by Eildon Rhymer
Strangers and friends
He saw a bearded man, kind eyes in a stern face. There was a ship, too, a beautiful prow arching out of the mist. Beyond the ship was the ocean, and beyond the ocean were the stars. Silver stars. Silver, like the eyes of a beloved friend…
Bran woke up. The dream faded, until there was nothing but the vague sense that there was somewhere else, out there, calling. Peaceful oceans, and those that voyaged upon them. Other places, other worlds.
He drew his thoughts quite deliberately back to the hills of his home. The doors of the dream closed, and this time there was no memory of it at all. When he tried to move, his shoulders hurt, and that was it, his proof that the world was far more real than any dream. He had been attacked; there was no time for dreaming. He had been attacked, and they might come back…
His eyes snapped open into a harsh light that cast no shadows. A stranger stood in the doorway, looking at him with fervent eyes that seemed to bore right through him.
Bran did not give him the chance to make the first move. "Who are you?" he demanded.
The man opened his mouth, closed it, but said nothing.
Bran pushed himself painfully upright. "Were you watching me?"
The stranger did not deny it.
"Are you a doctor?"
The stranger shook his head. "I was just…" He let out a breath, and did not finish.
He was English, too. Some middle class English incomer, with smooth hands and clean clothes, who had doubtless never done an honest day's hard labour in his life. Everything about him screamed bland and average, except for those eyes…
"Just passing?" Bran sneered. "And you stopped to some poor assault victim as he lay sleeping? Do you get off on things like that?"
"No." The Englishman shook his head. "I was…" But again he did not finish.
"Get out!" Bran commanded him.
The stranger did not move. His hands shifted nervously, but he had never once taken his eyes off Bran's face, not once in all their exchange.
It's him! Bran thought suddenly, with something close to terror. This was the one his attackers had been talking about. This was the one who would come, the next round of the attack, the one who came in to finish him off. He had tracked Bran down, and come into his hospital room. How long had been standing there, watching Bran as he lay asleep?
"How did you get past the nurses?" Bran croaked.
"Most thing are possible," the man said, with a curious smile that looked almost sad.
Nothing can happen to me here, Bran tried to tell himself. There was a man sleeping in the next bed, and a button at Bran's bedside would call the nurses. And he had to know. He had to find out. He was safe here. He was safe.
"Was it you?" he asked. "Are you the one they were talking about?" And John Rowlands… John had phoned him up the night before to say that a stranger had been sniffing around. A well-spoken Englishman, nicely dressed. "You've been to my house," Bran gasped, "and now you're here."
The man nodded. He looked as if he was trying desperately not to.
"Get out!" Bran screamed, as he pressed the button. "I don't know you!" he shouted. "Get out of my room!"
No nurses came running. The man in the next bed remained fast asleep. Bran could not even see him breathing.
The stranger's lips moved. It looked almost like a "please".
"Get out!" Bran shouted again. If the man stepped forward… If the man had a weapon…
The stranger blinked. His eyes were shining. "I'm sorry," he said, very quietly. Then he turned and walked away.
Bran slumped back into the pillows. His heart was beating very fast. His thoughts were swamped by the memory of the man's eyes, and fear was fluttering around it like black wings. He clenched his fist, tried to banish it with fury. How dare he? he thought. How dare he come here to gloat?
But he went, he told himself. I stood up to him, and he went.
The memory of silent footsteps on the hospital floor…
The man in the next bed opened his eyes. "You were totally useless," Bran told him. Then two nurses came sauntering up, followed by a doctor. "And you were, too," Bran said. "Somone got in."
"Probably a doctor," one of the nurses said. "It isn't visiting hours. No-one else can come in."
She was patronising him. Bran was just opening his mouth for a furious retort, when the doctor said, "I just need to check a few things, but I think I'll be discharging you this afternoon."
"You mean, I can go home?" The thought drove all other thoughts from his mind.
Home, where he had been attacked. Home, where the stranger had already found him.
The waves surged up the beach, broke, and withdrew. Forward, and back. Forward, and back.
Jane watched them, let her thoughts ebb and flow along with them. There was something dream-like about oceans, she thought. The sound of the waves put her mind into a place that was not quite the place of rational thought. When she was beside the sea, she always half expected wild insights to pop into her head…
Or memories, long-forgotten, to emerge.
She was glad she had come here, though she was far from relaxed. The moment she had entered the mountains, she had felt as if she was on the brink of something huge. The mountains had dwarfed the road and her little car, and her, even littler, inside it. They were vast and ageless, dark with sun-burnt heather, and they endured. Men died. Men killed each other with wars and violence, but the mountains endured, and would endure, even after mankind had wiped itself out.
We know all the secrets of men, they whispered to her. We have watched it all. We know what you lost
This was where it had happened, she was sure of it. After her childhood holiday in Wales, her memories ran in a straight line, with no gaps. Her diaries had started just after that, and they confirmed it. The Welsh holiday, happening just days before memories that were vivid, was patchy and vague. She remembered coming here. She remembered meeting a couple of boys, and making friends with them instantly, in the way that children often do on holiday, when long friendships had to be compressed into days. She remembered a walk on the hills with them, and then going home, and that was that. Her parents said they had been in Wales for two weeks, so why did so little remain?
Perhaps you will find out, the mountains said to her. They had burned, the evening before, in the sunset.
She watched the waves. A few children played on the beach, their parents idly watching over them. Tourists chattered as they walked behind where she stood, and local voices shouted out in Welsh. Cars sounded, but she had not once heard a siren. She did not fear the violence of men, not here. If she feared anything at all, it was something far deeper.
Early in the morning, she had opened the curtains of her small hotel room, and looked at the mountains, dark with the sun behind them.
What if it's for the best, that I've forgotten? she had suddenly wondered. She had read about people who had something so horrendous happen to them that their mind blanked it out, to protect their sanity. They lived in ignorance, but at least they lived. The things that lurked in their memories would have destroyed them, had they been let out to stand in the light.
The waves rose, and fell; rose, and fell. Memories almost resurfaced, then withdrew again.
Behind her, the mountain looked down, and guarded its secrets, and did not tell.
They had let him go.
"We can take you in an ambulance," they had offered, "if no-one can come to take you home."
Bran had shaken his head. "Someone's coming later."
They had wanted him to wait in the hospital, but he had refused. In the hospital, he was a victim, and the stranger had watched him sleeping. He wanted to be outside, and free. He was a country man at heart, always happier in the fresh air than imprisoned in a room.
"I'd advise against it," the doctor had said. "You mustn't exert yourself."
Bran had looked at him coldly. "You're the one who said I was fit to go. It's up to me where I go, and what I do."
John Rowlands would be arriving in an hour or two, before it got dark. Besides, it was tourist season, and the sea front was full of people. Nothing could happen to him there. He would find a bench, and sit there, watching the waves and enjoying the air. It was not home, but he was free. He had come here of his own volition, and walked on his own two legs.
Most of the benches were full. Shielding his eyes with his hand, he saw an empty one a hundred yards away, and he started to walk to it, but his body was aching, and his head was throbbing. Long before he could reach it, a noisy family claimed it and settled down to eat their ice creams. Bran pressed his lips together in irritation, then noticed a nearer bench with only one occupant.
I won't talk to her, Bran thought, and was careful not to look at her as he eased himself down on the far end of the bench. Most people were as reluctant as he was to talk to strangers, but sometimes you got one of those annoying chatty ones, who liked to strike up conversations with anyone who made eye contact.
He was aware of her shifting a little beside him, maybe even looking at him.
Bran wrapped his arms around his body, in a way designed to show that he wanted to be left alone.
She moved even more, turned round bodily to face him.
He brought his hand up to his face.
"I know you," she gasped.
Bran's breathing became very tight and shallow, but he did not turn round.
"When I was twelve," she said. "It was you. I'm sure of it." Her voice faltered a little when he did not respond. "Wasn't it?"
The voice was English, but it sounded pleasant. Despite himself, he turned to face her, confident in the fact that his eyes were hidden by the shield of his dark glasses. What he saw was a woman of about his own age, with a pretty face, and eyes that brimmed with earnestness.
He did not turn away.
"I was on holiday," she said. "We met two boys. You know how quickly children can team up with total strangers on holidays, without wasting time on getting to know each other. I'm sure it was you. Don't you remember?"
"Perhaps I'm more memorable than you are," he said bitterly. "No-one ever forgets my freakish colouring."
"I didn't mean…" She blushed, and looked so distraught, that he could have kicked himself for answering the way he had done. She really was very pretty. "Of course," she stammered, "that's what made me remember, but…"
"Don't worry about it." He smiled at her. The muscles of the smile felt stiff, as if he hadn't used them for a while. "It's not your fault I look like this, and you did say 'friend', didn't you?"
She smiled. "I did. I'm Jane, by the way. Jane Drew. My brothers were Simon - he's the older one - and Barney. Are you sure you don't remember?" She bit her lip. "Maybe I'm wrong."
And then, in an instant, he remembered. "Jane," he cried. "I do remember you. We all spent a day together, didn't we? We went walking somewhere up on the mountains. And…" He frowned, struggling to remember. "Didn't I find…"
"A beautiful blue stone!" she cried. She clapped her hands together with excitement. "You gave it to me. I've still got it. It was you!"
"I called you Jenny," he said, and he was smiling, smiling as if he would never stop. It hadn't been her brothers' names that had jogged his memory, but the sight of her pretty face smiling at him.
But then that smile faded. "The other boy…" She was frowning now.
"Forget about him," Bran urged.
"He was…" Her frown deepened. "Oh," she breathed, her hand rising to her mouth. "Could it be…?"
He wanted to see her smile again. "Jane." He tried out her name. "Jenny."
"He was called Will," she said, and Bran was suddenly convinced that she had forgotten all about him. "Will… Stanton? It's hard to know how people will change as they grow up, but… No, it can't be. That would be too much of a coincidence. But he did say he was coming to Wales…"
"Who are you talking about?" he demanded.
"Will," she said. "The other boy we met. I bumped into someone a few days ago, and I didn't recognise him, but now I come to think about it… I'm sure it was him. He did say he was coming to Wales, so there's that link there, too." She shook her head wonderingly. "He looks younger than his age. That must be why I didn't recognise him."
"I don't remember much about him," Bran said shortly.
Jane clapped her hands together, and her smile was even more luminous than before. "What a wonderful coincidence!"
Bran folded his arms, and glared out to sea. "I don't trust coincidences."
"Don't be silly." Her hand brushed against his arm, and the world felt warm again, because she was laughing. "There's so much horrible stuff happening in the world. Isn't it lovely when old friends find each other again?"
"How long are you here for?" Bran asked.
Jane did not answer. She was gazing far beyond him, and her eyes were shining. "Maybe, between us, we'll remember…"
Look at me again, he wanted to say, but he did not. She smiled again, and tears leaked from her eyes, but she was still smiling.
Will wandered in a daze, scarcely seeing the faceless people who jostled him. I shouldn't have done it, he thought. The only face he saw was Bran's, bruises stark on his pale skin. Bran's face, twisted in anger and rejection, but beneath it, the fear.
Bran afraid. Bran afraid of him. Bran afraid because of him.
He had used his powers to creep unseen into the hospital. He had created a bubble of stillness for the two of them, so that nothing they said or did could be heard by anyone else. He had watched Bran as he slept. He had used his powers, not in order to advance the cause of Light, not to thwart the Dark. He had used his powers on innocents, just because he wanted to. Bran was right to hate him.
Hours had passed, he thought. Hours of wandering through the streets, seeing nothing, but now he had reached the sea. He could no longer go forward.
He stopped, and looked out at the grey expanse of water, where a Lost Land lay hidden. He and Bran had gone there long ago, and faced dangers together. Neither of them would have survived without the other.
Will blinked, and there was Bran, smiling. Will's arms fell heavily to his sides, and swung there limply. Bran, and Jane! They had found each other, but how…? Jane had been in the Cotswolds only two days before. He had never once seen any hint that she and Bran… And they were smiling… Bran, his face aglow. Jane, pushing her hair behind her ear, smiling, with shining eyes…
He could not move. He could not breathe. Something painful twisted inside him, and he knew that it was jealousy. They had found each other, and he would never… He could never…
And then Jane had seen him, and was scrabbling to her feet, rushing over towards him, as excited as a child. "Will, it's you. It is you. Oh, I was right."
The smile had died on Bran's face.
Jane was grabbing Will's arms. "I'd totally forgotten… I didn't recognise you. But then I bumped into Bran, and I remembered."
"Remembered?" It came out as a deathly croak. Had they truly remembered? His heart racing, and he did not know what to say, where to look. If they had remembered everything, then he would no longer be alone. His whole world teetered on the knife edge.
But if they had remembered everything, he would have to make the forget again. Merriman himself had altered their memories, so it was the right thing to do. But yet… But yet…
"That holiday when we were children." Jane's smile had faltered a little, but she was still pulling at Will's arms. "Me and my brothers, and you, and Bran. Don't you remember? We spent a day together, and then went our separate ways. But fancy us all meeting up like this!"
Will moistened his dry lips. His mind didn't seem to be working properly. He played her words back slowly, and began to understand that she had remembered nothing, only to false nothing-memory that had been planted in her mind. She remembered him only as a chance encounter, and that meant that Bran…
Bran was standing up now, and was slowly limping his way towards them. Will could not look away from him.
"How's your cut?" Jane asked him. "I'll never forget how you saved me, Will." She gave a nervous laugh. "I'm sorry. I don't normally babble like this, but it's all such an amazing coincidence."
"Yes," Will mumbled. He tried to pull away. He tried to edge backwards. Bran was coming, limping slowly, his face dark with bruises and hostility. Something terrible was about to happen, Will knew it.
Behind him, not far away, two people started shouting.
Bran reached them, and his voice was as cold as loneliness as he said, "Do you know this man, Jane?"
Jane turned to him. Will could not see her face, only the back of her head. "This is Will. Don't you remember? I was just talking about him."
"You said you met him a few days ago, at home." Bran was speaking to Jane, but he was looking at Will. Everything about him was an accusation.
Across the street, the argument rose to screaming. A woman and a man were swearing at each other, hating each other. A child started crying.
"I did," Jane said. "He saved my life."
"Then why is he here?" Bran demanded quietly. "Did he follow you?"
Jane shook her head. "Of course not. If anything, I followed him. He said he was going to Wales, and that made me remember the holiday I had, so I decided to come, too. Of course, I didn't know who he was then. I didn't know he was coming to the same place."
"But why did he? That's what I'm wondering."
Behind them, the argument had turned violent. There was the sound of someone being slapped, and the child screamed. Other people started to shout, warning them to stop. I should do something, a distant part of Will's mind told him, but he could not turn round, he could not look away.
"Well, because he remembers the same holiday, of course." Jane was still shaking her head. "Why are you being like this, Bran?"
"Because it just seems funny, that's all." Bran's voice was cold and mocking. "This man, who happens to be someone we both knew for a few hours twenty years ago, turns up on your doorstep, and then, only days later, he turns up on mine."
"Coincidence," Jane said, but, "I don't believe in it," Bran said coldly.
Will could not speak at all. Bran was right, of course. He was right in every way, except for the coldness and the hatred of it all.
"I don't know what you're involved in," Bran said, addressing Will directly for the first time, "but I want you gone."
"But he saved my life," Jane cried. "He got hurt…"
"I got hurt, too," Bran said, gesturing vaguely at his bruises. "And he was involved in it. He as good as said so, when I caught him sniffing around my hospital room."
Jane turned slowly to face Will. "Is it true?" She shook her head, frowning. "No, I can't believe it."
"It's true," Bran said coldly.
Will half raised one useless hand, then let it fall again. "I wasn't the one who hurt you, Bran. I would never do that."
Bran gave a snort of laughter. Behind them, the shouts and screams continued, but Will pushed them further and further away in his mind. All that existed was Bran, and Jane at his side.
"You were attacked?" Jane said. "Was it in the local paper? Will probably saw it, and remembered you, just like I did. He probably just wanted to make sure…"
"I don't believe that," Bran spat. He took a step forward, and raised his hand, in a gesture of command that reminded Will fiercely of Bran's true father, except that the hand was trembling slightly. "Go away. Leave me alone. I don't ever want to see you again." He lowered his hand. "Come on, Jane."
Bran limped away. Jane stood between them, wavering, her eyes going from one to the other. "It isn't true?" Her voice was small and pleading.
Will shook his head, deeply weary. His soul felt completely wrung out. "I didn't hurt him," he whispered, "or not in the way he thinks."
"Good." Jane smiled at him, and this time it was the smile of an adult, not the excited child she had been a few minutes before.
Will shook his head, ever so slightly. "I think you should go with him," he said. "He needs someone."
"But I don't know him," Jane protested. "Not really."
Will managed to smile. "You don't know me, either."
He did not give her a chance to answer, but turned and walked slowly away.
end of chapter six