Chapter twenty-five

The last night of the world

 

 

       Days passed, and Lankin was still alive. When he had woken after the sorcerer's attack, he had not expected to survive the day.

       It had been strange, that second waking. Still half asleep, he had moaned, reaching out for something indescribably beautiful that had left him. Sleep had not been dreamless. There were memories of liquid white, and a voice telling him that he was safe, that he would sleep for a little while, but no enemy would be able to see him.

       Then he had woken fully, and snatched his hand back, pressing it curled against his chest. Sorcery was not just illusion, though that was one of its strongest weapons. The most powerful sorcerers could ensnare the mind with cunning commands and tricks. They could enchant the unwary, and lead a man smiling to his doom. They could hide foul things in a cloak of beauty, so poor innocent men were enticed forward, only to be caught in a trap, and bound as a mindless slave forever.

       Lankin had stood up, and tested each cautious step, as if the very ground was going to spring up and engulf him. There were birds in the trees above him, singing louder than birds normally sang, and that was the first strange thing. The next one he noticed far later than he should have, and that was that all the dead had gone. Where hundreds of bodies had lain in twisted agony, there was only bare ground, specked with blades of brushed grass.

       How had that happened? He pressed his hand to his mouth, and turned a full circle. How? Unless days had passed, or months, or even years. Eidengard could be dust, and everyone he ever knew just bones and ashes. Another turn, and he tried to force the unreasoning fear back down again. The trees looked the same, and surely there was... yes, there! There was still blood on the grass, old and drying, and bare footsteps in the mud, where the sorcerer had walked.

       Not long, then, but that only made it more strange and more horrible. There was no sign of burial or fire. The only thing he could believe was that the sorcerer's foul ritual to bind the dead to his cause had involved the defilement and destruction of their mortal remains. It was horrible, but... "True," he said aloud. His tongue felt thick. "True," he tried again, louder. The birds sang, and the afternoon light was dappled. Not true at all, they told him. Something amazing and beautiful happened here, and not even you can deny it.

       He turned and ran, hands pressed to his ears. "Leave me alone!" Branches tore at his face. "I won't listen! You can't have me!" For the sorcerer king had touched him, cruel hands on his unconscious body, whispering his magical commands into Lankin's soul. You will believe that I am good. You will be my slave. You will smile as I send you against your own people, to kill them and torture them and destroy them.

       "No!" he screamed. He whipped out his knife and turned to slash at shadows. He found dead fugitives, and knelt at their sides as he shrieked his hatred to the leaden sky. When he dozed in the night and the dreams came, dreams of a wonderful white light and a place of the dead made beautiful, he drove his head back against the tree trunk, and clawed at his temples, trying to reclaim his mind for his own.

       See how the little mouse runs, the sorcerer would be laughing, rubbing his hands together with glee. See how the poison starts to take effect. But still he ran. A night and then a morning, and he found a horse tethered to a tree, stamping impatiently as his master, a Soldier of Light, failed to awaken. Lankin closed the dead man's eyes and covered his body with branches, but had no choice but to take his horse.

       Another night, and another day. He stopped only for an hour at a time, and drove the horse mercilessly. The dreams still came when he slept, so he stopped sleeping. Every minute took him further from the sorcerer king, but how could he be sure that distance could stop him? Perhaps his power could reach across the world. He would wait until Lankin had reached Eidengard itself, and then complete his dark spell, closing his hand on Lankin's soul.

       The forest came to an end, and he was out on the open downs. He rode past bands of fugitives, struggling on foot, but did not stop for them. He would not seek to avoid his own share of the blame, but their premature flight had ruined everything. He knew the terror of sorcery better than anyone, but he could still not forgive them. There was no room for cowardice in the war that they were fighting. Every man had to be willing to die.

       Once, he found a wounded man delirious with fever, who clutched both hands to his bleeding stomach, and babbled about seeing his brother returned from the dead. "He told me he was at peace," the man cried. "He said the sorcerer king had saved him. He's not evil at all, he said. He's trying to save us all. What have we done? Oh, what have we done?"

       "You did nothing," Lankin soothed him, stroking his hair back from his brow. "Be at peace." Smooth and silent, he slipped his dagger between the man's ribs, killing him instantly. Only when he was dead did he stand up and back away, shaking. He had saved the man from a fate worse than death, of living as the sorcerer's mindless slave, believing his lies. Killing him had been a mercy. Afterwards, he wiped the blood from his hands again and again, washed them in the nearest stream, and wiped them again.

       Just before nightfall, he rode into a village, and changed his horse at an inn. The inn-keeper looked at him with suspicion, and Lankin fought the urge to feel his own face all over to check that he was still himself. The sorcerer's curse could take effect when he least expected it. It would snap shut like a metal trap, and suddenly Lankin would find himself turning on the innocent villagers, slaughtering them mercilessly.

       "No!" he snarled. Leaping on the new horse, he galloped out of the stable yard, tossing coins at the ostler as he went. Memories came with the night, but morning found him still himself, travelling the road beneath the mountains. It would add a day to the journey, but he had no desire to pass through the wall of rock, and feel like sickly cold touch of sorcery on his flesh. There were settlements on the road, and it was a comfort to see the smoke from chimneys that showed that people still lived, and there were still such simple things as love and family in the world.

       The mountains towered in the east, their dark tips touching the black clouds, as if evil was flowing from one to the other. It rained, and Lankin shivered and huddled under his cloak, but it was only a short shower and it passed. In a village away to the west, he heard bells tolling a funeral, and frowned, realising that it was the first he had heard. On the journey north with the army, they had been far more frequent. So maybe one good thing had come out of the disaster. By wiping out so many of the sorcerer's minions, Lankin's army had weakened him enough to ease the plague that was carried by his sorcery. Maybe there was hope after all.

       But hope died so quickly. Another night, and another dream. In the morning, he drew his sword and cut a nick in his wrist, renewing the old oath to destroy the sorcerer king. "You will not have me!" he swore. "Whisper all you like, but I will not believe you."

       It was worst between sleep and waking, when his thoughts were close to reality, but still drifting out of control. It was then that he saw the man called Oliver, and the woman, Adela, who looked just like ordinary people, terrified for the safety of their friends. It was then that he saw the sorcerer king himself, his bare feet bleeding, as he straightened the limbs of a poor dead soldier, and whispered soft words. He saw the sorcerer's eyes again and again, the exhausted eyes of a grieving man. Why didn't he kill me? he wondered. Why didn't it hurt? "To trick me into thinking I was safe," he could say when he was fully awake, "all the better to close his trap on me later." But, half asleep, the answer was harder to give, and harder still to believe.

       For one whole day he stared straight ahead, and thought of nothing but the sound of his horse's hooves on the rutted road. Only when it was nearly dark did he look to one side, and almost cried out with fear. A broken statue from some ancient way post was lying on its side, newly revealed by the death of the dense grass that had covered it for centuries. It was worn and muddy, but Lankin knew what it represented. It was a bird of prey, a falcon, just like on the enemy's banner.

       He leapt off his horse and kicked the statue again and again. "Leave me alone!" he sobbed. "Let me go free!" Then he fell to the ground and clutched his bruised foot, while the bird stared at him with sightless grey eyes, and did not look away. All the bare patches on the ground screamed out to him that the sorcerer's magic had touched here, and here, and here, and there was no place in the world that was safe from him.

       Next morning, early, he reached the place where the great north road joined the road to the sea, and knew that Eidengard was only a day and a half away. An hour later, he heard hoof beats, and shrank back into the hedgerow, and watched as a horseman approached, wearing the silver and black livery that belonged to Darius himself, as well as his Soldiers of Light. He was no soldier, but a messenger. Lankin almost let him past, then stepped forward to hail him. The truth had to be faced, and there could be no hiding.

       The messenger recognised him, though Lankin did not know him. He gave his news quickly. The first messengers had gone out nearly a week ago, he said, recalling the army from the north, though none of divisions had returned yet. There was a change of plan. Darius had received intelligence, and knew how to wipe out the sorcerer king and his minions forever. The messenger had been sent after his fellows to hurry to army along, and tell them to report not to Eidengard, but to a place further west, where messages and orders would be left for them if they were too late.

       Lankin frowned. "But Darius is still in Eidengard?"

       "He left yesterday."

       "By himself? Without waiting for the army?"

       The messenger smiled a nervous smile. "He's not been idle while you've been away, sir. He's raised a second army, and that's the one he's marching with."

       A second army? They had already raised all the willing young men in Eidengard, and a good deal of the unwilling ones, too. The surrounding villages had all been visited by the recruiting sergeants, and many of them emptied. With plague raging, and hatred of the press gangs growing, how had Darius been able to do it? Unless he had raised it far in the south or the east, it would have to be a poor army, full of resentful conscripts, poorly armed and hastily trained.

       The messenger pointed south, off the road. "They're only a few hours ahead of you." His eyes were ranging over Lankin's torn and bloody uniform, but he had been trained too well to ask questions.

       Lankin did not give him the answers he wanted. Kicking his horse into a canter, he set off. The clouds turned white, and parted, letting the sun through, and soon the sky was a speckled blue. The air smelled fresh and familiar, like the countryside around Eidengard that he knew so well. He had spoken to a man from his own city, and there had been no strange whisperings in his mind. The last week had been terrifying and unreal, but now everything was going to be normal again.

       Darius was ahead, and before the day was over, Lankin would be called in to report to him. The thought made his palms sweaty, but the fear was something understandable. If Darius was furious with him, it was no more than he deserved. If he was stripped of his rank and imprisoned, it would be a just punishment. Better to be executed as a traitor than languish in the power of the sorcerer king. At least punishment might silence the torments of guilt.

       When the sun was at its highest, he saw the first signs of the army ahead of him. The carts were a little way to one side, attempting to stick to the narrow road, but the track was pitted and full of puddles. He wondered where they were going. If they were heading for the sea, surely it would have been easier to stick to the road. The road from Eidengard to the sea arched north for good reason, since the most direct route flooded easily. The road made the journey longer, but quicker.

       They were slow to hail him, and slower to intercept him. He held both hands up, showing that he meant no harm, and told them his name. They did not react. "Has anyone else returned from the north?" he asked them, and they shook their heads. So it would be him who broke the news to Darius, then, as was fitting. It was cowardly to hope that anyone else might have got there first. "I need to talk to Lord Darius," he told them. His voice didn't even tremble.

       They kept him waiting, but trusted him too easily. No-one even took his knife. None of them seemed to recognise him, and he could have been anybody, wearing a ragged uniform stripped from a corpse. Was this what Darius was reduced to? But the army that had gone north had been little better. The whole campaign had been hasty. A few men, well trained, could strike more surely than thousands of untrained conscripts. What was Darius thinking about, to make the same mistake again?

       A tall soldier turned to him. "Lord Darius will see you now."

       Darius was mounted, riding a handsome black horse with a silver saddlecloth. A young boy, pretty and fair-haired, walked ahead of him with the silver banner that Lankin had come to think of as the banner of the Soldiers of Light, who had died and bled beneath it, and not of Darius himself, who had done neither. The carts behind him lurched in the pitted road, but Darius seemed oblivious to all discomfort. His boots were specked with mud, but his clothes were spotless.

       The solider led Lankin to Darius's side, then withdrew when Darius nodded at him. "Ride with me, Lankin." Darius's voice was smooth. He did not look at Lankin.

       Lankin swallowed hard, and guided his horse round, falling in step with Darius's more handsome animal. He should be on his knees, he thought, confessing everything as a prisoner. This was all wrong.

       "You have something to report?" Darius asked. "Some... happening in the north?"

       There was no escape. Perhaps confession would be a relief. Lankin had always been honest about his failings, and that had been what had drawn him to Darius's attention in the first place. "My lord... We split the army as planned. The division I commanded... We found the enemy's camp. We attacked it, and wiped it out to a man, but at great cost. The whole division, killed or scattered. And the sorcerer king himself is still at large."

       Darius was still not looking at him. "And you count this a success, or a failure?"

       "A failure," Lankin blurted out. All those men dead! He had watched them dying, screaming, bleeding, because he had been rash, because he had led them into a situation they had not been trained for. "I... I was incautious. I should have waited for the other divisions. I wanted to strike quickly, before they had a chance to prepare a defence. That's what I told myself, anyway. But perhaps I just wanted to be the one to lead them. I wanted the credit for the victory."

       "Is ambition a thing that deserves punishment?" Darius asked. His voice gave nothing away.

       Lankin look at his hands, white-knuckled on the reins. "Yes. Yes, it is, when the cause of righteousness suffers. Yes, if innocent people get hurt."

       "You do not think they were necessary deaths, martyrs to the cause?" Darius asked. "They died, yes, but the enemy was wiped out to a man. Is that not a victory?"

       "But the sorcerer king..." Lankin sobbed. "He's still alive. He touched me. I might be... " He passed his hand over his face. "I'm not clean. I'm tainted by sorcery. My mind might not be my own." He remembered the soldier who had returned with his fantastical tale of the sorcerer's mercy, and how Darius himself had killed him. Better be struck down now than to live as a slave of such a man, he knew that now. If Darius killed him, it would be a mercy blow, just like the one he himself had struck a few days before.

       Darius looked at him for the first time. "Do you still hate the sorcerer king?" His teeth were little white points protruding from his thin lips.

       "I do." Lankin pushed back his sleeve and fingered the half-healed cut that marked his fresh oath. "I want to kill him for what he did."

       "Then your mind is your own." Darius smiled. "And perhaps I can give you your dream."

       "You know where he is?" The messenger had said as much, but Lankin had scarcely been able to believe it.

       "I do." Darius inclined his head, a curious gesture of modesty that Lankin knew was feigned. "I have received... intelligence. The sorcerer is heading for Ravenstor, protected only by a rag-tag band of women and children and wounded men. But when he arrives, he will find my army waiting for him. Oh, I know what you're thinking, Lankin. It's not much of an army, but it's enough. Three thousand men, and more if reinforcements come from the north. Not even he can beat odds like that."

       But you weren't there, Lankin thought. You didn't see it. You don't know what it's like, the terror of sorcery, the sheer power of it.

       "He can still bleed," Darius said, as if he could read Lankin's thoughts. "He is still a man, and there is no man alive that can not be conquered by fear. Oh yes, Lankin, we will defeat him, you and I. I cannot promise you the pleasure of killing him, because that pleasure is mine, but I will let you join me in torturing him before dies. You'd like that, wouldn't you?"

       Lankin moistened his lips. His stomach was clenched, and he felt sick. "Yes. Yes, I would, but..."

       Darius turned to face him, the movement as slow and sleek as a wild cat. "But what?"

       "Why don't you punish me?" Lankin burst out. "They died, so many of them. It was my fault. I should have waited. And I could have killed him, but he caught me. And I..."

       Darius held up his hand, and Lankin snatched the words back. And I've been thinking so many things, he would have said. Sometimes, I even think that he's innocent of everything we know he's guilty of. Sometimes, I want to weep for the enemy dead, as much as for my own. So punish me. Punish me so badly that the thoughts go away. Punish me so I never doubt again.

       "You made a miscalculation," Darius said. "Everyone does, sometimes. Serve me well over the next few days, and your account is wiped clean."

       "I will serve you," Lankin swore. "I will do whatever you order me to do."

       "Good." Darius faced forward again. "We are going to Ravenstor, Lankin, you and I and the army. We are going to Ravenstor, and we will wipe evil from the world forever. We will bathe in his blood, and the cliffs will echo with his screams."

       "Yes," Lankin said. He thought of a face that had been lined with exhaustion, and the eyes of a man who looked as if he had been tortured already, screaming inside as his soul was ripped to shreds. Lies, he told himself. Lies, and he would think of them no longer, now Darius was here to lead him again. "Yes," he said again, and managed to smile.

      

 

       After a few hours walking by himself, just thinking in silence, things were a little clearer in Ciaran's mind. It took a few more hours to rehearse what he was going to say, and come up with an answer for any response Elias might give. It was mid-afternoon before he was ready. The sky was a beautiful blue, and the sunlight bright and yellow, sparkling across the sea. It was a good day for coming to an understanding.

       Elias looked up when he approached, but did not stop walking. He said Ciaran's name, but there was a wariness in his eyes that Ciaran did not like.

       Their path was rocky, strewn with black boulders and tufts of brown grass, and Ciaran kept his eyes on the ground. "We can't go on like this."

       Elias made a faint sound that could have been an agreement, or could just have been breathing.

       "I've been thinking..." Ciaran began the prepared words, but his tongue didn't want to say them, now there was someone real to hear them. It faltered and wanted to say things wrong.  "These last few days have been... difficult. It wasn't easy for me in the battle. I was more afraid than I've ever been. I watched people die. And then... And then you came back, and told me what you did. Before I could really think about that, you made me realise the tendency I have to hide from the truth..." He clutched his staff hard. "Are you listening, Elias?"

       "I know you've been through a lot." Elias looked at him with the same heartfelt sympathy that he gave to everyone, living and dead alike. "I wish the past could be changed."

       Ciaran bit back an angry answer. "But it can't be," he said. "It can't be changed, and it can't be ignored. The trouble is, everything's gone so fast. Here we are, going off to face Cercamond, and you're..." He flapped his hand. "You're the way you are. It's just... It's too much. I go from being angry to being worried to being... I don't know. I just don't understand so many things."

       "I know," Elias said. "It's the same for all of them. They’ve lost everything, and they never got the time to mourn." Most of the others were ahead of them, trailing disconsolately across the bleak moorland, and Elias looked sorrowfully in their direction. "I wish I could have given them time, or spared them it entirely. I tried to stop them coming..."

       "I don't care about them!" Ciaran let out a sharp breath, angry with Elias for making him say something that sounded bad. "I mean, I'm not talking about them. I'm talking about me, and the way I feel. I'm trying to explain, so I can make things better."

       Elias looked at him. "I know." Even that was said sadly, as if it made no difference.

       Ciaran clenched his fists, and breathed in and out. "I was hurt when you told me I was going to betray you. I thought it meant something to you, what we shared over the winter. So why are you so quick to believe that I'll betray you? It makes me think that none of it mattered to you."

       "It mattered," Elias murmured. "It mattered very much."

       "Past tense," Ciaran muttered. "I notice that you use that. Oh, Elias!" he burst out. "I gave up everything for you! Doesn't it mean anything to you?"

       Elias was trailing his hand along a waist-high boulder. When the rock ran out beneath his hand, he stopped walking.  "It means a lot, but..."

       He counted to ten before he grabbed Elias's shoulders. "But what?"

       "Please don't be angry. It's just..." Elias seemed incapable of looking Ciaran in the eye, however close Ciaran dragged him. "I have to say this to you. It doesn't mean... I just have to. I said it to the Kindred. I have to say it to you, too."

       Everything narrowed to Elias's face. All sounds ceased. "What, Elias?" His voice was frosty, reflecting the creeping cold he felt inside. "Say it."

       "If you want to go home." It was only a whisper. "There's a chance..." He shook his head, biting his lip. "No. Whatever happens, I won't be able to send you back afterwards. This is your last chance. If you don't go now, you never will. You'll be stuck here, forced to face... whatever happens afterwards. It would be wrong for me not to tell you that, to give you the choice."

       The cold turned into chips of ice, sharp enough to hurt. "You want to get rid of me? You think I'm the sort of person who would just walk away and leave you to face this by yourself? I never was, Elias. You were the one who sent me back last time. I never asked you to."

       "I didn't..."

       "No, you listen to me," Ciaran spat. "I'm staying. And not just for your sake, so don't you go thinking that it's all about you. I know you like to blame yourself for everything people do, and think they did it because of you, but I can make up my own mind about things. They all can."

       "I..." Elias's mouth closed again, and he let out a breath that was closer to a moan.

       He looked so miserable. "Elias," Ciaran said, more gently. "I don't want to leave you. I don't want to leave this world. I know what I just said, about giving things up, but, really, what sort of a life did I have there? I'm part of this world now, just as you are. If this world is dying, I... I don't want to die, but I don't want to run away and leave them. They're my people now. This is my world."

       Elias's eyes were swimming with tears. The light was behind him, and the shadow on his face was deep.

       The anger returned, and this time it was hot. "Look at you! You don't care about any of it! When I realised just how wrongly I'd been acting, not just once but for half my life... It was a big thing for me, to have to change. It's still a big thing. I don't always get it right. Sometimes I feel lost, not sure how to go forward. I have to work hard every day, to try to remember who I am, to stop myself acting the same old way out of habit. But you treat it as nothing."

       "I don't!" Elias protested. "I don't think it's nothing. It's just..."

       "Nothing." Ciaran jammed his staff into the ground and twisted it deep. "Despite it all, you still believe that I'm going to betray you, just because of a vision. I've made this world my home, Elias, and you're just going to throw it all away. It makes me so angry. You kept telling me how beautiful this world was, when I didn't want to see it. When I distrusted the Kindred, you told me how much they needed saving. But the moment I come round to agreeing with you, you just throw up your hands and say you're not going to fight for it any more, just let it die."

       Elias slumped back against the boulder, and groped out blindly to stop himself from falling further. His lips moved, but he did not speak, not even to deny it.

       Ciaran jabbed a finger into Elias's chest. "And that's the worst of it, Elias. It hurts. It hurts me personally to see you give up. And then when you lie about it... When you persist in this... this charade of going to Ravenstor when all along you've already decided that you're going to lose... If you do lose, it will be your fault. You've betrayed me and the whole world. You betrayed us the moment you gave up."

       Elias twisted away, hiding his face, then hid twice over, by covering his eyes with his hand. "I haven't. Trust me. Please."

       "But you don't give me any reason to." Ciaran took Elias's wrist and tried to pull his hand away from his face, but Elias resisted with surprising strength. "How can I trust the judgement of someone whose way of thinking is so twisted that they see a vision of me trying to save their life, and think of it as a betrayal?"

       At last, Elias lowered the hand. There were no tears on his cheeks, but Ciaran saw that the palm of the hand was glistening silver in the sunlight. "I shouldn't have told you that. I'm sorry. It thought it would..."

       "Oh no," Ciaran interrupted. "I'm glad you told me. If you hadn't, I might have stupidly carried on as normal. I'd have stupidly believed that you trusted me, even loved me. I might have carried on thinking you were worth admiring. I might have even believed that you meant to fight for the Kindred's survival."

       Elias's hand dropped to his side, where it dug into the rock, the knuckles white. He sighed, with the air of someone who thought they had nothing else to lose. "Then I need to ask you one more thing."

       Ciaran sighed. The anger washed out of him, and he was just weary, fed up of having to deal with Elias's moods. "What?"

       "When we reach Ravenstor, I will face Cercamond. He knows that. He's... excited about it. But he's a lot stronger than I am. You saw what he did to Reynard, and those animals last winter." He was silent for a moment, and Ciaran saw a shiver pass through his body. "I couldn't bear for that to happen to me."

       The others had gone on ahead, out of sight, and the two of them were completely alone. Ciaran looked at the dead grass on the horizon, then back at Elias. "What are you asking me?"

       "If..." Elias swallowed. "If it happens... If I turn to you and say horrible things, things I'd never say... If I start hurting people... If it looks as if he's taken over my body, and he... Oh, Ciaran, I can face anything but that. He'd be able to use my power as his own. Enchantment and sorcery and Shadow, all combined. He'd be twice as powerful as he is now. But..." He sighed, and his head sank forward. "But," he whispered, "that's not why I'm asking. I couldn't bear to live like that. I couldn't. I... Please."

       "What?" Ciaran asked.

       "Kill me," Elias rasped. "If that happens, just kill me. Please."

       Ciaran took a step back, then another. "How can you ask me that?"

       Elias raised his head. There were no tears in his eyes, and his cheeks were dry, but the pain on his face was terrifying, like a dagger in Ciaran's stomach. You've said everything wrong, it told him. You've completely failed to understand. You could have saved me, but you only struck me down when I most needed you.

       Ciaran took another step back, and clenched his fist. Still Elias did not turn away, and the dagger stabbed deeper, and the blood that it drew flowed hot and red. "How can you ask me that?" Ciaran screamed. "How can you do this to me?" He surged forward, fists raised, then recoiled before he could hit Elias. Robbed of violence, the anger only grew more fierce. "You must really hate me, to ask me that. Of course I won't do it! Who do you think I am?"

       "Please..." Elias looked broken. "I need it. I need your promise. Please..."

       Ciaran thrust his face into Elias's. "I will not do what you ask, Elias. I will not condone this suicidal urge of yours. You might want to die and condemn the Kindred, but I will do everything I can to keep you alive. And you know why, Elias? Because, despite how you're acting,  I love you. And love, as I told you, means that you come first, no matter what."

       "No it doesn't!" Elias shouted. "It shouldn't! I don't want to come first, not like that, not if it makes you..."

       "What?" Ciaran demanded.

       Elias's voice fell to a whisper. "Not listen to me. Refuse to do something I beg you to do, that I want and need more than anything. Make everything worse. Not try to think how I might be feeling, just how it makes you feel. That's not how love should be."

       "You don't know anything about love," Ciaran scoffed. "You said as much yourself."

       "Please," Elias begged. "I wish nothing else mattered but being with you, but it's not like that. It can never be like that. In two days, I'll... I'll face Cercamond. That’s the most important thing. And that means that I... I can't be who you want me to be. "

       "What are you saying?" Ciaran demanded. "That you don't love me, and never will?"

       The tears were back in Elias's eyes. "No, not that. Just that... I want you to love me, but not the way you do. I want the sort of love that means you stay with me and love me, even if I have to do things you don't like. I asked you one thing, Ciaran, and that was not to save me. I've tried to explain my reasons, as much as I can. But you won't listen. You've got it into your head that I've given up and want to die, and you force everything else to fit that picture, then you say that you're going to save my life because you love me. But it's not what I want you to do! Believe me, Ciaran, if you do that, everything is lost. Everything."

       Ciaran pushed Elias backwards, and heard the slam as he hit the rock. "Have you finished?"

       Elias's chest was heaving, great shuddering breaths. There was a tiny smear of blood on his lips, like a reproach, but it wasn't Ciaran's fault.

       "You can say all you like," Ciaran said, "but I know the truth. Perhaps you even believe your lies yourself. I know how easy it is to be like that. But I love you, and that means I won't stop trying to get through to you." He leant forward, not letting Elias escape. "Although I love you, I don't like you much now, and don't want to be with you for a while."

       Very measured, he thought, as he turned to walk away. He had not sounded angry or emotional at all. He had been reasonable, and he had told Elias that he loved him. It was up to Elias to come to him now. He had done everything he could.

      

 

       It was after dark when they first knew that they were followed. It was fully night when they knew just how badly outnumbered they were.

       "We should wake the king," Gregory had said, as soon as he had brought the news. He had crept around the campsite in a broad circle, and had spotted a small cluster of horsemen, who knew how to move silently, and how to hide anything that might glitter in the moonlight. To anybody but a Kindred warrior, they would have seemed invisible.

       "No," Oliver had replied then, and still replied now, when the horsemen were closer, and there were reports of hundreds more of them, waiting lower on the hillside. "Let him sleep until we're sure. He gets so little rest."

       "I know you take care of his well-being," Gregory snapped, "but this is madness. He won't thank us if he wakes up to find us all dead."

       Before sunset, just before they had stopped, Elias had flown on ahead as a bird. For the first time on the journey, Ciaran had not gone with him, to wait for him, and wrap a cloak around his shoulders when he had returned. Elias had gone alone, and returned alone. Oliver had almost gone to Ciaran in his absence, to rage at him and beseech him, but Adela had called him away for something, and he had missed the chance.

       "There's no-one there," Elias had said, but that had been several hours ago, and he had been troubled and almost prostrate with exhaustion, so perhaps he had missed out one direction entirely, or not looked hard enough. The others might forget it, but Oliver knew only too well that Elias was human, and could make mistakes.

       "That won't happen," he told Gregory. "We're not helpless." They were a small group, and could move swiftly and quietly, and could cover their trail. Better still, they could just crouch down and lie still, and hope the mounted force passed them by. Elias had constructed an illusion of concealment before falling asleep, and it would hold until he raised it. Chances were, the pursuers would never notice them. There would be time enough later to tell Elias how close they had come. Wake him now, and Elias would blame himself, and it would be one further burden for him to bear.

       Everyone could hear them now, the horses that walked in measured steps up the side of the hill, as if drawn by their presence. But they had hidden their trail for the last few miles before stopping, as they always did, as well as planting a few false ones. They had no fire, and Elias's illusion should have been hiding them completely, so the attackers saw only bare hillside.

       Gregory had drawn his sword. Ciaran was kneeling up, his staff held protectively in front of Elias's sleeping form. Very quietly, Oliver drew his own dagger. He tried to crouch, but his leg had not healed properly despite Elias's attentions. Instead, he stood, where it was easier to favour one leg. Adela stood beside him, offering him her shoulder to lean on, but he did not need it.

       Why were they still approaching? Even if the trail had been badly covered, the most obvious route up the hill would take the force a few hundred yards to the left, not here, directly towards their hidden camp. They were close enough that he could see the shape of a horse, then another. The men who rode them were tall, with straight backs and proud chins. Almost close enough to touch. Close enough to leap forward and attack, to pull from the horse, to silence forever.

       "Elias," Ciaran hissed. "Wake up. We need you."

       The horseman stopped. Oliver clutched his dagger tight, and Gregory darted forward with a sharp intake of breath, then stopped short. His twisted face showed his furious impotence. He wanted to attack this enemy, but knew that their best hope came from silence, from trusting in Elias's illusion to keep them hidden.

       A voice came from the darkness. "Is there anyone there?" The man cleared his throat. "If you are there and can hear me, then know that I seek the king, and Oliver, his seneschal, if he is still alive."

       Gregory looked at Oliver, and Oliver shook his head slightly, ordering him to do nothing yet. There were questions that he wanted to ask, but to do so would betray that they were there. Men could put on voices in the darkness, and could pretend to be someone that they were not, in order to trick their enemies.

       "I am Bohemond, seneschal of the Second House of the Kindred," the voice said. Oliver dared to let out a breath, for that was the name he would have put to that voice. "We have with us a thousand men, sworn to the king's cause. Will you trust me?" The voice faltered a little. "I've told you everything. My name. Too much to shout to the darkness, in the enemy's lands."

       It was enough. Oliver walked forward, and saw Bohemond's eyes widen when he reached the edge of the covering illusion and became visible. "You have found us," he said. "But why?" He stepped up close to the stirrup. "How did you find us? We covered our tracks."

       "I will tell you," Bohemond said, "but is the king here? I wish to do homage before I speak of anything else."

       Oliver suddenly realised his error. Bohemond was a Kindred warrior through and through, just as Reynard had been, and Oliver well remembered how Reynard had judged Elias at their first meeting. If Bohemond knew that Elias had been asleep while an armed force had come so close to his people, he would not be inclined to respect him. Like Reynard in those early days, he would revere the title Elias bore , but would judge the man by outward appearances, and find him wanting.

       Just as he was about to speak, to deflect the question with his bard's tongue, Elias himself spoke. "I am here." When Oliver turned round, he saw that the invisibility fade away, revealing Elias, with Ciaran and Thurstan on either side.

       Although Elias had been hidden when he had spoken, Bohemond seemed to know immediately which of the strangers was the king. He gave the tall and imposing Ciaran barely a glance, and walked up to Elias, and went down on one knee before him. "I am Bohemond, my liege. I bring two hundred men from the Second House of the Kindred to serve you and your cause."

       Bohemond offered up his sword, and Oliver watched as Elias hesitated only for a second, then touched it with gentle fingers, and murmured something that Oliver could not hear.

       While Bohemond was still kneeling, another chieftain came forward and knelt beside him, swearing fealty on behalf of the Third House. Then came the third and the fourth and the fifth, until there were eight chieftains kneeling before Elias, and a whole army behind them, unseen in the darkness. Still Elias said nothing. He looked from one to another, and bit his lip, and looked like a prisoner, trapped.

       Oliver began to move forward. As seneschal, he could speak for his king, and as a bard, he knew the right words. This at least he could spare Elias. But once again Elias spoke, just as Oliver was about to speak for him. "I thank you," he said. "I am travelling to Ravenstor, to face Cercamond, of whom my seneschal, Oliver, has already told you. There is little that you can do, and I do not command anyone to follow me. I bind you by no promises, but you may ride there with me, if you will."

       "We will," they swore, one by one, and then again, all eight of them together. "We will." Then Bohemond raised his head, and his eyes were glittering, silver in the moonlight. "The Kindred is going to war behind their king." He looked around their paltry camp, scratched out on the hillside. "But where is the banner? Oliver, I thought you were getting the banner."

       It was still in Oliver's pack, and had not been flown since Gregory had attempted to make their departure glorious. "You can fly it," Elias murmured, "if you want to, tomorrow. Walk behind it. Whatever..." If he almost lost control at that point, he hid it well. "Whatever will make the next two days easier. The morning after next, we will enter Ravenstor, and then it will end."

       "But it will be a glorious ending!" Bohemond stood up, and raised his arm, leading the other seneschals in a cheer. "By all the kings, it will be glorious."

       But it isn't, Oliver thought. These were newcomers, on their sturdy horses, and what did they know? The First House had always been the one that suffered the most, their hiding places the nearest to the heartlands of the duchy. Some of the Houses lived outside the borders of the duchy, and had never seen the enemy. To them, war was a thing from a story, and a king was a creature of legend, who could do wonders without suffering pain. They hadn't seen their House wiped out. They hadn't watched a tattered band of survivors torn apart by their king's dread of what was to come, and their own ability to say the right thing to make it better.

       "Why did you come?" he asked Bohemond, later, when the fires had been lit, and the newcomers were settling down to eat.

       Bohemond looked grave. "You told us to come when the land was dying, but the things you said perturbed us. We mustered as soon as we could. Our Seer had a vision that left her screaming, and she told us to hurry. On the edges of the forest, we met up with the Fourth and Fifth Houses. We were... concerned. The devastation of the land was far worse than where we came from, but there was more. There were signs of an army passing that way. You know how bad these men from the duchy are at hiding their trail. They just blunder through the forest like..." He stopped, and sighed. "Well, suffice it so say that the hidden marks were still there, and we found your camp."

       Oliver closed his eyes, then opened them again.

       Bohemond leant forward. "What happened, Oliver? It felt... It looked as if a dreadful battle had taken place, but it felt... It felt beautiful. I made me want to... Well, it didn't feel like a battlefield ought to feel."

       "No." Oliver shook his head, his eyes stinging. "That was the king. He gave peace to the dead."

       "The dead," Bohemond echoed. "So it's true, then."

       "This is all that's left of the First House of the Kindred." As well as sorrow, Oliver felt a strange spark of pride. They were the First House, and they had survived, enough of them to tell the tale. They had seen things and done things that Bohemond and his men had never done.

       "I grieve for your loss." Despite the formal words, Oliver knew that Bohemond's grief was sincere. There were so few Kindred left, that any deaths were a tragedy, even to those who had never known them. But, like Reynard, Bohemond was a practical man, who knew his people would only survive if they put matters of defence before sorrow. "Our scouts saw an army in good order, marching south," he said, "the day before yesterday. Not in this direction, though. Going back to Eidengard, I expect."

       "Another portion of the army that killed us," Oliver said bitterly. "There's nothing to keep them up there any longer." He sighed. "How did you follow us?"

       "Not because of any carelessness on your part," Bohemond said. "Our Seer, Juliana... She said she could sense a... a glow, she called it. It was faint to her, like a candle flame in thick fog, but she could sense it if she really concentrated. The poor thing... She's laid out flat on her back by now, from following it. But she led us here. And then, as we came up the hill, even I could tell that there was something ahead. I didn't know what, and I couldn't see anything, but I knew there was something."

       "Elias." Oliver did not smile. "He shines with enchantment." He clenched his fist, suddenly vehement. "I wish he could hide it."

       Bohemond blinked. "But the enemy can't sense enchantment, to know where he is. What harm can it do?"

       Too much, Oliver thought. It took Elias further and further away from the world of normal men, when he most needed to be no more than Elias, a young man who had friends, and was loved.

       Bohemond took a swig of his drink, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "So that's your king, then. Doesn't look like a king."

       "Your king," Oliver corrected. His sat a little more stiffly. How could he explain Elias to this stranger? He wanted to, but at the same time he wanted to keep silent, to keep his friend for his own.

       "I know." Bohemond laughed, flapping his hand. "Don't take what I say seriously. Really, he looks just like the king of the Kindred ought to look. We were never a people for lavish robes and crown jewels, they say, and our kings were often young, servants of the people, not their masters. Yet we would always die for them, always. Who of the Kindred wouldn't?"

       "Don't." Oliver grabbed his wrist. "Don't let him hear you say that."

       Bohemond looked genuinely puzzled. "Why not?"

       "You don't understand things," Oliver told him. "This isn't a song or a legend. This is real life. He's our king, but he's also a man, a young man, and he's been through dreadful things, worse than we will ever know, and he's facing something even worse. He already blames himself for the death of my House, and in you he just sees eight more Houses who will very likely die in the same way. If you dare lay the burden of your death upon his shoulders..." He let out a shaky breath. "Just don't. I can command you, Bohemond, and I will, if you hurt my king in any way."

       Bohemond held his gaze. "You were the one who raised us to war, Oliver. Do you regret that? Is that what you're saying?"

       Oliver sighed. "I don't know. No." He closed his eyes. "Yes. Oh, I don't know. I hoped we'd prove useful before the end, but now I just don't know. What can we do? I wish we could help him. He's so unhappy, and I don't know what to do."

       "You ask us not to die for him, Oliver," Bohemond said quietly, "but you would. I can tell. You'd do anything for him. You'd die without a thought, if that could save him."

       Oliver buried his face in his hands. "Yes," he confessed, through his fingers. "Yes, I would."

      

 

       The sunset was beautiful, on the last night of the world. They camped strewn out across the hillside, and shivered in the wind that came from the west, cold over the sea.

       "We'll be in Ravenstor in a couple of hours," Bohemond said. "We should carry on. There's more shelter there. Buildings."

       Elias shook his head, but Oliver was the one to speak. "We're arriving there by daylight." His voice left no room for argument, and Elias was grateful to him. Day or night, it would make no difference, but if he had to face Cercamond in the dark... He wanted to nod his thanks to Oliver, but suddenly he couldn't even look at him, or at anyone.

       The Kindred dismounted and started to tend to their horses. Fires were lit, and men went out in search of meagre food. Dark orange bled across the sea from the dying sun, and weapons shone like gold.

       They were near the edge of the cliff, but not at its highest point. It would take barely quarter of an hour to walk to the top, and then Ravenstor would be just below them, where the cliffs cascaded down to the sea. Was Cercamond already there, thrilled to know that Elias was so close? For Elias's plan to work, Cercamond had to be there in his entirety, a vast spirit that could take any form by illusion. He could be towering over the city like a thundercloud, full of roiling terrors.

       I don't want to see, not yet. Elias started to walk, but only to the nearest cliff edge, which showed the endless ocean, but nothing of Ravenstor. Cercamond had been unusually silent all day, and there were wide patches of green on the hillside. Almost at the cliff edge, he saw a six-petalled white flower, and he crouched down to touch it, then drew his hand back, in case his touch would destroy it.

       It was a trick, he thought. Cercamond had deliberately withheld his killing touch in this place, the place Elias would see on his last night. It would amuse Cercamond if here, right at the end of everything, he started to think that perhaps he had a chance after all. It was more fun to crush someone who had dared to hope, than to crush someone who expected nothing but defeat.

       The flowers were thicker at the edge of the cliff. Elias lay on his stomach and let his head and shoulders hang over the edge. There were fine pink flowers on the ledges below, bright and vivid against the dark rock. Dark birds dived into the water, and white ones screamed as they caught a current of air, and he wanted to fly with them. He had never flown as a bird for the pure joy of it, and now he never would.

       His arms swung limply, his fingertips sending small skitterings of dust down to the narrow beach far below. Lines of white crashed on the dark sand, and there was nothing at all between himself and death. The burning sea was streaked with broad lines of black, as if the death that Cercamond had placed upon the world was seeping out into the unspoiled sea. The sun was a thick disc of orange, and then it was a thin line of dark red, and then it was gone, and there was only the faintest ribbon of yellow to show where it had been.

       "Come back," he begged it, willing it more strongly than he had ever wished for everything. It had to turn round and come back, and live this day over and over again. If it went, it might never again shine on a world of life and beauty, just a blasted wildness ruled over by Cercamond. It should at least have paused in its setting, to say goodbye to the world it had illuminated for so long. Now there was only darkness between now and the time Elias had to face Cercamond. Next time it was daylight, he would be on his way.

       "Come away from the edge." Ciaran's voice spoke from behind him. Elias had not heard him approach.

       He wanted to dive into the sea and swim after the sun. "I won't fall."

       "But I don't like seeing you there."

       Did Ciaran think he was going to jump? Then Elias remembered the vision Thurstan had told him about, and wondered if Ciaran was right to be afraid. "I'm not going to jump," he said. "Not before... tomorrow."

       "But the cliff could crumble."

       "It's volcanic rock, Ciaran, as solid as anything. These cliffs haven't crumbled for a million years." And they would stay standing long after all life ended, black and obdurate and enduring. Against the timescale of their existence, he was nothing, just a mere speck of life, as insignificant as a whisper. It should have been a sad thought, but it was strangely comforting.

       There was a rustle of clothes as Ciaran knelt. "Please move back."

       With a sigh, Elias wriggled back. Ciaran put his hand on his shoulders, and tugged him towards him, trying to help him, and hold on to him. Elias rolled over onto his back. "I'm sorry, Ciaran. I didn't mean to worry you."

       Ciaran folded his hands in his lap. He looked tense and miserable, but there was none of the anger that Elias might have expected. They had barely spoken since their last argument, but Ciaran had spent a noisily restless night, and by the morning had been looking frequently at Elias, his looks long and hungry and troubled.

       Elias sat up. "I'm sorry," he said again.

       "No." Ciaran raised one hand, then lowered it again, clasping it with the other. He had left his staff behind somewhere, and he looked smaller without it. "I've been thinking..."

       "Oh." Elias breathed in, held it, and let it out again.

       "Nothing's changed, Elias," Ciaran said. "I can't like what you're doing. I can't like the way you're so quick to give up. But..." He sighed. "I've been thinking about something you said. You said I wasn't trying to see if from your point of view, and you're right. It's horrible for me to see you like this, but I think... I think it must be horrible for you, too."

       What could he say? He could try to explain how he was feeling, how impossible it was to sleep, how the waves crashing at the foot of the cliffs were beautiful and compelling, how the dread hurt like a physical wound, like a knife in his stomach, a hand round his throat. He could pour it out in ten thousand words, and still not have equalled the way he was feeling. "It is," he said. Just the truth.

       Ciaran touched the back of his hand, strangely gentle and tentative. "You really believe you have no chance of defeating Cercamond?"

       Elias nodded. "I do."

       "You really have no hopes for the future at all?"

       "None."

       The hand tightened. "You genuinely mean it when you think you might want to die, that it's the better option?"

       "I do. Yes."

       Ciaran turned away fiercely, and Elias knew he was fighting anger. He let out a shuddering breath, and turned back again. His expression was mild, but his eyes were stormy. "I hate hearing you say such things, but I... I have to accept that you really feel like that. You really have lost all hope. It's... Oh, Elias, you need help. You don't need to be lectured and told that you're wrong. You need to be shown that you're wrong. I should be showing you all the reasons you still have to hope."

       Elias blinked, and shivered in the wind. He had his back to the last clinging light left in the sky, and Ciaran could not see his face.

       "Because..." Ciaran sighed again. "I do love you, Elias. I really do. And I firmly believe that it matters. Whatever happens tomorrow, we've got each other tonight."

       "Yes." It was the faintest breath of a word.

       "And that can make all the difference in the world," Ciaran said. "The Kindred know it. Oliver knows it. Nothing is so dreadful that hope does not remain. It all comes down to the way you look at things."

       The gulls cried beneath him. He wanted to tear himself away from Ciaran, and fly, or turn into something small enough to nestle against Ciaran's chest, and be forever overlooked. Cercamond could look for him the whole world over, but he would never be found, not ever. "I know," he managed to say. "I believe that, but..."

       "But what?" Ciaran demanded. He made an audible attempt to sound less vehement. "But what?"

       But what? I'd hoped so, too, but it didn't work out like that. It's too late now. Perhaps if you'd been like this a week ago... But would it have made any difference? Even if Ciaran had come to him a week ago and said that he'd not try to argue with Elias, just love him, would it have made the journey any easier?

       He chewed his lip, and shook his head. "I don't know. I did hope... I'd hoped... I... I told Oliver it would make the journey easier, having people with me, and I really thought it would, but... I don't know. I just don't know. I wish it could be easy."

       "It is easy!" Ciaran cried. "I love you. We're together. Let's forget about everything else."

       "But tomorrow..."

       "Hush." Ciaran placed one finger on Elias's lips, then the hand moved, cupping his cheek, caressing his jaw, weaving through his hair. Despite everything, Elias leant into the touch, and it made the night seem a little less cold, though Ciaran's hand was cool. "Forget about tomorrow," Ciaran urged him. "Whatever happens tomorrow, I'll be there with you, and I'll never once stop telling you that you're loved. I'll make you hope again." His breath was hot against Elias's neck. "No-one can despair when they're loved, and I love you, Elias. I love you so much."

       Elias made a faint sound in the back of his throat. He could do no more.

       Ciaran's fingers were feeling his face, like a blind man learning every detail of something unutterably holy. "You're so beautiful," he breathed, "and you're mine."

       A tiny tremor started at Elias's neck and ran down his spine.

       Ciaran kissed him gently on one closed eyelid, and then the other. His hands found the back of his neck and entwined fiercely in his hair. The skin was no longer cool. "I've never even properly kissed you. I want to make to love to you, Elias. I want to give you that memory to carry into tomorrow. Please, Elias."

       The constriction in Elias's throat robbed him of his breath. He moaned, and it was closer to a sob. "I don't..."

       Ciaran kissed the hollow of his throat, pushing Elias's head back to allow himself room. His beard scraped, and his other hand plucked at Elias's waist. "It's right," he murmured, into Elias's flesh. "Make this last night wonderful. Everything will seem different tomorrow. You'll see the world in different eyes. It will be... amazing."

       Something was burning behind Elias's eyelids. "I can't," he pleaded. "Not tonight. Not... now."

       Ciaran's hands froze. Very deliberately, he withdrew. He smoothed his clothes down and folded his hands in his lap. His pulse was beating very strongly in his neck.

       Elias half-reached out to him, but the gulf was unbridgeable. His hand fell back to his side. "It's not you, Ciaran," he said, miserably. "It's just..."

       "I understand." Ciaran gave a bright smile that only looked slightly forced. "But it makes no difference. I still love you. I will stand beside you tomorrow, and for always."

       "I know." There was a tiny dark insect crawling along a blade of grass, and Elias stared at it.

       "I love you, Elias."

       And so they sat there beside each other, while the last light faded from the sea, and night came, the last night they would ever be together. They were silent.

      

 

       For that whole endless night, Elias lay on his back with his arms at his side. Sometimes he pressed his palms into the ground, and sometimes he turned his wrists, so his fingers curled upwards to the cold air. He made no other movement.

       A few hours after darkness, a cloud with delicate edges drifted across the moon, and he watched that. Then it cleared, and the moon was silver. He watched the moon until it sank beneath the cliff edge to the west, then stared at a single clear star, so very far away. He blinked, but he did not close his eyes.

       Ciaran was asleep, snoring gently, his hand outstretched as if he was trying to reach for Elias in his sleep, as he had reached for him on the top of the cliff. Elias could have touched that hand if he reached out, but did not. He wondered if Ciaran was dreaming, dreaming of loving him, or of betraying him.

       Elias could not let himself sleep. Cercamond had been quiet all day, but he was always loud in Elias's dreams, and, asleep, Elias feared that he would be less able to keep his secret. There were only hours to go. He could not risk having it stolen from him so near the end. For the sake of the secret, everything had been thrown away. He had lost everything, but the secret remained, clutched to his chest like a precious jewel.

       Like a distant breath in the east, the sky began to lighten. Elias rolled over onto his side, and closed his eyes, clenching his face into a silent sob. The night that had seemed endless suddenly seemed as if it had been no time at all. He wanted hours more of darkness, and weeks of endless nights. When the sun rose full, the day had come. He would never see another morning as his own true self.

       He stood up and walked stiffly through the sleepers. Ciaran moaned a little. Thurstan's hands were clenched into fists, pressed into the hollow of his collarbones. Oliver started awake and looked at him with bleary eyes, but did not speak.

       Elias smiled at him, but, even as he did so, he had already started to turn away, so perhaps Oliver did not see him. He trailed his cloak behind him in one hand, but as he reached the edge of their small group, he pulled it over his shoulders, and held it close with his arms crossed on his chest.

       The Kindred army flanked them, spread out on the slope. Elias walked away from them, heading to the highest point of the cliffs. From there he would be able to see Ravenstor, and watch as the morning sun fell on its black towers, revealing the place that would be his last battleground.

       There was a sentry on duty there, lying on his stomach at the summit. He turned round briefly, then, satisfied that Elias was no enemy, resumed his watching of the valley below. Elias wondered if he knew who he was. It was too much to hope that he did not. Only the chieftains had sworn their oaths in person, but they had travelled together for a day, and he was sure that every man there had been nudging his fellows, and pointing Elias out.

       "Anything?" Elias asked. He crouched down beside the sentry. He had wanted to keep this vigil alone, but realised now that he preferred company after all. Not Ciaran, or Oliver, or anyone who knew him, but a man without a name, who did his duty, and would never dare ask questions.

       The sentry did not look round. Like all the Kindred, the practical needs of survival came first, even before deference to his king. "I've been watching Ravenstor, my lord," he whispered. "I heard nothing amiss all night."

       Elias edged forward. He looked down, then took a deep breath and raised his eyes. There, beneath him, was the place where he would face Cercamond.

       It was built in a flat-bottomed coastal plateau, where the black cliffs on either side swept down and touched the sea. Standing at the seaward gate, a man would see cliffs rising sharply on either side, becoming sharp headlands that protected the city itself from the worst of the ocean currents. From where Elias was, it was only stark black shadows against the overlapping layers of grey that were the land and the sky.

       "It looks so... normal," the sentry breathed.

       The eastern horizon was yellowing, and there were no clouds. There was no roiling shadow, or dark pall of smoke. The path from the hilltop to the landward gates of Ravenstor was smooth and without hindrance. It looked like a gentle country stroll to the gateway of a strong tower where there was warmth and welcome and protection.

       "Yes," Elias said. "It does."

       The sentry tightened his fingers into the earth, using the leverage to slither himself a little forward. "But the... enemy is there?"

       Elias blinked. "He is." He had felt him there all night, his presence growing every minute, like a thousand different minds all gibbering with hatred.

       "We will fight to bring you safely to that gate, my lord," the sentry vowed.

       Elias shook his head. "You won't need to." Cercamond would not challenge him, not until Elias had entered the city itself, and they stood face to face. This whole thing was following Cercamond's script. Cercamond wanted to lull Elias into false hope, by making the last stages of his journey bright and easy. The easier they were, the more it proved Cercamond's strength.

       The sentry turned his head, looking away from the city and into the inland hills, where Elias had stood in the autumn and watched the sunset.

       Elias followed the direction of his gaze. Just as the sentry gasped, he saw it too.

       Dawn had almost come, and the featureless grey of night was taking on definition, with shapes stepped forward and becoming known, and the things that were damp or reflective beginning to shine. Sunlight swept down the hillside like a wave, and the land awakened. And there, where two slopes intersected in an overlapping vee, there was a glittering of spears and weapons.

       Elias covered his face with his hands. A thousand minds, all gibbering with hatred... Cercamond was there, yes, but Cercamond was not the only enemy. Cercamond had filled his mind all week, until Elias had almost come to forget Lord Darius and his army, but, all unnoticed in the night, Lord Darius's army had found them.