Pendragon LXXX

That old man was the seventy-eighth from Arthur: our Director received from him the office and the blessings; tomorrow we shall know, or tonight, who is to be the eightieth.
That Hideous Strength, C. S. Lewis

Two years later:

Andrew MacPhee returned to the Blue Room. Dr. Ironwood was there, and Camilla and Arthur Denniston. All three stared out the eastern windows, which were flung wide open. Outside was an English December, but the air flowing in was mild and fragrant; a bubble of June still hung over St. Anne's on the Hill.

"He's gone, then," MacPhee said softly.

The three turned from the window, and Arthur nodded.

"He did not send you away?"

"He needed someone to help him in and latch the lid," Arthur said.

MacPhee eyed the scatter of clothes by the couch, a blue cloak the first cast off. "He went naked again? That hardly seems–"

"But I see you believe he did go," Camilla interrupted.

MacPhee's face, pensive and sad and open, now closed and took up his more familiar expression of cautious reserve. "I expected him to be gone. I canna say how or where."

"I can say how," Dr. Ironwood announced. "All three of us saw the white coffin appear – shooting in through the window like an arrow. But it landed on the floor without sound or jar. Arthur and Camilla helped him into it. I bandaged his eyes. He said– He–"

"After the last words," Arthur said, "we latched down the lid." He smiled. "Dr. Ironwood admonished Perelandra to rotate the vessel in flight, so he would not arrive sunburned on one side, as he did last time."

"Aye? Did the lady present herself, then?"

"No," said Dr. Ironwood, who had recovered her composure. "I spoke to the air. There was no answer."

"So we still dinna have–"

"Oh, give over, MacPhee!" cried Camilla. "No, we didn't see Oyarsa Perelandra with our own eyes. We did see the coffin arrive and depart. You can see the whole house haunted by summer. And you felt the powers of the planets with us, just two nights ago. And you've spent more than a year with a man of forty-eight who went from looking every bit of his age to looking like a twenty-year-old athlete!"

"I freely admit that something remarkable lies at the bottom of this whole affair," answered MacPhee, seeming to become cautious and reserved in response to Camilla's excitement. "It does not follow that the causes are what the Director believes them to be."

Arthur put a hand on his wife's arm. "Relax, Camilla. He's just being MacPhee – testing the spirits, you might say."

"If you wanted evidence," Dr. Ironwood asked, "why did you go away? If you had stayed, you could have seen what we saw. You could even have taken photographs, I suppose."

MacPhee's composure cracked a little. "I admit, I was overcome. I– I sought refuge, I suppose, from the heat of the occasion."

"Well," said Arthur, smiling a little crookedly, "taking the surface explanation as a working hypothesis, what do you–"

Camilla, who had been gazing out the window, into the garden, gasped sharply. "MacPhee," she murmurred, "have you a camera handy?" They all moved to the window and followed her gaze.

The window looked down into the garden. Immediately below it was a young pear tree, now bare. A young man sat on the topmost branches of the tree, smiling up at them. His hair was silvery, and his face paper white. Camilla and Dr. Ironwood both claimed later that his face was luminous, as if fire shone through a thin layer of white wax; all agreed that he was unnaturally white. His posture was relaxed, his legs crossed tailor-fashion. MacPhee and Dr. Ironwood both noted that the branches bent under him, but only slightly, as if he weighed no more than a squirrel. All agreed later that he wore something close-fitting and red, with gold embroidery. Arthur said it looked like a uniform. Dr. Ironwood said there was a heraldic dragon embroidered in gold over his heart. Or where the heart would be on a man.

"Congratulations," he said. "You have a victory. You need a successor. Arthur, go to Bragdon Wood. You will meet those who will show you the next Pendragon."

And he was gone, the topmost twigs of the tree quivering from the sudden release of his slight weight.

None spoke for some seconds. Then MacPhee dashed from the room. Moments later, he was down in the garden, prowling about the tree. "What does he think–?" Arthur began.

"Leave him to it," said Camilla. "Arthur, you must get going."

Two minutes later, she opened the gates of the drive. Arthur drove out and down the dirt road, toward Edgestow.

On the road, he passed several cars racing away from Edgestow at high speed – late refugees. As he neared, he saw flashing lights ahead. There was a small cluster of firetrucks, ambulances, and police cars, all from Sterk according to the signs painted on them. He slowed, expecting to be stopped and urged back. But no one even glanced at his car. He passed within a foot of a pair of conferring policemen, but neither glanced at him.

A little past the cluster of automobiles stood the nearest houses. All looked deserted, and not one had glass in its windows; shards littered the street. Arthur stopped the car, for the sake of the tires, and got out.

During the war, Arthur had served as part of the support team for a bomb squad. He had seen much of London during the Blitz. Edgestow looked like that. Buildings burned. Buildings were missing. Rubble and litter, glass and brick, covered the street. But in London there had been screams and sirens and car horns. Here, it was almost silent.

He passed bodies and parts of bodies. The hotel, requisitioned by the N.I.C.E. and filled with its people, was gone. In its place was a deep crater, slowly filling with water from severed pipes. A gas main flared in the pit. Neighboring buildings were leveled for two blocks around, which struck Arthur as slight damage, considering the force that must have destroyed the hotel.

A similar explosion had taken out the N.I.C.E. site at Bracton College. The college buildings were barest shells, but appeared to have protected the other colleges of the university by absorbing the worst of the impact. There was still no unbroken glass, and no living human thing.

He entered the Bragdon Wood at the edge of the gap in the shattered wall. Logically, the Wood should have been scythed down, standing that close to the blast. (If it had been a blast.) Certainly, all trees were down between the N.I.C.E. site and Merlin's Well, as well as a few yards beyond it. The "archeological" dig was obliterated. But two large sections of wood still stood, along with a narrow strip of connecting ground, bordered by three unbroken sides of the old stone wall. Arthur even met a couple of stunned-looking sheep, stumbling about, trying to look as if everything were normal.

Well, here he was. Where were "those who would show him the next Pendragon"?

Was it to be him? Did he want it to be him? He had wondered that before, and thought not. It was enough responsibility that, apparently, he and Camilla were to be the parents, or at least ancestors, of a Pendragon. Then who?

The town was full of smoke and dust clouds, but he had not seen any in the Wood. He noticed some now. But this looked like fog. The mist was spreading. He had an uncomfortable feeling it was spreading out from Merlin's Well. In less than a minute, he could see no sign of the Well or any other handiwork of the N.I.C.E.

And out of the mist they came. First one figure, then three, then five. Finally, there were nine of them, slender and robed. His blood tingled. He felt like bolting, but stood his ground. As they approached, he saw they were women – nine women in long, flowing robes, three in red, three in blue, three in green.

Arthur was suddenly overcome with a curious mixture of weariness and awe. It flashed through his mind that he had met too many exotic beings in one day – too many kinds of exotic being. First, there was the mighty, discarnate Oyarsa Perelandra, unsensed, known only by her deeds. Then there was the messenger in the tree. Now these women.

They did not shine like the messenger. Their steps made a slight noise and moved the grass; he specifically checked. But he knew they were not human. Besides their inexplicable presence, they were too perfect. Faces, skin, movements, clothes – all were utterly flawless.

The lead woman, one of the three in blue, stepped before him. "Take us to the Company of Logres," she said.

"You have come to appoint the next Pendragon?" he asked.

"We have come to recognize and proclaim the next Pendragon."

He nodded, acknowledging the distinction. "Please follow me."

He retraced his path. How, he wondered, would he get them all back to St. Anne's? The car could certainly not hold ten. Take them in two loads? It seemed ... inappropriate to keep four elven queens (for he well remembered the nine queens that escorted Arthur Pendragon out of the mortal world) waiting on a street corner while he drove their companions back home. For that matter, it felt inappropriate to drive elven queens around in an automobile.

And what if they were accosted, or questioned by a policeman? Various alarming images, from policemen turned into frogs to elven queens withering to faded flower petals at the touch of steel handcuffs, swirled through his mind.

Before they left the university grounds, he saw there was going to be no problem at all. Thanks to the explosion of the N.I.C.E. construction site, there was a long clear stretch between the edge of the trees and the paved walk beyond the now-demolished wall. It was at least fifty feet. He crossed it in three strides.

He stopped, his head whirling, and looked back. The nine queens stood there, patiently, right behind him. "Your way is short and easy now," said the queen in blue. Panting a little, Arthur nodded.

In less than a minute they were out of the university and on the ruined streets. They traversed them in seconds, passing Arthur's car and the police at the town line. No one heeded them.

They walked to St. Anne's. It took less than five minutes, and, Arthur suspected, could have taken far less time than that if he had been used to such fay flitting. As it was, he sometimes had to pause while his head cleared. On straight-ways, their speed was dizzying.

At St. Anne's, Arthur unlocked the gate for the queens and bowed as they filed past. He entered and found them gone. Mystified, he headed for the main door. Inside, they already stood in quiet formation, in the entry hall. The queen in blue held a light golden circlet in her hands. Arthur recognized it; it has been taken, somehow, from the great wardrobe room where they had all chosen their costumes for last night's farewell and victory dinner.

"Mother Dimble!" It was Ivy Maggs's voice. She was standing at the top of the stairs, looking down at the nine queens, eyes wide. Behind her, his eyes even wider, stood her husband Tom.

Soon Mrs. Dimble appeared, followed by Dr. Dimble and MacPhee. They stared, but collected themselves and descended. "How do you do?" said Dr. Dimble to the queens.

"We do quite well, thank you," replied the queen in blue as all nine nodded grave greeting.

"Ah... Arthur, can you introduce us to—"

"Arthur?" came Camilla's voice. She appeared at the top of the stairs, paused in surprise, then started down. "Arthur? Are these the people who–"

Everyone stopped talking. Gazing at Camilla, all nine queens knelt on the floor. Then the queen in blue rose and walked to the bottom of the stairs. Slowly, wonderingly, Camilla came down to meet her. And the queen put the crown on Camilla's head.

Pendragon LXXIX

The Volunteer

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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2010