The Lyndesfarne Bridge Novels by Trevor Hopkins

Bridge of Stone and Magic: Chapter 20

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"Wheee!" shrieked Tanji, darting ahead of Kevin and spraying him head to foot with foamy seawater.

Kevin grinned maniacally, crouched lower over his own surfboard and repeated the gesture for more speed. The board lurched forward, nearly tossing him into the ocean, but he managed to catch his balance and get back on Tanji's tail. She glanced back, saw him gaining and swerved from side to side, casting up great fantails of water as she made the curves.

Kevin dodged and weaved, seeking an opportunity to pass her, but she was in the end too fast for him. She scooted up on the beach and hopped neatly off the board only a second or two before Kevin slid to a halt alongside her.

"That was fun!" he enthused, picking her up in a hug and swinging her around.

"You're really getting the hang of this, aren't you?" she replied, once disentangled.

Kevin modestly acceded that this might be so. He was not a naturally sporty or athletic person, he would have been the first to admit, and he had had reservations about attempting this particular pursuit. But it was easier than it looked, he had discovered, and he felt he was becoming, if not skilled, then at least competent enough to enjoy it.

The best description of the sport, Kevin had decided, was something like waterskiing, but without the tow rope or indeed the boat. The two of them had spent much of the last six days attempting to master this particular activity, apparent known as Water-boarding. His first attempts had thrown him into the warm aquamarine water of the lagoon time and again, much to everyone's amusement. Tanji had taken a tumble or two as well, although with her natural poise and balance she seemed to pick it up more quickly.

Hotel rooms on stilts They had been practicing for several hours each morning before the sun got too hot for them. Towards midday, they would stop for a light lunch in the shade, enjoying mixed salads and cooling drinks and barbecued fish. After that, they would walk back to their little apartment, actually one of numerous individual huts built on stilts (mostly straight) over the lagoon and connected by a pathway of sun-bleached timbers. There, they would shower together, soaping and caressing each others bodies, before tumbling into bed with kisses and more passionate embraces.

Their afternoon siesta, sleeping out the heat of the day in their cool and shady room, left them refreshed for the evening's entertainments. After sunset, which fell with equatorial suddenness at the same time every day, they would dress for a semi-formal dinner in the hotel dining room. The dress code, as far as Kevin could tell, required only the wearing of clothes, any clothes; this was by contrast to daytime here, where anything at all - including nothing at all - seemed to be considered entirely acceptable.

Dinner was served in a large covered area, open to the cooling night breezes at the sides. The guests assembled around the large companionable tables that were the fashion in this world. The etiquette was to engage one's dinner companions, different every night, in light conversation. Most of the chat went straight over Kevin's head - his grasp of the language of Lyndesfarne was still shaky at best - and he sometimes felt just a little left out. But the dinners were accompanied with much laughter and food, and a modest amount of wine, and he found it impossible not to enter into the spirit of the occasion.

After dinner, the hotel would provide some kind of entertainments: dancers in various styles as well as acrobats and jugglers. Kevin was not at all surprised to discover that there were no magical acts, no acts of sleight-of-hand or prestidigitation. Here, he considered, what would be the point?

After the floor show, the house band would play dance music. Kevin was encouraged to dance or, more precisely, given no opportunity to decline Tanji's importunateness. The dancing - or at least writhing rhythmically - was something he undertook with more energy than skill, although Tanji seemed to appreciate his efforts and no-one seemed to notice or care about his performance. In any case, there seemed to be no standard format and people moved in a startling variety of styles. The stately steps of couples and groups contrasted with the vigorous and athletic movements of the young and fit, or perhaps slightly over-imbibed, all to the very same music.

Kevin and Tanji enjoyed the party atmosphere until one or the other started to tire. Kevin certainly found that the faintly pleasing muscular ache in his thighs - mostly due to the water-boarding - meant that he slept particularly well, even after the siesta in the early afternoon. They would leave the dance floor together and take a cooling walk hand-in-hand along shady paths back to their apartment.

Many parts of the gardens and walkways were well-lit after dark by a variety of magical light sources, but some sections were very badly illuminated with only a few sparks which seemed to move and flash at random. Kevin had initially assumed that they were some kind of sprite - those magical sparks that indicated the presence of powerful influences. It was only after the second evening that he realised that they were live fireflies and that this was the reason why the lighting was kept so very low.

By daylight, Kevin pointed out to Tanji on their way to a late breakfast, the hotel grounds were crawling with other wildlife. One more obvious form was that of monitor lizards, which Kevin suspected could also be found in similar places in his own world. He had not realised that these creatures could swim; here, they could frequently been seen nosing around the pontoons and pilings which supported the walkways to the apartments over the lagoon. He had been assured that they were harmless, but was distinctly nervous when they were around.

The vegetation seemed to Kevin to be nearly as alarming as the animals. At one point on their walk to the restaurant they passed a near-vertical rock face with the roots of several trees running over its surface. The insistent roots had clearly forced their way into any cracks or fissures that they could find and was in the process, in an interminably patient vegetable kind of way, of turning the entire outcrop into soil.

The tropical island upon which they were holidaying, apart from the central hotel buildings and the apartments over the lagoon, was apparently unoccupied by any people, although there seemed to plenty of monkeys about. From the veranda of their apartment, they could look down through the gaps in the decking and see brightly-coloured fish nosing around the sand and corals.

Jungle ridge for rousting fish-eaters Looking up at the high forested centre of the island they could see any number of brilliant birds flying, and there was something else, too. It was only on the third day that Kevin realised that they were a small species of dragon, or something like it. They were fish-eaters, diving repeatedly into the water to catch fish with their claws before flying off, fish still wriggling, to their lairs. These fish-dragons built their nests in high trees at the very top of the island mountain, and every tree along the skyline seemed to house at least three pairs of these creatures whose calls were plainly audible in the stillness of the mornings.

Their week-long trip to this tropical island paradise was soon to end - far too soon, Kevin considered. Over dinner on their last night, their conversation fell to a comparison of their trips to, Kevin would be the first to agree, some of the more exotic parts of both worlds. In a completely unserious way, the two of them debated the plus and minus points of the places they had been, and how each could be improved by the addition of capabilities from the other.

They agreed that there were many points of similarity in the Two Worlds, but they chose to take opposing viewpoints as to why this was so. Tanji was convinced that the similarities were the result of deliberate copying. Travellers from one world would take home with them the best ideas and re-create them. Kevin was not so sure. Surely, he reasoned, relatively few people even knew about the Other World and fewer regularly travelled between the worlds. It was more like, he maintained, that human nature meant that broadly the same things would appeal to people in each world, and would occur separately.

"I know that there are plenty of places like this in your world," Tanji asserted, "But hotels are a relatively recent invention here. We don't have to stay anywhere overnight - portal travel means you could always just go home."

Red Sea Hotel Kevin knew this was true. He resolved to persuade Tanji to accompany him to a resort in his own world, to see how she would react to a luxurious retreat without the benefit of magic, and how much difference the travelling actually made. The venue Kevin selected, after not very much consideration, was a landmark hotel just off the coast of the Red Sea. The travel of course required the usual tedium of international flights - Tanji was in the possession of a perfectly functional British passport, and Kevin did not want to ask how she had come to acquire it.

On their arrival, stepping out of the chauffeured limousine that had been provided, the hotel was, as he had expected, ludicrously expensive - and ludicrously over-the-top too, in his slightly cynical opinion. However, he wanted to see what Tanji's reaction was.

As it turned out, and to his entire satisfaction, she loved it. She was fascinated by the gadgets and gimmickry, revelled in the lavish décor and the subservient service, and the astonishing variety of the cuisine offered at all times of the day and night.

Some of the most unusual meals were served in the underwater restaurant - actually a restaurant underground, but with a sea view both above and below the water. The sub aqua effect was enhanced by massive aquaria, well-stocked fish tanks so large that Kevin imagined that they would require cleaning by a member of the hotel staff in scuba gear.

Kevin had booked dinner for the evening of their arrival. The restaurant was entered by a submarine ride - actually a Disneyland-style Virtual Reality presentation. Tanji was amused by the attitude of the waiting staff when they ordered a fresh seafood platter - Fruits de la Mère. When this arrived, it was an impressive collection of crustaceans and shellfish on a bed of cracked ice. Rather than tackling the dismantling of crabs claws and king prawns themselves, as Kevin had anticipated, liveried waiting staff wearing white gloves skilfully separated the meat from the shells and presented the prepared morsels for their plates.

The following day, Kevin and Tanji tried waterskiing, under the instruction of a patient and professionally sympathetic coach. They both got very wet and laughed a lot, but they finally managed to stay upright on the skis for an appreciable time. Kevin wondered if perhaps some of the balancing skills he had honed during their previous stay had helped him learn more quickly.

In the afternoon, they took a private trip on an archaic wooden boat - or, at least, one which looked suitably ancient but, Kevin became sure, was actually well-equipped with modern navigational instruments and powerful engines. The trip took them from a landing stage at the edge of the lagoon, the water warm and green in stark contrast to the cool blue depths on the other side of the reef. Their craft plodded along the coastline finally anchoring off a tiny island surrounded by the obligatory white sands and coral reefs.

Aided by the crew, which outnumbered the passengers three-to-one, they waded ashore. While the crew set about preparing a barbecue picnic, Kevin and Tanji swam from the edge of the beach and watched the fish and the occasional turtle placidly swimming about. Tanji seemed relaxed, as happy as Kevin had ever seen her.

"Could you live here?" he asked suddenly, "I mean, in this world. Not that I'm actually asking you to, of course."

She looked at him strangely for a minute, a tense silence that seemed to stretch on and on, then smiled warmly enough for Kevin to feel obscurely comforted.

"A world without magic?" she said, "A world totally without any of the familiar mechanisms and devices which I grew up with?"

She thought for another long moment.

"Yes," she concluded, "Yes, I could."

Kevin was relieved. He was not sure he could manage to live always in her world, much as he enjoyed his frequent visits. He knew it was just too different for him to easily cope with. Somehow, in her world, everything was simultaneously the same and completely different, and he felt sure he would constantly feel like an infant, an invalid: lost, helpless, always requiring help and assistance.

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