There will be no update tomorrow (Saturday.) I'm going away to a folk festival in an hour or two, and won't be back until late Sunday afternoon. Barring disasters, fire or flood, I will post two chapters on Sunday after I get back.
Chapter twenty-three: Seven years
Owen cried. That seemed, somehow, the worst thing of all. He embraced Bran – Owen, the man who never touched – and clung to him, sobbing.
Afterwards came the questions.
"Where have you been, Bran? Seven years…"
"Was it the work? You see these things in the papers sometimes – students having breakdowns under the pressure of work…"
"Did you forget who you were? Was that it?"
"Why didn't you phone?"
"Or weren't you free to come back? Have you been… hurt?"
He could not answer. He clutched his mug of too-strong tea, and looked out of the window at the yard.
Owen's face was bleak and uncomprehending, desperate to understand, but scared, perhaps, of the answers. Having allowed them privacy for their reunion, John Rowlands reappeared, and perched uncomfortably on a wooden chair. Help me, Bran thought, for John already held one of his secrets. John, perhaps, would understand the truth, but Owen never would.
"They sent all your possessions back from Oxford," Owen said, "as if you were dead."
There was an undertone of anger in Owen's voice now. Of course there was. Bran had no tale to tell of capture and ill-treatment. They doubtless thought he had run away, and stayed away out of choice, not giving them as much as a letter to let them know he was still alive. But I didn't! he wanted to cry. I thought it was only seven days!
He put the mug down, stood up, went to the window. The view was unchanged, but now that he knew that seven years had passed, he could no longer hide from the knowledge that the world had changed. The towns were dark; the roads were empty. The Wild Magic had commenced their war, and the world of men was already falling.
The light was fading. Bran heard Owen stand up to light a lamp, a candle in a cage of glass. Above them, the electric light bulb stayed dark.
He knew he had to speak. He could not tell the truth, but he had to gift them with a lie, or they would be tormented forever more. "I must have had some sort of breakdown," he said slowly, his hand curling around the windowsill. "I didn't remember who I was. I didn't know where I was. The seven years are a blank. As soon as I… remembered, I came back. I didn't know it had been seven years. I really didn't, Da. You have to believe me."
So he had lied, then. He had lied to people he loved, because they would never be able to accept the truth. I'm sorry, Will, he thought. I understand now.
"Before this morning," he said, "the last thing I remember is May Morning in Oxford. This is…bewildering. Everything's changed."
And the undercurrent of anger vanished entirely, and was replaced with sympathy. Because he had lied. Bran closed his eyes. Oh, Will… It was harder to lie than to be lied to. It was worse to live with a secret than to be protected by a lie.
They told him more, and worse, than he had ever wanted to know. They told him about the slow and gradual crumbling of the world he had been born into. They told him of the petrol shortages, so great that people had been murdered in civilised Britain for the petrol in their car. They told him of the power cuts, some of them lasting for weeks. They showed him pictures of London devastated by floods, and Cardiff half in ruins after an earthquake.
They told him of people he had once known by name, who were now dead in storms or disease. They told him of government clinging on by a thread, and the last vestiges of order and normality, that every month grew more frail. They told him of a populace driven mad by fear and incomprehension, some erupting in violence, and others retreating in solitude.
"It isn't as bad here, of course," John told him. "We always were a quiet folk, and the land has always given us what we need."
They told him these things as the light faded utterly outside. At first, he was speechless, unable to think of anything but the terrible impossible reality of the things he was hearing. These things couldn't happen in modern Britain! He had only been away for a week. This was a trick, a joke, a dream.
But of course it was not. As their tale grew more dark and more terrible, all he could think of was Will. Where had Will been for all of this? Why hadn't he stopped it? Because I broke him by leaving, he thought. Digging his fingers into his palm, he stifled that thought. Will would have continued to fight, but the enemy was too strong. Every disaster that hit the world would feel to Will like a personal failure. But if Will had not been there, perhaps the situation would be even worse.
He desperately wanted to ask about Will, but he needed John alone for that. And now, already, they were asking about him again, as if the things they had just told him were nothing. "You've lost seven years, Bran. I'll have to take you to a doctor."
Bran shook his head, still not really thinking clearly. "I'll go by myself one day." Owen began to protest, but Bran turned to him sharply. "I'm nineteen, Owen, not a child."
There was a moment's silence. "Twenty-six, Bran," John said quietly.
Twenty-six. The words fell like a stone. Twenty-six. Will would be twenty-six, and had endured seven years without him. Jane could well be married, or even have children. His friends from school had moved on to other lives. There would never be a place for him at Oxford again, for the world had moved on, and he had been left behind.
Dimly, he heard them talking about the police. "…should tell them, at least," John was saying, "though I doubt they'll care. There are too many thousand missing, and too many darker crimes."
What sort of a world have I come back to? Bran wailed inside, but a tiny, treacherous part of him whispered, I should have stayed. There were times, he thought, when enchantment and unreality were preferable to truth. At least in prison you could hide.
He found John alone the next morning. He meant to talk about Will, but John clearly had something on his mind. "I have often been inclined to believe things that many men would not believe," he said, as he stopped at a stile, making no move to cross it. "Those politicians and journalists in London are tearing their hair, trying to find someone to blame for all this. Some say it is us, for the things we have been doing to the environment. Religious groups say it is the end of the world."
"Does Owen believe that?" Bran asked.
John did not look at him. "Owen's world ended when you disappeared. He could not quite reconcile that with his belief in God. Religion ceased to be a comfort to him. He hasn't been to Chapel in six years."
Bran closed his eyes. Another life ruined. Another man lost. And all because of him.
No, he thought, opening his eyes again. The fairies were the enemies here. All the time they had kept him imprisoned and worked their tricks on him, they had been destroying his world. But he had won in the end. Locked inside him, not yet ready to come out, were the answers he had demanded. If there was a way he could use them to help defeat the Wild Magic, he would do so.
"But I see certain things at play," John said slowly. "I know my stories, and I believe it is arrogance to dismiss them as altogether untrue. Our forefathers believed them, and our forefathers were not fools."
What was he saying? Bran had a choice now. He could deny it utterly, or accept this faltering trust where it was given. He could tell John everything, or he could pretend not to understand, and ask him about Will.
But John Rowlands had always been special, with a quiet wisdom in his eyes. He had told Bran stories when he was young, with a deliberate weight in his voice. "It felt like seven days," Bran said quietly, "and I went voluntarily, or so I thought. They had something I needed to know, and I forced them to tell me, and I won free."
"No-one ever wins free of them," John said harshly. "You went voluntarily, you say? I warned you constantly when you were young. With eyes like yours, of course they would want you. I even thought I saw one of them watching you, once. Did you forget every word?"
"It was… complicated," Bran said miserably. "I thought it was worth it, but I didn't know it would be seven years. I…"
"No." John's voice brooked no argument. "I don't want to hear it. There are some things that mortal men should not get involved in. I have seen more than most men have seen, but I have never questioned, and have never sought to see more. Neither should you."
But Bran was no longer a child. John had his wisdom, but Bran had seen more than John would ever dream of. "You are wrong," he said. "I am involved in this."
"Which is what I always feared." John's face was pale beneath the tan. "As Owen did, too, although he hid his fears in the church, and told himself that such things could not exist. You came from the mountain, you see. You looked…"
"No!" Bran cried. His hand was clenched, driving against the damp wood of the stile. "Don't say it," he said, quietly, beseeching. The things that were locked inside him clamoured for release, but now was not the time. "I won't talk about it if you don't want me to, but I do need to know one thing. I need to know where Will is. I'm not just asking for myself. Will's the only person who can stop all this from happening, and I'm the only one who can help him."
"Aye." John let out a long breath, and looked very old, very weary. "I think I always knew that about him, too, but I told myself…" He passed a hand across his face. "He came here, Bran, after you disappeared. Owen was harsh with him. I was, too. He'd been the last one to see you, you see, and I was sure he was keeping secrets from us."
"Of course he was." Bran looked John full in the face, and made no attempt to hide the truth in his eyes. "He would have known right from the start where I'd gone. How could he tell anyone?"
"Twice, he came, that first year," John continued, looking away. "And twice in the year that followed. Then once, the year after. I took him to one side, and confronted him about his secrets. I never told Owen about… about you and him, but of course I remembered. I thought…"
"That he'd killed me in a lover's tiff," Bran said, disgusted. "Or that we'd run away together, unable to live with the censure of the world."
John looked at him, and there was no apology in his eyes. "I considered such things, yes. I had to, Bran. We were so desperate to get you back. There were answers on the edge of my mind, but they were such impossible things. Sometimes I was desperate for an ordinary, human reason, even a sordid one like that."
"Will had nothing to do with it," Bran told him stiffly. "He would have stopped me if he'd been able to. What did you say to him, John?"
"Enough," John said, "and more than enough. But then he looked at me with those eyes of his, and told me that, yes, there were things about your disappearance that he could not tell us about, but he swore by the Light that he only kept his secrets to protect us. They had no bearing on getting you back, he said. There was nothing he could do, and nothing we could do, but wait."
"By the Light," Bran echoed, his voice hoarse.
"And I believed him," John said. "I realised then that he was far more broken by your disappearance even than Owen was, and that I should be helping him in any way I could."
Bran had to look away, his eyes stinging. "And did you?"
John's callused hand touched his own. "That was the last time I saw him, Bran. That was the last time anyone saw him."
He fought it, of course. He tried Jen Evans first, but found her shockingly different. "Rhys was in Cardiff when the earthquake struck," John had warned him. "They found his body two weeks later."
It was hard work to get her to focus. After an hour, he had found out that Mrs Stanton still wrote occasionally, but their letters had grown shorter and shorter, always avoiding the really important things. Will had not been mentioned in them for years.
The phones still worked, they told him, but only intermittently. It was three days before he got through to the Stantons. Mrs Stanton recognised his name at once, and exclaimed with delight at his return. There was little delight in the rest of the conversation. Too many friends and neighbours had died in the Great Flu. Mary had gone abroad, and not been heard from since. And as for Will…
"He didn't cope at all well with your disappearance," she said, almost apologetically. "Of course, being Will, he didn't show it outwardly, but a mother always knows. He'd grown so withdrawn, but then we found out that it was because he didn't know how to tell us that he was… that he liked men. After he told us, he seemed so happy. But then you vanished and he…" She swallowed, clearly fighting tears. "He wouldn't talk to us about you. He wouldn't tell us anything about how he was feeling. He was always perfectly composed, perfectly calm, but…"
"I know," Bran said. He felt frozen, pinned like a butterfly by the voice from the phone. "I know how he gets."
"He stayed in Oxford," Mrs Stanton said, "and we saw him most holidays. He graduated – got a First. He was going to stay on to do a doctorate, but then the flu came, and they had to close the universities. When they opened again, he had gone. He sent us a letter, letting us know he was still alive. We saw him once more, a year later, and he looked terrible, as if… as if his face was carved from stone. He kissed us all, but there was no life in his eyes at all. It might be years before we saw him again, he said. And then he went."
"And you haven't seen him since?" Bran's voice was strangled.
"No." She was no longer crying. She must have cried so much over the years that, like Will, she had learnt how to keep the tears inside. "I wish I could find a way to tell him that you're alive. Perhaps that will be the breakthrough that will bring him back to us. There has been so much death in the world, Bran. It is a terrible thing to lose a son while he is still alive."
So many people, he thought, afterwards, staring at the silent phone. So many people had been hurt by his impulsive decision to go with the queen of the fairies. She had tricked him, of course, and blinded him to the truth. He had seen only the possibilities; she had hidden from him the cost. His disappearance was like a pebble dropped in a pool, and all the ripples were broken lives.
He sat there in the gathering darkness for over an hour before he found the strength to move away. It was two days before the phones worked again, and this time he tried to track down Jane. Two phone calls later, she was laughing and crying down the phone at him.
"Oh, Bran! You're alive! I'm so pleased. Oh, Bran!"
Her happiness brought him closer to tears than Mrs Stanton's despair had done. "Yes," he said, blinking. "I am."
Their news was told hurriedly, for, as Jane said, "You never know when the lines will go down again, and cut us off." She was not yet married. "Jamie?" she said, laughing. "He was years ago. I was only eighteen." She had no children, and was working as a teacher in an expensive school. Simon was a doctor, living a difficult life tending to the victims of the world's disasters, and Barney had started to train as an artist, only to surprise everyone by joining the police.
Then her voice changed. "Have you seen Will?"
"I'm trying to find him. Have you…?" Bran could not finish.
"I spent quite a lot of time with him, those first few months," Jane told him. "It was hard, though. He kept trying to push me away, though he was always perfectly polite. I just felt that he needed human contact – that he'd be even worse if I wasn't there. Then I split up with Jamie, and… well, I took it badly for a while, and he was… he was good. He said some insightful things that helped me. After that, I… I think I forgot that he was grieving, too, and that he needed help. He came to see me a few times, but only when I needed somebody to talk to. We never talked about him."
He felt as if he was listening to a story. He had missed years of happenings. Whole rivers of tears had been shed, that he knew nothing of. Oh, Will, he thought. I'm so sorry… "When was the last time you saw him?" he managed to ask.
"He came to my graduation," Jane said. "I saw him once, by chance, in the street, when I was in London. It must have been… oh, three years ago?"
They said their farewells, and made promises to meet. But Bran still had no answers. Will was out there somewhere, and Bran had no idea how to find him.
Two weeks later, and he was still no closer. His secret chafed inside him, struggling to break free from the place where he had hidden it. Not until I've found Will, he thought firmly. Not yet.
But one morning at the end of May, when the newspapers talked grimly of fire and flood, he walked high on the mountains. The grass was fragrant, and the bracken was lush and green. The wind brought the smell of the bright outside, and even the bare rock seemed alive with life.
Bran crouched down, his hand to the living earth. King Arthur, he thought, opening the door just a crack. King Arthur, a lord of Light. But the sky above him was cold and lifeless, as distant and unfathomable as the pure white Light of Will's power. Nothing in his blood felt any affinity with the light. Even the thought of that great departed lord – my father - failed to fill him with emotion.
But my mother… His heart swelled. Tears filled his eyes, and the living spirit of the mountain flowed through him, and every sense was alive. He felt as if he was back in Fairyland, with music sounding just out of sight, and impossible beauties lying beyond the veil of enchantment, close enough to touch.
His mother was of Fairy, and he knew it now as truth. That was why he had thought and spoken as he had done so in those last days of enchantment. His blood had responded, and his mouth had known the right words to say. He had won free of Fairyland not because of what he had said, but because of who he was. He was not a normal mortal man. His words had power, where other men's words were just sound.
Moving slowly, he reached out his hands, casting himself open to the earth. Inside, he was stiff, as if he was moving a muscle he had never used before, attempting something that he had never known he could do.
Will, he cast out, whispering it to the air, to the earth, to the grass, to the rivers. Find me the Old One, last of the Light.
And, faint and amazing, he was answered.
End of chapter twenty-three