by Eildon Rhymer
Will and Bran meet up again as students in Oxford, but an unexpected enemy is stirring, and nothing will be the same again, for two young men, or for the world.
This story is complete – 30 chapters, at around 128,000 words. Most of it is, however, still in need of some editing. I hope to get one chapter a day edited and posted. Even if I don't manage this, rest assured that the story will be posted in its entirety before too many weeks have gone by.
This story contains slash of the Will/Bran variety. Please don't read it if this offends you. However, it is pretty mild slash. There are no sex scenes or explicit language, and the focus is more on the barriers that exist between a human and an Old One, rather than on "made for each other" romance.
I had taken some liberties with the time-line and put Will and Bran at Oxford in the late 80s, just so I could write about what I know. The Oxford way of doing things is rather different from anywhere else, so if you come across things and think, "But it isn't like that at College!" rest assured that it is like that in Oxford. My scanner isn't happy at the moment, but when I've got it fixed, I might post some pictures of the main settings of this story. Or else you can do a Google images search for "Merton College" and get it from there.
On with the show. Needless to say, feedback is cherished.
Chapter one: First contact
Someone was watching him.
Will placed one hand on the wall, grounding himself on the ancient stability of stone. The other hand he kept ready, in case he needed to defend himself. He closed his eyes, deliberately blinding himself to human sight.
Someone was staring at him. He felt their regard like a thorn in the flesh. It was trying to work inside him, to poison him from within, to rot his flesh, to weaken his mind.
But you cannot, he murmured. I am more than you think I am.
He opened his eyes, blinking in the early autumn sunshine. It felt changed from just a minute before. The sunshine was brighter, but there was an edge in the breeze that made him want to shiver. People drifted behind him, and ran laughing across the meadow below, but they did not seem quite real. Like ghosts, he thought, but maybe that was the thing speaking to him, putting the words into his head. He was being drawn.
Come to us.
He was being challenged.
Or we will destroy you.
He shook his head briskly. How had this happened? It was three days into the new term, and he had come into the College gardens to let his mind wander in the sunshine. The Meadows were full of families. Hidden beyond the trees, people played on the river. In a hundred little rooms, freshers played their dance of friendship: meeting people, drinking coffee, trying to find a place to fit in.
He had seen their faces, nervous in the lunch queue, full of bravado outside the bar. Sometimes he felt as if he knew everything about every one of them. Sometimes, every one of them was a stranger to him. He could not comprehend what they were feeling. He could not comprehend what it felt like to be alive.
He blinked. Yet again the world shifted. Hazy sunshine in early October. A new term in Oxford. The Meadows were a green canvas, framed with bronze. Leaves were falling. New life, and old. Leaves; bare branches; and, beyond that, winter.
"Who are you?" he breathed. "Where are you?"
Stone beneath his fingers. Will curled his fingertips into the wall, feeling the soothing, reassuring power that resided in all buildings that had endured through Time. Someone was watching him – that much he knew. Someone who was more than human? He thought so, but perhaps it was just his imagination. He was an Old One, but he was also human, and he had not slept well the night before, alone in his room while his neighbour was having a party.
He sent his vision outwards, studying all the people spread before him on the canvas that was the Meadow. A little girl with blonde hair, laughing up at a kite. Two freshers, sweltering proudly in their new College scarves. Novice rowers returning from practice, their cheeks flushed red, holding their hands as if their palms hurt. A girl reading poetry beneath a tree. A family valiantly enjoying a picnic, despite the cold breeze sweeping in from the Isis.
His eyes swept over them; none of them looked back. He stared at them; none of them stared back. People passed behind him on the wall, but no-one lingered. No-one showed any interest. No-one ever had.
Pollen drifted to him on the air, sweet and cloying - someone must have brushed against a heavy flower. The sun felt hotter than ever, but the breeze was as cold as ice. Across the Meadow, brown leaves fell in a flurry. The girl beneath the tree had gone, as had the girl with the kite. The family with the picnic were packing up.
I will find you, Will vowed. He reached out deeper. The people disappeared, like the transient beings that they were - nothing compared to the ancient life of the Earth, and the ever more vast expanse of Time. He heard the music of the river. He felt the magic of the soil, throbbing with things unknown to man. He felt the death that lurked in every leaf, and the life that nestled in every seed. He felt the magic of making, and the song of Time. He stared into the Earth…
And the Earth stared back.
Will faded. In the far distant place where his body resided, he felt himself falling. He hauled his awareness back, trying to be no more than mortal, to seem no more than mortal. "Are you all right?" Stone beneath his hands, stone at his back. He was slumped on the ground, half-sitting against the ancient wall. Someone was standing over him, a huge dark figure blocking out the light. Then he blinked, and the figure moved, and became just a student who had helped him.
Just a student…? No, oh no… Will stopped breathing. Not just a student. Not just a boy. Not just a man.
Bran recognised him a moment later. In that moment, Will felt as if he had already died and been reborn a dozen times.
"Will? Will Stanton?"
He had to speak; he had to. "Bran."
"You. Here. I didn't… I didn't recognise you. I didn't…"
"I didn't…" The same words. Foolish words. What were words? The right words had power. These were foolish, tiny things, like scraps of paper, that did nothing to show what lay beneath.
"Will…" Bran almost touched Will's shoulder, then withdrew his hand. "Are you…?"
Will forced himself to forget everything. If there was one thing he was a master at, it was hiding. He wore masks as other men wore smiles. "I'm fine," he said. "I didn't eat earlier. I just got a bit dizzy, that's all."
"But you… You. Here." Bran was shaking his head in amazement. He sat down next to Will, back against the wall, as if sitting here was the most natural thing in the world. "How are you settling in?"
"It's my second year," Will told him. "I skipped a year at school. I thought I'd told you. It happened before…"
He stopped. Before I stopped seeing you, he finished silently. Before I made my excuses and walked away and never came back. Three years ago, when they were both fifteen. Before then, he had visited Bran twice a year. Bran had no memories of the adventures they had shared, but they had forged a new friendship out of the ashes of his ignorance. They had been friends, and Will had walked away. How could Bran bear to speak to him now?
"Ah, yes." Bran shrugged. "I remember. So you're a big, important second-year now. As for me, I'm just a humble fresher. I'm completely lost and confused, of course." He said it cheerfully, in a way that showed it was anything but the truth.
"You're here?" Will asked. "At Merton?"
"Oh no." Bran shook his head. "Jesus, actually. Yes, yes, I know it's a cliché – the Welsh College, and all, but what can you do? They offered, I accepted, and here I am."
"Then why…?" Will asked. Why did you come here and find me, just when things are going wrong? How did you come to be there to catch me when I fell?
"A friend," Bran explained. "Rob. My only friend so far, actually. You know how it is. We happened to be standing next to each other in the lunch queue on the first day, and got talking, and have been inseparable ever since. He wanted to visit some girl he used to know who's at Merton, and asked me to come along. Well, it turns out that he'd far rather talk to her than to me. After I'd been ignored for half an hour, I just left. I doubt they've even noticed yet."
"I'm sorry," Will said uselessly.
"Don't be." Bran shrugged. "It was just one of those things. You know how it is. People get thrown together by chance on the first day, but it doesn't really last. It takes a while to find your real friends."
It was true. Will had observed it the year before. He was just surprised to hear Bran speaking about it with such insight, and so lightly. What had happened to Bran? He had changed. This Bran was secure and confident. He was happy, Will realised.
And that was what he had wanted. Surely that was what he had wanted. Will had walked away because of… because of many things. His worst fear was always that he had broken Bran because of it. In his darkest dreams, he had left Bran isolated, abandoned by his only friend. So it was a good thing to find Bran so secure and at peace with himself. It could not be anything other than good.
"Don't look so sad for me," Bran chided him. "We didn't really have anything in common, anyway, except for reading history."
"I… I'm reading history," Will said, because he had to say something.
"I thought you would be," Bran said. He was silent for a moment. "Actually, it's because of you that I chose history. You kept on going on about the history of where I lived, pulling out all these obscure little facts. It started an interest. I even started looking forward to school, and… well, to cut a long story short, here I am."
"Yes," Will echoed. "Here you are."
"So…" Bran nudged him. "If you're a year ahead of me, you can help me with all my essays. I bet you did well. You never boasted about it, but I always knew you were a bit of a genius."
Will felt himself blush. He was an Old One, and he was here sitting on the ground because he had fallen in a battle with some unknown enemy. That mattered, he told himself. That mattered, not this. He was not a child, to be flustered by the things people said. He was not a human, to care.
"I'm just joking," Bran said, suddenly serious. "You know, I don't think it was fair to make you skip a year. You should be starting this year, along with me."
Most adults were impressed when they heard he had come to Oxford one year early. Many of his contemporaries resented him a little because of it. No-one likes to be beaten by someone younger. But he had seldom really thought about it. He was set apart already. This was just one more thing adding to it, and the least important one of all. At least it provided a reason that other people could understand.
"You must have been lonely," Bran said, "suddenly stuck in a different class, away from all your friends. But you didn't say. You never said."
"I…" Will swallowed. "Why are you saying this?" he managed. They had been three years apart. Their parting had been vexed, riddled with lies. Will had expected anger or hurt. At the very least, he had expected an awkward exchange of small-talk, in which nothing real was said. But this… This is not me, he thought. This is not Bran.
"You taught me, you know." Bran was speaking now in an almost-dreamy voice, staring up at the mottled sky above the trees. "That's why I'm here now. They laughed at me when I was young, you know that. I almost let them win. I almost came to believe that I was a freak, and that no-one would ever like me. But then you came. You were my friend, and in a thousand different ways, you urged me to be strong. And so I did. They only laughed at me because I let them, I realised. So I went to school with my head high, I worked hard, and I did well. They said I was a freak, but I'd prove them wrong. And you know what? They stopped laughing at me. Within a few months, they were begging me to be their friend."
Will had absolutely no idea what to say. It wasn't the story, it was the way Bran was telling it. It was the fact that he was telling it at all. Will was the immortal, but he felt like a clumsy child next to Bran.
Bran had changed so much in three years. He had blossomed and become a confident young man. And Will, who had walked away and left him, was floundering and lost, felled by an unknown enemy, and felled by a friend.
"Well…" Bran stood up, brushing the dust from his hands. "I suppose I should go back and see if they've noticed I've gone yet. But I'll see you again?" There might have been the faintest tremor in his voice as he asked his question.
There was no way Will could say no, not without breaking things that could not be broken. He tried to remember why he had walked away last time. He tried to believe all that, but he could not, not this time. "Yes," he said, and closed his eyes when Bran had gone.
Soon, whispered something that might not have been his heart.
Bran bumped into Rob at the foot of the staircase. "Where did you go?" Rob looked faintly annoyed.
"I needed some fresh air." Bran kept his hands clenched in his pockets, so Rob would not see that they were still trembling. "I went for a walk in the gardens." Rob still looked a bit put-out, so Bran added, "I was feeling rather… in the way. You were talking about people I don't know. I thought it would be better if I left you alone for a bit."
"I want my old friends and my new friends to get on with each other." Perhaps it was meant as a rebuke, or perhaps not.
They started walking back to the Porter's Lodge. Bran could not resist casting a quick glance in the direction of the gardens, in case he saw Will. Which room was his? Where did he spend his time? Who were his friends? He wanted to know. He could not believe this. Will, here! Of all the people he had known in his life, Will was the only one whom he had felt he could tell anything to. He had not seen him for three years, and now… and now…
He tried to still his hands. One after the other, Bran and Rob stepped through the narrow gate into Merton Street, and side by side, they walked along the bumpy cobbles. Rob started talking about this and that. Bran nodded when he was supposed to nod, and agreed when he was supposed to agree. Rob showed no sign of noticing his distraction.
"I met someone," Bran said, when there was a brief pause in Rob's monologue.
"Oh?" They paused when they reached High Street, waiting for the lights to let them cross. "A girl?"
The green light came on. They crossed the road, swept along by a crowd of students and shoppers, as bikes weaved between them. A group of Japanese tourists milled around on the opposite side, taking pictures of the church.
"A boy," Bran said. "Someone I used to know. I didn't know he was at Oxford." But I hoped. I guessed. Something he said once. I remember everything, every tiniest word. "I just happened to bump into him."
"Oh?" They crossed the square, snaking through groups of tourists. "I've only been here for three days, and I'm fed up with them already," Rob remarked, nodding at the nearest chattering group.
"I don't mind them," Bran said. He would have minded once. Once, he would have been so sure that they were all staring at him. He would have joined his father in flapping at the tourists and shouting at them to go away, to get off his land, to go home and let them live their lives in peace. He knew he had changed so much in the last six years, and Will was the cause. And he doesn't even know it, he thought, remembering how Will had looked in the garden. He has no idea.
"So this friend, then?" Rob asked, as they reached their College gate. "Are you going to be hanging around with him now?"
Bran thought for a moment, then decided on honesty. Honesty was always best. That was something else he had resolved once, and always tried to stick to. He would confess the truth without embarrassment, and without apology. Let people take him for what he was, because he refused to be anything else.
"I hope so," he said.
"Oh." Bran had his back turned, and was reaching into his pigeon hole, pulling out a note. He could not see Rob's face, but he could tell from his tone of voice that he was not pleased.
"But you're still up for going to pub tonight?" Rob said stiffly.
Bran opened the note, read it through, and felt himself smiling. "No," he said, still smiling. "I'll pass. I've got a date."
Will drifted through the quad, some time after dinner, but before it was late enough to go to bed. The garden called him, dark shapes in a darker sky. Something had been there, calling him, challenging him.
Perhaps it had been nothing. Perhaps it had been Bran's proximity, for Bran was still a being of magic, even though he would never remember it, and never again wield powers. Perhaps it had been nothing more than his imagination, for he was so very tired. Sleeplessness had plagued him throughout the summer, and followed him to Oxford. The frailties of a mortal body could undo even the strongest of the Old Ones.
No. He turned away from the dark archway into the garden. Not now. Not tonight. He would stay where there was light. Stone beneath his feet, stone all around him, and not a hint of greenery and wildness. People chattering in fellowship, and light - lights in so many windows, squares of warmth in the ancient stone.
Bran was here. Bran had come.
"Hey, Will!" A voice called out to him, a tall shape leaning in a doorway. "Had a good summer?"
Will nodded, smiled, said the right words. "Okay, I suppose. I was at home. I didn't do much."
"But it's fun to relax, eh?" The student smiled – older than Will by a year, but younger in so many ways. "It's good to be back, though, isn't it? You coming to the bar? Saturday night, the start of term, and all that. It starts for real next week."
Will smiled, and shook his head. "Headache," he said. It was not entirely a lie.
"Well, see you around." The figure disappeared into the light, and was embraced by warmth and voices.
Jason, Will remembered. He knew the secret name of every star in the sky, but could not always remember the names of people who were supposed to be his friends. Jason had been friendly on Will's first day, and had never quite forgotten that friendship. Perhaps he felt sorry for Will. In his first term, Will alone had not been old enough to go into the College bar and make friends over a pint. Not that it made much difference. He was old enough now, but still never went.
Will wandered back the way he had come, and into the Porters' Lodge. There were no messages for him in his pigeon hole. Really, what had he expected. It was only four hours since they had met. Too soon. Too soon… And Will had been the one to walk away, and Bran was the one who ought to hate him for it, if he cared at all.
"Sister had her baby yet?" asked one of the porters. Months before, he had taken the excited phone message from Will's mother, and put the note into his pigeon hole. Clearly he liked delivering happy news; maybe he just liked to talk.
Will shook his head. "It's due in December." Perhaps it would even be born at Midwinter, on the day when the dark was strongest. That was Barbara's child, her first. None of his other siblings had children yet. They were off exploring the world, mapping out their fates. He wondered what it would be like to have a choice about what you became.
He headed back through the quad. "Evening, Will," remarked a girl, struggling by with her arms full of papers.
Will nodded. "Hello, Emily." She had been his tutorial partner during his first term, and it seemed to be recognised by everyone that they were rivals for the position of top history undergraduate in their College. Emily reacted to this as if it made them soul-mates. Will thought the concept of rivalry was meaningless.
"I'm on the committee of the history society," Emily said proudly. "We're getting ready for Freshers' Fair. Hopefully we'll get lots of new members." She wrestled with some papers that wanted to escape. Will saw that they were photocopied fliers advertising the society's first meeting of the term. "Are you sure you don't want to join? It's such fun. You'll get to meet such interesting people."
Smiling, Will shook his head.
"Oh well." Emily shrugged. "Maybe later."
"Maybe later," Will echoed.
He decided to go to the College library. He doubted any other undergraduates would be there on the night before term started for real. Tomorrow was the start of "First Week." Undergraduates were expected to arrive half way through the week before, which was quaintly called "Noughth Week." It had made him smile the first time he had heard the phrase. Now, all of a sudden, it made him shiver.
Noughth Week. As if even Time itself does not exist. The calm before the storm. Tomorrow, it all begins.
The library quad was as quiet and otherworldly as ever. It was the oldest quad in the university, and, in common with most such ancient places, it had its own ghost story. Will knew that ghosts did not exist, not in the way that popular culture described them, but places that had been inhabited for a long time had their own magic and power. He shivered every time he entered the library. It was a power that did not always make him feel welcome.
"Ah, Will," a hearty voice sounded from behind him.
Will suppressed his surprise, and turned round, as still and placid as he always tried to be. It was Dr Petersen, the senior history Fellow. Dr Petersen had been Will's tutor two terms before.
"Well done on your Mods," Petersen congratulated him. "Excellent work, Will. I hope to get to teach you again some time, but of course that depends on what options you take."
"I haven't decided yet," Will said.
"Plenty of time to decide on your specialism yet," Petersen remarked. Like everyone else, he seemed to have decided that Will was destined for a career in academia. Perhaps he was. Will could think of nothing else that he could do. He would find a little room in a quiet, forgotten quad, and lose himself in ancient books while the centuries turned around him.
"Yes," Will murmured. "Plenty of time."
Petersen walked on. He smelled of port and tobacco, and he was dressed for a party.
Will watched him go. Then, quietly, he let himself into the empty library, where books held the secret thoughts of humankind.
Something brushed his shoulder as he entered; something almost-whispered in his ear. But when he turned round, nothing was there.
He headed for a table, and stared at black words dancing on a page. Far away, he thought he heard someone laugh, in a voice that was not human, and was not kind.
End of chapter one