Thomas D Lee is a Victorian polar explorer who was frozen in the ice in 1847 and thawed out in contemporary England. He writes to dull the painful memories of his long-dead loved ones. Having worked as a professional copywriter, Tom now lives in Manchester as a writer and high school teaching assistant. He is plugging away at a satirical fantasy novel, The Matter of Britain, which drags the Arthurian mythos kicking and screaming into an exaggerated post-Brexit dystopia. He is terrified of global warming, believes in the redistribution of wealth, and enjoys Bourbon biscuits
Extract from The Matter of Britain
Kay crawls up from under his hill, up through the claggy earth.
For the last thousand years or more, the land around his hill has been dry. He remembers. Drainage and farming and modern miracles kept the water away. Now the ground is wet and waterlogged, like it used to be in the old days, before the fens were drained. He wonders why.
It’s easier to crawl up through wet earth than it is when it’s dry or frozen, but it has its own challenges. The slippery nature of it. Harder to get purchase. He burrows through clay, grabs at roots, getting his head out first and then an elbow, before taking a break to catch his breath. The sun is baking hot. It must be midsummer.
He has another go at it. The earth’s pulling down on him, but the mud slickens his maille and provides some lubrication. There’s an almighty squelch. He feels the earth let go. His leg comes free. His hips get past the roots. When he’s out to his knees he almost slips, falls back into the strange orifice that he’s climbed out of, but he manages to stop himself. He gets his shins above ground, and then he’s up. Kneeling in the sun, panting in the heat. Wearing a coat of maille and a green cloak, both rimed with muddy afterbirth. His dreadlocks are matted with filth.
Sure enough, when he looks around, he finds that his little burial hill is surrounded by a kind of bog. The waters have risen. This is how it was when he was buried, before the tree grew from his stomach.
It doesn’t look like there’s anyone here to wake him up, this time. In the old days there were bands of horsemen, sometimes even a king in person when the need was dire. Then it became army lorries, or circles of druids in white shifts, slightly surprised that their dancing had actually achieved something. More recently, a man in a raincoat, checking his wristwatch, with a flying machine roaring on the grass behind him. Nothing today. It must be one of the more organic ones, where the earth itself decides to shake his shoulder. Something shifting in the spirit of the realm. Or maybe the birds in the sky have held a parliament and voted to dig him up. He looks around. No sign of any birds, either.
“Bad, then,” he mutters, to nobody.
He drags himself to his feet. First thing to do is to find his sword and shield. They usually get regurgitated somewhere nearby, though there’s not an exact science to it. He’s not sure that the earth fully understands its obligations. The covenant with Merlin was fairly specific. Make this knight whole again and surrender him back to the realm of the living, whenever England is in peril. Return him with his sword and shield and other tools of war, untarnished. If he should fall then consume him once more and remake him whole. When peril is bested, let him return to your bosom and sleep, until peril calls him forth again. It couldn’t have been much clearer. But mud is mud. Mud generally struggles with written instructions. There were bound to be some misunderstandings.
There’s something very new across the bog. He squints at it, because the sun is bright and reflecting off the metal parts. An ugly cluster of low buildings, with pipes running everywhere like a mass of serpents. In the centre is a great big tall thing like an iron skeleton, bigger than Camelot.
“Didn’t used to be there,” he says, to himself.
It seems like a good place to start, if he’s going to figure out why he’s back. But he has to find his sword first. He heads down the hill, and the earth squelches underfoot. Is his sword in the bog, somewhere? Hopefully he’ll just stumble onto it. That’s usually how this works, the various ancient forces of the realm conspiring to make things easier for him. That was always one of the perks of being in Arthur’s posse. How else would idiots like Bors and Galahad have achieved anything, if they hadn’t had assistance from white hinds and talking rivers, guiding them on their way? Not that they ever showed any gratitude.
It’s funny how whoever built this thing built it so close to his hill. But that’s just another acorn from the same tree. It’s no more or less funny than white hinds or talking rivers. Riding through the old forests, you could never shake the feeling that there was a quest around the corner, put there for them to find by some greater power, whether that power was the Christ King or the Saxon gods or some older goddess of the fields. Arthur never seemed to notice. It seemed natural to him that things of import should occur in his proximity. If anyone else noticed they knew better than to mention it. Only Kay would bring it up occasionally and earn himself a scowl from Merlin or a jibe from Lancelot.
There’s a thought to make him angry. Lancelot on his white horse, sneering. Whispering in Arthur’s ear. Look, sire, a brown Nubian covered in brown filth, and no browner for it. Wallowing in a bog like his parents. He imagines Lancelot in the distance, goading him. He imagines pulling Lancelot down from his horse and drowning him in the mud. It’s a good thought for fuelling you through a bog.
The mud isn’t so bad, at first. He wades through it with barely a grimace. It’s no worse than Agincourt, or the Somme. At least there’s no bullets flying, no hot shell fragments raining down or French coursers charging at him. The only problem is the maille, which weighs him down. And Christ, it’s a hot day. Summers never used to be this hot, he’s sure of it. It’s a day for resting in the shade, not wearing maille or wading through bogs. If it gets any thicker he’ll be right back underground again, slowly choking, lungs filling with mud. And what would happen then? He’s died in forty different ways over the years, from Saxon spearheads and Byzantine fire and Japanese inhospitality, but he’s never drowned in mud before. That would be a new one to add to the list.
He can’t help but notice that there’s something odd about this mud. It has a slickness to it, a purple sheen, that reflects the sunlight more than mud really ought to. He’s up to his knees in it, now. No sword yet. He casts his eyes around, throws up his hands in hopelessness.
“Nimue?” he asks. It’s worth a shot. “Nimue! Bit of help, maybe?”
No answer. No pale arm shoots skywards from the oily waters, holding aloft a gleaming sword. That only works for Caliburn, apparently. Not common swords like his that actually soil themselves with blood now and again.
It’s made him careless, coming back from the dead. He’d never have walked blithely across a moor, in the old days. Suicide. He’s used to being pampered now, lorries and flying machines and warm beds to sleep in whenever he’s above ground. He’s forgotten the basics. If he does drown in this bog then it will be his own fault and no-one else’s. No wonder Nimue isn’t helping. She’s probably got more important things to do, in another lake somewhere. More important than helping errant knights find their bloody swords.
He’s thinking of wading back when a sound breaks out across the moor, a modern sound. There’s still a part of his mind that thinks of old-fashioned explanations before it thinks of modern ones. It must be a beast that needs slaying, or else a kind of signal horn that he’s never heard before. But no, it’s a klaxon, a warning siren. Coming from the mass of buildings. That piques his interest. If it sounds like peril, it’s probably peril. Onwards, then. Through the mud and heat.
After five minutes of trudging he reaches a wire fence. Without his sword there’s not much chance of cutting through it. There are some signs on the fence which he reads out slowly, sounding out the words with dry lips. The first sign says SECURE FRACKING FACILITY. Kay thinks he knows what that word ‘fracking’ might mean, but they didn’t have secure facilities for it the last time he was up and about. Times change. The second sign is more interesting. It says, THIS SITE IS PROTECTED BY VIKINGS. There’s a sort of red heraldry of a nasal helmet, with the kind of horns that vikings never used to have. In the corner of the notice are the words VIKING PMC. Protection you can rely on.
“No bloody wonder, then,” he says, to himself.
He likes this sign. It has explained his purpose to him. If the vikings are back, that must be why he is back. An invader has overrun England’s shores. Classic peril. If there are any vikings protecting this place, he will find the vikings, and he will kill them.
First, he must pass the fence. He has climbed the walls of Antioch and stormed the beaches of Normandy, so a wire fence shouldn’t pose much difficulty. Surely. Even if it is buzzing strangely.
He reaches out to climb it. Wraps his fingers around a link in the fence.
He’s never been electrocuted before. Crushed, yes, and covered in burning oil, and carried off his horse by a nine-pound gunstone. Never electrocuted. This is new. The pain rips through him like the raw fury of God. Like a thousand hornet stings. He feels his flesh begin to sizzle. He smells it cooking. His maille glows red. He cannot let go of the fence, because his muscles are clenched firmly, and his hands will not obey him. Until finally his blackened fingers unhook themselves, and his carcass falls back smouldering into the wet mud.
Death feels like God snapping his fingers. It’s always the same. The old sorcery flies out of him like a raven bursting free of a pie, and the spell is broken. His bones remember their age and turn accordingly to dust.
There is always the briefest of moments, while his skin is still curling into parchment, when he can feel the morbid wrongness of it. Like opening a musty tomb and seeing the shrivelled thing inside of it and knowing that he is trespassing somewhere haunted. Except that the shrivelled thing is him. He is a living fossil, and then he is nothing, grains of sand in the wind, a putrid smell lost in the many bad smells of war.
Then it gets worse. The covenant says that when he’s done saving the realm he can ‘return to slumber’. It’s not a restful slumber. He is not sleeping peacefully under the tree, cradled by God, until England needs him. He is somewhere else, somewhere dark. Falling. It feels like falling out of bed, but with the certain knowledge that there’s no floor to fall onto. Only a wide chasm, with some dark intelligence at the bottom that is patiently awaiting his arrival. And this is where time punishes him for his hubris. It makes itself meaningless, and leaves him without a solid yardstick in the darkness. How long is he there? He can never tell. Moments or millennia. He wakes from hours of falling and finds that he has actually only been falling for eight seconds, or so. He screams for twenty years and then loses the thread of time and has to start all over again.
And then he wakes up under his tree, usually screaming. Made whole again by the earth. Not knowing how long it’s been since the last time he died. It’s a joke, talking about slumber. He wonders if Merlin knew, when he made the covenant. How horrible it would be.
There’s a period of uncertainty. Is he flesh again, or is he still putrid clay, a brownish cludge of his own corruption, recongealing? He opens his eyes, wriggles his fingers, feels his leg and shoulder remade, the bone and tissue knitted back together. Then he climbs up out of the soil again, scrambling, more quickly this time, writhing like a worm, elbowing his way towards the light. His maille is repaired. How can the earth remake a coat of maille? How can it remake him? Questions that will never be answered. It doesn’t bear thinking about.
He gets his head and shoulders above the ground. It’s still a hot day. Whether it’s the same hot day is a different question. Years may have passed.
But they haven’t. He can hear the sirens in the distance, across the bog. Good. He’s not lost any time. He might still be able to kill some vikings after all.
He gets up and wades back through the bog again, looking for his sword and shield.
End of extract.
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