Chapter fifteen

A single thread

 

      

       Elias was half way up the crags when the voice started whispering to him. Let go, it told him. Straighten those fingers, let go of that rock, and just fall.

       The rain made the rocks slippery, and frost still nestled in some of the deeper cracks. The crags were by no means sheer, but they were difficult to climb in the rain, with a shoulder that was still not healed enough to bear much weight. Reynard had reached the top already, and Ciaran was almost there. Elias was the last of them, and would soon be alone, as tiny as an insect on the vast expanse of ageless black rock.

       The only sound was the rain, and his own harsh breathing. The ground was far away, and it felt as if he was leaving life behind as he climbed away from everything below. Birds nested in the sheltered places behind the rocky outcrops, hidden from all the world. Some of the ledges were big enough to hold a man, and keep him safe, hidden from all the world.

       Thinking of hiding? the voice taunted him. Ah, but there's a better way. You're too late, little one. There's no saving the world now. Why stick around to watch its death throes? Why put yourself through that pain, when you can end it all?

       Elias dragged himself up with his good arm, and managed to find a foothold. Above him, not too far away, Ciaran was disappearing over the edge. Nobody would see him if he hid, or if he fell.

       Do you really want to see it all end? the voice asked him. To see a million people dying one by one and know they were all your fault? Because you'll be the last one alive. Every living thing in the world will die, and you'll still be here, alone in a wilderness, alone with the ruin of the world you could not save.

       The rain sheeted down. Elias pressed his forehead into the rock, and gave a choked sob.

       So why do you keep on struggling? Why do you still cling to that piece of rock? Why travel another step, when each step only takes you nearer to the end? Let go, little one. End it all. It will make no difference to the world, but at least you won't have to see it.

       Elias stared at his hand. The knuckles were white with the strain of clinging onto the rock. They wanted to let go. All he had to do was relax that muscle there, and then the pain would stop.

       That's right. That's right, little one. Just like that.

       He released one finger.

       Fall. Stop fighting the inevitable. Let yourself sleep.

       Ciaran and Reynard were above him, not watching. When they finally got fed up of waiting and peered over the edge, they would see his broken body at the foot of the crags. But the army would still be closing in on them, but there would be no way home for Ciaran, and Reynard would hate himself for letting his king die.

       They're dead anyway, the voice told him. Dead in hours, or days, or weeks... What does it matter? At least this way will be swift. At least this way they won't be tormented with false hope.

       Elias moaned. Another finger slipped free, but he tried to regain his grip, though it just slid off the wet rock.

       You know it's right.

       He managed to anchor himself on the rock. "No." He scrambled up a few feet more. "I won't do it."

       He couldn't abandon the Kindred, even if they were dying. It would be like killing them with own hand if he gave up on them because they were as good as dead. Even if the world was doomed, perhaps he could ease its dying. If just one person died a little easier because he was there, then would have done some good by staying alive.

       No? the voice chuckled, though there was an edge to the laughter that was like nails scratching inside his skull. It doesn't matter. You will think of this again. When night falls, and you hear the baying of Darius's hounds so close in the darkness, you will look at your knife, and remember. When you find your people dead because you were not there, you will touch your sword, and remember. You know the way out, now, and you will never forget it.

       "Maybe," Elias forced through his teeth, "but not yet." Darius was closing on them, but they were not yet defeated. The world was dying, but it was not yet dead. As long as there was anyone still alive who needed his help, he would keep on living, keep on struggling through every day. Even if he had no hope, he could not give up.

       "Elias?" Ciaran was calling from the top.  "Do you need help?"

       Elias looked up. The rain sheeted across his upturned face, stinging his eyes, but the top was closer than he had thought. The voice was only a tickle in his mind, and then it was gone. Above him, the crags looked easier, more like a cascade of boulders that a child could clamber over than a place that could claim his life. "I'm fine," he shouted.

       He climbed steadily and stopped only once, when he was so firmly anchored behind an outcrop that he couldn't fall off even if he tried. Leaning forward, he looked down at the valley below, grey and misty with rain. He had jumped off a cliff once before, and the enchantment within him had taken over, turning him into a bird in time to save his life. So maybe he wouldn’t have died this time, either, just gone soaring into the sky on feathered wings, far away from Darius, and from Ciaran who hated him. But the magic came in response to his wishes, and he was not at all certain that, this time, it would not just have let him fall like a stone, and die.

       "Elias!"

       With a sigh, he turned his back on the way out, and climbed to the top. They were both there to help him, Ciaran pulling at his arm, and Reynard grasping him bodily. The rock scraped his stomach as they pulled him over.

       "Why did you take so long?" Ciaran demanded. "The last bit was the easiest."

       The last bit was the hardest. But he let Reynard hurry him away from the edge. They were on a wind-blasted plateau, with nothing to protect them from the rain. Grey water vapour clung thickly to the ground, making it hard to see far. "It was clearer earlier," Reynard said. He pointed vaguely behind him. "That's where we need to go. The enemy will be down there." He swung his finger round, and this time Elias looked where he was pointing, and did not look away.

       Reynard was describing the terrain. The crags they had climbed formed a great semi-circle, edging the plateau. Darius's army was entirely on horseback, he told them. Even if the soldiers did climb the crags, they would have lost their advantage of speed. To the north, the plateau sloped gently downwards, but even at full gallop it would take hours for the army to get there. "And we'll be long gone by then."

       "But they seem to know where we're going," Ciaran said. "How does this plan of yours address that fact, Reynard? All we'll be doing is slowing them down, not shaking them off."

       "Do you have a better plan, Brother Morgan?"

       Elias stood up and wandered away a few steps. Thunder sounded away to the south, but the rain seemed a little lighter. He was soaked through to the skin, though, and very cold. "There's an enemy," he murmured. Both of them heard him, and turned towards him, breaking off their argument, so Elias had to speak. "An enemy. I heard it here." He touched his brow, between the eyes. "I've heard it before, but this was different. It was... louder. It knew me more deeply. It... said things."

       "An enemy?" Ciaran shook his head, gesturing sharply with the edge of his hand. "The enemy's over there, Elias."

       Elias wrapped his arms around his body and tried to stop the shivering. "Darius is not the real enemy. Reynard, you know the Kindred have always believed that a terrible evil would one day threaten the world...? It's here. I've met it."

       Reynard just looked at him. He didn't have his sword, and it looked wrong. The only time he had looked truly like himself had been while detailing his plan of escaping the army, and now Elias had ruined that, far more than Ciaran's challenge had done. "How do we fight it?" Reynard asked, at last.

       You can't, Elias thought. I'm the one who was given that task, by a man who lived five hundred years ago. And I don't know how to do it. I don't know where to start.

       Reynard's hair was plastered to his skull, and the scar at his throat was stark against his pale skin. "You said the world was dying, and I said we would fight it. But you don't believe that, do you?" He took a step forward. "Do you?"

       "I..." Elias opened his mouth, and shut it again. "I don't know."

       Reynard snorted, and turned away. "Elias," Ciaran called, but Elias walked away, and the call did not come again. No-one followed him.

       He walked to the edge, stood for a moment, then backed away. Skirting the edge of the crags, but a few steps away from the edge, he walked for a few minutes. The rain grew less with every step. When he finally stopped, the air was dry again, and the mist over the valley was lifting.

       Elias crouched down and inched forward. The edge of the crags had curved, so he knew he was no longer overlooking that valley with the stream, but the open country that held Darius's army.

       He glanced over his shoulder, but Reynard and Ciaran were hidden. The land was scattered with large boulders, and punctuated with lumpen outcrops of rock. There was a lot of shelter. There were places to hide, but no good ways to escape. Sooner or later, a fugitive would have to emerge from behind the rock, or climb out of the dip, and then they would be seen.

       The grass was sodden. Elias pressed his hands to the ground, then gouged them over his face, smearing away the drying rain from the skin, replacing it with earthy water. "I nearly killed myself," he whispered. He smeared the cold water on his face again. "No-one will ever know."

       He lowered his hands, and slithered on his stomach to the edge. Like a rising veil, the mist was lifting from the plain below, and the army was there, closer even than Reynard had said. It was smaller than he had feared, but it was still impossible to defeat. There were two hundred horsemen, he thought, riding under the silver banners of Lord Darius. They were heading directly for the base of the crags, in a tight semi-circle that was centred on Elias.

       Elias drew back with a gasp. Could they see him? He crept backwards, then slid down into a dip between two boulders, where no-one could see him at all.

       How did they know where to go? His mind had been too full of other things to really ask that question before, but surely it was the most important thing of all. How did they know? Elias had emerged over a hundred miles away from the place they had last seen him, and at  least two months later. There was no way they should have been able to find him.

       He stood up and hurried back to where Reynard was standing, miserably staring at nothing. "Ciaran's right," Elias told him, without preamble. "The enemy that should concern is now is Darius. He's the immediate threat. I'm sorry for saying what I did."

       Reynard did not turn round. "But it's true, isn't it? It's true, and I've sworn to defend you, but how can I defend you from this?"

       I'm so sorry. But he did not say it. Reynard always responded better to commands than to sympathy. "How is Darius following us? Until we find that out, all we can do is run and try to hide, but he'll always be after us. And..." He took a deep breath. "And we'll never be able to go home. If we do, we'll lead him straight there."

       Reynard turned round, his eyes very bleak. What happened to you in the tower? Elias wanted to ask, but knew he could not. One day, perhaps, but not now. "They're all on horseback," Reynard said, "with hardly any baggage. I was thinking about it last night. I'd have thought that they were just travelling somewhere else, when they happened to come across our trail, but why travel so light? It doesn't make sense."

       "Unless they were armed and ready," Elias said, "just waiting to receive word that we'd returned. The instant they heard, they came. But how? How did they know?" 

       Reynard sighed. "I don't know." He turned away again.

       Elias clenched his fists at his side. "We have to find out. Unless we do, we're just going to be hunted. We'll never get home."

       "How?" Ciaran had come up behind them, and Elias hadn't even noticed.

       "I'm going down there." Elias was unable to look at either of them. "I'll be a bird, and spy on them and see what I find out."

       Ciaran cried out to forbid him, but Reynard just looked at him and asked, "Is it safe?" and it was Reynard that Elias knew he had to answer.

       "I believe it is," he told him. "I believe this is our only chance."

       "But you haven't changed since last winter."

       "You haven't done it since then?" Ciaran grabbed Elias by the wounded arm. "You know what happened last time. How can you even think of doing that again?"

       "I haven't done it," Elias told him, "because... deep enchantment has been hurting me badly. It didn't matter when it was something worth doing, but I couldn't risk changing in case I was too incapacitated to change back."

       "So you mustn't..." Ciaran began, but Elias shook his head, holding up his hand to stop him.

       "I've found out why enchantment hurt me, and it no longer does." He hazarded a quick glance at Reynard as he said it. "There's no reason to hold back."

       "But what if Darius has got someone with him who can sense enchantment?" Reynard asked. "Maybe that's how they're following us. They'd just have to look at you to know there was enchantment about you, and you'd only be a bird, and couldn't defend yourself."

       Elias sighed. "I don't know what they can sense. They couldn't see through the darkness I raised in the citadel, but I've been careful even so. I didn't use the Shadow to climb the cliff, and I haven't tried to sense the army with enchantment."

       "You don't need to do anything." Reynard was looking at him strangely. "You just need to live. Since... that place... I've been able to see it. You... shine," Reynard said, and looked away.

       Elias closed his eyes. Now that he had let enchantment and Shadow become one, his powers were growing daily. Every day, he became less and less like the people around him. One day, perhaps, he would just cease to need his body at all, and the last of the things that made him who he was would scatter like petals blown in the wind.

       "I..." It came out as a croak, and he swallowed, and swallowed again. "I have to try. I'll be careful. If anyone looks up and sees me, I'll fly away." He looked at them both, Reynard first, then Ciaran. "I have to try. We can't carry on like this."

       He felt sick. Was he drawing enemies just by existing? The enemy who had spoken to him on the crags knew him, and could always find him. Maybe these moors were only dying because Elias was walking through them, and the enemy wanted him to see it, and despair. Death was spreading like a stain wherever he placed his feet, and it was all because of him.

       "They can't sense you," Ciaran snapped. "That soldier probably told them."

       "Soldier?" Reynard demanded. "What soldier?"

       Elias dug his fingers into his palm. "The soldier from outside the tower. He came out with us. I let him go." He raised his chin. "You saw how terrified he was. He wasn't an evil man, just scared. It would have been wrong to kill him."

       Reynard was white, spitting through clenched teeth. "And what damage has been done by your act of mercy? He's brought an army upon us. They're either going to kill us here, or follow us home. When they're massacring my people, will you still be merciful? When this enemy of yours unleashes his attack, and you're not here to stop him because you've let yourself be killed by Darius, do you expect us to think that's right, too, because you were merciful?"

       There was crushed grass at Elias's feet, smeared with mud, with death beneath it. "He was so scared."

       "I know!" Reynard shouted. "I saw it! And you wanted me to do what? To lay down my sword and swear off killing? To feel sorry for the enemy even as he runs me through with his sword? Yes, they're human, but they're still the enemy. Until they stop wanting to kill everything I hold dear, I will not let them live, not if their deaths will help keep my king and my people safe. And if I'm damned for that, I don't care, because I know I'm right."

       "I'm sorry," Elias murmured, "but I couldn't kill him. I wouldn't have been able to live with myself. I want the world to live, but not by using the enemy's weapons, not by becoming like them."

       "We use any weapons we have," Reynard snapped, "as long as we win. Is the world worth fighting for, or not? Do the Kindred deserve to live? If the cause is worth fighting for, everything else must be sacrificed to it, and that includes our scruples and our self-respect. If you won't fight for us with everything you possess, then all our last five hundred years of struggling to stay alive have all been in vain."

       Elias fought the urge to press his face into his hands. "I haven't betrayed you."

       Reynard was ravaging the soft earth with his foot, ramming his heel in again and again. "I am right." It sounded as if he was arguing with someone else, not Elias.

       "Reynard," Elias began, but he broke off with a sigh. Darius's army had to be the priority. Maybe Reynard was right and he had condemned them by letting the soldier go, but he was the only one who could save them.

       "You're determined to go?" Ciaran's voice was stiff. Elias had expected him to argue more, but Ciaran had seemed to wash his hands of Elias at the foot of the crags, so maybe that was the reason. His former master no longer really cared what he did.

       "I have to." Elias was too cowardly to look at Ciaran. With fumbling fingers, he unfastened his sword. Albacrist was imbued with enchantment, so it was probable that it would change shape along with him, but he was not sure. His clothes fell away from his body when he changed, but Albacrist was too important to risk like that. "Could you look after Albacrist for me, Reynard?"

       "Albacrist?" Reynard did not turn round, but the convulsive movement of his foot ceased. "You don't... want it any more?"

       "I'll come back for it," Elias assured him.

       "Albacrist," Reynard breathed. "But I can't, my lord. I'm not..."

       "Keep it safe," Elias told him. He held it out in both hands, but still Reynard did not touch it. "I know you will. I would trust no-one with Albacrist more than you."

       "But I..." Reynard closed his eyes, and opened them again. He tried to take the sword, then snatched his hands back. Still with his head high, he lowered himself to one knee before Elias. Only then did he bow his head.

       Elias wanted to cry. "Take it, Reynard," he managed to say. This time, when he offered it, Reynard took it. Their eyes met briefly, but he had no idea what Reynard was thinking, or whether he was kneeling to Albacrist, or to Elias.

       "I will take care of it." Reynard's voice was hoarse. "Come back, my lord."

       "I will." Free of the mist, the plateau stretched away to the north, rising and falling until it disappeared into the gathering twilight. "Go on ahead, though. I can fly fast. I'll be able to find you."

       "I'm staying," Reynard stated.

       "I won't be long," Elias assured him.

       Reynard stood up. As he buckled the sword to his belt, his eyes were glittering. Elias was left feeling clumsy and awkward, not sure what to do with his hands, or what to say. Biting his lip, he turned to walk away. He wanted to be somewhere secluded, where no-one could watch him when he changed.

       He was half way to the rock he had chosen when Ciaran caught up with him. "I don't like it," he hissed. "You heard how Reynard spoke to you. He doesn't want you as his king any more. And now you've given him the sword that's the symbol of kingship. How could you be so stupid?"

       Elias was so tired. He wanted to curl up and sleep, and for all of this not to be happening. "What are you trying to say?"

       "He wants you to die. Then he'll go back to his people with the sword in his hand, and say that your last act was to entrust it to him and make him king in your place. Or even if he doesn't, he thinks that you gave him the sword to show that you know he was right."

       "He doesn't." Elias passed his hand over his eyes, wiping away the water that still trickled from his hair. "When will you see past your narrow little hatreds, Ciaran? When will you try to understand?"

       Ciaran stopped dead. "I did try. You refused to give me a chance."

       He stalked away, and Elias was alone. He turned round to watch them for a while, but neither of them looked towards him. Then Reynard said something to Ciaran, and the two of them walked quickly away, then disappeared behind a rock. At least they were in cover. It would offer them little protection, but it would have to do. Belatedly, Elias covered the area with a light illusion, designed to tell pursuers that there was nothing there. A moment later, he lifted it again, suddenly terrified that illusion served as a beacon to the black soldiers after all. Until he knew how Darius was tracking him, he couldn't risk it. He could risk his own life, but not theirs.

       He had to be quick. He found cover of his own, and crouched down. It was almost pathetically easy, that had been so difficult the winter before. The white fire no longer burned him, but felt like soothing water on a parched throat, and then he was flying, wheeling high above the dark crags.

       High, he thought. Higher. The crags were a jagged line of black, and the plain was a carpet painted green. Ciaran and Reynard had gone, and the army was specks of black and silver. The land was beautiful. He saw with the eyes of a falcon, not with the eyes of enchantment. He saw no spreading stains of death beneath the autumn grass. All he had to do was keep flying, and the army would be far away. It would never be able to follow him.

       He spread his wings, let himself rise higher just a moment, then plunged to the ground. Duty could not be ignored, neither by suicide, not by flight. He would do what he had set out to do, and he would do it quickly, before Reynard and Ciaran were discovered.

       The army was spread out at the foot of the crags. Most of them were standing around, but some were clearly readying themselves to climb. They looked travel-stained and weary, and their horses were little better. They had no baggage train, and no tents.

       Elias flew low, and no-one stared at him, no-one pointed him out. Lower still, and he started to hear snatches of conversation. "Hope we catch him soon," one man said. "I'm starving. What I wouldn't do for a nice warm lump of beef." Another was doubting that the sorcerer was even there at all, and thought they were on a wild goose chase. "Lord Darius just came charging out of his room, they say, and said the sorcerer had been spotted. But you know what? A mate of mine was the sentry at his door that day, and you know what? He said that not a single messenger went in or out all day."

       "Maybe there's a secret back door to his rooms," another soldier suggested. "You know Lord Darius. He's always one step ahead."

       "Maybe there is," the first man agreed. "Or maybe this is just another of his exercises. Tomorrow he'll tell us all the things we did wrong."

       "Shh!" a third man warned him. "He'll hear. Or if he doesn't, his spies will." All three men glanced in the same direction, so Elias knew that Darius himself was here, and knew where he was.

       He flew higher, and found Darius himself. He was standing near the biggest banner, and was recognisable by the way that everything else was subtly centred on him. But he just looked like a normal man. As Elias circled lower and lower, a foot at a time, then an inch, Darius never once looked up.

       He doesn't know you're here, Elias told himself. An inch lower, then, and another. There was a tree nearby, with hardly any leaves, but it would provide enough cover for a bird. His heart fluttering, Elias descended and settled on a branch. He grasped it with his claws, and edged deeper into the heart of the tree. Branches criss-crossed in front of him like a cage.

       "We have him now," Darius was saying to a plump officer.

       The officer nodded. "The men are ready, my lord."

       "Then let them to get climbing." Darius flapped his hand impatiently. "Do not let him slip through your fingers, Captain Gresham."

       Gresham saluted. "I will not, my lord."

       Darius watched the officer go, then turned towards Elias. His smiled a smile that made Elias's blood turn to ice. He can see me! A few leaves fell to the ground as he fluttered, and the branches rattled, and surely Darius would hear him and know exactly where he was and reach up and grab him, and he was just a frail bird without any defence.

       Still smiling, Darius uncurled his gloved fist. With the bare fingertips of the other hand, he touched something that was resting in his palm. It was tiny, and it glittered. It was a shard of crystal, and as soon as Elias saw it, he knew it was it was. Darius was holding a piece of Albacrist. It was a tiny piece, scraped from the blade, but it was enough. Albacrist was so deeply wrought with enchantment that it was almost alive, and it longed to be whole again. The fragment was forever linked to the blade it had been torn from, and just by touching it, Darius was able to tell where Albacrist was.

       But only if Darius was gifted with enchantment himself. Elias watched, unable to breath, as Darius caressed the shard one more time, then closed his fist around it. He turned to face the rest of his men again, and no-one else had seen. No-one else knew.

       Darius had enchantment. Of course he did! On the way to Eidengard the year before, Elias had reached out with all his strength, and everyone in the world with enchantment had sensed him. That was how Darius had known he was coming, and been prepared for him, and that was how he was able to follow him now.

       No-one else knew. All the men in his army were sincere in their hatred of sorcery, but Darius was a hypocrite, leading a crusade to wipe out his own kind. Doubtless he had used enchantment in his rise to power, to manipulate and confuse the people he led. After all, who would ever suspect Lord Darius, who led the duchy in its hatred of sorcery, to possess such powers himself?

       Darius started to walk away. Elias had to get the shard back. Reynard had Albacrist now, and Darius was being led directly towards him. He had to get it back!

       Darius was a powerful enchanter. But not too powerful, perhaps. Not so powerful that he could sense enchantment when he looked almost directly at Elias in the tree. Maybe not powerful at all, but the keening call of Albacrist's shard was loud enough that anyone with even a fragment of power could sense it. Maybe not powerful at all...

       But he's still Darius. Still Darius, who had tortured him and hurt him and made him feel like dirt. Still Darius, who scared him like no-one else could. Still Darius.

       He heard him now, giving a speech, promising victory to the men who scaled the crags, and riches to the man who brought him the sorcerer. The soldiers' eyes shone as they listened to him. None of them knew.

       Elias pushed himself off the branch and flew the short distance to the foot of the crags, where there was a mass of tumbled boulders large enough to hide a crouching man. When he was hidden, he turned back into his true shape. Protecting himself with illusion, he peeped out. Darius was alone again, his fist still clutched tight.

       The twilight was thickening, and Elias knew he would be safer waiting, but there was no time. The men had already started to climb the crags, and they would be upon Reynard very soon. Taking a deep breath, pressing his face just once into his hands, Elias called once more upon the powers of illusion. He stepped out from behind the rock as a naked man who was quivering with terror. Anyone who looked at him, though, would see the plump-faced Captain Gresham, walking with a straight back and an arrogant swagger.

       It didn't matter, he told himself. If Darius saw through the illusion, Elias could change back into a bird just like that. The soldiers had bows and guns, but a falcon could fly faster than a man could react. Darius might snatch at him, but he would be gone, flying far away from his grasping hands. He wasn't in any danger. He could always escape.

       No-one stopped him. No-one challenged his right to be here. Elias kept his eyes on the silver banner, and tried not to look at Darius at all, but he managed to walk forward. Unarmed, alone, he walked up to Lord Darius himself.

       Darius looked up. "Yes, Captain? Is there a problem?"

       A skeletal hand had clutched Elias by the throat, and he could not speak.

       "Captain Gresham? I don't need to remind you that I have not got time for this. We are about to win a famous victory, and in one blow liberate our land from the threat of ruin. I have no time for trivial matters."

       Elias licked his lips, and swallowed. "I'm sorry, my lord. I just..."

       "Is it something that interferes with the capture? If not, leave it until tomorrow."

       Darius turned his back, and Elias saw how once again he unclenched his hand, and gazed at the shard as if his life depended on it.

       "Yes, my lord."

       This isn't him, Elias told himself. This Lord Darius was a different man entirely from the creature who stalked his nightmares. He even spoke differently. He was impatient, and, nervous, Elias realised. He had risen to ultimate power, but Elias could challenge that, and so Darius hated and feared him. Elias had more power than him, and had never had to weave a web of lies in order to win followers. Twice now Elias had escaped from his traps. If Darius was the creature that haunted Elias's nightmares, maybe Elias did the same for Darius.

       He was not a monster. He was a cruel man, who enjoyed causing pain, but he was still human, and he could make mistakes. And he can't sense me, Elias thought. Darius had been standing here talking to his worst enemy, and he had never realised. He could neither sense Elias's enchantment, nor see through his illusion. Elias need never hold back again out of fear that Darius could sense him, for Darius could not.

       Elias coughed, and Darius whirled round, not quite closing his fist properly. "I told you to go."

       Elias closed the gap between them, forcing himself to stand so close that he could hear the breathing of the man who had once pinned him to the floor and tortured him. "I need to tell you something, without the others hearing."

       "What is it?" Darius snapped.

       Just a man, Elias reminded himself. Just a man. His only  power over you is fear. He leant even closer, and gently plucked the shard of Albacrist from Darius's loose fist with the Shadow.

       "What is it? Speak, Captain Gresham. This is your last chance."

       Closing his fist around the shard of Albacrist, Elias stepped back. The power of it was overwhelming, filling the whole world with a screaming sense of loss, and it was enough to make him stagger, almost enough for him to lose control of the illusion.

       "Just this," he managed to say, as he took another step back. "You have no power over me any more."

       He let the illusion flicker, just enough for Darius to see his true face, and to know that he had been defeated. Then, as Darius screamed aloud in pure rage, Elias hid himself in invisibility and ran.

       "Get him!" Darius shrieked. "He was here! Why didn't you stop him? Catch him, or I'll hold you all responsible! Get him now! He went that way!"

       None of them, least of all Lord Darius, noticed when a falcon rose up into the air, circled once, and then flew away.

      

 

       They were already spilling over the top of the crags. Elias had put the shard into his mouth before becoming a bird, and he quickly spat it out into his palm as he turned back into a man. He threw on his wet clothes as fast as he could, and raced through the darkness to the place Reynard and Ciaran were hiding. He could have found it blindfolded. The shard of crystal in his hand was screaming to him that this was where it needed to be.

       "They're coming," he told them, as he tumbled over the edge of the dip and slid into the shadow of the rock. His voice was barely there at all, no more than a whisper. He tried again, but it was even worse.

       "What's wrong with your voice?" Ciaran asked him, but there was no time to explain. "Quick!" he hissed. "I need Albacrist." He almost dragged it from Reynard's belt himself, and his hands bumped with Reynard's. His palm slid down the blade, and was cut deep enough to draw blood, but he saw only the red blood on the blade, and felt no pain.

       Reynard just watched, and Ciaran questioned, but Elias saw nothing but the sword. Picking up the shard in his fingers, he pressed it against the place just beneath the hilt, that he now clearly saw was wounded. His own blood on the blade made it look as if the sword itself was bleeding. "You're whole," he whispered. Whiteness blossomed, and something sighed in his mind like feathered wings. The broken shard melted into place, and the sword was healed.

       "What happened?" Ciaran was asking.

       Elias shook his head. "He can't follow us any more," he said in his cracked whisper, "but they've still found us."

       There was no time to explain. Reynard, he thought, understood a little, but Ciaran was frowning. Even if there was time, Elias doubted that he could say much. He had carried the shard in his beak when he had possessed only the frail body of a bird, and the pure enchantment of the thing had burned his throat badly.

       They were getting closer, beating the grass with their swords, and shouting to each other. They were not attempting stealth, clearly hoping to make their quarry panic and be startled into flight. They had no dogs, but some of them had torches. They would be upon them within minutes.

       Reynard suddenly grabbed his arm. "Go," he hissed. "Fly away. Send Ciaran Morgan home."

       "And you?" Elias whispered.

       Reynard met his gaze defiantly. "I'm not going anywhere."

       "We're all staying together," Elias told him.

       No!" It was like a scream, for all that it was hiss through clenched teeth. "Please, my lord. Save yourself."

       "I'll save all of us. Stay very still." Elias raised an illusion of invisibility, so anyone who looked into this small cleft between two boulders would see only grass and earth. It was the hardest illusion of all to maintain, but the darkness would help him. The only thing that would make it fail was if Reynard or Ciaran moved more quickly than he could react, and darted out of the area he was covering.

       "I don't want you to do this," Reynard was saying, seemingly oblivious to the illusion. "I've always been willing to die for my people. Let me do that now."

       "I know you have," Elias whispered, "but this is not the time."

       "I mean, for you." It was a husky snarl. Reynard sounded as if he hated him.

       Elias pressed his hands against the blade. Whole! it sang in his mind. "I know," he murmured.

       "But you..." Reynard clenched his fist. "You saved my life, and I didn't ask you to. You nearly died. I'm not worth that. Don't do it again." There was something beneath the anger, something chaotic and torn.

       "You are," Elias told him. "And I know you still think I'm throwing my life away, but I'm not. I won't leave you here, because I believe we can all get out of this alive. You can trust me, Reynard."

       The sound of footsteps came closer, and they all froze. Elias was the first to let out a long breath. "We're invisible," he whispered. "The illusion can deaden sound, but we should still be quiet."

       They huddled together. Elias could feel how Reynard was quivering. It was harder for him than any of them, he thought. To hide here, without even a sword, and do nothing while the enemy strode around just a few steps away... It went against everything in Reynard's nature. But he's doing it for me.

       A man came into view, then a second. "No-one there," one said.

       The second man frowned. "I thought I saw something here a minute ago."

       "Who knows what sorcery he's using," the first one agreed. "They say he can summon up darkness itself to hide him."

       They advanced, swords in hand. The first one hung back, but the second one was braver, and prodded the air with his sword. The blade passed within inches of Elias's face. When he lunged again, Elias had to throw himself sideways to avoid it. He landed on Reynard. No, he willed him. Don't do it. Just stay still.

       "There's nothing there," the first man said. "Come on."

       Desperately, Elias created an illusion of a rabbit, and sent it scampering out from behind the rock. "There," said the man. "That must have been what you saw. Come on. We've got to find him. Lord Darius will kill us if we don't bring him in this time."

       They moved away. Ever so slowly, Elias pulled himself off Reynard's taut body. The tendons on Reynard's neck were standing out, and sweat was dripping down his brow, but he had not attacked them, and neither had he even moved.

       "There'll be more," Ciaran said. "You say Darius knows we're here?"

       "He knows we're here," Elias whispered, "but he won't know anything ever again. He won't be able to track us when we move."

       "Then move," Reynard forced out.

       "It's hard to keep up the illusion when we're moving." He could do it for himself, but not when there were others with him, likely to move in unpredictable directions. It wasn't yet dark enough that he could hide them with simple darkness. He had to paint a seamless illusion of the moorland that changed with every step.

       "Then go!" Ciaran said, too loudly. "Open up a door. We'll all go back home. Then," he said, a little more grudgingly, "you can open one back again, back to your camp. You'll get there quicker, and no-one can follow you."

       Elias thought about it. If he opened a door, it would probably open in Ciaran's living room, because doors seemed to open most readily into places they had already opened from. He would see home again, just for a moment, and this time he'd be able to say goodbye, maybe even have time to run up to his room and bring a few of his special things with him.

       "It's the only way," Ciaran was urging him.

       Elias raised his hand, and the air began to shimmer with the beginnings of a door. It wasn't even hard, now. He would open them a path to safety, and would evade Darius's army once and for all. But what else might flow through the door alongside them? The world was dying, and death could slip through a door, all unnoticed on their heels. By opening a door, he could be condemning the world of his birth to devastation, infecting it with an evil that should never have reached it.

       And if he opened the door, would he ever find the strength to come back again? If he let himself see those familiar sights of home, would he ever leave? Ciaran clearly thought he would not. Elias could see it in the way his eyes were shining as he made the suggestion.

       "No," he said. "I'm staying here. They won't find us, and now they can't follow us."

       "But Elias..."

       Another soldier passed close by, and Ciaran had to be silent. This one went by without stopping, but the others were still close.

       "They're not giving up." That was Reynard.

       "No." Elias shook his head. "But I'm not, either."

       How strange it was, he thought. They were huddled together like hunted animals, and nothing was right between the three of them, but he felt more hopeful than he had felt for days. Albacrist was whole again, and that made a difference, he realised. The sword had been exuding a sense of loss and incompleteness, and he had been sensing it without realising what it was. It had drowned his sense of other things, covering everything with a sense of despair.

       But it was deeper than that. He had come face to face with Darius without collapsing in terror, and he had defeated him. Darius was a dangerous man, but he was no monster. Elias would be wary of him, but he would never be in terror of him again.

       The world was still dying, but even that could be fought. Here, crouching in the darkness while men tried to kill him, at last he realised what it had meant, the fact that the voice had whispered to him on the cliffs.

       The voice had been lying. Its victory was not certain. The world was not doomed, not yet. If it was, why would the voice be so eager for him to kill himself? Instead, it would want him to live, to suffer the eternity of torment it had described with such relish. It only wanted him to die because it feared him. It wanted him to kill himself, because it knew he could still stop it from winning.

       There was still hope! He had been too quick to despair, and assume it was too late for the world, but there was still hope. The enemy was not all-powerful, or it would have killed him itself. Instead, it was reduced to whispers, trying to conquer him with his own fears, just as Darius did. And Darius had been defeated. I will fight you, he swore. I know you now. You made a mistake when you revealed yourself.

       A group of men strode past. "No sign," one of them was saying. "I'd hate to be the captain, who has to order us to stop, and then tell Lord Darius."

       Another man gave a wry laugh. "I don't think he'll ever order us to stop, then."

       Ciaran stiffened, but Elias smiled. Of course the soldiers would give up soon, and then they'd be able to creep out from their hiding place and hurry home, and Darius could no longer follow them. Then they could all sit down and talk about what had happened, and work out how to fight the enemy. Because the enemy feared him, just like Darius did, and that was Elias's strength.

       All invisible in the darkness, Elias smiled. Hope was only a single thread hidden in a mass of dark ones, but it could still be plucked out, and it could still be grasped.