The Shroud of Dreams
He had been welcomed. There had been a doorway, and a man with white robes who guarded it, but had smiled to see Elias approach. The doorway was supposed to lead him to safety, to a place of enchantment where he could heal and rest. Instead, it had led to nothingness, just a place of everlasting greyness that swallowed even the sound of his own screams.
Even memory was fading, consumed by the grey. Before the old man there was... what? The smell of horseflesh filling his nostrils, clothes soaking wet, Reynard clinging to him from behind, branches scraping at his back... Hurting terribly, but knowing he could never show it, because he was a king, and kings couldn't do that, because then people like Reynard died trying to save you. Biting back screams of pain, but screaming inside instead, crying out with all the strength of his enchantment for someone who could help him, because he couldn't do it, not by himself.
And someone had heard. Someone. Perhaps more than one. Someone very far away had reached to him and called his name, but closer than that had been the old man and his doorway, shimmering into existence in response to his plea. The man was dead, but his power was real. Elias saw him, and he saw Elias, and smiled to see him, and seemed to know who he was.
Elias had plunged towards the doorway at the man's back, and the man had cried out a sharp word, and brought his hand up, but then Elias was through, and the man was gone. He had felt something tear, and white light exploded, so bright that Elias had closed his eyes.
It had been like this ever since he had opened them.
At first he had thought it was only a fog, but even the densest of fogs didn't steal your body, so you could see nothing at all, even if you held your hand right up to your face. Fog didn't steal your voice, so you could scream until your throat hurt, but not even a whisper came out. Fog didn't steal your sense of touch, so you had no idea where you were and where you were going, and whether you were there alone.
This was nothingness. It was the nothing that lay beyond the edge of creation, or before the start of time. It was the nothing that would take the place of life when the universe came to an end. It was nothingness, and yet, within it, he still lived.
For the thousandth time, he reached behind him, trying to feel if Reynard was still there. He felt nothing, nothing solid, no flesh that breathed and lived. With a silent moan, he snatched his hand back, hugging it close. Even the touch of his own hand on his chest was barely there at all. Whenever he reached out, it felt horrible, as if his hand was dissolving into the greyness, and he would draw it back to find only a stump of a wrist with faded edges.
He had stared so long at the greyness that his mind started to imagine movement within it. Sometimes he thought someone horrible was watching him, but they never came forward when he shouted. At those times, he knew he had to become part of the grey nothingness as soon as possible, because then he wouldn't exist, and the horrible thing wouldn't be able to get him if he wasn't there.
Other times he imagined that the greyness itself was moving. It was tentacles sliming up his arms to sink into his brain and suck out everything that made him who he was. It was a formless spirit that hated him for having a body and was slowly destroying him. It was oily and it choked him, and he clawed at his face and screamed at it, too, to get off him, to leave him along, to go now, please.
No-one heard. He had no idea if he was truly alone in here, or if the others had followed him through the door that they could not see, trusting in their king to lead them to safety. "Reynard!" he screamed, and reached for him again. It was stronger this time, the feeling that something was tugging at him, wanting him to draft away and become nothing. "Reynard!" He made no sound, of course. Perhaps his hand was clutching Reynard's, but neither of them felt it. They could be clinging together, but still think they were alone, because this place had stolen their sense of touch.
He snatched the hand back with a silent moan. He barely felt it at all, now. The pain of his shoulder was little more than a memory. He was a fading illusion. He was dust scattered on the wind. This wasn't dying, this was ceasing to exist. The greyness would claim him inevitably, and he would become part of it, nothing.
Perhaps he cried, but he felt no tears. Perhaps he screamed, but the greyness had forced a fist of death down his throat, that choked and gagged him. Perhaps he closed his eyes, but the nothingness had crept in under his eyelids, so even sleep would look the same. When he breathed, it filled his lungs like poison, dissolving him from the inside. There was nothing of him left.
"I should fight," he told himself. "Find the others and help them. Get out."
Time passed. He had no idea how long. "But I don't know how to," he said. He could fight a man. He could even fight Darius. But this was no living enemy. He had used enchantment and Shadow to try to roll back the darkness, but it had made no difference. There was no direction in this place, no distant light that promised a way out. Prison bars could be broken, but all there was here was nothing, and how could you fight nothing?
"So you might as well just take me," he murmured. If he had been standing in a real place, he would have spread his arms and slumped forward into the long grass, surrendering, but he no longer had any sense of possessing a body. He relaxed something in his mind, imagining himself sinking into a deep feather mattress.
And then there was nothing at all.
An insect was crawling over his face. Reynard swatted at it sleepily, and it flew away with a high-pitched buzzing. As it did so, he opened his eyes and sat up, awake in an instant, ready to face whatever enemies needed to be fought today.
He had fallen asleep all by himself in the middle of a wood, it seemed, and that worried him, for he had no memory of how it could have happened. The trees were pretty, rather than majestic, with branches slender enough to let the sun come dappling through. The grass was soft and surprisingly green, and a pair of delicate silver birches leant together and whispered their secrets to each other.
Reynard stood up, drawing his sword. The trees were slender, but enemies could still hide behind them. He didn't trust this place. He remembered fleeing from the citadel, and he remembered a blaze of white light, but there was nothing to connect the memory to the present. How had he got here?
Because he knew this place. He knew it better than anywhere. In his life, he had lived in dozens of different places in the forest. As a warrior, he memorised every detail of the forest around their camp, assessing it for threats and opportunities for defence. As they left each camp, though, he discarded the memories as irrelevant. Over the years, all the places he had lived blended into a vague mass summer trees and winter branches and hidden paths.
Only one place was different. There was only one season of his life that he could look back upon, and remember the sights and sounds that had accompanied it. This was a place he had not clearly pictured for years, but, now he was here, he knew it as intimately as ever. He knew how smooth the bark of that birch felt to the touch. He could walk over to that mossy stone and sit down on it, all with his eyes shut.
He became aware that he had assumed a fighting stance, but he did not relax it. This wasn't right. They had been in terrible danger, hundreds of miles away. Even if he had fallen unconscious, who would have carried him all this way, and then left him here all alone? There was no-one left who knew about this place.
But there was enchantment, he thought, as he raked the trees with his eyes, willing himself to see the enemy. They had been consumed by white fire, he and the king. Reynard knew a little enchantment, but he had never presumed to understand its vast mysteries. If the king could travel from another world, perhaps enchantment could carry a man hundreds of miles away across this one. Perhaps it could even whisk a man into his own past. Perhaps the king could do it, when pushed to his last extremity. Reynard knew there were few limits to what his king could do.
Grudgingly, he sheathed his sword, knowing that he could draw it in a second if he had to. It was more likely that friendly enchantment had transported him here, he had to admit, but he would never relax his guard. People who were lulled into thinking themselves safe often ended up dead.
He wanted to shout for the king, but he had to stay silent, at least until he had ensured that the area was safe. Had Thurstan ridden into the light, too? Reynard was good at reading the clues that indicated the presence of another person nearby, but everywhere he looked he sensed only emptiness. There was nothing here but trees and earth, and the silver stream that lay just out of sight.
The forest was more open by the stream, and therefore more dangerous, but he walked towards it nevertheless. The stream was so shallow it barely came above the ankles, and so clear that he could see every one of the coloured pebbles that made up its bed. Reeds lined the bank, topped with white flowers. As he watched, a dipper perched on a rock, and a kingfisher darted upstream.
Reynard shook his head. "It's not real," he said, aloud. It was just as he remembered it, but it was too perfect. No stream could ever be that clear. Why were the pebbles like jewels, when all the rocks in the forest were the same grey? Even the dipper was unafraid of him, and he had only once seen a kingfisher. It was a place that could exist in an idealised memory, but could never be real.
She would have believed it, of course. She would have pressed her hands to her breast and said how beautiful it was, like something from a story, "a magical place that mortals should never enter without realising how blessed they are."
The voice was real. With her flimsy white dress held up to her knees, she came tripping across the stream. Her hair was loose, and she was clutching a bunch of flowers in her left hand, every blossom different.
He should have felt surprise, but he realised that he had almost expected her. She was inextricably bound up with this place, and he had never stood on the banks of this stream without her beside him. Even so, he touched the hilt of his sword. "You."
"Isn't it beautiful?" Her face was radiant as she twirled round in a circle, but as she did so some of the flowers slipped from her grip and scattered on the water. She gasped as if she had been struck. "Oh, help me, Reynard. I can't bear to think of them drowning." She made her own fluttering attempts to catch them, but only managed to ensnare one.
Before he had realised what he was doing, Reynard was in the water beside her. The current was so slight that he managed to retrieve all the flowers in seconds. As he handed them back to her, their fingers brushed.
"Oh, thank you," she said, as tremulous and earnest as if he had saved her life. "Can I lean on your arm until we reach the shore? The stones hurt my feet."
He let her take his arm, and she clung to him as if they were climbing a mountain. When she stumbled, he caught her, and their bodies fitted together just as they had always done, like two halves of one whole. Trembling, he let her go, but everywhere she had touched was tingling and alive.
"You're so good to me, Reynard," she gushed, when she was out of the water. "Help me dry my feet?" She sat down and stretched her legs out. The dress was wet up to the thighs, but it clung to her body even where it was dry. It was a floaty material, almost transparent.
Reynard knelt down and gently wiped her feet on his cloak. "Why are you here?"
She blinked her long lashes. "Because I missed you. I'm so sorry for what I did. I want you back." She shivered. "I'm cold. Can I have your cloak?"
Reynard remained kneeling, but made no move to remove his cloak. She had always been so helpless, like a spirit of the air bewildered by life on the lumpen ground. He had been utterly captivated from their very first meeting, wanting to hold her close and protect her from the whole world. She had been like a child in many ways, completely unspoiled by life, but with a woman's body and a beautiful face. Of all the people she could have chosen to be her protector, she had chosen Reynard, and she had seemed to love him very much.
He had courted her here, and won her. Here she had coaxed smiles from him that no-one else had ever seen. She had made him see things in new ways, and take pleasure in things he had never thought worthy of notice. She had found a whole new side to him that he had never dreamed existed, and which he showed to no-one but her. She had taken his life, and made it seem good. She had never stopped telling him how strong he was, how brave, how wonderful. Just hearing her say it had made it seem true, and he had walked through the camp as if he was a hundred feet tall.
"Please, Reynard." She wrapped her arms around her body, the flowers scattering on her lap. "Please don't be cruel. You have to forgive me."
"I haven't missed you," he told her. "You weakened me. I have a duty to my people, and that means I should have no ties. Love can turn a man into a slave. You were a tempter, leading me from my path, but I'm never making that mistake again."
"Poor Reynard," she said, "trying to be brave. I know you've missed me terribly. When I left, you went back to the way you had been before you met me, but it was worse this time because you had seen how different it could be. You had nothing left, only your skills as a fighter. So you made that into everything, and you drove your people hard, and you told yourself it didn't even matter that they didn't like you much. Because they don't. They might respect your skills, but they don't like you."
"The king likes me," Reynard blurted out. "He saved my life."
"He'd save anyone," she said, looking at him pityingly. "Even an enemy. It doesn't mean anything. It's not because he likes you."
Reynard moistened his lips. It was true, but... "He likes me," he declared. "The way he looked at me... He saved me because I was me." He grinned, and said it again. "Because I was me. Not because of the things I can do, but because of who I am."
She shrugged, as if it meant nothing. "But I loved you. I chose you. I'd love you even if you failed. I'd love you even if the Kindred fell, and it was your fault."
He had to look away from her before he could speak. "But you shouldn't. No-one should love like that, least of all Kindred. Duty does come first. If I discovered that only after you left, it's something I should have discovered earlier. When you left, it just removed… distractions. It left me free to live as a Kindred warrior ought to live."
"Without love?" He could hear the tears trembling in her voice. "Oh, Reynard, don't tell me you haven't missed it. And you can have it again. Stay here with me. Hand your sword to someone else. You've done enough, and deserve your reward. Love will be the air that we breathe, and wild berries our only food. Nothing from the world outside will trouble us."
He looked at her, then looked away, gazing at the glittering silver on the surface of the water. "You always spoke like that, as if you were in one of Oliver's stories, not real life. Is that why you went with Gerhard, because it seemed more romantic to have a forbidden passion than to stay with the husband who had always given you everything you wanted? You had my child," he accused, "and never even told me."
"Thurstan?" She sighed. "I should have told you, but I… I wanted you to come and beg for me back. I knew I'd made a mistake, leaving with Gerhard. He… I think he cast a spell over me, to make me love him. I was ashamed to come crawling back to you with my tail between my legs, in case you hated me, but I never stopped loving you. I wanted us to be a happy family together, just the three of us."
The sun went behind a cloud, and the warmth disappeared entirely. "You let another man bring up my child."
"I'm sorry," she sobbed. He heard her stand up, and then she was tugging at his clothes, trying to make him turn round. "Please, Reynard. Thurstan can come here, if you want him to. He can share in our paradise. It will be just the three of us, bound together by love."
He was tempted for the merest instant. "It doesn't work like that. I can't turn my back on responsibility. The world will carry on, and there are terrible things happening in it. Even if my role is small, it matters. I've sworn to keep my king safe, and I want to do it. I've made mistakes, but I'm proud of the things I've done. It's good work, and it… Yes, it makes me happy."
She closed her eyes. "Then you don't care about me at all. It was all lies."
"No." He shook his head, suddenly weary of all this. "I loved you, you left me, and I got on with my life and found something even more important than love. And, besides, you're dead. You aren't real."
"How can you say that?" she wailed. "I'm here, just as you see me."
"No, you're not. You look like you did when I first met you, but you're talking about things that happened years later."
"But I'm still real," she sobbed. "Does it matter how I came to be here? All that matters is that you can live with me, and I'll love you forever. And does it matter if I'm dead? The dead can come back. Elias sees them all the time."
He lashed out at her, first smashing her away from him, then dragging her close. "How do you know about Elias?"
Her lip trembled. "I don't… It doesn't matter."
"Who are you?" Reynard bellowed. "What’s your real face? Who is your master?" he screamed, shaking her so her head snapped to and fro on her neck.
"Please let me go," she wept. "You're hurting me. I'm only me. No-one sent me."
"I don't believe you," he spat. "You're an enemy who can change his shape. You try to tempt people to stray from their course, and I should kill you now, except that I want answers first. Where am I really? Who sent you? Where is the king?"
"I don't know any of that." Tears were pouring down her face, and he had to look away, the instinct to comfort her was so strong. She had cried in his arms more times than he could count, and he had always wiped away her tears, then gone to make the person who had caused them pay.
"You…" He stopped abruptly. They had been on the riverbank, downstream of Eidengard, when enchantment had enfolded them. For the first time, he thought about the significance of where they had been. There was something Oliver used to talk about…
He let her go, pushing her away without really caring. "You're an illusion, aren't you? You've been put together from my memories and my…" He passed his hand across his brow. "But no enemy made you. You don't really exist. You came, because I... No! It's not true! You couldn't come from my mind, because I don't think about you ever. All I know is that you are going away now. I don't believe in you, and you have no power over me. I reject everything you offer me. Go away."
He closed his eyes. When he opened them again, she was gone. It was then, and only then, that he spoke her name aloud, his hand twitching just once towards the place where he had last seen her, and his lips shaping the name, "Beatrice."
Before there was anything else, there was sound. Elias thought it was breathing at first, and he liked it, because he had never before woken up to find someone else so close to him, watching over him as he slept, keeping him safe. Then he knew that it was the sound of the sea, the gentlest of waves breaking on the soft sand, then withdrawing so shiveringly.
For a long time after that, nothing happened. He felt nothing, neither pain, nor the touch of the ground beneath him. He made no effort to open his eyes. He didn't question where he was, or how he had got there. He floated on nothingness as if it was water, and listened to the sound of the sea.
After a long while, he started to feel warm. The sun was shining on his face, he realised. He brought his hand up to his cheek, and it was marvellous just to be able to feel again, to know that he had a body, and he was real.
He opened his eyes, and saw blue sky dappled with perfect clouds. He reached and felt sun-warmed sand, that ran through his fingers as smooth as silk. But when he moved the other hand, pain impaled him like a spear. The feeling of lethargic contentment was ripped away. There were patches of sticky dampness in the sand, and he knew it was his own blood.
He struggled to sit up, but he had to hold his arm too awkwardly to be comfortable, and his head swam. There was the slope of a dune behind him, but it was too shallow to lean against. With a moan, he lay back down, curling loosely onto his side with his wounded shoulder uppermost.
"How did I get here?" he wondered. He remembered the doorway, and the smiling man who guarded it. He remembered the terror of the grey nothingness, but only faintly, as if it dissolved even memory. He remembered sinking into it and thinking that this was it, this was the end. And now he was here, but still alone.
Blinking back tears of pain, he stood up, lurched on the insubstantial sand. "Reynard!" he called. "Thurstan! Amalric!" No use shouting for the others, for the others were all dead. "Reynard!" he screamed, but there was no-one there. The empty sands stretched far away, pitted only by the wind and the waves, but never by footprints.
He took one faltering step, and suddenly thought he knew where he was. He took another, and was sure. This was his Garden! This was his special place in the Shadow, which he had seen in visions and walked in dreams, but it was a real place, and somehow he was there. Sand trickled off his boots, and his blood dripped onto the pale beach, and they were real. He could smell the salt from the sea, and see the shadows cast by the dune grass, and they were real.
How had it happened? The Brotherhood had often wondered why each Brother had a different Garden, and what their special place meant. Maybe, Elias thought, he knew the answer now. A Brother's Garden was the place where he was going to die. Right at the start of his life, a Brother was shown the ending of it, to prevent death from being a thing to fear. At the end of every Brother's life, he found himself in his Garden, and, even though he was dying, he smiled to see it, and felt that he was coming home.
So maybe he was alone, after all. If this was true, then the door had been meant only for him. The smiling man who had welcomed him had been his own personal gatekeeper, showing him the way to his death. No-one else had seen the door, because they were still bound to life. In the world of the living, his body had slumped over the horse's neck, but his spirit had passed through the door to this place beyond.
But I don't feel dead. He took a few more shambling steps. He had been hurt badly, but surely not enough to kill him so quickly. And the man had seemed surprised to see him, and... He closed his eyes as the truth suddenly struck him. The man hadn't welcomed him at all. He had been pleased to see him, but the moment Elias had headed for the door, he had raised his hand in horrified prohibition. He had been guarding the door, and the task was important enough that he had stayed there after his death, refusing to abandon his post. It had to be because the place through the door was so terrible that no-one should ever be allowed to wander through, not just for as long as he lived, but for as long as there were men in the world.
"And I ignored him. I just blundered through," he said aloud. He had felt something tear as he was ridden through the door, but he had thought nothing of it. "He tried to warn me." But Elias had been so hurt and so desperate for a refuge that none of it had mattered, and now he was here, and the door was gone.
"Of course," the sea whispered. Above him, the white clouds were now tinted grey. "You never listen to anyone. You chose this, just like you always do, so you can't complain. Your own choices always turn back on you and destroy you. Just think what happened with Ciaran."
"Ciaran," he moaned.
"And now you're going to die here," it said. "There's no way out for you. See where your desires lead you."
"Desires," he whispered. Something whimpered inside him and curled up very small, shielding its head with its arms.
The white tower was somewhere ahead. Perhaps there would be safety there. Perhaps that was his goal, and this was just a test, to see if he could reach it. There was a door in the tower, and doors led to other places, and sometimes to happiness and safety. Doors could be opened and stepped through and... and...
"Ciaran." He stumbled, falling heavily onto the sand. Tears of pain dimmed his eyes. "Ciaran." The small thing inside him curled tighter, but could not hide. It knew the truth. It knew that Elias had ridden so joyfully for the door, because he knew that doors sometimes led back to his own world, to a world that Ciaran lived in. Doors opened up in Ciaran's living room, just in front of the cosy fire, where a master would say, "Oh, you poor thing," and tuck you up in bed, and bandage your wounds, and guard you while you slept, and send away all the monsters who wanted to tell you that you needed to save the world.
He pushed himself up onto his knees and stared beyond the dunes until black specks swam across his vision. It was brighter at the top of the dunes, and he knew the reason. The door of the tower was wide open, and the white light had spilled all over the beach. It was a place of power, but he was still outside it, on a part of the beach where sand was ordinary and the clouds were grey.
"I have to get there," he told himself. No use dreaming of Ciaran. The only person who could save him was Elias himself. He had to stand. He had to keep on walking. He had to drag himself step by step until he reached that shining place. Perhaps there was safety there, and perhaps there wasn't, but he had to try. He could never give up. Too many people depended on him being strong.
He took a step, then another. Grass tangled about his feet, and sand slithered away, making every step up the dune an enormous effort. Whenever sand gave way beneath his feet, his shoulder screamed with pain. "Have to keep going," he told himself, but, "Master," he pleaded. I can't do this by myself. Please come and look after me, or talk to me just once before I die, or walk beside me for a minute just so I know I'm not alone. Just come. Please, master, just come.
Half way up the dune, just on the edge of the white-touched sand, he fell and rolled to the bottom. Scarlet sheeted across his vision, and he fainted.
Without really waking up, Ciaran scratched an itch on the side of his neck. With a sleepy moan, he rolled onto his side and tried to sleep again, but the itch followed him, moving to his cheek and his hand.
Half-opening his eyes, he saw that it was light. Time to get up, he thought. Time to face his master's look of understanding, and be reminded that he had no secrets from that man, and nowhere to hide. Time to venture out of the small room and see disapproval and salacious interest in the faces of everyone who passed. Time to face the ruins of his life. Time to plan for a future that yawned ahead of him without hope.
He moaned, reaching for the blankets to pull them over his head and shut out the light that spoke of all these things. Instead he found grass, and the smell of flowers.
Ciaran opened his eyes and sat up with a start. He was in a vast meadow, where the grass was thick and green, and flowers of every colour trembled in the breeze. The sky was blue, and the sun was shining brightly. It's my Garden, he realised, when he had stood up and turned every way around.
No, he thought, as he started to walk through the flowers. I can't be here. It's a dream. He reached out with his left hand and trickled it over the tips of the blades of grass. A pink flower caught between his middle fingers and was beheaded, delicate petals falling into his palm, and then bleeding onto the ground.
Dreams always felt perfectly real when you were in them. It was only when you woke up that you suddenly realised that you were alive all along, living a very different life. "How do we know that this life is real?" Elias had once asked him. "What if the dreams are real, and this life is the thing that's a dream? How would we know?" Ciaran had only chuckled at the boy's strange imagination, but the question must have affected him more than he had ever realised, for him to remember it after so many years, and to suddenly wonder.
He turned round sharply, looking for confirmation that this wasn't real, but everything was as it should be. A line of crushed grass showed the path he had been walking, and he could see the place where he had woken up. He was wearing a crumpled cloak, and had no staff, just as he would be if he had bodily stepped from his master's room. But surely he would never dream himself without his staff.
Ciaran walked on, and hours seemed to pass. With every step, the exact speckling of flowers beside him was subtly different, yet almost exactly the same. He had no idea where he was going, except that, once again, he was walking away from the mountain. He had never seen what lay beyond the edge of the meadow, if indeed the meadow had an edge. Perhaps it went on forever, just an endless expanse of grass and flowers, and not a single other living thing.
I'm here alone, he thought. All by myself, in my own special place, my kingdom. It seemed like such a sad thought. Alone meant that no-one could hurt him. Alone meant that no-one would laugh at him about what had happened in the night. In his own world, he could be anything he wanted, and no-one would disagree. But, alone, there was nobody to talk to. There was nobody to sit next to when it got dark. There was nobody to live for. There was nobody to love you and need you always.
He walked a little faster. Maybe there was someone here after all, crouching in the tall grass. Maybe the meadow sloped away from him, and soon he would come to the edge of a hill, and see a village beneath him, full of people. Because I get lonely when I'm by myself, he admitted. He threw back his head and shouted it defiantly, because Brothers liked to believe that dreams taught lessons, and he would show them all that he could learn them, at least in dreams, where such admissions didn't matter. "I need people around me!"
Nothing changed. The meadow was real in sight and sound and smell, and did not fade away to reveal his master's room. He started to feel cold despite the sunshine. There were thin pink lines on the back of his hand, where the grass had scratched him, and his feet were aching. He remembered no such detail from other dreams.
He stopped walking. "Is anybody here?" he shouted. "Can anybody hear me?"
No-one replied. He strained to listen, but all he heard was the faint whisper of the breeze in the grasses. There was nobody. He was alone.
His master had spent several years in solitary reflection before realising that he preferred to live with people. Perhaps he had arranged a vision for Ciaran, a test to force him to realise the same thing. If so, it had worked. He knew he would rather be back in the Basilica, with everyone staring at him, that here.
Alone, he walked through the identical blades of grass. "Most of all, I wish Elias was here," he admitted. It wasn't the needy child he wanted, who would tag along behind him and look up to him as a hero, but the Elias he had walked with at the Kindred's winter festival. It was an Elias he had only caught glimpses of, and an Elias he himself had often crushed. It was an Elias he could have got to know years ago, but he had lost his chance, and now he never would know him.
He knelt down in the grass, exhausted and parched, and let his head fall forward. He let out a long breath, then caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of his eye. His head snapped up, and he cried out, "Elias!"
Elias said nothing. He was stalking towards Ciaran through the grass, and his eyes never once left his master's face, but he gave no greeting.
Ciaran stood up, and made no secret of his joy, for this was a dream, and it didn't matter how you acted. "Elias!" he cried.
Elias stopped walking ten paces from Ciaran. "Why have you come back?" Now he was here, he no longer looked at Ciaran, but at a spot just next to him. "I don't need you any more. See what I've made of myself now I've finally broken free of you."
"What...?" Ciaran swallowed. "What's happened to you?"
Elias was wearing a robe of gold and crimson, and a cloak of tawny fur. His hair was combed back from his high brow, and crowned with a golden circlet. His voice was imperious, and his eyes were glittering chips of pale blue ice. He was beautiful, and he chilled Ciaran to the bone.
"I have become what I could have been long ago," Elias replied. He glanced at Ciaran as he might look at a worm beneath his feet. "I have saved the world and restored the Kindred to power, and now I rule in Eidengard, loved by all the world. I have powers that you can only dream of."
Elias was mesmerising. He was taller than Ciaran's apprentice had ever been, and he seemed to glow with an inner light. People were helpless against that light. They were drawn to it like a moth to a flame, and then they couldn't escape. They were enslaved by love, forced to live the rest of their life with all their own abilities eclipsed by this wondrous being. Elias made everyone into nobodies.
"You are not asking the thing you want to ask," Elias said, in the low voice of a tempter. "Go on, master. Ask me. No? Well, let me answer you anyway. No, I do not miss you. No, you taught me nothing. I am greater than you will ever be. I have grown wings, and you remain stuck on the ground, unable to lift your eyes above the dirt."
Ciaran let out an anguished cry. "Elias!" It hurt as badly as Gideon's betrayal. "Why are you saying this?"
"Because it is true." Elias gave a beatific smile, and Ciaran only longed for him all the more, although he was so cruel. "Goodbye, Ciaran. I will never think of you again."
Elias turned his back and walked away, leaving a wake of withered grass. Where there had once been flowers of many colours, the only thing that bloomed where he had been standing were poppies, as red as blood. "Elias!" Ciaran plunged forward, and all the red petals fell to the barren ground like drops of blood. "Come back!" he begged, but Elias disappeared, simply walking into nothingness. He had gone. Ciaran would never see him again.
Once, he might have taken refuge in anger and screamed to Elias to just go, and see if he cared. Tomorrow, maybe, he would do the same. But he was still raw from remembering Gideon, and from his breakdown in front of Grand master Jerome. Falling to his knees, he pressed his fist to his brow, and let out a cry. Almost like an echo of that sound, he heard a scream of terror.
"Who's there?" He was on his feet in an instant. "Who is it?"
The scream came again, and he raced towards it. He had almost tripped over the man before he saw him, he was curled so low in the long grass. There was no trail of crushed grass leading to the place he was cowering in terror. It was as if he had just been dropped there, or just woken up, like Ciaran had, with no footprints anywhere around him to show how he had got there.
Ciaran dropped to the ground beside him. "What is it? What's the matter?"
The man wriggled back a few more inches, then stopped, as if his back was pressed against a wall. He tried to bring both hands up to his face, but Ciaran was holding one of them by the wrist. "Please," he begged. "Please, no. Please."
"I'm not going to hurt you," Ciaran told him, stressing each word. "There's nothing here that can hurt you. Look! There's only grass and flowers. Nothing else."
"Please." The man was staring past Ciaran. He was dressed like the soldiers who had arrested Elias in Eidengard, Ciaran realised. "Please don't hurt me. Please let me go. I'll do anything, just don't hurt me."
His face looked inhuman in its terror, and Ciaran could smell the stench of urine. "Calm down," he urged him. When the grip on his wrist failed to stop him, he gripped the man's chin, trying to drag his head round and force him to look into Ciaran's eyes and see the truth.
As soon as he touched his face, Ciaran saw what the man saw. A man was bending over the terrified soldier, a thin smile on his face. He was dressed entirely in black, even to the weapon that hung at his side, which was as black as a bottomless pool and could steal the souls of anyone who looked too long at it. His hair was pale gold, combed back from his handsome face. Instead of nails, he had silver talons.
It was Elias, Ciaran realised, though an Elias reflected in a dark mirror, changed almost beyond recognition. It was Elias as he might have been painted from memory by an artist in Eidengard, who had seen him only once, and feared him. It's not really him, Ciaran thought, and knew it to be truth beyond doubt.
"No!" The man was still screaming. "No, please, don't kill me. No, kill me, but don't curse me. Please don't."
The false picture of Elias leant over him and sank one talon into his chest with excruciating slowness. "I will kill you," he hissed, "and I will curse you. I bind your soul to mine for all eternity, and seal it with my dark sorcery."
"He's not real," Ciaran tried to tell the man. "See." He passed his hand right through the image of Elias, and felt nothing there at all. When he stared at him, he could see grass and flowers through his body. He was only an illusion, and illusions couldn't harm anyone.
The man gave a gurgling scream, and blood trickled from the side of his mouth. Ciaran heard the crack as his ribs were torn apart, and heard the sickening sound of his heart being ripped out, to be crushed in Elias's taloned hands. Then, as the man died, the image of Elias disappeared, like a candle blown out by the wind.
Ciaran touched the man's neck, but there was no pulse. "Dead," he said aloud, rocking back onto his heels. Dead, but the wounds Ciaran had seen inflicted were no longer there. There was no blood, and the chest was unmarked. The man was dead, but Elias had only been an illusion, and the wounds that had killed him had gone.
Frowning, Ciaran stood up. If the man had been a soldier of Eidengard, then he would probably fear Elias very much, and hate him, too. His worst nightmare was probably exactly what Ciaran had just seen enacted. It had seemed entirely real to him, but Ciaran knew it had been nothing more than illusion.
Was the Elias he had seen an illusion, too? Ciaran had already admitted to his master that Elias could never be corrupted by power. Elias would never have acted so cruelly to his old master. When he was unreasonable in his anger, Ciaran might believe it; when he was sad or unguarded or missing him, Ciaran might fear it. Deep down, though, he knew that it could not be true.
"What is this place?" he wondered. It was a long time, he realised, since he had thought of it as a dream. "How did I get here?"
The wind rose suddenly, and he felt a sudden twinge in his head. "Elias," he breathed, without knowing why. The wind blew again, parting the grass, and he began to hear the distant sound of the sea. He started to run, and with every step the grass grew thinner, until he was running through thick sand, specked with clumps of thick dune grass. He could see the waves now, breaking upon a beach where there were still flowers and a green meadow, painted on a veil held up against the sand.
And there, crumpled at the base of the dunes at the far end of the beach, was a dark figure that he knew without a doubt was Elias.
"Well, Elias." His master shook his head. "What's the matter now?"
Elias licked his lips. "Hurt." This couldn't be happening, he thought. Ciaran, back again! He had woken to find him standing over him, and now he was terrified to blink in case it stopped being true.
"Still pathetic, I see," his master said. He studied the back of his hand, curling his fingers so he could examine the nails. "Tell me what hurts," he yawned, "so I can make it better."
"I was shot," Elias choked out. "And people died, who trusted me. And they were hunting us. And then I was all by myself, and it hurts so much. I just... I just wanted you. I didn't think I could go on."
"Of course." Ciaran put his hands on his hips. "Just the same as ever. When will you grow up, Elias? How often do I have to tell you the truth? You are not fit to be a Brother, let alone a king. A Brother has to stand on his own two feet. He can't be a muling child, who sobs for someone else whenever things go wrong."
Elias dug his fingers into the sand. "I don't," he began, but Ciaran threw back his head and laughed. "I don't," he persisted, though he doubted Ciaran could hear it through his laughter. "Maybe I used to, but not now. I only cried for you because I hurt so much. Haven't you ever been so hurt or afraid that you needed someone's help?"
"Of course not." Ciaran had heard the last bit, at least. "I'm strong. I stand by myself and need nobody. That's what makes a proper man. That's what makes a hero."
Elias was sprawled in the sand at his master's feet. Part of him wanted to grab his master's legs and cling to them and beg him never to go away again, but part of him wanted to push himself to his feet and fight. Ciaran had always been beyond reproach, his every word true and his every opinion fact. Had nine months changed things so much? He wanted to weep and ask Ciaran why he was saying such cruel things, but he knew that the answer was, "because he's wrong."
Ciaran warmed to his theme, and started pacing in a circle round Elias's fallen body. "You're a king now, Elias. You chose to accept the ridiculous claims the Kindred made upon you. I, of course, opposed at every turn. I knew what sort of a boy I'd raised, and knew he was no king. I knew you couldn't be your own master, let alone rule a whole people, and I was right."
"No you're not," Elias whispered into the sand. It stuck to his lips and soaked up his saliva, and it could choke him, too.
"What have you given them?" Ciaran demanded, jabbing a finger into Elias's chest. "You've moped around for nine months, wishing you'd never sent me away. Then, when you finally decide to do something, what happens? You lead your men into disaster, and then you desert them, because a glittering door comes along and you think it might lead you to me. Then, when you were in that grey place and thought the others might be there too, needing you to fight for them, what did you do? You surrendered. You gave in."
Elias opened his mouth to the sand again, letting in a little more this time. "I did."
"So you deserve whatever you get," Ciaran jeered. "Snivelling into the sand while you bleed from a wound you never once tried to heal? It's a fitting end for someone who promised so much to the Kindred, and has given them nothing." He jabbed a foot into Elias's side. "Don't you deserve it?"
"Yes," Elias whispered, but then he rolled onto his back, and looked at the sky. "No," he mouthed. He had made mistakes, but he had done some good, too. People lived who would otherwise have died, and all because of him. For months he had doubted it, but suddenly he realised the truth, and believed it, just because someone else had spoken his doubts aloud. Wallowing in guilt did nothing to help people who might still be in danger. Just because he had failed once didn't mean that he would always fail. If he accepted death as a punishment, millions might die.
"You're a child playing at being grown-up," his master pronounced. "You're going into the wilderness with a rope in your hand, so you can always find the way home. To be truly strong, you have to let go of that rope. To truly be a king worthy of the Kindred, you have to forget me."
"Not forget," Elias moaned. "Never forget."
Ciaran towered over him, his face featureless against the sun. "You must never accept help from anyone. All you have is you, and that's how it should be. You're the solitary oak tree who stands through centuries, while the lesser trees that flock together in forests fall. Everyone depends on you, but you depend on no-one, and that's how it should be."
Elias managed to sit up. "But it isn't." His voice sounded too plaintive, made hoarse by the tears of bewildered betrayal that he had been unable to stop shedding. "There's nothing wrong with needing someone, once in a while. Everyone needs someone to lean on, sometimes. I... I always thought it was wrong. When I was little, I needed you so badly, and I know you liked the fact that I needed you, but you were always so... so set apart. You acted as if you needed no-one, and despised me for not being like you. So I was always ashamed of how I felt. I thought I was nothing, just because I loved you. That's the lesson you taught me. That's the lesson that has nearly destroyed me."
"Then you cast off my teachings?" his master bellowed. He lashed out and slapped Elias across the face, so his neck snapped round and his shoulder blazed in agony. "You think it's good to be weak? Can you really sit there and betray me to my face like this?"
Elias swallowed hard, blinking to clear his vision. "I don't mean to betray you, master. But I can't apologise for needing a little help. I've done so for half my life, but I won't do it any more." He raised his head. "I'm sorry I called you here against your will, but I'm not sorry for wishing you were here. I'm going to try to get out of here and to find the others, and I'll do it all by myself, but I will wish that someone else was with me to help me walk, and nothing will change that."
"Fine words," Ciaran scoffed. "A long speech for a dying boy." He backhanded Elias across the face again, sending him crashing to the ground. "There you are, back in the dirt where you belong." He spat into Elias's face. "That's what I think of you. To think that I raised such a worthless wretch!" He turned his back and began to walk away. "I hope I never see you again. I can promise you that I'll never think of you again, except to curse you."
His cloak stirred up the sand, and his footprints were heavy. Elias stared after him. "Master," he whispered. Ciaran crested the dune and was gone. "Master," he sobbed.
"I'm here," Ciaran's voice crooned beside him.
Elias tried to turn his head. "But..."
"Hush," his master soothed him. "That wasn't really me. Would I ever be so cruel to my own apprentice? It was a trick, an illusion made by your enemies." He held Elias's face with gentle firmness, preventing Elias from turning to look at him. "But I'm here now. I'll take care of you."
Elias's lips moved. "Master," was all he could say.
He was raised and pressed against a warm chest, where the heartbeat was steady and reassuring. "My poor Elias," Ciaran crooned. "You're badly hurt, aren't you? You've had a terrible time. But it's all over now. You don't need to do anything but relax. Master's here now. He'll take care of everything."
"But..." he started to say, but once again his master stopped him, pressing a finger to his mouth to physically hold back the words.
"I don't want to hear any of your silliness," his master said. "You said it yourself just now. You said there was no shame in accepting that there are some things you cannot do, and that you need to depend on someone else." Ciaran hugged him tighter, tight enough to hurt. "And that's me. I'm come back for you. You don't need to worry about a thing."
It felt so warm beneath the sun, where the other Ciaran had made it seem like bitter cold. How Elias had missed this man! He snuggled closer into his embrace. "I called for you," he admitted. "I was so lonely, and it hurt so much. I called, and now you're here. Did you hear me? Is that why you came to rescue me?"
"Of course I heard you, silly." Ciaran ruffled his hair. "I was listening. I've been listening for nine months, waiting for the moment you realised how wrong you were to send me away, and called me back. I couldn't rest." He released Elias with a light laugh. "But let's not talk about those dark days. There's never any point in talking about bad things that happened in the past."
"You really wanted to come back?" Elias asked him.
"Of course I did." His master enfolded him, and nothing bad could reach in past those arms, not now. "I missed you. Why ever did you think I wanted to go home without you? My place is with you. I'm your master, Elias. Who else can protect you like I can? You were wrong to think you could do it without me."
"I missed you," Elias murmured. But the tower was still there, and Ciaran knew nothing of enchantment so would be unable to understand its mysteries. Only Elias could wield the power that the Kindred said could save the world. There were some things that only Elias could do, and they would never get done at all, if he just reclined into his master's arms and let him take control.
His hair was stroked, and a small scar he had forgotten about was found and fussed over. Then his master gently probed the wound on his shoulder, and his merest touch soothed the pain. Contentment surrounded Elias like lapping water. Relax, it whispered. Forget all that. This is what you've longed for ever since he left. You're safe now. He'll never let anything hurt you again. He'll take all the decisions, so you never need to feel guilty again.
"Lie still," Ciaran told him, in a honeyed voice that brooked no argument. "You're all covered with dirt and blood, and you know how I hate looking at blood. I'm going to carry you to the sea and clean you up, Elias. It might hurt a bit, but it's for the best. You know I'll never do anything that really harms you."
How had Ciaran appeared, simply in response to Elias wishing he was here? Elias frowned. Had other people slipped in at the same time, in response to stray thoughts? And what about Reynard and the others, who might still be lost somewhere beyond the top of the dunes, or still outside on the riverbank, cornered by soldiers who wanted them dead? "No," he protested. "There are more important things to do first."
"You're worried about the others?" Ciaran asked. "Tell me where they are, and I'll go and find them, after I've taken care of you. You don't need to worry about a thing."
Elias tried to pull away from his embrace. The clouds above him were almost entirely grey now, and the white light that seeped from the top of the dunes was hectic and too bright. "Something's going to happen," he gasped.
Ciaran pushed him flat onto his back, then scooped his hands beneath his body, picking him up as if he was no weight at all. "Then it's no concern of yours. All you need to do is let yourself be taken care of."
But I don't want this! Elias cried. Alone in the dunes, he had cried for help, but not like this. He needed an arm beneath his elbow, helping him to walk. He needed someone who would fight with him, but who would still let him do the things that only he could do.
He started struggling in earnest, but Ciaran was immensely strong, crushing him painfully to his chest. With Elias in his arms, he strode the short distance to the edge of the sea, where he crouched down, lowering Elias so the waves broke over his body. The wind was rising, and the waves were growing. One lapped onto his face and trickled into the corner of his mouth. It tasted very salty.
"I'm here," Ciaran said, as he started to wash Elias with water from his cupped hands. "I'm not letting you go. I'm going to keep you safe forever. You know you want it. I'm your master, and this is what I do. I'm here to look after you, and you're here to relax and not worry about a thing. That's how it's always been." His face darkened. "Are you going to reject me, when all this is for your own good?"
"No," Elias sobbed, but the water rushed in and filled his mouth. Ciaran was pushing him further into the sea, or the tide was rushing in, for every wave now broke upon his face. "Please stop. I don't want this. Not like this. I've got to go."
"Your own good," Ciaran thundered. "See how well I take care of you? Your face is lovely and clean now, no blood at all. But I think your hair needs some more cleaning."
Elias kicked his legs, but Ciaran held then down with his body. He tried to claw at Ciaran's shoulders, but he only had one arm, and Ciaran held the wrist with an unbreakable grip. He tried to use enchantment, but it only seemed to make Ciaran stronger. He fought with everything he had, but nothing worked, so all he could do was beg. "Please. Please stop."
"There," Ciaran crooned, pushing Elias's face under the water. "You'll soon stop fighting what's good for you. Everything will be as it should be, like it was when you were nine. I'm saving you, Elias. That's what I'm there for. Why were you so stupid as to think you could live without me?"
"No!" Elias screamed, but it was too late. Water surged into his lungs, and blackness followed it.
When Elias stopped struggling, the paralysis broke. "Get away from him!" Ciaran commanded, but the man who wore his face had already started to walk away, his act of violence done. Ciaran started to hurry to Elias's side, then faltered, for the sea was no longer there, and Elias was lying safely in the meadow, and not in any danger.
He made his decision, and turned away from Elias. "Come back and explain yourself!" he commanded. "How dare you take my face? How dare you hurt him, and make him think it was me?"
The grass was still, rippling only slightly as the wind brushed across it. There was no man, and no sign of anywhere that he had walked. He had probably just been an illusion, Ciaran realised, so he turned back to Elias. "Was that your illusion?" he demanded, his hands on his hips. "Is that how you see me? Is that how you view my care of you? How can you think that?"
Ciaran had not seen the first one. As he had run along the beach, he had watched a man appear beside Elias. From his stance, and from Elias's reaction, he had known that the man was an enemy, but he had been too far away to hear what was said. By the time he was close enough, the man had stalked away, and his place had been taken by the Ciaran who had killed with selfish kindness. The first one had been a Ciaran, too, he thought, and it had struck Elias hard when he was already wounded.
"I'm not like that." Ciaran knelt down beside Elias, and lifted him up, so his head was against his chest and his shoulders across his lap. "Can you hear me, Elias? I'm not like that." He wanted to hold Elias close and prove it, and he wanted to shake him, for believing that Ciaran could do such things.
Elias's eyes opened a slit. "No," he moaned, trying to pull away. "Please leave me alone. I've beaten two of you. Please, I don't want another one."
"I'm the real one, Elias," Ciaran assured him. Maybe all of this was a dream, but, in the context of the dream, he was real. Maybe Elias himself was another illusion, but he could take no chances.
"If you say so," Elias murmured. "Maybe you are." His eyes slid shut again. While he had been awake, Ciaran had caught a glimpse of light reflecting silver on blue water, but now it was all grass again.
"I am!" Ciaran shouted. "I'm real, and I'm not like that! Let me prove it to you." He lifted Elias's hand, so it lay across the boy's barely moving chest, and stroked it. "You have to forgive me for the things I did, Elias. You have to. You have to let me make it up to you."
Elias just lay there, and didn't hear him. He had chosen to be unconscious, rather than to hear what his master had to say. He had thought up his terrible illusions of Ciaran, then had fallen asleep before accepting that they were untrue.
"Listen to me, Elias!" Ciaran tapped him on the cheek, trying to wake him up. "That wasn't me. It was... I don't know. Some illusion that came from what you're afraid of. But it wasn't true. You have to accept that. How could you think that of me? You have to tell me it's not really true."
Elias's head lolled to one side. Ciaran touched his face, then his hand stilled. He had seen a vision of Elias, as false and unfair as the vision Elias had created of Ciaran. But that was different, he told himself. He had been quick to recognise it as only an illusion and banish it, while Elias had just cowered there and accepted everything his false master said. Besides, Elias had not seen Ciaran's vision, so there was no need to apologise for it.
He was so wrapped up in Elias that he was only aware that someone was approaching them when the man was almost upon them. Without letting Elias go, he looked up, and there was Reynard, striding through the tranquil grass of Ciaran's meadow as if the place belonged to him. "What are you doing here?" Ciaran growled. "You don't belong here."
As he strode the last few steps that took him to Ciaran's side, Reynard drew his sword. "I belong here more than you do. Get away from him right now."
"I will not," Ciaran spat. "He needs help."
"And you're the one to give it? I think not. You did everything you could to destroy him, and left us to pick up the pieces. If you think I'm going to hand him over to you, you've got another think coming."
Ciaran looked at Elias's slack face, and let out a long breath, forcing himself not to say the things he wanted to say. "I treated him badly, I admit that, but I'm sorry. I want to make it up to him. And he belongs with me. He always did."
Reynard slashed at the ground, destroying a pale blue flower. "Then you haven't changed at all."
"I don't need to prove myself to you." Ciaran stroked Elias's cheek. His hand quivered, and his fingers wanted to curl into tight fists of anger. "I could fight you, but you're not worth it. Elias is the only person who needs to forgive me."
"No," Reynard jeered, "not changed at all. He forgives you, and you're his master again, and you can put this little mistake in the past and never think about it again, and carry on just as you always were? Is that it?"
Elias started to move in his hands, but it was only to shiver. His eyes remained closed. "It doesn't matter," Ciaran said. "I don't have to explain myself to you. In fact," he said, staring triumphantly at Reynard's hateful face, "you're probably not here at all. You're an illusion, like the others."
"I thought the same about you," Reynard said, "but then I realised that I would never imagine you. There are many things I might turn a corner and find, but you would never be one of them."
Despite himself, Ciaran wanted to hear more. "You know what this place is? You know how it works, how the illusions come?"
"No." Reynard gave a wry laugh. "I should have listened to Oliver's stories. I'm sure he could tell you everything. All I remember is its name, and the tricks it plays. It…" He sheathed his sword, and walked a few steps away. "It was a prison once, where some very powerful beings were confined, cut off from all hope. What do you do when you have no hope? You dream. You dream of escaping, of getting revenge on your enemies. You dream of when you were happy, and the people you've left behind. You dream of the moment everything went wrong, and try to set it right." He laughed again. "Listen to me. Perhaps I listened to Oliver more than I ever realised."
Ciaran's hands were very still. "So what happened?"
Reynard pressed his hands together and looked down at them, so Ciaran could not see his face. "These were powerful beings, stronger than anyone the world has known in these autumn days. Their dreams took flesh and became, not real, but illusion as strong as reality. Long after the imprisoned ones had gone, the power they had put into the place remained, as you have seen."
"Yes," Ciaran breathed. Even Reynard's voice was different. It was dreamy and lyrical, as if there was real feeling behind his words. But he was probably just trying to emulate the way Oliver talked about it.
"It's a place of great danger," Reynard said. "It doesn't present us with an image of whatever we're thinking of, oh no. It's more insidious than that. It reaches into our souls, and finds the things we have hidden deep within us, the things we try not to think about. It shows us our most cherished dreams, or the fears that we do not even dare to speak aloud. It holds up a mirror to our souls, and it can drive a man mad to see what is reflected. If he's weak-minded enough, that is," he said, in a brisker voice. "Not everyone has such secrets. Some people see only a tiny thing, an unimportant thing, and wave their hand once and banish it."
What did you see? Ciaran wanted to ask, but did not. He would never speak of the things he had seen to Reynard, and it seemed wrong to ask even a man he hated to do such a thing.
"So that's it." Reynard turned round, and his face was set lines that were even harsher than ever, and his voice was an aggressive shout.
He's afraid, Ciaran realised. Whatever it was that he saw, it shook him badly. That means I have power over him, because I know this.
Elias was shivering even harder, though the sun was high in the sky, and the heat rose from the moist earth. "Why's he cold?" Ciaran wondered aloud.
Reynard frowned. "Where do you think we are?"
"A meadow, of course."
"But I see it as a forest. A forest just like I used to…" Reynard snapped his mouth shut, and shook his head. "Just a forest. But," he said, when Ciaran would have interrupted, "I saw a beach for a while. The closer I came to him, the stronger I saw it, until I couldn't see the forest at all. Then it all disappeared and there's only trees."
"I saw him go under the water," Ciaran said, slowly, "completely under, so it covered his face. Then the sea disappeared. I didn't think. I picked him up, like this, but he was just in the grass by then. I didn't think it mattered."
"He was drowning." Reynard was pale. "Your saved his life, but only by accident. If you hadn't picked him up…"
"He would have drowned in front of me, when as far as I was concerned he was only lying in the grass." Ciaran felt very cold. If he had been even a minute later… No. He shook his head. "The sea wasn't real. It was only an illusion. He couldn't drown in it, not really."
"Illusions are dangerous." Reynard spoke with absolute certainty. "The mind of a man is a powerful thing, and by illusion an enchanter can wield power over the mind. Give a wounded man the illusion of being without pain, and that alone can be enough to save his life. Show a man the thing he is most afraid of, and he can die through sheer terror. Oh yes, illusion is power, Ciaran Morgan."
"I saw a man die," Ciaran admitted. "I saw his heart ripped out. But, after he was dead, there wasn't a mark on him."
Reynard's head snapped up. "A man?"
"A soldier," Ciaran said, but his attention was on Elias. He was shivering so badly. In the illusory world that he was living in, was he still lying in freezing water up to his neck? Ciaran tried to drag Elias in the direction that he remembered the shore being, but it was awkward with Elias lying across his legs. "Help me with him," he forced through his teeth. "He's so cold. He needs to be away from the water."
Reynard helped without protest, and Ciaran had to entrust Elias to him, just for a moment. As Reynard supported Elias's weight, Ciaran extricated himself from beneath his body. His legs were stiff and numb when he stood up, and he shook his arms to bring them back to life. "I can take him now," he said, but Reynard just looked at him, and gruffly said that he would carry his legs. When they had finished, Reynard straightened up, then closed his eyes and seemed to sway on his feet.
"A soldier?" Reynard demanded, seeming to tear his eyes open by force of will. He knelt down heavily, and his head fell forward, then was raised again. He touched the hilt of his knife, and his eyes blazed.
"What happened?" Ciaran asked him, as he chafed Elias's arms to try to get him warm. "How did you get here?"
Reynard sighed. His hand left his knife and began to play with the edge of his cloak. "We were running for our lives," he said. "We'd broken into the citadel, but it was a trap. Several of us died. They were everywhere, gaining on us. The king did what he could, but he was badly hurt. I… I couldn't defend him as I ought to have been able to do. I'd been… hurt. My king saved me, but I wasn't… well."
Reynard's unpinned his cloak, and Ciaran could not suppress a gasp. The wound was shocking, and surely should have been fatal. The edges were sealed and it was no longer bleeding, but it was still red and horrible. He must have lost a devastating amount of blood, but until he had carried Elias, he had shown no discernable sign of weakness. How could any man do such a thing?
"I was on a horse behind the king," Reynard mumbled. "They were very close behind us, and the king's illusions had all gone. Then… Then I saw a flash of white, and… and that was it. Nothing until I woke up in a forest and saw… someone who died a long time ago." His head snapped up. "Is that good enough for you, Ciaran Morgan? Is it a good enough story to prove that I'm not an illusion?"
Ciaran stroked Elias's hair. "That wasn't why I asked." But perhaps he understood why Reynard needed to lash out in anger like that. Perhaps he would have done the same, if he had just had to recount his failures to a man he hated.
"No." Reynard sighed. He looked too tired to fight any more.
Elias moaned, and burrowed into Ciaran's shoulder, but still did not wake up. Ciaran watched him for a long time. "I don't think you're an illusion," he said. "I don't think he is, either. I… I don't know why. I'm not convinced that you're real, but I believe that this matters. The way things end today matters, whether it's real or not."
It was the best way he could explain it, without speaking of things Reynard would never hear about. Once before he had walked in spirit through his Garden while his body lay elsewhere, and the outcome had mattered immensely. If he failed Elias in his vision, perhaps he failed Elias in reality. Visions could be tests, and dreams could teach lessons. Dreams, too, were ways of working out the things that were important to you. Even if none of this was real, he had to make the right choice.
To his surprise, Reynard nodded. "Yes." He leant back, supporting himself on his hands, as if he was lounging around the fire after dinner. "So how did you get here, Ciaran Morgan?"
Ciaran smiled faintly. "Nothing as dramatic as you. I went to sleep in a bed; I woke up here. That's all."
Reynard frowned. "I wonder how… No." He shook his head. "I'm not good at wondering. Let the king and Oliver deal with the mysteries. I deal with the sword. I don't care why things happen, just about how to respond to them."
I called you, he had heard Elias say, to his own illusion of his master. Maybe Elias had somehow called him here, wanting him with an intensity that was strong enough to bring him here in body, and not just as an illusion. Reality was strange here. Maybe the doors between the worlds were weaker, too. Maybe, if Elias had really wanted him…
Elias stirred again, but still did not open his eyes. "He's not shivering any more," Reynard said.
Ciaran shook his head. "No." He thought Elias was thinner than he had been when he had last seen him. "What happened to him? Has he been…" Missing me? Lost without me? "Has he been happy?"
"He's a good king," Reynard retorted. "Nine months, it's been, since you left. Did you know that? Nine months. Outwardly, he was everything a king should be, but inside... No, it's not for me to talk about. He's tried so hard to keep his feelings hidden from the Kindred, and I refuse to expose them to you. I am sworn to protect him."
Then he did miss me, Ciaran thought. If Elias had been happy, Reynard would have told it. Elias had fallen apart without his master. Reynard knew it, and now Ciaran knew it, too.
"Stay away from him." Reynard lunged forward and grabbed Ciaran by the throat. "If you can't make him happy, then go away. Find a way out, or I'll kill you myself."
Elias moaned with distress, and Reynard recoiled, realising that he had pressed against Elias's shoulder in his sudden movement. See? Ciaran wanted to say. You hurt him more than I ever can. But he recognised the sincerity in Reynard's words. Whatever his other sins, Reynard genuinely cared for Elias, just as Ciaran did. "I don't want to make him sad," Ciaran choked. "I don't, Elias. Can you hear me? I'm sorry for everything. Please forgive me."
"He's still unconscious." Reynard said it as if it was obvious. "If he was awake, we'd see the beach. That's his illusion. When he's awake and we're near him, his illusion drives out our own. He's… I don't know. Stronger than us. More at home in the world of dreams and images."
"He always had very vivid dreams," Ciaran murmured.
Reynard laughed suddenly. "I've just realised something. All along, I've been thinking that you might be an illusion. Not mine, of course, but his. But you're not. You can't be. If you were, you'd have vanished as soon as he fainted, like the beach did. And I don't think you'd be speaking like this. Sometimes I want to hit you, and sometimes, very occasionally, I think I can almost like you. That can only be the real Ciaran Morgan. Only he can be that infuriating."
Ciaran stared at him, then found himself laughing, too. He felt exactly the same, he realised. As time had passed, he'd become more and more sure that all of this was real, but, at the same time, he had acted towards Reynard as if it was not. He had said things to Reynard that he would never have said in a world that made sense. He had admitted his mistakes to a man he hated, because part of him had believed that he was admitting them to an aspect of himself, in a dream.
"I was doing the same," he told Reynard.
Reynard's laughter died, and was replaced with a nasty sneer. "You're lying. You're still telling yourself that this is all a dream. I know you. You're too arrogant to believe the evidence of your own eyes. I should fight you now. I'll show you that this is real. I'll change things."
Elias moaned again, and his eyelids flickered. Reynard was forgotten as Ciaran called his name, stroking his hair, trying to pull him back. For a moment, he heard the sound of the sea, and saw that he was sitting not on green grass, but on white sand. He called Elias's name again, but Elias moaned and recoiled, and then the meadow was back again, and the beach was gone.
"You said you saw a soldier," he heard Reynard say, just when Ciaran was least thinking of looking at him. "You saw his illusion?"
"Only when I touched him," Ciaran said, still not taking his eyes from Elias. "Not like it was with Elias."
"But you saw him," Reynard persisted. "And I can see you, and we can talk to each other, even if we're seeing different worlds around us." He paused for a moment. "Did you see anyone else? There was a young boy, about sixteen. Some people say he looks a bit like me. Did you see him?"
Elias's eyelids flickered again. "I didn't see anyone," Ciaran said distractedly.
Ciaran heard Reynard stand up. "They might not have followed us through." He walked a few steps. Ciaran saw only his feet, and the shadow that he cast. "But at least one of the soldiers did, and they were behind all of us. So, if he came through, the others must have. He must be here somewhere." He paced back the way he'd come, then stopped. "But I'm sworn to my king. I can't leave him."
Ciaran glanced up at him. "You can. I'll stay with him."
"No, I'm not going." With a shrill cry, Reynard ripped his sword from its sheath. "I hate this! All this talking. What does any of it matter? There's nothing to fight. Nothing!" he shrieked. "Come out and fight me!" His arm fell heavily, the blade digging into the sand. "But there's no enemy. We're going to die here, and there's nothing I can do about it."
"Of course we won't die here," Ciaran said. "If Elias could bring me here, then he can send me back. All of us, I mean. If he opened the door from your world, he can open it again to go back."
"You don't understand!" Reynard bellowed. "There is no way out! This is a prison, made for just such a person as Elias. It was made to hold the greatest of enchanters. His power turns against him here. Any enchantment inside him only makes the bars stronger. No-one ever escaped the Shroud of Dreams."
"The Shroud of Dreams?" He wanted to shiver at the sound of it.
Reynard's voice was quiet now, and he was sitting tumbled on the ground. "A place without hope. A place where all dreams died. A place with doors in, but no doors out. The place where we're all going to die."
"I cannot believe that," Ciaran said, as Elias, at last, began to open his eyes.
Reynard grabbed him by the sleeve, and spoke in a hissing whisper, hurrying his words to get them out before Elias fully awoke. "You have to. You wanted to see him again? Well, get ready to die with him, because that's all either of us are going to do."