Bonus: short story

Doctor Crake Crosses the Wall

John Julian Crake, six months out of his final surgical residency and newly-minted army medical officer, suppressed an exclamation of pain as the horse trap lurched over another bump in the road. Idly, he catalogued exactly where he felt the pain, shifting his sitting position slightly so further bumps would address the muscles of his rump rather than the end of his tailbone.

Another, more serious bump broke through his detached medical observation sufficiently to make him risk addressing the private who was driving the trap, a laconic individual with five long-service bars and two wound badges on his sleeve. He had barely spoken to Crake, but every now and then cracked his whip over the single, unprepossessing horse's head and urged it on in an impenetrable accent.

'Is this really the best transport the Perimeter has to offer arriving officers?' asked Crake. He asked somewhat tentatively, acutely aware of the newness of his uniform and the glitter of the stars on his sleeve and the insignia of the army medical corps on his collar, shining with shop polish rather than the more golden lustre that would come from years of a batman's daily attention. All proclaimed he was as green as green might be, and fair game for enlisted men's dumb insolence or 'just shy of the regulations' trickery.

'Wind's north,' muttered the private. 'Sir.'

'What's that - oh, never mind!'

Crake had only been in the army for three months, learning how to be an officer as well as the surgeon the university and hospital had assured the army he was, and the gentleman it was presumed he had always been. But that three months was enough for him to know that he wouldn't get any more out of this private, and that apart from anything actually medical, most soldiers would consider him at best an innocent idiot.

At least, he comforted himself, he didn't have to actually command any of them. Unlike Silvan, his regular infantry room-mate at Fort Troune, the military college. Silvan had been petrified at the prospect of standing up pink-cheeked with the single bronze star of a second lieutenant on his sleeve, in front of a platoon of experienced veterans. He had frequently expressed his envy of Crake, who was not only a doctor, but also being six years older could grow a proper moustache, and as a medical officer was to be commissioned straight in as a captain.

But Silvan had at least been spared being sent to the Perimeter, thought Crake. The mysterious Perimeter. He'd heard about the northern border of Ancelstierre in general terms often enough, and the defensive Perimeter built along and facing the line of some ancient ruins or something. But it wasn't until he received his posting and orders that he'd tried to find out more specific information, only to discover there wasn't any. At least none anyone would give him. Everything about the Perimeter was classified Top Secret, which seemed beyond even the usual army madness he was reluctantly becoming accustomed to.

'Got your papers, sir?' asked the private, as they clattered around a bend and the landscape around them changed, the ordered fields giving way to a forest of oaks and beeches that had been cleared for fifty yards either side of the road with saw, axe, and by the many blackened stumps, rather injudicious use of fire.

For the first time Crake actually looked at the road and though it explained how bumpy it was, he wondered why the receding, patchy tarmac had not been replaced, and why was it laid with stone pavers underneath like something from ancient history?

'Yes, I've got my papers,' he said.

'Only we're coming up to the restricted zone,' said the private conversationally. 'Don't want them to shoot you, sir.'

'Shoot me?' asked Crake, startled.

'Wind's from the north, everyone gets jumpy, sir. Only natural. There's the first sign, once we cross that . . .'

He pointed with the staff of his whip. Crake tipped his cap back for a better look at the very large white sign with the huge red type that was up ahead on the left.

shot without warning.

'Ah, that's very . . . uncompromising,' said Crake. He reached inside his overcoat to assure himself the leather wallet with his orders, travel warrant and commission was still there.

'First time up here then, sir?' asked the private.

'Yes, yes,' said Crake.

The private sniffed, but Crake wasn't certain whether this was a response or not, and he wasn't going to make himself appear any more stupid by reprimanding the driver. Instead he turned his head to look the other way, wincing at yet another jolt. The trap didn't even have pneumatic tyres, just iron rims that had a layer of something that looked suspiciously like cork.

Possibly the whole thing was some sort of complex practical joke, thought Crake. A jape to play on new officers. Though that sign had not looked like the sort of thing anyone would make up for a practical joke. It was too big, too prominent...

'Best to get your papers out and have them in your hand, sir, and your identity disc out front,' said the private. He reached inside his tunic and snagged out the chain that held a bronze disc the size of a five-shilling piece, which had his name, rank, serial number and date and place of birth clearly embossed upon it. Crake read these details as he clumsily unbuttoned his collar to draw out his own disc, and reached inside his overcoat to extract his orders, almost dropping the wallet by trying to do both things at once.

The private's surname was Kalmon, and his place of birth given as Bain. Bain was the closest town to the Perimeter, and the railhead where Crake had transferred first to a car that had inexplicably broken down some ten miles back and then to this trap, peculiarly there as a standby for such happenings. Evidently there was a motor maintenance problem in the Perimeter forces.

'You're a northerner?' asked Crake. 'From Bain?'

'A village, but near enough to Bain, sir,' said the private. 'Most of us who stay on the Perimeter are from around here.'

'Stay on?'

'Most units only do three months, sir,' said Private Kalmon. ''Cept the Scouts and the Transport Battalion, and a few others.'

'Three months?' asked Crake. He frowned. His orders were open-ended. 'The doctors too? At the hospital?'

'Dunno,' said Kalmon. 'Never seen the same one twice. Coming up to the first guard post, sir. Keep still and don't reach inside your coat or anything, please, sir.'

The road curved again ahead, the forest obscuring the view even with the cleared sections to either side. But they only went on another forty or fifty yards before the guard post became visible. A large but surprisingly dilapidated concrete bunker was sited to give firing positions both north and south of the road. Rusted concertina wire on tall pickets surrounded it, fronted by knee-high entanglements of single-strand barbed wire that extended out a long way. The road itself was blocked by a cantilevered gate, and there was another sign immediately next to it, repeating the warning Crake had read half a mile back.

Definitely not a practical joke on young officers, Crake decided, as he saw several men emerge from the bunker. They had the old-style long bayonets fixed on their rifles, and the young officer leading them had his revolver in his hand. Peculiarly, he was also wearing a sword, and it didn't look like the parade-ground dress swords Crake had learned to drill with down south at Fort Troune.

Kalmon hauled on the reins and brought horse and trap to a stop some distance short of the road gate. Then he filled his lungs and bawled out, 'Private Kalmon returning with Captain Crake, new medical officer!'

'Stand for inspection!' roared back a sergeant, who had emerged from the bunker after the young officer and the first few men. Crake blinked twice at this man, because he was carrying a halberd. And again, it was not the gilded version Crake knew was allowed to sergeants of pioneers for very special ceremonial parades.

'Hooky's got his axe out,' muttered the private. 'They must be worried.'

Crake peered at the sergeant again. Surely enough, the man did not have a left hand. Only a dull iron hook.

'Surely a prosthetic would serve better than a hook!' exclaimed Crake. 'It would look better, anyway. We had some very fine wooden hands made up when I was in orthopaedics at Malhousie--'

'I'd not mention anything to Hooky, if I was you, sir!' interrupted Kalmon, visibly disturbed. 'Special, that hook is. The Prince, he ... er ... added something ... that is ... '

'The Prince?' asked Crake. 'Oh, another nickname! Like Hooky.'

There'd been a whole lecture on soldier's nicknames at Fort Troune, focussing on the particularly lewd or embarrassing ones that the enlisted men liked to try and get officers to unwittingly speak aloud.

'Hooky's more of a description,' muttered Kalmon. 'Stay still please, sir.'

The young officer at the guard post stayed back while the sergeant with the hook and two privates came forward, the gate lifted just enough to allow them to duck under it. Crake noted with some discomfort the barrel of a Lewin machine gun poking out of the closest firing slit in the bunker, and he could just see shapes behind it. Men ready to fire.

'Hold your discs up!' shouted the sergeant as he approached. One man went to either side of the trap, bayoneted rifles held ready to stab.

Crake held his disc up, and willed his hand not to shake. The sergeant was really quite terrifying up close. In addition to the halberd he held ready, Crake noted that the sergeant wore a shirt of blackened mail, which the doctor had initially mistaken for the dark leather tunics that were issued as winter trench gear. Medieval mail. A coat of steel rings ...

Then there was the peculiar mark, or brand, on the sergeant's forehead, just under the rim of his helmet. Crake stared at it, because he couldn't quite make out what it was. Not a birthmark ... not a scar ... He blinked, because it seemed to be moving, and it suddenly shone gold, catching the sunshine.
Only there was no sunshine. It was the middle of winter, and the sky was entirely covered in low, dark clouds that were slowly rolling past overhead, driven southwards by the wind from the north.


Crake blinked again, and shook his head, like a dog who'd just stuck his head too far into a bucket, over-eager to drink. The sergeant was right next to him, the halberd now grounded, leaning against his left shoulder. Crake hadn't seen him move. In fact, he seemed to have lost several seconds.

'Uh, yes, sergeant? My papers.'

'You were looking at my mark, sir,' said the sergeant, tapping his forehead.

Crake nodded weakly. The mark seemed normal enough now, a dull, abstract shape. Some kind of faded tattoo.

'Yes, I apologise if I seemed too ... that is ... as a doctor, scars and suchlike ... '

'Did it move?' asked the sergeant. 'Or shine? Show colours?'

'Yes,' said Crake, and then hastily, 'uh, no! No! I'm just tired. A long journey from Corvere, you know. I'm eager to report to the hospital, sergeant, if you can let us through.'

'Certainly, sir,' said the sergeant jovially. He took the proffered wallet and examined the papers within before looking up again. 'If you could hold out your disc, sir?'

Crake held it out. The sergeant read the information, checking it against the commission parchment from the wallet. He nodded, folded everything tidily inside and handed it back. Then he picked up his halberd and saluted with it, not something Crake had seen before, though it was similar to a rifle salute. The doctor returned the salute absently, one eye still on the sergeant's forehead and that strange mark.

'There's one more guard post a mile ahead, sir,' said the sergeant. 'With the same procedure as here. Perimeter HQ is about half a mile beyond that. They'll direct you to the hospital. It isn't far, part of the same complex of buildings. Welcome to the Perimeter.'

'Thank you, sergeant,' said Crake. He looked over to where the young second lieutenant was going back into the bunker, leaving two men to swing the road barrier up. 'And ... er ... my compliments to your officer.'

He was wondering why the young man hadn't come forward to at least say hello. Crake was a captain, after all, even if only by virtue of being a doctor.

The sergeant correctly interpreted his puzzlement.

'Standing orders. The senior NCO and officer commanding the guard post are not to leave the defended area at the same time. Bit of nonsense, really, sir. On your way, Kalmon.'

Kalmon clicked his tongue and muttered something that might have been 'walk on'. Crake found it interesting that the soldier could speak plainly to him, but used what he supposed was the local Northern dialect when talking to the horse. It understood the twitch of the reins, anyway, and obediently moved forward.

The second guard post a mile up the road was very similar to the first, though here the bunker was even more dilapidated and had been heavily reinforced with sandbags and gabions made of woven branches filled with earth. Again, Crake wondered why it hadn't been rebuilt properly, and why those curious wicker-work constructions? Defences of that kind had gone out with the invention of reinforced concrete, at least fifty years before. But these gabions looked relatively new.

At this inner post, it was the officer who came out, leaving the sergeant behind. He was a full lieutenant, in his mid-twenties Crake estimated. He twitched as he took Crake's papers, and seemed unable to concentrate, constantly looking up and around and even behind him.

'Are you all right, lieutenant?' asked Crake. The man's pupils were normal, and there was no smell of alcohol or the lingering scent of opium smoke, and neither would usually create such jagged attention, but he did seem affected by something.

'What? Oh yes, rather,' said the officer. 'Wind from the north, you know. Just my luck, I only have a week to go. Off to the coastal artillery in South Doubrane. South Doubrane. About as far from here as you can get. Can't wait.'

'Oh, well, good luck,' said Crake, rather half-heartedly. Coastal artillery had been easily the least popular of postings for the officers graduating from Fort Troune. But this young man was smiling at the prospect of sitting in a dull cliffside gun emplacement with its endless routine and very little danger, if any. Just the mention of this promised future seemed to have eased his odd nervousness.

As they continued on along the road, Crake wondered anew about the peculiarities of the Perimeter and the men who garrisoned it. He was just building up to ask Kalmon why the expression 'wind from the north' was so widely used here as some sort of catch-all phrase for odd behaviour, or perhaps potential for misfortune, when they topped a low rise and he saw the great expanse of the Perimeter laid out before him.

It ran as far as he could see to the west and east, a barren plain of bare earth, criss-crossed with trenches zigzagging in all directions, the trench network fronted with very deep wire entanglements. Rusty concertina wire sprawled everywhere in great jumbled heaps that might once have been in orderly lines of different heights: three coils high, two coils high, three coils high and so on, at least ten lines of wire deep. Now it was all mixed up and broken in many places, with the undulating ground beneath testament to craters of all sizes, suggesting the extensive employment of artillery and high explosive shells, fired almost up to the forward trenches, far too close to be safe.

Beyond the wire was even more deeply disturbed earth, the craters even more obvious, the ground entirely despoiled. Here and there, Crake also saw tall wooden posts that he couldn't quite identify. They were not uniform and certainly not target markers as he had first thought, or if they were, the system for their placement and identification was beyond him.

The cloud came down very low over this barren plain ahead of the wire, almost becoming a fog, but there were patches where it was not so thick. Crake stared at one such window in the low cloud, blinking furiously. It seemed to him that there was a wall there, a stone wall like the medieval remnants of the city ramparts of Corvere, but curiously lit within, as if the stones themselves were luminous. And behind that wall, he thought he saw sunshine, the bright sunshine of a spring afternoon.

Which was impossible, so he was glad when he looked away for a moment and then looking back, saw only the cloud. It was flowing down and back as if recoiling from an unseen wind, to form a huge bank of fog that as he watched began to drift towards them, slowly blanking out more and more of the awful wasteland and the trenches that were the Perimeter.

'I don't like the look of that fog,' muttered Kalmon. 'Though it'd be more white, I s'pose, if it was unnatural.'

'Unnatural?' asked Crake. 'Gas, you mean?'

He reached behind for his satchel to check his gas mask was within reach. Poison gas had been used in the continental wars for the last decade or more, off and on, and he had done some training on its effects and the various treatments, the uselessness of the latter convincing him that it was very important not to become affected by the gas in the first place.

'Nah,' muttered Kalmon. 'Not up here. Just ... things come over in the wrong sort of fog. They need to hide from the sun, even the little we got now.'

Crake frowned. Kalmon was surely pulling his leg.

'What exactly is on the other side?' he asked.

'They call it the Old Kingdom, sir,' said Kalmon. 'Here, let's get you over to the Orderly Room at Perimeter HQ.'

Crake asked several more questions, but Kalmon didn't answer him, acting as if he hadn't heard Crake speak at all. Without anyone else to witness this, or a convenient NCO to take action on his behalf, there wasn't anything Crake felt he could do, except stop asking.

It was surprisingly quiet and empty along the road. Crake had expected to see working parties, or perhaps a platoon or company on a route march, but there was no one visible close by, and the fog was still streaming towards them: it had now obscured all the trench lines and most of the buildings arranged around the parade ground ahead that Kalmon had indicated was Perimeter HQ.

They were almost at that parade ground when Crake saw the first sign of life. A file of soldiers emerged from the fog and spread out ahead of them, once again with rifles at the ready, old-style sword bayonets fixed. But this time, there were also two archers present. Crake did a double take, wondering what he was looking at, his mind refusing to process what he was seeing for a second. But it was quite clear: two of the men, though they wore the khaki uniforms of the Ancelstierran Army, were armed with longbows and had full quivers on their backs.

Kalmon brought the trap to a stop, the horse immediately lowering his head to try and snatch at a tuft of tall grass conveniently growing between two of the big paving stones of the road.

'Private Kalmon bringing new medical officer Captain Crake!'

A corporal marched forward, tendrils of fog writhing about his rhythmically moving arms and legs. He stamped to a halt, and saluted.

'Got word to take you immediately to Colonel Greene, sir, if you'd be so kind.'

'Colonel Greene?' asked Crake. 'I thought the hospital was commanded by Major Lutyens?'

'It is, sir, but you're to see Colonel Greene first.'

'Oh, very well,' said Crake. He jumped down and turned back to pick up his satchel, which contained his gas mask, smaller medical kit and personal items. The corporal twitched his head and a private came forward to unstrap Crake's officer's valise from the back of the trap.

'Field phones still working then, Bobby?' asked Kalmon quietly. He sounded surprisingly nervous for such an innocuous question.

'Yeah, Hooky called it in to the colonel,' replied the corporal, out of the corner of his mouth, with an inclination of his head towards Crake, who still had his back turned but was listening intently. 'So they were working. But maybe not now there's fog as well as the wind.'

They stopped talking as Crake turned back and settled his satchel in the approved fashion on his left hip, strap over his right shoulder.

'Tollister will take your valise to your quarters at the hospital, sir,' said the corporal. 'If you'll follow me, please.'

He led the way, deeper into the fog. His section, minus Tollister and Crake's bag, fell in behind Crake. Automatically, the doctor skipped to get in step, the endless morning parades at Fort Troune having made this second nature.

They crossed the fog-bound parade ground with Crake seeing only the dim outlines of the headquarters' buildings that surrounded the vast square of tarmac, which he noted showed signs of constant repair, unlike the road from Bain. At the end of the parade ground, they came to a path bordered by white-painted stones. Fog almost as white as the painted stones drifted above them, winding and writhing about the moving men.

The corporal suddenly descended in front of Crake, who almost tripped on the steps that led down to the duckboarded bottom of a deep trench. He stopped, and called out.

'Hold on, corporal! Where are we going?'

'Colonel Greene's forward CP, sir,' replied the corporal. He answered readily enough, but Crake noticed his attention was divided. He kept moving his head slightly, listening for something. The doctor glanced behind. He could only see the two closest men, the fog was so thick. They were also listening, their heads held up, helmets tipped back.

'I'm not wearing boots,' protested Crake.

'It's dry enough, sir,' said the corporal. He stamped on the duckboards. 'And boards most of the way. Colonel Greene said "without delay", sir.'

'Oh, very well,' said Crake. 'Who is Colonel Greene anyway?'

'Deputy Commandant of the Perimeter,' said the corporal. 'And OC Scouts.'

'Oh,' muttered Crake. As they walked on, no longer marching in step, he nervously checked his collar, making sure it was done up properly again after he'd had to take out his ID disc.

At the next zigzag, they met several soldiers standing about the entrance to a deep dugout. Quiet words were exchanged, too low for Crake to hear. As they continued on, he heard the zing-zing-ding sound of a field telephone being wound, but not anyone talking, suggesting there was no answer.

'Who are the Scouts?' asked Crake belatedly, as they slowed to negotiate a part of the trench that was flooded higher than the boards in the middle, so they had to walk on an incline just above the long puddle.

'Northern Perimeter Reconaissance Unit,' said the corporal quickly. 'People just call 'em the Scouts, sir.'

'Ah,' replied Crake, none the wiser.

The trenches became less well-ordered and maintained as they continued northwards. Several times the corporal stopped, and listened. Crake listened too, though he didn't know what for. After a while he realised there was some sort of constant background noise, a kind of very faint whistle, like a train's heard from far away, but continuous.

The next time they stopped, Crake waited until the corporal was about to move on again, then asked him what he was listening for.

'The wind-flutes, sir,' replied the corporal. 'They get louder if anything ... anything bad is happening. Something rising up, or trying to cross the Wall.'

'The Wall?' Crake heard how the corporal said it, with a very obvious capital 'W'. 'So I did see a wall!'

'Yes, sir,' replied the corporal. 'Quietly now, please. It's not far.'

Crake did not find it difficult to be quiet. He was wondering what on earth he had got himself into. His father had been against him joining the army, had not at all bought Crake's suggestion that four years' service would set him up well for the future private practice he could not currently afford. Nor did Crake Senior accept there was no real danger since Ancelstierre wasn't involved in any wars and had little prospect of becoming embroiled in the continuing problems on the continent. Even the local domestic problems with Corolini's people and their bombings and so forth had faded away.
In fact, now Crake recalled that conversation, it wasn't so much his father's pointed objection to his joining the army that was significant, it was his mother's attempt to join the conversation, which had been immediately quashed by an unusually irascible Crake Senior. He hadn't paid any attention at the time, but she had started to say something about the North ...

Now, Crake wondered what his mother had tried to say, and more than that, he wondered if he might have made a terrible mistake in joining the army after all. But he had not known about the Perimeter and its strangeness. How could he have known? Going along this trench, in a thick fog, with obviously frightened men talking about 'things rising up' or 'crossing the Wall', Crake started to think about the attractions of a posting to the coastal artillery ...

Then, all of a sudden, they arrived at a broader, deeper trench that was lined with soldiers. Soldiers in blackened mail over khaki, many of them with actual swords, not sword-bayonets, and shields. There were more archers, too, and everywhere Crake looked he saw the glint and shine of the strange forehead marks under helmet rims. Marks that were bright in the fog, brighter than could be explained by luminous paint ... brighter than could be explained by anything he knew about.

An officer came out of a dugout halfway along the trench as they arrived, and made his way towards them, the men moving aside without ceremony to let him pass. He was in his mid-forties, Crake thought, and wore mail too, and bore a sword at his side. When he was close enough, Crake saw a colonel's crown and two stars on the sleeve of his uniform, just poking out under the linked rings of the mail hauberk that came just past his elbows.
Colonel Greene also had the mark on his forehead, under his helmet. It shone very brightly, and moved through many different shapes, a fascinating change that Crake found mesmerising, but somehow he tore his gaze away.

Trying to not to look at the colonel's face, Crake saluted, and the salute was returned.

'So, our new medical officer,' said the colonel. 'I hear you were rather fascinated by Hooky's - Sergeant Worth's - Charter mark at the southernmost checkpoint?'

'I ... uh--'

'Saw it move? It shone? Seeing that on my forehead now?'

Crake swallowed twice, then slowly nodded. Perhaps being invalidated out of the army for having strange hallucinations would actually be preferable to staying here on the Perimeter ...

'Most people hardly notice it,' said Colonel Greene. 'Just see a scar or a faded tattoo. What's mine doing now?'

'Er, it . . . it's settled into a kind of circle with a trailing edge,' said Crake.


'Gold,' replied Crake. 'But sort of molten, fiery ... not as bright as I would expect.'

'Good! Very good!' exclaimed the colonel. 'You're just what we've been waiting for. Hoping for, I should say.'

'I am?' asked Crake. 'Sir?'

'A medical man with a natural tendency towards Charter Magic,' said the colonel. 'Your family from the North, I presume? Somewhere close to the Wall?'

'No,' replied Crake stiffly. He felt rather like he had suddenly been dropped into an asylum, or perhaps a production of a not at all funny comic opera. 'My father's property is in Gullshire.'

The doctor didn't mention that for the first time ever, he wondered where his mother was really from, and that her supposed continental upbringing and lack of relatives in Ancelstierre might not be as straightforward as he had always thought.

'There'll be a northern connection a few generations back, though,' said the Colonel. 'Come on, we'd better get you into some mail, give you a dagger at least, just in case.'

'I'm sorry, sir, but I really don't understand what's happening,' said Crake plaintively. He held himself very upright and tried to sound as if he was unfazed by his current peculiar circumstances, though he was sure without success. 'My orders are to join the Fourth Field Army Hospital at the Perimeter as a medical officer and junior surgeon. Nothing more.'

Colonel Greene looked at him closely, his eyes sharp. This was an intelligent man, Crake realised, not some old red-tabbed fool of a staff officer like some of the colonels he'd met.

'From Gullshire. About as far south as you can get ... I suppose you know nothing about the Perimeter ... or the Wall?'

'Very little, sir,' replied Crake. 'No one would answer my questions! And everything is classified Top Secret. I didn't even know there was a wall. Or a Wall.'

'I see,' said Greene. 'We haven't got time to go into everything now, but suffice to say there is a Wall, immediately beyond the No Man's Land in front of our wire. On the other side of the Wall is a different ... well, world, I suppose you might say. One where magic works.'


'Yes, captain. Magic. Of several kinds. The mark on my forehead is an indication of Charter Magic, all those who can wield such magic must bear the mark.'

'But magic ... it's not ... possible,' Crake said weakly, at the same time trying not to look at the colonel's forehead mark, which was shining again, or at the other glowing and moving marks on the other men.

'Magic is entirely possible in the Old Kingdom,' said the colonel. 'And here, close to the Wall, particularly when the wind is from the north. But it's going to be easier to show you, and you have arrived at just the right time for that. We're going to cross the Wall shortly, to make sure this fog is entirely natural. But first you'll need a coat of mail and a dagger.'

'What?' asked Crake. 'That is, how ...'

'If there is fog on both sides, it must be conjured,' said the colonel. 'There is another sort of magic besides Charter Magic, a more dangerous kind, called Free Magic. Practitioners of it summon fog to shield themselves and their minions from the sun. Sergeant Vallance! Get Captain Crake fitted out, the main party will leave as soon as he's ready. Mister Bassan, your platoon will reconnoitre ahead, cross the Wall and deploy in all-round defence on the northern side.'

Ten minutes later, the bewildered Crake found himself hurrying along a cleared lane through the barbed wire, into No Man's Land. He was minus his greatcoat and felt the unfamiliar weight of a mail shirt on his shoulders, over his khaki tunic. His beautifully shiny brown leather belt with shoulder strap was behind them somewhere and now he wore a dull, broad belt of black leather, which served to bear a long dagger, a dagger that before it had been sheathed had shone with a golden glow from the symbols on its blued steel blade. Moving, flowing symbols all too like the ones on the Scouts' foreheads, which Colonel Greene called Charter marks.

Climbing down into and then back out of a crater again, Crake found the voice he'd lost as he was hurried into the mail shirt, had the dagger strapped on, and was then hustled to join what seemed to him a very large party of soldiers disappearing into a narrow, and very much fogged-in communications trench that was zig-zagging northwards.

'Sergeant Vallance,' he said. 'Sergeant Vallance! These craters ... I had thought they must be from artillery ... but are they somehow also the result of ... of magic?'

'They're shell holes, right enough, sir,' said the sergeant, turning back to help Crake over the muddy, crumbling rim. 'Ours. Got to keep an eye out for unexploded shells by the way. Artillery's far enough back that it usually fires, but then the shells often don't detonate. Even when it does, it's mostly pointless.'

'What do you mean?' asked Crake nervously. The men ahead were diverting around one of the tall wooden poles he'd seen from afar, a silhouette darker and taller in the fog than the soldiers.

'They fire when there's a big incursion,' said Vallance. 'But anything powerful enough to cross the Wall is little affected by high explosives. Don't touch the wind-flute as we pass, please, sir.'

Crake wouldn't have touched it for the world. Up close, the wind-flute was a solid beam rather like a very long, up-ended railway sleeper. But it was covered with Charter marks, carved in the wood. Or perhaps not carved, since as Crake watched, several marks moved and grew brighter, a golden nimbus forming around the wood, lighting up the fog.

The top of the post was bored through with seven very neat holes of different sizes, and fog streamed through them, visible evidence that the wind was still blowing, though it had not dissipated the fog. With the wind came the strange low whistling, that now he was up close Crake could hear contained several different notes, not just one.

'Is ... is it getting louder?' he asked, remembering the words of the corporal who had escorted him from Perimeter HQ.

'No, sir,' said Vallance comfortably. 'Just we're up close. Let's move along, sir.'

They trudged on in silence through the mud, skirting several very deep craters. Men moved in the fog ahead and behind, occasionally coming close enough to make hand signals to Sergeant Vallance.

'Almost there, sir,' said Vallance. 'Be nice to get some sun.'

Crake didn't respond to this apparent non sequitur. He would welcome sun too, the clear bright sun of the far south of Ancelstierre, far from this mad, fog-bound Perimeter. Whatever had afflicted his vision or his brain, or both, would surely be dissipated by the honest, southern sun.

'Here we are, sir,' said Vallance.

Crake almost said 'where?' as he could see nothing but fog and some shapes he desperately hoped were other soldiers. But as he took just two more steps forward, the fog parted a little, and he saw the Wall ahead, almost close enough to touch. It was a rampart of grey stone, not particularly high, perhaps thirty feet. But as when he'd seen it in the distance, the stones glowed. Not brightly, just with a dim radiance as if there were candles hidden in each block, and the stone translucent.

'Touch it,' said Colonel Greene, coming up out of the fog. He reached over, unbuckled Crake's helmet and took it from his head.

Crake stared at the Wall, not noticing his helmet going, hardly hearing the colonel. He could see where the light was coming from now. It wasn't the stones as such. The light came from the tens ... the hundreds ... the thousands of Charter marks within the stones. They were growing brighter as he watched, emerging from deep within stone to come to the surface, even drifting off into the air ...

'Touch the Wall,' said Colonel Greene. He wasn't saying it as an order, just in a conversational way. A suggestion to a friend.

Crake hesitated. It was all so strange, so bewildering. On one level he felt as if he might be experiencing some sort of hallucinogenic episode. Perhaps the fog was in fact a gas. He might even be imagining Colonel Greene and all the other people.

But he didn't really think so. He'd treated patients in various stages of drug-induced psychosis or detachment from reality, and spent three months of his initial internship at the Luterick Institute for the Insane. Besides, there was something about the Charter marks that called to him, that felt right ...

Crake stepped forward, and placed his hand flat on the Wall. Charter marks spiralled out around his wrist and climbed up his arm, bathing him in golden light. He felt warm and light, brought into a familial embrace. Slowly, he leaned forward and let his forehead rest against the Wall. He felt a sudden blast of heat there, and the light flashed so bright he was momentarily blinded. But he did not move, remaining there for he didn't know how long, until he felt hands pulling him back.

Crake opened his eyes. The Wall was darker now, the marks retreating into the stone. Greene and Vallance were holding him upright, under his arms, and he was glad because his knees threatened to buckle. Slowly, he raised his hand and felt the middle of his forehead, half-expecting to feel some sort of scar or the raised flesh of a brand. But it felt exactly the same.

'No, you have no Charter mark,' said Colonel Greene. 'Not yet. But the Wall has judged you ready. When we cross the Wall, it will be given to you, in the Old Kingdom, as is proper.'

'Yes,' said Crake. He stepped free of the supporting hands, steadying himself, took a breath and stretched. Beads of water from the fog dripped from his arms and his hair was soaking wet, indicating that he had leaned against the Wall for much longer than he'd thought. 'I'm still not entirely sure what that means, but ... I feel ... I feel very deeply it is the right thing to do.'

'The Charter mark connects you to the Charter, which describes and encompasses all creation,' said Colonel Greene. 'With the baptismal mark, and the requisite study and practice, a Charter mage may call upon the Charter to change and manipulate both the animate and inanimate world. One of the greatest uses of Charter Magic is for healing, and we have long wanted someone who might marry the ... technical knowledge of the human form and medicine of Ancelstierre with the Charter Magic healing of the Old Kingdom. Particularly now, when it is possible for us - some few of us - to go and study Charter Magic in Belisaere.'


'The capital of the Old Kingdom,' said Greene. 'There is an awful lot for you to learn, I'm afraid, captain.'

'I'm not, sir,' said Crake. He smiled hesitantly. 'Afraid that is. Not now, at least not of the learning. Ah, Sergeant Vallance, you mentioned seeing the sun. Is there really sun on the other side?'

'Should be, sir,' replied Vallance.

'And there is,' said Greene. 'Mister Bassan's runner just reported before you came up. A lovely spring evening, for all that it is winter here, and two in the afternoon. Not a sign of fog, so the one this side is natural, and all is well.'

'I would like to see the sun, and the other side,' said Crake. He hesitated for a moment, and then said with great firmness, 'And I want to receive the mark.'

'Well then,' replied Colonel Greene, 'let us cross the Wall.'

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