We found a second stairwell and way back to the upper level without further incident. It was late afternoon by the time we descended from the bridge onto solid ground. I soon realised that the island that was the endpoint of the Great Bridge was really not very large: perhaps a hundred paces wide and ten times that in length. Around us I could hear the lapping of the waves against the sand and rocks of the beach - gentle, even soporific in this season, but I imagined that the winds and waves would lash this tiny island unmercifully during the winter months.
"Why did the ancients build this structure - just to reach this tiny island?" I asked, my curiosity once again getting the better of me.
The Shaman chuckled, possibly to himself.
"So many questions," he said, "It is not the end of the original crossing, but it is as far as we can travel nowadays."
The old man explained that part of the original crossing had been a great passageway under the sea. He pointed out a curious rectangular lake at one end of the island, filled with sea water, which was once the entrance to the undersea tunnel. The ancients built this entire island just to join the bridge and the tunnel together.
I was astounded once more at the powers the ancients were able to wield.
"But why?" I asked, "Why not just continue the bridge all the way across?"
The Shaman knew the answer to this one, too. Then, as now, the great whales migrate from the Inner Sea to the Outer Ocean through these straights. The ancients believed that a bridge over the entire length would disturb these great animals, and instead built a tunnel under the channel used for the migration.
We set up our evening camp in a sheltered spot protected from the winds by the bulwarks of the Great Bridge itself. I beach-combed for a while, finding enough driftwood to make a small fire, but I was really exploring the bounds of this little island. Around the campfire and over that evening's meal - no hunting this day - the Shaman explained the purpose of our pilgrimage.
"This is a ritual, a coming of age for those who might just become the future leaders of the Seven Tribes," he said, "It is a test of your training, what you have learned from the Wise Ones of our own tribes."
I suspected that there would be further revelations and I readied myself for a long vigil that night.
The sun was clipping the horizon and it was nearly as dark as it would get in this season. A hissing, chittering sound from somewhere close by, a sound I had never heard before. No creature I knew, none that I had hunted, or hidden from, made a sound like that. I started visibly, as did Hantorg, but the Shaman seemed unsurprised, as if he was expecting this particular interruption.
"Come!" he said loudly.
A sinuous figure slipped into the little circle of light from the fire. The newcomer brought with it a damp smell, which I recognised as that of seawater. The creature stood upright, stretching up to a height which might have reached my shoulders. In the firelight, I could see the overlarge webbed hands and feet, the mottled brown and green skin with the slight suggestion of scales.
"Greetings to you all," it said, lisping very slightly through his lipless mouth as it nodded to each of us in turn, "Call me Snake."
"Is that your name?" I asked quickly, before my normal reticence re-asserted itself.
The creature snorted softly and repeatedly in a way which I took to be a derisive laugh, as it regarded me with its mobile and faintly luminous eyes.
"I have a proper name, in my own language," it replied, "But it is considered too complex for your tongues to manage."
The Shaman uttered a series of sounds which sounded to my ears very like the sibilant chittering we had just heard. Snake made the same disdainful snorting noise.
"Not bad, old man, not bad," he said, "Your pronunciation has almost reached the point of intelligibility. I might nearly have recognised my own name."
The creature who called himself Snake drew himself up to his full height.
"Now who have we here?"
The Shaman introduced us both in turn. As my name was spoken, I stood slowly, holding up my right hand in the greeting of strangers. Snake nodded politely in response.
"I know you have lost a companion," he began, then stopped in response to my gasp of alarm.
"I have been watching your progress this day," the creature continued, "Let us remember his name now."
"He was Bengart," I said quickly, before the Shaman could answer, "He was our companion."
Snake nodded, looking solemn for a few moments then coughed to gain our full attention.
"You are here for an ancient ritual, one of Initiation in the history of the Crossing," he lisped, "Although there is much truth in your lore, your tribal stories, it is not the whole truth, of course. Perhaps, now, the entire truth is not known to anyone."
He paused, to make sure that we were all paying attention. I was rapt, as was Hantorg. Even the Shaman himself was breathing shallowly, not wishing to miss a single word.
"Now look across the waters," Snake directed, "Well, perhaps you cannot see in this light, but you must have noticed the Temple of Power on the far bank."
We had all seen this shambling pile of rocks during the walk earlier. It was the wreckage of a vast construction from another age, explained Snake, destroyed by a single massive explosion. I knew of this from the story of the Darkening of Days I had been asked to recount during the Candidature.
"The war you call the Days of Darkness is a fiction," Snake continued, accompanied by nods from the Shaman, "There never was any kind of holocaust."
Again he paused.
"It was all a deliberate and carefully orchestrated programme to return to a simple way of life. Oh, the path of your people diverged from mine many years ago, but we are all children of the Ancient Ones. And our peoples are all here to live, exist in this world, forever."
"But what did destroy the Temple of Power?" I asked.
"It was broken down and left in ruins deliberately, by the Ancient ones, again to convey a message."
"And what message was that?" I insisted.
"The message," Snake said carefully, "Imparted by the Great Bridge, and indeed the Temple, was that even the greatest of man-made structures, the most impressive engineering achievements, are transient. Nothing made lasts for ever, and the way to a secure continued future is a simpler way of life, with few people and unchanging societies living in harmony with the world and its creatures.
He looked around at each of us in the firelight.
"And we must not change it!" He said earnestly. "That is the message. Your tribal lore delineates the regimented existence for the wanderers that make up the Seven Tribes. And the semi-aquatic peoples that I represent have similar cultures, which we too must not alter too much."
I now realised that my solemn duties were clear. I nodded formally accepting the charge that had been placed on me. Hantorg did the same.
"Now, I must go," Snake said, stretching himself, "It is not safe for me to linger here too long. And you should leave as soon as you can too."
He slipped away. There was a soft splash, barely audible over the lapping of the waves, and he was gone from us. After Snake had disappeared back into the waters, there were slow and quiet conversations around our fireside. I silently remembered Bengart for a time. Then the Shaman spoke.
"I, too, once made this crossing for the first time. Since then, I have returned twice more," he said, pausing thoughtfully before continuing, "But I doubt I will come back again. But you will, bringing a new group of Companions to be initiated. Make the most of it."
He was right. In a generation or two, ten at the most, it would no longer be able to make this pilgrimage - the Bridge will be impassable. Then our descendents will have to create a new version of the tribal lore, a new way to communicate to the youth of a new generation exactly why we are the way we are, and why it is so important to maintain that state. None of us seemed ready to take to their sleeping furs, and the Shaman told us long rambling tales - ones I had never heard before, but which I committed to memory to the best of my ability - of the steps the Ancients had taken to remove almost all of the technological wonders they had created, leaving just a very few to remind the hidden remnants of humanity, the ones who would propagate the human race, of the great and glorious past, and just why that past must never be again.
In the morning, we packed up our camp and started the five day journey back to the standing stone and our waiting tribesmen. Both I and - I firmly believed - Hantorg were ready to take our places in our tribes as men and hunters and Companions to the Shaman, those who had undertaken the crossing and survived. We could count ourselves amongst those who knew the true history of the world, those who would guide the peoples of the Seven Tribes to a safe and continued existence, crossing time out of mind, generation after generation, into the distant future.