132. The Guardian’s Pier

Flanked by tall reeds and bulrushes, the white stone pier extends a good distance into the water.

Its paved expanse is wide enough for six horses to ride abreast, and it points in a straight line toward the distant shadow of the Forbidden Isle. At its far end, a huge black horn is mounted on a square column of stone.

“I’ve never seen a horn of such size,” Stellia whispers, awed by the unearthly strangeness of the structure, tucked away as it is in this desolate place. “Are the bulls in Hestia as big as barns?”

Frithil shakes his head. “I’ve never seen its like on any beast I encountered, in the world or in my readings.”

“This has to be it,” Nevynne says. “A ship could easily be moored here that’s big enough to carry all the soldiers across the lake.”

“They’ll be here soon,” Stellia says.

The day no longer seems as mild and bright as it appeared to her earlier. The sun has sunk lower, and the mist on the lake has in turn risen higher, and grown thicker, as though it was eager to swallow the benign golden orb. Even the birds have largely fallen silent. Only a lone blackbird still flutes its mournful tune somewhere in a hazel thicket above the lakeside road. Stellia shudders to think of the vast expanse of water lurking beneath the creeping fog. “How are we to cross this?”

A mournful cry tears through the noises of lapping water and sedges rustling in the breeze.

“What was that?”

“A loon,” Frithil says. “No birds in all the Realms sing a more forlorn song.”

And no better time could they have chosen to sing it, Stellia thinks. Have they gotten this far, only to be defeated by the lake itself?

She glances at Frithil. The friar’s gaunt face is a study in helplessness.

Nevynne, on the other hand, fixes the lake with the gaze of a warrior seeking the chink in an enemy’s armor. Though she is often wary of the young noblewoman’s brazenness, in this moment Stellia finds courage and hope in the sight of her friend.

“I’ll find a boat,” Nevynne says. “We’ve seen several on the way here, near the huts of the fisher-folk.”

“None would agree to ferry us to the island,” Frithil says, “if that is your plan. The local people never approach the Forbidden Isle. It is—well… forbidden.”

“I don’t intend to ask anyone to ferry us.”

“Then?”

“There’s only one thing to do.” Nevynne speaks to Frithil as though there can be no questioning her decision. “You and Stellia hide in the hazel bushes up there until the soldiers arrive, and mark when and how they cross the lake. I will be back with a boat in due time. Don’t worry.”

Stellia’s heart starts hammering painfully in her chest and temples. She is hesitant to indulge in the hope Nevynne’s resolve gives her, and terrified of the risks of them being separated at this point in their journey. “We’ll go together.”

Nevynne shakes her head. “The soldiers are traveling up the road as we speak. I’d rather avoid running into them. One can hide more easily than three.” She turns her black steed around the way they have come, and spurs the horse into a swift gallop. “Have faith!”

Then she is gone.

NEXT: The Black Horn

 

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