Bran Davies woke sharp and suddenly in the still pale cold of early morning.
He took inventory of his senses, blinked the sleep from his eyes.
Visible through his eastern-exposure bedside window, the late November sunrise was only just beginning to lighten the sky outside. Nevertheless, he was not the first in the house awake, despite the earliness of the hour; voices and food smells were already issuing through from under his bedroom door, betraying the house outside it as inhabited by waking beings. It was like that most mornings, though, low, masculine conversation and the smell of salt, John Rowlands and Bran's father drinking tea in the cottage kitchen and talking over the day's work while the breakfast cooked. Bran was an habitual early riser, but he almost never beat his father out of bed; sometimes he wondered if Owen Davies slept at all, or if he sat alone through the night drinking tea in the kitchen.
Bran let his eyes blink back closed. He wasn't ready to move yet. Just for a moment, he let himself hold still in the dark cocoon of his bedding, denying the promise of the coming day.
As he lay there, he realized that he could remember the last part of what he'd been dreaming, right before he'd woken up. He'd been walking down a stair into the heart of the earth, down into the deeps of the mountains, and another boy had gone down before him. In the dream, Bran had not felt afraid; but now, drowsing in his bed, the recollection of the dream it was unsettling to him. Dreams were strange things. He didn't know who the other child could have been.
“Hey Bran, get up out of bed and come try these new spectacles that have come for you in this morning's post,” Owen called to him from the other room, bringing him back to full wakefulness.
Again Bran opened his eyes, and then yawned mightily, rolling his head and hands and stretching out the full length of his long limbs.
He wasn't dreaming any more, or disoriented; he was in his room at home, on Clywd Farm in Wales, and the light coming in from the window was turning everything momentarily to gold.
“Coming, Da,” he said, and tumbling up out of bed he shrugged on his corduroys and t-shirt and jumper and thick socks and went out.
The new spectacles that had come in the post worked very well; they were more substantial than his last pair, the darkened lenses covering a larger area around his sensitive eyes. As the sun rose higher into the morning, Bran was glad to have their protection. That morning, he and John and Owen were to be working up in the mountains, walking the length of the fence to check for gaps or weaknesses, repairable now that the Pentrev sheep had been brought down from the high pasture for the winter. The day was cold and brilliant, and the sky cloudless; it seemed to hang at a great remove away above the earth, up at the top of the tall clear emptiness that stretched between the mountaintops and the high crown of its blue dome. The three men wore leather gloves and heavy sheepskin jackets, and Bran had a knitted cap pulled down over his pale hair.
Growing up in the circle of the Welsh mountains, a troubled child trapped in a superstitious village, still desperately struggling with the deep alienation he'd felt at school, at home, everywhere but the very highest and wildest places, Bran had felt the presence of the mountain peaks like a closing snare above his head. They had then represented the set limit of his aspirations, hard and impregnable.
Things had begun to be different for Bran when he'd been about thirteen. His relationship with his father had suddenly softened, or relaxed, and a rapprochement had taken place between the anxious man and the angry boy. As he'd gotten to know his father better, grown into himself and out of his fretful adolescent restlessness, he'd found the anxious beating of his heart against the cage of their quiet rural working life settling down. He'd begun to enjoy the laconic domesticity of their routines: tea with his father, harping and music theory and sometimes deep talks with John, Sunday suppers with Jen and David Evans down the farm, and always near by the high wild energy of the mountains, there to hand if he needed an escape or further stimulation.
He would not have willingly said so, not out loud, but the place was different, now, too. The oppressive weight of fisted power that had used to hang about the high paths had wholly dissipated, leaving behind only a pleasant sense of clarity and good perspective. It was a strange and a foolish thought, he knew: mountains did not change, their ancient stone thrust up from the innards of the earth millennia before human life; but they had, Bran thought, they had.
It had been an easy choice for him to come home again after university, easier than he could have imagined in the depths of his benighted boyhood. Though he'd worked hard for his double degree – agricultural management and music, something practical and, as John said, something for the soul – he'd not grown particularly attached to the new places or people, or put down much in the way of new roots. After graduation he'd come back to Clywd, back to live with his father in the cottage next to John's. Back to work the sheep on the Evans farm, there in the shadow of Cader Idris.
This morning, working his way up beside John and his father, Bran felt only a comfortable sense of stable well-being. His own man at twenty-six, the mountains' circle felt to him like a focusing lens, no longer any kind of closing snare.
He'd have to admit that he had little in the way of a social life beyond the farm families, an unusual situation for a young person. His father had developed a fussing anxiety about his isolation, darkly ironic from Bran's point of view, with consideration given to the degree to which Owen had been intent on limiting his social opportunities as an adolescent. His da kept asking about mates, girlfriends. Didn't he miss the company of people his own age?
But he did not. People his own age talked too much, knew too little, made him feel too out-of-place and strange. He'd screwed around a bit – a girl or two in high school, a boy or two at university – but those relationships had never gone near to touching his heart, and had more often than not been unsatisfactory for him when taken on the whole. Bran was strange, and strange-looking as well, so he'd attracted his share of fetishists and collectors, and always there had been a sense in him of disconnection. He had not learned habits of romance from the solitary men he'd lived with all his life; after Bran's mother, Owen Davies had never tried again at all, with anyone, and faithful John was still mourning his own lost wife.
Would it be a nice thing to have a good friend, a true friend, of his own age and temperament, someone who could really understand him? Or a spouse, even, to be a partner in his life? Of course it would. But if wishes were horses beggars would ride – and no such understanding personage had heretofore appeared to him. So it was better to be back home with John and his father, the Evanses and the Ty-bonts and the other familiar farming families that had known him all his life, and that had long since grown used to him and his ways, who would generally let him be. It was the life he had chosen, of his own free will and cognizance, and it was as good as any.
About noon that day the workers split, Owen going on across the fell to have a word with Idris Jones Ty-bont's man while Bran and John took the Land Rover back down to the Evans farm for timber and wire, hammer and nails, the materials necessary for repairs to the various bits of damage they'd mapped in the morning. It was still quite cold, and sitting in the passenger seat Bran reached for his thermos, the warm tea sending up a plume of steam into his face that fogged his vision and soothed his breathing.
After they'd gathered together everything they needed and loaded up the Land Rover, Bran and John crossed the yard to the farmhouse; they'd gone straight up the mountain that morning, and so had not seen or spoken to any of the family. The warm shelter of the farmhouse and the chance to refill on tea and other provender was an added incentive.
But they found trouble, when they entered; trouble unlooked-for and, for Bran, it proved more than a little overwhelming.
Jen Evans was sitting at her kitchen table with a letter in her hand, the other pressed over her mouth. She was a little, bird-like woman with greying hair pulled back into a knot. Through her muffling palm she made a small noise of distress; her face was pale, drawn, her eyes wide.
“Whatever's the matter, Jen?” John asked.
“Oh John,” she said in a flat, shocked voice, looking up to where Bran and John stood in the kitchen doorway, “Oh, John, thank god you're here, David's out and there's no one else – John, I've just had some terrible news. Bad family news. Something dreadful. My cousin Alice – you remember, she's married with all those children down in Yorkshire? Her youngest son, she's just written me to tell us he's gone missing. Officially missing – they've reported it to the police, there's an active investigation, all that. And they've no idea – they fear the worst.”
Her voice cracked, then, and John Rowlands, being the sort of soul who moved to help his good friends when they were in distress, made a sharp sound of sympathy and moved into the room. He went to sit beside her, put a comforting hand on her shoulder, positioning himself near enough to provide support but not so close as to crowd her. John was a great friend to have about in a crisis, gentle and with endless reserves of patience.
In contrast, Bran hovered on the room's threshold, frozen, unsettled. He felt himself intensely his father's son in that moment, burdened with all his father's cowardice in the face of emotional distress, his trainers scuffing against the sweep of the blue slate floor. Mrs. Evans had always been kind to him, and he owed her for it. He blamed himself intensely for his discomfort; it was shameful how dearly he longed for escape.
Anyway, there was no real possibility of it, not unless he went running off on his own two feet, because he'd come in with John, and John wouldn't leave until the situation, whatever it was, was settled to his liking.
Bran tried to will his shoulders to lower back down again. Relax, he told himself. Relax. Nothing's going to happen. You don't even know these people, Mrs. Evans' English family. There is no threat to you here. There is no threat.
“A dreadful thing,” John was saying, his breath huffing out sympathetically. “What a tragedy, to lose a child.” Meaningless words, really, but they were gentle, and kindly meant, and they visibly strengthened Jen Evans, who had started to get a little of her color back.
“No older than Bran here,” Mrs. Evans was telling John, “and he still lives close to home. Poor Alice sounds just ripped about it. It's been a fortnight now since they've seen him. And they live out in the country, even, it's not like there are muggers or gangs, they've no idea at all what might have happened. Her littlest boy … she always did dote on her children, Alice, there's nine of them altogether, they're all quite close. I used to envy her that, none of my boys have stayed, but now – I wouldn't trade places with her for the world, John, not for the world.”
That broke Bran loose of his paralysis; he still wasn't sure he wouldn't really rather remain at a silent remove, if given his true preference, but it was necessary that he respond. As Mrs. Evans had pointed out, her own sons were not there – but he was.
He stepped into the room properly, and hesitantly ventured to say “I'm – I'm sorry for your cousin, Mrs. Evans. To lose part of her family. Your family, too,” he added, belatedly regretting that he'd not said the second thing the first.
Jen Evans, abstracted, said, “Thank you, dear.” Then she blinked up at Bran, her reddened eyes seeming to come back into sharper focus. “He visited a few times, some years back – do you remember him, Bran? A nice boy, just about your age. Brown hair, I think he had. Not so many English children around here, when you were growing up.”
“I don't think I do,” Bran said.
“Stanton, the surname was,” John said, with the familiar reflective tone that meant he'd engaged the internal mechanism of his preternaturally long memory. Bran had always thought of it as his storytelling voice. “The girl, Mary,” John said, “that was a sister. But I cannot remember the lad's given name for the life of me.”
Jen Evans sighed. “I only barely recall the boy myself, John, if I'm being completely honest. He had dreadful luck in the timing of his holidays here – he came first during the autumn that Caradog Pritchard went mad, the autumn when he killed your poor dog, Bran, before they could get him safely into care. And the second time was right before we lost Blodwen.”
“Hard seasons indeed,” John said, dropped his head, shook it; it was still terribly difficult for him, speaking of his wife, who had died very suddenly in an accident when Bran had been just a boy. Always in Bran's adult memory John had been alone, strangely solitary for so gregarious and compassionate a being.
“Alice used his first name in her letter, I think,” Mrs. Evans said. “Here, let me look. Yes, there it is – Will. That's right, Will Stanton. God, god, what a terrible thing to happen to her.”
Later, when they'd left a somewhat-recovered Mrs. Evans, a fresh cup of tea before her and a promise to send David Evans on home if they ran into him – when they were in the Land Rover wending up the steep winding road, John slipped his eyes sidelong at Bran. “You really don't recollect that Stanton boy at all?” he asked, using the most provoking and clever tone of his wide repertory. It was one that Bran recognized all too well.
“I dunno,” Bran said, defensive despite himself. He knew better: the worst sign to give John Rowlands when he was like this was the sign that showed him he'd found what he thought was the right track. “Like Mrs. Evans said, there was a lot going on.”
“He was an unmemorable child, really,” John said reflectively. “Not at all like you, in that way. Just a plain roundish child's face. Brown hair, longish, but without curl to it.”
“I don't remember,” Bran said, irritated by the persistence of the subject – and pricked, a bit, by the reminder of his own difference. Had John meant it so? “Really, I don't. I would have been just a kid.”
John let him subside into ruffled silence, a fact for which he found himself profoundly grateful. He did not want to talk about the missing boy, to John or to anybody. They went the rest of the way up without words, and if John told Owen Davies about the happenings in the extended Evans family Bran was at least not there to hear it.
The next day was Saturday, and that meant that Bran had his time all to himself; no work to do, and no chapel either, as there would be on Sunday. “I'm going walking,” he told his father over the first morning cup of tea. “Up in the mountains. I'll pack a supper, so don't wait up for me back.”
“Going by yourself?” Owen asked, clearly hoping for a “no” in reply.
Bran said, “Yes,” firmly. “I want some time alone.”
“Where will you go?” Owen asked.
“Up Cader, likely,” Bran said. Truth told, he had no particular destination in mind, beyond up; his goal was to walk until he had worn himself out, and gained some peace. He'd been itching out of his skin since the previous afternoon, driven by a persistent sense of something undone, unaligned, unrecognized. His sleep the previous night had been disturbed and poor, and had left him tired and fretful on waking.
He took a lunch, a raincoat though the day promised fair, and the ever-present thermos of tea. Their boss dog, a cheerful piebald named Toby, went with him: a light spirit, good fun as a playmate if not as a deeper companion of the heart, of some worth as protection should anything go wrong.
But, he thought, why would I think anything would go wrong? And – wrong how?
And what's biting at my heels? What's got me going like this? he pondered furiously as he went on, climbing steadily up through the hedged-in fields, the low stoneworks higher still, with Toby faithfully trailing him all the while. It had started with Jen Evans and her letter, he knew that much. Why were Mrs. Evans' family troubles disturbing him so deeply? It didn't make sense. He'd been in a well enough mood before that.
Remember your dream, though? You weren't in such a good mood when you'd just woken up from that dream. Nor were you in a good mood when you woke this morning, for that matter.
He stopped to take stock, at an impasse in his worrying. His upward toil had brought him near to the place on the mountainside where his father's old cottage stood empty, on the shoulder of Cader Idris that was sheltered from the wind, and he corrected course to go nearer.
The place was more than half ruin, now. After Caradog Pritchard had run mad – and, mind you, he thought, the Stanton boy was here for that, though you don't remember it – the Evans and Ty-bont farms had absorbed most of its land and holdings. But the shepherd's cottage had never been put back to any use, and after more than two decades uninhabited it was showing signed of being swallowed up by nature; vines were growing in at the door, and dead leaves covered the floor inside in dusty drifts.
Toby went sniffing around the cottage door, while Bran sat on the low stone wall around it. His appetite had been stimulated by the morning's climb, and he decided to stop and eat, and sit, and think. He took out the pasty he'd wrapped that morning in a napkin to keep it warm, and ate with a will.
It was sunny and temperate, there with Cader to act as a windbreak, and Bran took of his cap and his gloves. He could see the lowland mapped out beneath him, and the peak of the mountain reaching up above him, and in the sky little high clouds scudding merrily along. He could see the pockets of mist trapped in the hollows of the higher hills, and the curving flightpath of a hawk – a kestrel, maybe, or a merlin.
The thought came to him: is the trouble with the Stanton kid's case that it's making me think again about my mother? He had no real memory of her, no more than he did of Stanton.
His mother: dark-haired Gwen, she'd been little more than a girl, according to his father last seen by mortal eyes here on the mountain more than twenty-five years ago. She had disappeared when Bran had been only a baby, and they'd never known …
So what had her fate been, then? Why had she left them? And why had he been left behind?
“It's not really like me at all, though,” he said aloud, arguing the case through with himself. “No babies have been abandoned. We're grown adults. Maybe he just got tired of his family, went and took off for Majorca. Maybe he's fine somewhere, and he doesn't want to talk to anyone for a while, and he'll come back in three months with a beard and a tan.”
The unconvincing words failed to loosen the knot of anxiety in the pit of his belly. His strategy was backfiring badly in his mind. He'd meant the hypothetical to show that the lost boy was nothing like his own vanished mother, but he had only succeeded in making himself wonder if his mother hadn't really just run off for a good time somewhere, unloaded her baby on gullible over-responsible sexually-stunted Owen Davies and headed for the tropics.
He thought, maybe I should do.
And then he wondered: am I really happy here? As happy as I can be? Am I truly content?
And then he thought: but where else would I go? This is the only home I have ever known.
Mind churning like a heavy sea, he gathered together his things and started off again across the slope, calling to Toby to follow by. He walked with his head down.
It bothered him, that he was feeling so stirred up inside; he hadn't felt so agitated in years, not since his unhappy boyhood, and the emotion's return seemed a bad indicator of things to come. Just the day before, he'd felt happy and settled and content with his life and his choices. Had he somehow been deluding himself?
He was come to the mountain's summit, Llyn Mwyngil shadowed below him in the weak afternoon light, and he stood there on the peak and looked out.
It seemed to him then that a flash of brilliance passed before his vision, and in passing illuminated pathways along the land, long bright lines reaching from the mountains where he stood westward to the sea, eastward toward England, and farther still, stretching out beyond even this enchanted glimpse of sight.
He was perfectly aware: of himself, of the ground beneath his feet, of the coast where the island met the sea, of the flow of air and water up over the surface of the land, the tracks of mountain ridges and rivers that spread out like a net, out over the whole of Great Britain.
As quickly as it had come the flash was gone, the lines of light decaying in afterimages burned into his sight. The swelling network of awareness which had for a moment flared out over such a great distance, was contracted again. Bran could see no further than human sight. But still his face was turned eastward; there was a pull on him, and it was coming from the place where the ribboned light had streamed away and vanished in that direction. East, and a little south. England, that would be, if you went far enough.
Bran drew in a breath, let it out, breathed in again. His mind was clearing. He found his anxieties shed at his feet, and a new resolve lodging in his mind.
He'd reacted to events instinctively, gone childlike, risked getting lost in silly futile angst about the past, the present – but he was an adult, and he had the power to change his circumstances if he chose to act. If the situation with Mrs. Evans' family was bothering him, he was free to take action to resolve his distress, whatever that action might turn out to be.
No concrete plan had formed in his mind – but that hadn't been asked of him, that he be the one to build the strategy. He was only resolved to step forward in what way he could, when the time came, and he was confident that that was enough. The knots that had held his throat and heart since he'd come into the Evans' kitchen the day before were loosened. Again he let out his breath with a whoosh, and again he inhaled deeply, and he tasted the savor of the air in his mouth.
I have been happy here, he thought with solid conviction – but all the same, there are going to be things in the world that I will want to be doing. This seems to be one of them.
Why that should be the case remained a mystery to him. It did have something to do with his mother, something to do with his father – but there was something else too, something that he couldn't put a name to yet. But it didn't matter, not really. He would. And he could act even when possessed with only imperfect understanding, and no one would hold it against him if he made some smaller and basically well-intentioned human errors.
Toby gamboled along the steep and stony way ahead of him, energetically investigating scents. Bran called to the dog, picked up a stick from the wayside, threw it for him. The animal's simple happiness was contagious, and Bran felt steadier in himself as they finished the game and began the return descent.
As they went, Bran looked once more for the web of bright lines, peering, trying to catch glimpses of them in his peripheral vision, but to no effect. What sort of optical illusion had it been? He'd ask John, maybe.
The little cottages on the outskirts of the clustered farm buildings rose up to greet them, and Bran could hear the sound of John Rowlands' harp. The music floated up out of the cottage like smoke from a chimney, familiar and welcoming. Bran smiled, hearing it – it was a good thing, to live so near to great musicianship – but he did not go in at John's door. He stopped briefly at the cottage he shared with his father, to let Toby in and to give him a bowl of water, but he only stayed a minute, and did not bother to take off his jacket. Owen was not there; with John, then, likely. The dog settled, Bran continued on up the lane to the farmhouse.
Mr. and Mrs. Evans were both at home, busy with domestic concerns; she had been doing up the household accounts in the front room while her husband prepped for supper, chopping vegetables at the kitchen sink. The radio was on in the kitchen, the sounds of a recorded opera tootling out from it in a slightly fuzzy stream.
“Bran bach,” Mr. Evans said, “where have you been today? I thought for sure that was you playing the harp, but when I went by I saw it was John ...”
“Went for a walk,” Bran said. “I needed to think some things over.”
After a moment, he awkwardly broached the subject, asking, “Have you had any more word from your cousin in England, about her son that's lost?”
Mrs. Evans shook her head. “No, nothing yet,” she said.
Bran bit his lip, and then said - “I wanted to let you know – if there's anything I can do to help, about your lost cousin – Will Stanton? – you can count on me. With Rhys and the others all gone, I figure you can probably use another pair of hands.” He met Mrs. Evans' eyes solidly, not allowing himself to look away, resisting his usual habit of avoidance.
She sighed. “Thank you,” she said. “David and I have been talking it over. I think, if the matter does not resolve itself soon here, I should like to go visit Alice for a while and lend my support. Once things are fully settled for the winter here, I ought to be able to leave for a while without it being too much trouble.”
“I could help out here while you're gone, if that would be best,” Bran said. “But – if you'd like company, if it would help you to have someone to travel with – if it wouldn't be too much of an imposition on your cousin –”
He trailed off, momentum choked by his own objections. What was he thinking? Why had he said it? What was he playing at? The Stanton family of Buckinghamshire, England were no kin of his. He was no friend of long standing, to show up and support them in their loss. What was he offering here, help or hindrance?
But Jen Evans was smiling, a misty, sad little smile. “I would like that very much, Bran,” she said. “You're a good boy, to offer something like that. Your da did a good job with you.”
“I'll tell him you said so, ma'am,” Bran said.
“Oh,” she said, “wait a minute, I've just remembered – let me get it from the kitchen – I found a photo of Will, from when he was here visiting. One of Rhys' snapshots, from the summer he came back again for the second time. Mad about that camera, Rhys was. Used it until it broke.”
Bran took the polaroid in his hand, looked at it. A small boy of about twelve looked back at him, hands buried in the ruff of the Evans' old sheep-dog Pen. He couldn't tell if he recognized the boy's face or not. It was, as John had said, an unremarkable face, at least from a distance. There was something about the eyes, dark and colorless in the photo's poor lighting – if he could only see it more clearly – and the edge of a scar, a round pale mark like part of a circle, visible where the boy's jacket did not quite cover his forearm –
“I'll have to have your da up for dinner nights when you're away,” David Evans said, putting up a show of good cheer. “We can commiserate about losing the pair of you to England.”
“Stuff and nonsense,” Jen Evans said. “Don't you listen to him, Bran. Why, I haven't been home to England in ages, anyway, it's high time I went back for a visit. Or else we're liable to forget I didn't spring fully formed up out of the mountains! But you cannot lose me to England, David Evans, when I have always been English to begin with.” Her voice grew affectionate. “You know the place I've chosen.”
Bran dreamed again that night. It was dark, dark and cold. His ankles were sinking into the icy muck, and he was running, running through moving water: puddles that became a stream and then a river, broadening to a great width away beyond him downstream. The place was wholly unfamiliar to him. He was running, and his foot caught in the muck; he fell, his two hands splashing down into the frigid current to catch him before he went in all together. Gasping, soaked, holding himself up on his hands, he looked down.
There was a boy, a boy lying in the river, his small body still and prone beneath Bran's outstretched arms. A little boy, maybe ten or eleven years old, with pale waxy skin and fine brown hair waving about his rounded baby face. His eyes were closed, and he lay as though he slept there lying on the river bottom, his hair wound about with twining weeds, his jeans and shirt and shoes all dark with water..
Even on waking, Bran couldn't lose the cold chill he'd felt at the sight of the child in the water. The face had looked exactly like that of the little boy in the photograph of Mrs. Evan's missing nephew she'd shown him. Not creepy at all, my subconscious, he thought. Or subtle.
But it was some weeks, gone December and more, before anything else really happened, and in that interval Bran was able to let his internal tension down, regain his equilibrium, relax a bit. He'd pledged himself to go to England with Mrs. Evans when she went, but she wasn't going anywhere just yet. He'd told John Rowlands and his da what he'd promised, and there was no trouble there, only a sort of pleased proudness from both men; and that was pleasant, particularly in the sense it gave Bran of his own strength, independence, usefulness, and maturity. There was enough money that him traveling a bit wouldn't be a strain, and the work on the farm had slowed for the winter; his presence would barely be missed, except by his da. But Owen Davies was being supportive of the proposition on the whole; worried about me being isolated again, I suspect, Bran thought. Bet he's just pleased I'm leaving the farm. As if it wasn't him I came back for in the first place! Still, he wasn't going to kick up a fuss, not when he was getting his own way with no friction or argument for once.
When at last Mrs. Evans asked him if he'd like her to pick up his tickets for the train along with her own, he felt strong, steady, ready to go. She'd written to her cousin that she'd be bringing a young friend, and Mrs. Stanton had, reportedly, written back a hearty welcome; Will Stanton had remembered Bran better than Bran had remembered him, it seemed, had mentioned his name to his mother when they'd been playmates as boys, so that Mrs. Stanton had recognized him, even so many years later. Well, his description was memorable, there was that to be counted on. The plan was to stay for five days, maybe six, depending on how they found things in Buckinghamshire and what was happening there. They would be home solidly before Christmas, which pleased Bran's da. The trip would begin early in the morning for the Clywd bunch, who had first to drive to the station at Tywyn, and would take the better part of the day for Bran and Mrs. Evans.
Bran packed a very few things, just clothes and toiletries, in the small luggage he'd used as a university student going back and forth between home and school; a few pairs of his nicer jeans, clean shirts, socks, pants, a spare jumper. Toothbrush, hairbrush, spectacles-case.
The night before they were due to leave, he dreamed again of the round-faced child, the one that looked like an old snapshot of Will Stanton he'd seen, taken long ago by his Welsh cousin. This dream was less disturbing than others he'd had of late, but much more sad; it was all shot through with a deep throbbing sort of elegiac sorrow. They stood on a beach, the two of them, side by side, and before them the sun was rising. Great clouds rose up in the rose-gold sky. He dreamed that the other boy turned turned to him, and looked at him with tired, ancient eyes, though his mouth was smiling.
In his bed, Bran felt like weeping. The dawn of his waking mingled with the dawn of his dream. Instead, he rose and dressed comfortably and warmly, wearing his softest denim, all done up in layers that would be easy to adjust for variances in temperature during the day's journey. They wouldn't arrived in the village of Huntercombe until late in the evening, and it was a long time to sit.
The train was late leaving Tywyn, and crowded, filled with holiday travelers and shoppers on their way up to London for a pre-Christmas spree. Mrs. Evans waved goodbye to the little crowd that had seen them off from the platform, Bran in the seat beside her. He could see his father, John, and David Evans, still standing there at the station as they pulled away from it. His father had only barely managed the word “goodbye,” and had roughly embraced him for only a moment before stepping back and dropping his arms, though Bran knew and could not fault the depth of emotion that underlay his father's unexpressive exterior. He'd always been like that, quicker to feel than to show it.
As the train pulled away from the station and began to cover distance along the silver-and-gold stretch of the seaside coast, Bran was uncomfortably aware of the attention he was receiving from his fellow-passengers. It always happened that way when he ventured away from home – his freak coloring made him the object of stares and awkward aversions of strangers' eyes in equal measure. Both made him feel – noticed. Seen. Uncomfortably so. It was a reason why he'd not done more in the way of travel.
He did his level best to ignore the unwanted attention; it was not what he was there for. Beneath your notice, he told himself, as an old man in a long coat, crossing the car to take his seat after a station stop, flashed his fingers up in the sign against evil. Stupid superstitious numpty, let him make his signs. As if they could save him from anything.
Instead he turned his attention to the countryside flashing by; though he'd given Mrs. Evans the seat nearest the window, the seaside stretch of rain by Abergnolwyn was still dramatic enough seen in glimpses through the windows across the car and further up. The train turned to bear east, running up through the high misted hills and valleys of southern Wales. Bran had a proprietary sensation, looking at it: this was his land, he thought, belonging to him, and to which he belonged. It was not the first time he'd felt so, but the surveying effect of the rail line, and the fact of his movement away from home, gave the sensation added impact and poignancy. He felt alive in every particle, to a degree that was nearly uncomfortable. He strove to relax, lower his shoulders, lower his guard, dissipate the intensity of his emotions to a more normal level.
After a time, Mrs. Evans said, “Bran?”
He turned to look at her, and then twitched his spectacles off to let her see him properly, face to face and eye to eye.
“Thank you,” she said. “I really do appreciate your coming with me. It's been so long since I've been back to England, I feel quite strange to be going. You've been before, haven't you?”
“To London once, on a school trip. But that was only for an afternoon, not like living there.”
“Used to be,” she said, “I thought I'd never leave. Well, David changed that, and I have been very happy in Wales. There are so many differences that a person might be forgiven, though, for forgetting that both share the same island!”
“Do you miss it much?” he asked her.
She smiled, a reflexive, social little grimace. “I hardly know,” she said. “This certainly isn't the circumstance I'd planned on. Poor Alice! The whole affair has been giving me a haunting, I keep phoning up the boys and bothering them, just to make sure they're safe.”
A haunting, he thought. Why did that strike him as such a peculiarly apt word?
“I dreamed about Alice's boy last night,” she said. “Dreamed he was sitting at my kitchen table in the early morning, kicking at his chair rungs with his trainers, holding a mug and looking up at me with such a serious little face. He said my name, in the dream – called me 'Aunt Jen,' just the way all Alice's kids do in their letters and over the phone. I haven't seen most of them for over a decade.”
He looked over at her, startled; they had both dreamed of the same child in a single night. Could their imminent departure and journey explain the coincidence? Had the lost Stanton boy merely been on both of their minds?
His silence must have lasted too long; hesitantly, Mrs. Evans was saying, “Does it remind you very much of your own loss?”
He could only shrug his shoulders a bit, and with her typical tact Mrs. Evans didn't push him, only gave him another funny little smile and a gentle pat on the arm. “Thank you for coming with me, Bran,” she said again, and settled back into her seat. “It'll be good to have you by my side. You're a good boy, and a good help.”
They changed trains in Birmingham, with a bit of a walk through the city to make the connection. A busy place it was, the little city all decked out in holiday cheer, with all sorts of people coming and going. Bran felt freer of intrusive glances than he'd expected, rendered less visible in his peculiarities by all the mess and bustle. They bought panini sandwiches wrapped in cellophane and little bags of candied almonds from a vendor on a street corner along the way to the Chiltern Railways station.
Mrs. Evans offered Bran the seat nearest the window for the second leg of the journey; she had some crochet-work to do, she said, and wanted to pay attention to her pattern; she was making a shawl to give to Cousin Alice as a Christmas gift. So Bran sat peered out at the countryside, rolling by them as the sun lowered in the west.
The land had begun to change before they'd left Wales, the mountains giving way to soft lowlands; but as they left Birmingham and headed southeast, down into Buckinghamshire and the Thames river valley, Bran was the more deeply aware of a difference in its rhythms and features. According to the brochure tucked into the seat pocket on the train, there were a number of archaeological points of interest along the run of the rail line. The Whiteleaf Hill Cross, who-knew-how-ancient, was in carved into a chalk hill by Princes Risborough, where the train crossed over into the Chilterns Area of National Beauty. Although it was not visible from the train itself, there were some dramatic pictures in the brochure, and Bran peered at one of them for the longest time, struck by the stark whiteness of the intersecting carved arms, their massive scale. And then nearby to the Cross there was a neolithic barrow, where Roman coins had been found. And, running southwest to northeast along the edge of the AoNB, the Ridgeway, Britain's oldest road, followed the chalk ridge of the Berkshire Downs along to the River Thames, running by at the Goring Gap.
But it was beginning to grow dark as they passed the stops at Banbury and King's Sutton, and by the time they came to the Berkshires Bran was half in a doze, leaning his head up against the cool window, the train's electric lighting superimposing interior reflections on the exterior landscape. Maybe he'd slipped into dreaming, and that was why pale luminescence covered over his sight for a moment as the train rocketed forward into the Chilterns. It obliterated his sight for a moment and then was gone, but when he looked back he could still see it stretching out to the right and the left in a ribbon of light, across the place where the rail line had gone through. And in the strange mix of seen and reflected lights on the train car's windows he saw, too, a great pair of yellow eyes, hooded, feathered, ringed with shadows and piercing, saw them open and close in one long slow predator's blink. They see me, he thought, dreamy and abstracted. They see me, and they acknowledge me.
But – acknowledge me as what?
The conductor called the stop for Princes Risborough, and as the train pulled to a stop in the station Bran blinked furiously, sitting up and rubbing at his eyes, his dark spectacles pushed up by his knuckles.
“I wondered if you were going to fall all the way asleep,” Mrs. Evans said. “We're nearly there now.” The little town of High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire was only a few more stops down the line. Bran shook his head, as much to clear it as to mark his negation.
They drove the rest of the way from High Wycombe to Hunterscombe in a rented car, a battered old four-door that smelled strongly of woodsmoke. Mrs. Evans took the wheel, saying, “I'm the one who knows her way around. It's late, and you're tired. It's a hard thing to navigate new places in the dark.”
“Did you grow up here? In Huntercombe?” Bran asked.
“Not in Huntercombe. But I'm Buckinghamshire stock, well enough,” she said. “We used to drive into Slough to do our Christmas shopping. We lived in Dorney, not far from here, on a rather large farm that was co-owned by Alice's parents and my own. You see I was bred to farming every bit as much as David ever was, though it was pigs and dairy cows and not cattle and sheep. Alice still keeps rabbits and chickens at home. She moved to over the way to Huntercombe after she'd married Roger. His family has been there time out of mind, and he took over his father's jewelry shop shortly after they'd settled.”
They were moving steadily down the A404, the red-and-gold lights of other cars periodically surfacing along the divided highway; but there wasn't much traffic, and Bran's overwhelming sense was one of restful and even lugubrious quiet.
“Look,” Mrs. Evans said, “we're coming to the Thames.” As they drove across the bridge Bran looked out at the dark glinting snake of the water, itself quiet and unhurried at this point in its course.
He shivered; there was something upsetting, he felt, in its slow inexorable expanse from bank to bank, neither a merry stream nor a safe still pool but a cold creeping current that would take you over before you knew yourself to be in danger.
You are being foolish, he thought angrily at himself, suddenly very tired of all of these feelings he kept having. It is only a river. Take you out of Wales and suddenly you turn in to everyone's stereotype of the superstitious Welshman. You're no different from that man this morning – was it only this morning? – who looked funny at you in back Tywyn.
But when the Thames wound round underneath them again after they'd merged onto the M4, he shuddered anew, again overcome by the same inexplicable creeping horror as they crossed over the placid water's curving course.
They exited the highway onto Bath Road, running through the heart of Hunterscombe village. Soon Bran could see little buildings along the main street, their lights glowing through the gathering dark. They turned again onto a smaller lane, and passed a little stone church with a high pitched roof and a crenellated bell-tower rising above.
The road ran on over a little bridge: yet another crossing of running water, with a little stream-tributary of the Thames meandering along beneath the way.
“Here it is,” Jen Evans said. “The Stantons live at what used to be the old vicarage.”
They turned down a longish drive marked by a large stone covered with dormant rose bushes and a low stone wall, went on past various small outbuildings, and pulled up before another stone building. If not quite as ancient as the church, it was old enough. A twisted hedge of leafless trees stood near the front gate. They parked the rental car next to an ancient sedan at the end of the drive, and got out to retrieve their bags.
The Stanton's front door was heavy, wooden, arched, with a round iron knocker set in its center. There was light coming from the house's upper windows. Mrs. Evans knocked, and the door opened.
It opened onto a room with a broad, lit hearth, with no hallway or foyer in between.
“Jen!” said the pleasant-faced woman who had opened the door. “So good to see you! It's been too long. Come in, come in. Are you very tired? Have you eaten?”
The cousins embraced, and then Mrs. Stanton – presumably it was she – stepped back from Jen Evans and saw Bran, once again lingering tentatively by a doorway; his default position nowadays, so it seemed.
“Alice,” Mrs. Evans said, “meet Bran Davies of Clywd Farm, my supporting faction.”
Mrs. Stanton and Bran looked at one another.
He saw a woman much like Mrs. Evans, although less slight and birdlike than her cousin in appearance, heavier and more earthy: an open, kind face, a tranquil aura, but disturbed and worn down by grief.
What she saw he was not sure. A boy who had known her lost son? A freak, with his pale hair, pale skin, strange eyes? Had Jen Evans warned her that he would look – like he did?
A man came up behind Mrs. Stanton from further within the house, putting an arm around her shoulders; her husband, must be, which made him Will's father. He was not an imposing figure, but the weight of sorrow hanging around his shoulders made him seem distant and remote. His hair was stone grey; he looked as though it might have been brown when he'd been younger.
“Mrs. Stanton – Mr. Stanton,” Bran said, pushing past the growing weight of awkward quiet, “Bran Davies. Good to meet you. Wish it was under better circumstances.” He stepped forward and held out his hand, doing his best to project confidence rather than fear.
“Roger and Alice, please,” Mr. Stanton said, taking his hand readily. The release of his grasp was not over-hasty, either; if the man had been startled by Bran, he was at least not repelled by him. Mrs. Stanton was smiling at him now. If he bore up under their eyes for just a moment more, there was a good chance that there would be an end on it.
“My Will used to talk about you,” Mr. Stanton said. His voice, which was light and ought to have sounded pleasant, was harsh with strain, and he cleared his throat audibly before going on. “When he was just a boy. You are very welcome. Come in, sit and eat,” he added, gesturing them onward into the warm house.
“They might want to hang up their coats first, before they come in by the fire,” Mrs. Stanton said. “Are these all your things? Leave them here by the stair – you'll sleep in bedrooms upstairs, but we needn't make the climb just yet. Food first, and tea.”
There were two other people in the kitchen, who looked up as the rest came trooping in: two young women, both in jeans and jumpers, both with a marked resemblance to the Stanton adults, one shorter-haired and thicker-bodied, the other with long dark hair worn over her shoulder in a braid and a loose puff of fringe framing a pretty, heart-shaped face; Bran could see a resemblance between her and Jen Evans, as well. “Jen, Bran,” Mrs. Stanton said, saying his name in the hopeless funny incorrect way all English people inevitably did, “two of our daughters, Gwen and Barbara.” The young women stood, smiled. Mrs. Stanton went on, “Gwen came up to bring us some goodies – she runs a bakery, down in the village – and Barbara has been staying home from university on leave, like the good dutiful thing she is. Jen, you would have met Gwen as a baby, but I don't think you've seen Barbara at all, she was born after you'd married David.”
“We tease, Bar, but we couldn't do it without you,” Mr. Stanton said to his daughter.
“It's nice to meet you,” Barbara Stanton said, flicking her braid back.
“How do you do, Bran?” her sister chimed in. Mr. Stanton pulled out more chairs around the big table and went to put the kettle on.
As in the big kitchen at the Evans farm, the floor here was a sweep of cool grey stone. In addition to the great hearth lit in the front room, fire burned in a little iron stove in the kitchen corner; Mrs. Stanton had been right about the amount of heat it put out, enough to pink the cheeks of the people near by.
Photographs dotted the entire house liberally, but some looked newer and more out-of-place than others; there was a corkboard with dozens of pictures pinned to it sitting propped by the kitchen sink, and from where he sat Bran could see that they all seemed to feature the same child, sometimes accompanied by various older siblings, always the smallest – the baby of the family – and he recognized the boy from Rhys Evans' family snapshot. The missing Will. In other photographs he was older, Bran's age, grown to adulthood, with a square jaw, broad shoulders, a lean but stocky build. His longish shaggy hair hung down into a gentle-looking face. He was pictured in a variety of sheepskin and tweed jackets, never short sleeves after childhood, and his eyes were often turned away or otherwise obscured; even in photographs, he seemed a hard one to pin down or get to know. He looked, Bran thought, eminently forgettable.
Superficially cheery, the room showed evidence of trouble under longer scrutiny. The Stantons all looked tired, Gwen and Barbara both slump-shouldered as they moved around the kitchen, their mirrored postures both drawn in and hunched over with stress. Things had the haphazard feel of a household thrown out of routine, small chores accumulating undone and various business piling up while other issues dominated the family's attention. Mrs. Stanton had to shift a pile of paperwork to the side to access the kitchen counter - “Missing persons reports,” she said. “The amount of forms from the police, the government, it's just endless.”
“Here, Mum,” Gwen said, “let me put those in the file. We can deal with them tomorrow, Robin will be here to help.”
“Our son Robin lives just down the road with his family,” Mr. Stanton said to Mrs. Evans. “They'll be up for supper tomorrow, it being Saturday. You'll be able to meet the little ones, and Soraya, she's a doctor, very talented, she's been a wonderful addition to the community here.”
“How about something to eat?” Mrs. Stanton said. “I left half a steak-and-kidney pie in the oven after supper, in case you were hungry when you got in.”
Gwen brought the reheated food to the table, Barbara following with china and silver and napkins; a childish hand had embroidered little sunbursts on the cloths' corners in cheery yellow, faded and stained after years of evidence of use. There was a clatter of knives and forks as Mrs. Evans dished out the pie and everyone tucked in.
“You made this, Gwen? It's excellent,” Mrs. Evans said, and Gwen smiled briefly at her aunt before her lips thinned and tensed again.
“So, Bran,” Mrs. Stanton said, “you're a farmer by trade, I hear.”
Bran nodded, mouth full of pastry.
“Alice has farming in the blood,” Mr. Stanton joked. “Look out, she'll have you cornered talking about stock and yield and whatnot if you give her the chance. I think it's getting worse in our old age.”
“I should be on my way home, Mum,” Gwen said, her soft straight chin-length hair swinging as she bent down to kiss her mother's cheek. “Want me to bring pudding tomorrow, as well as bread?”
“That would be lovely,” Mrs. Stanton said, caressing her daughter's cheek. Unaccountably embarrassed, Bran dropped his eyes from this naked display of family affection. He wrapped his hands around his tea mug, released them, fiddled with his fork, felt shaken and out-of-place.
Gwen, bundled into her winter coat and mittens and with a pie safe in her hands, went out the front door. The adults went out to see her to the door, and Bran was left alone with Barbara. She was watching him, he realized, and struggled to suppress his instinctive habitual flinching back from scrutiny.
Her gaze was perceptive, clever, assessing. “You met Will on holiday, aunt said?”
“Yes,” he answered, making himself meet her eyes – though he was so tired by that point of meeting people's eyes, duw but it had been a long day – “but I don't remember much of it, I'm afraid.”
“It was good of you, coming all this way for a boy you don't even remember.”
“Mrs. Evans has always been kind to me. I owe her a lot.”
“Hmm,” Barbara said.
“Thank you so much for coming,” Mrs. Stanton said to her cousin, both coming together with Mr. Stanton back into the kitchen. “It's so good to have you here. The children have been coming to visit as often as they can the last few weeks, and Stephen is trying to get leave for the holiday after all, though he'd planned on staying in Jamaica.”
“And still no word about - ”
“No, nothing. It's as if he'd vanished from the face of the earth, Jen. The police have no idea at all.”
Bran stood abruptly, Mrs. Evans' word haunted coming back to him again, so that he was glad of the warm food in his belly and the heat of the fire burning. Already on his feet, he figured he might as well make himself useful, and began clearing plates and cutlery from the table to the sink. Will Stanton's gentle face looked out at him from the refrigerator door, and he cringed under the missing man's frozen, photographed, melancholy sea-blue gaze.
Mr. Stanton came over to help him, saying softly, “Thank you, lad, that's all right. Just leave them here, we'll deal with the washing-up in the morning.”
“We don't even know when it was that it happened,” Mrs. Stanton said. “We'd seen him Thursday, but it was gone Sunday before anyone realized that he'd – Will lived in the butler's suite over at the Manor, you know, he's one of the managers of the historical trust there, and liked to be close to his work. He's always been such a solitary boy, he'd go days shut up in the library there, or tramping up along the river, speaking to no one.”
“Well,” Barbara said, “you're right that he'd settled in there pretty well – he was never an ambitious sort, our Will, no wanderlust to speak of – and it did seem like a good situation for him, close to home but lots of independence and privacy, over there all by himself on those big grounds, and the tours and historical artifacts and things to mind. But you're wrong if you think he was always solitary – he wasn't, not always, not when we were kids.”
“What's that, Bar?” Her mother blinked, worn and emotional, and visibly failing to track the shift in the conversation.
Barbara said again, more forcefully, “Will wasn't always a solitary person. That didn't start until he was a teenager, really. He had lots of friends as a little boy. And every one of us older kids got on with him, and you can't say that of all of us.”
“No, you're right,” Mr. Stanton said. “But it's how he always was as an adult. I don't know when it was that he changed, exactly – I thought for a while that he was going through some sort of phase, that he'd come out of it and be cheerful again.”
“It wasn't as if he'd ever complain,” Mrs. Stanton said anxiously, as though she didn't want them to get the wrong idea of her lost son's character. “But he was not a social young man, it's true. If he had been, the police would have a lot more to go on. Not so horribly easy for him to just vanish like this.”
Bran was shaken by self-recognition. He wondered, would I feel the same way about anyone my own age? Are we all caught between waiting and action, being and becoming? Or is this – this connection – unique?
But there were differences, too. After al, Bran lived with his father, and worked with Owen and the Evanses and Idris Jones Ty-bont and half-a-dozen others. “He lived there all by himself?” he asked.
Mr. Stanton explained, “Old Miss Greythorne, who used to be the lady of Huntercombe Manor, did a good thing for our sons when she died. She made Will and our son Stephen, who's deployed in the Caribbean, the trustees of her estate – the youngest and the oldest, you know – Stephen was home for a few years at the time, and at the age when a young man wants his own space. Later, when he was redeployed, Will was old enough to take it up; and he'd done coursework at university on historical preservation and public trusts, that sort of thing, so he was well-suited to it.”
Barbara nodded. “He liked it. I figured he had a right to, growing up the littlest kid in a packed house like this one was back in the day.”
Mr. Stanton raised an eyebrow. “That sounds … needlessly elegiac.”
“Sorry, dad. You know what I mean.”
“I do, but that's no call for you to be careless with what you say.”
“You're right. I'm sorry.”
“Forgiven. Well, people, shall we turn in for the night? It's nearly ten.”
Jen Evans nodded. “I think I could sleep for a week,” she said, and Bran shivered, chilled again.
“There are two empty rooms upstairs – Barbara's got the other one – and I thought we'd give you each your own.”
“Maybe Bran would like to take Will's old attic room?” Barbara suggested, looking at the younger of the two guests. “It's lovely warm up there, with all the hot air from the house rising to the top.”
Bran thought, she must've seen me tremble, and bit his lip.
“What a nice idea,” Alice Stanton said, but her voice sounded – complicated. Bran looked at her: did she want him in her son's old room, or not? He saw in her eyes that, though it also pained her to think of, she did want it. It would mean something to her, to have him sleep where Will had slept as a child. Will, who he did not really remember, though people kept speaking of them as friends.
“All right, then,” he said. But he noticed that it was Barbara, and not Mrs. Stanton, who showed him up past the landing to the house's highest room.
“Here,” Barbara said, “let me just get the light. No overhead, I'm afraid, just this one by the bed – there.” She flipped the toggle switch on the bedside lamp, illuminating the little attic. There was a small, low bed, a beside table, a bureau, a little bookcase. A skylight up above was recessed into the gentle slope of the peaked roof.
As Bran moved further into the room he saw that the bookcase held a shrine of clustered photograph frames. Like the collection downstairs, he thought at first, but on a second look he was not sure the pictures featured the same boy.
“That's my oldest brother, Stephen,” Barbara said over Bran's shoulder, making him jump. “Will brought those up here when Steve was first stationed abroad and couldn't come home much. They'd been close, when Will was little, and he used to miss Stephen terribly when he was away on duty.”
Bran looked again at the photographs of the eldest of the Stanton children, beloved older brother to a lost sibling.
“Are they still close?” he asked.
Barbara gave him a measuring look, deciding how much to say to someone she'd only just met. “That's what I was trying to get at, before,” she said at last. “When dad jumped down my throat. I understand why he did, of course, I was making a mess of it – but it really was like losing Will, as he grew up, I've always thought so. I think he writes to Stephen, maybe that's easier for him than dealing with people face to face, I don't know.”
“You think your brother doesn't want to deal with you?”
“I think he stopped being able to deal with us. You could see it in his face, his manner, I don't know, that it was hurting him terribly to chat and smile and be friendly with you, and he was going to go through with it if it killed him, but of course you don't want to do something like that to your sweet little kid brother.” She sighed. “I keep wondering,” she said, “if he isn't gone because he wanted to be.”
Bran didn't know what to say to that; it wasn't as if he hadn't considered the same thought himself.
“I'm sorry,” Barbara said. “It's not fair of me to unload on you like that, you don't even know us. And when you've been traveling all day. I'll let you rest, shall I? It's not like there won't be plenty of time to jaw it all over in the morning. Have you got everything you need? The w.c.'s just down the stair. My room's to the far left, bang the door if you need anything. Aunt Jen's in the middle room.”
“I'll be fine,” Bran told her, and she left, going quietly back down the stairs. For the first time that day, he was alone.
He breathed in the silence.
From Mrs. Stanton's attitude, he'd expected the attic to be a preserved child's room, a shrine held sacred to the memory of a boy who had long since grown up and left home. But instead it was a plain little bedroom, which might have been a guestroom, or belonged to anybody. The photographs of Stephen Stanton sat on the little shelf beside some old books of mythology, dusty and tea-stained. In one of the pictures, a small Will sat beaming on his older brother's sturdy shoulders; in another, he stood, older, be-suited and solemn-eyed, beside Stephen and a dark-skinned woman in a white wedding gown.
Bran took this last down from the shelf and held the lightly-tarnished silver frame up to the light. He was studying Will Stanton's face. He looked about twenty in the picture, a mid-sized young man with a slightly stocky build and a longish fringe of brown hair falling over his serious eyes.
Would we have been friends, he and I, if we'd known each other better? he wondered. So much of what the Stantons had said about Will had reminded him of himself in one way or another; would it not have been a tremendously compelling thing, to have had a friend so like himself, in all his strangeness?
But it could not have been so great a connection as all that, he thought. Not going by how much I don't remember any such friendship, though I guess we'd met more than once. Which felt, he realized, like an increasingly terrible thing.
He put down the picture frame and went to get ready for sleep. He lay back in Will Stanton's old bed, and surrendered himself to what dreaming might come.
The dreams came, thick and fast just as he'd expected, but they were disjointed and non-narrative, mere bright glimpses at powerfully symbolic images, static as heraldic devices on a banner. His own childhood face, lit from below, wet and spangled with reflected gleams; an image out of his boyhood nightmares, a bleach-bone horse's skull wreathed about with ribbons; a cottage in a green place, the doorway almost obscured by a rain of white flowers falling from the blooming branches of a tree growing up out of its roof; a pair of intense, golden, feather-ringed, shadowed eyes looking squarely at him with predatory interest.
He woke feeling as though he'd scarcely slept, although by the angle and quantity of the light coming in from the rectangle of skylight positioned over the narrow bed, it was later in the morning than he was used to rising at home.
Squinting in the morning brilliance, Bran climbed up out of the bed, rooting around right away in his bag for clean socks to protect his feet from the cold early-morning floorboards. He dressed fully, with a warm sweater to combat the chill.
“Bran, good morning,” Mr. Stanton said from the kitchen when he came down the stairs – and it was only then he realized that the boy in the dream had pronounced the name properly, though his accent had been just as English as Mr. Stanton's own. “Quite a frost last night, it's still thick out there.”
“Any likelihood of snow?” he asked, crossing to the draining board to snag a clean mug and making no mention of his host's pronunciation issues, in deference to politeness and futility in equal measure. From the myriad photographs fastened to the front of the fridge, several dozen copies of a pair of serious dark blue eyes watched him as he moved across the room.
“Not today,” Mr. Stanton said. “Nor tomorrow. It's too early to be certain, of course, but we might have a green – or rather, a brown – Christmas this year. Do you always get snow up in the mountains?”
“Not always,” Bran said.
Mrs. Stanton and Jen Evans were sitting together in the front room, where the fire had been lit again. “Bore da, Bran,” Mrs. Evans said, and the familiar Welsh tones now sounded strange to him too. “I thought we might go into the village today, send a card to your da and one to David at the farm, and to my boys.”
“I'll go with you,” Mrs. Stanton said. “Roger?”
“No,” her husband said, coming to the door of the kitchen with teacup and paper still in hand. “Bar and I have plans, Christmas related, can't say more. Leave us the car, though, please.”
“We'd planned on walking anyway,” Mrs. Stanton told him. “You might need to borrow a hat though, Bran dear, being as it's a bit nippy.”
“That's all right,” he said, “I've brought one with me.”
After a leisurely hour of late breakfast, chatter, and general hat-finding, the little party was off. Bran found that was just as happy to be out, away from the eyes in the photographs everywhere: the eyes of the lost child that he could not remember, the eyes of the young man he'd never known.
They walked along the road three abreast, the cousins going arm-in-arm - “There's never much traffic Saturdays,” Mrs. Stanton said – and moving at a brisk pace so as to keep from the cold. The way was quiet, wooded, and Mrs. Stanton pointed out her son Robin's house, an old farm some distance down the road. “The place came vacant just as Robin was leaving school,” she said, “and he liked the idea of expanding the family holdings in the area, I think. But I don't know that he's meant to be a farmer. We'll see.”
A flock of corvids hung like shadows in the eaves of the small wood that lined the lane, but looking closer Bran saw that these were not the large wise ravens of the Welsh mountains, which he had regarded time out of mind as his own amongst the birds of the world, but smaller, fiercer rooks, birds of far more ill omen.
Huntercombe village was pleasant, small, not unlike the small Welsh villages where Bran had grown up except perhaps more sleepy still, and again he was struck by the similarity of their lives, his and Will Stanton's.
They bought decorative post cards at the tiny office on the main street of the town. Bran wrote, “Dad, We're here safe, everyone is very kind. The Stanton boy is still missing. Saw a super old church, will try to pick you up a brochure with pictures tomorrow when we go for Sunday service. Affectionately, your son BRAN,” and, licking a stamp, dropped the note in the post-box.
“The mail won't go out till Monday when Mrs. Pettigrew comes in,” Mrs. Stanton said, as Mrs. Evans dropped her collection of cards in after Bran's, “but you'll be in the first batch, at least. David doesn't expect to hear from you today, does he?”
They stuck their noses in at Gwen's bakery, just down the street from the post office; a great pale stone building, ancient, with a delicious odor of mingled new bread and mulled wine spices wafting out. Gwen was at the counter, and two other women were visible working behind her in the large bright high-arched kitchen.
“The building used to be a smithy, long ago,” Gwen told them. “It's really ancient. Or the foundations are, at any rate. We did a lot of work to convert it – forges into ovens, that sort of thing, and of course bringing it all up to code. But it works really well for baking, and this old brick is just super for holding heat. Can't get anything like it nowadays. We need bread and pudding for supper later, right, mum? Anything else?”
“No, that'll be a great help,” Mrs. Stanton said faintly. Looking at her, Bran thought that she looked suddenly very tired, and nearly as colorless as he was himself.
“Ready to head back?” Mrs. Evans said, and he agreed to the proposition readily; Mrs. Stanton looked like she needed to be home.
On the walk back to the old vicarage, Jen Evans chatted lightly with her cousin, filling her in on all the goings-on at Clywd and the doings of her boys. Mrs. Stanton said little, only making polite sounds at the proper intervals. Bran walked along beside the women in anxious silence, a spark of anger kindling in his heart against the vanished Will Stanton. To leave behind a mother that would love you like this – if it turns out the tosser did skip on them, I'll kill him myself.
When they got back, they found Barbara reading half-a-dozen books all at once in the front room, notecards fanned out all around her. “Hello, you lot,” she said. “How was the village? Any new news?”
“No news but the old news,” her mother answered, with the resigned cadence of a terribly familiar set response.
“Dad's upstairs.” Barbara's voice was soft, full of a number of things: care, concern, gentleness, affection, fear. “We were out and about, and he needed a break after it all.”
Mrs. Stanton said, “I'm really quite tired myself. I'm going to go up too, if that's all right.”
“Of course. Can I bring you anything? Or dad?”
“No, dear. Roger and I can keep each other company in our dotage just fine.”
After her mother had made her way up the stairs, Barbara said glumly, “It does get to them, I'm afraid. They've been under such awful stress, you can see them grinding down. But what's to be done about it?”
Mrs. Evans made a sympathetic noise; Bran stood in silent misery, not knowing what to say. In that moment, he intensely regretted his choice to come to this house, a place that he'd known would be full of terrible pain. He wanted very much to ask Barbara if she were sure that her brother hadn't just gone off of his own accord, and what evidence she had that he hadn't simply abandoned his family – but he couldn't do it, couldn't ask it. It was as if the supposition was unspeakable – unthinkable, almost. He didn't understand why it should be so, but he felt the prohibition keenly all the same.
Mrs. Evans moved to the sofa and sat down. “What have you been working on, Barbara?” she asked her niece.
Barbara looked at her nest of papers and laughed, and Bran smiled too and went to sit on the ottoman nearby.
“Coursework waits for no woman,” Barbara said. “I told you I'm picking up a masters in anthro?”
“Goodness,” Mrs. Evans said. “Did you? I thought you were bound for the stage!”
Barbara tossed her head, making the chestnut curls of her loose hair bounce dramatically. “Yes, I know,” she said. Then she made a face. “I was, you know; got into a rep theatre and everything. But then I ended up doing a string of really political plays, and it's all been coming together for me in some terribly interesting ways. I started hanging about with this dramaturgy student – her name's Susannah, she's fantastic – and we were having all of these long talks about society and people and politics – but more human than it is on the news, you know, more about people and their wishes and their fears, and their foolishness, all the same sort of stuff that you're getting at in the best sort of theatre. I'm going to be doing my thesis on Drama and British Identity” - the capital letters were clearly pronounced - “at least, as soon as I go back. They let me take compassionate leave for the remainder of the semester, but that'll be up in the new year. Heigh-ho,” she sighed; but Bran noticed how much more relaxed she'd become in talking to her aunt about her work, the way that the lines of strain and tension had left her face, the way that her voice and body language had grown suddenly animated.
“It sounds exciting,” Mrs. Evans said, and Bran thought, what would not be more exciting than this, waiting for the realization of a blow, watching everything running down? He found that he admired Barbara a great deal, for staying, for going on, bearing it day after day.
“I probably have Will to thank for at least some of it, as well as Susannah,” Barbara said reflectively. “I mean, Will was history not drama, but there was this way he had of connecting with his subject – it was like he saw the past as being full of people that were fully human, and loved them all for their humanity. And he liked touching the past – he was so enthusiastic about the whole Huntercombe restoration project, I know he was still working on replicating the historical estate library up to last summer. It's sort of what I've been wanting to do with the theatre, to use it to show people the reality and pathos of daily shared existence … I don't know; I've been reading theory all morning, I'm probably just spouting nonsense at this point.”
The house remained quiet for a few hours, Bran and Mrs. Evans downstairs talking to Barbara, Mr. and Mrs. Stanton sequestered and silent up above; a welcome respite, for Bran at least, and for the others too, he thought. He let his mind go blank and fuzzy for a bit, just resting, complicated thoughts and feelings put aside for just a moment.
Around half-past four the door opened, and a young family came bundling into the house, attended by an air of busy genial chaos that revitalized the scene at the old vicarage considerably: Robin, a tall, thick-built man who looked to be in his late thirties, his wife Soraya, a plump, pretty woman in a neon sweatshirt with long dark braided sleek-shining hair, and their appallingly adorable eighteen-month-old baby daughter. The baby's coos and shrieks brought the older Stantons down within minutes, and there was a lot of embracing and introductions and hanging-up of coats and scarves and mittens.
Mrs. Evans was enchanted by the baby, and had it down on the hearthrug with a string of large wooden beads and a stuffed lamb; Soraya chatted with Barbara, evidently a close friend, and Robin stood speaking to his parents. When Gwen arrived close behind, laden with parcels from the bakery, the whole party minus the baby and her attendants Mrs. Evans and Mr. Stanton, moved off into the kitchen.
“There's shepherd's pie warming in the oven,” Mrs. Stanton said, “one with meat and one without – the smaller one, most of you lot being greedy carnivores.”
“Here, Gwen,” Robin told his sister, “give me those loaves and I'll pop them in to warm as well.”
“Can you set the table, Bar?”
“I swear, sometimes it feels like all I do is set and re-set the dratted table,” Barbara complained without rancor.
Mr. Stanton came in with the baby on his shoulder. “Is the baby chair out, Robin?”
“No, let me grab it.”
“Sorry dear,” Mrs. Stanton said, “I should have remembered to bring it out.”
“That's all right, Alice,” Soraya soothed her mother-in-law. “It doesn't look like Roger's in any hurry to put her down!”
“You're right there,” Roger Stanton said, Baby Lainey rewarding his words of encouragement with a gummy little hand in his beard and a torrent of more-or-less coherent happy baby jabber.
Somehow, they managed it so that twenty minutes later the entire substantial group had been landed around the laden table, though how all the persons and all the dishes had avoided collision was a wonder. Since Mrs. Evans had come in, Bran had quietly attached himself to her, feeling a renewed shyness in the face of this bustling presentation of the Stanton family en masse. And this is only half the siblings, he thought. It must have been bedlam, growing up with all of them. Did he envy Will Stanton this expansive, warm, affectionate, noisy family, or pity him it? Had Will liked it? Or, being a solitary sort of person, had he chafed under this heavy weight of closeness?
The food was delicious all round: fresh-baked bread, hearty steak-and-potato pie, hot and filled out with roast vegetables, complemented by the aromatic mulled wine that Mrs. Stanton had brought up from the cellar in a battered crock-pot cooker. Soraya had brought a dish of curry turnips and turnip greens poriyal, a spicy addition to the rest of the more savory fare. Lighted candles burned at the table's centre, providing indeed most of the light in the room, which had become very warm and golden.
Mr. Stanton, seated at the head of the table next to the baby, who had been given a spoon with which to entertain herself, held up his glass, and the level of ambient noise in the room abruptly decreased. “To absent ones,” he said, his voice hoarse with feeling, and he looked over to where the photographs of his youngest son were hanging in shadow. They all lifted their glasses, and echoed him, and drank.
As the meal wound to a close, Robin shifted in his seat, took a drink of his wine, and cleared his throat, a man with news to deliver. “Mum, Dad,” he said, a little more loudly, a little more clearly “Soraya and I wanted to tell you something – to tell you all something, really. Good news!” he hastened to reassure them. “Or – mostly good, anyway, though the timing isn't all that could be desired.”
“I've been offered partnership in a private London practice,” Soraya said, her mellow sure alto taking over from her husband's stutter. “It's tremendous news for my career, something I've always dreamed of.”
“So, you see,” Robin resumed, “we're going to be relocating. Not till spring, probably, but – I talked to Ralph yesterday, had the farm put on the market for sale, and Soraya's just had to send in her acceptance of the offer.”
“But how wonderful!” Mrs. Stanton said, and a round of congratulations for Soraya followed.
“We'll miss you, of course,” Mr. Stanton said, “but London's not so far.”
“Why didn't you tell us sooner?” Mrs. Stanton demanded. “You must've been planning this for a while!”
“We were going to,” Robin said, “but then – we didn't want to drop the news on you that we were leaving, when you were so torn up about … but the deadlines caught up to us, and we knew there wasn't really a decision to be made, London's the right thing for us.”
“It's been so wonderful being here for the first year with Lainey,” Soraya said, “and Dr. Johnson has been such a good mentor to me, I'm so glad I took the position he offered five years ago I can't tell you! But you know I also have family in London – and so many of Robin's other siblings are there, it's not as if we won't have family support.”
“You'll have to come out and stay with us sometime, Mum,” Robin said, “and you can visit James and go hear Paul's orchestra at the same time.”
“In the spring, you said?” Mrs. Stanton asked.
“Yes, earlier than later though. I hope we can get a buyer for the farm in time, or we're going to end up having to pay for double properties for a bit. Which we could do, but I'd rather not. I wonder if whoever does take it will keep it working, or if the old Dawson farm will finally be retiring after all these years.”
Later, after all the mulled wine had been drunk down and everyone had eaten their full, after an evening's worth of news had been exchanged and commented upon, after the kitchen had been cleaned, the dishes washed and the leftovers put away, after first Robin and Soraya and then some hours later Gwen had bundled up and headed out into the cold dark of the snowless frost-laden night – later, Bran Davies lay back in Will Stanton's childhood attic bed, returned from noise into quiet, and, taking out his feelings, turned them over and over again in his mind. They were conflicted, chimerical, difficult to pin down or name. Was he happy? He'd smiled and laughed readily throughout the evening, and certainly his sensory experiences had only been pleasurable. Was he sorrowful? If so, what intensity, what legitimacy, did that sorrow have? Had he only caught it like a contagion from his hosts, so that it was not properly his to feel at all? What was it that he felt like he was mourning for?
He dreamed that night of music, bell-like and haunting, and a high voice singing, and when he woke it was Sunday morning, and the ringing of the church bells took over from the music of his dream. Soon the whole household, plus Bran and Jen Evans, was off to church, going out on foot muffled and behatted into the pale chill morning. Robin was already there, sitting waiting for them with Gwen in the family pew.
Inside as well as out, the Church of St. James the Less was an ancient stone edifice. It had worn-away carvings at the cornices and a little nave and font; and Bran grabbed half-a-dozen pamphlets from a rack near the door for his father, even if it was “church not chapel.” He sat between the adult women, anchored to Jen Evans as the one familiar rock in this sea of Englishness. The service was at once oddly familiar and completely different. The music, too, was different from that of the Methodist chapel in which Owen Davies had seen to it he'd spent so very much of his boyhood, and where he still went with his father on Sundays as regular as clocks: fewer harpers in it, and more ancient polyphony. The music master must really love open fourths, he thought with an inward smile. But when he looked over at Mrs. Stanton, next to him in the pew, he saw a single tear trickling composedly down her cheek.
Mr. Beaumont, the old rector, white-haired and stoop-shouldered, came down to speak to the family after the service. “Any news?” he asked soberly.
“None,” Mr. Stanton said, hoarse, his voice breaking low. “None.”
“I am sorry to hear it, very sorry. Such a thoughtful young man, he had something deeply spiritual in him. One of the best choristers I ever had, too; I thought of him this morning, when Anthony took that descant, he always used to do it so beautifully as a boy.”
Barbara went home from church with her sister. “Good,” Mrs. Evans had said to her in a private undertone, overheard by Bran only due to his continued and admittedly clingy nearness to her; “you get a break now while you can, Bar; you've been a real good girl, let us help out a bit.”
“You don't mind going back?” Barbara asked Bran delicately, matching her aunt's low tone.
“No,” he said, “I'm all right. I'd only be a third wheel anyway; you spend some time with your sister.”
Barbara gave him a quick, impulsive hug. “You are all right,” she said. “Thanks.” He looked at her, startled, taken aback, no doubt his eyes gone as big and yellow as an owl's.
So Bran went back with the adults. They walked the route back to the vicarage all in quiet, each of the others seeming to Bran deeply preoccupied with their own thoughts. But when they were back, after they'd all gone in and unwrapped themselves, and after Mr. Stanton had made a new pot of tea and they'd all drunk and revived themselves, Mrs. Stanton asked him, “Want to come and do the farm chores with me, Bran?”
“Don't be afraid, Bran,” Mrs. Evans said, “it'll go a lot faster here than at home! 'Farm chores' indeed.”
“Yeah, all right,” he said, and went with Mrs. Stanton out to put their outdoor gear back on.
“Think it'll snow?” he asked her as they walked together down the drive to where the outbuildings that housed the rabbits and chickens stood.
“It's hard to predict, this time of year,” she answered. “But it's certainly getting cold enough.”
They restocked feeders and water-dishes, renewed bedding, gathered eggs. It was peaceful, warm, good shit-smelling work, and Bran felt himself relaxing as he dealt with the animals' simple needs. Mrs. Stanton didn't say much, giving soft directions when he needed them; she was nearly as good a working-partner as John Rowlands for that.
“Jen can tease me all she likes,” she said at last. “I do think it helps, even if I haven't much to speak of in the way of livestock.”
“It reminds you what living is,” Bran said. “So simple, so complicated, all at once.”
“That's right,” she said, looking over at him from around the rabbit hutch with sharpened interest. After a long moment, she said, “It becomes so clear to me, at times, why my Will liked you so much, when he met you as a boy. That's very much the sort of thing he would have said, but for him the complications, and the first problem of the forgetfulness, would have weighed on him heavily. Your approach is hopeful, humanist – his would have been resigned, and more passively sorrowful.”
“I wish I remembered him better,” he confessed on impulse, moved by her open and unreserved address. “I feel terribly that I've forgotten him.”
“He was like that,” Will's mother said. “It was like he wanted to leave no impression behind. I never understood it. He would hide from us, up in that big old house; but even before he left home, it would be so hard to read him at times, like a tiny sphinx. You shouldn't feel bad, Bran – if you don't remember Will, chances are it's because he didn't want you to.”
A few hours later, Gwen drove Barbara back, and stayed for tea. But it was a quieter grouping than had sat at the wide scrubbed table the evening before, all their assembled tongues made heavy by some unknown cause.
Helplessly, Bran thought, what is there, really, to say? There weren't words for this kind of pain, this kind of waiting. It was a thing made out of silences, that left silences in its wake.
Over breakfast on Tuesday, Jen Evans said, gently, “Alice, what do you think about us heading back to Wales tomorrow? I can stay longer if you need me, you know that – but I told David I'd be less than a week, and we haven't cancelled our Christmas plans yet.”
“I understand,” Mrs. Stanton said. “We'll be fine here, Jen – Max is coming home with Deb and the kids in a few days, and then Mary and James and Stephen will all be arriving, and Paul – we won't want for company. But I am so very grateful to you for coming, dear, you've been a tremendous support. And you too, Bran,” she said, turning to him; he ducked his head in embarrassed acknowledgement.
“Where will you put all those visitors, Alice?” Jen Evans said with a smile. “Sure you can fit them all? It sounds like quite a pack!”
“It will be,” Mrs. Stanton said with happy nostalgia. “They'll all fit, with room for one or two more left over. Do you need to phone David, to let him know your plans? I've got a set of timetables here, and you should be fine to buy tickets at the station tomorrow – maybe better take late-morning or afternoon train, though, to give us time. Unless you'd rather go into town today and buy them?”
“Let's do go for them today,” Mrs. Evans said after a moment's consideration - “but we can look at the timetables here. It's not too expensive, for me to call David long-distance?”
“No,” Mrs. Stanton said, “we gave up on that last month – with everything, we've needed to make a lot of calls, and it was too much to stress over. It won't bankrupt us; when you need to talk to everyone you need to talk, and there's nothing for it. As long as you two love-birds keep it under an hour, and don't go on like you used to,” she added, leaving Bran amazed by the idea of quiet Mr. and Mrs. Evans as passionate young long-distance love-birds who had to be warned off the phone.
Mr. Stanton ended up taking Mrs. Evans into town in the car to take care of tickets, explaining that he had to pick up the spare key to the Huntercombe estate from Will's deposit box, where it was kept. “Our boy Stephen is going to re-open the house for the traditional Christmas party, when he comes later this week,” he told them. “It's been changed a good deal by the restoration, but folks around here still regard it as an integral part of the season. They'd planned on Will managing the affair this year, Stephen being encumbered by family and travel – but it seems it will fall to poor old Steve after all.”
Upstairs in the attic bedroom, Bran packed up his few things and set the room to rights, smoothing the worn quilt down over the little bed. He grabbed the couple of water glasses he'd managed to accumulate over the days he'd stayed there, and was in the process of taking them down to the kitchen for washing when he heard soft weeping from down the stair. Rounding the corner of the landing with increased slowness and care, he found Mrs. Stanton sitting on the lower staircase, huddled up against the wall with a letter in one hand and her face turned away, shoulders shaking with an almost frightening intensity as she muffled her grief.
He went slower and more carefully yet, setting down his burdens with clinks of glass against the windowsill. “Mrs. Stanton?” he asked softly; duw, this was deja vu all over again. Would he never escape the spectre of kind women weeping with letters in their hands? “What's happened? Is - ” and a fear grabbed his heart, sharp and sudden, that perhaps they had found a body, or some other sign of life that proved that Will had abandoned his family, or some news that put a final end to her remaining hopes.
“Oh Bran,” she said, her voice coming out in a sighing gasp between her stifled sobs. “Oh, I didn't know you were there, I'm sorry - ”
“Nothing to apologize for,” he told her, and came down to sit beside her on the stair, quite close, their knees touching. “Can you tell me what's the matter?”
“Oh, it's nothing, nothing terrible,” she said, looking at his face – seeing what, he didn't know. “It's not about Will, it's Stephen; he's written that he's not able to get leave after all, and has had to cancel the travel plans for next week. He hadn't been going to take leave this year, but with everything he was going to try and come home … I was looking forward so much to having him back, my Rock of Gibraltar … I know it's been hard on him, too, being so very far away and his baby brother in trouble.”
“Barbara told me they were close, growing up,” Bran offered, and was pleased when Mrs. Stanton's mouth curved up a little in a bleak small smile.
“Will was sort of semi-permanently attached to Stephen as a toddler,” she reminisced. “I used to tease Roger that people would get the wrong idea; Steve was so tall, even then, that the age difference between the two of them seemed even more ludicrous.” She sniffled, and reaching up a veined hand wiped her wet eyes.
“Are you all right?” he asked her.
“I'm as well as can be expected,” she answered. “I haven't given up yet, and it hasn't killed me, though I've thought many times it might. But then again,” she added, turning to look him in the eyes once more, “you'd know something about that, wouldn't you? Living with the loss of a family member?”
That's right; he'd forgotten that, as Jen Evan's close confidante, she would be privy to all sorts of old talk about his situation. “Did Mrs. Evans ever talk to you about my mother?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said, “but Jen never knew what made her leave, or where she went.”
“I thought about her,” Bran confessed, shy and shamefaced, ducking his head a little to avoid further eye contact. “When I heard about your son, I thought of her. I wondered if – if maybe she hadn't wanted to leave us, to leave me, and if Will hadn't maybe done the same.”
She was silent a moment, and he was afraid he'd put his foot in it badly – but then she said, “I can understand why you'd think that. But you're misunderstanding the situations, I think. Both of them. Your mother made sure to leave you with someone who would love and raise you; and my Will tried to separate himself from us before, but Roger and I, and his brothers and sisters, wouldn't let him. People keep their deepest pains most secret, Bran, and you can sometimes only deduce their existence from the way they influence actions.”
Softly, he said, “I bet you were a great mum; Will's luckier than he knows,” and let his knee bump back up against hers, a simple physical contact of bodies brought into sympathy by great feeling.
“Your da's just as lucky, from all I hear,” she told him. “You've been a great help here.”
“But I've barely done anything!”
“You've been present, and you've cared,” she said. “That counts for more than you might think.”
“Here,” he said, feeling a sudden need to do more, be more, “can I help you to a seat? Maybe a glass of water? As you see -” he gestured toward the crowded windowsill on the landing above them - “I've got more than enough of the necessary equipment.”
The line got a shaky laugh from her, as he'd meant it to do, and they left the water glasses where they were, Bran instead offering Mrs. Stanton his arm in escort on their way to the kitchen table. He gave her a clean glass, and put the kettle on to boot. Having done the best he could, he stood looking at her, curled into her seat at the table, eyes distant in the disassociated way that followed on protracted suffering.
He was back in the same place again, the same words heavy on his lips once more. Why does this keep happening to me, he despaired, and then answered himself: because you keep putting yourself in on this, because you feel that you are already involved in it in some deep and irrevocable way. And because the sight of mothers in distress is distressing to you, of course. You might have turned away before; you chose otherwise.
He said, “If you would like, I can stay in England a little longer. Since you don't get Stephen this year. Mrs. Evans puts on the Christmas at home, so she's needed – but I just show up and eat, they don't need me at Clywd right now.”
She raised her head. “And your father won't miss you too badly?”
“I can take a train in a few days,” he said, taking the seat beside her; “that'll still get me home in time for the holiday, if someone's willing to come down to Tywyn again to retrieve me. But the Evans boys will also be coming through round about then, so perhaps it might be co-ordinated, and then no one would be put out by it at all. I'll ask Mr. Evans, if it's all right for me to phone him.”
“Are you sure?” she said, reaching out to cover his hand with her own where it rested on the worn tabletop. He cast a glance at Will Stanton's solemn face, peering out at them from the board by the refrigerator, and then looked back at Mrs. Stanton.
“About calling Mr. Evans?” he asked, falling back again on cracking jokes to make her smile. “It really is no problem,” he said. “And like I said, I don't have anything important going on at home, no one coming I need to see or anything like that.”
“In that case,” Mrs Stanton told him, “I should love for you to stay for a few more days.”
And so it was settled. When Mrs. Evans and Mr. Stanton came home, tickets for the next day's train in hand, all of the various circumstances of the afternoon were discussed.
Hearing that his eldest son wouldn't be home for Christmas that year, Mr. Stanton reverted not to tears but to an anxious fussing about the Huntercombe situation - “Stephen was going to take care of it this year,” he said, “and if he's not here I don't know what we're going to do.”
“I suggest we let Paul handle it, when he gets here day after tomorrow,” Mrs. Stanton said. “He's as familiar with the old place as anyone, and with all his experience in jazz clubs and suchlike I'm sure he'll be able to pull something together for an entertainment; and no one will blame us, if this year things are a bit ad hoc or subdued, they all know about Will, they won't mind.”
“I should make some calls, Alice,” Mrs. Evans said. “To confirm that they're picking me up tomorrow, and to find out about the boys' plans; Bran is right, it would be best to send him through with one of them, if he doesn't want to come back with me now. I think Rhys should be coming up from Cardiff by train, sometime around the 22nd or 23rd, and he generally rents a car to come home. Bran could meet up with him in Tywyn.”
“And you should talk to your father, Bran,” Mrs. Stanton added. “I'll give you a chance to catch up, but if you could put me on for a moment when you're done I'd very much like to thank him for lending you to me a while longer.”
The phone rang four or five times before his father picked up; what felt like an eternity of time. “Hello?” Owen Davies said, picking up at last, and the sound of his rather high, sharp voice, with its typically Welsh doubling of consonants and lilt on the drawn-out second syllable of the word made Bran's throat tighten in reaction.
“H'lo, da,” he managed through the thickness.
“Bran, bachgen, how good to hear from you! I didn't expect to see you until late tomorrow evening at the station. Does Jen Evans have the timetable arranged yet? I should like to know when precisely we'll be leaving, and until now David Evans has put me off, telling me that nothing's been made final. You're traveling in just over a dozen hours; I'm hoping things are more decided?”
“They are, da,” Bran said, smiling involuntarily as he cut into his father's stream of anxious fussing, and then sobering, as he realized that it would perhaps not be quite so easy to tell his father he wasn't coming home yet as all that. “Look, da,” he said, voice low and discreet, “I'm going to take a later train, all right? I won't be going with Mrs. Evans tomorrow, I'm going to hang about here, and catch a ride home with Rhys Evans when he goes up from Cardiff. Around the 23rd, Mrs. Evans said it would be. All right? So you needn't go with Mr. Evans tomorrow, not unless you think he could use the company. Will that be okay, da?”
“You're staying longer?” Owen Davies said, sharp with suspicion. “Why do you need to stay longer?”
Bran shrugged, though of course the gesture wouldn't carry over the phone. “They could use the support,” he said, “and anyway, I like them a lot, even if you can tell that they're all under a lot of strain.”
“But you will be back before Christmas?” Owen asked, fretful and a bit sour, and Bran smiled again with relieved affection.
“Yes, Da, I'll be back before Christmas.” He hesitated, reaching for words, and then said, “I think … I think I ought to have resolved whatever business I've got here by then.”
“See that you do,” Owen said, more sour still.
“What, Da, you afraid I'm never coming home?”
Owen sighed. “My dreams have been ill of late,” he admitted, “and it is making me anxious, whatever.”
As have mine been too, Bran thought, but did not speak it. Instead, he said, “Don't worry. You know me; I always come back.”
“It's not a girl you've met there that you're staying for, by any chance?” his father asked, that damn hopeful tone back strong in his voice.
“No, Da,” Bran said, and then insisted at his laughing father, “really, it's not.”
He dreamed that night of eyes, great and luminous and watching him through the dark, several different pairs looking out at him in shades of blue and gold: Will Stanton's sad and sea-blue eyes in his young-old adult face; and eyes in a shade of lighter blue, set in the face of a thick-browed man in late middle-age, who Bran felt looked at him with inexplicable quantities of love; a reflection of his own eyes, strange and hawklike in a shadowed face; and once again the great feathered predatory eyes with their gold-encircled irises, staring him down with intent ferocity. He woke feeling hunted, haunted, hungry somewhere deep inside his most primitive child's heart; and that organ physically aching in his chest, so that he rubbed at it fretfully at intervals.
He went with the Stantons to drive Jen Evans to the station, early enough in the morning that it was still quite dark. As they stood on the platform, Mrs. Evans asked him quietly, “Sure you'll be all right here on your own? I don't want to leave you stranded in unfamiliar territory.”
“I'm fine,” he said, growing a bit irritated by the continued fussing. “Why do people keep asking me if I'm sure about things? Can't I call my own decisions?”
“Of course,” Mrs. Evans soothed. “But, Bran, you have to admit that this entire affair is more than a bit out-of-character for you.”
“What do you mean?” he asked, trying not to snap at her; you came here to support her, remember.
“The last few years … you've been so holed up in the mountains, you almost never go into Tywyn, much less anywhere else. I think David and I had hoped, after school, that you might find more independence; we've seen how good it's been for our boys, striking out on their own. There's a reason why I haven't fussed more about keeping them close at hand! But you, Bran, you have stayed close, more than any young man of your age I can name, in your generation at least.”
“Some of Mrs. Stanton's children still live in the village here,” he said defensively.
“But they don't share a tiny cottage with her, as well as a career, the way you do with Owen. You do see the distinction I'm drawing?”
“Yes,” he sighed, “I do. And I know what you mean – I haven't done much of this sort of thing, backpacking around Europe or whatever. But it's like I told Da, I like your family, and I'm sorry that this rubbish thing has happened for them, and it's felt right to me to do what I can to help. I'll be fine, and Rhys and I will be back in Clywd before you know it.”
“All right,” she said. “At least I'll be able to reassure your father in good conscience, now.”
The train came, and she boarded it, and he did not.
The rest of the day was spent in relative quiet, a relief after the intense emotions of the last thirty hours; he helped Mrs. Stanton once more with her rounds on the “farm,” and walked with her to get hay from the much more legitimate farming operation currently run by Robin on what, she told him, used to be the farm of their neighbor Frank Dawson.
“Frank was a lovely man,” she said. “Partnered with his old dad on the farm. We lost them both rather suddenly some years ago; old George was at his time, but Frank was a young man to die of a stroke. It was a difficult time here, for a while, because Miss Greythorne up at the Manor had also recently passed away, and between them they accounted for a fair amount of the neighborhood. Lots of changes, all at once.”
The Manor, he thought. Where Will lived, alone.
“We haven't seen the Manor,” he said nonchalantly. “Is it very far out of town?”
“No indeed,” she said, chuckling a little, which made him smile - “no, Huntercombe is right across the way from us, only you can't see much as a result of where the wood comes round. And there's a high hedge and gate that hides the house from the road, where it draws near – you've seen that, for sure, but just haven't known what it was you were seeing. The children were always sneaking off to prowl around the edges of the grounds when they were small, it was impossible to contain them all, although lord knows I tried. I ended sending up baked goods all the time, as constant gestures of neighborly apology for my undisciplined brats!”
“I haven't been up there much, of late,” she said after a moment, voice quieter; “Will's room was still a crime scene, the last time I was in it. On reflection, I don't know that that's changed. I thought it was so funny that he chose to live in the servant's quarters, the old butler's rooms, when he could have taken any part of the big house he wanted.”
She shook herself. “When Paul gets in, he'll have to open and warm it, before it'll be fit to hold guests.”
They loitered on the farm for several hours, first playing with the baby while Robin got everything ready for her bath, and then when his attention was more fully engaged by domestic concerns they went out to first the barn and then the other outbuildings, where there were horses and nanny-goats and heaps of sweet-smelling hay, of which they loaded a few armfuls into canvas bags to carry back.
“It's a nice property,” Bran said as they walked back up the lane. “I hope whoever takes it after Robin moves does keep it active as a farm, it's very well-situated for it.”
“Yes,” she murmured, “I hope they do, too.”
He dreamed that night of a great storm at sea, a summer storm lashed with wind and rain, and flashes of thunder tearing down out of the sky to strike all around. He stood in the prow of a boat, and flying toward his heart there came a shining golden arrow, like the figure at the top of a weathervane. A sword that glowed like a burning brand was in his hand, and he lifted it to deflect the arrow's course. Crouched in the boat, pressed back and down by his hand, another boy was huddled. Bran lowered the sword and turned to look at him, saw a round childish face drawn into premature lines of stress, dark sea-blue eyes knowing and sad and frightened in an odd resigned sort of way: not terror, but dread, was visible in their depths. Longish brown hair was plastered around the other boy's face by the rain and the sea-spray, and he looked up from his place low in the boat with his eyes shining like damp stars and said, “Bran … thank you. Thank you.” And the boat shook and rolled beneath them like a living thing.
It took Bran a moment, upon waking, to remember where he was. He was lying on his back in a narrow little bed, looking up at the bright rectangle of a skylight, thicked again with frost.
Will Stanton's old bed, in the attic of his parents' house in Buckinghamshire. And, unlike the storm-tossed summer sea of his dream, the bed was not moving. He could unclench his fisted hands from the bedding; he was safe.
Was he dreaming more, he wondered, because of the psychic stress of his daily situation at present – the suppressed current of loss, controlled during the day, making its presence more forcibly known in the nighttime hours? Superstitiously, Bran wanted to point his finger at the river valley; the saturation of the area's waterways, he thought, must surely carry and conceal all sorts of ancient history and resonance. His last thought, as he rose, was that the boy in his dream had spoken with an English accent, not a Welsh, but had pronounced Bran's own name perfectly.
On Thursday, the Stantons had new guests arriving: their son Max, one of the oldest children in the sprawling Stanton family, and his wife and three kids, were driving up from Southampton to be with the grandparents for Christmas. Bran helped Barbara set up the room where Jen Evans had slept for the young family, with an added cot and a spare mattress piled with blankets on the floor to make up the children's beds. More members of the family would be arriving over the weekend – “But we should all fit,” Mr. Stanton said, “if barely. Bran in the attic, and Max's group in one of the rooms, and James and Mary and Paul can decide amongst themselves who shares with Barbara and who'll share the room that's left.”
They pulled up the drive mid-morning, and came to the door with quantities of luggage. Max, Bran saw, was tall, with floppy long hair that looked at bit like his missing baby brother's, soft and straight. His wife Deb was equally tall, with heavily-styled pale blonde hair. There was an air of adult competence and professionalism about them both, with their coats were well-tailored and their hair well-cut; Bran felt a bit shy and provincial next to the imposing image of wealth and success the pair projected. Tom, their oldest son, was ten, a serious-looking dark-haired little boy, who really drove home the family resemblance between the siblings, so much did he look like his uncle; Caitlyn and Shannon, twin girls of seven, were wild little whirls of glitter and bright color, too quick for Bran to get a read on just yet.
“Do you have any idea,” Max said over dinner, “how many children's fairy tales involve lost children? It's awful, always being reminded of it.”
“Max works as an illustrator, down in Southampton,” Mrs. Stanton told Bran. “He and Deb are both in children's publishing.” To her son, she said, “Can't you tell anyone about the situation, see if you can shift assignments that feel too personal?”
“Why do so many stories involve lost family members, though, do you think?” Barbara interjected. “Long-lost this and long-lost that, monsters that are child-snatchers or child-eaters, all that stuff about fairy changelings.”
“It's one of the basic experiences of life,” Bran said. “It's the basic mystery, right: what happens to the ones we've lost? The lost are transformed from people into memories. Being superstitious creatures, we make mythology out of it, to try and understand. But we never can, not really.”
There was a heavy silence, and Bran listlessly prodded at his potatoes. His throat felt hot and tight, and his eyes were burning; he was oppressed by heavy emotion. He was not, he was determined, going to let on about his mother. Too much, to have all of them knowing.
“Paul will be here tomorrow evening,” Mrs. Stanton said, “with James, and then we'll have Mary on Saturday.”
“Good old Mary, what's she up to? I never hear from her anymore,” Max said.
“She's up in Birmingham with some school friends, all of them working together as secretaries in a law office. She's having a lot of fun, I think; it's not very serious work, but she's around a lot of people with money to spend.”
“She's all right, though, isn't she?” Max said, brow furrowing. “I don't need to worry about her disappearing too, being abducted or running off or something, do I?”
“Mary's fine,” Mrs. Stanton soothed. “Not everyone has to marry right out of the gate.”
“And Paul's still at that club in London?” Deb asked, diplomatically nudging the floundering conversation back onto solid ground.
“Yes, it's tremendous,” Barbara enthused. “I went a few times last semester to see him play; I think he's really happy.”
“Is he seeing anyone?” Max asked.
“Several someones, last time I heard, all of them into motorbikes and leather,” Barbara answered with heavy sarcasm, making Mr. Stanton choke a bit on his tea.
“Really, Max,” Mrs. Stanton said, “what a hen you're becoming in your old age!”
“Anyway,” Barbara said, “if anyone needs henning it's James – or is the opposite I mean, a general deprivation of hens? Might do him some good.”
The next morning, Barbara pounced on Bran as he was coming down the stairs. “The twins have been up for hours already,” she said. “Come for a walk with me? I have to get out of this house, I'm going to go mad.”
“All right,” Bran said, with no inclination preventing him from being agreeable. “Let me grab a cup of tea. I don't suppose you've got a thermos?” he added hopefully.
The Stantons did in fact have a thermos, a very nice one, and armed with tea and wrapped in a heavy scarf Bran followed Barbara out into the morning, once again bright with a heavy frost although no snow had fallen.
They walked up the lane, in the opposite direction of the town.
“Don't get me wrong,” Barbara said, “I love my sibs.”
“They can just be a little much sometimes?”
She nodded. “You probably don't see it, but there's something extra ghastly about the usual stuff this year, because they're all so miserable underneath. It's untenable – it just drags on and on. If he were dead we could mourn him and then go on – but he's not dead, or he might be, who knows.”
“Mmm,” Bran said.
A wall rose along the lane beside them, stacked stone interspersed with sections of high, barbed wrought-iron railings. “What's back there?” Bran asked, curious.
“That's Huntercombe,” Barbara said. “You can't see the house from here, but there's a spot a little ways up where you can look through onto the grounds.”
She stopped him at a segment of iron fence, and they each pressed faces up to the gaps in the cold metal. Looking through, Bran saw old fruit trees, gnarled and bent, with a walk leading away into the grounds. The land was low and wet, and the place felt ancient and sleepy, caught away in an eddy up out of time.
“Are you cold?” Barbara asked. “Where's the thermos? I'd say you've gone all pale, but that might be offensive.”
Bran did not reply. He remained where he was, silent, frozen, hands on the iron rails on the fence, holding himself up by them.
A figure was looking at him from the other side of the wall.
Human it was and yet not so, man-shaped but horned, with feathered, shadowed, yellow eyes like a hawk's. It gazed at him intently – like a predator with a mouse? But no – the figure had bowed its head, inclined as though in reverence for royalty.
It bowed to him, standing there among the shadowed frost-rimed leafless fruit trees, and then straightened again and once more pierced him with its terrible eyes.
It said, It is long since I scented the blood of Arthur.
It said, in a deep voice like the baying of a hundred hounds, I bid you welcome, my Lord Pendragon.
It said, A warning: not every genius of the stone and sky, wind and water, will be pleased at your coming. Tamesis has now thrown out her most potent webs of confusion and sleep.
But when Bran had blinked his burning eyes and then looked back, he saw nothing; and, when he turned to look at Barbara, her kind pretty face was not wearing the sort of expression you'd expect to see after a person had witnessed something as otherworldy bizarre as the apparition he'd seen, the words he'd heard.
Did any of this mean a goddamn thing? he wondered bleakly.
Bran raged there, still in silence, struggling to maintain his composure; frustrated by the thought that his mind or senses might be playing tricks on him, as he had always been frustrated by the insinuations, made by the kindly well-meaning folk around where he'd grown up, that he must be somehow fragile, or otherwise disturbed, because he was so different. It had always been, and was still, his great desire to be equal to the task at hand; the sense of going under, of slippage, was unbearable to him.
“Well,” Barbara said at last, “are you ready to go back? Ready to face the child hordes?”
Am I? he thought. Am I ready to go back?
“Yeah, all right,” he said, swallowing hard.
But the children weren't the main source of problems that day; they were racing around the back yard like dervishes when Bran and Barbara got back, and later they collapsed in the front room to string popcorn and cranberry garlands for the Christmas tree - “We'll go Sunday to pick it up,” Mr. Stanton said, bringing in another bowl, “but it never hurts to be prepared.
Instead, conflict arrived attendant on the trains of Paul and James Stanton, who had both come from London by train that afternoon; after they'd got out of the rickety old village taxi and paid the spotty kid driver his fare, a third person climbed out of the back seat and came to the front door of the old vicarage alongside the brothers, a third person who was pretty and leggy and honey-blonde.
“Mum,” James – a rather self-important looking young man of about Bran's own age in a naff suit – said as they stood in the door, “Mum, this is Marilyn, I asked her to come out with me, she's been ever so ducky about this whole rotten business.”
“Nice to meet you, Mrs. Stanton, Mr. Stanton,” the unfortunate Marilyn said with perfect warmth and politeness. “James has told me so much about you. I'm so sorry for your loss. I'm a paralegal in his office, so I see him most every day, and I always ask for the news.”
“Hey Max, Deb, Bar. And – whoever's that there?” The last was directed at Bran.
It was only when Mrs. Stanton, with an equally polite smile, pulled James down to the other end of the hallway after her while Barbara, wide-eyed, took over playing hostess on no notice, while hissing at her son, “James, how could you?” that Bran realized anything was wrong; he'd hung to the back of the crowd by the door, not wanting to be in the way, but in doing so it seemed he had inadvertently placed himself at ground zero for potential behind-the-scenes family conflict. Paul, a nice-looking, slightish young man in what Bran was coming to recognize as the Stanton family mould, slipped around behind the traffic jam at the door, heading back to the kitchen where, Bran knew, Mr. Stanton was finishing up a round of omelets for a brunch.
“What?” James said. “She's perfectly nice, mum, and we're all adults here.”
“We haven't anywhere for her to sleep! What possessed you not to call?”
“Sorry, mum,” he hissed back, “but I thought when you said to bring friends home any time I wanted to you meant it!”
“I did!” she replied. “But these are not exactly normal circumstances!”
“Of course they aren't! Why do you think I wanted her to come in the first place? I've been a wreck over this, I swear I've not been able to sleep for dreaming about – about when we were kids, things like that.”
“I'm sorry for it, dear,” Mrs. Stanton said, softening, “but still it is the reality that we have no room for your friend, even with Stephen still in Jamaica. There's you and Paul and Mary all need beds, and I won't have Barbara turfed out, not after all she's done the last few months. And we've got Bran Davies here, from Clywd, who's been sleeping in Will's attic, so I can't send anyone up there, even. It really was stupidly inconsiderate of you, James.”
“It wouldn't have been a problem,” James said sulkily, cutting his eyes at Bran, “if it hadn't been for him, staying in Will's room; Paul could've slept there, and then Marilyn and I would have fit all right. I didn't know there was someone else staying here, I thought your Welsh visitors had all gone home.”
“Your Aunt Jen had to go, but Bran's stayed on a few extra days as a personal favor to me. Bran is a welcome guest here – and he's certainly been less bother so far this holiday than you have, so I can well imagine you'd be feeling jealous.”
From back in the kitchen, Bran could hear a second argument, this time between Paul and Roger Stanton, kicking into gear: “Why are you so worried about this, dad, it's not even like you thought that well of the Huntercombe people” - and Mr. Stanton's voice, intense and urgent, “It's not about the Huntercombe people, it's about our obligations to this community, the place of our family – Will – Will's broken faith, he has, and it's up to us to -”
“It is not,” Paul shot back from the kitchen, louder and more emphatic. “Dad, no one in the village is going to think poorly of the family for something this beyond our control. You're being ridiculous.”
“Why would I be jealous?” James was sneering at them in the front hall.
“I only asked if you'd see to opening the manor house this year,” Roger Stanton bit back from the kitchen; “not for you to register for a decade of indentured labor.”
“All right,” Paul declared loudly, coming out of the kitchen with his father following hot on his heels, “time for some solutions, I think. Dad, you're worried about the manor house, and Mum, it seems like there isn't room at the inn. I'm going to kill two birds with one stone here and go over to Huntercombe tonight; if I take a space heater or two I should be able to keep warm enough, and it'll do the gas system good to run for a bit before we have anyone into the place, dad's right about that. I haven't even unpacked my things, I'll just grab them and go.”
“Stay a little while, Paul, please do,” Mrs. Stanton said quietly, the tension of the situation bottoming out and leaving the group generally reeling. “Have some food, let's catch up. It's a good idea for you to go over there tonight – thank you for thinking of it, it'll be a great help – but I only just got you home and I want a proper visit. You too, James. And Marilyn, dear, please do forgive us for all the drama, I promise you it's not always like this.”
“No?” Barbara said, lifting an elegant eyebrow.
“I didn't say it never was,” her mother replied. “Let me get everyone some tea.”
“Max,” Paul said to his brother, “can I borrow your car, d'you think? I know it's not far, but I'd just as soon not walk there after dark, with all my gear, when the house's been closed up for so long. A chap gets nervous, you know, and would like to have an escape strategy.”
“Yeah, shouldn't be a problem,” Max answered mildly. “We're not planning on going anywhere, and there's always mum and dad's auto if we really need it for anything. Ours is probably more reliable, which means it'll be good for you to have.”
James, shamefaced, said, “Thanks, Paul. Sorry to kick you out.”
“Yes, well,” Paul said, “call home next time, all right? And make sure Marilyn has a good time, she's on holiday too.”
James slid his eyes at Bran again, and Bran winced at little at the application in the Stanton boy's face; Bran, like Marilyn, was an interloper, a guest who needed entertaining at the very time the family was most over-stressed. He couldn't explain, then, not without re-enflaming the horrible awkwardness of the situation.
Egomaniacal of him, really; the Stantons had plenty of people around them, family and old friends, and here was a near-stranger like Bran taking up a bed while sons of the house were displaced.
James took Marilyn up the stairs to settle in to one of the empty bedrooms - “we can push the two twin beds together,” he was saying, “it'll be fantastic with a bolster down the middle, just you wait,” and Marilyn was smiling tentatively at him, starting to recover her equanimity. But Bran felt himself losing his hold over his own, insecurity and anxiety and a feeling of being outside rising up in his chest and throat with strangling intensity.
“Paul,” he said, and Paul looked over.
“Remind me your name again, sorry,” Paul said in a pleasant, light voice; now that the conflict was past, he seemed to be subsiding into a quiet, beaming sort of tranquility, which Bran assumed was the default state of his character. Jazz musicians. He'd known packs of the type at school.
“Bran Davies,” he said. “I live on your Aunt Jen and Uncle David's farm, in Wales. I came with your aunt, and after we found out your brother Stephen couldn't come home for Christmas I stayed behind a few extra days.”
“Ta,” Paul said. “Sorry for not remembering – you just got swept up a bit in all the to-do, is all.”
“You're the musician, right?” Bran asked. “I've been meaning to ask you – do you play in an orchestra, or at a jazz club?”
Paul flashed a bright-toothed smile at him. “Both,” he said.
James came thumping back down the stair, pulling a protesting Tom by the wrist. “Come on, Tommy,” he said, “help me get the decoration boxes out. Much more fun than sitting in reading.” But his eyes slid again to Bran as he went past, and Bran got the message, loud and clear: you don't belong here, what are you doing here, you're nothing more than an interloper.
Bran said, “Paul, I can go over to the manor house with you, if there's room. Give them some more space here. Maybe Tommy wants to sleep up in the attic tonight?”
Paul peered at him intently then; too many eyes, Bran thought wildly, too many eyes.
“Are you sure?” Paul asked, and Bran nearly laughed out loud when he realized that he was back again in the position of awkwardly offering to do something out of the ordinary order of things. He suppressed his hysteria, swallowing it down.
“Yes,” he said, “I'm sure. I'll get my things; I've had them all packed together since Mrs. Evans left.”
“All right,” Paul said, eyebrows still elevated somewhat. “But we won't be leaving for a while, I guess. Mother seems pretty unsettled, and she asked me to stick around for the day. Might try to get away later and at least start the furnace up; but like I said to mum, there's space heaters if not.”
It was past dark by the time they'd left in Max's car; they'd eaten with the Stantons, and finally had been packed off with containers of still-hot leftovers. Gwen had come by later in the evening, and Soraya and Baby Lainey had stopped by after daycare to play with the grandparents for a few hours; so the house had been packed all afternoon.
Pulling up to the Huntercombe manor house, Bran could see very little of detail about its exterior; few lights were lit, indoors or out, and his main takeaway was the vastness and expanse of the space of the grounds.
“Grab those cube heaters out of the boot,” Paul said; “it's going to be cold as a witch's tit in there until we can get the furnace going. That's why I wanted to come earlier, so that we wouldn't be cold in the dark – but you can't have everything all your own way, I suppose.”
They hauled their gear and their overnight bags down along a brickwork walk. “The house has changed a lot since we were kids,” Paul continued, producing a large iron key on a ring from his pocket and proceeding to use it to open the great front door. “It's all been restored to the glory days of the 1830s now. It was much shabbier and more run-down before that, and not nearly so well-decorated.”
The door opened onto a high-ceilinged hall and front parlor, with staircases branching up and other hallways running back. Paul flipped a few switches, and lights came on. “Here,” he said. “Drop your bags by the stair there – we'll sleep in one of the guest rooms upstairs, normally I would put us both in the butler's suite, it being the warmest part of the house,” Paul said, indicating a short hallway running back from the front hall that was ominously marked off with yellow crime scene tape. “As you can see, it's not an option at the moment, still being subject to ongoing investigation. Not that anyone's been in here recently,” he added in a bitter, bitten tone. “But we still shouldn't let it be disturbed. I mean to move some of the screens from the ballroom in when I open the house for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, so that no explorers will muck things up. Let me give you a penny tour of the lower house, you don't want to sleep somewhere you've never seen most of.”
They dropped their bags and headed back into the house's lower level - “It's mostly bedrooms, guest bedrooms and a master suite, upstairs,” Paul said. “The master suite is quite something, and sometimes tours go up there. It'll stay closed for now, though, too much bother this year to let people go up.” In the long hall, a double row of portraits hung; a peculiar hodgepodge of styles and periods, it seemed more like a collection of persons someone had known, rather than a curated collection of art.
“Are the portraits historically accurate?” Bran asked as they went by.
“This one,” Paul said, pointing to a picture of a pretty, very English-looking girl in a high-necked corseted dress, the first painting in the top row, a place of honor, “is of Miss Greythorne when she was a girl. I don't know where Will hunted up the others; but they're not a part of some sort of original décor, I do know that much. This one here always reminds me of Old George, who used to be at Dawson's farm – but you can see by looking at it that it's far too old. Might be an ancestor, though.”
There were more than a dozen, all together: the pretty Victorian girl, the painting of the gnarled old man who was not Old George, and other men and women beside them. A man with a shock of white hair and a remote, craggy face, looked out of a portrait done in contemporary-looking pastels, and to its immediate left an antique green velvet frame held what looked like an etching, or a block print of some kind, depicting the face and torso of a young man with a pointed face, who had something at once suspicious and charming in character of his smile.
There was a lovely ballroom off the hall, walls painted with what Paul said were Georgian-style murals, delicate and aesthetically pleasing, and at one end a great fireplace surrounded by carved wood panelling. Paul flipped on the electric lights for a minute so that Bran could see, and for a moment the room was flooded with light, fractured and twinkling through the prisms of the great chandeliers, before the switch was thrown again.
“It is all very pretty,” Bran said as they made their way back to the main stair. “So, your brother – he was involved in the restoration?”
“Yeah,” Paul said, “yeah, Will got kind of nutty about it, when it was going on. But you're right, it is all totally gorgeous – the result was worth it. Look, I'm knackered; let me go down and bang on the furnace a bit, and then I'm off to bed. We'll set a fire in the grate tomorrow, less chance of burning the house down. It's happened once or twice, you know,” he added cheerily.
“I'm not much tired yet,” Bran said. “Is it all right if I have a look around, and come up later?”
“Sure,” Paul said. “The whole house is pretty well electrified now, so you shouldn't have a problem – tomorrow, also, we'll have to open the gas pipes so you can see the gaslights in action, Will had them set up all over the old place, they're just wild, make this funny popping noise right before they're lit. Maybe take one of the heaters with you? I'll set us up to sleep in the room second to the right of the grand staircase, and you can come up whenever you're ready.”
As Paul went to do battle with the heating system, Bran wandered back down to the painted ballroom. The dancing figures on the walls looked strange in the shadows. He saw the ghostly globes of the unlit gaslights, the great empty mouth of the fireplace – this house should be all lit and ringed about with fire, he thought, but instead it is cold and dark.
It was getting late, past eleven. He couldn't imagine that he'd be able to sleep that night, not in this museum-shrine-mausoleum. It was the last night before the solstice, the longest night of the year, and he would only be able to stay for a few more days in Buckinghamshire; there was his father, back in his cottage in the mountains in Wales, waiting for his son to stand beside him in the Christmas chapel services, a trust and faith that must not be betrayed, and Rhys Evans traveling home on the 23rd, the day after next.
The Stantons have lost their son, he thought sadly, but still they have their other sons and daughters to comfort them. Not so my poor da.
Still – it had been nice, being away for a bit.
Would Owen Davies always need him by? Owen himself would be the first to say he did not, that Bran was free to make his life wherever he wanted, with a place always ready for him at home, but no demand that he fill it.
There was a little door at the one side of the ballroom, he saw, his eyes adjusting to the low light – he was oddly loathe to flood the high pictured room again with electric light, and moved through it with only the dim illumination spilling through from the lit hall to guide him. A little dark wood-paneled door, unobtrusive, but not blocked at all. When he pushed against it, it swung quickly wide, admitting him to a little library nook, with a fireplace, high shelving, a green glass lamp with a pull string which came on at Bran's tug, and a looming grandfather clock with a swinging brushed-brass pendulum hanging down. The whole small room was filled with its mellow tock, tock.
Bran smiled, put on the lamp, dragged in his heater, plugged it in, and settled at a reading table to bask in the sudden warmth. Like much of the house, the room looked old but seemed new, Victorian stylings re-created with 1980s materials, the wood still new-polished and unscarred and the velvet yet uncrushed and thick.
It was the purest solitude he'd had in more than a week, and he sat still and breathed in silence. A wave of sleepiness rolled over him, and something like Paul's undaunted tranquility of spirit in the face of human tumult. It was a good place, the little secret library; he liked it better than the rest of the house. If it was haunted, it was by thoughts rather than by ghosts, and that was a tangible relief to him.
There was a stack of crumbling old magazines held in plastic sleeves sitting at one end of the reading table; not glossy commercial modern magazines, but real old-fashioned publications from back in the days when novels had been read as serials first, with titles like The Spectator and Sharpe's London Magazine set on their cover pages in florid largeletter type. A few sat open on the table, as though they had been left there by a reader who'd stood up to grab a biscuit and a cup of tea – had it been Will Stanton? Was it him who'd sat here last, hidden away in a library nook of a great empty house with no one else for a good mile around? What research had he been engaged in, what reading?
One of them was open to a page displaying a poem, which Bran picked up and read:
“Fill! fill the bumper up,
Come, send around the wine,
And let us sing—of England's king—
Brave Arthur the divine.
“Happy the nation that possess'd
So great a king as he;
Thrice blest the arm that breaks the charm,
And sets the monarch free!
“Blest be the hand that draws the sword,
The lips that wind the horn;
For England, aye, shall bless the day,
On which that man was born.”
Basic enough doggerel, but he liked it; he'd always liked that sort of thing in school. He saw that another journal was similarly laid open beneath the first one; picking it up in turn, he started reading the two-column story spread in the middle, too tired to bother going back to the beginning, not really wanting to be engaged in the story.
He really was feeling very sleepy, the quiet and the blasting radiant heat from the small unit combining to undermine his will to wakefulness. As his internal walls came down, he felt more vividly the melancholy of the situation; he'd lingered, hoping to meet a happy ending before he went home, and none had appeared. There was nothing left for him to do, no one here who needed him; but the taste of failure was heavy in his mouth, and he was loath to leave without the victory.
He read, so tired now that he was barely tracking the words and sentences: “She did not wonder now at the brightness of the river, for those roses had been reflected in it, and their light sparkled on its waves till the river was lost in the sea ... and, as the river spirit spoke, the spreading branches of the great tree parted, revealing the hall of the statues beyond. ... Go home, child: it needs a man's heart to risk such a fate ...”
He slipped from consciousness then, his head sagging down to lie pillowed on the periodicals; and in the warm quiet he dreamed of waking, dreamed that he stood and walked around the little library, looking at the spines of the collection there, Malleus Malleficarum, Frazer's Golden Bough. He dreamed of the clock and the pendulum tock-tock-tocking, loud in count of time, though time might as well have held still in this place.
Time was rushing by him, its flow like the inexorable rush of the river; but like a stone, or a piece of heavy sediment, in his dream he stood unmoved by the water; which quieted then, becoming a still and shallow puddling around his cold and leaden feet, which soon had become deeply mired in the winter muck.
He tripped and fell forward, putting out his hands to catch himself. His sense of deja vu was strong enough that he woke, wide-eyed in the Huntercombe library. If that dream had continued, he thought, you know what face it was you would have seen. It would have been Will Stanton's child face looking back up at you from beneath the black still water.
Tamesis has been throwing out her strongest webs, the ticking of the clock seemed to whisper to him.
Was he truly awake, or was he still dreaming?
“This is insane,” he whispered aloud. “The thing you're planning on doing, it's insane.”
But his feet were charged with purpose, and whatever part of his subconscious mind it was that had gripped him did not care very much about sanity. He remembered to unplug the cube heater in the library nook before he left, recalling Paul's mention of previous Huntercombe fires. He left a note for Paul, tucked against the inner side of the manor's front door: “I've taken the car, following up on a lead. Will be in touch. Sorry about the inconvenience. BRAN DAVIES.” But there was little else he could do to control his course; something else had grasped the iron of his will, and was driving him onward. The portraits in the hall looked down on him as he stumbled out into the night.
It was the river had to do with it; of that he was peculiarly and terribly clear. The linkage had been repeated over and over again: the child and the river, the child and the river. And he had been warned of her, of Tamesis.
She was his adversary, so it was therefore to her place that he had now to go.
How far was it, from Buckinghamshire to the head of the River Thames? Shaking a little in the nighttime cold, huddling into his heavy coat and scarf, he dug around in Max's car's glovebox, emerging triumphantly after a moment's fumbling with a highway atlas. It was far enough; it was fortunate the Stantons didn't live in a place like Oxford or London, down at the river's end. But still, he was determined; he was going.
No one was on the roads so late at night, and Bran moved along the dark highway alone still half-dreaming. It was probably terrifically dangerous for him to be driving, but he didn't care. The image of the face of the child in the water was always before his eyes as he drove on through the dark. He had the dome light in the car on, the atlas open in the passenger seat beside him; he was going to Kemble, to Thames Head, whether the impulse was mad or sane. He was tired of waiting, tired of jumping at omens and then trying to forget. His father would not have gone; but Bran was not his father.
The M4 became the A419, and then the A433. Bran was grateful that Max had kept his car well-fueled. For more than an hour he drove through the dark, impelled by what forces he could not name, shaking with pent-up energy and agitation. The river wove around beneath him like a twisting snake, throwing off pools and rills and little tributaries, seeping through every inch of the earth, and he remained as aware of its presence as though he were a mouse marked as its legitimate prey.
He came to the Thames Head Bridge in Cirencester; just a little farther, he thought, just go a little farther, you're nearly to the source. He could feel the welling potential of the river through the entirety of the ground now, its tendrils nursing the barren trees and feeding the stagnant fenny pools, seeping into the roadway and nourishing all of the animal life. There was only a small sign directing him to a car park for Trewsbury Mead and the river head, but he found it all the same, and at last pulled to a stop. He turned off the car. The absence of the engine noise rang loud in his ears.
The waxing moon, high in the sky at the late hour, gave just enough light to see by, in a strange and ghostly way; and when he left the car in the car park Bran took along the torch that Max Stanton, bless his preparedness, kept beside his atlas in the glovebox, though it did not do much more than disorientate him further. At least, he thought, he'd always been blessed with good night vision.
Exhausted from tension and lack of sleep, nearly febrile, hands shaking a little in his pockets, he stumbled out into the cold night, his breath coming out in little puffs of condensation. At the end of a path stood an ash tree, wide and winding-rooted, and beside it there were a cairn and a monument. The monument, he saw as he drew near, was inscribed:
THE CONSERVATORS OF THE RIVER THAMES
THIS STONE WAS PLACED HERE TO MARK THE
SOURCE OF THE RIVER THAMES
At the heart of the cairn's stone circle, a pool of clear water shivered as bubbles from the rising spring beneath the ground rose to the surface. Still, there was little water, not enough to match the river of his dream.
Shit, he thought, I've come too far. This was Tamesis' place, all right, he could feel her presence clearly in stock and in stone; but it was evidently not her store-room.
Will Stanton, he knew, lay beneath the water somewhere lower in the river's course. Not dead, not drowned. Waiting. Asleep. Enchanted.
Bran began to walk. He was gone beyond sleepiness again now, strung up as he had been for so many hours by his unbearable inward sense of terrible purpose. As he walked, the river gathered strength, puddles giving way to a constant trickling stream. He crossed a broad flat field, and followed the newborn river as it ran along a little ditch; under a stone footbridge, and another, and it was becoming a recognizable stream. Will Stanton better be paying me travel expenses, Bran grumped to himself as his boots began to feel ominously damp. First I go from Wales to Buckinghamshire, then to Gloucestershire, and then I find I've gone too damn far upriver and have to backtrack on foot, in the wet, halfway through the night. Ought to draw hazard pay, too. Not to mention the overtime.
So involved was he in these complaining thoughts that, when at last he came to the place he was looking for – the place that so many had been looking for, for more than a month now, ever since Will Stanton had vanished from the old estate – he did not immediately realize it. But a pale gleam of flesh caught his eye, and wheeling sharply he saw, there in the narrow ditch that was the fledgling Thames, a man's body, still and white as death.
He stood stock-still, looking down, his feet in the water and his hands shaking.
The Will Stanton he'd found was not the child of his dream. This was the body of a man his own age, though slight in form and withered from deprivation, pale and bony there beneath the frigid water. Longish fine brown hair waved over his brow, which even in unconsciousness seemed to be drawn taut with stress or suffering. The sleeves of the man's oxford shirt flapped loose in the water's strengthening current, and if Bran looked he could see a scar on the inside of his right wrist, the scar he'd glimpsed in photos in the Stanton kitchen, though only now could he see the full design: a simple circle, quartered by a cross.
Bran sucked in his breath – he had found him, he had found him, it was all over – and made to plunge his bare hands into the icy stream to retrieve the body of the man below. The expected shock of cold, however, did not come. He could not touch the water.
Found him, he thought; now I just have to retrieve him.
Exhausted, raging again in hot frustration, he yelled aloud, “Tamesis! Tamesis! I bid you speak with me; come!”
And then she was there, leaning against the slippery black ditch bank: the genius of the river, goddess Tamesis, with face neither old nor young, kind nor cruel, and long black hair snaking around the long column of her nut-brown throat. She was clad all in green and silver, her gown dripping and heavy with water and weeds.
He swallowed. Summon a goddess, he thought, best be ready on the chance that she'll appear.
“Well, Pendragon,” she said, turning her eerie inhuman face to him, “I am commanded; I stay at your word.”
“Pendragon,” he said, echoing; it was what the uncanny creature-man in the Huntercombe orchard had called him.
Crossing the stream, her bared feet passing over the surface of the water that covered Will's motionless body without a ripple, she reached out a long-fingered hand to gently touch the place of Bran's cheek. “Blood of Arthur,” she said.
“By Arthur's blood,” the river genius told him, “you may command stock and stone of the isle.”
“But I'm Welsh!” he protested.
“Foolish child,” she said, an icy dismissal. “You are ignorant of your history. Arthur was not the King of England only.”
“Blood of Guenever, too,” she said then. “By both could you stay me; as Pendragon command me. But you are also my sister-son, and so entitled to beg of me a boon.”
“Arthur?” he said. “Guenever? Your sister-son?!”
“Do you no longer tell tales of him, in Wales? Or of your mother? Gwenhwyfar ferch Ogrfan Gawr, rwg yn fechan, gwaeth yn fawr.”
“'Guenever, daughter of the giant; bad when little, worse when great.' The giant?” he asked.
“Our father,” the river genius replied; “you can see his bones strewn all along the Heraklean Way.”
“You have my friend there,” Bran said. His voice was rough with fear; he hoped that she would misperceive the emotion as a more dominant aggression.
“Your friend?” she said, voice gentle as a reed's whisper. “I have a child, Pendragon, a lost child. I am entitled to him; all lost children are mine to take by law.”
“I don't see a child there,” Bran said.
“No? Look again.” And as Bran watched, Will's thin pale adult face beneath the water changed, grew rounder, smaller; and the man's bony body shortened, contracting into itself with a curling gesture like a shy child trying to hide.
“I do not understand,” Bran said. This was the child he'd seen in his dream in Clywd, lying still and silent under the fast-moving water. He'd seen this child's face in photographs in the Stanton home, and himself could vaguely recall a version of it, slightly older, the funny quiet brown-haired boy who had come to stay a time or two on David Evans' farm in Wales.
“The child is unmarked,” she said, and when Bran looked he saw that the scarred wrist was now smooth and without blemish.
“Explain,” he said.
The river spirit said, “When Will Stanton was eleven years old, his child-self was lost. No-one came for the child, no-one saw that he had been lost, no-one missed or mourned him.”
“Claimed by fate on the morning of his eleventh birthday,” she sing-songed. “Marked by fate on the morning of his eleventh birthday. Before that day he had been a child, with happinesses and sorrows and thoughts of the future such as all children have; but after that birthday, he ceased to be human. Claimed by fate, he allowed the child he had been to become lost, and after a long time of drifting it has come to me. Lost children are mine by law, little Pendragon; I have made no trespass here.”
“He looks human enough to me,” Bran said. “He has a mother and a father, as human men do. If he is not human,” Bran asked the genius, “what is he?” This, he felt, was the core of the mystery; he'd come too far to go back now.
“An Old One of the Light,” she answered, hissing. “An Old One of the Light.”
Bran said nothing; the words were not meaningful to him. Tamesis seemed then to regain control of herself, becoming imperturbably calm once again.
“You, at least, have not mourned him,” she said. “You can barely remember him, a result of decisions made by him, and his compatriots. The child was left alone and lost, and I took it in and soothed and quieted it, and put it to sleep in my river bed. It is more than anyone has done for it in years, poor shade.” She was tender as a mother now; but he did not trust her to remain so.
“His mother, his father, his siblings, his community: all these mourn him, even now. He's an adult, not a child. I do not understand.” Stubbornly, he insisted again, “Explain.”
“The man is marked,” she hissed, “he is taken, he is dead. The mourners are belated. They did not see it happen, when he died to them, but it happened long ago. He is dead, the child unmourned; and so the child is mine.”
He said, greatly daring, “I challenge that he is not dead, and that he is mourned.”
He said, louder, stronger, “On these grounds, I challenge the legitimacy of your claim. By – by my blood, I claim the right to challenge you for possession.”
“You have the right,” she said, still as a deer in a clearing, her eyes luminous and limpid as the moon. “You have it. But do you think they will want him back, knowing what he is? Do you want him back? He and his masters plundered your mind, and left you all unknowing, trapped and without power; and he has made his precious family, whom you claim mourn him even now, forget many things about his nature and actions.”
“It doesn't matter,” Bran said. “Even without memory, I also have mourned him; without words, for I have had none, but with feeling deep and unabated. By my mourning, I claim the right to him.”
She looked long at him, the spirit of the river Thames, and though he shuddered and shivered under her gaze yet he held firm. “Call to him, then,” she hissed. “Call to him, and see if your near-forgotten bloodlines can bring you power enough to breach the shields of his privacy. He does not tell secrets; he has not spoken to you for fourteen years. Will he answer your call now, little Pendragon?”
“He will,” Bran said, “because he is missed, and I mean to tell him so.”
Not with his mouth but with his mind, Bran reached out to the still figure beneath the water. Will Stanton, he thought, Will Stanton, you had better answer me. This is Bran Davies – Bran Pendragon – come to bring you home. Your mother misses you, and so does your da, and all your sibs. Even if James is a berk. They deserve better than this; and so do you.
The answer came back to him at first in images more than in words: memories, like those he'd been receiving for more than a month now in fits and spurts of dreaming. Will as a small child, burning his arm; John Rowland's craggy face, ten years younger than Bran was used to, his warm familiar voice saying terrible things that Bran couldn't quite hear clearly, things about coldness, alienation; the faces of Will's siblings, younger than Bran had known them, Paul and James and a tall young man Bran recognized from the photos in the attic bedroom as Stephen, all of them made in turn to forget.
Bran's own face, his face as a child, his child-body still small and wiry; his own voice, declaring an intention to go back; and then a look of blankness coming over his child-face, as he too simply – forgot.
The figure in the river changed again to its adult shape, the sad pale child vanished into the pale thin man. Tamesis, sitting near him on the bank, smiled a cold calm smile. “He does not wake,” she said. “He does not turn to you.”
Bran wasn't giving up. “Will Stanton,” he called aloud. “I don't care about how you're not human, and how you've hidden things from your family, and how you've hidden from me. Well, I tell a lie, I do care – but not that much, I don't. But I am your Pendragon, and I am telling you to come to me. I am not giving you the option of sleeping away your eternity here in some damn ditch, d'you hear me?”
And there beneath the water Will Stanton's sea-blue eyes opened, and he looked up to meet Bran's own tawny-gold ones.
Then he sat up, gasping and wild-eyed, still sitting submerged to the waist in the infant Thames, and the breath from his mouth was visible in the cold night air. “Bran,” he gasped, “Bran.” He said it just right, with just the right vowel sound, and when Bran reached down to pull him up from the river bed, the round scar was visible once more above the thin cold hand he held clasped within his own.
Together, the two went down in a sodden tangled heap on the river bank, Will's thin cold soaked body cradled in Bran's lap, his cold wet face pressing into Bran's shoulder. He was shaking; they both were.
“I have passed your test,” Bran said to the river genius, outwardly matching her cool and calm; she would not know how wild were his emotions in that moment, she must not. She was not safe, kin to him or no. “May I take what I have won?”
“You must give me also some recompense,” Tamesis said. “Many things I could have done with such a one as that; I must be paid for the loss.”
“That was not part of our bargain,” Bran said, “but I am prepared to be generous. Kinswoman. What would you have of me?”
“You have several things of value – most of all, your person. I would accept your blood, little Pendragon, but I should far rather have your time.”
“Bran,” Will said again against his neck. “Bran. You came for me. You came for me. Sire.”
“Yes,” Bran said, bending down to press a branding kiss to the chill skin of Will's forehead. “I will always come for you,” he said. “Dewin.”
To Tamesis, he said, “My time?”
“Return,” she said. “Return, and bless the land of my valley for a time. You are the only son of our king, and we have long waited alone.”
Will Stanton lay heavy and shaking in his lap, all skin and bones and water and cold, and Bran thought of his family downriver, the manor house and Dawson's farm, the old vicarage and the river crossings and the crumbling stone church.
“All right, then,” he said.
When Bran looked around them again, he saw no sign of the goddess Tamesis whatsoever, but Will was still there. So let the bargain be struck, he thought. As they sat there together, Will barely conscious to speak of it, fat white flakes of snow began to drift through the still air. It was the morning of the 21st, though still well before dawn.
"Good Solstice, Will Stanton," Bran whispered, and - just for a moment - let his head drop and hang low. He had found him.