by Eildon Rhymer
Meeting on the mountain
"When can I go home?" he had asked them, but they had just smiled and said, "Not yet."
They had all gone and left him alone, now. Bran sat propped up with pillows, a newspaper spread open on his bed. Headlines shrieked enthusiastically of horrors and outrages, and showed close-up pictures of victims and survivors. Bran seldom read the paper. It normally felt irrelevant to him, to read of things happening far away from his own valleys. Now it felt too close. He wanted to stop looking at it, but could not.
John Rowlands and his father had come to visit him once, but had not been able to stay long. Both had been uncharacteristically upset. You could have died, and the last words we exchanged were in anger. That was what Bran had seen in John Rowlands' eyes, although his old friend would never say such a thing in words. Instead, they had spoken of inconsequential things, and none of them had as much as mentioned the attack. Bran had not wanted them to leave, but had breathed a little more easily after they had gone.
Outside, the sky was speckled with grey. He wished he could see more, but his bed was on the far side of the room from the window. The man in the adjacent bed was asleep, and the bed opposite was empty. If the nurses were working, they were working far away. Bran had nothing to do but think.
He lay back and closed his eyes, then opened them again. He turned a page in the newspaper. The next spread was gushing about soap operas and showbiz gossip. It meant nothing to Bran, but he read every word of it nonetheless.
Footsteps in the doorway made him snap his head up, his heart beating fast. He could not suppress a sigh a relief when he saw that it was only a policeman.
The policeman smiled. "You've just proved conclusively that you're not a criminal, you know."
Bran blinked. "Was I a suspect?"
The policeman shook his head. "Of course not. It was just a joke. It's just that I'm used to people stiffening up and looking guilty when I come near."
His name was Gwyn Thomas, and he had been in Bran's class at school, many years before. They had hardly ever talked to each other, but Gwyn seemed to have forgotten that. Bran had come across him several times over the years, and Gwyn had always acted as if they had been bosom friends.
"Are you here to interview me again?" Bran asked him. "I've already told your colleagues everything I remember."
"No," Gwyn said. "This is strictly... Well, I'm not off duty, but it's informal. Just a chat."
"I don't want to chat," Bran said. "Not about that."
Gwyn Thomas sat down. "They tell me you'll be going home in a couple of days."
"Really?" Bran gave a harsh laugh. "Then they've told you more than they've told me."
"They just wanted to observe you. Make sure there weren't complications." Gwyn shrugged almost apologetically. "They've patched you up well. You'll be as good as new in a week or two. Except..." He lowered his voice. "You've been a victim of a violent assault, Bran. It's completely normal for people to need..."
"Counselling?" Bran demanded. He kept his voice very low. "Is that what you're here for?" Gwyn opened his mouth to speak, but Bran would not let him. "Get out," he commanded. "Get out now, or I'll..."
"Get out!" Bran shouted. "Get out now!"
He turned his head away, facing the wall. After a while, he heard Gwyn standing up, and heard him leaving. Only when he was sure the policeman had gone, did he let out a tight and shuddering breath.
"Well done," mumbled the man in the next bed, but Bran did not acknowledge him.
Victim, he thought. The word pulsed in his skull again and again and again. Victim. He had been attacked on his own front doorstep. He had been knocked to the ground, and beaten. His blood had been shed. He had been bruised and broken and cast aside. "Nothing," they had said. "You are nothing."
He screwed his eyes shut, but all he could see was their dark shapes, and all he could hear was their emotionless voices. When he opened his eyes again, he saw a page from the newspaper, fallen to the floor. The battered face of an assault victim stared up at him. Bran bit his lip to stifle a moan, and closed his eyes again.
Did they all know about him? This was a national paper, and his attack would not be deemed worthy of as much as a mention, but surely the local paper...? He had not thought to ask, and no-one had told him. Had someone photographed him as he was being loaded onto the ambulance? Had someone crept into his hospital room and photographed his battered face? Did everyone know? Bran the victim. Was that who he would be for ever more?
"I will not," he swore, clenching his undamaged fist.
He would go home with his head high. They had attacked him at home, but he would not let it become a place of fear. He would carry on his life and show them that they could not break him.
You are nothing, they had said, and now he will come. Bran would show them that they were wrong. And as for their "he".... "Just let him come," Bran whispered to himself. "I'll show him."
The grass on the mountain was green, and the sky was a lowering grey. Kestrels cried overhead, and far away, a dog barked.
It was autumn in this time. Twenty years in the future, Will would be sitting in exactly the same place, but on a mountain-side baked yellow by summer. He would sit down beneath the sun, and do nothing but breathe for hours on end, before suddenly, with a tiny moan, sinking into the past.
So now here he was, thirty-two years old, sitting in the autumn of a year in which he was almost twelve.
And Merriman was beside him.
"I interfered," Will told him. "I know I shouldn't have. Men make their own choices. You told me that again and again. Sometimes we have to do harsh things in order to preserve men's freedom. I know all that, but I saved her."
Merriman said nothing. His hawk-like eyes were scanning the valley below, and his jaw was set with determination.
"But it was Jane..." Will plucked a blade of grass and started to shred it. "She was always special. The Lady spoke to her. She pitied the Greenwitch. She alone, of all the women over the centuries, showed pity. I couldn't stand back and let them do that to her."
The dog barked again. Merriman cocked his head. Far below, a slim figure started to climb the mountain.
"None of them remember the part they played in turning back the Dark," Will said, "but that doesn't change the fact that they played it. The Light is in debt to them. I'm the only one left to repay it."
Merriman stretched out his long legs, and leant forward, watching the figure climb.
Will let the shredded fragments of grass fall to the ground. "I don't know what you would say to me, if you could hear me. That I should have stood back, or that I should have helped?" There was silence. "I wish you were here, Merriman," Will said in a rush. "It's so hard to do this alone."
The figure of the boy was closer now. Will masked his presence, but did not move.
He had walked Jane back to her house, but had refused her invitation to come in. Instead, he had mumbled some excuse, and driven immediately to Wales. It had been almost midnight when he had arrived, too late to find anywhere to stay. He had spent the night in his car, and the morning on the mountain, and now here he was, twenty years in the past.
When the boy was almost upon them, Merriman stood up and went to meet him. "Hello, Bran Davies."
The young Bran started in alarm, and glanced down at the dog at his side. Cafall was wagging his tail. Bran seemed to take that as proof that Merriman was not a threat to him, but he did not return Merriman's greeting.
"Bran," Will whispered. It hurt far more than he had ever expected, to see Bran like this again. Young, his beloved Cafall at his side, still knowing nothing of grief and fear and responsibility. Within minutes of meeting, Will and Bran had been like lifelong friends. They had teased each other, chased each other down the mountain. They had argued, of course, as friends do, but they had stood side by side when it mattered. They had gone to the Lost Land together, and they had come out again.
Jane, Simon and Barney had all played their part, but for Will, Bran was always the one who mattered. The Drews had each other; Will had Bran. When the group had split up, it had been only natural that the Drews had gone one way, and Will and Bran the other.
Bran was the Pendragon, the son of King Arthur. "But he was my friend," Will whispered. A friend he had known for less than a year, but the closest friend he had ever had. A friend who had experienced wonders and terrors alongside him. A friend who understood Will's true nature. Someone Will could talk to about everything...
A friend who no longer existed. A magical boy, who had become a man who had forgotten everything.
Bran was looking up at Merriman, absorbing everything he was saying. Merriman was telling Bran about the Old Ones, enough for him to understand what was being asked of him, and Bran was accepting it without argument. Perhaps the magic that was buried in his blood was enough to make him believe it, or maybe it was just that Merriman was impossible to doubt. But I did, Will thought sadly, remembering how he had denied his powers when Merriman had first told him about them.
"He will come just before Halloween," Merriman was saying. "He is an Old One, like I am, and he will be facing a challenge that he must not lose. You are to help him find the way, Bran Davies. Help the Old One defeat the Dark." His stern face softened into a smile. "But he is not just an Old One. He is also a boy the same age as you, and he's been very ill, far more ill than anyone around him realises. He'll need you in more ways than one, Bran Davies."
"How will I recognise him?" Bran asked, one hand absently going down to pat Cafall on the head. The dog nestled contentedly against his master's leg.
Merriman chuckled. "How many strange English boys come to these parts at this time of year? You will know him, Bran Davies, but he won't know himself. You will need to win his trust. Greet him by name - his name is Will Stanton - and here are some words you must say to him..."
And so it begins... Will's heart clenched his pain again, but this time it was all for Bran. As a result of this meeting, Bran suffer terribly. In just over a week, Cafall, the truest friend of his childhood, would be dead, shot by Caradog Pritchard. Will wanted to cry out, to warn him, but he could not. The Old Ones could not go into the past and change things. If they went into the past, it was because they had been there all along. Twenty years ago, as Will had lain in his sickbed in Buckinghamshire, his older self had sat unseen on a mountain in Wales, and said nothing. Will could exist in all times, but nothing could change the present.
Besides, Will told himself, if Bran had not suffered the loss of his dog, he would not have discovered who he was. He would not have discovered his true heritage, and the role he had to play in driving back the Dark. A dog had died, but the Light had triumphed. Sometimes an Old One had to be cruel, in order for Light to be served.
Merriman had clearly finished with Bran, for Bran called, "Come on, Cafall." The boy walked away, slower than he had come, clearly musing on what he had heard. Cafall, the dog with the silver eyes, trotted close beside him, as if protecting him. But nothing could save him. Nothing could save either of them.
"I wish you hadn't had to do that," Will said reproachfully.
Merriman was watching Bran go, a range of emotions flickering over his face. "Walk in the Light, Bran Davies," he murmured. "My Will needs you more than he will ever know."
With a cry, Will threw himself back through the currents of time, back to the summer mountainside twenty years in the future. Cafall was long dead. Merriman was gone. Bran was alive, but had forgotten everything he had once known.
The sun was almost directly over head, and the sky was an unrelieved blue. The storms of the day before had long passed, and cloudless weather had come in again from the west. Will stood up, realising that he had to go somewhere. As he started down the mountain, he saw a figure ahead of him that he recognised as John Rowlands.
Will stopped. I should carry on, he thought. Pretend I haven't seen him. He came to these parts at least twice every year, to watch Bran from a distance, but he had never once spoken either to Bran, or to anyone else he had once known. It was the same with Jane and the others. He had planned to watch her long enough to make sure that she was content, and then move on, all without showing himself. He had made a mistake with Jane, and that was all the more reason why he should not make the same mistake with anyone else.
But even as he was thinking it, his feet were taking him towards the man. He supposed that no harm would come of it. This was John Rowlands, not Bran. There were always enough ramblers around, heading for Cader Idris, that John Rowlands would think nothing of a stranger who stopped to pass a few words with him on a summer's day.
John Rowlands carried on with his work as Will approached, but Will could tell that he was watching him. Will tried a cheery smile. "Good afternoon!" he called.
John grunted something non-committal in reply.
"Glorious country you have round here," Will said, echoing something Merriman had said the day before, and a hundred a fifty years ago.
John straightened, and his face was cold and closed. "Private country," he said, "except for the paths. You're not on a path."
"Oh." Will felt the smile wash away from his face. John Rowlands had always been friendly to him, at least when he had thought Will was nothing more than a normal boy. Afterwards, although he had fought for the Light, he had made no secret of disliking the cold things that the Light sometimes had to do to men, but he had never been cold himself.
"I'm thinking that you don't look like a walker," John said. "You're a stranger. We don't like strangers sniffing around here."
"Why?" Will asked. It amazed him how John's coldness could hurt so. It was not as if John remembered him. It's because it's so unlike him, he realised. John had always argued the cause of compassion and warmth and loving bonds.
"We had some trouble with strangers," John said. "Violence unprovoked. A friend left for dead at his own front door. Perhaps you are nothing to do with those thugs, but I will not take chances. I am asking you to leave."
Will did not move. Bran! he cried. Does he mean Bran?
"Is he alright?" he rasped. "Do you mean...?" It was all he could do not to say Bran's name. He remembered with a struggle that he was supposed to be a stranger.
"I have asked you to leave," John said, in a deadly voice completely unlike his own. "If you refuse to go, I will have to assume that you are something to do with the attack on Bran. Now, go."
Will turned away blindly. "Bran," he breathed, as he stumbled off. He clenched his fists. I should have known. Why didn't I know? He should have known the moment Bran had got hurt. He could have been there in an instant. He had got there in time for Jane, but all the while Bran... And he didn't know how badly hurt he was. "Left for dead," John had said. Left for dead...
Will started to run.
She sat at home, hugging a cushion to her chest.
"I'm being stupid," she kept telling herself out loud. "It was a one-off. It's not going to happen again."
She had tried to read, but had been unable to concentrate on the words. She had put in an old and much-loved film, and watched it for a while, but she had spent more time listening for noises at the window than hearing the film.
"It's not as if anything actually happened," she told herself. "Will stopped them before they could do anything."
But Will had driven them off, and they had not been arrested. They were still out there somewhere. She had not recognised them as locals, but perhaps they knew her. Perhaps they could make enquiries and find her. Perhaps there were other people just like them who would be waiting for her next time she went out of her door.
She switched the television off, and wrote her thoughts down in her diary, including the sights and smells of her fear, and everything she was thinking and feeling. It did not help one little bit. By the end of it, her hand was aching, she had been clutching the pen so tightly. She dropped the pen, and stared into space.
She wanted to phone her parents, but the grown-up part of her did not want to worry them. Simon would play the protective older brother, but then would get side-tracked by a diatribe about the government's social policy. Barney would be supportive, and would pray for her. Neither of them could help her feel safe again.
Will could have, she thought. Walking back with Will, she had never felt remotely in danger. She had reached her front door, and she had been congratulating herself on how well she had coped with the incident. She had not felt the slightest trauma. Her home had felt safe, and the world had felt happier and more hopeful than it had seemed in the morning.
She had asked him in, but he had politely refused. "I need to get on," he had said. "I'm going to Wales to see a… friend."
"Oh." She had pushed a strand of hair behind her ear. "Well... Thank you, again."
After he had gone, she had opened her front door, and stood poised there for a very long time. Outside suddenly felt vast and scary, but inside felt like a prison. Finally, she had gone in, locked the door behind her, and collapsed sobbing to the floor. Trauma, her rational mind had told her. Delayed shock. "Please come back!" she had called to Will, but even then he had been long gone, and there had been no-one there to hear her.
She went to make herself a cup of tea. As she waited for it to boil, she switched the radio on, only to find that it was playing some current affairs discussion programme. Listeners were phoning in with their opinions on youth crime. "I blame the teachers," someone said, and Jane gave a wry smile. Then someone phoned in to talk about their feelings about being mugged. "It changed my life," the man said. "I don't feel safe any more."
Jane switched the radio off. Her hand trembled so much as she was pouring the kettle, that she spilled boiling water all over the sides of the mug.
She lifted the mug, and blew over the liquid to cool it. She took a sip, but it was still far too hot and it burnt her lips. It occurred to her suddenly that she had never once thought of reporting the attack to the police. "There's no point. They never catch anyone, anyway." That was she sometimes heard people saying, as a reason not to report such things. But Jane had always disagreed. If people didn't report crimes, she thought, they were giving up. With their cynicism, they were fuelling all the bad things in the world. People needed to take a stand, and...
She placed the mug carefully down on the working surface, and eyed the phone. It was not too late. She could still report it. But then there would be police at her door, and the neighbours to see. In a small town like this, soon everyone would know. People would stare. Her attackers might find her.
"I need to get away," she realised. She had to go somewhere else, somewhere where she would not be looking over her shoulder all the time, wondering if they were there. She needed a break. Just a few days, perhaps, but when she came back, things would feel different. Things always seemed different after you had gone away.
But where could she go? She had already visited Barney, and Simon and her parents lived busy lives in London. She wanted somewhere pretty, and out of the city; somewhere with a sense of peace, and of history.
Will would be in Wales by now...
He was the reason she had not reported the incident to the police, she realised. In the presence of Will, the police had seemed irrelevant. He had come out of nowhere to save her, and he had seen her safely back home. No policeman could have done it so well, or so completely. And he had been injured while saving her...
She shook her head, chiding herself. It was useless to daydream of meeting him again. He was a stranger, and he had gone. If she ever got into trouble again, he would not be there to save her.
But she could still go to Wales. She had spent a holiday there once when she was young. Some holidays stuck in the mind, but the Welsh holiday had gone from her memory, in almost every detail. All she remembered was that it had been beautiful, and she had made friends.
"Yes," she said aloud. "Wales it is, then." She switched her computer on, to find a place to stay. She would return to the same place she had gone on that childhood holiday. Wales was a big place, and it was next to impossible that she would meet Will there, but, really, it did not matter. All that mattered was that she was getting away. All that mattered was that she was taking steps by herself to get over what had happened.
And perhaps, when I'm there, she thought, as she started searching for hotels, I will start to remember.
end of chapter five