An Extract from What The Raven Brings by John Owen Theobald

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I’m so pleased to be helping to celebrate What The Raven Brings by John Owen Theobald. What The Raven Brings is the second in the Ravenmaster trilogy after These Dark Wings.

What The Raven Brings is published by Head of Zeus and is available for purchase here.

What The Raven Brings

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London, 1942: the Blitz is over but the war rages on. With the country still fighting for its existence, a young girl takes to the skies…

After her mother was killed in an air raid, Anna Cooper was sent to live with her uncle, the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London. Now, he too is dead. His dying wish was for Anna to be the next Ravenmaster, keeper of the birds who, according to legend, guard the fate of the kingdom. But the Tower authorities won’t stand for a female Ravenmaster, let alone one who is not yet sixteen years old.

Denied her destiny, Anna is desperate to escape the Tower and join the war effort. She bluffs her way into the glamorous – and dangerous – world of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.

But no matter how high she flies, Anna can’t escape her past… nor the secret that it conceals. A secret that could change the course of the war.

An Extract from What The Raven Brings

1

Saturday, 16 May 1942

My run of luck is over. During the Blitz, luck’s the only thing that keeps you alive. Every bomb that falls next door, every fire that whips up just as you reach the shelter, every scrap of food you find before someone else – that’s your luck, draining away. After a year, it’s flat gone. And you’re left trapped in the belly of a cement monster with the most annoying person in the world.

‘Squire. You asleep over there?’

I turn to face the grinning voice. ‘Working hard as you are, Lightwood.’

‘I’ll be the judge of that.’ From above comes the quartermaster’s voice. My head is down, focused on tying together the steel bars with wire. I don’t need to peek over my shoulder to know that Lightwood’s done the same.

‘Timothy Squire and Arthur Lightwood. I should not have to remind you that one word from me and neither of you will ever wear a uniform.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Yes, sir.’

I grit my teeth. Three months of demolition training to become a sapper – a Royal Engineer in His Majesty’s armed forces – and here I am reinforcing concrete down at the docks. Tie the steel bars together with a figure-eight knot, cut the wire free with pliers. Repeat until death.

Lightwood and I work together, apart. As far apart as you can be in a ten-foot cell. Even in the shadows cast by the walls, sweat drips into my eyes. We’re in a giant hollow concrete box, with twenty compartments, sunk into the earth. All that’s needed is a top, and we’re as good as in a coffin. If we were truly dead and buried, at least we wouldn’t notice these bloody midges.

It’s hard to imagine a smaller space to work with another human. I could well do with some light, or air. The river is so close, but the dry dock blocks it. Seagulls cry out, mocking us.

My luck has run to empty.

I keep working, not daring to check if the quartermaster is still atop the ladder, watching like a riled hawk. Crabby little apple, that one.

The armed forces have taken over the docks, and brought their discipline with them. I suppose I should be happy to be here. As long as I’m close to these sappers, I can find another chance to become one myself. Truth is, I’d rather be anywhere else.

Finally, I glance up and risk turning full around. Cranes on tracks swing and swoop high above, intent on their own work. The walkway that runs down the centre is clear. He is gone. Long gone, I’ll bet, smirking as he left.

Pressing a hand against the small of my back, I watch Lightwood working away, furious, tying the wire, yanking it firm. Did I look that stupid?

‘Lightwood.’

He stops, panting, and turns to me, face bright as a cherry. ‘He gone? Thank Christ.’

Letting the pliers fall to the concrete, he leans his back against the wall, closing his eyes. I watch him with a smile. Arthur Lightwood – sounds like he rides a white horse in some poem from school. Looks a bit like it, too. The horse, that is.

‘You know what I should be doing right now?’ I turn and spit in the opposite corner. ‘Learning about mines. But some fool – some blighter – added a Type 70 fuse instead of a 67.’

His eyes still closed, he looks almost relaxed. ‘I reckon another day in Aberdeen and you’d have been dead as a doornail. Can’t keep your sticky fingers out of TNT for five minutes at a time. One of ’em was bound to go off eventually. Fag?’

Lightwood’s eyes blink open, and he’s rummaging in his pockets.

‘Bleeding liar.’ I wave the offered cigarette away, casting a look up at the walkway. ‘Better get back to it. This bloody Phoenix isn’t going to build itself.’

Who knows, maybe it will. No one here’s got the first clue what a Phoenix is, and no one is allowed to ask.

The armed forces brought that with them, too – no questions, just make sure the concrete is reinforced.

Not even Lightwood knows, and he knows everything.  Doesn’t stop him from guessing, of course.

‘Think about it, Squire. There’s a ton of sappers down here. Obviously it’s vital to the war. So what could it be?’

I almost guess a battleship, but the thought of Lightwood’s horsey laugh makes me want to clobber him. And we really should get back to work.

‘Massive old block of concrete,’ he says after I fail to respond, then snorts when I don’t understand him. Man’s a bleeding talking horse. ‘You sink it, you’ve got a foundation underwater.’

‘A foundation for what?’

‘Harbours. Roads. Whatever you want.’

I shake my head. ‘You were wrong about the clockwork fuse.’

‘That was your fault, Squire.’

Lightwood is full of it. No one knows what anyone is building. At least three other Phoenix units are under construction here, and similar work’s going on at the other docks. And the clockwork fuse was partly my fault, that’s the worst bit. How could I get the fuses mixed up?

‘The Germans hold all the ports, right? If we’re going to land over there, we’ll need to bring our own—’

A voice booms from above. ‘Another peep out of either of you, and you’re both gone. Final warning.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Yes, sir.’

Don’t lose your wool, mate. Didn’t think it would be possible to miss the training, but two ticks and I’d go back and start it all over again. Who’d have thought I’d ever miss the endless buckles and buttons of the uniform. The marching drills were the worst, of course. The day my blistered feet finally burst, flooding my boots with blood, I thought I was done. But I learned a few tricks – get your boots one size too small, urinate on them, and never wear socks – worked a treat.

Lot of good marching tricks and rifle drills will do me stuck down here. At least when we spent hours in a bomb hole, we’d wonder what would happen if the bomb went off. Here we know nothing is going to happen. Ever.

Only two weeks away from completing sapper training; written tests, live demolitions, working with time-fused and magnetic response bombs – I’d finished it all. All I needed to do was blow the fake bridge. A single bloody bridge.

I was better than all those Kensington boys.

A whistle cracks the air. For what seems like the first time in hours, I look up. The sun has dropped behind the wall. Workers are hurrying across the wooden walkway.

Another hellish long day. Midges cloud around me.

‘Lightwood.’

He looks over, eyes wide. I already have my hand on the ladder.

‘Let’s close up shop, yeah?’

He nods, adds the final touches to some work, drops his pliers. We climb up to the light. I slide off my cap, take in as much sun as I can.

About John Owen Theobald

author

Born and raised in Eastern Canada, John moved to the UK to study the poetry of Keats, and in 2009 received a PhD from the University of St. Andrews. He lives in London, England.

You can follow John on Twitter, find him on Facebook and visit his website.

There’s more with these other bloggers too:

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