Kevin had once again allowed himself to indulge in a short trip both recommended and guided by Tanji. He thoroughly enjoyed these explorations of the Other World, appreciating the way she was perfectly content to organise everything down to the smallest detail, so that all he to do was tag along and be amused. The absence of any kind of pressure meant that he was able to relax and feel content with life in general and Tanji's very personal attentions in particular.
As on many previous trips, Kevin found himself completely unable to interpret the signboards that marked out the next destinations for each of the portals and so felt rather helpless as Tanji worked out a suitable route. Apparently making her mind up, she took his hand to walk quickly from the portal through which they had just arrived to another one fifty yards or so down the terminus corridor.
There was also a surprisingly lengthy and faintly tedious wait for around twenty minutes in one of the terminals: not because of any technical failure, Tanji assured him, but just one of those peculiarities of portal travel is that even the most efficient route would sometimes encompass an irritating delay. Even so, the entire trip had taken rather less than two hours. This was pretty impressive, Kevin acknowledged, especially since Tanji assured him that they were literally on the other side of the world, in the southern hemisphere at a latitude rather closer to the equator than the one they had left in Northern England.
Kevin was struck by the change in weather as they stepped through the portal building exit; having left from Lyndesfarne in the damp chill of early spring, they had arrived in the sultry warmth and bright sunshine of autumn.
"Do you speak the language here?" Kevin asked, suddenly worried that she would be out of her depth.
She laughed lightly, squeezing his hand.
"Well, yes, of course," she replied reassuringly, "But they have a different accent, so it is sometime a little difficult to understand."
Kevin was later to learn that there were relatively few different languages in the world of Lyndesfarne, one of the effects, he imagined, of instantaneous transport being available to everybody over thousands of years. In general, practically everybody spoke the common tongue - the language Tanji habitually used - although she told him that many people spoke another language at home - an old language, a "kitchen language" mostly kept alive as part of a domestic tradition.
Kevin came to understand that the role of interpreter was itself a relatively unusual one in Tanji's world, although of course an essential skill for a member of the Guild of Directions and one who travelled regularly to the Other World, the strange and even dangerous world that he called home.
Their local guide on this trip was a burly looking man, bearded and barrel-chested, and with hands like plates of meat. Despite this, his face was marked by the elfin features that seemed characteristic of people all over the world of Lyndesfarne, features which at one time Kevin could only have imagined being associated with tall, fair and willowy individuals. By contrast, their guide was stocky, dark-haired and ruddy-faced, as if he had spent a great deal of time working in the sun. He did not appear to speak any English - few people in this world did, of course, unless they were somehow connected with the management and operation of the crossing.
Tanji introduced herself in the conventional way, and prompted Kevin to do the same. She turned and faced the bearded man, who was watching her and Kevin with a carefully neutral expression on his face, held up her right hand and spoke her name aloud. In response, the other man spoke his name, at least Kevin assumed. He was by now familiar with this custom but, even so, he did not catch the rapid stream of syllables that the guide uttered, distracted as he was by a desire to echo the formality correctly and suppress his near instinctive attempt to shake hands.
"What's his name?" Kevin hissed to Tanji in an embarrassed fashion, bending forward slightly to whisper in her ear.
"Call him Horth", she answered, pecking him on the cheek either for emphasis or perhaps just to cover up their whispering.
Tanji then conducted several rapid-fire exchanges with Horth which concluded in a grunted expression from the guide that Kevin took to mean "well, come on then". Tanji threaded her arm though the crook in Kevin's elbow and urged him forward.
The stocky man directed them to a waiting transport, a kind familiar to Kevin from previous trips. The vehicle resembled nothing so much as a pair of overstuffed sofas covered in bottle green leather, set one behind the other and facing in the same direction. The seats were joined by some articulated mechanism, under a thin floor, that Kevin had never quite understood, but which allowed the front and rear seats to twist and turn independently when cornering or traversing rough ground.
The two travellers clambered aboard, seated themselves comfortably in the back seats. Their guide stepped into the driver's seat, then said something Kevin did not understand.
"Two hours," Tanji translated, using the sing-song intonation she adopted when she was interpreting the words of others, then added in her own voice, "Better make ourselves comfortable, then."
"Is there no closer portal?" Kevin wondered aloud.
"I don't know," she replied, "Let me ask."
The answer, it seemed, was no. According to Tanji's translation of Horth's remarks, this area was some kind of a reserve for wildlife, although she was unspecific about exactly what kind. After a deft series of gestures from Horth, their vehicle moved placidly away from the small village which contained the portal building at a speed which Kevin judged to be no more than ten or twelve miles per hour. He had already learned that the authorities in this world discouraged vehicles which could travel much faster than a horse, although it was unclear to Kevin if the reason for this was public safety on the roads or public control of individual mobility.
Kevin sat back and took in the view. They were progressing sedately along a dusty road whose surface had the smooth hard finish of almost all roads that he had come across in this world. The road ran across a cultivated plain, a patchwork of well-managed farmland with fields separated by laid and trimmed hedges. It looked like there had been no rain for weeks, and the lush greenness in the fields contrasted with the dusty road, and clearly indicated the presence of irrigation devices of some sort.
Ahead of them was a range of low hills, their boundary marked by a steep escarpment striding arrow-straight across the landscape and disappearing into the haze on either side. Over the course of the next twenty minutes, the steep incline grew steadily closer and the tilled fields gave way to patches of woodland. Their way followed a zigzag route up the face of the escarpment, with long steady slopes punctuated with hairpin bends. The road itself was interspersed with occasional level spots which, in Kevin's own world, would once have been places where the carters would stop to rest their horses and, he suspected, would at one time have performed the same purpose here. By contrast, their present vehicle neither slowed nor hesitated for either bends or the steep sections, but ploughed on relentlessly at the same speed as before.
Very different scenery greeted them once they crested the edge of the scarp. It was a broad sweep of dusty grassland with no visible sign of cultivation, and very few trees; the few that were about looked stunted and windswept, huddled in the occasional depression as if hiding from intruders. The appearance of the countryside struck Kevin as a cross between the Derbyshire Dales and the South Downs.
The open grasslands appeared to be used for grazing - for sheep, Kevin imagined - and were broken by occasional dry-stone walls, themselves a grey-brown colour that merged imperceptibly into the rest of the landscape. It would be difficult to remain undetected in this area, he thought, unless you were specifically attempting to do so. Any feature not a dusty grey-green would stand out like a sore thumb.
In spite of the sunshine and dryness, it felt cool in the wind that blew over the open vehicle, and Kevin was glad of the warm hooded cloak he had brought with him. It was a Lyndesfarne style he found himself adopting with increasing regularity; indeed, it was one of several little things - things he would once have found totally alien - which he now enjoyed, even found welcomingly familiar.
After a little questioning, it became clear to Kevin that this was a preservation, not of something natural - endangered wildlife or rare plants - but of an ancient way of life. It was a working museum, although a little larger than his normal expectation of a museum; more a working farm or series of farms, preserved as if at some time in the previous century, or perhaps the one before that.
They headed along the road - now more a track, Kevin thought, its previously smooth surface now replaced by packed gravel interspersed with weeds whose principal function appeared to be to prevent the stones from washing away in occasional rainstorms. As they rounded one of the low hills, Horth turned to them and said something that Kevin did not understand, then pointed ahead. The dusty green pasture was dotted with white spots, clearly animals of some kind, although they did not look like sheep or goats or even deer, although they seemed to share some of the characteristics of each.
Horth stopped their vehicle at the closest point on the road, allowing the passengers to get a better look. Whatever the animals were, they looked unusual to Kevin. They had a pair of horns mounted close together, sticking straight out from their foreheads rather than being curved back towards their necks like those of the sheep and goats with which Kevin was reasonably familiar. They had smooth white pelts, and were bigger than Kevin would have expected - almost the size of a small pony. Some of the animals had only one horn, making them look even more strange and, indeed, strangely familiar to Kevin.
"What are these animals?" he asked Tanji.
"They're a kind of goat," she answered immediately.
Kevin looked again.
"They don't look like any kind of goat I've seen before," he remarked.
"They are different, aren't they?" she replied with a laugh in her voice, "I thought you'd be interested."
Kevin looked cautiously at the dangerous looking horns on the nearest of the creatures, now alternately cropping the short grass and looking around warily for other males to challenge, should they dare to encroach on his territory. "So what have they got on their heads?" he asked.
"The males grow those long straight horns every year, to challenge other males for the right to impregnate the females," she replied, sounding as if she had just consulted a guidebook, "They often fight - as you can see, some of them lose one of their horns as the result of losing a challenge."
Tanji grinned widely again, then added, "You might know them as Unicorns."
Kevin laughed. Of course, another mythical, magical beast, found to be a perfectly ordinary animal native to the World of Lyndesfarne.
"So, do you need to be a virgin to catch a Unicorn, then?"
It was Tanji's turn to laugh aloud.
"They can sometimes be difficult to round up, especially in the mating season, and they always tend to shy away if approached too closely. The herding is traditionally done by young women, not necessarily virgins," she added, grinning cheekily, "That's not actually an essential part of the specification."
Kevin and Tanji spent much of the day touring the area, spotting other groups of the animals, sometimes being guided by the patient movement of non-necessarily-virginal women in long skirts, cloaks and broad hats to protect them from the elements.
Towards the end of the day, on their way back towards the portal building from which they had emerged, their guide took a detour to what was apparently once a lookout beacon, a high point on the edge of the escarpment they had climbed earlier. Kevin and Tanji emerged from the vehicle to have a good look, and to stretch their legs. On one side, over the face of the escarpment, they overlooked a patchwork of fields separated with hedges and the occasional wooden copse; on the other side, all that was visible was the undulating dusty grazing lands. All they could see, standing out against the uniform colouration of the upper plain, was the red leather - or some similar material - of another Lyndesfarne world transport and, standing inside it, a figure who seemed to glow blue in the sunlight.
As the other vehicle drew closer and stopped, Kevin was astonished to find that he recognised the individual who stood within. It was Tweedledum - proper name, Duncan Tweedy - another native of Kevin's own world who had been the lead representative of the firm of contractors employed to build the New Bridge. Tweedledum was wearing a Hawaiian shirt in a particularly virulent shade of blue, dotted with the representation of palm trees in a lighter shade. The shirt was set off by long baggy shorts, the official uniform of the British Tourist overseas, worn just below the knee, socks (black, inevitably) which would not have looked out of place with a three-piece business suit and polished leather shoes, and thick-soled sandals firmly affixed to his feet with a multitude of straps and buckles.
Kevin had always found Tweedledum to be a boorish buffoon, impervious to criticism or even advice, and one who liked to surround himself with hangers-on, bag-carriers and yes-men, presumably in order to boost his own self-esteem. Despite his overbearing personal presence, Tweedledum had struck Kevin as particularly ineffective in practice, and had felt that the New Bridge was completed nearly on schedule in spite of Tweedledum's management style, rather than because of it.
The other man had clearly recognised Kevin immediately, and strode forward with his hand held out while uttering a booming greeting. Kevin responded automatically, subjecting himself to a bone-crushing handshake. It was a gesture which would have been familiar enough in an office building in Manchester, but which here seemed curiously foreign, even alien to him here and now.
"Kevin, old boy," Tweedledum thundered, "What brings you over here?"
"Just being a tourist," Kevin replied, indicating his cloak and staff and rucksack, items which would - he appreciated this only later - made him look much more like a resident of this world.
"Tourist?" the other man interjected, "Looks like you've gone native to me."
Kevin let that one slide without comment. Tweedledum glanced over at Tanji, who was conversing in a low voice with Horth on the other side of their vehicle. She seemed to Kevin to be immersed in her own conversation, and not at all deliberately ignoring the other man. Tweedledum smirked and nodded to Kevin, running a finger over the side of his nose before glancing again at Tanji. Kevin, who had never before considered there was anything in the least underhand or furtive about his relationship with Tanji, felt obscurely offended by the other man's responses.
Fortunately, Kevin did not have to wait long to extricate himself from this unexpected and unwelcome company. He exchanged a few inconsequential pleasantries, then answered a fairly direct question about what work he was currently undertaking. Tweedledum seemed to relax when it became clear that Kevin's current professional commitments had little or nothing to do with the world of Lyndesfarne, and seemed happy enough to excuse Kevin after the polite minimum of time.
As Kevin set off with Tanji in their own vehicle, he found himself wondering about Tweedledum's presence. He had not realised the other man was this familiar with this World; it certainly not something he had even hinted at during the construction of the New Bridge. So what else, Kevin wondered, had been concealed while the bridge was being constructed?
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