23. The Dark Ones

The great hall is as empty as it was during Till’s dinner. Emptier, in fact.

The night before, he sat with Lord Osdath, the Abbot kept them company, and the kitchen boys were always about bringing and taking away dishes, and making sure anything that was desired would swiftly be supplied.

Now, only the dark-haired woman sits at the head of the table by the huge fireplace.

A pile of wooden logs burns on the sooty iron rack. The many rows of smaller tables and benches that fill the rest of the hall stretch silently under the vaulted arches of the ceiling, all the way to the tall windows. Till is surprised to find the hall much darker than the rooms in which he woke up and the chamber where he bathed, and at first he wonders if the weather has gotten even gloomier. But it is because of the windows.

The night before he didn’t give much thought to them; it was dark outside, and so the windows were dark, as well. But now he sees that their many iron-rimmed panes are tinted, and again the colors are very cheerless, all dull blues and greens and here and there a bit of very dark red or purple. He tries to work out if the colors form a picture of some kind, but they don’t.

Aside from the crackling of the flames and the occasional hiss of burning resin, along with the faint moaning of the wind and the drumming of the rain against the windows, it is very quiet.

The dark-haired woman is watching the fire.

When Till enters, she turns and looks at him. For a few moments that is all she does. He isn’t sure what he should do, and he stands rather uncomfortably, wondering if he’s supposed to say anything. But his father has taught him that it is bad manners for children to speak to grownups without first being spoken to.

“Come,” she says at last, and gestures toward a chair by her side. “Sit and eat.”

Till does as he is bidden. He finds his breakfast already set out for him: a boiled egg, hot oatmeal with blueberries and honey, the promised chestnuts—though not as many as he had hoped—buttered rye bread, and warm milk spiced with something that makes it taste like cake.

“Cinnamon from Okast,” the woman tells him when he asks what the spice is.

She says little more besides that. She just sits there, watching him eat. It’s almost as if she is looking for something, though he can’t imagine what it might be. Her silence weighs on him, makes him uneasy.

“I don’t like this wind,” Till says, hoping to get the woman to talk some more. “It sounds like someone crying, and then at times like someone very angry.”

“It blows here often,” she says. “And when it does, it always sounds this way.”

“You have been here before?”

“Many times. The Sundrance stands at the feet of the great mountains named the Heavens’ Teeth. Higher up, there are places where the snow and ice never thaw. That is where the wind comes from, and it is always very cold.”

“It scares me. The sound it makes.”

“You are not alone in this. Many novices here tell each other stories about the wind, when they’re gathered around the fireplaces at night. They won’t admit it, but they are afraid of the wind, too. They say that it carries down curses uttered by unseen people that live in the valleys between the peaks.” The woman leans forward, as though she means to tell him a secret. “Some even whisper that the voices of Dark Ones can be heard echoing in the wind.”

“My sister says there are no Dark Ones,” Till says. “She says no one’s ever seen one, and that the Parson just means to frighten people when he talks about them.”

“What is it that your Parson has taught you, about Dark Ones?”

“He says that they’re terrible,” Till says. “And that the Shaper made them as a warning to people, so that they follow the Faith and are good, because if too many people do bad things, the Dark Ones will come into the world and destroy it. And that’s why we must make everyone else follow the Faith, too, and if they don’t want to, we must fight them until they do. Or kill them. Especially witches and sorcerers who try to talk to Dark Ones and get them to hurt other people.”

“Your sister does not believe the Parson’s lessons?”

“Well…” Till is suddenly a little frightened. Is it a good idea to tell this woman that Stellia said the Parson was making things up? She is the Guardian, after all—the leader of all the Parsons in the world.

“Speak,” the woman says.

“Well, my sister says that of course we must all try to be good, and not hurt anyone or do anything wrong. But she says it’s because if we keep doing bad things to each other, it will be us who’ll make the world a horrible place to live in, and maybe even destroy it ourselves one day. She says that’s what the Scriptures means to teach us, and that we had better understand that, instead of being afraid of Dark Ones that nobody’s ever seen.”

The woman looks at him silently for a while, as though she is thinking about what he told her. Is he getting Stellia in trouble?

“There is much wisdom in your sister’s words.” The Guardian gets up from her chair and turns away from the table. She is a vague silhouette against the sullen windows. “Nonetheless, she is wrong.”

NEXT: Initiation

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