Title: Keeping a Welcome
Fandom: The Dark Is Rising Sequence
Rating: U
Originally posted: 5 June 2004
Summary: Some concepts don't require an exact translation. A 'missing scene' fic, set immediately after the events of The Grey King.
Disclaimer: All original works are copyright of their respective owners; I lay claim only to this particular story.
Notes: I'm fond of writing missing scenes, and this one in particular seemed to be important to a book that ended on a satisfying but not entirely 'complete' note (at least in my mind). So this is how I imagine that The Grey King really ends.

Keeping a Welcome

We'll keep a welcome in the hillsides
We'll keep a welcome in the vales
This land you knew will still be singing
When you come home again to Wales
This land of ours will keep a welcome
And with a love that never fails
We'll kiss away each hour of hiraeth
When you come home again to Wales

-- Traditional Welsh song

The unseasonable warmth of Indian summer was long gone, and mid-November's feeble sunlight did little to dispel the chill of the nights. In the mornings, the close-cropped grass in the fields crackled underfoot, frozen in stiff spikes until the sun rose high enough to melt the frost. The farmhouses dotted along the hillsides seemed to huddle in on themselves for warmth and comfort. There was no snow yet, but the steady rain held an unspoken promise of winter's bitter cold.

Will had to plead and coax and argue to be allowed outside the house by mid-afternoon. His Aunt Jen was convinced that the moment he stepped out of doors he would catch cold, have an immediate relapse, and end up in worse shape than he had been when he'd arrived at the farm a month before. But once Will swore up and down that he wouldn't go far from the farm, and would wear as many layers of clothing as she wished, she couldn't refuse him for very long.

So, muffled in thick socks, long underwear, jeans, two flannel shirts, a thick pullover, a bright blue anorak, gloves, a face-tickling scarf, and a shapeless woolly hat that belonged to his Uncle David, Will waddled out of the house.

Trickles of sweat were running down his face before he reached the first of the farm gates.

Bran was waiting for him by the main road, leaning against the fence with the relaxed poise of the newly-liberated schoolboy, school bag slung carelessly over one shoulder. One eyebrow arched at the sight of the well-wrapped boy struggling forward to meet him, but he quickly moved to open the last gate for Will.

Will nodded a mute thanks, and held the gate shut so Bran could relatch it. He noticed that Bran hadn't even bothered to go home and change clothes before meeting up with him, but if Bran didn't mind tramping around in his school uniform then Will wasn't about to waste time or energy worrying over it.

They set off down the road, walking more slowly than usual. The day was not as cold as the morning had promised, and as soon as they were out of sight of the farmhouse Will hurriedly shed the anorak and draped it over one arm.

'I told her I'd wear all this,' he said, peeling off his gloves and stuffing them into the pocket of the coat. He breathed a glad sigh as cool air hit the newly exposed skin on the backs of his hands. 'I never promised I'd keep it all on. I was about ready to suffocate.'

Bran nodded, and started to help Will remove his scarf.

'I can't believe you're going home tomorrow,' he said quietly.

'Mmrph -- ' Will coughed and spat out a mouthful of knitted wool, then finally worked free of the scarf's tangles. 'I mean, I know.' He took the scarf from Bran's hand and shoved it down one of the coat sleeves. 'And back to school next week, if the doctor says I can.'

Bran adjusted the dark glasses he was wearing. 'It feels like you just got here yesterday.'

'Yesterday?' Will's eyebrows went up, though his exact expression was hard to see underneath the woolly cap.

Bran gave him an inscrutable look over the top of the glasses, then started walking again, leaving Will with no choice but to trot along after him.

'You know what I mean,' he said over his shoulder.

'Well, it doesn't exactly feel like yesterday to me.' Frowning, Will kicked at a tuft of grass that had sprouted between the double line of tyre ruts in the road. 'Fighting mountain fires, running all over the countryside, nearly falling headfirst into a lake -- oh, yes, that'll be an interesting story to tell when I get home and Mum asks me if I got enough rest.'

Bran had started to head for a gap in one of the hedges that lined either side of the road, but at Will's words he spun round, alarmed. 'You wouldn't -- '

'Of course not,' Will said quickly, almost harshly. 'You're the only one who knows the whole story.'

Bran grunted. 'I know. I didn't mean it that way.'

They both fell silent. With Bran leading and Will following, they pushed through the prickly hedge and made their way side by side across the open fields, skirting the edges of the mountains. They wandered through debris still left from the mountain fire, feet crunching in the cinders of burnt forest as they picked their way though the scraggly remains of singed trees. Neither wanted to go too far up the slope -- Will could feel nothing of the Brenin Llwyd, no sign of his presence, but it was safest not to present a challenge to the Dark so close to one of its acknowledged strongholds.

It was an uncomfortable silence, nothing companionable about it, and it wasn't broken until Will suddenly turned to Bran and said:

'Stop that.'

'Stop what?' Bran asked.

'Stop looking at me like that,' Will said, a little irritably.

'Like what?'

'Like....' Will glanced round, then hiked over to a charred and fallen tree trunk and sat down. He levelled a flat stare at the other boy. 'Like you keep expecting me to say something deep and meaningful.'

Bran huffed, and leant against the burnt-out hulk of another dead tree, which had landed crookedly atop the one Will had chosen for a seat.

'Well, aren't you?' He unshouldered his schoolbag and let it drop to the ground. 'The first time we've been on our own since -- since that day, and there's nothing you're supposed to tell me? Nothing I'm supposed to know?'

Will made a pretence of pausing to think before he replied. 'No, nothing. Not a thing.'

Bran ran his hand down the blackened trunk of the tree, and said nothing.

'I would tell you, if there was,' Will added. It was true, he told himself. There was nothing he was supposed to tell Bran, and nothing that Bran was supposed to know. Nothing else, that is. 'You know that.'

Bran didn't reply. His eyes were entirely unreadable behind the dark lenses, and when he used the tip of one finger to push the glasses further up the bridge of his nose, it was as if he was trying to make sure that the wall he had decided to put up between them was still there.

'Look, was there something you wanted me to say?' Will prompted, figuring that it was best to drag as much of this mood out of Bran as he could now, while they were alone, rather than spend their last day together not talking. 'Something you wanted to know?'

Bran stared out over the valley for a full minute before he spoke.

'It's just...it's weird, all right?' he said at last, and he seemed to be having trouble making his voice work properly. It sounded tight, stretched too thin over his words. 'It's -- there's times when I think it's like the best kind of dream, but sometimes it feels like one of the worst, the really bad ones, like one of the ones where you end up in school on an exam day with no clothes on and then when you open your mouth all your teeth fall out.' He scratched at the charred bark with a fingernail. 'Or something like that,' he finished lamely.

Will waited until he was certain that Bran was not going to say anything more.

'It will feel like a dream, at times,' he said quietly, thoughtfully. 'And there will be times when you will not know which part of your life is the dream and which is the waking. But you will always know that they are both part of you.'

Bran turned to stare at him, mouth hanging slightly open. Then, suddenly, he made a rude-sounding noise that jolted Will rather unceremoniously back to the here and now.

'And there you go again,' he drawled. 'Tell me, Old One, is it written down somewhere that you have to be mysterious and vague at all times? Is it in the job description?'

'Oh, yes,' Will said lightly, returning Bran's smirk. He was sort of glad that Bran had broken the overly solemn moment. 'It's a most important rule.'

'Oh, really?' Bran said, his voice mock-disbelieving.

'Really.' Will cleared his throat, tilted his chin up, and began to talk through his nose in a dry, austere voice, imitating Merriman at his most pedantic. 'Rule Number One: "It is expressely forbidden to speak to mortals in any manner which could be construed, however remotely, as candid, frank, open, or otherwise straightforward. Offenders will be subject to immediate disciplinary measures."'

Grinning, Bran shook his head. 'Good job I'm not quite mortal, then. When you put it like that, it's hard to believe you're joking.'

Will raised an eyebrow, a dignified and faintly superior smile hovering around the edges of his mouth. 'And what, pray tell, would lead you to believe that I am, in fact, joking?'

Bran replied in the only proper manner -- by leaning over and punching Will on the shoulder, nearly shoving him off the log. 'Prat.'

Will let out a very undignified yelp and leapt to his feet, all traces of the ageless Old One vanishing from his expression. He looked rather young and petulant as he rubbed his arm, and warningly, he said, 'If you've left a bruise, Bran Davies, I'll....'

'You'll what?'

'I'll....' He didn't quite know how to finish that threat, so he gave up on that line of thought -- but he had to say something, and that was why the next words out of his mouth were as much of a surprise to him as they must have been to Bran. 'I'm sorry.'

Bran had been chuckling over Will's discomfiture, but the laugh stopped suddenly, as if it had stuck in the back of his throat.

'For what?' he said, after a long moment.

'For...for what I said, after Cafall died,' Will said lamely. He had tried to talk to Bran then, to comfort his friend in his grief, but an Old One's words of comfort were not the words a grieving and angry boy had wanted to hear. 'It wasn't....' He couldn't think of an adjective to describe what it hadn't been, so he bit down on his lip instead. Unfortunately, the twinge of pain he felt wasn't exactly conducive to thought, either.

'At least you tried,' said Bran. His tone was colourless, which made the reply sound as if he was reading from a script in front of him. 'That's more than I can say of anyone else.'

'Still, it wasn't -- ' Right. Proper. Helpful. Decent. Will finally gave up on his quest for a suitable adjective. 'I'm sorry. I wasn't trying to -- '

'Will. It's all right. Honestly.'

With those five words, Bran had closed the door on the awkward apology. Will knew better than to press it further.

They stood up after a few moments and started walking again, Bran dangling his schoolbag from one hand, Will shifting the bright blue anorak from arm to arm and doing his best to enjoy the sights. He wanted to stamp the valley into his memory, take it away with him like a full-colour picture postcard in his mind. It was a beautiful land, and in the month he had spent in it he had had little chance to appreciate it properly.

He looked around, trying to be the dutiful tourist. Look at the winding ridge of rocky hills, mountains and half-mountains jutting up in uneven humps. Look at the farmhouses and their outbuildings dotted across the valley below. Look at the fluffy cream-coloured clumps of sheep at pasture, like clouds spread out on a grass-green sky.

Caught up in the sights as he was, attention fixed on enjoying the landscape he had been taking for granted for weeks, the strange feeling crept up on him so slowly that he didn't realise what was happening until it actually interfered with his ability to concentrate.

At first, it was like a buzzing at the back of his mind, a odd sort of low-frequency hum. He shook his head to clear it, wondering if the ringing in his ears was coming back -- Doctor Armstrong had mentioned something about 'tinnitus' being one of the after-effects of the hepatitis -- but then again, it wasn't really a ringing in his ears at all. If anything, it was a ringing in his body, and it felt more as if someone had struck a tuning fork hidden deep inside him and the reverberations were coursing through his nerves, all under his skin.

Bran was stumping along ahead of him, oblivious, calmly picking his way over the rough ground, but Will found it increasingly harder to keep going. Finally, he couldn't take another step. He had to stop and give himself up to the feeling, to let it resonate in him and through him. The coat slid down his arm and fell to the ground, entirely forgotten.

Up ahead of him, Bran paused and stooped down. With one finger, he stirred a small heap of the ash on the ground, and was about to straighten up again when he happened to glance back and saw that Will had stopped, frozen, almost in mid-stride.

'Will?' He set down his bag and hurried back to where Will was standing. He came to an abrupt stop less than an arm's-length away. He peered at Will, then took off his glasses and cast a nervous glance up the hillside, shifting from foot to foot like a small animal prepared to make a dash for cover.

'Wh...what is it?' he said hesitantly.

'It's...not the Dark.' Will knew that much. Now that he had stopped walking, he could actually concentrate on what he was feeling. It had gone from a shiver in the depths of his mind to a sensation that was giving him gooseflesh -- and the closer he felt Bran come to him, the more his skin prickled. 'It's more like -- '

He never found out what he would have said it was like, because before he could finish, Bran's hand had shot out and took hold of his own.

Will's eyes flew wide open, and so did his mouth as he prepared to ask Bran just what the hell he was playing at --

-- but when he saw the expression on Bran's face, he temporarily forgot how to breathe.

The Welsh boy's face was slightly turned away from Will, but there was no mistaking that a great change that had come over him. All trace of nervousness and anxiety had vanished from Bran's expression, leaving it tranquil and composed, utterly calm -- and unquestionably regal.

Will's mouth snapped shut.

Bran turned his head then, and met Will's startled gaze.

A wave of giddiness swept over Will, disorienting him. He was falling out of Time. There was no way that he could say with any certainty if he and Bran were still in the twentieth century -- or indeed, if they were in any century. The Welsh hills were as they always were, timeless and remote, and the true magic was in this moment, in the two of them on a lifeless, windswept hillside, caught out of Time for a ceremony witnessed only by the cold, unending watchfulness of the High Magic.

And it was the High Magic that was now telling Will what had to be done.

He took a small step back, still holding Bran's hand, and knelt with an instinctive grace that belied his many layers of clothing. Head bowed, he suppressed the sudden tremor -- of awe, not fear -- that raced through him and threatened to rattle his nerves.

'My lord Pendragon.' Reverently, he kissed the slim white hand.

He felt a gentle touch on the crown of his head, feather-light but nonetheless commanding. He lifted his head and gazed into tawny-gold eyes that radiated a quiet authority, accepting the fealty he had sworn.

'Arise, my dewin,' came the soft, faintly amused reply. 'You need not kneel to me.'

Will stood, as he had been commanded. 'As my master Merlion to your high father, so I pledge to you,' he said, clasping Bran's hand with both of his own. 'In loyalty, allegiance, and friendship, always.'

'My dewin, at my side,' Bran said in the same soft voice, a voice that belonged to a time so long ago that every word sent echoes swirling and eddying through Will's head. 'As it must and shall be.'

'As it must and shall be,' Will repeated, fervently.

Bran placed his other hand on top of Will's clasped ones, and the giddy feeling intensified until Will's head was singing, the air was singing, the rocks and the trees and even the mountains were singing --

-- and then, where Old One and Pendragon had been there, were two eleven-year-old boys. One was still in full school uniform, while the other was swaddled in layer upon layer of itchy winter clothing.

The shock of falling back into Time was so abrupt that it felt like a solid blow to the back. Both of them staggered where they stood, still holding hands.

'What...was that?' said Bran, breathlessly, swaying on his feet.

'It....' Will was also finding it hard to catch his breath. He felt as if he had been running, sprinting flat out like in a race at school. 'It...had to be done.'

Bran shook his head quickly, clearing his mind. His fingers slipped from Will's grasp (Will nearly cried out at the loss) as he lifted a hand, and slowly ran his fingers through his hair.

'I...' he began to say, but stopped.

'It had to be done,' Will said again, to himself this time. 'It -- it -- '

He would have continued, but the noise of his heart thundering in his ears made it difficult to hear himself speak. His knees wobbled treacherously.

'Will?' There was a hand on his arm, though Bran's voice seemed to come from very far away. 'Are you all right?'

'Y...yes.' He started to push Bran's hand away, but ended up clinging to it instead when the pushing motion threatened to overbalance him. 'I'll be fine. I just...sit. Need to sit.'

And he sat -- or rather, he sank to his knees and let the sitting take care of itself. The ground was nice enough to meet him halfway and make the sitting a very easy task.

Bran got down next to him, crouching awkwardly on the slope of the hill. Even with his eyes tight shut and his knees drawn up against his chest, Will could feel the other boy beside him, hovering very close to him.

At last the dizziness passed, and Will could open his eyes and see without squinting through the blurriness. The first thing he saw clearly was the mixed fright and worry on Bran's face quickly shift to relief -- which went straight back to worry again when Will started to get to his feet.

'Wait, don't just -- hey, what d'you think you're doing?' Bran protested. He let go of Will's arm as Will stood, but caught hold of Will's wrist as if he could pull the other boy back down to the ground.

'Getting up again.' Will brushed the grass from his jeans with his free hand and examined his knees carefully, checking for mud spots or grass stains that his aunt might notice. 'What does it look like I'm doing?'

Bran scowled blackly at him, sitting back on his heels. 'Don't be an ass. You looked like you did when you first got here.' He released Will's wrist, but his voice was still low and anxious. 'Like you were going to be sick, or faint, or probably both for all I know. Are you sure you're all right?'

'Fine,' Will replied. When he saw that Bran didn't believe him, he jogged a few feet down the slope, did a little spin round with his arms spread wide, and jogged back up the rise until he was level with Bran once more. 'Look, honestly, I'm fine.'

Bran's scowl deepened even further as he stood up. 'You're not fooling anyone, Sais.'

Will drew a breath to argue, but something in the twist of Bran's mouth drove all thought of arguing from his mind.

'Did you feel it?' he breathed. He gazed at Bran with unfocused eyes. 'I can't tell, you know, if you did or not. You must have, there's no way you couldn't have, but it's always so hard to tell with you and I never know whether or not...but if you did, then....'

He was breathing hard again, and at some point he had caught hold of Bran's upper arm near the shoulder and couldn't seem to make himself let go.

'Shh, shh,' Bran whispered. Gently, he prised Will's hand from his arm and patted it, then let go.

'Sorry. It's just that -- ' Will sighed. Now that the dizzy feeling had passed he felt rather silly, and more than a little angry at himself for scaring Bran without reason. 'Sorry. Not exactly how I'd imagined spending my last afternoon here.'

'Nothing to be sorry for.' Bran brushed the grass from his own trousers. 'Besides, it's not going to be half so much fun around here without you to cause trouble.'

Will mock-scowled at the other boy, and bent over to pick up his dropped coat. 'I'll come back, you know.'

'I know,' Bran said quietly. 'But it won't be the same.'

Will had to agree with that. 'No, it won't.'

They had walked a little way down the hillside before Bran spoke again. 'You will write, won't you?'

'Of course I'll write.'

Bran nodded. 'Good.'

When they reached the bottom of the hill, they followed the hedgerows until they came to the one they had pushed through on the way up. They shoved back through it again, returning to the road. Will rooted around in the sleeve of his coat for his scarf and draped it around his neck, then started pawing through the pockets for the gloves.

As they walked, he asked Bran a few inane questions about school and schoolwork. Bran replied with a singular lack of enthusiasm for the subject. By the time they reached the gate of the Evans' farm, Will was fully clothed once more and none too happy about it -- but his sour mood quickly faded when he saw Bran's face and the misery that the other boy was plainly trying to hide.

'We'll have much work to do, when I come back,' he said briskly.

'When you come back.' Bran repeated Will's words as if the words were some sort of lifeline, something that he could cling to to keep himself from
drowning.

'What, you didn't think I'd be back?' Will said lightly, with a little smile. 'I'd like to come for a visit when I'm not supposed to be a hopeless invalid half the time I'm here.'

Bran smiled back at him, just a little.

'Come back, then,' he said. It was only the firm set of his jaw that kept the command from sounding like a plea. 'And I'll keep a welcome in the hillside, or however that old nonsense goes.'

Will grinned at him, waving his hands grandly as if conducting a choir. 'Kissing away all those hours of hiraeth, too, no doubt.' He hoped that he was pronouncing the foreign word right -- and was secretly pleased when a surprised and approving look from Bran told him that he had. 'What exactly does hiraeth mean, anyway?'

'It's...sort of hard to explain.' Bran chewed his lower lip for a moment in thought. 'Probably why they keep it in the Welsh in the song. It's a soppy sort of word. Like "homesickness", or "nostalgia" or....'

He trailed off abruptly, so abruptly that Will wondered if Bran had forgotten where he was going with his train of thought. 'Or?'

'Or "longing",' Bran said at last.

'Oh.' Will's voice was rather small.

Before the silence that followed could stretch out to unbearable lengths, Will's stomach broke the frozen mood by letting out a long, loud rumble of protest.

'Must be dinnertime,' Bran said with a smirk.

'Must be,' Will agreed. 'Are you hungry?'

Bran shrugged. 'Sort of. I've got to run home and all, but my da said that I could have dinner at your uncle's place, seeing as how it's your last night here, so I'll be back in about fifteen minutes or so.'

'Great.' Will grinned. 'Well, I'd better get in. I don't want Aunt Jen to send out a search party for us.'

'Search party?' Bran said, rolling his eyes. 'Not for you, dewin. I've a feeling that you couldn't get lost up here even if you tried.'

'Maybe.' Now it was Will's turn to be inscrutable. It covered up the fact that Bran calling him dewin made his head spin a little, and made the hairs on the back of his neck prickle. He opened the gate, making certain to latch it shut once he was fully inside. 'See you in a bit, then.'

'Right.' Bran turned, hoisting his schoolbag fully onto one shoulder. 'Don't eat all the bread before I get back.'

'If you don't take all night getting back, maybe I won't.'

Bran made a horrible face at him, and Will made one right back before turning round and racing for the farmhouse door.


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