Summary: Twenty years after. Memories are still lost, Will is still alone, and something is stirring…
A family gathering
It was almost time.
Will sipped his orange juice. The ice cubes chimed together, then drifted down again. They were beaded with specks of air, like raindrops caught out of time. He watched them settle, then raised the glass to his lips again. The juice was sweet and sharp, and still cold enough to hurt, even though his hands were melting the ice, making it bleed colourlessly into the orange.
People swirled past him. Their chatter was all of the here and now, but it was not so difficult to think of it as the chatter of centuries. The people were wisps of memory. Their faces were like the faces of ghosts, and soon they would fade away, and he would remain, alone.
He raised his glass again. The ice cubes were smaller, fading, gone.
A swirling figure stopped. Indistinct features smiled, and became the face of his brother James.
"Cheer up, Will." James slapped him heartily on the back. "Why're you standing there like that?"
Will blinked. "Like what?"
James watched him expectantly. Feeling awkward, Will began to take another sip of his drink, but James crowed in triumph. "Like that! Standing there, concentrating on your drink, as if it's the most interesting thing in all the room. That's what people do when they're nervous." He said the word as if it was disgusting. "And do I see correctly? Is that only juice?"
"Yes, just juice." Will gave a faint half smile. "You know I don't drink."
James laughed. "Ah, one day, dear brother, I'll change you." He clapped Will on the back again, almost hard enough to hurt, and went off laughing, calling for more wine.
"You never could," Will murmured. He drained the last mouthful of juice. "And now it's too late."
His hands felt empty when he had laid the glass down. It felt as if his last protection had gone. Words whirled around him, but now the faces of the people that uttered them were clear and sharp. He knew each and every one of them. He knew their names, and their birthdays, and lists of facts about each one. My family, he thought.
He drifted close to Max and Barbara. "Have you decided whether to get a puppy?" Max was asking.
"I don't know," she replied. "The children want one, but I'm not so sure. You get attached to an old dog, you know? I don't want to be hasty."
Old dog? Will thought. Her dog died? Max was nodding sympathetically. Should I have known that? Will almost drifted forward, but stopped himself. The conversation carried on.
Perhaps he would get another drink. He turned sideways to squeeze through a narrow gap between two huddles of conversation. An elbow jogged him. An uncle murmured an apology, and someone else laughed, but he thought the laughter was nothing to do with him. Distant and fading, Max and Barbara were still talking about dogs. Most of the others were talking about children, but some were talking gravely about the state of the world, about crime and impending war.
Will turned away from those, too.
A large man came up to him, looking older than his years. "Hello, Will."
"Robin." Will nodded a greeting.
"Long time no see," Robin said.
"No," Will agreed. "Not since…" He trailed off. The last time the family had been gathered together had been at their father's funeral, two years before.
"Well…" Robin shrugged. "You should come and visit some time. You're not that far away. Barely two hours, really. The boys talk about you a lot."
"Really?" That bit, at least, was a surprise.
"They think you're mysterious." Robin chuckled. "I think they think you're some sort of international spy, what with all those unexplained absences and the, er, interesting presents. Of course, I keep telling them that you're just my kid brother, but you know what children can be like. Don't understand it myself, though."
"Oh," Will said. "They're wrong, of course." Robin said nothing. "About me being an international spy." Robin was not looking at him. "I'm just an immortal wizard, the last of his kind, keeping watch over mankind to make sure no old evils rise again to threaten them."
"Ha ha," Robin said. "You always were the joker."
Will blinked. "No, I wasn't."
Robin looked at him. "No, you weren't." He drained at least half of his glass of wine. "Wouldn't it be funny if you were, though? Watching over the world…" He gave a harsh laugh. "You must be pretty bad at it. I mean, the things we see on the news every day…"
"They're man's own doing," Will said, "done by their own free will. Things like that have to take their course."
Robin grimaced. "This is too deep for me." He clapped Will briefly on the shoulder. "See you around, mate."
Will watched him as we went to get another drink. James was already the drinks table, deliberating between two wines. Perhaps he would go and find something to eat instead, Will thought. Perhaps the aching hollowness inside him was caused by hunger. He often forget to eat, or failed to notice the passing of days.
"Will! Have you heard?" Mary cried gleefully as he passed. "They just phoned back. I've got the job!"
"You… Oh. Well done!" Will congratulated her. "That's great!"
He had not realised that she had applied for one. She had probably told everyone the night before, but he had been… away. Paul or Stephen might have noticed his hesitation, but Mary had always been self-absorbed. She saw in his response just what she expected to see. He could have said anything at all. He could have been absent entirely, so there was just nothingness where he was standing.
After she had gone, he wondered for a moment what job she would be doing, but he did not call her back and ask.
The buffet table was deserted, and nearly empty. A few nuggets of some indeterminate substance sat dejectedly on a plate, and shreds of lettuce and cress lay scattered across the table cloth, looking like the aftermath of a riot. Will hesitated a moment, then reached for one of the nuggets.
"I wouldn't if I were you," Stephen said.
Will frowned at the brown lump of batter. "Do you know something I don't know?"
Stephen gave a wry laugh. "No, but I saw the children descend on the scraps like a swarm of starving locusts. I'm willing to bet that anything left over has been sat on, or dropped, and had something unspeakable done to it."
"In that case…" Will put the nugget back on the plate. "These children… Tell me we weren't this bad when we were young."
"You were worse," Stephen stated, with a chuckle. "The bane of my life. You've no idea how hard it is to be fifteen, trying so hard to seem manly and impressive, when you've got eight little brothers and sisters crawling around underneath your feet, putting glue in your hair, being sick all over your leather jacket…"
"I never did!" Will cried, but there was a deep place inside him that was not as cold as it had been just a moment before. Stephen had been his hero right through his childhood, until his eleventh birthday when he had stopped being a child.
"No, not you, perhaps," Stephen said. "James was always the worst. But…" He sighed. "Still, something must have gone right. Look at all these children our brothers and sisters keep on having. How many is it now?"
"Twenty-three so far," Will replied. "That's counting yours, of course."
He had not said it with reproach, but Stephen apologised nonetheless. "I'll bring them over one day, I promise. The flight…"
"I know," Will assured him. Stephen had settled in Antigua following his service with the Royal Navy, and came home rarely, and always alone. "It doesn't matter, really."
Stephen took a step back, and studied Will, a strange expression on his face. "You know, I think you mean it. The others all say it, but…"
"Of course I mean it," Will said. He made his mouth smile.
Stephen ignored him. "It's as if you're not really one of us," Stephen said. "You stand there, and you smile, and you listen, but you're…"
Will turned away, closed his eyes, let the words drift away to nothing. He ate the nugget after all, and it tasted of ashes. "I think they did something to it, after all," he said, when he could speak again. He smiled, and Stephen laughed, but a shadow lay long on the room, and the cold place inside him was like ice, and hurting.
Then Stephen left him, grabbed joyously by Gwen and her youngest, dragged away laughing by both hands. He seemed to grow taller as he went away, as if the uncomplicated warmth of their laughter expanded him. With me, he feels a weight, Will thought. He doesn't know why, but he feels it. They all do.
Skirting the laughing groups, he walked to the open patio doors that led into the garden. He stopped just outside, on the cusp between sunshine and shadow. Most of the children were out in the light, playing and shrieking. They were making dens in the undergrowth, stalking each other, conducting elaborate games of pretending.
"I don't think I ever did that," Will murmured.
"What?" asked Paul.
Will snapped his head around. Paul was leaning against the side of the house, as if basking in the shadow. Will stood and watched him, but he did not smile. Paul did not smile back.
"Play," Will said. "Even before…" He stopped.
"You were always different from the others," Paul said quietly. "They say I was, too."
"You are different," Will found himself saying.
There was a sensitivity to Paul that came, perhaps, from the same place as his gift for music. Music was a form of magic, after all, and long ago musicians had been magicians in truth. A thread of that remained. Sometimes Paul looked at Will, and Will thought, He knows! Then, when the glimmer of nascent knowledge died in Paul's eyes, Will could think, more quietly, One day, he will know. One day… And he yearned for it, and was terrified of it, both at the same time.
"Well, yes." Paul have a self-deprecating smile. "Different is one way of putting it, I suppose."
Will was slow to realise what Paul meant, and he blushed as he did so. Paul was secure in his sexuality, but not everyone in the world felt the same. "I didn't mean that."
Paul's smile faded. "I know you didn't, Will. I'm sorry. It was a clumsy attempt to… to deflect…"
"It really doesn't matter," Will said.
"No," Paul said, fixing Will with his deep eyes. "It never does with you, does it? I remember… I don't know why I remember it, but I do… You must have been eleven or twelve, and Mary was doing her teenage girl thing, screaming at you about something or other, but you just sat there quietly and didn't respond one little bit... I remember James laughing, thinking it was a great trick, because the less you responded, the more furious Mary got. But it was no trick. I knew that. Nothing she said made any difference to you at all. Nothing."
First Stephen, and now Paul. Will had no idea how to respond.
"And you were always like that," said Paul. "A little apart. Quiet. Not quite with us, even when you were a baby. You always seemed older than you were."
"Not like now," Will tried to joke. His family frequently commented on how young he looked. He was thirty-two, but he looked a decade younger.
"No, you still seem older than any of us," Paul said seriously. "I used to envy you, you know. I made my own space in my head and barricaded it with music, but it was hard, with so much bustle all around me. You made it seem so effortless."
"I didn't…" Will's words dried up. He was very aware of the garden at his back. Beyond the garden were fields, and the fields led to hills, and the hills were quiet and ageless, flowing with the power that asked no questions, but just was.
"The others were made for this life, but you and I, Will, should have been born into a smaller family," Paul said. He made as if to clasp Will by the forearm, but did not. "And here we are, the only two of the Stanton clan without children of our own. Fated by birth, was it?"
"I think it was," Will said, for neither of them could help the way they had been born.
Paul's eyes went distant and dreamy. What did mortals dream of, Will wondered. Did they yearn for the vast impossible things that they could never know? Or was it only small and human things that they dreamed about, like jobs, and children, and love?
"Where's John?" Will asked, to break the sadness in his brother's eyes.
Paul smiled, as he always did when his partner was named. "Gone for a walk. He's an only child, and finds these enormous family gatherings quite alarming."
"You should have gone with him," Will said. "No-one would have minded."
"No." Paul pushed himself away from the wall. "These things are important, and no matter what I say…" He raked his hair back from his brow with his elegant musician's fingers. "I wouldn't be without them, you know."
Squaring his shoulders, Paul walked into the house. Several voices cried his name. Hands closed on his arms, and dragged him into the warm and beating heart that was the family.
It was cooler outside than Will had expected, even in the sun. He wrapped his arms around his body, and headed out into the garden. The words that he might have said to Paul still lingered in his mouth, unsaid. He knew that he would never say them aloud, not to anyone.
The children were playing and laughing, and Will smiled a little to see them. Two boys were fighting with sticks, dreaming of glory and King Arthur. I met him, Will thought, but you will never know that. No-one will ever know.
"Uncle Will!" one of them called to him. "Grandma wanted to see you."
"Wanted?" Will asked. "Not wants?"
"She told me to run and get you," the boy replied, "but I didn't want to stop what I was doing. It's boring inside. But I've told you now."
"You have," Will agreed. "And don't worry. If she complains that I'm late, I'll tell her it's my fault."
"It was only about an hour ago," the boy said. "I'd have told you when they called us in for supper."
"I don't think they'll call you in for supper until they've eaten most of it," Will confided in them. "You left them hardly any lunch. You can't go starving your elders to death, now, can you?"
The boy lowered his sword. "They wouldn't do that, would they?"
"Grown-ups," Will told him, as he walked on, "are capable of anything."
He heard their scattering footsteps, and smiled to himself. After they had gone, he remembered that he had forgotten to ask them where his mother was. Not that it mattered. He could locate her with minimal effort. For today, at least, he was still bound to her by family ties.
She was sitting in the hotel's flower garden, leaning back on a carved wooden bench. He came up behind her silently, and watched her for a while. Today was her seventieth birthday, and she had borne ten children, but there was nothing worn about her. She was an active and vigorous gardener, and she regularly led the local ramblers on sturdy walks that left people twenty years younger than her panting with exhaustion.
She was his mother, the first and earliest memory of the human aspect of his life. The woman who had nursed him through childhood illness, held him when he cried, rebuked him when he deserved it, and fought for him when he did not.
He would never see her again.
He blinked, but they could not be tears that blurred his vision so. He had not cried in twenty years. And this was right, he told himself. This was the only thing to do.
He took a breath to speak to her, but she got there first. "Come on, Will. Don't just stand there watching me, pitying this frail old thing on her chair."
"I wasn't," Will protested, but he walked forward. "And how did you know I was there? I thought I was quiet."
"Oh, you were," she said, smiling. "But I'm your mother. When you've brought up nine children, you get used to knowing where they all are, even if they don't want you to. Call it a second sight we mothers have."
Will stood facing her. Her voice was light and her eyes were merry, but he could see the sadness that lay beneath them. She had been widowed for two years, and none of her children lived at home.
"Don't just stand there," she chided him. She shuffled along to one end of the bench, and patted the seat beside her. "Sit down."
"Yes, mum." He obeyed her. They watched a thrush settle on the ground, glance around briefly, then fly on. They were rare now, when not long ago they had been common. Will was careful to look at it only as a mortal might do. His mother followed it with her eyes until it was gone, and did not turn back again. "You wanted to see me?" he prompted her.
She turned back towards him, her eyes misty. "No." She shrugged. "I just asked where you were. I don't get to see you much, it seems. Will. My littlest boy. My baby."
She ruffled his hair. He did not protest.
"It's not as if you live very far away," she continued. "You can drive it in half an hour."
"I know." He lowered his head. "I've been a disappointment…"
"Don't be stupid." She slapped him on the arm. "I'm just saying what some of the others say, those silly old ladies down in the village. You don't have to see someone to be close to them."
"No," he said faintly.
"That's why I came out here." She was looking earnestly at him, as if trying to convey a message that he could not read. "My seventieth birthday party, and the guest of honour absents herself. And have they noticed? No, don't answer. They probably haven't. And I don't mind one little bit. They're together, talking, strengthening bonds… They're probably doing it a lot more naturally because I'm not there. If I was there, they'd feel they had to put me at the heart of it all, and that would be distracting."
"But you're…" he stammered. "Aren't you…?" Lonely, he wanted to say, but he could not.
"I feel them here." She pressed her hand, not to her chest, but to his. He flinched at the touch. "You can bring people together without being the centre of things."
"Why…?" He swallowed hard. "Why are you…?"
"Why am I talking like this?" She gave a light laugh. "I don't know. I'm an old woman, and it's my birthday. I'm allowed to act a little strangely, aren't I?" She sighed. "And it just seemed to me that you needed to hear it."
"I just want things to be like they used to be," he blurted out.
"Oh, Will." She put her arm around her shoulder, and drew him into her embrace. "Dad's gone. My babies are all grown up, with children of their own. I've got twenty-three grandchildren, but inside I still feel as young as you are. Things change. That's how life is. But the really important things stay the same. You'll always have your family. Whatever else happens, you've always got that to come back to."
But I haven't, he thought, closing his eyes. I can't have
She hugged him closer, kissed him on the brow. "You're still my little boy."
He let her hold him for a very long time, until the others came from the house, shouting for them; until the sun had turned and covered them in shadow; until he had almost lost the strength to do what he knew he had to do.
But she released him.
"I think it's time for supper, Will," she said gently. "Oh, I've gone stiff. Help me up?"
He stood up, blinking dazedly into the world of shadows and emptiness. It felt impossibly cold, now she was no longer holding him. Voices shouted from the house, but he did not hear them as words, only sound.
"No," he whispered. He took a step back.
"Will?" She looked puzzled, then she looked hurt.
"I'm sorry." This time it was not even a whisper.
She stood up, and reached towards him.
Will raised his hand, five fingers spread wide. "Forget," he said. His voice was firm, not even a crack in it. He moved his arm, encompassing everyone in the hotel, everyone in the garden. He reached deep, tore himself out of their lives and their memories, erased all trace that he had ever existed.
"Forget," he said. Then he turned and walked away, alone.
She stood outside the door, and smiled, waved again, waved again, and smiled.
"Good luck next year!"
"I'll miss you, too."
Only a few remained. A girl came up and shyly presented her with a parcel, its impeccable wrapping clearly done by her mother. "Thank you for teaching me this year, Miss Drew."
Jane took the gift with a smile. "Ooh, is this for me? Thank you so much. I wonder what it is?" She opened it carefully, and found that it was chocolates, of the very expensive sort. Clearly the mother had chosen the gift as well as wrapping it. "My favourites!" Jane lied. "Thank you so much, Amelia."
Amelia was led away by her mother. "Do come back!" Jane cried out, loud enough for everyone to hear. "Let me know how you're doing."
Most of them would not, of course. She would see them at the start of the next school year, looking small and lost and overwhelmed in their new school uniforms. For the first few weeks, they would flock to her when they saw her in the street, clinging to the security that she represented. Within a few months, though, they would be settled into their new schools, confident and old and far too grown up to seek out their old primary school teacher. She would see them around the village, but that would be all.
She let her smile die. A few more left with only a mumbled word, and barely a glance at her. Not that she blamed them. It was hard to say goodbye, and still harder to find the right words when you were only eleven, when your parents were standing behind you hissing loudly at you to be polite. She knew she had done a good job with them. She saw it every day in the way they responded to her questions, in the way they clamoured to join in, in their eyes. They were a good class, and she would miss them.
"Thanks, miss," a voice mumbled.
She smiled again, turning round to see Joshua, one of the tougher boys in the class. He had gone through school with the reputation of being a trouble-maker, destined for nothing but failure, but she had refused to treat him as such. Although he had not blossomed, he had done well, far better than anyone else had expected.
"It was fun," Joshua said. He looked more awkward than she had ever seen him. "I never used to like school. You could have… you know… but you didn't…"
"I had fun, too, Joshua," she said. "I won't forget you. I'm sure you'll do wonderfully in your new school."
He mumbled something, and rushed away. There had been no gift, no expensive chocolates, but she felt that he had given her the most important gift of all. Brushing away tears, she caught the year five teacher looking at her as if he knew exactly what she was thinking, and was amused by it. Yes, I know it's a cliché, she thought, but better that than your coldness. Mr Hanson treated everyone, adult and child alike, with irony and detached amusement. She sometimes felt that the first half of every year was spent in teaching her children how to be human again, after a year with him.
The last of them had gone. "Well, that's that," Mr Hanson said. "Seven weeks without the snivelling brats. Oh, what a chore! I wonder what I'll do with my time."
"Evaluate, plan, prepare…" said Louise Mayhew, who taught year one. "But not yet. I plan to forget about school completely for at least a month. I need it. I feel like a zombie."
"I can't forget," Jane found herself saying. "I don't like to forget."
"Ah, but it's harder for you," Louise said, with all the wisdom of someone who had been teaching for all of two years. "You've got year six. You send them out into the big wide world. You're bound to worry about them. We see our little ones come back the next year. We can watch them grow. We know they're in good hands. Well…" She lowered her voice. "Except for Emma, who knows her lot are getting him next year." She jerked her chin towards Mr Hanson, who was already half way back to the main building.
Jane watched the last car drive away, the last child disappear around the corner. She looked beyond, at the green hills and the hedgerows, at the roofs and the birds and the drifting clouds. "It's not that," she said quietly. "I just don't like to forget. Anything, I mean. People shouldn't forget."
Louise chuckled. "I can think of lots of things that people should forget. Bad dates. What it was like to be fourteen." She paused for a moment, and said in a different voice, "The things we see on the news…"
Jane shook herself. "I'm sorry. I'm just in a strange mood…"
"The end of term does that to you," Louise said briskly. "Go on holiday. Recharge your batteries. You can't give your whole life to your job."
"Are you going anywhere nice?" Jane asked.
Louise started telling her. I should listen to this, Jane told herself. I should absorb every word, memorise it, keep it forever. But her thoughts were drifting, and the words seemed to mean nothing. Louise was talking about drink and sun and fit young men on some far distant beach. Only six years younger than me, Jane thought, but it seems like so much more. She felt old and staid sometimes, but at other times she felt young and innocent and tiny.
"Have you ever been there?" Louise asked.
Jane shook her head. "I usually holiday in Britain, if I go away at all."
"Hey, why don't you come next year?" Louise nudged her conspiratorially. "We always go in a group. You'll fit right in. Learn to live a little."
"I don't think…" Jane began. "Maybe," she said. She looked at the clouds gathering on the southern horizon. She often thought there was pictures in the clouds, but when she turned to look at them, they were always gone. "I thought I might go to Cornwall," she murmured. "Or Wales. I think I went to both of them when I was young."
"Oh well…" Louise shrugged. "Best get back to the classroom. The quicker I get started, the quicker I'm out of here." She looked back anxiously after a few steps. "Don't get me wrong. I love my job. It's just…"
"You don't have to explain," Jane said. "I know."
She watched Louise walk away. She watched a tendril of plant hanging down from a gutter, and watched a piece of chocolate wrapper twitch sluggishly on the playground. She watched a bird settle on a tree, and saw a cat in a far window start twitching as it watched it, gnashing its teeth in a token attempt to chase it. She watched the flashes of silver that were distant cars on the hill, some of them bringing tourists to the village, some of them carrying her children home.
She watched them all. Every moment, she thought. Every memory. She would hoard each one, and then, when she got home, she would write them down in her diary. She had shelves of them, recording every moment of her waking life, and all the dreams that stayed with her. She never looked at them again, but there were there, just in case. They were her insurance.
Because once, long ago, she had forgotten something.
end of chapter one
Violence in the night
"Too hot," Bran complained, fanning himself with his hat.
"Be thankful you're not in some crowded city, then," John Rowlands said.
Bran did not answer. If he had to be too hot, then this was the place to be too hot in. There was always a breeze on the mountains, even on the hottest day, and there were enough trees in the valley to offer shade. He had been to Cardiff a few times, and Liverpool, and London, and each time he had been struck by the airlessness of the streets. Cities absorbed the heat and would not spit it out again. People rushed and jostled and there was no room to breathe. People stared…
"I'd rather be in the sea, though," Bran confessed.
"Leave that to the tourists," John said. "This is good work, and there's beer waiting for us at the other end of it."
They started to walk towards the valley, both moving away at the same time, although not even a look was exchanged between them. The dogs followed without their usual exuberance. Still, Bran thought, at least they had hair to protect them from the sun. With his fair skin, he had to cover himself up at all times, and slather himself with sticky sun cream.
"How are you for dinner, John?" he asked, as he paused for a moment before a stile. The dogs slithered through, and waited on the other side.
"Well enough," John said. "I've got something in."
Bran crossed first. Before stepping down, he hesitated just for a moment, wondering whether to offer John an arm up. It was only for an instant, but John saw it.
"None of that, boy," he said. He was not smiling. "I'm not past it yet. And when I am, it's for me to say, not for you to ask. So none of this worrying if I can cope with cooking dinner. None of this helping me over stiles."
Bran nodded, but did not apologise. There was no need for such words with someone like John Rowlands. Still, he could not help but worry. John Rowlands was not old, but he had had a bad fall on the mountains some years back, and had never fully recovered his old vigour. And, despite what John claimed, Bran knew that he would keep going until he dropped, rather than ask for help. It did no harm to keep an eye open.
He did not wait for John on the far side of the style, but carried on without him. Soon he reached the shade of the mountain, and the dogs recovered some of their usual energy, trotting in elongated circles between him at the front, and John at the rear. The path dropped steeply for a while, then levelled out. "Almost home," he heard John say to his dogs. Bran smiled, and said the same to his own.
"Any plans for tonight?" John asked, as Bran paused outside his cottage.
Bran gave a wry laugh. "When do I ever have plans?"
"Well, perhaps you should have." John Rowlands looked uncharacteristically earnest. "You're over thirty now. It's not right for someone like you to…"
Bran's eyes narrowed behind his dark glasses. "To what?"
John Rowlands always seemed to be able to see right through the glass and into Bran's unshielded eyes. "Waste your life here," he said.
"Waste my life? Is that what I'm doing?" Bran's hand closed on a gate post, and clutched it tight. "I thought I helping to keep Welsh land in Welsh hands, being true to the old ways, being true to my blood… All those things the old boys in the pub say people my generation should be doing."
"Yes, you are," John said.
"So what's your problem?" Bran demanded.
John reached down to pat his dog's head as it leant patiently against his leg. "People like me, you see… There never was anything else for us. We were born to the land, bred to it… We will live it, and die still with the dirt of the land behind our nails. But you…"
"I am like you." The words were almost spat out.
John passed his hand across his brow. "Hear me, Bran, please. You were always such a bright boy. Different, yes, but different in a good way. You could have done anything. Instead you chose this."
"I chose this," Bran hurled at him. "I chose this."
"No," John said. "You took it because it was the only thing you knew. You can't call something a choice if there were never any alternatives. You could have gone to university. You could have got a job anywhere. You could have done anything. Try the world outside, and then decide whether you want to stay in it, or come back to the land."
"You would have me be like Rhys Evans?" Bran asked incredulously. "Swanning off to England? Coming back with his fancy English accent and his new ways of doing things…"
"He chose." John's voice was still infuriatingly reasonable. "He sampled other things, then came back of his own accord. He chose with his eyes open. I fear that you didn't choose at all, and one day it will occur to you to hate everything associated with this life. One day, when you're too old to do anything about it, you'll look back and think of all this as a prison."
"I will not," Bran spat. "I chose this. I did it with my eyes open. What do you think I am? Stupid?"
"No, Bran, you're not stupid." John Rowlands smiled.
The smile only served to infuriate Bran even more. "Stop it!" he cried. "What gives you the right to talk to me like this?"
"A friend has the right," John said. "No, a friend has the duty. Besides, I knew you as a child. You're the nearest I have to a son."
"I already have a father," Bran said. "He doesn't see anything wrong in the choices I've made."
"No." John shook his head. "He wouldn't."
"Just leave me alone!" Bran shouted. "I'm not allowed to worry about you. I'm expected to sit back and watch you as you struggle to do things that are too strenuous for you. You don't like me saying anything, but now you turn round and say all this to me!"
"True." John Rowlands nodded in agreement. "You're right. I could say that it is the prerogative of the old to have some pride, but I won't. Friends should speak up when they are concerned. Pride is not helpful. I don't want to see you unhappy, and I know you feel the same about me."
Bran almost snapped a reply, but bit it back just in time. He did not want to argue with John Rowlands, but neither was he ready to make peace. It would blow over if he left it alone. Next time they came across each other, neither of them would mention it, and soon it would be forgotten.
Instead, he gave a terse nod. "I'd best get in."
John Rowlands looked at him for a while, as if expecting something more, then gave a barely perceptible shrug. "See you tomorrow, Bran." Bran got the sudden impression that John was not remotely upset by Bran's reaction to his comments. It made Bran want to say something that would truly shock him. At the same time, it made him want to apologise for even thinking such a thing.
He watched John walk away. He looks like an old man, he thought, with a pang. Most of them men on the farm were old, and only getting older. And where will that leave me when they're gone? he wondered. He closed the gate behind him, and whistled the dogs to his side. I chose this life, he told himself. I chose it, and that's that. John Rowlands doesn't know what he's talking about.
The dogs rushed past him eagerly into the house. "Is that you, Bran?" came a voice from inside. From the kitchen, Bran thought, by the sound of it.
"Who else would it be?" he called back.
Once in the kitchen, he walked past his father, and went to the sink. Only when he had drenched his face in cold water, and patted it dry with a towel, did he turn to face Owen Davies. His father was sitting at the large table, with a newspaper spread in front of him, that Bran knew he had not read a word of.
"The windows are open," Owen said. "I heard voices. It sounded like an argument."
"John… said something he shouldn't have," Bran said. "It's over now."
His father accepted it. Sometimes he accepted the most momentous news with the barest of phlegmatic shrugs; other times he worried endlessly over trivia. He had much changed over the last dozen years. His mind seemed to have aged far faster than his body, and he was almost useless around the farm, even though his body was far healthier than John Rowlands'.
"I was sitting here," Owen said, "thinking of your mother. She should have been a child of the summer, but sadness had shrouded her in winter."
Bran pressed his lips together, and did not reply. He still knew so little about his mother. Beautiful, his father said, and unearthly and sad. As a child, he had sometimes entertained fantasies about her, but he had long grown out of all fantasies.
"I should never have left the old place," Owen started fretting. "What if she tries to find you? She would never come here."
"She's never coming back," Bran said. He started to soap his hands, quick and angry. "She's had thirty-two years."
"But we're in Caradog Pritchard's old house," Owen continued. "He wanted her, too, but she chose me. She'll never come back here."
"She's not coming back," Bran snapped. He walked out, shutting the door behind him, and locked himself in the bathroom. He turned the cold tap on full, and the hot tap only a trickle. As the bath filled, he looked at himself in the mirror.
Who was she? he wondered. Perhaps he could read his mother's face in the shape of his own face. He leant forward a little, then snapped his head to one side. "No," he said aloud. He would not ask. He would not wonder. He had been through this a thousand times before. He had his father, and now he had the farm. He had made his choice. He had enough.
He took his clothes off, and climbed into the cool bath. His muscles ached, and his skin felt tender from the sun. The bath did nothing to ease him. He tried to close his eyes, then opened them again.
John Rowlands was wrong, of course. He didn't need to leave his home in order to discover that this was the life for him. He was bound here, by his past, by his memories, by family ties. The farm was as good as his now, his alone. He would make a success of it. He would have something special to leave to… To who? He gave a wry smile. To no-one yet, but there was still time. None of the local girls had taken his fancy yet, but one day someone would. One day someone would come who found his looks enticing and his old-fashioned bachelor ways interesting. One day.
He heard his father moving around outside, and he heard the sound of sheep and dogs outside. The curtains stirred as a gust of breeze blew in through the window. The same breeze brought the sound of a distant tractor, on the neighbouring farm. Bran knew that he, too, should still be out working, but it was just too hot.
Bran had been running the farm in practice for three years. Before that, his father and John Rowlands had shared it, and had done so for nearly twenty years. When Bran was young, the farm had belonged to Caradog Pritchard, and both Owen Davies and John Rowlands had worked for David Evans on the adjacent farm. Then Caradog Pritchard had lost his mind, and shortly afterwards had died. His heir, a distant relative, put the farm up for sale, and David Evans had bought it. To everyone's surprise, he had leased it to his two most reliable men. Five years ago, they had bought it outright, and both of them had named Bran as their heir. By tacit agreement, they had both ceded control to him.
My farm, he thought, as he stood up. My place.
John was wrong. He had chosen this. He could not explain his certainty, but he knew that it was true. Once, long ago, he had been asked to choose. He could choose to stay here, in Wales with his father, or go… elsewhere. He had chosen this life. He had given up something marvellous in order to live like this.
And so here he was. This was his life, because he had chosen it. There could be no going back on choices, and there could be no doubting, either.
Will watched the river as it flowed sluggishly beneath the bridge. A leaf floated by, framed by his clasped hands, and then an empty crisp packet. Then there was only dark water, flowing ever so slowly towards the sea.
It was almost night, he supposed. Clear summer days tended to drift into evening without anyone noticing, marked only by a gradual fading towards grey. It was still hot. Earlier he had heard distant rumbles of thunder, but no storm had come.
The stone parapet pressed against his forearms, whispering eagerly of all the other people who had stood here throughout the centuries. He could not listen to the echoes. It was nearly a week since his mother's birthday party, but he still felt drained. It was strong magic, to erase himself so completely from the lives of so many people. He had no memory of stumbling home from the party, and the week that followed felt like a dimly-remembered dream.
A group of people walked past, but he did not turn to look at them. They sounded young, by their voices. They were heading for a pub or a restaurant, chattering eagerly amongst themselves. Heels clicked on the ground, and the scent of perfume reached him as they passed. When they were gone, there was nothing but the sound of cars, passing steadily on the road behind him.
I wonder what they're doing… he thought, then stopped himself. His family were gone. He had sundered himself from them, and it was the right thing to do. Let them live and flourish without him. If he ever saw them again, it would be as a stranger, lingering to watch for a while, and then passing on. As far as him family was concerned, Will Stanton had never existed.
A train passed over the nearby bridge, heading away from the station to the south. Its windows were squares of light, and made the evening around it seem like night. When he turned away from it, back to the river, the evening looked almost as bright as day. Even so, he knew it was time to start walking home. He could not stay here forever. At the moment, though, it felt as if the bridge was the only thing keeping him upright.
Will had not heard the man approach, but he turned to face him calmly, as if he had known he was there all along. "I'm fine."
"You don't look it," the man said. He was young, with a battered leather jacket and sandy hair. "You're not thinking of jumping, are you?"
"Of course not," Will said.
"Well…" The man looked embarrassed, and that was making him talk. "It does no harm to check, does it? I know they say you shouldn't talk to strangers, and all…"
"I assure you, I am no threat whatsoever to you," Will told him. "I'm just tired, that's all."
"Busy week?" the man said. "Believe me, I know how it is. I'm off to the pub myself." He ran his hand through his hair. "Well, if you're sure you're okay…"
"I'm fine," Will said again, with a smile. "Thank you for your concern. Not many people would stop and ask a stranger in this day and age."
"Well…" The man looked at his watch. "I must be off."
Will was still smiling as he watched him go. Perhaps he was ready to walk home after all. There were many things wrong in the world, but some mortals, it seemed, were still doing the right thing. The Light had departed; the world was left to man. Mostly it seemed as if man was making a horrendous mess of it, but there were always small gleams of hope.
He started to walk. His steps felt heavy and dragging, as if he was carrying the weight of a hundred worlds on his back. It was just exhaustion, he reminded himself. He was carrying nothing at all. Once, long ago, he had done things that had helped shape the world, but now he was just a watchman. My Will the watchman, Merriman had called him, speaking it fondly, as if it was a favour. Will the watchman, stranded and left behind. Will the watchman, who…
His head snapped round. He heard a sound, there, down on the tow path, and dark shapes scuffling. He stopped, quested towards it. A woman, wrestling with a slim man for possession of her handbag. Another man was watching, laughing. She was shouting, shouting for help…
Will lashed out, then cried out aloud as he had to snatch his magic back. I can't! he thought. I can't! The world was man's, for man to deal with. There was no Light, no Dark. He could not interfere.
She was putting up a fight. He watched, hands clenching and unclenching at his side. Why wasn't anyone else reacting? Couldn't anyone hear her? He could take her voice and spread it through the city, so everyone heard her. He could nudge that oblivious person there, and that one, and that one. Even without intervening directly, he could do so much, but he could not, he could not.
The muggers won. The woman lost her grip on her handbag, and fell backwards heavily. One of the attackers punched her, another kicked her where she lay. Will was edging forward, but then someone else was there, rushing from the other side, shouting furiously. The attackers fled, and the rescuer began to chase them, then returned to the woman. He got out a phone, and put it to his ear. Will made sure that he was really phoning the police, and then turned away.
"I couldn't," he murmured to himself. He was breathing fast, as if he had been running, but all he had been doing was standing still.
The world was in the hands of humans. All he could do was watch the future unfold. He could not stop the big things, and he could not stop the small. More than once, the fate of the Light had rested on the free decision of a single man. The Dark had always tried to seep into men's thoughts and change them, but the Light had always watched, and let the choices unfold. It made them seem cold, sometimes, but it was the only way they could be.
"It would have been wrong to help," he said aloud, but his steps felt so heavy that it was all he could do to drag himself home. When he got there, he sat in the darkness of his window, and looked up at the sky, until the stars appeared and shone there.
Evening turned to night.
Bran's father had gone to his bedroom and shut the door, but Bran doubted that he was asleep. He was probably sitting in the darkness, staring out onto the mountain, lost in his delusions of past love. He did that more and more. Bran never sat beside him when he had that dreamy look in his eyes.
The windows were still wide open, though Bran had shut the curtains as soon as it had started to get dark. He did not like to think of people looking in on him, while he sat there in a pool of light, unaware that he was being watched. He never liked strangers looking at him, except when they were both in the dark.
He was restless. He had read for a bit, without absorbing the words, and he had watched television for a bit, without really hearing it. The argument with John Rowlands was still preying on his mind, he knew, or maybe it was just the heat.
He wandered to the window, peeped through a gap in the curtains. A car was passing down on the road, and then another. People returning from a night out, perhaps. Rhys Evans was a farmer, but he went to concerts and restaurants and cinemas, just like any town-dweller. As if this life isn't good enough for him, Bran thought, with a snort. He never went to any such things.
A puff of wind stirred the curtains. It brought with it the sound of harp music, sweet and sad. Bran pressed his lips together, turning away from the window. John Rowlands often played like that at night, proclaiming his melancholy to the stars. He probably had no idea that he could be heard.
Bran had played the harp once, but not for years. Sometimes, very occasionally, he felt a yearning to play it again, but mostly he thought he was well rid of it. His life was about other things now. Even if he tried it again, and practiced, he would never be as good as John. Bran did not like to fail at things.
A dog started barking, and stopped abruptly.
"Dad?" Bran called softly, but there was no sound from within the house. The curtains were still. The clock had stopped months before, and they had never bothered to start it again. Time meant nothing when you were alone.
There was no sound from outside, either. The harp had stopped.
Bran reached slowly for the curtain, then drew his hand back. Instead, he walked to the light switch, and pressed it. The room went dark. There was nothing at all in the darkness at first, but slowly, as he blinked, there were squares of grey where the windows were. When he thought his eyes were adapted to the dark, he moved back to the window.
Something hurled itself at him, all scrapings and scratchings on the windowsill. Bran's heart lurched inside his chest, but the only sound he made was a faint gasp. Only a cat, he told himself, pressing his hand to his chest, forcing his breathing to return to normal.
A cat who was terrified, though. It was clawing at the door, trying to get deeper into the house, mewing piteously. "What is it?" Bran asked her. "What scared you?" All the farm cats were proud and fearless, and ran from nobody and nothing.
The harp started up again, far away. The music was serene, and made Bran think of silver, and the moon. It made the world seem normal again. John Rowlands was out there, just as he always had been. Nothing could really go wrong out here, where life never changed. The people of the mountains endured forever.
"Let's have a look, then, shall we?" he said to the cat. He opened the door, and it darted through, paws thundering. The rest of the house was dark, and there was no slit of light under his father's door. The outside door was locked, and the house was silent.
Bran went into his bedroom and unlocked the chest that held his gun. He loaded it, but that was all. Walking softly on bare feet, he went to the front door, and opened it on its chain. "Is anyone there?" he called. "I have a gun."
No-one called back. No-one shouted back to say, 'Don't be an idiot. It's only me.'
There was no sound from the dogs. The mountain stood dark and solid on the far side of the yard. There were no lights visible whatsoever, not a single place where people lived. Just the wilds, Bran thought, and normally I like it like that, but there were times when it could be terrifying. As if the mountain has eyes, and the moors are full of enemies, all watching me…
"Stupid," he said aloud. He stepped out into the yard, holding the gun where it was clearly visible. "Leave, whoever you are," he commanded. "If I see you, I'll shoot."
But he never saw them. One struck him from behind, one kicked him in the stomach. He lost his grip on the gun, and then he was falling, falling to the arid ground, and there was dust on his lips, and it tasted horrible, so he spat, but there was only more, and something else, too, that tasted of iron and was wet and warm and thick. Blood, he thought thickly. My blood.
He tried to fight, oh he tried, but they kicked him again and again, and struck him with something hard. They stamped on his hand, made him curl it pathetically against his chest. He tried to kick them, but they darted away. Their faces were blank, leeched of all colour by the darkness. Their eyes were pools of shadow, and their mouths were thin slashed lines. They did not laugh or gloat or…
"Why?" he forced out, gasping on the question, choking on the blood.
They did not speak.
"I've nothing worth stealing," he tried to tell them.
Blood filled his eyes, and then he could not even see them.
"What have I done to you?" It was pathetic, wheedling, like the broken victim he had sworn never to be.
"It's not you," they said. A cold, cold voice, devoid of emotion.
"You're nobody." A different voice, but exactly the same tone.
"But now he will come."
A ripple passed through them that could have been laughter, and then they cast him aside, and walked away. Silence swallowed their soft footsteps.
Got to get up, Bran thought. He pawed at the ground, trying to push himself up, and then the silence swept him up, too, and there was nothing at all but darkness, and dreams.
end of chapter two
Jane found her brother in the garden, feet up on a chair, pencil poised over the pad on his lap. He had got as far as the title, she noticed, and underlined it twice, but that was all.
"It's all right," Jane said. "It's only me. You don't have to pretend to be working on my account, you know."
"Thank God." Barney lay the pad aside. "I thought you were one of those meddling old ladies. They do insist on coming round the back if I don't answer the front door."
"You could lock the gate," Jane suggested.
"I know." Barney smiled. "I don't mind, really. I'd rather be accessible than… closed off. It's just that it's too nice a day to work."
"You're on the coast," Jane said. "That makes it nicer. It was horribly humid at home yesterday."
It was the third day of the school holidays. She had pottered around at home for a couple of days, before deciding on impulse to visit Barney. Although she had a car, she had gone by train. You saw more things of value on a train, she always thought. In a car, all you saw was other cars, and all you could think about was traffic. A train freed you to see the landscape, and you caught snippets of conversation from other people, fragments of their lives.
"You said you'd be later," Barney said. "I haven't got anything for tea."
"I had some on the train," Jane told him. "The train was a bit early into Bristol. I managed to catch an earlier train than I expected."
Stilted conversation. It always was when you met up with family or friends after a break, she thought. You got the awkwardness out of the way, and then could relax and say the things that mattered.
"Good journey?" he asked, but she had seen the sketch pad on the chair beside him.
"You've been drawing," she said. "Can I see?"
He showed her the first few. They were beautiful pencil drawings of the garden and the house, and elegant yachts passing by in the distance. There were sketches of his dog, and rough but vivid caricatures of some of his old ladies. "But don't breathe a word to any of them that I've done them," Barney said. "I don't think they'll be flattered."
"They're wonderful," Jane told him, honestly. "All of them."
She made to turn over to the next page, but Barney stopped her. "That's all I've done," he said. He closed the book, but she was sure he was lying. For a moment, she felt hurt by it, but then she remembered that she had written millions of words that no-one alive would ever be allowed to see. Some things were so important that they could only ever be secrets.
"I do paintings, too," Barney said, as he laid to sketch pad down again, and placed a hand on it. "I sell them mostly. Raise money, and all that." He grimaced. "Boring pictures of rich ladies and their beloved pets. Chocolate box pictures of the sunny south coast, for tourists to take home with them."
Jane was about to say something, but was interrupted by the arrival of Barney's elderly red setter. She had never been such a dog person as her younger brother, but she patted the dog as well as she was able. "Rufus looks well."
Barney glowed with obvious love and pride. "Still going strong."
Jane sighed, and looked at the glimpses of sea through the trees. A white triangle of a yacht was passing by, but it gleamed only for a moment before it was gone.
"Do you remember Cornwall?" she found herself asking.
Barney was still lavishing attention on the dog. "That holiday we had years ago? There was a dog called Rufus there, wasn't there? That's where I got the name from. Not as beautiful as you, though, my boy, no, don't you start getting jealous." He glanced at Jane, and for a moment looked slightly embarrassed, a boy caught doing something sentimental by his older sister.
"Wasn't there a boat?" Jane prompted. "You said you wanted to be a fisherman when you grew up."
Barney chuckled. "I'm sure I said a lot of things." He gestured at himself. "Funny how things turn out."
Jane was drifting down the avenues of memory. "Weren't there two holidays?"
"Oh no." Barney shook his head. "We only went once. I was… let's see… How old was I…?"
"Mum and Dad weren't there the second time," Jane said.
Barney was looking at her strangely. "We wouldn't have gone on holiday without them. Don't be silly, Jane. You're probably remembering a dream."
Jane closed her eyes for a moment. "Probably," she said. She looked up at the trees, wiped her hand across her moist brow. "I dream a lot, and some of them do seem like memories. Sometimes I even think…"
She let the words trail away, and Barney did not ask her what she had been about to say.
"Funny how things turn out," he said again.
Jane tried to return to the present. "Well, I became a teacher. That's one out of the three of us who did something conventional."
"Have you heard from Simon lately?" Barney asked. "How's he going in his quest to become the youngest ever Prime Minister?"
Jane laughed fondly. "Let's just say that he's got a long way to go."
"Still, he has quite a good chance of being an MP at the next election," Barney said. "That's a start."
"Is that what he says?" Jane raised her eyebrow.
Barney's face turned serious. "Actually, he's rather modest about the whole thing, which is surprising, when you think of what he was like when we were young. I'm just going by what I've read. Pundits on the Internet… That sort of thing."
Jane nudged him. "So when are you going to become Archbishop of Canterbury?"
Barney grimaced. "The same day you become Chief Inspector of Schools. I don't have any plans for glory."
Jane would never forget the day Barney had announced that he wanted to join the clergy. Their family had been the lukewarm kind of Church of England, that attended it for weddings and Christenings, but not much else. Barney had never seemed religious, and he had done all the usual worldly things that teenagers did. As far as the family was concerned, it came out of the blue, and was totally out of character.
"I just don't know any more," Jane confessed. "I feel that I've lost my way with both of you. I don't know why you're here."
She had hinted the question many times before, but never outright asked it. "Here?" Barney asked. "Playing vicar to a bunch of wealthy old ladies in this affluent seaside resort?"
She wondered whether to say it, but decided to risk it. "I'm not sure that I believe in God, but if I did I think… I think I'd want to spread the word in places that really needed it."
"They do need it." Barney's eyes were stern. "Don't judge me, Jane. Yes, the people in the inner cities, the people with no hope, the people who live in places where you're likely to get mugged whenever you walk out of your door… Of course they need God. They need all the help they can get, and there's thousands of us out there clamouring to work with them. There's charities, missions, self-help groups… It's all there, but what about these people…?"
"These rich old ladies," Jane interrupted.
"Rich old ladies, yes." Barney's voice was quieter. "People who are set in the ways. People who still tend to believe that God only has a home for those who are white and married and have good table manners. Perhaps they don't need me the way the people in the cities might need me, but God needs them. They have power, you see. They've fathered the rulers of this country. They chair clubs and write letters to the paper. Get them on your side, and you've got an army. Teach them tolerance and charity, and you can change the world."
"But… they're old," Jane stammered.
Barney threw back his head and laughed. "They're old, yes. And you teach eleven year olds. Strange sort of an army they'd make."
Jane frowned. "I don't want an army."
"Don't you?" Barney touched her hand. "I know why you became a teacher. You look at what's happening in the world, and you despair. It's your way of doing something about it. You can't change it yourself, but you can take thirty children a year, and plant the seeds that might one day lead them to take the world by the scruff of its neck and change things."
"But I don't…" Jane began. "I didn't…"
"I didn't, either." Barney's voice was gentle. He was a stranger in that moment, not her little brother at all. "I had no idea why I wanted to do this with my life. All I knew was that I wanted it. Simon's doing the same thing, in his way. We're planting seeds, he's trying to go straight for the source, but it's the same thing. We all want to change the world."
"But why?" Jane asked. She felt as if she was falling, falling far away. Echoes jabbered in her mind - echoes of things that must surely have been a dream.
Barney shook his head. "I don't know. Does there need to be a reason? Who can look at the world outside our door and not want to change it?"
"I forgot something," Jane blurted out. "Something happened when we were young. You were there, too. I don't know what it was, but it was beautiful and terrifying and it's more important than anything. I've forgotten it, but I see it in dreams, but it's always gone in the morning, and there's nothing left but a feeling, but I know it's there. I know it was real."
Moving as if in a dream himself, Barney reached for the sketch pad, and this time he opened it right at the end. He said not a word, but he turned the pad so that Jane could see it.
It was a man, standing tall on a hilltop, dark against the sky. His features were clouded, but his eyes were deep and shining. His nose was prominent, and his hair was white and wild. His hand was raised as if in a blessing, or perhaps in command.
"I know him," Jane breathed.
"I saw him in a dream," Barney said, as if Jane had not spoken. "I still see him. I thought it was a vision from God. That's why… That is why…"
"I see him in dreams, too," Jane whispered. "I think I know his name, but it's always gone. It's always gone."
"He told me to change the world," Barney said. "I don't need to know who he is, just that he… is."
Jane found that she was standing up. The whole world seemed utterly quiet. "It's not enough for me," she said. "It's never been enough."
Rufus stirred. Barney shook himself, as if waking from a dream, and turned his attention to the dog. He threw a stick, and the dog thundered off after it. Jane watched it for a while. When she turned back to Barney, the sketch pad was hidden again, as if it had never been opened.
"So what are you plans for the summer?" Barney was asking.
Jane sighed, and sat down again, and her mouth framed words, telling him little things, nothing that mattered.
The woman in the corner shop was as chatty as ever. "There was another mugging last night. Did you hear?"
Will nodded. "I heard."
"Thank goodness the poor girl's all right, though," the woman said. "It could have been so much worse."
"Yes," Will agreed. She was making no effort to get his change, so it seemed that he was stuck here until a fresh audience arrived.
"When I think about the state of the world today…" The woman shook her head. "It's scandalous. Muggings. Drugs. Fights. Someone should do something."
Will looked at her. "Maybe you should do something."
"Me?" She laughed. "Get away with you! What can someone like me do?"
Will studied a chocolate bar. "Sometimes the powerful can't really do anything, but ordinary people can," he said slowly. "But if all those ordinary people just stand around and do nothing, because they're waiting for someone else to make a stand first…" He raised a hand to scratch his cheek. "It's just a thought."
"Well." She pressed her lips together, clearly torn between being offended, or keeping her audience. The desire for company won. "Are you going anywhere nice this summer?" she asked.
Will shook his head. "Maybe later. I've made no plans yet."
"Have you still got your parents?" she asked. "My daughter's coming to stay with me next week. She…"
"I haven't," Will said. "I have no family." Behind him, the bell tinkled as another customer appeared. "Can I have my change please?"
He thrust the change into his pocket, and walked out He let out a long breath as soon as he was out in the sun.
Maybe he did need to get away, he thought. His work, the writing and editing that he did to earn a living, could be done anywhere, so there was no need to stay in Oxford. He could wander anywhere he wished, and settle anywhere he wanted. The Lake District, perhaps, or Devon. Somewhere he had never gone to as an Old One, where he could try to enjoy merely as a man.
His next door neighbour was packing for a holiday, he noticed. Schools had just broken up, and all across the country people were preparing to travel.
"Going anywhere nice?" he called to his neighbour, pausing at his own gate.
"The south of France," came the reply. "A mate's got this holiday home out there. I plan to spend the whole week by the pool or in a bistro." He shook his head contentedly. "Bliss."
"It sounds it," Will said, with a smile.
Once inside, he closed the door, and leant back against it with a sigh. Everyone was going away, but together. They were gathering with families, meeting up with friends. But he had no-one. He had plenty of acquaintances, but none of them could be counted a true friends. How could you ever have a true friend, when so much of your life was hidden from them?
Will was the last of his kind on the earth. No-one else knew the things he knew. No-one else saw the world the way he saw it. Everyone aged and went away from him, and he would stay as he was for countless of their generations. How could anyone be a true friend under those circumstances? Merriman had seemed to manage, but Merriman had never been so alone. Merriman had made friends with mortals, but all the while he had had the other Old Ones, who could share the part of his life that mortals could never share.
There had been people like that for Will, once. Once, long ago, there had been mortal children who knew of magic, and knew of the Old Ones. Once, long ago, he had had friends. But they were gone from him. All memories of magic had been torn from them, and he knew it was for the best, of course it was for the best, but oh, how it hurt to be the only one who remembered! Oh, how it hurt to be the only one who knew!
I will go to them, he decided. He knew where they all lived, for he had followed them through their lives, making sure they were safe… and hoping, perhaps, that one day one of them would look at him, and begin to remember.
They never did, but they were free, and that, for an Old One, had to be enough.
Jane drained the last of the water, then shook the few remaining drops over her face. She turned this way and that, trying to find a breeze that would evaporate the drops and cool her down, but the air was heavy and still.
"A bit hot to be coming up here, isn't it?" said a dark-haired woman, grimacing in sympathy.
"It is," Jane agreed.
She could have gone anywhere. She could have stayed at home in the shade, with the windows open, and a cooling fan. She could have joined the queue of tourists to visit the local castle, or gone to the nearby Abbey ruins. She could have paddled her feet in the brook, or read a book, or spent the day writing down all those things that mattered. Instead, she had chosen to climb a hill, on the hottest day of the year so far.
"At least you can drive half way," the woman said. "My youngest… He's mad about graves. Insisted on coming. I fancied a nice air-conditioned museum. My husband got out of it somehow. Said he was going fishing, but I expect he's in the pub. Lower Slaughter, that's where we're staying. My boys love the name."
"They would," Jane said, with feeling. "I'm a teacher," she explained. She nodded at the small town half lost in the heat haze in the valley. "I teach year six in the school down there."
"So you're local," the woman said, as if she was surprised to hear it.
"Only for the last few years," Jane replied.
Her boys came back, red-faced but excited. "It's really dark in there," they said. "But there's a fence." "Can we climb it?" "There might be treasure." "Or ghosts." "Or dead bodies."
"Do you have to be so gory?" their mother chided them. "This lady here's a teacher. She doesn't want to hear all this talk of trespassing."
"It's alright," Jane told her. "I expect my brothers were just the same when they were young."
The boys were still chattering. Jane waited for a moment, then walked on. On her left, she could see the dark edge of a wood, which was doubtless the thing that had excited the children. It looked far darker than it should have done. In contrast with the sunlight outside, it was a pit of darkness, without hope, and without end.
A thin breeze brushed against her, and she shivered. Is it true? she wondered. Did we ever look at dark places, and think of treasure? There was the faintest whisper of something that was not quite memory, as if the breeze was touching her in deeper places than her skin. We did once, she thought, and we found it.
The boys raced past her, chasing each other with loud screams. They had moved on from ghosts and treasure, and were now hunting each other with imaginary stone axes. "You're dead!" one shouted. "Now we'll have to bury you."
The boys in her class were just the same, Jane thought sadly. She worked so hard to try to fill them with zeal to do good in the world, but all their favourite things were of war and death and violence. If Barney was right, and she had really chosen teaching in order to change the world, then she had failed. Boys grew into men. Instead of imaginary swords, they had guns and bombs and hatred. They brawled and murdered and blew people up, and this was where it started. Here.
"Boys!" the mother called from behind her. "Don't go too far!"
The path turned, the trees fell away, and she was at the barrow at last. The boys were already inside it, loudly searching for bones and skulls. Jane could have told them that the entrance they were scouring was a false one, made to deter grave robbers, but she bit the words back. It was the school holidays, and these were not her pupils.
She walked quickly round to the far side, before the boys' mother could arrive and engage her in length conversation. There were several other people there, but none of them as much as glanced at her. They were all dressed like hard-core ramblers, and were eating serious-looking snacks, or reading from maps and guide books, covered in plastic.
"Thirty-eight people were buried here," a man was saying loudly, as he stood on the top of the mound. "It's Neolithic, of course."
She drew back, and watched them all. The ramblers moved on quickly. The boys explored all the chambers, re-enacted a few more Stone Age battles and burials, then left, chattering of ice cream and sweets.
Jane pushed her hair back from her moist brow. It was hotter than ever, but there were thick, dark clouds mustering in the south. The air was thick with moisture, and there was no breeze at all, even here, at the top of the hill.
She walked around the barrow until she found a small pool of shade. The shadow cast by the grave of the dead, she thought, but she settled down into it. The grass mound was at her back; above her was the sky, blue and hazy.
A couple arrived, both of them, man and woman alike, wearing long embroidered skirts. They lit candles, and sang the verse of a dirge-like song. The woman raised both hands and called on nature, and magic.
Magic, Jane thought sleepily. There is no magic any more. We're alone now. 'Call on the politicians and warlords,' she wanted to cry, 'not on things that don't exist.' She did not, though, and soon the couple was gone.
Her eyes drifted shut. She had been here several times before, almost often enough for it to feel as if it was hers. Almost, though. Not enough. You're local? the woman had asked her, and Jane had replied that she had only lived here a few years. Everyone else saw her as local, though. Half the families in town knew her as a teacher, and she could not walk to the shops and back without stopping to talk to at least a dozen people. She had friends. She got invited to places, and sometimes she went. It was home, really. Most people would call it home.
And yet… She sighed. It was not a home to her. Nothing had ever been truly a home to her since she was a child. She lived in places, and she grew fond of them, but there was almost something missing. It was as if part of herself was lost, and she could never truly belong somewhere until she was there in her entirety. She looked at the most lovely of villages, but they were incomplete. Something basic had been stripped away. They were like a person without a shine in their eyes; like a summer without the birds. Something was missing. Something was lost.
"One day I'll find out what it is," she murmured to herself.
Voices came and went. Birds called, and a dog barked. She sat with her eyes closed, and perhaps she even slept for a little while.
When she opened her eyes, the sky above her was black. Thunder sounded, not too far away.
She looked at her watch. Two hours had passed. She stood up and looked around. The visitors had all gone, only apple cores and candle stumps to show that anyone had ever been there. Even the birds were silent.
Lightning flared behind her, and the thunder was not far behind. "Oh dear," she said. She had no desire to be caught in a thunderstorm at the top of a hill. It was clearly raining down in the valley, but she would rather get wet, than be struck by lightning.
She started off at a trot, and it was then that she saw that she was not alone after all.
end of chapter three
Blood on the barrow
"We've found one," said the man in the richest clothes, stepping forward gingerly through the mud. "Look at that, Winterbotham. It's most definitely a skull."
The shorter man nodded. He looked less excited, but he was dressed a little more sensibly for an archaeological excavation. "Perhaps we should dig a bit more before trying to move it."
"Perhaps," agreed the other man. "Carry on," he commanded the men who were actually doing the work. "Careful not to damage things."
The workmen continued their digging. A full skull was revealed, and them some bones. The two gentlemen watched them, eyes gleaming with avarice. Gentlemen archaeologists, Will thought with distaste. Much damage had been done to ancient sites by well-meaning meddlers such as these. Much had been discovered, but much had been lost for ever.
Not all, though, he thought, with a sad smile, for the third man had stepped forward, with a polite, "May I?" which was not a request at all.
"Certainly," the well-dressed man said. "What are your thoughts, Lyon?"
Merriman Lyon stepped through the mud as if he did not even notice that he was there. He was dressed, like the others, in Victorian clothes, but his alone did not look out of place. The other men looked as if their worth would be diminished by dirt on their expensive clothes, but Merriman looked like a man who could walk into a barrow, who could walk through fire and water, without appearing any less in complete than he was now.
"Interesting," Merriman said. He gestured the workman away, crouched in the mud, and touched the exposed skull, in a touch that was almost tender in its gentleness. "Yes," he breathed. "Yes…"
The well-dressed man let out a breath, as if Merriman's approval was very important to him. "We have something here, Lyon? Something that will make our names?"
"Perhaps," Merriman said, "but a man can make his name for many things, not all of them good. These things should be done for the sake of the knowledge revealed, not for the sake of your good name."
"Precisely," the well-dressed man said. "You're right, of course." He nudged the man beside him, and said in a whisper that he probably thought Merriman could not hear, "What did I tell you? He's the cleverest man I know, is Lyon, but I defy you to find a dozen people who have heard his name. By rights, he should be feted across the Empire, but he likes to hide his light under a bushel."
Ah, clever, Merriman, Will thought. The gentlemen were distracted; the workers were plainly eavesdropping desperately on their master's words. No-one was watching Merriman. No-one saw how his long fingers suddenly sank into the earth, how they were no longer empty when they emerged again. There was a dull flash of muddy bronze, then the item was hidden in Merriman's breast pocket.
"Fascinating," Merriman said, standing up and brushing earth from his hands. "But I must no longer keep your gentlemen from your labours. Now, if you will excuse me, I will go and stretch my legs. Lovely country you have here, sirs."
Merriman walked away. Will followed him.
"What was it, Merriman?" Will asked. Some item of power, hidden in this ancient grave. Something that had to be retrieved by the Light, before it could fall into the hands of ignorant mortals. Something important in a minor skirmish with the Dark, or something vital for the greater war?
Merriman strode on, the breeze tousling his wild hair. His jaw jutted in its usual grim way, but his eyes were shining.
"I've missed you," Will confessed. "I've missed you so much."
Merriman patted his pocket, and smiled. He made no sound.
"But you can't hear me," Will said, in a small voice. "You will never be able to hear me." Merriman walked on again. "Will you?" he shouted. "Will you?" he screamed.
Merriman did not even as much as pause, like one would do if they had heard a distant echo of a shout.
Will stood with his arms hanging limply at his sides. The Old Ones had gone out of Time. He had known what that meant all along, of course, for he had knowledge of all things from the Book of Gramarye, but he had not truly known it. He had slipped back in time, on that first day after the defeat of the Dark, expecting everything to be the same. They had not truly gone. Time was fluid. In his own time, his life would plod slowly forward, but he had the whole of the past to wander in, and the Old Ones there would know him.
Merriman did not hear him. Merriman could not see him.
It was the bitterest pain of all. The whole of the past was open to Will, but it was empty. The mortals could see him, of course, and he could talk to them, but the only people who mattered could not. They were gone from Time. They remained, but only like an echo, an endlessly replaying film. Will could watch them do the things that they had done, but they would never be real to him again.
"Oi!" someone was shouting. "Who are you? This is private land!"
Will turned round leadenly. The well-dressed man was heard his shout, and was rushing towards him, red-faced with outrage.
"I'm going," Will murmured, and he stepped into the darkness of the wood, and then through time, back into the emptiness of his now.
They were young, and their pale faces were blotchy, their hair dull and greasy. They're on drugs, the rational side of her mind told her. And I'm alone with them! gibbered the part that was terrified. And there's no-one here to help me.
They were leering at her. They've probably got knives, Jane thought. There's two of them. I won't be able to stop them.
"Got a light, love?" one of them shouted, and the other laughed.
They were in her path. There was no way to get down without passing by them, close enough that they would be able to grab her. The other direction led further up the hill, further into the open countryside, further away from people and safety and civilisation. There would be no escape there.
"I'm sorry," she told them, shaking her head. "I don't smoke."
Treat them politely, she told herself. Don't panic. Perhaps she was making an unfair judgment. Sometimes the most disreputable of people could be charming, and it was her job as a teacher to see the good in everyone, and foster it.
One of them drew a knife from his pocket, almost casually. He did not say anything, but he let her see it.
Jane pushed a strand of hair behind her ear, and fought the urge to look round wildly, to paw at her pockets for anything that could help her. The sky was a terrible black behind them, speaking of doom and terrible things.
"Maybe you've got a mobile phone," said the one with a knife. His voice was more cultured than she had expected. "There's no signal up here, you know."
Jane moistened her lips. She had a phone, but it wasn't on. Even if they were lying about the lack of signal, her phone always took ages to ready itself. Besides, she was fairly sure that the battery was dead.
"Is it the phone you want?" she offered. She could hear the trembling in her voice, and hated it. She was forever having to warn her pupils about mobile phone theft. "Or money? I haven't got any, any at all." It was true. She had come out with a bottle of water, and the keys to her house, and nothing else.
The two youths looked at each other. "No, I think we want something else," said the one with the knife. His friend made an obscene gesture, leaving Jane in no doubt what they want.
This can't be happening! Jane thought. She was cold all over, and then she was fiercely hot, burning up with shame. Her heart was hammering, and it started to rain. When the first drop hit her, she flinched so much that she almost screamed.
They walked towards her, swaggering. She turned to run. There was no safety there, but she had to try, she could not give, she could not surrender to them. As she ran, she started to cry, but she wanted to laugh, too – an insane, hysterical giggle. Why here, of all places? What sort of people bothered to walk all the way here to do something they could have done in a dark alley at home? These sort of things don't happen! she gibbered, but images sheeted across her mind, images from the television, images of death and weeping and shattered lives.
She reached the barrow, place of death. Her ankle turned on a concealed stone, and she almost fell, but flailed madly and managed to stay upright. She plunged forward, sure that they were closing on her, that hands were reaching for her, that they were grabbing her, tearing at her, laughing, slashing…
Thunder tore the sky apart, and lightning seared her eyes. She screamed, and the rain became torrential, cold water in her open mouth, streams of ice down her back.
"You will not touch her," someone said.
Jane froze. The voice…! It was soft, barely louder than the rain, but it was a command, too. It was a voice that could have commanded the thunder, could have commanded the rain. Soft, though…
Jane covered her eyes.
The youths said something, but their words were like gibberish now, dirty and defiant and useless, distorted by the thunder and the rain and her own terrified breathing. Thunder and lighting right on top of them again, trees black against the light, burning right through her closed eyelids.
She heard the sound of fighting, and then, for a moment, utter stillness.
"Go from this place," said the voice.
She opened her eyes, but did not turn round.
The rain was beating down on the back of her neck. There was mud behind her nails.
There was no sound but the rain. There was thunder. There were no voices.
Slowly, very slowly, she began to turn her head.
"They've gone," the voice said. "You're safe."
She had no idea what she had expected to see, but never this. The man standing before her looked completely ordinary. He looked younger than she was, and his hair was plastered to his face by rain. As she watched, a drop of rain fell off the end of his nose. It made her want to laugh, and suddenly she was barely afraid any more.
"What happened?" she asked. There was still a tremble in her voice, but just the fact of speaking made life seem normal again.
"They have gone," he said, in a polite tone that left no room for questions. "I will understand if you want me to go, too."
"No." She shook her head. "You're…" She struggled for the word. "Safe." It was not quite what she meant, but it was part of the truth.
The man nodded, but he said, "Few people trust strangers in this day and age."
Jane held his gaze. "That's precisely the reason why we should do so. We need trust to counter the… awfulness."
She saw something flicker in his eyes. She felt him look more intently at her, and then look away. "Yes," he said. "You're right."
There was nothing ordinary about his eyes. She still felt a little dizzy from looking into them. The rest of him was completely unremarkable. He wore black trousers and a loose white shirt, its sleeves pushed up to the elbow. It was a casual outfit, but it still looked more formal than the clothes people would normally wear for a summer walk up a hill. His hair was a little longer than was common for men, but not enough to seem strange. His face was pleasant to look at, rather than being arrestingly handsome. She liked it.
"Shall I walk you home?" he asked. She tried to look at his eyes again, but there was nothing unusual about them any more. "Or…" He ran his hand through his wet hair, pushing it off his brow. "I can watch from a distance, as you go back yourself." He sounded almost diffident as he asked it.
"If you were going that way anyway," she said. "If you don't mind…" She laughed weakly. "I was pathetic. I completely went to pieces."
"That is not true," he told her. "You did the only thing you could have done. Don't feel any shame."
"But I just cowered her like an idiot, and you saved me…"
"Yes," he said. He looked at the ground as he did so, and his hand clenched into a fist at his side. "I did. I happened to be there. I couldn't…" He stopped, as if he wanted to say more, but did not want her to hear it.
Jane stood up, surprised at how shaky she still felt. She did not offer her a hand, and she was grateful for that. There were some things that she needed to do for herself.
"We're both totally soaked," she said. She looked at his clinging shirt, and then saw the pink that was seeping out from the arm that he was keeping pressed to his body. "Oh!" she gasped. "You're hurt!"
Thunder sounded, further away this time. "It's nothing," he said.
His tone was final, but she refused to accept it. "How bad? Oh no. You got hurt saving me…"
"Do not think like that." It was that tone of gentle command once again. "I chose to do this. I just got… careless. I'd been distracted."
But he let her prize away the arm. The wound was on the inside of his arm, two or three inches long. He must have been slashed by the knife, and had been planning to keep her from finding out. She started to pull at his sleeve, to see how bad the wound was, but she stopped her, grabbing her wrist with surprising firmness.
"It's only a scratch," he said. "You said you trusted me, so trust me. I will suffer no lasting ill from this."
She smiled, because she had to. The only alternative was to cry. "Are you a history teacher, or something? It's the way you talk," she explained, when he raised a quizzical eyebrow. "My history teacher at school was always like that…" Her voice trailed away. He was so silent that she wondered if she had been unforgivably rude.
Finally, he smiled. "I'm not a teacher, no, but I do spend a lot of time in the past. I know a bit about archaeology and anthropology and things like that. I edit other people's books, and write articles for the sort of journals no-one ever reads. My name's Will," he offered, but he did not give his surname.
"Jane," Jane introduced herself. She wondered whether to shake his hand, or not. "Jane Drew. I'm a teacher in the school down there." She started to point down the valley, but realised that they had unconsciously been moving towards one of the burial chambers as they were talking, in an attempt to get out of the rain, and were now almost enclosed. "So that's why you were here, then," she said. "The archaeology thing, I mean?"
Will looked a little sheepish. "Actually, I was on holiday. I came on a… er… surprise visit to a friend. The neighbours said that they might have come this way, so I thought I'd try and surprise them."
"But instead you found me," Jane said heavily. "I wish you'd let me look at that cut."
"It's fine," he said. As if to give lie to his words, a trickle of blood seeped through his sleeve and fell to the ground. He watched it fall. "Oh," he said. "That was… unfortunate." He glanced at the walls of the chamber, and the floor that had once held the ancient dead in a way that made her realise that he had a superstition about shedding blood in such a place.
She shivered. The dead suddenly seemed very close. "I wonder what they would think," she found herself saying, "if they could see the mess we're making of their world. Things must have been so innocent back then."
"Innocent?" He gave a wry smile, but she noticed that he had taken care to move out into the rain again, so he was no longer in the chamber. "People have always fought, Jane. Few of the dead here died a natural death. They died because of men's hatreds. Men were betrayed. Women were assaulted. People died in fear. Nothing has changed."
She thought about it. There, in that small chamber of the long-forgotten dead, his words seemed entirely true. She remembered how melancholy she had been earlier, thinking about the boys who had tried to make a game of war. It was always like that, she thought, but people endured. They always do.
"I think the rain's almost stopped," Will said, turning his face to the sky.
Smiling, Jane came out to him. "Then let's go home."
end of chapter four
Meeting on the mountains
"When can I go home?" he had asked them, but they had just smiled and said, "Not yet."
They had all gone and left him alone, now. Bran sat propped up with pillows, a newspaper spread open on his bed. Headlines shrieked enthusiastically of horrors and outrages, and showed close-up pictures of victims and survivors. Bran seldom read the paper. It normally felt irrelevant to him, to read of things happening far away from his own valleys. Now it felt too close. He wanted to stop looking at it, but could not.
John Rowlands and his father had come to visit him once, but had not been able to stay long. Both had been uncharacteristically upset. You could have died, and the last words we exchanged were in anger. That was what Bran had seen in John Rowlands' eyes, although his old friend would never say such a thing in words. Instead, they had spoken of inconsequential things, and none of them had as much as mentioned the attack. Bran had not wanted them to leave, but had breathed a little more easily after they had gone.
Outside, the sky was speckled with grey. He wished he could see more, but his bed was on the far side of the room from the window. The man in the adjacent bed was asleep, and the bed opposite was empty. If the nurses were working, they were working far away. Bran had nothing to do but think.
He lay back and closed his eyes, then opened them again. He turned a page in the newspaper. The next spread was gushing about soap operas and showbiz gossip. It meant nothing to Bran, but he read every word of it nonetheless.
Footsteps in the doorway made him snap his head up, his heart beating fast. He could not suppress a sigh a relief when he saw that it was only a policeman.
The policeman smiled. "You've just proved conclusively that you're not a criminal, you know."
Bran blinked. "Was I a suspect?"
The policeman shook his head. "Of course not. It was just a joke. It's just that I'm used to people stiffening up and looking guilty when I come near."
His name was Gwyn Thomas, and he had been in Bran's class at school, many years before. They had hardly ever talked to each other, but Gwyn seemed to have forgotten that. Bran had come across him several times over the years, and Gwyn had always acted as if they had been bosom friends.
"Are you here to interview me again?" Bran asked him. "I've already told your colleagues everything I remember."
"No," Gwyn said. "This is strictly... Well, I'm not off duty, but it's informal. Just a chat."
"I don't want to chat," Bran said. "Not about that."
Gwyn Thomas sat down. "They tell me you'll be going home in a couple of days."
"Really?" Bran gave a harsh laugh. "Then they've told you more than they've told me."
"They just wanted to observe you. Make sure there weren't complications." Gwyn shrugged almost apologetically. "They've patched you up well. You'll be as good as new in a week or two. Except..." He lowered his voice. "You've been a victim of a violent assault, Bran. It's completely normal for people to need..."
"Counselling?" Bran demanded. He kept his voice very low. "Is that what you're here for?" Gwyn opened his mouth to speak, but Bran would not let him. "Get out," he commanded. "Get out now, or I'll..."
"Get out!" Bran shouted. "Get out now!"
He turned his head away, facing the wall. After a while, he heard Gwyn standing up, and heard him leaving. Only when he was sure the policeman had gone, did he let out a tight and shuddering breath.
"Well done," mumbled the man in the next bed, but Bran did not acknowledge him.
Victim, he thought. The word pulsed in his skull again and again and again. Victim. He had been attacked on his own front doorstep. He had been knocked to the ground, and beaten. His blood had been shed. He had been bruised and broken and cast aside. "Nothing," they had said. "You are nothing."
He screwed his eyes shut, but all he could see was their dark shapes, and all he could hear was their emotionless voices. When he opened his eyes again, he saw a page from the newspaper, fallen to the floor. The battered face of an assault victim stared up at him. Bran bit his lip to stifle a moan, and closed his eyes again.
Did they all know about him? This was a national paper, and his attack would not be deemed worthy of as much as a mention, but surely the local paper...? He had not thought to ask, and no-one had told him. Had someone photographed him as he was being loaded onto the ambulance? Had someone crept into his hospital room and photographed his battered face? Did everyone know? Bran the victim. Was that who he would be for ever more?
"I will not," he swore, clenching his undamaged fist.
He would go home with his head high. They had attacked him at home, but he would not let it become a place of fear. He would carry on his life and show them that they could not break him.
You are nothing, they had said, and now he will come. Bran would show them that they were wrong. And as for their "he".... "Just let him come," Bran whispered to himself. "I'll show him."
The grass on the mountain was green, and the sky was a lowering grey. Kestrels cried overhead, and far away, a dog barked.
It was autumn in this time. Twenty years in the future, Will would be sitting in exactly the same place, but on a mountain-side baked yellow by summer. He would sit down beneath the sun, and do nothing but breathe for hours on end, before suddenly, with a tiny moan, sinking into the past.
So now here he was, thirty-two years old, sitting in the autumn of a year in which he was almost twelve.
And Merriman was beside him.
"I interfered," Will told him. "I know I shouldn't have. Men make their own choices. You told me that again and again. Sometimes we have to do harsh things in order to preserve men's freedom. I know all that, but I saved her."
Merriman said nothing. His hawk-like eyes were scanning the valley below, and his jaw was set with determination.
"But it was Jane..." Will plucked a blade of grass and started to shred it. "She was always special. The Lady spoke to her. She pitied the Greenwitch. She alone, of all the women over the centuries, showed pity. I couldn't stand back and let them do that to her."
The dog barked again. Merriman cocked his head. Far below, a slim figure started to climb the mountain.
"None of them remember the part they played in turning back the Dark," Will said, "but that doesn't change the fact that they played it. The Light is in debt to them. I'm the only one left to repay it."
Merriman stretched out his long legs, and leant forward, watching the figure climb.
Will let the shredded fragments of grass fall to the ground. "I don't know what you would say to me, if you could hear me. That I should have stood back, or that I should have helped?" There was silence. "I wish you were here, Merriman," Will said in a rush. "It's so hard to do this alone."
The figure of the boy was closer now. Will masked his presence, but did not move.
He had walked Jane back to her house, but had refused her invitation to come in. Instead, he had mumbled some excuse, and driven immediately to Wales. It had been almost midnight when he had arrived, too late to find anywhere to stay. He had spent the night in his car, and the morning on the mountain, and now here he was, twenty years in the past.
When the boy was almost upon them, Merriman stood up and went to meet him. "Hello, Bran Davies."
The young Bran started in alarm, and glanced down at the dog at his side. Cafall was wagging his tail. Bran seemed to take that as proof that Merriman was not a threat to him, but he did not return Merriman's greeting.
"Bran," Will whispered. It hurt far more than he had ever expected, to see Bran like this again. Young, his beloved Cafall at his side, still knowing nothing of grief and fear and responsibility. Within minutes of meeting, Will and Bran had been like lifelong friends. They had teased each other, chased each other down the mountain. They had argued, of course, as friends do, but they had stood side by side when it mattered. They had gone to the Lost Land together, and they had come out again.
Jane, Simon and Barney had all played their part, but for Will, Bran was always the one who mattered. The Drews had each other; Will had Bran. When the group had split up, it had been only natural that the Drews had gone one way, and Will and Bran the other.
Bran was the Pendragon, the son of King Arthur. "But he was my friend," Will whispered. A friend he had known for less than a year, but the closest friend he had ever had. A friend who had experienced wonders and terrors alongside him. A friend who understood Will's true nature. Someone Will could talk to about everything...
A friend who no longer existed. A magical boy, who had become a man who had forgotten everything.
Bran was looking up at Merriman, absorbing everything he was saying. Merriman was telling Bran about the Old Ones, enough for him to understand what was being asked of him, and Bran was accepting it without argument. Perhaps the magic that was buried in his blood was enough to make him believe it, or maybe it was just that Merriman was impossible to doubt. But I did, Will thought sadly, remembering how he had denied his powers when Merriman had first told him about them.
"He will come just before Halloween," Merriman was saying. "He is an Old One, like I am, and he will be facing a challenge that he must not lose. You are to help him find the way, Bran Davies. Help the Old One defeat the Dark." His stern face softened into a smile. "But he is not just an Old One. He is also a boy the same age as you, and he's been very ill, far more ill than anyone around him realises. He'll need you in more ways than one, Bran Davies."
"How will I recognise him?" Bran asked, one hand absently going down to pat Cafall on the head. The dog nestled contentedly against his master's leg.
Merriman chuckled. "How many strange English boys come to these parts at this time of year? You will know him, Bran Davies, but he won't know himself. You will need to win his trust. Greet him by name - his name is Will Stanton - and here are some words you must say to him..."
And so it begins... Will's heart clenched his pain again, but this time it was all for Bran. As a result of this meeting, Bran suffer terribly. In just over a week, Cafall, the truest friend of his childhood, would be dead, shot by Caradog Pritchard. Will wanted to cry out, to warn him, but he could not. The Old Ones could not go into the past and change things. If they went into the past, it was because they had been there all along. Twenty years ago, as Will had lain in his sickbed in Buckinghamshire, his older self had sat unseen on a mountain in Wales, and said nothing. Will could exist in all times, but nothing could change the present.
Besides, Will told himself, if Bran had not suffered the loss of his dog, he would not have discovered who he was. He would not have discovered his true heritage, and the role he had to play in driving back the Dark. A dog had died, but the Light had triumphed. Sometimes an Old One had to be cruel, in order for Light to be served.
Merriman had clearly finished with Bran, for Bran called, "Come on, Cafall." The boy walked away, slower than he had come, clearly musing on what he had heard. Cafall, the dog with the silver eyes, trotted close beside him, as if protecting him. But nothing could save him. Nothing could save either of them.
"I wish you hadn't had to do that," Will said reproachfully.
Merriman was watching Bran go, a range of emotions flickering over his face. "Walk in the Light, Bran Davies," he murmured. "My Will needs you more than he will ever know."
With a cry, Will threw himself back through the currents of time, back to the summer mountainside twenty years in the future. Cafall was long dead. Merriman was gone. Bran was alive, but had forgotten everything he had once known.
The sun was almost directly over head, and the sky was an unrelieved blue. The storms of the day before had long passed, and cloudless weather had come in again from the west. Will stood up, realising that he had to go somewhere. As he started down the mountain, he saw a figure ahead of him that he recognised as John Rowlands.
Will stopped. I should carry on, he thought. Pretend I haven't seen him. He came to these parts at least twice every year, to watch Bran from a distance, but he had never once spoken either to Bran, or to anyone else he had once known. It was the same with Jane and the others. He had planned to watch her long enough to make sure that she was content, and then move on, all without showing himself. He had made a mistake with Jane, and that was all the more reason why he should not make the same mistake with anyone else.
But even as he was thinking it, his feet were taking him towards the man. He supposed that no harm would come of it. This was John Rowlands, not Bran. There were always enough ramblers around, heading for Cader Idris, that John Rowlands would think nothing of a stranger who stopped to pass a few words with him on a summer's day.
John Rowlands carried on with his work as Will approached, but Will could tell that he was watching him. Will tried a cheery smile. "Good afternoon!" he called.
John grunted something non-committal in reply.
"Glorious country you have round here," Will said, echoing something Merriman had said the day before, and a hundred a fifty years ago.
John straightened, and his face was cold and closed. "Private country," he said, "except for the paths. You're not on a path."
"Oh." Will felt the smile wash away from his face. John Rowlands had always been friendly to him, at least when he had thought Will was nothing more than a normal boy. Afterwards, although he had fought for the Light, he had made no secret of disliking the cold things that the Light sometimes had to do to men, but he had never been cold himself.
"I'm thinking that you don't look like a walker," John said. "You're a stranger. We don't like strangers sniffing around here."
"Why?" Will asked. It amazed him how John's coldness could hurt so. It was not as if John remembered him. It's because it's so unlike him, he realised. John had always argued the cause of compassion and warmth and loving bonds.
"We had some trouble with strangers," John said. "Violence unprovoked. A friend left for dead at his own front door. Perhaps you are nothing to do with those thugs, but I will not take chances. I am asking you to leave."
Will did not move. Bran! he cried. Does he mean Bran?
"Is he alright?" he rasped. "Do you mean...?" It was all he could do not to say Bran's name. He remembered with a struggle that he was supposed to be a stranger.
"I have asked you to leave," John said, in a deadly voice completely unlike his own. "If you refuse to go, I will have to assume that you are something to do with the attack on Bran. Now, go."
Will turned away blindly. "Bran," he breathed, as he stumbled off. He clenched his fists. I should have known. Why didn't I know? He should have known the moment Bran had got hurt. He could have been there in an instant. He had got there in time for Jane, but all the while Bran... And he didn't know how badly hurt he was. "Left for dead," John had said. Left for dead...
Will started to run.
She sat at home, hugging a cushion to her chest.
"I'm being stupid," she kept telling herself out loud. "It was a one-off. It's not going to happen again."
She had tried to read, but had been unable to concentrate on the words. She had put in an old and much-loved film, and watched it for a while, but she had spent more time listening for noises at the window than hearing the film.
"It's not as if anything actually happened," she told herself. "Will stopped them before they could do anything."
But Will had driven them off, and they had not been arrested. They were still out there somewhere. She had not recognised them as locals, but perhaps they knew her. Perhaps they could make enquiries and find her. Perhaps there were other people just like them who would be waiting for her next time she went out of her door.
She switched the television off, and wrote her thoughts down in her diary, including the sights and smells of her fear, and everything she was thinking and feeling. It did not help one little bit. By the end of it, her hand was aching, she had been clutching the pen so tightly. She dropped the pen, and stared into space.
She wanted to phone her parents, but the grown-up part of her did not want to worry them. Simon would play the protective older brother, but then would get side-tracked by a diatribe about the government's social policy. Barney would be supportive, and would pray for her. Neither of them could help her feel safe again.
Will could have, she thought. Walking back with Will, she had never felt remotely in danger. She had reached her front door, and she had been congratulating herself on how well she had coped with the incident. She had not felt the slightest trauma. Her home had felt safe, and the world had felt happier and more hopeful than it had seemed in the morning.
She had asked him in, but he had politely refused. "I need to get on," he had said. "I'm going to Wales to see a… friend."
"Oh." She had pushed a strand of hair behind her ear. "Well... Thank you, again."
After he had gone, she had opened her front door, and stood poised there for a very long time. Outside suddenly felt vast and scary, but inside felt like a prison. Finally, she had gone in, locked the door behind her, and collapsed sobbing to the floor. Trauma, her rational mind had told her. Delayed shock. "Please come back!" she had called to Will, but even then he had been long gone, and there had been no-one there to hear her.
She went to make herself a cup of tea. As she waited for it to boil, she switched the radio on, only to find that it was playing some current affairs discussion programme. Listeners were phoning in with their opinions on youth crime. "I blame the teachers," someone said, and Jane gave a wry smile. Then someone phoned in to talk about their feelings about being mugged. "It changed my life," the man said. "I don't feel safe any more."
Jane switched the radio off. Her hand trembled so much as she was pouring the kettle, that she spilled boiling water all over the sides of the mug.
She lifted the mug, and blew over the liquid to cool it. She took a sip, but it was still far too hot and it burnt her lips. It occurred to her suddenly that she had never once thought of reporting the attack to the police. "There's no point. They never catch anyone, anyway." That was she sometimes heard people saying, as a reason not to report such things. But Jane had always disagreed. If people didn't report crimes, she thought, they were giving up. With their cynicism, they were fuelling all the bad things in the world. People needed to take a stand, and...
She placed the mug carefully down on the working surface, and eyed the phone. It was not too late. She could still report it. But then there would be police at her door, and the neighbours to see. In a small town like this, soon everyone would know. People would stare. Her attackers might find her.
"I need to get away," she realised. She had to go somewhere else, somewhere where she would not be looking over her shoulder all the time, wondering if they were there. She needed a break. Just a few days, perhaps, but when she came back, things would feel different. Things always seemed different after you had gone away.
But where could she go? She had already visited Barney, and Simon and her parents lived busy lives in London. She wanted somewhere pretty, and out of the city; somewhere with a sense of peace, and of history.
Will would be in Wales by now...
He was the reason she had not reported the incident to the police, she realised. In the presence of Will, the police had seemed irrelevant. He had come out of nowhere to save her, and he had seen her safely back home. No policeman could have done it so well, or so completely. And he had been injured while saving her...
She shook her head, chiding herself. It was useless to daydream of meeting him again. He was a stranger, and he had gone. If she ever got into trouble again, he would not be there to save her.
But she could still go to Wales. She had spent a holiday there once when she was young. Some holidays stuck in the mind, but the Welsh holiday had gone from her memory, in almost every detail. All she remembered was that it had been beautiful, and she had made friends.
"Yes," she said aloud. "Wales it is, then." She switched her computer on, to find a place to stay. She would return to the same place she had gone on that childhood holiday. Wales was a big place, and it was next to impossible that she would meet Will there, but, really, it did not matter. All that mattered was that she was getting away. All that mattered was that she was taking steps by herself to get over what had happened.
And perhaps, when I'm there, she thought, as she started searching for hotels, I will start to remember.
end of chapter five
Strangers and friends
He saw a bearded man, kind eyes in a stern face. There was a ship, too, a beautiful prow arching out of the mist. Beyond the ship was the ocean, and beyond the ocean were the stars. Silver stars. Silver, like the eyes of a beloved friend…
Bran woke up. The dream faded, until there was nothing but the vague sense that there was somewhere else, out there, calling. Peaceful oceans, and those that voyaged upon them. Other places, other worlds.
He drew his thoughts quite deliberately back to the hills of his home. The doors of the dream closed, and this time there was no memory of it at all. When he tried to move, his shoulders hurt, and that was it, his proof that the world was far more real than any dream. He had been attacked; there was no time for dreaming. He had been attacked, and they might come back…
His eyes snapped open into a harsh light that cast no shadows. A stranger stood in the doorway, looking at him with fervent eyes that seemed to bore right through him.
Bran did not give him the chance to make the first move. "Who are you?" he demanded.
The man opened his mouth, closed it, but said nothing.
Bran pushed himself painfully upright. "Were you watching me?"
The stranger did not deny it.
"Are you a doctor?"
The stranger shook his head. "I was just…" He let out a breath, and did not finish.
He was English, too. Some middle class English incomer, with smooth hands and clean clothes, who had doubtless never done an honest day's hard labour in his life. Everything about him screamed bland and average, except for those eyes…
"Just passing?" Bran sneered. "And you stopped to some poor assault victim as he lay sleeping? Do you get off on things like that?"
"No." The Englishman shook his head. "I was…" But again he did not finish.
"Get out!" Bran commanded him.
The stranger did not move. His hands shifted nervously, but he had never once taken his eyes off Bran's face, not once in all their exchange.
It's him! Bran thought suddenly, with something close to terror. This was the one his attackers had been talking about. This was the one who would come, the next round of the attack, the one who came in to finish him off. He had tracked Bran down, and come into his hospital room. How long had been standing there, watching Bran as he lay asleep?
"How did you get past the nurses?" Bran croaked.
"Most thing are possible," the man said, with a curious smile that looked almost sad.
Nothing can happen to me here, Bran tried to tell himself. There was a man sleeping in the next bed, and a button at Bran's bedside would call the nurses. And he had to know. He had to find out. He was safe here. He was safe.
"Was it you?" he asked. "Are you the one they were talking about?" And John Rowlands… John had phoned him up the night before to say that a stranger had been sniffing around. A well-spoken Englishman, nicely dressed. "You've been to my house," Bran gasped, "and now you're here."
The man nodded. He looked as if he was trying desperately not to.
"Get out!" Bran screamed, as he pressed the button. "I don't know you!" he shouted. "Get out of my room!"
No nurses came running. The man in the next bed remained fast asleep. Bran could not even see him breathing.
The stranger's lips moved. It looked almost like a "please".
"Get out!" Bran shouted again. If the man stepped forward… If the man had a weapon…
The stranger blinked. His eyes were shining. "I'm sorry," he said, very quietly. Then he turned and walked away.
Bran slumped back into the pillows. His heart was beating very fast. His thoughts were swamped by the memory of the man's eyes, and fear was fluttering around it like black wings. He clenched his fist, tried to banish it with fury. How dare he? he thought. How dare he come here to gloat?
But he went, he told himself. I stood up to him, and he went.
The memory of silent footsteps on the hospital floor…
The man in the next bed opened his eyes. "You were totally useless," Bran told him. Then two nurses came sauntering up, followed by a doctor. "And you were, too," Bran said. "Somone got in."
"Probably a doctor," one of the nurses said. "It isn't visiting hours. No-one else can come in."
She was patronising him. Bran was just opening his mouth for a furious retort, when the doctor said, "I just need to check a few things, but I think I'll be discharging you this afternoon."
"You mean, I can go home?" The thought drove all other thoughts from his mind.
Home, where he had been attacked. Home, where the stranger had already found him.
The waves surged up the beach, broke, and withdrew. Forward, and back. Forward, and back.
Jane watched them, let her thoughts ebb and flow along with them. There was something dream-like about oceans, she thought. The sound of the waves put her mind into a place that was not quite the place of rational thought. When she was beside the sea, she always half expected wild insights to pop into her head…
Or memories, long-forgotten, to emerge.
She was glad she had come here, though she was far from relaxed. The moment she had entered the mountains, she had felt as if she was on the brink of something huge. The mountains had dwarfed the road and her little car, and her, even littler, inside it. They were vast and ageless, dark with sun-burnt heather, and they endured. Men died. Men killed each other with wars and violence, but the mountains endured, and would endure, even after mankind had wiped itself out.
We know all the secrets of men, they whispered to her. We have watched it all. We know what you lost
This was where it had happened, she was sure of it. After her childhood holiday in Wales, her memories ran in a straight line, with no gaps. Her diaries had started just after that, and they confirmed it. The Welsh holiday, happening just days before memories that were vivid, was patchy and vague. She remembered coming here. She remembered meeting a couple of boys, and making friends with them instantly, in the way that children often do on holiday, when long friendships had to be compressed into days. She remembered a walk on the hills with them, and then going home, and that was that. Her parents said they had been in Wales for two weeks, so why did so little remain?
Perhaps you will find out, the mountains said to her. They had burned, the evening before, in the sunset.
She watched the waves. A few children played on the beach, their parents idly watching over them. Tourists chattered as they walked behind where she stood, and local voices shouted out in Welsh. Cars sounded, but she had not once heard a siren. She did not fear the violence of men, not here. If she feared anything at all, it was something far deeper.
Early in the morning, she had opened the curtains of her small hotel room, and looked at the mountains, dark with the sun behind them.
What if it's for the best, that I've forgotten? she had suddenly wondered. She had read about people who had something so horrendous happen to them that their mind blanked it out, to protect their sanity. They lived in ignorance, but at least they lived. The things that lurked in their memories would have destroyed them, had they been let out to stand in the light.
The waves rose, and fell; rose, and fell. Memories almost resurfaced, then withdrew again.
Behind her, the mountain looked down, and guarded its secrets, and did not tell.
They had let him go.
"We can take you in an ambulance," they had offered, "if no-one can come to take you home."
Bran had shaken his head. "Someone's coming later."
They had wanted him to wait in the hospital, but he had refused. In the hospital, he was a victim, and the stranger had watched him sleeping. He wanted to be outside, and free. He was a country man at heart, always happier in the fresh air than imprisoned in a room.
"I'd advise against it," the doctor had said. "You mustn't exert yourself."
Bran had looked at him coldly. "You're the one who said I was fit to go. It's up to me where I go, and what I do."
John Rowlands would be arriving in an hour or two, before it got dark. Besides, it was tourist season, and the sea front was full of people. Nothing could happen to him there. He would find a bench, and sit there, watching the waves and enjoying the air. It was not home, but he was free. He had come here of his own volition, and walked on his own two legs.
Most of the benches were full. Shielding his eyes with his hand, he saw an empty one a hundred yards away, and he started to walk to it, but his body was aching, and his head was throbbing. Long before he could reach it, a noisy family claimed it and settled down to eat their ice creams. Bran pressed his lips together in irritation, then noticed a nearer bench with only one occupant.
I won't talk to her, Bran thought, and was careful not to look at her as he eased himself down on the far end of the bench. Most people were as reluctant as he was to talk to strangers, but sometimes you got one of those annoying chatty ones, who liked to strike up conversations with anyone who made eye contact.
He was aware of her shifting a little beside him, maybe even looking at him.
Bran wrapped his arms around his body, in a way designed to show that he wanted to be left alone.
She moved even more, turned round bodily to face him.
He brought his hand up to his face.
"I know you," she gasped.
Bran's breathing became very tight and shallow, but he did not turn round.
"When I was twelve," she said. "It was you. I'm sure of it." Her voice faltered a little when he did not respond. "Wasn't it?"
The voice was English, but it sounded pleasant. Despite himself, he turned to face her, confident in the fact that his eyes were hidden by the shield of his dark glasses. What he saw was a woman of about his own age, with a pretty face, and eyes that brimmed with earnestness.
He did not turn away.
"I was on holiday," she said. "We met two boys. You know how quickly children can team up with total strangers on holidays, without wasting time on getting to know each other. I'm sure it was you. Don't you remember?"
"Perhaps I'm more memorable than you are," he said bitterly. "No-one ever forgets my freakish colouring."
"I didn't mean…" She blushed, and looked so distraught, that he could have kicked himself for answering the way he had done. She really was very pretty. "Of course," she stammered, "that's what made me remember, but…"
"Don't worry about it." He smiled at her. The muscles of the smile felt stiff, as if he hadn't used them for a while. "It's not your fault I look like this, and you did say 'friend', didn't you?"
She smiled. "I did. I'm Jane, by the way. Jane Drew. My brothers were Simon - he's the older one - and Barney. Are you sure you don't remember?" She bit her lip. "Maybe I'm wrong."
And then, in an instant, he remembered. "Jane," he cried. "I do remember you. We all spent a day together, didn't we? We went walking somewhere up on the mountains. And…" He frowned, struggling to remember. "Didn't I find…"
"A beautiful blue stone!" she cried. She clapped her hands together with excitement. "You gave it to me. I've still got it. It was you!"
"I called you Jenny," he said, and he was smiling, smiling as if he would never stop. It hadn't been her brothers' names that had jogged his memory, but the sight of her pretty face smiling at him.
But then that smile faded. "The other boy…" She was frowning now.
"Forget about him," Bran urged.
"He was…" Her frown deepened. "Oh," she breathed, her hand rising to her mouth. "Could it be…?"
He wanted to see her smile again. "Jane." He tried out her name. "Jenny."
"He was called Will," she said, and Bran was suddenly convinced that she had forgotten all about him. "Will… Stanton? It's hard to know how people will change as they grow up, but… No, it can't be. That would be too much of a coincidence. But he did say he was coming to Wales…"
"Who are you talking about?" he demanded.
"Will," she said. "The other boy we met. I bumped into someone a few days ago, and I didn't recognise him, but now I come to think about it… I'm sure it was him. He did say he was coming to Wales, so there's that link there, too." She shook her head wonderingly. "He looks younger than his age. That must be why I didn't recognise him."
"I don't remember much about him," Bran said shortly.
Jane clapped her hands together, and her smile was even more luminous than before. "What a wonderful coincidence!"
Bran folded his arms, and glared out to sea. "I don't trust coincidences."
"Don't be silly." Her hand brushed against his arm, and the world felt warm again, because she was laughing. "There's so much horrible stuff happening in the world. Isn't it lovely when old friends find each other again?"
"How long are you here for?" Bran asked.
Jane did not answer. She was gazing far beyond him, and her eyes were shining. "Maybe, between us, we'll remember…"
Look at me again, he wanted to say, but he did not. She smiled again, and tears leaked from her eyes, but she was still smiling.
Will wandered in a daze, scarcely seeing the faceless people who jostled him. I shouldn't have done it, he thought. The only face he saw was Bran's, bruises stark on his pale skin. Bran's face, twisted in anger and rejection, but beneath it, the fear.
Bran afraid. Bran afraid of him. Bran afraid because of him.
He had used his powers to creep unseen into the hospital. He had created a bubble of stillness for the two of them, so that nothing they said or did could be heard by anyone else. He had watched Bran as he slept. He had used his powers, not in order to advance the cause of Light, not to thwart the Dark. He had used his powers on innocents, just because he wanted to. Bran was right to hate him.
Hours had passed, he thought. Hours of wandering through the streets, seeing nothing, but now he had reached the sea. He could no longer go forward.
He stopped, and looked out at the grey expanse of water, where a Lost Land lay hidden. He and Bran had gone there long ago, and faced dangers together. Neither of them would have survived without the other.
Will blinked, and there was Bran, smiling. Will's arms fell heavily to his sides, and swung there limply. Bran, and Jane! They had found each other, but how…? Jane had been in the Cotswolds only two days before. He had never once seen any hint that she and Bran… And they were smiling… Bran, his face aglow. Jane, pushing her hair behind her ear, smiling, with shining eyes…
He could not move. He could not breathe. Something painful twisted inside him, and he knew that it was jealousy. They had found each other, and he would never… He could never…
And then Jane had seen him, and was scrabbling to her feet, rushing over towards him, as excited as a child. "Will, it's you. It is you. Oh, I was right."
The smile had died on Bran's face.
Jane was grabbing Will's arms. "I'd totally forgotten… I didn't recognise you. But then I bumped into Bran, and I remembered."
"Remembered?" It came out as a deathly croak. Had they truly remembered? His heart racing, and he did not know what to say, where to look. If they had remembered everything, then he would no longer be alone. His whole world teetered on the knife edge.
But if they had remembered everything, he would have to make the forget again. Merriman himself had altered their memories, so it was the right thing to do. But yet… But yet…
"That holiday when we were children." Jane's smile had faltered a little, but she was still pulling at Will's arms. "Me and my brothers, and you, and Bran. Don't you remember? We spent a day together, and then went our separate ways. But fancy us all meeting up like this!"
Will moistened his dry lips. His mind didn't seem to be working properly. He played her words back slowly, and began to understand that she had remembered nothing, only to false nothing-memory that had been planted in her mind. She remembered him only as a chance encounter, and that meant that Bran…
Bran was standing up now, and was slowly limping his way towards them. Will could not look away from him.
"How's your cut?" Jane asked him. "I'll never forget how you saved me, Will." She gave a nervous laugh. "I'm sorry. I don't normally babble like this, but it's all such an amazing coincidence."
"Yes," Will mumbled. He tried to pull away. He tried to edge backwards. Bran was coming, limping slowly, his face dark with bruises and hostility. Something terrible was about to happen, Will knew it.
Behind him, not far away, two people started shouting.
Bran reached them, and his voice was as cold as loneliness as he said, "Do you know this man, Jane?"
Jane turned to him. Will could not see her face, only the back of her head. "This is Will. Don't you remember? I was just talking about him."
"You said you met him a few days ago, at home." Bran was speaking to Jane, but he was looking at Will. Everything about him was an accusation.
Across the street, the argument rose to screaming. A woman and a man were swearing at each other, hating each other. A child started crying.
"I did," Jane said. "He saved my life."
"Then why is he here?" Bran demanded quietly. "Did he follow you?"
Jane shook her head. "Of course not. If anything, I followed him. He said he was going to Wales, and that made me remember the holiday I had, so I decided to come, too. Of course, I didn't know who he was then. I didn't know he was coming to the same place."
"But why did he? That's what I'm wondering."
Behind them, the argument had turned violent. There was the sound of someone being slapped, and the child screamed. Other people started to shout, warning them to stop. I should do something, a distant part of Will's mind told him, but he could not turn round, he could not look away.
"Well, because he remembers the same holiday, of course." Jane was still shaking her head. "Why are you being like this, Bran?"
"Because it just seems funny, that's all." Bran's voice was cold and mocking. "This man, who happens to be someone we both knew for a few hours twenty years ago, turns up on your doorstep, and then, only days later, he turns up on mine."
"Coincidence," Jane said, but, "I don't believe in it," Bran said coldly.
Will could not speak at all. Bran was right, of course. He was right in every way, except for the coldness and the hatred of it all.
"I don't know what you're involved in," Bran said, addressing Will directly for the first time, "but I want you gone."
"But he saved my life," Jane cried. "He got hurt…"
"I got hurt, too," Bran said, gesturing vaguely at his bruises. "And he was involved in it. He as good as said so, when I caught him sniffing around my hospital room."
Jane turned slowly to face Will. "Is it true?" She shook her head, frowning. "No, I can't believe it."
"It's true," Bran said coldly.
Will half raised one useless hand, then let it fall again. "I wasn't the one who hurt you, Bran. I would never do that."
Bran gave a snort of laughter. Behind them, the shouts and screams continued, but Will pushed them further and further away in his mind. All that existed was Bran, and Jane at his side.
"You were attacked?" Jane said. "Was it in the local paper? Will probably saw it, and remembered you, just like I did. He probably just wanted to make sure…"
"I don't believe that," Bran spat. He took a step forward, and raised his hand, in a gesture of command that reminded Will fiercely of Bran's true father, except that the hand was trembling slightly. "Go away. Leave me alone. I don't ever want to see you again." He lowered his hand. "Come on, Jane."
Bran limped away. Jane stood between them, wavering, her eyes going from one to the other. "It isn't true?" Her voice was small and pleading.
Will shook his head, deeply weary. His soul felt completely wrung out. "I didn't hurt him," he whispered, "or not in the way he thinks."
"Good." Jane smiled at him, and this time it was the smile of an adult, not the excited child she had been a few minutes before.
Will shook his head, ever so slightly. "I think you should go with him," he said. "He needs someone."
"But I don't know him," Jane protested. "Not really."
Will managed to smile. "You don't know me, either."
He did not give her a chance to answer, but turned and walked slowly away.
end of chapter six
A voice from the darkness
She glanced over her shoulder at Bran. When she turned back again, she could no longer see Will. She could not even remember which direction he had gone in, to follow him. He had told her to stay with Bran, and then given her no choice.
Bran had returned to the bench. He sat there, hunched in on himself, a picture of surly anger. Jane stamped over to him, and stood above him, hands on hips.
"Why did you do that?" she demanded.
"I could ask you the same," he muttered.
"No." She shook her head. "Why did you attack Will like that? Of course he hasn't done anything to you. Why were you like that?"
"You should have gone with him." Bran was staring fiercely out to the sea, his arms clenched close to his body. "You took his side instead of mine."
Jane let out a long breath. "It isn't a question of sides," she said quietly. She settled herself down on the bench, folding her hands carefully on her lap. "I barely know either of you. It wasn't as if I was choosing…"
"It was," he said. "You chose."
"Bran…" Jane pushed her hair from her face. "It was just… You sounded so unreasonable, and poor Will…" She shook her head, frowning. "Maybe you have seen him around before, but it isn't…"
"Don't you defend him." Bran looked at her. His eyes were hidden by his dark glasses, but his tone was strange. It sounded almost pleading.
His bruises were stark on his pale skin. Jane reminded herself that he had been badly hurt. She had felt quivery and afraid the day after her near-miss, but there had been no Will to rescue Bran. Jane had escaped, but Bran had suffered an assault, bad enough to put him in hospital. If his behaviour was hostile and paranoid, it was only understandable.
"I'm sorry," she said. They were silent for a little while. In the distance, a siren started to sound. "Have you really only been released from hospital today?" she asked him.
Bran nodded. It was the careful nod of someone whose head ached very badly.
The siren grew louder. Jane became aware that the whole street had gone very quiet, as if waiting for something to happen. "How are you getting home?" Her voice felt loud in the eerie quiet of the street, as if everyone could hear her.
"A friend." Bran was looking out to sea again. "He's coming to pick me up, but not until later. There's work to do be done on the farm. He's doing my work as well as his own."
Jane wondered whether to say it, or not. She listened to the stillness, to the wind, to the waves. Beside her, Bran said nothing at all. He was not even moving. "I can take you home," she said, "if you like."
"I'm not an invalid." Bran still did not look at her.
Jane laced her fingers together, and held them tightly. "I know you're not."
The siren stopped right behind them. A police car, and another on the way. Jane twisted round to look, one hand closing on the back of the bench. The silent crowd awakened, talking to each other, shouting out to the police officers who emerged from the vehicle. A path was made. Jane caught the briefest glimpse of someone lying on the ground, and a flash of red.
"Was someone killed?" she breathed. She had been aware of the argument that had been raging across the street, but only dimly so, caught up as she was in her own private drama. Had it reached the point of violence so quickly, so suddenly? And she had not known. Yet another person lying attacked and bleeding, and no-one had stepped forward to stop it happening, to save them.
Am ambulance screeched up. Jane's knuckles were white on the back of the bench. The police were ordering people to step back. "There's lots of blood," she heard someone say, "but he's still alive." Someone else spoke about a knife. Some looked white-faced with horror, but some were clearly enjoying the excitement. At least they had seen it. Jane had ignored it utterly.
"Yes," Bran said.
Jane turned to face him, frowning.
"Could you take me home?"
There were none of the usual niceties. There was none of the, 'Well, if you don't mind,' and, 'if you're sure…', and 'I don't want to take you out of your way.' Jane found it quite refreshing. Life was short, and memory fleeting. It was a shame to clog up both of them with meaningless words.
The crowd was dispersing, but paramedics were shielding the victim from Jane's view. Bran had not once glanced round at the scene. "Let's go," he said.
"But…" Jane moistened her lips. "Haven't you seen…?" She gestured weakly in the direction of the fallen man.
"I have no desire to look," Bran said tightly.
Of course, Jane thought, it was bound to bring back memories of his own assault. She should have thought. She should have offered to take him away earlier. "I'm sorry," she began, but Bran interrupted her. "If you were him," he said, "would you want strangers watching?"
Jane felt herself blushing. She felt strangely embarrassed. Bran had been thinking of the victim, and she had assumed he had been thinking purely of his own feelings. There was something closed off and remote about him, as if he was angry at the whole world. She had assumed that his lack of interest in the crime was due to lack of empathy, rather than too much.
"No," she said. "Let's go. My car's not far away."
She did not offer Bran an arm to lean on, knowing instinctively that he would not want her to. They did not speak at all until they had reached her car. Bran got into the passenger seat, and fastened himself in, though he seemed to find it a struggle to reach the seat belt over his shoulder. Jane reversed out of the space. "You'll need to give me directions," she said.
He nodded. "I will."
She wound her window down as they were leaving the car park. The sirens were sounding again, but she did not know if they were the sirens from the fight they had seen, or related to some other crime. Sirens always made her shiver. "Because you don't know if it means a death," she said out loud. "Even if it doesn't, it's grief for somebody."
Bran said nothing. She wondered if his eyes were open or closed behind those dark glasses of his. He was leaning heavily against the head rest, and he looked totally exhausted.
"So you work on a farm," she said. She said it quietly, in case he was sleeping.
"I do," he said. "I virtually own it."
"Oh," she said. "How long…?"
"All my life," he said. "I spent my childhood on one farm, then moved half a mile away to the next one. I've lived there all my life. It's in my blood."
She wasn't sure if he was trying to impress her, or if he was depressed by it. "I can't imagine it," she said. "I grew up in London, but we always spent summers in the countryside, because of mum's painting. Then I went away to university, and now I'm on my third job since graduating. I did Kent, then Lincolnshire, and now I'm in the Cotswolds. I like it, but it's not… Nothing has ever been…"
She did not finish, and he did not ask.
They left the town behind. The sea stretched away to the left, and ahead she could see the dark mass of the mountains. Someone was driving too close behind her. "Must be a local," she muttered. "Sorry." She glanced at Bran, but he showed no sign of reaction.
The road started to twist and bend. Anxious about the car behind her, she glanced frequently into her rear-view mirror. Every time she did so, she was convinced that Bran was staring at her, although his head was only slightly angled towards her. When the road was straight, and she could glance at him properly, he was looking straight ahead.
The car behind her overtook. "Good," she muttered. She saw Bran's fists relax a little, as if he had been as worried about the car as she had been. Perhaps it had crossed his mind that the car could belong to his attackers, that they were following him home, or planning to drive him off the road. An assault wounded the body, but it left worse wounds on the mind.
"How far is it?" she asked.
"Twenty miles?" He shrugged. "I don't leave the farm much," he added, after a pause.
Jane thought of all the places she had been, and all the people whose paths had crossed hers. She was not well travelled, and she was no party animal, but she felt like both, compared with Bran. What would it be like, she wondered, to spend your whole life in the same place, never leaving it, seldom meeting anyone new? She thought it would tend to create someone just the way Bran seemed to be.
The mountains drew closer. A cloud passed over the sun. Bran lived here, she suddenly realised. For her, it had been a holiday, and then she had gone home, but for Bran, it had just been part of daily life. Twenty years later, she had come back to the mountains that seemed to hold so many secrets, but Bran had never left them.
"What happened?" she blurted out.
She felt, rather than saw, Bran turn slowly to face her.
"All my life…" She raked her hand through her hair, pushing it from her face. "I've always been so sure that I forgot something. Something important. And here… I think…" She took a deep breath. "After the holiday, my memories go in a straight line. There aren't any gaps. I've got diaries to prove it. But before that…"
"Are you saying that you can't remember everything that happened to you as a child?" Bran's mouth twisted into the hint of a smile.
"No." She clutched the steering wheel. The mountains were dead ahead, dark and solid, comforting and terrifying. "I mean… Of course I can't remember everything. But I was twelve then, not a baby. And I do remember it. I remember every day of it… but I also remember nothing. Just endless walks on the hills. Days spend doing nothing much. It's a bland memory, and it didn't happen. I'm sure it didn't happen."
"Then what…?" Bran was no longer smiling.
"I don't know," Jane sighed. "I'd just hoped… I suppose I hoped you'd say that you knew just how I felt, that you felt the same way."
Bran said nothing for a very long time. He thinks I'm mad, Jane thought, and she fought the insane urge to giggle. Bran was the first stranger she had told about this. Will would have listened, she thought. She should have told Will, not this surly, closed-off man, still fragile from his own traumas.
"I'm sorry," she began. "Just forget…"
"No," Bran said. "But I can't say what you want me to say. I remember meeting you and your brothers, and that Will of yours." He said the name with distaste. "I showed you around, played the native guide, and then you went. Nothing else happened. Nothing changed. Nothing ever changes."
"Oh," Jane said. They drove the rest of the journey in silence.
It was evening. In the winter, it would be called night at a time like this, but it was summer, only a month after the solstice. The sun was still shining, low in the west. The sky was still light, although fading. It was warm, though the breeze was just beginning to chill. Scattered on the lower slopes and valleys, though, the farmhouses and cottages now displayed lights. For the people of this part of the world, the day was over, and night was coming.
Will sat where he had sat since the middle of the afternoon. An hour before, he had watched John Rowlands trudge slowly down to Bran's house. He had knocked on the door, and Owen Davies had let him in. Ten minutes later, John had left again, and walked alone back to his own cottage. Both doors were now shut.
There had been a strange car outside Bran's house when Will had taken up his station. Will had looked at it, using his sight as an Old One, and known that it was Jane's. Jane had brought Bran back. That was good, Will had told himself. Bran needed someone. Bran should not be alone. Jane would be good for Bran.
Will had shifted where he sat, pressed his hands together, looked at his watch. Jane had left in the end, without staying very long. Their parting had looked awkward, as if neither of them knew what words to say. Jane had driven away without looking back, but Bran had stood in the doorway for a long time, watching her go.
No-one else had come. Jane, and John Rowlands, both staying for a little while, then going. Bran was alone, in there with the man he thought was his father.
And Will was above them on the mountain, watching. Guarding.
"It's getting chilly," a voice said. "Aren't you cold, sitting there?"
Will glanced up. A young man had come up beside him, and was looking down on him with a smile. He was dressed for walking, with hiking boots, thick trousers, and a suede hat.
Will grunted. "I'm okay."
"Ah," said the man. "I suppose it was a silly question. I'm hot, anyway, after tramping around these hills all day. I always cool down too fast when I stop, and end up cold." He shrugged his shoulders free from his rucksack, and dropped it to the ground. Then he pulled out a bottle of water, and had a long drink. "Want some?" he offered.
Will shook his head. He should never have gone to Bran's hospital room. Now Bran hated him, and… No, that didn't matter. He was an Old One, and Merriman had made it clear to him right from the start that nothing, no grief, no pain, no loneliness, was of any importance whatsoever compared with his duty. It was not for him to have friends or family, but Bran… He had scared Bran, and that mattered.
"Can I…?" The man sat down without waiting for a reply. "My name's Mark, by the way."
He stopped, clearly waiting for Will to introduce himself. The silence dragged on and on. Will had no objection to silence, but this one had a jangling edge of expectation about it. In the end, he gave in, and muttered, "Will."
"Will," the walker said. "I've been watching you, you know. I saw you when I was right up on top. I was wondering if you'd ever move. You looked so… depressed. You know, I've have started to worry you were going to do something stupid, if you'd been sitting nearer to the edge of anything."
Will blinked. Had he really looked that way? He stretched out his legs, unhunched a little. "I'm… not," he said.
"Good." Mark took off his hat. His hair was dark and long, held back in a ponytail. He seemed to be in his early twenties, and had a handsome face, that looked as if it smiled easily. His eyes were very striking. He seemed to have been hurt recently, though, for Will could see the edge of a dark bruise disappearing into his hair, and there seemed to be bandages under his shirt, visible through the pale fabric.
"Still," Mark said, "I know what it's like to sit alone. But I also know that, usually, when you're sitting there all by yourself and think you don't want anyone there with you, that's when you really most have need of them."
Was that movement down there, near the gate? Will leant forward, then relaxed. His human eyes had thought it an attacker, but his Old One senses could see that it was only a dog. No-one had come.
A car passed, far away. Would Jane come back, Will wondered. Bran liked her, he could tell. Even as a child, Bran had called her pretty, and he had been smiling at her as they had sat on the bench. Jane would be good for Bran. She would mask those things about him that were extraordinary, and make him more like other people. She would bring him family and friends, and a life outside the confines of his home. She would make him fully Bran Davies, son of Owen, and there would never again be any hint of the Bran that he could have been, had he chosen differently.
"I'm staying at the youth hostel," Mark was saying. "Me and my friends from College, as we're waiting for our Finals results. One last summer of freedom before we become slaves in the world of work." He gave a wry chuckle, then sighed. "I've no idea where they've gone today."
Because Bran had been remarkable, but had chosen to be normal. He could have chosen differently. He could have remained a being of magic… But then he would have gone away for ever with his father… Or maybe not immediately. Time meant nothing. He could have stayed, Will and Bran, Bran and Will, two beings of the High Magic, until it was time to pass from the world forever, Will to join the Circle, Bran to join his father. Neither of them would ever have been alone.
"I just feel more and more that I don't fit in," Mark was saying. "They don't understand me. It's all women and drink and stupid jokes with them. I used to fit in, but I've drifted apart. I want something else, but how do you find someone just like you? You can't spend your life with people who will never understand."
His words were meaningless, but something of them penetrated. Will raised his head. "Sometimes you have to," he said. "Sometimes you have no choice."
"But you're not really with them, then," Mark said. "You're just alone."
Will had known all along that he would never marry, that he would never have a family, that he would never know even a moment of love. He could not risk being known by someone, because they would age, and he would not, and it would be impossible to hide it. More importantly, love was meaningless, if the person who claimed to love you knew only a tiny fraction of what you were. There could be no love with such great secrets. He could only ever share his life with someone who knew everything, and shared it, and there never would be someone like that.
"But it doesn't matter," he said. "It really shouldn't matter."
Mark said something in reply, but Will was no longer listening. The evening was thick and grey, almost night, and someone had come.
Someone had come.
He was on his feet in an instant, surging down the hill. "Stay there," he commanded Mark. "Don't follow me." Mark blustered, said something, but Will was not listening.
There were two of them, creeping through the night, heading for Bran's door. They did not even hear Will's approach. He was riding on the wind, as fast as a bird. Deadly, he swept down on them. "You," he said, "and you. You will stop what you are doing, and answer me."
One fell to his knees; one stood defiant. One was young, and one was older. He raked through their minds, but found nothing that was not human.
"Was it you?" he demanded. "Are you the ones who attacked Bran Davies?"
They did not answer, so he commanded them. "You will speak the truth." His index finger, pointing at them in turn, right between the eyes. "You cannot lie to me. You cannot stay silent."
There was fear in their eyes now. Will dragged the kneeling one to his feet, using his power. "Did you attack Bran Davies?"
"Yes," the man said, nodding fervently.
"And you were going back tonight to have a second go?"
"No." The man shook his head. "Going back to watch. To see."
"To see what?" Will held him immobile in bands of ice.
"To see if he has come yet."
Will turned to the other man. He knew that this was the truth. His spell constrained them to nothing less. "Why did you do it?" he asked, more quietly.
"We were… commanded." This was the man who had feared Will less. His voice was surly, as if he grudged every word of truth that he was being forced to utter.
Will stepped towards him. "Who commanded you?"
"Our… master." The man said it as if he had never used the word before, almost wonderingly. "Our master," he said again.
Will made it so the man would see nothing at all but his eyes. "Who is your master?"
The defiance in the man's eyes crumbled. "I don't know. He… spoke to us. It was dark. We were on our way to the pub, and he…"
"We'd never seen him before," said the other man.
"He was a voice in the darkness…"
"…or a voice in my head."
"And did he say why?" Will demanded. "Why did he want Bran attacked?"
"Because he's the one."
Will stopped, closed his eyes. His power faltered for a moment, but he recovered himself. "The one?"
"Oh, he's nothing," the younger man sneered. "Just freaky Bran Davies."
"But he's the one," said the other man. "The one who will bring him here. The one that he cares about most in all the world."
Will felt very cold, as if his own power of ice was creeping through his veins, as if he was the one held, and they were the ones who held him. "Who?" he rasped.
"The one our master really wants."
Will's hands fell to his sides. He struggled to comprehend, but really there was no struggle. He knew the truth already, had seen it in their minds and their memories. The struggle was merely his attempt to deny it.
But he asked the question anyway. He could not help himself. "Who?"
"The Old One."
Me, Will thought. Bran had been nothing more than bait. He had been attacked in order to draw Will out, and it hadn't even worked, because Will had only happened to come along afterwards by chance. Bran had been right all along, when he had accused Will of being behind the attack. Bran had been hurt because of Will. Will was the cause.
But Will had not struck the blows. Will had not given the order. He was the cause of it, but it was not his fault.
He gathered the men towards him, holding them with magic so they could not move. "I have a message for your master." He invested his words with magic, so they would carve themselves on the minds of these men, and give them no rest until the message was passed on. "Tell him that I am here. Tell him that his quarrel is with me now. Tell him that if he causes an instant of hurt to Bran Davies, I will shred him without mercy. Tell him that I have come, and that I command him to come forward and show himself, for if he does not, I will hunt him down and drag him forth. Tell him this from me."
He cast the men aside, so they lay snivelling in the dirt. "Go," he commanded.
"But we don't know where to find him…"
Will raised his hand, finger pointing. "Find him."
They scurried away, sometimes skidding, sometimes falling. If they did not find their master soon, the burden of the message would drive them insane.
Will watched them go. He let out a breath. Slowly, ever so slowly, he relaxed his magic, until he was standing there on a barren hillside, just a man who had learned something terrible.
"What was that?"
Will turned round, moving as slowly as if he had climbed a dozen mountains. Mark was standing there, his eyes wide with amazement. "I told you not to follow me," Will said. His voice sounded dead.
"What did you do?" Mark asked. "You looked as tall as the sky, and there was light…"
Will raised his hand, fingers spread. "Forget," he said dully. "You will forget."
Mark's face went blank. His hand rose awkwardly to his brow, hovered there, then fell heavily to his side. "What was I…?"
"I think it's time for you to go home," Will told him.
He watched Mark walk away, then returned slowly and heavily to his watching place, alone with the night, and the truths that it had brought.
end of chapter seven
Echoes beside the lake
Jane was out of breath, and she had not brought enough water. Perhaps the lake would be clean enough to drink from. She took only a small sip from her bottle of tap water, just in case it was not, and carried on walking.
Sheep were everywhere, their droppings squelching under her feet. After all, it is Wales, she thought, with a wry chuckle. It was little different at home, though, except that here in Wales the hills were higher and older, and less kind.
She reached the top of a rise, and there was the lake ahead of her. It was smaller than she had expected, and she saw at once that she would not try to drink from it. This was not a clear lake, bedded with rock, but little more than a pool in the moorland, choked with grass and water weed. Still, she thought, she would be able to splash water on her face, and cool down a bit, even if she could not drink it.
A few other people were there, although the path had not seemed well walked. "Are you sure?" they had asked, when she had gone to buy her walk leaflet from the tourist information office. Presumably they had wanted her to go somewhere where she could spend money, rather than spending her time traipsing up a hill, to a small lake in the middle of nowhere. "But perhaps it's the legends you're interested in," they had added hopefully, waving an expensive book about King Arthur in front of her.
She had bought the leaflet, but declined the book. She was glad they had not persisted, for she had no idea why she had wanted so badly to come to this place. Llyn Barfog, it was called. The Bearded Lake. All she knew was that she had seen the name of a map, and had suddenly frozen, thinking, I have to go there.
And here she was, and she still did not know. It was just a lake, a pretty lake in a beautiful spot. No memories came flooding back, but yet… But yet…
She walked towards it, bleached grass and heather crunching beneath her feet like dead things. A family with two small boys were rampaging through the countryside, shouting and playing. A pair of grey-haired walkers paused for a sandwich. The only other person there was sitting on a stone, hunched and solitary.
Jane was not even sure if she could reach the water. It was choked with plants, so that it was hard to tell where the lake ended and the dry land began. She had visions of deep water, lurking invisibly under the grass; of putting her foot down for the next step, only to find herself dragged under water. Though, really, it's more likely that I'd just get a wet foot. This was the sort of place that seemed to invite fanciful notions.
The grey-haired ramblers were talking, the wind sometimes bringing their words to her, and sometimes scattering them. "King Arthur," she heard them say. "Some terrible monster, apparently."
King Arthur drove away a monster from this lake. Something shivered inside her, but then it was gone, leaving nothing of itself behind.
The ramblers left. The family went up the hill, still shouting. The figure on the stone had not moved at all, but she knew him suddenly for Will.
She walked towards him; she could not help it. He looked up at last. "Hello." He sounded very tired.
"You look awful," she gasped, then felt herself blushing. "Tired, I mean." He was wearing the same clothes he had been wearing the day before, and his hair was uncombed, his eyes shadowed with tiredness. His clothes were crumpled, and stained with grass and dirt. "Did you sleep outside?" she asked.
He half raised his hand to his face, then lowered it. "I didn't sleep."
"Oh." It occurred to her that this was not the way she would have liked to have opened the conversation. She could have said a hundred things better than what she had actually said. "You really should sleep," she said stupidly, as she sat down beside him.
"I know," he said, "but… other things… don't."
"Oh." She stretched out her legs. "Are you staying nearby?"
"Not really." Will shrugged. It was a taut movement. "I was… somewhere else last night. Then I decided to come here. The… Someone very wise was here once. I suppose I hoped… Even though I knew it was impossible, I'd hoped…"
Jane watched the wind ripple the water. Not far away, a child's voice sounded, then sounded again, in a distorted echo. She could not hear what the boy was shouting. She saw Will stiffen a little.
"An echo," she said, and frowned. She pushed her hair off her brow. "I just saw the name on a map, and it seemed to ring a bell, but I don't know why. I wanted to come here." She gave a nervous laugh. "I suppose it might seem to you that I'm following you."
"No," Will said. "I know you're not."
The echo came again. Voice, and echo. One thing happening, and then the echo of it in memory, distorted and never quite the same.
She turned to him. "Did we come here when we were young?"
Will was so still that she doubted that he was breathing. He looked tense all over. Cornered, her mind supplied. Then he let out the breath with a sigh, but did not answer.
"It's just…" She shook her head. "It's not there, in my memory of the holiday. But still I feel…"
Will said nothing. The wind stirred the reeds, until it looked as if the whole lake was breathing. Adult voices joined the children's, and the mountains were full of words. "It doesn't feel quite real," she said. "Not like a real place in the twenty-first century. It's hard to believe that the world is still happening out there." She tried to snatch her thoughts back under control. What would Will be thinking of her, with all this babbling? "I think there's some legend attached to this place," she said. "People were talking about King Arthur."
"King Arthur, yes." Will gave the faintest hint of a smile. "He drove out the afanc, the monster that lived in the Bearded Lake. There's a stone nearby called Carn March Arthur, because it's got a pattern on it that looks like a horseshoe. Arthur's own horse made the mark, or so they say."
"So they say," Jane echoed. "It's not true, then?"
"Not that part, no. It's just a natural pattern in the rock."
She smiled. "So the bit with the monster is true?" She had said it meaning to tease him, but as soon as she said it, it no longer felt funny. "The bit with the monster is true," she repeated, more slowly.
The echo was silent. She saw the family moving on along the pathway. The ramblers had gone, and no new walkers had arrived. It was only her and Will, alone by a lake, in a land of legend and her lost past.
"Will…" she began, but he jumped suddenly to his feet, fists clenched at his side in determination. "Will," she tried again, but he was walking away from her, striding through the heather.
She scrambled to her feet, plunged after him, but he was moving far faster than she could keep up. Her steps petered away to nothing, and she stood and watched him until he was out of sight, hidden by an outcrop of the mountain.
A bird cried. The wind whistled in the reeds. The sheep called out to each other, but that was so constant that it was like part of the mountain itself, like natural silence.
"Show yourself!" It was Will's voice, but it was impossibly loud. The mountains took it and amplified it, an echo, and an echo, and an echo.
Jane's hands rose to her mouth. Will had found the echo place, she told herself. He was doing no more than the family had been doing. He was shouting… But, oh, so much louder! He was commanding the mountains, commanding the air. The children's shouts had received a few faint echoes, distorted and faint; Will's echoes were as loud as the original shout, and just as clear.
"I am here!" Will shouted, and the mountain agreed. "I am here…"
"Where are you?" The mountains, the skies, the grass all took his words, until the whole universe was crying it. "Where are you?"
The silence afterwards was absolute. Jane very slowly lowered her hands from her face. A breeze touched her cheek. A single sheep bleated, clear and distinct. But no-one answered Will's calls.
She waited. Should she go after him, she wondered, or would he come back? She sat down, drank some water from her bottle. When she saw Will coming back, she did not turn to him, but looked out at the water. She wondered if she should say something, or if it was better to pretend that she had not heard anything.
Will sat down beside her, and she was glad of that, at least. She opened her mouth to ask him about what he had shouted, then closed it again. A blade of grass tickled her ankle, and she plucked it, and began to twist it between her fingers. Will was doing the same, she noticed. She dropped her own.
"You took Bran home yesterday," he said at last.
She felt herself colouring. "I did," she said, "but I didn't…"
"I'm glad." His voice was firm. "How is he?"
"I'm sorry he reacted the way he did," she said in a rush. "It would have been so nice if we could have… " She stopped, aware that she was about to sound like a silly little girl, babbling about being friends. "I don't know why he acted like that."
"I do." Will was staring straight ahead. "It was completely understandable."
"Oh." Jane snapped her mouth shut. She had been about to say other things, but Will's voice, while completely polite, seemed to forbid any further talking about the subject.
The wind blew her hair into her eyes. The water rippled angrily around the reeds. For the briefest moment, she imagined that there could be a giant head underneath the surface, fanged and horrible and hungry. Then the air was still again, and all she could see was snatches of mountain, mirrored in the patches of water between the reeds.
And movement, faint on the hillside. A shimmering shape. Something tall and cloaked; a man on a horse. She snapped her head round to look at it, but there was nothing there. There was no longer anything there in the reflection, either. She frowned. "For a moment, I was sure I saw…"
"Nothing," Will said. "You saw nothing." He stood up, back straight, although he no longer looked weary. "I need to go."
She looked into his face to try to ascertain if there was any sort of invitation there, or if she was alone again. She saw nothing, only those deep eyes that threatened to trip her up and make her forget everything that she was. "I… I thought I might try to find that Arthur stone," she stammered.
"I think you should go back to where there are people." His voice was gentle, but firm.
For the first time that day, she remembered that she had been attacked the last time she had walked to a beautiful place alone. Wales felt different, as if any danger was far older, and did not lie in the people. She had been drawn here by distant hopes of memory, rather than by recent fears. But, of course, there was violence in Wales, too. Someone had been stabbed only yards away from them the day before.
"Yes," she agreed. "Will you come with me?"
"Only as far as the road," he said.
"I'll come…" Bran had offered, but John Rowlands had cut him off before he could finish the sentence.
"No," John had commanded. "You are staying here. I won't hear another word about it. You stay at home and get better."
That had been hours ago. It was mid-afternoon now. Bran could not remember the last time he had spent a whole day at home, without once going out to work on the land. He had tried to watch television, but there was little of interest on during the day. He had read for a little bit, but he was not used to sitting still. He had put a CD on, but then had switched it off, in case the sound was masking someone at the door.
He was quite alone, except for occasional visits from cats. His father had gone out with John, taking the place that should have been Bran's. The phone was silent, and no-one came calling.
As the hands slowly moved round on the clock, Bran thought, She won't be coming, then.
He went to make himself a cup of coffee. So he had hoped, then. He had not dared express it to himself before now, but he had hoped that Jane would come back to see how he was. She was pretty, and there was something special about her. He wanted to get to know her better.
But then that Will had turned up. As soon as Will had arrived, Jane had had eyes only for him. She had turned her back on Bran, and taken Will's side when Bran had made his entirely justified accusations. Yes, she had stayed with Bran afterwards and taken him home, but Bran was not so stupid to believe that this meant that he had won her.
Will was still out there. "How can I prove it?" Bran slammed his mug down on the table, splashing coffee around. How could he prove to Jane that Will was behind what had happened? He had tried to explain it, but she had laughed it away. He had dropped it, but only because he had known what her next reaction would have been. You're only jealous, Bran. Perhaps she would not have said it, but she would have thought it. And perhaps she would have been right to think it, too, because he was, but that wasn't the point, was it?
He sat down on a hard chair. What did he know about Will? He frowned, struggling to locate the memories of that day so long ago when he had met Jane and her brothers, and Will, a boy strange to all of them. The Drews had been holidaying with their parents, hadn't they? But Will…
"He said he was staying with his uncle," Bran said, remembering. "His uncle… David Evans."
He was on his feet in an instant, the coffee forgotten. Quickly pulling on shoes, snatching up keys, and out through the door. One of the outdoor cats looked up lazily from the wall, and a dog barked as he opened the gate.
It was barely a mile to the Evans' farmhouse. Normally Bran would walk it in less than quarter of an hour, but today he was slower. He was quick enough for the first hundred yards, but soon he started to limp. The sun was hot, and there was little wind. He kept his focus on the path ahead, and concentrated on breathing, on keeping going. One step, then another, then another. Aim at that rock over there… then that bend in the track… then that bent-over tree.
"You okay there, Bran?"
He looked up, his hand rising to his chest. It was not David Evans, but his son, Rhys. Perhaps he would do, Bran thought. He was not even half way to the farmhouse, and the second half of the walk felt as daunting as a climb to the top of Cader Idris itself.
"Have you got a cousin called Will?" he asked.
Rhys frowned. "What?"
"A cousin," Bran repeated. "English. About my age. He came here to visit about twenty years ago."
Rhys seemed to be treating the question with seriousness, thinking carefully before answering. "I have lots of English cousins," he said, "but none of them are called Will."
"His last name's Stanton," Bran offered, remembering that Jane had given his full name.
"Stanton. Ah." Rhys' face lightened with recognition, and it was a bitter pang of disappointment to Bran. But then Rhys said, "You know, I almost thought… But, no. There's no Will. Hundreds of others, though. No Will."
"Good." Bran smiled. "Thank you."
"Is that all you came for?" Rhys called, as Bran turned to go.
"I got what I came for," Bran said.
He had his proof. Now all he had to do was work out what to do with it. All he had to do was work out how to bring the man who called himself Will Stanton down.
end of chapter eight
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
The man was crouched behind a boulder, a dagger in his hand. The other hand, brown and rough, was pressed against the rock. There was nervousness and anticipation in every part of his body. Snow was falling on his back and his dark hair. Some of the flakes melted, but more and more were staying, slowly turning the figure was dark to white.
Will had risen to his feet, edged a little way forward, but he stopped now, wondering. Rain fell from a grey summer sky, seeping through his thin clothes. In front of him, winter snow flakes appeared on the figure by the rock, but no snow swirled in the air around him.
The crouching man stiffened, sucking in a silent breath. Will looked where he was looking, and saw a man on horseback, traversing the side of the mountain. He was well muffled against the weather, and he, too, was speckled with snow. His horse neighed, icy mist blowing from its mouth and nostrils, but it made no sound at all.
The man behind the boulder tightened his grip on the dagger, prepared to spring.
They were not real; Will knew that instinctively. But they had been real. He was seeing something that had happened here, long ago. He edged forward again, making no attempt to hide himself, but neither of them showed any sign of seeing him. The crouching man was poised behind his boulder; the man on horseback rode on, muffled and oblivious.
Will said something; neither of them heard him. The rain continued to fall. Down in the valley, he heard a distant car. A dog barked, and the sheep kept up their mournful lament for rain and impending darkness. Will was seeing something that had happened in the past, but he was still firmly anchored in the twenty-first century.
The man with the dagger made his move, leaping out to block the other man's way. The rider reined in his horse, which almost slipped on the snowy slope. Words were exchanged, but Will could not hear them. The rider ripped the muffler from his face, and was clearly shouting. There was outrage on his face, and then horror.
Why was he seeing this, Will wondered. It was an echo of the past. The ignorant would call them ghosts, but ghosts at least had some degree of interaction with the present time. This was a single incident from the past, visible now in the present like a scene on a television screen. But why? Will had seen restless spirits before, and he had seen people snatched briefly into the past, to be caught up in things long gone, but this felt different. This was different.
"Can you see me?" he tried tentatively, first in English, and then in Welsh. He even tried it again in the Old Speech. They did not respond, so he unveiled a fragment of his power as an Old One, but they were still oblivious. He sensed nothing but a vague sense of emotion, like a turbulent river running far underground.
The attacker grabbed at the reins. The horseman tried to ride away, but the other man had hold of him bodily now, and was hauling him from his saddle with one arm, hacking away at him with the dagger as he did so. Redness bloomed, melting away the snow. The rider's mouth opened in a silent scream. Then there were words in it, passionate, pleading words. His attacker plunged the knife into his chest, and shouted words of his own.
Without even consciously deciding to, Will moved forward, pushing through the years as if they were water. A bitter wind lashed at him, and snow fell on his eyes and his hands. After the silence of the scene, the sudden sound was deafening. Both men were shouting in Welsh.
"You!" the wounded man was shouting. "Why? You were my friend!" The other man stabbed him again. "It's not you," he said. "She wanted it done," and the dying man echoed, "She?" as if it was the most terrible thing in the world. Will saw the moment when all hope went out of his face, when he surrendered to the inevitability of death.
"No." The word escaped Will before he could stop it. The attacker was on his knees, still plunging the knife again and again into the other man's broken body. Snow was swirling around them all. Soon it would bury the dead man utterly. It could be weeks before anyone found him, and there were places in the mountains where a murderer could hide a body, so that no-one would ever find it until the mountains crumbled at the end of time.
The attacker was sobbing, Will realised, sobbing and panting and snarling as he stabbed.
Will walked up to him. "Why?" he breathed. But the man whirled up and around, dagger slashing in a scarlet arc, and light and darkness flared behind Will's eyes like an explosion… and the next thing he knew, he was lying on his back, and snow was falling on his face, covering him like a shroud.
His eyes slid shut.
A woman was running, looking over her shoulder. Her dress was long, her hair was covered. Light and shadow played on her clothes, and her breath was steaming, as if this was late afternoon on a bright winter day. She was plainly terrified.
"What is it?" Jane asked. "What's the matter?"
The woman looked over her shoulder, and her mouth opened in a scream, but no sound emerged. She started to claw at the air, as if she was struggling to open a gate, but she was doing so in a place where no gate existed, and no wall. Her fingers started to bleed. She was crying, tears glistening on her face.
She isn't real, Jane thought. Or not real any longer. Her heart was still fluttering from the initial shock of it, but she was amazed at how placidly she could come to this realisation. This was not real. It was a ghost of some sort, and she was watching it.
But the woman was so obviously terrified, that Jane had to try to do something. "Can I help?" she called. "Can you hear me?"
Then a man came striding from the farmhouse, stormy-faced, with an axe in his hand. Jane shrank back, but the man walked right through her. She screamed for a second time, but she felt nothing at all, no coldness, no sudden chill, no sense of corruption. It was as if the man had no more substance than a picture on the wind.
The man said something. The woman screamed, and fell to her knees, hands raised in supplication.
The man raised his axe, and brought it down…
Sick with horror, Jane turned towards the voice. Bran was there, but he was only looking at her, and not at the horrible scene at all. Could he see them? She tried to ask him, but her voice was faltering. "Can you see…?"
"Come inside," he said firmly. "There's nothing you can do here."
She turned back to the place she had seen a murder happening, but there was nothing there. The woman had gone, and her attacker was no more. The ground was darkening with rain, but there was no blood. There was no trace of it, and no sound.
Just my imagination, she tried to tell herself, but she could not believe that. It had happened. It was true. And it had changed everything.
Will brought faltering hands up to his stomach, and they came away red. He tried to lift his head, but could not. The snow and the cold tried to steal away the pain, but it was still there, like a crouching beast on his body.
Stabbed, he thought. It had all happened so quickly. So quickly, and he had been distracted and confused, confronted by something that should not have been happening. He could have defended against it, but he had not expected it. He had stepped into their own time, and had forgotten that that meant that they could see him and strike at him. He had forgotten that he would be at risk.
Or maybe you knew, a tiny voice whispered, and did not care.
He tried to sit up, but was unable to. When he turned his head, he saw snow piled up around his face, and beyond that, a dark and lifeless shape that had been the rider. The man with the knife had long gone, leaving them alone, one dead, one dying.
Or so he thought, Will thought sleepily. A wound such as this could not kill him, although he could fall ill or be wounded just the same as any man. He could feel pain and he could suffer, but eventually he would be whole again. All he needed to do was take himself through time and space, to a comfortable place of warmth and shelter. There he could rest until he was healed, and then pass through time again, and return to his present day, barely a moment after he had left it.
It was easy, he thought, as his eyes slipped shut. Easy.
Bran led her inside, settled her down, made her a mug of coffee. Cupping it in her hands, Jane was leaning forward on the couch, her forearms on her thighs.
"They were ghosts," she said, "or something like ghosts."
Bran did not know what to say. She was an Englishwoman, not born to the legends and traditions of the wilds that he had been raised to. He had expected her to be firmly rational. After the fear had passed, she would be finding ways to explain away what she had seen. They were figments of an over-active imagination, or a prank by neighbouring boys, or a freak illusion caused by the rain. He had been ready to agree and console and comfort. He had been ready to lie.
"Did something like that happen here?" she asked.
"There are stories, yes," Bran had to say. "A bride who was never seen after her wedding day, either alive or dead. Some three hundred years ago, it was. Children sometimes used to scare each other by claiming to have seen her ghost."
Jane frowned. "I don't think it was a ghost, though. It was more as if we were seeing what had happened."
Bran settled himself down beside her. "You believe in things like that?"
She turned her head very slowly to face him. "If you'd asked me last week, I would have said… No, I don't know what I'd have said. I didn't consciously believe it, but…" Her voice faded away. Her gaze turned inwards, as if she was struggling to remember something.
"Whatever it was," Bran said uselessly, "it seemed to mean us no harm."
Jane ignored him. "Why is this so easy to accept? Why aren't I…?" She raised her hand to her brow. Bran saw that it was shaking.
He wanted to encase that hand in his own, but did not quite dare. It was a new thing to him, to case so intensely about what someone else thought of him. It made him unsure of himself, in situations where he had never been unsure before.
"Because…" she said, with a shaky laugh, "it feels as if none of this is new. As if I've already taken the step into believing the impossible, and this is just… remembering."
Bran did not know what to say to her. He took a sip from his coffee, but it was too hot, and burnt his lips.
"Magic," she breathed. "Could it be possible?"
It felt like an icy door slamming in his heart. "There is no magic," Bran said, "only dark things, and this life." He pressed his lips shut. He did not try to stop her when she wandered to the door, moving like one in a dream.
As Will slept, he dreamed.
The years whirled around him, and he drifted through the years like a dead king on a barge. Faces crowded the edges of the river, and they peered at him, and said things. Some turned away, and some reached for him, their hands trailing in the water, but never touching him.
Darkness again, and a space of not knowing anything at all. A fragment of awareness - snow falling on his face, ice dissolving on his lips. Dark red blood and sharp white snow.
The river swirled and eddied, and he was cast up on a bank. People cried out, and surged towards him. They were tall and thin, and their essences were as thin as tissue paper. Some had circlets on their brows, and others were disfigured and broken. Their hands were needy, their fingers as thin as bones.
One by one, they touched him. They knelt beside him, pressed their hands upon him, and rose. When they walked away, he saw that their hands were stepped red in blood, in his blood. Several pressed their blood-stained hands against their lips, or anointed their brows or their eyes with it.
He tried to wrench himself away. The years melted away like snow, and he was back in his present, lying in the rain, and they were still there, though fewer of them. They knelt beside him, and they took his blood, and he knew what they were doing. He knew what they were doing.
"No," he whispered, in a cracked and broken voice. With the tiny thread of strength that remained to him, he sought the rivers of time again, but this time he was no longer drifting. He chose the place where he wanted to be, and he reached it, gasping. Sunlight beat down on him, and the scent of flowers was thick in the air.
He did not let himself sleep; he did not let himself dream. He turned all his magic to healing, but his hands were shaking, and the world seemed full of shadows, even in this place in a far-distant time.
Could it be? Jane stopped in the porch, and pressed her brow to the cold, hard wood. Could it be possible?
"Magic." She whispered the word.
A tragedy from the past, appearing before her eyes. A voice calling into an echo, seeming to fill the whole world. Mountains with secrets. Gaps in her memory, and a disjointed life. Something stirring beneath a lake, like a monster from legend. A snap of command, making armed attackers run away as if they were children.
Disjointed fragments whirled together, teasing her. She tried to draw them together, to piece them into the wild, impossible truth that they wanted to be.
Ageless eyes in a young face. Eyes that she could have sunk into and lose herself forever.
Lose herself forever…
She raised her head. She knew what she had to do.
end of chapter ten
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…"
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?"
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, and she almost started crying again.
"You won't believe me." She twisted a wet strand of hair around her fingers.
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.
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.
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
"You have no-one but me"
Now that they were face to face, Bran suddenly had no idea what to say. He had stormed out full of fury, clutching his gun, wanting nothing more than to inflict punishment and revenge, but now that he was here…
He had forgotten what Will Stanton looked like, he realised. He had seen him only twice, for barely a few minutes each time, and one of those times he had been half-asleep. In his mind, Will had grown impossibly tall, with eyes that exuded evil, and a voice as cold and merciless as the men who had attacked him. He had honeyed words, and a false smile, that could seduce Jane into wanting him. And that had been before Jane had said what she had said, back when Bran had thought of him only as a man. Stamping up the hill, Bran had been preparing himself to face someone who looked like an evil wizard in a fairy tale.
What he found was a man. Will had been sitting on a rock, looking small and cold and disconsolate. He stood up as Bran approached, but he still looked fragile, as if even that small movement pained him.
Irrationally, it made Bran hate him all the more, but it stole his words away from him.
Will said his name. "Bran," he said, pronouncing it in the Welsh way, a way no English person normally bothered to attempt.
"Don't," Bran choked.
"What?" Will said.
"Act as if you know me." Bran raised the gun, not meaning to shoot, but just to show Will that had had it.
Will ignored it completely. He seemed to be trying to look Bran in the eye. To enchant me, Bran thought, and raised his hand to shield his eyes. He did not wear his dark glasses at night, for the darkness was enough of a shield for him, but in front of Will, he felt stripped and exposed.
"Jane has told you, then," Will said. It did not sound like a question.
Bran nodded. He tried to gather together all the strands of his fury, but they were so hard to hold on to, in the face of Will's quietness.
"You believe her?"
"Yes," Bran rasped. "You're some sort of wizard. You did your filthy magic on us as children, and now you're back, doing it again."
"Oh no." Will shook his head. He looked stricken, but even then there was a quietness and a weariness to it. "I haven't done anything to hurt you, Bran. Please believe me. I came here just to… to check that you were alright. We were friends once."
Bran sneered. "I can't believe that."
"We were." Will spread his hands, almost beseechingly. "Then you were made to forget - not by me. You forgot, but I didn't. There was a great battle, Light against Dark. You were there. We fought it together."
"I would never fight for the Dark side," Bran declared.
Will looked as if Bran had struck him. "We were of the Light, Bran. I am of the Light. Please… You can't think anything else."
"Can't I?" Bran sneered. "Is that an order? You'll put it into my brain and make me obey you?"
Will looked as if he was about to say something, but then he sighed, and pulled his hands back to his sides. "It's never been like that, Bran," he said quietly. "But I shouldn't have said any of that."
Bran glanced back at the distant light that was his home. "Did Jane believe any of that nonsense?"
"I didn't tell Jane," Will said. "Only you, Bran."
"Don't say my name like that!" Bran screamed.
Will ignored him. "It wouldn't have mattered, even if you had believed it," he said. "About the Light, and being comrades, and knowing things… I shouldn't have said it. I shouldn't have let you remember it. You made your choice. You're here, and I… I need to go. I won't come back again."
"Good," Bran said.
"But…" Will took a step forward, and Bran flinched backwards. "I want you to know one thing, Bran. It wasn't me who hurt you. I know you think it was me, and I see now that my behaviour encouraged you to come to that opinion. But it wasn't me. The people who did it… They won't come back again. They just wanted to get my attention, and now they've got it…"
Bran wanted to say something final and triumphant, but he could not. The rain lashed at his face, and felt like someone else's cold tears.
"And I know you've dislike me because of Jane," Will said quietly, "but I assure you, I've never been a rival of yours. I did Jane a service, and she was… grateful. She hates me now, though. I don't know if she can love you, but if not, it won't be because of me. I wanted…" He seemed to snatch back something he had been about to say. "I just want you to be happy, Bran."
Bran felt sordid, somehow, and naked. Will had seen right into his heart and here he was, speaking so casually, about things that were special. It made Bran sound like a paranoid, jealous schoolboy. "I'm not like that," he choked, and Will's eyes met his, as Will said, "I know you're not."
Silence, for a while. Just the wind. Bran wanted so badly to hate, but instead he felt nothing. It was as if this was a dream, and tomorrow it would be sunny again, and no such thing as wizards would exist in the world.
At length Will spoke. "I have spoken about things that you're not supposed to know. I should take your memory of them, but…" He let out a breath. "You didn't believe them, so I don't suppose it matters. You know who I am, but you won't see me ever again. Neither of you will."
He turned to go. "Good," Bran managed to shout after him. "Good!"
He waited until Will had gone. The walk back to the farmhouse seemed incredibly long, and impossibly lonely.
"What happened?" Jane leapt to her feet.
Bran slumped down on the couch, next to where she had been sitting. The expression on his face was strange. "He says he's going."
"Going?" she echoed.
Bran nodded. "He says he's never coming back." His hand clenched into a fist. "I told him good riddance."
"Oh." Jane sat down again. After that, nothing Bran said made sense to her. She heard only words. Sometimes she nodded, or shook her head, or replied, but her mind was elsewhere, with Will in the darkness.
Sometimes she saw ghosts at the window, and then the wind started screaming.
It was not even fully dark yet, but the rain made the darkness seem interminable. Will had lived days since the evening had started. Into his mind came the words that had started it all, so long ago: "This night will be bad, and tomorrow will be beyond imagining." He shivered. It felt true again today.
First Jane, then Bran. Both had learned the truth, both had come to him, both had rejected him. It was the final tomb of his hopes. Not that he had ever truly believed that they would one day remember everything, would come rushing to his side in friendship. Not that he had ever dreamed that Bran would come to him, smiling. "I remember, Will," he would say, "and from now on…"
No. He shook his head fiercely. He had never truly expected such things to happen, had he? No. He had always known that it was impossible, but it seemed that, deep down, a tiny part of him had hoped, even so.
The right thing to do would be to make them forget even that little that they knew. Let them be strangers again. Strangers who knew nothing about him, rather than old friends who hated him. That was best, but…
"No," he said out loud. "None of it really matters." The enemy mattered, and finding out what it was. The things that had taken his blood mattered. The echoes of the past, walking on the hills. The world mattered. It was always like that for an Old One.
"What's wrong?" A voice said. Will was unsurprised to see Mark at his side, wrapped in a winter coat. "Haven't you got a home to go to?"
"No," Will said.
"Oh." Mark walked a few steps. "I heard shouting…"
"That was my… friends," Will told him.
"The boy you like? Or was it the girl?" Mark said. "Not friends any longer, I gather?"
Will shook his head. "They found something out about me. It was too much. They hate me."
"So you have no-one," Mark said. "No-one but me."
It felt completely normal to be walking through the rain, talking like this to a stranger. It felt like a dream, when incredible things happened, but never seemed incredible at all.
"That seems to be true," Will said.
Mark put his arm around Will's shoulder. "You know who I am?"
And Will did know. Perhaps he had known right from the start, though, distracted by emotion, he had been wilfully blind. "You are my enemy."
"Never that," Mark laughed. "Well, maybe, a bit. I cannot be entirely victorious as long as you exist, but every day you exist, I grow stronger."
"Who are you?" Will asked.
Mark tightened his grip on Will's body. Despite everything, there was a comfort and a warmth in having someone else so close. It was like Light and Dark. They were the opposites of each other, but at least they understood the same things. This man was not of the Darkness, though. Will knew that.
"Who am I?" Mark said. "Not what you see me as. This was a body that someone had… discarded. Some young man. He was dying at the bottom of a cliff. I took it for my own. I kept a lot of what was him, of course - the things he knew, the words he used, the way he laughed. His name was Mark, but I have no name."
"And you are…?"
"Impatient," Mark chided. He released Will, and the rain lashed against his body, cold and harsh. "I am not entirely sure what I am, to be honest. I… exist. For long ages, I did not have words. I did not know what "I" meant. I did not need such things, of course, but taking this body gave them to me."
"You're not of the Dark, though," Will said. "And not of the Wild Magic, either, I think."
"Younger than those," Mark said, "but stronger. I have come from humans. I am bound up with them. But I am stronger that they are now, and now their child turns on them, and users them."
A new power? Something that had arisen since the Light had departed? Mark seemed to guess his thoughts, because he laughed. "I have existed as long as mankind has existed. The lords of Light and Darkness were too busy fighting each other to notice me, except for once, but they thought they defeated me. I survived, though, hiding, growing. Sometimes they fed me; sometimes they kept me dormant. Now they have all gone, I can come into my own. Man created me, but soon I will create man in my image."
There were so many things Will ought to be asking, but he asked the thing he needed to know first. "How did you know Bran? Why did you hurt him?"
"To find you, of course," Mark said, with a smile. "I knew you lived, of course. I tasted you. But to speak to you in the flesh… To stand here face to face, and plant such sweet despair in your mind…"
"Bran," Will forced out. "How…?"
"I knew his father once," Mark said. "I whispered in his ear, too - a whisper that had no words. I recognised the taste of his blood, and the scent of you and him together, in a place beneath the sea. So I found him. Hurting him…" He smiled. "All the better to hurt you wish, my dear, as I believe the story says."
Will remembered his mother's voice; big bad wolves in the darkness, but a smile to end it, and a warm bedtime. He could have cried. "Then why me?" he asked. "Why did you…?"
"Because, Will Stanton, you are human, yet not human." Did Mark know that his voice held echoes of that first time Will had met Bran, so long ago? "As such, you are the sweetest food to me, and the thing I most hate. Your despair is a banquet to me, but one day, soon, you will have to go. One day I will have to say that I have drunk enough, and it is time to be free."
"I don't understand." Will had no false pride to stop him from admitting it. Answers were paramount, however he got them.
"No," Mark smiled. "I don't suppose you do. I am born from humankind, and you Old Ones have always denied your human sides, you most of all. You will never understand me. You will never defeat me."
"I will try," Will promised him, because this thing had hurt Bran, and that was enough for him.
Mark laughed. "But you don't even know what I can do. I am chaos. I am wild emotion given flesh. Wars and riots, murders and hate… That is me, whispering in their ears. 'Do this,' I say, and they do, and by their deeds, I am stronger."
The fight by the seafront in town, Will thought. The attack on Jane. The way the world of man was tumbling into disorder and misery and violence. There was a reason for it. There was a cause.
"And my powers are not confined to this moment in time," Mark gloated. "I was there in the past. Past murders live again where I walk. Scenes of great emotion are seen again. Feelings cling to a place and come forth again. The spirits of the betrayed dead are walking again."
Fuelled by my blood. Will felt cold. This thing in Mark's body might have given them life, but Will had given them strength. He had made them into something that they would not have been otherwise.
"So do you see now?" Mark raised his hand caressingly to Will's cheek. "You feed me. You fuel me. A tiny murder done by a petty man is like a drop of water to me. But when a great lord of Light did evil in the cause of Light… Ah, it was so much greater."
Merriman, Will thought. He thought of the thing Merriman had done to Hawkin, that was cold and merciless, but done for the cause of Light. He thought of Jane, crying because her memory had been taken from her. He thought of John Rowlands, who had always believed the Light to be as cold and hard as the Dark. Did we create this? he thought. Did we cause something tiny to become a thing of power?
"The tears of a wizard," Mark whispered, touching Will's eyes, "are like honey to me."
"No…" Will wrenched himself away. "I will fight you. I will defeat you, I swear it."
Mark took a step back, smiling. Will raised his hand, ready to smash him with his power, but Mark's body was already slumping to the ground. Even before Will reached it, he knew it was empty, vacated. It was just the body of an innocent young man, several days dead.
The thing that had inhabited it was gone. It could be anywhere in the world, or everywhere, and Will had no idea how to find it.
The wind wailed like a thing in torment. Thunder sounded far away. It had been thundering when everything had started, Jane remembered, the day she had first met Will.
"We can't leave it like this," she burst out.
Bran had been talking about something else, something she had no memory of whatsoever. She had always believed in committing every moment to memory, but now it seemed that she had found something so important that it meant that the little things could be forgotten.
"Like what?" Bran asked.
Jane winced from the fury of the weather. "Will's out there," she said.
"Perfectly capable of taking care of himself," Bran said. "He is a wizard, after all." He sneered the word, as if it was distasteful.
She remembered how he had looked, the expression in his eyes, the things he had said. "I'm not sure he is," she murmured. "But, besides, that's not what I meant. I mean... We can't just let him walk away."
"You won't find me going after him." Bran sounded surly, but she wondered suddenly if he was trying to convince himself, as much as her.
"Bran," she said, and wondered why he flinched when she said his name. "Bran, if all this is true... No, I know this is true. Will knows things. He holds secrets, secrets about our lives. We won't be complete until we at least try to find out what they are."
"He won't tell you," Bran said bitterly. "Or he'll tell you, then make you forget it all afterwards."
Jane leant forward, clasping her hands between her knees. "But surely we have to try. If we don't do anything... If we just let him go.... He won't come back, Bran. He'll never let us find him again. We'll have lost our last chance."
"I don't care," Bran said.
Jane decided to take a chance. She turned slowly, so she was looking him right in those incredible eyes of his. "I think you do."
He said nothing. Thunder sounded, closer than ever, and the wind screamed, as if something was dying out on the mountain.
"And I think," she said, with a shiver, "that if we let him go now, then he'll have lost his last chance, too. I think he needs us."
Bran snorted. But, when she rose and went towards the door, he came too, only a step behind her.
They were crowding around him on the mountain. Will saw them all, and there was no escape. The echoes of past murders, past betrayals, of people dying alone, unable to find their way home. Ancient grief and pain and sorrow, playing themselves out for mortal eyes to see. And, beyond them, the walking dead, fuelled by his own blood, readying themselves to spread terror and horror and death, to reclaim the land that once was theirs.
All because of me, Will thought. He sank to his knees. All because of me.
The thing that had inhabited Mark's body was gone, or it was everywhere. Will had sworn to fight it, but he had no idea how to do so. He had only a limited idea of what it was. Something born from the fiercest emotions of mankind, that had developed a kind of consciousness of its own. Something that the presence of the Old Ones had kept in check, that had now emerged in full force.
And something that had, in part, been fed and strengthened by the Old Ones. Something that was fed and strengthened by Will even now.
"It isn't fair!" he wanted to wail. The lords of Light had departed, leaving the world to mankind to manage on their own, but they had never been free to make their own choices. This thing had always been there, warping them, influencing them. Man had a tendency to disorder and selfishness, but this thing had strengthened such urges, and suppressed the good and positive side of man. Perhaps it only had a tiny part to play in the present state of the world, or perhaps it was entirely responsible. He did not know, but he knew that the world was not in the state that the Old Ones had expected it to be, when they had gone.
"You have to come back now," he found himself saying. He threw back his head and cried it. "You have to come back!"
Even as the echo of his words still sounded in his ears, he knew how vain it was. They had gone out of time. There was no power in the universe that would allow him to reach them. Only in the far distant future, when his own time came, would he ever see them again, and by then it would be far too late for him to do anything about the world.
He was alone with this, alone as ever. And I don't know what to do!
His wound throbbed with a deep ache, and his heart hurt worse. The tears of a wizard, Mark had said, were like honey. Will had not wept any physical tears since he was a child, but he wept so many inside that it felt as if the whole storm was a manifestation of his grief.
You do no good, the storm whispered to him. Jane and Bran seemed to think that he had ruined their lives. He had fed the spirits of the dead with his blood, and fed the thing in Mark's body by his deeds and his feelings. The longer he lived, the stronger it would become. He had sworn to fight it, but he had no idea how to do so.
Maybe it would be better if you did not exist.
The wind stilled for a moment, breathless, as if horrified by the thought. Will's hand rose slowly to his mouth. Had he really thought that?
He let out a slow breath, and tried to be reasonable. Old Ones could not die, not in the way that mortal men could die. At the end of things, they passed beyond time, but even that was not death, just another form of life. However, he had heard distant whispers and rumours that it was possible for an Old One to will himself out of existence, if he wanted it badly enough. Only two or three, in all the four thousands years of their existence, had done so, and their names were not spoken. Not that that part of it mattered, he thought with a bitter laugh. There were no Old Ones left to speak his name anyway.
He tried to stand up, tried to set his shoulders, to face the future and forget this insane train of thought. But it could not be forgotten. Life was endless loneliness. He had no family, no friends, and no hope of any. There would never be anyone who knew who he was, and could share the burden. Everything he touched got hurt.
If he ceased to exist, the walking dead, who had been invigorated by his blood, would return to what they had been before. There was no power in the blood of a wizard who was no longer alive.
Maybe, he thought. Maybe I should...
He stood up, raised his hands...
And someone called his name.
end of chapter twelve
The tears of a wizard
"Will!" she cried, and he was there, dark against the lightning. "Will! Stop!"
His hands had been raised. Ever so slowly, he lowered them, and turned slowly towards her like one forlorn. "Jane?" His voice was a frail wisp of a thing, like dust.
She scrambled towards him. Bran was not far behind her. She was suddenly sure that she had interrupted Will just as he had been about to perform some great feat of magic, something that could not be allowed to happen.
"What were you doing?" she demanded.
"Something..." Will seemed to stumble, to bring his hand up to his brow. "Can he work on me, too?" he murmured. "I think I..."
Bran came up beside her. Please, she willed him silently. Please don't ruin this. She had expected to hate Will when she saw him again, but she felt nothing of that now that she was here. She felt as if nothing else existed but the three of them, and that everything in the world rested on the outcome of what would pass between them.
"Is something wrong?" she asked gently.
Will gave a strange shuddering sigh. "Yes."
She moved a little closer to him. She was working from instinct now, or maybe from those things that she had once known, and never entirely forgotten. "Is something threatening us? Something... magical? Something that only you know about? Something that only you can do something about?"
He nodded. Four times he nodded. Each nod seemed to hurt him very much.
She laughed. Amazingly, she laughed. "Then why on earth didn't you tell us?"
"You couldn't know," he said. "You knew once, but you had to forget."
Even now, it did not fill her with fury. She glanced at Bran, but he was only standing there, staring. Different expressions were flickering over his face, frozen there by the lightning and the darkness, but he had eyes for no-one but Will.
"Why?" she asked.
Will made a sound that was almost a sob. "Merriman did it, so it must have been right. You were only children. You couldn't... You needed to grow up and become the people you would have become. You had to get your childhoods back, not live with the knowledge of things that would have been a burden even to old men. You had to learn to love the things in the world, not pine always for the power and the glory that had left it."
She wanted to be able to tear his arguments apart and spit on them. She wanted to be able to hate him, to blame him, to find him evil. So this was why her life had been haunted for twenty years by the ghosts of forgotten memories. This was the reason. This was the truth.
And it seemed entirely reasonable. It seemed almost right.
"Don't listen," Bran rasped. "Tricks."
"No, Bran." She shook her head gently at him.
"I didn't want it to happen," Will blurted out. "I was only twelve. I was an Old One, but I was just a boy. They'd all gone and I... You knew. Just for a few months, you knew. You understood. And then you... didn't. I didn't want it to happen, but that was selfish. I knew it was right, because Merriman did it."
Jane gestured to Bran to come and stand beside her, so close to Will that they could have touched, had they wanted to. From certain things Will had said or done in the past, she was fairly sure that Bran was more important to him than she was. Of course, a twelve year old boy would be closer to another boy than to a mere girl. She wondered if she and Will had ever really been friends at all.
"Maybe it was right," she said slowly. Thunder sounded, almost on top of them, and all three of them turned towards it. When it was past, she said, "What are you going to do now?"
He shook his head. "I don't know. A moment ago I was thinking..." He sucked in a gasping breath. "I was considering... No, it was nothing you need to know about. If you hadn't come, I might have done something stupid, and I'm grateful to you for it. But now... A great threat has declared itself. I need to work out how to fight it."
"Alone?" she asked.
"Of course," he said. It was not even bleak or despairing this time, just a statement of fact.
Bran spoke up at least. "And what about us? You're planning on making us forget all this?"
Will did not answer, but she could see the truth on his face. She and Bran were going to lose all of this. Will would go his way alone, and they would never know what they had come so close to finding out. They would go back to their soft, safe lives of ignorance. This time, he would be careful that they did not even feel any sense of something being missing.
"Don't," she begged him. "Please don't."
"I don't want to," he confessed, "but it's right."
"Of course it isn't," Bran said categorically. "No, don't tell me. Merriman did it, so it must be right. But Merriman, whoever he is, did it to children. To children. All those things you said... So we needed to grow up and become our own people. We did that. We're adults now. We've made our choices. Treat us as adults. I don't want to be protected. I don't want to hide. I face to be free to look at the things that scare us in the night, and know what I'm seeing."
Will looked from one to the other. He looked to be in an agony of indecision. "I can't ever bring back what you lost," he said. "Merriman did it, with all the powers of the Circle at his back. I can't break his spell."
Jane glanced at Bran. She saw doubt and dismay in Bran's eyes, but to her amazement, she felt nothing but acceptance. "That doesn't matter," she said. "It's enough just to know that I wasn't going mad, when I thought I'd lost something. It's enough to know the reason. But..." She raised her hand to her brow, as it to cherish the things that rested there. "I don't want to forget this. Bran's right. What was right for us as children is wrong for us as adults."
Will was gazing at Bran. Bran had taken a step back, and what Will was seeing in his face, Jane would never know. She saw Will react, saw him begin to make up his mind.
"Please, Will," she whispered. "Let us help you. You don't have to be alone."
Will raised his hand, just a little. "But I am," he said. "You don't understand. I'm going to live forever. I'm not really human."
"You look human." Bran's voice was husky. Jane knew that he hated Will, and wondered what had changed.
"I'm not," Will said. "And no-one else can share what I need to do. Everyone else will die, and I…" He raised his hand a little further. "That's why I had to… My family… But not…"
"You made them forget," Bran rasped. "That's why Rhys Evans doesn't remember you. You made your own family forget you."
Jane felt a cold that was far deeper than anything the storm could wrap her in. "Your own family. Oh, Will…" She reached out for him, her own hand rising as if to meet his own, but he drew back a little, so they were still apart. "I know I don't understand everything," she said, "but that can't be right."
"They needed to get on with their lives," Will said. "I was the… the ghost at the feast. They knew I didn't belong. It was for the best."
"That's the most stupid thing I've ever heard." Bran's voice was hot and angry.
Don't, Jane thought. Please, Bran, don't. She tried to touch Will's hand, to get through to him with quietness and comfort, but Bran would not let her. He shouldered her to one side, and stood confronting Will, his hands on his hips.
"Stupid!" he spat. "If you didn't belong, it's because you didn't try to. Just listen to yourself. I'm not human." He put on a sarcastic voice, a cruel imitation of Will's despair. "I'm going to live forever. I'm willing to bet that you never made any effort to belong. You just stood there and watched everyone else and let yourself drown in self-pity. You made them forget because it was easier for you, easier than having to learn how to get on with them."
"But…" Will seemed lost for words.
"And, yes," Bran sneered, "before you say anything, I am entirely aware that I've done much the same myself, but it doesn't matter when I do it. You're a wizard, the only one left. You're telling us that something dreadful is out there, and it wants to destroy us. And what are you doing? Standing here wallowing, going on and on about how you're doomed to be alone, how you're not human. It's sickening."
Bran turned and stamped away. Jane hardly dared to look at Will's face. "He didn't mean…"
"He did," Will said, his voice dull.
Jane looked around desperately. She realised with sudden clarity exactly what battle it was that they had been fighting, out here in the storm. She had started by fighting to keep her own memories, but her own mortal memories were nothing. The real battle was for Will's life, and if that was lost, the world would be lost, sinking steadily into hatred and despair. And yet, at the same time, her own memories were vital. As long as she remembered, she could fight the right battle. If he took the memories away from her, then all would be lost.
"Please don't listen to him," she urged Will. "It's just a shock, finding this all out. It makes us…"
"No." Will's voice was low, but perhaps there was an element of magic in it, because it stilled all thought in her mind. She could do nothing but look at him, and wait for the fate that would issue from his lips. "He meant it, and he's right." He raised his hands, and there was a light in his eyes that did not come from the storm. "He's right, but could I…?"
Thunder sounded, like a tear in reality. Jane flicked her eyes from side to side, struggling to see anything that could help, but Bran still had his back to them. He had said his bit, and now his part was over.
Please, Jane thought. Please let me say the right thing. "Will," she said. "I think people become in reality what they think of themselves as being. I mean…" She struggled for words, knowing that she needed clarity more than she had ever needed it in her life. "I've spent my life being someone who was incomplete. I couldn't forget that I'd forgotten something. It… kept me back. I haven't done a tenth of the things I could have done. And you…"
She took a deep breath, praying to all the gods that she had never believed in, that she would not say the wrong thing. "Bran was right. You're only alone because you've made yourself that way. People could help you, but you erase their minds so they forget what needs to be done. You push people away. You watch from the sidelines. You deny your humanity… because of course you're human. You live in our world. You have a family. You could have friends, if you let yourself. I can tell that you feel things, just like a human does. Look." And, daring all, she moved forward and raised a hand to Will's face, where water flowed, warm, and not from the rain. "Human," she whispered.
Will sank to his knees. Jane knelt down carefully, facing him.
"There's no point," Bran said harshly. "He'll just make us forget it all, like he always does. It's easier that way. It's easier to watch from the edges, than to be part of things."
"Bran!" Jane screamed. "Bran, don't!"
But Will was already pushing himself to his feet, blinking like a sleeper awakened, with the light of magic in his eyes. "Please don't," Jane whispered.
She heard Bran laugh, and she saw Will step towards him, one hand rising.
Jane closed her eyes.
The woman opened the door a crack, leaving it on the chain. "Yes?" Suspicion darkened her face.
Will raised his hand. Is this right? he thought. Since that night in the storm, everything had felt new and strange. He felt newly-awakened again, slowly learning a new way of thinking. Even breathing felt different.
If it went wrong, he could always change his mind. Nothing was final. Memories could always be erased, even after a lifetime. But he had never said such a thing aloud. If he was going to do this thing, he had to mean it. He had to want it, and live it, and make it work.
"I'm going to shut the door," she warned him.
Will made his mind up. This was a new start. He was like a traveller venturing out on a long journey, to a place that could well be better than any he had ever been to, but which was strange and full of dangers at the same time. He had to make that first step, and the second, and carry on until he reached the end.
He spread his fingers, and spoke a single word. "Remember."
His mother's face burst into smiles. "Will! What a lovely surprise! Come on."
Will glanced back at his car, at the two faces peering hopefully from the windows. "I've brought some… friends," he said. The word still felt strange, as if such things as friends should not belong to him. "I hope that's alright."
"Of course," his mother said. "I'm so glad to meet friends of yours. I've never met any before."
He beckoned to them to come, and they did. "Mum," he said. "This is Bran, and this is Jane."
"It's lovely to see you," his mother said. "Come on in."
Bran and Jane followed her into the house. Will paused on the doorstep, and looked back at the garden and the trees, and the roofs of other houses beyond them. This was where it had all started. This was where he had awakened to his powers, and fought his first lonely battle against the Dark. Before that, though, there were other memories - playing with the dogs, kicking a ball to James, following Stephen around, teasing Max. There were a thousand thousand little memories of tears and laughter and family days in the sun.
And they were important, he realised now. They were just as important as the big things. Perhaps they were the most important thing of all. Loving bonds… That's what Bran had said long ago, and John Rowlands before him. They were the things that brought people together, and made them love, and want to help each other, and stand together against the darkness. But John had spoken to Will, even then, as if Will would not understand. He had called humankind 'we' and had spoken to Will as 'you', excluding him, and Will had excluded himself ever since.
"Are you coming, Will?" Jane called.
Will turned slowly. They were both waiting for him. Jane was warm and solicitous. Will knew that Jane had fancied herself to be a little in love with him for a while, but that was gone now. She was a friend now, and, if anything, a little maternal towards him, his self-appointed protector.
Bran was different. His anger and derision in the storm had been real, but it had also been the pivotal thing that had brought Will around. Will was deeply grateful to him, but still not entirely sure how to speak to him, because Bran would never recover his memories of their past closeness. Bran no longer hated him, and had sworn to help him, but Will knew that Bran felt as awkward to be alone with Will as Will felt to be alone with Bran. They were both more comfortable when Jane was there to bridge the gap. Still, it had only been two days since the storm, and they had a long way to go. Many things could change.
"A moment," he said.
Nothing was resolved. The dead still walked, and ghosts still haunted the hills. The thing that had inhabited Mark's body was still out there, and he still had to defeat it. He had no idea how to start it, and no idea how to finish it, but it no longer felt like something impossible. He no longer had to do it alone. He had family to support him with love and warmth, even if they remained ignorant of the true battle, and he had friends who would fight at his side.
"Tea's ready," his mother called, from deeper in the house.
"Coming," Will called. He stepped into the house and closed the door. Jane and Bran both smiled at him. They must have seen him hesitate before bringing his mother's memories back, and known that this had been a test for him, but they did not say anything. They just smiled, and let him lead them to the kitchen, where there were biscuits on the table, and tea in the pot, and his mother, looking happier than he had seen her in years.