Slate talked at length to Pilotte as the two made their way through the woods, and though Pilotte couldn’t talk back, Slate could tell the wulf enjoyed his various retellings of stories from The Legend, and that the wulf empathized when Slate talked about how lonely he had been in Alleste. Pilotte was the best kind of friend, the kind that listened without judgement, and for this Slate made sure he got the most of any food the two scavenged along their way.
When the woods finally ceded ground to plains, Slate could see Aislin in the distance. Pilotte seemed hesitant to follow Slate out of the woods, but when Slate didn’t push the issue, offering the choice to stay or leave, the animal ultimately decided to follow after.
Crossing a long field that turned into a backyard, Slate was met with a happy wave from the first Aislinean he encountered, a woman working in her garden. He waved back. When the woman caught sight of Pilotte, however, she screamed in horror and ran inside, and so Slate hurried quickly through the rest of her yard to the street in front of the house.
He was amazed at its craftsmanship of the street when he came to it. The bricks were so uniform, the whole of it was so level and of such parallel width, stretching on in both directions in a thick ribbon for what looked like lengths. It was unlike anything he had seen before. He stepped onto it almost warily, then started toward the city skyline with Pilotte close behind.
Along the sides of the brick road were several large estates of equally impressive construction, dotted with houses and pagodas. Such were the sizes of the mansions’ plots that Slate and Pilotte accidentally walked off the main road up one or another of their giant drives multiple times, mistaking them for the main thoroughfare.
“I only thought there was ever one castle in a town,” Slate remarked to Pilotte.
The two were passed by several horse carts as they progressed. Slate tried to get the attention of the passing drivers, to ask where he might find something to eat or information, but invariably, when they got a look at him, covered in the crust of the forest and accompanied by a giant snarlingwulf, they would speed hastily by.
Parting with Pilotte was apparently out of the question, but Slate figured he should probably do something to make himself more presentable, at any rate. He stopped to splash some water onto his face, to clear away some grime and tame his knotted hair. A voice surprised him as he was doing so.
Slate whipped around, splashing the girl he saw standing there. She stood nearly as tall as he, and looked to be around the same age. Her dark brown eyes made her intentions hard to discern.
“I’m sorry?” Slate asked.
The girl laughed, her smile radiant and warm, and replied, “You don’t need to be sorry. But washing your face in road water is disgusting. And unsanitary.”
Slate thought this a bit forward, but ignored it and went back to washing.
“Where are you from?” the girl asked. “Is that your wulf?”
“I don’t own him,” Slate said, continuing to scrub. “But he likes to follow me. I don’t think you can own a snarlingwulf.”
“No, I wouldn’t think you can. I can’t believe how docile he is.”
“Well, we’re friends.”
“What’s your name?” the girl asked. “My name is Arianna Falls.”
“My name is Slate,” Slate answered. “Slate Ahn.”
“Hello, Slate Ahn. Do you live here in Aislin?”
“No, I come from Alleste.”
“Alleste? What, did you walk here?”
“You’re joking. That’s a week-long walk. That explains why you look like that. You look sick,” Arianna said. “So does your wulf. What’s happened to its paw?”
“It was caught in a root. I freed it. I don’t think I’m sick, I just haven’t slept or eaten properly in days, and I’ve been walking for lengths. Made it here in four days, actually.”
“You really did walk here? All the way from Alleste? In only four days?”
“Yes. I’m on my way to Airyel, to join my father. He’s found work there.”
“Oh. Airyel’s very far away, Slate. How do you plan to get there?”
“Same way I got here. Walking.”
“It would be an awfully long walk.”
“I like walking. Only thing wrong was that it was a bit lonely, before I met Pilotte. I haven’t seen any people for days. Well, except for when I was jumped by some thugs, anyways.”
“Did they hurt you?”
“No. But they tried. Pilotte took care of them.”
Arianna took a moment to stare into Slate’s tired eyes before asking, “Why don’t you come with me, back to my house? It’s just up the hill here, it’s not far. You can get a proper wash, and something to eat. Maybe a good sleep. And we can bandage your wulf’s ankle.”
“That’s very kind of you, but I’m really only trying to find some supplies.”
“Do you have any money?”
“Rooms in town are very expensive. And so are supplies. And I doubt they’d board your wulf.”
“Oh. Well just how far am I from Airyel?”
“I told you, quite far. Do you have any family or friends here? Do you know anyone in Aislin?” Arianna asked.
“No, I don’t,” Slate admitted.
“Well then where do you think you’re going to go? You can’t go downtown looking like that, you’ll get arrested.”
“Arrested for what? What have I done wrong?
“You’ve done nothing wrong, at least that I know of. But people around here don’t understand anymore that someone can look like you do and not be a criminal,” Arianna explained. “Things are strange lately. People are suspicious.”
Slate saw a flash of sadness in the girl’s eyes that mirrored his own. He could tell, somehow, that Arianna was a kindred soul. The first such connection he had made in months overwhelmed him, and he couldn’t keep his eyes from welling with tears.
“Oh, come now, don’t cry, Slate,” Arianna said softly. “Wouldn’t it be better instead to come with me, to get some food and clean clothes?”
Letting down his defenses, Slate wiped the tears from his eyes and answered, “I’d be very grateful for that, Arianna. Please, yes.”
“There we are. This way, follow me.”
Slate and Pilotte followed Arianna up from the road to a great, white house, then up its wide staircase to the front patio, where they moved into the shade.
“Wipe your feet,” Arianna said as she opened the front door.
The strong odor of astringent medtermint bit Slate in the nose as he passed into the house.
“Arianna, bluebird, go around back please, dear! I’m washing the floors,” called a warm voice from one of the hallways leading off the main entryway.
“But, Mom, I need to speak with you! I’ve got someone I want you to meet,” Arianna called back.
“Well, how about you and your friend go into the kitchen and have some berry folds while I finish up? We must have the floors clean for your many guests, after all!”
“Very funny,” Arianna mumbled under her breath as she pulled Slate back onto the front porch.
Slate was led around to the back of the house.
“My mother would kill me if we let your wulf in before a bath,” said Arianna. “Do you think he’d mind waiting here?”
“No idea. Pilotte?” Slate asked the wulf. “Would you mind waiting here?”
The wulf circled itself and sat down with a huge sigh.
“Looks like he’ll be alright,” said Slate.
“He’s very well trained,” Arianna said.
“But he’s not trained at all,” Slate said, following Arianna through a set of double doors.
The doors led into a kitchen, one larger than Slate’s entire house back in Alleste. Wooden counters rose from a red-and-orange-tiled floor interrupted by three iron ovens and another, open-flame, hot-stone oven. One of the iron oven’s burners had a flame glowing under a steaming, cast-iron pot, which hiccupped as it stewed.
Slate’s eyes focused on the center island counter, where he espied half-chopped nuts heaped in a big mound next to some conoma shavings. Off to the side of that were three berry folds.
“Fold?” Arianna offered.
“Yes, please! I love them,” Slate said. “My brother and I used to get them at Assemblies.”
“Assemblies? You went to multiple Assemblies?” Arianna gasped. “How? Why?”
“What, you never did?” Slate asked. “I thought everybody had.”
“Hardly. Very few people from Aislin got to go to Assemblies. Your family must have been special.”
“Not at all. There just weren’t many people in Alleste to go, more likely.”
“You actually saw the reenactment of the Tahal, and everything?” Arianna asked.
“I did,” Slate sighed. “A couple of times. Only time all year we ever got to leave the village was to go to the Great Hall for those Assemblies.”
Arianna shook her head. “Here I thought I met a… puddle-washer, and you’ve been to an Assembly. Tell me; were the Aislinean representatives ever any good? In the reenactments? My friend Brenna got to play Maro Aislin one year and I saw her audition and I’m sorry but it wasn’t very good.”
“Well, mainly my brother and I would try to make each other laugh during the reenactments, so I can’t say that I remember any of them too precisely. I do remember that I bit through my lip one time trying not to laugh,” Slate said. “I laughed anyways.”
“Oh, the Gods themselves,” Arianna said. “An Assembly! That’s so exciting.” She stared off in thought for a moment. “It’s too bad there’s no chance to go anymore. We really lost something when the Great Hall shut down.”
“That was pretty much the end for Alleste, that’s for sure.”
“Absolutely. Trade effectively ended after the Assemblies stopped. No one came north anymore. My brother left soon after the last,” said Slate, “To try and find work. Most of the village left, really.”
“Where did they go?” Arianna asked.
“South. Isn’t that where everyone’s going these days?”
“Seems that way.”
“My father and I stayed longer than most, but the farm wasn’t producing enough for us to eat in the past few years, even with what we could supplement with hunting. So much colder than in years past. So, he left, too, about seventh months ago. He’s been sending me money every now and again. Not that there was anything to buy with it. I miss him. I can’t wait to see him again.”
“What about your mother?”
“She died when I was little.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. Anyways, my father sent me a letter, that he found a place for us in Airyel. And, like I said, I met Pilotte on the way,” Slate said. “I didn’t intend to walk here, to Aislin. To be honest, it’s kind of funny, but I don’t really know the way to Airyel. I just left home with some dried fruit and nuts. I knew I had to go south, of course. Thank goodness for trail signs. I came here because I was hoping someone might point me in the right direction. And I was hoping I could get some more supplies for the rest of the trip.”
“We’ll have to get you some real food, then,” Arianna said. She moved around the kitchen, finding a loaf of bread, a wheel of cheese, a few sticks of jerky, and butter. She put it all on a wooden plate with a knife and carried it over to Slate, who was then finishing his second fold.
“Thank you so much, Arianna. This is so unexpected, I don’t know how I can repay you,” he said, before setting voraciously into a meat stick while his mouth was still full of fold. “I hope it’s not too much to ask, but do you think you have anything for Pilotte? To eat?”
“I doubt we have enough to satiate a snarlingwulf, but I’ll see what I can find. And you don’t have to repay me. You’re in need of help.”
“It’s very kind of you, Arianna.”
“Well. So, what are you going to do now?” Arianna asked. “That you’re in Aislin? Now that you found help and direction?”
“Um,” Slate managed between gulps, “Rest up for a day or two, I think that would be best. But not for too long. I want to stay ahead of the coming winter and get to Airyel before the mountains gets too snowy. A big storm could be really bad.”
“I thought that you don’t know where Aislin is?”
“I don’t. Exactly.”
“It’s on the southeastern shore, Slate.”
“Well, there you go. And I have to pass over the mountains to get there, right?”
“Possibly. Do you know where your father is in Airyel?”
“How do you think you’ll find him?”
“I can go to his jobsite. He works at one of the Fundal Jarry mines.”
“Is it really that easy? To find one person in a city of hundreds of thousands?”
“I don’t know. This is all pretty new to me.”
“Well then, why don’t you stay here in Aislin for more than a few days?” Arianna asked. “To let Pilotte rest up? To get a better bearing on where you’re headed?”
“I don’t know anyone here.”
“It doesn’t sound like you know anyone anywhere.”
“That’s not true,” Slate said, searching his mind for proof. He didn’t find any. “I know Pilotte. I know people.”
“You’re right, you do,” Arianna said. “You know me. And you’ll know my mom soon. Look, we have a big huge house and it’s just me and Mom and my brother and sister. There’s a thunderstorm system blowing in, you don’t want to head out in that. You should stay here and rest up and get some weight on those bones and let Pilotte heal and then think about what to do.”
“It is a big house for just three people. What about your dad? Where is he?”
“My dad died when I was little. Like your mom.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“I don’t know, Arianna. I kind of wanted to get to Airyel as soon as possible. What’ll I do here, anyways?”
“Well, I have school all day, ugh,” Arianna huffed, “But when I get done, I can show you around town, and, I don’t know, we can… wash our faces in puddles?”
Slate stopped eating. “You’re in school?” he asked.
“Unfortunately? That’s amazing! I’ve always wanted to go to school. We didn’t even have one in Alleste. All we ever learned about was farming and hunting.”
“So maybe we can teach you a bit more while you’re here, too. Go ahead and fill up while I ask Mother to get the guest room ready.”
“Really, Arianna?” Slate asked. “Are you sure?”
“Well, okay, then. Thank you so, so much.”
Slate was in dire need of help but felt uneasy taking it. It wasn’t the way he had been raised. An Allestian was supposed to be self-reliant. But he was beyond weary, and Arianna and her copious kitchen could have convinced him of just about anything that morning.