Chapter ten

Port Meadow

___

 

"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