The climb up the White Stairs feels as interminable and torturous as the passage across the open water.
The only difference is that instead of their arms, it is their legs that are aching now, until at last everyone’s feet seem heavy as anvils, and every step becomes a struggle. Nor is the climb without hazards. The stairs are quite old, and not always altogether even, and slick with moisture deposited by the fog. After the initial gentle slope of its broad sweep down to the water, the staircase narrows abruptly as it enters into a cleft through which it ascends with terrifying steepness toward the Storm Hall. The sheer rock walls that now rise to the left and right of the stairs are covered with lichen and moss. Here and there in a crevice some small fern or shrub has found a scant foothold. Although their passage through this chasm offers at least some concealment to the climbers, it also encloses them in dreary shadow, and they are beset by a stifling sense of confinement that weighs more heavily on their spirits with each passing moment.
The whole ordeal is further seasoned with apprehensions regarding the gate at the top of the stairs. Stellia can see no reason to assume that it will not be locked. And even if it is not, or if they manage to bypass it somehow, what awaits them on the other side? As she strains to set a foot on the next step—and then another, and another—the entire endeavor begins to seem tragically futile. What, in truth, can they achieve here, against the Guardian in her stronghold?
But then she remembers Frithil’s words to her, in her moment of despair on the pier.
So she keeps climbing.
By the time they reach the top, Stellia’s legs shake uncontrollably, and she sinks to her knees on the wide landing. The door before them is tall, nearly as high as three men standing on each other’s shoulders, and made of wood the color of dark honey. Its two great leaves are reinforced with fittings of black iron, and each is adorned with a handle in the shape of a rearing serpent, fashioned from a metal Stellia does not recognize. It has the sheen of polished silver, but like the fittings that reinforce the wooden leaves, it is altogether black. Though the door looks solid enough, it does seem intended to repel an armed assault. Should it be locked, however, it will most certainly repel the three of them.
Nevynne and Frithil collapse beside Stellia. Sweat streams over their crimson faces. The friar stretches out on his back on the smooth stone of the stairhead and emits a pained whimper.
“Not so loud!” Nevynne nods toward the great door.
Frithil bites his lip and makes an apologetic gesture.
As she catches her breath, and the fire that fills her lungs gradually gives way to the joyous solace that is regular breathing, Stellia takes in her surroundings. It comes almost as a surprise, after their sheer endless climb, that there should be anything else in the world besides stairs. Far below—did they truly just make this dizzying ascent?—the boat bobs on the water, a sliver of wood at the foot of the White Stairs. The mists still linger on the lake, hiding the far shore and the pier from which they set out. Above that lies the hillside under its cover of hazel bushes, where their horses are waiting. The first gloom of evening is already creeping up those green slopes, and only the uppermost hilltops are still day-bright under the leaden sky of this land. Nevertheless, the sight is cheering. The world beyond the sullen waters of the lake continues to exist, and awaits their return from this frightening journey.
But it is their immediate environment that warrants closer scrutiny. On each side of the door, there is a ledge, some fifteen paces wide. The ledge is covered with soil, and in it grow poisonous yews dotted with bright red berries. They are planted so densely that anyone seeking to traverse this strange garden would likely loose their way among the trees and risk emerging suddenly and without warning into empty air, for the outer rim of this terrace drops steeply and abruptly down toward the lake, and no wall or bannister is put in place to guard against a deadly fall. The whole arrangement is clearly not designed for leisurely strolls and viewing of the landscape. Presumably, the ledge girdles the entire building, but from their vantage point, it is impossible to be sure of this.
Stellia takes one more deep breath. “Well, what now?”
“We listen.” Nevynne gets to her feet—slowly, with catlike deliberation and silence. She presses one ear against the door, covering the other with her palm. Stellia does the same, and clenches her teeth as a stab of pain reminds her that her injured ear is far from healed. For several long moments, they listen. Stellia hears the pounding of her own pulse, and the wind blowing softly about them, but not a sound from beyond the door.
“Nothing,” she whispers.
Nevynne straightens herself with a frustrated sigh. “It doesn’t mean much. There could be sentries standing just inside the door, leaning quietly on their spears.”
“What of the soldiers who escorted the Prince here? Surely we’d hear them moving about, and talking.”
“Not necessarily,” Frithil says. “They likely arrived well before we did. Suppose they delivered the Prince to the Guardian, but were then dismissed? They may be standing guard by the bridge on the far side, where their presence poses no obstacle for us.”
“Too many assumptions,” Nevynne says. “We’ll learn nothing by debating the possibilities.” With a shrug, she grasps one of the rearing black serpents that serve as door handles.
“Wait!” Stellia gasps.
Nevynne frowns at her. “Wait for what? It’s either forward now, or back.”
“Let me do it. It is my search for my brother that brought us here. It is only fitting that I should take this risk.”
“We all have reasons for being here,” Nevynne says. “And it’s not like whoever opens the door is going to face whatever lies beyond alone.”
“Maybe so,” Stellia replies. “But if there are guards waiting behind this door, I may be able to hold their attention long enough for you to reach the boat. Now, go a few steps down the stairs and crouch down. That way you can’t be seen from within.”
“A sound suggestion,” Frithil says. “Though I think it should be me who—”
“Enough.” Nevynne releases the door handle. “I think I can tell by now when she’s got her mind set on something. And it is a good strategy, I suppose. If the door even opens.”
Stellia waits until Nevynne and Frithil have crouched down on the stairs a short distance below. Then she firmly grasps the black metal serpent, and pulls it forward.
NEXT: Inside the Storm Hall