Stellia stares in horror at the riderless horse. “Where is Nevynne?”
Hearing her voice, the animal stops. It looks in her direction and snorts dismissively.
“It means nothing,” Frithil says. His voice sounds faint, distant. “Think about it, Stellia. If she found a boat, how could she both bring it here and ride her horse at the same time?”
There is sense in his words, of course. And yet for Stellia, the sight of the riderless horse conjures up nothing but calamities: Nevynne lost, captured, perhaps slain.
“I’ve not known the Lady Nevynne very long,” Frithil goes on. “It seems to me that she is craftier than to blunder into a throng of soldiers on the open road, but if she truly is not coming back…” He pauses. “We must decide how to carry on, and fast. We have the horses. We can still find a boat, and even if we do not know where on the Forbidden Isle the Prince was taken, I am sure it will be possible to—”
“I can’t.” Stellia turns around. The friar stands a few paces away, a gaunt figure clad in dreary grays. In the pearl-white fog that is creeping over the pier and swallowing up the tall stalks of reeds and rushes, he is a dark silhouette, the outlines of his shape softened in the encroaching nothingness as though he was no longer tangible, a phantom to be dispersed by any stirring of the air. Only his large, sorrowful eyes appear real.
“I can’t go on without her.” Tears well up in Stellia’s eyes, further blurring Frithil’s already vague appearance. Everything seems to dissolve in the fog. Out of the mist, memories take shape, of Nevynne finding her in the woods outside Godossas at night, saving her, guiding her to the cave to be reunited with Sedwin and Garroth. Never would she have managed that on her own. Without the men, without Nevynne, where would she be now? If at last Nevynne, too, is gone, lost to her… Frithil remains, of course, but he is too much like herself, a bookish creature rendered powerless in the face of steel and brutality, and for all his erudition, not nearly as resourceful as Nevynne.
“I can’t do this,” Stellia murmurs. “I haven’t the strength, the skill. I need her.”
“If you truly believe that, then you should never have left your home,” Frithil says. Suddenly, his voice is clear and strong, tinged with reproach. Stellia stares at him, bewildered by this sudden change in his demeanor. The friar’s gaze is stern but warm, full of compassion.
“Master Garroth told me all about your journey,” he says. “Did you not set out alone to find your brother? Was the Lady Nevynne with you then, or the Prince, or Garroth? And had you not met them along the way, would you have turned back?”
“I would never have come this far,” Stellia says. “Not without their help.”
“Nor would they have come this far without you. Where would Nevynne be now, had she not crossed your path? Think of all the times that things could have gone differently, for her, for the Prince, for Garroth, and me, had it not been for you. Even in the Pass of Talvain, the Prince and Garroth might have perished, had not Nevynne’s arrow turned the tide of battle. You brought her there! And this pier would now be empty, and no one here to seek a way to aid our lord, had you not set foot on the road that led out of your village. Alone, with no one to help you! Because you already had all you needed to pursue your goal. You had faith, and hope. Do not give them up now!”
Stellia stares at Frithil in disbelief, taken aback by the conviction in his word. “Faith and hope won’t carry us across the lake.”
“Won’t they? When you began your journey, did you think faith and hope would accomplish any of the things you achieved, or carry you past any of the obstacles you encountered?”
“This is different,” Stellia insists.
“You don’t know that,” the friar says. “When you reach the end of your road, you may look back and judge each moment that lies behind you for what it was. Not before then. Do you wish to believe this is the end of your road already?”
“What choice is there? I may have touched the lives of those I met, and helped them in some way, but that does not mean I cannot fail! Clinging to hope won’t change that.”
“Perhaps not,” Frithil says. “But nothing will make failure more certain than clinging to despair. The choice is yours.”
“Since when does life work that way? Why won’t you see defeat for what it is? The Shaper alone decides the outcome of our endeavors, not we.”
“And He has decided it,” Frithil says. “Long before you or I were born. But that does not mean we are mere motes of dust adrift in the Cosmos. We have a role to play in His design, a crucial duty, even, and to fulfill it was our existence woven into the fabric of Creation. We do not choose right or wrong, faith or doubt, in order to please or displease the Shaper. With our every moment, our every choice, we make real what He decreed. Choose hope, and hope will be real. Choose despair, and despair will be the limit of your vision wherever you turn. Our lives are the expression of His will, Stellia! We cannot know our fate, but we can strive for what we hope our part in His plan may be. Abandon hope, and you abandon all that you have, and all you ever may have.”
Stellia looks uncertainly at the gaunt friar. She senses a mystery in his words that no mortal mind can ever fully grasp.
“Choose hope, Stellia. For yourself. For all of us.”
Stellia turns toward the black stallion. The horse grazes peacefully on the slope beyond the road. She clenches her jaw against the brutal pain of loss. In spite of all Frithil has said, she feels helpless, fragile, and alone.
The first sob breaks free from her chest—and turns into a startled gasp.
A group of mallards—four, five, six of them—bursts forth from the bulrushes in an explosion of wingbeats, squawking their irritation at some unseen disturbance. Stellia lets out a small cry. Frithil, too, reverting to his unassuming usual self, flinches at the sudden sound.
Something moves in the sedge thicket that grows like a wall beside the pier! The cattails sway this way and that, parting as some large bulk forces its way through them.
Stellia stares into the fog that swirls between the stalks, her heart pounding. Every single story she has ever read about serpents and water dragons and giant toads flashes through her mind. But it is no monster that emerges from the reeds. It is a boat, long and slim like a floating tree trunk.
In it, wielding a stout scull to push through the densely growing stalks, kneels Nevynne.
NEXT: Dark Waters