Chapter twenty-six

Hand in hand

      

 

       It was Bohemond who said it first, the thing that they were all thinking, the thousand men who would be the last of their dwindled people.

       "Our time has come," he said, running his finger wistfully along his blade. "Five hundred years, waiting in the twilight, never knowing to what end." He turned his face to the fiery morning in the east. "Now we know our ending."

       Oliver, the bard who should have said everything and more for his people, could only stare mutely, his head turning from his people to his king and back again.

       Bohemond followed the direction of his gaze. "What can we do to help him, Oliver? He's too far above us. We'd just be a distraction if we went with him."

       "He's not..." Oliver began, but then his voice faded away. It was true, and he knew it. Cercamond would strike at Elias by hurting his men, and Elias would be weakened by guilt and the need to protect others. Elias was safer by himself. His power made him alone, but how sad it was, how sad.

       "But now we know our purpose." Bohemond looked grim, but strangely content. "Who amongst us hasn't wondered, Oliver? Now we know. Our role has never been to fight Cercamond, only to stay alive through the years for this moment, so we can hold off those who would keep our king from his final battle. It was always our destiny. King Alberic told us we would die if we faced the armies of the duchy without our king. Did he know the truth, I wonder? For today we will face them without our king, but perhaps our dying will gain him the time he needs, while five hundred years ago our dying would have been just that, just an ending."

       "It seems like you're the bard today, Bohemond," Oliver managed to say. "My heart's too full to speak of such things."

       Bohemond clasped his hand, and his voice changed, losing the almost ritual tone it had possessed. "Speak of them, Oliver. If we cannot, who can? Give our deaths meaning."

       Oliver sighed, and looked at the army of the Kindred, arrayed and ready on the slope below him. "You really think there's no other ending than death?" But how could it be a question? Both Bohemond and Oliver had gone to the top of the hill to see what Elias had seen, and knew that they were badly outnumbered. Defeat was not certain, but death was certain for many, and they were deep in the territory of the enemy, and many miles from home.

       "I do." Bohemond gave a crisp nod. "But there is not a man here who will not count it a fitting end, to have lived this long, and to die for such a cause."

       "I thought..." Oliver glanced at Elias again, the still centre at the heart of the army. "I really hoped we could help him."

       "So did I," Bohemond said. "So did we all. Those were the dreams we have lived with for these five centuries, that one day we would stand beside our king and change the world. But now we know that this not our task. Cercamond is his to fight. Our enemy is the duchy, as it has always been."

       Oliver wanted to bend his head and weep. "But..."

       "Oliver." Bohemond's grip was firm. "We have helped him. Would he have grown into his power without you to guide him? Would he have got this far without the warriors of the First House to protect him? Even now, would he reach the gates of Ravenstor without us to hold off the enemy that seeks to prevent him?"

       "But afterwards," Oliver moaned. "What happens afterwards?" For even if Elias did defeat Cercamond, Darius's army would still be there, snarling at the gates of Ravenstor. Elias would have saved the world for them and their children to live in, but they would be forever ignorant of it. How would it be, if Elias should walk wearily out of Ravenstor, only to fall beneath the bullet of a common soldier?

       "Afterwards?" Bohemond gave a sad smile. He looked not at all like the man who had lounged by the camp fire the night before. "There is no afterwards for us, but perhaps it doesn't even matter. We have done what we promised, and lived long enough to see our king return, to help him to the scene of his greatest battle. If he fails, then the world dies, and we die with it. But if he succeeds... As long as the world lives, and enchantment within it, should it matter if we survive? We always served a greater cause than just the cause of our own people. In the days of the kings, it is said, we always sacrificed our own comfort for others, and to little reward."

       Oliver clenched his fists. "But he will need us. And it's not fair!" Bohemond was all bard, while Oliver wanted to stamp like a petulant child. "We ought to live, and they ought to know what Elias has done for them. It's so wrong that they hate him."

       Bohemond looked searchingly at him. "Many things are not right or fair in this world, Oliver."

       "But you're just accepting them!" Oliver cried.

       "Fight them, then."

       Oliver shook his head. "I'm no fighter."

       Bohemond thrust his face towards his, and spoke with surprising vehemence. "Use the weapons you have been given, Oliver of the Kindred, if you want the future to change."

       He turned and strode away, leaving Oliver mute behind him. Did you have a vision of your death? he wondered, when it was far too late to speak of it. But Bohemond had spoken of another as the seer of his House, and his fatalism had been applied to all of the Kindred, and not just to himself. Even so, it shook Oliver, to hear one of the Kindred speak so easily of the demise of his whole people.

       It was there that Elias found him, long minutes later. "They're going to fight," Elias said. His voice conveyed little of the emotion he must surely be feeling. "There will be a lot of deaths."

       Oliver's eye slid shut.

       "Reynard tried to tell me something, once," Elias said. "He told me that a leader sometimes has to accept that his men are going to die, while serving a cause that will allow still more to live. He said there are things that are more important than each individual life. He said that... that warriors go into battle for their own reasons, and it is not always my fault if they die."

       Oliver wrenched his eyes open and whirled round. "Elias..."

       "No." Elias shook his head. "I will never agree with him fully, because I think each life is important. But I understand the truth of his words. Today, many of the Kindred will die, but if they do not, if they stand back and let Darius's army reach Ravenstor, the whole world will die. I will mourn every death, but I cannot stop them from fighting. It would be wrong to."

       Oliver sighed. "Oh, Elias..." No other words could be said, for he could never say enough. Elias had lost the last of his innocence. He was old and wise and sad, and would never be the same again, even if he lived.

       "The cause is the future of the whole world." Elias took Oliver's hand. His palm was warm, and trembled slightly, hot blood pulsing feverishly through his veins. When he spoke again, his voice was very intense, and his eyes seemed to be driving a message of the utmost importance into Oliver's very soul. "For that cause, a man can choose to sacrifice his life. It might seem afterwards like a great sacrifice, and his friends will mourn him, but what else can he do? His own life is very little, when put against the world."

       Oliver thought of Bohemond, so sure that he was going to die. "No life is little. You said so yourself."

       "No." Elias let his hand fall. "But a life given willingly should not be mourned by those left behind, if good came out of the sacrifice. Or mourned, perhaps, but not in a way that makes it impossible to carry on."

       All around them, the army was waiting for a command. Bohemond, who had led them from the north, would not give it. And neither would Elias, Oliver swore suddenly. For all Elias's talk, Oliver would not let him bear the responsibility of sending these men to their deaths. Oliver was the seneschal of all the Kindred, and this was the Kindred's war. No-one else would give the order but Oliver himself.

       Elias seemed to understand what he was thinking. "You're going with them." His voice was neutral, neither disappointed nor relieved.

       Oliver looked at his friend, and felt as if the shadows that had pulsed around him all morning had finally gone, burnt away by the dawn. "I want to come with you to the end, but..."

       Elias shook his head, a slight smile on his lips. "There's nothing you can do to help me in Ravenstor, Oliver, but perhaps there's something you can do for the Kindred."

       "What?" Oliver asked, for he was no fighter, as he had told Bohemond.

       "Be with them," Elias said, "as their bard and leader. Keep their spirits up with your words. Tell the tale of their deaths. Remember them."

       Oliver felt as if he was torn in two. "I am your seneschal, my lord, as well as theirs."

       But Elias would not allow him even the escape of formality. "No, Oliver. You are my friend, and I know you want to be with me, but believe me when I say that there's nothing you can do."

       "But you can't mean to go alone?" Oliver twisted his hands together. "Even if there's nothing I can do, I can at least be with you."

       "I know." Elias touched Oliver's arm. "And I won't be alone. Ciaran's coming with me. I won't even attempt to dissuade him, even though... No." His eyes flickered to the ground for a moment. "And Thurstan, too. He asked to come. I would have said no, but... something might happen that Thurstan will understand better than Ciaran. I want him there, to tell..." He broke off, and said nothing more.

       Oliver gazed at him, at the young man who had come from another world, and given everything he had in defence of a place that was not even his home. Oliver was a bard, and bards used their gift of words to make cold hearts weep, and to change the way that people thought, but the only people he could tell the tale of Elias to were the Kindred, who already knew his worth. It's not fair! He had to bite the inside of his mouth to keep from crying it aloud.

       "It's time to go," Elias said. Behind him, soaring up from the sea, two white gulls crested the top of the dark cliff. Their paths crossed, and then they tore apart again, wheeling away to the freedom of the far waters. Elias turned to watch them go, then raised his chin, clenching and unclenching his fists at his sides.

       "I will order the army," Oliver told him. "Forget us, Elias. Think only of Cercamond." He gave a sad smile. "No, do not forget us. Remember that we love you. Remember that you carry our thoughts always."

       Elias's blue eyes were shining with unshed tears. "I have loved you, Oliver. I could never wish for a better friend, nor the Kindred for a better seneschal. You have been everything to me. I would never have made it this far without you."

       Oliver tried to step forward, but his leg gave way, and he half fell, tumbling, into Elias's embrace. The rest of the world ceased to exist. They held each other, and maybe Elias was holding him up, and maybe he was supporting Elias, who was trembling minutely beneath his skin.

       They parted, and stood for a while. Then Oliver gestured at the banner of the kings, unfurled in the hands of Gregory. "Will you take it, Elias? Although we won't be there in the flesh, I want Cercamond to know that we're there in spirit. Never let him say that we have deserted you."

       Elias shook his head. "The Kindred need it more."

       "No." On this one thing, Oliver would not be moved. "I am their seneschal, and I want you to have it." He let out a breath, and all his strength seemed to leave him, so there was only sorrow left, and tears. "More than anything, Elias, I hope that we can meet again." He tried to smile. "It might even be this afternoon, only a few short hours. When Cercamond is gone, and the sun is shining, and Darius's army has faded into dust."

       "Stay safe, Oliver," Elias said. "Live to see this afternoon, and the sun shining."

       What more could they say? What farewells could equal the way they were feeling? In the end, then, all there was was silence. Elias drew back, and Oliver blinked, mounted his horse, and turned to the Kindred, his people, as a golden sun crested the hill and made every one of them seem beautiful.

      

 

       They rode away, ranks of ten framed for a moment against the sky, then sinking away out of sight. Each House had its own banner, but there was little wind to make them glorious. The horses were rough-haired, and the riders had no jewels or embroidery to glitter in the sunlight. Each one looked at Elias as they passed, but their faces said nothing at all.

       Then they were gone, and all they left behind them was silence. Even the birds gliding up from the sea had no voice.

       No-one moved. "I will never see them again," Elias murmured.

       "Don't condemn them before the fact," Ciaran rebuked him.

       Elias did not look at him, and did not speak.

       "How long do we wait?" That was Thurstan, who struggled to hold the heavy banner upright. Ciaran wished he had gone with the army.

       "We go now," Elias said. He glided forward like a dreamer. Ciaran followed, and Thurstan close behind. At the top of the slope, they could see the Kindred army like a dull river of grey, flowing down the hillside. Darius's army had not moved, and was spread across the slopes to the east of Ravenstor. It was there that the Kindred would face them, and would die to keep them from coming any further forward, into the city itself. But, while the Kindred warriors rode inland, Elias and his two companions would keep to the edge of the cliff, and walk down into Ravenstor. While war raged outside the crumbling walls, the true battle would be taking place inside.

       As his king's standard bearer, Thurstan should have gone ahead, but instead he trailed behind. The banner fell in heavy blue folds, and the shining white that radiated from the falcon was buried deep in darkness. Ciaran grimaced. He had little belief in symbolism, but on a morning like this, one needed all the hope that could be found, to hoard jealously against what was to come.

       Ciaran hurried to Elias's side, and walked there, as the cliff lowered and took them down towards the city. The towers were no longer black shapes huddled on the coast far below, but walls that rose up against the sky. Elias paused only once, and that was for one last glance east, just before they went below a shoulder of hillside, and both armies were hidden. Ciaran looked where he was looking, but Elias said nothing. The armies had still not joined, but were close.

       "It looks like their plan has worked," Ciaran commented. "They're holding the army away. No-one's going to get past to reach Ravenstor. We're safe, at least."

       Elias said nothing, but there seemed to be a catch in his breathing.

       Ciaran grabbed his arm, trying to pull him around. "Talk to me," he rasped.

       Elias just carried on walking. "I don't know what to say."

       "So many things, Elias." Ciaran flung out his hand, gesturing at the hills. "The fact that they're going to fight. You didn't even say a proper goodbye to Oliver. The fact that Cercamond's waiting for you, or so you say. The fact that you still think I'm going to betray you. The fact that you don't seem to love me any more. The fact that we could both die within the hour, and we've still never..."

       He broke off, but Elias did not ask what he meant. He just said nothing at all, but Ciaran watched him in profile and saw that he closed his eyes, just for a moment, then opened them again.

       Ciaran refused to ruin it all with anger, not now they were so close to the end. "I still love you, Elias. And soon it will all be over." Just get through the next hour, he reminded himself. Just one small hour, one tiny little hour. Then they would both be dead, or else Elias would be proved wrong, and they would have all the time in the world to rebuild their future together. It was only because Elias was afraid that he was being so difficult.

       The sky was blue, and wisps of cloud clung to the tops of the towers, like banners of white enchantment. If Cercamond was inside, he was not manifesting himself in any obvious way. Everything was as beautiful as a morning stroll in spring.

       "It isn't an evil place," Elias said. He seemed to be speaking more to himself than to Ciaran. "It's the tower of the raven, the black city, but only because of the colour of the rock. It was like the Basilica, but better, because everyone could enter Ravenstor, even people without enchantment. It was a centre for scholarship, but it was also a home for so many people. Now there's only ghosts."

       "Stop talking like this," Ciaran cried. Answer me. Say something that matters. He sighed, and said, "I love you," again.

       "Yes," Elias breathed, but Ciaran knew that he was not talking to him. Elias had his eyes closed to only a slit, and was walking like a sleepwalker. His cloak and sleeves stirred as if in a gentle breeze, but there was no wind in the sky.

       "Elias!" Ciaran grabbed his wrist again, and this time forced him to turn round. "I love you. Never forget that."

       Elias's eyes were slow to open, and he frowned at Ciaran, as if he was struggling to see him. "I know," he said, but he did not give the answer that Ciaran wanted to hear.

       Ciaran's arms fell back to his side, and Elias turned and started walking again. I could stay here, Ciaran thought, and not follow, and he'd never notice. Even if he did, he wouldn't care. Elias would become a dwindling speck in the distance, and he would enter Ravenstor alone, and face Cercamond by himself, relieved, perhaps, that Ciaran was not there to stop him from throwing his life away.

       "Elias!" he rasped, and hurried to his side again. Even there, matching step with step, he was suddenly sure that Elias was walking further away from him with every second.

       "They didn't understand it," Elias murmured. "The ghosts were so strong that even the ordinary people could sense them in a way. When the Kindred ruled, they knew that they were kind. Afterwards, though... They were afraid, and couldn't put their fingers on what it was that made them so. They called it an evil place, and left it. But it never was. It still isn't."

       "Ghosts," Ciaran echoed. "Can you see them?"

       Elias blinked, and seemed aware of Ciaran, just for a fleeting moment. "Oh yes."

       Ciaran wanted to shiver, but the sunshine was too warm, even on this chill morning. "And Cercamond?"

       "Not him." Elias shook his head. "Not any more. He's gone. He's all there, ahead, waiting for me. I don't think he's even listening now." He jerked his chin up, frowned in concentration, then let out a slow breath. "But he might be. I can't risk it now, not so near the end."

       What? Ciaran wanted to scream his frustration, and hear it echo off the black towers. He wanted birds to rise squawking from his anger, and the waves to smash on the shore. He wanted a black sky of thunder, and drenching rain. All he had was a placid morning, and Elias as he was, and so he did not even ask it. "I don't know what to do," he said, but doubted that Elias could even hear him.

       To his amazement, though, Elias seemed to truly see him. Ciaran felt like a dog might feel, whose master had finally consented to throw him a scrap, and he almost hated Elias in that moment, as much as he loved him. "Just stand with me," Elias said. "You can't help me. I know it sounds..." He sighed. "However it sounds, it's true. I'm the only one who can face him. You really shouldn't be here at all. He might strike out at you, kill you just to hurt me."

       "I'm not going back," Ciaran declared. "I'm not letting you face this alone."

       "I know," Elias sighed. "But please don't do anything. Just... stand with me. It helps. Despite everything I say, I don't... I don't know if I'd have had the strength to walk down here alone." He looked at the ground as he said it, and his voice was barely more than a whisper.

       Ciaran felt close to tears. "I do love you, Elias." He fumbled him into an embrace, but Elias felt stiff and unyielding. Ciaran tried to be charitable. Elias had been dreading this morning for months, he reminded himself. Now it had finally come, he could not let himself weaken. If he gave into his craving for love, he would lose all will to fight, and everything would be lost. "Afterwards, Elias," Ciaran whispered into his ear. "Afterwards, when it's over, I'll show you what love can truly be."

       Elias gave a strangled half-sob, and turned his face away. "I wonder," he murmured, "if they've started fighting yet. There's no wind. I can't hear."

       Ciaran released him, and they started walking again. "I love you," Ciaran said. "I'm proud of you. Through you, I've had my eyes opened to things I never thought to see again. You're brave and noble and beautiful and talented, and I love you so much."

       Elias bit his lower lip, and looked at the ground. Ciaran thought he caught the quick glimmer of a tear falling into the dirt, but then Elias turned away, and Ciaran could not see if he was really crying.

       They were almost at the city gate. The sun, low in the east, made pools of dark shadows at the foot of each tower. Elias, a step or two ahead of Ciaran, did not even pause as he entered the first patch of darkness, and let the city swallow him up.

       Ciaran followed. What else could he do? He tried to call Elias's name, but his voice died in his throat, and so, saying nothing at all, Ciaran followed. 

      

 

       The dead were there all around him, but his mind was free, more free than it had been for months, since Cercamond had first run his silver-dark fingertips through his dreams.

       Cercamond was gone. No, not gone, but ahead of him, not far, like a pillar of skulls, like a solid wall of souls screaming as they died. But he was outside, he was other. You can't hear me, Elias thought, and no answer came. You've gone, and I can say anything, and the dead whispered and told him yes, yes, he cannot hear, so tell us what we can do to help you, child, young one, lord, teacher.

       But how could he? I can't, he told them, as he passed through the velvet darkness of the outer gates. I can't risk it. He's cunning. And if he had time for anything, for any snatched and hurried explanation, it would be for Ciaran, and Ciaran alone.

       Ah yes, they mourned, soft as thistledown on his cheek. You are wise, wiser than we were.

       Strange that they seemed to revere him so. They had been the masters and the scholars, who had studied enchantment and learning in their studies in the black towers. They had gazed at the stars at night, and thrown open their doors by day, so all who wanted to learn could share their wisdom. Then, when enchantment dwindled and there was no-one left who was wise enough to pass on their knowledge, they used their powers to linger after death, to watch over their children.

       Someone was saying his name. "Elias," they said. Elias? Faint and far away. Ciaran, like a man of paper, two-dimensional, all faint flat colours. The dead were more real. Enchantment was more real. Ravenstor was etched black, with a blackness that seared the eyes, vibrant with the enchantment that had seeped into the rocks over so many centuries. Even the dust at his feet shimmered like silver, like the dust that was the dead by the stream in the forest.

       The dead were spirits, wisps, a smear of a face, or the curve of a lock of hair. They were a fall of light in the shadow of a wall, or a twist of dust in a sunbeam. They were moth wings fluttering over his face and his mouth. Their voices were soft white feathers in his mind. When the time comes that we can help you, call for us. We will give you our all. Be strong, my child. We serve you, my lord.

       The laugh was not audible, but he heard it nevertheless. It came to him like the shock waves after an explosion. It was darkness, horrible, radiating from a place not far away. Cercamond knew he was close, and knew that the dead were flocking around him. He was not in Elias's mind, but he was very close.

       "Elias," Ciaran said.

       He sees us not, the dead whispered. He should not be here. This is no longer a place for mortal man. A place of magic, of enchantment, where men like Ciaran glided like a dead leaf through a forest, and saw nothing. There was nothing alive in Ravenstor, just Cercamond and the dead, and Elias, who would soon be like both of them. He should go, he and the boy both. But they sighed at the sight of the banner, and their sorrow was dark grey, for they, too, had served their own kings, and had followed the same banner.

       "No," Elias said. He wrenched his head away, and stared at Ciaran fiercely, and felt as if he was throwing himself forward through a tunnel. They belong here. I'm fighting for people like them, for all living beings. It's their fight. And I'm not like you yet. I'm still alive. "Still alive," he said aloud, in a voice like a whisper of wind, but still Ciaran heard it.

       "Still alive?" He fumbled for Elias's hand. "Of course you are. I'll make sure of it."

       His touch was warm. Something bright and alive radiated from his touch, and ran up Elias's arm, even to his heart. The dead faded, just a little, and Ciaran seemed firmer, and real. His cloak fell in heavy folds, and there were lines of worry on his face, and smears of dirt on his cheeks.

       Elias swallowed hard. "I'm glad you're here." And he was. Regardless of what would come afterwards, regardless of the fact that Ciaran could ruin everything, for this moment in the here and now, he was glad Ciaran was with him. Ciaran was his anchor, keeping him from drifting too far away on the wings of enchantment. Ciaran spoke to him of all the things in live that were worth fighting for, of love and hope and happiness.

       "Where is he?" Ciaran asked.

       Elias shook his head, but said, "Not far."

       They were walking through a city of broad paved roads, with large gateways, and towers with many windows. Behind the crumbling fronts there were courtyards and quadrangles, and statues fallen onto their sides. Once, the dead told him, they had been full of grass and flowers, though they had not always been peaceful. Scholars did so love to bicker, they told him, and showed him a memory of how it had been.

       They were so eager, to keen to tell their tale. Even as they offered to help him, they unwittingly revealed their need. They had been alone for so long, with no-one left alive to see them, and for centuries they had been forgotten. And now he was here, the first person in five hundred years who was able to hear their story, and, like children starved of affection, they wanted him to heed them. But I can't, he had to tell them. I can remember you, but I cannot pass it on. Not even to Oliver, who would put it into fine words and never let it be forgotten.

       They sighed shiveringly, and withdrew a little. It matters not, they told him. What does it matter if we are remembered, as long as our children live? But their sadness was a cloud in the blue sky, for they had once been human, and, like Elias, they had once loved.

       "It looks almost... alive," Ciaran said. His voice seemed wrong, too loud in the silence.

       "It isn't," Elias said, though he knew what Ciaran meant. Before Cercamond, Ravenstor must have been a mass of tangled roots and undergrowth, but the plants and trees had withered, and the bare stone was revealed. Perhaps the enchantment in the air had held back the decay a little, for the windows were crumbling and the roofs were gone, but the buildings themselves still stood much as they had always stood.

       It is how the world will look, if Cercamond is triumphant, Elias thought. It looked like a city just recently dead, where bodies lay unburied just out of sight, but no footprints disturbed the dust ahead.

       "It doesn't feel right," Ciaran said. "It's too easy."

       "Only because he's making it so," Elias had to tell him. "It won't be easy soon."

       Elias turned round, and tried to smile at Thurstan, who was trailing doggedly along behind them. The blue of the banner was the same colour as the sky, as if the one was fading into the other, ceasing to exist. Elias thought he knew what had motivated the boy to ask to come, and wondered if he should have said no. This was no time to try to prove yourself to be the equal in courage of your dead father. But Thurstan was the only person who understood that Elias had been playing a game for the last week. Perhaps, when the end came, Thurstan would understand the rest of it, and be able to explain it to Ciaran. Perhaps...

       "Perhaps," Ciaran said, "it's so easy because Cercamond isn't as strong as you think he is."

       "But he is," Elias said. "He could crush us where we stood, if he wanted to. He's like Darius, wanting to do it the right way. But he's not been without his influence. Do you think Darius's army found us by chance?"

       "That was him?" Ciaran gasped.

       Elias nodded. Of course it was. Cercamond had spoken to Ciaran, once, and had slithered into the minds of the men in the coach, who had tried to kill Elias. He could speak to anyone in the world, if he chose to. Even Darius, the Lord Darius that Elias had feared so terribly, was his puppet in the end.

       Ahead of them, not far away, the street ended in an arched gateway. Elias remembered it from the wanderings his spirit had done, led by Cercamond. Through the gate was the great courtyard, and on the far side of the courtyard was the great flight of black stone steps. It was the central square of Ravenstor. At the top of the steps, between two crumbled pillars, was a great stone throne. There, on the throne, was where Cercamond would be, waiting for him.

       Thirty paces, Elias thought. Thirty, or a little more. And three already done, then four, then five. Each step through the dust taking him closer to Cercamond, and the black stone steps where he had seen his own doom.

       Elias stared at Ciaran, as terror gibbered inside his mind. He could not speak.

       "Elias," Ciaran said. He was still holding Elias's hand, Elias realised, and now he tightened his grip. "What is it?"

       "He's there." The words were barbed, hurting his throat.

       Ciaran was obviously trying to put a world of meaning into the look in his eyes. "I do love you, Elias." Then, when Elias could only look at him, he shook his head. "Why can't you say it to me? Nothing else should matter, if only we say those words."

       Not now, Ciaran, Elias wanted to beg. In twenty steps, he would decide the fate of the world. If he was strong, and did what he had to do, then it was all over for him. He would have to leave human company and never see Ciaran again. If Ciaran hated him, perhaps it would be a little easier for him to bear. Better for Ciaran to think he had lost someone who had never deserved his love, than to face the rest of his life without the person who could have made him truly happy.

       Elias looked at the ground. There was a faint smear in the dirt at his feet, as if someone else had walked there before him. Cercamond, in an assumed human form, he thought. Everywhere he went, Cercamond had gone before, and everywhere he would go, there Cercamond would be.

       "I said it," he whispered. But his love had not been enough for Ciaran, because it had not been the sort of love he had demanded. It had been tainted, not worthy. It wasn't good enough. Flowers deprived of light and warmth just withered and died. Or had it been the dead beside the stream who had made it wither, and not Ciaran himself? Elias had taken on so many people's fears and guilt that his own flimsy little happiness had been like a tiny figure of a man swept away by a flood. Or maybe it was Cercamond, or Elias himself, who was guilty of all the things Ciaran had accused him of in his anger.

       "I did love you," he managed to whisper.

       Ciaran ground his toe into the dirt. "But you don't any more."

       Elias looked up. "I didn't say that."

       "But you meant it."

       Elias gestured fiercely at the gateway. "He's just through there. He's waiting for me. This is it. I can't..." He struck himself full on the chest. "I can't let myself..." The words ran out. The dead were beginning to speak to him again, urging him to hurry. They had lived too long with enchantment and regret, and they forgot how vital love and pain could be, and how living men felt things as strongly as any dead. 

       "I... understand," Ciaran said, after a long hesitation. He took Elias's hands. Elias's arms were limp, the hands resting lifelessly in Ciaran's. "I know what a terrible thing it is that you face. I know how scared you must be. I know how hard I must be making it, going on like this."

       No! he almost cried. It's not your fault!  He had to bite his lip to keep himself silent. If he said it, he would say the rest of it, and he would never stop until he had said it all. He would lose everything. Here, on Cercamond's threshold, he would fall.

       It was too late to change anything. He had chosen his path, and walked it almost to the very end. If he strayed from it now, the thorns would snatch him, and he would be dragged down into the mire. If he was triumphant, this was the last time he would ever speak to Ciaran. In minutes, perhaps, they would part forever. If they loved each other now, how could he ever find the strength to do what he had to do?

       "I'm so sorry, Ciaran," he breathed, but Ciaran did not hear him, and was already speaking.

       "When it's over..." Ciaran said, with the smile of someone who would deny his doom to the very end. "When it's over, you can let this all go. You won't have to worry about anything. When it's over you'll be able to let me love you."

       Elias's eyes were pricking with tears. He had to say a farewell. He had thought the last drop of feeling had been wrung from his heart when he had said goodbye to Oliver, but this was even worse. They still had to face the black stone steps of the vision, and whatever came after.

       The dead were calling to him, dragging him, tugging his unwilling arm. Come, they whispered. He is here.

       Elias squeezed Ciaran's fingers. Even that simple movement felt deliberate and difficult, as if his blood was ice and he had to force it through his veins, and persuade every muscle to do his bidding.

       "You have been everything to me," he said. Then he remembered that he had said the same words to Oliver, meaning them in a different way. It had been easier to speak the words to Oliver, and easier to mean them. Ciaran loved him now, but in the past he had been unwittingly cruel, and Elias had nearly been destroyed by him. Much of what he had gained had been gained in spite of Ciaran.

       He took a deep breath. "I always loved you, Ciaran, with the love a child has to the man who has saved his life. This winter, I came to know you as a man, and loved you even more. You were my home. You were the one I came back to, and the one I thought about when I was away. You were..."

       "Don't speak as if we're already dead!" Ciaran cried. "Don't talk like this, so formal. Haven't you got a heart?"

       Elias pulled his hand away. "I'm sorry." The dead were plucking at his clothes, and Cercamond was waiting for him.

       He walked a few steps away. "I'll go first," he said. "You should probably wait in the gateway, both of you." Not that Ciaran would do it, but at least he had said it.

       "I'm coming," Ciaran declared. Thurstan also walked forward, but more slowly. He was very pale.

       Elias walked a few more steps. Through the gateway poured not shadow but sunlight. There were cracks between the slabs of paving, and patches of clean stone where for centuries tangled roots had protected it from the light.

       Something grabbed Elias's hand, pulling his arm back, trying to turn him round. It was scarcely distinguishable from all the pawing dead, but Elias blinked, and knew it was Ciaran.

       "Wait," Ciaran said. "I'm coming with you, hand in hand, together." He thrust his jaw out and looked so defiant, so determined, that Elias felt all his hard-won resolution crumbling.

       He no longer knew what he was saying. "Please," he whispered, and "stay with me", and "I need you." Maybe, as they walked through the gateway, he even said, "I love you," but he did not know.

       For a moment, dark stone arched above them, and they were in shadow, hidden both from Cercamond and Thurstan. As the dead urged him to hurry, Elias stopped walking. He put hand on Ciaran's shoulder, and the other on his waist. They were gentle touches only, but enough to pull him forward.

       Their bodies did not touch. Half an arm's length still separated them. After he had recovered from the shock, perhaps Ciaran would have leant forward eagerly and tried to make the embrace something different from what it was, but Elias did not give him the time. Standing on tiptoe, he pressed a soft kiss on Ciaran's cheek. After he pulled away, Ciaran's hand rose to cover the spot, as if he wanted to hold on to the kiss and never let it go. To Elias, that was the most terrible indictment of all.

       "Goodbye, Ciaran," Elias whispered, silently. "I did love you."

       Then, with Ciaran holding his hand, he walked into the sunlight.

      

 

       Banner in hand, smeary warm with sweat. Footprints ahead of him in the dust, the king's and Ciaran Morgan's, both for him to follow. They had spoken words, and Thurstan had hung back and tried not to hear them, but the ruined city was as quiet as the dead, and too much had reached him.

       Love. They had spoken about love. Ciaran loved the king, but that was not remarkable, for who could know him and not love him? Ciaran was afraid, but the king was unearthly and far above such things. Ciaran was wrong to try to distract the king, and Thurstan kept on thinking he should rush forward and tell him so, but his feet had been as if set in stone. Even now his legs felt heavy. Run away, the falling dust urged him. You can't do anything here but die.

       Banner in hand. That was real. The blue fabric hung heavily above him like a shroud, and there was no wind to unfold its glory. But Reynard had held this banner before him, clutching the spear with dying hands. Reynard. Reynard his father. Reynard, and I won't die while holding it. I won't surrender it to anything, not even death. That's more than you could do.

       The king could see the dead, and the king had told him that Reynard was at peace, gone far away to a place from where there was no coming back. So that meant that Reynard wouldn't even be there to see him. He couldn't look down and see his son, standing proud and strong at his king's side as he fought his greatest battle. He couldn't see Thurstan succeed where he had failed. Even if Thurstan screamed it as loud as he could, Reynard would never hear him shout, "I'm greater than you were, so love me!"

       But it didn't matter. None of it mattered. He didn't care about Reynard. It wasn't because of Reynard that he was here today. He was here to serve his king. Reynard was not the only one who could do his duty. Thurstan was young, but he was trusted. Only three men in all the world would see Cercamond in all his power, and Thurstan was one of them. How the bards would sing of that!

       And so he walked, banner in hand, head held high. Footprints ahead of him through the arch, and a moment of shade, then growing sunlight. Ciaran and the king were ahead of him, and the king was looking away to the side, but Ciaran was looking only at the king.

       Was Cercamond there?  The dust was tendrils, clawing at his feet, and his steps grew slower and slower. Was Cercamond there? He closed his eyes, and then there was darkness, with only the king's slow footsteps in the ancient stone.

      

 

       They rode, the chieftains and seneschals. They rode, the men of the Kindred, young and old. Few had hopes that they would live to see the noon, but many were content, knowing that they would be dying to buy their king time.

       Darius's army had seen them coming. How could they not? They had drawn up at the foot of the hills to the east of the city, barely half a mile from the gates. Was it fear that made them hold their lines, or some cunning stratagem? They were too far away to have faces, but Oliver knew that they were watching, every one of them.

       He twisted in the saddle, looking for Elias, but Elias had long ago disappeared behind a fold in the hills. He would be entering the city by the northern gate. Oliver squinted, shielding his eyes, but he saw no figures on the road. Elias could already have faced Cercamond, and lost. Even as they rode, it could all be over. But, if so, surely a wave of devastation would come exulting from the city. The sky was still blue and the sunlight yellow, and so he had to hope.

       "We will fight mainly to hold them back," Bohemond said. Bohemond and Gregory together had taken on the role that Reynard would have held, and spoke together of strategy, and gave orders. "We try to avoid an engagement for as long as we can. The sooner battle is joined, the sooner we die, and then nothing stands between them and the king."

       Even Gregory was speaking like that, so formally. Sometimes Oliver wanted to scream at them to really feel, but he knew he could not. His own words, when he said anything at all, were the same. He felt too much, and could not risk letting even a hint of it to spill over into words.

       "I say we fight," said one old warrior. "Make an ending of it that's worthy of being sung."

       But no-one left to sing it, Oliver thought. No-one at all.

       What were they doing, the other people in the world? Elias had told him that Cercamond would withdraw from the rest of the world to gather himself in Ravenstor. All the people tormented with sickness would count themselves reprieved. Women would be smiling as they went to market to buy herbs and meat, enjoying the sunny morning, finally daring to hope that spring was here. If Elias won, they would pass from one moment to the next without even a flicker of awareness of the momentous thing that had just happened. They would never know how close they have come to death, or know of the sacrifice of the young man who had saved them.

       Not even Oliver would know when the moment came. He could be half way through a sword thrust, or between one word and the next. The whole world should be breathless with expectation and dread, but even those like Oliver, who loved Elias, had to forget him, and think only of what lay before them.

       Oliver closed his eyes. Words echoed in his mind, some of them words that had been spoken aloud in memory, and some that had lived only in his thoughts. Use the weapons you have been given, Oliver of the Kindred, Bohemond had said. No-one left to sing it, he had thought, and mourned the fact that the world that remained would never know about Elias and what he had faced. Never...

       "This is what we do," Bohemond said, to the captains and chieftains gathered around him. He pointed with his sword. "We draw up there. We hold the line, and hope they fear us too much to strike, but..."

       "No!" Oliver was surprised to hear his own voice, so hoarse and vehement.

       They all looked at him. He was no warrior, but they waited for him to speak.

       Oliver swallowed. "I've got an idea. You won't like it." Still they looked. "You don't even unsheathe your weapons," he said. "You do nothing, nothing at all."

       "Suicide?" one of them scoffed. Bohemond was more gentle. "It's not hopeless yet, Oliver, despite the way I was speaking. We can't give up without at least trying to defy fate."

       "No." And Oliver told them the rest of it, and they nodded, and so it was that Oliver had his own part to play after all, and it was the most important part of all, after Elias's, with a thousand lives and more hinging on his skill, and the whole shape of the world after Cercamond. But, as he turned away, his hands were shaking. Is this what it feels like, to bear the future on your shoulders? Oliver thought. Oh, how does Elias bear it?

      

 

       Elias had kissed him, and nothing else mattered. He had looked at him with regret, and had spoken of love in the past tense, but he had kissed him, and everything else paled before that. They would be happy after all, when it was over.

       Love changed everything. Hadn't Ciaran always known that? As a child, he had known that just to be loved made everything well. Gideon had ruined everything for a while, and thrown his life off course, but now everything was right again. His faith in love was back. Even if they died now, he would die happy, because he was with Elias, and Elias had kissed him.

       As they walked across the open square, he had eyes only for Elias, and deliberately so. Perhaps Cercamond was there, and perhaps he was not, but he would not be allowed to ruin their last moments together. Elias, and the love they shared, was the only true thing in the world for him at the moment. "I do love you," he said, once, and again. Perhaps he said it too much, but what of that? He had never spoken the words in fifteen years, and had the erase the shadow of half a lifetime lived wrong.

       Elias's hand was limp in his own, but suddenly it stiffened. Ciaran looked at his face, and saw how his lips had parted slightly, in a silent gasp of horror. So Cercamond was there, as Elias had expected. Cercamond was there, but Ciaran would not look at him, not yet.

       "I'll stand beside you," Ciaran assured Elias. "I won't betray you. That was only a silly vision, and you had it long ago, before I knew I loved you. I'm here, beside you. Nothing else matters. Oh, don't look at him," he urged. "Look at me. Hear me. Believe me." It was a noble thing, and a wonderful one, to be able to be happy even in the face of death, just because Elias was there. There were stories such as this, about love that could not be conquered by evil.

       Elias stumbled. He looked blind. Ciaran grabbed at his arm, and something snickered just ahead of them, but high above. Still Ciaran did not look.

       "Say what you're thinking," Ciaran urged him. "Whatever it is, tell me." Danger should end all barriers between them. They had nothing further to lose. It was too late for hiding, and they should be closer than ever before. "What are you thinking, Elias?" he demanded.

       "That it's not true," Elias whispered, his voice hoarse. His eyes stared always ahead. They were beginning to climb, walking up a flight of shallow steps. They were made of hard stone, very black.

       Ciaran pursed his lips. "What isn't true?"

       Distracted, Elias shook his head. "Love," he said, wrenched each word out as if they sickened him, "is the first thing that has to be given up. Like happiness.  It's the first thing. The littlest thing. The tiniest thing. Nothing at all."

       "Never say that!" Ciaran shouted. He tugged at Elias's hand, and would have pulled him round. "It's the most important thing of all!"

       Elias stared at him bleakly. "But it doesn't matter. The result is the same." He gave a ghastly smile. "Forgive me," he rasped. Never could such a plea sound more terrible.

       He pulled away, and mounted one step alone, and then another. Ciaran watched him walk away. Then, despite himself, his eyes travelled further, and saw the thing that awaited Elias at the top of the steps.