Walking Shadow

 

by Eildon Rhymer        

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Chapter two

 

Violence in the night

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"Too hot," Bran complained, fanning himself with his hat.

 

"Be thankful you're not in some crowded city, then," John Rowlands said.

 

Bran did not answer. If he had to be too hot, then this was the place to be too hot in. There was always a breeze on the mountains, even on the hottest day, and there were enough trees in the valley to offer shade. He had been to Cardiff a few times, and Liverpool, and London, and each time he had been struck by the airlessness of the streets. Cities absorbed the heat and would not spit it out again. People rushed and jostled and there was no room to breathe. People stared

 

"I'd rather be in the sea, though," Bran confessed.

 

"Leave that to the tourists," John said. "This is good work, and there's beer waiting for us at the other end of it."

 

They started to walk towards the valley, both moving away at the same time, although not even a look was exchanged between them. The dogs followed without their usual exuberance. Still, Bran thought, at least they had hair to protect them from the sun. With his fair skin, he had to cover himself up at all times, and slather himself with sticky sun cream.

 

"How are you for dinner, John?" he asked, as he paused for a moment before a stile. The dogs slithered through, and waited on the other side.

 

"Well enough," John said. "I've got something in."

 

Bran crossed first. Before stepping down, he hesitated just for a moment, wondering whether to offer John an arm up. It was only for an instant, but John saw it.

 

"None of that, boy," he said. He was not smiling. "I'm not past it yet. And when I am, it's for me to say, not for you to ask. So none of this worrying if I can cope with cooking dinner. None of this helping me over stiles."

 

Bran nodded, but did not apologise. There was no need for such words with someone like John Rowlands. Still, he could not help but worry. John Rowlands was not old, but he had had a bad fall on the mountains some years back, and had never fully recovered his old vigour. And, despite what John claimed, Bran knew that he would keep going until he dropped, rather than ask for help. It did no harm to keep an eye open.

 

He did not wait for John on the far side of the style, but carried on without him. Soon he reached the shade of the mountain, and the dogs recovered some of their usual energy, trotting in elongated circles between him at the front, and John at the rear. The path dropped steeply for a while, then levelled out. "Almost home," he heard John say to his dogs. Bran smiled, and said the same to his own.

 

"Any plans for tonight?" John asked, as Bran paused outside his cottage.

 

Bran gave a wry laugh. "When do I ever have plans?"

 

"Well, perhaps you should have." John Rowlands looked uncharacteristically earnest. "You're over thirty now. It's not right for someone like you to…"

 

Bran's eyes narrowed behind his dark glasses. "To what?"

 

John Rowlands always seemed to be able to see right through the glass and into Bran's unshielded eyes. "Waste your life here," he said.

 

"Waste my life? Is that what I'm doing?" Bran's hand closed on a gate post, and clutched it tight. "I thought I helping to keep Welsh land in Welsh hands, being true to the old ways, being true to my blood… All those things the old boys in the pub say people my generation should be doing."

 

"Yes, you are," John said.

 

"So what's your problem?" Bran demanded.

 

John reached down to pat his dog's head as it leant patiently against his leg. "People like me, you see… There never was anything else for us. We were born to the land, bred to it… We will live it, and die still with the dirt of the land behind our nails. But you…"

 

"I am like you." The words were almost spat out.

 

John passed his hand across his brow. "Hear me, Bran, please. You were always such a bright boy. Different, yes, but different in a good way. You could have done anything. Instead you chose this."

 

"I chose this," Bran hurled at him. "I chose this."

 

"No," John said. "You took it because it was the only thing you knew. You can't call something a choice if there were never any alternatives. You could have gone to university. You could have got a job anywhere. You could have done anything. Try the world outside, and then decide whether you want to stay in it, or come back to the land."

 

"You would have me be like Rhys Evans?" Bran asked incredulously. "Swanning off to England? Coming back with his fancy English accent and his new ways of doing things…"

 

"He chose." John's voice was still infuriatingly reasonable. "He sampled other things, then came back of his own accord. He chose with his eyes open. I fear that you didn't choose at all, and one day it will occur to you to hate everything associated with this life. One day, when you're too old to do anything about it, you'll look back and think of all this as a prison."

 

"I will not," Bran spat. "I chose this. I did it with my eyes open. What do you think I am? Stupid?"

 

"No, Bran, you're not stupid." John Rowlands smiled.

 

The smile only served to infuriate Bran even more. "Stop it!" he cried. "What gives you the right to talk to me like this?"

 

"A friend has the right," John said. "No, a friend has the duty. Besides, I knew you as a child. You're the nearest I have to a son."

 

"I already have a father," Bran said. "He doesn't see anything wrong in the choices I've made."

 

"No." John shook his head. "He wouldn't."

 

"Just leave me alone!" Bran shouted. "I'm not allowed to worry about you. I'm expected to sit back and watch you as you struggle to do things that are too strenuous for you. You don't like me saying anything, but now you turn round and say all this to me!"

 

"True." John Rowlands nodded in agreement. "You're right. I could say that it is the prerogative of the old to have some pride, but I won't. Friends should speak up when they are concerned. Pride is not helpful. I don't want to see you unhappy, and I know you feel the same about me."

 

Bran almost snapped a reply, but bit it back just in time. He did not want to argue with John Rowlands, but neither was he ready to make peace. It would blow over if he left it alone. Next time they came across each other, neither of them would mention it, and soon it would be forgotten.

 

Instead, he gave a terse nod. "I'd best get in."

 

John Rowlands looked at him for a while, as if expecting something more, then gave a barely perceptible shrug. "See you tomorrow, Bran." Bran got the sudden impression that John was not remotely upset by Bran's reaction to his comments. It made Bran want to say something that would truly shock him. At the same time, it made him want to apologise for even thinking such a thing.

 

He watched John walk away. He looks like an old man, he thought, with a pang. Most of them men on the farm were old, and only getting older. And where will that leave me when they're gone? he wondered. He closed the gate behind him, and whistled the dogs to his side. I chose this life, he told himself. I chose it, and that's that. John Rowlands doesn't know what he's talking about.

 

The dogs rushed past him eagerly into the house. "Is that you, Bran?" came a voice from inside. From the kitchen, Bran thought, by the sound of it.

 

"Who else would it be?" he called back.

 

Once in the kitchen, he walked past his father, and went to the sink. Only when he had drenched his face in cold water, and patted it dry with a towel, did he turn to face Owen Davies. His father was sitting at the large table, with a newspaper spread in front of him, that Bran knew he had not read a word of.

 

"The windows are open," Owen said. "I heard voices. It sounded like an argument."

 

"John… said something he shouldn't have," Bran said. "It's over now."

 

His father accepted it. Sometimes he accepted the most momentous news with the barest of phlegmatic shrugs; other times he worried endlessly over trivia. He had much changed over the last dozen years. His mind seemed to have aged far faster than his body, and he was almost useless around the farm, even though his body was far healthier than John Rowlands'.

 

"I was sitting here," Owen said, "thinking of your mother. She should have been a child of the summer, but sadness had shrouded her in winter."

 

Bran pressed his lips together, and did not reply. He still knew so little about his mother. Beautiful, his father said, and unearthly and sad. As a child, he had sometimes entertained fantasies about her, but he had long grown out of all fantasies.

 

"I should never have left the old place," Owen started fretting. "What if she tries to find you? She would never come here."

 

"She's never coming back," Bran said. He started to soap his hands, quick and angry. "She's had thirty-two years."

 

"But we're in Caradog Pritchard's old house," Owen continued. "He wanted her, too, but she chose me. She'll never come back here."

 

"She's not coming back," Bran snapped. He walked out, shutting the door behind him, and locked himself in the bathroom. He turned the cold tap on full, and the hot tap only a trickle. As the bath filled, he looked at himself in the mirror.

 

Who was she? he wondered. Perhaps he could read his mother's face in the shape of his own face. He leant forward a little, then snapped his head to one side. "No," he said aloud. He would not ask. He would not wonder. He had been through this a thousand times before. He had his father, and now he had the farm. He had made his choice. He had enough.

 

He took his clothes off, and climbed into the cool bath. His muscles ached, and his skin felt tender from the sun. The bath did nothing to ease him. He tried to close his eyes, then opened them again.

 

John Rowlands was wrong, of course. He didn't need to leave his home in order to discover that this was the life for him. He was bound here, by his past, by his memories, by family ties. The farm was as good as his now, his alone. He would make a success of it. He would have something special to leave to… To who? He gave a wry smile. To no-one yet, but there was still time. None of the local girls had taken his fancy yet, but one day someone would. One day someone would come who found his looks enticing and his old-fashioned bachelor ways interesting. One day.

 

He heard his father moving around outside, and he heard the sound of sheep and dogs outside. The curtains stirred as a gust of breeze blew in through the window. The same breeze brought the sound of a distant tractor, on the neighbouring farm. Bran knew that he, too, should still be out working, but it was just too hot.

 

Bran had been running the farm in practice for three years. Before that, his father and John Rowlands had shared it, and had done so for nearly twenty years. When Bran was young, the farm had belonged to Caradog Pritchard, and both Owen Davies and John Rowlands had worked for David Evans on the adjacent farm. Then Caradog Pritchard had lost his mind, and shortly afterwards had died. His heir, a distant relative, put the farm up for sale, and David Evans had bought it. To everyone's surprise, he had leased it to his two most reliable men. Five years ago, they had bought it outright, and both of them had named Bran as their heir. By tacit agreement, they had both ceded control to him.

 

My farm, he thought, as he stood up. My place.

 

John was wrong. He had chosen this. He could not explain his certainty, but he knew that it was true. Once, long ago, he had been asked to choose. He could choose to stay here, in Wales with his father, or go… elsewhere. He had chosen this life. He had given up something marvellous in order to live like this.

 

And so here he was. This was his life, because he had chosen it. There could be no going back on choices, and there could be no doubting, either.

 

******

 

Will watched the river as it flowed sluggishly beneath the bridge. A leaf floated by, framed by his clasped hands, and then an empty crisp packet. Then there was only dark water, flowing ever so slowly towards the sea.

 

It was almost night, he supposed. Clear summer days tended to drift into evening without anyone noticing, marked only by a gradual fading towards grey. It was still hot. Earlier he had heard distant rumbles of thunder, but no storm had come.

 

The stone parapet pressed against his forearms, whispering eagerly of all the other people who had stood here throughout the centuries. He could not listen to the echoes. It was nearly a week since his mother's birthday party, but he still felt drained. It was strong magic, to erase himself so completely from the lives of so many people. He had no memory of stumbling home from the party, and the week that followed felt like a dimly-remembered dream.

 

A group of people walked past, but he did not turn to look at them. They sounded young, by their voices. They were heading for a pub or a restaurant, chattering eagerly amongst themselves. Heels clicked on the ground, and the scent of perfume reached him as they passed. When they were gone, there was nothing but the sound of cars, passing steadily on the road behind him.

 

I wonder what they're doing… he thought, then stopped himself. His family were gone. He had sundered himself from them, and it was the right thing to do. Let them live and flourish without him. If he ever saw them again, it would be as a stranger, lingering to watch for a while, and then passing on. As far as him family was concerned, Will Stanton had never existed.

 

A train passed over the nearby bridge, heading away from the station to the south. Its windows were squares of light, and made the evening around it seem like night. When he turned away from it, back to the river, the evening looked almost as bright as day. Even so, he knew it was time to start walking home. He could not stay here forever. At the moment, though, it felt as if the bridge was the only thing keeping him upright.

 

"You okay?"

 

Will had not heard the man approach, but he turned to face him calmly, as if he had known he was there all along. "I'm fine."

 

"You don't look it," the man said. He was young, with a battered leather jacket and sandy hair. "You're not thinking of jumping, are you?"

 

"Of course not," Will said.

 

"Well…" The man looked embarrassed, and that was making him talk. "It does no harm to check, does it? I know they say you shouldn't talk to strangers, and all…"

 

"I assure you, I am no threat whatsoever to you," Will told him. "I'm just tired, that's all."

 

"Busy week?" the man said. "Believe me, I know how it is. I'm off to the pub myself." He ran his hand through his hair. "Well, if you're sure you're okay…"

 

"I'm fine," Will said again, with a smile. "Thank you for your concern. Not many people would stop and ask a stranger in this day and age."

 

"Well…" The man looked at his watch. "I must be off."

 

"Yes."

 

Will was still smiling as he watched him go. Perhaps he was ready to walk home after all. There were many things wrong in the world, but some mortals, it seemed, were still doing the right thing. The Light had departed; the world was left to man. Mostly it seemed as if man was making a horrendous mess of it, but there were always small gleams of hope.

 

He started to walk. His steps felt heavy and dragging, as if he was carrying the weight of a hundred worlds on his back. It was just exhaustion, he reminded himself. He was carrying nothing at all. Once, long ago, he had done things that had helped shape the world, but now he was just a watchman. My Will the watchman, Merriman had called him, speaking it fondly, as if it was a favour. Will the watchman, stranded and left behind. Will the watchman, who…

 

His head snapped round. He heard a sound, there, down on the tow path, and dark shapes scuffling. He stopped, quested towards it. A woman, wrestling with a slim man for possession of her handbag. Another man was watching, laughing. She was shouting, shouting for help…

 

Will lashed out, then cried out aloud as he had to snatch his magic back. I can't! he thought. I can't! The world was man's, for man to deal with. There was no Light, no Dark. He could not interfere.

 

She was putting up a fight. He watched, hands clenching and unclenching at his side. Why wasn't anyone else reacting? Couldn't anyone hear her? He could take her voice and spread it through the city, so everyone heard her. He could nudge that oblivious person there, and that one, and that one. Even without intervening directly, he could do so much, but he could not, he could not.

 

The muggers won. The woman lost her grip on her handbag, and fell backwards heavily. One of the attackers punched her, another kicked her where she lay. Will was edging forward, but then someone else was there, rushing from the other side, shouting furiously. The attackers fled, and the rescuer began to chase them, then returned to the woman. He got out a phone, and put it to his ear. Will made sure that he was really phoning the police, and then turned away.

 

"I couldn't," he murmured to himself. He was breathing fast, as if he had been running, but all he had been doing was standing still.

 

The world was in the hands of humans. All he could do was watch the future unfold. He could not stop the big things, and he could not stop the small. More than once, the fate of the Light had rested on the free decision of a single man. The Dark had always tried to seep into men's thoughts and change them, but the Light had always watched, and let the choices unfold. It made them seem cold, sometimes, but it was the only way they could be.

 

"It would have been wrong to help," he said aloud, but his steps felt so heavy that it was all he could do to drag himself home. When he got there, he sat in the darkness of his window, and looked up at the sky, until the stars appeared and shone there.

 

******

 

Evening turned to night.

 

Bran's father had gone to his bedroom and shut the door, but Bran doubted that he was asleep. He was probably sitting in the darkness, staring out onto the mountain, lost in his delusions of past love. He did that more and more. Bran never sat beside him when he had that dreamy look in his eyes.

 

The windows were still wide open, though Bran had shut the curtains as soon as it had started to get dark. He did not like to think of people looking in on him, while he sat there in a pool of light, unaware that he was being watched. He never liked strangers looking at him, except when they were both in the dark.

 

He was restless. He had read for a bit, without absorbing the words, and he had watched television for a bit, without really hearing it. The argument with John Rowlands was still preying on his mind, he knew, or maybe it was just the heat.

 

He wandered to the window, peeped through a gap in the curtains. A car was passing down on the road, and then another. People returning from a night out, perhaps. Rhys Evans was a farmer, but he went to concerts and restaurants and cinemas, just like any town-dweller. As if this life isn't good enough for him, Bran thought, with a snort. He never went to any such things.

 

A puff of wind stirred the curtains. It brought with it the sound of harp music, sweet and sad. Bran pressed his lips together, turning away from the window. John Rowlands often played like that at night, proclaiming his melancholy to the stars. He probably had no idea that he could be heard.

 

Bran had played the harp once, but not for years. Sometimes, very occasionally, he felt a yearning to play it again, but mostly he thought he was well rid of it. His life was about other things now. Even if he tried it again, and practiced, he would never be as good as John. Bran did not like to fail at things.

 

A dog started barking, and stopped abruptly.

 

"Dad?" Bran called softly, but there was no sound from within the house. The curtains were still. The clock had stopped months before, and they had never bothered to start it again. Time meant nothing when you were alone.

 

There was no sound from outside, either. The harp had stopped.

 

Bran reached slowly for the curtain, then drew his hand back. Instead, he walked to the light switch, and pressed it. The room went dark. There was nothing at all in the darkness at first, but slowly, as he blinked, there were squares of grey where the windows were. When he thought his eyes were adapted to the dark, he moved back to the window.

 

Something hurled itself at him, all scrapings and scratchings on the windowsill. Bran's heart lurched inside his chest, but the only sound he made was a faint gasp. Only a cat, he told himself, pressing his hand to his chest, forcing his breathing to return to normal.

 

A cat who was terrified, though. It was clawing at the door, trying to get deeper into the house, mewing piteously. "What is it?" Bran asked her. "What scared you?" All the farm cats were proud and fearless, and ran from nobody and nothing.

 

The harp started up again, far away. The music was serene, and made Bran think of silver, and the moon. It made the world seem normal again. John Rowlands was out there, just as he always had been. Nothing could really go wrong out here, where life never changed. The people of the mountains endured forever.

 

"Let's have a look, then, shall we?" he said to the cat. He opened the door, and it darted through, paws thundering. The rest of the house was dark, and there was no slit of light under his father's door. The outside door was locked, and the house was silent.

 

Bran went into his bedroom and unlocked the chest that held his gun. He loaded it, but that was all. Walking softly on bare feet, he went to the front door, and opened it on its chain. "Is anyone there?" he called. "I have a gun."

 

No-one called back. No-one shouted back to say, 'Don't be an idiot. It's only me.'

 

There was no sound from the dogs. The mountain stood dark and solid on the far side of the yard. There were no lights visible whatsoever, not a single place where people lived. Just the wilds, Bran thought, and normally I like it like that, but there were times when it could be terrifying. As if the mountain has eyes, and the moors are full of enemies, all watching me…

 

"Stupid," he said aloud. He stepped out into the yard, holding the gun where it was clearly visible. "Leave, whoever you are," he commanded. "If I see you, I'll shoot."

 

But he never saw them. One struck him from behind, one kicked him in the stomach. He lost his grip on the gun, and then he was falling, falling to the arid ground, and there was dust on his lips, and it tasted horrible, so he spat, but there was only more, and something else, too, that tasted of iron and was wet and warm and thick. Blood, he thought thickly. My blood.

 

He tried to fight, oh he tried, but they kicked him again and again, and struck him with something hard. They stamped on his hand, made him curl it pathetically against his chest. He tried to kick them, but they darted away. Their faces were blank, leeched of all colour by the darkness. Their eyes were pools of shadow, and their mouths were thin slashed lines. They did not laugh or gloat or…

 

"Why?" he forced out, gasping on the question, choking on the blood.

 

They did not speak.

 

"I've nothing worth stealing," he tried to tell them.

 

Blood filled his eyes, and then he could not even see them.

 

"What have I done to you?" It was pathetic, wheedling, like the broken victim he had sworn never to be.

 

"It's not you," they said. A cold, cold voice, devoid of emotion.

 

"You're nobody." A different voice, but exactly the same tone.

 

"But now he will come."

 

A ripple passed through them that could have been laughter, and then they cast him aside, and walked away. Silence swallowed their soft footsteps.

 

Got to get up, Bran thought. He pawed at the ground, trying to push himself up, and then the silence swept him up, too, and there was nothing at all but darkness, and dreams.

 

******

 

end of chapter two

 

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