Tanji seemed determined to show Kevin even more of the world of Lyndesfarne, especially after their highly enjoyable visits to the beach resort - Kevin could never quite recall its name - and to the tropical city of Jaireby. Emboldened by these successes, Tanji suggested that they take a week-long break in the Other World, this time proposing a horse-riding tour - pony trekking, as Kevin had heard it called.
Kevin would soon discover that Tanji was an able horsewoman, fluid and well-seated in the saddle. He was entirely unsurprised by this revelation, as he had long suspected that horses were still more commonplace in this world than in his own, or at least familiar to those who's careers depended on working with Visitors from the other world. He himself, on the other hand, had never been on a horse before, but had expressed himself willing to learn, albeit with a certain degree of trepidation.
Together, they travelled through the portal network, once again guided expertly by Tanji. From the last portal building, their destination was just a short walk along a dusty trail carrying their shoulder bags - people in this world always seemed to be able to travel lighter than those at home. They finally ended up at a ranch located in what Kevin fondly imagined was called the high chaparral, although he was not exactly sure what the words really meant.
The two lovers entered at the compound gate and looked around at the buildings being warmed by the bright morning sunshine. The stables and barns, not to mention the accommodation for people, were extremely tidy and, he would shortly discover, well-equipped. It was a set up which he immediately classified as a Dude Ranch, based more from what he had seen in films than any direct experience of his own.
He followed Tanji into the low ranch building through a doorway marked by a sign which read, if Kevin's very limited understanding of the Lyndesfarne language was correct, read "Reception". They were greeted by the receptionist, who was standing behind a desk of rustic design, with a mellifluous and - to Kevin, entirely unintelligible - stream of words. Tanji answered with equally rapid speech, although Kevin caught a few words, including his own name. Check-in took only a few moments, during which the receptionist gestured at the desk, and both Kevin and Tanji were required to press their right hands onto a slate surface embedded in the desktop. This process was entirely familiar to Kevin, who had stayed in the "Walled Garden" hostel frequently both during and after the construction of the New Bridge.
Formalities completed, Kevin and Tanji were introduced to a deeply-tanned and energetic little man called Riz who, surprisingly, spoke a little English. Kevin found it difficult to determine the other man's age; he could have been anything between thirty and fifty-five.
Riz took them on a whirlwind guided tour of the stables, showing them the tack and introducing them to the horses they would be riding later on. Kevin knew almost nothing about horses, and the beasts looked impossibly big, as always. He nervously backed away when his animal was led from its stall. Tanji and Riz encouraged him into the saddle and soon Kevin was plodding around in a circle, feeling just a little foolish. The horse was being held by a long rein by Riz who also pointed out the errors in his posture and technique. Some of his more complicated remarks had to be rendered in the Lyndesfarne language and translated by Tanji, inevitably with a twist of her own.
"He says you should sit more forward in the saddle," she suggested, adding wryly, "And arch your back a little - like you do when you're with me."
He had gained a little confidence by the time they stopped for a break and some refreshments. He realised he had managed a whole hour in the saddle without having been thrown to the ground.
As the days went on, Tanji assured him repeatedly that he was learning quickly, although the muscles in his backside were already beginning to fundamentally disagree with her in this regard. He persevered, however, and was extremely pleased, only a few days later, to be able to manage a short gallop without feeling totally out of control or likely to fall off at any moment.
His abilities on horseback continued to improve quickly, he was told. Everyone seemed sufficiently confident, towards the end of their vacation, to allow Tanji to propose a two-day ride to see the small wild dragons which populated this area of arid, semi-desert scrubland.
"We won't be riding fast, or even very far, really," she assured him, "But there are some things I'd like to show you which cannot easily be reached in any other way."
They set off on their trek early in the morning, while it was still cool. Kevin and Tanji had both packed a few personal belongings in their saddlebags. Kevin had taken almost nothing except for a few toiletries and a change of underwear, while Tanji seemed intent on including the magic communication slate she seemed to carry with her everywhere in this world.
They were assisted in the journey by two trail guides, one of whom was Riz himself. The other was a taciturn older guy named Vritz, stereotypically terse and grizzled in appearance, although Kevin would later discover that he opened up after a bottle of cider or two around the campfire.
The two guides were mounted astride rather bigger and stronger horses, it seemed to Kevin, than himself and Tanji, and therefore appeared capable of carrying more baggage. Vritz also led a packhorse loaded with a surprisingly large amount of material, although Kevin would later find that, although bulky, many of the items were really very light in weight.
All of the party carried water bottles, conscientiously filled from the tap provided back at the ranch. The two travellers were carefully drilled by the guides about the importance of rationing their water supply. It seemed they did not want to lose any tourists on this trip - must be too much paperwork, Kevin assumed ironically.
As the party rode out, Riz explained in slightly fractured English something about the local fauna. He was assisted by Vritz, who spoke no English but appeared to know a great deal more about the wildlife. Even Tanji, who had been trained as an interpreter, found it difficult to translate some of the descriptions the grizzled guide used. Presumably, Kevin mused, Vritz was making use of complex technical words not in everyday circulation.
There was inevitably a certain amount of confused repetition, but Kevin gradually came to understand that the creatures that lived in this part of the world had to be hardy enough to survive extremes of temperatures, as well as being able to find moisture in out-of-the-way places - or be capable of doing without it.
They stuck to well-worn trails across the semi-desert, picking their way through dried up thorn-bushes and passing the occasional giant cactus. In this area, the ground was mostly flat, with occasional rocky gullies which cut deeply into the land and where they had to take care when crossing. For some of the deeper and most broken ravines, they were required to dismount and lead their horses in single file.
Their first destination was a range of craggy hills which the guides pointed out to them in the distance. This was the region frequently by a kind of small flying reptile, whose name appeared at first to be difficult to translate, but Tanji and Riz finally settled on "Desert Hawk". Vritz explained that these little dragons are capable of spotting and catching desert rats, mice and similar creatures from miles away. They would also feed on snakes and lizards - indeed anything alive and wriggling which was light enough for them to be able to fly away with.
The trekking party stopped at a vantage point overlooking a low dry valley and perhaps half a mile or so from the line of the cliffs. They dismounted from their horses, Kevin for one feeling the benefit of stretching his legs after their morning ride. Tanji had correctly recognised that her lover was entirely captivated by dragons and would relish the opportunity to witness another, rather less fearsome, species.
Vritz set up one of the magic magnifying plates Kevin had experienced before, but this time mounted on a kind of wooden tripod which had somehow been folded up in the baggage carried by the packhorse.
Alternating between using the "magic binoculars" and his unaided eyes, they watched an impressive flying display, the Hawks whirling and squawking madly both in flight and in their nests. These creatures lived in family groups of perhaps a dozen or even twenty, roosting amongst rocky and inaccessible crags, just like their larger cousins. They had a huge range, flying - soaring, really, on the thermals created by the strong sunshine on darker rocks - and travelling long distances to hunt down their prey.
As Kevin and Tanji watched the Hawks, engrossed in the continuing aerial display, Riz handed each of them a packed lunch - inevitably contained in that magic wrapping that had so confused Kevin on first encounter. They also drank very sparingly from their water flasks, to the visible approval of Vritz.
After an hour or so, the party reluctantly departed. Kevin eased himself back into the saddle, realising that a few days ago he would never have imagined he would be able to embark on another ride with little more than a few twinges in his thighs.
Their afternoon ride took them into canyon country. This was a confusing maze of passes, which seemed to Kevin to have no distinguishing features whatsoever. Nevertheless, they were directed unerringly to the intended destination, a feat which considerably impressed Kevin who was convinced that, left alone, he would never be able to find his way back.
After a few hours riding, most of it at walking pace or slower, the party stopped at another viewpoint, this time overlooking a shallow canyon. There was a river at the bottom although Kevin noted that, in this season, there was barely a trickle in its bed.
Tanji drew up alongside him.
"Vritz says we'll be pitching camp just over there."
She pointed out a wide flat spot sheltered by high rocks on one side and by a couple of trees on another, and with an obvious route down to the river to allow, Kevin assumed, the horses to drink their fill.
"That's not very far," Kevin noted.
"Of course, we could take a longer ride," she suggested teasingly, "But I expect you'll be glad to stop this evening as it is!"
She patted his thigh playfully.
"I look forward to you rubbing it better later," he suggested, grinning hugely in return.
As they arrived at the indicated spot, Kevin realised that people must have camped here before, at least judging by the fire-pit marked with a ring of stones and dotted with the blackened remains of logs.
Riz and Vritz rapidly erected their overnight camp, assisted rather ineffectually by Kevin and Tanji. The two guides produced from their saddlebags, and the packhorse's load, the magical tents and beds and other furniture that Kevin had experienced on the beach holiday for the first time only a few months before, once again all contained in an astonishingly small volume. Here they were used, perhaps a little more authentically, to set up a camp in an area which seemed to Kevin to be more or less the genuine article when it came to untamed wildernesses.
As they set up camp, it became rapidly dark and it began to cool quickly. Vritz produced logs and kindling from the little wooded area, looking to Kevin as if the fuel had been prepared on a previous visit. The guide started the fire with a carefree magical gesture. The blaze caught immediately, and it was not long before they were all sat comfortably around the campfire.
Vritz, assisted by Riz, rapidly prepared a meal whose origins Kevin could not quite identify. The appetizing aroma from the cook-pot, together with the considerable appetite he had worked up during the ride, meant that he attacked the food with gusto as soon as it was presented. Vritz also produced a number of chilled bottles of what Kevin had assumed would be beer, but was in fact a kind of still cider. He enjoyed this enormously once he had got over the surprising taste.
After their meal, they sat talking around the campfire for a while, finishing the last of the cider, while Riz tended to the horses. Vritz seemed willing to answer the almost inexhaustible supply of questions that Kevin came up with and Tanji interpreted.
"Does it ever get wet around here?" he inquired.
Tanji translated his question and the short response from the trail guide.
"Every year, for about four days," came the answer, "It rains continuously."
During the ride, Kevin had noticed the deep runnels and water-worn rocks, which suggested that short-lived streams would appear during the wet season. That's an awful lot of rain in one go, he mused.
"So why don't the bigger dragons live in these parts?"
Again, Tanji translated his question and listened carefully to the answer, delivered at length from the trail guide.
"There are two reasons," she replied eventually, "The first is that the kind of animals that large dragons like to eat are not often found in this area. There are no deer, or antelope or pigs - wild boar, perhaps I should say - in these parts."
She paused, listening to more rapid explanation in the Lyndesfarne language.
"The other reason is to do with the rainfall," she continued, "These little critters don't like the damp any more than their larger cousins, but they can hide themselves in crevasses and caves when it rains."
He could have asked many more questions, but began to feel himself overcome with sleep. Making excuses on his behalf, Tanji gently guided him to their tent and into their sleeping bag.
Kevin slept like a log and awoke early, feeling refreshed and only a little sore in a few places. Tanji too appeared to have slept well, although Kevin noted she had herself fallen asleep before delivering the promised massage.
With little fuss, and a considerable amount of quiet competence, Riz and Vritz served the yawning tourists a light breakfast washed down with mugs of hot chocolate. Kevin and Tanji lingered over their drinks while the two men packed up the camp, everything collapsing and disappearing into the baggage in a fashion which, as always, Kevin could only wryly label as "magic".
Their morning ride took them to yet another vantage point, this one on the edge of the plateau of the high desert. From where they stood, they could look out over a range of lower hills rolling down towards a rugged coastline in the very far distance. It was, Kevin recognised, another spot which would have been nearly impossible to get to by any form of transport short of flying, except on horseback.
They dismounted, and Kevin and Tanji walked hand-in-hand to the very edge of the plateau. From there, they looked down at the distant coast. It must have been ten or more miles away, although plainly visible thanks to the clear air of the region. There was a wide strip of flat sandy desert between the foothills and the sea itself. Cut into the coastline was a large bay, almost closed on the seaward side, but extending several miles inland, and almost perfectly circular in shape. It was a most unusual - indeed, entirely unnatural - formation.
Kevin speculated on what geological mechanisms could possibly have resulted in a circular bite into the coastline: an explosive volcanic eruption, perhaps? While he was studying the strange-looking cove, a gradual realisation crept over him. He realised that he was overlooking the site of that ill-fated crossing, the one that Noah - or Noaz, however his name was pronounced - had feared.
"This is Noah's crossing, isn't it?" he asked Tanji.
"I looked it up," she confessed, "It wasn't terribly hard to identify from the records at the Guild, given what I heard at Bret's place."
Kevin looked on, suddenly gloomy as the reality of the tale he had been told came in upon him.
"It's not the only one, you know," she said sadly, "Huge round shapes in the landscape are all over this world – and yours, too."
"Mine?" Kevin started.
"Oh, yes," she replied, "There's a circular lake in Ireland, for example, which was the site of a crossing closed a few hundred years ago. It's still thought to have something mysterious about it, even now."
"I just wanted to see this one for myself. We really have done some stupid things in the past, you know," Tanji added sadly, "Mucking around with crossings."
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