Written for publication in The Times, London, 1831. Article suppressed at the request of His Majesty’s Government.
It has just been reported that the French, having somehow escaped our doughty sailors in the Grand Fleet, have landed a major army on the shores of our beloved country! French soldiers have been reported at Dover, Hastings, Eastbourne and Brighton! French ships have been reported ravaging the south coast and trading fire with the batteries defending Southampton and Portsmouth! French airships have reportedly attacked defensive positions in Tunbridge Wells! The treachery of the French Tyrant-King in launching such an invasion will not go unpunished!
Addressing the Members of Parliament in joint session, LORD LIVERPOOL, HIS MAJESTY’S PRIME MINISTER, informed them that British troops are already being dispatched to Surrey, where they will push the dastardly French back into the sea! The DUKE OF INDIA has resigned his former post and taken command of the army! Our sailors are already moving the Channel Fleet to block all lines of retreat, despite shifty and cowardly attacks mounted by French submarines! And the Royal Sorcerers Corps, Britain’s great strength, is moving to support the counter-attack, led by the formidable LADY GWENDOLYN CRICHTON!
His Majesty asks that every true Englishman do his duty to keep the French from crushing our troops, invading our cities and ravishing our women!
The Lord Mayor and Governor-General of London has issued a proclamation to the citizens of his city.
Martial Law is now in effect! All members of the regulars, the militias and the trained bands are to report for duty immediately, where they will be issued with weapons. All able-bodied men who are not already serving or in vital positions are to make themselves known to the Area Wardens, who will assign them to positions building up the defences. All women and children are to remain in their homes, unless ordered to do otherwise by the Area Wardens. Anyone found on the streets without permission risks arrest and possible detention.
Martial Law is now in effect! Do not share rumours, lies or other stories that might cause panic and upset. Do not discuss your work, or your husband’s work, with anyone. The person you talk to might be a French spy! Something you consider to be harmless might be very dangerous indeed, if told to the wrong person. All citizens are warned to keep their eyes open for signs of French spies or sympathisers! Call the Area Warden AT ONCE if you suspect someone is aiding the French!
Martial Law is now in effect! All members of the London Police Force have been armed and ordered to enforce the curfew. Members of the lower classes are warned that anyone caught looting, rioting or otherwise taking advantage of the invasion will be shot on the spot.
Do not panic! Do not despair! Do not listen to false rumourmongers! The French will be repelled from our walls and shoved back into the waters, where they will drown!
God Save The King!
“The French are coming,” Major Carrington Shaw whispered, hoarsely. “I can smell them.”
Gwen gave him a sharp look. Shaw had been assigned to her – and Merlin, the sorcerous combat team – at very short notice, too short notice. He was handsome enough, she supposed, but his bombastic attitude made her suspect that he’d bought his commission, rather than earning it through talent. And the looks he gave her, from time to time, suggested that he was one of the men who thought women shouldn’t be anywhere near battlefields, no matter how much magic they had.
“Stay down,” she hissed. She could feel the French presence too, tiny sparks of magic from the south-east that flickered through the ether. The French had to have committed most of their combat sorcerers to the invasion, despite the risk of setting their sorcerous research back fifty years. If they took Great Britain, they’d practically win the war outright. “We need to take them by surprise.”
She felt sweat running down her back as the sound of distant gunfire grew louder. The French had successfully occupied a line running from Dover to Brighton, she’d been told as the Royal Sorcerers Corps hurried to join the defence line, but they wouldn’t stay there for long. Landing on British soil, after decoying the Channel Fleet out of position, had been a daring stroke, yet the Royal Navy was already moving to block both their reinforcements and their line of retreat. The French had no choice, but to advance on London as quickly as they could, living off the land.
And good luck with that, she thought nastily. The government had worked hard to move as much as it could out of the threatened area, although countless small farmers had refused to uproot themselves to an uncertain fate. There isn’t enough fodder between here and London to keep even a small army going for more than a few days.
Her lips twitched, then she sobered, recalling the horrific scenes as the sorcerers had disembarked from the trains at Dorking. Hundreds of women and children, the former terrified; the latter crying, had been herded onto trains heading north. No one knew if they could be fed, when they reached their destination, or even where their final destination was going to be. It was quite likely that most of them would never see their homes again, not if the rumours from the occupied zone were true. And most of the menfolk had been pressed into helping to dig trenches and build barricades …
“They’ll be coming to Dorking,” Major Shaw breathed. “There’s nowhere else they can go.”
Gwen felt another flicker of irritation, which she swiftly suppressed. If Major Shaw had been in combat before, she would have eaten her hat. There were no shortage of officers with experience in India, Africa and North America, but they were needed elsewhere. Shaw might have been assigned to her because the Duke of India, an experienced military man, thought it would keep him out of the way. There was no room for an inexperienced officer when Britain herself was at stake.
“They have to,” she agreed, glancing at him. His long fingers were playing with his goatee, nervously. “Taking the rail lines into London will allow them to block us from moving our forces back to defend the city.”
She smiled at his astonished look – she might as well have been speaking French – and turned back to watch for advancing enemies, feeling his eyes boring into her back. Major Shaw wouldn’t expect a woman to understand the basics of logistics, let alone military operations … but Gwen had been studying them ever since Master Thomas had died, leaving her the Royal Sorceress. She’d always feared this moment would come, the day she had to lead the Royal Sorcerers Corps into battle. And the hell of it was that no one would blame her – publically – if she backed off and allowed Sir James Braddock to take command.
But they’d whisper about it privately, she reminded herself, firmly. A man who turned his back on the enemy would be called a coward, loudly and clearly, but women weren’t expected to be brave. There were no women in the red-coated infantry readying their defensive positions, no female sailors manning the decks as the Royal Navy advanced into the channel … just her, the lone sorceress on the battlefield. No one would ever take me seriously again.
She ran her hand through her sweaty blonde hair, silently grateful she’d cut it so short. Long hair might be a mark of distinction among the quality – she knew girls who had hair so long it dragged on the floor – but it would have gotten in her way, if she’d had to fight. The outfit she’d inherited from Master Thomas was hot and stuffy, yet she knew she couldn’t change it for anything, not now. At least she wasn’t trying to fight in a dress. She had a sudden mental image of herself crouching in the woods, wearing a long green dress, and snickered at the thought. She’d look thoroughly absurd.
Major Shaw coughed. “Something funny, My Lady?”
“Just a stray thought,” Gwen said. She closed her eyes for a long moment, reaching out with her other senses. The flickers of magic were growing stronger. “They’re nearly here.”
A cavalryman rode up from behind, his red uniform glinting in the sunlight. “Message from His Grace, the Duke of India,” he barked. “The French are advancing towards your position! The hussars are moving up to support you!”
“Thank you,” Gwen said, curtly. She almost laughed at the cavalryman’s double-take when he realised she was a woman. “Tell the hussars to remain behind the trenches until we scatter the magicians.”
Major Shaw glanced at her, sharply. “They’ll lose the chance to hit the Frenchmen before they scatter.”
Gwen glared back, allowing her anger to show. “They’ll be slaughtered if they have to face magicians,” she snapped. She looked up at the cavalryman. “Take my orders to their commander!”
“Yes, My Lady,” the cavalryman boomed. He’d clearly realised who she was, who she had to be. “It shall be done!”
He cantered away, just as the French magicians came into view. Four men, flying through the skies like birds. No, not quite; two of them were Movers, providing the motive power, while the other two were Blazers, watching for targets on the ground. One of them sent a pulse of magic crackling downwards as she watched, although she was unsure what he’d seen as there was no one further southeast than her force. Maybe he’d just spotted a rabbit and blasted the poor animal, just to be on the safe side. Or to add to their rations. Gwen was sure the French magicians ate well – they needed to be well-fed to use their magic – but even they had to be feeling the pinch. The French Navy couldn’t hope to keep them supplied.
“I see them,” Major Shaw breathed. He snapped his rifle into firing position. “I can take them.”
“Don’t shoot,” Gwen snapped. She had no doubt Major Shaw could hit the Frenchmen – he was an aristocrat, probably used to going shooting every Sunday – but she had a feeling it would be useless. The enemy magicians were protected by their magic. “Let them get closer.”
“They’re coming too close,” Major Shaw hissed. “They’ll see us.”
He pulled the trigger. The gun barked. It was a good shot, part of Gwen’s mind noted; he would have hit his target if the enemy magician hadn’t been protected. But all it had done was reveal their position to the enemy. Gwen swore, using words she’d picked up from some of the soldiers, and launched herself into the air. The French Blazers targeted her, streams of magic crackling over her shields; she smiled, then reached out with her own magic, yanking the Blazer away from his comrade. He plummeted towards the ground, screaming in terror.
The Mover hurled himself forward, his magic grappling with Gwen’s and trying to crush her in her own shields. He was powerful, she noted, as she hit the ground and bounced; certainly more powerful with his single talent than she was with her multiple talents. But he wasn’t prepared for her. She used her own magic to create a blinding flash of light, disorientating him long enough for her to charge the ground below him with magic. Seconds later, it exploded inside his protective shields. They snapped out of existence, allowing him to burn his head to ash. There was no point in taking chances with a magician.
Strong man, she thought. She wasn’t sure she could have held her shields in place, if she’d been blinded. The shock alone would have weakened her. A shame he was on the wrong side.
She glanced up as she felt another spike of magic, then slammed her shields into place as a pair of French Movers charged her, their magic picking up trees, rocks and soil, hurling them towards her. The instinctive response was to hurl herself upwards, out of the way, but she knew that would be a mistake. One Mover would be enough to pull her out of the sky; two would be enough to rip her apart, if they caught her between them. Gritting her teeth, she summoned a wave of fire and threw it back at them, trusting in her power to shield herself from their makeshift weapons. Her head began to ache as … things … pounded into her shields, but she held firm. The torrent of projectiles disintegrated into dust, then came to a halt. One of the Frenchmen was starting to choke.
Idiot, she thought, coldly. Breathing smoke isn’t wise.
Bracing herself, she ran forward, magic spilling out in front of her. She caught hold of one of the Frenchmen and hurled him into the air as hard as she could. It wouldn’t kill him, not when he could fly under his own power, but it would make him a target for the other British magicians. The other turned to face her, slamming a punch of force right into her shields. If she hadn’t been protected, it would have shattered her. As it was, it picked her up and hurled her right across the battlefield. She landed hard and bounced …
Cursing, she stumbled to her feet as the Frenchman approached, his face twisted with cold anger. She wondered, dully, if he recognised her, then decided it hardly mattered. Save perhaps for Lord Mycroft, there was no one who the French wanted dead more. Her ears were ringing – she thought she might have damaged them, somehow – but she gathered all the magic she could to her, gritting her teeth in anger as she realised it was pitifully low. She could taste blood in her mouth, feel it trickling down her neck … The Frenchman lifted his arm, ready to slam her one final time …
… And was sent careening into the air as Sir James slammed into him, his magic smashing right into the Frenchman’s protections. He caught himself and hung in midair, glaring down at his new foe. Gwen forced herself to summon another spark of magic, then nodded to Sir James. The Mover yanked on the Frenchman’s shields, pulling them open long enough for Gwen to hit the Frenchman with a pulse of magic. His body and power disintegrated in the same instant, leaving pieces of blood and gore to fall over the battlefield. Gwen stumbled to her knees almost as soon as the enemy died. Darkness flickered at the corner of her eyes, threatening to pull her down. She hadn’t pushed herself so hard since the Swing.
Where I nearly died, she reminded herself, as she heard the sound of running footsteps. And I would have died, if Jack hadn’t saved me from Master Thomas.
“Drink this,” Sir James said. He pushed a canteen against her lips. Gwen sipped, tasting water and a hint of whiskey. “Do you want to withdraw?”
Gwen scowled at him. Sir James didn’t have to worry about being thought a weak and feeble woman, even if she did have the heart and stomach of a man. She couldn’t leave, not without undermining her position so badly she knew she’d never recover. Besides, if the French took London, she’d be doomed anyway. They’d hardly take the risk of letting her live. Indeed, given what she’d heard from Jack and the treacherous Sir Charles Bellingham, she was privately resolved to kill herself rather than allow the French to take her prisoner. She had a very good idea what they’d do to her.
“No,” she said, forcing herself to stand upright. The water helped, although she knew she was badly drained. “Where are the others?”
“Holding the line,” Sir James said. There was a hint of amused reproof in his tone. “You did well, but you are part of a team.”
Gwen felt her cheeks heat. Merlin was a team, but she wasn’t part of it. Sir James took magicians with different talents and worked them into a whole, she had all the talents, yet preferred to work on her own. But she couldn’t afford to work on her own in wartime. She needed to learn to fit into a team.
“I know,” she said, finally. If only there had been more time to practice! But it had been scant days between her return from Russia and the outbreak of war. “And …”
She broke off as she felt another spike of magic. A trio of Frenchmen were running towards them, surrounded by hideous monsters. Gwen had to admire their skill, but not their common sense. The illusions were striking, too striking, to be real. It would have been more effective, she noted as Sir James wrapped them both in a protective shield, if they’d created a vision of French soldiers charging their position. A soldier on the battlefield might well have thought that illusion was reality.
“Blazers,” Sir James said, as the illusions snapped out of existence. His shield began to glow as the Frenchmen bombarded it with magic. “And not particularly well-trained ones either.”
Gwen nodded, then reached out with her magic and caught hold of all three Frenchmen, hurling them up and into the air. Unlike the Movers, Blazers couldn’t fly under their own power. They’d fall to the ground and die, when gravity reasserted itself. She let go of them, wondering absently just where they’d land. Maybe they’d come down right on top of the Frenchman in command.
“I need to catch up with the others,” Sir James said. “Do you want to come with me?”
Gwen shook her head. “I need to find out what’s going on,” she said. In all the excitement, she’d lost track of the overall battle. Now there was no immediate threat, she might have to find Major Shaw and get an overall report. “I’ll catch up with you.”
She half-expected Sir James to insist she came with him, but he said nothing and merely strolled off to the southeast. Gwen felt an odd stab of envy, then reached for her magic and tested it, gingerly. She still had enough to be dangerous, she reassured herself, if she needed to fight. Bracing herself, she pulled her magic around her and rose off the ground and into the air. Her ears were still muffled – she made a mental note to check with a Healer, after the fighting was done – but she could hear the sound of artillery fire. It was hard to be sure, but it seemed to be growing closer.
It was hard to see anything clearly. The battlefield was swathed in smoke. Flames were rising from the nearby woodland, suggesting that someone was trying to burn out the defenders. Explosions flickered and flared where shells landed. A burning airship drifted into view, her crew fighting desperately to keep her in the air even though it was futile; she hit the ground and exploded into a massive fireball. Gwen couldn’t help feeling a flicker of contempt. Both sides had plenty of reason to know, by now, that airships just couldn’t survive anywhere near Blazers …
And the hussars were mounting a charge against the French lines.
She felt her heart drop into her boots as the charge picked up speed. The French were battered, yes, but they weren’t broken. As she watched, they formed a square and greeted the hussars with canisters of grapeshot. Gwen tried to think of something – anything – she could do, but there was nothing. The hussars were brave men. They didn’t break, they didn’t run, but it hardly mattered. The last of them fell from his horse and died well before reaching the French lines.
I gave them no orders, Gwen thought, as she dropped down towards her command tent. Who sent them out to die?
“Lady Gwen,” Major Shaw said. He sounded impossibly cheerful. Beside him, a pair of staff officers, wearing fancy uniforms, were smoking. “I …”
Gwen cut him off. “The hussars are dead,” she snapped. The urge to tear him apart rose up within her. Two hundred men, most of them aristocrats, were dead. “What have you done?”
“I saw an opportunity and I took it,” Major Shaw said. He didn’t sound apologetic. “I did what I thought needed to be done.”
“Tell me,” Gwen ordered, lacing her voice with Charm. “What were you thinking?”
“I did what you would have done, if you were not hampered by your sex,” Major Shaw said, sounding rather perplexed. He didn’t seem bright enough, Gwen noted, to realise he was being Charmed. His cronies made no attempt to hide their amusement. “One must take decisive action on the battlefield …”
Gwen felt her temper snap. The hussars had been thrown into battle and slaughtered, for nothing. There was nothing wrong with taking decisive action, but the moment had been wrong. And he had felt he could disobey her because she was a woman …?
She reached out with her magic, with the talent she’d discovered in Russia, and caught hold of his mind. “Stay here,” she snarled. He let out an odd little gasp, as if she’d pricked him with a pin. “Sit down. Issue no further orders. Keep your mouth shut!”
Major Shaw sat down, his entire body shaking with … something. Gwen barely noticed, just as she barely noticed the two cronies who were backing away from her. She had to fight to keep from ripping his mind to shreds. It would be so easy …
Instead, she turned her back and walked back to the war.