Walking Shadow

 

by Eildon Rhymer        

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Chapter three

 

Summer storm

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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

 

******