From Courting Danger

Chapter 1

A Cornish moorland, England.
April, 1943

“Over there, look.”

Stephen Sersanders adjusted his long limbs and stretched out on the damp earth. Resting on his elbows, he looked across the moorland landscape as instructed, using a pocket-sized telescope. In the distance there was conical hill or tor with what appeared to be two piles of disk-shaped boulders placed one upon the other. Apart from this, there was nothing but sheep-cropped turf and grey-green scrub. A bird lifted from a nearby boulder, chattering angrily at having to abandon a snail shell. “What am I looking for?” Stephen asked.

“That hill with those round-shaped rocks, look to the west, there’s a dead tree and –”

“Got it. That’s where the pool is on the map. The one we pass on the way to the hut.” Stephen rolled onto his side and pulled a silk handkerchief from a pocket. It was printed with a map of the area. He passed it to the young woman at his side. “

If we get nearer and go up the hill a bit, we can see if anyone’s following us,” she said.

“Bandits on the horizon,” Stephen chuckled.

“This isn’t a game.”

“No, I know that. It’s just that sometimes it reminds me of hare and hounds. We used to play it at school and . . . sorry, you’re right. Sorry.”

Libby Jeffrey gave her partner a sharp look. “Are you deliberately trying to get us failed, so you can go home?”

“No! Tell me what you want me to do and I’ll do it. You’re in charge today, not me.”

Libby gave him another searching look then pointed a grubby finger at the hill, “There’s a gap between the rocks.”

Stephen lifted his spyglass, “Got it. Could be a cave. Might even be able to squeeze in if we need to. Hey, we can escape the war and live with the spriggans until it’s over.”

“Oh, for Pete’s sake!” Libby snarled. “We need to get through this test unseen and complete the task if we’re to get into the final selection round. And I for one do not intend to fail.”

“Sorry, Libby.”

“Spriggans,” Libby scoffed, pushing badly cut dull brown hair out of her eyes to squint at the rock face. “The sidhe are a damned sight more dangerous than spriggans.”

Stephen blinked, surprised at her knowledge and attitude. Tucking the map into a pocket, he said, “I didn’t think you’d know about that sort of thing.”

“My mother was born in Brittany; I know all about menhirs and portals into the Otherworld. Someone was telling me about a local stone circle a few days ago, as it happens.”

Stephen rolled onto his back and gazed at the cloudy sky. “It would certainly make this current hell more bearable, knowing that it’s all temporary, just an unpleasant stop along life’s long journey.”

“Save your existential philosophy for later, Sersanders,” Libby ordered, panning the area through her own small telescope.

“Yes, boss. What’s next?”

“We get to those rocks, have a quick look around then cross the open area to the hut as instructed.”

Libby slammed shut her spyglass and stuffed it into her shoulder bag then pulled the bag across her dumpy body and scrambled to a crouching position. Small and sturdy, she was well camouflaged in brown civilian clothing and covered the uphill terrain with surprising agility.

Stephen Sersanders looked back at where they had last seen their enemy. There was no sign of movement; no indication they were being followed. That didn’t mean they would make it to the rendezvous point unhindered though. He checked his watch. Twelve minutes to get off the open moorland without being detected or followed. Staying hunkered down and checking behind him, he made his way uphill to the rocks.

Libby was nowhere to be seen. Stephen slithered behind a large, smooth boulder and turned to check out the pool. It was almost circular, with a lip of straggly, self-seeded bushes and brambles. Not particularly large but the centre appeared black, suggesting it was very deep.

“Christ!” Stephen froze: a man was emerging from the water. “Libby!” he gasped.

“I know,” she hissed, leaning out from behind a discus-shaped rock. “Keep still.”

Stephen squinted at the man, calculating the distance between them. A hundred yards perhaps. The form wasn’t moving. “He’s not in uniform. Is he one of our lot? I can’t see his face. Do you think he’s injured?”

“No idea. Major Watkins didn’t say anything about recovering casualties either.”

Stephen tugged open his spyglass and studied the upper torso of the prone figure. Adult male in civilian clothes. “He could be part of our test. Looks as if he needs help, though.”

“It’s a dummy, dummy. They’ve put it there to test us,” Libby retorted.

“Doesn’t look like a dummy to me. We ought to check. It might be an accident. He might need help.”

“It’ll use up too much time. It’s a test: to see if we get side-tracked and off task. Leave it. We’ll tell them when we get back.”

“Oh, Libby, I don’t know. What if he’s hurt . . .”

“You’re dithering again, Sersanders. You’ll get us failed. They’ve put out an injured dummy to side-line us. Suppose, hypothetically, he does need help? All right, but he’s only one person, and our task is the equivalent of saving dozens, hundreds – thousands of lives, if you look at it in the long run.” Stephen nodded. “Besides, I’m in charge and I say we get to the hut and do what we have to. I’m not going to risk failing because some idiot fell in a hole.”

As soon as they got back to the army training base – a grand house named Penmerrick – Stephen Sersanders sought out an officer. “Major Watkins, sir, the body in the pool. Was it a dummy?”

“What body, Sersanders?”

Stephen brushed a hand through his mousy hair and gave a sigh. “I knew I should have checked,” he said, and explained what they’d seen.

When he saw Libby at supper, he said, “Watkins has contacted the landowner. He said we did the right thing, not stopping.”

“Good. That means we’ll get through.”

“You’ll make an excellent special ops agent, Libby.”

“I know,” the young woman grinned, “so will you, if you stop trying to save everyone along the way.”