25. A Gift

The woman sits down in front of Till again, on the chair where she sat when he first entered the room.

“Finish your breakfast,” she tells him.

He obeys, and after a few spoonfuls his appetite does return. At one point, the woman takes a cloth and wipes his mouth. Her touch is very gentle, and for a moment, Till wonders what it would be like if she took him in her arms. But his heart tells him that she has neither warmth nor comfort to offer, and he yearns all the more for the embraces of his mother and his sister. He wishes he were back in Phoros, walking home from the Cresset Hall after Guidance, hand in hand with Stellia who’s telling him that there are no Dark Ones, and that he does not need to be afraid of anything. Tears well up in his eyes.

“Do not cry,” the woman says. “Do not cry, or you won’t be able to see what I’ve come to show you.”

She lifts her hand, and in her open palm he sees a sliver of crystal. It is not large, and translucent as glass, and set in a silver frame attached to a finely wrought chain, exactly like the Shard the Parson in Phoros wears around his neck.

But something is different about this one.

Where the Parson’s Shard catches the light like any shiny thing, be it from a fire or the sun, the crystal in the woman’s palm does not reflect the red and yellow flames that flicker in the great fireplace. It is filled with a light of its own—a cold, white light that for all its bright glitter seems to come from very far away, as though a bit of starry sky was lodged deep inside this Shard.

The crystal only distracts Till for a moment. He doesn’t care about glittery stones, or about cinnamon, or chestnuts, or stories; none of these things are what he really wants.

“Home,” he sobs. “I want to go home.”

“And you will,” the black-haired woman says. “I promise.”

She’s lowered her voice, she is almost whispering now, and it is a soothing voice, Till thinks, though not as warm as his mother’s. It is more like the wind outside the tall dark windows, cold and cheerless. He shivers as he hears it but at the same time it makes him feel sleepy. The spoon in his hand grows heavier than a shovel.

“Close your eyes,” her wind-voice whispers, and darkness falls in the great hall.

He wakes up with a start.

Except that it doesn’t really feel like waking up, more like—what? He’s never felt anything like it. One moment, he was eating his oatmeal, and next, why, he can’t say what came next, but something did, and now he cannot remember it. His oatmeal is still there, and still warm, he can tell by the faint wisp of steam rising from the bowl. Everything else also seems the way it was: the fire crackling behind him, the wind outside, and the rain drumming on the windows.

And the Guardian is still there, as well, in the chair where she sat all along.

“What happened?”

“You fell asleep,” she says. “It is to be expected, after all the arduous traveling you’ve done. Do not worry, it was only for a brief time.”

Asleep? He can’t believe that. Of course he’s fallen asleep in places other than his bed before, when he was very tired—in the wagon during the journey back from Maltaros, for instance, or from his uncle’s house. But that was in the evening, after a long day out, not in the morning. And certainly not during breakfast! Still, it might be rude if he protests too much, almost like calling her a liar.

“Why didn’t you wake me up?”

“I saw no need. You are tired. Sleep overtook you. Why not let you rest?”

It bothers him, that he should have been sleeping while she was just sitting there, watching him.

“But what did you do while I slept?”

“I held you in my thought,” she says.

“Oh.” Till has no idea what she means by that, only that he doesn’t like it. His stomach feels suddenly very heavy, as if he ate too much.

Again he sees a glint of that other color in her eyes, fleeting and golden, like a last glimpse of the winter sun setting behind a forest in which all the leaves have long fallen.
She leans forward, reaching for him.

He shrinks back, but the unyielding chair gives him nowhere to hide. An instant later she sits as though she never stirred. But something has happened, something has changed.

She has placed the Shard on its silver chain around his neck.

He stares at it in wonder and also, though he can’t quite say why, in horror.

“It belongs to you now,” she tells him. “And you to it.”

NEXT: Within Sight of Home


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