Chapter twenty-nine

The white flower

 

      

       Ciaran sat with his legs stretched in front of him, and watched a butterfly flit between the trees.

       It was late summer, and, although the summer had been subdued, it had been there. At the end of the summer, Elias had explained, the seeds of this year's growth would drift into the areas that were still dead, and the next summer would be a little more glorious. If they were lucky, he said, there would be no trace of Cercamond's touch on the land in five years.

       The people would take longer to recover, he knew, and perhaps they never would. As they had walked north in the spring, they had passed deserted farmsteads, and small fishing communities where every house was deserted. They knew men still existed, because sometimes they had seen distant smoke from chimneys, but they had deliberately not sought anyone out.

       They had wandered for two months, before finally settling not too far from where they had started, in a wooded valley near the sea.

       "I like the sea," Elias had said. "Now I've seen it, I find I want to stay here." And sometimes he would spend whole days just staring out across the ocean, his eyes stormy. Ciaran had learnt not to speak to him on those days. He wondered what Elias thought about, but the link they had once had between them lay as dead as it had ever been on that terrible last week before Ravenstor.

       Elias had refused to take over the deserted house of anyone who had once been alive, so they had built their own house by hand, using tools they had found in one of the villages. Ciaran had indulged Elias's scruples, though he had seen little difference between taking a dead man's tools and living in his house. In the end, though, he had come to enjoy the building. He had never created something before, and he took comfort in thinking that the beams above him had been made by his own hand.

       Elias had done more of the work, though, working as if driven. Most evenings, he had ended up too exhausted to move, with his palms covered with blisters. Ciaran had soothed the skin, and fussed over him, but Elias had merely said, "I want to." Ciaran, who finally thought he had learnt how to understand the man he had known for twelve years, had said nothing more to dissuade him.

       For food they ate mostly fruit and plants. Ciaran had tried to make bread once, grinding grain between two stones, but it had been gritty and inedible. Sometimes he managed to kill a rabbit or a bird, but Elias refused to eat them, saying he had once lived as they lived. Then, at night, when wolves howled far away, Elias would stare into the fire, and look so desperately heart broken that Ciaran wanted to hug him. Nightshade had not followed them into Ravenstor, and they had not seen him since.

       Elias had no sword, and Ciaran had not wanted to ask about it. He assumed Elias had left it behind in Ravenstor, for Oliver to keep as a relic. If the enchantment had still been alive, it could have chosen the new king who would take Elias's place, but now it was of use only as a sad reminder of what had been lost. Sometimes Ciaran tried to urge Elias to at least carry a dagger, but Elias just shook his head. Ciaran knew he was afraid Cercamond would overwhelm his defences, and make him strike Ciaran down with the weapon.

       "It doesn't matter," Ciaran said, once, but he had been unable to say the rest of it. If Elias lost his control of Cercamond, the whole world would tremble. It would not matter if Elias lived here in exile, or in the middle of the most crowded of cities. If Cercamond escaped, everything was lost.

       It would be wrong to say they were happy, Ciaran thought. At first, after all the apologies had been given and accepted, he had fancied that they could live here in some rural idyll, just the two of them. Elias was no longer a king, and there was no-one expecting him to make decisions for them. In time, Elias would allow himself to accept love again, and they would live together, and forget about the world.

       But, as the months went by, nothing changed. Elias smiled at him, and they spoke often. They talked about everything except those things that really mattered, and got to know each other even more closely than they had done in the winter. For the first time in their lives together, they became close friends.

       "I love you," Ciaran had said, at the start, again and again. Now he seldom said it. He still loved Elias as much as ever, but Elias could not let himself be loved. Guilt still gnawed at him. He had steeled himself to live a life of loveless exile, and part of him could not let go of that belief.

       Every night without exception, he sobbed of chains and prisons, and, by day, there was always a bleak core of self-hatred about him that Ciaran was powerless to touch.

       For the first time, Ciaran thought, as he watched the butterfly, he knew just how wrong he had been when he had thought that love was the greatest truth in life. There were some things that not even love could heal. Elias had sacrificed the ability to be truly happy that day in the square, and nothing could bring it back.

       "But I will wait," Ciaran swore, every night, into his solitary bed. He had been almost twenty years learning to trust in love again, and Elias had had only six months. For as long as it took, he would wait for him.

       They had no news of the outside world, here in their retreat. Elias spoke of that more than anything else. Although he was adamant that he could no longer live with people, he hoped passionately that they had been able to make peace, and that Oliver was safe. Ciaran hoped so too. Certainly, no armies passed them by at night, and the placid pool of the Shadow remained undisturbed with any echo of distant violence.

       The butterfly flew away, and Ciaran peered after it, into the woods. From their front door, the path snaked down through green trees to a small stream. The stream could then be followed out of the woods, and down to the sea. Already the path beside the stream was worn bare with Elias's footsteps. He was down there now. Ciaran frowned, wondering what was keeping him so long.

      

 

       Elias stood on the shore, and screamed at the sky. "I can't! I can't go on like this!"

       But he had to. Of course he had to. He had no choice.

       They had lived here for six months, and Ciaran had been kindness itself. But Elias only felt as if he had a giant chip of ice where his heart ought to be. Every night, in his dreams, he experienced tortures as a gaoler in prison, and that, and only that, could make him feel. Every night, silently, he screamed himself hoarse. By day, he simply had no energy left for anything else.

       Ciaran loved him. He said so less and less, though, and soon even he would run out of patience. It was only right. It wasn't fair that Ciaran should remain shackled to a man who was no longer capable of love. He had already given up all hope of returning to his own world. Elias had become so he could hardly bear to look at Ciaran, for guilt at what he had done to him.

       "I can't." He fell down on the sand, feeling the eager moisture sucking at his knees.

       The world was bleak and horrible, without enchantment in it, and without hope. He had defeated Cercamond, and could never regret that, but at what cost? The cost to himself he had always expected, but he had never realised that the only way to save the world would be by maiming it first.

       Even the glittering of the water seemed muted, as if there was nothing in the world that had not been lessened by his action.

       But perhaps the Kindred and the duchy were reconciled, and that was good. Perhaps they had a new king, one chosen by acclamation, and not by enchantment, who ruled well and in peace. Perhaps Oliver and Adela were expecting a child. And there had been a summer, with some trees managing to be green, and yellow flowers speckling the edges of the stream. There was life in the rock pools on the beach, and migrating birds had passed overhead in the spring.

       He picked up a pebble, and turned it in his hand. Once, he could have given it the appearance of a bead of gold, or made it seem to turn into a bird and fly. He could have flown with the birds overhead, or dived into the sea and become a fish. He could have bathed the beach with glorious white fire, and made himself feel truly alive.

       "Better dead," Cercamond whispered, deep inside him. "Just give up."

       Elias clutched the pebble tight. It was dark red, with thin veins of black. It had been shining and wet with sea water, but it was drying in his touch, and becoming dull.

       "I wish..." Elias whispered, and meant it so fervently the whole world seemed to tremble with the force of his desire.

       And it was enough. As if Cercamond had been waiting only for this weakness, the bars crumbled, and power poured forth.

       He was holding not a pebble, but a single white flower.

 

 

       Elias opened the door and came in. He stopped and turned round, blinking as if he wasn't quite sure where he was.

       "Elias." Ciaran hurried to his side. Elias was soaking wet, as if he had fallen in the sea. "Let me help you."

       "It's back," Elias whispered. He shook his head, and raised his hand. He was clutching a long-stemmed white flower. Then, a second later, it was only a pebble.

       Ciaran took a step back. "What's back?"

       "I didn't mean to," Elias murmured. "I just... found myself doing it."

       "Enchantment?" Ciaran felt very cold. Elias had told him that the day he used enchantment again was the day Cercamond surged triumphant from his cage. This was the end of everything. This was defeat.

       Elias smiled suddenly, and spread his arms. "And it's still there. He's gone."

       Ciaran frowned. "I don't understand."

       Elias slumped to the ground, his legs suddenly giving way. He looked up, almost comically, like a child just learning to walk who couldn't understand why he had fallen. "I don't understand either. But, no, perhaps I do."

       Ciaran crouched beside him. He wanted to touch him, but did not dare, as if Elias's skin would sizzle with dark power and hurt him.

       "The great enchanters," Elias said, "believed there was a dark form of enchantment that lent itself to evil deeds. They thought the world would be safer if they removed it, and they were powerful enough that they could do so. They confined it in the Shroud of Dreams. They confined Cercamond, too, in the form of a spirit, and he took on that power until he became indistinguishable from it. He had once been a man, but the spirit I faced was, in a very real way, the whole essence of sorcery." He blinked. "I knew this already."

       Ciaran said nothing. As a Brother, he believed that there was no such thing as dark power. The Shadow just existed, and it was up to each man to decide what he did with it. If it was used for bad, it did not mean that the power itself was evil.

       "And then I took all that power into myself, and confined it." Elias closed his eyes, then opened them again. "I also took all the remaining enchantment. All of it. Here." He struck his own chest.

       "And now..." Ciaran began.

       "It was never meant to be parted," Elias said, with a sad smile. "They thought they were doing good, but it was such a wrong thing to do. It's like you always taught me, master. Bad things happen, and the Shadow allows it. Things come down to our own choices. Evil still existed in the world without sorcery, but the... everything was out of kilter. The enchantment began to fade from that moment, because it had been robbed of half its strength."

       "The great enchanters caused the weakening of the enchantment?"

       Elias nodded. "I believe so. They meant well, but they should never have done it. Each part of the enchantment wanted its other side, its twin. It's why I could never destroy Cercamond. It's why it was so easy to make him possess me. He was only part of that spirit. The sorcery that made him up just saw my power, and longed for it."

       Ciaran shook his head. "How do you know this?"

       "Because it is whole." Elias gave a beautiful smile, and it was the first smile in six months that had been free from shadow. "Oh, Ciaran, I have been wrong for so long. I thought I was a... a gaoler guarding a dangerous prisoner. All I had to do was let him go free, and the two powers would join."

       "And Cercamond?"

       "He is nothing - a thought, a whisper, a memory. The great enchanters defeated him. He only clung to life because he assumed the power of sorcery. Without it, he is nothing. And it left him as soon as it was given the chance to reunite with its twin."

       He wanted to laugh. It was either that, or weeping. And you, Elias? he wanted to ask, but could not bring himself to. What about you? Are you free to love me?

       "There is something I need to do," Elias said, pushing himself to his feet. He had never seemed more vibrant and alive. Ciaran thought there were fine featherings of light coursing all over his skin, as if they loved him.

       Ciaran found himself stepped back until he was pressed against the wall, unable to be anything other than a spectator.

       Elias spread his arms wide. Then, at the last moment, he looked at Ciaran. "Maybe this is why it had to be me," he said. "I always felt so sure that I had no right. I wasn't even from their world. But they couldn't have understood this. You taught me what I needed to know when you taught me about the Shadow. They would never have known. They would have kept the darkness and the light apart, until the world died between the two of them."

       Ciaran pressed his hand to his mouth. "What are you going to do?" There was a look to Elias that he did not like, as if he was saying a farewell, preparing to die.

       "I am giving it back." Elias turned full circle, his arms spread high. "It is only right," he murmured, "since I took it."

       It started like a whisper, and a soft stirring of hairs on Ciaran's neck. Dust stirred on the floor. Outside, he thought, the world turned very silent.

       Head thrown back, Elias stood there like a statue at the centre. The air started to shimmer around him.

       Then, just as Ciaran was about to start forward, the room exploded in an apotheosis of glorious light.

      

 

       What could they do, afterwards?

       Elias, with a gentle smile, said that the world was changed now. The air was richer than he had ever seen it, he said, and light was more true. Water that had once looked silver now shimmered with colour, and things that had once been flat now pulsed with life. "It's like I saw it in a vision, once," he said, "of the great enchanters, long ago, before they took away half the strength of the enchantment. Confined, as it was, enchantment is weak. It thrives on life. When I let it go, every living thing out there took it and made it increase. It's everywhere, a million times stronger than when it was only inside me."

       Ciaran, who felt himself growing a little more bleak every day, could barely see it. He was blind to enchantment, and always had been. For six months, he had been the one with all the power, for Elias had lost even the Shadow. Now Elias was far away from him, and saw with eyes he could never see through.

       Elias smiled all the time these days, with a smile that was a little otherworldly. He seemed closer to spirit than man, as if he had given too much away that night in the cottage. But he could still perform marvels, and did so, with an air of private glee. Sometimes Ciaran almost shouted at him, and accused him of showing off. When he felt like that, he dug his fingers into his palms, and forced himself to stay silent. Really, he knew, Elias was just revelling in a power that was like breath to him, which he had thought he had lost forever.

       No white light issued from Elias's hands now. When he did his works of enchantment, the light was far richer than white had ever been. There were all colours there, as well as shadow.

       Soon, Ciaran thought, Elias would not need him at all.

       "What are we going to do?" he asked, once.

       Elias shook his head. "I don't know."

       "There's nothing stopping you from going back to them now."

       Ciaran knew that Elias had stayed away because he hated the dark power inside him, and as a form of self-punishment. He knew, too, that Elias had been unable to let himself be loved because of that same self-hatred. Now he was whole again, was it finally time for them to love?

       Elias smiled. "There's no hurry."

       "I want to know." Where I stand, he added, silently.

       Elias looked at him. "I can send you back now, if you want."

       Ciaran clenched his fists miserably. "I don't want to go back. This is my home."

       "I'm sorry." Elias moved to his side, and took him in his arms, pulling his head against his shoulder. It was the first time in months that he had initiated any contact between them.

       "I still love you," Ciaran whispered, into Elias's clothes.

       Elias stroked his hair. "I know." Ciaran could feel his heart beating, shallow and fast. "But I just don't know..."

       "If you can ever love me."

       Elias tightened his hold on him. "I want to," he said. "I did love you. I don't know what made it stop." Never before had he said outright that he no longer loved Ciaran, and it hurt terribly to hear it. "It might have been because of the things I knew I had to do," Elias continued. "It might  have been because I was too scared. It might have been because I hated myself for what I'd done, and thought I didn't deserve love."

       "It might have been because I betrayed you," Ciaran muttered, sick at heart.

       "No." Elias held him tight. "Not that. But," he said, slowly, "there is something you must be ready to face, just in case it turns out to be the truth. It might be that I never loved you in the way you loved me. I know so little about... things. About living. About love. I'd never kissed anyone before. And you had been my master, and you'd gone, and then you had come back...."

       "So it was never truly love," Ciaran said, bitterly, "but only... what? Gratitude? The last act of a needy boy, trying to cling on to his master? Are you saying that I took advantage of you? You were my pupil, and I offered you my love when you were too innocent to know any better than to accept it? You were so desperate that day beside the stream that you would have accepted love from anyone, and been grateful for it?"

       "No," Elias cried. "No," he said, a little more quietly. "I don't know. I don't know if that's the case, Ciaran. I just... want you to know. Everything's so new now, and I need to do some serious thinking about what I want. I do hope I can love you, but I..."

       "Want me to be prepared," Ciaran whispered.

       "Yes." Elias nodded. Gently, he tipped Ciaran's face upwards, and kissed him on the brow. In this moment, Ciaran thought, Elias was entirely the master, and he was the child kneeling at his feet, willing to do anything to win his love. "I have loved you, Ciaran," he said. "I will always love you, even if it not the sort of love you would wish for. I just... I have never had the chance to truly live. I don't even know who I am."

       Ciaran was crying, tears dripping into Elias's clothes. But how could he argue? He had been twenty years discovering how wrong he had been. The winter past had been the first time he had truly discovered what he wanted, and had found that the answer was Elias. Elias was so many years younger, and had those discoveries ahead of him. It would be wrong to demand that Elias love him before he had had the chance to know anything different.

       "I have lived so long beneath the shadow of Cercamond," Elias said. "Now I'm finally beginning to step free. There's so much that I don't know."

       "What are you doing to do?" Ciaran asked. How long would he have to wait?

       "I don't know." Elias shook his head. "For now, just stay here."

       "We can still be friends?" Ciaran could have hated himself for how needy his voice sounded.

       "I would love to." Elias gave him a genuine smile. Then he turned sober again. "I don't want to keep you here under false pretences, Ciaran. I can make no promises. If you can't live with that, I can send you home."

       Ciaran clutched at Elias's hands, and held them tight. "I can live with that. Even if you never love me, I can live with that."

       Elias smiled, and kissed him again, and, although the kiss could have been torment, cruel reminder of a pleasure that could not be his, it was beautiful, and Ciaran enjoyed it.

      

 

       The wolf came first, a herald of what was to come. Elias threw open the door, and Nightshade leapt into his arms. His coat was dull and muddy from a long journey, and a summer spent without enchantment and without his master.

       As Elias shut the door, he lingered for a while, peering thoughtfully into the darkness. Something's coming, he thought, and he smiled a little into the night, and trembled with fluttering fear. Then he shut the door silently, and turned towards the firelight, where Ciaran was looking at him questioningly, and Nightshade was joyful.

       The knock on the door came at noon the next day. Elias opened it. He should have expected it, he supposed. Everyone who had ever felt the enchantment would have felt it awakening, and Oliver, of all people, would know what it meant.

       Oliver stood alone on the threshold. Behind him, half-hidden in the trees, was a small group of people. Among them, Elias recognised the young soldier who had tried to kill him on the field of death. He was holding a furled blue banner, and staring at Elias with enigmatic hungry eyes. Adela was there too, and it was just like his wildest dreams come true, for she was pregnant, and when she caught Elias looking at her, her eyes danced. He might have expected to see Thurstan, but the boy was not there.

       "How did you find me?" he asked. Behind him, Ciaran shifted anxiously.

       Oliver smiled. "How could we not? Oh, Elias, it was beautiful. The world is beautiful. Even those who have never seen the enchantment started up in their chairs, and smiled. The next morning, there was no-one in the streets who was not smiling."

       Elias held a little tighter to the edge of the door. Hidden inside the house, Ciaran reached out and touched his other hand, offering him support. "But how did you find me?" he repeated.

       "We have been linked, you and I," Oliver said. "And, Elias, you shine so brightly now. You put something wonderful back into the world, and it all came from you. I could have found you blind-folded. You are... radiant."

       Elias's voice was hoarse. "Why have you come?"

       Oliver shifted position. He was still lame, Elias saw. Not even the new wonder of enchantment would be enough to heal old scars. "We are at peace now," he said. "The old hatreds have... faded. We have a long way to go, but I am hopeful."

       "There will be many more children born with enchantment now." Elias knew this as truth. "It's no longer fading, but restored to its old strength." Within a generation or two, it could be that almost all the world knew its glories, and the days when it had been a hated power possessed only by a few outcasts would be almost forgotten.

       Oliver nodded. "But, for now, we are not sure what we are. We are a kingdom without a king, and a duchy without a duke."

       "Rule by a council," Elias said, a little sharply. "Let the people choose."

       Oliver shifted again. "The people have chosen," he said. "The tales of Cercamond and his defeat have spread, as have the tales of those who saw their dead. They have lost nearly half their number, and food is still scarce. They watch us about our work of governing, and they... Well, they doubt us. They want someone mighty. They want a king again. They want... you."

       Elias clung tightly to the door, and his knees sagged.

       Oliver stepped close, and whispered only for Elias's ears. "Please don't feel you have to say yes, Elias. You're finally free. Take your freedom, if that's what you need. We can get by without a king." He shook his head. "I had to ask, though. You do understand? My duty is to them, as well as to you."

       "Yes." Elias nodded. "You had to ask."

       "Take what time you need." Oliver stepped back.

       "Yes."

       Elias shut the door.

 

 

       "What will you do?" Ciaran asked, after a long silence.

       Elias rested his chin on his hand. "I don't know."

       "You said you were free at last."

       "I know."

       Ciaran struck the arm of the chair with his fist. "It's not fair of them to come."

       Elias gave a sad smile. "It's not a prison, Ciaran. Many men would think they offered me glory."

       Ciaran pursed his lips. "What will you do?"

       Elias closed his eyes. He had lived here for six months, and most of that time had been spent under a shadow, but there was happiness there, too. He had walked on the beach, and no-one had watched him. He had paddled his fingers in the stream. After the enchantment had returned, he had flown with the gulls and whooped in triumph. He had carved figures out of wood, his tongue held between his teeth as he concentrated. He had plucked apples from a tree, and crunched into their sweetness.

       No-one had come to him, and no-one had asked him to do things for them. After Cercamond had gone, he had been looking forward to a future without responsibility. He had done his duty to the world, and now he was free to find himself. He would learn how to make happy, and he would discover if he could love.

       He looked out of the window, into the night. Oliver was camped under the trees, and a soldier who had been an enemy bore the banner of the kings. There was a world out there, lost and in need. They were hopeful but they were hurting, and he had the power to ease them.

       "I don't know," he said, again.

      

 

       As he drifted towards sleep, he felt the soft stirrings of a vision.

       "No," he said, firmly, dragging himself awake.

       He would not be influenced by knowledge of the future. This was a decision he had to make on his own, on its own merits.

       He stood up, and found he had made the decision after all. Ciaran was already sleeping, and he paused a little to look at him, caught in a beam of moonlight, then opened the door to give Oliver his answer.

 

 

       Afterwards, the vision claimed him, and this time he let it.

       He walked through the corridors of the citadel, his feet making no sound on the paved floor. He craned his head, and looked at the arches, and the slant-wise fall of sunlight. Then he walked on.

       He passed the throne room, for that was not where he had to be. He turned to the left, then to the right, and then he opened a door. Although he was not truly there, the handle felt cold on his hand.

       Inside there was a long room, with a large table in the middle. The table was covered with sheets of paper. Light fell on the dark wood from high windows that were covered with single panes of glass, not the small lead-lined panes that he had seen in Eidengard.

       Elias began to walk around the room. There was a statue in a niche in one wall, showing a man standing with both hands outstretched. He had a circlet on his brow, and his eyes, though carved from stone, seemed kind.

       On the far wall there was a picture. Elias paused in front of it, and looked up, his hands clasped behind him. It showed a balcony outside a large window, and a man leaning on the balustrade. He was resting his chin on his hand, and staring as a spot outside the picture, as if he was lost in thought and unaware that he was being painted.  His clothes were dark brown, with a white cloak clasped at his throat with amber. A white sword lay on the top of the stone balustrade, and his left hand rested casually on its blade.

       It was him, Elias realised. The painting was of himself, true to life. The statue, too, had shown himself, though the likeness was less good, as if it been carved long afterwards, by someone who had not really known him.

       He turned round, and for the first time he saw the man who was sitting at the table, his head in his hands.

       "Why are you sad?" Elias moved towards him.

       The man looked up, and his eyes widened. "Who are you?"

       Elias saw the things that were scattered on the table, and the man's clothes. In the world he had been born into, the clothes and technology of the Kindred would have put them four hundred years in the past. Many of the things on the table he recognised from that world, but some were new to him. This was five hundred years in the future, he realised. He was seeing the world as it would be, a long time from now.

       But it was no common vision, for the man at the table had heard him speak, and had been able to reply.

       Elias touched the edge of the table. "Why are you sad?" he asked, again.

       The man jabbed a hand at the nearest paper. "Because I have to make a decision. I don't know if it will be right. If I'm wrong, many people will die."

       The man lived in a world long after swords and bows, but Elias saw that he still wore a sword in a scabbard at his side. It was Albacrist. This man, who wore no crown, was a king.

       "I know you," the man said, his eyes widening. He looked past Elias at the statue, and back again. "You're..."

       "Don't say it," Elias said, gently.

       There had been a figure beside him in the painting, mostly hidden in the shadow. The sunlight in the painting had fallen only on Elias, and the sunlight in the room now left that other half of the figure in shadow. He found himself hoping very much that it was Ciaran, still at his side after so many years, but perhaps it was someone else.

       "Don't tell me," Elias whispered.

       There were so many things he could ask. Did they still tell the stories of a great bard called Oliver? Was there an order of Brothers in the kingdom, who revered their first Grand Master, Ciaran Morgan? Had Thurstan been the first initiate to be ordained? And did they remember if Elias, their first king, had been happy? Had he loved? Had he ever smiled?

       "Help me, my lord," the man pleaded.

       Elias turned back to him. "I cannot help you," he whispered. There were no dead spirits in the citadel now. Perhaps, when the enchantment had returned in all its glory, they had finally been able to find peace, or maybe that was something Elias still had to do, when he returned to the citadel as a king. Even Elias walked not as a restless spirit, but as a vision, brought here by some wondrous design so that two men from different ages could talk.

       He touched the man's arm. "Only be true," he said. "Do what you believe is right. There is no other way."

       The man looked up at him. "Did you ever have doubts? When you faced Cercamond, were you afraid? Did you ever fear you were making a terrible mistake?"

       Elias laughed. "All the time. Because I am only human." He touched the man's hair, smiling. "As are you."

       "Yes." The man took up his papers again. "Yes," he said, firmly. "I will do what I have to do. I have to."

       "You have no choice," Elias whispered, as the vision began to fade. "And, really, it is the best of ways."

 

 

       In the morning, he opened the door to Oliver. Sunlight poured in, but he paused a little while on the threshold, shielding his eyes.

       He had told Oliver of his decision in the night. Then he had shaken Ciaran awake, and told him too. Ciaran had said little.

       "There will still be fields at Eidengard," Elias had told him. "Streams to swim in. I can still go to the sea. I will never forget that." He had pressed his hand to his chest, then to Ciaran's face. "I will never forget my promise to you. I will still find time to be myself, and I will give you my answer as soon as I can."

       Ciaran had smiled bravely. "Can I come with you?"

       "Always." Elias had smiled through sudden tears. "You have a Basilica to build, after all, and a new Order of Brothers to form."

       Oliver walked forward, limping a little. He had given Elias a bundle in the night, and Elias, opened it, had found it contained a robe of pure white. Elias wore it now. His head and his feet were bare, and he wore no sword.

       Albacrist lay across Oliver's arms, and behind him the fair-haired soldier had unfurled the banner, so the falcon flew joyously in the sky.

       "We come before you as your people, my lord." Oliver murmured the formal words. In the night, when Elias had told him his decision, he had spoken as himself, with true feeling. "Have you finished your vigil?"

       Elias nodded. "I have."

       Oliver knelt, and presented him with Albacrist. But, with a soft cry, Elias departed from the ritual, and raised Oliver to his feet again. He would never accept this man kneeling to him.

       Oliver's eyes shone with unshed tears. "Then let me lead you to your kingdom, my lord."

       Behind him, the banner flew free.

       Elias looked over his shoulder. There, inside, was the place he had lived for the last six months, and the place he had thought would be his home forever. He had made it with his own hands, and it had been a pleasant place, in the end. Ciaran had lived with him, and nothing would ever be the same again.

       He swallowed, and turned away. "I am ready."

       He walked away, and, as he walked, he thought he heard all the birds start singing.

       "Home," he whispered, and looked at Ciaran. He reached for Ciaran's hand, and held it. Ciaran started, as if he had never expected to be touched again.

       "Walk with me," Elias said. He turned to Oliver. "And you."

       Nightshade walked ahead of him like an honour guard, and Oliver and Ciaran flanked him. There were horses, of course, but he wanted it to start like this, just the three of them, walking in the summer.

       Who knew what the future held? Perhaps he would be happy, and perhaps he would not. Perhaps he would love Ciaran, or perhaps it would all end in sadness. He could have found out answers, but had chosen not to. Ignorance was better, and, at this moment, this felt right.

       Sunlight dappled through the trees, and he walked into its warmth.

      

 

       END