by Eildon Rhymer
Will and Bran meet up again as students in Oxford, but an unexpected enemy is stirring, and nothing will be the same again, for two young men, or for the world.
Chapter twenty-two: Family
He awoke to silver. Silver gauze drifted in a pale sky, suffused with light. A white coverlet covered him, edged with silver lace. Clad in silver, the lady looked down at him, her face grave with concern. "I thought he had killed you, my dear."
Bran stirred, and nothing hurt. He brought up a hand, and it was human again. When he lifted the covers and looked down at himself, he saw that he had been dressed in a soft white robe. A bandage showed through the opening at the front, but he felt no pain.
"My brother is wild," the lady said, "and sometimes consumed with jealousy. He is almost equal to me in power here, but only because I allow it. If I choose another, he will be displaced, and he knows it. He strikes out against those that I have favoured."
Bran did not know what to say. The memory of being hunted was still too strong, but so, too, was the memory of this lady trying to seduce him, and her cold fury whenever he defied her.
"Ah, no," she said, as if she could read at least some of his thoughts. "I make no demands on you. I brought you here, and you have suffered for it. All I want is to tend you, and look after you as you get better. I will protect you as any mother would."
Mother… The word struck like a knife. He had never known his mother, and this lady was beautiful, and had dark hair, just like his mother had. No-one had ever nurtured him. Owen was not a warm man, and there had been no hugs when he had returned from school, hurting and desolate. Mrs Rowlands and Mrs Evans had been the ones to feed him soup when he was ill, or put plasters on his scraped knees, or listen to his childhood woes. There had been no-one else.
"Tell me your worries," she urged, as soft as his mother was in all his childish dreams. "Tell me what hurts, and I will make it better."
"He chased me," he whispered. He did not mean to do it, but no-one had ever asked him such a question before. No-one had ever promised to listen to him, and look after him so unreservedly. "He was trying to kill me. And he was laughing. All the time, he was laughing."
"I will see that he is punished." Her face was cold. "I will see that you are unharmed."
She reached out one exquisite, tender hand, and picked up a cluster of grapes from the bedside table. "Are you hungry, my dear one? Let me feed you."
He had not felt hunger through all the days he had been in the land of the fairies. He had eaten nothing, and longed for nothing. Suddenly, with the sight of those green grapes, his mouth started watering. His stomach churned with hunger, and he wanted to reach out for them, he wanted to so much.
To be mothered and fed. To be looked after and loved.
He looked at her coldly, and clamped down on the hunger that was clawing at him from the inside. "When you tried to seduce me, you were less obvious. I will not give in. I am here to find out how to help Will defeat you, and you will get nothing from me until then."
For the briefest of moments, he thought that she winced. The grapes in her hand seemed to tremble. But she placed them back firmly, and walked away, as if she was the one dismissing him, and he was the one who had lost.
The sixth day, he thought, but the fear he had felt only days before seemed like a lifetime away. He was here, and this was what mattered. He could not worry about how fast time was going in the world outside, for that was beyond his control. All he could worry about was keeping his sanity, and refusing to give in to temptation or fear. He had come here for a reason, and he would not be diverted.
She had left him in the silver room. Outside, there was a balcony with crystal railings, and veils of white trailing out into the sky. Standing on the balcony, he could breathe fresh air into his lungs, and hear birds singing. He could see grass far below, with wild flowers scattered like jewels on the green, but mist hid the land beyond the garden.
How far was it to home, he wondered. If he walked through the mist, would it deepen, then gradually disperse, showing him the way back home? He ran his finger up and down the crystal railing, his mind drifting. Mist stole into his mind. Even the thoughts of painful things felt like gentle daydreams.
Was Owen still alive? Did Will still remember him? Was Jane alive and happy? Perhaps years had passed, or perhaps it was only six days. Even if it was just six days, that was time enough for consequences. They would have noticed that he had vanished. The police would be involved. Owen would be grieving. Will, perhaps, would be under suspicion, questioned by police, but unable to give any answers that anyone would believe.
If Will knew where he had gone, that is. Did Will know? Maybe Will thought he was dead. Maybe Will thought Bran had left him. Maybe Will thought he had gone away with Will's worst enemies because Bran no longer loved him.
He ran his finger up and down, up and down. I can't think about that, he thought. I really can't. I need to keep all my concentration for the dangers I am facing here.
He headed back to the bed. He still had servants, though not the woman who had tried to help him escape. The new ones were two young men, their faces uncovered by any hood. Both were handsome, but their eyes were blank. They called him lord, and waited on him, but there was little for them to do. He refused to eat, and the brief pang of hunger had not returned. He dressed himself, and refused to let them help him wash. Perhaps they were spies, but he thought they looked afraid of him.
They were here now, appearing through the side door when they heard him move. "My lord…"
"I want nothing," he said, flapping his hand. "You are to leave me."
Afterwards, he wondered at himself. His voice had not sounded like his own voice. It was as if this place was putting tendrils into his heart, making him speak like them.
He saw traps, too. He had known instantly that he must not accept food from the lady's hand. He had managed to see through the empty doors of the blank corridor, and see things that were supposed to be hidden. Something in this place was resonating deep within him, and he was responding. I am becoming one of them, he thought. He saw it as fibres of metal, digging deep into his flesh. He saw it as thorns, entwining his heart. He was prisoner, but they were turning him into one of them. They gave him servants and lovely clothes, and showed him a taste of freedom, as if it was his.
"My sister is making you her pet, I see." Bran whirled around, and saw the lord who had tried to kill him. There was no apology in his eyes.
"No," Bran said coldly, "because I refused. But I feel more fondness for someone who tries to make me her pet, than for someone who tries to kill me for sport."
"Not for sport." His face was an icy mask.
"For jealousy, then," Bran said, and was gratified to see the brief flush that rose to the other man's cheek.
Bran was wearing a dark red tunic, with an amber stone on a chain around his neck. Interwoven leaves of gold were his belt, and his boots were soft and as supple as his own skin. The other man was clad richly, but there was something a little bit tawdry about his finery. Bran had always thought the lord was tall, but suddenly he felt as if he was taller.
"Not jealousy," the man said, and order was restored again, for he was tall and proud and beautiful, and Bran was just a mortal, sitting on the bed. "But you have potential. I knew that when I saw you floundering in the nets of the Old One. My sister would make you into a mindless pet, lapping water from her cupped hands. I would rather see you dead than see that happen to you."
"Hence your actions the day before yesterday?" Bran looked up sharply.
"Not entirely." The lord placed one hand on the balcony. "That was a test, in a way."
Bran raised one eyebrow. "A test?"
"To see if you are worthy of power." The lord sat down beside him, and although he was still handsome, there was nothing seductive in his look now. "You passed, Bran Davies. You did not give in to fear. You refused to let yourself be hunted."
"I passed, did I?" Bran said coldly, trying to ignore the beating of his heart. "I am glad to hear it."
"It is a lonely life," the lord said, "to be a ruler, when your sister is as my sister is." He touched Bran's hand, and the promises in that touch had nothing to do with desire.
Bran pressed his other hand against his heart, just once, then clasped both hands in his lap, withdrawing from the other man's touch as he did so. "I think you are asking me to join you in overthrowing your sister."
"I have tested you," the lord said, "and you are fit for power."
"But I am mortal."
"Immortality can be granted," said the lord, "as can power."
Bran stood up, and walked to the window, where the mist hid all thoughts of freedom. "Power?" His voice cracked on the sound.
"We know all fates," said the voice behind him, inexorable. "The lives of all mortals are like threads on our loom. We can follow each one to its end. We can, if we want to, pluck a thread out and move it to another place in the weave. If a man, already ageing, had death in his future…"
Bran's hand closed on the railing. "You are telling me that I can save Owen's life if I join you."
"Yes," said the lord.
Bran turned to face him, his back to the freedom of the world outside, hands closed round cold crystal. "Your powers do not reach that far. Your powers lie over men's minds, and the way they perceive the world. You cannot tell the future of a mortal man, or change his fate, if his fate is death."
"Yes, we can," the lord said, but Bran knew the lies that lay beneath. He knew the grovelling that lay beneath the pride.
"You cannot," he said.
"You know nothing of us except for the foolish stories of ignorant men," the lord declared.
Bran looked at him until he lowered his gaze. "And yet I know this to be true. Tempt me no more, and begone."
But, afterward, he sagged against the railings, and his heart cried the name of the man who was his father in every way that mattered, except one.
On the seventh day they came for him, both of them together. They were united, as they had always been. Bran knew now that any claims of a rift had just been a pretence, designed to get him to submit.
He was clothed today not in riches, but in his own clothes. Fed up with the servants forever asking him what they could do to serve him, he had told them to find his own clothes, wash them, and bring them to him. Dressed like this, he felt more like himself, and yet strangely not so.
"We have come here," the lord said gravely, "to talk about the Old One."
"We kept the truth from you," said the lady, "out of care for you."
"He lied to you." The lord was a pace away from him to the left.
"He betrayed you." The lady was so close that he could smell her flowery scent.
"We do not lie," they said together.
Bran felt a heady sense of power, as if he had nothing at all to lose. "What did you tell me about him? You told me that he was keeping secrets. Well, I knew that. He'd told me that himself. You told me that he knew who my father was, and had chosen not to tell me. Well, maybe so, but that's between him and me. I know Will well enough by now to know that he only keeps secrets from me when he thinks that the truth will hurt me, or because of his own martyr complex. So, yes, I know he probably lied to me, but you won't make me believe that it was done through malice. You won't make me hate him, so don't even try."
He thought they were speechless for a moment, but only for that. "You do not know all of the truth," the lady said.
"And I will not believe anything that issues from your lips to be truth, anyway," he retorted. The lord moved to speak, but Bran stopped him, thrusting out his hand imperiously. "I know why you came here. You were going to try to poison my heart against Will. 'But you can join us, and get revenge on him' – that's what you were going to say. Well, I won't. Yes, there are things that Will and I need to talk about, but I will not join you against him. I will not."
"You do not know all the truth," said the lord. They were on either side of him now, their faces tender and cruel and inexorable. "I myself told him where you had gone, on the first day of summer in the meadows of Oxenford. I offered him the chance to bring you back, but he refused. That is the truth of his love for you. He sacrificed you without a moment's doubt."
Will, oh Will… Bran clenched his fists at his side, and met the merciless pity of the fairy lord's gaze. "Of course he did," he said. "Will is of the Light. He could not put my safety before the safety of the world. He could not bring me back, and pay for it by withdrawing from the war that lies between you. He could not do that, and still remain Will."
He interrupted them, ploughing through their objections, as they before had ploughed through his. "I know Will loves me, but he is of the Light, and that comes first. And I love Will, even if he lies to me. There is nothing that you can say or do that will cause me to waver in this. You cannot defeat me." He stood tall, and suddenly it seemed to him that they were as children, and he was as tall as the canopy of the ceiling. "I have endured your temptations for seven days, and I have resisted them. I have won. By the oldest law of the living things of this earth, I command you: tell me what I want to know. Tell me who my parents were, and open the door to my powers."
He had defeated them; he knew that. The lord was tawdry, a glistening thing clad in fox-fur and gold. She was not young, with vulgur clothes that clung to every curve, and a smile that was more cruel than beautiful.
"Your father," he said, hurling it like the last weapon of a defeated foe, "was known to the Light. He was Artos, called King Arthur, born a mortal, but subsumed by the Light. The Old One knows this. You knew this, once. You chose to forget. You chose to become merely mortal, not to go with your father to lands beyond Time."
The lady was ugly in her defeat and hatred. "But the Light never knew that your mother was no mortal women. She was my first-born daughter, borne on a mortal king. She chose to be mortal. She chose to betray her people, and cast her fate into the hands of the Light."
"Then you are my…" Bran pressed his hands to his face, physically driving away the words. This was not a time for emotion. The future of the world rested on this moment, he knew that instinctively. "I have my answers," he declared. "Now let me… No." He drew himself up, taller than either of them, and more mighty. "I am going now. I am returning to my own world, and to Will, who is your enemy. Neither of you can stop me."
And beyond the balcony, the mist lifted, and a shining road twisted back to golden towers, and green meadows sleeping beside a river dark, and the life he had left just seven days before, or maybe a lifetime.
Clad in his own clothes, armoured in truth, he left that silver room, and no-one tried to stop him.
The mist wreathed him, but it was not absolute. He saw tiny yellow flowers blossoming near his feet, and grey shapes that could have been trees. He heard the sound of distant talking, or maybe the wind, blowing through branches. Once, a bird flew overhead, casting a shadow despite the absence of sunlight.
Bran walked, his hands at his side, and his head high. And King Arthur is… The mist turned into a thick blanket, blocking out all sight and sound. My mother is…
"No," he said out loud. He could not think about it. He had to get out first. If he let himself think about it, he would stray from the path and wander here, lost forever. He had to be firm and strong, at least until he was out. Once he was home, and knew that he was free, then there would be time for thinking.
Or maybe he would laugh, for it was ridiculous. It could not be true. This was just another of their lies. It was not true. It was not.
"No." Fiercely, he drove the thoughts away, locking them in a place that he had not known existed. One step, two… He thought the mist was trying to lead him astray, but he stared steadily through the whiteness, and kept to the path that his heart told him to follow.
There was no jolt when it happened. This time, no lethargy filled his mind, blinding him to the moment of transition. With one step, he was still in the land of the fairies, though on their borders, the mist-filled marches where no common laws held true. With the next, he was back in his own world.
But silent. There were no cars, and no people. It was almost dark, but as he blinked, his eyes began to grow accustomed to the light. He was outside; he had known that from the start. Now he realised that he was at the coast, on a wide, flat beach that stretched to the sea, far away.
For a moment, he felt completely lost. This was not Oxford, and where was Will? Calm, he told himself. Think. The sky was lightening by the minute, and he saw the dark shape of hills, with a light behind them that showed that they were in the east. I wanted to get home, he thought. All the time I was walking through the mist, I was thinking about how to find the way home. And then, of course, he knew the hills. He had returned to his own world near the place where he had entered it. These were the sands of Aberdyfi, a few miles from home.
It was too far to walk, but in a few hours there would be buses, or perhaps a pay phone from where he could contact Owen or John. Not that he had any money, he realised. He was wearing his own clothes, not the clothes of Fairy, but he had never thought to check the pockets for his wallet. Thus so easily had he forgotten how to think like a human living in the modern world. Priorities were different in the land of Fairy. Even such things as buses and phones felt alien, as if he had been away for years.
Perhaps he had. Bran started to run.
Nothing was different, but everything was. Towns still stood where towns were supposed to be, but they were entirely without light. The sun rose, and people started stirring, but the roads remained virtually empty. A man passed him, and his clothes were no different from anything Bran was familiar with, but he would not meet Bran's eye.
Perhaps it was a Sunday, he rationalised to himself. Maybe there had just been a power cut. The hills were unchanged, but the hills always were. The houses and towns were the same, though, and that meant far more. The few cars that passed him were of familiar make, with number plates proclaiming that they dated from a few years before the year that Bran believed was the present day.
What was I afraid of? Bran wondered with a smile. Space-age tower blocks and flying cars?
The weather was mild, and the trees were green with fresh leaves. It felt like early May, just as it should do. Maybe it was only seven days, Bran thought. That was long enough for people to worry, but not long enough for them to move on. Everything could resume just as it had always been. Though some things can never be the same, he thought.
Lacking money, he did not try for a bus. He passed a phone box, and almost went in, but found himself walking past it, after all. Because if I phone and no-one answers… If they answer, and I say, "It's Bran," and they say, "Who?" At least when he walked, he could wonder and hope. He could shake off the last effects of the land of Fairy – that curious way of thinking that had stolen over him during the last few days. He could return his mind to thinking as a human did.
The road began to climb, still unnaturally quiet. Rooks flew overhead, in crowds more dense that he was used to seeing. Ahead, the mountains were grim and beautiful, and his breath caught unexpectedly in his throat with longing for them. This was his home. Although he might spend his life in other places, he would always come back here. He would not want to survive without any hope of seeing this place again.
The day grew warmer, and the sun rose until it was overhead, then began to sink again. Bran's feet started to hurt, but inside he felt almost happy. He was free, and the world had not changed too badly in his absence. He could walk anywhere he wanted, without anyone telling him not to. He had escaped from the glamours and tricks of the fairies, and he had taken from them what he wanted to take.
"Bran?" a voice said. "Bran, my boy? Is that Bran?"
Lost in thought, Bran had not noticed anyone approaching. He turned round, and saw the seamed face of John Rowlands, peering at him incredulously. John had been riding a bike, but he clambered off it, almost falling in his haste. "It is you. Oh, Bran, you've come back."
"Yes," Bran said simply. He let John embrace him, but his heart lurched a little when he saw tears in the old man's eyes. For John did look old – far older than he had looked just weeks before. It was only a week, he thought. No, please, it was only a week…
"Seven years, Bran," John said, the unwitting executioner. "Seven years gone, and everyone just about giving up hope."
And to that, Bran could say nothing at all.
End of chapter twenty-two
Author's note below:
(I added the space since I never like plunging straight into an author's note after the end of a chapter. I find it jarring. I prefer a short pause to reset my brain from story-reading mode into note-reading mode. )
So this is it – the big revelation chapter, revealing not just the seven year jump in the story, but also Bran's fairy blood. (Hence the nervousness I expressed a couple of chapters ago.) I am not for one moment suggesting that Bran is part fairy in the Sequence proper. There's no evidence for it in the books. He doesn't have fairy blood in other stories I've written, and doubtless won't in any future stories I may write. But he does have it in this story.
And, yes, this does mean that his grandmother tried to seduce him. What can I say? Fairies don't hold with our human ideas about morality.
And while I'm writing notes, Bran reappeared in our world in the place that he did because that was where he was born. We find out in Silver on the Tree that he was born by the sea in the Lost Land, so the Wild Magic has responded to his desire for home by taking him to his birthplace – or as near as possible to it.