Perilous Times

bestseller

An immortal Knight of the Round Table faces his greatest challenge yet—saving the politically polarized, rapidly warming world from itself—in this slyly funny contemporary take on Arthurian legend.

My debut novel Perilous Times is now available to buy from Waterstones, Barnes & Noble, Blackwell’s (and your local indie bookshop!) in hardback, ebook and audiobook format.

Here’s an extract from the first chapter. Enjoy!


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, as it was when he was first buried. Before the fens were drained. He starts to wonder why, but then he gets a worm in his eye, which is the sort of foul development that drives the thoughts from your head. He makes a small, disgusted sound and wipes the worm away. Then he keeps climbing, burrowing like a common mole.

It’s easier to crawl 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, until the earth falls away and he’s looking up at a vaguely yellow sky. He gets his head out first, and then an elbow, before taking a break to catch his breath. The air doesn’t taste particularly good. The sun is baking down on his head. It must be midsummer.

He has another go. This part’s always disagreeable, the brute scramble up towards daylight. The earth’s pulling down on him, but the mud slickens his chainmail and provides some lubrication. Finally there’s an almighty squelch, and 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 hollow 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 mail and a green wool cloak, both rimed with muddy afterbirth.  His dreadlocks are matted with filth.

Sure enough, 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.

He gulps down air, trying to fill his lungs, but the air feels heavier than it ought to feel. 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 warrior whole again and surrender him back to the realm of the living, whenever Britain 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 silver tower shaped like a bullet. A fortress? Bigger, though, than Arthur’s fortress at Caer Moelydd ever was.

“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.

He heads downhill, the earth squelching underfoot. His sword might be in the bog somewhere, hilt protruding from the wet earth. 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 warband. You’d blunder into the forest and you’d happen upon a talking raven who could tell you where to find what you were looking for. How else would idiots like Bors and Gawain have achieved anything, if they hadn’t had assistance from white hinds and river spirits, guiding them on their way? Not that they ever showed any gratitude.

Across the bog, the mess of buildings glistens. Strange, that whoever built this thing built it so close to his old hill. But it’s no stranger than white hinds or talking ravens. Riding through the old forests, you could never shake the feeling that there was a quest around the corner, put there by some greater power, whether that power was the Christ King or the Saxon gods or some older goddess of the trees. 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. It’s a good thought for fuelling you through a bog. He imagines Lancelot in the distance, goading him. He imagines pulling Lancelot down from his horse and punching him in the jaw. Drowning him in the mud. That’s a nice thought for getting you through a bog, too.

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 mail, 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 mail, or wading. 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. “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, cars and helicopters and warm beds whenever he’s above ground. He’s forgotten the basics. If he does drown here 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 first. It’s 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 heat.

After five minutes of trudging he reaches a wire fence. Cruel razors coiled on top of it to make the passage even more unpleasant, and thorny bushes planted thickly on the other side. Not any kind of bush that he recognises from the old days. Slim chance of cutting through it all, without his sword. But 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. Some kind of fortified brothel? They didn’t have secure facilities for that sort of thing, the last time he was up and about. Times change. The second sign is more interesting. It says, THIS SITE IS PROTECTED BY SAXONS. There’s a sort of red heraldry of a nasal helmet, which doesn’t look like any helmet that he ever saw on a Saxon head. In the corner of the notice are the words SAXON PMC. Protection you can rely on.

“No bloody wonder, then,” he says, to himself.

He is confused by this sign. How can there be Saxons guarding places, again? Have they overthrown the Normans, finally? Have more Saxons come from Saxony, as invaders? Perhaps that’s it. Invaders have overrun Britain’s shores, and it’s his job to stop them. Classic peril. The sort of thing he used to be good at, a very long time ago. Pushing Saxons back into the sea. If there are Saxons in this place then he will find them and he will kill them. Then maybe he can go back to sleep.

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 mail 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 bad 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 mail is repaired. How can the earth remake a coat of mail? 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 Saxons after all.

He gets up and wades back through the bog again, looking for his sword and shield.

 

PERILOUS TIMES

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© Thomas D. Lee 2021

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