Frank Dawson: Sign of Iron, Song of Earth

 

My hands are coarse with calluses from the plough. My fingernails are thick with the dirt of fields I have tilled for four hundred years. My blood has been shed a thousand times into the dark soil. In the eyes of all who know me, I have been born and died a dozen times in this stone-flagged farmhouse.

 

When you have lived so long with the earth, it is hard to raise your eyes to the sky.

 

I am still an Old One, of course, and will never be anything other than an Old One. But for four hundred years, I have lived as a mortal man with my own place in the world. My medium has been earth, not Light. In these latter days, I have loved, and taken a mortal wife. I have fathered children who will live on after I have gone. After all the other Old Ones have left without a trace, my blood will endure.

 

Perhaps that is why I have felt impatience as the years have passed in Huntercombe. Four hundred and twenty-seven years ago, it was, when they first sent me here to start my vigil. Sometimes the years have chafed. An Old One is supposed to move through Time like a fish through water, but I measure Time in harvests, and the slow toil of over four hundred winters. Even the greatest of Old Ones cannot avoid the bite of the cold.

 

But I am not one of the great ones. I have walked this land for over a thousand years, but I am not one of the oldest, nor the most wise. I was born in the dark times after the last great Rising, so it was not for me to participate in the struggles that were the making of our Circle. Until they came for me, I lived a quiet life, more fond of the land than of the Light that had wrought me.

 

Perhaps that was why they chose me. They came to me, Lord Merriman and the Lady, and told me that I was to build a farm on the edge of a tiny village called Huntercombe, not far from the great park at Windsor. An Old One should accept the will of the Light without question, but even then I thought too much like a mortal man. "Why?" I asked them, and Lord Merriman smiled a strangely tender smile, and said that I was to wait for a boy to be born, to befriend him and guide him, and be ready to protect him in his time of need.

 

"What boy?" I asked, for by then I was committed to the path of questioning, and I had seen a light of encouragement in Lord Merriman's eyes. I did not know him well then, although I have come to know him over the years. He, too, is drawn to this place.

 

"The last-born of the Old Ones," the Lady said, but Lord Merriman was smiling with something that seemed close to pity. "The Sign-seeker," he told me, "whose coming will herald the final rising of the Dark, and the end of all things, one way or another."

 

They did not tell me how long I would have to wait, but I was enough of an Old One to know that the waiting would be long. The Dark, too, would be seeking to befriend the Sign-seeker before he came into his powers. I had to live here long enough that my presence was unquestioned. I had to become part of the landscape. I had to gain the trust of the Sign-seeker's parents, and of their parents before them, so they would trust me with their boy. I had to watch for agents of the Dark, and be on my guard, and to wait.

 

And to wait.

 

I have farmed these fields for over four hundred years. I was Francis Dawson at first, and then I was merely Frank, and this is the only name that I now remember, although I have possessed others in my time. The villagers think that I am the latest of a long line of Frank Dawsons, father and son through the ages. It is a simple thing to alter their memories so that they believe this.

 

It is a simple thing to lie to friends.

 

I was alone in my vigil for many years, except for the phantom wives and children I created in the memories of those around me. Sometimes they almost seemed real to me, when the nights were very dark, and sometimes I spoke by the hearth to companions who were not there. As the time came closer, though, others appeared, slipping into the life of my farm as if they had always been there.

 

George is one of the oldest, and wiser than I will ever be. His part in this struggle is deeper than mine, and one which has not yet been revealed to me. John Smith is here in this century so he can be here five centuries past, to guide the Sign-seeker when he first comes into his power. Martha is here because quiet strength is needed, and because a time will come in Huntercombe when we need numbers as well as power. And then there is Miss Greythorne, but my place in this century does not overlap with hers, and her role in this battle is something else entirely.

 

My time is spent with mortals, too. As the centuries passed, and the years were hastening towards the end, I allowed himself to love, and took a mortal wife. Although my true nature is hidden from her, I do not regret my choice. I have lived more fully as a married man than I ever lived as an Old One of the Light, alone for these many centuries. I have always known the beauty of the Light; now I know the beauty of a child's first smile, meant only for me. For my dear ones, I have let myself age at the normal rate for men. The end will come before they start asking questions. I will be gone from this world before I have to face the death of those that I love. I will leave them with false memories of my peaceful death, long years ago, and the healing that comes after all but the most deepest of griefs.

 

I wish I could stay with them forever. After centuries of wishing the years to hasten off, now I wish I could slow down Time to a crawl, and let these next few months endure a lifetime. I wish I could give up my immortality, and die alongside them.

 

But those are the thoughts of a foolish old man. The Light is part of me, too, and I would never be without it. There is pleasure in it, too, for it has led to friendships, and it has brought me love of another kind. "Win the trust of his parents," Lord Merriman told me. "See that he is protected from birth with the sign of the Light. Watch over him and subtly prepare him for the time when he will awaken. Become someone he will trust and listen to, for you will be his first teacher in the Light, long before I can see him face to face."

 

This I have done. I became like a benevolent uncle to Alice throughout her childhood and young adulthood, and I was one of the first people she told about her engagement. When the children came, I carved birth signs for each one. They were meaningless gifts, of course, though not without power in the wrong hands, but they served to pave the way for the only gift that really mattered the sign of Light that I would carve for her last-born son.

 

Will Stanton was born on the evening of Midwinter's Day, after a long and difficult labour that started at the very darkest point of the night. All Old Ones resist being born, I am told, because the Light rebels at being encased in mortal clay. We sat in vigil, we Old Ones of Huntercombe, as the Dark mustered outside for the darkest day. We knew the moment that young Will was born, and we lit a candle, consumed with fervent hope. The Dark howled, but not in despair. The coming of the Sign-seeker could lead to our greatest victory, or to defeat beyond all hope of recovery. The world is balanced on a knife-edge, because Will Stanton has been born.

 

I did not see his first smile, but I saw his first steps. I did not hear his first words, but by his second birthday, he could say "farmer," and said it joyously whenever he saw me. I remember his first day at school, so earnest and so proud to be following James to "big school", and so tired and so brave at the end of the day.

 

I became his protector, in ways that he will never know. The Dark knew who he was, and there were several attempts on his life. Before his eleventh birthday, he is just a normal boy, and any common accident can kill him, and end our hopes. I remember coaxing him into the farmhouse with promises of apples, while George drove off a pair of wolves, minions of the Dark. His family protected him in other ways. The youngest of such a large family is never entirely alone, and Stephen unwittingly saved Will's life once, and even James once kept him safe by blundering into a situation he will never understand.

 

An Old One must do what is necessary, without guilt and without doubt. I did what the masters told me to do, but sometimes my conscience smites me. The Stantons thought I was a genuine friend, but I only befriended them because I had been told to. I gave gifts to all the children, but only because of their brother. Everything I have ever said and done to that family culminates today. This was the reason why I let Alice whisper her confidences into my ear so many years ago. This is why I held her as she wept over Tom.

 

I have loved them, though. That much is real. Whatever the great ones intended for me, this old heart has loved.

 

The Sign is ready. Today is the eve of Will Stanton's eleventh birthday, and tomorrow the world will be changed.

 

Merriman himself brought the Sign to me this midsummer past, having retrieved it from the place where it has been guarded for all the ages of the world. "It is your task to give him the first Sign," he told me, "and to set him on his path." I have worn the Sign on my belt ever since, and the other Old Ones have drawn closer to me, as if in honour guard.

 

It is a magic too strong for me. After six months with the Sign, I feel drained. As I walk past the Manor, I am aware of the Sign of Wood, calling to me. The Sign of Stone is nearby, though it has not revealed itself. The Thames sings longingly of the Sign of Water, and the Walker is drawn to the farm like a moth to flame, the Sign of Bronze burning like acid in his pocket. Only Fire is entirely hidden, hidden somewhere beyond Time.

 

I was not meant to know this much. I watch the rooks mustering in the trees, and know that my short time as a Sign-bearer will soon be over. I watch the gleaming eyes of Maggie Barnes, and know that Will is close. I watch George look at the sky, and shiver. I look into the blue eyes of Martha, and I realise that I know nothing at all.

 

We hear the trundling of the cart before we can see it. "Young Will Stanton, coming with the wrong brother," Maggie Barnes says slyly. She appears to think we are ignorant of her true nature, but the Dark always did underestimate the Light. We prefer to keep her close, where we can watch her, than let her free to do her mischief.

 

Two boys enter the yard, one aged twelve, and one a day short of eleven. I have known them for all their lives, but one of them I have never known at all.

 

The Sign leaps joyously on my belt, and for a moment blazes fiercely hot.

 

I step forward to greet them, and the last great Rising of the Dark begins.

 

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