When she hears hoofbeats again a few minutes later, Stellia’s heart sinks.
For Nevynne to be back after so short a time can only mean that something forced her to turn around and abandon the search for a boat.
But what she hears is the sound of more than one horse approaching. Two soldiers come into view, riding at full gallop. Their horses glisten with sweat.
“Where are the others?”
“On the road behind them, no doubt.” Frithil is crouched next to Stellia in the hazel bushes. The horses are tethered farther up the hillside, well out of sight—and hopefully, earshot—from the pier below. “I suppose these two were sent ahead to call the ferry, to save time. They clearly don’t want to keep the Guardian waiting any longer than absolutely necessary.”
“I hope Nevynne did not run into them,” Stellia says.
“Even if she did, I’m sure they were in far too much of a hurry to pay attention to a solitary rider.”
Indeed, the two soldiers move with the utmost haste. The first horse has barely come to a halt near the end of the pier when its rider dismounts and with swift paces approaches the stone column bearing the immense black horn. He pauses for a moment, takes a few deep breaths, and blows into the horn.
A shudder of sound ripples through the air that makes Stellia’s heart tremble with its sombre vibration. Throughout the sedges and bulrushes that girdle the lake, hidden waterfowl cry out, echoing the booming declaration of loss and solitude that threatens to extinguish all courage, all hope, and all resolve.
What foolishness, to imagine they could set their will against that of the Guardian and her mighty servants! What a laughable notion! A village girl, a friar, and a brash young noblewoman fallen on desperate times, armed with nothing but a fancy heirloom. They are lost, altogether lost.
The dismal sound passes and fades. Light and warmth trickle slowly back into Stellia’s heart.
On the pier, the two soldiers stand leaning on their spears, watching the lake.
For a long time, nothing happens.
“Look,” Frithil whispers, and points a bony index finger.
A shadow coalesces out of the fog. The ferry! It is smaller than Stellia expected, certainly not large enough to carry all of the soldiers. And yet it seems to her more ominous and forbidding than the mountains looming over Talvain. It is as if the hand of the Guardian were reaching across the lake in the shape of a ghostly boat to take Ansil, just as she took Till away from his loved ones.
As the Guardian’s ferry emerges from the fog, it starts looking less and less immaterial. Soon it is clearly visible. Oars like spines stick out from its sides, dipping into the water in graceful arcs as they propel its bulk inexorably toward the pier. A man stands, motionless, at the prow. He is too far away for Stellia to see his bright blue eyes, but nonetheless she recognizes him.
“Lord Osdath,” she whispers.
Ropes fly through the air and are caught by the two waiting soldiers. The boat’s hull thuds against the pier. A stout man jumps ashore and assists in mooring the ferry. Once it is secured, Osdath disembarks. The soldiers bow to him. For a short while, all sound and movement on the pier ceases. The silence does not last long. Once again, the sound of hoofbeats approaches from the road, of a larger number of horses this time. Moments later, the soldiers come into view. They dismount swiftly, forming two lines alongside the pier. Two riders alone continue along this corridor until they halt before Lord Osdath. One of them dismounts as quickly as the soldiers. The other requires assistance.
In the four days that they have been following the soldiers, Stellia has only ever seen them from afar. Nevynne sneaked close to their camp once, during the first night after they emerged from the Gray Forest, to see if she could learn where the Prince was kept, without success. During the daytime, they had to be even more careful about staying out of eyeshot than before, the lands between the forest and the lake being fairly open, rolling hills covered with wild grasses and many stretches of farmland in between, where a keen pair of eyes would easily have spied three mounted pursuers from afar. Neither Stellia nor her companions were able to recognize Ansil among the gray-clad riders from such a distance.
It is almost a shock, therefore, when at last she can clearly see him. And not only that—the man helping him out of the saddle is Hayrolf Bloodgirt. There can no longer be a question, then, who emerged as the victor from his duel with Garroth.
“Oh, no,” Stellia mutters.
“He may have taken him prisoner,” Frithil says, guessing her thoughts.
If that is so, she wants to reply, then where is he? But they cannot give in to grief, not now, not here.
“He may have.” Stellia masters her tears. Whether Garroth fell or whether he still lives, there is nothing she can do for him now. What strength she has left must serve to aid Ansil, and Till.
Lord Osdath and the man who disembarked with him kneel before the Prince. Hayrolf does the same.
It is a strange sight. With the soldiers standing at attention in two rows behind Ansil, and both their commander and Lord Osdath kneeling before him, it seems every bit as though the Prince were in control of the situation. What would happen, if at this moment he were to call upon the soldiers’ loyalty to the Crown? Would they rally behind him and fight for his freedom? But no doubt they are sworn servants of the Guardian, and have more cause to fear her wrath than that of the young man who stands, forlorn and vulnerable, at the edge of the pier. Stellia feels a fierce longing to be by his side, to protect him, keep him from harm, even if it should mean giving her life for him. But this keen and heady feeling leads to a dark and terrible thought. What if a far more dreadful decision should be demanded of her? If by some cruel twist of fate she were given the chance to save only one, either Ansil or Till—whom would she choose?
She refuses to entertain such musings. They are but another way of needlessly sapping her own strength.
I will rescue them both. And that is that.
NEXT: A Riderless Horse