"This matter holds no compulsion. We ask a favor of you, to make such a judgement. For in this world of men it is the fate of men which is at stake, in the long run, and no one but a man should have the judging of it." --Susan Cooper, Silver on the Tree
"Tea's ready, cariad. And how is Owen doing today?"
John shook his head as he scraped muck off his boots and shut the door on the winter wind. "Out to the hills again at sunrise. If David and I had not hauled him home yesterday, he would have been out all night as well, and seeing Gwen in every shift of moonlight, like as not." He pulled out a chair at the small kitchen table and sat down, heavily. "This is a right disaster, this is."
Blodwen poured tea into a mug and carried it over to John, along with two slices of toast. Not much of a breakfast, but all she had had time to make this morning after bathing and feeding the baby. "The poor man," she said. "There is still no sign what became of his Gwen?"
Mouth full of toast, John simply shook his head again.
Blodwen carried her own tea and toast to the table and sat across from her husband. Between them, slumped in the old highchair Jen Evans had given Blodwen in happier times, the young Pendragon shifted in his sleep. A bubble of spit popped and trailed down his chin. Blodwen wiped him clean with her napkin and left the cloth crumpled on the table in front of him.
"If Gwen is dead--" she began.
"Do not say that to Owen yet," said John.
Blodwen nodded. "Of course. He needs hope, not truth. Bring him around for supper, John -- I worry he won't eat otherwise. But it's been four days now. If his Gwen is dead, or gone, what is to become of the baby?"
John's gaze slid sideways to rest on the bare whitewashed wall, as if he could see the future projected there. "Owen was starting to think of him as a son, I should say. And now the boy is all he has left of Gwen."
"That is all very well to say," said Blodwen, "but the man is in no fit state to care for a baby. Besides, will it be good for him to have a reminder of Gwen so close and inescapable? Will that be fair to the child, to always have his father look through him to his mother?"
"Perhaps not," John conceded. He stretched one strong, weather-worn hand toward the Pendragon as if to touch the boy's fine, chalk-white hair. But he stopped short, fingers falling back to the tabletop. There was a strange yearning in the depths of his eyes, something faint and indefinable. "Do you think..."
The clock ticked. The loose window in the bedroom rattled in the wind. Outside, one of John's dogs barked in a desultory fashion, and then fell quiet again. The silence gathered like a living thing, rising and thickening, threatening to swamp the warm, tidy kitchen with all the chill and misery of winter and death.
"I cannot read your mind, cariad," Blodwen said.
This time when John reached out, he did touch the child, running one finger along the death-pale curve of the boy's cheek. Sniffling, the child turned toward the contact, one soft, plump hand rising toward his face. An echo of Owen's now-vanished happiness stole into the corners of John's mouth, and he lowered his finger to let the boy catch hold and draw him in.
"We could keep him," said John.
"No," said Blodwen.
Immediately she cursed herself for a fool. The part of her that had existed for all time, the greater truth of her being that stretched far beyond this mortal human shape, hissed with self-directed rage. She should have agreed. Should have kept the Pendragon close, whispered in his ear as he grew, shaped him to hate and fear the Light and be no fit tool for their hands.
But she could not have a baby in her house. Not so soon after--
"If Mari--" John began.
"She died," said Blodwen, cutting him off. "Six hours fighting for every breath, and she died, John. Too early, too small, not finished enough to live on her own. I can't. Not now, not for a long time. Maybe in a year or three, if you happen across another foundling, maybe then I can take another woman's child into my home, but not now."
And not ever. Another woman's child would be born of man, not of the Dark. Another woman's child would simply be a tool to further her cover in this place and time. And after the promise of her own child had been ripped away...
The White Rider closed her eyes and remembered. She had thought only to scout this portion of the foretold battlefield, to seek out the ways by which Pendragon's heir might arrive near Cader Idris. But she had found John Rowlands driving along a rutted country road -- a lean, dark, quiet man who had stopped to offer a tired woman a ride -- and somehow Blodwen had never got round to leaving.
She had made a peaceful life for herself, found a chance to rest and gather strength in these last years before the great and final Rising. She had hoped to make a family, hoped to bind John to her irrevocably, hoped to carry him and their children along in her wake to the wild, exultant last battle for the fate of the world. She had hoped to keep him even after the Dark's victory.
But Mari was born too soon, too small. The womb of this human body had torn and scarred. And like a true daughter of the Dark, Mari had taken Blodwen's foolish dreams into the grave with her one year past. Her human mask had become a vise, not an escape.
To bring the Pendragon into her home now, to pretend at love, to let a tool of the Light usurp Mari's place-- No. Never. No matter how useful such a hold on the boy would be.
"No, John," Blodwen said again, opening her eyes. "Do not ask that of me."
John sighed, and freed his hand from the boy's grasp. "Then he'll stay with Owen, and the rest of us will look in on them each night to see how the man is getting along. Jen Evans can watch him during the days, I'm sure."
Blodwen frowned. "She has enough to do with her own sons, surely -- have you even asked her about this plan of yours? I think it might be best to let the state take him. There are hundreds of families who want a child and are set to care for one, far better than Owen is." She threaded her fingers through the Pendragon's downy hair. "He's no ordinary child, and the strangeness of his mother and that awful business with Caradog Pritchard will cause talk. Let him leave Tywyn and all the whispers that will dog his heels if he stays."
John raised his mug to his lips and drank, considering. Then he shook his head. "No, Blod. He would have trouble any place in the world, with his coloring and eyes. Best to keep him here, where people can grow familiar with him and learn who he is behind that first impression." He caught Blodwen's eyes. "It is what Gwen would have wanted. Why else would she have left him with Owen? She wrote a note, did I not tell you? 'His name is Bran,' it said, and 'Thank you, Owen Davies.' That's all."
"She wrote a note and then she vanished," said Blodwen. "What kind of mother abandons her own child? Why should we be paying attention to her wishes? Owen will be no use as a father, not for a good long while, and you know there is hardly any chance the state will let him adopt the child in any case. Why not spare him the heartache of a losing fight and send the boy away before Owen returns to his senses?"
John shook his head. "Gwen left the boy to Owen -- to all of us here at Clwyd. Wherever she came from, wherever she went, Bran is ours now. He stays."
"No," said Blodwen. "It is not good, it will not work -- why are you not listening, John?"
Her voice rose on that question, and the Pendragon seemed to sense something amiss. He woke crying. Blodwen slipped her hand under his flailing arms and hefted him from the highchair. She held him against her left shoulder, feeling the warm weight of him solid in her arms, and rocked her weight from foot to foot as she patted his back.
"Hush now, boy bach. Hush and sleep, there's a love. You're safe and warm so hush now, hush, back to sleep. Nothing here will harm you." That would, after all, be against the laws of the High Magic for her... and John, for all that his anger could be sharp and cold as the heart of the Dark, was not and never would be the sort of man to hurt a child. Especially not one to which he was growing attached.
"Sleep, Bran son of Gwen, and peace attend thee. Sleep and let me and my man talk." Under her breath, Blodwen began to hum one of the lullabies Jen had taught her last year.
She turned in a slow circle, still swaying her body and feet, and surprised a wordless longing in John's eyes. "Blod--" he began.
"Do not say it. He is not our child."
"I was not intending to say anything of the sort," said John. "But you have been so lost this year that I thought I could never find the heart of you again. Everything about us was pretty as a picture and just as flat." He gestured at himself, tired and rumpled and unshaven, and his mouth quirked ruefully. "We are not the least bit put together now, but you are talking to me like yourself again -- telling me when I might be going wrong, instead of nodding and smiling like a pretty wind-up doll."
The White Rider hummed, listening. She had not been putting much effort into humanity this year; that was true. She had almost decided to stage Blodwen's death -- a bad fall, she had thought, or perhaps a heart attack, something sudden and painless. Suicide might have been more convincing, but there was no sense in causing John unnecessary pain.
John drank a mouthful of tea. "You are right that we cannot keep the boy ourselves. I am sorry for asking that of you. But Bran was left to Owen. Gwen chose him to be a father to her son, and chose Bran to remind Owen he has things still to live for. How can we not honor her wishes, and fight for the boy to stay?" He stood and walked to Blodwen's side. "What good would it do to send him away? And even if we are not his parents, it might do us good to have a child around."
He laid one hand on Blodwen's right shoulder, fingers trailing through her untidy hair. Blodwen stilled, torn between leaning in to his solid comfort and pulling away to freeze him out of time.
She did neither. Her mind raced.
The Sleepers lay hidden in this region, as did the Lost Land and the sanctuary that held the golden harp. Only Pendragon's heir could free the harp and find the two-edged sword. Without those tools, the Light would never succeed in banishing the Dark. The Dark had no need to shape and forge its power into static forms, though admittedly, the sword would be useful. If Pendragon's heir died, or turned from the Light, or never learned of his heritage, the Dark would win by default.
It was in the Dark's best interest to take this boy back to his own era, reversing whatever spell the Light had used to bring his mother centuries astray in time. The Dark could not kill Bran directly, but a fierce long age stretched between Arthur's reign and the final Rising. Any number of disasters could cut the family chain short before an heir could reach Cader Idris in the waning of the twentieth century.
The White Rider stroked the boy's hair, still humming.
"Blodwen?" said John.
"I am thinking," she said, stroking her free hand down the Pendragon's back. His cries began to soften, mixing with hiccups and sighs.
She could make John forget. She could summon a tool of the Dark to play the role of a civil servant and take the child back through time under pretense of taking him into state care. It would be the wise course, the safe course. Once the Pendragon was gone, her life would continue undisrupted as she waited for one of this boy's distant descendants to arrive in Tywyn and search for the harp and sword.
But John wanted the boy to stay. It would make John happy, to help Owen and to have a child around. While she would not let him into her home nor her heart, Blodwen could keep a watchful eye on him nonetheless -- Pendragon's heir growing under the thumb of the Dark. She could make him love her. She could make him trust her. She could undermine all the Light's efforts to bring him to heel.
Even if she failed in that -- if the final struggle seemed to tip against them -- why then, the lords of the Light themselves had handed the Dark a weapon when they violated the order of time. They had not trusted their skill to preserve a family line through the ages, so they had brought Arthur's own son forward to a time not his own. If necessary, the Riders could bring a challenge to the court of the High Magic, asserting that this boy, this time-tossed star-crossed child, had no place in the foretold events of the Rising. The Merlin, always so crafty and wise, had outsmarted himself at last.
The boy hiccupped once more, then burped warm and wet against Blodwen's shoulder. John handed her the stained and crumpled napkin and Blodwen dabbed at her blouse, blotting up the worst of the spit. Then she slipped the cloth square under the baby's cheek in case he took a notion to drool again, or, heaven help her, spit up.
John wanted the boy to stay. Strange, how she kept returning to that point. When had she grown so human that his happiness weighed this heavily against all her other concerns?
She was a fool.
Mind made up, Blodwen stepped away from John and set the now-quiet child back in the highchair. "I think you are making a mistake and the state will take him away in the end, but if having the boy around Clwyd makes you happy, I will watch young Bran another few days," she said. "You must make Owen see sense and come down from the hills before he breaks his fool neck chasing shadows."
John smiled, soft and slow in his lean, weathered face. "As you say. Thank you for understanding. It will be hard, I know. It will hurt. But I think you will come to love the boy just as Owen will."
Blodwen's heart iced over. Love him? Had John not listened to a word she said? She would not. She could not. He was the Pendragon, her enemy, a tool of the Light, an interloper with no right to claim a moment of her time or her care.
High Magic be damned, it was better to strike the child down here and now than to let him steal John's heart from her. The White Rider raised her hand, a faint, death-white shimmer of power snaking between her fingers. One spell to kill, then another to make John forget--
John set his mug and plate in the sink, and scooped Bran out of the highchair with deft hands, tucking the boy against his shoulder. "I'm taking our little friend down to Jen Evans for today. You get some sleep now, Blod -- you've more than earned a day's rest. It will be well. We will make it so."
"Yes," said Blodwen, trembling at how close she had come to unraveling the fabric of the world. "Perhaps we will." She dropped her hand. "Don't forget to bring Owen for supper."
"I won't," said John, and slipped out the door, Bran Davies cradled safe in his arms.