"So, this emergency closing process," Kevin asked, "If it's so dangerous, why is it even a possibility? Surely no-one would ever invoke something that could injure or kill so many innocent bystanders?"
Bret smiled at the other man's question, displaying his characteristic tendency to ask pointed questions which got to the heart of the matter under discussion. He remained silent for a few moments, looking around aimlessly as if trying to decide on the best way of answering Kevin's query.
The restaurant was now apparently completely deserted, and all of the other diners had retired to their rooms or been driven home. All of the tables were already reset with fresh linens and crockery by the silent and efficient waiting staff, ready for breakfast in the morning. They were still sat in the Orangery which now exuded a delightful sense of stillness and peacefulness, although it was just beginning to get a little cool. Tanji had consumed a surprising number of the tiny delicious petit-fours and was now nestling against Kevin's shoulder looking extremely sated and seemingly content to take a passive part in the conversation.
Bret brought his attention back to Kevin.
"There is a time and a place for such extreme measures, but only when the threat to the greater good is judged to overcome the loss of life. I can't say I would relish having to make such a decision," he added, looking uncharacteristically grim, "Although I suppose I could do, if I really had to make that call."
Kevin must have looked dubious, since Bret went on immediately.
"There was an example," he said seriously, "About a hundred years ago, were a crossing had to be closed very quickly. At the time, this was the oldest crossing still in existence - not the very earliest one, of course, since many of the very earliest crossings had been instantiated in places which, with hindsight, were not ideal, and had been closed millennia before."
"What was wrong with those crossings?" Kevin asked curiously.
"Well, firstly, those early crossings were huge - twenty miles or more across. This made them very difficult to police, to make sure that only those authorised were able to pass between the Two Worlds." Kevin nodded. He could imagine that trying to manage a border which was seventy miles or more long with nothing more sophisticated than men on horseback would have been a near-impossible task, unless a huge number of Guardians were dedicated to the assignment.
"Indeed, in some cases," Bret went on, "People stumbled across the border without even realising that they had done so. And this of course gave rise to all sorts of tall tales and stories which have passed into myth and folklore - in both this world and my own. So it was this problem that led to one of the few advances in the, um, magical technology used was in reducing the size of a crossing to just a few miles. So, our own crossing was one of the last to be made, and is just about as small as it is considered possible to construct reliably."
Bret paused, swirling the last of the Armagnac around in the fine glass balloon he held cupped in one hand.
"The other problem with early crossings," he continued, "Was of course the issue of weather patterns and climate. Frankly, in those early days, they did not know what they were doing, and there were many mistakes. In those days, making the crossing was fraught with dangers, and you were liable to find yourself caught up in an sandstorm or blizzard or flood with minimal warning."
Kevin nodded. He had thought about the difficulties of trying to identify places in to different worlds where the climate was compatible, and where the weather could be relied upon to be broadly similar. He realised that this could never be perfect, and that even minor variations between the Two Worlds would give rise to unpredictable and dangerously variable conditions.
"Anyway, back to this other crossing I mentioned," Bret said, looking serious, "In this world, it was set in Siberia, hidden in a forested wilderness, a wild and inhospitable area covered with pine trees, and almost entirely uninhabited. The virgin woodlands were broken only by occasional trails made by fur trappers and gold prospectors and, unfortunately, the occasional gang of bandits. The region was bitterly cold for much of the year and there were long harsh winters punctuated by blizzards which could last for days. And in the short summer, the rough tracks were often washed out by floods caused by snow-melt or by the torrential rainfall of a summer downpour. The whole region was so inhospitable that is was actually easier to travel in winter when the streams and rivers were frozen, and the land under a permanent snow cover. Even so, travellers to and from the crossing could expect a long walk on snowshoes - weeks and weeks of travel on foot - or, only slightly faster, by horse-drawn sledges and, in later years, by dog sleighs."
Kevin thought this all sounded horrible, especially compared with the ease of crossing at Lyndesfarne and even more so once the causeway and bridge were in place. At Lyndesfarne, you might get windswept, and dampened by rain and sea-spray, but the whole crossing could be completed safely in half-an-hour or so, in all but the very worst of the weather.
"From my world," Bret continued, "It was a very different picture. The site of the crossing was in a high valley in a range of mountains, so that the altitude meant that this side of the crossing was locked in a nearly perpetual winter. To get to the high valley from the populous valleys and the vast fertile plains dotted by trading cities and markets meant a long trek through the foothills and lower passes, almost continuously uphill. The wind always blew out of this valley, cold air rolling down the mountainside and bringing the breath of winter even to towns and settlements scores of leagues away."
Kevin shivered again at the thought.
"So, all-in-all, the Tunguska crossing was a trial, a test of endurance and fortitude for the hardy traveller. From this world, after days or weeks of struggling against snow and cold, you had a relatively easy downhill walk which rapidly got warmer. In the other direction, you had a stiff climb on foot - at least five thousand feet - followed by that long slog through the frozen forest."
"The relative inaccessibility was the main reason that this crossing had remained in place, unthreatened. Even so, the crossing itself, at the end of the high valley, was guarded at both ends by a pair of fortifications, each originally built as high-walled stone castles and intermittently re-built over the millennia as advances in the weapons technology in each world demanded. And of course there were large contingents of Guardians stationed permanently at each side. So, the authorities were content enough that all these precautions seemed enough to ensure the continued security of the hidden crossing."
Kevin knew from long experience that Bret's story-telling ability was polished and calm through much practice, and he could see how the other man's body language relaxed more and more as he got into the tale.
"The range of mountains marked the natural border between two nations and so naturally the crossing was close to this boundary. These two nations had been, well, at best suspicious rivals and occasionally at war with each other for centuries and, even at this time, diplomatic relations between them remained strained."
Bret's wry expression suggested to Kevin that he was probably understating the degree of disharmony between the rival countries.
"Agrea, the country across the mountains from the high valley," Bret resumed, "Was jealous of the possession of the crossing. At least, it was for those few in positions of power and responsibility who actually knew about it." In the same way as in his own world, Kevin understood that few people knew about the crossing at Lyndesfarne. While the day-to-day administration of the crossing was in the hands of dedicated governance organisations, notably the Board of Control, he had the strong impression that the secret of the Other World was known in the upper echelons of Whitehall and Westminster.
"Similarly, the leaders of Quilovia," Bret went on, "Were proud of their stewardship of the crossing which, despite its relative obscurity and infrequent usage, brought both wealth and prestige to their country. This wealth and the leisure it allowed meant that the country had long since been a centre of culture and learning, a land of bohemian cities and a place where artists and musicians, writers and actors, anyone with talent and creativity, could be sure of a welcome and the patronage of rich merchants."
Bret again swirled the bandy glass and took another sip.
"At the time I am describing, there was a coup in Agrea," he resumed, "A bloodless takeover of power by a Junta, the generals in the army having become frustrated with the Council of Elders that had hitherto formed the ruling body. The ensuing period of military rule led to an increase in the size of the army and a great many more people under arms."
Bret shook his head sadly.
"The trouble with standing armies," he went on, "Is that you have to find something to do with them. Otherwise, they sit around, eat too much, get bored, and you have a problem on your hands. So, the Junta decided to use their military might to wrest control of the Tunguska crossing from their neighbours. The agents and scouts knew many secret paths and passes across the mountains, and plans were drawn up to invade Quilovia by stealth."
"Of course, the government in Quilovia had not been idle, and had kept a very suspicious eye on the political changes in Agrea through their networks of spies and diplomats. So they are aware that there was an impending threat to their borders and consequently sent their own scouts to watch the mountain passes. Of course, the people of Quilovia knew their own mountains very well and so the attempt to cross from Agrea was detected, the secret paths not being quite as secret as was thought."
Kevin was listening intently, barely remembering to sample the very fine brandy from his own glass.
"The thing that the generals of Quilovia failed to realise, however, was exactly how large the forces that were making their way across the mountains or indeed, what their exact objective was. The military leaders in Agrea used astonishing amounts of magic in their advance, both hiding their forces with vast swathes of invisibility magic, as well as using magical means to widen the passes and erect bridges over the crevasses and the deep cuttings make by rivers. All of this must have been planned for years - even decades - in advance, well before the military coup. Indeed, it was widely suspected that the reason for the coup was because the hawkish generals wanted to advance their plans for invasion of Agrea, while the more cautious civil authorities were hesitant or even opposed to a military campaign."
The storyteller paused for a few moments, perhaps deciding how to proceed with his tale.
"As soon as the invading forces were detected," Bret said at length, "The Guardians at the crossing started turning back all travellers attempting to cross, advising them to return to their own world and to get clear of the area as quickly as they could. This is, to this day, standard practice if a large-scale military threat to a crossing is suspected."
This remark confirmed something that Kevin had long suspected, that there were careful plans for all sorts of contingencies surrounding the Lyndesfarne crossing.
"Once the true scale of the invasion was determined," the other man went on, "It was soon appreciated that this was an army much too large to merely seize and control the crossing. The generals of Quilovia and the Guardians of the crossing soon realised there must be a second objective: an invasion of the Other World - your world - and one which, they belatedly learned, would be supported by novel magics, ones which might not be disabled by the barrier which prevents the passage of proscribed technologies between the Two Worlds."
"No military might which could be assembled by the Quilovians could hope to deflect this army from its objective. At this dark hour, a hero emerged, one Yisella. She was the leader of the Guardians at the crossing, and a brave and resourceful woman. Understanding the threat from the invading army, she dismissed her forces, instructing them to disperse as quickly as they could. She sent runners to her opposite number, with advice to similarly retreat. She then used her magical skills to give the impression that the fortifications were still defended, and waited until the vanguard of the army was almost upon the castle, then invoked the secret emergency magic."
Kevin gasped, as did Tanji. Kevin had thought Tanji was asleep, but she had evidently been listening as closely as he had been.
"In your world, the explosion flattened trees for miles around, and was heard from hundreds of miles away. And in my world, there were similar scenes of destruction, the entire valley being buried in boulders and broken rocks blown from the mountaintops. Yisella herself perished in the resulting devastation, but she succeeded in her objective: the explosion entrapped and killed almost all of the armies of Agrea. So, she protected both the inhabitants of your world and those of Quilovia - but at a cost. There was a huge loss of life, I'm afraid to say, with thousands of soldiers killed."
"Still, she managed to minimise the deaths, being able to warn enough people to get clear, to save themselves. All other Guardians in your world escaped with their lives, as did all but a handful in mine. The few who were lost were caught up in an avalanche triggered by the explosion."
Bret was silent for a moment.
"So," he pronounced, "there is sometimes a need for decisive action at short notice, made by the man - or indeed woman - on the spot. And yes, such an action will result in fatalities. History, as always, is the judge of one's actions. We regard Yisella as a hero, a patriot, someone who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect her country and, quite possibly, your entire world. Of course, the last part can never be known for sure, but perhaps you have grounds to be grateful for her bravery."
Bret swallowed the last of the brandy from the balloon glass he still held in his hand.
"Time for bed, I think," he said.
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