36. On the Road With the Guardian

Till and Brother Frithil pass through the front door, underneath the huge cresset banner.

In the yard outside, the friars and novices are assembled once more. They stand in solemn rows on either side of the white statue, the way they did when Till first arrived with Lord Osdath. None of the men bear torches now, and they seem much less imposing than they did in the night, when the flames cast flickering shadows over their hooded faces. Most of them look rather miserable, in fact. Their gray cloaks are blotchy where the rain has soaked into the cloth, and many shiver, shifting from one foot to the other to keep warm.

The soldiers are already on their horses, standing ready near the in the wall that surrounds the Sundrance. In the light of day, Till realizes that the Sundrance is almost like a small city. There are at least five other buildings, all of them quite big—though none so massive and tall as the one with the embroidered banner—and connected by cobbled roads and walkways. Some are half hidden behind trees.

The soldiers are far greater in number now than when Till traveled to the Sundrance with Lord Osdath, about twice as many. Perhaps the Guardian brought more of them with her. Water drips from their hooded cloaks, and from their horses’ bridles. But they look magnificent and proud, each one with his back straight, holding a spear. Even in the rain, the long leaf-shaped blades glint brightly.

Their red-belted commander is there as well, sitting on his huge black horse. Hayrolf’s hood is thrown back, and his black hair slick with rain, but he does not seem to mind. His piercing gaze sweeps over the soldiers under his command, and his scarred mouth is a grim line in a grimmer face. Till is still frightened of him, but at the same time, he is in awe of the stern soldier. With his spear slung over his back, and the black scale armor shining dully underneath his cloak, Hayrolf looks like one of the fierce warriors of old Till has seen in Stellia’s books, magnificent and terrible at the same time.

Next to Hayrolf, Lord Osdath looks rather unimposing in his hooded cloak. He holds the reins of his own ash-gray mare, ready to climb into the saddle at the Guardian’s command.

Till spots her speaking to the Abbot underneath a jutting bay window protecting them from the rain. The Abbot mostly listens and nods. The coal fire still burns in the large iron cresset. In Phoros, it was only lit when the Parson meant for everyone to come to Guidance, but here they seem to let it burn all day and night. Perhaps that is because in a Sundrance, everyone is receiving Guidance, in one way or another, all the time.

Brother Frithil lifts the hood over Till’s head, then covers his own thinning hair. They stand and wait, like everyone else.

The Guardian is dressed in the same clothes as before, gray on darker gray, the color of the sky out of which all this rain is falling, and the broad belt of black leather. Her feet are shod in black leather boots that don’t look like something a girl would ever wear, at least not in Phoros. Her long raven-feather hair is covered by a hood, leaving only her face visible.

When she sees Till, she says a few final words to the Abbot. When she turns away from him, he bows deeply and kneels on the wet flagstones. All the others who are gathered in the courtyard do the same, heads bowed toward the ground. Till kneels as well, and stares at the stones underneath his left foot.

He hears steps approaching, feels a hand on his shoulder, then he hears the Guardian’s voice. “Rise.”

Till obeys, and gladly, because his knee was getting very wet.

“You will ride with Hayrolf for now,” she tells him.

He isn’t happy about this. Hayrolf hardly says anything, and he almost never smiles. But there’s no two ways about it; if the Guardian wants him to ride with the sullen soldier, then that’s what he must do.

The Guardian waves, and a tall sturdy friar approaches leading a sleek snow-white horse. Like the other men, he is wearing his hood. It conceals his eyes and most of his nose, and a thick russet beard hides the rest. He bows his head and offers the reins to the Guardian.

Till wonders if someone will help her climb into the saddle. But the Guardian sets a foot into the stirrup, and with a smooth movement and a rustle of cloth, she is in the saddle. The man who brought her horse kneels next to its hooves. She gestures to Brother Frithil, and he leads Till to Hayrolf’s horse. The friar lifts him up, and a moment later he is sitting in front of the stern warrior.

Hayrolf shouts a command and half of the soldiers spur their horses and ride out. The Guardian joins Hayrolf and Lord Osdath under the arch. She turns, and for a moment, she remains silently regarding the assembled men and women, as if to see if all of them are still on their knees. None look up. Then she spurs her horse, and passes through the gate, and Hayrolf and Lord Osdath with her, followed by the rest of the soldiers.

Glancing back, Till catches one last glimpse of Brother Frithil looking after him. Their eyes meet, and the gaunt friar lifts a hand in a small gesture of farewell.

They ride slowly at first, then faster, along the road that leads down the mountainside.

The next time Till looks back, he sees nothing but rocks and trees, as if the Sundrance was merely something he dreamed in Lord Osdath’s saddle the night before. They plunge through the rain and the woods, faster, ever faster now; soon Hayrolf spurs his horse to go swifter still. The ride is dizzying, a little frightening, but exciting, also—onwards, ever onwards, ever faster, toward a new fate, a new life!

Only briefly does Till remember the faces of his mother and father and sister, only briefly does he feel the sting of sadness that brought him to tears when he first rode up this path. He sees the Guardian on her snow-white horse riding beside him, her sable hair spilling out of her hood and flying in the wind, and when he looks into her eyes the familiar faces flee from his thoughts into the shadows underneath the trees.

Their names fade with them, and when next Till searches for his sadness, he can no longer find it.

NEXT: Into the Night


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