Chapter twenty-one

To tell their story

 

 

       "Oh, but this is too good to miss," Cercamond exclaimed. They had been watching an old man dying of the plague. In the moment of his dying, Elias thought the man became aware of him, and he fought Cercamond, trying to stay there and resist the call to go elsewhere.

       He failed, of course. The whirling colours came, dragging Elias from the old man's body just as he had been about to touch him, but this time they were different. They raced past him just as fast, the whole world traversed in the space of a single thought, but they were like a river with a swift current, where before they had been a chaotic sea.

       The tugging he had always felt inside him grew stronger, calling him. The river had an end, and that was where he had to go, not where Cercamond wanted to take him. That was where he belonged.

       But then Cercamond was there again, soft darkness all around him, and he was plucked out of the river, cast effortlessly on the sea. "You don't want to go there. You don't want to leave me, do you? Not when I'm taking you where you've wanted to go. Not when I'm taking you home."

       The whirling was dark green and black. When it stopped, Elias was in the forest, drifting gently past an army, to a place where brave men crouched in the undergrowth, ignorant of what was coming. But Elias knew. Just before it was all played out, he saw the trap that had been laid, and knew that his people were going to die.

       "Stay hidden!" He screamed warnings,  but they could not hear him. He clawed at their shoulders, trying to pull them back, but they could not feel him.

       "So the king returns to his people," Cercamond chuckled. "In their greatest hour of need, their king comes home."

       And Elias could only watch, and do nothing at all.

 

 

       The man didn't look like one of the enemy. His cheeks were pink with cold, and his face was thin. He was armed with only a spear, which he held in front of him and swung in half circles, beating down the undergrowth on either side of him.

       As Ciaran watched, a second man came into sight, not far behind the first, then another one close beside him. One had a gun, but he held it in one hand, trailing it behind him, and he was not ready to fire it. His face had a slack and stupid look.

       They were searching, beating the undergrowth to reveal anyone hiding, or any snares or footprints that spoke of people nearby. But they were moving slowly, without urgency, so that meant that they had found nothing. There were only three of them. Three men, not even alert, would be easy. There was no danger at all.

       Ciaran tested his grip on his staff, but stayed completely still, watching. They were moving slowly, but their path would bring them to his hiding place very soon. Elias wouldn't want him to kill anyone, but Ciaran was more realistic. He could leap out with his staff and strike down one, maybe two, but the man with the gun would raise it and fire. So, no, that wasn't how to do it. Maybe use the Shadow to snatch the gun from the man's hand. That could be the first thing, and the rest of it could follow.

       It was easier now, the Shadow. Now the moment had come and the enemy was here, the fear fell away. He had a job to do. He would stop the soldiers from finding the camp, and Elias's people would be saved, and then Elias would know that he was sincere when he said this world was his home, and Elias would love him.

       The Shadow shimmered into view, and the gun twitched, plucked by its invisible threads. The man's head snapped up, but, as it did so, an arrow caught him in the throat. He froze, then his mouth strained open, as if he was struggling to be sick. Blood bubbled, and the man fell heavily sideways. Ciaran winced and looked away. When he looked again, the man was lying still.

       The first man had whirled around at the sound of his companion dying, swinging his spear in a wide arc, but the second arrow reached him before he could complete even half his turn. It buried itself in his chest, and he clutched it with both hands, the spear falling to the ground. He fell to his knees and moaned.

       The final man edged backwards, hands spread out on either side of him. He hit a tree trunk with a cry of surprise, and could back no further. An arrow pinned his forearm to the tree, but he managed to tear it out, screaming as the flesh ripped. The second arrow hit him in the stomach, and he doubled over, wailing.

       Ciaran pressed his hand to his mouth, and the man still wailed. The Shadow was gone, too far away to touch, only a memory. He scoured the undergrowth with his eyes, then again, but he saw nothing there. It was as if the trees themselves had struck the men down, while everything in the forest remained completely still.

       When the man came, he came out of the bushes like an illusion, like a shape formed out of fog. He was Kindred, and he moved utterly silently, gliding forward to the screaming man, dispatching him with a dispassionate slash across the throat. His fingers held the dagger easily, and were not cramped with cold. His legs moved swiftly, though Ciaran's were all pins and needles from hiding for too long.

       Another man appeared next to the first, and the two of them glanced at each other, and Ciaran knew that orders were given and received in that single instant. They moved as one, stooping to pick up the nearest dead man. Two other men came to carry away the second body. When they dragged the bodies into the bushes, the undergrowth moved, but when they hid there themselves, everything was still.

       Ciaran just watched. No-one summoned him to help. This was something the Kindred knew intimately, but Ciaran had never done it before. But there was no shame in admitting that he was less skilled than they were in this. He had used the Shadow to remove the soldier's gun, and perhaps that had been the vital first move that had allowed the others to make their attack. He had played his part, and now they were playing theirs. It wasn't because he was afraid, that he was hiding.

       He settled back on his heels, and forced himself to relax. It was over. The soldiers hunted in threes, and three men had been silenced. Their nearest comrades could be miles away. They would not be missed for hours, and all traces of their bodies would have been long removed by then.

       The night had been long and terrible, but Ciaran had made it through to the day. Soon Reynard would come riding round, telling everyone to leave their posts, and then surely Elias would return. If he had saved Oliver's life, then that meant he was aware of the danger, and he would be on his way home even now. Then, if a larger army came in search of the three missing men, they would all stand together, with Elias at their head, and nothing could stop them.

       A bird rose up from the undergrowth, flapping and screaming. The wind had been growing, Ciaran realised, for the bracken and bramble beyond his small patch of path were all quivering.

       The man who had cut the soldier's throat appeared again, darting out quickly. Scooping up the fallen gun as he passed, he hurried to the place the man had died, and scuffed the earth with his toe, mixing the blood with the earth, trying to hide it.

       Another bird sounded. The bracken shivered, but the shivering was everywhere, as far as he could see, so it had to be the wind. If a soldier had been hiding, it would have been shivering only in one place, not across the whole forest floor.

       Someone hissed, sharp and urgent, a clear human sound in the silent forest, a warning. The man with the dagger whirled round, then plunged towards the nearest bush. He was dead before he reached it.

       When had it started raining? It was raining now, a fine smear that came at an angle and got everywhere. Ciaran pawed at his face, scraping water from his eyes. The man was still dead, lying on his front in the withered grass, his head hidden, but his legs sticking out in the open. Ciaran didn't know his name.

       The bracken gave a mighty heave, and suddenly it was all made of soldiers, dozens of them, dozens and more. A black wave of movement behind them was an army following on foot, and there were horsemen behind them. But they weren't as good at hiding as the Kindred were, Ciaran thought. They weren't good at all.

       There were five of the Kindred still hidden. Three had bows, and they fired them now, and three soldiers went down. But there were too many of them, far too many to be felled by arrows. A soldier on the second rank back was keeping an eye on where the arrows came, and he pointed and gave directions to the crossbowmen on either side of him. Their bolts shot out, one, two, and at least one of the Kindred archers fell, with a tremor of undergrowth and a bloody hand that flopped out onto the path, stained almost black.

       You have to come now, Elias, Ciaran thought. Elias was their king, and he had to be there when the enemy attacked. That's what King Alberic had said. The sword had stayed unclaimed in the cloisters for so many years, just waiting for someone to come along who could lead the Kindred in their final battle, and help them win.

       The soldiers were falling, but far too many were getting through. Only one arrow at a time was coming from the bushes. Ciaran struggled for the Shadow, and snatched up a stone and threw it at a crossbowman, so the stone seemed to come from a place where no-one was hiding. He missed his target, but two soldiers fell for his trick, charging at the empty undergrowth. Only two, though. All the others still came on.

       Everything started to swirl and change. The path lurched suddenly to the left, and a great tree creaked and started to fall. Twenty soldiers cried out and fled, tangling up with each other in their panic. They looked terrified, and gazed at the ground with horror as it seethed like boiling quicksand, threatening to destroy them with every step.

       What was happening? Oh, it was illusion, of course. How many of the Kindred were left alive? One at least could do enchantment, and was using it to confuse the enemy. But someone was standing in the middle of the enemy ranks, passing round a message with a hoarse cry. "It's not real. It's illusion. Ignore it."

       Even so, enough of them faltered to give Ciaran hope. He might know nothing of how to kill from a hiding place in the forest, but he was not without power. He sought the Shadow with all the strength he could, and found it, thrusting forward with both hands. It struck the front rank of soldiers like a blast of wind, pushing them back and making them stagger. Several of them fell over. Still reeling from the terror of enchantment, they scrambled to their feet and fled, and the man who stood in their middle and shouted could do nothing to stop them.

       Can't convince them that's not real! Ciaran pushed himself up to his knees, though he had to keep his neck hunched low to remain hidden. His Garden was vivid, overlaying the carnage in the forest. The Shadow was strong, and he gathered it again, preparing another attack. There was still hope, and still would be, even if the army was a thousand strong. He would push them back, and then he would run back to bear the warning, and he would push them back again, any who dared attack the women and children of Elias's people.

       How foolish you are, a voice said.

       Ciaran's hands fell to his side. The voice was in his mind, but it scraped and tore, like sharp fingernails. When it spoke, it echoed in the treetops, and spilled over into the forest, where it was the black blood and the rattling last breaths of dying men. It was everything horrible, all gathered into one voice.

       You still think there's hope, when there is none.

       Ciaran wanted to press his hands to his ears, but the voice was in his mind, and there was no escape. The very sound of it sucked out all hope and strength. It was a wound seeping blood, draining him. "Who are you?" he rasped.

       A tree strode past, crushing things with its great torn roots. Plants rose up from the ground, as sharp as claws. A patch of bramble became inviting yellow flowers. All round him, the forest was forming and unforming, as if the end of the world had come.

       And they expect them to believe that? the voice laughed. How pathetic men are. How desperately they struggle to put off the inevitable. Your Elias is like that. Aren't you, little one?

       "Elias!" Ciaran screamed. So Elias was here! Elias had to be here, to fight with his people and avert disaster. If Ciaran's love meant anything to Elias, he would be here with him. Elias wouldn't let him face this alone.

       Oh, he can't answer you, the voice said. He's lost forever, just as you are.

       Ciaran's head slumped forward, but he dragged it up. "I don't believe you," he forced out. "I don't believe you're real."

       You know my name, the voice said. Your Elias knows me well.

       "Cercamond," Ciaran breathed. If Cercamond's voice was this terrible, why hadn't Elias told him what he had to endure? "Why can I hear you now?"

       I am so strong now that the whole world could hear me, if I choose. The voice rose into a shriek, screaming through the trees like wind and thunder, then it grew soft, and cold rain touched Ciaran's cheek like a caress. But you are special to me. I owe you a great debt. After all, you did you release me. When I destroy the world and enslave your Elias, it will be all because of you.

       Ciaran scraped his hands down his face, the fingers curled into claws. "I didn't!" he screamed. "It's not true! I won't listen to you!"

       Believe what you like, Cercamond said, but you are lost. Look.

       Ciaran lowered his hands, just in time to see the spears beat back the undergrowth that hid him, and the gloved hands tear it apart. He brought his staff up, but it was too slow and too late. The spear gouged into his side, and threw him back. When it withdrew, he screamed. The last thing he saw was a booted foot close to his face, and the last thing he heard was Cercamond's laughter.

      

 

       As Lankin rode into the enemy's stronghold, he was smiling.

       His plan was working. "They'll be expecting us," he had told the other officers, "but not as we are. So I propose that we give them what they expect. Give them a small patrol, lazy and incompetent. They'll break cover to attack it, so the larger force following up behind will know where to attack. And then, when all their outer defences are destroyed, the rest of us can pour through unchecked."

       It had been a risk, of course, for they had not known exactly where the enemy's camp was. Thomas had taken half the army across the stream, and perhaps was even now carrying out the same glorious work over there, punching a second hole in the defences of the bandits. Victory was in their grasp.

       Eighty men, the woman had said, which Lankin guessed meant a total number of barely two hundred. Two hundred people, and Lankin had over a thousand.

       They had brought many more than that into the forest, of course, but the army had split up, each division taking a separate section of the woods. Gathering the full army together again would have taken weeks. Gathering the twelve hundred under the command of Lankin and Thomas had been the work of hours.

       Surprisingly, Thomas, always so eager to fight nowadays, had been the one to urge caution. "It's too important to take risks," he had said. "Remember how the sorcerer king slipped through our fingers in the citadel, because certain people were too eager for the glory of his capture for themselves, and neglected to take proper precautions. That will not happen again."

       Lankin had shaken his head, and enough of the other officers had agreed with him. "We have more than enough men, and we have to strike fast, before he has time to perfect his foul defences."

       Even so, his chest had hurt with the tension of it, and he had been unable to eat, terrified that he had made a mistake and that everything would go wrong, all because of him.

       So that was why he was smiling. Not because men under his command had died, although that was unfortunate. The men in the advance patrols had been sacrifices, dying so that others would live, and they would be remembered with honour, as heroes. Not even because the enemy had died, for he was no savage, to enjoy revenge. They looked quite human, the dead bandits. He walked his horse past one fallen man, who still clutched his useless wooden staff, and thought he had a pleasant face, like someone he would have liked to have known, if he had judged by appearances alone.

       He kicked his horse on, and took his place at the heart of his army. They were his men, and he had been vindicated. He had taken them on this wild adventure, and everything was going according to plan. Already he could see the tents of the enemy's camp ahead of him, and he knew that they were winning. He had done what no-one had done in five hundred years, and chased the enemy to its lair. Now all that was left was to strike the final blow.

      

 

       Surely that was a scream, the hoarse scream of a dying man? Thurstan started up, grabbing his sword. "They're here," he breathed, a croaking sigh. Others were saying the same. A woman darted forward and peered round a broad tree, holding the trunk with both hands. "They're in the camp," she cried. "I can see them."

       Thurstan joined her, frowning as he looked into the rain. There were no leaves to block the view, and even the criss-cross of branches could not hide the people who were moving there. Only glimpses, though, of spear tips and helmets, and too far away to aim an arrow.

       He had to go forward. But then something else came ripping through the Kindred, a message passed from the other side of the hill. "They're coming." But that couldn't be right. The enemy was in the camp, not approaching from the other side. Whoever said it was mistaken.

       "Why are we waiting?" Thurstan glanced to either side, and saw a row of people crouching, all looking in the direction of the enemy. "Why have to stop them," he said. Some of them nodded. A woman dragged a dagger from her belt, and hefted it grimly. Her children were here on the hill, and her man had gone out with the scouts, out beyond the place the enemy now were.

       They surged forward raggedly, himself and a dozen more. People called at them to stop, to stay back, but how could they stay still when the enemy was so close? How could they just hide and watch? That would never happen again. He would not let it.

       He was almost out of the trees, heading for the open space by the stream, when something crashed into him, sending him smashing to the ground. He hit a tree root, and his mouth filled with blood. Pushing himself to his feet, he whirled round furiously with his sword, but someone grabbed his wrist and held it with a grip he could not fight.

       "Go back." Reynard told him. The others, all women, had stopped their charge at the very sight at Reynard. "Hold the posts you have been assigned to."

       "But the enemy..." Thurstan pleaded. "They're there. We can't..." His voice cracked. "We can't just sit and wait for them to come to us."

       Reynard's eyes were chips of ice. "And scatter ourselves? Rush forward in a dozen little charges and get cut down? You would kill us all, boy."

       "But I want to save us." The rain lashed at his eyes and everything was swimming. Reynard's face was as warped as any monster's. Thurstan hauled with all his strength, trying to drag Reynard towards the enemy. Reynard was such a fierce fighter, and he hated the enemy so passionately. He would always be on the front of any charge. It would be impossible for him to wait. "Come with me. I want to fight with you."

       Reynard looked towards the enemy, and his face was working hard, as if he was struggling with something inside him that was very difficult to fight. But when he spoke, there was no doubt in his voice. "No. We stay where we were ordered. Discipline is what we need. We have to hold back until the time is right."

       The women had already gone back, Thurstan realised. When he looked up the slope, he could see no-one at all, where he knew a hundred of the Kindred were hiding close to the ground. On the edge of the treeline, he and Reynard were the only ones exposed. "But I want to do something," Thurstan sobbed.

       "I know." There was no tenderness in Reynard's voice, but he reached out quickly, and wiped the blood from Thurstan's chin with his thumb. "But you have to wait until the order is given. Every man has a different job, Thurstan. That's the nature of war. Your job is to stay with Oliver."

       Thurstan's shoulders sagged. He let Reynard lead him back. Half way up the slope, they passed a black horse with weapons on its saddle. Reynard's horse, Thurstan realised. Where had Reynard been hiding, and what had he been planning to do, when he had seen Thurstan rush forward and had broken his cover to come and haul him back?

       Reynard let him go when they reached the top of the slope, letting him find his own way to Oliver's side. Crouching down, Reynard surveyed everyone gathered there. "The time has come," he told them swiftly. "The enemy is approaching on two sides, there, and there." He snapped some names, and pointed at some others, quickly putting them in the places. There was no sign of fear on his face, and he gave the orders crisply, as if there was no army looming up behind him, no bullets that could tear through the trees and kill him where he sat.

       "Remember," Reynard said, with one last glance at them all. "You have all been trained for this. The numbers are greater, and the stakes are higher, but this is no different from an attack by a small patrol. We hold our ground until the time comes. We don't let them make us rash. If the man next to us dies, we do not even look at him, but carry on, until the battle is over and we can mourn him."

       Cold. It sounded so cold. He was heartless, this man who was Thurstan's father. He didn't care if they all died. He didn't care at all.

       Reynard turned to Oliver, and looked at him longer than was necessary. Perhaps some message was passing between them, but Thurstan could not read it. "It's time, Oliver. Do it."

       Behind Thurstan, Oliver sighed. Thurstan heard him scrambling to a kneeling position, sucking in sharp breaths as the movement hurt his leg.

       Reynard looked at them all, one last look, and Thurstan longer than any of them. "Fight well," he told them. That was all. No speech about how they were fighting for their lives, for the very future of their House. Just those two words, and nothing more.

       But they worked, Thurstan realised. He looked around at the faces around him, and saw them alive with determination and hope. Reynard had rallied them with crisp orders and a sharp command, almost as much as Oliver could have done with a speech.

       Thurstan turned back to Reynard, but he had gone, slithering away into the undergrowth to return to his horse and ride into danger, alone. I don't want him to die, Thurstan whispered. I want to tell him... What? That he was good, Thurstan thought. He had never really seen it before. Reynard had wanted to rush forward and fight as badly as Thurstan had wanted it, but he had held back, because he thought they had more chance that way. With some men, holding back was cowardice, but for a man like Reynard, it was an act of extreme bravery. He had held back, and he had rallied everyone, and now he was gone, and Thurstan might never see him again.

       "He's good," Thurstan said wonderingly. Reynard had refused to accept the love of a son in order to better do his duty, and perhaps he had sacrificed other things, too, but he was good at the job he had chosen. He wondered if Reynard knew that, or of his constant talk of duty had been because he was striving to live up to some ideal he thought he could not match. He had heard the despair in Reynard's scream when Adela had brought the news. If he died today, would he die thinking he had failed?

       "I want to tell him," Thurstan said. Not as a way to get his father's love, but just because Reynard ought to know. Probably no-one ever told him such things. They obeyed him, but they did not love him, and they had never told him that he was good.

       But it was too late. Reynard had gone, and the enemy was coming, marching from the camp towards the stream, and all Thurstan could do was wait for them to come.

      

 

       For the Kindred to have a chance, they had to be led by their king.

       The soldiers had been trained to ignore anything that seemed impossible. If swords appeared out of nowhere, they would walk forward and let themselves be impaled on them, rather than recoil. If open ground suddenly contained a thousand men, they would laugh and wade through them like the nothingness that they were.

       "But they have one weakness," Reynard had told Oliver, when they had discussed it in the night. "In the Shroud of Dreams, I saw what they're most afraid of, and that's the king. They've built him up into something with enormous power. If they can see him, there's nothing they won't believe. We can use that to our advantage."

       So it had to be Elias. Before Oliver created the illusions that would be unleashed on the enemy, he had to create an image of Elias, to stand in the midst of them and appear to raise them.

       "Ironic, isn't it?" someone had chuckled, their face hidden by the darkness. "Alberic told us not to fight unless we had a king to lead us. Five hundred years, we've skulked in the woods, because we believed what he said. But now we're fighting after all, but we still haven't got our king with us, just one we've had to conjure up out of nothing. We should have done it years ago."

       The enemy was close to the stream, but they were moving slowly, alert for traps and ambushes. Reynard had ordered everyone to wait, and not yet reveal their location with a flight of arrows. Men and women were standing with bows ready, but the time to loose them was not yet.

       Oliver could not stand, but Adela supported him. Others knelt near him, ready to use their own enchantment to support what he was doing. Their faces were tense and hopeful. On the far side of their small refuge, yet more were working their own illusion, to repel the enemy that came from the other side.

       "Elias," Oliver breathed, and filled his mind with an image of him. As he did so, Elias formed in the air in front of him, healthy and radiant. His robes were stately and simple, like the true king of the Kindred might wear for his investiture in Eidengard, when he swore to serve his people, and received their honour.

       A sigh rippled through the Kindred. A child pointed and squeaked that the king had come back and everything would be happy again now, wouldn't it, daddy? "He's not real!" Oliver wanted to shout at them, but it seemed so real, as if Elias himself had come back to lead them and save them. Something pricked in his throat, because they were alone, and Elias was lost somewhere in the cold world, and he could be dead. Oliver might never see him alive again, except in illusion.

       "Not like that." Adela was squeezing his arm. Her voice was urgent, and Oliver shook his head to clear it, and forced himself to forget. "He needs to look like he did the other day, like someone they'd be scared of."

       Oliver curled his fingers into claws, as if he was physically gouging a sculpture made of clay, making it ugly. Elias's robes turned blood red. His mild smile became a frown, and his hands became claws. As he strode forward, everything died. He was imperious and terrifying and, "I can't do it," Oliver moaned." The illusion hung in the air, and then faded away. "I can't give them another reason to hate him." If people died today because of his illusion, no-one could blame Elias for it.

       "But quickly, then, whatever you do," Adela hissed.

       There was no time. Oliver threw his arms wide, and enchantment flowed, creating illusion. And the illusion brought death.

      

 

       They had surged through the camp, and smashed the tents to the ground and pricked their ruins with spears to make sure no-one was hiding. Some of them had begun to haul things from the huts, until Lankin had snapped orders to his captains, promising the lash to anyone who broke ranks before the job was done.

       He had ridden his horse through the camp, then had resumed his position at the back. The newest conscripts were at the front, ready to bear the brunt of any attack. Men who refused to volunteer for the cause of right deserved no less. Many of them would die, perhaps, but the men at the back would survive, and they were the trained soldiers. The bandits would think that they had won, only for the tide to turn horribly just as they were daring to hope.

       Of course, Lankin had no idea where the enemy had flown to, but he doubted they were far away. They had scrambled away in a panic, and were holed up nearby. The first thing to do was to unite with Thomas's half of their force, and then they could set about hunting down the sorcerer's minions.

       As they approached the stream, the trees thinned. Lankin tensed up, expecting arrows to start finding targets, but none came. No-one leapt out of the bushes, shouting savage war cries. In fact, there was very little cover down at the stream. Where there should have been thick grass, there was only an expanse of mud, scattered sparsely with grey grass. The sorcerer king's evil was so great that he poisoned the land his own people lived in.

       Lankin could have found the camp even without following the wounded man and his woman, he thought. There were patches of dead ground throughout the forest, but it was all radiating from here. This was its centre, and the destruction was greater here than anywhere else. How did the sorcerer's people bear it? Even in a fertile summer, the camp had to be a grim place to live, with few of the comforts Lankin took for granted. The sorcerer king himself had to have a lavish lair somewhere else, while his people lived in misery. Strange that the man called Oliver had seemed to love him so.

       Lankin raised his hand, and lowered it, giving the command to the captains ahead of him. "Cross the stream."

       The first rank were just entering the water when it happened. The surface of the stream rippled, then began to quake. Flecks of white frothed at the peaks of all the little waves, but the water itself was black. Then, as Lankin watched, it simply rose out of the river bed like a massive animal, that reared up, black and terrible.

       What is it? he thought, as the men on the front rank started crying out, hurling themselves backwards. It looked like a creature of darkness, wearing a cloak of water that billowed out on all sides. But then the cloak itself rose up, and the whole river came with it. It was one enormous wave, towering higher than a man. It was as if all the water that flowed in this river, from source to the sea, had rushed to this one point, to inundate the little men who dared to cross.

       Horror closed round Lankin's throat like a fist. "No," he croaked, as his men started dying, screaming as they crashed into each other, lunging with spears, crushing each other in the stampede. "No," as the water curled over in an overhanging wave, blotting out the light, making the whole riverbank one dark expanse of shadow.

       He turned away, then wrenched his head round to the front again. It was an illusion. It had to be an illusion. But the sorcerer king was mighty and dreadful, and perhaps he could command the elements themselves. Perhaps even water came to his dark command. But, no, it had to be illusion. What else could it be?

       "No!" he screamed. "It's not true! It can't hurt you! Carry on!"

       His voice was lost in the screaming, and he shrieked it again until he was hoarse. He kicked his horse forward, plunging into the mass of men, but no-one heard him. They were not Soldiers of Light, but ignorant conscripts from tiny villages and farms, who had spent all their lives in terror of sorcery. Real or not, the wave was the work of dark magic, and they would do anything rather than be touched by it. A voice seemed to be wailing in the treetops, laughing that they were all lost, and they believed it.

       They fled in panic, crashing into the ranks of men that came behind them, smashing through the orderly lines and demolishing them. No-one stopped to help their comrades that had fallen.

       Then the arrows started coming, coming from somewhere beyond the dark wave, from a place Lankin could not see. A soldier fell right in front of him with an arrow in his throat. When Lankin tried to pull his horse round to help him, he crushed another man under its hooves, and trampled him.

       "Carry on!" Lankin screamed. "It's not real!" The enemy was close. If only the army could rally, they still had a chance. They only had to form up again and charge through the wall of water, then they could wreak vengeance on the foul sorcerers who had killed them so cruelly and unfairly.

       No-one listened. Some of them heard him, but ignored him. "I command you!" he bellowed. "A flogging to everyone who disobeys!" But who could blame a man for being afraid of something so foul as sorcery? He might despise their cowardice, but he could not blame them for it.

       He threw himself from his horse and ran forward into the heart of the towering wave itself. "See!" he shouted, turning a full circle with his arms wide. Rain poured down his face, and water flowed around his knees, but the wave was hardly there. It was like mist to the touch, and it caught a little in his throat as he breathed, but that was all. "See?" he screamed. "It's not real! I'm not afraid of it!"

       An arrow caught him on the side, scraping beneath his armpit, and he staggered to one side, but did not fall. "See," he pleaded, his voice ragged. "It's not real. Someone come forward and stand with me. Someone has to."

       The wave faded to nothing, and he was left alone in the stream, facing the ruin that his army had become.

 

 

       But of course it wasn't the end. The enemy army had been badly damaged, but three quarters of them could die, and they would still outnumber the Kindred. Those who had not fled too far rallied, fired up by their hatred of sorcery. The arrows did their work, but far too many of the enemy fought their way across the stream, and even more came from the other side.

       When the first enemy soldiers started to climb the hill, Oliver's head sagged forward. He had killed today. Not by his own hand, it was true, but that made no difference at all. They had died in abject terror, and Oliver had created the illusion that had terrified them. That meant that he bore responsibility for their deaths.

       "But I would do it again," he whispered through his teeth. If it made the difference between his people living and dying, he would do it again and again.

       They were dying now. The archers died first, felled by guns, torn out of their scant hiding places and butchered. Men darted forward to try to stop the soldiers from reaching the children, and fought one against three, killed a few, but were cut down. Some warriors held back, forming a defensive circle around the youngest children. Their faces were grim, and some of them were already wounded.

       The Kindred were being wiped out. Oliver saw a child of ten grab a knife from a fallen soldier's hand, and dart forward to stand beside his father. He saw the boy's mother gasp out and reach for him. He saw the tips of her fingers brush against his sleeve, then lose him. A moment later, he saw the boy die, impaled by a soldier who looked upon him with disgust.

       He saw a woman die silently, just slumping to the ground with no sign of any wound, her face almost peaceful.

       He saw a man scream when he saw his wife killed, then, before the scream had finished, lunge forward to protect another man's wife from the same fate, taking a sword thrust in the side, and dying to save her. She died anyway, only a second after him.

       Rain lashed his eyes, but he was weeping, too, hot tears mingling with the cold. They were dying. All around him, they were dying. Each individual death was a tragedy, but taken together they were more than it was possible to bear.

       Oliver pushed Adela aside, and stood up. He tried to turn a full circle, but his leg buckled. He fell on his face in the mud, and tasted blood. Without even raising his head, he gagged, and spat a fine trail of spittle into the dirt.

       "Stay still," Adela urged him.

       "No!" He reached pleadingly towards her. "You have to help me. I was so wrong."

       "Wrong?" She pressed her face right up to his, ignoring the mud and the blood. Even though she whispered into his ear, the noise of the battle was louder. "What do you mean?"

       "The banner. I was wrong. We have to fly the banner. We have to."

       It was not Elias's banner after all. The Kindred had rallied beneath it for centuries before Elias had arrived. The belief it represented was central to what the Kindred were, and it had been so without Elias, and would still be so if he had never come.

       "It's our banner," he sobbed, "not his. It's our cause. We need to die beneath it. Please." Because he was their bard, the bard of a dying people, and he had to give them something to carry with them beyond death. "We were true to the trust Alberic placed on us. We waited. We endured. Let them know that. Don't let them feel doubts."

       He groped blindly, as if the banner could just appear like that, by magic, just because he needed it so badly. And it did. Adela squeezed his hand once, then pressed the ancient fabric into his hands. "I hoped you'd change your mind," she whispered.

       "Help me," Oliver pleaded. The fabric tangled in his cramped fingers, and it seemed like an eternity as he tugged at it, trying to pull it out. Every second he delayed, another person died without seeing it, the symbol that would give them hope.

       She worked beside him. Their hands bumped together, her nail tearing along his finger. The shrieking of swords and battle whirled around him like a nightmare. Someone was shouting very close by, begging for help.

       Then it was free. It did not billow, glorious in the light, making everyone pause a while, then fight on with renewed fervour. There was little wind, and the rain made it dark and dull. He held it above his head, trying to protect it from the mud. "Help me up," he pleaded, and managed to stand. He raised the banner as high as he could, but it trailed on the ground, its lower hem already dark and heavy with mud.

       "A spear," he gasped. "Find me a spear. A branch. Something. Please."

       "Here." Oliver blinked, and saw it was Thurstan. The spear in his hands was smeared with blood, and Oliver wondered who had killed with it, and who had died.

       "Thank you," he managed to croak. His fingers felt stiff and clumsy, and he was slow to realise that others were helping him. Adela was there, and Thurstan, and Hugh, and the boy's mother. Between them, they lashed the banner to the spear, and held it high. As they did so, a ring of fighters had surrounded them, protecting them a little from the fighting.

       "Reynard!" Thurstan shouted, without stepping back. Oliver flinched at the noise of that shout, even above the cacophony of battle.

       Adela gazed upwards, and breathed Oliver's name. 

       Oliver looked, and a small breath of wind took the banner, and for a moment it flew as it was meant to. A second later, it collapsed into limp folds, but in that brief time Oliver had seen the device upon it.

       They had never known what the banner of the kings had looked like. Perhaps, in the early days, it had been so well known that the bards had not needed to mention it, and so the knowledge had died. Even as he had carried it home, Oliver had deliberately not unfurled it, wanting Elias to be the first to see it. All he had known was its colour, blue like the sky.

       Oliver's face cracked into a smile. "It's him. It's Elias."

       Adela shook her head, but she was smiling, too. "It can't be."

       "It's him." Oliver was sure. He turned round in a half-circle, sweeping the banner with him, letting everyone see it unfurled.

       And they believed. Not many of them had seen Elias in this form, but the story had spread, and they all knew. Those who were huddled on the ground looked up and smiled, and said that it was a sign. Fighters glanced up when they could, and nodded with satisfaction.

       For the banner showed the falcon in glorious flight, soaring against a blue sky. It was a beautiful bird, with a tawny head and a creamy barred chest. Its eyes were bright jewels, and it radiated light, worked in tiny strands of shimmering silver. Enchantment was in the weave, so the bird seemed to pulse with life, as if it was on the cusp of leaving, of flying out of the fabric and becoming real. Of being their king here in the flesh. Of being their king come home to them. Of being Elias.

       "It is him," Oliver said. The banner of the kings was far older than the Kindred's exile, made in the days of the earliest kings. He wondered if the man who had chosen the device had known who it was he was portraying, or if he had simply seen a vision of a falcon in the clear air, and had known only that it was important, but no more than that. Oliver's people had been waiting for Elias for more centuries than Oliver could ever have imagined. 

       Thurstan was bellowing Reynard's name, screaming into the mass of fighting men, trying to find him. Why? Oliver wondered, then remembered that Thurstan wanted Reynard to hold the banner. Just thinking about it made Oliver hold onto it more tightly.

       He was holding onto Elias, onto hope, onto memory. It was all they had. The wind made the bird move, and the silver glittered, and children pointed and said it was really the king come back this time. If it made them smile just before they died, then it was a good thing and a precious one, and Oliver was glad.

      

 

       "I have to go to them!" Elias was screaming over and over again. "Please. Please let me go."

       If he had been in a real prison, his fists would have been bruised and ragged from hammering at the bars. If he had been chained, his wrists would have been torn by his own nails. There was nothing to fight, and nothing to answer his pleas. Cercamond was gleeful wisps of darkness surging through the forest, alighting on every piece of misery and fuelling it with whispers of despair. He kept Elias here, but he no longer bothered to talk to him.

       "Please," Elias sobbed. He saw a woman on the ground, clutching her ankle, unable to rise as a soldier loomed over her with a sword. Elias threw himself on top of her, shielding her from the blow, but the sword went right through him, and the woman died, blood spilling out where he touched her. He clawed at a man's arm, struggling to haul it backwards, but it made no difference. He tried to scoop up a child, but could not. He stood in the middle of it all and screamed, but no-one heard him.

       He couldn't find Ciaran. Cercamond had shown Elias the moment he had been struck down, then whisked him away, without letting him know if he was alive or dead. He could see Oliver, and hope had sparked inside him. They had shared a link together when Elias had saved Oliver and Adela from attack, and what had been done once could be done again. Elias could wield power through Oliver as his anchor, and he could do something at last, if only he could get Oliver to let him in.

       Oliver was holding a banner, gazing upwards with a grim hope in his eyes. The soldiers were fighting hard, trying to get the banner, but a ring a warriors had surrounded Oliver, and were defending him with everything they had. "Oliver!" Elias cried. He clawed at him, pounded at his chest, screamed in his face. "I'm here! You have to see me!"

       There were tears in Oliver's eyes, mingled with the rain. He couldn't hear Elias. Perhaps it had only worked before because they had both been calling at the same time, and that had established a connection that would never again be repeated.

       Thurstan was there beside Oliver, screaming Reynard's name again and again. Adela was there, too, but so many of them were dead. The wounded were not left to lie. Whenever a soldier could get close, he slit the throat of any of the Kindred who had fallen, making sure that no-one would survive.

       The dead spirits rose from the bodies, and they could see Elias. The dead Kindred saw him and surged forward, wanting to stay close. They thought he had come back to save him. They didn't understand. A crowd of dead went with him wherever he went, but Oliver could not hear him.

       A spear lunged forward, and one of the men defending Oliver fell. The man beside him struggled to fight two men at once, and killed one, but then fell himself, twisting forward over the blade.

       Thurstan was still screaming Reynard's name. Adela was calling out to Oliver again and again, pulling at his arm, trying to make him understand something, to do something, to listen. Oliver was looking at every death as if his heart would break, then looking up at the banner as if it was cool water and he was a man in a desert.

       A body fell almost at Oliver's feet, and Elias saw that it was Hugh, the boy Oliver had been training as a bard, passing on the stories of his people which would die without someone to keep them alive. Weeping, Oliver clutched the banner with both hands and jammed it in the earth, anchoring it there so he could have his hands free to reach for the boy and mourn him. As he did so, a dying soldier slashed at his feet with a dagger, snagging the leather of his boots. Thurstan threw himself backwards, spreading his free arm like a shield to protect Oliver from the enemy. He struck downwards and killed a man, and brought the sword round, ready to strike again.

       "Oliver!" Elias screamed. Thurstan was shouting, too, screaming for Reynard, and his call was finally heeded. Another defender died, and a horseman filled the gap, his face streaked with blood and mud, an infernal mask. His sword was red from tip to blade, black drops dripping down to his elbow. "Give it to me!" he cried.

       Oliver snatched the banner back, the fabric swinging, brushing the horse's face. He wrapped both arms around the spear that held it, hugging it close. "No," he kept saying, words pouring out of him like sobs. "You can't take it. It's the only thing left."

       "It's Reynard!" Thurstan was crying, and Adela was saying the same thing, but Oliver still held on, though the enemy was surging forward, and it would kill him if he kept hold of it.

       Reynard snatched at it, and Oliver screamed, his teeth pulling back in a wail of loss. "Give it to me!" Reynard commanded. "I'll lead them away. I'll keep it safe."

       There were white channels in the dirt on Oliver's face as he looked up at the banner. "But I want to keep it."

       Reynard smashed his sword arm backwards, killing someone without even a glance. "It's all over now," Reynard screamed. "Give it to me, and go. You have to!"

       Over, Elias echoed. Over. But it couldn't be. Something had to happen, some miracle, something wonderful. Oliver would hear him at last, and Elias would be able to channel his powers through him and throw everything he had into a work of magic that would save them all. It couldn't end like this. It couldn't.

       "Oliver!" he wailed, as he clawed and screamed in the prison that held him out of reach. "Please!" And Oliver whispered his name, but only as he looked up again at the banner, where a tawny falcon filled all his thoughts.

       "I have to stay with my people," Oliver said. "I won't leave them. If it's all over, then I'm dying with them." Because he was their seneschal, and his place was at their side, and he wouldn't leave them alone, even though their king had done so. They had always known that they would die if it came to a full battle and their king wasn't there, but Elias had still gone away and left them.

       Reynard wrenched the banner from Oliver's hands, swinging the handle of the spear to knock him when he hurled himself forward to try to retrieve it. "You are our bard," he spat. "You chose it. You know what it means. Now go!" Only the quickest glance at Thurstan, with no tenderness in it. "Make him do it."

       Bellowing, Reynard hauled his horse's head around, and plunged through the thinning mass of fighting men, the banner raised high above his head. Oliver fell to his knees, screamed as his leg collapsed under him, and fell forward, still reaching. Elias touched him, touched his face and his hand, wept over him, called to him, but Oliver did not hear him, he still did not hear him.

      

 

       A flash of blue, and Lankin saw the enemy's banner. A man on a dark horse had taken it, and was spurring into the woods, trying to make a run for safety. Soldiers broke away and gave chase, but they were no match for a man on a horse. As Lankin watched, a dozen more of his innocent men were cut down, crushed by the flailing hooves, or cut apart by the rider's sword.

       Lankin kicked his own horse forward. This was his task. He had led them here, and he would be the one who captured the sorcerer's banner and brought it back to Darius.

       Where was the man going? He rode in great zigzags, weaving through trees, leaping the fallen bodies, or just plunging straight through. The banner he swung in wide arcs above his head, often using it as a weapon, spearing those who crossed his path. There was a bird of prey on the banner, and it seemed to be flying, to be really alive. At times it seemed to shine with a white fire that was more than mere reflection.

       Lankin rode fast, and soon became aware that he was screaming to the enemy, commanding him to stop and face him like a man. He had snatched a gun from a dead foot soldier, and he raised it and tried to fire, but he needed too many hands to do it properly from horseback. The horse jolted him around, and he almost fell. The bullet tore out of the gun, but he had no idea where it went. With a cry, he jammed the gun under his arm, pinning it close to his body, and scooped up the reins again.

       Others were firing, too, though the horseman was beginning to leave the soldiers behind, heading into the open forest. Nothing could stop him. He looked hardly human, with his face all red and black, and his red sword that killed everyone it touched. He could hold the banner and fight, and still lead his horse on its wild path through the trees. Was it the sorcerer king himself, to be so extraordinary? No, Lankin thought, remembering the man he had faced beneath the citadel walls. This was just a man, and he was using no sorcery, just skill.

       But he still had to die. Lankin pounded after him, and the flash of blue was like a beacon, appearing through the trees, telling him where the man had gone. He thought he would never catch him, but then a bullet found the enemy's horse, and it fell heavily. The man tried to twist free, but landed badly.

       He was just pulling himself to his feet when Lankin found him. He looked like a wild animal, his teeth bared, blood dripping from his face. He still held the banner with a deathly grip, and his sword was broad and blood-drenched. He was already wounded, Lankin saw, though he would never have dreamed it so, by the way he had been riding.

       Lankin brought his horse to a halt, too far away for the fallen man to reach him. He raised the gun.

       The man ought to know that it was over, Lankin thought. Why hadn't he let his sword fall from his hand as he lowered his head and awaited death with dignity? He was cornered, run to ground. Why wasn't he clutching the banner to his chest and pleading for his life?

       Lankin was very aware of his finger on the trigger, the finger that would end the life of a brave man. But an evil man, whose sword was red with innocent blood. Lankin should kill him without mercy and rip the banner from his dying hands, and then it would all be over. The enemy would lose heart if their banner was taken, and the shattered remains of the army of light would rally, and cheer their victory even as they wept for their fallen comrades.

       He shot him. The man dodged, but his body was wounded worse than his spirit would allow, and he moved slower than he should have. Even as he screamed with defiance and swore that he would never be taken, the bullet tore into his stomach. He struggled to stand, struggled to bring his sword up, but not even his mighty will could stop himself from falling forward, to lie still in the dirt.

       Dead. Lankin let out a shuddering breath. Dead, and it was over. The banner was his. He jumped off his horse and walked forward, reaching out to snatch up the banner.

       Even as he touched it, he knew he was deceived. With a wordless cry, the dying man brought his sword up in both hands, and the blade sank deeply into Lankin's side. Lankin's fingers brushed the fabric of the banner, then slipped away. He fell, driving the blade deeper into his flesh. That was when he screamed.

       As his knees buckled, he saw the face of the man who had betrayed him. The dark eyes glittered, then went dull. That was the moment of death, Lankin thought. He had never seen it before so close, with the dead man's blood smearing his own face and hands. And death was already reaching for him, too, lapping around him like black water. He thought he would like to fight it, but it was too strong, and all he could do was slip away on the current.

 

 

       Oliver had been no more than sixteen when his master had first told him.

       "It is a great responsibility, being a bard," the old man had said. "A bard is more important than a seneschal, even. More important than a king? Maybe not, but kings would be nothing without a bard. Men live no longer than the last person who remembers them. Great men do great deeds, but without a bard, it would be as if it had been performed in a silent night, with nobody to see."

       Had he known what was to come, Oliver wondered, for the old man had pulled him close by the shoulders, and looked him deep in the eye. "The bard must always live, Oliver. If he dies with his people, then who will tell their tale? When all seems lost, the bard must turn his back on his people and seek safety. No, don't look at me like that. It isn't running away. He does it to save them. People trust their bard to tell their story. Even as they die, their despair is lessened because they know that someone will remember them. If the bard stays and dies with them, he betrays them."

       Adela was tugging at his arm. Betrays them, he echoed. The young girl there, with her hair strewn around her face. How had she died? He didn't want to remember. How could he speak aloud a story of such unbearable loss? It wasn't fair. It wasn't fair to make him live, to have to remember this forever, and tell it over and over to everyone who asked. How could he bear it? Death would be easy. In death, he would remember no dead girls and no-one could make him.

       "Sometimes living is the hardest thing of all," his master had said. The memory was so real, it was as if his master was here beside him now, responding to the things he saw. "It might not seem so to you now, and I hope that you live your life without understanding it. But you must promise me. If it is in your time that the end comes, you must promise to live. Don't let our people be forgotten, not after they have endured for so long. Please, Oliver. Promise me. If you cannot, I will teach you nothing."

       He had promised. Of course he had promised. "I have to," he told Adela, and she nodded, understanding him. "I'm the only one left." He had begun to pass on his stories, but his apprentice was dead.

       Thurstan was still gazing after Reynard. "I have to," he said. Had he been fighting a battle with himself, too? He wrenched his head round and looked at Oliver. "Have to go." His voice was thick.

       "Yes." Oliver was killing them just by delaying. The fighters of the Kindred, who knew how precious a bard was, were standing shoulder to shoulder, defending him. They were giving his lives to save him. If he left, they would be free to put their own lives first. If he left, they might live. 

       He raised his head to the sodden sky, and thrust his arm wide, encompassing all the valiant dead. "I will remember!" he promised. Though it might drive him insane with grief, he would remember them, and tell their story. But today he had to leave them to die alone.  

       He pressed his hand to his eyes, as if he could hide, just for a moment, from the horror. "Go," he whispered. "Now."

       They supported him, one on each side, and, stumbling, they fled.

      

 

       Rain was pooling in his eye sockets and dribbling down over his cheeks. It was that that woke him, making him bring his hands up to wipe his face. The tearing pain in his side only came second, making him groan. There was a horrid taste in his mouth, and a smell in the air that he did not like.

       Ciaran remembered being struck down, and thinking that this was it, he was dead. He remembered Cercamond, tearing his mind apart with his lies. He remembered watching other men die, and seeing an army come to destroy Elias's people.

       The army! He sat up, clutching his bleeding side as if that could stop the pain. It was still daylight, and still raining, so perhaps not too long had passed. Perhaps he could still do something to help. The wound was not too bad, he thought, not enough to keep him down, if he was determined.

       His staff was still there, not even broken. Just touching it made him feel stronger. The Shadow was close by, although he was too hurt and too newly awakened to be able to touch it. I'm not useless, he thought, though Cercamond was no longer there to tell him lies in his mind, to try to make him feel that all this was his fault.

       He managed to stand up, and started to walk, leaning heavily on his staff. Everything seemed silent. If the fight was still happening, there would be gunfire and screaming. If either side had won, there would be cheers and rejoicing. Maybe the army had managed to miss the Kindred entirely, and were walking away into the forest, never to come back. Perhaps everything was going to be fine. Elias could even have come back while he was unconscious, and be searching for him to tell him the good news of the Kindred's salvation.

       Ciaran stumbled on, following the footprints of hundreds of men. He started to call to Elias under his breath. It would be nice to have Elias fuss over him for a change. He had never let anyone fuss over him before, but Elias would be so gentle and solicitous, and his fingers would brush the flesh on Ciaran's side, and his hair would touch Ciaran's chest as he bent over the wound and healed it. It made him feel warm and comfortable just to think about it.

       The trees thinned, and he saw the first of the shattered tents. He stopped dead. The branches above him stirred, and he gasped, thinking, He's here again. It's Cercamond! Rain pattered down as a bird flew away, and Cercamond's voice did not come, but the broken tent was still there. The enemy had found the camp.

       A while later, he started finding dead soldiers. A scream came on the wind, carried from across the stream. He saw a place where he had once seen Elias smiling, his hair tousled and damp. Now it was blackened by Cercamond, and strewn with the dead.

       Another step, and another memory died. He stopped. He didn't want to go on. The winter with Elias had been so precious. He wanted something left of it. He wanted something unsullied, and that meant he had to close his eyes and never look.

       Someone ran past him, feet pounding on the ground. Ciaran shrank back against a tree, and tried to make himself small. It was one of the soldiers, bleeding and terrified, but these were the men who had almost killed him, and they would try again if they saw him, and this time they would make sure they didn't fail.

       The man passed, and had not seen him. Ciaran let out a long breath. He crept sideways, trying not to see the bad things, but he had to find Elias's hut, just to see what remained of it.

       It still stood, and he smiled at that, scurrying forward to enter it. It was still there because Elias had come back and managed to defend it. Everything would be perfect inside, and they could stay together tonight, sheltered from the rain and everything outside.

       The door was torn off, though, and that was strange. When he went in, he had to blink to adapt to the darkness. Then he blinked again, because the things he was seeing surely could not be true. The tapestries seemed to have gone from the walls, and the chest by the bed had been shattered. Elias had so few possessions, but even those were gone. But it couldn’t be true, and so he ran from the hut, out into the daylight where eyesight could play fewer tricks.

       He heard footsteps, and whirled round, bringing his staff up, and saw that it was another soldier. If they were fleeing, it meant that the Kindred were winning. Elias was leading them to victory. Cercamond had said that Elias was here.

       The dead soldiers were thickest near the stream. Ciaran waded through them without looking down. One groaned and grabbed at his ankle, begging him to help them, but he shook his foot free. When he tried to run, he felt the flesh and bones of someone's hand grinding beneath his foot, and he was almost sick. 

       "Help me," the man pleaded. Ciaran remembered that he wasn't one of the Kindred. He didn't dress like them, and he didn't look like them. He belonged to neither side in this battle, and the soldier thought he would help him.

       Ciaran half turned round, then screwed his eyes shut. It was a trick. If he bent over to help the soldier, the man would strike him with a dagger he had concealed, and it hurt so much, to be wounded so. Even if it wasn't a trick, how could he stop and help? If he helped one, he would have to help them all, to look into their pain-racked faces and touch dead flesh.

       Elias would help, his conscience said, but he wasn't Elias. Elias kept making stupid decisions, like putting the life of an enemy soldier before the life of all his people, when anyone sensible would know that it was the wrong thing to do. If Elias had not been stupid, he would be here now, and none of this would have happened. How dare people tell Ciaran he was wrong because he was not like Elias? It wasn't fair. Who was Elias, to be set up as the example of everything that was right?

       Clenching his fists, Ciaran turned his back on the cries and plunged on. There was movement at the top of the hill where the Kindred had been hiding, but not much, and the sounds were only faint. But maybe the Kindred still had archers watching the crossing of the stream, and they wouldn't recognise him, because he didn't look like Kindred. Ciaran raised his arm in a kind of salute, then let it fall again. No arrows came, but no cries of welcome, either.

       Then there was shouting ahead. Ciaran raised sluggish eyes, and the rain splashed in them and hurt like acid. It hurt just to look at things. In a place like this, the only thing anyone could do was close their eyes and try not to see, and push the things they had seen from their mind as soon as possible.

       An arrow slapped in the stream after all. Ciaran cried out, and jumped back, then realised that the arrow had not been aimed at him. Three people were fleeing down the slope, and the arrows were aimed at them. A gun fired, and a bullet slammed into the water, breaking up the circular ripples formed by the arrow. There were still enemy soldiers up there, and they were still fighting.

       Ciaran stood very still. The three people plunged headlong into the stream, and began to crawl through the water, only their heads exposed. Black things coiled in the water around them, a hundred other heads that hid their own. Ciaran had no idea which ones were real and which ones were illusion, or even if they were illusion, because nothing seemed impossible on this day.

       Another bullet hit the water, and the black heads faded. There were only three now, one of them held between the other two, and sagging as if he was dying. It was Oliver, Ciaran realised. Oliver, with Adela and Thurstan on either side. But Oliver would never leave his people and run away, not if any of them remained alive, so that meant everything was lost.

       Ciaran threw back his head and screamed silently to the sky. They were all dead, and it felt like the end of the world, as if his own people had died. He had thought he had been doing everything for Elias. He had thought of them as Elias's people, important to him only because they were important to Elias, but they were more than that. They had been real people, fierce and alive and valiant, and now they were dead, and he would never get to know them now. It was too late. They were all dead, and Elias, who was their king, had not been there to watch them die.

       Ciaran pressed his fist to his mouth. "Elias," he breathed, breath hot against his knuckles. He dropped his hand and clutched his wound, huddled forward over his forearm. "Elias!" he screamed. "Elias!"

       Once, long ago, there had been a link between them, but Ciaran had neglected it, and now it was gone. Even though the winter, they had tiptoed towards each other like strangers, learning about each other for the first time, and neither of them had ever mentioned the connection or tried to open it again.

       "Elias!" he bellowed. He hurled everything into that call, all his pain and hatred, all his need and love. And, just as it had done in the Basilica garden, the link opened, and there was Elias, a harsh presence in his mind that hurt.

       Ciaran scraped his fingers down his brow. "Why aren't you here?"

       They had never been able to speak in words in their mind before, but now Elias was everywhere, and Ciaran hated it. "I am," he said. His voice sounded sorrowing, but how dare he be like that? Ciaran and the Kindred had faced the horrors alone, and Elias had left them.

       "Here in my mind," Ciaran shouted, "but what use is that? And I don't want you here. Go away. Get out."

       Elias seemed to be sobbing, and then came the worst thing of all, for a faint image formed in the air in front of Ciaran, and it looked like Elias, but flimsy and transparent. A dead man lay on the far bank, just where Elias's head should be, and by making him look at the illusion, Elias had forced Ciaran to see that.

       "A lie," he spat. "Make it go. We needed you, and now it's too late. You can't give us that... that stupid picture and expect it to make everything better."

       "I know," Elias mourned. "I was here. I tried. I tried so hard."

       "Not hard enough," Ciaran snapped. So Elias had discovered some new power of talking from a long way away? What was the use of that? Was he supposed to marvel at this amazing power? Was he supposed to fall on his knees and thank Elias for condensing to appear like this, when it couldn't possibly do any good?

       "He kept me away," Elias said. "I tried. He wouldn't let go. No-one let me in." His sob was painful in Ciaran's head. "No, you're right. It was my fault. It was all mine."

       "Yes, it was," Ciaran said. "You left us, and we went through all this without you." He thrust his hand at the mass of dead men, and up at the hillside, where the women and children lay hidden by the trees. "They're not your people any more. They're mine. I stayed with them. I fought with them. The least I can do is die with them."

       Ciaran waded into the stream, water churning up around his knees. "Wait for me!" he shouted. Thurstan turned round, and plucked at Adela's sleeve, but they did not stop walking. Bullets landed around them, and a soldier was running down the hill towards him, a spear held in both hands.

       "Ciaran!" Elias was screaming at him, but his voice hurt as much as Cercamond's did, and was just as unwelcome. "Please," Elias was begging him. "Let me in further and I can do something. Just don't go. Please don't go and die."

       "Why not?" Ciaran sneered. "Because you love me? Don't you dare say that now. Just go away! If you can't be here properly, then don't bother being here at all."

       He pushed with all his might, envisaging doors in his mind that could be slammed and locked tight, and Elias as an enemy to be sent reeling back. He closed the doors and barricaded them, and then he was truly alone in his mind. Elias was gone.

       "Wait for me!" he called to Oliver and the others. His voice cracked. He didn't want to be alone. He would stay with these people now, and if they lived, he would live with them, but if they died, then he would die with them. They were like him, left behind by Elias to endure terrible things. They were his people.

      

 

       Ciaran pushed him away, and Elias flew out and away, out into the whirling colours of the world. Cercamond plucked at him, but it was too late.

       His cheek was cold, but something warm was settled on his chest, and a faithful soul that loved him was calling to him, calling without cease for him to come back. The call was like a single candle flame in the vastness of the world, but the light it gave was enough. It guided him back, and suddenly he was whole again.

       Elias opened his eyes. Nightshade made a joyful sound in his throat, and licked his cheek and his chin and his eyelids. You're back! he was telling him. Now everything's happy again.

       "No," Elias moaned. He tried to push the wolf away, but his arms were too stiff to move. "I've got to go back again. Let me go, Nightshade. Please, let me go." He tried to hurl himself away again, so he could see what had happened next. Even if he could do nothing, he had to know if Ciaran and Oliver had survived. He had to know.

       Nothing happened. He was back in his body, and the last of his people, men that he loved, were facing death, and he was a day's journey away, and it would all be over by the time he could reach them.