|The Dark is Rising Sequence is by Susan Cooper and all characters, apart from Mrs Price, are hers. No profit is made from this story.|
"Aren't you a bit old for that sort of thing?"
The figure casting the shadow was taller than he remembered, and slightly broader in the shoulders and the chest. Nearly three years will do that to a person, Will reminded himself, especially if that person is a twelve-year-old boy. It was odd, he thought, how you always expected to find things exactly how you left them when you went away. But there was something else there, too. A certain weight in the world, maybe, a sense of substantiality despite the lack of colour in the hair and the skin, that he didn't remember seeing before. The boy's eyes were obscured behind circles of dark glass, but the corners of his mouth twitched upwards slightly.
"Hello, Bran." Will squinted up at him through his fringe. "Don't you like it?" He draped the long string over both hands and held it out to him in mock-presentation, like a little old lady showing off her prize embroidery at a craft fair.
"Lovely, that is." Bran threw his bag down on the grass beside Will, before following it with himself. "Hopscotch next, will it be?"
"Shut up, idiot." Will stared hard at the little green stalk he was holding, in an effort to suppress the wild, imbecilic grin that was threatening to leap off his face and chase Bran up a mountain.
"And then I thought maybe a doll's tea party later, if you're up to it " Bran lay back with his hands behind his head and gazed inscrutably at nothing through his sunglasses.
"I'll have you know this is very skilled work." Will held up the green stem with its one tiny half-moon-shaped slit near the flower head. "All it takes is one tiny slip of a thumbnail and bang -- that's a daisy wasted. And that's even before you get to the precision stalk-threading process " He thought for a minute and waved his right hand at Bran, complete with its new set of talons. "Er I'm learning the guitar, just in case you were wondering."
"No, no " Bran shook his head. "I just put these things down to your funny English ways." He took the glasses off and smiled over at Will, his tawny eyes a sudden shock in the pale face. Despite himself Will felt a jolt, looking into those eyes; a faint echo of the first day he'd seen them, when Cafall had pushed him onto the Old Way and the world had suddenly spun around him, and then when it had stopped the pattern of everything was changed and yet somehow still the same. The day he'd met the raven boy on the mountain, and was given back something he'd lost.
Bran was reaching into his bag, and pulling something out. "Here -- present for you." He tossed over a small red and yellow apple for Will to catch. "Had a funny feeling I might run into you today." He seemed to hesitate for a moment, and then smiled again. There was a hint of the old mockery in that smile, but it was as though the edges had been taken off. The arrogance in his voice had evolved into something softer, less raw than before. "John said you were coming. It's good to see you again, Will, bach."
"And you, Bran." Will put the daisy chain down in his lap and raised his apple in acknowledgement. "And you."
There was a small silence while they consumed the apples, followed by Will's sandwiches, biscuits, cake and lemonade. Aunt Jen seemed to be under the impression that as long as Will ate everything she provided for him, she obviously wasn't feeding him properly. As a result, every meal since he'd arrived had been slightly bigger than the last.
Finally, Will groaned and flopped back in the grass, having reluctantly given up on the last bit of fruit-cake and stuffed it back in its wrapping. "Oh," he muttered, eyes closed against the sun. "My sainted aunt "
"Mmm," agreed Bran indistinctly through a mouthful of ham and cheese. "What's she trying to do anyway, fatten you up for market?"
Will grinned. "Yeah, I think maybe she thinks I'm still a convalescent. Not that I'm complaining or anything."
Bran screwed up the empty sandwich wrapper into a tight ball and stowed it away in his bag. "So," he said, giving Will a sly look from beneath the pale lashes. "The guitar, eh? You going to be a big rock star, then? Should I be getting your autograph?"
Will gave a short bark of laughter. "Hardly! I can just about plod my way through 'Scarborough Fair' and 'House of the Rising Sun'. It's just for fun, really. Max started teaching me at Christmas. I'm no musical prodigy, I'm afraid, not like Paul. And you with your harp, young Bran."
"Ah, now, don't be modest. I've heard you sing, remember?"
Will looked at him sharply, but Bran's face was impassive. "Yeah," he said carefully. "Yeah, you have, haven't you?" Images flickered in his mind: a green carpet of weed on the surface of a small mountain lake. A thing that rose up out of the water, a thing that should not be, a dead thing. A thing of the Dark. And a boy who stood on a rock in the rain, who was his friend Bran Davies of Clwyd, and was also someone else, someone unknowable and strange. He waited, with a feeling that was half apprehension, half eagerness, wondering whether Bran could see any of these things, whether he could hear the faint trace of bell-like music that came out of nowhere and then disappeared again on the spring breeze. But Bran said nothing else, and Will could sense the memory fading back into the hidden depths of his mind, as he'd known it would. He had the feeling that if he were to mention it again now, Bran would merely give him a blank look and ask him what he was on about. Will wasn't sure he liked that idea very much, so he let the subject drop.
"So, um how's your father these days?"
"Da? Oh, he's okay. Still the same old Da, really. Except I think he's mellowing in his old age, you know? Take last week, for instance. Not only did he suggest himself that I go to the pictures with some of them from school, but he actually gave me the money from his own pocket, told me to get some chips with the change (chips!) and said, 'Have a nice time'!"
"Wow!" It certainly didn't sound much like the Owen Davies Will remembered.
"Ah, but this is the best bit." A small grin appeared on Bran's face. "You won't believe this, but I think Da has a girlfriend."
Will spluttered. "A girlfriend! But I can't -- Sorry, I don't mean to be -- it's just "
Bran crowed with delight. "I know, I know! He'd die if he knew I was telling you all this. Don't worry, I mean he hasn't turned into Valentino overnight or anything. It's just this lady that does the flowers in the chapel, Mrs Price, her name is. It's all very proper. She comes and has her dinner with us and we all sit around feeling uncomfortable. She's a widow, see, so they've got stuff in common, I suppose."
A remote look came into Bran's face and he turned his head toward the hazy outline of hills dissolving into the light blue sky. Will found himself wondering again what, exactly, was going on in Bran's mind.
"Well," he said firmly, "Good on him, I say. Let us now toast him in this fine lemonade, courtesy of Aunt Jen." He held the bottle up between them and intoned solemnly, "To Bran's Dad. And the blossoming of a beautiful relationship." Then he took a swig from the bottle and gazed at Bran with a sentimental expression, wiping an imaginary tear from the corner of his eye.
"Get away," said Bran, smirking, and grabbed the lemonade bottle. "To my friend Will, and his future career as a bloody awful guitarist."
"Yes. And the Queen!"
"What's she got to do with it?"
"Nothing, but you have to say it anyway. Gentlemen -- Her Majesty the Queen!"
"Oh, all right then, the Queen. And the corgis. And Will's Aunt Jen. And his lovely daisy chain."
"Thank you." Smiling, Will held the chain up for proper acknowledgement while Bran drank his lemonade toast.
"What is it with you and the daisies, anyway?" asked Bran, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand.
Will frowned. "Dunno really. Just felt like it. I mean -- there's so many of them. I kind of thought they should have something done with them." He shrugged, waving a hand vaguely at the white-starred hillside and the slow, deliberate black cattle tail-swishing their placid way across the pastureland below.
"Mm," said Bran, glancing at the scene with the casual air of one who has grown up with it. "Pretty enough, I suppose."
"Now, you shouldn't underestimate the common daisy." Will waved a stern, schoolmasterly finger at Bran. "I'll have you know it's good for lots of things."
"Oh yes? Like what?"
"Oh, well jaundice, smallpox, madness. That sort of thing. Er, and wounds and blindness."
"You don't say. Remember Mrs Jones at Ty Bont? She makes wine out of them. Claims it's an old recipe of her grandmother's. I had some once, it was disgusting."
Will picked one idly out of the grass and held it above his head, a dark silhouette against the bright sky. He turned over onto his stomach to examine the thing properly. Long white petals, tinged with pink at the edges, radiated out from the fuzzy yellow disc at the centre. Day's Eye. It was as much like a child's drawing of a flower, he thought, as the real McCoy. Such a small, simple thing, and yet not really, when you thought about what went into making it grow and live and survive. He tugged at a petal experimentally and it came loose and drifted down into the grass. He loves me. Another one made a bid for freedom. He loves me not.
"What about it?"
"Prevents it. And diseases of the liver."
"People used to think they were the spirits of children who'd died at birth as well. And the Irish wore them in their hair in the old days, for protection."
"Protection from what?"
"Just bad things."
"Oh," said Bran.
Will sat up. Bran was stretched out on the grass before him, supporting himself on his elbows. He had taken off the sunglasses and tucked them neatly away in the front pocket of his shirt, leaving those strange amber eyes exposed to the bright afternoon. To Will, he suddenly seemed impossibly vulnerable with his paleness and difference, and his huge, human capacity for being hurt. He still had his old habit of dressing for effect, in monochrome clothes that reflected the lack of colour in his own skin and hair. The charcoal-grey shirt and black jeans were his armour, along with the dark glasses. He wore them differently now, with a jauntiness almost, as if it were a self-deprecating joke against himself. It was not quite the open gesture of defiance it had once been. A lock of hair blew into Bran's face and he brushed it away again. It was like a silver fire, thought Will, a torch lit in the darkness to say, I am here
"Bran?" said Will. "Are you are you happy?"
"What? What d'you mean?"
"I mean are you, you know -- okay?"
"Yeah, I'm all right. Fine. You know." Bran's pale eyebrows formed a slightly puzzled frown. Will felt he was being warned of something, but persevered anyway.
"You don't ever feel like you're missing something? Like there's somewhere else you should be -- some other life you should be leading?"
Bran sat up and looked hard at Will as though he were trying to figure something out. A distracted look came over his face, his pale lips parted very slightly, as if in the middle of a word, and his eyes fixed on Will's. For a second, Will thought he knew what a small furry mammal must feel like when it's been spotted by an owl. Powerless. Mesmerised. He felt Bran's mind searching, trying to get a purchase on the question, but finding it slip away like water every time it got close.
An intense quiet fell on the hillside. Down in the valley a curlew called, low and haunting, like a memory. A bee manoeuvred itself slowly onto the head of a daisy near Will's hand, filled its pockets, and rumbled off heavily through the still air. Bran was still looking at Will as though he'd just entered a room and was trying to remember what he'd come in for. Will looked back and felt an odd bubbling sensation somewhere below his stomach. It was a strange thing, sharp and soft at the same time. It resembled sadness and pain, and yet neither of these. He is no more than mortal, said a quiet voice in his mind. He will live and die as all men do.
On an impulse, Will reached down and picked up the daisy chain from where it lay, coiled neatly on top of his rucksack. He shuffled forward until he was facing Bran, and reaching up, wound its knotted length around Bran's head. It went round twice and Will tucked the end stalk under to hold it in place. The yellow yolks of the flowers and the green stems stood out like little lights on Bran, the fresh white of the petals becoming lost in the beacon of his hair.
"There," said Will lightly. "Now you'll be safe." He took hold of a wisp of hair pushed up into a loop by a stray flower, and straightened it carefully. It felt fine and light as a child's in his fingers.
Bran did not move or speak. He sat and watched Will with a distant, slightly troubled expression. Then he gave a little shiver, as though coming out of a dream, and the peculiar quiet surrounding them relaxed into normality. Will sat down again and looked away, feeling suddenly awkward and shy. Bran raised a hand to his head, and touched the daisy wreath tentatively.
"You ought to be careful, Will man, people will be thinking you're crazy." A small smile flickered on his face, cautious but real. "Well? Does it suit me, then?"
Will smiled back. "Yeah, not bad actually." He ducked his head again in order to examine some extraordinarily fascinating insect life in the short grass. "Do you think I'm crazy?"
Bran looked at him, considering. "No. No, not really. Probably should though." He turned his head again toward the uneven haze of hills on the horizon. The high mountain peaks looked down on them with all the cold, arrogant beauty of the Wild Magic. Ancient, unchanging, they existed according to their own laws, indifferent to the lives of men in the valley. Turning back to Will, Bran said, "Safe from what?"
"You said, 'Now you'll be safe.'" He touched his daisy crown again. "Protection, right? So what do I need protecting from?"
"Oh, said Will, vaguely. "Nothing, I suppose." His eyes flicked briefly across the valley, over Bran's head, to the looming grey peak that was Cader. It was blank, impassive, the sky bright and clear. He sensed nothing, no lingering trace of malice from the stronghold of the Brenin Llwyd. There was only silence. The Dark had been driven from these mountains and from the world; he knew it and felt it, but still "It's just well, you never know, do you?"
Bran shrugged, his face unreadable as ever. He replaced his glasses and stretched out again on his back in the grass. "Duw, you're a funny one, you know, Will. Sometimes I feel I've known you for years and years, even though I've barely spoken to you for the last three. And then sometimes it's like I don't know who you are at all."
I could say the same about you, thought Will. A wild longing rose up within him that he couldn't place. He felt a sudden urge to pin Bran to the ground with the weight of his own body, to hold him in the here and now. He wished he could find a new way to stop time, one that would not leave him alone in a world of silence.
"Oh well," he said tightly, "I wouldn't worry about it."
"I'm not." Bran looked up, surprised. "Hey, come on -- I didn't mean it in a bad way. Bit mysterious you are, that's all." He reached over with a smile and touched Will lightly on the arm. Will swallowed. He felt as though he were made of stone, a new super-sensitive kind that registered the sensation of touch but was unable to respond. Bran regarded him for a second and then seemed to come to a decision. Very deliberately, he moved over to where Will sat, cross-legged, and lay down again with his head resting against Will's leg.
"Don't mind if I use you for a pillow, do you?" His voice was high and precise, the cadences of the valley where he'd grown up camouflaging the tension in it.
"No," said Will. His throat was dry and the word came out strange and croaky. Bran's head was warm and heavy in his lap and the flowers tangled in his hair were beginning to wilt now, the pink-edged petals curling up on themselves, shrivelling almost to nothing. Something inside Will gave a jump as Bran shifted slightly, turning onto his side. "Bloody uncomfortable, these old hills are," he said, breath gusting warm and damp into Will's denim-covered thigh as he spoke. Still Will sat, rocklike, afraid to move, afraid not to.
A light breeze came down off the mountain, disturbing the white hair so that it fell in untidy curls and loops on Will's jeans. Perhaps it brought something along with it, the ghost of a memory, because Bran gave a start and looked up, curiosity surfacing in his iridescent eyes. His neck was crooked at an odd angle, so that when he spoke, it sounded like someone else.
"Sorry, you asked me a question before, didn't you? Losing it, I am. What did you say?"
Will studied the face of this boy, Bran, in whom times and worlds had mingled, crossed, become confused. After all, said a voice in his mind, you really do never know, do you? Nobody can ever really know these things, not even an Old One. The future is as fluid and as formless as the past. Anything can happen.
He hesitated for a moment, and then reached down quickly and touched Bran's face cautiously with one finger, as though to make sure he was really real. The white skin was warm with the sun and with blood that flowed unseen beneath the surface. Will traced a line lightly over one pale eyebrow, down and across, and down again until he reached Bran's lips. They felt hot and dry and alive.
"It doesn't matter," he said slowly, and smiled. "I think it'll probably keep for the moment."
Around them the afternoon
lengthened and the day dwindled in the valley, as bees droned, cumbersome
and drunk on the new season, and the daisies, living out their tiny complicated
lives, stared up unblinking into the sun.