The last enemy
No-one talked to him now. When they saw him walk his slow walk into the rain and the darkness, they stiffened, and turned away. Oliver had become a ghost.
They had been slow to learn. For the first few weeks, they had turned their pathetic hopeful faces towards him, and had called him constantly. And he had always answered, listening to their questions, and saying what he could. Was Reynard dead? He didn't know. When was the king coming back? Was the king coming back? He could only shake his head and try to smile. "He has come back before when all hope seemed lost." So where was he, then? "I don't know," he lied, "but he went there by choice, to heal his wounds. He will come back when he can."
Then there was a night of rain and strong winds, and the last of the leaves fell from the trees. After that, there were no more questions. Perhaps they had seen the despair in his eyes as he had tried to give them hope. Perhaps they had known that their bard, a man who should always tell the truth, had lied to them. Perhaps it was easier to feel hope when you turned your back on a man who felt none.
Two months had passed. In three days, it would be the first day of winter, when a torch carried in the darkness would symbolise that hope always survived. Oliver would have to stand before the Kindred and say words that he no longer believed. But no-one had come to him and asked him who was going to lead the hunting party, now Reynard and Ranulf were gone. No-one had asked him who was to carry the torch. No-one had come to him at all. Even Hugh, the boy he had started passing his stories on to, had long since given up on coming to him, and sang his solitary songs alone.
"They need you, Oliver," Adela had tried to tell him. "They're as lost as you are. They've lost all their leaders. Not just Elias, but you, and Reynard, too. You have to show them how to carry on."
"I tried," Oliver had snapped. "You know I did. They're the ones avoiding me, not the other way round."
"You don't make it easy for them to approach you," Adela had told him. "They care about you, Oliver. They can see how hard you find it, to try to keep their spirits up. They're avoiding you out of love for you, to spare you that."
"And here you are trying to make me do it again?" he had sneered. "So you love me less than they do?"
That had been hours ago, when she had tried to stop him from spending another day in the woods, alone. He had apologised, and she had forgiven him, and she had hugged him a little, but he had not cried. "Soon," he had promised her. "I just need to get through the festival first." After the festival, it would be winter, and a fitting time to face a future without hope.
It was afternoon now, gloomy and damp. The wind made the black branches rattle, like bars in a cage. The forest had always been Oliver's prison, but the rain made the cell walls seem closer than ever. There was no beauty in the world. Nothing good would happen ever, and then he would die.
His wanderings took him to Amalric's grave, and he paused for a while, pressing his fingers to the ground. He whispered his brother's name, then stood up again. Amalric was dead, and the song of his life had come to an end. Elias was still alive, but trapped in a place that no-one had ever escaped from. Whenever Oliver smiled and allowed himself to be happy, Elias was screaming in pain.
The truth was something that he had not even dared tell Adela. I can't comfort them, because I don't really care, he could tell her, but how would she react to him then? They want me to tell them that their king will come back and take up his burden again. Not one of them is thinking about Elias himself, only about how the loss of their king will affect their own lives. And I hate them for it! But they're my own people, and I can't hate them, so I avoid them so they will never know.
He fell to his knees, and pressed his face into his hands. When he lowered them, he became aware that someone had come up behind him, and stood there, close enough to touch him.
Oliver froze. "Adela?"
"No." It was a scratchy whisper, not like any voice he knew.
For the first time in weeks, Oliver felt tears starting in his eyes. He had wanted it to be Adela, he realised. He wanted to tell her the truth, because it was killing him, keeping it hidden. She would understand, of course she would. She would love him and hold him, and she would help him find a way through it. She always did.
"Then go away," he said, without turning round. "I… I'll talk to you tomorrow."
"Oliver." A hand touched his shoulder, and his head, then withdrew again. "Don't be sad. Let me help you."
He turned his head just enough to see the pale hand that had touched him. The voice was as unearthly as a dream, and even the air stirred in response to the possessor of that voice, surging with enchantment. Was this what it would feel like, to be visited by a ghost?
"Speak," he rasped. "Let me hear you properly."
"I can't," the spirit said. "Not yet."
Oliver curled his hand into a fist. "Why have you come?" He wondered if it was Amalric's ghost, but Amalric would never have spoken like this, unless death had changed him into something new. Maybe it was some spirit from the long past, who had come to tell him that his king was dead. The sense of enchantment about the being was tangible, as if this was a being from the days before the magic had declined.
"Oliver?" The hand touched him again, and it seemed real. "You don't know me?" One of Oliver's tears dripped onto the spirit's hand, and the voice gave a gasp. "Oh, Oliver. Amalric's buried here? I'm so sorry. I should go..."
He knew the voice then, had heard it speak with the same anguish a hundred times before. Oliver's hand rose to his face and pressed against his mouth, his warm breath shivering against his fingers. If I turn round, it will be a dream. If I look at him, he'll cease to exist.
"I'm real," Elias whispered. "I've come back. Reynard, too."
"Elias," Oliver breathed. Still caught in the dream, he turned round, and Elias was still there. He was not how Oliver would have dreamed him. His hair was dirty and tousled, and his clothes were damp rags. He was thinner, and his eyes were shadowed with grey. Even though Elias was standing still, Oliver could see how stiffly he was holding his arm. He gestured towards it. "You're hurt."
"A long time ago," Elias said. "It's healing."
Oliver stood up, and looked at his hands. "Are you…? You should…"
"Soon." Elias smiled. "I wanted to see you first."
He was different in another way, Oliver realised. For all his rags and the grime that covered him, Elias radiated power. The sense of great enchantment was even greater now he could see his king.
"You..." Oliver began. He gestured again. "I see you got Albacrist."
"I did." Elias gave another smile, then let it die. "I'm so sorry about Amalric. They told me what had happened."
He wondered how long Elias had been back, and who had been the one to greet him. Oliver should have been the one to do it, but he had been wallowing in his grief alone, cut off from everything around him.
"I… I've had time," Oliver said, looking neither at Elias, nor at the grave where Amalric lay, so poorly mourned by the only person left that he had ever cared about.
"Two months," Elias whispered. "That's what they tell me. It was… It felt like less than a day. Then the journey home."
"You were really in the Shroud of Dreams? You... escaped?"
"Yes," Elias said. "I will tell you about it later. We have a lot to talk about. Many things have happened."
He sounded too formal, and Oliver turned to look at him again. Power shone from him like a delicate white glow, invisible to anyone who did not possess enchantment. He looked like the prophesied king, not like Elias, a young man who had always been overwhelmed by fate. This was the man who would save them all, and Oliver had no idea how to talk to him.
Elias's hand half rose, then fell again. "Do you want me to go?" His voice, that hoarse whisper, cracked. "I'm sorry for coming. I thought..."
Not a prophesied king, but Elias after all. Elias, who had been away for two months, and came back to find that his friend didn't even recognise him. Elias, who had always doubted that anyone else could want to spend with him, and now stood before Oliver, who had not yet smiled, and kept on turning away. Elias, who had always possessed great powers, but who had never ceased to be a young man in desperate need of a friend.
"No," Oliver told him. The tears ran unchecked down his cheeks. "I couldn't believe it at first. I'd given up hope. I…" He wiped roughly at his face. "I'm so glad to see you again." He threw his arms around Elias, and they he was smiling through his tears, laughing, turning him around and around. "You can't believe how happy I am."
Elias laughed, too. "I'm glad to be home."
Elias didn't look at him. When he first appeared, Elias was deep in conversation with Oliver, their heads close together and their arms almost touching. Then they gave a little start, as they both realised at the same time that they were no longer alone. They looked up in unison, and their smiles were the same.
But Elias didn't look at Ciaran. The Kindred had gathered during Elias's brief absence, as the joyful news of their king's return was spread. Elias greeted each new one with a smile or a nod hello. Some of them he even spoke to, but he never once looked at Ciaran.
No-one did. Elias had been gone for half an hour, and the Kindred had flocked around the fire, twittering like birds. There had been smiles and hugs even between people who had never been parted, and many tears. Even Reynard had been mobbed, but no-one had even spoken to Ciaran. He had stood alone, surrounded by great knots of chattering people.
Elias walked up to the men who were surrounding Reynard, and said something that made them smile. A woman rushed up and threw her arms around Oliver's neck, and Oliver swung her round and round, laughing. Then the same woman tiptoed up to Elias and covered his eyes from behind, whispering something into his ear. Laughing, he whirled round, and the two embraced for far too long.
When Ciaran turned away, he saw Oliver watching him. He showed no surprise at Ciaran's presence, so Ciaran had to assume that Elias had already told him everything. What had they said about him? He imagined them chatting, the fair head bent close to the dark, as Elias revealed all the secrets he had kept from his master.
Throughout the five days since their narrow escape from Darius's army, Elias had been all politeness, but had said not a single thing that really mattered. He had claimed to be unable to speak in anything above a whisper, and even whispering had seemed to hurt him, so Ciaran had held back from confronting him. Now he wondered if it had all been a lie, an excuse to avoid Ciaran and withhold the words of forgiveness he craved. Elias had been talking easily enough to Oliver.
More and more people were arriving, and everyone had a smile from Elias, or a greeting from Oliver, or a nod from Reynard. The three of them were treated like returning heroes, although Oliver had not been away. There was no sign of grief for the men who had died in the citadel. Even Elias no longer seemed to care about them, and smiled along with everyone else. On the way home, though, he had pretended to care about the dark things so much that he couldn't spare the time to listen to Ciaran's apologies, but now Ciaran knew it had only been an excuse.
Ciaran stared at Elias, and counted up to a hundred under his breath. He gave it a hundred more, then started to walk away. Elias hadn't looked in his direction even once. He hadn't once wondered how his master was coping in this crowd of strangers, or looked to see that he was still there. Why should Ciaran stay where he wasn't wanted? This was a joyous homecoming, but the home wasn't his.
No-one called after him. Ciaran pushed through the crowd, and soon was free, walking out into the empty forest. The voices faded, and, as they did, he heard the sound of a stream ahead of him. He was about to head towards it when he saw the figure pressed against the trunk of an overhanging tree, just watching.
Ciaran stopped. So he wasn't alone. There was one more outsider, forced to watch the happiness from the fringes. There was one more person deprived of Elias's smile.
Just as Ciaran was wondering whether to speak to him, the figure saw him. "You," it gasped. "I've seen you before."
It was a young voice. Ciaran moved closer to him and saw that it was a boy of about sixteen. Another step, and suddenly it didn't matter who he was. The truth struck him like a fist in the gut. This boy could sense the Shadow! But they had always told him that no-one knew about the Shadow in this world. This boy couldn't exist, not unless everything Ciaran had ever believed about this world was a lie.
"Who are you?" Ciaran demanded, grabbing the boy by the wrist. "Tell me!"
The boy's mouth opened and closed again. "You're hurting me."
Ciaran twisted his arm up. "Where do you come from? Who are you?"
Tears were trembling on the boy's eyelashes. "I don't know."
"Don't lie to me!" Ciaran bellowed. "You said you knew me. How?"
"A vision." The boy blinked away his tears, and his chin thrust out in a pathetic attempt at bravery. "You were standing behind the king, and you were going to hurt him. But I won't let you hurt him, I won't." He struggled to pull free, and drew in a deep breath to start shouting with, but Ciaran stopped him with a hand over his mouth.
"You know what I think you are?" he hissed. "A spy. Why else would you be skulking here in the shadows? I'm on to you. So don't think you can turn Elias against me with your pathetic accusations. He'll always believe me over you." He pressed the boy's head against the tree. "So who are you, boy? Where do you come from?"
"Let him go," a voice hissed behind him, a whispery voice, chilling and angry and so very close. "Thurstan," the same voice said, but so much more gently. "He's not an enemy. He won't hurt you."
"Thurstan?" Ciaran tightened his grip, then let the boy go. He turned round incredulously. "This is Thurstan? The one you thought you'd left behind? The one Reynard was…" But Elias stopped him then, holding his hand up with such command that even Ciaran was unable to carry on speaking.
"I'm glad to see you again, Thurstan," Elias said, still in that pretended scratchy whisper. "Oliver says you had a vision of me in… that place. But I'm out again. I'm fine, as you can see."
The boy took one faltering step towards him. "I left you, my lord. I didn't want to. They were coming and... and I left you." He fell to his knees. "I'm so sorry."
Elias gently raised him to his feet again, forgiving him instantly, though he had not even asked for it. "It was the only right thing to do. You couldn't have done anything." He smiled. "You did well, Thurstan. Never doubt it."
The boy was looking at Elias with adoration, just as Elias had always looked at his own master, before things had gone wrong. Had Elias said a single stern word, the boy would have been devastated.
"I was looking for you," Elias was telling him. "They'd told me you'd come back safely, but I couldn't see you." So it had been Thurstan that Elias had come looking for, then, and not Ciaran at all.
"I came," the boy said, "but... he was there. He looked at me as if I... didn't matter at all. So I left."
"He..." Elias began, but then he stopped, glancing at Ciaran in a way that showed that he wanted to speak secrets to this pathetic boy that he would never let his master hear.
"It can wait," Ciaran commanded. "I need to talk to you, Elias. Now," he shouted, when Elias was slow to turn away from Thurstan.
The boy gave a sharp cry. He was reaching for his sword, and looked in that moment a bit like Reynard, though with his features redrawn with a weaker line.
"It's all right," Elias assured him. "This is Ciaran Morgan. Master Morgan. He... I... I've knew him for many years, before I came to the Kindred. He's not an enemy."
The boy's hand dropped from his sword. Elias had sounded less than convincing, but it was still enough to override his own instinctive distrust. Ciaran would have liked him better, he thought, if the boy had gone on the draw his sword, following his own instincts regardless of what Elias said.
"Leave us for now, Thurstan," Elias said gently, "but I'll find you later. We can talk then." Then he touched the boy's arm, pulling him back when he was about to mindlessly obey his king and go. "It's not his way to show affection, Thurstan, but I know he was worried about you. He might not show it, but... It's hard for him, as hard as it is for you."
"It shouldn't be hard for him," Thurstan cried. "Is there something wrong with me, that he doesn't want to..." He snapped his mouth shut, and hurried away.
Elias tried to start after him, but Ciaran hauled him back with a hand on his wrist. "Leave him," he snapped. "I've put up with your lies and your evasions for too long. It's time we talked."
"We've said it all already," Elias whispered, "but you won't believe me. You won't believe that I don't hate you."
"Because your actions show otherwise," Ciaran declared. "Why else would you lie to me?" He grabbed Elias by the shoulders. "Why didn't you tell me about that boy? Why didn't you tell me he could sense the Shadow?"
Elias let out a long breath. Whatever he had been expecting Ciaran to say, this was not it. "I didn't think about it."
"Didn't think?" Ciaran shouted. "It's the most important thing of all, and you didn't think? Elias, how could you? You know what a difference it would make to me, just to know that someone in this benighted world can sense the Shadow. So why didn't you tell me? Because you want to hide from me anything that might make me want to stay? Because you want me to go?"
"That's not true," Elias whispered. "And it's not the most important thing. I didn't lie to you. It just... didn't come up."
"How long have you known this?" Ciaran demanded. "How many of them are there? I presume you're training him, at least."
"Thurstan's the only one I know about," Elias whispered. "I haven't trained him. I only found out about him just before we went into the citadel."
Ciaran let go of Elias as if he the touch of him burned him. "Only just found out? But it's obvious! What have you become, Elias, that you couldn't see it?"
Elias's face became like a stone mask, that could hide anything behind it. "I denied the Shadow, yes, and I suffered because of it. And why do you think I did it? Because you had always told me that there was no middle way. If I became their king, I had to turn my back on the Brothers, on the Shadow, on you. So I did. I believed you. But you were wrong. I can be both. I can use enchantment and Shadow, and they're stronger that way, better, more right."
"Don't talk like that!" Ciaran cried. "Don't try to blame me."
"My Shadow isn't like anyone else's, not any more," Elias said, more gently. "Tainted, you'll doubtless say. Made dirty with the stain of enchantment. So I can't train Thurstan, not as I am. The only person I know of who could train him is you." Then he turned away, hiding his face, and only the tone of his last word, hanging into the silence, showed that he had been about to say more.
Ciaran pressed his fist to his mouth. What's happened to you, Elias? What's happened to us? This was not his apprentice. This was someone he barely recognised.
And then they were coming for him, voices calling to him, calling him "lord," and "king" and wanting him. Elias turned to face them, and Ciaran was forgotten again. "Soon," he said, but Ciaran had no idea who he was speaking to. Oliver was there with them, and the woman, too. The boy, Thurstan, was close beside them, making Ciaran think that he had brought them running with some false tale of a nasty man who was attacking their darling king.
They promised Elias wine and food, a bowl of water to wash in, and a fresh cloak. Instead of following them, Elias turned towards Ciaran. "It was you I came after," he whispered, "not Thurstan."
Ciaran folded his arms. "Is that one of your lies, too?" He turned away. When he hazarded a quick glance a moment later, Elias was no longer looking at him.
It was lovely to be clean and dry, a warm cloak round your shoulders and a delicious meal in your stomach. It was wonderful to be home again, surrounded by love and welcome, and with a new-found hope in your heart.
They had sat in silence for a while, just enjoying the food, but now the dinner was over. Elias lay down his plate, and took a deep swig of his drink. "Have Reynard and Thurstan talked yet, do you know?"
Oliver's lips tightened. "No. Reynard's off with his warriors, taking up the reins of command. He hasn't had a minute to spare. Or so he would say, if challenged. He'd probably believe it, too."
"They mustn't leave it too long," Elias said. "If Reynard's not careful, he'll drive Thurstan away for ever. Thurstan already thinks that Reynard wants nothing to do with him." He tugged at his lower lip with his teeth as he thought. "Should I talk to Reynard?"
"You know Reynard. If anyone tried to talk to him about the way he's feeling..." Oliver shook his head. "That's not the answer. And it can't be easy for Reynard, either. Thurstan's got a lot of mixed feelings. He won't make it easy for Reynard to approach him."
Elias held his tankard tightly with both hands. "But we can't sit back and do nothing. When two people are…" He ran out of words, and just shook his head instead. "Something happened to Reynard, and I don't think he's let himself think about the consequences yet. And Thurstan's lost everything. It's up to us to make him feel that this is his home and that people here love him, even if Reynard is slow to tell him the same thing."
"Yes." Oliver gave a strange, sad smile. "We should do everything we can." He laid down his drink. "What happened to you, Elias? You've told me a lot, but not the most important things, I think."
Elias brought his knees up to his chest, and looked into the flames. "No," he admitted. "I was saving it for…" For when? The Kindred were so happy, and Oliver so full of smiles. There would never be a good time to ruin that. "For a time that will never come," he said.
"Tell me," Oliver urged.
Elias's mouth was dry. He tried to drink, but his tankard was empty. The flames were spitting, and somewhere not far away someone was singing. Most people were lost in the darkness. He wondered where Ciaran was, and turned round, looking for him, and there he was, watching the two of them from a distance. He looked very solitary, in this camp full of groups, and unsure as to whether he should approach, or just go away.
"I'll be back in a minute," Elias told Oliver, as he stood and hurried over to Ciaran.
"I was going to tell Oliver what happened to us," he said, "but it's your story, too."
Ciaran looked away. "Is it?"
"Yes." Elias touched his arm, and at least Ciaran did not recoil. "And I would like you to be there. Please," he added, at last, when Ciaran still did not turn round.
"I will, then." Ciaran's voice was stiff. "Since you ask me to."
They walked back to Oliver, and Elias remained standing until Ciaran had sat down himself, then chose to sit between the two of them. Ciaran shifted to move fractionally further away, but that was all.
Ciaran was right, Elias thought. He had always withheld so much from Ciaran, because he had just assumed that Ciaran would not listen. He had told Ciaran that the world was dying, and Ciaran had scoffed and called it nonsense, but Elias had just left it there. The despair he had been feeling had been behind everything he had said and done, but he had never really tried to explain.
"Before we talk about what happened," Elias said, "we need to know more about the place we were in."
"The Shroud of Dreams," Ciaran said. "Reynard told me all about it."
Elias turned to face him. "You didn't tell me that."
"I assumed you knew." Ciaran's lips snapped shut. Elias wondered if his former master had enjoyed knowing something that Elias had not known, or if he had genuinely assumed that Elias had known more than he had admitted.
"The Shroud of Dreams." Oliver crossed his legs and pressed his fingers together, settling in for the telling. "I've told its tale, but not often. I doubt Reynard would have remembered much."
"He told it well," Ciaran surprised Elias by saying. "You're not the only one who can tell stories. And don't assume that people don't care about things just because they're…" He snapped his mouth shut again, and turned away angrily.
"No," Oliver conceded. "You're right. But there are things that Reynard would not have known. Things about how the Shroud of Dreams came to be. Things about who was imprisoned there."
"Who?" Elias breathed. Who? the wind taunted, caressing the back of his neck. Find my name, and you're mine.
"It was a prison," Oliver said. "Not one created by man, but one discovered by him, and used for his purpose. It was a place that existed beyond the edges of the world, beyond time and space. We do not know if our forefathers sought for it and found it, or if they stumbled upon it by chance. All we know is that they found it. They learnt how to open a door into it, and how to close it again and lock it.
"This was long ago, oh many thousands of years ago. Enchantment was mighty in those days. The great enchanters walked the world, stronger than anyone has ever been in the long days of decline that came afterwards. Some even say that they were the Makers themselves, gods rather than men. Some believe that still, because it is more comforting to believe that the great ones in the past were gods, rather than to believe that we men have fallen so far. But I believe they were men. Men greater than us. Men who were our forefathers."
He was silent for a while, and Elias was about to speak, but Oliver sighed, and looked at him. "Those were the men who built the bars and chains that confined you, Elias. They sealed the prison with an enchantment that should have lasted forever, to ensure that no-one inside could ever get out. For the people confined there, there could be no second chances, for the sake of the whole world."
"Who?" Elias asked, when Oliver had been silent for a little while. "Who was imprisoned?" He felt strange, floating in a dizzying spiral ever further away from his body. Oliver's voice was the only thing that kept him anchored. He glanced at Ciaran, and saw that he was listening, held by the story. Perhaps without realising it, he had moved closer to Elias, so they were almost touching. When their eyes briefly met, Ciaran did not move away. There were no demands, and no accusations. They were just two people listening to a story, and Elias knew suddenly that Ciaran's closeness was an anchor to him, too, as much as Oliver's voice.
"Enchantment was mighty then," Oliver said, "but the world was not at peace. There was more sorrow then, perhaps, than in the days that came after, when enchantment was already declining. The great enchanters were mighty, but so were their enemies. Because there have always been bad men. We say that the world was made out of the dreams of the Makers, but dreams can be bad as well as good. Thus was evil born into the world.
"In these twilight days, evil uses swords and words. In those days of power and greatness, evil used mighty weapons. There were wars, dreadful wars, with sorcery used as a weapon. There were men who would have subjugated the world to their will, and these were the ones who were confined. These were the ones who had to be locked up behind unbreakable bars, beyond the limits of the world that they wanted to undo."
"Why not kill them?" Ciaran asked.
"Why not kill them, indeed? Maybe they thought they were being merciful. Maybe they had no choice, for the great enemies were so powerful that they could not be killed, but that I do not believe. The great enchanters could die, and they were more powerful than their enemies, for they defeated then."
Elias tried to speak, to ask a question, but his body was no longer there. He was drifting, carried by a river to a place far away. Oliver continued to speak, but then the same words were being said by another voice, and another. Strangers asked questions, and firelight flickered on a thousand different faces. Sometimes it was daylight, and sometimes dark, but always through it all was the voice of a bard, speaking the same words, telling the same tale.
Then even the voice faded, and light bloomed around him, yellow and warm. Oliver was no longer there, and neither was Ciaran. There was a clump of lush grass beside him, but everything else was misty and bright. People were speaking, he realised, but too far away for him to hear their words.
He stood up, walked forward, and the mist parted. He wasn't afraid. Enchantment surrounded him, and Oliver was still speaking, he thought, his words as quiet and constant as the sound of his own breathing. He was still in the camp, still beside the fire. It was just that a part of himself had gone elsewhere. There was a kind of magic in a bard's tale, told through the generations.
As he walked, the mist parted, and he saw them. There were nine of them, wearing robes of milky cream, or the bronze of the sunset, and the deep blue of the sea. Their eyes were bright, and they seemed to glow, magic streaming from them in shimmering waves. Sunlight dappled the place where they stood, crowning them with jewels.
They were standing in a circle, close enough that their robes were touching. They are joined, he realised, but as he looked at them, he saw that each one was different. One was standing with his hands clasped, and his eyes downcast. Two were holding hands. Some had eyes that knew how to crinkle into a merry smile, while others had lines of worry between their brows. The youngest of all, whose hair was dark, had such an air of sadness about him that Elias ached to see it.
"It's them," Elias breathed. No-one heard him. As he passed around the circle, none of them saw him. These were the great enchanters, and he was like a child before them. He had powers greater than anyone else in the twilight world that he lived in, but these men had lived at a time when the world was great, and they had been the greatest of all.
Everything about the world showed that this was a time of legend, the time before the fall. The colours of nature seemed more rich. Even the sunlight seemed brighter, and the earth was teeming with life. Elias blinked back tears. Oliver had told him that enchantment had declined, but he had never realised that the world had lost so much. Everything he knew was just a pale shadow of what it once had been.
The man nearest to him started to speak. "Today, we were victorious. Tonight, we confine the first enemy in the place beyond the world. The walls are secure, and the gates locked, but that is not enough. Who will swear themselves to guard the door?"
They looked at each other. Some looked at the ground, or up at the sky. They're afraid! Elias realised. How could such mighty enchanters be afraid? Their expressions were human, and they looked just like normal men, faced with a task that they feared was beyond them.
"I will," one of them said. He stepped forward, and Elias gasped, suddenly recognising him. He was younger, and his hair was golden, but he was still recognisable as the man who had tried to stop Elias from entering the Shroud of Dreams. "For as long as I live, all my power shall be devoted to this cause."
"For as long you live?" the first man asked. "That is not enough. We condemn our enemy to a confinement that is everlasting, in a place where a century can pass by in a whisper. The bars must stand forever."
The gate-keeper closed his eyes just for a moment, but he had known this, surely, when he had stepped forward. They had all known it. "I swear myself to this task for all eternity," he vowed. "Death will take my body, but death will not be the end. I will not let it. For as long as evil is confined in this place, I will guard its bounds. For time everlasting, I will serve."
"No," Elias sobbed. What could be more terrible than to be bound to a task for all eternity, and then to fail? "Don't." But no-one heard him.
"Your sacrifice is accepted." The words rippled around the circle, but none of them could bear to look into the eyes of the man who had been braver than them all, committing himself to an eternity alone. They didn't even say his name.
The gate-keeper turned away, hiding his face for a moment. "How can you do this?" Elias screamed, but no-one heard him. They were busy forming a circle of linked hands. "You can't let him do this!"
The youngest of the enchanters was weeping. The one next to him had to hiss at him twice before he would take hold of his hand and complete the circle. Enchantment welled up between their linked hands, bright enough to touch, but only because they were all pooling their gifts, Elias realised. They could not have done it alone.
Called by their magic, a man appeared in the middle of the glowing column of white light. He was chained heavily, but enchantment bound him tighter than any chains could ever do.
Can you see me? a voice whispered in Elias's mind. Shall I show you my face?
Slowly, the man at the heart of the white fire turned round. Elias screwed his eyes shut. "No!" he cried. I don't want to be here any more, he thought, as he threw himself backwards, back through the currents of time, where bards told their tales through a thousand years, and then Oliver was speaking, and Ciaran was beside him, and the fire was warm on his cheek.
The voice hadn't followed him. He fumbled for his tankard and tried to drink, but it was empty. "I saw them," he whispered. Oliver stopped talking and looked at him. "I saw them, the great enchanters. "
"A vision?" Oliver grabbed hold of his arm, his fire alight with eagerness and longing. "Oh, Elias, what did they look like?"
What could he say? Words were nothing. Words could describe their height or the colour of their hair, but they never show Oliver the faces of the men his people revered. "They were men," he said at last. "Just men."
Oliver looked at him steadily, then nodded. "But you'll tell me everything? We know so little of those days. To think that you've seen them..."
"I will," Elias promised. The wind touched the hair at the nape of his neck, and he shivered. "I saw the very start of it," he said. "They called him the first enemy."
"The first enemy." Oliver's hand tightened, then withdrew. His knuckles were white as he clasped his hands together. "No-one knows how many enemies were defeated. No-one knows how many wars were fought. Countless thousands might have died, and whole swathes of land made into waste, but they are all forgotten. Only one enemy is remembered, and he is the one they called the first enemy, and the last."
The air grew colder. The wind was still and the branches were silent. The fire was burning lower, flames a little paler, and the darkness was velvet and still. Elias could hardly breathe.
"Did I say that no-one had ever escaped from the Shroud of Dreams?" Oliver said. "No-one did, but one was set free. The enchanters were betrayed by one of their own. Why, we do not know. Hundreds of years had passed, and the enemy's followers were long gone. Maybe the enemy had a child, and the line lived on through the centuries, each one raised on tales of the great injustice committed against their forefather by the enchanters. Or maybe the traitor was a young man who had read too much of the histories, and had come to believe the first enemy's lies and rallying calls."
"Or maybe," Elias murmured, "he just thought it was cruel to condemn another man to such a fate."
Oliver only nodded, though Elias had said something that many of the Kindred, who reviled treachery more than anything in the world, would find abhorrent. "Yes. Maybe he was a good man who thought he was undoing an injustice, and regretted it more than he could bear, when the world was torn apart as a result of his mercy."
Elias looked down at the ground, and said nothing. He could easily have been that traitor. He had let the soldier go, and had even given him a sword, when that single act of mercy could have had dire consequences for the Kindred and the world. He wondered if Oliver knew that, if Reynard had told him.
"But his reasons are lost," Oliver said, "as is his name. All that we remember is that he released the first enemy, and thus almost caused the undoing of the world."
"The gate-keeper!" Elias gasped. "There was a man," he struggled to explain. "He vowed to guard the gates for all eternity, even after death. He's still there. I saw him. Why didn't he...?" He stopped. Perhaps even the gate-keeper had been incapable of believing that an enchanter could be helping the enemy, and had only seen what was happening when it was too late. Or maybe his magic was weaker after death, and he had bound himself for nothing. He had been powerless to stop Elias from entering.
Oliver was shaking his head, frowning, and Elias found there were tears in his eyes. To be bound to such a fate for all eternity, and for no-one to even know that you existed... "He was there," he whispered. "He's still there. I want to tell him that his vow is completed. I want to help him to rest. How can I do that?"
Oliver looked at him with sympathy, but even the bard had no answers for this. He had told his tale using the age-old words, but this was something not in the script.
Elias dashed at his eyes. "Go on. Tell us about the last enemy."
"There is little more to tell," Oliver said. "He was released. Before, they say, he had wanted to rule the world, and had been charming and dangerous and hard to resist. This time, he only wanted revenge. He no longer cared if there was anything left of the world when he had finished. He was defeated, but only just, and with great cost.
"This time, the great enchanters made sure that he would never come back. They ripped his spirit from his body so he would no longer walk in the world. The body they destroyed; the spirit they confined in the Shroud of Dreams. But they did more. So the world would never again be torn apart by wars that used magic as a weapon, they banished sorcery itself into that place, and bound it there forever."
"Sorcery?" Elias echoed. "I thought that was only the duchy's name for enchantment."
"It is now," Oliver said, "but it was not always so. Enchantment had a.. an evil twin, as it were. Enchantment is the magic of life and feeling and instinct, but instinct can be dark. Sorcery thrived on selfishness and ambition. It was the savage delight on a man's face as he made another cringe beneath him. It was the cruelty that makes a cat toy with its prey. It was the dark aspect of life and nature, and it was sorcery."
Elias could hardly speak. "Why didn't I know this before?"
"It's over," Oliver said tersely. "It hasn't existed for a thousand years. We don't know anything about it, and we don't want to. Enchantment is all that matters."
"But you can't remove evil from the world like that," Ciaran protested. Elias had been about to say the same thing. "There are still bad things happening. Elias says that Lord Darius uses enchantment, and he does cruel things with it. It's absurd. Evil comes from the heart of the evil-doer, not from the weapons he uses. The Shadow just is. It can be used for selfish things, or generous ones. It can be used to kill, and it can be used to heal. Each man chooses how it use it, but the power just is."
"But it wasn't like that here." Oliver was still looking at his clasped hands. "There was enchantment, and there was sorcery, and now sorcery has gone. There is still cruelty, as we know better than anyone, but the great enemies have gone."
"And so have the great enchanters." Elias closed his eyes. This time the transition was instant. When he opened his eyes again, he was back in the same wooded glade as before, but this time it was twilight, and there were only five of them, pale and ragged.
Elias walked between them, and none of them looked up. They were all young, he saw, and at least two of them were wounded. There were signs of battle in the wood where they stood, for trees were blasted by fire, and grass was wilting. Even so, the air shimmered with the same vibrancy as he had seen the time before, and the colours were very rich.
"Never again," one of the young men was saying. "Never again will you be set free, even if every last man of us turns traitor. For, with you, we banish the source of your power. Evil will remain, for evil lies in the heart of every man, but never again will it have sorcery as a weapon. It will use only the petty weapons of mortal man. You were the first enemy, and you will be the last."
They raised their hands, and enchantment welled up between them. They held them high, and sweat started to trickle down their brows. One of them was shaking, and another was crying. One slumped to his knees, but even then he did not break the circle, although he was held up only by the hands of the men on either side, his arms wrenched painfully behind his failing body.
Elias started forward to help him, the froze. Something tore inside him, and he fell to the ground, moaning, before realising that it wasn't inside him after all. Something deep and fundamental was being destroyed, and the echo of it was like a knife in the heart. "No," he begged. "Stop it. Don't." But they did not hear him. They raised their arms with triumph, then sagged forward. It was done. Sorcery had been rent from the world, and Elias only wanted to weep for it.
"Never again." The enchanter who spoke was breathless with exhaustion, his face grey. "It is done. And now we banish you."
Elias looked up, and saw the unconscious man lying face down in the mud a little outside the circle. He was naked but for a few torn rags, and there was an unhealed wound on his back. His hair was light brown and curly, and the outstretched hand was pale and fine.
And they thought they had defeated me, the voice whispered.
"No," Elias moaned, and one man there, the one who had almost collapsed, raised his head and saw him. "Don't," Elias pleaded. "He'll come back, and you won't be there to stop him. There's only me. You have to kill him. It's less cruel."
The man blinked, and shook his head, like someone telling himself he had imagined something. "Because I'm the only one who can hear you," the enemy said, not a whisper in the mind this time, but a true voice, "because you are mine."
"No!" Elias cried. He hurled himself backwards, scrabbling over grass and fallen branches, and was back in the camp with a crash and a gasp. Oliver shouted his name. Ciaran lunged for him, so Elias found himself caught and supported by a strong arm around his waist.
"Was it another vision?" Oliver asked.
Elias tried to speak, but could not. His heart was racing, and his throat was dry and breathless. He reached for his drink, but it was still empty. Oliver looked at him, clearly reluctant to leave him, then took the cup from his hand and went to get water.
"What happened?" Ciaran asked gently. "You... weren't there for a moment. I thought I could see through you. I touched you, and..." He didn't finish it, but the tight pallor of his face told Elias the rest.
"A vision," Elias explained, "but not like the others. I was really there. Someone saw me." And someone spoke to me, and I could have been trapped, if I'd stayed to listen.
Ciaran did not scoff and tell Elias that it had just been his imagination. "What did you see?"
"The last enemy." Ciaran's arm was warm, and Elias reminded himself that he wasn't alone, that he was surrounded by friends. "He was... I saw... Oh, how can I tell Oliver? I think they did something very wrong, but he reveres them so."
Ciaran's arm tightened around him. "He's coming back."
Elias took a deep breath, and was able to compose himself a little before Oliver sat down beside him. He took the proffered mug and drank it hungrily, draining it to almost empty again. "I saw them confining him for the second time," he explained, when he could avoid it no longer. "I saw them... do what they did."
"Why are you seeing these things?" Oliver looked very tired all of a sudden. "Why now? It's not just because you saw the Shroud of Dreams from the inside, is it? It's something to do with the last enemy, with Cercamond."
Elias's head snapped up. "Cercamond?"
You called me? the voice purred. Then I am here! I have come for you.
This time, the world was wrenched away from him with sharp hooks that tore the flesh. Elias screamed. He screwed his eyes shut and curled tight around the pain, and his screams died down to quiet sobs. The pain faded, but was still an ache inside, dark and festering. When he dared to open his eyes, he saw nothing around him but a black plain, and nothing above him but a diseased sky, the colour of a bruise.
Elias sat up. He was completely alone, without the sense of a single living thing anywhere else in the world. "Though not entirely alone," the voice said, the voice that belonged to a man who had not been alive for a thousand years. "For I am here."
"This isn't real," Elias gasped.
"A vision?" the voice chuckled. "Maybe. A vision of the future that you cannot escape. But true, too. I can trap you here forever, and you will never return to your body. How they will weep, those pathetic little men who are even now calling your name and fluttering over you!"
Elias clenched his fists. "Don't you dare hurt them."
"But you can't stop me," the voice said. "No-one ever could."
"The enchanters did," Elias said. "I saw them."
"You saw them?" The voice, that belonged to Cercamond, the last enemy, laughed. "If you saw them, you saw the truth. The so-called great enchanters that your little bard and all his kind worship so devotedly... They were cowards, as you saw. They confined their enemies to a place worse than death, then congratulated themselves on their mercy. Cruel and self-righteous. What can be worse?" Cercamond touched Elias's cheek, an invisible touch of searing air. "You suffered from their cruelty, too, little one."
Elias recoiled with a sob. The Shroud of Dreams had been a cruel place, but maybe they hadn't known, the great enchanters. They were men, and thus they were flawed, but they had shone with enchantment, and they had looked kind.
"It was cruel," Cercamond hissed, "and they knew it, at least after a while. They knew what it had become. Imagine it, little one. Imagine an eternity of grey nothingness, with no hope of returning home. Ah, but you don't have to imagine it. You experienced it, but for the tiniest fraction of time that we had to suffer it. That's why we started dreaming. That's why our longings took shape and it became a place of illusion. You thought it was dangerous, but the dangers all came from our pain."
Elias lowered his head. "I know."
Cercamond grasped his chin and forced it up, his fingers invisible and sharp. "They knew all that, but they still confined me there a second time. So who do you think was in the right, little one, and who was in the wrong?"
"You were trying to destroy the world," Elias gasped through the pain, "just like you are now. They had to protect the innocent from you."
Cercamond hurled him away, so Elias landed sprawling on his back on the blasted plain. "Still you defend them. But they were fools. They thought to confine me forever, but all they did was generously release me from the restrictions of my bodily form, and hand me the very essence of sorcery itself. They gave me more power than I could have ever dreamed of. Before, I was a man. Now, I am something infinitely more."
Elias felt sick. They had done this? How could he face Oliver, knowing this?
"It gets better," Cercamond chuckled. "They never stopped to ask themselves why their forefathers had never removed sorcery from the world. They thought they were stronger than the ones who had gone before, but they were only more foolish." The wind swelled merrily. "Do you see the truth, little one? They made me."
The wind stroked the back of his neck like a caress. Elias gritted his teeth, and said nothing. "Even their forefathers were blind fools," Cercamond whispered confidingly. "They found this nice little place outside their world and thought to turn it into a prison. They guarded the doors well, but they never thought to wonder if it had a back door. They never thought to wonder if it opened onto other worlds as well.
"It took us a long time to find them, I admit. We were all so consumed with hatred for the people who had condemned us that all our thoughts turned to our own world. It was quite by chance that one of us discovered that we could escape into other worlds, if only we stopped thinking of our own. A door that was impossible to open suddenly became as easy as if it wasn't there."
"How many?" Elias croaked.
"As many as there were enemies that your arrogant and self-righteous little friends confined," Cercamond said happily. "Worlds just ripe for the taking, without irritating enchanters to try to stop us. Worlds that are now ruled by the enemies these enchanters of yours so casually tossed out of their own world."
Elias felt as if Cercamond had crushed him to the barren earth and pinned him there. He pressed his fist to his mouth to stifle the scream that was boiling up inside him, and bit into his own flesh.
"Perhaps you're wondering why I didn't go," Cercamond crooned, suddenly gentle. His touch made Elias retch. "I could have, and I did. I made my mark on many other worlds, including the one you were born in, but I always chose to return. This is the world that cast me out, and this is the world that will taste my revenge. And can you blame me for that, little one?"
"I can," Elias forced out. "Maybe they were wrong, and blind, and foolish, but they're dead. I will not let you destroy the innocent. I will fight you, however I can."
"On about that again?" Cercamond yawned. "We've already spoken about this. You cannot defeat me. Look around you, little one. This is a taste of what your future will be if you fight me." He held back for a moment, as Elias closed his eyes and refused to look. "Oh?" he said. "You want more? Very well."
The air seemed to gather up in a maelstrom, scooping up dust and wind and the bloody sky. It had nails that clawed at Elias's eyes, making them open, making him watch. Dust and darkness towered over him, a million times taller than him. Elias raised one arm in warding, summoning all his power. White light blazed from his hands, struggled bravely for a little while, but died as soon as it touched the looming wave. His arm started trembling, as if it was holding up an enormous weight. A sharp pain stabbed between his eyes, and he found it hard to catch a breath.
He was dying, and he could do nothing. He was defeated, crushed and helpless beneath the dark wave that was Cercamond's will. There was nothing he could do. This was the end.
"See?" Cercamond whispered, just before Elias snatched his final, broken breath. "I could kill you, but I choose not to." The dark weight eased, just a little. "You have much sorrow to endure, little one, before I snuff you out. Just remember, every waking minute, and every second of sleep, that I am as far above you as you are to a gnat. There is nothing you can do against me. Nothing."
The red-shot darkness swelled until it encompassed everything. There was nothing in the world that was not Cercamond, even to the breath in Elias's lungs, and the thoughts in his head. And still it grew. Just as he thought he would surely die from it, it disappeared, and he was alone on the barren plain, alone for ever, alone.
And Ciaran was squeezing his hand, and Oliver was calling his name. It was still dark, and the fire was still crackling. But he could taste dust in his mouth, and knew that at least some of it had been real.
"I saw him," he whispered. "Cercamond, the last enemy. He's come back. He had power in the world already, but now he's completely out, and he's everywhere, and I've sworn to fight him, but I don't know how." He turned his head away and started to cry.
Oliver said nothing. Oliver, who always knew what to say, said nothing. Ciaran pressed Elias's hand to his chest, and spoke firmly to him. "I'll help you. They all will. No battle is lost before it's started. Or, if it is, it's only because you think it is, and don't even try."
But Ciaran had no idea of what Cercamond was like. He had laughed when Elias had told him that the world was dying. He probably thought it was just a joke, a petty little enemy who needed defeating. When Elias came to face that towering darkness again, on the steps of Ravenstor, Ciaran would betray him.
Or maybe not Ciaran, he thought, as he tried not to recoil from his touch. Someone dressed like Ciaran, but maybe not him. And it might not happen at all. He had faced Darius, and defeated him, when such a thing had always seemed impossible. And Cercamond was afraid of him, afraid enough to try to make him kill himself. He had claimed to be able to trap Elias forever in the vision of the plain, but then he had let him go. He said it was for his own amusement, but maybe that was just a lie to cover the fact that he had never been able to keep Elias there at all. Maybe...
Elias struggled to sit up. "I don't want to talk about it tonight, in the dark. I'll tell you tomorrow."
Ciaran's lips tightened, and Elias thought that he was going to argue, to demand that Elias talk about it now, but he only sighed. "I wish you'd tell someone now," he said. "It doesn't have to be me." He touched Elias's hand. "You look so..." Then nothing, nothing more.
Tell them about me, Cercamond urged him. Then they will know me, too. They will despair, as you do. The wind swelled in the trees, but Elias felt a little less cold. Cercamond didn't know everything, if he thought Elias was despairing. He couldn't read his every secret, if he remained ignorant of the tiny spark of hope that had stirred in his heart.
"Tomorrow," Elias lied, as he stumbled away from the fire. "I'll tell you everything tomorrow."