Sorry for the lack of post yesterday. I had an excellent weekend at a folk festival, but am now back. Late last night, I was standing on the edge of the moat of a sixteenth century manor house, drinking cider from a leather tankard with a Green Man on – surely a Wild Magic thing, if anything is. Steeleye Span were on the stage, singing the ballad of Tam Lin – my favourite British fairy legend, and one of the main inspirations for this story. It all felt very apt. On a more sombre note, so does the news. It felt strange last week to be editing chapter 23, with all its talk of floods and disaster, while my childhood home town and the city I studied in were both flooded and my parents were without running water, and in danger of being without power, too. How fragile civilisation is.
Anyway, two chapters today, to make up for yesterday.
Chapter twenty-four: Together
Ten days went by, and still Will did not come.
Each day, Bran repeated the call, and each time the call felt louder, and he felt stronger. He felt as if he was unfolding inside, as things awakened that he had never been aware of. Voices whispered in his dreams. Sometimes he felt as if his skin was melting away, and everything inside him was flowing out into the world around him. Then he felt scared, and pulled himself back. Hours later, sometimes tentatively, sometimes confidently, he reached out again, calling to Will, calling, calling.
He was sure that Will was there, but he had no idea where. All he could do was call, and hope that Will was able to come to him. Even if Will could not sense where he was, surely it was only a matter of time before Will thought to come here, to Bran's home.
Or maybe, he thought on the tenth morning, Will had gone to his parents' house, and was expecting Bran to find him there.
Maybe Will had no desire to meet him. Bran had left him, after all, and Will had spent seven years alone, because of a choice that Bran had made.
Maybe Will had grown so cold during the seven solitary years of fighting, that he no longer wanted to talk to anyone at all.
On the eleventh day, Bran sat on the hillside near the place where he had first met Will, so many years before. The sun was shining on the road through the valley, but no gleams of silver marked the passage of cars. The power was down again across Wales, and there was no petrol anywhere within a hundred miles. Bran watched figures moving down on the farm, and knew them for Owen and John. Dogs capered around their heels, as they had done before the world had changed. In the west, the sun was orange, sinking into night, and the last of the birds hurried to roost.
Bran got up wearily. As he did so, he saw a figure walking towards him from the mountain.
He knew it was Will. Even with his eyes closed, he would have known this was Will, for the strange new senses inside him cried out to him. Will! Loved one! But also that twist of strangeness and fear. Cold Light at his heart, and not like us.
He silenced them all. For this meeting, he would be entirely Bran. He tried to speak, but could not. He tried to move, but could not. Only three weeks, he thought, but to him, it's been seven years.
"Bran." Will spoke first. His voice was the same as ever, conveying nothing. He stepped closer, then closer again, then stopped. Bran saw his face clearly for the first time, and gasped. But seven years has passed, and Will was twenty-six. What had Bran expected? For him to look the same as he had looked at nineteen? But he's immortal, his mind protested, and his life stopped when I left. I haven't changed. It's not fair that he has!
The person who stood before him looked older than twenty-six, with eyes that were lined with deep shadows, and the slightly sunken cheeks of someone who worked too hard, and often forgot to eat. His hair was still brown, but he had let it grow down to his shoulders. It looked as if he cut it himself, and only occasionally, when he remembered.
What can I say? Bran thought. What on earth can I say? But apology came first, welling up from the part of him that was still reeling at Will's appearance. "Oh, Will, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to… I didn't think… I mean, I thought I had it all under control, but of course she was tricking me. It felt like seven days to me. I would never have left you for seven years, you must believe that."
"I know," Will said, as if Bran had just told him that the sky was blue, or the world was round. "No mortal can withstand their tricks. I should have known that they would take you sooner or later."
Bran took a deep breath. "You knew, then? You knew all along where I'd gone? You didn't think I'd… run away?"
"I knew." Will inclined his head. "They told me." He looked at Bran, and Bran could have wept at the sight of his eyes, exactly the same as they had always been, even if the face that housed them was so sorely changed. "They offered me the chance to get you back, if I gave up fighting them. I refused. You need to know that now, before we go any further."
Bran clasped his hands in front of him, fighting for control. "I know." He refused to let Will look away. His own gaze had power, too, although he did not yet know how much. "I understand. I had difficulty coming to terms with it at first, but I did end up understanding what it was like for you. You loved me, but you were of the Light first and foremost. There was no way on earth that you could accept that offer, and still remain Will, the man I love."
Will's eyes half-closed, and opened again. He sat down smoothly on an outcrop, though Bran knew that the smoothness had been a lie. Will had almost fallen, but covering up weakness has become second nature to him.
"I went by choice." Bran crouched at Will's feet, but did not dare take his hands, not yet. "I was not ill-treated. I had seven days of it, and I emerged with some success, I think. You didn't condemn me to years of torment, Will. You had seven years of that, not me."
Will said nothing. He was looking at the sunset with eyes that looked as if they had never seen such a thing of beauty in a long time.
"Tell me one thing, Will," Bran said quietly. "I've seen what's happened in the world. If you hadn't been there, fighting it, would it have been worse?"
Will slowly nodded. "I can't stop them, but I can lessen the effects. I do what I can. But I am losing. I can't win against this. One day, it will all be over."
"Then I am glad you refused their offer, for the world's sake." Bran took Will's hand, and Will did not pull away, but neither did he respond. "But for your own sake… Oh, Will, I'm so sorry I put you in this situation."
Will's hand stirred just a little in Bran's grip. "I know it shouldn't matter, but I have sometimes wondered what they said to make you go with them. They said… He said that they had made you hate me."
"No!" Bran cried hotly. He forced himself to calm down, taking several deep breaths. "They tried," he admitted. "I was… reproachful, for a while. They told me certain things that you had kept from me. But that wasn't the reason why I went. She… she told me that she knew who my parents were, and that I had powers that I knew nothing of. I hoped… I thought that if I discovered what they were, I'd be able to help you. I was so desperate to help you, Will. It was tearing me apart, not to be able to help."
"You were helping," Will said faintly.
"I clung to that, Will, you have to believe me." Bran felt himself trembling with fervour. "When I was there, they kept trying to… to tempt me. There were offers, but I refused them all. I kept on telling them that I was only there to find out what I needed to know. And then, when I found it, I left."
"Your parents," Will breathed.
Bran turned, so his back was against the outcrop, and his shoulder was against Will's leg. He wondered if Will would touch his hair, but he did not. "They told me, Will." There was no easy way to say it. There was no easy way to do this. He had to open the hidden place inside him, and trust that Will could help him through what came next. "They told me that you already knew. My father was King Arthur."
Will was so still that Bran could not feel him breathing. "He was," he said at last. "You were born out of your time. Merriman brought your mother to this present century, where she left you with Owen Davies. She loved you very much, but it was… necessary. You were the Pendragon, the son of Arthur, with your own place in the Light. We shared quests side by side, you and I, that no normal human could share. You knew what I was, and I knew you, and we understood each other, and then you forgot."
There were so many questions, but he knew that he could not possibly ask them, not now. Everything was balanced on a knife edge, and he knew suddenly that he could lose Will forever in the moments that followed, and lose all that he had gained. Because when he had opened the hidden place, he had remembered everything that came with the telling of the secrets, down to every last word. He knew a truth that would change everything, and remove all shadows of resentment between them.
"I forgot," he echoed. "They said something else, Will, when they told me about my parents. I don't think they intended to. They tried to make me hate you by telling me that you lied to me. But they said that I chose to forget. They said that I had once had powers as the son of King Arthur, but that I chose to lose them, and chose to stay here, not go with him to the lands outside time."
"It is true." Will's voice seemed to come from impossibly far away, and yet his body was so perfectly close. "You were given the choice. You chose to remain mortal. I don't think you realised you would forget everything, though, but…"
"I chose it." Bran turned his head so that he was looking at Will's face again. He wondered why Will still looked so completely bleak. "I chose. Not you. They told me the truth because they wanted to drive a wedge between us, because you had already known this, but hadn't told me. But you didn't tell me because I was the one who had chosen not to know about it. All that time I blamed you for keeping secrets… I was the one who had chosen to forget in the first place."
Why wasn't Will speaking? Will's eyes were impassive, but Bran had not forgotten how to read him in three weeks away. Not even seven years of solitude could make Will's face a blank to him. "Oh, Will," he gasped, as sudden realisation made him almost weep. "You said we shared our quests together, each of us more than mortal. And then I chose to forget. I chose to be normal. Oh, Will, I've abandoned you twice, haven't I, each time for seven years?"
"It was your choice," Will said. "It was the right one for you. An Old One cannot…"
"Nonsense," Bran said firmly. The sun had almost set. The twilight was thick, and no lights gleamed down in the valley, or over to the sea. The world had changed completely, and here they sat in the midst of it, both of them as changed as the world was. "Let's not talk about it now. I've missed you, Will. Let's just be together, and there can be questions tomorrow, and recriminations, and anything you like. Please, let it not matter tonight."
Will's face was as unreadable as it ever got. "But it does matter. Look at the view out there, with no lights and no cars, and tell me again that it doesn't matter. Everything else is nothing compared with that. And that's why I need to know, Bran… The reason why I walked the Old Ways for eleven days, from the furthest corners of the earth, to come to you…" His eyes were inhuman, the eyes of an Old One of the Light. "How did you manage to call to me, Bran, in ways known only to the Wild Magic?"
It had come, then. Bran pressed his hands to his face, as if by doing so he could make his own heart as devoid of feeling as Will's cold heart of Light. "My mother," he said, looking out into the evening, "was the daughter of the Lady of Fairy. Not even the Light knew this. When I was there, I felt things awaken inside me. Since I've got back, it's grown stronger. I'm one of them."
"And my enemy," Will said, with his merciless eyes.
"No." Bran shook his head desperately. "No. Don't you see? I don't think they meant for this to happen. I'm sure they never meant to let me go. I resisted them. I forced them to tell me, and then I just walked away. I can use this to help you, Will. Can't you see? That's why I went with them. I gave up my powers as the son of Arthur, but no-one ever asked me to give up my powers as the son of Guinevere. I still have them. I can use them…"
Will's voice brooked no argument, but Bran was no mere human, not any more. He stood up, taller than Will, as he sat on the stone, and with the last dying vestiges of light behind him. "I can, Will, and I intend to. I will help you. Light and Wild Magic, aligned. We can save the world."
Will laughed. It was a terrible, bitter sound, and it was the first sign of emotion that he had shown all evening. "Save the world? Oh, Bran. I thought that once, too."
Bran grabbed Will's hands, half pulling him up. He had to be doubly alive to counter Will's bleakness, and the light and the grass and the beauty of the evening air flowed through him, filling him with vigour. "We can. I was scared of the truth before tonight. I locked it away; I didn't want to think of it. But now I see what a wonderful opportunity it is. What if I'm immortal, too? You'll never be alone again. We can be together forever."
"No," Will said, and it was as if Bran's exuberance has sucked even more life out of him, leaving him as nothing more than a shell of endurance. "It's been seven years, and I've fought the Wild Magic every single day. I no longer have room in my heart for feeling." His eyes flickered at last, and he looked away, at the darkness beyond the mountain. "I no longer love you, Bran."
It felt like a dagger in the heart, like a blade twisting in the wound, but he smoothed the wound over, and did not show it on his face. Really, he had been expecting this. As soon as he had learnt that seven years had passed, he had known this moment would come,. "But I still love you," he told Will. Taking his hand, he said, "Come on. You look hungry, and it's mutton stew for dinner, good and hot."
Will followed him through the night. His hand was very cold.
Bran was back. Bran was here, beside him.
It was not important; Will told himself that. Yes, it mattered that Bran was alive and well, because all people mattered, even if sometimes they had to be sacrificed to the greater good. Yes, it mattered that he had come back with powers that could call to Will from half way across the world, because that could make a difference in this war.
The rest of it was not important. The rest of it did not matter. Will had loved Bran once, when he had been weaker and happier than he was now, but all things changed. Men lost their humanity in war, and Will had never been human to start with. All that mattered was the shell that encased him, that kept him standing in this war. All that mattered was the Light that consumed him, and it was cold, it was cold.
"Come on in," Bran was saying. "Owen's… Oh, here he is. You remember Will?"
"I remember." Owen's face had been sharp with hatred, seven years before, when Will had come, stumbling, with his news that had been no news. John Rowlands had been kinder, but he, too, had blamed Will. There had been no refuge here, but neither had he sought one.
If he had kept fewer secrets, maybe Bran would have known enough not to go. If he had stayed away from Bran in the first place, maybe they would not have targeted him.
"Why are you here?" Owen was scarcely less hostile now than he had been years before.
"I contacted him," Bran said. "Asked him to come."
Will leant against the kitchen surface while Bran boiled a kettle over the open fire. Owen eyed them, but said nothing. "We'll go upstairs," Bran said, when the tea was done. "We'll have lots of news to catch up on," he said brightly to Owen, who grunted.
Upstairs, Bran sat on the bed, but Will stood against the window, his hands grasping the windowsill behind his back. The cold from outside was very apparent. Steam rose from the mug of tea, thickened the air for a while, then faded away into nothing.
It was not important, Will told himself. Something was stirring inside him, hurting him, but he wrapped it with chains, barricaded it with bars of Light.
"You're shaking," Bran said. "You really don't look well. Come and sit down."
Will smiled, but from the way Bran reacted, perhaps it was closer to a grimace. "You used to tell me that part of me was human, and of course you were right. I am still subject to all the frailties of flesh. I feel the cold." He held up his scarred hand. "I bleed. I catch colds. My legs hurt when I walk too far."
His voice trailed off. He was not sure why he was saying all of this. None of it mattered, after all, except when his regrettable frailties caused him to waver in his fight.
"Please," Bran begged. He looked ridiculously hurt by Will's refusal, so Will wandering to the bed, and sat down stiffly on the far end. He had learnt over the years that it was sometimes best to accede to other people's wishes, if the things they wanted were trivial, yet somehow seemed to matter to them. It left him free to fight the battles that really mattered.
"I have so much to tell you," Bran said. "I'm not going to push. You say you don't love me any more, and I understand. I… I can live with that, I think. But you're the only person I can talk to about what happened – the only person who will understand the truth. You can understand that, can't you?"
He tried to tell himself that this, too, did not matter, but the person he was seven years before had not entirely died, no matter how hard he had tried to lose him. He remembered what it had felt like to be twelve years old, watching Bran and the others walk away with no memory of the things they had shared. He remembered the loneliness of Oxford, before Bran had discovered the truth. He was no longer that person, but he had not forgotten. It was as if that Will Stanton was someone he had read about in a novel once, whose emotions had lingered in his mind.
"I do," he said, with his rusty voice.
"And you, Will…" Bran raked his hand through his hair. "I'm so selfish. You've lived with this for seven years. I bet you've never told a single person the truth about those years. I don't ask that you love me, just that you trust me. Tell me. Let me share it."
"Nothing happened." Will looked away, out at the dark sky beyond the window. "Nothing that I need to tell. The present is what matters; the future even more. How I feel is of no importance whatsoever."
He had not meant to say the last bit out loud. He felt Bran recoil, and wondered if he had angered him. It was true, though. He had walked through the wreckage of London, and dying people had clung to his legs. It mattered that he had saved many, and that he had caused the floods to recede enough to save more. It did not matter that he had not slept for two weeks afterwards, and that he still dreamed of bloated bodies in the water. He had watched people he knew die in the epidemic, and he had shielded some, and taken others to places where they would be safe. That mattered. The weeks he had spent shivering, struck by the illness himself, mattered only because they had removed him from the fight.
"Oh Will," Bran whispered, and Will realised that he was crying, making no attempt to hide the tears that poured down his cheeks.
Will had not cried for seven years.
"It really doesn't matter," Will told him truthfully. "I am of the Light."
"It should matter," Bran said hotly, but Bran was of the Wild Magic now. Bran had been able to call to Will in ways that no human could have done. He was not the enemy – not Bran, never Bran – but everything he said was suspect now. He was too suffused with emotion now. He saw things with the eyes of the Wild Magic, full of the selfish desires of living.
He could not stay with Bran, Will realised. He could not even stay near him. He had cut himself off from his family, because even that small degree of contact weakened him in ways that he could not allow himself to be weakened. It made him think in ways he could not think, and weakened the barricade of Light around his heart.
"I need to leave," he tried to say, but something swallowed up the words, leaving them as no more than a futile moving of the lips.
"I need answers," Bran said, his voice composed, although the tears were still flowing. "That's what I kept telling them when I was… there, every time they tried to tempt me. I need to know about… about my father, about how I came to be brought up here, about… about everything. I want to know about the adventures we shared together when we were young, that I've forgotten."
I want, I want, I want, Will echoed. He looked down at his scarred hands, clasped in his lap. I need… Bran didn't need them, of course. He could function without them, just as all men alive functioned without the things they really wanted. Over time, he would stop wanting them. He would push them deep inside him, lock the questions away, and carry on with the business of facing each day, ignoring the fact that he was not whole inside. He… He would…
Will was silent for a long time, then let out a slow breath. "I will tell you everything I know," he said, because he was not so stupid as to believe that this was right, the way he had become. It was necessary for him as an Old One, but it was not something he would wish on anyone else.
"But then what?" Bran wiped his eyes, still unashamed by his tears. "Are you going to tell me the truth, and then go away again? I want to stay with you, Will. Even if you don't love me…"
I have been alone for seven years, Will thought, and more. Except for a shining interlude of half a year, I have been alone for half my life.
"I can't," Will said, and there was a crack in his voice, emotion seeping through.
"Why not?" Bran grabbed his arm. "I won't demand anything. I just need… I can't stay here. I want to be with someone who understands. No, I want to be with you. I want to help." When Will shook his head mutely, Bran hauled him around to face him. His face was intensely alive, and there was a power in his eyes that had never been there before. Will's arm burned where Bran's fingers were touching him. "You're obviously not eating well, Will. Your hair needs a cut. You need someone to look after you."
And this, at last, gave Will the excuse to pull away, to look away from the light that blazed in Bran's tawny eyes. "I don't need a hairdresser, Bran. You're better than that."
"I want to come with you." Bran's voice was subdued now; Will had done that. "You're the only one… I've got all these… these urges inside me, like a new sense that's opening up. I don't know what I'm capable of, but I know I can… I'm sure I can help you."
Or the urges would take hold of him, and Bran would turn into an enemy, as terrible as any of the others. There was nothing merciful in the Wild Magic. The magic in Bran's blood could overwhelm all the lessons of civilisation, all the gentleness of love and pity. Bran had renounced his inheritance from Arthur, so there was no Light to counter the demands of the Wild Magic. He had the best of intentions now, but one day, soon, Bran could turn on Will, and become his enemy. None of the others could destroy one of the Light, but Bran Davies could destroy Will Stanton.
He already had.
"Please," Bran begged, his head bowed, and all the new pride and glory of his blood extinguished.
But Bran could turn, anyway, a slave to his newly discovered inheritance. If Will was with him, perhaps he could counter it. At the very least, he would be prepared.
And he was weary, too weary to fight any more. Some things had to be endured, especially things that did not matter much at all.
"Yes," he said, and Bran smiled, his eyes welling with tears ago.
Bran was back. Bran was coming with him. And really, Will tried to tell himself, it did not matter at all. Nothing had changed.
The others did not understand, of course. Owen looked quietly miserable, but did not argue. It was as if he had become accustomed to disappointment, and expected nothing else.
"It's won't be seven years this time, I promise," Bran told him, kneeling at his feet and squeezing his clenched hands. "I'll come back. I'll phone when I can. I'll find ways to send letters." Owen gave a distant nod. Suddenly Bran was desperate for Owen to feel, to react in some way. "I was always going to move away, you knew that. I was away for half the year anyway, when I was at Oxford." And Owen was just a labourer on someone else's farm, so there was no land to pass on, no farm that would pass to a stranger's hands because Bran had turned his back on his inheritance. Bran was not born to this, after all. But that was something he could not say.
John Rowlands found a way to take Bran to one side, the day before they were due to depart. "Are you sure about this?" he asked.
Bran nodded. "Of course."
"But why?" John looked at him sharply. "What good can it do? Owen understood when you wanted to go to Oxford. He's not a selfish man. He wanted you to achieve, even if you had to go away to do it. But the university's closed. You can't continue your education. Do you want a job? The cities are terrible places. At least here life continues mostly unchanged. You'll be safe here, you and… and Will."
"Will can't stay," Bran told him, "and I want to go with him. But that's not it. I don't want to hide away. I am… I think I can… I feel I can really help make a difference. I need to go somewhere where I can do that."
High in the cloud-streaked sky, a plane slowly passed, shining silver in the sun. John peered up at it, and Bran did, too. He already knew how rare planes were now, and he wondered where it was going, and who had paid the fortune required to buy a ticket. The low rumble of its passing swelled, and faded, almost drowning John's next words. "But where, Bran? Where can you possibly go?"
Bran let out a breath. The sound of the plane faded away to silence. "I don't know, but maybe Will does, and maybe I will find out. I've changed. I might know the place when I get there. And, even if I don't, I want to be with Will."
John walked away for a few steps, his solid back turned towards Bran. In the cottage, across the yard, Bran saw Will looking out of the window, his face a pale smear, with two darker smears that were his eyes.
"I don't believe in mincing my words," John said. "I believe in the truth, even if it is hard to say." He turned round, and his eyes were intense as they locked on Bran's face. "Bran, are you sure Will is entirely sane?"
"What?" Bran's mouth fell open. First there was amazement, but then there was anger, boiling up inside him, desperate to get out. How dare John say this? How dare he?
"Oh, I know, he's been perfectly polite, perfectly calm," John persisted. "He's been quiet. But insanity does not always show itself in screaming and ranting. I know the tales of the men who spent the night on the mountain, and know that madness takes many forms."
Bran forced the anger down, made his voice as icy as Will's could be, in great need. "He isn't mad."
"He told me about the floods in London, about people dying all around him, and his voice was completely level, and his eyes were dead." John's voice was gentle. "Is that the action of a sane man? Is that the action of a proper man?"
"He…" Bran forced himself to think, to reason. It was hard, as if his emotions had taken on a new and more virulent form, and reasoned thought was alien to him. Could an Old One be insane? Will was partly human, and had said himself that he was subject to all the frailties of human flesh. Was it possible that he could be wise and mighty as an Old One, even as his mind was crumbling as a man?
"No." His voice was trembling; he damped it down. "Depressed, maybe, but not mad. And…" Further insight gripped him, hurting like a knife. "If he is mad, then I was the one who made him that way. I can't leave him. No, that's not right. I don't want to leave him. I still love him."
"And Owen loves you," John said, "as do I. Some men show their love in quiet ways."
Bran thought of Owen's quiet misery, and felt suddenly ashamed for wanting to coax a reaction from him. Will, too, had been quiet, calmly stating that he no longer loved Bran. A quiet façade could hide real emotion. Maybe Will still loved him.
He drove that thought deep within him. He could not set out on this venture with false hopes. It was possible that Will would never love him again, but he could live with that. He had to live with that.
"I know," he said, "but I still have to go."
John sighed. "I know. But I had to say my piece, you know that."
Bran nodded. He wondered if he would see John Rowlands ever again.
End of chapter twenty-four