The Lyndesfarne Bridge Novels by Trevor Hopkins

Bridge of Stone and Magic: Chapter 27

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A very few of the addresses at the Grand Convocation were immediately understandable to Kevin. One such speaker was a late arrival, a heavy-set man who hurried in puffing and looking unusually agitated. It was Jean-Marc, who Kevin had met in that grand restaurant in the company of Bret and Tanji all those long months ago.

When the Frenchman arrived during a break in the proceedings, Kevin and Tanji were standing near one of the entrances at the lower level, right at the foot of the stage from which appeals and addresses were being made. They were talking to Bret, who had been absent a great deal recently, apparently engaged in a series of mysterious errands whose purpose was carefully not described and upon whose instruction was equally carefully unspecified.

As he passed them in the walkway, the Frenchman evidently recognised Bret immediately and waved a brief greeting to him. Jean-Marc then frowned in the direction of Kevin and Tanji as if could not quite place where he had met them before. He obviously did not have time to consider this further, as he scuttled up the short flight of steps onto the stage and hurried over to the Ferryman. She turned and raised a hand in greeting, beckoning him over to the long table where she and the other moderators sat.

Just at that moment, a bell sounded to mark the resumption of the afternoon session after the break. Kevin and Tanji made their way back to their designated places which were set well back in the steeply ranked seating. They settled themselves, and Kevin opened a fresh page in the old-fashioned bound notebook he had been using to capture whatever insights were available to his comprehension through the twin fogs of language translation and detailed technical magical descriptions.

The delegates waited with varying degrees of patience for the next speaker to be announced, as they had done on numerous previous occasions over the last days. Unusually, on this occasion, there was a long delay while Jean-Marc and the Ferryman spoke quietly, their voices obviously outside whatever magical influence usually made sounds on the stage audible throughout the vast hall. Other members of the panel on the stage joined in, swivelling in their seats or getting up and moving to stand behind the Ferryman to engage in the discussion.

After ten minutes or so, the delegates began to get restless, clearly wondering what was going on. Whispering and muttering erupted in patches all over the auditorium.

"Do you know what's happening?" Kevin asked Tanji.

"No," she replied, "I don't think anyone does. But what's that Jean-Marc has produced from his pocket?"

Kevin squinted at the stage, but could not make out what the object was.

Finally, Jean-Marc was ready to address the Grand Convocation, and was announced by full name and title, in the language of Lyndesfarne. He stood forward on the stage, framed by the spotlights whose source Kevin had been unable to determine and shaking his leonine hair away from his collar. He was dressed in the typically Gallic style that Kevin had noted when they had last met, although he looked less urbane than before, with a distinct air of both stress and embarrassment. He cleared his throat, the cough clearly audible throughout the auditorium thanks to whatever subtle and magical means of amplification was being employed. He held up something in his hand, something brown and rectangular. Kevin peered at the stage, squinting to try and make out what the man was holding.

"Look here," Tanji said quietly from beside him.

She had deftly manipulated the magnifying plate that stood in front of her, then pointed with her finger to the image. Kevin could now easily see that Jean-Luc was holding a book, an old-fashioned leather-bound tome which looked rather the worse for wear, quite probably because it really was as old as its appearance suggested.

Jean-Marc spoke in English, slowly but entirely understandable by Kevin. There was a whisper of translation from around the room. Clearly, not everyone was as comfortable with English as Bret and Tanji, a fact which made Kevin feel marginally less embarrassed by his inability to comprehend more than the most basic expressions in the language of Lyndesfarne.

"I need to make an apology to you all," he began, "On behalf of my family."

Before he could continue, the whispering became a full-scale roar as speculation on the meaning of Jean-Marc's blunt statement spread around the Convocation. The Ferryman banged what looked to Kevin like an old-fashioned gavel, the kind he would have expected to see in a court of law, and the hubbub began to die down.

"There have been rumours," he continued finally, "About a letter, an account of the closure of the old crossing at Epernay. An account that had fuelled suggestions that the crossing was closed in such a way that it could be easily re-opened."

He paused, no doubt for the dramatic effect Jean-Marc so often desired.

"So I must explain to you all where these rumours, and the letter, came from," he continued, "And then you will understand why I must proffer my most profound apologies."

Again, the hubbub - which had never quite ceased even while Jean-marc was speaking - rose up like the buzzing of angry bees. The Ferryman rapped the gavel again, twice, then glared around the hall until the noises died away.

"I am of the Old Families," Jean-Marc resumed finally, "The families who have been the custodians of the secrets of the Epernay crossing for centuries. I myself can trace my ancestors back to the time when that crossing was open, and indeed to that unfortunate period when it was closed. Some of you will know that I have dedicated my life to protecting the secret of the old crossing, working tirelessly to detect and circumvent any threat of discovery."

Kevin wondered just how hard the work actually was. He had formed the view that, while Jean-Marc had perhaps been energetic in years past, he now tended towards being fat and lazy in his middle years.

"Through my Mother's family, I can trace my ancestors back for centuries," Jean-Marc said with a trace of pride, "In particular, there is a direct line of descent from one Jean-Luc, who worked in the vineyards of Champagne at the time when the crossing at Epernay was closed. Jean-Luc's wife was a scion of one of the Old Families, one of the quiet family groups which, in later years, kept the secret of the old crossing safe for generations; the families who kept a low profile, living quietly and, as is the tradition carefully passing on the secret to the more trustworthy of their offspring."

Jean-Marc looked suddenly shame-faced at these words, but then seemed to pull himself together to continue.

"My forebear Jean-Luc has a history I have only today learned from my Maman," he went on, "He was an eye-witness to the closure of the old crossing at Epernay. He actually watched the agents - all three of them - and recorded with an untutored eye the movements and gestures this trio used before the closure event itself."

There was instant uproar in the vast hall, everyone seeming to speak at once. Kevin could make out the repetition of several words, one of which was "three".

"What's going on?" he asked Tanji urgently, "What's the importance of three people?"

"It only takes one person to close a crossing," Tanji reminded him, "If it is closed irreversibly. So, if several people were engaged, then it is proof positive that the crossing could be re-opened."

The Ferryman banged her gavel, which had little effect, then banged it much harder twice more. The noise ebbed, the Ferryman turning her head to stare reprovingly at the inevitable hold-outs until they too shut up.

"Despite his humble origins, Jean-Luc discovered more of the secrets of the crossing and of the Other World. After the closure at Epernay, he made his way to the Lyndesfarne crossing where he actually worked as a mason on the construction of the Bridge - the original Lyndesfarne Bridge - for several years. He learned much about our world, I I regret to inform you."

He paused again, scanning the rows of delegates in the hall.

"My mother was on the death-bed, I am afraid to say," Jean-Marc added sadly, "And the reason I am late in my arrival here is that I was summoned to her bedside before she died. It was she who wrote the letter anonymously to the Ferryman and she enclosed another letter, the one written by Jean-Luc to his own mother after he had witnessed the closure of the crossing, the one that makes it clear the status of the old crossing."

"That must have been the letter that Bret showed us!" Tanji squeaked.

Kevin nodded. He could not have made himself heard over the howls of the delegates that surrounded him.

"There is more," Jean-Marc shouted.

The Ferryman waved at him to wait until the delegates had resumed their composure and settled in their seats.

"Jean-Luc kept a diary, a journal of his thoughts and observations, and the letters to and from his mother, a book that not even his own wife was aware of. This volume he handed on to his sons, and so the book passed down the years, without much attention, and with no thought in anyone's mind to read it. It was only my mother, recalling the dusty book that her own mother had given her, who read it closely and finally realised its importance. So, on behalf of my family, I must offer my most abject apologies for keeping this secret from the Board of Control and this Convocation for so long."

He paused, eyes on the ground.

"Now, I have turned over the diary to the Board, to do with as they will. I have read much of it, and it documents many observations - from an outsider - on this world and the crossings. I am afraid that my own mother has long considered me a dilettante, a wastrel, and not sufficiently reliable to be the recipient of this particular secret. But now she is dead, and the responsibility cannot pass to me. Again, I am so sorry."

Jean-Marc bent his head again, as if in supplication, then scurried off the stage and down the steps that led to the exit. The debates in various quarters of the auditorium started up again in earnest, many people evidently entirely uninhibited about expressing their views of their confusion. Neither Kevin nor Tanji could make out very much of what was being discussed, and Kevin was beginning to feel distinctly disoriented by the cacophony. Then, much to his surprise, he heard his own name - his full name, one which he almost never used - as well as that of Tanji, being called out over the magical tannoy system, the sound cutting through the racket of voices.

"Kevin, and Tanji, if you please," repeated the clear voice of the Ferryman, "Come down to the stage."

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