Every mature city is an argument between commerce and tradition—with the needs of the people caught in the middle. Few things demonstrate this better than the protected views of London. For decades, many sightlines in the city had been preserved by law, like a large, rambling family trying to keep its small and slight members from getting lost in the Christmas photo. Buildings would be built contorted or with odd dimensions in a game of architectural Twister. Thus, people at Alexandra Palace, Primrose Hill, and Westminster Pier could all see what Myrddin Wilt had done to St. Paul’s Cathedral.
The church’s white cladding was buried beneath green ivy and wild flowers: bluebells, pink foxglove, and marigold. A strange compromise between Christianity and nature worship. Striking, but far from unique in the new London. Four days earlier, the entire Greater Metropolitan Area had been engulfed by resurgent nature. The roads and alleys were choked by trees like fat clogged arteries; rivers of green broken by the paint jobs of stranded cars. For the first time in centuries, the Thames flowed through forest.
From orbit, London was an island of spring in a swirling sea of grey clouds. Winter had been banished months early by Weathermonger. Overall, the city had sustained surprisingly little damage. The trees had not torn through the concrete and asphalt, but risen as smoothly as mangroves through water. Roots had made every effort to avoid power lines and especially water-pipes. Walls at risk of crumbling under the added weight had instead found themselves propped up beneath the soil. Myrddin hadn’t wished harm on any Briton. Only to fortify London from intruders and internal revolt as he prepared to transition the country into the next world. Despite his consideration, millions cowered in their homes.
The wizard was hard at work in St. Paul’s churchyard. Out of convenience and respect for the dead buried there, Myrddin had kept the plot of land clear of new trees. Above him, over a dozen great stones waltzed slowly through the air. Galahad (still seething over his new feminine anatomy) had flown all over Britain fetching them. Stonehenge, Castlerigg, the Ring of Brodgar—they had all been pilfered. Myrddin felt a touch of guilt dismantling such ancient works, but it was necessary. He made smooth, careful gestures, subtly altering the speed and trajectory of the stones with each twitch of his fingers. A resonance hummed in the back of Myrddin’s head, like a song sung in another room. Right now it was discordant, but each adjustment Myrddin made to the stones brought it closer to harmony. It reminded him of learning to play the lyre as a boy. Once he found the tune, they all would… go.
A bell chimed in one of the cathedral’s towers. Great Paul or Tom or someone. Myrddin sighed. It was time for the daily audiences. William would need his counsel. His strength. With a flick of his wrist, Myrddin froze the rocks in mid-air and turned back towards the cathedral. Though the so-called Queen and her ministers had fled shamefully early, Myrddin had rejected both Buckingham Palace and Westminster for the seat of William’s court. He may only have been on nodding terms with God, but better His house than either of those monuments to human venality. In truth, London had struck Myrddin with horror. In his day, Londinium had been a hollow shell, the still-warm grave of Roman Britain. The new city could’ve been built by giants, but giants inordinately fond of glass. Megalithic yet fragile. The towns Myrddin had seen in the Otherworld felt more human. In truth, half the reason he’d brought back the trees was to blunt the horror of the place. That and assure himself he could still work wonders. One wanted to feel confident before trying what he was planning.
Billy sat on a throne usually reserved for the Bishop of London in the eastern apse of the cathedral, where the high altar had stood before he’d taken up residence. Green, leaf dappled shadows filtered in through the high windows. Galahad—his designated bodyguard—stood at Billy’s side, trying not to squirm in his alien flesh. In front of them, one of Sir Bedwyr/Ironclad’s robots (made out of a Sunbeam Alpine) had forced a masked man in a blue suit and green Tyrolean into a crouch. At their side, a teenage boy in a bomber jacket and a shaved head beat a police truncheon against his open palm. One of William’s “New Knights,” recruited from London’s dissatisfied youth. There were always angry young men looking for a leader. They were just usually led by someone older than themselves.
“What was this man’s crime?” asked Billy.
“Crime?” said the prone man disbelievingly. “I’m a goddamn superhero!” He looked up at Galahad. “Gloriana, what the hell are you doing—”
The New Knight struck the prisoner across the face. “Speak when you’re spoken to!”
The superhero glared acid at the young man.
“Hey!” cried Billy, his voice sending ripples through the air. “We don’t do that!”
“He jumped us in Kensington! Broke my brother’s arm and leg!”
He sounded angry, but Billy could hear something else in the new knight’s voice. A kind of excitement. Billy knew it felt good to be angry sometimes. Like you had permission to be just as bad back. Did big people feel like that, too?
“We need to teach him—”
“Your king has set a standard,” said Myrddin as he stalked down the choir. “If you wish to call yourself a knight, follow it.”
The superhero let out a laugh. It made his rising bruises smart, but it couldn’t be helped. “Knight?” He smirked up at the new knight. “Has your dad even taught you how to shave yet?”
The new knight made to hit the man again, but his arm stiffened when he felt Billy’s glare on him.
“Whatever this knight’s conduct,” said Myrddin. “Such insurrection cannot be tolerated. Especially not now.” He looked up at Billy. “What is your judgement, King?”
Billy swallowed dryly. He hated this part. He didn’t know why Myrddin made him decide. “Um…” He looked plaintively at the superhero. “You could join us,” he said. “Help make things nicer.”
“Piss off, kid.”
The new knight hit him again. Galahad snarled. “Mind your tongue, witchling!”
“Says the mad flying woman!”
“I don’t think you can expect any cooperation, my liege,” said Myrddin mildly.
“The Gatehouse,” Billy blurted. “Send him to the Gatehouse.”
“Send me where?”
“Very well.” Myrddin was of course familiar with the Gatehouse. Even in his day, the green mote had stained the moon’s silvered face. He’d always assumed it was some fairy city, though William had said it was in fact the work of men from behind the sky, whatever difference that made. He pointed his staff at the superhero. “Carmina possunt caelo deducere lunam, vel luna id corpus suspendo1.”
The superhero thrashed in the robot’s grip as his flesh and clothing grew translucent, falling away to reveal a single point of light that floated up into the apse’s domed ceiling, passing through St. Paul’s painted forehead. Billy hoped the moon people were nice to him. That unpleasant duty discharged, he turned his attention to the new knight. “You,” he said sharply, “you’re on garden duty for a week.”
“But that’s peasant’s work!”
“Suit you just fine then,” Galahad muttered below his breath.
“It’s important,” Billy said firmly. “Everyone has to eat.” He tried to think of what Allison would say. Probably too mean. Tom? Too many swear words. Split the difference. “You’re clearly not ready to be on the streets, anway.”
The new knight squirmed like a boy in his Sunday best. Then the rage exploded out of him. “Bullshit! Some little shit isn’t making me—”
“You said this one’s scared of heights?” asked Billy.
“Yes, your highness,” replied Myrddin.
“Put him somewhere high.” Billy added, “With a ladder.”
The knight went pale, “Wait—”
Billy slumped in his throne. That was mean. It felt good. That made it worse. “Myrddin, could we take a break?”
“Many more of your subjects wish to speak to you, William.”
“I need to talk to you. Alone.”
“Of course, my king.”
They spoke in the confession booth, because it was there. Billy sometimes ate his lunch there. It was like a little office you could move. Sometimes, he prayed; to whom, he wasn’t quite sure. “I don’t like the New Knights. They’re mean. A bunch of them keep picking on coloured people! Some of them are stealing!”
“That is unfortunate,” Myrddin said from behind the confession screen. “But we need their muscle. Even I and your knights cannot subdue a city this size on our own.”
“But knights are supposed to be good!” Billy cried. “Noble!”
Myrddin sighed. “William, do you know what ‘noble’ means?”
“Good and kind and brave and stuff,” Billy answered confidently.
“Maybe it means that now, to you,” replied Myrddin. “But first, it meant the quality of the nobility. Of rulers. A knight is a ruler, William, if a smaller one than the king. A step between the crown and the peasantry. Are all rulers good and kind, William?”
Billy winced. He was no student of history, but he was not totally ignorant. “No…”
“You have a point about knights being brave. A knight is also a warrior. They earn their privilege through force of arms. But are all warriors good and kind, William? Did our own Sir Cai seem so to you? In the stories they wrote about us, did we never make mistakes?”
Billy didn’t answer the question. He didn’t have to. “…We should be better than this.”
“You’re right of course. In the Britain to come, we will not brook those who prey on their own. The New Knights will be… dealt with.”
Billy knew a euphemism when he heard one. “That’s not better! We can’t just… toss people away like that. Like they’re… like they’re…” He shook his hands as he tried to find the comparison. “Tissues!”
Myrddin clenched a fist. He was a patient man. He had to be. William was a good boy—almost too good for the role fate had cast him in. But sometimes he asked so much of him… “What is it you want me to do, Billy?”
“Just… just be good.” Billy stood up. His bones felt old. “Come on. People want to see me.”
Some, as is eternal, wanted food. Billy made sure they got it. Others wanted to track down loved ones lost in the chaos of the past week. Billy told Myrddin to do what he could for them, even if it delayed the great work. Somehow, the more the wizard protested on that account, the firmer Billy became. A few people just wanted to complain about hay fever. Others were there to report their neighbours to the new authorities, eyes full of spite and hunger. Billy assured them he would look into the allegations. When he had time.
During a lull between audiences, Billy noticed Galahad trying to find a footing where he didn’t feel the weight of Gloriana’s chest. He felt sorry for the knight, which was still confusing. As amazing as knowing and talking to the Knights of the Round Table was, they were still hogging other people’s bodies. Myrddin said that would be sorted after the transition. He said that about a lot of things. Still, Galahad was here now. Why not give him something else to think about? “Hey.”
It took Galahad a moment to realise his king was addressing him. “Yes, my liege?”
“Uh, could I ask you something?”
“Do not hesitate, my king.”
“So, ah, you know Gloriana?”
Galahad scowled. It was an ugly expression on Gloriana’s face. “The flesh I’m trapped in, yes?”
Billy frowned. “You shouldn’t talk about her that way. She’s the only reason you’re here.”
A scoff. “She did not volunteer, King.”
Billy squirmed on his throne. Did they have to keep reminding him? “Can you… hear her?”
“No. I know what she knows, I remember what she remembers—when I wish—but she does not speak to me. Good thing, too.” Galahad jerked like he was trying to throw a net off his stolen shoulders. “Her body torments me enough without her voice in my ear.”
“Oh,” said Billy. “It wasn’t like that with me and Miri.”
“Allie’s sister. She doesn’t have a body, so sometimes she borrows mine.”
Galahad snarled, “She dares invade your person! I’ll put her to the sword! I’ll—”
Billy wasn’t sure how Galahad thought he’d do that, but he still threw his hands up. “No, no! I let her do it.” He slumped in the throne, remembering sharing himself with Miri. It felt like a living dream. A good dream; the kind you had on the edge of waking, when you could just remember there was something else on the other side. Their thoughts and impulses wrapped around each other like entwined lighting. Like if a hug was a conversation. It was hard for Billy to call it possession. Miri never did anything he didn’t want to do. They were just… together. He sighed. He was getting homesick.
“Your highness,” said Galahad. “Could I ask you something?”
Billy shook himself. “Ah, sure.”
“…How do you stand it?”
Billy tilted his head. “Stand what?”
“Being so…” Galahad took a deep breath. “Warped. What foul witch or magician did this to you?”
Billy blinked. “Oh. Nobody, I think. I was born this way.”
“Sweet Mother of God… how are you still sane?”
Billy shrugged. “It’s not so bad. The fur keeps me warm, the claws are good for opening cans.” His tail twitched. “And I’m really good at balancing. Is being a lady all that bad? Most of the ones I know seem okay with it.
Gahalad looked down at Gloriana’s figure and shuddered. “I’ve not dwelt in this form for a month and—it’s like having raw chicken nailed to my chest! Bits of me have been carved away! I now longer fit my shadow!” He looked pleadingly up at Billy. “Are you telling me you’ve never felt trapped in that shape?”
Billy knew what the knight wanted to hear. “Yeah,” he said. “Sometimes.”
It was only half-true. Billy had felt trapped loads of times. In his house. By people who wanted to change him, yet wanted nothing to nothing to do with him. But not in his own skin. David was right about one thing, even if he was wrong about costumes: fur was cool. Still, nobody wanted to be alone, even in misery.
Galahad nodded. “You handle it with pure grace, your highness.”
“Thanks,” said Billy, not looking at the knight. He wondered why Myrddin forced Galahad to stay in that body. Did the wizard not know any ladies? “I’m ready to get back to work, Myrddin.”
“As you wish, your highness.”
The next audience was another supplicant, a little old lady with a face like cracked, pore-blocked leather. She was forcing a smile. “Young… King, I’m here for my grandson. He’s about your age I think—”
“Be concise, good lady,” Myrddin insisted.
The woman’s smile faltered. Billy saw her swallow. “So sorry. It’s just, he needs this medicine—insulin I think it’s called—and my daughter’s had to ration it for him with the roads blocked.” A dry chuckle, cousin to a sob. “Blitz spirit and all. But he’s getting a bit under the weather…”
Billy took a deep breath. “Go home and bring me what you have left.”
“But your highness-”
“I’ll use it to make more, I promise.”
Billy had lied. He wasn’t ready. But he was going to try.
“We need a doctor,” insisted Billy. “I can make all the medicines the people need, but I need someone who knows how to use them.”
Billy had gathered Myrddin and those knights who weren’t on patrol in the cathedral’s triforium—a hidden gallery hosting cupboards full of liturgical documents, Viking gravestones from the land’s pagan past, and masonry salvaged from the church’s previous lives. “Galahad, try and find me someone who knows about medicine and stuff.”
“But sire,” said Galahad, “Sir Bedwyr is already skilled in the healing arts.”
Sir Bedwyr held the tiny insulin bottle up between his fingers, inspecting it. “This substance truly cures that boy’s ills?” he asked. “What form of panacea is it, then?”
Billy looked apologetically at Bedwyr. “I’m sorry Bedwyr, I know you’re really smart, but we need someone more… up to date.”
Bedwyr tilted his head. “I understand.”
“Excuse me, sire,” said Myrddin. “Must I be present? You appear to be handling this admirably, and I have more important matters—”
Billy pointed sternly at the wizard, his claw glinting. “People getting sick is important, Myrddin. Is the world going to end today?”
“Then you can stay here and help.”
Myrddin grit his teeth. “Very well. Though I must remind you, William, ‘today’ will be ‘tomorrow’ soon enough.”
“What garb do the modern medics wear, highness?” asked Galahad.
“White gowns,” said Billy.
“You might want to be more specific, son,” called a chipper voice from below. Billy and the knights rushed to the banister to find Jack Lyons standing alone in the middle of the nave. He was smiling mildly, waving. “You don’t want Sir Galahad snatching some poor inpatient from St. Thomas.” The man’s expression darkened. “They have enough problems as it is.”
“Jack Lyons!” Billy realized he was smiling. He hardened his face. “What are you doing here?”
Jack Lyons raised his hands. “I’m here to talk.” He glanced up at the church’s high windows, cataracts of green shadow that stained his suit. “I think we can agree this isn’t where we want to be.”
“I can send him away again, your highness,” Myrddin said under his breath. “He is but a man, if a man made of crystal instead of meat.”
“Crystal, you say?” said Lanslod, smacking his leather gloved hands together, producing blue sparks. “You can grind that into powder if you try hard enough…”
Billy threw up a hand. “I want to talk. Kings do that.”
For a while now, Billy had been trying without much success to come up with his own means of superpowered conveyance. Propelling himself into the air by roaring downwards hadn’t worked. He had tried to create some kind of disc to fly on like Mr. Liu did, but though Billy could make atoms and molecules do what he liked, they still listened to gravity. So, Billy had to make do with Galahad carrying him down into the nave, hands under his armpits. It mangled to niggle even his easy-going dignity. Myrddin fluttered down as a flock of bright blue barn swallows. Billy wondered why he could keep his clothes and David needed a special alien costume. Maybe he was fibbing.
“That is not a surname, Lyons.”
“Ah. My apologies. Myrddin—if I may call you that—I understand what you’re going through. Both our Britains slipped away in our sleep. But trying to impose them on the here and now will only cause suffering—”
“I recreate nothing, Jack Lyons. I am no slave to nostalgia. The Britain I offer was not the Britain of my childhood. The architects of my youth failed. They have failed again—”
“Excuse me,” said Billy. “Why are you talking to Myrddin? You came to talk to me.”
Myrddin and Jack Lyons both went silent.
“You’re right, I’m very sorry.” Jack Lyons got down on one knee so he was at eye level with Billy. “Son, don’t you think this is all a bit much? These trees alone are causing a lot of trouble.”
Behind Billy, Galahad shouted, “You speak to our king as a mere child!”
Billy glanced over his shoulder at the knight. “I’m nine.” He turned back to Jack. “Yeah. I think we could lose the trees.”
“Sire,” said Myrddin. “The forest keeps us safe from interlopers.”
“But it keeps the people from getting what they need,” countered Billy. “Besides. There’s an interloper right here.”
“Do you really think they will let us complete the great work?”
“I mean, I’ve been thinking… do we have to move England and everything to keep it safe? I mean, Mistress Quickly can make force fields. I bet you two could whip up something really neat together, maybe for the whole world!”
Jack looked up at Myrddin. “The boy doesn’t make a half-bad king, does he? Perhaps it was wrong of us to wake you up, just to ask you to kill. But surely you still want to protect our land?”
“That’s what I’m doing,” said Myrddin firmly.
“I don’t think it’s the right way to do it, but,” said Billy. He closed his eyes and nodded vigorously. “It isn’t. We should put those stones back. Get rid of the trees.” He shrugged. “I guess we can keep them where it’s nicer.”
Myrddin shook his head. “You stupid boy…”
Galahad and the knights still watching from the balustrades gasped. Billy raised an eyebrow. “Pardon.”
Myrddin shouted, “Don’t you think I tried this? The gentle change? Planting the seeds of the new within the old? It’s a salt plain, Billy! Nothing can grow from it!” He took Billy by the shoulders and shook him. “Think, boy—”
Whatever happened, Myrddin would have regretted those words. Laying a hand on his king. He had nothing but respect for William’s earnest heart. He certainly would never have hurt him. But the microcamera in Jack Lyons’ bolo tie couldn’t see that. And Billy St. George was very, very loved.
As in Camlann, so in London…
Galahad forced Myrddin and Billy apart. “Control yourself, sorcerer!”
There was a rushing sound. Pressure equalizing. The voice of the crowd outside the church picked up like waves in a storm. “What’s happening?” asked Billy.
Jack Lyons shook his head. “Hasty…”
Myrddin pointed at him, breathing heavily. “Seize him.”
Jack Lyons went quietly as Galahad dragged him after Billy and Myrddin. The four stepped out of the church doors. The gathered tide of Londoners were pointing up at an egg of grey, foreign sky. It was hatching, releasing a flock of colourfully clad figures.
Despite himself, Jack Lyons smiled. “People of London, look up!”
1. “Spells may pull the moon down from the sky but I ask instead to raise this body to her.” ↩
1 thought on “Chapter One Hundred and Seventeen: The Forest of London”
Billy may be a cartoon big cat cub, but he could take or leave being king.