by Eildon Rhymer
A voice from the darkness
She glanced over her shoulder at Bran. When she turned back again, she could no longer see Will. She could not even remember which direction he had gone in, to follow him. He had told her to stay with Bran, and then given her no choice.
Bran had returned to the bench. He sat there, hunched in on himself, a picture of surly anger. Jane stamped over to him, and stood above him, hands on hips.
"Why did you do that?" she demanded.
"I could ask you the same," he muttered.
"No." She shook her head. "Why did you attack Will like that? Of course he hasn't done anything to you. Why were you like that?"
"You should have gone with him." Bran was staring fiercely out to the sea, his arms clenched close to his body. "You took his side instead of mine."
Jane let out a long breath. "It isn't a question of sides," she said quietly. She settled herself down on the bench, folding her hands carefully on her lap. "I barely know either of you. It wasn't as if I was choosing…"
"It was," he said. "You chose."
"Bran…" Jane pushed her hair from her face. "It was just… You sounded so unreasonable, and poor Will…" She shook her head, frowning. "Maybe you have seen him around before, but it isn't…"
"Don't you defend him." Bran looked at her. His eyes were hidden by his dark glasses, but his tone was strange. It sounded almost pleading.
His bruises were stark on his pale skin. Jane reminded herself that he had been badly hurt. She had felt quivery and afraid the day after her near-miss, but there had been no Will to rescue Bran. Jane had escaped, but Bran had suffered an assault, bad enough to put him in hospital. If his behaviour was hostile and paranoid, it was only understandable.
"I'm sorry," she said. They were silent for a little while. In the distance, a siren started to sound. "Have you really only been released from hospital today?" she asked him.
Bran nodded. It was the careful nod of someone whose head ached very badly.
The siren grew louder. Jane became aware that the whole street had gone very quiet, as if waiting for something to happen. "How are you getting home?" Her voice felt loud in the eerie quiet of the street, as if everyone could hear her.
"A friend." Bran was looking out to sea again. "He's coming to pick me up, but not until later. There's work to do be done on the farm. He's doing my work as well as his own."
Jane wondered whether to say it, or not. She listened to the stillness, to the wind, to the waves. Beside her, Bran said nothing at all. He was not even moving. "I can take you home," she said, "if you like."
"I'm not an invalid." Bran still did not look at her.
Jane laced her fingers together, and held them tightly. "I know you're not."
The siren stopped right behind them. A police car, and another on the way. Jane twisted round to look, one hand closing on the back of the bench. The silent crowd awakened, talking to each other, shouting out to the police officers who emerged from the vehicle. A path was made. Jane caught the briefest glimpse of someone lying on the ground, and a flash of red.
"Was someone killed?" she breathed. She had been aware of the argument that had been raging across the street, but only dimly so, caught up as she was in her own private drama. Had it reached the point of violence so quickly, so suddenly? And she had not known. Yet another person lying attacked and bleeding, and no-one had stepped forward to stop it happening, to save them.
Am ambulance screeched up. Jane's knuckles were white on the back of the bench. The police were ordering people to step back. "There's lots of blood," she heard someone say, "but he's still alive." Someone else spoke about a knife. Some looked white-faced with horror, but some were clearly enjoying the excitement. At least they had seen it. Jane had ignored it utterly.
"Yes," Bran said.
Jane turned to face him, frowning.
"Could you take me home?"
There were none of the usual niceties. There was none of the, 'Well, if you don't mind,' and, 'if you're sure…', and 'I don't want to take you out of your way.' Jane found it quite refreshing. Life was short, and memory fleeting. It was a shame to clog up both of them with meaningless words.
The crowd was dispersing, but paramedics were shielding the victim from Jane's view. Bran had not once glanced round at the scene. "Let's go," he said.
"But…" Jane moistened her lips. "Haven't you seen…?" She gestured weakly in the direction of the fallen man.
"I have no desire to look," Bran said tightly.
Of course, Jane thought, it was bound to bring back memories of his own assault. She should have thought. She should have offered to take him away earlier. "I'm sorry," she began, but Bran interrupted her. "If you were him," he said, "would you want strangers watching?"
Jane felt herself blushing. She felt strangely embarrassed. Bran had been thinking of the victim, and she had assumed he had been thinking purely of his own feelings. There was something closed off and remote about him, as if he was angry at the whole world. She had assumed that his lack of interest in the crime was due to lack of empathy, rather than too much.
"No," she said. "Let's go. My car's not far away."
She did not offer Bran an arm to lean on, knowing instinctively that he would not want her to. They did not speak at all until they had reached her car. Bran got into the passenger seat, and fastened himself in, though he seemed to find it a struggle to reach the seat belt over his shoulder. Jane reversed out of the space. "You'll need to give me directions," she said.
He nodded. "I will."
She wound her window down as they were leaving the car park. The sirens were sounding again, but she did not know if they were the sirens from the fight they had seen, or related to some other crime. Sirens always made her shiver. "Because you don't know if it means a death," she said out loud. "Even if it doesn't, it's grief for somebody."
Bran said nothing. She wondered if his eyes were open or closed behind those dark glasses of his. He was leaning heavily against the head rest, and he looked totally exhausted.
"So you work on a farm," she said. She said it quietly, in case he was sleeping.
"I do," he said. "I virtually own it."
"Oh," she said. "How long…?"
"All my life," he said. "I spent my childhood on one farm, then moved half a mile away to the next one. I've lived there all my life. It's in my blood."
She wasn't sure if he was trying to impress her, or if he was depressed by it. "I can't imagine it," she said. "I grew up in London, but we always spent summers in the countryside, because of mum's painting. Then I went away to university, and now I'm on my third job since graduating. I did Kent, then Lincolnshire, and now I'm in the Cotswolds. I like it, but it's not… Nothing has ever been…"
She did not finish, and he did not ask.
They left the town behind. The sea stretched away to the left, and ahead she could see the dark mass of the mountains. Someone was driving too close behind her. "Must be a local," she muttered. "Sorry." She glanced at Bran, but he showed no sign of reaction.
The road started to twist and bend. Anxious about the car behind her, she glanced frequently into her rear-view mirror. Every time she did so, she was convinced that Bran was staring at her, although his head was only slightly angled towards her. When the road was straight, and she could glance at him properly, he was looking straight ahead.
The car behind her overtook. "Good," she muttered. She saw Bran's fists relax a little, as if he had been as worried about the car as she had been. Perhaps it had crossed his mind that the car could belong to his attackers, that they were following him home, or planning to drive him off the road. An assault wounded the body, but it left worse wounds on the mind.
"How far is it?" she asked.
"Twenty miles?" He shrugged. "I don't leave the farm much," he added, after a pause.
Jane thought of all the places she had been, and all the people whose paths had crossed hers. She was not well travelled, and she was no party animal, but she felt like both, compared with Bran. What would it be like, she wondered, to spend your whole life in the same place, never leaving it, seldom meeting anyone new? She thought it would tend to create someone just the way Bran seemed to be.
The mountains drew closer. A cloud passed over the sun. Bran lived here, she suddenly realised. For her, it had been a holiday, and then she had gone home, but for Bran, it had just been part of daily life. Twenty years later, she had come back to the mountains that seemed to hold so many secrets, but Bran had never left them.
"What happened?" she blurted out.
She felt, rather than saw, Bran turn slowly to face her.
"All my life…" She raked her hand through her hair, pushing it from her face. "I've always been so sure that I forgot something. Something important. And here… I think…" She took a deep breath. "After the holiday, my memories go in a straight line. There aren't any gaps. I've got diaries to prove it. But before that…"
"Are you saying that you can't remember everything that happened to you as a child?" Bran's mouth twisted into the hint of a smile.
"No." She clutched the steering wheel. The mountains were dead ahead, dark and solid, comforting and terrifying. "I mean… Of course I can't remember everything. But I was twelve then, not a baby. And I do remember it. I remember every day of it… but I also remember nothing. Just endless walks on the hills. Days spend doing nothing much. It's a bland memory, and it didn't happen. I'm sure it didn't happen."
"Then what…?" Bran was no longer smiling.
"I don't know," Jane sighed. "I'd just hoped… I suppose I hoped you'd say that you knew just how I felt, that you felt the same way."
Bran said nothing for a very long time. He thinks I'm mad, Jane thought, and she fought the insane urge to giggle. Bran was the first stranger she had told about this. Will would have listened, she thought. She should have told Will, not this surly, closed-off man, still fragile from his own traumas.
"I'm sorry," she began. "Just forget…"
"No," Bran said. "But I can't say what you want me to say. I remember meeting you and your brothers, and that Will of yours." He said the name with distaste. "I showed you around, played the native guide, and then you went. Nothing else happened. Nothing changed. Nothing ever changes."
"Oh," Jane said. They drove the rest of the journey in silence.
It was evening. In the winter, it would be called night at a time like this, but it was summer, only a month after the solstice. The sun was still shining, low in the west. The sky was still light, although fading. It was warm, though the breeze was just beginning to chill. Scattered on the lower slopes and valleys, though, the farmhouses and cottages now displayed lights. For the people of this part of the world, the day was over, and night was coming.
Will sat where he had sat since the middle of the afternoon. An hour before, he had watched John Rowlands trudge slowly down to Bran's house. He had knocked on the door, and Owen Davies had let him in. Ten minutes later, John had left again, and walked alone back to his own cottage. Both doors were now shut.
There had been a strange car outside Bran's house when Will had taken up his station. Will had looked at it, using his sight as an Old One, and known that it was Jane's. Jane had brought Bran back. That was good, Will had told himself. Bran needed someone. Bran should not be alone. Jane would be good for Bran.
Will had shifted where he sat, pressed his hands together, looked at his watch. Jane had left in the end, without staying very long. Their parting had looked awkward, as if neither of them knew what words to say. Jane had driven away without looking back, but Bran had stood in the doorway for a long time, watching her go.
No-one else had come. Jane, and John Rowlands, both staying for a little while, then going. Bran was alone, in there with the man he thought was his father.
And Will was above them on the mountain, watching. Guarding.
"It's getting chilly," a voice said. "Aren't you cold, sitting there?"
Will glanced up. A young man had come up beside him, and was looking down on him with a smile. He was dressed for walking, with hiking boots, thick trousers, and a suede hat.
Will grunted. "I'm okay."
"Ah," said the man. "I suppose it was a silly question. I'm hot, anyway, after tramping around these hills all day. I always cool down too fast when I stop, and end up cold." He shrugged his shoulders free from his rucksack, and dropped it to the ground. Then he pulled out a bottle of water, and had a long drink. "Want some?" he offered.
Will shook his head. He should never have gone to Bran's hospital room. Now Bran hated him, and… No, that didn't matter. He was an Old One, and Merriman had made it clear to him right from the start that nothing, no grief, no pain, no loneliness, was of any importance whatsoever compared with his duty. It was not for him to have friends or family, but Bran… He had scared Bran, and that mattered.
"Can I…?" The man sat down without waiting for a reply. "My name's Mark, by the way."
He stopped, clearly waiting for Will to introduce himself. The silence dragged on and on. Will had no objection to silence, but this one had a jangling edge of expectation about it. In the end, he gave in, and muttered, "Will."
"Will," the walker said. "I've been watching you, you know. I saw you when I was right up on top. I was wondering if you'd ever move. You looked so… depressed. You know, I've have started to worry you were going to do something stupid, if you'd been sitting nearer to the edge of anything."
Will blinked. Had he really looked that way? He stretched out his legs, unhunched a little. "I'm… not," he said.
"Good." Mark took off his hat. His hair was dark and long, held back in a ponytail. He seemed to be in his early twenties, and had a handsome face, that looked as if it smiled easily. His eyes were very striking. He seemed to have been hurt recently, though, for Will could see the edge of a dark bruise disappearing into his hair, and there seemed to be bandages under his shirt, visible through the pale fabric.
"Still," Mark said, "I know what it's like to sit alone. But I also know that, usually, when you're sitting there all by yourself and think you don't want anyone there with you, that's when you really most have need of them."
Was that movement down there, near the gate? Will leant forward, then relaxed. His human eyes had thought it an attacker, but his Old One senses could see that it was only a dog. No-one had come.
A car passed, far away. Would Jane come back, Will wondered. Bran liked her, he could tell. Even as a child, Bran had called her pretty, and he had been smiling at her as they had sat on the bench. Jane would be good for Bran. She would mask those things about him that were extraordinary, and make him more like other people. She would bring him family and friends, and a life outside the confines of his home. She would make him fully Bran Davies, son of Owen, and there would never again be any hint of the Bran that he could have been, had he chosen differently.
"I'm staying at the youth hostel," Mark was saying. "Me and my friends from College, as we're waiting for our Finals results. One last summer of freedom before we become slaves in the world of work." He gave a wry chuckle, then sighed. "I've no idea where they've gone today."
Because Bran had been remarkable, but had chosen to be normal. He could have chosen differently. He could have remained a being of magic… But then he would have gone away for ever with his father… Or maybe not immediately. Time meant nothing. He could have stayed, Will and Bran, Bran and Will, two beings of the High Magic, until it was time to pass from the world forever, Will to join the Circle, Bran to join his father. Neither of them would ever have been alone.
"I just feel more and more that I don't fit in," Mark was saying. "They don't understand me. It's all women and drink and stupid jokes with them. I used to fit in, but I've drifted apart. I want something else, but how do you find someone just like you? You can't spend your life with people who will never understand."
His words were meaningless, but something of them penetrated. Will raised his head. "Sometimes you have to," he said. "Sometimes you have no choice."
"But you're not really with them, then," Mark said. "You're just alone."
Will had known all along that he would never marry, that he would never have a family, that he would never know even a moment of love. He could not risk being known by someone, because they would age, and he would not, and it would be impossible to hide it. More importantly, love was meaningless, if the person who claimed to love you knew only a tiny fraction of what you were. There could be no love with such great secrets. He could only ever share his life with someone who knew everything, and shared it, and there never would be someone like that.
"But it doesn't matter," he said. "It really shouldn't matter."
Mark said something in reply, but Will was no longer listening. The evening was thick and grey, almost night, and someone had come.
Someone had come.
He was on his feet in an instant, surging down the hill. "Stay there," he commanded Mark. "Don't follow me." Mark blustered, said something, but Will was not listening.
There were two of them, creeping through the night, heading for Bran's door. They did not even hear Will's approach. He was riding on the wind, as fast as a bird. Deadly, he swept down on them. "You," he said, "and you. You will stop what you are doing, and answer me."
One fell to his knees; one stood defiant. One was young, and one was older. He raked through their minds, but found nothing that was not human.
"Was it you?" he demanded. "Are you the ones who attacked Bran Davies?"
They did not answer, so he commanded them. "You will speak the truth." His index finger, pointing at them in turn, right between the eyes. "You cannot lie to me. You cannot stay silent."
There was fear in their eyes now. Will dragged the kneeling one to his feet, using his power. "Did you attack Bran Davies?"
"Yes," the man said, nodding fervently.
"And you were going back tonight to have a second go?"
"No." The man shook his head. "Going back to watch. To see."
"To see what?" Will held him immobile in bands of ice.
"To see if he has come yet."
Will turned to the other man. He knew that this was the truth. His spell constrained them to nothing less. "Why did you do it?" he asked, more quietly.
"We were… commanded." This was the man who had feared Will less. His voice was surly, as if he grudged every word of truth that he was being forced to utter.
Will stepped towards him. "Who commanded you?"
"Our… master." The man said it as if he had never used the word before, almost wonderingly. "Our master," he said again.
Will made it so the man would see nothing at all but his eyes. "Who is your master?"
The defiance in the man's eyes crumbled. "I don't know. He… spoke to us. It was dark. We were on our way to the pub, and he…"
"We'd never seen him before," said the other man.
"He was a voice in the darkness…"
"…or a voice in my head."
"And did he say why?" Will demanded. "Why did he want Bran attacked?"
"Because he's the one."
Will stopped, closed his eyes. His power faltered for a moment, but he recovered himself. "The one?"
"Oh, he's nothing," the younger man sneered. "Just freaky Bran Davies."
"But he's the one," said the other man. "The one who will bring him here. The one that he cares about most in all the world."
Will felt very cold, as if his own power of ice was creeping through his veins, as if he was the one held, and they were the ones who held him. "Who?" he rasped.
"The one our master really wants."
Will's hands fell to his sides. He struggled to comprehend, but really there was no struggle. He knew the truth already, had seen it in their minds and their memories. The struggle was merely his attempt to deny it.
But he asked the question anyway. He could not help himself. "Who?"
"The Old One."
Me, Will thought. Bran had been nothing more than bait. He had been attacked in order to draw Will out, and it hadn't even worked, because Will had only happened to come along afterwards by chance. Bran had been right all along, when he had accused Will of being behind the attack. Bran had been hurt because of Will. Will was the cause.
But Will had not struck the blows. Will had not given the order. He was the cause of it, but it was not his fault.
He gathered the men towards him, holding them with magic so they could not move. "I have a message for your master." He invested his words with magic, so they would carve themselves on the minds of these men, and give them no rest until the message was passed on. "Tell him that I am here. Tell him that his quarrel is with me now. Tell him that if he causes an instant of hurt to Bran Davies, I will shred him without mercy. Tell him that I have come, and that I command him to come forward and show himself, for if he does not, I will hunt him down and drag him forth. Tell him this from me."
He cast the men aside, so they lay snivelling in the dirt. "Go," he commanded.
"But we don't know where to find him…"
Will raised his hand, finger pointing. "Find him."
They scurried away, sometimes skidding, sometimes falling. If they did not find their master soon, the burden of the message would drive them insane.
Will watched them go. He let out a breath. Slowly, ever so slowly, he relaxed his magic, until he was standing there on a barren hillside, just a man who had learned something terrible.
"What was that?"
Will turned round, moving as slowly as if he had climbed a dozen mountains. Mark was standing there, his eyes wide with amazement. "I told you not to follow me," Will said. His voice sounded dead.
"What did you do?" Mark asked. "You looked as tall as the sky, and there was light…"
Will raised his hand, fingers spread. "Forget," he said dully. "You will forget."
Mark's face went blank. His hand rose awkwardly to his brow, hovered there, then fell heavily to his side. "What was I…?"
"I think it's time for you to go home," Will told him.
He watched Mark walk away, then returned slowly and heavily to his watching place, alone with the night, and the truths that it had brought.
end of chapter seven