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.
Chapter three: An hour out of Time
I have stared Darkness in the face, Will thought, as he faltered near the top of the stairs. I have faced evil without fear. As an Old One, he could counter panic and despair with a few soft words. He could look calmly into the eyes of those who would have him fall apart in terror. He was calm water, when all those around him were raging sea. He was the ageless oak in a field of storm-tossed wheat.
Why, then, was he afraid? Why did he lie awake night after night, his dreams full of faceless shadows and fear? Why did voices whisper through his waking hours?
Why did the sight of a closed door make him want to run away?
No, he thought. He drew closer. He was a master of masks, and he would wear one now. A mask on his face, but a mask on his heart, too, thick, like armour. He would shut out the voices. He would not let himself feel.
Voices seeped through the wooden door, but these were not the taunting voices of the garden, or from his dreams. A male voice and a female voice, weaving around each other like a skein of thread.
Masks upon masks. He knocked on the door, and the laughter broke off. He heard people moving, and there was a tail-end of laughter in Jane's voice as she called to him to come in.
He entered. There was a sweet smell in the room, like flowers, but the thin brown curtains made the air feel ripe with autumn. Jane advanced on him, smiling. Bran was sitting on the floor, legs stretched out in front of him, a photograph album open on his lap.
"Of course I remember you," Jane said, as if she was continuing some conversation that Will had forgotten the start of. "You haven't changed."
"From twelve to eighteen?" Bran chuckled. "I think that counts as an insult."
Jane coloured, but stuck her ground. "I don't mean that you haven't grown up, just that I'd have known you anywhere."
"Still looks like a twelve year old boy," Bran teased.
Jane looked at Bran steadily. "Or that he looked grown-up even then, while you, Bran Davies, were just a boy." Her blush deepened, and she gave a nervous laugh. "I'm sorry, Will. I shouldn't have said any of that. Let's start again. Come in. Make yourself comfortable. Coffee?"
Will shook his head. "I can't stay long."
Jane returned to her seat. Bran shuffled sideways to make room for her. Sitting on the floor, he was not quite leaning against her leg, but it was close. "We were just looking at old photos," she explained. "I haven't got any of that holiday, though. Have you, Will? I'd love to see pictures of what you both looked like back then. That would settle it." She looked pointedly at Bran, though Will thought she was only joking.
John Rowlands had once taken a series of pictures of Will and Bran playing with the dogs, tousled by the wind, and bright with laughter. Will had one of the pictures. He wondered where the others were. "No," he said, shaking his head with a half-smile.
"That's a shame." Will saw nervousness in Jane's smile, and let his own smile reach his eyes.
"How are Simon and Barney?" he asked her.
"Simon's in Manchester," Jane said, "studying medicine. He's enjoying it, I think, though he says it's very hard work. He's got a girlfriend, though, and they're inseparable, so he can't be as busy as he wants us to think he is. And Barney's still at school, in the lower sixth. He's talking about applying to Cambridge, just to annoy me, but of course that's two years away yet."
"Who'd want to go to Cambridge?" Bran grimaced.
"The Other Place," Will told him. "We don't say its name."
Bran laughed. His laughter seemed a bit too loud, a bit too forced. Bran acted differently when he was with Jane, Will realised. There was the casual way he was lounging on the floor, the obvious laughter, the way his hands clasped the album, never still.
I can't stay here, Will thought. The armour around his heart faltered, just for a moment, and the voices outside it almost found a way in.
"We were just talking about that holiday," Bran said, his tawny eyes darting from Will to Jane and back again. "You know, the one where we all met. Bits of it are so vivid, but neither of us can remember exactly what we did. We went to the beach when the tide was far out, and didn't you sing at that echo rock?"
Will nodded. His hands were folded in his lap, unmoving and tight.
"Strange thing to do," Bran said quietly. Jane looked at him, and smiled.
I remember, Will thought. I remember everything, and you…
He smiled brightly. "How are you settling in, Jane?"
"Fine," Jane said. "At least…" She glanced at Bran, as if seeking the strength to say more. "I was really nervous about… well, about meeting people. I don't always have a lot in common with other people my age, which is why…" Another glance at Bran, and no words to explain it. "But academic work… I didn't worry about that too much, but that's turned out to be the hard part. Meeting people… I'm making lots of friends. I've joined some groups that look really interesting. But I'm finding the academic part of it hard."
"Of course it's hard," Bran said gently. "It is Oxford."
"I mean, look at this." Jane twisted in her seat to reach down a book from the shelf behind her. She opened it at random and thrust it at Will. "I came here to read English, not gibberish."
Will looked at the words on the page, thick black ink on musty white. The letters danced, melting into images of stern-faced warriors holding off the Dark. "Thought shall be harder," he murmured, "heart be the keener, mind shall be greater, while our strength lessens."
"You can read Anglo-Saxon?" Jane's voice came from a world away, and the blood-stained darkness melted to autumn brown, with sunlight filtering through swaying curtains.
Will blinked. "I read it once. A translation." He closed the book, and handed it back. "I really should…"
"I don't know why I told you all that." Jane pushed her hair behind her ear. Her cheek was pink beneath the tendrils of her hair. "I shouldn't have. It's all right to tell Bran because…" She lowered her hand. "I'm sorry, Will. Are you sure you don't want a drink? A slice of cake?"
Will shook his head. "I need to go, I'm afraid." He stood up. "I've got… work. An essay." He smiled at her, then at Bran, careful to make each smile equal. "Thank you for inviting me round."
He left, very aware of every step, and of the silence following the shutting of the door. He did not look back.
Whispers followed him down the stairs.
"What's wrong with him?" Jane said quietly, when they had been silent for over a minute.
Bran shook his head. He no longer had any interest in photographs or memories of the past. Putting the album down, he stood up and headed for the other chair. It still held a trace of Will's warmth. Everything else felt cold.
"He seemed so sad." Jane frowned. "I know he kept on smiling, and there were… glimmers, just occasionally. But… sad. And distant, too. It was as if he wasn't quite here."
Bran pressed his brow into his hand, elbow resting heavily on the arm of the chair.
"And I just prattled away." Jane sighed. "I was nervous, of course. I don't know why. I barely know him, not like I know you, but I told him all those things… It was just for something to say, I think, because he wasn't saying anything. But maybe…"
Bran lowered his hand. "What?"
Jane moved to the window, and peeped out through the curtains. A blaze of sunlight hit Bran full on the face, and made him long suddenly for the protection of the dark glasses that he had once worn, before Will had taught him not to hide and not to be afraid. A minute later, Jane let the curtain fall again. The room seemed as dark as night by contrast. "I just wanted to make sure he'd really gone," Jane explained. "I never like talking about people behind their back. I'm always convinced that they can hear me."
"Then don't talk." Bran heard the harsh rasp in his voice. He had not intended it. He wanted Jane to carry on; he wanted her to stop. He wanted to go home; he wanted to have the last hour again, and for it to go right this time.
Perhaps Jane had not noticed his tone; perhaps the harshness had not been there at all, but only in his jangling thoughts. "I said all those things," Jane said, "but perhaps it was because I knew he wasn't really there. It was like when we started writing. I could say things to you on paper that I could never say to anyone in the flesh. It's so hard to say things when you see the expression on their face, and hear every gasp and every sigh."
"So many words," Bran murmured. "I can tell you do English."
Jane crouched down beside him. "Seriously, Bran, what's wrong with Will? Is he always like that?"
Bran wanted to be angry, but he could not. He let out a breath. "He wasn't like that when we were young. Three years ago, I last saw him. He wasn't like that then." He thought of the long walks they had taken on the mountains, dogs at their heels. Will had been unquestionably there with him, not distant at all.
"I wonder what happened," Jane mused, "to change him."
Bran breathed in. It was a long time before he breathed out again. Perhaps it had been nothing to do with him, after all. Three years ago, Will had stopped coming to visit, but maybe the reason had nothing to do with Bran, and everything to do with problems in his own life. Will had spoken so little of the family he had once been so close to. Had someone died? Had there been violence, or breakdowns, or terrible things endured alone?
I will find out, he swore, and I will help him. I will show him how to laugh again.
"Maybe he thought we're going out with each other," Jane said, blushing. "Maybe he felt embarrassed, having walked in on love's young dream."
"He didn't!" Bran clenched his fists, and unclenched them again. Maybe he did… And that would explain… "Oh." He brought his hand to his mouth. Inside, he was cursing his stupidity. He wanted to rush out now, to race down the stairs, to grab Will by the arm and whirl him round and tell him the truth. He needed Will to know. He needed it.
"Speaking of which…" Jane's blush deepened. "I met someone the other night. Jamie. He's at St John's."
Bran tried to remember how normal people spoke. He tried to remember the sort of things a friend would say, but words failed him. "Oh?" It sounded as if he was drowning.
"I joined the – no, don't laugh! – the Musical Theatre Society. I've always loved those old shows, so I thought I'd give it a ago. I'll never get a starring role, but it turns out I'm good enough for the chorus, at least, and..."
"Cut to the chase, girl," Bran managed to tease her. "Tell me about how gorgeous he is."
"He isn't, I suppose," Jane said, "but I like him. We talked for hours after the meeting."
"And?" Bran raised one eyebrow. It was an effort.
"And that's it." Jane looked as coy as a school girl. "That's as far as it went. But I'm looking forward to the next meeting very much." She pushed her hair behind her ear. "I haven't told anyone else, Bran, only you."
"How can he resist you?" Bran said, standing up.
Jane did not even question the fact that he was going. He wondered how much she understood.
He did not even know if he understood himself.
Will paused on Magdalen bridge, overhanging the dark waters of the Cherwell, letting the voices from the green places drive cracks in the armour of his heart.
People walked past behind him, wrapped up in conversations of their own. He heard laughter, and stray words, falling like pebbles in a pond – "tonight," and "believe," and "tomorrow." Cars passed. Buses set the stone parapet trembling. There was nothing stable in the ancient stone. Here and never more could it be his anchor.
Footsteps approached. They were different from all the other ones; he knew that the moment he heard them. He armoured himself against the voices, but did not turn round.
Two arms joined his on the parapet, pale hands clasped beside his own. A trickle of dust rained down onto the water below. Bran's hands moved, and his fingertips were dusty with the touch of weathered stone.
"I need to get back myself," Bran said. "You should have waited for me." His voice was light, inconsequential, but that was just a layer to it. Beneath that, Will suddenly got the impression of deep water, places that light would never touch.
Will did not know what to say. He did not know what he had said, what reason he had given for rushing away.
"I would have come straight away," Bran said, "but Jane kept me talking. She wanted to tell me about her new boyfriend. You know what girls are like."
Will breathed in, and out again. Sunlight glanced off the brown river, sparkling in silver fragments. There was still green on the autumn branches that bent down to touch the water.
"Yes." He smiled. "I've got three sisters, remember?"
Will turned round so his back was against the parapet. He watched the people flooding over the bridge, each one caught up in their own story. He saw a girl he dimly recognised, and smiled at her. She smiled back.
"So, since we've both got some work that we really ought to be doing – some musty library we really ought to be burying ourselves in…" Bran turned round, side by side with Will, and a little closer than before. Will's shoulder tingled, as if it was being touched. "Fancy going for a coffee?"
Will thought. He remembered a long year of excuses – of evenings spent in the library while laughter drifted up from the bar. He remembered a mountain-side three years ago, and the reasons why he had walked away.
"Why not?" Will said, and this time no voices followed him as he walked side by side with Bran into the city of friendship and light.
"The dead of night, I suppose they'd call it," Bran said, "in those books that are full of clichés."
Will smiled, but he supposed his smile was lost in the darkness. As they stood at the wall that marked the border between the College gardens and the broad expanse of Christchurch Meadow, there was nothing ahead of them but night. At his back, even the city was sleeping. He could reach out with the sense of an Old One, and know that barely a soul was stirring. The clusters of students in the nearby quad was a shining knot of life, but apart from that, there was nothing, just he and Bran, alone in the night.
"Almost two o'clock," Bran said, "and in an hour, it will be two o'clock again. It's strange, when you think about it. It's as if this next hour doesn't really exist."
"Not really," Will murmured. "It's just the clocks going back, Bran."
"I know that." Bran sounded a little impatient. "Humour me, Will, please."
The clocks were going back an hour, in readiness for the winter. Clocks were just an invention of man. The hours were just the way man had chosen to measure the immense mystery that was Time. They were trivial labels given by people who would never understand. One o'clock, two o'clock, midday, or midnight… It meant nothing. There was no meaning at all in the clocks going back. Time continued, and always would, regardless of the names mankind chose to give to its parts.
And yet… And yet…
"I can't see my watch," Bran said. "It must be nearly two."
"Four minutes to." Will did not wear a watch. Trivial they might be, but he intimately knew the labels that man applied to Time.
He stood here with Bran in the garden, just before two o'clock. An hour would pass, and it would still be two. It made him want to shiver. Irrational, he told himself, but there was power in the thought. They could walk for miles, and Will could speak his true heart, but when the hour was over, it would be as if nothing had changed. He had an hour out of time – a gift, a magic hour that was not truly real.
He could do anything. Nothing had consequences, and Bran was beside him, warm and near in the dark.
"We'd better hurry, then," Bran said, "or we'll miss the start."
Something will happen there. The thought touched Will like a gentle finger on the back of his neck. His foolish fancies of a moment before were quite driven away. "Isn't it nicer here?" he managed.
It was a foolish question, and Bran gave it the response it deserved. "I didn't stay up until two in the morning just to stand around in the dark getting muddy feet. I want to see this."
"You're a student now." Will tried to tease him. "Two o'clock ought to feel early for you. Stay up way past midnight, and get up in time for lunch. That's what it's supposed to be like, isn't it?"
"Except for the poor science students," Bran chuckled, "up at the crack of dawn, doing their unearthly experiments. But, anyway, I'm new to this student lifestyle thing. I've stayed up way past my bedtime for this, and I want to see it."
"You didn't have to stay up," Will pointed out.
Bran's voice changed. "You didn't want me to come?"
So Will had to shake his head, then say his denial out loud, for the darkness swallowed all else. "Of course I did." And there was nothing else for it, but to say, "Let's go."
Something will happen. But of course, that was all the more reason for Will to be there. A threat was gathering, he was fairly sure of that. If it chose tonight to strike, then he had to be there. But Bran… If it chose tonight to strike, then Will wanted Bran to be anywhere but here. But there was nothing he could say. He wanted Bran at his side, too; he was weak like that.
It was the start of the fourth week of term. In the first week, Will and Bran had seen each other twice. In the second week, it had been three times. In the week just gone, they had seen each other almost every day, sometimes just for a few minutes, by chance in the streets, and sometimes for hours at a time. Two days before, Bran had brought up the subject of the Merton Time Ceremony, and begged Will to let him see it for himself. Will had been powerless to say no; Bran's eyes had been shining so.
The College clock struck two. The expectant noise in the quad faded to silence, then someone made a toast. Will could not hear what it was, but he heard the word "Time."
"We've missed it," Bran grumbled.
"Only the start," Will said. "It goes on for the whole hour."
They reached the gateway into the quad, and slipped through. The ceremony had already started. Groups of students in full academic dress were walking backwards around the quad, glasses of dark red port held in their hands. Some had candles. Some were solemn, while others were clearly trying hard not to laugh. More than a few of them were staggering already.
"Why backwards?" Bran asked.
Will had barely glanced at the explanation that all new students were given. He knew it was a modern ceremony, made up less than twenty years before in an attempt to parody some of the stranger ceremonies of other Colleges. He knew that everyone claimed to take it intensely seriously, even though at heart it was joke. "Something to do with protecting the fabric of the space-time continuum," he said, "from the government's ill-advised attempts to meddle with it by messing around with the clocks."
"Oh." Bran watched it for a while, his expression flickering between admiration and amusement. "I'd like to join in. I think."
Will shook his head. "We'd better not. It's not really a thing for strangers. We probably shouldn't really be here." Bran looked sharply at him. Will wondered what he'd said wrong, then realised. "You shouldn't, I mean. Though you're here as my guest, so that makes it okay."
He'd slept through it the previous year, dismissing it as silly. But now, as he watched it, he felt again the shiver he had felt in the garden. Time stopping, he thought. Time flowing backwards. This quad was an oasis of life in a sleeping city. It felt like another world.
"I wouldn't mind trying the port, anyway," Bran said, a little wistfully. "I've never had port. We weren't posh enough, back on our mountain."
Will watched the faces as they passed him, intent on their backwards journey. A girl splashed port on her blouse, and giggled. A boy reached the corner of the quad, and almost fell. Candle-light flickered on a hundred faces. They all looked so young.
A stranger watched from the far side of the quad. The instant Will saw him, he acted, thrusting out a hand and freezing the students in Time. He strode towards the stranger, moving through the young mortals frozen like statues, like ghosts. "You will not have them," he commanded.
The stranger smiled. "Perhaps I do not want them, Old One."
He was a tall man, with dark hair, and eyes like Bran's, but darker. His clothes were rich, like something out of a medieval story, and gold glinted at his ear. The scabbard at his belt was empty, but there was a longbow slung over his shoulder, and the arrows in his quiver were tipped with feathers of silver-grey. His expression was carved from unforgiving stone, but Will could tell at once that when he smiled, he would be so handsome that no mortal would be able to resist him.
"You will not harm any of them," Will commanded. "You know who I am."
"You are the Old One." The stranger bowed his head. "But perhaps my wish is other than you think."
He reeked of the Wild Magic. "This is not your realm," Will told him. "These people are under my protection, and you cannot tamper with the will of the Light."
"Such bold words." The stranger smiled, and Will staggered under the weight of that smile. His body trembled. His mind wanted to fall away and become nothing but a slave to this man. Will shook his head, pulling himself free from the compulsion, but the stranger knew that, for a tiny moment, he had won. "You are too human, Old One. You are tainted with human weakness in the way that the others were not, although you will never be one with those you protect. You have the weaknesses of a human, but none of their joys." The stranger's smile turned dreamy, mocking. "So sweet, are they not, these mortals? So young and full of promise."
"You will not have them," Will said again.
"And who is that?" The stranger flapped his hand in elegant dismissal. "That young man who stood so close to your side, not knowing what you are. Ah, it is the Pendragon – the foolish boy who chose to be a mortal."
"He is under the protection of the Light," Will told him. "You will not touch him or harm him, and…" Will held up his hand. "You will not turn your smile on him, and cause him to go willingly to his own destruction."
The stranger smiled again, and even armoured as he was, Will felt the glamour of it, like a mournful tugging at his heart, speaking of the love that would never be his. "There are many ways to break an enemy, Old One. Even an Old One can be broken."
"But not here," Will told him. "Not now." He spread his fingers, and drew all the power of Light into his voice and his words. "I charge you to go and leave this place, and never return. You are forbidden from affecting the fate of any mortal here, now and for ever more. So go! I command thee: go!"
The stranger bowed his head, his smile mocking. "As you wish, Old One." He walked away, his gait as fluid as that of a stalking tiger. The hem of his cloak brushed the top of his supple leather boots, and the feathers on his arrows shone in the frozen candle light.
Will watched him walk away. The stranger walked through the gate into the garden, and was gone. No sense of him remained. He was gone.
Will let out a slow breath. Slowly, deliberately, he walked back to Bran's side. Everything felt unreal. He brought his hand up and touched Bran's unresisting cheek, lost and frozen out of Time. "He will not get you, Bran," he whispered. "I promise you that."
Stars shone down from the deep black sky. Will's breath froze in the air, and he shivered. An owl sounded, far away, and a dog barked.
He breathed in, and out again, slowly releasing the powers he had drawn into himself, slowly reminding himself how to smile, how to speak lightly, how to stand no more tall than a mortal man. He took a step away from Bran, and let Time resume its course again.
Bran gave a shaky sigh. "It's cold, isn't it? I've only just noticed. I think I've seen enough, and I've got an essay to write tomorrow. I'd better not stay up too late."
"I'll walk you to the late-gate," Will said.
They slipped away silently. Will's thoughts were racing; Bran seemed strangely subdued. He was a normal mortal now, but he had once been so much more. Sometimes Will wondered if a trace of that remained, making Bran a little more sensitive to the works of magic than someone who had never been anything other than ordinary.
"Well…" Bran waited until Will had opened the gate, fumbling with the key. "I'd better…"
"I'm tired, too." Will yawned. "I won't watch any more, now you've gone. It's off to bed for me." But not to sleep, he thought. Not to sleep.
"Well…" Bran pulled his lower lip in with his teeth, and released it. "I'll…" His hand twitched. "Goodnight, Will."
Will nodded his goodbye. After he had closed the gate, he stayed for a long moment, his hand pressed against the wood.
When he started walking towards his room, he could hear the sound of Bran's footsteps, heading in the same direction, but on the other side of the tall stone wall.
End of chapter three