Pictures in the Dark
by Eildon Rhymer
A young photographer finds a body, and becomes the uncomprehending witness to a terrible drama.
Warning no. 1: There are references to a past gay relationship. It is in the past, it contains no sexual references, and it is between two original characters, rather than any Dark is Rising characters. Still, please don't read if such an idea offends you.
Warning no. 2: The entire story is told through the eyes of an original character, who doesn't understand the full significance of what he is seeing. This means that there will be loose ends in the story, and some things left unresolved.
Now on with the show…
It was dusk when Tom found the body.
He had his camera with him, of course. It was an inconceivable for him to go out without it as it would have been to go out without clothes. He had photographed shadow and light, trees and hills, and the melancholy tumble of ruins. He had taken his fill, and was on the way back to the cottage, when something dark had caught his attention, lying in the shelter of a rock.
He turned his head towards it, raised the camera. Then, as happened so often at times like this, he heard Rob's voice in his head, as if his former friend and lover was beside him, the two of them together, as they had been for so many years.
"So, you're going to do something?" Rob asked, his voice light, but his expression sober.
"Take pictures, of course," Tom replied.
"Fiddling while Rome burns," Rob said. "Honestly, I can't believe you sometimes. You have to do something."
"What?" Tom asked, as he stalked around the edge of the scene, trying various angles. "If he's dead, it's too late. At least this way he can be immortalised. His death will become art."
"And if he's not dead?"
Tom zoomed in, focused. He could see no movement at all. The dead man's face was drained of colour, and his chest was still. "Even if he wasn't dead," he said, "what can I do? It's the middle of nowhere. It'll be hours before help comes, so a few minutes won't make any difference."
Rob was about to say something else, but Tom took control of his imagination, and made Rob nod and smile, as if to say You're right. But he held the camera a little more tightly afterwards, his hands suddenly trembling. If Rob had really been there, he would have said something very different. It had been one of the many things they had argued about, right at the end. It had been one of the worst. Things had been said...
Tom shook his head briskly. "I don't need you, anyway," he said, to the ghostly memory of Rob. He had come here alone to take the photographs that would relaunch his career, that would show Rob just how well he could do without him. He had art to create. Art never shied away from terrible things. It told truths, and what could be more true and absolute than death?
He was glad it had happened at dusk. Life had slipped away from this man, like light leeching out of the sky at the end of a winter's day. Tom was glad he had decided to photograph in black and white today. The body would be dark grey on the paler grey of the ground. The critics would comment on that, he thought. He could imagine them talking. "He's showing us that after death, we all return to the earth," they would say. "In the midst of life, we are in death." "No, no. What he's showing is..."
The man moved.
Tom started back with a cry, almost dropping the camera. His heart started to beat very fast.
The man opened his eyes. His hand twitched, his chest rose and fell, but he did not sit up.
Tom took a step backwards. Dead, the man had been interesting, something to be photographed. Alive, he was... a threat, Tom thought. They were in the middle of nowhere, and Tom lived alone. Even if this man meant no harm, there was a strong risk that he would start demanding help and other inconvenient things like that. Tom thought he should probably back off quietly, and hope that he could be away completely before the man turned to look in his direction.
"Don't even think of doing it," Rob chided him in his imagination.
Go away! Tom told him. We split up! You left me! I can do what I like.
Perhaps he said some of it aloud, or perhaps he just stood on something that rustled or broke, for the man turned sharply towards him. With his eyes open, he looked older than Tom had initially taken him for. Dead, he had looked to be in his early twenties, but his eyes made Tom think of age and sadness. "I... I thought you were dead," Tom stammered.
"Dead?" the man echoed. A small furrow appeared between his eyes. He seemed to be testing the idea. "No, I don't think I was." The frown deepened. "I just... went." He gestured with his hand, a curious open movement, that seemed to encompass the sky above him, and things beyond. Then the hand fell limp at his side again. "I don't know why."
"Well..." Tom cleared his throat. It was growing darker by the second, and he was several miles from the cottage. Already it felt far colder than the forecast had suggested it would be. "I should..."
"Go," the man said. "Yes. I understand. I understand that, at least." He pulled himself into a sitting position, his head slumped back against the rock. His skin was pale ash, suffused with the colour of the dusk. "But not the rest." He brought his hand up to his brow. "Something's gone, I think."
Just walk away, Tom told himself. It's not your problem. He was annoyed at losing his pictures of death, though. Still, perhaps he could still exhibit them. Many great photographers used models and actors to pose for their pictures... But, no, he couldn't do that. It would be against his conscience and his artistic integrity. His art was about truth. He would never sell out, or tell lies for money.
"What day is it?" the man asked. "It's cold. It was March when I... left. Now it feels more like winter."
"Still March," Tom told him. Clearly this man was mad. He raised his camera and took a picture of him leaning against the rock, like something empty and broken. Not images of death, after all, but images of madness, of a lost soul adrift in a world he did not understand. It would be art and social commentary in the same picture, suggesting to the viewer a story that would be forever unknown.
"I was trying to... stop something," the man said. His eyes were still closed, his voice like a leaf in autumn. "I know I failed. But what it was, and what happens next..." He opened his eyes, and looked directly at Tom. "I will remember. It's coming back. You probably should go."
Go home, because it was almost dark. The man had told him to. He had his pictures, and if the man died in the cold of the night, then it wasn't Tom's fault, was it? You couldn't just offer help to strangers in this day and age. You didn't get ahead by putting others first. It was every man for himself, and some just didn't have what it took.
Besides, the man had a thick coat, and there was a stream nearby, with fresh water. The road was only a couple of miles away, and the village only a few more. Chances were, someone was out there looking for him. The man was clearly not homeless, for his clothes were new, and his hair was neat. He would be found and returned home, like a pampered pet that had gone astray.
"I do know this," the man said, almost too quiet for Tom to hear him. "Something is coming. It's safer to be ignorant. People who know too much, who get too close... They die." He spread his hands and looked at them, as if he expected to see something there. "I don't know how I know this, but I do."
Just go, Tom thought. No need to say goodbye. He began to walk away, and the man's murmurings faded, until they were lost in the silence of this place so far from everything Tom knew. The wind started to paw at him, bleak and chilling, like something trying to draw his attention.
"It really is very cold," the man said, louder, but still so terribly sad. Tom paused in his walking just for a moment, then carried on.
And Rob was there beside him, walking next to him on this Northumberland moor, and standing over his packed suitcases in their apartment in London, both at the same time. "I still love you," Rob had said then, and said again now, in Tom's imagination, "but I don't like you very much any more. It's not enough for me to have one without the other."
"Don't be stupid," Tom had chided him. "You love me. You just said so. You can't really be serious?"
"I am." Rob's face had been solemn, no tears in his eyes, and no fury, either. "We've argued about it so much. I can't face doing it again, because it's always the same. You still don't see it. You'll never change, and it's wrong of me to try to change you."
"I'll change," Tom had pleaded then, though he cringed now to remember it. "I'll be whatever you want me to be."
"But that wouldn't be honest," Rob said. "Change needs to come from within, for genuine reasons, and not just be a... a veneer, to please someone else. Your career is important to you. I just have to accept that. More important than other people, more important than being nice, more important than me."
"Nice?" Tom had echoed, laughing derisively. "You want me to be nice? You don't make it in this world by being nice."
"Then I don't want to live in your world," Rob had said quietly.
"Then don't!" Tom had screamed, but only after the door had closed, after Rob had left. "I'll show you! I'm going to make it, and then you'll come groveling back, and I won't take you back. I won't take you back!"
Echoes, now, of that screaming. Tom walked with his eyes facing resolutely forwards. Rob would have taken the man home, he knew. He would have helped him walk, given him a blanket, fed him, counseled him, and looked after him until someone came to claim him. Rob thought it was inhumane for Tom to be walking away, but what did he know? Rob was a bleeding heart. He had talent of his own, but wasted it, because so much of his energy was spent on others. He was not true to his gift. He was wrong, and one day he would realise it.
"How will you feel," Rob asked him in his imagination, "if you find out tomorrow that he died in the night, after you left him?"
"Be quiet!" Tom shouted, raising his hands to his head, digging the knuckles into his temples. Rob left him, but then his mother was there, smiling down at him, holding him and protecting him when he had run home crying from the bullies. She had always dropped everything whenever he needed her, and she had praised him and encouraged him, and told him that the bullies were wrong, that he was wonderful and talented and would grow up to be ten times the person that any of those horrid boys could ever hope to be.
The wind turned colder, and there was a smell on the air that made Tom think suddenly of snow. Snow had not been forecast, but neither had this sudden cold. Tom buttoned up his coat, and speeded up, eager for light and a warm drink. His rented cottage was a mile away, but it suddenly seemed a lot further. His pictures portrayed the dark and threatening side of the landscape, but Tom had never enjoyed the uncomfortable side of nature. He liked to be home by dark, and to spend his nights in a place with heat and running water.
It really is very cold. He remembered the man saying it, the memory as clear as if the man was standing beside him, speaking it.
Tom stopped walking. He closed his eyes, and opened them again, then gave an angry sigh. He would have to go back. It was forced upon him, really, by the weather. He would have to at least offer help. And if the man accepted it, he would have to carefully walk him home, feed him, contact the authorities, and wait for them to come. The peacefulness of his evening would be completely destroyed, but he had no real choice.
"It doesn't mean you've won," he told the Rob who lived in his imagination. "It's just this once."
He turned round, stamped back the way he had come. "Will you be alright, staying out here?" he shouted. "I mean, I've got a house. It's quite a long way away, but..."
Please say no, he thought. Then it's your fault if you die. But the man said nothing in response.
"It's going to get cold..." Tom turned up the collar of his coat. "There's a phone in the cottage. At least tell me someone I can call."
He was nearing the rock. There, between one step and the next, something flickered in his mind, a brief moment of dizziness and disorientation. By the time his foot landed, it was gone. Frowning, he took a few more steps, until he stood exactly where the man had been lying, but there was no-one there. The man was gone.
His thoughts blank, Tom walked back to the cottage alone. He saw nothing but the dusk, and felt nothing but the slithering hand of the wind.
He woke to snow, but also to a crisp and flawless blue sky that made the whole world sparkle, like something out of a dream. Tom rubbed his eyes, to drive away the last of the sleepiness, and resolved to go outside with his camera immediately, without even stopping for coffee. With sunlight that bright, the snow would not linger, not in late March.
As he reached for his camera, he saw his watch, and was horrified to see how late it was. It was almost ten, and he was normally up by eight at the latest. It had to be today of all days that he overslept! Today, when snow had fallen out of nowhere, unexpected and unprecedented. A hundred stunning photographs had been waiting for him at sunrise, but he had missed his opportunity, and now they had gone.
Irritated, he pushed his arms into his coat, and tugged it around him. He felt tired, too, as if he had hardly slept, though he remembered coming home at dusk, spending a quiet evening doing nothing, and going early to bed. There had been strange dreams, but no memories of sleeplessness. He must have had nearly twelve hours' sleep, but he felt as if he had had only four or five.
The cold hit him when he opened the door. He considered going back for a scarf, but decided not to waste time. There were photographs there for the taking, and they were calling to him, seducing him.
His hands itched, his heart was beating fast. He ran round, giddy with excitement, lining up close shots here, crouching in the snow, stepping back for a wide vista. He went further, still further, photographing frosty branches and hills and half-covered stones. He felt truly alive, and that was what Rob could never understand...
He stopped, and a little of his elation trickled away. He had not thought about Rob once since seeing the snow, and yet here he was, intruding again, spoiling the moment. It was true, though. Rob called it selfishness, but what he could not understand was that there were moments when, for Tom, nothing in the world mattered but finding and immortalising the pictures that lurked in the ordinary landscape around them. Not even Rob existed in moments like that. Not even Tom himself.
The thought of Rob had been enough to break the mood. Tom surfaced, and became once again the professional artist who took photographs with half a mind on how people would react to them. He started to look back through the pictures he had taken, nodding with satisfaction because many of them were good. Others fell short of the transcendent image that he had seen in his mind when taking it, but that was only to be expected. He could take a hundred pictures, but only two or three were good enough to exhibit.
Somewhere not too far away, he thought he heard a car. Pressing his lips together, he decided to return to the house. He was hungry and very thirsty, and he had no desire to be here when car-loads of children turned up to scream and play on the snow-covered hills. He had paid good money for this cottage in order to be alone, and what right did other people have to come and play on the stage he had set aside for his pictures?
As he walked back, he recognised the place where he had found the man the night before. Strange, he thought, frowning. He had forgotten almost entirely about the man, until he came to the place where he had found him. It was nothing unusual for him to forget other people, of course. The man had disappeared, thus proclaiming that he was not Tom's responsibility, and was nothing for him to trouble his mind about. Still, this felt different. It felt like a memory a few months old, not like a memory from the night before.
"Odd," he said, but then he shrugged, because, really, it was not his problem. The man had chosen to wander off. He had probably had a car parked just over the hill, and was back home in some comfortable house, living his conventional and tedious life.
He walked on. There were hoofprints in the snow, he noticed. He knew next to nothing about horses, but he thought they looked unusually big, but shallow. Then, a little further on, he saw human footprints, dusted over with a thin layer of snow, showing that this person had been walking there in the night, before the snow had stopped.
The wind gusted, and seemed to wail with an almost human sound. Someone's behind me! Tom thought, but when he whirled around, nothing was there. A cloud had appeared in the east, though, like a clenched fist on the horizon.
Tom realised for the first time that there were no birds. It was the first time ever he had heard the hills entirely silent.
He speeded up. Soon he saw his cottage ahead of him, but there were no lights on inside it, and the windows looked completely black. The roof was covered with snow, like a shroud, or a heavy weight that would drive it into the ground.
Something black moved across the snow. Tom looked up, craning his neck, frozen like a rabbit in the gaze of a kestrel, for the dark patch was the shadow of a single bird, large and black. It flew slowly and low, as if it was searching.
"Stupid," Tom told himself, shaking himself. "Don't be stupid." He took a picture of the bird, almost defiantly, but it had already passed, only a shard of darkness in the blue.
As he did so, he became aware that the sound of the car had grown steadily louder. As he lowered his camera, he saw the car drift to a halt in front of his cottage. The engine stopped. One door opened, and then the other. Two men came out, strangers in black.
Run! cried a part of Tom's mind that he had not known existed. Hide! It was the voice of the young Tom, bullied and mocked, who would have given up and given in, had his mother not been there to comfort and encourage him. He dismissed this voice now. It was stupid to be scared just because there were no birds singing, just because a black bird had passed across the sun like a stain. This was a sudden snow fall in spring. Of course nature was confused. Of course the world seemed strange.
He strode forward, then, went down to meet them. They were slow to notice him coming. One of them was knocking on his door again and again. The other was examining the ground, as if looking for footprints. When the one at the door gave up, the two of them stood close, talking in voices that did not carry. Everything about them screamed urgency and fear.
"Who are you?" Tom demanded when he was close enough.
He had the satisfaction of seeing both men jump. The shorter one recovered quicker. "Do you live here?" he called.
"Yes." Tom made his posture say, What's it to you? though he wasn't quite able to bring himself to say it out loud.
"We're looking for a friend," the other man said. "We think he came here. We were just wondering..." The two of them exchanged a quick look. "We're worried about him," the man said. Tom was not an expert on such things, but thought there was genuine pain in his voice. "But, whatever we feel, it's far more important than just..."
The shorter man stopped him with an arm on his wrist. "We just wondered if you'd seen anything," he said. "A man. He looks about your age, or a bit younger. Or, if not, just anything... strange."
"Strange?" Tom laughed, shaking his head. He fought a sudden urge to tell them all his irrational fears of the walk home, and of the man who had been dead, and then had been alive, but he had never been one to talk overmuch to strangers. "Why don't you tell me why you want to know, first?"
"We told you," the taller man said. Now that they were close enough to talk without shouting, Tom realised that he had a Welsh accent. He was extraordinarily pale, and he was wearing dark glasses, either as an affectation, or to protect against the glare of the sunlight on the snow. "We're looking for our friend. We haven't got time for this."
Tom was tempted to deliberately obstruct them, because they had come sniffing around his home, complicating the pristine beauty of the morning. But there was something about them, about their evident urgency... And the shadow of his fear still clung to him, an undercurrent of nastiness to the loveliness of the snow. Besides, the quicker he gave them information, the quicker they would be gone.
"Perhaps I saw him last night," he said. "At any rate, I saw someone."
The two men exchanged glances again. The shorter one was fair, too, though not as startlingly pale as the Welsh man. They both looked to be in their mid-thirties. The Welsh one at least looked suitably dressed for a snowy moorland in the middle of nowhere, but the English one was dressed for the city, and looked cold.
"Where?" the Welsh man asked, and, "Are you sure?" said the other one.
"Of course I'm sure." Tom reached his door, but he would not open it, not while these strangers were outside. He had no intention of inviting them in. "I met a weird man last night. It was only last night. I'm not likely to forget it, am I?"
The shorter man's mouth twitched, as if Tom had said something funny, but the Welsh man was not smiling. "Was he... well?"
"I thought he was dead when I found him, to be honest," Tom said.
"Why?" the Welsh man demanded. For a moment, Tom thought he was going to grab his arm. "Was he hurt?"
Tom shook his head. "I just didn't think he was breathing, but he was. He said some odd things. He looked confused. I tried to bring him back here, but he... Well, I went away for a few minutes, and he'd gone when I got back."
"You should have followed him!" the Welsh man shouted. "How could you just let him go!"
"Bran," the other man said, chidingly. "It wasn't his fault. Let him speak." To Tom he said, "I'm sorry. It's been a stressful time. Our friend, he... Something huge is happening. We didn't know how huge until... Anyway, he just went, and we're afraid for him, and it's far more important than you can ever imagine, because if he... falls, then..." He raked his hand through his fair hair. "Just help us, please. Anything, however small, could be a help."
"Too late." Tom folded his arms. "You had your chance. You Welsh friend ruined it."
"Tell us!" the man called Bran cried. "Please!" He hurled himself bodily towards Tom, but held short of actually hurting him. Tom saw suddenly that his cheeks were damp, as if he had been crying earlier, his pain hidden by his dark glasses.
Tom had cried, too, the evening after Rob had left... Biting his lip, Tom turned away, fumbled with his key to open the door. And a memory came to him suddenly, of doing exactly the same the night before, as the man who had been dead slumped against the porch, barely able to stand. Hold on, Tom had urged him, concern pushing through the irritation and resentment. Almost there.
"But that didn't happen," he gasped. "He vanished. He didn't..."
He dimly heard the two men react in some way, crying out, and exchanging words. But Tom was blundering against the door, pushing it open. There had to be some evidence. He had come home alone, and had... But, no. It had been an empty night, doing nothing, and he never did nothing. He would have worked on his photographs, or watched the television, or read. And he had gone to be early, but he felt tired.
He raced through the house, crouching, peering. The man had sat there, at the dining table, but had fallen asleep over the bowl of cereal Tom had slammed down in front of him. He had drunk some milk. He had sat in front of the television, and babbled of the most impossible things, of darkness inescapable that came to swallow the world, of voices in his mind that threatened to tear him apart, of grieving for the dead. "It's coming back in fragments," the man had said. "I gambled everything. I offered myself, but it was rejected, and here I am again, and nothing has changed."
"But it wasn't true," Tom cried, his hands rising to his head, fingers tangling in his unbound hair. "He vanished. He didn't come back with me. He didn't."
"But he did." Both men had followed him into the cottage, and stood there uninvited. "He came here, but he's not here now."
"Where's he gone?" They were talking to each other, Tom realised, and not to him.
How could it happen? He had a strange, terrifying double memory. In one version, he had come across a man, talked for a little while, and then gone home alone. In the other, the man had come with him, and they had talked for hours of impossible things, but the man had been gone by morning. One of them had to be a dream. Yes, that was it. The short encounter had been strange enough to plant itself in Tom's dreams, and the rest had been manufactured from there. Of course the man hadn't come home with him.
"When did he leave?" The Welsh man grabbed Tom by the shoulder. "Did he say anything about where he was going?"
"Of course he wasn't here." Tom shook his head. But his hands, unbidden, were going to his camera, were switching it on, were scrolling through the pictures he'd taken, through the pictures of the day before, the pictures of a dead man lying on the gloom... and then, unmistakable, the pictures of an exhausted man asleep at a wooden table, of a man with his head in his hands, begging the memories to go away and leave him alone, to not be true, please not to be true.
"Will," the man called Bran breathed.
The camera fell from Tom's nerveless hands. "But why?" he said. "How could I forget?"
Bran was on the floor, kneeling, as if the muscles in his legs had failed him. "It's real," he was saying. "It's serious. I'd hoped..."
"We knew it was real." The other man's voice was cold all of a sudden. "It became real the moment..."
"I didn't mean that, and you know it." Bran stood up. "But you know as well as I know that there is far more at stake than personal losses. If Will is defeated..."
"But why do you think he will be, just because...?"
"Think, Barney. Use your brain." Bran's voice was as cold as Barney's had been a moment before. "Will evidently made this man forget, but the spell was flawed, or else it's breaking down."
There was silence for a little while. Spell? Tom's mind gibbered. He wished, fiercely, intensely, that Rob was with him, even Rob so disapproving and argumentative as he had been at the end. I'd do anything to bring him back, he thought. Anything.
"I read a story once," Barney said, his voice detached and distant. "A wizard was dying, and his spells, one by one, they crumbled, until..." He let out a breath. "But Will can't die. Can he?"
"But he can be defeated," Bran said. Tom saw him clench both fists with determination. "And there are things worse than death."
Mad, Tom thought. They're all mad. The camera lay on the floor, and he had not yet dared touch it to see if it was broken. If it was broken, then there would never be any proof. He could forget it, tell himself that it had not happened. It always took a photograph to make something truly real.
"Come on," Bran was saying to Barney. There was bleakness in his voice, but courage, too. "This is the most important thing either of us have ever done in our lives. Every second we stay here..."
"Yes," Barney said, and they left together, leaving the door open, so the cold wreathed itself around Tom and took hold of his heart, and held on, and would not let him go.
Hours passed. As the day went on, the cold deepened, rather than lessened. The wind picked up, like clawed hands rattling at the windows. Whenever Tom looked out, though, the sky was still blue. The cloud in the east had moved closer, then stopped, like a spreading pall of smoke, low in the sky.
He had some lunch. He showered, and combed his hair, putting it into its usual neat ponytail. His hands only fumbled a little. When he lowered them, a dark strand of hair was caught between two fingers. He pulled it out, let it fall to the floor.
He remembered Rob wanted to comb his hair once. Tom had refused, laughing derisively and saying, "I know we're gay, but we're not little girls." He had combed it himself, and fastened it back with a leather tie. He had not turned round to see how Rob had reacted to his comment. Strange that it would only now occur to him to wonder, or even that he would remember it at all.
Memory plays tricks, he said to himself, as he sat down on the couch. Things happen, but then they get forgotten. They're never truly gone, though. They just need the right trigger, and then you remember them. Like a dark hair falling to the ground; a photograph; a smell or a sound. That was all that had happened. It wasn't that he was going mad, remembering things that were not true, or forgetting things that were. Memory was like that. It was like that for everyone.
He eyed the phone. He wanted someone to talk to, he realised. He wanted someone who had been there with him the night before, so they could put their heads together and talk about it, reassuring themselves that that they were not insane. "But I don't need people," he said. He was himself, alone, not caring for others, not needing them. Since Rob had left, he had hung around with brittle people, who took what they wanted, and owed nothing to anyone. That was what suited him. That was what he needed. He would show Rob that he could flourish without him. He would show him.
The wind battered at the door, almost like pounding fists. Could someone be there? Tom almost stood up, then forced himself to settle down again. It was just his imagination. Nothing was out there. He had heard no cars, and no figures had passed by the window, shadows over the light.
He turned to his photographs, to pictures of drops of water frozen and stilled by the cold. He saw branches, twisted like claws. He saw furrows and mounds in the snow, that looked as if they might be hiding something. He saw danger and menace in every one, and... "Stop it!" he cried, slamming his fist into the arm of the couch. It was stupid to mope here, as if he was afraid. He would get out there and take more pictures. He would reclaim the day and make it his own.
Tom threw on warm clothes, and tugged open the door before he had time to think better of it. The wind attacked him like a living creature, but he hunched his shoulders and drove through it. This time he headed in a different direction, away from the place he had found the man.
It was only after he had walked for a while, that he realised that he was going towards the unmoving cloud.
"But what does that matter?" he told himself. "It's just a freak of nature, nothing to be afraid of."
Rob tried to walk alongside him, his brow furrowed with anxiety, full of fear and superstition, urging Tom to go home. "I won't," Tom told him. "You always were a worrier. I'm free of you now. Go away."
Rob drew back, but did not entirely go. "That's not natural," he whispered, when Tom looked for too long at the cloud. "And surely it's never been this cold in March before."
Tom shuttered his mind against the whispering. He took a few photographs, some of the cloud, and some of the snow. When he turned round to look back the way he had come, he could not see the cottage at all, as if the snow had buried it utterly. He saw his own footsteps, though, coming to this place. There were other footsteps, too, following a similar path, two sets side by side. Barney and Bran, he thought. He wondered where they had left their car, and whether they had found the man they had been looking for.
"You should have helped them search," Rob whispered, but Tom rounded on him, hissing, "Get out of my mind!" He hated this habit his own mind had of speaking in Rob's voice, especially as it only ever told stupid, sentimental lies. The man had chosen to leave, and now two other men, just as crazy as him, had come to look for him. They were welcome to each other. It wasn't Tom's problem.
He stamped on. The brightness of the sun started to fade, and he peered upwards, frowning. He must have reached the edge of the dark cloud, although his eyes told him that it was still further ahead of him. In the sunlight, there had been no birds, but now the silence seemed even deeper, as if there was no life at all ahead of him.
He was breathing shallowly. His hands were trembling, moist with sweat inside his gloves. "Stupid," he told himself. "Stupid."
"Do you think so?" a voice said.
Tom all but screamed. Fury came in the wake of fear, when he saw who it was who had spoken. "You," he shouted. "What are you trying to do to me?"
"Nothing," said the man called Will. He was standing up, leaning against a slim tree. His hands were behind him, close to his body, fingers curling into the bark as if he was using them to help keep him upright.
"Then why did you hide like that?" Tom demanded. "Why did you jump out at me?"
"I'm sorry," the man said. "I was hiding from... someone else. I thought you were someone else. I'm too tired to hide for long, so when I realised you weren't..."
"That's enough," Tom commanded. "People were looking for you," he said. "Your friends, or so they said. Did they find you?"
Will shook his head, a tiny, fragile movement, as if his head hurt him a lot. "They would have, but I didn't let them."
"Funny way to treat friends." Tom gave a bark of laughter. In his imagination, Rob raised one eyebrow.
"I know." Will half-closed his eyes. "They want to help. They still think this is something they can help me with. They don't understand that..." He sucked in a breath, seemingly in pain. When he had let it out slowly, he continued. "This is it. No-one can help. If they had stayed with me, they would only have got hurt."
"So you hid," Tom said. He understood little, but he understood that much. "Rather than tell them that to their faces, you hid, and they're probably still running around out there, worried out of their minds."
"Yes, they are," Will said, but this time his eyes were clear. "You have to make cruel decisions sometimes. This was for the best. At least they have a chance of..." He stopped. Tom had a sudden, insane idea that he had been about to say, "living."
"You lot really are melodramatic, aren't you?" he said, shaking his head. "They talked about spells and wizards. You're talking about... Well, you're making it sound as if the world is about to end."
"I hope it isn't," Will said quietly, "but I've done everything, everything, and I don't know..."
"Please." Tom laughed, flapping his hand. The sun was almost entirely gone, now, but the silence was no longer absolute. If Tom listened hard, he could hear something, like the buzzing of a thousand insects, far away, or the whispering of an enormous crowd. Despite himself, he felt the hairs stand up on the back of his neck.
"You should go," Will said. "You..." He cried out, his hand rising to his brow. He sagged, slipping down the tree trunk that was supporting him. Tom almost found himself lunging forward to catch him, but he reminded himself that he did not do such things. Will looked at him, and Tom felt himself stricken cold, for there was utter insanity in Will's eyes. Then Will cried out again, and his eyes were calm again, deep and old. "I can't hold out much longer," he whispered, "and there's still so much to do."
Go, Tom thought. I'll go. Back to the cottage, where he would lock the door against the weather, close the curtains, and settle down to an evening working on his pictures. No-one would phone. No-one would interrupt him. And them, in a few weeks' time, he would return to London with a bulging portfolio, the makings of a masterpiece. He would exhibit it, and people would marvel. He would score a point over all his rivals, and Rob would... And Rob...
Will was still looking at him, and his eyes were like mirrors, and Tom saw things in them, things that no-one ever saw.
He saw the fear that he had felt in the cold and the wind, and the knowledge that he was entirely alone. He remembered those happy months and years when he had had someone to come home to, someone to talk to, someone to share things with, and he missed them. He saw Bran and Barney, desperately anxious about their missing friend, and he remembered, too, that he had told no-one that he was coming to this cottage, but no-one was searching for him.
He remembered his urge to help. He remembered how he had been unable to walk away the night before. He remembered how he had taken photographs of the body before he had taken any steps to find out if he needed help. He remembered the argument with Rob, many arguments with Rob.
"You're too cold," Rob had said. "Too selfish. Too heartless. Other people matter, too."
"Other people matter to themselves," Tom had retorted. "Let them fight their own battles. All I can worry about is fighting my own, because no-one else is going to."
"I will." Rob had tried to take his hand. "I will fight your battles, even if you never fight any of mine." Then he had given a strange, twisted smile. "But I do wish you would fight mine sometimes."
Rob was stupid and sentimental, though, and Tom was better off without him. He did not miss him. Well, he missed him sometimes, but that would pass. He would show Rob that he had been holding Tom back, that now he was freed, he could flourish. He would...
"But I do miss him," he murmured. Because there was no-one to go home to, to talk to about this. There was no-one to experience this with him. There was no-one who really liked him, who wanted him to succeed, who just wanted him to be happy. There was no-one searching for him, no-one trying to protect him.
"Go," Will said quietly. "Be honest. Time is short. There is no time for lies."
Tom brought both hands up to his head. "What are you doing to me?" he pleaded.
"Nothing." Will shook his head. "It's just that, sometimes, someone else can be a mirror. It makes us see..."
"What do you know about me?" Tom grabbed him by the collar. "What are trying to do?"
"Nothing," Will said. "But if..." His face twisted. "If you can find your way, then perhaps... Perhaps it won't all have been in vain."
Tom pushed him away. Will's head smashed into the tree trunk, and Tom recoiled, staggering back through the snow. "You're crazy," he said. "Mad."
"Believe that." Will's voice was a fragile little thread. "I'm too tired to make you forget."
The sound of whispering was closer now, and there was faint movement in the depths of the cloud, like a million wings all fluttering together, the same colour as the sky. The cold was beyond natural now. It seemed to reach inside him, so it was at its most intense at his heart, and at its slightest on his exposed skin.
"What's happening?" Tom breathed.
"Nothing you need to know about," Will said. "You should go. Forget this." His mouth curved into a half smile. "That's a suggestion, not a command. I can't manage more. But you need to go. Far away, back to whatever it was that you ran from. Look into the mirror. Know yourself, and live."
Tom peered up at the sky. His legs felt leaden, and his body felt frozen. "But..."
"Go," Will croaked. "Run."
It was like a compulsion in his mind. It was as if something else was taking control of him, forcing his legs to run, forcing him to flee, plunging through the snow. The wind clawed at him. Greyness reached out of the clouds and tried to blind him.
Someone grabbed at him, and he screamed. "Where is he?" a voice demanded. Tom lashed out, fighting him, then realised that it was Bran. "Where is he?" Bran shouted.
Tom pointed mutely. Bran shoved him away so hard that he fell into the snow. Tom wanted to shout angrily after him, but all anger seemed to have left him. He just lay there, watched Bran run back the way he had come. I hope he's in time, he thought.
And then Barney was there, helping him up. "There might be a chance," he said. "We've found something, but if not..." He pressed something into Tom's hand. Tom closed his fist on it, but did not look to see what it was. "It might protect you. It was Bran's, but he..." He bit his lip, and ran on.
Tom watched him go, then stood up shakily. The urge to run had gone, and was replaced with a strange sort of clarity. He had no idea what was going to happen to these three strangers with their curious little drama, and perhaps he would never know. He had been right in what he had said to Rob so many months before. All he could worry about was his own, personal battles. Will had been wrapped up in his own. Bran had pushed Tom aside, so focused was he on what he had needed to do. Everyone carried on with their own little lives, like planes on their courses in the sky, passing, but never touching.
Tom could not make a difference to whatever it was that was happening to Will or Bran or Barney, but he could take control of his own life. He thought of Will, hiding from his friends, and Will saying how other people could be a mirror.
"Okay, I admit it," he said to the ghost of Rob, lurking patiently in his imagination. "I came here to run away. I was hiding, because I didn't want to bump into you, because if I did..."
Rob raised one eyebrow, expectantly, waiting.
"Because, if I'd seen you," Tom said, "I'd have realised how much I loved you. I'd have begged you to come back to me. I'd have promised anything."
Silence. Not a single sound from the snow. Bran and Barney was gone, swallowed by the cloud, but even the cloud was silent.
"Because I miss you," Tom whispered. "I love you. It's more important than anything. More important than my career. More important than life."
Rob smiled at him. Squaring his shoulders, Tom began to walk back to the cottage. It would take barely an hour to pack, and then he would be out of there, driving back south, on the long long journey to London, where Rob was, and his heart.
As he walked, he opened his hand, to look at the thing Barney had given him. It was a ring, a thin band of twisted gold, and it looked very old. It looked too big for any of his fingers, but there was something about it...
Tom thrust it into his pocket. Perhaps he would give it to Rob as a peace offering. It had been freely given, after all, and he would never meet Will or Bran or Barney again. He wondered what would happen to them, but already the memory was fading, and he knew that soon it would be gone.
He had fought his own battle, though, and that was what mattered. He was going home. Rob would be his again, and he would live. He would live.