It was the evening before the graduation ceremony at Cliviger Grange. This was the point at which Tom, Alistair and the others in their intake would cease to be trainees at the Reserve Defence Training Establishment, and become probationary members of the Guardian forces.
There had been something of a celebratory atmosphere in the mess-room that evening. The meal time had been unusually noisy, with much loud conversation and the comparing of notes. Much of the conversation was discussing what their new postings were going to be. The official list had appeared on the notice board earlier that day, and the group of trainees had flocked around to find out what the official recommendations for their future was going to be.
It seemed that their destinations would be many and varied, and Tom wondered how easy it would be to keep in touch over the coming months and years.
Alistair already knew that he would be joining the Guides, and would therefore be embarking on an extremely itinerant way of life. Tom, along with Ifor and some of the others, would be attached to the mainstream Guardian forces at the causeway. This would mean shortly moving to another part of the brick-built barracks blocks at the Grange.
Other members of their intake would soon be going their separate ways, too. Stan and Charlie, whose innate skill with the language of Lyndesfarne had gained a head start from their childhood exposure with their extended family, would be joining the Guild of Directions, moving over to live in Lyndesfarne for the foreseeable future. In their case, however, they were to train as interpreters, working within the Guild itself to translate documents of all kinds.
Tom had wondered about this role. Stan had rather diffidently explained that, while there were a fair number of people who were fluent in both languages, for certain politically-sensitive documents, or those with a highly technical content, it was vital to provide an authorised translation in order to avoid embarrassing or even dangerous misunderstandings.
Sophia, whose rather direct personality and considerable physical presence had drawn her to the attention of the Warden. She was also to be attached to the Guardians. Tom was given to understand that it was considered to be advantageous to have both men and women on duty at the crossing, given the very occasional necessity to carry out close body searches on suspected smugglers. Tom rather suspected that Sophia would be in her element with her devil-may-care attitude, not to mention the confidence she had gained during the hand-to-hand combat training undertaken by Mister Giles.
Marjorie, who usually managed to conceal an exceptionally astute and slightly intimidatingly quick mind behind the facade of bubbly cheerfulness, would be retained at the Grange for 'additional instruction'. This, Tom understood, was a euphemism for her induction into one of the unnamed intelligence-gathering organisations whose existence had not quite been fully admitted during their briefing sessions.
She would be joining a select group occupying a set of quiet offices on the top floor of the old house, poring over reports, and producing summaries and recommendations for those in charge. Tom suspected Marjorie's job was probably a supporting role for the responsibility he had earlier discovered Bram's father Briz maintained.
Later that evening, Tom and Alistair in the sleeping quarters they had shared throughout their months as trainees. They were rummaging though their lockers, sorting through the odds and ends that seemed to have accumulated like mushrooms in the darkness.
Tom had decided that the easiest way to manage the transfer from one set of barracks to the other was to pack all of his belongings into his kitbag. This was, he considered easier than making several trips, and in any case he did not actually have a great deal of stuff.
Alistair had a more difficult task. Although the Travellers' Guidance Group was based in Cliviger Grange, he would not have a permanent domicile in the buildings. Guides used the Visitor's dormitories from time to time, but the only private space that Alistair would have was a tiny locker in a dingy and infrequently-visited basement of the old house.
Alistair picked up his Grandfather's pocket-watch, and stood holding it thoughtfully for a few moments, turning it over and over in his hands. Finally, he turned to Tom.
"Could you do me a favour?" he asked.
"Of course. What can I do for you?"
He held up the watch by its chain.
"Could you look after this for me?" he said carefully, "I think it's quite valuable and, more importantly, it's the only thing I have left from the old man."
"Well, of course," Tom agreed, "But why leave it with me?"
"I'll be travelling a lot over the next few months," Alistair repied, "In and out of Lyndesfarne. I'm certain that this old watch is far too delicate to risk taking through the barrier to Lyndesfarne, especially if I'm going to be whizzing back and forth like a blue-arsed fly. So I want to leave it somewhere safe, and I don't want it mouldering in a locker I may not get to attend very frequently."
Tom grinned then nodded his agreement. Alistair handed over the watch, and the other man carefully wrapped the watch in a scrap of cloth, carefully packing it away amongst his own things in his rucksack.
Alistair returned to his rummaging. At the back of the cupboard, he located the strange pendant he had found while digging ditches around Holme Farm the previous summer, still contained in the flat box made of that curious material he had originally mistaken for metal.
He had carefully cleaned both box and pendant one rainy evening at the farm, brushing away the decomposed tissue paper that had originally protected the ornament. Although he had been unable to remove the tarnish on the metal setting, the stone itself had succumbed to copious quantities of what Tom's Granny would have referred to as 'elbow grease', and now shone with what seemed to be a faint inner green glow in all but the brightest of conditions.
Alistair opened the stoneware container and pulled out the pendant, holding it up for Tom's inspection by the length of bailing twine he had threaded through the setting's fixing loop.
"Remember this?" he asked.
Tom reached over and cupped the ornament in the palm of his hand. It felt cool against his skin. The stone glowed gently, shadowed from the fading sunlight which slanted through the window behind him. He squinted closer, peering at the curious markings now clearly visible on the surface of the stone. Even with his new-found understanding of the language of Lyndesfarne, he still could not fathom any kind of meaning from the engravings.
After a few moments study, he concluded that, although the markings were some kind of writing, it was one he did not understand. He remained uncertain whether the language was from some foreign part of his own world, or conceivably from some other part of the world of Lyndesfarne.
"It's rather a beautiful thing," he said softly to Alistair, releasing his gentle hold on the artefact.
"Isn't it?" the other man replied, "Quite something to find in a ditch."
Tom nodded his agreement, then returned to his delving in the recesses of his own storage compartments.
Alistair seemed unsure of what to do with the pedant he had found all those months ago. He looked at Tom askance then, appearing to come to a decision, he rewrapped the ornament carefully and slipped it back into its curiously-finished ceramic box.
Alistair interrupted Tom's housekeeping, clearing his throat discreetly.
The other man looked up, already smiling wryly at the question he anticipated from Alistair.
"Could you look after this as well?"
"Of course. I'd be delighted," he said, rather formally.
He took the stone box and packed it carefully in his bag, nestling close to the old watch.
Later, long after Tom had moved into his new barracks - he was now sharing a tiny dormitory with Ifor - and Alistair had departed on his peregrinations, Tom once again pulled out the mysterious stoneware box. He opened it, meticulously extracted the pendant from its wrapping of tissue paper, and dangled it once again from his fingers. He wondered idly if there was any connection between the ornament and the strange antics of the old gleaners in the fields he had watched so assiduously the previous summer.
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