The snow melts
He had rehearsed it all in the darkness. It had been easy then, when he had been alone. Ciaran had come up with the perfect greeting, and a few things that they could have a conversation about, enough to last for half an hour or more. He had considered every possible response Elias could make to his overtures, and had a reply for every one. He had been prepared for anything, or so he had thought.
Taking a deep breath, he had stepped out of the tent and gone to find Elias. People had pointed him in the right direction. There had only been one set of footprints to follow in the dew, and soon Ciaran saw a figure ahead of him beneath the trees, and knew it was Elias.
Elias did not turn round, and Ciaran thought he was not yet aware that he was no longer alone. Ciaran rubbed his palms on his robe, and walked forward, practicing his opening words again, his lips moving as he imagined saying them aloud.
How long would it take, he wondered, before it was safe to talk about the important things again, and be forgiven. Not too long, he hoped. It had been hard coming up with safe things that they could talk about. He had found a few suitable topics, but they were very trivial. Tomorrow, he would have to come up with three or four more. He knew he couldn't keep it up for more than a few days. He had never been good at small talk.
He cleared his throat. "Elias," he said, but then something came hurtling out of the undergrowth, and crashed into Elias's legs. Ciaran cried out and lunged forward to save him, then realised that Elias was smiling, laughing fondly in a way Ciaran had never seen before. Ciaran stopped dead, his arms heavy at his sides. All the rehearsed lines slipped right out of his head. "A wolf," he cried. "You really do have a wolf." Elias looked at him, but the smile was different when it was turned on Ciaran than when it was turned on the wolf. "He's Nightshade. Aren't you, boy?" He tickled the animal behind the ear, and it responded like any tame dog would do.
"It's tame?" Ciaran remembered how Elias had been attacked by hundreds of wolves on the night of the storm.
"Not really. He has a certain devotion to me, but he's still wild. He'll never enter the camp. He goes off hunting for weeks on end. One day, he'll probably just never come back." Elias said it quite calmly, predicting his abandonment by someone he loved.
Ciaran shook his head, still not quite believing it. "But a wolf, Elias. Couldn't you have chosen a more normal pet?"
"Nightshade isn't a pet" Elias said. "He'd go off in a sulk if he heard me say that. Wouldn't you, Nightshade?" He said it fondly, and the wolf thrust its head into his hand, as if to say, of course I wouldn't. I'd never leave you.
Ciaran had to admit that it was a handsome animal. There was a certain thrill in seeing a fierce predator so close, and so devoted to Elias. "Can I touch him?" he asked.
Elias frowned. "I don't know. It's up to him. But you can try. Offer him your hand, just so." He demonstrated with his own. "Show him you're not a threat. The worst he can do is ignore you. He won't bite, unless you start attacking me."
Ciaran did what he was told, and made what he hoped were encouraging noises in the back of his throat. Nightshade looked at him, tilted his head, and narrowed his eyes. He moved one paw forward, then very deliberately moved it back again.
"He wants to trust you," Elias murmured, placing his hand on the wolf's head and ruffling it, "but he's not quite sure of you yet."
"No." Ciaran lowered his hand, then folded his hands together in front of him. "Maybe he'll learn to trust me in time."
"Maybe." Elias was looking at the wolf, not at Ciaran. "I hope so."
Ciaran looked at him, at his face turned half away, and the fair hair that hid his expression. "Were you going for a walk?" His palms were moist and sticky. "Can I join you?"
Elias still did not turn to face him. "Yes."
"I had a pet once," Ciaran told him, as they started walking. "I think I told you about the kitten, but I had another one, a... Well, he was called Whisker." He chuckled. "He used to come into my room. I was six. How was I suppose to know that rats were considered vermin, and you weren't supposed to keep them as pets?"
"You got into trouble?" Elias asked.
"No-one ever knew. The rat-catchers came, but I hid Whisker from them. I kept him in a box under my bed and fed him bits of my dinner that I hid up my sleeve. We lived happily together for months, until he bit through the box and got away. I cried for ages, but I never told anyone why."
"Never." Ciaran looked at him. "You're the first person I've ever told." Then something about Elias's face made him want to look away, so he did, and laughed a laugh that only sounded a little forced. "So that was my experience with pets. Though I did almost get a dog once, in Greenslade, just before I met you."
"But you got me instead." Ciaran was about to protest that he hadn't meant it like that, but Elias smiled instead, and blushed a little. "You weren't the only one with a secret pet. You never did find out about the rabbit I looked after one summer. I called her Berry, because of her eyes, and I built a little nest for her in the garden, under the hollyhocks."
Ciaran stopped walking. "You had a secret pet you never told me about?" And then he was laughing, and Elias was laughing, too, because it still hurt a little, but not much. "We're as bad as each other, aren't we?"
Elias turned grave. "Just wait until you hear about the others. The flea-ridden cat. I kept that one in the kitchen. The squirrel that made a bed in your spare robe. I washed out most of the droppings afterwards, though. The wolf under your bed..."
He believed him for a moment. "You're joking," he said at last, but Elias had said it all without even the hint of a smirk. "You're making fun of me."
"Yes." Elias turned away, and the conversation flagged for a while. Ciaran wanted to tell him that he hadn't minded at all, in fact he'd rather liked it, but he couldn't, so he returned to his script, and they spoke rather stiffly of those things instead.
Reynard had been the lead hunter. He had killed the boar without injury, so had slashed his own forearm with his dagger, cutting another wound next to the one that marked his oath. The king himself had played the part that Oliver normally played, receiving the gift of the red ribbon and the white, of suffering and hope. He hadn't known all the formal words of the ceremony, so had said his own from the heart, and many people in the crowd had wept.
Hope, Reynard thought, afterwards. If they had hope, it lay in the king and his enchantment. But the king was only a man, and his judgement was not always sound, so hope lay also in the hands of Reynard, who had sworn to keep him safe. If Darius came with his army, men like Reynard would fight to keep the king alive, so the king could stay alive to fight the last enemy.
He watched him now, as the others caroused. Perhaps there was a bit more urgency to their celebrations this time, but there was little sign of sorrow. For five hundred years, the Kindred had found hope and joy in the middle of despair. That was the whole message of the winter festival. Even if they were the last people left alive in an empty world, they would still celebrate on this day.
The king moved between them, talking to everyone in turn. Ciaran Morgan trailed behind him like an unwanted shadow, and Reynard hated him more than ever, for daring to join in with this festival that was so special to the Kindred and the Kindred alone. Sometimes, though, the king smiled at him, and that always made Ciaran hurry forward and close any gap that had opened up between them by his own hanging back. It made Reynard want to spit onto the ground.
"We need Oliver," someone said. He was not the first one to say it, and would not be the last. Oliver's absence had more of an effect on the celebrations than the king's revelation of the danger they were in. The Kindred were used to celebrating in grim situations, but they needed a bard to lead them in song, or to tell stories that kept the dark away. Oliver should have waited a few days, Reynard thought. But then he realised how wrong that would have been. Duty came first, of course. It was more important to find new weapons in the war against the enemy, than to make the Kindred a little happier. Happiness didn't matter.
"A story!" someone shouted. "Has anyone got a story we haven't heard?"
It was getting late, and the crowds were thinning. Reynard finished his lump of meat, licked his fingers, and stood up. He had been eating alone. He had stationed his warriors about the camp, to keep an eye on the forest for enemies, and to listen to the Kindred for signs of fear and doubt.
He walked from fire to fire. A young man sitting on the ground twisted to look at him, then froze. It was Thurstan, Reynard realised, but he did not stop to talk to him. At least the boy was with other people, sitting in a loose circle with other boys his age. But when he looked back a few minutes later, the other boys were laughing all together, and Thurstan was not.
Soon Reynard was near the king. He stopped, and drew back into the darkness, where a tree shaded him from the light of the fire. "Come on," Ciaran Morgan was urging the king. "You've done enough. You haven't stopped to eat, and you haven't sat down once. Enough is enough."
"It's an important night," Elias said. "You know what it means to them. If I can make it a little easier for them... They’re my people, Ciaran. All they want from me tonight is to see me here, maybe to speak to me a little. I can't not give them that."
"But it's not right," Ciaran persisted. "You're exhausted." He reached out as if to tug at the king's sleeve. "Come with me. A walk, like yesterday morning. It's a clear night. We can look at the stars."
"I always liked looking at the stars with you." Elias looked up at the sky, but did not move. "You were different out in the night. Your voice changed. You'd tell me stories about the shapes we saw above us. Of course, you were probably just speaking your thoughts our loud, but I liked to think you were telling them just for me. I never wanted those nights to end."
Reynard saw how Ciaran's face twisted with some dark emotion, though Elias did not. "I was talking to you," he said, in a voice far more calm than his expression. "I've got more stories. Come on, Elias."
"The stars are a little different here," Elias said. "Sometimes I try to remember what they looked like in Greenslade on those nights, but I can't remember." He sighed. "Oliver has a story about every star. I tested him, once, just kept pointing at different stars, to see if I could find one that he didn't know about, but I never did. Of course, he could have been making them up on the spot, to tease me."
"Probably." Ciaran was not smiling.
"Look at that one." Elias pointed straight up. "They call that one the dragon. Oliver told me a long story about a golden dragon, and the boy who tricked him in a battle of wits. I asked him if it was true, and if dragons had once been real, and he laughed and said it wasn't. A bard, he said, gets tired of telling true stories of tragedy. The land was full of reminders of the sad past, he said, but the sky was free to be full of tales of laughter, and fanciful beasts that never existed, but should have done."
"I can tell stories, too," Ciaran said. "Come on. They don't need you any more. Or, if they do want you, they shouldn't. They have to let you take time for yourself. Oliver thinks the same."
He was lying, of course. Ciaran was up to his old tricks again, trying to lure the king away from his people. He wanted to own him, and hated it when Elias spent time with anyone else. The danger to the Kindred had never been greater, and here was Ciaran Morgan, trying to snatch away the one person who could save them.
Elias was oblivious, both to Ciaran's true intentions, and to the words themselves. He was lost in thought, staring at the sky, his arms wrapped around his body. He looked miserable now, although he had been smiling earlier, when Reynard had been watching him. Ciaran Morgan had caused this. If Reynard got rid of him, it would be for the king's own good.
"Sometimes," the king murmured, "I just want to become a bird and see how high I can fly. I'd reach the stars. The world would be a tiny speck beneath me, and Cercamond wouldn't matter any more. He'd never find me." He sighed, his face very bleak. "But I can't, and I wouldn't even if I could, but..."
"But you think it," Ciaran said, "and who could blame you? But come with me now. Forget it just for a moment."
Elias turned to face him, and Reynard rejoiced at the rejection in his face. "I can't, Ciaran. Any other night, perhaps, but not tonight."
Ciaran seemed to accept it at last, but Reynard knew that he hadn't, not really. He hated it. Tomorrow he would try again, and he wouldn't rest until he had stolen their king from them. He would fill Elias with doubts, and it was Reynard's duty to stop him.
At the nearest fire, a story finished, and voices called out for another one. "Why not tell them a story about Finbar?" Elias said suddenly.
"Oh, they don't want to hear me," Ciaran protested.
"They don't know you," Elias said. "That's all." He looked at Ciaran until the other man nodded a reluctant yes, then he walked towards the fire, Ciaran following hesitantly behind him. Conversation hushed, but did not stop entirely, for Elias had always made it known that he wanted no ceremony. "This is Ciaran Morgan," he said. "I've asked him to tell us a story."
"Let's hear it, then," they said. Their expressions were cool, but not too unfriendly.
Ciaran Morgan settled down on the ground, and they moved over the make room for him. "It's a story from my world," he said, "which is the world your king used to live in. It's the story of a hero who lived many centuries ago. His name was Finbar."
The story started, and the Kindred listened. He had nothing of Oliver's skill, but they listened. He told a story of an alien world, and his message was clear. Remember where you came from, he was telling Elias. This isn't your home. But he was also wriggling his way into the Kindred's affections, trying to trick them, to win them over. Even Thurstan wandered over and listened for a while, until he noticed Reynard watching him, and hurried off. Reynard could have killed Ciaran on the spot, for the interest he had seen in the boy's eyes.
When the tale was over, everyone clapped and praised it. His cheeks flushed by the fire, Ciaran looked at Elias and smiled, and Elias smiled back, and Reynard hated it. I'm not afraid to kill you, he told Ciaran silently. I've sworn as much. Just you dare try anything.
They mustered in the square, all six thousand of them. Their march had taken them through all the main streets, banners flowing and drums beating, so everyone would see them and know that Lord Darius was going to war.
Lord Darius saw them off in person. "I cannot go with you this time," he told them, "because heavy duty keeps me here, with my people. But my thoughts are with you. I am confident that you will ride to victory. Never forget that the future of everything you hold dear rests on your shoulders. All righteous people are depending on you to eradicate the threat of the sorcerer king once and for all."
He said more, his calm voice rising high and shrill, until even the conscripts were in a frenzy of hatred and blood lust. He painted pictures of butchered children and raped women. He told them about the thousands dying of sorcery, but that was something they already knew, for the bells seldom stopped tolling now.
Lankin listened to it all, but did not join in with the shouting. He had seen things, and heard things. He had spoken to men who had been with the force that had ridden after the sorcerer, and come home without him. He had heard more than they knew of their secret whispering, in which they wondered how Darius had been able to follow the sorcerer so unerringly, if indeed he had. "It wasn't our fault that we lost him," a burly guard had said, "even though Darius says it is."
Over fifty men from that force had been executed, their bodies thrown into a mass grave miles away from home. Lankin wondered if they had really been traitors, or if they had just been convenient men to blame. Some people even whispered that they had found out some secret that Darius possessed. "Because it wasn't the ones who went up the cliff, though they were the ones who failed to find the sorcerer," they said. "It was the ones left behind, the ones camped closest to him."
Many of those who had whispered the loudest had disappeared by the next morning. Lankin himself had played no part in denouncing them. Executing traitors was one thing, but it was wrong to kill people just for expressing doubts about the way the war was being conducted. Lankin was still as devoted as ever to eradicating sorcery, but he had seen too much proof of Darius's cruelty to disbelieve it any more. Darius was the man to lead them to victory, but Lankin no longer really liked him.
Two nights ago, Lankin had been in the courtyard when a man had asked for entrance. A woman had been with him, and she had been asked to remain at the gatehouse, even though the man was admitted to Darius's presence. Lankin had ambled closer, and had heard a bit of the story she was telling the guards.
She had mourned her man as dead, she said, but then who should come home but her man himself, and what a story he had to tell! He had been in a strange place where he had seen things that could not possibly be true, and who should have let him out but the sorcerer king himself? He had even let him keep his sword. "Of course, he thought it was a trick at first, and he spent the whole journey waiting for the curse to reveal itself, but nothing happened. He got lost for a while, but he found his way back home to me. And what do you think of that?"
What did they think of that? That the sorcerer had bewitched the poor soldier, and that the woman should take her husband home and never breathe a word of what she had just said to anyone else. The woman had protested at first, then had turned pale, and started to say that she didn't know why she had been telling such a silly story, and of course it wasn't true, and her husband would realise that, too, as soon as she spoke to him.
But she never did. "He had been ensnared by the sorcerer king," Darius had said, with a grave face. "His mind wasn't his own. As soon as he was in my presence, the sorcerer made him attack me. I had to defend myself, and sadly he died."
A mistake, Lankin thought. The woman had screamed and called Darius a murderer, and the guards had looked at her with sympathy, and at Darius with dislike. Darius seemed to be making too many mistakes. If he kept calling everyone who disagreed with him a traitor, he would soon have no-one left. He would be ruling an empty duchy, and then who would lead the fight against the true evil?
Because sorcery was evil, and the sorcerer king had to be killed. Lankin still believed that, and always would, but he was glad that Darius was not coming with them. The Soldiers of Light would lead this army, and they would lead it to victory.
"He will not be expecting us," Darius told them. "He won't expect us to be daring enough to conduct a winter campaign, and he thinks he evaded us in the hills and that we went back home with our tales between our legs, defeated. But we are not defeated. We know that he lives in the forests north of the mountains. We have known this for centuries, but we have never dared take the fight to his own threshold, but now we do. We will search every inch of that forest, and we will find him."
And this time, when Darius said that, Lankin cheered.
It started raining, and still Ciaran had not come. It was two weeks after the winter festival, and it was fully winter, no leaves left on the trees. For several days, it had been cold enough for snow, but the snow refused to come, and rain made the world look bleak and horrible, as if it was already dead.
Nightshade whimpered at his side, wanting to be somewhere warm and dry. "You go," Elias told him. "I'll just stay here for a while." The wolf padded away into the woods, but went no further. Perhaps he had merely heard an interesting noise and gone to investigate it.
It wasn't as if they had a firm arrangement to meet in this place every morning, although they had done so every day. Ciaran was always there when Elias arrived, or would fall into step with him a little breathlessly, later on. Elias had come to think of it as a sort of ritual, but perhaps it had only been chance that Ciaran had happened up him each morning.
It wasn't even as if Elias was waiting for him. It hadn't been raining when he had arrived, and he had sat down on the river bank because he often did, just to look at the view and to think. The rain had been light at first, not enough to bother moving for, and had got heavier without him really noticing. Now he was too wet for it to make any difference if he stayed or went, but he wasn't waiting for Ciaran. He didn't depend on him. He refused to think of him as master, and he kept his fears close, and never asked Ciaran to comfort him from them.
Nightshade trotted back. "I thought I said you could go." The wolf's fur was wet when Elias touched it, and hairs stuck to his palm. "I hate the rain, don't you? I wish it would snow."
Snow was white and pristine and beautiful. Snow hid everything underneath it. Great stains of black could be creeping over the earth, but the snow could cover it, and Elias could go for walks with Ciaran, and never know.
Mornings were worst, because he never knew what might have happened in the night. He never knew if the sun would rise to show hidden corners where the darkness still lingered, never to be banished. Every morning, he was trembling inside when he crept out of his tent. That first morning, when Ciaran had found him, he had been about to visit all his favourite spots searching for signs of Cercamond's presence. That would have become his morning ritual, the walk he did every day. Instead, every morning started with happiness. He and Ciaran talked about so many things, and sometimes Elias forgot all about the enemy, and just laughed.
They had talked about horses, the previous day. "I always loved them," Ciaran had told him, "but that was before I'd ever met one. Heroes rode on horses, galloping around with their cloaks a-flying. I wanted that to be me. But then I actually got on one, and I knew that out of the two of us, he was the boss. I knew he'd go wherever he wanted to go, and there was nothing I could do about it."
"Did it roll on you?" Elias had asked, for Ciaran had looked so pained at the memory. "Tip you in the water?"
Ciaran had shaken his head. "No, but it could easily have. That was when I swore off horses. I prefer to walk. At least that way I end up where I want to be." He had sighed. "I suppose that says something not very flattering about myself. I always need to be in control."
"I think it's very understandable," Elias had told him. "I love riding, though. I'll teach you if you like." Then he had looked down at the ground, unable to believe his audacity in suggesting such a thing to the man who had once been his master.
But Ciaran had not even looked angry. "You can if you like, but I'll be awful. They know I don't like them, so they refuse to co-operate." He had paused to watch Nightshade bounding away into the trees. "We're not all like you, able to talk to animals."
"I don't exactly talk to them," Elias had said, although Ciaran had said it without bitterness. "But let me try. You might end up liking them."
That had been yesterday, and Elias had thought about it a lot after the walk had ended. Ciaran had told Elias again and again that he had changed, but Elias had always been reluctant to believe him. Yet now Ciaran, who had always wanted to be strong and respected, had laughingly admitted to being bad at something. It made a difference, in a way that a thousand of Ciaran's protestations could not.
But perhaps he had been wrong about it. Perhaps he had annoyed Ciaran, and that was why he wasn't here. But, of course, it had never been a firm arrangement. Elias stood up, shaking off the worst of the rain. He would do what he had come here for two weeks before. He would search for signs of Cercamond, and he would do so alone.
He started to talk, but then Ciaran was there, well wrapped up against the rain. "You're not going out in this?" he asked, then he noticed how wet Elias already was. "You haven't been waiting for me, have you?"
Elias shook his head. "I just came here because... I always come here in the morning. I always have."
"But in the rain...?" Ciaran shook his head. "I got up a bit late. I was going to come out, but I saw the rain, so I thought you wouldn't be there. But then I wondered, so I thought I'd pop out quickly."
"I always come," Elias repeated. "I hadn't noticed how wet it had got." He couldn't say the rest of it. He couldn't say how mornings were the worst, and how lovely it had been to have something to look forward to, something to help him find the strength to get out of bed and face the daylight. Until day, he hadn't realised it even himself.
Ciaran touched his shoulder. "Come on. Let's go back. You need to get warm."
"I suppose I do."
Elias let himself be led, and Ciaran chided him and smiled at him and told him what a silly boy he was, to get so wet without noticing. Once Elias might have believed it, but now he knew that there was no malice in it. It was nice to know that someone cared if he was cold, and Ciaran's chatter kept Cercamond away, and made the day seem a little less grey.
After weeks of cold, it finally started to snow. The snow lay thick, and even when the days were sunny, the air was so cold that the snow melted only slowly. Every few days, a new snowfall came, and the forest stayed entirely white.
On the first day of the snow, Ciaran found Elias just standing there, smiling. Nightshade, as ever, was prancing around him. The wolf had also seemed to make a ritual out of this morning walk, for Ciaran never saw him for the rest of the day.
"It snowed," Elias said, still smiling. He held out his hands to catch a few light flakes that were still falling, fluttering out of a bleached blue sky.
"Is it?" Ciaran teased him. "I hadn't noticed until you said."
"It's snowed," Elias said again. It seemed to be more important to him than it was to Ciaran. He was smiling like a child seeing snow for the first time.
"I remember the first time I saw proper snow," Ciaran told him. "Brynmor's too far south, and any snow that did fall got all smoky and churned up by the traffic and the people. But then it snowed my first winter in Greenslade. I remember how all the children got sledges out and built snowmen and had snowball fights. Everyone was laughing."
He tried to laugh, but he knew he sounded wistful. He had stood in his window and watched everyone having fun, but no-one had invited him to join them. Not that he would have done so, not then. He was their Brother, and had to look dignified at all times.
"I used to watch them, too," Elias said. "One of my brothers, I can't remember which, threw a snowball at me once, with a stone in it." He pushed back his hair and showed Ciaran a faint scar on the hairline, just above the ear. "My mother shouted at me for provoking him."
Ciaran didn't know what to say. Ciaran had thought about his own betrayal by Gideon, and used it to justify the way he had become, but Elias had been betrayed, too, and had never become cold because of it. He had always had such a burning need to stop others from suffering the way he had suffered.
"I tried to build a snowman once," Elias confessed. "I tried to make Finbar, because I thought you might like it. But it looked more like a... I don't know what. Not a man, anyway. Then I knocked it down again, because I suddenly realised that you'd think I'd been wasting my time on something so silly."
It was the closest Elias had come in weeks to speaking about the wrongs Ciaran had committed, but there was no blame in his voice, only wistful sadness. Ciaran couldn't even reassure him, because it was true what Elias had said. "I wouldn't now," was all he could say.
"But the Kindred would," Elias said. "I can't fight Cercamond with an army of snowmen."
Ciaran chuckled at the thought. "No, but none of them are watching. And I bet even Reynard gets silly in the snow."
"Reynard?" Elias's eyes widened, then they both laughed, picturing it.
"Shall we walk, then?" Ciaran said, then they were sober again. He started walking, but Elias did not immediately follow him. Just as Ciaran was about to turn round, something cold hit him on the back of his neck, and freezing wetness dribbled down his back.
"We both used to watch them," Elias said, as he scooped up another snowball. "I thought it was time we joined in."
"Why, you treacherous brat!" Ciaran cried. "I'll get you for that." He snatched at the ground and grabbed a handful of snow and threw it, but it went into powder, and never reached its target.
Elias, who had spent time shaping his into a ball, scored a perfect hit. "You have to be patient," he said, "with snow."
Ciaran said nothing, but very deliberately shaped a ball, and threw it. Elias dodged, but at the last minute Ciaran changed his aim, and the ball hit Elias full in the face. Ciaran crowed in triumph. "I win!"
Elias wiped snow from his face. "Oh no you don't."
Within minutes they were soaking wet, and laughing like children. Then Ciaran found himself bowled off his feet. He fell heavily onto his back, sinking into the snow. Nightshade was standing on his chest, pinning him down. For a moment, Ciaran was afraid, then he realised that the wolf was playing, too.
"It's not fair," he panted. "The two of you, ganging up on me. You put him up to this. Admit it."
"I didn't." There was a disingenuous sparkle in Elias's eye. "He decided to do it all by himself."
Ciaran pushed the wolf away, and the animal moved, just enough to let him sit up. He reached out his hand, just like Elias had shown him so many weeks before, and Nightshade briefly nuzzled it. Ciaran was delighted. "He likes me!"
"He does." Elias smiled, and the wolf trotted back to him, where it pressed its head against his legs, making it clear that it might tolerate Ciaran a little, but Elias was its master.
Ciaran stood up and brushed the snow from his clothes. "I enjoyed that."
"So did I." Elias looked suddenly shy. "I've never played before."
Elias had only been nine years old when he had come to Ciaran. He could still have had a few years of childhood. He could have played with the children in Greenslade, but Ciaran had never let him. There had been many reasons for that, but perhaps, Ciaran realised, at least part of it was because Ciaran himself had never had a proper childhood, either. He had been a small child in a world of old men, and there had been precious few games to be found in the Basilica. He had reached the age of thirty-six without ever really being a child.
His changed mood must have showed on his face, for Elias asked him if he wanted to go back.
"No." Ciaran shook his head. "I enjoyed that."
"I wonder if anyone saw," Elias said. "Reynard would be horrified."
"So what if they saw," Ciaran declared. He had always been so concerned about appearances, but what did it really matter, as long as he was happy? "Let them see. It's time they learned that you're a person, not just their king whose always there when they need him."
"Oliver used to say much the same," Elias said, and Ciaran wondered if Elias, too, had received some parting advice from the bard. "I wonder where Oliver is now. It's been more than a month."
"He said he wouldn't be back until spring." Ciaran had promised to stay until then. He had promised to get to know Elias, and he was keeping the promise. When Oliver came back, he could go to him and say, "See? I did what you asked. You can't blame me for anything now."
But even as he thought it, he wondered if he would say that at all. For weeks, now, he hadn't even thought about his promise to Oliver. There had only been Elias, a young man he was getting to know, and was finding he liked very much. He no longer rehearsed their conversations beforehand, but he looked forward to them. He had found things out about Elias that he had never known, and he had told Elias things he had never told anyone.
He was happy, he realised. Oliver had told him to help Elias find out who he was, to find the real person he had never been able to be. Instead, Ciaran realised that he was finding himself in a way that he had never done before. He had never given himself the chance. The had never admitted weakness, or taken risks that could result in new and wonderful things, and in that he had stifled himself. He had constructed an image of the sort of person he wanted to become, and had let himself become that way, and had never thought to wonder if he could ever be anything else.
"I'm Ciaran!" he wanted to shout out to anyone who would listen. He was not a disappointed young man who had always longed to be a hero. He was not Master Morgan, who ruled Greenslade. For the first time in his life, he was Ciaran, just Ciaran, and he liked it very much.
"Still," Elias was saying, unaware of the significance of Ciaran's thoughts, "I wish I knew he was all right."
Ciaran struggled to speak. "I'm sure he's fine." Over a month, and there had still been no sign of any great and approaching danger. Ciaran was beginning to think that Elias had been mistaken. Reynard had patrols out even to the edge of the forest, and they had not reported any armies.
"Yes." Elias did not look convinced. He was treading very carefully through the snow, reluctant to disturb its beauty. Ciaran looked back and saw how his own tracks had churned it up brutally. "There's something else. Something I want to ask you."
Ciaran felt cold. "What?" Was Elias going to send him home?
"The boy, Thurstan," Elias said. "He really does need training, and you know that I can't do it. I know you... I know you might not be here for long, but would you mind at least starting? A little training is better than nothing."
Ciaran thought about it. It would be good to teach someone again, to have someone hanging on his every word. But this would be a stranger, not Elias. He would have to spend hours and hours with someone else.
"Please," Elias asked him. "He's... troubled. Reynard is his father, you know. Neither of them knew about it until a few months ago. Thurstan was brought up by Gerhard. You remember him? But Gerhard's dead now, and all his men. Everyone Thurstan knew. Then he finds out that Reynard's his father. It's not easy for him. And not easy for Reynard, either. They're not reconciled. It would do Thurstan good to have someone take an interest in him. The Shadow might help him."
There was too much for Ciaran to digest. "Reynard's his father?" He shook his head, dismissing the rest of it to think about later. "I'll try," he promised, though he doubted the boy would want to listen to him, after their last encounter. "But I'm doing it for you, because it's what you want. And I won't let him call me master."
Elias was looking away. "He can be your apprentice if you want him to be," he said. Because I never will be again, said the silence that followed.
"I don't want him to be." Ciaran was very sure about that, but not for the reasons Elias was probably thinking. He had not thought of Elias as his apprentice for weeks. The old relationship between them had gone, never to return again. What was going to take its place?
Snow made Thurstan think of home, where the mountain peaks were white even in the summer, and the lower slopes snowy for four months of the year. But home had never truly been home, had it? Gerhard had lied to him, and had never been his father. Everyone had known, but no-one had told him.
A few boys had tried to befriend him, but Thurstan thought they probably pitied him, so seldom talked back. The girl who had given him a flower so long ago had hung around him for a while, but he thought she was probably trying to find out gossip about Reynard's son, to pass on to all the other girls.
Now he was alone, and that was probably best. The king sought him out quite a bit, and always had a smile for him, but not even the king could make this better.
"It isn't that he's ashamed of you," the king had told him, only this morning. "He's like someone else I knew once. He doesn't think it's right to show affection. He thinks that there's a job to be done, and he can't relax in his vigilance just for a second. But it's him, it's his problem. It's nothing to do with you."
"Then maybe you should be talking to him, not me," Thurstan had snapped. "I've tried. It's up to him now. He wanted nothing to do with me. Not that I care."
"I have talked to him." The king had looked not in the least offended by Thurstan's tone. "And I'll talk to him again. I just want to make sure you know that it's nothing to do with you. It's because of your mother, in a way, but mostly it's because of the sort of person Reynard is."
Then change him, Thurstan had wanted to say. Do your magic, and make him different. Make him someone else, who loves me.
Someone else was approaching him now. It was the tall man who went around so often with the king. Ciaran Morgan, he was called. Thurstan would never forget how this man had attacked him, and how he had seen him in a vision, and had wanted to scream at him not to touch the king.
"Hello, Thurstan," the man had the audacity to say, as if that past encounter had never happened. "My name's Ciaran Morgan."
Thurstan tugged at his cloak, looking at it and not at the man. "I know."
"Look." Ciaran Morgan squatted beside Thurstan in the snow. "I know we didn't get off to a good start. I was wrong, for a reason I will tell you in a minute."
"I don't trust you," Thurstan snarled.
"I know." Ciaran only shook his head mildly. "There's something I want to tell you. Did Elias... Did the king ever mention the Shadow to you?"
Despite himself, Thurstan's head snapped up. The king had done something beneath the walls of the citadel, and something wonderful had stirred in Thurstan's soul. That was the Shadow. For a while, Thurstan had hoped that one day he would be able to do marvels, too, but he had failed when he had been asked to, and no-one had ever mentioned it again.
"The Shadow is sometimes called magic," Ciaran explained, "but we, who know it, know it is not. But it can help a man perform feats that look like magic. It's very powerful."
"You can use it, too?" Thurstan asked. "Like the king?"
"In my world," Ciaran said, "which is the world your king came from originally, there are hundreds of us who can sense the Shadow." He looked sad as he spoke the number, and Thurstan wondered if his people were like the Kindred, and were now few when they had once been many. "But here, in your world, no-one could sense it, or so I thought. So when I saw you, I thought you must have come in from another world. That's why I didn't trust you."
It didn't seem to matter any more. "Can you teach me?" Thurstan asked.
"I can." Ciaran smiled, though Thurstan thought it didn't quite reach his eyes. Not that it mattered. He wanted a teacher, not a friend. He didn't have to like this man to learn from him. "Elias wanted to," Ciaran said hurriedly, as if he was anxious that Thurstan think no ill of the king, "but he can't. There's enchantment in his Shadow now, so it's not anything you could learn."
"Really?" The relief Thurstan felt was great enough for him to realise that he had been hurt by the king's failure to teach him. He wasn't good enough to Reynard's son, and he wasn't good enough to learn about the Shadow, because he had failed in the citadel when asked to use it.
"He asked me to teach you, because he cannot," Ciaran said. "But I want to," he said, hastily. There was an awkwardness in his voice that showed he was unused to being kind. "It is a sad thing indeed if someone gifted is not trained. And it’s a while since I had anyone to teach."
Thurstan looked at him properly for the first time. "You taught the king?" he gasped. It was amazing to think that such a man could ever have had a teacher.
"I did," Ciaran said, lowering his eyes, "but only in some things. Only in the Shadow, and perhaps not well enough at that."
Thurstan pressed his hands together. "I want to learn." He would learn how to perform marvels, and then Reynard would be forced to take notice of him. Who could ignore someone who could raise a sword and hold it at another person's throat, all without touching it? Reynard would have to be proud of him as a son if he became the only one of the Kindred with power like the king's.
"Good." Ciaran stood up again, and brushed the snow from his robe. "Shall we start tomorrow, midday?"
"Today." Thurstan stood up, too. He barely came up to the man's shoulders.
Ciaran Morgan chuckled. "So eager? But I remember what it's like. Elias was like that, when I first showed him glimpses of the Shadow. It gets you like that. You can't turn your back on it. You need to understand, to find out more."
"Yes." Because that was true, too. It had been marvellous, the brief touch of the Shadow he had felt. Perhaps Ciaran wasn't that bad, he thought, if wanted to help Thurstan feel that again. He hadn't actually been harming the king in the vision, just standing behind him, almost touching him. Perhaps Thurstan had only taken against him because he was a stranger, and he had merely assumed that the touch was a threat.
Or maybe Ciaran really was a threat, but it didn't matter. Thurstan would learn everything he could from him, but he would not trust him. Then he would take what he was taught, and use it in the war, to help the Kindred and to serve his king, and he would serve them in a way that Reynard could never do.
I'm the only person left alive in the world, Lankin thought, as he made the first set of footprints in the untouched snow of a village's main street.
The army had taken a slow route through the lowlands, requisitioning supplies along the way, and gathering men, both conscripts and volunteers. To the surprise of many officers, there had been more of the former than the latter. Every village was seething with hatred of sorcery, but they had also heard tales of life in Eidengard. "I'm in no hurry to join up when I'll end up falsely accused as a traitor, and dead," one man had said, before he had been forced at gunpoint to join up anyway.
They were untrained soldiers, these new recruits, issued with weapons they had never used before and expected to fight in a few weeks. Some were zealous, and some were resentful, and many would die. It had never been spoken aloud, but Lankin knew that Darius despised men who would only fight because they were forced. He wanted them placed on the front line, where they would bear the brunt of any attack. Then the soldiers of less dubious loyalty would sweep up afterwards, when the enemy was exhausted, and be rewarded by a bloodless victory.
It had been pitiful in some of the villages. Plague was sweeping the land, but it was worse here, in the villages between Eidengard and the forest, than in the city itself. They were careful not to enter those places that flew the black flag that denoted sickness, but sometimes they found places where the sickness had come and already gone, leaving half the village dead. Once, Lankin had watched while Thomas had torn the only surviving son from a widow's arms, and threatened to kill the woman unless the boy joined up.
"Is this how we protect them?" Lankin had asked Thomas afterwards. "We're supposed to be fighting to defend people like those. Sorcery killed that woman's family, but we killed her last hope. Do we need another man that desperately?"
"Of course we do," Thomas had said. "I took no pleasure in it, but it was necessary. Would you have the sorcerer king triumph, Lankin, just because we went against him at half strength, because of a little pity?"
Lankin was alone now. He had wandered off by himself on a journey several days long, seeking out tiny villages far away from the road. He had brought a cart and some money, ready to buy provisions for their final march north, but he had found no provisions, and no men. All he had found was death.
There had been thirty families living here, but not a single one remained. He had found several bodies, already stinking and covered with flies. There were no horses, and no carts. Maybe the others had fled, terrified by the death that had struck their village in the winter. He doubted that they would ever come back. The fields would remain untended, and the animals would slowly starve, or go wild.
His footsteps squeaked on the snow. A loose wooden board slapped rhythmically, and seemed louder each time, as if someone was standing there with the board in their hand, deliberately trying to scare him. A few chickens ran loose down the main street, and a dirty cat eyed them hungrily. He saw a half-starved cow still tethered to a gate, and released it, thinking he would take it back to the army and use it for milk.
Far away, carried by the wind, he heard a bell tolling, marking a death in a village a few miles away. What would it have been like, he thought, to die in a small village like this, that no-one would ever bother to visit? It was a small farming community, and very poor. They probably had never heard of the sorcerer king, and had no idea what was happening to them. They would have heard the bells and known that they were not the only ones suffering so, but that was all.
Someone was alive in that other village, Lankin thought, or the bell could not ring. Maybe it was one last person, tolling the death of their friends one by one. What had they thought when this village's bell had fallen silent?
Lankin felt tears start in his eyes, but also a deep anger, burning within. Soon, if the sorcerer king remained unchecked, there would be no-one left to ring any bells. There would be no-one at all, and the whole world would be like this village, where the snow fell, but there was no-one to see it.
The cold was easing, and winter was nearing the end. Oliver had been gone for two and half months, and there had been no news.
Reynard was putting some of the younger warriors through their paces when he saw the king watching both him, and them. He said nothing, so as not to distract them, but soon all the fighters had noticed. They all fought a little better for knowing that their king was there. When they had finished, Elias had words for all of them.
"I want them to be good at fighting in the snow," Reynard told the king, when they were alone. "It's slippery. Very hard to fight on."
"They're a credit to you," the king said, and Reynard swelled a little to hear it, though he would have thought himself above such need for praise.
Hardly anyone talked to him now, except the king. When he had come back from the Shroud of Dreams, they had flocked around him, appreciating him all the more after living without him for two months. Now, they approached him only when they had to. Sometimes he asked himself why it had happened, but other times he knew full well, and just didn't care. He had no time for storytelling and chatting and all the trivial little things that even his fiercest fighters seemed to want from time to time. He knew it made him bad company, but it was necessary, if the Kindred were to survive. The world needed people like him.
"The snow will be melting soon." The king seemed to shiver as he said it. "It will," Reynard said. And then it would be spring. Armies started moving in the spring. Give them time to gather and equip themselves, and then it would be summer. He would start expecting Darius by midsummer, because what he knew of the new duke showed that he was not a man who would let their escape in the crags go unavenged.
"I'm scared," Elias told him. "I haven't even told Ciaran this. I'm scared of what I'll see when the snow melts."
Reynard nodded, understanding. He wondered why the king was telling him, not Ciaran Morgan. He had watched them all winter, and seen how Ciaran had been trying to make Elias forget that things were so wrong with the world. Now he had started on Thurstan, too. They had spent every afternoon together for weeks, and they looked at Reynard with glinting eyes, part of a little conspiracy all of their own.
"We might not have very long left," Elias said. "I wish you'd talk to Thurstan."
"I'm willing to talk to him," Reynard told him, as if he told him so often before. "He just wants more than that, and this isn't the time for it."
"But there might never be time." Elias grabbed his arm, and it was only because it was Elias that Reynard endured it. "None of us know how long we will live. We have to make peace with each other. We gave to grab happiness where we can, because there might not be a tomorrow."
Reynard's lip curled. "You sound like Oliver." Something whispered in his mind, with the white fluttery wings of memory. The voices in the tower had spoken of such things, and told him how he betrayed the enchantment if he closed himself to love.
"But I think it's true," Elias said. "Especially now. The snow might melt tomorrow, and what will be beneath it?"
"Whatever it is," Reynard said, in a husky voice, "we will fight it, and anything that tries to stop us from doing so." Perhaps Elias thought he meant Darius, but Reynard thought of Ciaran Morgan as he said it.
One morning, the sky was blue, and there was no biting chill in Ciaran's lungs when he breathed in. All day, the snow melted, and streams of water ran down the riverbank, but then evening came, and the snow was still there, as thin as a blanket.
Elias had stayed with Ciaran for most of the day, even while he taught Thurstan. The boy was coming on well, though something inside him was blocking his access to the Shadow. Seeing it, Ciaran realised just how much the same thing had happened to him. The Shadow was glorious to him now, in a way it had not been for years, ever since Gideon. And so he was gentle with Thurstan. Who could blame a boy of seventeen, who had been through so much, for letting his emotions interfere with the purity of his Shadow sense?
Whenever Ciaran had a spare moment, Elias talked to him. "Do you want to go riding again?" Ciaran asked him once, but Elias shook his head, and said it was too slippery. As Ciaran had predicted, Elias had been unable to teach him to love horses, but Ciaran still derived pleasure from riding clumsily beside Elias, so graceful and at ease on his own mount. They went deep into the forest, and no-one followed them.
They talked for a while of little things. Elias was very pale, but he laughed a lot, his laughter brittle, like glass that was about to shatter. Ciaran noticed it, but did not ask. It was hard for Elias, he knew. They had had their happy times together, where Elias had been almost carefree, but the threat of Cercamond was still there, if Elias was to be believed. Some days were worse for Elias than others, and this was just one of the bad ones. Ciaran just had to make him smile more, to help him forget it.
Evening found them beside the stream, where there were no trees to block out the stars. Months ago, Elias had told him how much he had liked looking at the stars with his master, but for some reason they had never come out into the forest at night. Their walks had been in the morning, and by evening Elias had been claimed by the Kindred.
"Look at that one," Ciaran said, pointing. "It's just like it is at home. Do you remember? They called it the lovers in Greenslade. I remember you asking me to tell you why, and I was embarrassed, because it was quite a bawdy story."
"Oh." Elias didn't ask him to tell him the story now, and perhaps Ciaran was pleased, for he realised suddenly that he could have told the story to the Kindred, but was still embarrassed to tell it to Elias.
Ciaran touched his hand. "Look up, Elias. Look at the stars."
Elias said nothing for a while, and when he spoke his voice was very faint. "I told you I wanted to fly away to the stars. It was true. And never more than today. Does that make me a coward?"
"Oh no." Ciaran squeezed his hand. "It's only understandable. The important thing, Elias, is that you never would. I know you." He realised something else. "You told me ages ago that you were scared to spend time with me in case you became weak, but I don't think that was ever a danger, and hasn't been for a long time. Think of how you were like when you found the sword."
"I was pathetic," Elias whispered.
"Yes." Ciaran grimaced at what he had just said, but Elias was nodding, accepting it as truth, so Ciaran carried on. "But the minute you got the sword, that changed. You put your duty first right from the start. Whatever you felt inside, you always faced your fears. You did what was right, however scared you were."
Elias swallowed. "But I just saw what was inside me. I just saw how I felt."
Ciaran put his arm round Elias's shoulder, but did not pull him close. "No. What matters is what you do with those feelings. You were afraid, but you never acted on your fear, and that makes you truly great, Elias. You're a greater man than I will ever be. The Kindred are right to love you so, though I wish," he said, with a wry smile, "they would give you more time to just be yourself."
"They've given me time," Elias murmured, "and so have you. Thank you, Ciaran, for this winter."
It sounded like a farewell. But, of course, the snow was melting, and tomorrow it would seem like the winter was over, so that was the reason Elias was using the past tense. When it was spring, Oliver would come back, and the term of Ciaran's promise would be over. Not that the promise mattered on whit, not any more. Ciaran never wanted the winter to end. He wanted it to be like this forever.
But he said nothing, for, although the snow was melting, nothing would change tomorrow, and they still had time.
When dawn came, Elias was still on the riverbank, but this time he was alone. He had walked back to the camp with Ciaran, and then they had parted, after a lingering conversation about nothing. Elias had watched Ciaran all the way to his tent, had slept for a little bit, then come back to sit the same place where he had stood with Ciaran, and wait.
The sun was about to rise. Above the horizon, the sky began to turn pink. He could feel by touch that the snow had melted completely during the night. When the sun came up, he would see.
He closed his eyes, and sat there for a very long time, until he could feel the warmth on his face, and knew that the sun was completely above the horizon, and higher even than that. "Go back," he whispered. "I want it to be night again." Night, when everything bad was hidden by darkness, and Ciaran sat beside him and told him that he was strong.
No birds were singing. Elias opened his eyes, and there it was, a patch of darkness across the river. Elias pressed his hand to his mouth and moaned. "For as long as this place is beautiful," Oliver had said, and now Cercamond had brought death to his doorstep, and all winter Elias had tried to ignore it. He had done nothing, just frittered away the time with Ciaran, pretending that nothing was wrong.
"No," he said aloud, standing up. The blame was his, but that was something he refused to feel guilty about. Oliver had been right when he had told Elias that it was better to face the end while at peace with yourself. Elias was stronger now than he had been in the autumn. Ciaran was no longer his weakness, but a source of strength. Whatever lay in the future, their walks, the one short hour in the day when Elias could smile and forget things, had not been wrong.
Now there could be no more hiding. The light was soft and brutal. Across the stream, where once there had been a field of flowers, there was death beneath the earth. There were no early snowdrops and no wild daffodils, and the trees held no buds. It was death that could be seen with the naked eye, not just the eyes of enchantment. The world was locked in perpetual winter, and there would never again be a spring.
He would not let it go without mourning it. A good general, Reynard would doubtless say, spied out the extent of the enemy. So Elias would push aside the pain and do just that. He would fly as a bird, but not to fly away. From the sky, he would see what damage had been done, and he would say farewell to the places that had once been beautiful, so he could remember them to the people who were left behind.
Not even Nightshade had come with him this morning, and there was no sound from the camp, though the drifting smell of cooking meat told Elias that someone was there, and they had not all died in the night.
As he turned into a bird and flew, no-one saw him go. No-one flew beside him, not even the other birds. This day was terrible, he thought, and completely wrong. Even the animals could sense it, and huddled in their homes, afraid to go out. The world was empty.
From above, the devastation was shocking. There was swathes of forest where every tree had withered, and expanses of grassy plain that were as brown as a newly ploughed field. I don't want to see it any more! he wailed at last, and fell to the ground to turn into his true form. Naked, he pressed his hands against the dead ground and summoned all the enchantment he could muster, but although he could heal, he could not create life. Only life could create life.
He ran as a hare for a little while, weaving through the tall and blackened grass stalks, and sickening at the stench of death that lurked here, so close to the ground. When he had run too far, he curled onto his side and lay there, panting and shivering.
When he found the stream again, he became a fish, and swam back through water as clear as glass. There was no green waterweed, and no tiny plankton. There were pockets of water where everything was as it always had been, but whole lifeless bands that twisted and coiled and spread.
It was close to death, and had died beneath a blanket of snow, with no-one to witness its last flowering. There were places he saw now, from the sky, that no man had ever seen. There were hidden valleys with no path, and deep rocky defiles that were impossible to reach. There had been beauty in these, once, but no-one had seen them until it was too late.
It was lost. Everything was lost.
Ciaran had spent half the morning looking for Elias. Reynard must have done the same, for it was Reynard who had found Elias's clothes. "He's changed," he had snapped. He had put the clothes back down again, in a place a little more sheltered by the trees, and had ordered nobody to come near the spot until the king had returned.
If he returned... Elias had spoken of flying away, but Ciaran had been so sure that he would never do it. Elias had acted secretively in the past, but the Elias he had come to know over the winter would never have gone away forever without a goodbye. But he would never have missed their morning walk, either.
Ciaran stared at nothing for a long while, lost in thought. When he turned back, Elias was there, kneeling in the water with water up to his chest. He was clearly naked, and as Ciaran watched, he pushed his hair off his face and threw his head back. Water cascaded down his back, glittering in the sun like diamonds.
Hardly breathing, Ciaran stood up and tip-toed back into the wood. He kept his face averted, and counted up to a hundred, then a hundred more. He heard the splashing that sounded like Elias climbing out of the water. Was he dressed yet? Ciaran almost turned round, then counted a hundred more. He waited another minute, then dared to look.
Elias was sitting on the bank, his knees pulled up to his chest. Despite the cold, he was not yet fully dressed. His shirt was unfastened at the neck, and his cloak lay in a tangled heap beside him, as if he had simply run out of energy half way through getting dressed, and slumped down onto the ground.
"Elias," Ciaran whispered. He crept up behind him on silent feet.
Elias swallowed hard. "It's over," he whispered.
Ciaran knelt down behind him, close enough to see the fluttering of his pulse. "What's wrong, Elias? Let me help you."
"You can't help me," Elias said.
"Why not?" Ciaran almost touched his shoulder, but did not quite dare to. The sun-drenched air seemed to throb with expectation, as if the whole forest was watching the two of them, waiting for something to happen. "Because you're afraid? I thought we talked about that last night."
"Oh no." Elias gave a short laugh that was horrible to hear. "Not that any more. Does it really matter how I feel? It might make me stronger in the future, but it can't change what's already happened."
"What's happened? Did someone bring you news? Has something happened to Oliver?"
"I don't know where Oliver is," Elias whispered. "I wish he'd come back. He might have found something out. He might be able to tell me how to fight this."
"Cercamond," Ciaran realised.
"The snow melted," Elias said. "I saw what was underneath it, what was underneath it all the time we were happy together this winter. I flew to see it better. It's dying. It's worse than I feared. It's horrible, and I don't know what to do."
Happy together. Did it make him horribly selfish that he could cherish those words, even in the middle of all this? "I'll help you," Ciaran promised. He touched the back of Elias's neck, weaving his fingers through the wet hair. "We'll do whatever we can. You'll never be alone. And there are some things," he said, his voice like a breath, "that Cercamond can never kill."
Elias was very still, but Ciaran could see how fast he was breathing, and how tremulously. "Like what?"
Sunlight dappled the trees. Now Elias had spoken of it, Ciaran saw that there was a patch of barren land across the stream, but all the rest of it was beautiful. He moved his hand round to Elias's cheek. All winter, he had wondered what would happen when spring came, and the term of his promise was up. Even last night, he had hoped that nothing would change, but now he knew that he wanted everything to change. He wanted to be with Elias for ever, and for Elias to want him to stay.
"Like friendship," he murmured. "Trust. Hope... Love."
"Love." It was only a tiny movement, but it was there. Rather than pulling away, Elias was pressing his cheek against Ciaran's palm.
"I never knew what I wanted," Ciaran admitted. He kept his hand very still, but he had never been more aware of it. "I thought I wanted your forgiveness. I thought I wanted everything to be the same as ever. I thought I wanted to be needed. But all those things... They're nothing. I've never been so happy as I have this winter, Elias, and all because of you. You were right when you said I didn't know you, but I feel I know you now, and I love the man I see. And I've come to know myself, too, and to know what I want."
"What do you want?" It was the faintest wisp of breath. Elias was trembling with cold.
"You," Ciaran told him. "I want to stay with you. I want to go where you go. I want you. I love you."
Then he closed his eyes. He was older, and once Elias had been a child who could deny him nothing. It would be wrong for him to push. If Elias wanted to pretend that he had not understood, Ciaran would never repeat it. If Elias recoiled and never wanted to see him again, he would have to accept it, though it would break his heart.
Elias's hand closed on Ciaran's, pressing it closer to his cheek. "I think I love you. I... don't know anything about love."
Ciaran licked his dry lips. "Do you want me to stay with you while you find out?"
" Elias turned further, his cheek sliding against Ciaran's hand. "I do." With his other arm, he reached up, drawing Ciaran closer to him.
When they kissed, a tiny kiss more delicate than thistledown, it was Elias who closed the gap between them, and Ciaran who just sat there, stunned. But then they parted, it was Ciaran who wrapped his arm round Elias's waist, and pulled him back, so Elias could lean his head on Ciaran's shoulder, and they could rest there for hours, until darkness came, and beyond.
"That was nice," Elias murmured, at last.
Ciaran felt himself blushing. He wanted to grab Elias's face and take another kiss, but he knew he could not. "Do you want to do it again?"
"Yes," Elias said, "but probably not yet. I need to think about things first. I need to be sure."
"I understand." Ciaran stroked his hair. "And if you decide you don't, I'll still understand. But it won't change anything. I still want to stay with you forever." His head snapped up, as he was suddenly seized by a wonderful idea. "I'll prove it to you tonight."
Ciaran had told him he would be away for a few hours, or maybe longer. "Or maybe until tomorrow. I can't tell how long it will take. But I will come back, and I'll have something to show you."
Elias used to time alone to think. There was nothing to say to the Kindred that had not been said before. By now, they would all have seen the dead patches of ground for themselves. Cercamond had struck at their home, but they had known all winter that he was coming. They weren't the ones who had neglected their duty.
He remembered the kiss. How could he ever forget? He wanted to say that he loved Ciaran more than anything, but how could he do that do him, when he really wasn't sure? Love could be born in times of tragedy, but tragedy made people need each other more, and maybe mistake friendship for love.
But he did know that he wanted Ciaran to stay forever, just as he had been all winter. He had helped Elias get through the worst days, and he had kept him anchored in the world of men, not drifting away on the wings of enchantment. He never wanted Ciaran to leave.
How, then, could he greet Ciaran tonight with the news he had to break? Hours, he had been thinking, alone in his hut, and he knew now that there was only one answer.
Ciaran came back a little before midnight. "Can I come in?" he whispered, his voice quiet in case Elias was sleeping.
"Yes." Elias smiled in the darkness. His candle had burned down, and he had not lit another one, but Ciaran came with a lantern.
Ciaran came in and knelt down. Even in the flickering light, Elias could see that he was alive with excitement, as giddy as a child. Did I do that, Elias wondered, just by saying that I might one day love him?
"Look." Ciaran had a long wooden staff in his hand. It seemed so right to see it there than Elias had not even noticed. "It's a real one," Ciaran said, when Elias did not move. "Not that horrid little imitation I cut last year. It's real. I had to walk for hours before I found the right tree."
Brothers did that. A tree had to be right for them, and they could only be recognised by a long and tiring search constantly in touch with the Shadow. By carving a new one, to replace the one left behind in Greenslade, Ciaran was telling Elias that he was here to stay.
Elias had to turn away so Ciaran would not see his tears. How could he tell him? "I'm glad you found it," he managed to say. "I know what it means."
Ciaran was still jubilant, and Elias had to ruin that. "Look at it," Ciaran urged him. "It's still a bit rough, but I can work on it."
"It's lovely," Elias said, but he could put it off no longer. He clasped his hands in his lap. "I've been thinking, Ciaran. Cercamond's made his move. I can't sit here any longer, just waiting, doing nothing. I've got to do something."
"But what?" Ciaran still held the staff, but he rested it over his knees. It was almost the width of the hut. "Wait till Oliver comes back, at least."
Elias had to shake his head, to shatter even that hope. "I've got to go. Cercamond is a threat to everyone in the world, but we're just fighting each other. We're destroying each other, and how he must be laughing. So I've been thinking... Darius has enchantment. Whatever everyone else thinks in the duchy, he knows that I'm not evil. He might be prevailed to listen to me, if I told him the truth. He's not a stupid man. He'll have to admit that we can't fight Cercamond alone, but if he unites with us..."
"No!" Ciaran cried. "I won't hear of it. You're not going."
"But I have to," Elias said. "How can I fight Cercamond, if my people are being killed by Darius and his army? I have to make peace, if we're to have a chance." He smiled in a way he hoped was reassuring. "I have to try, Ciaran. I know he probably won't listen, but I have to try. And he's far weaker than I am, and he doesn't have power over me any more. If things go wrong, I'll be able to escape. I know I can."
Ciaran clenched his fist on the staff. "If you do go, I'll come with you."
This was the hardest part, where he had to be cruel. He had thought of everything, and there was no alternative. "You can't. I can get myself out of anything, but I can't get you. And if we were in danger, I wouldn't leave you. I'd stay with you, and die. So if you came with me, you could be killing me, as well as yourself."
Ciaran lashed his head to one side. "Then you don't love me, or you couldn't leave like this."
Or maybe I love you too much, Elias thought. "That isn't true," he said. "I just don't want you to be hurt. And I don't want to leave my people. I want someone left behind that I can trust. I want someone to take care of Thurstan, and keep an eye on Reynard, and be there to greet Oliver and tell him why I left before he came back. Please, Ciaran. Please. For me."
"It's not fair," Ciaran cried. "It's not fair what you're asking me. And after today... And after this winter..."
"Please." Elias bent forward, and for the second time, he kissed Ciaran, this time on the brow. Ciaran pulled away, then leant forward again with a low cry. Elias had never seen him so humble, so needy.
"Then I will," Ciaran forced out, "but I don't like it." I might not love you after this, his eyes said, but Elias knew that it was not true, and that seemed even worse.
"Reynard won't be pleased," Elias said. "If he finds out you knew I was going, he might take his anger out on you."
"I can cope with Reynard." Ciaran raised his staff again, and began to look like the old Ciaran again, who was afraid of no-one. "Just hurry back, Elias. I'll miss you."
"I'll miss you, too," Elias said, and he meant it. "But I have to do this. You do understand?"
Ciaran looked at him for a very long time, and then he nodded.
He was still kneeling there on the floor a very long time later, when Elias slipped out of the door, murmured a farewell, and went out into the night, alone.