A real person
Morning came, but still he had not come.
Thurstan sat very still, staring at the place he had last seen his king. At first he had started at every quiver of the grass, every flicker of the leaves, sure that they heralded the coming of the king. By now he had learnt from disappointment not to hope. He's not coming back, he thought. Everything's gone wrong. And I let him go.
"He said he'd come back by sunrise," he found himself saying aloud, with a desperate glance at Reynard. "He really did."
Joscelin stood up. "He will come shimmering in a beam of sunlight. Not here one minute, here the next." Thurstan stared blankly at him, but then Joscelin gave a sharp bark of laughter and clapped him hard on the shoulder, so Thurstan knew it had been one of his strange jokes, that Thurstan was never able to understand. He was still a little afraid of Joscelin.
"We've waited long enough." Reynard was paring his nails with a dagger. As he spoke, the knife slipped and cut him deep enough to draw blood. He swore, and jabbed the dagger back in its sheath. "Something's happened to him."
Ranulf looked up. "Go where, Reynard?"
"After him, of course," Reynard snapped. "Anything could have happened to him. Of course, he's more likely to have forgotten about us. He probably never meant to come back at all, but was too much of a coward to tell us. He'll tell any lie to keep us out of the way."
"He's not a coward," Thurstan whispered. "He's braver than anyone." But only a tiny sound came out, and no-one heard him.
"Have you thought it through?" Ranulf asked. Thurstan found it hard to understand how such a man could follow someone young enough to be his son, but follow him Ranulf did. He questioned, but he always obeyed. "We can't hide ourselves, not like he can. If he doesn't want us to find him, then we won't. And if he's captured, what can we do? He saved himself last time."
"I don't care." Reynard wrapped his arms round his body, hands digging into his upper arms. "Even if it's impossible, we still have to try. Even if we just go in there and die, one by one, we still have to do it. I will not abandon him. I will not give up."
Ranulf walked to Reynard's side. "Because that's what you did last time?" His voice was so low that Thurstan, sitting forgotten on the ground beneath their feet, heard it only barely, and the others not at all.
Reynard lashed out with both arms, knocking Ranulf away. "Yes!" he shrieked. He half-drew his sword, his handsome face ugly and terrifying in its anger. "I'm doing this, Ranulf. Does anyone dare stop me?"
"I'm with you," Julien instantly said, leaping to his captain's side. Amalric swallowed and said, "Let me serve," but Thurstan had watched them enough to know that Reynard would never rely on Amalric for anything. Joscelin only narrowed his green eyes and seemed to be thinking about it. Thurstan swallowed and almost spoke, the words sounding themselves out in his mind, but did not.
Ranulf returned to his sword and looked down at it without touching it. "If you order me, I will come. But I have no desire to see good men throw their lives away for nothing. I swore with you to stop the king doing just that, but the same applies to you. Give me sound reasons and a clear plan, like you always have before."
The words broke out. "I want to go to the city," Thurstan squeaked. Reynard's head snapped round to look at him, and Thurstan wanted to shrink into the ground and hide. "Gerhard's my lord," he stammered. "And the king said... He said you would all try to save Gerhard, not just him. He even said… He even said he was sometimes afraid, and that he couldn’t do everything. So I think that means that we can go after him and maybe we might even find him. And we have to try, even if we're scared. He'd do it for us."
Reynard was just staring at him. This is it, Thurstan thought. He's going to hit me. But then Reynard sighed, his shoulders slumping. "That he would." He gave a quick smile and clapped Thurstan on the shoulder, more kindly than Joscelin always did. "That was well spoken, lad."
Ranulf was also smiling at him. "It was." Joscelin was as unreadable as ever, but Julien and Amalric were both looking at him with dislike.
"So, we're going after him," Reynard said. "Anyone else want to speak against it?" He started packing his bag, his movements sharp and decisive.
Thurstan stood up and walked to the lip of the dell. There was still time. The sun had not quite cleared the trees. He might still be coming.
"No-one has to come with me," Reynard was saying. "You can cancel your oaths and go home. Live to tell Oliver our tale." He sneered the last words.
There's still time, Thurstan wanted to say. I know I said what I did, but we have to give him time. We have to wait. If they waited, the king would come to them on the wings of morning, Gerhard and the others smiling behind him. The king would be infallible, and Thurstan would follow him, and everything would be right with the world again.
The others were moving around behind him. "Horses," Reynard was ordering. "Ranulf, you're not saying anything. Talk to me."
Metal clinked together, and something rattled. They all froze, but it was only Amalric, dropping his horse's tack. Reynard glared at him, but Julien was slow to relax. "There really is someone coming," he whispered, cupping his hand to his ear.
Reynard looked murderous, and Thurstan wondered who should have been on watch, and had neglected their post while everyone had argued. "Draw your swords," Reynard hissed. "It's too late to hide ourselves now."
It's him, Thurstan thought, as if he could make it come true just by wished fervently enough. Please let it be him.
Julien's head was to one side, listening intently. "Only one, I think."
Just one? But the king wouldn't have come back without Gerhard, would he? If there was only one, then it was an enemy. And we're not ready. They weren't true, the things I said. Without the king, they fell apart. While Thurstan had been making his treacherous speech, no-one had been watching for the enemy, and now they were all going to die.
Julien had slithered up a tree. "An old man," he hissed, his voice like the wind in the leaves. "No weapons, only a cudgel. He's… he's looking at me. He's seen us!"
Seen us. Thurstan drew his sword and crouched down, ready to act. Some of the soldiers in the mountains had been old. Cruel weapons could be hidden beneath an old man's rags.
"I'm thinking he's nobody," Julien whispered. "Just an old farmer on his nag. Nobody. I should forget him." He jumped noisily down from the tree, setting the birds twittering in the higher branches. "Nobody," he said, and grinned.
Amalric let out a shuddering breath, but Reynard only tightened his grip on his sword. Thurstan looked from man to man, and did not understand. "Nobody," Reynard said grimly. "Of course."
Thurstan could see the old man now, his sallow face first, and then his lean body. He was sitting on his horse like a sack of straw, and his eyes were dull and disinterested as they passed slowly over the assembled group. Only when they reached Thurstan did they change. The sun shone on his face, reaching its fingers through the leaves to stroke his suddenly golden hair. His shoulders were still slumped, and he looked very tired, but his face was young and his eyes were blue. His brown horse was strong and healthy, and proud to bear such a man.
The king had returned on the wings of morning after all, but alone. Gerhard wasn't with him. Gerhard wasn't there.
"I think he's still alive," the king assured him immediately. "And we're going back for him, I hope." Then his eyes moved from Thurstan's face, and he dismounted and did the most amazing thing. He stood before Reynard, then went down on one knee, his head bowed. "I have wronged you, Reynard. I do not ask you to forgive me, for forgiveness is a thing that must be earned, but I want to apologise."
Reynard edged backwards, one hand spread behind him. "Don't do this, my lord."
The king raised his head. "If a man has done wrong then he must apologise. No-one is so mighty as to be exempt from that."
Reynard dropped his sword. "My lord," he croaked again. "Please don't." He had called the king a coward and a liar, but as soon as this same man was kneeling before him, he looked as horrified as if the sun had fallen from the sky.
The king opened his hands in a simple gesture of appeal. "I don't want to make you uncomfortable, Reynard. I just... Please. I was wrong to leave without telling you. I have been wrong so many times. I've made you become something you hate. I've forced you into that."
"No, my lord." Reynard pressed his fist to his mouth. "You didn’t."
As Thurstan watched in horror, the king turned from Reynard to him, his hands reached out in supplication. Thurstan looked round desperately, but there was nowhere to escape to. It was so wrong! Like the sun falling from the sky indeed, and the world turned upside-down.
"I wronged you, too, Thurstan," the king said. His eyes were clear, but his face was so lined and tired, as if he needed someone to cup his cheek in their hand and grant him peace. "I stopped you from doing something that you needed to do, and I left you with a message to deliver that I should have given myself."
You didn't wrong me, Thurstan wanted to cry. Please stand up. But he clenched his hands behind his back and admitted, "I was angry with you at first. It wasn't fair, what you did." Strangely, his words seemed to make the king relax a little, while Reynard's denial had made him look only more pained. "But only a little bit," he gabbled. "Not for long. And I've... forgiven you." Strange to say such words to a king. "Please stand up, my lord, and... and talk to me about Gerhard."
"I will." The king's eyes were soft, but he was the king again, who stood while Thurstan knelt, and did magic while Thurstan watched, and gave comfort while Thurstan wept.
Reynard started forward. "I can't," he rasped. "Can't say it. Can't..."
"Forgive?" The king's mouth curved in a tiny smile, so desperately sad. "No. I thought you might not be able to. It's all right."
"You're my king," Reynard pleaded. "It's not for me to forgive you."
The king was still looking at him with that sad smile. "But you correct me. You draw your sword on me. You keep secrets from me. You call me king, yet you do all those things. No, Reynard, don't look like that. I forgive you for everything. I forced you into it. I deserved it. I just wonder how you can do such things, yet still say that it is not your place to forgive me?"
Reynard was looking at the king with an expression that Thurstan could not read. "Then I... forgive you, my lord," he said.
"But you will forgive me more sincerely if it doesn't happen again?" The king gave a crooked smile. He stood up, and stumbled in his weariness, but Reynard caught him, steadying him by the elbow. "Many things have changed, Reynard," the king murmured. "I can't do this alone. We need to decide if we're going in, all of us, or... or what."
"Going in," Reynard said firmly, his eyes flickering very briefly to Thurstan.
The king let Reynard ease him down. "But not yet. I need to sleep."
Thurstan took a step forward, ready to protest, but a firm hand pulled him back. "Shh!" Ranulf pressed his finger to his lips. "Nearly a year we've been waiting for him to say those words. Reynard won't have it interrupted for anything."
As tender as a parent, Reynard covered the king with his own cloak. The king's eyes had closed, but then they opened again and he started to sit up. "There's something I need to say."
"No." Reynard was firm, pushing him down with a hand on his shoulder. "Afterwards. Sleep first."
"No," the king said. He fought Reynard's hand and sat up. "Perhaps some things can wait, but this cannot. Thurstan." He called Thurstan to his side, and his eyes were so tender that Thurstan wanted to run away, his hands clapped over his ears. If it's that bad I don't want to hear it! "Thurstan," the king said again, as Ranulf released Thurstan's arm, letting him teeter forward. "I'm sorry. I found their..."
"Bodies," Thurstan rasped. He turned away. "How many of them?"
"Most of them. Maybe all, I don't know. But Gerhard wasn't there, I know that. And they're buried now, and at peace."
At peace. But how did the king know? Wasn't it just a lie someone might say to a child, to soften the blow? They had died so terribly, cut down, crushed, despairing.
"At peace," the king said. "I can... Sometimes I can see the spirits of the dead, and I saw them. I watched them pass smiling into a better place. The... violence of their deaths has been... undone. Healed."
Thurstan covered his face with his hand. The king had seen it? No, the king had done it himself. He had saved them after all. He hadn't been there to stop them dying, but he had helped them after death, and now they were happy. He lowered his hand and turned back to face the man who had done such a thing. "But Gerhard wasn't there?" The king shook his head. "And all the others were? All of them? All dead?"
The king was looking at him with terrible sympathy, but Thurstan felt very little. Since finding their bodies gone, he had daydreamed of seeing them all alive again, but deep down he had always known that most of them were dead. But Gerhard... Gerhard was his father. As long as Gerhard was still alive, there was hope.
"We'll find Gerhard, lad," Reynard said. Then he turned back to the king. "And now will you go to sleep? We will guard you." He murmured it again as Thurstan turned and drifted away, his steps weaving. "We will guard you, my lord."
Lankin crunched across the gravel courtyard, the rolled document that contained Darius's orders clutched in his left hand. They were false orders, of course, designed to fool traitors and spies. The true ones would be passed on only in whispers, from one trusted man to another.
The morning sun turned the towers of the citadel a rich cream. Many people were baffled as to why Darius chose to live here, in this lumpen fortress built by the long-banished kings, when there was an elegant palace just next door, but Lankin understood. The palace was the epitome of everything the old duke had stood for, with its statues and its ballrooms and its fripperies, and Darius could never live in a place like that. His duchy was firm and strong, accepting hardship like soldiers in the field, and Darius lived the way he expected his people to live, in a comfortless room in a stronghold that still reeked with the presence of the enemy.
Thomas emerged from the barracks door, not wearing his jacket. He was off duty until the afternoon. Lankin was, too, but he never relaxed his vigilance. Sometimes he even resented the hours he needed to spend asleep, for keeping him from serving the cause.
"You've been to see Darius?" Thomas gestured with his chin to the rolled document in Lankin's hand, where Darius's distinctive seal dangled obviously.
Lankin nodded. Thomas was not one of those who had been trusted with the truth. When the sorcerer king made his move, Thomas would fight him with the rest of them, but he had not been warned in advance that the enemy was close. He slept peacefully at night, while Lankin stared at the ceiling, his fingers tingling with the urge to hold a sword, and his mind fiercely dreaming of the moment when he finally caught the man he hated more than anyone in the world.
"Something's happening," Thomas said. "I can tell. You're tense, all of you, all the ones Darius likes most. Why were we all on duty last night? What were you expecting?"
So he was stupid, as well as being of questionable loyalty. It was obvious, really. Thomas had been with Lankin in the mountains, when they had struck the first real blow in the war that would exterminate the sorcerers. He had been there when they had dragged the bodies back and strung them up, setting them up as bait. He had even heard Captain Gresham talking on the battlefield. "They expected us," their captain had said. "They had time to prepare their defences. And of course they'd have used that time to send out a messenger to that false king of theirs."
"I'll go after him," Thomas had cried, already pulling his horse round.
"No." Gresham had held up his hand. "Let him go."
Everything had happened as Darius had hoped. The sorcerer king had heard the news of the attack on his people, and had come to Eidengard. "All alone," Darius had said. "You learn a lot about a man when you're alone in a cell with him. I've taken his measure. I'm always one step ahead."
Lankin had been with Darius when news had come of the strange lightning on the plain before the city. "Good." Darius had rubbed his hands in satisfaction. "He's here. But we won't let him know that we know." Lankin himself had ridden out to make sure that no rumours spread through the streets. Darius had no desire to alarm his people. Darius and the Soldiers of Light would capture the sorcerer king, and there was no need for anyone else to panic.
They could have crushed him there and then, but Darius preferred to toy with him for a while. After nearly a year serving him closely, Lankin had to admit that there was a cruel streak to his duke. "Let him hope," Darius had said. "Make it easy for him. Let him come here, to the place where I broke him before. Just as he thinks he's won, just as he's at his most vulnerable, then we will crush him."
Later in the day, Lankin had been the one dispatched to deal with a beggar spreading sedition in the taverns. He had found the man in a seedy drinking hole, pouring his story out to a plainly dubious audience. "I was dying, but they all just stepped over me," he was saying. "My own people, but none of them helped me. But he did, and it felt wonderful, though it hurt him something terrible to do it, I could tell. But he still did it, and now I'm as fit as a fiddle."
"Maybe he enchanted you," they had retorted. "He's making you think these things. He's controlling you like a puppet. Your mind isn't your own."
"But it is," the beggar had said, his face glowing with a depth of emotion that looked out of place on his harsh lined face. "I was confused at first. It's hard, when you've been told all your life that something's evil, to see that it isn't. But now I know. He's here amongst us, and he's a good man. Everyone's wrong about him.."
Lankin had chosen that moment to step forward. The crowd had blanched at the sight of his uniform. "Enough of this nonsense," he had declared. "He's clearly drunk, telling you anything in the hope that you'll buy him a drink. Of course the sorcerer king's not here. Do you think Lord Darius would let him stride through our streets in broad daylight? This man can't even be plausible in his treachery."
He had left them twittering, saying that of course it wasn't true, and what fools did the beggar take them for, expecting them to believe such lies. The beggar he had led outside with a firm hand on his shoulder, taken him back to the citadel, and killed him cleanly. He had looked away at the moment of death, just as he always did. He had never been able to look into the eyes of a dying man, because they looked so innocent, so hurt, just like normal people rather than the traitors that they were.
But tonight it would be different. When Lankin finally confronted the sorcerer who had stalked his dreams for nearly a year, he would not look away. He would relish every second of it, every agonised drop of blood.
"What's going to happen tonight?" Thomas asked him.
Lankin pulled himself with difficulty from his dream. "Punishment," he said, waving the orders beneath Thomas's nose. "Traitors brought to justice." It wasn't even a lie.
They had expected the attack to come last night, but for some reason the sorcerer king had held off. It had to be tonight. In case he was tempted to delay yet again, they had arranged a little something to encourage him. Darius had assured Lankin that it would work a treat. "I know him, you see. I pull his strings. I have him right here." He had snapped his fist shut.
Remembering it, Lankin smiled. It would be tonight, and Lankin and the Soldiers of Light would be ready for him.
Some time during the day, the sun faded, the shadows growing fainter and fainter until they were not there at all. By evening, everything was the same dull grey. It was hard to tell how close it was to sunset. Soon, Thurstan thought, but he found himself looking at the leaden clouds around him and trying to tell himself that the sun still shone behind them.
The king was still asleep. Thurstan had watched him now for many hours, his hand closing and unclosing around the stone pendant he had not yet given back. The king's sleep was restless, tormented with bad dreams. Sometimes he moaned and murmured words Thurstan could not make out, and he often made little pleading movements with his hands Once again flowers were growing beneath the king's outstretched hand, and wild clematis shaded his bed, but this time Thurstan knew that they had been growing there already before the king had lain down.
"We'll let him sleep until sunset," Reynard had said, "then go in at the dead of night. That's the best time anyway, lad. We're not delaying anything."
The king rolled onto his back, kicking away the cloak that covered him. Thurstan hesitated for a moment, then reached out and covered him again. It was colder now the sun had gone, and the trees caught the chill of the night and held on to it all through the day.
Reynard was getting the horses ready. Several times he had stood over the king and simply watched him sleeping, his face very fierce. Ranulf had come by occasionally, and had always smiled fondly down at the king. Once Amalric had squatted beside him and made as if to touch the king's face, then snatched his hand back, clamping his mouth shut as he turned away. Even Joscelin had performed his own brief vigil before stalking away to relieve Julien at his post.
The king moaned again, and Thurstan shuffled towards him without standing up. As Amalric had done, but far more tenderly, he reached out to touch the king's hair. "Stay asleep," he whispered. "Please don't dream." As the first strands of hair brushed his finger, he snatched his hand back. It was wrong for someone like him to be caught offering comfort to the king.
But he isn't just the king, Thurstan thought. He wasn't just a name from a story, a statue on a tower. He was only a man, and he himself had tried to tell Thurstan in the mountains. Thurstan had refused to believe it then, but it was true. He was a man who had bad dreams, and who tangled his blankets. He was a man who could make mistakes, and have to apologise for them afterwards. He was a man who had insisted on going in all alone to find Gerhard, and had come out without him. Some of the things he did were wrong.
His hand to his mouth, Thurstan crouched beside the king, torn between touching him and shrinking away. Only a man. A man who isn't what I thought he was. A man who let me down. He's not worthy of my admiration.
"But of course you are," he murmured aloud, before had had even completed the thought. So the king made mistakes? Who didn't? He wasn't the flawless king who was the fulfilment of every dream, but he had never claimed to be. He had let Thurstan down in a small thing, but he had apologised. Gerhard had sometimes struck Thurstan and bellowed at him for things he hadn't done, but he had never said sorry afterwards.
With a sigh, Thurstan let his hand fall down so it rested on the king's cloak, close to his arm. "I will serve you," he whispered, "and with my whole heart now, with open eyes." There was nothing admirable in a statue, for it only reflected the skill of the person who had carved it. How much more wonderful was a real man who felt fear, but went ahead anyway, and a man who made mistakes, but admitted them. A statue could be worshipped, but a real man could be loved.
"It's time." Reynard had approached without Thurstan hearing. He knelt beside the king, but seemed reluctant to touch him. Instead he rounded on Thurstan and demanded, "Why haven't you left him alone? It's not right that you see him like this."
Thurstan blinked in surprise. "You watch him all the time. You said so."
"Just because I have to do it, it doesn't make it right," Reynard said. "Don't base your ideas of right and wrong on what you see me do, boy." Then, before Thurstan could respond, his face changed. Softer than Thurstan could have imagined him, he touched the king's shoulder. "It's time."
The king's breathing checked, but he did not open his eyes. He shifted a little, and grimaced when he moved his left arm. Thurstan thought he had pins and needles. Just like any normal man.
"It's nearly dark," Reynard told him.
"Yes." The king opened his eyes and sat up, tugging at the cloak distractedly with his good arm until it was over his knees.
"We've been talking," Reynard said. "We have some ideas. Not good ones, I admit, but we're willing to try. I'd rather do it without you, but you..." He seemed about to say something else, before he recollected that Thurstan was there hearing every word. "Do you have another plan, my lord?"
The king pushed his hair off his brow. He still looked very tired. "Yes," he said. "Yes I do."
He told it twice. Reynard questioned him on every detail, but in the end even he pronounced that it was the best they could do, and that it might even work. Elias gave a weary nod. He had let Reynard decide which of his men played which role, but the rest of the plan was his. He had never had to lay a plan so carefully before, because it had never mattered, not in the same way. He had always just rushed into things, because the only person he was risking was himself.
"I need to tell you something," he had said, right at the very start. "I can do illusion. You can rely on me for that. But the rest of it... Greater enchantment... I can still do it, but only with difficulty. It leaves me very weak. You just need to know this. It will affect the things you can expect of me."
Confession cleansed the soul, or so Grand Master Jerome had always said, but this confession felt terrible, the words almost impossible to get out. It had needed to be said, but it was one thing to realise how wrongly he had been acting, and another thing entirely to try to change. He knew the worst test was still to come. In a few hours he would have to step back and let other people face the danger that should have been his. Other people would struggle on, because they knew now that they could not rely on their king to use the magic that was his gift.
"I suspected as much," Reynard had simply said, when Elias had told him, but that only made it seem worse. How many people had known the truth about him, that Elias had been blind to. They wove their web around him to protect him from himself, because he was too messed up inside to do his duty and protect them.
It was almost dark now, almost time to go. Reynard was wiping his dagger on a clump of grass, streaking the green blades with something dark. Without looking up, he said, "There will be deaths. I cannot see how they can be avoided. We will have to kill them, but they will kill us, too. Some of us will die to let a few of us get through. Or even just one."
Deaths. "I know," Elias whispered. And the one means me. The only one left. There was a smear of pollen on sleeve, and he rubbed at it with his thumb.
Reynard stopped with his dagger pressed flat against the ground. "Do you?"
Maybe it wasn't pollen, but just plain old dirt. Elias scraped at it with his nail, but his nails were dirty, too. One of them was torn, and started hurting as soon as he remembered it. He brought his hands up to his face and studied them in the last of the light. The vision of Reynard's death pooled in his hands like a reflection on water.
"I still remember the first time a man died because he had gone where I had ordered him," Reynard said. "No-one ever forgets a thing like that. I know you think I'm inured to death, but I dream about it sometimes. His name was Thurstan, too."
Elias recognised the gift that was being offered to him, but he lacked the heart to discuss it. Reynard might understand, but he still saw things differently from Elias. If a man died, he regretted it, but then he moved on, telling himself it happened for the good of the cause. It didn't rend his whole world apart.
"But people die for the good of the cause," Reynard said, and Elias could have laughed had they not been talking about men with names, men who might soon be dead. "They die, so our children will live. They are sacrificed to give us a future."
"Thank you," he said, and tried to sound sincere, as if Reynard had made a difference. But of course he hadn't. In the city, Elias had realised that he couldn't do the rescue alone, and that he needed other people. That realisation had been only the first step on a long path, a path that could prove as painful and perilous as the path of thorns he had been walking since the winter.
He had to find a new way to live. People would die, because he wasn't as strong as he needed to be, because he made mistakes. People would die, and he would have to learn how to live with that, and still carry on giving the Kindred everything that he could give them. Sometimes he would have to walk away, because another person could do the job better, or the cost of stopping to help one person was just too high. But he would never like it. The day he started liking it was the day he stopped being their king.
"The mark of a good leader," Reynard said, "is the willingness to do what is needed without flinching. A good commander thinks hard before he puts his men at risk, but he is not afraid to do so when it is really necessary. When they die, he does not sully their deaths by letting emotions distract him from the main objective. He stands firm. And so they die content, because they know that their deaths meant something, and that the ones left behind will do something glorious."
Don't you know me at all? Elias wanted to scream. Sometimes Reynard seemed to understand him all too well, but then he would say something like this and show that they were as far apart as if they lived in different worlds. But all he did was nod.
Reynard moved towards him. "A king serves his people. You do that. But a king is a leader, too, and a leader makes hard decisions. If he can't..."
"Then someone else should lead?" Elias finished for him. Ever since Ciaran had left, living had been bearable only because Elias had been able to tell himself that he was giving the Kindred everything they needed from him. The more it hurt him, the more he was serving them. But he had never stood in judgement and condemned a man. He had never given an order that would affect men's lives. Had he only been half a king? Had he been a coward, afraid to live with blood on his hands? Reynard lived with that all the time, and Elias had never questioned whether that was right.
"I didn't say that," Reynard said, but the pause before it was too long. "You're our king. You were chosen, and I've seen your power, and you... I..."
Elias shook his head. "You don't have to say it, Reynard. I know I've done things wrong. I know I've made things hard for you, because you couldn't trust me to… be sensible. I know, and…" Now I don't know what to do. How will I ease the pain inside if I can't do what I've always done? I don't know who I am any more. I need time to think, not to be plunged straight into the battlefield where everything will change all over again.
"The cause is worth it," Reynard said. "You are worth it."
"The cause is worth it," Elias echoed. And of course it was. Although they stood here on the eve of setting out to rescue one man, they were fighting a war in which the survival of the world was at stake. If he had to order a few men to die in order to save the world, what would be the greater evil - to let the world die because he could not bear the guilt of their blood on his hands, or to sacrifice them so a million more could live?
One might be better, he thought, but neither were right. If people died, he would always mourn them, even if their deaths served a greater cause. He would mourn every one, whether friend or foe, and he would hate it, even though he had to do it. He would give them peace after death, and every one would live on his conscience forever. But he would do it. He had to..
He stood up. "I will do what I have to do. We all will. But..." He clenched his fists hard, and spoke with the tone of command that not even Reynard could resist. "Only if absolutely necessary. And I mean the enemy, Reynard. They're people just like you, fighting for what they think is right."
Reynard was silent for a little while. At last, sheathing his dagger, he said, "You are my king. It is for you to command us."
Elias dug his nails into his palms. I don't want to command it! he wanted to scream. I want you to do it out of choice. Out of choice, owing their deaths to no-one but themselves. Reynard was the one who had decided which task every man was going to perform. If they died if was his fault. It wasn't Elias's. All he'd done was come up with the plan, but they'd all chosen to follow entirely of their own free will. He'd begged them not to come, but they'd insisted. It wasn't his fault. It wasn't his fault at all.
He swallowed hard. "I don't command it," he managed to say, but he could say no more, but it was a child's foolish wish, a coward's attempt to wriggle out of responsibility.
"But we obey anyway." Reynard's voice was gruff. "We have sworn oaths. But we're coming because we want to. This is a moment we've been waiting for all our lives. The Kindred to walk the corridors of the citadel again..." He flashed his teeth in a fierce smile. "It will be glorious."
Glorious, Elias echoed. Somewhere in the darkness, a horse snorted and stamped at the ground. Elias called silently to his own horse, and the animal ambled placidly towards him. As he did so, Elias noticed the forlorn figure standing a little way apart, its arms wrapped around its body. It was Thurstan, so small beside the towering shape of his horse. Trepidation clung to him like a cloud.
Reynard touched Elias's arm, and leant close, speaking in a low whisper. "The boy should stay behind." So he, too, had been looking in the same direction. "Command him to stay and he will."
If he gave that command, then Thurstan would stay behind out of danger. He would live, free to discover the Shadow and do marvels. Gerhard's mountain kingdom would live on, as long as one person survived who had been part of it. One, at least, he could save.
"He's too nervous," Reynard told him. "He's pinned too many hopes on this, and that makes him terrified of what he might find. He can't be relied upon. I need to be able to trust every man to be where he has been told, and do what needs to be done. One weak link can break the whole chain."
Pragmatic Reynard, seeing things only with a soldier's eyes. Elias could have smiled at the predictability of it. "I commanded him to stay once before," Elias said. "He pleaded to be allowed to come, and I refused. I've apologised for that. How can I do it again?"
"Of course he wants to." Reynard said. "He's got his dreams of rescuing Gerhard, a lovely reunion in the prison cell. Anyone can see that. If you give him the choice, then of course he'll come, but that doesn't make it right."
"How can I order him to sit here and do nothing, while we all go off into danger?" Elias was surprised at how strongly he felt it. Why wasn't he agreeing with Reynard? If Thurstan stayed behind, he would be safe. "He had to sit and watch as everyone he knew was cut down before his eyes. How can I ask him to go through that again? And I'll make sure he doesn't let anyone down," he assured Reynard. "I'll keep him close to me. I'll look after him."
"It isn't right," Reynard said again. "He could betray us all. There's any number of ways it could happen. If we find Gerhard's body, how will he react? Could you hold him back if all he wants to do is rush forward and touch it? I could, but could you?"
"I will try. I promise you that, Reynard. I won't let him betray us, but I don't think he will. He's too tormented by what he sees as his failure in the mountains. And..." He touched Reynard's sleeve. "I won't let him get hurt."
Reynard snorted, as if to say, It's nothing to me if he dies, but Elias knew the truth, even if Reynard himself did not. Reynard was growing fond of the boy, the son who could so easily have been his, had things been different.
Elias walked over to Thurstan. The boy had found the courage to mount his horse, but Elias could almost feel the tension that thrummed through his body. "Are you sure you want to come?" he asked. "Don't come just because you think it's expected of you. If you'd rather not…"
"I want to come," Thurstan said. "Please let me come. I'll do my best not to let you down."
Elias brushed a quick touch over the boy's hand. "I know you will."
He was smiling as he mounted his horse. They were all going into danger, but they were doing it for their own reasons, not just because of him. If Elias tried to prevent them from doing what they needed to do, he would be as unwittingly cruel as Reynard had been to him, when he had tried to stop him from saving people in need. Reynard was living proof of that, still tormented by the fact that he had left Elias behind in the city a year ago. He would have preferred a thousand times to have suffered beside Elias than to be pushed away, rendered helpless while his king suffered alone.
"Are we ready?" Reynard's voice asked out of the darkness.
"Ready," Ranulf answered, and "I am," said Julien. "Yes," said Amalric, and so on round the ring. And they were, Elias realised. They were all here where they wanted to be, prepared to face what lay ahead. Reynard was happier than he had been since the winter, and even Amalric sat on his horse with confidence, gleeful about being trusted on a mission of such importance.
They were still waiting for something, he realised. Waiting for him. "I'm ready," he said, and perhaps, he thought, he really was.
It was time to go. Thurstan held on tight to the reins and let the horse carry him. With every step it grew darker, until the people ahead of him were only faint sounds, and sometimes not even that. The blackness surrounded him like a fist, closing round his throat and making it hard to breathe.
This is it, he told himself. It all happens now. Within hours it would all be over. The king had given his word that he would find Gerhard and everything would be well. And Thurstan was part of it. He had not been left behind, to watch it all unfold from behind a rock. He had not been sent away. He would prove himself, and they would smile at him, Gerhard and the king, and the bad dreams would stop.
Something sounded to the right of the path, and he jumped, almost crying aloud. Only a bird. But the men of the mountains sent signals to each other in birdsong, while the enemy smiled stupidly and told themselves that it was nothing, only a bird. It could be a soldier in black, grinning in the bushes. "They're here," the message meant. "They don't suspect a thing. We have them just where we want them."
His horse speeded up. Something brushed against his foot, and this time he did scream, a choked cry in the back of his throat. Someone hissed at him from the darkness, but the king spoke his name. His voice was close enough to touch. Thurstan had brushed against the king's horse, or against his leg. That was all.
Thurstan swallowed. "I'm fine."
The moment had come, so why was he scared? He should have spent the day in an agony of impatience, so why had he watched the slow progress of nightfall and longed for it to slow down, to turn back and never come? Because bad dreams could come true. Hopes could die. He would be tested, and he could fail. He could reach Gerhard, only to find him dead, and then he would never be able to hope again.
The horse trotted a few steps, then settled into an easy gait. They had come down from the hills, and now the path was flat. He wished the moon would come out. But darkness was good, Reynard had said. When the king had told them his plan, Reynard had looked at the sky and nodded with satisfaction. The darkness was their friend. Moonlight could betray them.
They walked on, and he heard nothing more, just the distant sound of birds that might not be birds at all. He wanted to call out to the king. Had he taken a wrong turn in the darkness? He was dependent on his horse to know who to follow, and an animal could lead him wrong. Had their throats been slit one by one by a silent enemy, and he was the only one who still lived? Images danced in the darkness, showing him the exact way every one of them had fallen. He ground the heel of his hand against his eyes and willed the picture to go away. Only his imagination. Only bad dreams, and not a vision. Not a vision at all. Not true.
But fresh fears came cackling up in the wake of the vanquished ones. Had they gone away and left him behind, because they knew he would only let them down if he came with them? He knew Reynard believed that already. The king had forced him to stay behind once, and could do so again, using sneakiness and guile.
He clutched the reins and had to physically bite back the words, "Are you there?" Then he let go of the reins entirely and reached out with both hands, fingers straining to reach something he could touch. But all he could feel was the chilly night air and the wind that scraped between his fingers. There was nothing there.
Then the king's voice came like a soft caress of the breeze in his hair. "I'm here."
Thurstan let out his breath in a shuddering rush. He wanted the king to talk to him all the way, but he knew he could not ask it. None of the others needed it. They just rode ahead and trusted in their own strength. He had failed already.
A horse came up beside him. "My lord?" Reynard said, speaking to the king with Thurstan between them. "I know the dark will hide us, but I've been thinking. It's not just guards on the walls, it's patrols by the river. I think you need to hide us with illusion, too."
"But they saw through illusion!" Thurstan gasped before he could stop himself.
"Saw through it," Reynard asked, "or merely learnt how to ignore it?" Thurstan didn't understand, and Reynard explained. "If the king suddenly had a sword in his hand and struck me with it, my eyes would see it as a sword, and so my instincts would tell me to dodge. But my reason would know that it wasn’t real. Because I have faith and discipline, I could stand still and let the sword impale me, because my mind knew that it couldn't be real."
Thurstan thought about it. Surely there would always be that small doubt that you were wrong, and it really was a sword. He didn't think he could just stand there without flinching when every sense was screaming at him that he was about to die.
"You could be right," the king said. "It's the most likely explanation. If they've learnt how to see through illusion completely… If illusion no longer has power over them… That would mean that something is deeply wrong with the enchantment itself, or that someone immensely powerful has given them the gift."
"If I'm right, it would still make them dangerous men," Reynard said bluntly. "If they've managed to train themselves to ignore what their eyes tell them, then they're brave and disciplined. A dangerous enemy."
"Can we take the risk?" the king mused. "No-one saw through my illusions in the city, but I didn't try it on the soldiers in black. I didn't dare risk it."
"I don't think we can risk not using it," Reynard said. "We need every weapon we can get, and illusion is a weapon. You just have to make sure that nothing in the illusion arouses their suspicions. It has to be plausible. Nothing out of place. Nothing appearing out of thin air."
The king must have stopped his horse, for he was behind them when he spoke. "I thought illusion might be like a beacon to them. I was afraid it would be dangerous, not merely useless. It's why I came back. One of the reasons."
Reynard gave a sharp laugh. "Oh, you'll still need us there." He, too, slowed his horse and fell behind Thurstan, so his voice grew a little fainter with every word. "You know it's not like that, my lord. How can it be? Not unless they've got someone on their side as strong as you, or stronger."
"Maybe they have," the king murmured.
"No," Reynard spat. "There's no enchantment in the city. They burn it all, remember. All they've got Lord Darius, and he's only human. He can't do everything."
"Sometimes it seems as if he can." The king's voice was very faint. When Reynard spoke in return, Thurstan could hear that his voice was harsh and insistent, but he could not hear the words.
The moon had still not appeared, but he found that he no longer really minded. The conversation had pushed his fears from his mind, and now he could live with the darkness. He knew there were people around him, and Reynard and the king were thinking about every detail, leaving nothing to chance. And even the king was a little bit afraid. Instead of making him feel uneasy, it left Thurstan feeling comforted. He was just like the others. He was one of them, afraid, but still going forward. There was nowhere else he would rather be.
His hand rose to his throat, touching the pendant that he wore round his neck. He had tried to give it back to the king, but the king had refused it. "It's a stone from a path I can no longer walk," he had told Thurstan. "I am finding a new one now." He had closed Thurstan's hand around the stone. "Wear it, if you want to. Wear it to remind yourself that your king is only a man, and he can make mistakes.
He raised his head, looking towards the distant city, and rode forward through the darkness, his companions at his side.
As they reached the river, the clouds released the moon. The current was not fast, but the wind made the surface of the water choppy, shattering the reflection of the moon into a mass of silver shards.
"Here," Elias said, "is where we leave the horses."
Reynard started to pace up and down the bank, assessing the hiding place for himself. Elias would have expected nothing else. He had taken a slow route back from the city, creeping through the darkness and finding this place. He had gazed up at the shadow of the city, judging how best to approach it, but he was no war leader, and had never planned an assault before. Reynard would be able to judge it better than he could.
"It will serve," Reynard whispered. "No footsteps except ours. Patrols don't come out this far."
"They're preparing for war in the city," Elias told him, "but they don't seem to be expecting us to come to them. The guards on the gate were very slack. They're more afraid of dissent within than an attack from without." Unless the beggar had told them, he thought, but he had seen no sign of heightened activity in the citadel. If the beggar's story had been believed, surely the city would immediately have been in uproar, all the bells pealing in alarm, as they had done the winter before.
"But we can't assume," Reynard said. "We still have to take every precaution."
Elias had led them in a wide loop, bringing them to the river about two miles downstream of the bridge. The place they were standing was densely wooded, willows drooping low over the water. Nearer the city, the bank was bare, but here the cover was good. They could hide the horses beneath the trees, swim the broad river, and approach the city on foot, hidden by darkness. They would come up against its eastern walls, where the citadel guarded the highest point of the hilltop city.
Reynard peered upwards. "We should wait. The moon will be gone again soon. Unless you can cover us with darkness..."
"I will if I have to," Elias said. If the moon suddenly came out, impaling them with light when they were in full view of the guards on the walls, then he would have no choice, but he was unable to shift the fear that Darius's soldiers could see right through it, despite what Reynard claimed. "I'd rather do it naturally."
He crouched down and dripped his fingers in the water. There was something very final about crossing a river. After you had crossed to the other side, there was no going back. Soldiers patrolled the far bank, and guards looked down from the walls, their weapons aimed at people below. Here, beneath the willows, they were safe. They could still change their mind and go back, and no-one in the city would ever know how close they had come. He could order the others to give up on Gerhard and save themselves for greater battles, or he could slip like an otter into the water, silently swimming away while they were all busy with the horses, and try once more by himself, while the others were safe and sheltered.
"My lord." Reynard grabbed his roughly by the upper arm, wrenching him back, and Elias realised how close he had been to just sinking forward, sliding into the river and going away. The lights on the river whirled hectically, as if even they were afraid, then faded. Elias peered up and saw that the moon had disappeared behind a broad swathe of cloud. It would be hidden for a while. Long enough to walk nearly two miles to the city? He hoped so, but didn't know.
"It's time to go," Reynard said.
Elias stood up, pressing one hand against a tree trunk. This was the point when they began to leave people behind. Amalric was staying behind with the horses, for he was the only one of them who was unable to swim.
He pushed aside a trailing branch, and looked at the distant lights of the city. The houses were hidden by the tall walls, but beacons burned on some of the tallest towers, lighting the clock faces that were too far away to see. It was after midnight, Elias thought, and most people would be asleep. Elias and the others would slip into the citadel and out again, and be far away before the lights came on again.
"How will we find our way back?" Thurstan asked. "It's so dark. How will we know where to cross the river? How will Amalric know it's us? We can't shout in case someone's listening. He can't shout, in case we're the enemy."
"We'll find it," Elias assured him. "Julien's an excellent tracker."
"But what if he's..." Thurstan's words snapped off, and he did not finish them.
What if he dies? Elias dug his fingers into his palms, picturing the ragged few that were left of them running desperately up and down the bank as the pursuers got closer and closer, not knowing where was a safe place to cross. "There is something I can do," he said reluctantly.
His hand rose to his forehead and kneaded the place between his eyes, but he was remembering a time when it had been his hands on another man's face, dragging memories from Oliver's mind, seeing the terrible truths that Oliver had been trying to protect him from. He had lost control of it and been overwhelmed, but that had been in the early days, before he had learnt how to wield his power.
"There are... links," he began. "Links between people. Ways of being aware of each other without words or sight, or any other sense that you know about. I can sense other people sometimes, if they're feeling strongly. But I can... intensify that link. I haven't done it before, but I know I can do it. I can..."
"You're not doing anything to me," Amalric cried out. Mud squelched as he backed away. "I don't want you inside my mind."
"I wouldn't be inside your mind," Elias reassured him. "It would be a... a surface link, and only for as long as we need it. After that, it will fade away, or I'll break it."
Amalric's back thudded into a tree. "I don't want it."
"It won't hurt you," Elias assured him. "It won't let me read your thoughts. It would just mean that you could call out, and I'd hear you. And the others, too, if I did the same to them, passing the link on. If a patrol came and you needed to move the horses... If you wanted to warn us not to cross the river yet... Or if we needed to warn you about something, some threat that you couldn't see..." He stopped there, knowing it was unfair to say any more. "If you don't want it, I won't do it."
"You'll do it." Reynard's voice had all the harshness of a command. "I chose you to come with us, Amalric, and I expect you to do your duty."
"I don't want to," Amalric whispered.
Elias wished he had never mentioned it. He knew all too well the fear of violation, and what it felt like to have someone unwanted reaching inside you, doing things against your will. "It doesn't matter," he began, but Reynard interrupted him. "I order you, Amalric. This isn't a game. We all have to do things we don't like, but we do them. Are you Kindred?"
"I'm Kindred." Elias could hear how Amalric was raising his head, thrusting out his chin, just in the way he spoke those words. There was something between Reynard and Amalric that Elias had never understood. Reynard showed open contempt for Amalric's abilities as a fighter, yet he had still included him on this mission, along with his most trusted of men.
"Then will do it," Reynard commanded, "or I will publicly denounce you as a traitor. And how will that affect Oliver, a seneschal whose brother was exiled as a traitor? How will that make him feel?"
Elias thought Reynard cruel, deliberately exploiting Amalric's weaknesses, but then he remembered that Reynard, too, had a brother who had been exiled. Beneath the hatred, perhaps there lurked a stronger shame than Reynard would ever admit to, and he had just let it slip by mistake.
"He's not a traitor." Elias moved forward, putting himself between the two men. Treachery was a powerful cry, and it was not to be bandied about lightly. In Eidengard, they were killing innocents and justifying it by calling the dead people traitors, but Elias would never let anyone who called him king become like that. "And it doesn't matter. I don't want to do anything he's uncomfortable with."
"But this is war," Reynard snapped. "We all make sacrifices. You don't spare yourself, so it's wrong to try to spare us. Wrong," he said, slamming his fist into his other hand. "Do you want to risk all our lives, just because you want to spare Amalric from some little thing he doesn't like the sound of?"
Elias swallowed, wishing more than ever that he had just kept silent. Because Reynard was right. To live, they had to use every advantage offered to them. Sometimes a leader had to order a man to do something unpleasant, if, by doing so, he could give everyone a better chance.
Amalric slammed his sword into his scabbard, though Elias had not heard him draw it. "Then I'll do it," he said, saving Elias from having to give the order. "But I don't like it." Like a trussed-up victim awaiting his execution, Amalric fell to his knees and offered himself up, as if Elias was a butcher, a violator, a dispenser of death like Lord Darius.
Elias knelt beside him, knees sinking into the mud. He touched Amalric on the forehead, fingers as light and gentle as he could make them. Closing his eyes, he let his senses reach out, washing over Amalric like rain, passing through but not stopping. It was a gentle magic, close to the surface, using little of the deeper powers that drained him, but, even so, it was harder that it had been the winter before, when Oliver's memories had come surging out in response to his touch. Because I had the Shadow then, he realised, and the two powers together are stronger than either one alone, especially with something like this..
Amalric stiffened as he thought it, and he wondered if Oliver's brother was sensing a little of his thoughts, even as Elias was being so careful not to pry into his. Amalric's mind was like a vast corridor of closed doors, and Elias could have opened any one of them, but chose not to. He kept to the middle of the corridor, casting a little of the white glittering dust onto the floor as he did so. It was like leaving a footprint in the mud, or a fingerprint on steamed-up glass. I was here, he breathed. I can find my way back.
Elias closed his eyes, sinking into the magic, but then something impacted hard on his chin, and he flew backwards, landing heavily across a rock. He blinked, dazed, slow to step out of the enchantment. "No!" he heard Amalric rasp. "No more. I didn't like it."
Elias brought his hand up to his face, feeling the tender spot on his chin. Reynard was already helping him up, demanding to know if he was all right. "Yes," Elias murmured. His lower back hurt where he had struck the rock, and he sucked in a sharp breath as he took his first step. "I'm fine." He pulled his arm out of Reynard's grip.
He heard the sound of a sword being drawn in the darkness. "You struck your king." Reynard's voice was terrible.
"I couldn't help it," Amalric whined. "It was horrible."
It had been gentle and tender, and Elias had gone nowhere he had not been invited. But maybe the dead men who had invaded him and used his power had thought that they were being tender. Maybe the one doing the violating never knew how much it hurt. "I'm sorry," Elias whispered. "I'm so sorry."
Amalric gasped, and Elias knew that the tip of Reynard's sword had found his chest. "Give me one reason why I shouldn't kill you right now," Reynard demanded.
"I'm not a traitor." Amalric sounded broken. "I just... I didn't..."
"Leave him." Elias tried to sound commanding, but he thought he just sounded weary. "He was just defending himself. And we need him." He gave a reason that Reynard would understand. "We need every last man. And it's done."
"It worked?" Reynard echoed. "Even with his treachery?"
"It worked." Elias could do the same to the others, now, sharing the new link, binding them all together like the strands in a tapestry. Even if Elias was killed, Thurstan, or any one of them, would be able to call out to Amalric and be heard. "But I won't use it unless you consent to it. I'll wipe it away right now."
Amalric was silent for a very long time. "I consent," he said, at last. "Pass it on. Do what you have to do."
Elias was very aware of Reynard's drawn sword, and how distressed Amalric was, despite the way he was speaking. "I'll do it on the other side," he said. Where Amalric wouldn't know, and the wound wasn't so raw. "We'll cross the river first."
As Reynard sheathed his sword, Elias moved to the river bank, the first of them to cross. Without another word, he waded into the water, and let the river carry him. It was shockingly cold, and the water surged over his ears, cutting him off from all sounds. The darkness hid the people on the bank. There was only the river, enfolding him in its frigid embrace, and he was neither in one world, nor the next.
The far bank was another world, and he would drag himself into it as sodden and helpless as a newborn. There, he would be a king in enemy territory, leading his men into danger. It was his test. The realisations he had made beneath the yew trees would become real. He would either pass the test, or fail, reverting to his old ways, but he thought passing could be more terrible than failure, if passing meant accepting that people might die while he carried on.
I should sink under water, he thought, and swim away, away to the sea, where there is no Darius and no Gerhard and no Reynard and nothing at all...
The river closed over his head. If he opened his mouth, water would surge into his lungs and drown him. If he opened his eyes, he would see nothing but blackness. There was no sound and no sight and no air. Even enchantment felt dull down here, attenuated by the water. The only living things were cold and dark. Little slivers of fish darted past his face, and there were weeds on the bottom of the river that had never seen the light, except as a dirty thing far above.
It would be so easy to die. All he had to do was open his mouth and breathe in. Hadn't he been bleeding to death for months anyway? Losing his master had been like hacking off a limb, and the wound had been festering ever since. What difference would it make if he took that last little step - such a tiny, trivial little step - and let the water into his mouth?
He drifted further, and weeds clutched at his ankles, as if they wanted to keep him here, to defeat anything that tried to haul him back to the world of men. Maybe he could live down here in this world of darkness, this waking sleep. Maybe enchantment could breathe for him, and he would stay alive, but in a place where no-one could touch him. The world could die above him, but he wouldn't know. Darius would never find him.
He opened his mouth a tiny bit, and water seeped in, though he did not inhale it. It tasted earthy and slimy, and he didn't like it.
Something disturbed the surface of the water far above, and he reacted like the fishes, wondering if it was a predator. Only Reynard, he told himself, or Thurstan, or one of the others, swimming to the other side. In the concealing darkness, they didn’t even know that their king had sunk to the bottom and was thinking of staying there. They would reach the other side and start calling for him. What would they do when they realised he had gone?
What am I doing here? he wondered. He had told Oliver that he had no wish to die, so why was he here with his starved lungs about to collapse, and his head pounding with lack of air?
Because it's better if you die, something told him. It's the best service you can perform. You ruin everything you touch. He saw the memory of a rose, its petals withering as he touched them.
But that hadn't been him. Something else, something terrible, had made the rose die, and he, Elias, was sworn to fight it. He had to live to do that. One day, perhaps, he would have to give his life to save the world, but not yet, not when the battle was only just beginning.
He pushed himself upwards, but the weeds were loathe to release him. Something swirled in the water, laughing and not defeated. No? Well, there are a thousand other ways to defeat you, aren't there, little one? He kicked again, and then he was free, rising to the surface, where his head burst out of the water, and he sucked in great gasps of air.
They were talking on the far bank in anxious whispers. "He went before us," someone was saying. "Where is he?"
"Here," Elias gasped. It wasn't even far. He had come up only yards from the bank. He had been so close to them, even as he had almost died. None of them knew.
Reynard waded back into the water. "Do you need help? Was it cramp?"
Elias's feet found the bottom of the river, and he stood up, water up to his chest. The gentle current tugged at him, and his legs were weak, his body still reacting to the lack of air. Reynard groped blindly for him, and found him, helping him to the bank with arms that were surprisingly gentle.
When he reached the bank, Elias fell to his knees, and Reynard knelt down beside him. "Is he all right?" he heard Thurstan ask. The night air touched his face and was very cold, but it showed him that he was alive. The grass beneath his hands was soft and moist, not parched and dead. His men were surrounding him, and they were worried about him, each one breathing, each one alive.
"I'm fine now." He struggled to stand. Already it seemed like a dream, the time in the water. That terrible something that was killing the grass had slipped into his thoughts, changing them subtly. The temptation to swim away and hide had been real, but the enemy had taken it and pushed it and turned it into a desire to die. He knew, though, that the enemy had only been able to do it because his own thoughts had been tending that way all by themselves. Elias had provided all the weaknesses that the enemy could exploit. But I won't kill myself, he swore, hoping the enemy could hear him. You'll never trick me like that again.
"Are you sure you're all right?" Reynard asked him.
Elias swallowed, still tasting rotten water from the place where something terrible had swirled. "I am." Then, with his men at his back, he started walking towards the city. They had crossed the river, and now they were in Darius's kingdom, and the moment of trial had come.