by Eildon Rhymer
Will's steps started to drag. Although he was an immortal Old One, he was still bound in part by the limits of his human body. He could not stay awake all night without ill effect. He could not walk as far as he had walked, without suffering from thirst and exhaustion and very sore feet.
Jane had offered to drive him somewhere, but he had declined. If he had accepted, they would have ended up talking, and there had already been far too much of that. She was mortal, and had forgotten everything she had ever known about magic. The Old Ones had freed her, so she could live a normal life, untrammeled by memories. Will had his own tasks to do, and he could not accept any offers of friendship. That was how it had to be.
A car pulled up beside him, and a window rolled down. Just someone asking for directions, the human part of Will thought, but the Old One stiffened, ready to fight. An enemy had declared himself in these parts.
"Will?" the driver called.
He did not recognise the driver's voice, and the inside of the car seemed deeply shadowed, compared with the light outside. Will used his Old One's sight and recognized Mark, the young man who had talked to him the night before.
"Hang on," Mark said. There was a small layby a short way ahead, and he drove to it, and pulled in. He got out of the car, and leant on the open doorway, waiting for Will to reach him.
Will did so, slowly. The small car had been silver once, but it was old and battered, and stained dark with the dust of country roads. Mark was dressed in much the same way as he had been dressed the night before, and he was smiling. Of course, Will had erased all memories of magic from his mind.
"You look tired," Mark said.
Jane had said the same, and Will could not deny it. "I walked further than I should have over the hills," he said. "It's always easier to get to a place, then to come back from it."
"Want a lift?" Mark offered. He patted the roof of his car. "She's old – second-hand, of course – but does the job."
Will was about to refuse, but stopped to think about it. Mark was not like Jane. He at least was a total stranger. There was enough darkness in the world that it was good to encourage these small acts of charity and kindness. And if Mark did prove to be one of those people who offered lifts to strangers, and then robbed them, he would meet his match in Will. Will would be on his guard as an Old One, and no mortal stood a chance against that.
"I will," he said. "Thank you." He climbed in, and fastened his seat belt. "Only into town," he said, "or as far as you're going that way."
Mark started the engine. The engine was noisy, and the gear changes jerky. He drove the car as if he was not used to country roads, or even not used to driving at all. Will fought the urge to cling on to the edge of the seat.
"I know what it's like," Mark said.
"What?" Will braced himself as the car hurled itself round a corner.
"Facing a crisis."
The radio was on, but far too quietly to hear what it was saying. Will found the sensation unsettling. It was as if people were trying to tell him something, but the message forever stayed out of reach. He looked out of the window at the quiet hillside, then at the road ahead. "Why do you say that?" he asked.
"I know the signs." Mark gestured with his hand, holding onto the steering wheel only with his thumb. "Out all night. Sleeping in your clothes. That look in your eyes, as if you've got the weight of the world on your shoulders, and no-one to help you bear it."
His tone was almost flippant, and perhaps it was that that made the difference. For the first time, Will gave him all of his attention. He played back the things Mark had said the night before, and realised that perhaps this man did understand after all.
"It's a lonely thing to be different," Mark said, "when everyone you know wants different things."
Perhaps I can tell him, Will thought. Just a few things, nothing important. Nothing real. He had planned to go into the past and pour out his troubles to Merriman, but Merriman would never answer him. Sometimes articulating a problem to Merriman allowed Will to come up with a solution himself, but that was all. Merriman was gone. The Old Ones were gone. Mark was just a mortal, and a stranger, but at least he was here.
And sometimes, Will thought, remembering John Rowlands, mortals could be surprisingly insightful.
"You're partly right," he said. "I know things that no-one else knows. There's no-one to talk to about it. I had a friend once who understood, but…"
"Friends drift away, sometimes," Mark said, with sympathy.
"He hates me now," Will said. His finger was tracing sad little shapes on his lap. "And there's another friend, a girl… She was never as close, but she… She's here now, too. They're both here."
"Together?" Mark raised an eyebrow. "Ah. Your friend's taken the girl you like?"
"No." Will leant against the edge of the window, letting the wind lash against his face.
"Or the girl's taken the boy you like?"
His eyes were stinging from the dust, and the ferocity of the wind. Clouds were coming in from the west, dark patches of shadow spreading over the mountains.
"It doesn't matter," Will said. He turned inwards again. "None of it ought to matter."
Mark swerved around a wandering sheep. "You'll make new friends," he said. "I keep telling myself that, too. However unusual the things that interest you are, there must be someone else out there that likes the same things."
"No." Will closed his eyes, opened them again. "There never will be."
Mark sighed. "It feels like that sometimes, doesn't it? And then there's the dark, lonely nights, when you think that the only way out is to kill yourself."
Will leant back against the headrest, and closed his eyes. A dog barked. A car passed them in the other direction. From the sudden coldness on his cheek, he knew that they had passed into shadow.
"Almost there," Mark said.
Will opened his eyes to see that they had almost reached the town. The sun was no longer shining, and everywhere looked dingy and sad, compared with the vivid colours of sunlight.
"Shall we go somewhere for a drink?" Mark suggested.
"No," Will said. "No thank you. I've got… things… Things to do. Stop here. Here will be fine."
He fumbled for the door handle, and clambered out. Holding up a vague hand in farewell and thanks, he walked away. It was a very long time before he heard the car engine start up again.
Should she go back again, or should she stay away? Jane had wrestled with the dilemma all afternoon.
Bran hated Will, and was stubborn and prickly. But Jane understood at least something of his reasons, and knew that they came from the trauma of being attacked. That was something she could sympathise with. Also, Bran had been there on that holiday… And every moment Jane spent in Wales, she became more and more sure that something was very wrong with her memories of that holiday. She had spent so long with only a creeping sense of wrongness, and now, suddenly, she had found both Will and Bran, who had been there. She was drawn to them. She could not let them slip away.
In the end, she had found herself in her car, driving towards Bran's house, and she had realised that the decision had already been made.
She arrived in the early evening, and found that Bran was out. "I don't know where he's gone," his father said, answering her knock on the door. "He was here when I came back, but now he's gone." He had no smiles for her.
"By himself?" she asked. "On foot."
"Yes," Bran's father said, in a way that seemed to imply that there was no possible alternative to either.
He could not give a direction for her to follow, and he did not ask her in to wait. Instead, he closed the door, and left her standing there in the yard. Aren't you even worried? she wanted to cry. He's out there alone, near the place where he was attacked. How can you just stand there like that?
But of course she just turned quietly and walked back to her car. A cat eyed her suspiciously, and a dog barked. Another dog answered it from far away.
She supposed she should just drive away. She had come, but he had gone. She had tried, but fate, or chance, had chosen otherwise. If she drove away now, she knew exactly what would happen. She would spend another night in her hotel, perhaps she would linger uselessly in Wales for another day, and then she would go home. Back to the old life, back to the life of not knowing. An opportunity passed by, and gone forever.
And probably the opportunity had been nothing at all, anyway, but lay only in her imagination. After all, it made no sense to believe that something had happened on that long-ago holiday, but had then been forgotten. Bran denied all knowledge of it, and Will seemed to deny everything. She was thirty-two years old, acting like a fanciful child. She blushed to think about her overjoyed reaction to meeting Bran and to remembering Will.
No, it was best to go. Give it up. She had forgotten something from her past, but everyone forgot things. You had to move on, and think of the future. If you were not careful, the past could destroy what you had. An empty life, teaching children, but never quite connecting with anyone. A life haunted by an illusion of what was lost. Best to go. Best to say, This is it. The future starts here. Throw away the diaries, make a new start. Walk away…
The dog barked again. Far on the hillside, she saw a man, with a dog bounding round his heels. She peered at him, shielding her eyes. The man was limping, and his hair was amazingly fair.
It was Bran.
Jane found that she had her car keys in her hand. She crunched them in her fist, then put them back into her pocket. Squaring her shoulders, she went to meet him.
She was coming towards him, through the gloom and chill of the evening. Despite everything, Bran could not keep himself from smiling.
"Jane." He said her name when she was close enough to hear it. "Jenny."
Her answering smile was tight, distracted. "I wasn't sure… I came…" She ran her hand through her hair, pushing it from her brow. "I didn't want to just go, not without finding out how you were."
The wind wrapped cold around him. The sky was churning and grey, although it was not yet raining. "You're going? Back to England?"
She was not looking at him. "I have to soon. Besides, I… I'm not sure what I wanted from all of this. No, I do know, but I don't think it's possible. This isn't getting anywhere."
He frowned. "What isn't getting anywhere?"
She was shaking her head. "You said you don't remember anything… strange. No-one does. It's just me. I think… I wonder if I might go mad, if I stay here. I need to get away. I just wanted to say goodbye."
"Goodbye." He echoed it. Then, in a terrible instant, he knew the truth. "It's that Will, isn't it?"
"No." She looked uncomprehending, but perhaps it was an act. "Why should it be?"
But Bran knew the truth. He liked Jane. He remembered thinking her pretty even when they were children, and he thought that ten times as much now they were grown up. He wanted to get to know her, but even on that bench, most of her talk had been about Will. Bran wanted Jane; Jane wanted Will. It was yet another crime that the so-called Will Stanton would pay for.
He clenched his unwounded fist at his side. Should he tell her, he wondered. He was tempted to. His mind could easily construct a fantasy, in which he told Jane the things he had learnt about Will, and she believed them unquestioningly, and agreed to be his. But he was no idiot. He knew what was more likely to happen. Jane would dismiss all his arguments, and become angry with him for daring to attack her beloved Will. He would lose her if he told the truth.
No, Will was playing a clever game of deceit, masking his evil intent in smiles. Bran would match him, trick for trick.
"No reason," he said, and forced a smile. He thought it probably looked more like a death rictus, but she didn't say anything about it, so perhaps it was enough. "If you're going soon, you may as well come in for coffee. One last evening, for old times' sake."
For a moment, he thought she was going to refuse, but then she gave a heart-melting smile, and accepted him.
The mountain drew Will like a lode-stone. So much had happened here. So many stories lay in each rock, in each blade of grass. The power of the Grey King was broken, but echoes remained, and would remain as long as there were someone to remember them.
The Darkness was gone, and that was good, surely that was good. The Darkness was gone, and the Light with it, and Will was the only one left. Mankind had lost its principal shield, but it had also lost the main threat that stood against it. High Magic was gone, but elements of older magics remained, because they were part of the earth, and could never be taken from it. Magic remained, but the things of the older, wilder magics had never cared much for the magic of the Old Ones. Not enough to help them; not enough to hinder.
Will wandered on the slopes alone. He had returned to his hotel long enough to shower, change his clothes, eat a little, and sleep for a few hours. Prosaic things, he had thought, as he had scrubbed himself in the shower. Pathetic things. Trivial things, when a declared enemy was still at large outside, threatening what he held dear. Trivial, but necessary. Even so, he had taken the minimum amount of rest that he could, before coming out again.
It was enough to help him focus on the really important things. Things like his loneliness, and Bran's hatred of him, really did not matter. Personal feelings had never mattered for an Old One. It was one of the first lessons Merriman had taught him.
What did matter was that someone had attacked Bran, in order to get at Will. There was an enemy, and Will did not know who it was. Will was here now, but the enemy had failed to show itself, or make any sort of a move. How could he fight an enemy when he did not know who the enemy was?
It was someone who knew that he was an Old One, but what did that mean? Old Ones endeavoured to leave few obvious traces in history, but occasionally snippets of truth got written down. Fragments were preserved in historical documents, and rather more in legends, novels or poems. It was not beyond the realms of possibility that some dedicated mortal had done some research and stumbled on at least a fraction of the truth.
But to know about Bran…? That was a secret written down nowhere. The enemy had attacked Bran, to draw Will. The implication was that he had discovered Bran, but had not known who Will was. He had discovered that Bran was friends with the last remaining Old One, but he had not known who that Old One was. So he had attacked Bran, then settled down to watch and see who turned up in response.
Will sighed, slumped down on the ground. The first specks of rain started to fall. He knew he should have thought like this the night before. He should have attacked the problem rationally, rather than walking himself into exhaustion on the mountainside, assailed with emotions that he should not have felt.
It was reasonable to assume that the enemy knew who he was now. Will had used his powers on the enemy's minions, and had declared himself openly. The question was, what did the enemy want? Why was he not attacking?
He looked around, both with his eyes, and with his magic. The hillside was empty. No-one was watching him except for birds and animals. The ramblers had hurried home from the impending downpour, and the tourists were long gone.
Was the enemy mortal, or a being of power? The account Will had obtained from the enemy's thug had been ambiguous. His orders could have issued from an ordinary man hiding in the darkness, or they could have issued from a supernatural being who could draw shadows, and speak into a man's mind.
Will sat motionless for a very long time, letting the facts work in his subconscious.
Magical, he thought. By now it was raining heavily. He did not think that a mortal could have identified Bran. But if the enemy was magical, who could he be? The Dark had gone from the world. Will had been left behind in part to guard against any resurgence of the Dark, but he had sensed no Darkness here. A stray agent of the Dark, left behind as Will had been left behind, would have had no trouble identifying Will, and Will would have sensed him instantly. They would have been drawn together, even as they hated each other. The last relics of the High Magic left on the earth. Opposite poles of the same whole…
He closed his eyes, ashamed of the sudden spark of longing that he felt. No, there was no Darkness here. The old and wild forms of magic had no interest in him. So what did that leave? What did that leave?
"I don't know," he said aloud. He wished that Merriman was here to advise him. Or anyone, anyone who understood. Bran. Jane… His mother, who knew nothing of his true nature, but still gave comfort with her every word. Just someone.
And there, as if in response to his plea, a figure moved on the mountain; an impossible figure.
She tried to find things to say, that were not about the things that really mattered. Bran answered them, said things of his own. She got the impression that he, too, was forcing himself to talk about things that were other that what he really wanted to say.
"Did you find out anything about that incident?" she asked, when they were almost back at the farm. "The one we saw yesterday?"
"John Rowlands mentioned something about it," he said. "Some woman stabbed her boyfriend because he'd been looking at another woman."
"Stabbed?" Jane echoed, because Bran said it without emotion, as if it was nothing shocking. "Does that sort of thing happen a lot round here?"
"Not much," Bran said, "but more than it used to."
"But is he going to be okay?" Jane persisted.
Bran shrugged. "John didn't say."
He gave the impression of not caring either way. Didn't it mean anything to him that they had been there, that they had almost seen it, that they had almost certainly heard some of the man's last words, before he fell bleeding to the ground? Or maybe he did care, but it was too close to his own assault for him to want to talk about it.
They neared the gate, and it started to rain. "You go on," Bran said, "if you want to."
He could not walk fast because of his injuries. Jane glanced at the closed door ahead of them, and then at Bran at her side. "I'm not sure your father would like that," she confessed.
Bran pressed his lips together in a terse line. "Tough. It's as much my house as his, and I've…"
The rain fell harder. Jane had never minded getting wet. She wore no make-up that could run, and had never had an expensive hair style in her life. "Could you ask him first?" she said. "I'll wait outside. I'd just feel happier…"
Bran grabbed her wrist. "You're coming in with me."
"No, Bran, please." She pulled herself free. "Just warn him. Prepare him. Tell him I won't stay long."
He looked at her, and there was something close to fury in his face. Then it was gone, and he was bland again, so she thought she must have imagined it. "Okay," he said, "if that's what you want."
She rested her hand gently on the gate, and watched him go in. The door closed to a slit, a slit of darkness into the house. She heard voices, but did not try to hear what they were saying.
A minute or two passed. She turned instead to face the mountain. When she turned back, she could not help herself. She screamed.
end of chapter nine
Author's note: So there we are: the last chapter of this middle section. From now on, we're into the end game. But you will have to wait until tomorrow for that. *evil laugh*