Chapter nine

In flames

___

 

"Cities don't burn." Bran shook his head incredulously. "Not in this day and age."

 

"Not like they used to, no." Will was grim-faced as he parked his car. "But enough. If enough fires are started deliberately. And there's a lot of wood inside these old buildings. Lots of things that can burn."

 

Bran remembered the thrill of the fight outside the station. It was like remembering a dream. For a moment back then, he might have become the sort of person who could set fire to a building and laugh joyously at the power of the flames. No, he corrected himself. There would always be a tiny part of that person inside him. He supposed it was probably inside everyone. You felt powerful when you made your mark on things. That was why the enemy could so easily win, because he whispered things that so many people felt already, deep inside them.

 

"But you can stop it?" he asked Will.

 

Will shook his head, but said, "Yes, a little."

 

Bran moistened his lips. They tasted smoky, and his eyes were stinging, even behind the protection of his glasses. He tried to smile. "You mean, you can't just say a magic word and make a fire go away?"

 

Will started to walk towards the fire, and Bran followed him. "I could, if it was a small fire. The first act of… magic, if you like, that I ever did was to put out a fire in a grate. But nothing this big. We fought a fire together on your mountain, long ago, beating it with brooms…"

 

Bran dimly remembered a fire, but he did not remember Will. Even that no longer seemed to rankle any more.

 

"Of course," Will said quietly, "until a week ago, I wouldn't even have tried. I was here to watch. Oxford could have burned down round my ears, and all I would have done was watch. That's what Merriman told me to do. Man had to be free to make his own mistakes without me interfering."

 

They reached the edge of a crowd of people, pressing against a police cordon, straining to see what was happening. Will made no sign at all, but Bran suddenly knew that the two of them were invisible, able to stroll past the police without anyone noticing.

 

"Things…" Bran instinctively started quietly, but then he cleared his throat and started again. No-one gave any sign of hearing him. "Things have changed, though, haven't they. This isn't man making his own mistakes. This is… something else. Something else that's cheating."

 

"Cheating." Will nodded. "Yes. That's how I rationalised it. That's why I'm intervening now, when really I shouldn't…"

 

"Idiot," Bran chided him. "Listen to yourself. Hear what you're saying. Of course you should intervene. How on earth could you think anything else?"

 

Will did not stop walking. He was staring straight ahead, heading towards the sirens, the flames, and the boiling mass of smoke. "Things are more complicated than they seem to you," he began.

 

Bran struck him on the shoulder, hard enough to make him stagger. "Don't you dare!" he shouted. "You've just dragged me back into the Dark Ages and told me that my father's King Arthur. You've told me that I was some sort of immortal prince, except that I chose to live on a sheep farm in Wales instead with a man who isn't even my father. You made me face all that. You! So don't you dare say that my life is simple. Don't you dare say that things are easy for me."

 

"No." Will's hands were dangling loose at his sides. "You're right," he said stiffly. "I was wrong to say that."

 

Bran let out a long breath. He was not really angry, he realised, just exasperated. It occurred to him to wonder just what Will was doing. He had walked through the police line without the slightest hesitation, and looked as if he was planning to stride into the inferno just as calmly, even though he had said that he could only reduce the flames a little, and not put them out.

 

"Will…" Bran began. "What…?"

 

Will started walking again. The fire was no longer a shapeless mass of orange. They were close enough now to see flames leaping out of at least a dozen separate buildings. Firemen were aiming hoses into the flames, but there were not enough of them. As Will and Bran walked down the road, two more fire engines raced past them, to join the fight. There were ambulances there too, though. Bran wondered if that meant that people were trapped or dying in the flames.

 

"You don't have to come with me, Bran," Will said quietly. "There's nothing you can do."

 

"And there's something you can do?" Bran said. "You said…"

 

"There's something I can do." Will turned to face him. Bran did not like the expression in his eyes. "I can show the enemy that this is war. Wherever he goes, I will be there, doing whatever I can to lessen his impact."

 

Bran watched as a group of firemen retreated, beaten back by the ferocity of the flames. Sparks and ashes fluttered all around the place where they were standing, but none of them hit them. He could not feel the heat, either, Bran realised. Will was protecting him. If they went any closer, and Will let go of his protection, then Bran would burn. His life would be entirely in Will's hands.

 

He did not like how that made him feel.

 

"I…" He swallowed, let out a breath. "I'll go with you," he said, "but only if we talk about what Merriman said."

 

"What?" Will looked entirely human for a moment, and completely lost.

 

Yes, Bran thought. Yes… Insight filled him, and he went where it led. "This isn't about the enemy, is it? This is a big deal for you. It's all significant in your head. A test. This is the time you finally disobey your precious Merriman. He told you just to watch, and now, for the first time, you're…"

 

"Stop it!" Will screamed.

 

"No." Bran took hold of Will's forearm. He could feel Will straining, wanting to rush into the fire. "Will, you dragged me away earlier when you thought I was going to destroy myself. You knocked me out with magic. I can't do that to you. But I can see the same signs. I know when to speak up. I know when someone needs to be stopped."

 

"This isn't about Merriman," Will said, but his tone told otherwise. "Please let me go, Bran. I need to…"

 

"Kill yourself?" Bran said quietly, remembering a mountainside in the rain. "Is this the enemy in your thoughts?"

 

"No," Will cried, but then he frowned, shaking his head. "No," he said, more quietly. "I don't think so. I…" His hand rose to his brow. "I… I need to go."

 

He pulled himself away from Bran and rushed forward, heading for the nearest burning building. He did not go in, but the heat in front of it had to be terrible. Flames surged towards him, wreathed around him.

 

I can't follow him there! Bran thought. I can't!  He looked desperately around him, willing someone to notice him, to cry out in alarm, to hustle him into a fire engine and take him to safety. Will would be alright. He was immortal, and he had strong magic. Bran was interfering in something he did not understand. He should go and find Jane, and in time Will would turn up and impart to them what knowledge he deemed worth telling them.

 

Almost lost in the smoke, Will raised both hand. The flames receded just a tiny bit, and faded just a little. Will held them there, and the fire retreated a little bit more. Then Will's head snapped round, and he pointed a finger. Bran waited, wondering, and soon heard a cry of jubilation from one of the other buildings. A life saved, perhaps, or a victory won. People rejoicing, not knowing that Will was the cause.

 

Bran was not aware of making the decision. He was already racing forward before he had consciously decided to do so. No flames touched him, and no heat seared him. He reached Will's side, but Will gave no sign of noticing him.

 

"The thing is," Bran said gently, "Merriman said he was proud of you, and the things you were doing. That has to mean something, doesn't it? It meant everything to do when my… my father said it to me. It changed everything. My whole life. You knew it would. That's why you took me there. It was like magic, to hear those words."

 

Will stepped back. He was like a phoenix wreathed in flame, but untouched. Bran knew that it was only Will's magic that was keeping him from death himself. He reached out. "Will…"

 

"He said he understood." Will sounded as if he was forcing the words out. "But that was the past. He said that centuries ago. The Merriman I knew had already said those words, but he still did it. He still left me behind."

 

Bran's thought raced. What could he say? He struggled for the certainty he had felt in the wake of his meeting with his father. Help me, father. Tell me what to say. There was no answer. He was on his own, just as Will was. It was just as things would always be. It was just as things ought to be.

 

"Some things have to be, he said. He knew what he was asking of you, but he could not change things. But he knew you would do it well. He knew he could trust you."

 

Will gave a bark of bitter laughter. "He trusted me not to interfere."

 

"Oh, that." Bran shook his head. "Are you sure? If he wanted an Old One who wouldn't interfere with mankind, why on earth would he choose you?"

 

Will's arms fell to his side. "What?"

 

Bran struggled for a certainty that he did not feel. "I mean it. There were all these hundreds of other Old Ones who had lived for ages, watching kingdoms rise and fall, watching wars happen, and people die. And there was you. A twelve year old boy with a family. Of all the Old Ones, you were the one with the strongest emotional ties to the world. You were the one who was most fully human. And he chose you. Why?"

 

"Because… because I was the youngest," Will said. "The last."

 

"No." Bran shook his head. "Use your brain. I'm willing to bet that I'm right. Someone had to stay behind to watch against the coming of the Dark. So Merriman chose you. 'Be sure not to interfere with man's freedom of choice,' he said, all seriously, because some higher-ups were watching and this was what he had to say. But I bet he winked as he said it. He chose you because he thought you'd disobey."

 

"I didn't…"

 

"No," Bran said sadly. "You didn't." He thought about how Will had wiped himself out of his family's memories. "But he wanted you to. He wanted you to cherish your family. He wanted you to have friends. He wanted you to live, and be part of the world, and use your powers in the way that you, Will Stanton, felt was right."

 

Will seemed to have forgotten the flames entirely. "Then he would have…"

 

"No." Bran was absolutely sure of it now. "Don't. Stop thinking all the time of what Merriman would have wanted you to do. Think about what you want to do. You're part of this world. Your fate is its fate. Fight the enemy because you're human, but don't do it as a way to punish Merriman, or to prove yourself to him, or anything else stupid like that."

 

"I wasn't…" Will looked lost, and very young. "Was I?"

 

"Well…" Bran managed a laugh. "Only you can tell that. I've given up trying to see into that English mind of yours."

 

"I think," Will said quietly, "that you did it very well. Thank you, Bran." He smiled, and, still smiling, he stepped into the burning building, and this time Bran was driven back, and could not follow.

 

******

 

The flames were all around him, but he had whispered the right words, and they did not harm him. He did not even feel their heat.

 

He thought, perhaps, that he wanted to.

 

He thought of Bran, consumed with fury, fighting outside the station. Flames wreathed around Bran's face now, in the memory. Fire was in Bran's eyes. Fire and darkness.

 

Was this the same?

 

Will walked deeper into the building, untouched at the heart of the inferno. It had been a second-hand bookshop, and countless old books were feeding the flames. The knowledge of man was being destroyed. Books that told of joy and pain and wisdom were burned to ashes, and nothing remained. After a man died, and all those who remembered him died, only the writings remained, and now they were gone.

 

Too late to save them now. Will spoke quiet words to the flames, and they receded just a little, but not enough. Not even an Old One could stop a conflagration. The earth had power. Fires and earthquakes and floods happened, and no single being could stop them. These things happened.

 

This one, though, had been deliberate. Will could smell the petrol beneath the flames, and could almost see the crazed faces of the youths who had done this, their minds turned to frenzy by the whispering of the enemy. This was an act of war. Will's enemy. The world's enemy. Flames were natural, but this fire was not. Will would do what he could. He would stop it spreading. He would preserve man and his works.

 

There were shapes in the flames. Dark and light intertwined, and he saw the shapes of knowledge lost, like wailing mouths swept upwards by the fire. He saw Bran. He saw Merriman.

 

"Merriman," he breathed. Bran had said. Bran had said…

 

Was it true? There was no way that Bran could know. Bran had no memory of the event. This Bran, the grown-up Bran who had stood with Will beside the fire, had not even been there. He was just a mortal man. He knew nothing. He knew…

 

Will fell to his knees, sinking onto a bed of flames that did not harm him. It made sense. Twenty years he had lived with the knowledge and the certainty that Merriman had intended him to act a certain way. Twenty years… And now Bran said…

 

He had been a boy of twelve. A boy with brothers and sisters, with parents who loved him, with friends. He had been embedded in the world, surrounded by people who tied him to mankind. The other Old Ones had lived for hundreds of years, or thousands. They had ties, yes, but no ties of blood, not any longer. Their friendships were with each other, or with people who were children in their eyes. They were far older than the people on earth, but Will was one of those people. At least for now, Will was one of them.

 

"Stay," Merriman had commanded him. "Watch." Watch for the Darkness, but let man make his own choices. Watch, and do nothing. Be apart. Stand there, knowing that you have the power to change things, but choose not to. Do nothing, because I commanded it so.

 

And he had. From that moment, Will had drawn away from humankind. He had become the Watcher in everything that he did. He had withdrawn from his family. He had refrained from making friends. He had withdrawn, because that was what Merriman had expected of him.

 

And sometimes, deep down, whispered the flames, you blamed him for it. You hated him for it.

 

Not the enemy. Not now. Will passed his hand over his brow. It was true. For twenty years, he had had no sort of a life at all, all because of Merriman.

 

"No." He rose slowly to his feet. "Because of me."

 

Bran was right. Merriman had left Will behind to watch in case the Dark found a way to rise again, but that was not going to happen. The Dark was gone. There was no need for a watcher against the Dark. No, the only reason to leave someone behind was… "To cheat," he said aloud, wonderingly. Man had to be left to make his own decisions. That was the decree. Merriman had agreed with it, oh so solemn, but then he had charged Will to stay behind, ostensibly to watch for the Dark, but really to help mankind in any way he could.

 

"But I didn't," Will said. There was nothing in his vision but flames, now. He had acted like a child. He had taken the words literally. Hurt by the abandonment, he had drawn away from everyone who could have helped him. Merriman had left him behind because he was part of the world, bound to it by ties of family and friendship, but he had let those ties wither. He had become an ancient Old One, when he should have been a boy. He had become an observer, when he should have been human.

 

Will pushed the flames away, making a space around him, a smooth bubble of clear air. "I am part of this world," he said aloud. "I always have been. I always will be."

 

Loving ties were the strongest thing on earth. Merriman himself had said that, and Bran, too, but still Will had not understood. He had seen only what made him different, not what made him the same. He could have stayed friends with Bran, had he tried, even though Bran had no memory of what they had already shared. He could have kept in touch with Jane and the others. He could have participated joyfully and wholeheartedly in family life.

 

He could even, perhaps, have told people the truth about himself. He had not needed to be alone. These people were here for him, the only people ever who had grown up alongside him. He should have cherished them; instead he had almost let them go.

 

Twenty years of loneliness for no reason. Twenty years of standing back, when he could have acted. Twenty years of the enemy gaining ground, because Will had stood and watched the evil things in the world, and done nothing.

 

"My fault," Will said. Outside, in the darkness, he might have wept. If the enemy had been close, he might have screamed and bellowed and tried to destroy himself in guilt and sorrow. But here, in the flames, he felt only peace.

 

The past could not be brought back, but the future could be changed. From now on, things would be different. He would be different.

 

He was not an Old One any longer, living in the shadow of Merriman. He was Will Stanton, and he was human, and this his world, and these were his people.

 

He would change the world.

 

******

 

"Is anyone hurt?" Jane asked anyone she could find. "Is anyone killed?"

 

No-one seemed to know. Some of them were clearly delighted with being so close to a disaster. When the television cameras turned up, they pressed eagerly forward, hoping to get chosen to speak. When they were, they wrang their hands and spoke tearfully about how awful it was, and how shocking it was that people could do this.

 

Go home! Jane wanted to scream at them. This is the enemy! Can't you see it?

 

But they couldn't. Of course they couldn't. Of all the people in the crowd, Jane was the only one who knew what was really happening. Barney and Simon had come, but they still did not know the full story. Paul knew a little, and Jon… Jon either knew nothing at all, or knew more than anyone, but Jane could not judge which one it was.

 

The smoke was thick even this far away, and the police were talking about pushing the cordon back for the safety of the bystanders. Someone wondered aloud if this meant that the fire was spreading, but they said that no, it was beginning to come under control, but the wind was changing, that's why the smoke was getting thicker. The woman snorted, clearly not believing it. Some people always distrusted the authorities, of course. Jane had met parents like that, in her role as a teacher.

 

"I can take control of this, of course," Simon said, "if you like." His smile was mocking as he asked her permission.

 

Jane raked her hand through her hair, pushing it back from her brow. "No. Don't." She shook her head. She felt completely useless. She had promised to help Will fight the enemy, and here was a clear case of the enemy showing his hand, but what on earth could she do? Everyone else in the crowd was ignorant and had an excuse to do nothing, but she knew the truth. She ought to be doing something.

 

She looked around her desperately. Still no Will. Bran was with him, of course. Paul and Jon were close together, faces identical masks of horror. She tried to see a smirk under Jon's mask, but could not see one. Not that that meant anything, of course. Barney was… Barney… She licked her lips, tasting smoke. Barney had gone. Did that mean…? No. She caught a glimpse of him, leaning forward earnestly as he talked calmly to a hysterical woman. He at least was doing something useful, administering to those who needed comfort, while Jane was just standing there, knowing that something needed to be done, but incapable of doing it.

 

The police started to move the cordon forward, but the bystanders on the front row objected. People started shouting. "Look," she heard, stern but patient. "Just doing our job." "Why are they doing this?" she breathed, as the crowd surged forward. "The police need to be there, not here."

 

"Standard reaction to heightened emotions," Simon said. He looked very tall, and far less rumpled than those around him, as if he was expecting to be interviewed on television. "They lash out at anyone they can. There are ways of controlling it."

 

A police van drove up from inside the cordon, and men in riot gear got out. The people at the front of the cordon surged forward, and a fight ensued.

 

"And," said Simon, with a wry smile, "there are ways of exacerbating it."

 

"We've got to do something!" Jane cried, hating how girly she sounded.

 

"You want me to do something now, then, do you?" Simon teased her.

 

She pounded him on the chest. "Don't laugh about it."

 

"Everyone reacts to things in different ways," he said. He looked beyond her, and raised his eyebrows. "Oh, look. Your other little friend."

 

Will! she thought. She whirled round in time to see Bran being escorted to the cordon by two policemen. There was no sign of Will. They pushed Bran through the cordon, and Jane shouldered her way through the crowd to get to him. "Bran!" she called, and he heard her, but could not see her. His head turned from side to side. "Bran!" she called again, as she reached him. "Where's Will?"

 

"No 'How are you, Bran? I've been so worried about you,' I see?'" Bran said, but his mouth quirked in a smile.

 

She tried to pull him back through the crowd, but he seemed to want to stay at the front, only yards away from the place where a dozen men were struggling with the police.

 

"Have… have you been in there all along?" she asked.

 

Bran have a strange smile. "Oh no. Will took me… somewhere. A long way away. Then we came back."

 

"Where's Will?" she asked again.

 

Bran gestured back towards the fires. "In there, of course." He frowned. "Where else do you think he'd be?"

 

She thought of Will fighting the flames all alone, with magic. "By himself?"

 

"Of course." Bran's frown deepened. "I was with him, but he pushed me away. He does that a lot, doesn't he? We really need to work on stopping that."

 

It almost sounded as if he was chuckling beneath that frown. She peered at his face, seeing him for the first time. The glasses hid much, but he looked different. His voice was lighter, without the bitter poison that had filled his words earlier in the day. "You've…"

 

"Got over some things that were bothering me, yes," Bran said lightly, though she suspected that the lightness was a lie. "And I sincerely hope that Will is in there doing the same. If he isn't… If he isn't, then I was wrong in what I said to him. I gave him quite a telling-off, you see. Told him that one favour demands another. Though maybe he didn't see it as a favour."

 

"What?" But there was no time to ask. She held up her hand, telling him not to answer. "Is there anything we can do, did he say?"

 

"Believe me," Bran said, "he wasn't talking about anything as sensible as that. That's his problem. Too busy thinking about the things that don't matter, and this little thing of the world ending comes a distant second. The same thing happened to me, of course. I don't blame him, but…"

 

He's changed. Jane did not like it. She wanted to back away, to leave this stranger at the cordon, where the fight would soon claim him. She wanted to drag him away and make him tell her everything, so she knew him again. They had been allies in a way, the two of them together figuring out what had happened to their memories, and the truth about Will. Will had been the leader, and then there had been Bran and Jane, humans, powerless, slowly learning truths together. She had not valued it when she had it, but now it was gone.

 

Bran and Will had secrets, and she did not share them.

 

Eyes stinging, she looked beyond Bran, out towards the fires. She was sure that they were less now, finally being brought under control. And then, as she looked, the air shimmered, and Will was there, walking swiftly, and unmarked by smoke or fire.

 

Will saw Bran, and he smiled. "Bran!" he cried. "I…"

 

Then he saw Jane. She saw the moment that it happened. He saw Jane, and he snatched back the words he had been about to say. His smile faded, and his face was composed. "Bran," he said, with a nod. "Jane. Are the others here?"

 

Jane nodded, unable to speak.

 

Bran was looking Will full in the face, his expression hidden by his dark glasses. "Bit of a cliché, isn't it?"

 

Will frowned. "What?"

 

"Burning away your demons in the flames. Being reborn, and all that."

 

Will flushed, and smiled. "I suppose so. True, though." He touched Bran briefly on the sleeve. "Thank you."

 

They walked away together, talking, and Jane could only follow.

 

Something whispered in her mind, and she let it.

 

******

 

End of chapter nine