The Lyndesfarne Bridge Novels by Trevor Hopkins

Bridge of Stone and Magic: Chapter 25

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It was, Kevin supposed, inevitably the case that even the most urgent meeting could not be organised overnight. It was three full days later before the Grand Convocation of the Boards of the Two Worlds was finally called to order. It was, admittedly, a glittering affair; by far the largest and most prestigious event that Kevin had ever attended, in either world. There were representatives from a long list of organisations, the existence of many of which Kevin had not even suspected. Tanji had her work cut out explaining to him who all these people were and what were their roles within the numerous administrative departments.

There were representatives from a ridiculous variety of trade and transportation organisations, including the Guild of Transportation itself - responsible for the portals that provided all long-distance transport in this world. Of course, most people who used the portals on a daily basis were unaware of the Other World, so these delegates must have been sent by a fairly discreet corner of that Guild. The Guild members themselves were a trio of solemn-faced women clad in traditional Lyndesfarne robes - in common with most of the delegates present - although in uncharacteristically sober shades of grey and russet.

Less discreet were the delegates from the Waggoner's Association representing the men and women who, historically, drove the horse-drawn carts to and fro over the Old Bridge and had now extended their responsibilities to include the more modern hybrid transportation that Kevin had helped devise for the New Bridge. Many of them eschewed the standard robes for stout working trousers and jackets in serviceable leather. They also seemed to arrive equipped with bags of food and bottles of what Kevin strongly suspected were alcoholic beverages, and were also accompanied by a faint nasal suggestion of horse.

A tightly interlocked cabal of Travellers and Traders were represented by a noisy and colourful group of people who sat together and did not hesitate to heckle or question anyone who spoke. The women tended towards brightly-coloured long dresses and extravagantly large earrings, while the men were split between conventional robes and the kind of wear that would not have looked out of place in any market in Northern England. Together, they represented the astonishingly diverse array of different goods and services which were bought and sold across the causeway, some of which Kevin could not understand at all, and at least one of which caused Tanji to blush furiously.

Another organisation common to the entire world of Lyndesfarne, and not just the bits associated with the crossing itself, was the Guild of Magic. This august body was responsible for the management of magic generally, the regulation and approval of new magical technologies and the maintenance the proscriptions decreed long ago. The Guild of Magic members sat close to the lesser delegates from the Board of Control itself - the more important people, including the Ferryman, had seats elsewhere - or perhaps it was the other way around.

The majority of the Guild and Board members clearly felt themselves to be important people and exuded a degree of self-righteousness and even pomposity in their manner. Mercifully, others appeared to have a more self-deprecating manner, thoroughly down-to-earth much like the Ferryman herself. Kevin found himself wondering that those who really did have an exceptional degree of responsibility, and the concomitant power, would sometimes not need to boast about it.

Scattered here and there were a few people who were unaligned to any of the Boards and Guilds, who Tanji politely described as radicals and sceptics, "wild ducks", in the parlance that Kevin might have used in his professional circles. One or two might have justified the description "wild-eyed lunatics", although Kevin would later glean - through Tanji's efforts at translation - many of these free thinkers would offer germane and insightful contributions to the debate.

The delegates and representatives proper were attended by a vast army of assistants: guides and interpreters, secretaries and note-takers, as well as an array of errand-runners, bag-carriers and general hangers-on of all descriptions. Kevin was amused to note that some of the council members seemed unable to function without at least half a dozen flunkies continually rushing about in frantic activity, while others were able to conduct their business with an air of serene calm, and with just one quiet companion who never moved from their side.

The venue for the Convocation was a vast auditorium which was part of a facility not far from the crossing in the world of Lyndesfarne. The entire site was the equivalent, Kevin believed, to the headquarters of the Guardians in his own world, at Cliviger Grange. The Palace of the Convocation - Tanji's slightly quaint rendition of the Lyndesfarne name for the building - was built underground, as most structures over a certain size tended to be in this world, and entered through a small and heavily-ornamented structure at ground level.

Inside, the meeting hall was immense, larger than the theatre he had attended with Tanji months ago. It was much less ornate, almost minimalist in its approach, although without the brutalist poured-concrete effects that at least some equivalent buildings in his own world might have featured. The walls were in fact finished in places with wood panelling and in other areas with what looked like carpet, for reasons Kevin assumed must have had something to do with the acoustic properties of the enormous room.

Under a high and gently-curved ceiling lit in that mysterious and magical way Kevin had never quite understood, rows of surprisingly comfortable seats formed an arc - perhaps a quarter of a circle - and steeply raked so that everyone's view was unobstructed. Each seat was equipped with its own lectern, a surface big enough for a notebook or one of those magical slates that were apparently widely used for communication in this world. Wide flights of steps at intervals allowed easy access and, unlike theatres in this world and Kevin's own, it was possible to reach one's designated place without disturbing others in the process.

At the focus of the arc of seating, a curved stage or dais was established. A few of the most senior members of the Board of Control - including the Ferryman - sat behind a long table set to one side of the stage. The remainder of the dais was empty, although Kevin would soon learn that it would be intermittently occupied by speakers, singly or in small groups, who would argue - variously rationally and vociferously - for one course of action or another.

Perhaps as an antidote to the political factions on every side, the Ferryman had gathered around her a group of advisors and experts whose judgement she could trust, or at least to which she would give serious attention. This group of wild ducks included Bret, which seemed reasonable enough to him, as well as Tanji and himself.

Kevin was worried about this last inclusion. He did not regard himself as an expert on anything associated with the crossing. Rather, he was a mere technical advisor on a straightforward construction task, a civil engineering problem which, although complex in certain technological ways, was mostly a standard problem. On the other hand, he mused, Bret had valued his insight, as a stranger and complete novice at magic, in the various investigations they had undertaken together. Perhaps, he concluded, that he too was one of those independently-minded free thinkers after all.

There did seem to be a fair amount of gossip and finger-pointing in his direction, although no-one was openly hostile and several complete strangers approached him, introduced themselves - sometimes through an interpreter - and asked his opinion on this topic or that. In general, he had no pre-formed opinion and so did his best to express all sides of the argument before giving what he hoped was a balanced view. To his relief, this seemed to be acceptable and his questioners usually retired apparently satisfied with his response.

In this company, the Ferryman was not the sole arbiter of the course of action, although the exact balance of power and responsibility between her and the representatives in the hall never became entirely clear to Kevin. However, it did become clear to him that decisions - especially one of this enormity - would not be rushed. He had perhaps expected a long day, with a consensus finally emerging late in the evening, but he was wrong. As six o'clock approached, the Ferryman - acting, it seemed, as chairman of the Convocation’s moderation panel - announced that today's session was closed and that they would resume in the morning.

After questioning Tanji, who did not know but was able to make some enquiries, what also became clear was that policy and action were to be decided by vote but, for a question of this magnitude, a simple majority was not enough. Rather, a two-thirds majority was required to reach a conclusion, with no abstentions - everyone was required to commit themselves to a view - and the Convocation would continue in session until a decision was reached, regardless of how long that took. There was an initial vote taken in the afternoon of that first day, although no-one seemed to expect that a resolution would be arrived at. In the event, a great many people appeared to abstain, perhaps genuinely undecided or maybe still trying to determine the political ebb and flow between the various groups and factions.

Life as a Convocation attendee soon fell into a regular pattern for Kevin and Tanji. As he would have expected, the bulk of the proceedings were carried out in the language of Lyndesfarne. Speaker after speaker addressed the delegates from the dais, following some arcane and carefully-managed schedule which seemed to form some kind of balance between the factions and the organisations being represented.

Even Tanji's skilled translation tended to falter when trying to follow the convoluted and often very technical points being made by the delegates. Also, attempting to interpret the words of endless speakers was understandably exhausting for Tanji and, after a few days, she began to look tired and drawn. She complained of a persistent sore throat and Kevin noticed that she began to fall asleep early but then wake in the night and be unable to get back to sleep, or fell into some kind of a dream-like state where she muttered phrases in many languages, some of which Kevin recognised from the previous day's proceedings.

Once Kevin realised what was causing her the discomfort, he begged her to cease the near-simultaneous translation that she had been trained to do, and instead just provide a précis of those points which were sufficiently non-technical that he stood some chance of understanding. To his relief, this removed the pressure from Tanji and she soon returned to her usual ebullient self.

The days dragged on and on. The two lovers went home every day after the sessions closed - a twenty-minute trip on foot and by portal - and stayed in Tanji's little suite of room at her Uncle and Aunt's house. Her Uncle, although engaged at the Guild of Transportation, was not senior enough to attend the Convocation himself, and Kevin spent an hour or so each evening over dinner relating the salient points of each day's session for his edification.

In truth, Kevin found many of the Convocation sessions boring, although he felt compelled - from a sense of duty, he supposed - to attend all of the sessions, even though the subject matter was often arcane in the extreme. Even so, one speaker on the fourth day caught his attention and Tanji too pricked up her ears.

"You'll want to follow this," she whispered to Kevin, before lapsing into the sing-song tone of voice which indicated that she was translating from the language of Lyndesfarne.

The woman on the stage was short and motherly in appearance, an impression enhanced by her straight silver-grey hair cut sensibly short, although there was a strong suggestion that her locks were once much longer and very blonde. For several minutes, she spoke emotively about the ever-present and now increasing risks, even threats, to the relations and children of the Old Families, with special reference to those in Kevin's world.

"For untold generations," she went on, "Our peoples have made marriages and alliances across the Two Worlds. These have been successful, or mostly so, in the majority of cases; stable long-term relationships bringing up well-balanced and capable children, wise in the ways of the world."

"We have all heard stories, from our friends, our companions, even our own relatives, how loved ones felt threatened by opponents of the status quo, so threatened that they felt forced to go into hiding, in some cases cutting themselves off so completely from their family that they were never to see their own children again."

"Many of you will have heard," she went on, "The tale of a young man from the Other World, called Tom, who disappeared in the company of two other men nearly sixty years ago, and whose whereabouts were unknown until the Ferryman's daughter and her companions discovered their bodies in recent days."

The woman on the stage clearly knew where Tanji and Kevin were sitting, judging by the way she waved an arm in their direction. Many people turned to look, craning their heads to see the mysterious stranger who had so critically influenced recent events. Kevin was faintly embarrassed by all the attention. He knew that he had not intended to disrupt or change anyone's way of life, in this world or his own. But, somehow, events had transpired that had forced him to action, to a position where his decisions - however inadvertent - were pivotal in current events.

"Even Tom, who was carefully brought up without knowledge of this world somehow found his own destiny, and was eventually re-introduced to the secret world, that secret that we here all share."

She paused, sweeping the auditorium with her eyes.

"But I too have a secret," she resumed, "One which I am here to share with you this afternoon. Tom's parents were also my parents."

The noise in the room, which had hitherto been the silence of those listening politely, suddenly broke into a chorus of amazement and disbelief. The susurrations eventually subsided slowly, and she was able to resume.

"Tom was my brother. He was born in the Other World, his mother a native of that land and his father a Visitor from this world. Even when he was but a tiny child, the parents felt themselves threatened, by whom I do not know, and felt forced to change their names and go into hiding far away from the crossing at Lyndesfarne, and away from any suggestion of an association with the Other World. There, in quiet and safe anonymity, Tom's parents brought up two other children, both girls: myself and my younger sister."

"These recent political revelations, while obviously important, for me have a much more personal relevance. I never knew my brother, and my brother never knew his parents, not really. And can you imagine what it must have been like, for parents of two daughters, to know that they also had a son, a boy that they could never see again?"

The woman on the stage was crying now.

"And so I ask you all to consider," she said to the Convocation with tears streaming down her face, "Was the separation of my family worth it, in order to preserve the secrets of the Other World?"

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