The ferry puts in at a small pier, twin to the one from which they departed earlier.
But while the first pier was surrounded by reeds under the open sky, this one is nestled between jagged rocks. Steep stairs zigzag their way up the cliffside. Till is relieved to have firm ground under his feet once again, although it takes some time for his legs to regain their steadiness. He looks up at the Guardian’s hall on top of the rock. The bushes or trees that grow around it sway in the wind like things alive; he half fancies that they are a crowd of people, whispering excitedly to each other about what they are seeing on the pier far below. From this new vantage point, it becomes clear that the towering rock is not wholly separate from the rest of the island, but connected to it by an arched stone bridge.
Hargis leads him to the stairs at the end of the pier, where a girl dressed in a hooded gray cloak awaits them. She holds a torch that flickers and twitches in the wind, and by its light Till can see that she is very young, not much older than his sister, it seems to him. Her skin is milk-white, and freckled around her delicate but very pointy nose. Her hair spills out from under her hood like a red waterfall, reaching all the way to her hips. Its rich color highlights her huge willow-green eyes—a cat’s eyes, they seem. When she bows her head and kneels before Hargis and Osdath, a silver chain slips over her collar, and a crystal glints brightly in the torchlight. She is wearing a Shard, like a Parson.
“This is Avina,” Hargis tells him. “She will take you to my home, and see to it that you have all you need.”
“Are you not coming with me?”
“I have matters to attend to with Lord Osdath,” Hargis replies. “I will come at a later hour, though perhaps by then you will be asleep.”
Avina takes Till by the hand, and together with Hargis and Lord Osdath they ascend the stairs. At the top, they emerge on a patch of grassland. A few yards inland, to their left, a copse of hazel trees is being lashed by the wind. Nestled between the trees is a long house built of large stones, and roofed with black slate shingles. Its many windows are brightly lit. As Till watches, a man comes out of the door. When he sees the Guardian, he bows his head and kneels.
A path paved with gray cobblestones leads away toward the left of this house, to some unseen destination beyond the hazel trees. Hargis and Osdath go that way, and disappear with swift steps among the trees, followed by two of the men who came with the ferry.
To the right lies the bridge that connects the island with the Guardian’s domed hall. As Till and Avina approach it, he sees to his horror that no wall or railing exists on either side of the bridge that would prevent someone from falling off. It isn’t even very wide—an ox cart passing over it would fall the moment that its wheels strayed but a little. Worse yet, it spans the chasm below not in a straight, flat line, but rises in a terrifying arc so steep Till cannot see the other side.
And it is so stormy!
What if a gust of wind sweeps him off the bridge just as he crosses it, down into the roiling lake below? He is not at all keen on setting foot on this bridge.
Sensing his hesitation, Avina clasps his hand more tightly inside hers.
“I won’t let go,” she tells him in a lighthearted tone. “The wind would have to be fiercer than this, to push us both off our feet together. I’ve walked across this bridge a thousand times without any trouble, in thunderstorms and gales and driving rain, even in winter when the stones are slick with ice and I could barely see three feet ahead in the densely falling snow. So don’t worry.”
Her assurances do little to dispel Till’s fears. As they cross the dreadful bridge he keeps his gaze firmly fixed on his own feet, and holds on very tightly to Avina’s hand. But when they pass the highest point of the bridge, he suddenly forgets about the fearsome height and his fear of falling.
The door to the Storm Hall lies ahead of them!
It is tall, at least four times as tall as he is, and made of smooth wood the color of sand, reinforced with heavy black iron fittings. It is set in a wall so densely overgrown with ivy that the stones to which the vines cling are altogether hidden underneath. The countless leaves, more black than green in the gloom, move and ripple this way and that as the cold evening wind passes over them, like the fur of some enormous animal shivering in uneasy slumber.
On both sides of the door, a thicket of bushes recedes into the darkness. By the light of Avina’s torch, he spots red berries here and there among the branches. He remembers seeing trees like these before on his journey, and a story Frithgar the archer told him about them.
“Beware the yew,” Frithgar said. “It is sacred in Hestia as the tree of death, and rightly so, for it is mortally poisonous. Only the red of the berries can be eaten. They are quite sweet, but swallow a seed by accident, and you’ll suffer gravely, and will likely die.”
That struck Till as very strange.
But Frithgar smiled. “It is a lesson given to men by the Shaper. Life is sweet, but at its core, there is always death, though that is in itself but a seed from which new life will spring. We must always remember it.”
The cheerful archer seemed to find this story uplifting in some way, but Till could only think that hiding poison in something good to eat was a grim way of teaching anybody anything. To find these deadly trees in such great numbers here does not please him at all. Is it a sign, perhaps, that she who lives here has a fondness of harsh lessons, as well?
Then Avina pushes against one of the wings of the great door with her slim shoulder, and it swings open before them.
NEXT: The Storm Hall