by Eildon Rhymer
Blood on the barrow
"We've found one," said the man in the richest clothes, stepping forward gingerly through the mud. "Look at that, Winterbotham. It's most definitely a skull."
The shorter man nodded. He looked less excited, but he was dressed a little more sensibly for an archaeological excavation. "Perhaps we should dig a bit more before trying to move it."
"Perhaps," agreed the other man. "Carry on," he commanded the men who were actually doing the work. "Careful not to damage things."
The workmen continued their digging. A full skull was revealed, and them some bones. The two gentlemen watched them, eyes gleaming with avarice. Gentlemen archaeologists, Will thought with distaste. Much damage had been done to ancient sites by well-meaning meddlers such as these. Much had been discovered, but much had been lost for ever.
Not all, though, he thought, with a sad smile, for the third man had stepped forward, with a polite, "May I?" which was not a request at all.
"Certainly," the well-dressed man said. "What are your thoughts, Lyon?"
Merriman Lyon stepped through the mud as if he did not even notice that he was there. He was dressed, like the others, in Victorian clothes, but his alone did not look out of place. The other men looked as if their worth would be diminished by dirt on their expensive clothes, but Merriman looked like a man who could walk into a barrow, who could walk through fire and water, without appearing any less in complete than he was now.
"Interesting," Merriman said. He gestured the workman away, crouched in the mud, and touched the exposed skull, in a touch that was almost tender in its gentleness. "Yes," he breathed. "Yes…"
The well-dressed man let out a breath, as if Merriman's approval was very important to him. "We have something here, Lyon? Something that will make our names?"
"Perhaps," Merriman said, "but a man can make his name for many things, not all of them good. These things should be done for the sake of the knowledge revealed, not for the sake of your good name."
"Precisely," the well-dressed man said. "You're right, of course." He nudged the man beside him, and said in a whisper that he probably thought Merriman could not hear, "What did I tell you? He's the cleverest man I know, is Lyon, but I defy you to find a dozen people who have heard his name. By rights, he should be feted across the Empire, but he likes to hide his light under a bushel."
Ah, clever, Merriman, Will thought. The gentlemen were distracted; the workers were plainly eavesdropping desperately on their master's words. No-one was watching Merriman. No-one saw how his long fingers suddenly sank into the earth, how they were no longer empty when they emerged again. There was a dull flash of muddy bronze, then the item was hidden in Merriman's breast pocket.
"Fascinating," Merriman said, standing up and brushing earth from his hands. "But I must no longer keep your gentlemen from your labours. Now, if you will excuse me, I will go and stretch my legs. Lovely country you have here, sirs."
Merriman walked away. Will followed him.
"What was it, Merriman?" Will asked. Some item of power, hidden in this ancient grave. Something that had to be retrieved by the Light, before it could fall into the hands of ignorant mortals. Something important in a minor skirmish with the Dark, or something vital for the greater war?
Merriman strode on, the breeze tousling his wild hair. His jaw jutted in its usual grim way, but his eyes were shining.
"I've missed you," Will confessed. "I've missed you so much."
Merriman patted his pocket, and smiled. He made no sound.
"But you can't hear me," Will said, in a small voice. "You will never be able to hear me." Merriman walked on again. "Will you?" he shouted. "Will you?" he screamed.
Merriman did not even as much as pause, like one would do if they had heard a distant echo of a shout.
Will stood with his arms hanging limply at his sides. The Old Ones had gone out of Time. He had known what that meant all along, of course, for he had knowledge of all things from the Book of Gramarye, but he had not truly known it. He had slipped back in time, on that first day after the defeat of the Dark, expecting everything to be the same. They had not truly gone. Time was fluid. In his own time, his life would plod slowly forward, but he had the whole of the past to wander in, and the Old Ones there would know him.
Merriman did not hear him. Merriman could not see him.
It was the bitterest pain of all. The whole of the past was open to Will, but it was empty. The mortals could see him, of course, and he could talk to them, but the only people who mattered could not. They were gone from Time. They remained, but only like an echo, an endlessly replaying film. Will could watch them do the things that they had done, but they would never be real to him again.
"Oi!" someone was shouting. "Who are you? This is private land!"
Will turned round leadenly. The well-dressed man was heard his shout, and was rushing towards him, red-faced with outrage.
"I'm going," Will murmured, and he stepped into the darkness of the wood, and then through time, back into the emptiness of his now.
They were young, and their pale faces were blotchy, their hair dull and greasy. They're on drugs, the rational side of her mind told her. And I'm alone with them! gibbered the part that was terrified. And there's no-one here to help me.
They were leering at her. They've probably got knives, Jane thought. There's two of them. I won't be able to stop them.
"Got a light, love?" one of them shouted, and the other laughed.
They were in her path. There was no way to get down without passing by them, close enough that they would be able to grab her. The other direction led further up the hill, further into the open countryside, further away from people and safety and civilisation. There would be no escape there.
"I'm sorry," she told them, shaking her head. "I don't smoke."
Treat them politely, she told herself. Don't panic. Perhaps she was making an unfair judgment. Sometimes the most disreputable of people could be charming, and it was her job as a teacher to see the good in everyone, and foster it.
One of them drew a knife from his pocket, almost casually. He did not say anything, but he let her see it.
Jane pushed a strand of hair behind her ear, and fought the urge to look round wildly, to paw at her pockets for anything that could help her. The sky was a terrible black behind them, speaking of doom and terrible things.
"Maybe you've got a mobile phone," said the one with a knife. His voice was more cultured than she had expected. "There's no signal up here, you know."
Jane moistened her lips. She had a phone, but it wasn't on. Even if they were lying about the lack of signal, her phone always took ages to ready itself. Besides, she was fairly sure that the battery was dead.
"Is it the phone you want?" she offered. She could hear the trembling in her voice, and hated it. She was forever having to warn her pupils about mobile phone theft. "Or money? I haven't got any, any at all." It was true. She had come out with a bottle of water, and the keys to her house, and nothing else.
The two youths looked at each other. "No, I think we want something else," said the one with the knife. His friend made an obscene gesture, leaving Jane in no doubt what they want.
This can't be happening! Jane thought. She was cold all over, and then she was fiercely hot, burning up with shame. Her heart was hammering, and it started to rain. When the first drop hit her, she flinched so much that she almost screamed.
They walked towards her, swaggering. She turned to run. There was no safety there, but she had to try, she could not give, she could not surrender to them. As she ran, she started to cry, but she wanted to laugh, too – an insane, hysterical giggle. Why here, of all places? What sort of people bothered to walk all the way here to do something they could have done in a dark alley at home? These sort of things don't happen! she gibbered, but images sheeted across her mind, images from the television, images of death and weeping and shattered lives.
She reached the barrow, place of death. Her ankle turned on a concealed stone, and she almost fell, but flailed madly and managed to stay upright. She plunged forward, sure that they were closing on her, that hands were reaching for her, that they were grabbing her, tearing at her, laughing, slashing…
Thunder tore the sky apart, and lightning seared her eyes. She screamed, and the rain became torrential, cold water in her open mouth, streams of ice down her back.
"You will not touch her," someone said.
Jane froze. The voice…! It was soft, barely louder than the rain, but it was a command, too. It was a voice that could have commanded the thunder, could have commanded the rain. Soft, though…
Jane covered her eyes.
The youths said something, but their words were like gibberish now, dirty and defiant and useless, distorted by the thunder and the rain and her own terrified breathing. Thunder and lighting right on top of them again, trees black against the light, burning right through her closed eyelids.
She heard the sound of fighting, and then, for a moment, utter stillness.
"Go from this place," said the voice.
She opened her eyes, but did not turn round.
The rain was beating down on the back of her neck. There was mud behind her nails.
There was no sound but the rain. There was thunder. There were no voices.
Slowly, very slowly, she began to turn her head.
"They've gone," the voice said. "You're safe."
She had no idea what she had expected to see, but never this. The man standing before her looked completely ordinary. He looked younger than she was, and his hair was plastered to his face by rain. As she watched, a drop of rain fell off the end of his nose. It made her want to laugh, and suddenly she was barely afraid any more.
"What happened?" she asked. There was still a tremble in her voice, but just the fact of speaking made life seem normal again.
"They have gone," he said, in a polite tone that left no room for questions. "I will understand if you want me to go, too."
"No." She shook her head. "You're…" She struggled for the word. "Safe." It was not quite what she meant, but it was part of the truth.
The man nodded, but he said, "Few people trust strangers in this day and age."
Jane held his gaze. "That's precisely the reason why we should do so. We need trust to counter the… awfulness."
She saw something flicker in his eyes. She felt him look more intently at her, and then look away. "Yes," he said. "You're right."
There was nothing ordinary about his eyes. She still felt a little dizzy from looking into them. The rest of him was completely unremarkable. He wore black trousers and a loose white shirt, its sleeves pushed up to the elbow. It was a casual outfit, but it still looked more formal than the clothes people would normally wear for a summer walk up a hill. His hair was a little longer than was common for men, but not enough to seem strange. His face was pleasant to look at, rather than being arrestingly handsome. She liked it.
"Shall I walk you home?" he asked. She tried to look at his eyes again, but there was nothing unusual about them any more. "Or…" He ran his hand through his wet hair, pushing it off his brow. "I can watch from a distance, as you go back yourself." He sounded almost diffident as he asked it.
"If you were going that way anyway," she said. "If you don't mind…" She laughed weakly. "I was pathetic. I completely went to pieces."
"That is not true," he told her. "You did the only thing you could have done. Don't feel any shame."
"But I just cowered her like an idiot, and you saved me…"
"Yes," he said. He looked at the ground as he did so, and his hand clenched into a fist at his side. "I did. I happened to be there. I couldn't…" He stopped, as if he wanted to say more, but did not want her to hear it.
Jane stood up, surprised at how shaky she still felt. She did not offer her a hand, and she was grateful for that. There were some things that she needed to do for herself.
"We're both totally soaked," she said. She looked at his clinging shirt, and then saw the pink that was seeping out from the arm that he was keeping pressed to his body. "Oh!" she gasped. "You're hurt!"
Thunder sounded, further away this time. "It's nothing," he said.
His tone was final, but she refused to accept it. "How bad? Oh no. You got hurt saving me…"
"Do not think like that." It was that tone of gentle command once again. "I chose to do this. I just got… careless. I'd been distracted."
But he let her prize away the arm. The wound was on the inside of his arm, two or three inches long. He must have been slashed by the knife, and had been planning to keep her from finding out. She started to pull at his sleeve, to see how bad the wound was, but she stopped her, grabbing her wrist with surprising firmness.
"It's only a scratch," he said. "You said you trusted me, so trust me. I will suffer no lasting ill from this."
She smiled, because she had to. The only alternative was to cry. "Are you a history teacher, or something? It's the way you talk," she explained, when he raised a quizzical eyebrow. "My history teacher at school was always like that…" Her voice trailed away. He was so silent that she wondered if she had been unforgivably rude.
Finally, he smiled. "I'm not a teacher, no, but I do spend a lot of time in the past. I know a bit about archaeology and anthropology and things like that. I edit other people's books, and write articles for the sort of journals no-one ever reads. My name's Will," he offered, but he did not give his surname.
"Jane," Jane introduced herself. She wondered whether to shake his hand, or not. "Jane Drew. I'm a teacher in the school down there." She started to point down the valley, but realised that they had unconsciously been moving towards one of the burial chambers as they were talking, in an attempt to get out of the rain, and were now almost enclosed. "So that's why you were here, then," she said. "The archaeology thing, I mean?"
Will looked a little sheepish. "Actually, I was on holiday. I came on a… er… surprise visit to a friend. The neighbours said that they might have come this way, so I thought I'd try and surprise them."
"But instead you found me," Jane said heavily. "I wish you'd let me look at that cut."
"It's fine," he said. As if to give lie to his words, a trickle of blood seeped through his sleeve and fell to the ground. He watched it fall. "Oh," he said. "That was… unfortunate." He glanced at the walls of the chamber, and the floor that had once held the ancient dead in a way that made her realise that he had a superstition about shedding blood in such a place.
She shivered. The dead suddenly seemed very close. "I wonder what they would think," she found herself saying, "if they could see the mess we're making of their world. Things must have been so innocent back then."
"Innocent?" He gave a wry smile, but she noticed that he had taken care to move out into the rain again, so he was no longer in the chamber. "People have always fought, Jane. Few of the dead here died a natural death. They died because of men's hatreds. Men were betrayed. Women were assaulted. People died in fear. Nothing has changed."
She thought about it. There, in that small chamber of the long-forgotten dead, his words seemed entirely true. She remembered how melancholy she had been earlier, thinking about the boys who had tried to make a game of war. It was always like that, she thought, but people endured. They always do.
"I think the rain's almost stopped," Will said, turning his face to the sky.
Smiling, Jane came out to him. "Then let's go home."
end of chapter four
Author's note: Apologies to those who are anxiously awaiting news of Bran. That will come.
I thought long and hard about the effects of the Old Ones going "out of time". The books aren't really very clear about what that means. It just seems to be some vague and happy afterlife sort of place. However, it has to mean something. If Will could just pop into the past, chat to Merriman, and Merriman could then come back with him into the present, it would be as if the Old Ones hadn't left at all. Hence the solution I use in this chapter.