Chapter twenty-one: Flight
Someone was shaking him awake. There was no confusion on waking; he knew instantly where he was. He knew immediately that the hand shaking his shoulder belonged to an enemy, and so he recoiled, rolling to the far side of the bed, and coming up with his blankets held defensively in front of him.
The hooded figure in blue was sitting on the edge of his bed. "I am to tend you," the impassive voice said. "My mistress says that you do not dress yourself or wash yourself as much as would please her."
"I don't need to be looked after." He stood up, letting the blankets fall. He was fully dressed, wearing clothes he had put on two days before, if the measurement of days meant anything in this place.
"Are you resisting the lady's orders?"
"I…" Bran swallowed. "I am."
The hooded figure moved to the chest, and took out a fanciful golden robe and a dark green cloak. "It is worth resisting the lady's will on some things, but this is not one of them. These are only clothes. If you resist now, it is only a matter of meaningless pride. You will suffer, and for what? Worse, others will suffer."
With every word, the voice sounded more and more expressive, like the voice of a human woman. Despite himself, Bran took one step towards her. "Are you…?"
"No!" she hissed. She brought her hand up sharply, then turned her head sharply to one side, as if listening. For a minute, for two minutes, she was still, while Bran stood beside the bed, not knowing what to do. At length she exhaled, her whole posture fierce with relief. "There!"
She pushed her hood back, revealing the human face of a woman in her early thirties. A lock of pale brown hair showed next to her cheek, and her eyes were hazel. "Do not say anything," she urged him. "There is not much time. She is distracted now, I can tell. There is music…"
"I can't hear it," Bran said.
"Naturally," she snapped, as if he was a stupid little boy, "but it is true. I have lived in here for a dozen lifetimes. I know."
Bran sat down on the edge of the bed. "Who are you?"
"I was born in the world three hundred years before your time," she said. "I went too close to a green mound one midsummer's morning. Oh, but the priest had warned me; they had all warned me… I was not young. I should have known better. But it is not just the young who feel that no evil can touch them. I went alone, and I paid the price."
"She tricked you…"
"Such a fate was not for me." She looked at him with contempt, perhaps even with envy. "Of all the mortals who find their way into the land of Fairy, barely one in a hundred is picked out by the lord or the lady themselves. Who do you think serves them with their drink? Who washes their clothes? Who waits on them and dresses them? Who polishes their jewels and cooks their broth?"
She seemed to expect some answer. "I suppose I thought it was magic…"
"Magic?" she jeered. "No, it is mortal slaves. It is people like me, ripped away from their lives, forced to slave while everyone they know outside turns to dust."
"Three hundred years," Bran echoed, hit suddenly with the fear again. Owen, dying, and Will alone… "How long has it seemed to you?"
"Like a thousand years," she said. "Time passes fast, or slow, as they will it. The first time I dared to defy them, they took me to a pool and showed me my husband dying. He died because I was disobedient. The second time, they killed my son. Then there was no-one left for them to threaten, but I had learnt that it was better to do what they told me, and not to feel."
"But why…?" Bran twisted a fold of the blanket in his hand. "Why are you telling me this?"
"Because I am going to help you escape, you foolish child."
"What?" He frowned, his heart starting to beat very fast. "You don't…"
"No, I do not like you," she said. "You were chosen by the lady herself, and offered every luxury, but you mope around here like a spoiled child, and throw it back in her face. But…" The tautness of her face relaxed, and he saw that here eyes were shining with tears. "I had a son once. I have lost everything, but there is no reason why you should. I want to show you the way out."
"Out?" he echoed. "There's a way…?"
"Of course." She moved toward the door, and everything about her shouted impatience. "I have learnt secrets in my sojourn here. I can show you the way to return back to your own world, little changed, and before much time has passed."
Back to Will. Back to freedom. He had been stupid to accept the lady's offer. He had thought he was in control, but all along she had been tricking him. She would never tell him what he needed to know, and never let him return to his own time. He would be a prisoner for ever, in this room where the window showed only night.
But think. His mind spoke in Will's voice. Think about what she's saying.
But he found that he had stood up, and was already half way to the door. He forced himself to stop. "But why don't you escape yourself?"
"It is too late for me," she said. "By the time I found the way out, everyone I loved was already dead. What is there for me to return to now? A world that has changed beyond my imagining. A world in which I am alone – just a name in a parish register three hundred years old. Although I am a servant here, this world is my home. But you still have a life out there. I could not save my husband or my child, but I can save you."
Why should he stay? There was nothing here but solitude and terror. They would kill him before they told him what he wanted, or else he would be reduced to someone like this woman, who stayed voluntarily in slavery because they had taken everything else away from her.
"Yes," he said. "I'm coming with you."
She pulled her hood over her face, and the last thing he saw was her smile. "Put that on," she said, throwing him the green cloak. When he had done so, she opened the door, and led him into a corridor that was lit with torches and lined with doors. Until he saw it, he had not realised how strongly he had feared that it would be vast and dark. Music sounded from some of the doors, and people were talking and laughing.
When the first person passed him, Bran could hardly breathe for the fear of it, but they showed no sign of noticing him. The second one glanced at him, but saw nothing amiss. The third one Bran passed with his eyes straight ahead, deliberately trying not to look at him. The fourth and fifth were singing, their music so beautiful that it made his heart ache.
He was led down a flight of narrow stairs, each step made of worn stone, and the banister shiny with use. A small wooden door lay at the bottom. "The servants' quarters," she said. They were the first words she had spoken since leaving his room. "They lead into the kitchen garden, and that leads into the coppice. Beyond that is the wild wood, and beyond that, you are free."
Free, he echoed. He thought of Will, waiting for him, loving him. Will had lied to him… but he only had the lady's word for that, and she would have said anything to persuade him to come. She wanted to break Will by taking Bran from him. And Bran had known this, but he had come with her anyway, because she had promised to tell him information about his parentage and his powers. If he endured this, she would have to tell him. The fairy folk were tricksy, but there were some rules that even they had to obey.
They feared him. Why else had the lord and the lady both tried to seduce him? Why had they tried to break him with fear? As soon as he had refused to succumb, they had withdrawn. They were powerless to coerce him. In the end, if he endured, they would have to give in and tell him what he needed to know.
If he escaped now, he would just be Bran Davies, returning to Will, with all the wrath of Fairy at his back. If he waited, he would return to Will a little later, but more powerful. If he waited, he would be able to help Will, not just stand and watch uselessly as he drove himself into the ground.
"No," he said, quite firmly. The woman had led him through the kitchen, and had her hand on the latch of the door that led to outside. "I'm not going."
The woman said nothing; her face was hidden by her hood. But she opened the door. Outside, he saw sunlight and dancing greenery; distance, and a yearning, aching sense of freedom and hope, there for the taking.
Sobbing inside, he turned his back on it, and headed back to the stairs, back to the darkness of his cell. "I have chosen to stay," he told the stone steps, and the walls, and the air that no longer echoed with song. "I will find out what I need to know."
Somewhere behind him, a woman screamed. That, too, he had to walk away from.
People watched him blank-faced from the doorways. Every time he passed a door, he felt as if he was being loaded up with chains. The lady stared at him cold-faced; the lord looked amused.
The corridors kept their shape, and there was no possibility of getting lost. Ahead, always ahead, was the open door that led to darkness; the open door of his prison cell. He went in there voluntarily, and closed the door behind him. His head was high, but inside, it felt worse than it had ever felt before. Then, he had been trapped. Now, he had trapped himself.
He did not know if he could win.
This is the fourth morning, he thought, as he drifted out of sleep. No-one sat at his bedside, shaking him awake. No-one came to see him. There was only silence outside the room.
He went to the window, paced to the door, returned to the window, to stare out at the darkness. After a while, he made up his mind. Moving swiftly, he headed to the inner room, where he cleaned himself thoroughly, washing his hair with a bottle of sweet-smelling lotion. When he was clean and dry, he dressed himself in the most exotic of the clothes he could find in his chest. The tunic was green and gold, draping irregularly down below his knees, and the robe above it was edged with dark red fur.
"See?" he said to the empty air. "I am here by choice now, for as long as it takes me to find what I have come for."
A prison was only a prison if you made it so. If he moped on the bed, angry and afraid, he would not find out anything.
He paused just inside the door, and in his mind he was suddenly thirteen again, preparing to go back to school after the summer holidays. He had been teased and bullied every day during the year before, but Will had spoken to him quietly and passionately in the summer, saying some things with words, and others, even more powerfully, just with his presence and his eyes. Bran had nothing to be ashamed of. He was a good person, and Will liked him. If people wanted to laugh at him, that was their problem. Bran would never again be broken by it. He would greet insults with a calm look, and would pass on, untouched.
It had worked. It had taken months, but it had worked, and over time the bullies had become allies, and the taunters had become friends. But, oh, how nervous he had been that first morning! How difficult it had been to step down from the school bus, and open the door that led into the classroom!
He closed his eyes, seeking strength, then turned the door handle, and headed out. This time, there was no darkness. The corridor stretched on either side, as featureless as it always was, when he was alone. But this is not real, he told himself. I've chosen to stay here. I'm not a prisoner. I'm not hiding any longer. I won't let them trick me.
With a firm step, he walked along the corridor to the left, clenching his fists against the trembling of his hands. He reached a closed door, and threw his will fiercely at the unresponsive wood. In return, he heard music, faint and possibly not there at all. When he reached the next door, he grabbed the handle and threw the door open. He caught the briefest glimpse of people clustered around a harp, but then it was gone, and there was nothing but empty walls and bare stone flags.
But this is the way to do it, he thought. Not to cower, but to confront it. Weakness would get him nowhere; Will needed him to be strong. He tilted his head to one side, and caught the faintest wisp of an idea. He should go left, head through that arch over there, go downstairs, and then… And then…
Biting his lip, he did so, but his steps began to falter. Be firm, he told himself, and he walked on. The arch was there, made of a faintly pink stone. The stairs were made of wood, as if a tree had grown naturally into the shape of a staircase. Above him, when he looked up, the ceiling was a vast arch of interlocking branches, wreathed with stars.
At the foot of the stairs was a door. Once again, he hurled all his senses at the door, but there was nothing there. The handle was in the shape of a bear's head, wrought from bronze. A small stain showed on the stone at the base of the door. Was it blood?
I am not going to be afraid, he thought. Not any more.
He opened the door. Outside – he was outside! – was thick with trees. Some were slender; some were broad. Some were clad in the colours of autumn, and some were fresh and green with the first growth of spring. When he looked up, he saw tiny glimpses of a dark blue sky, as if it was early morning, before dawn, or after twilight on a winter's night.
He took one step into the wood, then a second. A third, his hand trailing over the trunk of a tree, and then a fourth. After the fifth, he turned around, and saw that the door had gone. He had left it open, but no rectangle of light showed in the forest. Trees surrounded him, and he was back at school, cowering on the floor as the bullies surrounded him. He had confronted them, but it was stupid to confront. Some people would be victims for ever; it was just the way they were. He had been a fool to think that he could take on the magic of this land and win.
He started to run, but his legs were gone. The ground was close - dead leaves like hulking creatures in his vision. He flailed with his arms, and air filled them, and he knew that he could fly. He twisted his head, and saw black feathers. When he cried out in fear and despair, it was the voice of a crow that he heard, hoarse, and his own.
And the lord of the fairies was there, his eyes dancing with malice, and a feathered arrow already set in his bow.
Bran flew. He knew how this would end; had seen it end, on the snows of the Deer Park in Magdalen. He would be hunted to exhaustion, and then a feather-tipped arrow would end it, and he would die out of his own time, to rot beneath an alien sky. This was his punishment for challenging the will of the rulers of this land. He should have succumbed to their seduction. He should have given in to the terror of the dark. He should have fled when he could have fled, or refused even to contemplate flight. He should have stayed on his bed until he was summoned, and accepted the blankness of the closed doors without challenging them. In his arrogance, he had fought, and this was the end of it.
An arrow flew past him, embedding itself into a tree trunk. Behind him, the lord laughed, and Bran knew that the arrow had always been supposed to miss him. He would be driven by many near-misses, pricked by many minor wounds, before the killing blow came.
He flew to the left, but the trees reared up, broad and forbidding. He veered to the right, but twigs like claws snatched at his feathers. "Fly from me, little pet of the Old One," laughed the fairy lord. "I will get you yet, and your hopes will come to naught."
Another arrow missed him, but as Bran cried out in terror and relief, the arrow struck a slender branch, dislodging it. It struck Bran on the back, and he cried out with pain. Answering, a group of rooks rose up from their high nests, and descended to him, mobbing him. With pecks and cries, they drove him away, casting him out, hating him.
An arrow scraped past him, feathers grazing his wing. Laughing raucously, the rooks drove him away. Bran flapped into a tree, stumbled, righted himself, and found himself heading straight back to the hunter. The lord was still laughing, and handsome enough to break a man's heart.
Will! Bran cried out, his voice transmuted into the harsh cry of a crow. Will! Help me!
Another arrow took him, grazing his chest. His muscles were screaming, not used to the form of a bird. Will was not coming, of course. Bran had chosen to come to this place, where Will could never follow him. If he died here, it was because this was the logical end of the choices he had made. Then he laughed despairingly, because what had logic got to do with any of this? This was the terror that lurked at the end of every life. This was being hunted to death, cast out, and alone. This was a place beyond logic, beyond thought, beyond any of the finer, more civilised parts of being human. This was visceral emotion; this was the Wild Magic.
It had won. It had claimed him.
Or maybe I have claimed it, he thought. It was a tiny thought at first, like a thin strand of sunlight breaking free from a storm.
He wanted to live. He wanted to survive. He wanted to win. He wanted to help Will.
Turning, screaming, he flew, not for safety, but straight at the fairy lord who was hunting him. He caught him between shots, as he was taking an arrow from his quiver and nocking it onto his string. Bran struck him in the face, claws tangling with his hair. The lord dropped the bow. His hands came up, and he struck at Bran, but Bran dodged, and raked his claws across the back of one bare hand.
The second hand struck. Bran saw the ground, and felt it strike, and then nothing.
End of chapter twenty-one