Walking Shadow

 

by Eildon Rhymer        

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Chapter eleven

 

He answers

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She stood in the pouring rain, and she called his name. "Will Stanton!" She called it aloud, but the wind took her voice and stretched it, and the rain tore it apart and scattered it. She cupped her hands around her mouth, and called it again. Then she imagined herself screaming it, calling it with all the power of her mind and imagination, but did not open her mouth at all.

 

Nothing happened. No-one came.

 

The rain made her clothes hang heavily, and the wind was slowly leeching away all warmth from her. Things flickered in the distance, and they might have been ghosts, or wind-made shapes of rain.

 

Just for a moment, she looked at herself as others might see her: a town-bred woman standing out in a storm, waiting for someone who had no reason to come. It was nonsense to think what she was thinking. It was nonsense to think that she could call Will's name and summon him, and, wherever he was, he would hear it. It made no sense at all.

 

But she believed it. And he came.

 

He took shape out of the rain and the darkness, and moved slowly towards her. In the gloom, his face was almost as pale as Bran's, and his hair was dark with rain. He had a dark coat on, wrapped tightly around his body. He was looking at her as if she was his only hope, but also as if she was his doom.

 

"I have a question for you." She would not let him speak first. "Are you a…" No. It was too ridiculous to say the word. "Are you a…"

 

He waited.

 

She swallowed, pushed her sodden hair back from her face. "Are you a wizard?"

 

He nodded. "That is not the name we use, but yes." His voice was hoarse. She could not read the expression on his face.

 

She could have laughed. Reality was spiralling away in shards of starry light. There was nothing in the world but the two of them, and this conversation that could not be happening, that could not be true, yet at the same time felt like to truest thing in the world.

 

She looked him in the eye. She got the sudden impression that in a way she was holding him captive, that he would not utter anything but the truth to her as long as she looked at him so. "Were you a… wizard… then?"

 

Again he nodded. "I was."

 

Ever so slowly, her hands curled into fists, her nails pressing into her palms. "Did something happen, that time when we met you? Something… magical?"

 

He nodded.

 

Deep breath, in, then out. In, then out. "And I was made to forget it? We were made to forget it?"

 

"Yes." His lips shaped the word, but no sound came out.

 

Jane took a step forward. The wind and rain had filled her whole body with ice, and her voice was like the coldest of winters. "But you remember it all? You have always remembered it all?"

 

Will nodded. His eyes were still fastened on hers.

 

Jane took another step forward. "Were you the one who made us forget?"

 

Will shook his head. "Not me. It was… another of my kind, but…"

 

"Another?" Jane jabbed him in the chest with one finger. "Where is he, then?"

 

"Gone," Will said. His voice seemed suddenly as cold and as mournful as the wind. "They have all gone."

 

Jane jabbed at him again. "Could you have changed what he did? Could you at least have told me?"

 

He nodded miserably. "Yes." He wrenched his gaze away from her, to look down at his hands. "I could have, but… I… couldn't."

 

"Wouldn't," Jane said. She brought both hands up, shoved him away with all her strength. He fell. No magic swept up to save him. "I hate you," she spat. "How dare you do this to me? How dare you?"

 

He raised his hand, almost pleadingly, but she kicked it down. "Were you trying to cast another spell on me?" she demanded. "To make me forget all this again?"

 

"No," his cracked lips whispered, but she knew that he was evil through and through. Bran was right. He would say one thing, and do another.

 

"I won't give you the chance," she told him, and then she turned and ran from him, running through the rain, back to Bran's farmhouse, back to the light, back to normal things and life.

 

She did not want him to see just how badly she was sobbing. 

 

******

 

He could barely hear the knocking over the noise of the wind and rain. Bran tightened his grip on the cold cup of coffee, and stared at the half-open living room door. The hall lay beyond that, and at the end of it, the front door.

 

"Leave it," said his father, appearing quietly from the gloomy hallway. "We don't need them."

 

"Who?" Bran asked. "We don't need who?"

 

His father grunted, but Bran knew what the answer would have been. People from outside. Strangers. Anyone who isn't us. He had been raised with that belief. It had been the sub-text behind so much that his father had said and done. And he had come to believe it himself. He did believe it. And yet…

 

"Did you see who it was?" he asked, but he put the mug down on the table, ready to stand up.

 

His father shook his head, but shrugged. "Probably that English girl."

 

It was enough. When the knocking had started, Bran's heart had started to pound, as he remembered the attack. But the attackers had not knocked so openly. He could not let himself be ruled by fear. He could not let himself be changed utterly by a single thing that lay in the past.

 

"Then you should have let her in," he said. "It's raining."

 

He pushed his way past his father, who retreated to his room. Switching the hall light on, he took a deep breath, and opened the door. It was indeed Jane. He could not keep himself from smiling. She had come back to him. Perhaps it was not too late for him.

 

"Come in," he urged her. She came in, almost stumbling, and he saw how thoroughly soaked she was. Then she stepped into the light, and he saw that she had been crying.

 

He had never come face to face with a crying woman before. He decided to ignore it, and concentrate on the things that he knew how to deal with.

 

"Come through," he said. He pulled her forward with an arm over her shoulders, and she let him lead her. "Do you want a hot drink? Towels? I can lend you some dry clothes. The bathroom's over there…"

 

"I don't…" she said. A small furrow appeared on her brow. "Towels would be best. To stop me ruining your couch."

 

He hurried out to get towels, and spread them carefully on the couch. He made coffee, and brought her biscuits. She gave a wan smile of thanks, and picked up one of the towels to rub her hair. She had to remove it from its ponytail, and it fell around her face in heavy, damp tendrils.

 

"You came back," he said at last, unable to stop himself. When she looked blankly at him, he tried to explain. "You didn't say… I mean, you went. And earlier you said…" He was not used to talking much, and the words ran away from him, refusing to express the things he really wanted to say.

 

"I…" Jane looked down at her lap. "….needed… light. Normality. So I came…"

 

Bran studied his hands. "Are you staying…?"

 

Jane shook her head. "I should go as far away as possible…" But her voice was doubtful.

 

"Stay," Bran blurted out. "Please. I mean… Just for a while. I know you need to go back to work in September. But that's weeks… There's time…"

 

"Maybe I need…" She did not seem to be hearing him.

 

Long ago, Bran remembered, he had been forthright and blunt and unafraid. People had teased him at school, but he had not let it break him. He had been solitary but confident, never afraid to go after what he wanted. Nothing had changed, but somehow those things that he wanted had narrowed and narrowed. At seven he had dreamed of performing wonders; at thirty-two he looked forward to nothing but another forty years on the same farm, living in the same way.

 

What had changed? Because I made a decision, he thought. I chose this life, and I had to make that choice mean something. But it was also his father, he thought. He had not really realised it until tonight, but he had lived his life with the slow drip-dripping of his father's attitudes and opinions. You don't need anyone else. It's just us, alone.

 

He had to step out from that. He would not be broken by his attackers, and he would free himself in other ways, too. He would take a chance if it was offered to him. He would fight for a chance to live and be happy. He would fight.

 

"Stay," he said simply, not commanding her, not begging. "I would like to get to know you better. Stay… or we can write. I can come and visit you. I'm not asking you for commitment, just to give it a chance."

 

She seemed to hear him at last. "Bran." There was a strange shuddering in her voice. "There's so much you don't know."

 

He sat on the floor at her feet. "Then tell me," he said.

 

******

 

"Tell me," Bran said. Jane could have laughed, or maybe the tears could have come again.

 

"You won't believe me." She twisted a wet strand of hair around her fingers.

 

"Try."

 

He had taken his glasses off, she saw, and his tawny eyes were as deep and impossible, in their way, as Will's were in theirs. She was suddenly struck with the idea that if anyone in the world would believe her tale of magic and betrayal, it would be Bran. In the half-light and shadows of the room, he looked almost magical himself.

 

"Do you believe in magic?" she asked him.

 

He did not laugh, or give an instant denial. He seemed to be considering the question carefully. "I've heard that it's easier to believe in magic in a place like this, than in the cities," he said. "Sometimes I…" But he did not complete that thought.

 

She tried again. "You have to know something about me. I've been haunted all my life by the certainty that I'd forgotten something really important." She held up her hand, forestalling any interruption, but he was listening carefully. "It didn't feel like the normal sort of forgetting. It felt… different. I had no idea what it was that I'd forgotten. Even so, it has… shaped me, in a way. I've had a happy enough life, but it's never felt completely… whole. I've been haunted by memory. As soon as I leave here, I will write down everything I can about this conversation, to hold onto it. I've done that for years."

 

"Everything?" he asked, and she gave a faint smile at the look on his face.

 

"Yes," she said. "Everything. And that doesn't leave much time for anything else, as you can imagine."

 

"You said something the other day," he said, frowning. "Something about that holiday…"

 

"Yes." She nodded. "Since coming here, I've been feeling more and more strongly that this was where it all started. Something happened here, in Wales, and I was made to forget it. We all were."

 

Bran was still looking at her with those eerie eyes of his. "And now you have proof of it?"

 

"Yes." Jane clasped her hands nervously in her lap. This was it, the moment when he would laugh at her, would reject her ideas completely. She would be alone, ridiculed, believing the impossible. She needed someone to believe her, she realised. Bran, Simon, Barney… anyone. She could not bear being the only one.

 

But she would make no apologies and no pleas. She would state what she knew, and let him judge her.

 

"We were made to forget," she said, "by magic."

 

His eyes opened wider, and he let out a quiet hissing breath, but he did not say anything.

 

"We saw something." Outside it was almost dark. Rain was lashing at the window, and the dark shapes of trees were moving like figures with hands. Were there ghosts there, or wizards out in the darkness, plotting the ruin of mankind? Jane dragged her gaze back. "I don't know what it was. Maybe we did nothing more than accidentally see a spell being done, or maybe it was something bigger. But whatever it was, they took it from us. They rewrote our memories, and left us with just this."

 

"Who?" Bran was rising very slowly to his feet. "Who did it?"

 

Her heart started to beat very fast. Her palms were moist with sweat. "You believe me?" she breathed. "Why do you believe me?" She had expected to feel joy and relief if he believed her, but all she felt was fear.

 

He turned slowly to look at her. His expression was wild, but gradually it calmed. As it did so, her heart slowed down, her hands began to unclench. "Why did you believe it?" he asked.

 

"Because it felt right." She raised her hand to her chest. "It made sense of things here."

 

Bran slumped down on the couch beside her. "I feel the same," he whispered. He looked much younger suddenly, stripped of the defensiveness that so often seemed to surround him. "I've known for all my adult life that I made a huge decision once. I chose to stay here. But the funny thing is, I've never known when I made that decision. I've never known who asked me to. I don't remember anything about making it, but I've never doubted it." He gave a shaky laugh. "Magic… Forgetting… It's an answer. It makes things make sense."

 

His hand was beside hers. She felt a sudden urge to hold it. They were comrades, friends. They had both suffered the same things. They had both faced, alone, a life with fractured memories.

 

"So how did you find out?" Bran asked. Then he frowned, and stood up again. Jane's heart started to race. "Who did it?"

 

Jane opened her mouth, and closed it again. Her throat had closed up, too dry to utter a word.

 

"Who, Jane?" He was bending over her. She realised suddenly that Bran could be terrifying, if he ever chose to be.

 

She could not answer, but his own hatred gave him the answer. "It's Will Stanton, isn't it?"

 

She said nothing, but he saw her answer in her eyes.

 

"I knew it," he snarled, and the fury in her eyes terrified her. "I knew all along."

 

Jane reached towards him with one hand. "It wasn't just him. And maybe they had reasons…"

 

"Don't you dare defend him!" Bran shouted. He paced across the room, limp almost gone, and back to loom over her. "You met him when you went out just now, didn't you?" Frozen, she nodded. "Where is he?" he demanded. "How do I find him?"

 

"I just called his name," she told him, "but please don't…"

 

But Bran was gone, the door slamming behind him.

 

******

 

Waiting. Waiting.

 

The hand on the clock moved round impossibly slowly. The rain slowed to a drizzle, then hurled against the window in full force.

 

Jane drank her coffee. At first it was hot, but by the time she finished it, it had gone cold.

 

Bran's father was somewhere in the house, but did not appear.

 

Had Bran found Will? Had Will come to Bran? She could have run after Bran, but she had not done so, and she did not know why. Instead, she sat here, useless, waiting.

 

After a while, she went to her car, leaving the front door open, and returned with her bag. There were pads of paper in there, and a pen. The worst thing about waiting was knowing that she had not yet secured the memory by writing it down. Will could steal her memory of this past day, and leave her with nothing. Perhaps he could steal the written word, too, but perhaps he could not, or perhaps it would not occur to him that she had a written record. Even if he stole her memory, there was at least a chance that she would still know.

 

She wrote, pouring the truth onto the paper in thick black ink. "Will Stanton is a wizard. He steals memories."

 

Were they talking, out there in the mountain? Had Will already stolen the truth from Bran, and left him wandering, aimless and lost?

 

She went to the window, and back again. Perhaps Bran had a gun, she thought. Farmers usually did. He had been so angry. Perhaps he had gone to kill Will Stanton.

 

She pressed her hands together, and knew that she was trembling. Will was a wizard, though, strong enough to erase truths. He could defend himself from Bran. It was Bran who was in danger, not Will.

 

Will had been hurt, though, when he had saved her on the barrow.

 

A trick, she told herself, to win my sympathy. But Will had tried to hide it from her, and had played it down. What exactly had he said? She had left the diaries of that day at home, so could not check. Something about being careless, or distracted? If so, that would mean that he could defend himself from Bran, as long as he was not taken by surprise.

 

But surely it would take him by surprise. He had seemed so – devastated, her mind supplied – by Jane's discovery of the truth. He had put up not the slightest defence when she had pushed him over. She had walked away, leaving him lying there in the rain… broken, said her mind.

 

She closed her eyes. "It's not true," she said aloud, to her treacherous mind. "He betrayed me in the worst possible way. I hate him."

 

Something moved in the house, and she snapped her head up, but it was only Bran's father. She listened as he walked to the bathroom, and shut the door. Later she heard the toilet flush, and heard him walk back again. He did not come into the living room, or say anything. Did he know that his son had gone out?

 

Jane shivered, feeling more impossibly alone than ever before, in a house that was a tiny spark of light on a vast dark mountainside. Bran and Will were outside, perhaps trying to hurt each other. Ghosts walked on the mountain. Even memory could not be trusted. There was just her alone.

 

"Alone," she whispered, as the thought, unbidden, came to her, of Will standing before her, confessing the truth. Once there had been other wizards, but they had all gone. He was alone.

 

"Then he only has himself to blame," she said.

 

But the memory of his face would not leave her. "Friend," he had said. He had called them both friend. He had come to her town to visit a friend, and gone to Wales to visit a friend. Who else could he have meant but Jane and Bran? He had been checking up on them, keeping an eye on them…

 

So Bran had been right. Will had been spying, watching, gloating…

 

Friend, he had said. Friend. And he had saved her. He had encouraged her to take care of Bran. He had often seemed distracted, but he had been solicitous.

 

Perhaps we were his friends, she thought, raising her head. Perhaps we knew his secrets, but then we were made to forget them, and now there's no-one left who knows. I rejected him, and Bran hates him.

 

She felt tears start in her eyes again. The pen lay on the pad of paper, memories unwritten.

 

There were ghosts on the mountain, perhaps more than just the ones she had seen. He had talked about monsters beneath the waters, and he had shouted to the echo, as if summoning an enemy to come and face him. Perhaps something terrible was happening out in the world that mankind normally did not see, and he was having to fight it all alone.

 

Perhaps he had genuinely believed that it was the right thing to do, to take her memories. Perhaps the wizards had done it to protect her. She had not stayed to ask his reasons. She had not stayed to find out anything at all. She prized truth and memory so much, but she had not stayed to find out the truth.

 

So now I know, she thought. The reason why she had not rushed out after Bran. Because I really don't know whose side I'm on.

 

All she could hope for, and hope so fervently, was that neither of them hurt each other, and that the truth remained.

 

******

 

Will remained where Jane had pushed him. Slowly, as the minutes passed, he managed to pull himself into a sitting position, and then to stand. He tottered to a rock, and sat there, arms limp at his sides, rain dripping down his neck.

 

She knows. She knows who I am, and she…

 

He tried not to think about it. Really, there were far more important things. The pale beings he had seen in the dream, in the dream that had not been a dream… They were part of it, part of the puzzle. Echoes of the past; pale things who bathed their hands in his blood; the enemy who hurt Bran in order to find him. They were all linked, and they were coming together, and he did not know what they meant, or how to fight them.

 

If Jane knows, does that mean that Bran knows, too? Does he remember?

 

"No." He shook his head. No time, no time. It felt like weeks since he had last been here in this present-day time of his. He had gone to a summer place in the past, to heal his wound, and days had passed there in semi-consciousness and dreaming. Then Jane had called to him, the urgency of her calling reaching him even across the years, and he had come to her, before the healing was finished. He still felt weak and sore, but that didn't matter. That was nothing compared with…

 

Bran. Jane. Memories. Hatred.

 

…nothing compared with what had happened this night, as he lay there bleeding. Things had come and bathed their hands in his blood. He did not know the full meaning of it, but he knew that it was bad.

 

"The blood of a wizard…" It was a potent thing indeed. It was an ingredient in countless charms and spells in the old days, though few people had ever been able to obtain any. By 'wizard' the common people meant Old One, and the Old Ones were united and strong, and guarded themselves well. If they were hurt, they bled, but they took care not to bleed.

 

Will had shed blood in a barrow, and that had been bad, but nothing had arisen as a result, as far as he knew. The barrow was long empty, and only a faint echo of its power had remained. But now he had bled profusely on one of the oldest mountains in Britain, and countless things had bathed themselves in his blood.

 

He felt cold with the horror of it. What were they? What had he unleashed?

 

"I hate you." He heard the echo of Jane's words still. That, too, he had wrought. Jane had gone away crying, her world torn apart. Had it been wrong to make them all forget? No, it could not be wrong, for Merriman himself had done it. But Will was the one who had been careless, and let Jane rediscover the truth all by herself. He should have kept away completely.

 

"Will Stanton," a voice cried, commanding through the wind and the rain.

 

Will slowly raised his head. "Bran." His lips shaped his name. He would know his voice anywhere, and he felt the calling deep inside.

 

"Will Stanton!" Bran cried. "Show yourself." Just like I called out to my enemy, Will thought sadly.

 

Will did not move. I should go away, he thought. Somewhere nearby stalked things, strengthened with his blood. There were things on the mountain that no mortal should be allowed to see, for the sake of their own sanity and safety. There was an enemy, and Will was the one to fight it. If Bran didn't find him, he would go back home to warmth and light and Jane. That was where he should be, a normal man, who had made his choice, and chosen to be ordinary and safe, not magical.

 

"Will Stanton!"

 

Bran was a dark shape emerging from the gloom. I should go away, Will thought again, but he could not. He could not find the will to do it.

 

Instead, he stood up, like a man facing his own death. "I am here," he said.

 

******

 

end of chapter eleven

 

******