Chapter twenty-two

A man approaches

 

 

†††††† Nightshade nuzzled his face. "I have to go back," Elias told him. Even his voice sounded broken. "You do understand that, don't you?"

†††††† He tried to stand up, but was too stiff. He had no idea how long he had been lying there in the rain, without food and water, but moving made him dizzy. He had been lying awkwardly, one arm flattened between his chest and the ground. Just moving that arm sent spikes of agony all the way up to his neck.

†††††† Even his horse had chosen to wait for him, and was looking at him mournfully. "I have to go," Elias told her. "Can you find your own way home? Or go free. Go anywhere you want. Anywhere you can." Perhaps Nightshade and the horse could outrun the dark wave of Cercamond's devastation, and find happiness in a green place far away, far away from Elias, who brought only death.

†††††† Nightshade whimpered again.He didn't understand. How could he? He was a wolf, who saw things in terms of simple loyalty and unbreakable love. Elias would be betraying him, too, when he left him here, but what choice did he have?

†††††† He could not stand, and so he changed where he was. The cramped limbs became wings, and feathers covered the shivering body. He rose from his clothes, and looked back only once, to see the wolf gazing up at him and howling with loss.

†††††† I'm sorry, Elias tried to tell him, but the words came out as a falcon's scream, and what possible difference could they make, even if Nightshade could hear him?

†††††† He flew through the treetops, but sharp twigs scratched at him. Trying to escape them, he flew higher, but then he couldn't see the ground, where there would be people needing him. He plunged down almost to the ground, but then he was too low, so low that the tree trunks could hide people who were only yards away. He needed height, but that took him back to the treetops, back to the branches that blocked his way and snatched at him.

†††††† After a while, the rain stopped, but the day grew no lighter. Panic stabbed at him, and he flew faster. He had to get there by nightfall. How scary it would be for everyone in the dark. In the dark, he might go right past someone without seeing them, or roost in a tree while Ciaran died alone in the darkness, just below him.

†††††† He started seeing men below him, some alone, and some in clusters. First he saw the unwounded deserters, who must have left before the battle, leaving others to die in their place. The ones who had been at the slaughter came afterwards, fleeing in terror, wounded and weeping. Even so, some had paused long enough to loot the Kindred's tents. Not that the Kindred had anything valuable. There were carvings of wood, given by lovers, or passed down in families. Their only value lay in sentiment and meaning, but they had still been stolen, and it wasn't fair, it just wasn't fair.

†††††† He screamed in his falcon's voice, and wanted to claw at them, to snatch the things back, but he knew he could not. He had to hurry onwards. What was the use of a pile of the Kindred's possessions, if not a single one of the Kindred was alive to own them?

†††††† Then he glimpsed a man in the very moment of collapse. Elias was at his side within seconds, hurling himself back into his human form. The man had fallen onto his face, with one arm outstretched, reaching for Elias, pleading for help. Elias touched his throat, and found a pulse still beating, though only faintly. When he turned the man over, he saw the stump of an arrow still embedded in his chest. The end had been snapped off, but the arrow itself still remained.

†††††† "I'm here," Elias crooned, though the man could not hear him. It came without thought, now, the use of his two combined powers. Shadow eased the arrow out, and enchantment soothed the pain, but to him there was no distinction any more. He did what he had to do, and the power no longer hurt him, though he had to touch the man's pain in order to ease it completely, and that left his head sagging, his chest heaving with exhaustion.

†††††† When he was finished, he looked down at the bloody arrow that lay in his palm. He wondered which of the Kindred had taken aim on this man, and caused the pain that Elias had felt. He touched the barbed arrowhead with one finger, but any trace of the person who had once held it had been wiped out by the horrid touch of bloody and agonised flesh. With a cry, he hurled it away into the woods.

†††††† "You'll live," he told the soldier, though it was not something he could make promises about. His wound would not kill him, but the soldier still needed to find the way out of the forest, and he was a long way from home.

†††††† "But at least you have a home," he murmured, as he stroked the man's brow. "At least you stayed and fought, and, when you find them, your people will take you in and care for you and no-one will blame you. You did your duty."

†††††† The soldier moaned, and his eyes fluttered open. "Doesn't hurt any more," he mumbled. "Am I home?"

†††††† Elias had to shake his head. "No." He pointed in the direction that would take the man to the edge of the forest in the shortest time. "Go that way. South." He hoped the man could read direction in the stars and the sun. The Kindred found it as easy as breathing, but perhaps in the city they had no need for that skill.

†††††† The man nodded. "South." His eyes slid closed, then snapped open again. It was unmistakeable, the moment that he recognised Elias. "Keep away from me! Don't touch me!" He clawed at the ground, trying to scramble away.

†††††† "I'm not going to hurt you, I promise." Elias raised his hands, showing that he was unarmed, but it only made the man more terrified, as if he thought dark magic would come arching from those hands. Elias sank back onto his heels, and his arms slumped onto his naked thighs. "You'll never believe me, will you? I was so stupid. I thought you might believe, if only I told you the truth, but you never will."

†††††† When the man felt he was at a safe enough distance, he managed to pull himself up into a crouch, grabbing a branch as a weapon. "You'll never win, you hear me. We killed them all, and you'll be next."

†††††† Elias pressed his hand to his brow. "You don't even care. I healed you, but it makes no difference to you. You still believe the lies. You killed my people. Children. Women. Families. Whole families. People who only wanted to be free to live with the gift they were born with. But most of them didn't even have that. Enchantment's dying, and the world's dying, too, and none of you understand because you just won't listen."

†††††† "You'll die for this!" the soldier screeched. "You and all your kind."

†††††† "Yes," Elias said, looking at a small patch of earth that Cercamond had killed. "But all we've ever wanted to do is save you. And you drove them out and hate them, and it's just not fair. They didn't do anything to deserve it. But you'll never believe that. I was so stupid to hope that you would."

†††††† The soldier lunged forward with the stick, but Elias was no longer there. The stick slid from the man's fingers as he turned upwards to watch the falcon fly. He licked his lips, then screamed something that Elias could not hear.

†††††† So stupid, Elias echoed, as he flew ever closer to his lost home. Such a coward. He hadn't wanted to face Cercamond alone. That's why he'd waited all winter, waiting for Oliver to come back with allies and stories that would mean that he didn't have to. That's why he'd gone to persuade Darius to ally with him. Just because he was afraid, and wanted help. Just a silly excuse to put off the final confrontation.

†††††† "I'm so sorry!" he screeched, in his falcon's voice, the chill sound echoing through the forest and making small animals freeze and peer upwards. So sorry, because it had all been for nothing. He'd gone off on a fool's errand, and now they were dead, and he should have been there.

†††††† Branches snatched at him, or blindly he blundered into them, and it was no more than he deserved. Even the trees of the forest were telling him that he was too late and wanted to hurt him, or drive him away. Too late, they told him, just like Ciaran had screamed at him in his mind. Where were you when they needed you? It's a mockery of their suffering, going back now.

†††††† He started seeing dead beneath him, and flew lower. He turned screaming into a man again, but too precipitously, and crashed the last dozen feet to the ground, and cried out with the pain of the landing. Albacrist fell beneath him, for enchantment had changed it as he changed, making it like a feather against his breast. With a sobbing cry, he stood up, scooping the sword up and holding it with both hands.

†††††† It was the fringes of the camp, two hundred yards away from the outermost tent. Elias crouched down beside the nearest body, and brushed his fingers over his brow. It was one of the soldiers, one of the men who had killed Elias's people. If Elias tried, he could search for the man's dead spirit, to find out if had found peace, or was still wandering lost. Perhaps he could help him find his way through the door, and that would be a good thing to do, but then there would be another one, and another one, and another, and there would be no end to it. He had to find out if there were people still alive, first. He had to find Ciaran.

†††††† "Soon," he told the man, as he stood up. "I promise you. I'll come back. You understand, don't you? I have to carry on."

†††††† So that was another person betrayed, and then another, when he passed the next body without even stopping. The third body was Kindred, a young man called William. His death had not been gentle, and Elias bent over him to ease his twisted limbs and stroke a look of peace onto his face. Tears started down his cheeks, but he swiped them away fiercely. He had no right to cry for them, when he had not been there with them at the end.

†††††† There were few dead in the camp itself, though the destruction was great. Most of the tents were smashed, and possessions strewn across the ground. Naked, he was shivering with the cold, but he refused to pick up any of the clothes and blankets. The Kindred were pragmatic about the possessions of the dead, but Elias could not bring himself to touch any of them.

†††††† Without meaning to, he had been heading towards his own hut, his feet following the old familiar path. It was still standing, but the contents were gone, the ancient tapestries that the Kindred had cherished for so long scuffed in the mud, or stolen. Not far away, he found most of the contents of his chest, all of them well trampled into the ground. He pulled on a damp shirt and breeches, and shrouded himself in the cloak that Oliver had made for him the winter before. He looked more like a Brother than he had looked for over a year, and perhaps that was only right, for he had failed as a king.

†††††† There was no belt to hold Albacrist, and no boots. Barefoot, holding the white sword against his chest, he walked towards the stream, where the worst carnage began. Cercamond had gleefully pointed out each death to him, but he could not remember the details of every person's final moments, or match all the deaths to the lifeless faces at his feet. He could not even give them that.

†††††† As he came to each one, he bent and touched their faces, closing their eyes, whispering words of peace. "Soon," he told each one. "I'll come back, I promise." His tears dripped onto the faces, because although it was wrong to cry, he could not help it. They were Darius's soldiers, but they could no longer scream and pull away in terror of him. They hated him, and had killed his people, but he could still weep for them.

†††††† He reached the stream, where he had last seen Ciaran. Pulling his hood over his head, Elias waded through the water. On the far bank, close to the place where so many Kindred had died, he fell to his knees. "Is there anyone left?" It was a tiny whisper, not a shout. He tried for Ciaran, but the link was firmly closed. He tried for Oliver, seeking the memory of the connection that had formed between them, but he could not find it. Enchantment gave him a sense of where people were, but the clamour of death all around him was too strong, drowning everything else out. If he reached out too rashly, the hundreds of dead might claim him, and he would be ripped from his body again, and this time Cercamond would never let him go.

†††††† He walked through what used to be a meadow, his steps slow and stumbling. Stones in the ground hurt his feet, but mostly it was just bare earth, killed by Cercamond. As he climbed the slope, the dead grew thicker, until he reached the place where the Kindred had made their final stand. There were dozens of dead children there, and old men, and women he had last seen smiling.

†††††† His tears had gone now, dried up by the enormity of what he was seeing. No tears could wash away this pain. No words could bring them back. He was the only one standing, alone in a field of the dead.

†††††† The wind was light, but sometimes it made a piece of clothing stir, or ruffled a strand of hair. The first time it happened, he whirled round, thinking that someone was alive. By the third time, he just turned away bleakly, knowing it was just a cruel trick. Eventually, though, he saw movement that could not be denied. A child was still alive, hunched on her side, trembling with silent sobs.

†††††† Elias walked towards her. Alive, he thought, but there was not the surge of joy that he might have expected. Nothing else had changed. So one person was alive in the vast expanse of the dead, and that was a good thing, but the others were still gone.

†††††† He stood over the sobbing girl, whose hand was clasped tightly in the hand of a dead woman. What could he possibly say? Any consolation he could offer would be a lie. She wouldn't be all right, and nothing would turn out well ever again.

†††††† Stronger than him, she looked up at him. "Don't hurt me." It was a dead voice, just saying the words, but not reacting in any other way.

†††††† She didn't know him. Elias pushed the hood back from his face, but her expression did not change. Maybe she had known him from the start, but still distrusted him, because he had let her mother die. He still had no words. All he could do was look at her.

†††††† She was called Rosamund, and she was about seven years old. She looked at Elias with big eyes, but she said nothing, either. She was young, but she knew that Elias had come too late, and that there was nothing he could do.

†††††† At last Elias managed to find his voice. "Will you come with me?" But where? Where could they go?

†††††† "I'm scared," she whispered. "I want my mummy."

†††††† Elias crouched beside her. This one at least he could help. This one he would not leave with only a touch and a promise of coming back tomorrow. He touched their clasped hands, and let the enchantment flow, as he sought this one woman out of the great press of the dead who thronged this place.

†††††† He found her easily, for she had stayed with her body, protectively clinging to the daughter who could not see her. She looked up when Elias called, and her spirit glowed bright with sudden hope, and a reverence he did not deserve. "My lord," she said. "What do you command?"

†††††† Elias showed her the door that led to the final peace of true death, and a shining path opened to it even as he told her of it. "To go through the door."

†††††† She gazed longingly at it, but tight cords joined her to her daughter, keeping her in the world that would be a torment to her if she stayed.

†††††† "I'll look after her." Elias squeezed their clasped hands. Gently, he drew a little of the woman into his being, and poured it out into the girl. It would allow Rosamund to see her mother again, to hear her final words and know that she was at peace.

†††††† Elias had no idea what was said, but he knew when the woman left him, and passed through the door, for they had been joined for a little while, and her passing felt like a little piece of his soul being ripped away. He moaned, and almost fell. When he became aware again, the girl was looking up at him with tear-filled eyes. She had let go of her mother's hand.

†††††† "Come with me?" Elias gasped. He felt dizzy. The other dead had sensed him coming close, and were reaching for him, wanting him to do the same for him, or wanting to tear him apart and destroy him.

†††††† The girl nodded and stood up, slipping her hand into his, trusting him, who she should have most despised. As they walked away, she looked back at her mother often, and sobbed noisily.

†††††† "We'll go and find the others," Elias told her. They headed down the slope again, back to the place where he had last Ciaran and Oliver. The footprints were impossible to follow, but he went the way he thought they must have gone, all the while searching with the enchantment, trying to find some spark of life.

†††††† After a while, hidden in the forest, he found a body, and his stomach lurched. Dropping Rosamund's hand, he turned the body over, but it was one of soldiers. He had known that, really, by the uniform, but he had to see the face to be certain. Unless he saw their faces, he would imagine that they could be Ciaran.

†††††† The fallen branches were thicker, hurting his feet, making them bleed. The dead were still there, pleading to him, but quieter now, because he was walking away from them, leaving them to suffer.

†††††† He thought he was imagining it at first, the faint spark of life somewhere ahead of him. He sucked in a breath, then let it out again slowly, and carried on walking. They had come perhaps two miles from the camp, through dense forest that was hard to traverse, with rocks and roots protruding from the sharply sloping ground. The girl seemed to find it easier to climb than he did, or maybe it was just the warring fear and hope that was leaving him breathless.

†††††† "Who's there?" a hidden voice hissed. Elias froze, sure that an arrow was pointing at his heart. His hood was down, but bunched around his throat, and he could not push it further back without dropping either the girl's hand, or Albacrist.

†††††† "Me," he said. "Elias."

†††††† Someone cried out, and it was not the man who had challenged them. Elias led the girl forward, following the direction of the voice, and there they were, the people he had hoped for. There they were, and none of them said anything at all, but just stared at him with dull eyes.

†††††† It was a natural dip in the ground, a jagged bowl cut in the side of the slope. It was small, but not so small that the surviving members of the First House of the Kindred could fill it. They were statues of cold stone, carved to represent misery. There were around twenty of them, most of them women or children. They sat in a circle, but looked as if they had been dropped there, and lacked the strength or the will to move.

†††††† Still no-one spoke. Ciaran was there, but his expression showed nothing at all. Oliver's lips moved, but no words came out. There was hope on Thurstan's face, but he was the only one who showed such a thing. The man who had challenged Elias, who stood with his arrow still in his bow, looked at the ground rather than meet Elias's eye.

†††††† The first to speak was one of the women. "Rosamund," he said, holding her arms open. The girl's hand slithered out of Elias's grip, and she ran to the woman and started to sob into her embrace. Elias's hand stayed stuck out awkwardly, as if he was still holding her, before it fell awkwardly to his side.

†††††† "You made it back." That was Oliver.

†††††† "Yes."

†††††† "I was... concerned," Oliver said. "You saved our lives, and I thought..."

†††††† "I'm fine," Elias said. But you're not. They were almost all of them wounded, and they had all seen people they had known all their lives die. They had lost so much more than Elias. They had lost everything, and how could he possibly stand in front of them and say he was sorry? Their feelings were important, and his were not.

†††††† Still Ciaran said nothing at all. "How did you know to come back?" Oliver asked.

†††††† "I knew," Elias said. "I tried before. I really tried." His voice was threatening to break, and he dug his nails into his palm to try to bring himself under control.

†††††† Oliver was looking at him sharply. "Tried what?"

†††††† "He was there," Ciaran said wearily. "He told me he'd seen it all."

†††††† Oliver reacted as if he had been shot. "You were there?" His hand came up to his mouth, then fell back down again. "How?"

†††††† So Elias had to tell them, though he had not been going to. It made no difference to what had happened, if they knew that he had been there. "I was... away from my body somehow. Cercamond..." No, not that. No need for them to know the full horror of it. "I was here, but no-one could see me. I tried..." He stopped. If he said another word, he knew he would start crying.

†††††† Oliver was still impossibly pale. "Away from your body? Because of me? And you saw it all... Oh, Elias. I can't begin to imagine what that must have been like for you."

†††††† Elias wanted to speak, to tell him that it was nothing, really, and not worth talking about, when their own suffering had been so much greater, but the words would not come without tears. "I tried to get through," he managed to whisper, but that was all. His legs felt weak, and there was a shuddering deep inside him, right at the core, that was threatening to spread outwards to a place where he could not keep it hidden.

†††††† "Sit down," Oliver urged him. He nodded to Thurstan, who shuffled sideways, making room in the circle. The space was between Thurstan and Oliver, rather than on the other side, where Elias could have sat close to Ciaran and whisperingly ask him if he meant what he had said, and really did hate him.

†††††† "You were there all along?" Thurstan said. "Then did you...?"

†††††† "No," Elias interrupted him. "I didn't do anything. I tried. I couldn't. I couldn't..."

†††††† Oliver's hand closed round his. "It wasn't your fault." But Elias moaned in denial, for of course it was his own fault, and this was the latest betrayal in a day of betrayals. Despite swearing not to, he had selfishly brought things round to himself, forcing Oliver to comfort him, when Elias had suffered so much less than everyone else. "It wasn't your fault," Oliver told him firmly. "There are some things that you will never be able to do, not because you don't try hard enough, but because they're impossible."

†††††† "But I..." Elias snapped his mouth shut, forcing himself not to say the words that would make Oliver deny them again.

†††††† "If it was humanly possible for you to help us, you would have done so," Oliver said. "You tried as hard as you could. I know that, Elias, not because I saw what happened, but because I know you, and know you could do nothing else."

†††††† But Ciaran blames me, Elias thought. And so do I. And so do the others, even if they don't say anything. But he tried to smile a little, to tell Oliver that he believed what he was saying, so it would never be talked about again. They should be talking about the dead, and the Kindred's losses, and not his own trivial emotions.

†††††† The man who had challenged him cleared his throat. He was called Gregory, but he looked very different from when Elias had last seen him. "We didn't know where to go, my lord. We can't stay here, but we couldn't run any more. There were people hurt..." And they had probably wanted to stay in a place that still smelled of home, he thought, and not leave their dead too far behind. "What shall we do now?"

†††††† They were still deferring to him. Even after everything, they were still asking him. Elias moistened his lips. "I saw lots of soldiers, but they were all running away." He frowned, listening through enchantment. "None of them close by. It's safe to light a fire. And I'll fly over the surrounding area every hour or so, to see if it's still safe."

†††††† Gregory nodded, accepting that. What else could Elias do? Healing, of course. Elias got up and moved to the side of the most badly wounded man, and not to Ciaran, however much he might want to.

†††††† "Elias," Ciaran said suddenly, just as Elias was kneeling down, looking into pain-filled eyes that gazed at him with such trust and hope, despite all the things he had done.

†††††† Elias could not turn round, could not stop tending to this man, but he tilted his head slightly to one side, letting Ciaran see a little more of his face.

†††††† "I might have said some things I didn't mean." Ciaran spoke slowly, but loud enough for everyone else to hear. "It was... You don't know what it was like back there. I... Please forget them."

†††††† But you meant them, Elias thought, when you said them, and that's only right, because they were true. But he nodded, and said, "Yes," and returned to the healing.

††††††

 

†††††† Darkness thickened around them without anyone really noticing. Suddenly, between one thing and another, it was fully dark. They had a fire going by then, but it seemed to give less light than fires ought to give, and hardly any warmth.

†††††† Thurstan held his hands in front of the flames, and rubbed them together, trying to spread the little heat that there was. When that did not work, he stood up and jumped on the spot. One of the wounded men looked up, but no-one told him to stop.

†††††† He started to pace round the circle, but sometimes he stopped for ten minutes at a time, just staring out into the darkness. Waiting, he thought, when he asked himself why he was standing so still. But waiting for what? He had no idea, but everything felt taut and stretched, and he knew he could only rest when it snapped.

†††††† As he walked, he heard things. Oliver and Adela were talking in hushed whispers. "It's my fault," Oliver was saying. "I made him help us. If I hadn't, he might have got back in time..."

†††††† "If you hadn't, then we'd both be dead," Adela said, "and they'd have got no warning at all. It could have turned out even worse."

†††††† "Or maybe the enemy wouldn't have found them at all. Maybe they followed us." Oliver pressed his face into his hands. "Oh, Adela, when I think about him, having to watch all that and not be able to do anything... You know what Elias is like. It's the worst torment anyone could do to him."

†††††† "Could he have stopped it even if he had been there in body?" Adela asked. "You said it yourself. There are some things even Elias can't do. If he'd been there, he'd have had an entire army focusing on him, trying to kill him. He would have died, and everything else would have happened exactly the same."

†††††† "Elias won't see it that way," Oliver said. "He'll blame himself, and you know how he can get. He'll do something rash in an attempt to atone. He's doing it already. Can't you see?"

†††††† Which was strange, Thurstan thought, because the king had healed everyone, but that was easy to him, and flown a couple of times, but that was all. Neither of those things had been risky or stupid.

†††††† The second time the king had headed away from the camp, Ciaran had followed him a little while later. Thurstan had crept forward, and had seen watched Ciaran pick up the king's discarded black cloak and hold it reverently, like a servant ready to enrobe his master. Thurstan had slithered back to the camp, but later made his way back to the same place, in time to see the king back in human form again, wrapped only in that cloak.

†††††† "I'm sorry for what I said," Ciaran was saying. "I hope I haven't done too much damage. I never mean to hurt you, Elias, though it keeps turning out that I do."

†††††† "You had every reason to," the king said. "I'm sorry I wasn't there." Then he raised his head. "We really can't talk about it now. There are things to do."

†††††† For some reason, his words seemed to anger Ciaran. He jabbed his hand in the direction of their small camp. "But if any of those people came to you and wanted to talk about how they felt, you'd listen to them. You'd tell them that it wasn't their fault that they lived when everyone else died."

†††††† The king blinked. "Of course."

†††††† "Then why...?"

†††††† "Because they were there," the king spat out vehemently, "and I wasn't, so they have the right to feel what they feel, and to need help. Even you..."

†††††† "Then I don't want your understanding," Ciaran snapped, "not if this is how it's given. You should have stayed away, if it's going to be like this now you're back."

†††††† Thurstan crept back into the camp. He wished they wouldnít argue. Arguing was bad. If you let a rift grow between you and someone else, then the other person went and died and left it all unhealed.

†††††† He sat down heavily beside the fire, just before Ciaran stamped out of the trees and sat down beside him. The king came back a minute later, fully dressed except for the bare feet. He had turned down all offers of boots. "Still no sign of the enemy." He did not sit down, but walked round the circle again, tending again to the wounded. Thurstan watched him for a long time, and saw that Ciaran Morgan was watching him, too, and so was Oliver.

†††††† The flames burned a little higher. Thurstan stared at them. Inside the orange was a core of white, but there was darkness at the heart of the core. The more he stared at them, the greater that dark heart became.

†††††† He came out of it with a start. I've seen this, he realised. He had seen it in a vision. It was all there, from the twisting branches overhead, to the way Gregory was prodding the fire, and the way that man there was lying with his head on his hand. Even the king was in place, sitting beside him on his right. So that was why he had felt strange all evening, as if he had been waiting for something. Then he gasped, for if this was his vision, then that meant that Reynard was alive after all.

†††††† "Reynard!" he gasped, just a half second before the man himself appeared. Someone else cried out the same name. But the king grabbed at his arm, stopping him from rushing forward to greet his father. "Stay still," he said. "Be careful."

†††††† Thurstan obeyed instinctively, because it was his king ordering him, but then the king let go of his arm, and he wondered. What possible danger could Reynard pose? He was clearly wounded, his pale skin painted with dried blood. So why wasn't the king going to him? Why wasn't he easing him down and healing his wounds? Even if he didn't, he should at least be smiling, because Reynard had come back from the dead, and things weren't as bleak as they had seemed after all.

†††††† That was why he had seen this vision, he realised. He had been shown it so that he would not despair when things were at their worst, because he would always know that Reynard would come back. He had not heeded it well, but visions were new to him, and this was the first one he had seen that had come true.

†††††† "I found you easily." Reynard's voice was hoarse from screaming battle cries. "If I can, the enemy can. You're a disgrace. Serve you right if you all get killed."

†††††† Thurstan felt a smile break out on his face. Only Reynard could talk like that, with a savage rebuke in the place of a greeting. If Reynard could say such things, it meant he wasn't badly wounded after all. Everything was as it should be, and the constant things in life just carried on.

†††††† "The king has been watching for the enemy, Reynard," Gregory said.

†††††† "I didn't see you lying on the battlefield, Reynard," the king said. "I'm sorry. But I'm glad to see you alive."

†††††† "But I saw you," Reynard said. "Wandering through them all, whispering sweet nothings at the enemy dead as well as your own. So defenceless. So easy to kill. Just be thankful there was no enemy there to kill you, only me."

†††††† "I didn't see you," the king said again. "Will you sit down? How badly are you hurt?" His welcome sounded a bit forced, and Thurstan wondered about it, then thought he understood. Reynard was a hard man to be gentle to. The king probably wanted to fuss over him, but was holding back because of his knowledge of Reynard's nature. That had to be it.

†††††† "It doesn't matter," Reynard said. "There are important things to do." He reached under his cloak and pulled out a muddy and blood-stained bundle. Despite the dirt, Thurstan recognised the blue fabric and gasped aloud. "The banner of the kings," Reynard sneered. "And none of you even tried to find it. You just gave it up as lost."

†††††† "Lives are more important than symbols, Reynard," Oliver said.

†††††† Reynard unfurled it, and shook it out contemptuously, flapping the fabric near the king's face. "Did you see what's on it? Did you realise what they thought it meant?"

†††††† "I saw," the king said. His face was pinched, as if he felt sick. "I didn't realise, but I do now. More than you think."

†††††† "They thought you were coming back." Reynard took one step closer to the king. "They just kept on hoping. Did you think about that when you walked through the dead? They all died knowing that you had betrayed them."

†††††† "Stop it, Reynard," Oliver commanded. "He did everything he could to help us. None of it was his fault."

†††††† Reynard turned on Oliver. "But you ran away, too. I took your banner and then you forgot me. I almost died trying to defend it, but you just gathered up the few people you bothered to find, and ran away to skulk here."

†††††† Adela was squeezing Oliver's hand. "You told me to go." Oliver's voice showed that Reynard's words had struck home.

†††††† Reynard ignored him. "How many others were still alive when you left them? How many died waiting for you to come back?"

†††††† "That's not fair," Thurstan burst out. "You did tell him to go. I heard you. You told me to make sure that he went."

†††††† "And you jumped at the chance, didn't you? It's what you do best, running away from people who are fighting for their lives."

†††††† "Stop it, Reynard," the king commanded, in that rare tone of his that not even Reynard ever disobeyed, but Reynard just turned his head lazily back to the king, and drawled, "If you say so. I'll leave them alone, and reserve my contempt for you. That's what you want me to do, isn't it? How predictable you are."

†††††† Gregory jumped to his feet. "You mustn't speak to your king like that."

†††††† "You didn't seem to mind when we were plotting last summer," Reynard retorted. "We both seemed to agree that our king was a fool, who needed to kept from destroying himself. Why is it so hard to go from accepting that, to accepting that he's a fool who destroys other people?"

†††††† Gregory placed his hand on the hilt of his sword. "Because he isn't. Can the same be said about you?"

†††††† "No!" Thurstan leapt to his feet. "It wasn't Reynard's fault! At least he came up with a plan. It would have been even worse without him. At least we drove the enemy away. We won."

†††††† "A strange idea of what the word victory means, boy," Reynard said, with a crooked smile. There was no sign of guilt, not now, though there had been plenty the day before.

†††††† Thurstan swallowed hard. "I had faith in you, f... father. I still do."

†††††† "What a fool you are," Reynard laughed.

†††††† "Enough," the king said. "Thurstan, sit back down. And Reynard..."

†††††† "Why, my lord?" Reynard spoke the title mockingly. "You don't want me to go on? You don't want to hear what I have to say about your master?"

†††††† Ciaran spoke before the king could. "Reynard and I fought a few days ago," he told the king. "It was mostly a case of misunderstandings. I thought it was over." He could have said so much more, accusing Reynard of attempted murder, but he did not.

†††††† "Always so quick to close your eyes to the truth," Reynard sneered. "Of course it isn't over." He appealed to the others around the fire. "This man is a stranger. More than once, he's proved himself hostile to our cause. Why do you think the enemy was able to find us so easily? Because he led them to us!"

†††††† "Him?" Gregory scoffed. "He never left the camp. He was wounded in our defence. He's one of us now."

†††††† "A man who wants to take your precious king away from you?" Reynard said. "A man who makes him forget his duty with all his silly talk of love?"

†††††† "Elias never once neglected his duty because of me." Ciaran snatched up his staff, ready to fight. "Yes, I used to want him to leave with me, but I don't any more. I'm staying here. I've already told you. His cause is mine. Your cause is mine."

†††††† "Pretty words." Reynard waved his hand contemptuously. "Pretty words, for a man who brought the enemy to you, whatever he might say." He held up his hand to stop Gregory's objection. "You weren't there, but I was. Ciaran Morgan opened a door in the Shroud of Dreams, and forgot to close it. That's how Cercamond got free."

†††††† Thurstan saw Ciaran's face, and saw how anger turned to doubt, and doubt to agony. So it was true. It was true, and Ciaran had not realised it until this point.

†††††† "Don't listen to him, Ciaran," the king said. "He was almost out already. It was going to happen anyway. It isn't your fault, Ciaran. Listen to me. It isn't your fault."

†††††† Ciaran had dropped the staff. He was scraping the back of one hand with the thumb of the other, so hard that it had to hurt. "I didn't realise. He told me, but I thought it was a lie."

†††††† The king leant close to him, and probably only Thurstan, who was beside him on the other side, heard what he said. "I knew all along. But I also knew that it would have happened anyway, in time. It changes nothing."

†††††† "You knew?" Ciaran looked at him with something close to hatred. "And you didn't tell me? Why did you lie to me?"

†††††† "Why make you feel guilty about something that couldn't be changed?" the king said, but Ciaran just bit his lip and turned away, pushing away the king's hand when he tried to pull him back.

†††††† "As I said," Reynard chuckled. "Always so good at closing your eyes to the truth. Refusing to believe even when told. Already pushing it into that dark place in your mind, full of things you don't want to think about."

†††††† "Stop it!" the king shouted. "Leave him alone!"

†††††† "Why? What are you going to do?"

†††††† "Nothing." The king's voice was measured, but Thurstan could hear the emotion vibrating beneath the surface. "You need to rest, Reynard. Sit down and rest."

†††††† "And stop talking, you mean," Reynard said. "Why? No-one else is saying anything useful. Have you ever even talked about what you're going to do next?"

†††††† "You should sit down," the king said again. "You're hurt. We'll discuss what to do in the morning."

†††††† Reynard sat down, his legs folding beneath him as if they were broken in the middle. "So," he said, with a sly look at the king, "did you have success in your little trip to try to find allies? Is Lord Darius interested in the things you had to tell him?"

†††††† The king looked down at his folded hands. "I didn't get there. And I know now that it would never have worked. The hatred runs too deep. We're on our own. We won't get allies, and I should never have..." He stopped.

†††††† "And you, Oliver?" Reynard looked like a cat pouncing on a mouse. "Did you have success in whatever it was you went to do?"

†††††† Oliver's eyes flickered towards the king. "I'll talk about that tomorrow."

†††††† "So you didn't," Reynard said. "No help there, either. It's just you, my lord. You all alone."

†††††† Oliver grabbed the king's arm. "They didn't know anything about Cercamond, but I still got help." He raised his voice and looked at everyone around the fire. "This wasn't how I was going to tell you, but I mustered the other Houses. They should be on their way even now."

†††††† "You mustered the Houses?" Reynard threw back his head and laughed. "You, Oliver, who always said you hated war?" He looked at the king. "More people to die in your name. More blood on your hands."

†††††† "That's not fair, Reynard." Oliver was the one to defend him now. Ciaran was just sitting there, looking at the ground. Many of the people round the fire were shrinking back, retreating into the darkness rather than be part of the nastiness. Thurstan wanted to do the same, but this was his father, and he must have been through something terrible, to say things like this.

†††††† Gregory spoke suddenly. "So what would you do, Reynard? You're quick to criticise others, so..."

†††††† "Do I have a plan?" Reynard stood up again, and the banner rose with him. "I have a plan, and I think you'll like it. Not you, my king, oh no. But the others will. Because they lived a certain way, long before you came here. Blood counts. They'll go back to the most basic things, and they won't listen to a word you say to stop them."

†††††† "Let us be the judge of that," Gregory said. His voice was cool.

†††††† Reynard paced away into the trees. Just as he was almost invisible, he whirled round and came back to them, his eyes gleaming darkly. "Who did this to you?" he demanded. "Who destroyed your people? The army of Eidengard, your oldest enemy. So why aren't you hunting them down? They're lost in the woods, hurt, afraid, easy to kill. You'd get dozens of them each if only you tried. But instead you're just sitting here. Why?"

†††††† "We chose to live," Oliver said. "Just as Alberic told us to."

†††††† "But they'll get away," Reynard said. "And they'll find their friends. They'll join up with other forces, each one a thousand strong, and come back for you. They know where you live now. Unless you stop them, you will all die."

†††††† "The duchy is not our true enemy." Oliver's voice was level. "The true enemy is Cercamond."

†††††† "You have no hope of killing him," Reynard stated. "But the others, the mere men... At least you would go down fighting. At least you would avenge all the dead, not today's dead, but all the dead from five hundred years of holding back. Why, would you rather turn the other cheek? Would you rather go up to them unarmed and offer them the kiss of peace? How they will laugh as they kill you! Is that really what you want to do?"

†††††† Thurstan was shaking his head. It sounded absurd. There were some things that could not be forgiven, and only a fool went grovelling again and again to seek the friendship of someone who offered only hatred.

†††††† "Or you can get revenge," Reynard cried. "Small things now, killing a soldier here, and a soldier there. But when the other Houses come, you will have a mighty army. You can tear the world apart. Kill them. Kill them all. Trample the enemy under your feet, and avenge the blood of your wives and children." He raised the banner high, and shouted it like a battle cry. "Avenge them!"

†††††† No-one spoke. The banner trembled, but Reynard did not lower it. Thurstan fought the urge to draw his own sword and pledge himself alongside Reynard, but he didn't want to be the first. There were things he found distasteful about Reynard's words, but surely the message was sound. It was a war for survival, and it could not be won by hiding in the forest and doing nothing.

†††††† "And what will happen while we do this?" Oliver asked, at last. "I think Cercamond would be very happy to watch us turn on the wrong enemy. I think he'd laugh as he saw us tear the world apart, as you put it."

†††††† "Vengeance will come afterwards," Gregory said. "We've lived in exile for five hundred years precisely because we needed to stay alive to fight Cercamond beside our king. We will not be distracted now."

†††††† Reynard cast the banner onto the ground and stamped on it. "Fools! You'll never defeat Cercamond. Why are you even trying?"

†††††† The king was looking at him very intently. "Because if we give up, we've lost. If we keep trying, perhaps we will still lose, but at least at the end we know we tried."

†††††† "Tried and failed, like you tried to help them while they were dying?" Reynard laughed. "Better if you hadn't tried. At least then you wouldn't have those memories to carry you until you die."

†††††† The king's hands were pressed together so tightly that they were trembling. "It amuses you to see me try, doesn't it?"

†††††† Thurstan was about to speak, but this time it was Oliver who stopped him with a hand on his arm, and a sharp hiss of command.

†††††† "Because you refuse to give in," Reynard laughed. "It's quite endearing to watch."

†††††† Gregory drew his sword. "I'll strike you," he warned. "I mean it."

†††††† Thurstan turned to Oliver. "Why?" Then Oliver squeezed his arm, and Thurstan looked where he was looking, and saw. Reynard was dissolving. Black smoke was surging out of his mouth, and his eyes were black without the slightest hint of white. His body was no longer breathing. He was no longer human.

†††††† Ciaran Morgan seemed to shake off his stupor of grief, but he screamed at Reynard without looking at him, without seeing what Thurstan was seeing. "Stop it!" he shouted. "Why are you trying to tear everything apart?"

†††††† "Don't." The king pulled at his arm. "Itís not him. You don't understand."

†††††† Ciaran shook his free. "Just leave Elias alone! He doesn't deserve this. We've never been there when he needs us, so how dare you reproach him for not being able to help us when we needed him?"

†††††† "Ciaran," the king was crying. "Stop it, please. It's isn't him. It's not Reynard, it's Cercamond."

†††††† "Your people don't deserve this." Ciaran looked close to tears. "Don't you dare tear apart everything they lived for, that they died for! Don't you dare!"

†††††† "Cercamond!" the king was saying, but he was pulling at Ciaran's arm, trying to drag him back, to get him out of danger. He had his back to Reynard, or the thing that was wearing Reynard's body.

†††††† At last his words seemed to reach Ciaran. "Cercamond?" He stopped and turned to the king, his fists still clenched in the same fury he had been turning on Reynard. "And I suppose you knew that, too?"

†††††† "I knew after a while," the king said. He turned to Thurstan. "I would have sensed anyone living who approached, Thurstan. I'm so sorry."

†††††† Then Reynard was upon him, hands clamped to his shoulders, hauling him round. His hands clamped on the king's shoulders, and he pulled him close, close enough to kiss. The king let out a little sigh, and went limp, but his eyes remained open, blue eyes locked onto the black, as darkness covered his skin like oil.

††††††

 

†††††† It felt as if his mind was being torn apart. Far away, he felt dead flesh clamped on his mouth, then even that was snatched away, and he was somewhere else, in a place of deep twilight, with Cercamond beside him.

†††††† "Why did you do that?" Elias demanded, when the pain faded enough for him to speak. "Why take Reynard's body?"

†††††† Cercamond chuckled. "Because I could."

†††††† Pain welled inside him, and Elias felt sick with horror. "Just because you could?" he echoed. "What sort of a reason is that?"

†††††† A hand touched his face. "The true one. Come, little one, stop being so innocent and outraged. Every weapon should be used in war, to weaken and demoralise the enemy. Reynard himself would have said that."

†††††† That was the worst of it, the most horrible thing of all. None of them had doubted that it was Reynard saying those awful things. They had trusted him so little that they had believed that he could strike out at the traumatised remains of his own people. At least the others had the excuse of knowing no better. Elias had suspected from the start that it was not really Reynard, but his suspicions had eased when Cercamond had started talking, saying things that he had thought Reynard would say.

†††††† "Besides," Cercamond said, "it's such fun to hurt you, and so easy. I keep finding myself eager to come back for more."

†††††† The twilight began to clear, and Elias looked around, expecting to find himself on the desolate plain. Instead, he was on the banks of the stream, in the place where so many had died. Their bodies were strewn around him, lying in poses of twisted agony. All the grass was dead, but there were no clamouring ghosts above the bodies, pleading for release.

†††††† It wasn't real, Elias realised. Cercamond had the power of sorcery at his command, and was a master of illusion. Wherever Elias and Cercamond went when they conversed, it was neither a blasted plain nor a battleground. It was just another thing designed to torment him.

†††††† "I don't think it's true," he told Cercamond. "I think you come back again because you're afraid of me. Why spare so much effort on me unless you think I'm the one who can defeat you?"

†††††† "Afraid of you?" The laugh was a scream, sharp nails raking across his soul. "Why should I be afraid of you, little one? You cannot defeat me. No, I'm interested in you only because you seem to think that you can."

†††††† "I don't think I can." Felled by the pain, Elias huddled small, cringing from fresh attacks. "But I'm not going to give up." Weakly, he threw a blaze of enchantment at Cercamond, but the darkness just seemed to absorb it, and grew stronger because of it.

†††††† "So foolish." Cercamond's voice swelled, and the dead around the stream seemed to rise up one by one, decaying arms flapping, as their mouths moved to the sound of Cercamond's words. "You have no idea how to face me. That's why I let you live, because it amuses me to watch you."

†††††† "No," Elias sobbed, as the dead danced their grotesque dance. Not real, he told himself, deep inside, but Cercamond would never know that he knew the truth. "Leave them alone," he pleaded. "Please donít."

†††††† "I will do what I like," Cercamond said. "And one by one, everyone you care about will fall, some to despair, and some at the hands of their fellow men. Why should I kill them with my own hand when it is so much more fun to watch them kill each other, or themselves?"

†††††† Elias was grovelling in the mud, crawling towards the nearest body. "Please," he begged. "Kill me instead."

†††††† "Oh no." Cercamond slithered over him and through him and deep inside. "I want you beside me for a lot longer than that. Forever. Haven't I told you?"

†††††† The stream faded away, and Elias was in the empty streets of Eidengard, where dirt piled against the crumbling houses, burying the human bones that lay in the street. There were no weeds between the stone flags, and no birds in the sky. Then a man came stumbling along the street. As he reached Elias, his strength gave out, and he fell. Elias reached out to him, struggling to help him, but it was just like on the battlefield. His hand went right through the dying man, and there was nothing he could do at all.

†††††† "I want you to watch," Cercamond told him. "If you thought it was bad today, wait until you see what I have planned for you. I want to see Ciaran Morgan grow to hate you. I want see what foolish plan you come up with, that will kill those men who are even now riding in answer to Oliver's call. I want to you watch everyone you have ever known die. Then, when even you admit that there is no hope, I will take you and claim you, and you will come with me and watch the last gasps of the world."

†††††† Elias fell onto the bones that had once been a man. "But I haven't got a plan. I never will. I don't want to try any more. I'll never defeat you. I give up. I surrender."

†††††† "Really?" Cercamond's invisible hands hauled Elias's chin up, as sharp as claws in his cheeks. "You disappoint me. Still, there might be fun in throwing you back. Let's see how you explain this to those foolish people who persist in believing in you. Because if I kill you now," he said, as he tore Elias apart by inches inside, "they'll think you were a martyr, their brave and noble king who died while fighting the good fight. But if you live... Oh yes, if you live..."

†††††† "Please," Elias screamed. The pain was Cercamond's presence was more than he could bear. It was tearing him apart, burning him like acid and swords and nails. It knew everything about him. It heard things he screamed silently and never even spoke. It had conquered him completely, and he just wanted to die, to end it all. Please, he wailed. Kill me please.

†††††† Cercamond towered up, huge and black, and tore through Elias like a hurricane. The agony filled all his existence, and the empty streets were suffused with the red and black of pain. But, right at the end, just before Cercamond cast him aside and threw him back, Elias saw a flower blooming between the dead fingers of the skeleton. It was pink and pure, and specked with morning dew.

 

 

†††††† The blackness crept over Elias's skin. Ciaran cried his name, and was at his side in an instant, trying in vain to drag him away from Reynard. "Help me," he said, without looking at Oliver or the others, but ordering them to come to his aid. "We've got to get him free."

†††††† The darkness surged and gathered itself up, then sank itself in Elias's body, entering by the eyes and the mouth and even the very pores. Elias quivered and moaned. "No!" Ciaran screamed. He wrapped both arms around Elias's body, and pulled him hard against his own. "I won't let go," he said, both as comfort to Elias, and as warning to Cercamond.

†††††† Elias moaned again, and slumped forward, and only Ciaran's arms kept him from hitting the ground. Reynard fell backwards and lay unmoving, his left arm in the fire. Ciaran just looked at him mutely, watching the flames begin to eat at his sleeve, but then Thurstan rushed forward and rolled Reynard away with his foot. At least now his face was hidden. Without Cercamond to animate him, he was clearly dead.

†††††† Elias was struggling in his arms, coughing weakly. "What happened?" Oliver asked, but Ciaran whirled on him with a snarl and told him to leave Elias alone, to give him time to recover.

†††††† "No." Elias shook his head weakly, and did not stop struggling. When Ciaran finally released him, he slumped forward on his hands and knees, his head drooping.

†††††† "Come here." Ciaran was at his side, his arm around his shoulder. "Lie down. You're safe now. He's gone."

†††††† "How?" Elias looked round like a startled animal, expecting to see death watching him from every tree. "Where? Gone? No. No, he hasn't."

†††††† "What happened?" Oliver asked again, and this time Ciaran did not stop him.

†††††† "Fought him," Elias mumbled. "Tried to. Too strong. Couldn't."

†††††† "But you must have won," Ciaran reassured him. "You're still here. We're all still alive."

†††††† "Here." Elias glanced up at the treetops and shivered. "He let me live. He threw me back. Wants to watch us suffer a bit longer. I didn't win. I gave up. I surrendered."

†††††† "Nonsense." Ciaran's voice was brisk. "You took him on and won."

†††††† "It wasn't even all of him," Elias whispered, with a shaky look up at the trees, where a dark wind was rattling the branches. "I'll have to meet all of him at the end. That's what he wants. That's the end. And he'll kill me there, too."

†††††† "Don't talk like that." Ciaran gave him a sharp shake. There were children here, who had lost their parents today, and it was wrong of Elias to speak like this in front of them. Then he saw that they had already been hustled away by the women, in an attempt to protect them from Cercamond, and even some of the men had gone with them, to guard them. They had left Elias alone to fight on their behalf.

†††††† "I think I know where the end will be," Elias said. His head slumped down further and he gave a little sob, then he pushed himself to his feet again. As he wiped his face, the tears vanished, and he looked calm and strong again, a little too pale, but still a king. Ciaran realised that the children were coming back, and knew that it was an act put on for their benefit. It disturbed him, how well Elias could pretend like that.

†††††† Ciaran took advantage of the disturbance to put his mouth to Elias's ear. "Did he hurt you?"

†††††† "No." It was a whisper without voice. Elias was looking straight ahead, but his hair brushed Ciaran's cheek as he breathed, and set Ciaran shivering. Elias had never seemed more beautiful to him than now, on a day when both of them could have died.

†††††† "It was never Reynard," Elias said, when everyone was back. Not even his voice betrayed the emotions he had shown only seconds before. "Reynard is dead, and we will honour him as he was, and forget the things Cercamond said in his voice. Cercamond was seeking to divide us, because he still fears us."

†††††† "You defeated him?" Gregory asked. He had gone with the children and had not heard Elias's confession.

†††††† Elias looked at him, and his gaze did not falter. "He has gone for now, but the final battle is still ahead of us."

†††††† Gregory picked up the banner from the place where it had fallen and raised it high. "We will fight it, my lord. We will stand with you. If victory is possible, we will find it."

†††††† Several people cheered. Ciaran, who was close to Elias, saw how his head dipped a little, and his eye closed just for a moment.

†††††† "How will we fight this battle?" Oliver asked. His voice was gentle and his expression sympathetic, but still he asked.

†††††† "I think," Elias said, "we need to go to Ravenstor. That's where it will happen. I saw it in a vision."

†††††† "A vision?" Ciaran echoed. At the same time, Oliver gasped, but Elias silenced him with a sharp glance that Ciaran could not understand. "Visions shouldn't guide you, Elias," Ciaran told him. "If you go to Ravenstor because you saw it in a vision, then you force it to come true. You said yourself that Cercamond is everywhere. Why can't you force him to fight the final battle here? We're too weak for a long journey, and there are armies out after us."

†††††† "Yes." Elias did not look at him. His shoulders were very stiff, and his hands folded on his lap. "But I believe in visions. I still think it has to be there." His head turned just a little. "I need to talk to you. Will you come?" Elias stood up without Ciaran's help. He paused at Reynard's body, and looked down at it with a long and sorrowing look, then seemed to collect himself, and started to walk into the trees.

†††††† Ciaran followed. It was very dark. The light of the fire faded to nothing within minutes, and there was no indication that anyone else was alive for miles around. Elias seemed to move easily, but Ciaran needed to use his hands for support, clinging to the trees and pushing at branches. He was just about to say something when Elias stopped, so suddenly that Ciaran bumped into him. His body was warm, and Ciaran remembered that he loved him, no matter how angry he might be.

†††††† Elias wriggled free. "I have to talk to you about my vision. I had it months ago. Oliver's father saw it, too. That's why Oliver reacted as he did. But I've only just realised what it meant."

†††††† He fell silent for too long. "What does it mean?" Ciaran had to ask.

†††††† "In the vision," Elias said, his voice level and inhuman, "I am fighting what can only be Cercamond in his entirety. But then someone pushes me over, and I fall."

†††††† "Who?" Ciaran demanded. "I'll stop them!"

†††††† "Someone wearing a Brother's cloak."

†††††† Ciaran recoiled as if struck. "Me? You think it's me?"

†††††† "I don't know." Elias sounded miserable, but that only made it worse. "Someone wearing your cloak is all I know. But I'm sure you don't mean badly by it. I'm in danger. I think you just mean to push me out of the way, but it doesn't work like that. You probably think you're saving me."

†††††† "Oh, so you've thought about it?" Inside he felt as cold as ice. "You've judged me guilty, and already come up with my motive?"

†††††† "It's all I can think." Elias's voice hitched as if with tears. "When I first saw it, I wasn't sure. But you've been so wonderful all winter, and I know you wouldn't hurt me deliberately. So it must be out of love. It must be because you want to save me."

†††††† "Of course I want to save you!" Ciaran shouted. "What's so wrong about that? Nothing in the whole world matters to me as much as you do. And that's because I love you, Elias. Love. That thing you say you don't know anything about. Love means putting the person you love before anything."

†††††† "Then I can't love you." Elias's voice was muffled by his hand. "I cannot. Not now. I have to put the world first."

†††††† "How noble of you," Ciaran sneered. "How cold. You sound just like Reynard."

†††††† Elias was openly crying now. "But I think I do love you. I want to be with you. I don't ever want to be without you. But I can't put you above everyone else. I can't. So by your definition of love, I do not love you."

†††††† Ciaran wished he could see Elias's face. "Why are you telling me all this? Why bring all this up after everything I've been through today?"

†††††† "I wanted you to know," Elias said, "because I want you to promise not to do it. Visions don't always come true. Some are just warnings. I want you to promise not to try to save me, no matter how bad it looks."

†††††† Ciaran managed to find him in the darkness, and wrenched his head round with his hands. "I cannot promise that," he spat. "I love you, a fact you seem incapable of understanding, so I will not promise to let you die. I know you've given up, despite those brave words you managed to come up with for the others' benefit. You think you've lost already, and you just want it to be over quickly."

†††††† "That's not true," Elias whispered, but Ciaran knew better.

†††††† "It is true. Why else are you going to Ravenstor, to a place where you saw yourself defeated, rather than running anywhere but there. And now you want me to promise to let you commit suicide? Well, I will not do it."

†††††† "It's not true," Elias breathed again. "I'm..." Then he stopped and said nothing else.

†††††† "You have sworn oaths to your people," Ciaran reminded him. "They trust you. I will not stand and watch you betray them. I suffered with them today, Elias. They're my people now. And so I will fight to keep their king alive. I will fight for their future, even if you won't."

†††††† "You're going to stop me from going to Ravenstor?" Elias's voice was no more than a whisper. He sounded utterly defeated already.

†††††† Ciaran sighed. "No. I can't do that, not now you've told them. I can't tell them the truth. After what they suffered today, they need to cling to the hope that the king might save them. But I will watch you all the way. And I will do everything that I can to make you win against Cercamond, even if you've already counted the battle as lost."

†††††† "Please," Elias whispered. He put his arms around Ciaran, pulling his close. Ciaran could feel how fast his pulse was racing, and how clammy his skin was. "Please," he breathed. "Please trust me. It isn't like you think."

†††††† Ciaran relished his warmth, then gently pushed him away. The anger had faded, leaving only a deep sorrow, for Elias's despair was very real, and he must have suffered terribly to lose hope. "I know how it is," he said, "but I'm here. I'll help you. I do love you."

†††††† "I know," Elias said, but he said it was if it was sentence of death, and he had never sounded more defeated.

††††††

 

†††††† There were white walls around Elias's deepest thoughts, and they were made of enchantment. The things he cherished there could not even be put into silent words in his mind, in case Cercamond heard them. He had to say things aloud that he didn't mean, and listen to Cercamond surge in satisfaction at the things that he said.

†††††† "I want to go back to the camp, to the place they died," he said once. It was one of the only true things he had said all night, without any thought of what it would mean to Cercamond. The other true thing was when he had tried to tell Ciaran that he loved him, but his love was not love as Ciaran saw it, and so it was nothing.

†††††† Ciaran shuddered. "Why would you want to do that?"

†††††† To say goodbye. To help them. Elias thought. Because I promised. "I want to see them all," he said. "Will you come with me?"

†††††† Ciaran sat very still. "Do you have to go? It's too late for them now. It's horrible." He wanted to forget it, of course. Terrible things had happened, and now he wanted to close his mind to them, and forget them because remembering hurt too much. Cercamond had been right about Ciaran, and Elias knew it, but still he loved him.

†††††† "Yes," Elias said. Ciaran probably chose to think that he was agreeing with the last thing he had said, and left it at that.

†††††† "Shall we go back?" Ciaran said, some time later, when they had been silent for a long time.

†††††† Elias nodded, unseen in the dark, but did not move. He wished there could be a time, just for a minute, when he could be sure that Cercamond was not there. He wanted to let Ciaran know that he still had hopes, and that it had all been an act, his surrender. He wanted to tell him that he had a plan, but that it had be to in Ravenstor and nowhere else, or it wouldn't work. He wanted to tell him everything, but he could not, or Cercamond would hear, and then everything would be lost.

†††††† I just want you to trust me, he thought, whispering it under his breath because the sorrow in the thought was real, but it was also something that Cercamond would enjoy. Before they reached Ravenstor, Ciaran would probably hate him. Any love that he had once borne for him would die.

†††††† "I mean what I said," Ciaran reminded him. "I will never make any promises to you."

†††††† None? Elias thought. Not even to love me? But what right did he have to expect love? In a week's time, the end would come. If he failed, then the world was lost. If he won, then the world would be safe, but he would still be lost. The hope that he cherished deep inside, in the place that Cercamond could not see into, was all for the world and the people who would live after him. For himself, he had no hope at all.

†††††† Hold me, he begged. Say that you love me one last time, before you hate me forever. But Ciaran had already started to walk back, and nothing more was said.