"You've got a leaf in your hair," Adela chided him. "What a ragamuffin. I can't let you out of my sight for a second, can I?"
Oliver leant back onto his elbows and looked up at her, watching as she plucked the leaf from his hair, and twisted it this way and that. It was beginning to turn yellow. The stream was shining just as bright as it always did, glittering in the late afternoon sun, and the flowers were thick and fragrant, but it was almost autumn.
"I needn't ask what you've been thinking about." Adela flicked the leaf away, and crouched beside him. "It's far too early to start worrying. They'll barely have reached the city, let alone started home again. You told me that yourself only this morning."
"I know," Oliver admitted. "But I worry. I can't help it."
On the other side of the stream, a pair of boys ran past, playing a silent game of chase. There was little laughter in their game. Like their mothers and fathers, the children were subdued, living only half a life until their king returned.
Adela had been watching them, too, but something about what she had seen had made her smile fondly. The smile was slow to fade as she spoke. "I worry, too. We all do. It's dangerous where he's going, but maybe that's a good thing. Maybe he'll come back… changed. Maybe whatever he's facing in the city will be the making of him."
Oliver looked at her sharply. "What do you mean? Have you had a vision?" Adela shook her head, folding her hands innocently in her lap. "I'm no seer. I'm just thinking of that other boy I knew, the one I was telling you about the other day."
"Then don't," Oliver snapped. Sighing, he scraped his hand over his face. "I'm sorry, Adela. I'm just..."
"Worried. I know. But he'll be fine, Oliver. Amalric will, too."
"But what if he isn't? I mean, what if they aren't?" he hastily added. "They could all be dead, and we'd just be sitting here. We wouldn't know."
"No," she said, trying to take his hand. "We wouldn't."
"But it's wrong!" he shouted. "If he dies, our hopes die. We ought to know. The sun ought to stop shining. That's what it does in stories. It's not right!"
"It's how it is," Adela said mildly. "We're not the heroes of a story, Oliver. We don't have a seer any more, and maybe that's a good thing. We can't know what's going to happen, or what's happening a long way away. We just have to find our own way of living, of hoping, of loving…"
"But it's not enough!" he cried. "It never has been, not for us."
Adela ran her hand across his cheek, stroking gently. "They will come back, Oliver. You mark my words," she said, but he could only turn away from her, because what did she know about anything? She was as lost as he was, as lost as they all were. All they could do was wait, but the summer was nearly over, and his dreams were growing dark and strange, full of visions of Elias dead.
"He's waking up," someone said. Lankin wasn't sure if they were talking to him, so he opened his eyes to look. He moved his head towards the voice, but pain stabbed through his body, making him moan and screw his eyes shut again. "Lie still," the same voice said, and this time he knew it meant him, for it came with a hand on his brow, pushing him into the pillow.
Footsteps sounded on the floor, quick and tapping. He heard the scrape of chair being pulled up, and the sound of someone sitting down. The hand left his brow, and a voice said, "You can have a few minutes, but don't make him tired." He didn't know what it meant, and thought he would go to sleep again, rather than try to find out.
Then someone spoke his name, so he had to wake up after all, even though it hurt. Thomas was sitting by his bed and looking down at him strangely. "This isn't my room," Lankin tried to say, but his voice was scratchy and didn't want to work properly. Coughing felt as if it would hurt, so he just swallowed a few times. "Why're you looking like that?" he managed.
"You're in the infirmary," Thomas told him. "You were badly hurt. but the doctor says you'll get better." Thomas's left arm was wrapped in a bandage, bound to his chest. Lankin was about to ask about it, but Thomas glanced at it, and shrugged. "Sprained wrist. That's all."
"How did it happen?" Lankin asked him.
Thomas frowned, and looked down. "No," he mumbled. "You should answer that, not me." He took a deep breath and raised his head. "What happened, Lankin?"
When Lankin breathed in too deeply, the pain was terrible. He took fast shallow breaths, and slowly the pain eased enough for him to think. What had happened? As soon as he asked himself the question, he remembered. Despite the pain, he lashed out and grabbed Thomas's arm. "Did we get him?"
Thomas shook his head. "He got away. For now."
It hurt worse than the wound. He would have suffered anything willingly, if it had resulted in the capture of the sorcerer king, but now that foul creature, the enemy of everything good and decent, was at large, and Lankin was confined to a bed and unable to fight him. "How?" he rasped.
"He came," Thomas said, in a leaden voice. "He climbed in over the walls. Lord Darius ambushed him in the cells, but he got away." He slammed his clenched fist into his thigh. "He got away."
"And no-one stopped him?" Lankin burst out. "What were you all doing?"
Thomas thrust his face towards him, suddenly furious. "You left your post and took two of our best recruits out with you, and got them both killed. What were you doing to stop him from getting away, Lankin?"
Lankin wanted to close his eyes and give in to the pain. He turned his face away, and whispered, "There was a man. He must have been guarding the sorcerer's way over the walls..."
"One man against three? He used sorcery, then?"
Lankin shook his head. "I thought so at first, but he wasn't. He was so strong. He just kept on going, even though I was sure we'd hit him. I remembered what we were taught. I told myself it was only illusion. I told myself he wasn't real and I... I ran onto his sword, Thomas. But he was real all along. Real, and such a soldier! He was better than any of us. If they're all like that..."
"Don't talk like that," Thomas snapped. "You weren't seeing things clearly. Everyone knows that bandits and sorcerers are all cowards. If they ever win anything, it's because they use underhand methods and tricks."
But it's not true, Lankin thought. He was incredible. And there wasn't any sorcery in it, none at all. The man had been one of the sorcerer's minions, and therefore evil, but Lankin found himself wishing that he had killed him outright, so the man wouldn't have to endure Darius's tortures. He had fought well, and there had been no honour in the way Lankin had attacked him, three men against one.
"It was all tricks," Thomas said. "There's no end to his evil. Darius took six men with him, but the sorcerer called up darkness, and the darkness came to his command. He kept the unnatural darkness around him like a cloak, and all the good men who came into his path came to grief because they couldn't see. Even Darius himself was struck down by one of the sorcerer's minions, but fortune preserved him."
Is that how Darius is telling it in his speeches? Lankin wanted to ask. Are any of those words your own?
"But he was hurt." Thomas smiled, showing his teeth. "And he won't escape us. We killed half of his men. Half a regiment is out there hunting down the two we know have escaped by themselves. We're all ready to respond, as soon as his trail is discovered."
"How long has it been?" Lankin asked. He had a dim memory of waking up in a world of pain, and hearing a man coming towards him, desperate to help him. Lankin had tried to call out, "I'm here! Help me!" but the darkness had surged up and swallowed him alive. He almost asked Thomas who had found him, so he could find the owner of that voice and thank them, but Thomas was already speaking.
"Only a day," Thomas said, "but he's not gone far. We found a wounded scout. Before he died, he said that he'd seen the sorcerer disappear through a door of light. So he's taken refuge in a place of sorcery. But he's got to come out one day, and, when he does, we'll be waiting. He doesn't stand a chance."
But that was what Darius had said before. He had smiled and told Lankin how the sorcerer would walk into the trap and be utterly destroyed. That was why they had held their fire when they could have struck. It was to be a flawless trap, or so Darius had said, but the sorcerer had escaped, and whose fault was that?
"How many did we lose?" Lankin asked, without looking at Thomas. He barely recognised his friend. For months, Lankin had been the favoured one, and Thomas had been the one reduced to always asking questions, but suddenly it was the other way round. There was a harshness to Thomas that Lankin had never seen before.
"Too many." Thomas sighed, a sound closer to a snarl. "A dozen good men lost, and dozens more hurt in falls in the darkness. They're all martyrs, killed by sorcery."
But the two men with Lankin had been killed by an ordinary man, wielding a sword. How many of the others had died just because they had been outclassed in a simple fight, one man against one?
"He will be held to account for every one," Thomas swore. "And, if there are traitors amongst us who helped him escape, they too will pay."
There was such venom in his voice. Lankin was slow to realise the reason. "You think I...?"
Thomas sighed, and when he spoke again, his voice was softer. "I don't know what to think, Lankin. For months you've been lording it over us all, so proud of being in Darius's favour. No-one trusted me enough to tell me what was happening. I was called out and sent against the sorcerer king, only to find that you'd all expected him for days, and had it all planned out in secret. So how do you expect me to feel? The people who knew about it let him slip away. Why was that?"
Because the plan was flawed, Lankin thought. Darius was too confident.
"And then I see how you left your post and failed to bring down one man," Thomas continued, his voice rising. "And the six men with Darius failed to take the enemy. One of them even shot another one dead, you know. Darius trusted only a few of you, but he trusted you not to fail. And you did fail. If I'd known about it, maybe I could have done better than you."
"It wasn't our fault!" Lankin burst out, without meaning to.
Thomas looked at him, and then, amazingly, he smiled. "I know it wasn't, Lankin. Gresham is making noises about getting you stripped of your rank, but that's just his way of paying you back for having more power than he has. No-one's really listening to him. Everyone knows it wasn't your fault. It was the sorcerer king. He used his powers to confuse you, so you thought it was a good idea to leave your post. Everything that happened, happened because of his evil."
Lankin swallowed. "Yes," he said, looking away. "Yes. And he will pay."
Thomas touched his hand, fist against fist, in an echo of their old childish oath "He will pay."
And he would, Lankin thought. So Darius was overconfident, and that had given the enemy the chance to slip away. So some of the dead had been killed, not by sorcery, but by a master swordsmen in a fair fight. What difference did it make? Sorcery was still evil, and the sorcerer king had to be killed. It was hard to see clearly when you were hurting badly, lying in a sick bed only inches from death. When Lankin found him, he would hurt him and make him scream, and take revenge for every doubt.
"He will pay," he swore, and this time he did look at Thomas, and the two of them smiled together. But something had changed, Lankin thought. Things would be different from now on, darker and less secure.
Thurstan had no idea where he was. Amalric had snapped at him when he had questioned where they were going, telling him to shut up and just follow. As twilight came, they were in a horrid place, stagnant and damp.
"We'll stop here," Amalric announced, "and start again before it's light tomorrow." He dismounted, sinking up to his ankles in the mud.
Thurstan sat heavily on his horse, wavering with exhaustion. "Here? But it's wet."
"Of course it's wet." Amalric splashed through the marshy grass, and tied his horse to a willow tree. "The water will confuse anyone who's tracking us. Weren't you taught anything?"
From the mountains, the lowlands looked utterly flat and featureless, with clear visibility for miles and miles. Of course, it was nothing like that, now he was there. It was full of small rises and dips, with broad streams and long hedgerows and well-tended coppices of trees. It was a cultivated land, scattered with towns and villages and people, and Thurstan didn't like it.
"We can hide under the trees," Amalric said. "It won't be as wet there."
Thurstan looked around miserably. "What can we eat?" It seemed wrong to be hungry, for the need for food was a trivial thing, too normal for the awful happenings of the day, but he was.
Amalric flapped his hand. "We'll find something." He crouched down, peering at the water as if he was looking for fish.
Still on horseback, Thurstan peered over his shoulder. There was no-one there. All day he had been looking, but he had never been able to see anyone. As the day went on, he found himself wishing that he could. It was too good to be true. It had to be some sort of trap. They couldn't really have escaped, could they?
"We got away," Amalric was saying, when Thurstan turned back. As Thurstan dismounted, Amalric smiled with satisfaction. "They must have fallen for my trick and followed the other horses. I took us by a clever route, and we've lost them for good."
But, as long as there was no-one coming up behind him, that meant that the king was still lost. A horse behind them didn't need to be the enemy. It could be the king hurrying to catch up with them and make everything all right. But the sun had set and the sky was grey, and the day was over and he hadn't come.
"What happened?" Amalric asked him.
Thurstan started. "What?"
Amalric frowned with irritation. "What happened in the citadel?"
Thurstan knelt down, too tired to stand, despite the inch-deep water. "We got all the way in before they attacked." He plucked at a blade of thick grass. "Julien died. Reynard almost died, too, but the king brought him back. But it hurt him somehow. He wasn't strong. We..." He closed his eyes, clutching the blade of grass tight enough to hurt. "We found Gerhard, but it was horrible. And then a man found us, but the king did some magic and we got away. Ranulf died on the walls. Joscelin died when I was carrying him. It was..." His voice ran out, choked in shameful tears.
"What happened to Gerhard?" Amalric demanded.
"Gerhard..." When his eyes were closed, he could still see him, horrible and deformed in the dark cell. When he opened his eyes, he just saw the forsaken swamp, and Amalric's uncaring face, and he missed the king terribly. He even found himself missing Reynard, even though he was a murderer. "Gerhard... died," he managed to say. "He was too badly hurt to come with us, so Reynard killed him."
"Reynard?" Amalric's eyes widened, and he started to laugh. "I bet he found that satisfying."
"He didn't!" Thurstan shouted. "Gerhard kept asking the king to kill him, but Reynard knew the king would hate himself if he killed anyone. He did it to spare the king. He did it because Gerhard wanted it."
"You really believe that?" There was still a trace of smile on Amalric's face.
"Yes." And Thurstan realised that he did. He hated Reynard for it, and perhaps he would never be able to look at him without remembering it, but he understood why he had done it. Gerhard had asked for it. Gerhard had refused all offers of help. They'd gone through so much to save him, and he'd just wanted to give up and die. Three men had died in the attempt to rescue him, and they might as well not even have set out.
"Maybe you're right." Amalric leant a little closer to Thurstan. "Was Gerhard your father?" he whispered, as if he was confiding a secret in a crowded room.
The blade of grass snapped off in Thurstan's hand, and a bird cried out across the marsh, an eerie whooping sound. "No," he said. "I thought he might be, but he wasn't." He didn't understand everything Gerhard had said before dying, but he understood that much. At the time, he had barely noticed it. So many hopes had been crashing down, and the hope that Gerhard was his father had been the smallest one of all.
"Then Reynard is," Amalric said. "It had to be one or the other. We were all wondering."
The grass floated on the surface of the water, and the bird sounded again, closer this time. He saw a dark shape in the reeds, wading on long legs. When he turned back to Amalric, his face was still there, his lips still shaping the last sound he had made.
"Reynard," Thurstan croaked. "Reynard's my father?"
"But you knew about it already, didn't you?" Amalric bit his lip, and his voice faltered. "You did? I assumed you did. He really didn't tell you?"
Thurstan shook his head mutely. Reynard, he thought. My father.
Amalric glanced over his shoulder, as if he was hoping for someone else to come up behind him and take over. "Gerhard was Reynard's older brother. He seduced Reynard's wife back when I was a boy. He chose exile before Reynard could fight him for it. The woman went with him. That's all I know."
"The woman," Thurstan echoed. He looked at his hands, spreading them so he could see the palms, then clenching them into fists. "My mother. What was my mother called?"
Amalric shook his head. "I don't know. But I know that Gerhard was... powerful. Dangerously so. Reynard was only the little brother, the pale shadow who could never be as strong or as popular as Gerhard. Gerhard had everything, but even then he wasn't happy until he'd taken Reynard's family from him."
"Did he love her?" Thurstan whispered.
"Reynard? I don't know. But he wasn't always like he is now, or so I hear. Gerhard? I don't think so."
"He always liked to win," Thurstan said faintly. "I think he enjoyed his life in exile. He didn't have to bow to anyone. And he never told me her name. He never showed me where she was buried."
"Reynard always hated Gerhard," Amalric said.
"Gerhard said he kept me with him out of revenge." Thurstan felt sick. "He didn't want me with him, he only wanted to stop Reynard from having me."
"I thought you knew about it." It was Amalric's turn to pluck at the grass, tearing up blade after blade. "I didn't know you didn't know. You ought to have known." He sounded almost angry, as if he blamed Thurstan for being ignorant.
Thurstan wrapped his arms around his knees. "It's all right," he said, quite calmly. "I know now, and it's all right."
On the second day, they were discovered. They were skirting the edge of a town, blundering through the fields of ripe crops, when a man rose up from the yellow wheat, a scythe in his hands. "Who are you?" he demanded. "Keep away!"
Amalric made as if to draw his sword and cut the man down, but Thurstan pushed forward. "We don't mean any harm," he said.
"Oh, I know who you are," the man chuckled. "Are you going to kill me before I can turn you in, then?"
Thurstan looked sharply at Amalric. "We're not going to kill you."
"No?" To Thurstan's amazement, the man lowered his scythe. "That's good. But I wasn't planning on turning you in. Good luck to you, is what I say."
Thurstan had no idea how to respond. The man was wishing them luck? He had always been told that everyone in the duchy hated the Kindred, but not everything he had been taught was right, he knew that now. Maybe there were safe havens out there with soft beds and warm food and smiles, where you could sleep for a night without fear and discomfort. He had never had such a night before.
"They came here a few months ago," the man said. "That was volunteers only, though. We've heard tales of the press-gangs. If they come for my sons, I'll be helping them escape, I can tell you."
Thurstan didn't know what he was talking about, but then he glanced at Amalric and saw the stolen uniform he was wearing. The man thought they were deserters from Darius's army.
"It's always us," the man said. "Who is this Lord Darius anyway? We've never seen him, that's for sure. Sits there in the comfort of the city and makes orders that steal our children from us. I bet no-one in the city has to join the army. When the enemy attacks, our sons will die defending Eidengard, and no-one cares about us. Will the armies come to our defence, if the bandits attack? I don't think so."
Thurstan swallowed, his mouth dry. The man wasn't a friend at all. He would kill them without a thought if he realised who they were. The Kindred had no hope at all. Even Lord Darius's enemies hated them.
"Are they looking for you, do you think?" the man asked. "I can offer you a bed for the night, but I don't want any trouble."
Thurstan shook his head, but his throat was too dry to speak. He had said too much already, and hadn't even tried to disguise his accent. If they stayed here for a minute longer, he thought, the man would work out the truth and kill them. They had to go. They had to go now.
His heart fluttering in his throat, he kicked his horse into a canter, smashing through the shimmering wheat. Amalric followed him, then galloped past him, and was leading again, and Thurstan was only following, just the same as before.
No-one caught them up. They passed several more towns, but kept their distance, and didn't speak to anyone else. Soon they reached the hills, and that meant that they were over half way there. Amalric's brother was waiting for them in the forest, and they had to reach it. It was Thurstan's only home now. Everyone from the mountains was dead, but that had never really been his home after all. His father was Reynard, and Reynard came from the forest.
Maybe the king had reached home before them, travelling by paths only he could travel. Maybe Reynard was there with him, waiting for Thurstan to come back. He tried to envisage the meeting, but could not. He wanted to scream at him for killing Gerhard, but he understood why Reynard had done it. He wanted to hate him forever for not telling him he was his father, and he wanted to love him, and be loved.
He slept only occasionally, and his sleep was full of dreams of Gerhard and Reynard and the king, and of Amalric riding away and leaving him behind. Then, one morning, he woke to find Amalric gone.
The sun had already risen, showing a pretty hillside scattered with thyme and rabbit burrows. He sat up and stretched. They were getting close to the forest now, and there had still been no sign of pursuit. By evening, they would be firmly in Kindred territory, in the woods that the people of the duchy were scared to enter.
He stood up and walked over to his horse, greeting it cautiously. His horse had carried him well for days, but he was still a little nervous of the animal, not sure how to touch it. "Hello, girl," he said. The horse tossed its head and snorted.
Sensing movement behind him, he whirled round, in time to see Amalric striding down the slope, three dead rabbits dangling from his left hand. "Breakfast," he said, "and enough to keep over for lunch and dinner." Even as he spoke, a rabbit hopped past Thurstan, close enough that he could have snatched it up in his hand. Amalric could have just stayed still and shot them, without going away and putting them both at risk by being alone.
"Can we light a fire, then?" Thurstan wondered.
"Of course we can," Amalric snapped. "We're nearly home now. I got us home safely. No-one can deny that."
When the others had stayed behind, missing or lost. Thurstan couldn't bear to look at Amalric's proud face. It was shameful to be the only ones returning home, when four better men and the king did not. "I was just thinking…" he mumbled. "I know we're getting close, but it's still not safe. We can't relax. We still have to be careful."
"I'm in charge, and I say we light the fire." Amalric threw down the rabbits, then rubbed his wrist, grimacing. "Something bit me. Some stupid snake. Skin the rabbits, boy," he snapped, when Thurstan made no attempt to move.
Thurstan drew his knife, and set to work.
Just as the day was at its hottest, Amalric toppled off his horse. Struggling to his feet, he walked a weaving course forward for a few steps, then fell onto his face. This time he didn't get up.
Thurstan dismounted and ran to his side. He rolled Amalric onto his back, and, as he did so, Amalric's arm flopped onto the ground. The wrist was grotesquely swollen, the skin red and puffy around two small wounds that leaked bloody yellow fluid. "Why didn't you say anything?" Thurstan breathed. "I didn't know."
Amalric opened his eyes. "Don't feel so good," he slurred. "Don't know what's wrong. Be better soon, though. Got to get on."
"It's time for lunch anyway," Thurstan told him, pushing him back when he struggled to rise. "Let's have a rest."
Amalric's eyes slid shut. His breathing was noisy, fighting past a constriction in his throat. Thurstan bit his lip and looked all around him, desperately searching for something that could be of use, but they were alone in the green hills, still several hours from the forest. There was no-one to help him.
"Are we nearly there?" Amalric murmured. "I'm sleepy."
"Nearly there," Thurstan told him.
"I did well, didn't I?" Amalric opened his eyes and grabbed Thurstan wrist with his good arm. "I showed them all. I saved your life, didn't I? They couldn't keep themselves alive, but I managed it. They'll have to respect me now. I've done something even he couldn't have done."
"You did well." Thurstan looked round again, but nothing had changed. His horse pawed the ground impatiently. Hurry up, it was telling him. Get him home. Someone else will know what to do.
"Have to get home," Amalric mumbled. "Not over till we're home." He managed to stand and walk a few staggering steps, then fell again. "Have to get home." He seemed unaware that he had fallen, moving his legs as if he was still walking.
Stop it! Thurstan wanted to scream. "Do you want some water?" he asked. When Amalric didn't respond, he tried again. "Why don't you go to sleep? I'll keep watch. You'll feel better when you wake up."
And maybe he would. Most snakes were harmless, and even the deadly ones were shy of people and never attacked unless provoked into it by fear. "Only a fool lets himself get bitten by a snake," Gerhard had once said, when one of his men came home nursing a bite. He'd been sick for a while, but he hadn't died, and it would be the same for Amalric. It had to be.
Amalric slept, but his breath started rattling in his throat, and he cried out, tormented with dreams. The sun had barely moved in the sky before his eyes snapped open. He lashed out at Thurstan with surprising strength. "Why are you keeping me here?" he screamed. "I need to get home! Why are you stopping me?"
Thurstan hurled himself backwards, only narrowly avoiding the blows. "You need to get better," he said, edging forward again, trying to sound confident and non-threatening. "I'm just trying to take care of you."
"Traitor!" Amalric screamed. "I know your game! You want to get back first. You want all the glory. You want to tell tales on me. No wonder Reynard didn't want you to be his son. Did he and Gerhard bicker over who would be saddled with you? Did Reynard draw the short straw? But I'm on to you. I know your game."
I won't listen, Thurstan told himself. Don't think about it, not yet. "You don't know what you're saying," he said. "You're really sick. You have to sleep."
He dared touch Amalric on the shoulder, pushing him back to the ground. Amalric tried to fight him, but was too weak. "Don't trust you," he murmured, as he rolled onto his side and curled up. "Don't trust anyone."
"But I'll keep watch," Thurstan promised. "I won't let anyone hurt you. I'll make sure you get back home."
And then he sat and waited, arms wrapped round his knees, Amalric's angry words echoing round his head until he thought he was going to scream.
Amalric slept until sunset. "Strange," he murmured, and that was Thurstan's first sign that he was awake.
Thurstan started, his head coming up, and the dagger he was clutching in his aching hand coming too. "What?"
"No, not strange," Amalric murmured. "It was only to be expected, really."
Thurstan licked his lips. "What?"
"That I'm going to die like this, all alone, killed by a snake bite. What a fitting end for a failure like me."
Thurstan scrambled to his side. "You're not going to die."
"I wanted so much." Amalric sighed, the breath wheezing in his throat. "I wanted to find something special that I could do better than anyone else, but there wasn't anything. I never used to mind. Father and Oliver were the great ones. I wasn't great, but I could help them. I could love them. And they'd love me and that was all that mattered."
"You're not going to die." Thurstan took hold of Amalric's hand, but now it was as cold as if it was already dead. "Stop talking like this. You need to sleep."
"Then Oliver stopped needing me. So I told myself it didn't matter. So what if he didn't want me? I'd show him that I didn't need him. I'd do better things that he could ever do. I'd make him respect me. I'd make him love me again."
"Oliver loves you," Thurstan said, but Amalric gave a scornful laugh, and Thurstan felt ashamed. What did he know about anything? He had never had to comfort anyone before, and he knew he was doing it wrong.
"Oliver's got his Elias now," Amalric spat. "His precious king, closer to him than his own brother is. And he's got his Adela, and they're kissing and laughing, and it's not fair. I was his only friend. I was there for him for years. But he doesn't even like me much. He likes them much more. The king killed my father. Did you know that?"
Thurstan's hand rose half way to his mouth, then fell back again. "Did he?" "No," Amalric said, with weary bitterness. "He just died. And the king saved my life by pulling me away from my father's body. But I blamed him all the same. It's easier to hate, you know?" He looked Thurstan full in the face. "So that's who I am. I hate the man who can save us all, just because I'm jealous. I'm a failure. I'm dying as failures ought to die, not in battle, and all alone."
"You're not a failure!" Thurstan cried. "You saved my life! You made me come away. If you hadn't, I'd have stayed there, and they'd have caught me. And I wouldn't have known how to get back. I'd have got lost. And…" He glanced wildly around. "And Reynard chose you to come," he babbled. "He wouldn't choose just anyone."
"He felt sorry for me," Amalric said. "He knows what it's like to be overshadowed by your brother. Even Reynard has a soft spot in his heart. He took his real fighters, and then he took me. I know that now. I was so proud when he chose me. I thought my time had finally come."
Thurstan squeezed his hand, his vision blurring with tears. "You did do well."
"I didn't." Amalric turned his head away. "I struck the king. I shot at him. I ran away with the horses. I nearly killed us all, and you know it. You're lying."
Thurstan tried to protest, but could not frame the words.
"And Oliver never betrayed me," Amalric continued. "He tried to stay friends with me, but I wouldn't listen.. I wouldn't share him, so I lost him. It was all my fault. I was stupid. I'm going to die stupid."
"You're not going to die," Thurstan said, his voice cracking. "What can I do to help you?"
"Nothing." Amalric tried to lift his wounded arm. He grimaced with pain, but managed it, resting it on Thurstan's arm. "Just tell Oliver I'm sorry. Tell him I know how stupid I was. Tell him I failed. And don't do what I did."
"I will," Thurstan promised him, but Amalric wasn't satisfied. His swollen fingers closed round Thurstan's arm.
"We're alike, you and me," he said. "Don't end up like me. Don't live for the approval of just one man. Don't try to be great. Some of us are mediocrities. Some people can only follow. When the great ones smile at us, it's nice, but we can't expect it. We just live our little lives, and accept the pathetic little nothings that we are. It's better that way. Better to be nothing than to try to be everything and to fail."
Was Amalric saying that he was nobody? Thurstan wanted to pull away, but it would be wrong to fight a dying man. "I... I'll try," he whispered, not sure what he was promising himself to.
Amalric gave a harsh laugh. "You'll have to change, then. You're so like I was, so desperate to please your king. Here, my lord, look at me, my lord, smile at me, my lord, are you pleased with me, my lord... Forget it, Thurstan. Give up. All you've got is yourself, your own small self. We're all alone."
It's not like that! Thurstan wanted to scream. Please tell me it's not like that! But Amalric's eyes slid shut and his head lolled to one side. Thurstan wiped the tears from his eyes. "Go to sleep," he whispered. "You'll feel better soon."
"Failed," Amalric whispered, through cracked lips. "Leave my body. I don't deserve a warrior's burial."
Those were his last words. It was still light when Amalric died.
He spent the night wide awake, crouched beside the body of a dead man. In the morning, he struggled to lift Amalric onto the horse. It took six attempts. Once, Amalric slithered from the horse and fell on top of Thurstan, the two of them going down in a tangle of limbs. Amalric's dead face fell onto Thurstan's, cold lips on his cheek. Thurstan clawed him away and was sick.
The sun rose, and Thurstan whispered his horse forward, clutching the reins of Amalric's horse in his left hand. They moved slowly, plodding down from the hills. "Is this the right way?" he asked Amalric, but the dead man didn't answer. He was tied to the horse with loose ropes around his wrists and ankles, like a sack of rags.
The sky was soft and lovely, and the sunlight bright. It showed the horrid greyness of Amalric's flesh, and the darker bruise on the back of his neck, where the blood had settled upon death. It made it look as if Amalric had been murdered. "I didn't do it," Thurstan pleaded, imagining a ring of accusers, Oliver at the front.
The sun went high in the sky, then lower again. Thurstan was hot and thirsty, trudging onwards, hours all blending into one. Then there were dark shadows around him, and he knew he had entered the forest, but he didn't see the marker stone, where the king had crouched down and spoken dreamily of borderlands. Maybe it wasn't the right forest after all.
Leaves crunched underfoot, turning brown with coming autumn. How long did it take for a body to decay? It had been hot in the hills, and heat made things smell. The shadows in the forest were damp, and dampness made things rot. It was autumn, and things died and decayed.
A crow squawked, eying him hungrily. Crows were carrion birds. They wanted to pluck out Amalric's eyes. "Go away," he begged them, but was too tired to flap his hand. "Leave him alone."
Amalric had told him to leave his body behind, but how could he do that? Gerhard had died so far from home, and they'd left his body for the enemy. At least Amalric would have a proper burial. Joscelin had died in his arms and been abandoned, but he wouldn't abandon Amalric.
He passed a night huddled in the forest, and started off again at dawn. He kept on smelling horrid things, but didn't know if it was Amalric or himself. He hadn't washed for days. The trees hung low, their branches like claws. Once, a branch with a sharp pointed end like a two-pronged fork plucked at Amalric's body, and got tangled with his clothes. It scored a red line along his flesh, but it did not bleed. Then it hooked itself under his belt, and tugged him off balance.
Thurstan cried out. Amalric's body slid from the horse and fell heavily to the ground. The twine around his wrists hung loose, the feeble knots long since unravelled, though Thurstan had not noticed. The ropes around his ankles still held, so Amalric lay on the ground, with his legs lashed above him. If the horse started moving, it would drag Amalric helplessly behind him, and his flesh would be flayed off in bloody fragments by the stones of the forest floor.
Thurstan tried to pick Amalric up, to lift him onto the horse again, but he was too tired. His face pressed against Amalric's throat, and he retched again, but had nothing left in his stomach to bring up.
"I can't go any further," he moaned. "I can't." He had to bury Amalric here, all by himself. Then he could go and get Oliver, so Oliver could say the right things over the grave. Thurstan didn't know what the right words were. He didn't know anything at all.
He didn't have anything to dig the grave with, only his dagger. It would have to do. Why were his hands shaking? Something was pounding between his eyes when he stood up, but it didn't matter. When Amalric was buried, he would let himself sleep for a little bit, but not too close, because bad dreams would rise from the grave in the shape of a rotten corpse come to blame him for not carrying it home.
He started hacking at the ground, but the ground was hard and dry, with roots too close to the surface. He tried again and again until he found a place where it went in to the hilt and hit nothing. "Here," he said. "I'll bury you here." But then the dagger snapped, and he scraped it several times across the ground before he realised that he was holding only the hilt, and it wouldn't cut any more. This time he tried with his hands, clawing at the ground with his fingers, nails cracking and skin bleeding.
Why wouldn’t it go deep? He was pouring with sweat, wavering with exhaustion, but it wasn't deep enough to bury a dog, though he thought it was long enough for a man. He tested it by lying down full length in the hole, folding his hands on his chest, and pretending to be a corpse. Walls of earth enclosed him, but not nearly deep enough. "More," he sobbed, pushing himself out of the grave. "Deeper."
And he was still sobbing when they found him. Sweat dripped in his eyes and left him blind, and all he could do was looking mutely in the direction of the person who grasped hold of his shoulder.
"You can stop now," the man told him.
Thurstan blinked. "I can't." He tried to tear himself from the man's grip and carry on digging. "Please don't make me."
"You're coming with us," the man said. "We'll take care of everything."
We'll take care of everything. Thurstan froze. "Really?" He wasn't the only one. It didn't come down to him any more. Here was someone bigger and stronger, and they could take charge, and he could rest.
"Yes." He could see the man now, with his broad tanned face. There were other men behind him, and Thurstan had no idea who they were. And it didn't matter at all. They'd come, and it was up to them what happened now.
"I'm tired," Thurstan whispered, as he slumped forward into the half-dug grave, and fell asleep.
Something was different about the city. Lankin could tell that at once, but he was slow to work out the reason for it.
He had walked slowly down the hill from the citadel, and was resting against a wall, trying to regain his strength for the walk back. As he stood there, people bustled around him, and their talk lapped around him like waves.
"To think that the sorcerer king was here, walking amongst us, bold as brass…" a woman was saying. "It's enough to give you nightmares for life."
There was unease in the city, yes. The woman was not the only one speaking aloud of her fear. No-one knew when the enemy would return, and what form the next attack would take, and that made them scared. But that wasn't it, Lankin thought. Their fear was understandable, and he had seen it before. It wasn't fear that made the city feel different.
A wave of pain stabbed at him, and he doubled up, gasping. "Are you all right, sir?" someone asked him. "He doesn't look all right," a woman replied. "Do you need help? Is there anyone we can get for you? Anywhere we can take you to?"
Lankin forced himself upright again. "I'm fine," he said. "An injury. I'm getting better. It still hurts sometimes."
They accepted it reluctantly, but shot him anxious looks over their shoulders as they walked away. Only after they had gone did he realise the truth. They had been friendly to him, genuinely concerned, and they were not the only ones. He had stayed leaning against the wall for nearly an hour, and in that time dozens of people had smiled at him, or nodded a good morning.
It was because he was not wearing his uniform, he realised. If he had been standing here dressed as a Soldier of Light, people would have passed him with averted eyes.
He had never realised before how afraid people were of the Soldiers of Light. More people in the city had seen loved ones die at the hands of the Soldiers of Light than at the hands of the sorcerers. Of course, the loved ones in question had been traitors, and it had been right to kill them, but it was easy for the people to forget that sight. Whenever they saw a Soldier of Light, they wondered if the soldiers had come for them.
Not that Lankin had joined Darius's army in order to be popular. Sacrifices had to be made in order to do what needed to be done. The Soldiers of Light did what was best, even if the people sometimes failed to understand their reasons. Even so, he thought, it was nice to be smiled at again, to experience the things that were good and honest in the duchy that he was fighting so hard to preserve.
As he pushed himself away from the wall, he heard a man haranguing his friend. "It's traitors, I tell you," he was shouting. "Isn't that what Lord Darius himself said last year, when the sorcerer king escaped justice last time? Darius told us we needed to make sacrifices. We've given him our money. We've promised him our sons for his army. We've given him everything he asked for, but the sorcerer king still got away. Whose fault was it? Not ours."
"Not ours," his friend agreed.
"So where has all our money gone? Why did he escape just like he did last year, when the traitors were in charge? Because the traitors are still in charge. What other answer can there be? They let us down, the people who are supposed to protect us from the enemy's evil. There are still traitors in high places, sabotaging everything we do. They need to be rooted out."
"Darius will do it," his friend said, but more doubtfully now.
"They'd better capture the sorcerer soon," the man said, "or there'll be trouble. We can only take so much. We've made our sacrifices. Now we need to see results."
He would be arrested before the week was over, Lankin thought, but he would not be the one to do the deed. The man was a right-thinking enemy of sorcery, who wanted to see his people safe. Lankin could well understand his need to find someone to blame. Darius had started something dangerous, with all his rhetoric of traitors in high places, who let sorcerers escape unpunished. Once the idea had been planted, it was hard to forget.
His arm pressed against his healing side, Lankin started to walk slowly back to the citadel. Everything was falling apart. Things that had always seemed so certain suddenly seemed cloudy and confused. He had lost his way. He needed to speak to Darius, he realised. Darius had a way of making things clear. When he spoke to you, you realised how foolish you had been to think any other way.
As if fortune itself had heard his request, he was met at the citadel gates by a page boy. "Lord Darius wants to see you, sir," the boy told him. "Do you...?"
"I know the way." Lankin's wound suddenly seemed to hurt worse than it had done for days. Lankin was bad at hiding his feelings, and Darius was so astute, able to read secrets in a man's face. Would Darius know that he had been having doubts?
His steps grew slower and slower as he walked along the tiled corridor, and up the stairs to Darius's suite of rooms. "Come in, Lankin," Darius called, before Lankin had even brought his fist up to knock. Taking a deep breath, Lankin opened the door.
Darius was standing with his back to the window. "How are you feeling, Lankin?" he asked, without turning round.
Lankin was hunched over, desperate to sit down, but he forced his back to straighten. "Getting stronger every day. I'll be back on active duty soon." He breathed in, and out. "And you, my lord?" Darius had been wounded by one of the sorcerer king's minions, though no-one knew exactly what had happened. Three of the men with him had died in the cells, and the other three had been part of a group sent after some of the fugitives, and had never come back.
"Better than ever," Darius said. "He wasn't as strong as he thought he was, and I was wearing mail under my clothes. You can't take chances with men as full of guile and tricks as these, can you?"
"No." Lankin shifted his weight from foot to foot, trying to find a position that didn't hurt. He would make his confession, he decided, and face whatever he had to face. "I..."
"No need to say it." Darius turned round. "I have eyes and ears everywhere, Lankin. I know that you've been having doubts." It came with a thin smile, so mild and innocuous, though the words turned Lankin cold. They could be his death sentence. Darius often smiled as he killed people.
"I haven't..." he stammered. But he would face it like a soldier, he resolved. Darius knew everything already, and perhaps Lankin's only chance would come from being honest. "I've been wondering how the enemy got away, yes," he admitted. "I have been wondering who made mistakes. I know I did. I made a false assumption. If I hadn't, two promising young soldiers would still be alive, and I might have taken down my man, and come back to bring warning. Punish me as you see fit."
Darius spread his hands. "You will not be punished. Everyone makes mistakes. Yes, Lankin, even me. You are right in some of your doubts. I thought I knew how he'd act and how to capture him, but he surprised me with his evil tricks. Could I have guarded against it better? Probably. I will bear the guilt for that failure until I die. No-one could possibly blame me more than I blame myself. "
"But it wasn't your fault," Lankin burst out. Darius looked so sad and defeated, and Lankin bore part of the blame for it. What had he been thinking, to doubt such a man? "You did everything you could, but who can predict the actions of a fiend? Who can fathom the depths of his evil? No right thinking man can."
Darius sighed, passing his hand over his eyes. "Maybe, Lankin. Maybe you're right, but I fear that you are not. I fear that I have done the duchy a grave disservice. I have betrayed their trust. I took their money and their young men, but I did nothing with it. I let the enemy escape, just like those traitors who served the old duke did. I'm no better than they were."
"You're not a traitor!" Lankin cried. "There'll always be people who don't understand, but you mustn't listen to them. Of course the war will be long and hard, and we won't win every battle. Of course many people will only see the defeats, and will try to blame someone, but they're wrong. Wars aren't won by being popular. A truly great man like you does what he needs to do, whatever the cost to himself."
"Thank you." Darius seemed genuinely moved. Reaching behind him, he found the back of his chair and guided himself down into it. "I'm not giving up, Lankin. We will still capture him, I'm sure of it."
"I'm sure of it, too." Lankin raised his chin, and there was hardly any pain from his wound at all. He felt strong enough to face anything. As soon as Darius dismissed him, he would go back to his room and put his uniform on. He would be a Soldier of Light again. Perhaps the ignorant people would fear him, but he knew what he was doing was right, and done for their own good.
"You can rest assured of it." Darius stood up again, looking as invigorated as Lankin felt. "I thank you for your faith in me. It means more to me, coming as it did after your doubts, than if you'd never doubted me. A fool can follow without questioning, but to earn the loyalty of a man who can think for himself... I was right to place such trust in you, Lankin."
"I won't let you down," Lankin vowed, and he meant it. He would be the most loyal follower of them all, and he would catch the sorcerer king.
They came up behind him silently, and did not say a word. They could not even bring themselves to say his name.
Oliver turned round slowly, as something terrible lurched inside him. "What is it?" he croaked. "What's happened?" But what else could it be? What else could fill the faces of the Kindred with such devastation and grief?
They approached him, closing in on both sides. "We found..." one said, then the other took it up from his choked silence. "The boy came back, but he was alone."
"All by himself?" Oliver took a step towards them, wanting to grab them and shake them until it wasn't true. "The others..."
"The king and Reynard are missing, or so he says. The others are dead."
"Missing?" He closed his eyes and turned his head away, and the only sound he was produce was the faintest whisper. In the trees above him, the wind whispered and mourned. "Where?"
"He hasn't been able to tell us yet," they said. "But..." Again, they glanced at each other, twisting hands in front of them. "Your brother is only recently dead. The boy was trying to bury him when we found him."
"Amalric." He pressed both hands to his face. "Where is he?" he demanded, as he lowered them. "Where's the boy?"
They pointed, and said something that he didn't even try to hear. He started to run, cloak slapping around his legs, branches tearing at him. Someone called his name. He crashed into someone and sent them flying, and scared faces watched him. He was out of breath, panting, chest tearing, and the wind took the smoke from the fire and billowed it around him, making him cough. He hurled open the door, and then he was inside, in Ranulf's tent, where Thurstan was huddled in a thin blanket on the edge of the bed, staring at nothing.
He wanted to scream at him. What happened? How could you come back alone? As Thurstan looked at him mutely, he knelt down on the floor, pressing his trembling hands against his knees. "What happened?" he asked, and it was amazing how calm he could sound. "Tell me."
Thurstan plucked at the edge of the blanket with one cracked and bleeding nail. "Will you make it better?" he whispered.
Oliver let out a long breath. "I don't know," he said. "But you'll feel better if you tell someone, I know that." He touched Thurstan's hand. "You don't have to bear it alone any more. I'm here."
Thurstan started to speak, his voice flat and expressionless. "We went into the citadel. The king found a white sword, but the soldiers killed Julien. Reynard died, but the king saved him. Gerhard looked horrible. Reynard killed him, and Amalric says he's my father, but he killed Gerhard to stop him hurting. A man came. He hurt the king. The king made everything dark and we ran away, but Ranulf died. Joscelin died when I was supposed to be looking after him. The king went somewhere with magic. Amalric said we couldn't wait. We got away, but a snake bit him and he died. I wanted to bury him, but some men came and said they'd do it. But I did try. I really did."
It was only on the last words that he faltered and looked like the traumatised boy that he was. Close to tears himself, Oliver pulled him into his arms. "I know you did. You did everything you could."
"Will the king come back?" Thurstan asked, into Oliver's shoulder.
Oliver's soothing hands checked only for a moment. "Of course he will."
The funeral was at twilight of the second day. Thurstan stood on the back row, and his mind drifted, so he barely heard the formal words that Oliver said over his brother's grave. As the mourners drifted away, Thurstan just stood there, the blanket wrapped so loosely around him that it trailed on the ground. Soon there was no-one left but him and Oliver. Even Adela had gone, leaving Oliver alone.
Oliver knelt down, and pressed his hand against the freshly-dug earth. Thurstan just watched. After a few minutes, Oliver turned round. "Thank you for coming, Thurstan."
Thurstan wandered forward, hoisting the blanket higher around his shoulders. It was not enough to warm him. He had slept for hours, but was still deeply tired. His dreams were very bad.
The grass was flattered with hundreds of footprints. "They all came," Thurstan said, remembering how Amalric had believed that no-one liked him or respected him. "Everyone was here."
Oliver turned back to the grave. "But most of them didn't know him. They came because he was their seneschal's brother. Or they came to mourn Ranulf or Julien or Joscelin. When they said the words of farewell, how many of them were thinking of Amalric at all? But you," he said, before Thurstan could stammer an answer. "You were mourning him, Thurstan. That's why I thanked you. It means a lot to me."
"I didn't really know him," Thurstan confessed. "But we were together for a few days, all alone. I was there when he died. I heard his last words."
He had expected Oliver to ask what they were, but Oliver just stiffened and turned away, and said nothing.
"He wanted me to tell you that he was sorry," Thurstan said. "He said you were estranged, but it was his fault. He said you did everything you could, but he was stupid and jealous and wouldn't listen."
"He was," Oliver whispered, into the hand pressed against his mouth. "But I should have tried harder. I should have been more sensitive to his feelings. I was going to apologise, Amalric. When you came back, I was going to say sorry."
Thurstan clutched the blanket, and stood frozen, not sure if he ought to edge away. Oliver was crying openly now, and Thurstan didn't know what to do.
Just as he was about to move, Oliver turned round, wiping his eyes. "I'm sorry," he said. "Did he say anything else?"
Amalric had said a lot more. He had died believing that he had failed everybody, and his last words had been that he didn't even deserve burial. He ought to tell Oliver that, Thurstan thought. Oliver had to know. Thurstan wasn't old enough to go round carrying secrets. He just reported what he had seen and heard, and the grown-ups decided what to do about it. That was how it had always been.
"He said..." he began, but there were fresh tears on Oliver's blotchy cheeks, and desperate hope in his eyes. What would it do to him, if Thurstan told him the truth? How could it help him to know that his brother had died despairing? "He saved my life," he said, "and he led us all the way home. He was proud that Reynard had chosen him to go with him, and he knew that he'd proved himself. He was sorry that he wouldn't see you again, but he was happy that he'd been able to do something well. He said it was all he had ever wanted."
"It was." Oliver was smiling through his tears. "I'm glad." He took Thurstan's hand. "Thank you, Thurstan."
Thurstan had to turn away, terrified that Oliver would see in his face that he had been lying. He had given comfort to Oliver, but who could comfort him?
The third night was windy, orange leaves rattling to the ground, but still Elias did not come.
Long after everyone else was asleep, Oliver walked through the woods. Adela was waiting for him in their tent, but not even Adela could make him smile. He walked past Amalric's grave, then carried on. When he had gone several miles, he heard a wolf howling, all alone. "Nightshade?" he called, but the animal did not respond. After a while, he heard the howling again, further away. With Elias gone, there was nothing to draw the wolf to their camp.
He sighed. He felt like the wolf, wanting to wander the forest all alone until the camp was a happy place to be. The Kindred were overwhelmed with gloom, and there were no smiles anywhere. Many tears had been shed for Ranulf and the others, and everyone longed for their king to return. Instead of looking to Oliver to reassure them, they just looked away when he approached, reluctant to intrude upon his grief.
The wind wailed in the branches, and he felt a drop of rain on his cheek. It was time to go home. He had a duty, and he couldn't indulge himself in his grief. Maybe Elias would come back tomorrow.
When he was almost back at the camp, he found Thurstan, huddled against a tree. Oliver stopped walking. "Thurstan?"
"I couldn't sleep," the boy said.
Oliver crouched beside him, then sat, stretching his legs out. The tree made a poor shelter, the wind blowing the rain in beneath its branches. "I couldn't, either."
"I've been thinking..." Thurstan turned an anguished face towards him. "Do you think I should have stayed there?"
Oliver sat very still. It would be easy to blame the boy. Many already did, though Oliver had ordered them not to. When seven went away, and only one came back, it was hard not to resent the survivor for living, when the others did not.
"I wanted to stay," Thurstan cried, "but Amalric said... He said we had to save ourselves. He said the king was strong enough to save himself. He said he'd be upset if something happened to us because we'd waited."
"And he would have been," Oliver assured him. "And Amalric was right. There's no point throwing your life away needlessly." But I'd have waited! something cried out inside him. Even if it was the wrong thing to do, I would never have left him.
Thurstan leant his head back against the tree trunk, gazing up through the autumn leaves. "Do you know where the king has gone?"
Oliver shook his head. "I don't know. But I think I can guess. It's what gives me hope. You said it was a flash of white, like a door? It looked just like that when he first came here, from his own world. So I think he's opened a door to his old world. Time's different there. So he'll rest until he's healed, then come back, but it might take a few weeks."
"Is it dangerous in his old world?"
"No." Oliver smiled. "Elias says it's like our world might be in a few hundred years. They have things there that we haven't got, but they don't kill people just for having enchantment. He was born in his own world's Eidengard, you know."
"Has he got friends there?" Thurstan asked. "Will he stay?"
There was Ciaran Morgan, of course. Elias had already chosen the Kindred over his old master once before, but it had almost destroyed him. If he went back to his own world and met Ciaran again, who could predict what would happen? But, "No," he told Thurstan. "He lived a secluded life there. Of course he won't stay."
"Weeks, though," Thurstan murmured. "You said weeks."
Oliver nodded, and smiled as he said brightly, "But he will come back. And it's not too bad waiting, when you know it will have a happy ending."
The rain lasted for three days. By the sixth day, Thurstan wanted to scream. On the seventh day, he did. He kicked a rock into the stream, and stamped and snarled. Then he sank to the ground, and burst into tears.
Oliver found him like that, a few hours later, when the tears had dried on his cheeks, and the fury had stilled to a dull hatefulness.
"Is there anything I can do to help?" Oliver asked, but Thurstan said nothing at all. "Are you thinking about the king?" He said nothing. "About Gerhard?"
Thurstan stamped to the edge of the stream and sat down, legs pulled up to his chest. "Gerhard's dead."
Oliver sat down close behind him. "I never knew him well."
The thin sunlight dappled the swollen stream. Across the water, the flowers were dying, and the river bank was becoming thick with fallen leaves. Neither did I, Thurstan thought.
"I visited the mountains once," Oliver said. "I'd been to Eidengard in disguise, and I stayed with your people for a night on the way home. Gerhard was..."
"Surly," Thurstan interrupted. "I remember you. He treated you better than most visitors, but he wasn't welcoming. He never was. And he wouldn't let me listen to your stories. He always shouted at me if he caught me listening in to adult talk."
"He was a good man at heart," Oliver said, but what did Oliver know? People always spoke good of the dead. People always lied to the bereaved, just as Thurstan had lied to Oliver. "He defended the mountains well. He was loyal."
Thurstan gave a harsh laugh. "I remember one day when I was about seven. Gerhard had promised to take me out and show me how to set a trap for a hare. It would be just him and me, no-one else around, and I was so excited. But he never came. I went to remind him, but he shouted at me. He'd promised, but it didn't even matter to him. I cried all night."
"I'm sorry," Oliver murmured. "I'm sure he didn't mean..."
"He did," Thurstan snapped. "He just didn't care if it upset me. Sometimes he liked hurting people. I once heard him telling everyone every detail of how he'd tortured and killed one of the duke's messengers. I thought it was horrible, but I told myself I was wrong. Gerhard did it, so it had to be right."
"You don't have to..." Oliver began, but Thurstan interrupted him. "I'm supposed to remember only the good things now he's dead? But it's his fault that he's dead. We worked so hard to get him, but he didn't say thank you. All he did was ask the king to kill him. He didn't care how I'd feel if he died. Everyone else was dead and he was the only one, and I thought everything would be happy again if he was alive, but he didn't care about that. It's his fault that everyone died. It's all his fault!"
He realised he was screaming, and Oliver was trying to catch hold of his struggling shoulders. "It's all right," Oliver was crooning, but it was a lie. It wasn't all right. It would never be all right. He had loved Gerhard for all his life, and now he hated him, and only horrible people hated the dead.
"I loved him," he sobbed, "but he didn't care. He never told me who I was. He only kept me with him because it would hurt Reynard. I loved him, but I was so stupid."
Oliver held him tight and let him sob. "It's all right to be angry with the dead," he told him. "Listen to me, Thurstan. There's nothing wrong with how you're feeling."
"Really?" Thurstan pulled himself away, gouging the tears from his eyes. "Then why aren't you like me? Why don't you hate Amalric for getting himself killed before you could make it up with him? Why don't you hate him for leaving the king behind?"
Oliver went very still. "Maybe I blame him, a bit," he whispered, his face like a white mask, "but I still mourn him. There are happy memories, too."
"I don't have any," Thurstan snarled, turning away. All his happy memories were poisoned, tainted by the knowledge that Gerhard only kept him out of revenge. Even the rare smiles he had always cherished suddenly seemed like the triumphant grin of a warrior, pleased with his captive. Nothing about his home was the same as he had thought it was. It was all gone, and everything had changed.
"It's only natural to feel angry," Oliver told him, "but I'm sure Gerhard was fond of you, and I'm sure he only asked to die because he knew there was no other way."
"Well, if it wasn't his fault they died, then it was mine." Thurstan pulled away from Oliver, and started throwing handfuls of grass and earth into the water. "The king only went to get Gerhard because I begged him to. I should have begged the king to let him rot. Then no-one would've died. Then the king wouldn't be lost."
"It wasn't your fault," Oliver said, still refusing to give up. "I know Elias better than you do, Thurstan. He'd have gone no matter what you said. None of it was your fault. It wasn't anyone's fault."
Thurstan whirled on him. "You don't think that. You think it was yours, for not going with him."
Oliver moistened his lips. "Sometimes I do," he admitted. "But I think it would have happened anyway. We live an insecure life, we Kindred, and the enemy is growing stronger every day. Ranulf and the others died doing their jobs, and I wish they were still alive, but they would have died content, knowing that they'd done well. And at least Gerhard is at peace, out of Darius's clutches."
The water of the stream seemed to reflect Gerhard's face back at him, distorted and grotesque. Thurstan closed his eyes. "He was horrible," he whispered. "They'd really hurt him. He just wanted to die. I never thought I'd heard Gerhard say something like that. It must have been terrible. And the king said he found everyone else's bodies, and that they're at peace now, not lost and hurting. So that's good."
"It is." Oliver's hand brushed him on the shoulder.
"And Gerhard said he was fond of me, right at the end." He looked up at the sky, where a small patch of blue was showing through the clouds. "I miss him," he whispered. "I hate him, and I miss him, both at once. I… I don't know what to do."
"It's only natural," Oliver assured him. "But you can always talk to me about it, always. I won't blame you for anything."
"Everyone else does."
"They're like you," Oliver said, but he did not deny what Thurstan had said. "They're looking for someone to blame, because they're upset and afraid, but I won't let them blame you."
"They'll never forget it," Thurstan said. "I'll always be the one who came back alone, when everyone else was lost, not once but twice. I thought this would be my home, but it never will be."
"Of course it will be," Oliver tried to tell him, but Thurstan could only turn away.
A month went by, and nobody could still claim that it was summer. The leaves fell in a golden carpet onto the forest floor, and still Elias had not come.
Oliver had given up whirling round at every footfall. He had given up looking up when he heard a horse. For the first few weeks, he had greeted every morning with a firm, "He will come today," but he had stopped even that.
He crossed the stream by the log bridge, both arms held out for balance. Elias and Reynard could both cross it effortlessly, but Oliver was less graceful than either of them. He was slow and awkward in a fight, and was the sort of person who was always left behind to wait.
Nightshade was waiting for him on the opposite bank, his front paws neatly together. When Oliver reached the end of the log, the wolf trotted up to him. It was the first time he had ever greeted anyone apart from Elias, and Oliver looked round, a sudden wild hope in his chest, wondering if Elias was there smiling, urging the wolf to go on now, be friendly to poor old Oliver. But the meadow was empty, and Oliver and the wolf were alone.
"I know," Oliver said, patting the wolf on the head. "He's gone, and you want him back. But he'll come. Of course he'll come."
The wolf whined and loped away a few steps, then settled down to wait. I'm not leaving until he comes back, his eyes seemed to say. He looked so pitiful that Oliver couldn't carry on with his walk. He retraced his steps back across the stream, and was walking towards the camp when someone came running up, calling his name. "It's the boy," the man said. "He's had a vision of some sort. He won't stop screaming for you."
Oliver ran. Thurstan was still in Ranulf's tent, for the dead man's son had done the only right thing and handed it over to someone still living, who needed it more. Oliver should have done the same with Amalric's tent, but he couldn’t bring himself to, not when Elias's absence left him so perilously close to breaking down all the time.
There was a small crowd around the tent, but Oliver pushed through them. "Go away," he commanded. "Leave us alone." They edged away, and he went inside, pushing back the thick hide that covered the door.
Thurstan had stopped screaming. He was huddled on the bed, blankets messily covering his legs.
Oliver sat down. "What did you see?" He hoped Thurstan's visions revealed themselves more easily than his father's had.
Thurstan was plucking at the loose thread in the blanket. "I don't know who I am," he whispered.
Oliver didn't know what to say. He had expected to find a terrified boy, screaming at the horrors of a vision. He had expected to have to hold him and comfort him and tease the truth out of him, but he had never expected this bleakness.
"I was so scared in the prison cell," Thurstan said. "I just wanted to get away. That was all that mattered. But then everyone started falling, one by one. I had to be the strong one. I got us across the river. I was the leader for a little while. But it didn't feel good. I just wanted someone else to get better and take over again."
Oliver just watched him, and said nothing. He wondered if Thurstan even knew that he was there.
"Then Amalric died," Thurstan said, after a while. "I was the only one left. I had to be strong. Then the men came and found me. They might have been enemies, but they said they'd take care of things, and that's all that mattered. I think... I might have surrendered to them, even if I'd known that they were enemies, just because it meant I didn't need to think any more. It was up to them what happened. I could sleep and just let things happen."
"You were exhausted," Oliver said. "Anyone would have done the same."
Thurstan gave a thin smile. "And then I helped you after Amalric's funeral, and it felt as if I was growing up. But then I was pathetic again, and you had to look after me. And I... I've seen something horrible, and I want you to pat me on the back and tell me it can't be as bad as it looks, and you'll take care of everything, but I already know that won't happen, not any more, and so I don't want to tell you at all. If I tell you, it'll break your heart, and you won't be able to make anything right, not anything at all."
Oliver touched his hand. "Tell me."
Thurstan looked him full in the face. "It wasn't a dream. The king said I'd always know when it was a real vision, and I did. It was true. I don't know if it's happening now, or if it's going to happen, but it's true."
Oliver could hardly breathe. "What did you see?"
"I saw the king. Reynard was with him, and someone else, but I couldn’t see them clearly. The king..." He bit his lip, turning aside with a sob. "He was trapped by an invisible wall. He tried to open it with enchantment, but it really hurt him. He was screaming, and... and there was something horrible inside with him. He couldn't see it, but it was there, creeping up behind him. He was trapped, and he couldn't get out."
"Trapped." Oliver had risen up to his knees, but know he slumped back down.
Thurstan blinked as he looked at him, and folded his hands in his lap. "So that's where he is. You were wrong. He didn’t go back to his own world. I... I wanted to believe you, because you're the seneschal, and I've always believed what grown-ups have told me. But I thought all along that he didn't choose to go through the door. It opened up and swallowed him, and now he's trapped. He'll never get out."
"Of course he will," Oliver said. "He's escaped from impossible places before."
But, that night, Adela held him while he cried. "I lied to him," Oliver told her, when he could speak again. "I told him all the reasons why he shouldn't give up hope, and he believed me. I wish I could believe myself."
"Visions can be wrong," Adela reminded him, "or misinterpreted."
"Not this one."
Because Oliver knew the truth. He knew the stories of long ago, and remembered that there was a gateway near the city, beside the river. In the old days, it would have been well guarded, but the great enchanters were dead, and enchantment itself was fading. Elias had gone through the gateway into a terrible place that no-one ever went willingly, and from which no-one ever returned. The stronger the captive, the more impossibly they were bound there. It was a place feared in legend, and it was called the Shroud of Dreams.
"He's never going to come back," Oliver cried, "and I let him go."
She caught his hand in hers, holding it firmly when he struggled to escape. "You don't know that. Thurstan might be wrong. Even if he's right, and you're right about it being the Shroud of Dreams, it might be easier to escape from, now enchantment is weaker. Stranger things have happened," she said, with a smile, "than Elias coming back from this."
"How can you be so calm?" Oliver screamed at her. "Don't you even care?"
She never stopped holding him. "I believe that waiting is rewarded. I waited ten years for you, and I got you in the end. I could have given up years ago, but I didn't. I don't believe in giving up. I don't accept that anything's dead until I see the body."
"Then you're a fool," he spat. "Some things never end up right. I'm tired of having to smile and tell everyone that it will all work out in the end. I can't do it any more."
"You have to." She tried to hold his hands in both of hers, but he snatched them away and punched the bed. It did nothing at all to make him feel better. "That's your job. Whatever you feel inside, you have to help them feel hope. And I'll always be here for you, Oliver. Let them cry on your shoulder, and you can always cry on mine."
He looked at her face and saw that she was crying, despite her quiet words. He looked down at his fist, still buried furiously in the mattress, and felt brutish and silly. "I'm sorry."
She lunged for him, taking his face in both hands. "Don't be. It's how you feel."
"I'm sorry," he whispered again. "It's just that... I never expected to be happy myself, though you taught me how wrong I was in that. But I always had hope for the Kindred. Oh, I had times of doubt, but deep down I always believed that one day we would be saved. We all believed that. How else could we have found the strength to carry on living, winter after winter? But now... What will become of us now?"
"I don't know," she said, "but we're a strong people. We can fight for our own cause, even if he's gone."
He thought of all the children, growing into a world of gathering darkness, with no-one to lead them. "We're strong," he said, "but Elias was stronger. We're not helpless, but he was one who could make a difference, and now he's gone. But that's not the worst thing. Elias is trapped there in the Shroud of Dreams, screaming for help, and he'll be there forever, all alone. I just can't bear to think of him like that. I can hear his screaming whenever I close my eyes."
"You have to hope," Adela urged him. "Don't give up hope just because of a boy's vision. Please, Oliver, don't do this to yourself. It'll seem better in the morning."
"But I can't hope," he moaned. "Can't you understand? If I hope, then it will never be over. At least with Amalric I could say goodbye. Amalric was dead, but Elias... Every day I'll wonder what torments he's facing. Every day I'll hope if this will be the day that… No," he said, shaking his head. "Better not to hope."
"Please don't give up," Adela begged him.
But Oliver just pressed his face into her shoulder, and said nothing. What could he say? Elias was never coming back, and all hope had gone forever.