When Bran turned twenty he started having dreams. He'd laughed about it before, that he never remembered his dreams, and his friends from university laughed with him. They'd found it a little odd, of course. Who never remembers their dreams? Bran had assured them that he did not. Ever. He knew that he did dream. He would wake in the morning with something on the edges of his mind, and then it would drift off in wisps, as impossible to catch as mist over water. So when, on his twentieth birthday, Bran woke up the next morning and remembered whole pieces of his dreams, he was understandably unsettled.
"What do you mean?" his mate Denis asked as they took their seats for their morning lecture. "I thought you said you never remember them?"
"I don't," Bran said, shrugging. "But this one stuck with me. Funny thing is, it was a dream about home and one of the mountains. I could swear we went inside it."
"We? Who was with you?"
Bran frowned, frozen in the middle of taking his notebook out of his bag.
"Will," he said finally, just as the lecturer called for their attention. "This boy who stayed one year. Goodness. I haven't thought of him in years."
The dream repeated the next night, and the next. And then it was gone. Each night Bran was certain that he was seeing more, but in the morning all he could remember was a dark passage and stars and men whose faces he didn't know. For the next few weeks Bran woke with no memories of his dreams, no faces he couldn't remember. It was almost comforting. He didn't have to think about it, didn't have to worry. It was all like it had been for years, since he was a boy.
It didn't last, however. The dreams started up again one Friday night after Bran and his friends had been out at the pub for the evening. He woke up drenched in sweat, fear from his childhood still bright in his mind. The Mari Llwyd. How could he have forgotten the Mari Llwyd? They still did it back home, with a procession and everything. But this hadn't been some villagers with a ribbon-bedecked horse skull on a stick. This had been the real thing, somehow. The real Mari Llwyd, the grey mare, come to life and chasing them. Him and Will.
Bran got up and went to get himself some water and in doing so woke Denis, who'd fallen asleep in the chair by the window.
"What's wrong?" Denis asked, far more alert than Bran would have expected, but then Denis had always held his lager well. "More dreams?"
"Yes," Bran said, taking a seat across from him and sipping his water. "Strangest thing. It was about that boy I mentioned. Will. He was related to one of our neighbors somehow I think. Cousin or friend of the family or some such. He'd been ill and he came to recuperate. He came back a while later for some reason. I can't imagine why. Who would want to visit? There's nothing there but mountains and sheep."
"Some folk like mountains and sheep," Denis said, wrapping the spare duvet around himself. "I shouldn't worry about it. Probably just stress about exams."
Bran tossed a pillow at Denis and got up. "Ta," he said. "You're probably right."
But he wasn't. Bran wasn't stressed over his exams. Or not any more than he had been the previous year.
He went back to bed but not to sleep, going instead to his bookcase and pulling out an old favorite, a collection of tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. He'd read it so often the cover was falling to bits and he'd had to stick it back together. When he'd first come to university and been on his own he'd read it every night. It was like a little piece of home, carried all the way from the Dysynni Valley to Cardiff.
When he woke in the morning there had been no other dream and the book was at his side, open to a bit about Guinivere.
The following night Bran considered having a bit of a drink before bed, maybe to keep the dreams away. But who could say it wouldn't make them worse, so he ended up not bothering. Sure enough, the Mari Llwyd came rushing at them again, all bone and terror as he and Will took refuge in a small stone building.
I was better off not remembering, he thought to himself when he woke, scrambling for the light. Then, Remembering what? The Mari Llwyd? It doesn't exist!
Bran only had one lecture that day and spent the rest of his time in the library, deep in the folklore collection.
"Last minute research?" the library assistant asked when he went to check out a pile of books.
"Something like that," he told her.
Much like the last one, this dream stayed for several days, then disappeared just in time for Bran's end of term exams. He'd lost some precious revision time to that damned dream, but at least it was well in the past, almost in another time entirely.
Bran hadn't planned on going home for the holidays, but after his final exam he went and booked a train ticket on a whim. He wouldn't stay the whole break, no, but something told him he should at least go home for a few days, see his father. The train was leaving shortly and he packed quickly, adding a gift for his father to his bag. Now he wouldn't have to post it, so there was that.
Going home was always a little strange. It wasn't that he felt any keen sense of missing the people. He had his father, of course, and John Rowland and the Evans family. But it wasn't like how his friends described it, going home and spending time with all their old friends who'd either not gone to university, or gone even further afield than Cardiff.
Bran spent the first day home with his father, talking about innocuous things like the weather (more rain on the way) and sheep and the newest dog Bran's father was training. The next morning Bran woke early, old habits falling back into place. He bundled up and headed out to the hills, leaving a note for his father that he'd gone for a walk.
He'd had a dream that night. A dream without the Mari Llwyd or the strange hall deep in the mountain. He could only remember a single image from it: A tree, shining silver in the darkness. And when he had awoken, he had known he had to go up into the hills. He had to find something. Someone.
Frost covered the ground early in the morning and Bran's footsteps crunched lightly as he walked. He'd have worried, going out so early it was almost still dark, but he knew the sun would rise and burn away the mist, melt the frost. He knew these hills well enough to walk them in the dark anyhow. Not that he would have, but he could have. He was certain.
As he walked, Bran found himself expecting something. A sound or a call. It would have felt right. Except nothing came. All he heard was the wind on the grass. He hadn't brought his harp home. It had seemed foolish to lug it on the train with him. But now he wished he had it. The morning seemed to need something, some sound. As Bran crested a hill he stopped and looked out. He stood there and watched and waited. What for, he wasn't certain, until someone stepped up beside him.
"Not too easy, sneaking up on someone when the grass is still iced over," he commented.
"It's starting to melt," said the other man. "But no, not easy at all."
Bran turned, seeing Will at his side. He was grown, yes, but also somehow the same as he'd been when they'd been boys. Except no, that wasn't right. Will hadn't truly been a boy. He'd been both a child and ancient at the same time. No wonder he seemed ageless now.
"How did you know?" Bran asked him.
"Know what?" Will said, not looking at him but at the hills around them.
"That I'd be here. Now."
Will shrugged. "My mother wanted to visit Jen Evans for the holidays this year. We brought the whole family. You should see us, crowded into that little house."
Bran watched him. "And you, of course, had nothing to do with that, Will Stanton, youngest Old One? No magic at all?"
He got a smile for that, though Will still didn't look his way. "So you've remembered," he said.
"Something like that," Bran allowed. "I've been having dreams, dewin. More of your doing?"
"Not mine," Will said. And now he turned to face Bran. "But I've been having them too. I don't think the old magics like when us Old Ones meddle too much. And you, my friend, are as much a part of the old magics as anything."
"I suppose so," Bran agreed. "So what now?" Now that he knew. Now that he remembered. Now that the whole of their childhood quest weighed on his mind.
"Now we keep going," Will told him. "It'll be nice not having to avoid you. Do you know how many times I wanted to write, or call, or just show up at your door? Couldn't risk it though, so I've been keeping my distance."
"Duw," Bran muttered. "You're a fool, for all your wisdom, Will." He leaned in and kissed him, certain now that it was right, it was okay, the dreams he'd had and not remembered for so long were of this man. He could see them now, bits and pieces over the years. Something had been in the way, but now it was gone and Will was kissing him back and it was cold in the early morning on the Welsh hillside but there was nowhere else Bran would have wanted to be.
"I'll have to come visit, then," Will said when they stopped to catch their breaths. "In Cardiff. Can't have you coping with all these new memories alone."
"Indeed not," Bran said, tipping his head forward to lean on Will's shoulder. "Happy birthday, by the way. Come on. I'll put the kettle on and you can have a birthday scone. We have a lot of catching up to do."