This piece of fanfiction is intended purely for amusement. No disrespect is intended, either to Susan Cooper from whose Dark is Rising books this writing is drawn or to the characters themselves. Characters are the creation of Susan Cooper: some scenery and concepts are drawn from Mary Stewart. What The Cat Knew bridges the gap between The Dark is Rising and Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar books, so it probably helps if you know a little about either series.
Warnings for language, angst, slash, possibly consent issues if youíre reading too fast.
Archiving: Please ask first.

What The Cat Knew
or The Romance of the Six Sleepers

Jay Tryfanstone

 

 

Chapter One

Will Stanton looked up from the pile of marking that lay on his desk. The small sitting room of his Nottingham terrace should have been familiar, background. Instead, as his eyes surveyed the stacked books, the old and comfortable chairs, the quiet television, it appeared as different as if he were a stranger come to visit. Had it been him who had hung the Klee prints, Barney's oil of a Cornish landscape? Was that his mug, cold coffee held in Welsh clay?

Under his tense grasp, unregarded, the red biro skittered across untidy sheets.

Alone and self-conscious, Will swore to himself. 'Duw.' What was it? He listened, aware of senses stretching beyond his own environment: the content, sleepy purr of the cat in the kitchen, the frustrated fluffle of Mrs Downe's next door canary, the curl of water vapour above the damp streets, the uneven, pink-tinged amber of the third street lamp along, the one that always flickered when it rained. Nothing. Half remembered he listened for, and did not find, the oppressive weight of the Dark.

Finding, still, nothing, he drew his senses back to the small room. Under the pool of light from the desk lamp, he ran one finger across the rough slab of Cornish slate that lay by his telephone. No sense or feeling, none of the shimmer of recognition and joy when Merriman arose, as he did seldom these days, to walk once more in the waking world.

Unaccountable, uninvited, the part of himself that was purely Old One had awoken. Somewhere, he was needed.

Sitting at the desk spread with marking and lesson plans, Will allowed his memory to range over those long ago days when Merriman and he and Bran had fought to halt the Dark's last great rising: when with the three from the track they had battled the massed weight of the oldest power in the land. And won. It seemed half a dream now, the aquiline face of the homesick centurion, the rose of the Lady's ring, that last, wild ride across England's green hills to the silver on the tree.

'But we won.' He said to himself. Why, then, this awakening?

Unsettled, he rose from the desk and collected the neglected coffee. Golden light spilled from the kitchen, the kettle steaming gently as he collected coffee and milk, filled the cup, lent against the kitchen cabinets. Disturbed, the cat opened one eye, stretched with lazy grace and turned twice against his legs.

"What is it, Puss?" Will said, his own voice loud in his ears. "What is it, this time?"

The cat made no reply, in the way of all cats.

Listening again, Will sipped the coffee. Outside, all was quiet: a single student walking home swiftly late this night, the next door television low, insistent. Something skittled on the kitchen lino: he glanced down.

In front of the washing machine, the cat was stalking hazelnuts.

Remembered, sharp pain: Bran's angular, pale face, bright golden eyes gleaming with mercurial mischief. 'Gwion's health food.' Hazelnuts, shelled, and apples, in that small cottage with the white bones of the Lost Land's defences lying under the flying may tree. Such a small thing.

Will turned his head, looking at the notice board by the fridge, the snaps of holidays spent with friends in Scotland and Wales: Cornwall's harsh cliffs and gentle fields. Jane, hair whipped across her face by a Welsh salt wind, laughing, Barney, formal in snatched press photographs. And the one, small photograph of Bran, clipped from a magazine he had found lying in the form room at the end of the summer term. It was spring, now, a wet and stinging spring with no sign yet of the budding green. Arrogant, Bran's tilted head expressed an infinite disdain, his hair long and tangled and white, the dark shield of his glasses reflecting flash bulbs and watchers. He was smiling, but it was not a smile that Will appreciated.

"Ah, boyo, what happened to us?" Will said, borrowing from Bran's speech as he did often, talking to himself in the quiet of an empty house.

The cat mewed.

"You think I should ring him, maybe? I don't think we're going there again-"

And then he knew. On the edges of his mind, on the tender and painful place that held Bran's laughter and his quicksilver smile, he knew. Bran needed him.

"Shit."

Will closed his eyes, put the mug carefully down on the counter, and held tightly to the edges of the kitchen table.

"Shit, shit, shit."

"Fuck," he added, for good measure.

A long time later, he realised that the cat, appeased, had come to curl around his feet and warm them.

"How did you know?" he asked.

The cat yawned, looking up at him.

"This is going to be bad."

The cat sneezed, uncurled. With a flip of the tip of its erect tail, it paced into the living room. Will took a long breath (Had he been breathing?) and followed.

By the green light of the video clock, it was well past midnight. For Will Stanton, the day was almost over. For Bran: Will could not even imagine what kind of hours Bran Davies of Clywd kept these days.

"Hello?" He imagined himself saying, to some sleek and taloned woman at a glass desk in London. "Hello? My name's Will, I'm an old friend of Bran Davies, and I think he needs me...Can you give me his telephone number?"

Oh yes, ask him to speak Gaelic, ask him how to heal a sword cut with comfrey, ask him who laid the six sleepers to rest Ė just don't ask him to find one exclusive and guarded telephone number.

Will tapped his fingernails on the battered book resting by the phone. John Rowlands would not thank him for ringing at this hour, nor would Jane, with three children in the house Ė even if she had Bran's number, which he doubted. Simon, of course, was unreachable, and again-

Will flicked through the book. Drew, Barney's page, with the multiple crossed out numbers as they had all moved through school and University and art college, through digs and rented houses and finally, for Barney, a vast flat in the Docklands that always made Will feel as if he would cut himself on the sharp stone and glass of that floodlit interior. Barney would be awake.

It took three repeated calls before Barney answered the call, although the music and laughter in the background showed he had been far from sleep.

"Hello?" Barney said, his soft voice quicker, edged with London.

"Barney? It's Will."

"Hey, Will!" Barney's voice, shouting unintelligibly away from the phone, as the music quietened. Then back. "What is it, sober history teacher?" Barney was smiling.

"I- " Will paused.

"You can skip the how are yous, Will," Barney said. "What is it?"

"Barney, do you have Bran's number?"

"What?" said Barney. He paused. "You're kidding."

"No," said Will.

"After six years? After Cardiff?"

"Yes."

"Jesus, Will, you're a glutton for punishment."

"Yeah, I know," Will said.

"I suppose it's urgent?" Barney's voice sharpened. "It's not John?"

"No, it's not. Bran-"

"Bran?"

"Bran needs me."

The phone was silent.

"Barney."

"Do you have any idea how difficult this is going to be?" Barney said. "Give me a few minutes. You're in Nottingham, yeah?"

"Yes."

"I'll call you back."

The phone went dead. Will carefully replaced the handset, checked the clock. Nearly one. It was going to be a long night, but all his senses were singing now: he was not tired. Quickly now, he collected rucksack and comfortable boots, packed a spare jumper and money, food. (Where had those hazelnuts come from?) Sat down on the couch, eyes on the phone. It took Barney twenty minutes to call back, and there was no background noise this time.

"Will?"

"Yes."

"You owe me. I had to call in favours you wouldn't believe for this one."

"Thanks."

"Ok, Will, I guess you know what you're doing. Here you go."

Will noted the number down in a hand that found writing unfamiliar.

"Thanks Barney," he said, his grip tight on the phone. "And-"

"Of course you can," Barney said. "I guessed. When-"

"There's a sleeper, if I hurry," Will said.

"That's a first for British Rail. A train when you need one. See you in the morning?"

"Yes. Thanks."

"Always open for my favourite guests," Barney said. He yawned. "'night, then."

"Cheers."

Across the room, the cat's eyes glinted.

Will dialed the number.

To his surprise, the phone was answered at once, a brittle, sharp voice that cut cross the wires.

"Who is this?"

"My name's Will Stanton-"

"How did you get this number?"

"I'm a friend of Bran's."

"There'll be a press release in the morning. Janice'll be handling- a friend, you said?"

"Bran and I used to know each other well. In Wales. I was wondering-"

"Hang on," said the voice.

Will waited. Then, another man, a warmer voice.

"Will Stanton?"

"Yes," said Will.

"This is Detective Inspector Rees, of Scotland Yard. We're monitoring this line at the moment. Is your call urgent?"

"Where's Bran?" Will said. The mildest compulsion.

"Bran Davies has been missing for three days," Rees replied. "We're trying to contact his family and friends. Do you have any information-"

"I believe I might," Will said. "I'm in Nottingham. Can I meet you in the morning?"

"Nine o'clock? You know the address?"

"No."

"Mayfair. Carnaervon Square. You'll recognise the house."

"Thanks," said Will. "I'll see you tomorrow."

He put the phone down, stared at it for a second. Three days. Bran could be anywhere.

"Well, Puss," he said aloud.

Then he strapped on his boots, wrapped himself up in the big fleece-lined gore-tex Stephen had given him last Christmas, and let himself out the door.

Behind him, in the darkness, the cat stretched and padded to the window. It could have told him many things, but, like all cats, it was of the High Magic and the doings of men and Old Ones were, largely, none of its business.

 

Chapter 2

There were reasons why Will lived where he did, in the small, friendly terrace that backed onto the railway line. This, not least, was one of them. It was not Will Stanton, teacher, who walked to the end of the road: it was Will Stanton, youngest and last of the Old Ones, who bowed formally to the reaching flames of the Old Way that crossed here, and set foot on that firm and swift surface. He was ringing Barney's buzzer at seven o'clock, and at nine he was walking up the steps of the tall Mayfair house he had never seen .

The door opened.

Rees, it had to be. Tall and dark, with that curious upright posture that seemed to be trained into all policemen.

"Will Stanton?"

"Yes."

"Come in."

Tall, it was, Bran's house, with a staircase festooned with coloured ribbons (a white skull in the Easter sunshine of a lost land), with jarring artwork, with the smell of stale parties and febrile, chancing power. Not a comfortable house.

"We're using the study." Rees said, opening a door in the hall. And Will stopped, caught, on the threshold. A small room, high-ceilinged: but it was not the two waiting women or the lanky boy on the sofa that halted him: not the gleaming line of gold discs on the walls nor the bank of boards and switches with which, he supposed, Bran worked Ė when he was working. No. In this room, oddly, among the modern chairs and the careless tapes and videos, Bran had collected a rag-taggle mess of faded power: cast shells from a land beneath the sunshine, a spray of greying hawthorn, the yellowed skull of a time-bound wolfling leering from a bookcase. There, in the corner, verdigris copper recalled the hand of its maker, deft and dark: by the fire, a clay pot spun, lazily, in its memories of a spring-side casting. Faded power, tangled, forgetting. What had Bran been doing? Had he felt these old traces of the High Magic? Will shook his head, the faint press of memories distracting. He stepped over the threshold, aware as he did so that above his head, caught in the ridge of door lintel, salt and rowan guarded the entrance against ill-wish.

"Take a seat," Rees said. "This is Maggie Price, Bran's secretary. Janice Ripley, his PR. And this is Tommy."

"Hello," Will said.

Both women looked at him with bright, assessing eyes. Groomed, painted, they reminded him of the people caught in posed informality on the back pages of glossy magazines. Not surprising, he thought to himself. From his sprawl on the sofa, the thin boy raised tired eyes, narrowed with suspicion. No greeting there.

"You're a friend of Bran's?" Rees asked.

"Yes. We spent a lot of time together, growing up. But it's been some time since I saw him."

Maggie sighed. "You've not heard from him recently?" she asked. Her voice was sharp, the woman on the telephone last night.

"No," Will said. "But, back when we were kids, I always knew...when Bran was in trouble. I had this feeling.."

"He hasn't telephoned you, got in touch?" Rees.

"No."

Maggie and Janice looked at each other.

"You've no idea where he might be?" Janice asked. Plummy, her accent, like the private school girls in the village.

"Not yet," Will said. He was tired of this. "Tell me what's happening, and I'll see what I can do."

"He can't help," Tommy's voice was harsh, strained. "You can see he doesn't know anything." He raised his eyes to Will's and in them Will saw a bitter foretaste of abandonment.

"Why not go home, country boy?"

"Hush, Tommy," Maggie said. It was automatic, and from the resentful look the boy turned on her, Will guessed that soothing Tommy was something that came automatically to Bran's staff. It could be worse, he thought, remembering the scarred, edgy drummer that Bran had offered to share with him, that night in Cardiff...and then his thoughts slid away from that pain. Here, here and now mattered.

"What do you know?" Will asked.

Rees looked at Janice. "It can't do any harm," he said.

"I'm not a journalist," Will said. "Here."

From his wallet, Will extracted the one photograph he had of himself and Bran together. Bran was thirteen, himself fourteen, both of them seated on the stone wall of John Rowland's lamb fold. Will was smiling at the camera: Bran had his head turned away, the short shock of white hair blowing in the wind. Behind the dark glasses, his eyes were unreadable.

"That's you alright," Rees said, looking at the photograph.

He passed it to Janice, who pursed her lips. "His hair was so short, then..."

"What do you know?" Will prompted gently.

Rees frowned at Maggie. "I can tell you that Mr Davies has been missing, now, for three days and fourteen hours. Apparently he's gone missing before, so it wasn't until yesterday afternoon that Miss Price contacted us."

Maggie's eyes met his. "He's always come back, before. Usually.." she paused, glanced at Tommy. "Usually we have someone watching him. But this time Bran gave him the slip. It was quite deliberate: he bribed the doormen to let him out the back entrance. We thought he'd gone to the gents."

"You thought he'd gone off with someone else," Tommy said. "You wanted to keep it quiet."

Maggie looked down. "It has...happened before."

Janice glanced at both of them. "Eventually, the record company suggested that we call the police."

"After they'd tried every dive in London," Tommy said.

"We did look for him first," Maggie acknowledged. Will saw, now, that she was older than she had first appeared: there were lines at the corner of her eyes.

"Unfortunately," Rees said. "We have very little information to go on. Mr Davies has a record of..reticence about his behaviour which is apparently normal for him. We've received no indication that foul play is involved, although, as you know, we are monitoring all lines into this house. We've tried his immediate contacts in both London and Wales Ė I mentioned your name to Mr John Rowlands, this morning."

"And?" said Will

"He certainly vouches for you," Rees said, but there was a trace of uncertainty in the glance that he threw at Will.

"There's nothing else?" Will asked.

"Just the one item," Rees said. He frowned again. "Although-"

"I'll tell you, country boy," Tommy said, his eyes sparked with edgy possession. "Bran was talking in his sleep. He was having nightmares."

"Of what?" Will asked. His own voice was sharp, now.

"About dogs," Tommy said. "Dogs and winds, he said, caves and sleepers. All tosh, it sounded like to me..."

"Was there anything more?" Will asked, uncomfortable and adamant under that jealous gaze.

"There was this one word he kept saying. Shouting. Around height, it sounded like: arund blight...I don't remember."

"Ah," said Will. He sat back in his chair.

"Does that mean anything to you?" Rees asked.

"Yes," said Will. He looked at the four of them. "Yes, it does."

"Do you know where he is?" Maggie asked.

"Yes," Will said. "I think I do." He looked down at his fingers, then spread them, in that instinctive and timeless gesture.

"You will forget," said the last of the Old Ones. "Bran Davies is not missing: he has been found. He is resting, with his old friend Will Stanton, who has come this morning to reassure you of his safety. You will not need to contact him: he will return refreshed later in the week."

Will glanced at Tommy, the boy caught, like the others, out of time for one instant. The temptation to...add something else...was very strong. But strong too are the laws of choice and free will governed by the High Magic to which Will himself bowed his head.

"Wake now," Will said.

He watched their faces relax, caught Janice's relieved smile.

"Thank you," she said. "We were worried...Clearly, Inspector Rees, we've wasted your time."

"Don't worry," Rees said. "I'm only glad it's all been cleared up. Thank you, Mr Stanton, for your thoughtfulness."

"That's ok," Will said. "Bran was concerned about what you thought...once he'd woken up."

Tommy sent one suspicious glance across the low table, but said nothing.

"He said to say he'll be in touch as soon as he can," Will said to all of them, but holding Tommy's eyes. "He's very tired."

"That record company..." Maggie muttered.

"I must be going," Will added.

"Of course." Rees got up. "I'm be on my way myself. You ladies will be all right now?"

"We'll be fine," Janice said. "I've a story to run for the papers..." Her eyes rested for an instant on Tommy's face. "Something...romantic." She smiled.

So Will made hurried farewells to an amiably confused Barney, and collected his rucksack, and caught the train to Wales, passing once again across England's gentle hills and into the border country: up through Cardiff's industrial mess of tracks to change trains (with a breath of remembered pain for that night he and Simon and Barney had gone to see Bran's band play at the Cardiff Student Union) and on through the harsher hills of Wales. It was late when he decanted himself from the small train and trudged up into the small village, rucksack hanging from his shoulder like any other tourist. He booked himself into a B&B with white painted walls and, glancing at the gathering dusk, washed in the small bathroom. Then he unpacked his rucksack and stuffing the things he would need into the pockets of his anorak, set off over the bridge and up the hill.

Here, once before, he had been with Bran, when they were both younger, before that great, last, battle, before college, before Bran's music, before the events that had twisted them apart with such searing pain. Well, pain it was for Will. For Bran Ė who could tell, in those unreadable eyes. Had he been drunk, that night in Cardiff? What was it that looked at Will through the golden brightness of those owl's eyes? Why, now, did Bran call for him, six years after they had parted for the last time?

Questions unanswered, Will came to the small hollow in the hills above the spring, with its drinking cup still half-hidden under the fronding bracken. Someone then among the village still kept to the old ways. It was near dark, now, but Will's eyes saw clearly in the evening light. He paused for a minute, and threw off all that remained of that ordinary Will who had no place here.

Then he walked forward into the cave entrance.

And someone giggled.

It was not entirely unexpected. There had, after all, been that cup by the spring.

"Greetings," said Will, allowing his eyes to adjust to this greater darkness. Above his head, bats stirred against the encroaching night.

"Greetings to you, Old One." The voice was dry and brittle, sexless.

Will looked down. To his left, a small bowl had been hollowed into the floor of the cave. He knelt, and reached into his pocket for the small penknife he carried. Carefully, he unsheathed the blade and drew it, lightly, across the ball of his thumb, allowing two bright drops of blood to fall into the basin. Reaching again into his pockets, he drew out an old two-shilling piece and placed it into the basin with the blood. Then he stood again.

The darkness sighed.

"Tribute is offered to the guardian of the cave," Will said.

"Tribute is accepted, Old One," The darkness whispered back. And waited.

"It has been a long time...since the guardian watched this cave," Will said, choosing his words carefully.

"Ahhh," the darkness said. "The boy...the sleepers..." Sibilant, the dry voice spread and turned in the echo of stone walls.

"The boy has left, and the sleepers are raised," said Will. "But the High Magic remains."

"Yesss. Older than you, Will Stanton, older than your masters, we have always been here and always will..."

"But something remains," Will said.

"Who are you to question?" asked the voice, harsh now. "All your kin are gone, Old One, and in this place you have no sovereignty. Ask at your peril."

Will bowed his head. "Tribute has been given."

The answer was reluctant. "And accepted. Ask, then."

"I believe," Will said "That you hold something of mine."

"I might," said the darkness, coy now.

"It is not yours to hold."

The darkness laughed, breathy, powerful. "Tribute was not paid. He is mine to hold."

"Ah." Will said, and was aware that the dark drew back from his presence, bareheaded and still.

"Oh, cunning, Old One," It said. "I forget...the slyness of men. Is that, then, your request?"

Careful now, Will stepped forward. "The man, Bran Davies of Clywd, I ask that you release him to me."

Lighter, now, and Will could see into the dim cave, could see now, near the far wall, the arrested figure of a human man.

"He is not, altogether, this Bran that you name."

"He made his choice, guardian. In this time, he is Bran Davies, and you have no right to hold him. This I have asked."

"Very well. He is yours." The voice was faint now, and Will walked forward. It was Bran, Bran caught out of time and motionless, his clothes messy and his hair lying tangled down his back. In the darkness of the cave, he had removed his glasses and his golden eyes looked forward, stationary, to the small alcove under the folds of rock. One hand reached, arrested in motion, to the shelf. Will followed Bran's gaze. On the rock, catching the last golden gleams of light from a Welsh sunset, lay a sword. A longsword, gleaming grey now as it had done when first placed there.

"Touch that, Old One, and you are mine," the darkness said. "Tribute has been paid once, and cannot be paid again."

"I know the rules, guardian," Will said. "As so do you. Release him."

The darkness sighed again. "He is free, Will Stanton."

As the bonds that held Bran stationary loosened, as his body began to twist and fall, the darkness laughed again. "I hope you know what you are doing, Old One," it said. "He is not...entirely yours."

"I know," Will said shortly, dropping to his knees, reaching to the slight body that fell into his supporting arms, scrabbling now, half awake, as Will remembered how Bran hated to be touched without warning and set his burden down, looking into the dazzled, empty eyes that stared into his. Watched the dawning comprehension.

"Will," Bran said. Then he closed his eyes.

Will sat, resting his empty hands on his thighs.

Bran raised his hands to his hair, smoothed one hand through the strands. Crouching, he spread his fingers, looked at them.

"I was here for..for...What are you doing here?" Under the thatch of hair, he glared at Will.

"You called for me," Will said.

"I did?"

"Look around you, Bran."

"And what is it that I am supposed to be seeing?" Bran said. Will said nothing.

Bran looked up. "I dreamed," he said. "I dreamed of Cafall and of you, riding on the wind.." He shook his head again, his eyes accusatory. "I dreamed the cave and the sleepers, and than I dreamed..I dreamed the sword." Bran's eyes slipped sideways. "Ahh, duw." He said. "I dreamed the sword."

"Don't touch it," Will warned.

Bran turned his head, swift. "Why not?"

"How long do you think you've been here?"

Frowning, Bran looked at the entrance, dark now. "Five minutes, ten...Will, how did you get here?"

"Bran, you've been here nearly twenty four hours," Will said. "Your staff were going crazy. You've been missing three days."

"Oh-ho," Bran said. He looked down at himself. "No wonder I'm sore...Will, what happened?"

"You tried to take the sword...it was forbidden. I heard you call, near midnight, last night. I came."

Bran's head whipped round, white hair stranding across his face. "It was you that I called? And you heard? In Nottinghamshire?"

"Yes," Will said.

Bran was silent. Then he nodded, once, short. "Fine. Ok." His eyes returned to the sword. "I dreamed it was here. Will, have we been here before before?"

"Yes," Will said.

Waiting, Bran said nothing. Then he sighed. "It's one more of those things we don't talk about?"

Will nodded, caught and held Bran's golden eyes."We have to get you out of here," he said.

"I need the sword"

"Ok," Will said equably. Holding Bran's eyes, he raised his hand and turned it, so the fresh cut on his thumb showed clear. And felt Bran see: felt that awareness of other as the other man stood tall against the dark.

"You have your knife there?" Bran asked, as Will fumbled in the pockets of his jacket and handed it across. Taking it, Bran turned and bowed to the darkness.

"Tribute will be paid," he said.

"I am owed, Bran Davies of Clywd," said the darkness, cold, distant.

Bran straightened his back. "You have been paid. It is the sword, now, that I would be paying for."

"It is mine. It is mine." And the voice of the guardian grew now, grew and flung itself around the cold stone and the frozen swords and the figures of the two men.

"It is not yours," Bran said. "It was given to you to guard, not to hold. And I have come to claim it."

"And you? Who are you, Bran Davies of Clywd?" The darkness laughed again, skittering and light.

"I am myself," Bran said. He raised one hand, and drew the blade of Will's penknife deliberately across the ball of his thumb, so the thick dark blood welled and dripped. With one hand, he drew a chain from the neck of his shirt and unsnapped the chain, taking the ring that hung there and dropping it onto the stone floor.

"Tribute has been paid," he said. "I will ask you for the sword."

"Tribute has been paid," acknowledged the darkness. "But you ask, and do not name your desire. You are forsworn, Bran Davies, and the sword is mine."

"You are wrong," Will said. He was standing now, next to Bran, facing the inner darkness that shifted and spun with shades of black. "This is allowed. He can name his desire."

"Oh, wise, wise, Old One." And then, harsh. "Name it, if you can, singer, ask."

"I ask for the sword borne by the knight Lancelot at the gates of Castle Peveril: I ask you, watcher, for Aroundight."

Silence. And then a rising, singing wail, betrayal and fulfilment and abandonment, chasing Bran and Will down the slope of the hill as they took the sword and ran, half-laughing in relief, through the young bracken and down the slope to the bridge.

"And what the hell was all that about?" said Bran, leaning against the parapet over the river, his thin chest rising and falling with force of his breath.

"It was well done, Bran, that end bit," Will said.

"And it is you that would be knowing, Will, eh?"

Will said nothing. For the last fifteen minutes, he had forgotten all that had separated them: it had been himself and Bran together again, and nothing else had mattered. But Bran's tall figure, slight as it was, put the lie to his illusion: the long, tangled web of white hair, the body grown and filled out, the adult awareness of the golden eyes that watched his before Bran, closing in on himself, extracted his dark glasses and replaced them.

"I'm not sure myself," Will said, turning to lean over the bridge and watch the river below. "It was you that wanted the sword, Bran, boyo."

"Yeah, well, I dreamt it," Bran said. "Look, Will, I hope you've got somewhere to stay, 'cos I'm starting to feel like I spent too long in that cave."

"Yes," said Will. "Just up the hill. You need a phone, too, Welsh boy. You've got some explaining to do."

"Oh shit," Bran said, levering himself from the parapet. "What did you say?"

Will couldn't resist a grin. "I said you were resting."

Bran's head whipped round. "How did you know?" he said.

"What?" said Will, puzzled.

Turning, Bran set off up the hill to the village. "It doesn't matter," he said, the wind whipping the words back over his shoulder. "Isn't there a phone by the Post Office?"

"Straight up the hill," Will said, following. He seated himself on the wall outside the small shop while Bran shut himself into the incongruous red windowed box. Briefly.

"Er, Will..." Bran said, emerging.

Will crooked an eyebrow.

"Got any change?"

"Pop stars and Royalty," Will said, searching his pockets. "There you go."

The night settled damp around him as he watched Bran dial, drum his fingernails on the phone casing. Then Bran's head bowed into the receiver: he was talking, running his hand again and again through his battered fringe. He talked, animated, thin shoulders hunched, hand splayed and gesturing, for a long time. Finally Will saw him put the phone down and look at it. Then he aimed one short, vicious kick at the metal frame of the telephone box.

Will's heart sank.

But Bran was smiling when he emerged, although there was an edge to that smile that, again, Will did not like.

"Sorted?"

"Yeah. Can we get fed in this B&B of yours? I'm starving."

So it was late at night when they talked, when Will lay tired on the narrow bed by the window and Bran was combing out his wet hair by the light of a single reading lamp that struck dull gleams from Aroundight's bared metal.

"Bran?"

"Yeah?"

"Why...why did you..how did you come to take the sword?"

"I don't know," Bran said. He stopped combing his hair and sat, twisting the comb in long fingers.

"Bran, you don't wander up a Welsh hill and claim Lancelot's sword because you fancy it."

"Oh, and don't I now," Bran said. He sighed. "I told you, I dreamt it. I dreamt the cave, and I dreamt us going there, and I dreamt the sleepers..." He stopped. "I dreamt lots of dreams, Will, bach, and one of them turned out to be true."

"What are you going to do with it?"

"I don't know," Bran said. He reached out to touch the plain, leather-wrapped hilt. "It's not mine. I'll talk about it in the morning, ok?" Stretching, he turned out the single light.

Lying on the bed, watching the half moon, Will was aware of the soft rustling that was Bran undressing. He felt unreasonably happy, smiling in the dark, glad that Bran had turned the light out and could not see.

"Bran?"

"Yeah?" said Bran, muffled.

"Do you think...I don't think this is over."

"Me neither."

And Will, forgetting, said "With nothing to guide us, this time. I wish Merriman was here."

Unseen in the darkness, Bran flinched.

Will waited. When no answer came he turned his head to see the bedclothes curved up and over Bran's slight form.

"`Night, then."

Bran grunted.

Will woke to the sound of Bran screaming. Startled aware in the cold, it took a second to realise where he was, Brans's voice rising broken descant into the thin air, cracking against the darkness. Still half asleep, Will flung back his duvet took the two strides to Bran's bed. The younger man was twisting restlessly, eyes open and empty, his voice a harsh whisper now.

"The sleepers.."Bran said. "The sleepers in the cave.."One hand, flailing, met and clung to Will's wrist on the bed. "Bind the sleepers," he said. "Must..Cafall! No, Cafall!" The shout brought him violently upright in bed, against Will's chest. Automatically, Will raised his hand to Bran's light body: equally automatically, the touch had stirred Bran to a desperate weak flurry of escape.

"Bran, it's me, Will," Will said. "Bran. Hush now. It's me."

Bran stilled. "Will?" he said, his voice sounding lighter and boyish. "Ah, dewin." His body relaxed, one hand still grasping Will's wrist. "Don't leave me," Bran said. His hand, cold, slid up to Will's shoulder and held it. "Will. Don't leave me."

"Ok," Will said awkwardly. He lay stiffly on top of the covers, curled against the warmth of Bran's padded body, Bran's cold hand on his shoulder. Uncertain, he placed his uppermost arm over Bran's thin shoulders and pulled him closer. Bran shifted a little, his hand gently opening and closing like the cat's paws on the firm muscle of Will's shoulder. Will could feel the long, bone deep tremors that wrung through the body next to him.

"You're cold," he said. Bran didn't answer: he was asleep, if he had ever been awake.

Reaching behind him, Will untucked the eiderdown and manoeuvred himself underneath, thinking, with guilty propriety, of the properties of creeping houndstooth. Bran's skin was cool, stretched over his bones: it whispered, electric, against each single hair on Will's body...under the tips of four sundering fingers, his back was all tense, fine muscle, oddly rough, the curve of his hips would be...

Will shut his eyes and stilled his body. Bran was warming. Soon he would...

Will woke, for the second time that day, warm and comfortable, with an unaccountably heavy weight on his chest. He was lying on his back: there were birds singing outside the window, and the day was lightening against his closed eyelids. He was in bed with Bran Davies and all was well with the world.

It wouldn't be for much longer, if Bran roused to find him here.

Will eased his arm out from under Bran's head, the silk weight of dry hair sliding through his fingers: inched away to the edge of the bed. He sat up, gently, and placed his feet on the carpet, aware as he did so that his morning erection hung heavy and warm between his thighs. (Bran's skin..)

Bran stirred. Will looked round, as Bran's golden eyes opened unguarded into his own. Watched Bran's face harden and withdraw, tension run down his muscles.

"What happened?" Bran said.

"You were dreaming," Will answered.

"Oh fuck, not again." Bran flung the covers over in explosive rejection, lying his forearm over his eyes - Will noted that he seemed to have scratched himself in his sleep.

"What did I say?" Bran asked, muffled.

"You were talking about the six sleepers," Will said. "You said something about binding them. Then, at the end, you were screaming for Cafall."

"At," said Bran. He took his arm from his eyes and glared at Will, the gold flecks in his eyes catching the morning sunshine. "Is this something I should be remembering, Will, my friend? Something to do with the sword?"

Will frowned. "I don't really know," he said. "The sleepers, perhaps, but not the sword. It's new to me. I can't help feeling that the two are connected. I must speak to Merriman."

"That's the old man," Bran said.

"Yes," Will said, not surprised that Bran had dreamt Merriman along with the sleepers. He paused, uncertain how to explain.

"You didn't need to get into bed with me," Bran said shortly. He looked up at Will. "At least Tommy knows to leave me alone."

Will looked at the window. "Ok," he said, and stood up, miserably aware of Bran's eyes on his body. He dressed in silence and went to take a long shower.

Dressed, his glasses firmly in place, Bran was more forthcoming over an extended breakfast. The dreams had been coming for five or six weeks "-not the old ones," Bran said, his long fingers toying with toast and butter although, Will noted, he wasn't eating much of either. "I've always had dreams about you, and the old man and the mountains." He stopped and poked at the sugar bowl with a teaspoon.

"But these ones..." Will prompted.

"Yeah. They push at me, there's something I'm supposed to do. I dreamt coming here for the sword over and over again..until I had to come."

"And it was true."

"Yes." Bran raised his eyebrows. "I didn't dream you rushing up to rescue me, though." He looked down. "Did I say thanks, Will, bach?"

Will shrugged and grimaced at the cooling coffee. "What did you dream last night?" he asked.

"Wouldn't you be knowing that as well as I?" Bran said sharply.

Will leaned back in his chair. "Do you want me to go away?" he asked.

"No," Bran's voice was loud, surprised, startling both of them. He looked round, but the party of canoeing students that had forced to share rooms, last night, had gone and the friendly woman who'd served them breakfast was in the kitchen.

"No," he said again. "It feels right, you being here. And if your friend Merriman can help.."

"Cheers," said Will, ironic.

Bran smiled. "I never promised you a rose garden," he sang, softly.

"I know that too," Will said. "Come on now, Bran, boyo, tell me what you dreamt."

"I was watching the sleepers again." Bran said. "There's six of them, tall and grey, riding. There's something they need to ride to, and I have the sword..I need to bind them with the sword." He stopped, took his glasses off. Unshielded, his eyes met Will's, "I didn't know that until I said it," Bran said. "I need to bind them with the sword. But there's something missing that I need to find, as well...there should be seven of them. Will, how do I know this?"

"I don't know," Will said. "I don't know how much I should say. I might change what happens if I explain."

Bran put his glasses back on. "Do you know what it feels like," he said. "To know you've had part of your life ripped away, all that understanding, all those memories. Stolen. And sitting next to you is the one man who could put them back in place for you."

"I need to pack," Will said. "If you're serious about seeing Merriman, we need to get to Cornwall."

"Fine," Bran said. He got up.

"If it helps," Will said, as Bran turned to look at him. "It was you who made the choice to forget."

"Well, I didn't know what I was forgetting, did I?" Bran said.

Bran slept, on the trains down to Cornwall, taking up three first class seats with casual arrogance. It was Will who made his excuses to the guard, who fielded the luggage when Bran was recognised changing trains in Bristol, watching with amused fascination as Bran signed scraps of paper and a small boy's white plaster cast.

"Does this happen often?" he asked, in the quiet of a resting train.

"More often than I would like," Bran said. He was staring out of the window. "They want so much. Sometimes I think there'll be nothing left."

"You're not exactly unrecognisable," Will observed.

"The odd boy, the pop star, the singing monkey, the freak," Bran said. He moved his hand, nervous, to the glasses.

"You play up to it," Will said.

"And so?" Bran curled himself up on the seat, his head on Will's fleece. "I'm tired. Wake me when we get there."

 

Chapter 3

"Whose was the ring?" asked Will. He was walking into the village, the afternoon sun warm on his back. In his arms he carried Lancelot's sword, wrapped in his padded jacket.

"It was my mother's," Bran said.

"What?" said Will startled.

Bran glanced at him. "I found it in Da's chest, when he died."

"Oh," said Will.

"I don't exactly miss her," Bran said. "A cold woman she must have been, to leave her man and her baby."

Will stopped. "Or very frightened," he said.

"Can you keep the judgements to yourself, Will, my friend?" said Bran. "It's hard enough to trust you as it is."

"I'm trying," Will said.

"I know." Bran started to walk forward. "I don't like having my life..shaped for me."

"Neither do I," said Will. "But, in some times..there are some things more important than the span of one life."

"Really," Bran said. He sang "It's my life.."

"Show-off," Will said.

Bran grinned. "I can't help being a multi-millionaire pop star," he said. "But I'm just a boy from the valleys at heart."

"I don't think so," Will said.

"Ah, but what does your opinion matter, Mr history-teacher from Nottingham?" Bran said. He was cheerful again.

"When my pupils are governing the country," Will said. "You might want to take that comment back."

"Absolute dictatorship by proxy?" Bran asked.

"The training to take an intelligent choice about absolute dictatorship," Will said. "So long as it's the right choice."

"Fair enough," Bran said. "Where's your friend Merriman, then? Does he have decent coffee?"

Will smiled. "He can't exactly put us up," he said. "And he keeps rather odd..visiting hours. We'd best find another B&B."

"I'm not sharing a room with you again," Bran said. "I'm sure you snore."

"I do not."

"Do so."

"How do you know?" Will said. "You were asleep."

"I'm all-seeing," said Bran. His glasses glinted in the sun as he turned his head. "I'm a history teacher from Nottingham, and I know everything that moves beneath the sun and sails beneath the stars..."

"It's a song," Will said, appreciatively.

"Thanks," Bran said. "But I pay people to flatter me, you know."

"Yeah, I know," Will said. "I met them, remember?"

"Oh yes. So you did. The efficient Ms Price, the manipulative Miss Ripley, and the beautiful Tommy."

"Not so beautiful when I met him," Will said. Then thought - "You don't pay him, do you?"

"He takes it up his nose," Bran said, expressionless. "He takes it other places too."

The sun was unbearably hot. The sword was dragging at his shoulders, and somewhere a small child was screaming.

"I'm sorry," Bran said. "Forget I said it. I can be a real bitch sometimes."

"Yeah," Will said, walking on, Bran following him in silence.

"I'm not going to be anything other than I am," Bran said.

"I know that," Will said. "You don't have to explain anything to me."

"That's the fucking problem, isn't it?" Bran said. "Jesus Christ, Will, sometimes I think I've spent half my life running away from you-" He stopped.

Will looked at him. "So what's the problem?" he asked.

"You don't understand, do you?" Bran said.

"I don't," Will said.

"Never mind, then. Look, there's a pub."

"Bran-"

"Maybe there'll be honey still for tea," Bran said. He smiled, quick and hard. "Come on."

No honey, but certainly jam and scones and strong tea, and afterwards Will took Bran up onto the headland, clambering amongst the tors with seagulls flying lazy in the late sunshine overhead.

"Have I been here before?" Bran asked, his breath coming short and his pale skin flushed.

"Not with me," Will said. "Why?"

"It feels like I have."

"Perhaps you have," Will said. "Look, that's where we're going."

"What, there?" Bran said. "How much further?"

"Londoner."

"Sadist."

"Race you."

"Not bloody likely."

Nevertheless, Bran wasn't far behind Will when they made it onto the top of the tor, looking out across the blue of the quiet sea.

"Ok, so we got here. What do we do now?"

"That's up to you," Will said. "We'll catch Merriman in the evening or early in the morning: your choice."

"Here?"

"He likes it here. It's peaceful."

"Fine," Bran said. He seated himself on the rock, looking out across the sea. "I don't really fancy another evening encounter. Can we come up tomorrow?"

"Sure," Will said. "It'll be early, though."

"I can do that," Bran said. "You really think Merriman can help?"

"I wouldn't drag you all the way to Cornwall if I didn't," Will answered.

"Actually, I quite like it here," Bran said. "It almost feels like home."

Will was not surprised.

"Maybe I ought to buy a house here," Bran mused. "When all this is over, when I've done whatever it is that I'm supposed to do..."

"I can't see your Janet roughing it in a cottage, you know," Will said.

"You think not?" Bran paused. "I've been thinking about giving it up, you know."

"What, the singing?"

"Maybe not the singing, but the whole pop star lark, the press and the records and the tours." He grimaced.

"You're very good," Will said.

Bran laughed. "Thanks, Will."

"I mean it," Will grinned. "Just sign me up to the fan club."

"Okay," Bran said. He started to sing, his voice golden in the still air, a Welsh folk song that Will didn't know.

Spun into contentment, Will lay back on the short turf and closed his eyes, Bran's voice, precise, lonely, calling across the sea and the sky. Will let his awareness spiral down into the patient weight of the rock underneath them, the secret folds and fissions, the silent fossil remains of creatures long gone. And one waking awareness that he recognised with joy. Called out of sleep by Bran's voice, Merriman was awake. He sat up and clasped his knees with his hands, waiting. Bran segued into another song, another language, plaintive and beautiful.

"That's Cornish," Will said.

Bran broke off. "I don't spend all my time doing the pop stuff, you know." He started again.

Behind him, Will felt Merriman, listening. He turned his head and smiled at the old man, said nothing. This moment, this golden moment, with the people he loved. The old man smiled back, his shock of white hair catching the sunshine over his great beak of a nose. His eyes were still mazed with secrets, with wherever it was that he went when he was asleep. Some things Will did not ask.

Bran let his voice fall into silence.

"What was that?" Will asked.

"It's one of the songs about Iseult," Bran said. "She was Cornish, you know. I'm not sure where I heard it."

"It's a long time since I heard someone sing that song, Bran Davies of Clywd," Merriman said.

Startled, Bran spun round. "Where did you come from?" he asked.

Merriman smiled, his eyes gentle. "Under the hill, Bran. It's been a long time."

"I know you," Bran said.

Merriman nodded. "You do. But you have forgotten. And I think it must be something important, for my Will to bring you here."

Bran looked down. Deliberately, he removed his glasses, squinting into the light. "I have been dreaming," he said. "Of the sleepers and the cave. I dreamt Cafall. I dreamt Lancelot's sword, in another cave. Then I went and found it. Will had to rescue me."

Merriman waited. He was frowning.

"There's a compulsion in the dreams," Bran said, slowly. "They - I - need to do something. First it was the sword, now it's something else. With the sword."

"How do the sleepers look?" Merriman said. His eyes were intent, focused.

Bran shivered. "Theyíre riding," he said. "They ride grey horses, all of them: thereís something not quite right about them, as if you could see through them if you looked long enough. The man leading them wears a crown: I can see the gold of it, sometimes. Itís always night, where they are." He swallowed. "I donít want to see their faces."

"How many of them are there?" Merriman asked.

"Six," Bran said. "But shouldnít they be seven?" He looked up.

Merriman was looking at Will, a long, heavy gaze that held the pair of them tensioned and caught, an unspoken communication that left Bran on the outside again. It seemed a long time before Merriman turned his head.

"I had hoped we would not meet again, Bran," he said. For an old man, there was an aura of power about him that set the hairs on Branís body erect. "The fact that we have, that you are here and dreaming what you are dreaming..." Merriman looked up. A seagull was circling over his head, cawing. "Iíd forgotten how beautiful Logres is in Spring." He said.

"Logres? Thatís the old word for Cornwall, isnít it?" said Bran.

"Yes," Will said. "And even that you know that much- Bran, a lot of this is to do with who you are." Willís face was grave, now.

"What I am?" Bran asked.

Merriman looked at him. "Will and I, now, we are two of a kind. Some powers we have, and with them comes a responsibility that I had hoped to lay down."

"I dreamed you," Bran said. "I have been dreaming you and Will for most of my life."

"And that too.." Merriman shrugged. "There is much in you, Bran, that is of the High Magic, older and stronger by far than any powers Will and I can compel. The High Magic is beyond any law but its own: it can be asked but never forced. Years ago, you made a choice to forget...certain things. But you were born with and into the High Magic; it calls to you now as it did before. And I think you know something of this: Will tells me youíve been collecting arcana.."

So they had been talking. "Yes," Bran said. His mouth was dry.

"Years ago, we, you and Will and I, and all the others of our kind, with some help-" and Merimanís eyes met and meshed with Willís, fierce - "we fought a battle in this land, and we pushed our enemy, and yours, the Dark, out of this world and beyond the borders of time. At the end of it, those of the Light who were left chose to leave this world, where we were no longer needed, and rest until we were needed again, as we will be." Merriman looked out across the ocean. "Those who were largely of the Light went, but some, who were largely of the High Magic, remained: Herne, who is tied to his children in this world: myself, because Will here needed me and because I had a thought that it might be necessary for me to remain, and the sleepers, six of them.." He paused. "I had thought them bound," Merriman said. "But I had forgotten that the first of them, the child, their leader, was a great lord of the Light before he was a lord of the High Magic, and he chose to leave with the Light. They are leaderless and free, and there are reasons why they will always call to you."

Merrimanís eyes, fathomless, the harsh haze of a raptor, settled on Branís intent face. "The dreams now, that is something else. It seems to me that somewhere, this struggle between the Light and the Dark is repeating itself, and the riders are needed and they are not there, and because of the bonds you have with them, you are the one asked to call them and bind them and send them on their way...They can be bound with the sword," Merriman said. "With the sword, wielded by one of your bloodline, and by the finding of the child to ride before them and lead them to where it is that they need to be."

It was nearing evening now. The shadows cast by the tor were lengthening, and the noise of the sea washing against the rocks beneath them seemed louder. Beside Bran, Will shivered, pulling his jacket around himself.

"What do I need to do?" asked Bran.

Merriman smiled. It was a warm, swift smile, lightening the lines of his craggy face and remembering, for an instant, the boy that Merriman must once have been, although he seemed as ageless as the rock which towered above and beneath them.

"Just that," Merriman said. "Find them and bind them and lead them."

Bran took a deep breath. "Oh, is that all?" he said. He grinned, as beside him he felt Willís silent chuckle.

"Is that all," Merriman said, but his face had lightened as well.

"Who is doing the asking?" Will asked, aloud.

"I donít know," Merriman said. "But I think you would know, Bran, if it was something of the Dark calling and not something of the Light. I wonder...Some things are not given to us to know. But we won a great battle, here, and almost it might be time for the last of all battles..I wonder why I am not there?" His voice was soft.

"Perhaps we have done all that was asked of us," Will said.

"And perhaps we were needed here, for this," Merriman said. "Tell me, are they still serving fresh trout in the village?"

Will smiled. "I checked," he said. "Yes. And apple pie, for afters."

"Ah," said Merriman.

It was clearly something they had done before, many times before. Bran fumbled for his glasses and replaced them: his eyes, even in the lowering light, were beginning to strain against the sun.

As they walked down from the tor, they could almost be any party of trekkers. Merriman, tall and angular, proudly upright, was talking to Will, the younger man solid and muscular, older by far now than when they had fought against the massed weight of the Dark. Behind them, Branís figure was slighter, his hair bound against the evening breeze. He was wondering what Merriman had not said.

Firelight flickered over Merrimanís gnarled fingers. He was cracking walnuts between his thumb and forefinger, picking out the whorled amber nuts with meticulous care. Leaning forward in the armchair by the fire, his figure was tall and shadowed. Beside him, Will knelt on the carpet, an Ordnance Survey map of Cornwall spread out at his knees. In the opposite chair, Bran was idly polishing Aroundightís blue-grey steel with a rag that had once been a Ddynion Chan Gwrymiau T-shirt.

"Just here," Will said. "It will have to have the stone, right?"

"Yes," said Merriman.

"Is it the real stone?" Will asked.

Merriman smiled down at him. In the firelight, Willís face was boyishly enthusiastic. "Yes," he said. "It has to be: they wonít come for anything else."

"I always wondered what happened to it after he pulled the sword out," Will said. "The sword, of course.." He looked across at Bran.

"Wasnít it Excaliber?" Bran said, his long fingers caressing Aroundightís unbound length.

"Excaliber came later," Merriman said. "Youíre holding the sword Arthur took from the stone." Merrimanís eyes were dark, remembering.

Bran looked down. "It seems almost impossible," he said. "But this is Lancelotís sword, isnít it?"

"Arthur gave it to him," Merriman said.

"Why will the sleepers come for the sword?" Bran asked. "Why does it have to be me?"

"The sleepers have been many things," Merriman said. "They are older than I, older than most creatures who walk this earth: they have been Syrians and Romans and Turks: they rode with Genghis and with Alexander, and once in their time they were Grail knights, bound to the Pendragon as we all were." He sighed. "And so, in Pendragonís hand, the sword will call them and we can bind them by the names they wore then."

Bran looked up. His eyes were bare, and in the low light his pupils were wide and dark in the gold of his eyes. "In Pendragonís hand?" he asked.

"You are related," Will said. In the warmth of the small sitting room, his skin was flushed and rosy, his face serious. A few strands of brown hair had flopped across his broad forehead.

"Is this one of the things I chose to forget?" Bran asked.

"Yes," Will said. He opened his mouth to say something else, and then closed it again, waiting.

Bran passed one hand across Aroundightís steel. In the low light, a line of black blood marked the palm of his hand, where he had caught it on the bladeís whetted edge.

"Should I know?"

He asked Will, but it was Merriman who replied.

"It is your choice now, Bran, as it was then."

Branís eyes were lowered, his white eyelashes sending barbed shadows across the angularity of his face. His hair was still bound back, but it had drifted to lie in gently curved spangles on the worn uphostlery of the chair. He looked older, his shoulders squared over the bared blade, and once again Will felt the tingle in his spine that said, this is other, this is power. I could follow this man, Will thought to himself, and knew it to be true. The Bran looked up and was Bran again.

"Iíll trust myself, for now," he said.

"A wise choice," Merriman said.

"But then what of the child?" Bran asked. "Does it have to be a child?"

"For the binding, yes," Merriman said. "Or the youngest." He stopped, as Branís mouth lifted in a half smile, a smile that held nothing of amusement. In his eyes Will saw commitments measured and accepted.

"How we know where to send them?" Bran asked.

"I think they will follow whatever it is in you that is calling them," Merriman said. "Were it not that they have ever followed their own desires, they would go freely: they must know that they are needed. Although I think they would still need the child, to lead them." His voice was measured and slow against the crackle from the fire.

"Ah, well," said Bran. "I could be wishing Iíd had a bit more fun, while I had the chance."

Will looked up, shocked. He had forgotten. Bran was the youngest, younger than him, younger by far than Merriman.

"Bran-" he said, as Merrimanís trained voice overrode his.

"Nothing is immutable," the old man said. "You could say that Will here is the youngest, the youngest in his power. And you are born of the High Magic, Bran: there is something in you which is older than all of us."

"Ah," Bran said. "But itís me whoís dreaming, now, isnít it?"

 

Chapter Four

Will woke with the knowledge that he was not alone. He opened his eyes into the darkness: someone was shaking his shoulder.

"Wake up, Will," Branís voice, thin and urgent.

"What is it?" said Will, blurred, half asleep.

"Will, I canít sleep. Wake up."

"What?" said Will. He turned over in bed. Bran was sitting on the edge of the mattress, leaning over him, a shadow in the darkness.

"I canít sleep."

"Oh," said Will, disgruntled, every nerve in his body suddenly waking into unwelcome recognition. "So you thought youíd come and wake me up."

"I wasnít sure if you.." Bran paused. "Itís cold. Let me into bed, Will, bach, will you?"

Will sighed. "Bran-" But he was already moving over. Bran was shivering again, he could feel it through the mattress.

"Come here," he said, and felt Branís thin, cool body slide against his, Branís body, smooth and his skin, fine grained, like porcelain. He put one arm around Branís chest and pulled him close, feeling Branís hand slide up over his shoulder and into his hair.

"Bran," he said again, warning.

"I know, I know," Bran said. "I just want to stay here for a bit."

"Oh yeah?" Will said, into the mess of hair tickling his face. "I thought I snored."

"Did I say that?" Bran said. "I lied."

"You were asleep anyway," Will said, smiling. Branís body was warming against his own.

"Will?"

"Yes?"

"Iím sorry about what I did in Cardiff."

"It wasnít good," Will said. He had stopped smiling, his hand circling absently on Branís back.

"I donít know what I was thinking," Bran said. "Itís all a bit of a blur, those first years."

"You knew perfectly well what you were doing," Will said, exploring the raised edges of what must, surely, be scars on Branís back.

"Did I?" Bran said. "I meant it, you know, when I said Iíd been running away from you half my life."

"Well, any time you fancy running towards me, let me know," said Will. "What are all these scars on your back?"

"Mm?" said Bran. He sighed, a harsh exhalation. "It really doesnít matter any more...Will?"

"Itís still me."

"Can we fuck?"

"What?" said Will.

"You heard," Bran moved, curving his body hard against Willís. His body was neat, elegant, with its bird bones and planed angles, all grace and fire. He was everything Will had ever wanted, here, in the grasp of his hands, trembling a little.

"Bloody hell, Bran."

"Look, I know youíre not mine. But tomorrow-"

"You donít know what the hell you want, do you?" Will said. "Whatís this all about, Bran? You canít sleep, so you thought youíd get poor, patient Will to fuck you? The only groupie available?" He was wide-awake now, and angry, despite everything his body was telling him: he could almost smell sex in the air.

"Itís not like that," Bran said. He moved again, one hand sliding down Willís body, a trail of fire that arrowed down, relentless and insistent - Will closed his own hand over that betraying touch.

"No," Will said.

"Will, it might be the last time-"

"No," Will said again.

"Itís not like Iím going to hurt you, I know what Iím doing, Iíve got poppers in my jacket..."

"Oh, for fuckís sake, Bran, donít you recognise a no when you hear one?"

Bran said nothing. He didnít move, but Will could feel the cold space of withdrawal opening between them. When it came, Branís voice was low and unsure.

"Why not?"

"Because youíre someone elseís," Will said. "And Iím too old to play games. I was always too old to play games with you."

"I know," Bran said miserably. Then he added: "Itís not like itís permanent between Tommy and me."

"Oh thatís great to know," Will said. "Iím sure he appreciates it."

"Itís only a fuck, Will," Bran said. "I wasnít even sure if you were on your own.."

Will was stunned. "You thought I was with Merriman?" he asked.

"Yeah."

"Oh well," Will said. "I suppose in your London casual itís just a fuck secure little world anythingís possible."

Bran was silent.

"Iíve loved you since I was thirteen," said Will "But Iím not going to take anything but everything from you."

"I know," Bran said. He rolled onto his back, loosening his hands from Willís body. "Why do you think Iíve been running away?"

It was Willís turn to lie silent.

"Still friends?" Bran said.

"Yeah," Will said.

They lay still, Will tense, his unappeased arousal slowly ebbing.

"Do you want me to go away?" Bran said. "`Cos Iíd quite like to stay."

Will reached out and found Branís hand, held it.

"Youíre not going anywhere else, tonight," he said.

Waking, again, into the light of a spring dawn, Will disentangled himself gently from Branís hands and walked to the window. Staying in bed with Bran, after last night, was a bad idea: he wasnít quite sure how long his restraint would last under those cool, slim hands, if Bran really wanted to push the issue. Will smiled to himself, regretful: if he was a different kind of person...

He drew the curtains, letting light into the bedroom. Behind, Bran shifted: as Will turned round he could see the younger man diving under the bedclothes.

Too late.

"Bran, what the fuck have you done to your back?" he asked.

"Itís nothing," Bran said, muffled.

"My arse it is," said Will. He stripped back the bedclothes, looking down at Branís body. His skin was ivory, lying smooth over his bones, but across his back (exquisite, small turning of vertebrae, the arch of his shoulder blades to a hand eager for touch..) raised narrow scars covered the slight bones. On his thighs, too, and the arm that lay loose on the pillow..

"Bran," Will said. He was frightened to touch him.

Bran had his eyes closed. "Happy now?" he said. "Had a good look?"

"Did you do this?" Will said.

"I had help, sometimes," Bran said.

"What the.."

"I told you it was a bit of blur," Bran said. He opened his eyes. "Pass me a blanket, will you, I need to get out of here."

In silence, Will handed him his spare jeans and T-shirt. Bran dressed quickly, not looking at him. Will didnít know what to say.

Clothed, Bran straightened his back, looked out the window.

"A good day for it," he said. "See you at breakfast?"

"Yeah," said Will.

Bran breakfasted in his glasses.

Outside, it was still sunny: a miracle, in England at this time of year. Merriman, his great coat billowing around him, had joined them at the door. Will felt oddly content. Whatever happened, he and Bran and Merriman were fighting for the Light, together again as they had been years ago. He was with friends.

"Up onto the hill?" said Merriman, looking at Will for consent.

"Ok," Will said, smiling. He looked at Bran. Dark glasses firmly in place, the Welshman was carrying Aroundight strapped firmly to his back. "You alright?"

"Fine," Bran said.

It took twenty minutes to get onto the headland, the cropped grass underfoot still damp. The sky was a clear, pale blue, crossed by the white-feathered tails of dawn aeroplanes, and the sea lapped gently at the rocks below. Up above the cliffs, the breeze was strengthening, and Will leaned into it, feeling his grin start.

"Ready, Bran?" he said. Bran looked up at him, startled. Will grabbed his arm, pushed a little...and they were riding, spread-eagled on the wind, the green turf falling away beneath them as they rode over the ocean. What a feeling, the wind rushing at him now, tears torn from his eyes, the sea clear and rippled, the sun warmth..Will was grinning so hard he could feel his muscles ache, and he could just hear Branís delighted laughter behind him. Merriman was majestic, flying, his arms wide in the sleeves of that spreading coat. As he turned his head to catch Willís grin, Merrimanís eyes glinted: his long mouth was suppressing a complicitous smile.

Together they followed the coastline, wheeling past the small towns and villages, passing a pair of white sailed yachts heeling into the tide: further west and further west, as the cliffs rose higher and the rocks flung back the waking sea.

"How much further?" Will yelled to Merriman, who pointed with one lone finger, arm outstretched. There, where the cliffs rode sheer against the sky, where a small half-moon of golden sand lay exposed in the bright morning sunshine...Will swung down against the thermals, gliding down, onto the firm sand.

Bran was still laughing. "That was great!" he said, glasses glinting.

"Cool, huh?" Will smiled. Then he looked round. Merriman was already making for the dark entrance underneath the cliff, almost hidden by a fallen boulder.

"Iíve seen enough caves," Bran muttered, starting after him.

"Only one more," Will said, unthinking, as Bran turned to face him for a drawn moment, his laughter wiped away as if it had never happened. Around the black, unreadable curve of his glasses, his face was set and still.

"Absolutely," Bran said. Then he spun on one booted heel and walked swiftly to the cave.

Inside the cave, the noise of the sea was muted and the air cool and dark, scented with salt and drying seaweed. Underfoot, small water lain shells crunched into precise, sharp fragments. Merriman was standing in front of the large, squared block of stone that had been placed in the centre of the floor. His eyes were hooded, reflective. Coming to stand beside him, Will studied the stone.

"Itís Welsh bluestone, isnít it?" he asked.

"From Preselli," Merriman concurred. The corners of his mouth turned under. "They say, when they were quarried, that Merlin walked beside the stone all the way to the henge, and they weighed nothing..."

Will grinned. "Did he?" he asked.

Merriman glanced at him. "He might have done. Magic was common, in those days, when the world was young. Bran?"

Bran had come to stand beside them. He had unwrapped Aroundight, and the swordís long blade hung from his hands.

"Are you ready?"

"Yes," Bran said. He stood braced against the weight of the sword, feet spread apart, an easy, swordsmanís stance. He looked, in that moment, hair and skin dark in this light, extraordinarily like his father.

"Lay the sword on the stone. Hold it. Donít sheath it in the rock yet: that is for the binding."

Bran nodded. He swung Aroundight up, light running along the blade, and laid it gently onto the flat surface of the rock. His eyes were closed, but Will could see that his breath was coming heavy. Merriman stood still. Outside, the noise of the sea seemed louder, breakers rising and falling on the beach, the wind rising, singing in the spray: a rush of wind that stirred Willís fringe and caught Branís tangled strands and whipped them round his head.

"They are coming," Bran said.

And the wind was rising still, a palpable pressure, catching spray from the rolling white horses of the surf and sending it to splatter against Willís jacket and the pale blue of the stone, the wind not singing but roaring, reaching out and searching every corner of the cave, and Will, thought, suddenly, of all the weight of rock that lay heavy above them and the power of the sea outside, Tethryís realm, alien to him.

And then the wind was screaming, and the riders came.

They came quietly, a stream of smoke-whirled air and silver mane: they came shrieking, a eldritch noise with edges like the blade of a knife: they came laughing, with blue flame burning in their eyes and running along their mail gauntlets and shadowed helms: they came silently, black hooves stepping gentle on the eggshell sand...they were all of these things and more. They came with the wind, they were the wind, they were ice and fire and starshine, and they were angry, bound and free and resenting.

Then the wind dropped. It was silent. Nothing moved. Will could see nothing.

And then, in front of them, spun out of the darkness, a man stood. He was grey, tall, his great hands clasped on the hilt of his sword, his face hidden and two chips of ice burning where his eyes should be. Around his head, Will caught the whisper of dulled gold.

"Who calls us?" said the king. Behind him the darkness resolved itself into twisting shadows, the gleam of hide and steel and fire.

"I do," Bran said.

Clear and terrible, that ice blue gaze, anger running like frozen lava beneath the stone.

"By what right do you compel us?" the king said.

"By Aroundightís blade," Bran said. His hands were steady on the swordís leather wrapped hilt. "By this rock and this sword, and by my hand upon it, I called you and you have answered."

The king laughed. "Ah, mortal, you think you can force us?"

Merriman stirred. "Look harder, Alymere. Have the centuries dulled your gaze?"

"Old man, hasnít your time passed yet?" said the King. "Do you think I donít know who he is?"

"Then you know you are needed," Bran said.

The king laughed again, shards of ice dropping into the still air. "You think to bind the High Magic?" he said. "You think, mortal, that you can send us against the Dark again? The child is gone, and there is no one to lead us now."

Branís hands tightened on the sword. "By your names I will bind you," he said. "And by my fatherís name will I lead you."

"You cannot," the king said. "You are mortal." He was turning away, and behind him Will could see the five riders, mounted, and the two loose horses, intent and still.

Bran braced himself at the rock. His hands clasped around Aroundightís hilt, he was straining to lift the sword that had come so easy into his grasp five minutes before.

"Will-" he said, gasping, sweat gleaming on his skin: and Will moved towards him, closing his own hands around Branís and adding his strength. The sword seemed bound to the rock, it was heavier than anything Will had ever lifted before, and beside him Branís thin body was shaking with effort. And then, suddenly, it came free and was singing down into the stone, smooth as silk, light and sure. And the king was turning back, his eyes blazing, and Will stepped back and Bran stood straight, his hair a banner against the dark.

"By the sword I bind you," he said, his voice clear and grave. "Alymere, son of Gerhardt: Desconneu, Merciaís bane: Dagonet, Bedwere the Brave, Pelleus and Lamorak, Circeís slayer: by your names I bind you in this place, to the task for which you are called."

One of the riders screamed.

The king stood silent.

"You are needed," Bran said.

"Childslayerís son," hissed the dark king. "Will there be blood, where we are going? Will there be steel, will there be fire? Can you promise me death bright in the morning, Pendragon? How strong is your arm?"

"But you are of the light," said Will, horrified.

The king smiled, fierce and strong. "For a time, Old One, but we are of the High Magic first...Come then, Pendragon." His gaze rested on Will for a second. "Come, then. It is time to leave, if we must." At his side, a tall gray mare moved out of the shadows. Her saddle was empty, her big dark eyes fixed on Bran.

Bran took a deep breath, his body relaxing. For an instant, he too looked at Will; his eyes still shielded by the black gleam of his glasses. "I love you," he said, and smiled, his mouth twisting. "I always have." Then he turned, and stepped forward.

Beside the stone, Merriman stirred.

"No," he said.

Arrested, Bran spun to face him, and the dark kingís head rose, the flame of his eyes flaring.

"No," Merriman said. "This is not allowed."

Before their eyes, he was changing, his body dwindling in the coat; his hair darkening and the lines smoothing form his skin. Even his voice was lighter, younger.

"There was a reason," Merriman said, his eyes clear and skin smooth, now: "Why I stayed in this land, when all my kin and all my friends walked the road between the stars...Alymere, my old friend, shall we ride together this one last time?"

The coat swamped him now. Merriman, a Merriman slight and youthful, a boy, let it slip from his shoulders and walked forward. His step was light on the sand, and his golden hair stirred in the breeze.

"Merriman!" Will said. Bran was silent.

Merriman looked back, his hands already held steady for the gray mare to sniff.

"I was very tired, Will, my watcher," Merriman said. He smiled, light, carefree. "And I will be amongst friends...I have always been of the High Magic myself, you know..."

"Yes," Will said. He felt very old.

The king was smiling, already seated tall on his black horse. Beside him, Merriman swung into the mareís saddle, gathered up her reins.

"Ah, gentle, my beauty," he said, and then looked at Will. "I bid you no farewell," he said. "For who knows what happens at the edge of time, when the Weaver calls? Watch well, my friend." Then he looked at Bran. "Take care of him for me, Pendragon: I am sorry we were never friends."

At Willís side, Bran bowed his head. Will could feel sharp salt stinging in his eyes as Merriman smiled one last time, raised his hand in farewell...and then they were gone, suddenly, winked out of existence in the blink of an eye, no wind, no noise, nothing but silence and the sound of the sea.

"Hellís teeth," said Bran.

"Quite," Will said. He stood silent, thinking.

"Do you think he knew?" Bran asked.

"I donít know," Will said, the sharp ache of grief running through his bones. "He never said everything he knew."

Beside him, Bran ran one hand over Aroundightís upright hilt, the rest of the sword sunk into the stone. "Childslayerís son," he said to himself, then took his hand away and looked at it. "I think it belongs here, do you think, Aroundight?"

"Yes," Will said. He was looking out at the ocean. "Did you see," he said. "When they left, did you see the stars? The swan, the wolf, the man under the mountain?"

"No," Bran said.

"Ah well," Will said.

"Is it over, now?" Bran said, light drifting over the planes of his face as Will glanced at him.

"For us, I think, this time," Will said. He felt empty, not triumphant. It was all over now. Beside him, Bran turned to the cave entrance.

"Well, that's done," he said, and then he grinned, the sharp angles of his face lightening with mischief. "Want to fuck me now?"

"No," Will said, automatically. He watched Bran walk to the cave mouth, his figure limmed in the morning light, hair drifted in tangled folds across his back. Blood was starting to sing in Willís veins, twining with grief. He wanted, ah, he wanted something to set against the dark.

"When I make love to you," said Will. "I want forever. I want no groupies and no drugs and no Tommies."

Bran turned. "What?" he said.

"You heard me," Will said.

Bran stood, silent. Then he nodded, once, definite.

"Then yes," Will said. "But take those damn glasses off, first." He felt tall, stronger.

Bran reached up one hand and took the glasses off. His hand was shaking.

"Come over here," Will said.

Bran walked towards him. "Will...are you sure?" His voice was light, uncertain.

Will had never been more certain of anything in his life. He reached out one hand, caught the trailing edge of Bran's hair as it lay over his shoulder.

"You have the most beautiful hair," he said. He wrapped it round his hand, holding the back of Bran's head.

"I'm going to kiss you now," Will said, and bent his head. Bran's lips were cool under his, unmoving: they tasted of sweat and metal. He pushed harder, tracing the thin, shapely curve with his tongue, thrusting until Bran's mouth opened under his, and Bran's tongue joined his, wet and hot, and Bran's body leaned abruptly against his. Will's pulse was thundering, the blood racing to his cock, already almost painfully erect. He bit at the lower edge of Bran's lips, raised his head. Opened his eyes into Bran's golden eyes, the pupils wide, gold specks catching stray glints of light.

"Turn round," Will said.

Bran licked at the speck of blood on his lip.

"Turn round," Will said, and Bran did. Will reached and spread his coat across the stone with one careless hand, the other still twisted in Bran's hair. He closed his body against Bran's thin, beloved, body, pushing him against the stone block. With his spare hand, he twisted the collar of Bran's T-shirt and ripped it: beneath him, Bran gasped: he was shaking. Will felt powerful, invincible, absolute. He ran his hand the length of Bran's white, scarred back, marvelling at the beauty of his spine. As his tongue followed his fingers, Will reached for the buckle of Bran's jeans, button, zip: he hooked his fingers in the waistband of jeans and pants and pulled. Bran yelped.

"Shut up," Will said. He pushed at Bran's back, forcing him to lean forward on the slab. Bran's skin, so soft under his hands. Under his skin. Will stripped his own shirt, lent forward. With the hand twisted in Bran's hair, he lent Bran's face, gently, against the stone.

"I'm going to fuck you hard," he said, through the silk of that hair, into Bran's ear. "I'd hold onto something."

Bran's hands moved across the stone, his fingers cramping: he took and held, white-knuckled, the sword pommel.

Will humped his jeans covered cock against Bran's smooth arse. He was hard: he was harder: he was flying. Bran was shifting beneath him, his body lifting to the rhythm, his mouth open.

"Lick my fingers," Will said. He thrust two fingers into Bran's mouth: the hot, velvet tongue sent fire into his blood, so hot inside, so cold out as Will moved and ran his hand down to Bran's arse, finding and slicking the soft puckered mouth.

"Ah, Jesus, Will, fuck me now, fuck me.." Bran said, his breath shuddering through his body. Will could feel every rib strain against his chest.

"Ready for me?" he said, undoing his own jeans with one unsteady hand: he was harder and stronger and hotter than ever before, he was fire..

"Yes. Please, please Will.."

The touch of his own hand on his cock nearly made Will come. He was so close, slick with his own pre-cum. He placed his cock at the entrance to Bran's body, pushed a little, felt the muscle begin to give: Bran was thrusting up under him. Will leaned his weight on Bran's back, moving one hand to cover Bran's on the sword.

"Want me?" he said, his blood a God's, speeding, falling.

"Will-"

"Say you love me." His head was pressed close to Bran's, he could see the long line of Bran's pale eyelashes, the restless movement of his eyes. All he could feel was the heat of Bran's body.

"You know I do," The Welshmanís voice was hoarse.

Will thrust a little more, halted, though he thought stopping might just kill him. Bran's hips twisted, fighting for more.

"Tell me. Tell."

"I love you. Fuck me," Bran said.

Will pushed a little more into that heat, ah, God, he was going to come.

"And no more cutting yourself," he said.

"No. Will. Will."

Just a little more.

"And no one but me," he said.

"There. Never. Has. Been," Bran said.

Will reached under Bran's straining body, stroked his cock, hard as Will's, pulsing: Bran screamed and arched beneath him.

And Will let go, his body on that black and bloodshot racetrack, his heart pounding, sweat starting, hot, so hot, pounding into Bran as he came, careless, flying, powerful, harder and faster and hotter than ever before, and this was the first time and the only time and there was never anyone else.


Will looked up and checked the clock. He was late again, caught up in the mess of undergraduate papers scattered across the desk. It took scant minutes to lace his boots and collect his parka: slamming the front door, he caught a quick glimpse of the cat leaping to the first floor window. Outside, frost was starting on the pavements under the light of the street-lamps: it was never truly dark, in London. His footsteps were loud on the pavements, his neck cold, but it was only minutes this time, round the corner to the basement club. He smiled at the doorman, was waved down to take a seat by the bar in friendly, dim light. At the back of the club, Bran was singing the first song of the set, his eyes bare and closed, listeners gathered across the front of the stage. A single light picked out the extravagant fall of his hair and the soft folds of his t-shirt, ignoring for now the silent guitarist and drummer behind him. There was just Bran's voice, uncanny, beautiful, cutting the smoke-edged air.

Will smiled to himself, raising the evening's first taste of golden malt in silent salute.

Bran held the last high note, let it fall into silence. Applause, a hum of appreciation. Under the light, Bran opened his eyes. His gaze slid sideways, looking for and finding that solid, familiar figure seated comfortably at the bar.

"This one's for my baby," Bran said. He smiled, and sang.

 

 

What The Cat Knew.

Seven lords to claim the wind and in the darkness ride it
Six the sleepers won and lost by silver on the tree
Five the children pure of heart to guard against the storm
Four the mortals left to grow on freedomís time spun wheel

Three to gather in the lost and claim them by their names
Two to wield the grail knightís blade and bind them on their way
One to take the highest road, fell amongst the stars
One to take the longest road, proof of heartís desire

Fin.