A vast shadow rises out of the fog.
At first Stellia thinks it an illusion, conjured up by her desire to see something, anything. But the shadow does not dissolve, like a vision, back into the mist. It grows darker, takes solid shape. A vast building, crowned with a mighty dome, seems to be floating above it.
“Do you see that?”
“Yes,” Nevynne says. “A citadel.”
“That is no mere citadel,” Frithil says. “We are looking at the Storm Hall. A mighty fastness, perched on a great rock, and topped by a magnificent dome. We should soon see the White Stairs below, descending into the water. It is the residence of the Guardian herself.”
As he speaks, the fog parts further, revealing that the building does indeed sit not on a foundation of mist, but atop a massive pillar of dark rock. Magnificent is hardly the word to describe this forbidding structure. Its sheer walls, which seem at least thrice as high as the one they scaled outside the Sundrance, seem almost completely overgrown with ivy or some other creeping plant, leaving only a few scattered spots of the masonry uncovered. What Stellia can see of it is grey, and a shade lighter than the color of the dome above. Save for several horizontal, slit-like openings at the bottom of the dome itself, there are no windows. A ring of trees girdles the walls. Underneath, black crags drop nearly vertically to the water far below. The only bright mark on this dreary and brooding place, and the only apparent means of reaching it, is a great staircase of white stone that descends from a tall portal overlooking the lake. The stairs appear to have been built into a natural cleft in the rock, and are frightfully steep except for a short stretch near the bottom, where they widen suddenly, spilling out of the dark rock like a fan and slanting in a gentler slope all the way to the water. The entire arrangement gives the impression of a frozen waterfall flowing into the lake. The staircase appears to be the only possible route of ascent to the structure at the top.
Without a warning, they emerge from the fog into the open.
“There,” Nevynne says. “Ahead of us. The ferry!”
Oars rising and falling in a steady rhythm, the ferry passes the immense rock with the domed building, heading instead toward the Forbidden Isle. The island’s coastline consists of steep cliffs topped by a crest of grass and here and there some trees that, in some spots, condense into forest. The immense rock bearing the domed fortress rises out of the water at a short distance from the island itself—some forty paces away, though it is difficult to be certain from afar. Clearly, it was once part of the main mass of the Forbidden Isle, until some enormous force, working slowly over millennia or in some sudden violent upheaval, sundered it from the island.
As the ferry moves past this craggy tower, Stellia spots a pier jutting out from the bottom of the cliffs that form the island’s coastline. At its far end, a narrow staircase snakes up the sheer rock to the grassy edge above.
“Cease rowing,” Nevynne says. “They must not see us following them.”
“We must know where they take the Prince,” Stellia protests.
“You heard what Frithil said earlier. The local folk do not approach the island. Any closer than this, and we risk arousing suspicion.”
“I think it is quite obvious where they will take the Prince.” Frithil points a long finger at the dome atop the towering rock. “Where else would they bring him, if not to the Guardian’s Hall?”
“Why did they row past it, then? They could have moored by those White Stairs. They lead right up to her doorstep.”
“The water may be too shallow there for the ferry to pass through,” Frithil says. “Or perhaps there are obstacles hidden beneath the surface to keep boats from approaching. Or maybe it is simply not done, out of reverence. There is another way, at any rate. I read of a bridge connecting the Storm Hall with the island on the landward side. We would not see it from here, but my guess is that the soldiers will enter the Guardian’s hall by that route.”
“Your guess.” Nevynne grimaces and draws the air in through her teeth with a hiss. “Well, if you are right, we don’t need to follow them, do we? We can try those White Stairs. At least it’s plain to see that there are no guards watching them, nor the gate at the top.”
Stellia looks at the brooding dome, following with her gaze the dizzying sweep of the white staircase down to the water. The idea of brazenly walking up to the Guardian’s very doorstep seems a daunting trespass, a sacrilege almost. Could it really be that simple?
They wait at the edge of the fog until the ferry has docked and its passengers begin scaling the stairs that lead up the cliffside.
Then they start rowing again.
NEXT: The White Stairs