Falls the Shadow
by Eildon Rhymer
Sequel to Walking Shadow. Will, Bran and Jane have sworn to stand together, but the enemy is growing stronger, and newly-rediscovered friendships can be fragile things.
Allies and companions
"Allies." Jane broke the long silence. "That's what we need."
Startled, Will's head snapped up. He noticed, too, how Bran turned slowly to face Jane, wariness etched on his face. It seemed that both of them, in their own way, were so accustomed to being alone, that the thought of allies was strange to them.
"Yes. Allies." Jane was nodding in a satisfied fashion, as if she had made her mind up about something, after a long struggle. "There must be other people who can help you, Will."
Help you. Will noticed that. Help you, not Help us. He said nothing, though. Jane was right.
"We don't want people we can't trust sticking their noses in," Bran said.
"People we can trust, I mean," Jane said.
Bran grunted, as if he could not think of anyone who fell into that category. "We're not in a story, girl, with allies and companions and quests against the darkness. This is real."
"I know," Jane said stiffly. "That's why I'm trying to help."
Will rested his head back against the metal bench. It was evening in the late summer, and Jane and Bran were both staying with him in his small house in west Oxford. They had strolled together into the centre of the city, and ended up beside the river in Christ Church meadow. Laughing tourists passed in punts, and families walked past them, enjoying the daylight after dinner.
What would they think, Will wondered, of the snatches of conversation that they overheard? The three of them looked like ordinary people, wrapped in a silence broken by occasional words. There was nothing to show that they were discussing the fate of the world, and none of the carefree tourists who passed them paid them any heed.
"Perhaps we should wait for Will to pronounce," Bran said. "He's been sitting there long enough, thinking."
Will let out a breath. Very little had changed. On that dreadful night on the mountain, he had come close to destroying himself, because the enemy had worked on his own despair. He had been saved by Jane and Bran. Jane had won him over with tears and gentleness, and Bran with harsh honesty. Now both of them had promised to fight alongside him, to help him, but very little had changed.
Bran still disliked him, Will thought. He seldom talked to Will directly, just through Jane. They were sitting now as they always did, with Jane in the middle, a buffer between them. Will had no idea why Bran was still so distant, almost cold, to him, and there were more important things happening than trying to find out. Yet Bran had promised to help him and was here with him, far away from the mountains of his home. That had to mean something, even if it came without warmth and true friendship.
"Will?" Jane prompted. "What do you think? Do we need allies?"
Not really, Will thought. He was facing an enemy who was everywhere and anywhere. It was something born from the fiercest emotions of mankind, that had taken an independent existence, and now planted those very emotions that had created it. It made men hate each other, and revel in each other's pain. Yet it could only do so because all of those things had already existed in the darker hearts of man.
Will had no idea how to defeat it. Perhaps if he had a voice that could speak to the whole world, he could urge people to shut their minds to their own darker impulses, and that would starve the enemy of the hatred and despair that it fed upon. But that was impossible. He could not reach that many people, and they would not listen even if he could. Murders would continue, and people would fall. The enemy would grow stronger, and it was everywhere, and the more Will despaired of destroying it, the stronger it became. The tears of a wizard are like honey. It had said that once.
The truth was, not even Bran and Jane could help him. No, that was not true. They helped him, but only by talking to him, by making him smile, by making him remember that he was no longer facing this entirely alone. They anchored him, and staved off the despair that the enemy fed upon.
"Will?" Jane touched his arm. "Are you awake? Did you hear me?"
"Allies," Will said. "I heard you."
"And?" She was looking at him expectantly.
Will could not bring himself to shake his head. Jane and Bran could not help him fight this battle, and a hundred others like them could make no difference, either. But perhaps Jane and Bran, like Will, needed to know that they were not fighting this alone. If Jane would feel happier with others on their side, then that was what they would do. The enemy fed on despair, and hope was the enemy of despair. It was a weapon in itself, and could not be forgotten.
"It could make a difference, yes," he conceded.
Her smile suffused her face, but Bran asked gruffly, "Who?"
"My brothers," Jane said instantly.
"No." Will shook his head. "No." His chest felt very tight.
All four of them were supposed to have forgotten. Jane and Bran had pretty much found out the truth for themselves, and Will had let them keep the knowledge, even though it was in defiance of Merriman's last act. Both Jane and Bran had convinced him that their lives had been haunted by that spell of forgetting, and that they would be happier knowing the truth. But to actively seek someone out to tell them the truth… It went against everything that an Old One was. Theirs had always been a life of secrecy.
"Please, Will." Jane was no longer smiling. "I have to tell them. They lost something, too." She touched his arm again. "I know what it's like to live with the forgetting. I have to tell them. Even if there wasn't… the enemy, or a war to fight. I can't let them live in ignorance, Will. I just can't."
And there was nothing that Will could say in answer, except to nod his consent. Anything else, and he would lose her, and Bran as well.
"Oh." Barney's smile froze into awkwardness. "You didn't say you were bringing friends. If they are your friends, that is."
He looked from Will to Bran and back again, clearly waiting for them to introduce themselves as visitors who had happened to arrive at his door at the same time as his sister. Neither of them spoke. Will met his look placidly, but Bran was almost glowering. He thought this was a waste of time, and had said so often in the car. He had spoken little else, apart from that, and Will had said almost nothing at all. Jane had prattled with increasing desperation and merriment all the way.
Jane found her tongue. "I'm sorry.. " She stopped. She had sworn to herself that she would not apologise for the truth, but here she was, her first words an apology.
She twisted her hands in front of her, forgetting that Barney knew her well. "You're nervous," he said. "Why are you nervous? You said on the phone you had something to tell me." He looked from Will to Bran again, and this time his gaze was searching, almost hostile.
Jane understood at last. Barney was trying to work out which of the two she was about to introduce as her boyfriend, and was preparing himself to dislike the choice. Had they been alone, she might have laughed, slapping him in mock reproach, reminding him that he was only her little brother, after all, and that even if he was older than her, she could take care of herself, thank you very much.
As it was, she found herself blushing. She was fairly sure that Bran liked her, and for a while she had fancied herself a little in love with Will. That was past, now, but not enough past that she could laugh about it.
Will took charge. She thought Bran had been about to say something, too, from the way he was drawing in a breath. "We did come here with Jane, yes," Will said. She noticed that he did not say that, yes, they were her friends. "We're here because the thing she has to tell you concerns us, too. It concerns everyone."
"But not what you think it is," Jane interjected. She edged forward, subtly pushing the other two into the background. "We just need to talk." Barney said nothing. "Can we come in?" she tried.
Barney hesitated a moment longer, and impassively gestured to them to come in. The house was old and dark, and it always made her think of churches and old leather. Barney spent as much time as he could in the garden, and it was there that he led them. He did not offer them a drink.
As they walked in silence, Jane tried to catch the eyes of the others. Don't say anything, she willed them. Leave it all to me. She doubted that either of them were easily commanded, though. Neither were talkative men, but they would speak up when they had something they thought needed saying.
And that was the danger, she realised. Will had already antagonised Barney without realising that he had done so. He was immortal and powerful, but he was not always very good at the human things. Only a few days before, he had stood, bleak and despairing, in the rain and denied that he was human at all.
"Well," Barney said, when they reached the garden. "What was so important that you couldn't tell me over the phone?"
"Can I sit down?" Jane asked. "It won't be quick."
She had never felt so awkward before her brother, or so afraid. This cold, suspicious man did not even look like Barney. She might have expected it from Simon, but never Barney, never him. He was a clergyman who preached love and charity, who helped those in need, and cherished them, and brought them back to life. This was not him, but something cold they had created.
Although Jane and Barney had sat down on the garden chairs, Will and Bran were still standing. It did not help.
Jane took a deep breath. "I went to Wales last week. That's where I met…" She realised that she hadn't even introduced them. "Sorry. This is Will Stanton, and Bran Davies."
Barney nodded, polite but terse. He showed no signs of recognition.
Jane felt almost sick with nerves. She should have come alone; she could see that already. Bran had been right. She had been so adamant that the others came too, that this was something they did, the three of them together. Bran had argued loudly, and perhaps Will's silence had been a form of disapproval, too. But they had still come. Perhaps, like her, they had both been a little afraid to part, just in case the magic of this recovered friendship faded like mist in the morning. They had all lived haunted lives for so long, and this new-found hope was such a fragile thing.
Now that weakness, that clinginess, could mean that Barney was forever lost to their cause.
She pushed that fear to one side; she had to. "I remembered them," she said. "Don't you remember them?" Barney still looked blank. "That holiday we had in Wales?" she prompted.
She saw him look at Will, and possibly remember. She saw him look at Bran, with his striking colouring, and remember for sure. "But that was ages ago," he said, "and only for a few days. Bit of a coincidence meeting up with them again."
Bran gave a sharp laugh. "That's what I thought at first. Most suspicious of that one there, I was." He nodded towards Will, but the joviality felt a little forced. Jane heard it, and was fairly sure that Barney heard it, too.
She had to say it aloud this time. "Please, Bran. Let me do the talking." She smiled as she said it, but he pressed his lips together in a hard line, and turned away.
She could not worry about that now. She turned to Barney. "I said I'd do the talking, but…" She raked her hand through her hair. "To be honest, I've no idea where to start. It's going to be a shock, and…" She took a deep breath. "The world is in danger, Barney. People are destroying each other, and themselves. There's something inside them… Something from outside… We need to fight it. Or, rather, Will's going to fight it, and we've promised to help him. But we need more people. We need you."
She had never seen her brother look more like a stranger. "Have you joined some kind of cult? Is that what you're trying to say?" He looked at Will with something close to loathing. "And not a Christian one, by the sounds of it."
"No!" Jane reached for Barney's arm. "It's not like that. Let me finish."
"But you're not being very coherent so far, Jane." It was the gentle tone someone would use to a loved one who was going mad, she thought, and she fought the urge to giggle. She hadn't even started on the part that sounded truly insane.
"I know." She pushed her hair back with both hands. Focus, she thought. Just say it. Let it out in a rush, and he can decide later. After all, the truth had felt instinctively right when she had heard it, because it chimed with the buried memories deep within her. It had been the same for Bran, and perhaps it would be the same for Barney, too.
Perhaps it would not. Perhaps he would...
Jane looked upwards, where gulls flew in a hazy sky, and tree tops quivered. All real, and all beautiful, but all meaningless unless there were men around to cherish such things, not rave like beasts intent only on the kill. That was what they were fighting to preserve. That was what Will and his kind had been sacrificing themselves for for centuries. Will had lost so much because of what he was. If the truth cost her the love of a brother, then it was a price she would have to pay.
"When we went on that holiday," she said, "something happened. We were… involved, somehow, in a war. An ancient war. A magical war. There was the Dark. It was trying to… to take away man's free will and make them slaves, in a world of nastiness and pain." She remembered none of this, of course, but was going from what Will had told her. "And then there was the Light. The people of the Light… They… worked to oppose the Dark, to stop them from taking over. They wanted man to be free."
Barney said nothing at all. She could not look at him.
"The Light won," she said. "We were there, at the last battle, when the Dark was banished. And the Light left too, except for one. We humans were too small to have a chance against the Dark, you see, and the Light had been there to fight on our behalf, like… like kind parents. But when the Dark had gone, the only dangers we would face were ones of our own creation. A parent has to let go sometimes. They can't fight battles that their child really ought to fight for themselves. It's wrong. It stops us… stops the child from growing up, and that's as bad as anything the Dark wanted to do. If they had stayed, and tried to guide us in the world without the Dark, it would have been a breach of our free will. We needed to be set free, to make our own mistakes."
There was still nothing from Barney. Will, though, she saw, staring at her intently, almost hungrily, as she spoke about the departure of the Light.
She swallowed, pressing her fingers into her palms. "So for that reason, we were made to forget. We, too, had to be free to grow up and become the people we would have been, without being governed by the Light. That's why we don't remember any of this, but it happened, Barney. I know that it happened."
"Magic?" Barney rasped.
Jane nodded. There was a scratch on the back of her hand, she noticed, and dirt behind her nails.
"The trouble is," she said, "the world isn't the way the Light thought it was, when they left it. We're not free, after all. Something… cheated. There's something out there… A… thing. I don't really understand it. It seems to have been created by all the bad things people have done over the years, all the bad emotions. Now it's become this… thing. It can be everywhere, but it can also take human flesh and look like a person. It whispers in people's heads, making them do bad things. All the awfulness in the world today… How much of it is real, and how much of it happened because this enemy made it happen?"
"The Devil," Barney said. "It sounds like you're talking about the Devil. Of course, nowadays many clergymen think that…"
"No!" Jane cried. "You're not listening."
"Oh, I'm listening," Barney said.
"Will!" Jane threw out a hand in appeal. "Show him that I'm not making this up." She turned fervently to Barney. "Will's the one I was talking about. He's one of the Light. A wizard." Back to Will. "Please, Will."
Will's eyes were dark with apology as he shook his head. "I can't, Jane. It's not fair to force someone to believe."
"Magic tricks," Bran laughed. "A rabbit in a hat. It'll take more to make that one believe."
Barney leant forward. "Can we talk without them?" This close, Jane saw something in his eyes that she had never thought to see, lurking behind the coldness. Fear. Her brother was afraid. "Please can they go away?"
"Do you want us to?" Bran asked. Jane nodded, silently mouthing, "please." She watched them walk away to the far edge of the large garden, where they stood beneath the apple trees, side by side, but apart.
"You shouldn't have brought them," Barney said miserably. "Not when you had this to tell me."
Jane shook her head. "It was a mistake. I'm sorry. I thought…"
He gave a wry laugh. "Safety in numbers, was it?"
"Perhaps," she admitted. "But mostly it's because I've been… blighted… No, that's too strong a word. But I've always known that I forgot something important once. I told you that last time. It's really held me back, stopped me from being properly alive. Now I've found the missing piece, in Will, in Bran, in the things I've learned. I wasn't ready to let them out of my sight. I can't go back to what I was, Barney. I can't."
Barney frowned. "You really believe all this?"
She nodded, solemn as one swearing an oath. "I really believe it, Barney. And it's true. It did happen. I know it sounds amazing and incredible, but doesn't it feel right?" She pressed her hand to her heart. "Doesn't it feel right, here?"
"I don't…" The was fear in his eyes again, and he shook his head.
"It is there," she said gently. "I know it is. That picture you showed me… The tall man with white hair, who told us to change the world… That was Merriman, Will's master, the most powerful of the Old Ones. It was his last message from the Light to mankind. We were his messengers, to spread the word, to plant the seed…" She sighed. "Perhaps it would have worked if it wasn't for this… thing, the enemy."
Barney slumped back in his seat. "You're saying that was…" He brought his hand up to his brow.
Jane began to speak, but Barney shouted at her. "No! Be quiet for a moment. Let me…"
She pressed her hands together. Barney was still, his face hidden. Will and Bran, she saw, had moved closer together, and were talking. She wondered what they were talking about, but they were saying it quietly, and the still, hazy air stifled sound.
"You're asking me to believe in magic." She stiffened at Barney's voice. It did not sound like his, and his face was a mask. "You're asking me to believe…"
"But you believe in God," Jane said. "In miracles."
She realised almost instantly that it was the worst possible thing she could have said. Barney's eyes went utterly cold. "That's not the same thing. And please let me speak without interrupting me. I let you have your say."
Jane pressed her lips together. She wanted to be there with Will and Bran, not here, watching something fall apart.
"You told me about mighty beings who intervene to protect man from the works of evil powers, but let them have free will. You told me about a little voice that whispers in men's ears, tempting them to do wrong. In other words, you're asking me to believe in things that usurp the powers of God, and of things that are the Devil, just by another name. You're expecting me to abandon two thousand years of theology and faith just because of this?"
Jane bit her tongue to stifle her denial. Stupid, she thought. Stupid. It had never occurred to her to ask Will how the Light and Dark fitted in with the world's religions, but of course it was going to be the first thing Barney asked. She had not been thinking of Barney at all, she realised, just of herself. She wanted them all to know, her brothers and her together.
"And the worst thing is…" Barney's voice started to tremble. "I told you last time… I showed you that picture. That's what started it. This." He gestured to his dog collar, to the vicarage behind him, to himself and to all his world. "It was a vision from God."
"From God," she repeated dully. She should have thought. Bran had based his entire vocation on that dim almost-memory of Merriman's last words. It had changed his life, and, by telling him the truth, she was telling him that his own personal faith was founded on a lie.
"I can't believe you." His voice was raw. He touched her hand, and there was no anger in his eyes now, only fear. "I can't. There's too much… It's my life, Jane. My life."
"I know." She struggled to hold back tears. "I'm so sorry. I… Are you going to try to stop me?"
Barney was silent for a little while. "When I told everyone I wanted to be ordained… Well, you know how everyone was. You supported me even when no-one else did. I know you don't really believe in God, but you said that I did, and that was all that mattered. Everyone had to be true to their beliefs, you said, and anyone who was worth anything at all should respect that."
She nodded mutely. She could not remember what she had said in those uncomfortable few days, and was strangely humbled that Barney could.
"You believe all this." It was only phrased ever so slightly as a question, but Jane nodded again. "I can't. But you…" Barney let out a breath. "No, I won't try to stop you. I don't see that I have that right."
"Thank you," Jane said. She clasped her hands together. He sounded so sad and defeated. She wanted to assure him that he was helping, because he was preaching charity and kindness to his parish, and that was helping to undermine the enemy, as much as everything that she was going. But she could not be so cruel as to say it.
"I just want you to be safe," Barney said, "and happy. And these men…" He gestured with his chin to Will and Bran, who were silent now, but standing closer than they had been. "Are you sure…?"
Jane smiled ruefully. "Yes, they're safe. Neither of them are going to hurt me."
"Good." He glowered in mock ferocity. "Because if they do, they'll find it doesn't pay to cross a clergyman."
"You're just my baby brother," she reminded him. "If anyone's supposed to be protective, it's me."
They both laughed, but it was not what it once had been. It was intact, but… damaged, she thought. The truth had done that.
Bran never minded silence. He never felt the urge to make small talk with strangers, or felt remotely embarrassed if a silence stretched into long minutes, with nothing to say.
As the time passed with nothing, though, he felt himself growing more and more uncomfortable. Perhaps, he thought, it was just because it was Will. At least if Will was talking, Bran knew what he was thinking about, knew what his attention was on. When he was silent, he could be thinking anything. It was an uncomfortable thing, it seemed, not to know what a wizard was thinking.
"We shouldn't have come," he blurted out.
Will turned slowly towards him. They were standing beside a cluster of apple trees, and dappling light fell on Will's face, making him look more unearthly than he normally did. "Probably not," he agreed.
They had never been alone together, Bran realised, not since he had found out the truth. He was almost afraid. He was aware that he had been cleverly engineering things to ensure that Jane was always there between them. Perhaps Will had been doing the same thing, too, but here they were, and there was no avoiding it. If they stood in silence for the whole time it took Jane to speak to her brother, this so-called friendship would be revealed as a sham.
Bran moistened his lips. "I wonder if she'll want to go after the other brother now."
"Simon," Will said. "I think she will, but she'll handle it differently. Not take us with her, for one thing."
"Oh." So that would mean a day, perhaps, or even more, for the two of them to be without Jane.
"Simon never liked me," Will said absently. "At least, he didn't before he found out the truth about who I was. It was totally understandable. I was a stranger, intruding on his territory. He was jealous."
Was it meant as an attack? Bran stiffened. "Are you saying that I…?"
"Nothing," Will said. "It was just words. Something to say. Silly, though. You don't need to fill things with blank words."
It was too close to something Bran himself might have said. He did not like to think that he was like Will. "Sometimes, though," he began defiantly.
Will gave a half smile. "Sometimes, yes." He gave a rueful laugh. "I suppose I was also thinking that Simon is bound to dislike me again. Barney certainly does. I know it shouldn't matter, and it doesn't matter, really, but..."
"I know what you mean," Bran found himself saying, because he had been an outcast at school, and it hadn't mattered, of course it hadn't mattered, but… No, of course it had mattered, and it had helped shape the man he had become. Perhaps he would be a very different person now if only he had had a proper friend when he was growing up.
Will smiled again. It was another sad little smile. He had smiled for real in his mother's house, though, the smile transforming his solemn face into the face of someone else entirely. "I know you still don't really like me, Bran," he said, "but you've promised to help me. I'm grateful for that, really I am."
Bran looked over at Jane and Barney, still talking, leaning close. There would be no rescue from that quarter. "It's not that I don't like you," he said. "It's just that I thought you were my enemy when I first saw you. I thought you were the one who'd attacked me. It's hard to entirely forget your first impression of someone, and see past it."
"Yes." Another of those sad smiles. Will looked up at the sky. "And if I act oddly towards you, it's because we were close friends once. I remember that, even if you don't, and, like you say, it's hard to get past your first impression."
Bran swallowed. He wanted to change the subject. "So, great leader, what shall we be doing when Jane goes after Simon?"
He knows something, Bran realised. Something he's afraid to tell me.
"What?" Bran moved closer to Will, his voice low and urgent. "What is it?"
Will pushed his hair off his brow. "I… want to go back to Wales," he said. "The enemy's everywhere and anywhere now, but in your part of Wales, he walked in the flesh. That's why the dead stirred, and ghosts of the past. And I fear they're still there. No, I know they're still there."
Bran almost grabbed Will by the shoulders. "So what are we doing here?"
"I had to." Will looked at the ground. "You… You saw how I was, that night in the storm. I was… I couldn't…"
"You were a mess," Bran told him. "Broken. Useless."
"Yes," Will agreed. "I was. If I'd tried to lay those things to rest as I was, I'd have… Well, it wouldn't have worked. I needed to lay my own ghosts to rest first. Set things right with my family. Anchor myself again. Heal a bit."
Bran frowned. "Heal? You were hurt."
Will nodded, gesturing to his chest. "Stabbed. I thought you knew. It was my blood that… And I was a mess, blood all over."
"I didn't know," Bran said tightly. "There was a lot happening that night."
Will laughed. "That there was."
Jane and Barney was still talking. Bran watched a leaf fall slowly from the tree. "Can things like that kill your kind, then?"
"No." Will shook his head. "They hurt like anything, though."
"You really are an idiot," Bran chided him, "not telling us things like that."
"I am." Will smiled. "Sorry."
Bran chuckled. Another leaf fell.
"I am coming to Wales with you," he said, when they had been silent for a little while longer. "I'll help you banish those things, or whatever you need to do to them. You do know that, don't you?"
"I thought…" Will said. "I didn't…" He bit his lip, let it go again. "I do now. Thank you."
"I'm not doing it for you," Bran told him lightly. "It's my home you're trying to save."
"Of course," Will said. "I know that."
end of chapter one
Jane sat like a prisoner awaiting judgement. The echo of her closing words faded in her head, and still Simon had not spoken.
"And that's it," she prompted. "The end. Er... You can ask questions... I mean, if you want."
She had never known her older brother be silent for so long. "Simon? Please say something."
He stood up, and went to the mantlepiece, his back towards her. He ran his finger over a picture frame containing a photograph of himself and his blonde fiancee, smiling proudly at some important dinner.
Jane shifted on the immaculate couch. She almost prompted him again, but bit her lip, and said nothing.
At last Simon spoke. "Are you going to tell Barney?"
"I already have."
She wondered how much of it tell. "He... didn't believe me. Or he couldn't. It was too much, too soon. He thought it contradicted his faith, though Will said..." She stopped.
She swallowed. "Will said that Barney was wrong to think that, but he understood why he did. He said that to me afterwards, though. He wouldn't let me go back and tell Barney. He said we had to respect Barney's right not to believe, and let him come to things in his own time."
"This Will sounds like a sensible chap," Simon said.
Did she dare to hope? She clasped her hands together in her lap, and trembled.
"But perhaps not a courageous one," Simon said, as Jane's shoulders slumped. "Let people come to beliefs in their own time... It's all very liberal, but it doesn't get things done. Sometimes you have to confront people with the truth and drag them kicking and screaming into doing what needs to be done. That's what I believe now. That's what drives me."
"Oh," Jane said. For a moment, Simon had sounded like a speaker on a podium, trying to win over an audience of voters, not like a brother talking to his sister, who had come to him with incredible news.
Perhaps even Simon realised it, for his voice was quieter when he asked, "So Barney won't be joining you on this... crusade?"
Jane shook her head. "It's just Will and Bran and me." She tried to say it with finality, to not let Simon know how strongly she hoped that he would join them, too.
"So where are Will and Bran?" Simon asked. "Am I right in thinking that they went with you to Barney's?"
"They're on their way to Wales," Jane said. "There was some... unfinished business from when we were there last week. And, besides, Will thought it had been counter-productive, him being there when I was talking to Barney."
"Will said," Simon said with surprisingly vehemence. "Will thought. How much of what you just told me came direct from him?"
"Some of it," she had to admit. "The bit about the Light and the Dark I only know because he told me. Other bits I worked out for myself, and he confirmed it."
"That's standard tactics," Simon said. "Carefully judge the amount of information you give, so your listeners end up believing what you want to believe, but they think it was their own idea and had nothing to do with you."
"It wasn't like that!" Jane cried. "He really didn't want to tell us. If only you'd seen him, Simon. There was nothing calculated in it. And, besides, I saw things with my own eyes. I saw ghosts, and... and when he told us the truth, it felt as if a hole inside me was finally being filled - a hole I've lived with for twenty years. I know it's the truth, Simon. I know it, and I believe it with all my heart."
"That's all right, then," Simon said.
He still had his back to her. "Turn round and face me, please," she begged him, unable to stop herself. "I came here, and it wasn't easy. I was terrified. I still am. And you're... You're not telling me anything. I still don't know if..."
He picked up an ornament, bounced it in his hand. "If what?"
"If you believe a word of it."
Simon placed the ornament back on the mantelpiece. "I have a meeting in an hour."
"Simon!" She all but shouted it.
Simon walked over to the wooden table, and sat on a high-backed chair. He rested his chin on his hand, and his face was once more turned away from her. It looked as if he was staring out of the window, at the grey sky and rooftops of northern London.
"Perhaps I believe it," he said. "I don't know. It seems less... impossible than it ought to seem."
"I felt like that, too," she assured him. "So did Bran. It's because we knew all of this once, but forgot it. A part of us remembers, even if our conscious mind doesn't. It's easier to relearn something you once knew, than to learn something for the first time."
"But I will need to think about it." Simon continued as if she had not spoken. "I was a doctor for three years, Jane. Where would I have got if I'd just rashly jumped at the first diagnosis that came into my mind, without weighing up the evidence, and considering the consequences? Now I'm in politics, and I hope to go far. But, again, where would I be if I just jumped one way or the other, committing myself to a belief or a course of action without thinking things through first, and deciding if it was politic?"
Jane jumped to her feet. "It shouldn't be an issue of whether it's politic or not, just if it's true."
Simon raised his head, and she was struck suddenly at how old his eyes looked, almost as old as Will's. "That's not how life is, Jane."
She curled her hand into a fist. "Then that's one of the many things wrong with the world."
"I don't think it is, Jane." His voice was gentle, almost sympathetic. "Think about it. There's people who rush into a cause - people who chain themselves to railings, or wave placards around, or whatever. They have their idea of what is true, and they sacrifice everything to that belief, but what, really, does it obtain?"
"It draws attention..."
"Maybe." Simon interrupted her. He gave a wry smile. "As you know, I joined all sorts of pressure groups when I was a student. I've been on my share of marches. I wrote angry letters to the papers when I was a doctor, complaining about this and that, shouting that someone else should get their act together and set the world to rights."
Despite herself, Jane smiled. She remembered some of those letters. She remembered how proud she had been of him. Simon had sometimes been something of a self-important prig when young, but he had changed markedly as he had grown up. Now, of course, she knew that the change must have started after that holiday in Wales, when an Old One called Merriman had urged them to change the world.
"Look at me now," Simon said. "No, don't say it. You're looking at this nice, new apartment, full of nice, expensive things, and you're thinking I've sold out. I'm marrying someone who's not only rich but titled, too. I'm becoming a devious politician with no principles. I'll do anything to get ahead."
His gaze was searching. It was Jane's turn to look away. She seldom saw Simon nowadays, and she had, indeed, thought some of these things.
"But maybe," Simon said, "one day I just started to wonder if there was a different way of doing things. Instead of standing outside, perhaps I could find a way to get in. Learn to speak the language of the people who hold the reins of power. Learn to play their own game. Compromise a little, perhaps, but only because it's better to make a small change to the state of things, than to dream of changing everything, but fail to change a single thing."
"Compromise," Jane echoed.
Simon stood up. "And that's why I cannot join you, Jane." He held up a hand to forestall her objection, but she was speechless, hollow. "It's just that, if what you say is true... If it's true... What can I do about it?"
"Help Will," she rasped. "Just so he knows we're with him."
"Side-kick to a wizard." Simon laughed harshly, and shook his head. "What good would that do for anyone? Now, you're telling me that there's some all-powerful enemy that preys on man's baser nature and encourages him to act upon it...?"
She nodded mutely, waiting for the laugh.
"Jane," Simon said firmly, touching her arm, "it seems obvious that I can do most good staying exactly where I am, doing exactly what I've been doing. If I drop everything now and come with you, I'd be saying goodbye to any possible future career in politics. It's a critical time right now for me."
"It's all right," Jane said dully. "I understand."
"No, you don't." Once again he reminded her of Will, with that simple statement of fact, devoid of emotion. "You think I'm being selfish, putting my ambitions before my duty. You're wrong, though."
"It doesn't matter," Jane said. "I don't want us to argue."
"Jane," he cried, but he looked at his watch as he said it, and that ruined it all. "Think about it. You say you're trying to fight something that makes people do bad things. Where's better for me to be? Twiddling my thumbs with this Will of yours, wondering what to do, or standing up on television, speaking to millions, planting seeds of tolerance and moderation and common sense?"
A dim part of her thought he was probably right, but she hurt too much to say so.
"I'd better go," she said. "You've got a meeting..."
He took her hand. "I'm sorry, Jane. Phone me tomorrow night, or something. It's a lot to come to terms with, all in one go. You must know that."
She remembered how she had reacted. She had worked out the truth by herself, gradually, and that must surely have made it easier to accept. Even so, it had been hard, and she had not behaved well. She supposed it had to be harder for Simon and Barney, who had had no inkling of the truth before she turned up on their doorsteps with her extraordinary tale.
"I'm sorry." She tried to smile. "I've not been fair on you. It's just that... I hoped..."
"Of course you did," he said gently. "But you have to see that this is the best place for me, if all of this is true."
"But you believe it?" She could not stop herself from asking it.
He smiled, and showed her to the door, but did not commit himself. It was enough, though. It had to be enough.
It was almost dark when they arrived, almost the end of day.
"Is that you, Bran?" Owen Davies called.
"Yes." Bran closed the door behind him. Will stood in the hallway, wondering whether to move further in to the house, or to wait until he was invited. When Bran headed towards the kitchen without a word, Will followed.
Owen Davies was nursing a mug of tea. "You're back, then. And that Englishman with you." He looked at the dim hallway behind Will. "Not the girl this time, then?"
Bran shook his head, and went to fill the kettle without a word.
Will did not know where to look. He felt that Owen Davies had things he wanted to say to Bran, but would not say them while a stranger was there, listening. Bran seemed oblivious, though, or else he just did not care.
It felt almost like a prison, Bran's house. It was dark and old-fashioned, and although it was not dirty, it did not look loved. It lacked a heart. It did not feel like Bran's house, Will thought. He had only been inside once before, when the three of them had staggered down together out of the storm, and Will had been hurt and wrung-out, and hardly aware of anything at all. Now he could see it clearer, it felt like the house of a stranger.
Owen turned the mug round and round in his hands. "Are you back for good, then?"
"No." Bran shook his head. "There are things to do."
No steam came from the tea. It was probably cold, Will realised. Owen had been hunched over it for hours. "You didn't say how long you were going to be," he said, "or where you were going." He glanced at Will, hostile, but defeated. He was a proud man, showing his hurt in front of a stranger. Oh, Bran, Will thought.
"I didn't know," Bran said placidly. "Now, do you want some more tea?" When Owen didn't answer, he said, "I could have left years ago, and I didn't. I'm allowed a bit of freedom now."
Oh, Bran, Will thought again. Don't. Owen Davies had given up a lot to bring Bran up as his own son, and he did not deserve this. It had been Bran's own choice to stay, and Owen had never pressurised him, or put him under any obligation.
"How long are you staying?" Owen asked.
Bran put a mug of tea on the table, and passed another to Will. "No idea," he said, with a glance at Will. "Not long, I expect."
He was a stranger, of course. Will had to remember that. This was not the twelve year old boy he had been friends with so long ago, or the Pendragon, the prince who had driven away the dark with a sword. This was a grown man who had spent twenty years living alone Owen Davies, bound by a decision he could not remember making. If he was prickly, hostile and solitary, there was no use Will wailing, "This isn't Bran! Bran isn't like this!" This was Bran. Bran was the person he had become. Will had to get to know this new person, and not forever see him through eyes coloured by memories the old.
Still, he could not let a good man be needlessly hurt. He stepped forward. "I must apologise, Mr Davies. Something urgent came up, and Bran offered to help me. It isn't over yet, but there's something that we need to do here, as part of it."
Owen looked at him with dislike. Will had expected that from Bran, but what he saw in Bran's eyes was amusement. As if that's going to win him over, the look seemed to say. You really couldn't sound more like English Establishment if you tried, Stanton.
Still, he could not back down. Owen Davies knew more than he had ever admitted, Will was sure of it. Perhaps, once, he had known almost as much as John Rowlands, although he had not been the sort of man to talk about it.
"Something is stirring on the mountains," Will said quietly. He did not try to veil his true nature as he met Owen Davies' glare. "Have you see it?"
Owen started, but hid it in a long breath. "Perhaps I have seen something," he said, "but what would an Englishman like you know about the... things I have seen?"
"I know about them," Will told him. "And we have come, Bran and I, to end them."
"Ah." Owen took a swig of the cold tea, and put it down with a grimace. "It would be good," he said, "to have the mountain... cleansed. Things have been... bad. Strange. Though there are some who would shrug it off and deny it. There are some, though, who have seen too much to deny." He took another swig. "We are losing sheep, Bran, in ways that I..." Another swig. He wiped his mouth with his hand. "John says he can only pray that he never comes face to face with the... with whoever it was that did it."
Will sensed that it was a long speech for Owen Davies. He knew that Bran and Owen lived a quiet life, exchanging few words with each other, but at least they had the comfort of someone else around. Owen Davies had been forced to spend the last few nights alone in the fragile fortress of an old cottage, on a hill where things ancient and dreadful walked, and killed.
"Well," Bran said, "hard as it is to believe, Will is the one who can deal with them. He doesn't look much, but he... He can do things." He shook his head. "Stop fretting, da."
Will felt ridiculously touched by Bran's statement of faith, but he could not give false assurances. "I think it would be better if no-one's alone tonight," he said. "Can you stay with John Rowlands tonight, Mr Davies? Or perhaps he can come..."
"I will not be driven from my own house," Owen stated.
Will was about to argue, but Bran silenced him with a look. "But, da, you still think of this as Caradog Pritchard's house anyway, so what harm will it do?" His look turned almost tender as he said, "Better be safe, than die because of too much pride. Please, da?"
Owen stuck his chin out mutinously, then subsided. "These have not been nights for being alone." It was almost a whisper.
"I'll take him to John's," Bran said, looking at Will. "And then..."
Will gave a grim smile. "And then."
"Well, that's done," Bran said, when John Rowlands closed his front door. "What now, great leader?"
"Face them," Will said. "Call them. Challenge them."
Will had waited for Bran just outside John's house, saying he outright forbade Bran to walk home alone on this night of all nights. Bran had wanted to argue, but the memory of his attack was too recent, and still too raw.
Still, he did not have to like it. It made it worse, that he wanted it.
"And how do you propose we do that?" Bran said. "You've been very quiet on small details like that."
"I know." Will's voice seemed to smile. "But this at least should be easy. They bathed themselves in my blood. They drew on my power. That gives me a link to them, and them to me. If I summon them, they will come."
The summer evening felt immensely cold. Bran looked at Will beside him, solid and reassuring, a powerful wizard who would fight for his friends. He still did not entirely like him, but for this moment, at least, he was comforting. Then he tried to imagine this same man lying bleeding and abandoned, while dead things stole his blood and his essence, feeding on him. Bran shivered.
Will must have seen it, for he said, "Are you sure...?"
"Of course I am," Bran said vehemently. "These are my hills."
They walked a bit further, both silent. Bran tried to listen for screams in the distance, for signs that another night of slaughter had begun, but all he heard was the natural pulse of life that was the mountain. Will also seemed to be listening for something, but if he heard what it was he was looking for, he did not say.
"Why are we doing it at night?" Bran blurted out.
"We're here," Will said. "We're… psyched up, as people might say. Would you like to spend the night waiting, knowing we had this to do in the morning? Do you think you'd get any sleep at all?"
Bran grabbed his arm. "Stop it."
"What…?" Will began, but Bran interrupted him, his voice cold. "Protecting me. Lying to me. I'm not a child, Stanton. I don't need protecting."
Will did not apologise. He withdrew slightly from Bran's grip, and looked him full in the eye, in the failing light. "You are right to question it," he said. "They are most powerful in the night, yes, and I am… not weaker, no, but more… blind. More prey to… other things."
"Then for God's sake why…?"
"They are stronger," Will continued, "which means they will come. They'll scent my blood and they'll come confident and rejoicing, wanting more. In daylight they'd be cautious. It would be harder to draw them."
"So we're fighting an enemy precisely where he's strongest." Bran laughed. "Remind me again why I said I'd help you."
"It could go wrong, yes," Will said, "but I cannot die, and you… I'll make sure no harm comes to you."
"Don't talk like that," Bran said, "so formal-like, like a wizard in a film. And don't protect me. I don't need protecting."
"From things like this, all men do," Will said. "And, besides, I promised."
"I didn't ask for your promise."
"No." Will started walking again. "But it wasn't you I made the promise to."
Bran caught him up. They walked in silence again, until, once again, Bran found the silence uncomfortable. "So, wizard, how are you going to keep me safe?" he asked, trying to laugh. "A magical cloak? A mystic escape pod."
"No." Will did not smile. "I was just planning on sending you into tomorrow."
Bran stopped. "Can you do that?" Will said nothing. "Can you?" He shook his head. "You're joking, aren't you?"
Will laughed, which told Bran nothing. Beyond him, darkness descended on the mountain like a shroud, black and featureless, but far from empty.
"Just like this?" Bran asked. "No weapons, or anything?"
"Guns or knives won't make a difference," Will said. Of course, there had been a sword, once, that could have changed everything, and a shining prince to wield it, but one was gone, and one was… transmuted.
"Magical weapons, I mean." Bran frowned, looking irritated. "Look, I've never fought the walking dead before. How am I supposed to know? I'm just thinking about books and things, when people always take a lot of… stuff."
Will smiled. "I don't use weapons, not since the things of power departed."
Bran shook his head. "Not even a magic wand?"
Will led him to towards the door. They were both wrapped up well against the cold, and had food and water, but nothing else. A slow hour had passed in the getting ready, and there was no going back.
Bran closed the door to the house. A cat wandered past, sleek in the darkness, and dogs fretted noisily in the barn. There was no moon. Even the distant lights of John Rowlands' house looked muted, a hundred miles away.
"Shall I bring a dog?" Bran asked.
Will bit his lip, remembering Cafall, and the crippling grief his friend had suffered through helping the Light. "Dogs sometimes have an instinct for these sort of things," he said at last. "It could help us. But any dog you took would be at risk. I can't guarantee…"
"Can't send dogs into tomorrow, then, only people." Bran gave a grim laugh. "You fret too much, Stanton. It's annoying. No-one alive can guarantee anything." He left Will's side for a few minutes, and a dog was trotting at his side when he came back.
Will did not comment. They went through the gate, where Jane had seen a long-ago murder unfold in front of her, only days before. Now that murder was locked in its own time, invisible to those in the here and now. It had only been awakened by the proximity of the enemy in his assumed physical form. Now he had left that body, this particular manifestation of his power was silent again. The dead kings and ancient chieftains still walked, though, fuelled by Will's own blood.
They started to climb. "Should have brought a torch," Bran said.
Will created a haze of pale white light, just enough to light their path, but not enough to be a beacon to anyone who watched.
"Show-off," Bran muttered. In the old Bran, it would have been fond teasing, but in the new Bran, Will thought it might be genuine resentment. He set his jaw, and continued. The light was needed, however it made Bran feel.
Higher, they went, and further away from man. Ahead of them, the mountain was a great cloud of silence, with none of the usual sounds of the countryside in night. There were no sounds of dying, either, but there were many creatures that could kill silently, either because they were swift, or because they could stifle sound.
"Do you actually have a destination in mind?" Bran asked, when they were both panting from the climb.
"Where I saw my ghosts," Will told him. "That was where it happened." He could feel the tug of the place already, like a hook that had taken hold of the core of him, and was trying to drag it out.
Bran did not ask questions. Was it indifference, or trust?
They were almost there. There, just ahead, he had crouched down and watched an ancient murder unfold, then, unthinking, had gone back in time to try to stop it. In that same place, hundreds of years before, he had been wounded, and he had lain there, barely conscious, through a confusion of time. In a way, he had lain there bleeding for hundreds of years, and it was there that the walking dead had found him, there that he had bled blood and power into the earth, there that he had almost been broken.
Will stopped walking. "We are here."
"Oh." Bran pressed his hand to his chest as he struggled to get his breath back. Neither of them were entirely recovered from physical injury. "So what now?" He sucked in a breath to get enough to talk. "I've said that a lot. I don't like it."
Will ran his hand over the rough surface of the boulder, and couched to press his hand onto the grass. His skin tingled, and his heart ached, but he sensed no opening doors of power. His blood, shed here, had gone somewhere very deep, where it was a wrenching cry to him, but nothing more.
Bran tapped him roughly on the shoulder. "Will? You're… calling them now?"
Will stood up, clenching his hands at his side, readying himself. "I'm about to, yes. The dog will tell you when they're coming, even if I… cannot."
Bran's hand moved down to pat the dog on its head. "What can I do?" He looked like someone who had committed himself to a course of action, but was only now realising that there was nothing he could do to help.
Will tried to smile at him. "Anchor me. Hold on to me with words. They will try to take me, I think, and to keep me. That's why I couldn't try this last week, you see. Because I would have just let them."
Bran caressed the dog's ears. "You haven't told us even a tenth of it, have you?" he burst out with vehemence.
"No time," Will said, as he raised his hands, and called them.
end of chapter two
It was like standing in a void. There was utter silence, utter stillness. Will's faint light was fading, fading, as if it was being eaten by the night.
The dog whimpered, moving closer to Bran's legs. Bran thought of dead things, creeping up behind him in the darkness, invisible to see. The dog would know, Will said, and the dog was whimpering. Were they already here? "Please leave some light," he whispered.
The light faded a little bit more, then settled at a faint grey glow, just enough to see outlines and shadows. Will was standing as still as a statue, arms raised. Bran grimaced. "Posing like a hero." It helped to say such things out loud. "I don't know who you think you're trying to impress."
Will did not make any sign of hearing him.
Still nothing came.
I'm watching magic, Bran thought. Magic. Not that Will looked anything like the wizards from storybooks at school. Welsh wizards were like the Welsh hills, fierce and old and dangerous. Most of the time, Will looked entirely ordinary, a middle-class Englishman, friendly but vague. But now, though, standing in a magical half-life, his modern clothes shrouded by his long, dark coat, he looked like a thing of legend, given life by the mountain.
Bran moistened his lips. He had always been aware of that strangeness, of course. That was the main reason why he had been so quick to believe that Will was the enemy behind his attack. Now he knew he was not, and he had to learn to work with Will. He did not have to like him, of course, or feel comfortable with him. Only a fool felt comfortable with a creature of immense power. And Bran still did not like him, of course. He resented him for knowing things that Bran did not, and for being the leader of their little group. He was probably jealous, too. He certainly was not beginning to admire him. He would never admire an Englishman, or a stranger.
The dog started to whine. Beneath his hand, Bran felt her quiver. He snapped his head round, looking over his shoulder, but there was nothing there.
Will dropped one arm heavily to his side. The other was still raised, but now it looked more like a warding than a summons.
"They are here." The words were forced out of Will's mouth as if they were agony to utter.
I am not afraid. Bran forced his legs to move, one step closer to Will, then another. He still thought he could see nothing, but then the air seemed to shimmer, and they were there, pale, tall, crowned with gold. They were white, with glimpses of bone, and swirling mists that had once been robes. Their pale hands were still red with blood, with Will's blood, and shining threads ran up their arms to the place where their hearts had once been.
Will's lips moved. For a moment, he looked impossibly tall, a shining creature of light, but then he dwindled, and was Will again. He continued to speak silent words, but he swayed on his feet, and his brow was furrowed as if in pain.
Bran looked at him, then at the dead. The dog fled, whimpering. It was all Bran could do not to flee after her. These are my hills, he reminded himself, and I promised.
He stood close to Will. "Go away," he commanded them. His voice was frail, nothing at all.
They did not seem to hear him, or else they dismissed him as nothing at all. Pale hands rose, fingers grasping. Again Will's lips moved. They were speaking, Bran realised, but in their minds, or in another time. Wild fury filled him, and he could have struck Will where he stood. "You could have warned me!" he cried. "You could have told me that I wouldn't even see the battle!"
Will rocked as if struck. Bran snatched his hand back, like a guilty child crying, 'It wasn't me!' The wind rose at least… but, no, it wasn't the wind, but the sighing, the laughing, of the dead. A dozen pairs of hands were reaching for Will now. Eyes glowed silver. They thought they had him. They thought he was theirs forever. A slave, Bran realised. A chained prisoner, whose blood they would drink every day for all eternity.
And Will had known this. He had known this was what they would seek to make of him, but he had said nothing, and he had still come. He had even smiled, made light of it, made jokes. "I think I hate you, Will Stanton," Bran said quietly. "You idiot English. You crazy dewin."
The dead sighed. A finger reached out and touched the back of Will's hand. Acting purely on instinct, Bran slapped it away. The touch of those bones almost made him retch. Out of nowhere came a long-buried memory - a childhood carnival, and a horse of bones. He wanted to run. He needed to. Only a lifetime of pride kept him standing there, and the knowledge that if he ran, he would be all alone, and it was utterly dark.
Will crashed to the ground, landing on his knees. Sparks of light started to dance around him, issuing from his hands and mouth. He fell forward onto his hands, head bowed, and for a shocking moment, Bran realised that he could see right through him. Then Will dragged his head up again. "Bran," he rasped. "I need you."
"What?" Bran looked desperately from side to side. He was so close to Will now that he, too, was surrounded. If Will fell, he would go, too.
A drop of blood fell gently to the ground. Will's wound was opening up, or else the dead so desired his blood that they were able to suck it from him by sheer force of will. They sighed longingly as it fell. A hand touched Bran's shoulder, and another his back.
Anchor me, Will had said. Hold me with words. "But I don't say much," Bran protested. "I'm not good at words. You should have chosen Jane."
"Leave him, raven boy." The voice gouged in his mind. Bran moaned at the sheer wrongness of it. "You are not what we desire. Your blood is no longer of value to us. Leave him, and be spared."
Bran clenched his fists against the terror of that voice. "But for how long, with you loose in my home? Go away. This is my land. Go away!"
The explosion of pain in his mind was their laughter. "You can no longer command us, mortal."
"Bran," Will rasped. "I'm trying. I'm losing. They're drawing me… Where my blood was shed… The past… Nowhere. Everywhere. Anywhere but here."
"Well, then." Bran made his mind up. He pulled Will bodily upwards, so they were kneeling upright, Bran supporting almost all of Will's weight. "I can't understand why you're trying to leave," he said. "Stupid English. Can't wait to leave these, the most beautiful hills in the world. Not that I'd expect someone like you to understand."
The dead hissed. Again Will went almost transparent. This time, Bran was holding onto him, and for horrible moment it felt as if he was holding a shape made of smoke, not a real man at all.
"Idiot," he chided. "You've got a martyr complex a mile high. Fancy coming here, knowing it was going to be like this, and not bothering to tell me. You've got so used to making people forget things, that you just don't know how to trust people with the truth. It's infuriating. It's going to get people killed one day."
Will was real in his arms again, but unable to support himself. He slumped forward. Bran struggled to hold him up, then gave up. They slumped together, but Bran did not let go. Will's eyes were wide open, he saw. He was not unconscious, but engaged in fighting a deadly battle somewhere else. He was distracted, not defeated.
"Will!" Bran shouted. "I don't know, but I think… No, you said… You've got to stay here. Here. This battered old thing is your body. Yeah, I know it's not much, just some pasty English body, but its yours. And it's August 6th, and you're on the lower slopes of Cader Idris, with me, Bran Davies."
He did not dare glance up to see what the dead were doing, if they were still there, if they were about to complete their victory. All he could see was Will. All he could think of was this.
"And you'd better look at me soon and say something," he warned, "because if you don't, I'm going to… I don't know what I'll do. I'll hate you, though. I already do, of course. You come waltzing along, turn everything upside-down. So irritatingly calm. Such a know-it-all, with powers to boot. And there's Jane… No, I won't talk about that. I don't want to."
The wind rose. Far away, a dog howled. White tendrils brushed along the back of his neck.
"And you know what the worst thing is?" he said. "The worst thing is that you keep on looking at me, and I know it's because we used to be friends, but that was twenty years ago, and I can't remember it, and it's not fair, because you looked so… so expectant, as if you want us to take up our friendship just where we left it, but we can't do that, because we're adults now, and I can't remember you, and you've got secrets. It makes me nervous, because I can't live up to those expectations, and then I hate you, for making me feel like that."
The wind surged to a crescendo. The light disappeared, like a candle flame blown out, leaving nothing but darkness. He was not even sure that Will was breathing.
"So you've lost." Bran tried to adjust his position. He had never supported the weight of a grown man before, and it was not comfortable. Then he gave a wry laugh. As if such things as comfort were important, here at the end of things.
He wondered if he would hear anything, when the dead came to destroy him. It was too dark to see a thing.
"Actually, I don't hate you any more," he said now, because Will was beyond hearing him. "There have actually been moments when I've almost liked you. As English wizards go, you're not as bad as you could be."
"Good," Will said.
Bran dropped him as if he had been burnt, and scrambled to his feet. "You're alive."
"Yes." Will's voice still came from the ground.
"I thought they…" Bran clenched his fists. "I thought they'd won, and you lied, because you didn't send me into tomorrow after all."
"No." It sounded as if Will had managed to sit up. "They were even stronger than I feared. I haven't defeated them."
Bran whirled round, but of course it was still dark.
"They've gone for now," Will said. "I… contained them. They're not defeated, but they're… confined. I bound them to a specific place in space and time. I have a link to them, you see. Because their power derives from my blood, it gives me the ability to control them. Unfortunately, it also gives them power over me. I hadn't realised how much. If they are destroyed, though, I will… suffer. I can't afford that now. So I contained them, but it was almost more than I could do."
Bran could not speak. He had already said too much this night. Perhaps Will had not heard it, but Bran had still said it. He felt raw. It had not been deep or important feelings that he had been talking about, but it had still been his feelings. He did not often say such things aloud.
"They're no threat now to anyone but me," Will said. He was standing now, a soft light glimmering in his hand. He looked very tired, all white light and deep shadows. "They won't escape unless I…" He pressed his lips together. "They won't escape. One day, though, when the… other thing is over, I'll come back and…"
"Without me," Bran spat.
"But I needed you, Bran," Will said. "I heard your voice. I was wavering. They'd almost got me, trapped me in a place out of the flow of time, but I heard you. You kept me anchored, just as I'd hoped."
"It wasn't fair!" Bran hurled at him. "It wasn't fair, to ask that of me!"
He thrust his arm out to the side, a gesture of negation, as he stamped away. After a while, the pale light followed him, but Bran did not turn round, and he did not wait.
Jane sat perched on the edge of the couch, idly flicking through a paper several weeks old. Images stared at her, of violence and grief, pain and despair. Was this his work? she thought. Was this him? Or this? Or this?
She closed the paper, and switched on the television, but it, too, was showing only pain. A sober-faced newsreader went from one tragedy to another, and somber analysts debated whether this meant war. Or an end to all things, she thought, with a shudder.
When younger, she had always been too easily disturbed by the news, sure that every terrorist act or far-away war would be the trigger for the final global war that would end everything. When she became a teacher, she forced herself to watch the news rationally, so she could allay her pupils' own hysterical fears. When dark things were glimpsed on television, and parents talked in hushed voices, playground rumours could spread and become panic. More than once, she had calmly explained to terrified children that no, they were not going to die. This crisis would pass. Already talks were underway that...
"Walked out," the newsreader said. "Irrevocable breakdown." The screen showed angry men in suits, shaking their fists and mouthing oaths that could not be heard. It cut to bombs in the street, and children screaming.
Jane changed channel. Over-loud music drowned out the dialogue of some drama series that she remembered seeing trailers for once, but had never watched. Another channel had a loud game show that hurt her eyes with lurid colour, and another had a reality show involving two families screaming at each other and no-one listening. She changed again, and found a quiet documentary about antelope, but soon staccato drums appeared on the soundtrack, and the narrator spoke gleefully about lions.
She switched the television off. Too much, she thought. There was no escape. She stood up, walked around the room, then sat down again, resting on her hands.
Simon had refused her. Barney had refused her. And here she was, sitting along in someone else's house, too afraid even to switch the television on in case the enemy was there, and she did not know it.
Will had given her a key to his house. "You can go back home if you want to," he had said, "but you are most welcome to stay here. I hope we won't be long, Bran and I."
"I'll be there when you get back," she had declared, with visions of herself and Simon up all night discussing battle plans, and Will and Bran returning victorious the next day, and the four of them together laying the plan that would end this evil once and for all. She would be there at the heart of it, not forgotten in her own house, fifty miles away, and out of mind. Will would return with his triumph, but she would have her own. "Simon's joined us. Simon believes."
She sighed. Simon had not joined them, and Simon... Did Simon believe? He had played his politician's game, hedging his words with conditionals and questions. He had never fully committed himself either way. The most she had got out of him was that if what she said was true, then Simon could do more good where he was. Perhaps he believed, and fully intended to use his position and influence to rally people against the whisperings of the enemy, or perhaps he had just been trying to humour her and get rid of her.
He had not phoned back since, and she had not phoned him. Her mobile was on, relentlessly silent on the coffee table. Neither Simon nor Barney had phoned her with a change of heart, and Will and Bran were silent, too. Perhaps dead, she thought, or run off on some pivotal adventure without me.
She stood up. Jealousy served nothing, and neither did worrying. Barney and Simon had refused to join for their own reasons, and it was not a personal rejection of her. She was just the messenger, and this self-pity was indulgent and useless.
As was the fear, she thought. Will was sworn to fight an enemy that could creep into human minds and heighten their baser urges. She had sworn to help him, and she had to make that promise mean nothing. Sitting moping in his living room was helping no-one. But, sitting in his living room, she could still do something.
She switched the television on again, and this time she picked up a pen.
News came out outrages, of peaceful villages blown apart, of sober politicians screaming in sudden fury. Weeping partners saying, "It's so unlike him. I don't know what came over him." Promising talks breaking down, and small conflicts escalating.
Is this him? she asked. Is this his work? And this time she calmly noted down the time and the place, like a police officer carefully mapping the possible sightings of a suspect.
When Will came back, she could not offer him allies, but she could, perhaps, offer him evidence.
Will followed Bran carefully down the mountain, cherishing his little light in his hand. His steps were heavy, and it was more tiring than it should have been to maintain the light. A good night's sleep would cure most of it, but not all.
He had miscalculated badly when confronting the dead. He had known that it would be difficult to destroy them, but he had not expected to struggle so intensely just to contain them. They were linked to him through blood. It was a channel he could use to his advantage when fighting them, but it was also a channel they could use to weaken him. Now they were bound, a small part of Will's power was bound along with them. He would not be at his fullest strength until he had defeated them for good.
Only weakened by a little, he thought, as he watched the shape that was Bran, receding down the mountain. But maybe enough, he thought, as he stumbled. Maybe enough to make all the difference, when it really matters.
It was the first time he had gone into battle entirely unarmed. For the last twenty years, he had been a Watcher, and there had never been any magical enemies to fight. Before that, he had fought the Dark, but always with other Old Ones nearby, or with signs and items in his hand. There had been many things of power, things that an Old One could use as a weapon against the Dark, but they had all fulfilled their purpose in the final rising of the Dark, and they were either gone, or empty.
There were no things of power left. There were no Old Ones. He was alone in this, and he had almost failed, in this, the first and smallest of the hurdles. He would have failed completely, if Bran had not been there.
If Bran had not been there…
He found the strength to hurry forward, and caught up with Bran, when they were almost down at the level of the farm house.
"Thank you." Will tried to put his heart into his voice. "What you did there… I don't think you realise it, but it saved me."
Lost. Lost and struggling, powerless to resist the tug of the crowned dead, who called to him with the power of ages, who dragged him towards them, because they all possessed a part of him. White walls closing around him. Long fingers and chains. Further away. Further and further… and Bran's voice, talking to him, calling, like a torch to a dying man in a storm.
"I didn't lie to you," he said desperately, when Bran still did not answer. "Or perhaps a little. It's habit. For twenty years, not a single living soul has known the things that I do."
Bran did not take the turn for his own gate. He strode on into the night, his head down, his hands clenched close to his side.
"But I didn't know it would be as bad as it was," Will told him. "I was caught off-guard. It was a mistake, Bran. My mistake."
"Didn't think you wizard types made mistakes," Bran said.
"Yes, we do." Will smiled wearily. "All living things make mistakes sometimes. We have to guard against mistakes rather more than most mortals, though, because the consequences of our mistakes are potentially much worse. But, yes, we make mistakes, and this was one of mine."
Bran whirled on him. "You're not helping, you know."
Will frowned. "What?"
"If you're trying to make me like you," Bran said. "You say we used to be friends, but you're standing there… It's all 'us' and 'you'. Mortals, you called us. How do you expect a mere mortal to be friends with that?"
"I'm sorry…" Will began, but Bran was already striding away. Will caught him up. "Where are you going?"
"To John's house," Bran replied, without turning round or breaking stride. "To get my father, and to tell him something while I'm there."
Will let his light fade away to darkness. He knew what was coming.
"Because here I am," Bran continued, "complaining because you lied to me, that you kept secrets. But what am I doing myself? Keeping secrets. Because, Stanton, I am not a hypocrite. Unlike you, I actually intend to do something about it."
"You're telling them everything." Will brought his hand up to his face. His head was throbbing, and his eyes hurt. "Secrets. My secrets. Things no-one's supposed to know."
"Then you'll have to make them forget about it all afterwards," Bran sneered. "At least I'll have done my part."
Will watched him almost out of sight, then followed heavily, as if in a dark dream. Two more, he thought. And now there are six. A week ago, there had only been him. Then there was Jane and Bran. Barney and Simon now knew, although Barney, at least, did not fully believe. Soon there would be John and Owen. Six, and how many more to follow. Thousands of years, and a lifetime, of secrecy, and this was the start of it being unraveled.
All through those lonely years, he had longed for someone who shared his secrets. Now people were finding out, it felt… dangerous. It felt as if each one was being granted a fragment of power over him. At least solitude was safe.
I could stop Bran, he thought. There were a hundred ways he could stop him from entering John Rowlands' door. He could take the memory from him, so he could forgot all of this. He could take control and stop this, or he could surrender to what was happening. When people knew the truth, they had choices, and their choices gave them the power to change things. Sometimes the consequences were immense, but the freedom to choose had to be preserved at all costs. It had always been the main difference between the Light and the Dark.
Besides, he told himself, Merriman had trusted John Rowlands enough to leave him with more knowledge of the Light than most mortals possessed. Owen Davies seemed to know a lot more about the identity of Bran's mother than he ever admitted. If anyone could be trusted with the truth, it was those two.
He started to walk slowly after Bran. Far ahead, he saw a small patch of light, and he knew that Bran had already reached John Rowlands' house, that he had knocked and been let in.
He looked up at the mountain, cold and empty. The pull of the dead was faint, but still there. He had left them bound by a circle of power, far in the past, in a time before man. They would remain there until he went back for them, but that he would only do when he knew he could defeat them, or when he had no other choice.
Another light went on in John's cottage, blazed for a little while, then went off again. Kitchen, supplied the human part of Will's mind. Bran had arrived, saying he had something important to say, so John was making them a nice cup of something first. It was the British way.
Will was aching from the walk, wearied by the fight. What was Bran saying now? How were they reacting? Did they know the truth now?
Will, the Old One, hoped that they would not believe, but once that same Will had been a small boy. Will, the boy, had looked up to John Rowlands. He had gone to him for advice and he had listened to what was said. Very little of that boy remained, but there was enough. If he knows, that boy whispered, then he'll give me advice again. He's not Merriman, but it will be, just a tiny bit, as if Merriman is here again.
He shook his head, driving away that small boy. He entered the gate of John's house, and dogs started to bark. He had not heard them bark at Bran's arrival.
Should I go in? He paused at the door. Bran would not want him there, he thought, but this thing had to be ended.
Taking a deep breath, he raised his hand to the door. Bran threw it open before he could touch it. "And there," he sneered, "right on cue comes the English wizard himself."
Will walked in without a word, and headed for the room with a light. Owen was there, hunched in an arm chair, looking stricken. John Rowlands met Will's gaze with a fearless look of his own. "It is you, then." He nodded his head in a gesture that was close to a bow.
Will nodded a bow in return. The Light owed much to John Rowlands, even if the man would never remember it. He did not sit down, and he did not speak. He had no idea how much Bran had told them. While Owen and John had taken their drinks to where they were sitting, the third mug was untouched, and on the wrong side of the coffee table. Bran, Will thought, had charged in and poured it all out brutally, standing up, or pacing around the room.
"They know everything," Bran said triumphantly.
"Strange things, Bran has been telling us," John Rowlands said, never taking his eyes off Will. "There are many who would not believe it."
"But you?" Will's voice was husky.
John nodded his head consideringly. "My father always told me that there was much truth in the old legends. I have never stopped believing that. So, yes, I believe him. And now that I see you, I believe that there is more. Will you sit down?"
Will sat down carefully. He was very tired, and although he could usually hide most things, he could not hide everything.
"Of course there's more!" Bran shouted.
"There is more," Will said to John, "but not all things can be told to all people. That is the burden we take up when we come into our power. We… do things, so that man can be free. Great battles have been fought that men know nothing of."
"Which is how it should be," John said firmly. "No, boy," he chided, when Bran made to interrupt. "Remember the stories, Bran. The great ones are different from us. There are things we are not meant to know. If we know too much, it changes us, and we are no longer free." He returned to Will. "Bran tells us that you sent away the things that have been troubling us. He also says that there is something else."
"There is." Will nodded. "Something… unforeseen. The Light thought they were leaving the world in the hands of men, as it should be. I was left behind to watch, just in case. But something has arisen that should not be there."
John tilted his head to one side. "You did not want us to know this, I think."
Will shook his head. "No-one's supposed to know. No-one did know. Bran and Jane found out because I was careless. We're not supposed to drag mortals into things, although sometimes…" He faltered, remembering the views John had once held about the Old Ones and their dealings with humans. "Sometimes it is necessary," he finished firmly. "Bran saved me today."
John looked from Will to Bran and back again. "When wizards meddle with mortals, it is often the mortals who get hurt," John said. His voice was less cold than his words. "I would warn you not to forget that, but I can see… No." He shook his head. "That is not something for now."
Bran was glowering. John turned to him. "And you, Bran… Am I to understand that you told us this man's secrets against his will? That was not well done."
"People need to know the truth," Bran blazed, but John shook his head.
"There are things people ought not to know." His eyes seemed to flicker towards Owen, so quiet and hunched in his chair. "When you tell someone something, boy," he said gently, "ask yourself if you're doing it for their sake, or for your own, and never ever seek to use innocents as a weapon in your own war."
Bran clenched his fists. "I don't…"
John smiled sadly at him. "Look to your father, boy. Take him home."
end of chapter three
Secrets and lies
Jane switched the television off, and stretched. She had covered four pages with notes, but she could find no further news programmes to watch. Thank goodness Will hasn't got Sky, she thought with a wry smile. Only five channels to monitor, and no twenty-four hour news. From the shelf upon shelf of diaries at home, she knew she had an obsessive streak. If the news had been showing all night, she suspected she would still be sitting here at three in the morning, concentrating fiercely, noting down everything she saw.
She wandered into the kitchen for a cup of tea. Like the living-room, it was a sparsely-furnished room, functional and comfortable, but with little display of personality.
"Not what I would have expected a wizard's house to look like," she said, with a chuckle.
Leaving her tea on the working surface, she went upstairs to get a book. Will had put her in a small guest room, though he had had to find spare sheets in a wardrobe, and remove a pile of books from the bed. Clearly he was not used to having guests. At least she had a proper bed, though. The third bedroom had been set up as a study, and had no bed at all. Bran had been sleeping on an airbed on the floor.
The door to Will's bedroom was ajar. Jane paused, and found herself drawn to the threshold.
I shouldn't go in, she thought. It's his private place.
Will had given her the key in such a matter-of-fact manner. Would she have been so quick to give a key to someone she had only known for a few days? Her diaries would be there on the shelf, for anyone to pick up and flick through. There was so much of herself in her house, and she always went through it tidying, moving things away, before visitors came. There was a lot that she did not want even her brothers to see.
Will surely had secrets. His whole life was a secret. He was an immortal wizard, who saw things that no-one else alive could see, and dealt with things of such magnitude that ordinary life paled. Until she and Bran had worked it out, no-one had known. Outside the door, he was the quiet and scholarly Will Stanton, invariably polite, but who always seemed to be holding a little of himself back. Inside, though, he could be himself. Surely he could be himself here.
She raised her hand falteringly to the door, but did not push it open. "No," she told herself. "I mustn't."
She had seen Will's soul laid bare on the mountain, but after that he had composed himself, drawn himself inwards. She had wondered if his house would offer clues to who he was, but so far she had been disappointed. The whole place was tidy and comfortable, but soulless. There were no personal touches, no family photographs, no eccentricities. And no spell books or bubbling tubes of potion, either, she thought with a smile.
Perhaps it was all an illusion. This had occurred to her right at the start, when Will had been so unconcerned about letting her have the run of his house. Perhaps she was seeing only a soulless overlay to his own true house. Perhaps there were spellbooks and pictures and scribblings on every surface, but she was unable to see them.
Somehow, that seemed to be a more comfortable explanation than the other one, which was that this was how Will's house truly was. He came from a large family, but his house was not set up for guests. There were no family photographs on the wall, no stamp of personality. His public persona, of quiet, polite detachment, extended even to his own home. There was nowhere that truly reflected him... or maybe this really was him, and there was nothing but bleakness and emptiness inside.
I need to find out, she thought, just so I know. Just so I know how to talk to him.
She pushed the door open, switched on the light... A single bed was inside, neatly made up. Not even lovers, then, she thought, and it saddened her. There were a few pictures on the wall. One, she saw with amazement and not a little shame, was of herself and her brothers. Another showed Bran as a child, playing with a dog, and unaware of being photographed. The largest picture was a painting of a man that was probably Merlin, standing in a place of heart-breaking loveliness. His gaze seemed to invite the viewer to step in and find that land, but it was only a painting, so of course they could not.
"And he lives with that," she breathed. "Every night, the last thing that he sees... And he can't go there. He's stuck here, in this empty house."
Jane took another step into the room, then clapped her hand to her mouth. I shouldn't be here. This was too much, a violation of privacy. Another fear struck her then - that Will would know. Perhaps he had set protective magics around his room. She felt suddenly like Bluebeard's bride, sneaking into a forbidden room while Bluebeard was away. What if Will found out? What if he knew?
She backed out, closed the door behind her until it was at the angle it had been at before she touched it. Clutching her book, she ran downstairs, and composed herself on the couch, a picture of innocence, as if she had never thought of going anywhere else at all.
She opened her book, but all she could see was Will's room; all she could think of was her fear, and the sadness that followed it.
There would never be anything between Will and her. She thought she had given up all thought of a relationship when she had found out the truth about him, but it seemed that she had entertained a little glimmer of hope after all, for she grieved, now that it was gone. How could she ever truly love someone who hid so much? How could she trust someone with her heart, when they had magic strong enough to take your memories and hide behind illusion? When you were with Will, you would never truly know if you were seeing or remembering the truth. There would always be that seed of doubt. There would always be that vast gulf of difference.
She mourned for herself a little, but most of all she mourned for Will. Will with his single bed, and his empty little house. Will, who went to sleep every night to pictures of childhood friends who had forgotten him, and a mentor who had left him behind. Will, who would one day would find the land in the painting, and live there forever, while mortals like Jane were long-since dead and gone.
There would never be anyone quite like him. There would never be anyone for him. He might know passing friendships, but he would never know that true love of equals, for he was immortal and magical, but he was the only one.
"Oh, Will," she murmured, for she realised that there might be pain for him, as well as comfort, in this new-found friendship of theirs.
She sighed, and leant back on the couch. As she did so, someone hammered at the door.
"So?" Bran demanded, when they were out in the darkness together, slowly walking the way home.
His father said nothing.
Bran persisted. "What did John mean? Look to your father. Why?"
"You can ask that?" Owen spat it out with shocking vehemence. "Think to what you told us, boy, and the way you told it. Then ask the question again, and see if you know the answer."
"About magic," Bran said, understanding. "John believes, it seems, but you..."
"Magic?" Owen spat on the ground. "Superstition and sin."
"It's a shock at first, and hard to believe..."
"Listen to yourself!" his father cried. "It's a shock, hard to believe... But did you tell your tale in a gentle fashion, preparing us? No, you came charging in and told it like an accusation, daring us to disbelieve. And I know why, too. You were trying to impress that English creature."
There was such hatred in his voice as he said the word, that Bran almost flinched. "You mean Will? I'd never try to impress..."
"Score a point over him, then, which is much the same thing." Owen gave a hollow laugh. "Oh, I know what you're thinking now. Who am I, Owen Davies, to know so much about people's motives? I sit in my farm, cut off from the world, hating all strangers..." He let out a long breath, strangely sorrowful. "I wasn't always like that, boy. It's too late to change now, but..."
Owen was silent again. Surrounded by the night, Bran felt a creeping trepidation. What have I done? His father's quietness and solitude had always been one of the certainties of his life. This man beside him did not sound like his father. Could it be? he thought, suddenly cold. Is this the enemy talking through my father?
He tried to beat that thought down. Bran had just told his father a life-changing truth, and shock often made people act strangely. He only had to think of the way he had been since being attacked, so hostile, so hateful, so... But, no, that was only with Will, and Will deserved it.
"I'm sorry for the way of the telling," Bran said gently, formally. "Perhaps I told you wrong. But I don't think I was right to tell. It's wrong to keep secrets, especially if you..." Love someone, he should have said, but he had never said such a word to his father in all his life, and had never had it said back to him, either. Some people did not need words.
His father stopped walking for a moment. "Is that what you think?"
"Yes." Bran shook his head, frowning. "And it is true, what I told you. All of it. I'm sorry."
"I cannot believe it." His father's voice was surrounded by darkness. "It's a sin. It's against God's word."
"You haven't been to Chapel for years," Bran pointed out.
"God's word does not become untrue just because one of his humblest servants does not visit Chapel for a while," Owen said.
Years ago, Chapel had been a central part of Owen Davies' life. He had spoken often of God, and he had spent time with friends from the congregation. Somehow, over the years, all that had faded, Bran had never asked Owen why. He had assumed it was because his father's belief in God was fading, but perhaps he believed in God as much as he ever had done, but his habits of solitude meant that he wanted worship him quietly and alone.
"I didn't know," Bran said limply. He thought of Barney, and how Jane had said afterwards that she should have prepared arguments. Will had said that no arguments were necessary, though, that magic and religion could sit side by side. "John had no trouble believing, though."
"John Rowlands," Owen said with distaste, "was always one to believe overmuch in stories. I never was. Even as a boy. Even as a boy..."
His voice trailed away. Bran glanced at him, and saw how small and hunched he looked, as if an enormous hand had reached out and crushed him in misery. Surely Bran hadn't done all this just by telling the truth?
Bran reached as if to touch his father's hand. "I'm sorry. I didn't think." Another step, and another. "But it is true, though," he had to say. "If you can't believe it, then... Well. I can accept that. But don't try to stop me from believing. Don't hold me back from what I need to do. Don't look at me as if I'm a sinner for believing." Another step. Another. "Please?" It was almost a whisper. He hated himself for it, but could not help it.
They had almost reached their own gate. The mountains were silent, but it was a good silence, Bran thought. Will had banished the dead, or at least had imprisoned them somewhere where they could not harm anyone. There were no ghostly visions of past murders, because the enemy no longer walked here in the flesh. The world was a swirling mass of darkness and threat, but his own home at least was at peace. Because of Will. Though thought slipped into his mind without him wanting it to, and he pressed his lips together, and turned towards the house.
He opened the door. Nothing had changed inside. A cat stretched, and greeted them, eager for love and food. A faint smell of dinner still lingered in the air, along with all the subtle and indefinable smells that made up his home. Bran had spent all his adult life in this house, and although John wanted him to think it was a prison, it was his home, his core, his safety. He was leaving it now, travelling wherever Will's battle took them, but this was the place he would always come back to.
"Tea?" Bran offered, as he walked towards the dark kitchen. "Coffee?" He smiled to himself. "Something stronger?" Owen never drank, but they had some whisky and beer in the cupboard, because Bran and John sometimes shared a drink after a hard day's work.
He heard his father's steps, shambling along the hallway.
"What do you want to drink?" Bran repeated.
His father's steps came to a halt. "Bran." It was rasping, strangled. "No, don't put on the light."
Bran frowned. The kitchen door closed, so the light from the hall was only a golden crack, and things were only formless shapes. He heard a chair being pulled out, scraping on the tile floor, but he did not hear his father sitting down.
"Why don't you want the light on?" he asked.
"Because I couldn't... I don't think I could say this, if I could see you."
"What?" The fear was back, a clenched fist in his chest. Bran clutched the edge of the work surface. Forms were slowly taking shape out of the semi-darkness, He saw mugs and jars and a knife block, dark shapes without relief. They reminded him of the way the dead stepped so smoothly out of the night, and he could have almost laughed.
"It's against God," his father grated. "I didn't believe it. I couldn't believe it. But now you come here with this story, and he's here, this English wizard. There were things on the mountains that didn't look human, but weren't animal, either, and I told myself... But I knew. I knew. These last few weeks have been the closing doors of doom, and this is the end."
"What do you mean?" Bran fumbled his way to the table and sat down. Owen was still standing.
"You shouldn't have secrets from someone you love," Owen said miserably. "You said so, or you as good as said so. And I love you, Bran, like my own son. So much so that I've... God knows that John's had words with me about it more than once. Keeping you here. Bringing you up to shun all strangers. But I didn't want to lose you. It was us against the world. Like John's stories, of people with a changeling child, who love it very much, but they know that one day the fair folk will come back for it and they won't have it any more, however much they love it. They want to keep it for a little longer. Nothing else matters."
Bran raked his hand over his face. "It doesn't make sense." But his voice was trembling, his breathing faltering. Was Owen saying what he seemed to be saying? No, no. Of course he wasn't. It was just words. Just a way of speaking. Just a mind, fractured by the truth.
"As soon as you came in out of the darkness and told us your truth, I knew," Owen said. "I knew I would have to tell you mine. John knew that, I think. That's why he said what he did. Because it has to be me who tells you. You mustn't find it out from anyone else."
"What?" His voice seemed to be coming from a very long way away. He felt as if he was drowning.
"I am not your father, Bran." Such simple words, said so simply, without emotion.
The darkness in the kitchen was too much. Bran closed his eyes.
"Oh, in God's sight, in every way that matters, you are my son. I loved your mother. She came to me one night, down from the mountain, with a child in her arms. Two days only did she stay, but I loved her, and she still has my heart. But she was in trouble, you see. She couldn't stay. She gave you to me, with a note. I called for her. I called for her everywhere, but I never found her. I never found her."
"A note." Even with his eyes shut, it was too much. Thoughts swirled and gibbered, and he could not catch hold of any of them, and neither did he want to.
"I was going to tell you." Owen's voice broke. "I always intended to tell you when you were old enough to understand. But I didn't, and the years went on, and it got harder, it got impossible."
"So you thought you'd say nothing," Bran said coldly, without opening his eyes, "and eventually you'd die, and I'd die, and nothing would matter any more."
"Why now?" Bran opened his eyes. He seemed to see things differently now. There were harsh edges to everything in the gloom, and the smells that had been comforting such a short time ago, were now horrible and sickening. "Why tell me now?"
"Because..." Owen clenched his fist uselessly. How pathetic he looked, how spineless. "It was what you said... Magic, you said. It's against God's law. I can't believe it, but..."
"What?" Bran demanded. "Tell me the truth now."
Even in the darkness, Bran could see the pleading and the misery in Owen Davies' face. "She was running from something, see. I didn't know what. I still don't know what. But I do know this. When you came rushing into John's house just now, and starting telling your wild tale, I saw your mother. I saw her face here." He pressed his hand to his heart and to his brow. "She was mixed up in this, I thought. And now Bran is, too, and he will find out the truth before long."
"So you thought you'd tell me?" The words wrenched from his mouth like hooks.
"It had to be me," Owen cried. "Me, not a stranger. It's something you have to hear with love."
"With love?" Bran stood up. The chair screamed on the floor, and fell over. "No, Owen, it was something I should have been told years ago. It's too late now for love to come into it."
He walked out of the room, and Owen did not stop him. Out of the house, then, into the night. No-one called after him. Darkness shrouded him, and the wind clawed at his face, as if seeking his tears, but he blinked, and he hardened his heart, and he did not weep.
"No," John Rowlands had said. "Don't go after them."
John was busying himself in the kitchen. Will had sat down, and was waiting for enough time to pass, or for John to give him the word, or for something to happen. Because something's going to happen. He felt it like a creeping on the back of his neck, and he clutched the arms of the chair with whitened knuckles. But he was also tired, exhausted from his battle and still not yet fully healed, so he leant back in the chair, and fought the sleepiness that wanted him to close his eyes.
John emerged from the kitchen, holding two mugs of something hot. "You must think we spend all our day drinking tea."
Will gave a weary smile. "It's what they say about the English, normally, not the Welsh."
"Perhaps it's to give us something to do." John sat down, mug in hand, but he did not look comfortable. "Something to distract us from the need to talk."
"There is a need to talk." Will said it half as a question, half as a statement.
Will took his mug of tea, but did not drink it. It burnt his hands to hold it, and hurt him, but at least it was warm. The coldness of the dead still lingered, like ice at his centre.
There were so many things he wanted to talk to with this man, but, as the tea warmed him, he knew that most of them could never be said. He was not eleven any more. He remembered the respect, even awe, with which John had always spoken of Merriman. To an Old One in the body of a small boy, John had cast himself almost in the role of mentor, but he would never to do to a grown man. His bow had shown as much.
John broke the silence first. "I am wondering how much you know." His tone was respectful, but wary. "Do you know all secrets of all hearts?"
Will shook his head, a slight smile on his lips. "Mostly I only know things that I am told, or see with my own eyes. There are… other ways, but I would never do them to a friend or an innocent, but only in great need, to those who have made choices of the Dark."
John worried at his mug. "That's as may be. What I am wondering is…"
Will took pity on him. "Bran," he said gently. "You're wondering what I know about him. You told him to look to his father. You're wondering if I know why." He looked into the murky mirror of his drink, but saw no answers there. "I do know things about Bran," he said. "What I do not know if how much you know. I do not know why Owen Davies looked as if did, or why you sent Bran out with him, alone."
"There are… secrets there," John said awkwardly. "When Bran burst in as he did, I looked at Owen's face, and I knew. This was the trigger for the telling of them."
Will frowned, trying to think. Bran's true father was not Owen Davies, but King Arthur, but he had been brought through time by Merriman, to be brought up by another man. Bran had discovered all this years ago, but he had chosen to be mortal, and thus had renounced his power, and chosen to forget. Bran did not know that his father was Arthur, but surely he still remembered that Owen Davies was not his father. Surely he still knew that.
"He doesn't know," he gasped. The knowledge hit him like a hammer blow. The forgetting had been too complete. Bran still believed that Owen Davies was his father, and not far away, at this moment, he was discovering the truth.
But why? He floundered, struggling to ask the question, not to lose himself in sympathy for his friend. Bran had told John and Owen that magic existed, and Owen had responded by telling him this secret. Why? All he could think of was that, with Owen, the spell of forgetting had not been complete enough. Owen had not been there at the final battle. Perhaps Merriman had forgotten that he, too, knew the truth. Most of it had gone, but enough remained for him to choose this moment now to reveal the truth.
"Oh, Bran," he said aloud, and closed his eyes in sorrow. "It will be too much for him."
He heard John lay his mug firmly down. "What does your kind know about the strength or weaknesses of humans? In the stories I have heard, you are always asking too much, or expecting too little."
"Perhaps." Will opened his eyes. "But as Bran himself reminded me not many days ago, I, too, am human, in a way."
"In a way." John gave a twisted smile, even a chuckle. "No, don't misunderstand me. I don't mean to stand in your way. It's just that…"
"I know," Will said, wearily, warmly. "I knew you once, you see. I was only a boy. I knew you all. You saw most than most men did, and understood even more. You said then that you would help me, but even as you helped us, you were the fiercest critic I ever knew when it came to the things the Light was forced to do. You always were a ferocious champion of humanity."
John ran his hand across his balding head. It was a strangely humble, naked gesture. "I don't remember."
And more, Will thought sadly. More than this have you forgotten. More than I will ever tell you. "You were made to forget," he said gently. "As were they all."
"Made?" John raised an eyebrow, eloquent with judgement. "That is a cruel word."
"But not an inhuman one," Will said. "A wise man once said that humankind cannot bear too much reality." He gave a sad smile. "You always used to tell me that I had to think about the effect the Light's actions had on normal men and women, and I said that we couldn't always do that. Some things were so important that feelings had to be forgotten, for the greater good. Sometimes people did get hurt. Sometimes forgetting is the only remedy. A crude one, perhaps, but sometimes it is the only way. It is our salve, for the harsh things that sometimes we have to do."
John drained his mug, and grimaced, as if it tasted bad. "I do not like your way," he said, when he had finished, "but that is not the point. The point is, what are you going to do now? What about young Bran?"
Will froze in the act of raising his own mug. "Bran?"
"We are fencing with words," John said. "We both know what secret Owen is telling Bran. The question is, what are you going to say to Bran, afterwards? His world is being torn apart. He needs the support of friends."
It was clear from his expression that he did not class Will as Bran's friend. "I am his friend," Will said, though he was speaking as himself, not as the Old One he had to be. "I was his only friend, at a time in his life when he most needed one. Of course, he's forgotten that," he was compelled to say, regretting it.
"You say that," John said, "but the proof of a friend is in how he acts. And how will you act? As a friend? Or as a… an Old One, with your own task that you need to do, when the happiness and future of little people like Bran is ultimately second to that?"
Will flinched inside, but he met John's gaze levelly. "I have my task to perform, yes. But I will not let Bran suffer."
"So you will let him go?" John leant forward in his chair. "When he comes here, as I know he will, will you let him go? Release him from this quest of yours. Let him stay with the man who is his father, in every way that matters, and rebuild their relationship. Let him rediscover who he is. God knows, I've been urging him to leave this place and widen his horizons, but not like this. Not like this."
Will opened his mouth, and closed it again. He tried several beginnings, but in the end he said the only thing an Old One could say. "I will do what I have to do." He leant his head back stiffly against the wooden chair, but he let out a slow breath. "But I will let Bran do what he needs to do, whatever that is. I would never hurt him, John."
"Then leave him out of your battle," John urged him. "Release him from any obligations. One day he needs to leave here, but for the right reasons, and with his own kind."
"And what kind is that, John?"
They both turned round, startled, cold. Neither of them had heard Bran come in. Will should have heard him. He should have known. "Bran…" he began.
John leapt to his feet. "Bran. My boy."
"You knew." It was icy cold, the voice of the relentless king that Bran would never now be. Bran looked at John, and then, wondering, to Will. "You both knew."
"I knew." John bowed his head.
Bran swiped at him, almost striking him. "Why didn't you tell me?" It was low and brutal, far more terrible than a furious scream.
"Because Owen said…" John began.
"You're blaming him, then?" Bran gave a harsh bark of laughter.
"No, Bran." John spread his hands, palms upwards.
Will could not say a thing. He could only stare mutely at Bran. It was all falling apart. This was like the mountain in the storm, when all of existence had narrowed to that tiny, fragile point in time, all swirling emotions and darkness and fear.
"You should blame him, though," Bran sneered. "I do."
There was misery beneath his anger, of course. Will could see it plainly, and knew that John could, too. This was so much worse than the first time Bran had found out this same secret. There were so many more years of lies, and so much more betrayal. And last time, Bran had immediately discovered the wonder and glory of his true heritage and powers. Now he had nothing but loss.
"You shouldn't blame him," John was urging Bran. "It's only understandable that you do now. It's all too new, too much of a shock. But he's always loved you. That's why he was so afraid to tell you. He was afraid that he'd lose you with the truth." He raised one pleading hand. "You should go to him, boy. Go back and talk to him. You two need to…"
"Don't tell me what I need!" Bran hissed, still low, still cold, still terrible. He turned to Will, standing so silent. "And you, English wizard, with an answer to everything, even though you've made a mess of your own life…" He sucked in a breath. "Gloating, are you?"
"No, Bran," Will said quietly.
"But you're wondering what poor little Bran will do now, aren't you? I heard you and John, talking about it when you thought I wasn't here."
"I wasn't talking about it, Bran," Will said, and then wished that he hadn't, because it sounded petty, as if he wanted Bran to blame John instead.
"I know what you're thinking now." Bran continued as if Will had not spoken. "You're wondering if your nice little group is all broken up. If your precious childhood friend - the friend who liked so much you lied to him and stole his memory - is going to leave you all alone. You're wondering if you're going to have to stand all by yourself against the enemy, without poor deluded Bran to hold you up and 'anchor' you."
"I wasn't," Will told him honestly. He looked Bran full in the eye, and held that gaze, even when Bran tried to look away. "I grieve for you, but I will still walk away. If my duty takes me elsewhere, I will go, whether you come, or not. An Old One can never do what their heart most wants to do."
Bran swallowed. His eyes flickered from side to side, almost desperate. "You weren't saying that last week, when you were the one who…"
"I know," Will said. "I… fell. You saved me, you and Jane. And I cannot fall again."
Bran stared at him, a lingering and curious look. When he spoke at last, his voice was quiet. "Will you make me forget?"
Will would not look away. "Do you want me to?"
Bran slumped down in a chair, pressed his face into his hand. "I'm coming with you." It was quiet, muffled by the hand, barely audible at all. He raised his head, and spoke it clearly. "This doesn't change a thing. I'm coming with you."
"No!" John cried. "Don't do this, Bran. Don't run away."
"Don't tell me what to do." Bran spoke with weary anger. "Why shouldn't I go with him? There's nothing for me here now. Nothing at all."
Will said nothing to dissuade him, though he knew that John Rowlands would never forgive him for it.
end of chapter four
A key turned quietly in the lock. Jane turned towards it, unable to keep the relief from her voice. "Here's Will now."
The man beside her said nothing. After a morning of pacing and phone calls, he had finally slumped down on the couch, and stayed there, a picture of hunched anxiety. Now there was a fragment of hope again. It seemed that he, too, had placed his faith in Will Stanton.
"Jane?" Will called from the hall. "You here?"
I expect he knows, Jane thought, remembering how she had felt when tip-toeing into his room. Will knew she was here, but this was his way of warning her that he was here, in case she was changing, or doing something she did not want people to see.
"Yes," she called. "Here. In the living room." She swallowed. "With…"
She rose to meet him. They met in the doorway. The sun was shining through the glass in the front door, mercilessly showing how tired Will looked. Bran had barely moved from the door mat, and there was something dark and intense between the two of them that Jane could almost touch. The harsh light made Bran look unearthly, shuttered behind his dark glasses.
"In here," Jane said.
She moved aside, and saw Will see his visitor for the first time. His eyes widened, but he hid his surprise quickly. When he spoke, his voice was calm, and even his tiredness had been veiled. "Paul. What are you doing here?"
"Visiting my little brother." Paul's mouth twisted in a miserable attempt at a smile. "Is that so remarkable?"
Will smiled. It looked less forced that Paul's smile, but that was only because he had more practice at pretending. "No. I'm sorry I wasn't here. Do you want anything? A drink?"
"Jane's already done the hostess bit." Paul pushed his long hair off his brow. "I came here last night. I don't know who was more surprised: her or me."
"Me, I'm sure," Jane said. She had been trembling as she had crept to the door, sure that some awful enemy lay outside. She had only opened the door after questioning Paul intensely, and even then she had been half-convinced that the illusion would fall away as soon as he was inside, revealing the monster beneath.
Will sat down heavily in one arm chair, and Bran took the other. She could not see his eyes, to know who he was looking at, or what he was thinking.
"What's wrong?" Will asked his brother. "What's happened?"
Paul shook his head. "What sort of a life do we lead, that you can ask that? Have I really never visited you before? No, I haven't. Have you ever visited me? No, you haven't. Why do we let ourselves get so cut off?"
Will leant forward, forearms resting on his lap. "What's happened, Paul?"
Paul clasped his hands in his lap. His eyes flicked towards Bran. Will saw it. "Oh. That's Bran Davies. Bran, this is my brother Paul." Bran gave a curt nod, but that was all. To Paul, Will said, "He can be trusted, but if you'd rather…"
"Don't mind me." Bran gave a harsh laugh. "I don't know you. I don't care what secrets you have to confess. It's not as if I know anyone I can blab them to."
What happened? Jane wondered. She wished she dared grab Bran and go somewhere else with him. Paul would clearly prefer to talk to Will alone, and she had so many things she had to ask. Had they confronted the dead? Had Will been successful? What had happened to make Bran like this, as angry and closed-off as he had been right at the start?
"Very well…" Paul started twisting his fingers together, as if by concentrating on that, he could make his words a little less true. "I was playing in a concert a couple of nights ago, in the Sheldonian. I thought it would be nice to make a little holiday of it, as a surprise for Jon. It's our anniversary next week, and… Well, anyway, we were here and… we had an argument, yesterday morning. I don't know why. I don't really know what it was about. We were just bickering in that pointless way that sometimes happens, but suddenly he was screaming at me. He stormed off and…"
Will waited. His face was gentle, neutral. "And…?"
Paul shook his head uselessly. "He never came back. We only had the hotel room until noon. I had to go back to pack and check out. I've got all his things. His wallet, too. He'd left it on the bedside table. He's always forgetful like that, relies on me to do the paying. He's got no money with him. I've phoned all the hospitals. I've phoned his parents and his friends and our neighbours at home, but the lights were off all night. I don' t know…" His words trailed off in a sigh.
"I'm sorry." Will looked at him with those ageless eyes.
"It was all I could think of, coming to you," Paul said. He gave a distracted, apologetic smile. "I don't know why I didn't tell you I'd be in Oxford. You must think I was avoiding you."
"No, I quite understand," Will said. Jane thought at first that he meant he understood Paul's need to have a quiet holiday with his lover, but then she remembered that only a few days ago, Paul had not even known that Will existed.
"But then…" Paul sighed. "I was at my wits' end. I didn't know where to go. But then I remembered… And it wasn't just because you lived nearby. I know it sounds stupid, but I thought… It just seemed to me that, if anyone could help me, it would be you."
"I hope I can." Will's voice was still quiet.
Paul gave an embarrassed laugh. "It should be the other way round. I should be the one racing to my little brother's rescue. I shouldn't think of my little brother and see him as…"
My saviour, Jane filled in for him, silently. She saw in Will's eyes that he heard the same word, and sorrowed for it. He had told them that his family were entirely ignorant of the truth about him, but perhaps that was not entirely so. Perhaps, in some deep hidden place, a fragment of the truth remained, enough for Paul to come for Will when his need was great.
"Well, it's obvious, isn't it?" Bran spoke at last, startling them all.
Paul's head snapped round. "What is?"
"This Jon of yours has been…"
"No, Bran." It was a snap of command. "Leave it."
"No, Will." Paul spoke in a pale echo of Will's commanding tone. "I want to hear it, whatever it is."
"It was nothing," Will said, a gentle lie. "We've had a long journey, Bran and I, back from Wales, and with little sleep last night. There was an… incident in Wales. We've seen people acting out of character. Bran probably just meant that."
Paul frowned. "Drugs, you mean? You think he's on drugs?"
Bran gave a bark of laughter. Will looked sharply at him, and something in the look was enough to make Bran subside, and sit back, glowering but silent.
"Let's hope not," Will said to Paul. "But the priority is to find him. When we've found him, we can…" His hand rose half way to his brow, perhaps unconsciously. "Deal with what we find," he finished, barely more than a whisper.
Sitting on the edge of the bed, Will buried his face in his hands, rocked by a weariness so great that he did not even think he could stand.
First the battle with the dead, and with his injury not yet fully healed. Then the emotions that came from Bran finding out the truth, and then the long journey, started before it was even light. And now this. Paul, here, and yet more secrets teetering on the edge of being revealed. Paul here, and the possibility that the enemy had somehow taken Jon, and struck right into the heart of Will's family.
There was a quiet knock at the bedroom door. Will raised his head, passed his hand over his face. There was no time to rest, of course. And no time for self-pity. He would do what he had to, and that was that.
Even so, he could not find the strength to stand up and go to the door. "Come in," he called.
The door opened gingerly, and Jane peeped around it when it was only a crack. "Are you sure…?"
"Of course." Will gave a weary smile. "Come in."
Jane came in, almost tip-toeing, and pushed the door closed behind her. When she reached the middle of the room, she stopped, like a naughty child confessing to some pretty crime. "I came in before," she said. "When you were away. I…"
"I gave you my key, Jane," Will said gently. "There are many things I could have done, if I had wanted to keep you out of any one room."
Jane blushed. "I know, but…"
"No buts," Will said.
Jane played awkwardly with a strand of hair. "Did you know? That I'd been in, I mean?"
Will shook his head. "If I'd placed wards, I'd know if anyone had breached them, but I didn't, so, no, I didn't know. Not that it matters at all. It's just my room. There's nothing here. No secrets. Nothing real."
Jane seemed to be about to speak, but she bit her lip, and said nothing.
Will tried to smile. "Have you come to find out what's keeping me? I'm sorry. I came up to get changed, but I… sat down for a while. I'll be down in a minute. I know Paul's eager to get started."
"No, I didn't come to get you." Jane was still standing in the middle of the room, plainly ill at ease, reluctant to sit down anywhere, or even to touch anything. It was another little sadness to layer on Will's heart. "I came to… ask…"
"What happened in Wales," Will completed for her.
Will passed his hand across his eyes. "It almost went wrong. I… confined the dead, but I didn't destroy them. They're out of harm's way for now, but I will have to go back. I almost didn't even manage to do that. If Bran hadn't been there…"
"What's happened with Bran?" Jane asked. "He seems so…" She shook her head. "Like he was at the start, not like he was the other day."
"That is not my secret to tell you," Will said firmly. "Bran might, but don't ask him. Let him tell you in his own time." Jane could be a comfort to Bran, he thought. She had never lied to him. If she spent time with him, perhaps she could come to love him, and… "He found something out," he said, his voice a little strangled. "A family thing. It's hit him hard. If he seems angry, it's because he's hurting inside."
"I know that," she chided him. "I've worked with children for years. I know there are many different ways people deal with hurt."
There was something pointed in her look. He chose to ignore it. "And what about you?" he asked. "What happened with Simon?"
"He's not joining us," she said shortly. "Maybe he believes, and maybe he doesn't. He didn't commit himself. But he said he'd be more use making speeches in Westminster, urging people to be nice to each other, than anywhere else."
"Perhaps he's right." Will let out a breath. Perhaps they would all be better off elsewhere. Bran had saved Will once, but would he do so again? All Will had brought to them so far was heart-ache. Bran had been told his terrible secret, and Jane felt that both of her brothers had rejected her. Chances were, in the final battle, Bran and Jane would be powerless to help him.
In the final battle… "I don't have the faintest idea how to fight him," Will confessed. "I don't know how to find him, let alone fight him."
Jane opened her mouth as if to say something, then closed it again. She crouched down in front of Will, so she could whisper, "Do you really think Jon's been taken over by the enemy?"
Will closed his eyes. "I don't know. Taken over? It's possible. Influenced? Even more probable. We saw how easy and far-reaching his influence can be. He can influence lots of people at the same time. It doesn't have to mean that he's killed Jon and taken over his body."
He heard Jane gasp, and realised that she had not yet realised the possible full implications of Paul's story. But she had not seen Mark's body falling lifeless to the ground, vacated by its host. He wanted to apologise to her, but could not. She had chosen to join him in this, and had begged not to be protected by forgetfulness. He would lie to them about some things, but he would never lie in a way that left them blinded and defenceless, ignorant of the true dangers to themselves.
"But if he's got Jon," Jane said, recovering herself, "then won't we start seeing things happening? Ghosts, or whatever they were. The dead rising."
"Probably." Will still had his eyes closed. He saw the dead, behind his closed eyelids, with grasping hands, drenched with his blood. He saw them coming for him, and he heard Bran's voice, calling, calling, but this time he was drifting too far away, and he could not find him…
"I made a list," Jane said hopefully. "All the places where he might be. It's from the news." A short pause. "Should we start patrolling Oxford looking for strange things happening, and fights, and people acting out of character?" Still, Will said nothing. Her voice was distant, barely there at all. "It would help us find Jon, perhaps. Or, at least, it would give us a clue as to whether the enemy has him, or not."
"Yes," Will murmured. He saw Bran, turning away, not calling to him after all, abandoning him to the dead. He saw the endless road of an exhausting car journey, and Paul's face, grey with pain and worry.
"You should sleep." Dimly he felt Jane's hand on his shoulder. He felt her push him gently over so he lay on his side, and fold the duvet over so it covered him.
He protested faintly. "But Paul…"
"Paul will understand," she said with unexpected vehemence. "You can't bear the whole weight of the world, Will. Not all the time. Not without rest."
"But I do," he tried to tell her, but the words would not shape themselves. He listened for the sound of her footsteps leaving the room, but it did not come, and then he slept.
Paul had his shoes on and was pacing the living room. "Where's Will?" he demanded, when Jane came in.
"Asleep." She refused to be embarrassed or apologetic about it.
"Asleep?" he exploded. "Jon could be out there…"
"Asleep." She sat down on the couch. After a while, Paul did so, too. "He was exhausted," Jane told him. "Of course, he was going to carry on. He would have helped you look for Jon all day, and all night, and all of tomorrow, too. He'd probably have even made you believe that he wasn't tired. So I… took advantage of an unguarded moment, and put him to bed like a baby."
Paul looked at her sharply. "Are you and he…?"
"You asked me that last night," Jane said. "I said no then, too. We're friends." She tried not to blush, and she hoped that Paul was too upset about his own problems to read any stray feelings that spilled over into her eyes.
It seemed that she was wrong. "I'm sorry," Paul said quietly. "You've not seen me at my best. I'm not normally like this. I didn't mean to shout. And I didn't mean for Will to work himself into the ground for me."
Jane immediately felt contrite. She wished that she was a magician, too, so she could make Will feel rested, but have him here for Paul, too. "It's only for a few hours," she said. "He just needs that."
"He did look tired," Paul said. "A long journey can be tiring, I know." He stood up, started pacing again. "And, really, I don't need Will. I can go and look for Jon without him. I should call the police." He stood, and turned to face Jane, his expression almost plaintive. "I just felt really strongly that it was Will… That he's the one that can help me. Yes, I know it sounds crazy, but…"
"I know what you mean," Jane was telling him, before she could stop herself. "I first met Will when he saved me from being attacked. It didn't even cross my mind to call the police."
Paul threw himself down on the couch again. "It's just that sometimes… No, you really are going to think I'm crazy…"
"I don't think I will," Jane said, but then she thought that perhaps she should not have said it. For Will's sake, she should have closed this line of conversation, have distracted Paul to talk about something else.
Paul raked his long-fingered hand through his hair. "Sometimes I find myself thinking that Will is… mixed up with something. I don't know what. But that he's important. That he can make things happen. But it's just a feeling. When I think about it too much, I know it's stupid. But…" He took a deep breath. "I mentioned it to Stephen once, and he said that he felt the same. I've never dared say it to the others, but what if we all feel the same? What if it's true?"
"It is true." Bran came into the room, uncompromising in harsh black and white.
"No, Bran," Jane breathed.
"Why not?" Bran demanded. "You want to keep secrets? To lie? Well, Jenny, the longer you keep secrets, the worse it is when they get told. Will might think it's acceptable to lie to his family, but I'm not going to help him."
"Bran…" She jumped to her feet. She pictured Will upstairs, asleep on the bed, maybe finding a semblance of peace in his dreams. He would wake up, refreshed, and come down to this.
"You're almost right, Paul Stanton." Bran strode into the room, imperious, implacable. "Will isn't your brother, not really. He isn't even human. He's a wizard. An Old One, he calls it. He and his friends think they saved the world some twenty years ago. They made us all forget about it afterwards, of course. They made us forget, and they lied. They always lie."
"Not always, Bran," Jane cried, "and only to protect us." Then she thought that she should have denied it all, because Paul was staring at Bran, white-faced and stunned, as if his world had been torn apart.
"There was a church…" he stammered. "A cross… But, no. Magic? It can't be. It can't be true."
"It's true." Bran was merciless. "And I'll tell you something else. Just yesterday Will was almost destroyed when fighting some dead people who had fed on his blood. He came back here to try to find the creature that raised the dead. It's something that will make us all destroy each other, and Will has to fight it. Jane and I are helping him. That's why he's so tired and can't just drop everything because you choose today to visit him for the first time in years."
He still sounded furious, but his words were at odds with his tone. It was almost as if he was defending Will, even as he was destroying him, by shredding another of his secrets, and breaking into the sanctity of his family's ignorance.
"Bran…" Jane tried again. "Please…"
"He's… fighting…?" Paul raised a shaky hand to his brow.
"An enemy who gets into people's heads and makes them act violently," Bran declared. "That makes them fight and kill. An enemy that can even possess a body completely. An enemy who can be anywhere in the world, and everywhere, or just in one spot, where ghosts walk, and the dead."
But it was clear that Paul had heard only a fragment of it, the only bit that mattered.
"Jon," he moaned. "Oh, Jon…"
"What have you done, Bran?" Jane shouted. "Look what you've done!"
Bran spun on his heels and left the room. Paul had hidden his face in his hands. Jane could only stand there, arms useless at her sides, and wish that Will was there, but also to wish most fervently that he would never come again, to see the ruins they had made of his family, she and Bran together.
Will woke up from a dream that faded the moment he moved, leaving only the knowledge that it had been good. He stretched, yawning, and knew that he had slept deeply and well, and for far longer than he should have done during any day, least of all this day.
The curtains were open, but outside it was darkening, heading towards a humid dusk. The room needed air, and he padded over to open a window. Outside was strangely quiet, with all the usual sounds of a summer evening muffled by a shroud of warmth and barbecue smoke. He heard a cat protesting loudly in the garden, and a blackbird chattering an alarm call, but human sounds were muted and distant.
But it's better that way, he told himself. The enemy did not work with silence. The enemy was screaming and anger and riots and hatred. If the world was sleepy and silent, the enemy had not yet completed its hold. There was still time, and hope.
But how? he thought heavily, as he had asked himself so many times. Then he shook his head. There was no time to muse and linger. Paul was here, and Jon was missing. Will had slept for too long, but Jane was right. He felt rested now, better able to cope with anything that was to come. Terrible mistakes could be made through exhaustion. He knew that well, though he had not always acted upon it. It was hard to, when you were the only one.
He moved away from the window, and headed to the bathroom to brush his teeth and wash his face. He wanted a shower, too, but he paused with his hands on the point of unbuttoning his shirt. It was silent in the house, too. He played back when he had heard when crossing the landing. Nothing. He had heard nothing. Had the others gone out? But they wouldn't, surely, not without waking him… Unless…
He rushed out of the bathroom, and headed downstairs, faster at first, but then slower and slower. Something was wrong. He could feel it, cold and shivering in the pit of his stomach. They hadn't gone after all, he realised, but they were all still there, wrapped in silence, and that was even worse.
Something had happened. Something had happened, and he would have to face it.
Taking a deep breath, he pushed open the door. He saw Bran first, curled at one end of the couch, twisted round so he was glaring out of the window, his back to the others. Will saw his profile, his skin darker than normal against the evening light from outside. It was set with righteous anger, like a statue of his father, carved out of stone.
Jane was the only one of them moving, her hands and fingers moving incessantly, clasping and wringing. She turned round when Will came in, and there was fear in her eyes, and terrible shame. Not afraid of me, no, Will realised. Afraid for me.
He knew the cause, of course. He knew it without needing to hear a single word. The answer was in the face of the third of them, the one he looked at last, because he had known even as he touched the door that something had forever ended.
Paul just looked at him, his expressive eyes full of unknowable things. "Is it true?" he asked.
He could have bluffed, dissembled, stalled for time. Is what true? he could have asked, or some nonsense like, What do you feel, in your heart? The thing was too important for that. "Yes," he said.
Paul frowned, a small furrow between his eyes. "Has it always been… like that? Have you…?"
"Yes," Will told him. "But I only knew since I was eleven."
"Twenty years!" Paul cried. It was closer to a moan. "I thought you were my little brother. My favourite brother. The one who understood me most. The one I…"
"I am," Will said quietly. "In one way, at least. In the ways that matter."
"No," Paul said bitterly, "because you lied to me. You lied to us all."
Will half reached out a hand. It was the only sign of emotion he dared let himself show. "I only did it to protect you all."
"No," Paul spat. "You did it to protect yourself."
Will could not answer for a while. "Maybe," he admitted at last, when he could speak again without his voice wavering and betraying him. "I made mistakes. I have been learning a lot these last few weeks."
Paul said nothing. Bran, Will noticed, had turned round and was staring at them with fierce interest. He looked ready to join in the attack at the slightest provocation. He was the one who had told Paul the truth, of course. Will should have expected it. After what had happened with Owen Davies, there was no way that Bran would condone a secret. Will wanted to say that he understood, and forgave him, but knew that would only make things worse.
"Would you ever have told me?" Paul asked, his voice pained. "If I hadn't found out this way…? If we found Jon, and he was… he was… not himself, would you have told me the truth? Or would you have fobbed me off with platitudes? Would you have made me forget?"
Will remembered Paul's face after he had seen true evil in a church. Some things were so terrible that people could never be happy again unless they forget them, or had them replaced with a kinder memory. The Old Ones had done it throughout history, and never thought it wrong. "Made you forget," Will had to say. "Made it so you could live, and heal, and be happy."
Bran was still watching, but some of the fierceness had drained out of his face. He no longer looked on the point of joining in.
Paul passed his hand across his face. "I don't understand how you could do all this. You're not who I thought you were. You never have been."
Will shook his head, but whether in denial or in agreement, he did not know. It was too late to argue. He had spent far too much time discussing feelings and the rights and wrongs of the past. It was important, but it was not the most important thing. Whether Paul hated him or not ultimately didn't matter. What mattered was the enemy.
"I can't…" he began, but Jane spoke at the same time. "It's not…" They both stopped, and Paul stepped into the silence.
"It's just hard, Will. I'm taking it like a personal betrayal. I know that. I know I shouldn't. I've just been sitting here… Partly I'm furious because you lied… but, really, I'm just… I don't know… You've lived with this since you were eleven? You've lived with this all alone?"
Will nodded mutely. He could cope with accusation, but not this. This left him feeling as defenceless as the child he had once been, before.
Paul shook his head slowly, his eyes shining as if with tears. "Why didn't you tell us, Will? We could have helped you. No-one should be alone, not ever."
"I…" Will could not manage the words. He swallowed hard, and composed himself. Not Will the boy, but Will the Old One, facing the hardest test of all. "There's no time for any of this," he told them all. "It doesn't matter how we feel, or what things are left unsaid. It doesn't matter if we hate each other, or have done things we regret. It's easier to sit here and talk about such things than to get out there and do what needs to be done."
"What needs to be done? How do we get Jon back?" There was hope in Paul's eyes, and faith. It was the most terrible thing of all. He never wanted to be seen as anyone's saviour, least of all his older brother's.
"We look," Will said. "In all the normal ways, just like you've already done, and I have ways I can use, too. But if he's been taken by the enemy…" He took a deep breath. "Then he will find us. I have no doubt of it. Are you prepared for that?"
"For what?" Paul asked. "Please tell me, Will. Don't spare me. What is the worst?"
"The worst…" Will said slowly, "is by no means certain. Please hold on to that. If the enemy is involved – and we don't know for sure that he is – it's mostly likely that he worked on Jon's mind, amplifying any anger he was feeling, but that it's already passed, or soon will do."
"But the worst?" Paul was relentless. "The worst is that he will never stop whispering? That Jon will be angry and violent for ever?"
He could say yes, but Paul had asked. Paul, and Bran before him, had said that lies were always wrong, even if they were done to protect the hearer. "The worst," he said, "is that Jon was already dead when you last talked to him, and that this thing, the enemy, had taken his body and was speaking as him."
Paul's clenched fists trembled, but slowly he straightened his back, and his eyes were grim and clear. Had this strength always been here, Will wondered. Perhaps Paul had always been able to cope with the truth. Perhaps he could have come to terms with the horror in the church, if Will had given him time to.
"Then let us go out," Paul said, "and face it."
Look at him, Bran thought. Striding around like the lord of creation. It was orders this way, and orders that, and the others weren't helping at all. They were just being pathetic. "What shall we do, Will?" That was Jane, or Paul, or both of them together. "How shall we breathe? How shall we think? Will you blow our noses for us, oh great one?"
Bran hated them. He hated Will, mighty wizard, leader of them all. When Will slept, they just sat around and did nothing, waiting for him to wake up again. Everything stopped until he ordered them to go again. Bran hated it, and he hated it most of all because he felt it, too. As soon as he had met Will, things had started happening. Before that, for all of his life, he had just been… Sleeping, his mind added. Waiting.
It made him want to bellow with fury. And Will hadn't reproached him once. He had barely even looked at him. "I told Paul!" Bran wanted to scream. "I've ruined your family! Me!" But Will already knew, and had said not a single word. He had concentrated on Paul, and Paul, amazingly, had soon come round, no longer furious with Will, but sorry for him. Bran wanted to shake Paul by the shoulders and shout, "He lied to you! You have to hate him!" but that, too, he could not do. He just sat there mute, and watched it all.
He wanted Will to talk to him. He wanted Will to shout at him, so he could shout back, and perhaps he would feel a bit better. They had barely spoken on the long journey back from Wales, and Bran had slept for a lot of it, without dreaming. Since finding out about Owen Davies' atrocious lie, he had barely spoken a word that was not full of hatred and scorn. He opened his mouth, and poison spilled out. When he said such things, he thought they would make him feel better, but they only made him feel empty.
He sat on his hands. He bit his tongue. Even Jane seemed to hate him now, judging from the way she avoided him, and the horrified way she had looked at him when he had told Paul the truth. I want you to like me, he thought. I'm not really like this. But, of course, she had liked Will better from the start. Will didn't even seem to want her, but he had her, anyway, and Bran was left with nothing.
Does she know? he wondered, when he saw her eyes glide over him once again, without engaging with him. Had Will told her about his father? No, of course he hadn't, he thought a moment later. Will would never do a thing like that. Will kept other people's secrets… Bran paused, struggling to grasp the threads of his thoughts. Will kept secrets, of course, he thought very deliberately. He was a master of lies.
His hands were shaking. Help me! It whispered unbidden in the back of him mind. Instead he fired some harsh words off, hating everyone. "Stop doing this. Stop being like this."
They stopped, but only Paul looked at him. His eyes were almost mild, though inside he was surely screaming. "Who, Bran?"
Bran tugged a hand free, and swept it so it encompassed the room. "All of you. Will there, taking command. But you're worse, the two of you. He's a wizard. He knows about magic, and the past, and the secrets of the earth. Why do you expect him to know about… about how the police work, about missing persons searches, about the places your boyfriend is likely to run to when he's angry? Let him do what he's good at. Stop making him take control of the things that you can do just as well."
It was more than he had meant to say. It was not even what he had meant to say. They were all looking at him now, though, but Will turned away before Bran could see his expression. Angry, he thought. I've finally made him angry, because he wants to take control over us all.
"Bran," Jane said, almost pleadingly. There was a flicker of cold hatred in Paul's eyes.
"He's right," Will said, looking at Paul, and not at Bran.
"He's right," Will said firmly, interrupting whatever it was that Paul was about to say. Paul yielded, older brother yielding to younger without a murmur. "You're part of this world, more so than I am. I can do lots of things that you will never be able to do, but lots of things you can do just as well as I can. Stop asking me questions. Work it out yourselves. That's what Merriman meant when he… I was to watch, not to change things."
"So you're going to walk away?" Paul said incredulously. "After everything you've said about what might have happened to Jon?"
Will shook his head. "Of course not. I'm going to look for him… somewhere else."
Jane was twisting her hands. "But what shall we…?"
"You heard him," Bran told her harshly. "We use our brains. We're not entirely helpless, you know. We don't need Old Ones there for us to be amazing."
Paul sank back on the couch. "But what if we find him, and he's…?"
"If you find him," Will said, "then I will be there. If he comes, then I will come, too."
How? Bran wanted to ask, but he had mocked them for their questions, so he could not say a word.
Will nodded a farewell, and left the room. After he had shut the door, no footsteps sounded. The front door did not open and close, and no-one climbed the stairs. But none of them went to check. All of them knew that he had stepped out of the room, and vanished. Will was no longer there.
"So…" Paul said.
Bran let out a long breath. He felt cold and empty and afraid, as if outside was terrible, and the only good thing to do was sit here and wait for Will to come back. Even though I hate him, he thought, because he… Because he…
He stood up, and went to put on his shoes, his fingers fumbling only slightly. What if it's me? he thought. What if I'm the enemy? What if everything I'm thinking comes from him?
But they were standing near him now, ready to go – strangers who knew nothing about him, who heard only the hateful words that came spewing from his mouth, and knew nothing about what was inside.
Help me, he pleaded silently. Help me, Will.
Will stepped into the past. It was morning of the day before, and he was in the shadowed emptiness of his own house. Elsewhere, he and Bran were heading off to Wales, and Jane was on a train bound for London, hoping to win over Simon where she had failed with Barney.
He opened the door quietly without a key, and headed along the road, shrouding his presence in case any sharp-eyed neighbours noticed him here, such a short time after seeing him drive away with Bran. Still shrouded, he headed along the road, walking into town. The city felt quiet, but he could sense the tensions gathering behind the surface. Arguments were raging behind locked doors, fuelled by the heat, and by something else. .
Is he here? Will thought. He knew enough now to know that the enemy's hand was at work in this, but the enemy could plant seeds of discord across the whole world. He was everywhere and anywhere. The extra came when he chose to take physical form. Then his power was concentrated, and the dead walked, and past horrors were played out again before human eyes.
Perhaps, even now, the enemy lurked and laughed in the body of Jon, Paul's partner. Will dreaded it, but part of him – a terrible, guilty, cold part of him – hoped it, too. He still had no idea how to defeat the enemy, but at least if the enemy was concentrated in one body, he had a place to start.
At least I will know, he thought, one way or the other.
He reached the centre of town, and stopped, concealed, near Carfax tower. The argument had happened at about ten o'clock, Paul had told him, as they were trying to decide how to spend their last hour in Oxford. Shoppers went by, red-faced with heat and tension. A mother screamed at a crying baby, and a father slapped his child. A husband left his wife, saying he refused to listen to her nagging for another minute. A group of hooded teenagers swore at a security guard who threw them out of his shop, and promised to come back and get him later.
Is this normal? Will thought. He had watched mankind, but he had not let himself be part of it. Too much had passed him by. He could not tell what was normal, and what was the subtle hand of the enemy. But, then, even normality was the enemy's work. His power had been growing for years, fostering hatred, inciting crime.
The clock struck ten. An old lady fell over, and a man laughed. A drunk staggered by, and crowds of tourists jostled to climb the tower. Will drew back into the shadows, and hid himself to touch, as well as to sight. A Japanese woman walked through the very space that he occupied, but he faded out of time for a moment, and then back in, and she did not even flinch or shiver.
At ten past ten, Paul and Jon appeared, their body language shouting tension and discord. Will drew himself even further back in time, so only the very surface of his awareness remained. If the enemy walked in Jon's body, there was no saying what his powers were. Perhaps he was aware of Will already, hidden as he was.
Will watched them as they passed, then followed at a distance as they walked down the High Street. He watched as their bickering turned into a full-blown argument, but he did not try to hear what was said. He would breach Paul's privacy if he had to, because the stakes were so high, but in this case nothing could be gained from it. He was here to find out where Jon had gone, and not to listen to the angry words that had led to his departure. Most angry words were meaningless. It was the cause that mattered, and the consequences.
They stopped, the two of them, Paul clearly trying to keep everything quiet, and Jon shouting, heedless of who was overhearing. More than half of the passers-by were clearly intrigued, relishing the argument, and hoping that a fight would ensue. Is that you? Will thought, as he looked at their reddened faces. Are you him? Their faces did not answer, and he did not know.
He saw the moment when Jon stormed off, but he averted his eyes from the naked pain and incomprehension on Paul's face as it happened. He had to leave Paul there. He had to leave him to suffer, and he had left so many of mankind for the last twenty years, charged as he was to watch, and not to act. "I'm sorry," he mouthed, as he drifted past him, concealed and barely there at all in time. "I wish I could…" But he left it there, and did not finish. Paul could not hear him anyway.
Jon walked swiftly down the High Street, and Will followed him, as far away as he could be without fading entirely. When he reached the bridge, Jon stopped, and leaned on the parapet, staring down into the river. People passed him. A dozen cars, a hundred cars, and a hundred more, all passed him, without him turning round. Will watched. He thought at least an hour passed without Jon moving. Then the clocks started to strike twelve, and he realised it had been even longer.
Why? he thought. He bit his lip, wondering how long to stay here like this. But of course he had no choice. He had to follow Jon until he had answers. If that meant staying still for a day and a night, then that was what he would do.
He had barely come to that realisation when Jon moved again, more slowly. He no longer looked angry, but drifting, even lost. He looked at his watch more than once, and his shoulders slumped each time. Twelve o'clock was the time Paul and Jon had to check out of the hotel, Will remembered. Perhaps Jon was just a normal man, realising that things had gone too far for a simple apology to rectify things. But perhaps he was the enemy. Perhaps this was a show. Perhaps he knew he was being watched.
Will followed, though. He had no choice. He followed Jon back up the High Street, and watched as he paused at the crossroads, as if tempted to take the turn that led back to the hotel, to try to find Paul, to patch things up. He watched as Jon thrust his hands into his pockets, and carried straight on instead, past shops, past the railway station, where he paused for a while, and then on to another bridge, and another river.
Jon was no longer hesitating. He descended down onto the bank, and walked along the tow path, heading north. Will followed, of course, but more and more uneasy. Only a few years ago, this had been a pleasant walk, but a spate of attacks had made it shunned. There were few good endings to this. If Jon was possessed by the enemy, perhaps this was a trap for Will. But if he was not, then perhaps Will was watching Jon's final walk. Perhaps within minutes he would watch him mugged, or murdered, or drowned, an innocent who blundered where he should not.
Jon walked for a while, seemingly oblivious to the shadows that Will imagined cackling all around him, to the grasping branches reaching for his body. Gradually, his steps petered out to nothing, and he stopped with a sigh. His lips moved, but Will was too far away to hear what he was saying. When his lips moved again, and he flapped his hand as if in argument with someone, Will dared to edge forward closer than he would have liked, but by then Jon was silent again.
Arguing with the whisperer in his head? Will wondered, and he felt hope again. The enemy could whisper in any man's mind, but he then moved on, and they were unscathed. As long as any part of Jon remained Jon, the enemy did not have him forever.
As Will mused, he was almost caught. Jon had turned suddenly, and come rushing back along the towpath. Will had to leap aside to avoid being struck, hidden as he was. He stumbled and almost fell, but as he did so, he thought Jon looked straight at him, his eyes overflowing with something terrible.
It's him! he thought. He knows I'm here! But he pressed his hand to his beating heart, and told himself he was imagining it. There was no proof yet. This could be anything at all.
Far away, the clocks struck one. Will gathered himself, and followed Jon back towards town. He came there in time to find Jon talking to a passer-by, asking directions to somewhere. The woman gestured towards the river, but in the other direction. Jon nodded a thanks, but did not smile.
Will followed him back into town, into a shop to buy some lunch, and into the Christ Church Meadow, where he sat down several hours with his chin resting in his hands. The clocks struck two, then three, then four. Tourists passed in crowds, and sirens sounded, again and again and again. The clouds thickened, then thinned. Will waited and watched, until his head ached with the intensity of it. He gazed fiercely at empty air, but did not see any walking dead. He saw no signs that Jon was really the enemy, but he knew that the enemy was sly and that no tricks were beyond him. In the body of Mark, the enemy had pretended to be Will's friend.
Just after four, Jon stood up, and squared his shoulders like one facing execution. This time he made for the tow path that headed south-east, and he began it with resolve, but soon petered out and stopped again.
Will followed him everywhere. He moved when Jon moved, but stopped when Jon stopped. More than once he was certain that Jon knew exactly where he was, and that his whole wandering was an elaborate charade to distract Will and lure him far from help. Other times, he was sure that Jon was just an ordinary man, wrestling with something, and unsure. He wished he could step forward and ask, but he could not take the risk, in case Jon's body housed the enemy. Even if it did not, Will did not know what words he would say.
Once Jon stopped for over an hour, so close to the edge of the river that Will thought he was going to throw himself in. He watched, intent for any change, but his mind started wandering, to Paul, who had been so quick to understand, and to Bran, lost in his own anger and pain.
Please just be you, Jon, he thought, for Paul's sake. He bitterly regretted ever thinking that it would be a good thing if the enemy had once more confined himself to a single body. Please find your way back to Paul. Because then this would be over, and Will could return to Bran, who needed him, even as he shouted and pushed him away.
Well after six, Jon started moving again, but horribly slowly. His hand kept rising to his brow, as if it hurt, and he started to mutter things under his breath. Will did not dare come close enough to hear them. If Jon was just Jon, then he would not know, but if Jon was the enemy…
The tow path reached a lock, and Jon crossed it, and made for the ancient church. He ran his fingers along the wall, and sat down among the grave stones. Soon the clock struck seven. By the time it was striking eight, the light was beginning to fade. It was only early August, but already the nights were getting earlier, and the clouds had come in from the west, hiding the sun.
Will shivered. His stomach rumbled, but hunger at least was something that an Old One could ignore, for a while. Jon was talking again. "Don't," he said, and, "Can't." Will held back, watching, but not really there. As dusk fell, he was terribly aware that, somewhere else, he was preparing to face the walking dead, and that Bran was beside him, as yet unaware that Owen Davies was not his father.
Darkness came. Youths spilled into the churchyard, shouting and drinking. Jon leapt to his feet, shouting something that Will could not catch. The youths heard him, and came towards him, but bizarrely silent, eerily slow.
Will stood up.
"You," one of the youths said. "He knows you're there."
"You cannot win," another said.
"He knows everything."
Jon turned from one to the other. His face was hidden by the darkness, and Will could not see it.
"Old One," one of the youths sneered.
"Hiding in the dark."
"He knows. He knew. He has you."
They all joined in, jeering it again. "He has you."
"Heart," one said, low and teasing. "Soul. Family. Friends."
"This one here. That one. All of them."
Will dug his fingers into his palms hard enough to hurt. He wanted to surge forward, to reveal himself in a blaze of light. He had done as much in Wales, when he had forced his command on the minds of his enemy's minions. Not this time, though. He could not say why this time was different, but it was. This time, that was something that he would not do. This time he would watch, and let them goad him, and remain hidden.
Jon's head was turning from youth and youth. Commanding them, Will wondered, or confused by them? The youths turned towards him, and laughed. One produced a knife, and another bared his fists.
Will decided in an instant. Before he could hesitate, he was onto them, moving unseen, shining bright. He knocked them down, felled them, but one did not fall. "He will devour you," he said, looking straight into Will's eyes, where they were hidden in the blaze of his power. He fell then, but not from anything that Will had done. But he was still breathing as he lay on the ground. Will saw that when he had time to think. They were all still breathing. They had been influenced by the enemy, but not possessed by him.
"What was that?" Jon was calling. "Is someone there?" He crouched beside the nearest youth, touching his throat gingerly. The other hand rose to his brow. "I thought I heard…"
Will was breathing fast, heart pounding in his ears. He pressed his hand to his chest, and gathered in the threads of his magic. Four youths lay at his feet, unconscious but alive. He had done that. If the enemy was in Jon's body, then he knew everything, and Will was utterly exposed.
"Who is there?" Jon shouted.
If he was the enemy, he knew. If he was the enemy, this whole thing was a trap. If he was the enemy, he had known all along. He consumed Will's emotions like honey. He had said as much.
Will said nothing, but someone else spoke. "Who's there?" A woman with a torch in her hand, and dogs yapping at her heels. She was standing at the church gate, looking in warily. "Jon?" she said wonderingly.
Jon nodded. "Yes," he said, and he went towards her, through the gravestones of the dead.
At the station
Bran was complaining again. "How can I look for a man when I don't know what he looks like? I don't know why I'm here."
Jane tried to hush him, with an anxious glance at Paul, but Paul had heard Bran anyway. "I expect Will thought that I shouldn't be alone." His voice was mild, uncannily like his brother's. "He probably thought that you shouldn't be, either, Bran."
Bran snapped his head away, his lips pressed shut. Jane looked from him, to Paul, and back to Bran again. She wanted to say something, but did not know what. Both men were strangers to her, really, yet here she was, caught up in their deep, raw pain. Paul's at least she understood. Bran confused her. She wanted to comfort him, but she wanted to shout at him, too. Instead of either, she did nothing.
"But, really, is this getting us anywhere?" Bran found his words first. He sounded as if he was at least trying to be polite. "We've walked aimlessly for, what, four hours now?"
Paul nodded. He was pale, with dark shadows beneath his eyes. "But better to try," he said, "than sit still and wait."
"Just twiddling our thumbs until Will magics himself back with all the answers," Bran sneered. "He told us to run along and get on with this pathetic little task, humouring us like little children who need to feel that they're helping."
"Stop it!" Jane heard herself shout. "Bran, please!"
"Maybe that is the way of it, yes," Paul said, still mild, though his eyes told another story. "But now I know what he is, I can accept that."
"And children's sometimes do help," Jane told Bran. "Sometimes you give them little tasks to make them feel important, but they end up doing something good that you'd never have thought to yourself. And they feel good about it, and you feel good about it, because they've asked to help. Where's the harm in that?"
"Of course you would defend him," Bran muttered.
Jane felt herself blushing. She did not dare ask him what he meant. She still felt too much for Will, and not enough for Bran.
Earlier, Paul had taken her to one side, and whispered to her about Bran. "Is he always like this, or is this…? This enemy Will talks about… Makes people act out of character. Makes them angry. Is this…?"
"I don't know," Jane had answered honestly. "I don't really know him. Will says… Will said that Bran received some terrible news last night, and he's lashing out because he's…"
"Yes," Paul had said. "I understand." Since then he had been mild with Bran, and patient, but such treatment only seemed to make Bran worse.
With Paul, they had walked through the city, talking to anyone and everyone that he and Jon had interacted with during their stay. The hotel had not seen Jon. The bookshops did not remember him. Paul had phoned Jon's family again, and his neighbours from home, but there was still no sign.
"I need to find Jon," Paul said, now. "That is my priority. I am nothing without him. Nothing. Just a sack filled with music. He makes me human."
Tears pricked Jane's eyes. She saw Bran freeze, as if physically struck by Paul's words.
"I will look for him in any way I can," Paul said. "I will accept help from Will, and from you, and from anyone who can give it. I will face what I need to face, and I will do it alone if I have to. Better alone than plagued with this… bickering. I never asked you to come with me. If you would rather go, Bran, then go. Please, go."
Bran looked away, his lips pressed together, his shoulders stiff and hunched. I think he's just lonely, Jane thought, remembering a boy she had once taught, and the way he had looked. Lonely, but he doesn't know how to do anything about it.
"Bran," she said gently. "I'm staying with Paul. I would like you to…"
"Money!" Paul cried. "I've been so stupid! He didn't have his wallet, no, but he liked to keep spare notes in his back pocket. He did have money with him!"
Jane did not want to turn away from Bran, but she had to. "What does that mean?"
"The station!" Paul exclaimed. "I've been assuming that he stayed in Oxford because he couldn't afford to go anywhere else, but what if he hasn't? People at the station might remember him. We've got to go there. Now."
It was beginning to grow dark, and the streets were emptying of shoppers and tourists. As they hurried through town, they passed groups dressed up for the evening, drinking and shouting and fighting. Jane saw three broken windows, and could smell distant smoke on the air. Paul hurried through without seeing, and Bran walked hunched up, seeing nothing that was not inside his head. Jane saw it all, though, and wondered. Was this the enemy, at work in Jon's body? His effects were felt everywhere, Will had told them, but far greater where he took physical form. If the enemy was here in the flesh, soon the dead would rise, and murders would play out beneath the towers and spires.
Paul walked faster and faster, consumed by his certainty that now, at last, he was close. Perhaps hope, too, was a form of wild emotion, Jane thought. Hope could lead to madness, and that, too, could be the hand of the enemy. Stop, she wanted to call to him. Slow down. Think. But how could she? She had seen Paul lost in despair the night before, so how could she be so cruel as to deny his hope?
A police car screamed up when they were near the station. Paul stopped his wild dash for a moment, panic etched on his features, but the policemen rushed into a pub. Sounds of violence issued from its windows, and there was broken glass, and some blood, on the pavement in front of it. Another scuffle was taking place across the road, and half a dozen sirens were wailing nearby, criss-crossing in wild cacophony.
There was a fight outside the station, too. Two men in suits were fighting beside a car with a bash on its bumper. A train had just come in, and crowds were pouring through the barrier. A few flinched away from the fight, but most smiled, and started to egg the participants on, or shout out bets. One fat man carefully placed his briefcase on the floor, before turning casually to the man beside him and planting a fist in his belly. A member of staff shouted uselessly for everyone to stop. "Stop!" he screamed, punching one watcher in the face. "Stop this!" He felled another, before being grappled to the ground by the crowd.
"It's going to be a riot," Jane breathed. Her hand rose to her mouth. In horror, she told herself. In fear. But she could feel her lips started to curve into a smile. She could feel the heady pounding of blood in her veins, and the itching of excitement in her palms. This is exciting! her blood whispered. Join in! Who hasn't longed to strike a blow at all those rude people, those selfish people, those people who push in on queues, those people who park in disabled bays, those people who go to make their money in the city and think they're so much better than lowly teachers like you.
"No," she whispered. "No." But the fight was all around them now, and they were caught up in it. Bran had waded in gleefully, and she saw him strike someone to the ground, and laugh. Then he chased down an older man, grappled him to the ground, and kicked him again, and again, and again.
Even turning away was hard. The siren call in her head was too loud, too impossible to resist. "Bran," her lips said. "Paul." Paul at least was still beside her. His face was drained of colour, and he was singing to himself, the same wordless line over and over, sweet and beautiful.
"Got to," she gasped, "resist it." She fumbled for Paul's arm, and found it. She began to drag him away, or maybe it was him dragging her. "But Bran," she worried. "What about Bran?"
People were still coming out of the station. She gazed desperately at them, hoping for the police, for the army, for someone, anyone, who could stop all this from happening. "We need Will," she whispered. Then she felt Paul slip away from her. Her head snapped round. "Paul!"
"Jon." He said the name as if it was everything in the world to him.
Jane blinked. A man alone was trudging into the station from the road. When he saw the fight, he stopped, his arms limp at his side. His head moved from side to side, and then he smiled. His lips moved.
Jane let Paul go, and now she was alone. She heard police cars come, but the fighting only grew more fierce. She caught a glimpse of Bran with blood on his face, still smiling. A hand fell on her shoulder. "Jane?"
She whirled round, ready to strike. She sobbed, and snatched her fist back, but the whispering in her blood was too strong. She struck Simon in the jaw, but he only smiled grimly. "What a place to find you, Jane."
"Simon." She was crying now, unable to stop. "What are you…?"
And then Barney was there, too, standing beside Simon, but there was no smiles in his eyes at all. "Simon came to see me," he said, "and we thought…"
"You're here!" Despite everything, she was laughing, even as she cried, even as people fell all around her, even as Bran was screaming with rage and hatred, the most terrible of them all. "You came!"
"We came," Simon said, "and now…"
"Stop!" It was a voice of absolute command. As it spoke, the entire seething courtyard froze, as it everyone in it had been turned to ice. Statues of people stood in fight, droplets of blood hanging in the air. Jane blinked. Above them, the clouds still drifted, and birds still flew. Only them, she thought. Her thoughts were sluggish, as if she, too, had been half-touched by the spell.
Will appeared from the empty air, both hands outstretched. He spared not a glance for Paul and Jon, who were edging around each other in a nervous reunion, seemingly oblivious to all else. He did not acknowledge Jane, or Simon, or Barney, though all three he had exempted from his spell, so he knew they were there.
Bran was the only one he had any words for. Of all of them, Bran was the only one who was still moving, blindly striking out at people who stood frozen like statues, screaming, a blur of movement against a tableau so impossibly still.
"Bran Davies." Will's voice was soft, but deadly. "This cannot continue. You are coming with me."
He took Bran's resisting arm, and then they were gone.
It felt like waking up. "Will…" Even her voice felt strange. She raised her hand to her brow, and it felt sluggish, hardly moving at all.
"Was that…?" Simon rasped.
"It can't be…" Barney sounded horrified, personally wounded by what he had seen. Of course, he was. That, too, was something that had to be faced.
"It happened," Jane said wearily. She was their mentor now, leading them in the ways of something she did not understand herself.
She looked at the crowd of strangers in the station yard, each of them frozen in their postures of hatred. Will had frozen everyone except the people he knew. Did that mean…?
"We have to help them," Simon said. He sounded more brisk now, more like his usual self. "Unless they're…"
Jane shook her head, frowning. "They're not dead. Will wouldn't."
"Are you sure?" Simon asked sharply. "You said yourself that you barely know him, and someone who can do something like this… That's not human, Jane. That's not someone bound by our rules of right and wrong."
So like Simon, she thought wearily, to be arguing, even when faced by something that would send most people screaming, sure that they were insane. "He's just frozen them for a while, Simon," she said quietly. "It was to save us." She looked round, located Paul and the man who was surely Jon. "It was to give us time to get away, so when they… thaw again, we won't be caught up in it."
She tried to say it with conviction. She replayed the memory of Will's brief appearance, and tried to find any messages for her in his look, or any commands. But Will had seemed utterly oblivious to all of them. There had been nothing but Bran. If it wasn't that he had left them out of his spell, she would have had to conclude that he had forgotten them entirely.
"That seems heartless," Simon said. "We should…"
"No." She clenched her fists at her side. It was time to forget Will. She had to stop wondering what Will would have wanted them to do. He had taken Bran, and gone. Of those who were left, she was the one who knew the most. It was time for her to make her own decisions. "We're going," she said. "All of us. Now."
To her amazement, neither of them argued. Barney looked more than half in a daze, trapped in a nightmare he could not wake up from. She knew she had to talk to him, and soon. He had come here with Simon, so surely he had at least part way accepted the truth, but accepted it in theory was a world away from seeing magic performed in reality. All she could do now, though, was touch his arm. He did not pull away, but he did not respond.
And then there was Paul. Paul was with Jon, not quite touching, not quite speaking. "We need to go, Paul," she called, preferring to call to him, than to break into that awkward circle of intimacy. "Before they all… wake up."
Paul was slow to hear her. He seemed reluctant to turn round, and when he did, he blinked in confusion, as if he had not even noticed what had happened to the people fighting in front of the station. "Go?" his lips shaped, but no sound came out.
She moved towards him. Her legs felt stiff, as if she had just climbed out of bed. "Not far," she said. "Just so we're not in the thick of it."
He nodded, but in a way that made her wonder if he understood her at all. "This is Jon," he said, and smiled.
"Yes, and he needs to go, too."
She started walking, and trusted that they were following her. When she had gone a dozen steps, she turned round and saw that they were. Only Simon seemed fully awake, and he was leading Barney by the arm. Paul and Jon were not touching, but seemed aware of little but each other. Not far, she thought. Not far before I need to… do what I need to do. They just needed to be far enough away to be out of the fight.
Of course, she thought, if Jon was really the enemy, then fights and danger would follow them no matter where they fled, as long as he was with them.
She had to talk to Paul. It had to be her, now. At least until… Unless Will…
They crossed the road, in strung-out line. Headlights hung in the air, from a car not moving. There was no sound from the city at all, but slowly she thought she heard a high wail, fading in from the silence. Then it was definite. The siren of a police car approached, and the lights were moving again. Sound erupted from the station, but they were too far away now to see the movement.
"So that's that, then," said Simon. "Interesting.
"Come on," she hurried them. She still had a key to Will's house, and it was not too far from the station. Would Will be there, with Bran, or had they gone somewhere else? She felt cold with worry, wondering what was happening, what they were doing. Will had looked so… implacable, her mind supplied. He had come upon Bran like an avenging king, dragging a wrong-doer off for terrible punishment. But Will wouldn't do that, she thought, unless… Unless…
She pressed her hand to her mouth. Perhaps Will had proof. Perhaps he had found out for certain that the enemy was not Jon after all, but Bran. He had dragged him away to some place other, and was fighting him, the two of them alone, while Jane and the others just…
"No." She shook her head. She could not speculate. She could not assume. "Paul," she said. Clenching her fists at her side, she went towards him. "Can I have a word?"
He did not argue, as he might have done. He did not make things hard for her, by refusing to leave Jon. "Carry on," he said to Jon. "I'll catch up." Barney and Simon passed her, too, when she waved them on, and soon she was able to talk to Paul alone.
"Has he told you…?"
"Where he was?" Paul interrupted. "No. Not yet." His gaze was placidly defiant.
She knew what was coming next. "And you're not going to…?"
He shook his head. "Not yet. Not until we're settled."
"But you're… But he's…" She took a deep breath, trying to order her words. "Paul, what if he…?"
"If he's Will's enemy," he finished for her. "Perhaps he is. I am completely aware of that risk, Jane. Believe me, no-one feels it more than I do. No-one fears it more than I do. But I also know the importance of trust. If I act as if he's the enemy, and he isn't, then I could lose him."
"But if he is?" Jane had to say.
Paul gave a mirthless smile. "If he is, then I don't think it will make any difference how I act, so I might as well be kind, and remember that we were in love."
He hurried after Jon, leaving Jane standing there, suddenly in tears.
It was fully dark when they reached their destination, but specks of light were everywhere around them. Cars passed on the distant road, and an orange haze clung to the horizon, where a town lay hidden. The stars were faint, for even here, in the countryside, there was too much of the light of modern living for it to be truly dark.
"We're here," Will said. He touched the back of Bran's hand, then snatched his own hand back again, as if caught in a guilty act that he should not be doing.
Bran said nothing, of course.
"We need to get out of the car," Will told him quietly. He raised a hand, pointed his fingers, and Bran obeyed him, moving without a word.
Will closed the door and locked it. He moved round the car to where Bran was standing, but he did not touch him, not this time.
"And now…" he said.
He stopped, wondering once again if this was the right thing to do. Merriman had trusted him. Merriman had said… But Merriman could not have known that this would happen. Bran had found out half the truth, and it was destroying him. He was becoming something hateful, a vessel half-full of anger, just waiting for the enemy to pour itself in and fill him to the brim with hatred. He was not himself. He was ruining everything, putting the whole struggle at risk just when it was reaching its most dangerous part. For the sake of the world, Bran had to be…
"No," Will murmured, though Bran could not hear him. Bran had been unable to hear him since Will had plucked him from the station yard in Oxford. "I'm not doing it for the world. I'm doing it for you. You need to find yourself again. You need to be Bran again."
He had wrapped Bran in magic from that moment in front of the station, leaving Bran unable to talk, to protest, to react. Will did not think it was cruel. Bran was like one asleep, and he would remember none of it. If Will had left him aware, they would have fought and argued for the whole journey, and things would have been broken beyond repair. It was better this way - better for Bran, and better for me, Will admitted. He did not think he could bear to have things broken forever between them. As long as things clung on by a thread, there was still hope.
He took a deep breath, and took Bran firmly by the arm. He did not say a word as he took them back through time, to a place where there were no lights at all.
end of chapter seven
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.
"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
"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."
"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
"Not here," Will said, when they were all together. "Not home."
They followed him. Simon and Bran questioned, but the rest were silent, obeying.
Will decided to answer the questions that they had not asked. "The enemy knows where I live," he said. "We can talk more easily if we're outside, somewhere no-one else can overhear us."
A lie, of course. From now on, almost everything he would say about the enemy would be a lie. It had to be. Everything else, though, would be the truth. He had realised that much in the flames. He would accept friendship when it was offered, and give friendship when he could.
They walked along the towpath, heading for Port Meadow. The fires in Oxford were almost out now. Will thought that he had perhaps made the crucial difference that allowed the fire fighters to take control of the fires, but most of the work had been theirs. At least a dozen buildings had burned down, and two Colleges were damaged. The work of tonight could never be undone, and some things were gone forever.
"It's war now," he said. "We will bring this thing to an end."
Paul appeared at his side, but gave no sign of hearing the words Will had not meant to speak aloud. "Did you see anything?" Paul asked.
About Jon, of course. All that seemed so long ago, but of course to Paul it was still the only thing that mattered. He wondered what Jon had told Paul.
He started to ask, planning to frame the question carefully, but Paul interrupted him. "He… explained things. I don't know whether to believe him, but I have to believe him, don't I? That's what love is. If I doubt everything he says…"
"Then the enemy has won," Will said quietly.
"If I treat him as an enemy, then I…" Paul grabbed Will's arm. "Will, I have to trust him. Even if…"
He was exactly right, of course, but also entirely wrong. Will moistened his lips, trying to find words that would serve all the games he was playing now. "I saw nothing to make me believe that he is the enemy," he said. "Nothing to prove it, but of course…"
"I understand." Paul squeezed Will's arm, but Jon was already calling for him, and he hurried back to him, leaving Will with the quiet echo of his words.
There were many more things that needed to be said, but that would wait for when they could all stand together. Will did not want secrets between them, not tonight. The things that had to be said would be said to all of them. Afterwards, they could scrabble into their twos and three to discuss them, but the start would be all of them, together.
It might be their last chance.
They reached the meadow at last, broad and dark and desolate. As if unconsciously, they gathered into a circle, all facing inwards. Barney seemed the most distant of them, and Will knew that he needed to talk to Barney about things, and soon. He knew what it was costing him to be here, and he knew all too well how dangerous it was to face this enemy with disturbed feelings.
Will was drawing in a breath to start speaking, when Jon took a step forward. "I don't know any of you," he said, "except for Will, and Paul, of course. But I understand that you spent your day looking for me. I owe you an explanation."
Paul tried to stop him. "No, Jon. You don't…"
"I do," Jon said.
Jon did not know that Will had followed him for over twenty four hours. Will wondered whether he should tell him. The Old One in him would not, of course, because an Old One kept secrets and told men so little, but the human in him…? Will did not know what a human would do. Was it better to say nothing, or to tell a truth that would hurt someone? He wondered if he had known the answer when he was a child, before he had gained and lost so much.
"Years ago, before I met Paul, I had a friend called Richard." Jon gave a wry smile. "I say 'friend,' of course. How accustomed we get to euphemisms. I loved him. He loved me. We planned a future together, but then he died. A car crash, it was. He was driving. I was the passenger. I was hurt…" He gestured to his leg. Paul was holding his other hand tightly, as if afraid to let him go. "He died."
The wind sighed in the trees. Coldness shimmered across the meadow, and even here, north of the city, smoke was in everything. Something moved in the darkness, but it was only a bush, swaying in the breeze.
"He lived in Oxford," Jon said. "We came here often. There are… memories here. But since he died, I've never been back, until Paul booked us a holiday here, meaning it as a treat. I didn't have the heart to tell him. I thought… I thought enough time had passed. I thought I could make new memories. I tried, but…"
"You don't have to talk about it," Paul urged him. He said fiercely to the others, but his eyes only on Will, "He's explained it all to me. I believe him. It's enough."
"No." It was Jon who held up his hand, not any of his hearers. "I want to."
Will wondered how much Paul had told him. He hoped he had told Jon everything, because if not, Will would have to start with an explanation himself.
"I tried," Jon said. "I tried to enjoy myself, but I couldn't stop remembering. Then we had an argument. It was just a little thing, nothing important, but I walked away and… and I couldn't go back. The memories… They were like a living thing, as if I was in them. I heard Richard's voice, telling me I'd betrayed his memory. I just kept on walking. I walked and walked and eventually I got to Richard's mother's house. She let me in and we… talked. That's all. But that made it worse. She's always kind to me, but she never really accepted that her son was gay, and of course I lived when he died… But I was hurt, and her son was driving, so there's guilt there, too. It's… hard."
Will had not known any of this. He had followed Jon, and watched him go into the woman's house. He had watched from the garden as they had talked, and cried a little, and talked some more. No dead had risen from their graves, and no shadows had played out their final hours. No blood had been shed on the hearth, and no screams had issued from the house. Will had slept a little, and waited, until Jon had left the house the following afternoon, and had walked in a daze back to Oxford.
"I can't say it brought me peace," Jon said, "but I felt better in the morning. I felt as if… as if I was me again. I couldn't hear Richard. It was almost as if I'd gone mad for a bit. I wanted Paul, but I didn't know where he'd gone. I tried various places, then thought I'd better go home. At least he'd be able to find me there. So I went to the station, and there he was."
"I don't mean to be impolite, or anything," Simon said, "but why are you telling us this?"
Jane's head snapped up. "Simon!"
So she hadn't told them, then. She hadn't told her brothers that they had feared that Jon had become the enemy. It had been a kind gesture, perhaps, and Will was in no position to blame someone for keeping secrets. From now on, though, everyone here needed to know the same.
Everything here needed to know the same lies.
"Paul told me things I find hard to believe," Jon said. He looked at Will, wariness in his eyes. "But I saw what happened at the station. Hard to believe, I said, but I do believe it. How can I not?"
Another one, then. Six of them here who knew what he was. Six of them who knew what he had been, because now he had to become something different.
"We feared that the enemy had taken you," Will told Jon. "He does that. What you heard as Richard's voice was undoubtedly him, whispering in your mind, making you act in ways you wouldn't normally act. He can do that anywhere, everywhere, but sometimes he takes on more physical form. He takes a body recently dead, and he inhabits it. When he's done that, the… manifestations of his power are so much stronger. Riots, fires, and so on. That's why we feared it was you."
"It wasn't," Jon said.
"I believe you." Will kept his thoughts fiercely guarded. He wondered whether to say the rest of it, and decided it was better to. "I followed you. I went back in time, and followed you from the moment you left Paul, to the moment you found him again. I didn't go inside with you, though. I didn't hear what you said."
He saw Paul's eyes widen at that, and read the message in them. Please! Tell me he isn't lying! Paul opened trusted Jon completely, but inside he was torn by doubt, terrified that he was being tricked by a monster.
Will gave the faintest nod, enough to satisfy Paul. Like everything else, of course, it was a lie. Jon had done nothing to indicate that he was the enemy, but the enemy was tricksy. Will was still not sure.
"And what about you?" Simon suddenly asked.
Will turned to him, startled.
"You and Bran. Where did you do? What were you getting up to?"
"I…" Will could not answer. It was something too personal to Bran. Bran could choose to tell it if he wanted, but Will would not. "Something that needed doing," he said at last. "Something that doesn't affect anyone else."
He glanced at Bran, a neutral look, but Bran said nothing. Simon was clearly not satisfied, but did not pursue it. Jane, too, was looking at Will reproachfully, but that could not be helped. This was Bran's secret.
"So if you won't tell us that, what will you tell us?" Simon asked. His voice was unpleasant, an adult version of the hostile boy he had once been.
Will looked around him, at the meadow beyond the small group. Something moved there. A cow, a bush, a tree… and something else. Someone ran, silently screaming, chased by robbers. A woman drowned, cast in the river by a lover. A traveller died, mired down by the freezing flood water.
The dead were rising, playing out their final hours for all the see. Strong emotions lingered in a place, and the presence of the enemy brought them out, to live again briefly, then fade away.
The enemy was here. He was right. The enemy was one of them. Jane, or Simon. Paul, or Jon. Barney… Or Bran, he thought. Or Bran…
He looked at them, each one of them in turn, showing none of it in his face. "I have brought you here," he said, "so the enemy cannot hear us as we plan his final destruction."
Faint, in the shadows of his mind, he thought he heard somebody laugh.
Jane fell in step with him, on the way back to the noisy, traumatised city. "Where were you really, then?"
Bran thought about how to answer. He knew he ought to tell her the truth. After all, he had made such a noise in the past about the importance of truth. He had revealed Will's secret to his father and John Rowlands, and had loudly attacked Will for hiding things. There was no possible other course of action than to tell her everything.
"Will just took to somewhere where the enemy wasn't," he said at last. "So I could clear my mind. I'd been… I haven't been myself lately, but I'm over that now. There was a reason for it all, It doesn't need to affect anyone else."
"Somewhere the enemy wasn't?" Jane asked. "I thought he was everywhere."
"Everywhere. Yes." Bran smiled grimly. "Not in the past, though, or at least not as strongly. We went a very long way."
"Into the past?" There was a strange note in Jane's voice. "Why?"
"I needed it," Bran said simply. He smiled into the darkness. "And you have to admit this is an improvement. I was hell to be with earlier."
She did not deny it. She walked on in silence, still at his side, but she did not look pleased.
So he kept things from her, then. He had done exactly what he had accused Will of doing. He felt no guilt, though. There was no reason for Jane to know the truth about his real father. It affected no-one but him, and if she knew it, should would treat him differently. He was who he was, and his blood made no difference to that at all. Blood meant nothing, really. Arthur loved him, and Bran felt completed by the knowledge of his existence, but Owen Davies was his father in every way that mattered. He knew that now.
"It did me good," he said, out loud. "Surely that's all that matters."
Jane grunted. Bran wondered if she was jealous. Twice, now, he and Will had gone off on an adventure of their own, leaving her behind to wait. She had been attracted to Will from the start, Bran knew that. He had felt jealous himself for a while, but it seemed that he had moved past that. Will did not return Jane's feelings. Things would turn out as they turned out.
"So what was all that about?" she asked suddenly. "That dramatic meeting on the blasted heath. Midnight oaths, and all that."
Bran laughed. There had been no midnight oaths, and he thought the true reason was obvious. Hidden behind his glasses, he had been watching Will's eyes, and had looked where he had looked. Bran had seen the spectres of the dead, even if the others had not. Will had brought them here, to a place away from other people, to ascertain for sure that the enemy was one of them.
And now he knew, and so he had lied.
It was obvious, Bran thought. Will had spoken of meeting in secret, so the enemy could not hear, but he had done so knowing that the enemy could hear every word. He had spoken of luring the enemy into a trap. Bran was sure that Will did indeed intend a trap, but a different trap from the one he had talked about. Of course he would lie, if the enemy was there, listening. Every one of them was suspect. It was obvious. Could it really be that Jane had not understood that?
"He…" He bit his lip, struggling to find safe words to say. He was an accomplice in the lies, in a way, because he understood them. "I thought he made it clear."
"Oh, I know what he said," Jane said. "Was it clear? Clear to you, perhaps. Of course you understand him so well now. You hated him just days ago, and here you are, bosom buddies."
"It's not like that." Bran shook his head. "Don't be like that. There's no need to be jealous. I still…"
"Jealous?" Jane cried. Simon and Paul turned around to look at her. Only Will and Barney, deep in conversation at the head of their procession, did not seem to hear her. "I'm not jealous. It's just that the world's falling apart around my ears, and I want to do something. I want to do something about it."
"We will do something about it," Bran tried to assure her. "Will…" But she laughed harshly at the mention of Will's name, so he stopped, and wondered.
Could Jane be the enemy? He felt cold at the very thought of it. Jon was the obvious choice. Simon or Barney had turned up fortuitously from nowhere, and Bran did not know either of them, so it could be them. Even Paul was possible. It took two to make an argument, and to drive a lover away. It was one of them, not Jane. Never Jane.
I can't trust anyone, he thought. Only Will.
He looked at Will's back, as he walked ahead with Barney. And Will can't trust any of us, so has to trust all of us, equally.
He let Jane get ahead of him, and carried on walking, thinking hard.
"I knew you'd come," Barney said bitterly.
"You wanted me to?" Will asked. Barney had struck out ahead of them, alone, and Will had taken that as an opportunity to speak to him without the others hearing.
"Best get it over with." Barney's shoulders were stiffly hunched. "So fire away. Tell me how wrong I've been all my life."
The night seemed to draw in, colder and darker than it had been before. An Old One knew all the wisdoms of the earth, but very little of the human heart. Will had to draw on his human side, long buried, almost forgotten. "I don't intend to do that," he said. "I don't know much about what you've done with your life, but what I've seen of it certainly doesn't look wrong."
"Oh, come on." Barney gave a bark of laughter. "I had this memory, you see, of a man with white hair, telling me to go out and make a difference in the world. I thought it was a vision from God. I based my whole life on it. Now it seems it was just a wizard called Merriman. How you must be laughing at me."
"I'm not," Will assured him. "And does it matter that it wasn't God?"
"Does it matter?" For a moment, Will thought that Barney was about to hit him. "Now I know you're laughing at me. Probably reading my mind, finding all the bits that hurt, gloating over them like…like a thief with jewellery."
"I can't read minds," Will said. "I know many things, but man is a mystery. I only know what I am told, or what I can see." He tried to smile. "I'm not very good at it, as you can tell."
Barney grunted, though whether in acceptance or disbelief, Will could not tell.
"When I said it didn't matter," Will persisted, "I meant that the results are what matter, not the cause. One of my sisters once phoned up a man she fancied to ask him out. Trouble was, she got his number wrong, and someone completely different heard her message, but he phoned her back anyway, and they got talking… They've been married for five years. I know you're about to say that this is irrelevant, but…"
"You don't know me," Barney said stiffly. "I'm not stupid. I might not be great and magical like you, but I can understand the point you're trying to make."
"You've served God well," Will told him. "You've ministered to people who need it. You've done good. How can that ever be seen as a waste of a life?"
"Don't give me platitudes." Barney's fists were tightly clenched at his sides. "Don't patronise me. It seems that I have no choice but to accept that your kind is real, that magic is real. So tell me this, Will Stanton. Do you or do you not believe in God?"
Will breathed in, breathed out again. "There is a… law that rules us all. We of the Light are bound by it. Even the Dark cannot flout it. We call it High Magic, but magic is part of our lives. Perhaps, to the eyes of man, it is the word of God. And even magic had to come from somewhere."
"That's no answer." Barney kicked at a stone, sending it into the river with a splash that seemed far too loud.
"No." Will dug his fingers into his palms. "I don't know theology. I don't know the details of your own faith. I'm not a counsellor. I… I don't know what to say. All I know is that there is no reason why the things you have learned need to change anything about the way you've lived your life."
"I came here for Jane," Barney said. "I came here because I couldn't stop thinking about what she'd said, and I had to accept that it was true. I'm here to help Jane. You… I can hardly bear to look at you."
"Yes." It did not hurt. He was still not human enough for that. "But I have to tell you one thing. Warn you. I can't read minds, but the enemy can. If you're feeling doubt, or fear, or hatred, he can make it worse." He thought of Bran, gleefully fighting people at the station. With Bran, there had been something Will could do, but this… "You need to sort this out or he might take you," he said, sparing Barney nothing, because he could not. "You could become incapacitated, and a danger to Jane."
"How dare you?" Barney hissed. "How dare you, so high and mighty?"
Will pressed his hands together. They were trembling from the weight of lies and concealment. "It is true," he said, "and I have to say it. I understand that you don't want me to help you, but you have to let someone help you, or accept things by yourself. It is your duty."
"Go away," Barney said miserably. "Leave me alone."
Will slowed down to let Barney get ahead. Did I do wrong? he thought. An Old One had to be brutal sometimes. Even a friend had to be brutal sometimes, to make someone wake up to a course of action that was destroying them. It was the necessary thing to do, with the enemy so close. It was the right thing to do.
Jane passed him, shouldering him aside in a way that might have been accidental, or might have been deliberate. Will stepped aside to let Paul and Jon pass. Bran came last, and he paused when he saw Will. "That bad?" he said.
Will had thought his face hidden by the darkness. He shrugged in answer, and they walked on together, but not speaking. Will made even his thoughts blank. The enemy could hear them, after all.
"How are we supposed to sleep?" Jane confronted Will on the stairs, cushions under her arms. "How are we supposed to forget all this?"
"Don't forget," Will said, as infuriatingly calm as always. She was beginning to hate that calm. "Be on your guard. But sleep, even so."
She hated him when he spoke like that. She hated this house, bleak and boring and overcrowded. She hated knowing all this, when she could have been tucked up in her own bed at home, reading quietly, ignorant.
She would not let him pass. "But the enemy…"
"Is out there." His eyes met hers, radiating sincerity. "Would he really be here, in this house, when he could be outside, prowling through the wreckage, revelling in all the grief he's caused? Would he be here, when he could be stirring up riots and looting and enjoying all that terrible aftermath of a disaster?"
True, she thought. The cushion slid from her arm, and she took hold of the banister, her hand clutching it tight. He's out there. Not here. Not… in me. Will's here. This is safe.
Barney was miserable, though, even though he was struggling hopelessly to hide it. She had watched Will talk to him earlier, though she did not know what had been said. Will had made things worse, of course, just like he had done when they had gone to visit Barney in the first place. She should have stormed up to them and hauled Will away, demanding that he leave her little brother alone. Will was immortal and powerful, but that did not mean that he was perfect.
But he knew things, too. Even as she hated it, she could not stop herself from coming to him, asking things, believing things. She found herself asking one such question now. "Is it true, what Jon said?"
His gaze did not waver. "As far as I can tell, yes."
She held the banister tighter. "He's not the enemy, then?"
"I saw no evidence that he was. It's as Paul said. We have to trust people. If we distrust everyone just because there's a possibility that they might be our enemy, then the enemy has won."
It made sense. She wanted to believe it, needed to believe it. The enemy was somewhere outside, and not one of them. They might have their differences, but in the end they would all stand together, united against the enemy. Will had a plan. The enemy would fall.
She started at sudden laughter, snapping her head round. She did not recognise the voice. Simon, perhaps, or Barney. She saw them seldom nowadays. Could it really be that she had forgotten what her brothers' laughter sounded like?
She needed time, she realised. It had all happened too fast. In Wales, she had discovered the truth, only to plunge straight into a war. She needed time to reflect on things, time to get to know her family again, now that she was whole. Always, before, she had held something back, because she had known she was incomplete. She needed the aftermath of victory, with the enemy gone, and nothing left but hope and healing.
"It will work?" The words slipped out before she could stop them. She must have looked needy, a step below Will, gazing up at him as if he was her answer to everything.
Will half closed his eyes, then opened them again. "I don't know. It's the only way I can think of."
She almost grabbed his wrist, but pulled her hand back just in time. "If it fails… If he wins… You'll be… gone. We'll be…"
Bran called Will's name from somewhere upstairs. Jane could have screamed.
Not much room in the house. Paul and Jon in one room, of course. Jane by herself. Simon and Barney sharing the floor in the living room. And Bran on the floor of Will's room. Bran himself had suggested it, saying it as if it was completely obvious, the only possible course of action. Will had nodded, and for the slightest moment there had been a break in his infuriating composure. He had smiled at Bran. Just a flicker, but she had seen it. She had seen it.
"Try to sleep, Jane," Will said. The mask never slipped, of course, not for her. Never for her.
She watched him all the way to his bedroom, and watched him close the door. Her fist turned white on the banister, but the door did not open again.
End of chapter ten
"Look to the morning"
He waited until the house was utterly silent, then quietly crept out of bed. Bran was asleep on an airbed on the floor, snoring quietly, his face turned away. Louder snores came from the next room. Paul, perhaps, or Jon. An hour before, Will had heard Simon or Barney go to get a drink, but there had been so sound from downstairs since then.
Will walked to the window. The stars were hidden by a thin smear of smoke, but the fires were out. Sirens still passed occasionally, but Will had no more way of knowing what was happening in the city than any other mortal.
He moved unseen and silent, stepping over Bran, opening the door without making a sound, and heading downstairs. The floorboard that normally squeaked was silent. Barney and Simon still slept in the living room. The front door opened without anyone stirring. Outside, a cat passed him in the street, oblivious. A couple kissed in a doorway, but did not see him.
Will walked to the park at the end of his short road. It was littered with rubbish and footprints, but there was no-one there. On, he went, and on, across the field, and through the years, until he stood in the same place fifty years before. It was little different. The houses had all been built by then, and the park was just an open space. The skyline of central Oxford had changed little in five hundred years, and night was night, and few people chose to walk in it.
Will pressed both hands into his face, and drew them down over it. It was like removing a mask.
Fifty years ago, one thing was different. The enemy had not yet come into his full power. He was there, because he had been there from the dawn of man, but he was contained, caught between the twin poles of Light and Dark. Here, Will could think without risk of the enemy hearing his thoughts. Here, Will could be himself.
It was a dangerous game that he was playing, but it was the only game that he could play. One of his companions was dead, their body being used as a host by the enemy. He did not have proof of that, but he was sure of it even so. It was what the enemy would do. The enemy had already targeted Will once, by pretending to be a friend and ally. He would do so again. It would amuse him.
Everything Will said to them, the enemy could hear. One of the people, nodding at him as they made promises, was the enemy. The enemy knew all his plans. The enemy knew everything he was saying. The only solution was to speak in lies. The enemy could sense his thoughts, so the only solution was to think in lies, too. Mind as blank and as smooth as his face. Lies within and lies without.
He sat down, his legs giving way beneath him. The grass was moist, cold, real. He plucked a stem, pressed cold fingers to his brow.
He had not lied to Jane. He had not lied to Barney, or Paul, or Bran. None of them could be trusted, but that also meant that all of them had to be trusted. To each one, he had to act simultaneously as if they were the enemy, and as if they were untainted. Five of them had to be strong in mind and untroubled in heart, so they could resist the wiles of the enemy when he struck. They all had to be comforted and strengthened, even as one of them was the thing that needed to be fought.
It would happen in Wales. He had told them all that, and that much was true. In the morning, they would all journey back to Bran's house, and the final confrontation would happen there, on the mountains.
"I need you all," he had told them, solemn on the meadow. "I need your strength to fight him."
That had been a lie. I need you all there, because one of you is him. I need to keep you all close, because then I know that I have him.
"He wants me. If I shout a challenge loud enough, he will come, if only to gloat about his supposed victory. It has to be Wales, because he will feel strong there, because he's walked there already. I just have to trust that, in the end, the Light is stronger than shadows and chaos. The Light, and the bonds of friendship and fellowship."
Lies. All lies. He planned a trap, but that was not it. He would give the enemy a display of ignorance and error and over-confidence. All along, underneath, he would be arming himself, ready to hazard everything on a single strike.
There were reasons for making it Wales. The dead were there, bound to Will by blood, hungry to possess him. The enemy knew that, of course, and it would make him confident, but a binding could, perhaps, be turned the other way, and become a weapon rather than a weakness. And Owen Davies was there. Bran needed to see him as soon as possible, to make his peace. The enemy exploited dark emotions, so Will needed Bran to be healed and whole.
No, Will thought, shaking his head with a rueful smile. That was not the reason. He was not thinking as a general who wanted his troops to be in peak condition. He was thinking as a friend. He wanted his friend to be reconciled to his father, and that was the end of it, and he would not apologise for it.
It would start tomorrow. In the morning, they would rise early, and set out for Wales. Bran would talk to Owen, and there was something Will needed to do, too. Then he would seek the dead, and then… And then…
He pressed his hands into his eyes. He could not think about that, even here in the relative safety of the past. It had to be a plan of the most fleeting impressions and glimmers. It would happen when it happened. If not, he was lost.
He stood up slowly, brushing himself down.
One of them was the enemy. He could never forget that. One of his companions was dead, and he had no idea which one. He had no idea who to mourn.
The night was warm, but he was trembling. His biggest fear was that he would lack the strength to do what he needed to do, when the enemy looked at him with the eyes of a friend. His biggest fear was that, in the end, he would be too human.
Even the division between the cars went without a question. Will took Bran, Paul and Jon in his car, and the Drews were relegated to the other. They lost each other on the Oxford Ring Road, and that was it for the journey. There had been a vague agreement to stop a break at the same service station, but Jane and her brothers ordered their snack, ate it, and finished it, all without seeing the others.
Jane was drumming her fingers on the plastic tabletop, swirling the dregs of coffee in her mug, alternately staring at the crumbs on the table, and at the lobby outside.
"Easy way to find out," Simon said, with a chuckle. He got up and sauntered over to the waitress, all smiling charm. She blushed, and responded. Jane could not hear what Simon was saying, but saw him gesture to his hair, and his eyes. He was probably describing Bran, the most distinctive of the four. His body blocked the waitress's face from view, so she could not guess at what the answer was.
"They haven't been here," Simon told her, when he returned. "Maybe he got behind us, and there was an accident, or something, that held him up. Either that, or he deliberately didn't stop."
"Will wouldn't do that," Jane said, but a little voice inside her told her that he would. Will and Bran, going off together again, leaving her behind. She had been second-best right from the start, and now she was nothing at all.
They walked back to the car, and she turned on the radio, tuning it to the local traffic reports. There were no reports of accidents or delays. A police car with flashing lights raced past her in the car park, but it seemed to be in response to some incident inside the service station, and not related to problems on the road.
"I don't know whether to wait," she said.
"It wasn't a firm arrangement." Barney gave a poor attempt at a laugh. "Maybe you've finally met someone who drives even slower than you do on a motorway."
"I haven't met him," Jane retorted. "You make it sound as if we're…" She stopped. Of course it hadn't sounded like that. She clutched the steering wheel tightly, and wanted to drop her head down, to sigh, to weep.
"Carry on," Simon said, the airy older brother in the back. "Make him pay afterwards. That's what women normally do, isn't it?"
Jane pressed her lips together, and snapped the radio off. She rejoined the motorway, and soon they were over the border into Wales. There was still a long way to go. She glanced in the mirror, and saw that Simon had fallen asleep. Barney was staring out of the window, the atlas open on his lap in an empty show of navigating.
Jane wondered whether to ask him, and decided it had to be said. "What did Will say to you last night?"
She had to keep her eyes on the road, and could not watch Barney's face. "Nothing important," he said. "Nothing that makes a difference."
He sounded so bleak. I did this, Jane thought, with a pang. She had been so insistent that Barney and Simon be told the truth, because she had wanted someone to share it with. To her, the truth had been the triumphant answer to a question she had asked all her life, but Barney already had his answer. Now, because of her, he feared it had been the wrong answer all along. "I'm so sorry," she said, meaning it with all her heart. "If only I hadn't…"
"Best to know," Barney said. "That's what Simon said. Only a coward hides from the truth. So now I know. But I don't think I'm a coward. I'm here, aren't I? I going with you towards who knows what."
"I know." Tears welled up in her eyes, so she could hardly see the road. She wiped at them fiercely.
"I told him I was doing it for you." She faintly saw Barney turn to face her, but all she could look at was the endless grey road ahead of her. "I didn't want to believe it, but I couldn't deny it. Even so, I'd have stayed there and buried my head in the sand. I'd have done my job and my duty, and that was all. But I knew you were out there, fighting this… enemy. You'd thrown your lot in with Will. I didn't like to think of you by yourself."
"Thank you," she whispered. "I…"
"Simon said the same," Barney broke in. "We're family, in this together. I know we've gone our separate ways, but these things matter, don't they?"
Jane nodded. Family, she thought. Who were Will and Bran, after all, but near-strangers she had known for less than a week? They had made clear that they didn't want her around. They hadn't even waited for her. The people who mattered most were her in the car with her.
"We don't need them," she declared. "We don't want them. Do we?" Barney said nothing, but she saw Simon open his eyes, and nod in sleepy agreement.
They stopped for lunch in a small town an hour away from Bran's home. When Will wandered over to the stream, Bran took the opportunity of following him.
"We have a problem with Jane," he said, without preamble.
"Oh?" Will's sleeves were rolled up, and he was leaning on the stone parapet of a bridge, toying with an apple that he had not yet started to eat.
"She's jealous," Bran said. "It could cause a problem."
Will said nothing. He seemed to be staring at something in the distance, a gleam of light where the sunlight played on the water.
"I don't know which of us she's jealous of, really," Bran said. "Me, probably, because you're spending time with me. But maybe…" He took a deep breath. "I… was attracted Jane when I first saw her. I know she doesn't think of me that way, but perhaps she was flattered by the attention. Sometimes you don't want something when it's offered to you, but you still hate it when someone else gets it."
Will turned the apple in his hands, green shading into red. Bran leant on the bridge beside him. His arms were bleached of colour, and looked lifeless next to Will's.
"I thought I should tell you," Bran said, "in case… I mean, you have so many other things to think of. Sometimes you seem to know everything, but other times you're almost clueless. I thought you might not have known about her."
"No," Will said quietly. "I didn't know. Thank you." He threw the apple in the air, and caught it with one hand. "Clueless, yes. Thank you for that, too." But he was smiling, and his tone was light.
"Well…" Bran shrugged. "I suppose you wizard types have far more important things to think about than the people who buzz around at you with their silly little emotions."
"Do you think that?" Will looked hurt. "No," he said, when Bran opened his mouth the apologise. "I deserve it. I'm not always… good… with people. I'm trying to change that. Please point out anything I'm missing. Stop me before I do damage."
"I just meant it as a joke," Bran said. "A poor joke. I'm sorry." He felt strangely ill at ease, and not because of the enemy they were going to face. He had planned how to tell Will about Jane, but the words had come out all wrong.
Will turned back to the stream. "We need to watch Jane, then."
He did not have to say any more. Bran knew more than most how the enemy could slip into your mind and amplify all those unpleasant little emotions you were feeling. You were not even aware that it was the enemy doing it. His resentment of Will had become hatred. His anger at a father who had lied to him had become fury at the whole world, and had led him to attack strangers.
Will turned so his back was against the bridge. The movement subtly took him further away from Bran.
Of course, Bran thought sadly, Will knew that any of them could be the enemy made flesh. He had to distrust their motives at all time. For all Will knew, Bran was the enemy, trying to turn him against Jane.
"I'm not him," Bran said. "I know you think it's one of us, but it's not me."
Will looked at him, and fear blazed in his eyes just for a moment, then was gone, hidden behind the usual calm. Even that, Bran understood. Will had thought they were all fooled by his bold talk on the meadow. The enemy was somewhere else. The seven of them would stand tall and together, and the enemy would come sweeping in from somewhere other, and fall into their trap.
"I knew all along," Bran said. "I know what you're doing. I won't tell the others."
"How?" Will asked. He passed his hand over his brow. "No, don't answer that. You just… You understand me too well. Even when you were hating me, you saw things so clearly. You saved me on the mountain, not Jane. I don't know how you do it. Sometimes it scares me…"
His voice trailed off. Bran knew what he had been about to say, but did not know how to answer it. Instead, he just said again, "I won't tell the others."
He turned round so they were side by side together, looking towards the heart of the small village, where locals strolled to the shops, and tourists took photographs of the hills. It was a pleasant and serene scene, but he knew that Will was looking anxiously for arguments and fights, just as earlier he had been scanning the river for the drowned dead rising from its waters. He was looking for signs that the enemy was close, though the absence of such signs proved nothing. The enemy could be close, just choosing to keep himself hidden.
"If it's so clear to you, you see," Will said, "then surely it's clear to the others."
Bran shook his head. "It isn't. The others don't…" He pressed his palm against the cold stone, smooth from generations of hands. "I've seen you at your worst. I think that's probably it. They still see an Old One who has all the answers. I saw you almost die when you faced those dead things. I've hated you and fought you. It all helps, I think. So that's why."
"At my worst…" Will smiled. "You have a good way of putting things, Bran Davies."
"Better than you," Bran agreed. "You sound like someone out of a bad film half the time, all swords and dragons and people with pointy hats."
"I do, don't I?" Will chuckled. "Can't be helped. I plan to change lots of things if…"
And so, instantly, they were sober again. The finger of a cloud crossed over the sun, but was a great grey shadow on the main street of the village.
"You'll go and talk to your father?" Will said suddenly. "To Owen, I mean."
Bran bridled. "It's none of your business."
"It is," Will said calmly. He was more nervous than he sounded, though. Bran could tell that.
"Oh, I get it." Bran folded his arms. "It's like Jane and her jealousy. You think this is an open wound that will let the enemy in. It will get in the way when…"
"Yes, it could," Will said, looking Bran full in the face, as if his dark glasses were no obstacle at all, and everything between them was fragile. "You've said you'll help me, and that gives me the right to ask you to make sure you're prepared, mentally. But that's not why. It's not a case of right. A friend has the duty to suggest something, if they think it's the best... If they think if will make a friend happier… Even if they don't want to hear it, you have to… to try."
Bran looked at the sky, blue and almost clear. "For someone who doesn't mix much with people, you can be a wordy one, can't you?"
Will began to turn away. He attempted to mask his hurt, but not well enough.
Friend, Bran thought. His throat thickened, almost as if with tears. He had been lonely all his life, and had never really had a friend of his own age. How pathetic does that make me? he thought. Really, he was in no position to lecture Will about how to understand people's feelings. Sometimes Bran had gone for months on end without exchanging any words with anyone but two old men, both of them prone to silence.
"I will talk to him, yes," he said. "I'd always intended to." He almost said more, stopped himself, then said it anyway. "Thank you for asking, though."
Will smiled. The whole village seemed to hang behind them like a painting of a place, still and beautiful and wordless.
"Are you going to eat that, or what?" Bran snatched the apple from Will's hand, and took a large bite. "If you want something, you have to keep hold of it."
"Yes," Will said. "I know."
They met John Rowlands first, walking with his dogs along the unsurfaced road that led to Owen Davies' home. Will stopped his car, still a few hundred yards short of the farmhouse.
"I'll go on, then," Bran said. He sat still for a few seconds, making no attempt to move. "Right." He climbed out of the car, and walked on alone. Will knew that he was nervous, and there were things he wanted to call out after him, but not with Paul and Jon in the back of the car, not with John Rowlands watching.
"I won't be long," he said. Will got out of the car, closing the door behind him.
"You brought our boy back to us, then." There was no welcome in John Rowlands' face.
Will nodded. There was too much that he could not say. It was not for him to tell anyone else about Arthur, or about the things he had revealed to Bran.
"I knew he would come back eventually," John said. "He's quick to anger, that boy, but he has a good heart. There's more sentiment in him than he would ever let on."
"I thought I would set my dogs on you, if you ever showed your face again." John said it casually, as he stroked the head of the nearest dog.
"It was his choice to leave," Will said. "He's an adult. It's not my role as… as what I am, to interfere with free choices."
"As a friend, though…"
Will smiled. "Do you think he would have listened to me? If I'd argued one way, he'd have done the other, just to spite me."
"Yes." John closed his eyes. "I'm not an unreasonable man. I understood things better the morning afterwards. It was too… raw that night. If Bran had stayed, things would have got worse and worse, and gone too far to be mended. At least this way he's had time to think about things, to come to terms with things. This way is best."
Will glanced at the car, but Paul and Jon were talking in the back, seemingly oblivious to him. Bran was still walking towards the farm, but he looked back more than once. Will watched him, but did not wave.
"He must know we're talking about him," he said. He turned back to John. "I won't do this any more. Talk about Bran, I mean."
John's eyes seemed to bore right into him, as wise in their way as Merriman's eyes had always been. "Because it's not only because of Bran that you're here. Something's going to happen. Something's going to happen here that changes everything."
"Yes." Will nodded. "It all ends here."
The sun was high; the mountainside was as lovely as he had ever seen it. Every blade of grass was picked out and limned with light. Tiny clouds drifted in the perfect blue, white and languid. Specks of people climbed the mountain, and picnicked, and laughed. They did not know that the future would be decided here. They did not know that Will stood below them, not knowing if he would see the sun rise again.
"I'm not… comfortable with what you are," John said, "but I'd be a fool not to realise that you're on the side of right. What can I do to help?"
"Nothing." Will smiled, genuinely warmed by the offer. With such small things could the advance of the enemy be halted. As long as there were acts of kindness, the enemy had not entirely won. "Spend the night with Owen. Eat good food, have a drink, and play your harp, or talk about all the good things in your past. Let the lights blaze, but do not open the door. Do not let the darkness in. Look to the morning."
"I have never been one for chapel, but I will pray for your success." John's voice was husky as he took Will's hand and squeezed it.
Bran reached the farmhouse, paused on the doorstep, then let himself in. Paul and Jon had fallen silent, watching Will. A kestrel soared, and a helicopter circled in the valley, gleaming silver.
"I will do what you said." This time John lowered his head, a formal bow. "I will look to the morning."
Whistling to his dogs, he walked on. Will could only stand there, watching him.
He closed the door quietly, and leant back against it for a while, just breathing. The house was dark, and felt empty, devoid of life. Owen Davies was not one of those people who could fill a house with his light, just by being there. The radio was never loud, the television seldom on. Bran had often come home and thought the house deserted, only to find his father sitting in semi-darkness, nursing a mug of tea, thinking.
"Da?" Bran's voice was hoarse, barely there at all. He cleared his throat, wincing at the noise it made in the silent hallway. Something thumped upstairs, the distinctive sound of a cat jumping down from the windowsill, front paws and then back.
Bran walked down the hallway towards the kitchen. "Da? It's me."
It was only then that he realised what he had been saying, calling out to Owen as if nothing had changed. One step later, and he realised how right it was. Arthur was his father, but Owen was his da. Twenty years ago, Bran had known everything, and had chosen to stay with Owen. Loving bonds were more important than blood. He had made his choice, wiser as a boy of twelve than as a man full grown.
He opened the door, and there was Owen, hunched on a hard chair, bleak and still. He seemed to have aged ten years since Bran had last saw him. His eyes froze when he saw Bran.
"Da," Bran said softly. And, really, that was all that was needed.
Jane slammed the car door shut, and stalked towards Will, but even before she had reached him, she had already decided not to say anything. So he hadn't waited for her at the service station. Did it matter? Of course not. She owed nothing to him. Nothing.
"So what now?" she demanded.
Will was leaning against a low stone wall. His sleeves were rolled up, and he looked flushed and healthy in the breeze and the sunlight. Paul and Jon were nearby, but she could not see Bran. "Bran has something he needs to do first," Will said. "We're just waiting for him, before we…"
"Outside?" Jane shook her head incredulously. "What if he's hours? What if it gets dark? What if it rains? Why are we waiting for him, anyway. If he's gone off…"
"He's not gone off, as you put it." Will turned casually, but his eyes were steel. "He's doing something important. And it doesn't matter if we're outside, or in. Walls make no difference to the enemy. Neither does light."
She wanted to hit him. She wanted to hold him. Different urges chattered in her mind, until she wanted to scream, or sob, or fall to the ground and beg for help.
She clenched her fist, nails digging into her palm. "How long have you been here?"
Will shrugged. "An hour? I probably drive too fast." She did not like the look of his smile. She thought his smiles had always been false. "We looked for you at the service station, but you weren't there. We thought you must have stopped somewhere else instead. It was only a suggestion, that we meet up."
She dug her nails deeper. "It doesn't matter." She knew he was lying. Simon had spoken to the waitress, and she had not seen them. He had been here an hour, so clearly had not stopped at all, so eager was he to get here with Bran, and shake her off like something unwanted.
He blinked. The wind stirred his hair, like a human touch, invisible, dead. She thought she heard laughter in the sound of the wind, in the cry of the birds, and she shivered, but then it was gone.
"Jane…" He began to reach towards her, one hand only, offering nothing.
She took a step back. "I'll wait in the car with my brothers," she said, "until you decide what you want us for."
His hand seemed useless, powerless, hanging hatefully at his side. "Not inside, surely," he said. "It's such a lovely afternoon. You can…"
"You," she echoed, her voice bitter. She had not meant to say it. Careful, her mind whispered. Don't let him know. He thinks you're still meek little Jane, who worships him. "I mean…" She moistened her lips. "Do you mean that you're not…?"
"I have something to do, too," Will said. "I was only waiting here until you came."
"Something important, like what Bran's doing?" She still could not keep the bitterness out of her voice.
"Important to me," Will said. "Important to… things? I hope so."
He did not say more, of course. He would never say more. He had told everything to Bran, closeted together for the long journey, stopping together, eating together. Bran got confidences, and Jane only got lies.
I was the first! she wanted to scream. Bran had hated Will, and she alone had been loyal. She had defended him, helped him. Bran only knew the truth because Jane had worked it out for herself, and told him. Will would be lost on the mountain if she hadn't gone after him. She had been the first, and now she was nothing. He had rejected her love, rejected her friendship. He had rejected her.
She locked it all inside, where it screamed and chattered and howled in the walls of her mind. "I hope you're not long," she said. "We're nothing without you."
Will looked at her sharply, but he did not correct her. He did not assure her that she was of use after all, that she had a vital role to play, that he needed her. It was just that one look, and then he was gone.
"So it's the waiting game, then?" Simon had come up behind her, unnoticed.
Jane was clenched so tightly she was trembling. "Yes," she hissed through clenched teeth.
"Waiting for what, I wonder?"
Images filled her mind, sheeting like blood, and they horrified her, but she could not drive them away. She could not unsee them.
End of chapter eleven
The last debt
They said little, but words had never been necessary between them. Owen Davies was a taciturn man. Bran was more talkative, but he had spent years living with a man of few words. He had grown accustomed to seeing the meaning that lay in a gesture or even in silence.
Bran watched the minute hand of the clock turn slowly to vertical. That was the time he had set himself. "I know there's a lot more we need to talk about…"
Owen shook his head. "Now, boy, you know I'm not one to hold with this new-fangled touchy-feely business. Least said, soonest mended."
"No." Bran would not let him get away with that. "There are things we need to talk about. The future, for one." Would he stay on the farm, or would he go… elsewhere? More things had changed than just the discovery of his true father. "But we can't do it now. Will's here, and Jane, and four others."
"The English wizard." Owen said it with loathing. "Here to stir up things that are against God."
"No." Bran touched his father's hand, far more fragile than it once had been. "Those things have already been stirred up. Will is here to set things right. Please don't hate him."
Owen snorted. "One such as him shouldn't care about the opinion of one such as me."
But I care, Bran thought. He said it, too. "But I care. He's my friend. I know you can't like what he is, but don't hate him. Not tonight."
He imagined his father sitting there behind closed doors, resenting Will, and the enemy creeping into his thoughts, turning resentment into hatred and hatred into murder. Will could not be killed by man, but he could be wounded, and Owen had a gun.
"Please, da," Bran begged him. "I know you don't want any part of this, but let us do what we have to do."
Owen half turned his head away. "Why can't he leave you alone?"
"Look at me." Bran had taken his glasses off, and sat with his hands folded on the table, open and honest before this man who had become his father. "Look at me, da."
Owen turned slowly. His eyes were shining, Bran saw, as if with tears.
"I am your son," Bran said, "and I another man's son. You are not my father by blood, but you are my da. I came back because Will wanted me to, and I came back because I wanted to. I want things to be right between us. But I am an adult. I chose to stay with you, long ago, and I make choices every day of my life, every moment."
"And you've chosen him," Owen said.
"No." Bran shook his head. "I've chosen myself. I've chosen to be whole. For years, I've been bound by a choice I don't remember making. I haven't known the truth. Now I know."
"I've lost you." Owen closed his eyes. "When I saw you standing there, I thought…"
"No," Bran cried. "You haven't…" He let out a long breath. "Perhaps you've lost the boy I was," he said, "but I've finally grown up, and I'm still your son. I always will be."
Owen raised one hand to his face. "Better without words," he whispered.
"No, da. No." Bran took that hand, and gently lowered it. Perhaps he was wrong. Perhaps there should have been more words over the years, and none of this would have happened. "I need you to know. Please hear me. You're my father, but I'm thirty-two years old. Sometimes I'll do things you disapprove of. Sons always do. Please let me do that. Give me your blessing. Tonight, I need to go one way, and you need to go another, but it makes not the slightest difference to what's between us."
Owen pushed himself blindly from the chair, and walked towards the window. It was a beautiful afternoon outside, but little of that penetrated their sad little kitchen, where too many years had been spent in silence and secrets and lies.
"I don't want to know what it is," Owen said, his face to the window and the light outside. He looked diminished there, as if his edges were bleeding away into the light.
Bran let out a breath. It was a peace offering, of sorts, or a surrender. "You won't," he said, "and I will come back to you in the morning. I promise that, da. I promise."
Of course he would ask that first, and not ask how her journey was, or how she was coping with the little thing that was the end of the world. Jane pushed her hair back with a stiff hand. "He's gone off somewhere, of course."
Bran pressed his lips together and frowned, as if this displeased him. Good! Jane thought. Go on, her mind urged her. Play on that. Win him back.
"Doesn't it drive you mad when he does that?" She pushed her hair back again, this time slowly, lingeringly. "I thought we were supposed to be in this together, but he doesn't tell us anything."
Bran hardly seemed to be listening to her. He was scanning the slope above the road, clearly searching for and finding all the others. "We should go to my house," he said. "Make a base there."
"And sit and wait for Will to deign to show himself?" Jane laughed. "We could be in for a long wait, then."
"He'll come back," Bran said, but he still looked doubtful, troubled.
Jane smiled inside, but did not show it. Instead, she moved even closer to Bran. "We've let this get out of hand, Bran. What do we really know about Will? He's not even human. He'll never really care about anyone else. I could tell that when I saw his bedroom. He doesn't know how to. But we… You and me, Bran, we're human. Why are we letting him push us around like this?"
Bran took a step back. "You know why, Jane. Please don't do this. This is not what you're like. You're demeaning yourself."
Fury sheeted in her mind, jubilant after two decades of keeping it masked. "You don't know me!" she screamed. "Don't you dare talk to me like that!"
Bran took his glasses off, showing her his incredible tawny eyes. "Listen to me, Jane. Think. You know what we're dealing with. This is an enemy who gets into your thoughts and makes you feel things. Don't listen to him. Fight him, Jane. We need you."
Jane wanted to sob. She wanted to fall to her knees and beg for help. She wanted Will to come back and tell her… No, she didn't want him. He was the enemy. He was…
"No," she moaned. She pressed both hands against her face, digging the fingers into her temples. The fury lessened, just a little, and she no longer wanted to weep. "Maybe it is," she whispered, "just a little. But… But the facts are still the same. Will's keeping things from us. Will's abandoned us."
"It only seems that way because you're not yourself," Bran said, but the glasses were on again, and she knew he was lying, patronising her, barely interested at all.
"You used to like me." The words slipped out before she could stop them. She had a sudden memory of herself at fourteen, embarrassing herself in her hopeless devotion to a boy in the sixth form. She had never thought to be so pathetic again, but she could not stop herself, oh, she could not stop… "Why don't you like me anymore?"
Bran seemed to think for a while before answering. Preparing his lies, she thought in her despair. "I liked you, yes. I thought you were pretty. I… fancied you, as we used to say at school. But I'm not a fool. You didn't think of me that way. Why should you, with me looking like this? I wanted you, and you wanted Will. That's how it was. It was one of the reasons I was so hateful to Will at first, because I was jealous."
Tears stung her eyes, and she pawed at them, hateful, treacherous things. "You say it all in the past tense."
He drew himself up stiffly, and there could have been anything behind the dark discs of his eyes. "Would you rather that I was swooning with unrequited love? I… Things changed. Other things became important. When they were over, I realised that I had moved on. I wasn't so far gone in love that I couldn't stop myself. It wasn't a conscious decision, but it seems that I realised that there would never be anything between us but friendship, and that that was enough."
It made sense. She tried to cling to that. She had done the same herself at university more than once, when she had had a crush on someone for a little while, before accepting that her love was unattainable, and moving on. But it was different when you were the one who was rejected. It made you feel little and worthless. It made you feel cast aside. It hurt.
"But there isn't even friendship between us now," she said, almost sobbing it. "You're always with Will. He doesn't even notice me."
He stepped towards her, and there was something in his face that made her want to tremble and beg for her life. "Do not think like that." It sounded like a command. "Think like that, and you might as well go home, because you'll be useless to us." He grabbed her by the shoulders, but she still could not see his eyes. "I'm with Will, because he needs me, just like he needs all of us. You're not a fool. You know what he's facing tonight. We needs us united. There must be no ways for the enemy to get in and break us apart. Everything you've been telling me… Yes, it matters, but not today. Today, nothing matters but the fight."
"But how can it matter to me," she cried, dragging herself away from him, "when he never tells me what's happening?"
"Then use your brain and work it out," Bran retorted. "See past your jealousy. I did."
Jane hit him. The pain in her fist only fed her anger. "Don't patronise me!" she screamed. "And I'm not useless! I'm not! Why does Will keep thinking I'm useless? You wouldn't even be here if it wasn't for me."
"Jane." Bran reached towards her, but she recoiled, huddled in on herself, arms crossed tightly at her chest. "Jane," he said. "Please… Yes, Will and I… I think we could end up being really good friends, but people can have more than one friend. There's no need to be jealous at all. It's the enemy making you think this way. Please, Jane. This isn't you. Be the Jane I met down by the sea. Be the Jane who fought for Will on the mountain. Be yourself."
She lowered her hands slowly. "I just want to be useful, and… liked." The last word was barely whispered, not even said aloud.
"Everyone wants that." Bran smiled sadly, and offered her his arm, like a gentleman leading an old lady, and nothing more close than that. "Come on. Let's go to my house."
He thought he had won. He thought he had reached her with his pathetic attempt at eloquence and his lies. She knew better. She knew the truth. But Bran was not the only one who could lie.
"Yes," she said, taking his arm. "I'm sorry I was silly. It's just that… Friends don't go off and leave each other, you see, and you kept doing that, and Will does it all the time. He can't really like us very much at all."
She watched Bran's face turn troubled, and knew her dart had landed true. With laughter in her mind, and tears in her eyes, she clung to Bran's arm, close enough that their hips kept brushing together.
I will have him, she thought.
The man was easy to find. His pain and his mindlessness was like a dark beacon, a void in the Light that pervaded everything.
I did this, Will thought, as he watched the man stumbled blindly down the street, dirty and ragged and shunned. His hands were bloody from clawing and searching. His eyes were torment and his hollow cheeks were loss.
Will raised one hand. "Be free," he commanded.
The man froze. Then, even so slowly, he started to move again. His head rose up slowly. His hands rose to his face, as if he was checking that he still existed. He stared at his hands, as if horrified to find that they were his own. Then he fell to his knees, weeping.
Will would do this the human way. He phoned for an ambulance, because he knew that this man had wandered for nearly two weeks, bound by a compulsion to seek out a man who did not exist. He would have eaten only when he had to, to keep himself alive, but food would have been more a torment than a sweetness, since it was a moment spent away from his search.
"I am sorry." Will crouched down beside the man, touching him gently on the shoulder. "I was wrong to do it. This, you should forget."
He raised his hand again, another murmured spell, but this one a spell of mercy, of pity. The man fell to the ground, sleeping, forgetting. When the ambulance came, they would treat him for dehydration and malnutrition. The rest they would probably blame on drugs or alcohol. This man would never know what it had felt like to be driven by a compulsion so strong that it denied sleep, that it killed all happiness, all light.
A siren sounded, and Will almost withdrew, then remembered that the authorities would want to speak to the person who had made the call. If he vanished, they would search for him, but they would need all their strength elsewhere, if the enemy struck tonight.
He watched them quietly as they examined the man and loaded him into the ambulance. Yes, he told them, he had called the ambulance. No, he didn't know the man's name. He was a visitor, English, a friend of the Bran Davies up on the mountain. He'd come looking for a newsagent when he had seen this man collapse on the other side of the road. He invested his words with enough power that they believed him completely, and watched them go on their way.
So it was done. This was the last of them.
Nearly two weeks before, this man had attacked Bran outside his house, and later Will had caught him lying in wait for a second attack. He had forced the truth from the man's mind, and thus found out about the existence of the enemy. The enemy had been behind the attack, but he had commanded these men in a more direct way than was normal, appearing before them in the bodily form he had then assumed, and giving them orders.
When he had heard that, Will had sent them back with a message for their master, compelling them not to rest until the message was delivered. The enemy had retained that form for a few days more, but of course he would have made sure that the men did not find him. He would have enjoyed watching his abandoned slaves stumble around, losing their minds because of something Will had done.
As for Will, he had thought nothing of it. He had left Wales, and not spared a thought for the men whose minds he had ruined. It was only in the flames that he had remembered. I am human, he had realised. I am part of this world. With that realisation had come the memory of all those things he had done that went against humanity. Sometimes an Old One had to do things that seemed cold or cruel. That was true, and that remained true. But it did not serve the cause of Light to break this man. It did not serve the cause of humanity. It was wrong, and Will had to end it.
Now he had done so. It made him feel a tiny bit stronger, a tiny bit more at peace, a tiny bit more ready to face the enemy.
He stopped walking, let out a breath. Was that why he had done it? No, he thought. It was true that he needed to be strong and whole when he faced the enemy, without fears and regrets and weaknesses for the enemy to exploit, but really he had done this because it was the right thing to do, and today could be his last chance. Tomorrow he could be broken or lost or enslaved, powerless and a puppet, gone. He was like a dying man clearing all debts. This had to be done today, because tomorrow he could be incapable of doing anything ever again.
But it was right, he thought, and that was an end in itself. Little moments of goodness and humanity were like tiny pellets in the flank of the enemy. It was as true for him as it was for everyone else. If he failed tonight, it was the only hope mankind had, before everything fell into chaos and hatred inescapable.
Will's path began to rise, and he glimpsed the mountain ahead, through the trees. The first task was done, but there was still one more thing that needed to be done, before he could return to Bran and the others. This one had been easy; the next would be terrible.
They were sitting, all of them, in the front room that was so seldom used. It did not feel like Bran's own home at all, but a place in a strange house, full of strangers.
Jane was the only one of these people that he knew even slightly, and she was so terribly changed now. He knew she had let the enemy in. He wanted to drag her to one side, and beg her to give him a sign that she was still Jane, merely unfluenced by the enemy, and not the enemy himself. He wanted to believe that Jane would cry when it was over, and be herself again. He couldn't bear the thought of her body falling dead to the ground, of the knowledge that for days she had not been there at all, and her body had been inhabited by the enemy.
He wanted it to be one of the others, but that was a terrible thing to think. If it was Simon or Barney, Jane would grieve. If it was Paul, Will would mourn him, and if it was Jon, Will's brother would be heartbroken.
And if it was me…? he thought. Would anyone mourn me?
He felt the lure of self-pity and proud solitude. I don't need any of you, he would declare. I need nobody, and nobody needs me. He raised his head, tried to see if any of them were looking at him, smirking as they sent these thoughts to him. You cannot fool me again, he told the enemy silently. He had let the enemy in, and it had almost destroyed him, outside the station. He was wise to those wiles now, and would not be taken a second time. He was inviolate. A lifetime of near-isolation meant that he had everything that he needed within his own head.
Besides, Will would mourn him. Owen would mourn him. At school, people had shunned Bran because of his appearance, and he had sometimes wondered if anyone could like him. Now, in just a few days, he had discovered that Owen had loved him so much that he had sacrificed a lot to bring him up as his son; that Arthur had loved him enough to ask him to spend forever with him, even though he had already known what the answer would be; that Will had liked him enough to be broken by the ending of their friendship. He felt strengthened by such things, and secure in who he was for the first time. He could face anything. Nothing would break him.
He heard laughter, faint and fading. I shouldn't have been thinking any of this! Bran stood up, paced over to the window. Of course, none of them were supposed to know that the enemy was so close. That's why Will had said nothing, because even thoughts could be heard. Even thought could betray them, and Bran had just…
"Where are you going?" Jane asked.
Bran started, realising that he had been about to open the door, to head outside, to where? To somewhere where his thoughts were his own, where the enemy did not wear the mask of a friend, where his every expression did not fuel Jane's jealousy. To the clear evening. To Will, who alone of all of them was not mired in lies.
"I want some air," he managed to say.
"I'll come with you."
He ought to say yes. Jane's jealousy and resentment could lead to disaster. He ought to placate her, but some of the things she was saying… She was trying to turn him against Will, and he was strong enough to resist that, but to hear it again and again, and with the enemy there, ready to pounce on any doubt... You could only assault a castle for so long before it fell.
"No," he said, and even managed to smile. "You stay here." He gestured to her to come out into the hall, where he said quietly, so the others couldn't hear, "We're the only ones who know what's really happening, Jane. You should stay here for when Will comes back. Tell him I'll be back soon. I just need to… check on my father, over at John's."
She nodded in agreement, and he was free. He went outside, and took in a deep breath of the cool air, feeling it course through his veins, like truth.
"So, one by one, they go away," Simon said.
Jane sat down on the couch, stood up again, paced to the window, then returned to her seat. "Bran said he wouldn't be long."
"Will said that, too," said Simon.
Jane closed her eyes, opened them again. She wanted to believe Bran, but part of her mind was screaming at her not to. She knew it was the enemy. The enemy was exacerbating her feelings, but the feelings were genuine and well-founded. As long as she did not let the enemy push her into doing anything harmful, then she was still in control. Somebody had to open everyone's eyes to the lies Will was telling. Someone had to hold them together, the mortals who were threatened by Will's high-handedness. It was the only human thing to do.
Barney had said hardly anything all day. He was still unable to cope with Will coming along and so blithely throwing his entire belief system into confusion. It was up to Jane, his older sister, to comfort him. They were abandoned, once again waiting in a house that was not theirs, but it did not mean that they could not draw together.
But it was Paul who spoke first, his words echoing her thoughts so closely that she froze, mouth still open. "We shouldn't be sitting here like this," he said. "We should be talking, or singing. I've got my flute…"
"Talk about happy memories," Jon said. "Will said we should do that, in the car. The sadder we are, the stronger the enemy is."
Paul smiled. "I could tell lots of funny stories about Will as a child, that he'd be really embarrassed to think you knew." His smile faded. "No, not so many. He was always… serious. Now I know why."
"Not to worry." Simon drew himself up on the couch. "I'm sure I can make up for it. Embarrassing stories about Jane and Barney, here we come."
"Simon." Jane chided him only half-heartedly. They were right, of course. This was exactly what they needed. They did not need Will in order to be happy. They could find hope without him.
"Remember that time we went to the zoo," said Barney, and even he was smiling, a mischievous smile that made him look like her little brother again. "And Mum said… And Simon said…"
Yes, this was what they needed. Jane folded her legs underneath her, and tugged a cushion out from behind her, to clutch it loosely to her stomach. An evening of storytelling and reminiscences. Jane and her brothers, properly together for the first time in years. They didn't need anyone else. What had she been thinking of, to sob so pathetically in front of Bran? Everything that mattered was in this room. With talk and fondness, they could keep the enemy at bay.
"Remember when we built the tree-house in the back garden," she offered, and they smiled, and she smiled, and with such little things was the enemy defeated.
He caught a glimpse of someone moving up the mountain, and knew without a doubt that it was Will.
He called his name. The figure did not turn round. Bran called his name again, and started to run, but Will gave no sign of hearing him.
Bran had not lied to Jane. He had checked on his father, though only from a distance. From across the yard, he had watched John and Owen talking in John's kitchen, their words unknown. Keep him there, he had thought fiercely at John. He could not entirely shift the image of his father with a gun, driven by the enemy to shoot the man he thought was stealing his son.
After that, he had wandered a little on the lower slopes of the mountain, revelling in the fresh air. He knew it was impossible to actively look for Will, but of course he had hoped that he would find him. It disturbed him to think of Will potentially facing dangers out there by himself. He would never forget what had happened when Will had faced the dead, and how close he had come to falling.
"Will!" he called now, as he ran up the slope. "Will! Wait!"
At length, Will turned round. Bran scrambled the last few yards, and faced him. He could barely see Will's face, but of course it was getting dark, and Bran still had his glasses on. He ripped them off, and thrust them into his pocket. "Will," he said, nothing between them now but the night. "Please let me go with you."
He had not meant to beg. Will shook his head, a tiny gesture. "You can't, Bran."
"Please." Bran half reached for him, but let his hand fall. "You don't have to do everything alone. I thought I did, too, but…"
"I know," Will said gently, face hidden by the twilight, and perhaps by magic, too. "It's nothing to do with that."
"Then it's because it's dangerous," Bran tried. "You don't want me to…"
"No." Another shake of the head. "You cannot be there. Cannot. There is no question."
He understood. How could he not? Will still feared that he was the enemy. Some things had to be kept secret from all of them, because any one of them could be the one who would ruin everything.
"It's not me, Will." Bran felt torn up inside. "I'm not him."
It was Will's turn to reach out now, Will's turn to let his hand fall. "I cannot take the risk, Bran. You say you understand. Understand this. Please."
He had to. He had nothing else. Bran clenched his fist and brought it up to his chest. "I hate it, though, what this… thing has done."
"I do, too." Will smiled sadly.
Darkness was sliding in quickly, like a cape drawn over the mountain. Bran shivered. Even in the summer, the nights were cold.
Will began to turn away, but did not go. "I would have forced you," he said quietly. "Held you immobile while I walked away, or compelled you to go back, or even made you forget. I want you to know that I would have done that. I want you to know that I am glad I did not have to."
Bran blinked. His throat felt clogged and hoarse. "I'm going now." He did not want to be the one who stood and watched another walk away. Blindly, he headed back down the mountain, and he did not look back.
End of chapter twelve
The ending of the world
They were laughing, all five of them, at some story of a holiday gone wrong. When she saw Barney look up, Jane turned to see what he was looking at, and there was Bran, standing in the doorway.
"What's wrong?" Paul asked sharply.
Bran shook his head. He looked dazed, and he was not wearing his glasses.
"Did you see Will?" Paul persisted.
Bran froze for a moment. Then he let out a breath and moved again, but it was enough. Jane knew the truth.
"You did," she said. "You saw Will, and he told you to go away, just like I said he would."
"Be quiet!" She had never heard such cold command in the voice of anyone human. "You don't understand anything. None of you understand anything."
He slammed the door and went away, his footsteps stamping up the stairs. Jane sat down, trembling. The others had the awkward look of someone who had witnessed an argument and did not know what to do.
So there you have it, her mind whispered.
Yes, Jane whispered back, and, with a shuddering sigh, she yielded, and let the enemy have her.
Will walked into the darkness of the distant past, to a time before man, before the Old Ones, before the enemy. His hand was held in front of him, parting the years like a veil. Time was no barrier for an Old One, but to go so far required effort. It felt like a long climb to a distant mountain, or maybe like a slow descent to a depth he would not be able to return from.
They were ready for him, caged and furious. He felt them calling to him when he was close, hungering for his blood, tugging at the ties that bound him.
Once, before, he had mastered them, though the mastery was fragile and would not last long. They were chained, but the chains were rusty, and would wear through with the passage of time. Their bonds were magic and power, but they were not enough to hold them forever. There was a chance that they would break free when they saw him, and overcome him, and this time there would be no going back.
They looked like white wraiths with hollow eyes, with long fingers that spilled out into the air, and bands of gold on their brows. They had feasted on his blood, and that had strengthened them and given them a more permanent form. The enemy's presence had bought a hint of them back to life, but Will's blood had made that life real. They were bound to him, and they could destroy him.
They hissed and surged when they sensed him. Will half closed his eyes. His blood was on their tongues and in the pits that were their stomachs. If he cared to, he could reach out to that blood, and feel what they were feeling, in broken images and scattered thoughts. Blood, hunger, hatred, fury… Blood so sweet, but now gone, and they were so dry, so hungry, and they wanted more, they needed more…
He drew himself back. "No," he said. "You will hear me."
They watched him, hating him. This was a time before the world had finished forming, when magic swirled unchecked, yet to settle down into Light and Dark. He saw them in a cage on a blackened hillside, beneath an orange sky, but he doubted such things were real. Even the mind of an Old One could not cope with some realities, and created a fiction, just to stop from going mad.
"You know who I am," he said. He said it out loud, though words were not necessary. They plucked what they needed from his mind and his soul, and he let them, giving them everything that they needed, except himself. "And I know who you are."
Of course he did. They shared a link that was closer than love. These things had been long dead, but he had birthed them, he and the enemy together. That was why he had almost failed, the last time he had confronted them. He had tried to stand outside of them, and command them, but they had been more wily and more strong. They had tugged at the link, and he would have been lost, if Bran had not been there, calling him back to his body to himself.
Bran was not here now. Will was alone.
"Release us," they hissed. "Let us take what is ours."
Images flooded his mind. Sheep slaughtered, and sweet sweet flesh. Children running in terror, and a swinging sword. Lights on a hillside, one by one extinguished. They had wandered free on the mountain for a few days, in only a shadow of the strength that could be theirs. They wanted more. They could be more deadly than the enemy, and more cruel.
Will raised his head. "No, I will not."
They screamed and shrieked and threw themselves at their bars. Will's veins burned like fire, as if his blood was leaping from his body, responding to their call, going to them. He wavered and almost fell, and cried out with the effort of keeping himself standing. From the knee downwards, he was encased in a swirling, blood-red darkness. He tried to remember what light looked like, what summer was like, and the face of a friend.
"Release us!" they commanded. "We will spit out your blood. We will find another. Let us go."
That was why he was here. He reached behind him, straining with just two fingers, and touched a faint patch of warmer air, that was his path home. He was still in control. Last time, he had wanted to end the link between them, so he could destroy them, but they had clung to him hungrily, almost dragging him down. Now they wanted to be freed from the link, and he was the one refusing to let it go. The positions were reversed. He was the one exerting the power, and they were the ones struggling so desperately to be free.
"We are linked," he told them. "We are bound by more than my blood."
"Liar!" they howled. "We are nothing like you, Old One, young one, bastard child."
"I know you," he said, and looked each of them in the pits that were their eyes.
These were the spirits of ancient mages, from the time before Light and Dark. They were mages and warlords from a time of chaos, when Wild Magic ruled, and people did what they willed. They had been human, and they had died in time, but their magic and the magic of their followers was strong enough that they had lingered in a kind of waking sleep, beneath the layers of the earth.
"I am your child," he told them. "I bear your blood, just as you bear mine."
"Liar!" they shrieked. Images came, of things tasted in the air when they had awakened from their long sleep, of things drifting over their mounds, barely noticed or remembered. They hated the Old Ones as invaders, and despised their alien magic. They hated the Light and despised the Dark. They thought the world was theirs.
"Listen," he beseeched them, and he showed them everything that lay inside him. He showed them family, and love. He showed himself as a toddler, blinking up at an adored older brother. He showed himself watching Bran walk away. He showed himself aged twelve, bereft of Merriman. He showed people laughing, and smiling, and weeping. He showed them the things he had realised in their fire, and the things Bran had shouted at him just before that.
"I am human," he told them. "An Old One, yes, but a human, too. You are my ancestors, from long, long ago. The people out there, living in the world today, are your last children. They are your legacy, but something is out to destroy them, turning them against each other, making them hate."
"An enemy?" they hissed. They knew that word. He felt them itch for swords and axes, for hands that could wield weapons, for mouths that could speak their spells. They had fought and died to protect their people in a harsh age.
Will spread both hands, palms upwards. "I am not your enemy. We are allies, fighting to protect your children from the true enemy. Will you let him destroy your world?"
They shrieked, an incoherent sound. Nothing came from them now but hatred and the need to kill.
"But not yet," he told them, and the force of their fury almost sent him to his knees. His blood screamed, and a finger of scarlet darkness coiled around his waist. "When the time is right, I will call you through the years. You will attack the person I command you to attack. He might look human, but he is not. He is a spirit, and he will try to escape."
"We are spirits, too," they said, "who once were the kings of men. We will stop this enemy if he seeks to leave his prison of flesh. We will bind him as you have bound us."
They hissed, for they still hated him. Violence filled their minds, and their hatred was like a heavy chain round Will's throat. He had no idea if they were lying, if they planned to betray him. The link was in images and feelings, not thoughts.
"I will summon you," he said. Home felt impossibly far away, but he turned, and, ever so slowly, found the strength to begin the walk.
Upstairs in the darkness of his room, Bran heard the front door open. Downstairs, Jane heard it, too.
Bran moved to the head of the stairs, his heart beating fast. Jane left unsaid the thing she had been speaking, and listened. Neither of them heard a thing. No footsteps sounded in the hall. Someone from inside had gone out.
Bran moved to the window on the landing, and Jane walked slowly to the window in the living room, pushing the curtain aside just enough to look slant-wise with one eye.
Both of them saw the same - a figure standing in the yard, hands on hips, looking up towards the mountain.
At last! Someone's doing something, Jane thought, and smiled at the thought of a man's strong fist, striking Will down when he suspected nothing.
Bran turned slowly away, thinking, So he has shown himself, then. It is him.
Neither of them moved.
The air was cool, the grass was moist, the fences and stiles were damp and solid. It seemed like an eternity since Will had touched such real and tangible things. There was very little real in the distant place where the dead were.
The light of Bran's house had guided him down from the mountain - distant specks at first, resolving into squares of gold that spoke of warmth and people. As he drew closer, he could hear the animals in the yard, but he could not see anyone moving. There were no shadows of dying people from the past, playing out their final hours in a misty echo of what once was. That either meant that the enemy was far away, or that he was close, but deliberately holding back, to make Will lower his guard.
He reached the gate that led into Bran's yard, and clutched at it longer than was necessary. A slit in the curtain told him that he was being watched. A shape stood at an upstairs window, but did not move.
It will all happen here, Will thought.
"There you are." Someone strolled towards him from a dark place in the yard.
Simon. Will moistened his lips, and tried to remember how to speak in words, to someone who could not rip impressions from your soul.
"You said you wouldn't be long," Simon said. "Jane's been half mad with worry in there, though of course she was trying not to show it. I think she's gone past worry to anger now, though, I'm afraid. It won't be pretty when you go back in."
Will said nothing. He did not take his hand off the gate. He was still outside, and Simon inside, the two of them speaking across wooden bars, as if one of them was in prison.
"Well, I'm glad we've got this chance to chat," Simon said, with every appearance of sincerity. "You're our leader in this great endeavour, but we've hardly exchanged two words. It doesn't seem right, does it?"
"There's been a lot happening."
"True." Simon nodded. "Still, I gave up a lot to come here and join your little group. I'm missing no end of important meetings. An aspiring politician really can't do that, you know. But what am I missing them for? To sit here and do nothing, while the only person who knows anything about what's happening goes swanning off for hours on end?"
It was said quite mildly, but it felt to Will as if something was shivering along his spine. Ice wrapped in honey. It reminded him of something, and he knew exactly what it was.
"I have to be honest," Simon said, "and admit that I don't really like you much so far. Nothing personal, of course."
"I understand." Moisture from the gate was seeping through into his hand. Will felt as if he was sinking into a dream, as if he was back in the world of the dead, and only the two of them were real. He tried to smile. "You didn't like me the first time, either."
"Really?" Simon shrugged. "But as I said, it's nothing personal. I don't like half the people I work for, but it doesn't stop me sucking up to them at meetings. I'm not a petty man, but I am an able man. Everyone in the Party is most impressed. So give me something to do, Will. Tell me what you're planning."
Careful… Will took his thoughts and feelings and thrust them along the link he shared with the dead. Guard them for me. Very faintly, he felt them shriek and fall on them, and for a moment he could hardly stand.
"You alright there?" Simon was asking solicitously.
Will nodded. "Fine. Better than ever. That's the key, you see."
Simon placed his arms on the gate, leaning forward in interest.
"I have to persuade the enemy to come here and try to kill me," Will said. "He said he would. He said I was standing in the way of his complete domination of the world, and that one day I would have to be removed."
"But not yet?" Simon raised his eyebrows. "Why not?"
"He…" Will swallowed. "He feeds on emotions. Because of who I am, mine are stronger and more… nourishing, I suppose. The tears of a wizard are like honey. That's what he said. He wants to destroy me, but he needs me here, too. I need to convince him that I'm no longer…"
"Nourishing?" Simon suggested. "That you've got over whatever emotional problems you had? That you're strong and happy and determined, and he might as well just swoop in now and kill you?"
Will nodded. He managed to stop his hand from trembling, but only just. Simon's hand was very close on the gate, lying there as if casually placed.
"So you're going to… what?" Simon raised that hand, gesturing up at the mountain. "Stand on the topmost peak and flash out some lightning bolts in an 'I am here!' signal? Stand there with your little minions at your side, cheering you on, making you strong?"
Will breathed in, and out again. "Anything that will make him come. I need to go in and talk to the others, and make them ready. I didn't tell them everything before. I can't do this without them."
Simon smiled. "It seems wrong to be confrontational about this, don't you think?" He opened the gate. Will took a step back, and then Simon was through. He closed the gate again, a barrier between them and the light.
"There," Simon said. "What were you saying? Something about being strong and ready, with no more tears to shed?" He chuckled. "Dramatic stuff. What makes you so sure that the enemy isn't already here?"
The dead things were inside him, feeding, growing, shielding. "We see… ghosts when he's near," he said. "There aren't any. And people… Jane. Bran. They're feeling it, but they're not broken. We needed time away from him. That's why we came to Wales. I need them strong, all of them. If the enemy took any of their minds, then I'd fail. I'd lose."
Simon was standing very close, his expression the same as that of another man, not so long ago, and not so far away. "Jane didn't seem herself," he whispered. He brought his hand up, rubbing Will's cheek with his thumb. "I'm sure you have many tears yet to shed, little wizard."
He felt them, then, the fingers in his mind. He saw friends turning away, and Bran's face twisted with fury. He saw family dying, and the world falling into flames and hatred as he stood and watched, powerless to stop them. He let his mind buckle and break, overcome by what he saw. Tears welled in his eyes, and fell on Simon's outstretched hand.
"There," Simon said, as soothing as a man to his lover, as a mother to her child. "There's an eternity of nourishment in you yet."
Behind his back, Will clenched his trembling fist. His true spirit was with the dead, consumed and guarded by creatures who hated him. The enemy was only touching a fragment, but enough, oh please, enough… Will was still… He was still…
"All alone and powerless," Simon's voice said, as if it was a song. "How merry a thing is that."
Will uncurled his fist, fingers stretched. Before he could do so, Simon punched him full in the face, a blow so sudden and unexpected that Will was powerless before it. He fell backwards, blinded by pain. Simon stood above him, so tall that his head seemed to touch the sky, and there was nothing in the world but him.
Jane watched it all from the window, biting her hand with the excitement of it. Simon was like a knight in shining armour, the strong big brother who went out and fought anyone who dared to upset his sister.
She watched them talk, and grinned to see how fragile Will seemed next to Simon. Then Simon opened the gate, and Will stepped back, and she knew that meant that her brother was winning.
The first blow was struck. Jane gasped, and recoiled just for a moment. I don't like violence! Will doesn't deserve… But that was the old Jane, forgetting who she was for a moment. The new Jane refused to let herself get pushed around and forgotten and dismissed. So what if Will seemed to think that he could save the world? He could not treat her the way he had treated her and hope to get away with it unscathed.
Simon's body moved, as if he was kicking Will's fallen form. Footsteps hammered on the stairs, and Bran rushed out into the yard, shouting incoherently.
"Barney," Jane said, quiet calmly, as she stepped away from the window. "Simon needs us outside. We Drews stand together."
Barney stood up, frowning with confusion. Paul and Jon, hated enemies and allies of Will, rushed out of the room together, following Bran. Barney went faltering out, and so Jane had a moment alone.
She used it well.
Bran had watched in agony, torn between fear and certainty. Simon was the enemy, and this quiet conversation between two men was actually a terrible battle for unimaginable stakes. If Simon wasn't the enemy at all, but Bran went out shouting that he was, it would alert the real enemy to too many things. If Simon was the enemy, then Will needed total concentration, and if Bran went running out, then…
Pressing his fist into his mouth, he had watched. He had seen them talk, seen a touch, seen blow…
With the blow, his decision was made. He tore down the stairs, out of the house, and across the yard; ripped open the gate, saw Simon's face, a veneer of politeness; saw Will on the ground, curled up against pain; shouted Will's name, shouted Simon's name, shouted at them to stop it, just stop it, please stop it…
He knew what it was like to be beaten. He knew what it was like to curl at someone's feet, begging for mercy. He knew the feel of a boot landing on a cheek, or a fist in the stomach, of the pain, of the sorrow, of the total humiliation of the thing. Nothing else mattered, not that this could be the enemy, not that they were fighting for the world. Bran had been there. Bran knew this.
"Don't!" He grabbed Simon's arm, tried to drag him away from Will. "Leave him alone!"
Simon swung casually with the other hand, a harsh blow in the face that sent Bran backwards, where he struck the fence and almost slithered to the ground. "None of your business, you Welsh freak," he said. "Your lover boy has been cruel to my sister. It's my right to teach him a lesson."
"He isn't…" Bran hauled himself to his feet again. "He hasn't…" But the others were there, all shouting at once. Everyone was shouting. Barney was saying, "Simon?", puzzled and betrayed. Paul was bellowing, a strange sound to come from such a quiet man. Will was saying something, his eyes on Bran, but Bran could not read the message. He did not know what he was supposed to do.
"Will," he begged. "What is it? What is it? Is it him?"
Too much shouting. Paul and Jon were both holding Simon now, hauling him away from Will by his arms. Barney was looking from Simon to Will and back again, as if his world had fallen apart. Bran crawled to Will's side, and shook his arm, but Will no longer seemed to know that he was there. His face twisted with torment, he moaned, as if he was fighting impossible foes in his mind. His lips kept on moving, but he made no sound at all.
"Please," Bran beseeched him. "Tell me how to help you."
He heard it in his mind, the faintest whisper, soft and shivering like a caress. It's Simon, it said, infinitely sad. It came with a fleeting impression of white hands and eyes like pits, of white mist and red blood, of hunger.
Bran recoiled, scraping his hand over his eyes. Was that Will? Will had never spoken in his mind before. Surely Will couldn't… But it had been there. If it was truly Will, then that meant… But what if it was the enemy, trying to make Bran attack the wrong target? He didn't know. He didn't know.
Surely the enemy wouldn't attack Will with his fists, not when he had so many stronger means at his disposal. Yes, surely that proved it. Simon was not the enemy after all, and this was…
"Let him go," Jane's voice commanded.
Bran turned round, and saw her approach as if in slow motion. No, Bran thought. Oh no… Earlier, he had been tormented with the image of Owen Davies striding forward with a shotgun, and Will falling before him, brought down by a bullet just when he needed to be strong. It was Jane who stood there with the gun, in just the same position. How? he thought, but of course he, too, had once almost taken a gun to Will. Jane had been there, and had seen where the gun was, and where he kept the key. It was his gun, and therefore the responsibility was his.
"Jane," Bran rasped. "Don't…"
"Ah, Jane." Simon smiled at her. "The last of them arrives."
"What did he say?" Jane demanded, her voice low.
Simon said nothing, clearly trying to spare her.
Keeping the shotgun levelled at Will, Jane walked forward. She wished the gun would stop trembling so. "Simon, what did he say? What did Will say about me?"
"I think you should put the gun down, Jane." That was Barney. He was a traitor, seduced by Will's magic to turn against his own blood. She ignored him.
"He said…" Simon was held prisoner by the hateful arms of Paul and Jon, but he kept his dignity. "I'm so sorry, Jane. He was boasting about the things he's been getting up to with Bran. He was laughing about how you used to trail him around, like a puppy. And he… I hate to say this, Jane, but he tried to come on to me. He's a pervert, just like his brother." Then he screamed, as Paul and Jon, moving together, twisted his arms behind his body. Their faces were twin masks of implacable fury.
"That's a lie!" Bran jumped to his feet. "It's a filthy lie!"
"Why would Simon lie?" Jane turned towards him. She wished that her voice was not shaking so. "Why would he tell me something that he knew would upset me, if it wasn't the truth? I saw them touch! I was watching at the window, and I saw them touch."
But Simon did the touching, her memory wanted to tell her. Will had been retreating, not gloating. And Will would never… He wasn't the sort of person to… She shook her head, clutching the gun tighter. Will was a wizard. He could make people believe any manner of lies. He could mess with her memory. He was a master of such things.
"He's saying it because he's been influenced by the enemy," Bran said, "just as you have been." He looked at Will, and seemed to make his mind up about something. "No, he is the enemy. He's stage-managing all of this to make us fall apart. I bet he's laughing inside."
Jane laughed. She hated how the sound was closer to tears. "Do you really expect any of us to believe that?"
Will was just lying there, his head moving from side to side, as if he was fighting something terrible in his mind. There was blood on his face, and she wanted to… No, of course she didn't. She wanted to hurt him, because of what he had done. That was why she had brought the gun. She was too weak to fight with her fists, and she had no magic, but even an Old One could fall before a gun.
"Whether we believe it or not," Jon said, "we cannot take the risk." He hooked his leg behind Simon's, and effortlessly jerked him to the ground.
"Leave him alone!" Jane screamed, but Barney was shaking his head. "No, Jane." He moved towards her, hand raised, clearly trying to take the gun. "Get away from me!" she shrieked. "You're a traitor." But he was just shaking his head over and over, saying that no, she wasn't herself, that the enemy had got her, that Bran was right on that, even if not about Simon… Oh, please, Jane, it can't be true about Simon…?
"Barney," she begged him. "Please… You're on my side. You're on our side. Will ruined your life. He made you lose your faith."
"No." Barney shook his head. "The truth was not how I thought it was. That is not the fault of the messenger. It is no-one's fault. It is for me to reconcile, and not for anyone else." He was right in front of her now. "Give me the gun, Jane."
"No," she sobbed, clutching it tighter.
"You don't know how to fire one of those things," Barney said. "You'll hurt yourself. You might kill someone."
"I want to kill someone." She pushed him aside, and pointed the gun at Will, but her arms were trembling, her muscles almost giving way. She could not see properly. There were tears in her eyes and voices in her mind, all saying different things. She wanted them to be quiet. If she shot Will, they would be quiet.
"Jane." Will raised his head. As she watched, he rose, like a corpse rising from a coffin. There was blood on his face, but he looked unharmed, and his eyes were deadly and clear. Liar! her mind gibbered. He had only been playing dead, all the while listening to everything, laughing. There was such laughter in her mind, all the time, louder and louder, until she wanted to clap her hands to her ears, but she could never escape it, never.
"You," Simon breathed.
Jane pulled the trigger. The gun slammed backwards into her body, and it hurt. It hurt so much, and the flash blinded her, and the noise was like the world tearing apart and ending. She dropped the gun, and bodies slammed into hers, pushing her to the ground, grabbing her. She bit her lip and tasted blood, and still the flash went on, silver now, not yellow, sheeting the world.
Will, she thought, with dazzled, battered mind. Will had his arm outstretched, a silver barrier against the shot. He was taller than a man, and Simon was screaming, shrieking, laughing. Laughter. Always laughter…
"Look after her," Bran hissed, and Barney said, "Of course," as if he was angry. They were both so close, voices by her ears, arms on her body. Then one side of her body was cold, as Bran stood up and left her, racing to the silver shield, and through it, to Will.
She blinked. Always Will, she whispered, but the laughter was gone from her mind, and, as she watched, Will raised both hands, and spoke a word, and then the world ended.
End of chapter thirteen
Will was wreathed in silver power. Bran took his place beside him, to show that Will did not stand alone. Simon alone faced them, his face a mask of cruelty and laughter. Bran could not see Paul or Jon, but Jane and Barney were gone, too, left outside the circle of magic.
"You lied," Simon said. "You tricked me."
Will nodded, and Bran could have laughed. They would have him yet.
"But you can never win," Simon said, stepped forward to caress Will's cheek. Will leant into the touch. Bran was left behind, a step away, an eternity apart. "You can burn this body, but I am everywhere. You will never defeat me."
"No," Will said, and he raised both hands, and spoke a word.
Coils of white exploded from the place where he was standing, and wreathed around him, a solid, writhing sphere that surrounded Will and Simon. The earth trembled. Bran staggered, and shrank back even further, for there were eyes in the coiling mass, and sharp fingers, a the gleam of metal. There was blood and death and screaming, someone was screaming…
"Will!" He tried to reach for him, but was driven back. "Will!"
He knew what these were. These were the dead that Will had faced on the mountain, the dead who had almost destroyed him. Will had bound them, rather than defeating them, but now they had broken free, to claim him just as he most needed to be strong.
"Will!" He forced himself to move forward, and he reached into the mass of whiteness. The pain was terrible. Voices invaded his brain, telling him that he was not wanted. Phantom swords slashed at his wrist, but he gritted his teeth against the pain, and pushed on, through and through, until he found Will's hand. "I am here," he told him, for Will had almost lost before, and he had needed Bran to anchor him. "I won't let go."
The hand squeezed his. You have to, he heard in his mind, soft and so far away.
The barrier closed, and he was left, bereft and outside it, hand still outstretched, but touching nothing. A wind swept across the mountain, strong enough to make his clothes almost tear themselves from his body. He screwed his eyes up against it. When he could see again, Will and the mass of spirits were gone, swept away by the wind.
Only Simon remained, a body falling heavily to the ground, discarded, dead.
Bran sank to his knees. Jane threw herself at Simon's body, screaming his name. Barney was sobbing. Jon was shouting for Will, and Paul was screaming his brother's name.
Only Bran was silent, his head bowed, his eyes closed.
Only Bran was silent.
Simon was dead. Jane clutched his lifeless hand, and sobbed. Barney was crying, too. He had comforted so many parishioners, but this was something beyond comfort.
Jane felt numb. Her mind felt very small, like a room that had been crowded with people, and now contained only herself, tiny and alone. The events of the day were shadowy. Nothing mattered but the fact that her brother was dead.
Her lips still wanted to shape sounds a certain way. "Will…" That was what her mind had wanted her to say. "Will… killed…"
"No." Bran spoke for the first time since it had happened. Jane could not look at him. "It was not Will. The enemy did this. Simon's been dead for days. He was the enemy before he even came to Oxford."
"Don't lie to me," she whispered, but she clutched Simon's hand tighter, and thought of so many things. Simon watching the riot, eyes shining. Laughter in the face of pain. Eyes in a car mirror. Hateful words.
Her head fell forwards, hair slipping over her eyes. "It's not true."
Bran's hand fell on her shoulder. "I'm sorry, Jane, but it is."
He sounded like Will now. He walked away, and none of them followed him.
In the end, it was almost easy. Will rode on the wind he had summoned, above the mountains, above the tracks of ancient people, above the lights and the houses.
The dead surrounded him, forming an inescapable barrier. The enemy screamed and threatened, but the dead were spirits too, almost as old as he was, and there were many of them. The enemy could fill the world, and speak in the minds of countless men at the same time, but they forced him to inhabit the cage of their spirits. He was bound, and could not escape.
The enemy attacked Will mercilessly, assailing him with images and despair. Will felt a little of it, but most he fed to the dead. He let them devour the blood on his face, and if they took a little more from him than he had offered them, he could not stop them. Their loyalty was fragile, and he would sacrifice himself to keep it.
They reached the sea, and the wind drifted them down to the waves. Beneath the ocean they went, far below, and far away. Strange creatures moved around them, and hunted and killed. Broken ships lay dreaming, and bones lay scattered on the ocean floor. The dead surged towards that. No, Will told them. Not yet.
The things around them multiplied. Will let them herd him, until he came at length to the place where Tethys lay. Eyes watched from the darkness. Light was impossibly far away, the world of men but a distant dream. Like the enemy, Tethys was everywhere, and yet in this one place. She was the Lady of the Sea, and the enemy was just a child to her, and Will less than that.
"What brings you a second time to my domain?" she demanded, speaking to his mind, filling all things. "It is such a little time since last you came."
Such a little time, he thought, thinking of the twenty years of unhappiness. The enemy heard him, and attacked. Tethys heard him, and despised. Will ordered his thoughts. No fear, no doubt. Tethys had no love for human kind, so he had to be all Old One.
"I have come to request a boon, lady," he said, bowing low.
"A boon?" she echoed, cold. "What is that you have with you? Dead spirits of men who walked, and something else, something… other."
"It is a thing born unwittingly," Will told her. "It is the fears and hatreds of men made flesh. It has come to life from the darkest deeds of mankind, but now it plays on them. It has filled the world, turning man against each other, making them act on their darkest dreams."
"I care nothing for such things," Tethys said. "I care not if man destroys himself."
"If the land burns, the sea burns also." Will filled his mind with images of war, knowing that she could see them. He showed her nuclear bombs falling, and poison falling from the air. He showed her the boiling of the sea, and an ever-winter. "Mankind are but children," he said, "but they have the power to touch even a realm such as yours."
He feared she would be furious at his temerity, but she was silent, thinking. A million eyes watched him from the darkness, far away from the reach of any light.
"You wish me to take this thing and imprison it forever," she said at last.
Will nodded. She had the power. The enemy was a spirit that could fill the world, but Tethys could hold him. There could be no returning from the deep forgetfulness of the ocean.
She seemed to reach towards him, water caressing his face. "For a thing that is asked, something else must be given," she whispered.
He had known this was coming. He had known that she could choose to ask his life.
"I will give it," he swore.
Bran watched the waves rise and fall. The moon was up, silver on the sea. Across the ocean, the sky was black, but already dawn was touching the mountains in the east, faint and pink and full of empty promise.
Bran could not fully explain why he had come here. He had last seen Will carried away by the wind, and the wind had been heading towards the sea. That was what the logical part of his mind insisted. Really, though, it was because he had been unable to rid his mind of images of the sea. For hours, he had watched the waves, but at the same time it had seemed to him as if he was underwater.
Dreaming, he thought, rubbing his eyes. Hallucinating, anyway. And who can blame me?
He had no idea if the enemy was defeated. He had no idea if Will was ever coming back. Cold and shivering, he had sat on a rock, and waited.
"Stupid," he said, standing up, readying himself to go.
And then Will was there, climbing wearily from the waves. Will! Bran rushed forward, but at the last minute he found himself slowing, so he was barely moving at all when he covered the last few yards that separated him.
"Is he gone?" he asked.
Will nodded slowly. "He's gone."
Bran's hand was twitching at his side. "And the dead?"
"Far away," Will said. "In a dark and merciless place, far away from the light. They would not sleep again, not while I am alive. This way seemed better."
Bran did not understand. "He's really gone?"
Will nodded. "Really gone. Jane will have a lot of healing to do, but she's herself again. Everyone is."
"Poor Jane. Poor all of them." Will shook his head. "I knew it was one of you. I'm glad it wasn't you."
"Me, too," Bran said. And, turning, they walked side by side up the beach, towards the dawn.
"What are you going to do now?" Paul asked him, later that day.
Will traced a curvy line up and down the windowsill. "About what?"
"Are you going to let me remember?" Paul asked.
Will nodded. On this, at least, he had no doubts. "I'll let you remember, and you know what? I'm going to tell everyone else at the next family reunion. That will make a memorable party, don't you think?"
Paul said nothing for a while, thinking. It was another decision that had come to Will in the flames, and he was sure that it was right. His brothers and sisters were adults now, and they deserved to know the truth. They might reject it at first, but they would come round in time. Even if they did not, at least they would know the truth. Will was only estranged from his family because he had let himself become so. He had years of silence to make up. He would tell them everything, and listen to everything they had to say, and be a Stanton again.
"I'll support you," Paul promised. "If they don't believe you, I'll tell them that I've… seen things."
"Thank you." Will gave a quick smile.
He was going to use his powers to fight for mankind. There would be no more standing back, letting people make their own mistakes. He would intervene, but there was always the danger that he would do too much. He was an Old One as well as a human. He needed people like Paul to stand by him and remind him of his own humanity, and preach the cause of normal men. A tyrant could be born from the best of intentions.
"Do you need me now?" Paul asked, almost shyly. "If not… Jon and I…"
"Go home," Will said, smiling. "I'll run you to the station." He clasped Paul's hand briefly. "Cherish what you've got, Paul. Don't let it get away. The enemy taught me that much."
"I will," Paul promised. "You too, Will."
Will traced the line on the windowsill, again and again and again.
She could not face them.
She had phoned her parents to tell them the news, and that had been horrible, the worst thing she had ever had to do. She had tried to be strong, for Barney's sake. She had even started to construct the lie that she would have to tell her parents when they asked how he had died.
How he had died… Even the words sounded impossible. She wanted to laugh at them. They were ridiculous words to apply to Simon. Of course they could not be true.
She had heard Bran return with Will, half way through the morning. Barney went out to see them, and came back with the news that the enemy was definitely defeated, once and for all.
"That's good." She had tried to smile. Her hair had fallen in front of her eyes, and she had tied it back with fingers that fumbled.
She had known the truth hours before, of course. Hours before, still kneeling over Simon's body, her mind had become truly her own. With it had come to knowledge of how fully the enemy had entered her. He had filled her, but the enemy did not create thoughts from nothing. He took those things that a person was already thinking, and made them stronger. He made them act on urges they would normally suppress. She had said and done terrible things, but only because a kernel of those things had already been there, in her own mind.
She, Jane Drew, was capable of terrible things.
She buried herself in mourning Simon. Late in the afternoon, someone knocked at the door, and she hoarsely told them to come in.
It was Bran. She had expected Will.
"I am so terribly sorry about Simon," he began. He looked awkward. Most people had no idea how to cope with death, or what to say to someone who was mourning. She had noticed that before, but had never thought to be on the receiving end of it.
"Words won't bring him back."
"I know." Bran swallowed. "I…"
She busied herself with folding something or other that came to hand. "Have you come to make sure I'm not blaming Will for it?"
"No." He shook his head. "I came to see how you were, if there's anything I can…"
"I nearly shot Will," she surprised herself by saying. "I could have killed someone. I spent all yesterday being cruel and jealous and hateful. I did awful things, and you're wondering if I'm okay?"
"It was the enemy." Bran seemed to be trying to take her hand, but she would not let him. "Listen to me, Jane. I know what it's like. I've felt him, too. You saw how I was only a few days ago. He makes us do things, but it's not who we really are. You have nothing whatsoever to feel guilty about."
"He just made things stronger," Jane said. "Everything was there already."
"Of course it was." This time Bran grabbed her arm, stopping her from turning away. "Everyone has bad urges every now and then, even saints. It's only human. You're only human, Jane. Mourn your brother, but don't blame yourself for anything."
She let him hold her, comforting her like her mother had comforted her as a child. He patted her back, stroked her hair, then moved away. She did not think he had been comfortable, though, and her eyes remained dry.
"Thank you," she said calmly. "Thank you for coming."
"She needs time," Bran said to Will, as darkness fell.
They were standing together in the kitchen, holding steaming mugs of coffee. Will nodded absently. "I hope she can…"
"I think she will," Bran said. "We've been through too much. We're all bound together, everyone who was there last night. Whatever happens now, Jane will come back in friendship."
Will sipped his coffee, and grimaced as it burnt him. "Be patient," Bran chided him, meaning it to be about the coffee, but maybe it was about other things, too.
"I at least want to try and find out how Simon died," Will said. "It might give her some peace, at least, to know the answers. I got… clues, when he… when the enemy was attacking my mind. I think I'll be able to bring her the truth."
He's still concealing something, Bran realised suddenly. But he, too, could be patient. He would find it out in time.
"What are you…" Will took another sip of his coffee. "What are you planning to do?"
Bran placed his mug down, and played with a spilled splash of milk on the work surface. "I need to talk about it with my father first," he said. "With Owen. He'll take it personally if I leave. I'll have to handle it carefully…. Yes, Will," he smiled. "I can be careful sometimes. He needs to accept that I can make my own choices about how I live, without it being a rejection of him. It might take time."
"You don't have to leave," Will said, studying the surface of his coffee. "There's phones, the Internet, holidays. You can study from home, but still farm. And I can be anywhere. Places don't matter. Not even time. It's how you think of yourself that counts."
"Yes," Bran said, and he smiled.
"I don't think I'll be in touch for a while," Jane said, when Will came to see her off.
Will closed his eyes. "I'm so sorry…"
"No," she snapped at him. "Don't you dare. Don't you dare make this about you. It isn't."
She saw him start to apologise again, then press his lips shut. How could someone so powerful still be so clueless about how people really felt?
She took pity on him. "I know you couldn't save him. I know that. I know the… other things weren't your fault."
Even so, Simon would never have been targeted by the enemy if it wasn't for Jane's association with Will. If she had remained ignorant, Simon would still be alive.
She felt the tears come. "Please," she begged him. "Please make me forget again."
"Do you really want that?" His voice was gentle.
"No." She shook her head through the sobs. She had not cried once in all of yesterday. "I don't want to forget, but it's hard. It's so hard."
He took her into an awkward embrace, yet another man holding her, who did not love her. "He died naturally, Jane," he said into her ear. "An accident. I saw things… things from the enemy's mind. He inhabits bodies that are already dead. Simon died then by coincidence. He would died anyway, even if you had never known me."
"A lie," she whispered, pulling away. Her hand rose to her mouth.
"No." There was nothing but truth in his eyes. "No, Jane. No lies."
A tiny gleam of light unfolded in her mind, in a place where she had thought to find only shadows. "I need time," she told him, "but I don't want to forget you."
"I'm glad." He touched her cheek with the back of his hand. "You've got my number."
She nodded. "Maybe in the autumn. Maybe Christmas. I don't know. It's going to hard for a while.
She smiled through her tears. "You don't have to struggle to work out what to say."
She could not hide from him. If she hid, the enemy had won. The enemy had turned her against Will, but she did not have to be that person. The next few months would be hard, but already she could see that life stretched beyond those months, full of hope and potential. The enemy was gone. Her memory was back. She was no longer a prisoner of things half-understood. She could be whoever she liked, and she would not be broken by what the enemy had made her do.
"I will see you again, one day." Standing on tip-toe, she kissed him on the lips.
She was crying as she drove away, but the sun shone on the mountain, and promised a glorious day.
"I expect you'll be going, too," Bran said, at last.
Will sighed. "I have to. I want to tell my mother the truth. I need to get back to Oxford, and any other places where the enemy struck particularly badly. There's work to be done."
Bran was silent. A plane flew overhead, as hopeful people went on holiday, heedless of how close they had come to losing everything. Tourists climbed the mountain, and birds sang. John and Owen were slowly walking along the road together, heads together as they reminisced. Will knew that Bran had yet to talk properly to Owen, and that he feared it. He wished he could be there to help his friend, but he knew it would only do more harm than good. Bran wanted to make his own decisions in life, and no-one could impose on him, least of all Will.
"It's hard to think that it's over," Bran said. "Everything could so easily go back and be just the same as it used to be."
"No." Will shook his head. "It never can. Things have changed forever."
It was true. You will give me a gift, Tethys had commanded, and Will had expected her to take his life. Her gaze had raked over him and he had stood before her as one naked, and then, at length, she had chosen.
She had not taken his life. She could have taken his power, but did not. Instead, she had taken his immortality. From now on, Will would age as normal mortals aged. He still had all the powers of an Old One, but in time he would die. He would not go out of time, to be united with Merriman and the others, but to the place where mortals went after death. His eternity would be spent with his brothers and his sisters, with his parents, with friends and loved ones, with Bran.
It was meant to be a sacrifice, but now Will thought that it had been a gift.
He only had one life. Every moment, every day, every person had to matter. He had such a little time to set the world onto a path that it could walk, pure and strong, after he had gone. He had to live life fully as a human, because there was no tomorrow. Today mattered. Today was the only thing that was real.
"I'm coming back, though," Will promised.
Bran elbowed him in the side. "You'd better."
"Race you home?"
Will laughed, and started after Bran. The sun bathed everything in light, and in that moment he was twelve again, and the whole world was ahead of him, happiness there for the taking.
I started writing this in September, while still half way through posting "Walking Shadow". I proceeded nicely until early October, when the publication of "A feast for crows," by George RR Martin, tumbled me headlong into a reprise of my GRMM obsession, which lasted pretty much until the end of the year. I tried to carry on writing this story, but couldn't. I was only able to return to it just before Christmas, but the final 70 pages of it were written in one marvellous week in January, in which this story totally took over my mind, my imagination and my dreams.
I'm aware that the story could continue a bit longer after the ending, but I want it to end here. The enemy is defeated, and will not come back. I didn't want to then have several chapters dealing with the emotional aftermath. Take it as read that Jane will heal in time, and that her friendship with Will and Bran will continue.
I feel quite guily about killing Simon, but people do die when you're struggling to save the world. Sometimes they're people you know, not just faceless strangers. However, I feel strangely non-guilty about making such a radical change to Will's future. Yes, it's playing havoc with canon, but, like Will, I can't help but feel it's a happy ending for him.
It probably feels a bit as if I abandoned Barney's storyline half way through, but I was limited by not having his viewpoint to play with, so not being able to see into his mind. As he said several times, the conflict was for him to work out for himself, and he didn't seem at all willing to talk about it openly with my viewpoint characters.
Thanks for reading! Feedback, as ever, is incredibly wonderful and much appreciated.
So what's next? This story is finished now, and there will be no sequel. I am not, however, entirely ruling out a short story or two set in this world - i.e. a world in which Will is mortal - but I have no plans at the moment.
My current writing project is a dark AU, that came out of some drabbles I wrote in the Darkisrising100 LJ community. The premise of the AU is that a different choice was made near the end of "Silver on the Tree", and as a result, the world sets off on a very different path. The Dark has won, but Will, Merriman and some of the Old Ones remain, still fighting it. The Drews forget everything, but in their own separate ways, are affected as the world around them slowly slips into nastiness. And as for Bran… He's imprisoned with the aftermath of the choice he made, and will have the longest journey of all…
The story will cover 25 years, so I am telling it in a collection of vignettes, short stories, and fragments, sometimes separated by years. I've written the first 12, in a rough form, and have posted the first four to my livejournal . I'm still a bit insecure about the structure I'm using to tell the story, so comments and feedback on this work-in-progress would be lovely.
I will post said AU here when I have a few more done.