Authors: Ben Myatt
The Order of Britain
Book One: The Devil's Regiment
By Ben Myatt.
© Ben Myatt, 2015
All rights reserved.
Perkins wiped the sweat from his brow, and pushed his helmet back down onto his scalp. He cocked one eye at the unyielding sky, and cursed.
“That's enough of that Private.” Sergeant Mortimer snapped. Perkins glanced at the man, squinting against the blazing sun. Somehow, Mortimer looked as if he'd just stepped off the parade ground, his red uniform clean and bright, his face dry.
“Sorry, Sarge.” Perkins murmured.
The sergeant was staring out into the scrub lands around the fort, his eyes sweeping for enemies. Perkins took a moment to crouch behind the battlement, leaning his Henry-Martini rifle against the stone wall.
“Oh, don't mind me lad, I'll just keep watch on me own, shall I?” The sergeant griped. Perkins grinned up at him, and lifted his canteen from the floor, taking a deep drink of water. He passed the canteen up to the sergeant, who winked at him and took a drink.
“Do you think they'll come again?” Perkins asked.
The sergeant stood silently for a few moments, glowering out into the sparse vegetation.
“I reckon so, lad. Don't reckon they'll stop coming.”
The private levered himself to his feet, and hefted is rifle up to his shoulder.
“What do you think they want?”
“Blood. Vengeance. Death. Whatever it is, they haven't got it yet.”
Perkins grunted, his eyes scanning the terrain.
A shimmering wave of heat swept out of the desert. The two soldiers glanced at each other, and hefted their rifles.
“Here they come, lads! Make yourselves ready!”
The British soldiers rushed to the walls as the heat haze began to coalesce and solidify into the forms of men.
Callum leant on the balcony of his apartment, and stared down into the bustling streets. He slipped a cigarette into his mouth, and held up a finger.
A bright orange flame kindled into life, flickering at the tip of his hand like a tame insect. He touched it to the end of the cigarette, and drew in, relishing the warmth. He watched the people going back and forth moodily, his eyes flickering from blue to red-flecked green in the light of the embers. He rubbed a hand across his bald scalp, and blew the smoke out into the night.
“You know, gentlemen smoke pipes.”
He glanced over his shoulder at Elizabeth Cartwright. The slim mage strolled into his apartment – as usual, uninvited – and sat on the wooden stool he kept on the balcony, crossing her long legs in front of her. Callum watched her from the corner of his eye, admiring the fall of her raven black hair across her shoulders.
“I never made much claim to be a gentleman.”
His voice was neutral, unaccented and smooth. It was the voice of someone who never spoke unless they had something to say – but when that time came, he expected people to listen.
“I don't see how you can make much of a claim of being anything.” she said primly. Callum shot her a grin.
“Why is it you're here, Elizabeth?”
“I came to check on you. You've not been very sociable since we came over from America.”
“I haven't had much reason to be. Various members of your society have made it abundantly clear that they want nothing to do with me.” He took another drag of the cigarette. “One of them even implied I was better off being drained to feed vampires.”
“Is that why Montague is in the infirmary, nursing a broken nose?”
“That wasn't my fault.”
“He moved. I was aiming for his eye.”
She rolled her eyes and stood.
“Well, it's good to see you still have your sense of humour. Come along, Clarence has a job for us.”
“I can't wait.” He muttered.
The Guild of Magic had existed for fifteen hundred years. In that time, it had seen Britain move from a collection of fractured kingdoms, to a group of countries, and finally to an empire spanning the continents of the world.
And in all that time, it's role had been constant and immutable. The protection of Britain and her peoples against the forces of magic. Dragons, witches, werewolves and things worse besides, all of them fell under the remit of one organisation – the oldest branch of the civil service in the world.
Callum and Elizabeth strode into the main hall, the crowd parting as they moved towards the huge double staircase that led to the Star Chamber, the inner sanctum of the mages council.
Callum did his best to ignore the glares that people cast in his direction. To the members of the Guild, his half-blood nature at the very least making them uncomfortable, and at the worst creating outright hostility. Elizabeth's head snapped around as someone muttered a slur under their breath.
“Leave it.” Callum said tiredly.
“You shouldn't have to put up with that.”
“I've put up with worse.”
They reached the foot of the stairs, and were greeted by Nathaniel Wittington-Smythe, his thin face broken by a wry smile as he spotted the pair. He extended a hand, and shook Callum's in welcome.
“That won't make you any more popular round here.” Callum noted.
“You'd be amazed how little that bothers me. Come on, we've got a situation. Clarence is waiting.”
The circular table of the high council had clearly been intended as a tribute to that first round table, so long ago. It spread across the room, twenty feet across, it's surface covered in interlocking designs of blue and gold.
For the moment it stood empty, but for one hugely corpulent man, his brownish hair slicked back over his head, a pair of glasses pushed down to the end of his nose as he read the day's newspapers. A platter of cheeses sat at his side, and he reached out absently to take a piece, pushing it into his mouth and chewing thoughtfully as he read.
“You sent for us, sir?” Nathaniel asked respectfully.
Clarence Somerby's sharp little eyes snapped up behind the glasses to focus on the trio.
“That's what your note said?”
Clarence frowned for a moment, then snapped his fingers.
“Ah, of course. My apologies, Nathaniel, my mind’s been elsewhere. Or possibly elsewhen.”
Callum and Elizabeth shared a glance, confusion showing on their faces. Nathaniel closed his eyes for a moment and sighed.
“Did you call us here for a reason, Clarence?” he said bluntly. “I do have other work to do, after all.”
“The Order of Britain.”
Silence filled the room. Nathaniel's eyes narrowed slightly.
“What about it?”
“How would you like to be a member?”
Nathaniel shook his head.
“The Order of Britain hasn't existed for two hundred years, sir. It was shut down by one of your predecessors.” He smiled grimly. “He felt it was getting too powerful, too strong within the Guild.”
“And I'm deciding to bring it back. I fail to see what the difficulty is here.”
“The council will never approve.”
“It's not their decision to make.”
Clarence leaned back in the groaning chair, and smiled.
“Ah, one of the difficult questions.”
He gestured to the seats nearest him, and, sharing a look, the three sat.
“The fact is my friends, that the world has changed. The threats we face are becoming ever more subtle. Look at the serpent cult – they haven't raised their ugly heads in three generations, and suddenly you're exchanging gunfire with them in America.”
“Well, some of us were.” Callum muttered.
Clarence smiled at the young man.
“And here we have our best reason to reform the order. A young man, the blood of dragons in his veins, working for the guild.”
“I wasn't offered much of a choice, Clarence.” Callum said quietly.
“Well, you've been given that apartment for your personal use. Now it's time to pay the rent, dear boy. I imagine you're going slightly mad in there anyway.”
Callum grunted an acknowledgement, but said nothing. Clarence leaned forward, steepling his fingers.
“The Guild needs a strong right arm. You three are the most experienced agents we could put into the field at the moment – and I need you to prove that this will be worthwhile.”
Nathaniel glanced at Elizabeth, who shrugged. His eyes flickered to Callum.
“Why not?” the dragon-blood responded. Nathaniel smiled.
“Alright, we're in.”
“Jolly good show.” Clarence enthused. “Now, as you've probably guessed, I have a mission for you. A spot of fun in the sunshine, one might say.”
“Where?” Nathaniel asked, dread filling his voice.
“Why, India, my boy. Time to be of service to the empire.”
“India?” Callum said flatly.
“Did I stutter?” Clarence asked mildly. “Yes, India. A situation has arisen at a British garrison based some six hundred miles from Bombay. They're rather isolated, as I'm sure you can imagine.”
“That's the nature of the forces out there.” Elizabeth noted. “There's an awful lot of isolated forts.”
“Indeed, my dear. Yet, when one of them starts reporting that they are being attacked, the whole government takes notice.”
“And is that who we're serving?” Callum asked.
Clarence smiled slightly.
“Callum, my boy, when the British government makes a formal request to the guild, we have to take notice.”
“When it suits you.”
“Of course. We're servants of Britain, not servants of her prime minister. Nevertheless...”
He pulled a dossier from beneath his pile of newspapers, and passed it to Nathaniel.
“I feel that this case will intrigue you.”
Nathaniel opened the dossier, and quickly scanned over the first few lines. His eyes flicked back up to Clarence, who sat impassively watching the trio.
“Alright – if Callum is in.”
He slid the dossier to Callum, who began to read the report out of the remote fortress of Kasharim. Elizabeth craned over his shoulder, her eyes flickering down the page.
“They're being attacked by phantoms?” She said, her voice disbelieving.
“More than phantoms. They're experiencing something physical.”
Elizabeth raised a cynical eyebrow, and glanced at Callum, who was still reading the report.
“How old is this?” He asked.
“A week, or so.”
Callum leant back, an drummed his fingers on the surface of the round table.
“...it could be nothing. Too much sunshine has odd effects on people.”
“True.” Clarence acknowledged.
“But you don't think it is, do you?” Callum asked.
“I do not, no.” Clarence looked firmly at the dragon-blood, his eyes narrowing slightly. “Let me be clear, I am not reforming the Order as some token gesture or because I feel I have no better way to use the guild's resources. I am reforming the guild to deal with problems that more earthly forces cannot. I believe this is one of those problems.”
Callum smiled grimly.
“I agree with you. Something about this doesn't smell right.”
“Very true. Although that could be the brie.”
Callum glanced at Elizabeth, then at Nathaniel.
“Alright, I'm in.”
It was a queasy looking Callum who stood at the rail as the ship moved into harbour at Bombay. Elizabeth, dressed in lightweight muslin shirt and skirt, approached from the forward stateroom, her hair tied back into a ponytail.
“You look bloody awful.” She laughed.
He glared at her, then returned to staring at the harbour, trying not to lose his breakfast overboard.
“I take it you don't travel well.”
“What gave you that impression?”
“Well, cheer up, we'll be on solid land soon.”
He turned around, and leant back against the railing, gulping in fresh air.
“Any idea where we go from here?”
“Army headquarters. Nathaniel wants to check in with the situation before we go in.”
Callum nodded his approval, and braced himself as the ship nestled up against the dockside. He watched with palpable relief as the sailors threw mooring lines across, securing the ship against the capricious tide.
As the crew began to run the gangway out onto the quay, Nathaniel approached from amidships.
“I've arranged for our baggage to be brought up, so we can get straight to work, if that's alright.” He squinted at Callum. “You look bloody awful.”
Callum glared at him in response.
The trio were escorted from the front gates of the army's headquarters, through a series of corridors, until they were invited to sit in a long anteroom. Callum sprawled on one of the comfortable armchairs, and fished a packet of cigarettes out of his pocket. As he raised his hand to light one, Nathaniel held up a warning hand, and tossed him a pack of matches. Callum raised a quizzical eyebrow.
“Lets not show off all our secrets yet.” The senior agent said. “The walls have eyes in this sort of place.”
“You're worried about the army?” Elizabeth asked.