16. The Guardian’s Gaze

Till rubs his eyes and shivers.

A fat man stands smiles down at him out of a round, bearded face. He’s dressed like Lord Osdath, in a long dark coat and hooded cloak, but he’s not as tall, and his hair is dark brown. When he speaks, Till can’t understand him.

“The Lord Abbot bids you welcome,” Lord Osdath says. “To the Great Sundrance of Silence.”

Night has fallen. He must have been asleep for a long time on the horse.

The wind drives rain into Till’s face, and he no longer has the fur-lined cloak to warm him. He peers around the fat man—the Lord Abbot—and sees more men, quite a lot of them, standing around them. They’re all dressed just like the Abbot, and all of them are holding torches. In the flickering light, their cowled faces look very spooky. Behind them is a huge building, three storeys tall, made of dark stone, and topped by a gabled tower so high its tip must be touching the rainclouds. To the right and left of it, at the far corners, are two smaller towers. Their domed roofs glisten coldly in the rain.

“Let us go inside,” Lord Osdath says. “It’s time for the warm meal I promised you, and then the warm bed.”

He hands the reins of the horse to a soldier, who leads it away. Till hears the hoofbeats of many other horses. The soldiers are walking with their mounts toward another building. It’s not high like the one with the tower, but very wide; Till cannot see where its walls end in the darkness. Here and there, he spots the shadowy outlines of a tree swaying in the wind.

The hooded men step aside to let Lord Osdath and Till pass, followed by the Abbot.

A cobbled square extends toward the building with the towers. At its center, a rock fashioned into a rough pedestal has been set amidst rose bushes. A statue of a woman stands on it, made of smooth white stone. She is dressed in long robes and a cloak, and a hood covers her hair, leaving only her face visible. One of her hands is raised in a gesture of greeting, or warding, and she looks down on the assembled men with a serene, almost expressionless face. Till has seen this figure before, or one very much like it, in a wooden shrine under a fig tree by the road from Phoros to Maltaros, where it gives solace—so his father tells him—to weary travelers who rest in the shade of the tree on their way to the city.

This figure is the same size, as large as a real woman would be. But it looks much older and more worn than the one under the fig tree. Its features are mere hints in the pale stone, but the flickering flames of the torches make the rain-slick stone come alive with orange and red light, and Till feels as though the statue is watching him out of keen, unwavering eyes. The longer he looks at it, the more the hooded men and the building and everything else around him seems to fade, until only the white figure is solid and real, its half-imagined eyes holding him in their piercing gaze.

“That’s the Guardian, isn’t it?”

“Of course,” Lord Osdath says. “This statue was placed here fifteen centuries ago, when the Sundrance of Silence was first built. But there have been Guardians in Hestia for over a thousand years before that. Some statues in the far North are older still.”

“Really?” Till cranes his neck for one last look. The numbers defy his grasp, but it does sound like a very long time.

They walk past the statue. Till shudders.

Those unseen eyes seem to be following him still.

NEXT: Dinner at the Sundrance

 

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