Chapter twenty-seven: Dreams
There followed soft, almost gentle days. The weather was warm and pleasant, and June flowers blossomed as never before. The headed south-east, across the Severn plain, and into the northern hills of the Cotswolds. The changes were always least evident in rural areas, but, since Hereford, Will had avoided even villages.
Bran seemed different, too. Since Hereford, he had been as good as his word, and had stopped begging Will to love him again. Not that he had often done so in words, but it had always been there in his eyes. Trust me. Love me. Let things be the way they were before. It had not been seven years for Bran. Until he had seen the ruins of a city, he had not understood.
I lived through that, Will thought. You did not.
But it served nothing to reproach him. It was not Bran's fault, after all. He had been born who he was, and he had been tricked, as so many other men had been tricked before him. Things had changed, and Bran had to get used to that.
Perhaps he already had. There was less hope in his eyes now, but also less despair. "Can we stop?" Bran asked now. "Just for a few minutes."
They found a shaded patch beneath an overhanging bush. Bran eased his way out of his rucksack, and lay down on the grass, his eyes closed, and his arms spread. Will caught the scent of his sun cream, similar to the smell of the gorse around them. It was a smell that had always intensely reminded him of Bran. His eyes strayed to Bran's skin, where his shirt parted at the base of his throat. His lower lip came in between his teeth, and then he looked away, up at the water-blue sky.
"It's hot work," Bran said, "climbing hills."
Will's fingers fiddled with a blade of grass. He watched a kestrel hovering overhead, and watched it fall. Something died in the grass; he thought Bran sucked in a breath at the moment that it happened, but when he looked at Bran again, Bran was lying there placidly, as if they were just two students on a summer hiking trip, and the world was unchanged around them.
I could pretend that it's true, Will thought. Just for a few minutes – an hour, perhaps – we can just be ourselves. They could chat about trivial things. Perhaps they could even… kiss. He could not love any more, but a kiss did not have to be about love. And, once their lips touched, perhaps other things would awaken within him, and he would realise that some wounds could be healed after all, and dust and ashes were not always the end.
Bran sat up, small pieces of grass clinging to his back and his hair. His sleeves were rolled up, and there were grass marks on his forearms. He had his sunglasses on – "But not so I can hide from you, Will," he had said, "just because the sun is bright."
Will busied himself in his pack, bringing out water he had filled at the last stream. When he lowered the bottle after drinking, he saw that Bran was watching him, his mouth slightly parted.
All the sounds of nature seemed to cease.
Bran broke the silence first. "It's a good view. What are we looking at?"
Will was grateful, really, he supposed. He made his voice as calm as it had been for seven years, until Bran had come home and sent everything falling again. "This is the edge of the Cotswold escarpment. Those are the Malverns, there, that we came through. Over there, if you look hard, you can see some of the mountains of South Wales."
"Have you been here before?" Bran asked it innocently.
Will looked at his hands. An Old One could not forget, and could not want to forget. He had come this way three years before, heading from one disaster to another. His hands had been freshly wounded, stiff and useless. He had spent the night under a hawthorn tree, barely conscious of falling there. Someone had seen him the next day, and given him a wide berth. It was one of the darker moments of his life, when the solitude had seemed most terrible.
Perhaps he nodded. Bran reached out to touch his hand. "You were alone?"
He did not need to answer that. He was still alone – of course he was. Bran was a creature of fairy, and would end up ruled by his wild nature. Oh, yes, Bran had the best of intentions, but Will knew more than anyone that one could not deny one's magical nature. Bran was a being of Wild Magic. That part would win out in the end.
Bran withdrew his hand, his eyes hidden by the dark glasses. "At least I can sit with you now."
They had left the Old Way, and could now walk side by side. Will knew he should seek to join another Old Way as soon as possible. The Light protected him there from the worst assaults of the Wild Magic. Tomorrow, perhaps. Or maybe one day after that. The day after tomorrow. Soon.
Will looked at the sun, sinking towards the west. It was two weeks away from midsummer, and it stayed light until almost ten. "I'd like to carry on for an hour or so," he said. "Get onto the escarpment before we stop for the night."
There were houses visible on the lower slopes of the hill, with small towns in the valley, and Cheltenham only a few miles away to their left. He saw Bran following his gaze there. "It's strange how quickly this comes to seem normal," Bran said quietly. "Sleeping rough, I mean. Camping out under the stars, when there's a town only an hour's walk away." His hand tightened. "It shouldn't seem normal."
Will had never found it strange. At times, it almost seemed that the years that he had spent sleeping under a roof were the strange ones. He was not human. For a few years, humans had tolerated him and he had lived as their guest, but now things were back to where they should be. There was no place for him in their towns. There could be no place for Bran, either.
Bran took his glasses off. "But I'm coming to accept it. If things were different, I could almost like this. Oh, no, don't tell me off. I know what's out there. I'll never forget what you told me and showed me in Hereford. But, even so…" He put his glasses back on, and his head turned away, so Will could not even try to read it, even if he had been able to.
It was such a curious thing to be travelling with a man he had once loved, when he was no longer capable of love. It was a curious thing to be here side by side with a being who was bound to be his enemy. Sometimes he had no idea how he felt… But, no, it didn't matter how he felt. Feelings were nothing. All that mattered was…
Ending this. But how? He let out a slow breath. Enduring this.
"Will?" Bran's voice was different now. "I haven't wanted to ask, but I need to. Where are we going?"
There was a blood red flower beneath Will's hand, its battered petals protruding out from between his thumb and his index finger. A car passed on the road below, silver and unnatural.
"Are you keeping it from me because you think I'll tell it to… to the enemy?" Bran's voice continued. "Because I won't. But I think… I think I understand why you're cautious. I do have urges I can't control. I'm changing, and I don't understand how. I don't know where it will end. I don't know what to do, and there's no-one…" His words snapped off. Will heard him shifting. The flower shed its last petal, like a bead of blood on the back of his hand. "I saw how much is at stake," Bran said. "That's more important than anything. I know that."
"It's not that." Will faced him, and almost succumbed to the urge to take Bran's hand in his own, and reassure him that it was nothing personal. It was nothing so simple and human as trust. "It's because I don't know. There isn't anywhere to go. There's no enemy headquarters we can attack. There's nowhere where we can rally armies of allies. It's just me, and they're everywhere. No one place is better than another."
Bran's eyes were hidden by his glasses. "So why…?"
"Leave Wales?" Because I am safer where I am rootless. Family was a weakness. Friends were a weakness. He was stronger when he was emotionless. He was stronger without Bran. "Because I prefer to be near the middle of the country," he said, "so I can get to anywhere quicker. The enemy's everywhere, but they don't attack everywhere all at the same time. I wander around, responding to their latest attack, but when I can, I return to Oxford. It started there."
And it was because he was weak after all, despite all his best efforts. Oxford was the place where he had been happy – a few snatched weeks of happiness, that were a gift – a miracle – that should never have been. Oxford was where Bran had disappeared. Oxford was where Bran might one day return. Oxford weakened him, but fed him, too.
"So perhaps it will end in Oxford, too," Bran said, with a curiously intense smile.
But Will shook his head, and stood up to resume their futile journey. Oh no, Bran. It will never end.
And then came a dream that he remembered. He remembered every scent of it, every sound, every glimmer of light, every patch of shadow. He remembered the taste of blood droplets on his tongue. He remembered the horror, and the exultation, too.
He sees a standing stone of pale grey, with sheep grazing beside it. He moves as if floating, like a leaf on the wind. Backwards, he floats, and backwards, and he sees another stone, and another. The sheep run away from him, but still he floats backwards, until he can see a whole semi-circle of stones, with a village as its centre. The stone circle continues on the far side of the village, he knows. The village is at the heart; it is imprisoned.
The light in the sky is fierce, hurting his eyes, but it is already fading. Shadows race as clouds hurtle across the sky. The deeper shadows of the stones move through quarter of a turn, and grow longer, like fingers pointing towards some doom. The sky grows red. The colours become more real than colours have ever been.
And he is there without a body, floating, watching. The sheep have gone. There is no-one here beside him, and yet… and yet…
For the first time, it occurs to him to look for Will, but the Old One is nowhere around. Bran raises what he thinks is his hand, but there is nothing there. He has become the wind, the air, the grass, and nothingness.
The sun is low and ruddy. He tries to remember when he last saw the dark red light of the setting sun fall upon man-hewn stone. It is not in this dream, and therefore it should not exist. But there is something there. It whispers to him that it is important.
The shadows heave, and all thought of anything else is driven out of his mind. The stones are walking. But then it seems to him as if the world itself is moving, and the stones are the only things that are staying still. He hears a distant scream. There are people in the houses, he realises. There are people, barricaded in there, terrified. Shadows move around them, and things that are not men take shape out of the air, and lean over them with gaping jaws. They have no lights. The shutters and curtains are closed against the horrors outside, and their candle flames are snuffed out by the fierce breath of the things that live in the air.
A very distant part of him, not in the dream, thinks that he should go and help them. The Bran who is floating in the air is part of this. Their screams are like honey. He longs for the day when their houses will fall. The stones are older, and were built by men who understood the Wild, but they, too, will fall. There will be nothing but mounds of grass, and slaves to do our bidding.
Figures come towards him. "Come, Bran. Come." They are made of mist, but beautiful, with drops of dew like crowns upon their brows. "You know who stands in our way. You know the face of the enemy."
Drawn by their words, he floats towards them, but suddenly there is grass beneath his feet, and he feels air in his lungs. He has a body again, but when he looks down, he sees the body of a prince or a king. He has a tunic of dark red, trimmed with gold, and boots of soft beige leather. He can feel the press of the circlet on his brow. One hand is empty, pale and smooth.
The other contains a knife. The gleam of its blade, in the dying sun, is the sharpest, most deadly light he has ever seen. It is alive. He thinks of the cold, dead Light of the Old One's magic, and the contrast is almost enough to make him weep.
"You know our enemy," says the mist-king.
A stone has fallen onto its side long ago, its weight half sunk into the ground. The figures of mist obscure it properly from his view, but as he nears it, knife held lovingly in his hand, they move aside.
Will Stanton, the Old One, is bound upon the stone, spread-eagled like a sacrifice.
"He lied to you," the mist-creatures say. "He will never love you again. He will never trust you. As long as he lives, you will never be happy. Your destiny is with us, but he will call you away. He will make you feel ashamed of what you are. He will make you fight us. He will seek to turn you against your kin, but give you nothing in return. He will make you betray your nature, and reward you with only coldness and mistrust."
Will's eyes meet his. There is no pleading in them, only acceptance. I knew you would turn against me in the end, those eyes say. It was inevitable. I made it so.
"No," he moans, but the knife is so beautiful, so vibrant, so alive. Will's face is cold. Even bound to the stone, he can not summon any feeling. He does not look defeated. He is a thing, an object. His magic is so terribly cold. Bran has tried to walk within the bounds of his Old Way, and knows it to be repulsive. They will never be able to love each again. They will never have common cause. Bran is part of life now, and Will is bound up with the coldness of the universe beyond the stars, where there is no life and no hope, but only Light.
The Old One cannot live. "But he is immortal," he tells the mist-creatures. "We cannot kill him, even with this knife."
"We cannot," they tell him. "You can."
Bran smiles, then. The silver blade is heartbreakingly beautiful. He raises it, brings it down…
Will does not plead. I knew this would happen, his grey eyes say. I never gave you a chance.
Blood spurts up from Will's throat. Droplets land on Bran's lips, and he brings them in with his tongue, savouring their sharpness. "You bleed just like any other man," he tells his enemy.
Will's eyes are fading, turning opaque. Blood flows from his throat like a torrent, sheeting the altar stone with red, seeping into the grass. The mist-creatures surge with inner light. Bran looks at the silver blade, but it is dark with blood now, and the silver is no longer shining, but as dead as the Old One's magic, and as cold.
The blood stops flowing. Will Stanton dies. "It is because you would not trust me," Bran tells him, but his voice sounds sorrowful in his own ears. Liquid is falling onto the backs of his hands, making pale circles in the darkness of the blood.
Plants grow from the splashes of blood. Will Stanton's body lies on the altar, and flowers spring up where his blood has fallen. His steps are erased by the beauty of nature. The village has gone. A hundred varieties of wild flower cover the mound that conceal their ruins, and butterflies dance in the air. Will has gone, and the world has never been more beautiful. Their enemy has fallen, and victory is theirs.
And then Will's eyes reopen. The wound on his neck has sealed. Blood flows through his veins once more. He is alive, but his eyes are dead. His eyes are the eyes of madness and bleak despair. His bonds have melted away, but he makes no attempt to escape. He offers no magic to defeat his foes. Slowly, slowly, his face turns towards Bran, and he moves his throat ever so slightly, offering it up to the knife again. You killed me, his eyes said, so now I am truly dead. My body cannot die, but there are far more ways of dying than losing this flesh.
And Bran kills him again, and again, and again. By the fourth time, he is weeping with the pity of it.
After the tenth time, he wakes up.
And the Old One is watching him.
Bran took a deep breath, and ground his fists into his eyes. Will was kneeling over him, his face rosy in the morning light that filtered through the thin fabric of the tent. "You must have been dreaming," Will said. "I thought…" He seemed to think better of it. "I'm sorry if I woke you."
"It's probably a good thing that you did." Bran's voice was hoarse. "If you did."
There were so many things he had to say. Where did he start? How could he start? Focus on small things; then it would go away. He looked at his watch. Nearly six o'clock. Too early to wake, but it was bright and too hot in his tent, so how could he sleep? How could he sleep after that?
"I've leave you to sleep," Will said, beginning to retreat.
But there was something in his eyes, some elusive shadow of an expression on his face. He was worried, Bran realised. It was not yet day, and Will had been asleep. His habitual masks were not yet in place.
Will had been worried about him.
"Stay." The plea slipped out before he could stop it. "It was a horrible dream."
Will looked at him. Their bodies were almost touching in the tiny tent. Bran was lying on his back; Will was crouched above him, hand beside his hand, face above him. The air was warm from the sunlight and the mingled heat of their bodies.
"Outside, then," Will said, but it was only a faint smile.
Bran crawled after him. It was better outside; Will was right. Inside, the morning was pleasant and cool, the sunlight tempered with dew and the breeze. The air was rich with the smell of fresh grass, and the beauty of the scenery should have been enough to banish the memory of the dream.
It was not.
"I was in a place," he blurted out. "A village inside a large stone circle, but not like Stonehenge, with tall stones all close together. They were quite far apart, and pale. There was lots of grass, even though it was misty…"
He stopped, knowing that he could describe the place for hours, but it would still not be enough, for eventually he would have to get past it and talk about what had happened there. "Avebury," Will stated into the silence.
Bran felt cold. Will knew the place. It was real, then. It was true. It was not just a dream born from his fears, but a real place, seen clearly even though he had never been there. It was a real place that Will knew.
"What happened?" Will asked. He looked calm again, composed and ready for anything. He knows, Bran thought.
"You were there," he said. "And so were they. The lord and lady of fairy, though they weren't in their usual forms. You were…" He swallowed. "You'd been captured. They…" Hands clenched tight enough to hurt. "They killed you. You didn't die, but you… you died."
Will was regarding him steadily. "I see." He gave a slight nod.
Bran grabbed his arm. He could still sense the aftertaste of the blood on his lips; still feel the ghostly aftertouch of the knife in his hand. If he let it, the dream could become more real than the brightness of the morning, and the memory of the worry on Will's face. "You died, Will." I killed you. "You died."
"I cannot die, Bran." Will's smile was sad.
"There are worse things than dying."
Will looked out at the morning sun. "Dreams can be warnings," he said. "Sometimes they are messages from those who mean us harm. Sometimes they are designed to scare us away from the path we need to walk. But only the greatest lords of Light could see the future in their dreams. All we can see is what we are sent. Sometimes dreams show a possible future, but all things can be avoided. Choice comes into all things."
And perhaps that was what he needed, he realised – a companion who spoke like a wise Old One, with all the answers, rather than a compassionate friend who held him against the terrors of the night. "Perhaps," he tried to say, but his voice was shaky. He could still taste Will's blood on his lips. And he had lied.
"It's too late to fall asleep again," Will said. "We should make an early start. We can stop early tonight."
There was something about his tone… "Where are we going?" Bran asked, but he thought that he already knew the answer.
Will confirmed it – three syllables that spoke to Bran of doom. "Avebury."
End of chapter twenty-seven