Tom soon got his bearings, recognising the route they were following from their first trip to Lyndesfarne the previous year in the company of Bram. The road was empty, the weather was fine, if a bit breezy, and Alistair seemed to be in the mood to talk. Tom was content enough to allow him to chatter on, enjoying the relaxed moments after the recent hectic times on duty.
"My life has turned out to be every bit as itinerant as I though it was going to be, all those months ago," he began, "Although I still haven't seen very much of the Other World."
"Why is that?" Tom asked.
Alistair explained at length that the twin organisations known collectively as the Guides - the Guild of Directions in Lyndesfarne and the Travellers Guidance Group - almost invariably recruited members from their own worlds.
The theory was that natives of a world made better guides since their instincts and common sense - the things learned at one's mother's knee, Tom thought ruefully - corresponded to the nature of that world. So, they would instinctively react in a way appropriate to the prevailing circumstances. He had heard that this practice had saved lives in the past: in an urgent situation, a person born in England had moved automatically to operate levers and switches when someone from Lyndesfarne would have tried some emergency magical gesture.
Alistair went on to explain that, under more normal circumstances, a Guides' duties included the organisation of travel and accommodation, as well as assistance with customs and practice in the unfamiliar society, so as to prevent the traveller from Lyndesfarne from seeming too obviously foreign.
The role also demanded skills in translation, and Alistair explained that he had received additional lessons in interpretation since he had left the Grange.
"Where did you get those?" Tom asked, surprised at the admission.
Alistair explained that he had spent quite a time at the Lyndesfarne equivalent of Cliviger Grange, the "College for Guardians" - as Tom could now translate it for himself - that the two young men and their classmates had visited before.
"As you'll remember, they've got quite a place there," Alistair went on, "And I was astonished by the way the buildings were bigger on the inside."
Tom did remember. He too had been struck at the time by the way the Lyndesfarne buildings were dug underground, and with sleeping quarters on the lower floors. He had also been impressed by the magical skylights, which let natural light into every level. He understood that underground living was now more-or-less traditional, although the tradition had come about because of the depredations of dangerous flying creatures, like the dragons he had experienced at first-hand. The style of construction meant that there was plenty of space, and he had seen that there were lots of specialised classrooms within the facilities.
"So I have been practicing my language skills," Alistair continued, "As well as the specialist set of capabilities to become an interpreter."
"Find it easy, do you?" Tom enquired.
"Actually, it's rather hard," Alistair replied, "You have to learn to shut off your normal thought processes, and just translate the intent of the words as soon as you hear them. You don't have time to think about what is being said. It's taken me ages to get the knack of it, but now I'm not too bad."
The other man shook his head at Alistair's modesty. He had heard from other sources that the other man's command of the language was astonishing for one exposed for the first time.
"So where have you been travelling?" Tom pressed.
"Well, I've been working as an understudy to my Master Guide. And we have been travelling all over the country with our Visitors."
It had become clear to Tom that Alistair used the word "Visitor" specifically to refer to the person from one world who was being escorted around the other.
"I've been to Edinburgh repeatedly, for example," he continued, "And I have been making frequent trips down to London - travelling first class on the overnight sleeper, I'll have you know."
Tom was amused by this observation - it was a far cry indeed from that first train trip north last year, bunking down under their greatcoats on the seats of a third-class compartment.
"So, going up in the world, then?" he quipped.
"Ha, ha," Alistair responded ironically, "You know as well as I do that these Visitors are usually VIPs, and therefore nothing is too good for them. Of course, the Visitor is the boss, and we have to taken them where they want to go. Although you do sometimes have to firmly offer them advice that their proposed trip simply isn't practical."
Alistair paused for a moment, as if struck by a sudden observation.
"You know, there's a surprising variation in the Visitors I have been accompanying," he said slowly, "Some have been, I suspect, rather frequent travellers to our world. In fact, I'd wager that they probably don't really need a Guide at all. I'd have supposed that they get to use our services simply because their rank or position demands that they should."
Alistair paused for a moment, clearly collecting his thoughts.
"Others, well, I have to wonder if they know anything about our world at all."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, some of them take to wandering around with open-mouthed astonishment or, perhaps worse, being somehow unable to come to terms with the absence of magic. One or two of them have got really upset - to the point of insanity, sometimes. The advice I've been given is to get the Visitor home as quickly as possible when this happens."
Alistair again fell silent, leaving Tom to digest what he had just been told.
"I'm worried about one of my Visitors," Alistair piped up again.
"What do you mean," Tom wondered aloud, "Did he go barmy on you?"
"No, no, nothing like that," the other man replied, "It's just that, with all of the strange goings-on at the causeway you've been telling me about, I keep wondering if there's some connection."
Alistair seemed to be rather worried about something. Finally, he stopped Tom in the road and spoke directly to him.
"The identity of the Visitors and their itinerary is supposed to be kept a secret. So you'll have to promise not to breathe a word of this to anyone, not even Bram. Okay?"
Tom readily confirmed his agreement.
"As I said before, usually I only escort visitors on our side of the crossing," Alistair continued, "So it came as something a surprise when I was asked to go and collect a Visitor from a somewhere other than the end of the causeway. And even more of a surprise when I learned that I was to perform this task on my own."
"Not accompanied by your Master?"
"Exactly. It was very strange," Alistair explained, " 'You know the way to the House of Briz?' my Master asked me, and of course I responded 'Yes, indeed'. So, I was sent there on my own."
"Taking the route we're on right now?" Tom asked.
"Well, that explains how you know the way so well."
"Ah, well," Alistair stammered, looking slightly embarrassed, "That wasn't the first time I had made my way to Bram's house unaccompanied."
Tom looked sharply at his friend, but said nothing.
"Anyway, when I arrived, I found Yise and her mother there, but both Bram and Briz were absent, their whereabouts unknown as far as I could determine. The ladies made me very welcome" - Alistair blushed more deeply - "which was just as well, since I had a long wait."
Alistair smiled to himself, seemingly momentarily unaware of Tom's presence.
"Eventually I was called in. My Visitor was called Tarm - I had received a short briefing on him previously. Apparently he is a senior member of the Board of Control, and therefore the most 'V' of VIPs."
Tom had heard something of the Board from the lessons at Cliviger Grange. This organisation was in overall control of the crossing from the Lyndesfarne side, and was the authority to which the Guardians in the Other World reported. The Board was also the government in charge of the Guild of Directions - the Lyndesfarne equivalent to the Guides - and the mysterious organisation know as the Watchers.
Apparently there was a similar organisation, usually also referred to as The Board, on the England side. The Guardians and the Guides were ultimately responsible to the Board in his own world.
Tom had not managed to work out the relationships between the two Boards, or indeed the interactions (if any) between the governance of the crossing and the formal British government in Westminster and Whitehall. He felt sure that there must be some official channels, judging by the aftermath of the motorcycle attack on the crossing, but suspected that they must be extremely low-key.
"Anyway," continued Alistair, "Tarm appeared to be deep in conversation with Hamet."
"Yes. Bit of a shifty character, that one, I thought."
Tom murmured his agreement with this sentiment.
"Anyway, it seemed that their discussions had just about wrapped up, and I was able to escort Tarm to the crossing. As we crossed the bridge and formally entered England, he called me over and asked if I knew the public house known as the Crossed Keys in Alnwick? You remember the one?"
Tom did indeed remember the Crossed Keys. This was the pub where they had that strange encounter with the Irish mystic before they had ever set foot in Lyndesfarne.
"Tarm seemed to be unsettled, nervous, even," Alistair went on, "Although I could not imagine why. I had been told that he had Visited our world on several other occasions, and certainly had no problem with door handles and electric light switches."
Alistair shook his head.
"We went on to Alnwick by car. I had previously arranged to borrow one from Cliviger Grange, and elected to drive myself, rather than drag one of the duty drivers out for a long wait. Tarm instructed me to drop him outside the pub and then wait in the car. While I was parking, I saw a person arriving. I wasn't sure, but could have sworn it was the Warden from RDTE."
"What, Major Markham?"
"Yes, him," he replied, "In mufti."
Alistair explained that he barely recognised Markham in civilian clothes, and for a while was not even sure it really was the Warden from Cliviger Grange.
"So what was the Major doing there?" Tom demanded.
"Sure beats me," Alistair answered.
"In any case, I waited outside as I had been instructed to do. Many of our Visitors are conducting business thought to be too secret for our ears and so hanging around is just part of the job."
"Another thing we both learned in the Army, then," Tom quipped.
"You're right there," Alistair laughed, then continued his story.
"So, I escorted Tarm back across the causeway without incident, and sent him on his way through the portal. The really worrying thing is, since then, Tarm has disappeared."
"Disappeared?" Tom echoed.
"Yes," Alistair confirmed, "The day after I'd driven him over to Alnwick. Apparently, people in the Board are running around like headless chickens. They think he's been kidnapped, although there's been no word from any captors, no ransom demand. And the Guardians are on high alert."
"Really?" Tom exclaimed, rather surprised, "There's been nothing in our briefings."
He had expected that some mention of this important development in the daily shift update meetings which started each on-duty period.
"But why would anyone want to kidnap him?" Tom asked.
As he spoke, the two men crested the slight rise that Tom remembered presaged their arrival at Bram's house.
"Ah," Alistair cried, ignoring the other man's question, "Here we are at last!"
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