Kevin and Tanji were enjoying a late breakfast in the kitchen at the home of her Aunt and Uncle. Tanji was dressed in a loose and flowing robe of a subtly patterned and silky green material, the kind that she preferred to wear when not travelling. Kevin was already dressed in his everyday clothes, or at least the clothes he tended to wear when he did not have to go to a professional appointment. Besides, he found that blue jeans with metal fastenings and a traditional leather buckled belt seemed to survive the trip to the world of Lyndesfarne and back without mishap or disaster - unlike, for example, trousers fitted with modern zip fasteners, which tended to jam or separate embarrassingly at the most inappropriate moments.
The two lovers had enormously enjoyed the show at the theatre the previous night, and had returned home late after a supper in a nearby eatery. They had slept - or, at least, stayed in bed - late the following morning, then emerged feeling well rested to bathe. Tanji had prepared a breakfast of honeyed fruit and crusty bread accompanied - inevitably, as Kevin had long ago discovered - with the mugs of hot chocolate which were so popular in this world.
Kevin knew that Tanji's Aunt and Uncle were light sleepers and early risers. He imagined that, at this late hour, her Uncle was already attending his responsibilities in some obscure part of the upper echelons of the Guild of Transportation, while her Aunt was probably outside in the grounds, tending to one or another of the animals which made up the little menagerie.
Kevin had just tucked in to a second slice of the deliciously warm bread that Tanji had provided when, to his entire surprise, her Uncle appeared at the doorway. The older man drew up a chair across the kitchen table and sat down with a serious expression on his face. Kevin said the words that, in the Lyndesfarne language, were a semi-formal greeting equivalent to "good morning" and the other man responded in kind. He then said something to Tanji that Kevin did not understand, which Tanji then translated for his benefit.
"There is something I need to tell you about," she said, adopting the tell-tale sing-song tone which indicated she was interpreting someone else's words, "If you could spare me the time."
"Yes, of course," Kevin replied promptly.
Kevin knew that, while her Uncle did have a reasonable understanding of English, he did not usually feel comfortable expressing himself in that language and therefore he usually relied on Tanji to interpret for him.
"I want to tell you about my wife's younger brother," the older man began, "He was, indeed, much younger than me also, and a brave and resourceful man. He joined the Guardians at an early age, was moderately conspicuous in his service for many years and was rapidly promoted to -" Tanji's translation faltered here for a second - "err, Captain. He met a young woman, also a member of the Guardian force, who was by all accounts impressed by his dash and spirit. And shortly, she fell pregnant, quite unexpectedly."
This was something of a surprise to Kevin as well. Early in his relationship with Tanji, she had explained carefully about the magical birth control that was available to all that wanted it. It was supposed to be 100% reliable, she had said. At the time, Kevin had suspected there was a deeper reason behind this. People in this world were recommended to have a limited number of children; this was all part of the subtle pressure for stability and uniformity that was officially encouraged by the governments and institutions in Lyndesfarne.
"The two young people got married, as they had already been planning all along. In due course, their child, Tanji" - he indicated her with a wave of his hand - "arrived, a pretty and healthy baby girl. As soon as possible afterwards, both mother and father returned to their duties, organising their shifts so that one or the other could look after their daughter while the other policed the crossing. Occasionally, this was not possible, as they would be rostered together, and it was necessary for them to make arrangements to look after the young girl among their extended families."
Kevin had understood from previous conversations that this was not unusual in this world, where people tended to have their few children relatively young, and rely on grandparents and older family members to mind the children.
"It was during one of these occasional schedule clashes that some disaster befell them. It was a time when all available Guardians were summoned in response to some vague alert, a piece of dubious intelligence that seemed to have no definite source. Both of them simply disappeared, never to be seen again."
The older man paused, looking thoughtfully and sympathetically at Tanji.
"All this Tanji has already heard," he said, "And now you have heard it too."
Kevin glanced at Tanji who nodded in agreement, looking sad at this no-doubt familiar story.
"But there is a further part to this tale," her Uncle continued, "One that I have kept for many years, speaking of it to no-one."
Tanji's head swung around to stare at her Uncle, even as her mouth translated almost automatically the older man's words for Kevin's benefit. She said something in the Lyndesfarne language that Kevin thought meant "Why?"
The old man held up his hand placatingly.
"I was instructed not to tell you, not until you were grown up, not until you would be in a position to appreciate the importance of the truth."
Tanji was translating her Uncle's words even as he answered her own question.
"Your parents were more than just ordinary Guardians," he went on, "They were Defenders, members of a secret elite force, a unit trained to deal with violent attacks that threaten the crossing from this world or the other, a military group prepared to respond with deadly force if necessary."
The older man paused, looking seriously at Tanji.
"And it was in this secret role that they met their fate."
"So what really happened to them?" she asked, this time in English.
"As you know," the older man answered, "The Guardians patrol the shores on either side, as well as the causeways themselves."
Kevin nodded in understanding. He had occasionally encountered men and women apparently merely walking the coastal paths while he was surveying candidate sites for the New Bridge. For those in the know, it was easy enough to spot the Guardians. There was a certain alertness in their face and bearing, and their clothing, while definitely not a uniform, tended towards a degree of similarity which was only obvious if one knew what to look for.
"Some of the Guardians on patrol at any time will be Defenders, as a matter of course," he continued, "And a higher proportion when a serious military threat is suspected. This was the reason why both your father and mother were on duty that fateful night."
Tanji let out a gasp.
"It seemed that some trained force of commandos, from the Other World, had rowed across the straights in the middle of the night, braving the uncertainty of the sea crossing. They were equipped with simple edged weapons which could be relied upon to work even in this world. It was, by all accounts, a clever and coordinated attack, intended to establish a beachhead at the causeway, later to be reinforced by dissenters from both worlds, perhaps even wrest control of the crossing from the proper authorities."
Kevin to was listening intently to the translation so expertly conveyed by Tanji, fascinated by the hints of a darker underside to the crossing between the Two Worlds.
"The anonymous tip-off, the details of which were never made clear," Tanji's Uncle went on, "Had put more of the Guardians on alert. But there are miles of coastline and only a limited number of people to keep watch. Your parents were in the group who chanced upon the invading force. It was an ugly fight, the Defenders being heavily outnumbered at first, although reinforcements arrived within in minutes. The advantage of magical weapons was limited by the ability to manoeuvre on the slippery rocks at the water's edge. Tanji's parents acquitted themselves bravely, but both died. Your father was cut down from behind trying to save your mother from another of the attackers."
Tanji Uncle was silent for a moment, apparently in deep cogitation.
"Who was behind the attack, no-one seems to know, even now," the older man continued, shaking his head sadly, "Unfortunately, this kind of thing is rather more common than any of us would like."
Kevin now more clearly understood why the Guardians were as cautious and as alert as was so evidently the case. Their job was not a sinecure, although it might feature long periods of tediously routine activities, even boredom, but with the real possibility of genuine excitement, perhaps to the point of being life-threatening.
The older man opened a drawer in the kitchen table and brought out a large envelope of stiff paper, browned and stained by the years, and handed it to Tanji with a curiously formal motion. Kevin could see that some kind of address or note was handwritten on the front, something that he could not at first read but he finally realised that it was Tanji's full and formal name. With tears in her eyes, Tanji turned the envelope over and broke the old-fashioned red wax seal, her fingers shaking so much that she nearly dropped the letter on the table.
She slid out an ornately decorated sheet of paper and read it carefully, the tears running down her cheeks.
"It is a commendation, issued posthumously, to my mother," she said simply, "An award for bravery signed by the Grand Convener of the Board of Control himself, and with his official seal attached."
She took a second sheet, similarly decorated, from the envelope.
"And there is another, for my father," she continued, her voice catching in her throat.
"Your parents were heroes," Tanji's uncle said, "Secret heroes, ones whose bravery could not be publicly acknowledged, now or ever, but nevertheless ones to whom the Boards are forever grateful. I salute them."
Kevin bowed his head in dumb respect. Tanji was lost in tears, holding her face in her hands. Kevin took a handkerchief - an old-fashioned one - from his pocket and unfolded it.
"Are you OK?" Kevin asked urgently, dabbing at Tanji's eyes with the white cloth.
She nodded, her eyes reddened.
"I'm so sorry to hear about your parents," he went on sympathetically.
"It was a long time ago," she replied, "And I am glad to know more about what happened. And I suppose I can understand why it was necessary to keep all this from me for so many years."
The older man held up a hand to Tanji and spoke a few words which she did not immediately interpret. She spoke in response directly to her Uncle, then turned to face Kevin.
"My Uncle says that these next words are for my ears, but that I should translate them for you anyway," she said, wiping her eyes again and looking distinctly puzzled.
"Your Aunt and I, we are old," the man said, "And our needs are few. We expect to live our few remaining years in this house, quietly enjoying the fruits of our garden, and the sunshine and snow each in its season."
Kevin thought that this was not such a bad proposition, and frankly suspected that the old man was exaggerating both his age and his frailty to make his point clear.
"Of course, we have no children of our own, and we have looked after you as our own daughter. And I know that you have responded in turn, fulfilling all of the trusts and obligations as a daughter should."
"I have appreciated your generosity, your love, so very much," Tanji replied, still speaking in English, then spoke in the language of Lyndesfarne in what seemed to Kevin to be a very formal address.
"You have been a good and dutiful niece," her Uncle acknowledged with a nod of his head, "But now, you must decide what you will do with the rest of your life. I do strongly urge you not to waste it running around after your Aunt and your aged Uncle, indulging their whims and aiding their pastimes. You must live your own life, enjoy your own future, with whomever it is who will make you happy."
With that pronouncement, Tanji's Uncle stood up from the table, turned on his heel and left through the kitchen door. Kevin turned to Tanji, who seemed to be on the verge of tears again. He took her gently and held her in his arms. After a few moments shaking, she looked up at him, sniffing back the tears.
"I want to be with you," she breathed, "Always and forever."
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