The Lyndesfarne Bridge Novels by Trevor Hopkins

Death on the New Bridge: Chapter 25

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Sisal Plant The area at the back of the warehouse building appeared to be a plantation of large and vaguely cactus-like plants, with sharp thorns on the leaves and strange tree-like blooms projecting six or eight feet into the air. Kevin was not absolutely sure what the plant was, but he strongly suspected it might be Sisal - which he knew was cultivated extensively for raw materials for packaging and building materials.

In the direction that had been indicated, there was a low building set some way away from the village and warehouse. The two men made their way towards it bending uncomfortably close to the ground, crouched down as much as possible. Together, they scrambled along the rows of the spiky planks, occasionally cutting through the rows as a convenient gap in the plantings presented itself.

By this time it was getting very dark, because of the short twilight period always found in near-equatorial regions. Kevin, who was brought up in more temperate latitudes, found the sudden transition to darkness quite a surprise. There was some fitful illumination from various sources, including some dim lights - presumably magical - inside the building itself which could just been seen through the - obviously non-magical - windows. The sky was clear, and bright stars and a waning moon also provided enough light so that they could avoid the sharp-leaved plants.

The two men paused for a moment, hidden behind a particularly large clump. Bret drew his slate from his bag, and started writing furiously on it. Kevin felt he dare not interrupt his flow to ask to whom he was sending the messages. A faint light was emitted from the surface of the magical device, enough to allow Bret to be able to see what he was writing. A few moments later, he used a couple of sweeping, almost violent gestures to send the communications on their way.

After twenty or so more uncomfortable minutes, the two men found themselves lurking in the undergrowth outside the building within which Kevin and Bret strongly suspect that Tanji was being held. It was of a single-story construction, with wide double doors front and centre, and several windows to each side, all of which stood open to catch the cool evening breeze.

When he had been on holiday in this region with Tanji, he had noticed that even the smallest and meanest of dwellings had clearly had a good deal of care and attention lavished on them - woodwork freshly painted, floors swept and windows recently cleaned, and with flowers and plants for decoration set out in pots and vases.

Even in the near-darkness, Kevin could see that this farmstead was really rather shabby. There was patchy paintwork on both woodwork and walls, and the stucco itself was falling off in a number of places. It was roofed with what appeared to be ceramic tiles, but several were cracked or missing altogether.

It was altogether the most run-down building Kevin had ever seen in the world of Lyndesfarne. In a world where most places gave the feeling of having been carefully used and looked after for several hundred years, he considered, this building gave the distinct impression of indifferent maintenance and very infrequent occupation.

There were a couple of large men - Kevin could not but help use the words "goons" in the privacy of his own head - on the dusty veranda. Even so, the building was not very seriously guarded - altogether very slack, at least by the standards Kevin would have expected from Hollywood movies.

As Bret and Kevin watched, a third man appeared on the veranda from inside the building. He gave the distinct impression of being in charge, Kevin thought, judging by the way the two goons stood up straighter. The new arrival said a few words, inaudible at the distance to the watchers, then wandered back indoors.

"Who's that?" Kevin whispered to Bret.

"I don't know," the other man replied, "But he sure looks like he's in charge."

Although he could not be sure, Kevin had the distinct impression that he recognised the boss man, but he could not bring his identity to mind.

"Do you think this is the right place?" Kevin whispered.

Bret caught his eye and nodded.

"There are too many men hanging around," he replied, equally quietly, "Apparently doing nothing. It's suspicious."

Kevin nodded.

"So how are we going to find Tanji?"

"Well, it's not a very big building," Bret answered softly, "And we know how big the room she's being held in."

"So?" Kevin was puzzled.

"So, her room's certain to have an outside wall," Bret continued, looking smug, "And it didn't have a window that we could see."

Kevin thought back. Every time that Tanji had appeared in a window, the room had been lit by the artificial - and magical - lighting he had almost become familiar with.

"You're right," he agreed, suddenly getting the point, "So the room can't be at the front - there are too many real windows and doorways - or on this side, either."

"Right," Bret said, "So let's make our way around the back."

Moving as quietly as he could, Kevin followed Bret, forcing his way through the vegetation, gaining in the process a number of cuts and scratches which would, he suspected, be irritatingly painful later on, but he was happy to ignore just now. They finished up hidden behind a low wall, just a few yards from the rear of the ramshackle building, with yet more of the spiky bushes on either side.

"This looks likely," Kevin whispered, pointing at a wide blank space in the middle of the back wall. Bret nodded. Kevin was suddenly very tense, realising that Tanji was, in all probability, only a few yards away.

"How are we going to get her out?" He asked Bret.

The other man grinned suddenly, his eyes and teeth gleaming in the moonlight.

"I have some magic which will assist," he replied.

"Ah!"

"But it's a one-shot," Bret continued more soberly, "And it's bound to make a lot of noise."

He pulled what looked like a piece of chunky jewellery from inside his shirt. It was a pendant of dull blue stone, with a few rather worn-looking carvings on the surface Kevin could see. Kevin must have suddenly looked very worried.

"So this is what we have to do," Bret continued, not very reassuringly, "So listen carefully."

Kevin could not suppress a very visible gulp.

"I'm going to make a hole in the wall," Bret said quietly, looking serious, "I want you to grab Tanji and run, that way" - he indicated the direction back towards the warehouse - "and take the portal out of here."

Kevin nodded.

"But were should we go?"

"Anywhere," Bret replied, "Run as fast as you can; don't look back; don't wait for me."

He clasped Kevin's hand suddenly.

"I've got a few more items which will slow down any pursuit," he added with a toothy grin, "Once you've got your bearings, make your way to my parents' house and tell them what's happened."

"OK," Kevin murmured, feeling suddenly very much out of his league.

"And, take my slate," Bret added.

"But I don't know how to use it!" Kevin exclaimed, louder than he intended.

"Shh!" The other man whispered, "No, but Tanji will. Give it to her. She'll be able to get word to the Boards, and to my mother. I'll join you at my house as soon as I can."

Kevin nodded his understanding.

"Let's go!"

Together, the two men leapt over the wall and rushed up to the building. Bret gestured feverishly with one hand at the pendant held at arms length in the other. There was a soft crump, rather than the bang that Kevin was expecting, and a section of the wall shaped like an arch suddenly collapsed, the solid brick and plaster turned to fine dust.

"Go!" Bret shouted.

Kevin ducked inside. The magical lights were still on, but vision in the room was obscured by dust and smoke. Tanji had jumped up from the bed where she had been laying. She was fully dressed, including her boots, perhaps trusting she might have to leave at a moment's notice.

"I knew you'd come!" she cried joyfully, launching herself at him.

Kevin kissed her urgently, then set her down carefully and grabbed her hand.

"We've got to run," he said urgently, "Come on!"

Together they rushed from the room through the hole Bret's magic had created and set off in the direction he had indicated previously. Behind them, the sound of the door to the cell being slammed open indicated the entrance of the henchmen they had been observing earlier.

Kevin did not hesitate. He dashed in the direction Bret had indicated. Behind them came the sounds of pursuit - the crash of heavy men forcing their way through the sisal plantation. Kevin ran as hard as he could, quietly giving mental thanks to the personal circumstances that had led him to work out on a regular basis.

Bret's advice - "don't look back" - echoed in his mind and he put every ounce of concentration into moving as quickly as possible through the obstructions formed by the plantation. Shouts and screams from behind them confirmed that they were still being followed by at least one of the goons Kevin had identified earlier, although the noises also suggested that they were being hampered by the thorny plantings.

Kevin crashed though the back door of the warehouse, followed immediately by Tanji - the very exit that he and Bret had departed though less than an hour before. Followed by the astonished eyes of several workers, the two fugitives headed for the portal that he had noted on his earlier visit.

Ceiling of portal terminus building Hand in hand, Kevin and Tanji dashed into the portal archway. At the moment of transition, Kevin perceived that they were still being followed by at least some of their pursuers. They emerged from the portal at considerable speed. They ran full-tilt across the portal junction dodging floating pallets of goods of every size and description. They made their way speedily down one of the long corridors, typical of such stations, with portal archways spaced on each side.

There was still a trail of noises of complaint behind them.

"Come on!" Tanji urged, tugging at Kevin's hand.

Suddenly, their pursuers seemed to be gaining - perhaps he and Tanji were beginning to tire - and Kevin redoubled his exertions. Tanji indicated an arch ahead of them.

"That one," she shouted.

She dashed through the archway, setting off what sounded to Kevin suspiciously like a warning hooter. Kevin followed closely, suddenly finding in incredibly difficult to move, like trying to run up a very steep hill. As if he had reached the top of the incline, he suddenly toppled forward and found himself sprawled on the floor next to Tanji.

Their pursuers were nowhere to be seen, and goods pallets were beginning to move through the portal sedately in both directions, their handlers politely ignoring the flustered travellers still sprawled on the floor.

"What happened?" Kevin asked Tanji, still breathless after his exertion.

"We just made it through the portal before it switched destination," she replied, also trying to catch her breath.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, you certainly don't want to be half-way though when the destination changes," Tanji explained, "Half of you would end up in one place, and half in another."

Kevin suppressed the revulsion which had been the result of the sudden mental image.

"I can understand that," he replied earnestly.

"So, the portals are designed to progressively discourage travellers from entering for a few seconds just before the switch," she explained, "It gets harder and harder to enter, and finally impossible. Those guys, whoever they were, must have bounced off the entrance just before it switched, or were sent somewhere else entirely."

She stood up, tugging urgently at Kevin's arm to make him move.

"We'd better get going, before they find an alternative route," she said.

It took quite some time to get to Bret's family home. As far as Kevin could tell, they followed a roundabout route, keeping moving even if the portal taken does not really get closer to their destination. They were trying, it seemed to Kevin, to select portals whose destinations were about to change, presumably to throw off anyone still attempting to follow them.

They stopped only twice, once so that Tanji could write on the slate Bret had pressed into his hands. She was clearly sending messages, all written in the Lyndesfarne tongue: the meaning or recipients Kevin could not begin to decipher. They also paused for a second brief moment outside a shop selling women's clothing in one of the near-indistinguishable portal termini they were passing through.

"Have you got any money?" Tanji demanded.

"Of course," Kevin responded, wondering what was going on, "Here, take this."

He extracted from his rucksack a stack of Lyndesfarne coins representing, he realised later, quite a lot of money for walking-around cash. In the fashion of coinage in this magical world, the coins were all pressed together to form a package which was no larger or heavier than a single coin of the same denomination.

"Thanks," she said, taking the currency from his outstretched hand.

She disappeared into the shop's changing room, watched nervously by Kevin, clutching the first blouse and trousers that looked as if they might fit her. In Kevin's limited experience of standing outside changing rooms in ladies' clothes shops, Tanji performed an exceptionally rapid change and re-appeared wearing the new garments in a matter of seconds, it seemed.

"This'll do," she said, glancing momentarily in a mirror - a mirror that Kevin belatedly realised did not reverse left and right, but showed Tanji and himself exactly as others would see them.

The image showed himself looking tired, worn and distinctly dishevelled. Tanji, on the other hand, looked rested and bright-eyed, full of life and energy. She had survived the ordeal of her imprisonment much better than he had expected and indeed, he considered, better than he would have done himself.

Tanji nodded at her image, then marched over to the counter to pay for the clothing. A few moments later they were on the move again, walking swiftly towards yet another portal that Tanji had identified.

"What was that all about," Kevin hissed as they marched along.

"I wanted to change my appearance," she replied, "Besides, I've been wearing the same clothes for days."

She hesitated, then added, "I'm also just a bit concerned about tracing magic - the kind of thing that might have been hidden in my clothes."

Finally, they arrived at a small portal terminus building that Kevin was certain he recognised.

"We're here, aren't we?" he asked.

"Yes," Tanji replied, looking immensely relieved, "Thank goodness."

She gripped his hand harder, as if she never wanted to let him go. It was but a short walk to Bret's family house from the portal terminus. They were both even more relieved when, in answer to their urgent knocking, the front door was opened almost immediately by Bret himself.


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