by Hannah Spencer
Four thousand years ago, a man made a promise: after his death, he would guard the sanctity of his land as he had done in life.
In accordance with his instructions, his body was taken to the most sacred place in Albion. A place of power, magic and mystery. A gateway in every possible way. And here he was buried. While he lay undisturbed, no harm could come to Albion’s people.
Nine birds, the king’s namesake and totem, followed the mournful funeral procession, and they settled themselves around the newly raised mound. Here they would stay.
The birds were ravens.
The king’s name was Bran.
* * *
‘Hey, soldier boy!’
Charlie looked across at the old woman, sweeping dust from her doorstep. He sighed. Nearly six months away and the first person he saw was that Welsh hag.
‘Afternoon, Mrs Proctor.’ He tried to hurry on.
‘Mrs Proctor! Very polite in your smart new uniform! You didn’t call me that when you threw eggs at my door, did you?’
Charlie looked longingly up the street, familiar and alien. An effort had been made to clear a way through the rubble and twisted pipework. Three houses, caught by a stray bomb. The air, always grimy with coal smoke, now had a more sinister undertone. Charred brick. Sulphur. Sewage. All mixed with the stench from the bomb-blasted infernos.
‘What do they call you in that pretty uniform, then?’
Charlie couldn’t help but straighten up and smile a little smugly.
‘Pah. Think your shiny buttons and grand titles are going to beat the Nazis? You haven’t got a clue what’s going on.’
‘I’m a British Army intelligence analyst, liaising with Whitehall itself. I think I do know what’s going on!’
He checked himself. The woman came towards him, checked up and down the street. Charlie did the same, hopefully. His mother would be preparing tea now. He’d hoped to surprise her.
No such luck. A lonely tabby cat drifted across the street, sat in the dust and washed itself.
‘Well, nice to see you, Mrs Proctor, but I—’
She gripped his sleeve. ‘They were here, last night.’
‘Who?’ He glanced up the street again.
‘Germans! I heard them talking. Quiet, like, but I’d recognise them anywhere.’
‘You speak German?’
‘Of course I don’t! That vile, barbarian tongue, anyone could recognise it.’
‘I know what I heard. I peeped out as well. Disguised like ordinary folk, but it was them all right. Two of them, heading that way.’ She pointed.
‘If you have concerns about spies, I can make a report to the Security Office.’
To go with the three dozen others every day, all made by lunatic old women.
A woman with a perambulator came out of a house opposite. She smiled sympathetically at him, and they watched her disappear from sight.
‘Well, I really must—’
‘We’re falling, you know. Britain is falling. They’re much more powerful than us, and nobody realises it.’
‘Mrs Proctor, rest assured. Our strategies, our armies, our Spitfires, and above all our national pride are infallible when compared to the Nazis.’ Charlie relaxed into the familiar speech. ‘We may be bloodied, we may be bruised, but we will never be beaten.’
A pity that was not true. He thought of the latest statistics. A dozen Spitfires lost in the last two days alone. Only two Heinkel bombers destroyed out of the scores flying sorties every day. They were being smashed and, once the Air Force was lost, they were defenceless against the monster waiting across the Channel.
‘Guns, bullets, bombs. All child’s toys. There are far more powerful forces at work.’
‘What do you mean?’ he found himself asking.
‘There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’
‘You read Shakespeare?’ He immediately regretted the badly-disguised surprise in his voice.
‘We went to the theatre all the time when we were first wed. Amazing man, Shakespeare.’
Charlie nodded uncomfortably. Overhead, a raven screeched. They both looked up as it wheeled in a slow arc to disappear behind the rooftops.
‘Tomorrow. Come back tomorrow and I’ll tell you.’
‘All right, Mrs Proctor, I’ll do that.’
He could easily claim an emergency meeting.
‘Off you go, then. Your mother will be pleased to see you. She talks about you all the time.’
* * *
Over the five-minute walk along the broken streets, something altered in Charlie’s mind. He submitted to his mother’s kisses, his father’s handshake, the watery tea and butterless scones, but his thoughts kept turning back to that strange conversation.
When he finally fell asleep that night, he saw a funeral procession crossing a mist-strewn land. A train of men in black-feathered cloaks, bearing the body of a nobleman. Its eyes opened and turned towards him. He was sucked into a maelstrom of images.
A grave was dug and filled.
Ravens soaring overhead.
An earthen mound, pulsating with life. Beneath it, the nobleman again, but changed. Transmuted. The source of the power. A humming electrical network, infusing earth and sky.
A second grave, inscribed Brutus Rex.
A raven again. It turned its head to stare at him.
From the mists arose a city, mighty and proud. The words Troia Nova rang in his mind.
Centuries passed, taking with them endless tides of people. A ringing of metal on stone, and over the mound a tower was raised, gleaming, impenetrable, unbreakable. It absorbed the power of the mound, reflected it outwards.
Battered, refined, extended, rebuilt. It survived for over a thousand years. The White Tower. The Tower of London. The heart of the land.
Above it all, the ravens stood their guard. On every turret and every battlement.
He’d had this dream so many times, although he’d learnt years ago to ignore its strange sense of importance.
But now it changed. He saw a black cloud rising from the east, seething against the light. Penetrating it. Destroying it. The shield was crumbling.
They were falling. Britain was falling. Something unimaginably ancient and beautiful was eroded before his helpless eyes.
He jolted awake, sweating and gasping, and pulled the blackout curtain aside. All quiet, all still. Thick fog over the channel according to the wireless. The Luftwaffe couldn’t fly.
He could just see it above the rooftops. Was it his imagination, or was the tower gleaming? He studied it for a moment. Faintly, carried on the breeze, he heard the cry of a raven.
* * *
Mrs Proctor greeted him with a piercing stare. ‘You understand?’
‘About the tower. The sanctity of the realm. About the real problem we face. You saw, didn’t you?’
‘How do you—’
‘There are powerful forces at work. Britain is protected by something so ancient, so timeless, so powerful, that you can’t even begin to imagine.’ She shook her head. ‘And they think their planes and searchlights and ack-ack guns will help.’
‘What’s gone wrong? Why are we in such danger?’
Careless words. Charlie glanced round her sparse living room. Walls have ears, he reminded himself.
Mrs Proctor handed him a cup. ‘They’re more powerful than us. They’ve mastered something formidable, I don’t know what. But somehow it’s breaking through.’
The tea turned to ash in his mouth. He knew what it was. He’d seen reports of a disturbing development. Of a vast body of arcane lore the Nazis had acquired. Of worlds beyond their own, of elements and powers more suited to a demonic fairy-tale.
And the most horrible thing: it seemed as if it were real.
‘You know about it?’ Charlie put his cup down.
‘Oh, I know. Top secret.’ She stood. ‘Come on.’
He didn’t need to ask where they were going.
Everybody they passed was cowed and fearful. The Blitzkrieg was taking its toll. Planes were falling, broken down by the onslaught of the Luftwaffe. The docklands blazed, night after night. Woolwich Arsenal was in ruins. The aircraft factories were clinging on, but for how much longer? The Battle of Britain was almost lost. And, across the channel, the invasion force was massing.
They turned a corner and the tower stood proud in front of them.
‘There he is.’ Mrs Proctor pointed.
The raven was preening on the turret. His feathers shimmered an iridescent black in the hazy sunlight. He looked down disdainfully at his observers.
‘He’s getting ready to sing.’
‘Sing? Ravens don’t sing. They squawk.’
‘To unheeding ears, maybe. But their voice is a melody, a song of the wild. Listen.’
The bird spread vast wings and hopped from the turret, plummeted then soared upwards. Charlie listened to the harsh cry. He heard what she meant.
There were trills, high-pitched clinks, whistles and chimes. The bird reminded him of sharp clean air. Glassy icicles on splintered crags. Icy, lonely trails. Unforgiving, desolate moorlands. Wild. Untameable. Unbreakable.
Then he saw Mrs Proctor’s expression.
‘What is it?’
‘Only one. Yesterday there were two. A sorry remnant of the original nine. We’re hanging by a thread.’
‘Why are the ravens so important?’
‘Bran was the greatest king this land has ever known. And he is the raven. They’re still called that in Wales. He was buried here to guard us. Ever since the ravens have stood guard.’
Mrs Proctor stared at the lonely speck in the sky. ‘They’ve discovered Bran’s presence, and now they’ve nearly destroyed him. They’ve nearly won.’
‘How do you know so much about it?’
‘My family were storytellers. Our traditions are centuries older than anything you English have. But you, boy, have got to do something about it.’
‘There’s ancient blood in your veins. Almost as old as the land itself. Who knows: perhaps you’re a descendant of Bran himself. That’s why you can see, where so many others can’t.’
‘So what do we do?’
‘Go in there. Find Bran’s body, and find what’s destroying it. We’ve got half an hour until sunset.’
Mrs Proctor led him to a bank enmeshed with brambles. She raked them aside and exposed a trapdoor. ‘The way in.’
Charlie laughed. ‘Why’s nobody found it before?’
‘It’s a portal. Only visible for those who can see, when their eyes are open.’
Charlie checked around. In the gathering twilight, he could see nobody about. The street lights were dead. No light showed from blackout curtains.
He bit his lip. Only yesterday, he would have dismissed all this at once. Even now, he was sorely tempted. But somehow, it made strange sense, as if he’d opened a window he’d never before noticed. He glanced round again.
Mrs Proctor gestured him forward.
He stepped onto the steps. ‘Are you coming?’
‘You think I’m going in there at my age? You’re going alone.’
* * *
Copyright © 2017 by Hannah Spencer