Locked away in the Bodleian Library, or sequestered in his small bare Oxford student's rooms, Will Stanton pored over the written echoes of human dreams. He was looking for a thing he'd lost, and at every turn of every page his human heart beat harshly with the anticipation of discoveries that never came.
It was pale hair he wanted, and hawk's eyes, and the bruised and weary arrogance of a boy-king in exile.
Will recognized, clear as stillwater ice, the futility of the project: he was looking through a history of dreams for his own lost Pendragon, gone in a twist of High Magic nearly ten years ago. Of course Bran, boy-child out of time, would not have been written of – but Will could not see him in the living world. All he had left were dreams and memories. And so he combed over the ashes of vanished ages, looking for remnant traces of his king's heart of iron and gold.
And Bran was never there. Arthur Rex strode goldenly through each page, dux bellorum, lord of many knights, liege-lord of powerful enchanters, the once and future king. But his glory was nothing like Bran's queer sideways insecure arrogance, and the difference cut into Will like a crooked knife. Medraut-Mordred wound round the narrative over the ages like a shadow, Arthur's sister-son. Not a child of his getting, not in the old Welsh stories, and Will found himself wondering if Bran had heard those legends, or if he'd met his great father believing in tales of incest and rape and infanticide. He hoped for Bran's sake that he'd had a more nationalistic education, there in his school in Clywd. And beside Arthur, a host of knights and heroes: Gwalchmai, Bedwyr, Ywain – but Will could not find even glimpses nor shadows of his Pendragon there. And each time he felt the loss of him anew, and each time it was like knives again.
It was an obsessive quest; he knew that he should stop. His coursework was piling up, and he'd absented himself completely from the meager social existence he'd previously been able to bear. Engaging with the living was too hard for him. He found more comfort with his paper ghosts. And – for him, loose from time and language and human community, left alone in all the world to watch and wait – how could he struggle with the composition of theses on historical objets d'art? He had only to close his eyes to see them being wrought, the vellum prepared and the inks ground out. It was Bran Pendragon alone that eluded both his internal and external sights.
A week since, walking through a hall in his lodgings, he'd seen a scrap of paper fluttering on a fellow student's door, a girl reading Modernist literature who lived there with her girlfriend and cooked things that smelled amazing, all spices and saffron and peppery heat. On it was printed a quotation in a sans-serif font, bold and confrontational: “erotohistoriography: a politics of unpredictable, deeply embodied pleasures that counters the logic of development. against pain and loss, it posits the value of pleasurable interruptions and momentary fulfillments from other times.” Beneath that, in decisive slanting script, a hand-written addendum questioned: “How do you fuck the past?” His mouth had gone wry at it, then, but now it seemed to him the saddest sentence in all the sorrowing world. How do you fuck the past? How can you fuck the past? You can't, he told himself, and deep inside his heart someone began wailing, crying out a wild grief.
Tired of the deeds of knights, he turned to tracing references to King Arthur's kindred: Llacheu in the Breuddwyd Rhonabwy, Amr in the Historia Brittonum, Gwydre in the tale of Culhwch and Olwen. Dead in battle, lost to their great father. He was reading a blue clothbound reprinting, probably from the late 1920s judging by the title font, of the Welsh Triads, looking for both Llacheu and Duran, both named in brief as sons of the King, when something in him broke, going icy and brittle and fractured.
It was a strange thing to read divergent mythologies of times he remembered living through. Sometimes he managed it all right, successfully abstracting himself and his memories from the work of reading. Sometimes his temper took over, and he wanted nothing more than to stamp his feet like a child and howl against the inaccuracies of human memory. So much – so many vitally important things – fell out of their histories! The mythologies were not for that, not for accuracy – not for him. But it still rankled, sometimes. He was not yet so old as the others had been, before they'd left him.
He read: Sandde [Bryd Angel] drive the crow/off the face of Duran [son of Arthur]/Dearly and belovedly his mother raised him/Arthur [sang it], and his heart broke. Without thought or conscious will, his pen went to the margins of the book. No, he wrote. This isn't how it happened. This isn't how King Arthur lost his only son, whose name was Bran ap Arthur. And then: I'm sorry, Bran. It was our fault you never knew your true father. Our fault you still don't. Sorry. More and more, I think we didn't have the right.
The right-hand margin was filled with scribbled words, but now he'd begun he couldn't stop; more and more sentences welled up in him, spilling, his hand trembling with the rising tide. He turned over the page, and went on.
Again, he wrote corrections. Nennius wrote that Arthur killed his son Amr. It is not so. Arthur would never have harmed him. Only I harm him. Bran, I miss you so much. I wish I'd been a better wizard for you. I wish I'd been brave enough to tell you all the hidden truths I'm carrying. I've been lying to you for a long time.
Still his pen scratched away against the page, spilling. The words formed at its tip and fell darkly: Your father is King Arthur. We took you out of time. Owen Davies fell in love with Guinevere up in the mountains. I love you as I've never loved anyone before, and it makes me wish I was capable of death when I think that I've not seen you since we were thirteen. Losing you shattered me. You chose to forget me, and I wish I could hate you for it.
He wrote: I want to know what you look like now. If you're still beautiful enough to take my breath. If it's possible that anything could be more beautiful than you were as a boy. If manhood has ripened your powers in you, and made you full of glory. If you'd still speak to me in that arrogant lilting Welsh voice. If I'd still feel like falling to my knees before you every time you spoke. If you'd command me to surrender to you, to worship you. I would, you know, gladly, in a heartbeat. Every beautiful inch of you was made to be worshipped, with hand and mouth and eyes and spirit. If you'd take me as if it were your born right to do so, as it is your right to do so – as I would give you the right to do so. I would hand you the reins of my heart, my King, if you would only let me, and the reins of my body too. You don't know it, but your claim is burned into me, body and soul. I want you to fuck me. I want you to strip me bare and fill me, to make me feel alive again. I want to fuck the past. I want you.
And you will never be mine.
His heart thundered in his ears like a drumbeat, and the heat that rose up to envelop him left him panting for breath, subsumed and eaten by desire. He knew, in an abstract way, that he was very near to the precipice of orgasm, but the clear free fall of that release eluded him; he had nothing left to write. He could not image that impossible act – it would never happen, and he knew it, and so what point was there in dreaming? The sharp sorrow of his love made it endless, because how could he ever bring himself to completion against that pain? It would be too much like despair, too much like death. An end, but not the one he wanted. Better no end, nothing – just ashes and words.
His nerveless fingers lost their grasp on his pen, which fell with a muted clatter onto the floor. He slumped over the book with a great shuddering sigh, utterly spent. His cheek pressed against the new-inked page; he marveled for a moment, unanchored in time, that the unsanded, unblotted ink was dry so soon and didn't stain his face.
But that moment, like all the others, ended too soon. He sat up, and looked down at the page, and then at its verso, and then at the pages before, all of them covered over with small cramped angry sorrowing black words and letters, the descending curves long and fluid as the Thames, the rising lines sharp and hard as the heart of the Light. His face burned. There was something horrible about the way the book had been transmogrified into the very material of his shame.
He'd not meant to write so much – not meant to write anything at all. Had not meant to voice, even in letters, the thing he felt for and about Bran Davies, who for all he knew was still herding sheep in Wales. They would probably still appear to be the same age; perhaps Bran would now seem a bit older, but not by much. Not yet. Bran Davies was a Welsh farmboy who'd made his choice, and Will Stanton was a miserably immortal watchman pretending to be a miserable academic, and never, he was determined, should the twain meet. Better for them both.
Sitting straighter in his research carrel, he held his arm out stiffly, almost imperiously, before him. He looked down again at the book he'd stained, carefully distancing himself in his mind and heart further and further from the object, until he felt, not shame or any other sort of excitation, but only an old and abstract sorrow. And slowly, like invisible ink going in reverse, his scrawled letters and words and confessions flickered, faded, and then disappeared. All that was left behind beneath his hand was a very old elegy, fragmentary, in translation, printed on paper and bound with thread.
He stood, gathered together his papers and things into his satchel, placed the book of Welsh Triads on a cart for re-shelving, and walked out of the library. He looked, as he did so, like nothing more than a boy, rather small, rather sad, with an ordinary round English face and nondescript straight brown hair that obscured his eyes. Those who saw him leave quickly forgot that they had.