Chapter nineteen

Alone in the woods

 

 

       "Adela," Oliver whispered. She mumbled a bleary response, and rolled towards him, so he tried again, even though she had not opened her eyes. "I want to climb the hill, but I don't like to leave you if you're asleep."

       Her eyes flickered open. "I'm not asleep. Go. I'll be fine."

       He stood up, and looked down on her for a while. Her eyes had already closed again, but that meant nothing. Most of the Kindred were light sleepers, able to be awake and alert at the slightest noise. Besides, they were nearly on their home territory, and it was unlikely that there was any danger. As soon as she was up and ready, they would have to resume their hurried ride home. If he wanted to take advantage of the vantage point offered by the nearby hill, it had to be now.         

       "I won't be long," he told her, and he started walking. The hill was steep, and densely wooded, and the ground was slippery from the melted snow. The top of the hill, though, he knew was free of trees. When he reached the top, he would be able to see what lay beneath them, and finally confirm the thing he had feared for days.

       As he walked, he thought about the people he had left behind, the people he would see again tomorrow evening, if they hurried. He hoped Cercamond had not attacked with plague in his absence. He hoped Elias was happy, but he thought it was more likely that he would return to find Ciaran gone, and Elias heartbroken, but hiding it.

       Even if Elias had managed to find some happiness, Oliver would be bringing news that could shatter it. His mission, the one he had set himself as bard, had failed. No-one had known anything new about Cercamond. Instead, Oliver had been the storyteller, telling every House about the threat, and about Elias, who was going to face it. In a dozen clearings and valleys, he had accepted the homage of hundreds of men, who swore themselves to their king through the person of his seneschal.

       No-one knew about this second mission, the one he had set himself as seneschal. Even Elias would only be told when the time was right. All alone, Oliver had done what no man of the Kindred had done for five hundred years. Oliver, who had always feared that the king would return to lead the Kindred into bloody battle, had raised the twelve Houses of the Kindred for war.

       "We will come," they had vowed. "When he needs us, we will come."

       "When you see death in the land," Oliver had told them, "then he needs you."

       Adela had taken charge of their precious bundle. From the place where it had been hidden for five hundred years, Oliver had reclaimed the ancient banner of the old kings. No living man had seen it unfurled, and the device it bore had been forgotten. But when Elias went to war against Cercamond, he would do so with two thousand men under his command, and he would ride beneath the banner of the kings.

       Oliver was nearly at the top now. He climbed over a boulder, and scrabbled up with his hands. The forest was thinner here, and the hill afforded a good view. He had deliberately not stopped to look behind him, all the time he had been climbing. Now, panting at the top, he stood up tall, and let himself see.

       He saw the devastation first, and gasped at it. But then, close by, he saw the army, and the fear that clutched his heart was like a hand of ice.

      

 

       Reynard was sharpening his sword, making the blade deadly enough to slice through Ciaran Morgan's neck and kill him in one blow. When he saw the man himself on the other side of the camp, he smiled a thin smile. "By tonight," he told him silently, "you will be dead."

       Ciaran Morgan had announced it all so calmly. It had got to almost noon, and Reynard had just realised that no-one had seen the king all morning. He had been barking orders to his men to find him, when Ciaran had strolled up to him. "There's no need," he had said. "He went last night."

       Reynard had just stood there, unable to articulate his fury and disbelief. At last, he had managed to say, "And you knew about it? You never thought to stop him?"

       "I tried to stop him, yes." Ciaran Morgan had spoken with the exaggerated patience of an adult talking to a child. "I offered to go with him. But he convinced me of his reasons, and so I stayed, as you will, too."

       Reynard had almost struck him. "You cannot give me orders."

       "But your king can," Ciaran said, and then his voice had softened. "You know him, Reynard. If things got dangerous, he'd risk himself to save us. He's done it before. I know that's something neither of us will ever forget. Being alone is the safest thing for him. Please don't try to follow him. You could be killing him if you did."

       "How dare you?" Reynard had shouted. "You might not care that he's out there alone, heading for... wherever he's gone, but I do."

       "Eidengard," Ciaran had spat, the word like a cold pebble. "He's gone to tell them about Cercamond. And don't you dare accuse me of not caring. I do not have to explain myself to you."

       They had tried to track him, of course, but the king had been cunning and had erased all traces. A horse was gone, but that was the only clue that he had not flown away as a bird. If Ciaran Morgan had told them earlier, they might still have caught him, but instead the man had made sure that Elias got away.

       If the king died, it would all be Ciaran Morgan's fault. Everything was his fault. All winter, he had been distracting the king from his duty, making him smile with false promises and tricksy words, but Reynard knew the truth. A man like Ciaran could never change. Elias had been tricked and deluded into thinking he was happy with such a man. One day, soon, the betrayal would come. Ciaran would revert to his old ways, and would break the king's heart, making him weak just as the Kindred most needed him to be strong.

       It would never happen. Reynard would not allow it. He should have killed Ciaran months ago, before the king had spent all winter with him. Elias would still have grieved, but not as much. For Reynard had no illusions about that. When Elias found out what Reynard had done, even he would be hard pressed to forgive.

       Reynard could well be exiled for what he had done, but he would be a martyr to the cause of right. The king would be hurt by it, but it was for the best in the long run, just as it would have been best for Reynard if someone had killed Beatrice right at the start, when Reynard had still loved her. Ciaran Morgan was like Beatrice, and it was only right to save people from such as them. Perhaps Elias would never realise it, but Reynard, in exile, would know that he had performed the ultimate service for his people and his king. Elias would finally be free to step out from his master's shadow, and the Kindred would have him forever.

       He sheathed his sword, and started to follow Ciaran Morgan into the woods. It would not be a murder, he told himself. He would make his accusations to Ciaran's face, and challenge him to a fair fight. He would win, of course, but no-one would be able to accuse him of cheating. Even Elias would have to admit that.

       Ciaran was walking towards the stream, to the place where Reynard had found Elias's clothes the day before. When Reynard caught a glimpse of his face, he thought it looked very sad. "Nightshade!" Ciaran called, and Reynard ducked behind a tree and watched, but the wolf did not appear. Alone, Ciaran sat down on the riverbank, and bowed his head. He brought his hands up to his face, and kept them there for a while.

       It was all an act, Reynard reminded himself. He should stride up now behind the man and challenge him to fight. But instead he stood still, his hand on the trunk of the tree, just watching.

       He had never found it hard to kill, and had killed more than he could count. Many of them were forgotten the minute he had wiped the blood from his blade. They had been the enemies, the soldiers who wanted to wipe out everything Reynard held dear, and the world was a better place without them. Sometimes he even enjoyed making their deaths as painful as possible, to pay them back, just a little bit, for all the suffering their kind had caused over the years.

       Some deaths were in the heat of battle, but those were forgotten even before they fell. In a fight, his sword flickered like a dark red tongue. It killed one, and then the battle whirled, and brought it a new one. He never even saw the faces of those killed in battle, let alone remembered them.

       But some faces he did remember. Those were the innocents who meant no harm, but had blundered off their path and seen things that they could not be allowed to speak about. Those were the killings that few in the Kindred liked to perform, but Reynard had always been willing. If his people were threatened, he would kill even his closest friend if he had to.

       And so he would kill Ciaran Morgan. He had every reason to. He had never felt remorse before, not for any of the deaths. He had sworn himself to protect his king, and Ciaran Morgan was a threat to him, and so he would kill him, and he would like it.

       But not yet, he thought, as he heard someone pass by. Later, when there was no-one to see. Later, because Ciaran Morgan would find it even harder to defend himself in the dark. Later, when he could taunt the man with how close he had come to dying earlier, and how Reynard had watched him when he thought he was alone. Later.

 

 

       Oliver slid down the last few steps. "Adela." He shook her hard. "Wake up! I don't know how it happened, but they've found us. There's an army out there. Well, not an army, but armed men, dozens of them. They're beating the bushes, searching for footprints. They're combing the forest, looking for us."

       Adela sat up, pulling the furs closer around her shoulders. "Did they see you?"

       "I don't know." But he had stood at the top of the hill for over a minute, just staring. He had been stupid. He had always been as hopeless as a hunter as he had been as a fighter. He had a sword, but was not good at using it, and how could he defend Adela when they came? "We have to assume they did. And they were close! They might have found our tracks. We didn't try to cover them."

       "Calm down." Adela took hold of his shoulders. "Even if they did see you, there's no reason to despair. We've got sturdy little forest ponies, and they'll have their great war horses and their carts. We can get away. And there are ways to hide our tracks. You know them as well as I do."

       Oliver wiped his hand over his face. "Only a few had horses. Most were on foot." Of course Adela was right. It was just that she was so precious, and he had never been good at fighting. It had never mattered before.

       "There," she said, with a smile. "What did I tell you?"

       He could not return her smile, not yet. "But why are they here? And why so few?" He bit his lip, thinking. "What if there are groups like this everywhere? They came as an army, them split up, so they could cover the whole forest." He grabbed her arm. "They could have found the camp already!"

       "All the more reason to hurry home, then." She was already saddling her pony. He knew she was as afraid as he was, but stronger than him, more able to hide it.

       He mounted quickly, and soon they were on the move, careful not to talk in case anyone was nearby, their ears cupped to the wind. After a while she pointed to the left, indicating that they should go that way. There was a broad stream, enough to confuse anyone who was following them by scent.

       Adela went first, and Oliver followed, urging his horse down the slippery slope. The water was less than two feet deep, but the horses were clearly unhappy. "It's all right," Oliver whispered  in his pony's ear. "It won't be for long."

       It as noisy as they waded downstream, water churning round the horse's legs. Oliver fought the urge to kick the animal, to gallop fast, heedless of who shot at him, just so he could reach home and find out if anyone was still alive, and warn them about what was coming. Another step, and he fought the urge to slide from the saddle and find somewhere safe to hide quietly until the army had passed them by.

       Then someone shouted, and he knew it was too late for either.

       He was slow to react, so maybe everything that happened was his fault. Fighters like Reynard were trained to instant reaction, but Oliver was a bard, accustomed to slow beginnings and long pauses before a tale started. So he only sat there, staring stupidly in the direction of the voice.

       "Oliver!" Adela's voice was as sharp as the explosion that flared in a thicket just downstream of them. Something hit the stream beside him, making the horse shy in terror. Something splashed on his hand, and he wondered if it was blood, but when he looked at it, he saw it was only water.

       He found his voice. "Ride on!" Their attackers were on the far bank, but there were trees there, and undergrowth. It would be quicker for Oliver and Adela, riding along the bed of the stream. But the trees offered protection, too. In the middle of the stream, they were totally exposed.

       "No!" Adela gasped. She was already pulling her horse back to the bank they had only just left. Of course, Oliver realised. There was no need to hide their tracks now, not when the enemy had already sighted them.

       He tried to follow, but something else smashed into the water. A gun, he thought. Elias had told him about them, but this was the first time he had seen one. A gun sounded again, but this time there was no splash. There was nothing to tell him where the bullet had landed. How fast could a bullet travel? Was it still in the air, arcing towards him, or had it landed somewhere else, not in the water?

       Would a bullet make a sound when it ended a person's body? "Adela!" he cried, but she twisted briefly in the saddle, and told him that she was fine, that he had to get a move on, just follow her, hurry.

       She paused to wait for him. "No," he pleaded, "don't wait," but she said that of course she would wait for him, but he had to hurry. Only two of them, she said, or so she thought. Oliver said he had seen more than that. Maybe they were searching in pairs, so all they had to do was ride fast, then worry about evading pursuit later. All this in words gasped in ones and twos.

       Neither of them had drawn their swords to fight back. Oliver had a bow, but he could not shoot from horseback, could barely shoot at all, if he was honest. He was not the man to be entrusted with the king's banner, or with the responsibility of carrying the warning. He should have brought a warrior with him, to protect him, but he had wanted to do this all alone.

       "This way." Adela flung her arm out to the right. Her reins were wrapped around her left wrist, and her eyes seemed very large.

       The path she had pointed to was tangled and dark, and rose sharply. It was exposed for a while, but it would hide them in a minute, if they managed the treacherous terrain.

       Oliver looked round desperately, left shoulder, then right. He was staring right at the bare thicket when another explosion came, and the light dazzled him, so for a moment he could not see. He blinked and blinked again, and slowly his vision returned. He concentrated on Adela's back, and tried not to think about the men across the stream who were trying to kill them.

       When the moment came, it was not the enemy that felled him. Struggling up the slope, his horse missed its footing, and fell heavily. With a strangled gasp, Oliver threw himself to one side. He landed on his front, caught himself on his hands, scraping his palms. Behind him, the horse landed and rolled, just touching his foot, before rolling back again.

       Oliver struggled to rise, but the earth was wet and slippery. He pressed the ball of his hand against a large stone embedded in the slope, and pushed himself up, but his weight dislodged it, and he fell forward.

       Were they coming? Were they watching him, taking their time as they laughingly aimed? Adela had gone on ahead, thinking that he was following her. At least she was safe, but how lonely it felt without her.

       Behind him, his horse struggled again, slipped, and fell back. Oliver started to crawl. Perhaps they wouldn't see him down there. And if they found him, he would fight them and do what he could. He would not breathe a word, even if they tortured him. He would never betray his king and his people, and at least Adela had got away.

       One crawling step, then another, and there was another garish explosion. He froze, listening, but he heard no sound of the bullet hitting anything. He started to move again, and then the pain hit him, tearing through him like fire.

       He screamed. He couldn't help it. He had never been wounded, never more than a scratch. He had never felt pain like this before, never. Where? he thought, stupidly. Then, when he tried to move again and the pain grabbed him by the throat, he thought, thigh. His body had already known that, he realised, for his right hand was clapped to his left leg, and blood was oozing between his fingers.

       He swallowed, and tasted bile. There was blood everywhere, and the forest was full of dying blackness where they should have been spring buds.

       They were walking towards him, confident and swaggering. They knew they had him. They had seen him, and taken his measure, and knew him for no fighter. He was down, and all they had to do was stroll in for the kill.

       And Adela had been wrong, for there were three of them. One raised his gun. The other two had short swords, light and thin-bladed. And there was another one, too, far behind, slowly moving closer on a horse. Pain dimmed Oliver's vision, and he could not see the face.

       "Surrender, and you live," one of the soldiers shouted, but the other one sniggered, giving lie to the words. Oliver would live only for as long as it took to torture him and get the answers they needed.

       "No," he hissed. Perhaps he should have found noble words to defy them with, but the pain made his thoughts slippery, and drove all the stories from his mind.

       The rider behind the soldiers edged closer, and suddenly Oliver recognised it as Adela. She had circled and come back for him. She would try to save him, and would end up captured with him.

       He wanted to scream at her to go back, to save herself, but how could he without betraying her? But, in his weakness, he betrayed her anyway. He stared at her for too long, and one of the soldiers noticed, turned round, and saw her.

       "Behind!" the soldiers said, as Oliver screamed at her to run.

       "Not likely," he heard her mutter. So she stayed, and had no chance at all. The man with the gun took his time, and felled her horse with a single shot. She fell. Oliver cried out, but she did not. She managed to land free of the dying animal, but the reins, still wrapped round her left wrist, pulled her off balance. Oliver cried out again, but still she was silent. She pushed herself to her feet and drew her sword, but her wrist was clearly hurt.

       "A sword maiden?" the soldiers laughed. They were on her in seconds, and Oliver could only watch. "Can you prick us with your sword, bitch?"

       She was captured, the sword twisted from her hand. Two men held her, and the third pressed his sword to her throat. "Is she yours?" he shouted, turning to face Oliver. "Do you mind sharing? No? Too bad, cos we're going to do it anyway. But maybe if you tell us where your king is, we'll only do it once."

       "No!" Oliver keened. He should face it with silent dignity, and not let them know the power they had over him, but it was Adela. Who cared about dignity? It was only foolish pride. Why fight to hide what he felt, when everything would happen just the same anyway?

       "Oliver!" Adela cried. She was down on her back, kicking and struggling, but they were three, and she was one, and they were armed. He caught a glimpse of her face, and there was nothing human in it. She had always had a smile and a light word for everything, but now her face was terror personified.

       "No!" he screamed again, but he had nothing left to him. He could not stand, his bow was out of reach, crushed between the horse and the ground, and all he could do was watch.

       All he could do? No. He had enchantment. He still had that. Desperate, he thrust out his hand, pointing at the far bank, behind Adela. "You fell into our trap," he rasped. "Now see the death that comes to you."

       Behind the soldiers was a force of Kindred, tall and strong, with Reynard's ferocity in all their faces. They closed inexorably on the soldiers, and raised their swords ready for the kill. They were terrible, and merciless, and they were a hundred to the soldiers' three.

       But the soldiers turned round and laughed. "Just illusion," they said. "We were warned about your tricks." And when the front rank reached them and stabbed them, and they felt no pain and saw no blood, they laughed again, though this time there was a nervous relief in the sound. They had not been entirely sure, Oliver knew, but now they knew the truth, and nothing could stop them.

       As they bent over her, Adela screamed.

      

 

       Thurstan was running, feet pounding, breath hurting, but then a tree root tripped him up, and he fell with a cry. His hand scraped painfully on something sharp beneath the earth. He smashed his fist into the ground, hurting it again, and gave a snarling scream.

       Then the vision took him. He was lying in the mud, his hand in front of his face, but then the mud went smoky. His hand was still there, but now it was limp on his lap. There was a thin scratch across its back, and the nails were ragged and full of mud.

       He was sitting beside a fire, he realised. The flames were small, and there was something sad about them, because when he looked at them he wanted to cry. A man seen only in silhouette was wearily prodding the fire with a forked stick. Someone else was lying on their side, their head propped up with one hand, but their hair obscured their face. There were other figures, too, but they were misty and insubstantial, men without faces. There were about twenty of them, he thought, and some of them were wounded.

       "Who are you?" he wanted to cry, but he could not speak. Were they Kindred? But the place they were in was rough and horrid, with branches reaching down from above, and an uneven ground. There were no songs, and no-one was talking.

       A man walked out of the forest, but his face was also hidden. As he walked up to the fire, one of the leaden figures looked up, and cried out something. The voices were as veiled as the faces, and he could not hear. Then he felt himself speak, too, but he could not even hear his own words. But the man beside him heard, for he grabbed Thurstan by the arm, and told him to stay quiet, not to move. His voice was the only one that Thurstan could hear, and that was enough to tell Thurstan that it had to be the king, though he too was hidden by the veil of secrecy that clung to the vision.

       The man walked closer, right up to the fire, and then the mist lifted, just enough to reveal his face. There, with eyes of murder and a smile of ice, stood Reynard.

       "Reynard!" he cried, and the loudness of his voice surprised him. The fire was gone, and Reynard was no longer there. Thurstan was lying in the forest, and he was alone.

       He rolled over onto his back, and sat up. What had the vision meant? It had been different from the others, because it had felt as if he was really there, inhabiting the body of his own future self. But it made no sense. It could be of no possible use. Reynard walking towards a fire... It could happen every day, and probably did.

       He slammed his fist into the ground. Why couldn't his visions be useful? Why hadn't he learnt to do miracles with the Shadow? He was useless. No wonder Reynard hated him. No wonder the king had gone off all by himself, leaving him behind. No wonder Ciaran Morgan hadn't come for their usual afternoon lesson for two days in a row. No wonder boys younger than him were being trained by Reynard, but no-one had ever come and given a task to Thurstan.

       "But I don't care," he snarled. "I hate them. I hate them all."

       "No, you don't," a voice said behind him.

       So someone had come creeping up on him and heard him? Well, he hated them, too. "I do," he snarled. Then he realised that it was Ciaran Morgan, so he glared at him with all the fury he could muster. "I do, and that includes you."

       Ciaran Morgan looked at him as if he was seeing him for the first time. He sighed, and he looked like a defeated man. "I'm sorry," he said, as he crouched down beside Thurstan. "It seems that I keep making the same mistakes over and over again."

       Thurstan didn't know what he was talking about, and didn't care. He would never tell this man that he had waited in their usual place for his lesson, and how he had tried to see the Shadow all by himself, but failed. There was a place in his mind that Ciaran had told him was his Garden. It was a little green valley, so narrow that the arching roses on its banks hid it from the entire world. Its seclusion felt safe, but even that place was closed to him today. He was nothing without a teacher, and he hated it.

       "I'm sorry," Ciaran said. "I forgot about our lessons. It was Elias..."

       Thurstan hated being so transparent. "It doesn't matter," he said.

       "But it does." Ciaran's voice was very calm. He didn't sound as if he was upset, or missing the king. But he had received a goodbye, and Thurstan had got nothing. "I promised to teach you, but I haven't treated it with the importance it deserves, and in that I was wrong. I've been very aware of certain mistakes I made in the past, but here I am repeating them with you."

       Thurstan said nothing. Not important, he heard. Of course he wasn't. Reynard still didn't want him.

       "It's not you," Ciaran told him. "I've been..." The smile that broke out on his face seemed genuine. "Things have changed. Important things. It made me forget everything else. But I enjoy teaching you. You're a good student, very willing to learn. You're coming on very well."

       "I'm not. I couldn't even find my Garden, earlier."

       "Anger blocks the Shadow," Ciaran told him, quietly. "I've seen it in you all winter. And that's another way I've failed you. I tried to help you do what you could with the Shadow despite the anger. I should have helped you with the cause."

       I'm not angry, Thurstan wanted to say, but of course he could not. Instead he found himself blurting out, "I just had a vision."

       "What did you see?" Ciaran's voice was urgent. "Did you see Elias?"

       "I saw nothing." He shook his head. "Just Reynard beside a fire. Just Reynard." And how stupid he was to have even mentioned it. It hadn't been a vision at all, just a dream. He had seen Reynard as dangerous but out of reach, someone he was forbidden to talk to. How pathetic he was.

       "You're angry with him," Ciaran said, his calm sickening after his brief flash of emotion. "You only wanted to learn about the Shadow as a way to prove yourself to him, didn't you?"

       "Not just to him!" Thurstan blurted out. He had wanted something unique he could do, to serve the king in the time of danger, like Reynard could do with his sword, or Oliver with his wisdom.

       Ciaran Morgan was looking at him with understanding. "The Shadow doesn't work like that. You can't see it if you're blinded by anger."

       "I never asked for this Shadow of yours!" Thurstan shouted. "What's the point of it? I can't do it, and he still doesn't want me, and the king goes off by himself and I hate him, and I hate the Shadow, and I don't want it any more."

       Ciaran still refused to get angry with him, to tell him that he really was useless, and that he never wanted anything to do with him, just like the others. "You don't mean that," he said. "No-one who has ever seen the Shadow can mean it."

       "Of course I don't." Thurstan suddenly found himself close to tears. "I want it so much, but I can't do it. Help me. Please help me."

       "I will." Ciaran touched his arm. "You're not the first, and you won’t be the last. I was full of anger for years before I admitted it. I've only learned to see the Shadow clearly in these last few months."

       Thurstan's eyes widened. "Really?"

       Ciaran nodded. "And that's something I haven't even told Elias."

       Thurstan wanted to scoop up the confession and cherish it inside. Ciaran Morgan trusted him. Perhaps he wasn't a complete failure. Perhaps there was still hope.

       "It was nothing to do with you that Elias left," Ciaran said. "It was nothing to do with any of us. It's because he cares for us, that he wants us left behind, out of danger. Whatever gifts we have, they will never be the equal of his. If things get bad, he can rescue himself, but he wouldn't be able to do that if he had us to worry about. So he went alone because he loves us."

       Everything was blurry with tears he refused to shed. "Is that true?"

       "It is," Ciaran said quietly, and then again, more loudly, as if he really believed it this time. "It is."

       Thurstan bit his lip. Perhaps it was true, but it didn't change much. "I just don't want to be pushed to the back," he admitted, "like a child. I want to..." He hurled out the words defiantly. "I want to be like the king. I want to be like Reynard. I want to be someone that other people look up to, but instead I'm just me."

       Ciaran was looking at him with sympathy, and that should have been the worst thing of all, but Thurstan just felt grateful for it. "Not everyone can be a leader," he said. "And every leader needs followers, or where would he be? An army needs officers, but where would it be without the men?"

       "But I want to be an officer," Thurstan said. "I don't want to have to look up to people all the time. Because that's what I always do. I'm pathetic. Gerhard, the king, Reynard.... you. Even you don't like me. I'll never be as good as the last person you taught. How can I?"

       "Everyone wants approval," Ciaran told him, though he did not insult him by trying to claim that he liked teaching Thurstan more than the king. "Believe me, Thurstan, I know. It doesn't make you pathetic. It just makes you human. Even the strongest people doubt themselves sometimes, and need a friend to tell them that they're important, not just for what they do, but for themselves."

       Thurstan turned away. "But it's easy for you. You never felt like this."

       "Never believe that you know what someone else is feeling." Ciaran's voice was stern, but then he gave a sad smile. "I used to dream of being someone special, back when I was your age. I wanted to change the world. Now I've accepted that perhaps my role is to stand beside Elias while he changes the world. And who knows? Maybe that's the most important role of all. One day he might fall beneath the burden he bears, unless he has me to hold him up." He gave a wry laugh. "And that's something I've never told anyone else before, either."

       "Then why are you telling me?"

       Ciaran tilted his head to one side, thinking. "Because I thought you needed to hear it," he said at last. "I made dreadful mistakes in the past. I wronged someone terribly, a young man a bit like you, who also doubted his own worth. I never told him things that I should have told him, and he suffered because of it. But perhaps I can do things better with you."

       "I don't want to be a substitute for him," Thurstan said. "I don’t want your pity."

       "You won't get it," Ciaran said. "I can be a stern teacher. I won't let you get away with laziness. If anger is blocking the Shadow, I will force you to address it. I'll throw you at Reynard and demand that you talk, if that's what it takes."

       Thurstan gave a shaky smile, but then it faltered. Ciaran had made him feel better, but it shouldn't be like this. Thurstan should have been able to find his own answers. Instead, he had sprawled in the mud, and waited for someone older than him to come along and show him the way. He was still a follower, unable to make decisions by himself. Ciaran said there was no shame in it, but Thurstan knew otherwise.

       "You might surprise yourself," Ciaran said, with a smile. "That boy I told you about, who was so sure he was useless, who had resigned himself to a life as a follower... You should see him now. He became something amazing, completely without my help. But never think that he didn't doubt himself. Never think that he doesn't doubt himself, still."

       Thurstan's mouth fell open. He snapped it shut. "You mean the king? He was really like me?"

       Ciaran chuckled. "Worse. And it's no secret. You've only known him for a few months, but he's changed a lot in the last year. He was tested, and passed. Perhaps that's why even Reynard is so devoted to him, because he saw what he used to be like, and knows how difficult it was for him to become the way he is."

       Thurstan wanted to stand up and laugh. The king was like him. The king used to feel like he did. Thurstan had four years until he was as old as the king, and he could change so much in four years. Perhaps, in time, Thurstan too would be tested, and he would emerge on the other side as a person he no longer recognised.

       "Would you be my apprentice?" Ciaran touched his shoulder. "I didn't ask you before because...  Well, I didn't know how long I'd be here. But I'm here forever now."

       "Apprentice," Thurstan echoed. "What would that mean?"

       Ciaran smiled. "That we carry on just as we are, but everyone will know that I have picked you out and that you are being trained for something special. I'll teach you, but I won't own you." He looked at the ground as he said that, and spoke the words awkwardly. "You can call me master if you like, but I'd rather you call me Ciaran."

       Thurstan didn't even need to think about it. "I'd like that." He looked at Ciaran curiously. The man was still looking away, and Thurstan wondered if was regretting it already, and whether the king would be upset when he returned. "Is there some sort of ceremony?" Thurstan asked, wanting him to at least look at him.

       "There is." Ciaran turned to face him, and there was no rejection on his face. "A public one, if you would like that. But we can make our own rules. We'll be the first Brothers in the whole world. We can form our own Order between us."

       Thurstan laughed. "I'd like that very much." He wondered how Reynard would feel when he found out that the son he had rejected had been chosen by someone else. "And I'd like a public ceremony, but can we wait until the king comes back?"

       Ciaran's eyes went distant. A bird of prey flew overhead, and he looked up sharply, then sighed. "We'll do that. We'll wait for him."

      

 

       They were walking back to the camp together when somebody hurled themselves at Ciaran and smashed a punch at his face that threw him to the ground.

       Reynard bestrode him. "Don't you dare go near my son again." He drew his sword and raised it high above Ciaran's chest. "You've done enough damage without hurting him, too. And now you're going to die."

       Ciaran had his new staff with him, the staff that showed that his place was in this world, with Elias. He had kept his grip on it when he had fallen. "I will die one day," he said, "but not at your hands."

       Reynard screamed at him, kicking him in the side. "Get up and face me! Or are you too much of a coward to fight like a man, not just with your lies and tricks?"

       The kick had hurt, and his face was throbbing, but Ciaran tried not to show the pain. "I have no desire to fight you, but I will if I have to," he said.

       "Oh, come on," Reynard scoffed. "You've always hated me. You can't wait for the chance to hurt me. Not that I'll give you the chance. You're going to die."

       Ciaran glanced at Thurstan, but the boy was just standing there, frozen with horror. "I did always hate you, yes," he said, "but things have changed. For some reason I will never understand, Elias likes you. And I believe you are sincere in your devotion to him. So why do you think us fighting is a good thing?"

       "Get up!" Reynard screamed. Spittle flew from his mouth and landed on Ciaran's face. Reynard was very pale, and his short hair, grown out a little from its harsh crop, stood up in wild spikes.

       "No," Ciaran said. He was not defenceless, if the sword came hurtling down at his throat. He held the anger away, and could see his Garden, and the Shadow waiting there for his call.

       "You will fight me!" Reynard shouted. "Or I'll kill you where you lie."

       Ciaran blinked at him. "Why?"

       "Because you let the king go away! Because you always hurt him so!" Reynard scraped his hand over his mouth. "Because he's ours, not yours, and we need him. Because he'll be happier if you're dead."

       Ciaran sat up, and raised his staff. "Never," he said, in a voice as cold as ice, "claim that you are doing this for Elias's sake. Never. If you had given me any other reason, I would not have fought you. But never," he screamed, "say that you can break Elias's heart and do it for his own good."

       "But it is!" Reynard shouted. "You're a destroyer. You're someone who'll never rest until they're loved, and then you'll go away and not care what sort of wreckage you leave behind you."

       Reynard's voice was so shrill, his fury so anguished, that Ciaran suddenly suspected the truth. This wasn't just about him. This was about Thurstan, and about Reynard's wife, who had left him. It was all mixed up for him. Perhaps he was insane, Ciaran thought, or very close to breaking down.

       "It's not true." Ciaran hefted his staff in his hands, ready to defend, but he made his voice was reasonable as he could. "You were right to hate me last year, but things have changed now. I'm sorry for the way I behaved. I mean no harm to Elias. I'm never going to leave him, or take him away from you. I love him."

       "Liar!" Reynard slashed at a clump of grass. "It's easy for people like you to speak of love, but love doesn't mean anything to you."

       "It does." Very slowly, Ciaran started to circle Reynard. He wanted to back him against a clump of trees with twisted roots, where he could wrestle him to the ground if they had to fight. "And it should mean something to you. Do you know why I stayed this winter, Reynard? Do you know why I took Elias away from you and tried to get him to forget his duty for an hour a day, for just sixty short minutes? No? I did it because Oliver asked me to."

       "You're lying!" Reynard's cry was scarcely human.

       "Cercamond is coming," Ciaran told him. "You know that. But, unlike you, Elias is the one who can something about it. If he fails, and you all die, he'll blame himself. Do you have any idea how that makes him feel? But your people expect him to be strong all the time. How can you begrudge him one hour in every day in which he is happy, when for all the other hours he is yours?"

       The sword was trembling in Reynard's hand. "Because it's not real."

       "It is," Ciaran said. "Do you really want your king to face the end of the world without ever once having been happy? Is that what you want?"

       "Happiness is an illusion," Reynard snarled. "Love is unimportant. We can't all think of such things, not when there's an enemy to fight."

       For the first time since he had met him, Ciaran felt deeply sorry for Reynard. She really hurt you, didn't she? "It's what gives us the strength to fight. Hope in the middle of suffering. That's what your own winter festival says. Look at yourself. That's what denying love has made you."

       "Be quiet!" Reynard screamed. "Stop it! You're just like..." He snarled rather than finish what he had been going to say.

       Like who? Ciaran wondered, but did not ask. "I don't want to fight you," he said.

       Reynard wrenched his head up. "But you have to." He hurled himself at Ciaran with his sword raised, and Ciaran had no choice but to defend himself. And so, before the fight had even started, he had lost.

 

 

       "Help her!" Oliver screamed, throwing his whole soul into that cry. There was no-one to hear him except the soldiers, but still he cried. "Please help!" He spread his arms and hurled himself outwards. It was like falling off a cliff, like falling.

       And someone answered. Someone caught him. Someone touched his mind, and spoke to him, but not in words. It was strong and comforting, and, "help her," he pleaded. It was the spirit of someone mighty from the past, of the great enchanters he had always revered, who had come back rather that let his atrocity take place. "Please," he begged it. "It doesn't matter about me. Just save her. Please."

       The voice spoke in words. "Come to me," it told him. "Come closer. I can't find you yet."

       But how? He felt himself tugged, and he threw himself towards that presence, trusting it utterly. He had to leave Adela behind. He closed his eyes, and when he opened them, he was on a grassy hillside, just outside a white tower. Someone had been sitting on the grass, but already he was standing running towards Oliver. As soon as their hands clasped, Oliver was back in his body again, torn apart by pain, but he was no longer alone.

       "You have to show me," the voice of Elias told him in his mind. "I can see through your eyes, but I need you to show me where to look."

       And that meant Oliver had to look, and he didn't want to, he didn't want to see it ever again. Adela was on her back now, but they were taking their time, taunting her. She had not given up, and had made one soldier's nose bleed. They had found the banner, and told her they would piss on it. Her skirts were up to her knees, but they hadn't yet gone further.

       "I'll do what I can," Elias told him. "But you have to hold onto the link. Hold onto it with everything you've got, no matter what happens. I've never done this before. I..." He stopped there, but Oliver knew what he had been going to say.

       It didn't matter, though. Only Adela mattered. "Please," he begged. "I'll do anything. Just help her, please."

       "I will."

       And then a man was walking past him, so close that his robes brushed against Oliver's hand, and he felt the soft velvet. It was Elias, he realised, here in the flesh, but how had that happened? Not even Elias could fly that fast.

       Elias reached the riverbank, and Oliver saw him fully for the first time. It not Elias after all. Or, rather, it was an Elias of nightmares. He wore Elias's face, but the eyes were the eyes of a man who could make men tremble with a look. He walked with the sleek grace of a predator, and his cloak swung like rippling black oil. His clothes were all black, decorated at the throat and the waist with clasps of bloody gold.

       "Let her go," Elias commanded.

       The soldiers heard, looked up, and blanched. The one holding the banner dropped it as if it had burnt him. They still held Adela down, but their hands were very still, as if they were scared to move even enough to release her.

       "I am no trick," Elias said. "I protect my people, and I will not have them ill-used. Remember that, ere you try to hurt my kind again."

       "Shoot him," one of the soldiers gasped to another. "We know he can bleed." But the man with the gun fumbled as he tried to pick it up.

       "Leave this place," Elias commanded. "Let them go and do not follow them."

       Oliver tore his eyes away from him, and looked at Adela. He breathed her name, but she did not hear him. She was still held down, but she was looking at Elias with wide eyes. "Adela," Oliver called again, and at last she looked at him. The expression in her eyes was terrible.

       Oliver! Elias called in his mind, fainter this time, just a silent cry of need. Hold on to me!  So Oliver had to turn away from Adela, and think of only Elias. He had to forget her, and how could he do that?

       "I will ask you this one last time," Elias said. "Let her go."

       He was an illusion, of course, but what an illusion! Oliver's armed men had glided over the grass without leaving a trace, but there were still footprints in the mud that showed where Elias had come. His breath turned to steam in the cold air, and twigs cracked as he walked. It was perfect, created from the soldiers' real fears, and there was nothing about it that reason could deny.

       Elias raised his hand, and one of the soldier's swords twitched, drawn towards Elias by an impossible power. Elias smiled a terrible smile. "Are you going to give me the chance to punish you?"

       Oh, Elias. Oliver wanted to close his eyes. Elias was so unlike this monstrous king. How hard it must be for him to say those words, and to confirm all their fears of the sort of person he was.

       "If you go," Elias said, chilling and seductive, "perhaps I will not harm you. But if you try to come back, I will strike you down. Distance is no obstacle. If you tell anyone what you have seen today, I will know of it."

       One of the soldiers turned and fled, but the others stood their ground, though they were visibly shaking. They stood close, unconsciously seeking each other's protection, and one of them raised his weapon, and fired.

       The shot hit Elias in the side, and wounded him badly. He staggered and almost fell, pressing his black-gloved hand to the wound, grimacing. Blood made the black leather slick, and spattered on the ground. Even before he had straightened upright again, another shot caught him high on the shoulder, half spinning him round.

       "No," Oliver moaned, pressing his hand to his mouth. It was so real. Once, he had made an illusion of himself, and made it continue walking towards the enemy, unstopped by any arrow. It was easy to create an illusion that was unaffected by the physical world. But this... He had never seen an illusion so real, so finely tuned to react to the world around it. What it must have cost Elias to maintain it!

       "Go," Elias hissed through his teeth. The men were fumbling, trying to reload their weapons, their fingers tripping over each other. Elias would be upon them before they could ready their next shot. "I give you five seconds," Elias said, "then you are no longer your own, but mine."

       The men fled. Even as they did so, Adela was on her feet, pulling her torn clothes around her with one hand, running to Oliver's side.

       Oliver saw all this only distantly. He clung to the thought of Elias like a drowning man, unable to let him go, even now the enemy was vanquished.

       Elias turned, and his expression softened, though the dark clothes did not change. The wounds were still there, and he looked very weak. "Go," he urged. "The horse is lame, but you've got no choice but to ride it. I'll stay and guard your back."

       Adela was pawing at Oliver, crying out in anguish at the sight of his leg, crying softly. She said nothing but his name, and struggled to pull him to his feet.

       He moved his head like a man half asleep. "Adela? Are you...?" As he did so, he heard Elias cry out in pain, and saw the vision begin to fade. "My lord!" he gasped, torn between the two of them.

       "I'm fine, Oliver," she said, fiercely, as if she understood his dilemma, though she could not know the cause. "They'd barely begun." She gave a brittle laugh, brave, though very close to shattering. "I kicked them something good."

       "Go," Elias rasped.

       Oliver struggled to stand, and, helped by Adela, managed it, even though his leg screamed out in pain so intense that he had to bite down sharply on his lower lip to stifle a cry. "I can't," he pleaded, never looking away from the illusion. The cruelty had gone from his face, and he looked like his own Elias, his friend, who was badly wounded, and needed him. "I can't leave you like this."

       Elias laughed gently in his mind. "That's not me, Oliver. I'm miles away, safe. You're the one in danger now. I've done what I can, but I can't heal you properly, not from so far away. You've got to get to safety. Please go, Oliver. I want you to."

       Gritting his teeth, Oliver turned away, and struggled onto the horse. He sat on the saddle, beads of sweat breaking out on his brow, and close to fainting. When his vision cleared, he turned back.

       Elias was still standing there. As Adela urged the horse into a limping walk, he raised one hand in farewell. Then, before Oliver could give an answering salute, the path turned, and Elias was hidden.

      

 

       Thurstan had just stood and watched it all, just like he always did. They're arguing over my future, he had thought, once, but even then he had just stood and watched.

       Then the fight had started, and he wasn't even sure who he wanted to win. Ciaran was his teacher, and blameless in the matter, but Reynard was his father. Ciaran was fighting better, though. Reynard was all fury and lack of thought, and he was fighting only to kill, but Ciaran Morgan, armed only with a wooden staff, was parrying all the wild blows, with all the while with a sense of perfect stillness about him.

       It was the Shadow, Thurstan knew. Oh, but he had never imagined it would be like this! He had seen marvels done with the Shadow, but he had never realised that it could make a man fight like this. It sang silver in his mind, just because he was near to Ciaran Morgan.

       Thurstan wanted to rush forward and grab him by the arm. "Teach me," he would say. "I understand now. Teach me to be like you." Even as he had accepted the man's offer of apprenticeship, it had never felt like this before. Now none of the old things seemed to matter. He just wanted to be able to see the Shadow like Ciaran did. It didn't matter if no-one else knew about it, and no-one saw him do good deeds with it. It was wonderful all of itself, and he longed for it.

       He pressed his hands against the rough bark of the tree behind him. Reynard swung in low, but Ciaran was there in time, stopping it. Reynard had a bloody bruise on the side of his face, and Ciaran was bleeding from the upper arm. Far away, someone shouted, but no-one came running up to stop the fight.

       It's up to me, Thurstan thought. Reynard would not stop until either he or Ciaran Morgan was dead, and Ciaran could not draw back without being killed.

       "No," Thurstan whispered. No-one heard him. The word slipped away into the forest and was forgotten. "No," he said again. Then he pushed himself forward, rushing forward into the fight. "No!" he shouted. "Stop it!"

       "Go away, boy," Reynard snarled, without looking at him. "Do you want to get killed?"

       "So you'd kill me, would you?" Thurstan shouted. "You hate me so much that you'd rather risk killing me than stop?" He took another step forward, until he was close enough to feel the wind of the weapons cutting through the air.

       "Be careful, Thurstan," Ciaran panted. "He's not to be reasoned with."

       "Why not?" Thurstan demanded. He grabbed Reynard's arm, dragging it backwards. Reynard fought with incredible strength, but suddenly he yielded. "Why not?" Thurstan asked him. "Why won't you ever listen to me? Why do you hate me?"

       "I don't hate you." Reynard's voice was scratchy. "It's nothing to do with you."

       "Everyone keeps saying that, but it is. It is to do with me." The tears were back, threatening to blind him, but he blinked them away. Reynard of all people would never see them. "It might not be about me, but it feels like it is."

       Reynard looked at him, and Thurstan saw how tired he looked, and how there was grey beginning to grow at the sides of his hair. "But it isn't to do with you, lad. So just run along now. Leave us. You can't understand what's happening here."

       Thurstan folded his arms. Inside, he was trembling. "I won't go. I want answers. If it's not about me, who is it about? My mother? I didn't even know her name until you told me. My brother? I never met him. You? That's what the king says."

       "He has no right," Reynard spat.

       "But he does," Thurstan said. "He hates to see people unhappy, you know that. And it's his business, too, if his war leader, always so quick to speak of duty, fights his friends instead of his enemies."

       "At least I do fight!" Reynard shouted. "What you have you done all winter? Sit and sulk because you've ended up with me as a father? I haven't seen you offer your sword, or come forward to be trained."

       "Because you didn't ask me!" Thurstan cried. "I didn't think I was good enough."

       "Don't be stupid, boy," Reynard sneered. "You don't have to be asked." Then he frowned, and shook his head. "You really thought that?"

       "What else could I think?" Thurstan said. "So that's what your precious devotion to duty has done. You've lost the Kindred a fighter, and what have you done to their war leader?"

       Reynard let his sword fall. "But it's all I've got," he whispered. No-one was supposed to hear it, Thurstan thought.

       "No it isn't," Thurstan said. "Ciaran was right. And now he's going to teach me about the Shadow, and I'll be able to serve my people in a way that you can't do. And I'm not going to let you destroy me. And if you try to kill Ciaran Morgan again, I'll denounce you as a traitor." He looked at Ciaran, not at Reynard. "Shall we go now? I want today's lesson. It was wonderful, how you fought."

       Reynard was just standing there beneath the trees. He looked old, and very forlorn, but he said nothing to stop them leaving.

       "Or you can change things," Thurstan said, without turning round. "I will listen to an apology. I used to dream of what a father would be, but I know you're just a man. I don't expect it to be perfect, but I am still willing to get to know you. We serve the king better if we are not divided."

       Reynard said nothing. With a sigh, Thurstan walked away. Ciaran walked beside it, but through it all, he had not given Thurstan a word of advice. The words had been his own. So, although Thurstan still wanted to cry at what had happened, he wanted to smile, too.

       Just as they were at the bend in the path, he thought he heard it, a pleading voice speaking his name. But when he turned round, Reynard was still standing there, silent and unmoving.

      

 

       Lankin had watched it all, and no-one had seen him.

       He had been riding between his scouting parties when he had heard the sound of distant shots, and hurried to investigate. Guns were supposed to be used only in a final decisive attack, because they were noisy and ruined any surprise. He had been ready to lecture some idiot conscript on carelessness, but when he had arrived, they had already taken down their man, and were subduing the woman.

       Lankin had kept himself hidden throughout. He had laughed to himself at the man's pathetic illusion. Then the sorcerer king had come striding up, looking so real that Lankin had clenched his fists against the urge to rush forward and strike him down. That, too, was only illusion, he had reminded himself. There was no way the man would allow himself to be shot, just to save one of his people. Afterwards, when the soldiers had fled and the fugitives were riding away, Lankin was watching as the sorcerer had simply disappeared. He had smiled and let out a long breath when they had happened. Suddenly breathing had seemed so much easier.

       But by then he had been urging his horse forward, readying himself to follow. He was still smiling now, and still on their trail. They were traumatised and stupid, confident that their king could keep people from following them. They never knew, and following them was so easy, the easiest thing in the world.

      

 

       It was several hours before Adela allowed them to stop. Oliver, lost in a fog of pain, was beyond making decisions, and trusted her enough to let her decide when they were safe, and when they were not.

       "I told you to run," he murmured, as she helped him down from the saddle. Even with her help, his leg jarred horribly, and he would have fallen had she not lunged for him. "They nearly..."

       "But they did not," she said, briskly.

       She helped him lie down, but kept her face averted as she examined his leg. Still not looking at him, she reached for the dagger at her belt, and cut away the fabric that was covering the wound. She sucked in a breath when she saw the flesh. "I'll have to bind this." She looked round, one way, then the other, but still not letting him see her face. "I need water."

       "Adela," he whispered, reaching out one arm to her. "Stop. Come here. Please." His voice broke a little on the last word.

       "I need to help you," she snapped. She touched his leg a little too roughly, and he could not suppress a gasp of pain.

       He took a deep breath, and forced the pain to recede a little. "Why are you angry with me?"

       "I'm not," she shouted. Then, quieter but no less tense, she hissed, "I don't want you to die. You told me to go. You thought I was the sort of person who could..."

       "No." He used his bard's voice that could carry through all noise and emotion, and still be listened to. "I didn't want you to be hurt. You understand that, don't you?"

       "I said I wouldn't leave you." Her voice was almost surly. She was no longer making even a pretence of tending to his leg, but knelt beside him, with her head bowed, and her hands clasped tensely in her lap.

       "But I had to ask," he said, gently. "I couldn't love you, and do anything else."

       "And I couldn't love you, and obey." Her voice was dissolving in tears. She gave a strained laugh. "Look at me, crying..."

       He reached up and managed to find her cheek. "You have every cause," he said. "There is no shame in it."

       "I thought..." She sighed again, and pulled away from his touch, resuming her task, tearing of strips of cloak and binding the wound with capable hands. "I thought I could face anything." Her voice was strangely detached. "I always have, before. I laugh at things that perhaps I shouldn't. When things go wrong, I just carry on, and tell myself there's no point worrying about things I can't change."

       "I was thinking," Oliver began, more to have something to focus on through the pain, than for anything else. "When I was about to die, and you weren't there... I was thinking..." He gasped, and let out a long shaky breath. "I've been lucky. I never realised it before. You taught me the sort of that lesson. Death taught me the rest."

       "You didn't die," she said.

       "I could have." He closed his eyes. "I was alone, hurting, facing death. How many of our fighters have faced that over the years? I never knew. I thought I was sacrificing my life to duty, but everyone else makes sacrifices, too. We send out boys alone, and any one of them could die like that, alone, not knowing if they have betrayed their people to death by not being fast enough, not being strong enough."

       "You did not." She must have finished binding his wound, for her hands found his hand, and closed on it. "You told them nothing, and now they are gone."

       "They'll find us soon. It's only a matter of time."

       "Yes." Even in the darkness, he could see her nod. "But not through any failing of yours. The banner's safe, still in my saddle bags, and we are on the way home."

       "You can cry," he said, suddenly.

       She was silent for a very long time, as if giving the matter serious consideration. "I know," she said, at last, quite calmly, "but I think I'd better not. I'm not sure I'll be able to stop, and that won't get us anywhere, will it"

       Tears of his own welled up at that, and they were for himself, because it hurt so much, and for the Kindred, and all the tears she could not let herself shed. And it was for Elias, too. He was sure that it had cost Elias dearly, helping them, and he thought now that Elias had only been able to answer his call because Elias himself had been reaching out at just that time, lonely and needing a friend.

       "We're just people, Oliver," she said, neither shying away from his tears, nor comforting them. "We're not heroes or immortals. None of us are, not even Elias. We're just people, and this world throws so much at us, and expects us to cope."

       "I know." He wiped his hand over his eyes, smearing the tears. "Elias saved us. I hope he..." His voice trailed off. There were some things he could not tell even Adela.

       "Reynard will take care of him," Adela said, with certainty. "Now, I want you to worry about nothing more than keeping yourself safe. Don't you dare let your leg get infected, because I certainly can't carry you. I'll see to the horse's leg now, but we’ve got to ride again in a minute. We'll be home before you know it."

       She talked as much to give herself courage as to reassure him, he knew, and smiled sadly at her bravery. "Come here," he said, holding out his arms to her. "I just want to hold you. I thought..." He swallowed. "I thought I'd never..."

       "I'm here," she whispered, into his chest. "I've alive. We both are."

       He stroked her back, her neck, her shoulders, and she stiffened a little, and gasped. He froze, and felt cold all over. "You're hurt." He remembered her falling from the horse, and how stiffly she had held her arm afterwards.

       "Only a bruise," she said. She moved the arm, and did not wince, and he could see that she was telling the truth. "Don't worry about that, and hold me again."

       Once remembered, the full guilt of that terrible scene would not be forgotten. "But I betrayed you," he cried. "When you were behind them. They only saw you because I looked at you."

       "And I was scared," she replied, in a voice that started lightly, then began to falter. "I led you onto a bad path. I just wanted to hide. I wanted to darkest path, and didn't even look at the ground. It's my fault your horse fell. I..."

       "It doesn't matter," he said, and, suddenly, he believed it. What was the use of guilt and blame? There would be enough suffering in the future that it was useless to waste any time on recriminations. They had both been afraid, and they both loved each other. And they were safe, and they were together, and home was only a day away. Closing his eyes, he surrendered, and forgot everything but the joy and blessed relief of being alive to hold her.

       "We came through," she said, fiercely, her breath warm on his throat. "Now I think anything is possible."

       Just two years ago, he had been troubled and bleak, the reluctant leader of a people who were losing all hope of ever seeing their king. Now he had a wife and a friend and a king, and, though he was hurt, and though the days ahead would be terrible, he thought he would never be more happy than he was in this moment, enjoying the simple clinging embrace of two survivors spared by the storm.

       "So do I," he whispered, then lost all awareness of anything in the world but her kisses.

 

 

       Two days journey away, but still in the same forest, a wolf whimpered as it licked the face of a man who lay on the ground, and did not awaken. The wolf did not understand what had happened, but he knew this much: that the leader of his pack, whom he loved, was no longer there in his body. He was gone.

       The wolf had watched him fall. "I will help," the man had promised someone. But I don't know if I can survive this, he had realised later, when it was already too late. The person far away had not heard this, but the wolf had howled in misery, for he had understood the thought if not the words.

       And now the man was gone. Elias had thrown himself too far from away from his body, and had done too much, and now he couldn't find the way back. He had no idea where he was, but Cercamond was there, and he was laughing.

       The wolf knew nothing of this, and so he sat beside his master, licked his face, and brought him food that he would never eat.