The Lyndesfarne Bridge Novels by Trevor Hopkins

Death on the New Bridge: Chapter 20

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Toasting with wineglasses

As he and Bret travelled, Kevin's thoughts went back to happier times, when he and Tanji had dined at home with Bret and her family at their home in the world of Lyndesfarne. He had been made very welcome indeed, fed a splendid dinner cooked unaided, as far as he could tell, by Bret's father and toasted with an excellent red wine by the Ferryman herself.

Only later did he realise that this might have been the moment when everything changed: when he became recognised as a part of the establishment of the Other World - of the Two Worlds, even - although he had not consciously understood it at the time. But now, he realised, he was entrenched, an accepted member of what was an exceptionally exclusive club.

After dinner, Bret's father had waved away any suggestion that Kevin should help with clearing away. The older man seemed happy enough to potter around, taking the empty plates and dishes back into the kitchen and tidying away the remaining accoutrements from the dining table. One of these days, Kevin thought to himself, I will get a chance to see inside a Lyndesfarne kitchen.

Tanji and Kevin were encouraged by Bret to take up their wineglasses and move sedately - 'waddle' was the word which came unbidden to Kevin's mind - to more comfortable seating by the fire. The extravagant meal and the plentiful wine had made Kevin quite drowsy, although he was awake enough to notice that he was not the only one feeling slightly sleepy. He felt able only to make vaguely desultory comments on the delights of the food and wine, and on the style and ambiance of the surroundings.

Eosin excused himself at this point and escorted the children downstairs for, Kevin imagined, some domestic bedtime ritual. The kids seemed happy enough to oblige, after the obligatory "mad half hour" effect, chasing each other around the large room until, suddenly, they seemed so tired that they could hardly keep their eyes open.

Kevin and the others talked long into the night. Tanji seemed content to sit close to Kevin on a sofa to one side of the fire, her eyes bright and clearly taking in everything that was said.

Eosin returned later on, glancing at Bret and nodding almost imperceptibly, which Kevin took to be parental code for "children quiet, in bed and nearly asleep". He slipped quietly into an easy chair almost hidden in shadow, set well back to one side of the fireplace, swept up his wineglass and offered a silent toast to Bret.

Bret's mother, joined a little later by her husband after completing, Kevin imagined, his kitchen duties, sat in a second sofa opposite Kevin and Tanji. Both Bret and her mother appeared to have a fund of stories and tales, with just the suggestion, Kevin would realise afterwards, that the fables were carefully selected as a message with an oblique point to be made.

The conversation had flagged a little immediately after dinner, but soon perked up as they settled themselves. "It occurred to me," the Ferryman began, addressing Kevin directly, "That you might be interested in how a crossing comes into being."

This was one topic where Kevin had long had a fascination, and said so immediately. Bret's Mother sat back in her chair with the air, it suddenly struck Kevin, of someone about to tell a tale to a group of tired kindergarten children. She sipped at her wine glass thoughtfully for a moment.

"A World Crossing," she said eventually, "Is a constructed artefact, as much a work of - well, engineering, you might say - as a bridge or building."

Kevin nodded, already entranced.

"So, opening a crossing is a lengthy and complicated process, requiring great skills and a considerable amount of diligent work by many people," the Ferryman said, "Although I'm not absolutely sure that anyone really remembers exactly how it is done any more."

The Ferryman paused, staring into space for a moment.

"Anyway," she continued, "The first part of that process is to open up a small portal - a circle connecting this world with yours - only a few inches across. This allows the constructors to see where they are in the other world."

"Not much of a view through a hole that big," Kevin muttered.

The Ferryman looked amused.

"Even though it is small, it's still possible to send through various magical viewing devices and artefacts."

"You can use magic in my world?" Kevin asked, momentarily confused.

The Ferryman nodded her head.

"Of course there is no problem with using magic, since no barrier has been constructed at this stage."

"Ah," Kevin exclaimed softly, feeling slightly foolish. He had forgotten that the barrier preventing the transit of magic and technology between the two worlds was a separate construct, much more recently established and very actively maintained.

"So," Bret's mother continued, "A small amount of movement in the location of these spy-holes is possible - corresponding to a certain amount of movement of the eventual position of the crossing."

"So that's how the location is decided?" Kevin asked.

"Well, partially," the Ferryman agreed, "But in general, we need to create lots of these openings, in order to determine the ground level, to make sure that the surface at both sides will align, for example."

Kevin nodded in understanding, as he felt he could comprehend this. He had certainly found, in his own more mundane engineering undertakings, that selecting a site for a large bridge was heavily dependent on matching the geological features on both sides.

"This is important since, to properly determine the location for a crossing," she continued, "We need a lot of assessment: to make sure the weather and climate is broadly compatible, to ensure consistent geographical and geological features, and so on, to make sure some basic criteria have been met."

"What kind of criteria?" Kevin wanted to know.

Bret's mother snorted in amusement.

"Well, for example, that there is dry land on both sides," she answered, "Not in the middle of some ocean - although this has been tried with fairly unfortunate effects."

So that's what's behind the Bermuda Triangle, then, Kevin mused, but said nothing.

"So, a sampling process," the Ferryman emphasised, "Many spots are obviously incompatible immediately, and we would simply try somewhere else. But in other cases, a considerable amount of surveying work is undertaken only to finally discover something at a late stage that means the location will not do. And so the selection of the final site is always the result of years of assessments and evaluations."

She paused, perhaps wondering what to say next.

"After an initial survey with magical devices," she resumed, "And if a particular location looks sufficiently promising, another much larger portal would be opened, this one big enough for people to go through. The volunteers sent through are human surveyors, instructed to carry out assessments which are hard to perform remotely. These assessors had to make sure the proposed site is well away from centres of population, for example, and to address concerns like security and the control of access - important since a crossing will be many leagues in circumference."

She hesitated again.

"This was always potentially dangerous and risky work, since inter-world portals are unstable and can move unexpectedly or snap out of existence in an instant because of a single tiny magical misstep. But, if the reports from the on-the-ground team are favourable, then a final decision is made to go ahead. The portal is widened progressively and folded back on itself to form a dome, two domes really" - she illustrated this effect with movements of her hands - "shaped like a pair of shallow saucers set together at their edges. This configuration is highly stable - mainly because there is so much energy bound up in the structure - and will last forever."

The Ferryman sat back in her chair and took a sip of her wine.

"There's an old story about crossings and their creation," she said thoughtfully, "That you might like to hear. A story which I certainly heard many times as a child and which you might find interesting."

Kevin nodded again.

"Well, this was one of the very earliest crossings, opened many thousands of years ago. It was not the first, but so early in the history that it was probably established before it was realised that all crossings from our world end up in yours."

The Ferryman smiled wryly, looking for a moment very much like her daughter Bret.

"At that time, several other countries already had crossings, and the local emperors and minor kings in the area badly wanted one too. They wanted to partake of the trade, and the associated wealth, that an opening to the Other World would provide."

Not so much an Arms Race, Kevin though grimly, as Trans-World Crossing envy.

"So," she continued wryly, "There was a certain amount of pressure from the rulers of the region on the magical engineers and crossing-builders, to complete the crossing in the minimum possible time. Certainly, they cut corners and generally used much less care and attention than was really advisable."

The Ferryman again sipped her wine.

"Now, I need to tell you something about the physical setting of this particular crossing," she resumed, "In our world, it was at the edge of a tropical sea. Inland from the coast was an arid landscape, semi-desert, not really farmed and altogether quite of out the way. The reasoning at the time was that proximity to the sea would allow fish and other produce to be exported, as well as providing convenient transport for goods by boat - there were no transport portals in those days."

She paused briefly, perhaps considering the best phrasing for the story, then continued.

"In your world, the place of the crossing was in a high hot desert, also scrubland, not heavily populated, with just a few poor semi-nomadic tribespeople ekeing out a living herding sheep and goats."

Bret's mother again brought the wineglass to her lips, although Kevin was not entirely sure she was doing more than just tasting the contents of the glass.

"Surveying of the site had gone ahead more-or-less as I described, and the time had come to decide whether the site proposed was entirely suitable. The committee of sages and advisors who were to make a recommendation to the rulers met in a grand convocation - an earlier incarnation of the Boards, I suppose, although perhaps less sophisticated then."

"One man objected to the proposed location. He was named Noaz and he was one of the, well, chief architects of the crossing, you might say. From all accounts, he had a reputation in some quarters for caution and good judgment, a characteristic that some others interpreted as indecision and resistance to change."

"According to the tale I heard, Noaz was convinced that the full crossing, once opened, would intersect the sea in our world and allow water to rush through the crossing and flood the desert."

Bret's mother paused for dramatic effect, clearly signalling to Kevin that this was a tale often told in this household.

"The others involved with the crossing design did not agree with Noaz."

Kevin nodded sagely. He had had personal experience of offering balanced and professional technical advice on the placement of large-scale works of civil engineering - only to have that advice discarded, even derided, by others simply because it did not align with the pre-conceived ideas of those who thought they were in charge. "Their disagreements were vigorous and prolonged, and ultimately rather violent," Bret's mother continued, "Eventually, Noaz was banished, exiled to your world."

This remark provoked a sharp intake of breath from Tanji. Kevin could see that she looked shocked, even horrified by the prospect. The Ferryman had noticed her reaction too.

"Noaz was not permitted back though a temporary opening between the two worlds," she emphasized, "Before it was deliberately closed."

Tanji looked wide-eyed, waiting for the Ferryman to continue.

"Years passed, and preparations were made to open the full crossing. I should stress again that this was a colossal undertaking, requiring the preparation of a vast array of magic - a lifetime's work for tens, even hundreds, of skilled artisans and magical craftsmen."

Kevin struggled with this concept. He was familiar with the idea of engineering projects taking decades to complete - the amount of material that had to be transported and emplaced to make a dam or a canal or a motorway would require vast expenditure of labour. But a work of this magnitude which did not, in any way he could recognise, produce a physical result - this he found difficult to come to terms with.

"With no choice in the matter," Bret's mother continued, "Noaz settled in your world and took up farming in the fertile valleys below the high desert. He married a local woman, started a family and sired numerous children, became a grandfather, even. But in all this time, he kept a weather eye on the desert. He listened to travellers and shepherds; he even walked alone up there from time to time."

Kevin was intrigued.

"From his own observations, and his gentle interrogations of itinerants, Noaz identified the unmistakable signs that his old colleagues were still determined to open a crossing. He had heard reports of strange lights in the desert, of glowing objects hanging in the air. He had even glimpsed such things himself on his walks."

"Noaz's sagacity and caution re-asserted itself as he realised the risk to his family. Using what personal wealth he had drawn about himself during his years of exile, he set about building a boat - in an area many miles from the sea - big enough for his extended family and their livestock."

Kevin froze, just beginning to realise just what he was hearing.

"Noaz had to bear incredulity and scorn from his neighbours," the Ferryman continued, "From those who refused to listen to his words of warning. I guess he was thought of as a strange old man - one who had appeared as if from nowhere decades before. And one who seemed to have amassed a small fortune in indecent haste."

Noah's Ark

"As it turned out, Noaz's boat was completed just in time. The crossing was indeed opened and, as he had predicted, the sea swept through. This must have been an inundation for which the term "raging torrent" would have been entirely appropriate. There was an immense flood, with storm clouds and dark skies caused by dust and water being thrown into the air as the cool sea water hit the desiccated rocks and sands of the desert."

Again, the Ferryman paused to take a sip from her wineglass.

"Fortunately, the boat proved sound and Noaz's family survived some days in their lifeboat. We can only hope that at least some of their doubting neighbours must have survived, although undoubtedly many, many people lost their lives."

"The portal engineers in our World must have realised their error very rapidly, and moved to close the crossing again," she continued, "Although this must have been a difficult and dangerous task - to get close to a whirlpool in the sea a league or more across, in a wooden sailing ship, and then invoke the intricate magic which would have closed the new crossing. It must have taken many attempts - and it is told that many lost their lives - before the closure magic was finally completed."

She sighed gently, then continued.

"Anyway, the water eventually subsided and Noaz set up a new community at the edge of the area washed by the displaced sea. The salt from the sea water would have made the land sterile for many years."

"You've just told me the story of Noah's Ark, haven't you?" Kevin asked.

Bret's mother nodded.

"That's right," she confirmed, "So much of the mythology of your world, and ours, is bound up with the mingled history of the Two Worlds crossings. And a great deal of this history is now regarded as legend, or children's stories and the like."

She shook her head.

"In any case," she said sadly, "It was a salutary warning to the rulers and magical technicians of the time: that more care must be taken in positioning such constructions to avoid the huge waste of effort in creating such a crossing. And the story has served its purpose as a caution over the millenia: such a physical disaster has not happened since, at least on the scale I've just described."

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