It was late at night by the time that Kevin and Tanji arrived at her family's home. By now, it was completely dark, and she guided him by the elbow through a gateway in a high wall and along a gravel path which was at slight risk of being overgrown by the shrubbery on either side. There were streetlights outside the gateway and lights ahead, which turned out to be either side of the door to a house Kevin could barely make out.
Tanji knocked on the door, which was answered after a few moments by an older woman who looked as if she had been dozing for a while, and had suddenly woken. She said something that Kevin did not understand, and flung the door wide. Tanji embraced the other woman affectionately, visibly going limp in her arms from what Kevin felt sure was a sense of relief. After a few seconds, the older woman turned her attention to him.
"You must be Kevin," she said in good English, "Tanji has told me so much about you."
"Kevin," Tanji said, surprisingly formally, "I would like to introduce you to my Aunt."
"Pleased to meet you," Kevin replied politely, even though he felt like he was sagging himself. He had not offered his hand, but the older woman took both his hands and drew him further into the house, while Tanji closed the door behind them.
"You must be so very tired and hungry. Come on through. I've put some food together for you."
By this time, both travellers were so exhausted they could hardly stand. Kevin was not really paying very much attention and allowed himself to be guided down the hallway and into a large, warm and homely kitchen.
"Your Uncle wanted to welcome you, but he is already in bed," Tanji's Aunt said. "His health's not all that strong. I don't want to wake him."
"Oh, that's OK. I can introduce him to Kevin in the morning," Tanji responded.
In what seemed like just a few moments, they had divested themselves of their boots, coats and outdoor clothing, which was whisked away. They had been seated in front of a fire, although the evening was not really particularly cold, and a large glasses of red wine had been pressed into their hands. They were now being treated to a supper of fresh bread, a hard but strongly flavoured cheese and large mugs of a hot and tasty broth, although Kevin could not quite determine exactly what was in the soup.
It was all exceptionally delicious, and he found himself wolfing down the food, barely aware of where he was or who was around him. The stress and excitement, not to mention a considerable amount of physical exertion, as well as being outside rather more than was usual, had all contributed to a raging appetite. It really is true, he mused dopily, hunger is the best sauce.
The food and wine was fast making Kevin drowsy, and he found himself nodding off in front of the fire. But before he fell completely asleep, Tanji nudged him and nearly dragged him downstairs. He was directed to a bedroom on the lower level, as well as firmly pointed at an adjacent shower room.
"Why don't you slip in there for a few minutes?" Tanji suggested.
He needed no further urging and stepped into the bathroom. He dragged off the rest of his clothing, leaving them in a crumpled heap on the floor. He then took a rapid but very welcome shower, feeling rather pleased with himself that he had accurately remembered the gestures required to operate the facilities in a Lyndesfarne bathroom.
He staggered out, wrapped in a towel and carrying his clothes, to find Tanji waiting for him. By now in a near-somnambulant state, she guided him to his bedroom.
"I've been given this one tonight," she said, indicating a room next door.
"Goodnight," he murmured, as Tanji kissed him warmly on the lips, then ran her hand over the small of his back and then up over his buttocks under the towel. He felt himself tense instinctively with her touch, tightening in several exciting ways. Tanji gently pushed him towards his bedroom door, still managing to deliver one last delightful kiss.
Kevin stripped off his towel and literally fell into bed, dragging the covers over himself and almost immediately falling into a near-sleep state. He had dimly expected to sleep alone tonight, but he was suddenly (and utterly delightfully) aware of a slightly damp Tanji slipping under the covers next to him. Despite the combination of exhaustion and slight inebriation, Kevin found himself reacting to Tanji's presence in his bed. He reached over and ran his hand over her stomach, delighted to find her to be quite naked under the bedclothes.
"Sleep now," she giggled softly, "I'll be here in the morning."
Kevin could not remember a thing between that sentence and becoming wonderfully awake the following morning. The sun was streaming in through the window, and he felt Tanji stretching luxuriously beside him. To his utter delight, he was treated to a shorter but still incredibly exciting reprise of the previous morning, which seemed now to be such a long time ago. Smiling in an extremely naughty fashion, Tanji then slipped out of Kevin's room.
"See you upstairs for breakfast. Twenty minutes?"
At breakfast, Kevin was properly introduced to Tanji's aunt. At least, it seemed to him to be a proper introduction, since last night had passed in a daze. Her Aunt was a petite woman with silver-grey hair, and the family resemblance was very obvious.
"Where's Uncle?" asked Tanji in English, presumably for Kevin's benefit.
"He was required to go out at few moments ago," her Aunt replied, "But I'm sure he'll be back very soon."
Breakfast was taken in the kitchen, which was quite small, but felt warm and cosy. In the centre of the room, a few chairs were set around what appeared to be a traditional wooden kitchen table. Kevin looked up at the noises of ceramic mugs and plates being placed on the table. The sound had the sharp click of crockery on stone. Looking more closely, the table surface seemed to have been treated in some way, to make it both much more hardwearing as well as impermeable to liquids.
The wooden chairs were also not quite what they seemed. Kevin had expected the seat to be hard and unyielding, but it was actually soft and surprisingly comfortable. There seemed to be some magic which added an unprecedented degree of elasticity to the wood of the seat itself.
After breakfast, Tanji retrieved her slate from her bag, and made a series of gestures. Kevin thought he recognised the symbol for "speak" but, as was so often the case, the meaning of the entire sequence evaded him. After a few minutes, she announced that her old friend Kithyn would be joining them later in the day.
After a splendid breakfast, a very good sleep, and an incredible awakening, Kevin felt on top of the world. For no reason he could articulate, he felt that he was safe here, that nothing could affect him, and that he had truly escaped from whatever dreadful fate had been threatened by Professor Alan.
Sensing his mood, Tanji suggested that he might care to have a look around, to stretch his legs. He accepted with alacrity. Taking his arm, she directed him out of the kitchen through the back door, and along a path that skirted the lawn and led towards a cluster of outbuildings.
The house appeared to be more modest than Bret's family place, but nevertheless it had felt both spacious and comfortable to Kevin. It also had much larger grounds than Bret's establishment, with paddocks and stables for horses, which were evidently in regular use. Kevin had not noticed stables at Bret's place, and wondered again what had happened to the horse which had taken him and Bret there.
After a few minutes strolling, it rapidly became clear that the entire estate was a menagerie.
"My Aunt is an enthusiastic keeper of animals of all kinds," explained Tanji, as a large cat with striking golden-brown markings suddenly emerged from the bushes at their feet. She bent down and stroked the cat, speaking to it in the Lyndesfarne language. The cat condescended to being petted for a few moments, in the manner of cats everywhere, and then stalked off across the lawn in search of other entertainment.
Kevin watched the cat with mild amusement.
"You like animals?" she asked him.
"Oh yes," he replied, "Though I don't have much opportunity to keep any pets."
"Well, I thought you might be interested to see this."
They walked around a corner of the stable block and were confronted by a large cage of stout wire, within which perched the most amazing creature Kevin had ever seen.
"What is it?" he breathed.
"Its name is usually translated as 'Nightwing'," Tanji replied, also speaking quietly.
The animal looked like a large flying reptile, obviously a night hunter, judging by the large and mobile eyes like those of a bird of prey. It came equipped with a large beak, or perhaps it was a long snout, filled with vicious teeth that looked to Kevin like those of a small crocodile.
The creature spread its leathery wings, and he stepped backwards instinctively to keep out of its reach. His reaction was one of complete amazement.
"It's a dragon!" he exclaimed.
"Oh, no," Tanji laughed, "Dragons are much bigger! No dragons hereabouts these days."
"So you're sure there aren't any around?" Kevin asked, feeling torn between a degree of nervousness about dangerous flying reptiles and a sense of curiosity making him want to see one.
"Not any more. Many years ago, there used to be quite a few in this area. In fact, this part of the world was once famous for its dragons."
In an effort, he suspected, to put him at ease, Tanji clarified that nowadays such dangerous predators were more-or-less extinct. Dragons were now an officially endangered species, with just a few hundred living in distant parts of the world of Lyndesfarne, kept in reserves under strict preservation orders.
Kevin had a flash of insight at this moment.
"It's not a squirrel's nest," he murmured softly, mostly to himself.
"What's that?" Tanji asked.
"The pub," he said, "Where we had dinner the other night. The sign over the door. That's not a squirrel's nest at all, is it?"
"No, you're right," Tanji replied, looking slightly sheepish. "I guess it was thought that translating it as 'The Dragons Nest' would have been unnecessarily unsettling for visitors like yourself. But it is a traditional name for an inn."
Tanji explained that, historically, keeping domestic animals in this part of Lyndesfarne was difficult chiefly because of large predators like dragons.
"Of course, it wasn't just the dragons. Wolves and bears were a constant problem, too."
Further explanations from Tanji made it clear that these dangerous animals were the reason why people traditionally lived in larger groups, and why they preferred to sleep underground. It had also made it very difficult to keep livestock, since cows, sheep and particularly pigs tended to attract the dragons over great distances. Certainly, the import of leather to the Island from Kevin's world had been an important trade in years past, as well as meat and other animal products.
Kevin turned his attention back to the Nightwing, which was now sitting peaceably on its perch.
"So why don't we have creatures like this at home?" he asked, slightly plaintively.
"I don't know," she responded promptly. "Nightwings, or dragons for that matter, are not intrinsically magical. As far as I know, there's nothing to prevent them from living in your world. Indeed, there are suggestions that these creatures have occasionally managed to travel between the worlds, in ages past."
"Really!" Kevin exclaimed, "And I bet they have given rise to all those stories in my world."
During his travels around his own world, Kevin had come across numerous myths and legends. Many of these seemed to him to have been made up on the spot, quite possibly by a tired Grandfather in order to quieten an aggressively inquisitive child, and subsequently repeated as gospel down the generations. Before now, it had not occurred to him that some of these tales could well have had some basis in fact.
"But no dragons now?" he persisted.
"Very few here. And they never have, naturally, lived in your world. Over there, other animals occupy the same ecological niches."
"Ecological niches? What do you mean?"
"Well, for example, there are no owls in Lyndesfarne."
It turned out that she actually meant birds of prey, generally - birds which catch their prey by grasping it in their talons. There were no hawks or falcons in Lyndesfarne, as well as no owls. In Kevin's world, these birds performed useful functions, like keeping down the population of rats and mice, and some of them could be trained to bring down game birds for the table.
On the Island, flying reptiles - relatives of the Nightwing - filled these spaces in the ecosystem. Kevin learned that, like some hawks, certain species of Nightwings could be trained to fly from the hand, to catch rabbits and bring down pigeons. There was a tradition in some families, Tanji explained, for keeping these animals mainly, it appeared, as a living link to the historical past.
Kevin was fascinated by the wildlife revelations. A discussion of the flora and fauna of Lyndesfarne had never featured in any NISSA briefing, and he had therefore tacitly assumed that plants and animals were the same in both worlds.
"So, are there other animals in Lyndesfarne which don't exist at home?" he asked.
"Hardly any. Almost all animals are the same, just a very few which live in one world and not the other. Perhaps the best-known example, the one I was taught about at school, is that there are no whales here."
"What? No hump-backs, no dolphins?"
Tanji shook her head slowly.
"Those niches are occupied by, well, Plesiosaurs and similar aquatic reptiles."
With exquisitely awful timing, Tanji's aunt chose that moment to approach them and let them know that her Uncle had returned.
My dearest Kithyn,
Thank you for agreeing to travel to my Aunt's house. I know how busy you are these days, how important your roles and I do understand that you cannot just drop anything and rush away. But, I would so much appreciate your sage wisdom. I hope you can leave very soon.
Looking forward to seeing you again.
Your old friend, Tanji.
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