The darkness was everywhere, all around, and something sticky was trickling down his wrist. They were shouting behind him. "Stop them!" someone cried, and footsteps pounded and echoed. A hand clawed at his clothes, catching an end of his shirt that had got untucked, and Thurstan whirled round, thrusting forward with the knife, its blade hitting something then sliding off. But then something hard hit him in the back and he fell beneath them, the knife slipping from his fingers, and he didn't know what had happened because it was too dark, it was so dark.
"Leave me alone," Thurstan pleaded, as hands grabbed at him. "Please leave me alone." I don't want to die like Gerhard did. Not like that, stinking, with maggots crawling even though I'm not dead.
"Get up!" they hissed at him. "I can't carry you both."
It was Reynard, and Reynard had killed Gerhard. Thurstan whimpered, and clawed at him, but Reynard dragged him to his feet and shoved him forward. "Run!" he told him, a command and a whisper. But Thurstan couldn’t see the way. There should be candles, but he couldn't see them. He could feel cool air ahead of him, as if a door was open, but he couldn’t see any moonlight. The darkness was like a physical thing that scraped at his eyeballs and smothered him and drowned him.
But he ran towards the door, where the silver moonlight ought to be. He crashed into something that rattled, and it was a cell door, and people had died behind it, their faces horrible and their bodies stinking. He clung to the bar but the door started to open. With a cry, he pushed himself back, and then Reynard was there again, telling him to be quiet, just to run.
Then it was colder, stone steps beneath his feet, and he couldn't run or he'd fall. He had to feel his way up them, hand on the walls. Once his hand got very warm and he heard the crackling of a torch, but even that flame was burning in total darkness. He snatched his hand to his chest, terrified of that flame that burnt without light, but then he couldn't feel where he was going.
A door squeaked. "No-one," he heard someone say. It sounded like the king, but so terribly weak, and not like him at all. "He brought them all in with him."
Through the door, and they were outside, gravel crunching under foot. Someone grabbed him and steered him to the left, and then there was only silent grass. He peered up to where the moon and stars should be, but there was only nothing there, only a great smothering hand of absolute night.
"I can't," the king was breathing, and, "You have to," Reynard told him. Then he told Thurstan to follow, to hold his cloak, just not to lose them in the darkness.
Somebody shouted behind them. "To arms!" they screamed. Footsteps pounded on the gravel in the opposite direction. "Sound the alarm!" they were shrieking.
This wasn't the way they had come, not that long dark passageway that would end in the throne room where Julien was dead. They had come straight outside. Where did they go now?
"I'm sorry," the king moaned, as Thurstan heard the sound of both of them falling together. "I'll carry you," someone whispered, but surely that wasn't Reynard, for the voice was as tender as anything Thurstan had ever heard. "You can hardly walk yourself," the king said. "I can do it. I just need..."
Nothing more, and then Thurstan saw light. A slit of light, but getting bigger until it was a shining yellow arch. It ought to have been amazing to be able to see again, but he wanted to shrink away from it. He could see his hand like a grey smear if he held it in front of his face, but that meant the enemy could see it, too.
"Shining," the king was whispering, "like the door to forever in the land of the dead. Did you see the door, Reynard?"
"I didn't see a door." Reynard was a faint figure now, struggling to pull the king to his feet, but the king's head was lolling backwards. "Please, my lord. You can rest soon, but not now."
"Shining." The king sounded almost asleep, speaking in a sad sing-song voice. "I hope you find the door one day." His head moved. "They're all watching us, Reynard. They're saying goodbye. They're so sad. I don't want to leave them."
Thurstan pressed his fist to his mouth. What was he talking about? A bell started to clang behind him, and when he turned he could see more lights, a beacon on a tower and torches in hurrying hands. One by one, the lights were coming back again, but it wasn't a good thing, because they were collapsed on the ground so close to the enemy, and they had to get up, to run, to get away, now.
"You have to," Reynard was urging the king. "I can see things. If I can, they can."
The king looked weakly around, and darkness followed wherever he looked, as if he was drawing a giant curtain across the world. "I can always see," he said, but Thurstan couldn't see him by the end. Every light had gone out. The golden arch was gone, and he realised that it had only been one of the arched windows of the throne room. Someone had pulled back the curtain to let the torchlight illuminate the ground outside, where fugitives might be.
"Can you stand?" Reynard asked. "Thurstan!" he hissed. "Help me with him." Help the man who had killed Gerhard? But it would help the king, too.
"I can stand," the king said, as Thurstan crouched there and didn't move. They started moving again, each step taking them further from Gerhard, and people were running around behind them and shouting. Their torches were useless. The darkness was the king's illusion, Thurstan realised now, and it kept them safe.
They rounded a corner, and a torch was burning on the wall, but the darkness snuffed it out as soon as he saw it. The grass was damp and slippery, but the king led them true, and they didn't bump into anything. But the bell was clanging behind them, and more and more people were shouting.
That terrible weapon sounded again, but the king's illusion hid the light of it. "What is it?" he asked aloud, for the sound took him straight back to the mountains, cowering behind a rock while his people died. "Called a gun in my world," the king whispered. "Didn't know they had them here. Must have just invented..." But Reynard hissed at them to be quiet. Silence kept them safe. But how could they keep together in the darkness if they didn't talk?
He saw a star above him. The king had missed it. Thurstan tried to find him to tell him, but found Reynard instead. "A star," he breathed, and Reynard said, "I know." Both were low, and even the king seemed not to hear them. Another star appeared, and a faint dirty smear of torchlight. "He's losing it," Reynard said. "He's too weak. Don't distract him."
But if the illusion was fading, that meant that the king was dying. Dying, like Gerhard, and the men chasing them were loud and getting closer, and they had to climb down the wall with soldiers at the top, groping in the fading darkness until they found the ropes, so easy to cut with a knife even if you couldn't see them.
Then someone grabbed him, knife at his throat. "Speak!" a terrible voice commanded. "Who are you?"
"Don't," he moaned, but Reynard said, "Ranulf" and the knife withdrew, though the arm did not.
Another star. A smear of torchlight behind them, but none of the walls. The arched windows were blazing light, but that was far enough away to be safe. "Up here," Ranulf told them, pulling Thurstan towards the wall. "Quicker than the rope. No-one at the top."
The spiral staircase was damp and cold, and something smeared beneath his hands and he felt his way up. "Help me with him," Reynard said again, but Ranulf responded, and his hands were the ones that touched Reynard's killer's hands, holding the dying king upright.
He ran up. His footsteps echoed horribly, and he paused at the top, but the men behind him were close, urging him to hurry. Taking a deep breath, he stepped out onto the walls, sucking in lungfuls of night air.
The darkness had almost gone. The king collapsed, and Reynard tried to lower him gently, but instead fell onto him, then twisted to lie beside him. His eyes slid shut, then he was onto his elbows, trying to rise, as strong as ever. All this Thurstan saw in a faint moonlight, overlaid with blackness like a faint mist. The moon was low, but there was a faint line of yellow in the east. They had passed through the night, and it was almost morning. All they had to do was get down the ropes, and they would be safe.
But there was blood, too. Blood on his hands, on his wrists. He had he killed someone? He couldn't remember. There were great wet smears of blood where the king had fallen, and Thurstan's job was to clean up blood. He hadn't done it well enough before, that's why the soldiers had found them. He couldn't let the blood stay on the walls. But his clothes were bloody and it only made it worse when he rubbed at them. He spat on his hands and spat on the stone, but it only smeared and went red and runny. He lowered his head to spit some more, but his hands were leaving red hand prints, and maybe some of that blood was Gerhard's.
Instead of spitting, he vomited, his stomach clenching and clenching until it hurt, but he could still smell the stench of Gerhard's cell and see his terrible ruined face, and Reynard's swift knife slitting his throat. He retched again, and then was spitting, dribbling into the blood, and it was still there, still staining the walls, still crying out to the soldiers that they were here so come and kill us.
Reynard's hand fell on his shoulder. "Get off me," Thurstan sobbed, but Reynard looked kind. "I'm going down first," he said, "to make sure it's safe. Help the king."
"Joscelin?" Thurstan gasped, but Reynard was gone, clambering over the edge and down the rope.
"I called," Ranulf said. "He answered. That's all."
The king had struggled to sit up, but his head was drooping. Streamers of darkness bled from his fingers as if he was trying to maintain his illusion, but was simply too weak. Sometimes he was unconscious and the illusion faded completely. Then his head would drift up and there would be almost total darkness for a moment, then back to that terrible painful trying.
"He can't climb down," Thurstan said. His eyes met Ranulf's over the king's body, and he knew he had to be strong, or the king would die.
The rope twitched three times. It was Reynard's signal that he had reached the bottom. But they had been seen. Someone shouted and someone was pointing with a sword. A horn sounded.
Ranulf was already scooping up the second rope. "Help me," he urged. No need for silence now, only haste. Thurstan was slow to realise what he was meaning to do, and his blood-stained fingers fumbled and were little help. In the end, Ranulf pushed him away and finished it by himself, wrapping the end of the rope twice around the king's body and knotting it well. "We'll lower him down."
But that was just where the king's wound was, just where the rope would rise up and dig into his armpits, holding all his weight. It would hurt him terribly. "I'm sorry," Thurstan found himself crooning, as if he was the strong one, not the child. "Hold on with your good hand, if you can. It'll be easier."
The king's sluggish eyes blinked. "Thank you, Thurstan." He managed to support a little of his weight as they lowered him over the edge, and his eyes met Thurstan's just before he went beneath the lip of the wall and was gone.
The soldiers were on the walls now, so very close. They surged from the top of the stairs at the end of the wall, and one of them had that weapon the king called a gun. He aimed it, but it fell far short, hitting the wall and sending chips of stone flying up. Then he had to stop to do something to it, and couldn’t fire it again.
Thurstan stood behind Ranulf, lowering the rope, its fibres scraping his hands. Until the king was safely down, he couldn't leave. There wasn't time. The soldiers would surround them and take them, but they couldn't leave their post, or the king would crash to the ground and die. He knew beyond doubt that he would die here, sacrificing himself for his king, as any of the Kindred ought to do. It would be a good death, but...
They fired again, closer this time, and their swords were sharp and had made even the strong men of the mountains scream. It would hurt horribly and he'd be completely alone, and he'd die in the dark and he didn't want to and... and Ranulf was calling his name. "I can hold him," he was saying. "Go."
Thurstan blinked. "Go?" Run screaming over the wall, suffering any death rather than death at the hands of those soldiers in black. Run onto the swords and try to stop them?
"The other rope. He's not too heavy that I can't hold him. And he's helping me." From far below, that strange tingle in his mind that was the Shadow. Even dying, the king could use it. Reynard had told Thurstan that he ought to be able to use it, too. If he knew how, he could help the king, lowering him gently just as the king had raised the ropes, but the stirring in his mind was elusive and impossible to grasp, and he couldn't do it, he couldn't do anything.
"Go!" Ranulf screamed, and the soldiers were almost there. They would cut the rope when he was only half way down, but anything was better than this. Desperately, he crawled over the edge, and almost fell right there and then, before he managed to grasp the rope. It hurt him, knots digging into his raw hands. He climbed down, and swords clashed just above him. Someone fell, over the top of the wall and past him, and he shrank into the wall to stop them crashing into him. Was it Ranulf? But Ranulf had backed up against the top of his rope and was defending it, keeping the soldiers from dislodging it. Then he was too far down to be able to see any more, though he could see hear it, he could still hear every scream and every clash of a sword.
A soldier leant over the wall a little way away and tried to shoot him with a gun. Another tried an arrow. Both missed him, but dust and pebbles were raining down onto his face, making his eyes hurt so badly that he had to screw them shut.
The knots hurt his hands. If it wasn't for the knots, he could have slid down and it would have been faster. Whose idea had the knots been? They had made it easier to climb up, though. But why had they wanted to climb up anyway? All they had found in the citadel was death. It was a terrible place and it had killed them all.
Something jolted his feet and he screamed and kicked, then realised that it was the ground. He fell to his knees, and the rope came crashing down on top of him, hard and heavy and painful. They had severed it at last. But that meant that Ranulf was dead, overwhelmed at the top of the wall, dead so they couldn't even see his body or hear his last words. There was no way down for him now.
"Ranulf," Thurstan sobbed. Reynard clapped him on the shoulder and said that he died well, but what did he know? Thurstan wanted to hurl himself at him and shriek at him, for he was a murderer, and he had gone first so he didn't have to die.
Soldiers leant over the wall, but they couldn’t see them, not pressed against the bottom of the wall. "They'll be sending out men on horseback," Reynard said. "They know exactly where we are now."
There was still no darkness. "The king?" Thurstan gasped, but then he saw him, lying crumpled on the floor. Joscelin was helping untie him from the ropes, but Joscelin looked terribly wounded. Even Reynard was visibly weak, weaving when he tried to walk. Thurstan was the only strong one, the only one unhurt. But I don't know what to do! I don't know how to lead them!
"Let me help you." The king's voice was dying autumn leaves that crumbled beneath the lightest of touches, but he raised his head and managed to fumble at the knots. With a blood-stained hand he touched Joscelin's face and did something that made him a little stronger.
"What happened?" Thurstan breathed, but no-one answered him. The light was enough for him to see the three bodies that lay scattered beyond Joscelin. A patrol had found him and he had killed them all, though he had been badly wounded. He had borne it all without calling for help through the link in their minds, and had stayed at his post, waiting for them to climb back down. Of all the things he had seen this night, strangely it was this one that most made Thurstan want to break down and cry.
"Help Joscelin," Reynard commanded him, for of course Reynard was going to help the king.
Thurstan had always been afraid of Joscelin. He crept towards him and whispered, "Take my arm." Joscelin did so without argument, and that was the strangest and scariest thing of all.
The king was trying to crawl away. "There's someone alive. Two dead, and one alive. I've got to help him."
"No!" Reynard hissed. "There's no time!" He scooped the king up and they clung together, the king fighting to go, and Reynard trying to drag him away.
A horse neighed not too far away. "I'm sorry," Reynard was saying, "but please try. Hide yourself if you can't hide the rest of us. You have to."
Darkness came, faint at first, then complete. Joscelin stumbled, and Thurstan didn't know where to run. Then he felt something like a tiny spark of light between his eyes, in his mind. He thought it was the king showing him the way, but then Reynard spoke. "I don't know how to do it," he said. "Can you hear me?"
Reynard was in his mind, like a tiny candle flame showing him the way. He should have wanted to claw at his mind to rip him out, but it was so dark, and he needed to find the way.
The horses were coming, their hooves pounding the ground. They were spilling out of the back gate, galloping round the edge of the walls to the place their prey had been. Far ahead there were massed ranks of torches as other search parties mustered, outside the ever-shrinking cloud of darkness that was protecting them.
They ran fast. The king could see where he was going, and he guided Reynard. Reynard guided Thurstan, who led Joscelin. If the king fainted again, they would all be lost, exposed in the moonlight, to be trampled down by men on horses.
Joscelin fell again. The horses were going to wrong way, for the soldiers clearly thought that they would be heading for the bridge or riding away into the hills. Soon they would bring out dogs to follow their scent, and then it would be over. But Thurstan had heard rumours that the king could charm animals, so maybe it would be all right after all. But the king was barely strong enough to stand. They had to depend on themselves, for the king's power could fail at any time. No, they had to depend on him, on Thurstan, the only one who was unhurt.
The sound of the horses faded again, then grew louder. "Change," he heard Reynard panting, his voice pleading. "Please change."
"And leave you?" the king said. "I won't do that."
"But you have to. It's too late for us, but you have to live."
"I wouldn't get far. I'd forget how to change back."
Thurstan didn't know what it meant at first, but then he remembered an injured bird of prey he had seen in the mountains, and how they had told him afterwards that it had really been the king. Then Joscelin fell again, and he had to haul him upright with both arms, and the king and Reynard moved too far away for him to hear them.
"Leave me," Joscelin started to whisper. "I'm dead."
"No," Thurstan told him. There were too many dead already. He wouldn't lose another one, dying in his arms when he'd been ordered to keep him safe.
He could see the bridge on his right, and knew that they were taking a more direct route back to the river than they had come. They had abandoned all attempt at concealment. They'd cross the river too close to the town, and reach the exposed far bank half a mile away from Amalric. Was anyone calling out to Amalric, telling him that? They needed the horses ready for them, and then they'd have a chance.
Suddenly the darkness expanded, covering every gleam of light in the whole land, as far as he could see, and maybe further. Then, just as he was gasping with fear, it shrank until it hid only their running figures, doing nothing to hide the horsemen who were flanking them. Then all darkness was ripped away, but there was nobody ahead of him, and Reynard and the king had gone, and Joscelin in his arms was invisible, and even his hands had gone. Just as he was about to cry aloud, the darkness grew again, and this time it stole sound as well, like a muffling blanket around his whole head. It was horrible, as if the whole world had died, and he wanted to beg the king to stop, to hide them, but still to make it seem as if they were alive.
On the walls, the king had fainted and had lost the illusion, but now it was worse. In the extremity of his pain, the king had lost all control. The illusions were too slight, or too huge. He could snatch up the river and hide it, so they ran right past the thing that was their goal. He could steal Thurstan's voice so he couldn't call out to Amalric. He could kill them in his attempt to save them, but how could any of them go to him and tell him to stop? He was the only one who gave them a chance.
As the darkness and invisibility flickered around them, and the enemy shouted, they ran, and then the river was upon them, sooner than he would have thought. It was a time of all-encompassing darkness, but Thurstan felt the slippery mud beneath his feet, and the cold water that clutched at his legs and brought him to his knees. Then the darkness and invisibility faded both at once, as the king sank forward into the water, and Reynard could barely hold him.
Thurstan just knelt there, water up to his waist . Reynard's face was white and streaked with blood, and his eyes were glazed. He would have collapsed long before now, Thurstan thought, had he been carrying any other burden than the king. Joscelin was lying in the shallows, his arms bobbing in the water. Thurstan was still supporting his head and upper body, but Joscelin's eyes were closed and he was unconscious. The king was unconscious, too, supported only by Reynard who was barely aware himself. They had no illusion to hide them, and there was already too much light in the eastern sky. He thought the horses had lost them, but then someone shouted and he knew that they had been found again.
I'm the only one left, he thought. I've got to look after them all. Scooping up Joscelin in his arm, he started to swim. Joscelin's head kept going under, and Thurstan struggled to raise him higher, but still keep moving.
Half way across, the soldiers reached the bank. Arrows landed on either side of him, and someone fired a gun. The current grabbed hold of him. If he let it take him, he realised, he would drift downstream to the wooded place where Amalric was waiting. "Reynard," he tried to call, to tell Reynard that this was the new plan, but Reynard was beyond hearing him, just swimming doggedly forward, fighting the current without seeming to be aware of what it was that he was fighting.
Thurstan held Joscelin tighter, holding him beneath the chin. "Reynard!" he shouted, and Reynard heard him at last and stopped swimming, though he didn't turn round. As he did so, the current finally started to take him, carrying him downstream to the safe place, where the horses were.
Thurstan reached his side, then managed to get ahead of him. "Follow me!" he hissed. The river was wide and it seemed as if the guns couldn't fire very far, although the arrows could.
Had anyone called to Amalric? The king had said that any of them could do it, and he would hear. Had the king already done so, or had Reynard? Probably not, he thought. So who would... No, anyone could do it, so that included Thurstan. Amalric! he screamed silently, hoping that was the right way to do it. We're coming! Be ready! There was no answer, but that didn't mean he hadn't heard, surely, only that he hadn't replied, or that Thurstan didn't know how to hear him.
Or maybe Amalric was dead. Maybe they had found Amalric and killed him, and all the horses were stolen and gone. Maybe they were in a silent circle behind the trees, ready to trap anyone who crawled out of the river. Maybe Thurstan had killed them all by deciding to go back to the place where they had left Amalric, rather than finding a new place to cross. Maybe they would die, and it would all be his fault.
But it was too late. Willows trailed from the shore and there was muddy ground beneath his feet. He dragged himself from the river and laid Joscelin down. No-one attacked him, but Amalric wasn't there, rushing forward to help. Thurstan touched Joscelin's neck, but there was no pulse. He had died during the crossing, and Thurstan hadn't even noticed.
With a sob, Thurstan stood up. Reynard had reached the shallows but was just sitting there stupidly, the king limp in his arms. Every ripple made the water wash over the king's face, and Reynard tried to pull him higher, but was too weak. He was dying, too. "Help me with him," Reynard pleaded, without even a trace of his usual pride.
Thurstan glanced over his shoulder, then slipped into the water, and tried to take the king's body from Reynard, but Reynard, although he had asked for help, was reluctant to yield his precious burden. He clutched him tighter, and tried to reach the shore by himself. "You have to," Thurstan urged, as gently as he could. "I'll take care of him." The words were hard to say, but he thought Reynard wouldn't obey him unless he did. "You've done everything you could, but it's my turn now."
He dragged the king from the water, and Reynard followed, crawling. But Thurstan already knew that all hope was gone, and all they could do was huddle here and die. Amalric wasn't there. The horses had gone.
Reynard fell forward and lay still, though his hand still moved, groping for the king's arm. Only when he had found it did he lie still. Thurstan crouched over them, guarding them with a knife he had pulled from Joscelin's belt, and listened to pursuit growing closer. It was only a matter of time now.
Someone crept from the bushes and Thurstan leapt to his feet, snarling. He hurled himself over to the dark figure, ready to attack, then saw that it was Amalric.
"Where are the horses?" Thurstan shouted.
Amalric didn't look at him. "They ran away."
"Are you hurt?" Thurstan demanded. "Did the enemy steal them?"
"I heard a patrol," Amalric said. "The horses ran away."
"You let them go," Thurstan realised. "You were going to run away?"
"There were soldiers everywhere over there," Amalric sounded petulant. "I thought you were all dead."
Amalric's hand rose to his brow, and Thurstan knew that he had closed his mind to the link and refused to listen. After everything the king had done to give them a chance to escape, Amalric had refused to play his part, and now the horses were gone.
Then they heard the sound of hooves, and they both whirled around together. "A horse," Amalric breathed. His eyes flickered to Reynard. Reynard slowly pulled himself to his knees, reaching for his sword, but Thurstan knew that he was the one who had to take the lead now. Reynard would try, but even Reynard had a point beyond which he simply could not go.
The horse pushed through the trees, and Thurstan sprang forward, but it was riderless. The light was too faint to be sure, but he thought it was the king's horse. Of course! He laughed aloud, a shuddery laugh that came from the release of tension. The king rode his horse without reins, for his horse understood his commands. Of course the king's horse wouldn't leave its master. It had come, and, when Thurstan turned round, he saw that the king had raised his head and was looking at the animal.
They were saved. The king was saved, for Thurstan and Amalric could lift him onto his horse, and the animal would carry to him to safety, far away. They would be left behind, but the king was safe, and that was all that mattered.
The king had managed to raise himself onto one elbow. "I don't own them," he murmured, with a small smile, "but they all hear me." Even as he said it, another horse came, and then another, but that was all. Although Thurstan gazed into the trees as hard as he could, no other horses appeared.
Reynard was on his feet again. "Help me with him." This time it was a command. He was the leader again, and Thurstan was the child, who obeyed.
Thurstan helped Reynard lift up the king and place him on his horse. His hands were trembling. He could hear again the shouting of the enemy and see their torches, and Gerhard's dead face had come back to him. While everyone had depended on him, the fear had retreated, but now it was like a living thing again, pawing at him.
The king was conscious, but only just. He managed to stay in the saddle, but his head slumped forward. Reynard mounted behind him, ready to hold him if he fell. As the enemy came closer and closer, Thurstan mounted the second horse, and Amalric the third. Then there was nothing left to do but run. "Along the bank," Reynard said. "Keep to the trees."
An arrow twanged through the trees and sank into a tree trunk, only inches from the king. "Run!" Thurstan screamed. The king was ahead of him, and Amalric, too. He was at the back. He would be the first to fall, but perhaps he could cover their escape. If he had to, he would bring his horse round into the path of his pursuers, and bring them crashing down.
His horse raced forward, and he jolted painfully in the saddle. He tried to draw his sword, but what good would it do? The enemy burst from the trees, and he caught a glimpse of the leader's face before his own horse crashed through a low bush and branches scratched his face. The ground was muddy and slippery. It was too late. They had been seen. They had to leave the river and head into the open ground, where at least they could gallop freely, but the enemy would be able to shoot them down. At least the trees offered some concealment.
The king's head was low on his horse's neck, and Reynard was clinging to him, reaching round him for the reins. Then the king raised his head and said something, but Thurstan couldn't hear it. They were getting further and further away.
"Wait for me!" Thurstan pleaded. He tried to move faster, but his horse slipped in the mud and fell, crashing into Amalric's, and then they were down together. As he struggled to free himself from the stirrups, an enemy horsemen leaped over him, his sword above his head, ready to ride the king down and kill him.
"No!" Thurstan screamed, but another horsemen rode past him, smashing Amalric into the mud. He had a gun and it was pointing at the king. It fired, and fire blazed, and the king seemed to explode in white flames where it hit him. The white light flared, and Thurstan wanted to cover his eyes at its brightness. When it faded, the king had gone. The king and Reynard, and the two soldiers who had been attacking them, were gone. Thurstan and Amalric were alone in the wood, and two horsemen were bearing down on them, and the first of them was grinning.
Amalric wrenched his sword from his scabbard, bringing it up in both hands as he stood in the path of the lead horseman. But the enemy was above him, able to sweep down with his own sword, able to cut Amalric's head off with a casual swipe of his light one-handed blade. The blades struck each other, then the enemy's slid off, and Amalric almost fell, the mud sucking at his feet and making him slip. The enemy pulled his horse around and came back for another attack, still smiling.
Thurstan tried to stand, but he had hurt something in his leg when he had fallen, and his horse was floundering in the mud, its hooves scarily close to his face. He tried again, all the while screaming to the king for help, but the king was gone, swallowed up by that terrible white fire. "My lord!" he shouted. "We need you!"
The second horseman rode slowly up to the place where the king had disappeared, but the horse was nervous and shied away. The man was young and looked afraid. He saw Thurstan struggling in the mud, and their eyes met. This one didn't smile.
Amalric's attacker was hampered by the mud and the reaching branches. Amalric, on foot, could turn more easily, and duck out of the way, but his feet were slipping and he was holding the sword awkwardly, in a way that Gerhard would never have tolerated. He thrust up at the horseman again and again, but the horseman parried each blow easily. Amalric was defending himself, but only just.
And Thurstan was just lying there, just watching. "My lord!" he screamed again, but then he remembered how the king kept on asking him to call him by name. In stories, there was power in a name. You could call it aloud, and the person would come, no matter where they were, brought by magic. "King Elias!" he shrieked. "Elias! Please come!" But nothing happened. There was no new flash of white, bringing the king back again, healed and strong and glorious. Nothing happened at all.
The second horseman approached him, drawing his sword only slowly. He thought Thurstan was nothing, only a young boy who was already defeated. He would spit Thurstan like a rabbit, and scoop him up for the citadel prisons, where they would throw him down in Gerhard's stench and it would take him months to die.
"I don't want to die," Thurstan sobbed. Gerhard was dead, and that should have been the end of his world, and nothing worth living for. But he didn't want to die, not if it hurt. He wanted to live to serve the king, and to find a new home, even though he'd lost his old one. He wanted friends of his own age. He wanted to learn about the Shadow, so he could do wonders. Gerhard was dead, but he wanted to live.
Sword in hand, he pushed himself up. His leg twinged with pain, but it wasn't as bad as he had thought, and he was able to stand. Behind him, someone cried out, but he didn't know if it was Amalric or his attacker, and the enemy was almost upon him and he couldn't turn round.
The enemy was on a horse. When you're going against a horseman, Gerhard had always said, you go for the horse, not the man. Remove the advantage. Bring him down to your level. Even hardened fighters were squeamish about killing horses, he had said, but a true fighter had no room for softness in their heart. When the survival of the Kindred depended on you, you had to kill without mercy and without remorse, whether it was innocent men or horses.
But the king wouldn't want any horses hurt, and what if one of their own horses had been hurt in the fall? Then they would need the enemy's horses to get away. So he would remember Gerhard's advice, but ignore it. Gerhard was only just dead, and already Thurstan was disobeying him.
And then the enemy was on top of him, swiping down with his sword, and all reason fled. Snarling, screaming, Thurstan brought his sword up to block the blow, and staggered as his arms jolted, as the blades scraped together and then parted.
As Thurstan stood there panting, the enemy brought his horse round, but the horse was nervous. Amalric's horse was on its feet again, prancing on the fringes of the battle ground, and Thurstan's was struggling in the mud. Horns were sounding across the river, and all the animals were scared.
The enemy brought his arm up, and, "No!" Thurstan shrieked. Something took him over, and he lost all conscious thought. Sheathing his sword, he jumped, mud slipping beneath his feet and turning it into a wild and desperate plunge. He smashed into the horse's side, one arm clutching his attacker's sword arm, the other digging into his waist.
The horse ploughed forward, and Thurstan's legs left the ground, and he knew he had made a catastrophic mistake. If he let go, he would be trampled. If he clung here, the enemy could take him anywhere, dangling from his saddle like a dead animal.
Trees clawed at him. The man slashed with his sword, but his sword arm was held, and then a branch caught them both, and the horse screamed and threw them. They landed in the mud on the very edge of the river, beneath the hooves of the panic-stricken animal, but there was no time to roll free. The enemy landed on top of Thurstan, and Thurstan lost his grip on his arm. He brought up his sword, but Thurstan grappled him and kicked him and gave him no space to wield it. With a cry, the man dropped his sword and instead fought with his fists and his knees.
Thurstan was pleading under his breath, muttering words he had no memory of even as he was saying them. They struggled together, and a tree root hit the side of his head. They rolled away, and the river plucked at his hair, and he knew he was close enough to the water to drown, if the man rolled him onto his face and left him there.
He could see the man's face, pale beneath the splashes of mud. He was young, not much older than Thurstan himself. He had freckles on his nose, and his cheeks were childish and plump. But he wanted to kill Thurstan, and his teeth were bared in hatred and determination, even as his eyes were wide and afraid.
He killed my people, Thurstan thought, for the man was wearing black, and what one of the enemy did, they all did. But he was young, and his nose was dripping. He's as scared as I am, just trying to do what his lord has ordered him. I don't want to kill him. But he was the enemy, and Thurstan was Kindred, trained by Gerhard to show no mercy. Even the king, who hated killing, admitted that sometimes it was necessary to kill in order to stay alive.
Then the enemy found the dagger at Thurstan's belt, and his eyes blazed with triumph. He brought it up to Thurstan's throat and Thurstan froze, realising how stupid he had been. Only a victorious man had the luxury of deciding whether to kill his foe or not, and Thurstan was defeated. He was only a boy, and this was his first real fight, and he was going to die.
The man pressed the point of the dagger into Thurstan's neck. Thurstan brought both hands up and grasped the man's arm, but he couldn't push him away, not far enough. The man was stronger than he looked.
Mud slimed beneath him, and the river was closer. A plan flashed into his mind, then out again. Thurstan let himself subside down the bank, until the back of his head was in the water. The enemy followed him, leaning forward, the dagger still close to his throat. His left hand disappeared in mud up to his wrist, then slipped further, and he lurched forward, losing his balance. As he did so, the dagger thrust forward, its point scraping along Thurstan's neck, beneath the ear.
"No," Thurstan was sobbing. He scrabbled to get his hands between himself and the attacker, and pushed the man off. "No!" as he tried to stand, then slid into the river. "No!" as they fell, both together, in the shallows of the water, but now Thurstan was on top, and he could lift up the man's shoulders and smash his head down against the river bank, where there were stones amongst the mud and where water would rush into his lungs. Then he could push him further out, so the river took him and there was no evidence left to show that he had murdered someone, and no dead face, so close to him in age, to scream a reproach with its dead blue lips.
"No," he sobbed. He hauled the man out of the river, and he was dripping wet and clumsy, but not dead. He could kill him until he was mangled and horrid, but Gerhard still wouldn’t come back. Gerhard was never coming back. All Thurstan had to do was stop the enemy from chasing them, to help Amalric with his attacker, to keep them from finding the king.
"Just go away," he moaned. "We didn't do anything." He brought the man's down once more on the stone, then groped behind him for the sword. The enemy was barely conscious, and struggled only weakly as Thurstan smashed the sword hilt into his head, but he didn't stop struggling, even when Thurstan did it again and again. His skin cracked and bled, but he still didn't fall. He still didn't, even as Amalric came up behind him all unnoticed and ran him through with a sword. Then his eyes slid shut and his head fell to one side, and he slumped in Thurstan's arms as if he was sleeping.
Thurstan blinked stupidly. "You killed him." He still held the bloody sword hilt, and did not lower it.
Amalric gave a crisp nod. "I did. "
"What about...?" Thurstan licked his lips and tasted mud.
"I killed him, too." Amalric looked pleased, as if it was a thing to boast about, that he'd killed two men and Thurstan had killed none. In the mountains, under Gerhard's leadership, it would have been that way. After only a week with the king, their way of thinking seemed strange to him, although he had lived with it all his life.
"How?" Thurstan asked, though he didn't really know what he was asking.
"I brought him down. He was over-confident." Amalric looked with satisfaction at his bloody sword. "He thought I was weak, an easy kill, but I wasn't. I showed him."
Thurstan held the dead man close, then laid him gently down. "We have to find the king."
Amalric hauled up the dead man and started stripping him of his jacket and sword belt. When he had finished, he threw him down as if he was nothing but a stuffed sack.
Thurstan walked away. They hadn't come very far, the two of them, when they had been locked together on the fleeing horse. Amalric's dead man lay only twenty yards away. His neck was broken, and Thurstan thought he had turned too sharply on the treacherous ground and fallen from his horse without any help from Amalric. Amalric had already stripped him of his jacket and belt, and dropped them in a small pile beside him, along with a short bow and a quiver of arrows.
They had to stop the riderless horses from going back. Thurstan raised his hand and tried to call them, but he wasn't the king, and animals would never come to his command. All four of them were huddled together, nervous but not actually going anywhere. He didn't know what to do.
As he watched them, one of them lifted its head, and a moment later Thurstan heard a horse snorting, a quiet sound almost lost in the noises of the night. A twig cracked and an overhanging branch shivered, but that was his only warning. Someone else was there.
Thurstan dropped to the ground and slithered forward. Wet mud sucked at his hands and knees and even into his mouth. He moved slowly, hidden by the undergrowth, and found the enemy almost immediately. He was horribly close, sitting impassively on horseback as he watched Amalric splash around in the shallows, struggling to push the body towards the deep water. The man had a gun, and Amalric's back was completely exposed, with only the few dropping branches of a weeping willow between him and the enemy.
Thurstan pressed his hand to his mouth. I have to do something. But if he called out a warning, the man would see him. If he ran forward with his dagger, the man would shoot him down before he got close. The bow! he thought, but he wasn't good at shooting, and he had never tried to shoot while his hands were trembling and slippery with mud. But I have to.
Inch by inch, he crept back, every second expecting to be seen. He retrieved the bow, and nocked an arrow, his hands fumbling so he had to do it three times. Then, not even kneeling, he walked forward again, stopping when the man was framed by overhanging trees.
The man's gun was up, aimed at Amalric's back. Thurstan raised the bow and brought his arm back. If he missed, Amalric would die, and the man would bring his gun round, and Thurstan would be his next target. If he hit him and didn't kill him, he would still be able to fire his gun. He had to kill him. He had to stop him from riding back to his friends and telling them exactly where the king had disappeared into the white light, so they could lay an ambush for his return.
He had to kill him, and there wasn't time to aim, just to draw the arrow back and let it go, then closing his eyes and hoping it had hit.
The man cried out. The gun fired, but missed Amalric, slamming into the river beyond him. The man was hunched over on the saddle, and Thurstan knew he had wounded him terribly, but he was still alive. He could still shoot them again.
Thurstan fumbled for another arrow. Amalric was crashing through the mud and trees to his side. "Kill him!" he shouted. "Give me the bow!" But Thurstan clutched hold of it. Amalric would think it was because he wanted to claim at least one kill to himself, but it wasn't that. He just wanted the man to die at the hand of someone who would feel sorry. He didn't want to be the one to kill him, but it seemed cowardly to hand the bow over to Amalric, to make someone else live with that.
He shot again, but this time he missed the man. Hauling at the reins, the enemy pulled the horse round and rode away. "Don't let him go!" Amalric shouted. "Kill him!" he commanded, but Thurstan stood up and turned away. It was too dark and there were too many trees, and the man was hidden within seconds.
"Look what you've done now," Amalric snapped. "Now they'll know where we are."
"They know anyway," Thurstan said. They'd watched them swim over the river. Although the current had taken them half a mile downstream, they wouldn't be easy to find. The enemy would be coming within minutes.
Amalric tugged at his arm. "We've got to go. Put on the jacket. At least it might confuse them from a distance."
Thurstan pulled himself free and walked over to where the king had disappeared, struggling to keep his footing in the churned-up mud. When he found the spot he thought it had been, he stopped and felt gingerly at the air, but nothing happened. There was no flash of light, and nothing seized him. He was sure the light hadn't issued from the king, but had come from somewhere else, and taken him. It had looked almost like a door, but, if it was a door, it was now closed.
"We have to go," Amalric urged him. "Come on, or I'm going without you."
"We can't leave the king," he told Amalric.
"We have to." Amalric had already retrieved one of the horses and was emptying the saddlebags. "He can look after himself. And Reynard's with him. We need to think of ourselves, now. We have to get away." But it was easy for him. He had already abandoned his king, leaving him with no horses to carry him away from his pursuers.
Thurstan was still touching the place where the king had disappeared. "But he was badly hurt. Reynard was, too."
"Then he'll heal himself," Amalric snapped. "How long do you want to wait? Until they come to kill you? A week? A month? A year? You don't know where he's gone. You don't know when he's coming back. All we can do is look after ourselves."
But what if he came back a minute after they had left? What if he wasn't healed at all, and those two horsemen who had gone with him were still chasing him? What if he came back and needed Thurstan's protection, but Thurstan had listened to Amalric and gone away?
"Put the jacket on!" Amalric hissed. "Get on the horse. Everything's ready. I've done all the work."
Thurstan turned a heavy head. Amalric had rounded up two of the horses and was hitting them on the rump, trying to get them to run away. They were decoys, he realised. Amalric wanted them to run off in one direction and draw the pursuit, while Thurstan and Amalric slipped away where the enemy least expected them. It was almost dawn, but dark enough that the enemy might be fooled.
He looked back at the innocent place that had stolen the king. Amalric was right, he realised. They had no idea where the king had gone, and when he would come back. He might be home already, snatched to safety by the powers of enchantment. He would blame himself if Thurstan died while clinging uselessly to the last place he had seen him, like a dog refusing to leave his master's grave.
The two horses obeyed, trotting out of the thin tree line and heading for the plain. Horns were still sounding in the direction of the bridge, louder every second, and the wind brought snatches of sound from the city, where all the bells were ringing. If they stayed, they would die.
He whirled on Amalric, pounding at him with his fists. "I don't want to leave him! I'm not like you."
Amalric struck him across the face. "Don't you dare accuse me."
Thurstan's head slumped forward. "I'm not like you." But what crime had Amalric committed but to be afraid? What could anyone say to him that was worse than the things his own conscience was telling him? Guilt was a terrible thing, that could eat you alive from the inside. When you knew that you'd given in to fear and run away and failed everyone... It was a terrible thing and Thurstan knew it well.
Amalric pushed him away so he sprawled in the mud. "Then I'm going without you. Don't expect me to come back for your body."
Thurstan wiped his face, smearing mud and salty tears over his lips, though he had no memory of crying. "I'm sorry," he said. "I shouldn't have said that." As he stood up, he looked once more at the place where the king had disappeared, but there was no-one there. "I'm coming with you."
He mounted his horse and rode away, and no-one called his name from behind. There was no shimmer of light from through the trees. The plain was specked with the torches of the enemy, and still the king did not return. He was gone, and Thurstan chewed his lip, and rode away.