Chapter eight

The night before the darkness

___

 

Bran woke to darkness, and bitter cold. He almost fell, but someone was holding his arm, holding him upright. He could not see who they were, though. The darkness was absolute. He knew he was outside, because he could hear the wind and feel the cold air on his cheek, but it had never been so dark, even on the mountains at home. There were always lights, like candle flames in the darkness, showing where home was, far below.

 

"Where…?" he gasped. The person beside him tightened their grip, and Bran suddenly panicked, and tried to pull his arm away. "Who are you? Get off me!"

 

The person let go, but then Bran almost wished that they had not, because it was so dark, and he did not know which way he was facing, or where he was, or how he had got here.

 

"Bran," said a voice, and he recognised it as Will's, as infuriatingly calm and English as ever. "Do not be afraid."

 

"Like a bloody angel in a Christmas play," Bran sneered, because anger was better than fear. "What have you done to me, you bastard? What have you done to me?"

 

Thoughts were hazy, but were coming back to him. They had been in Oxford, and people had started fighting, and he had waded in, and oh, but it had felt good to strike out, good to hurt people like he had been hurt himself, good to stand over them and know that he had won. And then Will had appeared, and then there was nothing, until this.

 

"I brought you here," Will's voice said. "I put you to… sleep, of a sort, for which I apologise, but I thought it necessary. I couldn't stand by and let you carry on down the path you were walking."

 

"How… how dare you?" It was a struggle to find the angry words.

 

Will did something to create the softest light, that made his face look silver-grey. "It wasn't the path you wanted to walk," he said. "Was it, Bran?"

 

Bran turned his head away, away to the darkness. Help me! He remembered calling that, in the solitude of his own mind. He remembered the anger, and saying things that he wished he was not saying. He remembered his father… his father… oh…

 

"We have come over one thousand five hundred years back in time," Will said quietly. "We have come to a time when the darkness is almost triumphant. No-one in your time has ever seen such darkness, though perhaps they will see something even worse, if the enemy wins."

 

"The past," Bran echoed, but already this thoughts were clearer, already he found himself feeling stronger. It was as if his mind found magic easier to cope with than wild emotions.

 

"Yes," Will said. "Perhaps I shouldn't be doing this, but I am doing it. I hope it helps. No more secrets, you said, Bran? No more lies?"

 

Bran felt a coldness stealing through him, and recognised it as fear. He fought the urge to shout out that he had been wrong, that he didn't want to know whatever truth Will had to tell, that he just wanted to go home, back to his own time, back to a place where there were lights. He did not, though. He said nothing at all, all words frozen in his throat.

 

"I cannot give you your memory back, Bran," Will said, "but I can give you the truth."

 

******

 

They started walking, Will leading, Bran following. Will did not need light to see by, but he kept it there, for Bran's sake. People raised in an age of electricity did not know what true darkness was.

 

They did not speak for a while. Soon they came upon enemy scouts in the undergrowth, but Will shielded himself and Bran, so they passed unseen by all but each other.

 

"So tell me," Bran said at last, almost desperately.

 

Of course, he had to. He could not unleash this on Bran without preparation. The secret was someone else's, but the telling had to be his.

 

"I need to tell you," he began, "of a great man who lived during this time where we now walk."

 

"Tell me like a normal person," Bran beseeched, "not like a wizard in a story."

 

Will closed his eyes for a moment. It was so easy to forget that he had once been a normal boy, who had laughed and joked and teased. The Old Speech lent itself to formal telling, and now he tended to speak English in the same way. It was a sign of his apartness, or perhaps it was a thing that kept him apart.

 

"I'm sorry, Bran," he said. "I can only tell it the way I tell it. The truth is hard enough. Hear the truth, not the words."

 

Bran grunted, but did not say anything.

 

"A great man," Will continued, "who was fighting a war for the future of his people. He had a wife, and he loved her very much. But he was away for months on end, fighting wars. She loved him, but she… strayed. Perhaps she fell in love, or perhaps she just needed comfort in her loneliness. I do not know. All I know is that she betrayed her husband and her lord, but that afterwards she was sorry."

 

They were close now. With his Old Ones' eyes, Will could see the encampment ahead, though all lights had been extinguished. He slowed his pace. Bran was slower still.

 

"Now, her husband was a great man, and great men always gain enemies." As Will spoke, he heard Merriman's voice in memory, and Owen Davies' voice, and all who had told the story before, now forgotten. It was all the human part of him could do the carry on, but the Old One was strong and emotionless. He always was.

 

"When the lady became pregnant, she knew that these enemies would tell tales. The child was her husband's, but she knew that no-one would believe the truth. The enemies would spread their allegations, and her husband would begin to believe them. She would be tried as an adulteress, and the baby would be killed, either by the hands of her enemies, or the hands of justice."

 

He could not look at Bran. He could not wonder if Bran had realised the truth yet. All he could do was walk, and carry on telling, until the tale was done, and Bran stood before his father.

 

"And so she went to a man of power, whom she trusted. This was my master, Merriman. She did not care what happened to herself, she told him, but she wanted her baby to be safe, because she loved nothing on earth more than her child. So when her time was come, Merriman took her and her child through time to a place far in the future. She had only days with her son, but then she had to leave, because this was not her time. In the past, her lord needed her. The land needed her, because the time of the greatest battle was almost upon them. She could not throw the world away for the sake of her son, although she longed to. The greatest thing she could do for him, out of love, was to leave him in a place where he would be safe."

 

"I'm not stupid, Stanton," Bran burst in. His voice was scratchy and hoarse. "You're talking about me."

 

Will turned to face him, and took hold of his shoulder. Bran did not shake him off. "Bran, your mother loved you. Owen Davies knew a little of the truth, or he suspected it. In just those few days, he loved your mother with all his heart. And he loved you, too, enough to take on the world and fight it for the right to bring you up as his own, even though you were not his blood."

 

"He should have told me." Bran seemed to be struggling to find his anger.

 

"He did," Will said quietly. "He told you. You knew all this. It was forgotten. For that, blame me. Blame the Old Ones. But please do not blame Owen Davies."

 

"You damn Old Ones again." Even with that, the anger seemed forced, barely there at all.

 

"You knew all this," Will said again. "You met your true father, out of time. He gave you the choice of going with him, or staying with Owen Davies. You chose Owen. You had loving bonds with him, you said. Love, and a lifetime, meant more to you than blood. Knowing everything, knowing all the lies and all the truth, you chose that."

 

Bran's hand rose to his mouth, then fell back again. "I always thought…" He brought his hand up, fist clenched. "Damn you, Will Stanton. Why did I have to forget?"

 

Will could not look at him. "It was judged best. It wasn't me who…" He grabbed at Bran's arm. "Believe me, Bran, I didn't want to lose you, but I didn't argue because I thought it was best for you. I truly did."

 

Bran raised his head, as dignified as the prince he once had been. "So what is the name of my father? It seems you have told me everything but that."

 

"They call him Arthur now," Will said, and then they were there, on the edges of the encampment, the night before the battle that would end it all. "And I have brought you to him."

 

Bran did not speak.

 

"Do you want him to see you?" Will asked, suddenly suffused with something close to shyness. "Do you want to see him?"

 

And now, at last, Bran did not hesitate. "I do."

 

******

 

My father, Bran thought. My father. Arthur. King Arthur.

 

It sounded absurd, but he was not laughing. It sounded impossible, but he believed it. A thousand thoughts ought to be gibbering in his head, but the most amazing thing of all was that he felt quite calm about it, and entirely sure. This was true. This was right. He felt more still inside than he had felt for years.

 

They were in a dark place full of people, he and Will. Bran thought they had been there for a little while, but that Will had kept them concealed, so he could finish his story uninterrupted. Another lie, he thought, but quite placidly, without any anger. Will had the power to walk through time. It was amazing that he bothered with normal men enough to ever tell them anything.

 

A man rose up from the ground, and said something to Will in a language that sounded like Latin, though with an accent unlike the one Bran dimly remembered from school. He bowed, too. Will acknowledged it with a nod, and said something in return that sent the man scurrying off into the darkness.

 

"What did you say?" Bran asked him, because he had to say something. His father was here! His father was coming!

 

"He said, 'Greetings, Old One,' Will said, and I told him to tell his lord that I wish to speak to him, but here, not in front of his other commanders."

 

"Oh." Bran dug his fingers into his palms, then loosed them again. "How did he know you were an Old One?"

 

Will smiled. "He saw me come out of nowhere, which was probably a clue. Also, there's a look that we Old Ones have. People are that much more aware of it in these days. They see Merriman every day. Who we are, and what we do, is not yet the secret that it will become."

 

They waited. No-one came. "I wish you wouldn't do that," Bran said at last.

 

"What?"

 

"Use the present tense about the past," Bran explained, though, really, he had not minded. It was just something to say. Attacking Will had become a habit. It was a habit, he thought suddenly, that he could come to enjoy very much.

 

"All times are equally now to me," Will said, "except that…" His words died away, and he was no longer smiling.

 

The man came back, and said some words, concluding them with another bow. This time, Will did not even acknowledge him, but stood there silently, as if struck.

 

"What?" Bran nudged him. "What is it? Will?"

 

Will let out a breath. "Nothing. Just… he's not coming alone. Merriman is with him. I thought… I didn't think…"

 

"But that's good, isn't it?" Bran knew he had been wrapped up in his own troubles, but he knew at least one thing about Will, and that was that he desperately missed his old mentor, and was bitterly lonely, being the only one of his kind left on the earth.

 

"No." Will shook his head miserably. "He won't be able to see me. He's gone of out time, but I'm left behind. That has to mean something. So he doesn't see me. I can shout and shake him and hit him, but he doesn't see me. He never answers. Never."

 

"Oh." Bran bit his lip. "Do you…?"

 

"No." Will drew himself inwards, raising his head. "Concentrate on your father. He is here."

 

Will stepped backwards, into the darkness. Bran gazed after him. "Will," he hissed, because he could hear someone approaching, and knew it was his father. His father was here. "Will!" He wanted Will with him. He could not do this alone.

 

A rich voice said something from behind him. My father! Bran thought, trembling. He was suddenly incapable of turning round to see him. They did not speak the same language, and this man was dead, nearly two thousand years dead. What if he hated Bran? What if he believed the lies spread by his enemies, and thought Bran was not his son after all? What if he took one look at Bran's pale skin and turned away in disgust?

 

"Will," Bran mouthed, not even producing any sound.

 

And then Will was there, wrapped in assurance and power. He strode forward, and spoke in fluent Latin. Bran heard his own name mentioned, and a few words that he recognised. Will was explaining things, he knew, and he was glad that he did not have to hear the explanation. He did not have to watch the disbelief and rejection blossom in his father's eyes.

 

"You can speak to him now," Will said quietly, touching his arm. "I will make it so you can understand him. Speak to him, Bran. He knows you, and loves you."

 

Will drew back into the darkness. "Bran?" It was the voice of the stranger, the voice of his father. "Turn round, my son, so I can see you."

 

Bran turned slowly round, his heart thundering in his ears. The wind shivered down his neck, and he could smell smoke, and hear a distant trumpet.

 

The man - my father! - had a weathered face, and a grey-specked beard. His eyes were soft and deep, and shining now with love and tears. Bran raised a faltering hand to the pale face that had always drawn such scorn or pity. "I'm not…"

 

"It is a good face," his father said. "It is the face of my son." He opened his arms, and Bran found himself moving into them, to be wrapped in them, face pressed against shoulder, strong hands on his back. His father smelt of sweat and herbs and smoke, and his beard was prickly.

 

"I never hugged my other father," Bran heard himself say. "He's not that sort of man. But he loves me. And I love him."

 

"I would expect nothing else," his father said, releasing him, but not entirely.

 

"But you're really my father?" Bran asked.

 

Arthur nodded gravely. "I am. I am not without magic myself, though I am not an Old One, like my lion here, or like your friend. I know my own blood. If Guinevere had been less crazed with love and fear, she would have realised it, too. I would have fought anyone who dared deny that you were mine." He frowned. "But perhaps that was the reason. I would have fought, and we would fallen upon each other, and the end would have come sooner. As it was, we had another dozen years of light."

 

Bran opened his mouth to speak, but realised he had no idea what to say. This was his father. There should be a million things to say, but he could think of not a single one. Their lives were worlds apart. What could one say to a king fighting a war for the very survival of all he held dear?

 

"The Old Ones here can move through time as easily as breathing," Arthur said. "I can not. Every minute that I live is a minute lost to me. We stand on the eve of a great battle, my son. Would that I could spend a lifetime talking to you, but I cannot."

 

"You have things to do," Bran said, not even bitterly. "I understand."

 

"Yes," Arthur said. "And if I was just a man, I would turn my back on a thousand such things to get another minute with you. But I am not a man. I am a king. I am a lord. The fate of my people hangs on how I spend each minute."

 

"I'll come back when the battle's over," Bran cried.

 

Arthur shook his head. "There will be no after. The Dark will win tomorrow. All I can hope is that enough light can be preserved for its victory not to be without end."

 

"Before, then." Bran was weeping now. "I'll get Will to bring me…"

 

"No." Arthur gave a sad smile. "If there was a before, I would remember it. The past has already happened. You did not come, and that was how it had to be. But I am glad to have seen you once before the end."

 

"Don't…" Bran looked desperately over his shoulder. "Will…"

 

"No," Arthur chided him. "There is just you and me, my son. We both know there can be nothing past this moment. You have grown to manhood in a world that is strange to me, and I live in a world that is just history and legend to you. You are my son, but your home is elsewhere. The ones you love are elsewhere. Our wars are different wars. We must part, but part happy, because we have found each other. A hole that was inside me is filled."

 

"And in me," Bran whispered. Normally he would have been ashamed to show such emotion, but none of that seemed to matter one whit any more.

 

"Farewell, Bran." His father kissed his brow, and his cheek, and finally laid a hand on his hair, as if in blessing. "Farewell, my son."

 

"Father," Bran whispered, but Arthur was already turning away. He did not shout it again. Arthur was not coming back. Rather than feeling bereft, Bran felt almost content. This was right. This was how it had to be.

 

He smiled in the darkness, but let the tears flow unchecked.

 

He had not even noticed the other one, the man who had stood back and watched it all, but now that man approached him. "Bran Davies." Bran blinked in the gloom, and saw a tall man with a wild mass of white hair. Merriman, he thought, but what he said, wonderingly, was, "Merlin."

 

"Tell Will that I understand." Merriman's voice sounded choked with emotion. "Tell him that some things have to be. Tell him that he has done well. Tell him…" He closed his eyes, then opened them again. "Tell him that I will love him, as your father loves you, and that I always was and always will be proud of him."

 

"I… I will." Bran breathed in, and out, readying himself for more, but Merriman was gone. He was alone in the camp, and the trumpets were sounding.

 

Bran wiped the tears from his cheeks. "I want to go back now, Will," he said, quite clearly. "I want to go back to my own time."

 

He felt Will take his arm, and then they were back. The air was warmer, and the sky was lighter. There was no smoke on the air, and no war. A plane flew slowly overhead, and stars struggled to shine in the summer sky.

 

"Home," Bran said, and smiled.

 

******

 

But afterwards they talked, in the car back to Oxford.

 

"I'm glad you showed me that," Bran told him. "Thank you."

 

Will concentrated on keeping on the road.

 

"I'm glad I know. I know I ought to feel… I don't know what. Angry. Upset. I don't. It's as he said. I feel whole now. Able at last to get on with things."

 

"I wish you hadn't forgotten," Will blurted out. "I wish… I mean, I hoped… I almost hoped that Merriman would undo the forgetting. He was the one who did it. I can't undo it, but he can. I wondered if you'd remember everything."

 

"I don't remember anything, except perhaps in some part of me. I've always thought that I made a decision once, you see. I was sure I'd decided to stay on the farm, rather than go… somewhere. That part of me's now… at peace."

 

Will wondered if Bran would regret saying all this tomorrow. Confined to car at night, it was like being out of time, in a way. Tomorrow, perhaps, Bran would be hating him again, lashing out, rejecting him.

 

"You said he'd asked me to go with him," Bran asked quietly. "Twenty years ago, that was. But for him it was…"

 

"In the future," Will finished for him. "Yes. The legends are not without truth. Arthur did not truly die, although his life came to an end in the time and place in which he was born. He played his part in the last rising of the Dark, and at the end of it, he was heading to his final rest, in a place beyond time. He asked you to come with him, but you…"

 

"He already knew," Bran rasped. "He said… What happens in the past, he said, has already happened. So that meeting we just had… It had already happened for him. That means he already knew I'd say no. He asked a boy to come with him, but he'd already met me as a man, so he knew I didn't."

 

"But he loved you, you see," Will said gently. "That's why he had to ask again. When you love someone, even when you know a thing is impossible, you have to try."

 

"Oh." Bran turned his face away.

 

But there was one last thing, on this night of so many truths. "You were the Pendragon, Bran. The son of Arthur. You had magic of a kind, like Arthur does. You played a huge part in the vanquishing of the Dark. But that, too, you chose to give up. You gave it up knowingly. You preferred to be mortal, a child living with the man who had brought you up and loved you always."

 

Bran said nothing for a while, as they passed an empty junction, and then a car sped past them, closely followed by a police car. Ahead of them were the lights of Oxford, orange and bloody.

 

"Magic, eh?" Bran chuckled. It only sounded a little forced. "But not a wizard like you?"

 

Will shook his head. "No. Tricks, you used to call them, the things that I did. You couldn't do them, and didn't want to." And then some wild impulse made him say, "But I would have been like Merlin to you. As Pendragon, you would have been my lord."

 

"Idiot," Bran laughed. "A mighty wizard like you. I bet I trotted along behind you and never did a thing."

 

"You saved me," Will said, remembering a time when he had forgotten who he was, and then a time far more recently, when Bran had brought him back to himself on those same mountains, not once but twice.

 

"Idiot," Bran chided him again. Then, changing tack so swiftly that Will could only reel at it, he said, "So, are we going to talk about what Merriman said, or not?"

 

Tell Will, Merriman had said, but of course Bran had not had to. Will had heard it all, hidden in the darkness. Merriman could not see him, but Will had been aware of nothing but Merriman from the moment he had first appeared. He had heard every word. He still heard every word.

 

"It just seems as if it should be important," Bran said. "You dragged me there to lay my demons to rest. It seems to me that this Merriman of yours was doing his utmost to lay yours to rest, too."

 

"He was," Will managed to say. But it was too soon, and he needed to think. No, he had no time to think. The enemy was at large. The scene at the station had shown that only too clearly. He needed to talk to Paul about Jon, and plan the next move. He had to stop sitting and waiting, and had to take the war to the enemy. He had to challenge him, draw him out, trap him, destroy him. Thinking about what Merriman had said would come afterwards. It could only come afterwards.

 

"So did he?" Bran prompted. "Come on, Stanton. It goes both ways. You stick your nose into my feelings. It's only fair to let me do the same to you."

 

Another police car passed them, and then another. They were almost back at Oxford. Will fought a sudden urge to drive slower and slower, to prolong this time in the car with Bran. Bran would persuade him to talk about Merriman after all, and then they would talk about other things, and, for a while at least, Will would be able to quite forget what waited for him in the city, and beyond.

 

"Be like that, then." Bran threw his arms up. "You may be an Old One, but you're most definitely an English one. Stiff upper lip, and all that. I bet all Old Ones were English."

 

But Will was no longer listening. "The city," he gasped. "Look at the city."

 

******

 

Barney frowned. "Can you smell smoke?"

 

Jane wrinkled her nose. "Probably a barbecue."

 

"Bit late for one." Barney sounded doubtful, but he said nothing more.

 

Jane walked to the window, and pulled it shut. It was warm with the windows closed, but having them open made her shiver. There was so much that was unknown outside. Anything could creep in. Anything could get them.

 

Simon crossed his legs, one ankle resting carelessly on his knee. "You have to talk about it one day, little brother." He turned to Jane. "All the way on the train, he refused to…"

 

"Stop it!" Barney hissed. He made a visible attempt to calm himself. "This is difficult for me. I won't pretend it isn't. Everything that I have ever believed feels… threatened. But talking about it doesn't help. It's between me and God. Can you respect that?"

 

"Only a fool hides from the truth," Simon said.

 

"I can respect that, Barney," Jane said, shooting a harsh glance at Simon. "But never forget that we're here, if you ever do need to talk."

 

All her life, she had been convinced that something important had been forgotten. She could have told herself that it was nothing, but she had worried at it, and eventually she had talked about it, and acted upon it. If she had not done that, the truth would not have emerged. If she had not done that, she would not be here today, but living in quiet ignorance, reading and sleeping, as the world crumbled distantly, on the news.

 

But better to know, she thought ruefully, than live a lie.

 

She sat down again, perched awkwardly next to Barney. "So we're just waiting, then?" Simon asked. "Twiddling our thumbs while Rome burns, waiting for Will to come back."

 

"What do you suggest we do, then, Simon?" Jane asked him. "You are the politician, after all. I'm just a teacher." It came out more pointed than she meant it to. She smoothed her hair, and tried to smooth her feelings, too.

 

"Get out there," Simon said, apparently unhurt by her tone. Of course, he was used to far worse. "Move among the people and spread the word. That ought to appeal to you, Barney."

 

Barney raised his head. "Sometimes people can't be reasoned with. That was heading for a full-blown riot back there. People like that are beyond listening. Let the emergency service do their work. Tomorrow is the time for preaching, and healing, and listening. Believe me, I know."

 

Simon gave a bark of laughter. "What? Your genteel old ladies have taken to rioting on the promenade?"

 

Barney shook his head. "No, but I know that help offered at the wrong time can be worse than no help at all. Do it when they aren't ready to hear it, and they reject you."

 

"A coward's answer," Simon scoffed. "They are always ready to hear my message. They might not like what I say, but I make them listen."

 

Jane looked from one to the other helplessly. Falling apart, she thought. She thought of Jon, upstairs with Paul. Was this his influence? She imagined tendrils of evil seeping through the floorboards, drifting like smoke to settle on the innocent faces of her and her brothers. She shivered, and fought the urge to open the window again. Windows were protection against the evils of outside, but prison bars when the evil was within.

 

"We work in different ways," Barney said mildly. "Will Stanton works in ways that… that I find difficult to accept. But I can accept that the goal is the same. That's why I'm here. I won't be drawn on the rest of it."

 

Good, Jane thought. She stared at the window, where pale curtains hid the sealed darkness that was outside. Even after years of adulthood, she found it hard to equate this man with the child who had been her younger brother. Simon had changed less, she thought, or maybe it was just her perception, because he had always been older than her.

 

"Well, I didn't come here to sit around," Simon said.

 

"Please, Simon," Jane urged him. "We should wait until Paul and Jon come down, at least."

 

"What's up with them, anyway?" Simon asked. "Apart from the obvious, that is. I mean, you don't have to explain to me that sometimes, children, a man likes another man in the same way as mummies and daddies like each other."

 

Jane had no idea what to say. Barney and Simon knew about the enemy, but they did not know that Jon was a suspect. Paul wanted to give Jon the benefit of the doubt. Before he and Jon had gone upstairs, his eyes had beseeched Jane not to say anything to the others. But, on the other hand, was it fair to keep Simon and Barney in the dark about a possible threat? If Jon was the enemy, he could be whispering poison into their minds even now, and they needed to know about it, to defend against it.

 

If any defence was possible. Even Will had almost succumbed. He would have succumbed, if Bran hadn't…

 

Come back, Will, she whispered, even as she despised herself for her weakness. And Bran, too. Bran had been prickly at the start, and was only getting worse. At the station, he had been wild and terrifying. But, despite all that, she missed his presence. He was the first one she had really talked to about things, and at the start it had been the two of them together, figuring things out. Then, for a while, there had been three. Now there were too many. She was the one who had wanted Barney and Simon to join them, but now she only wanted them gone again. They made things difficult and chaotic.

 

Or maybe that, too, was the enemy whispering.

 

"I don't know." She raked her hands through her hair. "I just think we should wait a bit."

 

But she opened the window as she said it, to let out the stifling air of her prison.

 

This time the smell of smoke was unmistakable, and the sky to the east was orange with fire.

 

 ******

 

end of chapter eight