Falls the Shadow
by Eildon Rhymer
Allies and companions
"Allies." Jane broke the long silence. "That's what we need."
Startled, Will's head snapped up. He noticed, too, how Bran turned slowly to face Jane, wariness etched on his face. It seemed that both of them, in their own way, were so accustomed to being alone, that the thought of allies was strange to them.
"Yes. Allies." Jane was nodding in a satisfied fashion, as if she had made her mind up about something, after a long struggle. "There must be other people who can help you, Will."
Help you. Will noticed that. Help you, not Help us. He said nothing, though. Jane was right.
"We don't want people we can't trust sticking their noses in," Bran said.
"People we can trust, I mean," Jane said.
Bran grunted, as if he could not think of anyone who fell into that category. "We're not in a story, girl, with allies and companions and quests against the darkness. This is real."
"I know," Jane said stiffly. "That's why I'm trying to help."
Will rested his head back against the metal bench. It was evening in the late summer, and Jane and Bran were both staying with him in his small house in west Oxford. They had strolled together into the centre of the city, and ended up beside the river in Christ Church meadow. Laughing tourists passed in punts, and families walked past them, enjoying the daylight after dinner.
What would they think, Will wondered, of the snatches of conversation that they overheard? The three of them looked like ordinary people, wrapped in a silence broken by occasional words. There was nothing to show that they were discussing the fate of the world, and none of the carefree tourists who passed them paid them any heed.
"Perhaps we should wait for Will to pronounce," Bran said. "He's been sitting there long enough, thinking."
Will let out a breath. Very little had changed. On that dreadful night on the mountain, he had come close to destroying himself, because the enemy had worked on his own despair. He had been saved by Jane and Bran. Jane had won him over with tears and gentleness, and Bran with harsh honesty. Now both of them had promised to fight alongside him, to help him, but very little had changed.
Bran still disliked him, Will thought. He seldom talked to Will directly, just through Jane. They were sitting now as they always did, with Jane in the middle, a buffer between them. Will had no idea why Bran was still so distant, almost cold, to him, and there were more important things happening than trying to find out. Yet Bran had promised to help him and was here with him, far away from the mountains of his home. That had to mean something, even if it came without warmth and true friendship.
"Will?" Jane prompted. "What do you think? Do we need allies?"
Not really, Will thought. He was facing an enemy who was everywhere and anywhere. It was something born from the fiercest emotions of mankind, that had taken an independent existence, and now planted those very emotions that had created it. It made men hate each other, and revel in each other's pain. Yet it could only do so because all of those things had already existed in the darker hearts of man.
Will had no idea how to defeat it. Perhaps if he had a voice that could speak to the whole world, he could urge people to shut their minds to their own darker impulses, and that would starve the enemy of the hatred and despair that it fed upon. But that was impossible. He could not reach that many people, and they would not listen even if he could. Murders would continue, and people would fall. The enemy would grow stronger, and it was everywhere, and the more Will despaired of destroying it, the stronger it became. The tears of a wizard are like honey. It had said that once.
The truth was, not even Bran and Jane could help him. No, that was not true. They helped him, but only by talking to him, by making him smile, by making him remember that he was no longer facing this entirely alone. They anchored him, and staved off the despair that the enemy fed upon.
"Will?" Jane touched his arm. "Are you awake? Did you hear me?"
"Allies," Will said. "I heard you."
"And?" She was looking at him expectantly.
Will could not bring himself to shake his head. Jane and Bran could not help him fight this battle, and a hundred others like them could make no difference, either. But perhaps Jane and Bran, like Will, needed to know that they were not fighting this alone. If Jane would feel happier with others on their side, then that was what they would do. The enemy fed on despair, and hope was the enemy of despair. It was a weapon in itself, and could not be forgotten.
"It could make a difference, yes," he conceded.
Her smile suffused her face, but Bran asked gruffly, "Who?"
"My brothers," Jane said instantly.
"No." Will shook his head. "No." His chest felt very tight.
All four of them were supposed to have forgotten. Jane and Bran had pretty much found out the truth for themselves, and Will had let them keep the knowledge, even though it was in defiance of Merriman's last act. Both Jane and Bran had convinced him that their lives had been haunted by that spell of forgetting, and that they would be happier knowing the truth. But to actively seek someone out to tell them the truth… It went against everything that an Old One was. Theirs had always been a life of secrecy.
"Please, Will." Jane was no longer smiling. "I have to tell them. They lost something, too." She touched his arm again. "I know what it's like to live with the forgetting. I have to tell them. Even if there wasn't… the enemy, or a war to fight. I can't let them live in ignorance, Will. I just can't."
And there was nothing that Will could say in answer, except to nod his consent. Anything else, and he would lose her, and Bran as well.
"Oh." Barney's smile froze into awkwardness. "You didn't say you were bringing friends. If they are your friends, that is."
He looked from Will to Bran and back again, clearly waiting for them to introduce themselves as visitors who had happened to arrive at his door at the same time as his sister. Neither of them spoke. Will met his look placidly, but Bran was almost glowering. He thought this was a waste of time, and had said so often in the car. He had spoken little else, apart from that, and Will had said almost nothing at all. Jane had prattled with increasing desperation and merriment all the way.
Jane found her tongue. "I'm sorry.. " She stopped. She had sworn to herself that she would not apologise for the truth, but here she was, her first words an apology.
She twisted her hands in front of her, forgetting that Barney knew her well. "You're nervous," he said. "Why are you nervous? You said on the phone you had something to tell me." He looked from Will to Bran again, and this time his gaze was searching, almost hostile.
Jane understood at last. Barney was trying to work out which of the two she was about to introduce as her boyfriend, and was preparing himself to dislike the choice. Had they been alone, she might have laughed, slapping him in mock reproach, reminding him that he was only her little brother, after all, and that even if he was older than her, she could take care of herself, thank you very much.
As it was, she found herself blushing. She was fairly sure that Bran liked her, and for a while she had fancied herself a little in love with Will. That was past, now, but not enough past that she could laugh about it.
Will took charge. She thought Bran had been about to say something, too, from the way he was drawing in a breath. "We did come here with Jane, yes," Will said. She noticed that he did not say that, yes, they were her friends. "We're here because the thing she has to tell you concerns us, too. It concerns everyone."
"But not what you think it is," Jane interjected. She edged forward, subtly pushing the other two into the background. "We just need to talk." Barney said nothing. "Can we come in?" she tried.
Barney hesitated a moment longer, and impassively gestured to them to come in. The house was old and dark, and it always made her think of churches and old leather. Barney spent as much time as he could in the garden, and it was there that he led them. He did not offer them a drink.
As they walked in silence, Jane tried to catch the eyes of the others. Don't say anything, she willed them. Leave it all to me. She doubted that either of them were easily commanded, though. Neither were talkative men, but they would speak up when they had something they thought needed saying.
And that was the danger, she realised. Will had already antagonised Barney without realising that he had done so. He was immortal and powerful, but he was not always very good at the human things. Only a few days before, he had stood, bleak and despairing, in the rain and denied that he was human at all.
"Well," Barney said, when they reached the garden. "What was so important that you couldn't tell me over the phone?"
"Can I sit down?" Jane asked. "It won't be quick."
She had never felt so awkward before her brother, or so afraid. This cold, suspicious man did not even look like Barney. She might have expected it from Simon, but never Barney, never him. He was a clergyman who preached love and charity, who helped those in need, and cherished them, and brought them back to life. This was not him, but something cold they had created.
Although Jane and Barney had sat down on the garden chairs, Will and Bran were still standing. It did not help.
Jane took a deep breath. "I went to Wales last week. That's where I met…" She realised that she hadn't even introduced them. "Sorry. This is Will Stanton, and Bran Davies."
Barney nodded, polite but terse. He showed no signs of recognition.
Jane felt almost sick with nerves. She should have come alone; she could see that already. Bran had been right. She had been so adamant that the others came too, that this was something they did, the three of them together. Bran had argued loudly, and perhaps Will's silence had been a form of disapproval, too. But they had still come. Perhaps, like her, they had both been a little afraid to part, just in case the magic of this recovered friendship faded like mist in the morning. They had all lived haunted lives for so long, and this new-found hope was such a fragile thing.
Now that weakness, that clinginess, could mean that Barney was forever lost to their cause.
She pushed that fear to one side; she had to. "I remembered them," she said. "Don't you remember them?" Barney still looked blank. "That holiday we had in Wales?" she prompted.
She saw him look at Will, and possibly remember. She saw him look at Bran, with his striking colouring, and remember for sure. "But that was ages ago," he said, "and only for a few days. Bit of a coincidence meeting up with them again."
Bran gave a sharp laugh. "That's what I thought at first. Most suspicious of that one there, I was." He nodded towards Will, but the joviality felt a little forced. Jane heard it, and was fairly sure that Barney heard it, too.
She had to say it aloud this time. "Please, Bran. Let me do the talking." She smiled as she said it, but he pressed his lips together in a hard line, and turned away.
She could not worry about that now. She turned to Barney. "I said I'd do the talking, but…" She raked her hand through her hair. "To be honest, I've no idea where to start. It's going to be a shock, and…" She took a deep breath. "The world is in danger, Barney. People are destroying each other, and themselves. There's something inside them… Something from outside… We need to fight it. Or, rather, Will's going to fight it, and we've promised to help him. But we need more people. We need you."
She had never seen her brother look more like a stranger. "Have you joined some kind of cult? Is that what you're trying to say?" He looked at Will with something close to loathing. "And not a Christian one, by the sounds of it."
"No!" Jane reached for Barney's arm. "It's not like that. Let me finish."
"But you're not being very coherent so far, Jane." It was the gentle tone someone would use to a loved one who was going mad, she thought, and she fought the urge to giggle. She hadn't even started on the part that sounded truly insane.
"I know." She pushed her hair back with both hands. Focus, she thought. Just say it. Let it out in a rush, and he can decide later. After all, the truth had felt instinctively right when she had heard it, because it chimed with the buried memories deep within her. It had been the same for Bran, and perhaps it would be the same for Barney, too.
Perhaps it would not. Perhaps he would...
Jane looked upwards, where gulls flew in a hazy sky, and tree tops quivered. All real, and all beautiful, but all meaningless unless there were men around to cherish such things, not rave like beasts intent only on the kill. That was what they were fighting to preserve. That was what Will and his kind had been sacrificing themselves for for centuries. Will had lost so much because of what he was. If the truth cost her the love of a brother, then it was a price she would have to pay.
"When we went on that holiday," she said, "something happened. We were… involved, somehow, in a war. An ancient war. A magical war. There was the Dark. It was trying to… to take away man's free will and make them slaves, in a world of nastiness and pain." She remembered none of this, of course, but was going from what Will had told her. "And then there was the Light. The people of the Light… They… worked to oppose the Dark, to stop them from taking over. They wanted man to be free."
Barney said nothing at all. She could not look at him.
"The Light won," she said. "We were there, at the last battle, when the Dark was banished. And the Light left too, except for one. We humans were too small to have a chance against the Dark, you see, and the Light had been there to fight on our behalf, like… like kind parents. But when the Dark had gone, the only dangers we would face were ones of our own creation. A parent has to let go sometimes. They can't fight battles that their child really ought to fight for themselves. It's wrong. It stops us… stops the child from growing up, and that's as bad as anything the Dark wanted to do. If they had stayed, and tried to guide us in the world without the Dark, it would have been a breach of our free will. We needed to be set free, to make our own mistakes."
There was still nothing from Barney. Will, though, she saw, staring at her intently, almost hungrily, as she spoke about the departure of the Light.
She swallowed, pressing her fingers into her palms. "So for that reason, we were made to forget. We, too, had to be free to grow up and become the people we would have been, without being governed by the Light. That's why we don't remember any of this, but it happened, Barney. I know that it happened."
"Magic?" Barney rasped.
Jane nodded. There was a scratch on the back of her hand, she noticed, and dirt behind her nails.
"The trouble is," she said, "the world isn't the way the Light thought it was, when they left it. We're not free, after all. Something… cheated. There's something out there… A… thing. I don't really understand it. It seems to have been created by all the bad things people have done over the years, all the bad emotions. Now it's become this… thing. It can be everywhere, but it can also take human flesh and look like a person. It whispers in people's heads, making them do bad things. All the awfulness in the world today… How much of it is real, and how much of it happened because this enemy made it happen?"
"The Devil," Barney said. "It sounds like you're talking about the Devil. Of course, nowadays many clergymen think that…"
"No!" Jane cried. "You're not listening."
"Oh, I'm listening," Barney said.
"Will!" Jane threw out a hand in appeal. "Show him that I'm not making this up." She turned fervently to Barney. "Will's the one I was talking about. He's one of the Light. A wizard." Back to Will. "Please, Will."
Will's eyes were dark with apology as he shook his head. "I can't, Jane. It's not fair to force someone to believe."
"Magic tricks," Bran laughed. "A rabbit in a hat. It'll take more to make that one believe."
Barney leant forward. "Can we talk without them?" This close, Jane saw something in his eyes that she had never thought to see, lurking behind the coldness. Fear. Her brother was afraid. "Please can they go away?"
"Do you want us to?" Bran asked. Jane nodded, silently mouthing, "please." She watched them walk away to the far edge of the large garden, where they stood beneath the apple trees, side by side, but apart.
"You shouldn't have brought them," Barney said miserably. "Not when you had this to tell me."
Jane shook her head. "It was a mistake. I'm sorry. I thought…"
He gave a wry laugh. "Safety in numbers, was it?"
"Perhaps," she admitted. "But mostly it's because I've been… blighted… No, that's too strong a word. But I've always known that I forgot something important once. I told you that last time. It's really held me back, stopped me from being properly alive. Now I've found the missing piece, in Will, in Bran, in the things I've learned. I wasn't ready to let them out of my sight. I can't go back to what I was, Barney. I can't."
Barney frowned. "You really believe all this?"
She nodded, solemn as one swearing an oath. "I really believe it, Barney. And it's true. It did happen. I know it sounds amazing and incredible, but doesn't it feel right?" She pressed her hand to her heart. "Doesn't it feel right, here?"
"I don't…" The was fear in his eyes again, and he shook his head.
"It is there," she said gently. "I know it is. That picture you showed me… The tall man with white hair, who told us to change the world… That was Merriman, Will's master, the most powerful of the Old Ones. It was his last message from the Light to mankind. We were his messengers, to spread the word, to plant the seed…" She sighed. "Perhaps it would have worked if it wasn't for this… thing, the enemy."
Barney slumped back in his seat. "You're saying that was…" He brought his hand up to his brow.
Jane began to speak, but Barney shouted at her. "No! Be quiet for a moment. Let me…"
She pressed her hands together. Barney was still, his face hidden. Will and Bran, she saw, had moved closer together, and were talking. She wondered what they were talking about, but they were saying it quietly, and the still, hazy air stifled sound.
"You're asking me to believe in magic." She stiffened at Barney's voice. It did not sound like his, and his face was a mask. "You're asking me to believe…"
"But you believe in God," Jane said. "In miracles."
She realised almost instantly that it was the worst possible thing she could have said. Barney's eyes went utterly cold. "That's not the same thing. And please let me speak without interrupting me. I let you have your say."
Jane pressed her lips together. She wanted to be there with Will and Bran, not here, watching something fall apart.
"You told me about mighty beings who intervene to protect man from the works of evil powers, but let them have free will. You told me about a little voice that whispers in men's ears, tempting them to do wrong. In other words, you're asking me to believe in things that usurp the powers of God, and of things that are the Devil, just by another name. You're expecting me to abandon two thousand years of theology and faith just because of this?"
Jane bit her tongue to stifle her denial. Stupid, she thought. Stupid. It had never occurred to her to ask Will how the Light and Dark fitted in with the world's religions, but of course it was going to be the first thing Barney asked. She had not been thinking of Barney at all, she realised, just of herself. She wanted them all to know, her brothers and her together.
"And the worst thing is…" Barney's voice started to tremble. "I told you last time… I showed you that picture. That's what started it. This." He gestured to his dog collar, to the vicarage behind him, to himself and to all his world. "It was a vision from God."
"From God," she repeated dully. She should have thought. Bran had based his entire vocation on that dim almost-memory of Merriman's last words. It had changed his life, and, by telling him the truth, she was telling him that his own personal faith was founded on a lie.
"I can't believe you." His voice was raw. He touched her hand, and there was no anger in his eyes now, only fear. "I can't. There's too much… It's my life, Jane. My life."
"I know." She struggled to hold back tears. "I'm so sorry. I… Are you going to try to stop me?"
Barney was silent for a little while. "When I told everyone I wanted to be ordained… Well, you know how everyone was. You supported me even when no-one else did. I know you don't really believe in God, but you said that I did, and that was all that mattered. Everyone had to be true to their beliefs, you said, and anyone who was worth anything at all should respect that."
She nodded mutely. She could not remember what she had said in those uncomfortable few days, and was strangely humbled that Barney could.
"You believe all this." It was only phrased ever so slightly as a question, but Jane nodded again. "I can't. But you…" Barney let out a breath. "No, I won't try to stop you. I don't see that I have that right."
"Thank you," Jane said. She clasped her hands together. He sounded so sad and defeated. She wanted to assure him that he was helping, because he was preaching charity and kindness to his parish, and that was helping to undermine the enemy, as much as everything that she was going. But she could not be so cruel as to say it.
"I just want you to be safe," Barney said, "and happy. And these men…" He gestured with his chin to Will and Bran, who were silent now, but standing closer than they had been. "Are you sure…?"
Jane smiled ruefully. "Yes, they're safe. Neither of them are going to hurt me."
"Good." He glowered in mock ferocity. "Because if they do, they'll find it doesn't pay to cross a clergyman."
"You're just my baby brother," she reminded him. "If anyone's supposed to be protective, it's me."
They both laughed, but it was not what it once had been. It was intact, but… damaged, she thought. The truth had done that.
Bran never minded silence. He never felt the urge to make small talk with strangers, or felt remotely embarrassed if a silence stretched into long minutes, with nothing to say.
As the time passed with nothing, though, he felt himself growing more and more uncomfortable. Perhaps, he thought, it was just because it was Will. At least if Will was talking, Bran knew what he was thinking about, knew what his attention was on. When he was silent, he could be thinking anything. It was an uncomfortable thing, it seemed, not to know what a wizard was thinking.
"We shouldn't have come," he blurted out.
Will turned slowly towards him. They were standing beside a cluster of apple trees, and dappling light fell on Will's face, making him look more unearthly than he normally did. "Probably not," he agreed.
They had never been alone together, Bran realised, not since he had found out the truth. He was almost afraid. He was aware that he had been cleverly engineering things to ensure that Jane was always there between them. Perhaps Will had been doing the same thing, too, but here they were, and there was no avoiding it. If they stood in silence for the whole time it took Jane to speak to her brother, this so-called friendship would be revealed as a sham.
Bran moistened his lips. "I wonder if she'll want to go after the other brother now."
"Simon," Will said. "I think she will, but she'll handle it differently. Not take us with her, for one thing."
"Oh." So that would mean a day, perhaps, or even more, for the two of them to be without Jane.
"Simon never liked me," Will said absently. "At least, he didn't before he found out the truth about who I was. It was totally understandable. I was a stranger, intruding on his territory. He was jealous."
Was it meant as an attack? Bran stiffened. "Are you saying that I…?"
"Nothing," Will said. "It was just words. Something to say. Silly, though. You don't need to fill things with blank words."
It was too close to something Bran himself might have said. He did not like to think that he was like Will. "Sometimes, though," he began defiantly.
Will gave a half smile. "Sometimes, yes." He gave a rueful laugh. "I suppose I was also thinking that Simon is bound to dislike me again. Barney certainly does. I know it shouldn't matter, and it doesn't matter, really, but..."
"I know what you mean," Bran found himself saying, because he had been an outcast at school, and it hadn't mattered, of course it hadn't mattered, but… No, of course it had mattered, and it had helped shape the man he had become. Perhaps he would be a very different person now if only he had had a proper friend when he was growing up.
Will smiled again. It was another sad little smile. He had smiled for real in his mother's house, though, the smile transforming his solemn face into the face of someone else entirely. "I know you still don't really like me, Bran," he said, "but you've promised to help me. I'm grateful for that, really I am."
Bran looked over at Jane and Barney, still talking, leaning close. There would be no rescue from that quarter. "It's not that I don't like you," he said. "It's just that I thought you were my enemy when I first saw you. I thought you were the one who'd attacked me. It's hard to entirely forget your first impression of someone, and see past it."
"Yes." Another of those sad smiles. Will looked up at the sky. "And if I act oddly towards you, it's because we were close friends once. I remember that, even if you don't, and, like you say, it's hard to get past your first impression."
Bran swallowed. He wanted to change the subject. "So, great leader, what shall we be doing when Jane goes after Simon?"
He knows something, Bran realised. Something he's afraid to tell me.
"What?" Bran moved closer to Will, his voice low and urgent. "What is it?"
Will pushed his hair off his brow. "I… want to go back to Wales," he said. "The enemy's everywhere and anywhere now, but in your part of Wales, he walked in the flesh. That's why the dead stirred, and ghosts of the past. And I fear they're still there. No, I know they're still there."
Bran almost grabbed Will by the shoulders. "So what are we doing here?"
"I had to." Will looked at the ground. "You… You saw how I was, that night in the storm. I was… I couldn't…"
"You were a mess," Bran told him. "Broken. Useless."
"Yes," Will agreed. "I was. If I'd tried to lay those things to rest as I was, I'd have… Well, it wouldn't have worked. I needed to lay my own ghosts to rest first. Set things right with my family. Anchor myself again. Heal a bit."
Bran frowned. "Heal? You were hurt."
Will nodded, gesturing to his chest. "Stabbed. I thought you knew. It was my blood that… And I was a mess, blood all over."
"I didn't know," Bran said tightly. "There was a lot happening that night."
Will laughed. "That there was."
Jane and Barney was still talking. Bran watched a leaf fall slowly from the tree. "Can things like that kill your kind, then?"
"No." Will shook his head. "They hurt like anything, though."
"You really are an idiot," Bran chided him, "not telling us things like that."
"I am." Will smiled. "Sorry."
Bran chuckled. Another leaf fell.
"I am coming to Wales with you," he said, when they had been silent for a little while longer. "I'll help you banish those things, or whatever you need to do to them. You do know that, don't you?"
"I thought…" Will said. "I didn't…" He bit his lip, let it go again. "I do now. Thank you."
"I'm not doing it for you," Bran told him lightly. "It's my home you're trying to save."
"Of course," Will said. "I know that."
end of chapter one