Chapter fifteen: The binding
Bran knew that people were watching them. After they had finished their main course, he squeezed Will's hand briefly as it lay on the table. The girl opposite exchanged a look with her friend, and the boy beside her raised his eyebrows in badly concealed interest.
Will seemed oblivious. "It's not quite a Valentine's Day dinner," Bran remarked to him, "but I hope you like it, anyway."
"It was good." Will leant away from Bran to let a member of staff remove his empty plate. After she had moved on, he pulled forward the bowl containing his pudding. "I don't know if I'll have room for all of this, though. I don't seem to have got my appetite back properly yet."
"While I still have the boundless appetite of a growing young man," Bran said cheerfully. He eyed up the chocolate sponge, littered with black cherries. "I'll have yours, if you don't want it."
Will picked up his spoon. "You don't get to steal my food that easily."
The food was delicious; the company was even better. Bran remembered how he had dreamed of this moment weeks before, and now it was happening. Although this was only the informal sitting for dinner, rather than the full formal meal, Will had still come with him into the heart of Bran's college, and now everyone knew.
"You know," he said, remembering something he had noticed months before. "That portrait there reminds me of you."
Will looked at it. His spoon, half way to his mouth, stopped moving for a moment, then resumed. Will took a mouthful, chewed, and swallowed. "I can't think why."
Bran frowned. He was not entirely sure himself. "Something about the eyes, I think."
Will ate another mouthful, then put his spoon down. "That's all I can manage. It's all yours, if you want it." He watched Bran help himself to the remaining sponge. "At Merton, you know, they have a punishment for people who talk about the portraits at dinner. You have to drink two pints of beer out of a special cup unless you can make your excuses in fluent Latin."
"We do that here, too," Bran said cheerfully. "Theoretically, anyway. I don't think it happens much. I expect it's just a story put about to scare freshers and make sure they talk about interesting things at dinner." He ate another cherry. He was feeling full himself, but puddings were a rare luxury. At home, he only got them at weekends, when Jen Evans cooked for Owen and himself. Owen, he suspected, did not entirely approve of sweet food. "Could you do it, though? Make your excuses in Latin, I mean?"
Will grimaced. "I could manage the Latin. I don't know if I could manage the excuses in any language – not the sort of excuses that your average undergraduate would accept, anyway."
Bran remembered how Will had spoken words in a strange language he had never heard before. He had almost admitted to Jane that he knew Anglo-Saxon, too, though he had covered that slip well. "How many languages do you know?"
Will's eyes flickered briefly to the other people around them, within earshot. "Several," he said firmly.
Bran finished the last mouthful. "Shall we go?" He looked at his watch. The concert was at eight, which left them just enough time to go back to his room for a quick coffee, and maybe for… other things.
Outside, the air was unseasonably warm. They walked close to each other, but not touching. As they neared Bran's staircase, the boy from the room below him came rushing out, struggling into his coat. "Oh! Bran!" he said breathlessly, pausing restlessly as he passed. "Party. My room. Friday. You coming?"
Bran moved even closer to Will. "Maybe." He saw Mike look from Bran to Will and back again. He wondered if the invitation would be withdrawn. He hoped the invitation would be extended to Will, as well.
"Well…" Mike was clearly in a hurry to get wherever he was going. "I'll see you there. Bring a bottle."
They climbed the stairs in silence, and Will hung back while Bran rummaged for his key. Inside, Bran hugged Will fiercely, and kissed him full on the lips. "Coffee?" he asked, holding Will at arm's length, and grinning at him. He wanted to laugh.
"Tea, please." Will sat down on the bed. He ran his hand through his hair. "I'm not sleeping well. Drinking coffee seems… unnecessary."
Intent over the kettle, with his back to Will, Bran could ask questions that he could not ask when they were looking at each other. "Did you know the man in that portrait?"
Will was slow to answer, as if he was collecting his thoughts, but when he spoke, his words were quiet and level. "I met him, yes. He was an Old One. That is in itself unusual. We take care that our names and our images are not recorded over-much in history. That leads to too many questions."
Bran searched around for two empty mugs, and carried them to the sink to rinse them clean. Water splashed off the rim, scattering droplets over the back of his hand. "Did you know him well? Was he the one you said was your master?"
"Merriman? No." There was a note of sadness in Will's voice, that Bran thought he would not have known how to recognise only a few weeks before. "Merriman was at Oxford, but not that long ago. His role in other times was… different. We do not return to the same role twice, especially not in the modern world when it is harder to hide. That, too, would lead to too many questions."
The kettle was beginning to make a noise. Bran spooned coffee into one of the mugs, but his hand shook, and he made it stronger than he would have liked. "So I won't be able to take pictures of you? You will… move on?"
He heard a soft sound, and knew that it was Will running his finger up and down the edge of the bed. "You can take pictures. You can keep them, too. Such things do not impinge on history. And if I… move on, it won't be for a long time yet. Only when this life becomes unsustainable."
"When I'm eighty, and you still look no older than thirty." Bran gave a harsh laugh. The steam from the kettle made his eyes sting. "And after I'm gone, my pictures will disappear, won't they? You'll be off there somewhere, living some other life, with another name, and there'll be nothing left to show that someone called Will Stanton ever existed. "
"Not for years, Bran," Will said quietly, "and many things can change." Then, when Bran still did not move, he said, "I told you it would be hard."
"You told me!" Bran rasped. "Yes, you told me so."
"I'm sorry," Will said. "I shouldn't have said that." Bran heard him stand up, but the soft touch on the back of his neck was still a surprise. With a gasp, he turned into the touch, and let Will caress his cheek. Will's eyes, sometimes as grey as a winter sky, seemed more blue than normal. "Things change, Bran."
They moved until they were both sitting on the floor, backs to the bed. The coffee was still unmade. A tea bag sat in water, getting stronger by the second. "I shouldn't have asked." Bran took Will's hand, not yet ready for more. "Part of me wants to know everything. But then I ask questions like that, and you answer, and… Oh, Will, I know you're different. You're not human – you told me that. But when you speak like that… 'We,' you said. It was always 'we'. I think… I think I keep forgetting that everything you told me is true. I keep thinking we can have a normal relationship, but of course we can't. If only I'd kept quiet."
"It wouldn't have changed anything," Will said quietly, "and you would still have wondered."
And there were other questions – other, treacherous questions. He should ignore them. Here was Will, sitting beside him, hand in hand, and contrite. Bran should just enjoy the moment, and push everything else from his mind. In an hour he would do that. In a day, in a week, and forever more, but for now, he had to ask. "And the language thing?"
Will let out a small breath, as if defeated. "I know every language of man, and some that have never been of man."
"Even Welsh?" Bran asked, in Welsh.
Will smiled. "Even Welsh." His accent was perfect.
Something special, tiny and almost forgotten, shrivelled up and died. "I thought you didn't… When I first met you, you couldn't pronounce a single place name. I remember that. That's the earliest thing I remember about you." He remembered more, though. He had been the outcast, the freak, and Will was the newcomer – English and middle-class, so bound to be a snob, and bound to want nothing to do with Bran. But Will had been so useless at saying the place names, and Bran had been able to teach him, and, in doing so, realised that, with Will, he would never be a freak at all, never be pitied, never be looked down on. "Were you just humouring me out of pity?" he asked.
"If I had been, it would just have been because I really wanted to get to know you," Will said, but then he sighed. "I'd been really ill just before I came to Wales. I'd completely forgotten who I was. Even when I remembered… Bran, I didn't always think as an Old One. Back then, it was like a completely different part of my brain. It could disappear totally into the background. I think it did it deliberately, to protect me as I was growing up. I was just eleven, at school… I couldn't be spouting perfect Latin. When I was just a school boy, I truly didn't know anything that I couldn't have learnt through normal channels. It was only when I was engaged in the affairs of the Light that all that knowledge came out from where it was hiding, and pushed into the forefront of my mind."
"Back then," Bran echoed. "It's different now?"
"Yes. It's different." His tone seemed to rule out the possibility of questions.
Bran raised their clasped hands, and studied Will's, so like his own, though not so pale. His nails needed cutting, and there was a callus on his finger, where he held a pen. There was a thin pink line on the back of his hand, where a recent scratch had healed. It was a human hand, and the face that was looking at him now was human, too. It was Will's face, and he loved him.
No more questions, he thought. He tried to move in for a kiss. "The man in the portrait…" he found himself saying. "When did you meet him?"
"I didn't meet him as such." Will leant his head back against the bed, half closing his eyes. "I saw him. He was just one face in the crowd, but I knew them all. They all showed me a little part of themselves, the day I first came into my powers. That was when I first…" He eyes closed completely. "Saw you." It was little more than a whisper.
Bran let his hand fall. "You saw me?"
"It was a vision of various things that lay in my future." Will opened his eyes. "We need to get ready to go."
And this time it was Will who kissed him, Will who took the lead. There were only kisses, though, and then they had to wander outside to go to a concert, which Bran barely listened to. Will, though, seemed to lose himself in the music, and could not even be reached by words for several minutes afterwards.
The spell of Tamesis and the spell of Don.
He knew them from the Book of Gramarye, just as he knew all spells, although the purpose for some was still hidden. Some spells bound beings who had not yet shown themselves. Others were tied to names that had not yet revealed. These two were old spells, powerful spells. Said in the right way, they could move the winds and the waters. Will wanted to use them for something even greater – to bind something that was not meant to be bound.
He left his room when everyone around him was sleeping, and ghosted through the College, then over the walls like a wisp of the wind. Dew was thick on the ground. He knew he was watched, but this time no-one tried to stop him. Perhaps his enemy thought he had come here to plead. He was fairly sure that no-one suspected what his true intention was.
For three days, he had kept secret his knowledge of the spells that he had snatched from the water. Works of great magic were better done when strong in body and mind, and three days before, he had not yet been fully recovered from his illness. Throughout those three days, the spells had whispered in his mind, like living things. He had heard their voice when dining with Bran. He had heard it through their kisses, and heard them woven in the music of Beethoven and Brahms. He had heard it in the voice of his tutor, and seen the music of the spell in the words of every page of every book.
Now it was time. He reached the river, and spoke the words that would create an inviolable barrier around him, preventing anyone from hindering him or harming him. As it went up, his perceptions of the outside world were muted, but even so, he was aware of a sudden interest, as if a hundred hounds were raising their heads, sniffing at the wind. Too late, he thought coldly, for then it was time for the spells.
He crafted them as song. Spells could be shaped in words or movements or even in a painting, but Will's natural medium had always been song, even though his voice was not what it once had been. He sang in the Old Speech, shaping it in a tune that had no earthly key or rhythm. Despite the barrier, the song carried. Bare twigs moved and shivered, and an owl hooted, as if the song stirred it to some deep melancholy. His enemies mustered, hissing in fury…
And the river responded. At first, it was only a thickening of the air. It was moisture in his lungs, an acrid scent in his nostrils. A diffuse brown haze stole across his vision, but he stood firm, and sang the spell again, over and over, sometimes coaxing, sometimes commanding.
He did not look at the shape that was forming before him, knowing that it was something that could only be seen on the fringes of vision. This was not a creature of the stature of the Greenwitch, which had been created by the hopes and beliefs of men, and infused with a kind of life by the power of Tethys herself. This was the primitive spirit of a small river, though one that flowed through an ancient city, and fed into one of the greatest rivers of all. It barely had form, though the Wild Magic flowed through it, even so.
The air was thick with the stench of rotting weeds. He caught glimpses of dead twigs and swirling shadows and piles of sodden leaves. Specks of light sparkled in the darkness, like silver sunlight on a summer river, and there were patches of deep darkness, and a glimpse of drowning men.
"Who calls us?" came a faint voice in the air, speaking not in words, but in thoughts and sensations that he snatched up, and turned into meaning.
"The Light," he replied.
It hissed – swirling whirlpools and rotting flesh. "The Light cannot command us."
"The spells that command you are mine," Will said.
"But we are not." Darkness billowed around him, and he was seized with a sudden certainty that his lungs were full of water, and the next breath would be death to him.
He kept his head tall, took a slow breath of foul-tasting air, and said, "Not mine, no. But another master has called you, has he not, along with all of your kind?"
Twig-like fingers clawed at his face. The pain was real, though the injuries were an illusion. "We will not tell. Let us go, Old One. Let us go."
Will did not speak. He pitched his thoughts to the distant, deepest place within him, knowing that the river could hear him. I will let you go, but the spells that brought you here will remain. You will come whenever I call. You will tell me what I need to know, when I need to know it.
"You cannot command me," it rasped, crashing around him like waves on a stormy sea, shattering like the spars of a dying ship on the shore.
"But I can," Will said quietly. He spread his hands, showing this creature all that he was. He showed his feelings for Bran, and his lingering, regretful love for his family. He showed it the fear and the solitude of being ill in a crowded city, and the nights he had spent gazing up at the sky, longing for Merriman and all of his kind. "I was born on this world, a living creature just like any other. The Light cannot command the Wild Magic, but one living creature can command another, if he is stronger, or older, or more cruel."
"You are not stronger," it spat. "You are not older. Cruel, yes… You are cruel."
"I am stronger." Beyond his barrier, the hosts of the Wild Magic were raging. "A river is inconstant. A river cannot hold to any one purpose, but the Light is constant and everlasting." He invested his voice with the sound of thunder. "I am stronger than you. As one living thing to another, I command thee."
It shrieked. Water broke over him in an enormous wave. Weed smothered him, and branches lashed at him. Beyond his barrier, a cauldron of Wild Magic churned and bubbled. Lights flared from the earth, and thunder rumbled, like distant hooves.
Then all was silent. Quiet as a whisper, a tiny voice from the water breathed, "But you will suffer for this."
And he was alone on an empty meadow, beside a river that was just running water, and nothing more than that.
Bran did not know what woke him, although he had been sleeping badly for several nights, his sleep disturbed by dreams in which he was hunted by the enemy in the snow, and he called and called for Will, but Will did not come.
It was no dream this time. He woke with a start, but the last thing he remembered was settling down to sleep. The clock told him that it was almost two.
He rolled over onto his side, and set about the business of falling asleep again. After a few minutes, he turned over. He adjusted his pillow, and lay on his back. Sighing, he flopped over onto his front. The slit of light from underneath his door irritated him. The clock moved on from minute to minute, the digits glowing green in the dark.
Bran sat up, realising that he wouldn't be getting to sleep again for a while. His bed was suddenly uncomfortable, and there were too many facts churning in his brain, waiting for him to order them into an essay the following morning. His hands, scraping on the coarse sheet, wanted to be touching Will. He had never slept with anyone else, but now the bed felt cold when he was in it alone.
And there were questions, too – questions that kept coming to him, tormenting him, since that night of too many questions. On the floor beside this bed, he had realised for the first time just how different Will was from anyone he had ever known. He was not just a normal person who could do magic. His life-span was different, the way he saw things was different, his very thoughts were different. Bran wanted to question him for days, until he truly understand what it meant to be an Old One. At the same time, he wanted to bury his head in the sand and ignore it. Will was human, too. The boy Bran had known in Wales had laughed and cried and been afraid, just like any normal boy. That could not all have been a lie.
Sighing, he threw off the covers and wandered towards the window, pausing to grab his dressing gown from the back of the door. There were so many questions. Would Will age at a normal rate, or would he remain forever nineteen? How much did he know of the secret things that went on inside Bran's mind? Could he travel through time, to the future, or to the past?
Can he take me to see my mother?
The thought came from nowhere. Bran froze, his hand on the curtain. A noise came from outside, not quite like rain. This was what woke me, he thought. He opened the curtains cautiously, peeping out so he could not be seen from outside.
I could find out who my father was. He pressed his lips together. Thoughts like this were stupid and pointless. He had been sixteen when Owen had admitted to him that he was adopted, and had told him the little he knew about Bran's true mother. Of his father, he knew nothing at all. The next few months had been difficult, but he had accepted in the end that Owen was his father in all the ways that mattered. Jane had helped, for he had told her everything in letters. Will had already left by then. Even then, he had wished that Will had been the one to hear the story first, and the first to give him advice on how to handle it.
The sound came again. This time, he thought he saw a faint movement across the quad. His breath was steaming on the window, and he wiped a small patch clear, and put his eye close up to it.
A man ran across the quad, pursued by several others. All were wearing the clothes of several hundred years ago, and some of them had swords at their sides. One was holding a knife. The sound came again, and then again, louder and louder, until it was a surging cry. Faintly at first, he smelled smoke.
It's Will. He had never known anything before with such certainty. Will was in danger. These figures were from the otherworld of Fairy, or they had come out of the past for blood and violence. Will was their enemy; Will would be their quarry. I have to warn him, he thought. Help him. Be there with him.
He dressed quickly, though his fingers felt thick and clumsy, and he fumbled with his socks and dropped them several times. Outside, the noises were almost constant. He heard the sound of swords clashing, and the anguished peal of bells. No other doors were opening, though. No normal, human voices called out of the windows, telling people to keep the noise down outside. When he opened his door, the staircase outside was silent. Through one door, he heard the faint sound of snoring.
As he descended the stairs, it grew colder with every step. Someone rushed past, screaming. A drunken crowd reeled singing into the staircase, and pushed past Bran as if he was not there. He smelled the wine on their breath, but when they elbowed against him, it was as if nothing was there. Ghosts, he thought, as he sank frozen to the bottom step. Oh, God, it's ghosts.
But Will was out there. Will had to be the heart of it, the target. Bran forced himself to his feet again, and headed outside. It felt like the hardest thing he had ever done. The world felt vast and unfriendly, and he was so very small. Things howled in the night. From beyond the College walls, a bell was clanging, and a voice was calling for people to bring out their dead. A clamour of voices rose in wailing grief. Patches of light moved like torches, but the hands that held them could not be seen.
One foot in front of the other, he told himself. He clenched his fists, but kept them at his chest, ready to strike out if attacked. Even the ground at his feet looked horrid and otherworldly, as if the gravel was the bones of men, and the grass was stained with blood. All the windows above him were dark, except for the yellow light of the landings. No-one else was awake. He felt as if he was the only living thing in the whole of Oxford, walking through Hell to his doom.
He reached the late gate, and then another test had to be passed, because at first he simply could not bring himself to turn the key. Inside the College it was horrible, but at least there were walls between himself and the rest of the world. Outside the College, there was nothing between him and the dark meadows and the river.
"Will," he whispered out loud. "I have to get to Will." He was just a spectator, but Will was their target. If love was to mean anything at all, he had to be at Will's side. He could not hide under the bed like a child, thankful that at least he was safe. He had to… He had to…
He turned the key. Outside, the lane was dark and strewn with bodies. Not real, he told himself. Ghosts. Illusions. It all happened long ago. He stepped over them, though. Even though he knew that his foot would pass through them as if they were not there at all, he could not bring himself to wade through the dead.
He headed for the High Street. And then down the lane, down towards Merton… But how am I going to get in? I gave Will his key back. I'll just have to stand outside and call. And in the midst of everything, he could still laugh at that – a harsh sound, very full of fear. I guess I'll find out if Will can read my mind. That thought sobered him. Someone stalked towards him, eyes glittering. Will! Bran screamed it in his mind, though out loud it was only a whisper. I'm here! Come and find me, please!
Nothing happened. The figure came closer. The club in its hand rose higher. A sudden smell of the river came to Bran's nostrils, with an undertone of rot and decay. The man was dressed all in brown, and water streamed from his clothes. Twigs were in his hair, and slime on his boots.
The club came down. Bran dodged, but it struck him a glancing blow on the shoulder. He staggered, and would have run, but something caught him round the ankles, and he fell forward, landing on his knees, then sprawling forward onto his hands.
The figure loomed above him. The club rose again, and this time there was no dodging it.
End of chapter fifteen