Extract: The Third Battle of Reading

CHAPTER ONE – THE RIVER

The two boys stood on the bank of the river staring across to the other side.

“See?” said the smaller boy. He was more concerned with who or what might be behind him. Waving his arm vaguely towards the opposite side of the river, he flashed agitated glances back along the footpath they had followed to reach the edge of the Thames. He hoped not to see any unwelcome movement in either direction.

“See?” he repeated, “There’s nothing over there. Can we go now?”

The other boy, a full head taller and in the middle of a growth spurt that threatened to see him a head and a half taller by the end of the week, dismissed the plea to go home with a shoulder-shrugging sniff. Through narrowed eyes, he peered into the gloom of the trees crowding in on the bank opposite.

They had heard the rumours, just like everyone else at school. Rumours that the smaller boy had gone to great lengths on their walk to the river to explain were just that: rumours. Nothing more. They had heard them all before; the same stories that had been spread by all the countless other children who had ever passed through their school. Rumours which had never amounted to anything; rumours that persisted, refusing to die out.

In fact, the smaller boy had jabbered, with ever-decreasing volume the closer to the river they came, these rumours are never true. They are designed to scare children, “children like us”. They are nothing more than fairy tales. Myths and legends. Nursery rhymes. Once, he whispered, there might have been a tiny grain of truth, but over the centuries that truth had been misinterpreted or warped and twisted into something awful or weird or just plain wrong.

The bigger boy, six months younger than his friend, wasn’t listening. He had heard the rumours, that much was true. But he had it on very good authority that people had been seen on the other side of the river. (The authority was his older brother, who, whilst doing a spot of distinctly unauthorised night-time fishing, had seen these people. Consequently, he couldn’t possibly say who had told him on account of the very real threat of being left in a crumpled heap of dead arms and bruised shins.)

Not just any people. People in camouflage. And since the older brother had been fishing in the secret, silent hours after midnight, he had heard clearly the sound of motor engines. Somewhere up in the beech woods to the north. Off-road and suspicious. Distant yet close enough to make him sit up in his dinghy and listen really carefully.

“I know my engines,” he had told his little brother with the whisper of grim authority the next day, “and they weren’t just any old engines. Trucks. Military. Motorbikes as well. I’m sure of it, definitely military.”

Now, as a result of his older brother fanning the flames of rumours even higher, the taller boy had dragged his next-door neighbour (who had also been his inseparable best friend since the age of four) down to the river – the river they were supposed to stay well clear of – to try to see for themselves if the rumours bore any resemblance to the truth.

The ground they were standing on was nominally Wessex. The other side of the river was Mercia. It had always been that way. Well, for at least as long as Wessex and Mercia had existed. Although when the smaller boy thought about it, the distinction had probably been there for a lot longer, only with different names. Or no names at all. And for all the time the land on the south side of the river had definitely not been Mercia, it hadn’t really been Wessex either. Not truly; not properly. They were as about as far away from Winchester as you could get and still officially be in Wessex territory. Winchester didn’t have much time for the people who lived around here, on the south side of the Thames, and they felt the same about Winchester. There was no animosity, no hatred, nothing like that. They just didn’t really have anything to do with each other.

But having said that, whenever rumours began to circulate of Mercian plans to cross the river – the type of persistent rumour that whilst never amounting to anything, succeeded in leaving the area on a constant low-level alert – their Wessex-ness invariably came to the fore.

The smaller boy’s anxiety was beginning to annoy the bigger boy.

“Can you not stand still for just one minute?” he growled through clenched teeth, “If there is someone over there, you’re making sure you’ll be their first target.” He lowered the binoculars liberated earlier from his father’s study and looked directly at his friend. “If only to put you out of your misery and stop all this bloody fidgeting.”

The smaller boy froze, restricting himself to a nervous drumming of fingers on thighs.

“But what about London? There’s stories of it being on fire.”

“London’s always on fire,” said the bigger boy, turning back to contemplate the other side of the river, “even when it’s not actually on fire. The Little Fire of London, The Great Fire. The Many Fires of Old London. The Terrible Conflagration. It’s always bloody burning.”

“But… you saw the glow in the sky last night, didn’t you? Don’t tell me that was the street lights reflecting off the clouds again.”

They both turned to look in the general direction of where London might be, looking for any signs of smoke or flames.

“You know what I think?” replied the bigger boy, annoyed that his scanning of the opposite river bank had been interrupted once more, “I think Londoners should be banned from using bloody matches.”

An awkward silence descended. The river flowed with a sound beyond hearing. Instead, its power, incessant and surging, resonated through them from the ground up. Several minutes passed before the smaller boy could stand the silence no longer.

“Have you seen anything? If not, let’s go. I’m getting cold.”

Another shrug and a sniff came from the bigger boy.

“Come on then. Before you get us both killed.”

His friend was already hurrying back up the path, away from the river.

You have just read the first chapter of The Third Battle of Reading, the first story in the third strand of the Realms of Britain series. Contemporary to the world in which we live, history has travelled a different path. Rather than an Atlantic archipelago of five nations, the islands have remained divided between the regions and kingdoms that formed following the departure of the Roman Empire and the arrival of the people from beyond the seas.

Living in woods close to the River Thames, on the very edge of Wessex, Finn discovers a message warning of an imminent Mercian invasion. With the messenger dead and the threat of the whole of Britain being plunged into war, Finn is faced with one option: to deliver the message himself.

What Finn couldn’t possibly know when he sets off on his journey is that the strands of time have converged and become entangled: a future battle is inextricably linked to the two previous battles to have taken place in the town of Reading.