(Did that make any sense? I don't think so...)
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 but for 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's 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. "Two thousand years I have waited, Will Stanton. Two thousand years, and you have had just one. Two 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's not the end." The Dark would seek to rule mankind and tempt them to turn against each other, but 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 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.
Holly for the Darkness
The tree had come early this year. Draped in tinsel and lights, it shone ferociously against the early twilight that was outside. Will had never seen it so bright, or so sorrowful.
He was sitting on the hearth, knees pulled up to his chin, arms wrapped around them. The stone was still cold beneath him, but the air around was colder. The only light came from the tree. The only sound came from the front door opening, and then closing again.
Will's father stirred. He had been sitting in his battered leather chair for over an hour, doing nothing at all, but now he picked up the newspaper and hastily tried to pretend that he had been reading it. He laid it down again when Mary entered, her arms heaped high with holly.
"Not more," Will's father groaned. "We've got enough."
"We haven't got enough." Mary stuck her chin out mulishly. She tipped the holly onto the couch, loose leaves and berries scattering everywhere. When she peeled her thick gloves off, Will could see scratches on her wrists, and there was a longer one on the side of her neck.
"It's cold in here," Mary said.
Will's father ruffled the newspaper. His hands looked stiff and tired. "Is it? Warmer than outside, I'd have thought."
Mary went to put the light on. The lights of the Christmas tree dwindled and faded in contrast. There were no paper chains this year, but the tinsel shivered as Mary stamped past.
"Any more Christmas cards?" Mary asked. "Any presents?"
"No presents." Her father shook his head. "A few cards from my family, that's all."
Will had glanced into a few cards earlier, and seen only sad and awkward greetings, without the usual chatty letters that came with Christmas in a large family. No-one knew what to say. The most awkward of all had been from Jen and David Evans. Will's father had ripped it up with a growl, and thrust it in the bin. It had been the most movement he had done all afternoon.
"I saw James outside," Mary said. "He's been fighting again. I thought I'd better warn you."
"Oh." Will's father tightened his lips. "I'll talk to him."
"Won't make a difference." Mary sat down on the couch, careful to avoid to holly that was spilling everywhere. "They deserve it, the ones he's fighting. You know the sort."
Will knew them, too. Richie Moore and his friends, and others like him, and worse. There were more of them by the day. Schools were ugly places, but soon towns and cities would be uglier. The children sometimes led, but their parents would soon follow. The Dark had won.
"You're talking about me?" James' cheek was bruised and his eye was swollen. He had already removed his coat, but his trousers were muddy and his shoes scuffed.
His father folded the newspaper, and laid it on the arm of the chair. "Fighting isn't the answer, James."
"Then what is?" James retorted. "They asked for it. They said… They said that…"
"It doesn't matter what they said." His father looked almost afraid of hearing it. "Ignore them. It upsets your mother so, when you come back like this. And today of all days…"
That's why he did it, of course, Will thought. He could see the truth on all their faces.
Footsteps sounded on the stairs, and all three of them stiffened, a group drawing in on themselves in anticipation of a stranger arriving. When Paul entered, they all let out a silent breath. Paul sat down on a spare seat, but gave no sign of noticing James' bruises. He did not comment on the holly.
"Played today, then, Paul?" James' question was spoken like an attack.
Paul shook his head. His eyes seemed drawn by the newspaper, as something he did not want to look at, but could not look away from. "Anything… happened?"
His father shook his head, but his words said otherwise. "The usual batch of murders and injustices and international crises. Some people don't seem to have heard of the season of goodwill."
"Things are getting worse." Paul looked at his hands. "The world's sliding."
"I don't know why you read a paper if it depresses you so much," Mary said. "There's nothing we can do about it all."
No, Will thought. No, there isn't. Not you.
His legs were growing stiff. He shifted position slightly, not making a sound. A needle fell from the tree, brushing the tinsel, setting a bell to make the faintest of rings.
Mary looked at the tree. "Oh," she said, with forced brightness. "I met Miss Bell on the way home. She's wondering if we're going carolling this year, considering…"
James' bruised face went closed. "No." His voice was tight. "I won't. Voice breaking." The statement was true. The reason was false.
Mary bit her lip. "We ought to…"
"Go on at Paul, then, not me," James snapped. "He's the one who's not touched his flute for six months."
Paul was looking at his hands miserably. His father stepped in before James could launch another attack. "It wouldn't be the same, now that Miss Greythorne is dead, and the manor's being demolished. And the Dawsons gone… Traditions end, Mary. Sometimes they end because we grow up, and sometimes because the world grows up and changes, and we're left behind."
"I don't want traditions to die," Mary cried. She thrust her hands furiously into her gloves, and picked up an armful of holly. Will edged his feet to one side to let her get to the mantelpiece. After she had covered it entirely with holly, she made for the windowsill.
"Too much," her father murmured quietly, as if unable to stop himself.
"It is not too much." Mary's face was red, and she had tears in her eyes. "Will used to say it drove away the dark. He put holly everywhere two years ago, remember? This house sure as hell needs the darkness driven away from it."
"Language, Mary." But Will's father's eyes were closed. There was pain there, and he tried to lock it away for the sake of the children, but how could he do it on this day of all days?
Mary threw the remaining holly to the floor. "And I don't know why we have to put the tree up four days early and pretend that we always used to do it this way, because we didn't. We don't even start to think about Christmas until Will's birthday is over. It's Will's birthday today. Why are we pretending that it's already Christmas?"
She was almost screaming it. Although there had been no sounds from the kitchen, Will could tell that his mother had stopped her silent cooking, and was listening. She was probably weeping.
Mary sank to her knees, her voice dying away to a broken whisper. "Why did Will have to die?"
I had to, Will thought, sitting unseen in the shattered heart of his family. He was the only Old One who had family still living. If the Dark knew that he remained on the earth, they would torture his family as a way of targeting him. To protect his family, Will had to be dead to them.
"I don't know, Mary." There were tears on Mr Stanton's cheeks now, and he gave up the struggle to hide them. "I just don't know."
I'm so sorry, Will thought. I'd make you forget me, if I could. But even that was forbidden. The Dark was watching them always, with agents in the village. If they suddenly forgot their youngest son, the Dark would know what it meant.
I wish you could see me. He was crying himself, tears that no-one would ever see. He wanted another Christmas laughing around the tree. He wanted to unwrap presents, and exclaim his thankyous, and write cards, and sing carols. He wanted to eat his mother's Christmas pudding, and make paper-chains with his sisters, and wake on Christmas morning with joy and hope.
Hidden and alone, he left them, with a last goodbye, never heard.
It was his thirteenth birthday.