“We need to get moving or we’ll lose the dark.” Art was twitchy, unlike him, the lure of home one yomp away was obviously unsettling him. The farm, their final staging ground before their run for home, was well over a four-hour trek cross-country even for fit men. The ground was hard going, deep banked little rivulets and larger streams, dry stone walls and barbed wire fences to master, steep hills, loosely grounded descents where someone could go tumbling, even without the lack of light.
Too risky to use the roads given the search for a missing local woman and child said the farmer, one of them; they all knew what that might mean. Can’t stay here either, they are constantly coming to all the little farms and isolated cottages, asking for help, information. Their relief had just arrived and were packing up to go just before dawn, taking their van with them. Conversation between them was muted, anxious about the next stages of their journeys.
The girl was still dead weight. They all had backpacks to carry, their kit from the past few weeks of absence, and weapons, military rifles that at a distance would be confused for hunting rifles, poachers out for the deer, the least of the police’s priorities at the moment. They might be needed though. Sam just assumed he would shoulder her. She was simply limp, mute, unresponsive, but at least calm. When the others tried to share the burden by spelling him, took his pack and weapon, then later tried to carry her, she shrank back, became agitated, until they relented. Sam just bore her along, saying nothing, breathing hard. Another cold night up here, little breeze, clearish skies, the mist was falling. Nearly home.
She had slept late, eight thirty, unusual for her. Must be getting old. How many times have I thought that this weekend already? Up, breakfast, quick tidy up after last night, get ready for their arrival. They will have been travelling since first thing, probably earlier. Could be here any minute.
Where had they left it last night? In the cold light of a new day, last night’s new certainties, answers, seemed much less clear than they had done. Had he really agreed the things she asked? Not so sure now. He had revealed real emotion, deep feeling for her, more than ever before, but she had become so unwound that she hadn’t really taken it all in. Still, the tenderness, the closeness, the hair, perhaps that was all the proof she would ever want. The door buzzer rang out. To business, that must be them, into work mode now.
She let them in, a plumpish bespectacled middle-aged man, his slim teenage daughter, who would be pretty if she could be bothered, jeans, sweat shirts, country coats, almost matching pair really. She smiled fondly, better get the tea on: they won’t touch coffee because that’s what Yanks drink.
“Good to see you both again, thanks for coming, hope you are well? Tea’s brewing. The dining room’s all set up for you, here are the sticks. Just to confirm, the standard protocols apply, you take away nothing from here, read nothing, ask nothing, send out nothing, okay? Can I have your phones now? You will as always get them back when you leave. I’ll set up the guest rooms for you if you think you will need to stay. Let me know what you want to eat and drink, and I will try to provide. I’m not going out today, so let me know what you want when you need it? Hopefully, this will bring your little island a few months closer.”
Whatever they may be elsewhere, they were always truly professional and domesticated here. Well-mannered even. No tinfoil hats at all. Within ten minutes they were at work, quietly, then conferring animatedly, then quiet again. She always left the dining room ajar when they were here, not that she didn’t trust them…
Fifty-five minutes later, a quiet exclamation of success, surely not so quickly? She put her head round the door.
He looked up at her, then at the girl, then to her screen.
“That’s the first cipher broken, definitely another one beneath. Bit disappointing really, it was based on an old US mid-level cipher widely shared with NATO allies, out-of-date now. Someone has tried to customise it, decent job, but a flawed approach. Can we have some biscuits and more tea please?”
Two o’clock has passed. Sandwiches and more tea provided.
Progress much slower now, time dragging, until another, more girlish exclamation.
She went to the door, the girl’s eyes fixed on the screen while his were shining with paternal pride.
“I told you she would be better than me one day! Cipher based on squares of Arabic numerals, home-made, but not bad at all. But we’ve found another below, whoever this is may not be the most sophisticated or expert, but they are certainly thorough.”
Another two and a half hours, they will be needing to stay. I was hoping to avoid that, have something to give him, an excuse to see him again, see if it’s as I hope or fear. Better go in and see if they want something else to eat. Just as she entered the room, he stood up and made a gesture of triumph, kissing his daughter on the head.
“We’ll share that one, she and I, the power of two, eh?”
“All done so soon?”
He nodded, still grinning.
“Based on an old Turkish alphabetic script that’s all, a few times removed; simple once you know how. We just guessed they were linked by middle-eastern languages and numerals, looks like the files are in alternate sentences of Arabic and Turkish. Wonder-girl’s just making your two copies before we scrub the rest. As you are such a good customer I’ll throw in a couple of middle-eastern translation discs for you gratis. Don’t worry, we don’t understand a word.”
She smiled at them and gave them a bow.
“I wouldn’t use any one else on this and you haven’t let me down, as ever.”
The daughter handed her two sticks and two translation discs, smiling bashfully. It wasn’t her business to meddle; perhaps she would find her own way without breaking his heart. She went to the safe while they were wiping the hard drives, then taking them out and breaking them with a small hammer on the cutting board. The people down below would be complaining again. When she returned, everything was piled up on the dining table. All they had left were their wallets, car keys, clothes and the phones she returned to them. She handed them the small nylon bag containing their payment.
“There’s a small personal bonus in there, recognition for such a good job. It’s in Swedish Kroner; I know you don’t like the Euro or Dollar.”
As she let them out, acting on impulse, she gave a huge bouquet of flowers standing in the hall to the girl, who beamed something new. He just smiled indulgently. She couldn’t resist the hope he would let his daughter spend some of the bonus on some nice clothes and a haircut, it was such a waste.
She couldn’t stop smiling; he would have to come over to hear her news.
They were past dawn now, on the rolling down slopes into the valley, the wooded hills and moorland thinning out as they descended. They really felt as if they had been walking all night: Sam was near to exhaustion carrying the girl, lurching like something out of a low budget horror film, but she was holding him tight now as if sensing the extremity of his effort to bear her to safety.
Alan watched them from his peripheral vision, worrying that Sam would keel over and topple down into one of the rocky steep sided hill streams, but knew better than try to separate them again. Art and Georgy remained watchful, one just in front and the other behind, should be safe here, but things kept changing and they weren’t going to drop their guard at the last minute. They were hungry and thirsty, but unspokenly agreed to keep going, not to stop to eat and drink, not least because Sam would not be able to get up again. On they went, downwards to the valley’s head, the rising sun now above the hilltops behind them, warming their backs, encouraging them for one last effort. One last twist in the slowly widening valley, and there it was a mile and a half away, St. Leonnorus, the outermost parish and village, settled only for the past sixty years.
Just a couple of small farms nearer, lying back just off the track, almost fortified. An early farmer, bringing in his few cattle for milking, waved to them and beckoned them over to talk. Alan shook his head and pressed on to the village, they would go straight to the house of the Steward, Iltud, to make their return known, where he knew they would face a fine welcome and better breakfast. And just maybe Martha might be able to help with the girl. Sam, Samson, picked up the pace; he was almost home.
Martha had just started to prepare breakfast when the front door banged open and four filthy, hardly recognisable men stepped in carrying weapons, packs, smiles of relief and one blanket wrapped bundle in Sam’s arms.
“Sam,” her face beamed her delight to the boy, now man, she had come to think of as her adoptive son. He had been placed with them when he had first staggered in, years before, bewildered, lean, suspicious, almost feral, escorted by a couple of the other “outside boys” as she called them. He had stayed for months and, despite time in the harbour with the monks of the monastery just outside their little capital, then working where he was asked and now one of the “outside boys” serving in Logres, he still thought of her home as his; she still kept his room inviolate.
“Mum,” her heart always rose when he called her that, his only true mum he said, “I’ve got someone here who needs you and your magic, just like you gave me.”
She could see he was almost feverish with exhaustion, a tough, even hard boy, beyond his final limits of endurance. He collapsed into the small leather settee near the just lit fire, still clutching his blanketed bundle with only a small, darkish skinned, almost haggard, childish face poking out, eyes flicking about randomly, trying to take in her new surroundings. Martha looked at the others, almost as far gone as the sitting Sam.
“You three, don’t just stand there, take your boots off, speed up the fire, wash up, get changed, whatever. Oh, and one of you go up to the barn at the back and bring Iltud down. And don’t go upstairs, we’ve got new guests, a woman and boy, they’ll be down soon enough.” By then they were almost cowering at her barked instructions, “Come and sit in the kitchen while I cook up some more breakfast and tell me the news. Sam, I will be out to see you with a cup of tea in a minute? Are you alright there a bit longer?”
His tired smile was answer enough.
© 1642again 2018