Chapter four

The path of thorns

      

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

       "Neither?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

      

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

       But that man, whoever he was, was not the king. It was kind of the king to say such things, but…

       "No," said the king. "Don't. Please don't. Listen, Thurstan." He took hold of Thurstan's wrist. "I will do everything in my power to keep you safe. I have sworn to bring Gerhard back, if he is alive. I will do those things. You're safe with me. But Reynard will do the same. So will Ranulf, and all the others. So will you. I'm not the answer to everything. I'm not always right."

       Thurstan's mouth twitched. He tried not to laugh.

       "Please don't set me up on a pedestal," the king urged him, and it even sounded as if he meant it. "Not me, not anyone. It's not the way to happiness. Sooner or later, they fail you. They come crashing down. They leave you, and then you've got nothing. You're just a hollow shell, because everything you lived for has gone."

       "You're not going to leave me, my lord?" Thurstan asked tremulously.

       The king sighed. The vastness of the sky above him made him look pale and defeated. "I will not, no. But you have strengths, too. I only wish you could see them. One day, I hope, you will surprise yourself."

       "I can't fight well," Thurstan said, "or use enchantment."

       "But it seems you are a seer, if you saw..."

       "You," Thurstan blurted out. "I saw you. You were kneeling under a stone arch, inside somewhere, in a place with an amber-coloured floor. Oliver was there, and I think he was hurt. There was another man, too. He was coming up behind you. I think he was going to touch your neck."

       "Was I a prisoner?" There was no emotion in the king's voice. "The other man. Was he… tall and thin? Dressed in black and silver?"

       "I don't think your hands were tied," Thurstan said, "but I don't know. I don't know what the man was going to do. But…" He frowned, struggling to remember. "He was tall but broad, too. Strong. He had brown hair and a beard. He was wearing… Oh! I remember! He had a cloak just like yours."

       "Oh," said the king, a tiny little gasp. He wrapped his arms around his middle and stared a while into the distance. "Visions don't always show the future," he whispered after a while. "Sometimes they only show what might have been, but now never will, because of the choices we've made."

       "Who was he?" Thurstan dared to ask. "Was he Lord Darius?"

       The king shook his head. "Not Darius, no. Someone else." But his tone was so bleak that Thurstan felt claws of dread scrape down his spine. The man had to be an enemy more terrible even than Darius, for the king to react so.

       I'll make sure that man doesn't hurt you, he swore. He had been given the vision for a purpose. Maybe his destiny was to save the king from death in that amber hall, one day in the future. Now he knew, he could be on his guard. If ever that moment came to pass, he would hurl himself forward and stop the man from reaching the king.  This time, he would not run.

       It made him feel a little better to know that one day in the future he would have the chance to do something great. But that day was yet to come. For now, he was content to follow the king.

           

 

       The sun was glorious in the western sky, making the whole world shiny and beautiful. Elias had never seen this place in the evening. It had been lovely at dawn, but even then he had known that its true glory would only shine forth when the western sun shone golden. Even now it was a place of death, the flowers still bloomed, bathing joyously in the evening light.

       The statue still stood on the watchtower, strength and wisdom carved in his every line. The setting sun made the white quartz shine like flame. It turned him from someone wise and benevolent into a fierce avenger who would strike down anyone who dared violate his road. Beneath him, the archway cast deep shadows, and turned the road into a sea of black.

       "I always loved the statue," Thurstan said. "I used to think it was his magic that was keeping us safe."

       So did I, Elias thought. In those distant days of winter, less than a year ago, but so far away. A foolish boy called Elias had skipped on the mountains and thought himself completely safe, and made plans for the journey home.

       "I used to imagine him coming to life," Thurstan said. "When people talked about the king coming back, I wondered if this was him, frozen in stone until the time was come. I used to imagine what I'd say to him, and what the others would say when I told them that the king had come back. Then you really did, so I stopped imagining it. It was only a statue, after all."

       "Only a statue," Elias echoed. Only a carved stone image of someone who had once been mighty. The old king had not saved Gerhard or his people. There he still stood, and he would stand there still, even if armies thronged the mountains and darkness swept over the world, killing all life. Only Elias, the king who still lived, could do anything to save them. He was alone.

       "But… " Thurstan heaved in a shuddering breath. His face was so pinched that Elias longed to take him in his arms and shelter him from all the evils in the world. "I'm only talking. I have to do it. I have to… go."

       "You don't have to," Elias told him.

       "I do."

       The road curved beyond the tower, and they could not see it without passing through the darkened archway. Reynard and Ranulf had already ridden through, and had not come back. The others were waiting, waiting for them to return and tell them what they had seen, or to scream a warning with their last dying breath. Thurstan was pale with dread. Elias felt close to fainting. There was something terrible just ahead, clinging to the road like a stinking miasma. Even the animals were afraid of it. Men had died here, and their dying left an echo in the enchantment, a repulsive stain. He didn't want to walk through the archway, not for anything, so of course that was all the more reason why he had to do so. Thurstan needed him to be strong.

       "There are other ways to remember them," he told the boy. "It does nothing to help them, you tormenting yourself. It won't bring them back. Close your eyes, and I'll guide you. I'll tell you when you can open them again. I'll keep you safe."

       Thurstan raised his chin, and there was a sudden flash of Reynard in his eyes. "I do need to see them. I do."

.      "Please don't put yourself through this for no reason. I couldn't…" He snapped the words back. Couldn't bear it to ride beside you and see you suffering, and not be able to help you, not at all.

       "I have to," Thurstan said miserably. "I owe them that much. I didn't die with them. The least I can do is say a few words over their bodies and mourn them."

       "I can do that."

       Thurstan whirled on him. "You didn't know them! I did. And I ran away. I can't run, not this time. I have to… to show myself that I can do this."

       "I understand," Elias told him, and he did. He understood, even as he wished with all his heart that it was not so.

       "Until I see the bodies, I'll always be wondering," Thurstan whispered. "Wondering what they looked like. Wondering how bad it was. Wondering… wondering if they weren't dead after all."

       Tears pricked Elias's eyes, and he blinked them back. "You're very brave, Thurstan. Never think otherwise." He squeezed his hand. "But you can always change your mind. There's no shame in it. If you want me to help you, just ask."

       "I can do it." Thurstan was swallowing hard, fighting tears.

       Cry, Elias wanted to urge him. Don't fight it. He knew the boy was trying emulate him, or the ideal of Elias that he carried in his mind. Elias wanted to grab him by the shoulders and scream into his face. Don't become like me. Don't do that to yourself. Please.

       There was a flicker of movement in the dark gateway, and Reynard appeared.  Thurstan gasped and shrank back. Elias just sat very still on his horse, but his palms started sweating. Reynard trotted his horse along the path and brought it round in a tight circle, instantly ready to go back. Ranulf was not with him, and Reynard looked disturbed, showing it in all those small ways that many people had never learned to read.

       "There's nothing there," Reynard said. "Nothing. No enemy. But no..." He paused only for a second, and his eyes flickered towards Thurstan. "Bodies."

       Thurstan gave a choked cry. "All gone?"

       "We found clear evidence of a battle, but there are no remains." This time Reynard spoke only to Elias, a soldier giving his report. "We found lots of tracks going back the way they'd come. Cart tracks, too. They took everyone back with them, living or dead."

       "Why?" Thurstan asked. It was a tiny squeak, but he still did not cry or scream.

       Reynard began to pull his sword from his scabbard, then slammed it back in. "Why? As trophies, boy. A defeated enemy to mock and degrade. Anyone with a spark of life still in them they'll torture and try to get them to betray their king, then they'll kill them publicly and horrifically. That's how the enemy works, boy."

       Thurstan looked so white that Elias thought he was going to faint. "Reynard," Elias warned, but Reynard was already riding away.

       "I need to see it," Thurstan whispered. He raised his head. "I need to see."

       "Don't listen..." Elias began, but Thurstan interrupted him, spitting out every word. "But he's telling the truth, and I have to face it."

       But I wish I could protect you from it, Elias thought, as Thurstan rode with such courage through the dark archway, and Elias could only follow. I wish none of this had happened. I wish I'd been here, so I could have died in their place, and spared Thurstan this pain.

       Through the arch, the sunlight enfolded them. Ranulf stood forlornly at the side of the road, but he was the only one there. There were not even ghosts. The pain of the dying had left a stain in the enchantment, but their spirits were gone. No dead crowded around Elias, pawing at him with desperate fingers, begging for release. He snapped his head round, hearing whispering, but it was only the wind, only the wind.

       Thurstan had slid from his horse. He tottered a few steps, then stopped and crouched, touching the ground. "Blaise fell here," he said. "He rolled down the bank and a horse trampled him, but I think he was dead already. He was always grumbling, but always laughing, too. He only grumbled when you knew he didn't mean it. And he could do such amazing tricks. He could pull flowers out of your ear, and things like that. It wasn't magic, but a trick. I could never work out how he did it, and I probably never will."

       He lifted up his hand, then pressed it against the ground in a place only inches away. "And Rostand fell here, lying on top of him. He was getting old, but he could fight as well as anyone. His exile came to an end at the start of the winter. He was really excited about going home again. He used to talk about his children all the time. I'd never met any other children, so I used to ask him to tell me stories about when they were young. He used to tell me off for asking many questions, but I knew he loved to talk about them as much as I loved to listen."

       Crawling, he scrambled a few paces, then pressed down with both hands. "Gregory fell here. He took one of the soldiers with him. I never really knew him at all. I was scared of him. He used to stare into the fire and he looked so fierce that no-one came near him. But I think he was probably just sad. I wonder if anyone ever asked him what he was sad about. I didn't. I don't think I ever spoke to him, not ever."

       On it went, and on. Thurstan never once cried. His voice was so flat as to be dead. He walked from place to place, weaving across the road, touching patches of earth where nothing remained to mark the dead. It was impossible to look away. The enemy could have surrounded them and fallen upon them, but not one of them would have noticed. Even Reynard was made defenceless by the sight of a boy's grief.

       "Hubert fell here," Thurstan said, and this was the tenth man he had named. "I saw him fall. He was..."

       And then he just stopped.

       Reynard made a low sound in his throat and made as if to start forward, then pulled himself back again. Elias just breathed, in and out, in and out. The sky smothered him like a dark blanket. The horror of the place was seeping into his mind, reaching in through the broad paths of the enchantment, making his throat dry and his chest hurt.

       "Thurstan," Elias said. He dismounted and walked forward, and the pebbles beneath his feet crumbled like brittle bones.

       Thurstan wrapped his arms around his body, and turned a stark face towards Elias. "I don't know any more. It happened too fast. I couldn't see it all. Some of it was too far away. I wasn't there."

       Elias crouched down beside him, but he had no idea how to act. He burned to pull the boy into his arms and urge him to cry, but Thurstan had tried so hard to be brave. Reynard and the others were watching, and they despised tears. Perhaps in this moment soft comfort would be cruel.

       "No-one will ever know how the others died," Thurstan whispered. "I can't even do that for them." Just as Elias was about to say something, he clenched his fists and pulled away. "I want to find them," he cried. "I want to find them all."

       Elias touched him on the shoulder, and Thurstan leant into his touch, just barely. "We will," Elias told him. "It will get better, Thurstan, I promise."

       Thurstan closed his eyes for a moment, then stood up. "I want to go now."  "Are you sure?" Elias asked. "Take more time if you need it."

       Reynard's horse pranced behind them, and Thurstan glanced at him, then up at the mountains. "I'll say goodbye to the rest of them on the way home. Gerhard will be with us, then. He'll know what to say better than I do."

       Elias had to turn away. Thurstan oscillated between a belief in his nightmares, and a belief in his daydreams. It hadn't helped him, not seeing the bodies, for it allowed him to deny their deaths. Even as he had mourned them, he had talked about them as fallen, not dead.

       "But I don't want to stop," Thurstan said, mounting his horse. "Every minute counts. I need to go. I need to... to…"

       It was Reynard who broke the silence. Pulling his horse to Thurstan's side, he clapped him briefly on the shoulder. "We'll find them, lad. Kindred do not turn their backs on their own."

       Thurstan turned to face him. "Thank you."

       Reynard rode on, and Thurstan followed him. Left behind, Elias mounted his own horse and slowly walked away, looking back over his shoulder as he did so. The dying sun was bleeding in the western sky, and the shadows were deepening, each one dark with the memory of death and dying.

        

 

       Time passed in a haze. Thurstan no longer saw the scenery they passed through, and barely noticed the faces of his companions. He could no longer feel any spark of hatred for Reynard. What did such things matter? Somewhere ahead, closer every hour, were Gerhard and the others. Anyone with a spark of life would be taken for torture, Reynard had said. Few injuries killed outright on the battlefield, and there had been no bodies. Perhaps the enemy, who could see through illusion, had ways of keeping alive prisoners who had fallen over and looked quite dead.

       "No bodies," he whispered under his breath. "No bodies means not dead." And meant that they were waiting for his in their prison cells, and he had to hurry, to get there, to end this.

       Sometimes they did hurry. Sometimes Reynard rode at their head and looked back over his shoulder and snapped a quick rebuke at someone, Amalric, perhaps, or even the king, for dawdling. Sometimes Reynard tapped his foot edgily as the others paused for a drink, then ordered them to kick their horses into a gallop. Those were the times that seemed most real, when the wind streamed through his hair, and the land passed by in a blur of movement, and he knew they were getting close.

       Sometimes, though, they had to stop. Reynard kept them going late into the evening, but at length it grew too dark to travel safely, or so he said. "You'll do him no good if you're half dead with tiredness, lad," Reynard had told him, but it felt so terrible to be stopping, to be doing nothing when Gerhard was ahead of him, still so far away.

       He always thought he would not be able to sleep, but within no time the nightmares are clamouring in his head, and he jerked awake with a start, and knew that he had been sleeping after all. He saw Gerhard and the others, strung up in gibbets and dead for days. He saw them dying an instant before he arrived in their cell, and he would have been in time to save them if he hadn't stopped quite so early to sleep one day. So then he would lie awake again, and listen to the horses in the night, and wish he was brave enough just to grab one and flee. But he knew he could not save Gerhard by himself. He needed the king for that.

       Sometimes, when he woke from his nightmares, the king was there, crooning to him, urging him to cry. Sometimes he did. Sometimes, though he sank into the embrace, he felt as if he could not breathe, as if the king was robbing him of the air he needed. He cried when the king told him to, but afterwards he wished he had not. Gerhard would not be proud of a weeping boy. A weeping boy would never even find the strength to reach his prison cell.

       "Bad dreams?" Ranulf said one morning. Reynard, who heard it, just jerked his chin at him, and told him to saddle his horse, and jump to it, lad, we haven't got all day. Thurstan had wiped his eyes and done just that. For a moment, he felt like a warrior being commanded by a captain who never once doubted that he could do what would be demanded on him. It was impossible to feel that way with the king.

       They had spent one more night in the mountains, then had descended into a tamer world of green and brown. They saw roads in the distance, and smoke from chimneys. Reynard and his men were on edge, as every step took them deeper into enemy territory. Thurstan, although he trembled, was glad. It meant they were getting near. How many thousands of steps did he need to take before he found Gerhard? He started to count, but the numbers slipped away from  him, and he kept having to start again.

       Then they spent a night not very far from Eidengard at all. "Four hours," Reynard said. "Tomorrow morning, we'll plan our campaign. Maybe move the camp a bit closer, and scout out the area. We have to decide whether to go in openly by day, trusting in disguise, or launch an attack on the walls at night." There was a strange edge to his voice, and he was looking intensely at the king, who did not look back.

       They settled down to sleep. Thurstan lay on his back and closed his eyes, and filled his mind with picturing how Gerhard would smile when they appeared at his prison door, and how the light would blaze as the king healed him. Clouds moved sluggishly above him, but the air was hot and oppressive, and he thought it would probably storm tomorrow. Tomorrow... Tomorrow it would all come true. Tomorrow they would enter the city, and find out what was real, the daydream or the nightmare. Tomorrow he would get everything he wanted, or lose the only thing he had left.

        Time passed. Reynard was keeping watch, his sword drawn and ready. Thurstan thought the king was awake as well. He always was. The king had no need of sleep. At night, he sat beneath the silver moon and contemplated the mysteries of enchantment. Thurstan had seen him often, staring into the night. Once, he had caught him kneeling over a clump of flowers, holding a stem so the blossom rested in his hand. As Thurstan had watched, the petals had gently fallen into his  palm, and the king had closed his hand into a fist, and turned his head away. Thurstan had closed his eyes, not knowing what he had witnessed, but knowing it was something he was not supposed to see.

       Thurstan rolled over onto his side. Perhaps he slept for a little while, because his mouth tasted different the next time he opened his eyes, and people were talking in low voices not far away, in a way that showed that they had been talking for some time.

       "Even so, I wish you would tell him," the king was saying. "He ought to know."

       "You tell him, then." That was Reynard, his voice almost sulky.

       "No," the king replied. "It should come from you."

       "After tomorrow, then," Reynard said. "After we know."

       After we know what? Thurstan thought, and he lay very still to hear more, but nothing else was said.

      

 

       Elias lay down, and folded his hands on hands on his chest. He could feel Reynard's tension, seeping through his rigorous watchfulness. Perhaps he shouldn't have spoken to Reynard about the boy, not tonight, but it was wrong to keep silent. Thurstan looked very like Reynard himself, though Reynard refused to admit it. He had conceded, though, that the boy could well be the child of Reynard's own wife, born to her liaison with his brother, Gerhard. That made Reynard the boy's uncle, and Elias thought the boy needed to be told that he still had family left, no matter what awaited him in the city tomorrow. If they all died tomorrow, at least the boy would die knowing his mother's name.

       If they all die tomorrow... He lay very still, and thought of death. The grass was dying all around them, petals falling from flowers weeks ahead of the start of autumn. It wasn't enough for the others to notice yet, but he knew it was there, and that it would get worse. He thought of Thurstan weeping, and how it stabbed Elias through the heart to be so unable to give him hope, and how he had failed to prevent the thing that had caused the boy such grief.

       He thought of Reynard, dying in the city, dying for him. Elias had caused the death of Reynard's son, and their last visit to the city had scarred Reynard forever, making him a man haunted by his past failure and determined not to fail again. That determination would mean that he would be the first to die, but the others would soon follow him. They would all die, and Darius would be there to make it horrible, to stretch the deaths out into months of torment, and break those proud spirits like he had broken Elias.

       He chewed his lip to stop himself from moaning aloud. Above him, pricked out in silver stars, a falcon wheeled with outstretched wings. What would it see, if its starry eyes could look down? The shapes of people who were sleeping badly, worrying about tomorrow, while the man who could save them lay awake and wondered what he should do. Was the answer obvious, when seen from so far above? It probably was. He pressed his hands into the ground, and fought the urge to turn into a bird and fly with that falcon of the stars, far away, to a place where Darius was a tiny grain of dust, and there were no people alive who could die for him.

       He thought of the city, and the prison cells beneath the citadel, where he had been broken. I don't want to go there again. He looked at Reynard, and Thurstan, asleep. But I don't want them to do. I don't want them to die.

       Reynard wanted to talk about it in the morning. Elias would want one thing, but Reynard would block it. His eyes would glitter, and he would say things, horrible things, like, "I am willing to die for you, my lord. We all are. We have sworn it." His hand would close on his sword, but really it would be closing on Elias's heart, squeezing until it wept blood.  

       He will die, a voice spoke in his mind. With the voice came a picture. He saw Reynard lying in a massive pool of blood, face down on an amber floor, dead from a gash to the throat. When Elias blinked, there were only the stars again, high above him and dappled with clouds, but he knew it had been a vision. Not a vision of what would be, but a vision of what could be, if he made the wrong decision. Like the three brothers in the story, Elias had to choose the path. Reynard's death lay at the end of one path, but which?

       "The one I will not take," he whispered, hugging himself close. I will not let Reynard die. Not Reynard. Not any of them.

       Elias was their king, and that had to mean something. He had sworn oaths to protect them, and he had given up everything to keep those oaths. He had chosen to stay because he thought he could make a difference. And he had tried, but there were so many people still crying, and they all spoke in Ciaran's voice.

       "All for nothing," they said. "You betrayed me for nothing. I was right about you. You are useless. If this is all the good you can do, you might as well have come back with me and let the Kindred get on with their lives without you. Look at that corpse," his master said, when anyone died. "You didn't save them. Should have come back with me. Listen to that screaming," he said, when anyone was hurting. "Why aren't you stopping it? That's why you stayed, isn't it? That's why you betrayed me."

       "I didn't!" Elias wanted to shriek, but he pressed his fist to his mouth, and made no sound at all. "I'm trying. I'm doing everything I can."

       "Everything?" his master said. "When Gerhard is being tortured because he's too loyal to betray you? When Reynard's going to die for you? When the whole world is dying and you're just lying here doing nothing?"

       He sat up. His mind was made up. There was no other answer. He had been trained to service, and he would serve. He had been sworn to sacrifice, and he would sacrifice himself. He had chosen the path of thorns, but Oliver was wrong about that road. The thorns hurt him terribly, but they had to. The alternative was far worse. He had chosen this path months ago, and there could be no going back. He had made his choice, and had to prove that it was the right one.

       He would walk the path of thorns tonight, and he would walk it alone, as he had to.

 

 

       Thurstan opened his eyes. He was lying on his side, and the first thing he saw was a dark figure crouching over someone who lay motionless on the ground.

       Thurstan stopped breathing. Where was his knife? What should he do? The crouching figure was wearing a dark cloak, made for concealment, and he was doing something with the sleeping man's face. Slitting his throat, Thurstan thought. How many more had he killed? Was he going to kill them all, one by one, or just kill one or two of them before slipping away into the shadows to watch the terror he had wrought? Was Thurstan going to be next?

       His knife was at his belt, but he couldn't make his arms move to find it. If he lay very still... No, he should move, and stop the assassin from killing any more. He should shout a warning, but he was so sleepy. If he rolled over and went to sleep, nothing bad would happen. He should close his eyes. This was nothing he hadn't seen before in dreams. He should just sleep.

       Through drooping eyelids, Thurstan saw the assassin draw his hand back from the dead man's face. The faint light from the east washed over his face, and Thurstan saw that it was the king. The king, and the body on the ground was Reynard's.

       Thurstan gasped, a grating sound in his throat that didn't want to make a sound. The king snapped his head round, then his shoulders sank a little. "Thurstan," he whispered. "You were asleep."

       "Is he dead?" Thurstan forced his leaden body to sit up. "What happened? Did someone...?"

       "He's not dead." The king shook his head. "Not hurt." It wasn't light enough to see the expression on his face.

       Thurstan's eyes widened. "Asleep? Asleep on watch? Reynard?"

       "They're all asleep," the king whispered. "I left... You were asleep anyway. I thought..."

       "I wasn't meant to see this, was I?" Thurstan felt very cold inside. "What's happened?" What have you done? he almost asked, because the king sounded like Thurstan used to sound, a child caught doing something that he knew he should not.

       "Nothing," the king sighed. "I just... I came to a decision. Reynard would have blocked it, and he would have been wrong. I had to stop him. This was the only way."

       "You made them sleep with your magic?" So that had been the king's enchantment, urging him to go to sleep and forget even when he had thought an assassin was killing Reynard. He had only caught the edge of a magic meant for someone else. He wondered what it had felt like for Reynard, to feel his body falling asleep, when all he wanted to do was fight to protect his king.

       "It was the only way." The king's voice was more sure now. "This is it, Thurstan. The ways part here. I have to do this alone. Reynard wouldn't have been able to see that, so I had to silence him. It's for the best."

       "Alone," Thurstan echoed. He threw off the blanket that was tangled around his feet, and stood up on tottering legs. "You mean to the city? You're going by yourself? You mustn't! You can't."

       "Nothing will go wrong," the king said, in that serene voice of his. "I have more chance of success alone than with other people. It's how things are."

       Thurstan grabbed his arm and clung to it. "But I want to go. I need to. Please, my lord. Gerhard's my father. I've got to go with you. I have to. Please."

       The king did not prize his hands away or rebuke him for his words. He looked at him with pity, but what use was pity when his words still said no? "I know you feel like that, Thurstan. I do understand. But I have to do what is best for us all. Gerhard has a better chance of getting out this way, and you'll be alive and safe, ready to meet him. If you all went with me... If you came..." He glanced away for a moment. "You could die," he whispered.

       Thurstan felt as if he was being torn in two. "You don't think I'm good enough. First Gerhard, now you. Sending me away. Not letting me... help."

       The king cupped his cheek in his cool hand. "That is not true, Thurstan. This is nothing to do with you. Even Reynard has to stay behind for this."

       Tears poured down Thurstan's cheeks. "But it's not fair!" He was no longer whispering, but wailing, and how wrong it was that Reynard did not wake up. Reynard was like Gerhard, in that he could hear even a whisper in the night, and be ready in an instant to defend his people. "Reynard wants to go with you. He'll hate being left behind. They all will. All they want to do is help keep you safe."

       "I'm sorry." The king was already moving away, pulling away from him, ignoring his pleas. "I will be safe, I promise you that. I'm not doing this to hurt you. It's just that there's no other way."

       But Thurstan had seen so many nightmares. He had to see the reality for himself, or how would the dreams ever stop? "Please," he sobbed. "Take me with you. Leave the others, but let me go."

       "No." There was steel in the king's voice. Thurstan felt himself held, merciless fingers clamping hold of his mind and urging him to sit down again. They were soft, but they still hurt, and he tried to sob, but the power that held him wouldn't even let him do that. "I'm sorry," the king said, and his voice was tender, despite the things he was doing, "but I just cannot."

       Thurstan tried to speak, but could not. "Take this," the king said. He pulled something over his head and pressed it into Thurstan's hand. It felt like a rounded stone, with a cord threaded through it. "Show it to Reynard. If nothing else, it will prove to him that you spoke to me and I chose to go of my own free will. Tell him that I have to do this, and he's cruel when he tries to stop me. No, don't tell him that. But tell him that I have to do this. Tell him I have the power to keep myself safe. Tell him I will be back by the time the sun rises the day after tomorrow. If I am not, then he is free to do whatever he likes. But before that... I will not issue any orders. But tell him that I'm asking him as one man to another not to follow me. Tell him that."

       "He won't listen," Thurstan forced out through his frozen throat. "He'll fight for you."

       "Then let him," the king said. "Don't fight him. Tell him what I said, but let him do what he wants." He clapped Thurstan on the shoulder. "I know it's unfair to you, putting you in this situation..."

       "You were going to go without saying goodbye," Thurstan muttered. "If I hadn't woken up, you would have."

       The king closed his eyes for a moment. "I would have, yes. You're right. It was wrong of me. Goodbyes are very important. Only a coward slips away without meeting the eyes of the people he is leaving behind. So perhaps I am a coward."

       Thurstan breathed in and out before answering. "Oh, my lord, I didn't mean..."

       "No," the king said, "but I deserve it, anyway. So this is my goodbye to you. I will come back, and if Gerhard is alive, I will bring him to you. I promise you. And I'm sorry." He touched Thurstan's cheek, then his brow, but then he stiffened, pulling away as if he had been burnt.

       "What is it, my lord?" Thurstan asked, but the king was already shaking his head, composing his mouth into his usual sad smile.

       "Nothing." He started to walk away, raising one arm in farewell. "Goodbye, Thurstan." A few minutes later, Thurstan heard the soft whicker of a horse. He caught a quick glimpse of a figure on horseback, and then the king was gone, swallowed up by the greyness of early dawn, heading south into a city of death. Gone, and Thurstan could only watch. Gone.

       Above him, the sky slowly lightened. The clouds came together over the moon, covered it for a moment, then released it, just as it was about to sink into the west. He clutched the king's stone, then let it fall, tangling the cord in his fingers. After the moon set, thick clouds started to boil up from the horizon. The hairs on his neck prickled with the sense of an approaching storm, but the king did not come back, and the others just slept there lifelessly, and did not wake up.

       Thurstan's daydreams scattered like mist in the morning. There would be no reunion in the prison cell. Gerhard would not smile at him and tell him how proud he was of him for fighting through the guards to free him. He would never be able to save the king from a cruel trap in the city. All he could do was sit here and wait, staring always at the place where the king had disappeared, and wait for other people to bring him his life back again. 

       When it was almost fully light, a hand fell on his shoulder. "Can you explain yourself, boy?"

       He did not even look up. "He went away. All by himself. I tried to stop him, but he... he did something to me. He stopped me, and now he's gone."

       "Did something to you?" Reynard roared.

       "He did," Thurstan pleaded. "I tried to stop him. I really did. I tried..."

       "I know, lad." Reynard hauled him round by the shoulders. There was fury in his face, yes, but something else, too. His eyes were still bleary with unnatural sleep. It made him look defenceless and defeated. "He did something to us, too."

       "He put you to sleep," Thurstan said. "He said so."

       "Of course he did." Reynard gestured sharply at the others, urging them to hurry. "But he won't stop us that easily. We'll catch him up. We'll teach him to think he can abandon us whenever he wants to."       

       Thurstan stared miserably at the stone pendant. "He didn't want you to. He said he was safer by himself. He said it was the right thing to do. He... He didn't want you to follow him. He really didn't."

       "But of course he knew I would do it anyway," Reynard snapped. "If he was anyone else I'd beat him for this. Perhaps I will anyway, when I catch him. How dare he?" He raked his hand across his brow. "How could he?"

       Thurstan raised his hand, so the stone pendant swung sluggishly, thumping against his knees. "He gave me this. He said I was to tell you that he isn't ordering you to stay behind, but asking you, as one man to another."

       Reynard snatched the pendant from Thurstan's hand, and something seemed to flow out of his as he held it. "I know what this means to him. I... I didn't know he realised that I knew. But why does he think it will make a difference? I always have understood why he acts as he does. It still doesn't make it right. Just as he... he understands me, but he still stops me."

       Thurstan looked up at Reynard, standing tall above him as he sat on the ground. "So you're going after him? Can I come?"

       Reynard was silent for a very long time, just swinging the pendant to and fro. Then he snatched it up and clutched it in his fist, squeezing it so tightly that his fingers went white. "How long ago did he leave?" His voice wasn't like his at all.

       Thurstan looked up at the sky. "Four hours, I think."

       "Four hours." Reynard closed his eyes. "He'll be almost at the city now. Too late to catch him up. Too late, and... He did get out last time. If only I could trust him to remember to do it. But..." He opened his eyes again. "Take the pendant back, lad. Keep it for him, for when you see him again."

       "What does it mean?" Thurstan asked, as he took the stone. It was warm from Reynard's touch.

       "None of your business," Reynard snapped. "Just that he's a stupid, selfish, impossible boy, and I'll wring his neck when he comes back."

       "When he comes back?"

       "Yes." Reynard turned his head away, but the set of his shoulders spoke more eloquently than his face ever could. "It's too late. It's come to this again. All we can do now is wait. That's what he's done to us. Just... wait."