The death of the rose
Thurstan had never been in a place where there was so much birdsong. Delicate birds flitted through the branches, sometimes darting low, sometimes fleeing up to the treetops, to cascade their melody down onto him from above. Even the ground was like something from a dream, with meandering paths of cut flowers and petals weaving across the glade, cast there in the celebrations of the night before.
It seemed at first as if he was the only one awake, but soon he started hearing the sound of voices, and seeing glimpses of people through the trees. He heard someone say the words "today," and "he will not fail us." He tiptoed forward to try to hear more, but two small boys barged into him, absorbed in a pretend sword fight, and he veered away, embarrassed at being caught listening. The first thing he saw when he turned was a hard-faced man testing his sword for sharpness, and a woman with quick eyes who moved her head like a hawk, tracking the movement of the boys through the undergrowth. The woman smiled at him when she caught him looking, but the man did not.
A girl walked up to him, and crouched to scoop up a yellow flower. Her skirts billowed around her, and she never once stopped smiling up at him. "Wear this," she said. "It's good luck. A token of happiness."
"No," he croaked, but his arms fell to his side and he let her weave its stem through the lacings of his shirt. When he breathed in, he could smell both cloying sweetness and dank earth. He wanted to push her away, but she was pretty, and she was still smiling at him. Then, just as he would have spoken to her, she skipped away, already scooping up another flower for another solitary man.
He staggered from the camp, forcing his stiff limbs to move. He couldn't understand these people, so soft and carefree, and yet at times so like the men he was used to. How could they be both things at once? Gerhard would not approve. Reynard was a traitor, but at least he was a man like those Thurstan knew from home. The others he… I don't know! he wailed. I don't know what to think!
His feet brought him to a teetering halt at the edge of the stream, where a willow tree overhung the water, its roots protruding from the bank. Thurstan picked his way carefully down to the water, and sat down with a sigh. The root was smooth and the mud was worn with old footsteps, and he wondered whose secret refuge he had found, half-hidden from the world, and whether they would come back for it and be angry with him for being there.
Dragonflies darted low across the water, and a frog jumped in the reeds, sending up a cascade of droplets that shone like jewels in the morning light. Thurstan rested his elbows on his knees and leant forward, looking through the shallow water at the fine pebbles of gold and grey. He tried to touch them with his toe, but when he broke the surface of the water, the image fragmented into shards of light, and he could no longer see the bottom.
Who do I look like? he wondered. He slid to his knees in the mud, water lapping up to his wrists. The king had mentioned that he looked like someone in the camp, but who? There had to be signs of Gerhard in his face, if he looked hard enough. He frowned and glared, trying out the most Gerhard of expressions, but the water was moving too fast. All he could see were patches of paleness and a smear of dark hair. His eyes looked too big and his mouth was grotesque. He looked like a monster.
With a cry of frustration, he climbed up the bank again, slipping a little in the mud. He tugged at a clump of grass and some of it tore away, sticking to his wet palm. He walked along the edge of the stream, wiping his hands on his cloak to dry them, stamping a little as he went.
He had almost trodden on the man before he saw him. Thurstan stopped himself with a gasp, and stood there frozen, looking down on his king. He was fast asleep, curled loosely on his side beneath a sheltering tree. He was half covered with a black cloak, and his hair had fallen over his face, though not enough to hide him. One hand lay close to his face, on the grass. A scattering of delicate white flowers grew beneath that hand, and Thurstan wondered if they had been there the night before, or if the king's touch had called them into joyous life.
Thurstan sank to his knees. There were even more birds in the trees that sheltered the king than there had been in the camp, and their songs were more proud and more beautiful. As he watched, a rabbit loped out of the long grass and paused next to the king, as if to do homage to him, but it darted off when it saw Thurstan. So this man was why the Kindred could he joyful as well as harsh, and why the camp was so rich in flowers. Beautiful things sprang up wherever the king went, and light shone even in the hearts of the most desolate of people.
I need your light, Thurstan whispered. He grasped hold of the flower the girl had woven into his shirt, and its petals crumpled in his hand and bled onto the ground. But it was nothing, just a dying thing that had once been beautiful. The king could make living flowers grow. The king could work miracles. The king could bring Gerhard back to life, and make Thurstan happy again.
With a quiet moan, the king rolled over onto his back, and opened his eyes. Thurstan recoiled, suddenly afraid to be discovered spying, but the king just smiled when he saw him. "Did you sleep well?" he asked.
"Yes," Thurstan managed. His eyes widened as he realised something. "Did you sleep here all night?"
The king stretched. There were grass stains on his shirt, and a twig in his hair. "All night, yes. I don't normally sleep this late. I can't normally… I don't need much sleep."
Thurstan's hand flew up to his mouth. "I'm sleeping in your bed, aren't I? That's why you had to sleep outside. I'm sorry. I didn't realise. I'm so sorry."
The king smiled. "You are, yes, but I often sleep outside when it's warm. I like it. Enchantment's stronger out here. I like being surrounded by... by everything. It makes it seem very real, as if..." He sighed, shaking his head. "I just like it."
"You gave me your bed," Thurstan repeated. The hut he had woken up in had seemed so plain, not like anyone's home. The only decoration had been the old faded tapestries that he knew now were probably heirlooms. Surely even a king should have little keepsakes that he kept around his bed, marking it as particularly his own, a place he was comfortable and safe and at home.
The king stood up, shaking out the creases from his cloak, then flung it over his shoulders. The hem brushed the tip of the blade of grass, and swirled expansively whenever he moved. I've seen a cloak like that before, Thurstan thought, but he couldn't remember where.
Thurstan closed the short distance between them, trotting up to the king's elbow. "When are you going to leave?"
"Today," the king said. "This morning. Now."
Thurstan dared grab his arm. "Take me with you."
The king did not shake him off. "I would rather you stayed here and regained your strength. You've played your part. You've done well and deserve to rest. I would spare you the dangers of the journey if I could."
"I want to go," Thurstan protested. "I need to. I..."
The king cut him off. "I know. You don't need to explain how you feel. I understand, and I know that it would be cruel to force you to stay. So, yes, you can come with me. I expected nothing less."
Thurstan grinned with anticipation. "Now?" Just the two of them, slipping away from the camp, running away together to save Gerhard's life. Let Reynard stamp and curse, but he would never find them, not until they rode three abreast back into the camp, victorious.
"Not quite now." The king chuckled. "I need to pack some things." He started to walk back to the camp. "Can you ride a horse, Thurstan?"
Thurstan nodded stoutly. "A little. And I can learn the rest."
"Good." The king walked away, more gracefully than any normal man "Wait here," he called over his shoulder. "I'll be back soon."
Thurstan gazed after him until he was gone, lost in the trees. With a sigh, he returned to the place where the king had been sleeping, and sat down. The grass was still flattened in the shape of the king's body, and Thurstan touched the place where his cheek had lain, then touched the flowers that had bloomed beneath his hands. It was comfortable, as if even the earth had shaped itself into arms, welcoming the man who was its king. Thurstan nestled down into its embrace, and soon he felt his eyes slipping shut.
How would it be, he wondered. Smiling, he rode beside the king in his imagination. They rode through fields together, and flowers opened up joyfully as the king passed, and long stems of wheat bowed their heads to him. In no time at all, they reached the city, where the king waved his hand and the walls melted away to nothing. No-one could stop them, not even the black-uniformed soldiers who came surging out of a dark fortress, fighting under a silver banner. Thurstan was afraid, then, but he did not run. He drew his sword and fought them, and he stopped an ugly man from sneaking up from behind to stab the king, and the king thanked him.
Then, side by side, they waded through the scattered soldiers until they reached the place where Gerhard was being held. Gerhard was hurt, but not badly. The king freed him with a wave of his hand, and healed him with a touch. "You came," Gerhard said. "I knew you would. I'm so proud of you, my son."
Thurstan threw his arms round his father. "I'm so sorry for everything."
His father soothed him. "You have nothing to be sorry for, Thurstan." He ruffled his hair, and for the first time ever he said, "I love you."
And, hand in hand, the three of them would stride from the cell, and there would be no-one to stop them, only empty corridors where silver banners hung limp and useless, and broken swords lay abandoned in the corners.
He smiled, and shifted position, ruffling his fingers through the grass. The breeze touched his hair like a father's hands, and the sun was warm on his face. But horses were stamping and men were calling out in harsh voices. The soldiers weren't gone after all, but hiding, sniggering as the king walked into their trap. With a cry, they surged out of concealment and fell on him, hacking at him with their swords.
Thurstan's hands flew up to his face, and he lost his grip on both the king and his father. Gerhard pulled out his sword, but a man in black ran him through. The king raised his hands, readying his magic, but the soldiers fell on him and brought him down. Thurstan just stood and watched. Gerhard died, and his killer wrenched out his bloody sword and wiped it, grinning as he did so. The sound it made as it left Gerhard's body was terrible. The king was captured, bound at the centre of a wheel of swords. His face as he looked at Thurstan was empty and dead.
"No!" Thurstan screamed. He opened his eyes, but they were still there, the men, men in dark clothes looking down at him with sardonic smiles.
"Still asleep?" one of them said. Thurstan blinked, and saw that he had three swords. Then he blinked again, and saw that it was Reynard.
Only a dream. Thurstan had fallen asleep and his fears and his hopes and got confused, then spilled over into his waking. Only a dream, but... "Leave me alone," he stammered.
Reynard looked as if he was about to say something, but then the king appeared, and Reynard's face changed utterly. "You need a sword," he said to the king, his voice crisp, and all cruelty gone from his face. "I don't care what you say. You're wearing it, or we're not leaving this place."
The king took one of the proffered swords and fastened it to his belt without even looking at it. "I won't use it. You know that."
"But you have it," Reynard said, "which means that I've done my part. We don't know what we're going to face. If we're attacked, you might even find that you want to defend yourself. Stranger things have happened."
"I will defend myself," the king said, "just not with a sword."
"Whatever you say." Reynard turned back to Thurstan. "And you, boy. We found this near where we found you. Is it yours?"
Thurstan snatched the sword from Reynard's hand and held it close. Gerhard himself had given it to him. "They're going, too?" he asked the king.
The king looked at him with sympathy. "I was going to tell you, but Reynard was quicker than I thought he'd be. There are… good reasons for him coming. Please believe me on that. You can trust him with your life. And the others, too. Ranulf, Amalric, Julien and Joscelin."
Thurstan could not bring himself to speak. How could he say that it was a good thing for Reynard to be here, when he was a traitor and a conspirator, and the king was blind to the truth about him?
The king leant close to Thurstan. "We'll get there," he whispered. "I can't promise victory, not as you might dream of it. But I promise that if Gerhard is alive, I will not leave the city without him. I will hold nothing back."
"I know." Thurstan nodded. His voice started to crack. "Thank you."
A horse had been brought for the king, and he mounted it easily. Then Oliver and Adela were there, hurrying out of the trees hand in hand. They broke apart and Oliver rushed forward, and the king rode to meet them. Oliver rested his hand on the horse's neck and he talked to the king, leaning upwards as the king leant down. After a little while, they clasped hands briefly, and parted. As the king rode back, Adela appeared at her husband's side and slipped her hand into his bereft one. He raised their joined hands to his lips and kissed her fingers, but did not take his eyes from the king.
"It's time to go," the king said. He rode forward, and Reynard's men immediately took up their positions around him, two of them hurrying ahead, and two of them flanking him on either side. Reynard himself rode directly behind him, where he could watch his every move. It had all been as quick and effortless as the dances at the wedding feast, every man taking his predetermined places.
Thurstan remembered his dream, and something clenched in his chest. The king had been bound as a prisoner, held captive at the centre of a wheel of blades, and his face had been detached and bleak, just like it was now.
Had it been a vision? He had seen a true vision the night before, he was sure of it. But how could he tell what was a vision and what was just a dream? How could he tell? All dreams now would carry that little seed of fear that perhaps they were not just dreams, but a vision of terrible things to come.
We should stay here, he thought. We shouldn't go at all. Because Gerhard had to be dead by now, didn't he? He had been badly hurt, and it would be a week before they reached the city, and it was already days since the attack, long days all blurred into one long nightmare of running. The king was risking his life for a man who was already beyond his help, leaving the safety of his woodland glade and riding off in the company of a traitor and his hand-picked men, towards a place where his enemies had already stuck down men who had seemed so unassailable and mighty.
"Thurstan." Someone was calling his name. He opened his eyes and saw that the king had come back for him. Reynard and his men had moved apart, and stood in a loose line, watching.
"I'm scared," Thurstan whispered.
The king did not offer false comfort. All he did was smile, and gesture at the place beside him. "Ride with me, Thurstan. It would be nice to have someone to talk to on the journey." He leant forward and whispered confidingly, "And Reynard's not such good company."
Amazingly, Thurstan found himself giggling. "I don't suppose he is."
Side by side, they rode past Oliver and Adela. Adela gave a little wave with her fingers, but Oliver raised his hand and held it high, like a salute. "He stood like that last time," the king murmured, "wishing me success, but wishing I would stay. But he was alone then, and now he isn't."
The others fell into place around them, like prison bars clanking shut. He's a prisoner, Thurstan thought. It's not a dream or a vision. It's really true. But the king seemed oblivious to it. He smiled when he talked to Thurstan, but the rest of the time he just looked straight ahead, looking like a man riding with dignity to his own execution. He did not touch his reins, but kept his hands in front of him, the wrists crossed over as if they were bound. His horse just followed the ones in front, going wherever they led, and the king had no control over the direction he went in. He might as well have been led by a halter round the neck, Thurstan thought, and be blindfolded and chained.
But I know, he swore, and I will remember. He had a sword now, and he could protect the king, when Reynard made his move. He had eyes and a voice, so he could keep an eye on the conspirators and tell the king what he saw.
He moved his horse closer the king's, ready to tell him everything, but the king looked at him with a serene expression that made all Thurstan's words dry up in his throat. "Please don't worry, Thurstan," he said. "It's not how you think it is."
This was from the man whom even Gerhard had revered, who could set birds to singing and make flowers grow, and could fill a forest glade with beautiful pictures. So who was Thurstan to think that he knew better than the king? Who was he to think the king could not deal with Reynard? Who was he to be afraid, and worry that the king would be overwhelmed when they faced the enemy?
He was the king, and he could do anything. All Thurstan had to do was ride alongside him and watch as the world fell at his feet, and everything was happy again, for ever after.
"This is the borderland," the king said. "I remember Reynard saying that, the last time I rode to the city." He touched the stone slab, brushing away the thick grass with the palm of his hand. "Borders are strange places, caught between two worlds. Who knows what lies across the border?"
Thurstan's hands swung limply at his side. "Between worlds?" He peered around, half expecting the trees to come alive and leer at him, and strange monsters to take shape in the dark shapes of the branches.
The king's hand stilled for a moment. "The other world is always close." He looked up, his head tilted to one side as if he was listening. "Living and breathing and moving, so close, but so impossible. I could open a door and step through now, and never come back. And less than week would have passed. He wouldn't even have forgotten me."
Thurstan frowned. "My lord?"
The king started, then stood up, brushing dirt from his hands. "I'm sorry, Thurstan. Between worlds? I just meant that this is the edge of the forest. It's different on the other side."
"Dangerous." They had ridden for a day and a half, and had seen nothing dangerous yet, and who could tell what was waiting for them outside the trees?
"It's dangerous everywhere," the king said, "but I won't let anything happen to you." He touched Thurstan's arm briefly, then looked away, his mind clearly drifting onto other things. Mumbling something Thurstan could not make out, he wandered off, perhaps to tend to his horse. Thurstan was blessed that the king spent even this much time with him.
After he had gone, Thurstan knelt beside the stone slab and touched it, following the lines in the dirt made by the king's fingers. Have I been here before? he wondered. He remembered stumbling and sobbing across the grassy plain, and then the grasping branches of trees tangling in his hair as he entered the forest, but it all came only in snatches. He had run for days, but remembered only the torn fragments of a nightmare, shot through with darkness and blood. Maybe, one day, he would see a fork of a tree, or a clump of flowers, or the way the shadow fell on a patch of hillside, and suddenly he would think, yes, I know this place. I was there. But perhaps it was best not to look. Perhaps it was best not to remember.
Something scraped beside him, leather against. He started, gasping, for it was such a familiar sound, like Gerhard crouching beside him in the mountains.
"Easy, lad," a voice said. "I'm not going to hurt you."
It was Ranulf, the oldest one of Reynard's men. He rode with Reynard, and that made Thurstan want to hate him, but his eyes seemed kind. "I didn't think you were," Thurstan said stoutly.
Ranulf stretched out his long legs, sighing with exaggerated relief. "My old bones don't take so well to riding nowadays. It's good to rest, is it not?"
"I want to carry on," Thurstan admitted. "I don't want to stop, ever."
Ranulf looked at him with sympathy. "I know what it's like. I've lost people I love. We all have." Without being aware of it, perhaps, he pushed up his right sleeve and rubbed his forearm with the ball of his thumb. There was an old scar there, ridged and twisting from wrist to elbow. "And I had reason to blame myself."
Thurstan looked at the scar, but he did not ask the man how he had gained it. He thought Ranulf wanted him to, and wanted to tell it like a story to a child, or a moral lesson to a pupil. Thurstan was no longer a child, and nothing could make things better, especially not the words of a man who had sworn allegiance to Reynard.
"No." Thurstan turned his head away. "You can't understand. None of you can."
"Perhaps we can." Ranulf spoke mildly, seemingly unoffended by Thurstan's rejection. His voice was slow and considered, just as all his movements were deliberate. "We are Kindred. We know what loss is." He clapped his hand on Thurstan's shoulder. "I know the king gives you what you need, but beware of depending on him too much. He is not what you think he is. But we are your kin. Some things, perhaps, we understand better even than he does."
Thurstan whirled on him. "Don't speak about him like that!"
Ranulf spread his hands. "I have every respect for him. I just worry that... Please try to see past the glamour, Thurstan. Remember the burden he bears, and..." He sighed. "I've said too much. I just want you to remember what I've said. We aren't your enemies, but your kin. I would like to think that you could talk to me."
"I don't want to talk to anyone."
He got up and stalked into the forest, leaving Ranulf behind. Brambles scratched at his bare arms and he scowled at them, tucking his hands protectively beneath his armpits. A woodpecker hammered, but it fell silent as he approached, and he caught a glimpse of green as it flew away. Fleeing from me, he thought. Everyone did. They sent him away, and then they died, and left him forever, all alone.
A sob strangled in his throat, but then he was caught, a strong hand on his elbow, holding him tight. "The Kindred do not walk so loud," Reynard hissed. "I thought you were the enemy. I could have killed you."
Thurstan wanted to spit in his face. "You almost did, the other day."
Reynard did not release him. "You heard, then?"
"But you cannot understand the truth." Reynard released him, pushing him away so violently that Thurstan almost fell. "You believe the obvious thing. You've puffed yourself full up with hatred. You spend your time dreaming of ways to humiliate me and hurt me. Is that the truth?"
"I heard you say you were a traitor." It sounded too like the squeaking voice of a scared child.
"I am, but I am also loyal." Reynard had not sheathed his sword, and circles of light slipped through the leaves and ran up and down the blade. "Make of that what you will, boy, for I owe you no explanations. And hate me, if you like. It's nothing to me." His mouth curved into a cruel smile. "A man came here last year. He hated me, too. He made himself look foolish with his accusations and his tantrums."
A tree slammed into Thurstan's back, and he realised that he had been retreating, and could retreat no more. "So you killed him." His mouth felt very dry.
Reynard gave a sharp bark of laughter. "I saved his life. Then he went away. There was something very precious that he wanted to take with him, but we kept hold of it. We kept it, and we will never lose it, not to anyone."
"I... I don't know what you're talking about," Thurstan stammered.
"The king," Reynard hissed. "He is ours. And you endanger him with your whining and your pleas and your... your everything. If we'd done it my way, he wouldn't be here. Don't you even care that he could be killed before the week is out, all because you made him leave the safety of the net we had woven around him?"
"You were going to kill me!" Thurstan hurled at him. "You're a traitor. And he's the king. He's more powerful than anything. He can't die."
Reynard grabbed Thurstan by the chin, his fingers digging into his throat. "Do you really believe that? For all Gerhard's crimes, I would never have expected him to have raised a fool."
Hot tears burned a path of shame down Thurstan's cheeks. "Don't say his name," he moaned. "Please, you're hurting me."
Reynard's grip tightened, and he twisted Thurstan's head one way then the other, raking him with his eyes, his face only inches from Thurstan's. His thumb sank into Thurstan's cheek, and his fingertips dug into the flesh just below his eyes. Thurstan went limp, his whole weight supported by his face. His jaw grated, and his mouth was squashed, dribbling into Reynard's hand.
"I'm trying to see who your mother was," Reynard growled, pushing Thurstan away so his head smashed against the tree, and his knees sagged, his body sliding down to the ground and pooling there in broken misery. Reynard stalked away a few steps. "Perhaps I should have killed you anyway. It would be a fair revenge."
Thurstan nursed his bruised face and caught his tears on his fingertips before they could fall. "I don't know who my mother was," he whispered. "Do you know? Do you know her name?"
Reynard whirled round and came back to him, making Thurstan recoil. "Never think that the king is invulnerable," he said, but it was a colder voice, less brutal than it had been a moment before. "If you believe that, you wrong him far worse than I do. Last time he went to the city, he almost died. I will not let that happen again. There is nothing I would not do to keep him safe. Nothing."
Thurstan managed to raise his head. "But you keep him prisoner."
"Better a prisoner and safe," Reynard said, "than free to throw his life away. Only worthless jewels are left lying around, unguarded, and he is the most precious jewel of all. And I promise you, boy, I will kill you if you get in the way of the oaths I have sworn."
"And I'll expose your treachery," Thurstan vowed. "I promise you that." But Reynard's eyes had burned with conviction and his voice had vibrated with passion. He believes it, Thurstan thought. He hasn't got the slightest doubt but that he's right. And it seemed like a thing to be envied, that he could have such certainty, and no cold fears clawing at him in the dark, telling him that he had done the wrong thing, that everyone had died because of him.
Someone shouted, but Thurstan could not hear what they said. Reynard's head jerked up. Thurstan caught a quick glimpse of his face. Scared, he thought. He looks afraid. Guilty. But surely that was wrong. Hadn't he just been thinking about how men like Reynard never felt such things?
They shouted again, and Reynard exploded into life, leaping over Thurstan's body, rushing forward to greet the man who was plunging through the undergrowth. He caught him, hands on shoulders, and screamed into his face. "Back! Get your horse! Go after him!" he bellowed. "Don't let him get away!"
The king, Thurstan thought, as his head slumped back against the tree, and all the breath left his lungs. He started to shiver, realising just how close he had come to being killed, and how Reynard was gone now, which meant that he was safe. It has to be the king. He's given them the slip. He's escaping.
He heard the sound of galloping horses. Reynard shouted again. "He's heading out of the forest!" Out of the forest, where armies waited and men in black uniforms laid ambushes and cut people down beneath silver banners. Out of the forest, and Reynard said the king could be hurt after all, and hadn't Thurstan seen the scars on his wrists, so he knew it was true? Out of the forest, and the terrible soldiers who had killed everyone in the mountains wanted the king most of all. Gerhard had told Thurstan that, so it had to be true.
"I'm coming," Thurstan cried, as he staggered to his feet, fumbled for his sword, and ran forward to serve.
They were shouting behind him. Reynard was shouting to the others to stop him, to bring him back, not to let him get away. Thurstan was calling to him, his voice high and scared. But they grew quieter and further away, drowned out by the pounding hooves.
He ducked under a branch, and straightened in his saddle as light unfolded around him. He was free of the forest, out in a world of vast blue skies and gentle green hills. He urged the horse forward, splashing across a patch of marsh, specked with yellow kingcups, and towards the hill that rose on the far side. The wind plucked at his hair, stronger than it had been in the forest, as if it had joined with Reynard's cause and it, too, was trying to drive him back.
"Stop!" Reynard bellowed, not far behind him. Elias twisted in the saddle and saw his pursuers emerging from the tree, with Reynard at their head.
Elias tried to meet his eyes, and shook his head. "I can't. I can't stop. Can't you ever understand that?" Easy words to say when Reynard would never hear them.
He veered sideways, skirting the side of the slope. He saw butterflies in the heavy sunlight, and heard the wind whistling in the gorse. The hillside smelled of pollen and almonds, and the memory of Greenslade was suddenly so close that it made him want to cry out. "But that's gone," he told himself. "Gone forever."
Reynard was closing on him, riding his great black horse ferociously. Elias looked round again, and saw the blood-stained face bearing down on him, teeth bared in a scream of fury. As he did so, an arrow shot past him, only narrowing missing his upper arm. Reynard stood up in the saddle, raising his arm like a declaration of war, and bellowed something to the men behind him. Another arrow came, and Elias has to lunge for the reins and drag on them hard, to keep the arrow from hitting the horse.
With a cry, Elias hurled himself from his horse, rolling as soon as he hit the ground. It hurt, scraping the skin from his palms, but it would buy him time. Not even Reynard would attempt something like that, he thought. Because even Reynard values his own life more than you value yours. His thoughts spoke in Oliver's voice.
Elias pushed himself to his feet, but his wrist cried out in protest. Only bruised, he thought, as he clutched it with the other hand and pressed it to his chest. He started to run, scrambling along the slope, slipping and sliding. He glanced over his shoulder. Reynard was riding down Elias's horse, clearly having decided that it was the best way to prevent him from escaping. Without his horse, he could be hunted and reclaimed at leisure.
There was a hollow in the side of the hill, a dip with a few small trees leaning together round a cluster of stones. There, Elias thought. Half way down, his ankle turned on a stone, and he let himself fall, then hauled himself up to crawl one-handed to the shelter of the trees.
The man was there, just as Elias had known he would be. He looked as if he had been flung there from the top of the hill and just lay broken where he had landed, but there was a trail of crushed grass that led to the place where he lay, showing that he had crawled.
"I'm here." Elias touched the man's burning brow. "I heard you. I've come."
The man flinched, and opened his eyes sluggishly. "Who are you?" His eyes were criss-crossed with red veins. They moved around, searching, and widened as they saw the horsemen who were surely now behind Elias, standing stark against the sky at the top of the slope. "Come to kill me," he moaned.
"Oh no," Elias assured him. He tried to take the man's head into his lap, and pushed his dirty hair back from his brow. "No-one's going to kill you. I promise you that."
The man let himself be held, his head slumping back in Elias's lap. Elias's fingers found his neck, where the pulse was racing, then moved over his face. The man let out a shaky breath and closed his eyes, then suddenly they burst open again. "You," he moaned. "I know you. I know who you are."
"Please stay still," Elias urged him, but the man was in a panic, struggling desperately against Elias's hold. His hand came up, fingers curled into claws, and he scratched Elias's face. He would have clawed at Elias's eyes had not Elias sadly turned away and let the scratch go harmlessly down the side of his neck.
"Let me go!" the man begged him. "I saw you. I know who you are."
"Kill him," Reynard commanded.
"No!" Elias screamed.
But, "I know you," the man said, and this time his voice was different, and it stole the breath from Elias's lungs and all the warmth from the air around him. "And here you are. And here it begins." He laughed, but the laugh turned into a rattle in his throat, and then he died.
Elias pawed at his throat, but there was no pulse. He touched his lips, but there was no breath. He was dead. The noise of Elias's heartbeat was the only sound in the world, along with the barren wind that whispered through the grass. "Dead," Elias whispered. "You died, and I was too late to do anything. I'm so sorry."
He laid the man's head gently down on the ground and passed his hand over his face, closing his eyes. Blood from his palm smeared on the man's face, and he moaned, wiping it off with his sleeve. The man's skin was still warm.
"Are you finished?" Reynard's voice was very cold.
Elias closed his eyes, his shoulders slumping as he let out a long breath. He lowered his head, clenched his fist at his side, then raised his head again. He still had his back to Reynard, so his face was hidden. Elias wore a mask as a king, and sometimes the mask fitted him so easily that he found himself wearing it even when alone. But, at times like this, it was almost impossible to wear. He fought the urge to press his face into his hands, physically forcing it into an expression that other people could see.
Reynard grasped hold of his shoulder from behind, and Elias could feel how he was quivering with fury. "Are you going to say anything?"
The dead man's hair seemed to twitch in the breeze. Perhaps he could have saved him after all, if he'd been a little quicker, or if he'd resisted the cold shock of the man's last words. He had been impaled by them, and the man had died before he had recovered his thoughts.
"But you don't need to say anything," Reynard sneered. Elias could hear him pacing up and down behind him. "I know the story by now. There you were, in the forest, when you suddenly heard someone crying for help. You sensed him, in that way you have that no-one else has got, so no-one can guard against. But, rather than telling me, you just leapt on your horse and rode as fast as you could to find him." He stopped just behind Elias and suddenly grabbed his shoulder again, hauling him around. "Didn't you?"
Elias nodded. "I did. I had to. I... I might have saved him."
Reynard pushed him away in disgust. "Might have? But who is he, I'm asking myself. Not Kindred, that's for sure. He could have been bait for a trap and you fell right in it."
"He was hurting so badly." Elias stroked the back of the dead man's hand.
Reynard kicked the dead man in the stomach. The body folded into the kick, and was driven against one of the rocks. Elias cried out and scrambled to bring him back, to straighten his limbs, but Reynard blocked him with his body. Elias shrank back onto his heels, his hand rising to his mouth. Reynard was towering above him, feet apart, hands on hips.
"You left the forest." Reynard spat out each word as if they were shards of ice. "You rode out alone. And hadn't we decided that it was too risky? Hadn't we decided to scout it out first? You could have ridden straight into the arms of a waiting army. You could have killed us all. And did you care?"
"I knew there was no-one there," Elias said. "He was the only one." But you'd still have done it even if there was, something whispered in the back of his mind, as long as you could have made sure that the others wouldn't have followed you.
"I don't think you even thought about it," Reynard said. "I don't believe you ever think. Sometimes I think you do it deliberately, that you want to die. Sometimes I just think you're very stupid."
Elias struggled to his feet, wincing at the bruises that were only now starting to hurt. "I'm sorry." But then he raised his head and met Reynard's gaze fully. "But it wasn't wrong to want to help him. There was no danger. How can anyone say it was wrong?"
Reynard clenched his fists, and Elias was suddenly sure that he was going to hit him. He braced himself for it, but Reynard whirled away, snarling with frustration. He stalked up to Amalric and hit him instead, one fist in the stomach, and one on the chin. Amalric doubled up in pain, his mouth shocking and red and wide open with betrayal.
"You shot at him," Reynard said. "Stop him, I said, not hurt him. You could have killed him." His voice seemed to crack a little on the last words.
Amalric wiped his bleeding mouth. "I was aiming at the horse."
"Never," Reynard spat, as he hit him again, "aim any weapon at your king. Never. Were you trying to kill him? Was I wrong about you?"
"I was aiming at the horse," Amalric protested. His eyes were shining, and Elias thought he was about to cry.
"Leave him alone," he pleaded.
Reynard raked his hands through his cropped hair. "We will return to this later," he promised. He sighed, and touched his sword as if it was his talisman, his own mask. "He must have come from somewhere," he said, gesturing to the dead man. "Find out where. You know what to do."
Julien and Joscelin nodded and hurried away. Ranulf lingered a little longer, seemingly about to speak, but then he, too, nodded and moved away. Amalric stayed kneeling. "You as well," Reynard said impatiently. Reynard himself did not move. Elias saw Thurstan at the top of the slope, standing frozen and staring at the dead man. His face was very white, so Elias smiled reassuringly at him, and watched his shoulders relax a little.
Elias began to follow the trail made by the dead man. After a few steps, he stopped and wrapped his arms around his body. He could see the path marked out in broken grass, crushed by a dying man dragging his agonised body up the hill. Elias half closed his eyes, and followed the trail still further with his mind.
There were birds and mice, tiny insects crawling on thick blades of grass, and golden fishes swimming in cool shadowed water. He felt the wind ruffle a rabbit's fur, and saw how big a flower looked to a butterfly. Beyond that, snaking down through pleasant slopes, he found a place where water lapped against reeds, and swifts darted low through heavy clouds of insects. There was death there, but one man was still alive. His pain was muted, for he was close to unconsciousness, and Elias only found it because he had followed the trail and knew where to look. But it was there. He was there.
Elias's head snapped up. Reynard was watching him like a hawk. "Another one." Reynard sounded deeply weary. "I knew it. I suppose you want to go after this one, too."
Elias was already running towards the man, but Reynard grabbed him from behind, wrestling him to the ground. As Elias landed, something rose up and surged back along the trail his mind had followed, attacking him with all the force of a double fisted blow. It was cold and gleeful, and it laughed to see him. "Oh yes," it said. "Come to me, little one."
"No." He twisted in Reynard's grip, sobbing. Something terrible crept up his arm, crawling along his flesh, making him want to tear at it with his nails to make it go away. Something horrible scraped through the inside of his mind, and he wanted to be sick. "No." But, when he brought his arms up to his horrified face, there was nothing there. When he looked up, he could see only a placid blue sky, with a few clouds of a delicate white.
He sagged to the ground, and Reynard bestrode him. "Let us handle it." It sounded more like a plea than an order. "Stay here."
With the dead man, the man he had failed to save? "But it's not safe even here," he whispered. "Nowhere's safe."
Reynard drew his sword and stalked away a few paces. "But that is no reason to willingly embrace danger. I want you to stay here. Stay with the boy."
Elias stood up. "You'll kill him, when you find him?" He tried desperately to hide behind the mask, to find the quiet words that marked him as king, but he couldn't, he couldn't. The mask was cracked, and things poured out through the cracks like blood from a dying man's skin, and now Reynard had seen them. Even so, he tried. "He's only one man, not even a soldier. I would like to help him."
"No!" Reynard screamed. He whirled round, his sword blade sweeping in a broad careless arc. The tip of it caught Elias's upper arm, tearing his sleeve and cutting a fine line across his skin.
Elias breathed in, then out. This is it, he thought. The end of something, or the start of something new. Even as he thought it, the wind seemed to surge and laugh.
Reynard looked at his sword, then at the small beads of blood on Elias's shirt. "You were too close," he croaked. His eyes narrowed, on the verge of anger. "But I... I should have known. A good swordsman always knows where his blade is, and I forgot." His face crumpled and he fell to his knees. "Forgive me, my lord. I wounded you."
Elias started to walk around him. "It has been coming for a long time, I think." Reynard, he knew, responded better to sternness than emotion. "You have opposed me for a long time. Some might say it was deliberate." He could have been more cruel. Never aim a weapon at your king, Reynard had said to Amalric, so he had committed the crime he reviled another for. But Reynard knew it all too well, and it was wrong to be cruel to a man, even if it would free him to save another.
"No, my lord," Reynard protested. "I have sworn to keep you safe."
"But you keep trying to stop me from doing what I need to do. You work against me. And that... It hurts, far worse than this little scratch."
"But I have to." It was close to a wail. Elias had never seen Reynard like this. He had been brought down by a tiny line of blood on a man's sleeve, when not even his son's death had broken him so. "Last time I left you... Last time you went to help someone..." He raised his head, desperately clawing back some pride. "I will not obey you now, not if your commands would only cause you harm."
"You don't trust me." Elias sighed. "You think I'm a fool. You think I'm trying to get myself killed. You don't trust me to save myself this time."
"You are still my king," Reynard rasped. "I'd die for you. And you're not a fool. So I don't understand. You say you can save yourself, but you don't act like you want to. So why do you act like you do?" He shook his head. "I don't know. All I can do is try to stop it. All I can do is try to keep you alive. Someone has to. You won't."
Why can't they understand? Elias thought. Sometimes he felt as if he was still half in another world, watching these people through a veil. He touched them, and the words he said to them seemed to make a difference to them, but none of them could reach through the veil and touch him back. No-one could see. No-one understood. But that's because you don't tell them, he murmured to himself. You don't even tell Oliver.
"I have to go," he whispered. "I have to try to help this man. I have to." Failed, the dead man's face reproached him. You failed, the other man would scream at him, as he died. Everything was for nothing. It was all for nothing, because you're not even doing good here.
He started to run, and this time Reynard did not try to stop him.
Thurstan kicked at his horse, urging it to go faster. The reins were slippery in his sticky palms. "Please," he begged it. Things were happening ahead of him. There was danger in the valley beyond the stony rise. People could be dying, falling to the ground and screaming, and he wasn't there, just hiding behind the rock watching them fall, then slinking away and leaving their bodies to be picked apart by crows.
The horse ambled along the path. The king had run ahead, and Thurstan had just watched him. Reynard had flung himself onto his horse and galloped after him, and Thurstan had cried out, thinking he was going to trample the king into the ground, but Reynard had swerved around him and ended up ahead. After that, Thurstan had lost them both. He had been slow to catch his horse, and it had taken three attempts to mount it. And now it wasn't even obeying him.
The ground began to slope down. There was water at the bottom, little more than a marshy area of wet grass, but the horse saw it and began to trot eagerly towards it. Thurstan hauled on the reins, but the horse doggedly lowered its head and started to drink. Thurstan peered round desperately. Everything was happening just ahead of him, close enough to see. He flung his leg over the horse's back and slid to the ground, sinking into the water up to his ankles. He tried to run, but the water and mud clung to his feet, dragging him back. Water splashed up to his elbows, and clouds of black spread out with every step.
A coach had fallen onto its side in the water, fifty paces away. The horses were still in harness, straining desperately to free themselves. Thurstan could see two weaving lines of flattened grass, showing where the coach had made its final journey before foundering in the marsh. There was no road anywhere near, or so Reynard had said. Why was it here, except as a trap for the king, as bait? Those black-clothed soldiers would be near enough, smirking beneath their silver banners.
Everyone else had reached the coach before him. Julien and Joscelin wriggling like snakes through the grass, their faces smeared brown. He could not see Ranulf, but Amalric was standing beside a willow tree, shooting arrow after arrow at the dirty crimson of the coach's roof. Each one bounced off harmlessly, but he just kept on shooting. He only had a few arrows left. Reynard, though, was simply walking forward, his sword held vertically in front of him like a man swearing a promise, his gait sinuous and deadly. "Beware of him when he approaches you like that," they had said of Gerhard, who walked in just the same way. "It means he will be utterly without mercy."
As for the king... Thurstan stopped and watched him, for the king was coming up last of all. He was walking slowly, his head high, and he was the still centre of the deadly scene, calm and untouched by it all. Surely he had to be in control, because he was the king, but it seemed so strange that he should be walking so, approaching a place of danger.
Someone screamed. Thurstan's head snapped round. He saw a man lying face down in the water, his hand lost in a clump of yellow flowers. Ripples lapped around him, black water like creeping fingers over the back of his neck. He's dead, Thurstan thought, but he could not see his face.
The scream sounded again, turning harsh at the end, a screech of fury and hatred. A man crawled through the door of the coach, the door that was now where the ceiling should be, and slid down into the mud. He crawled over to the dead man and turned him over. Thurstan moaned as the man's head splashed into the water, and darkness streamed from his face.
Reynard did not stop walking. The king raised his hand, but did nothing more. The man pulled a knife from the dead man's belt, and turned round, still crouching. Thurstan thought he would never forget his face, so pale, with two patches of red high on the cheekbones. His hair was sodden, clinging to his neck, and his mouth looked as if someone had slashed his face apart with a sword.
"You!" the man screamed. "You're the one! You killed them! You killed them all!" He drew his arm back, and Amalric's last arrow grazed his sleeve, and thudded into the wooden roof. He thrust his arm forward, palm opening, and something silver shot from his hand.
A knife, Thurstan thought. He's thrown a knife. The man had thrown a knife at the king, and the king was hurrying forward, rushing into the embrace of death. Reynard was too far away to push him out of the way. Where was Ranulf? Amalric had shot his last arrow and now had nothing more to give in his king's defence. Thurstan was closest. Thurstan had to be the one to save his king.
"My lord!" he cried. He plunged forward, water dragging at his legs. He ran, but how could he be fast enough, how could he possibly be fast enough? And then he was falling, floating to the ground, sinking into a bed of white feathers, fragrant as flowers. He rolled onto his back and blinked into pure white light. "My lord," he whispered. He sat up and looked for the king, but he was still dazzled, unable to see. Someone was standing just ahead of him, an ethereal figure with light streaming around it, but surely it could not be a man?
He closed his eyes, sinking his fingers into the wet grass. When he opened them again, he saw a yellow flower between his fingers, clear in every detail. He raised his head further, but he couldn't see the king.
I killed him, he thought. I did nothing. I just watched. And now he's dead. The soldiers in the mountains had strange weapons that flashed fire and killed at a distance, and now this man had a knife that exploded in silent white light, turning a man into dust, to be blown away on the wind.
But I can avenge him. He drew his sword. It slipped in his grip, but he clung into it, and held it. He plunged forward, not daring to look down in case he saw the king's body. They were swarming round the carriage now. Julien had leapt on the roof. Smeared with mud, he looked like a grotesque figure from some childhood nightmare. Ranulf had risen up from the water, hauling himself up by the broken axle, and now stood there frowning. Amalric was scurrying around collecting up arrows.
The man who had killed the king was dead. Dead, and someone was crying out, mourning him. Dead, and Reynard's dispassionate sword was ripped out of his body, and coming down again for a third blow, and a fourth. Blood was staining the water red, swirling in thick clouds that spread still further when anyone moved.
Julien jumped from the roof, landing in a crouch beside the body, where he looked up and grinned, his smile the only white thing in his face. Joscelin was already mounting his horse and following the coach's back trail. But that meant that the other man, the man who was kneeling in the mud and reaching out towards the dead man, had to be the king. He was the king.
Thurstan closed his eyes, letting out a shuddering breath of relief. The king wasn't dead. He was alive, but different. Changed, Thurstan thought, opening his eyes. Because the king's shoulders were slumped, and his hair hung over his face in mud-stained hanks. When Thurstan crept closer, he could see how fast he was breathing, and how exhausted he looked. His face was very pale, and his hands seemed to be trembling.
He looked like a normal man, but by how could that be? Thurstan pressed his fingers to his eyes, trying to clear his sight so he could see the truth. He went over his memories of the last few minutes and realised what had really happened. The white light had been the king's power. The king hadn't needed Thurstan to protect him at all. He had simply raised his hand and the knife had flashed out of existence, in a blaze of enchantment that had sent Thurstan reeling and confused him for a while.
Who was Thurstan to think he could save the king? He was only a child in a world of men. He was forever an observer, cowering in the dirt, watching death unfold. He wasn't good at anything. He was a child, ordered early to bed, while the men talked around the fire and made their plans for the morning.
Thurstan took a deep breath. He wiped his eyes again, smearing mud onto his lips. The taste of it made him spit with disgust, but even that suddenly felt like a childish gesture. The king wouldn't do it. Reynard wouldn't do it. Reynard, although Thurstan hated him, was one of the great ones, for he had won the loyalty of men like Ranulf and Julien. Reynard would never hide behind a rock and watch people die.
He walked up behind the king, and tried to think of something to say, but the only things he could think of sounded childish, so he bit his lip and said nothing.
"Why did you have to kill him?" the king was asking.
Reynard stabbed the dead man one last time. No more blood flowed out of his corpse. "Because he tried to kill you. Not even you can deny that."
"He did." Thurstan saw how the king was clenching his hands in his lap, the knuckles white beneath the streaks of mud. "But it wasn't him."
Reynard splashed over to a clump of reeds and wiped his sword, then drew the blade across his thigh to dry it, first one side, then the other. Slamming it into its sheath, he asked, "What do you mean it wasn't him?"
"I mean..." The king took a deep breath. Thurstan was close enough to hear how it quivered a little. Maybe the king was cold from kneeling in the water. "I think... something was influencing him. Both of them. They... said things. I... felt things."
Ranulf turned to his men and gave them quick orders. Cut the horses free, but hold on to them. Turn the coach over and search it. Find out who the men were, and where they were going. Only when his orders were being obeyed did he turn back to the king. "It doesn't matter," he said. "He was a threat to you. He might have had another knife. Would you still have taken him into your arms like a child and nursed him? Yes," he answered, before the king could speak. "And so I had to stop that from happening."
The king raked his hands through his hair, then ran them down his face. "He was very ill. You could have tied him up, if you thought he was dangerous. I just wanted to make him better."
Reynard gave a bark of laughter. "And then what? Carried him all the way to the city as our prisoner, watching him all the time in case he tried to finish the job he started today? I think not."
The king sighed, and slumped forward into the water, catching himself belatedly with his hands. He started to rock to and fro, and the water responded to his movement, making the dead man's hair dance. "It wasn’t his fault," he murmured.
Reynard walked round him in a half circle. "Then whose was it?" he demanded, stopping in front of the king. "Mine?"
"Not yours." The king's voice was hardly there at all. "I know why you do what you do. I even understand it. I wish you wouldn't, but I know why. But this... It was something else. Something terrible."
Reynard was about to speak, but Julien appeared at his elbow. "Chests," he said. "Lots of them. Packed with clothes and money and books. Hardly any weapons." He wrinkled his nose. "It stinks. They were sick, the people in there."
"Sick," the king echoed. "Two of them in the coach, and the coachman. Was he sick, too? Is that why they left the road and ended up here? They'd packed what they could and were running away, hoping to outrun whatever it was that was killing them. But they couldn't. They found me. Or maybe they were led to me."
"We have to go." Reynard looked genuinely afraid. "We don't want to catch it." His head snapped up. "Led to you?"
"They both said they knew me," the king said, his voice listless, his eyes staring bleakly at the dead man. "Though maybe they saw me on the scaffold in Eidengard. Maybe that all it means." He wrapped his arms around his body and shivered.
"Come on." Reynard tugged at his elbows, then tried to drag him up bodily. "We've got to go. If it was a trap, we have to get as far away as possible. Even if it isn't, we can't stay here, not where there's sickness."
The king swallowed. "Bury them?"
"No." Reynard shook his head. "No time." But his face clearly said, They're not worth it.
The king stood up. His cloak was lank around his ankles, and he looked like a forlorn child. "I want to bury them."
"Put them in their coach with their riches," Reynard said. "Out of the weather, safe from animals, and with all the worldly wealth they chose to bring with them. Gather some flowers and scatter them on their bodies, if it will make you feel better, but there's no time for anything else."
The king crouched down and started to pick the yellow flowers, his lips moving soundless as he did so. "Yes," he said. "I'll do that."
Reynard stalked away, and Thurstan was left alone with the king. He was suddenly unsure of how to look at him, but the king paused, holding a bunch of yellow flowers lightly to his chest. He smiled at Thurstan, and Thurstan smiled back, unable to hide his relief. The king was the king again. The strange mood that had fallen over him in the aftermath of the white light had gone, and Thurstan had his king back, and that, at least, was good.
It was long after midnight when Reynard relented and let them halt. They had seen no sign of pursuit and no trails left by any marching armies, but Reynard had insisted that they take precautions all the same. They had skirted the edge of the meadowland, taking a longer route through the hills to the west. "More concealed," Reynard had said. "And less predictable. Any of our normal routes may have been marked."
They stopped in a small cleft in the hillside, where pale roses shone in the moonlight, filling the night with their scent. The air was chilly, for summer was nearing its end. Even so, they did not light a fire.
Elias sat with his arms wrapped around his knees, and stared at the place where the fire would have been. He yearned for the flames with an intensity that surprised him. He was colder than the night warranted, and he wanted a fire to warm him, and a light to drive away the shadows that seemed to shamble towards him and pluck at his cloak. But he would still feel cold, even in the brightest day. There would still be dark corners in his soul, even if he stood on the surface of the sun.
Two men had died today, and he had been unable to save them. He had killed them both, and each fresh death brought the other ones back. They glided up to him like ghosts, touching him on the face, forcing him to look at their dead faces. Sophie was there, lost in a fire because he was too slow. Isembard, Reynard's son, whom he had pushed into a stream and forgotten. The girl on the scaffold in the city. All of them dead, and he might have saved them, had he tried harder, had he run faster, had he given a little more of himself.
But the deaths were not even the worst thing. Something had spoken to him in the dying man's voices. Something had touched him, gleeful and terrible. Something was coming, and it knew him. Like the animals that had attacked him in the storm, the dying men had been invaded and controlled by someone else, led to attack him without any thought of their own safety. It's going to come back, he had told Oliver, and now it had. It had come back, stronger than before, and it still wanted him.
Or maybe it really was that they merely remembered him from the scaffold. Maybe his picture was plastered on notices all over the duchy, so every last person knew the face of the man whose dark magic they believed was behind everything evil. Maybe he was just exhausted and hurting from the enchantment he had used, and everything else was only in his imagination.
He closed his eyes. He wanted someone he could talk to, someone to listen to his fears and tell him what to believe. But Oliver was far away, and he probably wouldn't have told him, anyway. He would have wanted to, but would have held back, afraid that he would break down and cry, and that Oliver would feel bound to stay with him until he felt better.
I wish you were here, master, he whispered. I need you. But Ciaran was gone, gone without a goodbye, gone and never looked back. His master was gone, and Elias had chosen it that way, chosen to be alone, chosen to make his own decisions, striving to be the best king he could, doing his duty in every way possible. His master was gone.
Elias was alone. There was no-one here he could talk to. He could see them now, dark shadows in the night. Reynard was staring at his sheathed sword, doubtless brooding about how it had shed his king's blood. Amalric was staring at Reynard, but too far away from him to be anything other than a stranger. Thurstan had scooped up a handful of earth and was trickling it through his fingers. Elias knew the boy was miserable, and that at least was something he could help.
He stood up and walked over to the boy. "I'm going for a walk," he said. "Do you want to come?"
Thurstan's head snapped up. "Me?"
He thought he was nobody, Elias knew, and far beneath his king's notice. He gave a rueful smile. How little he knows. "Yes, you, Thurstan," he said. "I would like some company. Would you do that for me?"
Thurstan scrambled to his feet. "Of course, my lord." Elias could see that he was beaming, pleased to think he was serving his king. And perhaps he is helping me, Elias thought, for he felt a little warmer for talking to someone, and the moonlight seemed a little brighter now he had made someone smile.
"I need to thank you," Elias said, as they began to walk. "You were willing to risk your life to save me, earlier. You showed great courage." He said it loud enough for Reynard and the others to hear, and for Thurstan to know that they had heard it. He even managed to keep his voice level when he spoke about people dying for him. With Thurstan, he had to be the sort of king a scared boy needed him to be. He could not let the mask slip.
"But you didn't need me at all." Thurstan tried to sound casual, but his true misery seeped through.
"Does it matter?" Elias asked. "You thought I needed you, and you acted. That's what important, not the outcome."
Thurstan swallowed. "What did you do?" he asked. "There was so much white light. Did you make the knife just... not be there."
"Did I unmake it?" Elias shook his head. "Not exactly. I suppose the effect was the same."
"Then you can unmake anything," Thurstan said eagerly. "Chains. Swords. The soldiers. Lord Darius."
Just wave my hand and all the bad things will go away. Wave my hand and stop Darius from existing, so perhaps I can sleep without dreaming of him. Elias smiled sadly. "It doesn't work like that, Thurstan. I can't unmake things, certainly not living things. But the knife was small, a dead thing that had never been alive. I just... burnt it away with enchantment. Dissolved it. Made it dust." It was a sad thing, he thought, that he could do such a thing with enchantment. He couldn't make things out of nothing, but he could destroy. It was so much easier to tear things down than to build them. It was easier to be wounded than to heal.
"It was amazing," Thurstan said. "I've never seen deep enchantment before. I wish I could do enchantment - illusion, I mean, like normal people do. I never could."
"Very few people can," Elias said. "They could once, but not now. It's dying."
Thurstan sighed. "Where shall we go, my lord?"
"Elias," he corrected, though he knew there was no point. Only a handful of the Kindred had been persuaded to call him by his real name, and Thurstan would never be one of them. They only saw their king, and Elias was forgotten. "I don't know," he said, shrugging. "Let's just walk and see what we can find."
He was very aware of Reynard watching them as he walked away. Nothing had been settled between them today. Neither of them had yielded, and they never would. If it was true, and something terrible was reaching its long arm over the world, then Elias would only have to give more and more of himself, and Reynard would have to fight him ever more. He could see no good ending.
Thurstan walked ahead of him, heading for a narrow sheep track that slanted up the side of the valley. Brambles and roses lined the path, and Thurstan played the gallant, holding them back for Elias to pass. Elias smiled his thanks, and knew it did Thurstan good to be able to do such simple a service. The tension about the boy's neck and shoulders was already easing a little.
"Is it safe to stand on the top?" Thurstan asked. "I want to see the view. I always loved the view from the mountains at night."
The mountains that had been his home. The home that would never be home again. "I think so," Elias answered. His hand brushed against a rose, and the petals fell like tears to the ground. "I'd like to see the view, too." But there had not been mountains in his home, just gentle green hills, so like this one. He and his master had walked there on summer evenings and watched the stars together, and those hills had smelled of roses, too.
"I always liked the stars," Thurstan said. "Nothing changes them."
"No." Elias paused, and looked more closely at the rose. The petals had fallen off, and the heart of the flower was brown and rotten. The whole branch was dying. He ran his hand along it and the thorns snagged on his skin, raising a flash of a vision in the moonlight, of a barren wilderness beneath a slate-grey sky, where the only plants were dead thorns, and the only remains of life were chunks of dead flesh caught on their barbs.
He exhaled, and the sound of his breath was like the wind sorrowing through the bones that inhabited that lifeless world. He crouched down and pressed his hand to the earth, but it, too, was dead. The grass was withered and brown, and the worms and ants and spiders that lived beneath the ground were already decaying.
Dead, he whispered. Dead, and he shivered, as a voice shrieked that same word in the lifeless plain of his vision. It was his own voice, for he was the only person left alive in the world. It had died beneath his touch. He had killed it. He had come to this land as a stranger from another world, and he was poison, like infection in an unsullied body. Death spread out from his every step, like mud billowing up in the marsh. He had killed so many people. He had brushed against a rose, and its beauty had crumbled. He had touched the ground, and now there was a single patch that would be forever dead, the exact size and shape of his hand.
He raised his hand slowly, twisting it in the moonlight, but there was no stain on it, and no blood. "My lord?" Thurstan croaked, and Elias realised that he was kneeling on the hillside, and that something in his mind was laughing. The barren plain had only been a vision, and not even a true one, he thought. It had been shown to him to torment him, to make him believe something that was not true.
"It's not me," he whispered. Perhaps the world was dying and one day would be nothing more than that bare wilderness, but he was not the one who was destroying it. He had caused some deaths, but he had saved lives, too, and he had healed things more often than he had destroyed. He had stayed in this world because he had sincerely believed that he could do good here, and he still believed that. He had to. "Not me," he said, again. "But I know you're there. I'll stop you. I swear it."
For the land was beautiful, and it was dying, and this, this small patch of dead earth the size and shape of Elias's hand, was the very start of it. More would come, he knew it. Perhaps he had known ever since the storm, and had known that the spring and summer were only one last flowering of beauty, to make its passing all the more dreadful.
But this is the beginning of the end, he thought. He ran his fingers along a blade of grass, and could almost feel the strength of the sap in its veins. He breathed in, smelling the roses, and looked up at the silver stars above him. There were shadows at the foot of the slope, and they were Reynard and the others, each one alive, each one oblivious to what had started on this night.
All this is passing. He wanted to fling open his arms and embrace the whole world, hugging close everything he could see. It was beautiful, and it was his world now, that he had given up everything for. It was full of pain and hatred, but it was full of people who loved, and gentle people who smiled at beauty. He would give anything to protect it, the world and everything in it.
"I'll stop you," he swore. "I'll learn to undo the damage you cause. I'll learn how to heal it. I won't let anything die." As he swore it, the laughter surged in his mind, then faded, leaving him alone on the hillside, his head falling forward.
"My lord?" Not alone, then, for Thurstan was there, shaking his shoulder, his voice high with fear. "What's the matter?"
"I'm fine, Thurstan." Elias took a deep breath, and opened his eyes. "Come on. Let's take a look at that view."