138. The White Stairs

They turn back into the fog and row until the craggy bulk of the Storm Hall lies between the boat and the shore of the Forbidden Isle.

Once Nevynne is satisfied that their position is such that no observer on the island itself could spot them, they make straight for the Guardian’s staircase.

“The entrance to the Guardian’s hall can’t be unguarded,” Stellia says.

“The taboo against approaching the Forbidden Isle has been in place for centuries,” Frithil tells her. “There is no need to guard her sanctuary against intrusion, much less attack.”

“Maybe,” Nevynne says. “But it’s bound to have some defenses, besides tradition and reverence of the local population. Let’s be careful.”

The great rock looms ever larger and more forbidding before them. Nevynne navigated well—they are almost exactly across from the White Stairs. The only observer that might catch sight of their boat now would have to stand on the Storm Hall itself. On the stairs themselves, or by the portal beneath the dome far above, no one keeps watch. But nearly a hundred and fifty paces of open water still stretch between their boat and the foot of the stairs. Should someone emerge from the door as they cross this expanse, they will have nowhere to hide.

The passage is a breathless eternity. Stellia rows as hard as she can. Behind her, Frithil pants and groans. Halfway across, Nevynne asks to take Stellia’s scull and row in her stead. Stellia shakes her head. Her arms have long ceased aching and are now merely numb; each time she moves them, it is as though she has to lift tree trunks attached to her shoulder joints. But dread of being discovered before reaching the stairs keeps her going—faster, even in her exhausted state, than Nevynne with her injured arm could likely manage.

The White Stairs are much closer now, forty, perhaps fifty paces away. Stellia’s unfeeling arms are heavy as lead. If the boat were to sink, she is certain she would drown before she could swim ashore. With a shudder, she shakes the thought out of her head.

They are a mere twenty paces from the bottom of the staircase when Nevynne whispers in an urgent tone. “Slow down, slow down, slow down. Right! Bear right!”

Something scrapes along the side of the boat to their left. It is a soft sound, but infinitely menacing.

“That was close,” Nevynne sighs. “Now we know why the ferry didn’t dock here. Watch out! Left, left!”

The last minutes are the hardest, because they have to go very slowly. When at last she hears the blunt bump of wood against stone as the boat grazes the White Stairs themselves, Stellia is so relieved and exhausted that she wants to cry. She has a distant sensation of something tugging at her hand. It is Frithil prying the scull from her senseless fingers.

“Come,” he says. “We should not linger here.”

Nevynne already stands on the submerged steps, knee deep in the water, looking for a place to moor the boat. No provision has been made for such a purpose. Some rushes and reeds grow on both sides of the stairs, but none of the stalks look sturdy enough to tie a rope to them. Nevynne shakes her head as she frowns at the unworked rocks that flank the staircase. “Whatever is the point of having this here, if not for boats to put ashore?”

“I don’t think that is the purpose of the White Stairs.” Frithil grasps Stellia’s hand and helps her climb out of the gently bobbing boat. For a moment, she stands with her eyes closed and relishes the coolness of the water washing over her feet. Her knees feel unsteady, and sensation begins to slowly and agonizingly return to her arms. She doesn’t care to think how sore they will feel tomorrow.

If there is a tomorrow, for any of them.

She opens her eyes. Frithil has let go of her hand and stands looking toward the door at the top of the stairs. It seems miles away, lofty as the clouds. The wall underneath the dome is covered in a shaggy coat of ivy, lending it a slightly less stark appearance. Even so, Stellia cannot remember ever setting eyes on a more grim and uninviting place. Why would anyone choose to dwell in such utter isolation? But that, of course, is a circumstance very much in their favor.

“By the Shaper’s fettling knives.” Frithil takes a deep breath, and exhales audibly. “How are we to climb this?”

“Swiftly, I suggest.” Nevynne has found a rock shaped irregularly enough to allow her to fasten the mooring line to it. “I’ve no idea what awaits us beyond that door, but the longer we’re out here, the greater the risk of some boat passing by and spotting us. We’d be easy targets for archers, and there’s nowhere to take cover.”

Frithil sighs again, still staring at the daunting incline of the stairs, and nods.

Nevynne tugs at the mooring line. “This should hold. Let’s go.”

NEXT: On the Guardian’s Doorstep