Chapter four: On the Day of the Dead

 

Bran put down his pen. He pushed a book slightly to one side, and rearranged another. He downed the last of his tepid coffee.

 

The knock came again. "In a minute," he called. He turned the radio on, considered it for a moment, then turned it off again. He ran his hands through his hair, and scanned his room and found it acceptable. It was not too messy, and it shouted of the person he felt he truly was.

 

"Come in," he called.

 

It was not Will.

 

Of course it was not Will. Will never came seeking Bran. It was always Bran who initiated their meetings. Will smiled and seemed pleased to see him, in the muted way that he seemed to do everything nowadays, but he was never the one who suggested that they go somewhere together, or just spend a few hours in talk.

 

He hoped he managed to hide his disappointment. A visit from Jane was a genuine pleasure, too, and no smile for her could ever be feigned.

 

"Were you up to something unmentionable?" Jane asked, arching her eyebrow. "All that scurrying around I heard… Is there a pretty girl hiding under your bed?"

 

"What if I said yes?" Bran said.

 

Jane's smile faltered for a fraction of a second. She knew it wasn't true, Bran thought. She wouldn't have asked it if she'd thought there was any chance of it being true.

 

"No," he said brightly. "I was just reading something terribly lowbrow." He nodded towards to his desk. "I had to pretend I was in the middle of something studious before letting anyone into my private sanctum."

 

"So you don't mind if I disturb you for an hour or two?" Jane asked. "I've just had a tutorial, so of course it's out of the question for me to do any more work today. I was passing and thought I'd pop by and see if you were in and fancied doing… well, something."

 

"I've got an essay due tomorrow," Bran told her, "but you could never disturb me, Jane. Why don't you sit down."

 

Jane perched on the edge of his armchair. "So this is your room." She looked around, looking at the book titles on his shelf, and the pictures on his wall. "Strange, isn't it? We've written for so long, but I've never seen your room before, either at home, or here."

 

Bran settled down on the bed. "So what would you think if you'd never met me before, but came into here, thinking it was a stranger's room?"

 

Jane smiled. "It would tell me that you're the sort of person I would like to know." She gestured at the picture over his desk. "That one's almost scary, though."

 

The picture showed a Welsh mountain, stark and ancient beneath a swirling sky. Despite the black cloud, late evening sunlight illuminated the mountain, so that every broken fence and wind-warped tree cast shadows like long fingers across the hills. The ground burned almost as if it was on fire, and a solitary figure stood watching the sky, his shadow as tall as a giant.

 

"I like it," he said. "I saw it at a market and had to buy it. It… it speaks to me, somehow. I don't know why. It's as if I saw somewhere like that in a dream, or when I was very young."

 

Jane looked at him. She was not smiling now, and her eyes were dark. "I know what you mean. I feel like that sometimes, about pictures, sometimes even about scents. I suppose everyone does. We forget so many things – things we did when we were young; things we did when we were older, but thought nothing of, so didn't bother to remember. Perhaps something remains of all of them, and the correct trigger brings them out."

 

"Maybe." Bran shuffled on the bed so he was sitting with his back against the wall, legs straight out in front of him. "So, how are you, Jane? I feel as if I haven't heard from you in weeks."

 

"You haven't." Jane sighed. "Strange, isn't it? We knew more about what each other was doing when we lived hundreds of miles apart, than when we live in the same city."

 

"It feels silly to write letters to someone living so close," Bran agreed.

 

"And there's so much to do," Jane exclaimed. "Things to learn, people to meet, new friends, and new ways of doing things. But I don't want to forget old friends. I can't do that. Your letters have meant too much to me." She blushed, looking down at the hands in her lap.

 

"New friends?" Bran teased. "What about that dreamy boy you were hoping to get to know better? Any progress there?"

 

Jane's blush deepened. "Jamie? We… He… He asked me out. We went for dinner last week. And now… I suppose you can say we're a couple."

 

"That's great!" Bran was genuinely pleased for her. Jane had not always had the best of luck with boyfriends. Because she was a pretty girl, she had sometimes attracted the wrong sort of boy. Through letters, Bran had consoled her and listened to her, and she had been in a happy relationship for most of her final year at school. When that had ended, he suspected she had been far more upset than she had ever let him know.

 

"I like him." Jane was playing with her hair. "I don't know… We haven't talked about it, but… but I hope…"

 

"He'd better treat you well." Bran frowned in mock warning. "I hope you've told him you've got brothers, not to mention big strong men like me looking out for you."

 

"He's a real old-fashioned gentleman," Jane said. "He even asked if he could hold my hand."

 

"I hope he's not the jealous type, then." Bran gave a theatrical leer. "After all, here you are, all unchaperoned in the bedroom of another man."

 

"I told him about you," Jane admitted. "He doesn't mind."

 

"Oh." Bran's good humour left him. It's because of the way I look, he thought. He imagined Jane describing his appearance to her new boyfriend, and him laughing, dismissing him as no threat. And then there was Jane, teasing him about having a girl under the bed, as if she thought such a thing was out of the question.

 

Bran had never had a girlfriend. He had never as much as kissed a girl.

 

"Oh, it's not like that." Jane half-reached out a hand towards him, then drew it back. She raised the hand to her mouth, muffling her words. "I think… Bran, I think he somehow got the impression that you're gay."

 

Gay? Bran got up and walked to the window. Outside, the quad was empty, but thoughts and memories whirled in his mind, until it seemed as if it was full of people. He saw the girls at school, smiling and pretty. All his friends had jostled with each other to be noticed by the girls, but Bran had stood back and watched, distant and amused. But there were good-looking boys at school, too, and he had never felt attracted to them, either. He was eighteen, and he had never kissed anybody, but he had never wanted to kiss any of them, either.

 

His breath steamed on the glass. He pressed a fingertip against it, running it round in an unsteady swirl. It was cold. He could feel Jane watching him. "I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't mean to… Have I upset you? I thought…"

 

And then there was Will. He remembered standing side by side with Will in the garden at night, every fibre of his being intensely aware of the tiny distance between them. Their arms had brushed, and the place Will had touched had burned, instantly alive. He thought of his actions just minutes before, when he had smoothed his hair and tidied his room, because he thought Will was about to come in.

 

He could list the time and date of every time they had met since he had come to Oxford. He knew how many days, how many hours, since they had last seen each other. He had other friends, and spent evenings with other people, but the times with Will were the most vibrant and intense. Colours were richer, and the sunlight was brighter. The air was sweeter, but pain was deeper, too, when Will was distant, or when they parted without a promise to meet again.

 

"No," he said, pressing his whole palm against the window, watching trickles of water dribble down through the steam. "Maybe I am. I've never thought…"

 

"Bran." Jane was beside him, a hand on his shoulder. But not her! he thought. She was comfort, and that was welcome, but it was Will he wanted to touch him, Will's whose warmth he wanted to feel behind him, breath on his neck, body pressing his against the wall.

 

He turned round, and she withdrew. She went to her chair, and he went to perch on the edge of the bed. The space between them felt a wide as the world. He was tumbling, swirling in a whole new reality. Colours had changed. Black was no longer black. Stars shone at noon, and the darkness was shot through with light.

 

"I don't know if I am gay," he said, scooping up a handful of blanket and squeezing it tight, "but I have only ever been attracted to one person in all my life, and that's… and he's… He's a he."

 

"I'm sorry," Jane said – words from far away, from the old world, before he knew himself. "I didn't mean…"

 

"No." He smiled at her, tried to bring himself down from whatever place he had flown to. The bed beneath him, books on his desk, pictures on the wall, and Jane, here before him. "I hadn't realised. I should have realised. It was obvious, really, but I hadn't… I didn't… It must have crept up on me over the years, and I didn't realise.." He scraped a hand across his face. "How did you know? How long have you known?"

 

"I didn't," Jane admitted. "I did wonder, though. You never spoke about girls in your letters."

 

"Or boys." Bran gave a wry smile.

 

"I wondered if you were just being discreet," Jane said. "Trying not to shock me."

 

"There haven't been any boys." Bran pressed his hands down beside him, smoothing the bedding flat. The picture of the mountain loomed over him, seeming to pulse with life and magic. "That's why I said it. I don't know if I'm… if I'm gay. It's not men; it's just him. I can't explain it. It's as if there's something deeper, and everything else… that's just packaging."

 

Jane looked at him. To his amazement, he saw that her eyes were brimming with tears. "I really didn't know, Bran. But then, when I saw you with him…"

 

"You know." Bran felt the sudden urge to hide his face. "You know who I'm talking about."

 

"I do." Jane nodded, then faltered. "I'm sorry…"

 

"No." Bran shook his head. He felt half in a dream. "Then did you see…? Do you think…?" He pressed his hands to his face, though he had never hidden like this for years. Will had taught him not to. Will. Even the name in his thoughts seemed invested with magic now. And to say it aloud… The thought thrilled him, and scared him, too. To say his name aloud, and to his face…

 

"I can't say for sure," Jane said, "but I think so."

 

Bran lowered his hands. "You don't know what I was going to say."

 

"You were going to ask if he feels the same about you."

 

Bran's eyes were pricking. "It's just that you're so wise and astute and observant," he tried to joke. "You saw the truth and I didn't even know it myself." Hands to his face again, then down, one holding the other, to keep them still. "Do you really think so?"

 

"Bran," Jane said softly, "I can't be sure. I only saw him that one time, and that wasn't for long. But he was always looking at you, and he seemed so sad, but that was just because he thought you were going out with me."

 

But he left, Bran thought. He walked away three years ago, and we're only seeing each other now because I happened to bump into him by chance. He's never the one who comes looking for me. She must be wrong. She has to be wrong. But please… Oh, please…

 

He pressed his hands to his chest. "What shall I do, Jane?"

 

Jane came to sit beside him. She reached for one of his hands, tugged it gently away from his body. "Nothing, Bran. Just get to know him. Spend time with him. Watch him, and then, one day, you will know."

 

"One day?"

 

"Soon, perhaps." Jane patted his hand once, and released it. "After all," she smiled, "I'm never wrong, and I say that he fancies you."

 

"Never wrong!" Bran exclaimed. "You're wrong all the time, Jenny-oh." And the world was normal again, but changed, changed utterly, and never to be the same.

 

******

 

A pair of ghosts giggled in a doorway. A witch hurried past with a bag full of wine bottles, the plastic bag straining against the weight. Two post-graduate students eyed them loftily, their disdain clear. Over them all fell a light rain, swirling almost horizontally in the autumn wind.

 

Will did not like Halloween. There was too much weight of history on that day. Today's mortals saw only the tiny, frivolous surface, but beneath that there were thousands of years of struggle and meaning and tradition.

 

On the day of the dead…

 

"What about going to a Halloween party," Bran had asked him, the day before. They had met for an early supper in a pub, claiming a table as close to the fire as possible.  Bran had been acting strangely throughout, though, as if tiny things had suddenly become hugely important, and important things meant nothing at all. "Someone on my staircase is having a fancy dress party, with apple bobbing, apples on a string – the works. I'm sure you'd be welcome to come."

 

"I don't like Halloween." Will had shaken his head. I met you first at Halloween. Seven years ago, it was.

 

Bran had raised his eyebrows. "You don't approve of it? I didn't know you were religious." He had grimaced. "My Da hates it, of course. An ungodly affair, leading us all into devilry and Satanism, that's what he calls it. But this party seems harmless enough. It's not as if anyone believes any of it."

 

"I'm not religious," Will had said quietly, for all religions were encompassed in the truth that was the High Magic, yet none saw the truth in its entirety. "I don't disapprove of Halloween, I just don't like it." Bran was still looking at him intently, his eyes burning, so Will had decided to lie. "Perhaps one of my brothers traumatised me with a witch mask when I was three, or something."

 

"Scared, are you?" Bran had chuckled. "Oh well. There'll be other parties. See you on Monday?"

 

Will wondered if Bran had gone to the party after all. No, of course he had gone. There was no reason at all for Bran to miss out, just because Will hadn't wanted to go. He would be there now, laughing with his friends, and that was how it should be. Will could not be the friend that Bran needed, for there would always be a barrier between them. A friend had to share everything, and Will had nothing that he was able to share.

 

Music poured out of an upstairs window, and someone not too far away was having a bonfire, despite the rain and the wind. Will could hear many voices, but could make out no clear words. Slowly, he wandered toward the garden, heading for the place that now drew him every single day. There was a large and noisy party in the Junior Common Room. Beyond that there was only darkness.

 

On the day of the dead, when the year too dies…

 

It had never been the case that the Dark was stronger on Halloween than any other day. Like the Light, the Dark transcended man's petty measurements of Time, neither ebbing not flowing according to the passage of days. What was true, though, was that for centuries mankind had believed that dark and sinister things walked on this day. There was power in such beliefs. The creatures of the Wild Magic thrived on the sheer force of fear and expectation, and were drawn by it.

 

The Dark did not rule on Halloween, but the Wild Magic had the power to. Ancient creatures walked, and things heaved themselves from the soil, to shamble for one night in the world of man.

 

And man drew them, too. Children wore masks, and many things could walk in places where they should not be, if their true forms were hidden behind a mask. They were not all human, the small figures that skipped excitedly through the streets of English villages. Boys rang doorbells and ran away, but other things, things without hands, could do the same, and creep in, and find a home.

 

Will was the Watchman, but for millennia, Old Ones had watched on the night of Halloween. Half-closing his eyes, Will sought the doors that took him through Time, and drifted back a hundred years, to this same College garden, on this self-same night. 

 

An Old One stood before him, tall and constant, watching then, as Will was watching a hundred years in the future. "Merriman?" Will breathed, but Merriman did not turn round. The Old Ones had gone from Time, so that only echoes of their presence remained, like images on a mirror, planted through Time. Will could not seek their help, or even talk to them.

 

Specks of light moved across the meadow, like a solemn procession seen from afar. Will blinked. Were they in his own time, or in Merriman's, a hundred years before? He moved close to the seeming of Merriman, but the lights had gone. "Goodbye, Merriman," he whispered, and stepped back to his own century, but still nothing but darkness stretched before him, to the river and the world beyond.

 

A firework sounded, loud and harsh. Will jumped, startled. Maybe the lights were only fireworks, he told himself, but he knew they had not been. His skin tingled with the presence of Wild Magic. There were no voices in his head, and he had not seen the tall stranger since the night the clocks had changed, but something was close.

 

"But I am ready," he told it.

 

The rain grew heavier. The trees swayed, sighing like the newly dead, and wet leaves were torn free, to slap against the ancient wall. Will touched the stone, wondering if Merriman had touched it, too, a hundred years before. He wondered, too, why Merriman had been here at all. A hundred years ago, he had been nearing the end of his time at St John's. As far as Will knew, Merriman had never lived or worked at Merton, yet he had chosen here to watch, on the wall that faced nothing but emptiness, his back turned towards the people and their city.

 

Because we come from the river, and the sea beyond it, whispered things that lurked in the leaves, in the wind, in the ground beneath him, in the skies. We come from the green places and the meadows and the grass. This is the border, where we crash like a wave against the stone wall and the world of straight lines and men. Soon we will come surging over, and there is nothing you can do to stop us.

 

"I can," Will vowed, but the trees rose up and shrouded him. Roots snatched at his feet. His vision blurred, and he saw cities crumble, shattered by the plants that choked their foundations and by the wildness that claimed their people.

 

We have been kept in check for too long, said the trees, and man has encroached too fast and too far. Tonight we have dominance.

 

"No." Will raised himself up to his full height, all masks cast aside. "Tonight you will not."

 

They lashed at him and flailed at him, assailing him with their power and their fury and their ambition, but he stood firm. Tonight, he knew, they would not be able to defeat him. But the night was long, and the wind was strong, and he was alone, the last Old One left on the earth.

 

Tomorrow, he thought with a grim smile, would be beyond imagining.

 

******

 

End of chapter four

 

******

 

On to next chapter

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