horse neighed not too far away. "I'm sorry," Reynard was saying, "but please try. Hide yourself if you can't hide the rest of us. You have to."

       Darkness came, faint at first, then complete. Joscelin stumbled, and Thurstan didn't know where to run. Then he felt something like a tiny spark of light between his eyes, in his mind. He thought it was the king showing him the way, but then Reynard spoke. "I don't know how to do it," he said. "Can you hear me?"

       Reynard was in his mind, like a tiny candle flame showing him the way. He should have wanted to claw at his mind to rip him out, but it was so dark, and he needed to find the way.

       The horses were coming, their hooves pounding the ground. They were spilling out of the back gate, galloping round the edge of the walls to the place their prey had been. Far ahead there were massed ranks of torches as other search parties mustered, outside the ever-shrinking cloud of darkness that was protecting them.

       They ran fast. The king could see where he was going, and he guided Reynard. Reynard guided Thurstan, who led Joscelin. If the king fainted again, they would all be lost, exposed in the moonlight, to be trampled down by men on horses.

       Joscelin fell again. The horses were going to wrong way, for the soldiers clearly thought that they would be heading for the bridge or riding away into the hills. Soon they would bring out dogs to follow their scent, and then it would be over. But Thurstan had heard rumours that the king could charm animals, so maybe it would be all right after all. But the king was barely strong enough to stand. They had to depend on themselves, for the king's power could fail at any time. No, they had to depend on him, on Thurstan, the only one who was unhurt.

       The sound of the horses faded again, then grew louder. "Change," he heard Reynard panting, his voice pleading. "Please change."

       "And leave you?" the king said. "I won't do that."

       "But you have to. It's too late for us, but you have to live."

       "I wouldn't get far. I'd forget how to change back."

       Thurstan didn't know what it meant at first, but then he remembered an injured bird of prey he had seen in the mountains, and how they had told him afterwards that it had really been the king. Then Joscelin fell again, and he had to haul him upright with both arms, and the king and Reynard moved too far away for him to hear them.

       "Leave me," Joscelin started to whisper. "I'm dead."

       "No," Thurstan told him. There were too many dead already. He wouldn't lose another one, dying in his arms when he'd been ordered to keep him safe.

       He could see the bridge on his right, and knew that they were taking a more direct route back to the river than they had come. They had abandoned all attempt at concealment. They'd cross the river too close to the town, and reach the exposed far bank half a mile away from Amalric. Was anyone calling out to Amalric, telling him that? They needed the horses ready for them, and then they'd have a chance.

       Suddenly the darkness expanded, covering every gleam of light in the whole land, as far as he could see, and maybe further. Then, just as he was gasping with fear, it shrank until it hid only their running figures, doing nothing to hide the horsemen who were flanking them. Then all darkness was ripped away, but there was nobody ahead of him, and Reynard and the king had gone, and Joscelin in his arms was invisible, and even his hands had gone. Just as he was about to cry aloud, the darkness grew again, and this time it stole sound as well, like a muffling blanket around his whole head. It was horrible, as if the whole world had died, and he wanted to beg the king to stop, to hide them, but still to make it seem as if they were alive.

       On the walls, the king had fainted and had lost the illusion, but now it was worse. In the extremity of his pain, the king had lost all control. The illusions were too slight, or too huge. He could snatch up the river and hide it, so they ran right past the thing that was their goal. He could steal Thurstan's voice so he couldn't call out to Amalric. He could kill them in his attempt to save them, but how could any of them go to him and tell him to stop? He was the only one who gave them a chance.

       As the darkness and invisibility flickered around them, and the enemy shouted, they ran, and then the river was upon them, sooner than he would have thought. It was a time of all-encompassing darkness, but Thurstan felt the slippery mud beneath his feet, and the cold water that clutched at his legs and brought him to his knees. Then the darkness and invisibility faded both at once, as the king sank forward into the water, and Reynard could barely hold him.

       Thurstan just knelt there, water up to his waist . Reynard's face was white and streaked with blood, and his eyes were glazed. He would have collapsed long before now, Thurstan thought, had he been carrying any other burden than the king. Joscelin was lying in the shallows, his arms bobbing in the water. Thurstan was still supporting his head and upper body, but Joscelin's eyes were closed and he was unconscious. The king was unconscious, too, supported only by Reynard who was barely aware himself. They had no illusion to hide them, and there was already too much light in the eastern sky. He thought the horses had lost them, but then someone shouted and he knew that they had been found again.

       I'm the only one left, he thought. I've got to look after them all. Scooping up Joscelin in his arm, he started to swim. Joscelin's head kept going under, and Thurstan struggled to raise him higher, but still keep moving.

       Half way across, the soldiers reached the bank. Arrows landed on either side of him, and someone fired a gun. The current grabbed hold of him. If he let it take him, he realised, he would drift downstream to the wooded place where Amalric was waiting. "Reynard," he tried to call, to tell Reynard that this was the new plan, but Reynard was beyond hearing him, just swimming doggedly forward, fighting the current without seeming to be aware of what it was that he was fighting.

       Thurstan held Joscelin tighter, holding him beneath the chin. "Reynard!" he shouted, and Reynard heard him at last and stopped swimming, though he didn't turn round. As he did so, the current finally started to take him, carrying him downstream to the safe place, where the horses were.

       Thurstan reached his side, then managed to get ahead of him. "Follow me!" he hissed. The river was wide and it seemed as if the guns couldn't fire very far, although the arrows could.

       Had anyone called to Amalric? The king had said that any of them could do it, and he would hear. Had the king already done so, or had Reynard? Probably not, he thought. So who would... No, anyone could do it, so that included Thurstan. Amalric! he screamed silently, hoping that was the right way to do it. We're coming! Be ready! There was no answer, but that didn't mean he hadn't heard, surely, only that he hadn't replied, or that Thurstan didn't know how to hear him.

       Or maybe Amalric was dead. Maybe they had found Amalric and killed him, and all the horses were stolen and gone. Maybe they were in a silent circle behind the trees, ready to trap anyone who crawled out of the river. Maybe Thurstan had killed them all by deciding to go back to the place where they had left Amalric, rather than finding a new place to cross. Maybe they would die, and it would all be his fault.

       But it was too late. Willows trailed from the shore and there was muddy ground beneath his feet. He dragged himself from the river and laid Joscelin down. No-one attacked him, but Amalric wasn't there, rushing forward to help.  Thurstan touched Joscelin's neck, but there was no pulse. He had died during the crossing, and Thurstan hadn't even noticed.

       With a sob, Thurstan stood up. Reynard had reached the shallows but was just sitting there stupidly, the king limp in his arms. Every ripple made the water wash over the king's face, and Reynard tried to pull him higher, but was too weak. He was dying, too. "Help me with him," Reynard pleaded, without even a trace of his usual pride.

       Thurstan glanced over his shoulder, then slipped into the water, and tried to take the king's body from Reynard, but Reynard, although he had asked for help, was reluctant to yield his precious burden. He clutched him tighter, and tried to reach the shore by himself. "You have to," Thurstan urged, as gently as he could. "I'll take care of him." The words were hard to say, but he thought Reynard wouldn't obey him unless he did. "You've done everything you could, but it's my turn now."

       He dragged the king from the water, and Reynard followed, crawling. But Thurstan already knew that all hope was gone, and all they could do was huddle here and die. Amalric wasn't there. The horses had gone.

       Reynard fell forward and lay still, though his hand still moved, groping for the king's arm. Only when he had found it did he lie still. Thurstan crouched over them, guarding them with a knife he had pulled from Joscelin's belt, and listened to pursuit growing closer. It was only a matter of time now. 

       Someone crept from the bushes and Thurstan leapt to his feet, snarling. He hurled himself over to the dark figure, ready to attack, then saw that it was Amalric.

       "Where are the horses?" Thurstan shouted.

       Amalric didn't look at him. "They ran away."

       "Are you hurt?" Thurstan demanded. "Did the enemy steal them?"

       "I heard a patrol," Amalric said. "The horses ran away."

       "You let them go," Thurstan realised. "You were going to run away?"

       "There were soldiers everywhere over there," Amalric sounded petulant. "I thought you were all dead."

       "I called."

       Amalric's hand rose to his brow, and Thurstan knew that he had closed his mind to the link and refused to listen. After everything the king had done to give them a chance to escape, Amalric had refused to play his part, and now the horses were gone.

       Then they heard the sound of hooves, and they both whirled around together. "A horse," Amalric breathed. His eyes flickered to Reynard. Reynard slowly pulled himself to his knees, reaching for his sword, but Thurstan knew that he was the  one who had to take the lead now. Reynard would try, but even Reynard had a point beyond which he simply could not go.

       The horse pushed through the trees, and Thurstan sprang forward, but it was riderless. The light was too faint to be sure, but he thought it was the king's horse. Of course! He laughed aloud, a shuddery laugh that came from the release of tension. The king rode his horse without reins, for his horse understood his commands. Of course the king's horse wouldn't leave its master. It had come, and, when Thurstan turned round, he saw that the king had raised his head and was looking at the animal.

       They were saved. The king was saved, for Thurstan and Amalric could lift him onto his horse, and the animal would carry to him to safety, far away. They would be left behind, but the king was safe, and that was all that mattered.

       The king had managed to raise himself onto one elbow. "I don't own them," he murmured, with a small smile, "but they all hear me." Even as he said it, another horse came, and then another, but that was all. Although Thurstan gazed into the trees as hard as he could, no other horses appeared.

       Reynard was on his feet again. "Help me with him." This time it was a command. He was the leader again, and Thurstan was the child, who obeyed.

       Thurstan helped Reynard lift up the king and place him on his horse. His hands were trembling. He could hear again the shouting of the enemy and see their torches, and Gerhard's dead face had come back to him. While everyone had depended on him, the fear had retreated, but now it was like a living thing again, pawing at him.

       The king was conscious, but only just. He managed to stay in the saddle, but his head slumped forward. Reynard mounted behind him, ready to hold him if he fell. As the enemy came closer and closer, Thurstan mounted the second horse, and Amalric the third. Then there was nothing left to do but run. "Along the bank," Reynard said. "Keep to the trees."

       An arrow twanged through the trees and sank into a tree trunk, only inches from the king. "Run!" Thurstan screamed. The king was ahead of him, and Amalric, too. He was at the back. He would be the first to fall, but perhaps he could cover their escape. If he had to, he would bring his horse round into the path of his pursuers, and bring them crashing down.

       His horse raced forward, and he jolted painfully in the saddle. He tried to draw his sword, but what good would it do? The enemy burst from the trees, and he caught a glimpse of the leader's face before his own horse crashed through a low bush and branches scratched his face. The ground was muddy and slippery. It was too late. They had been seen. They had to leave the river and head into the open ground, where at least they could gallop freely, but the enemy would be able to shoot them down. At least the trees offered some concealment.

       The king's head was low on his horse's neck, and Reynard was clinging to him, reaching round him for the reins. Then the king raised his head and said something, but Thurstan couldn't hear it. They were getting further and further away.

       "Wait for me!" Thurstan pleaded. He tried to move faster, but his horse slipped in the mud and fell, crashing into Amalric's, and then they were down together. As he struggled to free himself from the stirrups, an enemy horsemen leaped over him, his sword above his head, ready to ride the king down and kill him.

       "No!" Thurstan screamed, but another horsemen rode past him, smashing Amalric into the mud. He had a gun and it was pointing at the king. It fired, and fire blazed, and the king seemed to explode in white flames where it hit him. The white light flared, and Thurstan wanted to cover his eyes at its brightness. When it faded, the king had gone. The king and Reynard, and the two soldiers who had been attacking them, were gone. Thurstan and Amalric were alone in the wood, and two horsemen were bearing down on them, and the first of them was grinning.

       Amalric wrenched his sword from his scabbard, bringing it up in both hands as he stood in the path of the lead horseman. But the enemy was above him, able to sweep down with his own sword, able to cut Amalric's head off with a casual swipe of his light one-handed blade. The blades struck each other, then the enemy's slid off, and Amalric almost fell, the mud sucking at his feet and making him slip. The enemy pulled his horse around and came back for another attack, still smiling.

       Thurstan tried to stand, but he had hurt something in his leg when he had fallen, and his horse was floundering in the mud, its hooves scarily close to his face. He tried again, all the while screaming to the king for help, but the king was gone, swallowed up by that terrible white fire. "My lord!" he shouted. "We need you!"

       The second horseman rode slowly up to the place where the king had disappeared, but the horse was nervous and shied away. The man was young and looked afraid. He saw Thurstan struggling in the mud, and their eyes met. This one didn't smile.

       Amalric's attacker was hampered by the mud and the reaching branches. Amalric, on foot, could turn more easily, and duck out of the way, but his feet were slipping and he was holding the sword awkwardly, in a way that Gerhard would never have tolerated. He thrust up at the horseman again and again, but the horseman parried each blow easily. Amalric was defending himself, but only just.

       And Thurstan was just lying there, just watching. "My lord!" he screamed again, but then he remembered how the king kept on asking him to call him by name. In stories, there was power in a name. You could call it aloud, and the person would come, no matter where they were, brought by magic. "King Elias!" he shrieked. "Elias! Please come!" But nothing happened. There was no new flash of white, bringing the king back again, healed and strong and glorious. Nothing happened at all.

       The second horseman approached him, drawing his sword only slowly. He thought Thurstan was nothing, only a young boy who was already defeated. He would spit Thurstan like a rabbit, and scoop him up for the citadel prisons, where they would throw him down in Gerhard's stench and it would take him months to die.

       "I don't want to die," Thurstan sobbed. Gerhard was dead, and that should have been the end of his world, and nothing worth living for. But he didn't want to die, not if it hurt. He wanted to live to serve the king, and to find a new home, even though he'd lost his old one. He wanted friends of his own age. He wanted to learn about the Shadow, so he could do wonders. Gerhard was dead, but he wanted to live.

       Sword in hand, he pushed himself up. His leg twinged with pain, but it wasn't as bad as he had thought, and he was able to stand. Behind him, someone cried out, but he didn't know if it was Amalric or his attacker, and the enemy was almost upon him and he couldn't turn round.

       The enemy was on a horse. When you're going against a horseman, Gerhard had always said, you go for the horse, not the man. Remove the advantage. Bring him down to your level. Even hardened fighters were squeamish about killing horses, he had said, but a true fighter had no room for softness in their heart. When the survival of the Kindred depended on you, you had to kill without mercy and without remorse, whether it was innocent men or horses.

       But the king wouldn't want any horses hurt, and what if one of their own horses had been hurt in the fall? Then they would need the enemy's horses to get away. So he would remember Gerhard's advice, but ignore it. Gerhard was only just dead, and already Thurstan was disobeying him.

       And then the enemy was on top of him, swiping down with his sword, and all reason fled. Snarling, screaming, Thurstan brought his sword up to block the blow, and staggered as his arms jolted, as the blades scraped together and then parted.

       As Thurstan stood there panting, the enemy brought his horse round, but the horse was nervous. Amalric's horse was on its feet again, prancing on the fringes of the battle ground, and Thurstan's was struggling in the mud. Horns were sounding across the river, and all the animals were scared.

       The enemy brought his arm up, and, "No!" Thurstan shrieked. Something took him over, and he lost all conscious thought. Sheathing his sword, he jumped, mud slipping beneath his feet and turning it into a wild and desperate plunge. He smashed into the horse's side, one arm clutching his attacker's sword arm, the other digging into his waist.

       The horse ploughed forward, and Thurstan's legs left the ground, and he knew he had made a catastrophic mistake. If he let go, he would be trampled. If he clung here, the enemy could take him anywhere, dangling from his saddle like a dead animal.

       Trees clawed at him. The man slashed with his sword, but his sword arm was held, and then a branch caught them both, and the horse screamed and threw them. They landed in the mud on the very edge of the river, beneath the hooves of the panic-stricken animal, but there was no time to roll free. The enemy landed on top of Thurstan, and Thurstan lost his grip on his arm. He brought up his sword, but Thurstan grappled him and kicked him and gave him no space to wield it. With a cry, the man dropped his sword and instead fought with his fists and his knees.

       Thurstan was pleading under his breath, muttering words he had no memory of even as he was saying them. They struggled together, and a tree root hit the side of his head. They rolled away, and the river plucked at his hair, and he knew he was close enough to the water to drown, if the man rolled him onto his face and left him there.

       He could see the man's face, pale beneath the splashes of mud. He was young, not much older than Thurstan himself. He had freckles on his nose, and his cheeks were childish and plump. But he wanted to kill Thurstan, and his teeth were bared in hatred and determination, even as his eyes were wide and afraid.

       He killed my people, Thurstan thought, for the man was wearing black, and what one of the enemy did, they all did. But he was young, and his nose was dripping. He's as scared as I am, just trying to do what his lord has ordered him. I don't want to kill him. But he was the enemy, and Thurstan was Kindred, trained by Gerhard to show no mercy. Even the king, who hated killing, admitted that sometimes it was necessary to kill in order to stay alive.

       Then the enemy found the dagger at Thurstan's belt, and his eyes blazed with triumph. He brought it up to Thurstan's throat and Thurstan froze, realising how stupid he had been. Only a victorious man had the luxury of deciding whether to kill his foe or not, and Thurstan was defeated. He was only a boy, and this was his first real fight, and he was going to die.

       The man pressed the point of the dagger into Thurstan's neck. Thurstan brought both hands up and grasped the man's arm, but he couldn't push him away, not far enough. The man was stronger than he looked.

       Mud slimed beneath him, and the river was closer. A plan flashed into his mind, then out again. Thurstan let himself subside down the bank, until the back of his head was in the water. The enemy followed him, leaning forward, the dagger still close to his throat. His left hand disappeared in mud up to his wrist, then slipped further, and he lurched forward, losing his balance. As he did so, the dagger thrust forward, its point scraping along Thurstan's neck, beneath the ear.

       "No," Thurstan was sobbing. He scrabbled to get his hands between himself and the attacker, and pushed the man off. "No!" as he tried to stand, then slid into the river. "No!" as they fell, both together, in the shallows of the water, but now Thurstan was on top, and he could lift up the man's shoulders and smash his head down against the river bank, where there were stones amongst the mud and where water would rush into his lungs. Then he could push him further out, so the river took him and there was no evidence left to show that he had murdered someone, and no dead face, so close to him in age, to scream a reproach with its dead blue lips.

       "No," he sobbed. He hauled the man out of the river, and he was dripping wet and clumsy, but not dead. He could kill him until he was mangled and horrid, but Gerhard still wouldn’t come back. Gerhard was never coming back. All Thurstan had to do was stop the enemy from chasing them, to help Amalric with his attacker, to keep them from finding the king.

       "Just go away," he moaned. "We didn't do anything." He brought the man's down once more on the stone, then groped behind him for the sword. The enemy was barely conscious, and struggled only weakly as Thurstan smashed the sword hilt into his head, but he didn't stop struggling, even when Thurstan did it again and again. His skin cracked and bled, but he still didn't fall. He still didn't, even as Amalric came up behind him all unnoticed and ran him through with a sword. Then his eyes slid shut and his head fell to one side, and he slumped in Thurstan's arms as if he was sleeping.

       Thurstan blinked stupidly. "You killed him." He still held the bloody sword hilt, and did not lower it.

       Amalric gave a crisp nod. "I did. "

       "What about...?" Thurstan licked his lips and tasted mud.

       "I killed him, too." Amalric looked pleased, as if it was a thing to boast about, that he'd killed two men and Thurstan had killed none. In the mountains, under Gerhard's leadership, it would have been that way. After only a week with the king, their way of thinking seemed strange to him, although he had lived with it all his life.

       "How?" Thurstan asked, though he didn't really know what he was asking.

       "I brought him down. He was over-confident." Amalric looked with satisfaction at his bloody sword. "He thought I was weak, an easy kill, but I wasn't. I showed him."

       Thurstan held the dead man close, then laid him gently down. "We have to find the king."

       Amalric hauled up the dead man and started stripping him of his jacket and sword belt. When he had finished, he threw him down as if he was nothing but a stuffed sack.

       Thurstan walked away. They hadn't come very far, the two of them, when they had been locked together on the fleeing horse. Amalric's dead man lay only twenty yards away. His neck was broken, and Thurstan thought he had turned too sharply on the treacherous ground and fallen from his horse without any help from Amalric. Amalric had already stripped him of his jacket and belt, and dropped them in a small pile beside him, along with a short bow and a quiver of arrows.

       They had to stop the riderless horses from going back. Thurstan raised his hand and tried to call them, but he wasn't the king, and animals would never come to his command. All four of them were huddled together, nervous but not actually going anywhere. He didn't know what to do.

       As he watched them, one of them lifted its head, and a moment later Thurstan heard a horse snorting, a quiet sound almost lost in the noises of the night. A twig cracked and an overhanging branch shivered, but that was his only warning. Someone else was there.

       Thurstan dropped to the ground and slithered forward. Wet mud sucked at his hands and knees and even into his mouth. He moved slowly, hidden by the undergrowth, and found the enemy almost immediately. He was horribly close, sitting impassively on horseback as he watched Amalric splash around in the shallows, struggling to push the body towards the deep water. The man had a gun, and Amalric's back was completely exposed, with only the few dropping branches of a weeping willow between him and the enemy.

       Thurstan pressed his hand to his mouth. I have to do something.  But if he called out a warning, the man would see him. If he ran forward with his dagger, the man would shoot him down before he got close. The bow! he thought, but he wasn't good at shooting, and he had never tried to shoot while his hands were trembling and slippery with mud. But I have to.

       Inch by inch, he crept back, every second expecting to be seen. He retrieved the bow, and nocked an arrow, his hands fumbling so he had to do it three times. Then, not even kneeling, he walked forward again, stopping when the man was framed by overhanging trees.

       The man's gun was up, aimed at Amalric's back. Thurstan raised the bow and brought his arm back. If he missed, Amalric would die, and the man would bring his gun round, and Thurstan would be his next target. If he hit him and didn't kill him, he would still be able to fire his gun. He had to kill him. He had to stop him from riding back to his friends and telling them exactly where the king had disappeared into the white light, so they could lay an ambush for his return.

       He had to kill him, and there wasn't time to aim, just to draw the arrow back and let it go, then closing his eyes and hoping it had hit.

       The man cried out. The gun fired, but missed Amalric, slamming into the river beyond him. The man was hunched over on the saddle, and Thurstan knew he had wounded him terribly, but he was still alive. He could still shoot them again.

       Thurstan fumbled for another arrow. Amalric was crashing through the mud and trees to his side. "Kill him!" he shouted. "Give me the bow!" But Thurstan clutched hold of it. Amalric would think it was because he wanted to claim at least one kill to himself, but it wasn't that. He just wanted the man to die at the hand of someone who would feel sorry. He didn't want to be the one to kill him, but it seemed cowardly to hand the bow over to Amalric, to make someone else live with that.

       He shot again, but this time he missed the man. Hauling at the reins, the enemy pulled the horse round and rode away. "Don't let him go!" Amalric shouted. "Kill him!" he commanded, but Thurstan stood up and turned away. It was too dark and there were too many trees, and the man was hidden within seconds.

       "Look what you've done now," Amalric snapped. "Now they'll know where we are."

       "They know anyway," Thurstan said. They'd watched them swim over the river. Although the current had taken them half a mile downstream, they wouldn't be easy to find. The enemy would be coming within minutes.

       Amalric tugged at his arm. "We've got to go. Put on the jacket. At least it might confuse them from a distance."

       Thurstan pulled himself free and walked over to where the king had disappeared, struggling to keep his footing in the churned-up mud. When he found the spot he thought it had been, he stopped and felt gingerly at the air, but nothing happened. There was no flash of light, and nothing seized him. He was sure the light hadn't issued from the king, but had come from somewhere else, and taken him. It had looked almost like a door, but, if it was a door, it was now closed.

       "We have to go," Amalric urged him. "Come on, or I'm going without you."

       Just like you tried to go without us, before, Thurstan thought, but didn't say. Amalric had betrayed them all, abandoning them because he was afraid. Julien hadn't done that. Ranulf hadn't done it, or Joscelin. They had all stood at their posts and died, but Amalric had run away, and he wasn't even hurt. Even Thurstan had faced things that had terrified him, but had still managed to bring everyone safely across the river.  There were so many things times when he could have been braver, but when he looked at Amalric he thought that he hadn't done too badly after all.

       "We can't leave the king," he told Amalric.

       "We have to." Amalric had already retrieved one of the horses and was emptying the saddlebags. "He can look after himself. And Reynard's with him. We need to think of ourselves, now. We have to get away." But it was easy for him. He had already abandoned his king, leaving him with no horses to carry him away from his pursuers.

       Thurstan was still touching the place where the king had disappeared. "But he was badly hurt. Reynard was, too."

       "Then he'll heal himself," Amalric snapped. "How long do you want to wait? Until they come to kill you? A week? A month? A year? You don't know where he's gone. You don't know when he's coming back. All we can do is look after ourselves."

       But what if he came back a minute after they had left? What if he wasn't healed at all, and those two horsemen who had gone with him were still chasing him? What if he came back and needed Thurstan's protection, but Thurstan had listened to Amalric and gone away?

       "Put the jacket on!" Amalric hissed. "Get on the horse. Everything's ready. I've done all the work."

       Thurstan turned a heavy head. Amalric had rounded up two of the horses and was hitting them on the rump, trying to get them to run away. They were decoys, he realised. Amalric wanted them to run off in one direction and draw the pursuit, while Thurstan and Amalric slipped away where the enemy least expected them. It was almost dawn, but dark enough that the enemy might be fooled.

       He looked back at the innocent place that had stolen the king. Amalric was right, he realised. They had no idea where the king had gone, and when he would come back. He might be home already, snatched to safety by the powers of enchantment. He would blame himself if Thurstan died while clinging uselessly to the last place he had seen him, like a dog refusing to leave his master's grave.

       The two horses obeyed, trotting out of the thin tree line and heading for the plain. Horns were still sounding in the direction of the bridge, louder every second, and the wind brought snatches of sound from the city, where all the bells were ringing. If they stayed, they would die.

       He whirled on Amalric, pounding at him with his fists. "I don't want to leave him! I'm not like you."

       Amalric struck him across the face. "Don't you dare accuse me."

       Thurstan's head slumped forward. "I'm not like you." But what crime had Amalric committed but to be afraid? What could anyone say to him that was worse than the things his own conscience was telling him? Guilt was a terrible thing, that could eat you alive from the inside. When you knew that you'd given in to fear and run away and failed everyone... It was a terrible thing and Thurstan knew it well.

       Amalric pushed him away so he sprawled in the mud. "Then I'm going without you. Don't expect me to come back for your body."

       Thurstan wiped his face, smearing mud and salty tears over his lips, though he had no memory of crying. "I'm sorry," he said. "I shouldn't have said that." As he stood up, he looked once more at the place where the king had disappeared, but there was no-one there. "I'm coming with you."

       He mounted his horse and rode away, and no-one called his name from behind. There was no shimmer of light from through the trees. The plain was specked with the torches of the enemy, and still the king did not return. He was gone, and Thurstan chewed his lip, and rode away.


Chapter ten

Summer's end

      

 

       "You've got a leaf in your hair," Adela chided him. "What a ragamuffin. I can't let you out of my sight for a second, can I?"

       Oliver leant back onto his elbows and looked up at her, watching as she plucked the leaf from his hair, and twisted it this way and that. It was beginning to turn yellow. The stream was shining just as bright as it always did, glittering in the late afternoon sun, and the flowers were thick and fragrant, but it was almost autumn.

       "I needn't ask what you've been thinking about." Adela flicked the leaf away, and crouched beside him. "It's far too early to start worrying. They'll barely have reached the city, let alone started home again. You told me that yourself only this morning."

       "I know," Oliver admitted. "But I worry. I can't help it."

       On the other side of the stream, a pair of boys ran past, playing a silent game of chase. There was little laughter in their game. Like their mothers and fathers, the children were subdued, living only half a life until their king returned.

       Adela had been watching them, too, but something about what she had seen had made her smile fondly. The smile was slow to fade as she spoke. "I worry, too. We all do. It's dangerous where he's going, but maybe that's a good thing. Maybe he'll come back… changed. Maybe whatever he's facing in the city will be the making of him."

       Oliver looked at her sharply. "What do you mean? Have you had a vision?" Adela shook her head, folding her hands innocently in her lap. "I'm no seer. I'm just thinking of that other boy I knew, the one I was telling you about the other day."

       "Then don't," Oliver snapped. Sighing, he scraped his hand over his face. "I'm sorry, Adela. I'm just..."

       "Worried. I know. But he'll be fine, Oliver. Amalric will, too."

       "But what if he isn't? I mean, what if they aren't?" he hastily added. "They could all be dead, and we'd just be sitting here. We wouldn't know."

       "No," she said, trying to take his hand. "We wouldn't."

       "But it's wrong!" he shouted. "If he dies, our hopes die. We ought to know. The sun ought to stop shining. That's what it does in stories. It's not right!"

       "It's how it is," Adela said mildly. "We're not the heroes of a story, Oliver. We don't have a seer any more, and maybe that's a good thing. We can't know what's going to happen, or what's happening a long way away. We just have to find our own way of living, of hoping, of loving…"

       "But it's not enough!" he cried. "It never has been, not for us."

       Adela ran her hand across his cheek, stroking gently. "They will come back, Oliver. You mark my words," she said, but he could only turn away from her, because what did she know about anything? She was as lost as he was, as lost as they all were. All they could do was wait, but the summer was nearly over, and his dreams were growing dark and strange, full of visions of Elias dead.

      

 

       "He's waking up," someone said. Lankin wasn't sure if they were talking to him, so he opened his eyes to look. He moved his head towards the voice, but pain stabbed through his body, making him moan and screw his eyes shut again. "Lie still," the same voice said, and this time he knew it meant him, for it came with a hand on his brow, pushing him into the pillow.

       Footsteps sounded on the floor, quick and tapping. He heard the scrape of chair being pulled up, and the sound of someone sitting down. The hand left his brow, and a voice said, "You can have a few minutes, but don't make him tired." He didn't know what it meant, and thought he would go to sleep again, rather than try to find out.

       Then someone spoke his name, so he had to wake up after all, even though it hurt. Thomas was sitting by his bed and looking down at him strangely. "This isn't my room," Lankin tried to say, but his voice was scratchy and didn't want to work properly. Coughing felt as if it would hurt, so he just swallowed a few times. "Why're you looking like that?" he managed.

       "You're in the infirmary," Thomas told him. "You were badly hurt. but the doctor says you'll get better." Thomas's left arm was wrapped in a bandage, bound to his chest. Lankin was about to ask about it, but Thomas glanced at it, and shrugged. "Sprained wrist. That's all."

       "How did it happen?" Lankin asked him.

       Thomas frowned, and looked down. "No," he mumbled. "You should answer that, not me." He took a deep breath and raised his head. "What happened, Lankin?"

       When Lankin breathed in too deeply, the pain was terrible. He took fast shallow breaths, and slowly the pain eased enough for him to think. What had happened? As soon as he asked himself the question, he remembered. Despite the pain, he lashed out and grabbed Thomas's arm. "Did we get him?"

       Thomas shook his head. "He got away. For now."

       It hurt worse than the wound. He would have suffered anything willingly, if it had resulted in the capture of the sorcerer king, but now that foul creature, the enemy of everything good and decent, was at large, and Lankin was confined to a bed and unable to fight him. "How?" he rasped.

       "He came," Thomas said, in a leaden voice. "He climbed in over the walls. Lord Darius ambushed him in the cells, but he got away." He slammed his clenched fist into his thigh. "He got away."

       "And no-one stopped him?" Lankin burst out. "What were you all doing?"

       Thomas thrust his face towards him, suddenly furious. "You left your post and took two of our best recruits out with you, and got them both killed. What were you doing to stop him from getting away, Lankin?"

       Lankin wanted to close his eyes and give in to the pain. He turned his face away, and whispered, "There was a man. He must have been guarding the sorcerer's way over the walls..."

       "One man against three? He used sorcery, then?"

        Lankin shook his head. "I thought so at first, but he wasn't. He was so strong. He just kept on going, even though I was sure we'd hit him. I remembered what we were taught. I told myself it was only illusion. I told myself he wasn't real and I... I ran onto his sword, Thomas. But he was real all along. Real, and such a soldier! He was better than any of us. If they're all like that..."

       "Don't talk like that," Thomas snapped. "You weren't seeing things clearly. Everyone knows that bandits and sorcerers are all cowards. If they ever win anything, it's because they use underhand methods and tricks."

       But it's not true, Lankin thought. He was incredible. And there wasn't any sorcery in it, none at all. The man had been one of the sorcerer's minions, and therefore evil, but Lankin found himself wishing that he had killed him outright, so the man wouldn't have to endure Darius's tortures. He had fought well, and there had been no honour in the way Lankin had attacked him, three men against one.

       "It was all tricks," Thomas said. "There's no end to his evil. Darius took six men with him, but the sorcerer called up darkness, and the darkness came to his command. He kept the unnatural darkness around him like a cloak, and all the good men who came into his path came to grief because they couldn't see. Even Darius himself was struck down by one of the sorcerer's minions, but fortune preserved him."

       Is that how Darius is telling it in his speeches? Lankin wanted to ask. Are any of those words your own?

       "But he was hurt." Thomas smiled, showing his teeth. "And he won't escape us. We killed half of his men. Half a regiment is out there hunting down the two we know have escaped by themselves. We're all ready to respond, as soon as his trail is discovered."

       "How long has it been?" Lankin asked. He had a dim memory of waking up in a world of pain, and hearing a man coming towards him, desperate to help him. Lankin had tried to call out, "I'm here! Help me!" but the darkness had surged up and swallowed him alive. He almost asked Thomas who had found him, so he could find the owner of that voice and thank them, but Thomas was already speaking.

       "Only a day," Thomas said, "but he's not gone far. We found a wounded scout. Before he died, he said that he'd seen the sorcerer disappear through a door of light. So he's taken refuge in a place of sorcery. But he's got to come out one day, and, when he does, we'll be waiting. He doesn't stand a chance."

       But that was what Darius had said before. He had smiled and told Lankin how the sorcerer would walk into the trap and be utterly destroyed. That was why they had held their fire when they could have struck. It was to be a flawless trap, or so Darius had said, but the sorcerer had escaped, and whose fault was that?

       "How many did we lose?" Lankin asked, without looking at Thomas. He barely recognised his friend. For months, Lankin had been the favoured one, and Thomas had been the one reduced to always asking questions, but suddenly it was the other way round. There was a harshness to Thomas that Lankin had never seen before.

       "Too many." Thomas sighed, a sound closer to a snarl. "A dozen good men lost, and dozens more hurt in falls in the darkness. They're all martyrs, killed by sorcery."

       But the two men with Lankin had been killed by an ordinary man, wielding a sword. How many of the others had died just because they had been outclassed in a simple fight, one man against one?

       "He will be held to account for every one," Thomas swore. "And, if there are traitors amongst us who helped him escape, they too will pay."

       There was such venom in his voice. Lankin was slow to realise the reason. "You think I...?"

       Thomas sighed, and when he spoke again, his voice was softer. "I don't know what to think, Lankin. For months you've been lording it over us all, so proud of being in Darius's favour. No-one trusted me enough to tell me what was happening. I was called out and sent against the sorcerer king, only to find that you'd all expected him for days, and had it all planned out in secret. So how do you expect me to feel? The people who knew about it let him slip away. Why was that?"

       Because the plan was flawed, Lankin thought. Darius was too confident.

       "And then I see how you left your post and failed to bring down one man," Thomas continued, his voice rising. "And the six men with Darius failed to take the enemy. One of them even shot another one dead, you know. Darius trusted only a few of you, but he trusted you not to fail. And you did fail. If I'd known about it, maybe I could have done better than you."

       "It wasn't our fault!" Lankin burst out, without meaning to.

       Thomas looked at him, and then, amazingly, he smiled. "I know it wasn't, Lankin. Gresham is making noises about getting you stripped of your rank, but that's just his way of paying you back for having more power than he has. No-one's really listening to him. Everyone knows it wasn't your fault. It was the sorcerer king. He used his powers to confuse you, so you thought it was a good idea to leave your post. Everything that happened, happened because of his evil."

       Lankin swallowed. "Yes," he said, looking away. "Yes. And he will pay."

       Thomas touched his hand, fist against fist, in an echo of their old childish oath "He will pay."

       And he would, Lankin thought. So Darius was overconfident, and that had given the enemy the chance to slip away. So some of the dead had been killed, not by sorcery, but by a master swordsmen in a fair fight. What difference did it make? Sorcery was still evil, and the sorcerer king had to be killed. It was hard to see clearly when you were hurting badly, lying in a sick bed only inches from death. When Lankin found him, he would hurt him and make him scream, and take revenge for every doubt.

       "He will pay," he swore, and this time he did look at Thomas, and the two of them smiled together. But something had changed, Lankin thought. Things would be different from now on, darker and less secure.

      

 

       Thurstan had no idea where he was. Amalric had snapped at him when he had questioned where they were going, telling him to shut up and just follow. As twilight came, they were in a horrid place, stagnant and damp.

       "We'll stop here," Amalric announced, "and start again before it's light tomorrow." He dismounted, sinking up to his ankles in the mud.

       Thurstan sat heavily on his horse, wavering with exhaustion. "Here? But it's wet."

       "Of course it's wet." Amalric splashed through the marshy grass, and tied his horse to a willow tree. "The water will confuse anyone who's tracking us. Weren't you taught anything?"

       From the mountains, the lowlands looked utterly flat and featureless, with clear visibility for miles and miles. Of course, it was nothing like that, now he was there. It was full of small rises and dips, with broad streams and long hedgerows and well-tended coppices of trees. It was a cultivated land, scattered with towns and villages and people, and Thurstan didn't like it.

       "We can hide under the trees," Amalric said. "It won't be as wet there."

       Thurstan looked around miserably. "What can we eat?" It seemed wrong to be hungry, for the need for food was a trivial thing, too normal for the awful happenings of the day, but he was.

       Amalric flapped his hand. "We'll find something." He crouched down, peering at the water as if he was looking for fish.

       Still on horseback, Thurstan peered over his shoulder. There was no-one there. All day he had been looking, but he had never been able to see anyone. As the day went on, he found himself wishing that he could. It was too good to be true. It had to be some sort of trap. They couldn't really have escaped, could they?

       "We got away," Amalric was saying, when Thurstan turned back. As Thurstan dismounted, Amalric smiled with satisfaction. "They must have fallen for my trick and followed the other horses. I took us by a clever route, and we've lost them for good."

       But, as long as there was no-one coming up behind him, that meant that the king was still lost. A horse behind them didn't need to be the enemy. It could be the king hurrying to catch up with them and make everything all right. But the sun had set and the sky was grey, and the day was over and he hadn't come.

       "What happened?" Amalric asked him.

       Thurstan started. "What?"

       Amalric frowned with irritation. "What happened in the citadel?"

       Thurstan knelt down, too tired to stand, despite the inch-deep water. "We got all the way in before they attacked." He plucked at a blade of thick grass. "Julien died. Reynard almost died, too, but the king brought him back. But it hurt him somehow. He wasn't strong. We..." He closed his eyes, clutching the blade of grass tight enough to hurt. "We found Gerhard, but it was horrible. And then a man found us, but the king did some magic and we got away. Ranulf died on the walls. Joscelin died when I was carrying him. It was..." His voice ran out, choked in shameful tears.

       "What happened to Gerhard?" Amalric demanded.

       "Gerhard..." When his eyes were closed, he could still see him, horrible and deformed in the dark cell. When he opened his eyes, he just saw the forsaken swamp, and Amalric's uncaring face, and he missed the king terribly. He even found himself missing Reynard, even though he was a murderer. "Gerhard... died," he managed to say. "He was too badly hurt to come with us, so Reynard killed him."

       "Reynard?" Amalric's eyes widened, and he started to laugh. "I bet he found that satisfying."

       "He didn't!" Thurstan shouted. "Gerhard kept asking the king to kill him, but Reynard knew the king would hate himself if he killed anyone. He did it to spare the king. He did it because Gerhard wanted it."

       "You really believe that?" There was still a trace of smile on Amalric's face.

       "Yes." And Thurstan realised that he did. He hated Reynard for it, and perhaps he would never be able to look at him without remembering it, but he understood why he had done it. Gerhard had asked for it. Gerhard had refused all offers of help. They'd gone through so much to save him, and he'd just wanted to give up and die. Three men had died in the attempt to rescue him, and they might as well not even have set out.

       "Maybe you're right." Amalric leant a little closer to Thurstan. "Was Gerhard your father?" he whispered, as if he was confiding a secret in a crowded room.

       The blade of grass snapped off in Thurstan's hand, and a bird cried out across the marsh, an eerie whooping sound. "No," he said. "I thought he might be, but he wasn't." He didn't understand everything Gerhard had said before dying, but he understood that much. At the time, he had barely noticed it. So many hopes had been crashing down, and the hope that Gerhard was his father had been the smallest one of all.

       "Then Reynard is," Amalric said. "It had to be one or the other. We were all wondering."

       The grass floated on the surface of the water, and the bird sounded again, closer this time. He saw a dark shape in the reeds, wading on long legs. When he turned back to Amalric, his face was still there, his lips still shaping the last sound he had made.

       "Reynard," Thurstan croaked. "Reynard's my father?"

       "But you knew about it already, didn't you?" Amalric bit his lip, and his voice faltered. "You did? I assumed you did. He really didn't tell you?"

       Thurstan shook his head mutely. Reynard, he thought. My father.

       Amalric glanced over his shoulder, as if he was hoping for someone else to come up behind him and take over. "Gerhard was Reynard's older brother. He seduced Reynard's wife back when I was a boy. He chose exile before Reynard could fight him for it. The woman went with him. That's all I know."

       "The woman," Thurstan echoed. He looked at his hands, spreading them so he could see the palms, then clenching them into fists. "My mother. What was my mother called?"

       Amalric shook his head. "I don't know. But I know that Gerhard was... powerful. Dangerously so. Reynard was only the little brother, the pale shadow who could never be as strong or as popular as Gerhard. Gerhard had everything, but even then he wasn't happy until he'd taken Reynard's family from him."

       "Did he love her?" Thurstan whispered.

       "Reynard? I don't know. But he wasn't always like he is now, or so I hear. Gerhard? I don't think so."

       "He always liked to win," Thurstan said faintly. "I think he enjoyed his life in exile. He didn't have to bow to anyone. And he never told me her name. He never showed me where she was buried."

       "Reynard always hated Gerhard," Amalric said.

       "Gerhard said he kept me with him out of revenge." Thurstan felt sick. "He didn't want me with him, he only wanted to stop Reynard from having me."

       "I thought you knew about it." It was Amalric's turn to pluck at the grass, tearing up blade after blade. "I didn't know you didn't know. You ought to have known." He sounded almost angry, as if he blamed Thurstan for being ignorant.

       Thurstan wrapped his arms around his knees. "It's all right," he said, quite calmly. "I know now, and it's all right."

      

 

       On the second day, they were discovered. They were skirting the edge of a town, blundering through the fields of ripe crops, when a man rose up from the yellow wheat, a scythe in his hands. "Who are you?" he demanded. "Keep away!"

       Amalric made as if to draw his sword and cut the man down, but Thurstan pushed forward. "We don't mean any harm," he said.

       "Oh, I know who you are," the man chuckled. "Are you going to kill me before I can turn you in, then?"

       Thurstan looked sharply at Amalric. "We're not going to kill you."

       "No?" To Thurstan's amazement, the man lowered his scythe. "That's good. But I wasn't planning on turning you in. Good luck to you, is what I say."

       Thurstan had no idea how to respond. The man was wishing them luck? He had always been told that everyone in the duchy hated the Kindred, but not everything he had been taught was right, he knew that now. Maybe there were safe havens out there with soft beds and warm food and smiles, where you could sleep for a night without fear and discomfort. He had never had such a night before.

       "They came here a few months ago," the man said. "That was volunteers only, though. We've heard tales of the press-gangs. If they come for my sons, I'll be helping them escape, I can tell you."

       Thurstan didn't know what he was talking about, but then he glanced at Amalric and saw the stolen uniform he was wearing. The man thought they were deserters from Darius's army.

       "It's always us," the man said. "Who is this Lord Darius anyway? We've never seen him, that's for sure. Sits there in the comfort of the city and makes orders that steal our children from us. I bet no-one in the city has to join the army. When the enemy attacks, our sons will die defending Eidengard, and no-one cares about us. Will the armies come to our defence, if the bandits attack? I don't think so."

       Thurstan swallowed, his mouth dry. The man wasn't a friend at all. He would kill them without a thought if he realised who they were. The Kindred had no hope at all. Even Lord Darius's enemies hated them.

       "Are they looking for you, do you think?" the man asked. "I can offer you a bed for the night, but I don't want any trouble."

       Thurstan shook his head, but his throat was too dry to speak. He had said too much already, and hadn't even tried to disguise his accent. If they stayed here for a minute longer, he thought, the man would work out the truth and kill them. They had to go. They had to go now.

       His heart fluttering in his throat, he kicked his horse into a canter, smashing through the shimmering wheat. Amalric followed him, then galloped past him, and was leading again, and Thurstan was only following, just the same as before.

      

 

       No-one caught them up. They passed several more towns, but kept their distance, and didn't speak to anyone else. Soon they reached the hills, and that meant that they were over half way there. Amalric's brother was waiting for them in the forest, and they had to reach it. It was Thurstan's only home now. Everyone from the mountains was dead, but that had never really been his home after all. His father was Reynard, and Reynard came from the forest.

       Maybe the king had reached home before them, travelling by paths only he could travel. Maybe Reynard was there with him, waiting for Thurstan to come back. He tried to envisage the meeting, but could not. He wanted to scream at him for killing Gerhard, but he understood why Reynard had done it. He wanted to hate him forever for not telling him he was his father, and he wanted to love him, and be loved. 

       He slept only occasionally, and his sleep was full of dreams of Gerhard and Reynard and the king, and of Amalric riding away and leaving him behind. Then, one morning, he woke to find Amalric gone.

       The sun had already risen, showing a pretty hillside scattered with thyme and rabbit burrows. He sat up and stretched. They were getting close to the forest now, and there had still been no sign of pursuit. By evening, they would be firmly in Kindred territory, in the woods that the people of the duchy were scared to enter.

       He stood up and walked over to his horse, greeting it cautiously. His horse had carried him well for days, but he was still a little nervous of the animal, not sure how to touch it. "Hello, girl," he said. The horse tossed its head and snorted.

       Sensing movement behind him, he whirled round, in time to see Amalric striding down the slope, three dead rabbits dangling from his left hand. "Breakfast," he said, "and enough to keep over for lunch and dinner." Even as he spoke, a rabbit hopped past Thurstan, close enough that he could have snatched it up in his hand. Amalric could have just stayed still and shot them, without going away and putting them both at risk by being alone.

       "Can we light a fire, then?" Thurstan wondered.

       "Of course we can," Amalric snapped. "We're nearly home now. I got us home safely. No-one can deny that."

       When the others had stayed behind, missing or lost. Thurstan couldn't bear to look at Amalric's proud face. It was shameful to be the only ones returning home, when four better men and the king did not. "I was just thinking…" he mumbled. "I know we're getting close, but it's still not safe. We can't relax. We still have to be careful."

       "I'm in charge, and I say we light the fire." Amalric threw down the rabbits, then rubbed his wrist, grimacing. "Something bit me. Some stupid snake. Skin the rabbits, boy," he snapped, when Thurstan made no attempt to move.

       Thurstan drew his knife, and set to work.

      

 

       Just as the day was at its hottest, Amalric toppled off his horse. Struggling to his feet, he walked a weaving course forward for a few steps, then fell onto his face. This time he didn't get up.

       Thurstan dismounted and ran to his side. He rolled Amalric onto his back, and, as he did so, Amalric's arm flopped onto the ground. The wrist was grotesquely swollen, the skin red and puffy around two small wounds that leaked bloody yellow fluid.     "Why didn't you say anything?" Thurstan breathed. "I didn't know."

       Amalric opened his eyes. "Don't feel so good," he slurred. "Don't know what's wrong. Be better soon, though. Got to get on."

       "It's time for lunch anyway," Thurstan told him, pushing him back when he struggled to rise. "Let's have a rest."

       Amalric's eyes slid shut. His breathing was noisy, fighting past a constriction in his throat. Thurstan bit his lip and looked all around him, desperately searching for something that could be of use, but they were alone in the green hills, still several hours from the forest. There was no-one to help him.

       "Are we nearly there?" Amalric murmured. "I'm sleepy."

       "Nearly there," Thurstan told him.

       "I did well, didn't I?" Amalric opened his eyes and grabbed Thurstan wrist with his good arm. "I showed them all. I saved your life, didn't I? They couldn't keep themselves alive, but I managed it. They'll have to respect me now. I've done something even he couldn't have done."

       "You did well." Thurstan looked round again, but nothing had changed. His horse pawed the ground impatiently. Hurry up, it was telling him. Get him home. Someone else will know what to do.

       "Have to get home," Amalric mumbled. "Not over till we're home." He managed to stand and walk a few staggering steps, then fell again. "Have to get home." He seemed unaware that he had fallen, moving his legs as if he was still walking.

       Stop it! Thurstan wanted to scream. "Do you want some water?" he asked. When Amalric didn't respond, he tried again. "Why don't you go to sleep? I'll keep watch. You'll feel better when you wake up."

       And maybe he would. Most snakes were harmless, and even the deadly ones were shy of people and never attacked unless provoked into it by fear. "Only a fool lets himself get bitten by a snake," Gerhard had once said, when one of his men came home nursing a bite. He'd been sick for a while, but he hadn't died, and it would be the same for Amalric. It had to be.

       Amalric slept, but his breath started rattling in his throat, and he cried out, tormented with dreams. The sun had barely moved in the sky before his eyes snapped open. He lashed out at Thurstan with surprising strength. "Why are you keeping me here?" he screamed. "I need to get home! Why are you stopping me?"

       Thurstan hurled himself backwards, only narrowly avoiding the blows. "You need to get better," he said, edging forward again, trying to sound confident and non-threatening. "I'm just trying to take care of you."

       "Traitor!" Amalric screamed. "I know your game! You want to get back first. You want all the glory. You want to tell tales on me. No wonder Reynard didn't want you to be his son. Did he and Gerhard bicker over who would be saddled with you? Did Reynard draw the short straw? But I'm on to you. I know your game."

       I won't listen, Thurstan told himself. Don't think about it, not yet. "You don't know what you're saying," he said. "You're really sick. You have to sleep."

       He dared touch Amalric on the shoulder, pushing him back to the ground. Amalric tried to fight him, but was too weak. "Don't trust you," he murmured, as he rolled onto his side and curled up. "Don't trust anyone."

       "But I'll keep watch," Thurstan promised. "I won't let anyone hurt you. I'll make sure you get back home."

       And then he sat and waited, arms wrapped round his knees, Amalric's angry words echoing round his head until he thought he was going to scream.

      

 

       Amalric slept until sunset. "Strange," he murmured, and that was Thurstan's first sign that he was awake.

       Thurstan started, his head coming up, and the dagger he was clutching in his aching hand coming too. "What?"

       "No, not strange," Amalric murmured. "It was only to be expected, really."

       Thurstan licked his lips. "What?"

       "That I'm going to die like this, all alone, killed by a snake bite. What a fitting end for a failure like me."

       Thurstan scrambled to his side. "You're not going to die."

       "I wanted so much." Amalric sighed, the breath wheezing in his throat. "I wanted to find something special that I could do better than anyone else, but there wasn't anything. I never used to mind. Father and Oliver were the great ones. I wasn't great, but I could help them. I could love them. And they'd love me and that was all that mattered."

       "You're not going to die." Thurstan took hold of Amalric's hand, but now it was as cold as if it was already dead. "Stop talking like this. You need to sleep."

       "Then Oliver stopped needing me. So I told myself it didn't matter. So what if he didn't want me? I'd show him that I didn't need him. I'd do better things that he could ever do. I'd make him respect me. I'd make him love me again."

       "Oliver loves you," Thurstan said, but Amalric gave a scornful laugh, and Thurstan felt ashamed. What did he know about anything? He had never had to comfort anyone before, and he knew he was doing it wrong.

       "Oliver's got his Elias now," Amalric spat. "His precious king, closer to him than his own brother is. And he's got his Adela, and they're kissing and laughing, and it's not fair. I was his only friend. I was there for him for years. But he doesn't even like me much. He likes them much more. The king killed my father. Did you know that?"

       Thurstan's hand rose half way to his mouth, then fell back again. "Did he?" "No," Amalric said, with weary bitterness. "He just died. And the king saved my life by pulling me away from my father's body. But I blamed him all the same. It's easier to hate, you know?" He looked Thurstan full in the face. "So that's who I am. I hate the man who can save us all, just because I'm jealous. I'm a failure. I'm dying as failures ought to die, not in battle, and all alone."

       "You're not a failure!" Thurstan cried. "You saved my life! You made me come away. If you hadn't, I'd have stayed there, and they'd have caught me. And I wouldn't have known how to get back. I'd have got lost. And…" He glanced wildly around. "And Reynard chose you to come," he babbled. "He wouldn't choose just anyone."

       "He felt sorry for me," Amalric said. "He knows what it's like to be overshadowed by your brother. Even Reynard has a soft spot in his heart. He took his real fighters, and then he took me. I know that now. I was so proud when he chose me. I thought my time had finally come."

       Thurstan squeezed his hand, his vision blurring with tears. "You did do well."

       "I didn't." Amalric turned his head away. "I struck the king. I shot at him. I ran away with the horses. I nearly killed us all, and you know it. You're lying."

       Thurstan tried to protest, but could not frame the words.

       "And Oliver never betrayed me," Amalric continued. "He tried to stay friends with me, but I wouldn't listen.. I wouldn't share him, so I lost him. It was all my fault. I was stupid. I'm going to die stupid."

       "You're not going to die," Thurstan said, his voice cracking. "What can I do to help you?"

       "Nothing." Amalric tried to lift his wounded arm. He grimaced with pain, but managed it, resting it on Thurstan's arm. "Just tell Oliver I'm sorry. Tell him I know how stupid I was. Tell him I failed. And don't do what I did."

       "I will," Thurstan promised him, but Amalric wasn't satisfied. His swollen fingers closed round Thurstan's arm.

       "We're alike, you and me," he said. "Don't end up like me. Don't live for the approval of just one man. Don't try to be great. Some of us are mediocrities. Some people can only follow. When the great ones smile at us, it's nice, but we can't expect it. We just live our little lives, and accept the pathetic little nothings that we are. It's better that way. Better to be nothing than to try to be everything and to fail."

       Was Amalric saying that he was nobody? Thurstan wanted to pull away, but it would be wrong to fight a dying man. "I... I'll try," he whispered, not sure what he was promising himself to.

       Amalric gave a harsh laugh. "You'll have to change, then. You're so like I was, so desperate to please your king. Here, my lord, look at me, my lord, smile at me, my lord, are you pleased with me, my lord... Forget it, Thurstan. Give up. All you've got is yourself, your own small self. We're all alone."

       It's not like that! Thurstan wanted to scream. Please tell me it's not like that! But Amalric's eyes slid shut and his head lolled to one side. Thurstan wiped the tears from his eyes. "Go to sleep," he whispered. "You'll feel better soon."

       "Failed," Amalric whispered, through cracked lips. "Leave my body. I don't deserve a warrior's burial."

       Those were his last words. It was still light when Amalric died.

      

 

       He spent the night wide awake, crouched beside the body of a dead man. In the morning, he struggled to lift Amalric onto the horse. It took six attempts. Once, Amalric slithered from the horse and fell on top of Thurstan, the two of them going down in a tangle of limbs. Amalric's dead face fell onto Thurstan's, cold lips on his cheek. Thurstan clawed him away and was sick.

       The sun rose, and Thurstan whispered his horse forward, clutching the reins of Amalric's horse in his left hand. They moved slowly, plodding down from the hills. "Is this the right way?" he asked Amalric, but the dead man didn't answer. He was tied to the horse with loose ropes around his wrists and ankles, like a sack of rags.

       The sky was soft and lovely, and the sunlight bright. It showed the horrid greyness of Amalric's flesh, and the darker bruise on the back of his neck, where the blood had settled upon death. It made it look as if Amalric had been murdered. "I didn't do it," Thurstan pleaded, imagining a ring of accusers, Oliver at the front.

       The sun went high in the sky, then lower again. Thurstan was hot and thirsty, trudging onwards, hours all blending into one. Then there were dark shadows around him, and he knew he had entered the forest, but he didn't see the marker stone, where the king had crouched down and spoken dreamily of borderlands. Maybe it wasn't the right forest after all.

       Leaves crunched underfoot, turning brown with coming autumn. How long did it take for a body to decay? It had been hot in the hills, and heat made things smell. The shadows in the forest were damp, and dampness made things rot. It was autumn, and things died and decayed.

       A crow squawked, eying him hungrily. Crows were carrion birds. They wanted to pluck out Amalric's eyes. "Go away," he begged them, but was too tired to flap his hand. "Leave him alone."

       Amalric had told him to leave his body behind, but how could he do that? Gerhard had died so far from home, and they'd left his body for the enemy. At least Amalric would have a proper burial. Joscelin had died in his arms and been abandoned, but he wouldn't abandon Amalric.

       He passed a night huddled in the forest, and started off again at dawn. He kept on smelling horrid things, but didn't know if it was Amalric or himself. He hadn't washed for days. The trees hung low, their branches like claws. Once, a branch with a sharp pointed end like a two-pronged fork plucked at Amalric's body, and got tangled with his clothes. It scored a red line along his flesh, but it did not bleed. Then it hooked itself under his belt, and tugged him off balance.

       Thurstan cried out. Amalric's body slid from the horse and fell heavily to the ground. The twine around his wrists hung loose, the feeble knots long since unravelled, though Thurstan had not noticed. The ropes around his ankles still held, so Amalric lay on the ground, with his legs lashed above him. If the horse started moving, it would drag Amalric helplessly behind him, and his flesh would be flayed off in bloody fragments by the stones of the forest floor.

       Thurstan tried to pick Amalric up, to lift him onto the horse again, but he was too tired. His face pressed against Amalric's throat, and he retched again, but had nothing left in his stomach to bring up.

       "I can't go any further," he moaned. "I can't."  He had to bury Amalric here, all by himself. Then he could go and get Oliver, so Oliver could say the right things over the grave. Thurstan didn't know what the right words were. He didn't know anything at all.

       He didn't have anything to dig the grave with, only his dagger. It would have to do. Why were his hands shaking? Something was pounding between his eyes when he stood up, but it didn't matter. When Amalric was buried, he would let himself sleep for a little bit, but not too close, because bad dreams would rise from the grave in the shape of a rotten corpse come to blame him for not carrying it home.

       He started hacking at the ground, but the ground was hard and dry, with roots too close to the surface. He tried again and again until he found a place where it went in to the hilt and hit nothing. "Here," he said. "I'll bury you here." But then the dagger snapped, and he scraped it several times across the ground before he realised that he was holding only the hilt, and it wouldn't cut any more. This time he tried with his hands, clawing at the ground with his fingers, nails cracking and skin bleeding.

       Why wouldn’t it go deep? He was pouring with sweat, wavering with exhaustion, but it wasn't deep enough to bury a dog, though he thought it was long enough for a man. He tested it by lying down full length in the hole, folding his hands on his chest, and pretending to be a corpse. Walls of earth enclosed him, but not nearly deep enough. "More," he sobbed, pushing himself out of the grave. "Deeper."

       And he was still sobbing when they found him. Sweat dripped in his eyes and left him blind, and all he could do was looking mutely in the direction of the person who grasped hold of his shoulder.

       "You can stop now," the man told him.

       Thurstan blinked. "I can't." He tried to tear himself from the man's grip and carry on digging. "Please don't make me."

       "You're coming with us," the man said. "We'll take care of everything."

       We'll take care of everything. Thurstan froze. "Really?" He wasn't the only one. It didn't come down to him any more. Here was someone bigger and stronger, and they could take charge, and he could rest.

       "Yes." He could see the man now, with his broad tanned face. There were other men behind him, and Thurstan had no idea who they were. And it didn't matter at all. They'd come, and it was up to them what happened now.

       "I'm tired," Thurstan whispered, as he slumped forward into the half-dug grave, and fell asleep.

 

 

       Something was different about the city. Lankin could tell that at once, but he was slow to work out the reason for it.

       He had walked slowly down the hill from the citadel, and was resting against a wall, trying to regain his strength for the walk back. As he stood there, people bustled around him, and their talk lapped around him like waves.

       "To think that the sorcerer king was here, walking amongst us, bold as brass…" a woman was saying. "It's enough to give you nightmares for life."

       There was unease in the city, yes. The woman was not the only one speaking aloud of her fear. No-one knew when the enemy would return, and what form the next attack would take, and that made them scared. But that wasn't it, Lankin thought. Their fear was understandable, and he had seen it before. It wasn't fear that made the city feel different.

       A wave of pain stabbed at him, and he doubled up, gasping. "Are you all right, sir?" someone asked him. "He doesn't look all right," a woman replied. "Do you need help? Is there anyone we can get for you? Anywhere we can take you to?"

       Lankin forced himself upright again. "I'm fine," he said. "An injury. I'm getting better. It still hurts sometimes."

       They accepted it reluctantly, but shot him anxious looks over their shoulders as they walked away. Only after they had gone did he realise the truth. They had been friendly to him, genuinely concerned, and they were not the only ones. He had stayed leaning against the wall for nearly an hour, and in that time dozens of people had smiled at him, or nodded a good morning.

       It was because he was not wearing his uniform, he realised. If he had been standing here dressed as a Soldier of Light, people would have passed him with averted eyes.

       He had never realised before how afraid people were of the Soldiers of Light. More people in the city had seen loved ones die at the hands of the Soldiers of Light than at the hands of the sorcerers. Of course, the loved ones in question had been traitors, and it had been right to kill them, but it was easy for the people to forget that sight. Whenever they saw a Soldier of Light, they wondered if the soldiers had come for them. 

       Not that Lankin had joined Darius's army in order to be popular. Sacrifices had to be made in order to do what needed to be done. The Soldiers of Light did what was best, even if the people sometimes failed to understand their reasons. Even so, he thought, it was nice to be smiled at again, to experience the things that were good and honest in the duchy that he was fighting so hard to preserve.

       As he pushed himself away from the wall, he heard a man haranguing his friend. "It's traitors, I tell you," he was shouting. "Isn't that what Lord Darius himself said last year, when the sorcerer king escaped justice last time? Darius told us we needed to make sacrifices. We've given him our money. We've promised him our sons for his army. We've given him everything he asked for, but the sorcerer king still got away. Whose fault was it? Not ours."

       "Not ours," his friend agreed.

       "So where has all our money gone? Why did he escape just like he did last year, when the traitors were in charge? Because the traitors are still in charge. What other answer can there be? They let us down, the people who are supposed to protect us from the enemy's evil. There are still traitors in high places, sabotaging everything we do. They need to be rooted out."

       "Darius will do it," his friend said, but more doubtfully now.

        "They'd better capture the sorcerer soon," the man said, "or there'll be trouble. We can only take so much. We've made our sacrifices. Now we need to see results."

       He would be arrested before the week was over, Lankin thought, but he would not be the one to do the deed. The man was a right-thinking enemy of sorcery, who wanted to see his people safe. Lankin could well understand his need to find someone to blame. Darius had started something dangerous, with all his rhetoric of traitors in high places, who let sorcerers escape unpunished. Once the idea had been planted, it was hard to forget.

       His arm pressed against his healing side, Lankin started to walk slowly back to the citadel. Everything was falling apart. Things that had always seemed so certain suddenly seemed cloudy and confused. He had lost his way. He needed to speak to Darius, he realised. Darius had a way of making things clear. When he spoke to you, you realised how foolish you had been to think any other way.

       As if fortune itself had heard his request, he was met at the citadel gates by a page boy. "Lord Darius wants to see you, sir," the boy told him. "Do you...?"

       "I know the way." Lankin's wound suddenly seemed to hurt worse than it had done for days. Lankin was bad at hiding his feelings, and Darius was so astute, able to read secrets in a man's face. Would Darius know that he had been having doubts?

       His steps grew slower and slower as he walked along the tiled corridor, and up the stairs to Darius's suite of rooms. "Come in, Lankin," Darius called, before Lankin had even brought his fist up to knock. Taking a deep breath, Lankin opened the door.

       Darius was standing with his back to the window. "How are you feeling, Lankin?" he asked, without turning round.

       Lankin was hunched over, desperate to sit down, but he forced his back to straighten. "Getting stronger every day. I'll be back on active duty soon." He breathed in, and out. "And you, my lord?" Darius had been wounded by one of the sorcerer king's minions, though no-one knew exactly what had happened. Three of the men with him had died in the cells, and the other three had been part of a group sent after some of the fugitives, and had never come back.

       "Better than ever," Darius said. "He wasn't as strong as he thought he was, and I was wearing mail under my clothes. You can't take chances with men as full of guile and tricks as these, can you?"

       "No." Lankin shifted his weight from foot to foot, trying to find a position that didn't hurt. He would make his confession, he decided, and face whatever he had to face. "I..."

       "No need to say it." Darius turned round. "I have eyes and ears everywhere, Lankin. I know that you've been having doubts." It came with a thin smile, so mild and innocuous, though the words turned Lankin cold. They could be his death sentence. Darius often smiled as he killed people.

       "I haven't..." he stammered. But he would face it like a soldier, he resolved. Darius knew everything already, and perhaps Lankin's only chance would come from being honest. "I've been wondering how the enemy got away, yes," he admitted. "I have been wondering who made mistakes. I know I did. I made a false assumption. If I hadn't, two promising young soldiers would still be alive, and I might have taken down my man, and come back to bring warning. Punish me as you see fit."

       Darius spread his hands. "You will not be punished. Everyone makes mistakes. Yes, Lankin, even me. You are right in some of your doubts. I thought I knew how he'd act and how to capture him, but he surprised me with his evil tricks. Could I have guarded against it better? Probably. I will bear the guilt for that failure until I die. No-one could possibly blame me more than I blame myself. "

       "But it wasn't your fault," Lankin burst out. Darius looked so sad and defeated, and Lankin bore part of the blame for it. What had he been thinking, to doubt such a man? "You did everything you could, but who can predict the actions of a fiend? Who can fathom the depths of his evil? No right thinking man can."

       Darius sighed, passing his hand over his eyes. "Maybe, Lankin. Maybe you're right, but I fear that you are not. I fear that I have done the duchy a grave disservice. I have betrayed their trust. I took their money and their young men, but I did nothing with it. I let the enemy escape, just like those traitors who served the old duke did. I'm no better than they were."

       "You're not a traitor!" Lankin cried. "There'll always be people who don't understand, but you mustn't listen to them. Of course the war will be long and hard, and we won't win every battle. Of course many people will only see the defeats, and will try to blame someone, but they're wrong. Wars aren't won by being popular. A truly great man like you does what he needs to do, whatever the cost to himself."

       "Thank you." Darius seemed genuinely moved. Reaching behind him, he found the back of his chair and guided himself down into it. "I'm not giving up, Lankin. We will still capture him, I'm sure of it."

       "I'm sure of it, too." Lankin raised his chin, and there was hardly any pain from his wound at all. He felt strong enough to face anything. As soon as Darius dismissed him, he would go back to his room and put his uniform on. He would be a Soldier of Light again. Perhaps the ignorant people would fear him, but he knew what he was doing was right, and done for their own good.

       "You can rest assured of it." Darius stood up again, looking as invigorated as Lankin felt. "I thank you for your faith in me. It means more to me, coming as it did after your doubts, than if you'd never doubted me. A fool can follow without questioning, but to earn the loyalty of a man who can think for himself... I was right to place such trust in you, Lankin."

       "I won't let you down," Lankin vowed, and he meant it. He would be the most loyal follower of them all, and he would catch the sorcerer king.

      

 

       They came up behind him silently, and did not say a word. They could not even bring themselves to say his name.

       Oliver turned round slowly, as something terrible lurched inside him. "What is it?" he croaked. "What's happened?" But what else could it be? What else could fill the faces of the Kindred with such devastation and grief?

       They approached him, closing in on both sides. "We found..." one said, then the other took it up from his choked silence. "The boy came back, but he was alone."

       "All by himself?" Oliver took a step towards them, wanting to grab them and shake them until it wasn't true. "The others..."

       "The king and Reynard are missing, or so he says. The others are dead."

       "Missing?" He closed his eyes and turned his head away, and the only sound he was produce was the faintest whisper. In the trees above him, the wind whispered and mourned. "Where?"

       "He hasn't been able to tell us yet," they said. "But..." Again, they glanced at each other, twisting hands in front of them. "Your brother is only recently dead. The boy was trying to bury him when we found him."

       "Amalric." He pressed both hands to his face. "Where is he?" he demanded, as he lowered them. "Where's the boy?"

       They pointed, and said something that he didn't even try to hear. He started to run, cloak slapping around his legs, branches tearing at him. Someone called his name. He crashed into someone and sent them flying, and scared faces watched him. He was out of breath, panting, chest tearing, and the wind took the smoke from the fire and billowed it around him, making him cough. He hurled open the door, and then he was inside, in Ranulf's tent, where Thurstan was huddled in a thin blanket on the edge of the bed, staring at nothing.

       He wanted to scream at him. What happened? How could you come back alone? As Thurstan looked at him mutely, he knelt down on the floor, pressing his trembling hands against his knees. "What happened?" he asked, and it was amazing how calm he could sound. "Tell me."

       Thurstan plucked at the edge of the blanket with one cracked and bleeding nail. "Will you make it better?" he whispered.

       Oliver let out a long breath. "I don't know," he said. "But you'll feel better if you tell someone, I know that." He touched Thurstan's hand. "You don't have to bear it alone any more. I'm here."

       Thurstan started to speak, his voice flat and expressionless. "We went into the citadel. The king found a white sword, but the soldiers killed Julien. Reynard died, but the king saved him. Gerhard looked horrible. Reynard killed him, and Amalric says he's my father, but he killed Gerhard to stop him hurting. A man came. He hurt the king. The king made everything dark and we ran away, but Ranulf died. Joscelin died when I was supposed to be looking after him. The king went somewhere with magic. Amalric said we couldn't wait. We got away, but a snake bit him and he died. I wanted to bury him, but some men came and said they'd do it. But I did try. I really did."

       It was only on the last words that he faltered and looked like the traumatised boy that he was. Close to tears himself, Oliver pulled him into his arms. "I know you did. You did everything you could."

       "Will the king come back?" Thurstan asked, into Oliver's shoulder.

       Oliver's soothing hands checked only for a moment. "Of course he will."

 

 

       The funeral was at twilight of the second day. Thurstan stood on the back row, and his mind drifted, so he barely heard the formal words that Oliver said over his brother's grave. As the mourners drifted away, Thurstan just stood there, the blanket wrapped so loosely around him that it trailed on the ground. Soon there was no-one left but him and Oliver. Even Adela had gone, leaving Oliver alone.

       Oliver knelt down, and pressed his hand against the freshly-dug earth. Thurstan just watched. After a few minutes, Oliver turned round. "Thank you for coming, Thurstan."

       Thurstan wandered forward, hoisting the blanket higher around his shoulders. It was not enough to warm him. He had slept for hours, but was still deeply tired. His dreams were very bad.

       The grass was flattered with hundreds of footprints. "They all came," Thurstan said, remembering how Amalric had believed that no-one liked him or respected him. "Everyone was here."

       Oliver turned back to the grave. "But most of them didn't know him. They came because he was their seneschal's brother. Or they came to mourn Ranulf or Julien or Joscelin. When they said the words of farewell, how many of them were thinking of Amalric at all? But you," he said, before Thurstan could stammer an answer. "You were mourning him, Thurstan. That's why I thanked you. It means a lot to me."

       "I didn't really know him," Thurstan confessed. "But we were together for a few days, all alone. I was there when he died. I heard his last words."

       He had expected Oliver to ask what they were, but Oliver just stiffened and turned away, and said nothing.

       "He wanted me to tell you that he was sorry," Thurstan said. "He said you were estranged, but it was his fault. He said you did everything you could, but he was stupid and jealous and wouldn't listen."

       "He was," Oliver whispered, into the hand pressed against his mouth. "But I should have tried harder. I should have been more sensitive to his feelings. I was going to apologise, Amalric. When you came back, I was going to say sorry."

       Thurstan clutched the blanket, and stood frozen, not sure if he ought to edge away. Oliver was crying openly now, and Thurstan didn't know what to do.

       Just as he was about to move, Oliver turned round, wiping his eyes. "I'm sorry," he said. "Did he say anything else?"

       Amalric had said a lot more. He had died believing that he had failed everybody, and his last words had been that he didn't even deserve burial. He ought to tell Oliver that, Thurstan thought. Oliver had to know. Thurstan wasn't old enough to go round carrying secrets. He just reported what he had seen and heard, and the grown-ups decided what to do about it. That was how it had always been.

       "He said..." he began, but there were fresh tears on Oliver's blotchy cheeks, and desperate hope in his eyes. What would it do to him, if Thurstan told him the truth? How could it help him to know that his brother had died despairing? "He saved my life," he said, "and he led us all the way home. He was proud that Reynard had chosen him to go with him, and he knew that he'd proved himself. He was sorry that he wouldn't see you again, but he was happy that he'd been able to do something well. He said it was all he had ever wanted."

       "It was." Oliver was smiling through his tears. "I'm glad." He took Thurstan's hand. "Thank you, Thurstan."

       Thurstan had to turn away, terrified that Oliver would see in his face that he had been lying. He had given comfort to Oliver, but who could comfort him?

      

 

       The third night was windy, orange leaves rattling to the ground, but still Elias did not come.

       Long after everyone else was asleep, Oliver walked through the woods. Adela was waiting for him in their tent, but not even Adela could make him smile. He walked past Amalric's grave, then carried on. When he had gone several miles, he heard a wolf howling, all alone. "Nightshade?" he called, but the animal did not respond. After a while, he heard the howling again, further away. With Elias gone, there was nothing to draw the wolf to their camp.

       He sighed. He felt like the wolf, wanting to wander the forest all alone until the camp was a happy place to be. The Kindred were overwhelmed with gloom, and there were no smiles anywhere. Many tears had been shed for Ranulf and the others, and everyone longed for their king to return. Instead of looking to Oliver to reassure them, they just looked away when he approached, reluctant to intrude upon his grief.

       The wind wailed in the branches, and he felt a drop of rain on his cheek. It was time to go home. He had a duty, and he couldn't indulge himself in his grief. Maybe Elias would come back tomorrow.

       When he was almost back at the camp, he found Thurstan, huddled against a tree. Oliver stopped walking. "Thurstan?"

       "I couldn't sleep," the boy said.

       Oliver crouched beside him, then sat, stretching his legs out. The tree made a poor shelter, the wind blowing the rain in beneath its branches. "I couldn't, either."

       "I've been thinking..." Thurstan turned an anguished face towards him. "Do you think I should have stayed there?"

       Oliver sat very still. It would be easy to blame the boy. Many already did, though Oliver had ordered them not to. When seven went away, and only one came back, it was hard not to resent the survivor for living, when the others did not.

       "I wanted to stay," Thurstan cried, "but Amalric said... He said we had to save ourselves. He said the king was strong enough to save himself. He said he'd be upset if something happened to us because we'd waited."

       "And he would have been," Oliver assured him. "And Amalric was right. There's no point throwing your life away needlessly." But I'd have waited! something cried out inside him. Even if it was the wrong thing to do, I would never have left him.

       Thurstan leant his head back against the tree trunk, gazing up through the autumn leaves. "Do you know where the king has gone?"

       Oliver shook his head. "I don't know. But I think I can guess. It's what gives me hope. You said it was a flash of white, like a door? It looked just like that when he first came here, from his own world. So I think he's opened a door to his old world. Time's different there. So he'll rest until he's healed, then come back, but it might take a few weeks."

       "Is it dangerous in his old world?"

       "No." Oliver smiled. "Elias says it's like our world might be in a few hundred years. They have things there that we haven't got, but they don't kill people just for having enchantment. He was born in his own world's Eidengard, you know."

       "Has he got friends there?" Thurstan asked. "Will he stay?"

       There was Ciaran Morgan, of course. Elias had already chosen the Kindred over his old master once before, but it had almost destroyed him. If he went back to his own world and met Ciaran again, who could predict what would happen? But, "No," he told Thurstan. "He lived a secluded life there. Of course he won't stay."

       "Weeks, though," Thurstan murmured. "You said weeks."

       Oliver nodded, and smiled as he said brightly, "But he will come back. And it's not too bad waiting, when you know it will have a happy ending."

 

 

       The rain lasted for three days. By the sixth day, Thurstan wanted to scream. On the seventh day, he did. He kicked a rock into the stream, and stamped and snarled. Then he sank to the ground, and burst into tears.

       Oliver found him like that, a few hours later, when the tears had dried on his cheeks, and the fury had stilled to a dull hatefulness.

       "Is there anything I can do to help?" Oliver asked, but Thurstan said nothing at all. "Are you thinking about the king?" He said nothing. "About Gerhard?"

       Thurstan stamped to the edge of the stream and sat down, legs pulled up to his chest. "Gerhard's dead."

       Oliver sat down close behind him. "I never knew him well."

       The thin sunlight dappled the swollen stream. Across the water, the flowers were dying, and the river bank was becoming thick with fallen leaves. Neither did I, Thurstan thought.

       "I visited the mountains once," Oliver said. "I'd been to Eidengard in disguise, and I stayed with your people for a night on the way home. Gerhard was..."

       "Surly," Thurstan interrupted. "I remember you. He treated you better than most visitors, but he wasn't welcoming. He never was. And he wouldn't let me listen to your stories. He always shouted at me if he caught me listening in to adult talk."

       "He was a good man at heart," Oliver said, but what did Oliver know? People always spoke good of the dead. People always lied to the bereaved, just as Thurstan had lied to Oliver. "He defended the mountains well. He was loyal."

       Thurstan gave a harsh laugh. "I remember one day when I was about seven. Gerhard had promised to take me out and show me how to set a trap for a hare. It would be just him and me, no-one else around, and I was so excited. But he never came. I went to remind him, but he shouted at me. He'd promised, but it didn't even matter to him. I cried all night."

       "I'm sorry," Oliver murmured. "I'm sure he didn't mean..."

       "He did," Thurstan snapped. "He just didn't care if it upset me. Sometimes he liked hurting people. I once heard him telling everyone every detail of how he'd tortured and killed one of the duke's messengers. I thought it was horrible, but I told myself I was wrong. Gerhard did it, so it had to be right."

       "You don't have to..." Oliver began, but Thurstan interrupted him. "I'm supposed to remember only the good things now he's dead? But it's his fault that he's dead. We worked so hard to get him, but he didn't say thank you. All he did was ask the king to kill him. He didn't care how I'd feel if he died. Everyone else was dead and he was the only one, and I thought everything would be happy again if he was alive, but he didn't care about that. It's his fault that everyone died. It's all his fault!"

       He realised he was screaming, and Oliver was trying to catch hold of his struggling shoulders. "It's all right," Oliver was crooning, but it was a lie. It wasn't all right. It would never be all right. He had loved Gerhard for all his life, and now he hated him, and only horrible people hated the dead.

       "I loved him," he sobbed, "but he didn't care. He never told me who I was. He only kept me with him because it would hurt Reynard. I loved him, but I was so stupid."

       Oliver held him tight and let him sob. "It's all right to be angry with the dead," he told him. "Listen to me, Thurstan. There's nothing wrong with how you're feeling."

       "Really?" Thurstan pulled himself away, gouging the tears from his eyes. "Then why aren't you like me? Why don't you hate Amalric for getting himself killed before you could make it up with him? Why don't you hate him for leaving the king behind?"

       Oliver went very still. "Maybe I blame him, a bit," he whispered, his face like a white mask, "but I still mourn him. There are happy memories, too."

       "I don't have any," Thurstan snarled, turning away. All his happy memories were poisoned, tainted by the knowledge that Gerhard only kept him out of revenge. Even the rare smiles he had always cherished suddenly seemed like the triumphant grin of a warrior, pleased with his captive. Nothing about his home was the same as he had thought it was. It was all gone, and everything had changed.

       "It's only natural to feel angry," Oliver told him, "but I'm sure Gerhard was fond of you, and I'm sure he only asked to die because he knew there was no other way."

       "Well, if it wasn't his fault they died, then it was mine." Thurstan pulled away from Oliver, and started throwing handfuls of grass and earth into the water. "The king only went to get Gerhard because I begged him to. I should have begged the king to let him rot. Then no-one would've died. Then the king wouldn't be lost."

       "It wasn't your fault," Oliver said, still refusing to give up. "I know Elias better than you do, Thurstan. He'd have gone no matter what you said. None of it was your fault. It wasn't anyone's fault."

       Thurstan whirled on him. "You don't think that. You think it was yours, for not going with him."

       Oliver moistened his lips. "Sometimes I do," he admitted. "But I think it would have happened anyway. We live an insecure life, we Kindred, and the enemy is growing stronger every day. Ranulf and the others died doing their jobs, and I wish they were still alive, but they would have died content, knowing that they'd done well. And at least Gerhard is at peace, out of Darius's clutches."

       The water of the stream seemed to reflect Gerhard's face back at him, distorted and grotesque. Thurstan closed his eyes. "He was horrible," he whispered. "They'd really hurt him. He just wanted to die. I never thought I'd heard Gerhard say something like that. It must have been terrible. And the king said he found everyone else's bodies, and that they're at peace now, not lost and hurting. So that's good."

       "It is." Oliver's hand brushed him on the shoulder.

       "And Gerhard said he was fond of me, right at the end." He looked up at the sky, where a small patch of blue was showing through the clouds. "I miss him," he whispered. "I hate him, and I miss him, both at once. I… I don't know what to do."

       "It's only natural," Oliver assured him. "But you can always talk to me about it, always. I won't blame you for anything."

       "Everyone else does."

       "They're like you," Oliver said, but he did not deny what Thurstan had said. "They're looking for someone to blame, because they're upset and afraid, but I won't let them blame you."

       "They'll never forget it," Thurstan said. "I'll always be the one who came back alone, when everyone else was lost, not once but twice. I thought this would be my home, but it never will be."

       "Of course it will be," Oliver tried to tell him, but Thurstan could only turn away.

      

 

       A month went by, and nobody could still claim that it was summer. The leaves fell in a golden carpet onto the forest floor, and still Elias had not come.

       Oliver had given up whirling round at every footfall. He had given up looking up when he heard a horse. For the first few weeks, he had greeted every morning with a firm, "He will come today," but he had stopped even that.

       He crossed the stream by the log bridge, both arms held out for balance. Elias and Reynard could both cross it effortlessly, but Oliver was less graceful than either of them. He was slow and awkward in a fight, and was the sort of person who was always left behind to wait.

       Nightshade was waiting for him on the opposite bank, his front paws neatly together. When Oliver reached the end of the log, the wolf trotted up to him. It was the first time he had ever greeted anyone apart from Elias, and Oliver looked round, a sudden wild hope in his chest, wondering if Elias was there smiling, urging the wolf to go on now, be friendly to poor old Oliver. But the meadow was empty, and Oliver and the wolf were alone.

       "I know," Oliver said, patting the wolf on the head. "He's gone, and you want him back. But he'll come. Of course he'll come."

       The wolf whined and loped away a few steps, then settled down to wait. I'm not leaving until he comes back, his eyes seemed to say. He looked so pitiful that Oliver couldn't carry on with his walk. He retraced his steps back across the stream, and was walking towards the camp when someone came running up, calling his name. "It's the boy," the man said. "He's had a vision of some sort. He won't stop screaming for you."

       Oliver ran. Thurstan was still in Ranulf's tent, for the dead man's son had done the only right thing and handed it over to someone still living, who needed it more. Oliver should have done the same with Amalric's tent, but he couldn’t bring himself to, not when Elias's absence left him so perilously close to breaking down all the time.

       There was a small crowd around the tent, but Oliver pushed through them. "Go away," he commanded. "Leave us alone." They edged away, and he went inside, pushing back the thick hide that covered the door.

       Thurstan had stopped screaming. He was huddled on the bed, blankets messily covering his legs.

       Oliver sat down. "What did you see?" He hoped Thurstan's visions revealed themselves more easily than his father's had.

       Thurstan was plucking at the loose thread in the blanket. "I don't know who I am," he whispered.

       Oliver didn't know what to say. He had expected to find a terrified boy, screaming at the horrors of a vision. He had expected to have to hold him and comfort him and tease the truth out of him, but he had never expected this bleakness.

       "I was so scared in the prison cell," Thurstan said. "I just wanted to get away. That was all that mattered. But then everyone started falling, one by one. I had to be the strong one. I got us across the river. I was the leader for a little while. But it didn't feel good. I just wanted someone else to get better and take over again."

       Oliver just watched him, and said nothing. He wondered if Thurstan even knew that he was there.

       "Then Amalric died," Thurstan said, after a while. "I was the only one left. I had to be strong. Then the men came and found me. They might have been enemies, but they said they'd take care of things, and that's all that mattered. I think... I might have surrendered to them, even if I'd known that they were enemies, just because it meant I didn't need to think any more. It was up to them what happened. I could sleep and just let things happen."

       "You were exhausted," Oliver said. "Anyone would have done the same."

       Thurstan gave a thin smile. "And then I helped you after Amalric's funeral, and it felt as if I was growing up. But then I was pathetic again, and you had to look after me. And I... I've seen something horrible, and I want you to pat me on the back and tell me it can't be as bad as it looks, and you'll take care of everything, but I already know that won't happen, not any more, and so I don't want to tell you at all. If I tell you, it'll break your heart, and you won't be able to make anything right, not anything at all."

       Oliver touched his hand. "Tell me."

       Thurstan looked him full in the face. "It wasn't a dream. The king said I'd always know when it was a real vision, and I did. It was true. I don't know if it's happening now, or if it's going to happen, but it's true."

       Oliver could hardly breathe. "What did you see?"

       "I saw the king. Reynard was with him, and someone else, but I couldn’t see them clearly. The king..." He bit his lip, turning aside with a sob. "He was trapped by an invisible wall. He tried to open it with enchantment, but it really hurt him. He was screaming, and... and there was something horrible inside with him. He couldn't see it, but it was there, creeping up behind him. He was trapped, and he couldn't get out."

       "Trapped." Oliver had risen up to his knees, but know he slumped back down.

       Thurstan blinked as he looked at him, and folded his hands in his lap. "So that's where he is. You were wrong. He didn’t go back to his own world. I... I wanted to believe you, because you're the seneschal, and I've always believed what grown-ups have told me. But I thought all along that he didn't choose to go through the door. It opened up and swallowed him, and now he's trapped. He'll never get out."

       "Of course he will," Oliver said. "He's escaped from impossible places before."

      

 

       But, that night, Adela held him while he cried. "I lied to him," Oliver told her, when he could speak again. "I told him all the reasons why he shouldn't give up hope, and he believed me. I wish I could believe myself."

       "Visions can be wrong," Adela reminded him, "or misinterpreted."

       "Not this one."

       Because Oliver knew the truth. He knew the stories of long ago, and remembered that there was a gateway near the city, beside the river. In the old days, it would have been well guarded, but the great enchanters were dead, and enchantment itself was fading. Elias had gone through the gateway into a terrible place that no-one ever went willingly, and from which no-one ever returned. The stronger the captive, the more impossibly they were bound there. It was a place feared in legend, and it was called the Shroud of Dreams.

       "He's never going to come back," Oliver cried, "and I let him go."

       She caught his hand in hers, holding it firmly when he struggled to escape. "You don't know that. Thurstan might be wrong. Even if he's right, and you're right about it being the Shroud of Dreams, it might be easier to escape from, now enchantment is weaker. Stranger things have happened," she said, with a smile, "than Elias coming back from this."

       "How can you be so calm?" Oliver screamed at her. "Don't you even care?"

       She never stopped holding him. "I believe that waiting is rewarded. I waited ten years for you, and I got you in the end. I could have given up years ago, but I didn't. I don't believe in giving up. I don't accept that anything's dead until I see the body."

       "Then you're a fool," he spat. "Some things never end up right. I'm tired of having to smile and tell everyone that it will all work out in the end. I can't do it any more."

       "You have to." She tried to hold his hands in both of hers, but he snatched them away and punched the bed. It did nothing at all to make him feel better. "That's your job. Whatever you feel inside, you have to help them feel hope. And I'll always be here for you, Oliver. Let them cry on your shoulder, and you can always cry on mine."

       He looked at her face and saw that she was crying, despite her quiet words. He looked down at his fist, still buried furiously in the mattress, and felt brutish and silly. "I'm sorry."

        She lunged for him, taking his face in both hands. "Don't be. It's how you feel."

       "I'm sorry," he whispered again. "It's just that... I never expected to be happy myself, though you taught me how wrong I was in that. But I always had hope for the Kindred. Oh, I had times of doubt, but deep down I always believed that one day we would be saved. We all believed that. How else could we have found the strength to carry on living, winter after winter? But now... What will become of us now?"

       "I don't know," she said, "but we're a strong people. We can fight for our own cause, even if he's gone."

       He thought of all the children, growing into a world of gathering darkness, with no-one to lead them. "We're strong," he said, "but Elias was stronger. We're not helpless, but he was one who could make a difference, and now he's gone. But that's not the worst thing. Elias is trapped there in the Shroud of Dreams, screaming for help, and he'll be there forever, all alone. I just can't bear to think of him like that. I can hear his screaming whenever I close my eyes."

       "You have to hope," Adela urged him. "Don't give up hope just because of a boy's vision. Please, Oliver, don't do this to yourself. It'll seem better in the morning."

       "But I can't hope," he moaned. "Can't you understand? If I hope, then it will never be over. At least with Amalric I could say goodbye. Amalric was dead, but Elias... Every day I'll wonder what torments he's facing. Every day I'll hope if this will be the day that… No," he said, shaking his head. "Better not to hope."

       "Please don't give up," Adela begged him.

       But Oliver just pressed his face into her shoulder, and said nothing. What could he say? Elias was never coming back, and all hope had gone forever.


Chapter eleven

An empty house

      

       Ciaran Morgan leant on the old stone bridge, and told himself that life was good. He was home again, back in Greenslade, where the people had rosy cheeks and were never savage or strange. His staff was in his hand once more, and there was no enchantment anywhere, just the Shadow that he had always known.

       "Ah yes." He gave a contented sigh. "It's good to be home."

       He could see his home from where he was standing. A wall enclosed the garden, but tall hollyhocks were peeping over it, a riotous explosion of colour with no discipline. Elias had planted them, of course. Ciaran would rip them up when he had time, and replace them with grey stone paving, perhaps with a still pool in the middle, as placid as the Shadow. There would be no flowers. There would be nothing in the garden that grew and changed, or blossomed with extravagant life.

       Wind plucked at his clothes, telling him of the messages it brought from his village. He heard a strident woman calling her children home to bed, but they did not answer, and did not come, so she carried on calling all alone. A girl was singing, and he looked for her and found her, walking arm in arm with her lover along the banks of the stream. He heard a dog bark, and watched as pair of turtle doves landed on the roof of his own cottage, and turned towards each other.

       He watched them for a while, then gasped, his heart racing. There was a light at the upstairs window, in Elias's room. Elias was back! He had changed his mind and come back to his master, to beg forgiveness. Ciaran scrabbled for his staff and started to run, but suddenly the window was dark again. It had just been a reflection of the sunset, a flash of light filtering through the leaves. There was no-one inside. Elias had not come home. The house was dark and empty, and Ciaran was outside it, and alone.

       The dog barked again, and Ciaran turned round to see a man and a boy walking along the lane towards him, deep in conversation. The dog was bounding around their ankles, loving them both unreservedly. All three of them walked past Ciaran without seeing him. As they passed, the man ruffled the boy's hair, and they both laughed.

       Ciaran did not watch them as they headed into the meadow. Instead, he clutched his staff and watched the stream. He would go inside when the sun had set. It was good to be home in Greenslade. He wanted to stay outside for as long as possible, savouring it. Only when it was dark would he go inside, and sit for a bit. Then he would go to bed, and then it would be morning, and he would go outside again.

       Someone cleared their throat behind him, and he realised that a man had come sneaking up on him. "What is it?" he snapped. Then he saw the expression of sadness and need on the man's face, and spoke more gently. "What do you need me to do?"

       The man had taken off his hat, and was twisting it between his hands. "Do you know where your apprentice is?"

       "My apprentice?" That was Elias. Elias, who had deceived him and betrayed him, and was never coming home again. Not that Ciaran cared. He was well rid of such a one. "Why do you want to see him?" he demanded.

       "It's just... I know he tried. He risked his life. My poor little girl..." The man wiped tears from his eyes. Ciaran never cried. Elias had cried a lot, but that just showed how weak he was. "My wife... She was crazed with grief. She might have said things. But I don't want him to feel bad. He did everything he could."

       It was the father of the girl Elias had tried to save from the fire. Ciaran had lived through long horrible weeks since then, but to the people of Greenslade it was only a day or two ago. Ciaran had saved the woman he had set out to rescue, but Elias had failed, and the failure had led to everything else that had happened afterwards. It was enough to make Ciaran want to hate the man, for having a daughter who couldn't manage to stay alive.

       "Please," the man said, faltering a little at the look on Ciaran's face. "I just want to talk to him."

       "You can't," Ciaran told him. "He's not here. He's gone away."

       "You sent him away? Oh, you didn't send him away because of Sophie, did you? I saw how you were looking at him, as if you blamed him. But he did everything he could. He was so brave. You should be proud of him."

       Why did everyone always think it was Ciaran's fault? No-one ever thought to blame Elias, but he was the one who had chosen to leave. He was the traitor. Besides, Ciaran hadn't been looking at him in any particular way on the night of the fire. It was all lies. Elias had enchanted everyone to think well of him and to blame Ciaran.

       "You can't talk to him," Ciaran said, as he began to walk away. But the path over the bridge would take him to the ruins, and that was a place he would never go again, so he whirled round and pushed past the man, heading back to his own house. "You can't talk to him, because he's dead."

       "Dead?" the man gasped. "Oh, tell me it wasn't the smoke. He didn't die trying to save my little girl, did he? Oh, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."   

       "No." Ciaran granted him that much before he slammed the door in his face. "It was nothing to do with you. He just died. He's dead, and that's all there is to it."

 

 

       He sat in his armchair and dozed. The wind made the beams creak, and they sounded just like footsteps, like Elias getting out of bed in his room upstairs and putting his clothes on, ready to creep downstairs and make breakfast. Half asleep, Ciaran smiled.

       Then it was morning, and he woke up with a start, his neck stiff and his arm numb. The house was still creaking, but this time he knew that he was alone. He had to make his breakfast all by himself, and eat it in silence. He lit a fire in the hearth, but the house still felt very cold.

       Back in the armchair, he stared at the place where he had once seen another world. The morning sun made the dust glow, but it never formed itself into trees and people. Elias would have had months of life in the Kindred's world by now, and had probably forgotten his old master. He was never coming back. "Not that I want him to," Ciaran said aloud. Some things could not be forgiven. Elias could grovel on his knees, but Ciaran would never condescend to speak to him again, even if he came back now, stepping out of nowhere, and saying, "Master."

       Someone knocked on the door, and Ciaran leaped out of the chair, snatching up his staff. Without looking back at the place where Elias would appear, he hurled open the door. A man was standing there, and he said good things, things that made the house feel warm again. "Master Morgan," he said. "Come quickly. We need you."

       Ciaran followed him up the lane, striding through the centre of Greenslade, to a house on the north of the village. The man led Ciaran into the garden, and thrust an angry hand at an apple tree. His neighbour, he said, was stealing his apples, helping herself to the fruit on the branches that overhung the wall. That made them hers, the woman retorted, from her own side of the wall. Hers by right, and if he didn't want her to take them, he should prune the tree so it didn't intrude onto her land.

       Both of them started to shout, and Ciaran wanted to press his hands to his ears. Then they were both pointing at him, demanding that he make a decision. Whatever he decided, they would abide by it, for he was their Brother. They didn't care that something was written in the statute books about just such an issue. Ciaran was their law, more so than the proper authorities, so far away over the hills. He had power over them, and he could help them. He was doing good, like the Brothers of old, and it had always seemed such a noble thing.

       He mumbled something, though afterwards he had no memory of how he had decided. They nodded and accepted it, but his steps were heavy as he walked away. Was this all they needed him for? Elias was fighting to save a world, and his decisions could rule the fate of thousands. Ciaran could have had a part in that, but it had seemed more noble to rule the people of Greenslade. So here he was, home again, doing just the same as he had always done, but suddenly it seemed different, as if a veil has been removed to reveal something pale and hollow beneath it.

       But that, too, was all Elias's fault, he told himself, as he trudged home. There was  plenty of genuine good to be done in Greenslade, and he would do it, and forget Elias.

      

 

       The next day, he met a girl, who looked at him from under her eyelashes, feigning shyness. "Where's Elias?" she asked him. "We've not seen him for a few days, and people are saying he's gone away."

       Ciaran stopped still. "How do you know Elias?" Elias had been so shy, and knew nobody in Greenslade except Ciaran.

       "Oh, I've known him since I was so high," she said, holding her hand at waist height. "That is," she admitted, "I wanted to know him. I'd lost my kitten and was crying fit to burst, and Elias found her for me. He hardly said a word, just to stammer that here she was and please don't cry, but I quite fell in love with him on the spot."

       "In love," Ciaran echoed. There was something inside him, like a strong hand crushing his throat. Could Elias have been so deceitful as to have a sweetheart in secret? Was everything about their life together a lie? "And did he...?"

       "Oh no," she laughed. "We're lucky to get half a sentence from him. We got him to join us on the morning of the Green Blade last year, and that was considered a triumph, but he's been quieter than ever this year. Most of the girls have given up on him."

       Ciaran grabbed her wrist. "What do you mean?"

       The girl blushed. "Oh, he's so good-looking, and so sweet. Not like the other boys round here, with their shouting and their showing off. There's not a girl in Greenslade who hasn't dreamed of being the one who can break through his shell and win his heart. He just... He has a way of making people love him."

       "But you barely knew him," Ciaran shouted. "How dare you love him? What's Elias got that everyone puts him first? He was never anybody, just what I made him. He was my apprentice. I was the one who did things, not him, and you all... And everyone..." He stopped abruptly, and let go of the girl's wrist as if it had burned him.

       "I'm sorry," the girl was saying, but her eyes were flashing defiantly. "I didn't know it would make you cross. I expect you're jealous because no-one will ever love you."

       "Elias loves me," Ciaran whispered. "He always did."

       "Like a dog loves his master," the girl sneered. "Did you kick him away once too often? Is that why he's gone away?"

       "He didn't leave me!" Ciaran screamed. "He's dead!" He said more, too, that made the girl cry, but as he strode away in righteous fury, his eyes were stinging, as if he was going to cry, too.

      

 

       One morning, he just started walking, and didn't stop. He barely noticed where he was. His feet led him, and he followed where they went. By noon he was high in the hills, where the larks sang as if nothing was wrong with the world. Half way through the afternoon, he found himself heading for the ruins, and turned abruptly away. As the sun set, he was far away from home, in a wood he had visited once before, with Elias trotting at his heels. It should have looked pretty, but it didn’t.

       Everything was supposed to be perfect, now he was back home. The Kindred's world had been horrible, and he had consoled himself every day with dreams of home. Back in Greenslade, all wrong things would be set right. He would be himself again, content and complete. Why, then, did all the usual things give him no comfort? Why was he cold inside, even in the afternoon sun?

       He knew it was Elias's fault. Elias had thrown all Ciaran's teachings back in his face. Stubborn and ungrateful, he had acted as if all his Ciaran's years of caring for him were nothing. Even so, Ciaran had not abandoned him. When Elias had been lost in his own mind, Ciaran had sacrificed everything to bring him back. In doing so, he had lost all his certainties, all for Elias's sake, who had deserted him. His homecoming should have been joyful, but Elias had tainted it, turning it into a betrayal.

       And now everything was horrible. His home was full of petty people feuding over apple trees, and girls who wanted Elias, not him. It wasn't the place it had always been, and he had loved it so. It was his home, and Elias had ruined it.

       But then, when night fell, he remembered Elias as a child, pointing at the stars and shyly asking him what they were called. He remembered how good it felt to know that he would never be alone, that Elias would follow him forever. He remembered waking up every day to find Elias awake before him, smiling as he placed breakfast on a plate. When he thought of every lane and corner in Greenslade, he thought of Elias there beside him. And, when the night grew so cold that he shivered inside the cloak that still smelled a little of wood smoke and the forest, he whispered into the fabric, "I miss him. Even though he betrayed me, I miss him."

      

 

       The next day, no-one said a word about it. No-one asked him where he had been the day before, or came clamouring to him, saying how they'd looked for him but not been able to find him. When he walked past the row of burned cottages, he saw the carpenters and stone masons hard at work, rebuilding them without waiting for Ciaran's command.

       Someone thrust flowers into his hand and said they were for Elias's grave. "He hasn't got one," he growled, slapping them back into the chest of the stupid giver. "I burnt him. There's nothing left."

       A man came up and asked for his help, but Ciaran turned away and said nothing. It would be something small and trivial, and it would only make him feel bleak inside. If Elias came back, he would kill him for making him feel like this. Not that Elias had such power over him, of course not. Elias had betrayed him, but he didn't care. Ciaran wouldn't be undone by him. He wouldn't let him win.

       He wandered for a few more hours, and then it started to grow dark, though he had no idea where the day had gone. I've got to go home, he thought, but his feet wanted to go the other way, anywhere but that empty house where the blank air never revealed another world, no matter how hard he looked.

       A man came out of the pub, his steps a little unsteady. As he crossed the road, he almost bumped into Ciaran, and mumbled an apology. Ciaran grabbed him by the shoulders. "Tell the others," he commanded him, thrusting his face at the man's, despite the stink of beer. "I'm going away for a few days. Tell them I said goodbye. Tell them I'm coming back and they mustn't forget me."

       The man staggered away, and Ciaran wondered how much he had understand, and how much he would remember. Not that it mattered. He had made his decision. He had taken things into his own hands. He wasn't so proud that he couldn't admit when he needed help, but his master would help him. His master would help him forget Elias, and would make Greenslade perfect again.

      

 

       He walked the ten miles to Sherborne, and slept outside in a wood that was far prettier and pleasant than the Kindred's savage forest. Next morning, he caught the first train that came by. It was a branch line, stopping at every village, where women pressed into the carriages and chattered of trivial things. Many of them stared openly at him, elbowing their neighbours and whispering, though he had no idea if it was because of his status as a Brother, or because of something about the way he looked.

       In the city, he changed train and caught the cross-country express, that many considered handsome in its livery of green and gold. Opposite him sat an excited family going on holiday, chattering and playful. Ciaran stared out of the window, but soon he could see the Grey Mountains, looking exactly as they had done in the Kindred's world, so he closed his eyes and tried to sleep.

       The train terminated in Conisborough, and he had to spend the night in that hateful city. He wandered blindly into the nearest hotel, and let them lead him into a room just like any other room. After they had gone, he stood at the window and squinted through the smoke. Beyond the chimneys and factories he could faintly see the towers on the far side of the river. Hundreds of years ago, that had been the extent of the city, and every building had been built to please the eye. In the other world, that was how the city still was. It was called Eidengard there, and it was far more lovely than Conisborough, despite the terrible things that had happened in it.

       A maid brought dinner to his room, and he remembered having asked for it when he had signed in. He moved the food around the plate with his fork, ate a little, and left the rest. Pushing his chair back with a sigh, he picked up his staff and went outside. The concierge was reading the racing results in the newspaper and barely looked up as Ciaran passed. This was not Greenslade, and the robes of a Brother commanded little respect.

       Outside, he wandered through the smoky air and the harsh noise. Someone greeted him merrily, and he recognised the family from the train, who were taking delight in every little ugliness of the city. Ciaran nodded to them, and walked on, once again letting his feet lead him. As his body moved through slums and courtyards, his memory filled with shimmery glimpses of forests and mountains, and of a young man shyly smiling at him, because he had been kind.

       He paused for a while, and found himself in a narrow street full of children. The factory workers lived in long rows of terraced houses, but much of their living took place in the backyards and streets. Women leant over walls and gossiped, and the children played with ropes and balls. They looked at Ciaran with a sullen curiosity, but none of them approached him.

       Was this how Elias had lived? Ciaran had never asked him much about his childhood, though he knew that Elias's brothers had bullied him, and his parents had deserted him. Elias had never blamed them, but had made excuses for them, and longed for their love. He had always been so desperate for security and love, and so terrified of abandonment.

       A boy of about twelve sauntered forward, having volunteered or been elected to be spokesman. "What d'ya want, mister?"

       "Do you know a family called Ward?" Ciaran demanded. "The father's called Evan. Lots of children, your age and older." But Elias's brothers and sisters would be all grown up now, of course. Elias was no longer nine years old, but twenty.

       The boy shook his head. "But I know people. I can ask around." His expression made clear that he would only do it for money.

       "It doesn't matter." Ciaran began to walk away. Why had he even asked? For a moment, he had wanted to find them, to make them pay for the way they had treated such a loving and innocent child, but what could he say to them? He refused to talk about what had happened to strangers who had forfeited the right to have anything to do with Elias. They wouldn't care, and neither did Ciaran, and talking about it would only lead them to believe that he did. No, Elias was dead to him, and his family were nothing, just the people who had given birth to someone he had once known.

       He walked quickly on, past a woman bellowing at her son, threatening to beat him black and blue. Elias had been badly bruised when Ciaran had found him. He had been so badly treated, and not just by them, Ciaran thought, without wanting to. He had realised things in the Kindred's world that could not be forgotten, regardless of how much he might want them to be. He had done nothing to justify Elias's betrayal, but he had not always been kind.

       "But I won't think of Elias," he muttered under his breath, as his feet took him through streets that Elias might once have walked, past factories where he might have worked. The children in the streets were pale, deprived of the sun all year round. Elias had been delighted with the sun when he had first arrived in Greenslade, and had never tired of the garden, where he would spread out his arms and turn his face to the sky and simply bask in the sunlight.

       His steps meandered, and soon he was in a street where women in scanty clothes showed their legs and plied for trade. Elias had once told him that his sisters were prostitutes, and Ciaran looked for Elias's honey-coloured hair and graceful bearing, but saw no resemblance.

       One woman approached him, but he recoiled with a look of disgust that set her to laughing. "Steady, dearie. I don't bite. Or don't you like women? I can take you to a place with pretty boys. Is that more to your taste? I've heard about you Brothers..."

       Ciaran turned and ran, the woman's jeering laughter following him. I shouldn't have come here, he thought. Elias was gone and had to be forgotten. Ciaran should have stayed in the hotel, and buried his head under the blanket, and closed his eyes to everything that reminded him of Elias.

       Then his steps grew slower, and he was walking, then standing still, just staring. What terrible irony was this? In his flight, he had come to the very place, where the memories were strongest. There, just there, Elias had been curled up, weeping. That was the spot. Ciaran, young and dead inside, had seen him and walked towards him, there, and had spoken the fateful words that had saved Elias's life, and ruined his own.

       Ciaran knelt down, and touched the place where Elias had been. He blinked. People strolled past him, and some stared, but no-one could possibly know. His life had changed here. On impulse, he had taken an apprentice, and eleven years later the apprentice had betrayed him. "Better never to have met him," he declared. "Better to have walked by on the other side of the street, and left him crying."

       The wind picked up, and he seemed to hear an echo of Elias's sobs. The road beneath his touch was cold and rough, and he wanted to feel the warmth of human flesh. No-one stopped to talk to him, and no-one cared. Last time, he had walked away from this place with a child's hand enclosed in his own. He had come to this place alone, and he had left there loved.

       He tore his hand away and stood up. How could he wish that he had never met Elias? He had saved Elias, and they had spent eleven years together, that were richer than Ciaran had ever realised. I wish he was still here, he thought, or that I was there with him.

       But they were treacherous thoughts, that came from being tired, alone in a horrid city that always left him out of sorts. Elias had betrayed him, and Ciaran's master would help him purge the treacherous brat from his heart forever. His master would save him. Tomorrow everything would be well.

       But, for tonight, he could still mourn.

 

 

       His master was waiting on the platform, hands tucked placidly into his sleeves.

       "How did you know I was coming?" Ciaran demanded, before saying anything else. "Have they been spying on me?"

       "I can always tell," Matthias said, with a small smile. "The link never entirely vanishes, even after so many years."

       Ciaran pursed his lips and pushed into the crowd, letting his master tag along behind. His link with Elias had often been entirely dead. Elias could have been alive or dead, a step behind him, or a world away, and he would have had no idea.

       "Elias isn't here." His master kept pace with him, never unfolding his hands even as the crowd jostled.

       "No." Ciaran shook his head. "He's gone. He's not coming back."

       "Oh, Ciaran. What happened?"

       Ciaran whirled on him, hands on hips. "What happened? Don't you mean what did I do? Don't you want to blame me, like all the others?"

       Matthias gave a slight smile, his eyes mild and sympathetic. "I would just like to know what happened. I want to help you, Ciaran."

       Ciaran blinked, and looked down at the ground. The porter's whistle sounded, and doors were slammed shut up and down the train. In a cloud of soot, it set off, to a chorus of farewells and promises to meet again. Then the crowd drifted away and the two of them were alone on the empty platform.

       "Not here," Ciaran said. "Not now."

      

 

       They leant together on the parapet in the Basilica gardens, and Ciaran told everything beneath the moonlight. He stared over the city as he spoke, and never once looked at his master. He tried to keep his voice level, but he often failed.

       "You know about the sword," he began, "and how seriously Elias took the responsibility that went with it. You saw that much at midwinter. But you didn't see what happened afterwards."

       He told his master how Elias had devoted himself to mastering the sword, and refusing to stop when commanded by his master. He told him about the girl who had died in the fire, and how her death had led Elias into a rash oath. He told him about the Kindred, and how they had manipulated Elias, making him incapable of denying them everything. He told about the enchantment, though not much, because no Brother should dwell on such things. He told about Elias nearly dying, and about him being crowned, the king of an unprincipled people who robbed and killed.

       "I opposed them at every turn, of course," he said. "They were going to destroy Elias with their scheming. Nobody could do the things they expected of him, least of all Elias. It wasn't fair to lay that responsibility on him, when he was bound to fail. I was only thinking of him."

       He told how, despite his reasonable objections, he had promised to accompany Elias to the city, and told about the events of the journey. "I knew he'd fail, but he needed to see for himself how impossible it was, the things they were asking of him. It was only going to be a few weeks. He knew that all along. That was the agreement. We'd go, we'd come back, and then we'd leave."

       But everything had gone wrong. Elias had insisted on trying to save some worthless female and had arrogantly refused to run when the soldiers came for him. Instead of accepting his master's help, Elias had pushed him away. Reynard had dragged Ciaran back to the camp, and it had been the purest chance that Elias had been able to find the way home alone.

       "He was in a terrible state." Ciaran said nothing about Elias assuming the form of a bird, for no-one would believe that. "I sacrificed everything to bring him back. I thought we were going to come home together, but he sent me back alone. He chose to stay there, with those wild people, because he liked being called king. He betrayed his vows as a Brother, and he betrayed me."

       His master said nothing. Down in the city, a klaxon sounded, marking the end of a shift. The air was thick with the scent of the pendulous white flowers that bloomed regardless of season.

       Ciaran gripped the parapet more tightly. "That's what happened," he said. "Are you going to say anything?"

       "What do you want me to say?" Matthias asked, in a mild voice.

       Ciaran closed his eyes. I want you to help me. I want you to stop it hurting. "Just say what you think," he said.

       Matthias shook his head. "But that's not what you want, is it? You want me to say that you did nothing wrong, and that all the fault lay on Elias's side. You want me to say you're well rid of him, and should get on with your life and forget him." He took a step closer. "Don't you?"

       "But I didn't do anything wrong!" Ciaran burst out. "It was his fault!"

       "True," said his master. "He didn't act like a true Brother when he let himself be seduced by glory and riches."

       Ciaran swallowed, and stared at the back of his hand, lying flat on the stone parapet. "There were no riches," he admitted. "He's chosen a very hard life. He takes the responsibility very seriously, and it seems to be a torment to him, rather than anything else."

       "But, even so, he chose to serve a savage band of criminals and highway robbers. He should have said no to them right from the start, as soon as he knew who they were. An oath made to a criminal under false pretences is not binding."

       Ciaran looked at the moon, which was far fainter than it was in the Kindred's world, where no smoke and street lights tainted it. "They robbed only when they had no choice," he said, "and killed in self-defence. The people of the duchy kill them on sight. Can you imagine it, master? Imagine if anyone who could sense the Shadow was judged to be evil, just because of the gift they'd been born with? That's what it's like for people with enchantment. They hurt Elias so badly."

       "Because he was aiding a criminal, you said."

       "I don't think she'd done anything wrong," Ciaran admitted, "except to possess enchantment. And they were burning her to death. It was barbaric. And Elias was the only one who had the courage to try to help her. He knew it could be the death of him, but he still did it. It was rash and stupid, but it was so very brave."

       "But nothing changes what happened at the end." Matthias was relentless, his voice unforgiving and not like his own voice at all. "He broke his promise to come back with you if he failed in the city."

       Ciaran clasped his hands together, digging his fingertips deeply into his flesh. "There was no promise," he forced out. "I told myself we were coming home after Eidengard, but I never told him. He made no promises."

       "But he led you to believe he was coming back with you," his master persisted. "He lied. He tricked you. He'd decided he was going to stay, but you were in the way, cautioning him all the time, being the voice of reason. But he knew you cared for him too much to go home without him, so he pretended he was coming with you. But it was all lies. He never wanted to be with you."

       "No." Ciaran pressed his hands to his face. "He didn't. He didn't want me. He chose them over me. He left me, as if everything we had together was nothing."

       His master touched him on the shoulder. "That's what hurts you most, isn't it?"

       Ciaran flinched away from the touch, pressing his body against the cold stone, curling into it. "I didn't tell you the truth," he rasped. "Nothing happened like I told it. Elias did everything he should have done. He never thought of himself. And I made it so much harder for him. I fought him at every turn. I didn't help him when he needed it. And I did it out of jealousy. It was all Elias, everywhere it was Elias. I could have helped them, but they didn't want me. I was nobody to them, and I hated that. It made me hate them. It even made me hate Elias."

       He heard the sound of his master's robes, scraping against the stone, but no touch came. "You were very miserable there?"

       "I hated it," Ciaran said. "I hated everything about it. I hated that no-one knew about the Shadow. I hated the enchantment, because it was wild and I didn't know anything about it. I hated the Kindred. I hated the way they fawned over Elias, and expected him to do impossible things. I hated the fact that it wasn't me they were asking. I hated the way that he was learning how to be strong, and soon wouldn't need me. I hated the cold and the rain and the stars and the earth. I hated it all."

       "And Elias knew that?"

       Ciaran nodded. "He asked me. That last morning he asked me if I could ever be happy in that world, and I said no, never." He passed his hand over his face. "I think I knew," he whispered. "I knew how seriously he took his oaths to the Kindred. I knew he'd never be able to leave them. Deep down, I always knew he was staying."

       "It's easier to be the victim," Matthias said. "It absolves you of the need to make decisions. It lets you blame someone else, to be self-righteous and angry."

       "He lied to me!" Ciaran screamed. "He didn't want me! He chose them over me!"

       "Maybe he did it for your own sake. He wanted you to stay, but he knew you would be happier if you left. He's always been insecure, as you know. It would never cross his mind that you might want to stay with him."

       Ciaran slammed his fist into the stone. "He should have let me decide."

       "What would you have decided? To stay with him, or to come home alone?"

       Ciaran turned round, leaning back against the parapet. He brushed his hand against the nearest flower, and watched the yellow pollen fall onto the gravel path. Greenslade was his home, or so he had always believed, and he had sworn oaths to serve it forever, and Elias was nothing to him, just a boy he had trained for a while. If he stayed in Greenslade, he could help people all by himself.

       "I would have chosen to come home," he admitted, turning his head away. "And Elias knew that. I'd have chosen to leave him there, and... and perhaps I would have regretted it afterwards, a little, but I wouldn't have chosen anything else, not then."

       But he had always hated the modern world, and the Kindred's world was hundreds of years in the past, before pollution and machines. He had always dreamed of a time of swords and glory, where a single hero could change the world, but his own world had changed and would never be like that again. In the Kindred's world, he would always be second, but he would be helping in something great. In Greenslade, he took the lead in decisions about apple trees and family disputes. In the Kindred's world, he could help save a whole people.

       "You could have stayed with him for several years," Matthias said, "and come back to find only a few months gone."

       "No!" Ciaran burst out. "No," he said, more slowly. "That wouldn't have been right. I couldn't live half a life, between two worlds. I have to be entirely dedicated. A Brother can be nothing less. And... I think it wouldn't be fair to Elias. I think I hurt him very badly, by being so desperate to leave. He thought I wanted to leave him. But it was the world I didn't like. It wasn't anything to do with him."

       His master was only a voice in the darkness, for Ciaran had not once looked at him since he had begun his confession. "But it was, wasn't it? You said it yourself. You couldn't bear to see Elias becoming strong and independent, and not needing you any more. You were deathly afraid of it. You thought it meant he would inevitably betray you. But that was nothing to do with him. It all started years ago, before you even met him, didn't it, Ciaran?"

       Ciaran stiffened. "What do you mean?"

       The cool hand touched his wrist, gentle but strong, not letting him escape. "You never recovered from the thing with Gideon, did you?"

       Ciaran thrust him away, making him stagger. "Don't say that name! I've forgotten him. I haven't thought of him in years."

       Matthias supported himself with one hand on the parapet. "You haven't spoken his name, no, but that doesn't mean you've forgotten him. He's behind everything you've done ever since."

       "How dare you?" Ciaran screamed. "It's not true! I'm not so weak that I could let any person change me!"

       His master shook his head and smiled sadly. "But it's true. You know it's true."

       He had dreamed about it in the storm, when the voice of the wind had told him things he didn't want to believe. Gideon. It was a name he had not thought of in years. Gideon, who had broken his heart. Gideon, who had shown him the inevitable result of being so foolish as to love.

       Ciaran had only dim memories of his family. His mother had brought him to the Basilica when he was three years old. Could the Brothers take the boy in, she begged, for she loved him so and wanted him to have a better life than the one she could offer him. Since it was already clear that he had a gift with the Shadow, they agreed. She cried and kissed him, and was never seen again.

       Ciaran had grown up different from the other boys. In the old days, parents had flocked to the Basilica to offer up their children as Ciaran's mother had done, but those days were gone. Now potential Brothers were taught at the Basilica school during the day, but returned home every night. They had home and families, and they laughed at Ciaran, who had none. For his part, Ciaran despised them, and thought they were less devoted than he was, and would never grow up to be heroes. But, sometimes, when he saw them walking away hand in hand with their mothers, he cried a little, and wished someone would love him.

       One day, a grave-looking Brother approached him and asked him to be his apprentice. It was rare in these days for a boy to be trained by only one master, and Ciaran thought that nothing more marvellous could happen to him. Someone had picked him out, above all others. He swelled with pride, and his master was a silent man, and did little to check him. But he was also a silent man when it came to giving praise, and he never told Ciaran that he loved him.

       Ciaran was ordained at twenty-one, and he thought that the world lay before him, his for the taking. He would help people, like Finbar had done, and everyone would love him and tell his story. It would be glorious.

       When the ceremony was over, he walked with his master in the garden. "You've done well," his master said, clapping him on the shoulder. "I'm proud of you." But, before the smile of pleasure faded from Ciaran's face, his master said terrible things. "You can visit me whenever you like, Ciaran. I'm retiring to a cell to contemplate in solitude, but you are always welcome."

       "A cell?" Ciaran stammered. "But why?"

       His master looked into the distance, as if the world had already stopped existing for him. "More and more I find myself distracted by worldly things. I want to become closer to the Shadow. I want to be free from the noise and the bustle."

       So Ciaran had only been a distraction, then. His master had been desperate to be freed from him. Ciaran stammered something, he didn't know what. When his master went inside, he stayed outside in the garden, looking across the city, wondering if there was anywhere out there who would needed him, who would take delight in his company and want him above anything else in the world.

       Love was not forbidden for the Brothers of Shadow. Violent emotion interfered with the ability to sense the Shadow, but love was held in high esteem. Once, the Brothers believed, everything in creation had been one. Anything that brought people together was a good thing, and nothing brought people closer together than love.

       Despite this, many Brothers swore themselves to celibacy, preferring to love mankind in a general way, rather than love one person above all others. Others married, although they could not bring their wives into the Basilica. But the common people's gossip was not en