Chapter twenty-eight

The sun sets

 

††††††

†††††† A man came riding from the city, shouting something that Oliver could not hear. As he approached the Kindred's line, he held up one empty hand, in the gesture of a man trying to parley. Not that the Kindred would give him a chance, Oliver thought. He would soon be dead, like they all would be.

†††††† And he was coming from the city. So Darius had hidden men in there after all. The army outside had just been a distraction, and the Kindred had fallen right into the trap. Elias had gone into Ravenstor alone, but there had been soldiers there waiting for him, and no Kindred to protect him.

†††††† So Elias was dead. Why else would the man be leaving the gates, unless the job was done? Maybe Darius himself had killed him, or maybe Cercamond had done the job. Elias was dead, and Cercamond had won. The hillside Oliver knelt on felt as flimsy as quicksand, and soon it would dissolve away entirely, and take all life with it. The enchantment had already gone, and life would not be far behind.

†††††† The man came close enough for Oliver to hear what he was saying. "Stop!" he was crying. "Don't kill me! I'm not here to fight you!"

†††††† Many of the Kindred had seen him now. They raised their bows, but they looked at Oliver for orders. The man reined in his horse, glanced briefly at the bows, then stared hard at Oliver. Something flickered in his eyes, that could have been recognition.

†††††† Oliver raised one hand. "Leave him be," he said, wearily. "Let him past." Killing him would only be an indulgence of hatred, and would serve no purpose.

†††††† They obeyed, and that was the worst thing of all. He had failed them today, but they still obeyed. The man rode up to Oliver's side, and dismounted. "Are you their leader?" he asked, with a grimace of distaste, as if he found it repulsive even to be this close to one of his hated sorcerers.

†††††† "I am their seneschal." Oliver did not explain the word. "And their bard." He laughed sharply. "I have been trying to persuade your people not to kill them."

†††††† The man's right hand was stained with blood. Oliver wondered if it was Elias's blood, but did not ask him. "Why?" the man asked.

†††††† "Because we were only ever trying to save you all." Oliver sighed. "Because many of the things you believe about us are lies. Because your Lord Darius himself possesses the power he stirs you all up to hate. Because..." He shook his head and dug his fingers into the ground. "What's the point? You won't believe me."

†††††† "I... do," the man said, as if the words pained him. "I... saw things in there." For a moment he looked as if he was going to offer Oliver his hand, but then he thought better of it. "I shall add my voice to yours."

†††††† Oliver stayed kneeling. The sun was still shining, and he could hear both armies whispering.

†††††† "I know what they're saying," the man said. "They've been saying it for days. They're talking about the dead comrades they saw in dreams, who said your king had helped them. They talk of the plague and the dying earth, and wonder why, if your king has all that power, he didn't kill us all when he stood on the scaffold in Eidengard."

†††††† Oliver tilted his head to one side, and listened. He caught only whispers of their words. Perhaps the man was right, but perhaps he was not.

†††††† "Your king was still alive when I left," the man blurted out. "Darius was dead. There was a... thing that called itself Cercamond." He looked up at the sun, and swallowed hard. "If your king was dead, I think... we would not be here to see the sun."

†††††† "No," Oliver murmured. He pushed himself to his feet, then almost stumbled as his leg twinged beneath him. The man grabbed him, and helped him stay upright. Oliver looked round desperately for his horse. "You talk to them," he said. "I have to go to him. I have to."

†††††† "No," the man said, his eyes glinting. "You stay here with me. What I am about to do makes me a traitor. The least you can do is stand beside me."

†††††† "I can't," Oliver moaned.

†††††† He knew this for what it was. This was revenge, from a man who had believed one thing all his life, and had suddenly been confronted with the truth. Part of him would always hate the Kindred passionately, because they had proved him wrong. It would be hard for him to stand in front of his army and tell them the truth, but, if he had to do it, someone from the other side was going to suffer too.

†††††† But, at the same time, it was right. This was Oliver's role after all. As in the battle, it was always the duty of the bard to walk away from those who were in desperate need. With his words, he had to build reconciliation and trust, and Elias had to be forgotten.

††††††

 

†††††† It was afternoon before Oliver could go to the city. For hours, he had been watching the gateway, hoping that Elias would walk through it, victorious, but no-one had emerged. There was no visible sign of Cercamond's victory, but Elias remained in the city, lost.

†††††† He rode through the city quickly, and made for the centre. He heard no sounds of fighting, but birds were singing in the towers, their songs distorted and echoing. His horse's hooves were loud on the stone streets. He wanted to shout for Elias, but did not quite dare.

†††††† He ducked a little as he went through an archway, then found himself in the main square. A man was lying dead away to the right. On the wide steps ahead of him, a figure was crouched miserably beside another body. Wearily, the figure looked up.

†††††† "Oliver," he said. The banner lay forgotten at his feet, and he was shaking his head miserably. "I can't carry him. I've tried. I don't know where Ciaran's gone."

†††††† Oliver slid from his horse and ran stumbling to Thurstan's side. Elias was lying on his back, and he was still breathing. Still alive! A pool of sticky blood had begun to spill over the edge of the step and drip onto the step below.

†††††† Oliver touched his throat, feeling the faint fluttering of a pulse. "Did he...?"

†††††† "I don't know," Thurstan muttered. "I... wasn't there. I couldn't... watch."

†††††† Oliver scooped Elias into his arms, and crooned like a mother with a sick child when his head lolled backwards and his arm flopped free. "Your poor back. Oh, Elias."

†††††† "I think that man shot him." Thurstan pointed with a trembling finger. "I don't know what happened. I was scared."

†††††† Oliver tried to stand, but his leg could not take Elias's weight. "Help me with him," he pleaded.

†††††† With a defeated sigh, Thurstan stood up, and together they carried him. As they did so, they walked over the fallen banner, and smeared it with blood.

††††††

 

†††††† "I don't even know," Oliver said, later, "if he won."

†††††† They had carried Elias into a small chamber in a ruined tower. It had a large bay window, which meant that they had enough light to tend him by, but were sheltered from the wind. The floor was impacted mud, and they had both laid down their cloaks to make some sort of bed for him.

†††††† "We're still alive," Thurstan said, "so he must have."

†††††† Oliver stroked Elias's hair, pushing it back from his brow. "But you never doubted him." There was a faint note of accusation in his voice. It had been so easy for Thurstan, secure in his confidence that all would be well. It had allowed him no understanding of how Elias might be feeling.

†††††† Thurstan looked at the ground. "I don't know what to think now. I did doubt him, but..."

†††††† Oliver pressed his hands together. "What happened, Thurstan," he asked, gently. "Did you run?"

†††††† Thurstan grimaced. "I ran." He started jabbing at the mud with a sharp piece of stone. "Ciaran told me that not everyone can be a leader. Some people serve best by standing at the side of the great ones, he said, and lending them strength. I thought that was me. But I couldn't even do that. And I lost faith in my king. But now... I don't know. Did he win after all?"

†††††† "We have been tested more severely than most men are ever tested, Thurstan." But Oliver was only giving the boy half his thoughts. This day had been a very personal crisis for so many people, and none of them would be unchanged by it. He still didn't know if the world had a future.

†††††† "I was so angry with Reynard," Thurstan said. "I told myself I didn't need anybody, but I still served the king. He told me to stay in the gate, but I sneaked forward. I saw Cercamond. I ran away. Even Ciaran started walking backwards, down those steps. Only the king went on."

†††††† Oliver felt tears catch in his throat. "Of course he would carry on." Oh, Elias...

†††††† "I thought I could hide." Thurstan twisted the stone in the dirt. "If I hid, Cercamond wouldn't notice me. I'd be... missed out."

†††††† Oliver squeezed Elias's hand. "I can't heal him."

†††††† "He will never forgive me. I don't deserve forgiveness." Thurstan threw the stone at the wall, and it rebounded sharply, and came to rest against Elias's leg. "I'll be an outcast and deservedly so."

†††††† "Be quiet!" Oliver screamed at him. Gently he stroked Elias's shoulder. "I can't heal him," he whispered. "Why can't I heal him? There's no enchantment left. If he won, why is there no enchantment?"

†††††† No-one answered. Perhaps Thurstan had gone.

††††††

 

†††††† In his dreams he was a gaoler, though he, too, was bound with chains.

†††††† Iron bars separated him from his prisoner. On the other side, a shambling beast stalked up and down its cell, spitting acid through the bars, and shouting insults.

†††††† The acid stung Elias's hands and face. He couldn't move away, for he was chained. A circle of metal surrounded his waist, and was pinned tightly to the wall. His hands were shackled at the wrists, and a collar around his neck was fastened to cuffs at his ankles, a little too tightly for him to be able to stand up. There was a key on a hook beside him. He had to guard the key for ever, and the chains were to stop him from relaxing his guard, even in sleep.

†††††† The imprisoned creature rattled at the bars with long-clawed hands. A gout of poison dripped from one tip, and burnt through the skin on Elias's bare feet.

†††††† Elias bit his lip, and did not scream. The monster liked it when he screamed.

†††††† He was the only gaoler in this prison. Very far away, he could hear the sounds of life continuing. There were children laughing and women talking, and Ciaran was there, and Oliver.

†††††† "It's all right," Oliver said, suddenly close and vivid, shot through with dazzling lights that hurt him. "It doesn't matter. Just get better, Elias. Just live."

†††††† He was very hot. Fire was red and orange and black. Once, he thought, fire had been white and lovely, but he could no longer find his way to that fire.

†††††† "I hate you," Ciaran hissed, his voice sneaking through the cracks in the prison wall. "You had no right to do this. You are repulsive to me now. You are tainted and ugly. I never want to see you again."

†††††† "You won't," Elias whispered.

†††††† Acid landed on his face, and burnt away his eyes. He could feel a great scar across his throat. Even if he could escape, people would scream to see him coming, and run away from him. He had become a monster, because he carried a monster inside him, chained in a prison. The monster paced up and down his cell, and rattled the bars, and marked Elias with his evil.

†††††† He had no eyes to weep with, but inside he was crying. "Ciaran," he sobbed.

†††††† Ciaran had helped chain him here. No, he thought, immediately. Ciaran hadn't done it. Elias alone had made that choice. But Ciaran, out of well-meaning ignorance, had made him almost lose everything, and, to recover, he had done something terrible. There were spikes in his chains, and the spikes were guilt.

†††††† "Elias," Oliver was crying. "Please don't die."

†††††† "I can't," he said. If he died, he would still be chained here, bound after death like the dead in Ravenstor. His body might die, but there was no end for him.

†††††† "Do you blame me too?" he flung out at the dead, but they were silent. He could not even feel them touching his face or pressed about him like feathered birds. Perhaps they, too, had walked away in disgust. Perhaps the terrible thing he had done had destroyed them.

†††††† "Elias," Oliver sobbed.

†††††† The spiked chains bit into his flesh. "Please," Elias whispered.

 

 

†††††† Two days afterwards, Oliver leant on the crumbling windowsill and stared out at the city. Small fires marked the encampments of the remaining groups of soldiers. Most of the army had begun to return to Eidengard, and some of the Kindred had gone with them. The reconciliation was flimsy at best, but Oliver thought it might hold.

†††††† Outside the world looked like a tapestry. The setting sun made lines in the sky like faint orange thread. The towers of the city looked flat, as if they were not truly real. He had never been aware how much he had viewed the world through enchantment until it was gone. The air seemed thinner, and colours less bright. Living things seemed as dull as stones, where before they had shimmered with life.

†††††† With a sigh, he turned his back to the window and faced into the room. Elias was propped up on a pile of cloaks, and his eyes were open.

†††††† Oliver had nursed him through two days of unconsciousness and delirium, and many times had despaired of his life, although the wound itself had not been too severe. Elias had raved of being chained, and called many times for Ciaran, but Brother Morgan had never come. Someone had told Oliver that he walked the beach beneath the city with a look of hunched fury, and snapped at anyone who came close, but Oliver had not been able to leave Elias long enough to go after him.

†††††† "Oliver." Elias spoke carefully, his voice hoarse. "I am glad to see you well."

†††††† "Did you...?" Oliver knelt beside him, and made his voice a little more gentle. "I still don't know the... state of the world."

†††††† Two days of waiting, and he had wanted to scream. They had all been ready for a final cataclysmic stand, but it had all ended with the faintest of whimpers. They had faced the morning after the last day not knowing if the world was saved, or if it was doomed, and this was just its last flowering. They had made their overtures of friendship, but none of them had known if there had been any point to it at all.

†††††† "Oh." Elias closed his eyes. "Cercamond is... defeated."

†††††† Oliver would have expected to cry out in joy, and laugh with relief, but Elias just looked so sad and broken. "You did it," he managed to say.

†††††† "I did it." Elias spoke as if he was admitting to a great crime. Then he opened his eyes again. "How did the battle go? Who...?"

†††††† "There was no battle." Despite everything, Oliver smiled. "There's real hope, Elias. We persuaded them not to fight. Finally, after so long, they're beginning to believe in us. We have a delegation already on the way to Eidengard, to discuss the terms of peace."

†††††† Elias gave a weak smile. "I'm glad. You deserve it. This is a new beginning of hope for you. I'm so very glad."

†††††† Oliver grabbed his hand. "And for you."

†††††† Still smiling, Elias shook his head. Before Oliver could ask him what he meant, he was asleep again.

††††††

 

†††††† When Elias woke up for the second time, he was a little stronger. Soon, he knew, he would be strong enough to stand, and then he would walk away. He would tell nobody he was going. He had already said his farewells, and knew he could not find the strength to say them again.

†††††† Oliver was still there beside him, though this time it was early morning. A bird was singing on the windowsill.

†††††† "Look," Oliver exclaimed. His hand trembled as he pointed at a speck of green shoot growing between two stones.

†††††† Elias smiled. Life would return to the earth, although there would be no miraculous transformation, with dead fields turning green, and trees shooting up to the sky. Life could not be restored out of death and the plants that had died would never come alive again. But seeds that had been dropped last autumn had sometimes survived, deep under ground. They would grow, and spring would come. At the end of the summer, their seeds would be carried by the wind, and would begin to colonise the new wildernesses. It would take years, but the land would be restored.

†††††† It had been worth it, he told himself. Any sacrifice was worth it.

†††††† "I don't think I really believed that he'd gone," Oliver breathed. "Not until now."

†††††† "He's gone," Elias said, though of course he would never be gone, and Elias would never be free from him. He shifted his position, and groaned at the pain in his back.

†††††† "I tried to heal you," Oliver blurted out, "but I couldn't. I can't sense the enchantment any more. I don't know why."

†††††† Elias froze. His memory of those last moments was hazy, and reality was mixing with dreams. Ciaran had struck him down, just like in the vision. Elias had been about to bait his trap for Cercamond, when Ciaran had smashed him backwards, and he had lost everything. In his desperation, he had called on all his strength, and found that it was not enough. "Help me!" he had screamed, to anyone in the world who could hear him.

†††††† And they had come to him. The dead of Ravenstor had cloaked him in their power, and gifted him with their strength. "Take it," they had urged him, and Elias had clutched it to him selfishly, scooping it up and holding it close to his chest, but it had still not been enough. He had needed more. Oliver was close by, and loyal. Nightshade was linked to him, and the birds that had flown with him. All, as living things, had a presence in enchantment, and he had called upon that too.

†††††† He had sucked them dry. He had faced Cercamond not just with his own strength, but with all the strength of enchantment that remained in the world. Just like the great enchanters, who had removed the dark enchantment from the world and imprisoned it, he had gathered to himself every scrap that remained.

†††††† Dark clouds of horror danced before his eyes. "I... did it," he gasped.

†††††† Oliver frowned. "How?"

†††††† "I did it." He bit his lip until it bled, but the pain could never be enough. "Oliver!" He clawed at the bedding, struggling to rise, fighting Oliver's efforts to push him back. "He was too much for me. I took too much. I took everything. I used it to fight him. I shouldnít have. Oh, I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry, Oliver. So sorry."

†††††† Oliver rocked back on his heels, and no longer sought to touch him. Like Ciaran, Oliver would hate him, and deservedly so. "Enchantment is... dead?"

†††††† Not dead, but imprisoned. He had known all along that he would have to sacrifice his own powers. Everything he was would go towards keeping Cercamond imprisoned. If he cast as much as a tiny illusion, Cercamond's dark power could flow out along with his own, and that would be the first window for his escape. But he had always thought that he would be the only one affected. He had never dreamed that enchantment itself would be confined, that no-one else in the world would ever be able to see its beauty ever again.

†††††† He pressed his knuckles to his mouth. "I'm so sorry."

†††††† "There was a choice between all life ending, and life continuing, without enchantment," Oliver said, looking at his hands. "It is the lesser of two evils. It is a price worth paying. Perhaps it will help the reconciliation. There is nothing setting us apart from them now. We are just as they are. And..." He smiled bravely. "They've lived without it for centuries. It's not such a big thing. It's been declining for so long, readying us for the day we have to live without it. It's a new age of hope, when all men have the same powers."

†††††† "Stop it," Elias begged him. "Please."

†††††† Oliver was being so brave, but tears were shining in his eyes. No-one who had ever seen the glory of enchantment could be anything other than heart-broken to see its passing. The world had been saved, but life was a bleak thing, without beauty.

†††††† And he, Elias, had done that.

††††††

 

†††††† Ciaran sat on a rock and stared out to sea. The tide was coming in, and specks of water were already beginning to splash onto his boots. If he wanted to return to the city, soon he would have to wade.

†††††† The shingle crunched behind him, but he did not turn round. They had come for him several times, but he had refused them. Elias was hurt, they said. Elias was feverish. Elias was conscious again, and would he come? "No," he had snarled, each time.

†††††† If Elias had died, he would have wept, and then hated him for dying.

†††††† "Master Morgan." It was Thurstan.

†††††† Ciaran propped his chin on his hand and stared at the distant line of the horizon.

†††††† "I'm going to go away," the boy said. "I have... I'm in a mess. I admit it. I'm not expecting anyone to help me. I've... struggled with many things. I thought I was finding my way, then I lost it again. I thought I had a father, then he cast me aside. I thought I had courage, then I ran like a coward."

†††††† "I don't care," Ciaran whispered, but a crashing wave drowned out his voice. Elias had betrayed their love, like Gideon before him. What could possibly be more important than that?

†††††† "I thought my life was like a journey," Thurstan said, "with an end to reach. Sometimes I thought I was reaching it. Other times, I knew I was falling behind. But maybe it's not a journey after all. Maybe I will always just... drift."

†††††† "Maybe," Ciaran said.

†††††† "I ran from the king," Thurstan said. "I ran when I should have stayed."

†††††† "And you think I should have stayed too?" Ciaran snapped. "You're like the rest of them. I'm the outsider, and the first to be blamed for everything. You don't know how I was provoked."

†††††† "I ran," Thurstan said, again. "And I need to be alone, to think about who I am, and why I did that. But I can't go, not yet. The king left me a message to give to you."

†††††† Ciaran half turned round. "A message?"

†††††† "I didn't understand it at the time," Thurstan said. "I didn't even know it was a message. But I've been thinking. It's all I've done, these last few days. And I think I understand. I think I was right all along, in some things. And he knew I was, and that's why he talked to me. He knew I wouldn't understand everything at the time, that's why he chose me, but he hoped it would become clear to me when it needed to."

†††††† "What do you mean?" Ciaran pushed himself off the rock, and grabbed Thurstan by the shoulders. "What did he tell you?" Was there no end to Elias's betrayal? This fool boy had been trusted with things that Ciaran had not.

†††††† Thurstan swallowed, but did not lower his eyes. "I think... I think he was going to lure Cercamond into a trap. He was going to pretend to be defeated, to trick Cercamond into making a mistake. And it must have worked, because he won."

†††††† "I know all this." Ciaran pushed him away, disgusted. "You're telling me nothing new."

†††††† "He asked me to tell you that he loved you, and he was sorry," Thurstan said. "He wanted you to be happy. So I've told you. Then I'm telling Oliver, and then I'm going."

†††††† Ciaran did not ask him where he was planning to go. Following the high tide line, he started to walk down the beach.

 

 

†††††† The tide was at its lowest again before Oliver found him.

†††††† "Are you satisfied?" Oliver yelled at him.

†††††† Ciaran frowned. He had never seen Oliver truly furious before. He always seemed so placid, so conciliatory. It was strange, and didn't seem quite right.

†††††† He folded his arms. "You're talking about Elias."

†††††† Oliver gave an angry nod. "Elias, yes. The man you're supposed to love."

†††††† "You don't know anything," Ciaran spat, beginning to turn away. "You don't know what he did."

†††††† "Thurstan told me," Oliver said. "He told me what Elias said to him. And I've been doing some thinking myself over the last few days. I've heard what Elias says in his nightmares. I understand everything now, more than Elias realises. And so I know how desperate he was, to do this thing, and how afraid he was, how terrible and amazing his sacrifice was."

†††††† "He sacrificed things he had no right to sacrifice," Ciaran said. "Things that weren't his own."

†††††† Worst of all, though he did not say it, Elias had betrayed love. Gideon had almost destroyed Ciaran, but, slowly, tremulously, he had let himself love again. He had been as naive as he had been twenty years before, spouting foolishly that love was the only thing that mattered. All along, Elias had known that love was the first thing that was cast aside. Without a moment's doubt, he had accepted a path that would make him hateful to Ciaran, and would tear them apart. For the last week, he had stopped loving Ciaran, and now was ready to go into willing exile, and never see him again.

†††††† Oliver pushed him, shoving him hard in the chest, so Ciaran almost fell on the treacherous shingle. Perhaps Ciaran had spoken aloud, for Oliver shouted, "How dare you? Without a moment's doubt...? He is tormented by it. If only you had bothered to come and see him... He can never forget it."

†††††† "He speaks about it?" Ciaran sneered. So like Elias to talk about their secrets to strangers, and let others trample over the memories of their love.

†††††† "No," Oliver snapped. "He's too miserable to talk much. When he speaks at all, he speaks of the future, and how we can build on the reconciliation, though he knows he won't be there to see it. But he begs your forgiveness in his dreams, and he spoke in his fever. I can read his silence."

†††††† Ciaran almost struck him. "I can never forgive him."

†††††† "I didn't understand until Thurstan told me what Elias had been planning," Oliver said. "I had no idea what he had done. He wasn't even going to tell me, I think."

†††††† "Still lying," Ciaran muttered.

†††††† Oliver jabbed at his chest again. "Let me tell you something, Ciaran Morgan. He takes all the blame onto himself. I have never heard him blame you for a thing, but I know what you did. He spoke too much when he was delirious. I know you pushed him down the steps. I know you made him lose concentration just at the most vital moment. I know you did it, despite him warning you beforehand, and asking you to promise only to watch. I know you refused to apologise afterwards. And, most of all, I know the cost of it."

†††††† Ciaran laughed. "Doesn't blame me, you say? That's a lengthy catalogue of blame."

†††††† "I blame you," Oliver snapped. "He doesn't. I could forgive you for what you did," he said, a little softer, "because I know you only did it because you wanted to save him. How can I blame you for that? I can even forgive you for the cost, for how could you know? But I find it impossible to forgive you for the way you acted afterwards. However he provoked you, he was a badly wounded man, and you left him in pain. He almost died. Elias would never have done that even to his worst enemy."

†††††† "But I'm not Elias's equal," Ciaran said. "I never will be in your eyes. He's your wonderful king, and he'll always get everything. He always has to be right. He always has to go one better, so I look petty when I react as I do. It's not fair."

†††††† "And you were supposed to love him," Oliver said, as if Ciaran had not spoken. "Love can understand and forgive. When the person you love needs you, you forget all the little disagreements you've had. I know he's been difficult recently, but who wouldn't be, facing what he was facing? You promised to love him no matter what, but, when he most needed you, you rejected him and hurt him."

†††††† "He hurt me too!" Ciaran protested.

†††††† "And you haven't even asked about the cost," Oliver said, "but I'll tell you anyway. Listen to this. Because of your intervention, Elias was unable to imprison Cercamond by himself. He called on the help of others, and the help was given. Thanks to you, there is no enchantment left in the world."

†††††† "Why should I care?" Ciaran muttered, then instantly felt ashamed. He had hated it at first, but had come to see beauty in the enchantment. It was it was truly gone, then it was a shame.

†††††† Oliver turned away in disgust. "I don't know why he loved you. From the first day I knew you, you've only been putting him down. He would have been happier if he had never known you."

†††††† "And I would have been happier if I had never known him," Ciaran retorted. The pain of a second love betrayed was even more terrible than the pain of the first, and all the worse for the fact that, for a while, he had let himself trust in love again.

†††††† Oliver stopped walking. "But he will never be happy again," he said. "Never forget that, Ciaran Morgan. However you think he wronged you, he is the one who is bound in chains."

†††††† Ciaran breathed in, and held the breath. Then, very slowly, he let it out.

†††††† "Could you have done it, I wonder?" Oliver murmured. "Could I? For that last week, he knew he was facing a choice that was no choice at all. If he failed, all life died. If he won, he would lose everything. He was miserable and bleak and hard to be with. He pushed us away. But all along he knew that there was no happy ending for him, and no hope."

†††††† "No," Ciaran breathed.

†††††† "He might have wanted more than anything for another way out. He might have longed to be able to love you in peace."

†††††† "I said nothing was more important than love," Ciaran murmured.

†††††† Oliver's voice was no louder than the wind. "You had that luxury. He never did."

†††††† Ciaran sank to his knees. "Oh, Elias..."

†††††† Oliver turned to face him. "You still love him. I know you do. You wouldn't be so angry with him if you didn't."

†††††† "I love him," Ciaran sobbed, as if it was a sentence of death.

†††††† "Then go to him. Please."

†††††† Ciaran nodded eagerly. "I will."

†††††† Oliver gave a sad smile. "He's gone. He doesn't think I know. I'm supposed to find him gone in the morning, and not be able to find him. I would have gone after him, but it should be you."

†††††† "Where?" Ciaran looked around wildly.

†††††† "I don't know." Oliver shook his head. "This is it, forever. He believes he's an outcast, and can't stay with us any more. He's never coming back. He hates himself."

†††††† "I'll bring him back."

†††††† Oliver shook his head. "Not by force, and not before he is ready. It may be that he refuses even your company. It may be that none of us ever sees him again."

†††††† Ciaran was incredulous. "How can you speak of it and not weep?"

†††††† "I have done my weeping," Oliver said. "We said our farewells in the hills, and he thought that was forever. I will never stop mourning him. But..." He shook his head, and gestured at the city behind him. "We have to make his sacrifice mean something. We have to build the brightest world we can, even without enchantment. We have five hundred years of hatreds to undo, and a new world to live for. That is my task. One day, I hope, I will be the first to welcome him on his return, and then I promise you, Ciaran Morgan, I will weep."

†††††† Ciaran shivered, wondering if Oliver was speaking of a future he had seen in a vision.

†††††† "In the old days," Oliver said, "they say that each new king used to dress himself in a plain white robe, and walk out alone into the wilds. It was his vigil, and no-one knew what passed in that week. Perhaps it was a test, and some failed it. I do not know. But, they say, the king would return tired and weak but radiating power and serenity. Only then would he truly be king."

†††††† Then he shrugged, before Ciaran could reply. "But I tell too many stories. The past will not be forgotten, but perhaps it will not be told for a little while. The things that keep us apart lie in the past. We have cherished our histories, because they told us why we lived where we did, and why we waited. Now the waiting is over, and the hatreds are to be forgotten. The prophecy has run out. Everything ahead is new and unknown and the past is no guide."

†††††† Ciaran touched his arm. "But you won't forget Elias, surely?"

†††††† "Oh no." Oliver shook his head vehemently. "I speak as a bard, who finds his stories are no longer any true guide. I'm wondering where we will be in a year's time. I'm wondering if I'll have..." He shook his head. "Go to him, Ciaran. Help him. Tell him that I know everything, and still I love him."

†††††† Ciaran nodded. "I will." The moment seemed to call for some more formal words of farewell, but he could not think of what to say, and so he just turned his back, and walked away.

†††††† Oliver, he thought, watched him for a very long time.

 

 

†††††† Thurstan pulled his hood over his head, and set off through the city's south gate. He walked alone. No-one watched him go. He had told Ciaran Morgan his plans, but the man had not asked him where he was going, or made any effort to stop him. Oliver, who would have asked, he had not told.

†††††† Half way across the plain, he turned and looked back. The sun was setting over the sea, and the dark towers were stained with orange. The world was safe from Cercamond, but it had never looked more flimsy. Oliver had told him that enchantment had died. The world was made of stones and bricks and mere men, and all of them could fail.

†††††† He had told Ciaran the truth, though perhaps he had only done so because he had known that the man would not really listen to him. Maybe that was why he finally understood the king, and realised why he, and he alone, had been entrusted with his secret. He had been trusted only because he was ignorant, and would misunderstand it. But, in the end, he had fled rather than stand beside the king, so he had proved himself unworthy of trust.

†††††† Cercamond had gone, but the grass had not yet returned. Spring would come, but, even without Cercamond, winter was barely over. The sunset brought sudden cold, and the wind from the sea was growing stronger.

†††††† He shivered. He had told Ciaran Morgan the truth. In this last year, he had been through so many things, and had changed in many ways, and not all of them good. He had grown from a boy into a... not yet a man, he thought. He was seventeen, and still felt that everyone he looked at was a generation older than him, even though he knew the king was only four years his senior. He still looked at the world with the eyes of a child, but that had to change.

†††††† "I need time to think," he had told Ciaran. Time alone. He had careened from certainty to certainty. Gerhard was his lord who could do not wrong, and Reynard was the villain. The king was noble and perfect in every way. He, Thurstan, was weak and hopeless, and then he had been strong, finally able to prove himself a man. Reynard was a man to hate, and then a father to be proud of.He longed for the approval of those stronger than him, and then he needed none of that, and could stand on his own two feet. He was content with being a mere follower, and then he was terrified and running away.

†††††† Whenever he had thought he was finally getting somewhere, something knocked him sideways, and he tumbled from the path.

†††††† "There is no path," he said, aloud. There was no right place for him to end up. If he stayed with the Kindred, he would be pushed whichever way they wanted him, or else would rebel against it, and be as surly as he had been when he had told the king he cared nothing for Reynard.

†††††† He had run, and perhaps that meant he was a coward. He had defended Oliver when ordered to, and perhaps that meant he was brave. He had looked up to Reynard, and perhaps that made him a child, but then he had shouted that he didn't need a father, and perhaps that, too, only showed that he was still immature.

†††††† "I don't know," he said. But he had all the years ahead of him to find out.

†††††† He had been influenced by others all his life, but how could he follow others until he knew truly who he was. He needed to get away. There, away from anyone who knew him, he would find out what sort of a person Thurstan was.

†††††† He only hoped he could live with what he found.

††††††

 

†††††† On the top of the cliff, near the place he had tried to make love to Elias, he saw a figure.

†††††† Ciaran stopped walking.

†††††† The figure was crouching on the edge of the cliff, leaning forward, its arms dangling over the edge. It was a dark silhouette against the vast sea of bleeding light, made thin and wraith-like by the sunset.

†††††† "Elias," Ciaran breathed.

†††††† Sea birds wheeled against the sunset, and far below Ciaran could hear the sound of breaking waves. As he watched, Elias rocked forward, until it seemed certain that he was going to fall.

†††††† Ciaran did not dare speak. If he startled him, Elias would fall. It was no accident that had brought him here. Elias was drawn desperately by the lure of death. Perhaps the idea had been planted in his mind the first time he had leant over this cliff, or perhaps it was just a wild impulse born of despair. Or perhaps, he thought, it was Cercamond, whispering his mischief from inside his prison.

†††††† He crept forward. Close enough to touch now, but still Elias did not turn round. Someone, probably Oliver, had dressed him in new clothes. His hair was tangled in knots at the back of his neck, and Ciaran wanted to comb them out gently, and stroke the skin that lay beneath them.

†††††† Silently, he crouched down behind Elias, and took hold of both his elbows, easing him back from the edge. Elias did not resist. Like a dead weight, he came when Ciaran pulled him, sinking into Ciaran's touch. His head lolled back and fell against Ciaran's shoulder.

†††††† "Elias," Ciaran whispered, his breath stirring his hair. "I'm going to move backwards now. Come with me?"

†††††† Elias gave no sign of hearing him, but did not resist.

†††††† "Elias," he said again, when he was satisfied that they were safe. "Were you going to jump?" Did I hurt you that much?

†††††† "I don't know," Elias murmured, barely moving his lips. "It wouldn't make a difference, if I died. Did you know that I nearly drowned once?" he said, in a dreamy voice. "I was crossing a river. I think Cercamond was whispering to me, but I didn't know him well then. I almost died, and then I saw a vision. A voice spoke of a choice, and I saw myself just lean forward, and fall off this cliff."

†††††† "Well, you won't, you hear me." Ciaran held him fiercely.

†††††† "I'm not... yours any more," Elias whispered.

†††††† "I don't care," Ciaran snapped, and realised that he meant it. Oliver had opened his eyes to his own selfishness. Elias was not Gideon, and had never been deliberately cruel. Ciaran loved him, and that meant loving him no matter what, and understanding the things that had driven him to behave as he had. Elias could stop loving him, and they would be parted forever, but he would still remember him with love, and not a shadow of anger.

†††††† Elias squirmed in his grip. "I need to go."

†††††† "Why?" Ciaran pulled him round, then relaxed his grip when Elias moaned. "Why?" he said, more gently. "I did some unforgivable things, Elias. I can't apologise enough. I walked away when you needed me, and Oliver says you almost died, with no-one to tend you. I only saw how what you did affected me, and not what it felt like for you."

†††††† "It doesn't matter." Elias's eyelids were sliding shut.

†††††† "It does," Ciaran said. Then he took a deep breath. This was not the time for lengthy apologies or raking over the past. It had gone far beyond that now. This was about Elias's life itself, and whether he found the strength to go on. After he had won that battle there would be time for apologies, and saying all the things that needed to be said.

†††††† "I love you," he said, quietly. "Even with Cercamond inside you, I love you. Even if you can never love me, I love you. I demand nothing in return. I just want you to know that."

†††††† "It would have made a difference, once," Elias said, without opening his eyes. "But now it makes it worse. At least, when you hated me, it seemed as if I was losing less." Towards the end, his voice trailed away almost to silence.

†††††† "Why do you need to lose it?" Ciaran demanded. "I don't understand."

†††††† Elias shook his head bleakly. "I'm not myself any more."

†††††† "Nonsense," Ciaran retorted. "You've done a very noble thing, and you've sacrificed a lot. But having that spirit inside you doesn't make you evil or tainted. Itís only your guilt that does that."

†††††† Elias struggled to stand, and Ciaran let him. "I can't love you any more," Elias said.

†††††† "Why not?" Ciaran stood up too, but made no move to touch him. "Because you thought I'd hate you, so you couldn't let yourself love me, since it would hurt too much?"

†††††† Elias began to walk away, his course weaving slowly away from the cliff edge, and towards the north. "I canít be loved."

†††††† Ciaran began to walk after him, two steps behind. The sun was setting and it was almost dark. "Why not?" he asked. "Because you don't think you're worthy of love?"

†††††† Elias wrapped his arms around his body. Away from the mirrored sea, the darkness clung to him. "I can't send you back home. I've got no powers any more."

†††††† "Then I will stay with you," Ciaran countered. "I would want nothing else."

†††††† Elias's voice was growing fainter. "I can't go back to them."

†††††† "Because you blame yourself for their loss?" Ciaran swallowed. In time, he would have to apologise for that, too, and face his own guilt. "I can't go back either," he said, with an attempt at a smile. "Oliver hit me, you know."

†††††† "Oliver?" For a moment, there was a hint of the old Elias there, as he almost laughed, and paused incredulously.

†††††† "Yes, Elias. Oliver. I deserved it, of course."

†††††† Elias started walking again. "I don't know where I'm going."

†††††† "I don't care," Ciaran declared. "Wherever it is, I don't want you to be there alone."

†††††† "I have nothing to offer you," Elias whispered. "I have nothing left."

†††††† Ciaran stopped. It was almost fully dark now. If he stood still, Elias would just keep walking further away, until he was lost to sight. "What you have is enough," Ciaran whispered.

†††††† Elias walked half a dozen more steps, then turned round. He squinted into the darkness. "What do I have to do to make you go away, Ciaran Morgan?"

†††††† "Really, genuinely, want it," Ciaran said. "Do you want it, Elias?"

†††††† Elias's shoulders slumped. "No," he whispered. "I was so scared of being alone."

†††††† "You'll never be alone." Ciaran was at his side in seconds, embracing him, careful always for the wound in his back, and the fragility of their reunion. There were apologies to be said tomorrow that could still tear them apart. "I love you."

†††††† Elias accepted his embrace, but did not reply.