By Garth Nix
Some days you find out that the world is nothing like what you think it is.
An archaeologist named Tamara working near Hadrian’s Wall is approached by a very annoyed-looking, silver-haired woman with an incomprehensible message: The game is moving on, the time has come to play a hand, and Tamara is on point. Time to find the Necessary Arthur and get down to business!
Tamara Tafika often came to the Sheepstones in summer, late in the long evenings, as the sun was sliding down all red into the west. The stone circle wasn’t much, as stone circles went, nothing to rival Stonehenge or Avebury. There were only seven stones in all, and none were actually standing, the most upright of them leaning drunkenly at a sixty degree angle, the others all long since succumbed to the horizontal.
The stones weren’t that big either, the largest only five feet long and about two feet wide. They were limestone, brought a great distance in Bronze Age terms. A 1980s study had shown they likely came from western Yorkshire to their resting place here, just north of Hadrian’s Wall. They had been roughly worked to give them some shape, but otherwise left undecorated.
Tamara liked to sit on the smallest stone and watch the sun slip away. It was a time for quiet contemplation, an escape from the pressure of her completed but not yet awarded PhD from the School of History, Classics and Archaeology at Newcastle University; and the usually greater or at least more annoying pressure from the undergraduate students she tutored.
Consequently she was a little annoyed this valuable time of solitude might be disturbed when she heard the swish and crackle of someone coming through the ferns that grew so thickly on the hillside, almost obscuring the track up from the layby off the road. She had parked her own car there, but she hadn’t heard any traffic since.
The annoyance was coloured a little by caution. No one could see her from the road, so they wouldn’t have stopped because they saw a single woman alone, and her car was the mud-splattered Land Rover her supervisor had lent her while he and his family were on vacation, also not suggestive of a lone female target. Even so, she held her big bunch of keys in her fist, with one ready to score across an attacker’s face, just as she learned in self-defence classes. Better to be ready than not.
“A hundred fucking metres away! You did that on purpose.”
It was a woman talking. Tamara relaxed a little, though not entirely, since it seemed the woman was talking to herself. Tamara could see her now, despite the fading light. A short, slight silver-haired woman in an almost luminously white double-breasted business suit, coming up the path in a series of tottering steps and near falls, which as she got closer, Tamara saw was due to extremely high shoes. Which had fluorescent blue-white heels.
“She could have put me down right next to you,” complained the woman as she reached the stones. She was younger than Tamara had presumed from the sight of that silver hair. Close up and standing still rather than tottering on her six-inch heels, she looked a cool sixty rather than a doddering eighty.
“Er . . . she?” asked Tamara, meaning to humour this obviously batty old lady and depart as quickly as possible.
“Doesn’t matter,” declared the woman, with a wave of her hand. “Tamara Tafika.”
“Um, yes,” replied Tamara, even more mystified.
“Childhood in Lusaka, moved to UK with parents when you were three, Plymouth first, then Highgate; scholarships to excellent schools; parents died when you were sixteen, car crash, eccentric aunt made guardian but chose not to live with you; favourite food crumpets with Wilkin & Sons Tiptree orange marmalade; you didn’t break your wrist playing drunken croquet—”
“Er, no, I’ve never even played sober croquet and how would you break—”
“Undergraduate degree Cambridge in archaeology, starred first; favourite music a very obscure band called Harmmonius Drunk, awful music by the way; current, just completed postgraduate student Newcastle University, archaeology again. Newcastle both to be near the Wall, and to your aunt, right?”
“Just data points,” said the woman. She brushed off part of the stone near Tamara and sat down. “Got to make sure you’re the right Tamara Tafika, right?”
“Enough with the rights. We’ve established who you are,” said the woman. She shot her cuffs and looked at her watch, a tiny thing set with a great many diamonds. “Not a lot of time, is there? Ninety minutes to midnight, give or take.”
“Look, I don’t know how you know my—”
“Of course you don’t,” said the woman. “I’ll explain as much as I can. Pointless really, since you won’t remember at this stage, but still. The methodology must be followed. Not to mention abiding by the rules.”
Tamara got up off the stone and started to edge away, keeping her eyes on the woman, ready for any sudden moves to attack or spit or whatever else she might take it into her head to do.
“Oh do stay still,” said the woman. She waved her hand again, not dismissively, more like how a puppeteer might make a puppet jump.
Tamara stood still. She didn’t mean to, she was trying to move her legs. But it was as if she was rooted to the earth. Strain as she might, she couldn’t lift her feet from the ground.
“Now, first things first,” said the woman. “You can call me Blaise.”
“Like a fire?” asked Tamara, trying hard to keep the panic from her voice. She wasn’t paralyzed, she could wiggle her toes and make her kneecaps go up and down, and wave her arms around. She just couldn’t unstick her feet . . .
“No, B-l-a-i-s-e. Ess no zed.”
“What . . . what do you want with me? Why can’t I move my feet?”
“I am considering you for a position with my syndicate,” said Blaise. “A very important position. According to my advisultants, you’re the best candidate for this phase of the Game.”
Tamara gulped several times, and forced herself to take as slow a breath as she could manage.
“What . . . what is an advisultant . . . and . . . candidate . . . Game?”
“Advisultant,” said Blaise, tapping her temple twice. Her fingernails were painted the same fluorescent blue-white as her shoes. “Surely . . . oh . . . yes. Too soon. Well, that’s not important either. Anyway, this mode of Game here on this world, is mythical, by region, and we’re setting up our playing pieces. Right here, the most important of these, the absolutely necessary piece, will be an Arthur.”
“An Arthur. You know, mythical king, joined all the warring parts of Britain into one kingdom. Excalibur, all that sort of stuff.”
“Yes, well, they don’t need to be a king or a queen in this round of the game, obviously. It is the twenty-second . . . I mean twenty-first century.”
“A woman can be Arthur?”
“Obviously,” sighed Blaise. She narrowed her eyes to look at Tamara. “I am wondering . . .”
She tapped her temple again and gave a theatrical sigh.
“No . . . you are still the best candidate, believe it or not.”
“You want me to be a . . . a . . . King Arthur?”
“Did I say that?” asked Blaise, nettled. “Arthur is a later stage piece, we couldn’t play one now. We need you to be a Merlin. Didn’t I say that?”
“No,” replied Tamara. Her mouth hung open after the word, and she knew the expression on her face could only be what her mother had sometimes crossly described as ‘classic village idiot’.
“Merlin,” said Blaise. “You’ve got the potential, the connections. Very important piece in its own right, even if not Arthur. Precursor, you know. You’ll have to identify Arthur in turn one, and take the baby away to a safe, defended place and oversee their education and all that, protect them, plus catalyse the revelation of their identity later—”
“No,” said Tamara. “I don’t know how you’re sticking me here, but I’m not going to become your ‘Merlin’ and I am definitely not taking anyone’s baby, and even if that wasn’t enough I have my own life to live and—”
“It’s not optional, dear,” interrupted Blaise. “The stakes are too high for that.”
“The . . . the stakes . . ?”
“Your world,” explained Blaise. “Its future . . . oh, it’s easier to show you. Look.”
She pointed her finger at the air in front of her, which was instantly occupied by a howling, blinding, white-hot vortex.
“That’s what happens if They win,” said Blaise, wiggling her finger.
The vortex diminished to a small white dot that disappeared with a pinging noise.
“What . . . what happens if you win?” croaked Tamara, slowly lowering her hands from her ears.
“It’s a lot better,” reassured Blaise, though she made no move to show Tamara anything. “I mean most of the planet will still be around.”
“Most of the—”
“So like I said, it’s not optional. Now, we’re in the pre-placement mode, time is of the essence. Turn one begins at midnight and the aggressors will doubtless use their free attack, so you have to be ready.”
“One direct attack per turn,” explained Blaise. “As opposed to preparation and so forth. They will be prepping something now, and they like to attack as swiftly as possible. So, are you clear on the mission?”
“No,” replied Tamara.
“I wonder if everyone else is having the same trouble,” muttered Blaise. “I should have swapped with whoever’s got China, their Monkey candidate would have to be quicker on the uptake—”
“Just let me go!” yelled Tamara. She bent down and started to undo her boots, working on the theory that they were stuck to the ground and not her actual feet.
“Oh, stop fiddling about!”
Tamara stopped fiddling about. Crouched down, she found she could no longer do anything except breathe. Panic rose up in her, and she started to hyperventilate.
“And don’t panic,” instructed Blaise.
Tamara instantly felt calmer.
“Always good advice,” added the old woman. “Let me reiterate. You are going to be our Merlin for this game, which consists of a number of turns, each of which is seven years. You will be opposed by Them, who will try and stop you reaching your objectives. Which are our objectives. To wit, you must locate the soon-to-be-born Arthur. You must spirit the baby away to a safe place, keep them safe, and arrange their education and eventual coming of age when they will assume their rightful place. The first twenty-four hours of every turn is the aggressor period. They can attack at any point in this twenty-four-hour period, but only once in turn one, twice in turn two, and three times in turn three and so on. Occasionally more in later turns, if certain precursor bonuses have been attained. Got that?”
Tamara made a noise in her throat.
“Oh, speak up!”
“Yes,” said Tamara indignantly, regaining control over her own mouth. “But how exactly am I supposed to do any of this? I’m an archeologist, not some—”
“If you didn’t interrupt me all the time I would have got to the point where I told you we’d be giving you the Knowledge and the Wand,” said Blaise severely.
“The Knowledge?” asked Tamara, slightly hysterically. “Like a London taxi driver?”
“I believe that is a very small sub-section of our Knowledge,” said Blaise. “Useful though. Particularly in the rain when you want to get to Claridge’s from the Tower of London, and Upper Thames Street is being dug up like it was last week. But I digress.”
She reached inside her suit jacket and pulled out something that looked like a blue Ventolin inhaler. Exactly like a Ventolin inhaler. She reached over and held it up to Tamara’s ear.
“I’m not an asthmatic,” said Tamara. “And if I was, surely my mouth—”
Blaise pushed the cylinder and a jet of intensely cold something pierced the inside of Tamara’s ear and seemingly went straight through into the pain centres of her brain. She screamed and would have flung herself to the ground and curled into a ball, if she had been able to move.
For a moment, everything went black.
“It’s not that bad,” said Blaise. “Come on, pull yourself together. Had it myself numerous times. That’s the Knowledge. It’ll take a while to grow, though. You’ll only have a few of the basics to start with.”
“What?” sobbed Tamara. The pain was ebbing, but it still felt like the worst sinus headache she’d ever had. “Something’s going to grow inside my head?”
“Only the Knowledge,” said Blaise. “Information, wisdom, the sort of thing you might collect over the years anyway. Just much more of it, and a lot faster. And to be fair, a great deal currently unavailable on this benighted timeline.”
“Oops,” said Blaise. “So that’s the Knowledge. Now, where did I put the Wand?”
She reached inside her suit jacket again, investigating more pockets than could actually be located there, before eventually nodding to herself and reaching inside her left sleeve. From that she drew out what appeared to be a plastic chopstick, though instead of Chinese characters advertising a restaurant printed on it, there were six or seven unfamiliar symbols.
“Moon powered,” said Blaise. “You know.”
“No . . .”
“Just make sure you leave it out somewhere when the moon is full, or near full, so it can lock on. You’ll know how to use it once the Knowledge gets going. Go on, take it, it’s yours.”
“You’ve stuck me in this position,” said Tamara, through gritted teeth.
“Oh, so I have,” said Blaise. “Well, feel free.”
Tamara tentatively straightened up, lifted one foot, and then the other. For a moment she contemplated swinging around and smacking Blaise in the head with her keys, but she knew that wouldn’t help. The Knowledge was already at work, and though it had done little more than tell her how to begin to use the Wand, that was enough to confirm — if further confirmation was needed after she had been immobilised — that this all was really happening and she had no option but to go along with it.
“That’s pretty much it,” said Blaise. She handed the wand to Tamara, who took it, hefted it — it was much heavier than a plastic chopstick — and thrust it through her belt.
Blaise looked at her watch again. “Almost midnight.”
“What!” exclaimed Tamara. She pulled out her phone and checked the time. It was 11:58, and as per usual, there was no service. She looked around. The sun had set, and it was completely dark, except around the circle of standing stones, and that was only because Blaise’s suit glowed like a fluorescent tube. “But it . . . it was only—”
“You fugued out for an hour,” said Blaise. “Application of the Knowledge. But that’s good. Imagine how painful it would be otherwise. And you didn’t have any of the other side effects.”
“What side effects?”
Blaise wasn’t listening. She had her head up, as if she heard something. But there were no noises, save the very slight rustle of a light breeze in the ferns.
“Got to go,” she said. “Good luck, Merlin.”
Tamara didn’t manage to do more than open her mouth before Blaise was gone.
She was there one instant, totally disappeared the next.
It was very, very dark.
The rustling in the ferns grew louder, more than could be explained by the breeze.
Tamara looked at her phone. It said 12:00.
She drew the wand, holding it in approved Harry Potter style, and directed its power as the Knowledge instructed her a mere second before an enormous grey-furred wolf leaped from the night upon her, its jaws ravening.
A stream of intense fire, like a firehose jetting lava rather than water, burst from the tip of the wand, completely incinerating the attacking wolf. The cloud of hot ash that was formerly the animal blew towards Tamara. She ducked aside and down, raising the wand just in time to destroy a second wolf.
The next few minutes were a frenzied time of blasting wolves, trying to avoid clouds of hot ash and general leaping about on, over and among the stones. One of which was blasted by the wand, the surface layer of rock glowing like coals in a perfect marshmallow toasting fire, before settling down to being intensely black with the stone half a centimetre thinner than it used to be, which Tamara knew was going to puzzle several ancient-monuments people of her acquaintance.
Nine wolves attacked in total. For quite some time after the ninth blew past her in ashen ruin, Tamara stood waiting for more, her wand ready, before she remembered the aggressor period allowed for only one attack in the first turn. Surely the wolves had been it, and another lot of wolves after half an hour would be a second attack?
She sat down then, with her back to her favourite and fortunately unburnt stone, and started shaking. Her clothes were dotted with tiny holes from sparks, and she had a slight burn on her neck, which she suspected was going to look embarrassingly like a love bite.
Furthermore, apart from the basic use of the Wand to incinerate wolves, the Knowledge had not grown in her head, or at least not meaningfully. She could feel there was a lot more to the Wand, but she couldn’t quite grasp what it was. It was like trying to remember someone’s name, and no matter how hard you tried, it was just out of reach. The Knowledge hadn’t imparted anything beyond Flaming Jets of Lava 101. Nothing about Them, or how to find Arthur, or anything useful at all.
“Annoying old bat,” muttered Tamara to herself, thinking of Blaise. She rubbed the burn on her neck and thought she ought to get home and put something on it. But all the leaping about had taken its toll, not to mention the lateness of the hour. She’d worked a full day at the dig before coming up to the Sheepstones, and she was exhausted.
“Fuck it,” she whispered, and fell asleep against the stone.
Tamara woke just before the sun came up. She felt groggy and sore, and there was a light dew on her face. Her mouth and throat were dry, as if she had a hangover, and her right ear hurt. It took her a few seconds to work out she’d fallen asleep at the Sheepstones. In fact, leaning against one. She remembered watching the sunset, and had a vague recollection of chatting to someone — a walker, or a farmer — and then falling asleep, but nothing else.
Except the dream. A very detailed dream, that she now took several minutes to cement in her memory. It concerned a party of post-Roman Britons, maybe sixth century. They were filling six very large pottery urns with treasure. They sealed the lids of the urns with wooden stoppers and a great deal of wax, and then buried them on the shores of a small lake or lough south of Hadrian’s Wall, intending to come back and retrieve the treasure later. But she knew from the strange flip-forward and back nature of the dream that they were all killed, the last one years later on the shores of some icy, possibly Nordic country. The lough’s shoreline changed, water encroached over the spot, and the treasure was completely lost.
But the men who buried the treasure had taken note of the shape of the lough, the skyline of the hills to the north and the position of the sun in relation to the hills. Tamara, as a disembodied observer, had followed along. She could superimpose the sixth century landscape over the modern one, which was not so different.
She knew the lough, though the water level had ebbed back in the modern age. Tamara frowned deeply. It was such a vivid dream. She knew the exact place, it would be about thirty feet from the shore of the lough now, a hop and a skip from the Stanegate, once a Roman road. The treasure was astounding, both in terms of archaeological and monetary value. Hundreds of wooden cards, written on in ink, records of some kind; silver vessels, including a highly decorated drinking cup; votive plaques; thousands of coins, both gold and silver; jewellery of all kinds; and numerous weapons, including many very fine swords, with jewelled pommels.
But it was only a dream. Or was it her archaeology-sodden subconscious speaking to her? Had she noticed something there when driving past one day, something that had lodged in her mind that had only just now worked far enough to the surface to provoke a dream?
Groaning, Tamara got to her feet and at that point discovered her clothes were pitted with tiny holes, and one of the stones nearby was inexplicably pitch black. She stared at the holes, then groaned over to the stone and touched it. The black came off in crumbly pieces; it was like picking at a burnt sausage from a barbeque. She looked around, forehead severely furrowed. The ferns around the stones were broken and pushed down, and there were ashes everywhere, as if someone had flown over in a cropduster full of fireplace leavings and unloaded it all.
Her neck hurt too. Tamara used the camera on her phone to take a look. There was a burn there, a thick red line about as long and wide as her finger. And there was a weird heavy chopstick thrust through the belt of her Barbour shorts . . .
“What the fuck?” whispered Tamara to herself. Something very strange had happened here. She felt an incredibly strong urge to simply get away, and gave in to it. Dropping the chopstick, she set off down the path through the ferns, initially at a restrained walk, which turned into a run and then an all-out sprint to get to the Land Rover and a quick drive home to her studio apartment in Westgate Road, only resisting the temptation to speed where she knew there was a camera.
It wasn’t until almost lunchtime that she felt relatively calm. A shower, another three hours’ sleep, and a huge brunch had done its work. It was Saturday, so she didn’t have to go into the university, and while there would be volunteers at the current dig, she wasn’t rostered on to be there supervising.