A/N: Thank you everyone for sticking with me and my little descent into weirdness. Thank you for taking the time to read and review! Special thanks to Dennis for keeping an eye on the chick-flick moment.
Ring Out Solstice Bells
Farewell, My King
The mists were curling through the clearing, the fog blanketing everything in a soft gray, obscuring all but the patch around the Great Altar. The riders had gathered around the stone, ringing the two combatants, the king waiting patiently at the head of the stone. The horses were whuffing in excitement, as if they sensed the battle waged between the two facing each other, swords in their hands.
The first blow of his opponent vibrated down the sword Dean held up to block. And, hey, managed to block it, not bad for a first try. He countered with a swing, too wide, that missed the rider by several inches. His opponent came at him again, another swinging blow, nearly driving Dean down as his blocked it again, the sword slipping out of his hand as he blocked the blow. This is not working. Dean grabbed his sword, the other rider had waited for him to rearm himself. Okay, what do I do? He sighed as his opponent stepped forward. I know how to fight, I know how to win, part of him whispered. Shut up, the other answered.
His opponent stepped in again, his blade moving so fast Dean could barely see it, not a swinging blow, but a savage thrust. Dean managed to duck, but the sword caught him on the arm, slicing through the tattered flesh and scoring the bone. Gross, when did my arms start looking like that? He got his own sword up and swung, catching the other on the thigh, he felt the vibration in the blade as the sword stopped hard against the bone. Where did that come from? Dean stepped back to let his opponent rise. Let me, part of him whispered. Do I dare? I have to win, I can't save Sam if I don't win, the other part of him said. He took a deep breath, and hoping against hope that he could somehow reclaim himself later, let the other part of himself, the rider, take over.
He stepped back into the fight, his arm wielding the sword easily. Yes, it has been too long I have waited in the shadows. I serve my king, I will be his champion, part of him said. No, only to save Sam, answered a tiny, tiny whisper. His opponent stepped in, sword raised for another blow. Before he could even swing, Dean swung his own blade, a mighty blow using the huge weight of the sword to add momentum to his blow.
And it was over.
His opponent dissolved in a blackened pool on the Great Altar, head severed from body. One of the waiting horses gave an agonized cry and it, too, disappeared from amongst them, carried away with its rider into the Land Beyond. The dark creatures flitted in, circling the Altar in joyfully swoops, crying his name, Dean's name, on the wind. Their laughing song filled the clearing with noise. The riders cheered him, some coming forward to pound him on the back, others smiling, but holding back a little.
"My brother," his king said, approaching him. "Well fought."
He dropped to his knees before his king, head bowed. "I but offered the challenge, my king. My arm knew who it served."
He felt his king's hands on his shoulders, gently applying pressure. "Rise, my brother, my champion. You shall serve at my right hand."
"I am honored," he said, standing. His brothers grinned at him, joy lighting their skeletal faces.
"We ride the hunt," his king called to the circle of riders. "My brothers let us ride this night." He turned to the each uisge. "You, too, ride with us." The each uisge threw their noses to the wind and turned as the riders mounted their horses.
Dean walked to his mount and ran a hand over its neck. "Come, we ride, we serve our king this night." The horse blew a playful, death-scented breath through his hair. Dean breathed in the scent and swung onto its back.
The hunt turned as one and waited as the king walked his horse to the front. Dean reined in on his right side. His king turned and smiled at him. "I have waited too long for you to ride beside me again, my brother."
"I beg forgiveness, my king." He said, dropping his head, feeling the sorrow, the loss his king had known as he waited.
"No need, you are here now." His king slapped him on his back and then turned to the others. "We ride!"
Cheers erupted from all around them, the happy laughter becoming the shout of the hunt as they moved out, the hounds and the each uisge ahead of them as they coursed through the fog-shrouded fields. Someone began singing, the voices joined together as they sang of the hunt, of times past and of brotherhood. Dean sang with them, the words known, the melody well-remembered, joy filling him as he rode together with his brothers. No, no we are here for Sam, my brother, the tiny whisper, now so faint he could barely hear it, whispered. Our king is our brother, yes, but so are the others, we are joined to this hunt, let us celebrate. The wind washed over him, ruffling his hair as the horse galloped over the fields. He laughed, light-hearted, as he rode, enjoying the night, the strength of the horse beneath him and the songs of his brothers.
Suddenly, the barking howl of the hounds changed, they had scented something, and increased speed, their barks now howls in the quiet night. The each uisge were uttering a growling howl of their own as they ran with the pack, heads down, following the scent of the thing they hunted. The riders yelled in excitement.
"We are close! You brought us luck, my brother!" his king yelled to him.
Dean laughed. "It is you who brings us luck, my king!" What are we hunting? The nearly silent voice asked. The dark night, the other part answered. What? What the hell does that mean? the whispering voice asked. Before the other part could answer, he heard the terrible growl that issued from amongst the dark trees. It was there, waiting, it had heard the cry of the hounds and was waiting for them. It suddenly burst out of the cover of the trees and ran ahead, a dark shadow in the mists.
The hounds were nearly on it when it turned back. Racing through the pack toward the riders it launched itself at the king, pulling him off the horse and dragging him away at a gallop as fast as any horse.
"NO!" Dean yelled, aware that both the voices within him had cried out, one for his king, the other for Sam. He drove spurs into the horse and they raced ahead. As he rode he pulled the sword from its scabbard, driving the horse faster, pushing it to its limits. They caught up with the thing and passed it. Dean swung the horse around to stop the thing, thrusting forward with his sword at the same time.
The blade plunged into the dark shape, cold, painful cold, ran up the blade and into his arm. It tugged at him like the hand of death. He pulled the sword from its body and leapt from the horse, reaching a hand out to pull his king up from where the thing had dropped him. He pushed his king behind him as it attacked again, this time a hand was suddenly there, claws glistening on the ends of shadowed fingers. The claws caught him, ripping through flesh and bone. Gasping in pain, he managed to swing his blade, imbedding it in the creatures neck. At that moment the rest of the hunt was on them, his brothers driving their own blades into the thing. It screamed its death cry and fell, leaving a smoking ring in the golden grass.
Dean had dropped to his knees, pain running through his body like molten lead, pulling him down towards the abyss. Hands clasped his shoulders, pulling on him until he was propped against someone. "Bring the skin from my horse," his king's voice said. He realized he was lying against his king, he struggled to sit up. "No." Gentle hands restrained him. "Wait for a moment, my brother."
"Are you unharmed?" Dean said. Sammy, are you okay? The nearly silent part whispered.
"Thanks to you," his king said. "Drink this." He did as he was told, letting the sweet liquid fill him, warm him. Dean felt life flow slowly back into his body. He sighed. Yes, let the drink work, let it take us away, silence the other voice until we can just ride, just serve. Yes, it is right, it is good. Dean's muscles tensed at the thought. No, the nearly silent, now nearly gone, part of him whispered. He struggled to get back to himself, aware that the soft velvet of the drink was pulling him away from the world with a crushing finality. I can ride with my king, serve him, until his year is up. Then, perhaps, even stand as champion when he is reborn. As I have, as I will, so it was, so it should be. He let himself drift on the thought. He who is now the king is gone, there is no one left to serve in the other world. Here we are loved, we ride with our brothers.
"Dean?" Sam's voice suddenly said.
Dean opened his eyes. He shifted enough so he could see the face of his king, what he saw there drove the mists away and tore the soft velvet from his body. The voice of the rider was nearly silenced in that moment as he realized Sam's eyes were looking down at him with concern. "Sammy?" he whispered.
"Dean…" As he watched Sam slowly began to fade away again, replaced by the king.
"No." Dean pushed himself up, automatically offered a hand to pull his king to his feet. No, I can't do this. He is my king, I am his champion, part of him whispered. Yeah, I told you to shut the hell up, the other part answered. He watched as his king walked back to his horse. "This ends now," he said aloud. He picked his sword up from the grass and, taking a deep breath, raised it in the position of challenge. "Sam?" he said, the English feeling foreign on his tongue.
His king turned at the sound, he took in Dean's stance and he frowned. "You challenge me?"
"Yep," Dean said, again in English. "My king, I offer the challenge. I am your champion, none can stand in your stead." The rest came out in the other language.
"After you saved my life? After I made you my champion? You dare challenge me?" his king said as he drew his sword.
"Forgive me, my king." Dean dropped his head in sorrowful bow. "But yes, I challenge you."
"Very well," his king said. The other riders dismounted them and surrounded them, most growling at the challenge, one or two calling support.
His king stepped towards him. It's Sam. SAM. Not the king, it's Sam. Dean waited for a moment before taking the first swing, somehow knowing the etiquette without letting the rider take control. Sam was gone from the king again, the eyes were ancient, young, the face shifting a little, but Dean could still see something of his brother in the skeletal face. His king, SAM!, blocked the blow easily, laughing a little as he did. Fine, laugh. Dean blocked the next blow, the blades locked together for and instant and his king's face was mere inches from his. He shoved the king away with a huge heave, the swords singing a little as they broke contact. The king came at him again, the swipe caught Dean in the leg, driving him to the ground. He forced himself up and at the same time thrust forward with the sword, pushing it towards the king. He felt the tip connect with flesh before it was shoved away by the other's blade.
Dean could barely stand. The king's sword had badly damaged his leg. He limped forwards, sword raised to bring it down towards the other's exposed neck. The blow was deflected and he was shoved back to the ground. Dean managed to push himself up again, knowing that this would be the last time he would be able to manage it. His leg was beginning to give out and the wounds the creature had inflicted were suddenly opening again as the effect of the drink was dispelled from his body. As he stepped back into the fray, his king moved, sword held low. Dean was aware as the blade slid into his chest, his own momentum pushed the entire length of the sword into his body. He dropped to his knees as his king pulled the blade from his body. "No," the voice that sounded more like Sam said. His king dropped to his knees beside him. "No," the voice was whisper soft.
Dean met the eyes, ancient, young and smiled as he felt the life flowing from his body. "Forgive me, my king." His king looked puzzled for a moment. "Sorry, Sammy," Dean said in English and managed to get the sword up one last time. He swung it, the last act, felt it connect with the body, felt it move through flesh and bone, felt it as it moved on. He saw the king's body drop, lifelessly, to the ground as his own fell. The riders cried out, he heard them moving towards them, felt their blades in his now numb body as they each took the ceremonial blow intended to kill the one who killed their king. The blows felt like the soft punch of a pillow, there was nothing, the mists slowly wound around him as his brothers raised their voices in the keening chant to sing the death of their king.
Then there was nothing, the mists were gone, the song was gone, the pain was gone. And then Dean was gone, sinking into the abyss.
There was a soft silence for a moment, gentle, like the touch of satin on the skin and then he exploded back into his body. For an instant it felt as if his heart has stopped, pain flared briefly out from his chest and then faded into the background. He drew a ragged breath and then another. He was lying on something soft, he was warm, there was a tight pinch in his arm that his mind hazily identified as an IV. "Dean?" he said softly.
"What?" a female voice answered him.
Sam opened his eyes. He was lying on a bed, it looked like a hospital bed, though the room's furnishings didn't. Heavy drapes hung on the windows, a large table decorated with glittering dishes, fruit, flowers and evergreen branches stood against the wall opposite the bed. There were flowers at the foot of the bed and beside the bed. Sam looked over at the small woman sitting in the plush chair. "Who are you?" he asked. Did Dean tell me he had met someone?
"My name is Vivian, dear." She smiled, bright tears in her eyes. "Welcome back."
"Thanks," he said, struggling to sit up, trying desperately to remember where he was and what he was doing there. "Where am I? What happened?" Sam looked around. "Where's Dean?"
"He left me here with you yesterday. He hasn't come back," Vivian said sadly.
"What happened?" Sam asked again. He noticed something was stinging on his chest, he looked down. Black lines drawn in an intricate knot were slowly fading. The lines originally drawn with the knife were still there, dark scabs marring his skin. Memory began to wind its way back into his consciousness. He looked down at his hand, still bandaged from where he had stabbed the fork through it. It felt so long ago, but that wound is still fresh. The rituals, the ravens speaking to him, riding the hunt, the wind rushing through his hair began unfolding in his mind. The final ritual, trying to stop the final moments, but then being pushed forwards, the death of the king and the moment he became the king. The memory of Dean holding his body, tears on his face—they all played in his head. He felt tears pool in his eyes as he remembered the anguish on Dean's face. Then…
No. He remembered the call to return to the altar, the ritual for his brother, making him a member of the hunt. Dean's challenge, the hunt and…Oh god no. No. I…I think I killed him. I remember my sword, I remember…No. I did kill him, right before he killed me. He died, didn't he? Sam pulled the IV out of his hand and swung his legs off the bed.
"Where are you going?" Vivian asked, putting a steadying hand on him as he swayed where he say, the remnants of the drugs still washing through his body.
"I have to find Dean." He stood, and dropped back down onto the bed. Taking a deep breath he pushed himself up again, standing for a moment as the room spun around him. "Do you have a car?"
"Can I borrow it?"
"You're really in no condition to drive. Let me help." Vivian met his gaze. "Please, for my son, let me help you."
Sam nodded. "Okay, let's go."
"Did you want to change first?"
Sam looked down quizzically at the rich robes covering his body. "That might be a good idea." Vivian showed him the closet and while she waited, standing guard in the hall, he changed. Five minutes later they were sneaking out of the hospital, down the stairs rather than the elevator and out into the parking lot.
The mists were gone, the winter sun bright in the sky. Sam could hear birds singing in the trees. No ravens, just birds. The wind was moving in the bushes and Sam could hear the soft lap of water and cars moving on the road beyond the hospital. As Vivian went to get the car he stood listening, reveling in the soft sounds, free of the movement of horses, chanting or the ringing of bells. Normal sounds of a normal day.
Vivian pulled up and he dropped into the passenger seat of her car, giving her directions back to the clearing. As they pulled away he saw the woman he remembered from the ER, from the rituals, run out of the hospital He met her eyes, she was weeping. She knows the king is dead. My priestess forgive me, a small voice whispered. No, I am free of that. Dean freed me.
She was silent as they drove, somehow sensing his mood. I killed Dean. He saw the cranberry bog as they drove past, the fleeting memory of stopping and pulling the ritual cup from beneath the icy, blood-red waters playing in his head. He sighed, sorrow filled him as the memory played. Swallowing, he forced his eyes forward, watching for the turn onto the road that led to the clearing. Vivian pulled up beside the Impala, but before the car had even stopped Sam was out the door, standing as a wave of dizziness washed over him and then running toward the clearing. A raven called from above his head, its voice held a chiding note. His foot caught on something and he stumbled. He couldn't stop the fall and went down full length into the cold, wet grass beside the bog. He pushed himself up, noticing the blood stained stone beside the water.
Gritting his teeth against the nausea and dizziness, he got up again and ran towards the still figure lying on the stone in the center of the clearing. "Dean!" he heard himself scream his brother's name as he ran. The raven had flown down to the end of the stone and was watching as Sam approached. No, Dean. He dropped to his knees beside his brother, desperately feeling for a pulse. Dean's skin felt cool to the touch. No, no, please no.
"My king?" Sam looked up, away from Dean. The raven had its head cocked looking at him. "The hunt waits."
"No," Sam said, shaking his head. "I want to stay here." The raven looked at him a moment more before stretching its wings and, with a sad, coughing laugh, flew into the bright blue sky.
Sam watched it, his heart pounding against his chest as the longing he had experienced while waiting for the rituals filled him. I could go back, I could ride with my brothers. What's left for me here if Dean is gone? I could…What was that? His fingers had registered a tiny beat. Sam held his breath, Dean's chest rose slowly and another tiny flicker beat against Sam's fingers. Sam pulled his brother up into his arms, holding him tightly. "Dean, you're…" he whispered. He let his head drop down against Dean's as tears began flowing down his face. "You're alive."
"Sammy?" Dean asked. It could have been hours later for all Sam knew. "Sammy?" He felt Dean's arms go around him as his brother returned the embrace, fierce, tight, as if they had been apart for years. "You're alive."
"Yeah," Sam said with a nearly breathless sob. "You, too."
"Yeah, me too," Dean said, leaning against him for a moment longer. Sam could feel his brother's hands trembling on his back. Dean gave him another quick squeeze and pulled away far enough to look at Sam. Dean's eyes were red, tears were tracking down his face. "I thought…"
"Yeah, me, too." Sam let go, shifting so he was sitting beside Dean on the stone. Dean let his shoulder rest against Sam's. We both need the contact right now, I think. They sat together in silence, each lost in thought. Sam looked over at the bog, the memory of the rituals playing again, the pain and joy each had brought, the feeling of being caught between worlds. A sound slowly intruded in the memories. "Dean?"
"Yeah, I hear it too." Dean tried to push himself up. "Can you get up?" he said with disgust. "Because I can't."
"The drug is still in your system from yesterday," Sam said, standing. He hauled Dean to his feet.
"Was it only yesterday?"
"Yeah." Sam looked over as the sound of hoof beats got louder. The riders slowly appeared, swirling around them like mist, ethereal, untouchable. They surrounded Sam and Dean, circling the Great Altar, the sound of their reins ringing softly like bells, merry jingles in the bright morning light. As one they stopped and drew swords from their scabbards, raising them in salute, in challenge, a cry rang out through the clearing. Then with the whisper of steel on leather, they sheathed their swords and turned, disappearing before they had ridden out of the clearing.
"Sam?" Dean turned to look at him.
"It was a challenge, they know who we are, what we've done." Sam heard the sadness in his voice.
"We'll be back next year to end this, Sam," Dean said softly, putting a hand on his arm.
"They have no king," Sam said, still caught in the vision of the riders circling them.
"Sammy, hey, we'll end it next year." He could hear the desperate note in his brother's voice.
"My—our—brothers?" Sam said, looking at Dean, but not seeing him as he was, but as the man who had ridden beside him, who had save his life and had challenged him in the dark mists.
"Yes. Our brothers." Dean's voice was sad too, understanding what it meant. "But we have to end it."
"I know." He tried to shake off the double vision, it was tugging at him, calling him back.
"Sammy?" Dean's voice came from a long way away. Something hard connected with Sam's face, a sharp slap. Hands on his shoulders were shaking him. "Sammy?"
"Dean?" He focused on his brother. My brother, only mine, not theirs. My brother, someone who would risk everything, even who he is, to save me.
"You with me?" Dean was looking in his eyes, searching.
"Yeah," Sam sighed. "Yeah." The hands on his shoulders tightened before Dean let them drop away.
"Good boy. Let's get out of here." Dean turned and they walked back towards the car where Vivian was still waiting. A raven was sitting on a branch over the Impala. "Not listening to birds, go away," Dean growled at the bird. Sam looked over in surprise at his brother. Dean grinned a little shakily. "Damn birds are talking to me."
"Dean, you're okay," Vivian said, gently hugging his brother.
"Yeah." Dean smiled at her. "Will you be okay?"
"Yes, I think I can be free of this place now. My sons are dead, but at least I know it will end. You will end it?"
"Next year," Dean said with complete conviction.
"Thank you." With a gentle smile at Sam she got back in her car. She waved a little as she turned and left.
Dean looked over at Sam. "Ready?" When he didn't answer immediately, Dean frowned. "Sammy?"
Sam tore his eyes away from the clearing. "I…"
"Me, too. But I think the longer we stay, the worse it will get, let's go." Dean pulled the door open and dropped into the driver's seat. Sam got in. "We'll grab our stuff and head south, I think."
"South?" Sam said, looking over at him.
"Someplace warm and not foggy," Dean said, smiling at him. "We need to get you checked out, too. Make sure what they did to you…" Dean trailed off.
"I'm okay, Dean." He met his brother's eyes. "I am if you are, how's that?" Dean? Are you okay?
"I…" Dean reached over and put his hand on Sam's shoulder again, as if confirming he was sitting there, solid, alive, in the flesh. Sam realized his brother's eyes were haunted, a pain reflected in them that had nothing to do with leaving the hunt, everything to do with what had happened.
"I am now, Sammy," Dean's voice was a whisper, a tear had escaped his eyes and was trickling down his face. He squeezed Sam's shoulder again and then ran a hand across his face. Sam could see his brother's hands were shaking. "I am now." Sam watched as Dean got control of himself, pushing the emotions away, squaring his shoulders and sitting up in the seat, ramrod straight. Sam smiled gently, he'd seen his brother do it a thousand times, the emotion wasn't ever let out for too long. Dean turned the car on and shoved a tape in the stereo.
"Where are we headed?"
"Arizona, I think," Dean said with a little smile.
"I know a psychotic archaeologist I owe a coffee to. She has a hot assistant and if we are very, very lucky…"
"She won't tear my heart out and feed it to wild dogs." Dean laughed and Sam laughed with him. "Her assistant might have a thing for geek boys."
"Thanks," Sam said, letting his head rest on the back of the seat. Dean had the window down and the cold air washed over his face, smelling fresh, full of life. He drifted off to sleep, lulled by the familiar rumble of the Impala and his brother's voice singing along with the tape.
The highway stretched in front of Dean, seemingly unending, the lines beginning to blur. But still he didn't stop. The urge to get as far away as he could before stopping was forcing him onwards. The wound in his side ached, he thought it felt a little sticky, like might have started bleeding again. He glanced over at Sam, still sleeping, his head resting against the window. Is he really okay? Dean put a hand on Sam's arm, needing the contact to confirm his brother was still there.
This was a close call, too close. I almost lost him, and that's not an option. Never an option. Sorry, Sam. And I know I said we'd be back, but I'm not sure we will. I can't risk losing you like that. My world shattered around me. I…He sighed, reaching across the seat again to make sure his brother was still there.
"Dean?" Sam's voice was sleepy. Dean jerked his hand back as if he had been burned. "It's okay, I'm not going anywhere," Sam said gently. "I'm okay." His brother sat up and looked over at him, he blinked and then smiled. "Really. What time is it?"
Dean shrugged. "I don't know. After dark."
"I can see that." Sam laughed. "Let me drive for awhile."
"I'm fine, Sammy," Dean tried to sound stern. Sam frowned at him. "I'm fine."
"Yeah, right." Sam reached over, his hand touching the spot over the wound. He pulled his fingers away, looking in horror at the dark spot on his hand. "Dean, pull over. Now." It was Sam's no nonsense voice, the one that always reminded Dean of their father.
"Fine, whatever." Dean pulled the car off the road. Sam hopped out and came around the car. He opened Dean's door and pulled him around to get a better look at his side. Sam eased the t-shirt up and sucked in his breath. "I'm o…" He stopped when Sam looked at him.
"Don't even say it, Dean. You're not." Sam got up and opened the trunk and came back with the first-aid kit. He carefully cleaned the wound with shaking hands, then laid a bandage over it. "I'm driving, get out."
"Sam?" Dean looked at his brother. Something's wrong, Sam, what?
"I'm sorry, Dean, god, I'm sorry." Sam said, his voice barely more than a breath. "My fault."
"What are you talking about?"
"I agreed to go along with it, and I did this, I…" He looked away.
"Nope," Dean said. Sam looked up at him. "Not needed."
"I know why you agreed, Sammy," he said gently. "She told me." He put his hand on his brother's shoulder. "But you ever, ever, ever do something like that again?"
"Yeah?" Sam said with a half smile.
"I'll kick your ass from here to next week," he pushed himself out of the car. Sam put a hand under his elbow to steady him. Yeah, maybe driving isn't a good idea. His brother helped him around the car and settled him in the passenger seat. Exhaustion was catching up fast, his eyes were already closing as Sam pulled back onto the road. "Thanks," he heard himself say. He slid his hand across the seat, letting it come into contact with Sam. His brother's hand dropped briefly on top of his.
"I'm not going anywhere, Dean."
"Better not." He grumbled, Sam laughed. Dean heard him rummaging in the tape box. The music stopped for a minute and then Deep Purple's "Highway Star" blasted out of the speaker. "Good choice, Sammy." He let himself relax, listening to the music, aware of his brother in the seat beside him, he drifted off, listening to Sam humming along with the music.