Here we are: the final two chapters.
Chapter twenty-nine: White walls
Afterwards – long afterwards, it felt to him – he could speak again. "What happened?"
But he knew. He knew. He did not want to know. Will was wise. Perhaps Will could tell him that it was not as he feared it had been. Will would have answers. Will would save him. Will would absolve him.
"You…" Will bit his lip. Bran could see him struggling to come up with a way to soften the truth with neutral words.
No! Bran wanted to cry. If it's that hard, don't do it. Fob me off with a lie. Take my hand, and let us walk away from here, and forget that anything ever happened here; forget that there ever was a place called Avebury.
But only a coward ran away. And Will had lied to him so many times, and concealed the truth from him even more, but this time did not spare him. "You… became something… Wild." He was kneeling at Bran's side, hands folded almost casually in his lap. "It was like that night in Oxford, but it came from you."
Bran closed his eyes. He had known it, but to hear it out loud… To hear it in the voice of the man he loved… He curled his hands into fists, and resisted the urge to hurt. You could have spared me, Will! If you loved me, you would have lied. No, that was foolishness; selfishness.
The memories were there, close enough to touch, though he dared not reach out for them, in case he fell too far again. There had been people in houses, and he had… "I hurt people?" he whispered, turning it at the last moment into a desperate question. "I… destroyed things?"
"The Lord of the Fairy," Will said, face impassive. "I don't know if it was just because you took him by surprise, but you were stronger than he was, at least for tonight. He's… gone. I don't know if he's defeated forever, of it he just chose to withdraw for now."
Words, words. Talk like this forever, Bran wanted to plead. Will's voice was calm, human, familiar. It was his anchor in a stormy sea. It spoke the truth, but it hid the truth, too. As long as Will was talking, Bran could not sink too far into the treacherous nature of his own mind.
His nails were in his own palms. "Carry on talking." He had not meant to speak it out loud.
Will brought one hand briefly to his brow, then lowered it again. "I don't know what to say, Bran. I can't say much about… this, about what happened, because it was Wild, but before that… There were things I need to tell you – things I'd realised…"
But this was too much, too emotional. He needed Will the Old One. He needed the certainty of love, but not of the faltering speech of a man overcome with emotion. Feeling was too close to the Wild. He needed Will as he had been during the weeks of their journey, when he had never smiled, and his words had been dull and cold.
Bran struggled to his feet. "I need to find out what I did. I need to help them."
Will stood beside him, two paces away. Bran was very aware of the distance; he wondered if Will was, too. "I don't think there was much damage. The… fear would have been the worst, but they will already be dismissing that as a dream. People do that. If we turned up as strangers, offering help, it might make it worse."
It was a justification to walk away. And it came from Will, who had laboured for years to alleviate the damage done by the Wild Magic in any way he could, no matter what the cost. He's afraid of what I might do, Bran thought. He doesn't trust me not to do it all again.
He felt it with sadness only, not anger. Will was right to feel that way. Will had been right all along. Will had always believed that Bran would turn against him in the end, powerless to resist the call of his blood. Bran had dismissed these fears, claiming that he loved Will, and would never become his enemy. But Will had been proved right. When the test came, Bran had succumbed to his Wild nature. He had lost sight of Will; lost sight of everything.
He grabbed hold of Will's hand, speaking without thought, but meaning every word of it. "I'll never do it again. I won't. I never will. I refuse to be that person again. I am human, no more, no less. I renounce anything else." He raised his voice, shouting it into the night. "Do you here me? I refuse to be anything to do with you. I'm turning my back on it. If this is my inheritance, I don't want it."
Will's hand was still. "You can't…"
"I can." He was cold; he did not dare feel fervour, not yet. "I did it before, you told me. I renounced my role as Arthur's son."
"Only because the High Magic offered you a choice," Will said. "The High Magic made your choice real. But the High Magic has gone."
"My mother did it."
"Yes." Will hesitated for a moment. "Perhaps the High Magic played a part in that. The Light didn't know who she was, but the High Magic was more than the Light, and the family of Arthur had a role that was more than even the Light could comprehend."
"But I wasn't like this before!" His voice was rising, and he calmed it, taking slow, deep breaths. "I didn't feel any of this before I went with her. Nothing changed. My mother was still who she was. I still had the same inheritance, but I didn't feel any of this."
"Every mortal who goes to the land of Fairy emerges changed," Will said. "Some have emerged with powers that no human should have, and the powers stay with them until death. You had the power latent within you already, so you…"
"Anything that can be switched on can be switched off again," Bran pleaded.
"I was no more than human before my eleventh birthday." Will's voice was quiet. "After I awakened, there was no going back."
"Do you want me to fail?" Bran shouted. He realised they were walking somewhere… Where? Away. They were close to each other, but still a world away. "I won't do this again," he swore. "I don't care what you think. I'm strong enough. I have to be strong enough. I won't give in to this ever again."
A memory came to him of his childhood, when he had found the strength to ignore the teasing and the cruel looks, and go to school with his head high. It had been horribly hard at first. This can't hurt me, he had repeated again and again. This doesn't hurt me. And, in the end, it had come true. The cruel words did indeed stop hurting him, and not long after that, had stopped entirely.
He turned to Will, but this time refrained from taking his hand. "You were right," he told him. "You always thought I was going to turn against you. You were right. But never again. I won't do it again."
Will was shaking his head. "I wasn't right, Bran. That's what I realised earlier. I said I couldn't love any more. I was keeping my distance because I was afraid you were going to turn against me. But I was wrong. It's because it nearly undid me when you left, seven years ago. I was afraid to face that again. That's why I told myself that I didn't love you any more."
"Told yourself?" Bran echoed, but he already knew the answer. He had heard the love in Will's voice when Will had called him back from the wild place where he had gone. Will still loved him, but it couldn't mean anything. Bran had the potential to become that monster again. He could not let himself feel too much, in case it tipped him over. If he was going to barricade his mind against the Wild, he had to barricade himself against extremes of feeling of any kind.
He could not let himself love, except as a sad and distant, objective thing. "I loved you once," he could say, and they could stay together, softly touching, as companions do, but he would never again be able to seek the fierce joy of sexual release, or the overwhelming flood of happiness that came from loving the person who loved you.
Perhaps Will sensed some of this. He did not profess love, or sweep Bran into an embrace, or even smile. All he did was move closer to Bran, and touch his forearm in a soft gesture that could have been an apology.
Maybe it won't have to last forever, Bran thought. Maybe, if he denied his new powers and urges for long enough, they would atrophy and die, leaving him free to feel everything that a human could feel. He hoped so. He hoped so fervently, but then he felt a blurring in his mind, and the faint whisperings of things that were lurking in the night. He snatched back the hope, rendering it mute and distant. The whispering stopped, and he concentrated only on the path in front of him, and putting one foot in front of the other, and enduring.
He did not even dare feel guilt for what he had done. He could not feel anything at all.
"I refuse to become your enemy," he told Will. "I… love you too much for that." The word trembled, but was not a lie, not yet. "And I refuse to become… that again. I want you to… to use magic on me. I want to walk on the Old Way, and if it makes me feel uncomfortable, I'll just do it anyway. I want your magic. I want to go back in Time, even though it was horrible last time. I want to…" His words ran out. With a long sigh, he tried to still his emotions, to still the whispering, yearning things that still resided in the stones of Avebury.
"I have to say this, Bran," Will said quietly, "but are you sure?"
Anger, again. That, too, he stilled. "Very sure," he said. "You saw what I became. I won't do that again. You can’t possibly think it was a good thing."
Will walked two steps, then a third. "It defeated the Lord of Fairy. Nothing else has done that."
An owl hooted in the dark. The mound of Silbury Hill rose ahead of them, full of mysteries. He remembered power, and strength. He remembered calling shadows from the past, and surging through the stones, no longer bound by his physical body. The whole landscape had responded to him, and he had had the power of the earth and the air, or fire and darkness.
"Perhaps he just decided to go away." His voice only trembled slightly. "He wanted to goad me into doing what I did. Then he went away. Because he had won."
He heard Will swallow; saw his shape move through the twilight. "I'm not sure…"
"I am." His fists shook at his sides, and he spoke a certainty he did not feel. "I was there. And I'm not doing that ever again. I won't do anything even close. I refuse to risk it."
And refuse to love, refuse to smile, refuse to feel… His would be a shadow life, but the alternative was worse. Nothing could be worse than succumbing to the Wild again, and becoming part of the force that was destroying the human race.
"I don't want to talk about it, Will," Bran said, a little desperately. He felt blind, not daring to try to read Will's emotions, in case that was the first step on the slope that caused him to fall. They would be strangers again, more than they had ever been.
"But you have to…"
"No." His arms were aching from the force with which he clenched his fists. He struggled for a placating lie. "Not tonight, anyway. I want to get away from here" – far enough away that he could no longer sense the prowling things – "and sleep. I want a place with lots of light in."
Was that pity on Will's face. "It was the Light that made you…"
"But it won't, not this time," Bran snapped, pleaded. "And if it does, I would rather die."
White walls, he thought. Solid white walls, between himself and his feelings, between himself and the world. White walls, like Will himself had lived behind for so many years. White walls, with no gate, and never a way out of them, and never a chance to be free.
From where he sat, Will could see the distant lights of houses. Several cars had passed by on the road, invisible behind tall hedges. The sound of an engine on a summer night was unusual enough that it sounded like a roar, almost painful on the ears. It almost sounded wrong.
The fire was burning down to embers, giving just enough heat to take away the chill that crept into the twilight of even the warmest of days. A larger orange fire was visible less than a mile away. It was no longer unusual for people to travel on foot, and camp out beneath the stars. Occasionally fellow travellers tried to strike up friendships, but most stayed cautiously alone. Will was always careful to remain unseen unless he had a purpose in revealing himself.
Tonight, for the first time, he looked at this other fire with a faint sense of yearning. He was connected to the world again, no longer hiding behind huge walls and telling himself that he was happier there. He imagined himself walking the mile to the strangers' fire, introducing himself, and settling down to a few hours of chat.
No… He let out a breath, smiling sadly. Not that. Not that, not yet. Bran was all he needed for now. He was connected to the world? No, not yet, although it was beginning. He was connected to Bran. He loved again.
He looked at Bran, as he had looked at him a hundred times in the last hour. Bran had fallen asleep by the fire, his upper body leaning against his rucksack, and his head turned to one side. The light of the fire made his face look as if it was crafted from shadow and flame. His hand, curled loosely at his side, was pale and all too human. He was peaceful now, but Will knew that it would not last. Bran was dozing fitfully, troubled with dreams and imaginings that Will could not share, but knew all too well.
"I still love him." He said the words half-aloud, savouring the feel of them. It was such a remarkable, amazing thing to know that he could love again, that he did not have to face the world alone, cut off from every living thing that moved around him.
It didn't even matter if Bran could not love him back. As one of them learnt to love, the other swore to shut his feelings away behind hard walls, and never let the slightest crack appear in the stonework. Perhaps Will should feel heartbreak at this, but all he felt was contentment. He loved Bran. He didn't need that love returned. As an Old One, he had always expected his place to be as an observer, making no impression in the hearts of the mortals around him. He had never expected to be loved; feeling love was enough. It was enough to know that tendrils of feeling connected him with the world.
They were not on an Old Way, but not far away was a place that had once been important to the Light. The Light was near, like a pervasive, reassuring odour. The Wild Magic, by contrast, felt faint and far away. The lights in the distance showed that electricity supplies were working, and life, for a while at least, was approaching some semblance of what had once been normal and taken for granted.
How much of this, he wondered, was due to Bran and his actions at the stones. Had Bran inflicted a serious blow to the power of the Lord of Fairy? Bran had absorbed all the Wild Magic of the area, and, for a while, had personified it. Afterwards, though, he had renounced it. By doing so, had he caused the Wild Magic to suffer a setback? Was this respite Bran's work?
Bran stirred in his sleep, moaning quietly. Will touched his hand, keeping his touch light, barely there at all. "I think it is," he murmured. "You did this, Bran. Whatever else you did, I think this is your work, and it is good."
Bran's eyes half opened, black in the shadows. His lips parted, then closed again. There was no smile, but when he slept again, it was peaceful.
Will pulled his legs up to his chest, wrapping his arms around them. The front of his trousers felt warm from the fire, though his back was beginning to feel the chill of the summer night. He felt content, although he knew he should not. Any easing of the grip of the Wild Magic upon the earth was only a temporary respite. Lights shone in homes tonight, but tomorrow the homes could be dark again. The Lord of Fairy could return, more powerful than before, and set on revenge. Nothing had ended. There had been no gains, and no victory.
Bran was sleeping peacefully, but was deeply troubled. Horrified by what he had done, he was attempting to become something that he was not. He was denying his powers, denying his nature. A human might think that such a thing was possible, but Will knew that it was not. As soon as his own powers had awakened, there had been no way on earth that Will could be anything other than an Old One. At times, that part of his life had moved into the background, so that he was barely aware of it, but it had never vanished. It could not vanish.
He could not see what the ending would be. He had been afraid that Bran would succumb to his true nature and become his enemy. Bran now swore that he would not, but that was even worse. Better an enemy, perhaps, than someone who was denying their true nature, and locking their feelings behind a wall of cold, hard misery.
The future was dark. It could destroy Bran if he succumbed to his powers again, but there was a possibility… Will thought it slowly, staring out into the darkness, afraid even to look at Bran. There was a possibility that Will would need Bran to fall again. Bran had driven away the Lord of Fairy; Will had never done that. There was a possibility that Will would have to force Bran to become the living embodiment of his enemy, even if, by doing so, Bran would never be able to be human again.
There was a possibility that Bran would be the sacrifice.
Will touched Bran's hand, human touching human, Light touching Wild. "I love you," he whispered. But, in the end, love could not matter. That was how it had always been.
Will stood up, and walked to the edge of their camp, where the land sloped slowly away to the vale. The lights were warm and yellow, each one speaking of a family that gathered together, rejoicing in the rare gift of light. He looked at each one, and found himself imagining the people who stood behind them, each one secure in their own homes. He saw parents, and children; elderly couples, and newly-weds. He saw families, and people who lived alone, surrounded with books and memories. When he half-closed his eyes, the specks of light melted, like liquid gold flowing over the valley. He saw his mother's smile, and the look of concentration on his father's face as he read the paper. He saw his brothers and sisters, rushing down together on Christmas morning, and he saw the blank faces of the nephews and nieces that he had never seen.
"This is the calm before the storm," he heard, the words coming whispering to him with the wind. "This is the spectre of hope before the annihilation."
"Yes," he said aloud. He knew it. He knew the end was coming, and that it would be dark, but still, despite everything, he felt content. For the lights were shining in the vale, and Bran was asleep beside him, and he was in love, and that was good. No fears of the future could stop it being anything other than good.
Days drifted. He kept his white walls in place, and barely noticed that he still put one foot in front of the other, and then another, and that then, at times, he slept. He dreamt, but did not let himself remember the dreams.
Will was different; he noticed that, too. He was serene even though they walked through the shadow of darkness, and nothing would ever be right, ever again. Whenever they stopped, Will was attentive, sitting close to Bran, trying to talk to him, sometimes brushing his fingers over the back of his hand. Bran always withdrew at that, his movements stiff. A touch like that could penetrate the white walls, and that would be disastrous.
Days drifted. Sometimes they met other people, but they were just dark shapes with blank faces. Once Will even led them onto a bus, and they travelled miles in mere minutes, just like in the old days, that were not so old to Bran at all, but felt like only weeks ago. "It won't last," he heard Will say, "but we might as well take advantage of it while it does."
He wondered where they were going. He almost asked, but asking would involve a tiny sundering of the white walls. He did not want to think about the future. All he could do was concentrate on keeping out the urges that still gibbered around him, hammering on his walls. All he could do was block out everything that would cause him to fall again.
"I need to do this, Bran."
He heard the words through a fog. He blinked, and saw that they were standing on a quiet lane, alive with small insects, and thick with the scent of summer flowers. They were intensely alive, and he felt the lure of their vibrancy… Felt it… Was called by it…
No, he told himself, clenching fists at his side. The person beside him was Will, and he had once loved him, but now all love had died. All sense had died. He had to exist in a white, padded room. He could not be allowed to endanger Will, or anyone else in the world.
"I'm sorry, Bran." The hand touched his, but this time he barely felt it, only observed the scarred fingers on pale skin as if they were nothing to do with him. "After this, we'll do what we need to do for you."
He awakened a little at that. "Nothing." His voice no longer sounded like his own. "I don't need anything." Can't need anything. Can't… Can't…
"This can't go on," Will said sadly.
That made him wonder. How long had it been? Two days, he thought. Three? He played back the memories of things glimpsed beyond the white walls. Four, perhaps? Five? Maybe a week? He did not know where they were. There were glimpses of a river beyond the trees, and the track was deeply rutted from centuries of feet. It was nothing like the mountains of Wales, but something about it whispered "home." He swallowed, trembling. No, that was Will. Will was at home here, fitting into the landscape perfectly as if he belonged here. Bran was picking up Will's feelings. It was all falling, all failing.
"Yes," Will said. "I've come home." He gave a smile so genuine that Bran would have wept, had tears been safe to shed. Such a smile… For weeks, he would have given anything to see Will smile like that, but when it finally came, Bran was… broken.
He trailed along behind Will, a pale and empty shadow. "I should have done it years ago," Will was saying. "I was wrong. I think I told myself that I was protecting them, but, really, all I was doing was protecting myself. I cut myself off from everything, and told myself that I could no longer feel. I was wrong."
Bran wondered if Will was trying to goad him. Locked behind his white walls, he could not emerge. Their situations had nothing in common at all. Bran had to hide himself away, or the world would suffer. He had hurt people. He could not let himself fall again.
Will took his hand. "I would like you to be there, when I… when I meet them." Bran felt the slightest quiver in Will's hand. He was nervous, then, despite his outward serenity. "I would like them to see you."
Threads of feeling ran up Bran's arm, radiating from Will's hand. They were the tiny cracks that spread across a sheet of ice, that resulted in it shattering for ever. He pulled his hand away. "I can't…"
Will sighed. "I know. I'm sorry."
One day, Bran thought, suddenly, watching the insects with their fierce specks of life. One day, maybe, I will become so used to controlling this, that I will… that I can… that I'll be able to relax. Perhaps the white walls would become so familiar that he would no longer need to think about them. Perhaps the urges would die for lack of nourishment. Perhaps he would become fully human again. Perhaps he would be free to love, without fearing that love would lead to disaster. Perhaps… Perhaps…
But not now. Now he was in prison, locked away from the world, and any contract could lead to the end of everything.
"This is it," Will said. They had reached a house with a gate in a stone wall, all overgrown with flowering shrubs and ancient trees. Someone had tried to keep the garden in control, but it was growing wildly, and the trees were almost drowning the house. Light drowned by Wild, he thought. The ancient work of man, conquered by something still older. The trees called to him, inviting him to join in their struggle. An Old One had lived here, an enemy. This, of all places, was to be claimed.
Bran sat down stiffly on a stone beside the gate. "I'll stay outside. I don't want to… intrude."
"You wouldn't," Will said, but then he nodded, in sad understanding, and he went on alone.
Bran sat, cold rock beneath him, cold rock at his back. He heard Will's footsteps walking away from him, walking away. A knock on the door, the sound of a door opening, and then a cry, and then tears.
When he peered round past the gatepost, all he could see was a door, closed against him.
He could not stay outside forever. They invited him in, and there was dinner, and there were questions. Afterwards, he slept in a bed that had once been Will's, many years before. There was another bed in the same room, but Will did not sleep there. Will slept at the top of the house, far away, untouchable. Bran was grateful for that, and heartbroken. The night was very long, and very lonely.
"I hope you'll come back soon," Mrs Stanton said over breakfast, her eyes including both of them, but her body leaning only towards Will.
Bran wondered what Will had told her. They had been inside for an hour before Bran was invited in. Mrs Stanton's eyes had been rimmed with red, but her face was beaming. Had Will told her the entire truth? If so, how could she bear to have Bran sitting in her kitchen?
"We will," Will said gently.
He looked whole, Bran thought – healed, and entirely alive. As he gained things, Bran lost. Bran would never be able to return to his family. Bran would never be able to have friends. Will, in time, could go on to love someone else, but Bran would remain locked away behind his walls, unable to connect with anyone. It wasn't fair. How dare Will be happy? How dare the Old One…?
He dug his nails into his palm, and clutched his spoon with white knuckles. White walls. White walls. The world shimmered, misty white. After that, Will and everyone else were like actors glimpsed from afar. They said things, and they moved, but they were not truly real.
And some time later, they were on the road again, following a path beside the river.
"I needed to see them," Will said. "It's… helped. It was the right thing to do for them, as well. But seeing them… It will help me when the time comes to…"
He stopped, words snatched away to nothing. Because he doesn't trust me, Bran thought. There was no sadness to the thought any more, just acceptance. Will was right not to trust him.
The river whispered words of hatred. It shrank from the presence of the Old One on its bank. It wanted Bran to…
"Can we go somewhere else?" Bran rasped. "Somewhere more… man-made. Or on an Old Way."
Will looked at him with pity. "I thought…"
And then it was evening, and the sun was a flat red disc in the sky, devoid of life, and Bran sat with his legs crossed, thinking about nothing. Will was making a fire. "Jane isn't far away," he said, as he worked. "Do you want to…?"
He could not; he could not. Jane would hug him and hold him. She would weep over him, thinking he was just another human, returned from seven years away. She wouldn't know that she was holding the enemy in her arms. And if she asked… Perhaps he would tell her, and that would be even worse.
"Are you sure?" Will asked, settling back down as the fire flickered into life. "It would…"
The part of him that could still feel anger wanted to strike out at Will. Was Will doing this deliberately? Was he deliberately trying to put Bran into situations where Bran would be forced to feel things? Was he trying to manipulate Bran into loving him? Was he trying to break through Bran's walls, and force him to feel the Wild Magic again?
They were questions he could not ask. He envisaged an iron in his mind, and smoothed the anger away. Later, he settled down to sleep. The Wild Magic whispered in his dreams.
"Perhaps I should leave you," he said, as they walked through land that was vaguely familiar from his life before.
"Not yet," Will said, looking straight ahead.
He thought it had been around two weeks since Avebury. It was not getting any easier. If anything, it was getting harder. He had hoped that by blanking out the call of the Wild Magic, he could become human again, like he had been for most of his life. Instead, despite the white walls that he kept clamped rigidly in place, the whispers of the Wild Magic still got through.
"I'm not helping you," he said desperately. "I'm probably hindering you. And I can't… I can't give you…"
He knew what it was like to travel with someone who could not love you. He knew what it was like to be with someone who shrank from your touch. He knew the grief of hearing monosyllabic, cold answers, when all you wanted to do was talk. He had suffered it for weeks, and he could not wish that on Will. The cracks in the walls allowed him that much feeling.
"And it's me, too." He clenched his fist, his fingers aching from the familiarity of the gesture. "Maybe this will be easier if I'm… if I'm not with you."
His body still knew that it loved Will. His skin tingled when Will touched him. His heart twisted when Will smiled. Will was his fire, when all he needed was ice. Will was temptation. Will was his weakness. Will would be his downfall.
"I can go somewhere, somewhere far away. Somewhere where I don't know anyone. Somewhere where I'm all alone. That will make it easier. And then if I do… if I fall… At least I won't hurt anyone." At least I won't hurt you.
Will shook his head. The firelight on his face made him look like something alive and vibrant from the Wild Magic, although his posture was as solid and ancient as stone. "Not yet," was all he said.
He has a plan, Bran thought, and something thrilled inside him, but he clamped it down, and let the whiteness claim him.
He blinked. Awakening was slow this time. The white mist faded slowly, and the buildings around him came in like shadows, only slowly taking solid form. "Oxford," he breathed.
"Oxford." Will's face was impassive.
There were people in the streets, but they didn't look quite real. It was as if they were walking on a different layer of reality, that overlaid the one that Bran lived in, but could not touch it. They were lacking in colour, but each one, as he looked at them, grew more solid. Colours bled through them like ink in water. The buildings stepped from the shadows, and each one had memories.
He had been happy here, for such a short, magical time.
"Why?" he pleaded, his voice breaking. "The memories… Why are you doing this to me?"
"There's something I need to do here," Will said gently. "You can stay still if you want, and I'll come back for you tomorrow."
He didn't even nod. He faded out for moment, and when he returned, Will was gone, and Bran was in the ruins of a dying city, where once, so long ago, and so recently, he had been happy.
His legs gave way, and he curled up, stone at his back, and bars across his soul.
End of chapter twenty-nine