The field of dead
Thurstan fought bravely. Enemies fell beneath his sword, and crumpled away from him so he could not see their faces. There was very little blood. When Reynard was in danger, Thurstan shouted out a quick warning, and that allowed Reynard to save his own life. Then the king returned and there was magic everywhere, and none of the Kindred died. "Thank you, son," Reynard said, when it was all over. "I was proud of you today." The hug was as brief and stiff as Thurstan would have expected from him, but it warmed him nevertheless, and made him want to cry.
He dashed at his eyes. Cry, because none of it was true. Reynard was dead. He had said horrible things to everyone, and that had been Cercamond, not Reynard after all, but it was still the last memory Thurstan would have of Reynard. Whenever he thought of Reynard, he would remember him shredding into darkness, attacking the king.
He clung to the dream fiercely, as he stared up at the lifeless sky. Reynard was safe, and none of the Kindred had died, but what about Cercamond? Oh yes! "I've found a way to defeat him," the king would say. "I don't know how I missed it before." He would give a quick wave of his hand, and white light would flare, and the enemy would be gone forever.
"So it's over," Reynard would say, with a sigh. "Our long struggle is over." Everyone would laugh and weep and hug each other. Reynard would be freed from his lifelong duty, and would have time for Thurstan. The king would never stop smiling. Oliver would have children, and Thurstan would teach them all about the Shadow, and Gerhard would be alive again, and Thurstan's mother wasn't dead after all, because it had all been a terrible misunderstanding, and she would laugh and call them her sillies, for believing that she would go away forever and ever, and never come back, and…
Thurstan bit his lip against a sob. Just a dream, a stupid dream, a dream without even the excuse of being asleep. People died and went away forever. His mother was dead, and he had lost two fathers, the one he had known all his life, who had lied to him, and the one he hardly knew, who had rejected him.
They hadn't even buried him. The ground was too rocky and they had no spades. They should have tried, though, Thurstan thought. Someone could have gone back to the camp to salvage some tools if they'd really wanted to, but no-one had done it. Instead they had just covered him with branches, and left him. They couldn't even burn him, because the flames would be too visible in the night.
Reynard was still there, with sharp sticks pressing into his dead face. He would be easy to dig out again, or touch through the branches. Thurstan could crawl over there, move the pyre aside, and there would be Reynard, to weep over, or scream at.
Why did you let Cercamond take you? Thurstan screwed his eyes shut. You fought everyone you ever met, so why not him? Why did you tell him those things to say? Because they must have come from Reynard, the things that Cercamond had said. They were too close to things Reynard himself would have said, so Cercamond must have taken them Reynard's own mind. Reynard gave him the weapon and taught him how to use it, so it was all Reynard's fault, and it was a good thing that he was dead.
He rolled over, so he was facing the place where Reynard lay. Around him, people were breathing, and sometimes moving in their sleep. He wondered how many of them were truly asleep, and how many were just lying there, thinking of the people they had lost At least they were mourning people who had really loved them, not someone who had come back from the dead only to cause pain.
The king had given a short speech over Reynard's body, but it had all seemed muted and wrong. He had not said much about Reynard himself, just about how they should remember him. There had been little comfort in his words, just a faint sense of wrongness, as if everyone present had failed Reynard in some way, and the king most of all. Thurstan still did not understand it.
Someone started to walk through the sleeping Kindred, their steps soft, and no-one stirred. Maybe it was an enemy, Thurstan thought, after he had listened to it for a while. Then the king spoke, and Thurstan let out a relieved breath. "Can't you sleep?" The king's voice was very close, and Thurstan knew he was crouching over him.
"I keep thinking about Reynard, and the things he said," Thurstan blurted out. He always confessed everything when people asked, and he knew it was a failing. If he had kept more secrets, Reynard would not have known how to hurt him.
"It wasn't him." The king touched his shoulder. "It was Cercamond. Please try to remember Reynard as he was, not as Cercamond made him appear."
"But how did he know what to say?" Thurstan suddenly remembered that the king could see the dead. "He was there, wasn't he? He was thinking those things, and Cercamond just said them aloud."
"No," the king said firmly. "Reynard isn't here. And Cercamond knew what to say because he watches us. Maybe all the time, maybe only part of the time. He hears what we say, and that gives him power over us. He likes nothing more than to watch people destroy themselves, so he said the exact things that would make us hate each other and ourselves. It's his way."
"He hears everything?" That was the thing that chilled him, not the rest of it. "Even us here, now?"
"I don't know," the king confessed, "but I have to believe so, just in case. And that means…"
"What?" Thurstan asked, when the king had been silent for too long.
"That I won't be able to tell people things." The king's voice was full of quiet despair. "That you will probably lose faith in me, or even come to hate me."
Thurstan bolted upright. "I would never do that, my lord."
Perhaps the king was smiling in the darkness, for his voice changed a little. "Thank you, Thurstan. I hope you stay that certain, not for my sake, but for your own."
"I'll never despair," Thurstan assured him, "not when you're with us. If there's a way to fight Cercamond, you'll find it." He realised the truth in a flash. "You've already found the way, but you can't tell us what it is in case Cercamond hears. So you're going to say things out loud that sound bad, but it's just an act to fool Cercamond. So I won't believe them. You'll defeat Cercamond, and lead the Kindred back to safety."
"I wish it was like that." The king still sounded heartbroken, but Thurstan only smiled to hear it. It was all an act, he knew that now.
Thurstan found his hand, and kissed it, like a proper liegeman to his lord. "I have faith in you, my lord."
The king gently withdrew his hand. "You should go to sleep. It's several hours till morning."
"What about you?" Thurstan asked, when he heard the king stand up. "Where are you going?"
"Back to the camp," the king said, "to do something that needs to be done. But I'll be safe there, don't worry. So will you, while I'm gone. I'll cover you all with an illusion of hiding. No-one will find you."
Maybe the king gave him a little push in his mind, for Thurstan felt very sleepy, and strangely content. Reynard had not died hating him, and the king was going to save them all. The battle had been terrible, but the Kindred had always known that hope survived. With the king on their side, how could anyone despair?
Elias waited until Thurstan was asleep, his breaths steady and peaceful, then moved on. He paused over Oliver, but he was deeply asleep, Adela beside him. "I'm sorry," Elias whispered silently, his hand hovering over his friend's cheek. "I'm sorry," he whispered to Gregory, and to Rosamund, and all the others, one by one. "I'm sorry," but he did not ask for forgiveness, for it was something he had no right to ask for, and he knew that they would give it, and that would make it even worse.
Ciaran he came to last. "I'm sorry you had to endure all that alone. I'm sorry I'm going to have to lie to you." He grasped a corner of his cloak, that was still warm from where Ciaran had been lying on it a moment ago. "I'm sorry I can't love you the way you want me to."
He wrenched his hand away, and everything was cold, so cold. Ciaran did not stir, and Elias managed to stand up. He brought up his hands, and raised a muted white light, like soft cascades of gauze. It flowed over every sleeping person and touched their eyes and their hearts and their bodies and the air around them. "Rest," he said. "Be at peace. Be safe. Be hidden."
When it was done, Elias's hands fell heavily to his side. He had to leave. He had to go alone, and how dark it was, with only Cercamond rattling in the branches of the trees, waiting for pain that he could exploit.
He started walking. The darkness was utter, and it was cold, and his feet hurt. When he stumbled, he lunged out, but there was no-one beside him to catch him. An owl hooted, and far away a wolf howled, but it wasn't Nightshade.
He shouldn't even have asked Ciaran to come with him, he knew. It had been insensitive in the extreme to ask Ciaran to go back to a place where he had seen such horror. Ciaran couldn't have done anything to help him, after all. All he could have done were the little things, the trivial things, like holding Elias, and talking to him, and telling him he wasn't alone. He could have been the one person alive in a place of the dead. He could have loved Elias, and anchored him, and shown him the things that tied him to life, when he was mired down and sinking towards death. He would have made Elias feel less alone, but it would have made no difference to the dead.
But I do wish someone was here, he thought, when the owl hooted again, like the lamentation of the dead. I wish Ciaran was here. He wanted happy memories, memories of love and togetherness, to carry him through the eternity of misery that was to come. But maybe it was better if he had none. The more Ciaran loved him, the more he would mourn him afterwards. It was better for Ciaran if Elias pushed him away, and better for Elias, too, to get used to a life without hope.
The owl came close to him, swooping past him on silent wings. The animals must have noticed the land dying around them, and they depended on him as much as any man did. "I'm sorry I couldn't save you," he said aloud, as Cercamond brushed in his mind. It didn't matter what else Cercamond found in there. He was flooded with despair, and that was very real.
"Where are you going, little one?" Cercamond asked him.
"To see the dead," Elias said, "as well you know."
"But I like to hear you say it," Cercamond gloated. "Despair tastes so pleasant. But don't think you can trick me. I know what you're trying to do. I'll pluck you back before you die, and then you'll be mine forever."
"Yes. Sooner or later, what difference does it make?"
Cercamond went laughingly on his way. Elias had no idea how it worked, if Cercamond could talk to a thousand people at once, or if the part of him that had enough consciousness to speak could only be in one place at a time. Cercamond was sorcery, and that meant that he could be everywhere, but he was also the spirit of one man who had once been human. That was his weakness, for it gave him emotions, and allowed him to make mistakes.
A few minutes more, though, and it no longer mattered. Cercamond could be watching him, or gone, but it made no difference. He had arrived. The first of the dead lay before him, and it was time to fulfil his promise.
He didn't choose, just fell to his knees beside the first of them. It was a Kindred woman called Isabel, and she had fallen onto her face, with one hand outstretched. There was no-one else near her, so she had died alone.
"Not alone now," he told her, caressing her dead hand. "I'm here."
Words were not enough. Her dead spirit was close, but it was weaker than the dead in the citadel, who had died in a place imbued with the enchantment of generations. Isabel had possessed no enchantment, and she was powerless unless Elias opened the way for her. She had died desperately trying to cling to life, and that had stopped her slipping away through the door that most dead people found effortlessly. Now she was lost, unable to return to her body, and unable to find the door.
"I'm here," he said again. He had to leave a little of himself behind, and step partly into the place of the dead. He had to strew himself on the ground like rose petals, opening a path for her with enchantment. He could hold nothing back.
Something tore apart inside him, and her voice was loosened. "Help me, my lord."
With Rosamund's mother, it had been a simple touch. She had possessed enchantment, and had clung so fiercely to her daughter that it had just needed a faint nudge from Elias. Had he thought that the others would be so easy? If there were hundreds more like this one, how could he survive?
"I will," he promised. "I'll show you the way to the door."
Her spirit turned grey and troubled. "I'm scared. I saw such horrible things."
"I know you did," Elias said. "But it's over now. Your part in it is over."
"But I'm scared." She was clinging to the security of her body, and the forest that was her home, and the mass of Kindred dead who crowded her on either side. This was home to her, and he was asking her to leave it.
"I know," he said. "Let me take your fear. Give it to me, all of it, then you'll be free to go."
Months ago, before he had grown in power, he had offered himself up to Gerhard's men, to use as they needed to in order to bring themselves peace. It had hurt him terribly, and had left him sickened. Enchantment no longer hurt him, but the pain of this would be just as great. He would feel what the dead had felt, and bear it inside him forever, so that they could have peace. It was all he could do for them, and such a little thing, when he had failed them in life.
Isabel glanced backwards, at the great mass of the Kindred dead who clung together for comfort. Darkness swirled around them, as well as light. "We waited, my lord," she said, and Elias could have screamed. It was his fault, then. The dying Kindred had seen his spirit, and that had pulled them back from the door. By being there, he had stopped them from finding peace. He had betrayed them indeed.
But he had to be strong and calm, to give them peace without showing them anything of how badly it hurt him to do so. Long ago, he had learnt to use Albacrist in a broken ruin where the dead still lingered, forever waiting for their lord to come back to them, unable to believe that he had betrayed them. It had always felt like the right place to be, but only now did he realise just how right it was. A king's power and responsibility reached even beyond death.
"I am here now," he told her. "You served well, but now I will take over the watch. Give up everything that troubles you, and be at peace."
But there was one more thing. "Marin. My son."
Elias smiled, for this at least was something with a happy ending. "He's alive. Unhurt."
"You'll keep him safe?"
"I will do what I can," he promised. "I give you my word. Anything I can."
"Can I see him?"
Elias threw himself outwards, casting all his power into the world, and followed the thought in the dead woman's mind that bound her to her son. It felt as if he was holding a great stone bridge in place with his bare hands, while a straggle of people staggered to safety over it. He was spread too thin. Everything flickered and wavered, and Cercamond laughed, and he knew he was close to losing everything.
Ciaran! he cried. I need you! A hand in his hand. Arms around him. A voice to keep up a steady stream of nothing in his ear, anchoring him to life. Ciaran! The only anchor he had was the woman's hand held in his, and the physical touch of dead flesh. He filled his mind with it, and clung to it with all his strength.
"Thank you," she said, and he heaved in great gasping breaths, sprawled on his knees in the dirt. "I'm ready to go now. Will you come with me to the door?"
It was the one thing he must not do, because the door was too far into death for anyone living to return from. "I will light your way," he told her, as he produced a faint white light of enchantment.
"What's behind the door?" she asked him.
"I do not know, but it's where you're meant to go, and I know it's good. I do know that." Because he had seen Oliver's father pause on the threshold, and he had been full of peace and contentment.
She took a few steps, then faltered. "I'm still scared."
"I will take your fear," he told her, so she reached inside herself, and pulled it out, offering it to him to take. He absorbed it and felt it, and it became his own, and he was so scared, and he wanted his master to come striding up and stop everything from happening, to save him and love him and stop Cercamond from existing and to save him from the future he had made for himself, oh just to save him…
There was more than fear keeping her from the door. "Give it all to me," he managed to say, and then he felt her regret at leaving friends behind, and her worry for her son's future. Elias saw Ciaran and Oliver, and what might happen to them after he was gone. He saw them weeping for him, and longed to comfort them. Then he saw them begin to heal. He saw Oliver with children. He saw Ciaran fall in love with someone else, and saw him happy with his new love, in a way he could never be happy with Elias. Through endless ages, Elias watched himself be forgotten.
Still one more thing keeping her from the door, and that was the agony of the wound that had killed her. It was a spear thrust beneath the breastbone, impaling her deep. He felt it. He lived it. It was huge bright red screaming inside him, with no way of letting it out. It flared and filled everything, then faded away, and that was the point when she had died. His head sagged forward, and he could have died, too, but he clung to life with one tortured fingertip.
"Be at peace." They were bleeding words, forced through lips that were torn to shreds. He tried to raise his head, to be a king bidding farewell to one of his people who was about to undertake a journey. "Go in peace."
Far away, she reached the door. As she passed through it, she was smiling.
Elias was lying on his side, still clutching her hand. It was over for her, but she had only been his first, and there were hundreds more, and somehow he had to keep going, to do this same thing again and again, and talk to each one as if they were the only one that mattered.
The next one was no easier. There was no-one left alive for the man to speak to, but his wife lay dead somewhere on the field, and he was reluctant to leave her, and bombarded Elias with the terror of being alone. As he did so, Elias lived it all again. He was alone in a prison cell, not knowing if Ciaran still lived. He was returning to an empty home to find his family gone. He was watching Ciaran leave forever, back to his own world, never to return...
"Please," the man begged. "I'd rather stay here forever than go on ahead and leave her."
So, with the man's spirit held close with enchantment, Elias wandered through the mass of the dead, touching each face, until he found her body, and called her spirit forward. Only when they were together did he show them the way to the door, and they glowed with love as they went.
The next was an old warrior called Raymond, and he had questions. He wanted Elias to promise that he would serve the Kindred well, and that he would fight Cercamond. Elias told the truth, telling him that he had hope for the Kindred and the world. Cercamond was strong in the land of the dead, but let him hear it! He would think it was a lie, said to console the dead. And part of it really was a lie, for Elias did not tell the dead that he had no hope for himself.
"Then you will do it," Raymong said. "If you promise it, it will be done."
They trust me, Elias thought, when Raymond had passed away, and Elias was lying with his eyes open, watching the faint glowing lights of enchantment that still seemed to linger, showing the path out of the world. Why don't you hate me? he wanted to scream. He had gone away and left them, and they had all died.
Some had found their way to the door without him, and those he passed over with a smile and a touch. He kept count up to seventeen, then the numbers slipped from his mind and he could not grasp them. His hands became dark with encrusted blood, and mud tenderly wiped from dead lips. His own lips tasted salty, and he was very thirsty, but there was a bloated white corpse in the stream, and he thought the taste of death would seep through everything he tried to drink.
At first they were all Kindred, and he knew their names, and that made them come to him more easily. They trusted him and listened to him, and they embraced his help. But it was not just the Kindred dead who needed him to grant them peace. The soldiers of Darius's army had died hundreds of miles from home, facing a magic that terrified them. When he called out to them, they turned swirling and dark with terror, because they thought he had come to enslave them.
"No!" the first one whimpered. "Leave me alone! Let me go free!"
"I've come to help you," Elias told him. "You have to trust me."
But trust had to be earned. The dead could not be forced to find eternal peace beyond the door. He could not bind them or compel them, but had to make them trust him enough to accept his help willingly.
He could never convince them with words, he knew that now. He had to show them everything. It was like tearing out chunks of his own flesh, casting them out to feed hungry wolves who snapped them up and clamoured for more. All the things he had always kept to himself and never told a soul. His deepest fears and dreams. The loneliness that came from bearing the world on your shoulders. The things he had suffered at Darius's hands, and the pain of being hated.
It was still not enough. "Lies," the dead man breathed. "Lies to ensnare me."
He delved deeper, until there was nothing left of him that was not laid out before them, except one tiny thing, like a black pearl, that was the truth of how he was going to face Cercamond. This dead soldier, this enemy, knew him better than anyone alive, and he trampled through the offerings with booted feet, scooping things up and examining them greedily.
"It was no more than you deserved." The suffering in the prison cell was smiled over, and cast aside. "Evil men are meant to be alone. Any threat to the world is of your own making."
Then, at last, the soldier found a single memory, and he plucked it up like a flower. "You did that?" he breathed. It was the time when Elias had let the soldier go free after they had escaped from the Shroud of Dreams. Then another flower beside it, when he had healed the soldier who had collapsed when trying to flee to forest.
Soon there was a whole field of flowers, all made of compassion. There was the beggar in the city, and the dying men in the coach. It was men he had tried to save, and men he had wept over afterwards, and everyone in the world that he was still trying to save. "Because I only want to save lives," Elias sobbed, "but nothing stops you hating."
Grief were there, too, in the memory of all the Kindred he had seen dying, and the ones he had already laid to rest, and all the ones who still wandered lost. A woman died, stabbed in the side, and fell over the body of her young son. A man wailed in desolation as he found the bodies of his twin daughters, but when he died he was utterly silent. A child stumbled as she fled her mother's murderer, and a soldier slashed her throat even as she cried out at the pain in her ankle.
As she died, the soldier, too, wailed in guilt, for he had been the one to strike the blow. Elias had to see the death again through the eyes of the murderer, and take the guilt from him, and feel it for himself. "You didn't know," he told him. "You believed what you were told. You thought you were extirpating evil. Mourn the one you killed, but feel no guilt."
He touched the dagger that had done the deed, and then the blood for the death was on his own hands. As he crawled through the dead, he would take the guilt from every one of them. Every person who had died on the battlefield would have been killed by him. He would see every blow struck, both as killer and as victim. He would bear the guilt of killing, and the pain of dying. He would bear it all.
The dead soldier was strong and free, his spirit rising high above Elias's huddled form. As he had done with Isabel, Elias helped the man find his way to the loved ones he had left behind, and the soldier surged violently over the bridge Elias had built. The path drew Elias, too, and he started to drift, until he heard Cercamond laughing, and knew how close he was to leaving his body forever. The bridge broke, and the soldier reproached him for ending it too soon.
There was no possibility of hiding the pain he was in, not with a man who had seen everything that lay inside him. There was no need to play the king, as he had to do with the Kindred. The soldier saw him as he was, broken.
"You suffer a lot, don't you?" His dead voice was detached and intrigued. "All this for people like me. But they'll never believe you. None of them. We who are dead, perhaps, but not the ones who are still alive. You should leave us to rot, and look to your own defence, for my people will never rest until we are avenged."
"That is not your concern," Elias soothed him. "Give me what else you need to give me, and be at peace."
Another white light, showing the way. When he opened his eyes and blinked into the strange and unreal land of the living, they were still there, two dozen balls of soft white light. They snaked round the clearing, a path leading from life to death. They were achingly beautiful, and he wanted to follow them, but knew he could not.
He dragged himself on. Two children he held, one in each arm, and granted them peace together, just as they had played together in life. Then, some time later, he told the man who had killed them that he had fought well and should feel no guilt. They all thrust their fears at him, a thousand fears offered like gifts, and he put them on like clothes, and wore them close to his heart. He felt the terror of a crashing wave of sorcery breaking over his head. He felt the grief of watching your child die. He saw empty streets in villages ravaged by plague, and heard a hundred different bells tolling a hundred different funerals.
"It was me," he sobbed, for guilt came too, on the heels of the fear. "It was all me."
The hardest one of all was no enemy, but one who had been loyal to the end. There was no body for him to hold, no dead face for his tears to fall upon. Reynard's body lay beneath a pyre of branches not far away, but his spirit had lingered here, at the place he had died. Even after death, he had stayed at his post, rather than drifting with his body to cling to the comfort of those who had survived.
He was the easiest of all to reach, for Reynard and Elias had met once before in the land of the dead, and there was a depth of enchantment about Reynard's spirit that no-one would ever have suspected. The moment Elias reached the place, Reynard was there, and Elias could have wept with relief at the respite.
But then Reynard spoke. Alone of all of them, he refused. "I will not," he spat. "You cannot make me."
There was nothing to hold onto, so Elias had to dig his fingers into his own flesh, hoping that the pain would be enough to anchor him. "Please," he begged. But Reynard had never responded to pleas, only to orders. "Let me help you," he commanded. "You have to."
"I will not." Reynard hoarded his fears jealously, and would not let Elias take them. They were an ugly burden round his neck, and he refused to give them up, even though they kept him from any hope of contentment in the afterlife.
"You have to," Elias pleaded. "It's the only way for you."
"Then I will not go. I will stay here."
What a tragic ending that would be. Elias had realised how little they all knew Reynard, but only now did he realise just how deep the ignorance went. That ugly burden had become part of Reynard over time, and no-one had known. He had never found contentment in his life, but Elias refused to allow him to spend an eternity trapped like this.
"Your duty is done," he told him. "The banner is safe. Thurstan is alive, and Oliver, so your people will be remembered. What can be gained from staying here?"
Reynard's spirit was dark. "I swore it."
"And you fulfilled your oath. You did what you could for your people. No-one could have defended them better. They're all at peace now, and you should join them."
Reynard clutched the burden tighter. "I will not. Now go away." He pushed, and was surprisingly strong, sending Elias reeling back and only just managing to keep the connection.
"No!" Elias commanded. He dragged himself to his feet, and made himself seem as strong as any king carved in statues in the mountains. "I command you." His voice cracked. "Please."
Reynard was jagged and harsh with sudden misery. "No, my lord. I swore an oath."
Elias had to be cruel, but he was gentle, too. "You can't help them now. What's happened has happened. What will happen will happen, and you cannot change it."
"You don't understand!" Reynard screamed. "I swore an oath to you, to keep you from harm. I will not hurt you like this."
Elias was shocked into silence. The first one. Reynard, who could seem so heartless and cruel, was the first one to hold back out of a desire to spare him. Everyone else thrust eagerly, giving him their pain and their fears, never stopping to think that it might hurt him.
"I would rather be like this for an eternity," Reynard said, "than cause you a moment's pain. You have endured too much already because I failed."
Tears were pouring down Elias's face. "It won't hurt much. I can bear it. Please..."
Reynard's spirit turned away and contracted tightly around the ugliness of the thing he bore. The whisper that followed was the wind in dead leaves, as chilling as Cercamond's voice. "I don't deserve peace. I failed. It's all my fault."
Guilt surged and met guilt, and the two coiled around each other, dragging Elias and Reynard down into the darkness. It was all my fault, Elias thought, but could not say it, for Reynard would deny it and try to snatch even more of the guilt for himself.
"I always put duty before everything," Reynard said, "but I failed, and that means I've got nothing. The voices in the tower..." He broke off.
"What did they tell you?" Elias breathed. "That love is important? That there is no shame in weeping? That life should be so much richer than cold obligation?"
"That I was wrong. All the choices I'd made. The way I'd chosen to live. All of it wrong. And..." Reynard's sprit cracked and swirled with emotion. "And I knew they were right, but what could I do? It was too late to change. I'd chosen my path, but there were only bars when I tried to stop and look behind me. All I could do was carry on and try to prove that I had been right after all."
Slowly, as he was speaking, the burden he bore was breaking open, unravelling. Elias realised that he could snatch at it now, and claim Reynard's emotions for himself. He would feel them all, and Reynard would be purged, free to go through the door. But he would not do it. It had to be freely given, or not at all.
"The bars have gone," Elias told him, through his tears. "All paths are open to you, if you choose to take them. The only thing stopping you was yourself."
"It was so beautiful, the tower," Reynard sighed. "So lovely. So full of things I wanted, but thought I couldn't have. So I tried to make myself not want them. I was cruel to Thurstan. I was heartless. I failed everyone."
"No," Elias said. "You did not. You sacrificed much, and you deserve a rest."
"But you don't deserve the cost of giving it to me," Reynard burst out, jagged and angry again. "You saved me once before, when I didn't ask you to. Do not do it again."
"I want to."
There was no choice left but the show him everything, to lay himself open as he had done with the soldiers. He showed him how passionately he wanted to help people, and how many tears he would weep over Reynard, if he refused to find peace. He showed Reynard what he felt when people died, and what it felt like to be powerless to save someone. He showed him the torment of being forced to stand back, and the nightmares he had endured because of things Reynard had made him do, all in the name of helping him.
Enchantment flowed between them, and by the end of it Reynard was weeping. "I didn't know, my lord. I didn't understand."
"No." Elias managed to smile. "I know you didn't. And I know why you did what you did, and I do not blame you. But please, I beg you, don't try to protect me from something I do willingly. If you stop me, it hurts worse. Yes, it hurts to receive all the fears of the dead, but it would hurt so much more not to do it, to walk away and leave them trapped here forever. To leave you…" He shook his head. "You won't even hurt me. Not much."
He cast illusion, so Reynard would see him as the king he had always longed to see. Taller than he was, probably, and much older, with wise eyes and grey in his hair. He would have the sinews of a warrior, and his sword would be well worn with use. "Accept this gift from your king," he said.
Reynard was silent for a while, then amazingly he started to laugh, flecks of light in the misty form of his presence. "You don't understand, my lord. You never did."
Elias swallowed, but still clung onto the illusion. "I don't?"
"No." Reynard laughed again. "I know what you're trying to you, but you haven't changed at all. I see you, just as you are." Reynard rose up before him. "You, Elias. You are my king, and have been for almost the whole time I have known you. Oh, I wished for another sort of king before you came, but since then I have been serving you, not a dream."
"Then as that king," Elias said, "I beg you to let me help you."
"Rest," Reynard sighed. "I have never rested."
"There is so much you never let yourself do," Elias whispered. "But please, for the first time in your life, let someone else help you. Accept love, Reynard. Let yourself be loved. Trust me. Accept this gift."
There was no answer for a very long time. Reynard's spirit hung in their air, tremulous and expectant. Elias could hardly breathe. Even Cercamond, if he was watching at all, was silent.
"Yes," Reynard whispered. His spirit knelt down like a man readying himself for an execution. "If it is what my lord wishes." He offered up the burden, and sighed when Elias took it. "I am so very tired."
Elias kept up the illusion, though inside he was screaming from all the things that Reynard had borne and never spoken of. "Rest," said the image of the king, who stood tall and unbroken. "Be at peace."
And Reynard was.
Thurstan woke to find them huddled together, joyous and weeping. "What's happened?" he asked. No-one heard him. He crept towards them, crawling through the leaf mould. "What is it?"
"We saw them." One of the women turned to him, her eyes shining. Her name was Judith. "I saw him in a dream, my Theobald. But I know it was real. He said he was going to a place where he would be at peace. I will see him again one day, he said. And he said that he loved me." She pressed her hand to her mouth and said no more.
"Everyone?" Thurstan's voice was hoarse. "You all saw this?"
They nodded, one, then two, then all of them. Dawn was a steady grey above them. "I heard her when I was waking up," Gregory said. "As clear in my mind as if she was alive."
"All of you?" Thurstan felt very cold. "How?"
"It must be Elias," Oliver said. He was sitting with his wounded leg stretched in front of him, and looked very uncomfortable, and close to tears. "And he's still there. Oh, that he could do such a thing... But I should have guessed. I should have known."
Ciaran Morgan strode back into the small camp. "No, I couldn't see you at all from out there. Only trees. He's hidden us."
"And he's all alone," Oliver said. "Alone with the dead. I should have known."
Thurstan swallowed, and spoke, but his voice tasted like ashes, for Reynard had not come to him. "I spoke to him in the night. He said he was going."
Ciaran grabbed him by the clothes at his throat. "And you let him go?"
"I should have known," Oliver said again. "You should have, too. It was obvious to anyone who knows him. Of course he'd go back."
"He should have asked for help." Then Ciaran's mouth snapped shut, and he turned away.
"Go to him," Oliver pleaded. "He needs you more than ever."
Ciaran said nothing. He did not even turn round. From behind, Thurstan should see how tense the muscles of his neck were.
Oliver took his silence as a refusal. "Then I'll go." He tried to stand, but his leg was not fully healed, despite the king's attentions. Adela cried out, and supported him, but did not try to dissuade him.
"No." Ciaran's voice was tight and angry. "I will go. Elias is my..." Once again, his mouth snapped shut.
Maybe the king hadn't finished, Thurstan thought, as Ciaran started to walk away. It would take a long time to visit every one of the dead and help them to peace. Maybe he hadn't found Reynard yet. All Thurstan had to do was wait, and Reynard would come to him and say all the things he had never said in life. Even if he said none of them, at least it would be a goodbye. It would show that Reynard had died thinking of him, and there would be comfort in that, perhaps.
Thurstan crossed his legs, and settled down to wait. He started at every whisper of wind, and every sudden voice, and told himself that the next one would be Reynard.
Morning light was faint behind the branches, and he was very cold. Strange, Lankin thought, and at first he had no memory of why he might be sleeping outside in a forest, without hearing the snores of his army all around him.
He rolled over onto his back, but his cloak tried to pin him down, constricting his movements. He had been tucked in, he realised. His cloak was laid across him like a blanket, and someone had pulled it right up to his throat, and tucked it under his body all the way down to his toes. Strange, he thought again. No-one had done such a thing since his mother had looked after him so long ago.
He pushed the cloak aside, and sat up, but pain stabbed in his side. Wincing, he glanced down at his body and saw the great stain of dried blood on his clothes, and he remembered receiving the wound, and knew why he was here. But it was strange that it didn't hurt more. He unfastened his jacket and pushed up his shirt. The skin around the wound was mottled with blood, but the wound itself was sealed, as if it was days old. Frowning, he let the shirt fall. Surely he couldn't have been lying here that long. They would have put him in a tent, or even borne him on a litter all the way to a town, to a nice warm infirmary.
Maybe the wound had been less serious than he had thought. That had to be it. Just a scratch that had hurt terribly, but had soon clotted over and started to heal all by itself. Strange about the amount of blood that stained his clothes, though. Strange about the lurching dizziness he felt when he moved his head, as if he had lost almost too much blood to stand.
He wondered who had tucked him in. One of his own men, probably, or an officer from another troop. If they had time to tuck him in so carefully and tenderly, that meant that the enemy was routed. Thomas had probably taken the troops off on a wide sweep of the forest to mop up any stragglers who were trying to escape, and would come back in a minute to tend to the wounded. Yes, that had to be it.
Lankin managed to stand up. He was a Soldier of Light, and not one to lie and wait helplessly for rescue. There might be other wounded soldiers who needed attention, or an enemy grovelling on the ground like a wounded insect, who needed to be stamped down. He started to walk, trailing the cloak behind him in one hand. He had to press his hand to his side, for it still hurt, and he shuffled a little, but he thought he might be able to fight if he had to.
All he could see were dead men and women. The silence was complete. He heard no distant clashing of swords and no shouted cries. It looked like the aftermath of a battle that had left no survivors, but someone had covered him with the cloak, so how could that be?
The enemy dead he clambered over without looking at. They deserved to die, he told himself, even though they might look like innocent children who lay sleeping. The dead of his own army he mourned, but when he knelt beside the first one whose name he knew, he frowned. The man was lying very straight, with his cloak laid over his body. Surely he could not have died like this. Someone had come here before Lankin, and tended to the dead, as well as the living.
He looked over at the nearest of the dead enemies, and saw that the same had been done for them, too. So it couldn't be one of his own army, then, for there was no way any of them would dignify the enemy with such care. They would be more likely to mutilate them, just as the enemy did to the righteous people they captured. They would spit in their faces and leave them to rot where they had fallen, where carrion birds would peck at their eyes.
Lankin walked on. There was no birds singing, not even crows. Even the flies seemed uninterested in the dead. When Lankin looked back the way he had come, he thought he saw whiteness hanging in their air. Something seemed to be tugging at him, whispering to him. Leave it behind, it said. Lay aside all your pain. I will take it from you, and grant you peace. The voice was rich with love, and it made Lankin want to weep, that anyone could care for him so much. He could stop where he was, lay aside everything that had ever troubled him, and nothing would matter ever again.
"No," he rasped, clenching his fist. He could not, not when there were so many dead, and they had come here because they had followed his orders. He owed it to them to remember them, and avenge them, but he could not hide from his grief and his responsibility. He had been eager to receive Darius's praise, and perhaps that had made him want to be the one to lead the attack, rather than wait for the rest of the army. He had decided not to kill the man and woman, Oliver and Adela, for reasons that had seemed good at the time, but which had resulted in the enemy making a cunning defence. He had overestimated the ability of the conscripts to stand firm when faced with illusion. It was likely that Darius would judge him to blame, and he would be punished, but, if so, he would accept it as something he deserved. Until that moment, though, he would bear his guilt, and not let it prevent him from doing his duty.
Dizziness rocked him, and he swayed, his head sinking down almost to his chest. When he raised his head, he turned round in a half-circle. And that was when he saw the man.
He could only see his back at first. The man was kneeling in the mud, bent very low over a dead soldier. Perhaps this was the mysterious person who had been caring for the dead. Up to where he was, the dead were lying straight, covered with cloaks. Beyond him, they were twisted and blood-stained, and even the air around them seemed darker, coiled with shadows, where the air near Lankin was specked with light.
Lankin almost cried out, but did not, for he had learned caution. He approached slowly, and the man did not look up. He was speaking, Lankin realised, murmuring soft words under his breath. Light played over the face of the dead man, like sunlight dappling through trees.
The man moaned in pain, just as Lankin was close enough behind him that he could touch him, if he chose to. A silver tear dropped down, to land on the ground beside the dead man, and his blood-stained hand was trembling. He was dressed neither as a bandit nor as a soldier, with a hooded black cloak, and bare feet. The soles of his feet were bleeding from a dozen dirty cuts.
Then the man turned a little to one side, and Lankin knew him. It's him! It was all he could do not to cry out. Cold, trembling with dread and excitement, he drew his dagger, as silent as a whisper.
It was him. It was the sorcerer king himself, and everything was a trick. He had laid Lankin out, his hands pawing his body, and left him there like a sacrifice to return to later. The voice he had heard had been the voice of trickery, trying to lure him to his doom. He would have been a slave to the sorcerer's will, just like the poor dead men he had already touched. They were lying so straight, not because they were at peace, but because they were bound. Perhaps their dead bodies would rise up soon, animated by the sorcerer's will. Everyone knew that the sorcerer king could do such things.
Lankin knew he should scream something. Over a year ago, he had made a vow to kill this man, and now that moment had come. It ought to be a time of great speeches. He wanted to see the knowledge of his death dawning in the sorcerer's eyes. It was a moment he had dreamed about, and it had to be special.
He tightened his grip on his dagger, and sucked in a slow breath. No, it had to be swift. He had dreamed of this moment, but this was no story that had to have a fitting ending. He was not like Darius, who had let the sorcerer slip through his fingers because he had wanted to capture him in the best way possible. The important thing was to see him dead. If it was the work of a second, a swift dagger in the back, then so be it. All that mattered was killing him.
Lankin raised the dagger, and brought it down. It struck home, but only just, for the sorcerer was turning round, moving with all the slowness of an exhausted man, but striking out with sorcery that was quick and terrible. Lankin's hand was smashed backwards, and the blade did no more than tangle in the sorcerer's cloak, and maybe nick the flesh beneath it.
"No!" Lankin screamed, but it was too late. The sorcerer locked one hand around his shoulder and placed the other on his brow, and Lankin knew what would happen to him now. He would be enslaved by sorcery, bound forever. "Kill me," Lankin found himself pleading. If he died now, it might be the end of it, and he would die knowing he had tried to do his duty. But what was he doing, hoping that there was mercy somewhere deep inside the sorcerer's heart?
The sorcerer shook his head. "I would never do that." He looked very young, and very tired, and something lurched inside Lankin when their eyes met. It was an illusion, Lankin told himself. His true face was foul. This was a lie designed to trick men into giving him their pity. The mud and scratches on his face and hands were illusion, and so were the wounds on his feet. Of course it wasn't true that his nails were broken and bitten, and his heart was fluttering fast at the base of his throat.
It was all lies. Why did Lankin want to cry?
"I'm so sorry," the sorcerer said, in that soft and lovely hideous voice. "I can't let you kill me."
His hands squeezed tighter, and that was all that Lankin knew.
Ciaran muttered as he walked. "How dare you sneak away by yourself?" he demanded. "How dare you leave me behind again?" There was a martyrish streak in Elias that he hated. He seemed to revel in suffering things all by himself, just so he could make people feel guilty afterwards for not going with him. He never even asked for help. Instead, he went out of his way to embrace suffering, usually for causes that didn't warrant it.
What good could he do for the dead? He was tormenting himself needlessly, returning to that place of horror, just so he could make Ciaran feel less worthy for not wanting to go himself. He always had to go one better than everyone else. Granted, he seemed to have given a little comfort to the bereaved, but the dead were still dead. And perhaps they had found their own way to give their last messages, and would have done so regardless, even though Elias had taken the credit for it.
No, Elias was just doing his usual thing of seeking out pain for the sake of it. It was a self-indulgent display, to crawl around the dead and try and talk to them. He was probably weeping over them all, and telling himself that all the deaths were his fault. He was like that. There was an arrogance in guilt, Ciaran thought, for it was based on the assumption that everything happened because of you.
As he drew closer, his steps started to falter. He clenched his fists and carried on. He cursed Elias, and that made it easier to keep on walking.
Elias was the one who had sneaked away in the middle of the night, not Ciaran. He had done everything he could to stop people following him, yet Oliver still made it seem like Ciaran's fault, just as he always did. But Elias had chosen to come to the world in the first place. He had pushed Ciaran away in the city, and then had forced him to go back to Greenslade. Somehow Ciaran always got blamed for acting badly, but it all came down to Elias. How could he have the Kindred so fooled? Every word out of his mouth was a lie, and Ciaran was going to tell him so.
Then he reached the first body, and even anger was no defence. He screwed his eyes shut, knowing that if he looked at it, he would be dragged back into the horror of the battle. Some things were too horrible to ever want to remember. Elias was stupid to come back. Anyone sensible just forgot such things.
He stepped over the body without looking. A few steps more, and he stopped again. "I can't." The words slipped out before he could stop them.
Had Elias heard him? Something started calling for him, and it sounded like Elias's voice, but different. It reached into his soul, burrowing along the link that he still shared with Elias.
"Give it all up," the voice whispered. It filled his mind with white, and when he opened his eyes and looked at the sky, he saw globes of shimmering white light, showing him the path to somewhere lovely. "Give it to me. It need never hurt you again. Please. All the guilt, all the fear, all the pain. You need never feel it again."
"Peace," Ciaran echoed. He crawled to the base of a tree and curled himself tight. "Freedom. Forgetfulness." The words were like honey on his tongue. Oh, to forget... There were so many things in his life that were better forgotten. The way he had failed in the battle. Gideon. The way he had treated Elias for so many years. This soft white fire would wash all of them away, and it would be painless and marvellous.
"Let me bear it for you," Elias urged him. "Seek the forgetfulness of true death."
His brow scraped against coarse bark. "Death," he rasped. "Death..."
The only true forgetfulness came with death. The living remembered. The living had to remember. Memories brought pain, but they could teach lessons, and lead to healing and greater understanding.
"No," Ciaran cried aloud. He didn't want to die. And if he lived, that meant he had to remember. He had to remember every mistake he had made with Elias, so he could try not to repeat them again. He had to remember the horror of the battle, and admit that he was afraid, not seek to hide it in anger and unfair blame.
He had to remember. He was a Brother, and bad memories did not need to overcome him. They hurt, but sometimes they made him stronger. Even if they made him weaker, they made him more human.
Ciaran started to fight. "Let me go!" But the white light reached inside him, demanding and beseeching. "Elias!" Ciaran bellowed, but Elias did not hear him. He had poured too much of himself into his place, Ciaran realised, granting peace to the dead. His power had taken on a life of its own, and his words would live here forever. This would be a haunted place, haunted by peace.
But it was all too strong, too new. The power was wild and uncontained, and Ciaran had a link with Elias that gave it yet more strength. And he was susceptible to it, of course. He had been running from things all his life. When bad things happened, he denied them. He tried to forget them, and denied their power over him. If Ciaran consented to what Elias was urging him, he would sink into a living oblivion that was worse than death.
"No!" he cried. "No!" He whirled round in a circle, fiercely looking at all the desolation around him. He would see them all, and he would remember. He would mourn them. This was the spot where he had started to chase after Oliver. This was where he had screamed at Elias. This was where he has watched a child die. This was where an arrow had nearly hit him.
He remembered it all, and it did not break him. He had returned, and faced the horrors, and he was still sane. Perhaps he was even stronger, he thought, as he started to walk amongst them. He had lived half his life with vast locked rooms in his mind, forced always to walk a careful path, trying not to disturb things that should not be disturbed. How much easier it would be to be honest. How sadder, but more simple, it would be to be able to remember everything, and know that memories could not conquer you.
Clenching his fist, he raised his head with fresh determination. I want to prove it, he thought. He would make Elias proud of him. He would show the world and himself that he was strong enough to face the bad things in his past. He would not let Elias surpass him in this. If Elias could do it, Ciaran could. He would not be defeated. He would confront his fear, and he would win.
Jaw thrust out grimly, he strode towards the place where it had all fallen apart, where he had crouched in the undergrowth and first heard Cercamond's voice.
What time was it? Was it even today? Maybe a whole day had passed, and another night, and it was tomorrow or next week. Maybe Cercamond had triumphed while he had been in the world of the dead, and enchantment had wrought this illusion for him, making him believe that the land was still there. He had lied to so many people, letting them think that he was unhurt, that it was hard to remember what things were true.
How many were left? This was the last one, he thought. It was fully daylight now, but his gritty eyes saw only darkness. His hands were red and black. Voices whispered all around him, and they spoke with his own voice, but enchantment made them echo back at him. "This is the way to death," they said, as a mother might croon to a child in a sing-song voice. "Lay down your burden and follow me."
"Sleep," he whispered. He was so very tired. The dead were more real to him than anyone living might me. When he held the hands of dead flesh, the touch was scarcely enough to anchor him, not now.
"Let me give you peace." The old words, said again and again, and each time he had to mean them sincerely. This last one was a soldier, and he fought just like the others had fought. Once again, Elias had to lay himself down for the soldier to violate. He had to show him everything. They waded through him, blood up to their knees, and something small and vital died within him with every one. Afterwards, he had to gather back the shreds of his soul, and carry on.
It was easier not to try. He would never be whole again. He had scattered too much of himself out for them to see, and their touch would be on him for ever. Their fears were part of him, coiled up with his own. Why couldn't he just die? It was peaceful there, beyond the door. Already the door was shining bright, far more real and close than anything left behind in the world where his body was. He could lay aside his burdens on the threshold, and know peace.
The soldier did what he needed to do, and accepted Elias's help. He was the last one. What did it matter if Elias was no longer alive to crawl to the next body? They had all gone. With hundreds of different pairs of hands, he had struck the blows that had killed every one of the field. That's what happened if he stayed alive. He killed people. Better to die than to lead the few survivors to a fight with Cercamond that he could never win.
He reached the point where he would have raised a light to show the dead person the way to the door. This time, he turned to the dead man and said, "I will come with you."
It was over. He started to walk, and no-one called him back. There was no-one who loved him, begging him to live. There was only Cercamond, who had promised to stop him from doing this, but not even Cercamond could pull him back when Elias was determined. He could not defeat Cercamond, but Cercamond could not control his will. At any point, he could choose to die.
The door was close, and the pain started, as the link that bound him to his body began to strain. Soon it would just snap. He wanted to run so it would snap sooner, but he could not abandon the soldier, who moved forward slowly, bowed with fear.
Cercamond started to rage behind him, but even Cercamond could not come this far, he realised. The peace beyond the door was a place that would remain forever untainted by Cercamond. How lovely it would be, to be able to rest there! Alive, his future held nothing, only the fear of defeat, and the greater fear of victory. Whether he failed or succeeded, he would never have the sweet rest of death.
But if he died now... His steps faltered. If he died, then Cercamond would win. Elias would be at rest, but the world would die. The soldier had been the last of the dead on the battlefield, but there were a million more people in the world, and they all needed him. He had to find the strength to keep going. He couldn't die.
"I'm sorry," he told the soldier. With the last of his strength, he summoned the light that would guide the man to the threshold, where Elias could no longer go. "I have to go back."
The path was obscured behind him, and he had no idea where to walk. Had he come too far already? He started to run, flailing, searching. No-one called him back. The lights still shone, but they showed the way to death, and he could not follow them backwards. He wanted Ciaran. Where was Nightshade, to lick his cheek and bring him back? There was no-one beside his body but the dead, and they could not guide him.
I have to go back! he thought. I have to. His body was where he was meant to be. Long ago, he remembered a time when he had not known how to change back into a bird, and had just thrown himself off a cliff, trusting that his instincts would show him the way. It had been terrifying, but it had worked.
Throwing his arms wide, Elias hurled his soul outwards, dispersing it utterly. Find a way home, he willed it. If it did not, he knew that he was lost. If he failed, there would be no coming back from this, none at all.
It felt like a long time later that he opened his eyes, and saw a leaden sky, tipping forward to press down upon him.
Elias stood up, and pressed his fingers between his eyes, trying to still the headache that pounded there. The dead were still around him, laid out as if they were sleeping, but that was not enough. They were only empty bodies, but he could not bear to leave them to rot. The bodies of Gerhard's men had been burnt away to nothing, but that had been enchantment using the power of the lightning, for by themselves the white fires of pure enchantment did not truly burn. Enchantment came from life and creation, and it did not like to destroy.
I wish I could change you, he thought, as he wandered between them. He could only change himself, not other things, for there was a spark of life even in inanimate objects that resisted any change to their fundamental essence. All living things had a secret core of themselves that could not be mastered in any way.
He crouched down beside a child, and touched her face. "I won't leave you here," he promised her, though she was gone far away, and could not hear him. The body was an empty shell. Everything that had made it alive had gone.
And so it came to him, like truth borne on a gentle wind. The bodies were empty, and so he could change them, to dust, to starlight, to thistledown. He wanted seeds or birds or butterflies, but even he could not create life from nothingness. They would be specks of enchantment that sparkled in the sunlight, or drifted through the world to settle in other places and make them magical. They would seep into the earth and make it fertile, so seeds were carried by the wind, and grew and blossomed in the first spring of the new world.
He spread his arms, and enchantment welled forth, soft and white. There was none of the ferocity of the lightning. As the enchantment drifted onto each of the dead, the bodies simply melted away, but not to nothing. With eyes of enchantment, Elias saw each one become silver dust, and rise with the wind. As each one changed, he whispered their name.
His visions blurred with enchantment and tears. He blinked, and saw a green glade beside a silver stream, where flowers of every colour danced and twined. An old man sat in the door of a hut, and a ring of people sat at his feet, with staff and bundles beside him that showed that they were travellers or pilgrims. The movement of the old man's hands made Elias think of Oliver, so he knew that the man was telling stories. His audience were weeping, but they were smiling, too, for they were in a place where it was impossible to be sad.
Power flowed from him. Elias fell to his knees, and the vision faded. Visions showed what could be, he knew, if the right choices were made, and not what would definitely come to pass. But I hope it's true, he thought fiercely, and not even Cercamond could taint the hope that shone like the beacons of enchantment that had showed the way to death.
His hands fell to his sides, and the bodies were gone. Silver dust blew in the wind, and glimmered like starlight, and enchantment whispered in his own voice, speaking of peace and contentment.
With a sigh, Elias turned his back and walked, so slowly, towards the darkness of the forest between the trees.