Chapter eleven: The taking
How could it be possible for the world to change so utterly in just one night?
Bran felt as if he was flying as he left Merton. Will loves me. He wanted to grab strangers and tell them the news; he wanted to cherish it secret for ever, for it was far too precious to be sullied by the telling. He wanted to dance. He wanted to race back to Will's room and never leave.
It was warmer than it had been for days, and no longer snowing. The pale sun was burning away the morning haze, and already the snow was beginning to melt. Or is it just my imagination? he thought, as he unbuttoned his coat, and let the ends of his scarf flap loosely from his neck. Warmth had blossomed in the world just as hope had blossomed in his heart. Then he smiled to himself, wondering if happiness always made a man so poetical, so prone to clichés.
He reached the High Street, where shoppers were already heading into town, and students, muffled with their College scarves, headed towards early lectures. During the long night, Bran had forgotten that this was Monday, the first working day of term. The world had changed, but there were still tutorials to go to, and essays to write. There were still dinners, and libraries, and parties on his staircase, loud in the night. There were bills to pay and letters to write…
And magic, lurking always beneath the thin veneer of daily life – magic that no mortal man knew about, but him.
He stopped awhile, gazing in wonder at the stone buildings, at the cobbles, at the bare trees glimpsed through College gates. Magic lay beneath all of that. The rules of life were not what he had always thought they were. Once, Old Ones had walked in power through the streets of Oxford, and no-one had thought they were anything but normal men. Now Will, the last of them, lived the life of a quiet student, but really was something miraculous and powerful, and his.
He scooped up a handful of snow, wondering what secrets lurked in those exquisite crystals. It melted into water, and he wondered if water had its own magic. Sunlight glistened, and he knew that had power and glory. At the end of the day would come twilight, and things still lurked in the wild places of the earth. Even behind the protection of Will's spell, Bran had seen the power and danger of the archer's smile.
"Bran." He did not even connect it at first with belonging to him. Hands in his pockets, he gazed at the sky, wondering if stars still wielded power even if they could not be seen. "Bran." It came again, and he turned clumsily, to see Jane.
It was a wrench to bring his mind down to a place where he could talk to her, but he managed it. "Jane. How was your Christmas?"
"Fine." She smiled. "And yours?"
It was stilted at first, the first few exchanges after weeks apart. They said what they needed to say, then Bran wondered if he was supposed to tell Jane about his new understanding with Will. Men were supposed to boast about their conquests, weren't they? But he could not. The night he had spent with Will was not to be sullied by telling it to anyone else, not even Jane.
Jane clearly wanted to ask anyway. "So…" She pulled at her bottom lip with her teeth, then faced him directly. "Did you talk to Will?" Her voice was soft, and her eyes were ready to accept either answer.
Bran tried to keep it casual, but nothing could prevent a grin from breaking out on his face. "I did, and…" There was no need for further words; the smile said it all.
Other girls might have clapped their hands together in excitement, or thrown themselves at him in joy, squeaking and shrieking. Jane was not one of those girls, but her smile said as much as any noisy exclamation. "Oh, Bran, I'm so glad."
"Don't tell anyone yet," Bran said. "It's new. Will… He's shy, really, though you wouldn't think it, because he always looks so composed. We've decided to take it really slowly. Don't even say anything to Will, if you see him."
"I won't," Jane promised. She looked at her watch. "I'd love to stay and hear all about it, but I've got to rush. Lecture at nine."
"I need to get home and change, anyway," Bran said.
He realised as soon as he said it that it was a mistake. He saw Jane's expression flicker for a moment as she worked out the implication of his words, but she said nothing. She would have walked away without questioning him, he knew, but he was suddenly desperate for her not to misunderstand.
"We were talking last night," he babbled. "We were up late, talking about so many things. And it was late, and cold outside, but warm inside. A bit of wine. You know how it is. I didn't mean to, but I fell asleep in his chair. That's all it was, Jane. We didn't even… kiss." He blushed as he said it.
"I wouldn't have minded even if you had," Jane said quietly. She squeezed his hand, smiling warmly. "Thank you, Bran."
Bran watched her hurry off. She used to know about Will, he remembered suddenly. Will had told him so many things, and some of them – huge, shocking revelations if they had come by themselves – had slipped by, barely noticed. But Will had definitely said that Jane had once known about the Old Ones. She had known, and, like Bran, she had been made to forget.
And Will could still make him forget. All this happiness, all this joy, could become nothing if Will chose to make it so. Bran could lose all this at any time, just through Will's whim.
The glitter of the new world faded, and the square was normal again, full of ordinary people in dingy clothes, rushing about their ordinary, everyday business. A thin veneer of magic remained, but it was shadowed now. He thought it always would be.
Long after Bran had left, Will finally stirred. His coffee was cold. He saw a book open on the desk, a pen lying discarded over a sheet of paper, half covered with writing that no longer looked like his own.
He pulled on his thick coat, found some gloves from somewhere, and wrapped himself up in his College scarf. He walked outside, feeling as if he was floating, drifting through the world of men like the ghost that some said haunted the library.
Bran had kissed him. Bran knew the truth. Bran still remembered.
Caught by the thought, he smiled. Someone smiled back, but they were not Bran. He smiled at them anyway, and smiled, too, at the porter, answering his comment about the weather with a comment of his own.
He felt more rested than he had felt for months. He had spent the night in Bran's arms, cherished by the only person in the world who knew who he truly was. It was such a comfort to know that another living soul knew who he was. It was a blessing to no longer hold it as a secret.
It could not last, he thought, as the cold air wreathed around him. He walked along the cobbled street, splashing through the dirty slush, heading he knew not where. He was an Old One, born to the service of the Light. It was not for him to show this… weakness. He had to serve, and serve alone. If he relied too much on love, he would be weakened in the job he had to do.
It was not fair on Bran, either, he thought, as he crossed the High Street, heading again for Magdalen. Bran as he had been… Yes, that was a fair match for both of them. The Old One and the Pendragon, both with a place in the pattern. They could both live lives that were beyond the understanding of mortal men, and both feel the joy of the Light, or the dread of the Dark.
But Bran was no longer the Pendragon. He had chosen a mortal life, and the High Magic had endorsed that choice. Even if he remembered everything, he would never again be the magical being he had once been. No power on earth could undo a choice made so formally at the ending of the world. Bran was an ordinary mortal, and always would be. He deserved to live his life with someone he could understand. He deserved to live his life with someone who could put him first, above everything, and Will would never be able to do that, for the Light came first.
I told him that, Will thought. I told him that, and still he chose me. It left him trembly, not sure what to believe, caught between his rusty instincts as a man, and his life as an Old One, that had closed around his life like a cage.
He was in the park, now, retracing his steps of the previous day. The open fields were still thick with snow, marked only by the swirling shapes of footsteps, left behind from some late-night snowball fight. He was still not entirely sure why he had come. If his instincts as a human were rusty, his instincts as an Old One felt clouded, blunted by the amazing events of the night before.
I am going to lose my way, he thought. Unless I break it off with Bran now, I will not be fit to fight.
A few more steps, and the cold was biting against his cheeks. He wrapped his coat around him, and thrust his gloved hands deep into his pockets. Or maybe, said another voice, you will find your way only through him. You will blunder lost unless you let him take you by the hand and lead you back to life.
He thought of how tired he had been, how detached, how distracted. Last night, he had slept better than in months, better than in years. Surely…
Bran had kissed him. Bran knew everything, and still loved him. And then he was back to that again, back to smiling inanely at the empty fields. He wanted to hug himself, to hold onto the simple warmth of that thought, and guard it fiercely in the face of all doubts.
But he could not. The doubts were there, and the cold, and his life as one born of the Light. He had reached the place where he had confronted his enemy, with Bran watching everything. The footprints were still stark in the snow, showing where they had stood. He crouched down, touching Bran's footprints. Magic could be worked through the place where a man had stood. If he chose to, he could make Bran forget everything, and create a lie in his mind, in which he did not know Will Stanton, and was happy.
He stood up, turning away sharply. The enemy had left footprints, too, and Will paused over those for a while, but there was nothing he could do directly to harm one of the Wild Magic. He saw, too, the place in the snow where the dying man had lain, hunted by this cold-hearted lord of fairy, and killed in the form of a bird. He knelt beside this, and touched it, feeling an echo of the man's grief and fear, and his longing for home.
Will closed his eyes, emptied his mind… Music swelled around him, as it always did when great enchantment was unfolding. He quested towards it with nameless, impossible longing, but then it was gone, and he was in a field of wheat and poppies, warm beneath a late summer sun.
He did not move at first. A bird flew leisurely overhead, pale brown against the blue. Church bells sounded behind him, and he turned slowly to see a small village, huddled around a honey-coloured church. Smoke rose from chimneys, and he saw specks that were sheep and cattle on the further green hills.
He started walking, heading for the village. People were hurrying from their houses, answering the summons of the bells. He watched a child being dragged by the hand by a woman in a long blue dress. A muscled man strode from the Smithy, ruling over everyone he passed.
An Old One did not always know where he was in Time. The costume made him think it was the early sixteenth century. The colour of the stone showed that he was in the Cotswolds, a few days' ride from Oxford. He did not recognise the church, although it doubtless still stood in his own time.
He did not enter it. Drawn by the tug of the dead man's longing, he made for the hedge that divided the village from its first great field. When he heard voices, he concealed himself as a human would do, for his powers as an Old One could be a beacon, drawing the attention of enemies, and this was a world in which the Dark still existed.
"You are not going to church?" a woman was saying, her voice soft and lovely, and warm with laughter. "Are you not worried about the wrath of God, or the furious denunciation of your priest, so bristling with wrath in the pulpit?"
"I don't care," said a fervent young voice. "You are all I want."
"Everything?" Will heard the cruel laughter that ran beneath her voice like an underground river; the besotted lover heard only the kindness. "Do you truly love me as much as I love you, my dear one?"
"I do," the man said fervently. "More. More than the earth. More than the moon. More than the skies."
"More than you love your sweet betrothed?" she asked. "No, I think not." Her voice feigned sadness. "I think it is better if I left."
"No!" he cried – a desperate, pain-filled cry from the soul. "Don't go. Or if you go, take me with you. I never want to leave you."
"You will come?" she said, marvelling, laughing, triumphant. Her victory was complete. There was nothing Will could do, for all of this had happened long ago, and he had already seen the end of it. He could stop the fairy folk from coercing men, but he could not stop men from being the authors of their own doom. It was all done by choice; it always was.
He saw the young man, bright with promise, take the hand of the being who was to be his undoing. He saw him, smiling, be led into the trap that would lead him to die four hundred years after his time, hunted to his death by a cruel lord. Through a veil of hawthorn, he watched, and he did not know why he had come, because he could do no good at all.
And then the lady turned towards him, her face cold and terrible, with barely a shadow of the heart-stopping loveliness she had shown to her victim. "Old One." Her voice carried with it all the chill of winter.
Will stepped forward, shedding his cloak of hawthorn, wading through the cornflowers and poppies that rimmed the field. Holding her awful gaze, he nodded at her, but did not dignify her with name or title. Her saw her lips tighten with fury at the affront, and the bitter, human side of him was glad.
"You cannot stop me, Old One," she said. "For as long as man has loved, for as long as man has been swayed by beauty, we have been allowed to take those who choose it as their doom. It has always been thus. The Light cannot stop it."
Will said nothing. But he held the lady's gaze steadily for a long time, and eventually her gaze dropped.
Her victim stood nearby, frozen and unseeing. The people of Fairy, like the Old Ones and the Lords of the Dark, could catch a mortal out of Time for a space. Time ran differently in their realm, and they could stop it or start it at will. They could not travel through it as an Old One, though. This lady knew only what had happened in the past, and knew nothing of the future. She could travel to neither.
"He is mine, Old One." Her voice was trembling with fury. "Mine."
"No," Will said calmly. "He is his own. All men are. You can trick them and seek to bind them, but you can never take away their freedom of choice. He may live in the shadow of your deceit, but he will die free, his mind free from the veil you have cast over it."
She strode away, her lovely face almost petulant. As she passed her victim, she snatched at his wrist. Powerless, watching, Will had no warning. Claws tore at his hair, and he threw up his hand, shielding his head. Black feathers filled his vision, and a raucous cawing sounded impossibly loud in his ears. He reached into his memory for the words that would strike his attacker down, but as he did so, claws penetrated his guard, scoring a line down the side of his neck. Snapping a word in the Old Speech, he thrust his hand at the rook, casting it away from him. It fell to the ground, where it lay half-frozen, glaring balefully at him.
He did not need even to look. The lady had fired her parting shot, and had disappeared, her victim with her.
Will felt a thin line of blood trickling across his collar bone. "Go," he told the bird, as he released it from the spell. With the lady gone, the bird was itself again. It retreated into a nearby tree, muttering sulkily.
"Richard!" A girl came running from the village, red-cheeked and breathless. "Richard!"
Oh, Will thought. Oh no. For there was no hope he could offer to these people, and no help. Unbidden came the memory of Cafall's death, when Will had been able to offer Bran nothing but the wisdom of an Old One, so useless, so inadequate.
"Richard!" When the girl saw Will, she stopped abruptly. Her hand rose to her mouth, then down again. "My lord." She bobbed him a curtsey.
In centuries gone by, before the Age of Reason, the common folk could still recognise the touch of magic about a person. An Old One could veil this, but Will was still in the clothes of another time, with words of the Old Speech fresh on his tongue. She could not know him as an Old One, but she knew him for someone with power – a stranger who did not belong.
And perhaps as the enemy. She was brave, though, this girl who was four hundred years dead. "I am looking for my betrothed," she said. "A young man, with brown eyes and hair the colour of wheat at harvest."
"I'm sorry." What could he offer her? What could he give her but the truth? "He has gone. He chose his fate."
Tears started in her eyes, but she did not sob. "The lady…"
"One of the great ones of Fairy," he had to tell her.
"Are you one of them, too?" She pressed one hand quickly to her face. When she lowered it, her expression was different. "No, I know you are not. They are beautiful and terrible, with witchcraft in their smiles. So why, then, didn't you stop it?" Her clenched fists trembled, but then her courage failed her. "Forgive me, my lord."
"I could not." Will could not look at it. "We are bound by laws just as you are. I could not."
"But you will bring him back." There was desperate hope in her face, warring with hatred. "You will bring him back to me, my lord."
She did not wait for an answer; perhaps she knew that it would be no. Will stood still for a long time, watching her go.
Why had he come here? From beginning to end, there had been nothing he could have accomplished. Maybe he had just thought to honour the man who had died beneath his touch, by watching the solitary moment in which he had sealed his doom. But that was sentiment, and an Old One could not think like that.
There was nothing left for him to do but return as he had come, following the link of the doomed man's love and longing.
Music surged, and when it cleared, he was alone in the snow, kneeling in the place where a man had died four hundred years removed from his own time. "Fight me," he cried, standing up. His voice faded in the vastness of outside, and became nothing. "I am the last of the Light, and the High Magic is gone. Let us fight this war ourselves, you against me."
Only silence greeted his words. He had come here, he realised, in the hope that his enemy would appear again, and they would be able to confront each other in a place far removed from mortals, where no-one would get hurt. But the enemy was gone. He would reappear only at a time he chose, when he thought he had an advantage.
It was time to go home. Will crouched one last time, and, pointing a hand, wiped the snow clean of prints. When he set off slowly home, he left no trail. Behind him, in the park, was only pristine snow.
End of chapter eleven