At RAF Brize Norton, the largest Royal Airforce station in the UK, a group of the senior staff were sitting in a briefing room. Group Captain Gould and his senior staff had been staring for what had probably been no more than half an hour, but felt like about a hundred years at screens on which a scenario never thought of or trained for were unfolding.
Satellite images of central London: ancient stone buildings that had survived even the Blitz smashed. The twisted wrecks of tall glass-clad buildings, the toppling remnants of what had been red-brick converted warehouses and black-timbered houses merged together into chaos.
South of the river in Battersea and Lambeth, several fires were raging, largely uninterrupted by the few fire-engines that had been able to find a way through the wreckage and the traffic. Crowds of people on foot were huddled around the train stations: the trains on that side of the river were, somehow, still moving, but overwhelmed by the unexpected numbers. Even as they watched, a group of water-monsters came galloping, with that strange lopsided gait, down into the crowd around Battersea Park railway station. The view was too distant to see any faces: as if they were a single tormented body, the crowd contracted away from the monsters, then stretched out long agonised tentacles as people began to run away on foot.
“We could get in to land at Clapham Common,” Gould said, very quietly. “But we don’t have enough transports to move that number of people.”
“Get the Typhoons in,” someone suggested.
“Into London?” someone else protested. “A civilian population of millions? And..our own people?”
They all understood the suggestion, and what it implied. Typhoons — more formally, Eurofighter Typhoons — were not transports, but fighters, adapted for air-to-ground strikes using missiles. They would kill the invading beasts, despite their remarkable speed and resilience, but the collateral damage would be extreme.
“We can’t.” Lee’s voice was flat with shock, and his face looked almost green. “Think how many people there are in London. We wouldn't have a hope of keeping casualties within reasonable limits.”
Gould shook his head, and took the decision, since it must be done, and there was nobody else left to take it for him. “I think we have to. I can't see another choice. Edwards, get onto Lossiemouth and have them arrange a strike."
"I want my objection noted," Lee said, but he sounded half-defeated already.
"Very well. I want the Typhoons at Coningsby in reserve for an attack on Hull and Liverpool, if one comes. But tell Lossiemouth, they must stay strictly south of the Thames. I don’t want anyone going near... that thing again. Not yet.”
Gould waved a hand at the other set of screens, showing London north of the river. The enemy was coiled around the ruins of Westminster and Buckingham Palace, with a great loop of the thing’s... neck? Body? Trailing through Hyde Park into the Serpentine and back to the river. The head was huge enough, but the body, long out of any proportion to it, was gigantic beyond words. It was impossible to say even how long it might be, since the back of it trailed away into the murky water of the Thames, where, for all they knew, it might reach out to sea. It had already fully demonstrated that attack from the air would be fatal.
To the left, a screen showed footage, taken with infrared cameras from the helicopter that had survived, of the battle at the river where the snake had been turned back by some method that Gould was trying hard not to think of as ‘magic’.
The door opened and the commander of 47 Squadron came in. “Did you get them all out?” Gould demanded, before he could speak.
The other man nodded, and Gould felt a sickening rush of relief. 47 Squadron had been tasked with evacuating the families of RAF Benson, near the Thames. “Thank god for small mercies.”
“We’re settling them into temporary accommodation now. The... that .” he pointed at the image of Jörmungandr coiled on London, “didn’t actually come right into Benson, but the pig-monster things were keeping them pretty busy by the time we got there. ”
“Right. But the pig-monsters on their own would be manageable... eventually. It’s that we have to deal with.”
“Is there any word from London?”
Gould shook his head wearily. “Nor from Andover. Something’s happened to Army HQ. Comms are down, the phones are out and from what we can see from the air, the place is now basically just a big pond. Looks deep. God knows what’s down there. No sign of radioactivity, but we’re not going near it until we have to. That leaves us and the Navy, and the Navy have their hands full with the pig-monsters on the coast. So, us. And then there’s this. ”
He pointed to the leftmost screen,where Arthur could be seen, a tiny bright figure beside towering darkness; in his hand, a sword that seemed impossibly small and frail. And there before him, the massive head pulled back sharply, in obvious reaction to his blow, and turned, and fled.
“Who is that?” the 47 Squadron commander demanded, eyes wide in shock.
“That’s what we’ve just been discussing. He went off with some others in a car towards Oxford,” Gould said frowning.
“You want us to send out a team to bring him in?” asked Murray .
Gould shook his head. “No. This, whatever this is,” he waved expressively at the screens, “Is the only effective counter that we’ve seen to this threat, and we have no idea who that man is... who any of them are. If he can shoo that snake away like that, I’m not prepared to risk demanding a meeting on my terms. I’m going over there to speak to him myself.”
Oxfordshire seemed to have noticed now that it was under threat. The roads south of the city were slow with cars grinding their way northward, lines of headlights stretching out of sight behind the Volvo. The city itself, once they reached the stone-built streets, had fewer cars, but the wide pavements under the pale streetlamps were busy with people, gathering in worried knots or hurrying on foot.
Merlin drove towards Taran’s office, without really thinking about it, trying not to yawn. It had been a good many years since he had last thrown magic around like that, calling on every last drop of power, everything he had learned down the long grinding years since first he had come to Camelot.
But threading through the city centre, he found he had to brake, surprised. In the middle of the broad roadway of St Giles, an alarmingly military-looking grey helicopter had just come to ground in the space between roadside trees and flower-bedecked lamp-posts. In the dusk on the other side of the road, a double-decker bus had come to a halt in confusion.
A group of serious-looking men in blue-grey uniforms with too much braid on them jumped down from the helicopter and strode purposefully towards the car.
“Looks like more talking before we get a chance to sleep,” he said generally to Arthur and the slumped heap of exhausted sorcerers. “I vote we hold out for a cup of tea first, shall we?”
“Coffee,” Rachel said firmly, pulling herself upright with an effort. “Coffee or I’m seriously going to start turning people into rabbits. If I can work out how, and don’t just fall over.”
Merlin grinned at her. “Ah, the lure of dark sorcery. That didn’t take long.”
Rachel gave him a look that was less amused than simply exhausted, and opened the door.
“Arthur Pendragon,” Gould said, hoping that it would sound more probable the second time he said it.
“That’s me,” someone that he was definitely not thinking of as King Arthur replied, with a smile that somehow acknowledged the absurdity without in any way giving in to it. “The Once and Future King, I am called in prophesies, so Merlin tells me.”
“And you fought...that.”
“With a sword .”
Not-king-Arthur smiled again, engagingly. “Seems unlikely, I know. Though not alone: Merlin, Rachel, Taran and Hilda were in the battle too, waking the powers of the forests. I was surprised myself when he turned tail and fled. Pleased, of course.”
Gould blinked at him. He felt keenly conscious that he was probably, somehow, the senior officer of the RAF, a position that he had never expected or wanted, in a country suddenly at war against an completely unforeseen enemy.
There were probably decisions he should be making right at this moment, orders he should be receiving from... somewhere. At least some sort of rough guideline as to whether attack, evacuation or food supplies should be prioritised. He had always considered himself a man of initiative, annoyingly restrained by the requirements of modern bureaucracy.
Yet just now, the idea of making a report seemed oddly attractive, because that would mean there was someone to report to . It was really unfair that he should have to deal with legendary monarchs on top of everything else.
A female voice, vaguely familiar, spoke. “Group Captain James Gould, wasn’t it? We met last year, I think, at the University Air Squadron event at Falklands House?”
Gould blinked again. Oh yes, she was some university woman. Presumably this was her home turf, but he was damned if he was going to be embarrassed about having forgotten her name.
“Hilda Chapman,” she reminded him with a sharp and somewhat artificial smile. “Now, if I may suggest, we have all had something of a tiring day, and even Arthur Pendragon must be allowed a hot drink from time to time. I see that despite all adversity, the Lamb and Flag is open.”
There were people in the Lamb and Flag pub, though they were mostly moving slowly, or staring into their pints, glassy-eyed and shocked. Gould’s adjutant hurried in ahead of him, and began shooing them out of the back room.
Merlin leant his arms heavily on the bar and fixed the barman with a determined stare. “Tea.” he demanded. “Hot tea with sugar, please. Lots of it. Oh, and some coffee.”
The person standing next to him, a tall thin man with a worn face, impressive eyebrows and a great puff of white hair on his old head nodded sympathetically. “A hard day?”
“Harder than you can imagine,” Merlin assured him.
“Come on Merlin,” Arthur said bracingly, leaning on the bar next to him. “I’m sure you’ve had plenty of worse days. We won that battle fair and square... if not yet the war.”
“We are all of us having hard days,” the old man said and took a sip from his whisky-glass. “London broken. Parliament fallen and the monarchy ended, and what is left in the ruins? I have spend most of my life defending Britain’s ancient traditions and her laws, and now here at the end it’s all for nothing. All those books and lectures, years of research, and all entirely pointless now.”
“Perhaps you should have chosen a different path then.” Arthur said rather sharply. He shook his head. “Sorry. That was... I’m tired. I apologise.”
“I was wondering just that same thing,” the old man told him,and swirled the whisky in his glass. “At the end of the world, constitutional law no longer appears to be a matter of urgency. But who could have foreseen this?”
“No-one could,” Merlin said. The barman had reappeared with a large teapot, and the sight was a cheering one. “I certainly had no idea what was coming, and I’m a sorcerer. Over a thousand years of working magic, and this still caught me on the hop.”
The old man blinked in some astonishment. “A sorcerer ?”
“Merlin. Best sorcerer in the world,” Arthur informed him. “You should have seen him summoning the trees to defend the city, earlier. I’ve never seen anything like it. A whole forest, walking.”
Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill
Shall come against him ?
A walking forest is hardly the most difficult thing to believe that has happened this week. Or even today. But... Merlin. Like Merlin the enchanter, from The Sword in the Stone ? I used to love that book when I was a child.”
“Not precisely...” Merlin said and then gave up. “Arthur Pendragon,” he said, pointing, and then back at himself. “If you can cope with his name, you should be able to manage mine.”
The old man went very still, and his eyes went from face to face. “Perhaps I should,” he said after a long pause. “My name, then, is Vernon Bogdanor.”
Arthur nodded. “Pleased to meet you, Master Bogdanor. As I said, this is Merlin. Best sorcerer in the world.” Merlin could not stop himself grinning at that. “Don’t let it go to your head,” Arthur advised him. “Magic is a terrible idea most of the time. It’s just that right now, I have to admit that every other option is so much worse .”
“I knew you’d like it if you gave it a chance,” Merlin told him, still grinning. He glanced over at the back room of the pub, and realised that the vaguely warm feeling on his right ear was probably caused by Hilda’s pointed glare. He picked up the tray with the giant teapot on it. “Excuse us, Mr Bogdanor. Arthur, I think they’re waiting for us.”
“I can’t explain it,” Merlin said for the third time. He was starting to feel flustered. Being interrogated by steely-eyed military men about his magic was something that he had always gone out of his way to avoid. “You don’t know the right words, and even if you did, you wouldn’t be able to use them. But it wasn’t a spell that turned Jörmungandr back, anyway. It was him .”
Irresistibly, all eyes turned to Arthur, who seemed entirely untroubled by them. After a lifetime of being stared at, he probably barely noticed it.
“And you’re quite sure,” Gould asked him, frowning dauntingly, “that you didn’t do anything... any magic?”
“Not one of my talents,” Arthur told him with a grimace. “Nor would I want it to be. But Merlin has a theory...”
“Yes, well,” Merlin said hastily. The idea of explaining the power of belief and destiny to these practical sceptical men seemed unlikely to be successful, even if it was Arthur who explained it to them. “The conclusion we came to is that it has to be Arthur. There’s no point sending conventional troops against a magical enemy of such power.”
“So ideally, we’d like you to concentrate on supplies and keeping the people safe,” Arthur agreed, “And while you do that, I and Merlin will work on the enemy.”
“Now hang on a minute!” Gould exploded. “You want us to just... ignore the main problem? I don’t think you realise the scale of what’s going on here! This is an international issue, I’ve got half the UK ambassadors around the world on hold back at the base, and then there’s the UN Security council. For the armed forces to simply staying out of it on the word of some... anyway, that isn’t an option. I have to be very clear about that.”
“You can be clear about it to Jörmungandr if you must,” Arthur said wearily. “But he is not an army, or a missile, or a warship. How many men have you lost to him already?”
Gould let out a wordless noise: one part despair, and two parts frustration. “We don’t know yet. We should have an estimate by the morning.”
Arthur lifted an eyebrow. “It must, surely, be thousands. Do you think the... United Nations will be able to help you against him? Tell me, how many sorcerers do they have to hand?”
Gould put a hand over his face and did not reply.
One of the other officers put in, “We can hardly just ignore the U.N. They aren’t going to be satisfied with mythology .”
“A myth is exactly what you’re facing,” Merlin pointed out, taking a mouthful of blessedly hot sweet tea and resisting the temptation to simply throw all these annoying airmen into a magical sleep, so that he and Arthur could get on with things properly. Arthur seemed to pick up the thought, and gave him a sideways look and a brief shake of the head.
“It seems to me that part of the issue here is that neither Mr Pendragon nor Mr Emrys have any military or command position,” Hilda said, unexpectedly, her voice clear and sharp as glass.
Technically, this was not entirely correct, since Merlin was still, so far as he knew, listed as a lance-corporal in the Home Guard, but he let it pass. “Is that really important?”
“I think so. It’s a good point,” Arthur said. He looked at Gould. “That would make your position more tenable, and allow me to speak directly with our allies. And as it happens, I have a plan. There is a great expert in these matters just over there, in the next room. I suggest we call him in.”
After that, there was a certain amount of discussion of the kind that Merlin found tedious in the extreme. He went to get more tea, and then settled himself next to Rachel and Taran. Rachel, hands wrapped around a second cup of coffee, was well enough, and gave him a tentative smile that had the confidence of growing power behind it. The magic she had not known she had was forming around her now, visible if you knew what to look for, as if she were a knight who was growing used to sword and armour.
But Taran was not so well off: he had strained his smaller talent to the limit in the battle, and now he was quiet, his eyes unfocussed, responding monosyllabically if he spoke at all. Merlin began to quietly say a spell to ease the strain and lend him strength: Merlin was tired, too, but he had far more resource to spare. What Taran really needed was to sleep, but this would help too. Outside the pub windows, evening was darkening into night.
When he had finished the spell, with Rachel observing with interest, he found that the old man, Bogdanor was speaking. “There is a clear precedent for creating a king by invitation. William of Orange was offered the position that way. But an unwritten constitution such as that of the United Kingdom cannot be simply made up. There are laws, and conventions. And in the absence of any member of either House of Parliament... they can’t all be... Surely there were a few at home sick or unavoidably detained.”
“We are extremely short of time,” Gould pointed out, one fist on the table, clenched.
“I know,” Bogdanor said and sighed. “But you asked me how a legendary king could have a place in the structure of a modern state that would not be simply an emergency military appointment.”
“Yes. I think that is important,” Arthur said, grey eyes sharp and present. “From all that I have read and heard of this time and the long past of this land, the past that was my future. But time is very short. Consider the matter of tradition and convention carefully, and most of all, quickly .”
Bogdanor looked down at his hands.
“You mean Rexque Futurus ,” Rachel said suddenly, from the corner next to Merlin, and then stuttered a little as everyone turned to her. “Rex Quondam, Rexque Futurus, like in Malory. The future king. But that’s just a story.”
“Like in the Sword in the Stone,” Bogdanor added.
“My story,” Arthur agreed. “My fate; my destiny. Not one I went looking for, but it seems that I have a duty, and not a choice.”
“But we can’t just...”
They were interrupted by a cry older than any spire in the ancient city: a cry that echoed across moonlit Oxford like the sound of a bronze trumpet. There was danger in that cry, but Merlin found himself involuntarily smiling at the sound of it. He got to his feet slowly. It had been a very long day. “I think some more people have turned up to the meeting. I don’t think all of them will fit in this pub.”
Outside the Lamb and Flag, looking south along the moonlit and now largely empty expanse of St Giles, high above the trees that lined the broad road, vast wings wheeled, catching the silvery light. The breath caught in Merlin’s throat at the sight of it, the savage beauty of a dragon in flight.
Arthur slapped him on the shoulder. “What does it want?”
“No idea.” Remembering that he had sworn to protect the freedom of dragons, Merlin let the spell that had come half-formed into his mind go. Instead, he whistled shrilly and waved his arms.
The dragon turned, magnificent above the lines of trees and tall roofs, and then plummeted all at once, swift and silent as an owl, to come to rest not far from the helicopter in the middle of the wide moonlit street.
There was a stunned silence, broken by the sound of loud Welsh cursing. The dragon moved one vast clawed foot, and a human figure appeared.
“Good evening, Owen,” Arthur said, and then looking up said to the Dragon, “And good evening to you too, Dragon.” He lifted a hand in formal salute, as if greeting a fellow-monarch, and in reply, the dragon raised her huge head and huffed a breath of flame, brilliant against the blue evening shadows.
Owen shook his curly head, looked up at the dragon, and shuddered. “I have never been so glad to have two feet on the ground.”
“Dragon-riding not to your taste?” Merlin asked, looking admiringly up at the golden eyes that were considering him closely.
“Riding? No. She’d not let anyone do that. Anyway, have you seen the spines on their backs? You’d have to have a crotch of hardened steel,” Owen told him, moving cautiously away from the dragon.
“It’s not that bad,” Merlin assured him. “Or perhaps it depends on the dragon.”
“I wouldn’t want to risk asking. She carried me in her hand. That was quite terrifying enough, I can tell you. All the way here I was thinking, what if she forgets and drops me? What a way to go that would be! But I made it. I told her, when she came to me, I’d drive over and meet her there, but she wouldn’t have it. Said she needed a translator.”
The dragon rumbled agreement. Rachel’s tired face was shining with a kind of terrified glee as she stared, though Hilda, half in shadow next to her, had a politely interested expression on her face as if she was being shown, perhaps, a new type of carnation.
“I’m not a good enough translator?” Merlin demanded, slightly hurt.
“Apparently she likes me,” Owen said wryly, and the dragon rumbled again. “She does understand pretty much everything we say in English,” he added hastily. “I wouldn’t underestimate her.”
Gould and his various officers had been staring in silent shock. They must surely already know about the dragons: they had been headline news for months, but the reality of a live dragon in front of you was very different to a video clip.
But at that, Gould gave a harsh laugh. “Never underestimate a live dragon?” he asked, incomprehensibly. “I try not to. Why is... she here?”
“Merlin sent her a message, on behalf of Arthur Pendragon.” Owen said. “Her people are grateful for the help they have had with settling peacefully in Wales. She’s come to help.”
“Thank you for coming so swiftly,” Arthur said, addressing both the dragon and Owen together. “We have fought a hard battle here today already, and our enemy was thrown back, but not defeated. I can use all the allies I can find.” He went on to introduce each person present by name, and summarise the debate so far. Merlin began to consider how soon he could get away with slipping away back inside to see how Taran was doing.
“So you need to resolve this question of who will lead the country against the big monster, do you?” Owen said, and grinned wolfishly. “Tell me, Group Captain, have you ever negotiated with a dragon? It’s an education, I assure you.”
In a palatial video-conferencing room within the Oxford University Saïd Business School the next morning, Arthur took a deep breath. He was out of his time, and out of his depth in so very many ways. And yet, some things were the same. People’s ideas changed, but underneath them all, they were still people.
The screens were waking into life, voices from very far away were speaking. Now they were speaking to him.
“Who are you? Do you have authorisation to speak on behalf of the UK?”
Owen looked calmly at the screen. “Of course he does,” he said. “He’s King Arthur Pendragon: his job is to take over in the event of extreme emergency when the civil authority is otherwise disabled, which is defined in the constitution of the UK as ‘hour of greatest need’. Didn’t you know that? It’s hardly a secret.”
A garbled sound came from the speaker. Someone else said in a German accent. “It was not in the briefing, unfortunately.”
“Not to worry,” Arthur said breezily. The key here would be confidence. Be confident, and the rest would follow. “I’m here now, so you can deal with me. I can assure you that there are plans underway to deal with our little... infestation.”
“Infestation?” an incredulous American voice said. “It’s wiped out your capital city, man!”
“It’s done a good deal of damage, obviously,” Arthur told her. “We’re going to be rebuilding for some time, once the problem has been dealt with. But it will be dealt with, I can assure you of that.”
“What assurances can you offer, under the circumstances?” It was a French voice this time. “If you had the ability to stop it, you most surely would already have done so!”
“It took us all by surprise,” Arthur explained. Confidence. “Otherwise we would have stopped it sooner. But we have a plan, and I can assure you all that the Isle of Britain... I mean, the UK, has no need of military assistance at present.”
Owen said “We would welcome aid in terms of food and medical assistance. Our supply-lines have been disrupted and we have a lot of people homeless. I suggest... ”
“It will be on our coast next,” the French voice said angrily. “And how can we possibly rely on you to deal with this menace, when your senior command has been wiped out?”
“I have the matter well in hand.” Arthur said, and let a glint of steel into his voice. “This is not a conventional threat. It’s a power of dark magic from a much earlier time; nuclear intervention is unlikely to be effective.” He blessed Owen silently for having briefed him with the phrase ‘nuclear intervention’.
“A dark magic,” another voice said. He could not identify the accent this time, but it sounded very unhappy. “You really expect us to believe that?”
Arthur widened his eyes and directed a look at the camera: the kind of look that had left seasoned knights flushing like embarrassed boys. “What would you call it? It is a giant serpent of hitherto unknown kind, that was accompanied by a swarm of unknown beasts, that overcame London and the armed hosts of the United Kingdom with barely a struggle. The... helicopter gunships... had little impact upon it. Yet, I met it with Merlin and a few other of our English sorcerers, and threw it back with the aid of Powers of the Land. That at least should tell you that this is no natural creature of the Sea. I intend now to face it again with the sword Excalibur and Merlin beside me, and the dragons of this land have agreed to aid me. ”
“And you are King Arthur. And this is something the British authorities have sanctioned is it?” The voice sounded not so much incredulous as as if it were suppressing panic.
“Yes indeed,” Owen put in cheerfully. “The English Parliament being out of action for the time being, you understand, but the Welsh and Scottish Parliaments have voted an emergency measure. We do have someone phoning around the local councils of England to ask them to add their approval, but I am afraid that will probably take some time, given the ... general disruption. And so as I say, supplies of food and medical assistance would be most welcome.”
“It would,” Arthur added helpfully, “improve our chances of getting back on our feet and ready to assist, before destiny takes a turn with any of your lands.”
There was an alarmed silence, and then everyone started shouting at once.