by Hannah Spencer
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
Charlie started downwards. Mrs Proctor shut the trapdoor. He was encased in darkness. The air was stale and heavy. He concentrated on breathing, on the solidness beneath his feet. From far away, he heard the air-raid sirens start. For the final time? Was this the night Britain would fall?
His eyes adjusted. He could make out the shadowy walls. He descended further.
He became aware of a flickering blue glow, coming from the rock itself. He ran his hand along the rough surface. The colour shimmered and lingered over his fingers. He shook them and speckles of coruscation danced into the air.
There was a hum in the air. Like a swarm of bees. It made his skin tingle. As he went deeper, it grew louder. He impulsively checked his revolver.
The steps ended. He stepped gingerly onto rough-hewn rock.
He was no longer underground. He was in open air. Hovering, soaring, looking down at the sea-girt land below. Nine ravens were watching him.
Across it all stretched an intricate mesh of dancing energy. It surged through man and beast, plants and trees, moorlands, mountains and rivers. It filled the land. It was the land.
He swooped down, felt the immensity of the seething torrents. Everything they touched, they infused with their vital strength.
He soared along one of the currents, passing hills and valleys, churches and standing stones, grave chambers and crosses. He reached the White Tower, watched the effervescent rivers spiralling into and out of their source. The grave of Bran. The heart of Britain.
He sought out the trapdoor. Saw himself and Mrs Proctor approach him from minutes before. He’d just danced a circle in time. What now?
He looked at his face. Saw the indecision raging.
But he’d already made the decision. He joined with his other self and they stepped into the hole.
He was in a cavern. The shimmering blue seemed to come from far away. A mark by his feet, just visible in the gloom. A portcullis, topped with five diagonal lines. He traced it with his fingers.
He started to walk, arms outstretched. He could feel rock beneath his feet and open space all around, but he had the strange impression that invisible walls confined him.
A voice, clipped and assertive: ‘Finden Sie das! Schnell.’
Charlie gripped his revolver. Nazis. They’d found their way in. He strained to see. He sidestepped as quietly as possible.
A movement in front of him. A pale shadow.
He took another sideways step. The shadow vanished. What the hell?
He stepped back. It reappeared. Sideways. Gone. He started forwards, a single step before he struck something solid. An invisible barrier. He groped sideways. The shadow rematerialised.
He crept forward. His shoulder caught another invisible blockade. He was in an invisible labyrinth.
The shadow grew more substantial. His hand closed on his revolver. His boot clipped something solid.
The shadow turned. Then it was gone.
Charlie chased after it, collided with a wall. He scrambled up but he’d lost his bearings. He struggled forward, staggering against invisible walls. His route writhed and turned at random. He saw more of the strange marks as he ploughed on. He had to get to Bran first.
He snapped to a halt. That portcullis again. He was back where he’d started.
From far away, he heard the first streaks of anti-aircraft fire. They were here. He’d failed.
A pressure like a calming hand on his shoulder. He jumped round. Nobody there.
‘Think!’ he ordered himself. ‘Think of a plan, like the British officer you are.’
The marks. Were they a clue? He studied the symbol again. Went carefully forward. It wasn’t far before he found another mark. The same, except with four lines above it.
He felt along the non-existent walls, realised the maze divided into three. Straight on, left or right. Which way? He chose right.
Soon he saw the portcullis again, this time with three lines. Right was right: made sense.
He almost missed the next junction; there was no mark this time. It was pure chance he put his hand out into nothing. Should he go right again?
If the symbol meant right, perhaps absence signified left? He tried it. Went so far he thought he was wrong, but then the portcullis with two lines materialised. He’d solved the riddle.
On and on he went. The portcullis was replaced by a lozenge. A cross. Unembellished lines. Four. Three. Two. He went as fast as he could. One.
He was in open space. The invisible confinement was gone.
It took him a while to work out what he was looking at. He couldn’t focus on it. For an instant he thought he saw a pair of eyes, ancient, timeless and wise, within a vast face, and then it was reabsorbed into a shimmering, ethereal structure.
It wasn’t how he’d seen it in his vision. It was shrivelled and withered. The gushing torrents had run dry. The nation was dying.
Only two feeble streams remained, struggling onwards in a vain attempt to feed the land. Even as Charlie watched, one bulged and shrank. Then he saw why.
A figure, crouching at its edge. Muttering urgent, rapid words. The German.
‘Halt! British Army!’ Charlie drew his revolver.
The man froze. Got to his feet, a sleek, feline movement, and turned. An air of unsettling energy rippled about him.
‘Hände hoch!’ Charlie gripped his revolver and aimed — for now — at the man’s feet. He listened carefully for footsteps behind him. He knew there was another man somewhere.
‘A warrior of Hyperborea,’ the German said in perfect, glassy English. ‘Valiant to the last.’
‘Stop what you’re doing. You’re under arrest.’ Charlie kept his voice calm and cold.
The German smiled, unimpressed. ‘You should have joined us when you had the chance. Britain and Germany, we could have ruled the world together.’ He moved forward. Charlie raised his revolver higher.
‘You still can join us. Side with us now, and you will be rewarded.’
Charlie smiled disdainfully.
‘I am Rosenberg. Perhaps your intelligence has informed you of me?’
Charlie couldn’t help but shudder. The man at the forefront of the Nazis’ atrocities, both earthly and unearthly.
‘I see that it has.’ Rosenberg moved forward again. ‘This is a war that you will lose. You think you hold the cards, but you understand nothing, Major. There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’
Charlie faltered. Mrs Proctor’s quote... How did... Had he walked into a trap? All the secrets he knew spiralled through his mind. Airfield locations, radar sites. The captured intelligence about the invasion plans. Had Mrs Proctor betrayed him? How could he have been so stupid?
Rosenberg chuckled. ‘You think I don’t know Shakespeare? Hamlet was once a German hero. Did you know that? Britain and Germany, Hyperborea and Thule, we are descended from the same great race. A race of gods. With your valour and our...’ — he searched for the word — ‘understanding, we can ascend to that level again.’
‘What do you hope to achieve here?’ Charlie moved forward.
‘It is time. Time for a new world to be born. The rise and fall of nations is part of the grand scheme, a world order established from eternity. Der Aufgang der Menschheit.’
The Ascent of Mankind. The Nazis’ infernal bible which proclaimed their lauded ancestral heritage.
Rosenberg looked impressed. ‘You have done your homework well, Major.’
Charlie shrugged. ‘Haven’t we all? We’ve got a war to win.’
Rosenberg laughed. ‘Britain is falling. She will not live another night. And then Ultima Thule will rise from the waves. From flames and ashes, a new world will be born. A golden age of chivalry and hope.’
Charlie raised his revolver. He pulled the trigger.
The bullet struck Rosenberg’s forehead and hit the rock in an explosion of glassy shards. Rosenberg didn’t flinch. He drifted forwards. The revolver fell from Charlie’s hands. His legs weren’t moving. He wasn’t real.
‘The soul is immortal. Did you know that, Major?’
‘You’re not really here.’
‘I am, and I am not. This is what you do not understand. The material world is just a veil, behind which is another world. And here lies the true reality. Here lies the strings to which the world dances. And we have control of these strings. You, Major, control nothing.’
Something struck him. An exploding force like an immense gale. He was forced forwards. Stumbled, fell. His breath was torn from his lungs. He tried to force air into his chest but it had been sucked into a vacuum like in a bomb-blast.
He twisted his head round, fighting the pressure, and saw the second German. His arms were held high, fingers together, eyes locked on his own. Charlie tried to move but was pinned against the rock.
Overhead, the bombs began to fall.
The cavern disappeared. The infernal vision tore through his mind. The drone of engines mounted until it could be heard over the screaming sirens. A swarm of metallic insects, clouding the sky.
Streams of gunfire blazed orange as ack-ack guns mounted a desperate defence. Searchlights strobed the air. The first bombs struck their targets.
The first of the Spitfires rose to meet them. A thousand planes spun and writhed in a macabre dance. Explosions of smoke and flame as one after another fell.
Wave after wave of Luftwaffe arrived. The defenders were overwhelmed. The bombers broke through and reached London’s industrial heart.
Smoke rose above the docklands. Warehouses burned. Buildings buckled. A crane slowly toppled. The ground trembled beneath the assault. A tortured rending of metal screeched through the air, a nation’s dying scream.
On and on. Assault after assault. Yet another Spitfire dissolved into flames.
It was over. Britain was lost.
Darkness began to drift over Charlie’s eyes.
‘The ravensong! Use the ravensong!’ Mrs Proctor ‘s voice was frantic in his ear.
Charlie forced his eyes towards the voice. Nobody.
He made himself focus. Railed against the pressure on his body and soul. Forced his arm up, over his face. Blocked the brutal gale. He managed to gasp a breath.
Rosenberg was back at his work, his companion at his side. Muttering beside the shrivelling stream of life. Only the tiniest blue sliver ebbed from the vein. It was almost done. Almost over.
The ravensong. He could hear nothing. There was no song underground.
But there was. So quiet — or so loud — he hadn’t noticed it. The song of the mountains, the moors, the wilds and the winds. It was the song of Britain, the song of the raven. The song of the soul of the land. He pulled it inwards, the unstoppable pitiless might of the most ancient of lands, untamed and unconquered since its birth.
Wolves howled. Wind lashed against desolate trees. A blizzard blasted over a mountaintop. Winter floods tore trees from their roots. Fellsides sprung with vicious gorse. The talons of an eagle dripped with blood.
The ravensong surged through him, around him, flooding the cavern. It fought against the wind, against Rosenberg’s powers. The two greatest nations, locked in mortal combat.
Charlie stood and struggled forward. The ground shook beneath his feet.
Rosenberg saw him, a flicker of surprise in his eyes. The gale grew stronger. It brought its own crazed visions: strange, tortured and alien. Black miasma swirled around them, tugging and writhing. Charlie forced himself on.
An avalanche plunging downwards, a forest crushed beneath its weight. A tree exploding in a lightning storm. Waves crashing against a blackened cliff.
A metal-clad army beaten back into the sea. Rows of blue-painted shields held rigid along a cliff. Arrows loosed from a legion of longbows.
An armada of ships, scattered and broken. Smoke pouring from a Messerschmitt as it spiralled downwards. Destroyers and ferries, dinghies and fishing smacks, struggling home with their exhausted troops.
A man stood in front of his shattered home, shook his fist at the sky and laughed.
Despite the pain roaring in his ears, reverberating through his entire being, Charlie stood straight and tall. The ravensong grew triumphant. He met his adversaries’ gaze. Unbroken. Unbreakable.
The miasmal clouds condensed. The storm and the wind imploded, swept away the fog and the visions. The men were gone. There was nothing left but that faint blue glow.
Charlie found himself at the bottom of the steps. He leant his hands on his knees and gasped. He rubbed his eyes, dry and gritty, and struggled upwards.
The trapdoor opened and he was blinded by light. Dawn was breaking, in feeble competition with the still-burning docklands. An orange hue tangled with smoke and ash. A lone Heinkel limped overhead, smoke pouring from its engines. A Spitfire chased after it, guns blazing.
He looked towards Mrs Proctor, dazed and blinking, and she took his hand. It was warm and leathery against his.
‘Did we do it?’ he asked.
His gaze cleared and he saw his trauma reflected in her eyes.
‘I don’t know. Whether it’s enough, whether it was too late...’
Charlie looked up as a solitary Spitfire returned home. Pain surged in his chest as he traced its wavering path. Another one in the distance, a mere speck in the haze.
He concentrated. It wasn’t an aircraft. Mrs Proctor followed his gaze, and they both watched it draw closer.
The old raven of the tower screeched a greeting. He soared into the air and the two birds flew an intricate dance of welcome. Charlie couldn’t help but grin and, as he gripped Mrs Proctor‘s arm, tears came into his eyes. They’d done it. The ravens were returning.
* * *
Deep within Tower Hill, where time slowed so that a heartbeat would last a thousand years, the land breathed. As it always had, and always would.
Day became night and night became day. A thousand stars faded before the coming of dawn.
Bran’s work was done. He slumbered on.
Copyright © 2017 by Hannah Spencer