Chapter nine: Red against the snow
Snow fell unexpectedly during Bran's first night back in Oxford. Students romped in the quads, scooping up inadequate smears of flaky snow, attempting to make snowballs. Bran watched them, but did not feel inclined to join in. Back home, snow was not an excitement, but a hardship and a danger, harsh to man and animals alike. They had lost many sheep in one terrible winter, when he was eleven.
The second day was a quiet one. Term did not properly start for three days, and tutorials and lectures had not yet begun. Summoned in front of a panel of his teachers, Bran received the first of his termly reports, and was told that his work was satisfactory. That was over by lunch time, leaving him with a long, empty afternoon in a town covered with dirty snow.
He decided to go and seek out Will, before the term started and Will took refuge in work and the library. Instead, he wandered around the bookshops. He emerged from the last one to find that the snow was falling heavily, turning the grey city white. Cold, he headed back to his room, and skulked there all evening.
The next day, the quads were covered all over with thick white snow. I'll go today, Bran told himself, and he wrapped himself in coat and scarf just to go to breakfast. He greeted several friends, and joined in with their good-humoured moaning about these cold, medieval buildings. Afterwards, he headed to the common room to flick idly through the papers.
Perhaps Will had not yet arrived back in Oxford. Bran had come a day earlier than most undergraduates, his journey governed by train timetables and the need to get a lift to the station. A few students in his year, whose homes were in Scotland or far away, had still not been able to return, trapped by heavy snow. But Will only lived near Slough, barely forty miles away, and snow in the south had been light at first. Of course Will was here. Will was in his room, watching the snow by himself, and it was up to Bran to find him.
He headed out, but his feet were treacherous, taking him past the lane that headed down to Merton, and instead carrying on down the High Street, to the broad bridge that led to Jane's College. There he faltered. Jane would ask him about Will, he was sure of it. She wanted them to meet and talk things through, and Bran would have to tell her that had not.
He paused on the bridge, the tall tower of Magdalen slim and beautiful behind him, and stared out at the water. Less than three months before, he remembered, he had stood here with Will, but then the trees had been green, and today the branches were black and bare, and the water was deadly cold.
Will was colder than he had been in the winter of his eleventh birthday, when the Dark had seized the whole world with its grip of cold. Outside his window, even the trees were shrouded in snow, and the whiteness seemed to seep through the glass, like fingers reaching into his heart.
He barely remembered the journey back to Oxford. He knew his father had helped him unpack, had stayed for a mug of tea, then had driven away, shaking his head at the sheeting greyness of the sky. As soon as he had gone, Will had settled down with a book, his eyes passing over a hundred pages of words without reading them. Footsteps had thundered up and down the stairs as everyone around him returned for the new term. No-one knocked at his door. He did not go out to greet any of the voices.
Snow had started to fall during the night, and Will, lying sleepless and silent, had felt each flake brushing against his senses, each one frozen yet alive. Like me, he had thought the following morning, scooping up a handful of snow, and holding it with the gentlest touch of his power, so it would not melt. It told him of all the things it had seen, as water in the oceans, as vapour in the clouds, and now as ice in the world of man. In return, he could tell it nothing, for he had nothing left to give. He was a pillar of ice, a fire burnt to ashes, a lump of stone, dead and cold.
He drifted through the days, because he had to. An Old One could never give up living, even if he had been left alone to watch an uncomprehending world. The snow deepened. His tutors told him that he was doing well. People smiled at him. Once he had known their names, but now the names had gone to a place in his mind that he could no longer find. An Old One knew all the names of all the stars in the heavens, but the names of people were transient things, entrusted to his mortal, fading mind.
Today was Saturday. Term started tomorrow, and Monday would bring his first tutorial. He would go, he would work hard, he would write. Snow could fall, higher than his chin, higher than the rooftops, higher than the tallest mountain, and still he would drift through his appointed life, because there was nothing else he could do.
He left his room, headed out onto the path, onto the wall, onto the garden. The leaves had fallen, and nothing whispered in the trees. He had not seen the stranger since arriving back in Oxford.
But I am still here, the stranger told him, wild and triumphant. Will turned round slowly, seized with a sudden impression of swirling trees and the sense of a thrilling chase. Can you save him?
Will saw blood on the snow. Something tumbled out of the sky, struck with an arrow, and a pale body lay lifeless on the ground. Where? he demanded, then shouted it aloud, commanding in the Old Speech. "Where?"
The stranger was silent, lost in the glee of the hunt. Will threw his sense outwards, pinning it to the stranger's presence like a drowning mariner throwing a lifeline, and began to follow.
He did not know what to do. Bran turned slowly away from the water, leaning back against the stone parapet. Standing here above the river, he felt as if he was between two worlds, and part of neither. Jane was on one side of the river, gently questioning. Will was on the other, and with him…? Bran sighed. He did not know. With Will, there could be pain and heartbreak, anger and shouting, or there could be an explanation, a long talk, a new beginning, and then…
"No," he murmured, turning his head away. He could not hope that. They had to talk, though. Perhaps they could salvage something from the mess, and even if they could not, Bran had to try. He was nervous and afraid, but it had to be faced. He had been walking away from it for three days, but would walk away no more.
He pushed away from the bridge. As he did so, he saw Will walking into Magdalen.
Bran did not pause to think or to question. He saw a gap in the traffic, and seized it, running through the black slush towards the open gate of Magdalen College. Will was some thirty paces ahead of him, walking slowly, looking neither right nor left. Bran considered calling out, but did not. Seized by some impulse he could not name, he started to follow.
Will moved through the cloisters, which were lovely and placid around the white expanse of untouched snow. Bran followed. Will was walking more slowly than Bran's natural pace, he realised, so Bran slowed down, trying to make his step seem natural. But why slow down, he wondered, if I want to talk to him? The only answer he could come up with was that they could not talk here, in a snatched moment in a strange College, watched by eyes that did not know them. Then he wondered why it should be that Will's destination was a better place to talk.
Will passed entrance after entrance, but did not stop. A group of students spilled out of a staircase, but Will walked past them as if he did not even see them. As they parted around him, Bran was struck with an image of water parted by a stately ship – of people edging away from the passage of someone special. But that's only because he's special to me, Bran thought, and realised that it was the truth. Will was still special to him, and no furious words, soon regretted, could alter that. No matter what Will said to him today, Bran would still cherish him.
They left the College behind, heading into the water meadows that stretched between Magdalen and the river. At first the snow was churned up by hundreds of feet, but soon the fields turned silent, the snow untouched.
That was when the doubts hit him. It isn't Will! Because this person was moving so smoothly, almost as if gliding, and surely Will did not normally walk like that. His arms did not swing at his side as Bran's arms were swinging, but were slightly raised, like something searching for something in the dark. Despite the bitter cold, his hands were bare, and he wore no hat or scarf.
The strange not-Will turned a corner, and Bran caught a glimpse of his face in profile. It looked like Will, but then the doubts became fear. It's gone too far now. I've followed him for too long. How could he explain himself when Will finally noticed him? The snow stretched on ahead of him, seeming to reach for miles, and he imagined himself following Will out of Oxford, out into the wilds, and beyond, as the sky turned dark and the wind rose, bringing fresh snow falls.
Then the trees shivered, dark across the path, and Bran imagined Will angry with him, accusing him of spying. He knows I'm here, he thought. He's leading me out here, and then he's going to abandon me. Because Will, that silent figure ahead of him in the snow, suddenly seemed impossibly dangerous.
But he could not go back. He had come so far now, far out into the meadows, the buildings reduced to no more than a distant tower. When Will turned to walk back, he would see the footsteps, and know that someone had followed him out here.
Notice me, Bran urged him. Turn round and notice me, and bring this to an end. At the same time, he begged Will to carry on, to take a circular path, and never see him. In a few hours, after dinner, Bran could call on Will in his room, say what he needed to say, and not a word would need to be breathed of this walk in the snow.
Something moved under the trees, and Bran saw that there were deer nearby, brown against the snow. As he turned to look at them, he caught a quick glimpse of something moving on the other side of him. He whirled round, but it was too late. Will was transformed, rushing forward, his steps quick and firm, his arm outstretched. The movement Bran had seen was gone. Seeping red, a dark speck lay in the snow.
Bran's steps slowed. As he watched, Will knelt down beside the brown thing, touching it with exquisite gentleness. Bran drifted one step closer, then two, and saw that it was a brown bird, pierced through with an arrow.
Will stood. Bran felt as if the whole world hung suspended, waiting for his response. "Come out." Will said it quietly, in a way that made the hair stand up on the back of Bran's neck. "I know you are here."
Bran edged forward; he could not help it. He felt as if he was drawn by a cord, summoned by Will's quiet waiting. Resistance was impossible. He struggled for words, for anything he could say that would make this less terrible. Different openings gibbered in his brain. In the end, useless, he rasped Will's name, and nothing more. "Will…"
Will whirled round, and his face expressed surprise and horror before it cleared and was blank again. "Bran." There was all the feeling in the world in that one name, and yet nothing at all, nothing that Bran could read.
"You didn't know I was here," Bran realised. He did not feel relief, because if Will had not been talking to him, then who…?
"You should go. You shouldn't have come." Will's hand rose, pushing his hair from his face. "I was following… I should have noticed you. Stupid of me. Blind."
Nothing remarkable was happening, nothing extraordinary, nothing strange. Bran told himself this with all his strength. "I was coming to see you, and then I saw you going into Magdalen. I wanted to talk…"
"It's too late." Will raised his hands and muttered some words in a language Bran did not know. Bran was suddenly filled with the urge to stay where he was, and the certainty that nothing could go wrong. His anxieties fell away, and even the cold felt less biting, and the sky less dark.
A man emerged from the trees behind Will, and stalked towards him, smiling. There was something about his smile that… No, something soft whispered in his mind, speaking in impressions, not in words. You can look at it without fear. You are safe from that, and from everything, while I am here.
Still, it seemed polite to tell Will about him. "Behind you, Will." His voice came out quieter than he had expected it to. It felt as if a thick veil hung between him and the world, so that even a shout would come out no louder than a whisper.
"I know." Will gave a faint smile, and turned his back on Bran, speaking instead to the stranger. The stranger had an old-fashioned longbow in his hand, Bran realised. "You had no right to do that," Will told him.
The stranger waved his bow. "I have every right, Old One. He was mine."
"He was not yours," Will said, in a cold voice that Bran had never heard from him. "If he was in your power, it was because you won him with lies and trickery."
"Long before your time," the stranger said. "Long before your time, and you powerless to stop us."
"But it is finished in my time," Will told him. "And now and forever more, until the ending of the world, I stand here to oppose you when your hand reaches out to the world of men."
"You could not save this one," the stranger laughed, "or the other one, or the many that are yet to come."
He's talking about me? Bran wondered. Then the stillness soothed over him again, soft in the snow. No, Bran. Be still.
"But I can return him to his true form." Will knelt again, bowing his hand, spreading his hands over the tiny form of the bird. "He will die as he should have lived, free from your grip."
As he touched the bird, the air seemed to shiver. Bran never saw the change happen, but an instant later, the bird was gone, and a naked man lay in his place, his skin as pale as the snow, a bead of blood at his throat. He was still alive. "Old One," he whispered, his blue eyes widening, and Will touched him on the brow, as if in benediction, and said, "Be at peace. You are home."
The man died, the light going out of his eyes. Will's hand lingered for a moment, and then he stood. Cold gathered around him like a storm, and he stood taller than Bran had ever seen him. One hand thrust out, in a command that Bran knew no living man would be able to disobey.
"Go!" Will commanded the stranger. "This is not your place. You can wander at will in the world's wild places, but these places are set aside for men. You cannot interfere with Light or Dark, and I place every living soul in this city under the protection of the Light. If you seek to command them, you are declaring war on me. By the spells of the earth and the air and the cold and the fire, I command thee to lay no hand on any mortal here, and neither seek to bind them with word or hold them through suggestion. You have done your work, but you will toy with me no more. Go!"
The stranger laughed.
Dark clouds gathered; wind tore at the trees. Snow crystals gleamed in the air, gathering above Will like a crown. "Go!" he commanded, in a voice that made even the earth echo in response, obedient to his command.
The stranger left, sauntering back into the trees, his bow across his shoulder. Bran blinked, and when he looked again, Will was no more than he had ever been – a boy in the snow.
Bran felt nothing. Even his thoughts were dim. Faintly, he recognised that he ought to be feeling something. His eyes had seen impossible things. For a moment, Will had seemed more dangerous than anything in the world. A man had died. A man had died, and Will was not the person Bran had always thought he was, but something different, impossible, terrifying, remote…
But all this through a veil. And that was Will, too, his fuddled mind realised. Protecting me from that man, and from my own feelings. Then he remembered how Will had loomed tall as the sky, gathering all the dangerous things around him in a storm of cold command. Protecting me from him?
But it was not yet over. There was more still to come. As Bran watched, Will knelt down beside the dead man, and touched him again, this time on the chest. "Resume your true form," Will whispered, "and be at peace." As if it had been waiting only for his command, the man's body faded, turning into dust. Bran heard a faint sound, and then the body was gone, not even dust on the wind.
"He was four hundred years out of his time," Will said quietly, not raising his head. "Four hundred years under an enchantment, though to him it would have seemed no more than seven years. His body has returned to its true state, as a man four hundred years dead. There was no helping him. There is only peace."
Then, with a sigh, Will stood and walked towards Bran. Bran felt the moment the invisible veil fell away. He felt it in the sudden coldness of the wind, in the dampness of melting snow around his ankles, in the pain of his own chest, and the tremors that came from more than cold. But he did not cry or shout or scream. Instead, as calm now as he had been forced to be behind the veil, he looked Will full in the face, and said, "We need to talk."
End of chapter nine