The white tower
The first thing Elias saw was Ciaran's face. When he tried to move, Ciaran held him more tightly, and spoke to him, telling him to lie still. Elias had pins and needles in his arm, and his lower back hurt from resting across Ciaran's knees. Ciaran spoke his name, then called it.
Elias turned his head slightly, and saw Reynard. "You're here," he said. "I... I'm glad you're well." It was less than he meant, but it was all that he could say. He was glad to see Reynard alive, but he could not be glad that Reynard was trapped here in this terrible place, and forced to suffer in it.
Reynard gave a brisk nod. He looked at the ground, then up again. "Have you seen the others? Can you... sense them?"
"I can't," Elias had to say. "I'm sorry. They might be here, but they might not."
Reynard nodded again, accepting, and looked out across the sea.
"Elias," Ciaran urged. He sounded irritated that Elias had spoken to Reynard first. "How are you feeling?"
There had been two more Ciarans, and both of them had been cruel. Neither of them had been real, he thought, but both had aspects of the real Ciaran in them. Perhaps that was a good thing, though, for it had forced Elias to realise things that he might never had realised, had he not been confronted with such extremes.
"Elias," Ciaran urged. "Why won't you answer me?"
A year ago, he would have taken it as a command, and hastened to reply, to please his master so that he didn't leave him. Now he heard an echo of the first Ciaran's anger and the second Ciaran's over-zealous care, and he didn't know what to say. He didn't even know if this Ciaran was real.
"It's really me." Ciaran must have seen the doubt in his eyes. "I know you saw people who looked like me, but they weren't real. You couldn't really think they were real? They were nothing like me."
Did you hear what they said? Elias wondered. Because they weren't that unlike you, not really. Maybe this was the reasonable Ciaran, who was neither one extreme nor the other, but still ended up destroying him.
"I'm real," Ciaran tried to assure him. "I don't know how I got here, but somehow I did."
"I don't know, either," Elias murmured. His voice sounded strange, and if he didn't really care if this was the real Ciaran or not. He ought to care, he knew. A week ago, he would have thought Ciaran's return a miracle. Now, it could be a miracle and a catastrophe, both at once. Ciaran could destroy him like no-one else could, not even Darius. Ciaran could make him into a pathetic boy again, just when the Kindred most needed a king.
Ciaran clasped his hand. "You have to believe me."
Why? he thought. If it was the real Ciaran, then Elias must have dragged him here by magic, somehow, against his will. He'd be clamouring to go home soon enough, and it would be like it had been last winter all over again.
Ciaran touched his wounded arm, his fingertips brushing lightly against the sleeve. "You're hurt, Elias. Why haven't you healed yourself? Well, it doesn't matter. Lie still, and I'll see what I can do."
Ciaran, the big strong master, stepping in to take care of Elias, for Elias certainly couldn't take care of himself. A master he had longed for, and a master he couldn't accept, not now, even if part of him still longed for him. "No," Elias said, firmly. "Not yet," he said, when Ciaran was obviously going to loudly protest. "I want to be alone for a while. I need to think."
"You're not going anywhere." Ciaran held him tight enough to hurt.
"I'm not dying," Elias told him. He fought Ciaran's grip, and Ciaran yielded rather than jolt his wounded shoulder. "I'm not going far. I just need..." To get away. Not to see your face. For you to stay forever. For you to be gone. "I just need to think about what's real."
It was Reynard who answered him. "I understand that. I think you do, too, Brother Morgan. Let him go."
"You'd let your precious king just walk off like that?" Ciaran accused him. "Look at him! He's in no position to defend himself. Or is it... Oh, I know. You've made it perfectly clear that you think we're all doomed. You don't care if he dies now or if he dies in a month. It's all the same to you."
"That is not true," Reynard spat. "I am a warrior, and I know how to judge where the enemy is. Here, the enemies are all inside us. The best defence against such enemies is clarity. A person full of confusion and regrets stands no chance in here."
"And you don't like that, do you?" Ciaran taunted. "You want to be able to fight the whole world with your sword. That's why you've given up. You can't slash it to pieces or bellow at it until it yields, so you think it can't be fought."
Elias stood up awkwardly, cradling his wounded arm to his chest. Neither of them seemed to notice.
"I'd never have thought of you as someone to give in so easily," Ciaran's sneered. "I'd never have painted you as a coward. Oh, I know! It's because it's enchantment! You Kindred worship enchantment as if it's your god. If we were trapped here by an army of ten thousand men, you'd be drawing your sword and saying there's still a chance, but because it's magic, you give in. Well, I refuse to give in. I'm no coward."
But you never did realise the power of enchantment, Elias thought. Even the slightest use of magic brought with it a sense of the overwhelming pool of power that lay behind it. Elias knew he was strong, but even he had never plumbed the depths of that power, and never would. There were some things mankind would never be able to do, and still remain men.
"I respect enchantment, yes," Reynard said. "I make no apology for that. But every good warrior knows when a fight cannot be won."
Ciaran was right in one way, though, Elias thought, as he began to walk away. Reynard was a fearless fighter, but he held enchantment in such deep awe that he would never think that he could fight it. How hard it must be for Reynard, to face something that he could not defeat, and to have to admit it.
" I see no bars." Ciaran waved his arm, encompassing the beach and the sea. "We know this place had ways in, because we came through them. If we go back the way we came, we'll get out again."
"You don't understand!" Reynard shouted. "You don't know anything!"
"What did you see?" Ciaran demanded. "What's your greatest fear? Can you still see it? I think you can, to act so defeatist. Is your greatest fear that you will meet an enemy you cannot fight?" He lunged towards Reynard. "If I touch you, what will I see?"
"I met my illusion," Reynard said, low and dangerous. "It held no power over me. It tempted me with something I no longer want, and I banished it. I am stronger now, for rejecting it. Can you say the same?"
Elias half turned round. What was it? he wanted to ask Reynard, but he knew he never would. There was an air of sadness about him, beneath the bravado, as if he had finally said farewell to some long-held secret hope. Maybe he was stronger, but he had lost something, too.
"I saw nothing that matters," Ciaran said, but Reynard laughed derisively.
How did it work, Elias wondered. He stopped walking when he was just far enough away that he couldn't hear their argument, and stared out at the sea. Reynard had implied that everyone saw illusions in this place, and that they offered temptations that were dangerous to people whose minds were confused. And so the two Ciarans had come, drawn from his own hopes and fears. They had come from within him.
But I defeated them, he thought. He could have collapsed in tears at the first Ciaran's cruel words, and believed all his accusations, but he hadn't. He could have given in and let the second one hold him tight, but he had fought him. He had faced his fears and his weaknesses, and come out of them stronger, just as Reynard had said. If the Ciaran who was now arguing with Reynard was indeed the real one, perhaps Elias could cope with his return and still retain his equilibrium. Perhaps...
He turned round and watched the two of them. He had faint memories of almost waking up, and hearing Ciaran and Reynard talking almost civilly, but now they were at each other's throats just like they had always been, and all because he was awake now, and they were arguing over who would control him.
I have to find out, he thought. He had to know if this was really Ciaran. He had to find some way of telling illusion from reality. Normally, he could tell instantly if something was an illusion, but these illusions were different, and far more strong.
He crouched down and looked at the patch of dune grass at his feet. Placing his hand on the ground, he framed it with the half-circle of his thumb and forefinger, and stared at it as if he was losing himself in it, sinking through the sand into what lay behind it.
Ciaran and Reynard were still arguing. Dimly he heard the sound of their voices, but then even they faded, until there was nothing left but the grass. The sound of the sea disappeared, and his own breathing swelled, until it was indistinguishable from the waves it had replaced. And slowly, so slowly that he barely saw it happening, the dune grass became transparent, and greyness was surging forward from behind it, threatening to engulf him.
He sank forward. He fell. Everything around him vanished, and he knew he was losing himself, that he was lost. Then, just as he was about to fall forever, he caught sight of his own hand, framing the grass that was now invisible. It was real. It was flesh and blood, and it was real. He clung to that sight like an anchor, and slowly the world took shape around him again. He saw the beach again, and the sea.
"But none of it's real," he whispered to himself, closing his eyes. The grass wasn't really there, and neither was the beach. He had never left the grey nothingness at all. The only thing that had changed was that he now saw an illusion of a beach, painted on the grey. But the painting was thin. If he wanted to, he could scrape the paint away, and see the true nothingness that existed behind it.
He opened his eyes, and looked at the beach with shielded eyes. The waves still lapped on the shore, and none of it dissolved into grey, but he found he could tell that it was illusion. Although he couldn't see anything through it, there was still a faint hint of transparency to it. When he raised his hand to his face, though, it seemed entirely real, even down to the dirt behind the nails from their flight across the river.
If he turned round and looked at Ciaran, what would he see? Was he real or an illusion? He chewed his lip, and continued to watch the waves, and realised he wasn't sure what he wanted the answer to be.
They ran out of things to say. Ciaran was breathing fast, his hands curled into fists of hatred, and Reynard was leaning forward and glaring at him. For a moment, their eyes met, then they both turned and looked towards Elias.
As they did so, Elias turned round. Without once looking at Ciaran, he walked towards them, until he was standing in front of Reynard. Reynard looked up at him, but stayed very still. It was a humbler pose than Ciaran had ever expected from such an arrogant man.
"You're real," Elias murmured. "I think." He brought his hand up and held it just above Reynard's head. Reynard swallowed, but still did not move. Elias seemed to be comparing his own hand to Reynard's head, but then he gave a small smile. "Real."
"Of course I'm real, my lord." Reynard's voice was slightly hoarse. "I've sworn to protect you, and that means I go wherever you go."
"I know." This time Elias did touch him, his hand ever so lightly brushing his hair. "And I have not thanked you for it enough. I know I've made it hard for you, but I was wrong on many things. I have needed your help, and I will need it again."
Ciaran cleared his throat. What about me? he wanted to ask, but he knew it sounded childish. But then Elias slowly turned towards him, and he felt suddenly nervous.
As he had done with Reynard, Elias raised his hand to Ciaran's face, but Ciaran was taller than Reynard, and unlike him he stood with his head high. Instead of touching his hair, Elias's hand paused at his cheek, so close that Ciaran could feel the warmth of him. "Real," Elias whispered. His eyes almost closed, then opened again. His fingers touched Ciaran's cheek, then rose to his brow. "Real."
Ciaran felt his own eyes trying to close, but he forced them to stay open. Elias's lips were parted, and his eyes were very blue. He had changed in the time they had been apart. He looked older by several years, and his face was thinner, framed by hair that was longer than Ciaran remembered it. Nine months, Reynard had said, but it looked as if it had been longer for Elias.
"Real," Elias said again. "But how?"
"I think you called me here," Ciaran breathed. "You needed me, so I came."
"But why?" Elias, too, spoke the words as breath only. "It hasn't happened the other times I've..." His voice trailed away.
"Maybe because this place is strange." All Ciaran could see was Elias's face, and all he could feel was his hand. "Maybe doors open more easily into here than they do between worlds."
"Maybe." Elias let his hand fall. "You're both real." His voice was louder now, but he was still looking only at Ciaran. "Nothing else is. We're still in the grey place really."
Ciaran frowned. "Grey place?" He glanced at Reynard and saw the same confusion on his face.
"There was a grey place," Elias said, as if he was trying to prompt them. "It was just... nothing. It was horrible."
"We didn't see it," Reynard said. "Maybe this place takes a while before it can reach inside us and find out what illusions to make. Maybe you stayed conscious for that, but we didn't. This place works differently for you, because you're stronger. It derives its power from your strength."
"How do you mean?" Elias asked. He looked wary.
"I was in a forest," Reynard said, "but since you woke up, I've been able to see only a beach."
"Oh." Elias looked at the ground.
Ciaran frowned, unable to understand why he was so uncomfortable. "The beach is your illusion?" he asked. "Why? You've never been to the sea before."
"It's..." Elias whispered, then stopped.
It had to be his Garden, Ciaran realised, and cursed himself for asking. A Brother's Garden was an intensely personal thing, and spoken of to no-one. To have your Garden paraded before the eyes of people like Reynard was a terrible violation, even worse than having other people see the your worst fears made flesh.
"I don't want to see it," he cried. "Stop me seeing it. Let me see the... the other place again." He said it with such passion that he realised that it wasn't just for Elias's sake that he wanted it. To see his own flowery meadow erased and replaced with Elias's beach... The beach was a constant reminder that Elias was far more powerful than he was. It was one thing to accept that Elias had powers that Ciaran didn't have, but it was another to see himself totally eclipsed, so not even a ghost of a flower remained to remind himself that he mattered, too.
"I can't," Elias whispered. "I don't know how to do that."
Ciaran grabbed his wrist. There was one thing he could do, at least. "Sit down, Elias. I need to heal you."
Elias seemed as keen as Ciaran was to change the conversation, for he obeyed without argument. "I always find it hard to heal myself," he admitted. "And enchantment's strange here. It's very strong - it has to be to create the illusions - but I couldn't control it when I tried. It... it always seemed to make things worse."
"This place is a prison created for powerful enchanters," Reynard said. "They couldn't get out with enchantment. Maybe it was made so all use of their power reflected back on them."
Experimentally, Ciaran tried to reach for the Shadow. He calmed his mind, and glimpsed his Garden again, at least in his mind. The Shadow was as strong as ever, and he used it on Elias, coaxing dirt from the ragged wound, and knitting together the edges of flesh. When he had finished, Elias was by no means healed, but the worst was over.
Through the whole thing, Elias remained very still. "Thank you," he murmured, when Ciaran rocked back on his heels, and left his Garden. "I couldn't have done that."
"Why not?" Ciaran frowned. "Maybe enchantment is strange here, but what about the Shadow? Why couldn't you use that? You haven't... Elias, you haven't turned your back on the Shadow, have you?"
Elias shook his head miserably. "My Shadow... It... it's changed. It's not pure any more. It's got enchantment in it. I can't separate them."
Ciaran had no idea what to say. It sickened him to think of the wondrous Shadow tainted with enchantment, but Elias had done just that, and Elias himself could never sicken him.
Reynard stood up, and saved Ciaran from having to speak. "So, what are we going to do? We've done a lot of talking. What now?"
"Sit and wait to die," Ciaran scoffed. "That's what I thought you wanted to do." As he turned from Elias to Reynard, he thought he saw his apprentice let out a breath in a small sigh.
"I refuse to abandon the others," Reynard said. "If they're in here, I will find them."
"There has to be a way out, even if it's locked," Elias said. "Earlier, I was trying to get to the tower. Maybe we should go there." There was little expression in his voice, and he didn't look at Ciaran.
Reynard's head snapped up. "Towers have doors." Despite everything he had said, he still seemed to hope that Elias could find a way out. Even when he had despised Elias as a weak boy, he had always had an irrational faith in the power of his king.
"They do," Elias said. Thanks to Ciaran's healing, he stood up far less awkwardly than before. "And I will open it, no matter what it takes. You're both here because I brought you here. And the others..." He swallowed. "And everything's that happening at home. We have to get out. We have to."
Ciaran stood beside him. Despite all his arguing, part of him had been badly affected by Reynard's pronouncements of hopelessness. But now Elias had pledged himself to get them out, with the same determination that Ciaran had seen months ago, when his apprentice had vowed to master Albacrist. Despite many setbacks, Elias has refused to give up, and in the end he had succeeded. He had found a way into another world, when all the Brothers who had ever lived had found it impossible. We'll get out, he found himself thinking. Elias has said so, so it has to happen.
The sand was an illusion, but the dune was as difficult to walk up as if it was real. With every step, Reynard found himself sliding back down again, almost back to where he had started. It was exhausting, and the king, he realised, was finding it even harder than he was. Ciaran Morgan had helped lessen his injury, but the king was still wounded, and in pain.
Reynard waited until the king reached his side. "You can lean on me, my lord."
Elias looked at him, and Reynard knew that he was going to say no. Of course he was. He never accepted help, but always did things all by himself, no matter how badly they hurt him. That was why Reynard bore the scar on his arm, testament to the oath he had sworn and sealed with his own blood.
Reynard sighed. There had been enough hints that the king had changed, and he had really begun to hope that his days as a conspirator were over, but it seemed everything was going to carry on just as it had been for the last nine months. Elias would care nothing for his own safety, and Reynard would have to lie to him and disobey him, just to keep him alive.
"Thank you," the king said, at last, with the air of someone who had made their mind up after a long debate. "I will. I am finding it hard going."
Reynard smiled. The king took his arm, and suddenly everything felt right again. Such a tiny thing, yet such a great one. He was Kindred, and the Kindred held loyalty above everything else. Treachery was the greatest sin, yet Reynard, who would kill a traitor without a second thought, had been forced to become one. He had done it for the best of reasons, and he would never regret it, but all along he had hated the things he had had to do.
"It's not so much the walking," Elias told him. "It's just... If I look too hard at the place I'm about to put my foot down, it disappears, and it looks as if I'm going to fall through into a bottomless pit of grey. It's not at all nice."
"I'm sure it isn't." Reynard chuckled. He seemed to be finding it easier himself, now he was supporting the king, as if he was leaning on Elias as much as Elias was leaning on him. He hated being weak, but a good warrior always admitted when wounds made him less effective than he could be, and planned their strategies accordingly. He had to admit that he was still suffering from his near death. If they were attacked, he would fight, but he lacked the stamina that he normally possessed.
Ciaran Morgan had been slow to set off, gazing after his former apprentice for a long time. With his longer legs, he caught them up just before they reached the top of the dune. "You can lean on me, now, Elias," he said, and Reynard could have laughed at the predictability of the man. "Reynard needs both hands free to draw his sword."
"There's nothing here that can be fought with a sword," the king said. He made no move to relinquish his hold on Reynard's arm.
Reynard turned his face away, and smiled. At this moment, he wouldn't surrender his position beside the king to anyone, least of all Ciaran Morgan. Ciaran was like a jealous child squabbling over the ownership of a toy, although perhaps, Reynard admitted, the man would think the same of him. The king was precious, and they both wanted to keep him safe. The difference, Reynard thought, was that Ciaran Morgan had never cared enough about Elias's safety, and a good deal too much about his status as the strong protector. To Reynard, the priority was the king's safety, while to Ciaran Morgan it was control.
Not a jealous child after all, he realised. A child was seldom dangerous, but Ciaran Morgan was. For all his faults, Elias had become a king that any man could be proud to serve, and he would never had done that if Ciaran Morgan had stayed with him, constantly belittling him. Yes, he had been unhappy, but he had seemed to be reaching some inner peace of his own on the journey to Eidengard. Before they had entered the citadel, Reynard had been hopeful that the long shadow of Ciaran Morgan had finally been lifted.
And now he had come back, with his cold looks and his demands. The king had barely recovered from his loss, and would find it difficult to withstand him. Ciaran hated to see his former apprentice outclass him, and he would try to undermine everything Elias did, and that would make Elias doubt himself. All his old insecurities would come flooding back, and the Kindred would suffer because of it. Not even Lord Darius had the power over Elias that Ciaran Morgan had, and it was a power he seemed to use only to destroy.
I'm watching you, he swore, though he showed nothing on his face. I'm not afraid to kill. If a man was a threat to the Kindred, Reynard killed them. If a man threatened the king Reynard had sworn to protect, then that man had to die. It was no different if it was the king's old master, or a stranger in a soldier's uniform. The scar on his arm proclaimed his vow to kill all such foes.
Yes, Elias would be upset at first, but it would be for his own good in the long term. Reynard had done things that were against his king's wishes before, and he could face the consequences. Even if the king never forgave him and Reynard was sent into exile, he could live with it because he would know that he had done the right thing.
I let you live last time, he told Ciaran Morgan, but this is my promise to you. If you hurt my king, you die. If you threaten my people, you die. And I am a man of my word, and do not break my promises.
Ciaran Morgan walked on oblivious. He reached the top of the dune a little before Reynard and the king, and he stopped and put his hands on his hips. A moment later, all three of there were at the top. The dune sloped gently downwards, but soon become solid ground, covered with grass. A sandy path led away to the left, but Reynard's eyes were drawn instead by a tall white tower on the right. No paths led to it, yet it seemed to be the heart of the whole scene. It had no windows, but its only door was wide open, white light streaming from it to cover the landscape around it. Even the sky seemed lighter here, its blue diluted with white.
"What is it?" he found himself asking. Ciaran Morgan spoke, too, but his question was stranger, for he just said, "Why that?"
Elias was standing very still. "I never understood. It was always locked. Then it opened a little, and now it's opened completely."
"But why?" Ciaran persisted.
"Enchantment was locked inside, and I never knew," the king said. "Shadow was in the sea. When I first learnt about the enchantment, the door opened, but it had been there all along, waiting for me to let it out. Now the door cannot be shut, and the two are joined." He turned towards Ciaran. "It wasn't fair to ask me. I've never asked about yours."
Reynard wondered if Ciaran was going to argue, and if he could kill him now, but Ciaran Morgan looked ashamed. "No," he said. "You're right. I'm sorry."
"Do we go through the door, then?" Reynard asked. He hadn't understood what they were talking about, and wanted to return them to something that he did.
The king was staring towards the tower. "I don't know. I..." He frowned, and started forward, letting go of Reynard's arm. "There's someone there."
Reynard shielded his eyes against the dazzle of the light. "Thurstan?" He stared at the tower, trying to see, but as he did so it seemed to waver, and he saw a glimpse of the forest trees of his own illusion. A moment later, they were gone, and all he saw was Elias's tower.
Elias was already hurrying forward. "Not Thurstan. Oh, he's so afraid."
Reynard wanted to bury his face in his hands and scream. It was a tone of voice he had heard so many times before. Someone was in need, and the king was going to rush headlong in to help him, heedless of anything else. Some things, it seemed, would never change.
The king started running. There was no, "please, Reynard, come with me, in case it turns dangerous." There was no, "I'm sorry. I promise this will be the last time." Someone was in need, and everything else was forgotten.
Ciaran Morgan and Reynard both chased after Elias, and soon they were in step with each other. Once they even exchanged a look, and Reynard thought the other man's expression was probably a mirror of his own.
Just before the tower, when the air was so shot through with white light that there was hardly any colour left in the world at all, the king stopped and turned round. They both came to a halt, on one either side of him, but Elias held up a hand to stop them speaking. "He's on the other side of the tower. I want you to promise me something, Reynard. I want you to promise not to kill him."
Reynard touched the hilt of his sword. Why would Elias say that unless the man was a soldier of the enemy? "I promise no such thing."
The king grabbed his wrist. "Then come with me."
"You don't look well," Ciaran said. It was true, Reynard realised. The white light made everything pale, but Elias was paler. His mouth was tight, and the muscles round his eyes were very tense. He looked as if he had received a terrible shock.
"I'm fine," Elias said, through the slit of his mouth. With his chin thrust forward, he dragged Reynard by the wrist. His hand was slight, and Reynard was strong, but Reynard, who could plot to deceive his king, could not quite bring himself to fight him physically. He had done so once before, and would never do it again.
Ciaran called his name again, and once more Elias stopped, and whirled on him. "Yes, he's one of the soldiers who were chasing us. Yes, he wants to kill me. But he's terrified." He pressed the hand of his wounded arm against his chest. "I can feel it here. And," he said, "I saw what he can see. I saw his illusion. It's attacking him."
"Good," Reynard spat. "Let it kill him for all I care." Ciaran, though, was standing very still, and his hand rose up as if of its own accord, and pressed itself against his mouth.
Elias started moving again, still dragging Reynard with him. When Reynard saw the man, he snarled and reached for his sword, but Elias pressed his body against the scabbard, so Reynard couldn't draw the blade without risking hurting him. "Do not do it." Each word was clear and precise, impossible to disobey. "Watch him. See the face of your enemy."
The soldier was plainly terrified. He was lying on his stomach beside the tower, constantly struggling to get up onto his hands and knees and crawl away, but too blind with panic to do anything but scrabble. He stank of urine and sweat, and he was babbling incoherently under his breath.
Reynard smiled with satisfaction. The man wore the uniform of the enemy, and he would have tortured and killed the king if he had been able to capture him. Let him experience true terror and helplessness, to pay him back for all the terror his people had meted out over the years. He would get no sympathy from Reynard. On the contrary, if his suffering seemed to be lessening, Reynard would happily join in, gleefully telling him how he would poke his eyes out, or cut strips from his body. If the illusion failed to kill him, Reynard would strike him through the heart with his sword, and enjoy it.
"Touch him." The king's voice was terrible, like nothing Reynard had ever heard from him. "See what he sees." When Reynard made no move to obey, he hauled him bodily forward. "Touch him!" he shouted. "And if you think to kill him while you do..." He left it unfinished, but left Reynard in no doubt that he would never be forgiven, not in all his life.
Reynard stumbled forward. Elias was there beside him, and this time his voice was soft. "He won't see you, I don't think. He's too afraid."
"Go back," Reynard rasped. "I'll do this if I have to, if you order me to do it, but nothing has changed. I will not let my king get close to the enemy, especially one I have promised not to kill."
He had expected Elias to fight, but the king just bowed his head, accepting it. He took a few steps back, where Ciaran Morgan moved in close to him, and put his hand on his shoulder. He was acting as if he knew what Reynard was about to see, and thought Elias deserved sympathy for it.
Reynard crept forward. He found that his hands were shaking. He had never seen the enemy except to fight him. It felt like a trap. Once before he had obeyed a direct order from his king and regretted it badly afterwards, yet here he was doing it again. His respect for his king could very easily tip over into hatred, he thought, if Elias commanded him like this again.
The soldier was screaming, lashing out with his arms, and suddenly the deed was done. The soldier's arm smashed into Reynard's chest, and Reynard grabbed it in instinctive defence. As he did so, he saw.
A man had taken hold of the soldier's foot, and was laughingly hauling him backwards, tugging him towards him every time the soldier almost managed to crawl away. There was a door a few feet away, and the soldier's reaching hand sometimes almost managed to touch it, but always he was pulled back. The door led to safety and light, but the soldier would never reach it. The man who was attacking him was cruelty personified, laughing at his terror, taking delight in it.
It was Elias, he realised with horror. The resemblance was not exact, but it was still recognisably him. But it was an Elias that could never exist. It was an Elias whose natural expression was a sneer of hatred, and who wore a crown with arrogance and pride. It was an Elias whose blue eyes never softened with kindness, and whose mouth never smiled. It was an Elias who delighted in suffering, and never risked himself in order to save another. It was a creature of nightmare, who killed with his talons, and destroyed with his magic.
"See?" the true Elias said, when Reynard turned horrified eyes upon him. "That's what the inhuman enemy of yours thinks of me. That's why they want to kill me. It's not because they're evil, but because they're scared."
"But you're not like that," Reynard breathed, as the false Elias turned the soldier's ankle into a bloody mess.
"No." Elias shook his head. "But they think I am. Their fear is genuine. Think of that, before you hate."
Reynard couldn't bear to see any more. He snatched his hand back, and the terrible image disappeared, though the soldier was still screaming, and still trying to crawl away from him. The blood on his ankle had disappeared.
"Please don't hate," Elias pleaded, and Reynard had never been so pleased to see the deep sympathy for people in need that he had always thought of as liability and a weakness. "Please don't forget this."
Reynard looked at him, then turned and walked away, unable to take the soft challenge in his king's eyes. As he walked away, he heard the king approach the soldier, and try to talk to him. "You have to believe me," he was saying. "What you're seeing isn't real. I want to help you."
He was doomed to failure, of course. Reynard had always hated everyone in the duchy, just like this man had been raised to hate the Kindred. Hatred such as that could not be overcome by just one man, even if he was Elias. A fear as terrible as the one that he had just witnessed could not listen to reason. Elias was generous-minded, but he was a fool, if he thought that the rift between the Kindred and the duchy could be healed by soft words and trust. Some things could only be ended with a sword.
And yes, he thought, why did he still follow Elias? Why did he still refrain from summoning all the Houses to war? Why did he put away his sword when Elias commanded him? Why did he let Elias try to win the trust of this soldier, when he knew he would fail? Why did he do it, if, deep down, at least a part of him wanted him to be right?
The tower was fading. Ciaran was in his meadow again, as deep in the grass as if he was in standing in water. Elias was on his knees beside the soldier, engaged in his desperate and futile attempt to overcome the man's terror. Reynard had stalked off, and was pretending not to watch. The white tower still stood, but it was fainter every second, and how could that be, unless Elias was dying?
Ciaran rushed forward. "Elias?"
"He doesn't hear me." Elias's upturned face was bleak and uncomprehending.
"Your illusion's fading," Ciaran told him.
Elias shook his head distractedly, and turned back to the soldier. "Nothing can hurt you here," he told him, "only your own fear. You have to believe me."
"Elias." Ciaran shook his shoulder. "Why is the illusion fading?"
"Because he's learnt how to see through them." Reynard had stalked up behind them, and spoke as if it was obvious. "He told us that on the beach. If he doesn't believe in his illusion, how can we believe in it?"
But I want to see it! Ciaran realised. He had disliked it at first, but it was comforting to know that they were all seeing the same thing, all fighting the same enemies. If they all got lost in their own separate worlds, how could they hope to get out of this place?
"Please," Elias was begging. "It isn't me. I'd never hurt you. They're not true, all the things you've heard about me. It's not real, what you're seeing. It can't hurt you."
The soldier was crawling away, keening in the back of his throat. Ciaran had never seen a man in such a state of terror before, and he wanted to look away rather than endure it. He could join Elias in cajoling him, but what was the point?
"He's not real." Elias was almost sobbing. "Please don't believe it. I'm not like that. Please don't think I am."
So perhaps now Elias would understand how he had hurt Ciaran by imaging those awful caricatures of him. He knew now what it felt like to see an abomination, and know that someone else truly believed that it was how you were.
"Why does he bother?" Reynard spat, but he stayed close by, and didn't look away.
"Because..." Ciaran stopped, and stared at a thick patch of blue flowers in the grass. "Elias," he said, urgently, "we can hardly see your illusion at all now. You have to see it again." He dragged Elias backwards, tearing a sharp cry of denial from his apprentice's throat. "You'll kill him if you don't!" he shouted. "You're touching him, but he's still lost in his own illusion. Make him see yours. Elias, make him see yours!"
Elias looked at him mutely, then back at the soldier. "Mine?"
"Yes!" Ciaran nodded triumphantly. "Hold onto the illusion. It's the only thing that can save him."
Elias frowned. "I don't... It's hard, master. I keep thinking I'm going to fall through."
"I'll hold on to you." Although he didn't understand what Elias meant, Ciaran crouched down behind him and wrapped his arms around his shoulders. "I'm here. I won't let you fall."
Elias stiffened, and did not relax. As Ciaran held him, gradually the meadow faded, and there was the tower again, pouring its white light across the world. The change in the soldier was slower. "He's gone," Elias was crooning to him. "Look. He's gone." But the soldier was too lost in his terror to even notice that no-one was attacking him any more.
Ciaran drew back from Elias, and wrapped his empty arms around his own middle. "Elias," he warned, then again a little louder, when Elias did not hear him. "What happens when he believes you, Elias? When he notices you - the real you, not the illusion? He'll still hate you, Elias. You might not think of him as an enemy, but he's no friend."
The soldier froze, his legs twisted and his arms contracted, like some hideous statue that personified agony. Slowly, excruciatingly slowly, he relaxed, and looked up. "Gone," he croaked. He pulled his legs up to his chest and hugged them. "Gone," he whispered, in a voice of utter loss.
Elias recoiled, his hand rising to his mouth. "I stole his door," he breathed. He turned guilt-ridden eyes on Ciaran. "He thought there was a door. He was only inches away, and now it's gone. He thinks there's no way out."
Ciaran looked at the broken man. No good could come from his, he was certain. "Put him to sleep," he urged him. "It's the best way."
"I can't do enchantment," Elias said. Biting his lip, he looked at the soldier. Reynard was standing over him, his hand resting warningly on the hilt of his sword, and that seemed to decide him. "I'll try." Clearly expecting it to fail, Elias knelt beside the man, and touched his head as if he was blessing him. "Sleep," he murmured. "Sleep and forget your fear."
With a tiny sigh, the soldier relaxed. His eyes slid shut, and his spasmed limbs went limp. He was asleep in seconds.
"But I thought..." Ciaran began. Reynard only gave a sharp bark of laughter, as if he had been vindicated in some belief.
Elias was just kneeling there, his arms heavy and forgotten at his side. Slowly he raised his head and looked, not at Ciaran, but at the top of the tower, where white light streamed into the blue sky. "It worked," he gasped. "It's just like normal. But..." He laughed, and Ciaran realised that it was the first time he'd seen him smile in this place. "It didn't fail before. First time I tried it, I was only trying to find a way out and I was afraid and didn't know where I was. Second time, I was trying to fight an illusion, so of course it failed. Enchantment works. Of course it does. How else could I bring you here? Enchantment is here! I've had it all along."
Ciaran found himself smiling, too. Elias had such an enchanting smile, that made the world seem warmer just for seeing it.
"I didn't realise how lost I felt without it." Elias stood up and turned round, a full circle with his arms outstretched. "I should have tried it before. I keep on forgetting. I don't try things. I expect to fail, so I don't even try. That's always been my problem."
Ciaran's smile started to fade. Elias shouldn't be talking like this in front of Reynard. "Elias..." he started, but Elias turned towards him, his face on fire. "What if I could have got out all along? Come on." He ran around the tower and paused on the very threshold of the door, where the white light almost swamped him. "I'm going through."
"Come back!" It sounded like a command, but Ciaran had meant it as a plea. The white light was so impossibly bright. Even if Elias lived, surely he could not emerge unchanged. "No," he choked. "No, Elias."
Then he was pushed aside, and Reynard lunged forward, dragging Elias to one side, plunging through the doorway, claiming the right to go first. White light exploded, and Reynard hung there, frozen like an insect in amber, except that he was screaming, screaming, as he was consumed by the living force of enchantment.
"No," Elias sobbed. He tried to throw himself in after Reynard, but Ciaran dragged him back, and he was still taller, and stronger than his apprentice in some things. "No," Elias moaned. "I was wrong. I was stupid. Oh, Reynard..." He fell to his knees, and Ciaran fell with him, still supporting him. "It's the heart of enchantment. It's just too much. No-one should go there. We're not gods, only men. I shouldn't have... Oh, I was going to, and I'd have... I don't know. Perhaps... But Reynard. Oh, master, what have I done?"
"Nothing." Many things had changed, but Ciaran had years of practice at telling his apprentice what was right. "Reynard made his choice." He glanced sidelong at the tower door, but Reynard was hardly visible. He was still screaming, but the screams sounded far away and lost.
"He nearly died." Elias was openly crying. "I couldn't let him die, I couldn't. Not Reynard. I saved him, and he hated me for it, but now I've betrayed him and now he's gone after all."
"Stop it." Ciaran gave Elias a sharp shake, so his head snapped forward and back. "It's an illusion, remember. It's not real."
"Not real?" Elias frowned. "Enchantment is real. An illusion of the living heart of enchantment becomes real in a way. Nothing else is real, but there's something..." His words petered out.
"What?" Ciaran demanded.
"Nothing..." Elias's head slumped forward, then jerked up. "I was wrong. I've been wrong in everything. None of this is real. I've seen what's behind all this, and it's nothing, nothing at all. No distance, no time, no sight, no sound. We'll never find the door out because there is no door. How can you have a door in nothing? The way out is everywhere. All we have to do is find the way to open it."
"How can it be nothing?" Ciaran jumped on the first thing Elias had said, because the rest was even stranger. "If it's really nothing at all, how can we breathe? How can we hear each other? How can we talk?"
"Maybe not nothing, then." Elias shook his head as if it wasn't important. "There's something there, but it has nothing that we can see or touch or hear or taste, so to us is might as well be nothing. It... It's terrifying, master. You can't imagine it."
Reynard had disappeared completely now, and not even a faint shadow remained. Everything was silent. Ciaran glanced over his shoulder, and saw nothing different at all, yet something made him shiver. Something's out there, he thought. It's coming. Then he shook his head. It was only the thought of the horrible grey nothingness beneath him and around him, and of himself suspended in the middle, merely imagining that he was standing on solid ground.
"I can see the greyness through the illusion," Elias said. "The way out has to be beyond the grey. I just need to know how to look for it. I've failed too many things from not trying. I will not do it again."
The hairs on the back of Ciaran's neck were prickling. It's coming! He whirled round, and thought the sky was a little darker despite the white light, but maybe it was only his imagination. He turned back. "You can't bring Reynard back like this."
"But I can get us out," Elias retorted. "And maybe I can get him out. I don't know how far he's lost. I... I don't know if he'll be unchanged, but he might..." He swallowed. "He might..."
"Try it," Ciaran urged him, giving his hand a quick squeeze. The sense that something was creeping up behind him was overwhelming now, and he knew that they had to get out, and fast. "Do you need help?"
Elias looked at him. "Anchor me," he said. "Hold me, hands on shoulders, face... I need to see your face. You're real. You're the only thing I've got left that's real."
Ciaran felt a strange jolt inside him, that reached up into his throat and choked him. "I can do that," he managed.
"I've got to lose the illusion so everything's grey," Elias said, "then see beyond it, to see the real world behind it. But I've got the let myself fall first." He lunged for Ciaran's hand, but stopped short, barely brushing it with his fingers. "I don't want to fall."
"I won't let you fall," Ciaran promised again, though he had no idea how to keep his promise. Perhaps it made sense to Elias, but it was only words to Ciaran.
"No." Elias stood very still, and his eyes slipped close when Ciaran took hold of his shoulders. Ciaran gazed at his face, devouring every real and living detail of the man he had thought he would never see again. When Elias opened his eyes, Ciaran looked away, and felt himself flushing. "Thank you," Elias said, in a low voice. "I'm glad you're here."
"I'm glad I am, too." Ciaran's voice was choked. He found himself wanting to say more, but hesitated too long. When he opened his mouth to say them, the moment was already gone. Elias's eyes had gone distant, and his knees suddenly sagged as he lurched forward. Falling, Ciaran thought. "I've got you," he murmured, but he thought Elias no longer heard him. "I'll never let you go."
Elias fell further, until Ciaran was supporting his full weight. All around him, the tower and the distant dunes faded, until there was nothing around him but the meadow.
Not nothing, something seemed to whisper, in a voice like dying grass. Turn around. Look. Death is here.
It was a monster with claws, stalking up behind him, ready to rake a bloody wound down his defenceless back. It was Gideon, coming to taunt him for being so stupid as to love. Behind him, all the grass was black, and the flowers were rotten. Behind him was despair, and all he had to do was look.
Elias moaned. "Anchor me," he had said. "Hold me. I need to see you." I can't, Ciaran cried. I can't turn round. Elias needs me.
Death is coming for him more than anyone, the voice breathed. Turn away from him and face me. How can you defend him if you will not see the face of the enemy?
How could it hurt Elias if he looked away only for a second? It was his duty to see what sort of an enemy was stalking them. Taking a deep breath, he whirled round, but there was nothing there, only gently waving grass. Something seemed to laugh, but of course it was an illusion, only an illusion. He had conquered illusions before.
As he turned back, Elias gasped, and fell to his knees. "I can see it," he breathed. "Glimpses. Blue behind the grey. Green grass. A person with a torch. A bird. Grey rain. It's thin."
"Thin?" Ciaran asked.
I am no illusion, the grass gloated. I am real, and I have him marked for death, and you cannot fight me.
Elias blinked and blinked again, looking at Ciaran as if he had forgotten what he looked like. "It was so hard," he mumbled. "It was like drowning. I thought I couldn't do it. But I..." He shook his head. "Thin. Thousands of years since the walls were strengthened. The barriers are thin."
"So we can get out?" He fought the urge to turn round. It was still there, surging up behind him like a catastrophic storm. If he jumped round, he'd catch it unawares.
"I think..." Elias lowered his head, summoning his strength, then stood up. Ciaran's restraining hand slid off him, and fell heavily to his side. "They couldn't long ago, but it's thin now. I think I can." He took a step forward, no longer needing Ciaran's help.
Turn round again, said the voice, and despair. Ciaran snapped his head round, but the meadow was still placid, the flowers pristine beneath the blue sky. "Elias," he'd blurted out, before he could stop himself. "There's something here." But Elias wasn't even listening.
As Ciaran turned back, he saw a patch of darkness in the thickest part of the grass. When he poked it with his foot, he saw it was Reynard. There was no tower in the meadow, but Reynard was lying where its threshold would have been. He was lying very still, and seemed less substantial than a real person would look.
"Elias," he said again. "Reynard's here. I was right. It was only an illusion." But Elias didn't hear that, either. And Elias had said that the blazing heart of the tower could be both an illusion, and real.
Elias had raised his hand, readying himself for his magic. When it happened, he didn't even scream, not like Reynard had done. White light issued from his hand, and then he simply crumpled and collapsed without a sound.
Ciaran threw himself onto his hands and knees beside him. "Elias." His apprentice was still conscious, but barely. His head was lolling, and his mouth was open. "What happened?" Ciaran asked, but he thought he knew. "Don't answer," he said. "Just relax. Sleep. I've got you."
"Can't," Elias murmured. "Something's here."
So Elias has felt it, too. It wasn't his imagination. "There's nothing to worry about," Ciaran lied. "There's nothing here."
Elias lashed his head from side to side, blinking groggily. "There is. It was there in the grey place. I forgot. It's always been here."
"I'll get us out," Ciaran resolved. This was a prison for enchanters, so Elias's magic had failed, rebounding back on him and hurting him, but the men who had made the prison had not heard of the Brothers of Shadow. "Lie still. It's my turn now."
He stood up. Elias was semi-conscious at his feet, and Reynard was lifeless on the ground behind him. Something terrible was approaching, and it would destroy them all if he didn't get them out of here, and now.
The Shadow slipped away. How could he find his Garden when he was already there, standing in a travesty of his special place that had been ripped from his deepest soul and made into a pretence of reality just to torment him? How could he be calm when death was stalking them?
"Quickly," Elias pleaded. "I can't."
"I have to," Ciaran told himself. Elias depended on him, and that had always made him strong. "Strong," he repeated, and felt the calmness flowing in in the wake of the word. He was calm, and the Shadow would come. He was calm, and there was his Garden, just as it always had been, more intense and vibrant in his mind than it could ever look in this false illusion.
He was not Elias, and couldn't see things as Elias could. He couldn't see through the illusion to see the greyness behind, though he could see the lack of Shadow in the illusion of the meadow. He couldn't see the glimpses of sky and green beyond the greyness, but he could see strands of Shadow that were thicker and richer, and knew that they belonged to a real world full of living things, and not this world of paintings and veils.
It was simple. All he did was reach for the place where the Shadow was strongest, and draw it towards him. As it came, it opened like a doorway, and there beyond it was a twilight world of frost-encrusted grass and bare branches.
"I've found it," he cried. "Elias, I've found the way!"
Elias weakly raised his head. "I can't see it," he murmured. "I need your help." But when Ciaran tried to grab him, he recoiled with a cry. "Bring the soldier with us."
It was so close now, the terrible thing, with its rending claws. It had reached into the illusion now, and the grass of his meadow was blackened, and the sky was a roiling mass of purple and grey. They only had seconds left.
"I'll bring him!" Ciaran rasped. Scooping Elias up, he hurled him towards the door, but nothing happened. Why? Door not real, he realised. It was here, where they were, no matter where they seemed to walk. To get out, he had to see through eyes of Shadow, and summon the door to them.
Too late! the enemy taunted him.
"No!" Ciaran helped a stumbling Elias to the place where Reynard lay, and placed him beside the lifeless man. "The soldier," Elias pleaded. His eyes were closed now, and Ciaran doubted he had even seen Reynard. "Can't lose anyone else." With a snarl of defiance, Ciaran ran to the soldier, and dragged him violently along the ground, dropping him on top of Reynard.
As the enemy behind him prepared to strike the death blow, Ciaran stepped into his Garden. As the blow fell, he found the door that was not a real door at all, and coaxed it towards him.
It was silent, and utterly still. There was no white light, and no pain. It was night, and he was kneeling on frozen earth beneath a sky that was almost completely covered with clouds, and it felt as if he had always been there. When he turned round, all he saw was a dark hillside. No open doorway led back into the place he had come from, and he saw no green meadow speckled with flowers, and no white tower.
"I made it," he said. "We're out." He raised his face to the sky and smiled, then lowered it, covering it with his hands. Something made him shiver, but only for a moment. When he opened his eyes, he was still in the winter world, and nothing had changed.
He stroked Elias's hair, and Elias stirred, rolling onto his back and blinking up at the sky.
"We're out," Ciaran told him. He looked around again, and still everything was silent. But Reynard had said that they were being chased, and the soldiers' presence was proof of that. They'd only been a few hours in the place of illusion, so Elias's enemies had to be close. He wished he had a weapon, or that Reynard was conscious. Ciaran might have led them all into an ambush, but that hadn't even occurred to him.
Elias rolled over again, studying the grass in the faint grey light of the hidden moon. "It's real," he said, "but which world is it? This isn't where we came in."
"It isn't?" Ciaran breathed.
"No. And it's not the same time." Horror was dawning in Elias's voice. "It's winter. It was late summer when we went in. It's..." He sat up. "How much later is it? What world are we in?"
Ciaran let his head slump forward. It had all come down to him, and he had triumphed, getting them all out from a terrible place. Now that triumph lay in ashes, and he was tired, so tired.
"We'll see better in the morning." Elias sounded like someone comforting a child. "I'll see better. I'm... tired. I'm blind." He meant that his magic had been burnt out, of course. To someone used to power, that could be worse than losing your eyes.
"Yes," Ciaran murmured, as his eyelids drooped and sleep crashed over him like a wave in Elias's sea. "We'll see better in the morning."