So get ready for more angst and misery...
A vanished dream
She woke from dreams of blankness to find herself staring up at dappled leaves.
"You must have been up early." It sounded like a stranger's voice at first, but then Jane recognised it as her mother's. "We missed you at breakfast, and your beds were empty."
"Up too early, and now ready for bed again." Their father chuckled. "You know how children burn up energy."
Jane sat up, blinking in the sunlight. Beside her, Simon was stirring, frowning in confusion as if he did not know where he was. Barney murmured in his sleep, and brought his knees up to his chest, like a baby seeking warmth.
Jane looked from brother to brother, and then at her parents, mother first, then father. "How did I get here?" she whispered.
The sunlight felt hot enough to scorch, but she had never noticed before how cold a blue sky could look. A car passed on the road, and the sea stretched out beyond it, and brittle grass stirred on the dunes.
Her parents looked at her indulgently. "It can be confusing when you fall asleep during the day," her father said. "Have some breakfast. We've asked the landlady to keep some for you."
Barney woke up with a gasp and a start. His face crumpled, then smoothed out again, blankness replacing the emotion. "It was a dream," he said, "but I don't remember what it was."
Their father laughed. "If you were older, I'd say that you'd all been drinking."
Jane stood up. Simon had dragged himself up so he was sitting with his back to the tree, but he was frowning, his fingertips pressed between his eyes. Jane fought the urge to sit down again beside him. Her legs felt shaky and sore, as if she had been running, and there was something missing inside her, though she did not know what it was.
"Are you…" She swallowed, and cleared her throat. "Are you off out again?"
Her mother bit her lip anxiously. "You don't mind, do you? I thought you relished the freedom. I know we're probably being awful parents, letting you run wild, but this isn't London. It's perfectly safe."
"Yes." Jane looked at Barney, still huddled on the floor. He looked incredibly young, suddenly, and far too small to be left alone in a world where anything could happen.
She became aware of a low pulsing sound, that grew steadily louder. Her heart quickened, before she identified it as a helicopter. They all watched it fly low above them, and begin to circle. "Rescue helicopter," their father said grimly. "I hope no-one's drowned."
"Maybe it was the maroons that we heard earlier," their mother said, "that awful sound that woke us."
There was something mournful and terrible in the world 'maroons.' Jane shivered. She thought of boys who looked like Simon and Barney, lost in the cold, grey sea, drowning alone, because no help ever came.
"Don't go," she said, but the word was only a whisper, lost in the noise of the helicopter. Her throat tightened, and she fought the urge to cry.
"Well," their mother said. "Nothing we can do about it. I'm off to that lake again. If the weather holds, I might even finish today."
Please say something, Jane thought, looking at her brothers. I don't think I can bear to speak. Neither of them stirred, so she fiddled with her hair to shield her face, and said, "What lake? Can we see the picture?"
"I told you yesterday, silly," her mother chided. "I think somebody wasn't listening. And you know that I won't have anyone looking at my work until it's finished. There's no use asking. You can't wheedle around me."
Why are you like this? Jane wanted to cry. Something's changed! Something's ended, and I don't know what. Above them, the helicopter began another circle. A police car passed on the road, but it was not sounding its siren. Jane doubted that her parents noticed it.
"It's more golf for me today," their father said heartily. "What are you three going to do, when you've woken up, that is. Are you going to play with those little friends you made the other day?"
Little friends? For a moment, Jane had not the slightest idea what he was talking about. Panic fluttered in her chest, before her mind supplied the answer. He met the two boys they had chatted to briefly on the hillside. A serious English boy, and a strange Welsh one. She could not remember their names.
"I don't know," she said. "Any ideas?"
She turned to Simon. Simon was always the first to come up with suggestions of how they spent their days. He had always been quick to play the bossy older brother, and now he was almost thirteen he was frequently unbearable. Sometimes she argued, but today she only wanted to be led. Everything felt strange, and Simon would make them normal again.
"Simon?" she prompted.
"I don't know…" Simon lowered his hand from his brow. There was an expression on his face that she had never seen before. "Somethings… gone. I don't know what to do."
It made her feel more afraid than anything else that had happened since waking. "Barney?" Her voice sounded high and squeaky in her own ears. "Shall we stay in the grounds today? Do you want to paint?"
Barney rose to his knees, and gazed towards the sea. "The light isn't right." His voice was flat. "There's too much darkness in it today."
Jane shivered, but their mother gave a tinkling laugh. "What funny things you say sometimes, Barney. It's a glorious day, but time's ticking on. Would you mind ever so much if I go now?"
Yes, Jane thought. Please stay. Please stay with us today.
She said nothing, and smiled. Their parents strode away in their different directions, and dwindled, and were gone.
The helicopter made another pass. "Someone's died," Barney said.
"I want to go home," Simon said, in a tiny voice, not like his own.
Jane bolted into the hotel before they could see how badly she was crying.
He lied in every word
There were shadows in every room.
Paths of footsteps showed in the dust, tracking everyone who had come and gone in the days since the house had been opened up. The curtains were velvet, the colour of garnets, but when the sunlight fell on them it was clear that they would be scarlet if the dirt was washed from them.
Sunlight came seldom, though. Tall evergreens surrounded the house, shutting out the world outside. From his upstairs window, Bran could see a large metal gate, and a gravel drive, lined with silver cars. Only when the sun was at its highest did they sparkle. Only at noon did the curtains turn to blood.
He tilted his face up towards that distant sun. "So they lied about that, too." His voice sounded hollow in a room but sparsely furnished. "He lied about everything."
"My first thought was, he lied in every word."
Bran knew the voice, and did not turn round. The man called himself Matthews, and was some kind of manservant, but to whom, Bran did not know. He spoke with a nasty giggle in his voice, as if he knew something that Bran did not.
"Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came," Matthews said, his voice like a playground taunt. "Or is it Childe Bran?"
Bran traced his finger across the window, patterns in the dirt. "What do you want?"
"To listen to you," Matthews said. "So tell me, how did they lie?"
Bran would not tell him. Beyond the pale of trees, the sun shone in a perfect blue sky. People still lived. If he pressed his ear to the glass, he could hear cars and horns and planes. The world had continued, and the life of man upon it. And they told me that the world would end if I didn't do what they commanded. They told me the Dark would bring the end of everything. He lied. Everything he said was a lie.
Dirt was thick on the window, and the sunlight blurred. Dust from the curtains filled his eyes and made them sting.
"My master's down below," Matthews said. "Your master too, now."
Bran clenched his fist. "He's not my master."
"You chose him, boy," Matthews chuckled. "You chose the Dark. Tell me, had you chosen the Dark all along? Did you lead your little friend, the Sign-seeker, on a merry dance, when you planned all along to…"
"I did not!" Bran cried. Fists clenched at his sides, he was heaving in great breaths. "I did not," he said, more quietly. "I didn't choose the Dark. I chose not to choose the Light, that's all, and only because…" Because they had lied to me. Because they were using me. Because she said…
"It's the same thing." Matthews spread his hands.
Bran turned his back. He ran his finger again through the patterns he had made in the dirt. He watched the gate, but it did not open. People were passing by beyond the trees, but no-one stopped. No-one came.
Matthews stepped closer on silent feet, until he was close enough for Bran to hear his breathing. "Our masters are not pleased with you," he said, soft and sibilant.
"Why? I…" His voice thickened. It was hard to say. "I cut the blossom, and declared for them. If it wasn't for me, they…" He could not force a single other word out. The trees outside seemed to be growing, dark fingers reaching for the sun.
"They told you that the one who cut the blossom could banish all rival powers out of time," Matthews whispered. "They told you that, did they, these lying friends of yours?"
Bran was shrinking away from him, until his body was almost pressed to the glass. "Yes," he breathed, the word marked only by mist on the window.
"Protected by the Light, you cut it, but then you gave it to my master. In your heart, you renounced the cause of your false friends. You refused to be their puppet any longer."
Bran nodded. His forehead found the glass, and stayed there. The coldness of the touch seemed to seep through his skin and turn him frozen and numb.
Matthews touched his shoulder. "Ah, but did you see the Sign-seeker's face when you did that? Did you see the betrayal there, the pain?" The voice was soft, like a dreadful caress. "Is that why you faltered?"
"I did not falter," Bran whispered. His eyes were closed now. It made no difference, because all he saw now was shadow and darkness.
"Then why are they still here?"
Bran snatched his head up. His eyes snapped open, and there was the sunlight still, silver bright beyond the trees.
"Send them out of time forever," Matthews said, in sing-song voice. "And many were sent thus, but not by you. My masters took them in the first frozen horror of their surprise, but not all. Some escaped. If you had been true, this would not have happened. My masters know it, and now you know it, too."
"Who?" Bran rasped. "Who escaped?"
"Their master." Matthews spat. "Merlin. My masters would feel the passing of such a one."
"Any…" Bran swallowed. "Others?"
Matthews' mouth curled in a smile that did not reach his gleaming eyes. "Why, boy, is there one that you are particularly interested in?"
Bran swallowed. "No. No-one." Certainly not Will, no, never him. Will Stanton was the worst of them all. The others had never pretended to be anything other than stern masters of Light, but Will had pretended to be his friend. He had preyed on Bran's loneliness. The boys at school laughed at him and called him a freak, but at least that was honest. False friendship was the worst of all. For a while, Bran had even thought…
"Yes," he said harshly. "I was interested in one in particular, and you know who. I want to make sure that he's really gone."
"But surely we'll find out soon enough." Matthews smiled disingenuously. "If he's still here, he'll come looking for you, won't he? After all, he is your friend."
"I have no friends." Bran turned back to the window. "I want you to go away now."
"Giving commands to one such as me?" Matthews sneered. "I don't think our masters would like to hear about this."
"I…" Bran pressed his hand against the glass. "I made you win. If it wasn't for me, the Light would be throwing its weight around, imposing its rigid, cold, loveless, horrible lies on everyone. If it wasn't for me, you'd all be gone."
"You want us to be grateful, boy?" It was a new voice, a cold voice. The sunlight paled, and a draught sent the ancient windows rattling.
Bran felt himself turn round. He did not want to do it, but something was dragging at his mind, and he could not resist.
"Rider," he gasped, through tightened throat. That was what Will had called this man. Rider, and they had run from him together, cold waves of terror lapping at their heels.
"And now I ride the world," the Rider said, "and you say it's thanks to you."
It wasn't! Bran wanted to cry. It wasn't anything to do with me. It would have happened anyway, whatever choice I'd made. He thought of a crystal sword, and a blossom falling, and six companions thrusting out their Signs, protecting him with everything that they were.
"I…" he stammered. "I'm…"
"You're nobody now," Matthews gloated. "The Pendragon was for one purpose only, and that purpose is done, and oh, how it was done! You are an ordinary boy now, just a pathetic boy who turns on his friends, and my masters do not need you."
Bran saw a glance flicker between Matthews and his master, and something subtle changed about both of them.
"Peace, Matthews," the Rider said gently. He turned to Bran, handsome face soft and smiling. "He's only jealous, Bran. Of course we are grateful to you. You will, of course, be rewarded."
"I don't want a reward," Bran blurted out. "I only wanted…"
The Rider smiled. "What? Ah yes. That." He leant forward, hands on his thighs, like an adult bending down to a child. "The Dark does not deny such things, Bran. Stay with us, and you will find that. Unlike the Light, we do not lie. Unlike the Light, we do not compel men to suppress their deepest desires. We are freedom and truth, Bran, but of course you knew that. I saw that in your heart when you made your choice."
His eyes were as blue as a winter sky, as deep as an endless ocean. Bran looked into them, and saw truth.
"Just don't lie to me," he rasped.
The Rider straightened. Another glance passed between him and Matthews. With some distant part of his mind, Bran registered that Matthews was no longer smiling. He looked older and taller, side by side with the man he called master.
"The Light would have stolen your memories," the Rider said. "They would have used you, then cast you back to waste your life on a decaying farm with a man who was only pretending to be your father. You will find us more grateful to those who serve us."
Bran clenched his fist, and managed to rip his gaze away. "I won't serve anyone. I'm here because I choose to be."
"Of course." The Rider smiled placatingly. "And you can leave us at any time. You know that."
Bran nodded. He leant against the window, and gazed at the metal gate, relentlessly closed. He had no idea what city he was in, or how he had got here. Somewhere - far away, perhaps – was Owen Davies out on the hills, looking for the boy he had lied to and tricked? Were the boys at school sharpening their sticks and wondering where their favourite whipping boy had gone? Were the last remaining Old Ones prowling, ready to seize him if he returned, and destroy him for what he had done?
Was Will out there, ready to smile with false forgiveness, to woo him with treacherous words? Bran would reject him, of course. He would throw the lies back in his face, and give him to the lords of Darkness to have their way with him. He would hurt him, just as Will had…
"I know that," he said, his voice hoarse.
But I won't he thought. Not quite yet. But I can. I can leave at any time. I rejected the Light. That doesn't mean that I embrace the Darkness.
The trees grew tall, a protective barrier against the garish world of sunlight, and the Light that lay beyond.