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.
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.