Walking Shadow

 

by Eildon Rhymer        

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Chapter ten

 

Ghosts

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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…

 

"Jane."

 

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.

 

He slept.

 

******

 

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

 

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