Chapter twenty-four

The road to Ravenstor

 

††††††

†††††† Some time afterwards, Elias found him, just as Ciaran had known that he would. Ciaran looked up from where he had been kneeling on the path. Elias looked tired, but not unduly so. He was walking stiffly, but at least he was on his feet. When he saw Ciaran, he stiffened a little, and his face took on a guarded look.

†††††† Ciaran knew he had to say it quickly, before his new resolve was tested. "I'm glad you've come. I've been doing some thinking."

†††††† Elias's mouth opened, then closed again. His sleeves were damp, as though he had tried to wash away all the dirt on his hands, but he had failed to wash his face properly. There was mud on his cheek, and the silly boy was still wearing no boots, though there were hundreds of boots to spare on the feet of people who would no longer need them.

†††††† "The thing that you were doing..." Ciaran flapped his hand in the direction of the battlefield. "It... tested me. It made me realise that I have a tendency to hide from the truth. Perhaps that makes me a coward. You've braver than me, Elias, because you always face it. You suffer more than you need to, but at least you don't hide. I hide. I have hidden from things all my life."

†††††† Elias was just standing there, staring at Ciaran with eyes that looked bruised. He said nothing. Was he even listening?

†††††† "When bad things happen," Ciaran said, "I try to forget them. I've always painted myself in a certain light, and I don't like to remember those occasions when I haven't lived up to it. That's why I didn't want to come back here. This was one of my lowest points, but I've found the courage to come back. And that's a good thing, I think."

†††††† Still Elias said nothing. His eyelids slid shut, then open again.

†††††† "I think you're a greater man than I am," Ciaran admitted. "More courageous, anyway. I still resent that sometimes, and that makes me sound angry, but it's only because I wish I were more like you."

†††††† "Don't build me up into more than I am." Elias's voice was like dry paper. "Today I felt..." His voice just stopped, and he hardly seemed to be aware that it had happened. His eyes went distant again.

†††††† "But it's true," Ciaran said, "and I love you despite it. No, I love you for it, Elias. And now, at least, I think I'm free to truly love again, with all of myself. I've faced up to who I am."

†††††† "I'm glad," Elias whispered, "that you've found peace." But he did not smile.

†††††† There was more. Ciaran had to pour it all out now, before the moment passed. He had kept silent on this for far too long. He wanted to face up to all the wrongs he had committed, and set them right. Too many of his actions were explained by this one event in his past, but he had never told Elias about it.

†††††† "I have to tell you about Gideon," Ciaran said, and he started to tell him everything, things he had never told anyone before. It was a long story, for the only way to explain how he had felt all those years ago was to start with his childhood, and the sort of boy that he had been. He made no excuses for himself, merely told the truth.And the story went beyond the moment when his heart had been broken, because then Elias came into it. Ciaran told him the truth of why he had asked him to be his apprentice, and how he had wanted someone who would need him forever, who would love him without needing love in return.

†††††† "But now I love you," Ciaran assured him. "I've stepped out of the shadow of Gideon. I've faced my past, and triumphed, and the fact that I can tell you this is proof of it. I will never run away again, and I love you."

†††††† Elias did not return it. He did not say, "I love you too, Ciaran." He did not say, "How brave you are, to face your fears like that." He gave him no recognition. He did not even speak. All he did was close his eyes, and moan a little as he fainted. On his knees, still deep in the story of his own redemption, Ciaran was slow to react, and did not catch him.

††††††

 

†††††† "They're coming!" Gregory shouted, but Oliver had also been watching, and Oliver had seen them coming before Gregory had, and had seen how heavily Elias had been leaning on Ciaran's arm, and how he let go only when he thought they were within sight of the camp.

†††††† They were all ready for him. They all wanted to talk at once. "Thank you, my lord." Several knelt, and several wept. "Thank you for what you did."

†††††† Elias just stood there, and let them praise him. He nodded and said a few words, but Oliver saw the expression in his eyes and wanted to scream at them to leave him alone.

†††††† Even Gregory joined in. "I saw her." He snatched at Elias's sleeve. "She said she was happy and at peace. Was it true?"

†††††† "It was true," Elias told him. "They're all at peace."

†††††† Gregory dashed his hand across his eyes, and put on the face of a warrior, trained by Reynard. "What about the enemy. Are they near?"

†††††† "Not near. I'll fly over the forest and see. I... There were so many of them dead. The others are fleeing. One..." He stopped, but Oliver knew Elias too well. He tried to catch his eye to make a promise. If Elias had found a survivor and let him go, then Oliver would not breathe a word to anyone.

†††††† Thurstan had hung back at first, but he had started to move inexorably forward, never once looking away from Elias's face. "Was Reynard there?"

†††††† "He was." Elias looked at Thurstan, and Oliver knew that he was telling the truth. "He's at peace, too. I think he... No, I know he resolved some things before the end. He found contentment."

†††††† "Oh." Thurstan bit his lip, and looked away.

†††††† "Do we need to go back and bury them?" That was Gregory again.

†††††† Elias shook his head. "They've... gone." He raised his hand, and Oliver thought he saw something glowing in his palm, like a faint spattering of silver dust. When Elias brought his hand to his mouth and blew, Oliver fought the urge to run after the dust, like a child trying to snatch at thistledown.

†††††† "So what do we do now?" Gregory asked.

†††††† Ciaran stepped forward. "Leave him alone, that's what we do. Let him rest. If only you knew..."

†††††† "No, Ciaran." Elias held up his hand.

†††††† Ciaran grabbed Elias's arm, and dragged him away into the trees, to converse with him in hissed whispers. Maybe he spoke louder than he had intended, for Oliver, nearest to them, heard it all. "I know I was wrong back there," he was saying. "I was thinking only of the things I needed to tell you, not what you needed to hear. I won't let the others make the same mistake."

†††††† "But it's right..."

†††††† "No." Ciaran was holding Elias by the shoulders, and their faces were very close. "I know what you're doing. You're going to let them carry on believing that it was easy for you to give peace to the dead, so they bombard you with their own concerns, and no-one ever thinks about yours."

†††††† "What good could it do them?" Elias's voice sounded only weary. "They don't need that, just as you didn't need it."

†††††† "So what do they need?" Ciaran demanded. "To be led to Ravenstor by someone who has already given up? To follow your lies? To believe that they're being led by a strong king who knows exactly what he's doing? What's going to happen when you can't hide the truth from them any more?"

†††††† Elias closed his eyes, then opened them again. "Very well. Then I'll tell them."

†††††† Ciaran let him go. "Everything?"

†††††† "Not everything." Elias shook his head. "Just enough."

†††††† Ciaran snorted disbelievingly, and stalked back to the camp. Elias was a little slower to follow. In that moment, when he thought himself unwatched, his face was unguarded, full of longing and misery.

†††††† The snap was almost audible when he put on the mask. "I am going to Ravenstor," he announced, his voice crisp. "I have reasons to believe that it is the right place. I cannot explain them. The dead are at peace, so there is nothing to hold me here. I should start today, or tomorrow at the latest."

†††††† "Just you?" Ciaran cried. "You're going to go alone whether we like it or not?"

†††††† Elias ignored him. Instead, he fixed every one of them with his gaze, one after the other. In that moment, he looked very like Reynard. "I release you," he told them all. "Any oaths you have ever sworn to me, I count as fulfilled. You have served your people beyond the call of duty, and the price has been high. None of you are under any obligation to come with me to Ravenstor."

†††††† "Of course we will come, my lord," Gregory protested. He had found the banner and was beginning to raise it high, but something in Elias's sudden look made him falter, and he let it fall again.

†††††† "I would have spoken to you of hope," Elias said. "I would have lied, and told you that we have a good chance against Cercamond, but the truth is that we do not. I am only alive now on his sufferance. I am going to face him in Ravenstor because I feel it is better to try than to give up, but I have little hope of victory. The chances are he will kill me, and you will have to watch. And he is not an enemy who can be fought with swords. There is nothing any of you can do to help defeat him."

†††††† "What are you saying, my lord?" Gregory asked. "That we should lie down and give up? That we should spend the last days of the world sitting still, when we could be fighting alongside our king?"

†††††† "When death comes, it is important how you face it," Elias said. "The way to eternal peace is acceptance."

†††††† Oliver spoke before anyone else could. "Do you want us to go?" He leant forward. "You'd rather us not be there?"

†††††† Elias looked at him, but still Oliver saw Reynard in those unfamiliar eyes. " I don't like giving you false hope. It's not fair to you."

†††††† "No." Oliver moved to Elias's side and took his hand. "You, Elias. Would you find it easier to have us at your side?"

†††††† The faÁade began to crumble, and Elias was there again, his blue eyes full of pain. "I don't know. It will make the end harder, but the journey easier."

†††††† Oliver made a silent promise with his eyes, but did not speak. The others would be influenced by him, but he knew what Elias was doing. Every one of them had to come by their own free will, to ease the guilt that Elias would feel if they died.

†††††† "The way I see it," Gregory said slowly, "is this. We are Kindred. Five hundred years, we've skulked in the woods, waiting for this moment. I for one could not live with myself if I hid again now that the moment has come. Perhaps we are doomed. Perhaps it is a lost cause before we even start. But at least we will be marching under the banner of the kings. At least we will be making a stand."

†††††† A woman called Edith kept her eyes onOliver as she spoke shyly. "The Kindred never despair. I've been taught that lesson all my life. Everything might look desolate, but there is still that thin white ribbon that signifies hope."

†††††† Elias looked up at the treetops, and tilted his head as if he was listening to someone else. Was it Cercamond? "He has already conquered me," he said to the dark branches. "It all comes down to him, now, as to when he chooses to claim me."

†††††† "I release you," Oliver burst out. Elias blinked, and looked bewildered, and Oliver lowered his voice. "You released us, so it's only fair that we release you. I should have done this months ago, Elias. You've sacrificed so much to duty, but no more. You have done what you can. If the only ending for you is death and defeat, then go now. Don't even try. Go home, to heal and be happy. We'll die anyway, whether to stay or leave, but at least this way..."

†††††† "No," Elias croaked. His eyes were full of tears. "I cannot do that. I will not."

†††††† "Why not?" Oliver demanded. "Don't throw your life away. If nothing can stop Cercamond winning, then there's no reason to stay. I know it's hard to leave, but sometimes you have to. I had to, yesterday. If the world dies, we'd die happier just for knowing that you escaped, and would remember us. It's over for us, but not for you."

†††††† Elias seemed almost beyond speaking. "No. Please, Oliver, I can't."

†††††† Oliver had never really expected him to accept, though the offer had been sincere. "And neither can I," he said. "I will not leave you, not so near to the end. If you die, I want to die near you. If there is any hope that Cercamond can be defeated, I want to be there when you find it. I agree with Gregory. We've hidden for too long, and now we make a stand. Perhaps we will die, but at least we will die with our banners flying."

†††††† "Release us from our oaths," Gregory said, "and we will only swear them again. We go where you go. It is a week to Ravenstor, and perhaps we can protect you. Even if we cannot, we will die with you, the first Kindred in five hundred years to die in the cause of life, at the side of their king."

†††††† "You are my king," Oliver said, "and I am your seneschal. But you are also Elias, and I am Oliver, and that is why I will go wherever you go. I'll tell you stories. I'll make you smile." He leant forward, and Elias did too, and their brows touched, their arms around each other's shoulders."I just want to be with you," he whispered. "We're bound too closely for there to be any parting."

†††††† Elias gave a small sob. "I just wanted..."

†††††† "I know." Oliver pulled away first. "I know."

†††††† "Besides," Ciaran said, pushing between them. "Cercamond wants to make us all despair. You said so yourself, Elias. Just because he's made you think there's no hope of survival, it doesn't mean that there isn't." He grabbed Elias's chin. "Is there, Elias? You're just naturally thinking dark thoughts at the moment, after what you've gone through."

†††††† "But there is no..." Elias's words were a faint breath, suddenly stopped.

†††††† No hope for me. Oliver heard the rest of it as clearly as if it had been spoken, and he felt suddenly cold. He believes it! he thought. He really believes it. But he looked round at the Kindred, so fierce in their swearing despite their talk of hopelessness, and he knew that none of them believed it, not yet. They all had faith in their king, even if Elias had no faith left in himself.

 

 

†††††† As evening thickened around him, the king stood on the edge of the camp with his eyes closed. "Calling," Oliver said, when Thurstan asked him what he was doing. At the end of it, half a dozen ponies strolled into their camp. A wolf came, too, bounding up just as the king had started to turn away. The smile on the king's face as the animal leapt up on him made Thurstan want to cry, for he knew how rare such smiles were, and how they would perhaps never come again.

†††††† Darkness fell, and Thurstan stood by Reynard's grave, then stalked away again when someone else came close. They slept, and no-one saw dead people in the night. The king had slept for a few hours in the late afternoon, lying on his face as if he had been dropped there, but every time Thurstan had opened his eyes in the night, the king had just been sitting there, staring at nothing.

†††††† They left in the morning, at first light. The wounded and the young children had ponies, but the others had to walk.

†††††† "Do you want the banner raised?" Thurstan heard Oliver ask the king.

†††††† "I would prefer it not to be," the king said, "because it seems to make a promise that I cannot keep. But if they will take comfort from it, let them have it."

†††††† Gregory raised the banner anyway. The king glanced at it, then at his people, then turned and walked away. Gregory looked at the banner, then furled it with passionate movements, before hurrying after the king. He gazed at his back with eyes that were hot and reverent, the same as they had been when gazing at the banner.

†††††† They walked west. Every few hours, they stopped for a rest, but also for the king to fly ahead and scout out the next stretch of road. Each time, Ciaran went with him, and returned with him. They were always silent when they rejoined the others, but Thurstan thought of Ciaran waiting for the king, to enrobe him with his cloak, and felt a little cold, like someone shut out of a lighted house.

†††††† When they walked, the king was at the head of their scattered column, with Ciaran at his side. Sometimes Thurstan thought they were quarrelling, but in quiet voices so no-one else could hear. Oliver rode on one of the horses, and Adela walked beside him, keeping up a steady stream of talk. Sometimes Thurstan drifted close, and smiled at the things she was saying, but he always ended up drifting away again.

†††††† Behind thin clouds, the sun rose high, then sank down again. The light turned grey, and Thurstan started shivering and could not stop. At last he could stand it no longer, and hurried forward to the king's side, snatching a moment when Ciaran was not with him. "Can I talk to you, my lord?"

†††††† The king stiffened, but his voice was mild. "Of course you can." He walked a few more steps. "It's cold, isn't it? But there's no enemies in this part of the wood. We can risk a nice big fire. You'll soon warm up."

†††††† "No, I won't." The words came out before Thurstan could stop them. He took a deep breath. "I feel so... Why didn't Reynard come to me?" he blurted out. "Everyone else saw somebody. Why didn't I?"

†††††† The king walked in silence for a while. "Reynard was there," he said at last. "I promise you that. He was there, but it was hard battle for him to be at peace. I think that when the door opened, he just had to snatch at it quickly, before he changed his mind. Maybe he knew that if he lingered, he would lose the chance."

†††††† "Everyone else had time," Thurstan said. "They all came. Everyone else got someone. But I know why he didn't. He never liked me."

†††††† The king held him by the shoulders. "He's at peace, Thurstan. That's what matters. I think you probably realised that he was never a happy man. He could easily have stayed that way after death, forever, but he didn't. He's at peace."

†††††† "I don't care!" Thurstan spat. "He should have come to me. Why didn't he come to me? I matter, too. I'm the one who has to carry on. He didn't even have to tell me he loved me, or was proud of me, but couldn't he at least give me a goodbye?"

†††††† "I'm sorry." The king looked pale and helpless, and not like the king at all. "I'm sure he was proud of you. He found it hard to say such things. He was committed to a certain path, and that stopped him from feeling certain things. No, not from feeling them, but from admitting them, even to himself."

†††††† "So something was wrong with him," Thurstan said. "Why do I have to be the one to suffer? He's left me thinking I'm not good enough to be his son, but really you're saying that he wasn't good enough to be my father."

††††† The king's hands held him tight. "That's not what I'm saying, Thurstan. It was so hard for him. It was the most beautiful thing when he finally let himself..."

†††††† Thurstan ripped himself away. "I don't care! He should have come to me! And I bet he didn't mention me. He'd forgotten me completely. And don't tell me that he had more important things on his mind. Everyone else managed to remember the people they'd left behind. I cried for him!" he screamed. "I was so happy when I thought he'd come back. But Cercamond said horrible things with his voice, and he never came back and told me that they weren't true!"

†††††† "They weren't true," the king said. Thurstan was dimly aware that the others had paused to watch, and that the king was indicating to them that they should carry on, and leave him to deal with this hysterical boy. He heard their footsteps as they went.

†††††† "I'm glad he's dead," Thurstan spat, when they were alone. "At least I don't have to worry about pleasing him now."

†††††† "You don't mean that."

†††††† Thurstan looked at him full in the face. "I do. I spent all winter trying to get him to love me. I came snivelling up to him, pleading with him, and he never wanted to know. I thought it was my fault, so I tried to learn the Shadow, to make myself worthy. And he still didn't want me. Then, right at the end, I thought he was beginning to like me, but he never was. He forgot all about me at the end."

†††††† "Please don't blame Reynard for it," the king said. "And don't blame yourself."

†††††† "Blame myself?" Thurstan cried. "I'm not blaming myself, not unless it's for being so pathetic as to want him to love me. I built him up into a hero, did you know that? But he never was. He was a stupid cold man, with no idea of how to talk to people. Why should I feel bad because of his failings? I don't care any more."

†††††† The king was biting his lip. If he had been anyone else, Thurstan would have thought that he had no idea what to say, and that this conversation was more than he could bear. "Please don't remember him like that," he said at last. "Blame does no good. It just eats you up, torments you. I would hate to see you end up like him."

†††††† "Like Reynard?" Thurstan scoffed. "I'm not like him."

†††††† "I think you could be," the king said. "I know you feel betrayed, but donít let it blight your life like he did."

†††††† "I do not intend to." Thurstan suddenly felt cold and resolved, and his voice was hard as ice. "I've spent too long trying to win the approval of men who didn't deserve my devotion. I'm by myself now. I don't care what they think. They don't matter."

†††††† The king held onto his arm. "He loved you. I know he did."

†††††† "What does it matter?" Thurstan turned his back. "We're all going to be dead in a week, or so you want us to believe. What does it matter how I spend my last days? I'd rather be like I am now, than snivelling about a so-called father who never came back."

†††††† Dead undergrowth rustled under the king's cloak as he moved. "He was your father."

†††††† "No." Thurstan folded his arms. "I never had a father. But it doesn't matter now. I'm seventeen years old. I don't need anyone."

†††††† Leaving the king behind, he stalked off until he found Ciaran Morgan. "Teach me," Thurstan demanded, before Ciaran had acknowledged his presence. "I haven't had a lesson for days."

†††††† Ciaran walked a few more steps before answering, then he merely asked, "Why?"

†††††† "Because I still want to learn." To be strong and accomplished, like the king. People would look up to him. Let boys come grovelling to him and beg for his respect, but he would need nobody.

†††††† Ciaran still did not turn round. "No. Not now. I can't."

†††††† Thurstan had to walk fast to keep up. He had spent his whole life chasing after the great ones, but they had never really stopped to notice him. Gerhard had given him little, and died. Reynard had just gone without saying goodbye. Ciaran Morgan had been his teacher, and had helped him when he had needed it, but now he was just walking away, always away. Only the king remained strong and true, and there was nothing weak and desperate in a man looking up to his king.

†††††† Thurstan clenched his fists. "Why not?"

†††††† Only then did Ciaran stop, though he still did not turn around. "Because, in a week, Elias faces Cercamond and nothing else matters but that. Because he needs me more than you do. Because what can you learn in a week that will make any difference? We can't pretend that things are normal."

†††††† Thurstan thrust out his chin. "I think the king would want us to. Thatís why he wanted us to stay behind, so we could carry on living."

†††††† "Maybe," Ciaran said, "but that doesn't mean that he's right. He's not telling me the whole truth, and I mean to..."

†††††† Thurstan flapped his hand. "Of course he's lying. He knows how to defeat Cercamond, but he can't tell anyone in case Cercamond hears. He's the king. He's going to win, and in a week it'll all be over, and I want to learn the Shadow."

†††††† For a moment, Thurstan thought Ciaran was going to hit him, he looked so furious. "He's Elias!" he spat. "How many times do I have to tell you? He's not a... a machine you can go to for advice and comfort when you need it, then walk away from. It's not all about you! Elias is going to a battle he thinks he can never win. What else could possibly compare with that? What petty concern could you possibly have that is even a hundredth as important as what Elias is facing?"

†††††† Thurstan wanted to wither under the force of Ciaran's gaze. He wanted to grovel and beg forgiveness, but that was what the old Thurstan would have done. "He thinks we matter." He managed to stop his voice from shaking too much. "That's why he puts us first, and hides what he's thinking. He does it because he thinks every one of us, and the things we are feeling, are important. He wouldn't want you to push everything away and think only of him."

†††††† "What do you know of Elias?" Ciaran scoffed. "You only see that shining king of yours, who's going to win when he faces Cercamond. You don't know what I know."

†††††† "No? Maybe I know more."

†††††† Ciaran turned away with a snarl. "Don't you dare tell me how to act with my... with Elias."

†††††† "I am not." How amazing it felt, to be able to stand up to Ciaran like this. He was trembling inside, but that would soon pass. Soon he would be like the king himself, never afraid of anything. "I just want to learn the Shadow. And you're acting as if Cercamond has already won, and that means that he has. You're acting as if the king has already lost, and that is to betray him."

†††††† "How dare you?" Ciaran's fist stopped just short of Thurstan's face.

†††††† Thurstan stood his ground. He would not flinch away, and let Ciaran hide from what he had almost done. "I want to learn the Shadow," he said, each word clear and distinct, "because it is something that I can do. I have spent all my life seeing only the things that I cannot do, but I will do that no longer. I want to learn the Shadow, and I want you to teach me, until I can do it alone."

†††††† Ciaran just looked at him, and then his shoulders slumped. "I don't think I can, Thurstan. There's too many things... You're too angry, and that's..."

†††††† "So you're like Reynard, are you?" Thurstan jeered. "You're trying to blame me, to make me think it's because I'm not worthy? But it's you, isn't it? Just like him, it's all your fault. You can't teach me."

†††††† Ciaran half closed his eyes, and shook his head sadly. He looked smaller without his anger. "I cannot, Thurstan. I'd be a bad teacher right now. There's too many things happening. I... I'm trying to face up to the things that happened in the battle, and it's not easy. I'm trying to get through to Elias. I keep thinking of what's going to happen at Ravenstor. I can't... They're not conducive to the Shadow, Thurstan. I can't do it now."

†††††† "Very well." Thurstan folded his arms. "I don't need you, either." Ciaran reached for him as he walked away, but Thurstan pushed his hand aside, and walked alone for the rest of the day. The wind pricked his eyes, and that was why he had to dash his hands across them sometimes.

††††††

 

†††††† Days passed in long minutes of nightmares. They moved slower than they had when they had done the journey in the other direction, and followed a different route. They went due west towards the sea, then followed the coast south. There were deep valleys, and hills that went into the sea like hunched shoulders. Sometimes they saw the smoke of cottages and villages, and had to avoid them. Elias flew over them, and once saw a man looking up at him, shielding his eyes from the sun, and once he woke to find a domestic cat curled against his side.

†††††† In his mind, there were two other paths that were overlaid upon the real one. One path was the path that led to hopelessness. There was no lighted window of home at the end of that path, only the twin destinations of defeat by Cercamond, or the victory that would be even worse. The other path was the one that Ciaran walked alongside him. It was the path that led from love to hatred. Every hour took Ciaran further along that path.

†††††† "I know you're hiding things," Ciaran said one night. A light twinkled out at sea, a lantern in a fishing boat, and Elias watched it, and wondered if the fisherman had someone waiting for him at home. "Why won't you tell me?"

†††††† "I've told you what I can." Cercamond was listening, of course. He was in the grass and the trees and every dead leaf. He strode through Elias's dreams, and he revelled in his blood.

†††††† "It seems to me as if you're telling me the things most calculated to be cruel," Ciaran said. "You've told me that I'm going to betray you. You've tried to make me promise not to let you give up and die. You said you wanted me to trust you, but you give me no reason."

†††††† "I have told no lies, not to you." That much was true. Any despair that he felt was entirely unfeigned.

†††††† Ciaran plucked up a blade of grass that Cercamond had spared. "Why can't you be honest with yourself? I am, now. I meant what I said the other day. I recognise that I have tended to deny things, to close my eyes to the truth. I'm trying hard, Elias. Why can't you? I'm sure you'd be happier if you did. It's so hard, keeping secrets."

†††††† Of course he was right. It felt like some horrible judgement upon him. For years, he had kept things from Ciaran, because he had thought that Ciaran would not be interested. Now Ciaran was begging him to tell, and Elias longed to speak, but he could not.

†††††† Ciaran lay back, propping himself up with his elbow. "Thurstan says that you know how to defeat Cercamond, and everything else is an act put on for his sake." There was a false casualness to the words. "He's not right, is he?"

†††††† Elias could not breathe. Is it true, little one? Cercamond's voice could still hurt, even after all this time. But of course it's not true. I know you, every last piece of you, and you have nothing hidden. Your despair tastes so good.

†††††† "I cannot fight Cercamond," Elias said. "I cannot defeat him. I know that. There is no hope for me if I face him. I know that, too."

†††††† "Then why are we even bothering?" Ciaran shouted. "Why go to Ravenstor? You can't even say it's a pretence put on for the sake of the others, because you told them that you don't expect to win. Why are you going all that way to die?" His hand closed round Elias's wrist. "You've always had a martyrish streak, Elias. I wish you'd be honest with yourself and admit it. Do you want me to betray you? Is that why you're going there?"

†††††† There was enough darkness for Elias to hide his face. What could he say?

†††††† Ciaran sat up sharply. "I don't think you deserve my love. I've tried so hard to face up to things, but you seem to revel in suffering. You've admitted that you're not going to win this battle, but you still keep going. I said you were courageous, but I was wrong. It's not courage, it's stupidity. You're just going to throw everything away without even trying to fight for it."

†††††† Oh, Ciaran. It was deep inside the walls of his heart, where not even Cercamond could reach, though Cercamond thought he could see everything. I wish I could say goodbye. I wish I could tell you. When it happened, if it happened, Ciaran would realise the extent of Elias's lies, but would never hear an explanation from his own mouth. Ciaran would be hurt terribly by it, betrayed by the second person he had loved in his life, just as he had been betrayed by the first.

†††††† Elias would do everything he could to lessen that hurt. "I'm so sorry," he told Ciaran. "Whatever happens when we reach Ravenstor, I did it because I had to. I would tell you everything if I could, but I can't."

†††††† "Won't, you mean." Ciaran stood up, towering over Elias. "You think I forget things, but I don't. I remember what you said last autumn, not far from here. You said you didn't tell me things because you were scared of becoming clingy and weak. I thought we'd resolved that over the winter, but it seems that I was the only one trying to resolve things. You've not changed a bit. You're still playing the martyr. And I'm sick of it, Elias. I've given you everything, but it's still not enough."

†††††† "It is enough!" Elias cried. He looked down at the ground, at the dead patches of earth. "I want it to be enough. It isn't, but it's not because of me. Cercamond..."

†††††† "Don't you go blaming him for your failings!" Ciaran crouched down and took Elias's hands in a grip that hurt. "Why can't it be different, Elias? Think of how it could be. Us, hand in hand, in love. The banner flying. A small band of survivors bound together by hope. Not knowing what lay ahead, but knowing that, whatever else happened, they had each other. That's how it could be, Elias, and you're the only thing stopping it from happening, with this stupid obsession you've got with suffering."

†††††† If he opened his mouth, he would just start crying. Hold me, he would beg Ciaran. Love me, because it will be the last time. Give me the strength to carry on. But the strength had to come from within. No-one else alive could know a thing.

†††††† "I despair of you, sometimes." Ciaran stood up. "I've tried. You know, I even refused to teach Thurstan because I thought you were more important. I know how hard it was for you to give peace to the dead, and I felt so terrible for how I acted afterwards. I wanted to make it up to you, but you just won't listen. Whatever you say, I know you're lying to me."

†††††† "I'm so sorry," Elias whispered.

†††††† "You keep saying that," Ciaran said, "but you donít act any differently, so it doesn't mean anything."

†††††† Ciaran walked away. That night, Cercamond was louder in Elias's dreams than ever, and he screamed himself hoarse.

††††††

 

†††††† There was betrayal in the darkness of the night. The cold wind brought dreams, and Elias was there in every one. "You will betray me," he said again and again. "You will betray me out of love."

†††††† Ciaran turned a full circle, searching for Elias, but his apprentice was a fickle speck of light, that fled away when he looked at it. "How?" Ciaran rasped. "Show me what happens, so I know how it's a betrayal. Give me a reason."

†††††† White light shone where Elias should be. "I have become too powerful for anyone to destroy," he said. "Only you. Only you can destroy me."

†††††† "Show me how!" Ciaran demanded, and Elias consented, but in the cruellest way possible. Instead of showing him the answer, he showed him betrayal in a thousand possible ways.

†††††† He saw Elias bound tightly with rope and chains. His clothes were torn, and bloody stripes showed through the tears on his back. A halter was looped around his neck, and Ciaran was leading him like a slave. "Yours," he said, to Lord Darius, who stood there with his black-gloved hands pressed together. "I've had him and used him and tire of him now. Do what you will with him, because I no longer care."

†††††† He saw Elias broken on the ground, sobbing. One eye was gone and his shoulder was shattered. In a ravaged voice he begged Ciaran not to leave him, to stay with him, to help him. "This is not my world," Ciaran told him. "You'll just hurt me like Gideon did. Stay here and wallow in the mess you've created. I'm going home."

†††††† He saw Elias standing on steps of black stone, looking nervously around him for Cercamond, who spoke with the voice of the wind, but refused to show himself. "Help me," he begged Ciaran. "Help me find him. Stand beside me. Hold my hand. If we stand together, we have twice the vision. If you help me, I'll see him."

†††††† But Ciaran just cowered back and closed his eyes, because change came slowly, even after you knew the need for it. "I can't," he breathed. "I don't want to see him again. I can't bear it. If I go now, he won't follow me. He has no interest in me. If he kills you, he might let the rest of us go."

†††††† Then the image faded, and he saw the next one, and the next. He saw himself slapping Elias's face so hard that Elias fell backwards down a flight of black steps, and lay there unmoving in a pool of blood. He saw himself embracing Elias and speaking words of love, while he tenderly slid a dagger into his stomach, and twisted it home. He saw himself standing cold and obdurate, while Elias crawled at his feet, and begged him to kill him and end this misery.

†††††† "Betrayal!" Elias screamed, as a constant backdrop to all the visions. "You will betray me through love."

†††††† "I don't see how that can be," Ciaran said, coldly, closing his eyes to the cruel visions and refusing to see any more. He turned his back, and covered his ears so he could no longer hear Elias's hateful voice. "Because, Elias, I no longer love you, not after seeing all that. You can no longer torment me, because I no longer care."

†††††† He stood there, triumphant, for a little while, then dared open his eyes, just a slit.

†††††† Elias was there, in front of him, revealed at last. He was kneeling, with his hands folded in his lap, and his head bowed. He did not protest or weep or beg. "I know," he murmured, sadly. "I know."

†††††† Ciaran fell to his knees beside him, and raised his hand, but whether he would have caressed him or struck him, he would never know. Elias made a small sound in the back of his throat, and Ciaran woke up. He found himself lying on his back, and the moonlight was faint and silver above him. He was breathing very fast, and the cloak that covered him had been kicked free as if by wild struggles.

†††††† Elias was propped up on one elbow, staring at him. As Ciaran looked at him, his expression was carefully wiped clean, and whatever emotion he had been displaying on his face was replaced with a mask of calm. "You were dreaming," he murmured. "Are you... How do you feel?"

†††††† Ciaran ran his hands over his face, trying to scrape away the last images of the dream. "I was dreaming of what you said." As he said it, he realised the truth at last, and knew why Elias had been lying to him. "You said I'd betray you out of love," he gasped. "So thatís why. You're deliberately acting like this to stop me loving you, in the hope that I won't do it. You still don't trust me."

†††††† "You were the one who refused to promise not to do it, when I begged you." Elias was driving his fingertip into the earth, tracing patterns.

†††††† "You're saying I've given you no reason to trust me? That's a lie, Elias. I won't promise to do a stupid thing. I won't let you destroy yourself, not without a fight."

†††††† "So we've come round full circle," Elias murmured. "I sincerely believe that if you do what I saw you do in the vision, everything will be lost. Perhaps you will save me for a second, but no longer. The world will die. And as for me... Do you know what Cercamond has planned for me, Ciaran? Worse than death. An eternity as his slave, watching worlds die, but unable to do anything about it, like on the battlefield, but a thousand times worse. So if you save my life, that's what you'll be condemning me to."

†††††† "You can't know that," Ciaran cried, "not from a tiny glimpse of a vision. I'll do what seems right at the time. I won't let you destroy yourself. And you know why not? Because, strange as it might seem, I still love you."

†††††† Elias whispered something. It could have been, "Please."

†††††† Ciaran pounced on it. "Please what? Love you? Kiss you? Walk away and let you carry on this mad course of self-destruction?"

†††††† Elias said nothing at all, so Ciaran kissed him anyway, pinning him to the ground with his wrists above his head, grinding his knee into his side, driving the back of his head into the ground. Elias moaned into his mouth. Ciaran kissed him again, and did not shield his teeth. "There," he spat, as he pulled away. He was breathing hard. "I love you. That's what you're throwing away. My happiness, as well as yours. What gives you the right?"

†††††† "Just a few more days." Elias's lips were swollen and red, and his eyes looked dazed. "Can't you stop asking questions until then, and just trust me, and love me?"

†††††† Ciaran narrowed his eyes. "Only if you could be honest with me, and it seems that you cannot."

†††††† "I want to," Elias breathed. "I want to so much. I want to spend this week with all the things I'll never know again. I want you to love me, but I can't change the way I have to be. I just can't."

†††††† "Then everything's your fault." Ciaran rolled over, and pretended to go back to sleep again, though his eyes were wide open in the moonlight, and he did not dare close them for fear of the dreams.

††††††

 

†††††† If they lived, Oliver thought, their story would be his to tell. As he sat on his horse, lulled by the dull pain in his leg and the constant swaying motion, he sometimes thought he was living in a story already, but perhaps that was just his way of finding comfort. It was easier to think they were nothing more than beings wrought of words. The story-teller would pause, and look up, and the story would be over, and never true in the first place.

†††††† The story had a hero, of course. The hero had once been a boy who had never been tested, and had walked his life in the shadow of an older man. Then that same boy had been chosen for a great destiny, and had passed the test, and revealed true greatness. Now he was a king, as handsome as any hero ought to be. He shone with power, but, more even than that, he had courage and generosity. He had sacrificed far too much for others, and had fulfilled the hopes born in five hundred years of waiting.

†††††† His story had love. The tales of the Kindred told of loyalty and courage and constancy, but seldom of love. Oliver's tale would have all three, but above all he would make it glow with love. He would tell of the love of a bard for his king, and the love of a woman that had made the bard see the sunlight that had always existed in the world. He would tell of the love that had grown in the winter between the king and the man who had once been his master. He would tell of the love for the fallen, and how the dead had spoken with joy. He would tell of love that led to sacrifice, and love that led to laughter.

†††††† Evil, too, had its part in his tale. There was Cercamond, who had challenged the great enchanters and had been imprisoned. Filled with hatred for the world that had cast him out, he revelled in destruction. And there was Darius, who hid his own powers, and deceived his trusting armies into a misguided crusade. He played on fear, and made innocent people into murderers, who believed they killed for their own protection, but were unwittingly killing those who cared most strongly for life.

†††††† Those who heard the tale would weep, for the life of the Kindred had always been one of tragedy. He would tell of a whole House cut down, and an army of conscripts shattered. He would tell of a young man, a king, who was never allowed any respite. He would tell of a brave man killed, and a young boy tormented by not having heard a goodbye. He would tell of the pain of a Seer, and the sorrow for the death of a brother who had never been truly known. He would tell of the agony of waiting for a king who was lost, and the misery of powerlessness when he returned.

†††††† And his story would have an ending of glorious triumph. So many dead, and so much lost, but the House still remained, in its tiny band of survivors. Tragedy would bring them closer. Side by side, they would ride beneath the falcon banner, ready to face what would come. They would never forget the dead, but they would know that they were at peace. Strong and united, they would face the future.

†††††† Their king bore the worst burden, but they, who loved him and served him, would walk beside him, and shore him up with their loyalty. Although they were few, and the enemy they faced was great, they would smile in those last days. In the last minutes of the world, they would know the contentment of standing up for their beliefs, and doing what they could, strong in their fellowship.

†††††† And then, right at the end, his dreams faded, for, if that was how it ended, there would be no-one to tell the tale, and no-one to hear it. It should end with victory snatched from the jaws of defeat, just as everything seemed lost. It should end with a slow and tremulous dawning of a new day, and people emerging from the shadows to embrace the man who had saved them. Then, in the city that had once been the seat of kings, that young man would be crowned, and all the hatreds of five hundred years would be wiped away and forgiven.

†††††† Or maybe, he thought, it should end with a farewell at sunset. Evil had been defeated forever, and a king could be a man again. He would embrace those who had served him, and say farewell. Then, taking the hand of the one he loved most, he would walk away and finally be free, in whichever world he chose to make his home.

†††††† "Oliver," he heard, and realised that Adela had been calling to him for some time.

†††††† He blinked, and the story faded. He tried to smile, but could not.

†††††† "What were you thinking?" she asked.

†††††† "About stories." He sighed. "About how it should be."

†††††† She did not answer; there was nothing she could say. Everything was falling apart. They were walking to the final battle, but there was nothing of a story about it.

†††††† They were fragmented, and, with every step, they only seemed to become further apart. Thurstan was becoming cold and bitter, and Ciaran walked alone, wrapped in a cloak of anger and solitude. As for Elias, he was miserable and defensive, and acted as if every step took him deeper into a nightmare. Increasingly often, he walked apart from the others, and he looked wary whenever he caught anyone looking at him. He gave no speeches, and made no attempt to rally the survivors and lift their spirits. Perhaps that should have been the job of Oliver, their seneschal and bard, but he too lacked the heart for it.

†††††† They were falling apart, he thought. Just when they most needed to be strong in fellowship, they were falling apart.

††††††

 

†††††† On the fifth evening, Elias walked to the edge of their circle of pale firelight, and stood there, staring into the darkness. "I'll come back," he said, "in an hour or two."

†††††† He walked, and in two steps he had left the light behind. No-one followed him. He looked over his shoulder, an outcast looking back at the living. Oliver was talking softly to Adela, and had not even seemed to hear him go. Ciaran was staring after him hungrily, but then his expression changed to one of anger, and he looked down at the ground. Of the others, only Thurstan had looked up at all.

†††††† I did this, Elias thought. Ciaran was right. He had been unable to tell them the truth, but he had told them too much. Instead of marching with their banner high, united in defiance, they walked bleakly to their end, each trapped in their own misery. They seldom spoke to each other now, and even less to Elias.

†††††† Elias started walking again. They had dared risk a fire only because their position was sheltered, and soon he could not see even the faintest smear of firelight. Dead grass crackled under his feet. When he was far enough away, he sat down, pulling his knees up to his chest. The touch of the night on his cheek was cold and clammy, as if Cercamond himself was caressing him. He probably was. Cercamond knew him more intimately than anyone did, now. But not the deep part of him, he thought. The Brothers always believed that a man's deepest thoughts were inviolable, and it seemed as if it was true. Everything real about him took place deep within, locked away behind doors that Cercamond could not penetrate.

†††††† After a while, he heard footsteps, and stiffened, wondering if it was Ciaran. Ciaran, who had suddenly understood the truth without words, and wanted only to hold him and love him and make the ending easier. Please... The footsteps faltered, then resumed again. "My lord?" It was Thurstan's voice. "Are you here?"

†††††† Elias swallowed. "I'm here. Just at your feet. Sit down, if you like."

†††††† Thurstan did so. It was too dark to see his face, and Elias wondered what had brought him out here. He should have sought the boy out more over the last few days, but he had not done so.

†††††† "Do you remember," Thurstan said, when he had settled down, "when you asked me to walk with you one night when we were on the way to the city? I was younger, then, and I felt... alone. You knew that, so you asked me to come with you."

†††††† Elias nodded, then, remembering that Thurstan could not see him, made a vague noise of agreement. That had been the night he had found the dying rose. Thurstan had stood at his side, and had never known that Elias had been given the first sign that all hope was ending.

†††††† "I just wanted you to know how... grateful I was," Thurstan said. "I... I don't think people thank you enough."

†††††† "Thank you," Elias murmured, touched by the boy's words, even though Thurstan's thanks were so... irrelevant.

†††††† "Can I talk to you, my lord?" Thurstan said. "There's something I need to ask." During the day, he was hard and bitter. Only at night, and only before Elias, did he ever let himself show his fears.

†††††† Elias nodded, swallowed, then said, "Yes. If you need to."

†††††† There was a soft sound, as if Thurstan was shifting position, and then again. "What will happen when we reach Ravenstor?"

†††††† Elias froze, then let out a slow breath. "I face Cercamond."

†††††† "Yes." Thurstan sighed. "I don't understand things. I know you're going to win, and you're only putting on an act, but I... I saw a vision, my lord."

†††††† "Oh?" Elias stiffened. If Thurstan spoke out loud of what he had seen in the future, then Cercamond would hear it, and know.

†††††† "I saw you," Thurstan said. "And it can't be long from now, because you looked the same, though you were wearing different clothes. And Cercamond hadn't won, because there were patches of green grass still, and smoke, I think, somewhere behind you. But you were so sad. You were on the top of a cliff, and I was afraid you were going to jump. But why would you do that? I don't understand. You wouldn't do it before you faced Cercamond, and why would you do it afterwards, if you'd won?"

†††††† Hidden in the darkness, Elias could press his hand to his eyes. "I don' t know."††††††† "I can't stop thinking about it," Thurstan said. "You were so sad, I could feel it, and it was worse than anything I've ever felt. You were so lonely. But why?"

†††††† "Not all visions come true." How could he manage to keep his voice so level? "Maybe even Cercamond can plant them in your mind, to make you anxious. You know the way he works."

†††††† "Maybe." Thurstan swallowed. "It couldn't be like that, could it?"

†††††† Of course it could, Cercamond chuckled. You left alive after everyone else dies, one by one. You'll want to die, too, but I will not let you. I will catch you whenever you fall. I will pluck you back.

†††††† "It could be," Elias lied. "If Cercamond wins."

†††††† "But he won't." Thurstan swallowed again. "Will he?"

†††††† What could Elias say? If he could tell anybody, perhaps he would choose Thurstan. Neither Oliver nor Ciaran would let him go through with what he was going to do. Oliver would weep, and beg him not to do it. "We're not worth it," he would say. "If that's the price of saving us, then let us die." Ciaran would say the same, but his denial would be couched in anger. "I forbid it," he would shout. "Your life isn't yours to give away. I love you. Nothing is more important than that."

†††††† Thurstan, though, would accept it as a service performed by a king to his people, and he would trust Elias enough to think that the ending would be less horrible than it seemed. He had never really been able to comprehend that Elias was just like him, and that he could be hurt by things, and deathly afraid. He would accept it, and have faith.

†††††† Why Ravenstor? Thurstan would ask, and Elias would tell him that it was because the dead were strong there. For what he had to do, Elias needed more strength than he possessed himself. In Ravenstor there were dead enchanters who still had power, more so than anyone else living. Perhaps if they helped him, they would be free.

†††††† And how are you going to defeat him? Thurstan would ask, but Elias would correct him. He could not defeat him. All the power he had ever thrown at Cercamond had only seemed to make him stronger. The only hope he had came from when he had surrendered. Cercamond had rushed in to possess him, but in that last moment Elias had willed himself to see a flower in the devastation of Cercamond's illusion, and it had come. Cercamond thought he had cast Elias aside to live to fight another day, but really he had never conquered him at all.

†††††† But how can you be so sure? the boy would ask. It seems a flimsy basis for risking everything. And he wasn't sure. How could he be? But he knew that sorcery and enchantment had both existed side by side, until the great enchanters had torn sorcery out of the world. He had seen it happen, and had seen what they had not seen, and that was that the enchantment itself was lessened without it. The two wanted to be together, he thought. If he fought, his enchantment would only feed Cercamond's sorcery, but if he yielded... If he let Cercamond possess him...

†††††† Possess you? Like Reynard? The boy would shudder with sick terror at such a thing, so Elias would have to hide the dread that he was feeling. To be possessed... To be invaded and violated... Cercamond would possess him, and Elias would throw open the locked doors inside him, and invite Cercamond into the deepest places that no-one had ever been able to see before. And then he would lock the door. There was no prison was strong as the prison of solitude. Elias would trap Cercamond inside him, and the two powers, enchantment and sorcery, would meld together, and not even Cercamond would be able to separate them again.

†††††† Thurstan would be thinking of the scene on the cliff, of Elias facing a lifetime of loneliness. Why so sad? If it works... Because there would be evil inside him. Because if he relaxed his guard, just for a moment, Cercamond would lash out and make him do evil things, and hurt the people he was with. He would be tainted, not fit to be loved. He would walk into a far away wilderness, and live alone, so the people would be protected from him.

†††††† But one day you will die. Ah yes. And one day he would die, but it would still carry on. Like the gate-keeper and the dead in Ravenstor, he would cling to existence even after his body died. They would be two eternal spirits, Elias and Cercamond, coiled around each other in an intimate embrace that never ended. Cercamond would possess him, and Elias would cling on to him, and never let himself be freed.

†††††† You can't be sure of any of this, Thurstan would say, or maybe he wouldn't, for this was Thurstan, who might just nod and accept it, as one more truth from the mouth of his king. The latter would be better, for Elias had no answers he could give. No, he wasn't sure. All he had were hints and clues from their past encounters, but it was all he had left. He had to try. There was nothing else he could do.

†††††† "What can I do?" Thurstan was asking, a world away from the place where Elias's thoughts had been wandering.

†††††† He knew what he wanted to say. Hold him back. If you see Ciaran make a move towards him, grab onto him and hold him with everything you have. And then, when everything's over, tell Ciaran that I was sorry. Tell him that I loved him. He would have to say it carefully, in a way that would fool Cercamond, but... No. He couldnít. It was wrong to make Thurstan a conspirator against Ciaran. The ruins of their relationship was a private thing, and Elias had one more thing to ask of Ciaran before it was at an end.

†††††† "My lord?"

†††††† Elias let out a long breath. "Just remember," he said. "There might come a time soon when things suddenly make sense to you. And, if they do, I want you to tell people. Ciaran, and Oliver, even if no-one else. That's all."

†††††† "I don't understand," Thurstan said.

†††††† "I know." Elias pressed his face into his hands. "I know you don't." And, for your sake, I hope you never do.

†††††† Thurstan stood up. "I know it's hard, the battle you're going to face. But I have faith in you. You will win. And we're all with you. We depend on you."

†††††† Yes, Elias thought, he wished he could have told Thurstan the truth, because Thurstan was the one person who would never understand. He could confess everything, and pour out the words, but it would still be hidden. Thurstan would never stop him from doing what he had to do. Thurstan would never save him. He revered Elias too much to help him.

†††††† Ciaran, Elias whispered. Please. I need you. Stop me from doing this. Find me another way. Please. Or just accept it, and hold me just once before the end, and we can be quiet together, and at peace.

†††††† Thurstan walked back to the camp, and no-one came out to take his place. Elias's head fell forward onto his knees. He didn't even need Cercamond inside him. All by himself, just by knowing what lay ahead, he had poisoned everything.