I was quite nervous posting yesterday's chapter, and am nervous about these next few, too. The story changes its character quite markedly from now on. I hope no-one feels too betrayed or cheated.
Chapter twenty: Otherworld
The world was changed with every step.
The first step he took, hand in hand with the lady, he saw the towers of Oxford in the dawn light, and trees of budding green, bending down to the river. With the second step, although he did not blink, the towers were fewer, but the trees seemed older. Something moved far away, on the fringes of his vision, but when he turned, it had already gone. That was his third step. When he turned back, the towers had gone, and all that remained was a scattering of houses, and the hills beyond it, misty and pale.
A boat was there in the river, shaped like a swan, and crewed by creatures whose tawny cloaks covered their faces. One stood at the tiller, and two sat at the oars. Another reached a hand to the lady, helping her in, and she in turn drew Bran in behind her. "I don't want to get in," he faltered, but she looked at him, her eyes cool and steady, and said, "But, Bran, you must know that your choice is made, and there can be no going back. You cannot walk the same road twice, and choose a different turn."
He knew that. Of course he knew that. A sense of unreality had settled upon him, though never through all the days that followed would he think that it was a dream. He sat down beside her, in the place she led him to, and watched as the boat moved down the river, and into the Thames beyond. If it really is the Thames, he thought, and she smiled gravely, and said, "Tamesa, Tamesis, Isis, Thames. Rivers flow alike through your world and through ours, and the grass is alike green. Though all things change, some things endure. The river is the one you know, Bran Davies. All else will be strange to you."
A tendril of fear crept into him, like a finger moving on the face of the water. "Am I even in the same world as him?"
"As the Old One?" All beauty left her face. "The Light can never enter our domain. He is there and you are here, and the gulf between you will never be bridged."
"But where is here?" he persisted. Talking kept the fear at bay. By asking questions, at least he was guiding the conversation. All around the river was a great flood plain, scattered with tufts of green. It could have been the land near Oxford, four thousand years ago, or it could be a river in another world.
"It is my domain," was all she said. "Behold, Bran, and see beauties that the cold, empty heart of the Light can never know."
He tried to look away, he really did. He tried to be cold and obdurate, but the river narrowed and ran through meadows that danced with every colour that he had ever seen in dreams. Horses cantered in the meadows, their manes like flowing silk. Soaring in the pure blue sky, there were towers and spires, topped with gold. Music cascaded from the reeds, and his fingers ached with longing for the touch of a harp.
He lost himself. "No," he whispered, and, "No." And hours later, perhaps, he was on a sedge-filled lake, and long after that, he was being led by the hand dazedly through the stone-flagged corridors of a castle.
"I don't know where I am," he whispered. I want to go back. I want to see the flowers again, and ride the horses, and make music until the world crumbles. "I don't know how I got here." But Will… Fingers curled, nails in his palm. He turned reproachfully, and everything about the movement was an effort. "You enchanted me."
"Mortals use blindfolds," she said coldly, but then she smiled, and draped a strand of black silk across the bare flesh of his wrist. "Would you rather I use a blindfold, Bran?"
"I would rather have answers to my questions," he said, and stepped away, pressing both hands flat against the smooth stone wall behind him. "Tell me what you promised me, and then let me go."
Her eyes narrowed, and she walked away, and left him there.
They came for him not long later, after he had walked through ten featureless corridors, and run through twenty more; after he had opened doors to find nothing beyond, and pulled at doors to find them without handle or key. He saw nobody. When they came for him, their steps were silent.
There were two of them, one hooded in dark crimson, and one in midnight blue. Their faces were shadows and patches of faint light, and their eyes were dark pits.
"You will come with us," said one.
"Your room has been prepared."
Their voices were without inflection. He thought that the one in crimson was male and the one in blue was female, but he could not tell what it was about them that made him think that this was so.
"My room?" He moistened his lips, ran his damp hands down his sides. I can't stay! I need to get back to Will! "What if I…?" He swallowed, and tried to sound more resolute. "I won't come with you."
In the echo of his voice, he sounded like a petulant child. The hooded figures gave no sign of emotion, but answered his aborted question, not his refusal. "If you do not come," said the figure in red, "then you will be doomed to run forever in featureless halls, for the doors only open to those whom the Lord and Lady favour, and to those who serve them. Without a guide, you will wander forever, yet never die."
"If you do not come with us," said the blue figure, "then we will be punished, and those you love may be punished, too. What happens in this realm can spill over into the world of men."
"You're threatening me?" Bran asked, but his voice lacked force. He thought of Owen and John Rowlands, labouring on the mountains. Will could take care of himself, but they could not. He thought, too, of the empty corridors, and the growing terror that he had not liked to admit to. When young, he had often dreamed of being lost, and woken crying and bereft.
"We do not threaten," said the figure in crimson. "We merely serve."
He followed them. It was not a defeat – he told himself that. Only a fool persisted in a battle that he had no hope of winning. He would fight to get his answers, but he would not fight for foolish pride. "You are servants here?" he asked.
The blue one inclined her head. "We serve the Lady. Now we serve you, my lord."
Bran gave a mirthless laugh. "I am not your lord."
They stopped outside a door. All the corridors looked the same, but Bran wondered if it was one of the doors he had tried to open. This time it opened to a touch and a word, revealing a green-canopied bed, and a chair that seemed to have grown from a single piece of wood, shaped without carving. There was a large chest beside the bed, and a smaller door in the far wall, locked with a golden key. Through the small window, he saw only the blackness of night.
"There are clothes in the chest," they said, "and a pool in the other room for bathing. We will dress you and bathe you, my lord."
"No, you will not," Bran told them. Behind his back, his hands were trembling. "Tell your mistress that you have done what she asked, and so have I. Tell her I want what she promised me."
But after they had gone, he blundered blindly backwards until he found the bed, and sank down on it, his hands clenching the bed coverings on either side. Will? he thought. Where are you, Will?
But Will had lied to him, and Bran still loved him, and now Bran was here, in a world beyond his dreams.
He did not intend to sleep. He opened the chest, rifled through the clothes, but chose not to wear them. He did wash a little, though, splashing water on his face and down his neck. It was pleasantly cool, issuing from the mouth of an exquisitely crafted silver fish, falling into a white marble bowl carved like a shell. He dried himself on a white cloth, as soft as the skin on his palm.
There were no books to read, and nothing to make music with. The door was unlocked, but when he went outside, the corridors on either side were blank and empty, with a stone-flagged floor, and tapestries woven to look like a solid wall of green leaves. He did not try to wander through them again, but stood in his doorway, listening. There were no distant voices, no songs, no music, no footsteps. After a few minutes, his fingers white on the edge of the door, he returned to his room.
He sat on the bed. Like a lifting veil, the sense of unreality vanished, and thoughts clamoured in his head. She had said… His father… He had powers… Will had lied… He threw himself onto his back, and there was the canopy above him, painted like the branches of a sheltering tree, with silver stars caught in the net of leaves. The stars looked down on him like eyes, like eyes…
He woke up stiff and sluggish, and his body told him that he had slept for a full night. There was still only blackness at the window, though, with no light anywhere to be seen. His own room was lit by two torches in wall sconces, each one shimmering the air above it like an enchantment. Their scent was faintly aromatic, and he knew suddenly that they did not burn as normal torches burnt, and would not go out until someone with power willed it.
He wandered stiffly into the bathroom, and drank from the silver fish, finding the water pleasant, and almost sweet. He filled the marble bowl, and washed his face, running wet hands through his hair.
When he returned to the bedroom, the lady was there, sitting like a queen on the edge of the bed, her green robes blending into the bedclothes as if she and the bed were one.
"What are you doing here?" he demanded. As soon as he said it, he knew it was a mistake. He had ceded her the advantage.
"This is my domain," she said, but not coldly. "I come and go as I please, and today it pleases me to spend time with you."
"Today?" He did not try to gain control, not yet. He would play the foolish mortal, lost in his snares, and do so until he got his answers. "Is it day, then? It's dark outside."
"Is it?" Her delicate eyebrow raised. "If you see it thus, it is only because you have not embraced our land. Your heart is still treacherous, longing for something else." She slipped from the bed, and glided to his side, where she took his hand and held it between her fingers, long and smooth. "Is there darkness now, my sweet?"
He tried to withdraw, but she held him. He did not try too hard. Outside, the veil of night had lifted, and the sky was blue, with clouds like a picture in a children's story book, and birds wheeling in the sun. He could not see the ground, or trees, or any distant horizon. He was too far from the window, and perhaps his room was too high up.
"But… but which is real?" It was not possible always to keep his calm. He had seen too much and heard too much, and part of him still wanted to curl up and cry.
"Does it matter?" Her fingers stroked the side of his hand.
"Yes." He swallowed, and pulled away. Outside, darkness fell again, and his heart gave a little sob, for the darkness was like the bars of a prison, keeping him in here, alone. "Everything's a lie. What does this place really look like? I don't know if anything I've seen is really there."
She frowned, a delicate line appearing between her eyes. "You mortals are so obsessed with reality. You say we show you tricks and lies, but what is real? No two mortals see the same thing in the same way. Two men see a horse, and one sees speed, and another sees fear. Which one is right? Which one is real?"
"That's not the same." Bran shook his head.
"It is." Her eyes narrowed. "When you and the Old One kissed, do you think the kiss was the same for him as it was for you? It was not. Two realities came together in the touch of two pairs of lips."
"But that's just because of different perceptions," he protested. "People have different viewpoints. Things are subjective."
"Yet, in us, you despise it and call it enchantment," she said. "We are different from mortal men, Bran Davies. Things are like breathing to us, that to you are as distant as a dream. Two mortals see the same thing differently, but the difference stays in their head. With us, it flows outwards and becomes truth. This domain of ours can be as wondrous as any paradise, or as desolate as any hell, depending on what lies in your heart. Will you embrace it and find paradise, Bran Davies?"
He faltered. As he did so, his lips parting slightly, she leant down and claimed his mouth in a kiss. She tasted of honey and flowers. Her fingers wove through his hair, guiding him into the kiss. It was liquid honey in his veins. His knees sagged, and for a moment he felt as if the only thing keeping him upright was her hands and her lips.
"Come," she whispered, breaking the kiss, but not the touch. Her breath was warm and sweet on his cheek. "Come to bed with me, me sweet."
The sky was glorious through the breech that was the window. Faintly, through the doorway, he heard footsteps passing, and songs and music. Gold thread glowed on his bed coverings, and a scent of grass and freedom filled the room. And her hand was tugging, gently insistent, and her mouth was on his lips, his chin, his throat. Desire flooded him, and his vision clouded.
Then his knees buckled, and he was on the bed, lying on his back on a tumble of green cloth. She lowered herself onto him, robes spread around her like a throne. Her hair, unbound, caressed his cheek. Her eyes saw everything, and he arched up towards her, wanting more.
"This," she said, astride him like a queen. "Every day, and every night. You will see what thousands of men have longed for. You will be mine, and I will be yours."
Her hands moved to her throat to begin the unbuttoning of her robe. Her smile was seductive, but her eyes were cold stones. Her hair was dark, flowing like silk over the pale skin of her throat.
His mother had dark hair. His mother was beautiful. His mother had loved him.
"No," he said. He rolled away. "No, I don't want this."
"But you do." One flawless shoulder was free of her gown, and the rounded top of one exquisite breast. Her hand caressed between his legs, and the desire surged stronger than ever, almost drowning out rational thought.
"No," he rasped. He pulled himself free. As he did so, the sunlight vanished, and the window was a prison again, showing only night. The sounds was outside ceased, and he was alone with her, and her eyes were furious. "I came here to find out the answers you promised me," he said, still breathing fast. "I will not be seduced."
Her expression was so cold that he almost stopped breathing. "So be it." Gathering her robes around her, she swept from the room, leaving him alone, and lost in desire.
Hours passed, he thought, in tortured daydreams of love and lust. Outside, throughout, the sky remained dark.
His clothes chafed, and the smell of sweat and desire was acrid in his nostrils. Retreating to the inner room, he took off all his clothes, and stepped into the deep bath, shaped like a pool, with carved lilies around the edge. Clean, he dressed himself in the plainest of the clothes he found in the chest – dark brown trousers, and a tawny tunic that came half way down his thighs. It was slit almost down to his breastbone, and laced with silken threads that trailed over his skin like a lover's fingers.
He threw himself onto the bed. "I know you're doing this to me!" he shouted, but only silence answered him. He presumed he was supposed to give in and beg her to come back, to ease the pressure boiling in his body. "I won't give in!"
Hours more passed, and eventually he slept. His dreams were fierce and frenzied, in which he made love to Will with a burning passion, yet each time was left unfulfilled. When he awoke, he was sticky with sweat, and a hand had closed around his, neither tender nor cruel.
Bran opened his eyes to see the man from the snow – the lord of the fairies who had been Will's particular enemy. "You!" he spat, and tried to struggle away, but the man still held him.
"My sister has a weakness for handsome mortals who defy her," he said. "It can lead her into foolishness. I told her that you could not be seduced. Unfortunately, a statement like that is a challenge to her. It only made her desire you more."
Bran turned his head to the window. "It's still night."
"Yes," said Will's enemy. "I do not seek to entice you with glamour and prettiness. We are both men together. In such a coming together, there should be nothing but honesty. Some deeds are better done in darkness, don't you think?"
"Coming together?" Bran clambered out of bed, and stood with his back to the wall, hand clasping the window frame behind him. "Oh no…"
"I told her you could not be seduced," the fairy lord repeated. "Your body yearns for the Old One. It is to men, not women, that your heart is given."
He was as beautiful in his way as the lady was in hers, but it was a beauty that was all male. His neck was proud, and his eyes were arrogant. His chin was strong, and his cheeks were exquisitely sculpted. His smile snatched the breath from Bran's throat.
"I make no promises," the stranger said, as he stalked to Bran's side, and coaxed his hands from behind his back, and took them, and claimed them. His palms were callused; strong and masculine. "Male comes together with male. You are here, and I am here, and the moment is right."
Bran yearned for release. The man's hands caressed places were only Will had been; they teased at places where even Will had never dared to go. "Why suffer?" the stranger breathed. "Not all men refuse you and deny you your needs."
He plundered a kiss. Bran was pinned between the window and the bed, exactly where the lady, too, had kissed him. The man was stronger. He took Bran to the bed, and bore him down. "Anything," he whispered. "Let me take what the Old One could not take. I will give you the gift that he could never give you."
And Bran's arms fell rigid at his sides. "You are not Will. You are Will's enemy."
"But Will Stanton lied to you," the fairy lord said, his eyes like coals.
"Then that is between him and me." Bran pulled the opening of his tunic tight, holding it with one hand. "I told him I would wait for him to be ready, and I will. I would rather ache with unfulfilled lust, than give my body to a stranger for the sake of a moment's release."
The light faded; the darkness deepened. In the half-light, the stranger's face was two-dimensional. Then Bran blinked, and he was looking at Will. "It would be as if you were with him," Will's voice said. "Your heart's desire, and ever afterwards, in your dreams…"
"Then you don't understand me at all," Bran said coldly, interrupting him, "if you think I could be tempted either by you, or by a lie. I want you to leave me now."
And the stranger did. The desire faded, but in its wake was only desolation and emptiness. Curled on his side, Bran stared at the darkness that veiled the window, but he did not weep.
He awoke to a different darkness, but tendrils of shadows at the corners of his room, and darkness black and featureless outside the window. He knew he had slept through another night, or through a period of time that equated to a night. This was the second morning, and the start of his second day.
No-one had brought him food yet, he realised. Except for a few trickles of water from the silver fish, he had drunk nothing. Neither was he hungry or thirsty. The lust of the day before had vanished entirely, and it was as if he was without all bodily needs. Even sleep felt merely like a cessation. He was not tired before it; he did not feel refreshed when he woke.
Time ran differently in the land of the fairies, or so the stories told. It had seemed like two days to him, but perhaps it was only minutes, and his body could not be deceived. Perhaps he could endure a few days of this, get his answers, and then return to the crowded bridge in Oxford, where Will would be waiting for him, unaware that anything had changed.
Or maybe each day was a hundred years.
He walked to the window, paced the narrow room. Maybe a month passed in the space of a single step. Maybe everyone he knew had died, living their natural life in the space it took him to draw a breath. "I know you're watching me!" he shouted. "Somebody come! I want my answers. I demand them!"
The silence lasted for minutes, for hours, for months, for years. He imagined Owen lying in his grave, and Will enduring for centuries, alone and friendless. He saw his cottage turned to dust, and the towers of Oxford crumble until only green mounds showed where once they had stood.
The dark tendrils crept ever closer. The torches flickered and went out.
He groped blindly, found the pillar of the bed, but something brushed against his other hand, and he gave a strangled scream. He stumbled away, into the great empty chasm that was the rest of his room, and found a wall, and the icy glass of his window. If only it was light, he thought fiercely. If only there was something to show whether it was night or day, whether the world existed, whether anyone was alive except for him.
Maybe he was underground. Maybe the sky and the sunlight had been an illusion, and he was miles underground, and nothing lay beyond the window but earth. Maybe the weight of miles of stone and rock lay above his head, and he was buried alive, in a place where nobody would ever find him. In the stories, they lived in mounds. The deep places of the world were their domain, untouched by light and hope, far away from the mercy and compassion of mortal life.
"I just want to see out," he whispered. "Just that."
Nothing answered him. He shambled back across the room, and things brushed against his hand as he passed the bed, but he knew now that they were only the hangings. He was utterly alone. There was more terror in being alone than in having unknown creatures with him in the darkness.
He found the door, pawed for the handle, turned it, clawed it, pushed and pulled, until at length it opened. He stepped outside, into a sea of darkness that encased him utterly, and was empty of sound. He clenched his fists, and fought the urge to shout out, to beg. He stumbled forward, but had no idea which way to go. Twelve steps forward, fifteen, twenty… His outstretched hands encountered nothing at all. He turned left, and managed thirty steps, but still there was nothing. But the corridor outside his room was not wide. He should have found other doors and walls. He should have found hanging tapestries, and the empty brackets that should have held torches.
He tried to run, but suddenly, unbidden, came the certainty that he stood on the brink of a great drop, and his next step would kill him. He crouched down, meaning to feel each step with his hands, but there was no floor. He found his feet, but his hand moved past them, into the darkness beneath.
He could not move. If he sat down, curled up, would he fall? He stood, but there was no way on earth that he could have willed his legs to take another step. Suspended in space and darkness, he stood. He shouted something – what, he did not know – but his voice was flat and vanished into nothing, as if there were not even the most distant of walls to echo it back to him.
Terror pressed around him like a living thing, and a distant part of him recognised that he was close to losing his mind. It could be like a paradise, the lady had said, or worse than any hell. But hell was fire and pain, and a seething mass of tormented souls, tormented by devils, green and red. Hell was not this emptiness. No, this was worse. Pain was an enemy he could fight, but now he was alone, and there was no enemy that was not inside his own mind.
Time passed; an eternity passed. After a while, there was pain. His eyes hurt with the effort of trying to see in the darkness. His body hurt with the strain of standing so still. His hands hurt from too much clenching, and his jaw hurt from being held so tight.
And then he was no longer alone, and he knew that some things were worse than emptiness, after all. It started with the sound of breathing, low and moist. Then there was a smell of cold and rotting things. There was no end to the darkness, but in his mind he saw the worst monsters of his childhood dreams – a skeletal horse, a dripping creature from the swamp, a faceless creature wrought from mountain mist. He imagined rending claws, teeth tearing at his flesh. He thought of skeletal hands and shaggy thighs, and death and pain and violation.
Its breathing was cold on his cheek. Its hand was a weight on his shoulder. He could not run because darkness claimed him. He could not even shrink, because there was nothing beneath him but empty space. "Will," he whispered. "Oh, please, Will, please save me."
But there was no answering blaze of white light. No towering figure swept in to drive the monsters away. Of course there wasn't. Will was far away, because Bran had chosen to come away with the queen of the fairies, to find out who he was, and to find out how to help Will in his battle against these very creatures. He had done so with his eyes open, knowing that he would be tested and tempted.
"This isn't real," he said, and it was the hardest thing he had ever done, to gather the threads of his mind back together, and weave them into something that could think. He took a step back, and he did not fall. The hand slid away from his shoulder. Faltering, slowly, he tried to remember which way he had come, and edged back towards his room. "This isn't real," he repeated, over and over. "This isn't real."
"But it is," said the voice of Will's enemy, and in his mind, Bran saw the body of a man in the snow, hunted through the woods of fairyland in the shape of a bird. The terror had been real; the death had been real.
"But it is," said the lady, but she sounded cold and angry. "Do not fall into the trap of thinking that the things you see here are not real, and cannot change you."
But they let him find the door, and through it, his bed. They gave him light again, faint, from the torches. They let him weep for a little while, untouched and unharmed.
This time, when sleep came, his body surrendered gratefully to it, and the darkness was welcome.
End of chapter twenty