Will was wreathed in silver power. Bran took his place beside him, to show that Will did not stand alone. Simon alone faced them, his face a mask of cruelty and laughter. Bran could not see Paul or Jon, but Jane and Barney were gone, too, left outside the circle of magic.
"You lied," Simon said. "You tricked me."
Will nodded, and Bran could have laughed. They would have him yet.
"But you can never win," Simon said, stepped forward to caress Will's cheek. Will leant into the touch. Bran was left behind, a step away, an eternity apart. "You can burn this body, but I am everywhere. You will never defeat me."
"No," Will said, and he raised both hands, and spoke a word.
Coils of white exploded from the place where he was standing, and wreathed around him, a solid, writhing sphere that surrounded Will and Simon. The earth trembled. Bran staggered, and shrank back even further, for there were eyes in the coiling mass, and sharp fingers, a the gleam of metal. There was blood and death and screaming, someone was screaming…
"Will!" He tried to reach for him, but was driven back. "Will!"
He knew what these were. These were the dead that Will had faced on the mountain, the dead who had almost destroyed him. Will had bound them, rather than defeating them, but now they had broken free, to claim him just as he most needed to be strong.
"Will!" He forced himself to move forward, and he reached into the mass of whiteness. The pain was terrible. Voices invaded his brain, telling him that he was not wanted. Phantom swords slashed at his wrist, but he gritted his teeth against the pain, and pushed on, through and through, until he found Will's hand. "I am here," he told him, for Will had almost lost before, and he had needed Bran to anchor him. "I won't let go."
The hand squeezed his. You have to, he heard in his mind, soft and so far away.
The barrier closed, and he was left, bereft and outside it, hand still outstretched, but touching nothing. A wind swept across the mountain, strong enough to make his clothes almost tear themselves from his body. He screwed his eyes up against it. When he could see again, Will and the mass of spirits were gone, swept away by the wind.
Only Simon remained, a body falling heavily to the ground, discarded, dead.
Bran sank to his knees. Jane threw herself at Simon's body, screaming his name. Barney was sobbing. Jon was shouting for Will, and Paul was screaming his brother's name.
Only Bran was silent, his head bowed, his eyes closed.
Only Bran was silent.
Simon was dead. Jane clutched his lifeless hand, and sobbed. Barney was crying, too. He had comforted so many parishioners, but this was something beyond comfort.
Jane felt numb. Her mind felt very small, like a room that had been crowded with people, and now contained only herself, tiny and alone. The events of the day were shadowy. Nothing mattered but the fact that her brother was dead.
Her lips still wanted to shape sounds a certain way. "Will…" That was what her mind had wanted her to say. "Will… killed…"
"No." Bran spoke for the first time since it had happened. Jane could not look at him. "It was not Will. The enemy did this. Simon's been dead for days. He was the enemy before he even came to Oxford."
"Don't lie to me," she whispered, but she clutched Simon's hand tighter, and thought of so many things. Simon watching the riot, eyes shining. Laughter in the face of pain. Eyes in a car mirror. Hateful words.
Her head fell forwards, hair slipping over her eyes. "It's not true."
Bran's hand fell on her shoulder. "I'm sorry, Jane, but it is."
He sounded like Will now. He walked away, and none of them followed him.
In the end, it was almost easy. Will rode on the wind he had summoned, above the mountains, above the tracks of ancient people, above the lights and the houses.
The dead surrounded him, forming an inescapable barrier. The enemy screamed and threatened, but the dead were spirits too, almost as old as he was, and there were many of them. The enemy could fill the world, and speak in the minds of countless men at the same time, but they forced him to inhabit the cage of their spirits. He was bound, and could not escape.
The enemy attacked Will mercilessly, assailing him with images and despair. Will felt a little of it, but most he fed to the dead. He let them devour the blood on his face, and if they took a little more from him than he had offered them, he could not stop them. Their loyalty was fragile, and he would sacrifice himself to keep it.
They reached the sea, and the wind drifted them down to the waves. Beneath the ocean they went, far below, and far away. Strange creatures moved around them, and hunted and killed. Broken ships lay dreaming, and bones lay scattered on the ocean floor. The dead surged towards that. No, Will told them. Not yet.
The things around them multiplied. Will let them herd him, until he came at length to the place where Tethys lay. Eyes watched from the darkness. Light was impossibly far away, the world of men but a distant dream. Like the enemy, Tethys was everywhere, and yet in this one place. She was the Lady of the Sea, and the enemy was just a child to her, and Will less than that.
"What brings you a second time to my domain?" she demanded, speaking to his mind, filling all things. "It is such a little time since last you came."
Such a little time, he thought, thinking of the twenty years of unhappiness. The enemy heard him, and attacked. Tethys heard him, and despised. Will ordered his thoughts. No fear, no doubt. Tethys had no love for human kind, so he had to be all Old One.
"I have come to request a boon, lady," he said, bowing low.
"A boon?" she echoed, cold. "What is that you have with you? Dead spirits of men who walked, and something else, something… other."
"It is a thing born unwittingly," Will told her. "It is the fears and hatreds of men made flesh. It has come to life from the darkest deeds of mankind, but now it plays on them. It has filled the world, turning man against each other, making them act on their darkest dreams."
"I care nothing for such things," Tethys said. "I care not if man destroys himself."
"If the land burns, the sea burns also." Will filled his mind with images of war, knowing that she could see them. He showed her nuclear bombs falling, and poison falling from the air. He showed her the boiling of the sea, and an ever-winter. "Mankind are but children," he said, "but they have the power to touch even a realm such as yours."
He feared she would be furious at his temerity, but she was silent, thinking. A million eyes watched him from the darkness, far away from the reach of any light.
"You wish me to take this thing and imprison it forever," she said at last.
Will nodded. She had the power. The enemy was a spirit that could fill the world, but Tethys could hold him. There could be no returning from the deep forgetfulness of the ocean.
She seemed to reach towards him, water caressing his face. "For a thing that is asked, something else must be given," she whispered.
He had known this was coming. He had known that she could choose to ask his life.
"I will give it," he swore.
Bran watched the waves rise and fall. The moon was up, silver on the sea. Across the ocean, the sky was black, but already dawn was touching the mountains in the east, faint and pink and full of empty promise.
Bran could not fully explain why he had come here. He had last seen Will carried away by the wind, and the wind had been heading towards the sea. That was what the logical part of his mind insisted. Really, though, it was because he had been unable to rid his mind of images of the sea. For hours, he had watched the waves, but at the same time it had seemed to him as if he was underwater.
Dreaming, he thought, rubbing his eyes. Hallucinating, anyway. And who can blame me?
He had no idea if the enemy was defeated. He had no idea if Will was ever coming back. Cold and shivering, he had sat on a rock, and waited.
"Stupid," he said, standing up, readying himself to go.
And then Will was there, climbing wearily from the waves. Will! Bran rushed forward, but at the last minute he found himself slowing, so he was barely moving at all when he covered the last few yards that separated him.
"Is he gone?" he asked.
Will nodded slowly. "He's gone."
Bran's hand was twitching at his side. "And the dead?"
"Far away," Will said. "In a dark and merciless place, far away from the light. They would not sleep again, not while I am alive. This way seemed better."
Bran did not understand. "He's really gone?"
Will nodded. "Really gone. Jane will have a lot of healing to do, but she's herself again. Everyone is."
"Poor Jane. Poor all of them." Will shook his head. "I knew it was one of you. I'm glad it wasn't you."
"Me, too," Bran said. And, turning, they walked side by side up the beach, towards the dawn.
"What are you going to do now?" Paul asked him, later that day.
Will traced a curvy line up and down the windowsill. "About what?"
"Are you going to let me remember?" Paul asked.
Will nodded. On this, at least, he had no doubts. "I'll let you remember, and you know what? I'm going to tell everyone else at the next family reunion. That will make a memorable party, don't you think?"
Paul said nothing for a while, thinking. It was another decision that had come to Will in the flames, and he was sure that it was right. His brothers and sisters were adults now, and they deserved to know the truth. They might reject it at first, but they would come round in time. Even if they did not, at least they would know the truth. Will was only estranged from his family because he had let himself become so. He had years of silence to make up. He would tell them everything, and listen to everything they had to say, and be a Stanton again.
"I'll support you," Paul promised. "If they don't believe you, I'll tell them that I've… seen things."
"Thank you." Will gave a quick smile.
He was going to use his powers to fight for mankind. There would be no more standing back, letting people make their own mistakes. He would intervene, but there was always the danger that he would do too much. He was an Old One as well as a human. He needed people like Paul to stand by him and remind him of his own humanity, and preach the cause of normal men. A tyrant could be born from the best of intentions.
"Do you need me now?" Paul asked, almost shyly. "If not… Jon and I…"
"Go home," Will said, smiling. "I'll run you to the station." He clasped Paul's hand briefly. "Cherish what you've got, Paul. Don't let it get away. The enemy taught me that much."
"I will," Paul promised. "You too, Will."
Will traced the line on the windowsill, again and again and again.
She could not face them.
She had phoned her parents to tell them the news, and that had been horrible, the worst thing she had ever had to do. She had tried to be strong, for Barney's sake. She had even started to construct the lie that she would have to tell her parents when they asked how he had died.
How he had died… Even the words sounded impossible. She wanted to laugh at them. They were ridiculous words to apply to Simon. Of course they could not be true.
She had heard Bran return with Will, half way through the morning. Barney went out to see them, and came back with the news that the enemy was definitely defeated, once and for all.
"That's good." She had tried to smile. Her hair had fallen in front of her eyes, and she had tied it back with fingers that fumbled.
She had known the truth hours before, of course. Hours before, still kneeling over Simon's body, her mind had become truly her own. With it had come to knowledge of how fully the enemy had entered her. He had filled her, but the enemy did not create thoughts from nothing. He took those things that a person was already thinking, and made them stronger. He made them act on urges they would normally suppress. She had said and done terrible things, but only because a kernel of those things had already been there, in her own mind.
She, Jane Drew, was capable of terrible things.
She buried herself in mourning Simon. Late in the afternoon, someone knocked at the door, and she hoarsely told them to come in.
It was Bran. She had expected Will.
"I am so terribly sorry about Simon," he began. He looked awkward. Most people had no idea how to cope with death, or what to say to someone who was mourning. She had noticed that before, but had never thought to be on the receiving end of it.
"Words won't bring him back."
"I know." Bran swallowed. "I…"
She busied herself with folding something or other that came to hand. "Have you come to make sure I'm not blaming Will for it?"
"No." He shook his head. "I came to see how you were, if there's anything I can…"
"I nearly shot Will," she surprised herself by saying. "I could have killed someone. I spent all yesterday being cruel and jealous and hateful. I did awful things, and you're wondering if I'm okay?"
"It was the enemy." Bran seemed to be trying to take her hand, but she would not let him. "Listen to me, Jane. I know what it's like. I've felt him, too. You saw how I was only a few days ago. He makes us do things, but it's not who we really are. You have nothing whatsoever to feel guilty about."
"He just made things stronger," Jane said. "Everything was there already."
"Of course it was." This time Bran grabbed her arm, stopping her from turning away. "Everyone has bad urges every now and then, even saints. It's only human. You're only human, Jane. Mourn your brother, but don't blame yourself for anything."
She let him hold her, comforting her like her mother had comforted her as a child. He patted her back, stroked her hair, then moved away. She did not think he had been comfortable, though, and her eyes remained dry.
"Thank you," she said calmly. "Thank you for coming."
"She needs time," Bran said to Will, as darkness fell.
They were standing together in the kitchen, holding steaming mugs of coffee. Will nodded absently. "I hope she can…"
"I think she will," Bran said. "We've been through too much. We're all bound together, everyone who was there last night. Whatever happens now, Jane will come back in friendship."
Will sipped his coffee, and grimaced as it burnt him. "Be patient," Bran chided him, meaning it to be about the coffee, but maybe it was about other things, too.
"I at least want to try and find out how Simon died," Will said. "It might give her some peace, at least, to know the answers. I got… clues, when he… when the enemy was attacking my mind. I think I'll be able to bring her the truth."
He's still concealing something, Bran realised suddenly. But he, too, could be patient. He would find it out in time.
"What are you…" Will took another sip of his coffee. "What are you planning to do?"
Bran placed his mug down, and played with a spilled splash of milk on the work surface. "I need to talk about it with my father first," he said. "With Owen. He'll take it personally if I leave. I'll have to handle it carefully…. Yes, Will," he smiled. "I can be careful sometimes. He needs to accept that I can make my own choices about how I live, without it being a rejection of him. It might take time."
"You don't have to leave," Will said, studying the surface of his coffee. "There's phones, the Internet, holidays. You can study from home, but still farm. And I can be anywhere. Places don't matter. Not even time. It's how you think of yourself that counts."
"Yes," Bran said, and he smiled.
"I don't think I'll be in touch for a while," Jane said, when Will came to see her off.
Will closed his eyes. "I'm so sorry…"
"No," she snapped at him. "Don't you dare. Don't you dare make this about you. It isn't."
She saw him start to apologise again, then press his lips shut. How could someone so powerful still be so clueless about how people really felt?
She took pity on him. "I know you couldn't save him. I know that. I know the… other things weren't your fault."
Even so, Simon would never have been targeted by the enemy if it wasn't for Jane's association with Will. If she had remained ignorant, Simon would still be alive.
She felt the tears come. "Please," she begged him. "Please make me forget again."
"Do you really want that?" His voice was gentle.
"No." She shook her head through the sobs. She had not cried once in all of yesterday. "I don't want to forget, but it's hard. It's so hard."
He took her into an awkward embrace, yet another man holding her, who did not love her. "He died naturally, Jane," he said into her ear. "An accident. I saw things… things from the enemy's mind. He inhabits bodies that are already dead. Simon died then by coincidence. He would died anyway, even if you had never known me."
"A lie," she whispered, pulling away. Her hand rose to her mouth.
"No." There was nothing but truth in his eyes. "No, Jane. No lies."
A tiny gleam of light unfolded in her mind, in a place where she had thought to find only shadows. "I need time," she told him, "but I don't want to forget you."
"I'm glad." He touched her cheek with the back of his hand. "You've got my number."
She nodded. "Maybe in the autumn. Maybe Christmas. I don't know. It's going to hard for a while.
She smiled through her tears. "You don't have to struggle to work out what to say."
She could not hide from him. If she hid, the enemy had won. The enemy had turned her against Will, but she did not have to be that person. The next few months would be hard, but already she could see that life stretched beyond those months, full of hope and potential. The enemy was gone. Her memory was back. She was no longer a prisoner of things half-understood. She could be whoever she liked, and she would not be broken by what the enemy had made her do.
"I will see you again, one day." Standing on tip-toe, she kissed him on the lips.
She was crying as she drove away, but the sun shone on the mountain, and promised a glorious day.
"I expect you'll be going, too," Bran said, at last.
Will sighed. "I have to. I want to tell my mother the truth. I need to get back to Oxford, and any other places where the enemy struck particularly badly. There's work to be done."
Bran was silent. A plane flew overhead, as hopeful people went on holiday, heedless of how close they had come to losing everything. Tourists climbed the mountain, and birds sang. John and Owen were slowly walking along the road together, heads together as they reminisced. Will knew that Bran had yet to talk properly to Owen, and that he feared it. He wished he could be there to help his friend, but he knew it would only do more harm than good. Bran wanted to make his own decisions in life, and no-one could impose on him, least of all Will.
"It's hard to think that it's over," Bran said. "Everything could so easily go back and be just the same as it used to be."
"No." Will shook his head. "It never can. Things have changed forever."
It was true. You will give me a gift, Tethys had commanded, and Will had expected her to take his life. Her gaze had raked over him and he had stood before her as one naked, and then, at length, she had chosen.
She had not taken his life. She could have taken his power, but did not. Instead, she had taken his immortality. From now on, Will would age as normal mortals aged. He still had all the powers of an Old One, but in time he would die. He would not go out of time, to be united with Merriman and the others, but to the place where mortals went after death. His eternity would be spent with his brothers and his sisters, with his parents, with friends and loved ones, with Bran.
It was meant to be a sacrifice, but now Will thought that it had been a gift.
He only had one life. Every moment, every day, every person had to matter. He had such a little time to set the world onto a path that it could walk, pure and strong, after he had gone. He had to live life fully as a human, because there was no tomorrow. Today mattered. Today was the only thing that was real.
"I'm coming back, though," Will promised.
Bran elbowed him in the side. "You'd better."
"Race you home?"
Will laughed, and started after Bran. The sun bathed everything in light, and in that moment he was twelve again, and the whole world was ahead of him, happiness there for the taking.
I started writing this in September, while still half way through posting "Walking Shadow". I proceeded nicely until early October, when the publication of "A feast for crows," by George RR Martin, tumbled me headlong into a reprise of my GRMM obsession, which lasted pretty much until the end of the year. I tried to carry on writing this story, but couldn't. I was only able to return to it just before Christmas, but the final 70 pages of it were written in one marvellous week in January, in which this story totally took over my mind, my imagination and my dreams.
I'm aware that the story could continue a bit longer after the ending, but I want it to end here. The enemy is defeated, and will not come back. I didn't want to then have several chapters dealing with the emotional aftermath. Take it as read that Jane will heal in time, and that her friendship with Will and Bran will continue.
I feel quite guily about killing Simon, but people do die when you're struggling to save the world. Sometimes they're people you know, not just faceless strangers. However, I feel strangely non-guilty about making such a radical change to Will's future. Yes, it's playing havoc with canon, but, like Will, I can't help but feel it's a happy ending for him.
It probably feels a bit as if I abandoned Barney's storyline half way through, but I was limited by not having his viewpoint to play with, so not being able to see into his mind. As he said several times, the conflict was for him to work out for himself, and he didn't seem at all willing to talk about it openly with my viewpoint characters.
Thanks for reading! Feedback, as ever, is incredibly wonderful and much appreciated.
So what's next? This story is finished now, and there will be no sequel. I am not, however, entirely ruling out a short story or two set in this world - i.e. a world in which Will is mortal - but I have no plans at the moment.
My current writing project is a dark AU, that came out of some drabbles I wrote in the LJ Darkisrising100 community. The premise of the AU is that a different choice was made near the end of "Silver on the Tree", and as a result, the world sets off on a very different path. The Dark has won, but Will, Merriman and some of the Old Ones remain, still fighting it. The Drews forget everything, but in their own separate ways, are affected as the world around them slowly slips into nastiness. And as for Bran… He's imprisoned with the aftermath of the choice he made, and will have the longest journey of all…
The story will cover 25 years, so I am telling it in a collection of vignettes, short stories, and fragments, sometimes separated by years. I've written the first 12, in a rough form, and have posted the first four to my Livejournal. I'm still a bit insecure about the structure I'm using to tell the story, so comments and feedback on this work-in-progress would be lovely.
I will post said AU here when I have a few more done.