Lankin was almost upon them before he had realised how close he had come. He pressed his hand to his mouth instinctively, and drew back. Neither of them saw him, but he knew it had been close.
When he was far enough away, he slid from his horse, and slithered forward on his stomach, grimacing at the discomfort of the damp and slimy ground. The sky was dark grey, and it was raining slightly, the air thick enough to deaden sound. They were talking, the two of them, but Lankin could not hear them. Holding his breath, he inched forward, knowing he was taking a big risk, and then he could hear what they were saying.
"Are we stopping?" the man was asking. He had managed to swing his leg over the saddle, but he had needed to woman's support to help him gently to the ground. His hair was plastered to his skull by rain, and he looked miserable.
The woman stroked his cheek with the back of her hand, but shook her head. "We can't. If we ride through the night, we'll be there by morning. Or noon, since we can't go fast. Poor little Sorrel." She glanced at the pony. "You can rest your leg tomorrow."
"It's easy to get lost in the dark." The man plucked at his cloak, and shivered.
"Not us," she said, with a confident toss of her head. "I know where we are. Don't you remember? We came this way when we were moving camp in the spring. All we have to do is follow the stream."
The man's head had sunk low, but now it snapped up. "We're that close? I hadn't realised. Why hasn't anyone met us?" His voice rose urgently. "If we're that close... Reynard said he was putting out scouts to cover everywhere within a day's journey."
"Stop worrying, Oliver," she said. "We'll meet them before midnight, you mark my words." Lankin recognised her tone. It reminded him of his own mother, soothing his childish fears. It was obvious that the woman was afraid, too, and her brisk confidence was just an act for the sake of the wounded man.
"We have to get back." The man called Oliver struggled to raise himself, clawing at the ground, but falling back with a cry when he tried to put weight on his leg. "What if the soldiers have found them? They might all be dead, and I spent too long and came back too late and wasn't there. He died and I wasn't there."
"Of course they're not dead." The woman took hold of his arm and held him still, but her laughter sounded too brittle. "They'll be settling down for the evening. Someone will be telling a story, though not as good as yours, of course. They're not dead at all, and they won't be, because we'll get back in time and warn them, and Reynard will shout at them and put them in order, ready to take on anything."
Was Reynard the king, Lankin wondered. It was strange to hear them talk like this, like normal people. They were obviously very fond of each other, as if they felt real emotion. Lankin wasn't sure what he had expected. Savages who could hardly speak except in grunts, perhaps, or imperious nobles wearing plundered riches, or misshapen slaves imprisoned by the sorcerer king's tyranny, hating him even as they served him.
"But it was so hard for him to save us," the man was saying. "And I'm sure he was lonely at the start, calling out for someone." He pushed away her arm and made it to his feet, though it was clearly agony to stand. "That must be it! They're all dead, all of them, and he's the last one. He's all alone, and of course he blames himself, and... Oh, Adela, I've got to get back to him."
"You will." The woman was there to catch him when he fell, and she held him up with surprising skill. "But you have to stay calm. It's not doing you any good. You’re burning up, Oliver. Do you think he wants to see you come back dead on the back your horse? That's no way for a seneschal to return to his king."
The man was barely listening. "But why are there no scouts?"
She sighed patiently. "Because there's a lot of forest within a day's journey of the camp, and not even Reynard can make eighty fighting men cover every inch of it. And half of them will be at the camp, of course, and most of them not too far away from it. So of course we can expect to get within an hour of the camp without anyone finding us. We only need to start worrying if we get closer than that and there's still no-one."
"But we need to hurry." The man's head was lolling onto her shoulder, and his words were getting slurred. "I need to know."
"You will, Oliver," she crooned. "Now, you can sleep in a minute, but please help me first. I need you to stand. Can you do that? Then try to get on Sorrel's back. I'll help you, but I can't get you up by myself."
So easy, Lankin thought. He had a short bow on his back, more accurate and swift than a gun, and utterly silent. He could kill them now. He ought to kill them now. He couldn't risk following them any further, if it was true what the man had said about scouts. He had learnt from them what he needed to know, and could now lead an army to their camp without needing them alive. If he let them go, they could carry a warning, and the enemy would be prepared.
The woman was crooning soft words of encouragement, and the man was struggling bravely, fighting evident pain. Lankin had seen trained Soldiers of Light act less courageously when wounded, and be far less strong and tender when helping an injured comrade. They were the enemy, but it felt wrong to shoot them in the back, not when he knew their names. He was a Soldier of Light, not a murderer.
The man slumped forward over the horse's neck, barely conscious. It was best to leave them alive, he thought, as the woman looked out into the forest and bit her lip, free to show all her worry and fear now the man could no longer see her face. It would useful to have their tracks to follow. And perhaps it could be an advantage that the enemy received warning of the army's presence. The enemy would be expecting a small group of soldiers who stumbled upon them by chance, not an army that knew where their camp was. Their ignorance could be exploited, and already Lankin had the beginnings of an idea of how to do just that.
The woman mounted the pony, and the two of them moved on, heading into the darkness. Lankin watched until they had gone, then walked back to his horse, ready to ride back and gather his army.
Some might accuse him of failing in his duty, if they heard that he could have killed two of the enemy, but had chosen not to. But it wasn't mercy that had stayed his hand. It wasn't because they had seemed so human, like ordinary people worried about the friends they had left behind at home. It was sound tactical sense to let them go, and that was the only reason he had done it.
And the day after tomorrow, when the attack came, both of them would die anyway, along with all their people.
Reynard dreamed of the tower again. It was insidious, creeping into his dreams, reminding him of how things could have been different.
"You were given a chance few have been given," the voice of enchantment told him. "You stepped into the wellspring of power, and lived. You should have come out changed, but you closed your mind and refused to listen."
"How could I?" he shouted, as he had shouted for so many nights, fighting wars in his sleep that no-one would ever know about. "This is no time to stray from the path."
"You could have changed." The voice sounded sorrowful. "You could have become greater, but you saw only the narrow path. When you die, can you look back and say you have ever lived?"
In his dream, he had no sword, but if he had one, he would have drawn it and challenged them. "I'm not dead yet. Don't speak as if I am."
"You should live every day as if it is your last," the voice told him. "You know that as a warrior, but you do not seem to know it as a man."
It showed him Thurstan, awake and miserable in the darkness, wanting nothing more than a few kind words from his father. He saw the king and Ciaran, smiling as they chatted of nothing. He saw Oliver with his arm around Adela's shoulder, and knew that they could be happy anywhere, as long as they had each other. He saw Beatrice, smiling at him as she clung to his arm. He saw the hero-worship in the eyes of his young son, before Gerhard had come along and stolen it. But he had never fought to win it back, and that son had died still hating him.
"If you die today," the voice said, "how will you be remembered?"
Reynard could not lie. "I will be missed, because I teach them to fight and give them their orders. That is all. But that it all I should want." But, in the safety of dreams, his voice wavered. In dreams, he could want more. In dreams, he could wish that he had his wife again, and a child who loved him, and followers who would die for him not because he was their commander, but because he was loved.
"It's not too late," the voice of the enchantment told him. "You have been bathed deep in enchantment. You have denied it so far, but you can still listen to the call. Open yourself to feeling, and you will have powers of enchantment that you have never known."
He bit his lip, suppressing a cry. "But I can't," he rasped. "Not now. You're asking too much." He couldn't stray from his path, not now. Perhaps it was the wrong path, but he was committed to it now, and to stray from it would throw everything wrong, just as the enemy was about to make his final move.
The voice left him then, with a sad sigh, and one last whisper. "Remember," it said, like a touch on his cheek. "Remember."
Left alone, safe from temptation, he reached out, as if he could capture the voice and bring it back. "Help me," he whispered, but there was no answer. It was gone. He had made his choice, and was alone.
Morning was leaden grey. The Kindred were listless, crouching around piles of smoking twigs in a vain quest for warmth and hope. Thurstan could hardly bear to look at them. They reminded him of his vision, of a tiny band of wounded men clinging to the warmth of a fire in the night. They looked like the survivors of a great disaster, just waiting for death to find them.
Thurstan started walking, and soon came upon Reynard, who was staring at the sky. When he saw Thurstan, his face became closed off, and Thurstan stopped abruptly, pivoted on his heels, and started to walk away.
"Don't go," Reynard told him.
Thurstan stopped, but did not turn round. His heart was beating very fast. Why was he still nervous of this man? Yesterday, he had stood up to him, and told him things he needed to hear. He no longer cared.
"You showed courage yesterday, boy," Reynard said, in a voice that was totally lacking in tenderness or remorse. "If my behaviour has caused you to doubt your abilities, then I am sorry for it, but I can't apologise for the way I am, Thurstan, and neither should I have to. I am the commander of the warriors of the First House of the Kindred, sworn to protect my king. I would be failing in my duty if I let anything come before that. Surely you can understand."
"Oh, I understand," Thurstan said. Of course he did. Gerhard had been like this, too. He could let hatred and anger blind himself to his duty, but never such things as love and tenderness. But he was too weary to bother saying it. If Reynard wanted to deceive himself, let him.
"But you're a good lad, Thurstan." His name again. Reynard had seldom called him by name. "I would like to teach you sword fighting, if you would let me."
It meant nothing, of course. Reynard wanted one more sword in his war band, and that was all. Thurstan ought to say no. He ought to spit in Reynard's face and say he wanted nothing to do with him ever again.
A man walked past, his steps dragging in the dying grass. Thurstan watched him until he had disappeared, and he knew that Reynard was watching him, too. "Why are they like this?" he asked, unable to stop himself.
"Because the king has gone." Reynard said it as if it was obvious. "They don't know when he's coming back, and they're faced all the time with evidence of Cercamond's power."
"But they shouldn't be like this!" Thurstan burst out, remembering how Ciaran had told him that even weak people could do things. "They're not useless. They shouldn't act as if they are."
"I agree," Reynard said, "but can you blame them? Give them a human enemy, and they'd know what to do. But this... Cercamond's different. They don't know how to fight him."
"The king doesn't either," Thurstan said, "but he isn't despairing. He's out there, doing something."
"You pass judgement very easily." Reynard's tone was mild, but it made Thurstan want to squirm. Reynard, he would have thought, would be the first to condemn the Kindred for despairing. Whenever he thought he understood Reynard, the man surprised him.
Thurstan swallowed, and struggled for something to say. "Is there anything we can do?" he asked. "A speech, or something. They'll listen to you."
"I'm no Oliver." Reynard's tone was final. "I don't make speeches. They will fight when I call them to. Whether they are happy or sad as they do so makes no difference. They will fight. Never doubt that."
Thurstan looked at them. They were disconsolate, but they had not given up, he realised. Their shoulders were slumped and their steps slow, but they were still sharpening swords, passing on commands, arming themselves for patrols.
"But I think it does matter," he said, finally turning to face Reynard. He thought of how unhappy he had been the day before, and how Ciaran had made everything seem different. "It matters if they're happy or sad. The king realises it, and Oliver, but you don't, and you're wrong." He noticed the tense way Reynard held his neck, and the whiteness of the knuckles that incessantly gripped and ungripped the pommel of his dagger. "And you're not happy," he said, realising it fully for the first time. "And you don't think that matters either, but it does."
"You have no right to speak to me like that," Reynard snapped.
The anger sounded forced, and Thurstan recognised it for what it was. He was right. He knew something about Reynard that few other people knew, and that gave him power over him. It was true, what the king and Ciaran had been telling him. It was nothing to do with him, that Reynard rejected him. As he was, Reynard was incapable of doing anything else.
Thurstan suddenly felt very strong and very placid. "I accept your offer," he said, and saw Reynard blink as he struggled to remember what offer that might be. "Teach me how to fight."
Reynard snapped his fingers, brisk again. "Come, then."
As Thurstan followed, he started to smile. He would fight well, and Reynard would give him grudging praise, finally seeing his worth. He would clasp him in a clumsy embrace, and say he would be proud to have him by his side. When the attack came, Reynard would not send Thurstan away, to hide behind a rock and watch everyone die. Thurstan would be up there with Reynard, and he would do well. He might even save Reynard's life. What a good ending that would be.
"Stay there," Reynard commanded, when they reached his own tent. Thurstan stood outside, as Reynard disappeared through the door. He had not been here since he had been Reynard's prisoner, months before, and Reynard had wanted to kill him. Ranulf had argued against it, and now Ranulf was dead. Reynard had lost his closest followers in the citadel, Thurstan realised. He had never thought about that before.
When Reynard came out, he had a sword in his hand. "You can have this one," he said, his voice gruff. "I've seen yours. It's not right for you."
"Gerhard gave it to me." Thurstan clapped his hand to the sword, ready to fight any jealous attempt of Reynard to remove it.
Reynard snorted. "Then he was a fool. It's too long for you, and the balance is all wrong. What was Gerhard thinking of, to give you such a thing? A man can't use just any sword, you know. It has to be right for him, and yours, my lad, is wrong."
Thurstan held it closer. "I suppose he thought I'd never use it," he mumbled. Gerhard had sent him away, after all, and he had never been his true father. He had lied to him, that's how much he had cared for him.
"He was a fool," Reynard declared. "He gave his favour like a gift, and expected people to be grateful. I'm not like that. So I want you to have this sword. Try it out, but I think it'll do. The man who used it was about your height and build."
Curious, Thurstan took it and drew it from its sheath. It was easy to hold, where the sword he had always used had never felt comfortable. He had always assumed it was because he was clumsy, not cut out to be a fighter. He slashed a few times at the air, and it felt good. Despite himself, he smiled, and Reynard gave a quick smile back.
"Whose was it?" Thurstan asked, as he sheathed the sword.
Reynard turned half away. "Isembard's," he said. "My other son."
Thurstan dropped the sword with a cry. The memory of that brief smile was snatched away, replaced with cold ice. "I won't have it! I'm not like him."
Reynard crouched down to pick the sword up. "I know you're not. I mean nothing by it. Just that you needed a sword, and this one wasn't being used. You might as well have it."
So that was how much he valued a son. He could give away the sword of a son who was dead, and say it meant nothing. "I don't want it." Thurstan was hardly able to speak. He turned his back and stalked off, biting his lip to hold back angry tears. And I don't want you, he wanted to say, but could not.
He had half expected Reynard to call after him, summoning him back, but he did not.
Someone found Reynard as he stopped for a quick bite of food, that tasted like ashes in his mouth. "They asked me to come to talk to you." His name was Godfrey, and he was the best of the warriors he had left to him, after the losses in the citadel.
"Oh?" Reynard tried to turn his attention to something else, but there was nothing to do. His sword was in its sheath, already sharpened, and he had finished his lunch.
"What are we going to do?" Godfrey wasted no time. "About everything, I mean. The king's gone. Oliver's not here. You're our leader now, until they come back."
"I've always been your leader," Reynard said.
"Not like that." Godfrey held his gaze. "You have been our commander in war. Now you're our leader in everything. And we need a leader. Now, more than ever." He gestured at the camp, where people sat silently, like survivors after a storm. "Speak to them," Godfrey urged him. "Rally them."
Thurstan had asked him to do much the same, and Reynard answered Godfrey as he had answered the boy. "I'm not Oliver, to do a thing like that." He had never been good with words. People and their feelings had always been a mystery to Reynard, one he had never thought needed solving.
"They're at a loss," Godfrey said. "At least give them some direction."
Reynard whirled on him. "How can I do that," he spat, "when I've got none myself?" The words hurtled out before he could stop them, and he snapped his head away with a cry, hiding his expression. I don't know what to do, he thought, the words carrying on, like hateful poison in his mind. I don't know where to start. He could assign men in an ambush, and read the lie of the land, but this was beyond anything he had ever known.
Godfrey did not pretend that he had not heard. "You have to pretend," he said. "That's what a leader does. He gives hope to his people, even if he has none himself."
Reynard clenched his fists. The whiteness of his dream glimmered in his mind, then withdrew, giving him no help. Just as he opened his mouth to speak, to say something, he heard shouting. Someone stood up, casting their half-full plate aside. A woman screamed. Godfrey turned round, and cried out. When they ran forward, he was two steps ahead of Reynard.
The pony came limping through the trees, and stopped in front of the fire. Others were there first, surrounding it. Even Godfrey reached it before Reynard, and claimed his place on the front of the crowd. Reynard had to stand at the back and just watch.
"You must listen," the woman on the pony was gasping. Her hair was tangled and her face was scratched. "The enemy is here. No, not here," she said, when people cried out in panic, "but close. They must have come in force, but split up into smaller groups to comb the forest. We met them a day away from here, but there might be many more of them, closer, and in any direction."
It was Adela, Reynard realised. He had never seen her so dirty and wild, snapping out her orders with the air of someone who has to give their report before collapsing from some terrible wound hidden by the clothes. But, if this was Adela, that meant that the man collapsed behind her on the saddle, whose head did not even stir at all the noise that surrounded him, was Oliver. Was he dead? Reynard wanted to ask, but could not find his voice.
"Did they follow you?" Godfrey asked, his voice a sharp snap of command. He was asking the important things, the things Reynard should have been asking.
Adela shook her head. "No, but we have to assume that they'll find us."
"You rode in alone?" Godfrey asked. "There were no scouts to meet you?"
"There were," she said. "I told them to stay where they were. We knew the way home. We didn't need an escort. It wasn't worth making a hole in our defences."
Reynard should have asked that, too. He could not look away from the limp form of Oliver, and the smear of pale skin beneath the cloak that covered him.
"Oliver's hurt," Adela pleaded, her façade shattering. "Help him, please."
They surged forward then, their faces anguished and concerned. Several hovered anxiously, then said to no-one in particular that they were going for herbs, for water, for blankets. Oliver was lowered from the horse's back, and supported by a dozen arms as he was gently laid on the cloak of an old man who should not have given it up on such a cold day. Everyone wanted a part in looking after him, because they loved him.
"What's wrong with him?" Reynard whispered, but no-one heard him.
Adela was clutching Oliver's hand, crooning fiercely, telling him that he was home now, that he was safe, and he wasn't to start dying on her, or he'd have her to answer to. Oliver's eyelids fluttered, and his lips moved. Reynard thought he was saying the king's name, and he bit his lip, wondering who would have to break the news to Oliver that the king had gone.
"Let me through," Ciaran Morgan commanded, from even further back than Reynard. Reynard would have expected them to crowd even tighter, excluding the stranger, but they obeyed him, moving aside just enough for Ciaran to be able to elbow his way through. Thurstan followed him, so even he ended up closer to Oliver than Reynard was. Ciaran knelt down beside Oliver, and Thurstan hovered at his elbow, with the intense look of someone who wanted to learn from his master.
Godfrey came out of the crowd and found Reynard. "So, the enemy's found us." His face was grim but his eyes were shining like black beads. "At least this is something we can fight. We need a plan, and quickly." He stalked off without another word, but not before giving Reynard a look of challenge. From now on, their whole defence and safety rested on Reynard's shoulders.
"It's not as bad as it looks," Reynard heard Ciaran saying. "The bullet came out, and that's a good thing. I can help it on the way to healing."
"You hear that, Oliver," Adela said. The crowd had hidden all the faces from Reynard. "You're going to get better."
"Where's Elias?" It was a cracked whisper, but growing louder with desperation. "He saved us, and it was so hard for him. I know it was hard for him. He's all right?"
"How did he save you?" Ciaran's voice was measured, hiding much. "When was this? He wasn't there with you." He phrased it like a statement, but of course it was really a question.
"Yesterday," Adela explained. "Mid-morning. And of course he wasn't there. He cast an illusion over distance, and that saved our lives."
"Mid-morning," Ciaran echoed. Mid-morning. As Reynard had been trying to kill Ciaran, Oliver had been wounded, and Elias had risked himself to save them.
"He's all right?" Oliver asked. Reynard imagined him grabbing Ciaran's arm, refusing to let him go.
"Of course he's all right," Ciaran soothed him. Reynard knew how difficult it had to be for him to sound like that. "You know how strong he is. Now, you need to rest. I'll do what I can, but I need you to help me. You're home now. See if you can sleep."
"He's all right," Oliver whispered, and then he was silent, and Reynard knew he had obeyed the instructions, and fallen asleep.
No-one spoke for a while, and then Adela and Ciaran started up some whispered conversation that Reynard could not hear. Nearer, everyone else started talking, too, now they were sure that Oliver would live. "But the enemy's here," someone said, "and the king's gone. What are we going to do?"
"We've still got Reynard." It was a young man's voice. "He'll know what to do. We'll beat them, just like we've beaten everyone else who's come after us."
Reynard edged away, taking tiny steps backwards. He wanted darkness. He wanted to be alone. He had to think. Reynard will know what to do. But he'd spent all yesterday following Ciaran Morgan around, trying to kill him, and all the while the enemy had been getting closer and closer in the woods, and he should have been out there, looking for them, fighting them. He had done everything in the name of duty, but now the enemy was here, and he had failed.
He fell to his knees and dragged his sword awkwardly from the scabbard. He raised it high, and plunged it deep into the ground, screaming.
And they answered. They joined in. His loyal warriors, blind and stupid, joined in, dragging their swords free, thrusting them high with a scream of defiance, a war cry.
Reynard couldn't bear to look at them. Sheathing his sword, he stood up, and pushed past them, shoving them aside, the men he had once thought he could lead.
They looked like animals stalking their prey. Thurstan followed behind them, and watched, and wasn't sure if he wanted to shout at them to stop it, or join in.
They found Reynard beside the stream, in a place the king himself often used to sit. He stiffened a little as they approached, but did not look up. Neither did he try to escape. They had him surrounded, like a deer held at bay by a pack of hounds. "So," they asked him, when they were standing around him in a tight circle, hands on hips or swords. "What are we going to do?"
Reynard looked at them, his gaze resting on them one by one. "Do you have ideas? Have you come here to argue, each of you saying why your idea is the best?"
"We have come to hear yours," one man said. Thurstan thought he was called Godfrey. "You are our commander."
"Yes." Reynard breathed out, looking very tired. "But you will say if my plan is flawed. You have to. This is too important to make mistakes." Thurstan had never before heard Reynard admit that any idea of his might be wrong.
One by one, they settled down, surrounding him in a tight circle. They each seemed to sit a little closer to each other than normal.
"First," Reynard said, "I want to know if any of you think we should run."
Thurstan expected them to burst out in cries of protest, saying that they would never run, never, but they were all quiet, considering the question. Finally one of them spoke. "I think we should. There's no shame in running, not in a situation like this. It's what our people did five hundred years ago, when King Alberic foretold that we would never win a fight without our king."
"I agree," said a young man with a sharp face. He was called William, and over the winter Thurstan had watched him court and win a beautiful girl with blue eyes. "Until this winter, I would have said fight. Take this chance for a final battle with the enemy, and face it like men. But now we know about the real enemy. We have to stay alive to fight him. And if that means that we run like cowards, so be it."
"We should send the children and the old women to safety," another man said. He had three small children, and a pretty young wife who could fight almost as well as he could. "But we all know that Cercamond will not be defeated with swords, but enchantment. So anyone with enchantment goes with the children, to stay safe. But we, who can be of no help against Cercamond, stay behind and fight this army, an enemy that we can fight. Maybe we'll die, but in doing so we make things safer for the king, and those left behind."
"I agree," said another, and, "No!" another cried. Suddenly everyone was talking at once, but Reynard held up his hand for silence, and they all obeyed him.
"And who wants to stay and fight?" Reynard asked. His voice was very quiet, but everyone heard it.
"I do," Godfrey said. He was the first to speak, but others were already opening their mouths to say the same. "We've avoided this fight for so long. We need to be doing something, not just sitting here waiting for Cercamond to finish us off, or for the king to decide to return."
"A heroic last stand?" Reynard said, raising one eyebrow. "How will that help the king?"
"He doesn't need us," Godfrey said, and Thurstan had to dig his nails into his palms to stop himself from shouting that it wasn't true. "Cercamond is his enemy to fight, not ours. We've done our part. We lived long enough to welcome him to our world and help him find his powers, but there's nothing left for us to do. It's time to make our stand, and die. What else can we do?"
"How can you speak like this?" shouted an old man. "We won't lose this battle. How can we? We know the terrain, and they don't. You heard Adela. They're in small groups, combing the forest, easy to kill. Even if do manage to find the camp, they won't know what to expect. We have time to arrange a good defence. Even if they come in their hundreds, we can win."
"And you?" Godfrey turned cool eyes upon Reynard, and Thurstan suddenly realised that it had been an act, his despair, designed to goad Reynard into a reaction. He didn't think he liked this Godfrey.
"I have heard your arguments." Reynard folded his hands in his lap. "I agree with parts, and disagree with parts." He looked at the man who had wanted to send the children to safety. "There is no safety," he said. "There's nowhere safe to go. The enemy could be anywhere, Adela said. And, even if they aren't, Cercamond is. If we send them away, we could be sending them to a swifter death than if they stayed."
"So we're going to give up?"
"No." Reynard said it quietly, but then he said it again, as if he was daring anyone to defy him. "We are not. I have a plan."
He was silent for a very long time, but everyone just waited. Thurstan was sure he had not imagined the despair he had seen on Reynard's face earlier, but Reynard seemed to have pushed it aside, and struggled to find himself again. Thurstan wasn't sure if it was something to be admired, or something to be pitied.
At last, Reynard spoke. He pointed behind him, where the land rose on the far side of the stream, beyond the dying meadow. "There's a small plateau over there, only thinly wooded. You all know it. It's almost bare on the top, and all the more so, now Cercamond's shown his hand. If we stand there, we have the advantage of height. The slopes make it easy to defend, and the stream is to our advantage, too. It loops around the hill. If they approach from any direction except the west, they'll have to cross it. I know it's shallow, but it's exposed. We can have archers cover the crossings."
"So we just stand there, and wait for them to come?" Godfrey asked.
"No." Reynard sounded more patient than Thurstan would have expected. "We put the children there, the old, the wounded, and those we can least spare. We'll put good warriors with them to defend them, of course, but we send everyone else out into the forest. We form a complete circle around the camp, as tight as we can manage."
He did not have to say aloud that they had very few men, and that there would be gaps, unless the circle was too close to the camp to be an adequate defence, but everyone knew it. Even so, they were listening intently, and many of them were nodding, as if Reynard was handing them hope.
"Then we wait," Reynard said. "We never relax our guard or leave our posts. If we see them, we harry them if we can, but the more important thing is to pass on a warning. We use whatever weapons we have. Pick them off and make them afraid. We might be able to stop all of them, if they're coming only in small groups and don't know that we're here. But if the small groups don't return, larger groups will come to investigate. Those will be harder to stop, but we will stop as many of them as we can. Even so, it might be that we stop all of them..."
"But if we don't?" Godfrey said, when Reynard's voice had trailed off for too long.
"Then we pull back." Reynard looked at him defiantly. "We withdraw to the hill where we defend our families and our future. And perhaps we die with them, but not without a fight. We are Kindred, and although we do not have our king with us, we can still fight."
"We can!" the young man called William cried. He was smiling, his teeth white and sharp in his face.
"We can," Reynard said. "And now it's time to stop talking. There's a lot to organise. Everyone has a part to play."
He started to snap our orders, and one by one the fighters strode away, strong and confident, each with a task to do. Only Thurstan was left behind, but Reynard, who was the last to walk away, did not seem to see him.
"What about me?" he burst out.
Reynard paused mid-step, then carried on. "What about you?"
Thurstan fell into step behind him. His breath made faint little puffs of steam in the cold air. "What shall I do?"
"You were listening, weren't you, boy?" Reynard snapped. "There are six commanders. Each one takes a dozen men. I am their commander, and they take orders from me, but I do not assign every last person to their positions."
"But am I a child or a man?" Thurstan persisted. "Am I supposed to go to the hill and be protected, or fight?"
"That is not for me to answer, lad." Reynard turned to face him for a moment. "You are responsible for your own choices. If you think you can be useful to us, then fight, in the way you think can help us most. With a sword, perhaps, or with that Shadow of yours. You know your skills better than I do."
It wasn't good enough. Thurstan pressed his hands together. "Tell me what to do."
Reynard turned his back and carried on walking. "I cannot do that. At the very end, when you're by yourself, looking into the eyes of an enemy, there is no-one to tell you what to do. It comes down to you."
Thurstan grabbed his arm. "Please give me a job to do. Just don't tell me to run away. Don't do what he did. I can help. I know I can."
Reynard stopped again. "Gerhard told you to run," he said, stiffly, "because it was necessary. The warning had to be carried. And he cared about you enough to want to see you safe."
"But you don't care," Thurstan muttered.
"I would like to see you safe," Reynard said, "but you heard what I said. There is no safety. All we can do now is fight. Even the youngest children will have daggers. Their mothers are fierce fighters, almost as strong as the men."
"You aren't giving me answers." It was hard to speak. It had been like this in the mountains, men rushing around to gather their weapons, confident that they could defeat the enemy. He had never seen any of them alive again.
"I don't need to give you answers," Reynard snapped. "I have too many things to think about today without having to decide for you if you're ready to fight or not. If you're loyal to the Kindred, you should let me go."
"If you were any sort of father, you would talk to me!" Thurstan screamed. "I might never see you again."
"Well, I'm sorry," Reynard sneered. "Sorry I can't drop everything and be your father. If you can't understand that, then there's nothing I can do about it. I've got to lead the defence of my House against an enemy that's only got so close because I..."
He broke off suddenly, but Thurstan knew what he had been going to say. His anger began to trickle away. "It wasn't your fault."
"Wasn't it?" Reynard bellowed. He thrust his face into Thurstan's. "You presume to tell me that? You know nothing about it, Thurstan. Nothing."
Thurstan was close to tears. "I just want to fight. I don't want you to die with things like this between us. I don't want you to hate me."
"Why do you want to fight?" Reynard demanded, dragging him close, hurting him. "Because you want to be a hero? You think this is a way to get me to love you? That's why you're going on at me so?"
"No." Thurstan struggled, and managed to press both hands against Reynard's chest, palms outwards. He pushed, using the tiniest wisp of the Shadow that was all he had mastered, and managed to free himself from Reynard's grip. "No," he said, looking down at the ground. "I want to fight, because I didn't fight to save Gerhard, and I don't want to lose anyone else without at least trying to save them. I want to fight because these are my people. I want to fight because I can. Not well, I know, but I can do a little. But I don't know anything about war. I don't know where is the best place for me to go. I don't know anything. I need someone to tell me. I need you."
Reynard was silent for such a long time that Thurstan wondered if he had gone away, and the whole speech had been said to nobody. Finally, he dared to look up, and saw that Reynard was just looking at him, his throat working convulsively and he repeatedly tried to speak, but failed to find the words.
"I just want to help," Thurstan choked, "but I don't know how."
"I know." Reynard looked at him for a moment longer, then passed his hand over his face, and was Reynard again, hard and implacable. "Then I want you to stay on the hill. Oliver will be there, and he's the one who most needs to stay alive. If he dies, we are forgotten." He clapped Thurstan roughly on the shoulder. "So stay with him. Help guard him. Keep him safe."
"What are you going to do?" Thurstan choked out.
"I don't know." Reynard blinked, then gave a brutal bark of laughter. "I have parts for everyone else, but don't know my own yet." He started to walk away.
"Will I see you again?" Thurstan called out. Before the battle, he meant, but even as he said it, he knew it could mean something very different.
"I make no promises." Reynard's voice was gruff. "Keep Oliver safe, Thurstan. His life is precious. And try to keep yourself safe, too. I would like that."
He sounded so bleak. "They might not come," Thurstan shouted after him. "They might miss us. They might go home. We might be safe."
But Reynard just kept on walking, and never looked back.
It was dark when Oliver awoke, dark and cold, so he knew he was outside. "What's happening?" He tried to sit up, but Adela's arms tightened around him. He gave up the fight, because her body was warm and her hands soft. "Why am I outside? I thought we'd got home. Did I dream it all?" He struggled to escape from the imprisoning blanket. "We have to carry on. We've got to warn them."
"We got home." Adela's voice was grave. "They're preparing for the attack. That's why we're outside. The camp is hard to defend, so we're in a safer place. Of course, it's horrid and cold, but that can't be helped."
Oliver struggled to understand. Behind the sound of her voice, other sounds welled up. There was a crack of a twig, and a sharp urgent gasp of reproach. He heard the soft whimpering of a child, and a mother's hushed comfort. Not far away, someone was sharpening a blade. Then the sounds faded away, as gradually as he had become aware of them, and he was in silence again.
"Of course," Adela said, "the attack might not come for days. It won't be tonight, I'm sure, but Reynard said we had to be prepared. We have to act all the time as if the attack is coming any second. Which, of course, is all very like Reynard, but it does make life rather uncomfortable."
"Where is Reynard?" Oliver asked. "Where's Elias?"
"Reynard's hurrying around, being important." Adela sighed. "Poor man. This is all his idea. If it goes wrong... But it won't go wrong. Most of the men are out in the forest, waiting. They'll pick off the enemy before they get near us."
Out in the forest, alone in the trees, just waiting for someone to come who hated you and wanted to kill you. Oliver shivered, but that hurt his leg, and he moaned.
"Lie still," Adela chided him. "You weren't at all well, earlier. But Ciaran Morgan helped you. He..."
She cut off suddenly, but it was too late. Oliver knew the truth she had been hiding from him. "Elias isn't here." It was amazing that he could even speak such words without screaming. Elias was dead because of him, and why were they even bothering to make a final stand? Cercamond would win because of him. If they died now, at least they would be spared the sight of his final victory. "He gave too much to save me. I knew it would hurt him, but I still asked, and now he's dead."
"No!" Adela's voice was like a slap. "Not dead, Oliver. Not dead at all. Just not here. He left two nights ago, to go to the city, to try to win allies. He was confident, and he was well." She leant forward and whispered to him. "Ciaran did what you asked him to do, you see. He helped Elias find happiness. He loves him."
It meant nothing. Elias wasn't here, and he wasn't happy, despite what Adela said. He had been reaching out in loneliness, and that was how he had encountered Oliver and been able to save him. And now he was alone somewhere in the world, facing the aftermath of what he had done, without anyone to watch over him and keep him safe.
"He'll be fine," Adela told him, but he had never doubted her comfort more than he did now. "Settling down for the night. At least he's out of this. Even if it all goes wrong tomorrow, he won't be in danger. And it won't go wrong. I know we haven't got our king with us, but there are plenty of things we can do to defend ourselves. It will all be all right, you mark my words."
"But he's alone," Oliver spat. He wanted to hurt her, for daring to try to find something cheerful to say. "He always hated being alone."
Adela took his face between her hands. "I am not unfeeling, Oliver, but we can't do anything about that now. We have to think about the people we can help. We have to think about ourselves, and here, and now. What else can we do?"
Oliver bit his lip. "But he's alone."
"But one day he won't be," Adela snapped. "One day he'll be coming back, and do you want him to find us all dead? Because we will be, if we all just give up like this. We have to forget about him, and fight for ourselves." Her voice softened. "It sounds harsh, Oliver, but it's the only way we can survive."
Oliver closed his eyes. She was right. Of course she was right, but it still seemed wrong. "I just wish..." He sighed, and could find no words.
In the darkness, someone cleared their throat. "My lord seneschal," a young voice said.
Oliver just lay there, eyes closed, knowing that the darkness would hide his face. "Speak," he said. A bard gave his people strength, and so did a seneschal, so he was bound two times over.
"Reynard asked me to stay with you," the boy said. It was Thurstan, Oliver realised. He heard the boy edge forward, and felt Adela move over to make room for him. "But I... I wanted to ask you something."
A seneschal had to listen to requests. "What is it?" He opened his eyes and propped himself up on one elbow, as Adela helped him and tutted under her breath.
"The banner..." Thurstan cleared his throat. "People are saying you've got the king's banner, and I was wondering if... We'll be fighting for the king, even thouhg he's not here, and... Can Reynard carry it?" he blurted out. "He didn't ask me to say this," he said hurriedly. "I just thought it would be right. He'd defend it well."
"No," Oliver rasped. Beside him, Adela sucked in a breath. "No," Oliver said, again, a little more softly, but no less emphatically.
"Why not?" Adela whispered into his ear. "It's a potent symbol of hope. Hope can save lives. You know that, Oliver."
Oliver pulled away. "No. I still say no. We are not fighting for the king, as Adela has just been telling me. I will not hear it said that we are fighting for him, and I will not condone that belief by a single word or deed."
"But we are," Thurstan protested. "We'd all die for him."
"Which is why I say no." Oliver dragged himself up to a half sitting position, and Adela, although she disagreed with him, supported him. "If we die, we die, but I will not have it said that we are doing it for Elias. It's not fair on him. If he knew that we all died for him..." He could not finish. His wound hurt badly, and it made tears very quick to come.
Thurstan seemed close to tears himself. "I just wanted..."
"I know," Oliver said. Did the boy even realise that whoever carried the banner would be the chief target for the enemy's attacks? He thought he was seeking an honour for Reynard, but really he was seeking his death. Oliver reached out and found his wrist, and this time sadness made him gentle, not harsh. They were all together in this, all lost, all facing an uncertain future.
"We must not fight for the king," he said. "Fight for yourself, Thurstan. Fight for your people. Fight for the cause that has kept us alive for five hundred years. Fight so the children can live to have children of their own. Fight so I need sing no laments for babies killed before they could walk. Fight for the world, that we might live to defy its ending. Fight for all that, Thurstan, but never for your king, for he would not wish it."
In the darkness, he could hear the sound of Thurstan's breathing, but the boy said nothing. Adela was a strong arm and a soft hand beside him, but did not speak. Even the quiet sounds of the Kindred around them seemed hushed, and Oliver wondered just how loud his voice had been, just how many had heard him.
"We will not unfurl the banner." His voice was the only voice left in the world. "We have a cause, and that is enough. We have a reason to fight, and that is to save the people we love, and the people those around us love. We have a reason to live, because the world is dying around us, and that is the work of an enemy that only enchantment can fight. Long ago, it was foretold that we would be needed to help decide the future of the world, and that time has come, and we will stand."
Heedless of the other listeners, he turned to Adela. "You were right, Adela. We shouldn't be thinking about Elias. He isn't here, but we are here, just as we have been for five hundred years. We always hoped our king would return, and we achieved our hope. But we always feared that we would have to fight for our survival without him, and now that time has come. And perhaps it was always going to come. As he was tested, this is our test. Whether we prevail or not rests only on ourselves."
It was no rallying speech. He could not promise victory. A bard should stand at the head of the army, stirring the warriors to feats of immense bravery, telling them that they would live forever. When his speech was over, they should explode in wild cheers, their swords swinging in the bloody sunlight, ready to take on the forces of darkness itself, because their bard had told them they could do it.
He lowered his head. "I can't," he breathed, so that not even Adela could hear him. "I can't give them any more than that."
But a ragged breath was passing through the invisible crowd, as if a hundred hidden people were sitting a little taller, whispering hope to their neighbour. "Yes," they were saying, like the wind in the bare branches above them. "We will not fail."
It was not a cheer, for they were hiding in the darkness, not knowing how close the enemy was. No-one drew their swords, for the sound might betray them. But Oliver knew what he was hearing, and knew that he had rallied them after all. All unseen in the darkness, every person there was pledging themselves to face what was coming. And all he could do, he who had started it all, was slump back into the arms that still held him, turn his head away, and weep.
"Come," Cercamond said, with a smile in his voice. "Take my hand and come away with me."
Elias felt weak. Something was very wrong with him. There was a gasping hole inside him, and something important had poured away out of the hole. Something was tugging at him, wanting him to go back, but he felt only the painful pressure of it, and could not find the source. Cercamond whisked him up and carried him wherever he willed.
The whirling stopped, and he was in a high place overlooking a brown hillside scattered with grey crags. There was a stone parapet in front of him, and he realised he was in the watchtower in the mountains, where he and Ciaran had once stood together, almost touching, but not quite. Now the mountains were devoid of life, and the crows circled, waiting for starved animals to die.
"Seen enough?" Cercamond chuckled. "I can show you a thousand places like this, and worse. But first this."
The watchtower fell away from all around him, and he was inside a room. A large table took up most of the space, and rolled papers covered it, some of them held flat with paperweights. The first one he looked at was a map of the known world, with arrows and crosses covering the land between Eidengard and the forest. A cloak had been cast over another, and Elias tried to move it, but nothing happened. He felt as if he had a hand, but there was no substance there. When he looked down at where his body should be, he saw it was a faint white shimmering, but that was all.
A small door opened in the panelling, and suddenly Elias knew where he was. This was the room where Lord Darius had destroyed him. But Darius couldn't hurt him now, he thought, as the man entered through the door. Even so, he shrank back a little as Darius strode past him towards the window. Elias was a wisp of nothing, like smoke, but someone like Darius could reach out a hand and clutch smoke in his fist, and keep it.
"You wanted to see him," Cercamond said. "There he is, and you're all alone with him. Go on. Talk to him about this alliance of yours."
Elias drifted forward, but Darius did not turn round. Right up to his shoulder, where he could peer over the man's shoulder, and see the execution taking place in the courtyard below. When it was over, Darius turned away from the window, and his hand passed right through Elias, and the touch was real enough for Elias to shiver.
But at least Darius was still in the city, not leading another army after the Kindred. There was hope in that, too. There was still time.
"Perhaps you are still hopeful," Cercamond said. "Others tried to defeat me, once."
The whirling was soft, like silk. It took Darius from him, and brought him to dark square, where steps led up to a building with tall towers. It was devoid of life, but it was not empty. A man was standing in the shadows, standing very still and waiting. Another one sat on the bottom step, and one gazed out of a high window.
They were all dead, Elias realised. They were not like the dead in the citadel, who clung to the place in the faintest of forms, because they could not find the way to leave. Like the gatekeeper, they had chosen to retain something of their form after death, to perform some great task that could not be left to the living.
As Elias neared them, they saw him. They shone bright with hope for a while, then saw who he was, and the hope died. "You don't belong here," they told him. "If you were alive, we would help you or hinder you, according to your intent. If you were dead, we would welcome you. But you are neither. Go back to where you belong."
"Who are you?" Elias asked, and Cercamond did not stop him.
"We were teachers," they sighed, "but learning declined, so we stayed to pass on what we knew, and to protect our children. But they have all gone. There is no-one left, but here we remain, because we swore it."
Following them, he drifted up the steps, and realised that he knew this place. This was Ravenstor. This was the place where one day Ciaran would betray him.
"Did you see them?" Cercamond said, but he said nothing of the betrayal, nothing of the vision. Elias had thought Cercamond could read his whole mind, but if he could do that, why wasn't he taunting him about it? "Many tried to defy me, and see what they are now? Sad little relics that were once men, trapped forever between life and death, wondering where everyone has gone. But you will know. When you stay alive after death, you will know where they have all gone, because I will show you their deaths, every last one of them."
But Cercamond couldn't tell what he was thinking, Elias thought. He could have secrets. Things could be cherished deep within and never spoken aloud, and Cercamond would never know.
"No reaction?" Cercamond said. "What about this?"
The city was snatched away, and he was in a muddy street, where a woman was wailing over the body of a young boy. A cart rattled by, carrying another body to burial, and a bell was tolling nearby. The woman was alone, and clearly dying herself. No-one held her in their arms and mourned alongside her. Maybe she was the last one left of all her family, left alone to die.
"Not just the grass that's dying," Cercamond said, gleefully. "People, too, but I have spared your people, for there is another death coming for them. And I have spared the people who will live to be their killers."
The change came before Elias could say a word. He was in the forest, at the turn of dawn, and a man in a black uniform was talking to an army. "Remember," he was saying, "they will be alerted, but they will not know when the attack is coming. We know more about their location than they think we do. They will be expecting a small party of scouts to stumble upon them, but they're getting an army. We will wipe out the sorcerer king and all his followers, man, woman and child. By tomorrow, not a single one of them will walk the earth."
"No!" Elias cried. He had to get to the camp! He had to warn them! But already everything was changing around him, and he went where Cercamond took him, again and again, but never home.
It was almost morning, and still they had not come.
Thurstan picked up his sword and wiped the blade on a fold of his cloak. He must have done so a hundred times in the night. But what if they came when he was cleaning the sword, and it got tangled in his cloak when he tried to fight? With a choked gasp, he placed the sword down again, and held it tight and ready. It would get damp again, and he would have to wipe it again, and it would all start all over again.
"They won't attack at night," someone had said. All voices were alike in the darkness.
"So why couldn't we have another night inside?" a woman complained.
"But we have to stay alert, just in case."
But what about tomorrow night? What about the day after? The thought of another night like this made Thurstan want to scream. How could he ever sleep, knowing that the enemy could come at any time? How could he endure, when all every minute of his life was about watching the darkness, waiting?
"Where are they?" Thurstan whispered.
He drove his fists into his eyes until he saw sparks of painful light, but still no vision came. He tried to find his Garden and see the links of Shadow that connected everything in the world, hoping they would show the links to the enemy, but they told him nothing. What was the use of having gifts if they never helped you? The sparks of light never coalesced into stalking soldiers, and the more he sought the Shadow, the less he saw it. He had no answers.
"But I have to know." He smashed the hilt of his sword against the ground, bruising his fingers. Someone looked up, their movement visible in the half-light of early dawn, but no-one said anything.
Why didn't they come? When they came, he would scream at them and accuse them of being late, of putting them through this horrible night of waiting. If they had come at the start of the night, everyone would have been ready for them, all fired up after Oliver's speech. As time passed, the Kindred would grow more tired and more cold, and they would start at shadows. Oliver would run out of speeches, and the long hours of darkness would whisper despair into the strongest of minds.
Waiting would kill them. What if it ended up being weeks? What if the enemy was blundering around miles away, and never found them? How long had to pass before Reynard decided that the danger was over and it was safe to come out? Never, he thought. They would be here forever, waiting for an enemy that never came.
"Please let it be today," he whispered. "I want it to happen. I want them to come."
So, if they came and everyone was killed, would that mean it was his fault, for wanting it?
The undergrowth shivered, brown and feathery. Ciaran turned his head, wrapping his free arm around his middle. He blinked, trying to make sure he was seeing as clearly as he could, and blinked again, but there was still nothing there, only the wind. "Nothing," he whispered aloud. "Nothing there."
Nothing there. There was always nothing there. There had never been a night longer than this, and still the enemy did not come.
Ciaran had volunteered for this. "Your cause is mine," he had told Reynard, offering him his staff to dispose of where he wanted.
Reynard had nodded briskly, accepting the offering for what it was, not an offering of peace, but of necessity. "You fought well yesterday," he had said. "Better than I knew you could." Because, of course, none of the Kindred had ever bothered to really look at Ciaran. They had never tried to find out what he could do, but Ciaran had never really tried to show them before this day.
He had found himself claimed, then, by one of Reynard's commanders, and assigned to a team of scouts. "Can you use this Shadow of yours?" Reynard had asked him. "Can it help you tell if the enemy is approaching?"
"It can," Ciaran had said, but not like this, surely not like this. Not after a night of waiting and fear and cold. Not when afraid, and all alone. The Shadow was a gift of calm and sunlight, not the battlefield. It had unravelled long ago, at sunset, when the tendrils of darkness had started to invade his heart, and now it was gone.
Were they even there, the others who had come with him? There had been six of them, and they had all disappeared, finding their own places to hide and watch this approach to the camp. They had just melted away, like water seeping into dry earth. Ciaran had no idea if they were still there. When he could find the Shadow, he tried to find sources of movement, but there was nothing there.
They've gone, he thought. He wanted to shout aloud, asking them to answer. Surely that couldn't do any harm? It was unlikely that the enemy was close enough to hear them.
They'd gone and left him here. He was still the outsider. They'd planted him here as a sacrifice to draw the enemy's fire, then gone off to fight from a safer place. Reynard had put them up to him, and it was just another attempt to kill Ciaran.
He held his staff tighter, the staff made from the wood of the world, showing that this was his home forever. "But I told you your cause was mine. Didn't that mean anything to you?" He had to talk to himself, or the silence would drive him insane.
"Maybe you meant it," they would have said, "but you are still dispensable."
Why had they been so quick to grab him for the scouting parties? With his staff, he would have been better placed with the women and children, to stand in front of them and defend them, if the enemy made it through. Those were the skills Reynard had seen him use, not sneaking through the forest. The Kindred had done that all their lives, but Ciaran never had. So why had they ordered him to stay here?
But he'd said other things, hadn't he, when Reynard had asked. He had told him how he could sense movement, for an approaching enemy would be like a stone cast into the placid pool of the Shadow. He had told him how he could use the Shadow to throw things at the enemy, or make branches rise up and trip them. He had even told him how he might be able to send a quick message to Thurstan, a cry of alarm in the mind, if he really tried.
So that was why, because he himself had made them think he was suitable. It might not be a trick. The other men might still be here, still hiding, still waiting. But, if so, when did they give up? When was he allowed to sleep? When he had exhausted the flask of water at his side, when could he go for more?
He scrubbed at his eyes. All he could see through the undergrowth that hid him was a scuffed patch of earth that formed a faint path, and the curve of a tree. The gap had five sides. One twig, longer than the others, thrust into the middle of the gap, and he wanted to reach out and snap it off. Even when he closed his eyes, snatching a moment of rest, he could see it, scratching at his eyeballs.
It was noon, or later. He shifted position, easing his stiff knees, and made a lot of noise as he did so. Perhaps he wanted them to hear him. Perhaps he wanted a whispered warning to come from the unrelenting stillness of the forest. At least then he would know they were still there. At least then he would know he was not alone.
Maybe it was all over. Maybe the attack had come on the other side, and had been defeated, and they were already feasting their success, but no-one had remembered to tell him. Or the attack had come and everyone was dead, but he had been overlooked.
I should stand up, he told himself. Just for a moment. Just to look. He ran his tongue over his lips. Yes, he decided, nodding with the sense of a decision well made. That's what he would do. He'd stand up now.
Seconds passed, minutes, and still he had not moved. His limbs were like lead, refusing to obey his command. A branch trembled, and it could be the enemy, and if he stood up, he betrayed himself, and Elias, and everyone. "I can't." He let out his breath in a trembling rush. He had to give it one more minute, and then, when that minute was over, he'd give it one more minute again, and then another, and then another.
He had to stay. There was no decision to make. He had to stay, just as all the other scouts had to stay. Were they all feeling the same way, each trapped in the prison of their own solitude, so close to each other, but unable even to know if the others existed? Or was it just him? As a Brother, he had always thought he could face anything, but even the smallest children of the Kindred knew what it was like to hide in the forest, knowing that the slightest movement could mean death.
I need the Shadow, he thought. Without the Shadow, he was just an ordinary man, but less than the Kindred, because they had passed many nights like this, but he had been undone by his first.
"I need it," he begged. "Please." He closed his eyes, and pressed both hands against the ground, then against his face, sharp grains of mud scraping his cheeks. Calm, he thought. Peace. Shadow. Not afraid. Nothing to be afraid of. Never alone with the Shadow. Never alone.
But all he could see was Elias, moving through the faint image of his Garden. Elias, drifting, and painted out of light. Elias, with golden hair and pale skin, who reached for him and was trying to say something, trying to warn him, trying to call.
He opened his eyes, and Elias was gone, but Ciaran was no longer alone, for a man had come. The enemy had come.