It was indeed a wonderful lunch, taken outside overlooking the lawns and garden. It was served on a long table placed in an area of stone flags, and set around with well-worn but surprisingly comfortable chairs and benches. The whole setting was sheltered from the winds and shaded on one side by a couple of mature trees, and on the other by the house itself.
The table was covered with a large chequered tablecloth and set with, Tom counted, eleven place settings in slightly mismatched crockery and cutlery. In fact, it was barely possible to see the tablecloth at all, covered as it was by a plentiful spread of comestibles. There were platters of salads and vegetables, and large bowls of boiled potatoes. Evidently much of the produce had come from the gardens they had just been inspecting. There were also several varieties of hard cheeses, at least one of which Tom had never come across before, together with a large bowl of apples and pears.
Bram emerged carefully carrying a large jug of a light-coloured beer from a cool cellar somewhere under the house. This he then poured into glasses for all of the adults present, and topped it up with ginger beer from a stoneware bottle. This concoction was not a drink that Tom had tried before, but he found it enormously refreshing in the heat of the day.
Briz sharpened a large knife on a whetstone of curious design in a brisk fashion which brought a nod of approval from Alistair. The older man then deftly carved and served fine slices of boiled ham, the thick creamy-white fat contrasting with the pink meat on the plate laid before Tom. At the other end of the table, loaves of freshly-baked bread were being cut into slices equally adroitly by Yellez. Seeing Tom and Alistair waiting politely, she gestured with the bread knife encouragingly.
"Oh, please don't wait on ceremony," she admonished the young men, "Do help yourself. Tuck in!"
Tom needed no further encouragement. He helped himself to potatoes and passed the bowl on to Alistair, before tackling the dazzling array of pickles and mustards before him.
Once he had got a few mouthfuls of food inside him, Tom turned his attention to the other people at the table to whom he had been briefly introduced just as lunch was served.
On the opposite side of the table, there were three children who he understood to be Bram's cousins. The two younger ones, a girl of about nine years and a boy he judged to be seven, were sitting between Yellez and another woman who had been introduced as Preda, the children's mother. She wore a rather harassed expression and Tom initially imagined that looking after three children might have caused that demeanour. Actually, the children seemed quite well-behaved and Tom began to wonder if there was some other, deeper reason for the woman's malaise.
The oldest child, another girl aged about twelve, sat on the other side of her mother and next to her father, Briz's brother. He had been introduced as Hamet, and was clearly much the younger sibling, although Tom found it difficult to be sure how much younger he actually was. He was also darkly-bearded, but the facial growth was much more well-trimmed than that of his brother. In contrast to the older man's relaxed attitude, Hamet seemed forever on the verge of fidgeting and shifting awkwardly in his seat.
Tom, who did not customarily ascribe negative characteristics to people he had only just met, and indeed prided himself on his ability to get along with just about anyone, disliked him immediately.
It seemed to Tom that Briz had deliberately gathered his son and his brother at the head of the table, with the objective of spending some part of the meal conversing directly with them. Tom could not overhear very much, but it seemed to him that they were speaking another language, one he did not know, but which seemed somehow familiar to him.
After lunch, everyone pushed back their chairs and sat around the table for a few minutes, feeling too full to move comfortably - "digesting", as Tom's granny would have said. Bram had returned to his conversation with his father and uncle, and Yellez and Preda were also speaking quietly to each other. Tom and Alistair sat in companionable silence while the children chattered amongst themselves.
Eventually, Bram, Briz and Hamet got up and excused themselves, Bram remembering to thank his mother effusively for the meal. They then wandered off in the direction of one of the more obscure outbuildings. Tom and Alistair followed the lead, being equally fulsome in their thanks, and politely volunteered to assist with the clearing away. Together with the children, the two young men helped to tidy the table, each making several trips to-and-fro returning plates and glasses to the kitchen table. Unexpectedly, Tom's offer to help further with the washing up and drying was waved away by Bram's mother.
Tom and Alistair stood in the sunshine outside the kitchen door, enjoying their smokes. Suddenly, Bram rejoined them, presumably having left the older men to their deliberations. Wondering what to do next, Tom asked Bram if there is anything else he could do to assist around the estates while he was staying. Alistair clearly also wanted to fill his time productively.
"Well, since you've had lots of practice at farm work recently," Bram responded, smiling, "I dare say a little more would not do any harm. I'll enquire of my father."
Bram disappeared around the corner again for a few moments. On his return, he suggested that Tom could help by lifting potatoes in the vegetable garden.
"And why don't you," he continued, indicating Alistair, "Go and help my sister with the horses?"
"The stables are over there, aren't they?" Alistair responded, rather enthusiastically.
Bram nodded, and the other man set off at a brisk march, watched by the other two. Bram shook his head amusedly, and then turned to Tom.
"Let's get you sorted out, then," he said, "Come on."
Bram led Tom back towards the kitchen garden, on the way ducking into another one of the outbuildings and returning with several heavy jute sacks. It was clear to Tom that his task was to unearth the potatoes, using the fork he had noticed earlier, and fill the gunny sacks so that the root crop could be stored for the winter.
Later that evening, the three companions and Bram's father gathered around a fire in a snug little room the purpose of which Tom could not quite make out, although it did contain a couple of bookshelves overflowing with volumes of all kinds. Dinner had been served indoors this time. Yellez seemed determined to feed them up single-handedly although, to be fair, several hours of heavy work in the garden had certainly given Tom a considerable appetite.
Before dinner, Tom and Alistair had been given a tour of the house itself by Bram, and shown where they would be sleeping. The building had two lower floors, underground, where bedrooms and what was rather quaintly described as "bathing-rooms" were located. The building was actually quite a lot bigger than Tom had originally thought and there seemed to be an astonishing number of rooms in the lower levels.
Having started the day with a long walk and a strenuous afternoon in the garden, and now fed very well on two consecutive mealtimes, Tom felt very much at ease with the world. This was a feeling rapidly enhanced as Bram poured pints of a dark ale, rather stronger than the pale ale they had enjoyed at lunchtime, from a large jug and handed a glass to each man in the room. The flames of the fire danced and crackled, successfully driving away the chill of the late summer evening. Oil lamps standing on opposite ends of a large table set to one side of the room glowed brightly, adding to their sense of well-being.
Bram settled himself in his high-backed chair and sipped his drink. He caught his father's eye, who nodded once, and then he looked directly at first Alistair and then Tom.
"Now I think it's time for some explanations," Bram started.
Tom and Alistair looked at each other, but said nothing.
"So first, I have to admit to you that I've got you here under false pretences - at least slightly," Bram continued, giving them a flash of his ironic smile, "And you've probably already noticed that there's something a bit different about this place."
Alistair exhaled noisily.
"I knew as much," he exclaimed, "I was beginning to think it was just me."
"So why are we here, really?" Tom asked.
"Well, I'm ready to explain everything," Bram replied, "I've asked my father to tell you some of the history. But before that, there are some important things you need to hear."
Tom had, in fact, been thinking a great deal while wielding a fork in the kitchen garden during the afternoon. He felt sure that some revelation was coming. He sat back, took a long pull from his beer, and waited for Bram to continue.
"The first thing you need to understand is that you're now no longer in England. In fact, you're not even in the same world. On the way here, we all crossed into a different, well, let's say plane of existence."
Alistair looked agog, confused.
"When did that happen?" Alistair exclaimed.
"It's the bridge, isn't it?" Tom asked, inspiration striking.
Bram's father chuckled softly to himself at this observation, and his son allowed himself another wry smile.
"You're quite right - well observed," Bram replied, sounding only slightly surprised, "The exact centre of the bridge is in fact the point where we crossed from your world into this one."
"I thought there was something strange about that place," Tom muttered, half to himself, "There's something uncanny about the movements of the water."
Bram and his father nodded in unison.
"What is this world?" Tom pressed.
"Well, it has many names, but this area is known as Lyndesfarne," Bram said, pronouncing the place name with an emphasis Tom had not heard before, "So perhaps its best if you think of it simply as the World of Lyndesfarne."
"But surely Lyndesfarne is just an island, and not a very big one at that," Alistair objected, "On the way here, I could quite definitely see the sea all the way around".
"It's a bit complicated," Bram replied, "Seen from your world, Lyndesfarne does indeed appear as an island. But, seen from Lyndesfarne, your world also appears as an island."
Strange as it sounded, this somehow made sense to Tom. There was something uncanny, some kind of discontinuity around this area, with its locus at the centre of the bridge.
"So is this place, this world is some kind of a secret?" Alistair pressed.
"Yes, you could say that," Bram responded, once again displaying his characteristic wry grin, "Certainly this world has some very, um, unusual aspects."
Bram paused to sip his beer and then continued.
"In your world, you use machines of all kinds, for all sorts of purposes. Your machines are a great source of wealth and comfort for all, rich man and worker alike."
Both Tom and Alistair nodded bemusedly, unsure what exactly Bram was trying to tell them.
"Here," Bram continued, "We don't use machines, except for the most mundane of purposes. We use a different approach - one which I suspect you'll regard as magic."
"What do you mean - magic?" Tom interjected.
"It's hard to think of a better word, in your language," he explained in a reasonable tone of voice, "It's just, well, how things here work."
"What kinds of things are operated by magic?" Alistair enquired, clearly struggling with the concept.
"Everything around you, pretty much," Bram replied.
He cast around the room for a moment, as if for inspiration, before his eyes alighted on the fire in front of him.
"Well, take this fire here," he suggested, pointing to the blazing logs.
Tom looked at the fire. The burning wood looked completely normal, the flames dancing steadily and the blackened ends of the logs smouldering.
Seeing Tom's bemused look, Bram explained.
"In this house, we like the traditional appearance of a wood-burning fire," he said, "But this fire has been, shall we say, magically enhanced. It burns normally, but never needs a log putting on it."
Tom was intrigued.
"So how is the magic controlled," he asked.
"Is there some kind of spell or incantation?" Alistair added.
Bram laughed aloud.
"No, no," he replied, "It's more subtle than that."
He explained at some length that there was a language of hand movements, gestures and manual techniques, used exclusively for controlling magical devices and artefacts.
"Let me show you," he continued, "Watch this."
Bram made a subtle movement in the air with his hand, a motion that looked to Tom as if he was pressing down an invisible sprung handle. Behind him, the oil lamps suddenly dimmed to near nothingness, leaving the flickering fire as the only source of light in the room.
In the sudden silence, Tom could clearly hear Alistair's indrawn breath of surprise. He suspected he had probably reacted in the same way.
"Wow," he breathed.
Bram reversed the gesture, and the lamps returned to their previous state. Tom noticed that Bram made the application of magic look natural, everyday and commonplace, as if it were as simple as operating an electric light switch.
He also thought he had seen these movements before, and he suddenly realised where. Bram had been using these very same gestures to control the lamp in the pub only last night.
"So why don't you have machines?" Alistair pressed.
Bram seemed unsurprised by this question.
"Well, it just that some things in your world - in general, machines - don't work here," Bram explained, "Anything complicated from your world simply refuses to function over here and sometimes it won't work when you take it back again."
"That's why I made sure you left your Grandfather's watch back at the farm," he continued, "It would not work here and there is a risk that, if you brought it over and then back again, it might not work again."
"So the world here breaks machines permanently?" Alistair asked.
"Not usually. It's just that some rather delicate things - like an old watch - can occasionally be damaged beyond repair."
Tom had been collecting his thoughts.
"So," he said, "Complicated machinery doesn't work here in Lyndesfarne, so you have to use this 'magic'. And I suppose we use machinery since magic doesn't work."
Bram smiled brightly.
"That's exactly right," he replied, "Your world is quite different to ours. But there's a long history - millennia, if you remember what that means - of contact between the Two Worlds."
At that moment, Tom had his first inkling there was something huge here, some vast and mysterious secret - and something he himself might just want to be a part of.
"So, I suggest that you listen closely to what my Father has to say," Bram concluded, glancing meaningfully at the older man.
With that, he sat back in his chair, stretching out his feet towards the fire. As one, all three young men turned their attention to Briz.
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