Edition 12: The Bridge of Lok-Altor by Daniel Ausema
Pescal dangled a fishing line into one of the eddies that formed along the cobbled river edge. He breathed deeply, enjoying the smell of fish and the sharp taste of salt that came across the island of Lok-Altor from the sea. The ruined pillars of the ancient bridge seemed to shake in the sun-reflecting water. Here he could relax, forget about pretty girls named Sari—not that there could ever be more than one with that name, not for him—about a father losing himself in memories, about a sister who was convinced she would never marry.
The fish in these pools were strange creatures—unlike those caught in the nets—but they allowed his family occasional luxuries: a shark-tooth necklace for his sister, a drizzle of royal honey for his mother.
Pescal’s line bobbed in the pool, but he waited for a true bite. The River Altorel flowed past smoothly here, near its mouth, broken only by the three pillars a short way downriver that marked what had once been the bridge to the mainland; one of the wonders of the world, it was said. Since the bridge had fallen in ages past, none had survived any attempt to reach even the first of those pillars. Pescal scanned the far bank for several minutes but caught no sign of the dreaded meschlin, the monsters of the mainland.
A sharp tug at the line pulled Pescal’s eyes back to his pool. A large fish yanked at the hook in its mouth. Pescal stood and moved with it. He bent to pick up a net in his left hand, but at that moment he saw something he had never seen before. Something no one in living memory had ever seen. Something impossible.
A stranger. He saw a stranger on the streets of Lok-Altor. The fishing pole snapped out of his hands but he ignored it, drawn by this new sight. The stranger walked along the street that ran beside the water, moving downriver toward the ruined bridge.
Pescal could not have named everyone in the city of Lok-Altor. And true, a few herders and farmers lived on other parts of the island. But he had no doubt that this man was a true stranger. The cut of his clothes was simple, but looked to be made in all the wrong proportions: his cloak was wide around the legs where the men of the city wrapped theirs tight, and tight across the chest. More dramatic were the colors of the man’s clothes. The dye of Pescal’s clothing had faded to a light brown and near white, but he knew what dyes were available on the island. His sister had made sure of that with all her changing requests for various colors. No dye known on the island could give the flashes of color that showed from under this man’s slate gray cloak—brilliant green like an adder’s scaly skin and a grayish blue that seemed to speak of royalty better than all the honey in the tribunal’s storeroom. They were colors he had seen before, though: the colors of ancient murals in some of the oldest parts of the city.
Pescal followed the man, who had resumed walking after pausing to examine a part of the river wall that was crumbling.
It just wasn’t possible. There was no way a stranger could get to Lok-Altor. The River Altorel could not be crossed, and there was no other way to the island. Not for centuries. Though his eyes never left the stranger, he caught glimpses of other townsfolk peering from the shadows and turning to follow the man.
The stranger did not stop again until he reached the ruins of the ancient bridge. A road led straight from the town center and ended in a pile of rocks that tumbled into the river’s edge. The stranger scrambled onto these stones and then stopped as if looking across the span of river where the bridge had once stood. Pescal jumped on some of the nearby rocks, lower but also marking the remains of the bridge, and looked between the man and the river. When the stranger’s gaze had not altered for some time, Pescal gave up guessing what he would do and simply waited.
The river appeared deceptively calm. Even beyond the shallow river edge, he could see the worn stones of the bridge at the river bottom, until suddenly the bottom dropped beyond his sight about halfway to the first pillar. At that point the color of the water changed from a light greenish-brown to a gray that bordered on black. Then the first pillar broke the river and another pile of algae-covered stones rose two spans above the water.
The next stretch of river flowed the fastest, carrying branches from upriver at a rate Pescal could hardly imagine. He pictured himself riding on one of those branches, sailing by faster than the fastest animals of the island; only the giant river eagles could keep up. He pictured the mighty birds flying beside him, honoring him as one of their own.
The second pillar rose at the far edge of the faster water. From the island, that pillar appeared to be more intact, without all the other rocks tumbled around. A sandy island had formed in its lee, stretching downriver for some ways and visible as a sandbar even farther.
Nearly lost in the haze of the far side lay the third and final pillar. From Pescal’s vantage it seemed almost completely across the river, in the slow-moving water along the shore. But from his fishing expeditions up and down the island, he had seen how much of the river actually lay beyond that pillar, probably as much as what flowed between the island and first. He guessed that the shallow green water beyond the swift center must make up fully half the width of the river.
Pescal glanced back, and the man appeared to be looking beyond the river’s edge into the green bushes of the far side. Something shook the leaves there, set them shivering as if the very trees feared what moved beyond them. The shaking continued for some time before a creature appeared. It had thick, shaggy fur, a fact obvious even from that distance. It seemed to stagger as it moved to the river, its bulk shifting awkwardly from side to side. When Pescal thought again of how the river seemed to trick his eyes into misjudging distances, he wondered if it worked the same for size. As he tried to guess how big that would make this meschlin, he simply stopped. That would make it far too big for his imagination. No animal could be that big. The creature stooped over the water’s edge and scooped fish onto the shore.
The meschlin startled. Birds, like insects from this perspective, flew out of the trees, and the giant creature turned around with surprising swiftness. A head slowly rose above the trees, its cold eyes peering down at the monster on the beach. Pescal blinked and looked more closely. Then he realized why the sight surprised him, and felt a cold current of fear.
This head alone was the size of the other meschlin. If he had been unable to comprehend the size of the first creature, how could he even imagine this one? It was a monster from ancient days, from the days when the sunrise was a new thing.
Pescal looked at the stranger, trying to guess what he must think of such a creature. Did he long to go fight it, to battle like the heroes of old? Or did he feel the same fear Pescal felt, the deep terror of the unknown shore? Or maybe both, the fear and the longing?
The meschlin paused there and turned its baleful look across the river, seeming to look directly at Pescal. He shivered as the sun seemed to darken. Then, its yellow-streaked eyes still apparently fixed on him, this unimaginably largemeschlin calmly lowered its scaly head and picked up the other monster in its mouth.
After the head and neck of this abomination had already disappeared into the bushes and begun to feed, Pescal thought he heard an inhuman scream bouncing across the river, but it may have been his imagination.
His mind was still reeling with the sight, his mouth agape as if to dredge the river for crayfish, as the other fishermen would say, when he realized that the stranger had turned from the river and begun walking again.
Pescal turned to follow and accidentally kicked some loose stones in front of him along the street. They skittered noisily, finally coming to rest beside the fish market. The stranger gave no reaction either to the noise or to Pescal himself, who followed even more closely than before.
He wondered what the stranger must see as they moved up the street, once the central street of the town. Though a few newer buildings crowded into the streets, most of the older houses and shops stood farther back, creating a street larger than any other in Lok-Altor. Many of those buildings, though, showed their age clearly in thick cracks and crumbling corners, as ivy and moss slowly reclaimed the city for the wild. The street no longer claimed such importance as it once had. No shops stood open, though every house had its occupants. The only street of consequence these days was the Market Street on the inland side of the city where the sanctioned farmers brought their skimpy fare to the townsfolk.
But the stranger strode swiftly up the street, not sparing a glance for the abandoned shops or crowded residences. It occurred to Pescal that the man moved as if completely familiar with his surroundings. Their footsteps thudded on the hard-packed dirt and cracked paving steps, mingling with the steps of those who followed at a greater distance.
Taking a deep breath, Pescal decided to try talking with the stranger. “Do you need a guide? I can take you anywhere you want.”
The man gave no answer.
“This is the old part of the city,” Pescal continued. “Not that any of the city is really new. But if you need food, supplies for your journey, I can take you to the markets.”
When the man’s stride still did not alter, Pescal burst out, “Who are you? Where are you from? Why did you come to Lok-Altor?”
Then the man’s eyes did turn toward him, though he did not slow down. A brief smile passed over his stony features, a smile that did not seem to penetrate its surface. His voice when he answered had an archaic sound to it, a careful sounding of each syllable and filled with unfamiliar vowels. “Your offers are kindhearted. I do not need them, for I know this city better even than you.”
The man seemed to pick up his pace then, or maybe it was only Pescal’s heart that was going faster. He tried to imagine how the man could claim to know the city better than him. Impossible! Certainly he spent more time on the river than on the streets, so some of the other children might know the streets and alleys better, but no stranger could. He looked more closely at the man. Could he be a member of the tribunal dressed for some special occasion? No, even the lesser tribunes he would know by sight. And no tribune would grow his hair so long and ragged, no matter the ceremony. As far as he could see the hair looked real.
They were moving deeper into the city, which Pescal had visited at times but did not know as well as his own neighborhood. Here the street still showed its age, but in smaller ways. Ivy covered many of the houses. The doorsteps had been worn low in the middles by countless feet. Cracks also marred the corners of these buildings, but not to the same extent as nearer the river.
Pescal looked at the changing surroundings, but his mind wandered, his imagination flying beyond the streets to grasp the mystery of the stranger. If not one who dwelt in the city—and certainly not a rustic farmer—yet still knowing the city itself, who could he possibly be? Suddenly he hit on the perfect solution. He must be some lost hero, an ancient warrior awakened from centuries of sleep. His heart quickened when he realized some momentous occasion must be coming. A hero would only awaken when the need was great. He thought again of the terrifying monsters beyond the river, and he thrilled to imagine this stranger stepping across to slay the beasts with an ancient sword from the stories.
Sword? As they walked closer to the council chamber of the tribunal, Pescal looked for the sword he felt sure would hang at the stranger’s side. Nothing there. He stared at the man’s gray cloak across his back, as if to conjure a sword from beneath it. But he saw no sign of a hilt or blade. Without falling behind, he swung around to walk on the man’s right side instead, but still he could find no evidence of any weapon, certainly nothing capable of dealing with the gigantic meschlin.
Pescal had no more time to try to find the man’s weapons, for he had stopped at the Tribunal doorway before the two guards. If meschlin were to become human, they would have faces like these, he thought. They stared down at him with dark, unreadable eyes, their mouths curved downward in frowns that were fiercer than any expression Pescal could imagine. They wore the honey-hued tunics reserved for the tribunes and their households, a color expensive beyond anything Pescal could afford, though his sister had learned to mimic it nearly enough with a mixture that faded quickly and had to be re-dyed often. Each guard had his hand on a bronze knife that hung on his left side from a fine chain of polished bronze.
The guard on the right asked, “What business do you have here?”
“I am here to see the tribunal.” The stranger had a striking voice. Pescal had only noticed the unfamiliar accent before, but this time he heard a surprising depth to the voice, a sense of rock-hard assurance in himself and his mission. Surely it was the voice of a long-lost warrior come to save the city. He wondered if the gigantic meschlin he had seen might cross the river itself and threaten the city, and the hero had awakened to protect them. He tried to picture the monster stepping out of the river onto the quay, scattering the fishermen, the children. But the hero from the past would stand strong to oppose it, and Pescal would stand by his side.
With a start he realized that he had missed the exchange that followed—though he had a sense the guards had tried to turn the stranger away before finally giving in—and now the man was walking in through the council arch. When he tried to step forward, the guard’s voice stopped him. “You don’t get to enter, kid. Go back to your nets.”
Pescal watched the ornate doors swing shut behind the stranger; his stranger, his forgotten hero of old. They couldn’t keep him out. He bolted forward. The door had nearly shut, but he thought he would just be able to squeeze through. It was closing fast. He prepared to dive, but just before he left his feet, his body reeled backward. The door that had been his only thought closed, and he realized one of the guards held him by the shoulders.
The one not holding him spoke. “I said get out of here. Or I’ll bring your family in to talk to the tribunal.”
Even the hint of the threat should have made him dash away down the street, but instead he plodded along, his head hanging as he tried to imagine some way to rejoin the stranger.
He turned at the first street, which ran along the central building containing not only the tribunal chamber but all the living spaces for the tribunes as well. What was it like to live in that sprawling building? They must have plenty of space, but to share one building with so many people! He couldn’t imagine. He looked up, thinking maybe he would see Kelya or another young tribune peering out a window. Or maybe Sari, who had grown up in the house across the street but now attended Kelya herself. Instead he saw an open window atop a thick mass of ivy. It seemed a simple matter to climb inside.
A glance around the street showed that he was not alone, nor unobserved. But he had no time to waste. Ignoring those in view he walked to the ivy-covered wall and pulled himself up. Woody stems scratched his arms, while the surprising depth of the ivy made it hard for him to see his way ahead. Finally, after climbing what felt to be twice the distance, but only looked to be halfway, he gave up craning his neck back to see and simply tucked his head in while climbing blindly. His arms and shoulders burned, but he could find no purchase for his feet. He kicked his toes in to the stone wall under the ivy, but it crumbled away. He tried to wrap a foot in thicker ivy, but the plants tore away when he tried to rest his arms. His arms had nearly given out when he heard a shout from below. The light went from a dim green to bright white as he turned his head back, and when the brightness became vision he saw a man in the street pointing straight at him. Above him, the window was only a span away. With a cry of effort he pulled himself the final stretch and collapsed over the edge of the window.
When he had his breath back, he looked around and found a simple room with a single low table, empty except for two unlit candles. Even unlit they gave off a strong smell of beeswax. Behind the table hung a large mirror. He wondered which lady must use that room to paint her lips and eyes, and immediately realized that he better leave quickly. As bad as being caught within the house would be, for it to be in a lady’s chambers would be much worse. He had never been to the tribunal chamber itself, but he knew roughly where it stood within the building because of the steeply peaked roof that marked its location. He turned right and hurried from the room.
For some tense minutes that seemed to last much longer than they surely were, Pescal moved furtively through the hallways of the tribunes’ house. Though he heard people often around corners and once hid in the shadows of a cluttered room, he saw no one and was not seen. Turning a corner, he crept through a doorway and found himself looking down on the stranger and the full tribunal.
The chiefs of the tribunal, three older men, sat in front, not looking pleased. Tometh, who always seemed the leader to Pescal though officially no chief ranked higher than the others, wore a deep frown on his wrinkled face. The younger chief Jornel, however, was speaking.
“And don’t think we are unaware of the meaning of the colors on your shirt. They are the colors of the corrupt rulers of this city that the tribunal overthrew centuries ago. We will not allow you to undermine our power.”
Throughout this attack, which Pescal guessed had lasted much longer than the tail end that he had seen, the stranger remained silent, stoic to Pescal’s mind, just as he would expect a long-lost hero to act. And of course the colors only confirmed his belief of the stranger’s ancient origin. Now finally the man spoke.
“I seek no power from you, nor to undermine yours. I demand only that the Bridge of Lok-Altor be rebuilt.”
This statement created chaos. Pescal could hear Tometh shouting, “You demand? How dare you?” But he was nearly drowned out by the other shouts. Few of the tribunal members remained seated. Pescal feared that they might physically attack the stranger, who he now noticed had not moved from his position before the chiefs. He still stood with his head inclined slightly forward, no hint of arrogance or surprise.
Finally the chief Yeltosh calmed the council. Yeltosh oversaw the fishermen and other matters of the river and was the only tribunal chief who had ever spoken directly with Pescal. He felt a sense of pride in knowing such a man who could command calm in that chaos.
Yeltosh turned to the stranger and spoke in his liquid voice. “Explain yourself. That bridge was destroyed for our protection. How could we dare to rebuild it?”
“I know why it was destroyed. And it pained me immensely to destroy such a work of beauty. But I had to choose between losing the bridge or allowing the whole city to be ground to dust. I swung the first hammer myself.” The stranger was silent then, as if seeing again a terrible scene.
“What fools do you take us for?” The tribunes had sat down when Yeltosh spoke, but now Tometh was again on his feet, his wrinkled face turned a bright red. “You speak as if you were there five centuries ago, yet I see a young man talking to us.”
Yeltosh eased his voice in before the stranger could answer. “Speak your piece, man. We will hear you and judge at the end.”
“I will tell you first of the closing of the bridge. We faced a grave danger, but not, as you may imagine from the meschlin. An army from the north moved through the land, destroying the people who had been our neighbors. The Army of the Moon we called them, for their weapons seemed to be pieces of the moon itself, and they bit deeply into our sun-colored bronze swords and leather shields. They outnumbered any force we could gather together, even though only their men fought. As they advanced, they destroyed every village and town, burning it to the ground and tearing down any wall that remained. I feared we would fare no better.
“And so I gave the order to destroy the bridge. Within a month the Army of the Moon reached our shore, and long they stood looking across the wreckage of the bridge. But they knew they could not cross the Altorel and reach us, knew that no boat they could build would survive that current this close to the sea. I wept for the bridge we lost and for my brothers and sisters cut off from me on the other side.” The stranger stopped then as if to compose himself, though Pescal could see no tears on the man’s face. The silence seemed to release Pescal from a spell, and he noticed that the air in the room felt uncomfortably warm, even muggy as on days when the wind came in from the sea. He wiped sweat from his forehead and loosened the collar of his shirt. Then the man spoke again, and Pescal forgot about the heat.
“But now we must rebuild the bridge. The danger is greater even than the Army of the Moon. The very survival of this city now depends on that bridge.”
Jornel answered. “Even if what you say is true, we now know that the danger on the other side is too great. Not only do we have the terror of the meschlin, which we see, but there is the unseen danger of this fierce army, perhaps still waiting for this chance to reach our island. What danger could outweigh that?”
“The meschlin pose us no danger when we know the truth. They are simply my brothers and sisters, but…”
Some of the lesser tribunes interrupted then, what they were saying reaching Pescal only as a fierce grumbling. But one woman spoke more clearly, asking, “What devil have we allowed into our chamber? Are you also a meschlin?”
“No.” The stranger’s answer was deep and loud, though he did not seem to be shouting, and the one word immediately commanded silence from the tribunal. “I am no monster, and the meschlin you see are mere illusion. They are my siblings, but only as you have imagined them, not as they truly are.”
Yeltosh answered quietly, but his voice carried throughout the room. “Then I fear my imagination. Will you fight our imaginations for us? As well as the Army of the Moon, if they are still a threat?”
“I am no warrior.”
Pescal thought he had heard wrong. What could he mean, not a warrior? Was he not an ancient hero returned to save them? He looked again at the man’s chiseled face, his body that looked hard as a rock. He must have heard wrong, for Pescal could not imagine the man to be anything but a warrior.
“Your imaginations are your own battle. As for the Army of the Moon, they have had five hundred years to settle in and build their own cities, or I hope simply restore the ancient cities. They will have trade routes and stability. I do not think we need to fear them. But even if they remain a threat, that danger is less than not building the bridge. If you do not rebuild it, the very city will perish. It needs that connection to survive, a connection to others beyond this island. You may not notice it at first, but the life of your people will slowly leak from them as the stones of the city crumble at an increasingly faster rate. This decay has already begun. I tell you, the situation is desperate.”
Tometh returned to his feet. “My colleagues speak as if they half believe your wild stories. Do not think we all fall so quickly. Speak the truth now. How did you come to our island? Was it this Army of the Moon that sent you to corrupt us and deceive us? And don’t think I will believe you have been living in a cave on this island for five hundred years. Or that some spell has kept you alive for just this day.”
But that is exactly what it must be, thought Pescal. Perhaps ‘alive’ isn’t the best word to use, but now he’ll explain his origins from of old, returned to save us in this desperate time.
The answer when it came was not that at all. “But Tometh, I have been here all along. You see me every day, for I am the city itself. I am Lok-Altor.”
With those words the stranger disappeared, though disappeared was not quite the right word. He faded, but not as a fish diving deep simply fades from sight. It was as if he faded into the room all around.
In later years as the great work on the bridge slowly progressed, Tometh became its greatest supporter. And well into his dotage he would repeat to anyone who would listen, “He knew my name. The city knows me.”
Pescal, like many others who had been there, tried to guess at the meaning of the city’s words. If the meschlin were the city’s siblings, they must be other cities…but not as they are, Pescal remembered, only as we imagine them. The monsters did not disappear as the bridge was built, and Pescal tried to remind himself, “They are only our fears of other people and other cities, not true monsters at all.” As the bridge approached the far shore after years of work, they could hear the roar of the monsters, day and night.
Even more perplexing was the stranger’s demand to restore the bridge. What possible danger could face Lok-Altor if the bridge was not restored? The only guess they had was that somehow the city could no longer stand to be isolated from others. Could a city miss its siblings? Did a city need anything in the way a person did? It didn’t quite make sense to them, but Pescal and the others had no other explanation.
Yet the bridge was built. While checking his nets and gathering his morning catch, Pescal would stare at the growing bridge, at the workers fitting together the stones. To Pescal it felt like the island had been clenching its fist, and now finally it was relaxing, extending a single finger slowly toward the mainland.
For five days every month, Pescal took his turn among the bridge builders, and then the feeling was overpowering. As he carried stone from the river edge across the span, he would picture the stranger, smiling at them. At him. Whatever the reason, this bridge was what the city needed. Lok-Altor and perhaps its people as well required this connection to the world around.
Building days were long days of hard work. By the end of the day, Pescal stumbled under the weight of rock. But he looked at the bridge they were creating, and he saw that it was good. It would be a wonder of the world once again. He went to bed at night to dream of fish and stone and strange people with hair that glowed silver like moonlight, their fierce moon weapons turned to tools of peace.
Though he remained a fisherman in his heart, when the bridge was complete Pescal was among the first across to the distant shore. The size of the river remained as incomprehensible as ever, but he held his head high and imagined the stranger looking on with pleasure to see this connection remade. The river roared impossibly fast, as frightening as any meschlin could be, but Pescal refused to show his fear. He’d wrapped a fishing line several times around his waist as a reminder to himself of who he was and where he’d come from.
He joined a group from the city escorting a cart of honey and honey-colored cloth as a gift to the descendants of the Army of the Moon. They found a road still visible at the far end of the bridge, splitting after a short while in five directions, including the way they had come. As they reached the crossroads, Pescal thought he saw a shambling monster charging rapidly from the right-most path. The roars ofmeschlin came from all directions. But when he turned his head, the creature was gone, replaced by another vision.
Five cloaked figures approached the crossroads, one from each direction. Pescal could see the road through the figures, as if they were made of water. He heard no sound from them, not a word, though they seemed to be speaking to each other, calling out greetings. At the crossroads the five circled around Pescal and the others, and Pescal thought he saw more figures now behind the first group. A multitude of half-visible figures crowded in. They still said nothing, but dipped their heads briefly to the people of Lok-Altor, then vanished.
Pescal and the others straightened their shoulders, turned the cart down the widest of the roads, and walked proudly toward their first meeting with true strangers. Meschlin or Army of the Moon or something other, the people of Lok-Altor were determined prove themselves up to the task given them by their city.
Pescal fingered the fishing line around his waist, the connection to his home and past, and then stepped to the front of the group to lead them to new places.
Daniel Ausema has a background in experiential education and journalism and is now a stay-at-home dad. His fiction and poetry have appeared and are forthcoming in numerous publications, including Daily Science Fiction, Electric Velocipede, and Penumbra. He lives in Colorado, where May blizzards wage eternal war with summer wildfires. You can find more about him at http://danielausema.blogger.com.