'So long as it is all right with you, Bran bach,' John Rowlands said, eyes creased at the corners with concern.
Bran shrugged and pushed at the uneaten half of his dinner. 'We need the extra pair of hands, no argument there.'
'It is only for the summer,' the older Welshman said, 'and if it does not work out, well, other arrangements can be made. Elgan Jones can stay at the Evans' instead, or here, after all.'
Bran shrugged again. 'It is all the same to me. Only—only, John, I would rather not have to do the clearing out. Not yet.'
John Rowlands set a hand on Bran's shoulder and squeezed it gently. 'No need for that at this stage, bachgen. Jen Evans and I will see to what needs to be done. There is no rush.'
Bran nodded, without looking up. Another gentle pressure on his shoulder. 'Eat a little more before you clear the dishes,' John Rowlands said. 'I am going to check those tyres while the light lasts.'
With a sigh Bran shovelled a couple more forkfuls of sausage into his mouth and then gathered up the plates. As he washed up he gazed out through the half-curtained window above the sink; outside tall stalks of flowering meadowsweet bobbed their white heads just beneath the sill. John Rowlands had planted them in memory of his wife. Bran wondered leadenly whether his father would have wanted him to do something similar. He could not think of any plant that would suit the man; Owen Davies' life had always been too austere, too self-denying. There had been flowers at the funeral, white and pink and yellow and violet; incomprehensible against the dark wood of the casket.
Bran felt tears welling in his eyes and angrily decided to think of something else. Will. Will was coming. Only a week and he would be here, and they would work together on the farm, and climb the mountains, and visit the beach. He should feel gladder at the prospect. It was something to hold onto, at any rate.
When Bran came back to the cottage late the next afternoon, wet with summer rain that plastered his white hair to his forehead in darkened streaks, he heard the harp. The melody caught him breathless for a moment, heart beating; it was a cradle rocked by firm fond hands, simple as a lullaby, familiar as the mountains themselves, and yet Bran could not recall ever having heard it before.
'Did you pick up some new music in the town, then, John?' he called, taking a towel from the coathooks inside the door to dry his hair, and walking across into the side room.
It was not John Rowlands seated at the harp. The shepherd leant against the wall just by the door, arms folded, eyes closed, as he listened to the music with a smile on his lips. Another man Bran had never seen before was the one playing; as Bran entered the piece came to close, and he stilled the strings and stood. He was a small man, nearly a full head shorter than Bran, compact where Bran was long limbed and John Rowlands was spare; his hair was grey and crisply curled, and he had a grey beard, close-trimmed.
John Rowlands opened his eyes and turned to Bran. 'Here you are, then,' he said. 'Bran, meet Elgan Jones, who will be working with us for the summer. Elgan Jones, this is Bran Davies.'
With a quick light step Elgan Jones crossed the room to shake hands with Bran. For a brief moment he gazed into Bran's face with a puzzling fierce intensity, as if looking for something he did not find. But then— 'It is good to meet you, Bran Davies,' he said, with a warm smile.
Bran blinked behind his dark glasses, suddenly discomfited by the searching glance. You would think by now I would be used to people staring when they meet me, he thought rather bitterly, and yet this look had not been quite like that. He could not place it. He shrugged off the feeling and answered politely, 'And you, Mr Jones.'
'John has been kind enough to offer me the use of his harp whenever I wish,' Elgan Jones said, 'and a beautiful instrument it is. I hear the Evans also have one. Do you play, Bran?'
'Well, yes,' Bran said, 'but not—not like you.' He shook his head in wonder. 'It was like listening to magic, that.'
'Ah,' said Elgan Jones. 'Yes. There is magic in it, indeed.'
That night, Bran dreamt of a golden harp: small, ornamented with a twisting, flowering vine that curled around the gleaming frame. Cradling it in the crook of his arm, he drew his fingers over the strings, trying to recapture a tune that he could only half-remember. Or perhaps he had never known it in the first place; but he should have, he should have. There was a dog by his side; it was not Cafall, though he knew that Cafall accompanied him often enough. This dog was not his, not yet. A pale man with a blackened face took the harp from Bran, who gave it willingly; it broke apart in the man's white hands as he vanished into a crack in the side of a mountain. When I come back, Bran thought, when I come back—
He woke with the early dawn, clouds layered golden and pink across the sky as the last stars faded beyond sight. Setting the kettle on the stove to boil, he opened the door and stepped outside into the morning. Outside the other cottage, Elgan Jones was seated on the front step with fingers wrapped around his own warm mug; he raised a hand in greeting. Bran nodded back, then looked away. Behind him he could hear the sounds of John Rowlands making tea.