Briz had sat silently as his son had explained a few basic facts about the World of Lyndesfarne. Now, he shifted in his seat, keeping his eyes fixed on the two newcomers.
"My tale is all about secrets, and the things that have to be done to protect those secrets," he began, "But there are two rather important things I must do before I can tell you more."
The older man paused, sipping at his ale.
"First, I must offer you my sincerest thanks. I'm deeply indebted to you for saving Bram's life, although I'll be the first to agree that he was probably doing something foolish to get himself into that situation in the first place."
Bram pulled a face which his father must have seen but did not deign to dignify it with a reaction. Both Tom and Alistair modestly muttered something both self-deprecating and nearly inaudible.
"You have shown yourselves to be true companions and warriors," he continued, "Brave and resourceful when it really counts. You have my gratitude, and I would like to show that gratitude in certain, rather concrete ways. I'll come back to that point later, if I may."
The two young men both looked puzzled for a moment, but politely declined to interrupt Briz's address.
"The second thing I must do is to ask of you a promise," he resumed, adopting a strangely formal tone of voice, "You must swear a solemn oath that whatever you have heard, and are going to hear, about this world you will not disclose to anyone."
Both Tom and Alistair nodded vigorously.
"No, you must say it, aloud," Briz pressed.
"Err, yes, if you insist," Tom responded, "I swear I will never tell anyone about the world of Lyndesfarne."
Tom got the strangest of feelings at that moment, a chill running down the back of his neck and a distinct impression that there was someone looking over his shoulder. It would not be until much later that he would realise that this was a compulsion magic - one of a very small number of psychological spells that actually did seem to work in the other world as well as this one.
Alistair parroted the same words and, judging by his sudden stiffness, Tom suspected that the other man had been struck by the same restrictive magic.
"Very well, then," Briz said, suddenly looking much more comfortable and relaxed, "There is a long history - indeed, many centuries - of contact between your world and Lyndesfarne. The history is multifaceted, full of complex and occasionally turbulent relationships. Through it all, the existence of this world has led of a whole variety of myths and legends in your world. It's just the same in ours, I might add."
"So most people here don't know about our world either?" Tom asked, stunned into interrupting the old man. He had vaguely expected that only the residents of his own world would be protected from this secret.
Briz chuckled, again sounding just like his son.
"That's right," he said, "In much the same way that you have stories about magical beings with mysterious powers, in our world there are stories about impressive and powerful mechanisms, made of iron and steel, which simply cannot operate here."
Briz took a sip from his beer, and continued.
"These are of course derided as stories suitable only for a child's bedtime, and most of them present a wildly inaccurate picture, but they are quite definitely both widespread and based on, well, I suppose, folk memories of contact with your world."
Tom could understand how true stories of a magical world - overheard, misunderstood, or just grown long in the telling - would lead to the kinds of stories he had listened to as a child or, later, read for himself. His Granny had not been a great one for reading him to sleep, but she would occasionally relent with a short tale. He was more intrigued by a different aspect.
"Why is this kept a secret?" He asked Briz directly.
"That's a very good question," the older man replied, "Well, frankly, rather unfortunate things tend to happen when it is not."
Briz sighed, glancing at his son.
"At one time," he resumed, "There were a large number of pathways and crossings between your world and ours. In those days, communication between different parts of your world was much more difficult and so secrecy was not thought to be much of a problem. At the time, it was generally considered that the crossings, which have always been sited in out-of-the-way places, were so obscure that no one would be interested."
Briz sipped his beer, smiling ruefully.
"We were wrong, as it turned out. Many of the tales were told and retold again and again, and the knowledge, or at least rumour, of our world spread much further and faster than anyone had expected."
Briz paused, possibly for effect. Tom got the impression that this was a story that the older man had told on many previous occasions. Nevertheless, he could not but help get caught up in the drama of the tale.
"Of course it was not helped by the noise and excitement kicked up by, shall we say, various disagreements between factions from this world," Briz continued, "And the stories certainly communicated a dramatic picture of conflict and confusion."
Tom had been listening carefully during the narration and a metaphorical glimmer of mental light presented itself.
"The Irish lady in the pub in Alnwick," he murmered.
Briz raised a quizzical eyebrow, again glancing at his son.
"Yes, Bram informed me about your encounter with the Irishwoman," he responded, "It was quite fortuitous, I think. From what I was told, most of what you heard was quite true, albeit presented in a rather abstruse way."
This remark was met with frowns and confused silence from both of the young men.
"Centuries ago," Briz continued, "There were several crossings from our world to Ireland, from very different parts of our world."
Both Tom and Alistair looked even more confused. Bram must have spotted this and interjected.
"Your world and ours are not always linked in the same way," he said, leaning forward in his chair, "Crossings which are only a few miles apart in Lyndesfarne may emerge on opposite sides of the earth. And vice versa."
"Quite right," Briz agreed, "And so Ireland became a battleground for differing factions from very different parts of our world. The tensions and excitements of the times gave rise to plenty of disaffected individuals willing to take all kinds of risks to try and gain an advantage. And it was through one of these agents that the existence of our world, and the crossings to it, came to the attention of one Oliver Cromwell."
Tom had heard of Cromwell, probably because his younger self was in fact paying attention in at least some of the history lessons in school. Conversely, it seemed that Alistair was completely in the dark.
Briz clearly sensed Alistair's ignorance of this particular historic episode.
"Well, there's no particularly pressing need for me to go into details just now," he continued, "There's been a great deal of analysis of the reasons why Cromwell put so much effort into a military campaign in Ireland, rather than consolidating his hold on England. Just take it from me that, in Cromwell's England at the time, there were those who regarded the Irish as collaborators with the deposed English monarchy."
Alistair nodded, presumably - Tom thought - having experienced at second-hand some of the treatment meted out to collaborators from his recent military adventures in France and Germany.
"And Cromwell himself subscribed to this view, at least in public. Although I believe that, in the privacy of his own head, he treated the invasion of Ireland as an opportunity to seize control of one or more of the crossings to gain him an advantage."
Tom thought he understood. It was becoming clear to him that there was more behind this historical episode than he had learned at school.
"To be honest," Briz continued, "Cromwell was probably both proud and borderline insane, and most certainly power-crazy. In any case, we had very little warning of his approach to that area of southern Ireland which happened to contain a concentration of crossings to our world."
Briz paused thoughtfully, taking a pull of his beer.
"It was a brave and resourceful man," he resumed, "Bromath by name, who brought the bad news of Cromwell's approach, and the even worse news that he had somehow gained intelligence of the crossings. Bromath was a member of an organisation - a clan, really - who kept an eye on one of the crossings. You see, the Guardians per se did not exist at that time - indeed, it was these events that prompted the creation of a unified group to protect the pathways between the two worlds."
"Anyway, the situation was chaotic in the extreme. Cromwell's army marched so fast that there was little time to decide what action should be taken. And, of course, those who represented the interests of different authorities and power groups faffed and dithered, squabbled with each other, and generally just could not agree what to do."
Briz shrugged, slightly theatrically, it seemed to Tom, then continued.
"So, when a decision was finally made - that all of the crossings had to be removed - there was almost no time left. The closures had to be done very quickly and consequently rather spectacularly - even explosively."
"Explosively," Tom echoed, "What do you mean?"
"Tearing the two worlds apart is a very destructive thing to do," he answered, "Unless it's done slowly and carefully, the result tends to be on the unpredictable side. Suffice it to say that one of the events was sufficiently powerful to blow a hole in the ground so large that there is now a decent-sized lake at that very spot."
Tom was reminded of the nuclear bombs detonated by the Americans at the end of the War at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the devastation that had been reported in the newspapers afterwards.
"It must have been terrible," he said.
"It was," Briz replied flatly, "People died, despite the desperate evacuation efforts. Not many, but there were casualties."
Tom also thought about the tale told by the Irish mystic. The explanations presented by Briz covered most of the strange aspects of the story, although there were one or two gaps. The one that really stood out in his mind was the suggestion that, at one time, magic had indeed worked in his world, and that it had later been stopped. He resolved to consider this further later.
"And now, finally," Briz said, once again sighing heavily, "I can come to the reason you are here, the reason that this young scallywag here," - he indicated Bram with a wave of his hand - "Has persuaded you to join us here today is because, well, because I want to recruit you."
"Recruit?" he asked, "To do what?"
Tom had another characteristic flash of insight.
"You're the Guardians, aren't you?" he interjected, "Or at least associated with them in some way."
Briz seemed unsurprised at Tom's observations, although Bram was slightly amused that his approach had been so transparent to Tom.
"Join the Guardians?" Alistair asked, just beating Tom to the question "So what will it entail?"
Briz smiled widely.
"Well, these days, the Guardians are an overlapping group of organisations, split between the two worlds. There are many roles available to young men such as yourselves. To start with, however, you'll have to attend a training course - think of it as Basic Training, if you like. It'll be based in your world, although, by convention, some of the teaching will be done in the our world. Of course, this means that you will also have to learn the language of Lyndesfarne,"
"About this language," Alistair piped up, "Somehow it seems familiar to me, but I don't know why."
Briz seemed puzzled. He looked quizzically at his son.
"I think I have an explanation," Bram said promptly, "You'll remember recounting your Grandfather's tale to us? I strongly suspect that he was associated with yet another one of the pathways between the worlds. So, you may have heard the language spoken as a child."
Alistair looked stunned for a few moments, evidently mulling over what he had just heard.
"So, I suspect that he was there in Russia when the Siberian passage was removed. I think he witnessed the closure of the crossing - fortunately at a safe distance."
"So, it was also closed urgently?" Alistair asked.
"Well, yes," Bram replied, "I don't know all the details but, as I understand it, there was an assessment of the political situation is Russia and in Agrea - that's the part of our world reached through the crossing - and a decision was made to dismantle that pathway. They expected a careful closure, but something went very wrong. The resulting explosion is what your Grandfather must have seen."
Alistair nodded slowly, appearing to agree with the hypothesis.
"So, you see," Briz took up, "At one time, there were quite a number of crossings between the worlds. And now, there is only one - the one you used to get here. So, this crossing is really special, really precious, and I want you two to help us look after it."
Briz paused, looking directly at each of the young men in turn.
"So, what do you say? Will you join up?"
Tom and Alistair looked at each other.
"I'll do it," Tom said, with a degree of certitude that surprised even himself.
Alistair hesitated for only a second.
"Count me in," he responded, also sounding enthused.
"Wonderful! Well, congratulations and welcome to our newest recruits," Briz said warmly, lifting his tankard in salute. Tom noticed that Briz and Bram exchanged a glance at that moment, and was almost certain that Briz gave his son a nod of approval.
Their discussions continued late into the evening. Briz spoke more on the duties and responsibilities of the Guardians and elaborated on the history of the other crossings between the worlds. Bram was delegated to fetch more beer from the cellar, which meant that the subsequent talk became rather less formal and a good deal more animated.
Much later, Bram's mother bustled in with a tray of mugs of hot chocolate, glancing at her husband and her son in such a way to make it plain that these were bedtime drinks, clearly hinting that it was time for them all to go to bed.
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