Chapter twelve: Cracks
Words of Latin rolled through the hushed hall, spoken in a sonorous Welsh voice. Bran enjoyed the sound of it. He had only studied Latin for two years, and had forgotten most of it, but something about the language stirred something deep inside him.
Or maybe it was just Will. He was constantly seized with the memory of their kiss, and of the truths that had been told along with it. He would shiver, then, sometimes with joy, sometimes with fear. Nothing would ever be the same again.
The grace ended. On their rows of benches, a hundred students sat down, short black robes brushing the backs of the wooden benches. "Amazing, isn't it?" muttered Gareth, sitting at Bran's left. "Like something from a costume drama on TV."
Bran smiled in response. This was the first time he had signed up for Formal Hall, the College's formal evening dinner. Usually he opted for the informal early sitting, or just grabbed a snack from the kebab van or the chip shop. That morning, though, he had been seized with the idea to invite Will to dinner, to sit with him in front of all these people. He did not want to look a fool. He wanted to find out when to stand and when to sit, and if the stranger rumours of ancient traditions were true.
The first course was soup, served by solemn College waiting staff. Bran leant to the side to let the dark-haired man access to his plate. When it was served, he glanced cautiously up and down the table, trying to see if he was supposed to start, or if he had to wait until the whole long table was served.
"We don't have formal dinners at home," Gareth whispered, reflecting Bran's own anxiety. They raised their spoons together – Bran at least knew which of the many items of cutlery was the soup spoon – and started on the soup. It was rich and delicious, although not as good as Jen Evans' cooking at home.
Gareth turned to the girl on his other side, and Bran was left alone to eat. Conversation bubbled all around him. Apart from the waiter service, and the gowns that everyone was wearing over their ordinary clothes, the meal seemed no more formal that normal meals. People laughed at jokes. Some ate with their elbows on the table, and some gowns were crumpled, as if they had been stuffed down the back of a chair and pulled out in haste.
The hall, though, was it usual dark self. In the winter, no light came from outside. The dim lights on the table were no brighter than candles. The paintings on the wall showed old Fellows of the College, from centuries gone by. The words of the grace had been spoken unaltered for five hundred years. The clothes beneath the gowns had changed, but black-robed students had sat here for centuries, eating in the ancient hall.
And none of it is really real, Bran thought. He felt as if he was floating, suddenly, caught up in the darkness and the stern faces of the men in the pictures. What was a grace five hundred years old? The oldest buildings in Oxford had been built a thousand years ago, but that was nothing in the lifespan of an Old One. Traditions that to men were incredibly long, to an Old One were like the fleeting games of a child. Mankind and all his works were but a tiny thing in the vastness that was the High Magic.
The world was not as Bran had always thought it. Magic lurked unseen behind all the tiny things of everyday life. Even ancient things were tiny and frail. The men in the portraits had died centuries ago, but Will would never die.
"Why are you looking like that?"
Bran started. He found himself poised with the spoon halfway to his mouth, staring at nothing. Everyone else had already finished, and the servers were already collecting the bowls.
"Just thinking," he told Gareth, as he hastily scooped up the last of his soup. "About traditions, and that. About how we think they've gone on since time immemorial, but, really, that doesn't mean anything, does it? The earth is billions of years old. The first Oxford College is less than 800 years old. It's nothing, really."
"Well, if you put it like that…" Gareth was clearly unconvinced, but humouring him. "They're too old for me, though. All this Latin and mumbo-jumbo… They should get rid of it – move it into the real world."
Gareth was famous for spouting radical views, even as he gleefully sought to benefit from every bastion of privilege and tradition that Oxford could offer a bright young man from the valleys. Bran said nothing, merely smiling indulgently. A moment later, Gareth had turned back to the girl.
As he waited for his main course to arrive, Bran studied the faces around him. Some of them he remembered from his first day, when he had been searching so anxiously for friendly faces. He had looked at every face then, wondering if they belonged to people who would be his friends for his whole life, or people whose names he would never know. He had found Rob, of course, and then, a few days later, he had found Will.
And now none of these faces mattered at all. How could they? Bran had been given a glimpse of a world of magic. Will, who could stand as tall as the sky and command a being from legend, had let Bran kiss him, and had slept the night in his arms. What could anyone else offer that could ever compare to that?
How would they react, he wondered, if he brought Will here, if he held his hand, if he touched his shoulder, stroked his cheek? Would they stare if he kissed him, there at the table? Or here? Or here? Bran felt the heat rising to his cheeks. His hand trembled, and he had to press it down flat on the table. The server leant over, placing a plate of duck in front of him, and for a moment Bran was shielded by his bulk. When he moved on, Bran was calm again, his cheeks pale, his hands steady.
But I want to, he thought, still tremulous inside. I will.
There was a broad crack across the base of the sundial.
Will placed his hand on it, half-closing his eyes. Some magics were too deep to show themselves when you looked directly at them, and only came when the mind was turned away. Some enemies were too subtle to reveal themselves except in shadow.
He felt coarse stone against his fingers. Beneath it, he felt roots eating into the stone, given strength by something that should never have been able to do so. He felt the lurking malevolence in the red winter berries, in the slumbering branches, in the dew-heavy air. He felt the mind that lay behind it all, a general mustering of things that were never meant to be ordered. He felt the control that was reaching out, giving pattern to something that was always meant to be wild and without discipline.
He saw the armies that were gathering for war. He saw how tiny were the victories that had already been obtained, and how tiny were his own victories against them. Huge forces were yet to be revealed. In the months and the years to come, the world would be changed forever, unless he found a way to stop it.
Will opened his eyes slowly, blinking into the light of the real world. Real? he wondered sluggishly. It was a veneer only. Everything around him was created by men. The walls and the towers were built by them from stone, and the plants and trees only grew where they did because man had planted them, and tended them still. Beneath it all ran the Old Magic of the earth, and the Wild Magic of those living things that had not let civilisation blunt their ancient powers. The High Magic ruled all, of course, but the High Magic had withdrawn its hand from the earth. If the Wild Magic chose, it could tear down all these towers and gardens, and reduce men to the terrified beasts they once had been, so long ago.
It cannot happen, he swore.
And then it was as if Merriman was there beside him, his deep voice sounding in Will's mind, as he thought it always would until the end of Time. Why not, Old One? Because you are still too close to the world of men?
Will considered it, never taking his eyes off the crack on the base of the sundial. It was not really Merriman, he knew that, but when his own thoughts spoke with the voice of his master, he had learnt to listen well. "No," he said at last, whispering the words silently beneath his breath, "but because we fought for so long so that mankind can be free."
The lords of Fairy always offer choice, said the voice in his mind that sounded like Merriman. You were left behind as a Watcher, merely.
"They cheat." Will curled his fist. "They trick. They offer no more real choice than the Dark did, who ruled always by twisting a man's own ambitions to their end."
But they have always done so, his mind replied, and the fierce and steady gaze of Merriman filled his memory. We have never interfered. The Light cannot touch the Wild Magic – that is the Law.
"But the Wild Magic cannot challenge the Light, and yet it has done so. The Wild Magic is without order and pattern, yet now it has both. Tethys rules in the deep, where there are no men and no Dark and no Light, but on the land, the Wild Magic has no governance and no leader. This is the Law. All of these are the Law."
And the Law has been broken, said Merriman slowly.
"The High Magic has withdrawn," Will said. "The Laws are failing – they must be, or none of this could have happened. The Wild Magic can act with a single mind, and go to war against man." His fist was clenched so tight that it was trembling. "But I can go to war against it, even if I cannot harm it directly," he vowed. "I can, and I will."
With no Law to protect you. It was not Merriman any more, but the voice of the human boy, the Will the Old One often thought dead.
Will let out a breath. His face was wiped clean of all expression. "None of that matters in the slightest. I am of the Light, and I am a Watcher no more."
Far away, and everywhere, he thought he heard the living earth laugh.
Bran saw Will only by chance. The wind stirred a tree, and Bran, turning, looked towards the movement, and saw beyond it a still figure standing beside the sundial, one hand resting loosely on the stone.
Bran hurried up to him. "I was on my way to your room." His short coat lashed around his hips, and he shivered at the chill of this place, exposed on the walls. "Aren't you cold?"
Will's face was as blank as a statue, staring away from Bran across the meadows. Swallowing, Bran followed the direction of his gaze, but saw nothing. "Will?" His voice was quieter now. Nervousness was fluttering in his chest, though he did not know why.
Will blinked. His face changed, almost as if he was becoming another person. In the place of the blankness there was a smile. The otherworldly grey eyes softened, revealing a touch of blue. "I'm sorry," Will said, smiling sheepishly. "I was thinking. I didn't hear you."
"And half dead with cold, I wouldn't wonder," Bran grumbled, for Will's long coat was unfastened, and the ends of his scarf dangled limply down to his waist. The cold made Bran think of the snow, and with that came the memory of the confrontation that was never far away from his waking mind, and which haunted his sleep. "Was it…?"
Will shook his head briskly. "He wasn't here. We're quite safe."
Bran found that he had edged close to Will, for even his subconscious wanted to be close to this man. It was a good remedy for cold, he reminded himself, to wrap yourself in the arms of another. And they were not entirely alone. People were walking past, both below, in the meadow, and on the path that skirted the garden. It would be their first public embrace. He felt his cheeks grow warm. To claim Will as his own, in front of other people… To be claimed by him, picked out and chosen by a being so powerful that he could have ruled the world…
But he was still Bran. With a quiet encouragement, years before, Will had taught Bran to take the taunts of the bullies and turn them to his favour. But before that, there were many years of being different, and old pains never entirely went away. In the cold light of day, he was not entirely sure that he was ready to tell the world that he was gay. People accepted him despite his colouring. Would they accept him if he added yet another difference between him and them?
That doesn't matter, he told himself firmly. They don't matter. Only Will matters. Only Will.
He raised a slow hand to Will's cheek, and gasped solicitously at how cold it was. Then the hand lowered, heading over Will's jaw, and down towards the hollow of his throat. Will flinched – only the slightest sound of indrawn breath, quickly concealed. Bran snatched his hand away as if burnt.
"No." Will's eyes had changed again, and now looked only weary. "It's not what you think." As he shook his head, Bran saw the end of a scratch that disappeared into the collar of his shirt. It was clearly healing, but it looked deep and painful, the skin reddened around it. "A bird," Will explained. "Doing the will of its… mistress. It caught me unawares."
Bran wanted to fuss over it with his fingers. "I didn't know you could be hurt." He fought a strange and unexpected wave of something that was close to panic. For a week, he had been haunted by the memory of the arrogant enemy, but for a week, too, he had cherished the memory of Will opposing him, so strong and powerful. There was nothing Will could not defeat. No matter what happened, neither of them would be hurt.
Will smiled. "Oh yes. I bleed just like any human bleeds. Surely you remember that time we were climbing the gate, and I fell off and went on to bleed most picturesquely all over my aunt's table. Just…" His smile faded. "I can't die."
"I can," Bran said, struck for the first time by the tiniest inkling of what these simple statements might come to mean, if this slow and faltering relationship ever became something more.
Will took his hand. "I will do everything in my power to make sure that you do not die before your time."
It was too much. Running from one source of deep and painful emotion, Bran took refuge in another. This was the first time that Will had initiated touch between them. Slightly raising their clasped hands, he said, "When you flinched, I thought you were ashamed to be seen in public with me."
A small line appeared between Will's brows. "Of course not." His thumb ran across the back of Bran's hand. "There's nothing more… Shall we…?" His eyes closed and opened again. "Let's go back."
He did not release Bran's hand. Hand in hand, they walked across the garden, back onto the path. Few people were about, but those who were, saw. Bran saw a girl's eyes turn round with gleeful shock as she noticed their hands. A boy saw them, and looked away in distaste. It would be all around the College by the end of the day, Bran knew. Quiet Will, who kept himself to himself, had found himself a boyfriend. "Who'd have thought it?" they would say, over their drinks. "I never knew he was like that. I wonder what other surprises he's hiding." But as for those, none of them would ever know. Bran alone would see beneath the shrouding coat, and, deeper, into the heart, and to the secrets within it.
He must love me, he thought, because if he didn't, why would he do this?
They reached the entrance to Will's staircase, but Will did not release him. At the stairs, though, he slowly let Bran's hand fall, and started to climb, leaning surprisingly heavily on the banister. Bran followed close behind. He nuzzled into Will's back as Will fumbled with his key. The moment they were inside, the door safely closed behind them, Bran grabbed Will, and pushed him back against the door. "I love you," he said fervently. "Kiss me."
Will's lips were soft beneath Bran's sudden urgency. They parted slightly, coaxed apart by Bran's tongue, and, oh, but this was sweet! Bran had never kissed anyone like this, never imagined, never dreamed… He pushed one hand beneath Will's coat, sliding it round the side of his waist. With the other one he cupped Will's face, his fingers caressing the uninjured side of his neck. And Will loved him back, and Will wanted this, and Will had initiated this. Will loved him enough to hold him in public. Will loved him.
Then Will's hand came up, pushing firmly at Bran's shoulder. Their lips drew apart. "No." Will's face was flushed. "Slowly, I said. I mean it. I'm not used to this."
"Neither am I," Bran told him. His eyes felt dazed with passion. "We can learn together."
Will extricated himself, and walked across to the window. His hands were surprisingly pale as they gripped the windowsill. "Yes." Unable to see his face, Bran could not read his voice. "But slowly, please. Please, Bran."
Bran tottered over to the bed. "It wasn't what I thought it was." He sat down heavily, his face sinking into his hands. "When you held my hand in public just now, I thought it was because you wanted this to go further. You were making a move – the first time ever. Do you know how hard it is, Will, to always be the one to come and find you, to always be the one to ask for a kiss? You never come for me, you never start anything… and today… Today I thought…"
Will said nothing. Bran thought his head bowed a little lower, but he could not see his face.
"But it didn't mean anything, did it?" Bran lowered his hands, stared at his clasped hands. None of these people matter to you. No-one matters to you. To you, it was like… like walking with me through a herd of cows. You don't care in the slightest about what they think."
"No," Will said quietly, "I don't. It's how I am – how I was taught to be. If I am serving the Light, and this means that people hate me, that is how things have to be. An Old One cannot care if he is disliked or mocked, if he is pitied or… loved." There was the slightest tremor on that word. "But I do care about the last," Will said, turning round. "You said that no-one matters to me, but that's not true. You do matter, Bran. You always will."
Bran wanted to stay angry. He wanted to stamp out and slam the door, and sulk in his room until Will came begging his forgiveness. But Will's eyes were fathomless, gazing deep into Bran's soul. And Will was fighting something terrible, and Bran would stay and support him, come what may.
"But not as much as the Light," he said wearily, pushing his hair off his face. As he did so, he recognised it as a mannerism of Will's, unconsciously adopted. "I know. You warned me. You told me it would be like this, and I said I could live with that."
Will dropped to his knees in front of him. "I can't change who I am, Bran."
"No." Bran tried to laugh, hoping that a pretence would lessen the bleak coldness in his heart. "A first love affair is supposed to be fraught enough, isn't it, without adding in the fact that you're an immortal wizard struggling to save the world. I don't have a chance."
"You were never supposed to find out," Will said quietly. "Then this would have faded, and you would have been happy."
"Without you?" Bran raised his head sharply. "No, Will, hard as it is, I would rather have you, and all of this. I would rather have you, and take this as slowly as you like, than to be without you. I'd rather have the truth than forget." He sighed, looking over Will's head to the window, where the grey sky spoke of more snow to come. "But I think I would rather go home now. I'll come back tomorrow."
"Or I'll come to you."
He heard Will's parting words as he opened the door. He almost went back for a kiss, then thought he could not bear it. He went down the stairs alone. Outside, it started to snow.
I don't think I can do this.
Will sat down on the bed, still warm from where Bran had been sitting. He was not used to this. He had not prepared himself for it.
Oh, he had realised, back when he was fifteen, that he felt things for Bran that he was not supposed to feel. That was why he had walked away. In the years that had followed, he had steeled himself to accept that he would live his everlasting life alone. He did not see how he could hope for anything else.
And now there was Bran. Now there was Bran, who knew more than any other mortal knew about the affairs of magic and the Light. Now there was Bran… and Will seemed to upset him with every word. Bran was different already, after barely a week of this. His easy confidence was being eroded. His eyes were troubled more often than not.
I should free him, Will thought.
He took a handful of blanket, and closed his fist around it. Bran was… Bran was… No. Bran was not what he had once been. Bran knew part of the truth now, but only because he had been told. He still did not remember all those things that they had shared. He was no longer the Pendragon, and never would be. They would never be able to share the fight that Will was engaged in, standing side by side, like equals. Bran would never be able to feel the things that Will could feel.
Will needed a colleague who lived in magic as he did. Bran needed a man who could put him first above everything, and could talk about normal, human everyday things.
There was no way that this could work.
Bran, who had thought himself unloved as a child, wanted proofs of love. Bran, always more sensual than he had seemed, wanted kisses, and more. Will wanted… What did he want? Bran at his side, as he once had been, but that would never happen. He wanted a Bran who would be there when he needed him, but would slip into the background when Will was engaged on affairs of magic. He wanted a Bran who would be patient, as Will tried slowly, oh so slowly, to thaw the wall of ice he had erected over his heart.
He wanted things from Bran that no-one had the right to expect from another. Better far to free him now, with a simple murmured "forget." Bran could find himself someone who could give him what he needed, and Will would be cold and free and focused, devoting all of his mind to fighting this threat that had arisen in the world.
He sat very still. Just one word, he thought. A simple spell. Nothing at all. Just a thought, and all of this would come crashing down, and it would be as if none of it had ever happened. He would erase even the memory that they had once known each other. If they passed in the street, they would be like strangers. Only Will would know, but Will had hidden worse things that this behind the blank armour of his face.
His hand lowered, and he sighed – a bitter sigh of weakness and defeat. Not yet, he thought. Oh not yet…
And tomorrow, he knew, he would go to Bran, and this whole sorry thing – this whole delicious, wonderful thing – would start all over again.
End of chapter twelve