by Eildon Rhymer
Echoes beside the lake
Jane was out of breath, and she had not brought enough water. Perhaps the lake would be clean enough to drink from. She took only a small sip from her bottle of tap water, just in case it was not, and carried on walking.
Sheep were everywhere, their droppings squelching under her feet. After all, it is Wales, she thought, with a wry chuckle. It was little different at home, though, except that here in Wales the hills were higher and older, and less kind.
She reached the top of a rise, and there was the lake ahead of her. It was smaller than she had expected, and she saw at once that she would not try to drink from it. This was not a clear lake, bedded with rock, but little more than a pool in the moorland, choked with grass and water weed. Still, she thought, she would be able to splash water on her face, and cool down a bit, even if she could not drink it.
A few other people were there, although the path had not seemed well walked. "Are you sure?" they had asked, when she had gone to buy her walk leaflet from the tourist information office. Presumably they had wanted her to go somewhere where she could spend money, rather than spending her time traipsing up a hill, to a small lake in the middle of nowhere. "But perhaps it's the legends you're interested in," they had added hopefully, waving an expensive book about King Arthur in front of her.
She had bought the leaflet, but declined the book. She was glad they had not persisted, for she had no idea why she had wanted so badly to come to this place. Llyn Barfog, it was called. The Bearded Lake. All she knew was that she had seen the name of a map, and had suddenly frozen, thinking, I have to go there.
And here she was, and she still did not know. It was just a lake, a pretty lake in a beautiful spot. No memories came flooding back, but yet… But yet…
She walked towards it, bleached grass and heather crunching beneath her feet like dead things. A family with two small boys were rampaging through the countryside, shouting and playing. A pair of grey-haired walkers paused for a sandwich. The only other person there was sitting on a stone, hunched and solitary.
Jane was not even sure if she could reach the water. It was choked with plants, so that it was hard to tell where the lake ended and the dry land began. She had visions of deep water, lurking invisibly under the grass; of putting her foot down for the next step, only to find herself dragged under water. Though, really, it's more likely that I'd just get a wet foot. This was the sort of place that seemed to invite fanciful notions.
The grey-haired ramblers were talking, the wind sometimes bringing their words to her, and sometimes scattering them. "King Arthur," she heard them say. "Some terrible monster, apparently."
King Arthur drove away a monster from this lake. Something shivered inside her, but then it was gone, leaving nothing of itself behind.
The ramblers left. The family went up the hill, still shouting. The figure on the stone had not moved at all, but she knew him suddenly for Will.
She walked towards him; she could not help it. He looked up at last. "Hello." He sounded very tired.
"You look awful," she gasped, then felt herself blushing. "Tired, I mean." He was wearing the same clothes he had been wearing the day before, and his hair was uncombed, his eyes shadowed with tiredness. His clothes were crumpled, and stained with grass and dirt. "Did you sleep outside?" she asked.
He half raised his hand to his face, then lowered it. "I didn't sleep."
"Oh." It occurred to her that this was not the way she would have liked to have opened the conversation. She could have said a hundred things better than what she had actually said. "You really should sleep," she said stupidly, as she sat down beside him.
"I know," he said, "but… other things… don't."
"Oh." She stretched out her legs. "Are you staying nearby?"
"Not really." Will shrugged. It was a taut movement. "I was… somewhere else last night. Then I decided to come here. The… Someone very wise was here once. I suppose I hoped… Even though I knew it was impossible, I'd hoped…"
Jane watched the wind ripple the water. Not far away, a child's voice sounded, then sounded again, in a distorted echo. She could not hear what the boy was shouting. She saw Will stiffen a little.
"An echo," she said, and frowned. She pushed her hair off her brow. "I just saw the name on a map, and it seemed to ring a bell, but I don't know why. I wanted to come here." She gave a nervous laugh. "I suppose it might seem to you that I'm following you."
"No," Will said. "I know you're not."
The echo came again. Voice, and echo. One thing happening, and then the echo of it in memory, distorted and never quite the same.
She turned to him. "Did we come here when we were young?"
Will was so still that she doubted that he was breathing. He looked tense all over. Cornered, her mind supplied. Then he let out the breath with a sigh, but did not answer.
"It's just…" She shook her head. "It's not there, in my memory of the holiday. But still I feel…"
Will said nothing. The wind stirred the reeds, until it looked as if the whole lake was breathing. Adult voices joined the children's, and the mountains were full of words. "It doesn't feel quite real," she said. "Not like a real place in the twenty-first century. It's hard to believe that the world is still happening out there." She tried to snatch her thoughts back under control. What would Will be thinking of her, with all this babbling? "I think there's some legend attached to this place," she said. "People were talking about King Arthur."
"King Arthur, yes." Will gave the faintest hint of a smile. "He drove out the afanc, the monster that lived in the Bearded Lake. There's a stone nearby called Carn March Arthur, because it's got a pattern on it that looks like a horseshoe. Arthur's own horse made the mark, or so they say."
"So they say," Jane echoed. "It's not true, then?"
"Not that part, no. It's just a natural pattern in the rock."
She smiled. "So the bit with the monster is true?" She had said it meaning to tease him, but as soon as she said it, it no longer felt funny. "The bit with the monster is true," she repeated, more slowly.
The echo was silent. She saw the family moving on along the pathway. The ramblers had gone, and no new walkers had arrived. It was only her and Will, alone by a lake, in a land of legend and her lost past.
"Will…" she began, but he jumped suddenly to his feet, fists clenched at his side in determination. "Will," she tried again, but he was walking away from her, striding through the heather.
She scrambled to her feet, plunged after him, but he was moving far faster than she could keep up. Her steps petered away to nothing, and she stood and watched him until he was out of sight, hidden by an outcrop of the mountain.
A bird cried. The wind whistled in the reeds. The sheep called out to each other, but that was so constant that it was like part of the mountain itself, like natural silence.
"Show yourself!" It was Will's voice, but it was impossibly loud. The mountains took it and amplified it, an echo, and an echo, and an echo.
Jane's hands rose to her mouth. Will had found the echo place, she told herself. He was doing no more than the family had been doing. He was shouting… But, oh, so much louder! He was commanding the mountains, commanding the air. The children's shouts had received a few faint echoes, distorted and faint; Will's echoes were as loud as the original shout, and just as clear.
"I am here!" Will shouted, and the mountain agreed. "I am here…"
"Where are you?" The mountains, the skies, the grass all took his words, until the whole universe was crying it. "Where are you?"
The silence afterwards was absolute. Jane very slowly lowered her hands from her face. A breeze touched her cheek. A single sheep bleated, clear and distinct. But no-one answered Will's calls.
She waited. Should she go after him, she wondered, or would he come back? She sat down, drank some water from her bottle. When she saw Will coming back, she did not turn to him, but looked out at the water. She wondered if she should say something, or if it was better to pretend that she had not heard anything.
Will sat down beside her, and she was glad of that, at least. She opened her mouth to ask him about what he had shouted, then closed it again. A blade of grass tickled her ankle, and she plucked it, and began to twist it between her fingers. Will was doing the same, she noticed. She dropped her own.
"You took Bran home yesterday," he said at last.
She felt herself colouring. "I did," she said, "but I didn't…"
"I'm glad." His voice was firm. "How is he?"
"I'm sorry he reacted the way he did," she said in a rush. "It would have been so nice if we could have… " She stopped, aware that she was about to sound like a silly little girl, babbling about being friends. "I don't know why he acted like that."
"I do." Will was staring straight ahead. "It was completely understandable."
"Oh." Jane snapped her mouth shut. She had been about to say other things, but Will's voice, while completely polite, seemed to forbid any further talking about the subject.
The wind blew her hair into her eyes. The water rippled angrily around the reeds. For the briefest moment, she imagined that there could be a giant head underneath the surface, fanged and horrible and hungry. Then the air was still again, and all she could see was snatches of mountain, mirrored in the patches of water between the reeds.
And movement, faint on the hillside. A shimmering shape. Something tall and cloaked; a man on a horse. She snapped her head round to look at it, but there was nothing there. There was no longer anything there in the reflection, either. She frowned. "For a moment, I was sure I saw…"
"Nothing," Will said. "You saw nothing." He stood up, back straight, although he no longer looked weary. "I need to go."
She looked into his face to try to ascertain if there was any sort of invitation there, or if she was alone again. She saw nothing, only those deep eyes that threatened to trip her up and make her forget everything that she was. "I… I thought I might try to find that Arthur stone," she stammered.
"I think you should go back to where there are people." His voice was gentle, but firm.
For the first time that day, she remembered that she had been attacked the last time she had walked to a beautiful place alone. Wales felt different, as if any danger was far older, and did not lie in the people. She had been drawn here by distant hopes of memory, rather than by recent fears. But, of course, there was violence in Wales, too. Someone had been stabbed only yards away from them the day before.
"Yes," she agreed. "Will you come with me?"
"Only as far as the road," he said.
"I'll come…" Bran had offered, but John Rowlands had cut him off before he could finish the sentence.
"No," John had commanded. "You are staying here. I won't hear another word about it. You stay at home and get better."
That had been hours ago. It was mid-afternoon now. Bran could not remember the last time he had spent a whole day at home, without once going out to work on the land. He had tried to watch television, but there was little of interest on during the day. He had read for a little bit, but he was not used to sitting still. He had put a CD on, but then had switched it off, in case the sound was masking someone at the door.
He was quite alone, except for occasional visits from cats. His father had gone out with John, taking the place that should have been Bran's. The phone was silent, and no-one came calling.
As the hands slowly moved round on the clock, Bran thought, She won't be coming, then.
He went to make himself a cup of coffee. So he had hoped, then. He had not dared express it to himself before now, but he had hoped that Jane would come back to see how he was. She was pretty, and there was something special about her. He wanted to get to know her better.
But then that Will had turned up. As soon as Will had arrived, Jane had had eyes only for him. She had turned her back on Bran, and taken Will's side when Bran had made his entirely justified accusations. Yes, she had stayed with Bran afterwards and taken him home, but Bran was not so stupid to believe that this meant that he had won her.
Will was still out there. "How can I prove it?" Bran slammed his mug down on the table, splashing coffee around. How could he prove to Jane that Will was behind what had happened? He had tried to explain it, but she had laughed it away. He had dropped it, but only because he had known what her next reaction would have been. You're only jealous, Bran. Perhaps she would not have said it, but she would have thought it. And perhaps she would have been right to think it, too, because he was, but that wasn't the point, was it?
He sat down on a hard chair. What did he know about Will? He frowned, struggling to locate the memories of that day so long ago when he had met Jane and her brothers, and Will, a boy strange to all of them. The Drews had been holidaying with their parents, hadn't they? But Will…
"He said he was staying with his uncle," Bran said, remembering. "His uncle… David Evans."
He was on his feet in an instant, the coffee forgotten. Quickly pulling on shoes, snatching up keys, and out through the door. One of the outdoor cats looked up lazily from the wall, and a dog barked as he opened the gate.
It was barely a mile to the Evans' farmhouse. Normally Bran would walk it in less than quarter of an hour, but today he was slower. He was quick enough for the first hundred yards, but soon he started to limp. The sun was hot, and there was little wind. He kept his focus on the path ahead, and concentrated on breathing, on keeping going. One step, then another, then another. Aim at that rock over there… then that bend in the track… then that bent-over tree.
"You okay there, Bran?"
He looked up, his hand rising to his chest. It was not David Evans, but his son, Rhys. Perhaps he would do, Bran thought. He was not even half way to the farmhouse, and the second half of the walk felt as daunting as a climb to the top of Cader Idris itself.
"Have you got a cousin called Will?" he asked.
Rhys frowned. "What?"
"A cousin," Bran repeated. "English. About my age. He came here to visit about twenty years ago."
Rhys seemed to be treating the question with seriousness, thinking carefully before answering. "I have lots of English cousins," he said, "but none of them are called Will."
"His last name's Stanton," Bran offered, remembering that Jane had given his full name.
"Stanton. Ah." Rhys' face lightened with recognition, and it was a bitter pang of disappointment to Bran. But then Rhys said, "You know, I almost thought… But, no. There's no Will. Hundreds of others, though. No Will."
"Good." Bran smiled. "Thank you."
"Is that all you came for?" Rhys called, as Bran turned to go.
"I got what I came for," Bran said.
He had his proof. Now all he had to do was work out what to do with it. All he had to do was work out how to bring the man who called himself Will Stanton down.
end of chapter eight
Author's note: I did actually go to visit Llyn Barfog and Carn March Arthur some ten years ago. We never found the echo place, though. Unfortunately, I can't remember the lay-out of the place clearly enough to be sure that there are no geographical mistakes here.
By the way, the barrow that Jane visited in an earlier chapter is a real place called Belas Knap, near where my parents live. I went there again a few weeks ago, after I'd written the relevant part of this story, and I quite enjoyed imagining Will and Jane, hiding in the side-chamber against the rain. This is the first time I've ever written in a fandom that takes place in Britain, so it's really nice to be able to use places I know. Obviously, I have no choice with Wales, but Will, Jane and Barney all coincidentally live in places I know well!
But that's enough rambling. On with the next chapter…