Chapter fourteen: War

 

Day and night blended into a cold grey netherworld, barely anchored in Time. He was aware of coughing, of struggling to breathe past a thick constriction on his chest. Blankets twisted around him, like ropes constraining his fingers. His mouth was dry. He drank water, and listened to the laughter in the wind, as it struggled to break through and find him.

 

The door opened once. He opened heavy eyelids to see his scout staring at him from the doorway. "I'm not well," Will managed to tell her. "You'd better go."

 

He wrapped himself against the cold, and struggled shakily to the lodge, to leave a note for his tutor, apologising for missing their tutorial. The research he had already done whirled madly in his mind. When he dozed, he dreamt about bishops burning to death in the middle of Oxford, and nobles dying in the Tower.

 

The wind eased. The next time he noticed anything, it was strong again, beating at the walls. He ventured out to buy some bread and milk, then found that it was too late, and the shops were shut. He bought crisps in a pub, but the smoke made him cough. People looked like ghosts. The wind dropped, but it started to rain, and his hair was wet, plastered to his face.

 

He remembered being ill before. Once, the illness had been sent by the Light, to take him to Wales, but the Dark had taken advantage and stolen the things that he needed to know. A few years later, he had been far more ill with tonsillitis than anyone normally got, and he had found himself slipping through Time without meaning to. He had closed his eyes to his familiar bedroom, and opened them to a place where he was a stranger. That had been one of the most terrifying things he had ever experienced. Now, he tried to stay awake, and tried to remember who and where he was.

 

He thought two days had passed. Before morning, he headed out to the lodge, and found a note for his tutor, with a reading list and an essay title about Elizabeth I. Perhaps I should head back in Time and ask her. His illness was making him foolish. An Old One's powers could never be used for something as trivial as cheating. The idea should have been inconceivable.

 

He drank milky tea, holding the mug with shaking hands. He closed his eyes, and found that a whole day had passed. He thought it was Friday. Rain smeared on his window and turned everything to grey. He left the light on all night, but he turned it off during the day, when the room turned as dark as a tomb.

 

Bran knocked on the door once, twice, and a third time. Perhaps he called out, too, but Will slept through more than he wanted to. Notes appeared under his door. "Thinking of you", and "I hope you're okay," and "Please, Will, I'm worried about you." If he let Bran in, he thought on that first day, it would be a disaster. He would not be able to remain as strong he needed to. The second day, he murmured a response, but perhaps Bran did not hear him. On the third day, if indeed it was the third day, he walked carefully to the door and opened it, but Bran had already gone.

 

He crept to the desk, and wrote a letter, with small black writing that was not as neat as it usually was. "I need to be strong, Bran," he said. "So do you. I know you want to nurse me, but that is something I cannot allow, both for my sake, and yours." Afterwards, he crumpled it up and threw it in the bin. Then he rewrote it in almost the same words, stared at it until the words swam, and tore it up again. Black ink seeped onto his fingertips.

 

"I am getting better," he wrote at last, and this was the note he deposited in the slot in the porters' lodge. "Why not come tomorrow night?"

 

The letter written, he slept for the rest of the afternoon. He woke in the evening to find a hand on his brow, and the harsh and acrid smell of outdoors in a room that suddenly felt too cold. "You're not well, I see," said the stranger's mocking voice.

 

Will lay without moving. "But I will be better soon."

 

"And worse after that." His touch was a caress on Will's cheek, but then he curled his fingers inwards, so the nails raked painfully across Will's skin. "You have the body of a human, Old One. You are part of the fabric of this earth. Part of you belongs to us, but you own nothing of us. That is why we will win."

 

Will whispered the right words. A barrier of Light rose up around him, and his enemy recoiled, snarling like a furious animal. "You will never enter this room again," he said.

 

The stranger visibly had to struggle to master himself. "Of course I will. I cannot touch the ageless part of you, but the form you wear makes you subject to all the weaknesses of humans, and all human temptations. I cannot destroy your essence, but I can make this body suffer, and I can torment your soul."

 

"But it will avail you nothing," Will told him, "for it will not cause me to stray from my course."

 

"But it will be enjoyable." The stranger turned to go, his long cloak skimming the top of his boots. "You should have made common cause with us, Old One."

 

He left. Will closed his eyes. He did not even have to check to know that the door had remained locked throughout. He tried to sleep again, but the room was cold and unpleasant. Outside had found a way in. It was no longer a retreat where he could recover in peace.

 

Will shambled across to the bathroom, where he showered quickly, sure that someone was watching him. His clean clothes made him feel a bit better. Then he put his coat on, and wrapped his scarf twice around his neck. His watch told him that it was nine o'clock, and it was Friday night. Outside, groups were heading off to parties, or moving on from one room to the next.

 

He left the College and headed towards High Street, where a tall, pale figure watched him, clothed in furs. Another stood outside the chip shop, a bow and arrow slung over his back. A lady in red watched him from the crossroads at Carfax. When he headed back to Merton, there were six of them in the front quad, and a shadow in the archway that was not of human shape.

 

No-one else saw them, he knew that. Their eyes never left him. One raised a finger and pointed at him, as if cursing him. As he walked slowly past the gardens, a girl whirled towards him in a wild dance, and sneered into his face as she came to a halt in front of him. Another girl, more shy, offered him a flower that spoke of nature corrupted. A man stood silent, a sword held in both hands.

 

Will spoke to none of them. He looked through them as if they were not there. Back in his room, he locked the door, but faces pressed up against the window, and fingers clawed at the casement, trying to get in. He spoke the spell that would keep them out, but it took energy to maintain it, and eventually he slept.

 

If they came in while he slept, he did not know. In the morning, the window was still closed, but his blanket was tangled around his feet, and the room was very cold. But if they chose to hurt him, it was of no consequence at all.

 

******

 

Bran knocked on the door, excited and nervous, both at once. Will opened it almost immediately.

 

"You look better," Bran said with relief. Then he frowned, examining Will more critically. "No, you don't. You look better than I feared you might, that's all. You should sit down."

 

Will sat down on the bed, his back against the wall. "I'm getting better," was all he said.

 

Bran almost sat on the armchair, thought about it for a moment, and took his place next to Will on the bed. Their shoulders were pressed against each other. "I've got you a card," Bran said shyly. He pulled it out from under his coat. "Not a very good attempt at anonymity, I know."

 

Will took it and opened it. The card did not express what Bran really felt; there was no way any card could do that. Instead, he had resorted to humour. All the way here, he had wondered if he had made a mistake, but Will's smiled when he read it, and the smile looked genuine. "Thank you, Bran. I haven't got you one, I'm afraid."

 

"You've been ill." Bran took Will's hand, pleased to find that it no longer felt warm to the touch. If anything, it felt colder than it should have been. "Besides, I didn't get you a present. Flowers felt silly, and the other things… I'd rather get you a present when I see the perfect thing, and not be bound by meaningless days like this."

 

"Not meaningless." Will tugged at the blanket, bunching it across his lap. "When days are celebrated by enough people, they gain a power of their own." He was looking not at Bran, but at the window.

 

"Still…" Bran squeezed Will's hand. "I've missed you, Will. I didn't know what to do with myself."

 

Will pressed his lips together. Bran recognised it as a sign of disapproval.

 

"I was worried, Will," he said reproachfully. "You told me to go. I don't think you realise how awful you looked the other day."

 

"I'm almost better." Will gave a huge yawn. "Not completely," he said sheepishly.

 

Bran picked up the bag he had left on the floor. "Ah, but I came prepared, you see. Bran Davies' Nursing Kit. I've got chocolates in case you need comfort food – and I can eat them myself, if your sick-bed becomes too much for me to cope with. And books. I thought… I thought I could read to you, you see."

 

Will seemed to be thinking about it. "That would be nice." His voice was quiet, in a tone Bran had not heard from him before.

 

"Settle down, then. Snuggle up."

 

Still fully dressed, Will wriggled himself under the blankets, and laid his head on the pillow. He sighed a little as he closed his eyes, and Bran realised that he was not as much recovered as he was trying to make out. Lying down was a relief to him.

 

Oh, but I do love him.

 

He recovered himself as quickly as he could. "I have Winnie-the-Pooh, or The Hobbit. Which one do you want?"

 

"Winnie-the-Pooh," Will said promptly. "I always loved that as a child. I used to try and work out which character all my brothers and sisters most closely resembled."

 

"You're Owl," Bran said. "Very wise."

 

Will's eyes snapped open. "Owl's an idiot," he said. "He makes out he's learned, but he's just a pompous fool."

 

"Rabbit, then."

 

"You think I'm officious?" But Will was smiling, and there were no shadows in his eyes.

 

Bran looked at him appraisingly. "Well, you don't climb trees, and you're no Piglet. I don't think you're a bear of very little brain, and you're not maternal, or squeaky. That means you must be Christopher Robin – the centre of Pooh's life, and the fount of all knowledge."

 

"I think you find me closer to Eeyore, sometimes," Will said.

 

"Everyone has an Eeyore in them." Bran turned carefully to page one. "I always wanted to be Tigger, though perhaps a little tamed. It would be tiring to live with Tigger all the time."

 

"Merriman had Rabbit tendencies at times," Will murmured. "Not often, but they were there."

 

Bran tapped him on the arm. "Are you going to be shut up long enough for me to read this, boy?"

 

Smiling, Will curled up loosely under the blankets, and Bran started to read.

 

When he reached the end of the third chapter, Bran realised that Will had fallen asleep.

 

He closed the book silently. Not the most conventional way to spend St Valentine's Day, he thought. He looked at Will, fast asleep, his face at peace, and he smiled, overcome with ferocious emotion. But I can't think of any way that would be better.

 

He moved to the armchair, and read quietly until midnight, but still Will did not wake up. The rain scraped at the window like scrabbling fingers, and there was an intermittent cold draught on Bran's face. Bran yawned, and shivered a little from the cold. "I'll be back tomorrow," he wrote in a note. "I've taken your late-gate key so I can get out. Chapter four tomorrow?"

 

Before he left, he brushed his lips above Will's cheek, kissing him without touching him, then he let himself out. Outside, the air was still, and it was hardly raining at all. He saw a pink balloon in the shape of a heart, tangled in the branches of a tree. When days are celebrated by enough people, they gain a power of their own, Will had said. He thought of the man in the snow, and the tales he had heard about fairy kind, and their tricks. They enslaved people by using love and lust as their weapons, and what better day to do it than St Valentine's Day? How many people had been seduced to their doom this night, while Will lay sleeping and unable to save them?

 

He thought he heard someone creep past him in the darkness. Hugging himself against the sudden chill, Bran hurried home as fast as he could, but even his own room felt cold.

 

******

 

Will meandered slowly towards the river. Half way there, he unbuttoned his coat, and let the two ends of his scarf hang loose. Snowdrops were scattered beneath trees that were beginning to show the earliest hints of buds. The clear blue sky showed no trace of the storms of the week before. The sunlight on his skin reminded him that, although he was not yet fully well, he was no longer ill.

 

Other people were out enjoying the sunshine. A group of boys from a local school were clustered round a tree, studying something on the bark. Two post-graduate students debated fiercely on a bench. A crew of rowers were returning from the river, red-faced and confident.

 

Unseen by anyone else, a tall figure watched him from the edge of the path, a mocking smile on his handsome lips.

 

Will ignored it. He had not been assailed again the way he had been assailed on the night and the day of St Valentine's Day, but his enemy's agents were never far away from him now. They watched him constantly. If they chose to remain invisible to mortal eyes, then this could only be good. Will could ignore their threats. If they chose to reveal themselves to men, unveiling themselves in all their enchanting beauty, then ordinary men would be lost forever.

 

Are you trying to threaten me? he thought, not trying to veil his thoughts, not this time. I have told you before that such things cannot work with me.

 

There was no reply, not even a whispering in his mind. There were spells in the Old Speech that could make his thoughts impervious to any attempts to overhear them, whether by friends or by enemies. He whispered them now, but gently, so the walls would be drawn over his thoughts like the many petals of a rose. As he whispered the first of the words, he thought of the essay he had just written, and the books waiting in his room for him to read. The second word, and he thought fleetingly of Bran, and the concert they were due to go to that evening. The third and last, and he thought of nothing for a moment, then let out a breath.

 

The watcher by the path made no sign. His eyes were pale cold blue. Will met his gaze for an instant, matching ice with ice. Blank faced, hands in his pockets, he walked on.

 

The Wild Magic could not interfere with the Light; the Light could not interfere with the Wild Magic. This was the Law. Yet there had been ways around the Law, even in the old days. Merriman had pushed Tethys into a bargain. The Greenwitch had been summoned by the Dark, though neither Dark nor Light had been able to bind it. And then there was Herne – a being of magic, wild and immense, which had hounded the Dark to the ends of the world, and placed a permanent mark on the face of the Rider.

 

Now the Dark was gone, and the Light had all departed, except for Will. The High Magic had given its ruling, and had turned its face from the earth, leaving it to men. The Wild Magic, long since pushed back to the wild places of the earth, was no longer content to accept this place. The Wild Magic on the earth had taken a ruler, as the Wild Magic of the sea had long since placed itself under the rule of Tethys. It was challenging mankind for dominance on the earth. The High Magic was no longer there to stop it. The Law was crumbling…

 

Or maybe not. No Law had prohibited the Wild Magic from unleashing itself on mankind. The Wild Magic was the magic of living things, and man was a living thing, no more or less than any other. Beings of the Wild Magic had always been able to meddle with mortal men. Nothing had changed there, although the scale of it was new, and it was infinitely more dangerous now, because it was organised, and a magic that was without order and pattern had now discovered both. Perhaps some void had been left by the departure of Light and Dark, and the Wild Magic had rushed in to take its place. Perhaps that was the only thing that had changed. An opportunity had presented itself, and had been taken.

 

He was almost by the river now, where the water lapped against the tow path, blue with the reflected light from the sky. Too built up, he thought, but he walked along the path for a while, past the boat houses, before heading back into the meadow, making for the smaller river, the dark and shadowed Cherwell, that fed into the Isis.

 

And the Wild Magic had touched him. It had turned his room to ice, it had pawed at him, it had made him far more sick than he should have been. It had whispered threats in his mind, and turned him half mad with the distraction of it, until he had learnt how to shut them out. It was because he was still too human – that was what his enemy had said. He inhabited a human body, and so he could be touched. The part of him that was an immortal Old One could not be touched by anyone of the Wild Magic, but his human part could be tormented with doubts and fears and pain, all inflicted by his enemies of the Wild Magic.

 

There was a link between them. All he had to do was turn this into a strength. A weapon against him could so easily be turned, and become a weapon that could be wielded by him, against his enemies. No link went just one way.

 

He reached the Cherwell, where bare trees bent over the brown-tinged water, and rotten leaves clung to bare roots. Even in the summer, when the rest of the Cherwell was covered with punts, few came to this end of the river. When he stood with his back to a tree, there was no-one in sight. In the shadows, it was cold, as if sunshine had never touched this piece of ground for all the months of winter.

 

There has to be a way, he thought. He opened both hands, one at each side, and pressed his palms against the damp bark. The river moved sluggishly before him, bearing a twisted twig, and a small piece of paper – a receipt, perhaps, or a bus ticket. Further up the river, the bridge carried cars and people in their hundreds. Will remembered leaning on that same bridge a few months before, and remembered how Bran had appeared at his side, his arms next to Will's on the stone parapet.

 

He let himself sink into thoughts of Bran. He saw again Bran's overjoyed face, as the Lost Land had opened up around them. Walking through horrors hand in hand – or almost hand in hand, linked by a hunting horn… Laughing on the mountain… Swiping him playfully on the arm, and tumbling down the hillside, rushing, chasing, whooping, playing… His face buried in the fur of a dog… Looking down on him in Merton garden, never expected, never hoped for, and changing everything… Arm by arm, hand in hand, hand on cheek, and lips… lips touching his… A kiss. A voice saying, "I love you," and someone beside him who knew everything but still wanted to be with him. Bran reading stories of a bear in a wood. Bran at his side. Bran. Bran. Bran.

 

The tears were cold on his face. The bark had scraped the top layer of skin from his palm.

 

And the river had responded. Wild to Wild, heart to heart, living thing to living thing… He caught it like a tiny speck of thistledown, cast aloft in a gale. It was tiny, yearning, and distant. The spell of Tamesis and the spell of Don… The river flowed on, and it was gone. The Cherwell joined the Isis, and even the memory of the thought had vanished, caught up in the waters of the larger river, and lost.

 

It wisped away. His tears were gone. Forgive me, Bran, he whispered, but he had what he needed. He had his spells, and with them he could attempt a binding.

 

******

 

End of chapter fourteen


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