The last of his people
The attack did not come without warning, but the warning came too late. By the time the breathless scout burst into the camp with the shocking news, the enemy was only minutes away. There was no time to prepare a proper defence. The Kindred were on home terrain and they were peerless warriors, but the enemy outnumbered them two to one. They planned to fight, but they also prepared to die. What else could they do?
Thurstan watched it all. He saw blanched shock on the faces of hardened warriors, when they heard that the unthinkable was happening. No-one understood how the enemy had been able to find them. It was impossible. The Kindred had known for months that Lord Darius, the new duke, would one day send an army to destroy the king, and they had planned how to meet each imagined threat, but this was one they had never foreseen.
None of them spoke to Thurstan. In the last minutes of their lives, they drew their weapons with grim purpose, and did what needed to be done. Thurstan stood in the middle of it, turning this way and that, until his lord found him and gave him his orders.
Thurstan disobeyed them. When the enemy rode through the arch of the watchtower, Thurstan was crouching behind a boulder far away, watching it. He saw the sun gleam on the silver banner, and he saw the pale young faces of the soldiers. He saw their swords, and flinched at the flash of their strange new weapons. He watched the Kindred, his own people, fall on the enemy from their hastily-found hiding places, and he smiled. Then he saw them die.
He saw traps fail, that should have worked. He saw illusions ignored, that should have sent the enemy screaming. He saw strong men fall shrieking to the ground. He saw them killed and captured, one by one by one. They were everyone he knew in the world, and when they were gone, he would have nobody. And they were dying, and he did nothing to help them, just watched.
"I'm sorry." He scraped his hand across the boulder, tearing the skin on his palm. "I'm so sorry," he moaned, pressed his hand to his face, tasting the salt of his tears and the iron of his blood. The blood made him feel sick, and he retched, but nothing came up.
Beneath him, on the steep banks of the road, the grass was steeped in blood. Thurstan's lord stood alone, fighting fiercely, but soon even he was overwhelmed. Thurstan saw the beginning of his torture, then turned his head away, unable to watch. When he turned back, his lord was gone, and he had no idea if he was alive or dead.
Thurstan had a sword of his own, but he did not unsheathe it. Maybe one more sword would have made a difference, but he did not join them in the defence. Maybe they would all have died anyway, but at least he would have died with them, doing his duty as a member of the Kindred. Maybe he could have avenged a few of them before he was killed, and he would have died knowing they were proud of him.
Maybe... He wept, his mouth open in a silent wail. There was nothing left of his life but maybes. Everyone he knew in the world was gone, and he was alone. And he deserved it. He had disobeyed his lord. He had failed them. He had betrayed them.
"I'm so sorry," he whispered, as the enemy soldiers strode across the battlefield, prodding bodies with their feet. Some were left as dead, for the crows to tear apart. Others moaned and stirred, and were hauled up and bound, then cast down again in a growing pile of prisoners. No-one would survive this. Thurstan was the only one left of his people. Everything depended on him now. It was too late for his people, but it was not too late for the cause.
His head fell forward. "I can't," he sobbed. "I don't want to." But they were gone. There was no-one left to scold him for sounding like a spoiled child. There was no-one to take this duty from him. There was no-one left but him.
Scrabbling backwards from the boulder, he pushed himself to his feet, and started to run. He left them behind, those poor, valiant men who had been everything to him. He abandoned them as if they were nothing to him, and ran to seek a man he had never met, a man who was his king. Perhaps the enemy followed him, but his eyes were too full of tears for him to see, and his heart too full of sorrow for him to care.
Everything blurred into one. Sometimes it was dark, and sometimes it was light, but he lost track of the days. It rained once, and that was not good, for it made the grass slippery. Then sun that followed the rain made the sweat pour down his face, and flies buzzed around him, as if he was already dead. Maybe he was. Everyone else was. His people were ghosts, and he was one of them.
But the pain went away when you were dead, and Thurstan's body was racked with pain. The pollen in the lowland meadows made his eyes stream, and insects bit him, and sometimes that made him cry, because it didn't seem fair that even such tiny things wanted to hurt him. His legs were on fire with a burning pain, and it felt as if a knife was twisting deep into his side, tearing him in half. When it hurt too badly, he had to stop, but only for a while. It wasn't safe.
Sometimes he ran past people, and they saw him. There were farmers tending their fields, and travellers, white faces peering out of hurtling coaches. They looked at him, but did not speak. Maybe they were agents of the enemy. Maybe they were tracking him all the way, sniggering at how pathetically he kept on running, as if he actually thought he had a chance of success. They would let him run for days before surrounding him and snatching him up just as he thought he was safe. Or they would watch him until he led them to the king, and then they would cut down the king and his people as cruelly as they had cut down Thurstan's lord. Maybe the best thing to do would be to stop right here, and lie down and wait for death. It was easier. It was safer.
But lying down brought sleep, and sleep brought dreams. Dreams were terrible. In his dreams, he saw his lord being cut down again and again. As he died, he screamed at Thurstan and called him traitor. "How could you do this to me?" he shrieked, and Thurstan had no answer, just to sob and turn away.
Soon the dreams followed him into daylight. The friends he had betrayed rounded on him, hurling accusations. His lord, very sorrowingly, told him that he had caused the death of his king. "I didn't!" Thurstan wailed, but his lord only shook his head, blood pouring down his face in rivulets. "You did," he told him. "And he will know it, and they will kill you for it, and you will deserve it." Then Thurstan's sobbed denials turned into wails of truth. "I did," he moaned. "I'm so sorry."
And so he ran, through meadows and hills, to the edge of the forest, and beyond. Every step took him further away from his home, and closer to the king who was the enemy's true quarry.
What was he like, this man who had won the loyalty of Thurstan's proud lord? Thurstan had been away hunting when the king had come to their camp, and afterwards he had pestered everyone to tell him about him, but they had refused. "Many people who would sell their mother's soul for the chance of capturing him," they had told him, "so it's best if as few people as possible know who he is."
"I won't betray him!" Thurstan had been innocent then, and had not yet known how easy it was to betray someone out of fear. "Don't you trust me?"
"I trust no-one with his life," his lord had told him. "Even the strongest man can break under torture, or be tricked into confiding a secret to someone who seems to be a friend. Too many people know already. If they come for us, at least you can say with all honesty that you know nothing. It might save you. It might save him."
"Did you know what was going to happen?" Thurstan asked aloud, speaking to the memory of his lord. Because now his lord was captured by men who wanted to know about the king. Thurstan was seeking the king, but enemies could be following him, and Thurstan could still be the death of him.
He sank to his knees beside a stream, and took in great mouthfuls of water. After that, he felt a little better, and the sun was shining dappled through the branches. His dark dreams receded. The king was all-powerful, or so the legends said. Of course everything would be all right. The king would be sitting on a throne in a moonlit glade, all shiny and white like the quartz statue on the watchtower. As soon as Thurstan told him what had happened, he would wave his hand and magic would flow from his fingers. "You did well," he would tell Thurstan, leading him to sit at his right hand. "Your warning came in time. They're all still alive, and I can rescue them. I can stop things hurting. I can make it so all this didn't even happen."
Then darkness fell, and there were strange sounds in the forest, and Thurstan realised that he had been lying beside the stream for hours, doing nothing. The branches whispered to each other, telling secrets, but Thurstan knew what they were saying. They were telling him that the king didn't care. The king was a stranger, enjoying fine wines and meats with his people in a fertile glade, and he would just turn away when Thurstan told his tale. "You betrayed them," he would say. "You, not me. Besides, they were all exiles. I won't risk my life to save them. You should have died with them, my boy, not come snivelling to me. It's not my problem."
Sobbing, he pushed himself to his feet and carried on running. The camp he was seeking moved from year to year, he had been told, but there were always markers that could be followed, by people who knew the secret of how to look for them. A stone carved with a faint curving pattern, like a crack made by the frost. A small square of bark missing from a tree. Two springy saplings knotted together. He saw the first few, but then, for hours on end, there was nothing. No markers. He stopped and turned a full circle, staggering from the dizziness that simple movement provoked. Had he run past them? What if every step was just taking him further away?
He fell to his knees, then forward onto his hands. Dribble leaked from his open mouth and fell into the grass. Perhaps he would just curl up here. If he took another step, he would just get himself even more lost. The thing to do was to wait. Make himself small so the enemy couldn't find him. Curl up and wait, and the king would find him, or else he would just die, and then he might meet his lord again somewhere beyond death, and his mother, too.
He let himself fall. His heart was pounding in his ears, making the whole forest pulse with throbbing menace. There was blood on his hands and his knees and his clothes were stinking. "Failed," he whispered, for he knew he could run no further, that he would never be able to stand up again.
Something jabbed him in the ribs. He opened his eyes sluggishly, and saw a man looking down on him, preparing to kick him one more time. Thurstan blinked, and saw two more men flanking him on either side. Their faces were grim and murderous, and they had bows in their hands, the arrows aimed at his stomach and heart. The man who had kicked him had drawn his sword.
Thurstan started to laugh. He rolled onto his side and heard his own laughter weaving sickeningly through the grey shadows. He had failed, and now they had come for him. How foolish they must think him. Better far to have rolled onto his back behind the boulders on the mountain, and offer his throat for the cutting. At least then it would have been quick.
The men were looking at him unforgivingly. "Who are you?" the one with the sword demanded. "What is your business here?"
But they knew. Of course they knew. They had followed him all the way, toying with him, watching his struggles and his hope. Now he was broken, their sport was over, and they had come to kill him. "I'm the one who got away," he giggled.
"This is no joke, boy," the man snapped. "I am not a patient man. Tell me your business, or I'll kill you. Simple as that."
"You're going to kill me anyway," Thurstan said.
"Maybe." The man gave a cold smile. "That depends on you, and what you say. If you come bringing danger to the one I serve, then, yes, I will kill you myself without a moment's regret. If not..." He raised his eyebrow, inviting Thurstan to fill in the unspoken words. The man had cropped hair and there was nothing soft about his face at all. Thurstan thought that even his mercy would be cruel.
"I didn't do anything," he whispered. "I did what I was told. My lord told me to come. But I got lost. I had to find the..." He clapped his hand to his mouth. Perhaps the enemy didn't know that the king was nearby. Perhaps they didn't realise just how great a prize Thurstan had almost led them to.
The man grabbed Thurstan's chin in a painful grip. "Who is your lord?"
"Was," Thurstan forced out through the pain. "They're all gone. All of them."
The weapons did not lower, but perhaps they relaxed a little. "Are you Kindred?" the man demanded. "And, if so, of which House?"
That at least was something he could answer, for he had been taught all his life to take pride in what he was. "Of no single House, but the protectors of all."
"An exile?" The man's face twisted in disgust. "You're young to be so fallen into evil."
The fury quite drove away his tears. "I am no exile," he blazed. "I was born in the mountains. The men the Kindred exiled were my family. They were kind to me, and they died. They died to protect the people who had cast them out. So don't you dare despise them."
The man's eyes narrowed. "The mountains? So is Gerhard your lord?"
"Dead." Thurstan closed his eyes. "Dead, or taken. The enemy came through the mountains, through the rock. It shouldn't have happened. It was impossible. I was supposed to tell the king, but I can't find him. And now you've found me, and you're going to kill me. I betrayed him. It's all been for nothing."
"The king?" he dimly heard the man say. "You want to tell this to the king?" Then something hit him hard on the side of the head, and he heard nothing more.
He woke up to the sound of voices. Someone was sharpening a sword with long smooth strokes, and Thurstan could smell wood-smoke and roasting meat. He was back home, he thought, surrounded by the sounds and smells he knew better than anything. Nobody was dead. If he opened his eyes he would see them, going about their business, living as they always had.
He stretched his fingers and toes, and yawned. He rolled onto his side, for he was sleepy and warm and aching, and thought he might be able to fall asleep again, and then he would feel even better when he woke up.
The voices stopped abruptly as he moved, and he sighed blearily, and brought his hands up to his throat, nestling into them like a sleeping animal. As a child in a camp full of men, he had long since learned how to feign sleep in order to hear secrets that would not normally be spoken of in front of him.
Sure enough, they started talking again. "I cannot support you on this, Reynard," a deep voice said. "He's only a child, and now he's all alone in the world. It is our duty to take him in and care for him as if he was one of our own."
"Do you pity him?" came the reply. "Pity is a weakness. The enemy doesn't hesitate to kill children. The cause comes first. Nothing else matters. If we act out of sentiment, then we compromise our cause."
Thurstan bit his lip to stifle a cry. The voices were strange to him, and his body hurt, so it was true, it was all true. His people were dead, and he was here. But where was here? These men had seemed like enemies, then they had seemed like Kindred, and now he had no idea who they were.
"He wouldn't say that," the first man said quietly. "He would say that pity is everything. If he only thought of his own safety, then his life isn't worth preserving. I heard him say those very words to you, only a few weeks ago. He says you're killing him, by making him live by your rules, not his own."
"I know what he said," the man called Reynard said, testily. "I was there, remember. And does this memory of yours extend to remembering what I told him then, and what I will still say now?"
The other man sighed. "I know. I swore the same oath you did, Reynard, and bear the same scar. I have supported you in things that some might call treason, but I still say that this is going too far. This is one messenger you cannot silence. If you send him away - which, in his condition, means to kill him - then you have to go through me."
"So it's come to this, then, Ranulf." Thurstan heard the sound of a knife being drawn, and trembled, terrified of attack. "Even you have fallen away from the cause. But I will fight this thing alone. I will never betray my oath."
"I still believe in the oaths I swore," Ranulf said patiently, "but, this time, the price is too great. If what the boy says is true, the king needs to know of it. Even if it isn't, the boy needs our help. He's one of us, and he's suffered a lot. We are not like our enemies, to harm a child like him."
"I brought him here, didn't I?" Reynard said in a tight voice. "I could have killed him on the spot, but did not. When he wakes up, I'll listen to what he has to say. Depending on what he says, I might even pass the message on to the king, or part of it. Then I'll wait until he's stronger and give him a horse and send him on his way. But I will not let the king see him as he is now. You know the risks as well as I do, Ranulf. And, on this, I will not change my mind."
Ranulf sighed. "I know. And I share your concerns, I really do. It's just... It's difficult, this path we have chosen to walk. It goes against everything we've ever been taught. We're traitors, Reynard, or so men would judge us, if they knew what we do."
Reynard gave a harsh laugh. "I know. And none more so than me. But I do not regret it, and I feel no doubts."
They fell silent again, but Thurstan lay rigid on his side, his heart racing with terror. I have to get away, he thought. It's not over. I have to run all over again.
But he must have fallen asleep again, for he woke up to find someone touching him softly on the shoulder.
It was the man with the cropped hair, but this time his face was wiped completely blank. "Do you really come from Gerhard?" he asked. "Or was it a lie?"
Thurstan's eyes wanted to stay closed. "I do," he mumbled. "Not a lie."
"Is Gerhard really dead?" the man whispered, his breath close to Thurstan's ear.
More asleep than awake, Thurstan nodded, and tried to swat the man away. "Dead. Taken. Prisoner. Hurt. I don't know." He rolled over, sobbing into the crook of his elbow. "Gone. Left me. Alone."
The man went away and did not come back.
The next time he woke up, he saw blue sky and golden-tinged clouds. He tried to sit up, and no-one stopped him. He looked from side to side, but there was no-one there. Perhaps he wasn't a prisoner after all, and the conversation he had overheard had only been a dream. He was not bound in any way, and there were no guards watching over him. No-one came rushing out of a nearby tent when he stood up, even though he made a bit of noise, more than Gerhard would have liked him to.
It made sense, he told himself, that the man called Reynard had distrusted him at first. Gerhard would have done the same, if a messenger had approached him without good proof of who he was. He would have confined him and threatened him until he was satisfied that he posed no threat to the Kindred. When the king's safety was involved, there was all the more need for caution. So that was all it was. They knew now that he was one of their own people. He was free to go now, free to find the king.
He had woken up beside a small fire at the centre of a circle of tents, but he caught glimpses of other tents beyond the trees, and knew that the main camp was a lot bigger. He wondered where the king was likely to be.
He started to walk, but it was hard, and it hurt. Every muscle in his body had stiffened, and he winced whenever he put his feet down. After a few steps, he stopped to recover his breath. As he did so, he heard voices from inside the nearest tent. It sounded as if they were arguing, but he could not catch the words. But the mere sound of them made the fear spike though him again. If there was even the slightest chance that Reynard wanted to kill him, he had to run. He had to get to the king. Until he had delivered his warning, he would never be free.
The fire crackled. The voices fell silent, and he froze. How loud his heartbeat was! His imagination raced, supplying horrid images of the truth. They were guarding him after all, but they thought he was asleep and too weak to move, so they had turned their backs for a little while. But now they knew he was trying to escape. They were picking up their daggers and coming to kill him. Reynard was leading them, and his eyes were cold black death. Thurstan would die, and that would be the end of everything.
He pressed his trembling hands together, pawed at his belt, and pressed them together again. He was unarmed. They had taken his dagger from him, and he had lost his sword long ago, without even noticing it falling from his hand. He was unarmed, and the sky was so blue above him, and green leaves made little circles of light dance on the ground. He was too hot. He was going to die, and he was too hot.
The voices started up again, and he started to run, and he could do it after all. "The king," he sobbed. "Where is he? I need to speak to the king."
No-one followed him. He found the other tents, but there were few people there. The trees were thick, and the tents were scattered between them in ones and twos. Paths meandered between them, but the undergrowth was thick, and the trees were still in full leaf. He could easily get lost. There was no great clearing where the king would be sitting on his throne, his people around him, moonlight illuminating his face. It was all wrong. It shouldn't be like this, he whispered. It shouldn't be like this at all.
Someone behind him was shouting. He ran faster, clutching at branches and tendrils and leaves. Fresh blood welled up on his palms, stained deep with green sap. He slipped on the grass, and almost fell. He continued to run, but was off-balance, and fell heavily onto his hands.
"Stop!" someone shouted. Would they shoot at him now? He had thought to die in the mountains, killed by a soldier in black, but instead he would die here in the green, killed by men he had thought were friends, and a king only he knew how to save.
He crawled forward a few paces, and struggled to stand. A few more teetering steps, and he fell again, his hands lunging forward and sliding on the grass. He rolled onto his side, then pushed himself up to his knees, and once more crawled.
He was sobbing, panting, moaning, all three at once, making a sound he didn't recognise as human. Something was trickling down his face. He could hear the sound of running water, just ahead of him, and tried to raise his head to see it. But all he could see was the ground. The grass beneath his palms was cropped short by rabbits, and he could see tiny pink flowers on stalks barely half an inch long, valiantly blooming although they would never grow tall. It made him want to cry. But perhaps he was crying already, for himself, and his king, and the whole world that was ending, and it was silly to even notice the flowers.
He stood, but his back was bent almost double, and his arms were pressed against his middle, and he was heaving great noisy breaths of exhaustion. "The king," he panted. "I need to see the king."
The stream was just in front of him, and the cropped grass was its bank. There were people on the other side, walking through the sunlight on a bank where the grass grew a foot high and the flowers bloomed freely. A woman walked with her arm hooked easily through a man's arm, and a second man walked half a step behind them. The woman was leaning towards her companion and laughing. The second man had snapped off a stem of a flower and was twisting it between his fingers, first one way, and then the other. His lips were moving as he whispered something under his breath.
It was another world. Here Thurstan was, hurt and hunted and bearing news that could determine the fate of the world, and these people walked through the flowers like carefree children, caring about nothing important.
Oh, how he wanted to live in that world! He plunged forward into the stream, and water rushed up to cover his head. It was deeper than he had thought, but then his feet found the bottom, and he was able to stand. It came up to his armpits, but the current was easy.
I want to be there, he thought. Pollen drifted like gold dust on the other side. But, on his side, people were shouting, and footsteps were pounding. Reynard and his men were chasing him, wanting to kill him.
The sunlit people, the people of gold, had seen him. The woman had not let her companion go, but all three were looking at him. They didn't know, he thought. They didn't know what danger was, or that he was struggling for his very life as they watched, and that he could die here, just outside their soft place of flowers.
Thurstan stumbled, and water covered his face. When he could see again, he was almost at the bank, and the second man was kneeling beside the stream, reaching for him with both hands. He had dropped his flower, and there was dirt on his sleeve.
"No," Thurstan whispered, and, "There. I've got you. There," the man crooned.
He felt arms pulling at him, and then he was suddenly on his knees on the far bank, where there was mud between the grass, and blades snapped off and damaged, just as there had been on the other side. People were shouting behind him, and, beyond his rescuer's shoulder, he saw armed men who had risen from the undergrowth beyond the flower meadow, and had their bows trained on his chest.
There was death on both sides of the river, and this was no refuge after all. Nothing had changed.
"The king," he sobbed. "I need to see the king."
The shouting behind him stopped abruptly, though he had heard no-one shout an order. There was no splashing, and no sound of anyone giving chase. He looked up and saw the other man, the one who had been walking with the woman. He was looking across the stream, and seemed to be shaking his head.
"The king," he said again. He started shivering, and the man who had pulled him from the water held his hands and chafed them, as if that could warm him up. Both men had their shirt sleeves rolled up and wore no cloaks, and they had nothing they could offer him to keep him warm.
"Why do you need him?" the man asked. He had dark hair and grey eyes, and Thurstan thought he looked kind.
"Warning." He was shuddering with the cold, and maybe something else.
The other man knelt down beside him too, but it was still the dark-haired man who spoke to him. "Speak your warning. I am Oliver, seneschal to the king."
But the shivering was driving all coherent thought from his mind. "The king..." he echoed.
"Speak," the seneschal said, gently. "The king will hear your words. Speak, and then you can sleep. You're safe now."
"Safe?" He lashed his head from side to side. Mud-streaked flowers clawed at his face. "None of us are safe. Never again. It's over."
The seneschal glanced at other man. All Thurstan could see only these two men's faces, and then the vast and eternal sky that just looked down for ever, but never cared.
"The king," Thurstan whispered. The king was carved crystal in the watchtower. He was a pair of eyes that shone with wisdom and light, and an arm that was stronger than any man's. The king would save him. He would speak the warning, and then the king would rise up and act, and everything would be well. It had to be.
"He's feverish." The younger man spoke at last, and touched Thurstan on the brow. His hand was soft and cool, and the coolness was strangely comforting, although Thurstan had thought himself as cold as ice.
"Speak," the seneschal urged him again. He looked scared. "I know it's hard, but speak your warning. You can sleep afterwards, I promise you. No-one will hurt you."
"The king," he breathed. A carved stone statue on a throne, so strong he knew everything already, and couldn't possibly need his warning. He would let himself sleep now. He wished the young man would touch his brow again.
"He's hurting badly," the young man said. "Let him rest. He's only a boy."
"And you little older, and do you ever spare yourself?" the seneschal snapped. "We can't take the risk. We need to know."
There was such pain in the young man's voice. Thurstan had closed his eyes, but opened them now. The man was looking at him with a compassion so strong that he wanted to weep for it. The men of the mountains were as hard as the rock that was their home, and he had never known his mother, or known care. Never before had anyone looked at him as if such silly things as his own comfort and happiness were the most important thing in the world. Don't leave me alone, he begged him silently. Please don't.
The young man smiled at him, a soft sad smile that was for no-one but him. "I won't," he murmured.
"No!" the seneschal shouted, in a voice that was a slap, a command. He grabbed the young man's wrist. "Don't!" he ordered. "Stop it!"
The young man shook his head dreamily. "He's hurting."
"He's exhausted," the seneschal hissed. "He's a little feverish, yes, but his life isn't in danger. He only needs a good night's sleep, and the attentions of an ordinary healer. That's all."
"He's hurting," the young man said again, and, "Don't touch him," the seneschal ordered, the two coming one after the other, like the clashing of swords in battle.
Thurstan blinked. He wasn't sure what was happening, or what they were talking about. The king's seneschal was a lofty position, and Gerhard would surely have struck anyone who had disobeyed him in the way this young man had disobeyed Oliver. For the young man was still touching him, and Thurstan found he was barely hurting at all, and his eyes were slipping shut.
"No," he heard the seneschal say, and it was almost a wail. "It's not worth it."
And then he slept.
His life was all about awakenings. This time, as he blinked, he saw bars of sunlight through the open door of a small hut. His body felt heavy and lethargic, but he felt little pain. Perhaps it was lying in wait for him, ready to leap out at him when he moved. Gritting his teeth, he tried to move his arm, and it responded easily, and the pain was only a vague and distant ache.
He pushed himself up onto his elbow and looked around, and his eyes met those of the young man from the river bank. He was sitting beside the bed in a wooden chair, his hands folded in his lap. He looked tired, but he was smiling.
Thurstan licked his lips. "Did you...?"
"No." The young man shook his head. "Not me. Oliver was right." He gave a wry smile. "As usual. It was mostly exhaustion. You've slept for a whole day and the healers have worked on you, and now you're almost better."
"What happened?" Thurstan asked. "Why were you arguing?"
"Oliver doesn't like me to..." The young man shook his head. "We just disagree about certain things. He's as bad as Reynard in many ways. They want to keep me protected from everything. They don't understand that..." Again, he abruptly stopped.
"Reynard?" Thurstan was unable to keep the disgust from his voice. "I met him."
"Yes." The young man grimaced. "I've heard about that. Some of it. The truth according to Reynard, anyway, which isn't the same thing. Enough to know."
"He wanted to keep me from the king. I think he wanted to kill me, even." He frowned suddenly, struck by a memory of something he had thought nothing of in his fever. "Did he know Gerhard?"
The young man nodded, but did not explain. "Don't be too harsh on him," he said. "He wouldn't have killed you. He just wanted to... to hear what you had to say first, and see if it was true. What better way for an assassin to infiltrate our camp than to pretend to be a messenger with urgent news? Reynard takes the safety of his king very personally. He doesn't trust anyone but himself to do the job properly." He gave a wry laugh. "And he certainly doesn't trust me."
But Thurstan thought the young man was wrong. The conversation he had overheard had been the plotting of conspirators. Whether meant well or meant badly, they wanted to make the king a prisoner, hearing only those things they let him hear, and committing atrocities in the name of protecting him.
"No," the young man said, in a surprisingly firm voice. "Don't hate Reynard. I know he's hard to like. But I... I knew someone else who was determined to hate him, and he was wrong, too, and the hatred gave him no pleasure."
"Why are you telling me this?" Thurstan asked. "Why does it matter what I think? Nothing matters, does it, except what I have to say?"
"It does matter, how you feel," the young man said, looking at Thurstan with a steady gaze. "It matters very much."
Thurstan turned his head away. "I just want to see the king. Then I can tell him what I have to tell him. And then I can…" Tears welled up in his throat and stopped him.
The silence seemed to last forever. Impossible words screamed in Thurstan's head, but he could not speak them. Die, or, Forget, or, Be happy.
"What can I do?" he sobbed, the words tearing bloodily out of his throat. "They're all dead. Dead or captured. All of them. I can give him my warning, but what difference will it make? I'm the only one left. Only me. Just me. Me alone. Just me."
The young man touched his shoulder. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." There was a catch in his voice, as if he too was fighting tears.
"Tell," Thurstan whispered, though his tears. "I need to... Warning. I must warn him."
He tried to pull away, straining for the door, but the young man pulled him into an embrace, holding him close with one arm wrapped around his shoulders, and the other stroking his hair. "Tell me," he murmured. "Talk about it. Don't bear it alone. You're never alone."
The soft comfort undid him. The tears came as if they would never stop. He was sixteen years old, just a boy playing at being a man. He had lost the only family he had ever known, and been given a responsibility that was too heavy for him. Here he was, snivelling like a baby in a stranger's arms, pressing his dribbling mouth into his shirt, and wailing.
He had dreamed of the moment he would tell his tale, reporting like a scout to his lord, doing his duty in a way that Gerhard would be proud of, but none of that mattered any more. The young man offered comfort, and Thurstan craved it. He poured it out with his tears, the tale that should have been told to his king with voice level and chin high. His face pressed into the young man's chest, he spoke.
He had been laughing at the start of it. He remembered that much, although he no longer remembered what had amused him so. His head had been thrown back, and his eyes squeezed shut. His lord had always told him he laughed too loudly.
"Gerhard," the scout had shouted, his voice fractured and breathless. The urgency of the shout had penetrated Thurstan's laughter, and he had frozen like that, mouth still open, head still tilted back. He must have looked comical, but no-one had looked at him at all. "They're coming," the scout had panted. His hands had been bleeding.
"Who?" his lord had stood, his left hand on his hip, and his right resting on the hilt of his sword. At the time, still stupidly unaware of how serious the situation was, Thurstan had thought how heroic he looked, how perfect.
"Soldiers." Someone had passed the scout a flask and he had taken a quick swig of water, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand even before he had swallowed it "About sixty of them, on horses. Coming this way."
"Close. Too close. They're riding the King's Road."
"The King's Road?" The shock of that news had been tangible. Men had looked at each other, and, for the first time, their faces had shown real fear. Scouts watched the plains and the lower slopes of the mountain, but the King's Road, the high road across the mountains, was closed to everyone but the Kindred. It was secure, and they had never thought to guard it. It was protected by something far greater than any man's sword.
"I only saw them by chance," the scout had gasped. "I wasn't even patrolling the road. And now they're too close. They'll be here in under half an hour."
Half an hour... Thurstan had found himself drawing his sword and assuming a defensive stance. His sword had scraped against the scabbard, and everyone had turned to look at him, but then they had looked away, their faces cold.
"They all knew what to do," Thurstan confessed to the young man. "All except me."
He had rushed to and fro, trying to find answers. Even Blaise, normally so quick to smile, had been grave. "It can't be happening! How can it be happening?" Thurstan had cried, but Blaise had only said, "It doesn't matter. They are coming; we defend ourselves. That is all we need to know. Now leave me. I have preparations to make, and so have you."
"But I don't know what to do!" Thurstan had wailed, but Blaise had not heard him. "It was as if the enemy had already killed him," Thurstan told the young man, "and I was talking to a ghost."
Everyone had passed by him, grey-faced men who looked like strangers, their scarred hands gripping their swords. Two men had hurried towards him, but then they had seemed to part around him like flowing water around a rock, before carrying on as if they had not even changed their course. It had been as if they had been living in a different world. They had been ghosts, already condemned to death, while he had been the one trapped in the land of the living.
When his lord had clapped him on his shoulder, he had screamed and lunged around clumsily with his sword. Gerhard had not cuffed him, or said a word to show how disgusted he was, and that had been the most frightening thing of all. All he had said was, "You must leave now."
Thurstan had cried out in denial. "Leave? I'm not leaving you. I can't."
His lord's eyes had been as hard and dangerous as Thurstan had ever seen them. "You will, Thurstan, because I command it. Are you going to disobey me?"
"But why?" Thurstan had begged. "Is it…? It's because you don't think I'm good enough. You think I'll let you down. But I won't. I've been practicing…"
"A warrior knows his weaknesses," his lord had said. "Only a foolish boy tries to pretend he is skilled when he is not. And you, Thurstan, are not, neither with the sword not with enchantment. I can spare you the easiest. No, don't sulk like a spoiled child. It's the truth." Then his voice had softened, as much as it ever could. "Besides, lad, you have the most important task of all. Everything depends on you."
"But to leave you…?" Thurstan had pleaded. "Please don't send me away."
His lord had slapped him across the face. "Do not question your duty. Do you for one moment believe that we're the ones the enemy wants? No. They've declared war on the king, and we just happen to be in the way. Oh, we'll fight them. Perhaps we'll drive them back, or perhaps we'll merely delay them. Perhaps we'll make no difference at all, and they'll sweep right past us towards the king. But he needs to know they're coming. Would you have your king live in ignorance until the enemy bursts into his camp as unexpectedly as they burst into ours?"
Yes! he had wanted to cry. Because I don't know him, and this is my home. But his lord would have killed him if he had spoken the words aloud, and so he had bitten his lip and said nothing.
"Someone has to carry the warning," his lord had said, "and I want it to be you. Yes, you're the person I can most readily spare from the defence. But you're a good lad. If it is my time to die, I will die easier knowing that you escaped."
Everything had blurred around Thurstan's tears. "If you die, I want to die with you."
"Did you hear a word I said? You have no choice. You have the most important task of all. Dying is the easy part, but you have to live. If you don't get through with your warning, it could mean the end of everything we have ever hoped for." His hands had dug into Thurstan's arms. "Everything, Thurstan. Tell him that. Tell him that the last defence has fallen. Darius is coming for him. We stood between him and the enemy, but we fell. They are coming, and he will be next."
"I don't know where to go," Thurstan had confessed. "Someone else should go. Someone who knows the way."
"Get someone to tell you the way," his lord had said. Already he had been standing up, ready to tend to things more important than Thurstan, to people he wanted to stay at his side. His hand had fallen one last time on Thurstan's shoulder. "Go. Remember my warning, and don't look back."
He was dry eyed as he told it. "And so I had to leave them," he whispered to the young man. "I had to turn my back on the only people I've ever known, to bring a warning to a man I've never met. The rest of the Kindred exiled them and hated them, but they gave their lives to protect them. And Reynard doesn't care. The king doesn't care. So I don't care what happens to them. Let them fight their own battles. I shouldn't have left. They were my people and they're dead and I should be dead with them."
"I do care," the young man said, but Thurstan could not bear to look at him. If he saw sympathy, he would be undone. Anger was the only thing keeping him going. He wanted to hate everyone, even Gerhard.
"He made me go. He didn't want me to stay." He gave a bitter laugh. "He'd have killed me if I'd said what I just said to him. He was devoted to the king. He used to be different, but in the end he cared about the cause more than he cared about anything else. More than he cared about me," he whispered.
There had been so little time left to say goodbye to the only home he had ever known. Everyone had been busy, rushing around arming themselves, talking of tactics. He had tugged at their sleeves to say goodbye, but they had waved him away and snapped at him. Someone had impatiently told him about the markers and how to find the king's camp, but no-one had wanted him around their feet. In the end, Gerhard had growled at him from across the camp, fiercely gesturing that he had to leave. "They were my family," he confessed. "I know many of them had committed crimes, but they were always kind to me. I never knew anyone else. I didn't want to leave them."
"So you stayed." There was no condemnation in the young man's voice.
Thurstan covered his eyes with his hands. "I stayed. I went a little way, then doubled back. I hid. I wanted to see. I had to. I couldn't leave them. And I... I don't think I really believed that they'd die. I thought it was all a mistake."
"I understand," the young man assured him. "I think few here would have done any different. Leaving is so hard. Walking away from someone who needs you seems so... cowardly."
"But I was a coward." He lowered his hands. "I disobeyed my lord and didn't run. But I didn't stay and fight either. I betrayed them. I just watched. I watched them all die, and did nothing."
"You obeyed your lord. You made sure his message got out. You made sure their stand wasn't for nothing."
"They all died," he wailed. They had all died, and he had watched. They had all died, and it shouldn't have happened! The enemy had no enchantment. The thirty men of the Kindred knew the mountains better than anybody, and could lay ambushes for the attackers. A few of them had skill with illusion, and that, coupled with the advantage of surprise, meant that they ought to have won. It should have been easy.
When the invading force appeared, not a single man of the Kindred was visible, and Thurstan hugged himself with glee, knowing that the ambush would be successful. Arrows swooped from the secret hiding places, striking the soldiers full in the chest. But few of them fell. They were wearing armour beneath their clothes, and they were armed with strange weapons that gouted fire and dispensed death at a distance. Most terrible of all, they were not deceived by illusion. The Kindred's attack was defeated, and then they revealed the second half of their force, that had crept along high in the mountains, to attack the ambushers from behind.
Everything fell apart. One by one, they died, cut down by swords and impaled by spikes and felled by the cruel weapons that only the enemy had. At last Gerhard stood alone, surrounded by half a dozen soldiers beneath a cold silver banner. Grim-faced, they beat him to his knees. The hacked at his right arm and almost severed it, and, when he tried to take his sword into his left hand, they stamped hard on his fingers.
"Bind him!" their captain ordered, with a dismissive flap of his hand. The cruel breeze carried every word to Thurstan's ears. "Lord Darius will have questions for him."
"Questions," one of the soldiers echoed. He pressed his dagger against Gerhard's cheek, pretending he was about to carve out his eye. "Where is this false king of yours? How is he defended? Oh yes. Lord Darius will get his answers."
Gerhard spat at him, heedless of the fact that the movement sent the dagger deep into his cheek, scraping sideways along the cheekbone. He wants them to kill him, Thurstan realised, so he won't be tortured and forced to betray his king. Unable to bear it, he turned his face away. When he dared to look again, Gerhard was gone, and the soldiers who had been tormented him gone with him.
"I don't even know if he's alive or not," he whispered, dimly aware that he was talking to the young man, though Gerhard seemed so much more real, and the screams of battle were far louder than the summer sounds of the forest. "I just watched. Perhaps I could have stopped it."
"They would have killed you," the young man said. "Would your death have helped him? How would he have reacted if you'd rushed out to try to save him?"
"He would have hated me," Thurstan admitted, at last. "He wanted the message to get out. If he died, he died thinking his death wasn't in vain, and the king would know the truth. If he's captured, he's thinking the same. If he'd seen me die, then it would have been as if I'd killed him, not them. He placed his trust in me. It was more important than anything to him, but I betrayed him. I didn't run. I stayed. I could have been captured and then... Then he would have died hating me. If he didn't already. He was always disappointed in me."
The man touched the back of Thurstan's hand. "Was he your father?"
Thurstan lay very still. "I don't know," he said, at last. "I used to think so. I've always hoped it was true. But he never said. He was kind to me, in his way, but he never hugged me, even when I was little. I used to dream of the day that he'd call me son and say he was proud of me, but he never did, and he sent me away."
"Did he know you thought you might be his son?" the young man asked. "He should have told you the truth, whatever it was."
"What difference would it have made?" Thurstan was quick to defend his lord. "I wouldn't mourn him any less as my lord than I would as my father. I loved him, whoever he was."
"It would make a difference to you, I think."
Thurstan swallowed. "I never knew who my parents were. I never had a mother. I never knew who I was. I want to know, and now I never will."
The young man traced a pattern on the edge of Thurstan's blanket. He seemed to be searching for the right words. "Gerhard has kin here. You... look a little like them. It's too close a similarity to be coincidence. I'm sure you were close kin to Gerhard."
"His son?" Thurstan threw off the blankets. "I have to go after him! If there's any chance that he's alive..."
The man tried to push him back down. "No, you're in no condition..."
"I have to go!" Thurstan screamed. "What do you care? You weren't there! They were going to torture him, and all because of your king. He might be my father, and I've never called him that, and never told him that I love him. I have to go. He's all I've got left. Please," he sobbed, for the young man was struggling with him, trying to hold him still.
"You're not alone," the man was crooning. "You've got a home here."
"I don't want a home here!" Thurstan shrieked. "I've already got a home. I hate you all! They died for you and Reynard wanted to kill me and you won't let me go after my lord and you didn't even care. You were just laughing in the flowers, but they're all dead, and they'll never laugh again and it's so cold on the mountains at night and there are horrid things that will eat them and you don't care, you don't care."
"I do." Gerhard would have struck him for such an outburst, but the young man just held him by the upper arms, and spoke in a voice that was firm and soft. "And we will go after Gerhard, I promise. I only tried to stop you because it's too soon. You're too weak. And, besides, you mustn't go alone."
Thurstan closed his eyes. "But who'd go with me?" I don't want anyone to go with me, he thought. If I can't have the people I want, I don't want anyone. How dare they think they can take my lord's place?
"I will," the young man said. "I will go myself, as Reynard knew I would, when he tried to stop you from reaching me. We'll go to the city, and, if Gerhard's alive, we'll find him and bring him back."
Thurstan looked at him and laughed. The man was only a few years older than Thurstan himself, and he was not tall. When he spoke, his voice was quiet, and there was an air of sadness even about his smiles. The only emotions that had truly reached his eyes had been his sympathy and desire to help. It was hard to think of him shouting with fury, and wielding a sword in a whirling circle of red death. Reynard, though Thurstan hated him, would be a better man for a rescue than this one.
"He won't have talked." It suddenly seemed a very important thing to say, and he hurled it like an accusation. Gerhard was strong, not like this frail man who wandered in the flowers and presumed to think he could rescue a man far greater than him. "They can hurt him all they like, but my lord won't talk."
The young man looked down at his hands. "But don't be too harsh on him if we find out that he did. Lord Darius has a way of... making you forget yourself."
Thurstan opened his mouth to scream his hatred, but, just at the last moment, he followed the direction of the young man's gaze, and saw the scars on his wrists. So this man had been captured, too. His life had not always been flowers and sunlight. Perhaps, when this man had been hurting, Thurstan had been laughing as he leapt from rock to rock, and had not known a thing about it.
"But we'll find him," the young man said. "I promise you. If he's dead, we'll mourn him and bury him. If he's alive, we'll rescue him."
He clasped Thurstan's hand once, and stood up, and Thurstan saw him fully for the first time. He was wearing dark brown breeches and a plain white shirt, both of them snagged by thorns and stained with old mud that had never quite washed out. He had fair hair just long enough to reach his shoulders, and pale blue eyes, and he was the only man Thurstan had ever seen who bore no sword. He didn't need to, Thurstan realised. His power lay in the hands that could push a man into sleep without him knowing it, and a voice that could utter a command without being raised above a whisper. He was a man who was more powerful without a sword than even Gerhard had ever been with one.
Thurstan found himself laughing. "You're the king," he managed to say. "You are, aren't you?"
The young man stood very still. "Yes," he said, at last, inclining his head just a little bit. "But my name's Elias, and that's what you call me."
Thurstan slid from the bed to the floor, so he was kneeling. He was no longer laughing. "My lord," he pleaded, "punish me for what I did. Punish me for the things I said."
The king crouched down beside him, and gently raised his head. "Gerhard is still your lord," he said, gently, "and you failed neither him nor me."
He couldn't help it. He let his head fall forward into those strong and tender hands, and wept.