Chapter seventeen

Promises

 

      

       They stood together side by side, simply watching the water. Ciaran knew full well what was happening on the far side of the stream, but he deliberately did not raise his eyes to look at what was gathering there.

       "And that's how I know," Elias said, when neither Ciaran nor Oliver spoke. "That's what I saw." His voice was stronger today, but it still sounded frail.

       The stream trickled between grassy banks that would soon be barren, if Elias was right. Oliver was the first to break the silence. "I don't think you've told us everything, though, have you?"

       Ciaran had thought the same. "What are you hiding?" he demanded. Since his realisation that Elias had always kept things hidden from him, he was noticing secrets everywhere. He knew how to read a lie on Elias's face.

       "Nothing important." Elias looked at him, his bleak face beseeching him not to press. "Just... small things I... I'd rather not talk about."

       "I wish you wouldn't," Oliver said sadly. "If it's something that's preying on your mind... Perhaps we can help."

       Elias turned to Oliver. "It's not like that. Please."

       He's protecting him, Ciaran realised suddenly. Elias had left things out of his account to spare Oliver's feelings. It wasn't hard to guess what, and perhaps Oliver realised the same, too, for his expression tightened, and he looked away. There had been obvious holes in Elias's account of the great enchanters and their actions. Clearly they weren't the mighty beings Oliver thought they were, and the sorrow that was befalling the world was their own fault. The Kindred's revered ancestors had unleashed the enemy, and not the people of the duchy, whom the Kindred had been so accustomed the hate. How ironic, and how hard for people like Reynard to accept.

       "How long have you got before he attacks?" Ciaran was happier asking questions now he knew that Elias had been concealing things from Oliver, and not him.

       Elias was twisting his hands in front of him. "I don't know. It's already started. It had started last year. Remember when I was sick? I think that was Cercamond, too. I heard his voice. I thought it was just a fever dream, but now I've heard him again for real... It was him even then. I know it."

       Ciaran closed his eyes for a moment. He had heard laughter, too, when he had been trying to heal Elias. He was wondering whether to tell Elias about it, when Oliver spoke instead. "How was that him?"

       "He no longer has bodily form," Elias said. "And he's... absorbed sorcery itself. He's not even like a spirit, confined to one place. He can be everywhere. A million specks of dust scattered through the world... A tiny speck is all it takes to cause a disease. Ten or a hundred specks together can kill a rose. A few more, perhaps, can possess a man and make him slave to Cercamond's will. I saw that happen, too, to a man I met on the way to the city."

       It sounded ridiculous. "How can he do that?" Ciaran demanded.

       "Enchantment is everywhere," Elias said, "in every living thing, in every drop of water and every grain of sand. Sorcery was one like that, too. And Cercamond is sorcery controlled by a single mind. He can see into the hearts of everyone alive. He can be everywhere."

       "How did he escape?" Oliver asked.

       "Over the years?" Elias shook his head. "I don't know. Maybe because the walls of the Shroud of Dreams were made to keep men locked up inside, and Cercamond is no longer a man. Maybe he could... seep through, like water seeping through something that a solid thing can't pass through."

       "It's because the walls grew weaker," Oliver gasped. "We haven't guarded them, and that's why he could slip through. That's it, isn't it?"

       Elias was slow to answer. "I think that's true," he said at last, "but it's not the fault of the Kindred. It's not just that you've grown less able to sense the enchantment. Enchantment itself is weaker. It was so strong back then. Everything shone. Enchantment was like... like blazing sunlight, when now it's only silver, like the moon. That's why your people declined. That's why the great works of the past are weaker now, because there's less enchantment to keep them alive."

        "But Cercamond was still in the Shroud of Dreams when we were there," Ciaran interrupted. "I felt him there." It was the first time he had admitted as much even to himself, since leaving that awful place.

       "He was, yes." Elias looked down at the ground and said nothing more.

       Oliver was looking across the stream, watching what was happening there. "How can we fight him?"

       "I don't know." Elias still did not look up. "He's everywhere. How do we fight that? I was powerless against him last night. But I know that he's afraid of me, despite what he says. So there must be a way to fight him. I just don't know how."

       "You defeated him when you were ill," Ciaran told him.

       "No, I only drove him out, or he chose to go. And that only a tiny part of him."

       "But they beat him twice in the past," Ciaran persisted.

       Elias looked at him. "There were nine of them the first time, and enchantment was stronger. The second time there were five. And he was only a man, then. He's stronger than ever, and there's only one of me, and enchantment isn't what it was."

       "But you've got the Shadow, too," Ciaran told him, "and they didn't."

       "And you've got us," Oliver said fiercely. Ciaran felt that he should have said that, first. "All of us. All of them." He gestured over the stream with his chin.

       "I know." Elias's shoulders slumped. "I have to speak to them now, don't I? Oh, Oliver, what can I say? How can I promise them...?"

       They were both looking across the stream now, and Ciaran finally looked, too. The First House of the Kindred had gathered, summoned by their king. They were utterly still, just watching, their eyes never leaving Elias.

       Elias stepped forward, palms spread at his side, telling Ciaran and Oliver to stay back. The two of them exchanged a quick look and hurried forward to stand at Elias's side. When Elias reached the edge of the water, he stopped. Folding his hands in front of him, he raised his head to look directly at the Kindred. When he spoke, it was in his now-familiar unearthly whisper, but he must have used enchantment, too, for his words carried easily, and they made Ciaran want to shiver.

       "I have summoned you here this morning," Elias told them, "with a heavy heart. Yesterday, you celebrated my homecoming, but I come with dark tidings. The time you have most dreaded has come."

       "The enemy!" someone gasped, drawing their sword. The sound of the weapon was loud and grating in the silence, and the man, chastened, sheathed it again.

       "For five hundred years," Elias said, "your enemy has been the soldiers of the duchy." He glanced at the man who had drawn his sword. "And they are still dangerous. The duke, Lord Darius, is raising a great army and has sworn to wipe us out. They have already started the offensive. Darius has taught his men not to be fooled by illusion. Worse, Darius, who leads the duchy in a campaign to eradicate enchantment, possesses the gift himself."

       There were more interruptions then, gasps and cries of "traitor!" A woman on the front row pressed her hand to her mouth. Reynard, who had known this already, touched his new sword and glowered.

       Elias looked at them, and the whispers were silenced with just that look. "But Darius is not the enemy," he told them. "The danger he poses is very real, but he is only a man. He is not the true enemy. You have endured the long centuries of your exile," he said, "because it was foretold that one day a great evil would threaten the world, and that you had a part to play in fighting it. That day has come. The evil is here, and it is an old evil reborn. His name is Cercamond, twice banished by your forefathers, and called by them the last enemy.

       "The threat he poses is to all mankind," Elias said, "to Kindred and duchy alike. He is no longer a man, but a spirit, who can be everywhere at once." Some of them looked up at the sky, and others hugged themselves closer, and shivered. "He is plague, and the death of grass. And it has already started. I have seen it. Winter is coming, and Cercamond wishes that there is never a spring."

       Don't, Ciaran wanted to beg. Don't tell them this. Let them be happy, and ignorant. But Elias knew these truths, and more. Why should he suffer them alone, just to allow his people to live in a false delusion of happiness?

       "But hope is not lost." Elias drew his sword, and it shone brilliant white, for it was whole once again, and so was the man who wielded it. Ciaran could sense the Shadow coiled richly about him, but it was strange, glowing with the whiteness of enchantment. "I have sworn oaths to you before, but I swear them again, ten times over. To this fight, I dedicate myself, heart and soul. I cannot promise you victory, but I can promise you this: that I will fight with everything that I am. I will never give up."

       He lowered the sword, and sheathed it. Did anyone else see how his hand was trembling?

       "And I swear to stand beside you," a voice cried out from over the stream. It was Reynard, and he hurled himself forward into the water, plunging through it to Elias's side. "I will never rest from the fight, as long as I have breath in my body." He knelt before Elias, and offered him his sword, hilt outwards.

       Before Elias could take it, another man was there, and then another. There faces were wild and fierce, and some were weeping. Even those who did not cross were kneeling, their hands pressed to their chests. They were giving their king their everything.

       It wasn't a symbol that they were swearing themselves to. It wasn't a frail boy who bore the title of king and the hopes of five hundred years. They were swearing themselves to Elias himself, because of who he was. They loved him, Ciaran realised. Looking at Elias, Ciaran knew why. Elias had spoken like a bard, beautiful words uttered with sincerity. He had been humble and strong, hiding his own fear for the sake of others. Could Ciaran have done as much? He doubted it.

       Ciaran looked away. He closed his eyes, and imagined Elias as he once had been, as he still often was in Ciaran's imaginings. You don’t know me, Elias had accused him, and Ciaran had denied it, but it was true. The Elias Ciaran knew could never have given a speech like that, that made men like Reynard helpless with devotion. Elias was not the person Ciaran thought he was. Over the months apart, he had grown and changed and become a dazzling stranger. And I want to get to know him, Ciaran realised. I want to be with him.

       "I accept," whispered the stranger that Elias had become. "Sheathe your swords. Please." The last word was mouthed, the face turning away so only Ciaran saw it.

       Oliver started speaking then, addressing the Kindred, saying things that Elias had not. The fight was not yet, he told them. The danger was close, but they had to carry on living as they always had. They had to show Cercamond that they were fiercely alive, and determined to stay that way. They would not give him the chance to gloat that he had conquered them already, just with despair.

       As Oliver spoke, Elias's eyes met Ciaran's, and he gave a curiously shy smile. Ciaran smiled back. Then Elias was caught up in a knot of the Kindred, all asking questions and awaiting orders, but Ciaran still smiled.

      

 

       When Reynard turned round, the boy was looking at him, just standing there looking at him. They said he looked like Reynard himself, but in that moment Reynard thought he looked very like his mother.

       They boy had not crossed the stream, though every man with a good sword and a strong arm had followed Reynard's lead and sworn allegiance to their king in these darkest of times. He was hanging back, even behind the children, as if he wasn't really part of the Kindred at all.

       Why was he looking at Reynard like that, as if he wanted to come forward and swear with the rest of them, but Reynard was stopping him? He wasn't afraid, was he? He probably was. He was disgusted to find out who his father was, and terrified of coming too close to him in case Reynard spoke to him. So he was weak like his mother. A true man of the Kindred never put fears and private disagreements before duty. Thurstan and Reynard should be able to fight side by side, even if they hated each other.

       Someone called his name, and Reynard turned away, answering some simple question about who should be on patrol. The warriors were crowding around him, but none of them had another question for him.

       The boy was still there, but he had edged a bit closer. Reynard looked round, trying to find something to do. It wasn't that he didn't want to talk to the boy, but duty came first now, more than ever. There was no time to worry about such trivial things as a boy's feelings, or about getting to know a son. Such things did not help the king fight his battle, or help keep the world alive.

       Thurstan was still looking at him. Reynard had grown rather grudgingly to like the boy during their journey to the city. He had always faced up to his fears with a dogged sort of courage, and perhaps he had even saved all their lives on the desperate flight to the river. Reynard had thought of him quite a bit after they were separated, hoping that the boy had found his way home unharmed. He was relieved to see him well, but that was as far as it went. He had no desire to get to know him.

       This was Beatrice's son. This was the child of the woman who had betrayed him. He had been raised by Gerhard as an act of vengeance, and looked up to Reynard's treacherous brother and called him lord. Why should Reynard want a living reminder of Beatrice's betrayal around him every day?

       The king was walking away now, and Ciaran Morgan, smiling, fell into step with him. Oliver had linked arms with Adela. Everyone was dispersing. Some of them looked a little flat, faced with the aftermath of the king's speech and the intensity of the oath-taking. Parents were hugging their children, and couples were holding hands. The future was bleak, and they wanted to be together.

       They were weak, Reynard thought. His warriors were still with him, ready to fight and die to keep the weaker people alive. That was what duty met. In the Shroud of Dreams, tempted by Beatrice, Reynard had renounced love. If Thurstan had to cry a few tears because of it, then it was a small cost when set against the greater good.

       "Come with me," he said to his fighters. The boy was on the bank of the stream now, looking as if he was about to cross. Reynard took his men and strode along the bank, and crossed at a lower place, where it was shallower.

       He only looked at Thurstan once more, but the boy was already walking away with quick angry steps. Someone tried to speak to him, but he shoved them away.

       Reynard walked back to the camp, followed by men who knew what duty was, and would obey his every word. The king had got there ahead of him. The majesty of enchantment about him was even more obvious than it had been in the hills, but it was only a fraction of the white glory Reynard had seen in the tower. In the tower…

       He wouldn't think about it. He wouldn't think about the white light, and how lovely it had felt as it had washed over his skin, how far beyond lovely. He wouldn't think of the voice that had whispered so softly in his mind. It had looked into his heart, and sorrowed at what it saw. How can you revere enchantment? it had asked him, when you have renounced love? Without pity, enchantment is cold and empty. Without love, it is nothing.

       No, he wouldn't think of that. It had tried to make him think about it all the way home, but now the king had spoken, and the enemy was revealed. Reynard was Kindred, and he would fight for his people and his king. He would do his bit to keep enchantment and the world alive. When the world was saved, the people left alive in it could love and laugh, but only because others had been stronger than that, and had given their lives to sacrifice and duty. And he, Reynard, would be one of those others.

      

 

       Oliver flipped up the catch that held the chest closed. "Not locked."

       Adela said nothing. She had come because he had asked her to, and he was glad that she was here with him. He had put this thing off for far too long.

       He raised the lid, and it stayed open just past vertical, held by tight hinges. There were clothes on the top, though not many. They had been put away badly crumpled, as if Amalric had packed in a hurry, thrusting the remaining clothes back into the chest and forcing the lid close on top. Oliver shook the first shirt out. It should have been passed on to others many weeks before now, but Oliver, the only one who could assign Amalric's possessions, had not done so, and no-one had asked him.

       Beneath the scrumpled clothes, lying on its side between two shirts, was a wooden dog. Oliver gasped as he drew it out. "I remember this." The dog stood on a flat rectangle of wood, with wheels at each corner. It still had a grubby string around its neck. "Father made it for him. He used to pull it along behind him everywhere he went. The wheels used to squeak." He tried to rotate one wheel with his finger, but it was too stiff. "You could hear him coming before you saw him. The other boys used to hide. But it was always me he was looking for, not them."

       "I remember him," Adela said, with a smile.

       Oliver looked at her. "You remember?" But of course she did. There were only two hundred of them in the First House of the Kindred. Everyone touched the lives of everyone else in some way. No-one could be entirely a stranger, though Amalric had come close. Of all the people who had grieved at his funeral, none of them had really known him. Amalric had made it that way.

       He placed the dog on top of the pile of shirts. Amalric must have taken it out recently for it to be lying there, above the shirts he had worn last winter. What had he been thinking as he had held it? Had he been longing for his childhood again, when he had followed his brother everywhere, and Oliver had let him?

       There were more clothes beneath the dog. Under them, he found a small box, carved with intricate but clumsy flowers. Oliver opened it, then slammed it shut again. "I can't do this. It's not right. I should leave him his secrets."

       "If that's what you think is right," Adela said. "You are here to remember him and to say goodbye."

       "Yes." He lowered the box, but still held it. He had buried his brother two months ago, but he had not really said goodbye to him. His thoughts had been too full of Elias, of his king whose story had not yet come to an end. Now Elias was back, and this morning, on the banks of the stream, he had told the Kindred that the time of danger had come. Today was the ending of one age, and the start of another. It was a time to say goodbye, and a time to make peace and face the future.

       He raised the box again and this time he opened the lid fully. Inside he found a lock of hair and a crumbling sprig of herb. He touched neither. Whose hair could it be? "Was Amalric ever courting?" he asked Adela, who had a sharp eye when it came to watching other people, and had received the confidences of many young women.

       She shook her head. "Not that I noticed. He seemed to be interested in someone once, a few years ago, but it never got beyond longing looks on his part. She was spoken for. I don't think she ever knew."

       So that meant that the hair had been taken in secret, to remember a girl who would never love him, and she had meant enough to Amalric for him to keep the hair still. Oliver had never even noticed.

       "What’s the plant?" Adela asked.

       Oliver did not dare touch it in case it crumbled, but he raised the box to his face and caught a musty echo of the scent it had once had. The smell brought memory.

       "I remember," he breathed. "I used to talk all the time to him about how I one day I'd travel the world. He followed me once, all the way to the edge of the forest. It took us days. Just before we reached the edge, I found this herb, in a little damp valley. I'd keep a sprig, I told him, to remind myself that one day I'd go to places where all the plants were strange. He picked a bit, too. Mine got lost. We got attacked, you see, when we got to the edge of the forest. Amalric could have died because of my dreams of adventure. But he must have kept his. He must have remembered."

       There were tears in his eyes now. What else didn't he know about his brother? He put the box down on the clothes, then something else caught his eyes, wrapped in cloth and placed against the wall of the tent, behind the chest. Even as he was unwrapping it, he knew what it was.

       "My father's sword." He did not touch the blade. "He never wore it after he was blinded, and I often wondered what had happened to it. I wonder... I wonder if he kept it to help him remember that he had once been strong, and Amalric took it from his tent after he died, or if he gave it to Amalric. But Amalric never used it. He probably thought he wasn't worthy of it. Did he look at it every night and torment himself with the thought of the greatness he was failing to live up to?"

       "You did everything you could do him," Adela told him.

       "But I didn't." He could state it without tears by now. "I loved him, but I never really liked him. We had nothing much in common. But I confided in him. For years, I confided in him because I had no-one else. But then Elias came, and then you. I tried to stay friendly with him, but he knew. All along, he knew that he was second best."

       "Not at the end," Adela said firmly. "Reynard chose him to go with him, and he was proud of that. He saved Thurstan's life."

       Oliver did not answer. He only had Thurstan's word that Amalric had died content, but he thought the boy was too young and naïve to lie about such things, so that would have to stand as his only consolation.

       "But he's dead." He started to scoop Amalric's belongings into the bags he had brought with him. "My brother's dead, and we're still alive." It sounded brutal, but he knew Adela would understand. He could spend his whole life in regrets, but that would not help the Kindred. His duty was to the people who were still living. He had to remember Amalric, but lay him to rest.

       "I'll give the clothes to whoever needs them," he said. The hair and the herb he thought he would give to the wind, for they were too sad and secret to keep. Oliver would keep his father's sword, and he would keep the dog, too, in case he and Adela lived long enough to have children. He would call his first son Amalric, and not fail him as he had failed his brother.

       Adela was looking at him, and he realised that he had laid the bag down, and was making no attempt to go.

       "Ciaran Morgan can stay in the tent," he said, "for as long as he wants to." Ciaran had slept there the night before. Oliver himself had offered the bed, but he had hated the thought of that man rifling through Amalric's belongings before even Oliver had done his duty and looked at them.

       Adela had folded her hands in her lap. "What is it?" She smiled. "I know you, Oliver. There's something else. This isn't just about Amalric."

       Of course it wasn't. Standing beside Elias in the morning, Oliver had come to a realisation. The world was in danger, and they needed every weapon that they could get. The most powerful weapon of all, only Elias could wield, but Oliver could fight, too. There was something that only he could do, but it meant going away.

       "I've got to go," he said. He couldn't look at her. "Would you mind very much? There's something I need to do."

       She paused only for a moment. "I would understand," she said. "I always knew I was marrying the Kindred's seneschal, and that his duty would always have to come first." And then her hands were on his cheeks, pulling his forward. When she spoke again, it was in a low voice, warm breath on his neck. "But I have one question for you, too. Will you answer it?"

       "Yes," he breathed.

       "Why do you have to go alone?" She laughed. "Don't answer. That's not the question." He pulled away, and he saw suddenly how nervous she was, she who never seemed to be afraid of anything. "Can I come with you?"

       He had never even considered it. It had never occurred to him that someone else might be able to share this burden with him. It would be dangerous, of course, but she was probably a tougher fighter than he was, and two could face things that one alone could not. Staying at home was certainly no guarantee of safety. He would rather die at her side, than come back to find her dead without him.

       "Of course you can," he said. "If you want to. Don't feel obliged to..."

       She held up her hand to stop him. "Don't say anything more. Just tell me when we're leaving."

       "Tonight." He glanced down at his father's sword. "No. Tomorrow morning."

       She didn't even ask him where they were going, or what they were going to do there. "Let's go and pack."

       They walked from the tent together, and they were smiling.

 

 

       He came upon him by accident in the end, just rounded a corner and there he was. Thurstan stopped dead. Reynard had seen him immediately, of course, because he was that sort of man. He said nothing, merely bent more closely over the snare he was resetting. A dead rabbit was crumpled at his feet.

       Thurstan wanted to ball up his fists and hit the man's unrelenting back. This man was his father. This man had killed Gerhard. But Gerhard was the one who had lied to him, and Reynard had only killed him because Gerhard had wanted him to. It wasn't Reynard's fault, then. Gerhard was the one Thurstan ought to hate, not Reynard, who had been deceived as badly as Thurstan had been. Reynard hadn't known the truth.

       He made the decision, and walked forward. "Reynard." His voice was hoarse. "Why won't you talk to me?"

       "Weren't you listening, boy?" Reynard still did not look up. "Didn't you hear what the king said? There's hundreds of things that need doing. Important things."

       Thurstan dug his nails into his palms. I don't want your excuses. I just want you to look at me. "I won't take much of your time."

       Reynard's hands were very still. "You have me here, then. What do you want me to say?"

       The dead rabbit's neck was broken. Reynard had done that, Thurstan thought, just like he had killed Gerhard, quick and brutal. "You didn't know you were my father? It wasn't that you knew, but didn't come for me?" Reynard didn't answer, and Thurstan felt his heart start to race. "What was my mother's name?"

       "Gerhard didn't even tell you that?" It was a little softer, and Reynard at least glanced at him as he said it, but Thurstan didn't want his pity.

       "No." He might hate Gerhard, but he would not let Reynard say bad things about him. "He never lied to me. He didn't ever say he was my father. I just... hoped."

       "Because you wanted him as your father." Reynard turned back to the snare, though there was no work left to be done on it. "He always did have the ability to make foolish people admire him."

       "I didn't want him as my father!" Thurstan burst out. "I just wanted a father. I wanted a mother. I wanted... I just wanted someone."

       "You're Kindred." Reynard's voice had a harsh edge to it. "That should be enough."

       "Why are you like this?" Thurstan cried. "Are you ashamed of me?"

       Reynard let out a tight breath. "I am not. You did well in the citadel. You were scared, yes, but you didn't give in to your fear. You are a good lad."

       "But that's not enough for you." Thurstan drove his heel into the earth and twisted it around. "I don't expect you to love me. I don't even expect us to like each other. But I just want... I just want to know who I am! I want to know about my mother! I want..." I just want you not to despise the very idea of having me as a son.

       "Your mother," Reynard snapped. "Her name was Beatrice. We were married, but she decided she preferred my brother to me, just like you do. She left. She had a baby. She died. That she was dead, Gerhard told me. That she had given birth to my son, he never did. So you wonder why I hated Gerhard? That is why. Are you happy now?"

       "Amalric told me most of that," Thurstan murmured, then realised his mistake when Reynard rounded on him.

       "He did, did he? What else did he say? What else do they say about me?" He drove one fist into the other palm, then let out a sigh that quivered with anger. "No," he said. "It doesn't matter what they think. It won't stop me fighting."

       Thurstan pressed his fist to his mouth. "I'm not Gerhard," he managed to say. "I'm not her." Beatrice, he whispered to himself. His mother. Beatrice. Had she lived long enough to love him?

       "I don't know what you want from me," Reynard snapped. "I have sworn oaths. They come first. Anyone who gets in the way of my oaths is my enemy."

       But I'm your son! Thurstan bit the inside of his mouth.

       "I am not one of the weak ones, who lets friendship blind themselves to duty," Reynard said. "You might be my son, but don't expect any favours from me. If a man does his duty, I respect him. If he does not, I despise him, even if he is kin."

       "I'll do my duty," Thurstan protested. "I know I ran away before, but only because Gerhard ordered me to. I didn't want to."

       "You had a brother," Reynard said, as if he hadn't spoken. "He was Beatrice's child, too. When the king came, this son of hers tried to kill him because he was jealous. Did he expect me to choose the ties of blood over duty? I did not then, and I never will."

       "What happened to him? Did you... You didn't kill him?"

       "His own sins killed him." Reynard's face was so cold that Thurstan felt chilled.

       "You hate your own son." The words were terrible to speak aloud.

       Reynard paused for a moment. "I don't hate him. I... understood him. I even mourned him. But that doesn't change anything. The Kindred comes first. I would have killed him if I had to."

       Thurstan was almost crying. "I'm not him. I'm not a traitor."

       "No?" Reynard looked fully at him for the first time. "You're probably not. You seem a good lad. But I am the war leader of the First House of the Kindred, and this is our time of trial. I cannot be a father."

       But it wasn't true, Thurstan thought. It was just that Thurstan wasn't the sort of son he wanted. "I didn't ask to be your son," he mumbled.

       Reynard stood up. "You said you wanted to talk. I talked. What now?"

       Everything was blurry through the tears, and Reynard's face didn't even look human. "You're my father." Thurstan pressed his fist into his mouth, grinding it against his teeth. He couldn't say another word. Reynard picked up the rabbit, but Thurstan didn't give him the chance to be the one to walk away. He pushed him back with both hands. "You've had your chance," he spat. "I'll never try again." He left Reynard staring at him, and turned and strode away.

      

 

       "Elias?" Ciaran paused outside the door, calling Elias's name before he went in. Only when there was no answer did he open the door. It was empty, as he had expected it to be. He was about to turn round and leave, then thought he was stay for a moment, just to see what sort of a home Elias made for himself when he had the chance.

       It was grey inside the hut, and it took him a while before he could see properly, and even then things were only shadows. The tapestry of King Alberic he saw first, hanging at the foot at the bed, so it would be the first thing Elias saw when he woke up every day. The eyes of that long dead king would follow him into sleep every night, asking him what he was doing to fulfil the task laid upon him.

       The other walls were bare. Ciaran opened the chest beside the bed, but there was very little in there. Some things had clearly been gifts, for they had the look of things that had been packed away and seldom looked at. There were no ornaments, no decorations, no personal touches.

       "It's not a home," Ciaran said aloud. It felt damp and stale, and Ciaran remembered that Elias had been away for months, and had only spent one night in it since his return, not long enough to fill it with his sense. It made Ciaran feel uncomfortable, anxious to leave such a bleak and comfortless place. Was this really Elias's home? He had known that Elias had a hard life, but somehow this bleak little hut spoke more eloquently than a thousand words.

       He stepped outside, and there was Oliver, walking over to him. "Elias isn't there," Ciaran said. He felt embarrassed to be discovered in Elias's hut, though he had never before felt the need to knock before entering Elias's room.

       "I know. I saw you go in. I wanted to speak to you."

       "Do you know where Elias is?" Ciaran asked sharply, because he had no desire to hear whatever it was that Oliver could have to say to him.

       Oliver shook his head. "I'm going to find him next. I've got something to say to him, too." He looked grave for a moment, then smiled. "Someone said they saw him across the river an hour or two ago, playing with Nightshade. Nightshade's his wolf," he said, when Ciaran looked blank.

       Ciaran clenched his fist at his side. Elias hadn't told him about any wolf. "Why are speaking to me? I know you don't like me. None of your people do."

       Oliver sighed. "It's not that I don't like you. I don't like the things you did. I saw their effect in Elias. Elias is my friend, and I will not see him hurt again. He has enough enemies without you adding to their number."

       "Is that what you think of me?" Ciaran clenched the fist tighter, then forced it to relax. "I know I acted badly. But I'm sorry. I've tried to apologise again and again."

       "And Elias didn't accept it?" Oliver raised his eyebrows. "That doesn't sound like Elias."

       No, he didn't accept it, Ciaran wanted to say. He made me grovel, and he was still too stubborn and cruel to accept it. He bit back the words. "He said there was nothing he needed to forgive me for. He said it wasn't about me. He said he couldn't..."

       "Let himself need you again?" Oliver said. "Poor Elias. He thinks the Kindred needs him to be strong all the time. And it's not without truth. It will do nobody any good if he becomes the way you always wanted him to be. If he becomes like that, he will fail, and the guilt will destroy him."

       Ciaran thought of how wonderful Elias had been by the stream, and how the Kindred adored him. "I don't want him to be like that any more," Ciaran admitted.

       "What do you want?" Oliver asked. "If you're going to ask him to send you home soon, then please leave now. If you're going to break his heart again..."

       Break his heart? It made Ciaran sound as cruel as Gideon. But maybe he had been. Maybe Elias had been as devastated by another man's cruelty as Ciaran had once been, but had reacted to it in such a different way. "I want to stay," he said, and realised that he meant it. For days, he had looked no further than hearing Elias say that he was forgiven. Nothing had existed beyond that. The question of when he would return home had been unimportant. "At least until things are sorted out between us. I don't expect him to be my apprentice again. I just want him to... to like me."

       "But if he doesn't?" Oliver persisted. "If it's just making him miserable, you being here, no matter what you do? If it becomes obvious that the only way you can make him happy is to go away and never come back?"

       "Then I'll go," Ciaran assured him, but something about the question rankled with him. "But not without a fight," he said. "Not unless I was sure. Because I don't know if I can be happy without him. If he sent me back..." There'd be nothing good left in my life, he finished silently, for he had already said too much.

       Oliver laughed, and Ciaran thought there was approval in the sound. "That's not the answer I wanted, but I'm glad to hear it. He's worth fighting for."

       Ciaran suddenly hated all this, all the questions, and the things he had found himself saying. "I don't need your approval before I talk to my own apprentice."

       "No," Oliver said mildly. "And you don't have my approval. You have a request."

       Ciaran was intrigued despite himself. "What?"

       "I want you to talk to him. Spend time with him. Get to know him, not as an apprentice, but as Elias. Help him get past this fear of his own weakness. Show him that he can be with you, but not be a child. Show him that even a king needs somebody at his side."

       "Why me?" Ciaran asked. "I've never given you reason to trust me."

       "Because you rejected him," Oliver said, "or so he thinks. Only you can undo the damage that was done. He's changed a lot since you knew him. He needs to know that you like the person he's become. He wants you to be proud of him. He might not even realise it, but it's true. It's what everyone wants, just to be important to the people who are important to them. Just to be liked."

       "I am proud of him." Ciaran's voice was hoarse.

       Oliver shook his head. "Don't tell him, not just yet. Don't talk about things yet. Take it slowly. Treat him as a stranger you've just met. Simply get to know him again. Then, perhaps, when you're friends, you can say your apologies, though maybe by then they will no longer be needed. I don't think he's ever been truly happy," Oliver said sadly. "Not since he's been in our world, anyway. Was he happy before that?"

       Ciaran wanted to look away in shame, for the only answer he could have given was that he didn't know, that he had never bothered to ask the question.

       "He's spent so long trying to live up to your expectations as an apprentice," Oliver said, "and he's spent the last year trying to live up to our expectations of king. He needs to find out who Elias really is. He needs time. Give him that time, please. For as long as the enemy holds off, for as long as is given to him, please help him just be Elias."

       Something was blocking Ciaran's throat, and he coughed to clear it. "Why are you saying this?" he demanded. "You're talking as if you're not going to be here. Are you going away?"

       Oliver nodded. "I haven't told Elias yet, so please don't tell him until I've had time to speak to him. But I'm going away. It's something important that only I can do."

       "Something dangerous?"

       "Perhaps." Oliver met his gaze, and held it. "But I hope to return by spring. Will you promise me that you'll stay with him until then?"

       I want to stay with him forever, Ciaran thought, but all he said was, "I will."

       "But if I die..." Oliver caught hold of his sleeve. "If I die, tell him that I loved him. Tell him that I count myself blessed to have known him."

       "I will," Ciaran promised. Once, he would have wondered how anyone could say such things about someone who was just Elias. Now he just wanted to get to know the person who could inspire such loyalty. 

       "Goodbye, Ciaran Morgan." Oliver raised his hand in farewell. "Perhaps we shall meet again, in the spring."

       "I hope so," Ciaran whispered, and found that it was true.

 

 

       Elias was last of all, who should have been first. Ciaran, then Hugh, his apprentice, then Reynard had all come before him. Oliver found him beneath a tree, sitting with one arm round Nightshade's shoulders, and sat down beside him. Elias would be the hardest of all, but Elias would also be the only one who heard his reasons. He wanted to delay the moment, to talk about little things, but he knew he could not. He had to trust to Ciaran Morgan, and hope that he would play that part during the days to come.

       "You've got something to say." Elias knew him too well even for a moment of pretending.

       Oliver sighed. "There's no easy way to say this. I have to go away." He held up a hand to stop Elias's denial. "Please, Elias, please listen to me. It has to be me. Twice now you've gone away, and you've told me all the reasons why I have to stay at home, but now it's my turn to be the one doing the leaving."

       "Why does it have to be you?" Elias's voice was tight.

       "Because..." Oliver took a deep breath. "You know how it is for my people. We've lost so many stories over the centuries. We've tried to cling on to the things we thought were important, but the last enemy, Cercamond... We thought his tale was over. It wasn't one we took particular care to pass on, so I know hardly anything of him."

       "I know things." Elias's fingers dug into the wolf's fur, and Nightshade whimpered in response to his master's fear.

       "I know you do," Oliver said gently. "But only what he tells you, and would he tell you of his weaknesses, of how he was defeated? Once, my people would have known such things, and maybe someone still does. Every House has its bards, and every bard tells different tales. So I am going to visit every House in turn, and find out everything they know about the enemy. Who knows what little fact, deeply buried in a seldom-told story, could hold the key to defeating him?"

       For a moment, hope glimmered on Elias's face. "It's worth trying." The hope faded. "But I wish it didn't have to be you. I don't want to lose you. Let me go."

       "No." Oliver had expected this, and was firm. "This is a task for a bard, and you're needed here, with your people. And I want to do it. This is the one thing that only I can do. Please don't take it away from me." He made his voice pleading, and hated himself for the deceiver that he was. He had made it seem like an act of cruelty for Elias to refuse him. But perhaps it was. He had hated to be the one left behind, watching others play their part. He wanted to do something. He wanted to make a difference.

       "I hate to think of you going alone." Elias's voice was small. Oliver had defeated him. "Darius's armies are still out there, searching for us, and Cercamond is growing stronger."

       "Then there's all the more reason to do this," Oliver said, "and do it quickly. And I won't be alone. Adela's coming with me. And you've said yourself that one or two people can slip past danger when a larger group cannot."

       Elias gave a defeated little laugh. "You have an answer for everything."

       Oliver took his hand. "I want you to promise me something, Elias. I know it will be hard with the enemy so close, but I want you to try to find time for yourself. It's more important than ever, now. We have to show him that life is worth living. We have to show him that he cannot stop us being happy."

       "How can I do that when he's here?" Elias asked. He pressed his fingers to his brow. "He's here in my head, and I'm the only one who can fight him. How can anything else matter? How can I just laugh and ignore that?"

       "You can. You must. When he brings the war to your doorstep, then perhaps you will have no choice but to fight him. But, until then...." Oliver spread his hand, gesturing at the forest and the cropped grass and the stream. "For as long as this place is beautiful, it is not the time. Please, Elias. If the end comes, it comes. Isn't it better to face the end at peace with yourself? Isn't it better to look back on your life and know that you've had at least a few moments of happiness?"

       "I don't know if I can," Elias whispered.

       "But you'll try." Oliver put his arm round Elias's shoulder, and pulled him into an embrace

       "I'll miss you," Elias whispered. "Please come back."

            "I'll come back before spring," Oliver promised, but both of them knew that the promise meant nothing. Although they smiled at each other, both knew that the parting could be forever.