The passing of hours
The storm found Elias before he had reached the city. He had watched the lightning flicker in the south, silver sheets that made the towers of Eidengard seem jagged and black against the sky. Now it was upon him.
Lightning flared, and he cowered, shrinking into the saddle. He fumbled with his hood, pulling it over his face. He was the only figure on the flood plain, and the lightning ripped away all safety and put him on display for all the see. If Darius was on the walls, his claw-like hands curled on the ramparts, watching with narrowed eyes... It flashed again, and his horse shied, darting wildly away to the left. Elias struggled to control her, trying to reach her with the unspoken link that bound him to all animals, but that only seemed to increase her fear.
She galloped wildly, and he groped for the reins and found them, just. The rain started to fall, only single drops at first, but striking his face like sharp stones. Thunder sounded, and then it was utterly dark. All he could see was the stark after-image of the last fork of lightning. The horse's hooves pounded, carrying him somewhere unknown in the darkness, maybe to Darius, or maybe to home.
Someone spoke to him. "Lost," a voice wailed. "Hurting."
His head snapped round. He hauled at the reins, and made the horse stop. Rain pattered, but there was no other sound. "Are you there?" he whispered. He hunched on the saddle, ready to flee. "Who are you?"
No-one answered. He moved the trembling horse forward, step by step, and soon he heard the faintest whisper of sound, like something swaying gently in the wind. There was a metallic edge to the sound that made him think of Darius.
He moistened his lips. "Is anyone there?" Darius watching him, running chains lovingly between his hands... "Do you need... help?"
"Lost," the voices breathed, but they were not voices at all, for all that they spoke in his mind with the fragility of leaves crumbling in the autumn. "But not alone," they said, and became like ice running in his veins. "Together we are strong. Together we can make them pay."
"Where are you?" he screamed. His horse danced nervously, wanting to escape, as Elias reached out to one side and then the other, fingers straining in the darkness. He found nothing there, though the sound was so close now, like someone standing in front of him, waiting to snatch him.
He wheeled his horse around, and it was then that something hit him in the face. It was solid, but moving, for it retreated after landing the blow, then returned for another. He shrank back, clenched his fists briefly, and dared to reach out again. He found it, dangling sluggishly, softly swinging to and fro. It was very cold, and he knew what it was, but, It's not true! he cried. Darkness could hide things. As long as the darkness remained, it didn't need to be real.
Lightning flared with renewed purpose, and the whole plain was bathed in harsh silver light. It showed him his hand, closed around the foot of a dead man. If he raised his head, he would see the body hanging on the gibbet, swaying in its chains, but the lightning had gone before he could do that.
He recoiled with a cry, and slid from his horse, falling to his knees at the side of the road. He retched, but nothing came up. He moaned, screaming out his anguish silently in the enchantment, and he was heard. Dead men crowded around him, brushing his neck with skeletal fingers, crying to him of their pain and their hatred.
They were Gerhard's men. They had fallen in the mountains, but most had not died there. Alive or dead, their bodies had been transported to the city. Some had died on the journey, but some had still been alive when they had been chained up outside its walls, and had died in this place. Even those who had died in the mountains were here, for their bewildered spirits had clung to their bodies and to their dying friends.
Lightning flared like a pointing finger, and he wrenched his head up and forced his eyes open, making himself see. Gibbets lined the road like a mourners at a funeral, and naked carcasses dangled from each one. The face of the man nearest to Elias was rotten, its eyes sunken and its skin grey. When the lightning faded and darkness covered the earth again, Elias could still see that face and nothing else.
The spirits clamoured at him. They did not yet know who he was, only that he was here, and that he could hear them. Perhaps they screamed like this at everyone who passed, and would have remained unheard for centuries if he had not come this way. Maybe they clawed at the eyes that gawped at them, and snatched at the soldiers who gloated over them, but no-one would ever know. Only Elias could hear them. Only Elias could help them.
He crawled from gibbet to gibbet, touching the wood, retching again at the foul sense of agony that exuded from the wood. He saw images of how they had died. That one had died in the mountains, and could not understand why his body was no longer there, in the place that had become his home. This one here had been alive until the day before, slowly dying of thirst while travellers watched in curiosity and disgust. If Elias had come a day earlier, he could have been saved.
The line stretched far ahead, a dozen or more on each side of the road. He started to count them, but horror drove the numbers from his mind. He touched each dead foot and called to the dead spirits to claim the body and give it a name, but their need was too primitive for such words. He screamed aloud, begging to know if any of them were still alive, but there was no answer. He clawed at their legs, thinking he could cut them down and bury them, but they were too high above him, and tied with chains wrought in Darius's prisons. As he touched them, things crawled upon his hands. Rain ran down the back of his neck and it was cold, as cold as death.
Was Gerhard there? He had to find out, for Thurstan's sake. "Is Gerhard there?" he screamed to the dead, and they wailed and shivered and mourned the loss of their lord. If he was with them, he would lead them home. If he was there, then this horrible reality would end. They were far from home, and their lord had left them. They didn't know where he was. They had followed him here, and then they had lost him. There was no-one to show them the way.
"I'll help you," he vowed. "I'll do anything, but… but I don't know how." He had never been able to help the dead in the ruins, no matter how badly he had wanted to, but his powers were stronger now. There had to be a way. "Use me!" he cried, throwing his arms open, offering them his powers and everything that he was. "Take what you need. Do what you must."
Elias stood up, and threw himself outwards, letting the white fire bleed from his body onto the land around it. They felt his power, and surged forward anew, wild with need and hope. Revenge, they urged, with the voice of the thunder. The bodies dripped with agony and repulsiveness, and the dead faces grimaced in the grotesque light. Revenge for this. They snatched at his power and warped it, and clawed at him with talons when he tried to resist. You offered, they told him, and we are taking. When he screamed his revulsion, they ripped through him, gouging, taking, using.
"No," Elias sobbed. "Please." With all his strength he tried to push them out, tried to reclaim the power he had so recklessly given away. "You don't need to do this. You need to rest," he babbled. "It's over. Rest. Oh, it's so beautiful. I saw it once. Leave the earth and go to it. You'll be together. You'll be home."
The invading dead faltered for a moment. Home? he heard, at last.
"Home," Elias breathed. It was the sweetest word. "You're dead," he told them gently. "You're not meant to stay on the earth. But there's an even better world waiting for you. I want to help you find your way there. I'll take care of the world you've leaving behind. If there are things you left undone, I will complete them. I'll find Gerhard. I'll fight for the world, against the evil that's coming. You didn't die in vain."
Home? they echoed. He saw glimpses of women and children, of kisses and laughter, of flowers and a mother's embrace. He saw a weeping willow by a snowy stream, and the rainbow play of light in a waterfall. He saw warm bread by a fire and flushed faces listening to stories. Home? they sighed, for they had all been exiles, and home had been denied to them in life, though they had never stopped longing for it.
"Yes," Elias told them, "but the door to that place is nearer for you than for me. I can't find it. Use my powers to… to light your way. Use me any way you need to. Just be at peace."
They fell upon him, devouring him like starving wolves, tearing him apart. They surged through his veins, and white light blazed where they touched him. Each one broke off a part of him, and hugged it close like a talisman that would open the door to the world that came after. As each one pulled away, he screamed with the pain of the rending. As each one found his way home, he sobbed, because he had nothing left, just the pain of enchantment, and the foulness of violation.
Then even that faded, and he was left lying on his back in the middle of the road, cold rain pattering on his face and onto his staring sightless eyes.
Above him the sky was grey. His lips tasted of ash, but his body felt as if it was floating on water, unable to feel anything beneath it. Even the water was grey, feeling neither pleasant nor uncomfortable. He felt stretched out, and not truly there. But when he moved the pain was real, and slowly the feeling of unreality faded.
He was alive, lying on his back beneath a wide night's sky that was nearing morning. The ground was wet beneath him, and his hair and cloak were sodden. His horse was whinnying from far away, but his mind was too sluggish to call to her.
Elias struggled to sit up. A tall wooden gibbet loomed over him, but the chains that hung from it were empty. Where a dead man had once hung, now there was nothing but sticky grey ash trickling into the grass that lined the road. The gibbets on either side were similarly empty, but the ones further away still held their dangling corpses. Elias could look at them without flinching, now. They were only empty houses, left behind by men who had finally found their way home. Where the spirits had once crowded, there was now only emptiness.
Elias remembered little of how it had ended. He had offered the power, but the dead had controlled it. He had no idea if the enchantment itself had blazed so fiercely that it had burnt away the bodies of the nearest men, or if the lightning had joined in, attracted by his power. However it had happened, he wished he could immolate them all, but he could hardly sit upright, let alone stand. He would lack the strength for all but the tiniest acts of enchantment for a few hours, if not longer.
His horse whinnied again, and he moved his head sluggishly, trying to see her. The rain had left him freezing cold, and he pulled the wet cloak around his shoulders, and shivered with the memory of skeletal hands pawing at him, taking him. "But it was a good thing," he said aloud. "They're at peace now, and that's good. I'd do it again," he said, but his voice was shaky and very small.
He shuffled over to the empty gibbet, and used it to haul himself to his feet. As he did so, he thought he heard the sound of several horses approaching. Had Reynard woken up and insisted on coming after him? That would be good. He needed to curl up and sleep, and have someone strong and loyal watch over him as he dreamed. But, no! It couldn't happen! Reynard would insist on going into the city to try to find Gerhard, and then he would die. Elias couldn't let Reynard find him. He couldn't let Thurstan find this place, and see the horrors that still remained.
Have to go away. He put one foot in front of the other, and managed to walk, arms wrapped tightly round his body. After a dozen steps he stumbled, falling flat on his face in the long grass beside the road. He lay there, and the horses were louder, and now there were voices, too. But they were coming from the city. Not Reynard, but the enemy. Darius's men. Maybe Darius himself, coming here, coming for him.
He stuffed his fist into his mouth to stifle the moan. He tried to stand, but fell again, so pressed himself flat in the grass, wriggling backwards on his knees.
The man had torches, flimsy tongues of orange that looked dirty after the white of the enchantment. There were half a dozen of them, and none of them were wearing black. One was a civilian in dark brown, but the others wore the faded uniform of the city's guard. One of them looked even younger than Thurstan.
The lead man stopped beneath the first empty gibbet. Holding his torch high, he turned to face the others. "Gone."
"Stolen," said the man in brown. "Stolen away by their accomplices. Traitors in our midst, or," he said, looking towards the hills in the north where Reynard was hiding, "allies who want revenge."
"You didn't see it, sir," another guard said. "I did. The storm… It was like a normal storm, all around us, and then suddenly… It was as if… as if all the lightning in the world suddenly came together in this one spot. And then I saw…" He paused, taking a deep breath, then blurted it all out in a guilty rush. "There was a man standing like this, arms spread. He was the heart of the lightning. He was on fire, but he didn't fall, not for ages. He just stood there. All the lightning in the world…"
"A storm can't do that," the man in brown snapped.
"With respect," the first guard said, "I believe it can. I've seen trees struck by lightning. And I once heard of a man who was struck. He lived, but…"
"Maybe it wasn't natural lightning," another one piped up. "I know they were evil men, but the way they were displayed… It's not right to put them here, where women and children can't help but see them. My little girl has had nightmares all week.. It wouldn't have happened in the old duke's time. Maybe even nature thinks it was wrong. Or so some will say," he added hastily, though too late.
"Your sentiments will be reported when we return," the man in brown warned. He turned his back on the white-faced guardsman and addressed the others. "I still say they were stolen. The perpetrators can't have got far. They might even come back for the others. We'll find them, and string them up, too, on the gibbets they've so kindly vacated for us."
"But what if it was sorcery?" the boy mused aloud, his fear making him rash. "Everyone knows the only way to properly kill a sorcerer is to burn them in fire, but these were just hung up. My little sisters came out to look at them yesterday. What if they cursed them? What if they're watching us even now?"
"It wasn't sorcery," pronounced the man in brown. "Lord Darius himself ordered the bodies to be displayed here. Would he have done that unless he was satisfied that they were harmless? Are you suggesting that he made a mistake?"
"No." The boy shrank back. "I'm sorry, sir. I didn't mean it."
"Really?" The man in brown pulled his horse around. "I still say it was the work of man. And we will hunt them, and we will find them."
Elias pressed himself even flatter against the ground, and tried not to breathe. If the sky grew lighter, they would find him. If they moved towards him, they would find him. He was too weak to run and too weak even to hide. He was completely exposed, shielded only by the last dregs of darkness and grass that wasn't long enough or thick enough to cover him.
"I still say it was the lightning," the lead guardsman said. "And it's not for us to authorise a hunt, and, with respect, it's not for you either, sir. We should report it to the Soldiers of Light, and they will decide whether Lord Darius needs to be told."
From the last dregs of the darkness, a voice spoke. "Lord Darius already knows."
The newcomer stepped forward, his horse walking almost silently on the grass beside the road. He was a slim young man with fair hair, wearing a uniform that was all black. None of the guards had heard him approach, and they turned round sharply, each one sitting or standing a little straighter as they saw who it was.
The man in brown hurried forward to speak, but the newcomer waved his hand dismissively. "It was lightning," he told them. "That is the ruling of Lord Darius himself. There will be no talk of sorcerers getting revenge from beyond the grave, or bandits at large near our walls. What can be achieved by such talk but fear and doubt amongst the people we serve? Only traitors spread rumours like that, and we are none of us traitors here, are we?"
"No," they assured him, shaking their heads emphatically.
"Lord Darius is not cruel," the man said. "Like you, he wishes it was possible to spare women and children from such sights, but he knows it is not possible. We live in dangerous times, and we must all make sacrifices. By such sights as these, traitors are warned of the consequences of their crimes, and the populace are reminded to stay vigilant. Better a child suffer nightmares, than suffer death at the hands of our enemies." He turned towards the boy, and spoke gently. "Is it not?"
The boy nodded, and tried to speak, but no sound came out. The man on the horse looked at him for a while, then turned away. "They will be buried this morning," he said. "Lord Darius's orders. They had served their purpose. We have lost nothing."
Buried… The grass swayed in front of Elias's eyes, and patches of colour took shape on the stems. There were flowers, thousands of flowers, an oasis of beauty in the middle of a barren plain. He saw the grass turn black and die, as evil triumphed, but still the flowers bloomed, the last thing alive in all the world. Then he saw the first green shoots of rebirth, and the plain turn verdant again, but still the flowers remained, outshining everything around them, for they had been nourished with the pure white flowers of enchantment itself, and could never be diminished. Then the flowers faded, and all he saw was the coarse grass in front of his face, and the soldiers beyond it.
He rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand. He had told Thurstan that a true vision was unmistakeable, but this time he had no idea if he had seen a vision, or just his hope of how things would be. He was too drained from his outpouring of enchantment to tell apart even obvious things. Even if it was a true vision, then there were a hundred different ways it could fail to come to pass. He held all the threads in the palm of his hand, but had no idea which ones to pull and which to cast aside. By his own choices, he could doom the world.
The soldiers were riding away. Orders must have been issued and acted upon while he had been lost in his dreams of the flowers. Soon they were no more than orange specks of light, bobbing to and fro with the motion of their horses. They hadn't found him, but it was only luck that had kept him safe. If they had chanced to look searchingly in his direction, they would have found him, and he would have been too weak to fight them as they captured him and dragged him before Lord Darius himself. Then, when he hadn't returned, Reynard would have come after him, and would have been captured in his turn, and everything would have been lost.
"But they didn't find me," he said, struggling to his feet. He looked up at the remaining dead, swinging so gently on their chains, and knew he had done the right thing. There was nothing else he could have done, just as there was nothing else he could do now but pull his sodden cloak around his body, and walk towards the city.
It was grey morning when Elias approached the bridge. Muffled by the rain, the bells of the city were striking six. A miserable guard was hunched at his post, rubbing his hands together in a vain attempt to get warm. When he heard Elias approach, he grasped his pike and thrust it outwards. He was not one of the soldiers in black. He held his weapon awkwardly, and his face was flabby. No danger, Elias told himself. No danger at all.
Elias edged his horse forward, very aware of her fear. She had come to him when he had left the place with the bodies, and let him drag himself onto her back, but her nervousness had not eased as they had ridden away from that terrible sight. "What are you so scared of?" he had asked her, but there was no way she could tell him. The link he shared with animals never went as far as words.
"Who are you?" the guard demanded. "Where d'you come from?"
Elias kept his face hidden in his hood. "A place called Greenslade. It's in the north, a long way away."
"Never heard of it," the guard said dismissively. "What's your business in Eidengard? Why're you here so early?"
"The thunder woke me. I was camping back there." Elias gestured vaguely behind him. "Thought I might as well get on the road, rather then trying to sleep through a storm."
"Hmph." The guard's neck was shrinking into his clothes, as he desperately tried to protect himself from the rain. "Let's see your face. Can't be too careful these days."
Elias swallowed. He laid down the reins and brought both hands up to his hood. He had hidden his face with a light illusion, and he had changed into city clothes before leaving the small camp in the hills. There was no way the guard would be able to recognise him, no way at all.
He took a deep breath and pushed the hood back, but the guard was already waving him through, eager to return to the meagre shelter of his post, where a small fire burned in a brazier. "Don't know what you can do so early in the morning," he grumbled. "Nothing'll be open."
Elias started to walk his horse over the bridge. At the other end of the bridge was the crowded suburb, and then the snaking path that went up to the city itself. Anyone on the walls could watch a traveller crossing the bridge. If Lord Darius was standing there, he would be able to see him, so small beneath him as to be pinched between two of his fingers.
At the far end of the bridge, he dismounted, but his weak legs almost gave way when he landed, and he had to cling to the saddle to stay upright. He managed to walk, his face turned into the horse's neck, so no-one on the walls would be able to see him.
The streets were empty. He stumbled along the middle of the road, where a thousand sets of footprints had been turned to mud by the rain. All the shutters on either side were drawn shut, and the cold wind raced down from the city, driving rain into his face. His horse's hooves sounded very loud even on the muddy road, but no-one came to the window and looked out with bleary faces. There weren't even muffled voices from the houses he passed, and the taverns were silent. When he turned round, the guard at the end of the bridge had vanished, lost in the mist. Moisture clung to everything like a grey miasma of death. It was like a vision of the world as it would be if the enemy won, and all life was destroyed, only Elias left to wander through the ruins of the world he had not saved.
Something moved in a doorway, and his head snapped up, but it was only a dog out rummaging for scraps. When it saw Elias, it came bounding towards him, and thrust its nose into his palm. "Hello, boy," he said, but then it, too, seemed to pick up something of the horse's fear, for it whined and ran away, leaving him alone.
The road began to rise, and he had to stop to catch his breath. As he did so, something snapped above him, like a trap clicking shut. He looked up, his hood sliding back from his face, but it was only a woman throwing open the shutters. When she saw him looking up at her, she frowned, and withdrew quickly from the window.
Elias let out a slow breath. She had seen him. He was barely disguised, because Reynard had told him once that disguises worked best if they were close to the part you normally played. He was still a young man, though his hair was a little darker, and his face unremarkable. A boy you'd never look twice at, he projected with the illusion. A boy who will never do anything special. He was playing the boy he had always thought himself to be. He was playing the boy that, deep down, he still believed he was.
The rain grew heavier as he trudged up the hill. He left the suburb, and the walls of the city itself loomed above him, casting their chill shadow. Something was very wrong with the city ahead of him, he thought, though he could not tell what it was. Maybe it was just the presence of Lord Darius that made him want to shudder and run. He peered up at the battlements. He couldn't see anyone there, but they could still be watching him. The portcullis ahead of him had sharp points, and the gateway was a dark tunnel that could hide two dozen black-clad soldiers.
"Who's there? You! Come out from behind your horse."
Elias walked a few faltering steps forward. Just before he raised his head, he changed the illusion. Not a stranger after all. People asked questions about strangers, and sometimes even led them before Lord Darius. Illusion worked in conjunction with the memories and expectations of the person who saw it. A young man, Elias thought. Someone you've seen before. No-one special. Nobody.
The guards weren't wearing black, and they looked cold and bored. With a wave, they let him through. As he passed, he heard them resume a conversation that was already half way through. "They're definitely preparing for something," one said. "And about time," said the other. "Should have happened long ago, if you ask me."
Still leading his horse, Elias walked slowly into the city of Eidengard. As he walked past a handsome white house, its shutters opened, and a maid shook a cloth out of the window. A man in the house opposite reached out with one hand and grimaced when he felt how heavily the rain was falling. A door opened, and a woman stepped carefully down the slippery steps of a larger house, helped by an old man. After exchanging a few words, they set off in different directions, the woman heading for the city, and the man for the gate.
The city was waking up, and Elias was no longer alone in the streets. But the man who walked past him seemed to look a little too closely at his face as he passed. Was he frowning as he walked away, hurrying to tell the guard? Elias walked a little faster, and thought it was probably just his imagination.
The bell sounded in the ornate bell tower, and Elias raised his head listlessly and counted each one. It passed eight, seemed to pause after nine, then sounded one last time. Ten, he thought. Ten o'clock. He had left his horse in a stable, and had been wandering the streets on foot for four hours, the bells tolling the knell of every wasted minute.
I should go, he told himself. To the citadel. To Darius. Soon. But he was so tired. When he walked, his feet didn't want to lift up properly. When he stopped for too long, the wind clawed at his hair like dead men's fingers, and the cold in his veins was ghosts possessing him and forcing him and taking him.
He was leaning against a stone fountain at the centre of a busy crossroads, hunched in his hood as he watched people pass. The fountain was no longer working, and the pool was beginning to go stagnant. Once there had been benches around it, but they had been ripped up, leaving ugly scars. There was nothing of beauty left to make travellers pause. Wrapped in their own affairs, they just hurried by.
Elias sighed, his hand drifting up to his chest. It was an unconscious movement, and it was only when the hand closed on nothing that he even realised he was doing it. The stone pendant was no longer there. He had given it to Thurstan. It had gone.
His hand fell back heavily to the railing. I need it! He had picked the stone up from the place where he had last seen his master, and worn it ever since. Over the months it had been rubbed smooth, and the leather tie had become supple, like part of him.
It spoke to him, the stone did. Not in words, of course, and not even with magic, though he knew some people had watched him clutching it so incessantly and wondered if it had powers. It was the symbol of everything he had lost. It was his home and his hopes and his life, all wrapped together in that last sight of Ciaran's face. You gave these things up, it told him, because you believed you had a duty to stay. So do your duty, and never stop. If you stop, if you fail, then you might as well never have given them up in the first place.
His hand felt so empty. He wanted to sit down beneath the fountain and sleep. He wanted someone to talk to, to plan what to do next. He needed the stone to tell him that he had to carry on even though he was tired, that he had wasted far too much time already, that he didn't need a plan as long as he didn't stop trying.
Leaning over the balustrade, he sank forward so his empty fingers touched the surface of the water. He caught a glimpse of his fractured reflection, and snatched his hand back, letting the water go still again. His true face was peering back up at him, fair hair falling down in wet strands over his pale face. His eyes looked very large, darting around to see if anyone was watching. But of course he'd seen his true face. He could always see through his own illusions, but it didn't mean that other people would. Everyone else would see what he wanted them to see.
Elias touched the water again, waggling his fingers in the water. Ciaran had always described the Shadow as being as smooth as a pool of water, reflecting everything in the world, and emotions were the wind that disturbed it. Elias closed his eyes, suddenly hearing Ciaran's voice as clearly as if he was there beside him, teaching him in the rain in the quiet lanes of Greenslade. "I miss you," he whispered. Unbidden, his hand rose to his throat again, but of course there was nothing there. There was no stone to remind him that good had come out of his loss.
He opened his eyes again, and moved round the fountain, hand trailing behind him. Thurstan had the stone now. Thurstan, a boy who had the ability to sense the Shadow. Thurstan, a boy who needed someone to stand beside him and teach him, as Ciaran had taught Elias. Thurstan, who, in another world, could be a Brother.
Elias had comforted the boy for days, but he had never realised his gift, not until he had touched him to say goodbye. He frowned, still walking in a slow circle around the fountain. Why didn't I know before? He should have known. Ciaran had recognised Elias's gift from the other side of the street, before he had heard him say a word. Elias should have seen it days ago. He should have known.
He had made himself blind. He had always been sure that enchantment and Shadow could not co-exist. After Ciaran's departure, he had stopped using the Shadow at all. Ciaran had always hated enchantment, and had made it clear that there could be no compromise, and in many ways he had been right. There could be no middle ground. Elias could live as a Brother, or as a king. He could live in one world, or the other. He could have a master, or he could be alone. From the moment he had made his choice, he had closed the door on his old life and everything that went with it.
"But perhaps," he thought, "I shouldn't," he whispered, "have done it." The Shadow was so beautiful and peaceful, and, "I miss it," he murmured. There were things he could do with the Shadow that he could not do with enchantment, and perhaps such things could help the Kindred. It was his duty to find it again. And Thurstan needed a teacher. It was wrong to deny him that. The boy felt like a failure, and he needed to be shown how to use his marvellous gift. Elias should have told him as soon as he had found out, instead of just turning his back and riding away.
Closing his eyes, he reached out tentatively to the place in his mind where his Garden resided, but all he saw was whiteness, a light that burnt and hurt. In his mind, he tried to run, but he was trapped in a small round room, and there was no way out. He had locked himself inside the white tower, and there was no way back to the gentle beach outside. All he had was a tiny crack beside the door, a thin line in the whiteness. Cool air wafted through it, and he saw the tiniest glimpse of blue sea and silver sands, as lovely as ever. He pushed at the place where the door should be, and it shivered, but did not open. But it can, he thought. If I let it. If I want it.
Someone shouted, and he tumbled out of both tower and Garden, looking this way and that to see who it was. The shout was repeated, and he saw it was only a young man shouting to a friend. Neither were dressed like soldiers in black, but they glanced at Elias as they passed, and he knew that they had not been the only ones.
It was time to move on. Perhaps he could open the tower door one day, and perhaps he could walk on deserted beach again, and perhaps things would change, but not today. Today he had to rescue Gerhard. What horrors had Gerhard suffered while Elias had lounged against a fountain and done nothing at all?
The square was deserted, the wind surging gleefully around the open space, smashing rain into Elias's face. A few lone people scurried through it, hugging the edges where the tall buildings with the painted facades sheltered them from the worst of the weather. Elias stopped in the middle of the square, and he peered up at the largest building of all, where dignitaries could stand and watch executions. The windows looked black, revealing nothing of what was going on behind them.
There was no scaffold erected today. Elias crouched, picking up a battered flower that had been dropped, perhaps, by a girl on a sunnier day, when the square had been full of people. Many of the women had worn flowers when they had come to see him killed. Had someone been killed here recently? Still holding the flower, he turned full circle, searching for dead spirits that were crying out to him to help them.
The soldiers came marching through the archway as he was completing his turn, and the flower slipped from between his fingers. They were marching four abreast, and each one was carrying a pike. Elias stepped back, splashing in a puddle between two irregular flagstones, but the soldiers just kept on surging into the square, marching towards them. They were wearing all colours in no particular uniform, but last of all, side by side, were two horsemen, both wearing black.
Elias just kept on edging backwards, pulling his hood over his head, making a pretence of cowering from the rain. He was all alone, exposed in the middle of the great square. Like a single tree on the plain, he would draw the lightning. Even if they hadn't been coming for him, they had found him.
"Out of the way, citizen," one of the horseman shouted. At Elias? Elias swallowed. He means me. He kept on edging backwards, turning so far into his hood that the wet material stuck to his cheek and his lips. No-one could see his face.
"Form them up, sergeant," the second horseman commanded. When Elias dared hazard a glance from beneath his hood, he saw that it was the young soldier who had brought Darius's orders to the guards outside the city.
As the sergeant shouted sharp orders to the men, the two horsemen dismounted, and stood together not far from Elias. "Conscripts," one said dismissively. "I don't know what's worse - conscripts, or the type of volunteers we've been getting lately. The conscripts don't want to be here, but the volunteers… It's a shame their ability doesn't match their enthusiasm."
"It is not for us to complain," said the fair-haired soldier. "We turn them into soldiers, best we can. We will need every man we can get when we go to war."
"But on a day like this… Don't you wish we were back at the barracks, nice and warm, rather than out here trying to turn village idiots into soldiers?"
His companion drew himself up. "A Soldier of Light cares not if a task is ignominious, as long as it serves the cause of Light. Only traitors complain. And you are not a traitor, are you, Thomas?"
"No," his companion hastened to assure him. "I was only joking. You know that. You won't report me, will you?"
The fair-haired soldier looked at him for a long time. "Not this time, but be careful of your thoughts."
Thomas moved towards him. "Why don't you trust me?" he hissed. "What have I done? I know something's about to happen, but no-one will tell me what it is. Lankin, I fought beside you in the mountains. I took down three, as many as anyone. I'm loyal, you know I am."
The sergeant had finished drawing up the men, and was walking towards the two officers, ready to salute. The fair-haired soldier walked to meet him, but, as he did so, he said softly over his shoulder, "It is not my secret to tell, Thomas."
Elias realised that his hand had risen to his face, covering everything beneath his eyes. They had fought in the mountains, these two young men. They had each killed someone Thurstan knew. And they could see through illusion. The soldiers in black could see though illusion.
The soldiers began their drill, and Elias just kept walking backwards. But then behind him was the archway, the archway that led to the citadel, where Darius stalked so silently from cell to cell. It was the nearest way to leave the square, and he had to go through it to reach Gerhard.
But not yet, he whispered. Not while the soldiers are here. Wait till they've gone. It's only sensible to wait.
When both the officers had their backs turned to him, he scurried back the way he had come, hand to his face, head bent low.
As he huddled in a gateway, a woman hurried past holding a heavy tray covered with a cloth. After she had passed, Elias caught the scent of freshly baked bread, and realised just how hungry he was. He had forgotten to bring enough money, and had only pennies left after paying for the stable. Reynard had plenty of money in his pack, no doubt, but Elias had never thought to take it for himself.
With a squeal of a bolt, the gate behind him opened. "Out of the way, beggar," an imperious voice bellowed. Before Elias could even move, a horseman all but knocked him down. Another horseman followed him, his clothes gaudy and his weapons good. After the third one had passed, a servant closed the gate behind them. "Best do as he says," the servant advised. Then, when Elias did not answer, he tried to peer beneath his hood. "You're not sick, are you?" He started to back away, as if the answer was already yes.
Elias grasped hold of the railings, staring beyond the servant's anxious face, listening to memories beyond his words. The gate was new, sealing in a small courtyard at the back of one of the great houses that fronted onto the square. At the far side of the courtyard was a stable door.
Elias felt his knees go limp, and for a moment he was only holding himself up with his hands. This was the stable where he had hidden after his escape from the scaffold, where he had curled up and completely forgotten himself, dreaming only of being rescued, and forgetting that there were people he had to save. He had given into weakness and selfish need, and it had been wrong, so very wrong.
He let go of the gate, and raised his hand to his throat, but of course the stone wasn't there. Pushing away from the gate, he started to run, but he made it only a dozen steps. Something struck him in the chest, grasped him by the throat, as strong as a physical blow. Crying out, he dropped to his knees, falling bodily over the dying man lying in the doorway.
"Oh," Elias breathed. "Oh." The man's pain and fear had been like an assault, and it was impossible to stand, to step over him, to ignore him. Gently, his wet fingers trembling, Elias touched the man's face, finding it burning hot beneath the cold skin of rainwater. There was a rasp to his breathing, and his pulse was racing in his throat.
He was dying. Elias heard footsteps and looked up, his hand still pressed to the man's throat, but the woman who was passing recoiled in disgust and hugged the other side of the narrow alley. Only when she was safely past did she return to the middle, where the mud was less.
Dying. The man groaned, but did not wake up. When Elias removed his hand, the man's head lolled, a thin line of blood trickling from the side of his mouth. Dying and no-one cared. His clothes were patched rags, and his face had the weather-beaten look of someone who had lived on the streets for years. No-one would miss him when he was gone. They would sneer with disgust and step over his body, until one day, perhaps, someone bothered to look down and notice that it was only a skeleton inside the rags, and the man had died months before.
Dying. Alone. Elias pulled the man into his lap. "I won't let you die," he promised. "I won't."
Pressing his fingers to the man's brow, he started to heal him. White light rose in gentle wisps, and he gasped aloud in horror, knowing that the light would draw people, and then they would drag him away and the man would fall from his reaching arms, and he would die because Elias could not save him.
"Hide," he pleaded. He pulled the white fire inwards, letting it blaze inside him, but remain all invisible, secret, hidden. It hurt terribly, more than he had thought possible. Enchantment was not meant to be contained. It was like damming a river in flood, or holding back a fire with his own body. He threw back his head and screamed silently, cold rain falling into his mouth and the back of his throat.
Minutes passed, or hours. He heard snatches of voices, and a bell sounded somewhere, low and long. He saw his own hands, fingers splayed on the man's brow. He saw the man's lips parting, and felt the breath that issued from between them. Inside his body, the fire raged, and burning tears poured down his face. The only way he would be free of it would be if he took his hand from the man's face and crawled away. The only way to stop hurting would be the let the man die.
"Heal," he rasped, his voice burnt to cinders by the storm. "Heal," he pleaded, embracing the white fire and all the pain that it brought, and throwing it outwards, transforming it into a soothing balm as gentle as a placid sea. "Heal," as the enchantment rippled through the man's body, washing away his sickness, sweeping away the thing that had caused it.
A clock struck, far away, and it seemed that even the dying in this city of so many towers took their cues from the bells, for the dying man twitched, then subsided with a long and peaceful sigh.
Elias let out a long breath, and slid sideways onto the ground. When he could see again, he saw the man's eyes, only inches from his own. "You," the man whispered. He coughed, and spat a mouthful of saliva streaked with old blood. "You."
Elias forced his eyes to stay open, forced himself to smile. "You'll be all right," he mouthed, but was unable to put any voice to it.
"You," the man said again. He scrabbled desperately and managed to sit up. He pushed himself against the wall, his hands spread on the ground beside him, and his chin pushed down almost to his chest, so fiercely did he press his head and neck against the wall. "You."
Elias tried to sit up, but failed. He wanted to say something reassuring, but it took all his strength just to breathe.
"I saw you," the man grated. "I know you."
The illusion had failed. Elias had put all his strength into the healing, and had forgotten to maintain the illusion. The man had seen him with his true face, and knew him. Elias closed his eyes. He restored the illusion, but didn't look at the man again.
"What have you done to me?" the man rasped, loud enough that anyone passing could have heard. Elias heard him stand up, and heard him run away, but he could do nothing but lie there in the dirt, too exhausted to move.
They were talking about him, standing over him in a ring, looking down with faces that were featureless ovals of grey. They spoke with many voices, debating to and fro. Sometimes they sounded like Oliver, and sometimes Reynard; sometimes like Ciaran, and sometimes like Elias himself. They sounded as if they were discussing something they had found washed up on the beach, something that didn't matter much at all.
"Why does he do it, I wonder?" one of them said. "Look at him, sprawled in the mud. They could be coming to arrest him even now, and what on earth can be possibly do about it?"
"He won't help Gerhard much when he's dead, now, will he?" An eyeless man shook his head from side to side. "I wonder how many people will die as a result of this day's work. He saved one man, yes. But who can save him? And, when he's dead, who can save the world?"
"This was bound to happen," they said. "The road he has chosen has always ended here, or somewhere very like it. It was only a matter of time. He could have stepped off that road, but chose not to."
"And now the man he saved has gone to get the soldiers," another said in a sing-song voice. "Bleating his tale of the sorcerer who brought him back from the dead to enslave his soul. They're coming, the soldiers in black who hate him so much, with Darius at their head."
"And what's he going to do about it?" The grey faces closed in. "Just lie there? Twice, now, he's made himself helpless, and the day's only half gone. What new stupidities can he manage to do by evening?"
"And it doesn't even have to hurt him," said Ciaran's voice. "It's his own fault that it does. If only he'd learn."
"Then show me." Elias opened his eyes and the grey faces disappeared back into a dream. He was alone, still lying in the mud, and the only thing he could see when he rolled over was the overhanging gables of houses, and the grey sky, patched with white.
He struggled to sit up, and managed to lean against the wall. His head felt impossibly heavy, and it hurt to breathe. It was no longer raining, but he had no idea how long had passed. Not long enough for the beggar to bring soldiers, though long enough, surely, for dozens of people to have walked past and seen him lying there.
A boy was watching him from a doorway. "Are you all right, sir?"
Elias tried for a reassuring smile. "I'm fine."
"Drank too much?" The boy gave a knowing nod. "Have another, that’s what Dad says. Makes you feel better in no time."
"I might do that."
He stood up, hands feeling their way slowly up the wall, and the boy sauntered off, satisfied. Elias let his head fall forward. The voices of his dream were still there, whispering at the fringes of his consciousness, but this time they were all speaking in his own voice. "You should go away," they told him. "The soldiers are coming." Then, quiet and treacherous and terrible, his own voice said, "You shouldn't have done it. If you'd left him alone, he wouldn't have betrayed you."
"But I couldn't," he wailed, hand coming up the clutch at the stone that was no longer there. "I couldn’t leave him there to die. How could I have done that?"
"A king's choices are never easy." This voice spoke deeply in his mind. It made him think of wise eyes and grey hair and a long white robe that rustled as it moved. "But a true king still makes them."
"But I did make a choice." Elias drove his head back into the wall hard enough to hurt. "I did. I'm living with it, every minute of every day of my life."
"Choices never end," the voice whispered, stroking his cheek. "There are branches on every path. It is not too late, but nearly so."
"Too late for what?" Elias cried aloud, but the voice had left him, and the hand on his face had been withdrawn.
The alley was empty. Now the rain had stopped falling, the silence was immense. Were the soldiers blocking each end of the alley, laying their ambush for when he walked out? He didn't know. All he could do was walk to the end of the alley and see what awaited him. He wouldn’t creep into that stable and curl up beneath the straw, because how would that help Gerhard?
A grey-haired man came pounding out a narrow street, looking over his shoulder as he ran. He collided with a woman, scattering the contents of her basket across the ground. "You must listen to me," he hissed, grabbed hold of her wrists as she stooped to retrieve them. "Listen, everybody!" he screamed. "You have to listen to me!"
"No," the woman pleaded. She struggled, and he let her go, so abruptly that she staggered. There was a statue of a man on a docile horse at the place where the three roads met, and he hauled himself up onto the low plinth.
"Listen to me!" he cried. A few passers-by had stopped out of mild curiosity, and a few more paused in response to his plea, but the streets were not busy, and this was an area of town where the buildings were shabby and the shops boarded up. "Terrible things are happening every day, and we don't see it, or we ignore it. But I have seen it. Open your eyes, I beg you."
"So what have you seen?" a man from the crowd asked, then turned and smirked at his friend.
"Terrible things. Murder in cold blood. Gentle people cut down." He raised his hands and his robe fell down to his elbows, revealing the blood stains on his white cuffs. "I myself held a young boy of fifteen as he died, stabbed in the chest for the crime of trying to protect an old man who had never hurt a soul."
"We're fighting the murderers, the despoilers, the shedders of blood," the man in the crowd said. He drew his dagger and waved it around. "We're volunteering today, joining the army. We'll get revenge."
"No," the man wailed. "Darius killed them, our so-called protector. His Soldiers of Light killed that boy, that shy and gentle boy. He's destroying us."
"His men only execute traitors," someone else shouted.
"Traitors?" the man screamed. "A boy studying music? An old man painting portraits? Scholars? People who were invited to Eidengard by the late duke, who served him loyally as he created a beautiful city that was the envy of the world?"
"Beauty?" A square-faced man spat into the mud. "Beautiful fountains to make us soft. Music to make us placid. The sorcerers and traitors were taking over the government, and we were too ensnared by this beauty of yours to notice. If it wasn't for Lord Darius, we would have been undone."
The man on the pedestal rounded on him. "Listen to yourself! You can't even use your own words! You're speaking in Darius's voice. You're like sheep, just believing what you're told."
"Lord Darius saved us!" screamed the woman he had knocked over. "The old duke was leading us wrong. It's a mercy he died when he did, or we'd be overrun by bandits and sorcerers by now. That's what he wanted, I say."
"So that's what they're saying now?" The man shook his head sadly. "Not even dead for a year, and they've already abandoned their pretence. Darius always said he was loyal to the duke, trying only to liberate him from his evil advisers. How confident he must be, to change his story." He raised his hand, pointing at each one of the sparse crowd. "A year ago you loved the duke. You sang his praises. How can one man have changed so much in so little time?"
"Perhaps he wasn't bad," a man conceded, "but Lord Darius is better. He isn't afraid to ask us to make sacrifices. And we do so willingly, for we know that we can help wipe out sorcery forever and make the world save for our children. It's a small price to pay."
"Darius's words again. He cloaks everything he does in lies. He wants power, and he kills anyone who stands in his way. He cares nothing for the people of Eidengard. He murdered the old duke!" he screamed. "He came to power through murder and deceit, and now he's undoing us all."
"Liar!" the crowd started to scream. A woman threw a stone at him, and it hit him on the side of the head. "Traitor!" The clock joined in the chorus, striking four in an angry voice.
The man shook his head sadly. "I'm no traitor. None of us were. We hate sorcery as much as any of you. But this isn't the way to fight it. We should cling on to the things that make life worth living - to art and music and learning and charity. But Darius tears down tapestries and makes weapons out of candlesticks. He burns our books. He lets the fountains run dry, but he chains dead men up and makes us take our children to see them. He makes us send our sons to war. He makes us distrust each other, and turn our backs when good men die, because we're scared that we, too, will be denounced as a traitor if we stand up and say that it is wrong."
"Traitor!" they screamed, not even listening to him. Some of them had edged away, afraid even to be seen listening to him, while others had rushed forward, drawn by the fascination of seeing a man destroy himself.
"I don't want to live in the world Darius is creating," the man said, as the soldiers marched up to arrest him. "I just want you to listen." They dragged him down and closed around him, but then two of them parted enough for Elias to see the man's shattered face, still screaming his plea. "Just listen. Remember. If only one of you believes me and tells someone else…" The gap closed, and Elias heard nothing more.
Elias was leaning forward, clinging to the stone railing behind him, held back only by the deadly grip of his fingers that refused to let go. I should go to him. I should stop this. But if he ran forward, his legs would collapse. He had no magic left. There was nothing he could do, not against twenty soldiers and a whole hostile city. Nothing.
The soldiers began to drag the man away. His head was lolling, but he was still conscious. As he passed Elias, their eyes met. "Remember," the man's lips mouthed.
Elias tried to rush up to him, but his hands wouldn't let him. The man was doomed, as he must surely have known as he had started to speak. Why hadn't he bided his time, choosing a crowded marketplace where a thousand people could hear him, or an audience that might at least listen? He had thrown his life away for the sake of something he believed in, but what good had come from it? His death would make no difference at all.
The soldiers disappeared round a corner, hauling their prisoner to the cells, and Elias just watched. The rain started to fall again, and Elias did nothing, and a man was dragged away to his death. He just did nothing.
The first bell to strike the hour was a high-toned one in the east. As soon as it finished, the low bell from the square picked up the sound, marking the implacable march of the day. As soon as the last of that sound had faded, another bell started up, tolling a distant funeral.
"They say it's come here at last," a woman said to her friend, as they hurried home through the rain, their mantles pressed to their faces. "Who will save us now?"
Elias turned on the spot, following them with his eyes, but he heard nothing more. Then he completed the turn, back to the way he had been facing.
A man was standing in a puddle, preaching to anyone who heard him. "This is the work of sorcery! Lord Darius is our only hope. Join his army, and fight so that those who have caused this curse will be expunged utterly from the world!"
A boy of about fourteen stopped and listened, while his mother scurried on without noticing. "Yes," he breathed, his face fervent. "Yes."
Elias walked on and soon came to a small square beside the main street, filled with stalls. He had walked past it in the morning, and now was come full circle, almost back to the main gate. The winter before, he had stopped here and listened to an old woman's tales about the duke. As he had listened, the woman's husband had carved him a wooden doll, but Ciaran had stuffed it into his pack and Elias had never seen it again. It was probably now mouldering in some ditch, long forgotten.
"Last chance to buy!" someone called, and he started at the sound of the voice, so sudden and close. It was a tall woman with a basket of fruit, her face pinched. Elias bought an apple from her with his last coins, but she kept the basket between them like a protection and seemed scared of him.
He bit into the apple, but the sudden burst of sweetness made him feel queasy. He chewed that mouthful slowly, and didn't take a second.
Most of the stalls were closed. Some had clearly been open earlier in the day, but some looked as if they had been deserted for weeks, and there were more gaps between the stalls than Elias remembered.
He watched a stall-holder struggle to roll up an awning that was heavy with rain, and tried to offer his help. "No, I'm fine," the man gasped, smiling through his exertion. "Almost done." When he was finished, he looked sympathetically at Elias. "You should go home, lad. You look dead on your feet." His smile faded and he edged away. "You're not sick?"
Elias smiled and shook his head. "Only tired."
"The storm, eh?" The man nodded in understanding. "Well, you just make sure you go to bed early tonight. We need our young folk hale and hearty."
"I will. Thank you." Still smiling, he took his leave.
Elias meandered through the stalls, trailing his hand along each one as he passed. Each time his fingers reached the end of a stall, he found himself holding his breath, only breathing again when they found the next one. He was not touching them firmly enough to derive any real support from them, yet he felt exposed and adrift without them, as if he was in the middle of the square again, in full view of the guards.
He found a stall selling books, each one wrapped in waxed cloth. "We don't sell things like that," the stallholder was loudly telling a boy. Then he leant forward and whispered confidingly. "Darius's men were burning them, you see. I thought I'd get in trouble if they discovered them, so I threw them in the river."
"But there was nothing wrong with them," the boy protested. "It's only history." He was about to say more but a tall man standing behind him clapped his hand on his shoulder. The boy looked up at him. "Tell him, master."
The tall man shook his head. "Learn to choose your battles, lad. And learn when to keep silent. This man isn't your enemy. But people have been killed for saying less than what you just said." He looked at Elias as he spoke, his grey eyes challenging him to report this to Darius.
"I won't," Elias murmured. How sad it was to see knowledge proscribed, and history forbidden. Stories of the past helped define a people. If the impossible happened, and the Kindred were returned to power, Elias would make sure that the people of duchy kept their history. No-one would be punished just for what they believed.
The tall man led the boy away, his hand still on his shoulder. They were teacher and pupil, master and apprentice, like Elias and Ciaran had once been. The boy was about Thurstan's age. Elias sighed as his thoughts returned to the boy, and his undiscovered gift. Thurstan needed a teacher, or he would never learn how to fulfil his potential. He would be as ignorant of the gift he had been born with as Elias had been before Ciaran had taken him under his wing.
Perhaps, Elias thought, as he started wandering again, there were other people like Thurstan somewhere in the world, just waiting for a teacher to open their eyes. Maybe the Brotherhood of Shadow could be founded here, where it would be a happy Order, full of the joys of new discovery, rather than a sad one, mourning past glories. Maybe Ciaran could lead it. Maybe, if Ciaran knew about Thurstan, he would want to come back for good. Maybe…
Elias clenched his fists, hurrying forward blindly. He almost crashed into the dingy stall against the back wall, and was about to turn away when he noticed the figure hunched on the ground behind the table. His body and legs created a small area that was protected from the rain, and he was working intently there with both hands.
It was the old man who had carved the doll. With one hand on the slippery table top, Elias watched him. After a while, the doll-maker looked up. "I've nothing for you." His hand curled protectively around the doll he had been carving, hiding its face. Then he frowned, and looked more closely at Elias. "Do I know you?"
Elias tried to speak, cleared his throat, and tried again. "No."
"Oh." The man shook his head, and frowned again. "I thought..." He touched his brow, then looked down again. He pressed his doll against his chest, and held it there, stroking the back of its head with one long finger.
Elias backed away, his fingertips trailing to the edge of the table, straining there a little, then falling off. The apple fell to the ground and rolled under the table. He had forgotten he had still been holding it.
Why had the man asked him that? The eyes of an artist were accustomed to seeing the truth, so could they even see something of the truth that lay behind illusion? This man had seen every detail of his natural face, and carved it in wood. Did he recognise him? Elias touched his face, and found his hands were trembling. He had a sudden urge to change his face into something as far as could possibly be from his true face. A woman, perhaps, or a hawk-nosed soldier with a cruel swagger.
He backed into a stall, feeling the edge of the table ramming into the back of his thighs. He almost over-balanced, but saved himself by sitting down on the table. He lowered his hands and held onto the edge, one hand on either side of him.
Huddled behind his empty stall, the old man was carving again. He didn't look up, and seemed to have forgotten Elias. Perhaps he had meant nothing by what he had said. Something was wrong with him, Elias realised. Perhaps his wife had died, and he had begun to go insane with grief, returning every day to the old stall to carve her cherished image, then taking it home to rest it on the mantelpiece, beside a hundred other identical ones. Perhaps he only needed someone to smile at him, and tell him there was still life after the one you loved had left you, but Elias was not the person to say such things.
Elias slid down from the stall, faced into the wind, and walked away.
Eight o'clock struck, but faintly, from ornate towers far away. Elias walked past a small open area that had once been a garden, but the young saplings had been broken off, and stray dogs played raucously on the grass. There were few people in the streets, but plenty of noise from the many taverns. Whenever the doors flapped open, Elias could smell smoke and beer, and heard snatches of loud singing.
"Ooh," a woman shrieked, nudging her friend. "A new face. A gentleman, slumming it, d'ya think?"
The other woman looked at him, head tilted to one side. "Nice enough body on him, though. I'll give him a go if you won't."
"So which of us do you want?" The first woman swayed towards him, raising her skirt to her knee. "Or both? Depends on the size of your… purse." She laughed through her red slash of a mouth.
Elias felt himself blushing, and the illusionary face blushed too. "Ah, he's shy," one of the woman's crooned. "Don't be afraid. We'll take care of you."
Elias made a strangled sound, and hurried away. One of them wailed in exaggerated hurt, but the other laughed. A door sounded, and soon he heard them approaching another man, trying the same trick on him.
Eight o'clock, he thought. Eight o'clock, and nearly dark. Nearly night. The whole day gone.
He stopped walking. "Why am I here?" he said aloud. What possible use could be served by what he was doing?
Eight o'clock, and what had he done with the day? It had slipped away without him really noticing. No, he corrected himself, he had noticed it constantly, hearing every hour strike, but he still hadn't done anything about it. He had wasted the day.
"No, I didn't," he told himself. A good leader never rushed in without thinking, but studied the lie of the land first. That's what he had been doing, and Reynard would have been be proud of him. No, he'd been recovering his strength. Helping Gerhard's men find peace had drained him, and it would have been stupid to carry on until he was rested. It would have been a betrayal of Gerhard to try to rescue him when he was weak, likely to fail. It was only right to wait until he was at full strength. Of course it was.
"Yes." He nodded, and started to stride out, daring anyone to say otherwise.
But of course that's not true, something whispered inside him in his own voice. Good reasons, both, but neither of them are true.
His steps faltered again and his hand came up to his mouth. "I'm afraid," he breathed. So terribly afraid of Lord Darius that he was walking anywhere, anywhere at all, to delay the moment when he had to face him. So terribly afraid that his horse had sensed it, and flinched away from his touch. So afraid.
Of course he was. He had cringed in terror from the mere sight of a soldier in black. Every time he had neared the citadel, he had somehow ended up walking the other direction. When people looked at him, he wanted to hide his face. He was afraid.
He tried to make himself walk forward again. Darius might not even be in the city any more. He might be miles and miles away, smiling as he tortured some other person. But Gerhard would be in the cells, the cells where Elias had lain and endured Darius's touch. Memory would stalk those prison corridors like a ghost, dragging clinking metal behind him, smiling with a skull-like face, reaching out his cold velvet hand. Even if Darius was far away, Elias would still have to face him.
"And I don't know if I can," he breathed.
He raised his face to the sky, hoping the rain would wash something away and cleanse him, but the rain was no longer falling. "But I have to," he said, as he started to walk in a straight line, heading directly towards the citadel. Fear had made him fail, and Gerhard was suffering because of it. The pain of enchantment was something that had to be endured in order to help people, and so was the pain of terror. He had left Reynard and Thurstan behind in order to do this by himself, but had wasted a whole day, and what sort of a person did that make him?
As he walked, he heard Gerhard reproaching him. "Too late," the dead man wailed, when Elias came upon the mass of tortured flesh that had been alive in the morning. "This wound I suffered while you dallied in the market and ate an apple. They put out my eyes when you blushed to see up a whore's skirts. And then, as you hurried, too late, to save me, he came to me and did what he did to you, and now I will never be free from him, not even in death."
Elias started to run, whimpering with every breath. Someone shouted, but he didn't turn round. Far louder were the reproaches of a tortured man, a man who could have been saved while he had frittered the day away and done nothing.
There was a yew hedge opposite the citadel. Yew trees were poisonous, or so Elias had been told as a child. It seemed like a fitting place to hide, then. Surrounded by poison, Elias watched the place where all hopes died.
It was fully dark, but a brazier burned on either side of the citadel gate, and that was enough for him to see what he needed to see. It was enough to show the four soldiers in black who stood on guard, none of them relaxing their vigilance, not ever. They never stopped to chat, and never stopped to warm their hands over the flame. They were as different from the guard at the bridge as it was possible to be.
Gerhard's inside, Elias told himself. If Gerhard was still alive, he would be in the prison cells beneath the citadel, where Elias himself had been imprisoned. If Elias was to rescue him, he had to go in.
He had told Oliver it would be easy. He could fly in as a bird. But then he would have to bring Gerhard out again, and he couldn't turn Gerhard into a bird, only himself. Besides, the magic of the changing would leave him too drained to do anything else. He would reach Gerhard's cell and collapse at his ruined feet, unable to do a thing. Gerhard would still die.
What about illusion? Illusion was easier, and he could do it without pain. But these were the soldiers in black, and they had seen through illusion in the mountains. Elias could make himself look like one of them, but what if they saw the truth behind the mask? What if it was even worse, and illusion was like a beacon to them, a flag waving to say, "I'm here!" Elias had power, but swords could still kill him. If he died, Gerhard would die.
The soldiers marched up and down. A new pair came, relieving two of the old guard. They wore the same expression Darius did. If he went in, Elias would have to confront Darius a hundred times, in a hundred different bodies.
Maybe he should just try illusion anyway. Maybe Thurstan was wrong, and the soldiers couldn’t see through illusion at all. But Darius had been impossible to trick, and these men were trained by him. This was their home territory and they knew every nook and cranny, while Elias was still weak and unmanned by fear. Darius made him like that. Fear would make him fail, just like it had done last time.
But I can conquer fear. I can ignore it. I have to, for Gerhard's sake.
He stood up. He'd do it, anyway. He had to. Gerhard would die if he just cowered here beneath the yew trees and did nothing. It was unbearable to sit and do nothing, when a life was at stake. Even if there was only one chance in a hundred that he would survive, he had to try. He had to.
The branches rustled as he stepped forward. One caught in his hair, one scraped his face, and they pulled him back, so he sank into a crouch, still hidden.
How would it help Gerhard if he threw his life away? How would it help the Kindred if he died? He thought of them all, all waiting for him. Oliver had agreed to stay at home only because Elias had promised to stay safe, and Reynard would never forgive himself if Elias died. And the Kindred themselves, who had waited five hundred years for a glimmer of hope... Elias was their hope. If he died, they would be left alone, without their king, just as the danger was at its greatest.
For something terrible was approaching, destroying hope and life. Just as Darius was raising armies to exterminate the Kindred, some deeper and vaster evil was beginning to destroy living things on the earth. Elias had sworn to fight it. How could he do that if he was dead? If he died in a doomed attempt to save Gerhard, how would that help the world?
Elias pressed his fist to his mouth to stop himself from moaning aloud. I don't know what to do! He wanted to save Gerhard. If he turned and walked away, then it would hurt terribly, but wasn't that a selfish reason? If he went into the citadel, knowing that he would fail, then the only reason for going was that it made him feel bad to walk away. He would be like the man who had preached from the statue, who had thrown his life away for nothing, when he could have saved himself and died for a cause that really meant something.
He shivered, suddenly aware of how alone he felt. There were thousands of people out there in the city, and they would all hate him if they knew who he was. Like tiny beacons of light in the darkness, Reynard and the others were there, on a hill four hours journey away. They would have helped him. They would have cared.
"If they had come with me, they would have died," he told himself sternly. If Reynard had been here beside him, Elias knew what he would say. It was too risky to use illusion, he would argue. "Best rely on swords." He would plan it carefully, give his fighters orders, and try to break into the citadel by stealth and force of arms, and there they would all have died.
Elias stood up again. So I have to go in. If he walked away, he would have to return to Thurstan and tell him that he had abandoned Gerhard. It would break the boy's heart, and Reynard would still insist on trying again, to succeed where Elias had failed. Once again, there was no way it could end but with their deaths.
But Reynard was good, he had to admit a little while later, when he had still not moved. Perhaps Reynard had a plan. Perhaps he had always had a plan, but Elias had never bothered to ask him. Maybe Reynard and his men would die if they went in alone, but what could they do if they and Elias went in together, sword backing up enchantment, magic backing up steel?
If he went in by himself, Elias had to admit, he would die. Only chance had saved him today. He had told Oliver and Reynard that he was safe by himself, but it had never been true. It had been a way to force them to consent to letting him do the things he had needed to do. He had even managed to convince himself, but he would have acted the same even if he had not. Even if he had known the danger, he would have blundered doggedly on, rather than turn his back on someone in need.
Sometimes it hurt so much, just living. Death held no fear. He had glimpsed the place spirits went to after death, and it was beautiful. But he didn't want to die. Did he?
"No," he said aloud. "I can't." He had to stay alive to help the Kindred, to fight the terrible thing that was coming, and, sometimes, the only way to stay alive to fight the big battles would be to turn his back on the smaller ones.
"Choose your battles," the scholar had said to his apprentice. "He died for nothing," Elias had thought about the preacher. "Stupid," the voices had told him, when he had lain unconscious after giving everything he had to save someone who would very likely betray him. "He needs to come," he had said about Thurstan, recognising that the boy's own peace of mind depended on having a part to play in the rescue of Gerhard. He had said it, but then he had ignored it, leaving Reynard trapped in unnatural slumber, and giving the boy the task of explaining something that was indefensible.
He began to edge away. The yew branches scratched him like the thorns on the path he had chosen, the path of sacrifice without purpose. It was hard to walk away. It was terrible, and it would torment him, but it was the only right thing to do. The soldiers who guarded Gerhard could see through illusion, and Elias was too weak to use his deeper powers. To carry on would be suicide, a betrayal of everyone who depended on him.
He needed Reynard and his men, who knew how to move invisibly in the darkness by natural means, without using illusion. He needed men who could hold half a dozen soldiers back with the sword. He needed men who could walk through the corridors of the prison without trembling with terror. Perhaps they would die. Perhaps, by coming with him, they would die, but…
As the soldiers stood ready at the gate, Elias crept back out of the edge, down the slope towards the city. "I'm going back," he whispered. Even as he said it, he knew it was no rash decision, no desperate attempt to rationalise a terrified retreat. He had been working towards this realisation all day, and had never even known it. He was at the crossroads, faced with the choice of paths. For months, he had followed the path of thorns, but now he had chosen something new. What it was, he didn't know. How hard it would be to walk, he could only find out. It would be difficult, and it would hurt, but he thought it was right.
As he stepped out of the shelter of the yews, he looked up at the sky. The rain had stopped for the night, the clouds parting to reveal tiny stars like jewels above him. But, as he walked, he looked back. He looked back all the time, but still he walked, beneath the stars in the clear sky.