Part 1 of 2
By the last day of August, 188 Squadron was down to three men: Baker, Birney, and Squadron Leader Nathan Holyrood. On the first day of September, they were back up to full—but Nate had his doubts about whether the number of living pilots had changed.
Normally he'd have put the whole thing down to forty days of flying and no leave. But he'd just come back from seeing Kovalevski in hospital, and had gotten the luxury of a full hour of sleep on the way back. So it couldn't have been just exhaustion.
The airfield was a flurry of activity when he got back, mostly where yesterday's raid had hit hard. There wasn't a foot of ground that hadn't been bombed and filled in again, and half the runway was unusable. The officers' mess had been shot up, but the hangars were for the most part undamaged; probably the Germans had mistaken the mess for vital storehouses again.
Nine bright new Hurricanes stood on the intact section of the airfield, shining like an early Christmas present. His own Sweet Addie stood a little apart, much the worse for wear. As he approached, a figure detached itself from the closest plane and headed for him. It turned out to be a man about Nate's height, dark-haired and sporting a short beard. "Squadron Leader Holyrood? Pilot Idris Gruffydd and company reporting for duty."
"You're here for 188 Squadron? Good." This one might be trouble, Nate thought; the man was a born commander and probably wouldn't take orders well. Still, the more pilots the better, even unshaven ones fresh out of training. "Gruffydd. You Welsh?"
"All of us are, sir. Just up from Arberth."
"Hm. Good." He gazed out at the new planes. They'd even been fitted with rear-view mirrors, the lack of which had been a design flaw that he and the rest of the squad had corrected with car mirrors from the local garage. "Let me see your papers."
Idris handed him a sheaf of forms. A shock traveled up Nate's arm as he took them, and he jumped—
And the Hurries before him wavered, there one moment and gone the next. Something else stood in their place, like crude child's versions of chariots, reeking of grease and iron. He turned to Idris—
He stumbled back. For a second—no, less—someone else had been in Idris's place, but sheer shock drove the image from his head, leaving only a blank when he tried to remember what he'd seen. It's like the thunderclap you only hear because of the pain in your ears a second after, he thought, or the bullet you only notice after it's hit you.
"You all right, sir?" Idris eyed him warily.
"Yes—yes, fine. A little off, that's all." He shuffled through the papers, barely taking in what they said: Idris Gruffydd and eight other new pilots, all assigned to 188 Squadron. "Those your Hurries?"
Idris's momentary suspicion changed to pride. "Best out there. This's mine; her name's Carnwennan. Which is yours? That one?" He pointed to a Hurrie down at the end of the field, so covered in dirt you could barely see the bull's-eyes.
Nate forced a laugh. "That's Baker's. Don't try to wash it; his luck's in that dirt. No, Sweet Addie's mine."
"A girl." Carew's girl. Carew, who had been his gunner when he flew a Defiant, long enough for the Luftwaffe to find the Defiant's weak spot. Carew, who'd already been dead as Nate struggled to keep them afloat in the Channel off Folkestone.
Not his girl at all. But someone had to remember her, now that Carew couldn't.
He laid a hand against Carnwennan. It felt solid enough, and the Hurries didn't have the Defiant's visibility problems—and more pilots meant more of a chance, he told himself, no matter what they were. "If you've got your kit stowed, I'll—"
The blare of the loudspeakers cut off his words. "188, scramble. 188, scramble."
"Damn," Nate muttered. "I hope you've flown combat before."
Idris grinned, his teeth flashing in a predatory smile. "Probably as often as you."
Nate shivered. Behind Idris, the barracks disgorged the rest of 188 Squadron, Baker and Birney waving when they saw him. He waved back, headed toward Sweet Addie, and hoped to hell the patches would hold.
They took off in a roar of Merlin engines and smoke. Below them a scramble of a different sort took place as the ground crews got to their shelters.
There was no time for introductions. The next few days were hell—three, four scrambles a day, refueling Hurricanes with their engines still hot, going out in search of the Messerschmitts and Ju88s that found them with no trouble. But Nate had had to learn how to live in the moments scraped out between scrambles, and he drew his own conclusions.
There was Owen, a great hulking bear of a man, who had some sort of history with Idris, as did the other big man, Kay. Ben was as amiable as Kay, though much quieter. Gwyn and Edward were a pair of half-brothers who loathed each other, but they only fought on the ground, and never when Idris was near. Perry was the youngest, and something of a simpleton; Nate privately marked him as most likely to be shot down. Wallace claimed to be related to Idris, though the two men looked nothing alike. And then there was one fellow, barely older than Perry, whose Welsh name was unpronounceable and said he preferred to be called Pig. Which they did, after some teasing.
And none of them died.
Not even Perry.
They followed his orders, though orders were hard to give beyond a "Tally ho." But they attacked when he told them to, and got out of it when he said, and followed him up into the sky.
Followed him, and Idris.
Nate didn't forget that glimpse he'd had of something other and unknowable in place of the affable Welshman, but he didn't comment on it—except once to Clare, who worked in the Y Service and had some idea of what they were going through up there. She gave him a worried look and told him he must be more exhausted than she thought.
That was probably true, but it didn't keep him from noting the new pilots' odd behavior. It could have been exhaustion; the Luftwaffe's relentless battering spared no one, pilot or ground crew. But once or twice he thought he heard Wallace speaking in something that didn't sound like English or Welsh—something cruder and older than either. And when Baker asked Kay what his last assignment had been, Kay had replied with what Baker heard as Biggin Hill, but Nate was sure it was something else, something like Badon Hill.
He told himself it was the result of too many boyhood stories and not enough sleep, of losing pilots week after week after damned week. He told himself it didn't matter, so long as they could fly. And they could, wheeling the Hurricanes through the sky with an unrivaled ease. They didn't always bring down the Messerschmitts, but they stayed alive—and as the number of pilots diminished on both sides of the Channel, that was a victory in itself.
Nate got the word from MacDonough on the seventh, in between sorties. He'd dozed off for a moment—another dream of drifting in the Channel—and had gone over to the Radio Service tent hoping to find Clare. Instead, MacDonough caught him as Nate passed his desk and gave him the latest word from Fighter Command.
Most of the squad was still in the barracks. Baker was trying to catch an extra half-hour's sleep, Gwyn and Edward were glaring at each other across the room, and Idris and Owen had the chessboard out again. "There's news," Nate said, and even Baker woke up at the sound of his voice. "Hitler's sent them to London. We should expect to scramble in a half-hour at most." He paused, then added the bit of news MacDonough hadn't wanted to give up. "There's a lot of them."
"London," Idris said, and his eyes flickered. "Well. London." He glanced back at the others. "Ben, is your Ceridwen all patched up?"
"Best they could do, sir," Ben said, then jumped as the phone rang.
All of us jumped, Nate thought, like dogs trained to it. "You'd better hope she's patched. Scramble."
MacDonough was already shouting through the radio as Nate strapped in. "Say again, MacDonough," Nate said as he adjusted the headphones. "We're barely into our Hurries."
"I said, if you get up there now you might get the drop on them. Chain Home Low spotted them coming in over Eastbourne, and Observer Corps confirm it."
"Thanks for the warning." He switched over his radio with one hand, tugging at his scarf with the other. Damn thing always shrank when it got wet; one of these days he'd have to get a silk one so he wouldn't strangle if he went down in the Channel again. . . . "188, stay in formation all the way up."
"Right behind you." That would be Birney, in far too good humor for this.
They took off, Idris in No. 2 position, Baker flying No. 3 and scattering dirt all the way. MacDonough had been right; they climbed to twenty thousand feet unopposed (and, because they'd been caught from above so many times, Nate ordered them just a bit higher).
Long minutes passed, with no sound above the rumble of the engines. No roar of Messerschmitts or Heinkels. The radio crackled. "Where are they?" Birney snapped, abandoning RT protocol entirely.
A laugh from someone else. Idris. "Don't be impatient."
"If they're going to London, they'll have to come through—" He stopped as the fog to the southeast parted, and the first few ranks of the Luftwaffe appeared. And the next, and the next. . . .
"Don't tell me Hitler finally got the balls to attack in force!"
"How many of them are there?"
Nate was silent. MacDonough's voice muttered in his ear: word from 72 Squadron on its way, and several more from Biggin Hill and Gravesend, but not nearly enough.
"Doesn't matter how many there are," he said, and the chatter stopped. "They go down just as easy one by one. Tally ho, lads." With that he dived, firing tracers into the first clump of Messerschmitts.
Two of them spotted him and wheeled. Kay whooped over the radio and plowed straight into the fray, just barely missing a Dornier—but the two Ju88s on either side caught the worst of his Browning guns, and plumes of smoke rose into the sky.
From that point on it was bitter dogfighting, the stuff they'd refused to teach in OTU because it "wasted fuel." Chasing each Me down until it shattered under their bullets, looking up when they remembered, covering each other as best they could. Twice Nate got behind an Me just as it circled another of his squad; twice he had to open his canopy to get a decent shot at the planes above. Radio chatter dissolved into shouts and curses and frantic warnings.
At one point Nate had to turn off his radio for a full minute, because the shouts of his squad—of the Welshmen, anyway—had changed in his ears to something else, something like war-cries and chants. None of their Hurries were in view when it happened, but he knew if they had been, he wouldn't have seen planes, but something else entirely. When he switched it back on, Kay was still roaring his barbaric verses, but the Germans were going down, and that was more important than what he heard—or who was fighting alongside him.
He heard later that this had been the heaviest assault so far. He believed it, but still the same thought kept echoing in his head: This is not the worst of it. Not yet.
They fought till their fuel lights burned and then pulled away, all twelve of them intact, though Sweet Addie was trailing smoke and Owen's Raven dipped in flight a few times. One by one, they brought the squad in smoothly—except Birney. His Malice wobbled all the way down and coasted past them, slowing until its nose bumped one of the hangars.
"Birney, what the hell are you playing at?" Nate yelled as he opened his canopy.
There was no response. Two of the ground crew had come out to check, and while the front of the plane didn't look damaged . . . Nate clambered up to Malice and tugged the canopy open.
Birney was sound asleep, held upright only by his straps. Nate gaped at him, then laughed, loud enough to startle both of the crew. Even that didn't wake him. "One of you tell the CO about this," he told the crew. "If this doesn't convince him to give us leave, nothing will."
They managed to pry Birney out of his seat—he woke up just long enough to crawl out, then fell straight back asleep the moment his feet were on the ground. Between Nate and Idris, they managed to drag him back to the barracks and dump him on his bed. "Give him a nap while they patch up the Hurries," Nate muttered, tugging off his helmet and scratching his head.
"Give us all a nap, more like."
Kay knocked on the doorframe. "Word with you, Idris," he rumbled.
"Just a moment." Idris handed Birney his pillow, and he hugged it close. Nate pulled his locker out from under his bunk as the door banged shut and rummaged for the books his mother had sent up. It was at the very bottom, the one he'd nearly read the cover off as a kid, the one he'd meant to look at since these Welshmen arrived. He hadn't gotten more than a few pages in before the sound of voices filtered through the window.
"—still don't understand it," said Ben. "Why here? Why now? They seem to be all right."
"Why at all?" said Kay. "I don't know about you, but this is not how I imagined death. I thought we'd get to rest."
"Maybe we're in the Christ's Hell?"
"Can't be. I wasn't baptized."
"Why doesn't matter." Idris's voice momentarily silenced them. "We're here. Now. They need fighters; we know fighting. It's just a different kind of war."
"We know fighting on the ground," Ben corrected. "With spear and shield, not Hurries and Browning guns. Half the time I don't even know what I'm doing up there. It just works."
Kay grunted. "You know what I didn't expect. Picts. That MacDonough, he's a Pict if I ever heard one."
"Never mind the Picts," said Ben, "I didn't think there'd still be Saxons. I guess we didn't keep them out after all. Holyrood's a Saxon," he added thoughtfully.
"He's our commander," Idris said.
Kay only grunted again. Ben began to speak, but Baker called to them from the mess, and the conversation ended there.
Nate realized his fingers were aching from clutching the book. He forced himself to loosen them one by one and was about to get up when the door swung open. Idris entered, muttering in that dialect that wasn't quite Welsh. He glanced at Nate. "You all right, sir? You look a bit off."
"I'm fine," Nate managed. "Just reading." He waved the book without thinking. Idris's eyes narrowed, and Nate froze as he remembered what he held.
Idris took the book from his unresisting hands. "The Story of King Arthur and His Knights," he read. "What's this?"
"Just—just a book my mum sent up."
"Hm. Mind if I borrow it?"
I know who you are, Nate almost said. I know who you are, and now you know I know.
"Please yourself," he said over the sudden shrill of the phone. "I've finished it."