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The Lorelei Signal


King Arthur's Last Knight

Written by Charles Kyffhausen / Artwork by Lee Ann Barlow


Morwen awakened to what she took for the wail of the banshee, the Celtic woman of the barrows whose cry portends death. The subsequent thunder suggested death was close at hand, and then something like a giant fist cracked the wall of her resting place in Merlin’s Cave.


Had she really slumbered for more than a thousand years, as Merlin had promised when he enchanted her? King Arthur’s death at Camlann had left her with no future in her own world, but the sorcerer had told her of a prophecy. “You served our King well here, Dame Morwen, and you can help him again when he returns to save Britain in its hour of deadliest peril.”


“I would indeed serve him again if I could, Lord Merlin,” she replied as she looked at the aftermath of Britain’s Armageddon. The ravens and wolves were feasting well, for there had been too few survivors to bury the mountains of the dead.


Her badly outnumbered King had fought exactly as the woman from the distant future had advised him. Diana Morgan had been a brilliant combat engineer who preferred to let the enemy smash himself into red ruin against engineered defenses, and the King’s enemies had done so on more than one occasion. Swords and spears could not possibly win, she had reassured King Arthur, where the rifles and artillery of the First World War would one day fail. Camlann would simply be another Battle of the Somme, except that Mordred and the Saxons would pay the entire butcher’s bill.


The woman known as the King’s Falcon had not, however, reckoned with the religious fanaticism that drove the enemy to pay whatever price he had to pay to overwhelm her electrified barbed wire and the guns behind them. That price had included Mordred’s life, and the Duke of Saxony’s second son was now the new Duke, but Morwen might well be the last surviving Knight of the Round Table. “Those are Camlann’s only victors.” Morwen gestured to the wolves and birds. “If King Arthur could not save Britain in this lifetime, I will help him save it in another.”


~ * ~


Merlin cast his enchantment, and Morwen fell into a deep dream in which she remembered her twenty-one years. Her father Rhys had told her proudly of how he and his fellow Welsh archers had stood with the young King Arthur at Badon Hill, but only after the realm’s rulers agreed to abolish serfdom. The victory resulted in the unification of Britain with Arthur as High King, but not everybody was happy with the new arrangement. Some nobles could simply not live without serfs or the Right of the First Night, and Morwen had just turned seventeen when she learned of their plot to murder the High King.


She ran to the ambush to find the King’s men surrounded on all sides, took the attackers from behind, and dropped twenty of them with twenty precise shots from her longbow. The last took an assassin squarely between his eyes an instant before he could discharge his crossbow into King Arthur’s head.


“You just earned a name for yourself, Chernova!” exclaimed a young woman whose blonde hair cascaded to the middle of her cuirassier breastplate. She had but a moment ago sabered two of the King’s assailants, but thirty paces had been too far for the left-handed pistol shot with which she had tried to save him from the crossbowman.


“Why do you call me Chernova?”


“Tania Chernova will take down Nazis, very evil individuals from the mid-twentieth century, the way you took down those assassins,” Diana Morgan explained while she cleaned and sheathed her saber, and then replaced her sidearm’s spent cartridges.


Diana turned to the King. “The longbow has no muzzle flash, loud report, or smoke cloud to give away the shooter’s position.”


Morwen had in fact found the ambush by running toward the volleys of the Martini-Henry Rifles that had answered the enemy’s crossbows, and now she wondered how anybody could even aim through the black powder smoke that still lingered around the Royal Dragoons.


“Longbow-armed skirmishers and snipers could easily turn a wooded area into a living hell for any number of enemies. How far can you shoot that longbow, Chernova?” Diana asked.


“I can hit my mark at two score paces, and that’s without a man’s upper body strength. My father Rhys drew first Saxon blood at Badon Hill, and at three score paces.”


“Your father and I won that battle together, Morwen, and we also ended serfdom together,” King Arthur reminded her while he cleaned another assassin’s blood from Excalibur. “Now please kneel not to me, but to the flag of Britain.” He nodded to the Union Flag.


Morwen did so, and Arthur touched her shoulder with his legendary blade. “Arise, Dame Morwen, Knight of the Round Table and commander of our new Longbow Corps!” This was how Morwen became the Royal Green Jackets’ first officer, and her father its Master Weapon Instructor.


Morwen and her Green Jackets had harassed an entire division of Mordred’s men well enough to delay their arrival at Camlann. She and her Longbows were still alive only because they had not been there themselves. “I might as well be dead,” she told Merlin. “So, if I can have the chance to help King Arthur in another life, I’ll take it.”


~ * ~


Now Morwen struggled slowly back to consciousness to see two men standing over her. “What have we got ‘ere?” one asked in what was to her a very strange English accent. His uniform was dark blue rather than the red of King Arthur’s army, and it bore a patch with the letters ARP. His only armor was a flat metal helmet with a W on its front.


“Is she even alive, Jack?” his companion asked.


“None of the rubble hit her, Tom, and her face’s color is not that of a corpse.”


“We’ve seen enough of those, mate. I’ll get a stretcher and we can take her to a dressing station. That’s the All Clear,” he added when Morwen heard again what she took for the banshee’s wail.


“I think I can stand on my own if you give me a moment,” Morwen replied while she put on the shako that rested by her side; its front bore a pair of crossed arrows. She found she could indeed stand and, as the men in front of her wore what looked like military uniforms, she brought up her hand in a crisp salute. “Morwen ferch Rhys, Longbow Corps, at your service.”


“Your uniform and shako look like those of the Ninety-Fifth Rifles; the best light infantry of the Napoleonic Wars.”


“We were modeled on the Ninety-Fifth, but the Welsh Longbow makes the Baker Rifle look pathetic,” Morwen corrected. “Diana Morgan said the longbow compares favorably to even the Short-Magazine Lee-Enfield with which she planned to replace the Army’s Martini-Henry. She would have preferred the M-1 Garand, but she didn’t have the machine tools or gages necessary to make semiautomatic rifles.”


“What on earth is going on here? Are you some kind of reenactor?”


“There is my bow.” Morwen pointed to the weapon Merlin had placed by her side, “and here is my commission from King Arthur.” She took out a sheet of paper that, however, fell into several pieces because of its age.


“If this is an elaborate hoax like the Piltdown Man, it isn’t funny. We’re fighting for our lives against the Germans.”


“Don’t the Saxons ever quit? King Arthur beat them at Badon Hill, and he took so many with him at Camlann that they should have never been able to try again!”


“Saxony is only part of a much larger problem, Miss. Are you trying to send us up?”


“Her clothing looks ancient, Jack, and she speaks pre-Chaucerian English,” Tom pointed out. “If it’s a practical joke, somebody went to a lot of trouble to play it, and I can’t imagine its purpose.”


“We’ll get you to a refugee center, Miss,” the air raid warden continued. “You can’t bring that pistol or carry that sword unless you’re part of the Army.”


“I am indeed a King’s Officer, Sir,” Morwen replied, but then she realized these Britons might not recognize her as one. “What is the date?”


“You must have been shaken up pretty badly by those Jerry bombs if you don’t know, Miss. It’s May fifteenth, nineteen fourty-one.”


“Then this is the Second World War of which Diana warned me. If it’s May fifteenth, though, I’m not too late. Please tell the Royal Navy that HMS Hood must not fight the Bismarck.”


“This joke has gone too far, Miss. What are you talking about?”


“If Hood fights Bismarck, Bismarck will kill her. She’ll go down with the loss of all but three men.”


“You sound like you belong in a lunatic asylum, but we’ll assume Jerry’s bombs shell-shocked you into momentary insanity. You say you’re King Arthur’s knight, but you claim to know the future.”


“Merlin’s future incarnation brought the heiress of the Morgan industrial family from the early twenty-first century to help create a United States of Britain and America more than a thousand years early. She agreed to help him and King Arthur change history so the World Wars and something called 9/11 would never happen. We lacked the industrial infrastructure necessary to re-create anything like her world, but she did give us steam engines, electricity, and scientific management.”


“Well, they obviously failed,” the air raid warden snorted. “My uncle died on the Western Front in nineteen-seventeen, and now Jerry is bombing our cities and sinking our ships right and left. We’d better get you to a refugee center until your shell shock wears off.”


~ * ~


Things were no better for Morwen at the refugee center, where the other people whom the air raids had rendered homeless dismissed her as a lunatic. “Says she’s a Knight of the Round Table, does she?” one woman scoffed. “Maybe she plans to shoot down Jerry’s bombers with her longbow.”


“She thinks she’s an admiral as well,” a man added. “She thinks she knows better than the Royal Navy how to handle what the Huns call their navy.”


“Diana told me Hood’s deck armor is not sufficiently thick to stop plunging shells,” Morwen insisted more than once. “Don’t take my word for it; have the Admiralty look at the ship’s design and do its own calculations!”


“Jerry’s air raids could make anybody ‘thick,’ but most of us are bearing up well enough to keep our sanity. We have enough trouble as it is without defeatist croaking so, if you can’t say or do anything to help us win, don’t say or do anything.”


~ * ~


Now Morwen wondered whether her fate would be similar to that of Cassandra, the prophetess to whom nobody would listen until it was too late. She overheard some of what the other refugees said about her, and “eccentric” was among the mildest of the comments. She was at least a rich eccentric, for Merlin had left her with a supply of gold sovereigns, and she had insisted on paying for the food and lodging she received. Gold was gold even though nobody acknowledged the coins with King Arthur’s portrait on them as authentic.


Then the shelter went deathly quiet, and now everybody stared at her. A man handed her a newspaper whose headline announced the loss of the Hood. “She blew up and went down with all but three hands. How could you have possibly known those details in advance?”


“Diana Morgan told me,” Morwen reminded him.


“We’d better put you into contact with somebody who might be able to do something constructive with you.”


~ * ~


“This document looks like it is really more than a thousand years old,” Oxford University’s curator of antiquities said after he examined Morwen’s commission under a microscope. “Your gold sovereigns are identical to the ones we have in our museum; except they are almost uncirculated.”


“Merlin figured I might need some money here.”


“Take my advice and sell the rest of them as antiques; they’re now worth a hundred times their weight in gold. Your daguerreotype photo of the purported King Arthur has meanwhile aged almost beyond recognition, which suggests it was taken long before the invention of photography. Even if it’s a photo of an actor who portrayed King Arthur, it still aged almost beyond recognition, which still proves it was taken centuries before the invention of photography.”


“I’m going to send a piece of your supposed commission to Dr. Willard Libby at the University of California,” the curator decided. “He’s working on a technology to determine the age of formerly living material through radioactive carbon decay. Can you tell us in the meantime what else you know about the Second World War?”


“Diana told me a lot, but I can’t remember much. Merlin said if he allowed me to remember too many details, I’d alter Diana’s future life to the extent of creating a time paradox. Her grandfather is currently in his last year at the U.S. Military Academy, and he will have to go to war when the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor on December seventh.”


“I’m going to talk to some people in the government while we wait for Dr. Libby’s results,” the curator decided. “Why did Merlin send you here, anyway?”


“He said King Arthur would return in another life to save England, and that I could serve him yet again when he did.”


“We could sure use him because this war is not going well for us.”


~ * ~


The curator was not the only one who wanted King Arthur to return. “Please save us, Dame Morwen!” a woman shouted to her while she walked down a street. “We can’t take the bombings for much longer.”


“I’m trying to find King Arthur,” she said, “but I haven’t the faintest idea of where to look. They are now searching Glastonbury, the purported Isle of Avalon where Arthur was taken after Camlann, in case he also was put into suspended animation. They have had no luck.”


“There are some who say we should make peace with Germany.”


“I know enough about people like Mordred and Hitler that you can’t make a lasting peace with them,” Morwen corrected. “How many times did Hitler break his word to the government of England? Once should have been once too many.”


“Most of us are willing to fight on, but we need a leader who will give us hope. If we can’t have King Arthur, perhaps they will follow you.”


“I have no idea of how to lead an army with your technology,” she said. “But, I will do what I can.” She welcomed the change in the people’s attitude toward her, but she still didn’t know what she was actually supposed to do. She tried to join the Army, but the Army wouldn’t put women into combat positions. She did, however, get a chance to demonstrate her combat skills.


“Do you really want to pit a longbow against a Short Magazine Lee Enfield?” Bernard Montgomery demanded when they met on the firing range.


“The longbow, General, is every bit as effective as a magazine rifle within fifty paces. I can hit with it beyond two hundred, but then I have to draw each arrow from the quiver instead of holding four in my hand with another on the bowstring. Are those the Saxons’ new helmets?” Morwen added while she looked at the man-shaped targets at the other end of the firing range. Their swastikas were meanwhile unlike any Saxon coats of arms she had ever seen.


“The Stahlhelm offers better head protection than our Brodie helmet,” Montgomery admitted, and then he turned to the nearby noncommissioned officer. “Sergeant Ayers, when I give the signal, you shall fire ‘ten rounds, rapid’ at the enemy.”


“Ready, Sir!”


“I am ready, General,” Morwen agreed while she drew five arrows from her quiver, nocked one, and held the other four in her hand. She had practiced with a new longbow, for her own had aged so extensively as to be nothing more than a museum exhibit.


“Open fire!”


Sergeant Ayers was good, Morwen realized, for his rifle cracked every two seconds, and she doubted a single bullet had missed. Her bow, however, snapped and rang five times in the space of five seconds to bury an arrow in the chest of each of her own “Saxons.” It took her but another second to draw another five arrows, as many as she could hold and still shoot accurately, and release them to hit another five “Saxons” before the sergeant could fire his magazine empty.


“I’d like you to show me that technique, Miss,” a voice interjected, and then the voice’s owner gave her a crisp military salute. “Lieutenant Colonel John Malcolm Thorpe Fleming Churchill at your service,” he introduced himself.


“Mad Jack here is the only Briton to have actually shot a Jerry with a longbow,” General Montgomery explained.


“I’d have gotten five if I had been able to shoot like Dame Morwen,” the commando said.


“My father taught me, and then the entire Longbow Corps, how to shoot ‘five rounds, rapid,’ at close range to stop a rush by enemy melee troops or even cavalry. Skirmishers aren’t supposed to come into contact with the enemy, but the enemy obviously has other ideas.”


“I can believe you once served King Arthur, and I wish we had him back. My men and I had to retreat from Jerry at Dunkirk, and the Huns now control most of Europe.”


“I wish they’d let me fight side by side with you, but then again, I’m supposed to find and serve King Arthur.”


“I’m afraid he’s long gone,” General Montgomery interjected, “but the carbon dating results from America verify your story beyond any reasonable doubt. You’re really the last Knight of the Round Table, and I am sure you can persuade our people to buy more Defence Bonds.”


“Pearl Harbor is a lot more important than Defence Bonds, General.”


“We told the Americans about your prediction, and they said the Japanese wouldn’t dare.”


So, the last Knight of the Round Table realized while she helped sell Defence Bonds, she was indeed to be like Cassandra, the prophetess to whom nobody would listen. The only good thing was that the British people regarded her as a legend, and her presence inspired some to donate rather than loan money to the war effort. When the Japanese struck on December 7, though, she felt more than ever Merlin had sent her here for nothing. She was in London somewhat later for another attempt to raise the people’s morale when an Army officer approached her.


~ * ~


“The Prime Minister has a few minutes for you, Dame Morwen,” he said while he led her into his office.


“I’m pleased to meet you at last, Dame Morwen,” the Prime Minister said while he took her hand. “I’m doing my best to live up to my own legacy as the descendent of the Duke of Marlborough, and I wish we had him back along with Elizabeth I, Horatio Nelson, and Arthur Wellesley. Where, by the way, is King Arthur when we need him?”


“You lived up to your legacy quite well when you charged stirrup to stirrup with the Twenty-First Lancers at Omdurman. The regiment paid a quarter of its strength for three Victoria Crosses and, unlike the troopers and officers, your duty didn’t require you to be there.”


“I was a young man with more testosterone than brains, I suppose.”


“That’s what Diana said of anybody who would volunteer to lead a forlorn hope against engineered defenses.”


“We relearned that lesson the hard way during the First World War, and I really messed up at Gallipoli. In any event, I need to persuade the British people to fight this war to the end.”


“Nobody wants to surrender, Mr. Prime Minister!”


“Hitler knows that, so he has offered an armistice with no victor and no vanquished. A lot of people want to accept his offer because we are safe on our island, and the people have had more than enough of the bombings.”


“Do you think we should make peace, Sir?”


“I do not! The Nazis now control enough of Europe’s resources to build naval and air armadas that can overwhelm us. I’ve explained that many times, but apparently not in such a way as to convince enough people that we need to fight this through to the end. The Americans are in it now, and we can win with their resources, but there will be a long trail of blood, sweat, toil, and tears between now and victory.”


“Where is King Arthur when we need him?” Morwen repeated, and then she realized that this was not the first time she had seen the man in front of her. “We have to fight it out to the end, Majesty, I mean Mr. Prime Minister,” she stammered.


The Prime Minister froze for what seemed like an eternity, and then he remembered Rudyard Kipling’s Sack of the Gods. “They sleep till the world has need,” he whispered. “I must have asked to be reassigned when I got to wherever I went after I died at Camlann, and here I am.”


“‘Majesty’ is correct, but only between us,” Winston Spencer Churchill continued. “George VI is now the rightful King of England, and I can’t very well claim to be who I once was without creating some real problems with the House of Windsor, but what’s important is that I now remember who I once was. Did Merlin send you all this way to remind me of my duty?”


“Nobody has ever had to remind you of your duty, Majesty, but I think you needed a friend to remind you of your destiny to save England in the hour of its deadliest peril.”


“That is exactly what you have done, Dame Morwen. We shall, in a few short years, celebrate yet another victory over the Saxons.”


Then King Arthur’s incarnation walked out to give the speech that would inspire his people to never settle for anything short of total victory. Morwen walked out as well, and she almost ran into a young man in an American uniform.


“Lieutenant William Trevor Morgan, Army Engineers,” he introduced himself while he gave her a crisp salute. “The Nazis declared war on us after Pearl Harbor, and my platoon and I are part of the United States’ answer.” Morwen recognized in the young man’s expression the same deadly competence and resolution she had often seen in Diana’s, and she remembered Diana’s story about her grandfather’s future role in helping General Patton win the Battle of the Bulge. Then she saw her own destiny in his eyes as he saw his in hers, and the last of Merlin’s enchantment caused her to forget everything else she knew about the future. There were things she would simply not be able to tell her granddaughter without altering the relationship between cause and effect.



Epilogue: 2005


Morwen was now in her mid-eighties, and the wife of one of the richest men in the world and a former President of the United States. William Morgan, a lieutenant general in 1968, had defeated Richard Nixon in the Republican primary and then Hubert Humphrey in the general election. He had then fought the Vietnam War the same way the United States had fought the Second World War, with the result that the Republic of Vietnam was now the economic and human rights equal of Taiwan and South Korea. He had foregone a second term, though, to take over the Morgan Armory when his father died in 1972. He had retired in favor of his son Richard, Diana’s father, in 1993 and had won a second Presidential term in 1996.


“What’s wrong, Grandmother,” Diana had asked her when she saw the tears in her eyes while she waited to board the airplane that would take her to Oxford University.


I can’t tell you, Morwen thought while she embraced Diana. You might be going to your death, and I can’t warn you. She thought when she remembered there was no evidence any of King Arthur’s knights had survived Camlann. She and her husband had kept the secret for all of Diana’s 27 years, and she took little comfort from what her husband had told her. If Diana didn’t go to Oxford, to be sent from there to Camelot, Morwen would never become a Knight of the Round Table. She would live out her life in the Dark Ages, she would never meet her husband, and Diana would never be born while the Nazis might win the Second World War.


“Be careful, Diana,” she managed to say while her husband nodded agreement.


Diana returned a crooked smile to reply, “This from the Special Operations Executive agent known as the Hellcat,” she meant a member of Churchill’s Secret Army, “who broke a Nazi spy ring in 1944?” That was all Morwen and her husband had ever told Diana about her role in the Second World War. “You are both part of the Greatest Generation, you know.”


“I survived 9/11 and Kafiristan,” Diana pointed to the scar on her face from the grenade she had thrown away from some hostages without knowing how much time was left on the fuse. “All I intend to do in Oxford is see whether our engineering team can get a certain sword out of the stone and anvil they found at what they believe to be Camlann. That will give the Free World a lot of prestige, and maybe enough to get people in various totalitarian countires to demand their freedom.”


Morwen and her husband watched Diana board the plane, and they wondered whether they would ever see her again. “Our granddaughter might need my Secret Service detail more than we do,” William admitted, “and I can’t send them. This is the day we both dreaded ever since Diana was born, and now it is upon us.”


~ * ~


“So here I am,” Morwen thought while she paced the hallway of the Morgan Estate. “I was the daughter of a former serf, I became independently wealthy in my own right, and then a First Lady of the United States. All I know now is that I want my granddaughter.” That was when the phone rang, and the former President picked it up.


“It’s Diana!” he told Morwen while he put the phone on speaker.


“I have some good news, and I mean we are now dealing with a whole new world,” their granddaughter reported. “It’s a long story, but it ended when the sorceress Morgan le Fay put the two of us into suspended animation to return to the twenty-first century after Camlann.”


“Morgan le Fay was our, I mean the enemy,” Morwen protested.


“She changed sides when she realized there was nothing left for her in Britain after Camlann. Her choice was to be Queen of Britain with no successor, and thus a storybook character who might or might not have even existed, or to make her name and legacy live forever by changing our world. She is going to teach the long-forgotten arts of Magic to those in our era who can learn. That, in combination with modern industry, means nobody will have to struggle or wage war to have a decent standard of living ever again. History has a strong argument against what I am about to say, but I think we finally won the real war to end all war. Nobody is going to want to follow a dictator or warlord to steal copper when honest work can shower him or her with gold.”


“There’s also more good news,” Diana continued. “Her magic can extend human life substantially, although not indefinitely. That should give you and Grandmother another forty or so years together.”


“You sound less happy than you should be,” her grandfather said.


“A friend called Morwen ferch Rhys saved my life along with those of Sir Gawain and King Arthur. I never found out what happened to her after Camlann, and now I suppose I never will.”


“This story is going to have a very happy ending, Diana, for you will see her again very soon.”

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Charles Kyffhausen is the SF/Fantasy pen name of the author of stories published in Fear and Trembling, Strange, Weird and Wonderful, Lorelei Signal, and others.

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