Rat and Sword Go To War
Peter and Susan go to war, again.
Part of The Stone Gryphon story cycle
In the early spring 1943, Peter Pevensie leaves school and enters and completes basic training. Major al-Masri – Asim bin Kalil – a British Army intelligence officer and self-appointed retainer and guide to the Pevensies, intends to help Peter land in D Company of the Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry.
In the meantime, Susan builds upon her successes in spycraft told in The Queen Susan in Tashbaan. In the summer of 1942, operating under the alias of Mrs. Susan Caspian, Susan begins working for Colonel George Walker-Smythe in the office of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in the British Embassy in Washington. Susan "babysits" an SOE agent, Wing Commander Reginald Tebbitt, and together they manufacture fake documents, plant news stories, steal secrets, seduce politicians, and thwart a Soviet spy, all to further the British war effort. Upon returning to England, Susan, hopes that with her mentors' assistance, her fake identities, and her mother's consent, she will be permitted to leave school in early 1943 and re-join the SOE as an active agent.
Those familiar with TQSiT know that the story took a turn toward historical fiction with its heavy reliance about the real people and real events described in J. Conant's The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington. In Rat and Sword, that concept blossoms fully into true, World War II historical fiction.
The people, places, and events in Rat and Sword are real with the following exceptions: Susan's three mentors in England, al-Masri, Walker-Smythe, and Tebbitt who were all previously introduced in TSG; and Leutnant Becker and Feldwebel Müeller. With these exceptions, everyone else in the story really lived, they really did these heroic things, they really died and books, websites, and plaques in famous places bear their names and tell their stories. It is with great caution and trepidation that I insert fictional characters into this historical and very well-known account. My intent is to do so carefully, with respect, and with the knowledge that this is not the first time these people and their contributions to World War II have been and Susan and Peter will not be usurping what other, real heroes did.
Given the enormous scope of World War 2, I've had to leave out many parts and details. This is, in the end, historical fiction, not history and I tell a narrow piece of it, primarily from the points of view of characters who do not know as much as the reader does of the bigger picture.
Last, this is teen rated, most especially for a soldier's salty language. When the Generals are crude (and search the text of George Patton's D-Day speech for that), one can expect the same of the common soldier. Further, Susan moves as an adult woman through an adult world and she has some unresolved business with Wing Commander Reginald Tebbitt.
Rat and Sword Go To War was written for the 2012 Narnia Big Bang Challenge hosted on the Narnia Fic Exchange Live Journal Community. I urge you to check out the wonderful stories posted there. In my Live Journal I have links to maps, cast of (real and fictional) characters, and a glossary of terms.
Note also that this short chapter was included in the much, much larger Stepping Stones, Chapter 15 of Apostolic Way recently posted. A huge thanks to Autumnia and amine_eyes for the beta and to Clio and Lady of the Light for the poetry in later chapters.
Heverus did beautiful art for this story that is available at the Narnia Fic Exchange Community.
Chapter 1 – What has gone before
D-Day minus 18 months
It had been a long, grueling flight over the North Atlantic for them both. First Washington to New York, then from New York to Glasgow with stops in Gander and Prestwick. From there, Wing Commander Tebbitt had gone on to London to see his mother and sisters. George found his wife in Edinburgh working at the shipyards and their daughter had left school in Carlisle and joined her there. It had been almost two years and seeing them was probably worse than just exchanging letters. He was a stranger to his wife and adolescent daughter.
Three days later with everything said that could be said and no reason to stay, he reported to London. He was assigned temporary, shabby rooms off Portman Square whose only advantage was their vicinity to the Special Operation Executive's Baker Street offices and that he did not have to share them with three other men. George knew that in the apartment at Orchard Court, where SOE agents for the F section stayed while awaiting their final orders, the quarters were sometimes so cramped, briefings could occur in the art deco lavatory where you could, if you wished, conduct an interview seated upon a black onyx bidet.
His Baker Street office was more spacious and he spent a week getting firsthand briefings, which was a very pleasant change from his long stint at the British Embassy in Washington. Libya had fallen; Hitler had recalled Rommel from North Africa; it was only a matter of time in Tunisia. With the agreement of the Casablanca conference between Churchill and Roosevelt, it would be Sicily that summer and then, finally, the second front, in France, in 1944. It made the SOE's F section work of inserting agents into France all the more important so things were very busy.
Seeing the opportunities open up, he sent Tebbitt off to Thame Park for a refresher in wireless training that would keep him occupied for a week – two if the latest agents there for training were attractive, which they invariably were. He did have to wonder if striking looks and trim figure were on the intake sheets Selwyn Jepson used when interviewing female candidates for insertion into France as SOE spies.
Finally, now, the meeting could take place that George had wanted since realizing that Susan Pevensie, working name Mrs. Susan Caspian, and her brother, Edmund Pevensie, had run a complex cipher for three months that fooled the espionage establishment in two countries. George had taken to personally calling it Operation Narnia.
He summoned to Baker Street the man who had cut off and tied up all the dangling bits of that security breach on this side of the Atlantic. Major al-Masri arrived so promptly from Bletchley Park George concluded the impatience to meet was mutual. George had read al-Masri's file and seen the official, grainy, black and white photograph. al-Masri was shorter than he expected, very neat, and obviously not English. He would assume the man had checked on him as well.
al-Masri offered his hand. "Colonel Walker-Smythe, it is a pleasure to meet you."
"And you, al-Masri. Sit, please. Should I have one of the girls get us some coffee?"
"I am fine for now but we may require fortification later," al-Masri replied. The office was big enough for a desk and chair and a separate table and chairs. The Major sat there rather than on the other side of the desk. The man was certainly confident to assume this was to be a working meeting rather than an interview.
George took the seat across the table from him. They sat in silence, staring at one another. George finally cleared his throat. "I have wanted to meet you for some time now."
"And I was about to say the same thing. So which of us shall speak first into this billowing silence?"
George knew just where to begin. "Someone who worked for me once used to say that given a silence, most people have the desire to fill it."
al-Masri nodded. "I understand that lesson concludes, 'And the trick is knowing the impulse exists and training yourself to patience in its place.'"
"It seems we have had access to the same personnel, Major."
"And that the Pevensies all had the benefit of the same wise teacher."
George hoped the man's desire to exchange information would be stronger than the reticence. Being forthcoming was not a natural trait in a spy, though certainly curiosity was.
"You have the advantage on me, al-Masri. I know Mrs. Caspian well, but have not seen her the better part of six months since she left Washington with her mother. I have not met either of her brothers. You have, and your knowledge is more current. Tell me the situation."
The Major leaned back in his chair and crossed his legs, making himself comfortable and taking it as an invitation rather than near order. "Addressing Mrs. Caspian first, I have only met her once, though we have exchanged several letters. I have reiterated to her that she must not discuss the espionage work of last summer in Washington or she would jeopardize her future with us. Further, I have been monitoring her language instruction with Madame Simon and ensuring that her school does not interfere."
"And?" He knew that Madame Simon had written to Vera Atkins in F Section about Mrs. Caspian and through that channel had assumed all was proceeding without interruption.
"She makes excellent and diligent progress. Her other classwork suffers but I deem that of no consequence."
"There was also the matter of the locksmith, of which you might not have heard."
"Locksmith?" George repeated. "What did she get herself into?"
"At Christmas, she and Edmund wrote me that they required a set of basic lockpicking tools and asked if I might know where a set could be obtained."
Of all the cheek, though credit to them for being discreet in making the inquiry. "She's a first rate cracksman as our resident burglar is fond of saying. He gave her a full set of picks before she left America. What the devil does she need another set for?"
al-Masri shook his head. "I do not know but I assumed she wished to teach the skill to someone else in need of it."
"And she did this all with Edmund? Her brother is still in on it all?"
"I think you should assume so, yes. I did direct them to one of our establishments and set up some modest surveillance to observe what they would do."
He wished he could have observed it himself. "And?"
"Mrs. Caspian presented herself, quite convincingly, as a French woman with Edmund acting as her interpreter and guide. She dressed for the part, having acquired a dated continental wardrobe through a Wren assigned to Bletchley Park and the acquisition of the picks was handled very neatly."
al-Masri looked very smug. "I did speak with Mr. Walker, the locksmith, afterwards. He assumed Mrs. Caspian was in her mid-twenties, at least. I, of course, did not enlighten him as to the truth. He was impressed at the dissembling in both Susan and Edmund, which surprised me not at all."
George was not surprised by any of this, either. Here was the opening he had wanted – someone else, a fellow hand, who could confirm that it had not been invention. Tebbitt had been fooled, but the man was in love and George had wanted a more jaundiced eye.
"So you have seen it?" If he had to explain of what he spoke, there was no purpose to all of this.
al-Masri was silent for so long, he wondered if it was another ploy to get him to speak unwisely. He opened his mouth to challenge the Major on the stalling tactic, but al-Masri held up his hand. "I am not using the ploy the Pevensies do. To answer the easy question first, yes, Colonel, I have seen what you do."
"I've not shared my observations with anyone else," George admitted. "After I confronted her about that damnable Narnia cipher, I theorized that Mrs. Caspian's inexplicable talents were shared with her siblings, though not the parents."
"I cannot speak to the youngest sister, as I have not met her." The Major sounded uncommonly wistful. "But your theory was correct. I have observed the same in Mrs. Caspian's older brother, Peter, and, though I have seen him only a handful of times, Edmund as well. To respond to your unasked and harder question, I know no more than you do as to what can account for their remarkable maturity and skills."
"al-Masri, you say it is a familial trait yet you reported to me after buttoning him up that Edmund Pevensie was a loyal English schoolboy!"
"And so he is," al-Masri replied calmly. "But that is not all he is."
"Well that's a damned clever nuance, Major." He should have known better. al-Masri had done what George had done himself in the report regarding Guy Hill's murder. He'd left out Mrs. Caspian's role in coshing the murderer with a flower pot and attempt to stab him with a letter opener. An accurate report would come across as completely daft unless one experienced a Pevensie firsthand.
"What about Peter? I know he's in basic training now. His father has pushed very hard to bring Peter on and Mrs. Caspian said he might suit. I'd very much like to take him back with me to Washington."
From the sudden, guarded expression, George didn't think al-Masri had anticipated this. Were they going to tussle over talent? Finally, the Major said, "I have come to know Peter Pevensie very well, Colonel. Peter's will is at least equal to that of his sister. He is as determined to enter the paras as Mrs. Caspian is determined to enter the SOE."
"But with her recommendation? Their father's request? With your…" George let the sentence dangle. "No?"
"No," the Major repeated firmly. "You will have to forgive me for sounding fanciful, though surely you understand knowing Mrs. Caspian so well. Peter is like a shining sword, sharp, bright, and true, and he is not one who is comfortable in the shadows."
It did sound fanciful. Ridiculous even. But George had seen visions of the Queen of Pentacles in the half light of his office one evening. Mrs. Caspian carried herself with a regal authority and confidence that even the thirty years or so he thought she had lived already could not wholly account for.
"So Peter's not a spy?"
"No," al-Masri replied.
"Then what is he good for?" George pressed. He was not going to let talent go untapped.
"For all his commitment to serve, Peter knows he would be a very, very ill fit in many typical postings. Once he completes basic training, I hope to see him transferred into the Ox & Bucks, Second Battalion. They've been retooled as part of the Glider Corps."
"And no officer training? Won't he be wasted as a common private in the infantry?"
"I do not believe so. Peter observed himself that assurance of competent command and some autonomy under that command are more important than the particular position. I concur with that assessment and believe he will do well under D Company's CO, Major Howard."
"What of Edmund? He's what, 14 now?"
al-Masri frowned and for the first time, looked uncertain. "I do not know, Colonel. Edmund has already sought my advice on how to position himself to enter our service which he is pursuing with the zeal I would expect of him. Unlike Peter and Susan, he is too young to finesse his way into service. And I have misgivings regardless."
"Misgivings?" he retorted shortly. "Mrs. Caspian believed his talents were even greater than her own."
"I do not disagree." Again the silence lengthened between them.
"al-Masri, you got your way with Peter. You can't have Edmund, too. That's not sporting."
"What would you have him do? What could he do?"
"Take him back with me to Washington for a year. Pass him off as a nephew if I need to. If he's anything like his sister, I'll put him in a Private's uniform and he can work as my clerk and secretary."
"Edmund would jump at the opportunity," al-Masri said heavily.
Edmund couldn't do what Tebbitt had done, but he could use someone with the same insights Mrs. Caspian had. George didn't want to cross al-Masri when he wanted the man's support with Mrs. Caspian, but he didn't like to lose, either.
"Would you oppose that?" George asked.
The long silence was concerning but finally al-Masri said, "Even if I thought it a bad idea, I would not oppose you, Colonel."
"But Edmund will ask you and you could warn him off."
"Yes, and Edmund would listen, carefully consider his options and my advice, and probably go anyway, though be far more guarded about it."
"That's not a bad thing," George pointed out.
His phone began ringing. His secretary would pick it up and take the message.
"I think maybe that coffee now." George got up, went to his door, and bellowed out into the corridor, "Coffee for two!"
He returned to his seat. "You know, al-Masri, I was able to keep an eye on what Mrs. Caspian got up to in Washington and I'd keep Edmund from getting in too deep. I'll use him, but I won't corrupt him."
He seemed to relax. "Colonel, you raise excellent points and do reassure me. I think Edmund would benefit from some wise oversight."
"Good. I'll speak to Edmund's mother and see what might be done. It won't be that long; I'm sure I'll be back here by year's end for the second front. As to Mrs. Caspian, I've asked Selwyn Jepson to interview her."
"An excellent idea. I will be curious to hear what your most skilled talent spotter makes of her."
The Wren arrived with the coffee. They both tried to dissolve the Nescafe crystals in the tepid water and George indulged in a little sugar to make it palatable. Major al-Masri took his black.
Once the Wren left, al-Masri asked, "I assume you will not tell Jepson her age?"
"No," George scoffed. "The fewer who know, the better. Her mother has already consented. If she impresses Jepson, I'll have her pulled from school and sent on to Beaulieu."
Major al-Masri paused in stirring his cup. "Straight to Finishing School? What of the preliminary training at Wanborough? Granted she probably does not need most of what they teach, but omit it entirely? She will need Morse Code and wireless training, and she'll need to qualify for parachute jumps at Ringway. And what of the guerilla course in Arisaig?"
"She will be at Beaulieu as staff, not an agent in training. I think she would benefit from time in that environment, learn to be the woman she is, and let them see her for themselves."
The window rattled as a plane flew overhead – a Spitfire from the sound.
al-Masri nodded. "True. And Mrs. Caspian is not French so she does need considerably more grooming by those who are. Also, I cannot yet see what type of position would best suit her talents, which would come into clearer focus with more time there."
"I am glad you approve, Major," George replied, though al-Masri ignored the sarcasm. al-Masri's choice of words was peculiar in how he would see something for Mrs. Caspian. It was very much the sort of thing Agnes would have said. Agnes, the astonishingly gifted amateur psychologist and maid, had predicted last year in Tarot cards that Mrs. Caspian would find a special guide – the Hierophant who had shackled the Chariot's competing forces of darkness and light to do his bidding. Mrs. Caspian had written Agnes that she believed she had met this Hierophant; before he had left America, Agnes had exhorted him to learn the details about this strange guide. It was all completely inexplicable to anyone who did not know Agnes and Mrs. Caspian, but George suspected both women believed al-Masri to be the looked-for guide.
Confirming George's speculation, al-Masri said, "Where the Pevensies are concerned, you and I are of the same mind. In fact, should Mrs. Caspian enter the SOE, I intend to accept an outstanding offer to teach guerilla tactics at the Scotland facilities to better keep an eye on things."
"They finally see the benefit of having someone teach killing who has actually done it?"
"And who has not gone to prison for doing so."
He could finally laugh at that. George knew al-Masri's history and had seen the blanks in the man's file. He had a few blanks in his own file, though not nearly as many as al-Masri. "It does put me more at ease for her to have an ally there who knows the truth of her age. I've decided to send Wing Commander Tebbitt into the SOE training school as well, as instructor, not agent."
"Is he the Lord Peridan in her cipher? The agent she managed in Washington?"
"The same. He needs a change and will be useful to them. The man's a poet and very good with codes."
The SOE had discovered too late that while using well known-poems made for ciphers the agents could memorize and use easily in the field, all the Nazis had needed was an anthology of English verse to break them.
"And if Mrs. Caspian does go active, he'll be in place to serve as her conducting officer. Tebbitt will keep an eye on her."
Tebbitt would probably have both hands on her as well, but George couldn't worry about that.
They exchanged pleasantries and cards and George felt better about having someone here keeping an eye on his protégé while he was back in Washington.
"So, tell me something, al-Masri."
al-Masri looked up from the train schedule he was contemplating. "Colonel?"
"You said Peter is the sword. What then is Mrs. Caspian?"
"What do you think?" al-Masri countered, as a spy would.
Anyone who hadn't seen it would consider him barking mad. "I saw something of a royal mien in her. It does as you say, sound fanciful, but I thought her like a Queen."
"It took me all summer to come to a similar conclusion about Peter."
"A King among mere men?
"Very much so."
They were daft, both of them. They were also spies and trained to detect the falsehood and they both had realized that the paper, cover stories, and youthful appearances were lies. Peter and Susan Pevensie were not schoolchildren. al-Masri put on his cap, tucked his railway table in his valise and picked up his coat.
"In answer to your question, Colonel, if Peter is the true, straight sword of the King, in Mrs. Caspian I see the clever and subtle cunning of the rat."
To: Vera Atkins, F Section; Col. Walker-Smythe
I have, at your request, interviewed Mrs. Susan Caspian for purposes of assessing her suitability for the SOE and possible placement in France. Given her exemplary work in 1942 for Col. Walker-Smythe at the Embassy to the U.S., I recognize that this was little more than a formality. Indeed I am curious as to why you are so insistent that I meet with Mrs. Caspian and why she should not be immediately sent on to Wanborough for preliminary training.
I am usually concerned when a candidate speaks so enthusiastically of espionage and the possibility of death by torture and hanging at the hands of Nazi captors. We do not wish for those who seek us out to in turn seek vainglory and romanticise of fantastic and glorious ends. I came away perplexed as to the source of her certitude that this is where she should be, indeed, must be, and there is about her near the air of an Apostle on the road to Rome, or of the zealot making straight the way.
Mrs. Caspian has great affection for her brothers and sister. One brother recently completed basic training and is awaiting a hoped-for transfer. The younger siblings are still in school.
We spoke of her absent husband. She gave a very clear-eyed and unsentimental view of it. He was, she said, injured during the Malta air operations and recuperated in Surrey and is staying with his mother. They hope he shall be returned to unit by the summer. She emphasized he was fully supportive of her decision and of course we will have to assure that he has given his consent for his wife to be engaged in such hazardous activities.
Other than her husband's injury, and unlike other candidates, she has not, as yet, suffered personal loss which accounts for her passion. She speaks ardently of the plight of Jews and of the oppressed nations of Europe. She was steadfastly insistent that this was work she was qualified, nay, destined to do.
There are, fortunately, no children.
As Mrs. Caspian already knew our many family secrets, I deemed it appropriate to discuss her time in Washington. She felt great sorrow at the murder of their office's driver, killed by the apparent agent Walker-Smythe believes was a Soviet. Walker-Smythe had doctored the reports to keep her out of the business so I wished to hear the full of it in her own voice. She retold the tale calmly but insisted that she bore some responsibility for failing to foresee the calamity of Guy Hill's death. Her guilt is disproportionate to the clues that were available, which is concerning if it makes her too cautious. That she saw the clues at all is remarkable for it demonstrates a subtle and perceptive mind not usually seen in a woman prior to training, and often not even then.
She was justifiably proud of the theft of the documents from the American Vice President's valise. I had not known that the stolen case had required her lockpicking skills, and under extreme pressure, as well. It was not, she admitted, a complex lock, but that she was able to accomplish it at all and without supervision showed verve and initiative as well as suitably flexible morality.
She expressed satisfaction with the business involving the creation and planting of the fake map and believed that these and other efforts were justified to assure the delivery of the Sherman tanks and other materiel to Monty in advance of El Alamein and Operation Torch.
I asked if she had any regret, apart from the murder of Mr. Hill. I wondered at her long and careful pause, a needless concern on my part. She apologized in advance for offending my sensibilities but admitted that the most difficult part of the work was that she ordered Wing Commander Tebbitt to the boudoir of a newspaper woman in order to accomplish an exchange of information regarding Vice President Wallace. She had no regrets, again believing the information obtained worth the price exacted, but regretted it nonetheless.
Mrs. Caspian is cautious, carefully spoken, intelligent, and we already know that she can think quickly and decisively in dangerous, stressful, and combat situations. Assuming that she can master the language and challenges of living in France under occupation, I have no reservations in recommending Mrs. Caspian's further assessment at Wanborough.
My one misgiving is her appearance. She is a prodigiously attractive woman, but one must look beyond those arts we use to hide our true selves. Beneath her very careful coif, Mrs. Caspian appears younger than her 24 years. In some settings, this will be of no concern and might also be used advantageously. While she professed comfort with and enthusiasm for "living rough," as our people must, her very youthful mien may disadvantage her credibility in some circumstances.
To: Col. G. Walker-Smythe
From: S. Jepson
Good to see you on this side of the pond. Saw your Mrs. C today. Don't understand your misgivings. She's first rate. Pity about her husband.
His Royal Majesty's Army
To: Peter Pevensie
Your request for transfer has been approved. You are ordered to report immediately to Bulford Camp, Wiltshire, for assignment to Major Howard, D Company, Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, 2d Battalion, Air Landing Unit, 6th Airborne Division.
A few notes: Noted fiction writer Selwyn Jepson was indeed a talent spotter for the SOE during the war and he conducted interviews of prospective candidates from the Victoria Hotel. His role is described in two of my sources for the SOE part of the story, Rita Kramer's Flames in the Field and Marcus Binney's The Women Who Lived For Danger. Vera Atkins was in F Section of the SOE reporting to Col. Maurice Buckmaster. Jepson and Atkins had special responsibility for recruiting women agents for insertion into France, which became a very urgent matter as men were arrested and conscripted into work crews or sent off to fight.
Training of agents involved a series of steps, assessment at Wanborough, guerrilla training at Arisaig in Inverness-shire, qualifying for parachute jumps at Ringway or another base, wireless, telegraphy and Morse Code training (referred to as w/t) at Thame Park, and finally "finishing school" at Beaulieu. The overlap with Chapter 1 of Apostolic Way ends here.
Chapter 2, D-Day minus 1 year, Training Days, follows.