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 three

 

Anchor

___

 

It was like standing in a void. There was utter silence, utter stillness. Will's faint light was fading, fading, as if it was being eaten by the night.

 

The dog whimpered, moving closer to Bran's legs. Bran thought of dead things, creeping up behind him in the darkness, invisible to see. The dog would know, Will said, and the dog was whimpering. Were they already here? "Please leave some light," he whispered.

 

The light faded a little bit more, then settled at a faint grey glow, just enough to see outlines and shadows. Will was standing as still as a statue, arms raised. Bran grimaced. "Posing like a hero." It helped to say such things out loud. "I don't know who you think you're trying to impress."

 

Will did not make any sign of hearing him.

 

Still nothing came.

 

I'm watching magic, Bran thought. Magic. Not that Will looked anything like the wizards from storybooks at school. Welsh wizards were like the Welsh hills, fierce and old and dangerous. Most of the time, Will looked entirely ordinary, a middle-class Englishman, friendly but vague. But now, though, standing in a magical half-life, his modern clothes shrouded by his long, dark coat, he looked like a thing of legend, given life by the mountain.

 

Bran moistened his lips. He had always been aware of that strangeness, of course. That was the main reason why he had been so quick to believe that Will was the enemy behind his attack. Now he knew he was not, and he had to learn to work with Will. He did not have to like him, of course, or feel comfortable with him. Only a fool felt comfortable with a creature of immense power. And Bran still did not like him, of course. He resented him for knowing things that Bran did not, and for being the leader of their little group. He was probably jealous, too. He certainly was not beginning to admire him. He would never admire an Englishman, or a stranger.

 

The dog started to whine. Beneath his hand, Bran felt her quiver. He snapped his head round, looking over his shoulder, but there was nothing there.

 

Will dropped one arm heavily to his side. The other was still raised, but now it looked more like a warding than a summons.

 

"They are here." The words were forced out of Will's mouth as if they were agony to utter.

 

I am not afraid. Bran forced his legs to move, one step closer to Will, then another. He still thought he could see nothing, but then the air seemed to shimmer, and they were there, pale, tall, crowned with gold. They were white, with glimpses of bone, and swirling mists that had once been robes. Their pale hands were still red with blood, with Will's blood, and shining threads ran up their arms to the place where their hearts had once been.

 

Will's lips moved. For a moment, he looked impossibly tall, a shining creature of light, but then he dwindled, and was Will again. He continued to speak silent words, but he swayed on his feet, and his brow was furrowed as if in pain.

 

Bran looked at him, then at the dead. The dog fled, whimpering. It was all Bran could do not to flee after her. These are my hills, he reminded himself, and I promised.

 

He stood close to Will. "Go away," he commanded them. His voice was frail, nothing at all.

 

They did not seem to hear him, or else they dismissed him as nothing at all. Pale hands rose, fingers grasping. Again Will's lips moved. They were speaking, Bran realised, but in their minds, or in another time. Wild fury filled him, and he could have struck Will where he stood. "You could have warned me!" he cried. "You could have told me that I wouldn't even see the battle!"

 

Will rocked as if struck. Bran snatched his hand back, like a guilty child crying, 'It wasn't me!' The wind rose at least… but, no, it wasn't the wind, but the sighing, the laughing, of the dead. A dozen pairs of hands were reaching for Will now. Eyes glowed silver. They thought they had him. They thought he was theirs forever. A slave, Bran realised. A chained prisoner, whose blood they would drink every day for all eternity.

 

And Will had known this. He had known this was what they would seek to make of him, but he had said nothing, and he had still come. He had even smiled, made light of it, made jokes. "I think I hate you, Will Stanton," Bran said quietly. "You idiot English. You crazy dewin."

 

The dead sighed. A finger reached out and touched the back of Will's hand. Acting purely on instinct, Bran slapped it away. The touch of those bones almost made him retch. Out of nowhere came a long-buried memory - a childhood carnival, and a horse of bones. He wanted to run. He needed to. Only a lifetime of pride kept him standing there, and the knowledge that if he ran, he would be all alone, and it was utterly dark.

 

Will crashed to the ground, landing on his knees. Sparks of light started to dance around him, issuing from his hands and mouth. He fell forward onto his hands, head bowed, and for a shocking moment, Bran realised that he could see right through him. Then Will dragged his head up again. "Bran," he rasped. "I need you."

 

"What?" Bran looked desperately from side to side. He was so close to Will now that he, too, was surrounded. If Will fell, he would go, too.

 

A drop of blood fell gently to the ground. Will's wound was opening up, or else the dead so desired his blood that they were able to suck it from him by sheer force of will. They sighed longingly as it fell. A hand touched Bran's shoulder, and another his back.

 

Anchor me, Will had said. Hold me with words. "But I don't say much," Bran protested. "I'm not good at words. You should have chosen Jane."

 

"Leave him, raven boy." The voice gouged in his mind. Bran moaned at the sheer wrongness of it. "You are not what we desire. Your blood is no longer of value to us. Leave him, and be spared."

 

Bran clenched his fists against the terror of that voice. "But for how long, with you loose in my home? Go away. This is my land. Go away!"

 

The explosion of pain in his mind was their laughter. "You can no longer command us, mortal."

 

"Bran," Will rasped. "I'm trying. I'm losing. They're drawing me… Where my blood was shed… The past… Nowhere. Everywhere. Anywhere but here."

 

"Well, then." Bran made his mind up. He pulled Will bodily upwards, so they were kneeling upright, Bran supporting almost all of Will's weight. "I can't understand why you're trying to leave," he said. "Stupid English. Can't wait to leave these, the most beautiful hills in the world. Not that I'd expect someone like you to understand."

 

The dead hissed. Again Will went almost transparent. This time, Bran was holding onto him, and for horrible moment it felt as if he was holding a shape made of smoke, not a real man at all.

 

"Idiot," he chided. "You've got a martyr complex a mile high. Fancy coming here, knowing it was going to be like this, and not bothering to tell me. You've got so used to making people forget things, that you just don't know how to trust people with the truth. It's infuriating. It's going to get people killed one day."

 

Will was real in his arms again, but unable to support himself. He slumped forward. Bran struggled to hold him up, then gave up. They slumped together, but Bran did not let go. Will's eyes were wide open, he saw. He was not unconscious, but engaged in fighting a deadly battle somewhere else. He was distracted, not defeated.

 

"Will!" Bran shouted. "I don't know, but I think… No, you said… You've got to stay here. Here. This battered old thing is your body. Yeah, I know it's not much, just some pasty English body, but its yours. And it's August 6th, and you're on the lower slopes of Cader Idris, with me, Bran Davies."

 

He did not dare glance up to see what the dead were doing, if they were still there, if they were about to complete their victory. All he could see was Will. All he could think of was this.

 

"And you'd better look at me soon and say something," he warned, "because if you don't, I'm going to… I don't know what I'll do. I'll hate you, though. I already do, of course. You come waltzing along, turn everything upside-down. So irritatingly calm. Such a know-it-all, with powers to boot. And there's Jane… No, I won't talk about that. I don't want to."

 

The wind rose. Far away, a dog howled. White tendrils brushed along the back of his neck.

 

"And you know what the worst thing is?" he said. "The worst thing is that you keep on looking at me, and I know it's because we used to be friends, but that was twenty years ago, and I can't remember it, and it's not fair, because you looked so… so expectant, as if you want us to take up our friendship just where we left it, but we can't do that, because we're adults now, and I can't remember you, and you've got secrets. It makes me nervous, because I can't live up to those expectations, and then I hate you, for making me feel like that."

 

The wind surged to a crescendo. The light disappeared, like a candle flame blown out, leaving nothing but darkness. He was not even sure that Will was breathing.

 

"So you've lost." Bran tried to adjust his position. He had never supported the weight of a grown man before, and it was not comfortable. Then he gave a wry laugh. As if such things as comfort were important, here at the end of things.

 

He wondered if he would hear anything, when the dead came to destroy him. It was too dark to see a thing.

 

"Actually, I don't hate you any more," he said now, because Will was beyond hearing him. "There have actually been moments when I've almost liked you. As English wizards go, you're not as bad as you could be."

 

"Good," Will said.

 

Bran dropped him as if he had been burnt, and scrambled to his feet. "You're alive."

 

"Yes." Will's voice still came from the ground.

 

"I thought they…" Bran clenched his fists. "I thought they'd won, and you lied, because you didn't send me into tomorrow after all."

 

"No." It sounded as if Will had managed to sit up. "They were even stronger than I feared. I haven't defeated them."

 

Bran whirled round, but of course it was still dark.

 

"They've gone for now," Will said. "I… contained them. They're not defeated, but they're… confined. I bound them to a specific place in space and time. I have a link to them, you see. Because their power derives from my blood, it gives me the ability to control them. Unfortunately, it also gives them power over me. I hadn't realised how much. If they are destroyed, though, I will… suffer. I can't afford that now. So I contained them, but it was almost more than I could do."

 

Bran could not speak. He had already said too much this night. Perhaps Will had not heard it, but Bran had still said it. He felt raw. It had not been deep or important feelings that he had been talking about, but it had still been his feelings. He did not often say such things aloud.

 

"They're no threat now to anyone but me," Will said. He was standing now, a soft light glimmering in his hand. He looked very tired, all white light and deep shadows. "They won't escape unless I…" He pressed his lips together. "They won't escape. One day, though, when the… other thing is over, I'll come back and…"

 

"Without me," Bran spat.

 

"But I needed you, Bran," Will said. "I heard your voice. I was wavering. They'd almost got me, trapped me in a place out of the flow of time, but I heard you. You kept me anchored, just as I'd hoped."

 

"It wasn't fair!" Bran hurled at him. "It wasn't fair, to ask that of me!"

 

He thrust his arm out to the side, a gesture of negation, as he stamped away. After a while, the pale light followed him, but Bran did not turn round, and he did not wait.

 

******

 

Jane sat perched on the edge of the couch, idly flicking through a paper several weeks old. Images stared at her, of violence and grief, pain and despair. Was this his work? she thought. Was this him? Or this? Or this?

 

She closed the paper, and switched on the television, but it, too, was showing only pain. A sober-faced newsreader went from one tragedy to another, and somber analysts debated whether this meant war. Or an end to all things, she thought, with a shudder.

 

When younger, she had always been too easily disturbed by the news, sure that every terrorist act or far-away war would be the trigger for the final global war that would end everything. When she became a teacher, she forced herself to watch the news rationally, so she could allay her pupils' own hysterical fears. When dark things were glimpsed on television, and parents talked in hushed voices, playground rumours could spread and become panic. More than once, she had calmly explained to terrified children that no, they were not going to die. This crisis would pass. Already talks were underway that...

 

"Walked out," the newsreader said. "Irrevocable breakdown." The screen showed angry men in suits, shaking their fists and mouthing oaths that could not be heard. It cut to bombs in the street, and children screaming.

 

Jane changed channel. Over-loud music drowned out the dialogue of some drama series that she remembered seeing trailers for once, but had never watched. Another channel had a loud game show that hurt her eyes with lurid colour, and another had a reality show involving two families screaming at each other and no-one listening. She changed again, and found a quiet documentary about antelope, but soon staccato drums appeared on the soundtrack, and the narrator spoke gleefully about lions.

 

She switched the television off. Too much, she thought. There was no escape. She stood up, walked around the room, then sat down again, resting on her hands.

 

Simon had refused her. Barney had refused her. And here she was, sitting along in someone else's house, too afraid even to switch the television on in case the enemy was there, and she did not know it.

 

Will had given her a key to his house. "You can go back home if you want to," he had said, "but you are most welcome to stay here. I hope we won't be long, Bran and I."

 

"I'll be there when you get back," she had declared, with visions of herself and Simon up all night discussing battle plans, and Will and Bran returning victorious the next day, and the four of them together laying the plan that would end this evil once and for all. She would be there at the heart of it, not forgotten in her own house, fifty miles away, and out of mind. Will would return with his triumph, but she would have her own. "Simon's joined us. Simon believes."

 

She sighed. Simon had not joined them, and Simon... Did Simon believe? He had played his politician's game, hedging his words with conditionals and questions. He had never fully committed himself either way. The most she had got out of him was that if what she said was true, then Simon could do more good where he was. Perhaps he believed, and fully intended to use his position and influence to rally people against the whisperings of the enemy, or perhaps he had just been trying to humour her and get rid of her.

 

He had not phoned back since, and she had not phoned him. Her mobile was on, relentlessly silent on the coffee table. Neither Simon nor Barney had phoned her with a change of heart, and Will and Bran were silent, too. Perhaps dead, she thought, or run off on some pivotal adventure without me.

 

She stood up. Jealousy served nothing, and neither did worrying. Barney and Simon had refused to join for their own reasons, and it was not a personal rejection of her. She was just the messenger, and this self-pity was indulgent and useless.

 

As was the fear, she thought. Will was sworn to fight an enemy that could creep into human minds and heighten their baser urges. She had sworn to help him, and she had to make that promise mean nothing. Sitting moping in his living room was helping no-one. But, sitting in his living room, she could still do something.

 

She switched the television on again, and this time she picked up a pen.

 

News came out outrages, of peaceful villages blown apart, of sober politicians screaming in sudden fury. Weeping partners saying, "It's so unlike him. I don't know what came over him." Promising talks breaking down, and small conflicts escalating.

 

Is this him? she asked. Is this his work? And this time she calmly noted down the time and the place, like a police officer carefully mapping the possible sightings of a suspect.

 

When Will came back, she could not offer him allies, but she could, perhaps, offer him evidence. 

 

******

 

Will followed Bran carefully down the mountain, cherishing his little light in his hand. His steps were heavy, and it was more tiring than it should have been to maintain the light. A good night's sleep would cure most of it, but not all.

 

He had miscalculated badly when confronting the dead. He had known that it would be difficult to destroy them, but he had not expected to struggle so intensely just to contain them. They were linked to him through blood. It was a channel he could use to his advantage when fighting them, but it was also a channel they could use to weaken him. Now they were bound, a small part of Will's power was bound along with them. He would not be at his fullest strength until he had defeated them for good.

 

Only weakened by a little, he thought, as he watched the shape that was Bran, receding down the mountain. But maybe enough, he thought, as he stumbled. Maybe enough to make all the difference, when it really matters.

 

It was the first time he had gone into battle entirely unarmed. For the last twenty years, he had been a Watcher, and there had never been any magical enemies to fight. Before that, he had fought the Dark, but always with other Old Ones nearby, or with signs and items in his hand. There had been many things of power, things that an Old One could use as a weapon against the Dark, but they had all fulfilled their purpose in the final rising of the Dark, and they were either gone, or empty.

 

There were no things of power left. There were no Old Ones. He was alone in this, and he had almost failed, in this, the first and smallest of the hurdles. He would have failed completely, if Bran had not been there.

 

If Bran had not been there…

 

He found the strength to hurry forward, and caught up with Bran, when they were almost down at the level of the farm house.

 

"Thank you." Will tried to put his heart into his voice. "What you did there… I don't think you realise it, but it saved me."

 

Lost. Lost and struggling, powerless to resist the tug of the crowned dead, who called to him with the power of ages, who dragged him towards them, because they all possessed a part of him. White walls closing around him. Long fingers and chains. Further away. Further and further… and Bran's voice, talking to him, calling, like a torch to a dying man in a storm.

 

"I didn't lie to you," he said desperately, when Bran still did not answer. "Or perhaps a little. It's habit. For twenty years, not a single living soul has known the things that I do."

 

Bran did not take the turn for his own gate. He strode on into the night, his head down, his hands clenched close to his side.

 

"But I didn't know it would be as bad as it was," Will told him. "I was caught off-guard. It was a mistake, Bran. My mistake."

 

"Didn't think you wizard types made mistakes," Bran said.

 

"Yes, we do." Will smiled wearily. "All living things make mistakes sometimes. We have to guard against mistakes rather more than most mortals, though, because the consequences of our mistakes are potentially much worse. But, yes, we make mistakes, and this was one of mine."

 

Bran whirled on him. "You're not helping, you know."

 

Will frowned. "What?"

 

"If you're trying to make me like you," Bran said. "You say we used to be friends, but you're standing there… It's all 'us' and 'you'. Mortals, you called us. How do you expect a mere mortal to be friends with that?"

 

"I'm sorry…" Will began, but Bran was already striding away. Will caught him up. "Where are you going?"

 

"To John's house," Bran replied, without turning round or breaking stride. "To get my father, and to tell him something while I'm there."

 

Will let his light fade away to darkness. He knew what was coming.

 

"Because here I am," Bran continued, "complaining because you lied to me, that you kept secrets. But what am I doing myself? Keeping secrets. Because, Stanton, I am not a hypocrite. Unlike you, I actually intend to do something about it."

 

"You're telling them everything." Will brought his hand up to his face. His head was throbbing, and his eyes hurt. "Secrets. My secrets. Things no-one's supposed to know."

 

"Then you'll have to make them forget about it all afterwards," Bran sneered. "At least I'll have done my part."

 

Will watched him almost out of sight, then followed heavily, as if in a dark dream. Two more, he thought. And now there are six. A week ago, there had only been him. Then there was Jane and Bran. Barney and Simon now knew, although Barney, at least, did not fully believe. Soon there would be John and Owen. Six, and how many more to follow. Thousands of years, and a lifetime, of secrecy, and this was the start of it being unraveled.

 

All through those lonely years, he had longed for someone who shared his secrets. Now people were finding out, it felt… dangerous. It felt as if each one was being granted a fragment of power over him. At least solitude was safe.

 

I could stop Bran, he thought. There were a hundred ways he could stop him from entering John Rowlands' door. He could take the memory from him, so he could forgot all of this. He could take control and stop this, or he could surrender to what was happening. When people knew the truth, they had choices, and their choices gave them the power to change things. Sometimes the consequences were immense, but the freedom to choose had to be preserved at all costs. It had always been the main difference between the Light and the Dark.

 

Besides, he told himself, Merriman had trusted John Rowlands enough to leave him with more knowledge of the Light than most mortals possessed. Owen Davies seemed to know a lot more about the identity of Bran's mother than he ever admitted. If anyone could be trusted with the truth, it was those two.

 

He started to walk slowly after Bran. Far ahead, he saw a small patch of light, and he knew that Bran had already reached John Rowlands' house, that he had knocked and been let in.

 

He looked up at the mountain, cold and empty. The pull of the dead was faint, but still there. He had left them bound by a circle of power, far in the past, in a time before man. They would remain there until he went back for them, but that he would only do when he knew he could defeat them, or when he had no other choice.

 

Another light went on in John's cottage, blazed for a little while, then went off again. Kitchen, supplied the human part of Will's mind. Bran had arrived, saying he had something important to say, so John was making them a nice cup of something first. It was the British way.

 

Will was aching from the walk, wearied by the fight. What was Bran saying now? How were they reacting? Did they know the truth now?

 

Will, the Old One, hoped that they would not believe, but once that same Will had been a small boy. Will, the boy, had looked up to John Rowlands. He had gone to him for advice and he had listened to what was said. Very little of that boy remained, but there was enough. If he knows, that boy whispered, then he'll give me advice again. He's not Merriman, but it will be, just a tiny bit, as if Merriman is here again.

 

He shook his head, driving away that small boy. He entered the gate of John's house, and dogs started to bark. He had not heard them bark at Bran's arrival.

 

Should I go in? He paused at the door. Bran would not want him there, he thought, but this thing had to be ended.

 

Taking a deep breath, he raised his hand to the door. Bran threw it open before he could touch it. "And there," he sneered, "right on cue comes the English wizard himself."

 

Will walked in without a word, and headed for the room with a light. Owen was there, hunched in an arm chair, looking stricken. John Rowlands met Will's gaze with a fearless look of his own. "It is you, then." He nodded his head in a gesture that was close to a bow.

 

Will nodded a bow in return. The Light owed much to John Rowlands, even if the man would never remember it. He did not sit down, and he did not speak. He had no idea how much Bran had told them. While Owen and John had taken their drinks to where they were sitting, the third mug was untouched, and on the wrong side of the coffee table. Bran, Will thought, had charged in and poured it all out brutally, standing up, or pacing around the room.

 

"They know everything," Bran said triumphantly.

 

"Strange things, Bran has been telling us," John Rowlands said, never taking his eyes off Will. "There are many who would not believe it."

 

"But you?" Will's voice was husky.

 

John nodded his head consideringly. "My father always told me that there was much truth in the old legends. I have never stopped believing that. So, yes, I believe him. And now that I see you, I believe that there is more. Will you sit down?"

 

Will sat down carefully. He was very tired, and although he could usually hide most things, he could not hide everything.

 

"Of course there's more!" Bran shouted.

 

"There is more," Will said to John, "but not all things can be told to all people. That is the burden we take up when we come into our power. We… do things, so that man can be free. Great battles have been fought that men know nothing of."

 

"Which is how it should be," John said firmly. "No, boy," he chided, when Bran made to interrupt. "Remember the stories, Bran. The great ones are different from us. There are things we are not meant to know. If we know too much, it changes us, and we are no longer free." He returned to Will. "Bran tells us that you sent away the things that have been troubling us. He also says that there is something else."

 

"There is." Will nodded. "Something… unforeseen. The Light thought they were leaving the world in the hands of men, as it should be. I was left behind to watch, just in case. But something has arisen that should not be there."

 

John tilted his head to one side. "You did not want us to know this, I think."

 

Will shook his head. "No-one's supposed to know. No-one did know. Bran and Jane found out because I was careless. We're not supposed to drag mortals into things, although sometimes…" He faltered, remembering the views John had once held about the Old Ones and their dealings with humans. "Sometimes it is necessary," he finished firmly. "Bran saved me today."

 

John looked from Will to Bran and back again. "When wizards meddle with mortals, it is often the mortals who get hurt," John said. His voice was less cold than his words. "I would warn you not to forget that, but I can see… No." He shook his head. "That is not something for now."

 

Bran was glowering. John turned to him. "And you, Bran… Am I to understand that you told us this man's secrets against his will? That was not well done."

 

"People need to know the truth," Bran blazed, but John shook his head.

 

"There are things people ought not to know." His eyes seemed to flicker towards Owen, so quiet and hunched in his chair. "When you tell someone something, boy," he said gently, "ask yourself if you're doing it for their sake, or for your own, and never ever seek to use innocents as a weapon in your own war."

 

Bran clenched his fists. "I don't…"

 

John smiled sadly at him. "Look to your father, boy. Take him home."

 

******

 

end of chapter three