Chapter ten: Truth

 

Will had not realised he had walked so far. Concentrating only on his snatched link to the stranger, he had not noticed where he was going. He should have noticed Bran. It was unforgivable that he had not noticed Bran, because Bran had seen too much, and now…

 

The walk back stretched ahead of them, mercilessly long. Despite everything he had seen, Bran was silent. Will had put him behind a protection, keeping him safe from all harm, including the self-inflicted harm of his own emotions, but Bran had seen everything. He would have questions.

 

"When we get back," Bran said merely. "Not outside."

 

Will thought of the things that could lurk behind trees or beneath the snow, and knew that Bran was right.

 

He could have covered Bran with a stronger protection, stronger than sleep, making Bran oblivious to everything that happened. He could have – no, he should have – but he had chosen to leave Bran aware, seeing and hearing everything, though protected from it.

 

Because I wanted him to see, he realised, as they reached the buildings again, and people rushing past with chattering and smiles, unaware of the death and the challenge that had taken place so close to them. It was unforgivable, it was weak, it was behaviour not fitting for an Old One, but he had deliberately let Bran find out the truth.

 

As soon as they were back in Will's room, Bran would turn to him with questions, and Will would tell him everything. For an hour – for one delicious hour – Will would no longer be alone with his burden. Bran would know, and Will would be one with him, holding nothing back. The ice around his heart would thaw. He would live and breathe again, trusting another person utterly.

 

And then he would make Bran forget.

 

******

 

He did not know how to begin. All the way back, he had wondered how to start it. What he had never done, though, was question what he had seen. In the end, this was how he let it start.

 

"It all happened," he said, sitting down on Will's chair. "I know that. Everything I saw… All those impossible things… I ought to be sitting here saying that I imagined it, that I had a knock on the head, that I was drunk… Or that you used tricks and mirrors and this is just a joke, you and your friend laughing at

poor, innocent Bran, for believing it..."

 

Will was sitting stiffly on the bed, as still as if he had turned to ice. He looked almost fragile, nothing at all like the towering power that had sent the bowman fleeing.

 

"But I don't," Bran said. His hands were cold, fingers clasped together in an attempt to get warm. "It happened. Amazing and impossible, but it was all true. I don't know why I know this, but I do."

 

Will's mouth opened, then closed it again. It was his only movement. Bran could not see him breathing.

 

"And you're… You have…" Bran clasped his hands until the knuckles were white. "You're a… wizard?"

 

Will stirred. His frozen face cracked, letting words escape. "Not a wizard, though men have sometimes called us by that name. We are Old Ones."

 

"We?" Bran asked, but Will shook his head sadly, and said, "Not any more. I am the only one left."

 

Bran said nothing. He felt as if he should have a hundred questions. This talk of theirs should last throughout the night, and into the day that followed. He would range through doubt and belief, until, throat raw and unable to speak, he would either accept it, and know everything, or walk away, and never think about it again.

 

Stronger than all of this, though, was the memory of the last time he had been in this room. In this very chair, he had kissed Will, and Will had…

 

"That's what you were talking about," he said, understanding breaking on his mind. "When you said you couldn't share everything about yourself, that you couldn't be close…"

 

"How could I?" Will was goaded into expressing feeling at last, harsh and heartbroken. "You thought you knew me, but that was just a mask, an outward seeming. You could never know who I truly was. How can it be love if one person can't reveal anything about themselves?"

 

Bran studied his fingers carefully. "But I know now."

 

Will looked away, sucking in a breath.

 

"So tell me," Bran begged him. "Tell me everything. Let me know you."

 

"I can't." Will's face was still turned away. "Even if I told you everything, you wouldn't really know. You wouldn't feel it. You can't experience it. But this…" He turned back, smiling so warmly that it was shocking, since Bran knew it could not match the feeling in his heart. "This does help, Bran, just knowing that you know this much."

 

"Tell me more." Bran left the chair, knelt on the floor at Will's feet. "Please, Will. Tell me everything, if not for my sake, then for yours." The only one left, Will had said. Bran had not missed that.

 

Will's smile faded. "As long as there have been men, the twin powers of the Light and Dark have been fighting over the fate of mankind. The Dark wanted to rule it, and the Light wanted to drive the Dark away, so that man could be free. There have been countless ebbings and flowings over the years, but seven years ago the Dark was defeated for ever, and the Light left, too, so that man could rule his own affairs unhindered by the High Magic. The Old Ones left, but I remained, the last of them, to watch…"

 

He could have laughed. He should have laughed. But Bran was deadly serious, completely solemn. Even now, every word rang true, as if Will was telling him something he had once known in a dream, but had forgotten. "Seven years ago, Will? You've known this all along?"

 

"Since my eleventh birthday," Will said. "That's when I came into my powers as an Old One."

 

"Then you were never…" Bran remembered all the times he and Will had wandered over the mountains, just two boys together. "You were always…"

 

"Not always." Will gave a wan smile. "Sometimes – often – I forgot. It's like a different side of me, that sometimes goes so far into the background that it's as if it isn't there at all. But as I grew older, my powers grew stronger, harder to ignore. And things were changing around me. My brothers and sisters were growing up, and I realised that they'd only grow older and older, and die, and I'd be left alone. And then there was you…"

 

Bran felt suspended between breaths, unable to move. "You won't die?"

 

Will shook his head. "I am immortal, Bran."

 

What would Bran's life seem to an immortal? Bran felt like a fly, buzzing around for a day, barely noticed by the great men who passed it by.

 

"That was why," Will said. "When we were just friends, it didn't matter that I was… what I was, but when I started to realise that I loved you…"

 

He had heard it before, and last time there was anger. This time, impossibly, Bran just wanted to grin. He loves me.

 

"I withdrew from you," Will said, "and then, because I'd lost the person I really wanted, I withdrew from everyone else. I can never connect to people in the way that mortals connect, because I'm not like them. I can never share anything."

 

Bran touched Will's knee, and Will did not flinch. "But you're telling me now."

 

Will stiffened, closing his eyes. "You knew, once. So did Jane, but you in particular… So much of what happened, we went through together. But then you forgot. Merriman, my master, made you forget."

 

Bran should have argued, but all he felt as a quiet acceptance, as if something inside him was sighing, of course. That was why he had believed it from the start. Will's words must have touched something deep inside him, long forgotten.

 

"Whenever I saw you," Will said, "I remembered… Oh, I enjoyed our time together, Bran, I really did, but I remembered…. I knew…"

 

"That it wasn't the way it could have been," Bran finished for him, understanding, "if I hadn't forgotten, if I had still known you for who you really were, not just as a… a seeming," he said, using the word Will had used.

 

Will curled his hand into a fist. "It was right that you forgot. It was right for all of you. You had seen things that no mortal should have seen, and you were only children. You needed to grow up unfettered by the memories. You had to make decisions for yourselves, without always wondering what Merriman would have done, what the Light would have done. It was right."

 

Bran knew what was coming. He knew it, and he feared it, with a terror stronger than anything he had ever felt. "You're only telling me this because you're going to make me forget it." The words fell like stones.

 

Will did not deny it.

 

"And I'll forget, and you'll be miserable." Bran grabbed the curled-up fist. "Please, Will."

 

"It does not matter," Will intoned, as if recited a lesson. "My feelings do not matter."

 

"Then what about mine?" Bran cried. He bit his lip, shaking his head wildly from side to side. "Will, please. Please… I'm not a child any more. Perhaps it was right then, but I'm not a child any more. It won't interfere with my growing up. It will…" He could argue for hours, he realised, but ultimately only one thing mattered. "If you make me forget, I will lose you. If I remember, then I can love you, and have the thing I want more than anything."

 

"I can't…"

 

Bran stopped Will's words with a finger on his lips. "Please, Will," he whispered, "let me help you. Let me share this. Let me keep my memory of this just for one day, and then after that for another day, and if you ever regret it, tell me, so I can beg you again, for another day, and then another. Day by day, Will. Please, Will. Please give me a chance."

 

Will said nothing, but he let Bran take him in his arms, his head against Bran's breast. He let Bran lower him gently to the bed, and let Bran hold him in comfort as, outside, the evening turned to night.

 

And then Will slept.

 

******

 

Will was slow to wake. At first he was aware of nothing except that he felt at peace, more rested than he had felt months. The daylight at his window surprised him, because it meant that he had slept through the night.

 

He stirred, and something tightened around his shoulder. Breath stirred his hair, and the whole of his was warm with the closeness of somebody else.

 

Bran. Will remembered everything. He stirred again, sliding out from Bran's embrace. Bran was still asleep, he saw, but was fast approaching wakefulness. I should make him forget now, Will thought, but he made no move to do it. If he did it now, Bran would have too many questions. An Old One could create lies, but there was a limit to how far Will could lie about this.

 

Bran's tawny eyes drifted open. He was quicker even than Will to remember what had happened, for he was already turning towards Will, smiling shyly. "You let me remember."

 

He had, and he had slept more deeply than ever before. He had woken with the knowledge that another person was there beside him, to help him bear his burden. It could not last, though. It could not be allowed to.

 

Bran stood stiffly, grimacing as he stretched. The night had not been comfortable for him, although Will knew he would never admit as much. He had probably lain awake for hours, refusing to move in case he disturbed Will's sleep. He deserves better than me, Will thought, the realisation hurting more than it had ever hurt.

 

Will could not let Bran live a lie. He could not bear to see Bran smiling, heady and shy with this new life that had opened to him. "I did last night," he said. "I was so tired. I wasn't thinking…"

 

All light went out in Bran's face. "But you're happier, now that I know." He stared at Will until Will had no choice but to nod. "And I'm happier. I won't tell anyone. If we're both happier, and no-one's getting hurt, how can it be wrong?"

 

Will could not answer. Merriman had taken their memories, and Merriman was his master, never wrong. But Merriman had trusted mortals at times through his long life, letting them know more about his affairs than other men. Merriman had never had to struggle on alone. And Bran was right. He was not a child any more. He would continue to grow and change, but he had taken huge steps into determining for himself just what sort of a man he would be. This confident young man was a different person entirely from the prickly, proud, lonely boy Will had met on a mountain so long ago.

 

He walked to the window, looking out at the snow. Help me, Merriman. But Merriman was gone, and it was up to Will to decide what manner of life he would lead, and how he would relate to the world around him. Merriman trusted him, or he would never have left Will alone, his Watcher in the world of men.

 

He closed his eyes. Did he dare do this? Did he dare hope? "I can't promise that it will be forever," he said at last, not turning round. His breath on the window made patches of fog, and, unthinking, he traced the Sign of the Light in the dampness there. "If things change… If it comes to pass that you will be happier, forgetting…"

 

"But you'll ask me first." Bran grabbed Will's shoulders, fingers digging in harshly. "You'll let me decide. You won't make that choice for me."

 

Will could not make false promises. "I will ask if I can, Bran, but it has always been the lot of an Old One to make decisions that affect men, acting on knowledge and understanding that man can never share. I will ask if I can, but it may be that I know. It may be that I know, and you do not." He turned round, body raking against Bran's grasp. "It's the best I can give you, Bran. Please let it be enough."

 

Bran was clearly fighting fury, but he made a visible effort to calm down. "It has to be, I suppose." Will knew from his eyes that he had not accepted the truth – that he was hoping to make himself so indispensable to Will that Will would never contemplate losing him again. He could have confronted Bran with this, but did not. Not all truths needed to be spoken.

 

Bran headed back to the chair, where he passed his hands through his sleep-tousled hair. "I never asked you about what happened yesterday," he said quietly. "You said that the… the Dark has gone forever, but… Well…"

 

Will got himself a drink of water, and offered Bran one, too. Then it was his turn to kneel on the floor at Bran's feet. "The Dark has gone," he told him, "but some powers remain. The Wild Magic is the magic of the old and primitive things in the world – older than Light or Dark, and beyond the reaches of the High Magic. It is the magic of storms and earthquakes, of the deep ocean and the earth and things that grow. It was forbidden from aiding either  Light or Dark, but after Light and Dark departed, it remained. Recently, for no reason that I know, it has been growing in power."

 

Bran swallowed. "And that man…"

 

"He is one of the lords of the Wild Magic. The Wild Magic normally knows no lords and no order, but a part of it has always lived close to man, and close to the High Magic, which it hated and aspired to in equal measure." Will gave a faint smile. "Men call them fairies, Bran."

 

But Bran had been raised on John Rowlands' stories, and knew that fairies were not the tiny folk of children's stories, but beings to be feared. "Like in Tam Lin?" he said. "Thomas the Rhymer? That's always a queen."

 

"Perhaps he is their king," Will said. "I do not know, for until now the fairies have kept to their realm, and I have kept to mine. Now… I do not know. He – they – seem to be gathering all the forces of the Wild Magic under their banner, though this is something that should not happen. They are…" He wondered whether to tell Bran the rest of it – about the visions of the crumbling cities. "A threat," he finished. "A threat to men, as you saw." But he did not tell Bran that his friend, Rob, had very likely met his death through the tricks and wiles of the fairies.

 

"How long has this been happening?" Bran asked.

 

"That first day I saw you," Will said, "in Merton gardens, I had first become aware that something was wrong. That was why I fell."

 

Bran looked as if he had been struck. "And you've been fighting it ever since, while I…"

 

Will plucked up his courage, and took Bran's hand. "You weren't to know," he said. "I was careful that you didn't."

 

There would be more explanations to come, he knew. The Time Ceremony, for one, and the time when the motorbike had almost hit him. If it did not occur to Bran to ask about them now, he would ask soon. Will only hoped he did not ask about Rob.

 

"So what now?" Bran asked, and Will shook his head, and had to admit that he did not know.

 

Bran was silent for a while, his thumb stroking the back of Will's hand. "Then let's talk about something different." He blushed. "About… us."

 

Will gently withdrew his hand. Bran had to know. This, of all things, could not be lied about. "An Old One is not just something I do, Bran, but something that I am. I cannot ever be anything other than of the Light. That comes first – more important than my feelings, more important than anything… and, yes, more important than you. If I had to choose between fighting this thing, and you, I would choose it. I could not do anything else and remain myself. If my duty to the Light demanded that I had to give you up, I would have to give you up. It might break my heart, but I could not let it break me."

 

Bran said nothing, frozen by Will's words, his tawny eyes turned almost brown with feeling.

 

"You have to know, Bran, that if you want to… to be with me, you will never have all of me. You know my secret now, but you will never truly be able to share this part of me. I am not fully human, Bran. You will never have all of me. Can you live with that? Because, if not, you should walk away now. Let us be friends, allies, comrades… I won't even touch your memories, unless you want me to, but…"

 

Bran's hand rose slowly, until he was touching Will's cheek. "I can live with that, Will."

 

Will knew that he did not understand. "Bran…"

 

Bran stopped him, his thumb brushing over Will's lips. "I love you. I want to… explore this feeling. I want to… We can't have everything at once, of course we can't, but let's take what we can, when we can. For now, it's enough to have you here, now, and that's all that matters."

 

But of course others things matter, Will thought. But Bran was already moving forward, trying to kiss him, and once again Will had to turn his head, to move away with a sad and regretful sigh.

 

It was not the Old One who spoke now, but Will Stanton, a boy who had never thought to find love. "Please, I need to take it slowly." Be gentle with me. My heart is fluttering in your two hands like a frightened bird. "I've told you more than I ever thought to tell anyone. I never dreamed that something like this would happen. I've never kissed anyone before you. I've never even held hands. I don't know how to confide in people. I don't know how to be close to someone, or how to trust. I need to go slowly."

 

"Of course." Bran withdrew, but took hold of Will's hand. "As slow as you like." He blushed, almost speaking, then thinking better of it. Then, "I haven't, either, you know," he admitted. "Never kissed anyone, or wanted to. Even before I knew it, I was waiting for you. I can wait as long as you need."

 

Will smiled. For that moment, this was all he needed, and all he could ever want.

 

******

 

End of chapter ten


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