Over the next few days and nights, I learned something about my companions. To my surprise, I discovered that their lives and tribal upbringing was nearly indistinguishable from my own. The tales that they had learned and the daily routines that they followed were, for the most part, entirely familiar to me.
Even so, I became aware of differences between their way of life and that of my own tribe, as my companions spoke of the different animals that they tracked and the lands that they lived upon. Bengart, from the Tribe of the Frozen Sea, told of the herds of reindeer and elk they hunted, and the feasts and celebrations which accompanied a successful hunt. Hantorg, of the Tribe of the Rushing Waters, spoke of the salmon and trout that they fished from the streams and rivers, and the waterfowl they stalked from the water's edge.
I could also observe the two other Questors and I came to my own conclusions of their strengths and weaknesses. For all his height and strength, Bengart tired easily, often showing signs of exhaustion at the end of the day's march while the rest of us were still fresh enough. Hantorg could keep up the pace but, for all his skills with bow and trap, he was weak, struggling to move branches or lift rocks which I could manage with one hand.
Hantorg was sharply alert, though, pointing out trail sign and animal spoor that even I would have had difficulty reading. He was so lacking in any kind of imagination, seeming to be so intensely aware of the real and physical world around him that he was unable to imagine anything that was not present in front of him. Bengart, by contrast, was stolid and phlegmatic by nature, always ready to believe whatever proposition or story was put to him, no matter how improbable or inconsistent that might be.
On the evening of our second night, after we had eaten our fill, the Shaman told the story of the Great Bridge, a story I had heard around campfires since before I could run. This tale told of the industry of the Ancients, and their machines and engines, and their desire to demonstrate their superiority over everything and everyone.
One faction commanded the construction of a crossing over the ocean, at the very mouth of the Inner Sea where it joined with the Outer Ocean. With immense labour, and the use of their most puissant machines, this faction built a bridge, so long that it was said to extend beyond the horizon and so high above the waves so that a man could cross dry-shod even in the winter storms.
Many people passed over the bridge, some marvelling at the might and complexity of its construction, but others - a majority, in later times - took it to be a symbol of pride and were jealous of its makers. During the wars at the Darkening of Days, other factions attempted to destroy the Great Bridge. They failed, although their destructive devices fell all around and obliterated many a village and settlement. The Great Bridge remained, and some say that it stands even to this day.
After the conclusion of this tale, I suddenly realised where we were going, why we were travelling across this inhospitable and nearly barren wasteland where little grows and scant game is to be found.
"Father, are we heading for the Great Bridge?" I asked politely.
The old man grunted with what I took to be approval.
"That is the first step to our destination," he replied, "And we will be making the crossing together."
"And what will we find there?" I pressed.
The Shaman shook his head, declining to answer my question.
Our first view of the ancient Bridge was from a high headland delineated by crumbling cliffs on our left. A series of tall pillars strode across the sea, shining brightly in the morning sunlight, and were linked by horizontal sections which seemed impossibly flimsy, although I realised they must be very strong to have survived all this time. I could not see the far end of the crossing, even from our vantage-point; the end of the bridge disappeared into the haze at the horizon.
We lost sight of the bridge for a time as we marched on, but by the afternoon, we could see enough of the Great Bridge to study it more closely. I could now see that the great pillars were stained and cracked by the actions of wind and waves, and the vast spans between them stained with red markings and, in a few places, twisted and bent like the windswept branches of trees on hillsides exposed to the winds. Even so, it did appear to be possible to traverse the ancient structure, although I began to realise that the crossing would not be entirely straightforward.
That evening, we set up camp in a sheltered spot - the winds from the ocean had been getting steadily stronger as we made our way to the west - in a tiny valley marked by a stream, no more than an hour's walk from the point, I judged, where the final spans of the bridge met the coastline. Once again, we were successful in our hunting and foraging. I trapped another rabbit - one of the few creatures which seemed to prosper in these windswept dunes - and Hantorg found some early berries in a hidden glade not far from our camp. We made a small fire, prepared our meal and ate in silence.
Finally, the Shaman tossed aside the bone he had been gnawing and cleared his throat.
"Tomorrow we cross," he said sombrely, "And I wish to speak some words of advice."
I sat quietly and listened intently, as I had been taught.
"There will be little or no water on the crossing, especially in this season," the old man warned, "So it is necessary to carry it with you. And I hope you all have much food in your packs?"
He looked around quizzically. I nodded, as did my young companions.
"We will not eat anything that lives or grows on the Bridge," the old man resumed, "Men have gone mad, or sickened and died, after consuming forage or game caught on the crossing itself."
He paused again, looking at each of us in turn .
"You must follow my instructions with great care. There are other dangers in our path, some less than apparent to those who have not seen them before. You must heed my words!"
He said no more, but rolled himself into his sleeping furs and fell asleep.
The following morning we set off, following the Shaman's directions and making our way inland. We filled our water-skins from the stream nearby, being sure to trace the flow far enough from the sea to avoid brackish water.
It was not long before we were approaching the point where the spans of the bridge reached the coast itself. For a period, we walked alongside a vertical rock face, ribbed at intervals about twice the width of my palm. I ran my hand over it; it seemed to be made of the same stone as the monolith at the meeting-place.
"How was this made?" I asked, ever curious.
The Shaman had an answer for me, of course.
"The Old Ones had a way of making rocks liquid - like wet mud - then forming it into shapes and making it hard again." I nodded, realising that this stone face and the monolith were both constructions of the Ancients, using whatever arcane arts they had for cutting and forming the solid rock.
We reached the end of the vertical face, and made our way up a steep bank, forcing a passage between the birch saplings which cluttered the route. As we scrambled to the top, we were presented with a smooth flat surface dotted with mosses and plants in places, although dry and brown in this season for the most part. Elsewhere, the dark grey surface lay unbroken, or pocked with holes, or bubbled up as if it had somehow been liquefied.
"This way," the Shaman said, indicating the path that led out over the sea.
The bridge was thirty paces wide, the edges marked in places by poles made not of wood but by a strange material I had not seen before, cold and hard and frequently scabbed with red patches.
"This is iron," the Shaman said, "Trust it not. It may seem solid and strong but it etches away in the winter weather, and may give way without warning."
I looked over the side, taking care not to touch the poles. The sky above and below was alive with seabirds, wheeling and screaming as they searched for scraps to eat, or returned to their roosts on the sides of the great structure itself. Far below, the waves were breaking on the rocks, their tops whipped into whitecaps by the winds form the outer ocean.
It was an easy walk, for the most part. The sun was shining, although the wind kept us cool enough as we marched. The Shaman occasionally pointed out areas where it was not safe to tread. In truth, they were fairly obvious: vast cracks in the ancient surface which we skirted carefully or areas buckled and sloping, slippery with moss and bird droppings where it was necessary to grip carefully with hands and feet.
After more than two hours, we reached a point where the surface fell away in front of us. There was a huge chunk missing from one of the spans, as if bitten away by a giant. Our party came to a halt right on the edge. I expected to see nothing below other than the distant waves, but in fact a tumble of broken rocks and twisted beams of iron lay on another surface less than ten paces below. It seemed that the ancient bridge had a second level, a lower shelf under the surface we had been walking upon.
"This fell down many years ago," the Shaman said, "In the time of my grandfather's grandfather."
"But how do we cross?" Bengart asked, rather plaintively.
"This way," the old man said.
We made our way back from the chasm, thirty or more paces to a place right on the edge of the bridge. There was, I could see, a way down to the darkened lower level: a lattice framework twisted its way downwards, made of the untrustworthy iron heavily mottled with red blotches.
"We need to be careful here," the Shaman pronounced, "We must tread lightly, and go one at a time. I will go first."
So saying, he worked his way down, testing each step carefully and holding onto the rails on either side. He achieved the lower level without mishap.
"Very good," came the voice of the Shaman, "Who's next?"
Hantorg was, his feet moving quickly and lightly on the slippery iron latticework. He was followed by Bengart, moving stolidly as always but, perhaps a little too quickly. Before I could shout to warn him, he slipped on the iron framework. As he put out his hand to catch himself, the railing gave way, one end snapping away from its fixing like a rotten twig and the other bending with a sickening creak. He looked up at me as he toppled over the edge, a look of horror on his face as he fell the thirty paces to the waves below.
There was nothing for it. I made my way down, slowly, skirting past the opening where Bengart had fallen. I was shaking by the time I made it to the lower level. Hantorg also looked green, and even the gnarled face of the Shaman himself was twisted with grief.
"Bengart was a good man," the old man intoned, "He will be remembered."
Provided, I thought to myself, that we return to our tribes to remember him.
We picked our way over the fallen debris on the lower level, then walked more easily further along the irregular surface. It was gloomy under the roof, which was evidently the roost of numerous bats and birds, the ground made slippery and the air foetid by their guano.
The bridge had been built with two levels, although why this was so escaped me. Perhaps those of an inferior class were required to walk the lower level, I considered as I marched along following the others - now one fewer - in my party. I asked the Shaman this question. To my immense surprise, he looked confused, even mortified, at the question.
"I do not know," he replied softly.