I should head back, my inner-voice urged as the land began to decline and the bridge loomed up before me.
“Does the water frighten you?” I spoke loudly to myself with a hint of a smile. “It does not,” I replied. But what lay beyond the water did.
I was two weeks into my foray south and had not met anything more than amiable landlings. The world was flat beyond the divide and it was possible to see for great distances. I often looked back to the North from whence I had come and shrugged shoulders that had gotten accustomed to stoicism. The northern world had changed and I was avoiding it. Beyond the great estuary, there were fewer monsters and that was good.
I had arrived in Wintertown on a bright October morning. The bridge had not been a problem even if I had to pay for the pleasure of its use. I drove over with awe and wonder as my passengers. Below me, many miles below me, ran the river that was in its last stages of sprawling out in order to meet the sea. Men had once used barges, great barges that carried man and beast, to cross the dangerous stretch. At some point in the annals of man, somebody had built a bridge and believed that their fortunes would be assured with the imposition of tolls to cross.
“The North and the South were united,” my father had told me. “But nobody cared to unite. Too many centuries of distrust had grown between them.” My father was now long in the earth and I was ignoring his teachings; well, putting them aside for a short time.
Wintertown had once been a thriving settlement that served the river-lands, but that had changed with the bridge.These days, there were fewer and fewer travellers wishing to venture beyond that which they had always known. The need for food and accommodation after a long journey was no longer required. The only people who crossed the water were those in fast cars that did not stop until they had reached their journey’s end. Someone such as I, a lone traveller, was regarded with suspicion and a little fear.
I had spent almost three score years in the north. I had experienced battle with the MATs and had survived, if not unscathed. Sitting in my old Mercedes, in the carpark of Wintertown’s central edifice, I could clearly see what the years had done: the rear-view mirror never lied. Looking back at me was an old man, brittle around the edges, worn away by so many empty promises. Wherever that old man had gone, the MATs came after him. My eyes were haunted so I wore glasses, as much for protection as they were for shortsightedness. My journey had started early that morning and my expectation was that I would not reach my destination for some time, but the gods had decided otherwise and I was sentenced to spend almost twenty minutes as sentinel.
The South was truly a strange kingdom. In the North it is common to rise early and to be about one’s duties as soon as possible. It was not something that was borne out of tradition, rather it was a requirement, on pain of something dreadful, that the MATs brought into being. The years had left the memory of life before MATs only as a distant dream, a leaf in the cold winds of change. Here, they had posted small children as guards. They were polite enough but would not be able to hold their own in a fight. Yet something told me that these people did not have the need to fight. That was for us from the North.
During the twenty minutes that I sat, I watched an array of different coloured cars enter into the area where I was stationed. The children on the gates directed them and the courteous drivers disembarked, seemingly unbothered by the oncoming day. I didn’t dare to think if this was real. I knew what lay over the water and what would be coming. Nevertheless, I wrapped my black cloak around me and climbed out of the car.
When I reached the great hall, I was taken by the amount of movement. People were standing at doorways, children were taking names and a hive of expectation filled the air. People were expected from far and wide; today was a special day. The holy days had finished and there was to be an assembly of the masses to greet the new term. The scriptures which they were using, I was well versed in. There were the ones from the book of Learning and Teaching, but these people strangely called them Teaching and Learning. That was from the old book that was banned in the North.
“Welcome, stranger. Have you travelled far?” The voice of a woman asked me. She was dressed for leisure and not for work, so I hesitated to answer her kindly question.
“And what business would that be of yours?”
She smiled to hide a little annoyance.
“We are the host school.”
Again, she was using words from the ancient tongue.
“School,” I half whispered, feeling the word alight upon my lips. Such a word, in the north, was now forbidden.
These southern females were brazen.
“I have come, my lady, to meet with the person who sent me this message. I am from the North and I have been requested to work with your people for a matter of two weeks. I need to speak with some person of import. Could you find one?”
“Sir, you are speaking to one. I am the Assistant Head.”
My expression must have told anyone that I may have been hit with an Other.
The South truly was a different world.