The Lyndesfarne Bridge Novels by Trevor Hopkins

Bridge of Stone and Magic: Chapter 23

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Kevin and Tanji were dinner guests this evening. They arrived at the front door of Bret's house, the large and rambling family home she shared with her mother and father as well as her own husband and children, and other members of the family.

Bret opened the door moments after Kevin had knocked. She had relaxed into her natural, female appearance this evening, with her blonde hair loosened from its usual neat ponytail and allowed to flow down her back. She wore a loose dress in a shimmering pale blue, cut and shaped in a way which subtly amplified her female curves. This was something which had rather disturbed Kevin on first realisation, that the man he had worked so closely with in the design of the New Bridge was actually a woman, and one who could make sufficiently large changes in her appearance - at least while in the world of Lyndesfarne - that he had not even thought to question it.

"Welcome, welcome," she said, "Come in."

She ushered them both inside, helping them to remove their travelling cloaks and packs and guiding them into the main living room. This was a large and homely room, with an expansive dining table set with numerous chairs at one end, and an array of comfortable sofas and easy chairs clustered around a log fire at the other. The table was already set for dinner and tantalising smells were emerging from the kitchen door.

Kevin and Tanji had been to this house several times over the last few months, but never for more than an hour or two at a time. These had been brief businesslike meetings with the Ferryman in the room she used as an office, or around the dining table - littered with maps and papers rather than the array of cutlery and crockery and table-linen it now featured. Eosin and the Ferryman were already present, warming themselves by the fire. Both looked tired and drawn, as if they had not been getting enough sleep. They greeted the newcomers warmly and chatted inconsequentially for a few moments, until the doorbell rang again and further guests arrived.

The new arrivals were Bret's older sister and her husband, who Kevin had met before, and a tall young man that Kevin finally realised must be Gred, their son. The last time he had met the youth, he had been a gangling boy with the permanent sulky attitude of teenage boys everywhere. Now, he had grown quickly, already much taller than his mother and probably likely to grow still more.

Bret's father had prepared a feast for guests and family in the traditional wholesome style that he had perfected from long practice. The bearded man wearing an butcher's apron emerged from the kitchen briefly, waved and spoke a friendly greeting to Kevin and Tanji, and then rang a large bell which hung by the door. Two girls appeared after a few moments - Myra and Andhra, Kevin's memory supplied unprompted - up the stairs from the sleeping areas on the lower levels. The girls had both grown since he had seen them last and Andhra, the older and rather tomboyish girl, was now verging on her teenage years.

Everyone settled around the table while Bret's father brought dish after dish from the kitchen in a gastronomic performance he suspected the older man thoroughly enjoyed. No-one hesitated in filling their plates and tucking in while Bret uncorked a bottle of wine and filled glasses around the table. Kevin understood that this style of cooking was commonplace in this world, although he had yet to meet anyone who appeared to be significantly overweight, unlike the examples of - in some cases, life-threatening - obesity that were all too common in his own country.

Kevin for one was extremely grateful for the meal. He had undertaken so much travel recently, much of it by air. He felt as he had not eaten properly in days, having long ago come to the conclusion that the food served on aircraft was rarely palatable and frequently tasted as if it had been assembled by some secret industrial process entirely from plastic. He expressed his genuine thanks to Bret's father rather effusively, whose bearded face immediately split into a wide grin at the extravagant compliments he was being paid.

The conversation over the dinner table stayed away - quite deliberately, Kevin imagined - from topics of any real import. The children bantered amongst themselves and entertained the adults with apparently random remarks which seemed to veer unpredictably from intelligent insight to touching naivety.

The final course, of cheeses and prepared fresh fruits, was finished in no great hurry. Afterwards, the children were directed to assist Bret's father in clearing away the remnants of the meal - something achieved with only the necessary minimum amount of adolescent moaning - while the remaining adults carried their refilled wineglasses and settled themselves in the more comfortable seating around the fireplace.

Away from the ears of the children, the talk turned to more serious matters. Bret asked about the most recent of the trips that Kevin and Tanji had undertaken. It was an investigation in South America, adopting their now-familiar pose as tourists travelling on a modest budget. They had flown into Lima and undertaken various excursions before they were ready to visit the real objective of their tour. They had visited Machu Picchu, the so-called "Lost City of the Incas". The final part of the trip was on a rattling and ancient train followed by a fairly steep walk to the entrance to the old city.

According to the Ferryman's briefing, this too had once been the site of a crossing between the Two Worlds, one which had been closed without undue incident when its discovery by the Spanish Conquistadors was thought to be unavoidable. Ironically, the Spanish never did find this city during their peregrinations, although they passed sufficiently close on several occasions that it was only a matter of luck that they did not stumble upon it. The two lovers spend all day exploring the ruins, Kevin taking numerous photographs of Tanji in front of various relics, while Tanji discreetly applied whatever magic Eosin had provided for her. The results were uniformly negative; there was no indication of any what Kevin imagined as magical leakage detectable at all.

Bret too reported on her most recent trips. She had revisited the previous sites of several crossings in various places in Germany, as well as a visit to Iceland. He had also investigated different kinds of intelligence, leads which put Bret and many others on the trails of individuals who might know something. For all concerned, the conclusion was that it was all desperately frustrating. They continually seemed to be on the verge of a major breakthrough, at least at the time, but they were somehow thwarted at the final hurdle. They made no sustained progress, every step forward followed by two steps back. It was only much later on that Kevin would suspect that they were being played, that it was all an orchestrated plot to keep them nervous and unsettled.

The Ferryman nodded sagely as she listened to first Kevin and Tanji, and then Bret recounting their most recent failures. When Bret fell silent, she stared into the fire for a long moment, her wineglass forgotten in her hand.

"It is much as I have already concluded," she said in a sad, soft voice, "We cannot trace back to the roots of the organisation. They seem to be able to move against us so easily, and it is only by good fortune we have uncovered their plots, discovered their plans. We have to keep on being lucky; they only need to be lucky once."

She paused, swirling the last drops of the wine around in the glass.

"We cannot guarantee the level of security that the governments of our world insist upon," she resumed, "And the governments of yours too. We need to know what to do, to understand the risk and balance that against the advantages."

She sipped her wine.

"We must call an Emergency Convocation," the Ferryman concluded wearily, "To bring together in session all of the Boards and Guilds from the Two Worlds."

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