Authors: Pamela F. Service
For the “Writers by the Sea”—
Barb, Mary, Natasha, and Ellen
ive hundred years have passed since the Devastation—the nuclear war and social collapse that destroyed much of Earth’s life and civilization. The nuclear winter that followed brought on a new ice age—expanding ice sheets, causing extinctions, and lowering sea levels. And another change has come as well. With the decline of technology, the forces of magic are returning to the world.
Most pre-Devastation nations have been obliterated. Humanity survives only in isolated pockets. In Britain, what remains of humanity is either terribly mutated or gathered in primitive warring kingdoms. Three misfit students at one of the few remaining schools become friends—Heather McKenna, Wellington Jones, and a boy known as Earl Bedwas. Mysteriously endangered, they discover Earl’s true identity as the fabled wizard Merlin, magically rejuvenated and freed from centuries of enchantment. Pursued by the ancient sorceress Morgan Le Fay, they flee the school and seek an entrance to the Otherworld of Avalon. There they find and return King Arthur to a world much in need of the vision, unity, and hope that he once brought it.
Restored to youth, Arthur becomes king of the small territory of Keswick. Fighting battles and forming alliances with other rulers, including Margaret, the fiery Queen of Scots, Arthur and his followers gradually work toward reuniting Britain. Heather, Welly, and Merlin join in this—but also have their own conflicts with Morgan, culminating in a terrifying voyage back to London just before its nuclear destruction. Returning to their own time, they provide crucial help in a climactic battle between the army of Arthur and Margaret and the mutant and Otherworld forces led by Morgan.
The future for Britain now seems hopeful. But the world is larger than Britain. It holds more evil, more challenge, and more upwelling magic than these young warriors have yet imagined.
the voice in Heather’s head cried.
I actually saw one yesterday! It was much scarier, much sleeker, than the carved ones on the old temples. Have you ever seen a real jaguar?
“No, I haven’t,” Heather said aloud.
Merlin turned from the ancient apparatus he was fiddling with. “You haven’t what?”
Heather shook her head and felt the intruding voice slip away. “Nothing. I guess I was thinking out loud.”
Standing up and brushing off his wool trousers, Merlin walked toward her. “You looked like you were a million miles away.”
She nodded, pushing down the urge to tell him all about the voices, crazy as that would sound. “Yes, sort of.”
Gently he kissed her on the cheek. “As long as you never go that far away without me.”
She smiled teasingly up at him. “As if I’d ever want to.” She knew she’d talk to him about the voices soon, but she hadn’t thought it all through yet. For once, she didn’t want to just saddle him with more problems. She wanted to offer some answers as well.
Changing the subject, she said, “So, have you figured out how that thing worked yet?”
Laughing, Merlin returned to the rusted metal device. “When this was a city park, I think people just turned this knob and clean drinking water shot out.”
He gave the knob a sharp wrench. The pipe shrieked with the wail of a dying banshee. Then, with a single spurt of rusty water, it shuddered into silence. “Well, it was worth a try,” Merlin sighed, letting go of the handle. “Imagine what this world would have been like before the Devastation—water pumped into every home and even to public drinking fountains in their parks. Civilization did do some great things before it blew itself apart.”
Heather unhooked the leather water bottle from her belt and handed it to him. He took a swig, dribbling water down his chin through the sparse dark strands of a beginning beard.
“Think your beard will grow faster if you water it?” Heather laughed.
The boy shook his head. “It’s like each whisker is thinking carefully about whether it really wants to do the beard thing. This reluctant beard drove me crazy the first time I was a teenager, and now it’s doing it again.”
Retrieving the bottle, Heather took a sip of her own as they continued walking. Now that York was filling up with guests for the royal wedding, they both liked to escape the crowded old city whenever they could. From behind the usual high pall of dust stirred by ancient bombs, the June sun shed a faint warmth. Snow lingered in shadowed spots, and a few soft twitterings floated in the air.
“Things are improving,” Merlin said. “At least more birds are coming back into the world, though they seem about as reluctant as my beard. I wonder if—”
A child’s scream rose from behind a tumbled, vine-entangled wall. “Eek, a horrible mutie dog! Yuck, dog spit! Get him off me!”
“Rus,” Heather and Merlin said together. Quickly they both clambered over the wall. On the other side were two girls. The younger was pinned down by a shaggy black and white dog, its two tails wagging, its two heads nodding as both tongues licked the girl’s face. The other girl was timidly trying to tug the dog off.
“Rus,” Heather commanded, “leave her alone! Maybe she doesn’t want to be friends.”
With a double whine, the dog jumped away and bounded over to Heather, thumping its paws on her shoulders, its two tongues licking her face.
“Down, Rus,” Heather gasped. Then she spoke to the two girls, who were staring at them with wide eyes. “See, he really is friendly. Too friendly sometimes. You must smell like a person who loves animals.”
“She does,” the older girl said, helping the other up and dusting her off. “That’s why we’re out here where we shouldn’t be, looking for Shadow. She’s a feral cat Mia made a pet of, but now she’s run off.”
“I’m afraid fell dogs or muties might have eaten her,” Mia said, looking at Rus warily.
Heather shook her head. “Is Shadow a fat gray cat with black swirly stripes?”
Mia’s face lit up. “You’ve seen her?”
“Sort of,” Heather said vaguely. “I think she’s nearby. Let’s look.”
Merlin watched as Heather began walking west, over the hillside, her thin blond braids swinging back and forth. The two younger girls followed like baby chicks. Holding Rus firmly by one of his two collars, Merlin followed as well.
After a few minutes, Heather suddenly stood still and closed her eyes. Then, opening them, she veered right and knelt beside a ridge of tumbled bricks. Hesitantly she peered over the top.
“Shadow’s down there,” she said, sitting back up, “in a little nest she’s made for herself. If you look—very quietly—you’ll see what she’s been busy with the last few days.”
Little Mia quickly knelt and peered over. “Kittens. Shadow has kittens!” Sitting up, she looked at her sister. “Nedra, let’s take them all home.”
Heather shook her head. “They’re still too young to move. Let Shadow decide when it’s time.”
Nedra frowned. “But suppose she decides to go back to the wild. Shadow was a feral kitten herself once.”
Heather nodded. “I’ll talk to her about it. Tell her you two need her and her family.” Lying full length on the ground, Heather inched her head over the bricks. She stayed that way for long silent minutes. Then she stood up, brushing dirt from her wool trousers and tunic.
“There. She says she still likes you, and she’ll bring her kittens home when they’re old enough.”
“You talk to cats!” Mia breathed excitedly.
Merlin spoke up from his seat on a nearby pile of bricks. “Heather is very good with animals. Trust her.”
“Heather?” Nedra questioned. Suddenly she smiled broadly. “Oh, I know! You’re the sorceress King Arthur brought with him when he came to York.” Then she clapped a hand to her face and looked at the boy. “And you must be her boyfriend, Arthur’s old wizard, Merlin.”
Mia giggled, jumping to her feet. “Papa says you can’t really be that old Merlin ’cause you’re so young, but Mama says he’s daft, because everybody knows you magicked yourself young before you brought King Arthur back from the Fairy place. Nedra can work magic too! Not fancy stuff like that, though.”
Merlin tilted his head. “You work magic, Nedra?”
“A little,” Nedra said, a blush spreading over her dark skin. “Sometimes I can make hurt or sick things better.”
“She fixed one of our lambs,” Mia piped up, “just by talking to it and rubbing its broken leg, and she made Mama’s fever go away just by singing.”
Nedra blushed more deeply, then looked at Merlin. “Papa says we shouldn’t talk about these things because it makes most people…nervous. But now Mama says that since our duke has sworn allegiance to King Arthur and Arthur has his own magicians, maybe it’s okay.”
Merlin smiled wryly. “Yes, just the idea of magic still makes some people nervous. But don’t feel bad about having some power, Nedra. Now that magic is returning to the world, a lot of people do. You just have to learn how to use it.”
Nedra nodded. “I know. It’s scary sometimes. I wish I had someone to teach me.” She looked hopefully at Merlin and Heather. “You wouldn’t be looking for students, would you?”
Merlin shook his head. “We won’t be staying here long enough. Once the royal wedding and festivities are over, Arthur and Margaret will be heading off again. There are still a few dukedoms to try making alliances with.”
“But we have thought about setting up schools once things settle down,” Heather added when she saw Nedra’s smile fade. “Arthur has been talking with Earl about training people who show magical talents.” She stopped, seeing Nedra’s confusion. “I mean
I first knew him as
and still call him that.”
As if to confirm this, a voice called from atop the ancient wall that surrounded the oldest, and the only still-inhabited, part of the city of York, “Earl, Heather! We just heard that King Douglas of Norfolk will be arriving soon. I’m going to watch from above the main gate.”
“Right, Welly!” Merlin called back. “We’ll join you.”
“Welly?” Mia cried. “Is that the young warrior who fought all those battles with you? We heard a harper yesterday sing a song all about how brave he is.”
Heather laughed. “When we were just schoolkids together, Welly never would have thought he’d be a hero in royal ballads. Now you girls better hurry home before your parents worry about you being outside the wall.”
When the two girls scampered off, Heather, Merlin, and Rus headed back through the rubble of long-abandoned houses to where ancient and recently strengthened walls encircled the city of York. Merlin began talking about his doubts over King Douglas’s loyalty to Arthur as High King, but Heather was hardly listening.
Hearing Nedra’s worries about her budding magical powers reminded Heather of how miserable she’d been, only a year earlier, when she began discovering her own powers. Instead of talking to Earl about it right away, she’d been afraid of becoming an outcast from non-magical people and had kept quiet—and scared. She shouldn’t make that mistake again. This thing with the voices troubled her—even frightened her. What had just happened with that cat had somehow brought all her thoughts about it together.
“Earl,” she interrupted, “I have a question, but don’t laugh if it sounds silly. Seeing that cat made me think of it. Are there any jaguars in Britain?”
“Jaguars? You mean big spotty wildcats? I remember reading about them in the Llandoylan School library. But I don’t think they’re British. Somewhere from the pre-Devastation Americas, I think, the middle or the south. Why? You haven’t seen jaguars, have you?”
“No, just heard about them. Are there any people still living in the Americas?”
Merlin frowned. “We don’t know. The schoolmasters said there haven’t been any communications across the Atlantic since the Devastation. But I don’t think all the nations there had atomic weapons, particularly not in the south, so some people may have survived, the way they did here. In the north, of course, there would have been the advancing glaciers as well.”
“But down where jaguars lived, there wouldn’t have been as many targets for bombs, right? Or any glaciers?”
“Right. But, Heather, what is all this about?”
Twisting a braid nervously, she clambered over a pile of rubble. “I suppose I really should have told you about this earlier, but I didn’t think it had anything to do with magic. Maybe it doesn’t, and anyway, for a while I figured I was outgrowing it, but now it’s getting worse. Well, not
really, because it’s not
getting stronger?” His voice rose in exasperation.
“Voices? Like visions with sound?”
“No, voices. Several of them. I’ve heard them on and off since I was little. I used to think of them as special imaginary friends—like most kids have. And since I didn’t have many real friends, I liked having them pop into my mind. For the last few years, they’ve been kind of quiet, but now I’m hearing them more.”
“What do they say?”
“Nothing grand, just like someone was chatting with you. What they’re having for dinner, bits about family. Sometimes they do talk about spirits or supernatural creatures, like from Faerie or someplace like that. I was coming to think that maybe I was on a special ‘wave link,’ like the science master at school used to talk about, not with mechanical stuff but with other people. I figured I might actually run into some of these people now that we’re traveling around the country. But I’m not sure now.”
Merlin was watching her with his head tilted in concentration. “Why?”
“Because they don’t always talk about stuff I think we have in Britain.”
She nodded. “And I’m not always sure they talk in English. I understand them in my mind. But the language some of them use seems off somehow.”
Gently Merlin took her by the shoulders and sat her on a large concrete slab. “How many voices do you hear? And do you reply to them?” he asked, sitting beside her.
“A dozen, maybe, that I recognize regularly and sometimes bits from several others. And yes, when I feel them in my mind, I talk back to them.”
“And you think maybe they are from different parts of the world, places where other people have survived the Devastation?”
“I’m kind of getting that idea.”
A broad smile broke out on Merlin’s thin face. He grabbed her hands and squeezed them. “Heather, this is so exciting! You may actually be communicating with parts of the human race we’ve totally lost touch with! I don’t really understand it, though. It’s not quite like any magic I’m familiar with.”
After a moment’s thought, he sighed. “But there are so many new aspects of this magic that’s surfacing today! I have almost as much to learn as Nedra back there.” He laughed ruefully. “Maybe we
need that magic schooling we’ve been talking about.”
Just then the sound of a trumpet floated from over the city walls. Merlin shook his head and stood up. “Norfolk’s party must be approaching. I’d rather work on this thing with your voices, but it looks like it’ll have to wait a bit.”