Falls the Shadow

by Eildon Rhymer

 

Sequel to Walking Shadow. Will, Bran and Jane have sworn to stand together, but the enemy is growing stronger, and newly-rediscovered friendships can be fragile things.

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Chapter four

Secrets and lies

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Jane switched the television off, and stretched. She had covered four pages with notes, but she could find no further news programmes to watch. Thank goodness Will hasn't got Sky, she thought with a wry smile. Only five channels to monitor, and no twenty-four hour news. From the shelf upon shelf of diaries at home, she knew she had an obsessive streak. If the news had been showing all night, she suspected she would still be sitting here at three in the morning, concentrating fiercely, noting down everything she saw.

 

She wandered into the kitchen for a cup of tea. Like the living-room, it was a sparsely-furnished room, functional and comfortable, but with little display of personality.

 

"Not what I would have expected a wizard's house to look like," she said, with a chuckle.

 

Leaving her tea on the working surface, she went upstairs to get a book. Will had put her in a small guest room, though he had had to find spare sheets in a wardrobe, and remove a pile of books from the bed. Clearly he was not used to having guests. At least she had a proper bed, though. The third bedroom had been set up as a study, and had no bed at all. Bran had been sleeping on an airbed on the floor.

 

The door to Will's bedroom was ajar. Jane paused, and found herself drawn to the threshold.

 

I shouldn't go in, she thought. It's his private place.

 

Will had given her the key in such a matter-of-fact manner. Would she have been so quick to give a key to someone she had only known for a few days? Her diaries would be there on the shelf, for anyone to pick up and flick through. There was so much of herself in her house, and she always went through it tidying, moving things away, before visitors came. There was a lot that she did not want even her brothers to see.

 

Will surely had secrets. His whole life was a secret. He was an immortal wizard, who saw things that no-one else alive could see, and dealt with things of such magnitude that ordinary life paled. Until she and Bran had worked it out, no-one had known. Outside the door, he was the quiet and scholarly Will Stanton, invariably polite, but who always seemed to be holding a little of himself back. Inside, though, he could be himself. Surely he could be himself here.

 

She raised her hand falteringly to the door, but did not push it open. "No," she told herself. "I mustn't."

 

She had seen Will's soul laid bare on the mountain, but after that he had composed himself, drawn himself inwards. She had wondered if his house would offer clues to who he was, but so far she had been disappointed. The whole place was tidy and comfortable, but soulless. There were no personal touches, no family photographs, no eccentricities. And no spell books or bubbling tubes of potion, either, she thought with a smile.

 

Perhaps it was all an illusion. This had occurred to her right at the start, when Will had been so unconcerned about letting her have the run of his house. Perhaps she was seeing only a soulless overlay to his own true house. Perhaps there were spellbooks and pictures and scribblings on every surface, but she was unable to see them.

 

Somehow, that seemed to be a more comfortable explanation than the other one, which was that this was how Will's house truly was. He came from a large family, but his house was not set up for guests. There were no family photographs on the wall, no stamp of personality. His public persona, of quiet, polite detachment, extended even to his own home. There was nowhere that truly reflected him... or maybe this really was him, and there was nothing but bleakness and emptiness inside.

 

I need to find out, she thought,  just so I know. Just so I know how to talk to him.

 

She pushed the door open, switched on the light... A single bed was inside, neatly made up. Not even lovers, then, she thought, and it saddened her. There were a few pictures on the wall. One, she saw with amazement and not a little shame, was of herself and her brothers. Another showed Bran as a child, playing with a dog, and unaware of being photographed. The largest picture was a painting of a man that was probably Merlin, standing in a place of heart-breaking loveliness. His gaze seemed to invite the viewer to step in and find that land, but it was only a painting, so of course they could not.

 

"And he lives with that," she breathed. "Every night, the last thing that he sees... And he can't go there. He's stuck here, in this empty house."

 

Jane took another step into the room, then clapped her hand to her mouth. I shouldn't be here. This was too much, a violation of privacy. Another fear struck her then - that Will would know. Perhaps he had set protective magics around his room. She felt suddenly like Bluebeard's bride, sneaking into a forbidden room while Bluebeard was away. What if Will found out? What if he knew?

 

She backed out, closed the door behind her until it was at the angle it had been at before she touched it. Clutching her book, she ran downstairs, and composed herself on the couch, a picture of innocence, as if she had never thought of going anywhere else at all.

 

She opened her book, but all she could see was Will's room; all she could think of was her fear, and the sadness that followed it.

 

There would never be anything between Will and her. She thought she had given up all thought of a relationship when she had found out the truth about him, but it seemed that she had entertained a little glimmer of hope after all, for she grieved, now that it was gone. How could she ever truly love someone who hid so much? How could she trust someone with her heart, when they had magic strong enough to take your memories and hide behind illusion? When you were with Will, you would never truly know if you were seeing or remembering the truth. There would always be that seed of doubt. There would always be that vast gulf of difference.

 

She mourned for herself a little, but most of all she mourned for Will. Will with his single bed, and his empty little house. Will, who went to sleep every night to pictures of childhood friends who had forgotten him, and a mentor who had left him behind. Will, who would one day would find the land in the painting, and live there forever, while mortals like Jane were long-since dead and gone.

 

There would never be anyone quite like him. There would never be anyone for him. He might know passing friendships, but he would never know that true love of equals, for he was immortal and magical, but he was the only one.

 

"Oh, Will," she murmured, for she realised that there might be pain for him, as well as comfort, in this new-found friendship of theirs.

 

She sighed, and leant back on the couch. As she did so, someone hammered at the door.

 

****** 

 

"So?" Bran demanded, when they were out in the darkness together, slowly walking the way home.

 

His father said nothing.

 

Bran persisted. "What did John mean? Look to your father. Why?"

 

"You can ask that?" Owen spat it out with shocking vehemence. "Think to what you told us, boy, and the way you told it. Then ask the question again, and see if you know the answer."

 

"About magic," Bran said, understanding. "John believes, it seems, but you..."

 

"Magic?" Owen spat on the ground. "Superstition and sin."

 

"It's a shock at first, and hard to believe..."

 

"Listen to yourself!" his father cried. "It's a shock, hard to believe... But did you tell your tale in a gentle fashion, preparing us? No, you came charging in and told it like an accusation, daring us to disbelieve. And I know why, too. You were trying to impress that English creature."

 

There was such hatred in his voice as he said the word, that Bran almost flinched. "You mean Will? I'd never try to impress..."

 

"Score a point over him, then, which is much the same thing." Owen gave a hollow laugh. "Oh, I know what you're thinking now. Who am I, Owen Davies, to know so much about people's motives? I sit in my farm, cut off from the world, hating all strangers..." He let out a long breath, strangely sorrowful. "I wasn't always like that, boy. It's too late to change now, but..."

 

Owen was silent again. Surrounded by the night, Bran felt a creeping trepidation. What have I done? His father's quietness and solitude had always been one of the certainties of his life. This man beside him did not sound like his father. Could it be? he thought, suddenly cold. Is this the enemy talking through my father?

 

He tried to beat that thought down. Bran had just told his father a life-changing truth, and shock often made people act strangely. He only had to think of the way he had been since being attacked, so hostile, so hateful, so... But, no, that was only with Will, and Will deserved it.

 

"I'm sorry for the way of the telling," Bran said gently, formally. "Perhaps I told you wrong. But I don't think I was right to tell. It's wrong to keep secrets, especially if you..." Love someone, he should have said, but he had never said such a word to his father in all his life, and had never had it said back to him, either. Some people did not need words.

 

His father stopped walking for a moment. "Is that what you think?"

 

"Yes." Bran shook his head, frowning. "And it is true, what I told you. All of it. I'm sorry."

 

"I cannot believe it." His father's voice was surrounded by darkness. "It's a sin. It's against God's word."

 

"You haven't been to Chapel for years," Bran pointed out.

 

"God's word does not become untrue just because one of his humblest servants does not visit Chapel for a while," Owen said.

 

Years ago, Chapel had been a central part of Owen Davies' life. He had spoken often of God, and he had spent time with friends from the congregation. Somehow, over the years, all that had faded, Bran had never asked Owen why. He had assumed it was because his father's belief in God was fading, but perhaps he believed in God as much as he ever had done, but his habits of solitude meant that he wanted worship him quietly and alone.

 

"I didn't know," Bran said limply. He thought of Barney, and how Jane had said afterwards that she should have prepared arguments. Will had said that no arguments were necessary, though, that magic and religion could sit side by side. "John had no trouble believing, though."

 

"John Rowlands," Owen said with distaste, "was always one to believe overmuch in stories. I never was. Even as a boy. Even as a boy..."

 

His voice trailed away. Bran glanced at him, and saw how small and hunched he looked, as if an enormous hand had reached out and crushed him in misery. Surely Bran hadn't done all this just by telling the truth?

 

Bran reached as if to touch his father's hand. "I'm sorry. I didn't think." Another step, and another. "But it is true, though," he had to say. "If you can't believe it, then... Well. I can accept that. But don't try to stop me from believing. Don't hold me back from what I need to do. Don't look at me as if I'm a sinner for believing." Another step. Another. "Please?" It was almost a whisper. He hated himself for it, but could not help it.

 

They had almost reached their own gate. The mountains were silent, but it was a good silence, Bran thought. Will had banished the dead, or at least had imprisoned them somewhere where they could not harm anyone. There were no ghostly visions of past murders, because the enemy no longer walked here in the flesh. The world was a swirling mass of darkness and threat, but his own home at least was at peace. Because of Will. Though thought slipped into his mind without him wanting it to, and he pressed his lips together, and turned towards the house.

 

He opened the door. Nothing had changed inside. A cat stretched, and greeted them, eager for love and food. A faint smell of dinner still lingered in the air, along with all the subtle and indefinable smells that made up his home. Bran had spent all his adult life in this house, and although John wanted him to think it was a prison, it was his home, his core, his safety. He was leaving it now, travelling wherever Will's battle took them, but this was the place he would always come back to.

 

"Tea?" Bran offered, as he walked towards the dark kitchen. "Coffee?" He smiled to himself. "Something stronger?" Owen never drank, but they had some whisky and beer in the cupboard, because Bran and John sometimes shared a drink after a hard day's work.

 

He heard his father's steps, shambling along the hallway.

 

"What do you want to drink?" Bran repeated.

 

His father's steps came to a halt. "Bran." It was rasping, strangled. "No, don't put on the light."

 

Bran frowned. The kitchen door closed, so the light from the hall was only a golden crack, and things were only formless shapes. He heard a chair being pulled out, scraping on the tile floor, but he did not hear his father sitting down.

 

"Why don't you want the light on?" he asked.

 

"Because I couldn't... I don't think I could say this, if I could see you."

 

"What?" The fear was back, a clenched fist in his chest. Bran clutched the edge of the work surface. Forms were slowly taking shape out of the semi-darkness, He saw mugs and jars and a knife block, dark shapes without relief. They reminded him of the way the dead stepped so smoothly out of the night, and he could have almost laughed.

 

"It's against God," his father grated. "I didn't believe it. I couldn't believe it. But now you come here with this story, and he's here, this English wizard. There were things on the mountains that didn't look human, but weren't animal, either, and I told myself... But I knew. I knew. These last few weeks have been the closing doors of doom, and this is the end."

 

"What do you mean?" Bran fumbled his way to the table and sat down. Owen was still standing.

 

"You shouldn't have secrets from someone you love," Owen said miserably. "You said so, or you as good as said so. And I love you, Bran, like my own son. So much so that I've... God knows that John's had words with me about it more than once. Keeping you here. Bringing you up to shun all strangers. But I didn't want to lose you. It was us against the world. Like John's stories, of people with a changeling child, who love it very much, but they know that one day the fair folk will come back for it and they won't have it any more, however much they love it. They want to keep it for a little longer. Nothing else matters."

 

Bran raked his hand over his face. "It doesn't make sense." But his voice was trembling, his breathing faltering. Was Owen saying what he seemed to be saying? No, no. Of course he wasn't. It was just words. Just a way of speaking. Just a mind, fractured by the truth.

 

"As soon as you came in out of the darkness and told us your truth, I knew," Owen said. "I knew I would have to tell you mine. John knew that, I think. That's why he said what he did. Because it has to be me who tells you. You mustn't find it out from anyone else."

 

"What?" His voice seemed to be coming from a very long way away. He felt as if he was drowning.

 

"I am not your father, Bran." Such simple words, said so simply, without emotion.

 

The darkness in the kitchen was too much. Bran closed his eyes.

 

"Oh, in God's sight, in every way that matters, you are my son. I loved your mother. She came to me one night, down from the mountain, with a child in her arms. Two days only did she stay, but I loved her, and she still has my heart. But she was in trouble, you see. She couldn't stay. She gave you to me, with a note. I called for her. I called for her everywhere, but I never found her. I never found her."

 

"A note." Even with his eyes shut, it was too much. Thoughts swirled and gibbered, and he could not catch hold of any of them, and neither did he want to.

 

"I was going to tell you." Owen's voice broke. "I always intended to tell you when you were old enough to understand. But I didn't, and the years went on, and it got harder, it got impossible."

 

"So you thought you'd say nothing," Bran said coldly, without opening his eyes, "and eventually you'd die, and I'd die, and nothing would matter any more."

 

"I didn't..."

 

"Why now?" Bran opened his eyes. He seemed to see things differently now. There were harsh edges to everything in the gloom, and the smells that had been comforting such a short time ago, were now horrible and sickening. "Why tell me now?"

 

"Because..." Owen clenched his fist uselessly. How pathetic he looked, how spineless. "It was what you said... Magic, you said. It's against God's law. I can't believe it, but..."

 

"What?" Bran demanded. "Tell me the truth now."

 

Even in the darkness, Bran could see the pleading and the misery in Owen Davies' face. "She was running from something, see. I didn't know what. I still don't know what. But I do know this. When you came rushing into John's house just now, and starting telling your wild tale, I saw your mother. I saw her face here." He pressed his hand to his heart and to his brow. "She was mixed up in this, I thought. And now Bran is, too, and he will find out the truth before long."

 

"So you thought you'd tell me?" The words wrenched from his mouth like hooks.

 

"It had to be me," Owen cried. "Me, not a stranger. It's something you have to hear with love."

 

"With love?" Bran stood up. The chair screamed on the floor, and fell over. "No, Owen, it was something I should have been told years ago. It's too late now for love to come into it."

 

He walked out of the room, and Owen did not stop him. Out of the house, then, into the night. No-one called after him. Darkness shrouded him, and the wind clawed at his face, as if seeking his tears, but he blinked, and he hardened his heart, and he did not weep.

 

******

 

"No," John Rowlands had said. "Don't go after them."

 

John was busying himself in the kitchen. Will had sat down, and was waiting for enough time to pass, or for John to give him the word, or for something to happen. Because something's going to happen. He felt it like a creeping on the back of his neck, and he clutched the arms of the chair with whitened knuckles. But he was also tired, exhausted from his battle and still not yet fully healed, so he leant back in the chair, and fought the sleepiness that wanted him to close his eyes.

 

John emerged from the kitchen, holding two mugs of something hot. "You must think we spend all our day drinking tea."

 

Will gave a weary smile. "It's what they say about the English, normally, not the Welsh."

 

"Perhaps it's to give us something to do." John sat down, mug in hand, but he did not look comfortable. "Something to distract us from the need to talk."

 

"There is a need to talk." Will said it half as a question, half as a statement.

 

"Yes."

 

Will took his mug of tea, but did not drink it. It burnt his hands to hold it, and hurt him, but at least it was warm. The coldness of the dead still lingered, like ice at his centre.

 

There were so many things he wanted to talk to with this man, but, as the tea warmed him, he knew that most of them could never be said. He was not eleven any more. He remembered the respect, even awe, with which John had always spoken of Merriman. To an Old One in the body of a small boy, John had cast himself almost in the role of mentor, but he would never to do to a grown man. His bow had shown as much.

 

John broke the silence first. "I am wondering how much you know." His tone was respectful, but wary. "Do you know all secrets of all hearts?"

 

Will shook his head, a slight smile on his lips. "Mostly I only know things that I am told, or see with my own eyes. There are… other ways, but I would never do them to a friend or an innocent, but only in great need, to those who have made choices of the Dark."

 

John worried at his mug. "That's as may be. What I am wondering is…"

 

Will took pity on him. "Bran," he said gently. "You're wondering what I know about him. You told him to look to his father. You're wondering if I know why." He looked into the murky mirror of his drink, but saw no answers there. "I do know things about Bran," he said. "What I do not know if how much you know. I do not know why Owen Davies looked as if did, or why you sent Bran out with him, alone."

 

"There are… secrets there," John said awkwardly. "When Bran burst in as he did, I looked at Owen's face, and I knew. This was the trigger for the telling of them."

 

Will frowned, trying to think. Bran's true father was not Owen Davies, but King Arthur, but he had been brought through time by Merriman, to be brought up by another man. Bran had discovered all this years ago, but he had chosen to be mortal, and thus had renounced his power, and chosen to forget. Bran did not know that his father was Arthur, but surely he still remembered that Owen Davies was not his father. Surely he still knew that.

 

"He doesn't know," he gasped. The knowledge hit him like a hammer blow. The forgetting had been too complete. Bran still believed that Owen Davies was his father, and not far away, at this moment, he was discovering the truth.

 

But why? He floundered, struggling to ask the question, not to lose himself in sympathy for his friend. Bran had told John and Owen that magic existed, and Owen had responded by telling him this secret. Why? All he could think of was that, with Owen, the spell of forgetting had not been complete enough. Owen had not been there at the final battle. Perhaps Merriman had forgotten that he, too, knew the truth. Most of it had gone, but enough remained for him to choose this moment now to reveal the truth.

 

"Oh, Bran," he said aloud, and closed his eyes in sorrow. "It will be too much for him."

 

He heard John lay his mug firmly down. "What does your kind know about the strength or weaknesses of humans? In the stories I have heard, you are always asking too much, or expecting too little."

 

"Perhaps." Will opened his eyes. "But as Bran himself reminded me not many days ago, I, too, am human, in a way."

 

"In a way." John gave a twisted smile, even a chuckle. "No, don't misunderstand me. I don't mean to stand in your way. It's just that…"

 

"I know," Will said, wearily, warmly. "I knew you once, you see. I was only a boy. I knew you all. You saw most than most men did, and understood even more. You said then that you would help me, but even as you helped us, you were the fiercest critic I ever knew when it came to the things the Light was forced to do. You always were a ferocious champion of humanity."

 

John ran his hand across his balding head. It was a strangely humble, naked gesture. "I don't remember."

 

And more, Will thought sadly. More than this have you forgotten. More than I will ever tell you. "You were made to forget," he said gently. "As were they all."

 

"Made?" John raised an eyebrow, eloquent with judgement. "That is a cruel word."

 

"But not an inhuman one," Will said. "A wise man once said that humankind cannot bear too much reality." He gave a sad smile. "You always used to tell me that I had to think about the effect the Light's actions had on normal men and women, and I said that we couldn't always do that. Some things were so important that feelings had to be forgotten, for the greater good. Sometimes people did get hurt. Sometimes forgetting is the only remedy. A crude one, perhaps, but sometimes it is the only way. It is our salve, for the harsh things that sometimes we have to do."

 

John drained his mug, and grimaced, as if it tasted bad. "I do not like your way," he said, when he had finished, "but that is not the point. The point is, what are you going to do now? What about young Bran?"

 

Will froze in the act of raising his own mug. "Bran?"

 

"We are fencing with words," John said. "We both know what secret Owen is telling Bran. The question is, what are you going to say to Bran, afterwards? His world is being torn apart. He needs the support of friends."

 

It was clear from his expression that he did not class Will as Bran's friend. "I am his friend," Will said, though he was speaking as himself, not as the Old One he had to be. "I was his only friend, at a time in his life when he most needed one. Of course, he's forgotten that," he was compelled to say, regretting it.

 

"You say that," John said, "but the proof of a friend is in how he acts. And how will you act? As a friend? Or as a… an Old One, with your own task that you need to do, when the happiness and future of little people like Bran is ultimately second to that?"

 

Will flinched inside, but he met John's gaze levelly. "I have my task to perform, yes. But I will not let Bran suffer."

 

"So you will let him go?" John leant forward in his chair. "When he comes here, as I know he will, will you let him go? Release him from this quest of yours. Let him stay with the man who is his father, in every way that matters, and rebuild their relationship. Let him rediscover who he is. God knows, I've been urging him to leave this place and widen his horizons, but not like this. Not like this."

 

Will opened his mouth, and closed it again. He tried several beginnings, but in the end he said the only thing an Old One could say. "I will do what I have to do." He leant his head back stiffly against the wooden chair, but he let out a slow breath. "But I will let Bran do what he needs to do, whatever that is. I would never hurt him, John."

 

"Then leave him out of your battle," John urged him. "Release him from any obligations. One day he needs to leave here, but for the right reasons, and with his own kind."

 

"And what kind is that, John?"

 

They both turned round, startled, cold. Neither of them had heard Bran come in. Will should have heard him. He should have known. "Bran…" he began.

 

John leapt to his feet. "Bran. My boy."

 

"You knew." It was icy cold, the voice of the relentless king that Bran would never now be. Bran looked at John, and then, wondering, to Will. "You both knew."

 

"I knew." John bowed his head.

 

Bran swiped at him, almost striking him. "Why didn't you tell me?" It was low and brutal, far more terrible than a furious scream.

 

"Because Owen said…" John began.

 

"You're blaming him, then?" Bran gave a harsh bark of laughter.

 

"No, Bran." John spread his hands, palms upwards.

 

Will could not say a thing. He could only stare mutely at Bran. It was all falling apart. This was like the mountain in the storm, when all of existence had narrowed to that tiny, fragile point in time, all swirling emotions and darkness and fear.

 

"You should blame him, though," Bran sneered. "I do."

 

There was misery beneath his anger, of course. Will could see it plainly, and knew that John could, too. This was so much worse than the first time Bran had found out this same secret. There were so many more years of lies, and so much more betrayal. And last time, Bran had immediately discovered the wonder and glory of his true heritage and powers. Now he had nothing but loss.

 

"You shouldn't blame him," John was urging Bran. "It's only understandable that you do now. It's all too new, too much of a shock. But he's always loved you. That's why he was so afraid to tell you. He was afraid that he'd lose you with the truth." He raised one pleading hand. "You should go to him, boy. Go back and talk to him. You two need to…"

 

"Don't tell me what I need!" Bran hissed, still low, still cold, still terrible. He turned to Will, standing so silent. "And you, English wizard, with an answer to everything, even though you've made a mess of your own life…" He sucked in a breath. "Gloating, are you?"

 

"No, Bran," Will said quietly.

 

"But you're wondering what poor little Bran will do now, aren't you? I heard you and John, talking about it when you thought I wasn't here."

 

"I wasn't talking about it, Bran," Will said, and then wished that he hadn't, because it sounded petty, as if he wanted Bran to blame John instead.

 

"I know what you're thinking now." Bran continued as if Will had not spoken. "You're wondering if your nice little group is all broken up. If your precious childhood friend - the friend who liked so much you lied to him and stole his memory - is going to leave you all alone. You're wondering if you're going to have to stand all by yourself against the enemy, without poor deluded Bran to hold you up and 'anchor' you."

 

"I wasn't," Will told him honestly. He looked Bran full in the eye, and held that gaze, even when Bran tried to look away. "I grieve for you, but I will still walk away. If my duty takes me elsewhere, I will go, whether you come, or not. An Old One can never do what their heart most wants to do."

 

Bran swallowed. His eyes flickered from side to side, almost desperate. "You weren't saying that last week, when you were the one who…"

 

"I know," Will said. "I… fell. You saved me, you and Jane. And I cannot fall again."

 

Bran stared at him, a lingering and curious look. When he spoke at last, his voice was quiet. "Will you make me forget?"

 

Will would not look away. "Do you want me to?"

 

Bran slumped down in a chair, pressed his face into his hand. "I'm coming with you." It was quiet, muffled by the hand, barely audible at all. He raised his head, and spoke it clearly. "This doesn't change a thing. I'm coming with you."

 

"No!" John cried. "Don't do this, Bran. Don't run away."

 

"Don't tell me what to do." Bran spoke with weary anger. "Why shouldn't I go with him? There's nothing for me here now. Nothing at all."

 

Will said nothing to dissuade him, though he knew that John Rowlands would never forgive him for it.

 

******

 

end of chapter four