Summary:— This is an Uberfic set in Great Britain in 1942. Zena Mathews, a young New Zealand woman, and her navigator Gabrielle Parker now work as pilots for a secret British Government organisation, part of SOE—Special Operations Executive. They fly on a mission involving fishing-boats; secret meetings out in the North Sea; spies; gun-running; and difficulties in piloting their Supermarine Walrus.
Disclaimer:— MCA/Universal/RenPics own all copyrights to everything related to ‘ Xena: Warrior Princess ' and I have no rights to them.
“— because its schedule is so exact.” Zena tried her best to explain to her friend. “They send fishing boats out from Shetland over to Norway with equipment or agents or commandos. And there are so many of these trips it's become a sort'a scheduled procedure; so they called it the Shetland Bus.”
“I get it.” Gabrielle nodded happily, having finally gottten the point. “Like catching a No.19 bus from Holborn to Bloomsbury. But ain't that rather dangerous, Zena? I mean, if they stick to a schedule don't the Germans just turn up in the right place at the right time an' bomb them to hell an' back?”
“Gods Gabrielle, the timetable's not that strict.” Zena groaned in despair. “They ain't idiots. It's just that, over the course of a week say, they make one or two trips. Sort'a regular; but not that regular. And, of course, they don't stick rigidly to exactly the same route each time. That's how they do it.”
August was drawing slowly to a close. Which, there in the Orkney's, simply meant that the cold days and nights were merely becoming all the colder. Scapa Flow was as busy as ever; with a fair percentage of the Royal Navy's warships, and supply ships, at anchor in the sheltered waters. While Flying Officer Zena Mathews and Flying Officer Gabrielle Parker, late of the Air Transport Auxiliary and now part of a shadowy Government Department linked to the secretive Special Operations Executive, sat in their Nissen hut going over the details of their next covert aerial expedition.
Gabrielle, as was her wont, reclined gracefully on a straight-backed wooden chair beside the one and only desk; with feet comfortably resting on the edge of her low bed, to one side of the long but relatively narrow hut. Zena sat more properly in the accepted manner, poring over a set of maps. They both wore heavy cotton khaki men's shirts, woollen pullovers, slacks, and warm boots. Scapa Flow was not celebrated for its warm climate. The latest coded telegraph message from their London HQ had arrived a couple of hours ago, and they were now deep in preparations for the required trip. A top-secret information file they had brought with them from London included details about the Shetland operation; and was the source of both women's present knowledge.
“It said in the file that the bus people were part of SOE as well, Zena.” Gabrielle made this remark casually, as she watched her friend studying the maps. “Gods, that mob seem t'have their fingers in every pie going.”
“The SOE?” Zena looked across at the blonde girl, nodding in agreement. “Yeah. They certainly like to diversify, that's for sure. But it's one way of winning this damn war, I suppose.”
“So, lem'me get this straight, a fishing boat crewed entirely by Norwegian nationals is on its way out into the North Sea from Norway.” Gabrielle held the telegraph message in her hand as she spoke. “It ain't coming all the way over to its usual base at Lunna Ness in North Shetland, though. Around 3pm we'll meet it at sea, near something called the Viking Bank; some kind'a shoal. We'll land on the water beside them and transfer cargo from the boat to our plane, along with an agent. Then vice-versa we transfer our cargo to them. The boat will then turn and head back to Norway. While we return hotfoot to Lunna Ness; where we off-load said cargo and man. Then we come home to Scapa.”
“Precisely.” Zena had leaned back; her examination of the maps finished. “Good God Gabrielle, you make it sound so complicated; but it'll all work out as—as—as nice as ninepence, you'll see. Give ya a chance to practice your sea take-off's and landing's, anyway. You remember the last time you landed the old Walrus on the Northern section of the Flow; beside that battleship? What was it, three weeks ago? Ya damn nearly took the head off an Admiral in his launch, as you skimmed low overhead on your approach.”
“Humph.” The blonde, and slightly affronted, subject of this un-needed recollection fell back on the only possible response; she ignored it. “Why ninepence? What's not nice about eightpence? Or tenpence, come to that?”
“I've finished sorting out the route, along with the shoal and sandbank markers.” Zena brought them back to the central issue, with what she thought was diplomatic polish. “Don't want you landing on a sandbank, in front of all those Norwegian fishermen, do we.—”
“Give it a break, lady.”
“—We have'ta land at Lunna Ness first.” Zena furrowed her brow as she brought all the pieces of the jig-saw puzzle together in her mind. “They give us a crate of Bren guns and another crate of ammo, for the boat from Norway. Then we head out to the rendezvous in the North Sea. We pick up the agent and transfer everything; bring the agent back to Lunna Ness and the SOE boys; then come home to Scapa and a well-earned cup of cocoa. That's the plan. Does it work for you, sunshine?”
“It'll work better for me if there's a glass of whisky waiting at the end, Zena. Here, I'll toss this halfpenny with you, to see who navigates the old crate. I feel like a rest!”
“You damned well won't, girl.” It was Zena's turn to be affronted. “Ya know well enough it's my turn to navigate; and navigate is what I intend doing. Which, considering your last exploit, is just as well. At least I can stop ya from landing on top of one of those fishing-boats. Ouuch! That box hurt! Damn nearly broke my elbow. It's made of wood, y'know! The box; not my aching elbow.”
“My ars—left foot.” Gabrielle snorted in derision. Gods, The New Zealander could be such a wimp. “Cardboard. A Huntley & Palmer's biscuit carton. You know it's cardboard; and damp cardboard at that. This hut leaks like a sieve when it rains. I'm damn lucky not to have come down with the rheumatics yet.”
“ When shall we two meet again. ” The New Zealand lady had been reading the Bard; though only under duress because it was the single extant book in the hut on their arrival there. “ In thunder, lightning, or in rain. Fair is foul —”
“I wish you'd stop reading that omnibus volume of Shakespeare, Zena.” Gabrielle wrinkled her nose impatiently. “Yes, I know so far it's still the only book to our name; but there are limits! And you know how I feel about tempting the Fates; especially just before a flight.”
“I could walk over to the NAAFI book department, and borrow that copy of ‘ Good-bye, Sweetheart! ”, by Rhoda Broughton.” Zena giggled evilly. She could be like that when she chose. “You know the volume I mean; it was donated to the local library by the last Victorian curate of this parish in 1893, and hasn't been borrowed since.”
“Oh God!” Gabrielle was stumped. “ Scylla and Charybdis! Have you no pity, Zena?”
Lunna House was situated on a gently rising slope just above a small but beautiful enclosed bay, located at the shoulder of a remote peninsula on the north of the Shetland main island. The surrounding terrain was low and undulating while the bay was exactly the right size to allow a plane like Gabrielle's Walrus to land in comfort. She could even taxi almost up to the edge of the pebbly shoreline, where the water shallowed in a smooth gradient. Waiting for the arrival of the plane were a couple of rowing boats crewed mostly, to Zena and Gabrielle's surprise, by tall blonde heavily bearded Norwegians. They were also strong; it not taking more than ten minutes to transfer a box of Bren guns and another of ammunition from the rowing boats to the confined space of the small cabin inside the plane's hull.
Gabrielle, at one point, directed Zena's attention to the large house on the slope rising above the bay. They could see two men in uniform standing there watching progress; but they made no move to come down to the beach. In another five minutes everything was loaded, and a British petty officer gave the women a cheery farewell wave as his boat rowed back to the shore. Then Gabrielle turned the ungainly plane; revved the engine gently; and ran out into the centre of the small sheet of water. She knew they would need a longer take-off run than usual, because of the cargo's extra weight; but, in the event, the plane broke free of its watery element to climb into the blue sky with bags of room to spare.
“Fly by compass directly east, Gabrielle.” Zena had her course down precisely. “That'll bring us over the northern edge of the Viking Bank in about an hour. The Norwegian boat should be waiting for us.”
“An' if it ain't?”
“Don't be a party-pooper, Gab.” Zena sniggered contentedly. “They'll be there; with coloured ribbons flowing in the breeze and rockets in the air, just like the 4 th of July.”
“Huh, that I can't wait t'see.”
In fact it was just under an hour's flying time when Zena leaned forward to peer intently through the windscreen, before turning to her pilot.
“That's it, Gabs.” She adjusted the flap of her flying helmet, which she always found uncomfortable. “The Viking Bank's coming up. See the change in the colour of the sea?”
The Bank was more of a shoal than an actual sandbank. In this area the sea depth was only relatively shallower than normal; but there were also places where, at low tide, the sea did recede enough to expose swathes of ripple-surfaced sand.
“And there's our boat.” Zena pointed ahead. “Just to the right, there.”
“How'd we know it's our boat?” Gabrielle was always careful. “After all, the Germans may have found out all about this jolly little jape and put soldiers on board; with machine-guns.”
“Fly over the boat, Gab.” Zena put a hand on the edge of the windscreen as they banked slightly. “They should be displaying a Norwegian flag on the deck. Yes, there it is, see? That's them, alright.”
“But what about Germ—”
“If there's a Jerry waiting-party hiding below deck there ain't nothing we can do, Gabrielle.” Zena shrugged, as she raised her eyebrows at the dubious blonde pilot. “We won't know till we land and shake hands. If so, look on it as a surprise, to enliven your day!”
“Surprise— Phuii! ” The blonde one, as usual, was prepared for every eventuality. “I've got a Webley .45 in the tray under the instrument panel, Zena. When we land you can un-obtrusively slip back to the waist machine-gun, and just look kind'a innocent while you fiddle with it; till we're sure about—”
By this time they had swung round and Gabrielle was slowly descending to wave-top level; the fishing-boat still visible in the far distance across the waves. Whatever qualms she had, they weren't restraining her from accomplishing the mission as planned.
“Gabrielle, I ain't goin' t'fiddle with anything; thank you very much.” The New Zealander sneered, with as much contempt as she could muster at short notice. “And I ain't leaving my cosy seat here, to stand in an open gun position making pretty faces at the sailors—German or Norwegian! The wind's negligible, from the North-East; the waves are slightly across our bow, but low and widely spaced. A baby of ten months could make a perfect landing. Let's see how you do!”
Gabrielle brought the plane further round in a wide curve, now flying at around five hundred feet. Keeping a firm pressure on the joystick as the horizon veered in a smoothly flowing panorama before their eyes. Then the boat could again be seen, several hundred yards away, like a toy floating on the surface.
“You sure about the depth of water, Zena?” The blonde pilot gazed out her side window at the distant surface. “Look at the grey colour. It don't look deep.”
“No problems.” The New Zealander bent over the Admiralty chart spread over her knees. “We are—here. That makes it, by the marked readings, generally twenty feet of depth. Yeah, you'll have lots'a water under the keel.”
The Walrus's engine, a huge Bristol Pegasus radial, was situated on stilts above and just to the rear of the cockpit; under the top wing of the biplane. Its propeller faced to the rear, as if the engine was fitted backwards; thus making it a ‘ pusher prop ' powerplant. The only difficulty with this format were the huge masses of speeding air being thrust over the tail and rudder, which often made landing or taking off a subtle and even dangerous manoeuvre. The horizontal wing-flaps of the tailplane were placed not at the base of the vertical rudder but much higher, just before the rounded curve of the rudder top; exactly in line with the air-blast directly from the propeller. The pilot, as a result, having to battle the tendency of the tailplane flaps and rudder to be damned difficult to operate with ease. As well as skill it did in fact need a modicum of physical strength. Gabrielle was always extra-careful on her landings which, as with any Walrus, could be hair-raisingly frightening to achieve safely.
When the boat-like hull of the plane kissed the water's surface it was, however, with a heavy thump; feeling exactly like touching down on solid concrete ground in a hard landing. Shallow water could often have that effect on flying-boats coming in to land. The plane immediately bounced back skywards, letting rip with agonised groans and grinding noises from hull and wings. Gabrielle grabbed the joystick with both hands and pushed forward to level out; then eased much further back on the throttle, till they were barely above stalling speed. This time she brought the plane down to touch the water with infinite gentleness; but still the first contact was again heavy and hard, though they stuck to the water this time and juddered along over the short waves as if each was a concrete barrier. Finally they came to rest with a wash of water forward from the bows, and the plane sat on the somewhat unstable surface; rocking uncomfortably in tight little jerks. Zena struggled, with some difficulty, through to the front gun-position; stuck her head up beside the gun, which was unprotected and open to the elements, and threw the small anchor overboard. As she watched the thin rope shoot out she was surprised to see only about twelve feet disappear before it stopped.
“Looks like we damn near landed on solid ground after all, Zena.” Gabrielle was still sitting in the pilot's seat, rubbing her right wrist. “I think I've twisted my wrist. It hurts a bit.”
“Here, lem'me see.” Zena leaned over the petite figure of her friend and examined the hand Gabrielle had just released from its leather glove. “Yeah, it's red and a little swollen already. Ya must'a given it a wrench landing. Damn.”
“Looks like you'll be flying us back.” Gabrielle still grinned, though with an effort. “Hope you've got confidence in my navigating.”
“Always, Gabrielle.” Zena glanced out the window. “You stick here. There's a dinghy coming across to us with some men. I'll oversee the transfer. It shouldn't take long. The sooner we're out'ta here, the better I'll be pleased.”
There was no hidden German party waiting in ambush for them. Only the Norwegian crew of four men; and the middle-aged agent, looking nondescript, wet, and rather careworn.
Though the fishing boat's dinghy was low in the water as it crossed the intervening twenty yards of open water to the plane, two men soon had the case of Bren guns and the case of ammo sitting in the bottom of their craft; while the agent was taken by Zena into the dark bowels of the Walrus. They also transferred two large suitcases tied round with wide leather straps; these both apparently being extremely heavy for their size, if the efforts of the Norwegians in dragging them on board the Walrus were anything to go by. In an astonishingly short time everything was completed. The dinghy returned to the boat, and the other crewmen there helped bring the precious cargo aboard. The stubby Norwegian fishing boat then quickly turned its bow towards home; while Zena revved the Pegasus and turned into the wind.
Gabrielle had taken the co-pilot's seat and was examining the marks her erstwhile navigator had scrawled over the chart now lying crumpled on her knee. She kept her right hand against her chest, grimacing now and again as they gained speed over the surface.
“Gods, it's like drivin' a car on a concrete road full of pot-holes.” Zena had to grip the joystick with all her strength. “Damn that rudder. Will it never turn?”
Eventually the Walrus came round and headed over the short waves. Because of the shallow water it still felt like solid ground, and as they sped up Zena began to wonder if something was going to break. The agonised groans and screeches from the body of the plane were almost overwhelming. Finally there were a last couple of nasty bounces; a last cacophony of agonised squeals from various fixtures, and they rather staggered than climbed into the air. Deep in the hull their passenger could be heard letting out frantic cries of complaint; but as he spoke in Norwegian, both women happily ignored his discomfort.
“Yeah, bloody right, Gabrielle.” Zena heaved a sigh of relief. “That's the last time I honour the Viking Bank with my presence.”
“So, where d'you want to go now, Warrior Princess?” Gabrielle grinned as she coined this new description of her companion, right off the cuff.
“Ha! That's a good one. Warrior Princess! I think I kind'a like it, mind you.” Zena laughed, as she turned to glance at her friend. “Where to? Dear old Blighty of course. Just as fast as you see fit, ma'am.”
“Well, I'd give you a course; if I could just read your writing.” Gabrielle peered at the chart; then took a good look at the compass on the instrument panel. “Lem'me do a little calculating first; but sort'a steer North-West by West for the time being.”
“North-West by West?” Zena snorted disdainfully. “What sort'a course is that? We ain't on a tea-clipper, y'know.”
Gabrielle was industriously scribbling in a notebook; as quickly as her sore wrist allowed. She pursed her lips; frowned at the mathematical equations as they appeared on her page; then snarled angrily as she caught herself in a mistake. A minute later all was sweetness and light, when she had come to a conclusion.
“OK, sister.” She took a swift look through the windscreen at the featureless expanse of water sliding past fifteen-hundred feet beneath them, and turned to the pilot. “You're doing, let me see, 130 knots. And the cross-wind's about 12 knots. So head 172 magnetic. That'll get us back to Shetland in about one hour and ten minutes; bang on top of Lunna House.”
“That's my girl!”
“Take a look ahead. Over to the left, about 15 degrees off our course.”
“Oh God! Fog!”
They had been in the air for just over half an hour. Flying at 2,500 feet; with blue sky and light broken cloud. Now, in the far distance but rapidly spreading across the whole horizon ahead, was a vast bank of fog that rose from sea-level to a couple of thousand feet above the Walrus's present height.
“Round or over, Gabrielle?”
The navigator took her time peering out her side-window, as well as the main windscreen.
“There ain't no round, Zena.” Gabrielle spoke softly, with a low note of awe in her voice. “It's got the whole horizon sewn up. And it looks to be about five thousand feet high, at least; so no over, either. We got'ta come down through it, to land at Lunna beach.”
“How are you on blind flying, Zena? Through thick fog.”
“I can keep the crate level, flying by instruments.” The dark-haired woman frowned at the dials in front of her. “But that won't last forever. How far d'you suppose it spreads?”
Gabrielle shook her head. She had scrutinised the chart; and fixed their present position to within thirty yards; but the fog knocked all calculations into a cocked hat.
“It could be a bank a mile or two deep, with clear air on the other side; or it could stretch for miles over and past the Shetlands, out into the Atlantic.” Gabrielle shrugged. “There's no way to tell.”
“There's no real point in flying over it; when we'll need to come down shortly.” Zena gritted her teeth. “But if we gain height for a while, at least we may be able to see if there's another side to it.”
“I'll work out a course for Scapa Flow. It should be clear.” Gabrielle licked the point of her pencil and leant over her chart again. “Don't talk to me for a while.”
Zena gave the instrument panel a detailed examination. They had loads of fuel; oil pressure was fine; the Bristol Pegasus was running sweetly at optimum revolutions; and the wind was slightly cross, but light. Altogether, they had no mechanical worries.
“OK, Zena. This is it.” Gabrielle frowned as she looked across at her pilot. “The course for Scapa will be 164 magnetic. That's if there's no chance of Lunna. What d'you think?”
While Gabrielle had been involved with her calculations Zena had been steadily pulling back on the joystick. Now they had reached a height of nearly five thousand feet. The fog spread across the whole horizon ahead, but slightly beneath them. Zena had managed to climb above it. But the end result was disappointing. The bank of thick fog clearly stretched far into the distance, many many miles. The chances of its not reaching the Shetlands were, to both air-women, obviously low to zero.
“I'll fly over it, for a while.” Zena bit her bottom lip in concentration. “The best chance is still with the Shetlands. If we need to change course to the Orkneys we can do that anytime, there ain't anything in between we need to worry about hitting; just clear water.”
Within five minutes they reached the edge of the vast bank, and were soon flying over a new sea; this time one of thick impenetrable fog. The top surface was cloud-like, but grey and gloomy with an undulating surface. It seemed much denser than ordinary cloud. As this grey floor spread out, less than one thousand feet beneath them, both women peered ahead; but there was no visible sign of clearer air to be seen. The blanket of fog certainly stretched for more than fifteen miles, which was the limit of their view at this altitude.
Time, curiously enough, seemed to slow down and pass with aggravating slowness. Only the steady roar of the engine sounded in their ears. Gabrielle made a few minor adjustments to her planned course to the Orkneys, as they headed on over the featureless grey plain beneath.
Then a curious thing happened. Above them the blue sky disappeared, replaced by a high band of solid cloud spreading before them at a height of around ten thousand feet. So, in a matter of a few minutes, the two women found themselves flying in a clear band of air with above a ceiling of white unbroken cloud; while beneath, the grey fog-bank persisted remorselessly.
“I reckon we should be over the Shetlands in about twelve minutes, Zena.” Gabrielle took a further look out the main windscreen, and snorted derisively. “Not that there's any chance of seeing them.”
“Right!” Zena came to a decision. “It's Scapa for us. 164 magnetic? Let's go.”
Twenty-five minutes later the fog came up, like a solid wall, and enclosed the plane in its icy impenetrable grip. Zena had decided, with the help of Gabrielle's arithmetic, it was time to descend gradually to a lower level. From now on, for about twenty minutes, they would be flying blind; relying solely on Zena's capacity to control the aircraft by instrument readings alone.
Their shared decision was that going lower was necessary to prepare for landing at Scapa Flow, which must now be less than 15 miles away. If in ten minutes either the fog did not lift, or they flew out of the bank into open air, Zena would have to ascend again to clear sky while they thought about the available alternatives.
“There's still enough fuel for about one and a half hour's flying, Zena.” Gabrielle gave the instrument dials another searching look. “Though if we can't make Scapa, I don't exactly see what the next move is gon'na be.”
“With the Orkney's out there'd only be Shetland, which we already know is unavailable.” Zena licked her lips grimly. “The coast of Northern Scotland's out'ta the question. Just barren cliffs and roaring breakers. We'd have'ta search for some break in the fog; or fly on till we found its border, an' ditch in the sea and wait for rescue.”
“I suppose we should think about sending out a radio distress call to Scapa then.” Gabrielle felt as glum as her companion; those were all the alternatives they had. “When should I do it?”
Zena kept her eyes glued on the instruments. The major risk flying blind was in keeping the craft level. With such a seaplane as the Walrus this was doubly a problem. Its pusher propeller exerted an undue influence on the tailplane flaps and rudder, with the pilot always having to compensate by feeling the plane's movements through the joystick and making slight adjustments all the time. Flying blind through fog made this much harder.
“Give it another five minutes.” Zena grunted with effort, as she eased the joystick a touch to starboard. “We should be coming in sight of Scapa any time now, at this height. Let's see if the damn stuff lifts at all.”
“If we miss Scapa and fly any further West, out into the ocean, they'll have to send a corvette to pick us up.” Gabrielle unconsciously raised a hand to her flying-helmet, as if she wanted to run her fingers through her short crop of blonde hair. “And we'll need'ta sink this old crate, when we leave it. Wonder if the Admiralty'll bill us for it? How much do Walrus's cost, Zena?”
“A helluva lot more than both our salaries put together, lady.” Zena, to her wonderment, found herself laughing out loud at the thought. “Just think of poor old Group Captain Graham, back in London. ‘ For expenses to weekly outlays, item—one bolt threaded anti-clockwise, fourpence. Item, one spare set of mathematical instruments for navigator, two shillings and threepence. Item, one Walrus, £15,000 '. He'll have a fit.”
“These back-room boys are too sedentary anyway, Zena.” The blonde navigator was wholly unsympathetic. “Sometimes they need something to get the blood circulating. It'd do him the world of good!”
Another period of time passed; with what, to Gabrielle at least, seemed agonising slowness. Then, just as Gabrielle was reaching to undo her seat-belt to duck down into the main hull where the radio equipment was placed, a fleeting glimpse of whiter light passed swiftly on their port side amid the general grey gloom.
“What was that?”
Zena didn't answer; she was concentrating, searching ahead through the windscreen with narrowed eyes. Then something happened.
“Light! Gods, light, Gabrielle!” Zena shouted in ecstasy, and grinned broadly at her companion. “Look! Look, it's broken.”
With an appalling swiftness the grey featureless fog dissipated as if by magic. One moment they were surrounded by dead grey nothingness; the next the blue sky was above; sunlight shone in brilliant dazzling perfection; and a little to starboard lay the well-known silhouette of Scapa Flow's enclosed bay, sparkling in the sunshine.
“Oh God. Thank Heaven for that!” Gabrielle sighed so strongly the chart on her knee wafted onto the floor, and she had to bend low to scrabble for it.
“So where, and how, shall I land your royal butt, my Lady?” Zena was so overjoyed she was elated beyond checking. “On the main concourse, beside the Admiral's battleship? Or near the D-line of Destroyers; you know how the jolly tars love t'see us in action, Gabrielle. Or just a reserved, but gentlewomanly, landing near the beach slipway, as always?”
“Zena, you can land anywhere you like.” The blonde navigator had struggled back into her seat, covered in dust and debris. “Just get this crate on the surface. I wan'na feel solid ground under my feet, an' I don't mean next week. So move it, babe!”
The dark-haired New Zealander brought the Walrus down in a wide sweep; levelled off; adjusted course slightly; veered one point, to miss a cruiser which lay across their approach; then gently eased the throttle. With an almost imperceptible bounce and bump the hull touched water, and the plane slid over the smooth surface like a curling-stone across a frozen loch. They had landed safely.
A couple of hours, and a couple of coded radio messages to Lunna House, later and their Norwegian agent-guest along with his suitcases had been transferred in the utmost secrecy to a motor torpedo boat and was on his way back to the Shetlands by sea. Zena and Gabrielle finished their report, which was also sent off by coded radio signal to London; then they were free for the rest of the evening.
With the door closed and locked; the windows tightly curtained; and the wood-fired stove spreading a warm glow, the ladies settled down in comfort in their Nissen hut. Zena had chosen a rather conspicuous woollen sweater with horizontal strips of brilliant colour; while Gabrielle had pulled on a rather more reserved olive green jersey. They had changed into clean slacks and put soft slippers on their feet. They both sat on the edge of Zena's bed, with the table pulled over near them. On it stood a bottle of ‘ Caol Ila ' Scottish single malt 12 year old whisky. The cork was out, and the stubby glasses both women held were half full of the amber nectar. All was happy in their shared household.
“Well, Zena, that could have been worse.” Gabrielle was grinning like a Cheshire cat, as she held her glass. “Not much, I grant you, but it might'a been. It was only my superior navigating that pulled us through, of course.”
Zena made a spluttering, and not very polite, noise.
“Oh yeah?” She pointed with an outstretched finger. “Look'it your hand. Swathed in more bandages than an Egyptian mummy. What use is a wounded navigator? Nah! It was my divinely inspired piloting that saved us. Gods, I'm good!”
“I tell you what.” Gabrielle held her glass out towards Zena. “Let's call it a draw. Here's to my Warrior Princess.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I could really get t'like that.” Zena considered the matter with all the serious concentration it deserved. Then she too held her glass out towards Gabrielle's. “It has a simple, yet regal, ring that sort'a calls t'me somehow; if ya know what I mean? Here's to the best, and the bravest, girl I know. Cheers!”
1. The Shetland Bus. A secret wartime operation based in the Shetland Islands whereby fishing boats, crewed by Norwegian nationals, sailed from there to Norway with arms, agents, and commandos. Originally under the control of the Royal Navy and SOE-Special Operations Executive.
2. Lunna Ness, and Lunna House, were in reality the HQ for the Shetland Bus operation.
3. Viking Bank. This is a real shoal in the North Sea in the appropriate position as described in the above story.
4. Huntley & Palmer's. A real biscuit manufacturer of the period.
5. ‘ When shall we two meet again '. The opening lines of Shakespeare's ‘ Macbeth '. Though Zena has changed three to two.
6. ‘ Goodbye, Sweetheart ', by Rhoda Broughton. A real novel by a real Victorian female novelist.
7. Scylla & Charybdis. An idiom originally from Greek mythology. Scylla was a rocky shoal, while Charybdis was a whirlpool; both close together. Meaning that sailors had the impossible task of choosing between one mortal danger or the other. By a strange coincidence, which I did not catch till after I had written the scene using this phrase, I discovered ‘ Scylla & Charybdis ' is also the title of a later novel by Rhoda Broughton.
8. Blighty. A British English slang term for Britain.
9. Curling-stone. Curling. A Scottish game similar to bowls using granite stones which are propelled across the surface of a frozen loch or pond.
10. ‘ Caol Ila '. A real Scottish single malt whisky.
11. Cheshire cat. A character in Lewis Carroll's ‘ Alice in Wonderland ', which famously faded away before Alice's eyes leaving nothing behind but its grin.
In a previous story, ‘ An Aerial Taxi ', the author alone (me) made a couple of unforced errors in the text. Therefore, in the best traditions of an old Victorian novel, I add the following tipped-in errata slip.
ERRATA for —‘ An Aerial Taxi '. (a) for all instances of Wing-Commander, read instead Group Captain. (b) for His Majesties Navy, read instead His Majesty's Navy.
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