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All Magics Great and Small

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"There is the Old Magic of the earth, and the Wild Magic of living things, [and] beyond the world is the universe, bound by the law of the High Magic, as every universe must be. And beneath the High Magic are … the Dark and the Light."
  - Will Stanton, on the different kinds of Magics, Silver on the Tree

***

The night the Hound showed up was the coldest day on record in over a decade.  The wind came off Cader Idris, and it carried a raw, bitter bite that pierced through all Bran’s layers of clothing.  The chill settled into his bones like it was never going to leave.

The land rover refused to start that morning, so Bran had to make his rounds on foot.  It would be a long day, made longer by the cold, but he had no reason to expect any trouble.  He whistled up the dogs, Mag and Taff and Little Jenny, and they set out at a brisk pace.

Within minutes, Bran’s face had gone numb.  He tugged his scarf up until it covered his nose, scowled, and weighed the idea of bringing their flocks into the shelters closer to the farmhouse.  They were just lean-tos, really, but they were bigger and sturdier than the ones in the field, and they provided better protection from the wind and the elements.  Usually, they were only used in extreme weather situations.  Clwyd's sheep were a hardy bunch, good Welsh stock.  But it was so, so cold.  The shelters would keep the sheep out of the wind, at least.  Better to air on the safe side, in this.

Together, Bran and the dogs brought the sheep in—an act made easier once the animals realized where they were going.  No animal wanted to be outside on a day like this, not even one wrapped in its own wool coat.  Bran did a head count once he’d gotten them all settled, counting twice to be sure they’d all made it.  Then he made sure they had enough feed and broke through the layers of ice covering their water troughs.  It was tedious, laborious work, but it needed to be done.

By the end of it all, Bran felt frozen solid, and the dogs looked as miserable as he felt.  His limbs felt stiff, his muscles tensed against the wind, and he was having difficulty moving his fingers.

That’s when snow started.  It shouldn’t have taken Bran by surprise.  He’d grown up in these mountains.  He knew how fast weather could change out here.  But the radio hadn’t said anything about snow today, and the sky had looked clear earlier.  That was Welsh weather for you, though.

It wasn’t so bad at first, just a few flakes here and there, but very shortly it was falling so heavily that Bran could barely see the dogs at his side.  He whistled to them to stay close and concentrated on not losing his way off the path back to Clwyd.

Ten minutes later, he knew they were lost.  Bran had walked these paths all his life, had grown up playing amongst the hills and fields, and that meant two things: one, he knew this land very well,  and two, he knew exactly how dangerous it could be.  He should not have been able to get lost just walking the short path from the sheep shelters back to the farmhouse, and now that he had, he was in trouble.  This was very bad.

Muttering curses, Bran ran through everything he knew about surviving in a storm.  He wondered if he could make his way back to the sheep shelters, at least, but attempting that would likely to leave him even more turned around than he was already.  

If he lost track of any the dogs, he might never find them again.  That was a death sentence in this weather.  He held out his hands and whistled, but the sound was swallowed by the howling wind.  Bran shouted a command, and then he felt one dog press its nose to his waist and another lean against his legs.  He squinted down to look at them.  Two dogs out of three.  From their size, they were probably Mag and Taff.  Bran’s gut twisted.

The missing dog was Little Jenny.  He would hate to lose any of his dogs, but Jenny girl was special.  She’d been born a runt from one of John Rowland’s litters, but something in her had spoken to Bran, and he’d refused to give up on her.  Bottle feeding a sickly puppy on top of the farm work had been draining, but Bran had always loved sheepdogs far more than he liked sheep, and he had felt it was worth it.  He’d put all of this in a letter to Jane Drew, who had become something of a pen-pal to him, after a summer spent wandering the Welsh hills while her family was on holiday.  Jane had written him back, teasingly calling him a softy, and he’d named the pup Little Jenny to tease her.

She was less experienced than the other dogs, and she was still much smaller than them, and now she was missing in the snow.  She could be standing ten feet away from him and neither of them would know.  Anguished, he cupped his hands around his mouth, shouting and whistling until he’d gone hoarse.

Behind him, he heard a bark, deep and heavy, the kind he felt deep down in his chest.  Not like Jenny’s bark at all.

Then suddenly, yipping with excitement, the familiar little dog rushed into sight.  Relief washed over Bran.  He snagged her collar with one hand, ready to scold her, but she had this look about her, the kind he only ever saw the dogs give when they knew they’d done something especially good.

And it hadn’t been Jenny’s bark.

The snow hadn’t slowed any, so Bran turned very carefully, keeping all three dogs right by his side.  At first he couldn’t see anything, just whirling, blinding white, and then—

Golden eyes.  That’s what struck him first.  Golden eyes like his own, but they reminded him more of another dog he’d known, once upon a time.  Eyes that see the wind…

It was indeed a dog, or something like one.  Dog didn’t seem like quite the right word.  It was big, bigger than any of Bran’s herding dogs, long limbed and broad chested.  Its dark, shaggy fur looked unkempt, but it stood with a dignity that Bran rarely saw, even in most humans.  And its golden eyes were looking right into Bran’s own.

Bran held out one hand.  “Hello there,” he said.

The Hound—for he could think of nothing else to call it—stepped closer to them, and, slowly, pressed its muzzle into Bran’s palm.

On Bran’s other side, Little Jenny wriggled happily, but Mag was growling and he heard Taff whimper.  The Hound kept its nose against Bran’s hand for another moment, then stepped carefully around him.  It cocked its head and, as if in bafflement, made a soft whuffing noise.  The dogs stopped growling, then crept forward with their bellies pressed to the ground.  The Hound sat and bent its great head down, and when Mag leaned up, it pressed its forehead to hers.  Taff watched until Mag’s tail gave a slow wag, and then the Hound repeated the gesture with Taff.

This was not the way dogs greeted each other.  This was not the way dogs faced a threat, or made friends, or whatever was happening here.  Bran didn’t know what it was, but he didn’t dare disturb it.

Then Little Jenny sneezed.  The Hound turned back to Bran, with Mag and Taff sitting docile at its feet, and looked at him inquisitively.

The snow hadn’t lessened, and with his initial awe passing, Bran suddenly remembered that it was, in fact, very cold.  And he was still lost.

Swallowing, he asked the Hound, “Can you show me the way back home?”

The Hound stood up, yawned, stretched.  Then it turned and started walking away.  After a few steps, it looked back over its shoulder, as if saying, Well, are you coming?

Bran whistled for the dogs to stay close to him and followed.

The cabin wasn’t as far away as Bran had feared, and relief rushed through him when he saw the light shining through the window.  He stumbled up to the door, his three dogs milling around his feet, and then he turned to the Hound.  “Won’t you please come in?” he asked, and opened the door.

They tramped inside, the five of them, coated in snow and clumsy with cold.  Bran shut the door behind him, struggled to get out of his coat, then went around turning on lights and kindling a fire.  Mag and Taff went straight to their food bowls.  Little Jenny flopped down right in front of the hearth, and, after walking a circuit around the room, the Hound lay down beside her.

Bran had just pour himself a cup of tea and was settling down by the fire himself when the phone rang.  He groaned, not wanting to get up.  Now that he was inside, he felt exhausted.  Still, he shuffled over to the phone.  “Hello?”

“That you, Bran?  It’s Will.  Will Stanton.”

***

There were three things that Bran knew for certain about Will Stanton.

1) He’d first come to Wales when they were boys.  His aunt and uncle owned Clwyd Farm, and Will had been sent there to convalesce.  He’d been frighteningly ill in the weeks prior, and he still hadn’t quite recovered in those first few weeks.  Bran had vague memories of how pale he’d been, how easily he’d gotten out of breath, the way that Bran had needed to keep his pace slow in order for Will to catch up.

Those weeks stood out sharply in Bran’s memory, not just because of Will, but because it had been the same summer that Cafall had died.  Left a mark, it did, watching a man shoot your dog.  Bran swore to this day that Cafall hadn’t been attacking that sheep, no matter what they’d all thought they saw.  Will was one of the few people who had believed him.  Later, he’d helped Bran save John Rowland’s dog, Pen, from the same fate.

That kind of thing forged a bond that couldn’t be broken, no matter how far away they lived or how infrequently they saw each other.  Or how strange things got.

2) Sometimes, with Will, things did indeed get strange.  Mostly he seemed like a normal man, plain-faced and unassuming.  He attended university in London, which made Bran vaguely envious, and he was rooming with one of his brothers, which Bran most definitely did not envy.  Bran had spent more than one evening on the phone with Will, listening to him complain about the way that James left his socks everywhere, or played music when Will wanted to study, or never told him when he was bringing a girl home, and how it was so much more difficult living with with one brother in a tiny flat than it had been when all eight siblings lived together at home.  Will loved his family, but Bran had met James, and he wouldn’t want to live with him, either.

Then there were the times when Will became quiet and still, when his eyes would go distant, like he was seeing something no one else could.  He seemed to just know things, sometimes, things that he couldn’t possibly know.  Sometimes he disappeared and then came back without explanation.  Sometimes a night would be going terribly, and Will would go for a walk, and when he came back, everything would be all right.

The morning Bran found his father’s body, dead from an aneurysm in his sleep, Will had simply shown up on the cottage doorstep.  Bran hadn’t even called the neighbors yet, but he’d opened the door to a knock, and there Will was.  Will hadn’t been able to fix that one, but he’d calmly made tea, then breakfast, then had called his aunt and uncle and John, everyone Bran wanted or needed by his side.  Bran could simply sit by his father’s bedside, holding his cold hand, until it came time to take the body away.

Will had never told Bran why he’d decided to come to Wales that day, or how he’d gotten there so early, and Bran hadn’t asked.  Will stayed for days after the funeral, helping about the house, and trying, somewhat ineptly, to help with the sheep.  He didn’t go back to the city until Bran was back on his feet, until he could face the world without feeling like the everything good was crumbling around him.  That was just the way Will was, sometimes.

3) Bran had been hopelessly in love with him since he was fifteen.  Maybe earlier than that, but fifteen was when he’d figured it out.  He distinctly remembered looking at Will one morning, at the way he sat in the grass and tilted his face up to the sun, at the way he had one arm slung over a dog and an easy smile on his face, and thinking to himself, Oh.

That was something Bran had never told anyone.  He’d never been sure how his father would take it, and, after Owen Davies died, Bran couldn’t figure out if he regretted keeping it secret or not.

Will had never given Bran any indication that he knew, but there were moments, sometimes, when...  Well.  There were moments.

And now he was coming to visit, on the day after a strange Hound saved Bran’s life.  It was going to be an interesting day.

***

It was late afternoon the day after Will’s phone call.  It hadn’t been a long conversation—Yes, of course you’re welcome for Christmas.  Your family won’t mind?  Ha, and they’re not taking you with them?  You could go, you know, I’m not really alone out here.  Your aunt and uncle are just down the way.  No, the weather’s awful; we’ve got the flocks in close to the farmhouse.  I’ll be staying close to home.  Yes, see you soon.

He spent the rest of the evening studying the Hound, which did a very convincing job of pretending to be a normal dog.  It reminded him of Will, that Hound: not always there even when it was sitting right in front of him.  The timing made Bran nervous, but it was so very gentle with Bran, and with the smaller dogs, and with David Evans’ grandkids when he’d swung by the main house in the morning, that he couldn’t believe anything ill of it.

The cold hadn’t let up one bit over the night.  Bran managed to get the land rover running this time, though, so he piled inside with three dogs and one Hound and drove to Tywyn Station.   Tywyn didn’t get many visitors these days, especially at this time of year, and the trains never ran on time, so he didn’t know exactly when Will would arrive.  Bran pulled up outside the small station and waited for Will Stanton.

He left the land rover’s engine running so he wouldn’t have to worry about it refusing to start again, and he turned the heater on full blast and huddled close to it.  Ten minutes passed, then twenty, before the train finally pulled into the station, letting off a sole passenger and then sluggishly moving on.

Bran took a moment, just one moment, to stare at Will.  Then he slung open the car door and called out to him.

“Hullo, Bran!” Will called back, jogging over.  He carried a single suitcase made from battered, travel-worn leather, and he wore a bulky winter coat that probably wasn’t warm enough.  Even hunched over, with his face scrunched up against the cold, the sight of him was still enough to make Bran’s heart jump a little.

Their eyes met, and this was one of those moments again, the kind that was just between the two of them, when Bran’s heart raced and Will smiled and Bran could almost think that—

The dogs poured out of the car after Bran, and Will immediately set his suitcase down to greet them.  Mag, Taff, and Little Jenny all bounced around him with the eagerness of sheepdogs who knew they weren’t on the job and that here was a person who carried treats for them.  Will laughed and pulled dog biscuits from his coat pockets.

“You spoiling my dogs again?” Bran teased.  He was a little breathless, and bent down to grab Will’s suitcase to hide his gulp for air.

“What?  They’re good dogs.” Will looked up at him, grinning.  “Gosh, is this Little Jenny?  She’s gotten so big.  Jane wants pictures, by the way.”

Bran rolled his eyes.  “She always does.”

Then the Hound came forward, and Will went very still.  Nervously, Bran carried the suitcase to the back of the land rover, whistling for the other dogs.  They were too excited to want to go back inside just yet, and Bran intentionally made a bit of a fuss as he tried to get them and the suitcase all settled inside.  He kept his attention firmly on this task, but from the corner of his eye, he could see Will and the Hound watching each other.

One minute.  Two.  The sun came out briefly from behind the clouds, the first time it had done so in days, and then the clouds covered it again.

Slowly, Will bowed to the Hound.  The Hound bowed back.  Bran could breathe again.

He shut the door and walked back to Will, hands in his pockets.  Will was scratching the Hound’s ruff, running fingers through the scraggly coat, and the Hound was wagging its tail.  Will looked at Bran and said, “Who’s this fellow, then?  He doesn’t look like one of John’s.”

“No, he’s a stray,” Bran said.  “Found him outside in the middle of a snow storm.”  He did not mention any of the details.  “Ready to get going?”

“Sure.  Oh, can we stop by my aunt’s first?  When Mum heard I was coming she made me promise to check in on them.  As if I wouldn’t have done, anyway.”

They rolled their eyes together and all piled into the land rover.  One man, three dogs, and one man who was not quite a man and one dog who was not quite a dog.  What a strange little group.

***

Jen Evans greeted them with a warm smile, but the lines in her forehead told Bran she was worried about something.  She gave Will a hug, insisted he stay for tea, and then said, “Bran, would you mind stopping by the sheep shelters for a moment?  John Rowlands stopped by and went to check on one of the ewes.  I don’t mean to trouble you when you’ve a guest, but David and Rhys are in town, and John hasn’t come back yet.”

Bran nodded.  He even knew the which ewe she meant—she was one of their older sheep, and she’d been having a difficult time of it lately.  This would probably be her last lamb.  They couldn’t risk breeding her again if it made her struggle this much.  And John, well, John had never been quite the same since his wife had died. “I’ll swing by and check on everyone,” he said, and grabbed a torch.

“You want me to come with you?” Will asked.  “Worst case, you can send me running back here to phone for help.”

Bran hesitated, his eyes flicking to the Hound.  It stared at him intently, then lay down on the floor and put its head on its paws.  “No, don’t worry about it,” Bran finally said.  “Should just take a moment.  Keep your aunt busy or she’ll fret herself to death.”

Jen swatted at him with a towel and called him a name that she probably would not have used if her nephew spoke Welsh, but her eyes were relieved.  Bran gratefully accepted the thermos of hot tea she handed him and set off.

It was snowing again, falling harder the further he went, and he had to be imagining it but it felt like every flake that settled on his head and chest made him heavier.  All he wanted to do was lie down and rest.  Bran glared up at the sky, muttered a curse, and told it, “Stop that.”  Some of the weight lifted, until he was left with just a growing pressure on his head.  Damn cold.

He ran as fast as he dared toward the shelters, careful not to slip on ice or run into something in the low visibility, but if John needed him, he wasn’t going to let the snow stop him.  He made it to the shelters and stumbled inside, coated in snow, and breathed in the warm, musky scent of the sheep.  He shook off the snow, fighting through the pressure in his head, and called out, “John?”

And there he was, standing there just inside, staring into the distance with a haunted expression on his face.

“John,” Bran said, and carefully touched his arm.

John Rowland started, then seemed to come back to himself.  “Bran?  What are you doing here?  I thought you’d gone to the station.”

“Gone and back,” Bran said.  He handed John the thermos, not letting go until John took off the cap and sipped.  “Everything all right out here?”

“All good,” John said.  “They’ve enough feed for the night.  I checked on your problem ewe.  Looks tired, poor thing, but I think she’ll be all right.”

“That’s good,” Bran said.  “What about you?  You look,” old, weak, like your heart broke years ago and you never recovered, “cold.”

John glared at him, but it was halfhearted.  “I’m fine, Bran bach.  Just getting old, like everything else.”  He ran a hand through his hair and gazed outside again.  “I just thought I saw…”  He trailed off, looking into the snow again.

“Saw?” Bran prompted.  He rubbed at his eyes, wishing his head didn’t hurt so much.  

“Nothing.  Foxes.  I must have imagined it.  Any fox with sense is holed up somewhere warm.”

“And so should we be,” Bran said.  “Come on.  Will’s at the farmhouse.  He’ll be glad to see you.  And I still haven’t shown you my new dog.”

***

Will was not at the farmhouse.  Neither was the Hound.

Jen wrung her hands together even as she herded John into a chair at the table.  Her Welsh still carried a hint of an English accent even after all these years.  “He said he just needed to let the big dog out.  It should have only taken a minute.  Then the phone rang—David and Rhys are going to stay the night in town.  They don’t want to chance the drive—and when I came back Will was still gone.  I checked the bathroom, and the yard, but…  I don’t know where he could be.  He said he wouldn’t go after you.  I made him promise.”

Bran’s head was pounding now, throbbing with every heartbeat, even after he’d scrubbed at his face and hair with a dry towel.  Mag, Taff, and Little Jenny all sat at John’s feet, looking anxious.

“Not Will, not in this weather,” John said.  He gripped a mug with his wiry hands, staring into his tea.  “He’s a country boy, he knows not to go wandering in a storm.”

“Maybe he left something in the land rover and went to fetch it,” Jen said.  “Or heard the wind blow something over and went to fix it.”

Maybe he’d seen John Rowland’s foxes, and gone to fix them.

Bran pulled his coat back on.  He wasn’t worried about Will in the storm.  Not his dewin, and definitely not when he had the Hound with him.  He was worried about everything else.  And his head ached so.  Should he stay here, keep John and Mrs. Evans safe?  Surely he wasn’t needed for… whatever was going on out there.

A spike of pain in his head, and before he knew what he doing, he said, “I’ll do a walkabout.”

“And you get lost, too, and then we’ve two missing men instead of both of you safe and sound?”  Jen looked about ready to lecture, but John interrupted her.

“No, let him go,” he said.  He lifted his head, finally looking away from his tea to fix his eyes on Bran.  “But you be careful out there, bachgen.  No risks.”

No promises, Bran thought, but he didn’t say it.  He just nodded and went.

Two steps from the door, and Bran was surrounded in a world of white.  He’d never seen snow this bad.  Taking a deep breath, he turned in a slow circle.  One step.  Then two.  His head hurt less if he turned to the right.  He angled himself left and pressed ahead.

He didn’t know what he was expecting.  Wasn’t expecting anything, really.  This wasn’t his world.

This wasn’t his world.  Right?

He walked into the pain, into the cold, until it felt like he had lost himself.  His existence narrowed, became nothing but an aching head and a body so numb that he only knew he was moving because the pain was getting worse.

And then, suddenly, the world changed.

Bran fell to his knees.  The wind had dropped away, and the snow was piled in drifts around him, but it wasn’t falling anymore.  He looked behind him and saw the world of white, and knew that somehow, in this one place, the storm had stopped, but if he stepped back out into the storm, he would die from the cold.

Exhausted, he pushed himself to his feet and looked ahead of him.

There was Will, with the Hound at his side.  Will’s face looked fierce, foreign, inhuman.  The Hound’s hackles were up, and its snarls were so vicious that Bran was genuinely shocked.  Neither of them seemed to know that he was there.

Their attention was directed entirely at a thin gray man, who—  No, not a man.  Bran’s eyes kept sliding over him, refusing to focus, like there was something there he wasn’t able to see.  It looked to him like a tall wisp of storm cloud had tried to make itself into a man, but had only a vague idea of what those look like.  When it spoke, the voice was so sharp it physically hurt, and it sounded like a shrieking fox.

Will said something, something Bran couldn’t hear, or couldn’t understand.  The cloud-fox-man-thing laughed, a terrible sound, and then seven small gray shapes bounded out of the storm, falling on Will and the Hound like hunting dogs on a kill.

Foxes.  Oh.  “Will!”

If Will heard him, he couldn’t respond over the yips of the animals attacking him.  Bran heard the Hound bark once, like it was trying to answer him, but then the snow started again and Bran couldn’t see either of them.

He could still see the thing.  Exhausted, terrified, furious, Bran looked it right at it and said, “Stop.”

At that the thing looked right at him.  He could see the eyes, somehow, though the rest kept rolling away before he could focus, and meeting those eyes made the pain in his head spike.

“And the little Pendragon,” the creature spoke, and it was the most terrible sound Bran had ever heard in his life, and his arms were too heavy; he could not raise his hands to cover his ears.  The words were not English, nor even Welsh, but Bran understood them all the same.  “All these years later, do you come to claim your birthright, after all?”

Bran didn’t know what that meant.  His birthright was a cottage on a farm, a valley that he hated and loved, a golden harp.  “My name is Bran Davies,” he said, and though his tongue felt clumsy, the words came out crystal clear.  “Leave my friends alone.”

That awful laugh again.  It taunted, “Pendragon, Pendragon.”

Bran grit his teeth and leaned into the pain.  Slowly, he stepped closer to the creature.  His vision swam, like he was going to pass out, but still he pressed forward, until he stood right before his enemy.  “I said,” he gritted, “my name is Bran Davies.  You’re not welcome here.  Be gone.”

And he reached out one hand, placed it in front of the creature, and shoved.

His head screamed, and then suddenly the pain was gone.  He could hear someone shouting in the distance, and barks and snarls, but they were so far away, and he was falling, falling…

***

Bran woke.

He had a splitting headache, and his body felt stiff and sluggish, but for the first time since the snow started, he felt warm.  He’d almost forgotten what it felt like, not to be cold.  He shifted, groaned, and opened his eyes.

Will looked down at him, face drawn and haggard.  Bran blinked, trying to make sense of this, and realized that Will was holding him, arms wrapped around him, pressing him tight to his chest.  Bran reached up to brush at his cheek.  The motion was a little unsteady, turning into more of an awkward pat than a caress, but it did the trick.  A few of the lines smoothed away, and Will said, “Bran.”

“Hey,” Bran said back.  “You’re warm.”

“I think that’s more your friend than me,” Will said, and jutted his chin toward Bran’s feet.  Bran looked and saw the Hound lying across his legs, tongue lolling, looking quite pleased.

“It’s both of you,” he mumbled.  He leaned back against Will.  “Hi.”

“Hi.”  Will squeezed him.  “How do you feel?”

Warm.  He didn’t say that again, just privately enjoyed it.  “Tired.”

“Yeah,” Will said.  He ran his fingers carefully through Bran’s pale hair.  Then he cleared his throat, looking away.  “I, uh.  The dog got outside, so I went to fetch it, and we got a bit turned around.  Did you come out looking for us?  I’m sorry to worry you.”

Bran sighed.  He looked down at the Hound, who now seemed to be giving him a sympathetic look.  “Don’t,” Bran said.

Stillness.  A stretch of silence.  When Bran looked at Will’s face, his eyes were squeezed closed, like he was in pain.  “Don’t what?”

“Don’t lie to me, Will, dewin.  You don’t need to tell me everything, but don’t lie to me.  I won't have it.”

Will’s eyes snapped open at that.  “Bran, I...”  He stopped.  “I know what ‘dewin’ means, don’t I?  We covered that one.”

Dewin.  Wizard.  The day Bran taught him that one, he’d thought Will might tell him.  Since then, he’d come to accept that there were just some things they wouldn’t talk about.  Wizardry and Bran’s giant crush on him.  Two forbidden subjects.

“It’s all right,” he said gently.  He tried to sit up, but his head swam, and Will held him tighter.  “You don’t have to tell me, just don’t lie, okay?”

There was a long, long pause, and Bran thought they would leave it at that.  Then the Hound huffed and stood up.  Bran watched it take a few bounding leaps through the snow—there was a meter at least on the ground, but at least it had stopped falling—and start to sniff around at the base of a tree.

“Bran,” Will said, voice barely more than a whisper.  “What do you remember?”

“From today?”

“No.  Not from today.”

Bran sighed and leaned back against him.  It felt good, being held like this.  “Not much,” Bran admitted, and before any of the hope in Will’s face could die, he added, “Just enough to know that there’s something I’ve forgotten.  And sometimes I dream, and I think it might be real.”  He trailed off, shook his head.  “It doesn’t matter.”

“It does matter,” Will whispered  “I didn’t know you knew.  There were times when I thought.  But then.  And I.”  He stopped, looking at him like he was the only person in the world, like he was a living miracle, like he couldn’t possibly exist.

Poor Will.  And the way he was acting, was this one of those moments again?  The ones they didn’t talk about, except now apparently they did?  Steeling himself, Bran pushed himself up so that his face was level with Will’s and kissed him.

Will made a noise, surprised, but not unhappy.  They parted, just for a moment, and then he pulled Bran back in.

“Should have done that ages ago,” Bran murmured against his lips.

Will closed his eyes, said, “I couldn’t.  Couldn’t kiss you with one breath and then lie with another.  I don’t always get to be kind, Bran, but I’ve never been cruel.”

Bran nodded.  He understood.  “But no more lies now?”

“I promise,” Will said.  His gaze went thoughtful.  Not one of those looks.  Just like he was coming to a decision.  Finally, he took a deep breath, and said, “The Brenin Llwyd is gone from Cader Idris, him and the rest of,” he paused, made another decision, and continued, “the rest of his people.  But the milgwn remain behind.  They served the Grey King while he ruled the mountain, and were under his protection, but they they were not of his kind.  And so a great Darkness is gone from the world, but the mountains are still not safe.”

Bran snorted.  “The mountains don’t need evil foxes to make them dangerous.”

“Not evil,” Will said, “though they have served evil in the past.  Their true nature is more like your Hound friend, there.”  He grinned.  “Certain Powers just do what they want.  The Hound likes you.  The king of the milgwn wanted to challenge you.  It’s been centuries since he’s been able to do whatever he wanted.  You put him back in his place tonight.  I don’t think he will trouble us again.”

Bran raised an eyebrow.  “I did what, now?”  He remembered holding out his hand and telling that thing to leave, but he was no wizard.

Will frowned.  “I’m sorry.  I can’t say any more.”  He looked deeply sad for a moment.  “It wasn’t my decision to make you forget, Bran, but there are some things I am glad you do not remember.”  Then he winced, and added, “I’m sorry.”

Bran shrugged.  “It’s fine.  

Will drew in a shuddering breath and kissed him again.

“I dreamed there was a city, once,” Bran said quietly.  “With golden domes, and so many flowers.  Was that real?”

A deep breath.  “Yes.”

Bran nodded absently.  Before he could say anything else, they heard a deep bark.  Looking up, they saw the Hound a few feet away, nose pointing toward two figures in the distance.  Jen Evans and John Rowland, trudging through the snow in their direction.  They must have gone looking for them right when the snow stopped.

Carefully, taking it slow, Will and Bran helped each other to their feet and went to meet them.  They were on a hill not far from the farmhouse, and everywhere about them were drifts of snow, but the clouds in the sky were finally blowing away.  The sun felt warm on Bran’s face.  And, quietly, Will took his hand.