Chapter twenty seven

Black stone steps



†††††† Elias was nobody. Against the man he had to face, he was nothing. He was eclipsed.

†††††† The man at the top of the steps was tall and strong and darkly shining. He sat indolently on the throne at the top of the steps, his chin resting on one hand. His face was beautiful, as Gideon had been beautiful, and that was what made Ciaran take a step back and want to turn away. His hair was liquid black silver, and there was a crown on his brow, above dark eyes flecked with amber. His full lips were smiling.

†††††† An illusion, Ciaran told himself. Not real. But the man was beautiful and fascinating, and it was impossible to look away from him. Elias was smaller and paler and did not shine. He walked steadily, but his hands were clenching nervously, and he was like the lowest servant of a mighty king, approaching the throne to do homage. Elias had seemed attractive and powerful, but men who knew nothing but twilight would revere a candle flame, never knowing how pale it was when held against the sun.

†††††† The man's smile broadened, and he spoke. "So you can come, little one." His lips moved, and Ciaran heard it with his ears, but it seemed to resonate inside his mind as well.

†††††† Elias climbed one more step, then stopped, swallowing hard. Then he climbed another, and then one last, until he was standing only two steps beneath the glorious man. Only when he was there did he speak. "I have come, Cercamond."

†††††† Cercamond. Of course he was Cercamond. Ciaran had known it, but still he wanted to drag Elias back and tell him that he had made a terrible mistake. This man was the true ruler of the world. It was only jealousy that made Elias resist him so. Ciaran could understand that, for he, too, had struggled with the same feeling, when Elias has started to grow so powerful. Then he scraped his hand over his brow, and knew that it was wrong, all the things he was thinking. This was Cercamond, and he was evil. He had the power of illusion and glamoury, and that was all.

†††††† Cercamond laughed. There were specks of light in the square, where sunlight fell on dust, and they seemed to squall in agitation at the sound. "And tell me, little one, are you ready to fight me?"

†††††† Elias bowed his head. His hands were unclenched now, pressed flat against the sides of his thighs. "I am."

†††††† Cercamond leaned forward in his throne. "How was your journey? Easier than you feared, perhaps?"

†††††† "I had not let myself expect, one way or the other." Elias's voice was very mild.

†††††† "But here you are, and that means you've dared to hope, even after everything that's gone before. You still think you have a chance." His eyes glittered, and he spread his hands, revealing all his strength and glory. "Here I am. Are you going to strike me down?"

†††††† There was the slightest tremor to Elias's voice. "Is this all of you, Cercamond?"

†††††† "Oh yes." Cercamond smiled. "The valiant flowers open to the sunlight, granted one more morning to live. Men who were dying of fever yesterday wake up this morning, and think they are reprieved. For one day, my touch is removed from them. I am here, for you. All my strength, all my power, all my might..." He reached out as if to touch Elias's face, though his voice had turned terrible. "All of it only for you, little one. Are you trembling?"

†††††† "I will do what I have to," Elias said.

†††††† Ciaran blinked and rubbed his eyes. He was suddenly aware of a vagueness around the edges of Cercamond's solid human shape. His outline was fuzzy. He was like a painting done in water-colour, bleeding into the surrounding paper. As Ciaran watched, he saw a fine wispiness of dark smoke seeping off Cercamond's skin, and disappearing into the sunlight. Elias was so close that some of the smoke fell onto his skin like dust, but he gave no sign of noticing it.

†††††† Cercamond stood up. "Strike, then. Defeat me, if you are able."

†††††† But he can't! Elias was so frail and small at the feet of Cercamond's glory. There was no colour to Elias, for Cercamond had sucked all the life and colour from the city around him. He was still breathing, but never had breathing seemed more fragile. Cercamond would kill him by bringing his finger and thumb together, as if plucking a blade of grass.

†††††† And Elias knew it. He had always known it. Suddenly it all made sense, the despair Elias had been feeling on the journey, the despair Ciaran had rebuked him for again and again. I'm sorry! Ciaran wanted to cry, but his feet were pinned to the stone step, and he could not move forward, and bring himself closer to Cercamond's dreadful regard. So Elias stood alone, his head lowered, his hands clasped before him. His sword hung at his side, useless and forgotten. He said nothing, and did not move.

†††††† "Strike!" Cercamond commanded. The illusion was dissolving and spreading. He still had a semblance of human form, but the voice no longer issued from any mouth, and he was growing like smoke. It made him less beautiful, but even more dreadful.

†††††† Elias raised his hand limply. White light flickered, then died. His head slumped forward, and Ciaran fell to his knees. Elias's enchantment had always seemed so amazing, white light suffusing everything in sight, but now its true paltry nature was revealed. It was nothing. Against Cercamond, Elias was nothing, and all was lost.



†††††† The banner clattered to the floor, and a lifetime of lies and deceits and foolish pretences fell away.

†††††† Thurstan fled back to the arch, but the shadow there was not enough. Black stone scraped his knuckles and drew blood. Run away, hide, and watch, things chittered in his mind, dark things with dusty wings. It's all you ever do. You'll never be anything more.

†††††† "No!" he sobbed. He drew back further, pressed his bleeding hand to his mouth, and dared to lean forward again, peeping round a wall of dark stone to watch the king.

†††††† Everything was lost. Ciaran Morgan knew it, too, for he had fallen forward onto his knees, the picture of despair. The king was still standing, and how stupid Thurstan had been, how childish and naÔve and stupid. He had thought the king could do no wrong. Even when the king had said otherwise, he had trusted. He had told himself that it was all a lie, that the king was only pretending to be defeated to fool Cercamond. How the others must have laughed at him, foolish deluded Thurstan who still trusted in people older than him to save him.

†††††† No-one could save them now. The king was courageous and noble, and he was at least trying, but he was doomed to failure. He had never been the all-powerful being of Thurstan's imagination. He was nothing compared with the power now arising.

†††††† "Stupid," Thurstan moaned. "I was so stupid." Stupid to trust that even the king could avert the end of the world. After Reynard's death, he had resolved to depend on nobody, but he hadn't changed at all, and was still the same old Thurstan. Gerhard and Reynard had been pushed from their pedestals, but the king had still stood there, and Thurstan had still worshipped him.

†††††† The tall man raised his hand, and the king raised his hand, too, but the white light of his power was muted and paltry, while the dark man's power could blanket the world. Cercamond, Thurstan reminded himself. It was Cercamond, though he had a little of the look of Reynard about him, with eyes like coals, and an unforgiving mouth.

†††††† "Elias." Ciaran moaned the king's name, but the king did not turn to face him, just stood there foolishly, staring into the face of his death. Ciaran spoke again, but then there was a crack of noise, that echoed on the stones, and the king jolted, and fell forward onto the steps.

†††††† A gun, Thurstan thought, as Cercamond laughed and surged forward with glee. He closed his eyes, but that was not enough. Can't watch, not this time.

†††††† No safety. Hadn't Reynard said that once? Nowhere to run to, and nowhere safe. Even so, he fled, all alone in the streets of the dead, watched by sightless windows and empty doors where there had once been life.



†††††† Oliver pressed his face into his hands, and whispered a silent plea for strength. Cold tendrils were coiling inside him, and his breath was fluttering in his throat. He wanted to curl into a ball and let things pass over him. His hands were clammy, and he felt sick.

†††††† "Ready?" Bohemond asked.

†††††† He still hid his face, just for a moment more, not caring that people could see him. He wanted to ride into Ravenstor and grab Elias by the shoulder and say, "I understand now. All this time I thought I understood how it felt, but I never truly did, not until now." For it was terrible, to bear the fate of the world on your shoulders, and they, the Kindred, had forced that upon Elias, and made him feel like this every day of his life for the past year and a half.

†††††† "Now, Oliver." Bohemond's voice carried a warning.

†††††† Oliver lowered his hands. The Kindred were drawn up in a long line, five men deep. Upon Oliver's command, the ends moved forward, so the line became a curve, with him at the centre. The wind was slight, but was blowing inland. His words would be carried towards Darius's army, rather than to his own.

†††††† That army was drawn up and ready. Their ranks were a little ragged, and there was no sign of any commander. They watched the Kindred, and their weapons were in their hands, but they did not yet advance. The two sides were barely a hundred yards away, close enough to have a shouted conversation, if they wished. With their bows, the Kindred could already have started killing. Darius's army, with their guns, waited for the Kindred to approach, and were ready to cut them down when they came within range.

†††††† Yes, he thought. For one last time he sought the towers of Ravenstor, then turned his back. It was time.

†††††† All unarmed, he rode forward.



†††††† They had crept in at night, just the two of them, and waited in a ruined room that overlooked a great empty square. Lankin had knelt, but Darius had been pacing restlessly. "How do you know he's going to come here?" Lankin had asked him once, but had received no answer, so had not asked again.

†††††† Then morning came, a grey dawn that made the ruins of this evil place seem almost stately and noble. Stories were told about this place, and the ghosts of evil sorcerers who wailed through the ruins and sucked away souls, but Lankin saw nothing.

†††††† "He's coming," Darius breathed. There was something strange on his face, delineated by the morning night. It was not the look of a righteous ruler about to capture the greatest threat to his people, Lankin thought. He smiled with anticipation, but his eyes were hot and hungry.

†††††† How does he know? Lankin wondered so many times during that long night. No messengers came to whisper news gleaned from spies and agents. If one of the sorcerer's men had turned traitor, Lankin had heard no hint of it. Besides, such a thing was unheard of. The sorcerer's minions were stubbornly loyal to their foul leader. Of all the ones that had been captured over the centuries, none had ever talked.

†††††† Sunlight touched the tops of the towers, and Lankin peered at them, and wondered what they had looked like in the olden days, when this had been a mighty city. What would it look like if it was lived in again, with ships in the harbour, and banners on the towers? They had passed empty courtyards, and arched windows that overlooked the rooftops. For all the blackness of the stone, it had been built with an eye to beauty, for all that the sorcerer's forefathers had done the building.

†††††† Then, as sunlight gleamed yellow in the morning, a dark wind rose up, but a strange one, for it seemed to move the air, but leave the dust untouched. It coiled, like wind that picked up dead leaves in the autumn, then each of a hundred coils came together, and then there was man on the throne at the far end of the square.

†††††† He was kingly. That was Lankin's first thought. At first glance, Lankin thought he looked a little like Darius, but then he realised how far beyond Darius he was. He was Darius as Lankin had thought Darius was, long ago. He was a leader who would defend his people to the death, and would rule with justice and compassion. He was a true lord of men, and Darius was only a petty tyrant, playing with power.

†††††† But he was a king. Lankin, who had found himself leaning forward towards the open slit of window, snatched himself back again. Kings were evil, and the world no longer needed them. Lankin was a Soldier of Light, and there was nothing inside him that longed to be the servant of a worthy king. Of course there wasn't, and what foul trickery was it to awaken this feeling deep inside him, that was not true at all.†† "Keep hidden, Lankin." Darius's voice made him start. It seemed so normal, so human, and artful where it had once seemed sincere. Did Darius see the man, too? If he did, he gave no sign, though his eyes were glittering in a way that Lankin knew to associate with avarice and deceit.

†††††† So they waited, and the king on the throne waited, and the sorcerer came.

†††††† The sorcerer was hand in hand with an older man, and a young boy trailed behind them, carrying the banner that Lankin had almost died for. There were no armed men flanking them, and no explosions of evil sorcery. The sorcerer looked pale and scared, but he never faltered in his forward walk. The man beside him was arguing heatedly with him, and the boy stopped walking, and stood there quaking in terror. None of them seemed aware of Lankin and Darius.

†††††† The sorcerer stopped beneath the tall king, and they seemed to be talking, but Lankin could not hear the words. He glanced at Darius, but his commander was oblivious, gazing at the scene with the look of a child handed his heart's desire. Frowning, Lankin turned back, but Darius suddenly grabbed his arm. "Now!" he hissed. "Do it now. Not to kill, remember. I want him alive."

†††††† Lankin raised his gun, and took aim on the sorcerer's back. It was simple. But the tall king was standing now, and blackness was bleeding off him, and the face that had seemed so strong in righteousness turned cruel and commanding. His form warped and changed, and Lankin knew what part of him had known already, and that was that the man was wrought of sorcery. And not the sorcerer king's doing, surely, for the two of them were confronting each other, that was plain.

†††††† "Now!" Darius snapped.

†††††† And the sorcerer king had saved Lankin's life. Of course he had. He had saved Lankin, and here he was, all by himself, facing something dreadful and immense and evil. He looked so small and human. White light flickered from his fingers, but his body remained solid, made of flesh and blood, and capable of being hurt. The man he faced was far greater, and not bound by physical form.

†††††† The gun trembled in Lankin's hand. There's so much I don't understand.

†††††† Darius gave no more orders. Before Lankin could react, he snatched the gun and fired without pausing to aim. The sorcerer king staggered and fell forward onto the step, and Lankin cried out. The tall man, who was no man, surged forward, stepped over the sorcerer's body, and continued past it. His gaze fell on Lankin, and it felt like a void, and Lankin almost fell screaming into it. When his gaze passed onto Darius, Lankin was kneeling on the floor, sweating and retching.

†††††† "He was mine, Darius." The voice was nails in Lankin's head, and made him want to scream. "I told you that. One taste, perhaps, you could have, but no more."

†††††† Darius thrust the gun at Lankin, and Lankin only barely managed to take it. "My man will kill you if you come closer," Darius said. Did he really believe it? The man was no man, but a being made of sorcery itself. There was nothing Lankin or Darius could do to harm him, that much was plain. Was Darius so accustomed to getting his own way that he had become blind, convinced that there was nothing in the world that he could not defeat?

†††††† The dark man reached out one hand, that became a tendril of dark smoke, pooling across the square to Darius's feet. It was hard to look away, but Lankin managed it, wrenching his gaze to one side, to where the sorcerer king was struggling up onto one elbow, and the older man was pulling him into his arms, and crying the name, "Elias."

†††††† So that was his name, the sorcerer king. He was Elias, and he was Lankin's age, and he had someone who loved him. He could have killed Lankin, but had not done so.

†††††† "I will keep him as my pet," the dark man said, "while I... rule the world. Silly boy, he has such... scruples. He can't bear to see anyone die. He suffers so beautifully. But, then, you already knew that, didn't you?"

†††††† Darius nodded, but did not speak.

†††††† The darkness swelled closer. "I know you have secrets you don't want this other one here to know. But no-one can hear what I'm saying to you, and no-one will hear your reply. Just speak it in your mind, and I will hear."

†††††† "I... " Darius's voice spoke in the same place in Lankin's mind as the dark being of sorcery, but it hurt even worse. The dark man had lied, for Lankin could hear it all. "I will."

†††††† "Good," the dark man said. Something scratched through Lankin's soul, and he knew that the dark man had looked at him, in some way that was deeper than mere sight. He knows! he realised. The dark man knew that Lankin could hear everything, and it amused him to watch Darius betray himself. "Do you know who I am?" the dark man asked Darius.

†††††† Darius shook his head. He looked pinned to the spot, impaled through the heart by a sharp finger of darkness, but even so his eyes were glittering. He still thought he could win. He thought this was just another person he could trick and betray.

†††††† "My name is Cercamond," the dark man said, but he was barely a man at all now, just pulsing darkness, in which a faint human form hung like a picture made of smoke. "You do not know me, though he knows me only too well." The darkness swelled with laughter, specks of amber dancing in the smoke. "Your treachery was priceless. There he was, labouring so earnestly to save the world, and you were just stirring everyone up to hate him even more. I killed a few people, and you blamed him. I killed a bit of grass... He worried so much about that. But again you just made one of those thundering speeches and made them hate him even more."

†††††† "I had my reasons," Darius said, staunchly. "You understand my reasons."

†††††† "Ah," the voice said. "You think you recognise something in me, do you? You think we are both... ambitious. You think we both want power. You want an alliance?"

†††††† "He stands in our way." Darius pointed to the top of the steps.

†††††† "You always hated him, didn't you," the voice said. "I wonder why. I'm rather fond of him, really. It's endearing, the way he thinks he can defeat me. He never gives up. He has such a capacity for guilt. He'll make such a pleasant pet, after I destroy him. But you... Are you jealous, is that it? You betrayed your own kind, and he's everything you can never be. You had to lie and murder to become a mere duke, while he's a king with two thousand people who will roll over and die for him. He has more power than you will ever have. He is what you want to be."

†††††† "He is not," Darius spat.

†††††† "He is beautiful, is he not?" The voice turned sly, purring like a lover. "Beautiful, and untouched, except by you. How does that make you feel?"

†††††† Darius swallowed. "He is less important than power. You want to rule the world; I want to rule a duchy. You want him as your slave; I can take him from you." He nodded towards Lankin, and for the first time he spoke aloud. "Kill him on my command, Lankin."

†††††† "Is that a threat, Darius?" At its core, the tendril of darkness turned pitch black, and hard as stone.

†††††† "No threat," Darius said, in his mind again, thinking himself unheard by anyone but the thing that called itself Cercamond. "Just a... business arrangement. We can help each other, or hinder each other. It seems we have a common enemy."

†††††† Cercamond's voice turned scathing. "I am far above you, Darius. You are nothing. He is tiny and pathetic, but at least he is someone. You will never equal him. You have amused me for a little while. You came when I called you. Your poor deceived men are even now destroying his followers, and that is good. But you are no-one. I share power with no-one. Already I have planted the seeds of your downfall. Mighty as I am, you would always be plotting to trick me and murder me, like you did the duke you claimed to serve."

†††††† Darius's eyes glittered with menace. "Beware, Cercamond. I can kill him. I can rob you of him."

†††††† The finger of darkness began to withdraw. Darius had been indulged for a little while, and now was being discarded. "You don't understand a thing, Darius."

†††††† "Oh no?" Darius said aloud. "Kill him, Lankin."

†††††† Lankin stood still. His heart was racing. Very slowly, he laid the gun down on the ground, and straightened up.

†††††† "Kill him!" Darius screamed. He ran towards Lankin, and bent as if to take up the gun himself.

†††††† "I joined you," Lankin said, "because I cared about the people's welfare. I wanted to fight the evil that threatened them. I wanted to keep the duchy pure and safe. I was a Soldier of Light, and was proud of my uniform. I killed, but only because I thought it was necessary to the cause. I thought I was serving right."

†††††† "You are!" Darius snapped. "Just kill him. He's the threat. He's the sorcerer king himself. He stands there, as evil as he ever was, and you let him live? You betray your people, Lankin."

†††††† "No," Lankin said, sadly. "Not me."

†††††† Ever so gently, he drove a dagger into Darius's stomach, and twisted it there until he died. Then, without looking back, he turned and walked from the square.



†††††† Even at the end of all things, Elias could still reject him. He pushed at Ciaran's arms with surprising strength. "I have to stand," he forced out through gritted teeth.

†††††† "But you're hurt," Ciaran cried. "Stay still. Let me look at you."

†††††† "It's not too bad," Elias said. "The bullet scraped me." But breathing clearly hurt him, and there was a lot of blood on his side, so Ciaran thought he was lying.

†††††† They would die here together. Even if Elias had had a chance before, he was wounded now, and that changed everything. There would be no victory, but at least they would die in each other's arms. What was the point of Elias trying to stand up? Standing or lying, the end would be the same. Ciaran could make sure Elias had all the comfort he could give him, right at the very end.

†††††† Cercamond had left them for a while, but he would return. Ciaran glanced towards him, and Elias took advantage of his distraction to push himself to his feet. "Darius," he breathed.

†††††† Ciaran snatched up his staff, that had fallen when he had rushed to Elias's side. "Darius?" Even if he couldn't fight Cercamond, he could strike down the human man who caused Elias so much pain.

†††††† Elias shook his head. "He's dying. Cercamond tricked him, of course." As he spoke, a fair-haired soldier strode from a doorway and hurried from the square, looking neither to the left or the right. Ciaran wondered if he should go after him and kill him, and for a moment he wanted to very badly, just to strike a blow in this war, and not just stand there uselessly while Elias died.

†††††† "Leave him," Elias whispered, and those were his last words, for Cercamond was back again, surging and triumphant, with a form that pulsed with the images of all the horrid things in all the worlds, and Ciaran had to look away.

†††††† "I'm all yours, little one," Cercamond crowed. "You're all mine. Where were we?"

†††††† "Here," Elias gasped. Moving stiffly, as if he was fighting to stay conscious, he lowered himself onto one knee, and bent his hand. He pressed both hands to the raised knee, and his neck was pale and exposed. "I'm hurt," he whispered. "Spare me, please."

†††††† "Spare you?" Cercamond cried. "Fight me, wretch. You disappoint me by this grovelling."

†††††† "Please," Elias begged. There was no dignity in his kneeling. He was no hero, valiantly kneeling to show his acceptance of fate, but a conquered slave.

†††††† "I will make you my own!" Cercamond shrieked.

†††††† Darkness reared up like a wave, impossibly high, and Elias was quite simply overwhelmed by it.

†††††† There was no further sound. Elias's shoulders bowed, as if he was being battered by an immense weight. Beads of blood welled up on his back, and dripped to the stone. His head slumped, then lolled to one side. Tears were leaking from his open eyelids. In the grotesque light of night in day, they looked like blood.

†††††† "No," Ciaran whispered, into his clenched fist. They were going to die, but not like this, not like this! Ciaran had let Cercamond influence him into despairing, but he was a Brother, and he would not give up without a fight. Even if they failed, they would die in each other's arms, content in the knowledge that they had fought to their best ability, and died well. Love was the most important thing of all. Ciaran would not let it end like this. He couldn't just stand back and watch, not if he loved Elias, and he did love him, he loved him so much, and nothing else mattered but that, not all the promises he had made and all the things Elias had said and all the truths he had learned. Nothing.

†††††† Elias groaned, then shrieked in agony. Faint white light flickered from his fingertips, but were gleefully absorbed by the darkness until none remained. Cercamond was snuffing him out like a guttering candle. The gold of his hair was muddy and grey, and his skin was sallow. The only colour about him was the shocking red that dripped from his side, but even that became black when it touched the stone.

†††††† "No," Ciaran moaned.

†††††† Elias flung his arms wide. "I can't take it!" he screamed. "I surrender!"

†††††† "No!" Ciaran bellowed. He sprinted up the steps until he was at Elias's side. "No!" He clawed at his shoulders, and pulled him, but Elias resisted, and started moaning, "no," over and over again. "No, master. No."

†††††† The darkness formed into a fist, and then a dart, sharp and deadly. The might of the whole sky was behind that point, and it was aimed at Elias's heart. Elias was broken and quivering on the stone step. He was not even aware enough to move.

†††††† "Elias!" Ciaran screamed. He hauled at Elias's shoulders, but Elias shook his head dazedly, and tried to stand up. Ciaran stood up with him. "No!" he shouted again, as the needle-sharp point found Elias, and would have impaled him. "No!"

†††††† He used violence; there was nothing else for it. When it was over, Elias would have to forgive him before they died, for what else could he have done?He refused to stand by and watch the man he loved be destroyed. He refused to stand by and let Cercamond win, not without a fight. Elias had been conquered by despair, but Ciaran would scoop up the torch from the ashes, and fight the last blow of the war all by himself. He would play his part after all.

†††††† "No!" he screamed again, striking Elias full in the chest, and knocking him backwards.

†††††† Like a swooping bird of prey, the dark point impacted where Elias had been standing only seconds before, and black stone dissolved into fragments.

†††††† Elias lay where he had been pushed, sprawled on his back. His mouth was bleeding, and his eyes were glazed over. He had struck the back of his head on the step when he had fallen, and his eyes were bright with tears. "No," he was mouthing, over and over, and if his heart was breaking. "No. I asked you. I told you. I begged you. Now it's all gone. I've lost it," he said, in a broken sing-song whisper, close to a sob.

†††††† Ciaran stood over his fallen body. "I saved you, Elias." He put his hands on his hips, and stood astride him.

†††††† Behind him, the darkness massed for a second attack.

†††††† "I canít," Elias whispered. Still lying on his back, he spread his arms wide. "Help me!" he cried. "I've lost it! I can't! Please!" Then, when Ciaran moved towards him, he snarled at him like a wild beast. "Not you, Ciaran."

†††††† Specks of light flickered in the darkness. As a shadow made the day as dark as night, Elias's face was suffused with light. Streamers of white drifted in from all sides. Distantly, Ciaran heard a rushing sound, like a thousand invisible birds flying to the aid of their king.

†††††† "I surrender!" Elias screamed, again.

†††††† This time, when the darkness swooped in to destroy him, Ciaran could only stand there and watch.



†††††† "Lay down your weapons!" Oliver shouted. "We do not fight!"

†††††† A ripple ran through the ranks of the Kindred. No-one obeyed him.

†††††† Oliver rode his horse up and down the ranks. The sky was very blue and the sunlight dazzled him, so he could not see their faces. As a bard, he knew how to speak so that everyone present heard his words.

†††††† "These men are not our enemy," he said.

†††††† He spread his hands. He tried to forget that, behind him, a whole army eyed his back and were aiming their guns, and willing him to move a little closer. He tried to forget that Cercamond was so close, and Elias could be dying. Nothing else mattered but the words and the audience. It was a campfire at night, and he was talking to a tiny group of men, trying to get them to feel sorrow for something they had not understood.

†††††† A bard could turn laughter into tears, and tears into laughter. Elias had once said that no amount of enchantment or Shadow could reach into a man's thoughts and change them, because each man's thoughts were his own. "Only words can do that," he had said, with a sad smile. "Only persuasion, and opening their eyes to something they have not previously seen."

†††††† Not even Elias could do what needed to be done. Only a bard could it. This was the culmination of everything Oliver had ever lived for, and every skill and realisation he had obtained.

†††††† "Look at them," Oliver urged. He flung out his hand. "Look! You see men, most of them young. They're afraid of you. Ever since childhood, they've been told to be afraid of the bandits in the woods. Be a naughty boy, and the black-hearted bandit will sneak in to your room and carry you off. There's nothing they like more than a nice plump child roasted on a spit."

†††††† In the back of the ranks, someone laughed uneasily, and Oliver found them, and pinned them with his gaze. "Precisely. But fears are believed. How many of you, when young, scared each other with tales of the cruelty of the duchy? Stray from the path, you said, and they'd snatch you and take you away in chains."

†††††† The young man subsided, looking at the ground. Oliver turned away, and addressed the far end of the line. "And they feared us more even than that. Five hundred years ago, their fathers turned against enchantment, because it is only natural to fear what you do not know. Over the years, they had only come to fear it more. They believe with their whole hearts that it is an evil power, that threatens their lives. What to us is as natural as breathing and more beautiful than anything in the world, they see as a perversion, foul and wrong."

†††††† "They lie!" someone thundered.

†††††† "They believe it," Oliver countered. "They have children, too. Like us, they only want to live, and to see their children grow up in safety. They think we are a threat. If evil threatens your children, you stop at nothing until you have destroyed it."

†††††† "Yes," a voice said. "And that's why we can't do it. We lay down our weapons, and then what? Whatever their reasons, however human, the end result is the same. They're the ones you should be talking to, not us."

†††††† "It's all of you." For the first time, Oliver turned to face Darius's army. He knew his words had been loud enough for them to hear, though faintly. They would think they had eavesdropped on something that had not been meant for their ears. They would never know that the words had been meant for them all along.

†††††† "Hear me," Oliver shouted, raising his hand, in salute and declaration. "I know you think I'm trying to trick you, but I swear to you that this is the truth."

†††††† He could see their faces. Some were already wavering, and some looked close to collapse. Darius had launched his crusade against enchantment too quickly, before his armies were properly trained. The hatred had always been there, but not the strength. The people of the duchy had grown too used to peace.

†††††† "There is a man in there," he said, gesturing at the city behind him, "a man you have sworn to kill. His name is Elias Ward."

†††††† His eyes pricked with tears, and he swallowed hard. He could not let himself lose it now. As bard, it was his duty to tell the tale of his king, and the House that had been wiped out on the slopes of a small hillside by a stream. However much it hurt, the story had to be told. In minutes, he could die, and the story would be forever lost, and that would be the worst betrayal of all.

†††††† "My people were two hundred strong," he said. "We had a hard life, but we made ourselves carry on living, because, one day, we had been told, we would help save the world. We might have given up the struggle to carry on living long ago, but we never forgot that. Life was a duty, and we lived it.

†††††† "Then," he said, with a sad smile, "a young man came to us. He was Elias, and, although he did not know it, he had powers greater than any of us had ever seen. He was shy and young and doubted himself, but he did not shirk his duty. He accepted our homage and let us name him king, though it gave him no pleasure. Although he knew nothing of us, he took upon himself the burden of our future. He thought he could heal the rift that lay between us and the people of the duchy. Almost alone, he set off to Eidengard to plead our cause." His voice faltered. "And I let him go," he whispered, almost to himself.

†††††† No-one made a sound. They were listening, although they had not lowered their weapons. There was magic in the words of a good story-teller, and he held them, caught as if in a dream.

†††††† "When he was there," he continued, his voice a little hoarse, "he tried to save the life of a young girl, and was unable to keep himself from being captured. Some of you saw him then. He spent the night in prison, hurt and afraid. He was tortured. On the scaffold, he saw only a mass of hatred, and people who knew nothing of him screaming at him to die. In desperation, he freed himself, and ran. He was hunted like an animal, and was badly hurt. In all his escape, he hurt no-one."

†††††† He did not yet appeal to them. He could have challenged them to deny it, and asked them flat out if they knew of anyone who had died in that pursuit. But if he spoke so directly to them, the spell would be broken. They would take it as an assault, and would scream their denials, and everything would be lost. The truth would creep into their thoughts, as the memories of those days returned.

†††††† "And then," he said, "he became aware of a new threat to the world. An evil was imprisoned long ago, and now it is free, because the enchantment that kept its prison walls strong has faded over the years. It is called Cercamond. There is no limit to Cercamond's power. He makes the grass die, and whole villages die of plague. He hates the world and all life, and he wishes to destroy it all.

†††††† "This was the evil we were told about so long ago. This was the thing that Elias had come here to save us from. And so we drew up our strength, and prepared to fight for the future of the world. But we met only hatred. My people, women, children, families, friends... They died. They were killed. Cercamond is in there, in Ravenstor. We came here to face him, but instead we met you. Elias, our king, faces him alone. You have been led here to kill us, but we are only trying to save you and your children from death."

†††††† He found he was weeping. It was no use. They were just standing there. One of them fired his gun, though he did not aim it, and the bullet fell far short of Oliver. The ranks were whispering to each other, but Oliver knew it was only words of hate.

†††††† "You don't believe me," he said, bitterly. "Why should you?" Ravenstor was merry in the sunlight, with no sign of roiling darkness and screams of the damned. One man could not hope to erase the hatreds of five hundred years. He had been arrogant to think it could possibly be him.

†††††† Something seemed to be sucking at him, draining him of strength and hope. He thought he heard Elias whisper a farewell in his mind. The air seemed suddenly thin and cold, and he knew that if he reached for any power of enchantment, he would find it had left him.

†††††† "He could be dying even now," he sobbed. "And I'm here, because I thought I could make you believe me, when I should be at his side. Even if he saves us all, the moment you see him you'll tear him apart and destroy him. There's no hope. No hope at all."

†††††† Someone else fired their gun. Behind him, the Kindred were beginning to arm themselves. They had tried it Oliver's way, but they had failed.

†††††† They would fight, and they would die. When the end came, it would find them divided, man against man, and it would shriek with laughter as it destroyed them.

†††††† He slid from his horse, and fell to his knees. He would not fight. Let him be the first one to die, but he would never draw his sword on another living thing.



†††††† The whole world was silent, frozen in time. To Ciaran, it seemed as if even the tiniest atoms of air were still, not daring to move.

†††††† He looked over his shoulder, and his chin brushed against his clothes with a soft sound that felt shockingly loud. He could not see Thurstan. The man who had shot Elias lay on his front in a pool of blood. There was no-one else there, and not even the sound of distant gulls.

†††††† He turned back. Even his breathing felt too loud, as if it was breaking the spell of immobility that had been cast on the world. Cercamond had gone. If he moved, the world would raise its head like a slumbering beast startled by the sudden sound, and time would resume. Cercamond would fill the square, and Elias would be screaming.

†††††† Elias still lay where he had fallen. He was sprawled on the dark steps, his head several steps lower than his body. His arms were flung wide and his neck was twisted to one side. Ciaran could not see him breathing.

†††††† Ciaran stood there. Cercamond had gone. He had swooped joyfully into Elias's abject surrender, and had taken him. Was that all it was? Was this, so small and silent, total defeat? He would have expected a screaming darkness that tore the world apart, and an agony of pain. There would be terrified creatures trying to escape, and the shrieks of the dying. Ash would fall from the sky and everything it touched would wither.

†††††† But nothing had changed. Cercamond had defeated Elias, but Elias still lay there on the steps, like the jointed wooden doll Ciaran had once owned. The sky was still blue and Elias lay in full sunlight. His hair shone like dark gold, and he looked fragile and precious and lovelier than Ciaran could bear to see him.

†††††† Perhaps this, too, was part of Cercamond's plan. Elias had always said that he amused Cercamond. Cercamond had won, but he would leave this place to the end. He would destroy the rest of the world first, until this square was the only place left intact, a tiny island in a vast dead sea. Ciaran and Thurstan would huddle together, and Ciaran would hold Elias's dead body in his arms, and kiss his dead face. Then, as they cowered, the massive wave that was Cercamond would break over their heads, and they, too, would be destroyed, and the whole world would be dead and lifeless.

†††††† "Elias," he whispered, then said it again, a little louder. He had half expected the sound to die on his lips, but it sounded normal. There was a soft breeze on his cheek, and far away he heard the sound of a single gull.

†††††† He plunged forward. "Elias!" he shouted, with all his strength. More birds were singing, small birds in the broken windows of the towers. A fly buzzed past his face, heading eagerly for Elias's spilled blood. Disgusted, Ciaran swatted at it, but missed.

†††††† He touched Elias's cheek, and there, beneath his touch, Elias stirred, as if he had been only waiting for Ciaran to awaken him to life. His eyelids fluttered, but did not open.

†††††† "I'm here, Elias," Ciaran assured him.

†††††† It had all been so quick and so silent. He would have expected a final confrontation that took hours, and made the world tremble with opposing powers. From the moment Cercamond had turned his attention back to Elias, to the moment Elias had fallen, had been less than a minute. Over a year of leading up to this, and it was over in a minute, then silence.

†††††† "It doesn't matter," he said, taking Elias's hand. "You tried. You did what you could. I still love you."

†††††† Elias moaned, but did not speak.

†††††† Elias had asked him to kill him. If he spoke cruel words and looked at him with eyes that were not his own, then he had been possessed by Cercamond and was no longer Elias. "Look at me, please," Ciaran asked him, his voice wavering a little.

†††††† "Ciaran." Elias opened his eyes. They were pale blue, and the large dark pupils retracted when they saw the sunlight. They were human eyes, and Ciaran found himself weeping.

†††††† "Oh, Elias. I thought..." He could say no more, and just repeated Elias's name over and over.

†††††† Elias rolled painfully onto his side, then began to push himself up. His back was one mass of red.

†††††† A week before, he had told Ciaran that he would hate him. "I don't hate you," Ciaran said. "You tried. You weren't strong enough. You surrendered, yes, but you tried. You failed, but don't blame yourself. I forgive you." He swallowed. "How long have we got before he comes back for us?"

†††††† "He's not," Elias said, "coming back." He gave a broken laugh. "Or he's never going."

†††††† "He's not coming back?" Ciaran looked nervously at the sky, where delicate clouds were drifting close to the sun. In the south, they were edged with black.

†††††† "It went very wrong," Elias whispered. "When you... I..." He hunched forward, and for the first time acted as if he was in physical pain. "I though I'd lost it all. I called on the dead. They helped me. Everyone helped me. The old king was right after all. The Kindred did have a part to play. If they had been any fewer, I would never have been able to do it."

†††††† But Ciaran only vaguely heard what came after those first few words. "You're still talking about betrayal? I saved you, Elias." He gestured sharply at the fractured step where Elias had been standing before Ciaran pushed him away. "Are you blaming me? You're saying that Cercamond's victory is all my fault? I saved you, Elias!"

†††††† Elias was standing with his back to him, his arms wrapped around his middle. He took one shuffling step away, then stopped. "It... made no difference in the end," he said, bleakly. "It could have destroyed everything. I just..." He sighed. "I did ask you, Ciaran. I should have told you everything, but I couldn't. I thought I'd told you enough. I thought you understood. I thought you promised."

†††††† "I promised nothing," Ciaran snapped. "And any promise I ever made to you I would always break without a thought."

†††††† Elias made a small defeated sound in the back of his throat, and carefully walked down one more step.

†††††† "I didn't mean it like that," Ciaran said. "I just mean... Oh, Elias. If I promise to do nothing, but then you're about to die... How can I possibly keep that promise? I don't want you hurt. I love you."

†††††† Elias walked down one more step. He was half way to the bottom now.

†††††† Ciaran hurried down to his level. "Please don't let it be like this," he begged him. Cercamond was victorious, and Elias had failed. They could be the last men left alive. If they met their end bickering and unhappy, it would be the saddest thing of all.

†††††† "I'm sorry," Elias whispered. "I forgive you, Ciaran. I donít want you to think I blamed you, afterwards."

†††††† "Forgive me?" Ciaran grabbed his arm and tried to pull him round. "I did nothing wrong! I saved you! How can you be so...?"

†††††† "You said you forgave me," Elias said, in a dead voice. "You think I surrendered and let Cercamond win. You think it's all my fault, and yet you forgive me. It's all right for me to bear the blame, but you can't accept any suggestion that you might share it."

†††††† "I didn't surrender!" Ciaran cried. "I didn't grovel before him and let him win."

†††††† Elias closed his eyes, and pulled out of Ciaran's grip. Bleakly, he turned away, and began to walk again. "It's not true," he said, as if he walked. He spoke as if it was a thing of no real importance. "Cercamond didn't win. My surrender was part of my plan. It worked anyway. He is..." He paused. "Defeated," he said, at last.

†††††† Ciaran jumped down two steps at once. He grabbed Elias's arm again, and turned him around. "How?"

†††††† Elias stared at the ground, where a drop of blood was seeping into a crack between two stone slabs. "All that darkness... That bodily form... It was only an... illusion. A... physical representation. He is pure spirit. He could fit into a thimble, or he could fill the world. He is..." He fell silent.

†††††† "What are you saying?" Ciaran demanded, harshly.

†††††† "He is inside me." Elias raised his eyes and stared uncompromisingly at Ciaran. "I invited him to possess me. He is inside me, and I... slammed the prison doors shut, and kept him there. I think I can hold him. Just."

†††††† "You..." Ciaran felt sick. He could say nothing more.

†††††† "I can't... love you any more." Elias was cruel, just adding assault to assault. "I can't be their king. I can't use enchantment, except to guard the prison. I can't... be me. I can't be close to anyone." He took a deep breath. "I would like to go to the battlefield before I go, and say farewell. I'm sorry you're trapped here in this world. Darius is dead now. Maybe there's some hope of a reconciliation, though maybe not. I hope so. Maybe you can have a role in that."

†††††† With every word, Ciaran only felt himself growing more angry. "And where are you going?" he asked, at last. There were a hundred other things he could have said, and each one more harsh.

†††††† "Away," Elias whispered. He wasn't even crying. "There's evil in me now. I can't live in the world of men."

†††††† The anger crested and broke. "And you did this without asking me?" Ciaran screamed. "You make yourself repulsive like this? You think you have the right to do this? I loved you, Elias. You were mine. What you do to yourself you do to me."

†††††† "I'm sorry," Elias whispered, in a tiny voice. "You're right to be angry."

†††††† "Sorry isn't good enough." Elias had looked this broken when he had knelt before Cercamond, but it had all been a cruel trick. So furious that he could hardly see, Ciaran slapped Elias about his pathetic face, sending him tumbling backwards down the stairs.

†††††† Then, stepping over Elias's body, he walked out of the square, and did not look back.