Two Worlds

by Eildon Rhymer

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Will and Bran meet up again as students in Oxford, but an unexpected enemy is stirring, and nothing will be the same again, for two young men, or for the world.

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Chapter one: First contact

 

Someone was watching him.

 

Will placed one hand on the wall, grounding himself on the ancient stability of stone. The other hand he kept ready, in case he needed to defend himself. He closed his eyes, deliberately blinding himself to human sight.

 

Someone was staring at him. He felt their regard like a thorn in the flesh. It was trying to work inside him, to poison him from within, to rot his flesh, to weaken his mind.

 

But you cannot, he murmured. I am more than you think I am.

 

He opened his eyes, blinking in the early autumn sunshine. It felt changed from just a minute before. The sunshine was brighter, but there was an edge in the breeze that made him want to shiver. People drifted behind him, and ran laughing across the meadow below, but they did not seem quite real. Like ghosts, he thought, but maybe that was the thing speaking to him, putting the words into his head. He was being drawn.

 

Come to us.

 

He was being challenged.

 

Or we will destroy you.

 

He shook his head briskly. How had this happened? It was three days into the new term, and he had come into the College gardens to let his mind wander in the sunshine. The Meadows were full of families. Hidden beyond the trees, people played on the river. In a hundred little rooms, freshers played their dance of friendship: meeting people, drinking coffee, trying to find a place to fit in.

 

He had seen their faces, nervous in the lunch queue, full of bravado outside the bar. Sometimes he felt as if he knew everything about every one of them. Sometimes, every one of them was a stranger to him. He could not comprehend what they were feeling. He could not comprehend what it felt like to be alive.

 

He blinked. Yet again the world shifted. Hazy sunshine in early October. A new term in Oxford. The Meadows were a green canvas, framed with bronze. Leaves were falling. New life, and old. Leaves; bare branches; and, beyond that, winter.

 

"Who are you?" he breathed. "Where are you?"

 

Stone beneath his fingers. Will curled his fingertips into the wall, feeling the soothing, reassuring power that resided in all buildings that had endured through Time. Someone was watching him – that much he knew. Someone who was more than human? He thought so, but perhaps it was just his imagination. He was an Old One, but he was also human, and he had not slept well the night before, alone in his room while his neighbour was having a party.

 

He sent his vision outwards, studying all the people spread before him on the canvas that was the Meadow. A little girl with blonde hair, laughing up at a kite. Two freshers, sweltering proudly in their new College scarves. Novice rowers returning from practice, their cheeks flushed red, holding their hands as if their palms hurt. A girl reading poetry beneath a tree. A family valiantly enjoying a picnic, despite the cold breeze sweeping in from the Isis.

 

His eyes swept over them; none of them looked back. He stared at them; none of them stared back. People passed behind him on the wall, but no-one lingered. No-one showed any interest. No-one ever had.

 

Pollen drifted to him on the air, sweet and cloying - someone must have brushed against a heavy flower. The sun felt hotter than ever, but the breeze was as cold as ice. Across the Meadow, brown leaves fell in a flurry. The girl beneath the tree had gone, as had the girl with the kite. The family with the picnic were packing up.

 

I will find you, Will vowed. He reached out deeper. The people disappeared, like the transient beings that they were - nothing compared to the ancient life of the Earth, and the ever more vast expanse of Time. He heard the music of the river. He felt the magic of the soil, throbbing with things unknown to man. He felt the death that lurked in every leaf, and the life that nestled in every seed. He felt the magic of making, and the song of Time. He stared into the Earth…

 

And the Earth stared back.

 

Will faded. In the far distant place where his body resided, he felt himself falling. He hauled his awareness back, trying to be no more than mortal, to seem no more than mortal. "Are you all right?" Stone beneath his hands, stone at his back. He was slumped on the ground, half-sitting against the ancient wall. Someone was standing over him, a huge dark figure blocking out the light. Then he blinked, and the figure moved, and became just a student who had helped him.

 

Just a student…?  No, oh no… Will stopped breathing. Not just a student. Not just a boy. Not just a man.

 

Bran recognised him a moment later. In that moment, Will felt as if he had already died and been reborn a dozen times.

 

"Will? Will Stanton?"

 

He had to speak; he had to. "Bran."

 

"You. Here. I didn't… I didn't recognise you. I didn't…"

 

"I didn't…" The same words. Foolish words. What were words? The right words had power. These were foolish, tiny things, like scraps of paper, that did nothing to show what lay beneath.

 

"Will…" Bran almost touched Will's shoulder, then withdrew his hand. "Are you…?"

 

Will forced himself to forget everything. If there was one thing he was a master at, it was hiding. He wore masks as other men wore smiles. "I'm fine," he said. "I didn't eat earlier. I just got a bit dizzy, that's all."

 

"But you… You. Here." Bran was shaking his head in amazement. He sat down next to Will, back against the wall, as if sitting here was the most natural thing in the world. "How are you settling in?"

 

"It's my second year," Will told him. "I skipped a year at school. I thought I'd told you. It happened before…"

 

He stopped. Before I stopped seeing you, he finished silently. Before I made my excuses and walked away and never came back. Three years ago, when they were both fifteen. Before then, he had visited Bran twice a year. Bran had no memories of the adventures they had shared, but they had forged a new friendship out of the ashes of his ignorance. They had been friends, and Will had walked away. How could Bran bear to speak to him now?

 

"Ah, yes." Bran shrugged. "I remember. So you're a big, important second-year now. As for me, I'm just a humble fresher. I'm completely lost and confused, of course." He said it cheerfully, in a way that showed it was anything but the truth.

 

"You're here?" Will asked. "At Merton?"

 

"Oh no." Bran shook his head. "Jesus, actually. Yes, yes, I know it's a cliché – the Welsh College, and all, but what can you do? They offered, I accepted, and here I am."

 

"Then why…?" Will asked. Why did you come here and find me, just when things are going wrong? How did you come to be there to catch me when I fell?

 

"A friend," Bran explained. "Rob. My only friend so far, actually. You know how it is. We happened to be standing next to each other in the lunch queue on the first day, and got talking, and have been inseparable ever since. He wanted to visit some girl he used to know who's at Merton, and asked me to come along. Well, it turns out that he'd far rather talk to her than to me. After I'd been ignored for half an hour, I just left. I doubt they've even noticed yet."

 

"I'm sorry," Will said uselessly.

 

"Don't be." Bran shrugged. "It was just one of those things. You know how it is. People get thrown together by chance on the first day, but it doesn't really last. It takes a while to find your real friends."

 

It was true. Will had observed it the year before. He was just surprised to hear Bran speaking about it with such insight, and so lightly. What had happened to Bran? He had changed. This Bran was secure and confident. He was happy, Will realised.

 

And that was what he had wanted. Surely that was what he had wanted. Will had walked away because of… because of many things. His worst fear was always that he had broken Bran because of it. In his darkest dreams, he had left Bran isolated, abandoned by his only friend. So it was a good thing to find Bran so secure and at peace with himself. It could not be anything other than good.

 

"Don't look so sad for me," Bran chided him. "We didn't really have anything in common, anyway, except for reading history."

 

"I… I'm reading history," Will said, because he had to say something.

 

"I thought you would be," Bran said. He was silent for a moment. "Actually, it's because of you that I chose history. You kept on going on about the history of where I lived, pulling out all these obscure little facts. It started an interest. I even started looking forward to school, and… well, to cut a long story short, here I am."

 

"Yes," Will echoed. "Here you are."

 

"So…" Bran nudged him. "If you're a year ahead of me, you can help me with all my essays. I bet you did well. You never boasted about it, but I always knew you were a bit of a genius."

 

Will felt himself blush. He was an Old One, and he was here sitting on the ground because he had fallen in a battle with some unknown enemy. That mattered, he told himself. That mattered, not this. He was not a child, to be flustered by the things people said. He was not a human, to care.

 

"I'm just joking," Bran said, suddenly serious. "You know, I don't think it was fair to make you skip a year. You should be starting this year, along with me."

 

Most adults were impressed when they heard he had come to Oxford one year early. Many of his contemporaries resented him a little because of it. No-one likes to be beaten by someone younger. But he had seldom really thought about it. He was set apart already. This was just one more thing adding to it, and the least important one of all. At least it provided a reason that other people could understand.

 

"You must have been lonely," Bran said, "suddenly stuck in a different class, away from all your friends. But you didn't say. You never said."

 

"I…" Will swallowed. "Why are you saying this?" he managed. They had been three years apart. Their parting had been vexed, riddled with lies. Will had expected anger or hurt. At the very least, he had expected an awkward exchange of small-talk, in which nothing real was said. But this… This is not me, he thought. This is not Bran.

 

"You taught me, you know." Bran was speaking now in an almost-dreamy voice, staring up at the mottled sky above the trees. "That's why I'm here now. They laughed at me when I was young, you know that. I almost let them win. I almost came to believe that I was a freak, and that no-one would ever like me. But then you came. You were my friend, and in a thousand different ways, you urged me to be strong. And so I did. They only laughed at me because I let them, I realised. So I went to school with my head high, I worked hard, and I did well. They said I was a freak, but I'd prove them wrong. And you know what? They stopped laughing at me. Within a few months, they were begging me to be their friend."

 

Will had absolutely no idea what to say. It wasn't the story, it was the way Bran was telling it. It was the fact that he was telling it at all. Will was the immortal, but he felt like a clumsy child next to Bran.

 

Bran had changed so much in three years. He had blossomed and become a confident young man. And Will, who had walked away and left him, was floundering and lost, felled by an unknown enemy, and felled by a friend.


"Well…" Bran stood up, brushing the dust from his hands. "I suppose I should go back and see if they've noticed I've gone yet. But I'll see you again?" There might have been the faintest tremor in his voice as he asked his question.

 

There was no way Will could say no, not without breaking things that could not be broken. He tried to remember why he had walked away last time. He tried to believe all that, but he could not, not this time. "Yes," he said, and closed his eyes when Bran had gone.

 

Soon, whispered something that might not have been his heart.

 

******

 

Bran bumped into Rob at the foot of the staircase. "Where did you go?" Rob looked faintly annoyed.

 

"I needed some fresh air." Bran kept his hands clenched in his pockets, so Rob would not see that they were still trembling. "I went for a walk in the gardens." Rob still looked a bit put-out, so Bran added, "I was feeling rather… in the way. You were talking about people I don't know. I thought it would be better if I left you alone for a bit."

 

"I want my old friends and my new friends to get on with each other." Perhaps it was meant as a rebuke, or perhaps not.

 

They started walking back to the Porter's Lodge. Bran could not resist casting a quick glance in the direction of the gardens, in case he saw Will. Which room was his? Where did he spend his time? Who were his friends? He wanted to know. He could not believe this. Will, here! Of all the people he had known in his life, Will was the only one whom he had felt he could tell anything to. He had not seen him for three years, and now… and now…

 

He tried to still his hands. One after the other, Bran and Rob stepped through the narrow gate into Merton Street, and side by side, they walked along the bumpy cobbles. Rob started talking about this and that. Bran nodded when he was supposed to nod, and agreed when he was supposed to agree. Rob showed no sign of noticing his distraction.

 

"I met someone," Bran said, when there was a brief pause in Rob's monologue.

 

"Oh?" They paused when they reached High Street, waiting for the lights to let them cross. "A girl?"

 

The green light came on. They crossed the road, swept along by a crowd of students and shoppers, as bikes weaved between them. A group of Japanese tourists milled around on the opposite side, taking pictures of the church.

 

"A boy," Bran said. "Someone I used to know. I didn't know he was at Oxford." But I hoped. I guessed. Something he said once. I remember everything, every tiniest word. "I just happened to bump into him."

 

"Oh?" They crossed the square, snaking through groups of tourists. "I've only been here for three days, and I'm fed up with them already," Rob remarked, nodding at the nearest chattering group.

 

"I don't mind them," Bran said. He would have minded once. Once, he would have been so sure that they were all staring at him. He would have joined his father in flapping at the tourists and shouting at them to go away, to get off his land, to go home and let them live their lives in peace. He knew he had changed so much in the last six years, and Will was the cause. And he doesn't even know it, he thought, remembering how Will had looked in the garden. He has no idea.

 

"So this friend, then?" Rob asked, as they reached their College gate. "Are you going to be hanging around with him now?"

 

Bran thought for a moment, then decided on honesty. Honesty was always best. That was something else he had resolved once, and always tried to stick to. He would confess the truth without embarrassment, and without apology. Let people take him for what he was, because he refused to be anything else.

 

"I hope so," he said.

 

"Oh." Bran had his back turned, and was reaching into his pigeon hole, pulling out a note. He could not see Rob's face, but he could tell from his tone of voice that he was not pleased.

 

"But you're still up for going to pub tonight?" Rob said stiffly.

 

Bran opened the note, read it through, and felt himself smiling. "No," he said, still smiling. "I'll pass. I've got a date."

 

******

 

Will drifted through the quad, some time after dinner, but before it was late enough to go to bed. The garden called him, dark shapes in a darker sky. Something had been there, calling him, challenging him.

 

Bran.

 

Perhaps it had been nothing. Perhaps it had been Bran's proximity, for Bran was still a being of magic, even though he would never remember it, and never again wield powers. Perhaps it had been nothing more than his imagination, for he was so very tired. Sleeplessness had plagued him throughout the summer, and followed him to Oxford. The frailties of a mortal body could undo even the strongest of the Old Ones.

 

No. He turned away from the dark archway into the garden. Not now. Not tonight. He would stay where there was light. Stone beneath his feet, stone all around him, and not a hint of greenery and wildness. People chattering in fellowship, and light - lights in so many windows, squares of warmth in the ancient stone.

 

Bran was here. Bran had come.

 

"Hey, Will!" A voice called out to him, a tall shape leaning in a doorway. "Had a good summer?"

 

Will nodded, smiled, said the right words. "Okay, I suppose. I was at home. I didn't do much."

 

"But it's fun to relax, eh?" The student smiled – older than Will by a year, but younger in so many ways. "It's good to be back, though, isn't it? You coming to the bar? Saturday night, the start of term, and all that. It starts for real next week."

 

Will smiled, and shook his head. "Headache," he said. It was not entirely a lie.

 

"Well, see you around." The figure disappeared into the light, and was embraced by warmth and voices.

 

Jason, Will remembered. He knew the secret name of every star in the sky, but could not always remember the names of people who were supposed to be his friends. Jason had been friendly on Will's first day, and had never quite forgotten that friendship. Perhaps he felt sorry for Will. In his first term, Will alone had not been old enough to go into the College bar and make friends over a pint. Not that it made much difference. He was old enough now, but still never went.

 

Will wandered back the way he had come, and into the Porters' Lodge. There were no messages for him in his pigeon hole. Really, what had he expected. It was only four hours since they had met. Too soon. Too soon… And Will had been the one to walk away, and Bran was the one who ought to hate him for it, if he cared at all.

 

"Sister had her baby yet?" asked one of the porters. Months before, he had taken the excited phone message from Will's mother, and put the note into his pigeon hole. Clearly he liked delivering happy news; maybe he just liked to talk.

 

Will shook his head. "It's due in December." Perhaps it would even be born at Midwinter, on the day when the dark was strongest. That was Barbara's child, her first. None of his other siblings had children yet. They were off exploring the world, mapping out their fates. He wondered what it would be like to have a choice about what you became.

 

He headed back through the quad. "Evening, Will," remarked a girl, struggling by with her arms full of papers.

 

Will nodded. "Hello, Emily." She had been his tutorial partner during his first term, and it seemed to be recognised by everyone that they were rivals for the position of top history undergraduate in their College. Emily reacted to this as if it made them soul-mates. Will thought the concept of rivalry was meaningless.

 

"I'm on the committee of the history society," Emily said proudly. "We're getting ready for Freshers' Fair. Hopefully we'll get lots of new members." She wrestled with some papers that wanted to escape. Will saw that they were photocopied fliers advertising the society's first meeting of the term. "Are you sure you don't want to join? It's such fun. You'll get to meet such interesting people."

 

Smiling, Will shook his head.

 

"Oh well." Emily shrugged. "Maybe later."

 

"Maybe later," Will echoed.

 

He decided to go to the College library. He doubted any other undergraduates would be there on the night before term started for real. Tomorrow was the start of "First Week." Undergraduates were expected to arrive half way through the week before, which was quaintly called "Noughth Week." It had made him smile the first time he had heard the phrase. Now, all of a sudden, it made him shiver.

 

Noughth Week. As if even Time itself does not exist. The calm before the storm. Tomorrow, it all begins.

 

The library quad was as quiet and otherworldly as ever. It was the oldest quad in the university, and, in common with most such ancient places, it had its own ghost story. Will knew that ghosts did not exist, not in the way that popular culture described them, but places that had been inhabited for a long time had their own magic and power. He shivered every time he entered the library. It was a power that did not always make him feel welcome.

 

"Ah, Will," a hearty voice sounded from behind him.

 

Will suppressed his surprise, and turned round, as still and placid as he always tried to be. It was Dr Petersen, the senior history Fellow. Dr Petersen had been Will's tutor two terms before.

 

"Well done on your Mods," Petersen congratulated him. "Excellent work, Will. I hope to get to teach you again some time, but of course that depends on what options you take."

 

"I haven't decided yet," Will said.

 

"Plenty of time to decide on your specialism yet," Petersen remarked. Like everyone else, he seemed to have decided that Will was destined for a career in academia. Perhaps he was. Will could think of nothing else that he could do. He would find a little room in a quiet, forgotten quad, and lose himself in ancient books while the centuries turned around him.

 

"Yes," Will murmured. "Plenty of time."

 

Petersen walked on. He smelled of port and tobacco, and he was dressed for a party.

 

Will watched him go. Then, quietly, he let himself into the empty library, where books held the secret thoughts of humankind.

 

Something brushed his shoulder as he entered; something almost-whispered in his ear. But when he turned round, nothing was there.

 

He headed for a table, and stared at black words dancing on a page. Far away, he thought he heard someone laugh, in a voice that was not human, and was not kind.

 

******

 

End of chapter one

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Chapter two: Many meetings

 

"Come in," she called, when he knocked at her door. "It's unlocked."

 

Bran turned the handle. Jane was already rising to greet him. "It is you." She came towards him, flapping her hands awkwardly. "I never know what to do with my hands. Shaking hands seems so stupidly grown-up, but hugging… I wasn't brought up to do that. But you have to do something, don't you?"

 

"Say hello?" Bran offered. "Say it's good to see you?"

 

"Yes." Jane gestured to the second chair in her room. "Sit down, if you like. Do you want coffee?"

 

Bran settled down in the chair. It was not quite as uncomfortable as the one in his room. "Yes, please."

 

Jane went to the sink to fill the kettle. "It's strange, isn't it?" she said. "I've never had to do this hostess thing. Mum always did that. But suddenly we're out in the big, wide world. We have to do all the polite things that our parents always used to do."

 

Bran smiled. "No need to be polite with me."

 

Jane picked up a mug, and peered into it. Wrinkling her nose, she went back to the sink to wash it.  "You know, I've never drunk so much coffee in my life," she said, over the noise of running water and the steadily-growing rumble of the kettle. "I don't even like it much. I think it must be standard student getting-to-know-you ritual. 'Do you want to come round for coffee?' I think coffee must be coming out of my ears by now."

 

"And red wine, the cheapest in the shop" Bran added. "Have you had that yet?"

 

"And the milk." Jane opened her window and grabbed the half-empty carton of milk that was perching precariously on her windowsill. "Everyone does it," she admitted sheepishly. "I don't really know why. It keeps it cold in the winter, I suppose, but it's still quite warm, and I get full afternoon sun on my windowsill." She giggled. "I wonder if anyone's milk has ever fallen off and landed on someone's head."

 

"Jane," Bran said, when she had handed him the steaming mug of coffee. "Jane," he said again, when she had settled herself down in her chair, "you don't have to be nervous of me."

 

She looked at him seriously. "But I do. This is the first time I've really met you, after all. All those letters…"

 

"All those letters were me," Bran said. "All those letters were you. There's no reason why it should be any different, now we're face to face."

 

"But there is." Jane picked up her mug in both hands, and blew over the top of the liquid. "I'm better in writing than in real life. I don't find all this easy."

 

"No-one does," Bran said. "And you're doing yourself a disservice, Jane. Remember all those boys who were queuing up to go out with you at school? All those friends? Head girl, no less. Now why on earth would you think I wouldn't want to spend time with you?"

 

They had learnt honesty through the long years of their correspondence. At first, there had been Will, and Jane had just been someone Bran occasionally wrote letters to, but after Will had left, there had only been Jane. Bran had talked to her about almost everything. Only one thing had he kept a secret.

 

"I'm just nervous," Jane admitted. "Your letters have meant so much to me. I was terrified that we wouldn't get on in real life, and it would ruin everything."

 

Bran couldn't remember quite why he and Jane had started to exchange letters. It had come out of that Welsh holiday six years ago, when he had spent a few days with her family, and with Will. Bran had thought her pretty, he remembered that. She had listened to him seriously when he had started to talk about things he did not normally talk about, and they had exchanged addresses.

 

For a few years, it was just occasional notes at Christmas and on birthdays, but the letters had grown longer the year they were fifteen. Jane had just started going out with her first boyfriend, and she wrote rather tentatively to Bran, as if she feared he would be jealous. Bran had considered things very briefly, and realised that he was not jealous at all, and it had grown from there. Jane, he thought, liked having a safe male friend she could confide in. As for him, writing to Jane went some way towards filling the gap in his life after Will stopped visiting. Everyone needed someone to confide in, after all.

 

"I know what you mean," he admitted. Perhaps he would even have been nervous himself, had he not met Will earlier in the day. With Will he was terrified and giddy, excited and calm. With Jane, it felt like taking up quietly with an old friend, and slotting in, knowing that nothing could go wrong.

 

Jane took a sip of her coffee, and laid it down with a grimace. "See what I mean? I never liked coffee. But I have to practice if I'm to be a proper student."

 

"No need," Bran said. "If you want to drink orange squash and Horlicks, just do it. People try too hard to fit in. If other people don't like what you do, then that's their problem."

 

"I was joking." Jane pushed her hair back, smirking. "I just wanted to know if you were like that in real life, too – taking things too seriously, I mean."

 

"I'm not," Bran protested. That was Will. Will was the one who be desperately earnest even in the face of the funniest joke in the world. Bran wasn't…

 

"And that's the face!" Jane cried triumphantly. "That's the face I always imagined you doing, when I teased you in my letters."

 

Bran wondered if he should sulk. He was not used to being teased.

 

"I'm sorry." Jane looked a little contrite, but a smile was still trying to escape from the sides of her mouth. "I'll do the polite hostess things again. How are you settling into Oxford?"

 

"Fine so far," Bran said. He looked down into his coffee, at the fractured refection staring back at him. He looked at his pale hands on the mug, and then at the worn carpet at his feet. "Do you remember Will?" he blurted out. "Will Stanton? He used to visit his uncle, and he was there when you… when we…"

 

"Of course I remember Will." Jane smiled. "A quiet boy. Simon never liked him, but I rather did. We bumped into him in Cornwall once, too, and then in Wales, with you. It was one of those strange coincidence things."

 

Bran's coffee started to quiver. He put it down carefully on the scraped coffee table. "He's here. At Merton. I saw him today."

 

"Really?" Jane said. "That's nice. I'd like to meet him one day, for old times' sake."

 

"Yes," Bran echoed. "For old times' sake."

 

He had never told Jane about Will; that was his secret. In all their letters, he had never breathed a word. He had no idea why. When Will had gone home for the very last time, Bran had several times almost written to Jane about him, but every time had thrown the letter away, unsent. Perhaps he had thought that Jane would be jealous. Perhaps, at first, he had kept silent because he was jealous, afraid that Jane would prefer Will to him. Maybe it was because he did not care. Maybe it was because he cared too much. He did not know, but now he spoke.

 

"We met a few times," he said tentatively, "over the years, but not for a while now. This was the first time we’ve met for three years."

 

But Jane was already moving on. "So, is anyone at your College particularly handsome?" She rolled the words, and rolled her eyes. "Anyone you'd like to introduce to us poor souls in our all-girl College?"

 

"You said you'd chosen St Hilda's deliberately," Bran reminded her. "What was it you said? Something about far too long spent sharing a house with two teenage boys, and having to endure their Neanderthal friends following you around with their tongues hanging out."

 

"Yes," Jane conceded, "but I'm not asking for myself, but for my friends, the poor things.

 

"I'll keep an eye open, then," Bran promised, with a laugh, and they settled down to talk through the night.

 

******

 

He was supposed to be writing an essay, but his pen had been poised for minutes, lost somewhere between a 'however' and a phrase. He was gazing out of the window, at things beyond the blurred veil of a day's rain. Everything was distorted. Life shattered, and the shards melted into nothingness, all one grey.

 

The knock at his door made him raise his head. He tried to speak, but his lips shaped no sound. He cleared his throat, and tried again. "Come in."

 

The door opened. It was Bran. Will's pen drew a shaky line on the paper. He placed it down carefully, and smiled. "How did you find me?"

 

"I asked someone." Bran shut the door, and leant against it, hands behind his back. "A girl scurrying earnestly off to the library. She asked me if I wanted to join the History Society."

 

"Ah. Emily." Will grimaced. "Did you say yes?"

 

"I said I'd think about it. I said that to everyone. There's so many things you can join – rooms and rooms of stalls at Freshers' Fair. How on earth do you decide?" Bran seemed to hesitate just for a moment, before asking, "Are you in any of them?"

 

Rain smeared the window, a curtain against the world. Nothing existed but the two of them, in this little room. Bran's hair was dry, as if he had stepped in from another world, and the reality outside the window had nothing to do with him.

 

"No," Will said. "I didn't join anything." He swallowed, and gestured to the solitary comfortable chair in the room. "Do you want to sit down?"

 

Bran did so. A brown leaf was stuck to the side of his shoe. Dark puddles had splashed the hems of his trousers, and his hands looked pale and cold. "I don't want to do drama," Bran said. "I can't sing. Maybe I should start protesting against something, and go on marches. That's what students are supposed to do, isn't it? But I feel like joining something really silly, like the Monty Python Society, or something."

 

Will raised his eyebrow. "Dead parrots?"

 

"King Arthur and the Knights Who Say Ni," Bran chuckled, and Will had to look away, because it hurt, to hear Bran so casually speak the name of the man who was his father. Bran had lost so much, and would never know it.

 

"But I'm interrupting you," Bran said. His voice was different now, flatter. "You're trying to work."

 

"It can wait," Will assured him. Things unseen called to him from the grey beyond the veil of rain. He turned his back on them, to focus on the here, on the now, on Bran. "Henry VII," he explained. "I've been day-dreaming. I haven't written a word for a good ten minutes." He stood up, and went to sit on the bed. "So, how are you settling in?"

 

"It's a bit overwhelming," Bran admitted. "I had my first tutorial. Now that wasn't what I was expecting. We debated for an hour, before deciding that I knew nothing whatsoever about the Anglo-Saxons. Then he gave me an essay title that I didn't understand, and a terrifying book list, and that's it. I've got to read the books, write the essay, and report back in a week, when he can reveal that I now know a little bit more about the Anglo-Saxons, but nothing at all about the Vikings."

 

Will smiled.

 

"And the libraries," Bran exclaimed. "I've spent half the week working out where all the libraries are and getting tickets. There's my College library – that's easy enough. Then the History Faculty library, and the Bodleian… Before they let me in, they made me swear a solemn oath not to kindle flame in the library, and in Latin, too."

 

"Not in Latin, Bran," Will said, with a smile. "Remember I went through all this only a year ago, not a century ago."

 

"Well, it may as well have been Latin," Bran said. "And there's all these words to learn. Sub-fusc. Battels. Why don't they just call them accounts, like normal people?"

 

"I don't know, Bran." Will was still smiling.

 

Bran let out a breath. "Will…" He closed his eyes, opened them again. Will had been moving his hand, bringing it up to rub his brow, but he froze. Very slowly, the hand lowered again, and he sat very still, hardly daring to breathe. "People say boys aren't supposed to talk about… well, about… about things. Feelings. Friendships. But that seems silly, don't you think? What's wrong with talking about things that are real? Why blunder on in confusion just because we're scared that people will laugh at us?"

 

"I…" Will moistened his lips. "I don't know what…"

 

"You stopped visiting three years ago." Bran's voice was low and quiet, but he was staring at the floor. "You said… You told me you wouldn't be coming any more, that you were going to get a job in the holidays and wouldn't have any more free time."

 

Will remembered to breathe. He could feel the greyness outside the window, dark and heavy, and a huge world outside, but this, within.

 

"Maybe it was true," Bran said. "I didn't know. I thought… Perhaps, I thought, you just didn't like me any more. Maybe you didn't want us to be friends any more, but didn't know how to tell me. Maybe you didn't dare tell me the truth, or maybe you wanted to protect me from it. For your sake, or for mine? I don't know."

 

No, Will thought. Oh no. Don't think that. Oh, please, don't think that. I wanted…

 

"But I decided something." Bran looked at Will for the first time. Will wondered what he was seeing. Someone mired in lies, who could not speak. Someone encased in greyness, caught in its encroaching grip. "I decided to believe you. I could have felt angry, I could have felt hurt, but I decided not to. I would act as if you had meant nothing more than you said – that you couldn't come and visit for a few years, because you had no time."

 

Will felt pinned in place. Oh, Bran, you deserved far better than me as a friend. I will never be worthy of you.

 

"And then I saw you," Bran said. His voice was almost bright. "I stood there and watched you for ages, that day we met in the garden. Oh, I know I pretended that I hadn't recognised you, but of course I had. I saw you, and…" His composure trembled, and he brought his hands to his face, exhaling into them, then lowered them again. "No-one likes to push themselves forward when they're not wanted. I almost turned and left. But I didn't."

 

Everything hung suspended on this moment. "Why not?" It was not even a sound, just a shape made with his lips.

 

"Because I wanted to believe that you told the truth," Bran said, looking straight at him. "And so I approached you, and talked to you. I came to see you today. But I won't do it again."

 

Will felt he was drowning; the fingers of rain reaching in and smothering him, locking him in the place where that distant voice called to him, and challenged him, and claimed him.

 

"I need the truth, Will," Bran said. "If you never want to see me again, you need to tell me. If you walk away a second time, I won't come back. I just need to know."

 

"What?" Still a breath without a sound.

 

"When you left last time, was it because you didn't want us to be friends any more?" Bran had been so brave, but now his voice trembled and he looked like the boy he had once been, desperate for a father's love. "Was it because you didn't like me?"

 

"No." Will found his voice. "It was never that, Bran – never that."

 

Bran let out a shuddering breath. "I won't talk about it again. I won't ask… why. It's enough." He passed his hand over his face, and shook himself. "There! Now, shall we go and have a drink, or what?"

 

Will nodded without even hearing what he was agreeing to. He rose in a daze, and headed out from the greyness, into a dusk that smelled of leaves and flowers.

 

******

 

"Beer?" Bran asked, reaching for his wallet. "Or something else?"

 

"Um… Beer, I think." Will looked a bit dazed. "I'll get it."

 

"No, no," Bran assured him. "It's my round. You can get the next one."

 

The drinks came, and they took them to their seats. Bran took a long swig, and sat back with a sigh. It had been far harder than he had expected, saying the things he had said in Will's room. It had been hard enough to visit him in the first place, although he had pretended that it was easy. Perhaps that was why he had chosen to call around unannounced. He had half-expected Will to be out. Perhaps he had even hoped it, a little.

 

Will sipped his beer almost tentatively. Bran watched him glance around the bar, nodding at a few people, and smiling at others. No-one wandered up to chat, but they seemed friendly enough.

 

Did he have a particular friend, Bran wondered suddenly. He took another swig of beer, to hide the reaction on his face. It had never occurred to him to wonder before now. But Will had been here for a year. He was not a newcomer, like Bran, with his life a blank canvas to be filled in any way he wished. He had a life. He had friends, with claims on him. Perhaps he even had a girlfriend.

 

Bran put his pint down. From the juke-box, a song started playing, something about loss and loneliness. It was a song for the end of a maudlin night, when the drink tore tears from the eyes of even the most cheerful.

 

"How…?" He did not know how to ask it. He had already asked far too much today.  He had started every conversation, made every approach. Will had said that he wanted… Will had said…

 

"Have you had dinner?" Will asked.

 

"A snack," Bran said. "It was all I wanted. I've not done this formal dinner thing yet. It looks… strange. Not something for us humble Welsh boys from the mountains."

 

"The food's good here." Will stared into his pint. His hair was tousled from the breeze, and his cheeks were flushed. "Perhaps you'd like to come. Early supper, or formal… Or not."

 

"I'd like that." Bran smiled. The smile did not want to fade, so he took another drink to hide it.

 

"I didn't feel like going out," Will said. "I had toast. My Mum would hate to hear it. She was particularly concerned that I wasn't going to eat properly, and have three properly balanced meals, like a good boy."

 

The song swelled louder. The singer sounded as if his voice was cracking with tears, and violins joined the minor guitar. Bran tried not to think about the fact that he had no mother. He tried to forget that his father had sent him off with a few mumbled words, and nothing more. There was love there, he knew that, but it was never said. It was so different from how Bran had become. He liked to say those things that mattered, and to hear them said.

 

"How's your family?" Bran asked.

 

"You really want to hear a list?" Will smiled. "They're all well. They're out doing things. Studying, jobs, settling down. I think it hit Mum and Dad hard when James and I both left in the same year, but we all go back at Christmas, and I was there all summer. They'll never really be alone."

 

There was sadness there in his voice; Bran saw it. He saw it despite the smile that covered it. I wonder if anyone else would, he thought, unexpectedly.

 

The song ended. Someone else put on a lively song, with a chorus that demanded to be sung. "Thank God!" someone shouted. Bran saw toes tapping, but no-one joined in. It was too early in the evening. People were drinking, but not drunk. There were empty seats, though people were coming in all the time.

 

They spoke about history for a while, Will giving Bran hints and suggestions to help him settle in to the Oxford system. This led to story-telling, and soon they were reminiscing about the past. "Do you remember…?" Bran said often, and Will always nodded quietly, and said that he did. "And then I said… And then you said…," and sometimes Will smiled, and sometimes he shook his head indulgently, and said, "I never did, Bran", but Bran said that it was only a story, and pretended to sulk.

 

Will bought them both a second drink. The bar was full now, and they had to speak loudly to hear each other over the crowds and the music. Smoke hung thickly against the ceiling, and the windows were thick with steam. Empty glasses got taken away, and fresh ones were fetched. Still no-one came up to talk to Will, but several people nodded to him.

 

 "Shall we go somewhere else?" Bran said impulsively, waggling his almost-empty pint. "Somewhere quieter – less studenty." He wrinkled his nose. "I bet it's going to be smoky here soon, too."

 

"If you like." Will drained his glass. When he stood up, he staggered a little. "Where?"

 

"I don't know." Bran held the door open for Will. It was no longer raining outside, although the ground was still covered with puddles, and muddy leaves were piled in wet drifts at the edges of the quad. "You're the one who's been here a year," Bran reminded him. "You should know the good places to drink."

 

Will took a few steps out of the sheltering arch, and stopped. He looked up at the sky, and Bran looked, too, the two of them standing side by side, gazing up. Clear patches floated in the grey cloud, dark blue and speckled with stars. "I really should learn their names one day," Bran murmured. "The stars, I mean. I saw enough of them in Wales. I knew them by shape, enough to get home by them, but I never knew their names."

 

"I know them," Will said quietly. "It doesn't help." The last was a whisper, almost too quiet to hear. Then he turned to Bran almost fiercely. "I don't know any good pubs," he said. "I've never been to any. That was my first time in the bar, too."

 

"Your first time?" Bran raised his eyebrows.

 

"You forget I was a year younger than everyone else." Will looked down at the ground. "I was too young to drink."

 

"Not that anyone would have known," Bran said. "A student, hanging out with students… No landlord in Oxford would refuse to serve you. And, besides, your birthday's in December. You were properly legal and above-board for two terms last year."

 

"But you need…" Will sighed, and started walking a little unsteadily in the wrong direction, away from the lodge.

 

"Have you ever had a drink before?" Bran asked, struck with a sudden thought.

 

"Not often," Will admitted. "A bit of wine at family parties. James took me out to the pub at New Year. He said it was the celebrate me being legal at last – a proper man. But that was with his friends from school. I only had a pint."

 

"Such an innocent." Bran nudged Will with his elbow. "I think I'm going to have to corrupt you to my debauched ways." Will did not laugh, and Bran felt himself blush, hidden in the darkness. "Not that there were many chances to drink back in the wilds of Wales, and my Da… I talked him into letting me do certain things, but he's still strict Chapel. I don't want you to get the wrong idea, Will. I was only teasing."

 

"I know." Will smiled, but he looked tired, distracted. "I don't mind. In fact, I…" He stopped. He was walking away from the lights and the people, towards the garden. He looked distracted – as if he was following someone's call, Bran thought, without really knowing it.

 

"Will…" Bran tried to grab Will's arm. At the same time, Will almost stumbled, and their shoulders collided, and their hands brushed. It burnt like fire; it froze like ice. Bran drew his hand away, as the stars looked down from the sky, trembling.

 

"I'm sorry." Will brought his hand to his brow. Bran watched the movement, watched the hand, watched the brown hair brushing the fingers. "I think I'm drunk. Two pints. A lightweight, I know, but I'm not used to it. I… shouldn't be." He lowered his hand. Bran watched that, too. "I can't be."

 

"Do you want to sit down quietly in the garden?" Bran asked gently. "The fresh air will help. Or we can go to your room. Let's forget about the pub, shall we?"

 

Will was quiet for a very long time. He's listening to something, Bran thought. Listening to something I can't hear. He shook his head. Maybe he, too, was more affected by the drink than he had thought. "I do need to go to the garden," Will murmured, "although I…"

 

He set off again, but this time his step was steady, with no sign of drink. Bran followed him. At one side of the garden, the path was well-lit, leading to a new block of student accommodation, but Will led him to the darker side, where the ancient wall overlooked the huge expanse of darkness that was the Meadow. They were completely alone. With every step, they sank deeper into the darkness, and Bran blinked, unable to see Will, unable to see even himself.

 

He did not like it. He was used to darkness in the mountain, but that was a safe darkness, where the hills held no terrors. This was darkness in a city of light. This was being alone in a place full of strangers.

 

"Will?" he said, his voice small. He had no idea where this fear had come from.

 

"I'm here." Will's voice was closer than Bran had expected. He imagined that he could feel Will's warmth. A shiver started at the nape of his neck, and thrilled deliciously down his spine. In the darkness, all alone…

 

"Jane's here," he blurted out, because he was afraid. He heard Will take a step away from him. Shapes were coming into view, and he saw the figure that was Will turn towards the wall, leaning forward, his hands pressed against the stone. He saw feathering at the edge of the figure, and knew that it was Will's hair, flapping in the breeze, longer than was fashionable. But like a statue, he thought, if it wasn't for that movement.

 

"You remember Jane?" Bran swallowed, clenched his fists at his side, unclenched them again. "She remembers you."

 

"I remember Jane." Will's voice seemed to come from a long way away. Perhaps the wind wanted to take it and carry it across the meadow, to anywhere but Bran.

 

"We've been writing to each other all these years," Bran said. "She's at St Hilda's." Not far over the meadow, beyond the gardens and the river. Her room overlooked the grass. If she leant out of her window, perhaps there would be no living things between her and Will, as he stood staring out into the night as if he was waiting for something, or for someone. 

 

"We met up last Saturday," Bran said, "after I met you. Rob… I told you about Rob? He don't think he was pleased. I spent the night with her instead of going to the bar with him. We've not really spoken much since. He's finding other friends, which is good, really." He took a deep breath, closed his eyes. I'm prattling. He unclenched his hands, clenched them again. "But she'd like to meet you – Jane, I mean."

 

"That's good." Will turned round suddenly, his back to the wall. His face was a blank, hidden in the darkness. His voice was just words, with the soft mildness that, with Will, was a kind of mask, revealing nothing. "I'd like to see her, too, but now I want to go back. I've got a headache, but there's work to be done."

 

He started to walk back to the light, where voices and laughter sounded as students passed on their way with friends.

 

"But I enjoyed tonight." Will paused after a few steps. Bran still had not moved. Walking away… He saw Will shaded against the distant lights, and he was back in the darkness, left alone. "We'll do it again?"

 

"Of course." Bran followed him back to the point where their paths diverged. When they reached the light, he made sure that he was smiling. 

 

******

 

End of chapter two

___

 

Chapter three: An hour out of Time

 

I have stared Darkness in the face, Will thought, as he faltered near the top of the stairs. I have faced evil without fear. As an Old One, he could counter panic and despair with a few soft words. He could look calmly into the eyes of those who would have him fall apart in terror. He was calm water, when all those around him were raging sea. He was the ageless oak in a field of storm-tossed wheat.

 

Why, then, was he afraid? Why did he lie awake night after night, his dreams full of faceless shadows and fear? Why did voices whisper through his waking hours?

 

Why did the sight of a closed door make him want to run away?

 

No, he thought. He drew closer. He was a master of masks, and he would wear one now. A mask on his face, but a mask on his heart, too, thick, like armour. He would shut out the voices. He would not let himself feel.

 

Voices seeped through the wooden door, but these were not the taunting voices of the garden, or from his dreams. A male voice and a female voice, weaving around each other like a skein of thread.

 

Masks upon masks. He knocked on the door, and the laughter broke off. He heard people moving, and there was a tail-end of laughter in Jane's voice as she called to him to come in.

 

He entered. There was a sweet smell in the room, like flowers, but the thin brown curtains made the air feel ripe with autumn. Jane advanced on him, smiling. Bran was sitting on the floor, legs stretched out in front of him, a photograph album open on his lap.

 

"Of course I remember you," Jane said, as if she was continuing some conversation that Will had forgotten the start of. "You haven't changed."

 

"From twelve to eighteen?" Bran chuckled. "I think that counts as an insult."

 

Jane coloured, but stuck her ground. "I don't mean that you haven't grown up, just that I'd have known you anywhere."

 

"Still looks like a twelve year old boy," Bran teased.

 

Jane looked at Bran steadily. "Or that he looked grown-up even then, while you, Bran Davies, were just a boy." Her blush deepened, and she gave a nervous laugh. "I'm sorry, Will. I shouldn't have said any of that. Let's start again. Come in. Make yourself comfortable. Coffee?"

 

Will shook his head. "I can't stay long."

 

Jane returned to her seat. Bran shuffled sideways to make room for her. Sitting on the floor, he was not quite leaning against her leg, but it was close. "We were just looking at old photos," she explained. "I haven't got any of that holiday, though. Have you, Will? I'd love to see pictures of what you both looked like back then. That would settle it." She looked pointedly at Bran, though Will thought she was only joking.

 

John Rowlands had once taken a series of pictures of Will and Bran playing with the dogs, tousled by the wind, and bright with laughter. Will had one of the pictures. He wondered where the others were. "No," he said, shaking his head with a half-smile.

 

"That's a shame." Will saw nervousness in Jane's smile, and let his own smile reach his eyes.

 

"How are Simon and Barney?" he asked her.

 

"Simon's in Manchester," Jane said, "studying medicine. He's enjoying it, I think, though he says it's very hard work. He's got a girlfriend, though, and they're inseparable, so he can't be as busy as he wants us to think he is. And Barney's still at school, in the lower sixth. He's talking about applying to Cambridge, just to annoy me, but of course that's two years away yet."

 

"Who'd want to go to Cambridge?" Bran grimaced.

 

"The Other Place," Will told him. "We don't say its name."

 

Bran laughed. His laughter seemed a bit too loud, a bit too forced. Bran acted differently when he was with Jane, Will realised. There was the casual way he was lounging on the floor, the obvious laughter, the way his hands clasped the album, never still.

 

I can't stay here, Will thought. The armour around his heart faltered, just for a moment, and the voices outside it almost found a way in.

 

"We were just talking about that holiday," Bran said, his tawny eyes darting from Will to Jane and back again. "You know, the one where we all met. Bits of it are so vivid, but neither of us can remember exactly what we did. We went to the beach when the tide was far out, and didn't you sing at that echo rock?"

 

Will nodded. His hands were folded in his lap, unmoving and tight.

 

"Strange thing to do," Bran said quietly. Jane looked at him, and smiled.

 

I remember, Will thought. I remember everything, and you…

 

He smiled brightly. "How are you settling in, Jane?"

 

"Fine," Jane said. "At least…" She glanced at Bran, as if seeking the strength to say more. "I was really nervous about… well, about meeting people. I don't always have a lot in common with other people my age, which is why…" Another glance at Bran, and no words to explain it. "But academic work… I didn't worry about that too much, but that's turned out to be the hard part. Meeting people… I'm making lots of friends. I've joined some groups that look really interesting. But I'm finding the academic part of it hard."

 

"Of course it's hard," Bran said gently. "It is Oxford."

 

"I mean, look at this." Jane twisted in her seat to reach down a book from the shelf behind her. She opened it at random and thrust it at Will. "I came here to read English, not gibberish."

 

Will looked at the words on the page, thick black ink on musty white. The letters danced, melting into images of stern-faced warriors holding off the Dark. "Thought shall be harder," he murmured, "heart be the keener, mind shall be greater, while our strength lessens."

 

"You can read Anglo-Saxon?" Jane's voice came from a world away, and the blood-stained darkness melted to autumn brown, with sunlight filtering through swaying curtains.

 

Will blinked. "I read it once. A translation." He closed the book, and handed it back. "I really should…"

 

"I don't know why I told you all that." Jane pushed her hair behind her ear. Her cheek was pink beneath the tendrils of her hair. "I shouldn't have. It's all right to tell Bran because…" She lowered her hand. "I'm sorry, Will. Are you sure you don't want a drink? A slice of cake?"

 

Will shook his head. "I need to go, I'm afraid." He stood up. "I've got… work. An essay." He smiled at her, then at Bran, careful to make each smile equal. "Thank you for inviting me round."

 

He left, very aware of every step, and of the silence following the shutting of the door. He did not look back.

 

Whispers followed him down the stairs.

 

******

 

"What's wrong with him?" Jane said quietly, when they had been silent for over a minute.

 

Bran shook his head. He no longer had any interest in photographs or memories of the past. Putting the album down, he stood up and headed for the other chair. It still held a trace of Will's warmth. Everything else felt cold.

 

"He seemed so sad." Jane frowned. "I know he kept on smiling, and there were… glimmers, just occasionally. But… sad. And distant, too. It was as if he wasn't quite here."

 

Bran pressed his brow into his hand, elbow resting heavily on the arm of the chair.

 

"And I just prattled away." Jane sighed. "I was nervous, of course. I don't know why. I barely know him, not like I know you, but I told him all those things… It was just for something to say, I think, because he wasn't saying anything. But maybe…"

 

Bran lowered his hand. "What?"

 

Jane moved to the window, and peeped out through the curtains.  A blaze of sunlight hit Bran full on the face, and made him long suddenly for the protection of the dark glasses that he had once worn, before Will had taught him not to hide and not to be afraid. A minute later, Jane let the curtain fall again. The room seemed as dark as night by contrast. "I just wanted to make sure he'd really gone," Jane explained. "I never like talking about people behind their back. I'm always convinced that they can hear me."

 

"Then don't talk." Bran heard the harsh rasp in his voice. He had not intended it. He wanted Jane to carry on; he wanted her to stop. He wanted to go home; he wanted to have the last hour again, and for it to go right this time.

 

Perhaps Jane had not noticed his tone; perhaps the harshness had not been there at all, but only in his jangling thoughts. "I said all those things," Jane said, "but perhaps it was because I knew he wasn't really there. It was like when we started writing. I could say things to you on paper that I could never say to anyone in the flesh. It's so hard to say things when you see the expression on their face, and hear every gasp and every sigh."

 

"So many words," Bran murmured. "I can tell you do English."

 

Jane crouched down beside him. "Seriously, Bran, what's wrong with Will? Is he always like that?"

 

Bran wanted to be angry, but he could not. He let out a breath. "He wasn't like that when we were young. Three years ago, I last saw him. He wasn't like that then." He thought of the long walks they had taken on the mountains, dogs at their heels. Will had been unquestionably there with him, not distant at all.

 

"I wonder what happened," Jane mused, "to change him."

 

Bran breathed in. It was a long time before he breathed out again. Perhaps it had been nothing to do with him, after all. Three years ago, Will had stopped coming to visit, but maybe the reason had nothing to do with Bran, and everything to do with problems in his own life. Will had spoken so little of the family he had once been so close to. Had someone died? Had there been violence, or breakdowns, or terrible things endured alone?

 

I will find out, he swore, and I will help him. I will show him how to laugh again.

 

"Maybe he thought we're going out with each other," Jane said, blushing. "Maybe he felt embarrassed, having walked in on love's young dream."

 

"He didn't!" Bran clenched his fists, and unclenched them again. Maybe he did… And that would explain… "Oh." He brought his hand to his mouth. Inside, he was cursing his stupidity. He wanted to rush out now, to race down the stairs, to grab Will by the arm and whirl him round and tell him the truth. He needed Will to know. He needed it.

 

"Speaking of which…" Jane's blush deepened. "I met someone the other night. Jamie. He's at St John's."

 

Bran tried to remember how normal people spoke. He tried to remember the sort of things a friend would say, but words failed him. "Oh?" It sounded as if he was drowning.

 

"I joined the – no, don't laugh! – the Musical Theatre Society. I've always loved those old shows, so I thought I'd give it a ago. I'll never get a starring role, but it turns out I'm good enough for the chorus, at least, and..."

 

"Cut to the chase, girl," Bran managed to tease her. "Tell me about how gorgeous he is."

 

"He isn't, I suppose," Jane said, "but I like him. We talked for hours after the meeting."

 

"And?" Bran raised one eyebrow. It was an effort.

 

"And that's it." Jane looked as coy as a school girl. "That's as far as it went. But I'm looking forward to the next meeting very much." She pushed her hair behind her ear. "I haven't told anyone else, Bran, only you."

 

"How can he resist you?" Bran said, standing up.

 

Jane did not even question the fact that he was going. He wondered how much she understood.

 

He did not even know if he understood himself.

 

******

 

Will paused on Magdalen bridge, overhanging the dark waters of the Cherwell, letting the voices from the green places drive cracks in the armour of his heart.

 

People walked past behind him, wrapped up in conversations of their own. He heard laughter, and stray words, falling like pebbles in a pond – "tonight," and "believe," and "tomorrow." Cars passed. Buses set the stone parapet trembling. There was nothing stable in the ancient stone. Here and never more could it be his anchor.

 

Footsteps approached. They were different from all the other ones; he knew that the moment he heard them. He armoured himself against the voices, but did not turn round.

 

Two arms joined his on the parapet, pale hands clasped beside his own. A trickle of dust rained down onto the water below. Bran's hands moved, and his fingertips were dusty with the touch of weathered stone.

 

"I need to get back myself," Bran said. "You should have waited for me." His voice was light, inconsequential, but that was just a layer to it. Beneath that, Will suddenly got the impression of deep water, places that light would never touch.

 

Will did not know what to say. He did not know what he had said, what reason he had given for rushing away.

 

"I would have come straight away," Bran said, "but Jane kept me talking. She wanted to tell me about her new boyfriend. You know what girls are like."

 

Will breathed in, and out again. Sunlight glanced off the brown river, sparkling in silver fragments. There was still green on the autumn branches that bent down to touch the water.

 

"Yes." He smiled. "I've got three sisters, remember?"

 

Will turned round so his back was against the parapet. He watched the people flooding over the bridge, each one caught up in their own story. He saw a girl he dimly recognised, and smiled at her. She smiled back.

 

"So, since we've both got some work that we really ought to be doing – some musty  library we really ought to be burying ourselves in…" Bran turned round, side by side with Will, and a little closer than before. Will's shoulder tingled, as if it was being touched. "Fancy going for a coffee?"

 

Will thought. He remembered a long year of excuses – of evenings spent in the library while laughter drifted up from the bar. He remembered a mountain-side three years ago, and the reasons why he had walked away.

 

"Why not?" Will said, and this time no voices followed him as he walked side by side with Bran into the city of friendship and light.

 

******

 

"The dead of night, I suppose they'd call it," Bran said, "in those books that are full of clichés."

 

Will smiled, but he supposed his smile was lost in the darkness. As they stood at the wall that marked the border between the College gardens and the broad expanse of Christchurch Meadow, there was nothing ahead of them but night. At his back, even the city was sleeping. He could reach out with the sense of an Old One, and know that barely a soul was stirring. The clusters of students in the nearby quad was a shining knot of life, but apart from that, there was nothing, just he and Bran, alone in the night.

 

"Almost two o'clock," Bran said, "and in an hour, it will be two o'clock again. It's strange, when you think about it. It's as if this next hour doesn't really exist."

 

"Not really," Will murmured. "It's just the clocks going back, Will."

 

"I know that." Bran sounded a little impatient. "Humour me, Will, please."

 

The clocks were going back an hour, in readiness for the winter. Clocks were just an invention of man. The hours were just the way man had chosen to measure the immense mystery that was Time. They were trivial labels given by people who would never understand. One o'clock, two o'clock, midday, or midnight… It meant nothing. There was no meaning at all in the clocks going back. Time continued, and always would, regardless of the names mankind chose to give to its parts.

 

And yet… And yet…

 

"I can't see my watch," Bran said. "It must be nearly two."

 

"Four minutes to." Will did not wear a watch. Trivial they might be, but he intimately knew the labels that man applied to Time.

 

He stood here with Bran in the garden, just before two o'clock. An hour would pass, and it would still be two. It made him want to shiver. Irrational, he told himself, but there was power in the thought. They could walk for miles, and Will could speak his true heart, but when the hour was over, it would be as if nothing had changed. He had an hour out of time – a gift, a magic hour that was not truly real.

 

He could do anything. Nothing had consequences, and Bran was beside him, warm and near in the dark.

 

"We'd better hurry, then," Bran said, "or we'll miss the start."

 

Something will happen there. The thought touched Will like a gentle finger on the back of his neck. His foolish fancies of a moment before were quite driven away. "Isn't it nicer here?" he managed.

 

It was a foolish question, and Bran gave it the response it deserved. "I didn't stay up until two in the morning just to stand around in the dark getting muddy feet. I want to see this."

 

"You're a student now." Will tried to tease him. "Two o'clock ought to feel early for you. Stay up way past midnight, and get up in time for lunch. That's what it's supposed to be like, isn't it?"

 

"Except for the poor science students," Bran chuckled, "up at the crack of dawn, doing their unearthly experiments. But, anyway, I'm new to this student lifestyle thing. I've stayed up way past my bedtime for this, and I want to see it."

 

"You didn't have to stay up," Will pointed out.

 

Bran's voice changed. "You didn't want me to come?"

 

So Will had to shake his head, then say his denial out loud, for the darkness swallowed all else. "Of course I did." And there was nothing else for it, but to say, "Let's go."

 

Something will happen. But of course, that was all the more reason for Will to be there. A threat was gathering, he was fairly sure of that. If it chose tonight to strike, then he had to be there. But Bran… If it chose tonight to strike, then Will wanted Bran to be anywhere but here. But there was nothing he could say. He wanted Bran at his side, too; he was weak like that.

 

It was the start of the fourth week of term. In the first week, Will and Bran had seen each other twice. In the second week, it had been three times. In the week just gone, they had seen each other almost every day, sometimes just for a few minutes, by chance in the streets, and sometimes for hours at a time. Two days before, Bran had brought up the subject of the Merton Time Ceremony, and begged Will to let him see it for himself. Will had been powerless to say no; Bran's eyes had been shining so.

 

The College clock struck two. The expectant noise in the quad faded to silence, then someone made a toast. Will could not hear what it was, but he heard the word "Time."

 

"We've missed it," Bran grumbled.

 

"Only the start," Will said. "It goes on for the whole hour."

 

They reached the gateway into the quad, and slipped through. The ceremony had already started. Groups of students in full academic dress were walking backwards around the quad, glasses of dark red port held in their hands. Some had candles. Some were solemn, while others were clearly trying hard not to laugh. More than a few of them were staggering already.

 

"Why backwards?" Bran asked.

 

Will had barely glanced at the explanation that all new students were given. He knew it was a modern ceremony, made up less than twenty years before in an attempt to parody some of the stranger ceremonies of other Colleges. He knew that everyone claimed to take it intensely seriously, even though at heart it was joke. "Something to do with protecting the fabric of the space-time continuum," he said, "from the government's ill-advised attempts to meddle with it by messing around with the clocks."

 

"Oh." Bran watched it for a while, his expression flickering between admiration and amusement. "I'd like to join in. I think."

 

Will shook his head. "We'd better not. It's not really a thing for strangers. We probably shouldn't really be here." Bran looked sharply at him. Will wondered what he'd said wrong, then realised. "You shouldn't, I mean. Though you're here as my guest, so that makes it okay."

 

He'd slept through it the previous year, dismissing it as silly. But now, as he watched it, he felt again the shiver he had felt in the garden. Time stopping, he thought. Time flowing backwards. This quad was an oasis of life in a sleeping city. It felt like another world.

 

"I wouldn't mind trying the port, anyway," Bran said, a little wistfully. "I've never had port. We weren't posh enough, back on our mountain."

 

Will watched the faces as they passed him, intent on their backwards journey. A girl splashed port on her blouse, and giggled. A boy reached the corner of the quad, and almost fell. Candle-light flickered on a hundred faces. They all looked so young.

 

A stranger watched from the far side of the quad. The instant Will saw him, he acted, thrusting out a hand and freezing the students in Time. He strode towards the stranger, moving through the young mortals frozen like statues, like ghosts. "You will not have them," he commanded.

 

The stranger smiled. "Perhaps I do not want them, Old One."

 

He was a tall man, with dark hair, and eyes like Bran's, but darker. His clothes were rich, like something out of a medieval story, and gold glinted at his ear. The scabbard at his belt was empty, but there was a longbow slung over his shoulder, and the arrows in his quiver were tipped with feathers of silver-grey. His expression was carved from unforgiving stone, but Will could tell at once that when he smiled, he would be so handsome that no mortal would be able to resist him.

 

"You will not harm any of them," Will commanded. "You know who I am."

 

"You are the Old One." The stranger bowed his head. "But perhaps my wish is other than you think."

 

He reeked of the Wild Magic. "This is not your realm," Will told him. "These people are under my protection, and you cannot tamper with the will of the Light."

 

"Such bold words." The stranger smiled, and Will staggered under the weight of that smile. His body trembled. His mind wanted to fall away and become nothing but a slave to this man. Will shook his head, pulling himself free from the compulsion, but the stranger knew that, for a tiny moment, he had won. "You are too human, Old One. You are tainted with human weakness in the way that the others were not, although you will never be one with those you protect. You have the weaknesses of a human, but none of their joys." The stranger's smile turned dreamy, mocking. "So sweet, are they not, these mortals? So young and full of promise."

 

"You will not have them," Will said again.

 

"And who is that?" The stranger flapped his hand in elegant dismissal. "That young man who stood so close to your side, not knowing what you are. Ah, it is the Pendragon – the foolish boy who chose to be a mortal."

 

"He is under the protection of the Light," Will told him. "You will not touch him or harm him, and…" Will held up his hand. "You will not turn your smile on him, and cause him to go willingly to his own destruction."

 

The stranger smiled again, and even armoured as he was, Will felt the glamour of it, like a mournful tugging at his heart, speaking of the love that would never be his. "There are many ways to break an enemy, Old One. Even an Old One can be broken."

 

"But not here," Will told him. "Not now." He spread his fingers, and drew all the power of Light into his voice and his words. "I charge you to go and leave this place, and never return. You are forbidden from affecting the fate of any mortal here, now and for ever more. So go! I command thee: go!"

 

The stranger bowed his head, his smile mocking. "As you wish, Old One." He walked away, his gait as fluid as that of a stalking tiger. The hem of his cloak brushed the top of his supple leather boots, and the feathers on his arrows shone in the frozen candle light.

 

Will watched him walk away. The stranger walked through the gate into the garden, and was gone. No sense of him remained. He was gone.

 

Will let out a slow breath. Slowly, deliberately, he walked back to Bran's side. Everything felt unreal. He brought his hand up and touched Bran's unresisting cheek, lost and frozen out of Time. "He will not get you, Bran," he whispered. "I promise you that."

 

Stars shone down from the deep black sky. Will's breath froze in the air, and he shivered. An owl sounded, far away, and a dog barked.

 

He breathed in, and out again, slowly releasing the powers he had drawn into himself, slowly reminding himself how to smile, how to speak lightly, how to stand no more tall than a mortal man. He took a step away from Bran, and let Time resume its course again.

 

Bran gave a shaky sigh. "It's cold, isn't it? I've only just noticed. I think I've seen enough, and I've got an essay to write tomorrow. I'd better not stay up too late."

 

"I'll walk you to the late-gate," Will said.

 

They slipped away silently. Will's thoughts were racing; Bran seemed strangely subdued. He was a normal mortal now, but he had once been so much more. Sometimes Will wondered if a trace of that remained, making Bran a little more sensitive to the works of magic than someone who had never been anything other than ordinary.

 

"Well…" Bran waited until Will had opened the gate, fumbling with the key. "I'd better…"

 

"I'm tired, too." Will yawned. "I won't watch any more, now you've gone. It's off to bed for me." But not to sleep, he thought. Not to sleep.

 

"Well…" Bran pulled his lower lip in with his teeth, and released it. "I'll…" His hand twitched. "Goodnight, Will."

 

Will nodded his goodbye. After he had closed the gate, he stayed for a long moment, his hand pressed against the wood.

 

When he started walking towards his room, he could hear the sound of Bran's footsteps, heading in the same direction, but on the other side of the tall stone wall.

 

******

 

End of chapter three

___

 

Chapter four: On the Day of the Dead

 

Bran put down his pen. He pushed a book slightly to one side, and rearranged another. He downed the last of his tepid coffee.

 

The knock came again. "In a minute," he called. He turned the radio on, considered it for a moment, then turned it off again. He ran his hands through his hair, and scanned his room and found it acceptable. It was not too messy, and it shouted of the person he felt he truly was.

 

"Come in," he called.

 

It was not Will.

 

Of course it was not Will. Will never came seeking Bran. It was always Bran who initiated their meetings. Will smiled and seemed pleased to see him, in the muted way that he seemed to do everything nowadays, but he was never the one who suggested that they go somewhere together, or just spend a few hours in talk.

 

He hoped he managed to hide his disappointment. A visit from Jane was a genuine pleasure, too, and no smile for her could ever be feigned.

 

"Were you up to something unmentionable?" Jane asked, arching her eyebrow. "All that scurrying around I heard… Is there a pretty girl hiding under your bed?"

 

"What if I said yes?" Bran said.

 

Jane's smile faltered for a fraction of a second. She knew it wasn't true, Bran thought. She wouldn't have asked it if she'd thought there was any chance of it being true.

 

"No," he said brightly. "I was just reading something terribly lowbrow." He nodded towards to his desk. "I had to pretend I was in the middle of something studious before letting anyone into my private sanctum."

 

"So you don't mind if I disturb you for an hour or two?" Jane asked. "I've just had a tutorial, so of course it's out of the question for me to do any more work today. I was passing and thought I'd pop by and see if you were in and fancied doing… well, something."

 

"I've got an essay due tomorrow," Bran told her, "but you could never disturb me, Jane. Why don't you sit down."

 

Jane perched on the edge of his armchair. "So this is your room." She looked around, looking at the book titles on his shelf, and the pictures on his wall. "Strange, isn't it? We've written for so long, but I've never seen your room before, either at home, or here."

 

Bran settled down on the bed. "So what would you think if you'd never met me before, but came into here, thinking it was a stranger's room?"

 

Jane smiled. "It would tell me that you're the sort of person I would like to know." She gestured at the picture over his desk. "That one's almost scary, though."

 

The picture showed a Welsh mountain, stark and ancient beneath a swirling sky. Despite the black cloud, late evening sunlight illuminated the mountain, so that every broken fence and wind-warped tree cast shadows like long fingers across the hills. The ground burned almost as if it was on fire, and a solitary figure stood watching the sky, his shadow as tall as a giant.

 

"I like it," he said. "I saw it at a market and had to buy it. It… it speaks to me, somehow. I don't know why. It's as if I saw somewhere like that in a dream, or when I was very young."

 

Jane looked at him. She was not smiling now, and her eyes were dark. "I know what you mean. I feel like that sometimes, about pictures, sometimes even about scents. I suppose everyone does. We forget so many things – things we did when we were young; things we did when we were older, but thought nothing of, so didn't bother to remember. Perhaps something remains of all of them, and the correct trigger brings them out."

 

"Maybe." Bran shuffled on the bed so he was sitting with his back against the wall, legs straight out in front of him. "So, how are you, Jane? I feel as if I haven't heard from you in weeks."

 

"You haven't." Jane sighed. "Strange, isn't it? We knew more about what each other was doing when we lived hundreds of miles apart, than when we live in the same city."

 

"It feels silly to write letters to someone living so close," Bran agreed.

 

"And there's so much to do," Jane exclaimed. "Things to learn, people to meet, new friends, and new ways of doing things. But I don't want to forget old friends. I can't do that. Your letters have meant too much to me." She blushed, looking down at the hands in her lap.

 

"New friends?" Bran teased. "What about that dreamy boy you were hoping to get to know better? Any progress there?"

 

Jane's blush deepened. "Jamie? We… He… He asked me out. We went for dinner last week. And now… I suppose you can say we're a couple."

 

"That's great!" Bran was genuinely pleased for her. Jane had not always had the best of luck with boyfriends. Because she was a pretty girl, she had sometimes attracted the wrong sort of boy. Through letters, Bran had consoled her and listened to her, and she had been in a happy relationship for most of her final year at school. When that had ended, he suspected she had been far more upset than she had ever let him know.

 

"I like him." Jane was playing with her hair. "I don't know… We haven't talked about it, but… but I hope…"

 

"He'd better treat you well." Bran frowned in mock warning. "I hope you've told him you've got brothers, not to mention big strong men like me looking out for you."

 

"He's a real old-fashioned gentleman," Jane said. "He even asked if he could hold my hand."

 

"I hope he's not the jealous type, then." Bran gave a theatrical leer. "After all, here you are, all unchaperoned in the bedroom of another man."

 

"I told him about you," Jane admitted. "He doesn't mind."

 

"Oh." Bran's good humour left him. It's because of the way I look, he thought. He imagined Jane describing his appearance to her new boyfriend, and him laughing, dismissing him as no threat. And then there was Jane, teasing him about having a girl under the bed, as if she thought such a thing was out of the question.

 

Bran had never had a girlfriend. He had never as much as kissed a girl.

 

"Oh, it's not like that." Jane half-reached out a hand towards him, then drew it back. She raised the hand to her mouth, muffling her words. "I think… Bran, I think he somehow got the impression that you're gay."

 

Gay? Bran got up and walked to the window. Outside, the quad was empty, but thoughts and memories whirled in his mind, until it seemed as if it was full of people. He saw the girls at school, smiling and pretty. All his friends had jostled with each other to be noticed by the girls, but Bran had stood back and watched, distant and amused. But there were good-looking boys at school, too, and he had never felt attracted to them, either. He was eighteen, and he had never kissed anybody, but he had never wanted to kiss any of them, either.

 

His breath steamed on the glass. He pressed a fingertip against it, running it round in an unsteady swirl. It was cold. He could feel Jane watching him. "I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't mean to… Have I upset you? I thought…"

 

And then there was Will. He remembered standing side by side with Will in the garden at night, every fibre of his being intensely aware of the tiny distance between them. Their arms had brushed, and the place Will had touched had burned, instantly alive. He thought of his actions just minutes before, when he had smoothed his hair and tidied his room, because he thought Will was about to come in.

 

He could list the time and date of every time they had met since he had come to Oxford. He knew how many days, how many hours, since they had last seen each other. He had other friends, and spent evenings with other people, but the times with Will were the most vibrant and intense. Colours were richer, and the sunlight was brighter. The air was sweeter, but pain was deeper, too, when Will was distant, or when they parted without a promise to meet again.

 

"No," he said, pressing his whole palm against the window, watching trickles of water dribble down through the steam. "Maybe I am. I've never thought…"

 

"Bran." Jane was beside him, a hand on his shoulder. But not her! he thought. She was comfort, and that was welcome, but it was Will he wanted to touch him, Will's whose warmth he wanted to feel behind him, breath on his neck, body pressing his against the wall.

 

He turned round, and she withdrew. She went to her chair, and he went to perch on the edge of the bed. The space between them felt a wide as the world. He was tumbling, swirling in a whole new reality. Colours had changed. Black was no longer black. Stars shone at noon, and the darkness was shot through with light.

 

"I don't know if I am gay," he said, scooping up a handful of blanket and squeezing it tight, "but I have only ever been attracted to one person in all my life, and that's… and he's… He's a he."

 

"I'm sorry," Jane said – words from far away, from the old world, before he knew himself. "I didn't mean…"

 

"No." He smiled at her, tried to bring himself down from whatever place he had flown to. The bed beneath him, books on his desk, pictures on the wall, and Jane, here before him. "I hadn't realised. I should have realised. It was obvious, really, but I hadn't… I didn't… It must have crept up on me over the years, and I didn't realise.." He scraped a hand across his face. "How did you know? How long have you known?"

 

"I didn't," Jane admitted. "I did wonder, though. You never spoke about girls in your letters."

 

"Or boys." Bran gave a wry smile.

 

"I wondered if you were just being discreet," Jane said. "Trying not to shock me."

 

"There haven't been any boys." Bran pressed his hands down beside him, smoothing the bedding flat. The picture of the mountain loomed over him, seeming to pulse with life and magic. "That's why I said it. I don't know if I'm… if I'm gay. It's not men; it's just him. I can't explain it. It's as if there's something deeper, and everything else… that's just packaging."

 

Jane looked at him. To his amazement, he saw that her eyes were brimming with tears. "I really didn't know, Bran. But then, when I saw you with him…"

 

"You know." Bran felt the sudden urge to hide his face. "You know who I'm talking about."

 

"I do." Jane nodded, then faltered. "I'm sorry…"

 

"No." Bran shook his head. He felt half in a dream. "Then did you see…? Do you think…?" He pressed his hands to his face, though he had never hidden like this for years. Will had taught him not to. Will. Even the name in his thoughts seemed invested with magic now. And to say it aloud… The thought thrilled him, and scared him, too. To say his name aloud, and to his face…

 

"I can't say for sure," Jane said, "but I think so."

 

Bran lowered his hands. "You don't know what I was going to say."

 

"You were going to ask if he feels the same about you."

 

Bran's eyes were pricking. "It's just that you're so wise and astute and observant," he tried to joke. "You saw the truth and I didn't even know it myself." Hands to his face again, then down, one holding the other, to keep them still. "Do you really think so?"

 

"Bran," Jane said softly, "I can't be sure. I only saw him that one time, and that wasn't for long. But he was always looking at you, and he seemed so sad, but that was just because he thought you were going out with me."

 

But he left, Bran thought. He walked away three years ago, and we're only seeing each other now because I happened to bump into him by chance. He's never the one who comes looking for me. She must be wrong. She has to be wrong. But please… Oh, please…

 

He pressed his hands to his chest. "What shall I do, Jane?"

 

Jane came to sit beside him. She reached for one of his hands, tugged it gently away from his body. "Nothing, Bran. Just get to know him. Spend time with him. Watch him, and then, one day, you will know."

 

"One day?"

 

"Soon, perhaps." Jane patted his hand once, and released it. "After all," she smiled, "I'm never wrong, and I say that he fancies you."

 

"Never wrong!" Bran exclaimed. "You're wrong all the time, Jenny-oh." And the world was normal again, but changed, changed utterly, and never to be the same.

 

******

 

A pair of ghosts giggled in a doorway. A witch hurried past with a bag full of wine bottles, the plastic bag straining against the weight. Two post-graduate students eyed them loftily, their disdain clear. Over them all fell a light rain, swirling almost horizontally in the autumn wind.

 

Will did not like Halloween. There was too much weight of history on that day. Today's mortals saw only the tiny, frivolous surface, but beneath that there were thousands of years of struggle and meaning and tradition.

 

On the day of the dead…

 

"What about going to a Halloween party," Bran had asked him, the day before. They had met for an early supper in a pub, claiming a table as close to the fire as possible.  Bran had been acting strangely throughout, though, as if tiny things had suddenly become hugely important, and important things meant nothing at all. "Someone on my staircase is having a fancy dress party, with apple bobbing, apples on a string – the works. I'm sure you'd be welcome to come."

 

"I don't like Halloween." Will had shaken his head. I met you first at Halloween. Seven years ago, it was.

 

Bran had raised his eyebrows. "You don't approve of it? I didn't know you were religious." He had grimaced. "My Da hates it, of course. An ungodly affair, leading us all into devilry and Satanism, that's what he calls it. But this party seems harmless enough. It's not as if anyone believes any of it."

 

"I'm not religious," Will had said quietly, for all religions were encompassed in the truth that was the High Magic, yet none saw the truth in its entirety. "I don't disapprove of Halloween, I just don't like it." Bran was still looking at him intently, his eyes burning, so Will had decided to lie. "Perhaps one of my brothers traumatised me with a witch mask when I was three, or something."

 

"Scared, are you?" Bran had chuckled. "Oh well. There'll be other parties. See you on Monday?"

 

Will wondered if Bran had gone to the party after all. No, of course he had gone. There was no reason at all for Bran to miss out, just because Will hadn't wanted to go. He would be there now, laughing with his friends, and that was how it should be. Will could not be the friend that Bran needed, for there would always be a barrier between them. A friend had to share everything, and Will had nothing that he was able to share.

 

Music poured out of an upstairs window, and someone not too far away was having a bonfire, despite the rain and the wind. Will could hear many voices, but could make out no clear words. Slowly, he wandered toward the garden, heading for the place that now drew him every single day. There was a large and noisy party in the Junior Common Room. Beyond that there was only darkness.

 

On the day of the dead, when the year too dies…

 

It had never been the case that the Dark was stronger on Halloween than any other day. Like the Light, the Dark transcended man's petty measurements of Time, neither ebbing not flowing according to the passage of days. What was true, though, was that for centuries mankind had believed that dark and sinister things walked on this day. There was power in such beliefs. The creatures of the Wild Magic thrived on the sheer force of fear and expectation, and were drawn by it.

 

The Dark did not rule on Halloween, but the Wild Magic had the power to. Ancient creatures walked, and things heaved themselves from the soil, to shamble for one night in the world of man.

 

And man drew them, too. Children wore masks, and many things could walk in places where they should not be, if their true forms were hidden behind a mask. They were not all human, the small figures that skipped excitedly through the streets of English villages. Boys rang doorbells and ran away, but other things, things without hands, could do the same, and creep in, and find a home.

 

Will was the Watchman, but for millennia, Old Ones had watched on the night of Halloween. Half-closing his eyes, Will sought the doors that took him through Time, and drifted back a hundred years, to this same College garden, on this self-same night. 

 

An Old One stood before him, tall and constant, watching then, as Will was watching a hundred years in the future. "Merriman?" Will breathed, but Merriman did not turn round. The Old Ones had gone from Time, so that only echoes of their presence remained, like images on a mirror, planted through Time. Will could not seek their help, or even talk to them.

 

Specks of light moved across the meadow, like a solemn procession seen from afar. Will blinked. Were they in his own time, or in Merriman's, a hundred years before? He moved close to the seeming of Merriman, but the lights had gone. "Goodbye, Merriman," he whispered, and stepped back to his own century, but still nothing but darkness stretched before him, to the river and the world beyond.

 

A firework sounded, loud and harsh. Will jumped, startled. Maybe the lights were only fireworks, he told himself, but he knew they had not been. His skin tingled with the presence of Wild Magic. There were no voices in his head, and he had not seen the tall stranger since the night the clocks had changed, but something was close.

 

"But I am ready," he told it.

 

The rain grew heavier. The trees swayed, sighing like the newly dead, and wet leaves were torn free, to slap against the ancient wall. Will touched the stone, wondering if Merriman had touched it, too, a hundred years before. He wondered, too, why Merriman had been here at all. A hundred years ago, he had been nearing the end of his time at St John's. As far as Will knew, Merriman had never lived or worked at Merton, yet he had chosen here to watch, on the wall that faced nothing but emptiness, his back turned towards the people and their city.

 

Because we come from the river, and the sea beyond it, whispered things that lurked in the leaves, in the wind, in the ground beneath him, in the skies. We come from the green places and the meadows and the grass. This is the border, where we crash like a wave against the stone wall and the world of straight lines and men. Soon we will come surging over, and there is nothing you can do to stop us.

 

"I can," Will vowed, but the trees rose up and shrouded him. Roots snatched at his feet. His vision blurred, and he saw cities crumble, shattered by the plants that choked their foundations and by the wildness that claimed their people.

 

We have been kept in check for too long, said the trees, and man has encroached too fast and too far. Tonight we have dominance.

 

"No." Will raised himself up to his full height, all masks cast aside. "Tonight you will not."

 

They lashed at him and flailed at him, assailing him with their power and their fury and their ambition, but he stood firm. Tonight, he knew, they would not be able to defeat him. But the night was long, and the wind was strong, and he was alone, the last Old One left on the earth.

 

Tomorrow, he thought with a grim smile, would be beyond imagining.

 

******

 

End of chapter four

___

 

Chapter five: The fifth of November

 

Will was gazing into nothing. People were talking all around him, squeezing around tables that were too small for them. Will was the only one who seemed alone, apart.

 

When Bran approached, Will raised his head slowly. He smiled, but there was something very wrong in the smile. Careful, Bran reminded himself. Keep it casual.

 

He placed both pints on the table, and pushed one towards Will. "Here. Have a drink."

 

"Thank you." Will raised the glass, took a tiny sip, and lowered it. Bran was filled with a sudden urge to touch the white foam that clung to his upper lip. Then a pink tip of a tongue slipped out and removed it. Bran watched that, too. Firelight flickered on Will's pale hand, wrapped around the dark brown glass.

 

"You look as if you needed that," Bran ventured. "Are you ill? You look..." Awful, he nearly said, but Will could never look awful to him, in this new and wondrous world Bran now found himself in. Shocking, though. Heart-breaking. Broken.

 

"Just tired." Bran could see the lie in Will's weary smile. "I haven't been sleeping well – noisy neighbours and fireworks, I expect. And I've had a lot of work…"

 

"I…" Bran swigged his beer, hiding whatever it was he had been about to say. He did not even know himself what it was.

 

"I'll be better tomorrow, I expect." Will took his hands from the glass, but his fingers trembled minutely. He grasped the glass again, holding tighter than before. He was more hunched than normal, too, as if his neck barely possessed the strength to support his head.

 

Bran considered several things that he could say, and dismissed them all. "I dropped by your room yesterday, but you weren't in," he said. And the day before, and the day before that, and every day since Halloween. "I asked around a bit, but no-one remembered seeing you." He gave a laugh, carefully careless. "Maybe you were in, but hiding from me."

 

Will froze, glass half to his mouth. "I wouldn't do that, Bran. I've been asleep sometimes, in the afternoon, or else closeted in the Bod. working on the English Reformation."

 

"Well, you're here now."

 

Bran glanced over at the other faces around him, laughing and unconcerned. Why had this become so difficult? It had felt marvellous, the day he had realised just what he felt for Will, but this was the reality after the dream. Every day spent without him was grey and flat and interminable. Hours spent with him were shot through with fear. Every word, every silence, was suddenly invested with extra meaning. When Will looked miserable, Bran knew it was because he did not like the company he was in, but when Will smiled, Bran came alive, and knew that his feelings were returned.

 

"Half way through term already," Bran commented, because he had to say something, and could not say those things that he wanted to say. "It's gone so quickly, but at the same time, it seems as if I've been here for years. What are you doing at Christmas?"

 

"Going home." It was quiet, almost bleak.

 

"Well, me, too." Bran smiled. "But what are you doing when you're at home? Any… plans?"

 

Will shook his head. "No-one else will be there for the first few weeks. James' university finishes two weeks later than we do. Mary's going abroad. The others… Everyone's left. They'll all be back for Christmas itself, though. All of them. A house full."

 

A firework shot into the sky, a screaming curve of gold. Bran glanced up to watch it burst into red sparks, but Will did not. "It will be just me and my Da," Bran said quietly, "though John Rowlands always comes around on Christmas day. Sometimes…" He took a sip of beer, wiping his mouth as he lowered the glass. "Sometimes I think it would be nice to be part of a big family like yours. But that quiet life of ours… It suits me… I mean, sometimes it suits me. It's good to have quiet to retreat to, especially if it's with someone…"

 

He stopped. He had said too much already. Say something, he urged Will. Will's silence forced Bran to fill the gap, and he had no idea what new words would come spilling forth, committing him to truths that perhaps should not be spoken, not yet.

 

"Even in a large family," Will said eventually, gazing into his drink, "there are places of quiet. I always knew how to find them. Now, of course…"

 

Bran watched his hand on the glass. He watched the lock of brown hair on Will's brow, and the firelight flickering on his cheek, from the hot braziers that kept this courtyard warm even on a winter night. His own heart blazed as if he was drinking scalding liquid. In the firelight, he thought, Will ought to shine like the sun, but he was muted, lost in shadow. Something happened to him, he thought again. Something happened, and I…

 

"It's your birthday just before Christmas, isn't it?" Bran said brightly. "See? I remembered. What do you want?"

 

Will blinked.

 

"A present, idiot." Bran gave Will a playful slap on the arm. There were layers of clothes between them, but even that simple touch felt like fire. "What do you want me to give you? Or shall I surprise you? Remember your fourteenth birthday when I got you…"

 

"A rock." Will's smiled seemed genuine.

 

"A fossil, thank you very much," Bran chided him. It had taken him weeks to find the perfect one. On his previous visit, Will had said something about ancient rock and past lives living on in stone. The fossil had been a memory of a perfect moment. It had felt right.

 

"I've still got it." Will was still smiling. "I brought it with me to Oxford, actually. It's…" His smile faded. He took a drink, but Bran thought his cheeks were redder now than they had been a moment before, or maybe that was just the firelight.

 

"Maybe this year I should get you a plant, then," Bran said. "Or a box full of a good, Welsh air. Or a book, or some shoes, or a horse, or a football, or a tape of a Welsh choir, singing as God intended."

 

"You don't have to get me anything, Bran." Will raised his glass, gazing over its brim at Bran, caught and pinned by those fire-shadowed grey eyes. "This is enough."

 

Bran moistened his lips. His hands tightened, fingers curling into the wooden table top. "One drink?" he said with a laugh. The gaze was broken; Bran breathed again. "You come cheap."

 

A firework exploded directly overhead, silver sparks falling down towards then like rain. Bran jumped at the sound of its explosion; Will glanced up with calm suspicion, as if he was expecting some inevitable attack.

 

"Fancy some crisps?" Bran asked. "They can be your Christmas present."

 

Will nodded, smiled. Bran stood up, and wove through the seats and tables in the courtyard. Inside the pub, the air was thick and smoky, and very warm. Bran pushed past conversations that had planted themselves in the aisles, and ordered his crisps. Somebody brushed against him, and muttered an apology. He felt the warmth from a dozen other bodies, and words and laughter lapped around him like a warming sea.

 

Outside felt colder this time. The braziers gave off intense heat, but the cold still prickled on the side of his body away from the source of heat. A rich spicy smell reached his nostrils, and he realised that the pub had set up a table outside, selling mulled wine. On impulse, he bought two glasses, and balanced them precariously as he headed back towards Will.

 

"Mulled wine," he explained, placing one glass in front of Will, and the other in front of his own empty seat. He stepped over the bench and sat down, tearing open the packet of crisps so they could both share it. "I hope you like salt and vinegar. It was that or chicken."

 

"Mulled wine." Will picked the glass up, wrapping his hands around it, though when Bran tried to do the same, he found that it was far too hot for him. "I remember when I was young, before… When I was young, anyway. We used to go carol singing through the village, and we used to get mince pies and punch and chocolates and cake. It was fun. I particularly liked the cake. I ate far too much once, when I was about seven. But once, I remember, there was mulled wine. My Dad had to tell me that, no, six year old boys were not allowed to drink mulled wine, no matter how lovely it smelled. I think I might have cried."

 

Bran watched Will take a sip. "Was it worth the twelve year wait, then?" He tried drinking his own, but it was still far too hot. "I think you must have superhuman powers," he said, grimacing, "to be able to drink that. It's hot!"

 

"It's good." Will placed the glass back on the table. Firelight filtered through the wine, making his hands glow ruby red. "Probably not good for six year old boys, though. I'll have to tell my Dad that he was right."

 

"How is your Dad?" Bran asked. He had been wondering briefly if one of Will's parents had died, and if that explained the change in him. "And… the others?"

 

"Fine," Will said. "Dad's still working in his shop. It's not work to him, really, but a pleasure, a passion. Mum found it a bit lonely when we all started leaving, but she's started working part-time at the local school, and has joined all sorts of voluntary groups. Everyone else… James and Mary are at university. Paul's doing a doctorate in music. Stephen and Gwen are married, and Barbara's pregnant, though she's not married – Mum's a bit shocked about that, but doesn't say anything. The others… They're all out there, working, creating lives of their own. I see them at Christmas and Easter and at my parents' wedding anniversary in the summer. Mum writes with all their news, but…" He shrugged, sighing.

 

Bran tried his wine again, but it was still too hot. Holding it gingerly by the top of the glass, he blew across the dark red surface, setting specks of cinnamon dancing. "I'd like to see pictures."

 

Bran had never met Will's family. When they were younger, Will had told Bran stories of what his brothers and sisters had been getting up to, and to Bran, living his solitary life in Wales, they had been suffused with the glamour of a fairy tale or a Hollywood film. Bran wanted Paul and Stephen as his own big brothers. He wanted Mary as a sister to tease, and Gwen and Barbara to cook him cakes and scold him when he went outside without a coat. He wanted a James to play with and compete against and argue with, because everyone needed someone to argue with, when things were hard.

 

Not that he had ever said any of this to Will, of course, and he never would.

 

"I'll bring some next term," Will said. "I got a camera for my eighteenth birthday. I suppose I ought to learn how to use it."

 

Bran had a picture in his room, showing himself and Will, smiling and unaware. John Rowlands had taken that one. He had a picture of his father, and a picture of John. He had pictures of his school friends, and a picture of Jane, taken on her sixteenth birthday and sent through the post. John had bought him a cheap camera when he was fifteen, and he had taken pictures of his friends and the mountain, and Will. Then Will had told him he was never coming back. As far as he could remember, Will had never taken a single picture of him.

 

"You've never used a camera before?" he asked, incredulous.

 

Will shook his head. "I didn't need to."

 

But without pictures, all you had was memories, and memories faded, and soon were gone forever. Bran had no pictures of his mother. If they had not met in Oxford, Bran would have disappeared from Will's memory entirely, with no pictures to hold him there. And he had nothing of his own family. He did not seem to care.  Oh, Will, he thought. What happened to you?

 

"You're so… separate," he blurted out, the foolish words fuelled by scalding wine, and the beer already in him. "You never used to be like this."

 

"Yes I was." Will's hand closed on the glass, white fingers outlined with glowing red. "You never knew me."

 

"Then let me," Bran begged him. "I want to help you."

 

Will looked at him. "You do, Bran. You always did."

 

Bran wanted to laugh. He wanted to cry. He drained half his glass of wine, feeling its heat burn through him, hurting as it went. "Then why…?"

 

"Drink," Will said quietly. "Drink and fireworks, the night, and I'm so tired, so very tired. It doesn't mean anything, what I said. You should forget it."

 

"But how…?" Bran scraped his fingers through his hair. The crisps lay untouched on the table between them, scattered on their silver-lined packet. Fireworks trickled gold above them, and half of his body was burned by the brazier, and half of it was icy cold.

 

"I think you're right." Will's hand was shaking. "I am ill. I need to go home."

 

Home, Bran thought, or just to his room? He finished his wine, left the dregs of his beer and the untouched crisps. "Let me…"

 

"I'm fine." But Will stumbled as he stood up, and Bran was there. He caught Will, one hand against his chest, one on his shoulder. Will's face was an inch from his neck. Bran felt as if he was holding the sun. Nothing else in the universe existed but Will.

 

"Fine," Will whispered again, and they parted, and the world resumed its course again. "Just tired." He turned to Bran, and Bran almost gasped, the transition was so sudden. Will's face was calm, his stance strong and firm. No-one glancing at him would think for a moment that anything was wrong with him. "I owe you two drinks now."

 

"It's like I said." Bran tried to laugh. "They're your birthday and Christmas presents. You can't expect anything else from me now." He played back what he had just said, and it seemed crass, but he could think of no way to undo it without saying too much. Instead, he laughed again, hoping that Will would realise it was a joke.

 

One after the other, they walked along the narrow alley-way that led to the pub's courtyard, then out into the street. Once there, Bran stepped up so that he was at Will's side again. They reached the open square, and fireworks filled the sky, set off from dozens of gardens, their bangs echoing from building to building.

 

"Hey, Bran!" a voice called. Bran looked up to see a group of boys from his College, heading back from the off-licence. "You coming to our Bonfire Night party? We've got booze, food and girls."

 

Bran smiled, waved a hand, and called out, "Not tonight."

 

"Oh well, you can drop by later, if you want to." They walked on, laughing. "See you at the meeting tomorrow!" one of them called.

 

The shadows seemed a little deeper around Will after they had gone. "You should go," he told Bran.

 

"I'm going to make sure you get home safely," Bran said, "then make you some tea and tuck you up safely. I'm a regular knight in armour, you see."

 

"I'll be fine," Will said. "You should go." He took another step, then paused. "Who were they?"

 

Is he jealous? Bran was jubilant. He clenched his fists at his sides to still the excited trembling. "Friends from College," he said. "I have lunch with them, go to parties, and the like." Will was looking at him, his face unreadable. You give me so little, Bran wanted to say. I'm always the one looking for you, and you're always making your excuses and going away. I have to have more than just you. I need other people, too.

 

"Is one of them Rob?" Will asked.

 

"No." Bran was surprised that Will remembered his name. "He and I… Well, as I said at the time, we just got talking on that first day, so stuck together for a while, but didn't have anything in common. He seemed to take offence one day when I went to see Jane instead of twiddling my thumbs while he visited his school friends. I haven't talked to him in week. Actually…" He frowned. "I haven't seen him in the lunch queue for a while, either, since… Was it Saturday? Friday? Since last weekend, anyway. I wonder if he's got a girl and is eating at her College. He was talking about a girl last time I overheard him."

 

"Still, you should go," Will persisted. "Tonight and tomorrow… You're better with…"

 

"I'm better with whoever I say I'm better with," Bran burst out, "and tonight that's you. You want to go home? Fine. But I'm taking you home. I'm not letting you make your excuses and run away again, leaving me with a half-empty pint and an empty table, when I thought I had company for the evening."

 

How was it possible, he thought, to love somebody, and almost hate them, both at the same time? How could you love somebody when the time you spent with them hurt so much? How could you love somebody who hid so much of themselves? He did not know the answer, but he knew that it was true. He loved Will.

 

"Maybe," Will said, after a while, when they were half way down the lane that led to Merton Street, "I don't want to go home after all. The fresh air will clear the alcohol away, and there's fireworks…"

 

"Watching fireworks in the Meadow," Bran said. "I wish I'd brought a thicker coat." He did not say the rest of it. He did not point out that Will could keep him warm, and he could keep Will warm, close to him forever.

 

"Just for a little while," Will said, "until we get too cold. But there's something… I have to…" Again that change came over him, the mask of calm snapping onto his face, but gentle this time, softly smiling. "Let's watch fireworks together in the dark, Bran, one more time."

 

Bran remembered an evening spent on the mountain, watching lights soar up from gardens in the valley below. They had been thirteen years old, and Bran had been quaking with cold before it was over, but John Rowlands had warmed them afterwards with cocoa and stories, neither of them protesting that they were too old for such things now. The following year, the fireworks came after Will had gone home, and Bran had gone down to the valley himself, to a party held by one of his new school friends. Throughout the party, though, he had glanced up at the dark bulk of the mountain, and thought of the magical other world that existed there, away from the lights.

 

"Yes." He grinned, though his eyes were pricking. Let's watch them together, Will. And maybe, just maybe…

 

Things could be said in the darkness that could not be said in the light. Hands could seek hands, fingers seek lips, whereas in daylight two people would sit an arm's length apart, and never dare to touch.

 

******

 

The garden again. It felt to Will as if, no matter where he went, no matter what he did, he could never escape the garden. Every night it drew him. Five nights ago, on Halloween, he had almost fallen here, holding off the Wild Magic, keeping the city safe.

 

Now Bran was beside him, but as far away from him as two planets revolving around the same sun. What did Bran see when he surveyed the darkness beyond the garden wall? Bran saw the fireworks, and heard the distant laughter; Will saw the things that moved beneath, and heard laughter more distant still.

 

"That was a good one," Bran exclaimed. "The green one, over there."

 

Will nodded; he had not seen it. He had brought Bran here for another purpose entirely – a selfish one. It had been a moment of weakness. Something had gone terribly wrong with the Wild Magic. It was stronger than it should have been, and was declaring war on the world of men. Will had fought it the only way he could, but the cost had been high. If he had to fight it again tonight, he did not think that he could win. But with Bran at his side… Bran was his anchor. Bran could hold him in the world of the living. And sometimes, for minutes on end, Bran could even make Will forget that he could never be anything other than alone.

 

"Did you ever play with sparklers?" Bran asked.

 

Will nodded. "I was scared of them burning down and getting my fingers," he admitted. "James laughed. Stephen lent me his gloves and told me I'd be quite safe. And I was, of course."

 

The pain was as strong as ever, coming in the wake of memories of when he was young. They had been such a close family, for all their size. He had worshipped Stephen, and had basked in the glow of having a dozen people who all loved him and cared for him. They had had such happy times. Now the happy times continued, but Will could not connect to them. He smiled at their jokes, but all he could see was the fact that one day they would be gone, and that he could never confide in any one of them.

 

"We should have bought some." Bran fidgeted against the cold, hopping from one foot to the other. When he finished, and stood still again, he was closer to Will than before. Barely the width of two fingers separated their shoulders. Will could see Bran's hand at his side, unprotected by a glove. It would be entirely unforgivable to grab hold of it, he knew that. "Maybe next year," Bran said.

 

Will could not remember what he had been talking about. He focused on the world beyond the wall. "Maybe," he said.

 

No voices whispered taunts in his head. The only people who moved in the garden were human. There was no particularly significance to Bonfire Night, and no reason why the Wild Magic should be stronger tonight, except that for centuries men in Britain had burnt fires in the darkness, re-enacting a death, and remembering a liberation. Such things had their own power, and the Wild Magic fed on such things. Like Halloween masks, fireworks could be a cover for many things, not all of them human.

 

"Of course," Bran said, as a firework exploded into blue stars, "they're not a patch on the fireworks at home. Good solid Welsh fireworks, that's what we need. Do you remember that night we sat out and watched them?"

 

"Of course." Will smiled, longing suddenly for the time of their uncomplicated friendship. Not quite fourteen, he had not yet truly accepted how different he was from those around him, and the implications of it. He had still been able to forget his true nature, and just be a normal boy, laughing with a friend. Then, a year later, had come the first stirrings of feelings for Bran that were not just those of a friend. That was when he had realised that he had to leave.

 

"Though I'd rather be here, tonight," Bran said quietly, "than back at home, even if the fireworks are better." He edged even closer, until their sleeves were brushing, and something trembled in his voice.

 

Will stopped breathing. Bran… he thought. Is he…? Twin fireworks exploded like flowers of gold. The scent of flowers came on the wind, drowning out the lingering odour of smoke. Then he let out a slow breath, cold and hopeless. Even if Bran had come to feel something for him, Will could not accept it. He could not let Bran tie himself to someone who was not even human. Will would never be able to give all of himself. Even in a relationship, he would be alone, and that meant that the other person would be alone, too.

 

He edged subtly away, trying to make it seem like an accident, as if he was oblivious to how close they had come to touching. "The stars are bright, too," he said. "Don't you think that nature is far more beautiful than anything that man can make?"

 

"I am altogether too surrounded by nature in Wales," Bran stated. "Yes, it has its moments, but these man-made things are far more comfortable. Why else do you think I chose to come to study in a city?"

 

Will thought of the Wild Magic, pulsing in the wilder parts of the world, trying to topple the world of men. He thought of mankind reduced to wild men in the woods, struggling to scrape a living out of the soil, as the spirits of the earth tyrannised over them for their own amusement. The buildings and works of men were not of the High Magic, but neither were the world and the grass and the fire. All things were transient; only Time and the High Magic endured.

 

"I'm joking, of course," Bran said. "I don't like too much city. That's why I like these gardens of yours. I can enjoy the city for two months at a time, but I'm going to rush out onto that mountain when I get home, and rejoice in some good Welsh fresh air."

 

There was nothing in Bran's voice to show that he had noticed Will edging away from him. Perhaps he had not noticed. Perhaps it had meant nothing at all, and Will had misread him. Perhaps he was dying inside, but was as accustomed as Will was to hiding behind masks.

 

Perhaps he was going to try it again. Perhaps he was going to move closer in the darkness, let their hands brush as if by accident, then grasp Will's fingers in his own. Maybe he was going to lean forward in the darkness and… and… Will moistened his lips. He could feel his heart fluttering in his throat.

 

"Will," Bran murmured, as a firework tore the sky apart above them, showering them with red and gold.

 

As the sound died away, Will became aware of voices, shouting urgently across the meadow. "Call an ambulance!" they shouted. "There's a man… I think he's dead."

 

Bran took a step back. "Go!" Will commanded him. "There's a phone next to the bar. Use it. Push somebody out if you need to. Tell them it's an emergency."

 

"But… But…"

 

"Go!" Will commanded, and Bran went, feet skittering in the gravel. As soon as he was gone, Will jumped from the wall, landing silently on the ground twenty feet below.

 

He moved through the darkness on silent wings, hidden by the night. He passed a sobbing couple, fleeing the other way. Two brave figures hunched over the dead man, keeping vigil until the police and ambulance came. One held a torch, shining it up in the air like a beacon. The other had a bundle of unlit sparklers sticking out of his coat pocket.

 

Unseen, Will crouched beside them. Unseen, he reached out to the dead man, fingers fluttering over his face, though not quite touching. It was a young man, clad in ancient clothes. He was clean and well-groomed, and there was no visible injury on him at all.

 

It was only much later, when Bran arrived in the wake of the useless ambulance, that Will learned who the dead man was.

 

His name was Rob.

 

******

 

End of chapter five

___

 

Chapter six: After the first death

 

He assumed it was Jane at the door. It could have been one of his casual friends in College, but he had distanced himself from them over the past few days. It hurt terribly when someone died, it seemed, even if you barely knew them. It was best to limit friendships to those people who really mattered.

 

"Come in," Bran called, not bothering to smooth his clothing, or check to see if the room was tidy. Jane would not care, and nor would anyone who was likely to come visiting. The only person he wanted to come never came.

 

He had come now.

 

"Oh." Everything accelerated – his heart, his breathing, the pace of the world around him. "Will." He stood up, forcing himself to calm down, to resist the urge to rush round the room like a hurricane, making everything just so.

 

"Are you…?" Will's hand half rose to the red poppy on his lapel. He looked lost, as if he was unsure of how to deal with the very human emotion of grief. Not that Bran was grieving, not really. He had caught a glimpse of Rob's parents and sisters, escorted through the College for one last pilgrimage to his room. That was what true grief looked like. What Bran felt was, to that, like a puddle to an ocean.

 

"I'm fine," Bran said, repeating the lie that Will had so often made to him. "Tired of this essay, though."

 

"Maybe we could…" Will raked his hand through his hair. "I mean, if it's not insensitive…"

 

Poor thing, Bran thought, almost detached. He really doesn't know what to say. He had heard Will floundering before, stammering and hesitating over speech, but he had never seemed so completely at sea before. Everyone was like that, of course, in the face of grief, but with Will it seemed even more extreme.

 

Yet he had come. He had come to see Bran for the first time ever, even feeling as he did, and that had to mean something.

 

"Life goes on." Bran uttered the platitude. "After all, I didn't really know him well. We hadn't spoken for weeks. Other people have far more right than me to feel sad."

 

"It's not a case of right," Will told him. "You feel what you feel. Human emotions are some of the most powerful forces that there are."

 

"It's just…" Bran sighed, sitting down on the bed. "He was missing for five days – did you know that? They pieced it together afterwards. He went missing on Halloween, and no-one knew. Everyone assumed he was with someone else, or even that he'd gone home. They talk about the Fifth Week blues, after all, and… and…"

 

Will sat down beside him. "It wasn't your fault, Bran."

 

Hold me, Will, Bran thought. I won't ask for anything else, just that. But the gap between them remained huge, no less than was demanded by propriety.

 

"I know it wasn't my fault." Bran gave a harsh laugh, closer to tears. "But he wanted us to be friends. We didn't have much in common, but I could at least have stayed in touch, then I'd have known days ago that he was missing. Perhaps they could have saved him."

 

"No," Will said. "Nothing could have saved him."

 

"But he…"

 

"No." Will's voice was firm. His grey eyes spoke of utter truth, impossible to deny, impossible even to doubt. "Nothing could have saved him. None of this is your fault."

 

"The doctor said he had a weak heart," Bran admitted. "They think he ran away for a few days, because he was finding the work hard, or maybe to be with this girl he kept on talking about. They're still trying to trace her, by the way. They say his heart gave out, and would have done so wherever he was. But…"

 

"Then that is how it was," Will said, "if the doctor says so, and the police, and everyone who knows."

 

"And moping over it won't help." Sighing, Bran stood up. "Let's go… somewhere. I feel like pottering in a book shop, then having a disgustingly unhealthy cream cake somewhere."

 

They headed down the stairs, out into the quad, and almost to the porters' lodge. "I've forgotten my wallet," Bran exclaimed suddenly.

 

"I'll lend…"

 

"No." Bran shook his head. "I need to get some money out of the bank, anyway. Wait for me."

 

"I'll wait outside."

 

Bran hurried back, fumbled with his key, and grabbed his wallet. He bounded down the stairs, and was back at the gate barely two minutes after leaving it. He could not see Will at first, then saw him a few paces down the road, apparently lost in thought.

 

Bran's steps slowed. In the narrow road, the high buildings blocked out most of the light, but enough remained, illuminating Will's hair so that it shone like gold. The paper poppy, worn for remembrance, stood out on his dark, old-fashioned coat.

 

I do love him, Bran thought. No matter how much they faltered in their steps towards true friendship, he did love Will. He wasn't truly whole without him.

 

A motorbike was heading down the street, defying the signs that prohibited motor vehicles. Bran watched it come; Will was oblivious.

 

He never truly understood what happened next. The bike swerved, speeding up. Will's head snapped round. Bran shouted out his name, the sound wrenched painfully from his throat, and light blazed, sunlight flaring on the motorcyclist's helmet. Bran blinked, and when he could see again, Will was down, hurled backwards against the wall, and the bike was on its side, wheel still spinning. The rider was struggling to his feet, but Will just sprawled there, back against the wall, legs stretched in front of him, the poppy lying across his hand like blood.

 

"Will!" Bran was at his side in an instant, hands fluttering over Will's body. "Will!"

 

Will opened his eyes. "I'm fine."

 

"You always say that," Bran all but sobbed. "You were hit by a bike. You…"

 

"I'm fine." Will tried to stand up, but Bran would not let him, pushing him down bodily with a gentle hand on his shoulder. He could hear other people crowding around, and talk of ambulances. Someone else was saying that it was the sun, he couldn't see, and he skidded, and he lost control, and…

 

Bran wanted to scream at them all to go away. All that mattered was Will, and he could have lost him, he could have lost him.

 

"Really," Will said, "I'm fine." His grey eyes found Bran's. "I jumped out of the way. I landed a bit badly, and was winded, but it's only bruises, nothing more." His body moved beneath Bran's touch. "Let me stand up, Bran. Please?"

 

Bran withdrew his restraining hand. His own hands were trembling, he saw; Will's, on the other hand, were not. "Are you hurt?" Will asked the motorcyclist, and the young man said that he was not. He was profuse in his apologies, white-faced with shock, but Will was asking him about his bike. That, too, was undamaged, it seemed.

 

It seemed so shockingly civilised. "You could have killed him!" Bran raged. "Didn't you see the signs? You shouldn't have been here in the first place."

 

"Hush," Will said. "There's no harm done." To the crowd, he said, "I hope no-one called an ambulance. I don't need one, and neither does this gentleman here. There is nothing further to see. You should go about your business." The amazing thing was that they did, barely even muttering, but Bran hardly saw it. The motorcyclist walked sheepishly away, pushing his bike. Soon the two of them were alone, but still Bran's hands would not stop shaking.

 

"Are you sure you're alright? I thought… I was sure it hit you."

 

"Bran." Will took Bran's trembling hands and clasped them together. Then he touched Bran's face, cupping his cheek with a cool hand. "I am fine, Bran, I assure you."

 

It was too much. First Rob, and now this. Bran leant into the touch, needing it. Will's thumb stroked his cheekbone, then withdrew. Bran felt as if it had been wrenched away from him, and the air was cold as ice on his exposed cheek.

 

"Nothing happened, Bran," Will said, but Bran moved closer to him. He could not let another person be snatched away from life, not without knowing how Bran felt about him.

 

"Will." He touched Will's cheek, as Will had touched his own. He looked down into Will's grey eyes, barely an inch below his own. "I couldn't bear to lose you, Will."

 

He leant closer, breath against breath, lips seeking lips, but Will turned his head slightly to one side, his skin stroking against Bran's palm. "Someone's watching, Bran."

 

So what? Bran wanted to say, but he looked in the direction Will was looking, and saw a tall man in medieval costume, gold glittering at his ears, and a bow in his hand.

 

"I think we should go where there are people," Will said quite firmly.

 

Bran hugged his hand to his chest, cherishing the memory of touch, and followed Will wherever he would lead.

 

******

 

"I must go backstage," Bran said, when the last of the applause had died down.

 

Will went with him, but hanging back. Backstage meant a small room next to the hall where the play had been performed, crowded with excited people in all manner of fancy dress. Will saw Jane through the crowd, and watched as Bran cleverly wove through the people to reach her. Will followed, but more slowly. He was not entirely comfortable around Jane, and very aware that he remembered things that she did not. It was the same with Bran, of course, but Bran was different. Bran was Bran.

 

"Of course, it was only a small part," Jane was saying, when Will arrived. "A place in the chorus, and nothing else. I've only been here for six weeks, after all, though I wouldn't want a starring role, anyway. All those people, staring… I'm not extrovert enough for that."

 

"Nonsense, girl," Bran chided her. "You were great."

 

Someone else was tugging at Jane's hand. There was talk of a party, and people were clearly eager to get their costumes off and set about the serious business of drinking. "I'll see you tomorrow?" Jane said to Bran. Will looked away, feeling a little unnecessary. When he turned back, he caught the tail end of a glance passing between Jane and Bran. Jane had been grinning, conveying something with her eyes.

 

"We're just in the way here, Will," Bran said. "We'd better leave these thespians to their partying."

 

Will followed Bran out of the hall, and to the front gate. They walked back towards Merton, talking about the play. Bran started to sing one of the songs, though not loud enough for anyone else to hear. When they crossed the river, Will stiffened, but there was nothing there. He had not seen the stranger since the incident with the motorcycle, a week before. Bran had not asked him about the man, so Will had not had to lie.

 

They paused at the gate. Will took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. I shouldn't, he thought. I really shouldn't. "Do you want to come in?" he asked.

 

Bran nodded, grinning. They walked towards Will's room in sudden silence, pausing only for Bran to grab some chocolate from the vending machine en route. Wind stirred in the garden, but nothing else moved. Will felt no threat, but he knew it was there, waiting for its time. He did not know what to do. There was no-one left who could advise him, and no-one to ally with, and fight this thing together. So he did what he could. He worked in the library, and wrote his essays, and did well. And in between all that, like beams of light in the gloaming, were his times with Bran.

 

Will unlocked his door, Bran close behind him. The curtains were still open, so Will shut them, shutting out the world outside, though no curtains could hold back the threat. "Coffee?" After filling the kettle, he sat in the armchair. Bran sat on the bed, but did not make himself comfortable. He was leaning forward, forearms resting on his thighs, hands clasped together. His eyes were fixed on Will's face.

 

"I don't want coffee," Bran said, in a tortured voice. "I want…"

 

Will thought he knew what was coming. Don't, he thought. Please don't ruin it. Let us keep things as they are. Let me keep that much. He closed his eyes, but still felt the force of Bran's tawny gaze.

 

"Tea?" he asked brightly. I could make him forget all this. "I'm out of biscuits, I'm afraid."

 

"You know," Bran said, his voice low. "You know what I want to say, and you're trying to put me off. Of course you know. Jane knew, after all. She knew immediately. I'm a fool. I thought you didn't know."

 

"Bran…" Will had to look at him. He owed him that much. He had looked into the heart of evil; how, then, could it be that he feared a single man so?

 

"But I will say it anyway," Bran said, braver than Will. "I… I don't know if I'm gay, but what I feel for you is far more than friendship. I'm falling in love with you. I want to touch you. I want to be with you. I'm nothing when you're gone, and when we're together, but you look away like you did just now, then I'm nothing again – less than nothing."

 

Will felt as if he was dying inside. Oh, Bran, listen to yourself. You can't feel like this. I can't let you feel like this. That's why…

 

Bran slid off the bed, kneeling on the floor. "I didn't know… I didn't dare… But sometimes… You touched me that day. Sometimes you look at me. So I thought… We could keep going on in silence, neither of us daring to say anything to the other, or I could take the plunge. Was I wrong? Have I made a terrible mistake? A man confessing love to another man… Do you hate me now?"

 

"Hate you?" Will burst out. "Of course I don't hate you."

 

Will Stanton, the human, had just been given his wildest dream. Bran Davies, the boy he loved, claimed to love him back. He did not have to be alone ever again. But Will could never just be human again. Even before the joy, there was pain, because this could never happen. He could not let it happen.

 

"Maybe you're afraid." Bran came closer to him, moving on his knees. He stopped when he was at Will's feet, and reached up oh so gently, cupping Will's face with one hand. His touch was cool and smooth.

 

Someone ran past on the stairs. The kettle came to the boil, roaring violently for a moment, then switched itself off. In the silence that followed, Will could hear Bran's breathing.

 

"Tell me to stop," Bran whispered, "and I'll do so." He brought Will's face downwards, with both hands on the back of his neck. His thumbs caressed Will's lips, and then his lips were there, too, in the softest of possible kisses, like gossamer on his skin. When he pulled away, he was smiling. Will thought he was falling out of his body, floating away into some place beyond Time.

 

"I've never kissed someone before," Bran said, shy and beautiful. He touched his lips with two fingers, as if hoarding the memory of their kiss. "Did you like that?"

 

"I did." Will could not lie.

 

"Then shall we do it again?"

 

It was the hardest thing Will had ever done, to shake his head. It was harder still than walking away from Bran, three years before. "I can't."

 

"Why not?" said Bran, not wailing, not complaining, just asking, with quiet voice.

 

"I can't…" Will began. "I shouldn't… I'm not…" He tried to gather in his words. Faced with evil and dangers, he could hide his fears and speak with authority and calm. Why, then, was he so helpless before Bran, reduced to someone who could not speak? "I can't give you what you need," he said.

 

"What?" Bran frowned. "And how do you know what I need?"

 

"You need…" Will tried to explain. "Everyone needs someone who understands and trusts them completely, someone who can share everything with them. I can't be that person, not to anyone. I'm… separate. You told me that yourself."

 

"No, I didn't," Bran protested.

 

"On Bonfire Night," Will said. "And you were right. I can't love, not like normal people. I can't give away the most important part of me."

 

"You don't have to," Bran cried, not understanding. "It doesn't have to be love. I shouldn't have used that word. I said too much, too soon. We can just get to know each other better, maybe… touch a bit – holding hands, kisses, and the like." He was blushing, a faint glow on his fair skin. "It doesn't have to be everything."

 

"But I'd want it to be everything," Will said quietly, "and it wouldn't work, because it couldn't be. I don't want trivial things. I want a perfect union with someone who understands me utterly, but that will never happen, and neither should it, because others things are far more important."

 

"So you're throwing away any chance of happiness, just because you can't have a grand passion like they have in fairy stories?"

 

Will shook his head wearily. "You don't understand."

 

"Then make me," Bran urged, but Will shook his head again, and said, "I can't."

 

Bran retreated back to the bed, where he sat, as stiff and awkward as a stranger. "I shouldn't have said anything."

 

No, Will thought, I shouldn't have spoken to you at all that first day. I should have taken better care to avoid you. I should have kept my distance after you lost your memory, like I did with the others.

 

"I'm sorry," Will said, but Bran laughed scornfully. Will persisted. "I knew I was falling in love with you when I was fifteen," Will said quietly. "That's why I left. I didn't think you'd ever feel the same. I thought you might find out, and that would ruin what we had. But then, at the same time, I was afraid you might end up feeling the same. I'm not worth anyone breaking their heart over."

 

Bran stood up, his shadow tall and dark against the wall. "You walked away from me because you loved me? You made those ridiculous excuses, and had me thinking that you didn't like me any more, because you liked me too much?"

 

"I can't love properly," Will cried. "I thought you’d find someone better, someone who could give you what you needed. And I wanted… I couldn't bear being so close to you, knowing that there could never be anything between us except lies."

 

"Lies?" Bran echoed. His shadow was as terrible as his father's had ever been, and he raised one hand in judgement. "You're strange and twisted, Will Stanton. To make such a decision without even telling me…! And now, in some ridiculous way, to make out you did it for my own good… I can't believe I thought I loved you. I don't even want to see you again." He went to the door, and slammed it behind him, without even saying a goodbye.

 

After he had gone, Will sat in his chair while night deepened around him. He was still in his chair when dawn came, tears long-since dried on his stone-carved face.

 

******

 

End of chapter six

___

 

Chapter seven: Michaelmas ending

 

"Fresh air." Bran pawed unsuccessfully at the shoulder of his friend. "I'm going out for fresh air."

 

Pete nodded, giving Bran a discreet thumbs up behind his back. Pete had been talking to the same girl on and off all evening. She had blonde hair, and a red top, low cut and showing everything. Bran had decided to pursue her friend, who was wearing black and had startling blue eyes. Wine had come first, though, and then a bit more. He had only had two or three glasses, or maybe more. When he had finished getting some fresh air, he would try to kiss the girl in black.

 

What was her name? Pretty, he told himself. He nudged a random student in passing. "She's pretty."

 

"Someone's had a bit too much," someone laughed. "Good on you, mate."

 

"Haven't," Bran protested.

 

He headed for the door, wondering why people kept blundering into his path. Music blared from the speakers, making him want to join in and sing along. "Shut up!" someone chided him good-naturedly. "That sounds awful."

 

"It doesn't," Bran objected. "I'm Welsh, you know – the land of song. We sing like nightingales."

 

Hands found his back, pushing him towards the door. Someone thrust him a glass of water. "Water?" he cried, outraged. "Why should I want water? Wine, that's what I want. Or beer. Beer's good."

 

He drank the water, though, because it was there, and it was easier to drink it than to work out how to get rid of it. Some of it dribbled down his chin. The door seemed no closer, with hordes of people between him and it, and the floor pulsing and heaving. Then the floor jerked unfairly beneath him, and he almost fell. Hands held him up, and pushed him towards a place where cool air blew into his face. Another door, he thought, as he spilled out into a stone-covered quad, where the cold made him shiver. There were no stairs to trip him up. He found a wall to lean on, the stone harsh beneath his palm. He bowed his head, suddenly feeling quite sick. Deep breaths, he told himself. I can't be drunk.

 

"Bran?" a voice said.

 

He turned round too quickly, and fell over, sitting down too heavily on his bottom. "Jane?" There were lights behind her, painful, hurting his eyes. "What you doing here?"

 

"Coming to the party," Jane said. "Jamie knows someone here. Though it doesn't really look like my sort of thing." She crouched down beside him, blessedly saving him from the lights. "I didn't think it was your sort of thing, either."

 

"It is," he proclaimed. He leant closer, confiding secrets. "I was going to kiss a girl. That'll show him." He tried to stand up, heading back in. "Watch. I'll show you."

 

"No, Bran. Stay here." Jane turned to another figure, dark and faceless against the lights, and whispered something. He nodded, and went into the party without her, squeezing her hand once before he did so. Something twisted inside Bran's heart, and he wanted the wine and the girl very much indeed, but Jane was already turning back to him. "Is there anywhere we can go?"

 

"If there's wine," Bran said.

 

Jane was cruel and merciless, shaking her head. "No wine. Water, maybe. Your room? No, I think you need air. Is there a garden?"

 

She took him by the sleeve, and dragged him along as if he was a child, asking other people for directions, not him. As he walked, he looked up at the sky, and told her about the stars. When he almost stumbled, he told her about the history of the quads and statues that they passed, but it was dark in the garden, and he couldn't think of anything to talk about, so sat down on the first bench they came to, pulling his sleeve out of Jane's grip.

 

Jane sat down beside him. "Oh, Bran."

 

"Don't look at me like that," Bran said, fighting the words a bit. It was too dark to see how she was looking at him, but he could tell from her voice.


"What happened, Bran?" She took his hand. He didn't want her to take his hand – not Jane. "Last time I saw you, after the play, you were…"

 

"Nothing happened," he told her, pulling his hand away. "So I had a few drinks. What gives you the right to lecture me? I'm not doing anything wrong."

 

"No," Jane agreed. "You're not doing anything that thousands of students haven't done before, but I'm your friend, Bran. This isn't like you. I'm worried about you."

 

"Don't be," Bran said, but he turned away, his mood suddenly changing. The night pressed around him, cold and black, and the taste of wine in his mouth was bitter.

 

Jane took his hand again, and this time would not let him snatch it away. "What happened with Will, Bran?"

 

"Nothing," Bran snapped, but there were tears in his eyes – treacherous tears that turned his voice hoarse and made his chest hurt. "I told him; he said no. That's all that happened. Not that I care. I was an idiot. I didn't know what I was doing. I'm all for girls now. I'll show him."

 

"Oh, Bran." She released his hand, and instead put an arm around his shoulders, pulling him tight. "I'm so sorry."

 

"Don't be." But his head was on her shoulder, and the stupid tears were still coming, dragged out by the wine. "I don't care."

 

"Bran…"

 

She held him as he scraped at the tears with the heel of his hand, drying his eyes. Perhaps he was drunk, he realised. Certainly he had never felt like this before. "I don't feel well," he whispered.

 

"Let me take you to your room," Jane said, a pillar of strength. "I'll come round tomorrow afternoon and you can tell me anything you want to tell me, or tell me nothing, if you prefer. Because this isn't the way, Bran. I won't let you do this to yourself."

 

It was good to be led, Bran thought, through the lurching haze that had descended on him. It was good to have someone to look after you. It was good to have someone who was willing to step in and say, Enough.

 

"But I still don't care," he told her solemnly, when they had reached his door. She had to help him find the keyhole, because it kept dancing away whenever he tried. "I never want to see Will ever again."

 

He almost meant it, too.

 

******

 

Will kept his hands thrust deeply in his pockets, and his scarf wrapped twice around his neck. He watched from afar, just one of the crowd. No-one saw him. Except for his tutor, he had barely exchanged a sentence with a single living soul for over a week.

 

Bran had not come. Will missed him even more than he had missed him three years before, when he had made his excuses and left him forever. Then, he had been walking away from a friendship, never dreaming that Bran might want more. Now, he had ruined something that could have been marvellous… "No," he murmured out loud. It could never have been marvellous. It could never have been anything but a shadow, and that was not fair on Bran.

 

The workmen scratched their heads. A man in a suit came out of a van, and listened to what they had to say. Scaffolding had already been unloaded. It would soon be erected, but it was clear that the workmen did not know what had caused the ancient wall to suddenly start to collapse. "Not that we're paid to know," one of them was grumbling to his work mate. "Get the experts in to do that. We just do the job."

 

Will thought he knew. It matched too closely with his visions in the garden, of a world ruled by the Wild Magic, in which roads and walls and straight lines crumbled. Beneath the wall, he thought, the workmen would find tree roots, grown impossibly strong. Stone had cracked and mortar turned to dust. The ancient walls of Oxford, symbol of man's dominion for so many hundred years, were falling. The towers would fall next, then libraries and governments and the civilised commerce of men.

 

The Wild Magic was vast – a force that the High Magic had never tried to master. Even Merriman had been subject to the rules of Tethys in her own domain. The Wild Magic had been bound to neither help nor hinder Light and Dark in their struggle, but after the Light and Dark had gone, it remained, stronger than Will, and older than man.

 

If the Wild Magic had declared war on the world of men, what could Will do about it? No, he told himself, a thing so vast, so impossible, could not happen. It was more likely that a capricious being of the Wild Magic had chosen to sport with Will for amusement. There were no signs of attack anywhere else but Oxford. The stranger had known Will, and the voices called his name.

 

But if not, he thought. If the world of men really is under attack…

 

Dusk was falling. He turned and headed away, for nothing could be gained from staying. Although it was only late November, the Saturday afternoon streets were packed. Christmas music chimed in the shops, and Father Christmas sat beneath the tower at Carfax, while cold-looking carol singers sang into the twilight.

 

As he headed down High Street, Jane emerged from a shop, and he was unable to avoid her. "Will." She blushed, plainly embarrassed to have to talk to him. Of course she was. Bran was her friend, not his. Will wondered what Bran had told her, if anything. As a child, Bran had been proud and reluctant to admit when he was hurting, but he had changed over the years. This new Bran might have told Jane everything.

 

They fell into step, both heading the same way. He could have pretended to her that he had business in the opposite direction, but he had no more heart for lying. He lied about the most important things of all, but he could not lie merely to avoid an awkward situation, or a friend of Bran telling him how badly he had behaved.

 

"You're probably wondering," Jane said, after they had parted briefly to pass a large group of people who were blocking the pavement. "Bran did tell me everything, yes."

 

"Oh." Will pressed his lips together. It didn't matter, he told himself. If Bran hated him, if Jane hated him… What did it matter? They would all drift away from him, like feathers in the wind, and he would remain, long after they had gone.

 

"Or maybe not everything." Jane gave a wry smile. "And, before you ask, he wasn't vindictive. The first night he was, but the next day… He's hurt. He misses you."

 

"I'm sorry." Useless words. Stupid words.

 

They reached the lane where Will would turn off the main road, but Jane stopped him, an arm on his wrist. "I thought I'd hate you, when he first told me. He was so… heartbroken. He did some stupid things, like drinking too much. He said things he shouldn't have, but the next day he told me what he'd said, and what you'd said…"

 

Standing in the shadows of the lane was the stranger, a half smile on his face, hearing everything. Like fluttering wings, the Wild Magic brushed around Will's face. Shadows lapped on the ground, teasingly reaching towards Jane's feet.

 

"How can I blame you?" Jane said. "You were honest, that's all you were. So many people enter into relationships speaking nothing but lies. 'Yes, I will love you forever,' 'No, there will never be anyone but you.' You were honest. You said you couldn't love him the way he wanted to be loved. Bran doesn't understand why you said it, and it's not my place to try to understand, but you spoke the truth, or what you thought was the truth."

 

No, Will pleaded. The stranger smiled. Will turned his back on him, protecting himself from the glamour of his smile. The shadows surged and retreated, and people passed by on the street, oblivious.

 

"In fact," Jane said gently, "you're the one I feel sorry for. You really believe it, don't you – that you cannot love; that you aren't worthy of love. It must be so sad to live like that."

 

The stranger laughed, his voice in Will's head. Chattering, someone walked straight at him, and the stranger transformed into a hawk, perching on the rooftops with jewel-tipped talons, watching everything with yellow eyes.

 

"But for your sake, for Bran's sake… I know I'm interfering and probably shouldn't, but why not give Bran a chance? I saw how you looked at him, that day in my room. I can see how you look now, now you're without him. Please, Will, just go and see him. He's too proud now to come to see you. Just talk to him."

 

The yellow eyes gazed down, unblinking. They would gaze down on Bran, too. Not for the first time, Will wondered what had killed Rob in the Meadows, clothing him in the costume of the past. Had it been a warning to Will – a blow struck at Bran's friend, when next time it would be struck at Bran?

 

"I can't," Will said, as the bird spread his wings, so that feathers rained down on Will's hair. "I'm sorry, Jane, but I can't."

 

And, wrapping his coat around him against the frost, he headed down the shadowed lane towards his room.

 

******

 

On the final day of term, Bran was leaving the history faculty library just as Will was going in.

 

Their eyes met for the briefest moment, just outside the door.

 

Will's hand tightened on his books. "Are you…?"

 

Bran almost dropped his own. "Perhaps I will see you next term," he said coldly, "or maybe the term after that."

 

He headed out into the dark, and the day after that, caught a train back to Wales. Will loaded his cases into his father's car, and let himself be driven back to Buckinghamshire, where his mother kissed him on the cheek, and wanted to stay up late, listening to his news.

 

******

 

End of chapter seven

___

 

Chapter eight: Christmas apart

 

December passed slowly.

 

Will's mother chatted to him as she made mince pies, telling him a thousand different bits of news. He nodded when he had to, and buried his hands in flour and butter, helping her to make pastry.

 

Barbara had her baby, and Will's parents rushed to be at her side, leaving Will alone in the house. A few days later, they returned, smiling and chattering. "You'll see her at Christmas," they said. "She's beautiful, Will. Frances, she's calling her." Will looked at the photographs, and smiled. I will live to see you die, he thought.

 

James came back from university, and headed straight out to meet his old school friends in the pub. When Will went into town to buy presents, he saw familiar faces from his own school days. They had once even been friends. His old friends had gradually fallen away when Will had moved up a year at school, and he had never made friends in his new year group. While James vanished almost every evening, Will stayed at home.

 

Paul came home, and Mary. The day before Will's birthday, Barbara came, and the house echoed with the sound of a baby crying. "Just like old times," Will's mother said, smiling fondly. "We haven't had a baby here since Will."

 

"He's still our baby," James teased, but Will looked away.

 

On Will's birthday, there were presents and a cake. He blew out nineteen candles, but did not make a wish. Most of them got him book tokens. "I don't know what you're interested in any more," Barbara confessed.

 

Once, they had always known instinctively. Once, the presents had all been perfect and right. Once, he had known what to give, too. His Christmas presents to them were silly things – tokens and chocolates, and blank cards without a message.

 

His mother did not know that anything was wrong.

 

The night of the solstice passed without incident. He stayed vigil during the darkest night, but the Wild Magic was silent, and the Dark had long gone. The morning afterwards was beautiful, every leaf gleaming in the sun. He walked into the lane and looked at the empty manor, where Miss Greythorne had once protected the Sign of Wood. No-one lived there now; a developer's sign announced that there were plans to turn it into flats. The trees in its garden loomed like giants, the leaves whispering secrets and threats.

 

Robin returned the day after Will's birthday, apologising heartily for being late. With him came his girlfriend, a slip of a thing who seemed overwhelmed by the large family, and wanted to shrink into the wall and become invisible. Will smiled at her once, over dinner, and she smiled back, but they never had time to talk.

 

When Gwen turned up, she bustled her mother out of the kitchen, ordering her to put her feet up and let someone else do the cooking for once. Smells of baking and spices seeped through the house, but, "it looks like we men-folk are banished, eh, Will?" said Robin, passing Will on the stairs. "Care for a drink with your big brothers, now you're legal?"

 

Will went, drank, thought of Bran, and stared into the fire. Talk and laughter washed over him. He felt as if he was a stone at the bottom of a lake, powerless to reach the sunlight that sparkled so far above.

 

Stephen was to come on Christmas Eve, and Max only on Boxing Day, for he was spending Christmas at his fiancée's house. The night before Stephen came, most of the family went carol-singing. For the first time in years, there was mulled wine, and Will's father reminded him jokingly of the time he had tried to drink it as a child. Will tried to smile, but could not. The smell of spices made him unutterably sorrowful, and he knew he could not drink it.

 

They sang through the village, wrapped in coats and scarves, and replete with mince pies. James took the lead in the singing now, his voice as good as Merriman had known it would be. Will sang a quiet harmony in the background. When they passed the empty manor, he missed Merriman desperately, but he did not show it on his face.

 

He saw the stranger then, in the shadows – the first and only time he saw him that Christmas. The stranger smiled, raising his empty hand. I could, the gesture said,  but I choose not to. Have this Christmas, such as it is. I will come again in the mortals' New Year, and then will battle be joined.

 

Or maybe that was not in the gesture, but in the voices that whispered to him all night, keeping him from sleep. Wrapped in a blanket, he sat in the window seat until Christmas Eve morning, only returning to his room at dawn. Stephen came with laughter, and there were songs and games after dinner, and then another sleepless night, listening to the others stealing around in the dark, preserving the fiction of Father Christmas that none of them believed in, but none would ever deny.

 

There was a new youngest child to open presents for first, and baby things to coo over and admire. Will opened more tokens, and occasional books, some of which he already had. "I wasn't sure what to get you," they said. Robin laughed over Paul's gift to him, and said, "How did you know? It's perfect!" James' gift made Mary blush. Their mother beamed over Barbara's, and said, "I'll treasure it forever."

 

There was no gift from Bran, no phone call, no card.

 

After Christmas, the year limped to its cloudy end. Lights blazed in the house until well after New Year, and the room were packed with neighbours, as well as family. As the clock struck the final hour, and glasses were raised, Will crept slowly, invisibly, to bed. They sang "Auld Lang Syne" downstairs, longing for other times. "Should auld acquaintance be forgot," Will murmured in time with them, and sought the doors of Time, for a glimpse of Merriman, and for the sight of himself and Bran, smiling on the hillside, when they were thirteen and thought the whole world lay spread at their feet.

 

January came. One by one, the family left, until there was just Will and his parents, alone in a house that suddenly seemed far too big. "Are you sure you're alright?" Will's mother asked him, as she handed him a mug of tea.

 

"Of course I am," Will lied.

 

The following morning, he returned to Oxford.

 

******

 

Bran found the start of the holidays impossibly quiet. Instead of a bustling city, he had a silent mountain. Instead of a crowded College, in which someone was almost moving around at all hours of the day and night, he had a little cottage, and only his father for company. His father was a man of few words. The dogs bounded around him, welcoming him home, but they did not help pass the hours.

 

The first day was aching in its solitude. The second day, though, he decided that he liked it. He had started life alone. For years of his childhood, there had been no-one he could call friend. He had learnt how to pass time by himself, and he had haunts on the mountain that were unchanged, even after all these years.

 

His father would not ask; his father never did. His father would not ask him when his friends were getting back, and if they had any plans to meet up. His father would not ask him about his time in Oxford, though he would listen if Bran chose to share anything.

 

Bran did not. He spent the first week alone, and told himself that he liked it.

 

He thought of Will often – of course he did. He hoped that he was adult enough, and honest enough, not to pretend that he was over him. He was still angry with him, though, although he had not repeated the mistakes of the drunken party. Will had made ridiculous, overbearing assumptions about their relationship, and had walked away from Bran three years ago, and lied about the reason. Now, three years on, he was doing the same, but worse. Bran had offered Will everything, and Will had only given back some nonsense about not being capable of love.

 

Not being capable of loving me, Bran thought. Not wanting to love me.

 

Solitude was better, he thought, as rain lashed at the window one mid-December night. If you did not get to love someone, then they could not reject you. Then he thought of Rob, and the pain that came from his death. Even just talking to people was dangerous. They died, they hurt you, they teased and laughed. No, it was better to be alone. Solitude had served him well throughout his early childhood.

 

But, in the morning, everything had felt different. The rain had cleared, and sunlight bathed the mountaintop. "What an idiot you are, Bran Davies," he chided himself, leaning in the windowsill with both elbows. "So Will doesn't want you? That doesn't mean you have to give up."

 

Will had taught him well, and the lesson still stood, even though Will had now betrayed him. Not that the lesson had ever been overt. By coming, holiday after holiday, and by apparently liking him, Will had taught Bran that he was worthy of friends. Will likes me, Bran reminded himself, when people tried to taunt him at school. That caused him to greet their taunts with his head high, and soon such taunting ceased. He had helped in other ways, too – listening when Bran confided his fears, and making suggestions in his calm and reasonable way. Bran at fifteen was a very different person from Bran at eleven, and Will Stanton could take the credit for that.

 

And that hasn't changed. With a wry chuckle, Bran thought of babies and bathwater. And that night he put on his coat, and caught the bus into town, and met with a group of his school friends in the pub.

 

The next night, he went to a party. A red-haired girl, the English cousin of one of his friends, clearly wanted to get him alone under the mistletoe. Flattered, he considered giving her what she wanted, but he could not forget Will. No matter how it had ended, their kiss had been special. Perhaps he could not get Will, but he would not throw himself at the first person who asked. The thought of kissing her coral-red lips left him cold.

 

John Rowlands brought round a Yule log. Bran's father pursed his lips, and muttered something about pagan ungodliness, but let it stand. There were stories that night, and songs. After Bran's father went to bed, John lingered for a while, and Bran had him tell stories of wizards, just like he had told when Bran had been a child. Now, so many years on, the stories filled him with a vague and intense longing for things that he did not know. For past days and childhood, he presumed. Why, then, did he see Will, when he closed his eyes on the stories?

 

Midwinter's day was cold and crisp. As night fell, Bran took out the present he had carefully selected for Will's birthday, looked at it, and put it back in the drawer beside his bed. Will's Christmas present rested there, too. Maybe there was still time, if he rushed down to the Post Office in the morning… But in the morning, his father wanted him on the farm. That's fate's way of deciding, he told himself, and tried to think nothing more of it.

 

He wrote to Jane, though, and sent her a present. His letter ran to four pages, and was full of all the things he had done in the holidays, but none of the things he had been feeling. Her own letter back to him was equally newsy, yet restrained. There was talk of Simon and Barney, of Jamie, and her parents. There were parties and dinner and far too much work, but there was no talk of Will, and no mention of the things they had talked about, the night of the party, and the day that followed.

 

Because we've met in person now, Bran thought. Letters are no substitute. We've lost what we used to have.

 

His Christmas was quiet, with few presents, and lamb, rather than turkey. There was no present from Will, but what had Bran expected? Jane phoned in the middle of the afternoon, and a school friend phoned saying he was being driven to distraction by his relatives, and could they go out to the pub on Boxing Day, please, for the sake of his sanity. Bran said yes, and then, a week later, went with the same friend to a New Year's party, where the friend dropped him entirely when a pretty girl came by.

 

As midnight struck, Bran sat alone. Perhaps I over-reacted, he thought. Perhaps I should have given him longer to explain. The New Year dawned, and everyone around him started hugging and kissing, and Bran realised that there was only one person he wanted at his side at this moment, and that he had parted from him in anger. Even if we can't be together in that way, he never said he didn't want to be friends. Maybe that can be enough.

 

Early January was cold and damp, and he stared out of the window, struggling with a letter to Will. Perhaps he really believes what he said – that he isn't worthy of love. I should have stayed to help him, but instead I stormed off in a fury.

 

He scrapped that letter, as he had scrapped a dozen letters before. In a few days' time, he would be back at Oxford, where he would seek out Will, and this time he would really listen.

 

******

 

End of chapter eight

___

 

Chapter nine: Red against the snow

 

Snow fell unexpectedly during Bran's first night back in Oxford. Students romped in the quads, scooping up inadequate smears of flaky snow, attempting to make snowballs. Bran watched them, but did not feel inclined to join in. Back home, snow was not an excitement, but a hardship and a danger, harsh to man and animals alike. They had lost many sheep in one terrible winter, when he was eleven.

 

The second day was a quiet one. Term did not properly start for three days, and tutorials and lectures had not yet begun. Summoned in front of a panel of his teachers, Bran received the first of his termly reports, and was told that his work was satisfactory. That was over by lunch time, leaving him with a long, empty afternoon in a town covered with dirty snow.

 

He decided to go and seek out Will, before the term started and Will took refuge in work and the library. Instead, he wandered around the bookshops. He emerged from the last one to find that the snow was falling heavily, turning the grey city white. Cold, he headed back to his room, and skulked there all evening.

 

The next day, the quads were covered all over with thick white snow. I'll go today, Bran told himself, and he wrapped himself in coat and scarf just to go to breakfast. He greeted several friends, and joined in with their good-humoured moaning about these cold, medieval buildings. Afterwards, he headed to the common room to flick idly through the papers.

 

Perhaps Will had not yet arrived back in Oxford. Bran had come a day earlier than most undergraduates, his journey governed by train timetables and the need to get a lift to the station. A few students in his year, whose homes were in Scotland or far away, had still not been able to return, trapped by heavy snow. But Will only lived near Slough, barely forty miles away, and snow in the south had been light at first. Of course Will was here. Will was in his room, watching the snow by himself, and it was up to Bran to find him.

 

He headed out, but his feet were treacherous, taking him past the lane that headed down to Merton, and instead carrying on down the High Street, to the broad bridge that led to Jane's College. There he faltered. Jane would ask him about Will, he was sure of it. She wanted them to meet and talk things through, and Bran would have to tell her that had not.

 

He paused on the bridge, the tall tower of Magdalen slim and beautiful behind him, and stared out at the water. Less than three months before, he remembered, he had stood here with Will, but then the trees had been green, and today the branches were black and bare, and the water was deadly cold.

 

******

 

Will was colder than he had been in the winter of his eleventh birthday, when the Dark had seized the whole world with its grip of cold. Outside his window, even the trees were shrouded in snow, and the whiteness seemed to seep through the glass, like fingers reaching into his heart.

 

He barely remembered the journey back to Oxford. He knew his father had helped him unpack, had stayed for a mug of tea, then had driven away, shaking his head at the sheeting greyness of the sky. As soon as he had gone, Will had settled down with a book, his eyes passing over a hundred pages of words without reading them. Footsteps had thundered up and down the stairs as everyone around him returned for the new term. No-one knocked at his door. He did not go out to greet any of the voices.

 

Snow had started to fall during the night, and Will, lying sleepless and silent, had felt each flake brushing against his senses, each one frozen yet alive. Like me, he had thought the following morning, scooping up a handful of snow, and holding it with the gentlest touch of his power, so it would not melt. It told him of all the things it had seen, as water in the oceans, as vapour in the clouds, and now as ice in the world of man. In return, he could tell it nothing, for he had nothing left to give. He was a pillar of ice, a fire burnt to ashes, a lump of stone, dead and cold.

 

He drifted through the days, because he had to. An Old One could never give up living, even if he had been left alone to watch an uncomprehending world. The snow deepened. His tutors told him that he was doing well. People smiled at him. Once he had known their names, but now the names had gone to a place in his mind that he could no longer find. An Old One knew all the names of all the stars in the heavens, but the names of people were transient things, entrusted to his mortal, fading mind.

 

Today was Saturday. Term started tomorrow, and Monday would bring his first tutorial. He would go, he would work hard, he would write. Snow could fall, higher than his chin, higher than the rooftops, higher than the tallest mountain, and still he would drift through his appointed life, because there was nothing else he could do.

 

He left his room, headed out onto the path, onto the wall, onto the garden. The leaves had fallen, and nothing whispered in the trees. He had not seen the stranger since arriving back in Oxford.

 

But I am still here, the stranger told him, wild and triumphant. Will turned round slowly, seized with a sudden impression of swirling trees and the sense of a thrilling chase. Can you save him?

 

Will saw blood on the snow. Something tumbled out of the sky, struck with an arrow, and a pale body lay lifeless on the ground. Where? he demanded, then shouted it aloud, commanding in the Old Speech. "Where?"

 

The stranger was silent, lost in the glee of the hunt. Will threw his sense outwards, pinning it to the stranger's presence like a drowning mariner throwing a lifeline, and began to follow.

 

******

 

He did not know what to do. Bran turned slowly away from the water, leaning back against the stone parapet. Standing here above the river, he felt as if he was between two worlds, and part of neither. Jane was on one side of the river, gently questioning. Will was on the other, and with him…? Bran sighed. He did not know.  With Will, there could be pain and heartbreak, anger and shouting, or there could be an explanation, a long talk, a new beginning, and then…

 

"No," he murmured, turning his head away. He could not hope that. They had to talk, though. Perhaps they could salvage something from the mess, and even if they could not, Bran had to try. He was nervous and afraid, but it had to be faced. He had been walking away from it for three days, but would walk away no more.

 

He pushed away from the bridge. As he did so, he saw Will walking into Magdalen.

 

Bran did not pause to think or to question. He saw a gap in the traffic, and seized it, running through the black slush towards the open gate of Magdalen College. Will was some thirty paces ahead of him, walking slowly, looking neither right nor left. Bran considered calling out, but did not. Seized by some impulse he could not name, he started to follow.

 

Will moved through the cloisters, which were lovely and placid around the white expanse of untouched snow. Bran followed. Will was walking more slowly than Bran's natural pace, he realised, so Bran slowed down, trying to make his step seem natural. But why slow down, he wondered, if I want to talk to him? The only answer he could come up with was that they could not talk here, in a snatched moment in a strange College, watched by eyes that did not know them. Then he wondered why it should be that Will's destination was a better place to talk.

 

Will passed entrance after entrance, but did not stop. A group of students spilled out of a staircase, but Will walked past them as if he did not even see them. As they parted around him, Bran was struck with an image of water parted by a stately ship – of people edging away from the passage of someone special. But that's only because he's special to me, Bran thought, and realised that it was the truth. Will was still special to him, and no furious words, soon regretted, could alter that. No matter what Will said to him today, Bran would still cherish him.

 

They left the College behind, heading into the water meadows that stretched between Magdalen and the river. At first the snow was churned up by hundreds of feet, but soon the fields turned silent, the snow untouched.

 

That was when the doubts hit him. It isn't Will! Because this person was moving so smoothly, almost as if gliding, and surely Will did not normally walk like that. His arms did not swing at his side as Bran's arms were swinging, but were slightly raised, like something searching for something in the dark. Despite the bitter cold, his hands were bare, and he wore no hat or scarf.

 

The strange not-Will turned a corner, and Bran caught a glimpse of his face in profile. It looked like Will, but then the doubts became fear. It's gone too far now. I've followed him for too long. How could he explain himself when Will finally noticed him? The snow stretched on ahead of him, seeming to reach for miles, and he imagined himself following Will out of Oxford, out into the wilds, and beyond, as the sky turned dark and the wind rose, bringing fresh snow falls.

 

Then the trees shivered, dark across the path, and Bran imagined Will angry with him, accusing him of spying. He knows I'm here, he thought. He's leading me out here, and then he's going to abandon me. Because Will, that silent figure ahead of him in the snow, suddenly seemed impossibly dangerous.

 

But he could not go back. He had come so far now, far out into the meadows, the buildings reduced to no more than a distant tower. When Will turned to walk back, he would see the footsteps, and know that someone had followed him out here.

 

Notice me, Bran urged him. Turn round and notice me, and bring this to an end. At the same time, he begged Will to carry on, to take a circular path, and never see him. In a few hours, after dinner, Bran could call on Will in his room, say what he needed to say, and not a word would need to be breathed of this walk in the snow.

 

Something moved under the trees, and Bran saw that there were deer nearby, brown against the snow. As he turned to look at them, he caught a quick glimpse of something moving on the other side of him. He whirled round, but it was too late. Will was transformed, rushing forward, his steps quick and firm, his arm outstretched. The movement Bran had seen was gone. Seeping red, a dark speck lay in the snow.

 

Bran's steps slowed. As he watched, Will knelt down beside the brown thing, touching it with exquisite gentleness. Bran drifted one step closer, then two, and saw that it was a brown bird, pierced through with an arrow.

 

Will stood. Bran felt as if the whole world hung suspended, waiting for his response. "Come out." Will said it quietly, in a way that made the hair stand up on the back of Bran's neck. "I know you are here."

 

Bran edged forward; he could not help it. He felt as if he was drawn by a cord, summoned by Will's quiet waiting. Resistance was impossible. He struggled for words, for anything he could say that would make this less terrible. Different openings gibbered in his brain. In the end, useless, he rasped Will's name, and nothing more. "Will…"

 

Will whirled round, and his face expressed surprise and horror before it cleared and was blank again. "Bran." There was all the feeling in the world in that one name, and yet nothing at all, nothing that Bran could read.

 

"You didn't know I was here," Bran realised. He did not feel relief, because if Will had not been talking to him, then who…?

 

"You should go. You shouldn't have come." Will's hand rose, pushing his hair from his face. "I was following… I should have noticed you. Stupid of me. Blind."

 

Nothing remarkable was happening, nothing extraordinary, nothing strange. Bran told himself this with all his strength. "I was coming to see you, and then I saw you going into Magdalen. I wanted to talk…"

 

"It's too late." Will raised his hands and muttered some words in a language Bran did not know. Bran was suddenly filled with the urge to stay where he was, and the certainty that nothing could go wrong. His anxieties fell away, and even the cold felt less biting, and the sky less dark.

 

A man emerged from the trees behind Will, and stalked towards him, smiling. There was something about his smile that… No, something soft whispered in his mind, speaking in impressions, not in words. You can look at it without fear. You are safe from that, and from everything, while I am here. 

 

Still, it seemed polite to tell Will about him. "Behind you, Will." His voice came out quieter than he had expected it to. It felt as if a thick veil hung between him and the world, so that even a shout would come out no louder than a whisper.

 

"I know." Will gave a faint smile, and turned his back on Bran, speaking instead to the stranger. The stranger had an old-fashioned longbow in his hand, Bran realised. "You had no right to do that," Will told him.

 

The stranger waved his bow. "I have every right, Old One. He was mine."

 

"He was not yours," Will said, in a cold voice that Bran had never heard from him. "If he was in your power, it was because you won him with lies and trickery."

 

"Long before your time," the stranger said. "Long before your time, and you powerless to stop us."

 

"But it is finished in my time," Will told him. "And now and forever more, until the ending of the world, I stand here to oppose you when your hand reaches out to the world of men."

 

"You could not save this one," the stranger laughed, "or the other one, or the many that are yet to come."

 

He's talking about me? Bran wondered. Then the stillness soothed over him again, soft in the snow. No, Bran. Be still.

 

"But I can return him to his true form." Will knelt again, bowing his hand, spreading his hands over the tiny form of the bird. "He will die as he should have lived, free from your grip."

 

As he touched the bird, the air seemed to shiver. Bran never saw the change happen, but an instant later, the bird was gone, and a naked man lay in his place, his skin as pale as the snow, a bead of blood at his throat. He was still alive. "Old One," he whispered, his blue eyes widening, and Will touched him on the brow, as if in benediction, and said, "Be at peace. You are home."

 

The man died, the light going out of his eyes. Will's hand lingered for a moment, and then he stood. Cold gathered around him like a storm, and he stood taller than Bran had ever seen him. One hand thrust out, in a command that Bran knew no living man would be able to disobey.

 

"Go!" Will commanded the stranger. "This is not your place. You can wander at will in the world's wild places, but these places are set aside for men. You cannot interfere with Light or Dark, and I place every living soul in this city under the protection of the Light. If you seek to command them, you are declaring war on  me. By the spells of the earth and the air and the cold and the fire, I command thee to lay no hand on any mortal here, and neither seek to bind them with word or hold them through suggestion. You have done your work, but you will toy with me no more. Go!"

 

The stranger laughed.

 

Dark clouds gathered; wind tore at the trees. Snow crystals gleamed in the air, gathering above Will like a crown. "Go!" he commanded, in a voice that made even the earth echo in response, obedient to his command.

 

The stranger left, sauntering back into the trees, his bow across his shoulder. Bran blinked, and when he looked again, Will was no more than he had ever been – a boy in the snow.

 

Bran felt nothing. Even his thoughts were dim. Faintly, he recognised that he ought to be feeling something. His eyes had seen impossible things. For a moment, Will had seemed more dangerous than anything in the world. A man had died. A man had died, and Will was not the person Bran had always thought he was, but something different, impossible, terrifying, remote…

 

But all this through a veil. And that was Will, too, his fuddled mind realised. Protecting me from that man, and from my own feelings. Then he remembered how Will had loomed tall as the sky, gathering all the dangerous things around him in a storm of cold command. Protecting me from him?

 

But it was not yet over. There was more still to come. As Bran watched, Will knelt down beside the dead man, and touched him again, this time on the chest. "Resume your true form," Will whispered, "and be at peace." As if it had been waiting only for his command, the man's body faded, turning into dust. Bran heard a faint sound, and then the body was gone, not even dust on the wind.

 

"He was four hundred years out of his time," Will said quietly, not raising his head. "Four hundred years under an enchantment, though to him it would have seemed no more than seven years. His body has returned to its true state, as a man four hundred years dead. There was no helping him. There is only peace."

 

Then, with a sigh, Will stood and walked towards Bran. Bran felt the moment the invisible veil fell away. He felt it in the sudden coldness of the wind, in the dampness of melting snow around his ankles, in the pain of his own chest, and the tremors that came from more than cold. But he did not cry or shout or scream. Instead, as calm now as he had been forced to be behind the veil, he looked Will full in the face, and said, "We need to talk."

 

******

 

End of chapter nine

___

 

Chapter ten: Truth

 

Will had not realised he had walked so far. Concentrating only on his snatched link to the stranger, he had not noticed where he was going. He should have noticed Bran. It was unforgivable that he had not noticed Bran, because Bran had seen too much, and now…

 

The walk back stretched ahead of them, mercilessly long. Despite everything he had seen, Bran was silent. Will had put him behind a protection, keeping him safe from all harm, including the self-inflicted harm of his own emotions, but Bran had seen everything. He would have questions.

 

"When we get back," Bran said merely. "Not outside."

 

Will thought of the things that could lurk behind trees or beneath the snow, and knew that Bran was right.

 

He could have covered Bran with a stronger protection, stronger than sleep, making Bran oblivious to everything that happened. He could have – no, he should have – but he had chosen to leave Bran aware, seeing and hearing everything, though protected from it.

 

Because I wanted him to see, he realised, as they reached the buildings again, and people rushing past with chattering and smiles, unaware of the death and the challenge that had taken place so close to them. It was unforgivable, it was weak, it was behaviour not fitting for an Old One, but he had deliberately let Bran find out the truth.

 

As soon as they were back in Will's room, Bran would turn to him with questions, and Will would tell him everything. For an hour – for one delicious hour – Will would no longer be alone with his burden. Bran would know, and Will would be one with him, holding nothing back. The ice around his heart would thaw. He would live and breathe again, trusting another person utterly.

 

And then he would make Bran forget.

 

******

 

He did not know how to begin. All the way back, he had wondered how to start it. What he had never done, though, was question what he had seen. In the end, this was how he let it start.

 

"It all happened," he said, sitting down on Will's chair. "I know that. Everything I saw… All those impossible things… I ought to be sitting here saying that I imagined it, that I had a knock on the head, that I was drunk… Or that you used tricks and mirrors and this is just a joke, you and your friend laughing at poor, innocent Bran, for believing it..."

 

Will was sitting stiffly on the bed, as still as if he had turned to ice. He looked almost fragile, nothing at all like the towering power that had sent the bowman fleeing.

 

"But I don't," Bran said. His hands were cold, fingers clasped together in an attempt to get warm. "It happened. Amazing and impossible, but it was all true. I don't know why I know this, but I do."

 

Will's mouth opened, then closed it again. It was his only movement. Bran could not see him breathing.

 

"And you're… You have…" Bran clasped his hands until the knuckles were white. "You're a… wizard?"

 

Will stirred. His frozen face cracked, letting words escape. "Not a wizard, though men have sometimes called us by that name. We are Old Ones."

 

"We?" Bran asked, but Will shook his head sadly, and said, "Not any more. I am the only one left."

 

Bran said nothing. He felt as if he should have a hundred questions. This talk of theirs should last throughout the night, and into the day that followed. He would range through doubt and belief, until, throat raw and unable to speak, he would either accept it, and know everything, or walk away, and never think about it again.

 

Stronger than all of this, though, was the memory of the last time he had been in this room. In this very chair, he had kissed Will, and Will had…

 

"That's what you were talking about," he said, understanding breaking on his mind. "When you said you couldn't share everything about yourself, that you couldn't be close…"

 

"How could I?" Will was goaded into expressing feeling at last, harsh and heartbroken. "You thought you knew me, but that was just a mask, an outward seeming. You could never know who I truly was. How can it be love if one person can't reveal anything about themselves?"

 

Bran studied his fingers carefully. "But I know now."

 

Will looked away, sucking in a breath.

 

"So tell me," Bran begged him. "Tell me everything. Let me know you."

 

"I can't." Will's face was still turned away. "Even if I told you everything, you wouldn't really know. You wouldn't feel it. You can't experience it. But this…" He turned back, smiling so warmly that it was shocking, since Bran knew it could not match the feeling in his heart. "This does help, Bran, just knowing that you know this much."

 

"Tell me more." Bran left the chair, knelt on the floor at Will's feet. "Please, Will. Tell me everything, if not for my sake, then for yours." The only one left, Will had said. Bran had not missed that.

 

Will's smile faded. "As long as there have been men, the twin powers of the Light and Dark have been fighting over the fate of mankind. The Dark wanted to rule it, and the Light wanted to drive the Dark away, so that man could be free. There have been countless ebbings and flowings over the years, but seven years ago the Dark was defeated for ever, and the Light left, too, so that man could rule his own affairs unhindered by the High Magic. The Old Ones left, but I remained, the last of them, to watch…"

 

He could have laughed. He should have laughed. But Bran was deadly serious, completely solemn. Even now, every word rang true, as if Will was telling him something he had once known in a dream, but had forgotten. "Seven years ago, Will? You've known this all along?"

 

"Since my eleventh birthday," Will said. "That's when I came into my powers as an Old One."

 

"Then you were never…" Bran remembered all the times he and Will had wandered over the mountains, just two boys together. "You were always…"

 

"Not always." Will gave a wan smile. "Sometimes – often – I forgot. It's like a different side of me, that sometimes goes so far into the background that it's as if it isn't there at all. But as I grew older, my powers grew stronger, harder to ignore. And things were changing around me. My brothers and sisters were growing up, and I realised that they'd only grow older and older, and die, and I'd be left alone. And then there was you…"

 

Bran felt suspended between breaths, unable to move. "You won't die?"

 

Will shook his head. "I am immortal, Bran."

 

What would Bran's life seem to an immortal? Bran felt like a fly, buzzing around for a day, barely noticed by the great men who passed it by.

 

"That was why," Will said. "When we were just friends, it didn't matter that I was… what I was, but when I started to realise that I loved you…"

 

He had heard it before, and last time there was anger. This time, impossibly, Bran just wanted to grin. He loves me.

 

"I withdrew from you," Will said, "and then, because I'd lost the person I really wanted, I withdrew from everyone else. I can never connect to people in the way that mortals connect, because I'm not like them. I can never share anything."

 

Bran touched Will's knee, and Will did not flinch. "But you're telling me now."

 

Will stiffened, closing his eyes. "You knew, once. So did Jane, but you in particular… So much of what happened, we went through together. But then you forgot. Merriman, my master, made you forget."

 

Bran should have argued, but all he felt as a quiet acceptance, as if something inside him was sighing, of course. That was why he had believed it from the start. Will's words must have touched something deep inside him, long forgotten.

 

"Whenever I saw you," Will said, "I remembered… Oh, I enjoyed our time together, Bran, I really did, but I remembered…. I knew…"

 

"That it wasn't the way it could have been," Bran finished for him, understanding, "if I hadn't forgotten, if I had still known you for who you really were, not just as a… a seeming," he said, using the word Will had used.

 

Will curled his hand into a fist. "It was right that you forgot. It was right for all of you. You had seen things that no mortal should have seen, and you were only children. You needed to grow up unfettered by the memories. You had to make decisions for yourselves, without always wondering what Merriman would have done, what the Light would have done. It was right."

 

Bran knew what was coming. He knew it, and he feared it, with a terror stronger than anything he had ever felt. "You're only telling me this because you're going to make me forget it." The words fell like stones.

 

Will did not deny it.

 

"And I'll forget, and you'll be miserable." Bran grabbed the curled-up fist. "Please, Will."

 

"It does not matter," Will intoned, as if recited a lesson. "My feelings do not matter."

 

"Then what about mine?" Bran cried. He bit his lip, shaking his head wildly from side to side. "Will, please. Please… I'm not a child any more. Perhaps it was right then, but I'm not a child any more. It won't interfere with my growing up. It will…" He could argue for hours, he realised, but ultimately only one thing mattered. "If you make me forget, I will lose you. If I remember, then I can love you, and have the thing I want more than anything."

 

"I can't…"

 

Bran stopped Will's words with a finger on his lips. "Please, Will," he whispered, "let me help you. Let me share this. Let me keep my memory of this just for one day, and then after that for another day, and if you ever regret it, tell me, so I can beg you again, for another day, and then another. Day by day, Will. Please, Will. Please give me a chance."

 

Will said nothing, but he let Bran take him in his arms, his head against Bran's breast. He let Bran lower him gently to the bed, and let Bran hold him in comfort as, outside, the evening turned to night.

 

And then Will slept.

 

******

 

Will was slow to wake. At first he was aware of nothing except that he felt at peace, more rested than he had felt months. The daylight at his window surprised him, because it meant that he had slept through the night.

 

He stirred, and something tightened around his shoulder. Breath stirred his hair, and the whole of his was warm with the closeness of somebody else.

 

Bran. Will remembered everything. He stirred again, sliding out from Bran's embrace. Bran was still asleep, he saw, but was fast approaching wakefulness. I should make him forget now, Will thought, but he made no move to do it. If he did it now, Bran would have too many questions. An Old One could create lies, but there was a limit to how far Will could lie about this.

 

Bran's tawny eyes drifted open. He was quicker even than Will to remember what had happened, for he was already turning towards Will, smiling shyly. "You let me remember."

 

He had, and he had slept more deeply than ever before. He had woken with the knowledge that another person was there beside him, to help him bear his burden. It could not last, though. It could not be allowed to.

 

Bran stood stiffly, grimacing as he stretched. The night had not been comfortable for him, although Will knew he would never admit as much. He had probably lain awake for hours, refusing to move in case he disturbed Will's sleep. He deserves better than me, Will thought, the realisation hurting more than it had ever hurt.

 

Will could not let Bran live a lie. He could not bear to see Bran smiling, heady and shy with this new life that had opened to him. "I did last night," he said. "I was so tired. I wasn't thinking…"

 

All light went out in Bran's face. "But you're happier, now that I know." He stared at Will until Will had no choice but to nod. "And I'm happier. I won't tell anyone. If we're both happier, and no-one's getting hurt, how can it be wrong?"

 

Will could not answer. Merriman had taken their memories, and Merriman was his master, never wrong. But Merriman had trusted mortals at times through his long life, letting them know more about his affairs than other men. Merriman had never had to struggle on alone. And Bran was right. He was not a child any more. He would continue to grow and change, but he had taken huge steps into determining for himself just what sort of a man he would be. This confident young man was a different person entirely from the prickly, proud, lonely boy Will had met on a mountain so long ago.

 

He walked to the window, looking out at the snow. Help me, Merriman. But Merriman was gone, and it was up to Will to decide what manner of life he would lead, and how he would relate to the world around him. Merriman trusted him, or he would never have left Will alone, his Watcher in the world of men.

 

He closed his eyes. Did he dare do this? Did he dare hope? "I can't promise that it will be forever," he said at last, not turning round. His breath on the window made patches of fog, and, unthinking, he traced the Sign of the Light in the dampness there. "If things change… If it comes to pass that you will be happier, forgetting…"

 

"But you'll ask me first." Bran grabbed Will's shoulders, fingers digging in harshly. "You'll let me decide. You won't make that choice for me."

 

Will could not make false promises. "I will ask if I can, Bran, but it has always been the lot of an Old One to make decisions that affect men, acting on knowledge and understanding that man can never share. I will ask if I can, but it may be that I know. It may be that I know, and you do not." He turned round, body raking against Bran's grasp. "It's the best I can give you, Bran. Please let it be enough."

 

Bran was clearly fighting fury, but he made a visible effort to calm down. "It has to be, I suppose." Will knew from his eyes that he had not accepted the truth – that he was hoping to make himself so indispensable to Will that Will would never contemplate losing him again. He could have confronted Bran with this, but did not. Not all truths needed to be spoken.

 

Bran headed back to the chair, where he passed his hands through his sleep-tousled hair. "I never asked you about what happened yesterday," he said quietly. "You said that the… the Dark has gone forever, but… Well…"

 

Will got himself a drink of water, and offered Bran one, too. Then it was his turn to kneel on the floor at Bran's feet. "The Dark has gone," he told him, "but some powers remain. The Wild Magic is the magic of the old and primitive things in the world – older than Light or Dark, and beyond the reaches of the High Magic. It is the magic of storms and earthquakes, of the deep ocean and the earth and things that grow. It was forbidden from aiding either  Light or Dark, but after Light and Dark departed, it remained. Recently, for no reason that I know, it has been growing in power."

 

Bran swallowed. "And that man…"

 

"He is one of the lords of the Wild Magic. The Wild Magic normally knows no lords and no order, but a part of it has always lived close to man, and close to the High Magic, which it hated and aspired to in equal measure." Will gave a faint smile. "Men call them fairies, Bran."

 

But Bran had been raised on John Rowlands' stories, and knew that fairies were not the tiny folk of children's stories, but beings to be feared. "Like in Tam Lin?" he said. "Thomas the Rhymer? That's always a queen."

 

"Perhaps he is their king," Will said. "I do not know, for until now the fairies have kept to their realm, and I have kept to mine. Now… I do not know. He – they – seem to be gathering all the forces of the Wild Magic under their banner, though this is something that should not happen. They are…" He wondered whether to tell Bran the rest of it – about the visions of the crumbling cities. "A threat," he finished. "A threat to men, as you saw." But he did not tell Bran that his friend, Rob, had very likely met his death through the tricks and wiles of the fairies.

 

"How long has this been happening?" Bran asked.

 

"That first day I saw you," Will said, "in Merton gardens, I had first become aware that something was wrong. That was why I fell."

 

Bran looked as if he had been struck. "And you've been fighting it ever since, while I…"

 

Will plucked up his courage, and took Bran's hand. "You weren't to know," he said. "I was careful that you didn't."

 

There would be more explanations to come, he knew. The Time Ceremony, for one, and the time when the motorbike had almost hit him. If it did not occur to Bran to ask about them now, he would ask soon. Will only hoped he did not ask about Rob.

 

"So what now?" Bran asked, and Will shook his head, and had to admit that he did not know.

 

Bran was silent for a while, his thumb stroking the back of Will's hand. "Then let's talk about something different." He blushed. "About… us."

 

Will gently withdrew his hand. Bran had to know. This, of all things, could not be lied about. "An Old One is not just something I do, Bran, but something that I am. I cannot ever be anything other than of the Light. That comes first – more important than my feelings, more important than anything… and, yes, more important than you. If I had to choose between fighting this thing, and you, I would choose it. I could not do anything else and remain myself. If my duty to the Light demanded that I had to give you up, I would have to give you up. It might break my heart, but I could not let it break me."

 

Bran said nothing, frozen by Will's words, his tawny eyes turned almost brown with feeling.

 

"You have to know, Bran, that if you want to… to be with me, you will never have all of me. You know my secret now, but you will never truly be able to share this part of me. I am not fully human, Bran. You will never have all of me. Can you live with that? Because, if not, you should walk away now. Let us be friends, allies, comrades… I won't even touch your memories, unless you want me to, but…"

 

Bran's hand rose slowly, until he was touching Will's cheek. "I can live with that, Will."

 

Will knew that he did not understand. "Bran…"

 

Bran stopped him, his thumb brushing over Will's lips. "I love you. I want to… explore this feeling. I want to… We can't have everything at once, of course we can't, but let's take what we can, when we can. For now, it's enough to have you here, now, and that's all that matters."

 

But of course others things matter, Will thought. But Bran was already moving forward, trying to kiss him, and once again Will had to turn his head, to move away with a sad and regretful sigh.

 

It was not the Old One who spoke now, but Will Stanton, a boy who had never thought to find love. "Please, I need to take it slowly." Be gentle with me. My heart is fluttering in your two hands like a frightened bird. "I've told you more than I ever thought to tell anyone. I never dreamed that something like this would happen. I've never kissed anyone before you. I've never even held hands. I don't know how to confide in people. I don't know how to be close to someone, or how to trust. I need to go slowly."

 

"Of course." Bran withdrew, but took hold of Will's hand. "As slow as you like." He blushed, almost speaking, then thinking better of it. Then, "I haven't, either, you know," he admitted. "Never kissed anyone, or wanted to. Even before I knew it, I was waiting for you. I can wait as long as you need."

 

Will smiled. For that moment, this was all he needed, and all he could ever want.

 

******

 

End of chapter ten

___

 

Chapter eleven: The taking

 

How could it be possible for the world to change so utterly in just one night?

 

Bran felt as if he was flying as he left Merton. Will loves me. He wanted to grab strangers and tell them the news; he wanted to cherish it secret for ever, for it was far too precious to be sullied by the telling. He wanted to dance. He wanted to race back to Will's room and never leave.

 

It was warmer than it had been for days, and no longer snowing. The pale sun was burning away the morning haze, and already the snow was beginning to melt. Or is it just my imagination? he thought, as he unbuttoned his coat, and let the ends of his scarf flap loosely from his neck. Warmth had blossomed in the world just as hope had blossomed in his heart. Then he smiled to himself, wondering if happiness always made a man so poetical, so prone to clichés.

 

He reached the High Street, where shoppers were already heading into town, and students, muffled with their College scarves, headed towards early lectures. During the long night, Bran had forgotten that this was Monday, the first working day of term. The world had changed, but there were still tutorials to go to, and essays to write. There were still dinners, and libraries, and parties on his staircase, loud in the night. There were bills to pay and letters to write…

 

And magic, lurking always beneath the thin veneer of daily life – magic that no mortal man knew about, but him.

 

He stopped awhile, gazing in wonder at the stone buildings, at the cobbles, at the bare trees glimpsed through College gates. Magic lay beneath all of that. The rules of life were not what he had always thought they were. Once, Old Ones had walked in power through the streets of Oxford, and no-one had thought they were anything but normal men. Now Will, the last of them, lived the life of a quiet student, but really was something miraculous and powerful, and his.

 

He scooped up a handful of snow, wondering what secrets lurked in those exquisite crystals. It melted into water, and he wondered if water had its own magic. Sunlight glistened, and he knew that had power and glory. At the end of the day would come twilight, and things still lurked in the wild places of the earth. Even behind the protection of Will's spell, Bran had seen the power and danger of the archer's smile.

 

"Bran." He did not even connect it at first with belonging to him. Hands in his pockets, he gazed at the sky, wondering if stars still wielded power even if they could not be seen. "Bran." It came again, and he turned clumsily, to see Jane.

 

It was a wrench to bring his mind down to a place where he could talk to her, but he managed it. "Jane. How was your Christmas?"

 

"Fine." She smiled. "And yours?"

 

It was stilted at first, the first few exchanges after weeks apart. They said what they needed to say, then Bran wondered if he was supposed to tell Jane about his new understanding with Will. Men were supposed to boast about their conquests, weren't they? But he could not. The night he had spent with Will was not to be sullied by telling it to anyone else, not even Jane.

 

Jane clearly wanted to ask anyway. "So…" She pulled at her bottom lip with her teeth, then faced him directly. "Did you talk to Will?" Her voice was soft, and her eyes were ready to accept either answer.

 

Bran tried to keep it casual, but nothing could prevent a grin from breaking out on his face. "I did, and…" There was no need for further words; the smile said it all.

 

Other girls might have clapped their hands together in excitement, or thrown themselves at him in joy, squeaking and shrieking. Jane was not one of those girls, but her smile said as much as any noisy exclamation. "Oh, Bran, I'm so glad."

 

"Don't tell anyone yet," Bran said. "It's new. Will… He's shy, really, though you wouldn't think it, because he always looks so composed. We've decided to take it really slowly. Don't even say anything to Will, if you see him."

 

"I won't," Jane promised. She looked at her watch. "I'd love to stay and hear all about it, but I've got to rush. Lecture at nine."

 

"I need to get home and change, anyway," Bran said.

 

He realised as soon as he said it that it was a mistake. He saw Jane's expression flicker for a moment as she worked out the implication of his words, but she said nothing. She would have walked away without questioning him, he knew, but he was suddenly desperate for her not to misunderstand.

 

"We were talking last night," he babbled. "We were up late, talking about so many things. And it was late, and cold outside, but warm inside. A bit of wine. You know how it is. I didn't mean to, but I fell asleep in his chair. That's all it was, Jane. We didn't even… kiss." He blushed as he said it.

 

"I wouldn't have minded even if you had," Jane said quietly. She squeezed his hand, smiling warmly. "Thank you, Bran."

 

Bran watched her hurry off. She used to know about Will, he remembered suddenly. Will had told him so many things, and some of them – huge, shocking revelations if they had come by themselves – had slipped by, barely noticed. But Will had definitely said that Jane had once known about the Old Ones. She had known, and, like Bran, she had been made to forget.

 

And Will could still make him forget. All this happiness, all this joy, could become nothing if Will chose to make it so. Bran could lose all this at any time, just through Will's whim.

 

The glitter of the new world faded, and the square was normal again, full of ordinary people in dingy clothes, rushing about their ordinary, everyday business. A thin veneer of magic remained, but it was shadowed now. He thought it always would be.

 

******

 

Long after Bran had left, Will finally stirred. His coffee was cold. He saw a book open on the desk, a pen lying discarded over a sheet of paper, half covered with writing that no longer looked like his own.

 

He pulled on his thick coat, found some gloves from somewhere, and wrapped himself up in his College scarf. He walked outside, feeling as if he was floating, drifting through the world of men like the ghost that some said haunted the library.

 

Bran had kissed him. Bran knew the truth. Bran still remembered.

 

Caught by the thought, he smiled. Someone smiled back, but they were not Bran. He smiled at them anyway, and smiled, too, at the porter, answering his comment about the weather with a comment of his own.

 

He felt more rested than he had felt for months. He had spent the night in Bran's arms, cherished by the only person in the world who knew who he truly was.  It was such a comfort to know that another living soul knew who he was. It was a blessing to no longer hold it as a secret.

 

It could not last, he thought, as the cold air wreathed around him. He walked along the cobbled street, splashing through the dirty slush, heading he knew not where. He was an Old One, born to the service of the Light. It was not for him to show this… weakness. He had to serve, and serve alone. If he relied too much on love, he would be weakened in the job he had to do.

 

It was not fair on Bran, either, he thought, as he crossed the High Street, heading again for Magdalen. Bran as he had been… Yes, that was a fair match for both of them. The Old One and the Pendragon, both with a place in the pattern. They could both live lives that were beyond the understanding of mortal men, and both feel the joy of the Light, or the dread of the Dark.

 

But Bran was no longer the Pendragon. He had chosen a mortal life, and the High Magic had endorsed that choice. Even if he remembered everything, he would never again be the magical being he had once been. No power on earth could undo a choice made so formally at the ending of the world. Bran was an ordinary mortal, and always would be. He deserved to live his life with someone he could understand. He deserved to live his life with someone who could put him first, above everything, and Will would never be able to do that, for the Light came first.

 

I told him that, Will thought. I told him that, and still he chose me. It left him trembly, not sure what to believe, caught between his rusty instincts as a man, and his life as an Old One, that had closed around his life like a cage.

 

He was in the park, now, retracing his steps of the previous day. The open fields were still thick with snow, marked only by the swirling shapes of footsteps, left behind from some late-night snowball fight. He was still not entirely sure why he had come. If his instincts as a human were rusty, his instincts as an Old One felt clouded, blunted by the amazing events of the night before.

 

I am going to lose my way, he thought. Unless I break it off with Bran now, I will not be fit to fight.

 

A few more steps, and the cold was biting against his cheeks. He wrapped his coat around him, and thrust his gloved hands deep into his pockets. Or maybe, said another voice, you will find your way only through him. You will blunder lost unless you let him take you by the hand and lead you back to life.

 

He thought of how tired he had been, how detached, how distracted. Last night, he had slept better than in months, better than in years. Surely…

 

Bran had kissed him. Bran knew everything, and still loved him. And then he was back to that again, back to smiling inanely at the empty fields. He wanted to hug himself, to hold onto the simple warmth of that thought, and guard it fiercely in the face of all doubts.

 

But he could not. The doubts were there, and the cold, and his life as one born of the Light. He had reached the place where he had confronted his enemy, with Bran watching everything. The footprints were still stark in the snow, showing where they had stood. He crouched down, touching Bran's footprints. Magic could be worked through the place where a man had stood. If he chose to, he could make Bran forget everything, and create a lie in his mind, in which he did not know Will Stanton, and was happy.

 

He stood up, turning away sharply. The enemy had left footprints, too, and Will paused over those for a while, but there was nothing he could do directly to harm one of the Wild Magic. He saw, too, the place in the snow where the dying man had lain, hunted by this cold-hearted lord of fairy, and killed in the form of a bird. He knelt beside this, and touched it, feeling an echo of the man's grief and fear, and his longing for home.

 

Will closed his eyes, emptied his mind… Music swelled around him, as it always did when great enchantment was unfolding. He quested towards it with nameless, impossible longing, but then it was gone, and he was in a field of wheat and poppies, warm beneath a late summer sun.

 

He did not move at first. A bird flew leisurely overhead, pale brown against the blue. Church bells sounded behind him, and he turned slowly to see a small village, huddled around a honey-coloured church. Smoke rose from chimneys, and he saw specks that were sheep and cattle on the further green hills. 

 

He started walking, heading for the village. People were hurrying from their houses, answering the summons of the bells. He watched a child being dragged by the hand by a woman in a long blue dress. A muscled man strode from the Smithy, ruling over everyone he passed.

 

An Old One did not always know where he was in Time. The costume made him think it was the early sixteenth century. The colour of the stone showed that he was in the Cotswolds, a few days' ride from Oxford. He did not recognise the church, although it doubtless still stood in his own time.

 

He did not enter it. Drawn by the tug of the dead man's longing, he made for the hedge that divided the village from its first great field. When he heard voices, he concealed himself as a human would do, for his powers as an Old One could be a beacon, drawing the attention of enemies, and this was a world in which the Dark still existed.

 

"You are not going to church?" a woman was saying, her voice soft and lovely, and warm with laughter. "Are you not worried about the wrath of God, or the furious denunciation of your priest, so bristling with wrath in the pulpit?"

 

"I don't care," said a fervent young voice. "You are all I want."

 

"Everything?" Will heard the cruel laughter that ran beneath her voice like an underground river; the besotted lover heard only the kindness. "Do you truly love me as much as I love you, my dear one?"

 

"I do," the man said fervently. "More. More than the earth. More than the moon. More than the skies."

 

"More than you love your sweet betrothed?" she asked. "No, I think not." Her voice feigned sadness. "I think it is better if I left."

 

"No!" he cried – a desperate, pain-filled cry from the soul. "Don't go. Or if you go, take me with you. I never want to leave you."

 

"You will come?" she said, marvelling, laughing, triumphant. Her victory was complete. There was nothing Will could do, for all of this had happened long ago, and he had already seen the end of it. He could stop the fairy folk from coercing men, but he could not stop men from being the authors of their own doom. It was all done by choice; it always was.

 

He saw the young man, bright with promise, take the hand of the being who was to be his undoing. He saw him, smiling, be led into the trap that would lead him to die four hundred years after his time, hunted to his death by a cruel lord. Through a veil of hawthorn, he watched, and he did not know why he had come, because he could do no good at all.

 

And then the lady turned towards him, her face cold and terrible, with barely a shadow of the heart-stopping loveliness she had shown to her victim. "Old One." Her voice carried with it all the chill of winter.

 

Will stepped forward, shedding his cloak of hawthorn, wading through the cornflowers and poppies that rimmed the field. Holding her awful gaze, he nodded at her, but did not dignify her with name or title. Her saw her lips tighten with fury at the affront, and the bitter, human side of him was glad.

 

"You cannot stop me, Old One," she said. "For as long as man has loved, for as long as man has been swayed by beauty, we have been allowed to take those who choose it as their doom. It has always been thus. The Light cannot stop it."

 

Will said nothing. But he held the lady's gaze steadily for a long time, and eventually her gaze dropped.

 

Her victim stood nearby, frozen and unseeing. The people of Fairy, like the Old Ones and the Lords of the Dark, could catch a mortal out of Time for a space. Time ran differently in their realm, and they could stop it or start it at will. They could not travel through it as an Old One, though. This lady knew only what had happened in the past, and knew nothing of the future. She could travel to neither.

 

"He is mine, Old One." Her voice was trembling with fury. "Mine."

 

"No," Will said calmly. "He is his own. All men are. You can trick them and seek to bind them, but you can never take away their freedom of choice. He may live in the shadow of your deceit, but he will die free, his mind free from the veil you have cast over it."

 

She strode away, her lovely face almost petulant. As she passed her victim, she snatched at his wrist. Powerless, watching, Will had no warning. Claws tore at his hair, and he threw up his hand, shielding his head. Black feathers filled his vision, and a raucous cawing sounded impossibly loud in his ears. He reached into his memory for the words that would strike his attacker down, but as he did so, claws penetrated his guard, scoring a line down the side of his neck. Snapping a word in the Old Speech, he thrust his hand at the rook, casting it away from him. It fell to the ground, where it lay half-frozen, glaring balefully at him.

 

He did not need even to look. The lady had fired her parting shot, and had disappeared, her victim with her.

 

Will felt a thin line of blood trickling across his collar bone. "Go," he told the bird, as he released it from the spell. With the lady gone, the bird was itself again. It retreated into a nearby tree, muttering sulkily.

 

"Richard!" A girl came running from the village, red-cheeked and breathless. "Richard!"

 

Oh, Will thought. Oh no. For there was no hope he could offer to these people, and no help. Unbidden came the memory of Cafall's death, when Will had been able to offer Bran nothing but the wisdom of an Old One, so useless, so inadequate.

 

"Richard!" When the girl saw Will, she stopped abruptly. Her hand rose to her mouth, then down again. "My lord." She bobbed him a curtsey.

 

In centuries gone by, before the Age of Reason, the common folk could still recognise the touch of magic about a person. An Old One could veil this, but Will was still in the clothes of another time, with words of the Old Speech fresh on his tongue. She could not know him as an Old One, but she knew him for someone with power – a stranger who did not belong.

 

And perhaps as the enemy. She was brave, though, this girl who was four hundred years dead. "I am looking for my betrothed," she said. "A young man, with brown eyes and hair the colour of wheat at harvest."

 

"I'm sorry." What could he offer her? What could he give her but the truth? "He has gone. He chose his fate."

 

Tears started in her eyes, but she did not sob. "The lady…"

 

"One of the great ones of Fairy," he had to tell her.

 

"Are you one of them, too?" She pressed one hand quickly to her face. When she lowered it, her expression was different. "No, I know you are not. They are beautiful and terrible, with witchcraft in their smiles. So why, then, didn't you stop it?" Her clenched fists trembled, but then her courage failed her. "Forgive me, my lord."

 

"I could not." Will could not look at it. "We are bound by laws just as you are. I could not."

 

"But you will bring him back." There was desperate hope in her face, warring with hatred. "You will bring him back to me, my lord."

 

She did not wait for an answer; perhaps she knew that it would be no. Will stood still for a long time, watching her go.

 

Why had he come here? From beginning to end, there had been nothing he could have accomplished. Maybe he had just thought to honour the man who had died beneath his touch, by watching the solitary moment in which he had sealed his doom. But that was sentiment, and an Old One could not think like that.

 

There was nothing left for him to do but return as he had come, following the link of the doomed man's love and longing.

 

Music surged, and when it cleared, he was alone in the snow, kneeling in the place where a man had died four hundred years removed from his own time. "Fight me," he cried, standing up. His voice faded in the vastness of outside, and became nothing. "I am the last of the Light, and the High Magic is gone. Let us fight this war ourselves, you against me."

 

Only silence greeted his words. He had come here, he realised, in the hope that his enemy would appear again, and they would be able to confront each other in a place far removed from mortals, where no-one would get hurt. But the enemy was gone. He would reappear only at a time he chose, when he thought he had an advantage.

 

It was time to go home. Will crouched one last time, and, pointing a hand, wiped the snow clean of prints. When he set off slowly home, he left no trail. Behind him, in the park, was only pristine snow.

 

******

 

End of chapter eleven

___

 

Chapter twelve: Cracks

 

Words of Latin rolled through the hushed hall, spoken in a sonorous Welsh voice. Bran enjoyed the sound of it. He had only studied Latin for two years, and had forgotten most of it, but something about the language stirred something deep inside him.

 

Or maybe it was just Will. He was constantly seized with the memory of their kiss, and of the truths that had been told along with it. He would shiver, then, sometimes with joy, sometimes with fear. Nothing would ever be the same again.

 

The grace ended. On their rows of benches, a hundred students sat down, short black robes brushing the backs of the wooden benches. "Amazing, isn't it?" muttered Gareth, sitting at Bran's left. "Like something from a costume drama on TV."

 

Bran smiled in response. This was the first time he had signed up for Formal Hall, the College's formal evening dinner. Usually he opted for the informal early sitting, or just grabbed a snack from the kebab van or the chip shop. That morning, though, he had been seized with the idea to invite Will to dinner, to sit with him in front of all these people. He did not want to look a fool. He wanted to find out when to stand and when to sit, and if the stranger rumours of ancient traditions were true.

 

The first course was soup, served by solemn College waiting staff. Bran leant to the side to let the dark-haired man access to his plate. When it was served, he glanced cautiously up and down the table, trying to see if he was supposed to start, or if he had to wait until the whole long table was served.

 

"We don't have formal dinners at home," Gareth whispered, reflecting Bran's own anxiety. They raised their spoons together – Bran at least knew which of the many items of cutlery was the soup spoon – and started on the soup. It was rich and delicious, although not as good as Jen Evans' cooking at home.

 

Gareth turned to the girl on his other side, and Bran was left alone to eat. Conversation bubbled all around him. Apart from the waiter service, and the gowns that everyone was wearing over their ordinary clothes, the meal seemed no more formal that normal meals. People laughed at jokes. Some ate with their elbows on the table, and some gowns were crumpled, as if they had been stuffed down the back of a chair and pulled out in haste.

 

The hall, though, was it usual dark self. In the winter, no light came from outside. The dim lights on the table were no brighter than candles. The paintings on the wall showed old Fellows of the College, from centuries gone by. The words of the grace had been spoken unaltered for five hundred years. The clothes beneath the gowns had changed, but black-robed students had sat here for centuries, eating in the ancient hall.

 

And none of it is really real, Bran thought. He felt as if he was floating, suddenly, caught up in the darkness and the stern faces of the men in the pictures. What was a grace five hundred years old? The oldest buildings in Oxford had been built a thousand years ago, but that was nothing in the lifespan of an Old One. Traditions that to men were incredibly long, to an Old One were like the fleeting games of a child. Mankind and all his works were but a tiny thing in the vastness that was the High Magic.

 

The world was not as Bran had always thought it. Magic lurked unseen behind all the tiny things of everyday life. Even ancient things were tiny and frail. The men in the portraits had died centuries ago, but Will would never die.

 

"Why are you looking like that?"

 

Bran started. He found himself poised with the spoon halfway to his mouth, staring at nothing. Everyone else had already finished, and the servers were already collecting the bowls.

 

"Just thinking," he told Gareth, as he hastily scooped up the last of his soup. "About traditions, and that. About how we think they've gone on since time immemorial, but, really, that doesn't mean anything, does it? The earth is billions of years old. The first Oxford College is less than 800 years old. It's nothing, really."

 

"Well, if you put it like that…" Gareth was clearly unconvinced, but humouring him. "They're too old for me, though. All this Latin and mumbo-jumbo… They should get rid of it – move it into the real world."

 

Gareth was famous for spouting radical views, even as he gleefully sought to benefit from every bastion of privilege and tradition that Oxford could offer a bright young man from the valleys. Bran said nothing, merely smiling indulgently. A moment later, Gareth had turned back to the girl.

 

As he waited for his main course to arrive, Bran studied the faces around him. Some of them he remembered from his first day, when he had been searching so anxiously for friendly faces. He had looked at every face then, wondering if they belonged to people who would be his friends for his whole life, or people whose names he would never know. He had found Rob, of course, and then, a few days later, he had found Will.

 

And now none of these faces mattered at all. How could they? Bran had been given a glimpse of a world of magic. Will, who could stand as tall as the sky and command a being from legend, had let Bran kiss him, and had slept the night in his arms. What could anyone else offer that could ever compare to that?

 

How would they react, he wondered, if he brought Will here, if he held his hand, if he touched his shoulder, stroked his cheek? Would they stare if he kissed him, there at the table? Or here? Or here? Bran felt the heat rising to his cheeks. His hand trembled, and he had to press it down flat on the table. The server leant over, placing a plate of duck in front of him, and for a moment Bran was shielded by his bulk. When he moved on, Bran was calm again, his cheeks pale, his hands steady.

 

But I want to, he thought, still tremulous inside. I will.

 

******

 

There was a broad crack across the base of the sundial.

 

Will placed his hand on it, half-closing his eyes. Some magics were too deep to show themselves when you looked directly at them, and only came when the mind was turned away. Some enemies were too subtle to reveal themselves except in shadow.

 

He felt coarse stone against his fingers. Beneath it, he felt roots eating into the stone, given strength by something that should never have been able to do so. He felt the lurking malevolence in the red winter berries, in the slumbering branches, in the dew-heavy air. He felt the mind that lay behind it all, a general mustering of things that were never meant to be ordered. He felt the control that was reaching out, giving pattern to something that was always meant to be wild and without discipline.

 

He saw the armies that were gathering for war. He saw how tiny were the victories that had already been obtained, and how tiny were his own victories against them. Huge forces were yet to be revealed. In the months and the years to come, the world would be changed forever, unless he found a way to stop it.

 

Will opened his eyes slowly, blinking into the light of the real world. Real? he wondered sluggishly. It was a veneer only. Everything around him was created by men. The walls and the towers were built by them from stone, and the plants and trees only grew where they did because man had planted them, and tended them still. Beneath it all ran the Old Magic of the earth, and the Wild Magic of those living things that had not let civilisation blunt their ancient powers. The High Magic ruled all, of course, but the High Magic had withdrawn its hand from the earth. If the Wild Magic chose, it could tear down all these towers and gardens, and reduce men to the terrified beasts they once had been, so long ago.

 

It cannot happen, he swore.

 

And then it was as if Merriman was there beside him, his deep voice sounding in Will's mind, as he thought it always would until the end of Time. Why not, Old One? Because you are still too close to the world of men?

 

Will considered it, never taking his eyes off the crack on the base of the sundial. It was not really Merriman, he knew that, but when his own thoughts spoke with the voice of his master, he had learnt to listen well. "No," he said at last, whispering the words silently beneath his breath, "but because we fought for so long so that mankind can be free."

 

The lords of Fairy always offer choice, said the voice in his mind that sounded like Merriman. You were left behind as a Watcher, merely.

 

"They cheat." Will curled his fist. "They trick. They offer no more real choice than the Dark did, who ruled always by twisting a man's own ambitions to their end."

 

But they have always done so, his mind replied, and the fierce and steady gaze of Merriman filled his memory. We have never interfered. The Light cannot touch the Wild Magic – that is the Law.

 

"But the Wild Magic cannot challenge the Light, and yet it has done so. The Wild Magic is without order and pattern, yet now it has both. Tethys rules in the deep, where there are no men and no Dark and no Light, but on the land, the Wild Magic has no governance and no leader. This is the Law. All of these are the Law."

 

And the Law has been broken, said Merriman slowly.

 

"The High Magic has withdrawn," Will said. "The Laws are failing – they must be, or none of this could have happened. The Wild Magic can act with a single mind, and go to war against man." His fist was clenched so tight that it was trembling. "But I can go to war against it, even if I cannot harm it directly," he vowed. "I can, and I will."

 

With no Law to protect you. It was not Merriman any more, but the voice of the human boy, the Will the Old One often thought dead.

 

Will let out a breath. His face was wiped clean of all expression. "None of that matters in the slightest. I am of the Light, and I am a Watcher no more."

 

Far away, and everywhere, he thought he heard the living earth laugh.

 

******

 

Bran saw Will only by chance. The wind stirred a tree, and Bran, turning, looked towards the movement, and saw beyond it a still figure standing beside the sundial, one hand resting loosely on the stone.

 

Bran hurried up to him. "I was on my way to your room." His short coat lashed around his hips, and he shivered at the chill of this place, exposed on the walls. "Aren't you cold?"

 

Will's face was as blank as a statue, staring away from Bran across the meadows. Swallowing, Bran followed the direction of his gaze, but saw nothing. "Will?" His voice was quieter now. Nervousness was fluttering in his chest, though he did not know why.

 

Will blinked. His face changed, almost as if he was becoming another person. In the place of the blankness there was a smile. The otherworldly grey eyes softened, revealing a touch of blue. "I'm sorry," Will said, smiling sheepishly. "I was thinking. I didn't hear you."

 

"And half dead with cold, I wouldn't wonder," Bran grumbled, for Will's long coat was unfastened, and the ends of his scarf dangled limply down to his waist. The cold made Bran think of the snow, and with that came the memory of the confrontation that was never far away from his waking mind, and which haunted his sleep. "Was it…?"

 

Will shook his head briskly. "He wasn't here. We're quite safe."

 

Bran found that he had edged close to Will, for even his subconscious wanted to be close to this man. It was a good remedy for cold, he reminded himself, to wrap yourself in the arms of another. And they were not entirely alone. People were walking past, both below, in the meadow, and on the path that skirted the garden. It would be their first public embrace. He felt his cheeks grow warm. To claim Will as his own, in front of other people… To be claimed by him, picked out and chosen by a being so powerful that he could have ruled the world…

 

But he was still Bran. With a quiet encouragement, years before, Will had taught Bran to take the taunts of the bullies and turn them to his favour. But before that, there were many years of being different, and old pains never entirely went away. In the cold light of day, he was not entirely sure that he was ready to tell the world that he was gay. People accepted him despite his colouring. Would they accept him if he added yet another difference between him and them?

 

That doesn't matter, he told himself firmly. They don't matter. Only Will matters. Only Will.

 

He raised a slow hand to Will's cheek, and gasped solicitously at how cold it was. Then the hand lowered, heading over Will's jaw, and down towards the hollow of his throat. Will flinched – only the slightest sound of indrawn breath, quickly concealed. Bran snatched his hand away as if burnt.

 

"I'm sorry…"

 

"No." Will's eyes had changed again, and now looked only weary. "It's not what you think." As he shook his head, Bran saw the end of a scratch that disappeared into the collar of his shirt. It was clearly healing, but it looked deep and painful, the skin reddened around it. "A bird," Will explained. "Doing the will of its… mistress. It caught me unawares."

 

Bran wanted to fuss over it with his fingers. "I didn't know you could be hurt." He fought a strange and unexpected wave of something that was close to panic. For a week, he had been haunted by the memory of the arrogant enemy, but for a week, too, he had cherished the memory of Will opposing him, so strong and powerful. There was nothing Will could not defeat. No matter what happened, neither of them would be hurt.

 

Will smiled. "Oh yes. I bleed just like any human bleeds. Surely you remember that time we were climbing the gate, and I fell off and went on to bleed most picturesquely all over my aunt's table.  Just…" His smile faded. "I can't die."

 

"I can," Bran said, struck for the first time by the tiniest inkling of what these simple statements might come to mean, if this slow and faltering relationship ever became something more.

 

Will took his hand. "I will do everything in my power to make sure that you do not die before your time."

 

It was too much. Running from one source of deep and painful emotion, Bran took refuge in another. This was the first time that Will had initiated touch between them. Slightly raising their clasped hands, he said, "When you flinched, I thought you were ashamed to be seen in public with me."

 

A small line appeared between Will's brows. "Of course not." His thumb ran across the back of Bran's hand. "There's nothing more… Shall we…?" His eyes closed and opened again. "Let's go back."

 

He did not release Bran's hand. Hand in hand, they walked across the garden, back onto the path. Few people were about, but those who were, saw. Bran saw a girl's eyes turn round with gleeful shock as she noticed their hands. A boy saw them, and looked away in distaste. It would be all around the College by the end of the day, Bran knew. Quiet Will, who kept himself to himself, had found himself a boyfriend. "Who'd have thought it?" they would say, over their drinks. "I never knew he was like that. I wonder what other surprises he's hiding." But as for those, none of them would ever know. Bran alone would see beneath the shrouding coat, and, deeper, into the heart, and to the secrets within it.

 

He must love me, he thought, because if he didn't, why would he do this?

 

They reached the entrance to Will's staircase, but Will did not release him. At the stairs, though, he slowly let Bran's hand fall, and started to climb, leaning surprisingly heavily on the banister. Bran followed close behind. He nuzzled into Will's back as Will fumbled with his key. The moment they were inside, the door safely closed behind them, Bran grabbed Will, and pushed him back against the door. "I love you," he said fervently. "Kiss me."

 

Will's lips were soft beneath Bran's sudden urgency. They parted slightly, coaxed apart by Bran's tongue, and, oh, but this was sweet! Bran had never kissed anyone like this, never imagined, never dreamed… He pushed one hand beneath Will's coat, sliding it round the side of his waist. With the other one he cupped Will's face, his fingers caressing the uninjured side of his neck. And Will loved him back, and Will wanted this, and Will had initiated this. Will loved him enough to hold him in public. Will loved him.

 

Then Will's hand came up, pushing firmly at Bran's shoulder. Their lips drew apart. "No." Will's face was flushed. "Slowly, I said. I mean it. I'm not used to this."

 

"Neither am I," Bran told him. His eyes felt dazed with passion. "We can learn together."

 

Will extricated himself, and walked across to the window. His hands were surprisingly pale as they gripped the windowsill. "Yes." Unable to see his face, Bran could not read his voice. "But slowly, please. Please, Bran."

 

Bran tottered over to the bed. "It wasn't what I thought it was." He sat down heavily, his face sinking into his hands. "When you held my hand in public just now, I thought it was because you wanted this to go further. You were making a move – the first time ever. Do you know how hard it is, Will, to always be the one to come and find you, to always be the one to ask for a kiss? You never come for me, you never start anything… and today… Today I thought…"

 

Will said nothing. Bran thought his head bowed a little lower, but he could not see his face.

 

"But it didn't mean anything, did it?" Bran lowered his hands, stared at his clasped hands. None of these people matter to you. No-one matters to you. To you, it was like… like walking with me through a herd of cows. You don't care in the slightest about what they think."

 

"No," Will said quietly, "I don't. It's how I am – how I was taught to be. If I am serving the Light, and this means that people hate me, that is how things have to be. An Old One cannot care if he is disliked or mocked, if he is pitied or… loved." There was the slightest tremor on that word. "But I do care about the last," Will said, turning round. "You said that no-one matters to me, but that's not true. You do matter, Bran. You always will."

 

Bran wanted to stay angry. He wanted to stamp out and slam the door, and sulk in his room until Will came begging his forgiveness. But Will's eyes were fathomless, gazing deep into Bran's soul. And Will was fighting something terrible, and Bran would stay and support him, come what may.

 

"But not as much as the Light," he said wearily, pushing his hair off his face. As he did so, he recognised it as a mannerism of Will's, unconsciously adopted. "I know. You warned me. You told me it would be like this, and I said I could live with that."

 

Will dropped to his knees in front of him. "I can't change who I am, Bran."

 

"No." Bran tried to laugh, hoping that a pretence would lessen the bleak coldness in his heart. "A first love affair is supposed to be fraught enough, isn't it, without adding in the fact that you're an immortal wizard struggling to save the world. I don't have a chance."

 

"You were never supposed to find out," Will said quietly. "Then this would have faded, and you would have been happy."

 

"Without you?" Bran raised his head sharply. "No, Will, hard as it is, I would rather have you, and all of this. I would rather have you, and take this as slowly as you like, than to be without you. I'd rather have the truth than forget." He sighed, looking over Will's head to the window, where the grey sky spoke of more snow to come. "But I think I would rather go home now. I'll come back tomorrow."

 

"Or I'll come to you."

 

He heard Will's parting words as he opened the door. He almost went back for a kiss, then thought he could not bear it. He went down the stairs alone. Outside, it started to snow.

 

******

 

I don't think I can do this.

 

Will sat down on the bed, still warm from where Bran had been sitting. He was not used to this. He had not prepared himself for it.

 

Oh, he had realised, back when he was fifteen, that he felt things for Bran that he was not supposed to feel. That was why he had walked away. In the years that had followed, he had steeled himself to accept that he would live his everlasting life alone. He did not see how he could hope for anything else.

 

And now there was Bran. Now there was Bran, who knew more than any other mortal knew about the affairs of magic and the Light. Now there was Bran… and Will seemed to upset him with every word. Bran was different already, after barely a week of this. His easy confidence was being eroded. His eyes were troubled more often than not.

 

I should free him, Will thought.

 

He took a handful of blanket, and closed his fist around it. Bran was… Bran was… No. Bran was not what he had once been. Bran knew part of the truth now, but only because he had been told. He still did not remember all those things that they had shared. He was no longer the Pendragon, and never would be. They would never be able to share the fight that Will was engaged in, standing side by side, like equals. Bran would never be able to feel the things that Will could feel.

 

Will needed a colleague who lived in magic as he did. Bran needed a man who could put him first above everything, and could talk about normal, human everyday things.

 

There was no way that this could work.

 

Bran, who had thought himself unloved as a child, wanted proofs of love. Bran, always more sensual than he had seemed, wanted kisses, and more. Will wanted… What did he want? Bran at his side, as he once had been, but that would never happen. He wanted a Bran who would be there when he needed him, but would slip into the background when Will was engaged on affairs of magic. He wanted a Bran who would be patient, as Will tried slowly, oh so slowly, to thaw the wall of ice he had erected over his heart.

 

He wanted things from Bran that no-one had the right to expect from another. Better far to free him now, with a simple murmured "forget." Bran could find himself someone who could give him what he needed, and Will would be cold and free and focused, devoting all of his mind to fighting this threat that had arisen in the world.

 

He sat very still. Just one word, he thought. A simple spell. Nothing at all. Just a thought, and all of this would come crashing down, and it would be as if none of it had ever happened. He would erase even the memory that they had once known each other. If they passed in the street, they would be like strangers. Only Will would know, but Will had hidden worse things that this behind the blank armour of his face.

 

His hand lowered, and he sighed – a bitter sigh of weakness and defeat. Not yet, he thought. Oh not yet…

 

And tomorrow, he knew, he would go to Bran, and this whole sorry thing – this whole delicious, wonderful thing – would start all over again.

 

******

 

End of chapter twelve

___

 

Chapter thirteen: Called

 

"Two weeks into term," Jane chided him, "and this is the first time we've managed to spend time together."

 

Bran grimaced in agreement, or perhaps in apology. Jane had sent him two notes before he had remembered to reply to her. He was wary of making arrangements for any evening, just in case Will chose that evening to come round.

 

"So how are… things with you?" Jane asked carefully. She had never been a girl to gossip or pry. Bran was free to interpret her question any way he liked.

 

"I'm doing fourteenth century Europe," Bran replied. "I chose it. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's the Black Death – the thought of half of every village dying out, and everyone being powerless to stop it. You feel that it couldn't happen today, but then, when you start thinking…"

 

"Don't let Simon hear you saying that," Jane said. "One day man will cure all known diseases. That's what he says, anyway."

 

Bran thought of Will, with his magic. Men were rather puny things, when compared with all the other beings that walked the earth. "I don't think they will."

 

They were walking up St Giles, heading for a cinema in north Oxford. Cars threw up spray from the blackened slush, and knots of students hurried out for the evening, wrapped against the cold.

 

"It's Jamie's birthday on Friday," Jane said, as they turned off the main road. She gestured at a French restaurant. "I'm thinking of taking him there, though  I suppose it will be too expensive."

 

So she was still with Jamie. Bran had not liked to ask, in case they had split up. He had not liked to ask, either, because then Jane would have to ask the equivalent question in return. How are things with Will? Are you still together?

 

She had to be wondering, though. He had to give her something. "Will and I are… together. We're taking things slowly, because he wants… Well, I do, too. This is all new to me." A tree dripped water onto his face, and he wiped it away roughly. "I hope…" No, he would not say that.

 

Jane reached over and squeezed his hand briefly. "You can talk about anything you want, Bran, but if you'd rather not talk about it, I understand. We can talk about… oh, the weather. Essays. Favourite flavour of ice cream."

 

"Chocolate chip," Bran said with a smile. His smiled faded. "I just… can't. It's too new. We're still sorting things out ourselves. I can't say things behind his back."

 

"I understand." Jane looked at him seriously for a moment, then smiled. "And black cherry is far better, of course."

 

A noisy group of students were approaching on the pavement, and Jane and Bran parted to let them through. I can't tell her, Bran thought, before they rejoined each other.  I can't talk to her about anything any more. Jane knew nothing at all. He could not talk about the things he had seen, and he could not talk about his relationship with Will, because so many of their peculiar problems derived from the fact that Will was what he was. Bran was reduced to vagueness and half-lies.

 

She had known once, though. According to Will, Jane had once known everything. Did she feel the lack of those missing memories? Bran could tell her everything, but he doubted she would believe him. Only Will could give her proof, but that was for Will to decide, for it was his secret, not Bran's.

 

But I want her to know, he thought. If Jane knew everything, then Bran would have someone to confide in. At the moment, he was the only ordinary person who knew about the world of magic, and he had no idea how to help Will. If only there was one more person… This is what Will thought, he realised suddenly. Will had borne his secret alone for years, until Bran had stumbled upon it and been allowed to keep his memories of it. How precious it must be to Will, just to know that he wasn't alone! But Bran needed company, too. If Bran had someone like him, who knew what he knew, and was as ordinary as he was…

 

But he's mine! Bran let out a breath, surprised by the strength of the emotion. Will was his. Bran alone knew his secret. He knew something about Will, and about the world, that no-one else knew. If someone else came along, it would no longer just be the two of them.

 

"You're quiet," Jane remarked.

 

Bran managed to smile, pushing aside his confusion and his doubts. "Sorry."

 

Then they were at the cinema, and it was time to go into the darkness, to sit side by side in a place where they could not talk.

 

As the film began, Bran realised why he had suggested the cinema for their evening out. There was no need to talk in the cinema. There were no awkward questions, and there were no silences, when there was no way he could answer with the truth.

 

******

 

He knew what he would find.

 

Wind tore at Will's coat, making it stream behind him like a thick black cloak. His hair lashed at his eyes. "I need to get it cut," he had said to Bran the night before, but Bran had smiled almost shyly, twirling a strand between his fingers, and said, "I like it." Bran was not here now, though. Will was an Old One, engaged with his true concerns. The mortals in Oxford were all asleep, or tossing restlessly as the wind hammered at the windows.

 

Will walked on. He knew who was waiting for him down at the river, so when the figure stepped out from behind a tortured tree, he showed no surprise.

 

"So you come when I call you." The stranger's smile was hidden by the darkness, but the allure of it was evident merely in his voice.

 

"No," Will told him. "You called with the voice of the wind. I chose to come, to hear what you had to say. You cannot command me."

 

"And you cannot command me," his enemy remarked mildly, "or defeat me, or interfere in any way. That is the Law, is it not?"

 

"The people on this earth are still under the protection of the Light."

 

The stranger laughed. "The Light departed, leaving only you behind – the last of them, a child."

 

Will's coat lashed at his legs. Fractured moonlight skittered on the surface of the river, allowing Will to meet his enemy's mocking gaze and hold it. "I was no child, as well you know. And I was left to watch and to guard. Man is free to govern his own affairs, and the Dark has gone forever, but I am here to keep them safe from other dangers that no man can be expected to face."

 

"Like storms?" His enemy laughed, raising a gleeful arm to the violent sky. "Earthquakes? Droughts? Fire? All of these things happen, and no man can control them. There is Wild Magic in all such things, and Old Magic beneath it, in the earth. Would you keep man safe from the elements?"

 

Will gestured with his hand, and spoke the quick words of the Old Speech that would still the storm where they stood. Although he was prepared for it, the sudden silence was a shock. "We could," he said, "but we do not. Storms and earthquakes happen, as you know, as part of the order of things, ruled by the Old Magic of the earth. The Dark sought to use them for their own ends, and we fought them then. If a storm becomes more than just a storm, because of the malice of the Wild Magic, then that part of it I will fight. If the Wild Magic is exceeding the boundaries set for it so long ago, then I will fight."

 

"A war between the Light and the Wild," the stranger said with relish. "We should have been allowed to fight years ago. It would have been glorious."

 

"It will not happen as you wish it to," Will told him calmly. "We cannot fight head to head. Like the Dark before you, you will wage your war through ordinary men and women. I will do whatever I can to stop you. When you knock a wall down, I will rebuild it. When you break a defence, I will repair it. The High Magic has turned its eyes away from this earth, but it has not abandoned it. The Law is weakened, but it will hold. Your actions will have consequences."

 

The stranger walked towards him, tall and arrogant in his lavish clothes. His smile was silver in the moonlight. "Think what we could do together if we were on the same side." He touched Will's cheek, his fingers cool and caressing. "The Light left you behind; you are no longer bound by them. We could rule…"

 

"You are foolish indeed if you think you can win me like this." Will grabbed the stranger coldly by the wrist, and lowered his hand. "You are foolish to try to win me at all. I am of the Light. We are not capricious, like your kind, and we cannot be tempted from our course, the way you tempt mortal men. I am of the Light. I can never be anything else. If you go to war against the world of men, it is inevitable that I will oppose you."

 

"You are cold." The stranger nursed his wrist in his other hand.

 

"The Light is cold," Will told him, "but coldness saved mankind from the Dark, and your sort of wild, unfettered emotion will only doom them."

 

"But they will be free." The lord of the fairies threw back his head, as proud as a warrior king in battle. "Our magic is the magic of all living things. Man once lived in the glorious river that was the Wild Magic, bathing in it, nourished by it. Now he barely hears our call. His blood is weak and thin, and he lives behind stone walls and calls himself civilised. Why shouldn't the world return to the way it was? The Wild Magic was here before Light and Dark, yet you pushed us back to the wild places. In the name of fighting the Dark, you filled the world with your chosen kings and teachers, to bring the so-called light of civilisation. You paved the way for the ascendancy of the human race – a race of cold-hearted puppets who have forgotten what they truly are."

 

"You will not win me with your words, either," Will said quietly. "I do not think with the reasoning of a man."

 

The stranger ignored him. "Your kind worked tirelessly to drive away the Dark. You created a world in which mankind reigns supreme. Where was the Light when men wiped out the last of the noble species of animals? Where was the Light when men tore down forests and replaced them with cold, hard stone? I speak for the magic of all living things. If cities crumble, trees will replace them. If technology fails, nature will thrive. It is how things used to be. It is how things ought to be."

 

"But still I must oppose you," Will told him. "Nature is harsh and cruel, with no hope and no light. I have been in Tethys' realm and seen what a world ruled by the Wild Magic is like. The closer a creature is to the Wild Magic, the further away it is from the Light. As mankind forgot the Wild Magic that had once coursed through his veins, he grew closer to the Light. The Light is cold, but it is never cruel. Only the Wild Magic, and nature unfettered by hope, is cruel."

 

"I called you cold," said his enemy, and there was something in his voice that sounded like regret. "Like ice, you are."

 

"And I call you cruel," Will said, "and I oppose you and all your works. There can be no purpose in speaking any more. You do as your nature dictates, just as I do as mine."

 

He spoke the necessary words, and let the storm resume. Small pieces of grit tore at his face. The river ran in spate, and trees bent down low, groaning as if in pain. As he turned and began to walk slowly back to the city, he was very aware of his enemy watching him from the bank, and of the unseen servants who rose shrieking in the wind.

 

He expected the attack. The Wild Magic could not harm him directly, but it could strike against him even so. It could turn birds and animals into enemies. It could cause the air to become as thick as mud, or turn roots into hands that snatched and grasped. It could come with the force of a hurricane, or snatch shards of ice from the highest clouds and cast them down like knives to the ground. It had eyes everywhere, and all the living things in the world, all the violent and untamed parts of the earth, were its soldiers or its weapons.

 

It would take all his powers and endurance to make the quarter mile journey back to his room, if the Wild Magic chose to fight.

 

Bracing himself, he put one foot in front of the other, and walked.

 

******

 

Will was slow to answer the door. Bran had just turned to go, when he heard the sound of the lock turning. "Come in," Will murmured, but he had already left the door by the time Bran turned round. When Bran entered the room, Will was sitting in a chair, looking out of the window.

 

"I thought you were coming round after lunch." Bran tried to say it without reproach. It had been an informal arrangement, after all. Bran liked the idea of the two of them going to the library together, where they could work side by side on their different topics. He liked the idea of being able to look up from his book and see Will there. They could exchange silent looks, and adjourn every now and then for coffee together, or a stroll outside to take the air.

 

"I'm sorry." Bran saw Will's hand tighten on the arm of the chair. The back of his hand was scratched, he noticed. Bran himself felt sore and scoured by the strong and chilling wind that was blowing hard enough to hurt. "I fell asleep."

 

Bran sat down on the bed. "Look at me." Will did so, moving his head as if he had a headache. His unfathomable eyes looked almost bruised with tiredness, and his skin was almost as pale as Bran's. "Are you ill?" Bran asked, with a concern so fierce that it was closer to terror.

 

Will gave a wan smile. "A little, perhaps. Tired, really. I was out all last night."

 

"In the storm?" The wind was still strong, but during the night it had been terrible. Bran had listened to it pounding at his window, and even the ancient stone buildings had seemed to tremble. Several trees had been down by morning, and they said that St Peter's had suffered structural damage.

 

Will nodded.

 

"Why?" Bran clenched and unclenched his hands. "Was it… him?" His palms went sweaty at the memory of that arrogant, dangerous man – though Will said that he wasn't a man at all. "Has he killed someone else?"

 

Will shook his head wearily. "No-one else has died yet. He… called me. He wanted to talk. It was a waste of time. I cannot change who he is, and he cannot change what I am. We are opposed to each other. I think of him as my enemy, but, really, he is not. The word enemy implies hatred. I cannot hate him. This is just the way of things."

 

"Stop it." Bran slid to the floor, so he was kneeling at Will's feet. He touched Will's knee, then closed his hand on Will's own hand, lying tight and sorrowful on the arm of the chair. It felt very warm. Bran's hands were still cold from his walk through the high winds outside.

 

Will blinked. "Stop what?"

 

"Speaking like that – cold and formal. I'm not him; I'm me. You aren't a general conducting a council of war. You're Will Stanton, relaxing afterwards with his boyfriend." He reached up higher, pushing a tangled lock of hair out of Will's eyes. "You should be able to put things out of your mind for a while, you know."

 

Will did not respond to the touch. "I told you weeks ago that I couldn't. I told you what you were getting if you chose to stay with me."

 

Bran's fingers stilled, then resumed again, teasing Will's hair, running skittering across his cheek. "I love you, Will. I'm not going to say that love is the only thing that matters, because it isn't. Other things matter, too – I know that – but love… It matters, Will. I want to believe that by being here, I'm making things easier for you. I want to be able to hold you and comfort you if things go wrong in this other life of yours." I want you to want me, he added, but this he was not yet ready to say out loud.

 

Will brought his hand up, and caught Bran's in his own. He pressed it briefly against his cheek, then lowered it, so their hands were clasped together on the arm of the chair. "If you'd come here a year ago, Bran…" He closed his eyes. "A year ago, before this happened… The Dark has gone, and will never come back. Everything else was… normal. But now… now I'm fighting a war."

 

"Then I'm glad I'm here now," Bran said fervently, "because you need me more. When things were normal, you walked away from me. I only found out the truth because of this war of yours. You wouldn't have told me otherwise. If I'd come here last year, we would never have been more than passing acquaintances. We wouldn't have had this. People find each other in war, you see. It doesn't just tear people apart."

 

"Passing acquaintances…" Will opened his bruised eyes. "Then you would have been happier."

 

"Don't say that!" Bran shouted, suddenly furious. "Don't you dare make that decision for me."

 

"It's what I do," Will murmured.

 

Bran wrenched his hand away. He stood up, paced to the window and back. Wind hammered at the glass, though the sunlight was fierce and golden, punctured with dark clouds, like a handful of gravel thrown on the snow. "I don't want to argue," Bran said, as he sat back on the back.

 

Will had turned his face away. He looked more than tired, Bran realised; he looked ill, as if he lacked even the strength to stand. "Was it very terrible?" Bran asked quietly.

 

Will did not move his head. Even his lips barely moved as he talked. "He tried to persuade me to join him, but of course I refused. He tried to argue that his cause was just, but of course such arguments can never work with me. I said I would fight him. He… made my journey home difficult. That was all."

 

War, Bran thought. He tried to focus on that, because that was what Will said was most important. "He's going to kill more people, then." He thought of the body of the man lying in the snow, dead centuries out of his time, at least according to Will.

 

"Perhaps." Will brought his hand up slowly, as if he was seeing something in the palm. For a moment, Bran thought he was going to say something more, but Will let out a slow breath, and lowered his hand. "I've got an essay to write for tomorrow. I don't think I can do it now."

 

Bran thought this meant that the subject was closed. He suspected that he ought to pursue it, but the thought of that stranger in the snow made him feel cold and bleak and scared. "Saturday's better," he said, smiling.

 

Will blinked, a small line of a frown appearing between his eyes.

 

"It's Valentine's Day, boy," Bran chided him. "There's still time to get me a card." He moved back to Will's side, and put his hand on his knee. "I was wondering… Shall we go out to dinner? I'd like to take you out somewhere. Wine, candles… the works." And everyone else aware of them. Discreet stares from behind menus. There are two boys there having dinner together! And they could hold hands openly across the table, and defy people to stare at them. They would be together, and that was all that mattered. Will might even smile again, the way he had smiled when they had both been young, and they would chat about ordinary things, like any two people in love.

 

"I remember last Valentine's Day in Oxford," Will said. "I walked past a restaurant, and it was all small tables, and identical vases, each with a single red rose. It was full of earnest couples, each in exactly the same pose. I thought they were like statues. For some reason, I thought it was almost sad."

 

"It doesn't have to be in a restaurant, then," Bran persisted. "We can get fish and chips and I'll serve it to you on my coffee table, with a candle, and afterwards we can…" He moistened his lips. "Do whatever you want us to do," he finished.

 

Will gave a faint smile. "Thank you." His eyes opened, and there did seem to be feeling in there, genuine beneath the weariness. "I don't know if I can, Bran. I'm not well."

 

For him to say that… Bran touched him again. His own hands had warmed up now, after his time inside, but Will's skin still felt hot to the touch. There were deep shadows under his eyes, and even his lips looked as if they had been half drained of blood. "You should be in bed," Bran told him.

 

"It's not that bad," Will tried to say.

 

Bran tried to hide his own sudden, unreasoning fear. "I didn't know you could get sick. Can't you cure it with magic?"

 

Will shook his head. "It doesn't work like that. When we live as humans do, we hurt and breathe and feel as humans do. Illnesses, like storms and earthquakes, are part of the way of things. We cannot stop them."

 

Bran's hands fluttered over Will's body. It was scarier to hear him talk like this than it would have been if he had been moaning in anguish. Because it isn't natural. Because he isn't like us. "Then go to bed. Can I get you anything?" His hand froze, caught on Will's wrist. "Did he do this to you?"

 

"Perhaps," Will said. "Illnesses can have something of the Wild Magic about them." He appeared to notice Bran's fear for the first time. "No, Bran. It's more likely that I was becoming ill anyway. It's winter, after all, and there's a lot of things going round. Being up all night didn't help, and then I had to fight…" He smiled, and touched Bran briefly on the cheek. "It's nothing to worry about, Bran. I just need a few days to sleep it off."

 

"I'll stay…"

 

"No, Bran," Will said firmly and quietly. "Alone."

 

******

 

End of chapter thirteen

___

 

Chapter fourteen: War

 

Day and night blended into a cold grey netherworld, barely anchored in Time. He was aware of coughing, of struggling to breathe past a thick constriction on his chest. Blankets twisted around him, like ropes constraining his fingers. His mouth was dry. He drank water, and listened to the laughter in the wind, as it struggled to break through and find him.

 

The door opened once. He opened heavy eyelids to see his scout staring at him from the doorway. "I'm not well," Will managed to tell her. "You'd better go."

 

He wrapped himself against the cold, and struggled shakily to the lodge, to leave a note for his tutor, apologising for missing their tutorial. The research he had already done whirled madly in his mind. When he dozed, he dreamt about bishops burning to death in the middle of Oxford, and nobles dying in the Tower.

 

The wind eased. The next time he noticed anything, it was strong again, beating at the walls. He ventured out to buy some bread and milk, then found that it was too late, and the shops were shut. He bought crisps in a pub, but the smoke made him cough. People looked like ghosts. The wind dropped, but it started to rain, and his hair was wet, plastered to his face.

 

He remembered being ill before. Once, the illness had been sent by the Light, to take him to Wales, but the Dark had taken advantage and stolen the things that he needed to know. A few years later, he had been far more ill with tonsillitis than anyone normally got, and he had found himself slipping through Time without meaning to. He had closed his eyes to his familiar bedroom, and opened them to a place where he was a stranger. That had been one of the most terrifying things he had ever experienced. Now, he tried to stay awake, and tried to remember who and where he was.

 

He thought two days had passed. Before morning, he headed out to the lodge, and found a note for his tutor, with a reading list and an essay title about Elizabeth I. Perhaps I should head back in Time and ask her. His illness was making him foolish. An Old One's powers could never be used for something as trivial as cheating. The idea should have been inconceivable.

 

He drank milky tea, holding the mug with shaking hands. He closed his eyes, and found that a whole day had passed. He thought it was Friday. Rain smeared on his window and turned everything to grey. He left the light on all night, but he turned it off during the day, when the room turned as dark as a tomb.

 

Bran knocked on the door once, twice, and a third time. Perhaps he called out, too, but Will slept through more than he wanted to. Notes appeared under his door. "Thinking of you", and "I hope you're okay," and "Please, Will, I'm worried about you." If he let Bran in, he thought on that first day, it would be a disaster. He would not be able to remain as strong he needed to. The second day, he murmured a response, but perhaps Bran did not hear him. On the third day, if indeed it was the third day, he walked carefully to the door and opened it, but Bran had already gone.

 

He crept to the desk, and wrote a letter, with small black writing that was not as neat as it usually was. "I need to be strong, Bran," he said. "So do you. I know you want to nurse me, but that is something I cannot allow, both for my sake, and yours." Afterwards, he crumpled it up and threw it in the bin. Then he rewrote it in almost the same words, stared at it until the words swam, and tore it up again. Black ink seeped onto his fingertips.

 

"I am getting better," he wrote at last, and this was the note he deposited in the slot in the porters' lodge. "Why not come tomorrow night?"

 

The letter written, he slept for the rest of the afternoon. He woke in the evening to find a hand on his brow, and the harsh and acrid smell of outdoors in a room that suddenly felt too cold. "You're not well, I see," said the stranger's mocking voice.

 

Will lay without moving. "But I will be better soon."

 

"And worse after that." His touch was a caress on Will's cheek, but then he curled his fingers inwards, so the nails raked painfully across Will's skin. "You have the body of a human, Old One. You are part of the fabric of this earth. Part of you belongs to us, but you own nothing of us. That is why we will win."

 

Will whispered the right words. A barrier of Light rose up around him, and his enemy recoiled, snarling like a furious animal. "You will never enter this room again," he said.

 

The stranger visibly had to struggle to master himself. "Of course I will. I cannot touch the ageless part of you, but the form you wear makes you subject to all the weaknesses of humans, and all human temptations. I cannot destroy your essence, but I can make this body suffer, and I can torment your soul."

 

"But it will avail you nothing," Will told him, "for it will not cause me to stray from my course."

 

"But it will be enjoyable." The stranger turned to go, his long cloak skimming the top of his boots. "You should have made common cause with us, Old One."

 

He left. Will closed his eyes. He did not even have to check to know that the door had remained locked throughout. He tried to sleep again, but the room was cold and unpleasant. Outside had found a way in. It was no longer a retreat where he could recover in peace.

 

Will shambled across to the bathroom, where he showered quickly, sure that someone was watching him. His clean clothes made him feel a bit better. Then he put his coat on, and wrapped his scarf twice around his neck. His watch told him that it was nine o'clock, and it was Friday night. Outside, groups were heading off to parties, or moving on from one room to the next.

 

He left the College and headed towards High Street, where a tall, pale figure watched him, clothed in furs. Another stood outside the chip shop, a bow and arrow slung over his back. A lady in red watched him from the crossroads at Carfax. When he headed back to Merton, there were six of them in the front quad, and a shadow in the archway that was not of human shape.

 

No-one else saw them, he knew that. Their eyes never left him. One raised a finger and pointed at him, as if cursing him. As he walked slowly past the gardens, a girl whirled towards him in a wild dance, and sneered into his face as she came to a halt in front of him. Another girl, more shy, offered him a flower that spoke of nature corrupted. A man stood silent, a sword held in both hands.

 

Will spoke to none of them. He looked through them as if they were not there. Back in his room, he locked the door, but faces pressed up against the window, and fingers clawed at the casement, trying to get in. He spoke the spell that would keep them out, but it took energy to maintain it, and eventually he slept.

 

If they came in while he slept, he did not know. In the morning, the window was still closed, but his blanket was tangled around his feet, and the room was very cold. But if they chose to hurt him, it was of no consequence at all.

 

******

 

Bran knocked on the door, excited and nervous, both at once. Will opened it almost immediately.

 

"You look better," Bran said with relief. Then he frowned, examining Will more critically. "No, you don't. You look better than I feared you might, that's all. You should sit down."

 

Will sat down on the bed, his back against the wall. "I'm getting better," was all he said.

 

Bran almost sat on the armchair, thought about it for a moment, and took his place next to Will on the bed. Their shoulders were pressed against each other. "I've got you a card," Bran said shyly. He pulled it out from under his coat. "Not a very good attempt at anonymity, I know."

 

Will took it and opened it. The card did not express what Bran really felt; there was no way any card could do that. Instead, he had resorted to humour. All the way here, he had wondered if he had made a mistake, but Will's smiled when he read it, and the smile looked genuine. "Thank you, Bran. I haven't got you one, I'm afraid."

 

"You've been ill." Bran took Will's hand, pleased to find that it no longer felt warm to the touch. If anything, it felt colder than it should have been. "Besides, I didn't get you a present. Flowers felt silly, and the other things… I'd rather get you a present when I see the perfect thing, and not be bound by meaningless days like this."

 

"Not meaningless." Will tugged at the blanket, bunching it across his lap. "When days are celebrated by enough people, they gain a power of their own." He was looking not at Bran, but at the window.

 

"Still…" Bran squeezed Will's hand. "I've missed you, Will. I didn't know what to do with myself."

 

Will pressed his lips together. Bran recognised it as a sign of disapproval.

 

"I was worried, Will," he said reproachfully. "You told me to go. I don't think you realise how awful you looked the other day."

 

"I'm almost better." Will gave a huge yawn. "Not completely," he said sheepishly.

 

Bran picked up the bag he had left on the floor. "Ah, but I came prepared, you see. Bran Davies' Nursing Kit. I've got chocolates in case you need comfort food – and I can eat them myself, if your sick-bed becomes too much for me to cope with. And books. I thought… I thought I could read to you, you see."

 

Will seemed to be thinking about it. "That would be nice." His voice was quiet, in a tone Bran had not heard from him before.

 

"Settle down, then. Snuggle up."

 

Still fully dressed, Will wriggled himself under the blankets, and laid his head on the pillow. He sighed a little as he closed his eyes, and Bran realised that he was not as much recovered as he was trying to make out. Lying down was a relief to him.

 

Oh, but I do love him.

 

He recovered himself as quickly as he could. "I have Winnie-the-Pooh, or The Hobbit. Which one do you want?"

 

"Winnie-the-Pooh," Will said promptly. "I always loved that as a child. I used to try and work out which character all my brothers and sisters most closely resembled."

 

"You're Owl," Bran said. "Very wise."

 

Will's eyes snapped open. "Owl's an idiot," he said. "He makes out he's learned, but he's just a pompous fool."

 

"Rabbit, then."

 

"You think I'm officious?" But Will was smiling, and there were no shadows in his eyes.

 

Bran looked at him appraisingly. "Well, you don't climb trees, and you're no Piglet. I don't think you're a bear of very little brain, and you're not maternal, or squeaky. That means you must be Christopher Robin – the centre of Pooh's life, and the fount of all knowledge."

 

"I think you find me closer to Eeyore, sometimes," Will said.

 

"Everyone has an Eeyore in them." Bran turned carefully to page one. "I always wanted to be Tigger, though perhaps a little tamed. It would be tiring to live with Tigger all the time."

 

"Merriman had Rabbit tendencies at times," Will murmured. "Not often, but they were there."

 

Bran tapped him on the arm. "Are you going to be shut up long enough for me to read this, boy?"

 

Smiling, Will curled up loosely under the blankets, and Bran started to read.

 

When he reached the end of the third chapter, Bran realised that Will had fallen asleep.

 

He closed the book silently. Not the most conventional way to spend St Valentine's Day, he thought. He looked at Will, fast asleep, his face at peace, and he smiled, overcome with ferocious emotion. But I can't think of any way that would be better.

 

He moved to the armchair, and read quietly until midnight, but still Will did not wake up. The rain scraped at the window like scrabbling fingers, and there was an intermittent cold draught on Bran's face. Bran yawned, and shivered a little from the cold. "I'll be back tomorrow," he wrote in a note. "I've taken your late-gate key so I can get out. Chapter four tomorrow?"

 

Before he left, he brushed his lips above Will's cheek, kissing him without touching him, then he let himself out. Outside, the air was still, and it was hardly raining at all. He saw a pink balloon in the shape of a heart, tangled in the branches of a tree. When days are celebrated by enough people, they gain a power of their own, Will had said. He thought of the man in the snow, and the tales he had heard about fairy kind, and their tricks. They enslaved people by using love and lust as their weapons, and what better day to do it than St Valentine's Day? How many people had been seduced to their doom this night, while Will lay sleeping and unable to save them?

 

He thought he heard someone creep past him in the darkness. Hugging himself against the sudden chill, Bran hurried home as fast as he could, but even his own room felt cold.

 

******

 

Will meandered slowly towards the river. Half way there, he unbuttoned his coat, and let the two ends of his scarf hang loose. Snowdrops were scattered beneath trees that were beginning to show the earliest hints of buds. The clear blue sky showed no trace of the storms of the week before. The sunlight on his skin reminded him that, although he was not yet fully well, he was no longer ill.

 

Other people were out enjoying the sunshine. A group of boys from a local school were clustered round a tree, studying something on the bark. Two post-graduate students debated fiercely on a bench. A crew of rowers were returning from the river, red-faced and confident.

 

Unseen by anyone else, a tall figure watched him from the edge of the path, a mocking smile on his handsome lips.

 

Will ignored it. He had not been assailed again the way he had been assailed on the night and the day of St Valentine's Day, but his enemy's agents were never far away from him now. They watched him constantly. If they chose to remain invisible to mortal eyes, then this could only be good. Will could ignore their threats. If they chose to reveal themselves to men, unveiling themselves in all their enchanting beauty, then ordinary men would be lost forever.

 

Are you trying to threaten me? he thought, not trying to veil his thoughts, not this time. I have told you before that such things cannot work with me.

 

There was no reply, not even a whispering in his mind. There were spells in the Old Speech that could make his thoughts impervious to any attempts to overhear them, whether by friends or by enemies. He whispered them now, but gently, so the walls would be drawn over his thoughts like the many petals of a rose. As he whispered the first of the words, he thought of the essay he had just written, and the books waiting in his room for him to read. The second word, and he thought fleetingly of Bran, and the concert they were due to go to that evening. The third and last, and he thought of nothing for a moment, then let out a breath.

 

The watcher by the path made no sign. His eyes were pale cold blue. Will met his gaze for an instant, matching ice with ice. Blank faced, hands in his pockets, he walked on.

 

The Wild Magic could not interfere with the Light; the Light could not interfere with the Wild Magic. This was the Law. Yet there had been ways around the Law, even in the old days. Merriman had pushed Tethys into a bargain. The Greenwitch had been summoned by the Dark, though neither Dark nor Light had been able to bind it. And then there was Herne – a being of magic, wild and immense, which had hounded the Dark to the ends of the world, and placed a permanent mark on the face of the Rider.

 

Now the Dark was gone, and the Light had all departed, except for Will. The High Magic had given its ruling, and had turned its face from the earth, leaving it to men. The Wild Magic, long since pushed back to the wild places of the earth, was no longer content to accept this place. The Wild Magic on the earth had taken a ruler, as the Wild Magic of the sea had long since placed itself under the rule of Tethys. It was challenging mankind for dominance on the earth. The High Magic was no longer there to stop it. The Law was crumbling…

 

Or maybe not. No Law had prohibited the Wild Magic from unleashing itself on mankind. The Wild Magic was the magic of living things, and man was a living thing, no more or less than any other. Beings of the Wild Magic had always been able to meddle with mortal men. Nothing had changed there, although the scale of it was new, and it was infinitely more dangerous now, because it was organised, and a magic that was without order and pattern had now discovered both. Perhaps some void had been left by the departure of Light and Dark, and the Wild Magic had rushed in to take its place. Perhaps that was the only thing that had changed. An opportunity had presented itself, and had been taken.

 

He was almost by the river now, where the water lapped against the tow path, blue with the reflected light from the sky. Too built up, he thought, but he walked along the path for a while, past the boat houses, before heading back into the meadow, making for the smaller river, the dark and shadowed Cherwell, that fed into the Isis.

 

And the Wild Magic had touched him. It had turned his room to ice, it had pawed at him, it had made him far more sick than he should have been. It had whispered threats in his mind, and turned him half mad with the distraction of it, until he had learnt how to shut them out. It was because he was still too human – that was what his enemy had said. He inhabited a human body, and so he could be touched. The part of him that was an immortal Old One could not be touched by anyone of the Wild Magic, but his human part could be tormented with doubts and fears and pain, all inflicted by his enemies of the Wild Magic.

 

There was a link between them. All he had to do was turn this into a strength. A weapon against him could so easily be turned, and become a weapon that could be wielded by him, against his enemies. No link went just one way.

 

He reached the Cherwell, where bare trees bent over the brown-tinged water, and rotten leaves clung to bare roots. Even in the summer, when the rest of the Cherwell was covered with punts, few came to this end of the river. When he stood with his back to a tree, there was no-one in sight. In the shadows, it was cold, as if sunshine had never touched this piece of ground for all the months of winter.

 

There has to be a way, he thought. He opened both hands, one at each side, and pressed his palms against the damp bark. The river moved sluggishly before him, bearing a twisted twig, and a small piece of paper – a receipt, perhaps, or a bus ticket. Further up the river, the bridge carried cars and people in their hundreds. Will remembered leaning on that same bridge a few months before, and remembered how Bran had appeared at his side, his arms next to Will's on the stone parapet.

 

He let himself sink into thoughts of Bran. He saw again Bran's overjoyed face, as the Lost Land had opened up around them. Walking through horrors hand in hand – or almost hand in hand, linked by a hunting horn… Laughing on the mountain… Swiping him playfully on the arm, and tumbling down the hillside, rushing, chasing, whooping, playing… His face buried in the fur of a dog… Looking down on him in Merton garden, never expected, never hoped for, and changing everything… Arm by arm, hand in hand, hand on cheek, and lips… lips touching his… A kiss. A voice saying, "I love you," and someone beside him who knew everything but still wanted to be with him. Bran reading stories of a bear in a wood. Bran at his side. Bran. Bran. Bran.

 

The tears were cold on his face. The bark had scraped the top layer of skin from his palm.

 

And the river had responded. Wild to Wild, heart to heart, living thing to living thing… He caught it like a tiny speck of thistledown, cast aloft in a gale. It was tiny, yearning, and distant. The spell of Tamesis and the spell of Don… The river flowed on, and it was gone. The Cherwell joined the Isis, and even the memory of the thought had vanished, caught up in the waters of the larger river, and lost.

 

It wisped away. His tears were gone. Forgive me, Bran, he whispered, but he had what he needed. He had his spells, and with them he could attempt a binding.

 

******

 

End of chapter fourteen

___

 

Chapter fifteen: The binding

 

Bran knew that people were watching them. After they had finished their main course, he squeezed Will's hand briefly as it lay on the table. The girl opposite exchanged a look with her friend, and the boy beside her raised his eyebrows in badly concealed interest.

 

Will seemed oblivious. "It's not quite a Valentine's Day dinner," Bran remarked to him, "but I hope you like it, anyway."

 

"It was good." Will leant away from Bran to let a member of staff remove his empty plate. After she had moved on, he pulled forward the bowl containing his pudding. "I don't know if I'll have room for all of this, though. I don't seem to have got my appetite back properly yet."

 

"While I still have the boundless appetite of a growing young man," Bran said cheerfully. He eyed up the chocolate sponge, littered with black cherries. "I'll have yours, if you don't want it."

 

Will picked up his spoon. "You don't get to steal my food that easily."

 

The food was delicious; the company was even better. Bran remembered how he had dreamed of this moment weeks before, and now it was happening. Although this was only the informal sitting for dinner, rather than the full formal meal, Will had still come with him into the heart of Bran's college, and now everyone knew.

 

"You know," he said, remembering something he had noticed months before. "That portrait there reminds me of you."

 

Will looked at it. His spoon, half way to his mouth, stopped moving for a moment, then resumed. Will took a mouthful, chewed, and swallowed. "I can't think why."

 

Bran frowned. He was not entirely sure himself. "Something about the eyes, I think."

 

Will ate another mouthful, then put his spoon down. "That's all I can manage. It's all yours, if you want it." He watched Bran help himself to the remaining sponge. "At Merton, you know, they have a punishment for people who talk about the portraits at dinner. You have to drink two pints of beer out of a special cup unless you can make your excuses in fluent Latin."

 

"We do that here, too," Bran said cheerfully. "Theoretically, anyway. I don't think it happens much. I expect it's just a story put about to scare freshers and make sure they talk about interesting things at dinner." He ate another cherry. He was feeling full himself, but puddings were a rare luxury. At home, he only got them at weekends, when Jen Evans cooked for Owen and himself. Owen, he suspected, did not entirely approve of sweet food. "Could you do it, though? Make your excuses in Latin, I mean?"

 

Will grimaced. "I could manage the Latin. I don't know if I could manage the excuses in any language – not the sort of excuses that your average undergraduate would accept, anyway."

 

Bran remembered how Will had spoken words in a strange language he had never heard before. He had almost admitted to Jane that he knew Anglo-Saxon, too, though he had covered that slip well. "How many languages do you know?"

 

Will's eyes flickered briefly to the other people around them, within earshot. "Several," he said firmly.

 

Bran finished the last mouthful. "Shall we go?" He looked at his watch. The concert was at eight, which left them just enough time to go back to his room for a quick coffee, and maybe for… other things.

 

Outside, the air was unseasonably warm. They walked close to each other, but not touching. As they neared Bran's staircase, the boy from the room below him came rushing out, struggling into his coat. "Oh! Bran!" he said breathlessly, pausing restlessly as he passed. "Party. My room. Friday. You coming?"

 

Bran moved even closer to Will. "Maybe." He saw Mike look from Bran to Will and back again. He wondered if the invitation would be withdrawn. He hoped the invitation would be extended to Will, as well.

 

"Well…" Mike was clearly in a hurry to get wherever he was going. "I'll see you there. Bring a bottle."

 

They climbed the stairs in silence, and Will hung back while Bran rummaged for his key. Inside, Bran hugged Will fiercely, and kissed him full on the lips. "Coffee?" he asked, holding Will at arm's length, and grinning at him. He wanted to laugh.

 

"Tea, please." Will sat down on the bed. He ran his hand through his hair. "I'm not sleeping well. Drinking coffee seems… unnecessary."

 

Intent over the kettle, with his back to Will, Bran could ask questions that he could not ask when they were looking at each other. "Did you know the man in that portrait?"

 

Will was slow to answer, as if he was collecting his thoughts, but when he spoke, his words were quiet and level. "I met him, yes. He was an Old One. That is in itself unusual. We take care that our names and our images are not recorded over-much in history. That leads to too many questions."

 

Bran searched around for two empty mugs, and carried them to the sink to rinse them clean. Water splashed off the rim, scattering droplets over the back of his hand. "Did you know him well? Was he the one you said was your master?"

 

"Merriman? No." There was a note of sadness in Will's voice, that Bran thought he would not have known how to recognise only a few weeks before. "Merriman was at Oxford, but not that long ago. His role in other times was… different. We do not return to the same role twice, especially not in the modern world when it is harder to hide. That, too, would lead to too many questions."

 

The kettle was beginning to make a noise. Bran spooned coffee into one of the mugs, but his hand shook, and he made it stronger than he would have liked. "So I won't be able to take pictures of you? You will… move on?"

 

He heard a soft sound, and knew that it was Will running his finger up and down the edge of the bed. "You can take pictures. You can keep them, too. Such things do not impinge on history. And if I… move on, it won't be for a long time yet. Only when this life becomes unsustainable."

 

"When I'm eighty, and you still look no older than thirty." Bran gave a harsh laugh. The steam from the kettle made his eyes sting. "And after I'm gone, my pictures will disappear, won't they? You'll be off there somewhere, living some other life, with another name, and there'll be nothing left to show that someone called Will Stanton ever existed. "

 

"Not for years, Bran," Will said quietly, "and many things can change." Then, when Bran still did not move, he said, "I told you it would be hard."

 

"You told me!" Bran rasped. "Yes, you told me so."

 

"I'm sorry," Will said. "I shouldn't have said that." Bran heard him stand up, but the soft touch on the back of his neck was still a surprise. With a gasp, he turned into the touch, and let Will caress his cheek. Will's eyes, sometimes as grey as a winter sky, seemed more blue than normal. "Things change, Bran."

 

They moved until they were both sitting on the floor, backs to the bed. The coffee was still unmade. A tea bag sat in water, getting stronger by the second. "I shouldn't have asked." Bran took Will's hand, not yet ready for more. "Part of me wants to know everything. But then I ask questions like that, and you answer, and… Oh, Will, I know you're different. You're not human – you told me that. But when you speak like that… 'We,' you said. It was always 'we'. I think… I think I keep forgetting that everything you told me is true. I keep thinking we can have a normal relationship, but of course we can't. If only I'd kept quiet."

 

"It wouldn't have changed anything," Will said quietly, "and you would still have wondered."

 

And there were other questions – other, treacherous questions. He should ignore them. Here was Will, sitting beside him, hand in hand, and contrite. Bran should just enjoy the moment, and push everything else from his mind. In an hour he would do that. In a day, in a week, and forever more, but for now, he had to ask. "And the language thing?"

 

Will let out a small breath, as if defeated. "I know every language of man, and some that have never been of man."

 

"Even Welsh?" Bran asked, in Welsh.

 

Will smiled. "Even Welsh." His accent was perfect.

 

Something special, tiny and almost forgotten, shrivelled up and died. "I thought you didn't… When I first met you, you couldn't pronounce a single place name. I remember that. That's the earliest thing I remember about you." He remembered more, though. He had been the outcast, the freak, and Will was the newcomer – English and middle-class, so bound to be a snob, and bound to want nothing to do with Bran. But Will had been so useless at saying the place names, and Bran had been able to teach him, and, in doing so, realised that, with Will, he would never be a freak at all, never be pitied, never be looked down on. "Were you just humouring me out of pity?" he asked.

 

"If I had been, it would just have been because I really wanted to get to know you," Will said, but then he sighed. "I'd been really ill just before I came to Wales. I'd completely forgotten who I was. Even when I remembered… Bran, I didn't always think as an Old One. Back then, it was like a completely different part of my brain. It could disappear totally into the background. I think it did it deliberately, to protect me as I was growing up. I was just eleven, at school… I couldn't be spouting perfect Latin. When I was just a school boy, I truly didn't know anything that I couldn't have learnt through normal channels. It was only when I was engaged in the affairs of the Light that all that knowledge came out from where it was hiding, and pushed into the forefront of my mind."

 

"Back then," Bran echoed. "It's different now?"

 

"Yes. It's different." His tone seemed to rule out the possibility of questions.

 

Bran raised their clasped hands, and studied Will's, so like his own, though not so pale. His nails needed cutting, and there was a callus on his finger, where he held a pen. There was a thin pink line on the back of his hand, where a recent scratch had healed. It was a human hand, and the face that was looking at him now was human, too. It was Will's face, and he loved him.

 

No more questions, he thought. He tried to move in for a kiss. "The man in the portrait…" he found himself saying. "When did you meet him?"

 

"I didn't meet him as such." Will leant his head back against the bed, half closing his eyes. "I saw him. He was just one face in the crowd, but I knew them all. They all showed me a little part of themselves, the day I first came into my powers. That was when I first…" He eyes closed completely. "Saw you." It was little more than a whisper.

 

Bran let his hand fall. "You saw me?"

 

"It was a vision of various things that lay in my future." Will opened his eyes. "We need to get ready to go."

 

"But…"

 

And this time it was Will who kissed him, Will who took the lead. There were only kisses, though, and then they had to wander outside to go to a concert, which Bran barely listened to. Will, though, seemed to lose himself in the music, and could not even be reached by words for several minutes afterwards.

 

******

 

The spell of Tamesis and the spell of Don.

 

He knew them from the Book of Gramarye, just as he knew all spells, although the purpose for some was still hidden. Some spells bound beings who had not yet shown themselves. Others were tied to names that had not yet revealed. These two were old spells, powerful spells. Said in the right way, they could move the winds and the waters. Will wanted to use them for something even greater – to bind something that was not meant to be bound.

 

He left his room when everyone around him was sleeping, and ghosted through the College, then over the walls like a wisp of the wind. Dew was thick on the ground. He knew he was watched, but this time no-one tried to stop him. Perhaps his enemy thought he had come here to plead. He was fairly sure that no-one suspected what his true intention was.

 

For three days, he had kept secret his knowledge of the spells that he had snatched from the water. Works of great magic were better done when strong in body and mind, and three days before, he had not yet been fully recovered from his illness. Throughout those three days, the spells had whispered in his mind, like living things. He had heard their voice when dining with Bran. He had heard it through their kisses, and heard them woven in the music of Beethoven and Brahms. He had heard it in the voice of his tutor, and seen the music of the spell in the words of every page of every book.

 

Now it was time. He reached the river, and spoke the words that would create an inviolable barrier around him, preventing anyone from hindering him or harming him. As it went up, his perceptions of the outside world were muted, but even so, he was aware of a sudden interest, as if a hundred hounds were raising their heads, sniffing at the wind. Too late, he thought coldly, for then it was time for the spells.

 

He crafted them as song. Spells could be shaped in words or movements or even in a painting, but Will's natural medium had always been song, even though his voice was not what it once had been. He sang in the Old Speech, shaping it in a tune that had no earthly key or rhythm. Despite the barrier, the song carried. Bare twigs moved and shivered, and an owl hooted, as if the song stirred it to some deep melancholy. His enemies mustered, hissing in fury…

 

And the river responded. At first, it was only a thickening of the air. It was moisture in his lungs, an acrid scent in his nostrils. A diffuse brown haze stole across his vision, but he stood firm, and sang the spell again, over and over, sometimes coaxing, sometimes commanding.

 

He did not look at the shape that was forming before him, knowing that it was something that could only be seen on the fringes of vision. This was not a creature of the stature of the Greenwitch, which had been created by the hopes and beliefs of men, and infused with a kind of life by the power of Tethys herself. This was the primitive spirit of a small river, though one that flowed through an ancient city, and fed into one of the greatest rivers of all. It barely had form, though the Wild Magic flowed through it, even so.

 

The air was thick with the stench of rotting weeds. He caught glimpses of dead twigs and swirling shadows and piles of sodden leaves. Specks of light sparkled in the darkness, like silver sunlight on a summer river, and there were patches of deep darkness, and a glimpse of drowning men.

 

"Who calls us?" came a faint voice in the air, speaking not in words, but in thoughts and sensations that he snatched up, and turned into meaning.

 

"The Light," he replied.

 

It hissed – swirling whirlpools and rotting flesh. "The Light cannot command us."

 

"The spells that command you are mine," Will said.

 

"But we are not." Darkness billowed around him, and he was seized with a sudden certainty that his lungs were full of water, and the next breath would be death to him.

 

He kept his head tall, took a slow breath of foul-tasting air, and said, "Not mine, no. But another master has called you, has he not, along with all of your kind?"

 

Twig-like fingers clawed at his face. The pain was real, though the injuries were an illusion. "We will not tell. Let us go, Old One. Let us go."

 

Will did not speak. He pitched his thoughts to the distant, deepest place within him, knowing that the river could hear him. I will let you go, but the spells that brought you here will remain. You will come whenever I call. You will tell me what I need to know, when I need to know it.

 

"You cannot command me," it rasped, crashing around him like waves on a stormy sea, shattering like the spars of a dying ship on the shore.

 

"But I can," Will said quietly. He spread his hands, showing this creature all that he was. He showed his feelings for Bran, and his lingering, regretful love for his family. He showed it the fear and the solitude of being ill in a crowded city, and the nights he had spent gazing up at the sky, longing for Merriman and all of his kind. "I was born on this world, a living creature just like any other. The Light cannot command the Wild Magic, but one living creature can command another, if he is stronger, or older, or more cruel."

 

"You are not stronger," it spat. "You are not older. Cruel, yes… You are cruel."

 

"I am stronger." Beyond his barrier, the hosts of the Wild Magic were raging. "A river is inconstant. A river cannot hold to any one purpose, but the Light is constant and everlasting." He invested his voice with the sound of thunder. "I am stronger than you. As one living thing to another, I command thee."

 

It shrieked. Water broke over him in an enormous wave. Weed smothered him, and branches lashed at him. Beyond his barrier, a cauldron of Wild Magic churned and bubbled. Lights flared from the earth, and thunder rumbled, like distant hooves.

 

Then all was silent. Quiet as a whisper, a tiny voice from the water breathed, "But you will suffer for this."

 

And he was alone on an empty meadow, beside a river that was just running water, and nothing more than that.

 

******

 

Bran did not know what woke him, although he had been sleeping badly for several nights, his sleep disturbed by dreams in which he was hunted by the enemy in the snow, and he called and called for Will, but Will did not come.

 

It was no dream this time. He woke with a start, but the last thing he remembered was settling down to sleep. The clock told him that it was almost two.

 

He rolled over onto his side, and set about the business of falling asleep again. After a few minutes, he turned over. He adjusted his pillow, and lay on his back. Sighing, he flopped over onto his front. The slit of light from underneath his door irritated him. The clock moved on from minute to minute, the digits glowing green in the dark.

 

Bran sat up, realising that he wouldn't be getting to sleep again for a while. His bed was suddenly uncomfortable, and there were too many facts churning in his brain, waiting for him to order them into an essay the following morning. His hands, scraping on the coarse sheet, wanted to be touching Will. He had never slept with anyone else, but now the bed felt cold when he was in it alone.

 

And there were questions, too – questions that kept coming to him, tormenting him, since that night of too many questions. On the floor beside this bed, he had realised for the first time just how different Will was from anyone he had ever known. He was not just a normal person who could do magic. His life-span was different, the way he saw things was different, his very thoughts were different. Bran wanted to question him for days, until he truly understand what it meant to be an Old One. At the same time, he wanted to bury his head in the sand and ignore it. Will was human, too. The boy Bran had known in Wales had laughed and cried and been afraid, just like any normal boy. That could not all have been a lie.

 

Sighing, he threw off the covers and wandered towards the window, pausing to grab his dressing gown from the back of the door. There were so many questions. Would Will age at a normal rate, or would he remain forever nineteen? How much did he know of the secret things that went on inside Bran's mind? Could he travel through time, to the future, or to the past?

 

Can he take me to see my mother?

 

The thought came from nowhere. Bran froze, his hand on the curtain. A noise came from outside, not quite like rain. This was what woke me, he thought. He opened the curtains cautiously, peeping out so he could not be seen from outside.

 

I could find out who my father was. He pressed his lips together. Thoughts like this were stupid and pointless. He had been sixteen when Owen had admitted to him that he was adopted, and had told him the little he knew about Bran's true mother. Of his father, he knew nothing at all. The next few months had been difficult, but he had accepted in the end that Owen was his father in all the ways that mattered. Jane had helped, for he had told her everything in letters. Will had already left by then. Even then, he had wished that Will had been the one to hear the story first, and the first to give him advice on how to handle it.

 

The sound came again. This time, he thought he saw a faint movement across the quad. His breath was steaming on the window, and he wiped a small patch clear, and put his eye close up to it.

 

A man ran across the quad, pursued by several others. All were wearing the clothes of several hundred years ago, and some of them had swords at their sides. One was holding a knife. The sound came again, and then again, louder and louder, until it was a surging cry. Faintly at first, he smelled smoke.

 

It's Will. He had never known anything before with such certainty. Will was in danger. These figures were from the otherworld of Fairy, or they had come out of the past for blood and violence. Will was their enemy; Will would be their quarry. I have to warn him, he thought. Help him. Be there with him.

 

He dressed quickly, though his fingers felt thick and clumsy, and he fumbled with his socks and dropped them several times. Outside, the noises were almost constant. He heard the sound of swords clashing, and the anguished peal of bells. No other doors were opening, though. No normal, human voices called out of the windows, telling people to keep the noise down outside. When he opened his door, the staircase outside was silent. Through one door, he heard the faint sound of snoring.

 

As he descended the stairs, it grew colder with every step. Someone rushed past, screaming. A drunken crowd reeled singing into the staircase, and pushed past Bran as if he was not there. He smelled the wine on their breath, but when they elbowed against him, it was as if nothing was there. Ghosts, he thought, as he sank frozen to the bottom step. Oh, God, it's ghosts.

 

But Will was out there. Will had to be the heart of it, the target. Bran forced himself to his feet again, and headed outside. It felt like the hardest thing he had ever done. The world felt vast and unfriendly, and he was so very small. Things howled in the night. From beyond the College walls, a bell was clanging, and a voice was calling for people to bring out their dead. A clamour of voices rose in wailing grief. Patches of light moved like torches, but the hands that held them could not be seen.

 

One foot in front of the other, he told himself. He clenched his fists, but kept them at his chest, ready to strike out if attacked. Even the ground at his feet looked horrid and otherworldly, as if the gravel was the bones of men, and the grass was stained with blood. All the windows above him were dark, except for the yellow light of the landings. No-one else was awake. He felt as if he was the only living thing in the whole of Oxford, walking through Hell to his doom.

 

He reached the late gate, and then another test had to be passed, because at first he simply could not bring himself to turn the key. Inside the College it was horrible, but at least there were walls between himself and the rest of the world. Outside the College, there was nothing between him and the dark meadows and the river.

 

"Will," he whispered out loud. "I have to get to Will." He was just a spectator, but Will was their target. If love was to mean anything at all, he had to be at Will's side. He could not hide under the bed like a child, thankful that at least he was safe. He had to… He had to…

 

He turned the key. Outside, the lane was dark and strewn with bodies. Not real, he told himself. Ghosts. Illusions. It all happened long ago. He stepped over them, though. Even though he knew that his foot would pass through them as if they were not there at all, he could not bring himself to wade through the dead.

 

He headed for the High Street. And then down the lane, down towards Merton… But how am I going to get in? I gave Will his key back. I'll just have to stand outside and call. And in the midst of everything, he could still laugh at that – a harsh sound, very full of fear. I guess I'll find out if Will can read my mind. That thought sobered him. Someone stalked towards him, eyes glittering. Will! Bran screamed it in his mind, though out loud it was only a whisper. I'm here! Come and find me, please!

 

Nothing happened. The figure came closer. The club in its hand rose higher. A sudden smell of the river came to Bran's nostrils, with an undertone of rot and decay. The man was dressed all in brown, and water streamed from his clothes. Twigs were in his hair, and slime on his boots.

 

The club came down. Bran dodged, but it struck him a glancing blow on the shoulder. He staggered, and would have run, but something caught him round the ankles, and he fell forward, landing on his knees, then sprawling forward onto his hands.

 

The figure loomed above him. The club rose again, and this time there was no dodging it.

 

******

 

End of chapter fifteen

___

 

Chapter sixteen: Possession

 

Will knew what the silence meant. The Wild Magic was still furious, but there could be no triumph in beating at the solid protections of a single Old One, wrapped in the fullness of his powers. Instead, it had rushed to a place where there were richer prizes.

 

The Wild Magic was loose in Oxford.

 

Will ran back through the meadows, moving faster than any normal man could move. Around him, the field was silent and empty. No-one watched him from behind trees. No-one watched him at all.

 

He reached the streets, where he stopped beneath the towering buildings. All around him, people slept, but the streets were full of the terrors and griefs of long ago. In Trewissick, years before, the fury of the Greenwitch had shown itself in a surging, chaotic replaying of past tragedies. Oxford was an older town, and a larger one, and history had several times been decided within its walls. The possession was more terrible than it had been in the small Cornish village by the sea.

 

He saw ghostly buildings burning, as the Danes sacked the city. He saw a proud king travelling through the streets of a city whose common people hated him. He saw the walls pulled down by the command of Cromwell. He saw the Black Death hit, and, later, he saw Colleges built on the ground of graveyards, and weeping widows watch it all. He saw riots, as townsfolk hunted down students, and students banded together and took revenge on townsfolk. He saw houses burn, and people flee.

 

There was history in stone; there were memories in every cobble. The Wild Magic took them all and replayed them in a vivid, terrible re-enactment. It plucked fears from the minds of those who were asleep, and paraded them, with dripping jaws and rending teeth. The past was never dead. To an Old One, the past was no different from the present, and close enough to touch. To the Wild Magic, it came in ghosts and memories.

 

"But none of it is real," he said out loud. "It was real once, but it is real no longer. To the people of this world, the past is gone."

 

A crowd of soldiers surged up High Street like a racing wave. Will stopped in front of them, raising his hand. "I am stronger than you. I still command you." He wondered if they would break around him, like the ghosts that they were, but they faltered, and stopped before him. He saw individual faces, though their eyes were blank.

 

"This is just the tantrum of a child who knows it is defeated," he said clearly. He raised his hand, and moved his fingers delicately, calling to himself the echo of the spells he had sung by the river. "I command thee."

 

The air filled with the stench of the river. To his side, almost behind him, he saw a flicker of movement. An illusion shaped of the river, a club, and Bran… Bran…

 

******

 

He expected to die. But he did not hide from it, or close his eyes.

 

So it was that his eyes were fully open when it happened. It was a towering figure made entirely of light. It was a voice that filled the sky. It was a thing so beautiful, so terrible, so cold, that the overwhelming awe of it choked him and made him feel that he could never speak again.

 

He knew even then, of course.

 

The club fell to the ground. The man in brown raised his head defiantly, but the light shone even brighter, and the man crumbled. His shoulders slumped in defeat, and then he faded even further, until nothing remained but a pool of water.

 

"I command thee," said a voice from everywhere at once, and another voice, hissing and defeated, whispered, "You do."

 

And all else faded. The small vanished. The ghostly crowds disappeared, and there were no bodies on the street. Faintly, Bran heard the normal night-time sounds of the city.

 

And Will was beside him, kneeling beside him, with human face and tousled hair, and a warm hand reaching for him, raising him.

 

"It was you," Bran breathed, incapable of producing any more sound than that. "You saved me."

 

"You need to go back to your room," was all Will said.

 

Will saved me. Bran pressed his hand to the growing bruise on his arm. And he was… He is… No, don't think about it. This is him, here, now. "What was that?" he managed. "Has it… Has it gone?"

 

Will linked a strong arm in Bran's, and began to lead him inexorably back to his College. He seemed reluctant to answer at first, but then he said, "It was the Wild Magic. It can manifest itself like that sometimes, when angry."

 

The smell of smoke had gone, and there was no trace in the streets of the chaos that had raged only minutes before. "It wasn't real?"

 

Once again, Will took his time. "It was real once. Now it lives only in the memories of stone. It has gone now. When people wake up tomorrow, they'll see no evidence that any of it happened." He walked a few steps, then said quietly, "But the… thing that attacked you was more real than the rest. There was danger there. I'm sorry, Bran."

 

Towering whiteness, unattainable, unreachable… Bran swallowed. "But you…"

 

"Made a challenge," Will said. "The thing I challenged disputed my claim. This was the result. I should have expected it." For the first time, his voice showed a trace of feeling. "You could have died because of it."

 

He did not want to hear that. If Will had been just a second later… Bran felt sick. His hands shook as he struggled to open the late gate that took them back into the sleeping College. But Will would have got there on time whatever happened. I called to him. Wherever he is, he will come to me when I need him. He closed his eyes, but the light still blazed on his retinas. He isn't human at all. And that was the worst of it – the thing that made him almost stumble, the thing that made him want to cry.

 

"Why…?" He struggled for control, walking blindly towards his staircase. Will's arm was still at his elbow. "Why didn't anyone else wake up?"

 

"The Wild Magic is closer to men's dreams than to their waking realities," Will said. "They were caught. Their dreams were feeding it." He hesitated for a while. "I don't know why you woke up. And why you came out in it…"

 

"Because I knew it was something to do with you," Bran told him. "I thought you were in danger. I had to come… I was afraid."

 

He felt Will's arm tighten on his elbow. They climbed the stairs quietly, careful not to disturb the people who were still asleep, their sleep no longer strengthened by magic. Only when they were inside his room did Bran allow himself to sink down on the bed, to put his head in his hands, to remember.

 

"It's over," Will said, his hand on Bran's hair like a benediction. "I can make you forget, if you want me to."

 

"Forget!" Bran lowered his hands. His voice was a furious hiss. His face, he thought, was even worse. "However bad it is, I don't want to forget."

 

But hide from it, yes. The body beside him was human. The face before him was human. The hands were human, the voice was human… This was Will. They had been friends as children, and they had played together and grown together. Now they loved. Lips, face, hands… Soft, warm, and human. His.

 

"Stay with me," he rasped. "Please, Will. Stay with me tonight."

 

He wrapped himself in Will's human warmth. He nuzzled his throat, wove his fingers through his hair, kissed his jaw, his cheek, his lips. Then, closer, he pawed at the fastenings of Will's clothes. Oh, but he wanted him. A part of him had been frozen by that beautiful, untouchable light, and it could only be thawed if Will touched all of him with human hands, if they shared everything as humans did.

 

"No." Gently, Will took hold of Bran's hands, stilling them. Bran became aware that he had been crying, tears pouring down his face without him realising it. "Not like this."

 

"Like what?" Because I need it. I almost died. You saved me. Save me again, Will. Please save me again.

 

"Bran." Will was still holding Bran's hands, but firmly, and not with desire. "You walked through the heart of the Wild Magic. It feeds on emotions like this. You will be feeling things that are not real. In the morning, things will seem different."

 

"No." Bran shook his head fiercely. "No it won't." He shook his head again, changing what he was saying. "I want it to seem different. That's why I need this."

 

"Bran." Will's cheeks were flushed. "I am close to the Wild Magic, too, but that is not who I really am. If I give in to it I… I will have lost something. I cannot give them this victory."

 

"I don't understand." Bran's head slumped forward.

 

Tenderly, Will helped him out of his coat. His fingers ghosted over the bruise on Bran's arm, then gently touched Bran on the lips. "I will stay," he said, "but while you are sleeping."

 

"I don't think I'll be able to sleep," Bran protested, as Will lowered him to the bed, and covered him with the blankets.

 

"I think you will."

 

The last thing he heard was Will's voice. The last thing he was aware of was a tender kiss on his lips, and a soft hand on his cheek.

 

This time, he did not wake up until morning. Will was still there, his body warm at Bran's side. Bran curled sleepily around him, and for a moment was perfectly content. Then he remembered.

 

Will smiled down at him with shadowed eyes. He touched Bran's cheek, and Bran imprisoned the hand hotly. "I need to go," Will said. "Something… unfinished from the night."

 

He wanted to argue, but thoughts and memories were sluggish in the morning. He remembered something from earlier, though – a stray thought, coming to him in the night. "Can you travel back in time?"

 

Will did not answer him. "I will see you later." Extricating his hand, he bent to kiss Bran on the cheek. "Goodnight, Bran."

 

"But it's morning," Bran protested, squinting into the light from the window. But by then, Will had gone.

 

******

 

There merest hint of the spells brought the voice into his head. "You had no right to do that," Will told it. He was alone in his room, now, and finally free to feel fury. It was not possible to use too much power in the presence of mortals, not without damaging them forever.

 

"You had no right to bind us," hissed the voice. "We will take our revenge in any way we can."

 

"But not through him." Will invested it with all the force of total prohibition. "Never through him."

 

It lashed at his mind, sharp tendrils of hatred like the strands of a whip.

 

"You will not," Will told it, but he had to feel in order to command it. He spoke with the power of the Light, but he could only bind a creature of the Wild Magic by calling on all those parts of himself that were not of the Light, but as frail and emotional as any human.

 

After the creature was gone, he staggered blindly towards the bed. Another night without sleep. His head was throbbing, and he pressed his fingers into his eyes, kneading the sides of his forehead with his thumbs. He had won a victory, but at what cost?

 

No cost, he told himself. No harm had been done. Past terrors had resurfaced, but those who had been asleep had continued to sleep, and those who had been awake would already think it was nothing more than a dream, derived from too much drink. Oxford was untouched. Life continued as it always had done, and no-one would know.

 

Except Bran.

 

He was still raw from dealing with the creature, still far closer to the Wild Magic than any being of the Light ever ought to be. The thought of the club descending towards Bran's head… He moaned at the memory of it. The awe and fear in Bran's eyes as he looked up at Will from the ground. How close Bran had come to dying… And then, afterwards, in Bran's room, when hot hands had pawed at his clothing, and the Wild Magic had surged in Will's blood, telling him to give in to this, to let Bran take what he wanted, and to give it, too, to lose himself in it forever…

 

Will lurched to the sink, and splashed cold water on his face. It helped, but only just. Bran had not died. There could be no purpose whatsoever in dwelling on something that had not happened, however close it had come. Will had been successful in binding a creature of the Wild Magic, who would do his bidding now, and be, in a very small way, a hostage against the intentions of its masters. He had taken a chance, and had won. That was what mattered. That was what would make a difference, in the overall pattern of things.

 

But Bran…

 

He paced – to the window, to the bed, to the table, and back to the sink, where he looked at a face he barely recognised in the mirror. His damp hair hung in dark points over his brow, and his eyes looked deeply tired.

 

He thought of the way Bran had looked at him, when Will had saved his life. I have to break up with him, Will thought. I have to free him to be himself. Left alone, it could go one of two ways. Bran would sink into hero worship, or he would remember the fear of coming face to face with Will's otherness. Either way, Bran would lose the controlled confidence that he had attained over the years.

 

"And then there's the effect on me," he said out loud. It was not a selfish thought. He was at war, and his first thought had to be directed towards that. Bran was his strength, but Bran was his weakness, too. His feelings towards Bran were not of the Light. Loving bonds were the strongest thing on earth, Merriman had said, but the Light was not of the earth. Love was not a thing of the Light, but it was close to the Wild Magic.

 

Without Bran, Will would not have been able to command the creature from the river. His feelings for Bran had allowed him to communicate with a being of Wild Magic, like to like. Without those feelings, he could not maintain his control of the creature. As a being of Light, untouched by love, he had no powers at all. But, at the same time, those feelings were his weakness. They pushed him to stray from his purpose – to put the safety of one person before the safety of the world. They whispered to him, telling him that he should throw away all composure, all control, and give himself in to sensation.

 

And if he did so, his enemy would claim him.

 

Will sank onto the bed, his head in his hands. The Wild Magic had a hand in these doubts, he knew that. Feelings had been roused during his battle with the river, and he would have to contend with them every day that he controlled the creature. If he squashed them completely, he would lose his control over it. If he gave into them, he would lose himself.

 

And Bran was at the heart of it. Bran was at the heart of it all.

 

"I don't know what to do," he whispered.

 

******

 

End of chapter sixteen

__

 

Chapter seventeen: Dependence

 

Friday came. Bran left his room before the party started below. The day before, in the lunch queue, he had muttered something vague about not being able to go after all. There had been some half-hearted attempts to persuade him. "Maybe later," he had told them, knowing that the party would be going on late into the night. "After I get back."

 

He headed into town, passing the place where he had fallen and almost died. He had not intended to head towards Will's room, but his feet found their way there anyway. There was no point, though. Although he knocked on the door several times, there was no answer. He went outside and looked up, counting the windows carefully until he was sure he had the right one, but the light was off, and the curtains were still open. A girl whose face Bran vaguely recognised came out of the doorway, and he considered asking her if she knew where Will was, but did not. Will did not have friends in College. No-one knew how Will spent his days, not even Bran.

 

Back to the High Street. He looked down towards the bridge, and considered seeking out Jane, but she would doubtless be out with Jamie. Even if she was not, he didn't think he wanted to explain to her why he was out alone and aimless on a Friday night. He didn't truly know the answer himself. All he knew was that normal, human company held no appeal to him. How could he drink and chat and gossip, when he had seen what he had seen, and knew what he now knew?

 

The bookshop was open until eight, and he made his way there, and wandered from shelf to shelf, his eyes running over the pages of book after book, not really reading any of them. When the announcement came that the shop was closing, he left without buying anything. There were few other people in the shop, for Friday night was the time for parties.

 

He wondered if Will was down in the meadows. He had checked Merton gardens, of course, on his way to Will's room. There had been no still figure, swathed in a dark coat. Will could be anywhere, maybe not even in this world. He could be hundreds of years in the past, or striding through the future. Like light, he could be moving through the stars, or locked in combat with his enemy, in a place beneath the earth.

 

I can't…he thought. I don't want to… He wanted warmth and peace and normality. He couldn't laugh at a party as if nothing had happened, but he wanted to be in a world in which nothing had changed. The library would offer that, he thought. That was order and quiet, where normal people submerged themselves in the words that other normal men had written.

 

As he approached the library entrance, someone else was coming out. As he stepped to one side to let them pass, he realised that it was Will.

 

Bran stopped. Will saw him. "Can I come back with you?" Bran asked. "I don't really have anything to do in there. I was just… bored, I suppose." Will was just looking at him, saying nothing. "I tried your room, but you weren't in."

 

Will's eyes were unreadable, but, "Of course you can," was all he said.

 

They started walking. "I wondered if you were…" Bran was not sure how to finish.

 

Will seemed to understand. "No. I was just working. I've reached James I. I might get as far as the Civil War by the end of term. It'll be sixteenth century Europe after Easter."

 

"Everyone's dying of the Black Death, with me." Bran gave a little shiver. The subject disturbed him a lot more than it would have only a week before.

 

The crossed High Street, and headed down the dark lane. "I thought you were going to a party tonight," Will said, when they were in the dark patch between two lights.

 

"I didn't feel like it."

 

Back in the light, Will pressed his lips together. Bran knew him well enough now to recognise that look. There were no words, though. The words would come afterwards, once they were in Will's room, and no-one else could overhear.

 

They said nothing for a while. Bran could think of many things to say, but none of them were appropriate for outside. "We could go to the pub later," he said hopefully.

 

Will shook his head. "I can't drink. Not now."

 

There was absolute finality in this voice. "Why not?" Bran decided to hazard the question.

 

They turned left onto Merton Street, crossing the cobbles to the pavement on the far side. "It weakens… defences that I cannot afford to have weakened."

 

Into the Lodge, then, and through the front quad, and past the bar with its smell of stale beer. There was a party in the Junior Common Room, though it was as yet only sparsely attended. The garden was empty and cold. There were few lights on in the new buildings where Will had his room. From the moment they entered the garden, to the moment they entered Will's room, they did not see another person.

 

For the final two dozen steps, Bran reached out and twined his fingers into Will's. Will squeezed his hand once, but he pulled away when they reached the stairs.

 

There were no kisses when they reached Will's room. Will put his books on the desk, and sat down heavily in the armchair. He looks tired, Bran thought. "You should have gone to the party," Will said. "Why didn't you go to the party?"

 

"I didn't want to." Bran sat on the bed. "I don't have to, do I? I bet you've turned down lots of party invitations in your time." In his own ears, his voice sounded defensive and unpleasant.

 

Will raised his head, looking Bran full in the face. "Don't do this, Bran, please."

 

"What?" Bran pretended not to understand.

 

"Push everyone else away." Will's hands were clasped together, the knuckles white. "You had friends at school, you told me. You had friends here, last term. Please don't push them all away because of me."

 

"It's up to me who I spend my time with." Bran scraped his fingers through his hair.

 

Will looked down at his hands, then up at Bran again. "You're going to hate me for saying this… You're going to tell me that I don't know anything about relationships, but I have got brothers and sisters. Mary, my sister… The first boyfriend she had, she put him before everything. She started ignoring all her friends. Then, when she split up with her boyfriend, she almost had nobody at all."

 

Bran swallowed. "Are you saying you're going to split up with me?"

 

Will shook his head. Bran thought he looked irritated, but he had never learnt how to read Will properly, so he could have been wrong. "I'm just saying that you shouldn't push everyone else away."

 

"But no-one else understands," Bran found himself saying. "I saw all that… all that… stuff. I know things nobody else would believe. How can I talk to them about normal things, when all the time I know this?"

 

Will's expression did not waver. "That is why Merriman made you forget, Bran. If that's what you truly believe, I will have to make you forget all of this now. You will leave me with no choice."

 

"You can't." Bran slid to his knees on the floor. Pure panic lanced through his heart. "Please don't."

 

Will looked at him with brutal sympathy. "I don't want you to plead, either. I don't ever want you to plead to me."

 

Bran clambered back onto the bed, knowing that all dignity was lost. "Would you really do it? Make me forget, I mean? Make all of this go away as if it had never happened? Make us be strangers to each other?"

 

"If I had to, yes." Will's voice was level and emotionless, but his hands were clasping the arms of the chair so tightly that the fingers were as white as bone.

 

He could not be angry. Instead, he just wanted to cry with pity for this man that he loved, who could bring himself to do a thing like this.

 

"You were so strong when you came to Oxford," Will continued mercilessly. "I was in awe of you. You had conquered everything that stood against you, and come out on top, the sort of man who could become a leader of men. But now you're pushing everyone away. You're…"

 

"Don't say it," Bran said bitterly. "You're going to tell me that I've become needy and clinging. I'm in awe of you. Sometimes I'm even afraid of you. I love you. I wish I could make you happy. I dream about you. I think about you when I should be working. I'm not strong and alone and solitary, but that's because I love you. It would be like this no matter who you were."

 

"No, it wouldn’t," Will said quietly. "I saw how you looked at me the other night."

 

"When you saved me." Bran stared at his hands.

 

"You saw me for what I am," Will said. "I've told you from the start that, whatever happens between us, that part of me has to come first. You can never be the only thing in my life, so it is wrong if you make me the only thing in yours."

 

Bran raised his head bitterly. "Are you trying to drive me away?"

 

"No." Will shook his head. "I am merely telling the truth."

 

"And if you did make me forget…" Bran took hold of a fistful of the blanket and slowly tightened his hand on it. "Would you still remember?"

 

"I would still remember." Will repeated it like a vow. "I would still love you… Because I do, Bran. It's mixed up with many things. Everything's so complicated now. There are… forces. Everything I feel is stronger than it should be. Maybe they're acting on you, too, because you were there that night, too. Maybe that's why you're… But, no, none of that matters. I would still love you, but I would make you forget me, if that was best for you, or best for the cause that I am fighting for."

 

Bran blinked hard to avoid shedding tears. He thought dimly that he ought to be angry, but it seemed that pity and grief lay on the far side of anger, though all were less strong than love. "Then I pity you," he said.

 

"Don't," Will said. "Please go to your party. I know it will be hard at first, but try to forget all this for a few hours. You're a normal human being, Bran – nineteen, and at the start of your life. Don't throw it all away just because of me."

 

Bran gave a bitter, sorrowing laugh. "You're a fine one to talk."

 

Will froze, arrested in the middle of some movement. Then the movement continued. His head turned, his hand moved, and he was composed again.

 

"Don't push people away, you keep telling me. Forget all of this for a moment, and just be normal." Bran sighed. "Why don't you practice what you preach, Will? You've been here for nearly five terms, and you don't know anybody. Last term, before I knew the truth about you, I told you what I felt about you, and you said you couldn't possibly get close to anyone, because of your secret."

 

Will was a statue. His eyes gave nothing away. He's gone, Bran thought. He's not even listening to me. But he had said too much, now, to stop.

 

"You want me to spend the night watching ancient horrors walking the streets of Oxford, and then go from that to banter with teenage boys about who went to bed with whom, and how much everyone can drink? Fine. Then do it yourself. Practice what you preach."

 

Will seemed to move his head with difficulty. "It's different for me, Bran. You're normal; you've just glimpsed all this. I am different. You saw that the other night. I know you did. I saw the realisation in your eyes."

 

"Nonsense." The blanket was screwed tight in his hand now. If he said it loud enough, it would be true. Oh, please, let it be true. "You're human as well, Will."

 

"No. I…"

 

Bran did not let him speak. He could not bear to hear the final, crushing confirmation of all his fears. "I knew you as a child, Will. I remember you falling over on the mountain and grazing your knee. You cried, even though you tried not to. I remember you helpless with laughter after… I can't even remember why we were laughing, but we were. We had to hold on to each other to stop ourselves from falling over. I remember how nervous you were going into a new year at school, because the form tutor was supposed to be horrible. You were normal, Will. You were my friend."

 

"Things were different…" Will's voice sounded choked.

 

"No." With immense difficulty, Bran moved to Will's side, and took his ice-cold hand. "I've seen glimpses of it in Oxford – only glimpses, but enough. When we were talking about Winnie-the-Pooh. Sitting in the bar and remembering the past. You even got a bit drunk once."

 

Will's hand stirred, as if he was trying to escape. Bran would not let him. "And how sad and miserable you were when you thought I was going out with Jane. Even Jane noticed that, and she doesn't know you. How you don't often show your feelings on your face, but I'm learning how to read them, anyway, in your eyes and your hands and the way you hold your head. And the fact that you said you loved me. And the fact that you said you would make me forget, if you thought it was best for me, even though you loved me."

 

Will made a strangled noise that was nothing like speech. Tenderly, firmly, Bran touched his cheek. "Pure, bright Light cannot feel love. Only humans can feel love. You are human, Will. I thought you weren't. After I asked you all those questions, and then when you saved me, I… I was afraid that you weren't. I only saw the differences between us. But whatever you say, whatever you think now, you're human. Perhaps you'll outlive us all, but for now you've got a family, and you've got friends, and you've got me. Live with us, Will. Don't make yourself more different than you need to be."

 

"I can't…" Will looked defeated. "I have no words."

 

"You don't need words," Bran whispered. But, instinctively, he knew he had gone as far as he could go. He touched Will's lips with his fingers, but he did not try to take a kiss. He thought Will might yield if he tried for one, but he thought, too, that Will might flinch away, and be lost to Bran forever.

 

Will rested his head against the back of the armchair, as if he lacked the strength to do anything else.

 

"But I will go to the party," Bran said, standing.

 

Will's eyes were shadowed, but he smiled.

 

******

 

It was thirst that roused him in the end. Will stirred, and wandered sluggishly to the sink. He thrust the kettle underneath the flow of cold water, but much of it missed, splashing over his hands. Wandering back towards his chair, he crouched to plug the kettle in, and blindly grabbed a biscuit from the near-empty tin.

 

Five minutes later, the kettle had boiled, and was silent again. The biscuit was uneaten in his hand.

 

Bran… Thought came with difficulty, words rasping like a rusty gate. Bran said…

 

Bran had said many things, and his own thoughts were churning. Feelings that he should not have ever known were battling inside him. He thought he knew the reason, but that did not make it any less terrible. He had come too close to the Wild Magic. To bind the creature of the Wild Magic, he had had to open himself to feelings that were not proper for an Old One. For as long as he kept the creature bound, he would be confused and conflicted, buffeted by thoughts and feelings that did not come from the Light.

 

It was best to ignore them. He would feel them – he could not help but feel them – but he would act purely as the Light dictated. If there was laughter in his heart, it would not show on his face. If doubts kept him awake at night, he would not let them make him deviate from the course he had to take. He could not let this destroy him. If he started acting on emotion now, he was lost.

 

And yet… And yet…

 

He shook some coffee into a mug, splashed water on top of it, and began to drink it before it had started to cool down. It hurt his lips. He willed his hands to stop trembling, and it became better after that. Someone shouted from outside the window, very loud and clear. Bound to him, already almost part of him, the Wild Magic creature stirred, then lay still again. Then, in the silence that followed, came a faint and whispering voice: Bran was right.

 

He placed the mug down, and wondered. He truly did not know if the voice came from the Light, or from the Wild Magic; from his hopes or from his fears; from the mouth of an enemy who wanted to destroy him. Think, he willed himself. Bran had said… Bran had said…

 

That I am human. That I can think and feel and love as a human does. That I do not need to be separate.

 

Once, that had been true. How distant, how strange it felt to remember those early years after his eleventh birthday. He had immersed himself in books, and played with friends. He had lived a rich and happy life in his large family, basking in warmth and laughter. He had wrestled with boredom and hopes, with anxieties about school tests and bullies, and with ordinary, human fears. There had been months on end when he had seldom had a single thought that was not the thought of an ordinary boy, heading towards his teens.

 

When had that changed? As he headed towards adulthood, his powers had grown and become more difficult to ignore, but that was not the real reason, was it? Bran was the cause. Love was the trigger. Slowly, painfully, he had grown to realise that he wanted his future to contain Bran. Suddenly the knowledge of his true nature, never an obstacle when it came to innocent games with friends, assumed an immense importance. He had broken with Bran, and in doing so, he had broken with his own humanity. He had never intended it to happen, but the decision to walk away from Bran had led him to draw away from all other human contact. If he could not have the person he wanted, he would have no-one at all, and he would call it good.

 

"I knew this," he said out loud. "I knew this already." What was new was the doubt. Never before had he questioned whether it had been the right thing to do.

 

Merriman had loved; he remembered that suddenly, fiercely. Merriman had loved his land, his lord, and his liegeman, and maybe many others over the centuries. In the lives he had crafted for himself over the years, he had not always been alone. And some Old Ones had even married. Frank Dawson had married a human woman, and lived a long and happy life with her.

 

Being an Old One did not mean that you could not love. An Old One felt all the emotions that a human did, and these emotions were just as real. They could never be the most important thing in his life, but they were real, and they mattered. He had been wrong to push them aside. He could not protect mankind unless he lived among men, and felt the pity and the love that drove them.

 

He walked to the window, where he pressed his brow to the glass, gazing outside with eyes that swam with unshed tears. Perhaps everything he was thinking came from the Wild Magic, but it felt right. He had chosen the wrong course for himself. In future, he would endeavour to feel like a man, even though he would never - could never – act as anything other than an Old One.

 

It felt as if he was standing on the edge of a cliff, with everything beneath it hidden in fog.

 

******

 

"Bran." He thought there was a shadow of reserve in her smiling greeting. "Come in."

 

He hesitated. "Not if you're busy."

 

She laid down her pen. "It's nothing urgent. I've got three more days to do this." She nodded towards the armchair. "Sit down. Let's have a good gossip."

 

There was still that reserve there. He wondered if she had split up with her boyfriend. Desperately he searched his memories, wondering if she had still been with him last time they had met. It was four weeks, he realised. He hadn't seen her for four weeks, and even then he had struggled to find things to say to her.

 

"How's Will?" she asked. There was nothing frosty in her smile. He realised suddenly that he was only aware of the slight reserve because his time with Will had made him accustomed to seeing the emotions that lurked beneath a façade.

 

"I… don't know," he admitted. "We had a… Well, not quite an argument, last night. To cut a long story short, he told me I was neglecting my other friends in favour of him, and that he didn't want me to do it any more. He said I shouldn't want to spend every evening with him, and that I was to…" He faltered a little. "Dependent," he admitted.

 

"Good for him," Jane said coldly.

 

Bran looked at her, blinking. "You…"

 

"Bran." Jane's coldness vanished in a smile, soft with gentleness. "That came out too harshly, but he has a point. I'm very glad he said it, because I don't think I'd have dared say it myself. I really must meet him properly one day."

 

He tried again. "You…"

 

"I'm sorry." She sighed, pushing her hair back from her face. "I probably sound jealous. Maybe I am, a bit, though I don't have any right to. But last term, when I met Jamie, I was happy to spend evenings with you. Since you and Will got together, I've barely seen you, and when I have, your mind's been miles away. You haven't been you, Bran."

 

"You should have said…"

 

"You need to see someone before you can say something to them," Jane said, "and besides, you wouldn't have listened." She pushed her hair back again, a nervous gesture that reminded him suddenly and intensely of Will. "I'm just glad he said it. I hope you're going to forgive him."

 

"Forgive him?" He hadn't thought of it was something as simple as a case of right and wrong, requiring forgiveness. He hadn't been angry when he had left Will's room. If anything, he had been sorrowing, because for the first time it was brutally clear to him that Will had been desperately alone for years. He had gone to the party, and had moderately enjoyed it, although he had not stayed long. After that, he had spent most of the night awake, thinking about what Will had said, and about what he had said to Will. He had no conclusions. He still had no conclusions.

 

"You don't have to be together all the time to be in love," Jane said. "And, no, I'm not an expert, but… I've missed you, Bran. You've been so different this term – different from how you were last term, and different from how you were in your letters. I liked you better how you used to be. You seemed happier then, too. I'm sure Will only has your best interests at heart."

 

"Of course he has," said Bran, surprised by sudden bitterness. "He always has. Contrary to appearances, though, he isn't always right about everything. He's messed his own life up good and proper. I told him as much. He told me to get out and spend time other people, but he sits in his room as if it's a fortress. Yes, I know he's different, and nothing can change that, but part of the difference is because he's made himself different, and…" He stopped, snatching back the words that wanted to come flooding out – words that would reveal all secrets to Jane, who had once known them all, but had been made to forget.

 

Jane was looking at him strangely.  "I don't understand…" She shook her head. "No. I won't ask. I won't pry. Unless you want me to. Talking can help, but sometimes…" She shrugged, spreading her hands.

 

Bran considered it. "No," he said at last, heavily. "I can't talk about it any more. For what it's worth, I think he was probably right. I'm going to try to change. That's why I went to the party last night, and came to see you today. All I hope is that… The thing that really scares me is that he won't. And if I change, and he doesn't…"

 

"Then you try again," Jane said gently, "because you love him."

 

"Yes," he said, subsiding into the chair with a smile. "I love him."

 

But he could not say that this was all that mattered, but he now knew that it was not.

 

******

 

End of chapter seventeen

___

 

Chapter eighteen: Hilary ending

 

Term came to an end. "It all went so fast," Bran observed, as they strolled through Radcliffe Square, their coats flapping in the early March wind. "But at the same time the start of term seems like years ago. We weren't together. I wasn't even talking to you. I didn't know anything about… well, you know."

 

"No," Will agreed. He saw a girl coming that he recognised from College, and he deliberately smiled at her. She smiled back, calling him by name. It felt like a promise. In a small and special way, it was.

 

"Next term will be different," Bran said. "I've got exams at the end of them. There's punting, May Morning… Have you ever gone punting, Will?"

 

"Once, years ago," Will said. "Not in Oxford."

 

"Then we'll go punting together." Bran slipped his hand through Will's arm, so they were twined at the elbow.

 

Will thought of the spirit of the river Cherwell, bound by him and always close to him. He did not think that he wanted to take to a punt in that river. But Bran would be there, and he did not always have to be an Old One. All things could be faced.

 

Enjoy every moment, the spirit whispered gleefully. You will not see the summer end, the two of you together.

 

"It looks far too easy to fall in." Will's voice sounded distant, not like himself. "My brother James fell in last time. I suppose he was showing off, though."

 

The tall stranger, lord of the fairies, watched then from the shadows of a doorway. Will moved his body subtly so that Bran would not see him. He could feel the stranger's eyes like knives boring into his back. Soon, the spirit promised. Soon.

 

They crossed the High Street, and headed down the lane. Things stirred in the shadows. Whenever he blinked, he saw flashes of ruin. He saw the buildings crumbling to rubble. He saw beautiful statues strangled by twisted roots, and men in rags running in packs through the wreckage, baying like wolves.

 

"What are you going to do over Easter?" Bran asked.

 

Will tried not to blink at all. "Go home. Spend time with my parents. Maybe visit some old friends." It was time to say it. "I think you were right, Bran. A lot of what you said that night, anyway. I don't know how much I can do it, but I'm going to try."

 

They reached Merton Street. Will felt the stranger's gaze slowly withdraw. He dared to blink again, and saw nothing but the tower of Merton Chapel, serene in the fading light.

 

Bran squeezed his arm. "You were right, too. Jane… I hope you don't mind, but I told Jane some of it, and she agreed with you. I'm going to try… It's just hard, when I love you so."

 

He feels it, the spirit whispered, even though he does not remember it. The old connection is there. How much does he love Will Stanton, the withdrawn student who only causes him pain, and how much is he remembering the boy who doesn't even exist any more?

 

It spoke in his own voice now. Or, maybe, he now spoke in its voice. He did not know.

 

And how much do I love him merely because of who he once was, and the things that we shared then?

 

Bran gave a nervous chuckle. "It all seems so obvious now. I've thought about it for several days. I couldn't sleep that first night."

 

"Neither could I." They passed through the lodge, and Will let his fingers brush against the stone, feeling its whisper of strength and stability.

 

"But we're together now." Bran's hand snaked down to his, tangling Will's fingers in his own. "Any minute now, you're going to call me a love-sick fool again, but I don't care. It's the last day of term – our last evening together. Let's make the most of it."

 

Make the most of it, the spirit echoed. Make the most of it. You will have so little time after this.

 

They climbed the stairs, Bran leading and Will following, their linked hands stretching between them like bonds of gold. Bran kissed him as soon as the door was closed, and this time Will made no attempt to pull away. It was soft at first, then fierce, then soft again. Bran's hands pushed beneath Will's coat, driving it apart, wrapping around his waist. Yes, sighed the spirit, and the Wild Magic, and everything inside him that was not of the Light. Yes…

 

"Take your coat off," Bran whispered hoarsely, breaking the kiss. Will did, because he is your lord, the Pendragon, your master, the only man an Old One should owe allegiance to. Then he pulled Bran's coat off, because Bran was none of those things, and in this Will was just a man, and there was nothing of the Light about this, just love and fondness - two people together in the dark.

 

He let Bran drag him urgently to the bed. But once there, Bran grew gentle, almost shy. "Are you sure you want this?"

 

"This," Will had to tell him, "but not everything, not yet." Because I have only just started on this journey towards humanity, and too much ecstasy would tear down all my barriers, and there would be nothing between me and the full might of the Wild Magic, and… and… He tried to say some of that to Bran, but Bran just caught his hand softly, and said, "I understand." Then a faint smile, and, "I don't think I can cope with everything at once, either, Will. I've never done this before."

 

"You're good at it," Will said, blushing like a child. He kissed Bran, but he could not muster fierceness, only tenderness, soft and exploring. He was a man kissing a man, but he felt like a child, poised on the cusp of a new world, awakening to feelings he had never dreamed of.

 

Bran's hands were at Will's waist, teasing his shirt from the waist of his trousers. A tendril of apprehension, almost of fear, snaked across Will's spine, like the touch of the Dark. Then Bran's hand strayed upwards, stroking across Will's side, up to his back. His other hand was at Will's neck, his thumb stroking his jaw.

 

"I want your shirt to be off." Bran twisted his face to one side, his words hot on Will's cheek. "Is that going too far?"

 

"As long as yours comes off, too."

 

Will took his own shirt off, his fingers trembling. If Bran had done it before him, he thought his barriers would have crashed down forever, and he would have been lost. His vision blurred with the emotions of the Wild. He was tremulous and scared; hopeful and quivering with promise.

 

"We lie down." Bran's voice was hot. He, too, was shirtless, his perfect skin almost translucent in the light. He bore Will down, and came down with him, his weight on the bed beside Will, but most of his body covering Will's. For the first time in his life, Will felt the bare skin of another human being against the skin of his chest. Blood pounded in his head. He hurt, and he wanted more.

 

"I do love you." Bran kissed the hollow of Will's collarbone, and the side of his throat, and the angle of his jaw. He fluttered feather-light kisses over his lips, over his cheeks, at the side of each eye, on his brow. Then he withdrew for a moment, and Will saw how his eyes were swimming with unshed tears, and saw how he had pulled his lower lip in with his teeth, and was worrying it.

 

He's nervous, Will thought. He's as afraid as I am. He reached up with his hand, to do something, to say something, to reassure him, to stop this, but Bran was suddenly smiling. "Even if we stop now, I have never been so happy." And Will could not say anything to contradict this, because it was true. He felt it, too. He would always be of the Light, but he was also human, and he could have love. He could have love.

 

And Bran's hands were on his chest, stroking, teasing, coaxing. Will arched towards him, needing more. Then Bran's lips were where his hands had been, and Will was almost lost in the Wild. "I've never done this before," Bran breathed into Will's flesh, "but it feels right. It feels so right."

 

They had been together forever. When memory had returned to him in Wales, Bran had been the first person he had seen. They had been through Time together, and helped each other through the terrors of the Lost Land. Had they been born in a different time, Will would have loved and served Bran for life, as his master had served Bran's father. Bran no longer remembered all this, but Will was still a man. They could be together as men, even if one of them was no longer part of the pattern of Light.

 

But Bran saw his sudden abstraction. His hand froze. "You're not here with me."

 

"I am." Will smiled up at him, and twisted one leg around Bran's, holding them as close below as they had been above. 

 

Bran's hand closed, fingers withdrawing from touch. "But I lied, Will. Now we've done this, I want more. We should stop. Talk. Go to dinner. Read stories… I can't… Will, I understand. You want to take this slowly, but if we go on like this…"

 

Your only chance, the spirit whispered. The last night of the world…But he could not listen to that. A wrong was still a wrong, no matter what came after. Then there were his barriers against the Wild Magic… But he had shown it all the love in his heart, and he had still won. He had shown it grief and fear, and he had still won. Every night, countless men surrendered themselves to lust, and were still men the morning after, their feelings in check. Nothing could touch his core of Light. The worst that could happen was that his feelings would be ragged, and his heart torn.

 

But he was like that already, so close to Bran, and yet without him.

 

"You're thinking about it," Bran said bitterly. "Weighing it up. I can tell."

 

"I am," Will told him, and for a moment, just a moment, he was entirely Old One. "I cannot do anything else – I told you that." He smiled, and reached for Bran's face, cushioning his cheek in his hand, his thumb gentle and silencing on his lips. "Part of me wants this very much, but there's too much happening. I can't risk losing control. I love you, but I can't do more than this."

 

"I understand."

 

Bran kissed him chastely on the lips, and prepared to withdraw, but Will would not let him. He pulled Bran down, so Bran was beside him on the bed, his head nestled against his shoulder. "But we can still be together," he whispered. "We can still share everything that matters, even if not… like that."

 

"Yes," Bran murmured, his breath warm on Will's neck. And, after a while, they slept.

 

******

 

It felt so simple, back in Wales. Bran had expected to miss Will with a wrenching agony, but he did not. He missed him – oh how he missed him! – but life on the farm was the same as it had been throughout his life, and there was a comfort in that. This was home. Standing on the mountainside was like being enfolded in the arms of a gentle lover, who would always protect him, and always bring him peace.

 

They wrote, but by mutual, unspoken consent, their letters said little about the things that really mattered. Bran accepted that Will had to use this holiday to draw closer to his family, and lessen the gulf that had arisen between them. Will had not suggested a visit, and so Bran had not done so either. Will had called him too dependant. If Bran flourished for over a month without Will, perhaps Will would realise that he, too, had grown.

 

He dreamed of Will, though. For three nights in a row, he woke from a dream of touch and ecstasy, the sheets tangled around his sweat-drenched limbs. In his dreams, they did everything together that two men in love could do, but there was less love in his dreams than there had been on that last night together, when they had slept chastely in each other's arms, and he had woken to see Will's sleepy smile. 

 

"You look tired," Owen remarked over breakfast, after the third night of dreams. "You've forgotten what it is to get up early in the morning."

 

"I was up late, working." Bran had been given an impressively long reading list to get through before the new term started, and it was plain that Owen did not approve. He had never entirely approved of Bran going to Oxford. Honest Welshmen worked on the land. Welshmen who went away to England to fill their heads with book learning were just asking for trouble.

 

The night after that, he dreamed of Will again, but this time Will was wrapped in his long coat, and far, far away. Bran reached out a pleading hand towards him, but Will dwindled until he was only a dark speck in the air. "Come back," Bran sobbed, and the dark speck became a bead of light, and the light swelled and grew, until all the world was cold, white Light, and Bran was consumed by it, lost.

 

He phoned Will the following evening, but Will was out with his brother. Bran told himself that this was a good thing. "Is that Bran?" Mrs Stanton asked, as Bran wondered what message to leave. When he admitted that it was, the polite questions came. It was clear that Mrs Stanton knew Bran only as an old childhood friend of Will's, and did not know that they had met in Oxford. It hurt him more than it should have done. Conscious that Owen, too, was listening to every word, he left a vague message, and hung up.

 

By morning, he had convinced himself that it didn't matter that Will hadn't told his family about their relationship. Bran hadn't told anybody, either. Owen and John Rowlands would remember Will only as the English boy who had once come visiting, and the boys from school did not know about him at all.

 

He decided to tell. Will phoned back the next night, but there were too many people listening at both ends for either of them to say anything important. The following day, Bran followed John Rowlands into the high pastures.

 

"Well?" John said, when they stopped for a drink. "Say what you need to say."

 

Bran moistened his lips. "How do you know…?"

 

John chuckled. "I've known you since you were a baby, my boy. I can tell the look of a boy with a secret he is burning to tell."

 

"But I'm afraid to tell it, too," Bran admitted. "Terrified. It will change how people think of me. It might even make people hate me."

 

John took a swig of the drink from the thermos lid, refilled it, and passed it to Bran. "Have you murdered somebody, Bran? Stolen something? Cheated? Told lies?"

 

Bran shook his head. He placed the thermos lid on the ground, leaving the drink untouched. A slim blade of grass was pinned beneath it, but managed to spring free. "I have… met somebody," he said. "In Oxford."

 

"Somebody?" John said slowly. "Somebody you think you could love?"

 

"Somebody I do love," Bran said. "And it's a… he's a man."

 

John picked up the lid, and took a short drink, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "An older man, Bran? I have to ask this. You read such things in the papers."

 

"He's my age," Bran said, "almost exactly. I didn't… I mean, I never… I didn't think I was like that. I never thought about boys before, not in that way. But then there was him, and… it was as if the whole world fell apart, and got reshaped in a different way."

 

John seemed to be thinking for a while. "I thought so," he said at last, "or I thought it might be. When we picked you up from the station last week, there was a light in you that put me in mind of… Forgive me, Bran, but it made me think of Owen Davies, those few days he spent with your mother."

 

A kestrel hovered high above the moorland. A car was a silver flash of light on the valley road. The sunlight blurred and glittered. "Do you disapprove?" Bran asked.

 

John stretched his legs before him, sucking in a breath as his old muscles protested. "I come from a different generation, Bran. These things are not easy for us, but…" He was looking not at Bran, but into the distance, his face creased with a sudden and inexplicable longing. "Love is such a rare and precious thing, Bran. It can bring such happiness, and no man should be alone. What sort of a man would I be to begrudge you your happiness? What right do I have to say that you should not love the person who makes your world whole?"

 

Bran blinked, and in the March wind, the tears were instantly cold on his cheeks. "I haven't told Owen."

 

"Don't," John said instantly.

 

"I don't want to keep secrets," Bran protested. "There have been enough of those in this family." The revelation, made too late, about Bran's mother could have torn him and Owen apart, he knew that.

 

"What I mean is, don't tell him yet," John said. "He has certain…views, from Chapel. He will not take it well. Leave it until the summer, Bran. I will prepare him for it, and ease the way for the telling."

 

"Thank you," Bran said.

 

But it was only later, as they were walking back to the farm, that John said, "That light in your eyes… It didn't only remind me of Owen, Bran. I have seen it in you before, too."

 

"When?" Bran asked, but he thought he knew the answer already. He did not know if he wanted to grin like an idiot, or hide his face in embarrassment.

 

"Four years ago," John said, "when Will Stanton last came to visit." He paused to open a gate, his back to Bran as he spoke. "Jen Evans tells me that Will is at Oxford, too."

 

Bran could not persuade his feet to move. Even his voice sounded frozen. "How did you guess it was him?"

 

John stopped, the gate half open. "He always seemed different, young Will. There was something about him, and I feel… sometimes I feel as if I once knew what it was. Maybe it was just because he was able to make you smile, back at a time in your childhood when you were more lonely than you wanted us to know. I used to watch you together on the mountain, and something felt right. Where one of you went, the other would be. I thought of you as the boys. Bran and Will. Will and Bran." He turned to face Bran at last. "If it had been a stranger, perhaps I would have reacted in the way you feared I would react, but if it is Will…" His eyes were bright with emotion. "I trust him with your heart."

 

And there was nothing Bran could say to answer that, nothing he could say that would express the awe and gratitude he felt inside. "I don't think Will's family knows about us yet," was all he said. "Please don't say anything to Mrs Evans."

 

"I won't," John said, and they walked back to the farm as if nothing had happened. Owen certainly said no word about it, as he watched them come in.

 

******

 

On his first day back from Oxford, Will sat up late, talking to his parents. On his second day, he went with his mother into the village, and let the local ladies question him about his life and his studies and his friends. On the third day, he spoke to Gwen on the phone. On the fourth day, he did some reading, and he wrote to Bran.

 

James came home a week after Will, and this time Will was the one to suggest that they went out to the pub. They stayed out late. Will did not drink, but he bought James drinks, and they talked as they had seldom talked since they were children. Will learned about the two girls James liked, and his increasingly desperate attempts to decide which one he liked more. He heard about his brother's fears that he was failing, and of the uncomplicated escape that was the choir. He heard about parties and adventures, mishaps and jokes.

 

He told some tales of his own, too.  He missed Bran, and the voice of the river was never far away, but he felt warm, and at times he even felt happy.

 

Paul was the first to comment on the difference. "You've changed," he said, home for the weekend in between concerts in far-away cities.

 

"Oh?" Will toyed with the silky ears of Floss, latest successor to the collies of his childhood.

 

"You'd grown quite distant," Paul said. "Now you're with us again. Mum looks really happy. You do, too."

 

Floss placed her chin trustingly on Will's knee. "I didn't think they'd noticed," Will said faintly.

 

Paul frowned. "Of course they did. Even in big families like ours, people notice if someone they love is unhappy. They notice when only one person doesn't join in the chat over Christmas dinner. They notice when they bring their new baby, and only one person doesn't smile with his eyes."

 

"I didn't know," Will said. "I didn't mean it."

 

Paul looked at him strangely. "Want to go for a walk, Will?"

 

They headed outside – "but not down to the river," Will said. "I don't want to go near the river." They passed the church, that once had hidden the Sign of Stone, and passed the farm, now being brought into the modern age by owners who were not the Dawsons. The spring air was pleasant. The Wild Magic was whispering, but he was used to that, now.

 

"The thing is," Will said, "I've always felt different. For the last few years, I've been more and more aware of how different I am. It made it hard to relate to people. There were things inside me that I couldn't share. But someone made me realise that this doesn't matter. Oh, it matters, but not as much as all those things that I have in common with you all."

 

"I don't understand," Paul said, "but at the same time… I do." He was walking slowly, choosing his words with care. "I often felt different when I was your age. Music can be very isolating. You can communicate in music to other people, but the relationship between you and the piece of music is such an intensely personal thing. I would practice alone in my room when you were all outside, having fun. I knew none of you completely understood."

 

Music was close kin to magic. If there was anyone in his family that Will could confide in, it would be Paul. "I never knew," he murmured.

 

"I expect every one of us feels the same," Paul continued. "Who can ever truly know what is going on inside someone else's head? I expect that every one of us sometimes feels as if no-one else understands us, or that we are so different from everyone we know that we will never truly be happy."

 

It sounded so unutterably sad. He had never really thought about it before. He saw humankind linked by all the things they had in common, while he was on the outside. But of course each human being was isolated from those around them. Love and friendship and family bound them together, but in their own minds, they were alone. Different, he thought. Not just me, but everyone. How could an Old One of the Light be so unwise?

 

"You will find people who understand you one day," Paul said. "I have, in the orchestra. I came to learn that my family might not understand that most essential part of me, but in other ways, they know me better than anyone. I'm one person with my friends, and another person here, but they're both equally me. I wouldn't be Paul Stanton without either of them."

 

Paul should have been the Old One, Will thought, for he saw things so much more clearly than Will did. Paul would not have lost four years of his life to coldness and lack of love.

 

"I wish…" Will said, and suddenly he wanted to cement this moment of closeness Paul had given him, and trust his brother, as he had been trusted. "I've already started to realise some of this," he said, looking into the distance, across the fields. "And I have made a friend. More than a friend. I love him."

 

Paul did not gasp in horror. He did not squirm awkwardly, or pretend to misunderstand. "So that was why you felt you were different," he said. "Of course." He took hold of Will's shoulder. "I remember you being born, Will. I watched you grow up. You were always a bit different from everyone else, but I recognised that, because I was, too. Neither of us seemed to find it as easy to smile as the rest of them. But now… If you've found out what you want… If this boy makes you happy… and I can see that he does…" He smiled. "I can't be anything other than happy for you, Will."

 

Will could not confess his true secret, but with this, he almost felt as if he had. He could almost pretend that he had told Paul everything, and Paul was happy for him. In a way, he supposed he had, for Bran was important, and he would not hide him.

 

"Does anyone else know?" Paul asked.

 

Will shook his head. "You're the first. I hadn't intended to tell anyone. It just… happened."

 

Paul frowned, considering the issue in his slow and careful way. "I think you should tell the others. Mum will be relieved to find out the reason why you've been acting the way you have. I know she's been worried."

 

"I didn't mean to worry anyone," Will murmured. He truly had had no idea. He had slowly come to the point at which other people could no longer touch him. Perhaps this had made him forget that he could still touch other people.

 

But they talked of other things on the way back to the house. The following day, after Paul had gone, Will told his mother. She cried, but said she had half expected it. "I've raised five other boys, you know. They all went through their phase of discovering girls, except for you." She dabbed her eyes, and hugged him. "I'm just glad you're happy. I was so worried at Christmas."

 

The others he told one by one. They all accepted him, and reassured him that they loved him, though Barbara and Mary seemed to treat him as if he was something of an invalid, who needed special nurturing. Everyone made a visible effort to draw him into their conversations, and he made a special effort to join in.

 

By the end of the holidays, it was hardly an effort at all.

 

******

 

So now Bran had a secret from Owen.

 

It was strange how it affected him, during those last weeks of the Easter holidays. He had not expected to feel the way he did. If anything, he had expected to spend the time missing Will. He had never expected to spend the time missing his mother, too.

 

John had started it, he supposed, by talking about how happy Owen had been during those short days he had spent with Bran's mother. The knowledge of having a secret was what made it worse. Owen had kept his secret from Bran for so long, and now Bran had a secret of his own. Both involved love. In the eyes of Owen's church, both involved shame. Now I have a secret that I'm scared to tell you, Bran thought, in case you reject me. Now I know what it is to love someone so much you lie about them.

 

He could not speak to Owen about Will. Instead, he tried to talk to him about his mother. Owen gave little. John gave a little more, but not enough.

 

Can Will take me back in time to see her? The thought came again, growing from the seed that had been planted in Oxford, weeks before. Then he would be whole. Will had refused to let Bran love him until Bran knew everything about him. Now that Bran was in love, he wanted to be able to love in full knowledge of who he was. He knew his own heart, but he knew little about his mother, and nothing at all about his father. He wanted to come to Will with everything known.

 

He said nothing of this in his letters to Will. He questioned John a little about his mother, but for the most part, he talked about Will. John was not entirely comfortable with this, Bran thought, but it was too delicious simply to say Will's name. He did not speak about love, or about any of the times they had touched. The things he said would not have aroused Owen's suspicions if they were overheard. But he spoke, and John listened, and sometimes Bran laughed aloud with the sheer joy of it.

 

Owen said nothing. If he wondered why Bran sought time alone with John, he did not ask. If he noticed that Bran looked happier than he had looked for years, he did not comment. Bran snatched up Will's letters before Owen could see them, and took to phoning Will from the phone box in Tywyn. Sometimes he stared dreamily out of the window, but Owen was a silent man, and used to passing hours without speaking.

 

"I've told you all I can, boy," he said once, when Bran asked him once again about his mother. "Surely you've got all you need here."

 

Bran breathed in, and out again. "One day, there might be something else. I might meet someone at Oxford."

 

Owen raised his head. "Have you met a girl?"

 

This was the time to say it, if it was going to be said. John had told him not to. But if he told his secret, maybe Owen would tell his. Maybe Owen would tell him who his father was. Bran knitted his fingers together, clasping his hands on his lap. But maybe Owen didn't know. And maybe John was right. John usually was. "No," he said, shaking his head. "But I will meet somebody," he said. "One day. And then…"

 

Owen said nothing, but Bran noticed suddenly how old he looked.

 

Secrets were dreadful, he thought. They just tore you apart.

 

But he said nothing. The following day, Owen drove him to the station, and they parted with a quick clasp of arms around the shoulders. As the train pulled out of the station, Bran waved goodbye, but Owen only nodded once.

 

******

 

End of chapter eighteen

___

 

Chapter nineteen: As I walked out one morning

 

Will enjoyed their reunion. After they had kissed awhile, Bran reclined half-clothed on Will's bed. Pulling his shirt over his shoulders, Will set about the business of making tea.

 

Some things were easier to say when your face was half averted, and your hands were busy on some other task. "I told my family about you," Will said. "About us, I mean."

 

"Oh?"

 

Will could not tell from Bran's voice how he was feeling. He pulled out two teabags, placed one in each mug, and eventually turned round. Bran was grinning, he saw, one hand pressed to his mouth. His eyes were shining, and there was a hint of pink on his pale skin, as eloquent as a ruddy blush on someone of a different complexion.

 

"Silly," Bran said, when he saw Will looking at him. "I shouldn't feel like this." His smile deepened, and the hint of tears showed beneath his eyes. "I'm just glad you're not ashamed of me. It means a lot to me, really." He wiped his eyes, unashamed of his tears. "How did they react?"

 

"They were… pleased for me, I think," Will said. "I expect it will take them a while to get used to it, regardless of what they say, but they all said they were glad I'd found someone who made me happy." He opened his window, bringing his milk in from its cool place on the windowsill. His back was to Bran again, his hands intent on their task. "I tried to do what you'd said I should do, you see. I talked to them more. I took an interest. It wasn't as hard as I thought it would be, and by the end of the holidays, it was easy." He turned again, for he should not be a coward, not in this. "You were right, Bran, and I was wrong. I'm not entirely human, and I can never forget that, but the human part of me is very real. Thank you for showing me that."

 

It was a curious reversal. Through all their quests together, Will had been the one leading the way. The Pendragon was the lord, but the Old One was the mentor, helping him fulfil his destiny. It was strange to realise that he could learn something from Bran. It seemed almost wrong that an Old One could learn a lesson from a mortal. But, of course, it was not wrong at all. It was a sign of how far he had strayed from his path, that he could think it so.

 

Bran gave a beautiful smile, then sobered. "I told John Rowlands. He advised me not to tell Owen, not yet. He doesn't think Owen will take it well."

 

Will remembered Owen Davies, so silent, so humourless, so devoted to his church, and thought John Rowlands was probably right. But he had seen the damage that a secret could wreak. He had witnessed the near-disaster that had resulted from Bran discovering his parentage for the first time. Bran had forgotten all that now, though Owen had since told him again that he was not Bran's father.

 

"Here," he said, as he tried to decide what to say. "I hope it's strong enough for you."

 

Bran took the tea, and put it down on a piece of paper on the bedside table. "I told Jane, too," he said, settling back down on his elbow. "Ages ago, that was. She wants to meet you properly. What about a double date with her boyfriend?"

 

Dinner, Will thought. Social interaction. But there were the sort of things he could cope with now. These were the sort of things he should cope with, and do cheerfully, even if the world of magic was crumbling around him.

 

"Sounds good," he said. "I always liked Jane."

 

"Back when we were having all those adventures that neither of us remember." The contentment had vanished from Bran's face. He sat up, and pulled his shirt on, as if he was cold.

 

"I can't undo that spell," Will said quietly. "It was placed by my master, long ago, and it was meant to be permanent. I couldn't lift it even if I…"

 

"Wanted to?" Bran reached for his tea, and grimaced at its heat. "It always comes back to that, doesn't it? Even now, you still have all these secrets. There's so much of your life that I can never understand, and never be part of." He let out a long breath. "Yes, I know. You told me it would be like this, right from the start. You warned me. I'm not complaining. I just wish…"

 

Will did not ask. He could not ask.

 

"That I could help you." Bran struck the wall with his clenched fist. "I'm not completely stupid. I saw that… enemy, back in January. I saw impossible things, horrible things, that night when you saved me. To me, last term was all about you and me. I know that, for you, it was about other things. You said once you were fighting a war, but you don't tell me anything about it. You won't let me help you."

 

"You can't help me," Will said simply. Then honesty compelled him to say, "You did help me, in a way. There was a time when… There was something I had to do, and I could only do it because I knew what love was. The knowledge of love allowed me to snatch a weapon that I hope will prove useful one day."

 

"I don't understand." Bran looked lost and young. "I want to understand."

 

Will moved to his side, touched his hand. "But you won't. You never will. Can you live with that?"

 

Bran met his gaze. "I have to."

 

But Will saw the pain in his eyes, that his accepting words could not hide. "It hasn't been too bad these last few weeks," he said honestly. "All last term, I thought the danger was growing. By the end of term, the enemy kept hinting that the end was very close. But it's been almost silent all through the holidays. I have a… hostage, of sorts. Maybe that stopped them? But that doesn't feel right."

 

Bran was looking at him, eyes wide and uncomprehending. "I don't understand. The end of term, you say… But you didn't say anything. You were going through all this, and you didn't tell me. Maybe I can't help you, but I can at least listen."

 

"Maybe." Will sought Bran's hand again, and held it. "But not today. Let's not ruin today."

 

Bran did not seem to hear him. He pulled himself to the edge of the bed, where he sat with his feet on the floor, leaning forward with his forearms on his thighs. "Will," he blurted out, "can you travel back in time?"

 

Will felt a prickle of warning, as if the Dark itself was nearby. He let out a breath, and the sharpness of the warning faded, but the uneasiness remained. "I can," he admitted. "An Old One can move through Time at will."

 

"Can you show me my mother?" Bran's voice was barely audible. "And my father? My real father?"

 

Will leant his head back against the wall, feeling its coldness through his hair. "I can't," he said. "Only seldom has an Old One taken a mortal through Time, and it has never ended well. The Dark took people sometimes, hoping to trap them. My master did it once, but great evil resulted."

 

"So you can." Bran's voice was cold. Will shook his head, but Bran continued. "Don't deny it. You're speaking in your Old One voice. You always do that when you're lying to me."

 

"I don't…" Will reached for Bran's shoulder, and Bran did not pull away, which counted for something, at least. "Merriman did it, you see. Afterwards, he said he'd committed the worst mistake an Old One could commit, which was the place more trust in a mortal than the mortal is strong enough to cope with."

 

"Trust?" This time Bran did pull away.

 

"No!" Will cried, not an Old One any more, but a man whose lover was pulling away from him because of his stupid words. "I didn't mean that. And there were different circumstances with Hawkin, anyway. But please believe me, Bran. Technically I could do this, but it would be disastrous. It's not because I don't trust you. It's not because you're weak – because you're strong, Bran, stronger than anyone I know. But I can't. I just can't. Please don't ask me again."

 

"I won't," Bran said at last. His voice was strange, but he let Will coax him back to bed, with a hand on his arm, then an arm round his waist. They kissed, and then they talked about other things. Afterwards, Will hoped that it was all forgotten, though he suspected that it was not.

 

But nothing more was said about it.

 

******

 

It was almost dawn. Bran stood on the edge of the crowds on Magdalen Bridge, but he was not watching the choir boys, high up on the tower. Many people around him were in black tie or ball gowns, still clutching half-empty glasses of wine. The chattering was restrained. As the choir boys started to sing, it faded away completely.

 

Bran could not see Will.

 

It was the end of the first week of term, and Oxford's traditional May Morning. As the sun rose, the choir sang in the May, and all of Oxford gathered to listen. Afterwards, there would be Morris dancing in the streets, and all the cafes would be open from dawn. It was one night when Oxford did not sleep.

 

"We could stay up together," Bran had suggested, "or there's a party on the next staircase to mine, if you want to go…" But Will had shaken his head and said that he would rather not. "I'd like to get some sleep," he had said, "but I'll be there in the morning, on the bridge."

 

But there were too many people – far more than Bran had ever expected. Reading about it, before, he had imagined that only a few wild souls would get up so early, and had thought the talk of thousands an exaggeration. There was no way he could find Will in all of this. Standing amongst so many people, he felt as if he was the only one who was alone.

 

The song finished, and a new one started. Pressed against the edge of the bridge by the crowd, Bran turned, so that he was leaning on the parapet, looking out at the river. With every second, it seemed, the city was growing clearer. Ten minutes ago, it had been almost entirely dark, but the rising sun made details appear out of the shadows. The river, though, seemed darker than the crowded streets above it. The trees beside it were still in deep shadow, and the water itself looked black and dangerous.

 

Something moved on the bank, almost beneath him. "Will?" Bran breathed. It moved again, darting away. "Will?"

 

He was almost sure of it now, for the sun was rising inexorably, and no-one could hide forever in the light of the new summer. He could not jump down, not without injury, but there were other ways to reach the meadows and the river. He jostled through the crowd, elbowing and apologising, wriggling and squeezing. The song grew fainter, and finally he was free, running through empty streets, and then the paths of a garden. There was grass around him, where before there had been stone. And darker here, yes, darker. Trees bent towards him. And more dangerous, too.

 

He saw the movement again. "Will!" he shouted. "Wait for me!" But, here, the sun seemed to be sinking down again, rather than rising into day. His leg muscles were hurting, his breathing fast and desperate, but he kept on running. Gates stood open to him, leading him through the Botanic Gardens, out into the meadows, then close to the river. Always, ahead, was that flicker of movement. "Will!" He could barely speak now. "Will!" He felt as if his life would end if he did not catch up with him. He ran as he had never run before, because he needed him, he needed him.

 

For the trees were dark, and the river was old, and the only life here was wild and primitive. If ever danger was going to threaten, surely it would be here, as sun rose on the first day of summer, and modern men celebrated as their forefathers had celebrated, welcoming in the May, and all that came with it. And Will was facing it alone. He had lied to Bran, for he had not been on the bridge at all, but under it, fighting his solitary battles, so that the crowds above could celebrate in safety.

 

"Will!" he pleaded, stopping for breath, because he had to, he had to. "Will!"

 

"He has gone on ahead," a voice said from behind him. "He has not waited for you."

 

Bran turned. She was more beautiful than any woman he had ever seen. Her hair was dark and her lips were red. Her skin was pale, and her eyes were the same eyes he saw whenever he looked in the mirror. She was smiling at him with love and pity, like a mother who had to break bad news to her child, and hated doing so.

 

"I know who you are," he gasped. He was still crippled with breathlessness, but he backed away, and tried not to look at her.

 

"I doubt you do." Even when he could not see it, the smile in her voice was devastating. "You know stories and suppositions, and the lies that have been crafted by you and for you and through you."

 

"You're…"  My mother… No, not that. Not her. It could not be. The queen of the fairies could take many forms, and of course she would appear to each person in the guise most likely to tempt them. "You're the enemy of the man I love," he declared, "and I will not listen to what you have to say. You cannot tempt me."

 

"Oh Bran, my poor Bran." There were tears in her voice now, and surely those had to be unfeigned. He dared a look, and her lovely face was suffused with grief. The love in it made his whole being cry out in longing. He had never had a mother. No-one had ever looked at him like that before…

 

"A trick," he rasped. He clenched his fist tight enough to hurt. In the stories, she lured men to their doom through lust. This was just another way. It was no less a trick.

 

"Ah, then you are wise." The tears had gone. Her face was serene, as she stood there with folded hands, her green robes flowing around her. "The child of parents such as yours could never be bought by common wiles."

 

His heart stopped beating. "Parents?"

 

Her look was tender. "Yes, Bran Davies. You were born to a great destiny, though the Old Ones in their arrogance chose to make you forget it. I doubt your precious Will Stanton has told you that. Perhaps you asked him to show you your parents, and he came up with some lie about how it was not possible. Of course he would say that. He does not want you to know that you are even more important than he is."

 

He knew what he was supposed to ask. He knew what he wanted to ask – what his entire soul was crying out to know. He had done many difficult things in his life, but surely this was the hardest of all – to ignore her words, and answer only the intention behind them. "You can't turn me against Will. I know that everything you're saying is a lie."

 

"You know, do you?" In its anger, her face was even more beautiful than it had been when kind. "Ah yes. Because your precious Will told you. What does an Old One know about us? The Light is cold. It knows nothing of love and joy and beauty. It calls us Wild because we are made of such things. Will Stanton will never truly love you, because at his heart there is no human soul, but cold, bright Light. We, whom he calls his enemies, can never do anything other than love. It runs through us as you have blood, and he has only coldness."

 

"That… that isn't true." But his treacherous mind made him remember. Cowering in the street, while Will saved him – but not Will at all, but a terrible figure of cold and merciless light. Will sitting in the pub, unsmiling, talking about his family as if they were strangers. Will saying again and again that he could never be anything other than an Old One of the Light, and Bran should not expect him to.

 

Against it, he clung to memories of them kissing; of Will smiling at him as they met for the first time after the holidays, and admitting that he had been wrong. "It isn't true," he said, more firmly. "And it isn't just Will. The stories…"

 

"You would listen to folk tales told by idiots?" she sneered. "I was wrong to call you wise. The stories were told by those who bore us no love, Bran Davies – by foolish minstrels who heard rumours, and crafted them into fanciful songs. Even those tales that told the truth have been debased over time. Once your people worshipped us as gods. We were the spirits in every stone and every glade, and they prayed to us and gave us offerings, and were content. We did not change, but they did. In their tales, they banished us to green mounds, and called us mischief makers, and accused us of luring men to their doom. Would you listen to just one side of the story, Bran Davies?"

 

Bran could not speak. John Rowlands, who had told him the old stories, had said much the same thing. The tales of the fairies had once been tales of gods, watered down and changed for a new age. "But maybe," John had said, "no less true, for all that."

 

"No," he managed. "I won't listen to stories. But I will listen to my own common sense. You lured me here, didn't you." The open gates, in a garden that closed during the night. The sense of urgency. The figure ahead of him, flickering always just out of reach. "You can't have done this with good intentions. Besides, I saw a man hunted to his death by one of your people."

 

"I am not my brother," she said softly, "and all stories have two sides. You saw only what Will Stanton wanted you to see. Maybe my brother had been provoked. No-one likes it when their gifts and kindnesses are repaid with rejection and betrayal."

 

"You can't turn me against Will." Bran said it louder than he needed to. Will loves me. He wouldn't lie to me. He wouldn't… But Will had been keeping secrets from him from the start, and had made it clear that the secrets would continue. Why had he refused to take Bran back in time to see his parents? Why hadn't Will let Bran remember the things he had once known as a child? Because he can't. He explained that. But maybe that was a lie. All along, their relationship had been riddled with lies and secrets. But he initially said he couldn't let me love him, because there needed to be total honesty and truth in a relationship. He says he loves me now, which must mean that he never lies to me now.

 

Never lies… But he knew that was untrue. Will still had secrets, and had admitted as much.

 

"If he does lie to me," he said, clenching his fists at his sides, "then it's only to protect me."

 

"Because you are a mere mortal who cannot help him. I know." Her voice was a soft as the wind, infiltrating all his defences. "You do not know who you are. You do not know what happened when you were both children. You do not possess powers. You are ordinary, and one day you will die, and he will live on, forever, and forget you."

 

"I know that." Bran's voice sounded strangled. He was no longer aware of the world around him, just of the lady before him, and the bare inches that separated him.

 

"But it is all lies." She touched his arm, and there was no way on earth that he could have moved away. "I am sorry, my child. You want to help Will, but he has robbed you of the weapons you could use to help him. You could have been so much more than you are. Once, you were. You fought side by side against the Dark as equals."

 

He looked into his memory so fiercely that it hurt. Oh, but he longed to remember…! "It's a lie."

 

"Ask him." She was still touching him, a mother watching her child come to a hard realisation. "You know him well enough now that you can tell when he is hiding something. Either he will admit it, or he will lie. Either way, you will know that I am telling the truth."

 

He sagged in her touch, falling to his knees on the muddy path. "I want to help him. He's so far ahead of me, and I'm just nobody. He loves me now, but he'll forget me in the end. I want to be worthy of him. I want to experience everything he experiences, and understand everything he understands. I want to feel what he does. I don't just want to be an observer."

 

He had not meant to speak aloud. It was a sign of how hard he had fallen – enmeshed by promises and lies; caught by magic in a place where nothing existed but her. Her hand was the only thing holding him up; without it, he would have fallen completely. Her beauty and care for him undid him, but her words were worse. She had told him to ask Will. That meant it was true.

 

"But you can help," she said gently, and he had known that these words were coming – known them, and longed for them, and dreaded them with everything that he was. "You can help Will Stanton, the man you love. You can become who you were meant to be. You can stand at his side, and go where he goes, together, for all eternity."

 

"I can't…" It didn't seem possible that he had anything left with which to shape words. "If he kept all this from me, he must have had a reason. He wants to protect me."

 

"But who will protect him, Bran Davies, when he stands alone?" Her tawny eyes looked right into his soul, and her words left him no hiding place at all. "Who will be there for him, after you die? Why should he have to endure all this alone, when he could have somebody at his side, sharing it all?" She stepped back, and gave a sad smile, a dagger twisting in his heart. "I could have given you that, Bran Davies. I could have given you this gift for him."

 

And she turned away, and did not fight, and that was when he said it. "I want it," he said, his head high, and his hands clasped on his head. "I want to know who I really am. I want to know how I can help him."

 

If he did it with his eyes open, then surely there could be no trap. He would see what she had to show him, and listen to what she had to say, and then, changed, he would return to the crowd on the bridge, where Will would be there, waiting for him.

 

"You truly want this?" Her eyes had grown as dark as the river. Her pale hand was full of promises, but she seemed almost shy, half reaching towards him, then drawing away.

 

He stood as solemn as one swearing a vow, bare-headed beneath the expanse of the sky, and the rising sun of summer. "I do."

 

He did not wait for her to reach for him. This time, he took her hand, and led her towards the river.

 

******

 

As the sun rose, the power of the Wild Magic was at its peak. As the twilight faded, and the day became as bright as any other summer's day, its power faded, and became no more than it was on any day. The night before was always terrible. Even when the Old Ones had been in full strength, the eve of May Morning had been a difficult night.

 

Will had stood vigil through the night. The Light allowed him to protect others; the Wild Magic creature bound in his service allowed him, in a way, to fight. By dawn, he was deeply weary, but he had told Bran he would be there on the bridge. He could not go there until the sun had fully risen, for that was the last, the most terrible time of danger. He could not hear the choir boys singing, and never would be able to hear them.

 

He moved slowly, steps dragging, head bowed. Inside, though, he was hopeful. He had feared this day more than he had realised. The threat from the Wild Magic was still huge, but the day of their greatest power had passed without a major assault. No long-dead memories walked the streets of Oxford. No sirens sounded, marking the loss of another soul. Perhaps very little had changed after all. The Wild Magic had grown stronger, but perhaps they were not as strong as he had feared. After all, they had done little this past year except issue threats. Maybe that was all it was – just threats.

 

The bridge was already emptying, and he could hear the distant sound of Morris music and bells. High Street was empty of traffic, but as crowded with people as on a Saturday before Christmas. He moved through the crowd, he alone heading towards the bridge, rather than away from it. Bran would have waited for him, surely.

 

Bran was not there.

 

Will could tell that as soon as he arrived, but he stopped walking, and leant against the parapet, scanning the scattered remnants of the crowd. That person there had fair hair, that person had pale skin, that person was just the right height. Each one turned round, smiling, and was not Bran. He had known that already, of course.

 

It had not been a promise, after all. There had been no firm plans to meet. But Bran had wanted them to be together all night, and Will had had to refuse, though of course he could not tell Bran the reason why. "I will be there on the bridge," Will had said, and Bran had said nothing, but Will had seen the look in his eyes, and knew that, to Bran, it had the strength of a firm arrangement. Bran would not have left without him.

 

It was then that the spirit of the river started to laugh.

 

"Bran," Will breathed. The air around him lightened, and opened into a golden avenue, as if the very molecules of the air were glowing with soft, yellow light. Will looked left, and right, but no-one else showed any sign of seeing it. Girding himself with the power of the Light, Will stepped into it, prepared to follow it wherever it led.

 

It was gentle and warm. The air caressed his cheek like hands, their touch feather-light. His weariness eased. And all around him was the distant hiss of whispers, warm with mirth.

 

I know you are leading me, he thought, as he stepped from the road. I am prepared against a trap.

 

The golden avenue led him through the Botanic Gardens, where gates stood open, and flowers twisted their lovely heads to watch him pass. He came this way, too, they told him, as the river spirit swelled inside his head in jubilant fury. Seeking you, as now you are seeking him.

 

He knew he was being led by his enemies, but he was not defenceless. He armoured himself in all the power of an Old One, banishing the human part of himself into the very distances of his mind. Bran, it whispered. Bran… "They lie in every word," the Old One said firmly. "Bran is probably at home asleep."

 

The avenue finished in a patch of intense sunlight on the edge of the dark river. You fought us here, the river hissed. Now we will destroy you.

 

The stranger stepped from behind a tree, arrogant and glittering. A sword was naked in his right hand. "You are foolish even to try," Will told him coldly. "You know you cannot defeat me face to face, and an Old One cannot be caught in your snares."

 

The stranger smiled, pure malice in his eyes. "But your lover was not so wise."

 

Bran! But the Old One stood tall. "You lie."

 

"I do not." His enemy raised the sword so the tip of it was pointing at Will's chest. "The proof of it is in the fact that he has gone. His bed is empty, and will remain empty for long, cold years. You can search the world all over, Will Stanton, but no trace of Bran Davies will you find."

 

It would have happened at dawn, when their power was at its height, when he had been so hopeful, so blind, so foolish… The Old One eyed the sword with a look that did not waver. "What crime had Bran Davies committed, that you would punish him so? I am your enemy, but he is innocent. Did you think that, by taking him, you could persuade me to waver from my course? I will not. Keeping him serves no purpose."

 

"Ah, but we do not keep him." The stranger sheathed the sword; he had other, more deadly weapons now. "He came with us through his own, free choice. He met my sister here, on this very spot where now you stand. She told him certain truths that you have seen fit to hide from him. When he realised how much you have lied to him, he accepted her offer, and everything that came with it."

 

"You lie," the Old One said coldly, armoured with Light.

 

"I do not." His fury sparked like light on the surface of water. "She offered; he came. He made the choice. You know our law, Old One. We cannot take any man against his will."

 

"But you can warp his will with tricks and lies."

 

"But no-one lies as much as an Old One. We do not lie as deeply or as mercilessly as you do." The stranger's eyes were ice. "But enough of this, Old One. Creatures such as you and I are beyond such petty human concerns of right and wrong. He chose to come, but you know why my sister came to him this morning, as the sun rose. Stop fighting us, release the hostage you have taken, and he will be returned to you."

 

Distantly, blindly, Will's hands groped for the support of a tree trunk, damp and slender behind him. "Then you do not understand the Light at all," the Old One said, "if you think this can sway me."

 

"He will be told of this," the stranger threatened. "He will be told that you betrayed him and denied him. He will come to hate you, and my sister will be there, warm and beautiful. Or perhaps I shall take him myself…"

 

His fingers dug into the tree bark. Dimly, he was aware of a nail breaking, and sharp pain as a shard of wood drove into his flesh. "You cannot cause me to stray from my purpose," the Old One said, head high, gaze unwavering. "The Light cannot put the needs of one man before the needs of the world. I am of the Light, therefore I will oppose you. There is nothing you can do to make me change my course. I can no more change my nature than you can change yours."

 

"Then you will never see him again," the stranger declared, "or only when you are changed, and he is changed, and the world has crumbled around you, and all that ever lay between you has died."

 

Will took a step away from the shelter of the tree, and then another, and then another. "If you keep him, or free him, it will make no difference to my opposition. You are my enemy regardless of what happens to Bran. Keeping him serves no purpose. Release him…"

 

But the stranger was gone, and Will was alone on the river bank, with the laughter of a thousand spirits echoing in his head.

 

There was nothing he could do; he had known that from the start, but still he had kept on speaking, hoping, hoping. The Light had never been able to redeem a man from Fairyland once he had agreed to go. Such things were impossible, and always would be.

 

Minutes passed, perhaps, before he was able to walk. He stumbled back to the city, along paths of grey. Blood stained his fingertips. Someone jostled him, and cars were on the streets, and lectures and tutorials has started, and the day was underway. He sat on a bench in a park, somewhere to the north. An old lady asked him if he was all right, "because you're as white as sheet, dear, and your hands are shaking." He managed to smile her away, but later he was on the ground under a tree, shivering with cold, and unable to see.

 

By night, he was back in his room. He tried to write, but his hand could not hold the pen. He tried to eat, but he was too empty. He could not bear to look at his bed, where Bran had slept one night until morning.

 

By morning, the walls had come up again, one by one, and the bars had sealed them in place. He opened the curtains, and looked out at the morning, and the years beyond it, endless and alone.

 

******

 

End of chapter nineteen

___

 

Chapter twenty: Otherworld

 

The world was changed with every step.

 

The first step he took, hand in hand with the lady, he saw the towers of Oxford in the dawn light, and trees of budding green, bending down to the river. With the second step, although he did not blink, the towers were fewer, but the trees seemed older. Something moved far away, on the fringes of his vision, but when he turned, it had already gone. That was his third step. When he turned back, the towers had gone, and all that remained was a scattering of houses, and the hills beyond it, misty and pale.

 

A boat was there in the river, shaped like a swan, and crewed by creatures whose tawny cloaks covered their faces. One stood at the tiller, and two sat at the oars. Another reached a hand to the lady, helping her in, and she in turn drew Bran in behind her. "I don't want to get in," he faltered, but she looked at him, her eyes cool and steady, and said, "But, Bran, you must know that your choice is made, and there can be no going back. You cannot walk the same road twice, and choose a different turn."

 

He knew that. Of course he knew that. A sense of unreality had settled upon him, though never through all the days that followed would he think that it was a dream. He sat down beside her, in the place she led him to, and watched as the boat moved down the river, and into the Thames beyond. If it really is the Thames, he thought, and she smiled gravely, and said, "Tamesa, Tamesis, Isis, Thames. Rivers flow alike through your world and through ours, and the grass is alike green. Though all things change, some things endure. The river is the one you know, Bran Davies. All else will be strange to you."

 

A tendril of fear crept into him, like a finger moving on the face of the water.  "Am I even in the same world as him?"

 

"As the Old One?" All beauty left her face. "The Light can never enter our domain. He is there and you are here, and the gulf between you will never be bridged."

 

"But where is here?" he persisted. Talking kept the fear at bay. By asking questions, at least he was guiding the conversation. All around the river was a great flood plain, scattered with tufts of green. It could have been the land near Oxford, four thousand years ago, or it could be a river in another world.

 

"It is my domain," was all she said. "Behold, Bran, and see beauties that the cold, empty heart of the Light can never know."

 

He tried to look away, he really did. He tried to be cold and obdurate, but the river narrowed and ran through meadows that danced with every colour that he had ever seen in dreams. Horses cantered in the meadows, their manes like flowing silk. Soaring in the pure blue sky, there were towers and spires, topped with gold. Music cascaded from the reeds, and his fingers ached with longing for the touch of a harp.

 

He lost himself. "No," he whispered, and, "No." And hours later, perhaps, he was on a sedge-filled lake, and long after that, he was being led by the hand dazedly through the stone-flagged corridors of a castle.

 

"I don't know where I am," he whispered. I want to go back. I want to see the flowers again, and ride the horses, and make music until the world crumbles. "I don't know how I got here."  But Will… Fingers curled, nails in his palm. He turned reproachfully, and everything about the movement was an effort. "You enchanted me."

 

"Mortals use blindfolds," she said coldly, but then she smiled, and draped a strand of black silk across the bare flesh of his wrist. "Would you rather I use a blindfold, Bran?"

 

"I would rather have answers to my questions," he said, and stepped away, pressing both hands flat against the smooth stone wall behind him. "Tell me what you promised me, and then let me go."

 

Her eyes narrowed, and she walked away, and left him there.

 

******

 

They came for him not long later, after he had walked through ten featureless corridors, and run through twenty more; after he had opened doors to find nothing beyond, and pulled at doors to find them without handle or key. He saw nobody. When they came for him, their steps were silent.

 

There were two of them, one hooded in dark crimson, and one in midnight blue. Their faces were shadows and patches of faint light, and their eyes were dark pits.

 

"You will come with us," said one.

 

"Your room has been prepared."

 

Their voices were without inflection. He thought that the one in crimson was male and the one in blue was female, but he could not tell what it was about them that made him think that this was so.

 

"My room?" He moistened his lips, ran his damp hands down his sides. I can't stay! I need to get back to Will! "What if I…?" He swallowed, and tried to sound more resolute. "I won't come with you."

 

In the echo of his voice, he sounded like a petulant child. The hooded figures gave no sign of emotion, but answered his aborted question, not his refusal. "If you do not come," said the figure in red, "then you will be doomed to run forever in featureless halls, for the doors only open to those whom the Lord and Lady favour, and to those who serve them. Without a guide, you will wander forever, yet never die."

 

"If you do not come with us," said the blue figure, "then we will be punished, and those you love may be punished, too. What happens in this realm can spill over into the world of men."

 

"You're threatening me?" Bran asked, but his voice lacked force. He thought of Owen and John Rowlands, labouring on the mountains. Will could take care of himself, but they could not. He thought, too, of the empty corridors, and the growing terror that he had not liked to admit to. When young, he had often dreamed of being lost, and woken crying and bereft.

 

"We do not threaten," said the figure in crimson. "We merely serve."

 

He followed them. It was not a defeat – he told himself that. Only a fool persisted in a battle that he had no hope of winning. He would fight to get his answers, but he would not fight for foolish pride. "You are servants here?" he asked.

 

The blue one inclined her head. "We serve the Lady. Now we serve you, my lord."

 

Bran gave a mirthless laugh. "I am not your lord."

 

They stopped outside a door. All the corridors looked the same, but Bran wondered if it was one of the doors he had tried to open. This time it opened to a touch and a word, revealing a green-canopied bed, and a chair that seemed to have grown from a single piece of wood, shaped without carving. There was a large chest beside the bed, and a smaller door in the far wall, locked with a golden key. Through the small window, he saw only the blackness of night.

 

"There are clothes in the chest," they said, "and a pool in the other room for bathing. We will dress you and bathe you, my lord."

 

"No, you will not," Bran told them. Behind his back, his hands were trembling. "Tell your mistress that you have done what she asked, and so have I. Tell her I want what she promised me."

 

But after they had gone, he blundered blindly backwards until he found the bed, and sank down on it, his hands clenching the bed coverings on either side. Will? he thought. Where are you, Will?

 

But Will had lied to him, and Bran still loved him, and now Bran was here, in a world beyond his dreams.

 

******

 

He did not intend to sleep. He opened the chest, rifled through the clothes, but chose not to wear them. He did wash a little, though, splashing water on his face and down his neck. It was pleasantly cool, issuing from the mouth of an exquisitely crafted silver fish, falling into a white marble bowl carved like a shell. He dried himself on a white cloth, as soft as the skin on his palm.

 

There were no books to read, and nothing to make music with. The door was unlocked, but when he went outside, the corridors on either side were blank and empty, with a stone-flagged floor, and tapestries woven to look like a solid wall of green leaves. He did not try to wander through them again, but stood in his doorway, listening. There were no distant voices, no songs, no music, no footsteps. After a few minutes, his fingers white on the edge of the door, he returned to his room.

 

He sat on the bed. Like a lifting veil, the sense of unreality vanished, and thoughts clamoured in his head. She had said… His father… He had powers… Will had lied… He threw himself onto his back, and there was the canopy above him, painted like the branches of a sheltering tree, with silver stars caught in the net of leaves. The stars looked down on him like eyes, like eyes…

 

He woke up stiff and sluggish, and his body told him that he had slept for a full night. There was still only blackness at the window, though, with no light anywhere to be seen. His own room was lit by two torches in wall sconces, each one shimmering the air above it like an enchantment. Their scent was faintly aromatic, and he knew suddenly that they did not burn as normal torches burnt, and would not go out until someone with power willed it.

 

He wandered stiffly into the bathroom, and drank from the silver fish, finding the water pleasant, and almost sweet. He filled the marble bowl, and washed his face, running wet hands through his hair.

 

When he returned to the bedroom, the lady was there, sitting like a queen on the edge of the bed, her green robes blending into the bedclothes as if she and the bed were one.

 

"What are you doing here?" he demanded. As soon as he said it, he knew it was a mistake. He had ceded her the advantage.

 

"This is my domain," she said, but not coldly. "I come and go as I please, and today it pleases me to spend time with you."

 

"Today?" He did not try to gain control, not yet. He would play the foolish mortal, lost in his snares, and do so until he got his answers. "Is it day, then? It's dark outside."

 

"Is it?" Her delicate eyebrow raised. "If you see it thus, it is only because you have not embraced our land. Your heart is still treacherous, longing for something else." She slipped from the bed, and glided to his side, where she took his hand and held it between her fingers, long and smooth. "Is there darkness now, my sweet?"

 

He tried to withdraw, but she held him. He did not try too hard. Outside, the veil of night had lifted, and the sky was blue, with clouds like a picture in a children's story book, and birds wheeling in the sun. He could not see the ground, or trees, or any distant horizon. He was too far from the window, and perhaps his room was too high up.

 

"But… but which is real?" It was not possible always to keep his calm. He had seen too much and heard too much, and part of him still wanted to curl up and cry.

 

"Does it matter?" Her fingers stroked the side of his hand.

 

"Yes." He swallowed, and pulled away. Outside, darkness fell again, and his heart gave a little sob, for the darkness was like the bars of a prison, keeping him in here, alone. "Everything's a lie. What does this place really look like? I don't know if anything I've seen is really there."

 

She frowned, a delicate line appearing between her eyes. "You mortals are so obsessed with reality. You say we show you tricks and lies, but what is real? No two mortals see the same thing in the same way. Two men see a horse, and one sees speed, and another sees fear. Which one is right? Which one is real?"

 

"That's not the same." Bran shook his head.

 

"It is." Her eyes narrowed. "When you and the Old One kissed, do you think the kiss was the same for him as it was for you? It was not. Two realities came together in the touch of two pairs of lips."

 

"But that's just because of different perceptions," he protested. "People have different viewpoints. Things are subjective."

 

"Yet, in us, you despise it and call it enchantment," she said. "We are different from mortal men, Bran Davies. Things are like breathing to us, that to you are as distant as a dream. Two mortals see the same thing differently, but the difference stays in their head. With us, it flows outwards and becomes truth. This domain of ours can be as wondrous as any paradise, or as desolate as any hell, depending on what lies in your heart. Will you embrace it and find paradise, Bran Davies?"

 

He faltered. As he did so, his lips parting slightly, she leant down and claimed his mouth in a kiss. She tasted of honey and flowers. Her fingers wove through his hair, guiding him into the kiss. It was liquid honey in his veins. His knees sagged, and for a moment he felt as if the only thing keeping him upright was her hands and her lips.

 

"Come," she whispered, breaking the kiss, but not the touch. Her breath was warm and sweet on his cheek. "Come to bed with me, me sweet."

 

The sky was glorious through the breech that was the window. Faintly, through the doorway, he heard footsteps passing, and songs and music. Gold thread glowed on his bed coverings, and a scent of grass and freedom filled the room. And her hand was tugging, gently insistent, and her mouth was on his lips, his chin, his throat. Desire flooded him, and his vision clouded.

 

Then his knees buckled, and he was on the bed, lying on his back on a tumble of green cloth. She lowered herself onto him, robes spread around her like a throne. Her hair, unbound, caressed his cheek. Her eyes saw everything, and he arched up towards her, wanting more.

 

"This," she said, astride him like a queen. "Every day, and every night. You will see what thousands of men have longed for. You will be mine, and I will be yours."

 

Her hands moved to her throat to begin the unbuttoning of her robe. Her smile was seductive, but her eyes were cold stones. Her hair was dark, flowing like silk over the pale skin of her throat.

 

His mother had dark hair. His mother was beautiful. His mother had loved him.

 

"No," he said. He rolled away. "No, I don't want this."

 

"But you do." One flawless shoulder was free of her gown, and the rounded top of one exquisite breast. Her hand caressed between his legs, and the desire surged stronger than ever, almost drowning out rational thought.

 

"No," he rasped. He pulled himself free. As he did so, the sunlight vanished, and the window was a prison again, showing only night. The sounds was outside ceased, and he was alone with her, and her eyes were furious. "I came here to find out the answers you promised me," he said, still breathing fast. "I will not be seduced."

 

Her expression was so cold that he almost stopped breathing. "So be it." Gathering her robes around her, she swept from the room, leaving him alone, and lost in desire.

 

******

 

Hours passed, he thought, in tortured daydreams of love and lust. Outside, throughout, the sky remained dark.

 

His clothes chafed, and the smell of sweat and desire was acrid in his nostrils. Retreating to the inner room, he took off all his clothes, and stepped into the deep bath, shaped like a pool, with carved lilies around the edge. Clean, he dressed himself in the plainest of the clothes he found in the chest – dark brown trousers, and a tawny tunic that came half way down his thighs. It was slit almost down to his breastbone, and laced with silken threads that trailed over his skin like a lover's fingers.

 

He threw himself onto the bed. "I know you're doing this to me!" he shouted, but only silence answered him. He presumed he was supposed to give in and beg her to come back, to ease the pressure boiling in his body. "I won't give in!"

 

Hours more passed, and eventually he slept. His dreams were fierce and frenzied, in which he made love to Will with a burning passion, yet each time was left unfulfilled. When he awoke, he was sticky with sweat, and a hand had closed around his, neither tender nor cruel.

 

Bran opened his eyes to see the man from the snow – the lord of the fairies who had been Will's particular enemy. "You!" he spat, and tried to struggle away, but the man still held him.

 

"My sister has a weakness for handsome mortals who defy her," he said. "It can lead her into foolishness. I told her that you could not be seduced. Unfortunately, a statement like that is a challenge to her. It only made her desire you more."

 

Bran turned his head to the window. "It's still night."

 

"Yes," said Will's enemy. "I do not seek to entice you with glamour and prettiness. We are both men together. In such a coming together, there should be nothing but honesty. Some deeds are better done in darkness, don't you think?"

 

"Coming together?" Bran clambered out of bed, and stood with his back to the wall, hand clasping the window frame behind him. "Oh no…"

 

"I told her you could not be seduced," the fairy lord repeated. "Your body yearns for the Old One. It is to men, not women, that your heart is given."

 

He was as beautiful in his way as the lady was in hers, but it was a beauty that was all male. His neck was proud, and his eyes were arrogant. His chin was strong, and his cheeks were exquisitely sculpted. His smile snatched the breath from Bran's throat.

 

"I make no promises," the stranger said, as he stalked to Bran's side, and coaxed his hands from behind his back, and took them, and claimed them. His palms were callused; strong and masculine. "Male comes together with male. You are here, and I am here, and the moment is right."

 

Bran yearned for release. The man's hands caressed places were only Will had been; they teased at places where even Will had never dared to go. "Why suffer?" the stranger breathed. "Not all men refuse you and deny you your needs."

 

He plundered a kiss. Bran was pinned between the window and the bed, exactly where the lady, too, had kissed him. The man was stronger. He took Bran to the bed, and bore him down. "Anything," he whispered. "Let me take what the Old One could not take. I will give you the gift that he could never give you."

 

And Bran's arms fell rigid at his sides. "You are not Will. You are Will's enemy."

 

"But Will Stanton lied to you," the fairy lord said, his eyes like coals.

 

"Then that is between him and me." Bran pulled the opening of his tunic tight, holding it with one hand. "I told him I would wait for him to be ready, and I will. I would rather ache with unfulfilled lust, than give my body to a stranger for the sake of a moment's release."

 

The light faded; the darkness deepened. In the half-light, the stranger's face was two-dimensional. Then Bran blinked, and he was looking at Will. "It would be as if you were with him," Will's voice said. "Your heart's desire, and ever afterwards, in your dreams…"

 

"Then you don't understand me at all," Bran said coldly, interrupting him, "if you think I could be tempted either by you, or by a lie. I want you to leave me now."

 

And the stranger did. The desire faded, but in its wake was only desolation and emptiness. Curled on his side, Bran stared at the darkness that veiled the window, but he did not weep.

 

******

 

He awoke to a different darkness, but tendrils of shadows at the corners of his room, and darkness black and featureless outside the window. He knew he had slept through another night, or through a period of time that equated to a night. This was the second morning, and the start of his second day.

 

No-one had brought him food yet, he realised. Except for a few trickles of water from the silver fish, he had drunk nothing. Neither was he hungry or thirsty. The lust of the day before had vanished entirely, and it was as if he was without all bodily needs. Even sleep felt merely like a cessation. He was not tired before it; he did not feel refreshed when he woke.

 

Time ran differently in the land of the fairies, or so the stories told. It had seemed like two days to him, but perhaps it was only minutes, and his body could not be deceived. Perhaps he could endure a few days of this, get his answers, and then return to the crowded bridge in Oxford, where Will would be waiting for him, unaware that anything had changed.

 

Or maybe each day was a hundred years.

 

He walked to the window, paced the narrow room. Maybe a month passed in the space of a single step. Maybe everyone he knew had died, living their natural life in the space it took him to draw a breath. "I know you're watching me!" he shouted. "Somebody come! I want my answers. I demand them!"

 

The silence lasted for minutes, for hours, for months, for years. He imagined Owen lying in his grave, and Will enduring for centuries, alone and friendless. He saw his cottage turned to dust, and the towers of Oxford crumble until only green mounds showed where once they had stood.

 

The dark tendrils crept ever closer. The torches flickered and went out.

 

He groped blindly, found the pillar of the bed, but something brushed against his other hand, and he gave a strangled scream. He stumbled away, into the great empty chasm that was the rest of his room, and found a wall, and the icy glass of his window. If only it was light, he thought fiercely. If only there was something to show whether it was night or day, whether the world existed, whether anyone was alive except for him.

 

Maybe he was underground. Maybe the sky and the sunlight had been an illusion, and he was miles underground, and nothing lay beyond the window but earth. Maybe the weight of miles of stone and rock lay above his head, and he was buried alive, in a place where nobody would ever find him. In the stories, they lived in mounds. The deep places of the world were their domain, untouched by light and hope, far away from the mercy and compassion of mortal life.

 

"I just want to see out," he whispered. "Just that."

 

Nothing answered him. He shambled back across the room, and things brushed against his hand as he passed the bed, but he knew now that they were only the hangings. He was utterly alone. There was more terror in being alone than in having unknown creatures with him in the darkness.

 

He found the door, pawed for the handle, turned it, clawed it, pushed and pulled, until at length it opened. He stepped outside, into a sea of darkness that encased him utterly, and was empty of sound. He clenched his fists, and fought the urge to shout out, to beg. He stumbled forward, but had no idea which way to go. Twelve steps forward, fifteen, twenty… His outstretched hands encountered nothing at all. He turned left, and managed thirty steps, but still there was nothing. But the corridor outside his room was not wide. He should have found other doors and walls. He should have found hanging tapestries, and the empty brackets that should have held torches.

 

He tried to run, but suddenly, unbidden, came the certainty that he stood on the brink of a great drop, and his next step would kill him. He crouched down, meaning to feel each step with his hands, but there was no floor. He found his feet, but his hand moved past them, into the darkness beneath.

 

He could not move. If he sat down, curled up, would he fall? He stood, but there was no way on earth that he could have willed his legs to take another step. Suspended in space and darkness, he stood. He shouted something – what, he did not know – but his voice was flat and vanished into nothing, as if there were not even the most distant of walls to echo it back to him.

 

Terror pressed around him like a living thing, and a distant part of him recognised that he was close to losing his mind. It could be like a paradise, the lady had said, or worse than any hell. But hell was fire and pain, and a seething mass of tormented souls, tormented by devils, green and red. Hell was not this emptiness. No, this was worse. Pain was an enemy he could fight, but now he was alone, and there was no enemy that was not inside his own mind.

 

Time passed; an eternity passed. After a while, there was pain. His eyes hurt with the effort of trying to see in the darkness. His body hurt with the strain of standing so still. His hands hurt from too much clenching, and his jaw hurt from being held so tight.

 

And then he was no longer alone, and he knew that some things were worse than emptiness, after all. It started with the sound of breathing, low and moist. Then there was a smell of cold and rotting things. There was no end to the darkness, but in his mind he saw the worst monsters of his childhood dreams – a skeletal horse, a dripping creature from the swamp, a faceless creature wrought from mountain mist. He imagined rending claws, teeth tearing at his flesh. He thought of skeletal hands and shaggy thighs, and death and pain and violation.

 

Its breathing was cold on his cheek. Its hand was a weight on his shoulder. He could not run because darkness claimed him. He could not even shrink, because there was nothing beneath him but empty space. "Will," he whispered. "Oh, please, Will, please save me."

 

But there was no answering blaze of white light. No towering figure swept in to drive the monsters away. Of course there wasn't. Will was far away, because Bran had chosen to come away with the queen of the fairies, to find out who he was, and to find out how to help Will in his battle against these very creatures. He had done so with his eyes open, knowing that he would be tested and tempted.

 

"This isn't real," he said, and it was the hardest thing he had ever done, to gather the threads of his mind back together, and weave them into something that could think. He took a step back, and he did not fall. The hand slid away from his shoulder. Faltering, slowly, he tried to remember which way he had come, and edged back towards his room. "This isn't real," he repeated, over and over. "This isn't real."

 

"But it is," said the voice of Will's enemy, and in his mind, Bran saw the body of a man in the snow, hunted through the woods of fairyland in the shape of a bird. The terror had been real; the death had been real.

 

"But it is," said the lady, but she sounded cold and angry. "Do not fall into the trap of thinking that the things you see here are not real, and cannot change you."

 

But they let him find the door, and through it, his bed. They gave him light again, faint, from the torches. They let him weep for a little while, untouched and unharmed.

 

This time, when sleep came, his body surrendered gratefully to it, and the darkness was welcome.

 

******

 

End of chapter twenty

___

 

Chapter twenty-one: Flight

 

Someone was shaking him awake. There was no confusion on waking; he knew instantly where he was. He knew immediately that the hand shaking his shoulder belonged to an enemy, and so he recoiled, rolling to the far side of the bed, and coming up with his blankets held defensively in front of him.

 

The hooded figure in blue was sitting on the edge of his bed. "I am to tend you," the impassive voice said. "My mistress says that you do not dress yourself or wash yourself as much as would please her."

 

"I don't need to be looked after." He stood up, letting the blankets fall. He was fully dressed, wearing clothes he had put on two days before, if the measurement of days meant anything in this place.

 

"Are you resisting the lady's orders?"

 

"I…" Bran swallowed. "I am."

 

The hooded figure moved to the chest, and took out a fanciful golden robe and a dark green cloak. "It is worth resisting the lady's will on some things, but this is not one of them. These are only clothes. If you resist now, it is only a matter of meaningless pride. You will suffer, and for what? Worse, others will suffer."

 

With every word, the voice sounded more and more expressive, like the voice of a human woman. Despite himself, Bran took one step towards her. "Are you…?"

 

"No!" she hissed. She brought her hand up sharply, then turned her head sharply to one side, as if listening. For a minute, for two minutes, she was still, while Bran stood beside the bed, not knowing what to do. At length she exhaled, her whole posture fierce with relief. "There!"

 

She pushed her hood back, revealing the human face of a woman in her early thirties. A lock of pale brown hair showed next to her cheek, and her eyes were hazel. "Do not say anything," she urged him. "There is not much time. She is distracted now, I can tell. There is music…"

 

"I can't hear it," Bran said.

 

"Naturally," she snapped, as if he was a stupid little boy, "but it is true. I have lived in here for a dozen lifetimes. I know."

 

Bran sat down on the edge of the bed. "Who are you?"

 

"I was born in the world three hundred years before your time," she said. "I went too close to a green mound one midsummer's morning. Oh, but the priest had warned me; they had all warned me… I was not young. I should have known better. But it is not just the young who feel that no evil can touch them. I went alone, and I paid the price."

 

"She tricked you…"

 

"Such a fate was not for me." She looked at him with contempt, perhaps even with envy. "Of all the mortals who find their way into the land of Fairy, barely one in a hundred is picked out by the lord or the lady themselves. Who do you think serves them with their drink? Who washes their clothes? Who waits on them and dresses them? Who polishes their jewels and cooks their broth?"

 

She seemed to expect some answer. "I suppose I thought it was magic…"

 

"Magic?" she jeered. "No, it is mortal slaves. It is people like me, ripped away from their lives, forced to slave while everyone they know outside turns to dust."

 

"Three hundred years," Bran echoed, hit suddenly with the fear again. Owen, dying, and Will alone… "How long has it seemed to you?"

 

"Like a thousand years," she said. "Time passes fast, or slow, as they will it. The first time I dared to defy them, they took me to a pool and showed me my husband dying. He died because I was disobedient. The second time, they killed my son. Then there was no-one left for them to threaten, but I had learnt that it was better to do what they told me, and not to feel."

 

"But why…?" Bran twisted a fold of the blanket in his hand. "Why are you telling me this?"

 

"Because I am going to help you escape, you foolish child."

 

"What?" He frowned, his heart starting to beat very fast. "You don't…"

 

"No, I do not like you," she said. "You were chosen by the lady herself, and offered every luxury, but you mope around here like a spoiled child, and throw it back in her face. But…" The tautness of her face relaxed, and he saw that here eyes were shining with tears. "I had a son once. I have lost everything, but there is no reason why you should. I want to show you the way out."

 

"Out?" he echoed. "There's a way…?"

 

"Of course." She moved toward the door, and everything about her shouted impatience. "I have learnt secrets in my sojourn here. I can show you the way to return back to your own world, little changed, and before much time has passed."

 

Back to Will. Back to freedom. He had been stupid to accept the lady's offer. He had thought he was in control, but all along she had been tricking him. She would never tell him what he needed to know, and never let him return to his own time. He would be a prisoner for ever, in this room where the window showed only night.

 

But think. His mind spoke in Will's voice. Think about what she's saying.

 

But he found that he had stood up, and was already half way to the door. He forced himself to stop. "But why don't you escape yourself?"

 

"It is too late for me," she said. "By the time I found the way out, everyone I loved was already dead. What is there for me to return to now? A world that has changed beyond my imagining. A world in which I am alone – just a name in a parish register three hundred years old. Although I am a servant here, this world is my home. But you still have a life out there. I could not save my husband or my child, but I can save you."

 

Why should he stay? There was nothing here but solitude and terror. They would kill him before they told him what he wanted, or else he would be reduced to someone like this woman, who stayed voluntarily in slavery because they had taken everything else away from her.

 

"Yes," he said. "I'm coming with you."

 

She pulled her hood over her face, and the last thing he saw was her smile. "Put that on," she said, throwing him the green cloak. When he had done so, she opened the door, and led him into a  corridor that was lit with torches and lined with doors. Until he saw it, he had not realised how strongly he had feared that it would be vast and dark. Music sounded from some of the doors, and people were talking and laughing.

 

When the first person passed him, Bran could hardly breathe for the fear of it, but they showed no sign of noticing him. The second one glanced at him, but saw nothing amiss. The third one Bran passed with his eyes straight ahead, deliberately trying not to look at him. The fourth and fifth were singing, their music so beautiful that it made his heart ache.

 

He was led down a flight of narrow stairs, each step made of worn stone, and the banister shiny with use. A small wooden door lay at the bottom. "The servants' quarters," she said. They were the first words she had spoken since leaving his room. "They lead into the kitchen garden, and that leads into the coppice. Beyond that is the wild wood, and beyond that, you are free."

 

Free, he echoed. He thought of Will, waiting for him, loving him. Will had lied to him… but he only had the lady's word for that, and she would have said anything to persuade him to come. She wanted to break Will by taking Bran from him. And Bran had known this, but he had come with her anyway, because she had promised to tell him information about his parentage and his powers. If he endured this, she would have to tell him. The fairy folk were tricksy, but there were some rules that even they had to obey.

 

They feared him. Why else had the lord and the lady both tried to seduce him? Why had they tried to break him with fear? As soon as he had refused to succumb, they had withdrawn. They were powerless to coerce him. In the end, if he endured, they would have to give in and tell him what he needed to know.

 

If he escaped now, he would just be Bran Davies, returning to Will, with all the wrath of Fairy at his back. If he waited, he would return to Will a little later, but more powerful. If he waited, he would be able to help Will, not just stand and watch uselessly as he drove himself into the ground.

 

"No," he said, quite firmly. The woman had led him through the kitchen, and had her hand on the latch of the door that led to outside. "I'm not going."

 

The woman said nothing; her face was hidden by her hood. But she opened the door. Outside, he saw sunlight and dancing greenery; distance, and a yearning, aching sense of freedom and hope, there for the taking.

 

Sobbing inside, he turned his back on it, and headed back to the stairs, back to the darkness of his cell. "I have chosen to stay," he told the stone steps, and the walls, and the air that no longer echoed with song. "I will find out what I need to know."

 

Somewhere behind him, a woman screamed. That, too, he had to walk away from.

 

People watched him blank-faced from the doorways. Every time he passed a door, he felt as if he was being loaded up with chains. The lady stared at him cold-faced; the lord looked amused.

 

The corridors kept their shape, and there was no possibility of getting lost. Ahead, always ahead, was the open door that led to darkness; the open door of his prison cell. He went in there voluntarily, and closed the door behind him. His head was high, but inside, it felt worse than it had ever felt before. Then, he had been trapped. Now, he had trapped himself.

 

He did not know if he could win.

 

******

 

This is the fourth morning, he thought, as he drifted out of sleep. No-one sat at his bedside, shaking him awake. No-one came to see him. There was only silence outside the room.

 

He went to the window, paced to the door, returned to the window, to stare out at the darkness. After a while, he made up his mind. Moving swiftly, he headed to the inner room, where he cleaned himself thoroughly, washing his hair with a bottle of sweet-smelling lotion. When he was clean and dry, he dressed himself in the most exotic of the clothes he could find in his chest. The tunic was green and gold, draping irregularly down below his knees, and the robe above it was edged with dark red fur.

 

"See?" he said to the empty air. "I am here by choice now, for as long as it takes me to find what I have come for."

 

A prison was only a prison if you made it so. If he moped on the bed, angry and afraid, he would not find out anything.

 

He paused just inside the door, and in his mind he was suddenly thirteen again, preparing to go back to school after the summer holidays. He had been teased and bullied every day during the year before, but Will had spoken to him quietly and passionately in the summer, saying some things with words, and others, even more powerfully, just with his presence and his eyes. Bran had nothing to be ashamed of. He was a good person, and Will liked him. If people wanted to laugh at him, that was their problem. Bran would never again be broken by it. He would greet insults with a calm look, and would pass on, untouched.

 

It had worked. It had taken months, but it had worked, and over time the bullies had become allies, and the taunters had become friends. But, oh, how nervous he had been that first morning! How difficult it had been to step down from the school bus, and open the door that led into the classroom!

 

He closed his eyes, seeking strength, then turned the door handle, and headed out. This time, there was no darkness. The corridor stretched on either side, as featureless as it always was, when he was alone. But this is not real, he told himself. I've chosen to stay here. I'm not a prisoner. I'm not hiding any longer. I won't let them trick me.

 

With a firm step, he walked along the corridor to the left, clenching his fists against the trembling of his hands. He reached a closed door, and threw his will fiercely at the unresponsive wood. In return, he heard music, faint and possibly not there at all. When he reached the next door, he grabbed the handle and threw the door open. He caught the briefest glimpse of people clustered around a harp, but then it was gone, and there was nothing but empty walls and bare stone flags.

 

But this is the way to do it, he thought. Not to cower, but to confront it. Weakness would get him nowhere; Will needed him to be strong. He tilted his head to one side, and caught the faintest wisp of an idea. He should go left, head through that arch over there, go downstairs, and then… And then…

 

Biting his lip, he did so, but his steps began to falter. Be firm, he told himself, and he walked on. The arch was there, made of a faintly pink stone. The stairs were made of wood, as if a tree had grown naturally into the shape of a staircase. Above him, when he looked up, the ceiling was a vast arch of interlocking branches, wreathed with stars.

 

At the foot of the stairs was a door. Once again, he hurled all his senses at the door, but there was nothing there. The handle was in the shape of a bear's head, wrought from bronze. A small stain showed on the stone at the base of the door. Was it blood?

 

I am not going to be afraid, he thought. Not any more.

 

He opened the door. Outside – he was outside! – was thick with trees. Some were slender; some were broad. Some were clad in the colours of autumn, and some were fresh and green with the first growth of spring. When he looked up, he saw tiny glimpses of a dark blue sky, as if it was early morning, before dawn, or after twilight on a winter's night.

 

He took one step into the wood, then a second. A third, his hand trailing over the trunk of a tree, and then a fourth. After the fifth, he turned around, and saw that the door had gone. He had left it open, but no rectangle of light showed in the forest. Trees surrounded him, and he was back at school, cowering on the floor as the bullies surrounded him. He had confronted them, but it was stupid to confront. Some people would be victims for ever; it was just the way they were. He had been a fool to think that he could take on the magic of this land and win.

 

He started to run, but his legs were gone. The ground was close - dead leaves like hulking creatures in his vision. He flailed with his arms, and air filled them, and he knew that he could fly. He twisted his head, and saw black feathers. When he cried out in fear and despair, it was the voice of a crow that he heard, hoarse, and his own.

 

And the lord of the fairies was there, his eyes dancing with malice, and a feathered arrow already set in his bow.

 

Bran flew. He knew how this would end; had seen it end, on the snows of the Deer Park in Magdalen. He would be hunted to exhaustion, and then a feather-tipped arrow would end it, and he would die out of his own time, to rot beneath an alien sky. This was his punishment for challenging the will of the rulers of this land. He should have succumbed to their seduction. He should have given in to the terror of the dark. He should have fled when he could have fled, or refused even to contemplate flight. He should have stayed on his bed until he was summoned, and accepted the blankness of the closed doors without challenging them. In his arrogance, he had fought, and this was the end of it.

 

An arrow flew past him, embedding itself into a tree trunk. Behind him, the lord laughed, and Bran knew that the arrow had always been supposed to miss him. He would be driven by many near-misses, pricked by many minor wounds, before the killing blow came.

 

He flew to the left, but the trees reared up, broad and forbidding. He veered to the right, but twigs like claws snatched at his feathers. "Fly from me, little pet of the Old One," laughed the fairy lord. "I will get you yet, and your hopes will come to naught."

 

Another arrow missed him, but as Bran cried out in terror and relief, the arrow struck a slender branch, dislodging it. It struck Bran on the back, and he cried out with pain. Answering, a group of rooks rose up from their high nests, and descended to him, mobbing him. With pecks and cries, they drove him away, casting him out, hating him.

 

An arrow scraped past him, feathers grazing his wing. Laughing raucously, the rooks drove him away. Bran flapped into a tree, stumbled, righted himself, and found himself heading straight back to the hunter. The lord was still laughing, and handsome enough to break a man's heart.

 

Will! Bran cried out, his voice transmuted into the harsh cry of a crow. Will! Help me!

 

Another arrow took him, grazing his chest. His muscles were screaming, not used to the form of a bird. Will was not coming, of course. Bran had chosen to come to this place, where Will could never follow him. If he died here, it was because this was the logical end of the choices he had made. Then he laughed despairingly, because what had logic got to do with any of this? This was the terror that lurked at the end of every life. This was being hunted to death, cast out, and alone. This was a place beyond logic, beyond thought, beyond any of the finer, more civilised parts of being human. This was visceral emotion; this was the Wild Magic.

 

It had won. It had claimed him.

 

Or maybe I have claimed it, he thought. It was a tiny thought at first, like a thin strand of sunlight breaking free from a storm.

 

Maybe…

 

He wanted to live. He wanted to survive. He wanted to win. He wanted to help Will.

 

Turning, screaming, he flew, not for safety, but straight at the fairy lord who was hunting him. He caught him between shots, as he was taking an arrow from his quiver and nocking it onto his string. Bran struck him in the face, claws tangling with his hair. The lord dropped the bow. His hands came up, and he struck at Bran, but Bran dodged, and raked his claws across the back of one bare hand.

 

The second hand struck. Bran saw the ground, and felt it strike, and then nothing.

 

******

 

End of chapter twenty-one

___

 

Chapter twenty-two: Family

 

He awoke to silver. Silver gauze drifted in a pale sky, suffused with light. A white coverlet covered him, edged with silver lace. Clad in silver, the lady looked down at him, her face grave with concern. "I thought he had killed you, my dear."

 

Bran stirred, and nothing hurt. He brought up a hand, and it was human again. When he lifted the covers and looked down at himself, he saw that he had been dressed in a soft white robe. A bandage showed through the opening at the front, but he felt no pain.

 

"My brother is wild," the lady said, "and sometimes consumed with jealousy. He is almost equal to me in power here, but only because I allow it. If I choose another, he will be displaced, and he knows it. He strikes out against those that I have favoured."

 

Bran did not know what to say. The memory of being hunted was still too strong, but so, too, was the memory of this lady trying to seduce him, and her cold fury whenever he defied her.

 

"Ah, no," she said, as if she could read at least some of his thoughts. "I make no demands on you. I brought you here, and you have suffered for it. All I want is to tend you, and look after you as you get better. I will protect you as any mother would."

 

Mother… The word struck like a knife. He had never known his mother, and this lady was beautiful, and had dark hair, just like his mother had. No-one had ever nurtured him. Owen was not a warm man, and there had been no hugs when he had returned from school, hurting and desolate. Mrs Rowlands and Mrs Evans had been the ones to feed him soup when he was ill, or put plasters on his scraped knees, or listen to his childhood woes. There had been no-one else.

 

"Tell me your worries," she urged, as soft as his mother was in all his childish dreams. "Tell me what hurts, and I will make it better."

 

"He chased me," he whispered. He did not mean to do it, but no-one had ever asked him such a question before. No-one had ever promised to listen to him, and look after him so unreservedly. "He was trying to kill me. And he was laughing. All the time, he was laughing."

 

"I will see that he is punished." Her face was cold. "I will see that you are unharmed."

 

She reached out one exquisite, tender hand, and picked up a cluster of grapes from the bedside table. "Are you hungry, my dear one? Let me feed you."

 

He had not felt hunger through all the days he had been in the land of the fairies. He had eaten nothing, and longed for nothing. Suddenly, with the sight of those green grapes, his mouth started watering. His stomach churned with hunger, and he wanted to reach out for them, he wanted to so much.

 

To be mothered and fed. To be looked after and loved.

 

He looked at her coldly, and clamped down on the hunger that was clawing at him from the inside. "When you tried to seduce me, you were less obvious. I will not give in. I am here to find out how to help Will defeat you, and you will get nothing from me until then."

 

For the briefest of moments, he thought that she winced. The grapes in her hand seemed to tremble. But she placed them back firmly, and walked away, as if she was the one dismissing him, and he was the one who had lost.

 

******

 

The sixth day, he thought, but the fear he had felt only days before seemed like a lifetime away. He was here, and this was what mattered. He could not worry about how fast time was going in the world outside, for that was beyond his control. All he could worry about was keeping his sanity, and refusing to give in to temptation or fear. He had come here for a reason, and he would not be diverted.

 

She had left him in the silver room. Outside, there was a balcony with crystal railings, and veils of white trailing out into the sky. Standing on the balcony, he could breathe fresh air into his lungs, and hear birds singing. He could see grass far below, with wild flowers scattered like jewels on the green, but mist hid the land beyond the garden.

 

How far was it to home, he wondered. If he walked through the mist, would it deepen, then gradually disperse, showing him the way back home? He ran his finger up and down the crystal railing, his mind drifting. Mist stole into his mind. Even the thoughts of painful things felt like gentle daydreams. 

 

Was Owen still alive? Did Will still remember him? Was Jane alive and happy? Perhaps years had passed, or perhaps it was only six days. Even if it was just six days, that was time enough for consequences. They would have noticed that he had vanished. The police would be involved. Owen would be grieving. Will, perhaps, would be under suspicion, questioned by police, but unable to give any answers that anyone would believe.

 

If Will knew where he had gone, that is. Did Will know? Maybe Will thought he was dead. Maybe Will thought Bran had left him. Maybe Will thought he had gone away with Will's worst enemies because Bran no longer loved him.

 

He ran his finger up and down, up and down. I can't think about that, he thought. I really can't. I need to keep all my concentration for the dangers I am facing here.

 

He headed back to the bed. He still had servants, though not the woman who had tried to help him escape. The new ones were two young men, their faces uncovered by any hood. Both were handsome, but their eyes were blank. They called him lord, and waited on him, but there was little for them to do. He refused to eat, and the brief pang of hunger had not returned. He dressed himself, and refused to let them help him wash. Perhaps they were spies, but he thought they looked afraid of him.

 

They were here now, appearing through the side door when they heard him move. "My lord…"

 

"I want nothing," he said, flapping his hand. "You are to leave me."

 

Afterwards, he wondered at himself. His voice had not sounded like his own voice. It was as if this place was putting tendrils into his heart, making him speak like them.

 

He saw traps, too. He had known instantly that he must not accept food from the lady's hand. He had managed to see through the empty doors of the blank corridor, and see things that were supposed to be hidden. Something in this place was resonating deep within him, and he was responding. I am becoming one of them, he thought. He saw it as fibres of metal, digging deep into his flesh. He saw it as thorns, entwining his heart. He was prisoner, but they were turning him into one of them. They gave him servants and lovely clothes, and showed him a taste of freedom, as if it was his.

 

"My sister is making you her pet, I see." Bran whirled around, and saw the lord who had tried to kill him. There was no apology in his eyes.

 

"No," Bran said coldly, "because I refused. But I feel more fondness for someone who tries to make me her pet, than for someone who tries to kill me for sport."

 

"Not for sport." His face was an icy mask.

 

"For jealousy, then," Bran said, and was gratified to see the brief flush that rose to the other man's cheek.

 

Bran was wearing a dark red tunic, with an amber stone on a chain around his neck. Interwoven leaves of gold were his belt, and his boots were soft and as supple as his own skin. The other man was clad richly, but there was something a little bit tawdry about his finery. Bran had always thought the lord was tall, but suddenly he felt as if he was taller.

 

"Not jealousy," the man said, and order was restored again, for he was tall and proud and beautiful, and Bran was just a mortal, sitting on the bed. "But you have potential. I knew that when I saw you floundering in the nets of the Old One. My sister would make you into a mindless pet, lapping water from her cupped hands. I would rather see you dead than see that happen to you."

 

"Hence your actions the day before yesterday?" Bran looked up sharply.

 

"Not entirely." The lord placed one hand on the balcony. "That was a test, in a way."

 

Bran raised one eyebrow. "A test?"

 

"To see if you are worthy of power." The lord sat down beside him, and although he was still handsome, there was nothing seductive in his look now. "You passed, Bran Davies. You did not give in to fear. You refused to let yourself be hunted."

 

"I passed, did I?" Bran said coldly, trying to ignore the beating of his heart. "I am glad to hear it."

 

"It is a lonely life," the lord said, "to be a ruler, when your sister is as my sister is." He touched Bran's hand, and the promises in that touch had nothing to do with desire.

 

Bran pressed his other hand against his heart, just once, then clasped both hands in his lap, withdrawing from the other man's touch as he did so. "I think you are asking me to join you in overthrowing your sister."

 

"I have tested you," the lord said, "and you are fit for power."

 

"But I am mortal."

 

"Immortality can be granted," said the lord, "as can power."

 

Bran stood up, and walked to the window, where the mist hid all thoughts of freedom. "Power?" His voice cracked on the sound.

 

"We know all fates," said the voice behind him, inexorable. "The lives of all mortals are like threads on our loom. We can follow each one to its end. We can, if we want to, pluck a thread out and move it to another place in the weave. If a man, already ageing, had death in his future…"

 

Bran's hand closed on the railing. "You are telling me that I can save Owen's life if I join you."

 

"Yes," said the lord.

 

He lied.

 

Bran turned to face him, his back to the freedom of the world outside, hands closed round cold crystal. "Your powers do not reach that far. Your powers lie over men's minds, and the way they perceive the world. You cannot tell the future of a mortal man, or change his fate, if his fate is death."

 

"Yes, we can," the lord said, but Bran knew the lies that lay beneath. He knew the grovelling that lay beneath the pride.

 

"You cannot," he said.

 

"You know nothing of us except for the foolish stories of ignorant men," the lord declared.

 

Bran looked at him until he lowered his gaze. "And yet I know this to be true. Tempt me no more, and begone."

 

But, afterward, he sagged against the railings, and his heart cried the name of the man who was his father in every way that mattered, except one.

 

******

 

On the seventh day they came for him, both of them together. They were united, as they had always been. Bran knew now that any claims of a rift had just been a pretence, designed to get him to submit.

 

He was clothed today not in riches, but in his own clothes. Fed up with the servants forever asking him what they could do to serve him, he had told them to find his own clothes, wash them, and bring them to him. Dressed like this, he felt more like himself, and yet strangely not so.

 

"We have come here," the lord said gravely, "to talk about the Old One."

 

"We kept the truth from you," said the lady, "out of care for you."

 

"He lied to you." The lord was a pace away from him to the left.

 

"He betrayed you." The lady was so close that he could smell her flowery scent.

 

Bran laughed.

 

"We do not lie," they said together.

 

Bran felt a heady sense of power, as if he had nothing at all to lose. "What did you tell me about him? You told me that he was keeping secrets. Well, I knew that. He'd told me that himself. You told me that he knew who my father was, and had chosen not to tell me. Well, maybe so, but that's between him and me. I know Will well enough by now to know that he only keeps secrets from me when he thinks that the truth will hurt me, or because of his own martyr complex. So, yes, I know he probably lied to me, but you won't make me believe that it was done through malice. You won't make me hate him, so don't even try."

 

He thought they were speechless for a moment, but only for that. "You do not know all of the truth," the lady said.

 

"And I will not believe anything that issues from your lips to be truth, anyway," he retorted. The lord moved to speak, but Bran stopped him, thrusting out his hand imperiously. "I know why you came here. You were going to try to poison my heart against Will. 'But you can join us, and get revenge on him' – that's what you were going to say. Well, I won't. Yes, there are things that Will and I need to talk about, but I will not join you against him. I will not."

 

"You do not know all the truth," said the lord. They were on either side of him now, their faces tender and cruel and inexorable. "I myself told him where you had gone, on the first day of summer in the meadows of Oxenford. I offered him the chance to bring you back, but he refused. That is the truth of his love for you. He sacrificed you without a moment's doubt."

 

Will, oh Will… Bran clenched his fists at his side, and met the merciless pity of the fairy lord's gaze. "Of course he did," he said. "Will is of the Light. He could not put my safety before the safety of the world. He could not bring me back, and pay for it by withdrawing from the war that lies between you. He could not do that, and still remain Will."

 

"But…"

 

He interrupted them, ploughing through their objections, as they before had ploughed through his. "I know Will loves me, but he is of the Light, and that comes first. And I love Will, even if he lies to me. There is nothing that you can say or do that will cause me to waver in this. You cannot defeat me." He stood tall, and suddenly it seemed to him that they were as children, and he was as tall as the canopy of the ceiling. "I have endured your temptations for seven days, and I have resisted them. I have won. By the oldest law of the living things of this earth, I command you: tell me what I want to know. Tell me who my parents were, and open the door to my powers."

 

He had defeated them; he knew that. The lord was tawdry, a glistening thing clad in fox-fur and gold. She was not young, with vulgur clothes that clung to every curve, and a smile that was more cruel than beautiful.

 

"Your father," he said, hurling it like the last weapon of a defeated foe, "was known to the Light. He was Artos, called King Arthur, born a mortal, but subsumed by the Light. The Old One knows this. You knew this, once. You chose to forget. You chose to become merely mortal, not to go with your father to lands beyond Time."

 

The lady was ugly in her defeat and hatred. "But the Light never knew that your mother was no mortal women. She was my first-born daughter, borne on a mortal king. She chose to be mortal. She chose to betray her people, and cast her fate into the hands of the Light."

 

"Then you are my…" Bran pressed his hands to his face, physically driving away the words. This was not a time for emotion. The future of the world rested on this moment, he knew that instinctively. "I have my answers," he declared. "Now let me… No." He drew himself up, taller than either of them, and more mighty. "I am going now. I am returning to my own world, and to Will, who is your enemy. Neither of you can stop me."

 

And beyond the balcony, the mist lifted, and a shining road twisted back to golden towers, and green meadows sleeping beside a river dark, and the life he had left just seven days before, or maybe a lifetime.

 

Clad in his own clothes, armoured in truth, he left that silver room, and no-one tried to stop him.

 

******

 

The mist wreathed him, but it was not absolute. He saw tiny yellow flowers blossoming near his feet, and grey shapes that could have been trees. He heard the sound of distant talking, or maybe the wind, blowing through branches. Once, a bird flew overhead, casting a shadow despite the absence of sunlight.

 

Bran walked, his hands at his side, and his head high. And King Arthur is… The mist turned into a thick blanket, blocking out all sight and sound. My mother is…

 

"No," he said out loud. He could not think about it. He had to get out first. If he let himself think about it, he would stray from the path and wander here, lost forever. He had to be firm and strong, at least until he was out. Once he was home, and knew that he was free, then there would be time for thinking.

 

Or maybe he would laugh, for it was ridiculous. It could not be true. This was just another of their lies. It was not true. It was not.

 

"No." Fiercely, he drove the thoughts away, locking them in a place that he had not known existed. One step, two… He thought the mist was trying to lead him astray, but he stared steadily through the whiteness, and kept to the path that his heart told him to follow.

 

There was no jolt when it happened. This time, no lethargy filled his mind, blinding him to the moment of transition. With one step, he was still in the land of the fairies, though on their borders, the mist-filled marches where no common laws held true. With the next, he was back in his own world.

 

But silent. There were no cars, and no people. It was almost dark, but as he blinked, his eyes began to grow accustomed to the light. He was outside; he had known that from the start. Now he realised that he was at the coast, on a wide, flat beach that stretched to the sea, far away.

 

For a moment, he felt completely lost. This was not Oxford, and where was Will? Calm, he told himself. Think. The sky was lightening by the minute, and he saw the dark shape of hills, with a light behind them that showed that they were in the east. I wanted to get home, he thought. All the time I was walking through the mist, I was thinking about how to find the way home. And then, of course, he knew the hills. He had returned to his own world near the place where he had entered it. These were the sands of Aberdyfi, a few miles from home.

 

It was too far to walk, but in a few hours there would be buses, or perhaps a pay phone from where he could contact Owen or John. Not that he had any money, he realised. He was wearing his own clothes, not the clothes of Fairy, but he had never thought to check the pockets for his wallet. Thus so easily had he forgotten how to think like a human living in the modern world. Priorities were different in the land of Fairy. Even such things as buses and phones felt alien, as if he had been away for years.

 

Perhaps he had. Bran started to run.

 

******

 

Nothing was different, but everything was. Towns still stood where towns were supposed to be, but they were entirely without light. The sun rose, and people started stirring, but the roads remained virtually empty. A man passed him, and his clothes were no different from anything Bran was familiar with, but he would not meet Bran's eye.

 

Perhaps it was a Sunday, he rationalised to himself. Maybe there had just been a power cut. The hills were unchanged, but the hills always were. The houses and towns were the same, though, and that meant far more. The few cars that passed him were of familiar make, with number plates proclaiming that they dated from a few years before the year that Bran believed was the present day.

 

What was I afraid of? Bran wondered with a smile. Space-age tower blocks and flying cars?

 

The weather was mild, and the trees were green with fresh leaves. It felt like early May, just as it should do. Maybe it was only seven days, Bran thought. That was long enough for people to worry, but not long enough for them to move on. Everything could resume just as it had always been. Though some things can never be the same, he thought.

 

Lacking money, he did not try for a bus. He passed a phone box, and almost went in, but found himself walking past it, after all. Because if I phone and no-one answers… If they answer, and I say, "It's Bran," and they say, "Who?" At least when he walked, he could wonder and hope. He could shake off the last effects of the land of Fairy – that curious way of thinking that had stolen over him during the last few days. He could return his mind to thinking as a human did.

 

The road began to climb, still unnaturally quiet. Rooks flew overhead, in crowds more dense that he was used to seeing. Ahead, the mountains were grim and beautiful, and his breath caught unexpectedly in his throat with longing for them. This was his home. Although he might spend his life in other places, he would always come back here. He would not want to survive without any hope of seeing this place again.

 

The day grew warmer, and the sun rose until it was overhead, then began to sink again. Bran's feet started to hurt, but inside he felt almost happy. He was free, and the world had not changed too badly in his absence. He could walk anywhere he wanted, without anyone telling him not to. He had escaped from the glamours and tricks of the fairies, and he had taken from them what he wanted to take.

 

"Bran?" a voice said. "Bran, my boy? Is that Bran?"

 

Lost in thought, Bran had not noticed anyone approaching. He turned round, and saw the seamed face of John Rowlands, peering at him incredulously. John had been riding a bike, but he clambered off it, almost falling in his haste. "It is you.  Oh, Bran, you've come back."

 

"Yes," Bran said simply. He let John embrace him, but his heart lurched a little when he saw tears in the old man's eyes. For John did look old – far older than he had looked just weeks before. It was only a week, he thought. No, please, it was only a week…

 

"Seven years, Bran," John said, the unwitting executioner. "Seven years gone, and everyone just about giving up hope."

 

And to that, Bran could say nothing at all.

 

******

 

End of chapter twenty-two

___

 

Chapter twenty-three: Seven years

 

Owen cried. That seemed, somehow, the worst thing of all. He embraced Bran – Owen, the man who never touched – and clung to him, sobbing.

 

Afterwards came the questions.

 

"Where have you been, Bran? Seven years…"

 

"Was it the work? You see these things in the papers sometimes – students having breakdowns under the pressure of work…"

 

"Did you forget who you were? Was that it?"

 

"Why didn't you phone?"

 

"Or weren't you free to come back? Have you been… hurt?"

 

He could not answer. He clutched his mug of too-strong tea, and looked out of the window at the yard.

 

Owen's face was bleak and uncomprehending, desperate to understand, but scared, perhaps, of the answers. Having allowed them privacy for their reunion, John Rowlands reappeared, and perched uncomfortably on a wooden chair. Help me, Bran thought, for John already held one of his secrets. John, perhaps, would understand the truth, but Owen never would.

 

"They sent all your possessions back from Oxford," Owen said, "as if you were dead."

 

There was an undertone of anger in Owen's voice now. Of course there was. Bran had no tale to tell of capture and ill-treatment. They doubtless thought he had run away, and stayed away out of choice, not giving them as much as a letter to let them know he was still alive. But I didn't! he wanted to cry. I thought it was only seven days!

 

He put the mug down, stood up, went to the window. The view was unchanged, but now that he knew that seven years had passed, he could no longer hide from the knowledge that the world had changed. The towns were dark; the roads were empty. The Wild Magic had commenced their war, and the world of men was already falling.

 

The light was fading. Bran heard Owen stand up to light a lamp, a candle in a cage of glass. Above them, the electric light bulb stayed dark.

 

He knew he had to speak. He could not tell the truth, but he had to gift them with a lie, or they would be tormented forever more. "I must have had some sort of breakdown," he said slowly, his hand curling around the windowsill. "I didn't remember who I was. I didn't know where I was. The seven years are a blank. As soon as I… remembered, I came back. I didn't know it had been seven years. I really didn't, Da. You have to believe me."

 

So he had lied, then. He had lied to people he loved, because they would never be able to accept the truth. I'm sorry, Will, he thought. I understand now.

 

"Before this morning," he said, "the last thing I remember is May Morning in Oxford. This is…bewildering. Everything's changed."

 

And the undercurrent of anger vanished entirely, and was replaced with sympathy. Because he had lied. Bran closed his eyes. Oh, Will… It was harder to lie than to be lied to. It was worse to live with a secret than to be protected by a lie.

 

******

 

They told him more, and worse, than he had ever wanted to know. They told him about the slow and gradual crumbling of the world he had been born into. They told him of the petrol shortages, so great that people had been murdered in civilised Britain for the petrol in their car. They told him of the power cuts, some of them lasting for weeks. They showed him pictures of London devastated by floods, and Cardiff half in ruins after an earthquake.

 

They told him of people he had once known by name, who were now dead in storms or disease. They told him of government clinging on by a thread, and the last vestiges of order and normality, that every month grew more frail. They told him of a populace driven mad by fear and incomprehension, some erupting in violence, and others retreating in solitude.

 

"It isn't as bad here, of course," John told him. "We always were a quiet folk, and the land has always given us what we need."

 

They told him these things as the light faded utterly outside. At first, he was speechless, unable to think of anything but the terrible impossible reality of the things he was hearing. These things couldn't happen in modern Britain! He had only been away for a week. This was a trick, a joke, a dream.

 

But of course it was not. As their tale grew more dark and more terrible, all he could think of was Will. Where had Will been for all of this? Why hadn't he stopped it? Because I broke him by leaving, he thought. Digging his fingers into his palm, he stifled that thought. Will would have continued to fight, but the enemy was too strong. Every disaster that hit the world would feel to Will like a personal failure. But if Will had not been there, perhaps the situation would be even worse.

 

He desperately wanted to ask about Will, but he needed John alone for that. And now, already, they were asking about him again, as if the things they had just told him were nothing. "You've lost seven years, Bran. I'll have to take you to a doctor."

 

Bran shook his head, still not really thinking clearly. "I'll go by myself one day." Owen began to protest, but Bran turned to him sharply. "I'm nineteen, Owen, not a child."

 

There was a moment's silence. "Twenty-six, Bran," John said quietly.

 

Twenty-six. The words fell like a stone. Twenty-six. Will would be twenty-six, and had endured seven years without him. Jane could well be married, or even have children. His friends from school had moved on to other lives. There would never be a place for him at Oxford again, for the world had moved on, and he had been left behind.

 

Dimly, he heard them talking about the police. "…should tell them, at least," John was saying, "though I doubt they'll care. There are too many thousand missing, and too many darker crimes."

 

What sort of a world have I come back to? Bran wailed inside, but a tiny, treacherous part of him whispered, I should have stayed. There were times, he thought, when enchantment and unreality were preferable to truth. At least in prison you could hide.

 

******

 

He found John alone the next morning. He meant to talk about Will, but John clearly had something on his mind. "I have often been inclined to believe things that many men would not believe," he said, as he stopped at a stile, making no move to cross it. "Those politicians and journalists in London are tearing their hair, trying to find someone to blame for all this. Some say it is us, for the things we have been doing to the environment. Religious groups say it is the end of the world."

 

"Does Owen believe that?" Bran asked.

 

John did not look at him. "Owen's world ended when you disappeared. He could not quite reconcile that with his belief in God. Religion ceased to be a comfort to him. He hasn't been to Chapel in six years."

 

Bran closed his eyes. Another life ruined. Another man lost. And all because of him.

 

No, he thought, opening his eyes again. The fairies were the enemies here. All the time they had kept him imprisoned and worked their tricks on him, they had been destroying his world. But he had won in the end. Locked inside him, not yet ready to come out, were the answers he had demanded. If there was a way he could use them to help defeat the Wild Magic, he would do so.

 

"But I see certain things at play," John said slowly. "I know my stories, and I believe it is arrogance to dismiss them as altogether untrue. Our forefathers believed them, and our forefathers were not fools."

 

What was he saying? Bran had a choice now. He could deny it utterly, or accept this faltering trust where it was given. He could tell John everything, or he could pretend not to understand, and ask him about Will.

 

But John Rowlands had always been special, with a quiet wisdom in his eyes. He had told Bran stories when he was young, with a deliberate weight in his voice. "It felt like seven days," Bran said quietly, "and I went voluntarily, or so I thought. They had something I needed to know, and I forced them to tell me, and I won free."

 

"No-one ever wins free of them," John said harshly. "You went voluntarily, you say? I warned you constantly when you were young. With eyes like yours, of course they would want you. I even thought I saw one of them watching you, once. Did you forget every word?"

 

"It was… complicated," Bran said miserably. "I thought it was worth it, but I didn't know it would be seven years. I…"

 

"No." John's voice brooked no argument. "I don't want to hear it. There are some things that mortal men should not get involved in. I have seen more than most men have seen, but I have never questioned, and have never sought to see more. Neither should you."

 

But Bran was no longer a child. John had his wisdom, but Bran had seen more than John would ever dream of. "You are wrong," he said. "I am involved in this."

 

"Which is what I always feared." John's face was pale beneath the tan. "As Owen did, too, although he hid his fears in the church, and told himself that such things could not exist. You came from the mountain, you see. You looked…"

 

"No!" Bran cried. His hand was clenched, driving against the damp wood of the stile. "Don't say it," he said, quietly, beseeching. The things that were locked inside him clamoured for release, but now was not the time. "I won't talk about it if you don't want me to, but I do need to know one thing. I need to know where Will is. I'm not just asking for myself. Will's the only person who can stop all this from happening, and I'm the only one who can help him."

 

"Aye." John let out a long breath, and looked very old, very weary. "I think I always knew that about him, too, but I told myself…" He passed a hand across his face. "He came here, Bran, after you disappeared. Owen was harsh with him. I was, too. He'd been the last one to see you, you see, and I was sure he was keeping secrets from us."

 

"Of course he was." Bran looked John full in the face, and made no attempt to hide the truth in his eyes. "He would have known right from the start where I'd gone. How could he tell anyone?"

 

"Twice, he came, that first year," John continued, looking away. "And twice in the year that followed. Then once, the year after. I took him to one side, and confronted him about his secrets. I never told Owen about… about you and him, but of course I remembered. I thought…"

 

"That he'd killed me in a lover's tiff," Bran said, disgusted. "Or that we'd run away together, unable to live with the censure of the world."

 

John looked at him, and there was no apology in his eyes. "I considered such things, yes. I had to, Bran. We were so desperate to get you back. There were answers on the edge of my mind, but they were such impossible things. Sometimes I was desperate for an ordinary, human reason, even a sordid one like that."

 

"Will had nothing to do with it," Bran told him stiffly. "He would have stopped me if he'd been able to. What did you say to him, John?"

 

"Enough," John said, "and more than enough. But then he looked at me with those eyes of his, and told me that, yes, there were things about your disappearance that he could not tell us about, but he swore by the Light that he only kept his secrets to protect us. They had no bearing on getting you back, he said. There was nothing he could do, and nothing we could do, but wait."

 

"By the Light," Bran echoed, his voice hoarse.

 

"And I believed him," John said. "I realised then that he was far more broken by your disappearance even than Owen was, and that I should be helping him in any way I could."

 

Bran had to look away, his eyes stinging. "And did you?"

 

John's callused hand touched his own. "That was the last time I saw him, Bran. That was the last time anyone saw him."

 

******

 

He fought it, of course. He tried Jen Evans first, but found her shockingly different. "Rhys was in Cardiff when the earthquake struck," John had warned him. "They found his body two weeks later."

 

It was hard work to get her to focus. After an hour, he had found out that Mrs Stanton still wrote occasionally, but their letters had grown shorter and shorter, always avoiding the really important things. Will had not been mentioned in them for years.

 

The phones still worked, they told him, but only intermittently. It was three days before he got through to the Stantons. Mrs Stanton recognised his name at once, and exclaimed with delight at his return. There was little delight in the rest of the conversation. Too many friends and neighbours had died in the Great Flu. Mary had gone abroad, and not been heard from since. And as for Will…

 

"He didn't cope at all well with your disappearance," she said, almost apologetically. "Of course, being Will, he didn't show it outwardly, but a mother always knows. He'd grown so withdrawn, but then we found out that it was because he didn't know how to tell us that he was… that he liked men. After he told us, he seemed so happy. But then you vanished and he…" She swallowed, clearly fighting tears. "He wouldn't talk to us about you. He wouldn't tell us anything about how he was feeling. He was always perfectly composed, perfectly calm, but…"

 

"I know," Bran said. He felt frozen, pinned like a butterfly by the voice from the phone. "I know how he gets."

 

"He stayed in Oxford," Mrs Stanton said, "and we saw him most holidays. He graduated – got a First. He was going to stay on to do a doctorate, but then the flu came, and they had to close the universities. When they opened again, he had gone. He sent us a letter, letting us know he was still alive. We saw him once more, a year later, and he looked terrible, as if… as if his face was carved from stone. He kissed us all, but there was no life in his eyes at all. It might be years before we saw him again, he said. And then he went."

 

"And you haven't seen him since?" Bran's voice was strangled.

 

"No." She was no longer crying. She must have cried so much over the years that, like Will, she had learnt how to keep the tears inside.  "I wish I could find a way to tell him that you're alive. Perhaps that will be the breakthrough that will bring him back to us. There has been so much death in the world, Bran. It is a terrible thing to lose a son while he is still alive."

 

So many people, he thought, afterwards, staring at the silent phone. So many people had been hurt by his impulsive decision to go with the queen of the fairies. She had tricked him, of course, and blinded him to the truth. He had seen only the possibilities; she had hidden from him the cost. His disappearance was like a pebble dropped in a pool, and all the ripples were broken lives.

 

He sat there in the gathering darkness for over an hour before he found the strength to move away. It was two days before the phones worked again, and this time he tried to track down Jane. Two phone calls later, she was laughing and crying down the phone at him.

 

"Oh, Bran! You're alive! I'm so pleased. Oh, Bran!"

 

Her happiness brought him closer to tears than Mrs Stanton's despair had done. "Yes," he said, blinking. "I am."

 

Their news was told hurriedly, for, as Jane said, "You never know when the lines will go down again, and cut us off." She was not yet married. "Jamie?" she said, laughing. "He was years ago. I was only eighteen." She had no children, and was working as a teacher in an expensive school. Simon was a doctor, living a difficult life tending to the victims of the world's disasters, and Barney had started to train as an artist, only to surprise everyone by joining the police.

 

Then her voice changed. "Have you seen Will?"

 

"I'm trying to find him. Have you…?" Bran could not finish.

 

"I spent quite a lot of time with him, those first few months," Jane told him. "It was hard, though. He kept trying to push me away, though he was always perfectly polite. I just felt that he needed human contact – that he'd be even worse if I wasn't there. Then I split up with Jamie, and… well, I took it badly for a while, and he was… he was good. He said some insightful things that helped me. After that, I… I think I forgot that he was grieving, too, and that he needed help. He came to see me a few times, but only when I needed somebody to talk to. We never talked about him."

 

He felt as if he was listening to a story. He had missed years of happenings. Whole rivers of tears had been shed, that he knew nothing of. Oh, Will, he thought. I'm so sorry… "When was the last time you saw him?" he managed to ask.

 

"He came to my graduation," Jane said. "I saw him once, by chance, in the street, when I was in London. It must have been… oh, three years ago?"

 

They said their farewells, and made promises to meet. But Bran still had no answers. Will was out there somewhere, and Bran had no idea how to find him.

 

******

 

Two weeks later, and he was still no closer. His secret chafed inside him, struggling to break free from the place where he had hidden it. Not until I've found Will, he thought firmly. Not yet.

 

But one morning at the end of May, when the newspapers talked grimly of fire and flood, he walked high on the mountains. The grass was fragrant, and the bracken was lush and green. The wind brought the smell of the bright outside, and even the bare rock seemed alive with life.

 

Bran crouched down, his hand to the living earth. King Arthur, he thought, opening the door just a crack. King Arthur, a lord of Light. But the sky above him was cold and lifeless, as distant and unfathomable as the pure white Light of Will's power. Nothing in his blood felt any affinity with the light. Even the thought of that great departed lord – my father - failed to fill him with emotion.

 

But my mother… His heart swelled. Tears filled his eyes, and the living spirit of the mountain flowed through him, and every sense was alive. He felt as if he was back in Fairyland, with music sounding just out of sight, and impossible beauties lying beyond the veil of enchantment, close enough to touch.

 

His mother was of Fairy, and he knew it now as truth. That was why he had thought and spoken as he had done so in those last days of enchantment. His blood had responded, and his mouth had known the right words to say. He had won free of Fairyland not because of what he had said, but because of who he was. He was not a normal mortal man. His words had power, where other men's words were just sound.

 

Moving slowly, he reached out his hands, casting himself open to the earth. Inside, he was stiff, as if he was moving a muscle he had never used before, attempting something that he had never known he could do.

 

Will, he cast out, whispering it to the air, to the earth, to the grass, to the rivers. Find me the Old One, last of the Light.

 

And, faint and amazing, he was answered.

 

******

 

End of chapter twenty-three

__

 

Chapter twenty-four: Together

 

Ten days went by, and still Will did not come.

 

Each day, Bran repeated the call, and each time the call felt louder, and he felt stronger. He felt as if he was unfolding inside, as things awakened that he had never been aware of. Voices whispered in his dreams. Sometimes he felt as if his skin was melting away, and everything inside him was flowing out into the world around him. Then he felt scared, and pulled himself back. Hours later, sometimes tentatively, sometimes confidently, he reached out again, calling to Will, calling, calling.

 

He was sure that Will was there, but he had no idea where. All he could do was call, and hope that Will was able to come to him. Even if Will could not sense where he was, surely it was only a matter of time before Will thought to come here, to Bran's home.

 

Or maybe, he thought on the tenth morning, Will had gone to his parents' house, and was expecting Bran to find him there.

 

Maybe Will had no desire to meet him. Bran had left him, after all, and Will had spent seven years alone, because of a choice that Bran had made.

 

Maybe Will had grown so cold during the seven solitary years of fighting, that he no longer wanted to talk to anyone at all.

 

On the eleventh day, Bran sat on the hillside near the place where he had first met Will, so many years before. The sun was shining on the road through the valley, but no gleams of silver marked the passage of cars. The power was down again across Wales, and there was no petrol anywhere within a hundred miles. Bran watched figures moving down on the farm, and knew them for Owen and John. Dogs capered around their heels, as they had done before the world had changed. In the west, the sun was orange, sinking into night, and the last of the birds hurried to roost.

 

Bran got up wearily. As he did so, he saw a figure walking towards him from the mountain.

 

He knew it was Will. Even with his eyes closed, he would have known this was Will, for the strange new senses inside him cried out to him. Will! Loved one! But also that twist of strangeness and fear. Cold Light at his heart, and not like us.

 

He silenced them all. For this meeting, he would be entirely Bran. He tried to speak, but could not. He tried to move, but could not. Only three weeks, he thought, but to him, it's been seven years.

 

"Bran." Will spoke first. His voice was the same as ever, conveying nothing. He stepped closer, then closer again, then stopped. Bran saw his face clearly for the first time, and gasped. But seven years has passed, and Will was twenty-six. What had Bran expected? For him to look the same as he had looked at nineteen? But he's immortal, his mind protested, and his life stopped when I left. I haven't changed. It's not fair that he has!

 

The person who stood before him looked older than twenty-six, with eyes that were lined with deep shadows, and the slightly sunken cheeks of someone who worked too hard, and often forgot to eat. His hair was still brown, but he had let it grow down to his shoulders. It looked as if he cut it himself, and only occasionally, when he remembered.

 

What can I say? Bran thought. What on earth can I say? But apology came first, welling up from the part of him that was still reeling at Will's appearance. "Oh, Will, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to… I didn't think… I mean, I thought I had it all under control, but of course she was tricking me. It felt like seven days to me. I would never have left you for seven years, you must believe that."

 

"I know," Will said, as if Bran had just told him that the sky was blue, or the world was round. "No mortal can withstand their tricks. I should have known that they would take you sooner or later."

 

Bran took a deep breath. "You knew, then? You knew all along where I'd gone? You didn't think I'd… run away?"

 

"I knew." Will inclined his head. "They told me." He looked at Bran, and Bran could have wept at the sight of his eyes, exactly the same as they had always been, even if the face that housed them was so sorely changed. "They offered me the chance to get you back, if I gave up fighting them. I refused. You need to know that now, before we go any further."

 

Bran clasped his hands in front of him, fighting for control. "I know." He refused to let Will look away. His own gaze had power, too, although he did not yet know how much. "I understand. I had difficulty coming to terms with it at first, but I did end up understanding what it was like for you. You loved me, but you were of the Light first and foremost. There was no way on earth that you could accept that offer, and still remain Will, the man I love."

 

Will's eyes half-closed, and opened again. He sat down smoothly on an outcrop, though Bran knew that the smoothness had been a lie. Will had almost fallen, but covering up weakness has become second nature to him.

 

"I went by choice." Bran crouched at Will's feet, but did not dare take his hands, not yet. "I was not ill-treated. I had seven days of it, and I emerged with some success, I think. You didn't condemn me to years of torment, Will. You had seven years of that, not me."

 

Will said nothing. He was looking at the sunset with eyes that looked as if they had never seen such a thing of beauty in a long time.

 

"Tell me one thing, Will," Bran said quietly. "I've seen what's happened in the world. If you hadn't been there, fighting it, would it have been worse?"

 

Will slowly nodded. "I can't stop them, but I can lessen the effects. I do what I can. But I am losing. I can't win against this. One day, it will all be over."

 

"Then I am glad you refused their offer, for the world's sake." Bran took Will's hand, and Will did not pull away, but neither did he respond. "But for your own sake… Oh, Will, I'm so sorry I put you in this situation."

 

Will's hand stirred just a little in Bran's grip. "I know it shouldn't matter, but I have sometimes wondered what they said to make you go with them. They said… He said that they had made you hate me."

 

"No!" Bran cried hotly. He forced himself to calm down, taking several deep breaths. "They tried," he admitted. "I was… reproachful, for a while. They told me certain things that you had kept from me. But that wasn't the reason why I went. She… she told me that she knew who my parents were, and that I had powers that I knew nothing of. I hoped… I thought that if I discovered what they were, I'd be able to help you. I was so desperate to help you, Will. It was tearing me apart, not to be able to help."

 

"You were helping," Will said faintly.

 

"I clung to that, Will, you have to believe me." Bran felt himself trembling with fervour. "When I was there, they kept trying to… to tempt me. There were offers, but I refused them all. I kept on telling them that I was only there to find out what I needed to know. And then, when I found it, I left."

 

"Your parents," Will breathed.

 

Bran turned, so his back was against the outcrop, and his shoulder was against Will's leg. He wondered if Will would touch his hair, but he did not. "They told me, Will." There was no easy way to say it. There was no easy way to do this. He had to open the hidden place inside him, and trust that Will could help him through what came next. "They told me that you already knew. My father was King Arthur."

 

Will was so still that Bran could not feel him breathing. "He was," he said at last. "You were born out of your time. Merriman brought your mother to this present century, where she left you with Owen Davies. She loved you very much, but it was… necessary. You were the Pendragon, the son of Arthur, with your own place in the Light. We shared quests side by side, you and I, that no normal human could share. You knew what I was, and I knew you, and we understood each other, and then you forgot."

 

There were so many questions, but he knew that he could not possibly ask them, not now. Everything was balanced on a knife edge, and he knew suddenly that he could lose Will forever in the moments that followed, and lose all that he had gained. Because when he had opened the hidden place, he had remembered everything that came with the telling of the secrets, down to every last word. He knew a truth that would change everything, and remove all shadows of resentment between them.

 

"I forgot," he echoed. "They said something else, Will, when they told me about my parents. I don't think they intended to. They tried to make me hate you by telling me that you lied to me. But they said that I chose to forget. They said that I had once had powers as the son of King Arthur, but that I chose to lose them, and chose to stay here, not go with him to the lands outside time."

 

"It is true." Will's voice seemed to come from impossibly far away, and yet his body was so perfectly close. "You were given the choice. You chose to remain mortal. I don't think you realised you would forget everything, though, but…"

 

"I chose it." Bran turned his head so that he was looking at Will's face again. He wondered why Will still looked so completely bleak. "I chose. Not you. They told me the truth because they wanted to drive a wedge between us, because you had already known this, but hadn't told me. But you didn't tell me because I was the one who had chosen not to know about it. All that time I blamed you for keeping secrets… I was the one who had chosen to forget in the first place."

 

Why wasn't Will speaking? Will's eyes were impassive, but Bran had not forgotten how to read him in three weeks away. Not even seven years of solitude could make Will's face a blank to him. "Oh, Will," he gasped, as sudden realisation made him almost weep. "You said we shared our quests together, each of us more than mortal. And then I chose to forget. I chose to be normal. Oh, Will, I've abandoned you twice, haven't I, each time for seven years?"

 

"It was your choice," Will said. "It was the right one for you. An Old One cannot…"

 

"Nonsense," Bran said firmly. The sun had almost set. The twilight was thick, and no lights gleamed down in the valley, or over to the sea. The world had changed completely, and here they sat in the midst of it, both of them as changed as the world was. "Let's not talk about it now. I've missed you, Will. Let's just be together, and there can be questions tomorrow, and recriminations, and anything you like. Please, let it not matter tonight."

 

Will's face was as unreadable as it ever got. "But it does matter. Look at the view out there, with no lights and no cars, and tell me again that it doesn't matter. Everything else is nothing compared with that. And that's why I need to know, Bran… The reason why I walked the Old Ways for eleven days, from the furthest corners of the earth, to come to you…" His eyes were inhuman, the eyes of an Old One of the Light. "How did you manage to call to me, Bran, in ways known only to the Wild Magic?"

 

It had come, then. Bran pressed his hands to his face, as if by doing so he could make his own heart as devoid of feeling as Will's cold heart of Light. "My mother," he said, looking out into the evening, "was the daughter of the Lady of Fairy. Not even the Light knew this. When I was there, I felt things awaken inside me. Since I've got back, it's grown stronger. I'm one of them."

 

"And my enemy," Will said, with his merciless eyes.

 

"No." Bran shook his head desperately. "No. Don't you see? I don't think they meant for this to happen. I'm sure they never meant to let me go. I resisted them. I forced them to tell me, and then I just walked away. I can use this to help you, Will. Can't you see? That's why I went with them. I gave up my powers as the son of Arthur, but no-one ever asked me to give up my powers as the son of Guinevere. I still have them. I can use them…"

 

"No."

 

Will's voice brooked no argument, but Bran was no mere human, not any more. He stood up, taller than Will, as he sat on the stone, and with the last dying vestiges of light behind him. "I can, Will, and I intend to. I will help you. Light and Wild Magic, aligned. We can save the world."

 

Will laughed. It was a terrible, bitter sound, and it was the first sign of emotion that he had shown all evening. "Save the world? Oh, Bran. I thought that once, too."

 

Bran grabbed Will's hands, half pulling him up. He had to be doubly alive to counter Will's bleakness, and the light and the grass and the beauty of the evening air flowed through him, filling him with vigour. "We can. I was scared of the truth before tonight. I locked it away; I didn't want to think of it. But now I see what a wonderful opportunity it is. What if I'm immortal, too? You'll never be alone again. We can be together forever."

 

"No," Will said, and it was as if Bran's exuberance has sucked even more life out of him, leaving him as nothing more than a shell of endurance. "It's been seven years, and I've fought the Wild Magic every single day. I no longer have room in my heart for feeling." His eyes flickered at last, and he looked away, at the darkness beyond the mountain. "I no longer love you, Bran."

 

It felt like a dagger in the heart, like a blade twisting in the wound, but he smoothed the wound over, and did not show it on his face. Really, he had been expecting this. As soon as he had learnt that seven years had passed, he had known this moment would come,. "But I still love you," he told Will. Taking his hand, he said, "Come on. You look hungry, and it's mutton stew for dinner, good and hot."

 

Will followed him through the night. His hand was very cold.

 

******

 

Bran was back. Bran was here, beside him.

 

It was not important; Will told himself that. Yes, it mattered that Bran was alive and well, because all people mattered, even if sometimes they had to be sacrificed to the greater good. Yes, it mattered that he had come back with powers that could call to Will from half way across the world, because that could make a difference in this war.

 

The rest of it was not important. The rest of it did not matter. Will had loved Bran once, when he had been weaker and happier than he was now, but all things changed. Men lost their humanity in war, and Will had never been human to start with. All that mattered was the shell that encased him, that kept him standing in this war. All that mattered was the Light that consumed him, and it was cold, it was cold.

 

"Come on in," Bran was saying. "Owen's… Oh, here he is. You remember Will?"

 

"I remember." Owen's face had been sharp with hatred, seven years before, when Will had come, stumbling, with his news that had been no news. John Rowlands had been kinder, but he, too, had blamed Will. There had been no refuge here, but neither had he sought one.

 

If he had kept fewer secrets, maybe Bran would have known enough not to go. If he had stayed away from Bran in the first place, maybe they would not have targeted him.

 

"Why are you here?" Owen was scarcely less hostile now than he had been years before.

 

"I contacted him," Bran said. "Asked him to come."

 

Will leant against the kitchen surface while Bran boiled a kettle over the open fire. Owen eyed them, but said nothing. "We'll go upstairs," Bran said, when the tea was done. "We'll have lots of news to catch up on," he said brightly to Owen, who grunted.

 

Upstairs, Bran sat on the bed, but Will stood against the window, his hands grasping the windowsill behind his back. The cold from outside was very apparent. Steam rose from the mug of tea, thickened the air for a while, then faded away into nothing.

 

It was not important, Will told himself. Something was stirring inside him, hurting him, but he wrapped it with chains, barricaded it with bars of Light.

 

"You're shaking," Bran said. "You really don't look well. Come and sit down."

 

Will smiled, but from the way Bran reacted, perhaps it was closer to a grimace. "You used to tell me that part of me was human, and of course you were right. I am still subject to all the frailties of flesh. I feel the cold." He held up his scarred hand. "I bleed. I catch colds. My legs hurt when I walk too far."

 

His voice trailed off. He was not sure why he was saying all of this. None of it mattered, after all, except when his regrettable frailties caused him to waver in his fight.

 

"Please," Bran begged. He looked ridiculously hurt by Will's refusal, so Will wandering to the bed, and sat down stiffly on the far end. He had learnt over the years that it was sometimes best to accede to other people's wishes, if the things they wanted were trivial, yet somehow seemed to matter to them. It left him free to fight the battles that really mattered.

 

"I have so much to tell you," Bran said. "I'm not going to push. You say you don't love me any more, and I understand. I… I can live with that, I think. But you're the only person I can talk to about what happened – the only person who will understand the truth. You can understand that, can't you?"

 

He tried to tell himself that this, too, did not matter, but the person he was seven years before had not entirely died, no matter how hard he had tried to lose him. He remembered what it had felt like to be twelve years old, watching Bran and the others walk away with no memory of the things they had shared. He remembered the loneliness of Oxford, before Bran had discovered the truth. He was no longer that person, but he had not forgotten. It was as if that Will Stanton was someone he had read about in a novel once, whose emotions had lingered in his mind.

 

"I do," he said, with his rusty voice.

 

"And you, Will…" Bran raked his hand through his hair. "I'm so selfish. You've lived with this for seven years. I bet you've never told a single person the truth about those years. I don't ask that you love me, just that you trust me. Tell me. Let me share it."

 

"Nothing happened." Will looked away, out at the dark sky beyond the window. "Nothing that I need to tell. The present is what matters; the future even more. How I feel is of no importance whatsoever."

 

He had not meant to say the last bit out loud. He felt Bran recoil, and wondered if he had angered him. It was true, though. He had walked through the wreckage of London, and dying people had clung to his legs. It mattered that he had saved many, and that he had caused the floods to recede enough to save more. It did not matter that he had not slept for two weeks afterwards, and that he still dreamed of bloated bodies in the water. He had watched people he knew die in the epidemic, and he had shielded some, and taken others to places where they would be safe. That mattered. The weeks he had spent shivering, struck by the illness himself, mattered only because they had removed him from the fight.

 

"Oh Will," Bran whispered, and Will realised that he was crying, making no attempt to hide the tears that poured down his cheeks.

 

Will had not cried for seven years.

 

"It really doesn't matter," Will told him truthfully. "I am of the Light."

 

"It should matter," Bran said hotly, but Bran was of the Wild Magic now. Bran had been able to call to Will in ways that no human could have done. He was not the enemy – not Bran, never Bran – but everything he said was suspect now. He was too suffused with emotion now. He saw things with the eyes of the Wild Magic, full of the selfish desires of living.

 

He could not stay with Bran, Will realised. He could not even stay near him. He had cut himself off from his family, because even that small degree of contact weakened him in ways that he could not allow himself to be weakened. It made him think in ways he could not think, and weakened the barricade of Light around his heart.

 

"I need to leave," he tried to say, but something swallowed up the words, leaving them as no more than a futile moving of the lips.

 

"I need answers," Bran said, his voice composed, although the tears were still flowing. "That's what I kept telling them when I was… there, every time they tried to tempt me. I need to know about… about my father, about how I came to be brought up here, about… about everything. I want to know about the adventures we shared together when we were young, that I've forgotten."

 

I want, I want, I want, Will echoed. He looked down at his scarred hands, clasped in his lap. I need… Bran didn't need them, of course. He could function without them, just as all men alive functioned without the things they really wanted. Over time, he would stop wanting them. He would push them deep inside him, lock the questions away, and carry on with the business of facing each day, ignoring the fact that he was not whole inside. He… He would…

 

Will was silent for a long time, then let out a slow breath. "I will tell you everything I know," he said, because he was not so stupid as to believe that this was right, the way he had become. It was necessary for him as an Old One, but it was not something he would wish on anyone else.

 

"But then what?" Bran wiped his eyes, still unashamed by his tears. "Are you going to tell me the truth, and then go away again? I want to stay with you, Will. Even if you don't love me…"

 

I have been alone for seven years, Will thought, and more. Except for a shining interlude of half a year, I have been alone for half my life.

 

"I can't," Will said, and there was a crack in his voice, emotion seeping through.

 

"Why not?" Bran grabbed his arm. "I won't demand anything. I just need… I can't stay here. I want to be with someone who understands. No, I want to be with you. I want to help." When Will shook his head mutely, Bran hauled him around to face him. His face was intensely alive, and there was a power in his eyes that had never been there before. Will's arm burned where Bran's fingers were touching him. "You're obviously not eating well, Will. Your hair needs a cut. You need someone to look after you."

 

And this, at last, gave Will the excuse to pull away, to look away from the light that blazed in Bran's tawny eyes. "I don't need a hairdresser, Bran. You're better than that."

 

"I want to come with you." Bran's voice was subdued now; Will had done that. "You're the only one… I've got all these… these urges inside me, like a new sense that's opening up. I don't know what I'm capable of, but I know I can… I'm sure I can help you."

 

Or the urges would take hold of him, and Bran would turn into an enemy, as terrible as any of the others. There was nothing merciful in the Wild Magic. The magic in Bran's blood could overwhelm all the lessons of civilisation, all the gentleness of love and pity. Bran had renounced his inheritance from Arthur, so there was no Light to counter the demands of the Wild Magic. He had the best of intentions now, but one day, soon, Bran could turn on Will, and become his enemy. None of the others could destroy one of the Light, but Bran Davies could destroy Will Stanton.

 

He already had.

 

"Please," Bran begged, his head bowed, and all the new pride and glory of his blood extinguished.

 

But Bran could turn, anyway, a slave to his newly discovered inheritance. If Will was with him, perhaps he could counter it. At the very least, he would be prepared.

 

And he was weary, too weary to fight any more. Some things had to be endured, especially things that did not matter much at all.

 

"Yes," he said, and Bran smiled, his eyes welling with tears ago.

 

Bran was back. Bran was coming with him. And really, Will tried to tell himself, it did not matter at all. Nothing had changed.

 

******

 

The others did not understand, of course. Owen looked quietly miserable, but did not argue. It was as if he had become accustomed to disappointment, and expected nothing else.

 

"It's won't be seven years this time, I promise," Bran told him, kneeling at his feet and squeezing his clenched hands. "I'll come back. I'll phone when I can. I'll find ways to send letters." Owen gave a distant nod. Suddenly Bran was desperate for Owen to feel, to react in some way. "I was always going to move away, you knew that. I was away for half the year anyway, when I was at Oxford." And Owen was just a labourer on someone else's farm, so there was no land to pass on, no farm that would pass to a stranger's hands because Bran had turned his back on his inheritance. Bran was not born to this, after all. But that was something he could not say.

 

John Rowlands found a way to take Bran to one side, the day before they were due to depart. "Are you sure about this?" he asked.

 

Bran nodded. "Of course."

 

"But why?" John looked at him sharply. "What good can it do? Owen understood when you wanted to go to Oxford. He's not a selfish man. He wanted you to achieve, even if you had to go away to do it. But the university's closed. You can't continue your education. Do you want a job? The cities are terrible places. At least here life continues mostly unchanged. You'll be safe here, you and… and Will."

 

"Will can't stay," Bran told him, "and I want to go with him. But that's not it. I don't want to hide away. I am… I think I can… I feel I can really help make a difference. I need to go somewhere where I can do that."

 

High in the cloud-streaked sky, a plane slowly passed, shining silver in the sun. John peered up at it, and Bran did, too. He already knew how rare planes were now, and he wondered where it was going, and who had paid the fortune required to buy a ticket. The low rumble of its passing swelled, and faded, almost drowning John's next words. "But where, Bran? Where can you possibly go?"

 

Bran let out a breath. The sound of the plane faded away to silence. "I don't know, but maybe Will does, and maybe I will find out. I've changed. I might know the place when I get there. And, even if I don't, I want to be with Will."

 

John walked away for a few steps, his solid back turned towards Bran. In the cottage, across the yard, Bran saw Will looking out of the window, his face a pale smear, with two darker smears that were his eyes.

 

"I don't believe in mincing my words," John said. "I believe in the truth, even if it is hard to say." He turned round, and his eyes were intense as they locked on Bran's face. "Bran, are you sure Will is entirely sane?"

 

"What?" Bran's mouth fell open. First there was amazement, but then there was anger, boiling up inside him, desperate to get out. How dare John say this? How dare he?

 

"Oh, I know, he's been perfectly polite, perfectly calm," John persisted. "He's been quiet. But insanity does not always show itself in screaming and ranting. I know the tales of the men who spent the night on the mountain, and know that madness takes many forms."

 

Bran forced the anger down, made his voice as icy as Will's could be, in great need. "He isn't mad."

 

"He told me about the floods in London, about people dying all around him, and his voice was completely level, and his eyes were dead." John's voice was gentle. "Is that the action of a sane man? Is that the action of a proper man?"

 

"He…" Bran forced himself to think, to reason. It was hard, as if his emotions had taken on a new and more virulent form, and reasoned thought was alien to him. Could an Old One be insane? Will was partly human, and had said himself that he was subject to all the frailties of human flesh. Was it possible that he could be wise and mighty as an Old One, even as his mind was crumbling as a man?

 

"No." His voice was trembling; he damped it down. "Depressed, maybe, but not mad. And…" Further insight gripped him, hurting like a knife. "If he is mad, then I was the one who made him that way. I can't leave him. No, that's not right. I don't want to leave him. I still love him."

 

"And Owen loves you," John said, "as do I. Some men show their love in quiet ways."

 

Bran thought of Owen's quiet misery, and felt suddenly ashamed for wanting to coax a reaction from him. Will, too, had been quiet, calmly stating that he no longer loved Bran. A quiet façade could hide real emotion. Maybe Will still loved him.

 

He drove that thought deep within him. He could not set out on this venture with false hopes. It was possible that Will would never love him again, but he could live with that. He had to live with that.

 

"I know," he said, "but I still have to go."

 

John sighed. "I know. But I had to say my piece, you know that."

 

Bran nodded. He wondered if he would see John Rowlands ever again.

 

******

 

End of chapter twenty-four

__

 

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

__

 

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 – They have to. Please... The Wild Magic would leave him. "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

__

 

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.

 

He sees…

 

No.

 

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… somewhere else," 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

__

 

Chapter twenty-eight: Avebury

 

Before them, barely a mile away, rose the mound of Silbury Hill. They would be in Avebury by late afternoon. There, if Bran's dream was correct, Will would die.

 

Did he believe it? If Bran had dreamt it years ago, in Oxford, Will would have considered it nothing more than an expression of Bran's own fears. But Bran had become something else now, and had the potential to become something far more than he was now. His dreams could not be discounted. That was why Will had no choice but to come here. If the Wild Magic was focusing their attention on this place, Will had to be there.

 

Bran clearly did not understand it. He had made that clear every day of their journey. Mostly, though, he stayed miserably silent. If something had eased between them after Hereford, it had returned in full force since Bran had revealed his dream. Will had found an Old Way and stuck to it, Bran walking twenty yards away to his left.

 

"We don't have to," Bran said now. He had edged closer than he was accustomed to. "There's still time to turn back."

 

Already he could see a few of the stones, pale flashes against the green. The hill had been raised by the hands of man, for reasons not even known to an Old One. There was magic here – fierce Wild Magic, born from thousands of years of man's rites, but High Magic, too, for this was one of the old places of the world. It was the perfect place for the final ending. No Old One was ever able to walk away from what had to be.

 

He gave a slight smile. "I can't, Bran."

 

Bran moved closer still. "It was only a dream. It was stupid. It doesn't mean anything. This is a waste of time. We should go somewhere else."

 

"Maybe it was just a dream," Will admitted. But it wasn't, not with Bran as he was. "But we have to try it, just in case. That's what life is like nowadays – trying every chance that's given us, just in case this is the one that will really make a difference." All inclination to smile flowed out of him as he spoke. Seven years of it. Seven years, and this was the result.

 

"Then I'll…" Bran stopped with a grimace. He pressed his clenched fist to his mouth, and turned his face away.

 

Will almost said it aloud. I know what you kept from me, Bran. I know that you were the one who killed me in your dream. Bran's emotions were clear on his face. An Old One was not always good at understanding human emotions, but Will could read Bran clearly now, and knew his secrets. Maybe it was because they had once been lovers. Maybe it was because Bran was part of the Wild Magic now, overflowing with feeling that could not be contained. Will knew the truth. And still he went on.

 

"Let's stay here until tomorrow," Bran pleaded. "We can rest – maybe talk. We haven't really talked for ages, have we? I know we're closer to people than you like, but we can hide."

 

A car passed on the road, not too far away. Someone was moving on a distant field, ploughing it with horses, while their farm machinery rotted in a shed for lack of fuel. A dog barked. But the hedgerows were thick and untended, and he remembered suddenly a game from childhood – making a den at the heart of a clump of trees, hidden from the eyes of adults…

 

Hidden from the world, the two of us together, just James and me. 'We should live here.' Sneak some food from the kitchen, and bring a blanket, and live here forever in our own little den, and no-one will ever find us. And so we do, but then we find that there's not much we can do, kneeling on the flattered earth, with knobbly roots pressing into our knees, and branches tangling in our hair. We tell each other stories, but it gets boring without the others. And Gwen is shouting that dinner's ready, and I can smell it, and it's going to get dark soon, and I don't like the dark – have always been scared of it, even though Stephen tells me there's nothing to be afraid of…

 

"They always find us in the end," he said, "and hiding isn't possible." And not with Bran, never with Bran – the enemy welcomed into his den. No-one could run away from their own nature. You could hide from enemies, but not when they were within.

 

"I didn't tell you everything," Bran blurted out. "In my dream…"

 

"I know." Will squeezed Bran's hand, and felt a great serenity sweep over him. "I've always known. But I can't run away from it, even so."

 

******

 

The place was exactly as he had dreamt it, and that was the worst thing of all. "Perhaps I saw a picture in a book somewhere," Bran said out loud. "Perhaps that's all it was."

 

You know it is not, said a voice in his head that did not come from himself.

 

The sun was sinking. The shadows of the standing stones were dark fingers, each one seeming to point straight at Will. The stones were tall figures, hunched with menace. Bran knew of legends where stones walked at midsummer. Were there English legends where stones could kill?

 

How could he even approach Will? Bran kept opening and clenching his hand, desperate to prove to himself that there was no knife there. But the Wild Magic was there, all around him, and in his head. He wanted to stand far enough away from Will that he couldn't hurt him, but he wanted to be close to him, too. He needed Will's strength, his calm, his solidity. Will had answers, but Bran was flailing in the dark.

 

He concentrated on every step; stopped two paces short, and managed to force out some question. The words felt like an exercise of will, as if he had to fight to prevent each word coming out completely different. He thought he had won, and framed the question as his own. After he had asked it, though, he had no memory of it, as if it had been someone else's, after all.

 

"No," Will said, treating the question seriously, and like nothing amiss. "The stones are just stones. Any power that they have comes from the way people have thought about them over the years. A thing used in a ritual becomes… important. And, of course, all stone has power, merely as part of the earth. Man builds things with stone, but they do not become entirely his."

 

Words. Words. Words were soothing. They went some way towards stilling the pressure and confusion in his head. But they were just words. How could the Old One be so calm when death gibbered all around him? How could he be so inhuman? How could he be so uncaring? Couldn't he see Bran's pain?

 

His hand clenched on coldness. He opened it, but there was nothing there. No knife. No metal. No betrayal.

 

He walked away, pacing, leaning on a stone. Only a stone. Dead stone.

 

No, no… He lies.

 

Hands flat on the stone. Swallow; blink; stare at the fading blue of the sky.

 

There were people there, living in the village at the heart of the circle. If this was a place of power, how had they lived here for so long, untouched? He grasped at that thought, and clung on to it. The fairies had lied to him more than Will had ever done. If anyone was trying to trick him here, it was the Wild Magic. "Go away," he told it. "I am not yours."

 

He saw it in the movement of every blade of grass. He saw it in the angle of the sunlight. He heard it in the sound of dogs in the village. He heard it in the squeaking of a faded sign, advertising a tea shop. The days of tea shops were over. The pub served only locals, now. The gift shops and postcard shops were closed. Vegetation claimed the charming cottages. People still held out, but not for long. For this place is ours, as all the world is ours, but it is stronger here, because of what this place has been.

 

"Help me, Will," he whispered, but he could not let Will near him. Bran was alone.

 

And Will thought Bran was going to betray him. Will was sure of it. Will had never given him a chance. Will had stood there coldly and stated that he would never love Bran again. Will refused to contemplate the possibility that Bran would prove stronger than the urges that ran in his blood. He refused to help. He just stood back and walked to what he thought was his doom. Will had betrayed Bran first. Any actions Bran took in return were entirely justified. Will had forced him to them.

 

"No," he moaned. He pushed off from the stone, and tottered a few more steps away from Will. He ground his fists into his brow. Get out. Get out. Get out.

 

But we are you.

 

Someone crept towards an upstairs window in one of the houses, and looked at the two strangers with fear in their heart. They called to someone else, whose suspicion turned to hostility. He saw an image of a shotgun, to hand on the cabinet. He saw locked doors, and keys, and a memory of blood on the stone flagged floor, and the dark eyes of the stranger who had come the year before.

 

I'm not supposed to know these things, he thought. I don't want to know these things.

 

Part of him felt like a parched man who had been led by the hand and brought to an oasis. Whatever Will said, something was here. Maybe it lay in the stones. Maybe it lay in something that had happened here in the past – A massacre. It was a massacre. The Lord and the Lady of Fairy would come to him here, and all his latent powers would burst into fruition, and he would never be able to go back, not ever again.

 

An avenue led away from the stones. He imagined himself walking it, each step taking him closer to his powers. He was the son of King Arthur, destined for greatness. Through his mother – mother! ­– he was related to the beings that ruled the Wild Magic. This was his birthright. Why shouldn't he assume the powers that were rightfully his? Better that than tag along in the wake of the Old One, unloved, distrusted, and ignored.

 

He turned his head round slowly, painfully. The Old One – Will! – was far away, a never-ending expanse of grass and stone between them, as uncrossable as the void. See how little he cares… He shook his head agonisingly. "No." Will was closer than he had been. Bran was the one who had moved away, walking further than he had been aware of. Will had come some way towards lessening the gap. His feelings were a blank to Bran, but there seemed to be concern on his face.

 

Bran pressed his face into his hands. But as soon as one train of thought was arrested, another came in. Bran needed to accept his powers, not to harm Will, but to help him. That was why he had argued his way into Will's company, after all. As a human, Bran could do nothing. As blood-kin to the rulers of Fairy, Bran could do something to oppose them. He had to embrace all this – embrace the power, embrace the voices, embrace the empathy and the thought and the urges… He had to…

 

Cold in his hand. Cold air, cold dew, cold knife.

 

"Bran."

 

He had no idea if it was Will calling his name. He had no idea of anything.

 

I have to leave him, he thought, but even now he did not know if the thought came from himself, or was pushed there by Will's enemies. I have to protect him from myself.

 

The wind sighed with longing.

 

But I love him.

 

Twilight was encroaching on the stones. He saw shadows move; begin to take shape as misty figures, with a gleam of light upon their brows. They beckoned to him, and his blood responded. The earth was breathing beneath his feet, ancient and marvellous beyond words. He felt the tears of rivers, moved out of their rightful course. He felt the gleeful hope of vegetation, reclaiming what they had lost in centuries of rape by the axe.

 

He felt the terror of the people in the village, who had lost so much, and feared they would lose everything, before the end.

 

I am stronger than this, he thought. I am strong. I am strong. I am strong.

 

But the cold dew coalesced and became a dagger in his hand, and the stones were calling, and Will was a cold pillar of Light at the heart of the living, vibrant earth. He was the invader that had to be eradicated. He was the illness that had to be cured.

 

The mist had eyes that gleamed. The dying sun fell on the blade in his hand.

 

Bran ran.

 

******

 

The last edge of the sun sank beneath the trees. Twilight crept towards night. And Bran had gone.

 

Will had watched him run, and had stopped himself from the instinctive act of starting after him. This place was not just a bastion of the Wild Magic. The Light had a place here, too, for there had been a time, in the past, when everyone who lived in Britain had known of the Light, and respected it. Arthur had walked here, and Merriman. There was enough echo of their presence for Will to draw on. There was enough Light for him to remain an Old One, his heart hardened to anything to do with Bran.

 

It was a good thing that he had gone. For this whole long journey, Will had been so sure that Bran was going to betray him, but still he had let him come along. It was irrational. It had been a mistake. He had justified it at the time by arguing that it was better for Bran to come into his new powers under Will's eye, than far away. Now he knew that he was wrong. With every step, Bran had grown more miserable, more conflicted, more torn. He should have been left behind on the farm. Between them, the normality of Owen Davies and the wisdom of John Rowlands would have ensured that he would have remained human, and his sojourn in the land of Fairy would have become no more than a distant memory.

 

Why had Will let him come? The Old One had no answer. Deep inside him, the boy who had once been Will Stanton whispered that he had needed a friend, and here was Bran returned to him, the only person in the world who knew what it was like to live as a human, while possessing powers that made you something far more than human.

 

Will had been without people for so very long.

 

"Fool," he chided himself, as he leant against the stone, and waited for the attack to begin. This was no more than the last vestiges of humanity being burnt away. He could no longer love, but he had not yet entirely forgotten what it was like to crave love. He could not live with others, but a tiny part of him still remembered what it was like to be lonely. He could not give Bran the friendship, love and companionship that Bran wanted, but part of him could not bring himself to part with him. And so he had dragged Bran along, although he was incapable of giving Bran any of the things he needed.

 

And now Bran had turned against him, as Will had always known he would. Oh, Bran was fighting it, but he would succumb. He had already succumbed.

 

Things were moving in the shadows. Will wrapped the Light around him like a cloak, and readied himself to defend. He had already woven spells around the people in the village, to keep them from harm. He had no need to weave spells around himself, for he was already protected by his very nature. Only those parts of him that were human could bleed and die. Only his human heart could break.

 

Twilight became evening, and silver stars floated into existence in the dark blue sky. He greeted them by name, and they silently acknowledged him. There was nothing they could do. If the world fell tonight, they would greet the new world order. If Will passed from this life tonight, he would move amongst them, and be glad.

 

Why did you come here? The thought was silver in his mind, as if it came from the stars themselves, but the smile that followed it made him think of Merriman.

 

Why? He stood very still, hand resting on the stone. Because Bran had dreamt it. Because, from the moment Bran had told his dream, Will had known that this could be the end of their troubled journey. Bran would turn against him. The long wait would be over. The hope would be dead forever. He could carry on enduring, as he had endured for seven years. He had learnt how to live behind his armour, with a cold, cold heart.

 

His thoughts stopped. His breathing stopped. For a long time, he stood there, utterly still beneath the stars. Wind touched his cheek like a back of a hand. A dog barked, a sharp note of warning.

 

I wanted Bran to betray me.

 

He had never given Bran a chance. He had pushed him away, and ignored him. He had wrapped himself in Light, pushing Bran ever further away into the land ruled by Wild Magic. He had told himself that he was doing his duty as an Old One, but Will had been acting for reasons that were all too human. He had been trying to protect himself from being hurt. I cannot love, he had told Bran sadly, and had meant it as utter truth. What he had meant was, I am scared to love.

 

Bran had hurt him desperately seven years before. Slowly, painfully, Will had thawed his heart and opened himself up to human contact, but Bran had chosen to leave him. His new resolutions had been too weak to survive the heartbreak. He had become every inch the Old One, cutting himself off from his family, retreating behind walls of Light. He told himself if was necessary, if he was to fight what the Wild Magic was doing to the earth. But when had he ever been successful against the might of the Wild Magic? In Oxford, when he had loved, he had been able to bind the river spirit, and he had managed to gain a small weapon against the Wild. When he had sealed his heart to all human emotion, he had lost even that.

 

He had not been speaking as an Old One when he had denied his capacity to love, but as the damaged child that he was. He had withdrawn to protect himself from further heartbreak. He had become cold because he was broken. If Bran turned against him now, it was all his fault.

 

"Bran!" he cried, and started to run in the direction Bran had gone, an hour before. "Bran!"

 

And that was when the full might of the Wild Magic came down upon the earth. 

 

******

 

He was hiding, curled tightly around the bitter knife. No-one would find him, no-one… but the hedges had eyes. The ground had breath. The air had ears. They were part of him, and they flowed through him, and he flowed outwards into them, as if his skin itself was nothing, and he was just one molecule of the air. He was part of the world, and he had to embrace that, he had to accept that…

 

But they were his enemies. They had ears and eyes and were spying on him, reporting everything he was doing to the Lord and the Lady who wanted him to kill the man he loved. He had to reject them, to push them away, to become only himself, alone, in the frail shell that was his body. To be alone. To be alone…

 

He had to return to Will. He had to go back and kill him. He had to go back and save him.

 

No, no. He had to stay here, to stay hiding. He had to keep away from Will, to protect him. He had to keep away from him, to punish him, so he would ache in his loneliness, and no-one would help him when the Wild Magic rushed in to destroy him.

 

He rocked forward; rocked back. Rocked forward; rocked back. Each time deciding to go; each time deciding to stay. The knife was real, made from dew and magic and the deep minerals of the earth. It had carvings on the handle that he knew he would be able to understand if he chose to look at them, rather than run his fingers up and down them, hard enough to hurt.

 

A storm was erupting all around him. He felt thunder and lighting. He felt the earth heaving up in great churning masses, and rain tear the leaves from trees. Then, when he blinked, he saw that the sky was still clear, and the ground was smooth and dry. A storm was raging, but not in the material world. The Wild Magic was attacking, but the enemy was not him.

 

"Will," he whispered. "Will." Old One. Enemy. Lover. Will.

 

He heard laughter. And then Will's voice screaming his name. Screaming, screaming, screaming…

 

Wrestled to the altar by beings whose eyes have seen a thousand mortals die beneath their blades. Fighting, but defenceless, because even the strongest flame goes out in the fiercest storm. Chained there, taunted, tortured, mocked. Bloody slashes opening up on his naked chest. And screaming for Bran, screaming…

 

He tasted blood in his mouth and gagged. A moment later, he felt the pain in his palm, and knew that he had nicked it the knife blade, and pressed it to his mouth. Blood; iron blood…

 

And Bran is one of the ones chaining him, delighting in his pain. It is his birthright. As blood-kin of the Lady of Fairy, it falls to him to take the life of their greatest enemy. As Bran Davies, it is his right to kill to one who has most hurt him. Will screams, and it is sweet as honey to him. He drinks his blood, and he will claim his body as Will never let him claim him before, when he pulled away from every touch. He will make Will show emotion at last. He will make Will scream…

 

"No," he sobbed. "No. I won't." He unbent his cramped fingers, prising them away from the knife, and let the blade fall. "I won't."

 

The storm raged unchecked, but this time he managed to find faint shields to keep him from the worst of it. He no longer felt as if he was flowing out into the earth.

 

"Will doesn't love me," he said out loud, "but that doesn't matter. I won't turn against him. I won't be party to the murder of mankind. I will make my own decisions about what I do, and I won't do anything against my will."

 

"So be it," said a voice, and a shape blotted out the last of the stars.

 

******

 

And he was not a proper Old One after all, for he could feel Bran's presence, could sense his confusion and his fear. He sensed his hatred, and that, too, he forgave. He was bound to Bran by a shining cord – always had been, and always would be. Now that Bran was awake, it throbbed with emotion. It could never be a bond merely of the Light.

 

It led him to where Bran was hiding, child-like beneath a hedge. The Wild Magic raged around him, gleeful in its destruction, virulent in its hatred. Will ran with one arm above his head, hand outstretched, keeping himself from harm. All around him, vines writhed, and columns of dust whirled in dark maelstroms. A dog in the village howled in terror, a birds with dark wings passed before the stars.

 

"Bran!" he called. "Bran!" But, even now, at the end, the strength of their rediscovered bond betrayed them. Will was focused only on Bran. The Lord of the Fairies stepped forward from the shadows, and Will had not even realised that he was there.

 

He struggled for full control, Old One against his enemy. "Leave him alone," he commanded. "He is not yours."

 

"No," the stranger said, his eyes cold. "He never was. And so he must die."

 

He had a sword unsheathed in his gloved hand. In the roiling shadows of the night, Will thought he could see blood on the edge of the blade. "Bran," he rasped. And that was his undoing, the chink in his armour. The stranger reached in effortlessly, found his pain, and twisted.

 

Will fell to the ground, unable to move.

 

******

 

"Will!" Bran hurled himself at the lord, struggled desperately to get past him to where Will lay. "What have you done?"

 

"There he lies," the lord said, "ready for you to bind him and do what needs to be done."

 

The storm outside was subsiding; the attack had achieved its purpose. "Of course I won't," Bran said, and this time there was no doubt in it, no doubt at all.

 

"What have you got to look forward to if you continue to defy me?" the lord asked, his eyes gleaming. "You are not human. No humans will accept you. You will become ever more like me, and the Old One will not be there to let you follow him out of pity. You will have no-one." He took Bran's chin in his gloved hand, fingers strong but caressing. "Accept me as your master, Bran Davies."

 

Bran lashed out instinctively, and the lord recoiled, his hand slipping away from Bran's face. Bran made his voice was cold as possible; inside, his heart was pounding. "I have refused you before, and this is the third time. I will never follow you."

 

The lord raised his sword. "I thought not." His smile showed the cruel whiteness of his teeth. "So I will kill you now, before you come into your powers."

 

Bran hurled himself backwards, but even the stones of the earth were under this lord's command. A root entangled him, a pebble tripped him, and he was powerless on the ground, helpless before the blade.

 

******

 

He could not be human, not this time. For perhaps one last time, he had to fight entirely as an Old One, his heart hardened to the fact that was Bran was in danger. It didn't matter; it couldn't matter. Emotions were too new to him. He had forgotten how to feel emotions, and still remain strong. He could relearn it, but not today. Not tonight.

 

Armoured in Light, Will rose from the ground.  He could not care about the fact that the Light would hurt Bran, as he now was. With a stiff gesture of his hand, and a sharply snapped word, Will encased Bran in a shield of Light. Bran screamed in agony, the sound pulsing through Will's magic and threatening to rend his heart in two. The stranger's blade slid off the shield, and he howled.

 

"You can't!" the stranger screamed.

 

Will pressed his hands together in front of him, desperately trying to still their shaking. Not Bran. Not Bran. Just anyone. "I can," he said, as calmly as he could make it. "Not destroy you, but intervene to protect those you are trying to destroy. That is according to the law. That was always according to the law, even before you made all laws change."

 

Speaking helped. Words helped. Talking of the law helped him still the racing of his heart. Bran was only whimpering now, but it was imperative that Will did not care. The true enemy stood before him.

 

"You have no right to protect him," the stranger snarled. "He is one of us. It is my right to discipline him. It is my right to destroy him."

 

"But he is also human," Will informed him. "It is his right to make his own decisions."

 

The stranger's face twisted in hatred, but there was something else there. Will considered it for a while. Fear, he concluded. The Lord of Fairy is afraid.

 

Another moment passed. Bran moaned, and the stars looked down, interested, but uncaring.

 

But not of me.

 

"The dream was a trap," he realised, "but for Bran, not me." The lord had sent the dream, knowing Bran well enough to know that he would tell Will. He clearly knew Will enough, too, to know that Will would respond by going to Avebury, after all. Once there, the lord had used all his powers to awaken the place, and to try to get Bran to turn against Will. "You wanted to drive him mad," he said, "and, if he resisted, you would have the excuse to kill him."

 

And Will had led Bran straight into the trap, ignoring all Bran's pleas. He had been so sure that the trap was meant for him. He had acted so predictably all along that the Lord of Fairy had been able to manipulate him. Cold indeed. Cold, misguided, and foolish.

 

But guilt served no purpose. Will raised his hand. "But you will not have him. Whatever blood flows in his veins, he is under the protection of the Light, and I forbid you from harming him."

 

He almost had him. The lord raged, but his eyes showed defeat. Almost he started to walk away. Almost he faded. Almost…

 

And then the world around them erupted.

 

******

 

Chains. Cold, hard metal. Iron bars. A shroud of white.

 

He was choking; he was suffocating. White light oozed down his throat, and he gagged. It raked across his skin like a thousand knives. It was wrong. It was alien. It was surrounding him, encasing him, imprisoning him.

 

He did the only thing he could do. He broke free.

 

He became the world around him. He commanded the earth, and it obeyed. He called down the air in torrents of wind and rain. He called to the rooks to shroud him with their wings. He called to the stones to stand tall, and forbid.

 

He did not have a body. He was everywhere, and everywhere was him. He found frightened sparks of creatures in stone prisons, and shattered the walls to set them free. He found pain and grief and sorrow, and he drew them out, rejoicing in their freedom. "Find the one that hurt me," he told them. "Terrorise anyone who is not like you."

 

He flew through the stones, weaving through their solid bulk. Everywhere was darkness, shot through with streaks of lurid colour. The only light – light! – was a fierce white pillar… White light, like prison bars. It blazed out, and it sought him, in darting attacks, like five fingers extended into scores that cut through the night. It came with a snapped word, with a constantly repeated sound, a single syllable.

 

The things he had awoken clustered around him, shrinking from the light. It cannot hurt you, he told them. But you can harm it. He tried to concept again, savouring it like salt. You can break its heart.

 

He saw the beings through things that had once been eyes. He saw a man in long grey robes, weeping tears of blood from empty eye sockets. He saw a woman without a hand. He saw two lovers clinging to each other, torn apart by hands he could not see. He saw a boy with a bloated grey face, dripping duckweed from lank, dead hair.

 

Keep me safe, he beseeched them. Keep me from the Light.

 

But other things were there with him – things he had not raised. The white light left him blind, but some of his creatures had pale grey candles. He saw a creature of mist, with stars upon its brow. He saw a proud man with tawny hair, a silver blade in his hands.

 

And he is my enemy, too.

 

He turned the power of the earth upon him. He raised his hand, and the plants obeyed. His summoned creatures raised hands like claws. "Destroy him," he ordered them. "Destroy him, because he would have destroyed me."

 

And through it all shone the light, strong and cold and never ending. Through it all came that single sound. Through it all… But he did not hear it. All he lived for was revenge.

 

******

 

"Bran!" Will never stopped calling his name. "Bran!"

 

Bran was far away from him. In body, he lay only inches away, still sprawled beside the hedge. His eyes were closed, but his heart was racing, fluttering visibly at his throat. All around him, emanating from him, the world was in turmoil. The Lord of Fairy screamed; Will could not turn round to see what was happening. The echoes of a thousand years of death and suffering were walking all around him. This was a possession worse than he had seen in Oxford.

 

Avebury was possessed by Bran.

 

"Bran!" Will shook Bran's shoulder, clutched his arm, cupped his face. "Bran!"

 

The beings were all around him, clawing at him, but Will ignored them. They were not real, but merely shadows of griefs long past. Far away, in the village, he heard screams. And this was Bran – Bran who was doing this. This was Bran.

 

The sky darkened. Wind tore at Will's hair, and dirt and twigs lashed at his face. It was all he could do to still remain kneeling. An apparition touched him, and he could almost feel the chill of its fingers. Beneath his knees, the earth started to shake. The village would fall, and everyone within it would die. And as for Bran… When Bran awoke from this – if Bran awakes from this  - how would he live with himself?

 

Will closed his eyes, just for a moment. Perhaps the Lord of Fairy was still behind him, but he could not look. Perhaps the lord's sword would descend as soon as Will relaxed his guard, but when you had fought so hard, and for so long, some things were a mercy. Bran had to be stopped, and Will could not reach Bran like this.

 

Will drew all his power back into himself. He cancelled all spells and all protections. Not as an Old One, but as himself – as Will Stanton, the boy he had been so long ago, and the young man he had been for such scant few weeks in Oxford. "Bran," he called, and kissed him lightly on the unresponsive lips. "Bran." He felt tears seep from his eyes, and fall on Bran's closed eyelids. "You have to stop this, Bran."

 

******

 

The light winked out. The pain went, and all he was left with was darkness. The world raged in response to his command, and all around him was nothing but hatred.

 

And then came the sound again – the single syllable spoken again and again.

 

And it was not a threat after all. It was not a prison. It was not a link in a chain, wrought by the coldness of the light. It was name. It was his name.

 

And it was spoken with love.

 

Not a chain after all, but a rope – a rope to guide him home, a rope to lead him out of this darkness, out of this hatred, out of this mass of creatures who were dead.

 

He delayed only for one half-regretful moment. Then, with a sigh of release, he reached out a hand, and caught hold of the rope that was his name, spoken in the voice of Will, who loved him.

 

******

 

End of chapter twenty-eight

__

 

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.

 

"But…"

 

"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…"

 

"Please."

 

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…?"

 

"No."

 

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…"

 

"I'm sure."

 

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

__

 

Chapter thirty: The last night of the world

 

Here, Will thought. It would be here. It had to be here. Oxford was where it had started, and tonight was the night of midsummer, and the Wild Magic would be at its strongest, and would launch its final assault.

 

Tonight would be the end of everything.

 

People walked in the streets of Oxford, cautious and hopeful. The sky was a perfect blue, and the sun shone, warm and lovely. Electricity had been working for two weeks, ever since the attack at Avebury. More cars were running than normal. People were emerging from the shroud of fear that had covered them for years, daring to hope that everything was beginning to return to the way it had once been.

 

Perhaps they were right. This respite could indeed have been caused by Bran's actions at Avebury, but it was no final ending. The Wild Magic was gathering its strength for a final assault. That would come tonight, he was sure of it. It would be everything they had ever done, and worse. And afterwards… And afterwards…

 

No, he would not think of afterwards, not yet. He walked alone into the empty shell that had once been Merton, slipping through the locked gate as if it was not there. The buildings were deserted, but fairly intact. Ready to be reoccupied if we are successful tonight. No, he could not think of that.

 

Hand trailing on the stone, he headed towards the garden, where memories clustered round him people in a crowd. There he had stood and first felt the whisper of the Wild Magic. There he had fallen, and looked up to see Bran. There they had stood together in the magic hour when time had stood still. There they had touched. There they had kissed.

 

The gardens were untended now, and the plants were running wild. The Wild Magic ran thickly in every root and every branch. The old wall was almost crumbled away, with nothing to keep him from jumping down to the meadows, if he wished to. He teetered on the edge of the wall for moment, tempted to seek out his old room and wander through the memories there. No, he told himself. Memories were important, and would play their own role in this, but this was not the time.

 

He jumped from the wall, cushioning his fall with the Light. The meadow was overgrown, littered with rubbish and fragments of broken stone. For several steps, the memories left him alone. He had never walked here with Bran. He had never stood in this spot and felt grief, or pain, or happiness. This was blank. He walked through it, and it could not touch him.

 

The river was different. The Cherwell was smooth and black, and echoes of other worlds and other times showed in its still water. Smiling grimly, he settled down on the bank, and sank into memories.

 

Bran… Confessing in his room, as snow covered the world outside. Their first touch. Anger. May Morning, and waiting for him on the bridge, then coming down, racing through the gardens, rushing to the river, and finding him gone. Gone forever. Alone forever. Alone forever without love, and the world crumbling around him, and can't feel, can't touch, can't ever let anything close… Then Bran, back again, and walking far apart on the mountain path, and standing in the shadow of a cathedral. A circle of stones, and realisation, but Bran going ever further away, Bran retreating behind walls, Bran so pale and cold and miserable. Bran…

 

And it was still there, as it always had been there. It was still bound, and it still hated him. "But this time," he told it, "you will do my bidding, because I am human, and I am in love, and I have no doubts and no shame and no fears. You will obey me."

 

The river surged in hatred, water surging over the bank. The reflections of the sky turned black. Rank-smelling weeds coiled around his ankles like ropes.

 

"You will obey me!" he thundered, in a voice that had nothing of the Light in it, but spoke only of the anger and the anguish of a single man.

 

The water drew back; the river became glass again. Reflected in the water was the blueness of the sky, and the crystal shards that were the light of the sun.

 

******

 

It was past sunset. Will pressed his hand to the ground, and felt the distant tremor of an earthquake. The sky was shot through the streaks of black, and the air was hot and humid.

 

The river raged inside him, furious at its confinement, desperate to destroy him. Every time he relaxed, it hurt, like nails tearing him apart from within. In time, he thought. In time.

 

The lights of the city began to come on. Something stirred, prickling across the back of his neck. He closed his eyes, and opened them again. When he did so, all was dark. Not far away, he heard someone scream. Go in, he willed the few people still out in the streets. It will not be safe. Go home.

 

He sat alone beneath the ruins of the University Church. The Bodleian Library was behind him, still mostly intact. How many books survived? How much knowledge of mankind had died in the last few years, never to be found again? Mankind was resilient, though. He wondered how much knowledge had been smuggled out, how many priceless books had been hidden in caves and bunkers, ready to be brought out again when all was passed.

 

If it passed. He had no illusions. If he failed tonight, then he would never succeed. If he fell tonight, he would never rise again. The Wild Magic could not destroy an Old One, but grief could kill a human, and from tonight, and for ever more, the human part of him could not be denied. Humanity gave him strength against the Wild Magic, while his powers of Light only gave him immunity. If he failed tonight, he would wander a devastated world for all eternity. Perhaps the High Magic would take pity on him, and let him go out of Time, but he would not deserve it. If he failed tonight, he was lost.

 

"You cannot still have hope."

 

He raised his head without surprise. The Queen of Fairy stood before him, her beauty both heartbreaking, and utterly cold.

 

Will blinked, keeping everything else still. "Where is your brother?"

 

He saw the flicker of reaction on her face, and knew that he had scored a hit. It was true, then. Bran had destroyed the Lord of Fairy at Avebury. Good. Good. It meant that there was still hope. It meant that she was afraid.

 

"He will come," she spat. "He will come to feast on your carcase, Old One." They were meaningless threats; he knew it. They could destroy him, but not like this. She touched his face, nails like claws digging into his cheek. "Yes, Old One. Tonight will see us triumph for ever more."

 

He caught her gaze, and held it, staring impassively into her tawny eyes – so like Bran's. Oh, so like Bran's. That thought caused him to waver, and her grip moved to his chin, nails digging into his throat. No. He wiped that thought away, and this time she was the one who looked away first. Her hand withdrew, then returned, slapping him hard across the face. In a swirl of robes, she turned, and was gone.

 

Petulant, he thought. Afraid. But the river was rejoicing inside him, shouting and screaming. It hurt, and he pressed a fist to his chest, hunching over. His hands were shaking. The control of an Old One was escaping him. It was necessary; it had to be.

 

I don't know if I can get through this, he thought. He raised his head; stood up, hand steadying himself on the fallen wall. I have no choice.

 

******

 

He did not know where the day had gone. Twilight surrounded him, and the walls were crumbling. Voices whispered, called to him. He sensed Will walking in ruins, thinking of him, and he yearned towards him. He sensed the hope of the people who walked past, just legs without faces.

 

An earthquake surged through him, and it was the most alive he had ever felt. He felt the Wild Magic gathering in the sky.

 

"Go away," he pleaded, pressing his hands to his ears, rocking to and fro. He was curled as small as he could be, behind the wall of an alien tower, built by the hands of man. "Leave me alone. This isn't who I want to be."

 

******

 

The ground was trembling. Lightning flashed, the storm coming from nowhere, black clouds banking in the summer sky. He heard the roar as a building fell, weakened from some past tremor. Ghosts emerged from the wreckage, and started to pace the stone streets. As their phantom feet fell, the stone surface cracked, and green shoots emerged, gleeful in their destruction.

 

The world was ending.

 

Will stood up, towering over the ruins in his shroud of Light. "No," he commanded it. "No!"

 

******

 

"But this is who you are."

 

The voice was persuasive. It slipped in like a knife, and stuck itself solidly in his brain. It was everything. It was mother and love and yearning for home. Bran opened his eyes, lowered his trembling fingers, and saw her. This was the woman Will had shown him in the past. This was his beautiful mother, his ma, his mummy. She would make everything better.

 

"I don't want to be," he whispered. "I just want…"

 

"You don't have a choice, darling." She knelt down beside him, and cupped his cheek with one soft hand. His nose wrinkled at the scent of it. There was something familiar there, something that whispered of home. "I know it's hard, but you have to do this. Stop fighting it."

 

He let her hold him. "You don't know what I did."

 

"Only what you had to do, my sweet. You accepted the gift that I gave you. You became the person I always wanted you to be."

 

"Really?" Her arms were warm, and her hair smelled sweet. "You…"

 

"You have fought it for so long, my darling." Her arms held him tightly around the shoulders, so his own arms were pinioned at his sides. "First there was Owen Davies, who raised you as a mere mortal, so you could not become someone worthy of your mother. Then there was the Old One. He has made you ashamed of what you are. You want to become like him. He has twisted you. You  must…"

 

"No." He struggled against her arms. "No. Will…" Her arms held him. Fear rose, spiking through the white walls that were barely enclosing him at all now. Her voice was the key. Her voice was the hammer that shattered the bars of crystal. "Let me go."

 

She released him. He was panting, sprawled at her feet, small and broken, and she was tall, she was a grown-up, she was his mother. Ashamed, he pulled himself into a sitting position, and rubbed his hand across his cheeks, smearing dirt and tears he had no memory of shedding. "I thought…" His voice was tiny. "I was afraid…"

 

"I will not force you," she said quietly. "Oh, Bran, how could you think I would do that? All I can do is tell you the truth. Do you want to live the rest of your life as you have lived these last two weeks, locked behind your walls, forbidden from love, drifting through whole days without noticing all the life that is around you?"

 

He shook his head; he could not help it. The movement felt grating, as if the very bones in his body resisted his denial.

 

"Then come." She offered him her hand. "Come with me, and be what you have to be."

 

******

 

The world was laughing. The storm cackled, and struck at him with lightning. The ground trembled, and the air told him gleefully of the thousands who were dying in cities not too far away. His parents, his brothers, his sisters, strangers, and friends…

 

The shambling figures surrounded him, ghosts and images of people who were long dead. They could not touch him, for he was shrouded in Light, but soon they would be so thick that he could not leave this place.

 

"Hold them!" he commanded the river. "Drive them away!"

 

But the river surged out gleefully, still under his control, but useless. It was too small – a tiny soldier, arrayed against the vastness of the armies of the Wild Magic. There was nothing it could do to stop the attack. There was nothing it could do the save them.

 

"Fool!" it laughed. "Foolish Old One, to ever feel hope."

 

A tremor shook the church, and a lump of masonry fell towards him. It struck his shield of Light, but the impact was enough to send him to his knees.

 

The ghosts of the Wild Magic surged forward and over him, and the last of the light was blocked out for ever.

 

******

 

His lips began to shape the word of acceptance. He reached out, trembling, and their fingers brushed. But then, again, he caught the faint scent that clung to her hand. Not a scent, after all, but a sense.

 

Will.

 

Bran snatched his hand back. As he did so, the blindness fell from his eyes. "You're not my mother."

 

The Queen of Fairy threw back her head, eyes blazing. "But you are of my blood, nevertheless. This is your doom, Bran Davies. You are to take up your birthright, and take the place of the one you destroyed."

 

"Destroyed?" The white walls were barely there at all, now – only the faintest white mist at the fringes of his vision.

 

"That is how it always is with our kind. One Lord rules, until another with more strength and more right casts him down in battle and takes his place. Come." Her voice was almost gentle, but brooked no argument.

 

Bran stood up. The last of the whiteness faded, and he was suddenly, intensely aware of the storm above, of the tremors in the ground, of the devastation that was about to seize the world in a grip so strong that there would be no going back, not ever again.

 

"You are not my enemy, Bran," she said softly. "You are my kin. Take your place as captain and commander. You can rule all this at my side."

 

He walked past her, standing almost shoulder to shoulder, each one looking in a different direction. He saw the darkness that roiled over Oxford. But, in the middle of it, fading and flickering, a pillar of white Light. He wondered what she saw. No, he realised: he was close enough now that he could know what she saw. He could see it as if her eyes were his own. With the slightest effort, he could see through the eyes of every being of the Wild Magic. He was everywhere, and nowhere. And he was here. He was Bran. And the Light that was fading was Will, whom he loved.

 

"No," he said, spitting the word out like a stone. "I never will."

 

And, head high, he started to walk towards Will. She screamed with fury, but he did not look back.

 

******

 

He had failed. There was nothing that the Light could do against the Wild Magic in such fury. The High Magic could stop it, perhaps, but Will was just one Old One – the last, the youngest of the Old Ones.

 

He had gambled, and he had failed. The river was nothing. To control the river, he had wrapped himself in memories, filled himself with the grief of loss, and the pain of unrequited love. He had laid himself bare, embraced every human emotion.

 

And now he had lost. He let his magic go entirely, and lay there on the cobbles, human, defeated, and broken.

 

******

 

The Light went out.

 

"No!" Bran started to run. "Will! Will!"

 

There was nothing. The walls were gone now, and he sensed it all. He sensed Will's despair. Will's grief and shame was like a fist closing on Bran's heart. Will was defeated, and there was no hope for the world. No, no, it was worse than that – more intense than that, more real, more… more everything. Will was gone. Bran was alone. There was no-one left. Will was gone, and Bran loved him. He loved him more than anything in the world.

 

He loved him. He loved him. He loved him.

 

And that was it. That was the end. There was nothing after that but screaming darkness.

 

******

 

He awoke to warmth on his cheek. He tried to roll over, but somebody was holding his hand, and something was next to him, like a body pressed into his.

 

Will! His thoughts were sluggish. He opened his eyes, and they hurt, they hurt. For a moment, he could not see. But the body beside him was warm, and it moved with the soft and steady rise and fall of breathing. It smelled of Will. No, he thought, with the certainty that came from a new and solid sense in his brain. It was Will. He would know that blind-folded, and a hundred miles away.

 

Bran sat up. They were in Oxford, in a Radcliffe Square littered with wreckage. It was early morning, but already people were up, emerging to a morning they had not thought to see. He could sense a woman opening the curtains in a house in North Oxford, and a child running half-dressed onto a lawn in the east.

 

Tell us, he heard. Speak to us.

 

He passed his hand across his face. Will was stirring beside him. He was bruised and marked with blood, but Bran did not think it was serious. As he woke up, Will pulled his hand from Bran's, but he smiled as he saw Bran looking down at him.

 

"What…?" Bran's voice was ravaged, as if he had been shouting for a very long time. He cleared his throat, and swallowed a few times. "What happened?"

 

He remembered seeing Will lying motionless beneath a great mound of ghosts. He remembered sending Will despairing, giving up.... dying. After that… No. There were flashes. Striding across the city, racing through the storm. Riding the lightning. Raging. A woman who screamed. Hands. Hands, reaching…

 

Will looked at him with eyes brimming over with pity. "You…"

 

"Lost control again," Bran finished for him. "Just like at Avebury." But worse this time, because he barely remembered it at all. He had ceased to be human. He had become the Wild Magic, possessing Oxford, scouring it with his fury.

 

A woman screaming, cowering from him, begging him for mercy. And howling, howling for the grief of it, because Will was gone, and there would no end to this, not as long as the world lived.

 

"I won't do it again," he swore. White walls didn't work. Maybe drugs. Or maybe there was no hope for it but to kill himself and end it all.

 

"But you saved us, Bran." Will smiled.

 

A woman screaming. Dark hair, tawny eyes… But not like that at all, just something wild and ugly housed in human form. Begging him for mercy, commanding him to obey her, but he struck her down, he destroyed her, and strode through where she had once existed. And he had laughed.

 

He could not speak, could not breathe. Hands to his face, breathing the truth into his cupped palms. "I killed…"

 

Tell us, they whispered, and the world trembled. The world was on a knife edge, waiting to go either way. Plants were frozen, halfway through their living. Rivers flowed sluggishly, and the air was still. Wild things crouched, muscles poised to spring, but did not do it. The whole of existence was waiting, and he did not know what to do; he did not know what to say.

 

"You destroyed the Queen of Fairy, Bran," Will said quietly. "Only you could do it. I realised that days ago. I'm so sorry."

 

Sorry for what? But that, too, he knew. The whole thing had been a trap. Will had brought him here, and had feigned defeat and despair, hoping that it would be the final trigger that would cause Bran to lose control again.

 

"You did this." He turned away, cold, and the waiting world trembled with expectation.

 

And other memories, too: A figure of Light that went with him, flying through the stars as he rode through the storm. A hand in his as he screamed in fury. A human hand reaching for him. A human voice, human eyes. Come back to me, Bran. I love you. And coming home. Stepping forward, step by painful step, towards the voice that called to him, towards the one man who could understand him, the one person who loved him unconditionally, and always had.

 

"I couldn't tell you," Will said. "I couldn't even think about it too much. If I'd spoken it aloud, they would have known. Light can't destroy the Wild Magic, Bran. Only the Wild can destroy the Wild."

 

Bran picked up a jagged rock, curling his hand around it until it hurt. "I don't want to be Wild."

 

"But you are, Bran." Will touched him on the shoulder, and Bran could not bring himself to flinch away from the touch, much as he wanted to. "There's no help for it, just as there was no help for it when I awakened to the Light."

 

Bran let the stone fall. It lay amongst the wreckage, smeared with his own blood. "I wish it wasn't…"

 

"There is no point in wishing," Will said.

 

They fell silent. They were two paces away, but they lived in different worlds. Bran was Wild; he knew that, and could not deny it. He felt an old man cry upon waking, and lovers roll into each other for another act of love. He felt their lust and their joy and their pain. He felt the hope and expectation of Will's parents, as they looked out on the dawn and thought of their youngest son. He saw Owen, feeling far more than he ever showed. He felt a summer storm in Scotland, and a volcano on the far side of the world. He thought he would go mad with it. He brought his hands up to the sides of his head, and clenched it, as if against a headache.

 

"I'm sure it will get better," Will said, "and easier to control."

 

"What do you know about it?" Bran blazed, and the whole world blazed with him. Branches lashed, and the wreckage rumbled. Spirals of air twisted in dirt-filled whirlwinds. Yes! Yes! something hissed, eager for release.

 

"I'm sorry," Will said. "But it must do. After all, she was always in control."

 

So there it was – the truth that Bran had not wanted to accept. He had destroyed the ruler of Fairy, and he was of her blood. He was her heir, her successor.

 

He laughed – a high and broken sound. "Am I going to grow wings?"

 

Will did not answer. The truth was inside, and Bran could not deny it. Soon, perhaps, the power of moving through time would come to him. He would live forever, unless someone stronger came and took his place. He could make his home in that castle beyond the reach of all mortals, and rule there for ever more.

 

He was the sworn enemy of Will, the Old One who had betrayed him. He was the sworn enemy, and all the might of the Wild Magic around the world was arrayed and ready for him, waiting for his command.

 

Tell us, it whispered. Command us, lord.

 

He turned round slowly. Will was sitting on the floor, most of his weight resting on one hand. He spoke no plea, merely looked at Bran with steady eyes – with the hateful, steady eyes of an Old One, whose magic was cold, and whose power was colder.

 

Bran stood over him. "You knew I would rather die than… that be like that again. Now I'm… what? A freak? Even more of a freak than I ever was. I'm King of the Fairies, for God's sake, Will. What on earth is this? I'm going to watch everyone I know die, and… and…"

 

Will just looked at him.

 

Bran wanted to hit him. He clenched his fists, and fought the urge. "Yes, like you. I know. Is this punishment? Is that what it is? This is your punishment for all those times I didn't understand what you were going through?"

 

We can destroy him, the Wild Magic whispered. He is of the Light, but his human side is laid bare to us. We can strike. You can strike.

 

"You couldn't bear to be the only immortal in the world. What did you think would happen? That we'd skip off into the sunlight and live happily for ever more? It won't happen, Will. We're too different. You're Light, and I'm Wild. I…" He scraped his hand over his face. "It's working on me, Will. All these new urges. It's making me hate you. I want to hurt you. I…" He tightened his fist. "I'm fighting the urge to hit you."

 

Will looked at him mildly, but his heart was racing, and his feelings were in turmoil. Bran could sense that. Will would never again be able to hide behind the mask of an Old One, not when Bran was concerned. "It's the Wild Magic," he said. "It doesn't need to be like this."

 

Striding over the city, riding the storm, reaching out, encompassing the whole world. Cities falling, mountains crumbling… And Wildness – rivers, forests, faults and fear, all of it rushing into him, arraying itself behind him, binding itself to him, waiting for him.

 

Command us, it beseeched him. This can be the end of the world of men.

 

He let out a breath, sobbing it into a laugh. "Of course it isn't," he said, through tears. "Of course I don't want that."

 

It trembled; it did not understand.

 

Bran drew himself up to his full height, feeling himself taller than he had ever been, taller than the mountains. "I release you," he commanded, his word and his wi