A prequel to New Bridge to Lyndesfarne, this story is set partially in England in 1946, and partially in the world of Lyndesfarne. In Lyndesfarne, all but the simplest technology does not work, but a sophisticated society functions using pervasive magic. The story follows three young men - Alistair, Bram and Tom - who have become friends and comrades in the Army. After their return from Germany and demobilisation, the friends have no very clear idea of their future life. Neither Tom nor Alistair has close living relatives, and Bram seems unwilling to return to his family. They travel to northern England and find summer work on a farm not farm from the Island of Lyndesfarne.
"So what are you going to do with the rest of your life?" Bram asked his companions.
Alistair looked quietly contemplative, or perhaps just befuddled for a moment.
"I really have no idea," he answered eventually, and then added, "But anything's better than being in the Army."
The third occupant of the carriage compartment, who had been staring out though the grimy window at the darkened countryside rushing past, turned to face them.
"I want, no, I need to have a purpose, an objective, some proper place in the world," Tom said, with a surprising amount of passion given the lateness of the hour, "I just want to feel that I was doing something worthwhile."
Alistair drowsily grunted his approval, already on the verge of sleep. Bram nodded thoughtfully.
The three young men who were travelling together had been friends and comrades in the Army. After the conclusion of hostilities in Germany and Japan, and the end of what people were already calling the Second World War, their military service had been abruptly terminated.
Their demobilisation had been eagerly anticipated but, even so, it had happened with a speed and efficiency that had surprised them all. They had arrived on a troopship at Southampton, the last stage of their journey home after serving in central Europe. All three felt tired and sick after the sea trip, as none of them were particularly good sailors. Their platoon had then been transported by truck to the Aldershot barracks. Tom, who was a northerner by upbringing, was not entirely sure exactly where Aldershot was, and finally concluded that it was just "somewhere in the south of middle England".
After a short stay in the barracks, with a minimum of military discipline, they had been issued with civilian clothing, travel warrants and their back pay, and then turned loose.
Neither Tom nor Alistair had any very close family. Tom's parents had died under mysterious circumstances while he was still a child. He had been brought up by his Granny, his mother's mother, but she too had died during the War. He had been overseas at the time, and was unable to attend the funeral. He nevertheless felt duty-bound to pay a brief visit to his grandmother's sister, who still lived in the county of Kent, in order to offer his condolences.
Alistair's family lived in the far north of Scotland. His father had died when he was very young. This was said to have been a terrible accident, involving a very grand gentleman during the grouse- shooting season. Alistair's father had been supplementing his income from the smallholding by acting as a beater on a shoot. The full circumstances, according to everything he had heard over the years, were peculiar, even mysterious. After the accident, his mother, utterly overcome by grief and anger, was never in good health again, and had passed away shortly after Alistair joined the Army. He had a letter requesting that he make an appointment with a solicitor in London; something to do with wills and inheritance, he had been informed.
Tom already knew that Bram had family ties in North East England, not far from the Scottish border. Bram had already mentioned that he had some business to attend to in London, although he was vague on the details.
Since all three of them had commitments in or around the capital, they decided to regroup in a few days time. As planned, they had met up in a popular public house just outside King's Cross railway station in London. This particular pub was located partially under the railway bridge arches, with the inner rooms actually formed from the archways themselves.
It was getting dark on that summer's evening, and the weather had been warm and muggy for days. Fortunately, the inside of the pub, especially the back rooms, was relatively cool although rather dark and smoky. It was crowded and very noisy, with the sounds of raucous voices bouncing off the brickwork of the arched ceiling.
Tom, whose compact and wiry frame made him a first choice for this kind of manoeuvre, weaselled his way to the bar where, after a few frustrating minutes of trying to catch her eye, the barmaid disinterestedly pulled three pints of ale. Tom wound his way back through the crowd to his companions, clutching the precious beer tankards to his chest.
Typically, Bram managed to find them a table to themselves in the jam-packed pub. Despite that fact that the entire bar was heaving, a group of travellers drained their pints and stood up just as the three of them were passing, and they were able to slip into the recently- vacated seats almost before anyone else had noticed.