It had become clear to Tom that all of the trainees Guardian were based at the Reserve Defence Training Establishment. The months of his induction training were mostly undertaken here, apart from a few short duty periods at the crossing itself. Cliviger Grange was also used as a reserve base for qualified Guardians, as a backup to the fenced-in base close to the causeway which Tom had mistaken for an Army camp on his first visit.
Although not formally confined to the Grange at all times, the winter weather was sufficiently inclement that there was little incentive for the trainees to venture out to one of the local pubs. This was a particularly nasty winter evening in February, with freezing fog being blown off the sea making even the few steps from the accommodation blocks to the main building unpleasantly cold and damp.
A small group had gathered in the large room used as a mess by the off-duty trainees. Tom had arrived late, having been brought back to the Grange in the back of a lorry after one of their short orientation sessions at the crossing itself. At least he had returned in time to get something to eat, he thought, although the food was past its best by the time he had got to it.
After bolting his food, Tom joined the others from his intake group, who were sitting around a rather meagre fire and engaging in desultory conversation. The room was not actually particularly cold, but the damp and chill seemed to be permeating the room. This added to the general feeling of slight despondency, Tom felt. Ifor had made mugs of cocoa for the company, but even this had done little to dispel the rather gloomy atmosphere.
In general, the NCOs in charge of the new recruits did not socialise, but various staff members and even officers seemed to be in the habit of dropping into the mess on odd occasions. Fred, who Tom now understood to have some kind of informal training role in the organisation, put his head around the door. Observing the uncharacteristically silent company, he entered the room, closing the door quietly behind him.
"Gloomy old night, isn't it," he remarked cheerily, pulling up another chair and joining the group clustering around the fire, "Puts me in mind of another night, not so long ago."
Tom perked up at these words, as did the others. Several of the company had heard Fred's stories before, and the most of the rest had heard them related second- or even third-hand.
"So you'd be interested in hearing a tale?" Fred asked, rather rhetorically.
He had apparently sensed the mood, and seemed happy enough to be the centre of attention. Tom nodded enthusiastically, and was joined by several others.
"Now, perhaps not all of you will have heard this one, not even you two," he began.
He indicated the cousins Charlie and Stan with a nod of his head. There was already a perceptible lightening of the mood in the room.
"This was back in the winter at the beginning of 1941," he continued, "When much of the country had been bombed during the blitz and there was an expectation of an invasion at any time."
Fred leaned back in his chair, accepting a mug of cocoa from Ifor and thanking him with a nod of the head before continuing.
"A commando force landed by night on the mainland from a German submarine - a U-boat, as they were called. The sub had managed to evade the destroyer patrols in the North Sea, slipping across from the Baltic Sea and the submarine pens of Hamburg."
The room was hushed, all of them hanging on Fred's every word. Only the soft crackle of the fire and the noise of the wind outside broke the silence.
"We discovered later that the task force had landed as three separate squads of six men each, using inflatable boats, at three different points. We found their boats not very well hidden along the coast away to the south of the crossing."
The other man continued with what sounded like a well-practised narrative, but Tom wondered if this was more to do with Fred's abilities as a teller of tales, rather than because it was a story he had told many times before.
"I know that you're becoming familiar with the lie of the land thereabouts," he began.
"Those rocks are dreadful!" Tom interjected, "They must have been taking a terrible risk."
Fred nodded slowly.
"That's true enough," he said thoughtfully, rubbing his chin, "They landed at high water, at the dead of night, using rubber boats and many men to fend off the reefs as they made their way inshore. They also managed to evade our shore patrols and regroup somewhere - we never found out exactly where."
"There must have been a pressing reason to land like that," Tom insisted, "What were they trying to achieve?"
"Well, obviously they planned a stealthy attack on the Guardians on our side of the causeway," Fred responded, "But it never became clear what the objective of the raid actually was. They could not have expected to hold the causeway for very long, so they must have been expecting reinforcements."
"But from where?" Ifor asked suddenly, having drawn up a chair for himself and sat down silently while Fred was speaking. "No-one seems to know," the old Guardian answered.
"But could they not have been planning to blow up the bridge?" the little Welshman pressed.
"I don't think so. No explosives were ever found."
"So what actually happened?" Ifor asked, evidently speaking for them all.
Fred settled back, and continued with his tale-telling.
"Now, at that time, there was an unprecedented level of cooperation between the Guardians and the regular military. In some instances, some of my colleagues would join a patrol of the coast. Anyway, one of the indications we had was the discovery, by one of these combined patrols, of broken German radio equipment on the beach."
"How did they know that it was German?" Sophia asked, characteristically bluntly.
"Well, the markings on the dials were not in English, for one thing," Fred responded amusedly, "But it was the presence of a dead radio operator which really gave the game away."
There was a collective sigh in the room at this piece of intelligence.
"In those days, we were all well-drilled in uniform recognition," the older man continued, "And, as far as they could tell, the soldier had lost his footing and fallen from the cliff-side path."
Tom had patrolled some of these cliff-top paths himself, and he knew how treacherous the whole area could be. The edge of the cliff was often difficult to see, and had had first-hand experience of sliding precariously on the loose stones and slippery grass. He could certainly imagine that it would be all too easy to slip and fall, especially in poor weather, and even more so when carrying a heavy pack.
"Unfortunately," Fred continued, "The discovery of the dead soldier wasn't soon enough. When they found him, it was just beginning to get light. By that time they must have been ashore for hours."
The older man explained that the surprise discovery in the first glow of the false dawn caused the patrol to set off at full tilt for the nearest point with a field telephone, which was a couple of miles away. It was almost too late: by the time the call came into the command post, the base was already under attack. Tom already knew that the command post was within the fenced encampment near the causeway, and would have to be neutralised if a military force intended to capture the causeway.
Fred was silent for a few moments, then continued.
"It was probably just as well," he said slowly, "That we had in fact received a tip-off from the Watchers. It was vague in the extreme, even by the usual standards of their intelligence. There was nothing specific - just a generalised warning that some kind of an attack was imminent."
He paused again.
"But it was enough for us to be on the alert. We had posted additional guards and patrols, and everyone on duty had been persuaded of the need for extra vigilance."
In the event, it was explained, the alarm was raised almost simultaneously by the telephone call from the shore patrol and by a cry, followed almost immediately by a shot, from the perimeter guards. Some brave but unsung hero on patrol managed to get a warning shot off just before he was garrotted.
"You have to imagine a night much like this, with the Guardians struggling out in the dire weather to face who-knows-what."
Fred stopped his account to look around the group of listeners, meeting the eyes of each of them in turn as if trying to judge their reaction under this kind of extreme circumstances.
"As it turned out, the attackers were heavily outnumbered and, without the element of complete surprise, they were quickly routed. There was an intense fire-fight in almost complete darkness. For some reason, the searchlights failed and other lighting was erratic. Half of the attackers were killed, and the rest injured to a greater or lesser extent. Three Guardians were killed, including the luckless guard who raised the alarm, as well as the - then - Warden."
"Is that when Major Markham took over?" Tom asked.
"Er, well, no," Fred explained, "We had a couple of temporary Wardens for a while. The Major's only been in post for a year or so."
"So where are the PoWs now?" Ifor inquired. The Welshman had clearly been following the tale with great attention.
"Good question. Frankly, I don't know, and I don't much care. They were, I'm sure, just professional soldiers doing their job. But, more importantly, the invaders clearly knew their target, and how to get to it. They certainly knew not to attempt a sea crossing directly to the Other World. And all this must have been based on some intelligence. Who knows how that was gathered?"
Tom and the others joined in the general shaking of heads at this revelation.
"So we were forced to the conclusion," Fred continued, "That the German High Command - perhaps even Hitler himself - was aware of the existence of the crossing and the Other World. In the immediate aftermath, there was some pressure - as there so often is, it seems - to have the crossing closed immediately."
He paused again, taking a deep breath to steady himself.
"But it does seem as if luck was on our side. It would have been much worse if the invaders had not had so much difficulty with their weapons."
"Difficulties?" Ifor interjected, "What do you mean?"
"Almost all of their machine guns jammed or misfired after a few bursts, for some reason. Most mysterious."
These remarks provoked a reprise of some earlier thoughts in Tom's mind. He had already been having his suspicions that Lyndesfarne magic can - sometimes - work in the other world. He was beginning to wonder if there are exceptions, or perhaps there are ways of getting magical artefacts out of Lyndesfarne and into England so that they still work.
"Mercifully, I suppose the outcome was fortuitous," Fred continued, interrupting Tom's ruminations.
"What do you mean?" the younger man asked
. "Well, think of the High Command's perception of events. They get a single radio message that the landing itself was successful. And then there's nothing at all - no messages, and no communications from their other sources - agents and so on - at least none that we've identified. As far as we understand, the mission was deemed a failure.
"What was your part in this story?" Ifor asked.
"Ah. Well funny you should ask."
Fred stood up slowly and slipped off his jacket, hanging it neatly over the back of his chair. He then unbuttoned his shirt, pulling it open to reveal a puckered scar just below his ribs on the left side of his torso.
Tom had seen enough battlefield injuries to realise what had happened.
"You were shot," he said.
"Right enough, lad," the older man replied laconically, "Picked up a bullet during the fire-fight. Wasn't sure whether I'd make it for a while."
Fred refastened his shirt.
"I still have my rounds to complete," he explained apologetically, as he slipped out of the mess.
It was quiet in the room after Fred left - just a low buzz of conversation around the fire from the trainees discussing the story they had just heard. Tom was not engaged in the conversations, somehow letting the chat pass in one ear and out the other, as his Granny would probably have said. Eventually, the others grew quiet and went off to bed, leaving Tom in the room alone, still sitting by the dying embers of the fire.
Tom was left wondering about the objectives of the attack and, more interestingly, anything similar happened on the other side. He wondered if the attackers had anticipated some kind of reinforcements from the other side of the crossing. This would certainly make sense. Otherwise, it was just a suicide mission with no real objective. The invaders would need magical support whatever the aim: to force the crossing closed, they would need magical forces to be effective against the no-doubt determined efforts from both sides. Similarly, to hold the crossing open for their own use, they would need defences against whatever technology or magic the Guardians could deploy against them.
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