Slate’s adrenaline and excitement wore off not long after leaving home, when his body reminded him how tired he was from hunting. He stopped, and slept atop a pile of fallen needles in a pine grove not three lengths from Alleste.
Slate probably could have spent another night at home for all the progress he made that first night, but it felt good to wake up already on the trail the next morning. He ate some of the fruit and nut mix he had brought, washed his face and hands in a clear puddle, and continued south.
It occurred to Slate when he stopped for a drink sometime later that he had no exact idea how to get to Airyel. He had always just planned to go ‘to the south’ when the time came. As it stood, Slate reasoned, the wisest thing to do would be to head for the Blue Bridge. All roads led to the Blue Bridge, which spanned the Nenturon River Divide and separated the island of Aelioanei into North and South.
Slate walked for hours on the Janos Trail, with little to stop his mind from wandering. He wondered if his brother or father had taken the same path he was on. If they had been as frightened or felt as small. The trail sank deep, to where the soil never thawed, and little grew, save for some strange, stringy-looking plants. It then climbed up into fern-covered, cleft hills which Slate made a game of by rolling his pack up over their tops, and running to grab it rolling down their other sides. He felt like one of his favorite characters from the Legend, Mareay Grat, racing through the woods with little in his bag but great hopes in his heart.
After a long day, as the sun shared its last light with the Blue Forest, Slate came upon a pond at which he decided to rest. He set his shoes and his pack into the barrel of a snag fallen alongside the pond, then climbed inside it himself. In the blue hour, with the forest moody and without hiking to distract him, Slate had time to think and feel a bit foolish for having left Alleste without really knowing where he was going, and a little fearful when he considered that he was as far from home as he’d ever been. Eventually, though, the peace and serenity of the forest overtook his troubled mind, and he nodded off to sleep.
There was rain during the night, unbeknownst to Slate in his warm tree trunk, and it gave the air the next morning a fresh and invigorating smell. Coming out of the fallen tree, the animals of the forest greeted Slate with chatter and activity, and he felt reassured and immediately less alone.
After many lengths on the trail, Slate was relieved to see that the Blue Forest broke in the distance. A crescendo of white noise rose as he approached the break, and when the forest finally opened up, onto a rocky, surf-battered beach, Slate was staggered.
Like most Allestians, Slate rarely travelled beyond the hunting grounds immediately surrounding the village. He had never seen anything approaching the immensity of the ocean before, apart from the sky. Lake Mhio, where he had spent countless summer days floating with his brother, was now a thimble-full of water compared to the vast, unceasing gray blue before him. Staring out into the panorama of fiery white sun glints dazzling the rolling waters, Slate’s periphery was clear for what felt like the first time in his life, interrupted only by wisps of falling clouds. He took in deep breaths of the ocean air and his head swam.
When he came to the tide line, Slate dipped his hands into the water. He splashed in the coolness and tasted some from his cupped hand, which was as salty as he had heard and even more disgusting than he had imagined. After a long time spent simply standing in the surf and listening to the rush of the waves, Slate continued south, walking along the edge of the tide, observing waterbugs scramble about the rocks and birds coasting motionlessly on the wind.
The sun had started to set and Slate’s pale skin was already sunburned when he came to a weathered signpost along the edge of the beach that told him he was near the Blue Bridge. The history of the old bridge stretched all the way back to The Legend, and Slate couldn’t help but feel excited. How many summer afternoons had he and his brother spent dreaming about crossing the famed structure, and what might lay beyond? Though quite tired and sore from two long days of endless hiking, for at least the immediate moment, all other worries were as far from Slate’s mind as he was from home.
The beach narrowed, as evergreen forest overtook the shoreline. Flutterbys whipped about in the shafts of amber twilight light that fingered their way through the trees, and preening redbirds called from them to deep echoes from the bay. Slate was buoyed up by their song and covered quick ground, reaching the Blue Bridge before sundown.
As he neared the Nenturon River Divide, a roar unlike anything he had heard before arose from somewhere deep in the mist rising so thick that Slate couldn’t see into it. Only a winding footpath that lead up to a stone tower from which the bridge spanned could be discerned. Slate approached the tower, the roar of the water so loud in his ears that he could hardly think. He fought against the impossible wind shears slicing around the tower as he staggered up the stairs.
At the top of the stone footpath, he came to a wooden door. He pushed hard on the door, to no effect. He then seized a knot of Hent tied to the door’s thick handle and pulled. This caused the door to groan encouragingly, and so Slate took the knot in both hands and braced himself on the silty ground. He pulled as hard as he possibly could. The door jerked twice, and then finally broke open, sending Slate falling backwards. He got back up, adjusted his pack, and headed through the doorway.
Inside, the roar of the divide was muted. An atrium revealed itself in the fast-fading daylight, sparse, and decorated with little save for two trees, one hull and one banch, standing on opposing sides of the entrance to the bridge on the other side.
As Slate was crossing the atrium, a wind blew through the divide and the bridge became visible. Though, it was far from the massive structure he and his brother had imagined, in reality no more than a worn suspension bridge. A discomforting creak sounded from its crusty ropes as it swayed from side to side, and Slate questioned if it were even safe to use.
He swallowed hard and placed a foot onto the first plank to see. The plank groaned under his weight but held. He took another step. Then another. He had almost gained confidence when the fourth plank snapped, and Slate dropped. He barely managed to catch himself on the third plank as the fourth’s shards tumbled down into the mist, then struggled and cursed trying to pull himself back up as a powerful gale came along to pull at his legs. Somehow, he managed to make it back up over the planks and onto the ledge without losing his sack.
He sat there panting between the trees and stared at the bridge for a moment, then turned back to the atrium. He looked it over, weighing whether it would be better to stay the night and wait until morning or press on.
“Staying here won’t help anything,” he said to himself. “I’m not tired, and crossing won’t get any easier if I wait. The darker the better, I don’t want to see what’s down there, anyways.”
Gulping down his fear, Slate rose, gripped the side ropes of the bridge tightly, and began again. He took a long step over the missing plank when he came to it, and found that the next held his weight. As did the one after that. Slowly but surely, Slate progressed. When enough planks had held, and he remembered to breathe, he looked back to see the embankment disappearing into the night. He redoubled his focus and continued.
The middle section of the rickety bridge swayed and jerked so much in the wind that it made progress near impossible. Slate squeezed his eyes shut and clung desperately to the withered ropes as screaming shears forced their way through the divide. Brief breaks in the winds afforded Slate short spurts of movement in what was now near pitch-black night, on account of heavy cloud cover.
After a long, confusing time, whipped back and forth in billowing, black-gray mist, Slate saw the other side of the bridge. He raced over the remaining planks with breathless abandon and leapt onto a stone mount, where he was greeted by two smiling statues. He smiled broadly at the statues, and jumped twice just to feel the stone under his feet. He looked back at the bridge fading into the void of the dark divide, shuddered, and then hopped down a short staircase onto the black soil of eastern Aelioanei.
Thrilled at his success, Slate practically bounced down the path from the bridge, until he came to a split where two signs were posted. The clouds parted and moonlight cut through, illuminating the signs. One of them read “Adantals-sub-Aislin,” and showed an arrow to the north, while the other showed an arrow pointing southeast, toward “Haijoor.” In theory, Slate should have headed south. Yet one of the few things he knew about the southern half of the island was that Aislin was one of its largest cities.
“I’m just about out of food,” he said to himself. “I need supplies. I think Aislin is probably best right now.”
A noiraven perched on the signpost cawed.
“Yes. Caw indeed, Mr. Noiraven,” Slate replied. “Here’s hoping I’m headed the right way, eh?”
He shared some of the last of his nuts with the bird and then set up in a root tangle, where he fell asleep underneath the same woven blanket he had used his entire life, which could make even a root tangle in a far-off forest feel like home.