Following the dragon's attack on the bridge, the Guardians on both sides of the straights were at a higher state of alert for weeks afterwards. Patrols were doubled, additional - but still very discrete - checks were carried out on newcomers, and exhortations for extra vigilance were a daily occurrence.
Nevertheless there were no further incidents, no indications of any kind that anything unusual was happening and, more worryingly, no further leads as to the origin of the perpetrators of the attack. There were almost no tips from the Watchers, too, from either side - another disconcerting observation. Eventually the alert status was downgraded to normal, despite the slight feeling, Tom thought, of a calm before the storm.
The weeks flew by, dealing with what seemed to Tom a never-ending series of small emergencies and amusing incidents which, he had come to understand, formed a normal part of the Guardians' everyday existence. He had undertaken several tours of duty, including a variety of coastal patrols, as well as further exchange visits with the Lyndesfarne training centre.
Although he was only vaguely aware of the process, Tom was gaining a considerable amount of experience in the minutiae of his new role. It was almost a surprise when his probationary period was completed, and he was formally accepted into the ranks, promoted to the position of Junior Guardian (Third Class).
The rank and its rather idiosyncratic-sounding title amused Tom. Its quirky nature was the result of a direct translation from the language of Lyndesfarne, Tom understood, although that did not stop a certain number of humorous remarks being exchanged in the barracks at the Grange.
July arrive quicker than he had expected, and Tom had accumulated a fair amount of leave. He had applied for permission to take an extended absence of nearly a week, back in April, and it came has rather a surprise to receive a handwritten note from Major Markham confirming his approval of Tom's vacation plans.
He had continued his rather sporadic exchange of correspondence with Bram and Alistair, even though his notes had tended to devolve into trivia and the minutiae of everyday life. He had sensed a certain amount of excited anticipation in their reunion from Alistair's missives, although he got a slight feeling that it was not only the prospect of meeting up with his old comrades that formed Alistair's motivation.
The appointed day finally arrived, and Tom woke early. After a few moments collecting his wits in the morning half-light, he bounced out of bed, caught up with an unexpected sense of freedom. He packed up his knapsack, dragging a few essentials out of the locker, expecting to be away for no more than a week. Even so, his military training and, more importantly, recent military experience, led him to pack essentials and no more, making it easy to carry. Tom considered that he could probably survive indefinitely with the things he was carrying on his back.
On this trip, he had the time to stop at the centre of the bridge. This was something that had fascinated Tom since the very first time he had encountered the crossing so many months ago. He stood for what seemed like hours studying the swirling waters below the centre of the bridge. As he watched, he idly wondered if the movement of the sea were entirely natural. The motion seemed to be disturbingly erratic, flowing first this way and then that. Finally, he shook his head, and continued his way along the causeway.
Tom had expected to walk alone to Bram's place but, as he reached the end of the causeway, he heard a familiar voice behind him.
"Private Perkins! Attention!"
Tom immediately stopped and swung around, his right arm already automatically raised to a salute as military training re-asserted itself. As he realised what he was doing, a weird expression mixing distaste and surprise at his own reactions suffused his features, until he recognised Alistair, who was just stepping out of the little cafe.
"I've been waiting for you," the other man said, striding towards Tom with a wide grin plastered across his face.
Tom was genuinely pleased to see Alistair. The two men shook hands warmly, grasping the other man's upper arm firmly for long moments.
"Good to see you, old man," Alistair said, still with a wide smile playing about his lips.
"Likewise, I'm sure," Tom responded, feeling himself grinning in response.
Tom had assumed that he would walk to Bram's family home alone, and had resigned himself to a lengthy march. But, when he remarked on his pleasure of having a companion on the journey, Alistair just looked at him strangely for a moment.
"Why don't we just take a portal?" he asked, pointedly.
This idea had simply not occurred to Tom but, once it had been suggested, he immediately thought it was a splendid notion. It would certainly save time, as well as being something of an adventure. He felt like he was a child again.
In contrast, Alistair seemed to be entirely blase about the whole thing.
"You've been using the portals a lot then, have you?" Tom asked.
"Oh yes," the other man replied, "Been all over the place. These portals take a bit of getting used to, but once you've got the hang of it, they're easy enough."
Alistair guided Tom to the Public Transportation building at the end of the causeway, which adjoined the cafe where he had been waiting. This was a modest stone-build building with a high roof and with an arched doorway at the front, where large double doors stood open. Tom studied the doors as the two men passed though. They were heavy and ponderous, and looked as if they were not shut very often but were strong and tough enough to withstand a siege when they were.
A single portal archway stood in the opposite wall. This was as large as the doorway that the men had just used to enter the building, but looked as if it had been blocked up some years ago. The stones within the arch were carefully fitted together, but looked as if the blocks were of a different material to that used to construct the arch itself.
As Tom watched, a figure appeared through the archway, looking for all the world like a ghost emerging from a wall. The spooky manifestation was belied by the unconcerned appearance of the traveller himself, who nodded politely to the two men, and walked past them towards the main door.
There were a couple of signboards set over the archway, displaying destinations and times in the angular Lyndesfarne script. Alistair studied the signs for a few moments.
"We're in luck," he said, "This portal will be connected to a local level four terminus in a few minutes, and it's just one more step to get to the closest portal to Bram's house."
"How do you know all this?" Tom asked.
"I've been studying the timetable," Alistair replied, flashing a grin, "That's how I filled the time waiting for you to arrive."
"Oh," Tom said, with faint irony, "Glad to hear that you've been making good use of your life."
Alistair watched the signboards intently for a further minute. Tom could see that the legends were changing periodically, although he did not really follow the details. Finally, Alistair seemed satisfied.
"Okay then, let's go," he said, grasping the other man lightly by the upper arm, "Straight through."
They walked swiftly up to the archway and stepped through. Tom somehow always expected some kind of sensation, so it was quite possible that the little twist he felt in his stomach was entirely caused by his own imagination.
The terminus itself was a larger space with perhaps a dozen portal archways arranged along the walls. In contrast with the building at the causeway, this room was bustling with activity. Keeping close together, the two men dodged across the room, making their way to a second archway that Alistair had pointed out.
"Come on then," Alistair called, breaking into a jog.
Side-by-side, the two young men dashed through the archway in front of them. As they passed through, Tom felt a slight resistance, as if some invisible fluid was slowing their movements, without actually stopping them. They popped out of the other side, stumbling slightly as the resistance disappeared.
"That was close!" Alistair exclaimed.
"What happened?" His companion asked, slightly breathlessly.
Alistair laughed. Tom thought that he had become noticeably more outgoing since the two of them had last met.
"Oh, nothing really," Alistair explained, "We were just a little late in getting to that last portal. You could probably feel the barriers tugging at you as we went through."
"So that's what it was," Tom replied.
As they left the portal building, which seemed to be a clone of the one they had entered by the causeway, Alistair explained about the safety barriers that all portals had. Apparently, portals connected two different points, but not all the time; to provide a larger selection of routes, portal connections were switched every few minutes. For safety, barriers would automatically engage shortly before the connection changed, to prevent anything from entering while the switch-over actually occurred.
"After all," Alistair concluded, "You wouldn't want half of you arriving in one place and the other half appearing somewhere else."
The two men stood outside the door, looking around.
"Which way now?" Tom asked, completely failing to recognise where they were.
"This way," Alistair said without hesitation, indicating to their left.
They shouldered their packs and set off.
As they walked along, it seemed to Tom that Alistair had something on his mind. He appeared distracted, staring into the middle distance, in a way entirely at odds with his cheery manner earlier on.
"Is there something bothering you?" Tom asked, after watching his companion in silence for a few minutes.
"Well, yes," he confessed, "There is something worrying me. And, it might be tied up with what you've told me in your letters about the dragons at the crossing."
"So what is it?" Tom pressed.
As they talked, Tom slowly became aware of the inner turmoil in his companion. On the surface, the other man was more jovial and outgoing that he had been before. But, inside, the old Alistair remained, with his rather diffident demeanour.
While they walked, disjointedly at first, but then with growing conviction, Alistair told Tom a story.
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