Chapter twenty-five: Old Way

 

Will did not watch the farewells. After breakfast, with a nod to Bran, he left the house, and climbed steadily to the sanctuary of the Old Way above them. He did not sit. It was easier to be weak when sitting, to drift into thoughts and emotions that should not be entertained.

 

The sky was a washed-out blue, and the birds sang louder than they had done in the old days, before the Wild Magic had taken hold of the world. The grass and bracken smelled rich, redolent of childhood summers. Below him, out of sight, Bran said goodbye to the man who had been his father, and the man who had been, in some ways, even closer than that. They had lost him for seven years, and now he was leaving them again. How could Will presume to be present for a farewell like that?

 

Minutes passed. Bran appeared on the hillside, struggling his way into his rucksack as he walked. He was too far away for Will to read his face. By the time he had come close enough, his eyes were dry, but maybe they had not been so a few minutes before.

 

"There," Bran said. "Let's go."

 

Will knew that Owen did not approve of him, and blamed him for taking Bran away again. "It's my choice," Bran had started to argue. "Will didn't even want me to come." Not that Owen had believed him. Will had taken him aside afterwards, and told him not to persist. It was better that Owen had someone to blame. It was better that that somebody was not Bran.

 

Bran's face was harshly set as they started to walk across the hillside. Maybe the parting had not been one to draw tears, after all. Maybe it had been a time of shouting and recriminations, and Bran had parted from Owen in anger, saying things that he would regret if anything happened to Owen in his absence. Will almost said something about it, but decided not to. It was none of his business, after all. He himself had drawn away from his own family, and Bran would no doubt remind him that he had no right to judge how anyone else treated theirs.

 

"At least it's not raining," Bran said brightly.

 

The Old Way would keep them safe, of course. If Will asked it to, it would make sure that rain did not chill them, that drought did not parch them. It had a power greater than his, and it was a comfort to be back on this track, surrounded by a power that was inviolate. After a few hours on the Old Way, he would be serene again, able to face seven more years of war and sorrow.

 

If Bran had not been there, beside him.

 

Will had almost shattered when Bran had called to him. Despite the sweet balm of the Old Way, he had trembled all the way to Wales. When he had come face to face with Bran, he had almost broken down. He was not the person he had been for seven years. The Will who had slumped on a rock at Bran's feet was not the Will who had survived seven years of constant struggle as the world crumbled around him. The Will who had stood trembling in Bran's bedroom could not survive seven more years of it.

 

Every step on the Old Way was a tiny step towards recovering the person he had to be. The Wild Magic could not exist in this place. Even if the Wild Magic swept unchecked over the whole world, the Old Ways would remain, a last surviving relic of the world that was gone.

 

"I've never come this way before," Bran said. "Strange, isn't it? I've lived down there almost all my life, and I used to wander all over the hills and valleys, but never here. I never thought to wonder where I'd get to if I headed off this way."

 

The Old Way drew Will like a magnet drawing iron. It was almost jarring to remember that, to other people, there was nothing remotely special about this patch of land. Bran and Will would never be able to understand each other. Even before this had happened… Even when Bran had still been human…

 

"Where are we going?" Bran asked, when a few more minutes had passed.

 

Will could not answer. To the end of the Old Way, and then beyond. For seven years, he had merely been reacting. Deep inside him, and atrophied, was the old link he had created with the river spirit, but he had never been able to use it. To use it, he had to access his human side, and feel things strongly. For seven years, that had been out of the question, and so he had been reduced to rushing around in response to disasters, easing their effects as far as he could, but never preventing them.

 

"Some places," he said, "have a power of their own. There are some places where I'm stronger, and others where the enemy is stronger. I like to stay close to the places where I'm strongest." To survive. To heal. To get the strength to face the next assault.

 

His own home village was one of the places of strength, of course, for an Old Way ran through it, Old Ones had lived there, and Signs had been hidden there for over a thousand years. But his family also lived in Hunterscombe, and they were a weakness.

 

"But where?" Bran persisted, but then he sighed. "No, I won't keep on pestering you. I'm happy just to be with you, going wherever you go."

 

Which made Will shiver, just a little, until the power of the Old Way stilled him. Long ago, he had urged Bran to be more independent. Now, he could not forget that Bran might turn into his enemy, compelled by the blood that ran in his veins.

 

"Though I can't say I'm too happy with this idea of sleeping outside, a tender town-bred soul like me." Bran was trying to joke. The muscles of Will's smile were stiff from disuse, and he did not try one now.

 

Bran was seven years behind, of course. Bran still thought like a person accustomed to civilisation. When you wanted to get somewhere, you drove, or took public transport. When the journey took more than a day, you stayed with a friend, or booked into a hotel. Seven years later, public transport still ran, but it was rare and excessively expensive. Hotels still existed, but Will instinctively drew away from anywhere where they were people.

 

"The Old Way will keep us safe," Will said. He slept under the stars even in the snows of winter, and did not feel the cold. Fresh water was always available to him, and he knew how to find food.

 

"I prefer to rely on my tent." Bran patted the bundle attached to his rucksack. It was small and flimsy, and claimed to sleep two, though it barely looked big enough for one. Will anticipated problems when it was time to go to bed.

 

The path crossed the shoulder of the mountain, avoiding the high peaks. The Grey King no longer sat on his throne on Cader Idris, but another enemy now resided there, as it resided in all the wild places of the world. The creatures of the Wild Magic liked to whisper threats, but they could not reach him on the Old Way. He wondered if they were gathered on either side, an invisible army of menace. Bran would know, he thought suddenly. If Bran thought to look, he would know the answer.

 

He is alien, he thought. Never forget that.

 

He turned, and, seeing him, Bran smiled. It was an unguarded moment, both joyful and shy, and it struck Will like a weapon.

 

He is Bran, he thought, as he wrapped the magic of the Old Way around him like a cloak. That is why he is dangerous. The Wild Magic could not destroy an Old One, but Bran could destroy Will Stanton. He was the only one who could.

 

The sun rose steadily, and soon it was midday. Bran was walking slower and slower, his face set and silent. "I'm not used this," he admitted, as they reached the top of a slope. "Maybe I've become a weak city boy, after all."

 

Will allowed them to stop. Bran sat down and rummaged in his bag for some food, but he chewed it slowly, as if it was lacking in flavour. As Will watched, and tried not to watch, Bran got up and walked a few steps, then a few more, frowning faintly. Then, with a sigh, he sat down on an outcrop, and started eating again, with more relish.

 

Will decided not to ask. The Old Way wrapped itself around him, feeding him with the cool balm of Light. Emotions were blunted here. Human curiosity faded to nothing. He was the Old One he was meant to be – the Old One he would have been years ago, had he not made his mistake with Bran.

 

"It tastes better here." Bran finished his last mouthful, and stood up, stretching. "I'm not as tired any more, either. It feels… I don't know… The air is fresher, or something. I can't quite breathe properly over there."

 

Bran had moved off the Old Way, of course. A human could not feel the power of the Old Way, but Bran was no longer human. He was becoming a being that was incompatible with the Light. The Old Way was rejecting him. He was rejecting the Light.

 

Will fought the urge to grab Bran and haul him onto the Old Way, to keep him there forever, safe in the possession of the Light.

 

"You're imagining it," he said. "You just feel better because you've eaten and got your breath back. Come on. We've got a long way to go."

 

******

 

They stopped for the night in a valley, far away from any light. Within an hour of stopping, Bran was bitterly cold, his arms wrapped around his body in a vain attempt to keep warm. "It's almost summer," he said. "I shouldn't be cold."

 

"There's no shouldn't about it. You are." Will's voice had no expression, but Bran thought there was a trace of concern on his face. Will wasn't even wearing a coat, Bran noticed.

 

Bran unrolled his sleeping bag, and bundled it around his body. He resisted the urge to say something about sharing body heat. More than anything else, the day's walk had shown him that this was not the Will who had loved him in Oxford, but a different person. But Bran's Will was buried deep within, and would emerge again one day. He had to believe that – had to.

 

In the dying light, Bran watched Will as he moved around, gathering fallen branches. There were many of them, suggesting that there had been a great storm one winter past, but no-one had come round to clear up the wreckage. When he collected had three or four, Will placed them carefully on the ground, stood up, and stepped back. A single commanding word caused them to burst into flames.  "No Dark to be attracted this time," Will said a little sadly, as if in explanation. "It will burn until I ask the Old Way to let it die again. The Old Ways tolerate flame, though they do not need it."

 

Despite its unnatural nature, the fire looked like a real fire, and the warmth it exuded was real. Bran drew closer, but he did not shed his sleeping bag, not yet. Something about the fire disturbed him, or maybe that was just the calm, expressionless way Will had summoned it, as if magic seemed more natural to him than normal, human talking.

 

Will sat down on the far side of the fire. The flames meant that Bran could not see his face; all he could see of Will was a faint figure, his knees pulled up, and his arms wrapped around them. I can't even talk to him, Bran thought. The fire is a barrier. There was alien magic in it, coldness at its heart. It did not want him here. He should reach inside himself, find the powers that lurked there, and…

 

"I want to see how it happened," he blurted out. He had lunged desperately at the nearest train of thought that would distract him from what he had been about to think.

 

The figure that was Will raised its head.

 

"My mother."

 

The fire stirred. The cold at its heart grew deeper, and furious eyes sparked in the orange tips of its flames.

 

Will had told him the truth, that first night in the farm. In a quiet voice, he had recited it all, telling it as if it was a story he had once read. Bran knew that his mother had been unfaithful to her husband, and had been terrified that her husband's enemies would claim that her child was not his heir. He knew about Merriman, Will's master, who had brought her through time and left her at the door of Owen Davies. He had heard, too, about how his father had fought against the Dark, and held them off, but fallen in the end. He had heard how his father had returned for the final battle, before sailing out of time with all the other Old Ones, never to return.

 

The part about his father he heard with feelings that were strangely subdued. Although he could not remember it, he himself had chosen not to go with Arthur, and to renounce that part of his heritage. Owen Davies was his father in all the ways that mattered. But the part about his mother…

 

"I never had a mother," he said, speaking through the hostile flames, to the nobody behind them. "Not even a… a substitute. And she didn't go out of time with Arthur, did she? She wasn't even there. She must have died… died alone. Arthur didn't know about me. She was all alone with her decision. She was all alone when she left me behind, with only your cold master…"

 

"He was not always cold," Will's voice said. "He did what he had to, but there were people that he loved."

 

It meant nothing. "I just want to see her," Bran pleaded, and he did, he had to, he needed to. Emotions welled up like a living thing, no longer in his control. "I know you can do it, Will. Please, if you ever loved me… I won't talk to her, I just want to see her."

 

"I… can," Will said at last, as the flames played on the shadow that was his face. "But I don't know if it's… advisable. The effect on you…"

 

"Is my concern." Bran stood up, shedding the sleeping bag like a cloak. "I hate it when you do that. It's like when you told me you couldn't love me, because it wasn't fair on me, or when you told me to run along and make other friends because I loved you too much. I'm the only one who knows what I want. You don't even know what you want. Just because you've cut yourself off from your family doesn't mean that's right for me."

 

Another step towards the fire, then another, and he felt as if something invisible was wrenching the emotion from him, dragging it out with claws. "I just want to see her," he managed to force out. The flames wreathed around him as if to say, We have won, but when he staggered back again, the cold struck him, and something whispered, No. Come to us.

 

Will stood up, and lunged towards Bran, his arm outstretched. When he was a few steps short, he stopped, and became the fire again, unreadable and strange. Bran blinked back the tears that had started in his eyes. Help me, Will! Please be yourself again. Help me be me. He had to turn away. Away from the fire, the evening was darker than it had been, and he knew that all manner of enemies were out there, hidden by the night.

 

"I can," said the voice of the stranger who wore Will's body. "I will. But you have to stay close. You won't be able to talk to her, and she won't see you. That's all. Is that enough?"

 

It was. Bran swallowed, unable to speak for the lump in his throat.

 

Will spoke a word in a strange language, and the fire went out as instantly as a candle flame. In the absence of the flame, the valley seemed lighter, and Bran let out a sigh almost of relief.

 

"Take my hand," Will said. Bran did so, his heart beating suddenly fast. The shape of Will's hand was deliciously, heart-breakingly familiar, despite the scars on the palms. It felt like coming home, and his body stirred despite himself, wanting more.

 

"Think of home," Will's cool voice said. "That will set up the link to the place, and make it easier to find the way. Even the Light, which is not a thing of feeling, sometimes works best through such links." His voice cracked ever so slightly at the end, and Bran wondered what Will was thinking of, to set up his own link to the time and place he wanted to find.

 

But it was easy to obey. Despite the lure of Will's hand, despite the part of himself that cried out that Will alone was his home, his life was rooted too deeply in the mountains and valleys where he had been raised. Childhood memories flooded his mind, and he thought of his homecoming, and the goodbyes he had said only that morning. He thought of sheep and dogs, of sunsets and misty dawn risings, and time spent with Will, carefree on the mountain. He thought of Owen's rare smile, and the helpless love that clouded his eyes on the very rare moments when he spoke of Bran's mother.

 

I want to see her, he thought. I want to see her. I want to see…

 

Something seized him then, encased him like slime. He couldn't breathe. It was claws in his throat, a vice round his heart. He felt sick, but his mouth was sealed. He wanted to scream, but the slime would not let him. He was trapped, mastered, invaded…

 

Then free, stumbling and slumping to the ground, finding it cold and damp and unquestionably outside. Will was above him, a statue, a tower of strength, my enemy. "No…" Bran staggered upright. "What was…?"

 

"We're there." Will's voice was quiet, giving nothing away.

 

The memory of the awfulness faded, replaced by the wonder of what had happened. If Will was telling the truth, Bran was standing in the past. It did not feel any different, but he had certainly moved from the valley where they had camped, and it was no longer early summer. "Where…?"

 

"Owen Davies' cottage is just down there," Will said. Their hands had fallen apart, but now Will grasped Bran's hand again, using touch to point at a place that was invisible in the darkness. As soon as that was done, he released Bran's hand again. "In a few minutes…"

 

"Let's go closer." Bran hurried forward, but the ground was treacherous in the darkness, and he almost fell. Will caught him.

 

"You can't talk to her," Will said. After that, he kept hold of Bran's arm, as if to keep him prisoner. Or safe, Bran told himself. His eyes were growing used to the darkness, but it was still hard to see. "Even if you tried, she wouldn't hear you."

 

"I know," Bran said, but it wasn't fair, it wasn't fair. What right did Will have to keep him from his mother? She was half fairy. She could subvert his silly magic, and between them, she and Bran would…

 

Will's body was warm and close beside him, even if Will's voice was cool and distant. "I know," Bran said again, in a different voice.

 

A cottage took shape in the darkness ahead of them. It was getting close to dawn, Bran realised. The clouds were breaking up near the moon, revealing a silver disc, almost full, sinking in the western sky. Patches of moonlight moved across the mountain, though Will pulled them to a halt in a place that was still shadowed with darkness.

 

As he did so, the cottage door opened, and a woman appeared. Bran gasped, and leant unconsciously towards her, hating Will's restraining hand. Her hair was dark. Bran was not too far away to see that she was beautiful, and that she was crying. She shut the door behind her, careful to be silent, and started to walk towards the mountain. She glanced back several times. As she passed within twenty paces of Bran, Bran saw the expression on her face. His mother was heartbroken.

 

Don't go! he cried, silent and desperate. Don't leave! I need you! The baby in there needs you! But she was oblivious. Weeping, she walked past him, and the clouds stole the moonlight away, and then she was gone.

 

"Don't," Will said. "You can't."

 

And Bran realised that he was straining desperately against Will's hateful grip on his arm, yearning towards her. But he made his voice cold. "I wasn't going to. I do have some self-control, you know."

 

But she was gone. She was gone.

 

He swallowed, swallowed again. "Where is she going?"

 

"Merriman is there," Will said, "on the Old Way, but not quite where we arrived. He… he knows I'm here, of course." There was the briefest tremor of wonder in his voice. "So he always knew."

 

They stood in silence, but she was gone. Bran did not see her again. After a few minutes, he felt a faint stab of nastiness, as of distant, unpleasant magic. "They've gone," Will murmured. "Both of them."

 

There was nothing left. Inside the cottage, Owen slept, oblivious to the fact that his life had ended. A baby slept peacefully, dreaming of the mother he would never know. The world carried on, living under the yoke of Light and Dark, each as cold as cruel as each other. The Wild Magic slumbered. Cars ran, and electricity worked, and towns grew and flourished. Will was a newborn, loved by his family. And Bran was here.

 

"So you could have done it all along," Bran said, as they started the slow walk back. "You said you couldn't bring me back, you know. You said it never ended well when people travelled through time." He sensed a lie, and anticipated it. "To me, it's only a few weeks ago, not seven years. I haven't forgotten."

 

He could tell that Will was weighing up a reply. He pre-empted that, too, wanting to hurt. "It was all lies, wasn't it? It was always lies. You said you couldn't take me back in time to see my parents, but that's just because you didn't want me to know who my parents were."

 

"Partly," Will admitted, "but it's true, too. There have often been bad consequences of taking ordinary humans through Time."

 

Bran was not so far gone in emotion that he failed to hear the implications of that. He was no longer an ordinary human. He swallowed hard. Then he remembered how contrite Will had been at the first meeting a few nights before, and how Bran had assured him that none of it was his fault. Bran had chosen to forget about Arthur, and Will had only honoured that.

 

"I don't know what to think," he admitted. "I don't know what to do. Please, Will…"

 

But Will was already reaching for his hand, and the awful prison of his magic seized Bran, and stole away all words.

 

When he was free again, back beside his flimsy tent, he no longer remembered what he had been about to say. All he remembered was his mother's face, and the loneliness of that mountain, just before dawn.

 

He slept alone, of course, shivering in his tent, while Will slept beside the unnatural fire, as far away as the stars.

 

******

 

Had Merriman known? Dull with weariness, Will sat by the fire, wondering. Merriman must have sensed the magic that Will had used to keep Bran hidden from his mother, but he had not said anything, never even hinted. But had he known the rest?

 

Bran had felt… heavy. It had been far harder to take him through Time than Will had expected. Something about Bran resisted the power of Light. Will had felt exhausted when they reached their destination, and when they had returned to the present, it was all he could do to stand.

 

The explanation was obvious, of course. Bran had Wild Magic blood, and during his sojourn with the fairies it had been activated. He was becoming less human with every day that passed, and soon Will would not be able to touch him at all with his magic.

 

Had Merriman known? Merriman had taken Bran's mother through Time, and Bran's mother had more fairy blood even than Bran. Surely Merriman had noticed, but why hadn't he said anything? Will looked down at his hands, bleached in the light of the fire. If Merriman had known, why, then, had he left? Why had Merriman left Will all alone to deal with the collapse of the world of men?

 

Hours passed. Bran was asleep, snoring softly in his tent. Animals moved in the darkness, but none of them dared disturb the sanctity of the Old Way. Will tried to still his thoughts enough to sleep, but not even the Old Way could ease something like this.

 

Had Merriman known?

 

It was past midnight now. Will lay down on his side, pulling his coat over his body, and tried to sleep, but his eyes were wide open, staring into the flames, as if they could hold all the answers he needed.

 

He couldn't have known; that was the truth he was left with, as night moved close to morning. Guinevere had been half mortal, and had chosen to renounce her fairy blood. In a very real way, perhaps, she had become entirely human, so that the only relic of her fairy nature lay in the inheritance she had bequeathed her son. Bran himself would have remained human had he not spent seven years in the fairy domain. If not for that, he would have lived and died a mortal life.

 

Merriman had not known. He could not have known. If he had known, he would never have left Will alone. He would never have left Will alone with this, not knowing what to do, not knowing what to think, not knowing where to go, knowing only that he could not win.

 

******

 

End of chapter twenty-five


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