Chapter twenty-six: The Marches
Bran drifted slowly awake, aware all the time that someone was watching him. Will, he thought, more than half asleep. He rolled over, luxuriating in the warmth of sleeping with someone beside him. Until a few weeks ago, he had always slept alone. It was so perfect to wake up to someone else. It was such a wonderful thing to be loved.
He half opened his eyes, and the light was strange. His certainties fell away, and for a moment he had no idea where he was. Then cold penetrated the illusion of warmth, and reality punctured the dreams. He knew where he was, and what had happened. He knew who he was, and knew that Will no longer loved him.
But he was not alone. Someone was staring at him, their gaze almost tangible. They were not in the tent, though, but outside, and their gaze was both an invitation and a command. Bran wriggled out of his sleeping bag, and pulled on his coat. Outside, it was grey and misty, and not fully light. Will was asleep beneath a thin blanket on the far side of the fire, and the Lord of Fairy was standing beside Bran's tent, greeting him with mocking eyes.
"What are you doing here?" Bran hissed.
"I come and go as I please," the lord said, "but this morning, I come to talk to you. Should I not?"
"I don't want to talk to you." Bran pulled his coat tight around his body. "You can't say anything that I would want to hear."
"Really?" He raised one eyebrow. "I thought you wanted to learn how to use the powers that lie within your blood, so you could help that Old One friend of yours defeat us."
He knew, then. Dismay pierced Bran's anger, but he decided to brazen it out. "Of course. I never claimed anything else. All along, I told you both that the only thing that mattered was helping Will."
"So why are you sneaking away from him, to talk to me behind his back?"
Bran glanced round. It was true. From the moment he had seen the lord, he had been unconsciously edging away from Will. This part of his life was something Will could not share. Will was Light, and Bran was not. Some things could not be talked about if there was a risk of Will overhearing.
"You led me," he said, planting his feet squarely and resolving not to move again. He could not go back, though. He did not want Will to hear this. He did not want Will to awaken to the sound of Bran talking to his enemy.
He did not want to be too close to the unnatural fire, and the invisible enmity of the Old Way.
"Yes," the lord said, hissing it through his teeth. "That's right. Move away from him. He is not one of us, and never will be. You are born to be his enemy."
"I was born to nothing," Bran declared, clenching his hand behind his back. "Born to potential, perhaps, in both Light and Wild Magic, but I have become what my experiences made me. My experiences have brought me to Will's side, and that counts for far more than the fact that he is an Old One and I am... what I am."
His voice trembled. He had to believe this. It had to be true. But he could not walk back, closer to the fire. He could not wish that Will would wake up and see this.
"He will betray you in the end." The lord touched Bran's arm, and Bran recoiled, not even managing to do it with dignity. "Come, Bran, you know this." His voice was almost tender. "He cannot go against his nature. He has told you this again and again. He is the Light. As your powers grow, he will reject you more and more, and in the end he will sacrifice you in the name of what he thinks is right."
"He can't." Bran raised his head. "The Light cannot harm the Wild Magic. He will not be able to harm me." Then he heard what he had said, and let his shoulders slump. Thus so easily did it begin. What was happening to him? Where would it all end? Will, he thought, but Will could not help him. Will could never help him, not ever again.
"Yes." The lord's fingers lingered on Bran's jaw, and this time he did not fight. "You see how it is. He will turn on you, and you on him, and the end will be nothing but misery. He will never love you. There is no place in the world for you except with us."
"But I'm human," Bran whispered. "More than half."
"Not enough." The lord's eyes flashed tawny, the same colour as Bran's own. "You have always been different, Bran Davies. The only place for you in the world is with us." He stepped closer. "With me."
Bran could feel the lord's breath on his cheek, and the warmth of his body, so welcome in the cold morning air. "I said no…"
"Ah, not like that." The lord stepped away, and laughed, all seduction gone from his stance. "As master and apprentice, perhaps. As father and son. Everyone needs a guide when their powers are new. Everyone needs someone who understands."
It was true. He had never had a proper friend as a child, and Will had never truly understood him, and now never would. He and Will were separated by a gulf that could never be bridged. And Will wasn't even trying. Will was cold. Will just announced that he no longer loved Bran, but he wasn't even trying to rediscover the months when they had been happy.
He looked at Will, still sleeping beyond the terrible flames. "I can't abandon him."
"Then stay with him." The lord smiled with smug malice. "Get him to confide his plans to you, then tell them to me. Undermine him. You will not even have to try hard. As your powers grow, he will come to find it unbearable to be near you for too long. Your presence will hurt him; your powers will drain him."
"I can't," Bran whispered, but the lord's hand was on his shoulders, and when he looked round, the lord's eyes were deep and gleaming, and he could not look away. He would do everything his master said. He would turn on Will, because Will had turned on him first. Will was the one who had stopped loving him. Will was…
So cold, the flames, so cold. And Will was beyond them, his face at rest, and free of cares. He was curled on his side, as he had once lain in Bran's bed. His hand was outstretched, his palms marred with scars obtained while fighting for the future of mankind. If this lord had his way, Will's fight would have been in vain, and Owen and John and Jane and everyone else would suffer.
"I can't," he said again, more loudly, as he wrenched himself away from the lord's gaze. He looked at Will, who lay there still, unchanged from Bran's memory. "I won't."
There was no violence and no threats, just a quietness as cold as ice, as mist from the morning wreathed around Bran's body. "But one day you will," the lord whispered.
The lord faded into the mist, and was gone. Bran walked shakily back to the place where Will was sleeping, then knelt beside the unnatural fire, as close as he could bear to be.
It still did not bring him to Will's side, and still Will did not awake.
The air was thick with Wild Magic, clinging to everything like oil. Even the Old Way did not entirely keep it away. Once he stepped off it, the Wild Magic was all around him, and repulsive.
Repulsive, because he knew that Bran had been involved. The Wild Magic was Bran. And if it was not Bran, then that was even worse, because it meant that Bran had been entertaining visitors in the night, while Will had been sleeping.
Bran was demolishing his tent, his face set and cold. Will retreated to the protection of the Old Way, and watched him. Something had changed in the night, and not just because Bran had seen his mother.
"I do wish you'd trust me." Bran's voice was weary. Something in it reminded Will of his own.
"I…" Will swallowed. He could not lie. He could not tell the truth. He did not even know what the truth was.
"No, you don't." Bran still did not turn round. "I can tell."
Because he was Fairy, of course. Emotions were something the Wild Magic fed on and fuelled. That was why Will had tried so very hard not to feel anything. As long as he was with Bran, he would have to try even harder.
"You don't love me any more," Bran said, "because you've decided that you don't. You're not even trying. When you thought I was just myself, there was at least something there. But now you see me only as someone fated to be your enemy. That's why you won't even try."
He opened his mouth; shut it again. He could not deny it. Bran is the only one who can destroy me. Just like an Old One, a being of the Wild Magic could not escape his nature. It was part of him, far more important than any human casing, and the transient emotions that came with it. But, because of those little human emotions, Bran had power over Will, more so than any others of his kind. Will had once loved him.
A tiny, treacherous part of him wished that he still did.
"You will turn against me in the end." Bran stated it as fact. As he did so, Will caught a glimpse of tawny behind a distant rock, and an echo of laughter in his mind.
So he had been there. The lord of Fairy had spoken to Bran, and now Bran was parroting his words, repeating them as his own.
Will inclined his head, needing to hide his eyes. "If I have to."
Bran's face crumpled. "I'm still me, Will. I could never hurt you. Please…"
But you already have. Seven years ago.
The words were not said, but Bran knew what they would have been. He turned away with a raw cry. And still he did not tell Will about his visitor. Will could imagine what had happened. The lord of Fairy was trying to win Bran whole-heartedly to his cause. Because Bran was lying about it, Will had to assume that he was tempted. He had to. How could he assume anything else?
"If you carry on acting like this…." Bran had clenched his fists, and his voice was quivering with fresh anger.
Will swallowed. "What?"
"Then maybe I will become… what you're afraid I'll become." Bran's eyes blazed with anger, but the words sounded as if they had been wrenched from him with hooks.
"But I can't act any other way," Will said, safe behind the bastion of the Old Way. "This is what enabled me to survive the last seven years. The world comes first, Bran – not you, not me, not any one of us. That's how it has to be."
"I know." Bran's arms fell uselessly to his sides, and he sighed, all traces of anger vanishing from his face. "But I'm fighting something here, Will. What happened when you first found out who you really were? Were you alone?"
"Merriman was there," Will admitted, "as a mentor. There were some things I had to do by myself, but…"
"There was someone with the same powers, older and wiser, to guide you." Bran was still outside the Old Way, in a different world from Will. "The only people with the same powers that I have – that I'm developing… They're your enemies. They want me to turn against you, and I won't, but that leaves me nothing. Not them, and not you."
"I know." Will edged off the Old Way, and moved close enough to Bran that they could have touched, had they tried. The taint of Wild Magic was almost gone, as if this was Bran Davies alone who was standing here, merely human, as he had been in Oxford. If Will had been human, he could have comforted him; could have taken him in his arms; could have loved him.
Bran pressed his hand to his eyes, rubbing them as if he was very tired. "Why did you let me come with you? It was cruel to let me hope."
"Because…" The words died away. What answer could he give? Because one should keep one's enemies close? Because you wanted it, and I am not so far gone that I could refuse?
Because, deep down, part of me still loves you?
He touched Bran's arm briefly, and the human touch felt strange and marvellous, but terrible, too, as if something essential would drain away through his fingers. "We need to carry on," he said, and in this, once again, he was a coward.
They parted, Will to the Old Way, and Bran to the world of Wild Magic outside it. They walked side by side, barely four paces apart, but in a very real way, they were in different worlds.
And then the dreams came.
Bran could not remember them in the morning, waking merely to a certainty that his sleep had been wild, and that terrible things had haunted his dreams. The first morning it happened, he was glad that he had forgotten them, and spent the day trying to tell himself that nothing had changed. By the second afternoon, he wished that he could remember the dreams, after all. Not knowing seemed worse. Perhaps there was some warning in his dreams, or some terrible vision of their future fate. Perhaps, if he remembered them, he could…
"What's the matter?"
Bran blinked, returning from the half-dream world where he had been questing. Will was looking at him, a faint hint of the old concern on his face. "You… stopped." Will's hand half-rose as he said it, then fell back again, as if he had realised that he was stating the obvious.
"Well spotted." Bran tried a smile. After a week of walking, his smile had become as rare as Will's. "I was trying to remember a dream. That's all."
Will looked at him for a long moment. Bran was suddenly sure that Will did not believe him. He knew why, too. When the Fairy Lord had come, Bran had wanted to tell Will, but had been unable to bring the words out. How could you tell the man you loved that, for a moment, you had been tempted to go over to his enemy? Awkward, he had gone on the offensive, and then the moment had passed. When you started to lie, you could not then tell the truth.
What are you thinking? he wanted to ask. That I'm communicating with your enemies by some secret telepathic link? But that, too, could not be said. If he said too much, Will would turn against him, and then he would be left completely alone. You will turn against me in the end, he had said, and Will had nodded, and said that he would, yes, if necessary.
They walked on, never close enough to touch, and in silence, for the most part. Bran could not think of anything to say. Whenever he tried to make conversation, Will answered with words only, with something vital missing behind his eyes. It seemed trivial to talk about the weather, when Will had spent seven years fighting the destruction of the world. He could not even talk about shared childhood memories, for he did not know which memories had been tainted in the years he had been gone.
How could everything have fallen apart so thoroughly, in such a little time? Barely a month ago, as it seemed to him, he was in Oxford, and Will loved him, and his whole life was ahead of him. Now he was back with Will, but everything was horrible. Will no longer loved him, and he, Bran, was changing in ways he did not understand.
The day before, they had reached the border, and crossed into England. Bran had not been aware of leaving Wales, for Will was taking them through the wild places, far away from road signs and place names. Will mentioned it casually at night, and Bran had shivered, for now he was not even in the country of his birth, but a foreigner as well as a freak.
He saw a silver river ahead, whispering to him of hidden stories. A town lay somewhere ahead, its church towers clearly visible, but he knew that Will would avoid it. They would sleep outside. They would never see anyone except for each other, but they were like strangers to each other.
"I can't bear it," he burst out, as Will led him stony-faced towards the river.
Will turned and blinked, placid.
"There's just us," Bran said. "The two of us have powers. Perhaps we can make a difference. We're drawn together, quite apart from anything else we've ever shared. You… you don't love me. I can accept that; for you, it's been seven years, after all, and I left you. I broke your heart just as you'd finally started to let yourself feel again. But can't you at least try to work with me? Talk to me." Help me, Will. Help me. "Can't we just pretend…?"
"What?" Will said it so casually that Bran could have been talking about whether he liked sugar in his tea.
The words died to a trickle. Foolish, Bran. Foolish. But still he said them. "That nothing's changed."
"Because it has changed, Bran." Will gave the only answer he could have given. His face gave nothing away at all, but Bran's new senses thought they caught a wisp of sadness, like darkness moving beneath the unruffled surface of a lake.
He seized on that. "But it doesn't have to." He grabbed Will's much-remembered hand. "I'm still me; you're still you. We've changed, but the essential part of us is still there. Horrible things have happened, but it doesn't have to tear us apart. War brings people together, sometimes. It makes people appreciate the things that really matter."
"The things that really matter," Will echoed. He tilted his head to one side for a moment. This time, Bran felt no sadness, even though he searched for it, but something deeper and darker. Just as he groped for it, it was gone, wrapped by a wall of steel that he could not penetrate.
Will started walking without another word, and Bran, taken by surprise, did not seek to keep hold of his hand. Will's hand slipped away, and was gone. Soon, all he could see was Will's back. He had no choice but to follow, or remain alone.
He followed. They reached the river, broad and wide. He saw fallen fences, that once had kept one man's animals from wandering into fields belonging to someone else. They passed a building that had the look of once being a holiday cottage, but now it was deserted, shrubs peeping out of the shattered top-floor windows, and a well-worn animal track running to the open door. On a weed-choked track, a car was rusting into decay, and chunks of rotten wood showed where once there had been a small landing stage.
It won't always be like this, he thought. Images swirled like mist before his eyes, and he saw the car rusted away to nothing, and the cottage reduced to ruins. He saw greenery flourish in places that had once been stamped with the hand of man. He saw the river flow clear and pure, untainted by rubbish and pollution, and alive with the magic of gleaming fish. This was the war zone. This was the necessary destruction that prefaced to new age. This was…
"No." He rasped it out loud, clenching his fists so tightly that his nails dug into his palms. Get out of my head. He had his powers, but he would think as he wanted to think, as decide things as Bran Davies, not on the basis on an inheritance he had never known he possessed.
Will did not turn round.
The houses became more frequent. Before long, they were walking on a dirty strip of land, that looked as if it had once been a river-side garden. Rubble clogged the edges of the river, and a modern wall was already crumbling. On the far side of the garden was a row of detached houses, still in good repair. There were curtains in the windows, and at one upstairs window, Bran saw a face.
It was the first human being he had seen for over a week, except for Will. No, he corrected himself, it was the only human being he had seen for a week. Will had frozen out his own humanity, and become a being of alien magic, an enemy.
He fought the urge to wave. Just to see another person, another normal person… To talk to them… To be human… Perhaps if he spent time with humans, he would remain human himself. The new urges would vanish. The Wild Magic would leave him - it had to. "I want to visit Jane," he blurted out, but Will ignored him on that, too.
The houses ended. They passed a school, a barricade of razor wire around the fortress of its grounds, already yielding to the assault of spreading roots. The river grew murkier. Several times, he knew suddenly that people were nearby, watching them. The city was falling apart, but it was not deserted. Perhaps as many people as ever lived within its bounds, skulking inside their darkened houses, afraid to go out and let themselves be seen by strangers.
"Why are we here?" He drew close to Will. Will had led them across Wales without taking them within sight of a single other person. There had been nothing to suggest that this was going to change once they reached England. Will appeared to be heading directly towards the city centre. "Why are we going this way?"
"So you will see."
There was no humanity in Will's voice. Bran's skin tingled with the proximity of so much life. Only Will repelled him, exuding his cold white Light. Tens of thousands of human beings lived and breathed within a mile of where Bran was. They were cautious and afraid, their fear as clear and unmistakeable as a sound or a scent. Nectar, his mind said, and strength. When their world has fallen, they will be ours. Now they fight us, but soon they will feed us.
"No." He shook his head, biting his lip to keep himself from speaking out loud. They were people like him; that was what he would cling to. And Will was human, too – not cold, not hard, not alien. All he needed to do was find a way to show Will that.
He stayed as close to Will as Will would allow. "Will," he said out loud, not meaning to. Will Stanton, who once loved me. My friend. My lover. Not my enemy – never that.
But Will just walked on, ignoring him, so Bran could have said the whole thing out loud, not just the first word, for Will would not have heard him.
The houses continued, sometimes large and detached, sometimes in squat rows. The sense of other people grew stronger and heavier, pushing on his mind. Enemies, his senses whispered. He thought of desperate men with guns, lying in wait for unwary travellers. He thought of feral children, brought up without rules or law. "Is it safe?" he asked Will.
"Oh yes," Will said, with a soft certainty that Bran found chilling.
Bran wanted to hold Will's hand.
The city centre drew closer, marked with its cathedral tower. A wall came right down to the river's edge, forcing them to leave their strip of no-man's land, and head to the roads. People were visible now – faces at windows, and figures scurrying on streets. They passed a shop, with a chalk board outside it, announcing that it was closed. A group of grey-faced women were queuing outside it anyway. They fell silent as Bran and Will approached, but Bran heard enough to know that they were sharing the small gossip of people they knew. It heartened him. Perhaps Will had exaggerated. Many things were the same. Houses still stood, and he saw several cars, still in working order. The English still queued. There were hope for the world if people were still queuing.
But Will was still leading them on. They reached a shopping street, where famous High Street shops still traded, their interiors gloomy, and their windows boarded up. A young woman hurried past, and the clothes she was wearing were little different from the clothes young women had been wearing when Bran had left Oxford.
There is still a long way to go, the Wild Magic whispered in Bran's mind. They resist so. They keep building the walls back up. But one day… One day soon…
The shops turned to dust and were dispersed by the east wind. A wind from the west brought seeds and spore, and green forests and meadows grew where there had once been cobbles. People wore robes, and tended fields of flowers. The sunshine was beautiful, and the air was clear. Trees grew in the open temple that had once been the cathedral of a ruthless, alien god.
He groped back to reality. "It hasn't really changed," he said. "Not much." Not as much as it could be. Not as much as they want.
"Hasn't changed?" Will stopped walking. Bran saw his hands begin to clench into fists, then slowly relax. There was nothing relaxed about the way Will held his neck and shoulders as he moved on.
"Not long ago," he said, "you would have seen bodies lying in these streets. It was something as little as two hours between getting the first symptoms, and dying. Strangers didn't want to help, you see, in case they caught it, too. There was no way to call an ambulance, and the ambulances were full, anyway, and there was no space in the hospitals. Some people crawled to dark corners like a wounded animal, and died there. Some just fell. Other people then crossed to the far side of the road to avoid them, terrified of catching it themselves. Not everyone, though. There were countless examples of selflessness and heroism. Many of those people are now dead."
It was said in a voice entirely level. But not cold, oh no. Not cold. Bran knew Will well enough now to know that, however much the Wild Magic sought to make him forget it.
"The cathedral itself," Will said, as they rounded a corner and saw it fully for the first time, "was damaged in the first great earthquake. People still thought things were normal, then, and that the earthquake was just an act of nature. They pledged millions to repair the broken landmarks. They started to repair it, but then came the huge storm, and then the floods. It's hardly safe to enter it now, but they're not ready to surrender yet. Every new bit of damage that happens, somebody is there to repair it. The services in the grounds as better attended than any service in the cathedral ever was, back in the old days. That's where the mass grave is, too. They tried to bury them individually and honour each one, but there were just too many. They piled them up in the cathedral crypts while they dug the pits."
Bran had not seen the cathedral before, when it was intact. The tower was still standing, but half the nave was fallen in. The sun was setting in the west, and he thought it looked as if the stones were weeping.
"People do what they have to," Will said, "to show that there is still hope. Except at the height of the epidemic, there are still concerts and amateur dramatics. Libraries still lend out their dwindling supplies of ageing books. There are still pubs. There are inns, but lots of strangers will put up travellers, and welcome them like they never used to. Others will rob them. Central government has collapsed, but there is still a semblance of laws and government at a local level, each town or city becoming its own little state. People work hard to keep things running. A goods' train must have come in recently, for all these shops to be open. The prices are high, but most people still pay them. Looting is becoming more common, though."
Masonry littered the grounds of the cathedral. The large door was locked, but a neatly written notice displayed the time of the next open-air service, that would continue whatever the weather.
Will stopped with his hand on a half-fallen gravestone. "You say nothing has changed. Maybe you're right. People are still people. They're clinging on, desperately hopeful, many of them still adhering to the old social niceties. In some places, like rural Wales, life has hardly changed at all, except that electricity doesn't always work, and petrol is almost impossible to come by. But almost everyone within this city knew someone who died in the epidemic, and lies now in that mass grave. Many of them crossed the road to avoid a dying man in the street. They talk about the weather when they meet in the street, but at night they cower in the darkness, and every noise makes them start with terror. Buildings that have survived hundreds of years now lie in ruins. Many people bear scars, and not all of those scars are visible."
Bran looked at Will's hand, capable but fragile on the grey stone. His palms were scarred, and Bran still did not know why. Will would not have walked away from dying men. He would have shored up falling buildings with his magic, and helped save people from flooded rivers. How many people had Will watched die? How many people had he saved?
And how many years was it since he had last gone home? How many years since anyone had looked out for him?
Bran started forward, eyes pricking with tears. "Will, I…"
"No!" Will rasped, almost spitting the word. "Not me."
Bran snatched his hand back, not understanding, but the sunlight had moved on, and the tower above him was radiant. He saw the beauties of a thousand years of human artistry, done through faith. Burning in the light of the setting sun, the cathedral spoke of a beauty that came from the hand of man, combined with the beauty of nature. A cathedral could not be built by a single man, thinking only of his own desires. Thousands of men over hundreds of years had worked together to create this beauty. They did so because they believed that men were not islands, cut off from each other, but that all life was bound together under a higher power. The cathedral was an affirmation of fellowship over selfishness. It was an affirmation of civilisation.
And it had almost fallen into ruins.
"I understand," Bran said, and this time the tears were flowing freely. "I didn't know, before. It was only a week for me, not seven years. How can the world change in a week? Until I saw this, I didn't… I don't think I… Part of me thought that it… hadn't."
War makes people appreciate the things that really matter. That's what he had said just hours before, when he had been innocent and a fool. He had used it as a reason for Will to love him. But Will was right. In the overall scheme of things, it did not matter in the slightest if Will or Bran were happy or unhappy, estranged or in love. Will had endured much in the last seven years, but the world had endured more.
"I will fight it," he swore, as the sun made the cathedral ruins flow with blood, "with everything that I am. We have to stop this – that's what matters."
"I don't think we can," Will said sadly. "All I can do is alleviate it, but it all falls apart. It all inexorably falls apart."
"But you've got me now." Bran raised his head, and looked up at the sky, no trace of tears in his eyes. Something flickered in his mind, and he saw the cathedral buried under mounds of green, and fields of white flowers covering the graveyard like a lovely sea. He shook it away, like a dog shaking water from its fur, and placed his hand on top of Will's. "You've got me."
Will looked at him. Emotions were churning in his grey eyes, but Bran could not read what they were. At last his lips moved, but all that he said was, "Yes."
The sun sank below a building, and became only a red strip in the western sky, and the cathedral returned to being a gloomy ruin, with shadows and sadness lurking behind the graves.
"I know what's important now," Bran told Will. "I'll stop…" Stop wishing that you would love me. But that bit he could not say out loud.
As dusk fell, they began to leave the city. Bran reached for Will's hand, and this time Will did not pull away. Hand in hand, they walked through deepening shadows. People watched them from the darkness, but they did not hear a single human voice. It was as if they were untouchable. It was as if they were merely walking through the world, and not really part of it at all.
And, in his mind, he saw the whole lot of them buried under gentle mounds of grass, and he shivered, but he could not tell Will.
End of chapter twenty-six