~ Whitehall, London. 1940. ~
Raindrops tumbled from the night sky, hurling themselves at pavements outside the imposing government building. Sentries nursing rifles flanked its entrance. Their eyes barely flickered as a car emerged from the darkness and drew to a halt. Its driver slid out and scanned the rain-spattered road in each direction before opening a rear door.
Stepping from the car, the Aldhelm stared up at the building through piercing blue eyes. She steadied her breathing and reached for the Pod beneath her overcoat. Its warmth offered relief. Thunder rolled overhead as searchlights combed the sky; the German bombers were conspicuous in their absence. Splashing forward, she climbed the steps that rose behind the saturated sentries. At the top she pushed through a rotating door. A lantern swung above it in the breeze.
Inside, marble floors stretched beneath ornate chandeliers. Men wearing pinstripe suits were gathered in hushed groups at the foot of a broad staircase. As the young woman entered they turned to look at her. A small figure dressed in dark grey broke away and approached.
‘Mrs Wainwright?’ he asked, extending a hand to the Aldhelm.
‘Yes,’ she answered, taking it and noting the sweaty, brittle fingers that grasped her own.
‘Gretchley’s the name. We hoped you would be here sooner.’
His voice was urgent. Mrs Wainwright noticed that his complexion was almost as grey as his suit. Another boom of thunder caused him to glance nervously at the windows.
‘Let us waste no more time,’ he hissed.
Gretchley wheeled away, making for the stairs. His footsteps sounded insignificant in the building’s cavernous hollows, reminding her of the patter of mice as they scampered across the roof of Podwitch. Following him, Mrs Wainwright nodded to the other men. They stared at her like hostile children in an unfamiliar playground.
The staircase turned back on itself three times before joining an oak-panelled landing. It was adorned in coats of arms and humourless portraits. Gretchley led her to a door. Its brass handle glinted in contrast with the nut-coloured panels.
‘You may enter,’ he said.
The Aldhelm hesitated.
‘How is he?’ she asked.
Sweat glistened on the small man’s upper lip.
‘Tense….’ he replied.
His eyes kept flicking to the window at the end of the corridor. Thunder cracked overhead and he jumped. For a moment his abrupt manner dropped, revealing uncertainty beneath. But it reappeared instantly. A perfect mask. He flashed her a smile.
‘You must ensure the Prime Minister’s safety,’ he whispered.
‘It is my highest priority, Mr Gretchley.’
‘Then please, be swift.’
He raised tight white knuckles and rapped on the door three times. There was a pause.
‘Come!’ growled a voice.
Gretchley stepped back. He looked pointedly at the handle. Mrs Wainwright took a breath and turned it, pushing against the weight of the door with her shoulder.
Inside, red carpet spread like a sea of blood across an immense floor. Books lined wooden shelves on every wall. In front of a sash window stood a desk the size of a rowing boat. Its surface was hidden beneath papers, charts and maps. They hung over its edges like the sheets on an unmade bed. Opposite was a fireplace, framed beneath a carved wooden mantel. Flames blazed within it.
To one side of the hearth was a sofa. On it sat a man, staring at the fire. As the door closed he leaned on a walking stick and stood, igniting a tiny explosion of dust motes in the firelight. Broad and slightly hunched, with a bald head, he looked part human, part bulldog. A cigar jutted from the corner of his mouth and his eyes beaded with intensity. He wore an overcoat, ready for travel.
‘Aldhelm,’ he barked. ‘It’s about time.’
‘I’m sorry for the delay, Sir. Things go badly for us. The Severals allow me no rest and Labyrinth gateways are failing across the land.’
‘Bloody annoying,’ grunted the Prime Minister. ‘They show no respect. None at all. They distract you while the Luftwaffe keeps sending its bombers.’ He squinted. ‘Where’s your chattan?’
‘Whisper is keeping watch over Podwitch,’ said Mrs Wainwright.
‘You want a drink?’
‘No, thank you. It’s best we get you on your way. The motor car is waiting.’
The Prime Minister reached for a bowler hat and wedged it firmly on his head.
‘Quite right, quite right. Let’s be off then,’ he muttered. ‘We’ll use the back staircase. It exits onto a side street. Gretchley has made arrangements for the chauffeur to meet us there.’
He stomped to the wall of books and reached for a discreet handle jutting from a shelf. A section of bookcase swung open, revealing a stairwell. The Aldhelm moved towards the opening and stared into the darkness, waiting until she felt warmth from the Pod at her neck.
‘It’s clear,’ she said. ‘I’ll go first.’
She moved slowly in the gloom, enabling the Prime Minister to keep close. Their footsteps were muffled in the tightness of the small space. The air tasted stale and damp. After several minutes the Prime Minister stopped to mop his brow. He was breathing heavily.
‘I’m getting too old for this sort of thing,’ he grumbled.
With a sudden movement, Mrs Wainwright flung a hand to her chest.
‘What is it?’ demanded the Prime Minister.
‘The Pod, it’s turning cold. Something’s wrong.’
‘What kind of something?’
‘I’m not sure. But we don’t have much time.’
They descended the remaining steps quickly, reaching a cobwebbed passageway that led towards a door. Motioning for the Prime Minister to wait, the Aldhelm approached it cautiously. A heavy key jutted from the lock. She listened but could hear nothing above the sound of the rain pounding on the other side. The Pod was icy cold against her skin. She pulled it from her coat, bathing the corridor in intense blue light. The Prime Minister gasped. She waved him forward.
‘Stay close to me. Do not linger. Your life may depend upon it.’
He nodded, his eyes wide in the Podlight.
Mrs Wainwright opened the door. Rain threw itself at her in a frenzy, as if attempting to blind her. But it didn’t prevent her seeing the Severals, lurching and crawling in the night. Buildings opposite were thronged with them and the street itself was a twitching parade of shapes. Some camouflaged themselves as everyday objects, lying flat like manhole covers or lining up in rows of iron railings. But most remained visible. Confident.
‘My God,’ she muttered. ‘We have been betrayed.’
Holding the Pod in front of her, she let its light flood out of the doorway. Raindrops looked like silver bullets in its glare. The creatures peeled back, whining, keen to avoid its touch.
‘I see nothing, Aldhelm,’ said the Prime Minister. Uncertainty hovered at the edge of his voice.
Mrs Wainwright shielded her eyes from the rain and looked for the car. It was parked a little further along the street. Close enough to make it? Perhaps.
Grabbing the Prime Minister’s arm, she drew him close, ensuring the Podlight covered them both.
‘It’s not far,’ she cried, raising her voice over the storm. ‘Do not step outside the light.’
Then they were away, stumbling through shadows and rain. The Podlight carved a path through the assembled throng as the Severals scrambled from it, lifting their heads to sniff the air. Their ranks closed again once the humans had passed and they skulked swiftly behind.
As they neared the car, Mrs Wainwright was relieved to see its engine was running. She held the Pod up, covering the vehicle in protective light and banged with her fist on the roof. The driver hopped out and opened a rear door.
‘You go on ahead, Sir,’ said the Aldhelm, pushing the Prime Minister in.
‘What about you?’
‘I’m staying; there is work to be done here. I’ll meet you at Chequers.’
Winston Churchill looked lost. He peered at her from the back of the car. When he spoke his voice sounded small.
‘How bad will things become, Aldhelm?’
‘This is the beginning,’ she grimaced. ‘This is just the beginning.’
She slammed the door. The engine of the Daimler roared into life and it pulled away, disappearing into the night, leaving her standing, the Pod raised above her head.
Shapes writhed at the edge of the blue light, tightening around it like a closing fist. Excited snorts emanated from all directions and jagged nails tore at it, but they were unable to penetrate its protection.
Turning to the building, she saw someone framed in the open doorway, staring at her. It was Gretchley. Severals slithered close by but made no attempt to approach him.
‘You?’ cried Mrs Wainwright.
Gretchley held her gaze for a moment and then turned, yanking the door violently, slamming it shut behind him.
Besieged by the hoards of shifting darkness that hovered thickly about her, the Aldhelm tightened her grip on the Pod.
‘This is just the beginning,’ she repeated as another peal of thunder rolled overhead.
It sounded like a murmured threat.
Text Copyright © N. J. Poulton