He hadn’t watched the others disappear. Though his heart ached at the thought of never seeing them again there’d come a point where the pull was stronger, even, than his grief. He’d resented the feeling; had wrapped angry tears around it all the way back to the city; scrubbed and polished and hammered his way through it. And then the nudge of a shoulder, a growling of his name, a sigh would pierce the illusion of distance so sharply it made him gasp, the feelings flooding back so swiftly through every fibre it seemed he was melting. And perhaps he was. Smelted and forged anew – more resilient, shaped more precisely to protect the one who always drew him back.
Perhaps that was why, this time, he couldn’t look away; why – when all he wanted to do was run and howl and beat his head upon rocks until he could no longer move, or breathe or feel the raw, weeping edges of his soul – he could only stand motionless in the shallows, watching as the bier boat glided beyond the reach of his hand, his sight and, eventually, his magic.
And I will protect you, or die at your side.
Merlin felt the moment when Avalon took the body for its own. Even after Arthur’s heart had ceased to beat, Merlin had still felt their connection. Now it simply...ceased to be. He swayed as the hollowness unfurled in his breast, eating away at the pain which only moments before he had wished to escape. He reached for his sorrow, for the bitter disappointment of his failure, but the feelings skittered away like fragments of a dream. All that was left was emptiness.
Perhaps Kilgarrah hadn’t known, or had hoped he might be spared this. The Sidhe clearly had no such compunction. That there would be no cleansing fire, nor rest for Merlin until his king had slept and risen again, he’d suspected. But this severing of his link with Avalon – and therefore with Arthur – he had not anticipated. Perhaps it was his punishment – for magical laws bent or broken too often; for his temerity in using his power to defend those who did not possess it – or perhaps the Sidhe were simply as cruel as they seemed. Whatever the reason, this was the price – for the Once and Future king to fulfil his destiny, Merlin must truly live without him.
The sky dimmed towards twilight and mist rolled across the lake, obscuring all but the heights of the Isle from view. Still, Merlin stood in the shallows, his body bending with the breeze that blew in across the darkening water. For the first time in his life there was no reason to move. There was nothing to hide from, no cause to serve; no nameless hunger that had gnawed at the insides of a young boy until he’d picked a fight with...with...
Merlin wrestled with the numbness that crept inexorably over him. He’d long since ceased to feel his feet as the freezing waters soaked through his boots and the cold crept up his body inch by inch. He knew instinct would shift him, sooner or later. When the numbness within matched the numbness without he would turn and walk away from this place, without even remembering what had brought him there, but until then, until then...
...until he’d picked a fight with an arrogant clotpole, been tied to his service and discovered his destiny; until he’d met the man for whom he had been made. His magic flared as the memories darted through his mind, bright and swift as the Sidhe across the surface of the lake. It enveloped them, buried them deep in the dreaming darkness of what was and will be.
Merlin stared blankly towards the Isle, unaware as evening fell and the moon rose, as the glistening forms of the Vilia crept softly upon him, whispering their spells, and as Freya rose from the depths, lake tears tumbling down her cheeks as she kissed his mouth and said,
“This is the day, my love.”
* * * * * * * * * *
The Levels, long since drained by man, still flooded frequently. Rain swelled the streams, overcoming ditches and dykes, while underground rivers thrust upwards through the marshy soil. The lake of glass was not as mighty as it once had been but it appeared and disappeared, shifting shape and substance in the mists that still gathered around the Isle become a Tor. There were roads and fences, farms and a small town, but some power long since forgotten protected the place. No-one disturbed the heart of the hill, nor uprooted its orchard or the trees strewn around its once wide shores.
The willow that grew upon a grassy incline was one such that had escaped notice. Not celebrated as the thorns, or mighty as the beeches within the abbey grounds, it was older by far than any of its species had a right to be. Month upon month, even year upon year, the willow’s gnarled and weathered trunk stood brittle and barren but then it seemed the tree would sense the rising of the ancient waters beneath its roots and be transformed. Shoots sprang anew from its battered limbs, verdant with life, and reached for the pools, leaves caressing their shining surfaces with a delicate reverence. Then the skies would clear, the waters shrink away and the tree would sleep once more.
The last year of the tree’s life was a wet one; the wettest since records began according to those who kept track of such things. The willow had never been so heavy with foliage for so long, nor the earth beneath it so waterlogged. Smaller trees succumbed to the flooding, leaning crazily, roots exposed by the softened earth. One by one, they were felled for safety, but the willow’s fate was postponed in acknowledgement of its great age. Animals that used to graze around it were moved to higher ground and, as the waters rose and the pools melted together, deepening and furrowing in the arms of the coming storm, the buildings were abandoned too.
The roads fell silent; the lights of the town dimmed and were extinguished as the land drank its fill. Black clouds scudded across the full face of the moon, its pearlescent light flickering across the shifting surface of the water as the lake of Avalon rose and was reborn.
Deep in the dreaming darkness of wood and water the memories stirred. Limbs of foam hardened and of bark smoothed. The earth beat a tattoo and the heartwood answered, ripples pulsing in time across the waters at its feet. The willow groaned and swayed as thunder resounded overhead and the depths of the lake boiled upward.
The sword thrust through the plume as swift as from a scabbard. Lightning flashed toward it, running down the blade like liquid fire and forking in a dragon’s tongue towards the shore. The willow convulsed, rent from root to branch and toppled into the lake.
The sword bearer roared and dove, cutting fast through the waves, stumbling to his feet as he reached for the hollow, half trunk floating in the shallows. Moonlight and water streamed from his hair and shoulders as he clasped the pale hand that rose from within the wood and the smell of sap and stream blended in their embrace.
“You’re so cold,” Merlin rasped in a voice unused for centuries.
“And you so warm,” Arthur replied, “trust you to get the better deal.”
Merlin, remembering how to smile, nodded. “And I dreamed of you.”
Earth, air, fire and water quieted and Albion sang.
The trailer door closed behind her and Bradley turned back to Colin. “Why didn’t you tell them?”
Colin swallowed. “What?”
“That we’re not...that you don’t...”
“Would you do that to me, in front of all of them, if it was the other way around?” Colin shook his head. “Jesus, Bradley, what sort of a friend do you think I am?”
“A better one than me, clearly,” Bradley murmured. “Hell, Colin, I’m so sorry.”
“For what, for kissing me or for not asking me how I felt before you did it? Or perhaps for telling Tatum and Johnny how you felt about me before I got to hear it? Unless, of course, that wasn’t true, because after all you weren’t listening to most of the conversation, were you?” Colin’s voice caught and he turned away.
Bradley reached out, laid the lightest of touches on Colin’s back but the other man twisted away as if it stung him. “Don’t.”
“Colin, please, I wasn’t... Oh god, this is such a mess. What are we going to do?”
“You heard her. She can make it all go away.”
That squeezing pain was back in Bradley’s chest. “That’s not what she said. She can stall, but we have to say or do something. Is that...is that what you want...for people to think it was a joke?”
Colin spun around, his eyes shimmering. “Isn’t that exactly what this is, Bradley – one big, bloody joke? Half the world thinks we’re fucking like bunnies in our French love nest; the management is royally pissed off; most of the cast and crew will probably be secretly congratulating us; we’ve fulfilled half of fandom’s innermost fantasies and broken the other half’s hearts. All because you thought it was a good idea to stick your tongue down my throat out in the street, before you’d even–”
“Shut up,” Bradley shouted over Colin’s tirade, “just shut up, Colin. Don’t you think I know all that? Don’t you think I wish I’d never touched you?”
The words shocked them both into silence. Bradley stared across the trailer at Colin, his chest heaving. Eventually, he reached for his hoodie and shades. “Say whatever you want, to the press and to the crew. I won’t contradict it.” He turned away and walked over to the door. “And for the record,” he added quietly as he depressed the handle, “everything I said was true.”
Colin’s reply was drowned out by the cries of recognition as Bradley opened the door and the media pack at the edge of the compound spotted him. He could hear Colin calling his name as he stepped out of the trailer and the air filled with drone of a hundred zoom lenses closing in on him like a swarm of invasive insects, but Bradley kept his head down and kept going.
The door hadn’t quite closed, and Merlin’s heartbeat hadn’t slowed to anywhere near its normal pace, when Gaius appeared.
“Was that Uther I saw leaving?” Merlin said nothing, continuing to stare fixedly at the door, the king’s final words ringing in his head. “What did he want?” Gaius persisted, “And, more’s the point, what did you say to him, Merlin?”
“He came to thank me,” Merlin said dully, “for becoming a trusted ally in the war against magic. And I said nothing,” he paused, his eyes finally meeting his mentor’s, “you taught me better than you knew.”
He didn’t miss the flash of hurt in Gaius’ expression, the slight tightening of the old man’s mouth as he absorbed it, stored it away in that repository of pain and lies and secrets that was Gaius’ soul since he sold it to Uther. Merlin loved Gaius, with a passion he’d never had the opportunity to bestow on a father, but sometimes he thought he hated him in equal measure – he and the master who didn’t deserve such loyalty.
Merlin turned away, dropped bonelessly onto a stool like a puppet with its strings cut. After a moment, Gaius joined him, easing his stiff limbs onto the stool opposite and pushing a goblet into Merlin’s cold hands. Merlin sniffed at it, one eyebrow rising in surprise at the smell of wine. He looked up.
“You looked like you could use it,” Gaius supplied. “Do you think Uther knows, Merlin?”
Merlin took a swig of the wine, shuddering slightly as the bitter liquid hit the still-raw back of his throat. “I don’t know... I don’t think so. Surely, if he did, he would have me hanged now, instead of threatening to do it if I ever breathe a word of what passed between him and Arthur?”
He watched Gaius store that little bit of information away before he spoke. “I’m sure you’re right, but nevertheless you must be even more careful, Merlin. What you know makes you a danger to Uther, and the fact that his son listened to you, not to him, even more so.”
Merlin’s mouth twisted into something between a smile and a grimace. “Listened to my lies instead of his father’s, you mean? I’m no better than the king.”
A gnarled hand closed over his, dry and tight. “Merlin, you are as different from Uther as day is from night. You lied out of love – from the desire to spare Arthur the terrible burden of his father’s murder, to see him become the man, the king, you know he can be. Uther lies for fear of his past mistakes overtaking him, and of losing the only thing of value in his present.”
Merlin shook his head, his vision blurring for what seemed like the hundredth time in these last few empty hours. He wanted to weep, to scream, to hurl fire and thunder until the tissue of deceit and weakness that was Camelot was razed to the ground, and then to build the kingdom anew, into a place that was worthy of Arthur’s goodness. But he could do nothing, was as impotent as the old man before him.
“My motives make no difference,” he forced the words out. “I lied to Arthur...again. I reinforced the prejudices his father wants him to live by. And I...I destroyed the memories of his mother that Arthur has longed for all his life. How can he ever forgive me for everything I have hidden from him?” Merlin looked up at Gaius, his eyes brimful, “How can he ever accept me for who I truly am and still want me at his side?”
Gaius rose slowly and laid a hand on Merlin’s head. “You must believe,” he began, his eyes burning into Merlin’s, and for a moment the younger man glimpsed the sorceror the older must once have been, “that Arthur’s decency and integrity will prevail. That when his eyes are opened, he will see the whole truth and be wise enough to accept it.
“And until that day comes, you must never doubt that he is worthy of your devotion.” The hand in Merlin’s hair tightened, fingernails scraping lightly against his skull, before it withdrew and Gaius shuffled slowly away towards his workbench.
The words were so soft Merlin could never be sure, afterwards, if he had heard them correctly.
“I pray to the gods that, for you, it proves true.”
By the time the ferry drew near to Mull, Bradley wasn’t in the mood to be impressed.
He’d spent most of the interminable journey – how could it take longer to get to a Scottish island than it did to fly to Los Angeles, for fuck’s sake? – considering whether accepting or refusing Colin’s invitation was the bigger mistake. Of course being in transit rendered the answer a moot point, but why not torture himself a little more for good measure? A bit of scenery along the way might have helped stop his mind running the loop tape of every snatched word he’d exchanged with Colin over the last few days – but no. Leaden skies preceded heavy rain and then darkness. He’d had nothing to do but stare out of the train window into the dark, berating his lack of willpower and imagining all the ways there were to fuck this up.
He’d texted Colin to say he’d arrived in Oban and would be over in the morning, but Colin hadn’t responded. Of course, he might already have been in bed when Bradley sent it, and reception was pretty crap around here and on Mull. So it was nothing to worry about. Which was why, after a sleepless night in a local hotel – thankfully possessed of central heating and decent bedding – Bradley wasn’t dwelling on the fact that there was still no answering text, while he trudged head down through the drizzle to the jetty for the last leg of his journey.
According to the proprietor of the hotel, the sea was ‘like a millpond’ today and he was in for a calm crossing and so, with her encouragement, Bradley had fortified himself against the cold to come with a hearty breakfast. 15 minutes into the 45 minute crossing he was cursing her name and wishing he hadn’t eaten anything at all. Ten minutes after that, he might as well not have.
Knackered, nauseous and strung out, Bradley sat on the upper deck of the ferry, staring at his feet rather than the rolling waves outside the window, and told himself firmly that there was no chance Colin would be there to meet him. He’d be working, and this wasn’t a bloody soap opera, with Morgan running along the pier waving while the theme tune to sodding Monarch of the Glen played in the background. God, he felt like shit.
But he couldn’t ignore the buzz that went around the deck a few minutes later and, when curiosity drove him to join his fellow passengers at the fore windows, he was impressed despite his determination otherwise. The bay of Craignure and the mountain behind it loomed out of the spray like something out of history...or myth, Bradley thought with a wry smile. There was even a castle on the headland, grey and foreboding against a pale silver sky, and standing fast atop some impressive cliffs – complete with crashing waves, of course. It was...pretty spectacular, Bradley conceded as he shouldered his backpack, and somehow very, very Scottish. He trailed down the ramp onto the pier where, while he’d dismissed the possibility of Colin, Bradley wouldn’t have been at all surprised to see Mel Gibson in ‘Braveheart’ gear, waiting to greet him.
In the event it was James – ‘Jim if you prefer, son’ – a local man who, by all accounts, was helping out the film crew in pretty much any capacity they needed – in this instance, as unofficial meeter, greeter and taxi service. Having introduced himself, Jim relieved Bradley of his pack, slapped him on the shoulder, and congratulated him on having picked such a calm day for his crossing as they walked to the car. Bradley smiled half-heartedly, added a non-committal ‘yeah’ and let Jim prattle.
By the time they drew up outside Mrs Mac’s – which was actually made out of bricks and mortar, Bradley noted, not wattle and daub – he’d gathered from the older man that a) Colin had got his text, but not until Jim had been driving him to the location for this morning; b) Colin had spent most of the rest of that journey trying unsuccessfully to text him back and c) he’d sent Jim to pick Bradley up and make sure he got safely to the B&B. Bradley was pretty sure there’d also been a d, e and an f, and doubtless countless other alphabetical gems that escaped his notice altogether, but he had phased out somewhere around ‘safely’ and spent the rest of the drive with a stupid smile on his face and a picture in his head of Colin frantically stabbing ‘send’ over and over.
Mrs Mac had clearly been similarly primed to see to his every need, since she opened the front door seconds before Bradley reached it, with Jim following just behind, having insisted on carrying Bradley’s backpack again.
“And here’s young Colin’s special friend,” she beamed at him, beckoning him past her into a granite flagged hallway, “come in, come in, Bradley isn’t it?” He nodded and opened his mouth but she rushed on, “Och, now there’s an unusual name for you, isn’t it, James? Don’t think we’ve ever had a Bradley here, have we? Now, come along and follow us with that bag up to number 3, will you? I expect Bradley here would like to get settled in straight away.” She bustled towards the stairs at the end of the hallway, but Bradley stopped and turned to Jim, holding out his hands to prevent a collision.
“No, really, Jim – thank you. It’s fine, I can manage the bag and I’m sure you must be needed elsewhere.”
The older man smiled and held out Bradley’s pack. “Well, I’ll gladly let you do the carrying if that’s what you prefer, son, but I’ll be waiting for you when you’re done.”
Bradley took the pack and cocked his head, “Sorry...waiting?”
“Oh, aye,” Jim said with a wink, “Colin asked me to see you settled in and then bring you out to him, if you weren’t too tired. Most insistent, he was, that I should make sure you wouldn’t rather rest?”
Bradley hadn’t slept for more than 24 hours, or had a decent meal since London, and after the unfortunate incident on the ferry his stomach was cramping with hunger. But he still found himself saying, “Oh, right, thanks Jim. Yeah, I’m fine...so, if you could give me a few minutes to get changed..?”
“All right then,” Mrs Mac took charge again, “you get yourself into the kitchen Jim, and bide your time while I show Bradley here his room. Then we can leave him in peace to freshen up and I’ll get you both a nice pot of tea and a bite, to tide you over until lunch.” Jim nodded and disappeared through a door on the other side of the hall, while Mrs Mac turned and led the way up the stairs.
The room was large, comfortably if shabbily furnished, and yes, Bradley acknowledged with a shiver as he crossed to the window to admire the view Mrs Mac was showing off, decidedly chilly. “It’s beautiful,” Bradley agreed, earning a beam from the woman beside him. He took in the view over the grassy headland to the sea for a few more seconds, before turning back to the room. “Is that the bathroom?” he enquired, nodding towards the door in the wall opposite the bed.
“Oh, aye,” Mrs Mac crossed the room and opened the bathroom door, “but I’m afraid it’s not private.”
Bradley bit his tongue. What with no central heating or decent bed linen, he might have anticipated having to queue for the bathroom. “Ah,” he said in what he hoped was a tolerant tone of voice, “so, how many rooms share it?”
“Och,” Mrs Mac was smiling again, “only the pair of you, see,” she indicated a matching doorway on the other side of the bathroom, “that’s through to number 2. I’m sorry about the inconvenience to you both, right enough. I’ve been leaving this room empty, to give the lad a bit of privacy, you’ll understand – he works so hard, poor thing – but I’ve a full house, what with all the film people staying here, and nothing with an en-suite left at all, so I asked him if he wouldn’t mind, and he said no and that he didn’t think you would either. Is that right, Bradley?”
He stared at her for a moment and then shook his head. “Sorry, I’m...er...a bit tired, after the journey. So, I’m..er..sharing the bathroom with..?”
“Young Colin, of course. He said you wouldn’t mind.”
Of course. He smiled wanly. “No, that’s fine. Thank you, Mrs Mac.”
She nodded. “Well then, I’ll leave you to it while I put the kettle on. Now is there anything else you need before I go?”
He cast an eye at the bed and its suspicious lack of...plumpfiness. It was worth a go, since he was almost certain Colin would have been far too polite to mention it. Rather be found dead of hypothermia beneath the paper thin blankets than risk offence, that one.
“Well, actually, there is one thing,” Bradley turned his most charming smile on his new landlady and let her bask in it for a couple of seconds before he continued, “I’m afraid you’ll think I’m a terrible soft southerner, but I get really cold at night. Even at home in balmy old Devon I just can’t sleep unless it’s under a ludicrously high tog duvet, so I was wondering... whether you might have some extra blankets, say...three or four?...or even an...er...eiderdown or something? I hate to be a nuisance but I’d really appreciate it.”
Mrs Mac’s right eyebrow had climbed during this speech and a puzzled frown had taken the place of her smile. Did she but know it, Bradley thought, she was doing a passable impression of Richard right now.
“Hmmm,” she said, regarding Bradley a little incredulously, “I wouldn’t have thought a strapping lad like you would feel the cold. But I suppose you’re right,” she shrugged, “if you’re used to an overheated house we can’t be expecting you to acclimatise to normal temperatures in just a few days, now can we?” Bradley, seeing he might be onto a winner, chose not to contest the overheated reference, but kept up the smile. “See now, blankets...” Mrs Mac’s frown deepened and she shook her head worriedly. “I’m not sure, with all these guests, that I’ve got that many to spare.” Bradley’s smile wavered but Mrs Mac’s brow suddenly smoothed and her nut brown eyes glowed with inspiration. “A duvet, you say?”
Bradley nodded wistfully, “Yeah.”
“Well I don’t know about tag ratings,” Mrs Mac responded, “but last year I had some American guests here for nigh on three weeks. Exploring the highlands and islands they were, lovely people.” She waved her hand, moving herself along, “Anyway, on the second day they disappeared off, sightseeing I presumed, and Lord preserve me if they didn’t turn up in a taxi later with a couple of ruddy great...” she cleared her throat, “excuse me, Bradley, a couple of those huge duvet things, and covers and all. Seems they’d been perished the night before but didn’t want to put me out. Blowed if they hadn’t gone all the way into Tobermoray and bought the lot.” She shook her head. “And of course, they could hardly take them back on the plane, so they insisted on leaving them here. She even said I ought to try one out for myself, the besom!”
“And you’ve still got them?” Bradley said encouragingly.
“Oh aye, somewhere about the place. I’ll look one out for ye, no problem.”
The brow climbed again. “Now Bradley, that canna be healthy...”
“Oh, no, Mrs Mac, not both for me. I think...well...Colin might...”
He winced at her crestfallen expression. “Och...you’re no’ telling me...oh, the poor skellie lamb. Now why didn’t he just say something?”
Bradley smiled and shrugged. “I don’t think he wanted to offend you, Mrs Mac, and I sincerely hope I haven’t?”
“Nah, dinna fesh yerself,” she chuckled and patted his arm on her way out of the door, “it’ll all be right by tonight. Wouldn’t do for you two wee softies to be cold, now, would it?”
It was gone 11 by the time Bradley and Jim reached the stretch of shoreline where filming was taking place. You couldn’t call the strip of rock-strewn shale a beach, Bradley thought as they trudged along it, but it had a kind of bleak beauty that absolutely conjured up the mood of the book.
Which he’d bought as soon as he’d agreed to come up here and then, feeling ridiculous, had thrown angrily into a drawer. He’d never been a great reader and what the hell did it matter whether or not he knew the story? No-one, including himself, would give a toss one way or the other. Except that he was curious to see what had hooked Colin, what kind of a man he was playing. Bradley had finally given in the day before he travelled and then ended up rushing his packing and almost missing the train. It was harsh, compelling, unlike anything he’d read before...and he could absolutely see Colin in every vulnerable, volatile turn of Calum’s head.
It was a bit of a hike along the water’s edge. The drizzle that had followed Bradley from Oban had stopped but a cold wind sliced in off the sea and cracked against his face like the tip of a whip. By the time they reached the spot where the cliff turned back on itself, and were asked to wait by a bloke with a radio, Bradley’s cheeks were smarting. Waved on once the take was over, they rounded the bend of the cliff and came upon the crew.
Adjustments were going on and the shouted instructions, and shale crunching underfoot as equipment was moved around, masked Bradley’s arrival. The director was crouched by the rock on which Colin and his co-star perched and both actors – huddled into puffa jackets, hoods up – were listening intently to her. Bradley moved closer and the AD clocked him, smiled and nodded questioningly towards the other three. Bradley shook his head to indicate he didn’t want to interrupt and slunk off to find a spot that wasn’t directly in Colin’s line of sight.
Within minutes they were shooting again, the actors stripped of their protective gear seconds before the board came in. Colin’s hand trembled slightly as he poured steaming tea from a thermos and Bradley shivered in sympathy. But then they were into the dialogue, Calum was telling the story of the seal girl, and Bradley was lost.
They cut, went again, then re-set super fast for Colin’s close-ups. Colin was deep in conversation with...what was her name, the girl playing Nikki?...Natalie, that was it...so Bradley risked sneaking behind the monitor. They rolled, the camera focused in, and Bradley watched Colin dissolve into Calum. His face filled the screen, eyes wide and mouth slightly open as he stared out to sea; chapped lips, damp with tea, pursed around a roll-up; a flash of irritation, then hurt, in his eyes as he stopped his tale and threw the dregs of tea from the cup onto the shingle. Brek shouted cut and Bradley released the breath he hadn’t realised he was holding. A pulse throbbed in his ear.
He registered movement around him, heard Brek call for an early lunch before they moved on to the next set up, and stepped out from behind the monitor. The AD was standing beside Colin, nodding back in his direction, and Colin turned and spotted him, his smile so huge Bradley swore it was like the frigging sun coming out. Colin came trotting over, still grinning as he came to a halt in front of Bradley.
“Hey, how long have you been here? Why didn’t someone let me know?”
Bradley watched Colin blow into his hands, then rub them together for warmth. He shoved his own fists deeper into his pockets, resisting the urge to move closer. “I asked them not to. S’okay, I wanted to watch.” He paused, looking at Colin, then said quietly, “You were...really great, Col.”
Colin shifted from one foot to the other, the smile playing about this mouth much smaller now. “Thanks,” he said softly, and then, “It’s good to see you, Bradley.”
The words released him and suddenly his arms were full of soft padded jacket, squeezing to find the slim form beneath, and the hard line of a frozen cheekbone pressed against his temple. “And you mate, and you,” he mumbled into Colin’s hair.
They drew back, grip retreating to more neutral territory, not quite embarrassed enough to let go. The wind whipped Bradley’s hair around his face and his eyes stung. “Fuck, it’s cold.”
Colin laughed and slung an arm around his shoulders, pulling him against his side and then propelling him up the shore. “Come on, you soft Sassenach. Let’s get some lunch to warm you up.”
The lunch wagon was so ruddy warm that, having eaten, Bradley had to fight the urge to fall asleep. It didn’t help that the break was extended because it had started pelting with rain, and since the next thing to be shot was a continuation of the scene they’d just done, they had to wait for it to stop. Bradley sat in the narrow seat, Colin’s shoulder pressed against his, and blinked slowly, attempting to keep track of the conversation. He was pretty sure he must look gormless but he was too tired, too warm and too comfortable to care.
The next thing he knew, Colin was gently shaking him awake. “Bradley? The rain’s stopped, I have to go.”
He lifted his head from Colin’s shoulder. “Oh, god, sorry...sorry mate...”
Colin braced him, made sure Bradley was awake enough to sit without support before he slid out of the seat and stood up. “It’s okay,” he smiled down at Bradley, “it’s a long journey. Why don’t you stay here and get some more shut-eye while I do this next bit?”
“No, no,” Bradley spoke through an enormous yawn. “Sorry,” he shook his head, shivering himself awake, “I’m okay. I’ll be with you in a minute.”
A cold draught slid around Bradley’s ankles and someone called Colin’s name from the door. “Okay, if you’re sure?” Colin asked and Bradley nodded. “Fine, I’ll see you down there in a while, then.” Colin grabbed his coat and was gone.
The remainder of the scene on the beach didn’t take long and Brek, wanting to take advantage of the pale sun that had now emerged from behind a bank of cloud, moved them quickly to another location for the rest of the afternoon. Bradley was amazed at the speed with which the crew broke set, bundled into cars and vans and reassembled at the other end. The pace at which they filmed ‘Merlin’ seemed leisurely by comparison.
He watched Colin climb down from the back of the van where he’d been changing his costume and set off across the grass, nodding for Bradley to join him. As they drew closer to where the crew was assembled, Bradley looked around in sudden recognition. “This is the view,” he turned to Colin for affirmation, “the one from the bedroom window.”
“Yep. Told you Mrs Mac’s was handy. Is your room okay?”
Bradley frowned. “It’s fine, Colin. I’m not Prince bloody Arthur.”
Colin grinned. “I got that. You don’t mind about the bathroom though?”
“Sharing a bathroom never did Kirk and Spock any harm.”
“I thought you said Trek was rubbish?” Colin raised an eyebrow.
“It is, but Tony insisted I work my way through the classics.”
Colin chuckled, “Well I’m glad it’s okay with you, Captain, my Captain. I think Mrs Mac was worried about keeping us both happy.”
“Mrs Mac and I have an understanding,” Bradley said enigmatically. “And this will work out, provided,” he lingered sternly over the word, “you don’t use all the hot water and you...you know...” he flapped his hand, “spray after you lay.”
Colin laughed until he cried and had to have his make-up re-touched. Everyone else waited, bemused, because every time either Colin or Bradley tried to explain, they cracked up again. Eventually, he calmed down enough to get back to work. He turned towards the patch of reedy grass where Natalie sat waiting patiently for him and then looked back over his shoulder at Bradley. “You’re bad for me, James,” he grinned, “but I’ve missed you.”
It seemed entirely appropriate that Calum spoke of druids that afternoon. And when they got back to the B&B, and Bradley showed a gobsmacked Colin the surprise waiting for him on his bed, he began to think that maybe he could weave a little magic of his own.
The early evenings were the hardest. During the day, Bradley faded into the background, happy to watch Colin mesmerise the camera. He was used to hanging around between takes, waiting for his turn, and this didn’t seem much different. But after the day’s shooting was over, and the company sat down for the evening meal Mrs Mac and her ladies from the village prepared for them, Bradley felt out of synch.
Everyone was welcoming, and the first night had been full of questions about the two of them meeting and their experiences working together on ‘Merlin’. Brek and Emily, her co-director, even enquired about his future projects. But they were a close-knit bunch and each had their part to play in the ritual dissection of that day’s work, and the discussion of the next, that took place during the meal. Bradley felt distinctly surplus to requirements. Some of them had looked a bit surprised to see him on set the next morning, as if they’d expected him just to pop in for the day and then bugger off home again. After that, they just left him to get on with it.
He stuck it out for the moments with Colin. For the times between when, hands wrapped around a hot drink, they shared a joke, or Colin worried about the last take, or the next one, and seemed to genuinely value Bradley’s opinion. And for the times after supper, when life became more familiar, because it was just about the two of them, hanging around in each other’s rooms, running Colin’s lines or watching the TV, sharing a beer until one – usually Colin – fell asleep.
And then Bradley would nudge him, push him towards the bathroom door, listen to him brush his teeth and flush the loo, and then lie in the dark and wonder what he was doing here, thinking he should leave and knowing he wouldn’t. Because then it would be morning, and the sound of the shower running, and Bradley ignoring Colin’s call that he was finished, lying there with his eyes closed and his heart pumping until the bathroom door clicked open, and Colin’s hand was on Bradley’s bare shoulder, hair dripping onto Bradley’s chest as he grinned down at him and called him a lazy sod, and Bradley grinned stupidly and agreed and followed Colin’s naked spine and the jersey underwear rucked up against a damp buttock, while Colin walked back into the bathroom and then disappeared through the other connecting door. And then Bradley would climb into the shower and run his hands over himself under a spray that was far too cold for someone facing another day of Scottish weather.
Four days in, with the forecast dry for the weekend, the company opted to work through to get some vital scenes in the can, then take their rest days when the rain closed in again. Saturday’s filming was intense, a long, complex conversation between Calum and Nikki, ending in a pivotal moment for both characters. By unspoken assent lunch was brief. Colin was quiet and Bradley understood, content to forego their usual banter in favour of sitting side by side in the sunshine with his friend, feeling him build his energy for what was to come. And after they wrapped for the day, and Brek asked if she and Bradley could swap places in their usual rides home so she and Colin could talk, he consented without comment.
Colin was mute during the evening meal and Bradley assumed he was still winding down, but when the conversation moved to the next day’s schedule and Colin rose abruptly from the table and excused himself, Bradley followed him. His knock on Colin’s door went unanswered at first but he persisted, was rewarded with a quiet, “Give me a few minutes Bradley,” and then retreated to his own room to wait.
It was about half an hour before the bathroom door opened and Colin walked into Bradley’s room, head downcast. He came over to the bed where Bradley was lying and sat down with his back to him.
“Sorry.” Colin’s voice was strained.
Bradley turned on his side towards his friend and propped himself up on one elbow. “What for?”
Colin shrugged. His back was bowed, T-shirt stretched tight against his body and Bradley could count the vertebrae all the way down his spine. “Being a moody sod.”
“You’re entitled,” Bradley said levelly, “today was pretty full on.”
Colin shook his head. “It’s not about today.”
“She wants me to do a scene again.”
Bradley frowned, “From today? But there was nothing...”
Colin shook his head. “No, one we shot last year. The weather was shit and they’re not happy with the footage they’ve got. That’s why Brek wanted to talk to me on my own. She knew I wouldn’t be happy.”
“I can see it’s a bit irritating, Col, but I don’t understand why you’re so upset.”
Colin’s shoulders rose and fell in a sigh. “It took forever. So many fucking takes, winding myself up for it, over and over. And then, finally, it felt right. And now she wants me to do it again, because of the fucking light .”
Winding himself up for it? “Which scene is it?”
“It’d take too long to explain.”
“Not if I’d read the book.”
Colin twisted around and looked at him. “You read the book?”
“Yeah. To show support. So?”
Colin studied him a moment, then glanced down. “The Little People...”
Bradley’s pulse skittered. “Ah.” He pushed away the memories of a whole day crammed into half a faux toilet cubicle with a camera in his face and a half naked woman clinging around his waist. Yes, Colin’s scene was intimate but it was about as far from a comedy moment as you could get.
“I can see how it’d be tough to that over again,” he reached out, laid his hand gently on Colin’s arm and tried not to over interpret when Colin jumped at his touch, “but you’ll nail it, Col. You’re amazing as Calum. Perfect.”
Colin shivered. “I just wish I didn’t have to do it again.”
Bradley squeezed his arm. “Is there anything I can do to help? You want to run the lines or..? He trailed off lamely. Oh, smart one Bradley, you stupid fucker.
“I don’t think so.”
He winced, removed his hand from Colin’s arm. “No, okay. Look...I see tomorrow’s going to be difficult for you, so if you’d rather wasn’t there, I’ll understand.”
Colin looked up at him, his expression tight. “Would you rather not be there?”
Bradley hesitated, feeling the ground shift beneath him. “This isn’t about me, Colin. I want to do what will help you most – whether that’s being there, or staying away.”
“Why would I want you to stay away?”
Bradley closed his eyes for a second, took a breath before opening them again. “Because it’s an intimate scene and having the crew there is bad enough without anyone else standing around gawking at you? I don’t know – you tell me.”
“Do you,” Colin breathed, his eyes drilling into Bradley, “gawk at me?”
Bradley rolled away from him and sat up. “Fuck off, Colin. I’m trying to be supportive and you’re...what...taking the piss out of me? Fine, I’ll stay here tomorrow, okay? Maybe I should use the time to pack.”
The bed dipped and he felt a touch on his shoulder. He shrugged it off angrily.
“I’m sorry,” Colin whispered, breath hot against the back of Bradley’s neck. “I’m sorry.”
“What do you want from me?” He asked without turning around.
Bradley waited for the pulse to stop thundering in his ear. He drew a ragged breath. “All right,” he said quietly. “You better get some sleep.”
The bed dipped and Colin was gone. In the morning Bradley made sure he was first in the shower.
The wind had dropped and, in the shelter of the glade, with sunlight filtering through the pines, the air grew preternaturally warm, thick with the promise of fairy tales and forbidden desire.
Bradley, grimly determined, watched Nikki lead Calum towards their abyss, saw her lie back on the fairy mound while the camera, like a voyeur, followed the path of Calum’s thin fingers as he mapped her contours. Knowing what was coming didn’t help. Sick with Calum’s longing, Bradley crept out of sight among the pines and vomited onto the forest floor.
“So, you’re on the first ferry then?”Colin walked beside him up the narrow track, hands in his pockets.
“Yeah,” Bradley was careful not to brush against him as he side-stepped a puddle, “have to be to make the connection.”
“Sure you can’t hang on? I’ll be done by tomorrow or the day after, max.”
Bradley shook his head. “No point,” Colin glanced sideways at him, “we’d have to split at Glasgow anyway, ‘cos you’re going home.”
He’d made the bookings as soon as they got back to Mrs Mac’s yesterday but accepting he had no choice didn’t make the thought of leaving any easier. Nor did his last day being a rest day and Colin’s insisting they go somewhere on their own, if it ever stopped raining.
“It’s...” He turned when Colin’s voice trailed off. His companion stood staring unhappily at his feet.
“What?” he asked.
Colin kicked angrily at a stone, chipping it into the puddle ahead. “I was going to say it’s been good having you here, but it hasn’t has it? You’ve been miserable.”
“That’s not your fault,” Bradley said firmly, “and I’m not sorry I came. Leave it, yeah?”
He continued up the track, Colin following silently in his wake until they came to a stile. “This is it,” Colin said, clambering over and then stepping out of the way so Bradley could jump down, “Lochbuie stone circle.”
The jagged, lichen-spotted stones stood in the centre of flat, bracken-strewn space. Beyond the circle, two further stones – one much taller than the rest – drew the eye across woodland towards a mist-wreathed crag in the distance.
“Told you it was awesome,” Colin’s lips curved into a gentle smile at odds with the pinched look around his eyes.
“Yeah,” Bradley looked back towards the ancient circle. “C’mon.” He ran towards the stones, the damp bracken springing back so strongly beneath his feet that it almost felt as if he didn’t touch the ground at all. He alighted in the centre of the circle and watched Colin walk towards him, the autumn sun at his back forming a halo around his friend’s body.
“Don’t you know anything?” Colin said as he reached him. Bradley lifted a questioning brow. “The circle,” Colin gestured at the stones surrounding them, “approach with caution; enter at your peril and all that.”
Bradley looked down at himself, then allowed his eyes to graze swiftly over Colin as he raised them again. “We appear to be unharmed.”
“But at any moment we could be whisked away.”
“Anywhere, or anywhen.” Colin took a step closer and Bradley squinted against the backlighting that obscured the other man’s expression. “If you could make a wish, go any place, or any time, where would you go, Bradley?”
Bradley choked out a small, hard laugh. “Is this the point where you tell me you can do magic, Colin?”
“Don’t evade the question.” Colin’s eyes were still intent on his face, and he knew his own expression, unlike his companion’s, was perfectly lit.
He closed his eyes. Not that it made any difference, but it felt easier somehow. “I wouldn’t go anywhere.”
“Because I’m where I want to be. And tomorrow I have to leave.”
He turned away and marched out of the circle towards the marker stone. Slipping into it shadow, he pressed himself against the rock and held on, feeling the cold flow into him. He heard Colin’s footsteps approach and stop but he remained out of sight. Only when Bradley felt the fleeting touch of frozen fingertips against his wrist did he realise Colin must be leaning against the other side of the stone.
“Don’t fucking apologise again, Morgan, or I might have to hit you.”
“All right.” Colin’s voice didn’t sound particularly steady and Bradley wanted to beat his head against the damned rock. “What do you want me to say?”
Bradley tipped his head back, felt the pitted surface scrape against his scalp. “I don’t know. Give me a bloody history lesson like you usually do. Anything...anything that gets me on that ferry knowing we’re going to be ok when we meet back in France next year.”
“If today...was the winter solstice,” Colin began hesitantly, “the sun would be about to set directly in line w-with this stone. And the druids who worshipped here would all be gathered, because their m-magic would be at its...its strongest...” Colin stumbled through the words and Bradley thought, oh fuck, oh fuck. He slid a hand round the stone and the fingers that meshed with his were shockingly warm.
Colin’s breath hitched. “At sunset they’d incant their most p-powerful spells and wish for the things closest to their hearts. To be strong, to make the right choices...”
“Don’t...” Bradley tried to drag his hand away again but Colin held on, crushing the bones of their fingers together.
“...and if they were blessed, if the spirits of nature smiled on them, they’d be granted the courage to sp-speak the truth...and to act on it.” Colin closed his fist like a vice around Bradley’s wrist and dragged him round to his side of the stone.
“I’m afraid,” Colin stared wildly, his eyes catching the golden light of the sinking sun, and Bradley felt hysteria gather in the back of his throat, “of giving in... to this. But I don’t want to let you go.”
Bradley shook with the effort of prising himself from Colin’s grip, of holding himself separate. “I don’t want you to give in to anything, Colin. Do you understand?”
Red and gold flames danced across Colin’s skin. “You don’t understand,” he stepped so close that Bradley could taste the words on his tongue, “I want to give in.”
And then he was tasting them, and all the crazy fucked up feelings behind them – the copper of blood, the salt of fear and the sweetness of lust – and it was too much, much too much, to resist when Colin spun them around and pressed him up against the standing stone, when he thrust a thigh between his legs and scooped out Bradley’s soul with his tongue. But Bradley didn’t care, because somewhere in the midst of all of that he knew...that it wasn’t about letting go or giving in, because this, this, was as elemental as the air they sucked from each other’s lungs and the earth under their feet; as inescapable as gravity.
They staggered back along the track, drunk with the knowledge of each other, feeling their way in the near dark, and certain of nothing more than the promise of warmth at the end of their journey, left by others who had passed this way before them.