The thing that stood before them reminded Jane somewhat of the Greenwitch, but as if this were the being in mimicry of which the Greenwitch itself were made. It towered, huge, wound about with creeping vines like an impossibly ancient tree, its face a near-featureless mass of vegetation that stirred as if in a slight breeze, though no wind now blew in the hall. Its eyes were uncanny; they swirled with colour as if sunlight and cloud chased each other across the sky, lit with occasional sparks, lightning-like.
Jane realised her mouth was hanging open, and closed it. Groping without looking, she found Will's hand and gripped it hard.
The tree-thing had no clearly visible mouth, but it spoke. 'Tethys sends her greetings, Old Ones,' it said. The voice was not loud, but nonetheless Jane swayed under the initial force of it; it was like a storm wind in a hundred trees. Beside her, Will did not flinch.
The Lady inclined her head in acknowledgement and greeting. 'What business does the Wild Magic bring before the Light?'
The tree-thing raised a branch-like arm, and pointed splayed twig-fingers at Jane. 'The Wild Magic claims this woman,' it said.
'No!' Will clasped Jane's hand more tightly and stepped forward a pace as if to shield her.
Merriman said, his words fierce in a way Jane did not remember ever hearing before, 'She is aligned to the Light.'
'A tangent to your Circle only, Hawk,' the tree-thing answered, and the flames in the fireplace bucked and soared though there was still no breath of wind. 'And beyond the Circle, the Wild Magic.'
'And the High,' Will said; he sounded as fierce as Merriman.
'The High Magic will not deny our claim, Old One.'
Jane could no longer bear it. She broke away from Will. 'Stop it – just – stop it!' She spoke more loudly than she had intended, and she felt herself flush scarlet as four pairs of eyes turned to her. 'I am no one's to claim.' But in a sudden rush of uncertainty she held out her hands to the Lady. 'Am I?'
'No, Jane, you are not.' There was rebuke in the Lady's tone, and for an instant Jane's stomach flipped over, but then she realised the censure was not directed at her. Will looked faintly mutinous, but stepped back. Merriman's face remained impassive; only his eyes glittered.
Jane looked from face to face in some bewilderment. 'Please, what exactly is going on here?' But there was silence.
'It is a deep magic, Jane,' Merriman answered her at length, 'and a dark one - though not of the Dark, of course, because the Wild Magic is beyond both Light and Dark. A sacrifice, for renewal, in an age where the Wild Magic is weakened. And by virtue of your connection with the Greenwitch the Wild Magic has – chosen you.'
'But-' Jane struggled to process what she had heard; she felt disconnected from herself, lost in fog. Will's face was unhappy. Merriman's words rang in her ears: A sacrifice. She said, at last, unable to think of any more coherent question, 'But why now? I mean, the Greenwitch was so – well, so long ago.'
'For you, perhaps. But for the Wild Magic times move very differently, and, now as always, a soul is powerful.' The being shifted restlessly. Leaves whispered to each other. 'I tire of this talk, Old Ones. Do you accept our claim?'
The Lady, who had been sitting very still and silent for the last few minutes, looking, Jane thought, as if she were listening to something more than what was being said aloud, now leaned forward and said, 'Jane, the decision is not ours, but yours.'
'Mine?' Jane swallowed a sudden lump in her throat.
'Yes, Jane. True, the Light has brought you to this point, directly and indirectly, but we have no authority to make such a choice as this for you.'
'And if I choose… not to go to the Wild Magic?'
There was compassion in the Lady's voice and gaze. 'It is given me to see many things, Jane, but I do not see for you a way back to your own world through our Doors of Time, whatever your choice.'
'Okay.' Jane drew a trembly breath, and squared her shoulders with a small shake of her head. 'Could – could I just have a minute to think?'
She walked away from the small group, past Will with his fists clenched and face set, away from the fire and into the colder, darker part of the hall, pausing to stare almost unseeing at a tapestry showing a white-haired boy with tawny eyes like an owl's.
She hadn't expected this, whatever this was. When she passed through the doors with Will she had thought maybe she was being given a chance to farewell him, perhaps even to glimpse wherever it was he was going. Then she would tumble out of this more-than-human world for good, her last link with it truly severed, and return to the everyday, lucky enough to have her lost memories of past adventures restored. Now that path was closed to her, it appeared. But why...? Her head spun; she felt thick, stupid. At least Richard had gone first; he would not be left behind to grieve for her. With a thump of her heart Jane realised that soon she would no longer have to grieve for him, either.
No, she had not expected any of this when she had seen Will sitting on the beach the day before, let alone all those years ago when she had felt the sad loneliness of the Greenwitch and wished, innocently, for it to be happy. If she had known, would she have chosen differently?
Jane didn't know. She turned and walked back, and looked intently up at the tree-thing.
'It will help you?' she asked. 'If I… sacrifice myself to you, or however this works, it will help?'
'Yes,' the tree-thing said, and lightning flickered in its eyes.
'Well…' Jane still felt as if she were floating apart from herself, but she was no longer lost. 'If there's no way back in any event…' She turned again to the Lady. 'What will happen to me? I mean-' her voice caught a little '-Simon and Barney – my brothers – they're expecting me… home.' She stopped abruptly.
'You will not just disappear, Jane,' the Lady replied, adding gently, 'and your family will have an explanation to comfort them, though not the true one.' She stood and, taking Jane's face between her strong cool hands, kissed her on both cheeks; there was a mingling of sadness and approval in her eyes. 'You do well, Jane,' she said.
Jane moved over to Merriman, looking up at the strong carved face. ''Bye, Gumerry,' she whispered with a half-smile, and his own face creased in warm response as he took her by the shoulders and kissed her on the forehead. 'Goodbye, Jane.'
Last of all, Will. They hugged each other tightly for a long moment. Will said, slightly muffled, 'Jane, I-'
'It's okay,' she answered, 'it's okay. Really.' She squeezed him one more time. 'I'm so happy to have seen you again, Will.'
'You too.' He took a deep breath, and they smiled at one another.
Then Jane set down the shoulder bag she had been unconsciously holding onto all this time, and stood before the being of the Wild Magic. She said simply, 'I'm ready.'
She saw it stretch out its arm, felt the brush of twigs and leaves, and then she was coming apart like a string made of light, each exquisite knot of nerves unravelling in a burst of brilliance, and then –
Will sank to his knees, staring at the spot where Jane and the tree-thing had stood. The candles sprang back into life; shadows danced. He pressed his fingers to his eyes until specks of light spun on his closed eyelids, opened his eyes and blinked. 'I don't believe it.'
'Do you not, Will?' Merriman was seated now on the edge of the hearth, elbows resting on his bony knees, dark cloak puddled around him. The Lady was gone.
Will looked bitterly at the floor in front of him. 'I told her she had nothing to fear. I brought her here, and now she's – ' He couldn't bring himself to say it.
'There is no blame to you, Old One,' Merriman said, and he sounded once more like the mentor Will had first known, the master chastising the pupil. 'You know the way of things, and how the Wild Magic works.'
Will sighed and sat back on his heels. 'I suppose so. But you didn't know, did you – what was going to happen?'
'I… suspected, when I saw Jane accompany you.' The older man's mouth twisted wryly. 'But I am still capable of being taken by surprise, it would seem.'
'Jane was… really special, wasn't she?' The phrase was inadequate; Will trusted, though, that Merriman knew what he meant.
'Yes, it would appear that she was. More than any of us ever knew.' Merriman was thoughtful now; his brows were pulled down in a slight frown.
Will opened his mouth to say something else but then changed his mind and shrugged instead, turning towards the fire. 'I thought,' he said, after a minute, 'that maybe she was – oh, bloody hell, I don't know what I thought.' He pushed his glasses up his nose, ran his hand through his sandy hair, and stood up.
Merriman rose also, shaking out his cloak. He placed a hand on the smaller man's shoulder and looked down at him with undisguised affection. 'And now, Will – are you ready?'
Despite himself Will felt an idiotic grin break out on his face. 'I'm ready,' he said.
The Doors had appeared again at the end of the hall. They swung open, slowly, before Merriman and Will, and faint in the air rang the delicate bell-like phrase of music, heart-catching, as the first and last of the Old Ones passed through.
Thanks for reading - I hope you enjoyed it. It took months and a trip back to Apollo Bay (where the story began) for me to finish this, and I trust it's an acceptable ending. Jane's fate ended up a bit darker & sadder than I'd intended - but hopefully for the ultimate good. I've finished with this particular plot line, but not the Dark is Rising fandom, and I'm sure I'll write more about my favourite characters at some point.