Till’s heart starts pounding in his chest like a trapped bird beating its wings.
He hears his father’s voice again, and the counsel he gave him at their parting:
Be a good lad, and give these men no grief. They are good men, protectors of the people. You will be safe with them.
But will I, father?
Then his sister’s voice calls out to him, across the gulf of sorrowful and lonely days:
If ever you feel that they are doing something that is not good for you, something that truly frightens you—
Somehow her words ring louder, clearer, more urgent.
Run, Till. Promise me that you will run, run back to me, if you fear that anyone might mean you harm. Promise it!
“No,” he cries out.
Lord Osdath looks at him in surprise. Hargis regards him calmly, with the slightly weary gaze she has.
“No,” Till screams again. “I cannot go there! I’ll not go!”
He does not know where the words come from, only that something is happening he never wanted, something he must escape! He turns and runs down the pier. It seemed a short distance when they walked it first, but now it is an endless road of stone. Even if he traverses it, forty soldiers still stand at the end to block his way.
“Osdath,” he hears Hargis say.
Heavy footfalls begin to pursue him.
There is no escape! There never was!
Lord Osdath is behind him, with his long strides, and before him, the soldiers are forming a line to bar his way.
If he can lose himself in there, they may not be able to find him, he may yet escape the fate Hargis has chosen for him!
He bolts to the right. Osdath stumbles past him with a curse.
He dives into the tall green stalks. He finds no solid ground there, and sinks to his hips into the slimy water. A frog flies out of his way and vanishes in the forest of reeds, but for Till, the thicket is too dense to pass through, and his feet are caught in the mire below. He falls forward.
The water is cold.
It flows into his garments, weighs him down, pulls him down, his head goes under, he can no longer breathe. For one wild moment he feels relieved, because it is what he wants, what he always wanted: to escape, even if it is into the water and the darkness that waits beneath it.
Strong hands lift him up. Two soldiers carry him back to the end of the pier and set him on his feet before Hargis. Behind her, the ferry is already being moored. Several men jump ashore, while others navigate the vessel into its final position. Some of them cast furtive glances at the scene. They are careful not to stare.
The soldiers bow and retreat. Till is left standing before Hargis, dripping and sobbing in his drenched clothes. He coughs and retches and spits out foul-tasting water, gasping for air like a freshly caught fish.
“Why?” he cries out. “Why do you want me? Why must I go to your island?”
Hargis nods to Lord Osdath. He bows and walks away, and climbs aboard the waiting boat.
“I will explain it to you,” she says. “But not now. You would not yet understand.”
“Why?” All the frustration about not being told what he wants so badly to know wells up inside him. “Why can’t I understand it?”
Other grownups would crouch down to talk to him when he acts out like this. But Hargis never does that.
“You will not leave my island with your questions unanswered, I promise you that. But at this moment, you are still too little.”
Too little to understand! How this infuriates him!
Too many times he has heard the words from grownups when he asks them things. But he is terrified, as well. If she thinks him too little now, but promises that all his questions will be answered by the time he leaves—
“How long must I stay with you?”
His lip quivers, because of his wet clothes, and because he senses a dreadful answer is coming.
“Even I cannot be sure,” Hargis says. “Though I hope it will not be overlong.”
He finds some comfort in her words, but not much: he knows full well that grownups have a different idea of time, that what is short to them can be endless to him. He dares not ask what exactly she means, whether it will be weeks or months or years. When he thinks that it might be years, away from home, from his parents and sister, whose faces are even now fading from his memory and may be all but forgotten by the time she lets him go, he begins to weep in earnest.
“But if I don’t want to,” he sobs. “If I don’t want to come with you, can’t I just go back?”
“But why?” His voice barely serves him. He shivers in his wet clothes, and the sobs that rise in his chest want to wrench the words from his lips. “Why must I stay with you?”
“Because you swore that you would,” Hargis says. Never has she sounded more unyielding.
He looks up at her, so baffled that he forgets to weep. She is an uncertain silhouette under a leaden sky, her face swimming in his tears.
“That’s not true! I’d remember it, if I did!”
From somewhere across the lake, he hears the sorrowful bird cry again.
She extends her hand toward him. He does not want to, but at last he takes it, and follows her to the waiting ferry.
Because deep in his heart he knows, in a way that is not knowing but all the more certain, that there is nothing else he can do.
NEXT: Much to Explain