Chapter fourteen

Forgiveness

 

      

       It was so grey when Elias awoke that at first he doubted whether they had escaped after all. He sat up sharply, and looked around, and saw a light patch in the greyness that could have been the sun beginning to rise behind thick fog. The ground beneath him was white, but when he ran his fingers along a blade of sepulchral grass, frost came off on his fingers and revealed the green beneath.

       He stood up, on a ground that was real beneath his feet. Behind him was the door that led back to the place of illusions, and he turned slowly to face it. It was shimmering with enchantment, like cobwebs shining in the sunlight on a winter's morning. Beyond it, the frost-covered hillside stretched away until it disappeared into the fog. The door hung suspended above it, but offered no glimpse of the dreadful place that lurked within it.

       He knew he ought to close it. He was the only person alive who could see the door. Other people, innocent people, might wander through it without realising it, to be trapped in the place beyond. They should never have left it open all night. Even if no-one came near it, it felt dangerous to leave it open, as if the mist and the greyness of this winter world had come leaking out from through the door.

       Even so, he hesitated. They had no idea what world they had emerged into, and what dangers it held. As long as the doorway was still open, they had an escape route. They could run back into the place of illusions, but this time it would not be able to conquer them. Then they could try again to get out, and one day, eventually, they would find the true way home.

       No, he told himself. He had to do what was right. The door, that had been so difficult to open from inside, closed with only the smallest flicker of enchantment. Even closed, it was still visible to him, like a cobweb in shadows, that he could see when he looked at it a certain way. They would still be able to find their way back, if this world was the wrong one, or more deadly  than the place they had escaped.

       He turned his back on the door, and walked over to his sleeping companions. Reynard had lost his sword in the white tower, and he looked crippled without it, lying fast asleep with the enemy soldier beside him. Elias wondered if he had ever seen Reynard asleep before. Normally Reynard was on watch, or the first of them to awaken in the morning, ready with his sword to defend them from dangers. Now he slept with his face turned up to the sky, for anyone who passed to stare at.

       Ciaran he came to next, but Ciaran he hardly glanced at. He knew his master would fill his thoughts for as long as he consented to remain in the same world as Elias, and for long after. Ciaran threw everything into turmoil. There were things Elias would need to think about, and things they would have to talk about, but not yet, not now. Ciaran was asleep, and, for a moment, Elias was free.

       Instead, he stopped beside the soldier. Kneeling down, he gently removed the knife from the soldier's belt, and tucked it into his own. Then he touched his shoulder.

       The soldier woke with a start, quicker than Elias had expected. When he saw Elias, his hand flew to his belt, but of course he found it empty.

       "I'm not going to hurt you," Elias told him. The soldier would never believe him, not if he sat here telling him the same thing for a week, but he had to say it. "You'd kill me if you could, wouldn't you?"

       The soldier stared at him, then managed to find his voice. "Of course." His voice was hoarse from screaming. "You deserve to die for the crimes you have committed, for the abomination that you are."

       Elias's head sank a little lower, and he let out a breath. "I know. And for that reason," he said, raising his head again, "my friends won't like to see you here."

       "What are you going to do to me?" the man asked.

       Elias sighed. "Nothing. I'm going to let you go. You'll be safer away from us, and I know you'll be happier. But there's something you should know."

       "What did you do to me?" the soldier demanded. "What did you do?"

       "Nothing," Elias told him. "We were in a very old place, very dangerous. We were trapped there, just like you were. We saw things, too. But none of what you saw was real. They were illusions drawn from the things you were afraid of. This..." He spread his hand, gesturing at the hillside. "This is real. But it might not be your home."

       "Where have you taken me?" the man screamed.

       "I haven't taken you anywhere. We came out, and brought you, too, thinking we were rescuing you. But it's winter now, as you see. What else has changed?" He almost started telling the man about the other worlds, but decided against it. Either he wouldn't believe it, or he would be terrified of it, and think he was trapped in some cruel world of Elias's making. "Your home might not even exist in this world," he said, "but it might. It might be only a few days away."

       "Don't taunt me," the man pleaded.

       "I'm not," Elias said. "You can go. I can't promise that you'll find your way home, but I promise that I will do nothing to hinder you." He reached beneath his cloak and pulled out the soldier's knife. "Here. Take this."

       For a fraction of a second, hope glimmered in the man's eyes, then he spat, "It's a trick. You've done something to me, something in here." He jabbed at his brow. "You've enslaved me. You'll wait till I get home to my wife, then you'll take me. Just when I start to hope... Or not even that. You'll shoot me in the back when I reach the bottom of that hill there."

       Elias knew he should try to convince him otherwise. The man would spend the whole journey in an agony of fear, and all for nothing. But he was so tired, and there was nothing he could say that would make the man believe him, so why even try? "You're free to go," he said again. "Neither of those things will happen. I know you don't believe me, but think about it. What's better - to risk my offer, or to stay here, where there are three of us, and you're only one?"

       As he spoke, he rocked back on his heels, spreading his hands to show that they were empty. Slowly, the man pushed himself to his feet. He looked at the knife, clearly debating whether to lunge forward and take a chance on killing his enemy, then decided to take the chance of safety instead. He ran with an uncontrolled panic, and looked back constantly over his shoulder, clearly expecting to see Elias change into the figure of nightmare, and hurl destruction after him.

       All he would have seen was a man who knelt on the side of a slope, next to two sleeping men. Only when the man had gone did Elias stand up, folding his hands in front of him. "I hope you find the way home," he whispered.

       The man had gone towards the east, towards the rising sun. Elias and his companions would have to choose a direction soon. If they chose wrong, they could walk for weeks, only getting more and more lost. Even if this was the right world, it was large enough for a man to lose his home forever.

       Elias walked to the top of the hill, down into a shallow valley, then up the slope at the far side. There he stopped, for the land unfolded in front of him, a gentle shelf that led all the way to the sea. The water was as grey as the sky, with stains of darker colour near the shore. The land met the sea, not in a peaceful beach like in Elias's Garden, but in sheer black cliffs.

       The city was black, too. It must have been two or three miles away, close enough for him to see the stark towers against the grey water. It was built at a place where the cliffs dipped down to the sea. On either side of its walls, they rose again, curving outwards, like a second set of walls overlooking the bay.

       Elias smiled to himself. They would have to be careful, of course, for cities in the duchy would be full of people who hated the Kindred, and cities in the lands beyond the duchy would be suspicious of Kindred and duchy alike. But at least there would be people, people who could tell them where they were.

       Strange, though, that he couldn't sense them. He should have been able to sense a city from miles away, just by the sheer numbers of people all in one place, all full of emotions and thoughts. Strange, too, he thought, as he inched forward down the slope, that the land was so wild. There were no hedgerows, and no sheep. The grass was short, but only because it was nibbled by rabbits.

       Elias found himself moving forward, reluctant, but drawn. "There's no-one there," he breathed. No-one at all. The city was dead. The towers were ruins. There was no-one around, no-one at all, except for the two men sleeping, and the one running away, his fear like jagged spikes in Elias's mind.

       "Dead," he breathed. He fell to his knees. Dead. A whole world of death. Dead soil spread thinly on black rock, where all living things withered. Dead like the rose. The world a barren wilderness, and, oh yes, something whispered to him. A world where I have already won. Do you like it?

       He dug his fists into his eyes. He'd been away for too long, lost in the grey place, too weak to get out. In the time he had been away, his world had been destroyed. Oliver would have trusted in him to the end, but Elias had never come. Perhaps it had all happened in mere months, or maybe centuries had gone by while they were trapped in the Shroud of Dreams, and Oliver was only crumbling bones ravaged by the wind.

       Or maybe, he thought, as he started to run towards it, this wasn't his world at all, just another world far away, where the enemy had already won. It was a terrible warning of what would happen if Elias failed, but it wasn't too late for his own world, not yet.

       The vision hit him with the force of a physical blow. He saw himself, and he saw the future. He was in the black city, standing on black stone steps, and something enormous and dreadful was towering over him like a wave, readying itself to destroy him. As Elias stood there and prepared his defence, someone crashed into him from behind, and pushed him down into its path. Promises turned to dust, and all hope died. Even if he won now, he had lost, because he had been betrayed.

       And the man who betrayed him was a man whose face was hidden, but he wore the black cloak of a Brother. He was tall and strong, and, as he pushed him, he called him neither king nor enemy, but just Elias. The man who betrayed him was his master. Who else could it be?

       The vision faded, and Elias was gasping, sprawled on the ground on hands and knees. Ciaran was going to betray him... No. Black steps. Oliver had told him all about it. It had been his father's last vision. Months and months ago, and it hadn't come true yet, and not all visions did come true, did they? So the black city had merely reminded him of Oliver's father's vision, and his imagination had supplied the rest. It wasn't true. Of course it wasn't true.

       But you always know, he had told Thurstan. When it was a real vision, you were left in no doubt. Only a real vision left you trembling like this, gasping on the ground, peering at scrapes on your palm and wondering where they had come from. Only true visions seared into your eyes, so you knew you couldn't look at Ciaran again for ages, or forever, without seeing the man in black who had betrayed you.

       Elias stood up, and wrapped his arms around his body. He gazed at the city, but went no closer. Not yet, whispered the last vestiges of his vision. Not yet, but soon.

       With a sigh, he started to walk back to the place where the others were still asleep, and ignorant.

      

 

       Elias was sitting with his knees pulled up to his chest, his expression wistful as he stared at nothing. His breathing was painted on the air, and was faster than a man ought to be when sitting so utterly still. When he sighed, it sounded like the very essence of hopelessness.

       Ciaran stopped beside him, and still Elias showed no sign of seeing him. Ciaran swung round to glance over his shoulder, but there was nothing there where Elias was looking. He was just lost in thought, dreaming. The illusions had gone.

       "Elias." Ciaran's voice was rusty from sleep. "How are you...?" He trailed away.

       Elias gave a small start, but turned his head only slowly. "Ciaran." His name still sounded strange on the lips of a boy who had always called him master. "Are you...?" He, too, seemed to lose his words. Although he was aware of Ciaran, something of the distant blankness remained in his eyes. He was too pale, and he looked very cold. Ciaran wanted to pull him close and warm him up.

       He swallowed. "What happened to the soldier?"

       "I let him go. He went."

       "Was that wise?" Ciaran asked. "What if he follows you?"

       "He won't. He..." Elias seemed to have to force himself to put some expression in his voice. "He's too scared. He'll get as far away as possible, as soon as he can." He turned his head again, still slow, as if moving through water. "I went to the top of the hill an hour or two ago. There's a city..."

       "A city?" Ciaran had been about to sit down, but he started up again. The soldier could be coming back with reinforcements. Cities were full of people who wanted to kill Elias. "And you're just sitting here doing nothing?"

       "Waiting," Elias murmured. "Waiting for you to wake up. Thinking."

       How Ciaran wished he had his staff! "You should have woken me." He looked up at the tree, assessing its branches as a weapon, but they were black and gnarled.

       "It's deserted," Elias said, still in the same voice. "Empty. Dead. Everything is. No-one alive for miles around, except us."

       Ciaran's head snapped round. "Are you sure?" Elias nodded mutely, still staring at nothing, and Ciaran let out a long breath of relief. An empty city was no threat. "Did you recognise it?"

       Elias shook his head in a no, but did not speak. So they still didn't know what world they were in, but Elias could open doors between worlds, so that was no problem. "I saw the sea, though," Elias said, but what was Ciaran supposed to say to that? "The cliffs were black."

       "So, we just choose a direction and walk in it," Ciaran said. It didn't matter how long it took. There was nothing important at home that demanded his quick return, and he could stay here for months and still find that nothing much had moved on in his absence. "Sooner or later we'll find something that tells us where we are."

       For the first time, Elias glanced at him. "It's not like you to be so..." He seemed to lose the word, or be reluctant to speak it.

       "Accepting?" Ciaran managed to smile. "I've changed, Elias. There wasn't chance to tell you in that place, but I'm going to make you understand."

       And where better to receive Elias's forgiveness than on a long stroll through the countryside, when there was no urgency? It had been too hectic in the place Reynard called the Shroud of Dreams, and the illusions had made it difficult to talk about important things. Now they were out, and the nearest city was dead, there was nothing to stop Elias listening to him. The longer they took trying to find the Kindred's home, the longer Elias was all his. Ciaran would use that time gain Elias's forgiveness, and he would stop feeling so hollow inside.

       He would start now. There was no-one around to attack them, and nothing to keep Elias from hearing him. "Elias... Look at me, Elias."

       Elias obeyed, but he looked like a man who turned, ever so slowly, to face the executioner at his back. His face was perfectly composed, but there was something terrible about his eyes.

       "What's the matter?" Ciaran almost touched him, then let the hand fall. "Why are you looking at me like that? Elias, tell me."

       Elias looked away again. "I saw a vision."

       "Is that it?" Ciaran wanted to laugh with relief. "Visions are warnings, coloured by your own anxieties. There's no reason why any vision should come true, not unless you're stubborn and do exactly what the vision warned you against, like you did last time. So tell me, Elias. What was it? What did you see that's upset you?"

       Elias had several false starts at speaking, but then he just sighed, his shoulders slumping. "You're right. They don't always come true. It's always just been possible futures that I've seen.  It... It would be wrong to act a different way to someone, just because you saw them... because of something you've seen. By doing that, you might even make it come true."

       Ciaran clapped him on the shoulder. "That's right." He hoped Elias would smile again, and would shake off whatever strange mood had fallen over him in the night. They had important things to talk about.

       "I'm worried about Reynard," Elias confessed, and Ciaran could have groaned aloud. "He's changed."

       It was a transparent attempt to change the subject. "He's asleep," Ciaran reminded him. "There's no way you could tell that."

       "Reynard should be awake by now," Elias said. "The moment it was light. And he let go of his sword..."

       "He'll be fine," Ciaran told him. "Now, Elias..."

       "He's the only one left," Elias murmured. He was looking at Reynard, always at Reynard. "The others died. Ranulf, and Joscelin, and..."

       "I know," Ciaran interrupted. "Reynard told me. It's a shame, but they were Kindred warriors. It happens."

       "I don't want to lose Reynard." Elias's eyes, the eyes that had looked with Ciaran with such dread, were almost tender as they looked at the cold-hearted killer who had always hated Ciaran. Ciaran wanted to grab him by the chin and drag his face round, to claim that look for himself. "I know you don't like him, but..."

       "You don't have to say it." Ciaran clenched his hands together, hard enough to hurt. Look at me, Elias. Please. "We need to talk, Elias." Listen to me. Forgive me.

       Every muscle in Elias's body seemed to turn to stone. "I know we do. I just wanted..."

       He ran out of words. Ciaran covered his cold hand with his own, and rasped his name in the silence. "Elias." Forgive me. Make me whole again.

       The statue that was Elias's body relaxed just enough for a shuddering breath. "Ciaran..." He snatched his hand away, and scrambled to his feet. "Reynard!"

       Ciaran looked down at his hand, and slowly curled his fingers over the palm, then tighter into a fist, then down on the ground again.

       "How are you feeling, Reynard?" Elias was fussing around him as if he had been at death's door.

       Ciaran turned round to watch the scene. Reynard was blinking and frowning, looking around him in bewilderment. "My lord?"

       "I'm here," Elias assured him.

       "Are you in danger? Do you need me?" Reynard touched his own face with wondering fingers. "I couldn't find you. It was so white, it hurt."

       Elias smiled, shaking his head. "I'm not in any danger. And you found me. You saved me."

       It was all Ciaran could do not to snort out loud. Reynard had done nothing to get them out of the Shroud of Dreams. "It was only illusion," he muttered.

       Elias and Reynard turned to face him, united in believing things that he did not. "It was an illusion, but it had power, and especially over me," Elias said, without explaining it further. "If I'd gone in, I'd never have come out."

       "But Reynard did."

       "Yes." Elias looked at Reynard again. "Are you...?"

       "I'm... fine." Reynard's voice was a little firmer than it had been. "Where..." He looked around, and it was only then, when he reached for his sword, that Ciaran realised that he had not reached for it earlier, as soon as he had woken up.

       "We're not there any more," Elias told him. "Ciaran got us out. But I... I'm not sure where we are. Not where we went in, but how far away? I don't know." He paused, then blurted out in a rush, "I'd give you my sword, Reynard, but..."

       "No!" Reynard shouted. "You mustn't!" He took his hand from his belt, but Ciaran saw how badly it was twitching, how desperate it was to return and find that it had been wrong after all, and the sword was really there. "Tell me what you know," he commanded Elias. He was standing tall now, himself again. You see? Ciaran would be able to tell Elias. I told you you were worrying about nothing.

       "We're near the sea," Elias began. His face had taken on that clouded look again. "Black cliffs. A city of black stone. But it's completely empty. No-one there at all."

       "It sounds like Ravenstor," Reynard said. "That's on the coast, and dark. Towers like a raven's wing, Oliver used to say. And it would make sense for there to be another door near Ravenstor. It was a place of power."

       "It's dead." Elias's voice was shrill. 

       "Of course, it would be." Reynard frowned. "No-one lived there for centuries. It was great place of scholarship and teaching, but all the teachers and wise men all went to Eidengard for the winter festival, and so were killed. Within a generation, the city was deserted. People said it was haunted. Every now and then, some duke or other tries to resettle it, but it's always the same. They're afraid of it. Idiots."

       "Deserted," Elias murmured. Ciaran had watched his face while Reynard had been talking, and knew that Elias had heard hardly anything after the first few words.

       "So you know where we are," Ciaran cut in.

       Reynard hardly glanced at him. "If it's Ravenstor, then we need to go north-east. It'll take about a week on foot, I think."

       "The horses are still in there." Elias was staring at the place where the door had been. "And maybe..."

       "No," Reynard said. "We're not going back. It's too dangerous. They can fight their own battles." Then he looked away, then turned away further, walking a few tight steps to the tree. His shoulders looked very stiff. "We need to go now," his voice said. "There's nothing to be gained from waiting."

       Elias started after him, but Ciaran had had enough. He pulled Elias back with a hand on his shoulder. "Leave him," he mouthed, when Elias looked reproachfully at him. "It's what he wants."

       Elias's eyes seemed to see straight through him. "Maybe he wants something he can't ask for." Then he, too, turned away, and Ciaran was alone.

      

 

       The clouds parted just before sunset, opening like a door to show the sun sinking into the sea. Elias stopped on a ridge to watch it. Reynard had told them that they would be heading inland the next day, leaving the sea behind.

       "Are you coming, Elias?" Ciaran called.

       "I'll catch up in a minute."

       But Ciaran was already walking towards him, retracing his steps to be at Elias's side. They had barely spoken all day. "What's the matter?" Ciaran asked. "Can you see something?" He turned round, cloak rustling. "Reynard's gone on ahead." There was a faint challenge to his voice, as if he meant something by it.

       Elias knew what it was. "I've never seen the sea before," he said, aware that his voice was higher than normal. "I always wanted to. Did I ever tell you about the time I first saw a picture of the sea?"

       He wanted to tell Ciaran, he realised. It was just a small story of his childhood, but was one of the many things that made him who he was. He'd borne too many memories in silence over the years. No-one really knew him.

       "Was that at school?" Ciaran sounded a little bored, asking only because it was expected of him.

       Elias let out a breath, and his arms fell slack to his side. "Yes. At school."

       School had been two hours at the end of a long day in the factory, crammed into a room with a semi-literate teacher, who taught only because a law had been passed requiring all factory owners to educate their child workers. Elias had enthusiastically learnt to read, and had pored over the schoolroom's few books, seeing them as doors opening to a place of wonder. He would never forget the joy of turning a page and seeing a place so like his own Garden. He had never known that the vast expanse of water was called the sea, or that places like it really existed in the world.

       But Ciaran would hear none of that. He wasn't interested. He had whisked Elias away to Greenslade, and had never asked him where in the world he most wanted to see. By then, though, Elias would only have answered, "Wherever you are."

       "We need to talk." Ciaran plucked Elias's sleeve, trying to pull him round.

       "I know." Elias heard his own breathing, in and out. He knew what he should be saying. He had tried to say it just before Reynard had woken up, but had lacked the courage. He had practiced it while walking alone. I'm sorry for dragging you here again, master. I'll send you back now. You'll never see me again. If that's what you really want. And that was where he always broke down. If that's what you want... Of course it was what Ciaran wanted. And it was what Elias ought to want, too. Ciaran was going to go sooner or later, so it was better if it was now, before Elias was tempted more than he could bear, and fell.

       "Elias." Ciaran turned him round, one hand on his sleeve, one on his shoulder, strong pulse thrumming through to Elias's skin. "Please listen."

       "I know." His voice was choked.

       "You don't." Ciaran dragged him further, and suddenly their positions were reversed, so Ciaran was nearer the sea, and the light from the sunset was flowing from him like liquid gold, just like it had been in a city a world away, when a tall man had saved the life of a sobbing boy.

       Elias wanted to fall to his knees. master. Pick me up again. Pluck me from the gutter like you did before. Save me. Ciaran would make everything go away. Elias could be small again, letting his master make all the big decisions. He'd have someone to soothe him to sleep and hold him when he had bad dreams, and to stand over him and fight when that terrible surging blackness came.

       He wanted it, and oh how he wanted it, but it could never happen. He was the Kindred's king, and all the living things in the world rested in the palm of his hand. If he let himself become that clinging apprentice again, he would be crushing them into his fist, destroying them all because he was weak.

       He could lean on Reynard for support, he could ask Oliver for help, but this was Ciaran, and Ciaran was his weakness. If he yielded just a little bit, then he betrayed the world that depended on him. "Stay with me for a few days," would become "stay with me forever." "I'm scared of the future, and want to talk," would become, "stop it from happening. Make it all go away." He could not be Ciaran's apprentice, and still have the strength to do his duty.

       "Elias." Ciaran shook his shoulders. "You're not even trying to listen."

       Elias felt his eyes prick. "I'm so sorry," he whispered. He pulled away, and the touch of the setting sun was like ice. Arms wrapped around his body, he took a few teetering steps, and there it was that he saw it.

       The ridge unfolded before him; behind him, the sea had gone, though Ciaran was still framed in gold. Ahead on the black hillside was the small figure of Reynard, dwarfed by the landscape as he tried to pretend that nothing was wrong with him. But the land he was walking across was dying. The grass was still green, but, deep below the ground, something had touched it. Within days, there would be patches of brown decay, and within weeks the whole hill would be a barren wilderness. All around him the world shone green and gold, but beneath it there was only agony and death.

       "Elias?" It was only when Ciaran grabbed him by the elbow that Elias realised that he had been about to fall. His knees sagged and he lurched against Ciaran's body.

       Dead, he whispered, into his master's chest. The whole world's dying, master, and what do I do? Oh, master, tell me what to do.

       "What is it, Elias? Tell me."

       "Everything's dead," he whispered. "All of this. Everything around us. Dead."

       Ciaran paused just for a moment. "Look at it, Elias. It's green. Of course it's not dying. It's... nicer than home. I can admit that now. Lots of things in this world are more to my taste than things at home."

       Home, Elias thought. This would never be Ciaran's home. But it's mine, and I didn't choose it, and now it's dying.

       He bit his lip, and pulled away. Ciaran was looking at him expectantly, as if he had made a big admission, and wanted recognition. Perhaps he had, but none of it seemed to matter any more. Ciaran could open his mouth and speak, but only meaningless words would come out. The world was dying. Elias was too late.

       "Look." He blinked fiercely. "There's Reynard, coming up the hill to find us." And, in saying that, he knew he betrayed his master, too.

 

 

       Ciaran rolled over to one side, and opened his eyes. All around him the grass was touched with white frost, except for one patch of green where somebody had melted it with their body. He reached out a hand, but the grass was cold again, the crushed blades already beginning to spring up.

       Ciaran sat up, and met Reynard's level gaze. "Where is he?"

       Reynard said nothing. There was frost on the edges of his cloak that tumbled over the grass, as if he had been sitting there immobile all night.

       Ciaran pushed himself to his feet. He could find Elias without Reynard's help. Frosty grass held footsteps and preserved them. Even after the frost had melted, Elias's footsteps would be visible as dark patches in the green.

       Elias had not gone far. Ciaran found him at the base of a black outcrop, leaning against the rough rock face, his legs stretched out in front of him. Although the place he had chosen had a view across the open plain, his head was pressed back against the rock, and his eyes were closed.

       "Elias," Ciaran began. It came out as a croak, and he cleared his throat, and said it again, and then again before Elias answered him.

       "Did you sleep well?" Elias was weaving a blade of grass through his fingers, just above the knuckles.

       "Stop it!" Ciaran pressed both fists to his temples. "We can't go on like this!"

       Elias's fingers stilled just for a moment. "You want to go?"

       Ciaran looked at Elias's face, but it was closed against him, so he stared instead at the way his hair lay in damp curls, that disappeared into the bunched blackness of his cloak. "You called me here, but now you won't even listen to me."

       It wasn't supposed to be like this. It was meant to be so easy. I've realised the truth, he would tell Elias. I treated you badly, but I had reasons. But I'm sorry now. His every confession would be received with understanding and treated with importance, and then Elias would look at him and smile, and everything would be forgiven, and the future could be built out of the ashes of the mistakes of the past.

       Elias dropped the blade of grass. "I'm sorry."

       "No you're not," Ciaran said. "If you were, you wouldn’t be acting like this."

       Elias looked at him. "I am sorry, but there are... Important things are happening, things more important than..."

       "Me?" How it hurt! Despite all his confessions to his master, how badly it hurt.

       "Things more important than me, I was going to say," Elias said. "Things far more important than what I want, or how I feel."

       Ciaran could have struck him. "Don't talk like that! It is important, what I have to say. Don't treat it as nothing. It was hard, Elias. It was so hard for me to..." He trailed off. "Look, I know you've got a big responsibility to the Kindred, but your happiness is important, and I know you've been unhappy since I left. Reynard said as much."

       "Reynard?" The brief flash of hurt was the only true emotion Ciaran had seen on Elias's face for a day.

       It was tempting to let Elias carry on thinking that Reynard had betrayed a confidence, but Ciaran knew he could not. He had sworn never to hurt Elias again through jealousy and pride. "I deduced it from his silence," he admitted. "He refused to tell me anything about how you've been since I left. But that's not the point. The point is..." He shook his head. There were just too many things to say, and Elias was still looking away, still closed to him.

       "I know," Elias said, though what he was agreeing with, Ciaran had no idea. Probably something from minutes ago, and he had stopped listening ever since. "It's just..." He sighed, and wouldn't even tell his master that.

       "This can't carry on." Ciaran closed to gap between them and took Elias's chin in his hand, forcing him to look at him. "I came here to apologise to you. I have regretted many of the things I said to you last time I was here. I was jealous of you, and I let that influence me. And I'm sorry. Please forgive me."

       "I do," Elias forced out, a wisp of breath against Ciaran's palm.

       It wasn't enough. "Something happened when I was young," Ciaran told him. "Someone I trusted betrayed me. I didn't want that to happen again. As long as you were a little boy who depended on me for everything, you'd never leave me. So I wanted you to stay like that for ever. That's why I acted as I did."

       "I know," Elias breathed.

       "You knew?" Ciaran gasped. Had all his secrets been plundered long ago?

       "I guessed it." Elias's hand rose to his face. "Not long ago. But I still..." His eyes slid shut. "I never blamed you."

       Ciaran imprisoned that hand in his own. "Forgive me. I can't think or rest or be happy until you do."

       Elias opened his eyes, but only to stare with that familiar distant sadness across the plain, at nothing. "I said I forgave you. But you didn't do anything I blamed you for. I don't even need to forgive you. I never blamed you."

       It wasn't enough. He still felt hollow inside, as if nothing would ever go right again. He needed Elias to look at him when he said the words. He needed a promise. He needed to know what the future would hold. He wanted to see Elias happy, and know that any pain he had caused was healed.

       "I don't believe you." He snatched his hand away, then wished he hadn't. "Look, Elias," he said, "I'm trying. I really am. It's hard to admit when you're wrong. It's hard to change the way you've been thinking for a half a life time. I won't be able to do it all overnight, but I am trying. Please give me a chance."

       And then it was worse than ever, for Elias was looking at him with pity. "I am, and I'm glad, and I wish you were happier, but not everything is about you. I just haven't got... I can't..."

       "Haven't got time for me? Is that what you mean?" Ciaran stood up, fragments of stone crunching beneath his feet, and began to stalk away. "Well, I tried, Elias. No-one can say the fault is mine."

       As he walked back, Reynard barely even looked at him. He still had not moved.

      

 

       At midday they paused for lunch. All they had was late-blooming bilberries, and water lapped from the stream. The day before, Reynard had chased a crow away from half-eaten rabbit, sniffed the meat, and declared it edible, but there was no meat today, and Elias would have had little desire to eat it even if there was.

       Ciaran had snapped a branch from a tree a few hours earlier, and now he hefted it in his hands like a club. "I'll go hunting. Maybe I can find something after all." When Reynard snorted, Ciaran turned to Elias. "Are you coming, Elias?"

       "My shoulder hurts." It wasn't a lie, but Ciaran's lips tightened into a thin line and he walked away, not giving Elias chance to say more.

       Elias watched him until he was out of sight. There was a cord between them, and it stretched and stretched, so tightly that it hurt, but it still did not break.

       "Even if he finds something," Reynard said, "we're too exposed to risk a fire."

       They were on high moor land, a solid mass that stretched inland from the sea, where the land was too wild for people. The edge of the moor was undulating and hilly, so sometimes the plain was far away, divided from them by a steep summit, but sometimes, like now, it was close.

       "I'm going to look," Reynard told him.

       "I will, too." Elias was fascinated by the plain, and horrified by it. On the moors, the soil was thin and the grass sparse and hardy, but the plain was green and fertile. There could be so much more death on a plain that had pulsed with life, than in a place that had always been close to a wilderness.

       They crouched down as they approached the edge, then lay flat on their stomachs. What did Reynard see, Elias wondered. Was his vision bathed always in white, now, or was it just the same as ever, no matter how badly Reynard might long to see again through the eyes of enchantment? Elias was too close to enchantment already. If he had gone into the tower, he would never have been able to return to the world of living men. Already, the sight that showed him the death beneath the earth was sometimes more real to him than the sight that showed him Ciaran's face.

       The clouds had shattered like cracking ice, revealing jagged lines of blue. The plain was dark shadow, slashed across with sunlight. Blotchy stains of death covered the shadow and the sunlight alike, but no-one else could see them. For the people who lived in the glittering sunlight, everything was beautiful.

       "How brightly it shines," he murmured. He hadn't realised he had spoken aloud until Reynard was looking at him. "It's beautiful," he explained. "The world is beautiful and important. It has to survive. Enchantment has to survive."

       Reynard nodded. He understood, and would have understood even if Elias had said only half the words.

       "But it's dying," Elias forced himself to say. "I can see it. Can you see it now, Reynard?"

       "I can't." His voice was slightly hoarse. "Dying?"

       It was so lonely, being the only one who could see the truth. But, even if Reynard couldn't see it, he could at least understand. "I think the time has come, the time you've been dreading. Something terrible has begun. Unless I can stop it, I don't think we'll see a spring."

       "You can stop it." Reynard looked at him. "You're not alone, my lord. We will fight it with you."

       Elias smiled. "I know you will."

       They were silent for a little while, side by side. For the first time since Ciaran had come back, Elias found himself relaxing a little, despite the death that was spreading across the plain. Reynard knew that the cause they lived for was more important than anything. He just believed, and made no demands. His very silence was a comfort.

       "How brightly it shines!" Reynard exclaimed. "Look! Is something there?"

       Elias squinted into the sun, but it was hard to banish the sight of the stains of death, and see instead only what a normal man would see. "I don't..."

       Reynard grabbed his arm. "You can sense people, can't you? Is someone there?"

       "I can't..." Elias swallowed. He could sense people, but ever since he had first seen the dying land, all he had been able to sense was incompleteness and loss. He had assumed it was because no-one was nearby, but maybe the lament of the earth was drowning out the presence of the frail mortal men who walked upon it.

       Reynard squeezed his arm tighter. "There is. It's an army. Their spears are glittering. Their banners are silver, like Thurstan said."

       "An army." Elias closed his eyes, then opened them again, needing to see. "Lord Darius." Lord Darius. Elias knew that Reynard was gripping his arm only because he longed so badly to be gripping the hilt of a sword. Without it he was maimed. Maybe Elias had been hearing Reynard's lament, and not the earth's after all. Reynard's, and Ciaran's, and his own, for they were all scarred and unhappy, walking along together, but never connecting. Darius would find them, but he would be like a carrion bird picking at bones, for they would already have destroyed each other.

       "Reynard," he began. It was impossible that Reynard had emerged from the tower unchanged, so what pain was he hiding behind his mask? Elias had told Ciaran that such things as feelings didn't matter, but of course they did. The world was dying, but they had to cling to life, and cherish everyone they knew. Let Darius and his army kill them, but they would fight for everything that made life worth living. "Reynard, I..."

       "No." Reynard held up a hand, and his voice held an absolute prohibition. "No. Don't." He started to wriggle back from the edge. "The army's coming. It can't be coincidence. It knows where we are."

       Elias let out a long breath. "Yes."

      

 

       All the talk now was of the army. Reynard would slither away, and come back an hour later with a grave face. "They're definitely closing on us. I don't know how they're doing it. They don't seem to be tracking us, just following a line that will cross our path in... four hours, or not much more."

       The next time it was three hours. The sky grew dusky and the clouds were edged with black, and then it was only two.

       "It's as if they know exactly where we are," Reynard said. "But how?"

       "I did wonder if they could sense enchantment," Elias said. "Then I thought they couldn't. But, even if they can, I haven't used it, only the things I can't help, the things that are like breathing. Maybe I'm using more than I ever knew..."

       "The important thing is to work out how to get away," Reynard said. "We..." He looked at the ground, then raised his chin and looked defiantly at Elias. "We haven't got a chance of fighting them. There's at least four hundred of them, and I've not got a sword, and Brother Morgan here hasn't got his staff."

       Ciaran was struck with a wonderful idea. "Take us back home, Elias, back to my house. No armies can follow us there

       "No!" Elias cried, then took a deep breath and spoke more gently. "Stay there for a few hours, and find that days have gone by, and Darius's army has massacred my people? Stay there a few days, and come back to find the world a wilderness? No, Ciaran. This is my world now. Its fate is my fate. Last time I tried to escape into another world..." He spread his hands, gesturing at the bleak surroundings. "It was summer when I left, and now it's winter, and an army has found us."

       "I've got an idea," Reynard was saying. Ahead of them, a narrow sheep track cut through the heather to a narrow stream, and beyond that the land rose in steep crags. "Can't get an army on horseback up there," he said. "I'll see what's on top." He waited for Elias to nod at him before he hurried off.

       They walked slowly on, forced into single file by the thick brown heather. "He isn't happy," Elias said, but he offered nothing more, and Ciaran did not ask.

       Elias was leading them. When they came to the stream, he stepped gracefully onto a flat rock that served as a sort of stepping stone. He scooped up the ends of his cloak with his unwounded arm, and held the other out a little stiffly for balance.

       Ciaran followed. As Elias moved on to the next stone, Ciaran stepped onto the one he had just vacated. Above them, the sky was darkening, and thunder rumbled somewhere far away. Sunlight still shone through a single rent in the blackness, making the stream a glistening mirror in the middle of a land that was entirely bleak and dark. The wet rocks beneath Elias's feet shone like lumps of silver, and his hair shone golden, as though he was wearing a crown.

       Suddenly Ciaran could bear it no longer. "Elias!" he cried.

       Something about his voice made Elias turn round. As he did so, the rock he was standing on lurched to one side, and he lost his balance and had no choice but to jump into the water. Ciaran threw himself forward, water boiling around his legs, and caught Elias bodily. "I've got you," he told him. "I've got you."

       "Yes," Elias breathed, but he too was in the water, and it didn't even reach the top of his boots. He had never been in any danger of falling, Ciaran realised. Feeling a little foolish, he released Elias, and the two of them waded to the edge of the stream.

       "Please," Ciaran burst out, as Elias was about to climb onto the bank. "Please forgive me. I can't carry on like this."

       Elias's back was unyielding. "I said I had."

       Ciaran caught hold of his shoulder and hauled him round. "You said nothing. You meant nothing. You were lying. Say it as if you mean it!" He thrust his face into Elias's. "Say it, Elias! Say it!"

       Elias struggled to free himself and managed to shamble a few steps up the bank. He turned away, then whirled back again. "You say you want me to forgive you." His voice was as low and miserable as Ciaran's had been shrill. "I said that I have. I told you you've done nothing I need to forgive you for..."

       "Then you're lying," Ciaran spat. "I did awful things. I told you I hated you, Elias. Have you forgotten that?" He advanced on Elias, wanting him to hear every single one of his master's misdeeds. "I said I'd never think of you again. Do you remember?"

       "Every day," Elias muttered. "I heard those words again every day of my life for nine whole months. Nine months, Ciaran. It wasn't even two weeks for you."

       "Then blame me!" Ciaran screamed. "If I hurt you that badly, blame me, and then forgive me. Because I'm sorry."

       The sunlight on the water winked out. Closer than before, thunder sounded, or was it the guns of the approaching army? The sound faded to silence, and still Elias did not speak.

       "Please," Ciaran begged him. "I need this. I hate to see you so unhappy. Let me make it up to you. I can't carry on like this. Greenslade felt empty, with this unfinished between us. I just want to set things right. I've been... I've been broken for so long. This is my only chance."

       Elias covered his face with his hands. The more Ciaran shouted, the quieter Elias's voice became. "I can't bear this," he whispered. "I've got the whole world on my shoulders. I can't carry your happiness, too."

       How could he be so selfish? "It's for your sake, too!" Ciaran shouted. "I hurt you! I want to make it up to you, but..." He stopped, pressed his hand to his mouth, and forced himself to speak more calmly. "You have to forgive me first. We need a clean slate before we can start again."

       Elias's hands fell to his side in tight fists. "Don't you understand?" he screamed. "It's not you I can't forgive. It's myself!"

       Ciaran laughed disbelievingly. "Yourself? How? I don't understand."

       "Myself." Elias's shoulders slumped. "You see, I let you. When you said you hated me, I believed you, and thought I was hateful. When you said I'd betrayed you, I thought I had. You said this morning that you wanted me to stay weak... You weren't the only one. When you pushed me down, I let myself be pushed. I wanted it. I was weak, and there were times when I would happily have walked out on the Kindred forever, if only I could be your apprentice again."

       Anger flowed out of him like water. "Oh, Elias." He opened his arms. "You'll always be my apprentice. I could never hate you. Don't believe the words of a foolish old master. You did nothing wrong."

       Elias wrapped his arms round his body, and ignored Ciaran's proffered embrace. "Don't you think I haven't longed for this?" His voice was bitter with what Ciaran now knew was self-hatred. "I used to daydream about it every day. And I still want it. Part of me wants it so badly, but," he said, drawing up his chin with a visible effort, "I can't want it. I can't have it, and I hate myself for ever dreaming of it. The Kindred needs me. The world needs me. And they need me to be strong."

       Ciaran shook his head uselessly. "You have to think of yourself sometimes."

       "But I am," Elias said. "I want to be a child again, but, at the same time, part of me doesn't. I like myself more now than I ever did before. I can look back at my life and say I've done good things. I've saved some lives. I've... I've done things I'd never even have tried, and done them well. You're not the only one who's changed, Ciaran. I have, too, and I don't want to go back."

       Ciaran frowned. "But you said..."

       Elias gave a bitter laugh. "Haven't you ever wanted two things at once, master?" The title was unintentional, Ciaran thought, but he was fiercely glad to hear it.

       "I have," he said. He tried to close the gap between them. Maybe things would get sorted out after all, even if it had not followed the script he had written in his head.

       But Elias still drew back. "I'm scared," he admitted. "I'm scared it will all start all over again." The rain started falling. The drops were big and heavy, and Elias jumped with shock when one landed on his face. "I'm scared I'll lose everything, and the things I've just said will stop mattering to me."

       "Don't be scared," Ciaran crooned. "I'm here now. I'll help you."

       "But that's just it!" Elias cried. "Haven't you been listening? If I let you... If I let you tell me it's all right..." He heaved in a great breath. "Because it isn't all right. I know you didn't believe me when I told you, but nothing's all right, nothing at all. Darius is coming, and you never have tried to understand how I feel about him. I told you about Ranulf and the others, and you acted as if it didn't matter. All that matters to you is hearing the magic words 'I forgive you,' and then everything will be right."

       "That's not true," Ciaran protested. "I wanted to apologise for your sake, Elias, not mine. I was thinking of you all along."

       "Were you?"

       Ciaran had never seen Elias like this before, so full of bitterness, so stubborn, so unbending. "Oh, I understand," Ciaran sneered. "I see it now. You just like suffering. You're a martyr, Elias. I come here to apologise, and you refuse to accept it, because you can't possibly let yourself be happy. So you've got to save the world. So what? It doesn't mean you have to throw everything else away. You're just so focused on sacrificing everything for duty that you push away people who might help you."

       Elias was very pale. The rain was turning his hair dark, and that only served to make his skin look all the more unearthly. "You're right," he said, in a tight voice. "It's something I've already realised. But there's more to it than that. And if I'm a martyr, so are you. You refused to let anyone close to you for years, just because one person hurt you in the past."

       "How dare you judge me?" Ciaran slapped him across the face. "You wait until someone you trust betrays you. You wait until your heart is broken, and then come to me and say that again."

       Elias's hand rose slowly to his reddening cheek. His lips were parted, glistening with rain, and his hair clung to his neck. He looked wounded and beautiful, and Ciaran hated him, and pinned him close with an angry arm around his waist. He pressed his hand to Elias's hand, curling his fingers so they dug into his cheek.

       "Say it again," he hissed. "Say it." He leant even closer, then hurled Elias away with a wild cry, and stalked away.

      

 

       The rain fell. The army was getting closer, and Reynard had not come back. Ciaran stood with his back to Elias, his shoulders heaving. Elias's cheek was hurting, but the skin felt very alive. It was the only part of his body that was not as cold as ice.

       "Say it again," Ciaran had demanded. I could say it, Elias thought, and then Ciaran would hate him forever, or hit him again, or hold him even closer and hurt him and then what? I know what a broken heart feels like, Ciaran. I know what it's like to have trust betrayed. A nine year old child beaten and abandoned by his own family learnt both those lessons well. He could have become like Ciaran, becoming coldly independent, but he had gone the other way and become too needy.

       Ciaran did not turn round. Of course not. It was Elias's turn now. But how could he speak, when any words would be choked with tears? It was better to have Ciaran angry with him than pitying him. If Ciaran offered him comfort now, he didn't think he could withstand it. And it was probably better for Ciaran if he just went home. He had made his apology, and now his contrition had turned to anger, and that was good, because anger would torment him less than guilt.

       Elias walked slowly towards him. Goodbye, master. I'll never forget you. What future could they have? Greenslade was still home for Ciaran, and Elias was bound to this world. They would just make each other miserable, until finally they parted. Better to end it now, before the world fell apart so badly that Elias would do anything just to receive a master's comfort.

       "I can send you home now, master," Elias whispered. "Is that what you want?"

       "No!" Ciaran whirled round, and Elias saw on his face a deep misery, quickly shielded. Does it hurt you so much that I can't be a child again? I'm so sorry.

       "But I just..." His voice degenerated into a croak, and he cleared his throat. "How long are you going to stay this time. I need to know."

       Ciaran looked away again. "I don't know. I haven't thought about it."

       He hadn't looked at anything beyond receiving Elias's forgiveness. Elias wanted to hate him for it, and weep for him. I'm so sorry I can't give you what you want. "I don't blame you for anything," Elias told him. "I really don't. Please believe me."

       "But you never blame anyone, so that means nothing," Ciaran said.

       "I don't know what you want me to say," Elias said. "I've said everything I can. I don't blame you. I just... I don't know what you want. You say you just want me to forgive you, but I think you want more than that. You want me to be nine again, and for you to be my master, but that can't happen."

       "I don't want that," Ciaran snapped. "Haven't you been listening? I've changed. I've realised how wrong I've been. I want to start again. I... I just don't know how. I don't know what I want. But I wasn't happy when I went back to Greenslade, I do know that. I went to see my master. We were just talking about it when..."

       "When I dragged you here against your will." 

       "No! I was getting desperate, searching for you. I couldn't find you. I wanted to come and help you more than anything."

       Ciaran had never told him that before. Would it have made a difference to the last few days, if he had known that Ciaran had wanted to be here? Probably not. Ciaran said one thing, but he acted another. He was sincere in his regret, but there were still too many signs of the old Ciaran. Elias couldn't be near him without risking becoming weak again, and Ciaran couldn't be round him without becoming overbearing. They were too stuck in their old roles to ever be able to live together again.

       "I want to stay," Ciaran told him. "You say you can look back on the things you've done and like what you see. I can't do that. I had such dreams when I was young, and all I've done is fail. I've never liked the world I had to live in. I want to stay here for a while. I want to fight your fight."

       Elias knew what it must have cost Ciaran to confess such a thing, and he was grateful, so grateful that he had to dig his nails into his palms to stop himself from falling. "Thank you," he managed to say.

       Ciaran must have read something in his face. "You don't want me."

       They were going round and round, saying the same things again and again, and never getting any closer to each other. "I'm scared."

       "Scared to accept my help? How sad and pitiful you are."

       No different from what you did for years. Elias didn't say it, but once again Ciaran seemed to read something in his face, for he turned away with a sigh. "You're not telling me anything, Elias. I was completely honest with you. But you... I can see things. Your eyes move, sometimes even your lips. You're hiding everything you're feeling. You never used to. If things are wrong between us, it's your fault now."

       Elias looked at the ground. I never used to tell you everything. Then he said it aloud, for Ciaran's reproach was true. "I never used to tell you everything. You never really knew me at all, just like I didn't know you."

       "Of course we knew each other," Ciaran scoffed. "We lived together for ten years."

       "And in that time we talked how much? I don't know what songs you like, or what your earliest memory is. I don't know what you dream about, or what makes you afraid. I don't know any of the things that friends tell each other about. But I know these things about Oliver. I know them about Adela, even. Thurstan told me more about himself in a few days than you did in ten years."

       Ciaran's brows drew down over his eyes. "That's not true."

       "It is. When did we ever just talk, Ciaran, about little things, things that didn't matter? And it wasn't just you. You never wanted to hear about me, so I just stopped trying to tell you."

       "I thought you told me everything." Ciaran looked stricken.

       Elias could have laughed, had it not been so sad. The times he had come running to Ciaran in terror at a nightmare, and Ciaran had dismissed it and told him not to be fanciful. The times he had confessed something falteringly, only for Ciaran to be angry. The times he had wanted Ciaran badly, but Ciaran had been nowhere to be found. Over the years, he had come to carry out half of their conversations silently in his head, not even trying to speak it aloud.

       "No." He shook his head sorrowfully. "You never knew me, and I never knew you. And that's why I'm scared. All we ever were to each other was master and apprentice. We were never friends. We never related to each other in any way other than for you to command me and protect me, and me to obey, and to need you. If we haven't got that, what have we got? If we haven't got that..." He sighed. "It's all we have got. If you stay, you'll become my master. You've never been anything else."

       Ciaran looked at him for a very long time, licking his rain-soaked lips, trying to speak, and failing. At last, as the thunder broke over head, he said, "It's not true. It's ridiculous. Of course we know each other. If this is your excuse for not wanting to forgive me... Well, Elias, I pity you, that's all I can say. I won't try again." Turning his back, he began to walk to the foot of the crags.

       Elias gazed after him. His hand reached out without him wanting it to. master. Ciaran. Please... The rain fell, and thunder cracked. Reynard was clambering down the rock face, he saw, and Ciaran had seen him, too. The army was close, and the world was dying. The winter heather made this valley seem already dead. It was an ugly place, and a fitting place for a final rift to take place.

       "They're close," Reynard panted, as he jumped the final few feet. His face was scratched, and his chest was heaving. "But we might have a chance if we climb."

       He looked at Elias. "So we climb," Elias said.

       Reynard nodded. "When we're on the top, it's sheer rock between us and them. They're city bred, and won't be as good as we are at climbing. At any rate, they won't be able to bring the horses. Then we go straight north, and it's a long way for them to go round. We'll lose them."

       No you won't, something whispered in Elias's head. Lord Darius can follow you anywhere. He's been inside you, like I have, and he knows you.

       Ciaran was looking up the sheer crags. "We're going up there?" He sounded incredulous.

       I offered to send you home, Elias wanted to remind him, but Ciaran would be angry if he asked him again.

       "Up there, Brother Morgan. Yes." Reynard just seemed too drained and defeated to mock Ciaran for supposed cowardice.

       Ciaran took a deep breath, and started to climb. He never once looked back at Elias. After a while, Elias followed him.

       Did any of them, he wondered, really believe that they had a chance?