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In the Bleak Midwinter

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Will stepped out of Manor and onto the Old Way. It would be the easiest and safest way, he knew, to reach his home and then he could persuade his mother to return to the Manor with him. With the Dark surrounding the Manor in his own time, he would slip quietly past their defences, unnoticed. The Way was silent and white with snow, but he found it easy enough going. The moon was already risen in this time, and shone clear and bright to light him home. As he trudged along, a shiver of warning rushed down his spine, and he froze in fear as he saw the Rider was waiting for him off to the side of the Way, malice gleaming in his eyes. His huge black horse let out a whuff of steamy breath. There was another dark figure on foot beside him, a tall, thin young man in a black coat, wearing an incongruous pair of sunglasses.

"Greetings, Will Stanton," the Rider said. "I will take the Signs you carry."

"You will not," Will said, backing up.

"Hand them over, boy, and you won't be hurt," the young man said.

"I don't obey the Dark or their servants," Will said. "I am of the Light."

"How nice for you," the young man said mockingly. "Unfortunately, I th--"

"Be silent. Get him," the Rider interrupted.

The young man gave a slow look at the Rider, then sprinted onto the Way and straight at Will. Will swallowed as he saw some inhuman movement underlie the man's gait. Before he had chance to draw breath, he was seized and held.

"Don't fight me," the young man said, and wrestled the Signs on their belt from Will.

"Well done. Now give them to me," the Rider said shrilly.

The young man took a firmer grip on the front of Will's jumper and gave the Rider a cold look.

"I am not yours to commend or chastise."

He ran along the Way, tugging Will with him. Will gasped at the unexpected strength pulling him along, and struggled not to fall. The Rider was following close behind. Will was wrenched round as the young man traced a symbol in the air with his free hand, and said words that Will could not hear properly and was glad he could not. The air shivered around him and he heard the roar of an aeroplane passing overhead. The man pulled him along again, and he saw a patch of shadow under the trees resolve itself into an open topped black car. The Rider reined his horse in and screamed in fury as Will was flung bodily into the passenger seat. The young man jumped in to the driver's seat, and the car leapt forward.

Will stared at his captor. He seemed very young, although Will was sure that was simply an illusion formed by the slender frame and smooth clear skin. It was a pleasant face, if you were going to be taken in by the illusion. The man kept his eyes on the road, and didn't turn on his lights. Will was sure they were driving very fast, from the speed of the wind in his face. He stealthily reached for the door handle and pushed it slowly down.

"Stop that. Are you trying to kill yourself?" the young man said.

Will tried to open the door.

"I said, stop," the man roared.

Will found himself unable to move. They drove on for some indeterminable amount of time. Will found that if he concentrated very hard, with all his might, he could move a little. It was exhausting, and he didn't deceive himself that his efforts were going unnoticed. He was very cold, and had gone beyond shivering. His captor didn't seem to notice the frigid air. Will miserably watched the long pale fingers casually turn the wheel. His own hands were blue and no longer had feeling.

He gathered all his strength together and whispered "I'm freezing."

"Yeah? Well, that's winter, kid."

They drove in silence again. Will felt the man suddenly look over at him.

"You really are freezing, aren't you? Here. Take my hand."

Will found he could move again, and looked at the outheld hand. He felt very strongly that he did not want to touch it, and shrank back.

"Oh, for Heav-- Look. Just take my blessed hand, will you? You're not going to catch anything."

Slowly, Will put one of his blue hands in the man's hand, shuddering a little as fingers closed firmly around his own. Warmth surged through him, and feeling rushed painfully back into his hands and feet. He whimpered a little, and the man laughed cruelly as he put both hands back on the wheel.

"Why did you take me away from the Rider?" Will asked.

"He was annoying me. I'm not his lackey."

"Whose lackey are you?" Will asked sharply.

He got a thin smile in return.

"Aren't we cocky, now that we're feeling all toasty again? So, Mr Will Stanton I-am-of-the-Light, where are the rest of those Signs?"

"I'm not making your master's job easier," Will said.

"My master. You're so sure you know who that is. How about some thanks for saving you? Don't I deserve some payment?"

"You've already had the satisfaction of taking a prize from the Rider. It seems to me that was all you wanted at the time, so why up your price now?" Will said, more bravely than he felt.

The man laughed. It was a surprisingly open and pleasant sound.

"Where are you taking me?" Will asked.

The only answer was a sharp-edged grin. Will didn't feel like an Old One any more, he felt like a scared eleven-year old boy. Vaguely understood horrors from the bits of his dad's paper he wasn't supposed to read slid though his mind.

"Are you going to hurt me?" he asked, hating how his voice sounded.

"Maybe. It depends on whether you do as I say or not."

Will swallowed heavily in fear. The sunglasses swung his way for a moment, and the young man sniggered.

"Oh. No. I'm not going to do that. What, do you think I'm a monster?"

The idea seemed to amuse the man greatly. Will wished he were at home, or back at the Manor with Merriman, or anywhere but trapped in this car. Finally the car slowed.

"We're almost at the London road," the young man said.

"You're taking me to London?" Will said in distress.

"No. I'm going to London. You are getting out of my car in a few minutes and walking home. Don't worry, I'll make sure you don't freeze to death."

After another few moments the car drew to a halt.

"Here. If you head that way over the fields you can be back home in under an hour. The way we came should have thrown the Rider off the scent. If you don't draw attention to yourself you should have no problems."

"You're just letting me go?" Will said incredulously. The Dark didn't act like this. There had to be some trick.

"It's that or take you to London," the young man said. "And I'd never hear the end of that, let me tell you."

Will moved quickly, diving for the back seat where the man had carelessly tossed his belt. He had his fingers round it and was jumping back when the man slapped him lightly in the face. Will gasped more in surprise than pain. He'd never been hit by an adult before, and the shock lost him the initiative.

"Silly kid," the young man said prying it out of his fingers. "Do you really think I'd let you take this? It's bad enough I got you away from him without letting you waltz off with this as well. Oh, stop looking like you're going to cry, I barely touched you. Listen, you're going to tell Merriman he can pick this up in Soho, all right?"

"I don't understand," Will said. "Why give it to Merriman and not me? Why does he have to go to London?"

"It'll look a lot better, me being beaten in a fair fight by a force of good than just handing this over to a little boy, won't it? Merriman will know who to collect this from," the man said casually. "As for why - well, let's say I'm really rather annoyed at all these local powers stirring things up and disturbing the good thing me and my friend have going here. There's always someone who thinks they can rush the Apocalypse, isn't there? Your friend the Rider wanted to call something up from the Dark."

The young man gave Will a sly smile and took off the sunglasses. Will gasped in horror and shrank back.

"He got something from the Dark, all right," the man hissed. "Now let's see what we can do about your memory of recent events, Willie-lad."

Will sobbed, eyes wide, as he was pulled forward and held so he couldn't avoid looking into the thin and no longer pleasant-looking face.

Will shook his head and looked resignedly over the fields. It was a long way home, but he knew he'd managed to evade the Rider. It was a shame he'd had to send the Signs further out of time for safety, but at least he knew – although he wasn't quite sure how – that they were quite safe in London. He'd tell Merriman the moment he saw him. It wasn't as if he'd manage to give his parents the slip long enough to get them back himself.

He sighed. There was no point standing around in the snow, he told himself, and began the long trudge home.