Chapter nineteen: As I walked out one morning
Will enjoyed their reunion. After they had kissed awhile, Bran reclined half-clothed on Will's bed. Pulling his shirt over his shoulders, Will set about the business of making tea.
Some things were easier to say when your face was half averted, and your hands were busy on some other task. "I told my family about you," Will said. "About us, I mean."
Will could not tell from Bran's voice how he was feeling. He pulled out two teabags, placed one in each mug, and eventually turned round. Bran was grinning, he saw, one hand pressed to his mouth. His eyes were shining, and there was a hint of pink on his pale skin, as eloquent as a ruddy blush on someone of a different complexion.
"Silly," Bran said, when he saw Will looking at him. "I shouldn't feel like this." His smile deepened, and the hint of tears showed beneath his eyes. "I'm just glad you're not ashamed of me. It means a lot to me, really." He wiped his eyes, unashamed of his tears. "How did they react?"
"They were… pleased for me, I think," Will said. "I expect it will take them a while to get used to it, regardless of what they say, but they all said they were glad I'd found someone who made me happy." He opened his window, bringing his milk in from its cool place on the windowsill. His back was to Bran again, his hands intent on their task. "I tried to do what you'd said I should do, you see. I talked to them more. I took an interest. It wasn't as hard as I thought it would be, and by the end of the holidays, it was easy." He turned again, for he should not be a coward, not in this. "You were right, Bran, and I was wrong. I'm not entirely human, and I can never forget that, but the human part of me is very real. Thank you for showing me that."
It was a curious reversal. Through all their quests together, Will had been the one leading the way. The Pendragon was the lord, but the Old One was the mentor, helping him fulfil his destiny. It was strange to realise that he could learn something from Bran. It seemed almost wrong that an Old One could learn a lesson from a mortal. But, of course, it was not wrong at all. It was a sign of how far he had strayed from his path, that he could think it so.
Bran gave a beautiful smile, then sobered. "I told John Rowlands. He advised me not to tell Owen, not yet. He doesn't think Owen will take it well."
Will remembered Owen Davies, so silent, so humourless, so devoted to his church, and thought John Rowlands was probably right. But he had seen the damage that a secret could wreak. He had witnessed the near-disaster that had resulted from Bran discovering his parentage for the first time. Bran had forgotten all that now, though Owen had since told him again that he was not Bran's father.
"Here," he said, as he tried to decide what to say. "I hope it's strong enough for you."
Bran took the tea, and put it down on a piece of paper on the bedside table. "I told Jane, too," he said, settling back down on his elbow. "Ages ago, that was. She wants to meet you properly. What about a double date with her boyfriend?"
Dinner, Will thought. Social interaction. But there were the sort of things he could cope with now. These were the sort of things he should cope with, and do cheerfully, even if the world of magic was crumbling around him.
"Sounds good," he said. "I always liked Jane."
"Back when we were having all those adventures that neither of us remember." The contentment had vanished from Bran's face. He sat up, and pulled his shirt on, as if he was cold.
"I can't undo that spell," Will said quietly. "It was placed by my master, long ago, and it was meant to be permanent. I couldn't lift it even if I…"
"Wanted to?" Bran reached for his tea, and grimaced at its heat. "It always comes back to that, doesn't it? Even now, you still have all these secrets. There's so much of your life that I can never understand, and never be part of." He let out a long breath. "Yes, I know. You told me it would be like this, right from the start. You warned me. I'm not complaining. I just wish…"
Will did not ask. He could not ask.
"That I could help you." Bran struck the wall with his clenched fist. "I'm not completely stupid. I saw that… enemy, back in January. I saw impossible things, horrible things, that night when you saved me. To me, last term was all about you and me. I know that, for you, it was about other things. You said once you were fighting a war, but you don't tell me anything about it. You won't let me help you."
"You can't help me," Will said simply. Then honesty compelled him to say, "You did help me, in a way. There was a time when… There was something I had to do, and I could only do it because I knew what love was. The knowledge of love allowed me to snatch a weapon that I hope will prove useful one day."
"I don't understand." Bran looked lost and young. "I want to understand."
Will moved to his side, touched his hand. "But you won't. You never will. Can you live with that?"
Bran met his gaze. "I have to."
But Will saw the pain in his eyes, that his accepting words could not hide. "It hasn't been too bad these last few weeks," he said honestly. "All last term, I thought the danger was growing. By the end of term, the enemy kept hinting that the end was very close. But it's been almost silent all through the holidays. I have a… hostage, of sorts. Maybe that stopped them? But that doesn't feel right."
Bran was looking at him, eyes wide and uncomprehending. "I don't understand. The end of term, you say… But you didn't say anything. You were going through all this, and you didn't tell me. Maybe I can't help you, but I can at least listen."
"Maybe." Will sought Bran's hand again, and held it. "But not today. Let's not ruin today."
Bran did not seem to hear him. He pulled himself to the edge of the bed, where he sat with his feet on the floor, leaning forward with his forearms on his thighs. "Will," he blurted out, "can you travel back in time?"
Will felt a prickle of warning, as if the Dark itself was nearby. He let out a breath, and the sharpness of the warning faded, but the uneasiness remained. "I can," he admitted. "An Old One can move through Time at will."
"Can you show me my mother?" Bran's voice was barely audible. "And my father? My real father?"
Will leant his head back against the wall, feeling its coldness through his hair. "I can't," he said. "Only seldom has an Old One taken a mortal through Time, and it has never ended well. The Dark took people sometimes, hoping to trap them. My master did it once, but great evil resulted."
"So you can." Bran's voice was cold. Will shook his head, but Bran continued. "Don't deny it. You're speaking in your Old One voice. You always do that when you're lying to me."
"I don't…" Will reached for Bran's shoulder, and Bran did not pull away, which counted for something, at least. "Merriman did it, you see. Afterwards, he said he'd committed the worst mistake an Old One could commit, which was the place more trust in a mortal than the mortal is strong enough to cope with."
"Trust?" This time Bran did pull away.
"No!" Will cried, not an Old One any more, but a man whose lover was pulling away from him because of his stupid words. "I didn't mean that. And there were different circumstances with Hawkin, anyway. But please believe me, Bran. Technically I could do this, but it would be disastrous. It's not because I don't trust you. It's not because you're weak – because you're strong, Bran, stronger than anyone I know. But I can't. I just can't. Please don't ask me again."
"I won't," Bran said at last. His voice was strange, but he let Will coax him back to bed, with a hand on his arm, then an arm round his waist. They kissed, and then they talked about other things. Afterwards, Will hoped that it was all forgotten, though he suspected that it was not.
But nothing more was said about it.
It was almost dawn. Bran stood on the edge of the crowds on Magdalen Bridge, but he was not watching the choir boys, high up on the tower. Many people around him were in black tie or ball gowns, still clutching half-empty glasses of wine. The chattering was restrained. As the choir boys started to sing, it faded away completely.
Bran could not see Will.
It was the end of the first week of term, and Oxford's traditional May Morning. As the sun rose, the choir sang in the May, and all of Oxford gathered to listen. Afterwards, there would be Morris dancing in the streets, and all the cafes would be open from dawn. It was one night when Oxford did not sleep.
"We could stay up together," Bran had suggested, "or there's a party on the next staircase to mine, if you want to go…" But Will had shaken his head and said that he would rather not. "I'd like to get some sleep," he had said, "but I'll be there in the morning, on the bridge."
But there were too many people – far more than Bran had ever expected. Reading about it, before, he had imagined that only a few wild souls would get up so early, and had thought the talk of thousands an exaggeration. There was no way he could find Will in all of this. Standing amongst so many people, he felt as if he was the only one who was alone.
The song finished, and a new one started. Pressed against the edge of the bridge by the crowd, Bran turned, so that he was leaning on the parapet, looking out at the river. With every second, it seemed, the city was growing clearer. Ten minutes ago, it had been almost entirely dark, but the rising sun made details appear out of the shadows. The river, though, seemed darker than the crowded streets above it. The trees beside it were still in deep shadow, and the water itself looked black and dangerous.
Something moved on the bank, almost beneath him. "Will?" Bran breathed. It moved again, darting away. "Will?"
He was almost sure of it now, for the sun was rising inexorably, and no-one could hide forever in the light of the new summer. He could not jump down, not without injury, but there were other ways to reach the meadows and the river. He jostled through the crowd, elbowing and apologising, wriggling and squeezing. The song grew fainter, and finally he was free, running through empty streets, and then the paths of a garden. There was grass around him, where before there had been stone. And darker here, yes, darker. Trees bent towards him. And more dangerous, too.
He saw the movement again. "Will!" he shouted. "Wait for me!" But, here, the sun seemed to be sinking down again, rather than rising into day. His leg muscles were hurting, his breathing fast and desperate, but he kept on running. Gates stood open to him, leading him through the Botanic Gardens, out into the meadows, then close to the river. Always, ahead, was that flicker of movement. "Will!" He could barely speak now. "Will!" He felt as if his life would end if he did not catch up with him. He ran as he had never run before, because he needed him, he needed him.
For the trees were dark, and the river was old, and the only life here was wild and primitive. If ever danger was going to threaten, surely it would be here, as sun rose on the first day of summer, and modern men celebrated as their forefathers had celebrated, welcoming in the May, and all that came with it. And Will was facing it alone. He had lied to Bran, for he had not been on the bridge at all, but under it, fighting his solitary battles, so that the crowds above could celebrate in safety.
"Will!" he pleaded, stopping for breath, because he had to, he had to. "Will!"
"He has gone on ahead," a voice said from behind him. "He has not waited for you."
Bran turned. She was more beautiful than any woman he had ever seen. Her hair was dark and her lips were red. Her skin was pale, and her eyes were the same eyes he saw whenever he looked in the mirror. She was smiling at him with love and pity, like a mother who had to break bad news to her child, and hated doing so.
"I know who you are," he gasped. He was still crippled with breathlessness, but he backed away, and tried not to look at her.
"I doubt you do." Even when he could not see it, the smile in her voice was devastating. "You know stories and suppositions, and the lies that have been crafted by you and for you and through you."
"You're…" My mother… No, not that. Not her. It could not be. The queen of the fairies could take many forms, and of course she would appear to each person in the guise most likely to tempt them. "You're the enemy of the man I love," he declared, "and I will not listen to what you have to say. You cannot tempt me."
"Oh Bran, my poor Bran." There were tears in her voice now, and surely those had to be unfeigned. He dared a look, and her lovely face was suffused with grief. The love in it made his whole being cry out in longing. He had never had a mother. No-one had ever looked at him like that before…
"A trick," he rasped. He clenched his fist tight enough to hurt. In the stories, she lured men to their doom through lust. This was just another way. It was no less a trick.
"Ah, then you are wise." The tears had gone. Her face was serene, as she stood there with folded hands, her green robes flowing around her. "The child of parents such as yours could never be bought by common wiles."
His heart stopped beating. "Parents?"
Her look was tender. "Yes, Bran Davies. You were born to a great destiny, though the Old Ones in their arrogance chose to make you forget it. I doubt your precious Will Stanton has told you that. Perhaps you asked him to show you your parents, and he came up with some lie about how it was not possible. Of course he would say that. He does not want you to know that you are even more important than he is."
He knew what he was supposed to ask. He knew what he wanted to ask – what his entire soul was crying out to know. He had done many difficult things in his life, but surely this was the hardest of all – to ignore her words, and answer only the intention behind them. "You can't turn me against Will. I know that everything you're saying is a lie."
"You know, do you?" In its anger, her face was even more beautiful than it had been when kind. "Ah yes. Because your precious Will told you. What does an Old One know about us? The Light is cold. It knows nothing of love and joy and beauty. It calls us Wild because we are made of such things. Will Stanton will never truly love you, because at his heart there is no human soul, but cold, bright Light. We, whom he calls his enemies, can never do anything other than love. It runs through us as you have blood, and he has only coldness."
"That… that isn't true." But his treacherous mind made him remember. Cowering in the street, while Will saved him – but not Will at all, but a terrible figure of cold and merciless light. Will sitting in the pub, unsmiling, talking about his family as if they were strangers. Will saying again and again that he could never be anything other than an Old One of the Light, and Bran should not expect him to.
Against it, he clung to memories of them kissing; of Will smiling at him as they met for the first time after the holidays, and admitting that he had been wrong. "It isn't true," he said, more firmly. "And it isn't just Will. The stories…"
"You would listen to folk tales told by idiots?" she sneered. "I was wrong to call you wise. The stories were told by those who bore us no love, Bran Davies – by foolish minstrels who heard rumours, and crafted them into fanciful songs. Even those tales that told the truth have been debased over time. Once your people worshipped us as gods. We were the spirits in every stone and every glade, and they prayed to us and gave us offerings, and were content. We did not change, but they did. In their tales, they banished us to green mounds, and called us mischief makers, and accused us of luring men to their doom. Would you listen to just one side of the story, Bran Davies?"
Bran could not speak. John Rowlands, who had told him the old stories, had said much the same thing. The tales of the fairies had once been tales of gods, watered down and changed for a new age. "But maybe," John had said, "no less true, for all that."
"No," he managed. "I won't listen to stories. But I will listen to my own common sense. You lured me here, didn't you." The open gates, in a garden that closed during the night. The sense of urgency. The figure ahead of him, flickering always just out of reach. "You can't have done this with good intentions. Besides, I saw a man hunted to his death by one of your people."
"I am not my brother," she said softly, "and all stories have two sides. You saw only what Will Stanton wanted you to see. Maybe my brother had been provoked. No-one likes it when their gifts and kindnesses are repaid with rejection and betrayal."
"You can't turn me against Will." Bran said it louder than he needed to. Will loves me. He wouldn't lie to me. He wouldn't… But Will had been keeping secrets from him from the start, and had made it clear that the secrets would continue. Why had he refused to take Bran back in time to see his parents? Why hadn't Will let Bran remember the things he had once known as a child? Because he can't. He explained that. But maybe that was a lie. All along, their relationship had been riddled with lies and secrets. But he initially said he couldn't let me love him, because there needed to be total honesty and truth in a relationship. He says he loves me now, which must mean that he never lies to me now.
Never lies… But he knew that was untrue. Will still had secrets, and had admitted as much.
"If he does lie to me," he said, clenching his fists at his sides, "then it's only to protect me."
"Because you are a mere mortal who cannot help him. I know." Her voice was a soft as the wind, infiltrating all his defences. "You do not know who you are. You do not know what happened when you were both children. You do not possess powers. You are ordinary, and one day you will die, and he will live on, forever, and forget you."
"I know that." Bran's voice sounded strangled. He was no longer aware of the world around him, just of the lady before him, and the bare inches that separated him.
"But it is all lies." She touched his arm, and there was no way on earth that he could have moved away. "I am sorry, my child. You want to help Will, but he has robbed you of the weapons you could use to help him. You could have been so much more than you are. Once, you were. You fought side by side against the Dark as equals."
He looked into his memory so fiercely that it hurt. Oh, but he longed to remember…! "It's a lie."
"Ask him." She was still touching him, a mother watching her child come to a hard realisation. "You know him well enough now that you can tell when he is hiding something. Either he will admit it, or he will lie. Either way, you will know that I am telling the truth."
He sagged in her touch, falling to his knees on the muddy path. "I want to help him. He's so far ahead of me, and I'm just nobody. He loves me now, but he'll forget me in the end. I want to be worthy of him. I want to experience everything he experiences, and understand everything he understands. I want to feel what he does. I don't just want to be an observer."
He had not meant to speak aloud. It was a sign of how hard he had fallen – enmeshed by promises and lies; caught by magic in a place where nothing existed but her. Her hand was the only thing holding him up; without it, he would have fallen completely. Her beauty and care for him undid him, but her words were worse. She had told him to ask Will. That meant it was true.
"But you can help," she said gently, and he had known that these words were coming – known them, and longed for them, and dreaded them with everything that he was. "You can help Will Stanton, the man you love. You can become who you were meant to be. You can stand at his side, and go where he goes, together, for all eternity."
"I can't…" It didn't seem possible that he had anything left with which to shape words. "If he kept all this from me, he must have had a reason. He wants to protect me."
"But who will protect him, Bran Davies, when he stands alone?" Her tawny eyes looked right into his soul, and her words left him no hiding place at all. "Who will be there for him, after you die? Why should he have to endure all this alone, when he could have somebody at his side, sharing it all?" She stepped back, and gave a sad smile, a dagger twisting in his heart. "I could have given you that, Bran Davies. I could have given you this gift for him."
And she turned away, and did not fight, and that was when he said it. "I want it," he said, his head high, and his hands clasped on his head. "I want to know who I really am. I want to know how I can help him."
If he did it with his eyes open, then surely there could be no trap. He would see what she had to show him, and listen to what she had to say, and then, changed, he would return to the crowd on the bridge, where Will would be there, waiting for him.
"You truly want this?" Her eyes had grown as dark as the river. Her pale hand was full of promises, but she seemed almost shy, half reaching towards him, then drawing away.
He stood as solemn as one swearing a vow, bare-headed beneath the expanse of the sky, and the rising sun of summer. "I do."
He did not wait for her to reach for him. This time, he took her hand, and led her towards the river.
As the sun rose, the power of the Wild Magic was at its peak. As the twilight faded, and the day became as bright as any other summer's day, its power faded, and became no more than it was on any day. The night before was always terrible. Even when the Old Ones had been in full strength, the eve of May Morning had been a difficult night.
Will had stood vigil through the night. The Light allowed him to protect others; the Wild Magic creature bound in his service allowed him, in a way, to fight. By dawn, he was deeply weary, but he had told Bran he would be there on the bridge. He could not go there until the sun had fully risen, for that was the last, the most terrible time of danger. He could not hear the choir boys singing, and never would be able to hear them.
He moved slowly, steps dragging, head bowed. Inside, though, he was hopeful. He had feared this day more than he had realised. The threat from the Wild Magic was still huge, but the day of their greatest power had passed without a major assault. No long-dead memories walked the streets of Oxford. No sirens sounded, marking the loss of another soul. Perhaps very little had changed after all. The Wild Magic had grown stronger, but perhaps they were not as strong as he had feared. After all, they had done little this past year except issue threats. Maybe that was all it was – just threats.
The bridge was already emptying, and he could hear the distant sound of Morris music and bells. High Street was empty of traffic, but as crowded with people as on a Saturday before Christmas. He moved through the crowd, he alone heading towards the bridge, rather than away from it. Bran would have waited for him, surely.
Bran was not there.
Will could tell that as soon as he arrived, but he stopped walking, and leant against the parapet, scanning the scattered remnants of the crowd. That person there had fair hair, that person had pale skin, that person was just the right height. Each one turned round, smiling, and was not Bran. He had known that already, of course.
It had not been a promise, after all. There had been no firm plans to meet. But Bran had wanted them to be together all night, and Will had had to refuse, though of course he could not tell Bran the reason why. "I will be there on the bridge," Will had said, and Bran had said nothing, but Will had seen the look in his eyes, and knew that, to Bran, it had the strength of a firm arrangement. Bran would not have left without him.
It was then that the spirit of the river started to laugh.
"Bran," Will breathed. The air around him lightened, and opened into a golden avenue, as if the very molecules of the air were glowing with soft, yellow light. Will looked left, and right, but no-one else showed any sign of seeing it. Girding himself with the power of the Light, Will stepped into it, prepared to follow it wherever it led.
It was gentle and warm. The air caressed his cheek like hands, their touch feather-light. His weariness eased. And all around him was the distant hiss of whispers, warm with mirth.
I know you are leading me, he thought, as he stepped from the road. I am prepared against a trap.
The golden avenue led him through the Botanic Gardens, where gates stood open, and flowers twisted their lovely heads to watch him pass. He came this way, too, they told him, as the river spirit swelled inside his head in jubilant fury. Seeking you, as now you are seeking him.
He knew he was being led by his enemies, but he was not defenceless. He armoured himself in all the power of an Old One, banishing the human part of himself into the very distances of his mind. Bran, it whispered. Bran… "They lie in every word," the Old One said firmly. "Bran is probably at home asleep."
The avenue finished in a patch of intense sunlight on the edge of the dark river. You fought us here, the river hissed. Now we will destroy you.
The stranger stepped from behind a tree, arrogant and glittering. A sword was naked in his right hand. "You are foolish even to try," Will told him coldly. "You know you cannot defeat me face to face, and an Old One cannot be caught in your snares."
The stranger smiled, pure malice in his eyes. "But your lover was not so wise."
Bran! But the Old One stood tall. "You lie."
"I do not." His enemy raised the sword so the tip of it was pointing at Will's chest. "The proof of it is in the fact that he has gone. His bed is empty, and will remain empty for long, cold years. You can search the world all over, Will Stanton, but no trace of Bran Davies will you find."
It would have happened at dawn, when their power was at its height, when he had been so hopeful, so blind, so foolish… The Old One eyed the sword with a look that did not waver. "What crime had Bran Davies committed, that you would punish him so? I am your enemy, but he is innocent. Did you think that, by taking him, you could persuade me to waver from my course? I will not. Keeping him serves no purpose."
"Ah, but we do not keep him." The stranger sheathed the sword; he had other, more deadly weapons now. "He came with us through his own, free choice. He met my sister here, on this very spot where now you stand. She told him certain truths that you have seen fit to hide from him. When he realised how much you have lied to him, he accepted her offer, and everything that came with it."
"You lie," the Old One said coldly, armoured with Light.
"I do not." His fury sparked like light on the surface of water. "She offered; he came. He made the choice. You know our law, Old One. We cannot take any man against his will."
"But you can warp his will with tricks and lies."
"But no-one lies as much as an Old One. We do not lie as deeply or as mercilessly as you do." The stranger's eyes were ice. "But enough of this, Old One. Creatures such as you and I are beyond such petty human concerns of right and wrong. He chose to come, but you know why my sister came to him this morning, as the sun rose. Stop fighting us, release the hostage you have taken, and he will be returned to you."
Distantly, blindly, Will's hands groped for the support of a tree trunk, damp and slender behind him. "Then you do not understand the Light at all," the Old One said, "if you think this can sway me."
"He will be told of this," the stranger threatened. "He will be told that you betrayed him and denied him. He will come to hate you, and my sister will be there, warm and beautiful. Or perhaps I shall take him myself…"
His fingers dug into the tree bark. Dimly, he was aware of a nail breaking, and sharp pain as a shard of wood drove into his flesh. "You cannot cause me to stray from my purpose," the Old One said, head high, gaze unwavering. "The Light cannot put the needs of one man before the needs of the world. I am of the Light, therefore I will oppose you. There is nothing you can do to make me change my course. I can no more change my nature than you can change yours."
"Then you will never see him again," the stranger declared, "or only when you are changed, and he is changed, and the world has crumbled around you, and all that ever lay between you has died."
Will took a step away from the shelter of the tree, and then another, and then another. "If you keep him, or free him, it will make no difference to my opposition. You are my enemy regardless of what happens to Bran. Keeping him serves no purpose. Release him…"
But the stranger was gone, and Will was alone on the river bank, with the laughter of a thousand spirits echoing in his head.
There was nothing he could do; he had known that from the start, but still he had kept on speaking, hoping, hoping. The Light had never been able to redeem a man from Fairyland once he had agreed to go. Such things were impossible, and always would be.
Minutes passed, perhaps, before he was able to walk. He stumbled back to the city, along paths of grey. Blood stained his fingertips. Someone jostled him, and cars were on the streets, and lectures and tutorials has started, and the day was underway. He sat on a bench in a park, somewhere to the north. An old lady asked him if he was all right, "because you're as white as sheet, dear, and your hands are shaking." He managed to smile her away, but later he was on the ground under a tree, shivering with cold, and unable to see.
By night, he was back in his room. He tried to write, but his hand could not hold the pen. He tried to eat, but he was too empty. He could not bear to look at his bed, where Bran had slept one night until morning.
By morning, the walls had come up again, one by one, and the bars had sealed them in place. He opened the curtains, and looked out at the morning, and the years beyond it, endless and alone.
End of chapter nineteen