Note: I like to post two chapters a day at the weekend, but this week I'm counting Thursday as honorary weekend. I've got today off work, but Saturday will be very busy. (12 libraries' copies of the new Harry Potter to catalogue before opening time, and a few million children to enrol in the Big Wild Read, the nation-wide Summer Reading Challenge.) So it's two chapters today, one tomorrow, one on Saturday (possibly not posted until the evening), and two on Sunday. That's the plan, anyway.
Chapter thirteen: Called
"Two weeks into term," Jane chided him, "and this is the first time we've managed to spend time together."
Bran grimaced in agreement, or perhaps in apology. Jane had sent him two notes before he had remembered to reply to her. He was wary of making arrangements for any evening, just in case Will chose that evening to come round.
"So how are… things with you?" Jane asked carefully. She had never been a girl to gossip or pry. Bran was free to interpret her question any way he liked.
"I'm doing fourteenth century Europe," Bran replied. "I chose it. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's the Black Death – the thought of half of every village dying out, and everyone being powerless to stop it. You feel that it couldn't happen today, but then, when you start thinking…"
"Don't let Simon hear you saying that," Jane said. "One day man will cure all known diseases. That's what he says, anyway."
Bran thought of Will, with his magic. Men were rather puny things, when compared with all the other beings that walked the earth. "I don't think they will."
They were walking up St Giles, heading for a cinema in north Oxford. Cars threw up spray from the blackened slush, and knots of students hurried out for the evening, wrapped against the cold.
"It's Jamie's birthday on Friday," Jane said, as they turned off the main road. She gestured at a French restaurant. "I'm thinking of taking him there, though I suppose it will be too expensive."
So she was still with Jamie. Bran had not liked to ask, in case they had split up. He had not liked to ask, either, because then Jane would have to ask the equivalent question in return. How are things with Will? Are you still together?
She had to be wondering, though. He had to give her something. "Will and I are… together. We're taking things slowly, because he wants… Well, I do, too. This is all new to me." A tree dripped water onto his face, and he wiped it away roughly. "I hope…" No, he would not say that.
Jane reached over and squeezed his hand briefly. "You can talk about anything you want, Bran, but if you'd rather not talk about it, I understand. We can talk about… oh, the weather. Essays. Favourite flavour of ice cream."
"Chocolate chip," Bran said with a smile. His smiled faded. "I just… can't. It's too new. We're still sorting things out ourselves. I can't say things behind his back."
"I understand." Jane looked at him seriously for a moment, then smiled. "And black cherry is far better, of course."
A noisy group of students were approaching on the pavement, and Jane and Bran parted to let them through. I can't tell her, Bran thought, before they rejoined each other. I can't talk to her about anything any more. Jane knew nothing at all. He could not talk about the things he had seen, and he could not talk about his relationship with Will, because so many of their peculiar problems derived from the fact that Will was what he was. Bran was reduced to vagueness and half-lies.
She had known once, though. According to Will, Jane had once known everything. Did she feel the lack of those missing memories? Bran could tell her everything, but he doubted she would believe him. Only Will could give her proof, but that was for Will to decide, for it was his secret, not Bran's.
But I want her to know, he thought. If Jane knew everything, then Bran would have someone to confide in. At the moment, he was the only ordinary person who knew about the world of magic, and he had no idea how to help Will. If only there was one more person… This is what Will thought, he realised suddenly. Will had borne his secret alone for years, until Bran had stumbled upon it and been allowed to keep his memories of it. How precious it must be to Will, just to know that he wasn't alone! But Bran needed company, too. If Bran had someone like him, who knew what he knew, and was as ordinary as he was…
But he's mine! Bran let out a breath, surprised by the strength of the emotion. Will was his. Bran alone knew his secret. He knew something about Will, and about the world, that no-one else knew. If someone else came along, it would no longer just be the two of them.
"You're quiet," Jane remarked.
Bran managed to smile, pushing aside his confusion and his doubts. "Sorry."
Then they were at the cinema, and it was time to go into the darkness, to sit side by side in a place where they could not talk.
As the film began, Bran realised why he had suggested the cinema for their evening out. There was no need to talk in the cinema. There were no awkward questions, and there were no silences, when there was no way he could answer with the truth.
He knew what he would find.
Wind tore at Will's coat, making it stream behind him like a thick black cloak. His hair lashed at his eyes. "I need to get it cut," he had said to Bran the night before, but Bran had smiled almost shyly, twirling a strand between his fingers, and said, "I like it." Bran was not here now, though. Will was an Old One, engaged with his true concerns. The mortals in Oxford were all asleep, or tossing restlessly as the wind hammered at the windows.
Will walked on. He knew who was waiting for him down at the river, so when the figure stepped out from behind a tortured tree, he showed no surprise.
"So you come when I call you." The stranger's smile was hidden by the darkness, but the allure of it was evident merely in his voice.
"No," Will told him. "You called with the voice of the wind. I chose to come, to hear what you had to say. You cannot command me."
"And you cannot command me," his enemy remarked mildly, "or defeat me, or interfere in any way. That is the Law, is it not?"
"The people on this earth are still under the protection of the Light."
The stranger laughed. "The Light departed, leaving only you behind – the last of them, a child."
Will's coat lashed at his legs. Fractured moonlight skittered on the surface of the river, allowing Will to meet his enemy's mocking gaze and hold it. "I was no child, as well you know. And I was left to watch and to guard. Man is free to govern his own affairs, and the Dark has gone forever, but I am here to keep them safe from other dangers that no man can be expected to face."
"Like storms?" His enemy laughed, raising a gleeful arm to the violent sky. "Earthquakes? Droughts? Fire? All of these things happen, and no man can control them. There is Wild Magic in all such things, and Old Magic beneath it, in the earth. Would you keep man safe from the elements?"
Will gestured with his hand, and spoke the quick words of the Old Speech that would still the storm where they stood. Although he was prepared for it, the sudden silence was a shock. "We could," he said, "but we do not. Storms and earthquakes happen, as you know, as part of the order of things, ruled by the Old Magic of the earth. The Dark sought to use them for their own ends, and we fought them then. If a storm becomes more than just a storm, because of the malice of the Wild Magic, then that part of it I will fight. If the Wild Magic is exceeding the boundaries set for it so long ago, then I will fight."
"A war between the Light and the Wild," the stranger said with relish. "We should have been allowed to fight years ago. It would have been glorious."
"It will not happen as you wish it to," Will told him calmly. "We cannot fight head to head. Like the Dark before you, you will wage your war through ordinary men and women. I will do whatever I can to stop you. When you knock a wall down, I will rebuild it. When you break a defence, I will repair it. The High Magic has turned its eyes away from this earth, but it has not abandoned it. The Law is weakened, but it will hold. Your actions will have consequences."
The stranger walked towards him, tall and arrogant in his lavish clothes. His smile was silver in the moonlight. "Think what we could do together if we were on the same side." He touched Will's cheek, his fingers cool and caressing. "The Light left you behind; you are no longer bound by them. We could rule…"
"You are foolish indeed if you think you can win me like this." Will grabbed the stranger coldly by the wrist, and lowered his hand. "You are foolish to try to win me at all. I am of the Light. We are not capricious, like your kind, and we cannot be tempted from our course, the way you tempt mortal men. I am of the Light. I can never be anything else. If you go to war against the world of men, it is inevitable that I will oppose you."
"You are cold." The stranger nursed his wrist in his other hand.
"The Light is cold," Will told him, "but coldness saved mankind from the Dark, and your sort of wild, unfettered emotion will only doom them."
"But they will be free." The lord of the fairies threw back his head, as proud as a warrior king in battle. "Our magic is the magic of all living things. Man once lived in the glorious river that was the Wild Magic, bathing in it, nourished by it. Now he barely hears our call. His blood is weak and thin, and he lives behind stone walls and calls himself civilised. Why shouldn't the world return to the way it was? The Wild Magic was here before Light and Dark, yet you pushed us back to the wild places. In the name of fighting the Dark, you filled the world with your chosen kings and teachers, to bring the so-called light of civilisation. You paved the way for the ascendancy of the human race – a race of cold-hearted puppets who have forgotten what they truly are."
"You will not win me with your words, either," Will said quietly. "I do not think with the reasoning of a man."
The stranger ignored him. "Your kind worked tirelessly to drive away the Dark. You created a world in which mankind reigns supreme. Where was the Light when men wiped out the last of the noble species of animals? Where was the Light when men tore down forests and replaced them with cold, hard stone? I speak for the magic of all living things. If cities crumble, trees will replace them. If technology fails, nature will thrive. It is how things used to be. It is how things ought to be."
"But still I must oppose you," Will told him. "Nature is harsh and cruel, with no hope and no light. I have been in Tethys' realm and seen what a world ruled by the Wild Magic is like. The closer a creature is to the Wild Magic, the further away it is from the Light. As mankind forgot the Wild Magic that had once coursed through his veins, he grew closer to the Light. The Light is cold, but it is never cruel. Only the Wild Magic, and nature unfettered by hope, is cruel."
"I called you cold," said his enemy, and there was something in his voice that sounded like regret. "Like ice, you are."
"And I call you cruel," Will said, "and I oppose you and all your works. There can be no purpose in speaking any more. You do as your nature dictates, just as I do as mine."
He spoke the necessary words, and let the storm resume. Small pieces of grit tore at his face. The river ran in spate, and trees bent down low, groaning as if in pain. As he turned and began to walk slowly back to the city, he was very aware of his enemy watching him from the bank, and of the unseen servants who rose shrieking in the wind.
He expected the attack. The Wild Magic could not harm him directly, but it could strike against him even so. It could turn birds and animals into enemies. It could cause the air to become as thick as mud, or turn roots into hands that snatched and grasped. It could come with the force of a hurricane, or snatch shards of ice from the highest clouds and cast them down like knives to the ground. It had eyes everywhere, and all the living things in the world, all the violent and untamed parts of the earth, were its soldiers or its weapons.
It would take all his powers and endurance to make the quarter mile journey back to his room, if the Wild Magic chose to fight.
Bracing himself, he put one foot in front of the other, and walked.
Will was slow to answer the door. Bran had just turned to go, when he heard the sound of the lock turning. "Come in," Will murmured, but he had already left the door by the time Bran turned round. When Bran entered the room, Will was sitting in a chair, looking out of the window.
"I thought you were coming round after lunch." Bran tried to say it without reproach. It had been an informal arrangement, after all. Bran liked the idea of the two of them going to the library together, where they could work side by side on their different topics. He liked the idea of being able to look up from his book and see Will there. They could exchange silent looks, and adjourn every now and then for coffee together, or a stroll outside to take the air.
"I'm sorry." Bran saw Will's hand tighten on the arm of the chair. The back of his hand was scratched, he noticed. Bran himself felt sore and scoured by the strong and chilling wind that was blowing hard enough to hurt. "I fell asleep."
Bran sat down on the bed. "Look at me." Will did so, moving his head as if he had a headache. His unfathomable eyes looked almost bruised with tiredness, and his skin was almost as pale as Bran's. "Are you ill?" Bran asked, with a concern so fierce that it was closer to terror.
Will gave a wan smile. "A little, perhaps. Tired, really. I was out all last night."
"In the storm?" The wind was still strong, but during the night it had been terrible. Bran had listened to it pounding at his window, and even the ancient stone buildings had seemed to tremble. Several trees had been down by morning, and they said that St Peter's had suffered structural damage.
"Why?" Bran clenched and unclenched his hands. "Was it… him?" His palms went sweaty at the memory of that arrogant, dangerous man – though Will said that he wasn't a man at all. "Has he killed someone else?"
Will shook his head wearily. "No-one else has died yet. He… called me. He wanted to talk. It was a waste of time. I cannot change who he is, and he cannot change what I am. We are opposed to each other. I think of him as my enemy, but, really, he is not. The word enemy implies hatred. I cannot hate him. This is just the way of things."
"Stop it." Bran slid to the floor, so he was kneeling at Will's feet. He touched Will's knee, then closed his hand on Will's own hand, lying tight and sorrowful on the arm of the chair. It felt very warm. Bran's hands were still cold from his walk through the high winds outside.
Will blinked. "Stop what?"
"Speaking like that – cold and formal. I'm not him; I'm me. You aren't a general conducting a council of war. You're Will Stanton, relaxing afterwards with his boyfriend." He reached up higher, pushing a tangled lock of hair out of Will's eyes. "You should be able to put things out of your mind for a while, you know."
Will did not respond to the touch. "I told you weeks ago that I couldn't. I told you what you were getting if you chose to stay with me."
Bran's fingers stilled, then resumed again, teasing Will's hair, running skittering across his cheek. "I love you, Will. I'm not going to say that love is the only thing that matters, because it isn't. Other things matter, too – I know that – but love… It matters, Will. I want to believe that by being here, I'm making things easier for you. I want to be able to hold you and comfort you if things go wrong in this other life of yours." I want you to want me, he added, but this he was not yet ready to say out loud.
Will brought his hand up, and caught Bran's in his own. He pressed it briefly against his cheek, then lowered it, so their hands were clasped together on the arm of the chair. "If you'd come here a year ago, Bran…" He closed his eyes. "A year ago, before this happened… The Dark has gone, and will never come back. Everything else was… normal. But now… now I'm fighting a war."
"Then I'm glad I'm here now," Bran said fervently, "because you need me more. When things were normal, you walked away from me. I only found out the truth because of this war of yours. You wouldn't have told me otherwise. If I'd come here last year, we would never have been more than passing acquaintances. We wouldn't have had this. People find each other in war, you see. It doesn't just tear people apart."
"Passing acquaintances…" Will opened his bruised eyes. "Then you would have been happier."
"Don't say that!" Bran shouted, suddenly furious. "Don't you dare make that decision for me."
"It's what I do," Will murmured.
Bran wrenched his hand away. He stood up, paced to the window and back. Wind hammered at the glass, though the sunlight was fierce and golden, punctured with dark clouds, like a handful of gravel thrown on the snow. "I don't want to argue," Bran said, as he sat back on the back.
Will had turned his face away. He looked more than tired, Bran realised; he looked ill, as if he lacked even the strength to stand. "Was it very terrible?" Bran asked quietly.
Will did not move his head. Even his lips barely moved as he talked. "He tried to persuade me to join him, but of course I refused. He tried to argue that his cause was just, but of course such arguments can never work with me. I said I would fight him. He… made my journey home difficult. That was all."
War, Bran thought. He tried to focus on that, because that was what Will said was most important. "He's going to kill more people, then." He thought of the body of the man lying in the snow, dead centuries out of his time, at least according to Will.
"Perhaps." Will brought his hand up slowly, as if he was seeing something in the palm. For a moment, Bran thought he was going to say something more, but Will let out a slow breath, and lowered his hand. "I've got an essay to write for tomorrow. I don't think I can do it now."
Bran thought this meant that the subject was closed. He suspected that he ought to pursue it, but the thought of that stranger in the snow made him feel cold and bleak and scared. "Saturday's better," he said, smiling.
Will blinked, a small line of a frown appearing between his eyes.
"It's Valentine's Day, boy," Bran chided him. "There's still time to get me a card." He moved back to Will's side, and put his hand on his knee. "I was wondering… Shall we go out to dinner? I'd like to take you out somewhere. Wine, candles… the works." And everyone else aware of them. Discreet stares from behind menus. There are two boys there having dinner together! And they could hold hands openly across the table, and defy people to stare at them. They would be together, and that was all that mattered. Will might even smile again, the way he had smiled when they had both been young, and they would chat about ordinary things, like any two people in love.
"I remember last Valentine's Day in Oxford," Will said. "I walked past a restaurant, and it was all small tables, and identical vases, each with a single red rose. It was full of earnest couples, each in exactly the same pose. I thought they were like statues. For some reason, I thought it was almost sad."
"It doesn't have to be in a restaurant, then," Bran persisted. "We can get fish and chips and I'll serve it to you on my coffee table, with a candle, and afterwards we can…" He moistened his lips. "Do whatever you want us to do," he finished.
Will gave a faint smile. "Thank you." His eyes opened, and there did seem to be feeling in there, genuine beneath the weariness. "I don't know if I can, Bran. I'm not well."
For him to say that… Bran touched him again. His own hands had warmed up now, after his time inside, but Will's skin still felt hot to the touch. There were deep shadows under his eyes, and even his lips looked as if they had been half drained of blood. "You should be in bed," Bran told him.
"It's not that bad," Will tried to say.
Bran tried to hide his own sudden, unreasoning fear. "I didn't know you could get sick. Can't you cure it with magic?"
Will shook his head. "It doesn't work like that. When we live as humans do, we hurt and breathe and feel as humans do. Illnesses, like storms and earthquakes, are part of the way of things. We cannot stop them."
Bran's hands fluttered over Will's body. It was scarier to hear him talk like this than it would have been if he had been moaning in anguish. Because it isn't natural. Because he isn't like us. "Then go to bed. Can I get you anything?" His hand froze, caught on Will's wrist. "Did he do this to you?"
"Perhaps," Will said. "Illnesses can have something of the Wild Magic about them." He appeared to notice Bran's fear for the first time. "No, Bran. It's more likely that I was becoming ill anyway. It's winter, after all, and there's a lot of things going round. Being up all night didn't help, and then I had to fight…" He smiled, and touched Bran briefly on the cheek. "It's nothing to worry about, Bran. I just need a few days to sleep it off."
"No, Bran," Will said firmly and quietly. "Alone."
End of chapter thirteen