Rating: PG13 – darkness, angst and some violence
This story was born out of five drabbles I wrote for a challenge on the darkisrising100 community. Inspired by a challenge to write an AU, I wrote five linked drabbles set in a grim AU in which the Dark had won at the end of Silver on the Tree. People asked to know more, and I've been writing more on and off for some six months now. Here, at last, is the finished product.
You do not need to read the drabbles first. In fact, I'd rather you don't read the drabbles first. The drabbles are set near the end of this story, and as such they contain spoilers.
This story has around 50 parts, but most of them are pretty short. This story covers 24 years. In a way, each chapter is a short story or vignette within this AU world. Some will read like fragments; others as longer stories. Taken together, they tell the story, but the scenes don't lead directly from one to the other, as in conventional storytelling.
The Dark has won. In other words, expect angst and darkness, with little light relief.
Part one has 13 parts, and covers about 5 or 6 years. I'll post the first 3 parts here on LJ, but after this post, please follow the story on my fanfic website, here. Part four is already up there, and I intend to add one or two parts each day.
Part one, chapter one
The sky did not yet know that the world had ended. It was blue and beautiful, like the rising of a midsummer morning in an age of endless Light.
Moaning, Will rolled onto his stomach, and pushed himself onto his hands and knees. "I'm going back." Breathlessness and exhaustion made his voice into a tiny, broken thing.
No-one heard him. Panic fluttered in his chest. Were they… gone? He stood up, looked around his place they had fled to, so anguished, so wild, so desperate. A dozen Old Ones lay scattered in a meadow of pale flowers, driven to the end of their endurance, and beyond.
"I have to go back," Will told them. "Bran… He's…"
His throat felt scarred. His legs could hardly hold him. His hand hurt, and he realised that he had burnt it, but how and where, he did not know. He remembered a sword coming down, and hatred in the eyes of a friend. There had been screaming, and darkness, and Merriman shouting to him to flee, to go, to run.
"He didn't mean it. We can change it."
"No." And Merriman was there, stern and tall, with a face like etched stone.
"Please." Will felt his face crumple, like the boy he still was, and would be for only minutes longer. "It can't finish like this. Bran…"
"Bran made his choice." Merriman's face was expressionless.
"No!" Will cried. "He didn't… He was just… We can change his mind. Then none of this will have happened. Everything will end as it's supposed to end."
"No," Merriman commanded. "It is done now. I cannot be undone, not by you, and not by anyone."
"But Bran…" Will was crying, sobbing like a child. "He looked at me… He said… He thinks we…"
"That does not matter, Old One." Cold and hard as the mountains, cruel as the Dark.
"But it does!" Will cried. "It does to me. Bran…"
Merriman slapped him. "You forget yourself, Old One."
Will was too weak to stand up to such a blow. He fell sideways, and struck his shoulder when landing. Merriman stood over him, his shadow falling on Will's face. It was suddenly incredibly cold.
"But the Dark has won," Will sobbed. "Bran… They must have tricked him. I just want to…"
"You will not." Merriman was not even looking at Will, cowering at his feet like a broken enemy. "This is your place."
Will crawled to his knees, and managed to stand again. He pressed his hand to his throbbing cheek, and felt his tears trickle through his fingers. "I don't want to give up. That's all. There must be something…"
Merriman grabbed his chin, long fingers squeezing painfully tight. "Four thousand years I have waited, Will Stanton. Four thousand years, and you have had just one. Four thousand years I have worked for this and waited for this. Believe me, Will Stanton, you feel nothing."
Will could not speak. His legs sagged, and he was held up only by Merriman's steel grip at his throat.
"A thousand Old Ones were blasted out of time today, boy," Merriman hissed. "I witnessed them all coming into their powers. I guided them as I guided you. All gone, ripped away, and I'm still here, and everything's lost."
He cast Will away, and Will sprawled to the ground, gasping for breath. He had felt them ripped out time, too. Their absence was a bleeding emptiness in his heart. The air felt thinner, and he was alone and tiny in the chambers of his mind.
"It cannot be undone, Will," Merriman said, a little softer. "This was the final Rising, the final battleground. The Dark has won. It is the end."
The end, Will thought. He looked at the flowers, still blooming. He looked at Jane and Simon and Barney, smiling and peaceful in their unnatural sleep. He looked at the sky above, where a silver aeroplane breathed a delicate line of white across the blue.
"No," he said, pushing himself to his feet once more. "It is not the end." The Dark would seek to rule mankind and tempt them to turn against each other, but the remnants of the Light would still fight them. The Dark was victorious, but it still remained to be determined quite how terrible a world they would make between them.
"Yes," Merriman said, nodding once. "And so you see why you cannot go back."
Because if he went back, he would be defeated. Bran was in the hands of the Dark now, and the only way to talk to him would be to go into the very heart of Darkness in all its new-found power. If he went back, he would be sent out of time forever, and there would be one less Old One to protect the people of the world from the worst excesses of the Dark.
But, Bran, he whispered to himself. I'm so sorry. He wiped his tears away with a hand that did not tremble. But I will find you one day, he vowed.
"You understand why I had to," Merriman said, touching Will on his bruised cheek.
Will nodded. The last of the tears had gone, and the child had died forever. He was an Old One, and the world was in the hands of the Dark. Nothing else mattered. Nothing else could ever matter.
"It would do no good to seek out Bran," Merriman said. "All it would do is make things worse."
He blames me, Will thought. It's my fault. Because I was the one who was supposed to befriend Bran. I was Bran's Merlin, and he was my Arthur, and I failed. I lost him.
But he stood tall, an Old One facing the future. "What about the children?"
They were beginning to stir, moaning and yawning in their enchanted sleep. No mortal could have travelled the way the Old Ones had travelled in their desperate flight, not without losing their minds forever.
"You know what we need to do, Will," Merriman said gently.
Jane woke first, tearing from sleep with a wild cry, but then her eyes widened, and she stared at the flowers and her brothers on either side of her. "Oh…" She slumped forward, breathing heavily. "It was a dream."
Will crouched down beside her. "It was not a dream, Jane."
Simon rolled over, his face a mask of horror. "Bran betrayed us. The Dark…"
"The Dark has won, yes," Will told him. "It cannot be undone. Bran made his choice."
"But it can't be true!" Jane cried. She kept looking beyond Will to Merriman, as if nothing was true until she had heard it from him. "It can't be!"
Merriman said nothing. It was the first time ever that Will had almost hated him. "It is true," he said. "The world is in the hands of the Dark. Things will change, but life will carry on."
"Shut up!" Simon screamed. He threw himself at Will and grappled him to the ground, and knelt over him, hands digging into his shoulders. "I hate you!" he spat. "Saying it as if it doesn't matter. Don't you ever care about anything?"
Will could not say what he wanted to say. He could not even think it. "We will make you forget all this," he said, looking Simon full in the face. "You will be targets for the Dark, if you remember. You will still have to live with what the world is going to become, but it will be more bearable for you, if you don't know how it happened, and how close it came to never happening."
"You…!" Simon shrieked, but Will brought up his hand, and steadily spoke the word. Behind him, he heard Merriman speak his own spell. Sleep, and forget. Sleep, and forget, and wake, but not to morning.
Minutes passed. He felt Merriman gently lift Simon from on top of him, and he heard the other Old Ones stirring. Words were said. Will was not the only one to weep on waking.
"Will," Merriman said eventually, so softly beside him.
Will sat up, blinking.
"There is one more thing you need to do."
Will closed his eyes. He knew what it was. The boy would have wept and begged, but that boy was dead now. Drowned, he thought. I will say that I was drowned, and Bran with me, on a beach where the sunlight never dies.
"Yes." But he was still human enough to say sorrowingly, "You're taking everything from me."
Merriman touched his cheek, and gave a smile of infinite sadness.
Part one, chapter two
A vanished dream
She woke from dreams of blankness to find herself staring up at dappled leaves.
"You must have been up early." It sounded like a stranger's voice at first, but then Jane recognised it as her mother's. "We missed you at breakfast, and your beds were empty."
"Up too early, and now ready for bed again." Their father chuckled. "You know how children burn up energy."
Jane sat up, blinking in the sunlight. Beside her, Simon was stirring, frowning in confusion as if he did not know where he was. Barney murmured in his sleep, and brought his knees up to his chest, like a baby seeking warmth.
Jane looked from brother to brother, and then at her parents, mother first, then father. "How did I get here?" she whispered.
The sunlight felt hot enough to scorch, but she had never noticed before how cold a blue sky could look. A car passed on the road, and the sea stretched out beyond it, and brittle grass stirred on the dunes.
Her parents looked at her indulgently. "It can be confusing when you fall asleep during the day," her father said. "Have some breakfast. We've asked the landlady to keep you some."
Barney woke up with a gasp and a start. His face crumpled, then smoothed out again, blankness replacing the emotion. "It was a dream," he said, "but I don't remember what it was."
Their father laughed. "If you were older, I'd say you'd all been drinking."
Jane stood up. Simon had dragged himself up so he was sitting with his back to the tree, but he was frowning, his fingertips pressed between his eyes. Jane fought the urge to sit down again beside him. Her legs felt shaky and sore, as if she had been running, and there was something missing inside her, though she did not know what it was.
"Are you…" She swallowed, and cleared her throat. "Are you off out again?"
Her mother bit her lip anxiously. "You don't mind, do you? I thought you relished the freedom. I know we're probably being awful parents, letting you run wild, but this isn't London. It's perfectly safe."
"Yes." Jane looked at Barney, still huddled on the floor. He looked incredibly young, suddenly, and far too small to be left alone in a world where anything could happen.
She became aware of a low pulsing sound, that grew steadily louder. Her heart quickened, before she identified it as a helicopter. They all watched it fly low above them, and begin to circle. "Rescue helicopter," their father said grimly. "I hope no-one's drowned."
"Maybe it was the maroons that we heard earlier," their mother said, "that awful sound that woke us."
There was something mournful and terrible in the world 'maroons.' Jane shivered. She thought of boys who looked like Simon and Barney, lost in the cold, grey sea, drowning alone, because no help ever came.
"Don't go," she said, but the word was only a whisper, lost in the noise of the helicopter. Her throat tightened, and she fought the urge to cry.
"Well," their mother said. "Nothing we can do about it. I'm off to that lake again. If the weather holds, I might even finish today."
Please say something, Jane thought, looking at her brothers. I don't think I can bear to speak. Neither of them stirred, so she fiddled with her hair to shield her face, and said, "What lake? Can we see the picture?"
"I told you yesterday, silly," her mother chided. "I think somebody wasn't listening. And you know that I won't have anyone looking at my work until it's finished. There's no use asking. You can't wheedle around me."
Why are you like this? Jane wanted to cry. Something's changed! Something's ended, and I don't know what. Above them, the helicopter began another circle. A police car passed on the road, but it was not sounding its siren. Jane doubted that her parents noticed it.
"It's more golf for me today," their father said heartily. "What are you three going to do, when you've woken up, that is? Are you going to play with those little friends you made the other day?"
Little friends? For a moment, Jane had not the slightest idea what he was talking about. Panic fluttered in her chest, before her mind supplied the answer. He meant the two boys they had chatted to briefly on the hillside. A serious English boy, and a strange Welsh one. She could not remember their names.
"I don't know," she said. "Any ideas?"
She turned to Simon. Simon was always the first to come up with suggestions of how they spent their days. He had always been quick to play the bossy older brother, and now he was almost thirteen he was frequently unbearable. Sometimes she argued, but today she only wanted to be led. Everything felt strange, and Simon would make them normal again.
"Simon?" she prompted.
"I don't know…" Simon lowered his hand from his brow. There was an expression on his face that she had never seen before. "Something's… gone. I don't know what to do."
It made her feel more afraid than anything else that had happened since waking. "Barney?" Her voice sounded high and squeaky in her own ears. "Shall we stay in the grounds today? Do you want to paint?"
Barney rose to his knees, and gazed towards the sea. "The light isn't right." His voice was flat. "There's too much darkness in it today."
Jane shivered, but their mother gave a tinkling laugh. "What funny things you say sometimes, Barney. It's a glorious day, but time's ticking on. Would you mind ever so much if I go now?"
Yes, Jane thought. Please stay. Please stay with us today.
She said nothing, and smiled. Their parents strode away in their different directions, and dwindled, and were gone.
The helicopter made another pass. "Someone's died," Barney said, his voice bleak.
"I want to go home," Simon said, in a tiny voice, not like his own.
Jane bolted into the hotel before they could see how badly she was crying.
There were shadows in every room.
Paths of footsteps showed in the dust, tracking everyone who had come and gone in the days since the house had been opened up. The curtains were velvet, the colour of garnets, but when the sunlight fell on them it was clear that they would be scarlet if the dirt was washed from them.
Sunlight came seldom, though. Tall evergreens surrounded the house, shutting out the world outside. From his upstairs window, Bran could see a large metal gate, and a gravel drive, lined with silver cars. Only when the sun was at its highest did they sparkle. Only at noon did the curtains turn to blood.
He tilted his face up towards that distant sun. "So they lied about that, too." His voice sounded hollow in a room but sparsely furnished. "He lied about everything."
"My first thought was, he lied in every word."
Bran knew the voice, and did not turn round. The man called himself Matthews, and was some kind of manservant, but to whom, Bran did not know. He spoke with a nasty giggle in his voice, as if he knew something that Bran did not.
"Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came," Matthews said, his voice like a playground taunt. "Or is it Childe Bran?"
Bran traced his finger across the window, patterns in the dirt. "What do you want?"
"To listen to you," Matthews said. "So tell me, how did they lie?"
Bran would not tell him. Beyond the pale of trees, the sun shone in a perfect blue sky. People still lived. If he pressed his ear to the glass, he could hear cars and horns and planes. The world had continued, and the life of man upon it. And they told me that the world would end if I didn't do what they commanded. They told me the Dark would bring the end of everything. He lied. Everything he said was a lie.
Dirt was thick on the window, and the sunlight blurred. Dust from the curtains filled his eyes and made them sting.
"My master's down below," Matthews said. "Your master too, now."
Bran clenched his fist. "He's not my master."
"You chose him, boy," Matthews chuckled. "You chose the Dark. Tell me, had you chosen the Dark all along? Did you lead your little friend, the Sign-seeker, on a merry dance, when you planned all along to…"
"I did not!" Bran cried. Fists clenched at his sides, he was heaving in great breaths. "I did not," he said, more quietly. "I didn't choose the Dark. I chose not to choose the Light, that's all, and only because…" Because they had lied to me. Because they were using me. Because she said…
"It's the same thing." Matthews spread his hands.
Bran turned his back. He ran his finger again through the patterns he had made in the dirt. He watched the gate, but it did not open. People were passing by beyond the trees, but no-one stopped. No-one came.
Matthews stepped closer on silent feet, until he was close enough for Bran to hear his breathing. "Our masters are not pleased with you."
"Why? I…" His voice thickened. It was hard to say. "I cut the blossom, and declared for them. If it wasn't for me, they…" He could not force a single other word out. The trees outside seemed to be growing, dark fingers reaching for the sun.
"They told you that the one who cut the blossom could banish all rival powers out of time," Matthews whispered. "They told you that, did they, these lying friends of yours?"
Bran was shrinking away from him, until his body was almost pressed to the glass. "Yes," he breathed, the word marked only by mist on the window.
"Protected by the Light, you cut it, but then you gave it to my master. In your heart, you renounced the cause of your false friends. You refused to be their puppet any longer."
Bran nodded. His forehead found the glass, and stayed there. The coldness of the touch seemed to seep through his skin and turn him frozen and numb.
Matthews touched his shoulder. "Ah, but did you see the Sign-seeker's face when you did that? Did you see the betrayal there, the pain?" The voice was soft, like a dreadful caress. "Is that why you faltered?"
"I did not falter," Bran whispered. His eyes were closed now. It made no difference, because all he saw now was shadow and darkness.
"Then why are they still here?"
Bran snatched his head up. His eyes snapped open, and there was the sunlight still, silver bright beyond the trees.
"Send them out of time forever," Matthews said, in sing-song voice. "And many were sent thus, but not by you. My masters took them in the first frozen horror of their surprise, but not all. Some escaped. If you had been true, this would not have happened. My masters know it, and now you know it, too."
"Who?" Bran rasped. "Who escaped?"
"Their master." Matthews spat. "Merlin. My masters would feel the passing of such a one."
"Any…" Bran swallowed. "Others?"
Matthews' mouth curled in a smile that did not reach his gleaming eyes. "Why, boy, is there one that you are particularly interested in?"
Bran swallowed. "No. No-one." Certainly not Will, no, never him. Will Stanton was the worst of them all. The others had never pretended to be anything other than stern masters of Light, but Will had pretended to be his friend. He had preyed on Bran's loneliness. The boys at school laughed at him and called him a freak, but at least that was honest. False friendship was the worst of all. For a while, Bran had even thought…
"Yes," he said harshly. "I was interested in one in particular, and you know who. I want to make sure that he's really gone."
"But surely we'll find out soon enough." Matthews smiled disingenuously. "If he's still here, he'll come looking for you, won't he? After all, he is your friend. "
"I have no friends." Bran turned back to the window. "I want you to go away now."
"Giving commands to one such as me?" Matthews sneered. "I don't think our masters would like to hear about this."
"I…" Bran pressed his hand against the glass. "I made you win. If it wasn't for me, the Light would be throwing its weight around, imposing its rigid, cold, loveless, horrible lies on everyone. If it wasn't for me, you'd all be gone."
"You want us to be grateful, boy?" It was a new voice, a cold voice. The sunlight paled, and a draught sent the ancient windows rattling.
Bran felt himself turn round. He did not want to do it, but something was dragging at his mind, and he could not resist.
"Rider," he gasped, through tightened throat. That was what Will had called this man. Rider, and they had run from him together, cold waves of terror lapping at their heels.
"And now I ride the world," the Rider said, "and you say it's thanks to you."
It wasn't! Bran wanted to cry. It wasn't anything to do with me. It would have happened anyway, whatever choice I'd made. He thought of a crystal sword, and a blossom falling, and six companions thrusting out their Signs, protecting him with everything that they were.
"I…" he stammered. "I'm…"
"You're nobody now," Matthews gloated. "The Pendragon was for one purpose only, and that purpose is done, and oh, how it was done! You are an ordinary boy now, just a pathetic boy who turns on his friends, and my masters do not need you."
Bran saw a glance flicker between Matthews and his master, and something subtle changed about both of them.
"Peace, Matthews," the Rider said gently. He turned to Bran, handsome face soft and smiling. "He's only jealous, Bran. Of course we are grateful to you. You will, of course, be rewarded."
"I don't want a reward," Bran blurted out. "I only wanted…"
The Rider smiled. "What? Ah yes. That." He leant forward, hands on his thighs, like an adult bending down to a child. "The Dark does not deny such things, Bran. Stay with us, and you will find that. Unlike the Light, we do not lie. Unlike the Light, we do not compel men to suppress their deepest desires. We are freedom and truth, Bran, but of course you knew that. I saw that in your heart when you made your choice."
His eyes were as blue as a winter sky, as deep as an endless ocean. Bran looked into them, and saw truth.
"Just don't lie to me," he rasped.
The Rider straightened. Another glance passed between him and Matthews. With some distant part of his mind, Bran registered that Matthews was no longer smiling. He looked older and taller, side by side with the man he called master.
"The Light would have stolen your memories," the Rider said. "They would have used you, then cast you back to waste your life on a decaying farm with a man who was only pretending to be your father. You will find us more grateful to those who serve us."
Bran clenched his fist, and managed to rip his gaze away. "I won't serve anyone. I'm here because I choose to be."
"Of course." The Rider smiled placatingly. "And you can leave us at any time. You know that."
Bran nodded. He leant against the window, and gazed at the metal gate, relentlessly closed. He had no idea what city he was in, or how he had got here. Somewhere - far away, perhaps – was Owen Davies out on the hills, looking for the boy he had lied to and tricked? Were the boys at school sharpening their sticks and wondering where their favourite whipping boy had gone? Were the last remaining Old Ones prowling, ready to seize him if he returned, and destroy him for what he had done?
Was Will out there, ready to smile with false forgiveness, to woo him with treacherous words? Bran would reject him, of course. He would throw the lies back in his face, and give him to the lords of Darkness to have their way with him. He would hurt him, just as Will had…
"I know that," he said, his voice hoarse.
But I won't, he thought. Not quite yet. But I can. I can leave at any time. I rejected the Light. That doesn't mean that I embrace the Darkness.
The trees grew tall, a protective barrier against the garish world of sunlight, and the Light that lay beyond.
For chapter four, go here. The rest will follow soon.