Bret's mother launched into another anecdote, this time about trading in a market in a North Yorkshire town. This was after she had married, and the two newlyweds had been working together. They had been in fierce competition with another stall, selling apparently similar items, which they had assumed also to be from Lyndesfarne. But they did not recognise either the stallholders or the artefacts, and it turned out that the competitors had come from some not-very-well defined part of Central Europe, and the goods were almost certainly complete fakes.
Kevin laughed out loud at the conclusion of this tale, which had appealed to his ironic sense of humour. He heard footsteps on the stairs behind him.
"I'm back," a husky but manifestly feminine voice said behind him.
Kevin turned, and then froze as he took in the sight before him. The woman approaching him was tall and broad shouldered, but quite definitely female, with a sporty appearance and the slight suggestion, Kevin could not help but think, of those Eastern European Olympic athletes from the 1970s.
"Bret!" he blurted out.
"Well, yes. Although, judging by the look on your face, I suspect I should have warned you beforehand about this."
Bret had adopted more of the high-cheekboned appearance typical of natives to the Island, and was wearing a robe best described as flowing, even by the standards of the loose-fitting robes widely used in Lyndesfarne. The face and hair, which had seemed boyish before, seem to have been subtly altered to give a much more womanly look, although the loosening of the ponytail into a much more fluid hairstyle probably helped as well. But, despite all the changes, the person smiling dryly at Kevin was still immediately recognisable as Bret.
Kevin was astonished, shocked, even flabbergasted. Through all of his confusion, just one question surfaced.
"Why?" he stuttered, "Why did you do it?"
Bret smiled in an amused fashion. This was a look that worked better on his, or rather her, face as a woman, in what would become Kevin's opinion when he regained his composure.
"Well, your world does have a reputation for sexist attitudes. When I was asked to work on the New Bridge, I was advised to make all the changes I could. So, I thought it best to appear male, since I have the ability."
Sensing Kevin's confusion, Bret's mother chipped in.
"Our family has lived in this house for generations, and we have something of a tradition of trade and travel in your world. Almost all of the family have well-developed shapeshifting talents, and we certainly employ them whenever necessary."
She snorted in what Kevin took to be wry amusement, then continued.
"I didn't mention it earlier but, when I met Bret's father in that marketplace, both of us appeared male."
Kevin could well believe it. From what he had just seen, it did not take too much imagination to see Bret's mother as a man. Furthermore, in Bret's female form, there was clearly even more resemblance between her and her mother.
"Besides," Bret said, "There are some products which enhance a shapeshifter's ability. I use one to give my eyes a more masculine appearance - although it does tend to wear off after a while."
With the aid of a few deep breaths, a gulp from the wine glass he had managed to avoid dropping and a fair amount of will-power, Kevin attempted to pull himself together. This world really does have the ability to surprise me, he thought, but even so, I could still tell it was Bret, despite all of the changes she made.
Just at that moment, the front door opened, and three people came in, removing their coats, shouting out greetings and generally behaving in that exuberant way that made it clear that they lived here.
"Aha," exclaimed Bret, "Let me introduce you to my husband and children."
The man who had just entered finished the task of hanging up his cape by the door, and strode over to where Bret and Kevin were standing. Kevin stuck out his hand and the newcomer grasped it with only the slightest sign of hesitation.
"Kevin, this is my husband Eosin," said Bret, performing the introductions in an old-fashioned formal way that Kevin suspected had been learnt in a class somewhere.
"Hello. Pleased to meet you," Eosin said, in accented but understandable English.
"The pleasure is entirely mine," replied Kevin.
"My husband is the astonishingly successful and famous designer of ..." Bret began.
Eosin shook his head in what Kevin took to be an unassuming fashion, and then interrupted Bret in the Lyndesfarne language.
"He's so modest." Bret sighed. "I've just been told off for exaggerating his skills. But he really is very good at what he does."
She turned and waved at the two girls which had arrived with Eosin, who were chasing each other around in the boisterous fashion of children everywhere. Equally typically, the children completely failed to see the summons from a parent until Bret raised her voice and shouted something Kevin did not understand. This time, the kids trotted over, both suddenly overcome with shyness at being confronted with a strange adult.
Bret put her hand gently on the head of the smaller girl, who had the long blond hair and blue eyes of her Mother.
"This is Myra. She's eight. Say hello, Myra."
"Hello," the child responded in a barely audible voice, ducking her head in greeting.
"And this one's Andhra," Bret continued.
"Hello to you," she said unprompted, with a barely noticeable bob of her head.
"Pleased to meet you both," Kevin said, smiling.
Bret released the children with a few words of the form, he supposed, of "now run along and play, and don't make too much noise. Dinner in fifteen minutes. And don't forget to wash your hands."
Kevin was struck by the difference between the two girls. He could see that they were sisters, but in almost every aspect they were as different as it was possible to imagine. The older girl had her hair cut short, and was a darker shade which was almost orange. Myra was wearing a pretty white summer dress, while Andhra wore a crimson sleeveless shirt and short trousers with many pockets, which looked to Kevin as if they were made of leather.
Kevin shook his head, and returned his attention to Bret and Eosin.
"So you live here all the time?" he asked.
Bret smiled again. "Oh yes. My children go to school nearby, the same school I went to all those years ago. I do think it's wonderful for them to grow up where their forebears did."
"Is that where they learn English?"
"Yes. It's not very common to learn your language, but this school includes a couple of lessons. We encourage it at home, too."
Kevin turned to Eosin, who was still politely standing nearby.
"Do you work locally as well?"
"I work here today," he replied, looking to Bret, Kevin suspected, for help with the language.
"Eosin currently works part-time, so he spends more time that I do with the children at the moment," Bret interjected. "And he does a lot of his work from home."
Kevin wondered fleetingly how that could be done, but did not have an opportunity to follow up the thought. The front door opened again, and a couple entered, followed several seconds later by a rather strapping teenager. Kevin was introduced to the newcomers, who turned out to be Bret's older sister and her husband, and their son. Kevin's attention was caught by the teenager, to the point of entirely missing his parents' names when they were spoken. The young person, who was called Gred, was already nearly as tall as Kevin, and apparently taking after his grandfather in both looks and build.
"Are you from the Other World?" Gred asked directly.
"Yes, yes I am. I'm helping Bret" - Kevin could not bring himself to say Aunt Bret - "with building the New Bridge."
The teenager grunted, apparently satisfied with this answer, mooched off downstairs, ignoring, Kevin suspected, instructions from his parents to help with preparations for dinner.
"Does everyone live here?" Kevin asked Bret, who was clearly enjoying her role as guide and chaperone. Bret nodded, and then took a sip of her wine before answering.
"Yes. It can be a bit noisy sometimes, but there's always someone around to help, or just to talk to."
Kevin mentally compared this lively, even boisterous household, and being surrounded by friendly people, with his own rather lonely flat. He felt a distinct pang of jealousy, but also wondered how he would react what was effectively enforced company at all times.
Just at that moment, Bret's father emerged from the kitchen and rang a bell which hung by the kitchen door, obviously for exactly this purpose. Children and adults started appearing almost immediately, and there was a bustle around the dining table, including imprecations to the children which Kevin interpreted as "now go and wash your hands". After a few confused moments, Kevin was shepherded to sit between Bret and her mother at one end of the table, with the children being sensibly relegated to the far end.
While the family were settling at the table, Bret's father started bringing steaming plates and dishes from the kitchen in what appeared to be a well-orchestrated manner. The food all looked and smelt delightful, and turned out to taste delicious, as Kevin was soon to discover. The dinner menu did seem slightly old-fashioned to him, with no apparent concern over levels of fat and carbohydrate intake. Kevin usually tried to watch what he ate, to keep his weight and blood pressure down.
Nevertheless, on this occasion he tucked in with gusto while someone topped up his wine glass. He had never seen anyone in Lyndesfarne who seemed to be particularly overweight. Perhaps people here undertake additional exercise, or perhaps more outdoors living, he considered, or maybe there are some magical abilities to control appetite or metabolism.
The younger children spent much of the meal asking questions of Kevin, to his considerable amusement. The kids spoke sometimes shyly and hesitantly in English, with occasional corrections and prompts from assorted parents. Kevin wondered if there were local schools in England where it was possible to learn the language of Lyndesfarne. Unsurprisingly, he had not heard of such a thing, but it seemed entirely likely given the centuries-old covert collaboration between the two worlds.
The adults too seemed keen to ask questions and, once it became clear that Kevin was willing to field almost any kind of enquiry, it was not long before queries and requests for clarification were flying around the table. Kevin answered the eclectic assortment of questions as best he could, doing his utmost to speak slowly and clearly. This seemed to be successful, as Bret and the others very rarely felt compelled to intercede or to translate his answers.
After dinner, a couple of the children were directed to help the adults tidy up based on, Kevin guessed, some kind of rota system. The other children disappeared downstairs, understandably keen to pursue their own interests and entertainments. The table-clearing was achieved with only an occasional reprimand from a parent which Kevin did not understand, although he was familiar with the "slightly aggravated parent" tone of voice invariably used under these circumstances.
Kevin's offer to help with the clearing up was politely but firmly refused, and he was directed to the comfortable chairs by the fireside. Having been sitting down for a considerable time, he decided to stretch his legs, and instead stood by the fire, enjoying the combined warmth of the flames and the large quantity of food he had just enjoyed.
As he looked around, he could see that the walls of the living room were decorated with pictures, many of them striking abstract works of art in warm colours - russet, orange, chocolate brown. There were also a couple of images of a figure in a voluminous cape, with the hood up against the wind and weather clearly depicted in the background. Although executed in a highly realistic way, it occurred to Kevin that they were probably the work of the same artist who had produced the abstract artworks, and certainly using the same palette of colours. He had vaguely expected animated pictures or something like that.
"They don't move," he observed to Bret, who had quietly returned to his side.
"Oh, no," she replied at once, with a laugh. "Did you expect it? It would be possible to produce such a thing, of course, but it would be rather distracting, don't you think? Besides, it would be regarded as being, well, in slightly vulgar taste."
Bret explained that, for the most part, magic and art did not mix, at least according to the Islander's artistic conventions. Art, and music and similar personally creative activities were regarded as the work of unaided physical labour, so that incorporating magic into the work, or using it in its creation, was regarded as a gross faux pas in arty circles.
Kevin imagined that this purist attitude was analogous to his own preference for live theatre, rather than the less involving television. Even so, he considered that his own work had immense creative involvement, in spite of using technology and engineering approaches.
The room was also decorated with what Kevin initially assumed were photographs. When she spotted him inspecting them, Bret's mother took great delight in showing pictures of Bret when she was a child, to her mild embarrassment. Kevin could not quite follow the gestures she used to manipulate the picture frames to swap the images displayed. However, it did give him some insight into Bret's developing ability to appear male or female at will, a development which seemed to accompany puberty.
One of the strangest events of the evening happened after dinner. Eosin picked up the Busby-wearing teddy bear that Kevin had presented as a gift and started inspecting it closely. After a short conversation with his mother-in-law, he took the doll with him as he left the room. Kevin carried on chatting with Bret and the others, not giving Eosin's actions a second thought, until he came back after about twenty minutes and placed the toy on the table. To Kevin's astonishment, and to the amusement of everyone else, the bear immediately came to life, and marched around the tabletop in a superb parody of a guardsman.
Kevin was fascinated. He reached over and picked up the teddy, which instantly went dead in his hands, and examined it carefully. There were no external changes that he could see, but it seemed a trifle firmer in the middle than before. He could not be sure, but it seemed a little heavier, too.
"How's it done?" he asked Eosin, waving the bear in his direction.
"I put a sprite in it," Eosin said hesitantly, again looking to Bret for help.
"Like the ones in the masonry of the old bridge?" Kevin asked, looking from Eosin to Bret and back again.
"It's a different kind of sprite," Eosin replied immediately.
"There are lots of kinds of sprites," Bret continued, taking over from her spouse, "and new ones are being designed all the time. That's what Eosin does - he's a sprite designer."
"But what exactly are these sprites?" Kevin persisted.
Bret and her husband looked at each other.
"Think of them as, umm, captured intent." Bret replied. "A well-designed sprite does one thing, forever. Usually, it's a fairly simple thing. The tricky part is getting exactly the right behaviour - and this takes time and skill."
"Also, there are the controls," Eosin interjected.
Kevin must have looked mystified, as Bret continued with the explanation.
"Controls select between multiple intents captured by the same sprite. Our gestures are interpreted to determine which intent to satisfy, including an intent to do nothing,"
This rationalization, limited though it was, seemed to make sense to Kevin. His computer simulations were consistent with the ability, in Lyndesfarne, to alter local physics in a deterministic and repeatable way, under controls which picked a capability from a set of options. But he was not sure he was going to make much headway into this thinking tonight.
As had been predicted, Kevin did indeed eat and drink rather too much, and stayed up only a little after his normal bedtime. He was already feeling quite a bit sleepy when he was directed to his bedroom. He slept soundly and woke early but refreshed by the morning sunlight, having forgotten to darken the windows before he clambered into bed.
He bathed and dressed quickly, shaving carefully with a naked blade as he usually did when he stayed over in Lyndesfarne. He made his way upstairs, where Bret's mother was already present, but there was no sign of the children or other adults. Bret appeared shortly afterwards, looking fresh and relaxed. He had returned to his male appearance, although Kevin was not entirely sure why Bret had bothered reverting, now that the secret was known to him.
After a modest but extremely tranquil breakfast, he and Bret collected their things and made ready to leave. Kevin offered his profuse and heartfelt thanks to Bret's mother for their hospitality, stressing to the best of his ability just how welcome he had felt during his brief stay. The older woman seemed genuinely touched, perhaps even slightly embarrassed by his gratitude, and Kevin was made to promise that he would return sometime. The two men then made their way outside, where the same driver, horse and trap was already waiting for them.
As they travelled back to the building site, two thoughts struck Kevin. Firstly, what had happened to the horse and trap, and the driver for that matter, during his overnight stay? There were no obvious stables or anywhere where a horse could have been accommodated overnight. Had the horse merely been tethered somewhere close by? Or had horse and master been provided with lodging elsewhere?
His second thought was that it was quite a distance from Bret's house to the site of the New Bridge. He wondered vaguely how Bret travelled from and from his home. Did he travel this way every time he came to work on the bridge? Or did he employ some other mode of transport?
Musing on these questions, Kevin remembered that, when they had been working together on the Island, he had observed Bret arriving on foot following the path from the Old Bridge. This was a quite different direction from the one from which they were now approaching, and he seriously doubted that Bret travelled every day by horse and cart.
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