Brother Frithil, the thin man with the bulging eyes who dressed him in the morning, brings Till boots of soft leather to wear, and a gray hooded cloak of heavy canvas.
When Till touches the cloak, it feels greasy, and he makes a face. Brother Frithil explains that it is called oilcloth, and that it will help keep him dry in the rain.
“It won’t rain that much, will it?”
Brother Frithil smiles. “Almost forever, the farther north you go.”
“Oh,” Till says. “In Taronnis, it rains only in winter. A lot. But then for the rest of the year, it doesn’t rain often, and in summer, not at all.”
“The weather is colder in Hestia. And Fora Tanni, where you are going, is in the farthest North, almost by the coast.”
“The coast? You mean by the Bitter Sea?”
“So you’ve heard the name.”
“My sister told me about it. She said it’s called that because there’s always cold winds blowing there.”
“Indeed that is so. Year round those waters are lashed by them. And in the lands near that coast, it does not rain in winter. It snows, and many lakes and rivers freeze, and are covered with ice thick enough to walk on.”
“You can walk on the lakes and rivers?” This strikes Till as a fantastic thing to be able to do.
“Quite so,” Brother Frithil says. “But one must be careful, and be sure that the ice is thick enough. In Northern Hestia, it will be.”
Till remains silent for a while. His mind is full of the things the dark-haired woman told him after his breakfast, when she decided that she meant to take him with her. At first he was very sad, because he had still hoped she might send him back home.
But then she described her own home to him.
A great hall on an island is her dwelling, high above a lake. In spring and in summer it floats amidst radiant fogs rising from the water, like a castle unmoored from the earth and set adrift among the clouds. In autumn it resounds with the music of rain and thunder, and the endless northern storms carry leaves from distant forests to her hall to dance there on the polished marble floors. But in winter her home is lovelier still, its great dome glittering under snow and ice while the frozen lake sleeps below, a great tarnished mirror impenetrable to sight and thought, while inside her hall the flames of many fires shiver as the wind sighs through the windows high above, singing mournful songs of dwindling days and of the beauty of long, dark nights.
It sounded altogether magical to Till, and as he listened to her, he felt no longer sad, and a great eagerness filled him to go with her and see the wonders she described.
“The Guardian said her home was on an island in a big lake,” he says. “And that the lake freezes, too.”
“I imagine it must, in the deepest winter.”
“Then one won’t need a boat to cross over. People can walk to her island, and back, too.”
“But no one does,” Brother Frithil says. “Not without her leave, which is given only to few.”
“I’m going there. She said so.”
Suddenly, Till thinks of his own home again, and of his family, whom he now knows he will not see again, certainly not as soon as he had hoped. The magic fades from his imaginings of the Guardian’s island hall, and they seem to him no longer like an enchanted castle he longs to visit, but merely a dreary far-off place devoid of warmth, far, so far, from everything and everyone he loves.
He screws up his face in an effort not to cry, but a giant hand grips him and squeezes his chest until he can no longer keep the tears at bay.
“But I don’t want to go,” he sobs. “I want my parents, and my sister! I want to go back to them. But now she’s taking me to her island. When can I go home?”
“I wish I could tell you, my boy.” Brother Frithil takes a crisp white cloth from his pocket. He kneels before Till and dabs the tears from his face. “Did she say why she must take you with her?”
“I don’t know,” Till says. The gaunt man’s voice is so gentle, he feels a little better when he hears him speak, and he doesn’t have to cry anymore, or not so hard. “Lord Osdath only told me that she needed me for a very special service, he called it, something only I could do and no other.”
“No other?” Brother Frithil frowns, and dabs one more time at Till’s eyes. “You must be a very gifted boy.”
“But she won’t say what she wants me for,” Till says. “I meant to ask her, but—well, she is nice, and very kind, but…”
Brother Frithil puts the cloth away. He remains kneeling in front of Till. “You’re afraid?”
“Maybe. A little.”
“Her Holiness inspires awe in all of us, of course, in spite of her youth.” Brother Frithil licks his lips as he speaks; it seems to Till that he is a little nervous. “Did something happen to frighten you?”
“Well…” Till thinks of his breakfast with the Guardian, in the hall with the tall windows and the huge fireplace. “I think she gave me a dream.”
“A dream? What do you mean?”
“I don’t know,” Till says. “This morning, I was in the great hall with her, and I was eating my breakfast, and suddenly—”
Frithil looks at Till in an odd way, the way grownups look when they are very interested in what someone else is saying. It is not something he is used to.
“Go on, child.”
NEXT: A Dream of Stars