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