Tom slept fitfully, with the dragon-hunter's tale reverberating around his head. After tossing and turning for what seemed like ages, he arose early, washed and dressed quickly, then climbed the stairs to the quiet gloom of the bar. Overnight it had somehow acquired that slight smell of stale beer which always seemed to pervade public houses by morning light.
Tom found the landlady already awake, moving silently and efficiently around the rooms in the morning half-light, tidying away the detritus of the night before. He politely declined the offer of a cooked breakfast, gratefully accepting the alternative offer of a slice of toasted bread with lashings of butter and a steaming mug of tea.
Refreshed by his morning intake of caffeine, Tom bade his farewell to the landlady and set off at a brisk march to the causeway. The crossing was nearly deserted. This early in the morning, there were rather few people about, with just a single carter rather blearily guiding his horse across the causeway in the chill of a hazy spring morning.
Tom soon arrived at the guard post, where he was greeted by Ifor, who immediately recognised his old comrade from Cliviger Grange.
"Is Fred around?" Tom enquired urgently, "Isn't he on duty today?"
"Hmm," the little Welshman said, stroking his goatee reflectively, "He's definitely on duty. Not sure where he's got to right now, though. Try the signals tower."
Tom wanted to talk to someone informally, to get some idea of whether he was worrying unreasonably or if there was some grain of genuine concern to be found in his paranoia. He was extremely gratified that he was rapidly able to intercept the older Guardian, who was returning along the coastal path from the tower.
"What do you know about dragons?" Tom asked.
"A fair bit," he responded, "Nasty verminous creatures. Aren't any around here though."
The older man looked sharply at Tom.
"Have you been listening to tales?" he added shrewdly.
"Yes, from a man named Ged."
"The old Dragon-hunter?" Fred pressed.
"Yes, that's the man. Do you know him?"
Fred laughed aloud.
"Oh yes. He's an veteran teller of tall tales. I'm not sure you necessarily want to believe everything he tells you."
"Well, I know what you mean," Tom agreed, "I've certainly heard his anecdotes in the past. And it sounded all very well-practiced, if you know what I mean."
Tom paused, not sure how to continue.
"Even so, I think you should hear this story."
"Why?" Fred asked, his curiosity clearly piqued.
"I'm not sure. But I got the strong impression that this wasn't a practiced tale."
"Okay, I'll bite."
Tom rapidly related Ged's account of following the mysterious dragon-hunters, and their approach to capturing and imprisoning dragons unharmed.
When he explained about the untraceable disappearance of the hunting party, Fred looked at Tom askance for a moment.
"You sure about this?" he asked.
"Well, no," Tom answered, so honestly that it surprised both Fred and himself, "But I've been awake half the night worrying about it."
Fred looked thoughtful.
"Hmm," he said finally, "Sometimes you just have to trust your instincts. And this does have that ring of truth about it."
Suddenly full of resolution, the older man set off at a cracking pace along the path back towards the guard post. Taken unawares, Tom found himself stumbling along the same track, trying to catch up with the disappearing form of his senior colleague. By the time that he arrived, Fred was already shouting commands, and Guardians were scurrying in every direction.
"What's the urgency?" Tom gasped.
"Look, dragons are at their most active in the early morning," Fred shouted, "Now get that pump started!"
Bottling up further questions for later, Tom sprinted away in the direction of the guard post to find the keys and starting handle for the pump engine. The machinery itself was concealed behind a thicket that was little more than a thickening of the hedges that flanked the road.
Moving at the double to the pump, Tom was joined by Ifor. The two men unrolled the hosepipes as quickly as possible, running the longest of them down to the beach and across the sands to the slightly deeper channel where a little river drained into the sea, just as they had been drilled in exercises. Tom's boots sank into the marshy shoreline, the cold salt water filling his boots and making him curse under his breath.
The two men dumped the end of the pipe with its heavy filter into the deeper water, then they hurried back to the machine. Ifor, now joined by a couple of other Guardians, started connecting the hoses to the flanges emerging from the housings, while other pipes were rolled out towards the causeway. This left Tom to turn his attention to the power plant itself.
The pump engine was a pre-war installation, heavy and notoriously temperamental, or at least responded badly to inexperienced handling. Starting the machine was an exercise in itself. First, Tom had to unlock the wire-mesh door which prevented unauthorised tampering, and turn on several switches which allowed the ignition system to function. It was essential to open the petrol valve and prime the fuel supply, carefully and smoothly operating the hand pump to ensure that there were no airlocks in the fuel lines. Tom then set the choke lever fully open and used the crank handle to turn the engine over slowly a couple of times.
Then, and only then, Tom knew, it was possible to spin the starting handle hard and, if all the preparations had been done perfectly, the engine would burst into life, spewing blue fumes and the stench of unburned petrol into the air. As soon as the engine fired, Tom knew it was necessary to close the choke almost - but not quite - entirely allowing the engine to run for a couple of minutes to warm up before the choke could be closed completely.
With the details of the modus operandi rattling though his mind, Tom focussed as single-mindedly as he could on the correct starting procedure. Just as the engine fired, and he struggled with the choke lever, he could hear a series of cries, audible even over the roar of the engine. He looked up, glancing instinctively over the causeway. There seemed to be no traffic on the bridge, although the usual haze made it difficult to make out any kind of detail.
As Tom watched, a series of black dots appeared in the air over the crossing. To be visible at this range, he wondered, they must be huge. His military experience led to his first thought, that they were some kind of aircraft, but their speed and strange motions were all wrong.
Suddenly, a cry went up, seemingly evoked simultaneously from several throats.
Realisation striking, Tom set the throttle on the engine, and tugged on the levers which engaged the pump itself. The hoses lurched and bucked as they filled with water, while Tom fine-tuned the throttle settings so that the water pressure approached the working value.
According to the local scuttlebutt, the pump had been stripped out of a scrapped fire boat a decade or so before. Even so, the venerable pump was capable of throwing streams of sea water several hundred feet into the air. The jets were so powerful that it required two men on each nozzle to guide the flow of water.
Tom ran to join the other Guardians, who were clustering at the guard post.
"Why are they flying this way?" Fred shouted, "Dragons hate water!"
"Look there!" someone called.
There seemed to be something approaching on the causeway itself, a herd of some kind of animal.
"There's pigs on the bridge!" The same voice sounded.
Tom could see, breasting the arch of the bridge, several dozen or more pigs of all sizes, heading down the causeway in a seemingly unstoppable rush. He did not know that pigs could move that fast.
It occurred to Tom that the approach of the dragons had spooked the livestock in the farm he had noticed the day before. He felt sure that the dragons flying overhead caused the animals to panic and push their way out of the rather flimsy enclosure.
But that observation begged another question: even with all that was going on, Tom found a moment to wonder why the animals had chosen to run in the direction which leads to the causeway and, indeed, why the pigsties had been so recently erected so close to the crossing.
"The dragons can smell the pigs!" The voice, Tom now realised, was Ifor's.
"So that's what they are following," Fred responded.
Details of the briefings on dragons bubbled to the forefront of Tom's mind. He recalled that dragons have a good sense of smell, and they can sense their favourite prey at a considerable distance. They also have good eyesight, and used sight to hunt at short range. However, their hearing was rather poor, and it was clear that they were undeterred by the sounds of people shouting, or the noise of the pump engine.
The sight of the usually docile animals rushing headlong was quite a scary sight, and the Guardians seemed momentarily unable to move.
Fred, who had taken charge automatically, started shouting out orders.
"You three, barricade the causeway! And man those hoses! Move!"
At his instruction, the three men indicated started tugging on a length of stout iron railing and sliding it across the causeway entrance. Tom knew that this barrier had been carefully constructed to appear, at a casual glance, to be just a fixed part of the balustrade, but could be rapidly moved to close the crossing.
Several of the Guardians were directing rifle and machine gun fire at the dragons, which did not seem to be particularly effective. Tom recalled Ged's observation that dragons were difficult to hit when flying, because of their characteristically unpredictable movements.
"Shoot at the pigs!" he shouted, insight striking, "Stop them from crossing."
Several of the Guardians close to the crossing heard his shouts, and aimed their rifles along the causeway. There was a fusillade of shots, and several pigs at the front of the herd collapsed only fifty feet from the end of the crossing. Some of the animals behind tried to jump over their fallen brethren, while others seemed to stop, suddenly more afraid of what was waiting at the end of the causeway than the dragons flying overhead.
"Is that pump ready?" Fred shouted to Tom.
"Yes, Sir!" he responded smartly.
"Water cannon crews ready!" the older man yelled, "Wait for my command. Gotta get them close enough to be afraid of the water."
There was a chorus of affirmative cries from the crews to either side.
The flying dragons appeared to slow as they approached the pigs milling around. Perhaps, Tom thought, they were also becoming aware of the men not far away, and the water below them. The leading dragons began to circle the stricken beasts.
More men and women began to arrive, running up from the fenced camp Tom had once mistaken for an Army base. Some of the reinforcements rushed to assist the teams supporting the heavy pipes and nozzles, while others unlimbered firearms and took aim at the animals on the bridge and in the sky.
"Water cannon, fire!" Fred shouted.
With a roar, the powerful jets from four nozzles sprang out and converged on the flying reptiles. The animals panicked; as one, they veered away, striving to distance themselves from the streams of water.
"Don't let them get to land this side!" Fred instructed.
The cannon crews redoubled their efforts, straining against the force of the jets to direct their flows. Tom noticed that the dragons in flight still managed to avoid most of the water jets, but they would scream in panic when splashes fell on their wings. The Guardians armed with rifles also opened fire, adding to the noise and confusion, although not, Tom would consider later, with much effect on the flying lizards.
Eventually, the dragons were forced back to Lyndesfarne, flying close to the causeway as if it were some kind of lifeline from the terrifying water below them. The pack was last seen disappearing into the perpetual haze at the far end of the crossing.
In the aftermath, the only conclusion that could be drawn was that there was some kind of a plot to introduce lots of dragons simultaneously into England.
There was a debriefing session back at the Grange, where Major Markham rather formally congratulated the ranks for their swift and efficient reaction to the unexpected threat. He hinted obliquely at a "piece of timely intelligence", but did not publicly single out Tom as the source of that information.
The Major then turned over the remainder of the session to Fred, who explained to the group that, if the dragons had crossed, and managed to establish themselves, they would certainly have caused havoc across the countryside. It would have been hard to cover up, since the press in England could not avoid reporting the presence of large flying reptiles, and it would probably have forced the closure of the crossing. This was, Fred reported, very likely to have been the objective of the plan.
The dragons themselves seem to have disappeared.
"Quite probably, they've died by now. To be honest," Fred explained, "They could not have held in those dragons in cages for very long."
"Why not?" Tom asked, confused.
Fred's answer was a little disjointed, but Tom managed to pick up that dragons rapidly fall ill when caged or enclosed. They tended to damage themselves against the restraints or bars - despite their fearsome appearance, dragons are actually quite fragile and delicately constructed, so that they are light enough to fly.
Apparently, investigations by the Guardian force in Lyndesfarne and, Tom suspected, also by the secretive Watcher organisation were unable to turn up any clues as to the identity of the conspirators, despite their best efforts. He learned later that Old Ged the dragon-hunter was questioned closely, but he did not recognise very many of the other hunters. Even those he did recognise, the Lyndesfarne Guardians were not able to track down, itself a very worrying state of affairs.
Fred's last words to the group were chilling.
"There's still a war going on out there, my lads and lasses," he said sombrely, "And we're going to be in the front line for a while yet."
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