The wolf was prancing in the water, as giddy as a puppy, but Oliver held back and did not approach. He had been caught out before. He spread his hands placatingly, but did not speak. The wolf just watched him, and began to drag itself out of the stream, towards the man who lay there on his back, his eyes wide open and staring at the sky.
"Still afraid of him, Oliver?"
"I'm not afraid," Oliver protested. "I never was. But he's wet. He's going to shake water all over me, I know it. He's done it before. And you just sat there and smirked. You enjoyed it. I think you put him up to it."
Elias sat up, smiling. As he did so, the wolf reached his side and shook himself vigorously, showering Elias with silver specks. "Of course," he said, grimacing. "Wet wolf. A weapon woefully under-rated in the annals of war."
"You were wet already." Elias's shirt was damp and his hair hung in dark twists that stuck to his neck. His back was stained with smears of dirt, and a leaf was tangled in his hair. It would be hard to find anyone who looked less like a king. "You've been playing," Oliver accused. "Splashing around, the two of you, just puppies together."
"Yes. I did. Not for long, though." The smile left Elias's face, and Oliver cursed himself for once more managing to say something that Elias could twist into a rebuke. Soon, he thought, there would be nothing safe left to say.
"I wasn't complaining," Oliver said wearily, though he knew there was no point. He knew already how the next few minutes would go. "That animal's good for you. I like to see you two playing. We all do."
"The boy woke up," Elias said, as if Oliver had not even spoken.
Instead of replying, Oliver just sighed. Every day he found it harder and harder to be seneschal to this man.
"A few hours ago," Elias said. "I did try to find you." He said it more urgently than the words merited. Oliver knew he was still trying to apologise for wasting a few short minutes with the wolf, and trying to prevent Oliver from feeling excluded.
"I'm sure you did." Oliver folded his hands in his lap, and looked at them. He reminded himself that this was his king and he loved him, and he would not get angry with him, he would not. "I was with Adela."
"I know," Elias said. "And I didn't want to disturb you. So I came here, and found Nightshade waiting for me. He wanted to swim. You know how insistent he can be."
It doesn't matter! Oliver wanted to scream. Just stop it! Please stop it! Instead he just moved his hands, so the one that had been underneath was now on top, and said, "You can always disturb me, Elias, always. Whatever I'm doing, and wherever I am. Adela understands. I would far rather be able to help you than to find out later that you didn't even ask."
"I know you would." For a moment there was a trace of real emotion on Elias's face, but then that old familiar ruefulness was back. "But I don't want to. Not for something like this. It wasn't worth disturbing you for. It could wait."
But you wouldn't have disturbed me even if was desperately important, Oliver thought. Narrowing his eyes, he glanced up at the sky, but saw nothing but a broad streak of blue, skirted on both sides by the many different greens that made up the forest in the summer. There were very few clouds, and even those hung like lazy smears of smoke in the sky, barely moving. "What were you looking at when I got here?" he asked.
Elias shrugged. "Nothing. The sky. It's so lovely. I was thinking about how you just can't tell. Terrible things can be gathering just out of sight, but here the sun is shining and we don't know about them. It's not like last year, in the storm. At least then we knew. I... I'm not sure which way is better."
So it was as he had thought. Elias had fallen into his trap, but perhaps he would fall still further, if Oliver trod carefully. "Something's coming, then?" He raised one eyebrow, and spoke lightly. "It's worse than the boy hinted by the stream?"
"Worse, yes." Elias pushed his hand through the wolf's pelt, raising tufts of fur between his fingers. "I've been sitting here, thinking. I know what I have to do, but I don't know what I have to face. I think there's worse things out there than Thurstan saw." He looked at Oliver. "That's the boy's name. He's called Thurstan."
"Thinking," Oliver echoed. He clenched his clasped hands tighter. There had been nothing carefree about Elias's swim in the stream after all, yet he had still apologised for it. "But you said it wasn't important." At last the anger began to seep through into his tight voice. "Not important enough to bother me with, you said. But important enough that you've been sitting here all alone, worrying about it."
"Not important enough to bother you with, no, not straight away." Elias spoke with a stubbornness Oliver would never have expected to see in him when he had first known him. "You said it yourself, Oliver, last year, when I was new here. You said it was important to spend time just being yourself. You said you'd feel guilty if I spent every minute of my life serving the Kindred. But the same applies to you. You need time, too, Oliver, and I'm going to make sure you get it."
"Because you feel guilty about asking for my help." Oliver sighed. "If anyone does anything to help you, you feel guilty. You think it means you're failing in your duty. You think it means it wasn't worth it."
"It's not about me." Elias turned away to look at the wolf, but not before Oliver had seen how his eyes had widened with fear, like an animal cornered by a predator.
Of course it is, Oliver thought, but he was not so heartless as to say it, not when Elias was already vulnerable because of whatever the boy had told him. But it had to be soon. Elias was destroying himself before Oliver's eyes, and no-one else seemed to notice. Sometimes Oliver wanted to scream at them to look beneath the mask and see the truth. The only thing that stopped him was the knowledge that it was not the Kindred's fault, the way Elias had become. He had done it all by himself.
"It makes me happy, seeing you," Elias murmured, blushing a little, as he often did when talking about anything real. "You were so sad when I first knew you, and now you're happy. I'm so glad you've found Adela. And I can't bear to be the one to make you lose that happiness, Oliver. Like today… I came to tell you, but I could hear you two laughing, and it made me a little happier to hear you. I was going to tell you, just not then. I couldn't bear the ruin that moment. You mean too much to me."
Oliver touched the back of Elias's hand. "I know. But you have to understand that I feel the same way. I hate it when I find out that you've been doing something by yourself, and it's been hurting you, when I could have helped you and it wouldn't have hurt as much. I'm not speaking as seneschal," he said, when Elias would have interrupted. "I'm speaking as your friend."
"I know," Elias whispered. "It's just that..." He stopped, and swallowed hard, visibly trying to compose himself. The mask was snapping into place again, as if Oliver was just another member of the Kindred who never saw behind it. "The boy said... Thurstan said that Gerhard and all his men are dead. An army from the city penetrated the path through the mountains. But they won't stop there. I must surely be their ultimate goal. They died because of..." He closed his eyes, then opened them, and started again. "It was only the start. How long before they get here?"
"Gerhard, dead?" Oliver had never really liked the man, but news of any death was always sad. Gerhard had been so strong and commanding, a man who would never be conquered by death until he was ready for it
"Or captured. Thurstan isn't sure. He... I think he's Gerhard's son. He worshipped Gerhard and now he's gone. The poor boy's lost everything he's ever known."
Like you, Oliver thought. The shadow of the old pain was too clear, even behind Elias's mask. Elias had sacrificed everything for the Kindred. He had lost his home, his dreams, and everyone he had ever known. Unlike Thurstan, he had done it by choice, but Oliver knew that only made it worse. Elias had to constantly prove to himself that he had done the right thing, that he was in every way the king the Kindred needed him to be. In his mind, any failure meant that his sacrifice had been all for nothing. Beneath everything he said and did, there was always that misery, that terrible loss.
"How did they get through the mountain?" Elias hugged his knees to his chest. "Thurstan says they weren't fooled by illusion. He heard them say they were going to take Gerhard back to Lord... to Lord Darius, which implies that they're turning back to Eidengard for now. But maybe that was only a few of them. Maybe they're coming, and we won't know, not now Gerhard's gone."
"They might have followed the boy," Oliver said. "They might already be here."
Elias shook his head. "I don't think so. I don't think they know he got away. I think they... Darius will question Gerhard. He'll want him to tell him where I am and how to find me. Then he'll come after us."
Oliver's shoulders slumped. "You're going after him, aren't you? You've already promised the boy that Gerhard is alive and that you're going to find him, even if you die in the attempt." His voice was deeply weary. "Haven't you." It was not a question.
"I have to go," Elias protested. "I can't leave him. The poor boy, with nobody... And to think of Gerhard, in Lord... in his hands. And there's Albacrist. I should have gone back for the sword straightaway, but I didn't. I was too afraid."
He could argue all day and all night, and it would not make one little bit of difference, but he still had to try. "Have you ever stopped to think that it might be a trap for you? They probably expected Gerhard to send out a messenger. They'll be waiting for you. And if they can see through illusion... Elias, you'd be defenceless. You'd be going to your death."
"You think I haven't thought of that?" Elias retorted. "You think I'm trying to get myself killed? You really believe that of me?"
Oliver did not answer. Sometimes I do, yes, he might have said. If you don't want me to believe it, show me it's not true.
Elias sighed, and did not look at Oliver as he spoke. "I know the Kindred need me alive ,but they also need hope. If the time we have dreaded is about to come, they need Albacrist more than ever. They need to see Gerhard plucked alive from the prisons of Eidengard. Albacrist and Gerhard might only be symbols, but symbols can be more powerful than anything."
"I know," Oliver conceded, "but let someone else go." Someone we can afford to lose, he thought. Someone who can hear Lord Darius's name without trembling in fear. "Send Reynard," he said. "I know he and Gerhard disliked each other, but they're still family."
"Reynard can come with me," Elias said. "I'd rather go alone, but it would be cruel to leave Thurstan behind. He's so sure that he let everyone down. It would be torment to him to stay here, left behind. He needs… redemption. And I think... I think Reynard does, too. It would destroy him if I went without him. And he can help take care of Thurstan. I won't let anything happen to the boy."
Oliver knew that Reynard would die rather than let anything happen to Elias, but it did little to ease his fears. "And you'd let Reynard take risks?" he asked. "Would you really, Elias? If you run into a trap, you'll let him defend you? Or will you just try to save him, no matter what happens to you?" He feared that he knew the answer only too well. "Please don't put yourself in danger. Please stay. Let Reynard chose a party and go by himself. Gerhard won't thank you if you die to save him."
"I know. I told Thurstan that much." Elias passed his hand over his face. "But Gerhard's hurting. He's being tortured because of me, even as we're sitting here in the sunshine just talking about it. Can't you see that I have to at least try to stop it happening?"
Once, Oliver might have thought that a king willing to risk everything for one of his subjects was a wonderful thing indeed. Now he could only wish fiercely that Elias was a heartless man, able to turn his back on suffering and selfishly enjoy the sunshine. "But you don't have to," he said. "You don't."
"But I do." Elias's hands were clenched tightly together, his voice tight with the pain he normally tried so hard to hide. "It has to be me. You know that. Even Reynard would have to admit it, if he was honest. And, really, there's no danger, not to me. You're talking about it as if I'm going to certain death, but I'm not. Whatever happens out there, I will come back. I won't leave the Kindred all alone."
"But they can see through illusion," Oliver protested. "That's what you said."
"Perhaps." Elias turned his head to look at Oliver. "But my powers are far greater than illusion. How would Reynard and his men rescue Gerhard? By walking through a city full of people who would kill them on sight, then taking on a whole garrison with their swords? I can go places no-one else can go. And, if it does turn out to be a trap, I can get myself out. I did last time."
"You nearly died last time!"
"Only because I didn't understand my own powers. I've learned so much since then. Last time, I forgot that I could do things to save myself. I was… I was pathetic. I just curled up and waited for my… I…" Elias's face closed up. "I won't be like that again," he said, in a tight voice.
"I still…" Oliver began, but Elias interrupted him, a soft touch on his wrist. "The Kindred this, and I'm the only one who can do it. You know it. It has to be me."
Oliver wanted to scream his denial, but how could he? It was true. There were other, darker, reasons behind Elias's insistence on going, but Oliver could not deny the ones he was saying aloud. Elias was the only one who had a hope of success, and Oliver thought he probably had powers enough to get himself out of any danger, as long as he tried. But could he trust Elias to try? Given the choice between abandoning his friends and saving himself, or risking himself in an attempt to save them, he thought he knew what Elias would choose.
And, really, would he want to follow a king who could do anything else? A king who could abandon one person who was suffering, Oliver had once told Reynard, could abandon the whole world. It was easy to rationalise hard-heartedness, to find good reasons to walk away from someone in pain. If Oliver had the sort of power Elias had, and if Oliver had been told that only he could save the world, would he be any different? If Oliver, not Elias, was the only person who could save Gerhard, would he be capable of consenting to stay behind?
"I wish you understood," Elias said sadly, gazing over the stream. "It's so hard… And you and Reynard…"
Oliver's head snapped round. "I'm not like Reynard."
"Not like him, no, but not too far apart." Elias held his gaze. "Neither of you trust me. You both want to stop me from doing what I have to do. You both fight me and make it harder."
"I just want to help you," Oliver protested.
"So does he."
Oliver took a deep breath. "Perhaps you don't know what Reynard does. He has his own little... army is the only word for it. He has you watched all the time. His men patrol the forest day and night. Have you noticed that it's always Reynard who brings envoys to the camp? He intercepts them all. You saw what his men were doing to that boy. Reynard didn't want you to know the message he brought."
"I know," Elias said. "He does it to protect me. I wish he wouldn't, but it's not worth arguing with him about. I understand why he does it." He gave a sly smile. "And his net isn't woven as tightly as he thinks it is. There are holes."
"I know why he does it, too." As Oliver said it, he realised that it was true. Oliver had been wrong to think that no-one else in the Kindred saw the truth. Elias was destroying himself, and Oliver and Reynard were trying in their very different ways to stop him. As soon as Reynard had heard Thurstan's story, he had known that Elias would insist on going to Eidengard. Rather than let that happen, he had tried to prevent Elias from hearing the boy's tale. It could be seen as treachery, but it had been done out of a desperate loyalty to a man who was incapable of saying no.
Even so, he saw the danger in it. "Be careful of him," he said. "I know you think you understand him, but you always were too forgiving. Reynard can never forgive himself for letting you get captured in the city, and, in a way, he's never forgiven you for ordering him to go. He's sworn never to let you get hurt again, even if he has to disobey you to do it. He's sworn to protect you, even from yourself. And that makes him blind. His idea of what's best for you might not be right. He might hurt you, justifying it by telling himself that he does it to save you from something worse. Excessive loyalty can be as dangerous as treachery, Elias. Beware of it."
Elias looked at him sharply. "Is that a premonition?"
Oliver swallowed, and shook his head. His father had been a seer, but Oliver had never seen a vision. Elias, he knew, had seen glimpses of the future. Once he had seen that he would die if he pursued a certain course of action, but had done it anyway, rather than let a woman suffer.
"You're thinking about Amalric, aren't you?" Elias's voice was soft.
Oliver started. Something had shifted between them again. From being the one who was asking all the questions, Oliver was suddenly on the defensive. He stood up and walked to the bank of the stream, and looked down on his fractured reflection, made up of darkness and glittering light. "I suppose I was, yes."
"Please don't be too hard on him," Elias said. "On either of them. Amalric..."
Oliver whirled round. "I didn’t come here to talk about Amalric. And he's my problem, not yours."
Elias worried at his lower lip with his teeth, and turned his head to one side. He looked just like the old Elias, flinching from one of his master's rejections. "Look at Nightshade," he said. "Almost fully grown now. He's rather different from how he was when I found him, isn’t he?"
Oliver wanted to sink to his knees and bury his head in his hands. "I don't mind you talking about Amalric," he assured Elias, "but he's not what's at issue at the moment."
The wolf walked delicately to the edge of the water, and started to sniff around in the reeds and the long grass. "He's going to get wet again." Elias gave a faint smile. "Are you trying to get me into trouble, Nightshade? Remember how horrified they were when I said I wanted to keep you."
"With good cause," Oliver said, getting drawn into the conversation despite himself. "There you were with blood pouring down your arm from where he'd bitten you... Can you blame them?" Even so, it was a happy memory. Elias had shown such passion and feeling in defending the wolf cub, and it had been one of the few times that he had shown the Kindred anything approaching a true emotion.
"He was scared," Elias protested. "Weren't you, Nightshade? All those people shouting, saying there was no way I could keep a wolf in the camp and did I want to see all the children eaten alive? And he licked it better afterwards. Anyone might bite the hand that tries to help them, if they're afraid enough."
"I suppose so. And he's certainly placid enough now." Oliver chuckled. "At least to people who aren't trying to attack you." If anything threatened Elias, though, the animal became as fierce as any of his kind. He was one of the Kindred in that respect. Unlike any of the Kindred, though, he could at least make Elias happy.
Elias reached out his hand, and the wolf trotted back to him, burying its nose in his palm. "I'm afraid I've got to leave you for a while, Nightshade," Elias told him. "Oliver will look after you."
Oliver clenched his fists at his side. He knew Elias had set out to distract him, and that he had allowed it to happen, because it was easier that way than to say the things he really needed to say.
"I think I should go tomorrow," Elias said, still not looking at Oliver. "I'll go and ask Reynard now. I hope he decides to tell Thurstan than he's Gerhard's brother, but I don't think he will. And I won't do it. He should hear it from Reynard or Gerhard, and no-one else. The poor boy."
"You're never going to tell me the truth, are you?" Oliver murmured sadly. "You'll never tell me anything."
"I've told you everything Thurstan said." But Oliver saw how Elias's shoulders stiffened. "I told you what I'm going to do."
Oliver shook his head. "But you haven't told me the whole truth, have you?" Now the moment had come, he felt only sad and hurt, rather than angry. "I've watched it getting worse for months. I know you, Elias. You're getting better at hiding it, but I can still tell when you're in pain. I do wish you wouldn't hide it."
"I'm not in pain." Elias lowered his head and stared at his pale hands.
"Enchantment hurts you." Oliver stood with his hands on his hips, towering over Elias. "I know it does. Not illusion, no, but the deeper things, the things that only you can do. Yet, not five minutes ago, you sat here and told me that you were the only one who could go after Gerhard, because only you could use those powers. But you didn't mention just how badly it hurts you to use them."
At least Elias did not attempt to lie. "I don't know why it hurts," he confessed. "It didn't used to. I used to find it hard to do, but only because I didn't know how. I've learnt how to do it at will, now, but it's started hurting. It's worse every time. I don't know why." He raised his head. "But it doesn't matter. It won't affect anything. Even if it hurts, I can still do it."
"Doesn't matter?" Oliver shouted. "Of course it matters! It matters if you do something that incapacitates you for hours afterwards. It matters if you put yourself through that again and again, and all for... for such little things. For healing Thurstan, who only needed a good night's sleep. For helping someone who could be helped just as well in a hundred other ways. You just... You..."
He brought up the clenched fist. Elias stiffened, but made no attempt to move away from the expected blow. Oliver let out his breath in a rush, and the hand fell back to his side. "I don't know why you do it," he admitted. "I wondered if it's because you want to play the martyr and make us feel in debt to you, but that's not it, because it's not the way you are, and you don't tell anyone about it. All I can think is that you somehow feel that you deserve the pain, just like you wanted me to hit you just now. At least if you're suffering, you're doing something right."
Elias hid his face with his hand. "It's not like that. It just happened. I don't know why. If I knew why, I'd try to stop it, but I don't. And I can't let it stop me. There are other things far more important than my own comfort. What does it matter if it hurts a bit, if I'm helping someone?"
Oliver crouched down and touched Elias's shoulder, noticing with sadness how Elias flinched at the contact. "It matters. And, one day, it will matter to you, too. What if you take Thurstan into a dangerous situation, and you end up too weak from the enchantment to protect him? What then?"
"It won't happen," Elias swore. "It doesn't hurt so badly that I can't carry on. It won't make a difference."
The wolf snarled and glared at Oliver, clearing thinking that he was threatening his master. And perhaps he was. All Oliver wanted to do was to see Elias happy, but the only way to do that was to hurt him first. Elias was destroying himself, and everyone who loved him was drawn into his circle of pain, forced to plot against him and hurt him in the desperate hope that it would end up for the best. But they were like planets trying to stop the sun from burning up. They could never escape his orbit, and they could never make the slightest bit of difference.
"Please don't do it," Oliver begged him. "I can't bear to see what you're doing to yourself. It's just not worth it. Perhaps, one day, the situation will be serious enough that you will have to use all your powers, even though they hurt you. But not all the time. Not for all the things you use them for now."
"Not worth it?" Elias echoed. "But if I can help someone..."
Elias had always been so quick to help others, but now he did so with a desperation that was terrible to see. He threw himself into it in a way that defied all reason, even for the tiniest of problems. "You can't help the whole world," Oliver said, squeezing Elias's shoulder.
"Can't I?" Elias whirled on him, and the bitterness in his face was shocking. "I thought that was just what I was supposed to be doing. That's what everyone was telling me last year. I had to do things that terrified me, and none of you told me then that it was wrong. You wanted me to do them. I never had a choice, and you know it. From the moment I found the sword, all this was going to happen." He spread his hands hopelessly, encompassing the whole empty life that surrounded him.
"It's a hard path to walk," Oliver said. "To walk between the two extremes of selfishness and of sacrificing too much. But there is such a path, a middle way. You can serve us and still hold back. You can... Elias, you can serve us better if you hold back. Let other people help you. Say no."
"I never had a choice!" Elias screamed, Elias who so seldom raised his voice. "There never was a middle way! I could be a Brother, or your king. I could live there, or here. I could have my..." He broke off suddenly, turned away, and closed his eyes.
"You could have your master," Oliver finished for him, "or you could be alone. And you chose to be alone."
"He chose it," Elias said. "He chose to go. And why shouldn't he have gone? There was nothing for him here. And it was nearly a year ago. It's not important."
This time Oliver said it aloud. "Of course it is. It's important to you."
"It isn't." Elias's head sank forward into his hands and he started to cry.
I did that, Oliver thought. He had broken through the mask and found the scared boy that still lurked beneath it. It was what he had wanted, wasn't it?
"Elias." Oliver sighed. Elias had been through so much, a scared boy forced to do things that would have made a grown man quail. Pain and loss were behind everything he did. And, really, there were worse failings that a man could have than too strong a desire to help others. Elias had won the hearts of even the most implacable of the Kindred. All Oliver wanted was to see him happy, but everything he did only made things worse. "Why do you think it started hurting?" he asked, knowing that anything else would only upset Elias more.
Elias raised his head, and wiped away his tears. Oliver found it alarming just how instantaneously he went from heartbroken to an outward appearance of total composure. He had always thought that only he saw through Elias's mask, but it seemed as if Elias could fool even him. How often had Elias been crying inside when Oliver had been talking to him, thinking that nothing was wrong?
"I don't know," Elias confessed. "But it's getting worse. I sometimes wonder if it's the... whatever it was that was laughing when I was sick. We haven't seen any sign of it since the storm, but I don't think it's gone. I think it's spent the time gathering its strength and it's going to come back soon, stronger than ever."
"Or it's been waiting for you to be powerless," Oliver said. "If the pain keeps getting worse, then you won't be able to use the deep enchantment at all. And if Darius's armies can see through illusion... Don't go," he urged, grabbing Elias's arm. "Please don't go."
Elias looked at him. "You say you hate seeing me hurting, but the thing that hurts most is sitting here doing nothing when someone needs me. I couldn't bear it if you made me stay. And... And maybe Lord Darius will come here after all and find me, even if I stay. At least when I'm doing something, I feel... It doesn't feel so..."
"I understand," Oliver had to admit, because it was true, and he did. He hated it, but he understood.
It was as if his understanding finally released Elias to confide a little of the truth. "But I'm afraid," he whispered, staring at the scars on his wrists. "I'm so scared. Lord Darius... He scares me so much."
Oliver wanted to touch him, to offer comfort, but knew he could not, not on this. He had no idea what Lord Darius had done to Elias to terrify him so, but he knew how the memory affected him. Sometimes, Elias would stare at the scars on his wrist, then his eyes would slide closed and he would pull his knees up to his chest and hug them close. If anyone touched him when he was like that, he would start with terror. Even soft words made him shiver, as if he found them more cruel than a shout. Always, in the end, Elias would raise his head and find his own way out of the memory, and would never mention it afterwards.
As Oliver just sat there, his useless hand half raised, the wolf made a sharp sound of distress, and nudged Elias. For a moment, Elias froze, his throat working convulsively, then he just seemed to sink into the wolf's touch. "But I'm going tomorrow," he said, with his face pressed into the wolf's neck. "And I'll bring Gerhard back, even if I have to face Darius to do it. I will."
Oliver's hand fell back to his side. "I hope you do."
She walked beside him for a little while, tolerating his need for silence. Then, when their path narrowed so they needed to walk in single file, she made sure she was the one who led. A branch of springy bramble crossed the path, and she carefully pushed it out of the way, then turned to face him. Smiling with perfect calm, she let the branch go, so it sprang back full at his chest. He started, and took a step back.
"Are you going to talk to me?" she asked.
"I don't know."
"It's Elias, isn't it?" Adela put her hands on her hips. "Of course it's Elias. No-one else leaves you looking quite like that."
Oliver wanted to step forward, but she had put the barrier there deliberately, and he thought she would want to be the one to remove it. They were separated by a branch of thorns, but there was sunlight on her side, while his was all in shade, and that seemed very fitting. She was always bright, but Oliver was still wrapped in the shadow that was Elias.
"What's the boy done now?" she asked.
"Don't talk about him like that," he chided her. "He's not a naughty child."
"No?" She raised one eyebrow. "You worry about him as if he is."
"He isn't. He's..." He sighed, unable to stay irritated with her. "I just don't know what to do. I can't bear it, seeing the way he's become. I've done everything I can think of." He sighed again, passing his hand over his brow and through his hair. "He's going to leave us tomorrow morning, Adela. He's going to Eidengard again. And he almost died last time he went there. He says he's not in any danger, but I… I worry about him, and I can't stop him. And he's so unhappy, and I can't do anything. I can't do anything to help him."
Adela reached over the branch and took his hand. "You underestimate yourself. I think you're helping him a lot. Perhaps I shouldn't tell you this, but he said as much to me, once. It was when he realised you were falling in love with me. He came up to me, and it was sweet, really. He asked me all sorts of questions, trying to make sure my intentions were honourable and I wasn't going to break your heart. I must have said something right, because he smiled and told me to hold onto you and never let you go. He said you were someone very special, and he would be lost without you."
"Really?" Oliver was touched and strangely embarrassed. "And what did you say to that?"
"I said, 'I know he's special. Why do you think I went after him?' I was quite forward. He blushed, if I remember correctly. But I've loved him for it ever since, that he could say those things, and really mean them. And he's such a pretty thing, too. Now, if only he were a little older, and I hadn't already found you..."
Despite himself, he laughed. He stepped forward to hold her, but she took a step back, wagging her finger. "Talk first."
He ground his toe in the mud of the path, and watched the deep sweeping circles. "That's it. I just... He's going into danger, and I can't stop him. He's miserable, and I can't do anything about it. I'm seneschal, but sometimes I hate my own people, for being so blind to what's happening to him. And sometimes..." He stared intently at the ground, and spoke in little more than a whisper. "Sometimes I hate him, because, although we've done it to him, he's done it to himself even more. He made his choice. It was his choice, not ours, but he's letting the aftermath destroy him."
"Many would disagree." Adela held up her hand to forestall his objection. "Some would say that their king has changed for the better in the last year. When he first came here, he was a shy boy who thought he needed his master's permission even to smile. Now he's a man who can stand on his own two feet. He speaks without needing to think about what someone else would say in the same situation. He gives orders when he has to, and he doesn't shy away from being a king. In many ways, he's blossomed."
"Some would say," he echoed. "Who says this? Someone who doesn't know him well, that's for sure, if they believe that front he puts up."
"Why, it's you, my dear." Her voice sparkled, but her eyes were grave. "Not in so many words, but in the way you speak about him, and the things you say. As a king, I know he's exceeded all your hopes in many ways. Not all the changes in him are bad, that's what I mean to say."
"No." He sighed. "As a king, he's done nothing I can complain about. I just wish he could be happy at the same time. I just wish I could help him."
"Shall I tell you a story, my dear?" Smiling, Adela gathered up her skirts and sat down, heedless of the mud and thorns. She folded her hands in her lap, and beamed up at him. "Come on, Oliver. Let the storyteller become the listener for a change."
"I..." he began, then shook his head, giving up. Careful of the prickles, he settled on the ground. He felt like a little child making a den in the forest, hiding from the grown-ups.
"I used to know a boy," she began, "oh so long ago. I was an old lady of almost twenty five, and he was hardly a day past twenty. But I liked him. He was rather a silly boy. Liked to spend his days writing poems about trees and trailing around in a daze, things like that. He never noticed me. Instead, he wrote songs about some pretty little thing who had dimples but no brains to speak of." She shrugged. "I can't think why he liked her."
"Adela," he began, but she pressed her finger to his lips. "Never interrupt a story-teller before the story's finished, Oliver. You should know that. Or do you want me to heckle from the audience next time you sing one of your sorrowful ballads?"
He shook his head, and she trailed her finger down his face, from mouth to chin, and it was soft and lingering. Trust me, her eyes seemed to be saying. You know I'd never hurt you.
"Well." She folded her hands in her lap again. "When he was twenty-one, the boy unexpectedly became the leader of his people, and something happened to him. He forgot how to smile. He had a duty, you see. He thought he couldn't lead his people and write poems as well, so he stopped trying to write. His life had changed direction, and he thought that meant he had to sacrifice everything he had ever planned to do. He stopped courting his girl, and she married someone else. Though, of course," she said, with a coy smile, "she'd never really been the girl for him."
"No," Oliver tried to agree, but something had stolen his voice. He tried to smile, but even that felt frozen.
"He blamed everyone, did this boy. He blamed the father who had got himself wounded and made him seneschal before his time. He blamed the office itself. He blamed the people. Of course, since he was such a very nice boy, so very noble, he served them perfectly and never once showed them what he felt, but inside he was always sorrowful. All he saw was the things he could no longer be. His duty was a prison. Outside, through the barred window, was the life he could have led, but he thought it was impossible to reach through the bars and touch the sky.
"But then something happened." A strand of hair had come loose from the braid and fallen down in front of her ear. Very carefully, she pushed it back, and Oliver simply watched her, waiting for the next words.
"The king came back," she said, at last, "and he was a boy who had lost far more than our boy had lost, and bore an even greater burden. In trying to help him, our boy - though he was a man by now - recognised something of himself. He found he wanted to help him and be his seneschal. He found he could make a difference to the king, and he liked it. He had found a cause worth sacrificing love and song and happiness for. But then, by doing so, he found he had no longer sacrificed anything at all. He served willingly, and it made him happy. Once, when he had thought he was going to die for his king, he looked back on his life and realised the truth. His unhappiness had been his own making. He had sacrificed everything to duty, but no sacrifice had ever been needed."
"How do you know all this?" he murmured. His voice was husky. "How do you know about this boy?"
"Because I watched him." There was a glint of triumph in her eyes. "I told you I liked him, didn't I? I saw him sink into his self-created misery, and I knew he wouldn't even know I existed. He was so sure he would never be free to love, so he would have pushed me away the moment he started to like me. Then, when he learnt to smile again, I approached him, and courted him, and won him."
He felt limp. "I thought I courted you."
"Oh no." She shook her head, and folded her arms with an air of supreme satisfaction. "I waited eleven years for you, Oliver. I was hardly going to risk losing you when we finally had a chance to get it right. I had it all worked out, you know."
"You courted me," he said, again. He found himself smiling, incapable of stopping. "I didn't know."
"So, Oliver," she said, stroking his cheek with the back of her hand. "Do you see the moral of my story?"
He pulled away from her touch, just a little. "That I was wrong to..."
"No." She grimaced, and shook her head in exasperation. "That happiness is a way of looking at things. Nothing changed for you. You were still seneschal, and we are still in exile, but, somehow, you learned how you could be happy, just by changing how you looked at things. No-one else could have forced you to that realisation. That's why I just stood back and waited for you to be ready to be loved."
"No-one else..." he echoed. "So you think I should do nothing?"
She looked at him for a long time. "No," she said, at last. "Perhaps I was wrong to wait. Maybe I could have helped you come to your senses years before if I'd tried. But I couldn't have forced you, I know that. And you took ten years to learn the lesson. Be patient with Elias. He's lost far more than you did, and it's only been nine months. It'll take time, but you're there for him, helping him more than you know."
He raked his hand through his hair. "But I'm not helping him."
"Back to that, are we? You are helping him, Oliver. Everything you say to him... Maybe it doesn't seem to make a difference, but he is hearing you. One day, he'll remember all the things you've said and suddenly believe them. And you'll be there when that happens." She reached for his hand. "But, until then, just be a friend to him, but don't try too hard to change him. Push him too hard and you'll lose him. He'll begin to see you as an enemy, just as you would have done if I'd started lecturing you all those years ago."
Oliver put his arm round her shoulders and pulled her close. "I wish you'd tried. I might have found you ten years ago, instead of..." He took a deep breath, and the words tumbled out before he could even think about them. "I want to marry you."
She pulled away and looked at him quizzically. "What brought this on, Oliver?"
He wasn't sure if he was meant to answer it or not, but decided to do so anyway. "Because I love you," he said, "and should have asked you months ago."
She swatted at his shoulder. "What makes you think I couldn’t have asked you, master seneschal?"
"And because Elias is so unhappy," he said, "and I could so easily be like that, but I'm not, and that's because of you. Because Gerhard's men are all dead, and it could be us tomorrow. Because we don't know what's out there, beyond the blue sky above our head. Because... Because I love you."
She smiled. "I'd have married you whatever your answer was, you know."
He felt strangely shy. "So it's a yes?"
She stroked his nose. "Of course it's a yes. But I have only one condition. Oh, don't look at me like that, Oliver. All I ask is that the ceremony is tonight. I've waited long enough for you. I'm suddenly finding that I don't want to wait another day."
"Tonight?" His first reaction was to say no, because Elias was leaving tomorrow, and this was a time for mourning, not rejoicing. Then, a moment later, he realised just how right it was. Tonight, so Elias would see it. Tonight, so the Kindred had one last night of celebration, even if the darkness closed upon them with the coming of the morning. "Tonight," he said. He felt a sudden urge to cry.
"Tonight." She nodded, and pulled him into her arms and kissed him, and the green leaves closed over their hears, hiding them from the whole world.
The man had not heard Oliver approach. Oliver watched him for a while, and saw him test the sharpness of his sword, and nod with satisfaction with what he saw. When the man still showed no sign of seeing him, Oliver cleared his throat.
Amalric whirled round. When he saw who it was, he relaxed, but only a bit. "Why are you creeping up on me?"
"I didn't," Oliver said. "I just walked up normally. You were... busy. You didn't hear me."
"Of course I heard you," Amalric stated. "You can't take me by surprise, however hard you try."
Is that what you really think of me? Oliver wanted to ask him. You think everything I do is only to discomfort you? Instead he gestured awkwardly, shifting from foot to foot. "I hardly recognised you, Amalric. I thought I'd come to the wrong place. You've cut your hair."
"Yes." Amalric dipped his hand into a pail of water and smoothed his hair down. "I can cut my hair if I want to." Amalric turned his back and picked up his bow. Oliver wondered if he still had any of the arrows that bore the blood-stained feathers he had taken from Elias. He hoped not, but had never dared to ask.
"I know," Oliver conceded. It didn't have to mean anything, of course, but Reynard and his followers were the only men of the Kindred who wore their hair so brutally short, and in Reynard's case it did mean something. "It's just..." He tried to laugh, but knew it sounded unconvincing. "You don't look like my little brother any more, that's all."
Amalric threw the bow down, heedless of whether it would get damaged or not. "Perhaps there's a reason for that."
"Amalric," Oliver began, but his brother interrupted him. "I'm going away tomorrow. Reynard's asked me to come with him. The king's going to Eidengard to get Albacrist back, and he needs good men to defend him."
"And he asked you?"
Amalric's eyes glittered. "Is that so hard to believe, brother? Unlike you, some men recognise my worth."
Oliver sighed. When he had left Adela, he had had a soppy smile plastered all over his face, and had wanted to laugh and sing. Elias's genuine pleasure at the news had only served to increase his good mood. Everything in the world had been warm and beautiful, but now the warmth seemed oppressive and the sunlight too bright. It showed every hard line on his brother's face.
"I didn't know you'd become Reynard's man," Oliver said. "That's all. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to imply..."
"Yes you did," Amalric snapped. "You're like the rest of them. You can't understand why Reynard wants me to come. You think I'm going to let down your precious king because I'm not as good at fighting as the rest of them." His face became an ugly mask. "Poor Amalric. Such a shame he's so hopeless. Poor Oliver, with him as a brother. Oh yes, I know what they said, Oliver. But now my time has come. And I'm not going to throw it away, I swear it."
"I never said those things," Oliver said. "I never thought them. I just... I wish things could be like they were before."
Just for a moment, Amalric's face softened, and he looked like the boy he had once been, insecure and lost. A second later, it hardened into the cold mask of scorn that had become his usual expression. The change in him had happened so gradually that Oliver had not even noticed. After today, he would never be able to pretend that he knew his brother at all. They were strangers to each other.
"Talk to me, Amalric," Oliver begged. "Please. It doesn't have to be like this."
"I'm just finding my own way," Amalric said coldly. "You always wanted me to. You wanted me to go out and make friends and stop tagging along behind you. You hated it when I defended you. You never even liked me much, did you?"
Oliver reached out a hand towards him. "We used to be close. I used to tell you everything."
"Out of pity." Amalric kicked over the pail of water. "Because no-one better had come along. Then the king came, and I was forgotten. Oh, you told me everything would be all right, that morning after father died, but you were only saying it. You had your Elias to look after, and he was so sad because he'd lost his master. But I was sad, too," he screamed. "I needed you, too!"
"I tried," Oliver protested. "I tried again and again. You were... You were impossible. You told me to go away."
Amalric kicked at the fallen pail. "I didn't want you to." He spoke the words like an accusation. "But it doesn't matter now. I don’t need you any more. I've found someone else who wants me for what I am."
"Reynard? But you never liked him. You used to warn me about him. You didn't trust him."
"Things can change. A man can learn the truth about someone he thought he knew." Amalric pulled his sword a few inches from the scabbard, then dropped it back in again. "He makes me feel useful. You never did. I was always your awkward little brother, and nothing more."
"That's not true," Oliver protested, but of course it was. He had loved Amalric as his brother, but he was not the sort of man he would have chosen for as a friend, if they had not been family. He had confided in him, but only because he was there and willing to listen, and he had been reluctant to confide in anyone else.
Amalric thrust his face towards Oliver's. "You never forgave me for attacking the king. The king did, and I didn't even want his forgiveness. But you never did."
"I..." Oliver sighed and looked down at the ground. The pool of water was seeping into the dry earth, disappearing as completely as the closeness they had once shared. "I understood it," he whispered. "I know why you did it. I'm so sorry for the part I played in it. And I..." He blinked back tears. The events of the day had brought his emotions so very close to the surface. "Oh, Amalric. We're brothers. We don't have to like everything about each other, as long as we love each other. And I always loved you. I still do."
"You told me it would get better." Amalric carried on as if Oliver had not spoken. "Then you went off and found Adela. You just went round smiling and you were so happy, and I wanted to slap you for it, because I didn't know how to share it." He paced up and down, spitting the words out like drops of poison. "You kept coming to me, but then you stopped looking happy, so I knew you didn't want to be with me. I told you to go away. You argued, but I knew you wanted to, so I shouted at you and then you went. And, every time, I'd see you five minutes later laughing with him, or teaching that boy who've taken as your apprentice, or holding her hand and smiling, so I knew I was right."
"I'm so sorry." Oliver touched his brother's shoulder. Amalric flinched, but did not pull away. "I never meant to hurt you."
"You didn't." Amalric whirled round, and Oliver's hand fell back to his side. His brother swiped at his eyes, wiping away any tears, then glared at Oliver, daring him to mention that he had seen them. "Nothing hurts me now. I'm going with Reynard tomorrow, and you won't be there, and I'm going to come back victorious."
"Or dead," Oliver said. "This could be the last time I see you."
"Why do you just assume I'm going to fail?" Amalric accused him.
Oliver looked Amalric full in the eyes. "Because I know more about what you might be facing than Reynard told you. Because there are enemies out there than even a thousand men like Reynard could not defeat with their swords. Because I'm afraid you'll all be riding into a trap. Because Elias is... not as strong as he could be."
Amalric flapped his hand. "Oh, I know all about the king. Reynard told me."
"Because," Oliver said, clasping his hands together, "I worry about the future, and people I love are caught up in it, and I am scared of what tomorrow might bring." He unclasped his hands and took hold of Amalric's shoulders, one hand on each. "I don't want us to part at odds with each other. This has gone too far. Please can we be friends again, Amalric. I know there's a lot we need to talk about. But, tonight, please..." He swallowed hard. "You're my brother, Amalric. I love you."
Amalric sighed. "I know. And I'm still loyal. I would never betray you."
The next thing could seal their shaky truce or else ruin things between them forever. "I'm getting married tonight, Amalric. I wanted you to stand beside me. I didn't want anyone else but you. I hoped you could be happy for me."
"I can still be happy for you." Amalric gave a tight smile. "I'm still your brother."
"And will you stand beside me?" Oliver asked. "I would like you to. I don't know where this... this rift has come from, but I would like to heal it."
"I'll stand beside you," Amalric said, but already he was turning away, tending to some little thing he would possibly need on his journey, and he did not look up again.
Thurstan sat with his hands folded in his lap, his head leaning against the wall and his legs stretched out in front of him. Thin lines of sunlight crossed his body like knife slashes. He pulled his legs up and covered them in the dark blankets, but then he was too hot. When he threw them away, he felt cold, and he could not get warm, even when he wrapped his arms around his body.
People were talking outside, but no-one came in to see him. There was far too much laughter. He clenched his fists and imagined what would happen if he went outside and told them the truth. "My people died so you could be alive to laugh!" he would scream at them. Then he would grab a giggling child by the shoulders and tell them just how Gerhard had bled when they had captured him. He would make them all cry. He would kill all laughter in the camp, because it was only right.
He threw himself down on the bed, covering his ears. He sat up again and poured himself a drink of water, but his hand shook and he spilled most of it on the bed. The man in the tapestry at the foot of the bed seemed to be staring reproachfully at him. He looked like Gerhard, and his eyes followed Thurstan wherever he went. Why are you just sitting there? his eyes were saying. Come after me. Save me.
"No," Thurstan moaned. He stood up and tried to tear the tapestry from the wall, but his legs hurt too much and his feet got caught up in the blanket, and he fell. He curled up on his side and started to cry.
The voices outside fell silent. Thurstan clapped his hand to his mouth, suddenly afraid that they could hear his sobs.
There was to be a wedding, the king had told him, when he had come back a few hours after Thurstan's confession. "I know it probably seems heartless to you," he had said, "but they need it, and all the more because they're mourning. They're afraid of tomorrow. Your news has reminded them just how precarious their lives are. It's the Kindred's way. In the darkest times, they need to remind themselves why they are still fighting, why life is still worth living. Gerhard would understand."
He had said more, and Thurstan had even come to believe him. But now the wedding had started he only wanted to scream at them to stop.
Pushing himself to his feet, he walked to the door. He hooked two fingers round the edge of the thick door covering and edged it to one side, so he could peep out at the scene, but not be noticed.
It was still daylight, though the sun was sinking in the west and beginning to turn orange. There were fluffy golden clouds overhead, and it felt colder outside than it did in the hut, with a freshness to the air that spoke of bad weather to come. None of the people outside seemed to notice. The women wore flimsy dresses, and even the men had bare arms, their light-coloured sleeves pushed up to their elbows. They looked soft, Thurstan thought, like the valley men that they were, who sat back and let the hard men of the mountains die to protect them. Instead of swords, they held flowers. Instead of weeping, they just smiled.
The couple who were to be married were walking slowly through the camp, passing in front of every tent, talking a little to everyone. As they walked, people threw flowers in their path, and the woman laughed to see it. They walked as if they had all the time in the world, but every second brought Gerhard closer to death. Every slow step delayed the moment when the king and Thurstan would ride out to rescue him. Didn't they know that? Thurstan clung onto the edge of the door with both hands, and fought the urge to tell them. The only thing stopping him was that the king had allowed this wedding, and he trusted the king.
As they passed Thurstan's hiding place, the woman whispered something to the seneschal, who shook his head in mock reproof, as if she had said something not at all appropriate to such a solemn occasion. Not at all chastened, she laughed. But then she turned away, and Thurstan, in his hidden darkness, was the only person who saw how tears were glistening in her eyes. Thinking herself unobserved by anyone, she blinked fiercely, then turned back to Oliver, all smiles again.
Arm in arm, they walked one more sweeping curve, past the last of the laughing watchers. A flower clung to Oliver's dark hair, and the woman reached across him to remove it, but he caught hold of her wrist. "Let it stay there," he said. Thurstan couldn't hear the words, but the meaning was clear.
They had not dressed up for the occasion. Their clothes were clean and fresh, but there was no luxury about them. The woman's hair was worn in a long braid down her back, and strands had already escaped. Coupled with her pink cheeks, it made her look as if she had just finished a hard day's work, rather than be walking to her own wedding.
They stopped walking not far from where Thurstan was standing, and he held tighter to the door, wondering if the king had planned it like this, to force him to watch. But then he saw the king himself, and stopped thinking about anything else.
There was a broad oak tree, growing out of a small rise in the ground. It made a natural platform, raised a little above the small clearing, and framed by the heavy green branches. Wearing neither rich robes nor a crown, the king was standing in front of the trees, his hands clasped in front of him, waiting. The sun filtered through the thick leaves, dappling him with specks of gold, but leaving him mostly in shadow. He was smiling, Thurstan saw, and his eyes were very bright.
"I call upon you, people of the Kindred," he cried, "to stand witness." He did not step forward. Oliver and his bride stood in full sunlight, and he left it for them, so they did not have to share the circle of light with anyone. Even in the shadows, though, Thurstan thought he dazzled.
"We have gathered here tonight," said the king, "to see this man and this woman proclaim their love to the world. They will swear vows, each to the other, and we, who hear them, will know that love can still survive in darkness, and hope remains. Their happiness is our happiness. Their hope is our hope.
Thurstan swallowed hard. Were they ancient ritual words, or the king's own? He had never seen a wedding before. Had his own mother and father stood smiling beneath a great oak tree and heard the same words spoken over them? He didn't know if his parents had ever been married. He didn't even know his mother's name.
"They stand before you now," the king said. "Oliver and Adela. Does anyone speak against the joining?"
There was a man standing behind the seneschal, and he shifted a little from foot to foot, but said nothing. He was carrying a leafy branch in his arms, but held it as if it was a sword. A sturdy girl of around ten stood behind Oliver's bride, and she was swinging her branch in one hand, so the ends brushed the ground.
"No-one stands against you," the king said. "Who stands for you?"
"I do," the man said, as he stepped forward. "I do," the girl said, and her voice sounded far more sure and confident than the man's. She thrust her chin forward as if she dared the world to defy Adela's right to marry.
"And have you found what you were sent to find?" the king asked.
"I have," the man said, and "I have," said the girl, coming in before the man had finished, though Thurstan thought she was supposed to wait. He found himself smiling, liking her.
"Take what has been gifted to you," the king said, looking first at Oliver, then at Adela. "Those who stand for you stand for the people. They have sought, and they have found. Their gift is the gift of their blessing. Their gift is the gift of hope and life."
They weren't branches, Thurstan realised. They were small saplings, carefully dug up, and carried to this place. The man had chosen a beech, while the girl had found a silver birch, with small leaves and white bark. They handed them over, and the couple planted their saplings, digging the holes themselves, letting themselves get stained with earth. Oliver was solemn, but Adela smiled. Half way through, she paused, wiped her face, and smirked at him, a smear of dirt on her nose.
"Let the trees grow together as a symbol of this joining," the king declared, when the couple had finished. "Let them put down deep roots, and stand here, whispering confidences to each other, so that anyone who sees them knows that these two people knew how to love."
He raised his arms, and the world changed. Where the tiny saplings stood, two great trees towered, their branches coiled together so tightly that it was impossible to see where one started and the other began. Together they formed a dense green arch over the space between their trunks, and men and women, hand in hand, were passing beneath the archway, whispering their own declarations of love.
And then, so quickly that Thurstan didn't notice the change, the archway was pale stone, and the ground beneath it was amber. A man was kneeling there, his hands behind him and his head bowed. His hair obscured his face, but Thurstan knew he was the king. Oliver stood close by, standing so heavily on one leg that Thurstan knew the other one was hurt. A man he had never seen before stood behind the king, one hand outstretched as if he was about to touch him on the back of his neck.
"No," Thurstan gasped, and tried to step forward to stop that touch, but the moment he moved, the image shattered. In the golden sunlight, Oliver and Adela were standing hand in hand, looking upwards, as if trying to catch the last glimpses of a vision that had now faded. Thurstan could see that she had tears in her eyes, and that, this time, she was making no attempt to hide them.
Thurstan was clutching the door so tightly that his hand was shaking. The vision of the full grown trees had been an illusion, he thought, crafted by the king for everyone to see. But the vision that had come afterwards... It had been clearer than any daydream. It had felt true. But how could that be? He had never had the slightest glimmer of enchantment about him. He had always been completely blind to it.
"So now," the king said, and Thurstan clung to that voice like a drowning man to a lifeline, "let the whole world know that you are husband and wife." He smiled, and stepped forward, teetering on the edge of the shadow. "Oh, Oliver, I'm so glad for you." There were tears in his eyes. "I wish..."
Oliver rushed forward, then. It was surely the moment he should have embraced his new wife, but instead he put his arm round the king's shoulders and pulled him close. His lips moved, but this time Thurstan couldn't hear what was said. Then, with an exaggerated sigh, Adela pushed her way in beneath Oliver's other arm, and snaked her arm around the king's back, so the three of them were hugging together.
Thurstan blinked hard. He wanted to pull back into the darkness and throw himself face first onto the bed, and not come out until it was over. He wanted to cry. He wanted to be held like that. He wanted to hate them, for daring to be happy. He wanted to be part of them. I want to go home, he whispered, and for everyone there to love me.
He pressed his fist against his mouth and chewed the knuckles, unable to stop watching. The king broke the embrace first, and then Oliver turned away and reached towards the man who had stood for him. His face was naked and defenceless, his emotions clear to all who watched. He was offering to man the chance to share in his happiness. He was offering him his love.
The man frowned, and bit his lip. He looked over his shoulder, then back again. Then, with a sigh that looked to Thurstan almost like a sigh of defeat, he stepped forward and accepted the proffered embrace. His back was very stiff.
"I thank you," Oliver cried, after the man had pulled away from him. There were tears on his cheeks. The men in the mountains had never cried, or hidden it if they had. "I thank you all, for being here for me, for being who you are, for being Kindred living in days like these, and still cherishing hope." His voice carried easily, and Thurstan remembered that hearing that the king's seneschal had once been a bard. There was power and magic in his voice, making it difficult not to listen to him.
"The time we have hoped for for so long has come," Oliver continued. "But it is also the time we have most feared. The king has returned, but the enemies outside this small circle of light are stronger than ever, and have never been more dangerous. The danger is greater than it has ever been. And tonight, too, we mourn the deaths of those who were our kin, who died for us all."
He turned in a full circle, as if he was seeking every individual one by one, and making sure they were hearing him. Not even the king was spared from that look. His head snapped up, and he looked trapped, and as vulnerable as any normal man.
"But there is always hope," Oliver said, his voice almost tender in its quietness. "We are the Kindred, and that is what we believe. Suffering makes us what we are, but hope makes us more than what we could be. Even in the darkest night, there is a flame. It is easy to forget where to look for it, and to forget that it even exists at all, but it is there. None of us are alone. We have people who stand beside us, and feel as we feel, and hope what we hope, and would die for the things we hold dear."
The people were held captive by his words. A woman was standing with her mouth open, clutching her child to her skirts, and a young man was looking at the girl beside him as if he had never seen her before. Adela was holding her husband's hand, looking up at him with fierce pride. The man who had stood for him was staring at his feet as if he wanted to will them to move, but did not know how to. The king was the only one Thurstan could not see. He had drawn back into the shade and stood with one hand pressed against the tree trunk, his face turned slightly away.
"This is the faith we have always held." Oliver looked up at the sky, and spread his hands. Clasped in his own, Adela's hand moved with his, but he didn't seem to notice, so quickly had her touch become part of him. "We would not be here today if our ancestors had now known how to hope. They loved, and brought children into the world, though they lived in the wilderness and their world was dying around them. They did not despair. Where there was happiness to be found, they found it. And we are only alive because they had learned this lesson: that love and happiness and hope can flourish even in the worst darkness." He clenched his fist in defiant affirmation. "These three things have to survive. What do we have to live for, if we do not have these?"
"Yes," Thurstan breathed. At some point, he must have pushed through the door covering and teetered out into the sunlight, for there he was, outside and surrounded by light. The wedding was the best way to honour the dead, he could see that know. He had missed so much in the mountains, living with stern men who never spoke of feelings and thought only with their swords. He had never known that men like the king and Oliver even existed. He had never known men who could talk about love, and weep openly, yet be so strong that it was impossible to look away from them. He had never known a man who could make something true just by saying it.
Oliver smiled, and the spell was suddenly broken. Thurstan tiptoed back, until he was pressed against the side of the hut. "I married Adela tonight because I love her. She courted me, you know, and who am I to refuse her?" A ripple of uncertain laughter swelled in the crowd, and Thurstan found himself laughing, too. He just needed to prove that he could. "But I am glad, too, for our sake. I could wish for nothing more. Tomorrow, everything is changing." He threw his arms wide. "But tonight, for one last night, let us sing."
Thurstan pressed his face against his numb hand, and felt the tears on his skin, even though his mouth was open and he was laughing.
Oliver knelt on the floor. "Are you asleep?" he whispered.
"No," she said.
His voice was hoarse. He had stayed with them for hours, playing music and singing. Adela had sat beside him for a while, then wandered off to talk to friends of her own, leaving Oliver holding court alone. After a few hours, they had started to shout bawdy comments at him, telling him that his wife had gone to bed and was he going to join her any time soon. "Soon," he had laughed. The thought of Adela waiting for him had been intoxicating, but it had been so wonderful by the fire, surrounded by laughter.
"I just don't want it to end," he had admitted to Elias, in a pause between songs. Elias had been flushed from dancing, happier than Oliver had seen him for months. That alone would have been enough to make the evening infinitely precious to him.
"I know," Elias had said. Then he had gestured with his chin to a pair of boys on the other side of the fire. "That's Thurstan. He was just watching for a while, but then he started to join in a little while ago. I'm glad."
Oliver had spread his arms, throwing himself backwards onto the ground. Elias had joined him, and they had stared at the stars together, song and laughter weaving around them.
"They're our people," Oliver had said, "and they're happy. This is how I want to remember them, always." He had rolled over onto his side, propping up his chin on one elbow. And this is how I want to remember you. I wish you were always like this.
"You should go to her," Elias had said, a little while later. "It's not every day you get married. Hold on to her. Don't let her out of your sight."
"I won't," Oliver had said fervently, but then he had sighed. "I just don't want this to end." Because tomorrow everything would be different. Tomorrow Elias and Amalric would ride away, and there would be nothing to do but wait for their return.
"Look at them." Elias had gestured at the gathering. Many of them had been asleep by then, sprawled beneath the trees or around the fire. Oliver hoped they were all smiling in their dreams. "It's over already." He had nudged Oliver's side. "But it's just beginning for you."
"I'm sorry," he said to Adela, now. "Have you been waiting long?"
"For eleven years," she murmured, "so what's a few hours more?"
"Adela," he began. She always laughed and gave light answers. It did him good to hear her, but sometimes he just needed her to be serious. She teased him, but did it hide real hurt?
"No." He heard the noise of bedclothes as she sat up in bed. Though it was dark, her hands found his face easily, and held it tight, one hand on each cheek. "Oliver, you're the seneschal. I knew that when I chose you. I know you have duties. I don't need to be the only person you love or to be with you for every waking minute." She kissed him, just once, and it was so soft and quick he wanted to press his fingers to his lips to capture the memory before he started to doubt that it had even happened. "I love you, Oliver. You."
Blinking back tears, he sank forward into her hands. "I love you so much."
"And besides," she grumbled, as she tugged him face-first towards the bed, "I could hardly fail to notice that you were seneschal, could I? It was rather obvious. Do you think I'm blind? Stupid?"
"I think you talk too much."
She removed her hands from his face, and, unbalanced, he fell forwards onto the pillows. His breath left him in a rush. "Well, what else can I do with my mouth?" her voice said, from above him.
"I can't think." He frowned, and chewed his lip. "I've got no ideas at all. Have you?"
"Oh, I think so," she whispered. "I'm sure I have."
And, much later, when he could think again, he had to admit that her ideas were very good ones indeed.