136. Dark Waters

If the prospect of remaining helplessly behind on the pier was sheer agony, their passage over the dark waters of the lake is nothing short of terrifying.

Nevynne, her injured arm aching furiously from rowing, has passed her scull to Stellia. Together with Frithil, who is using a second scull, they row swiftly away from the shore, Stellia in the back of the boat and Frithil in the front, with Nevynne in the middle. Behind them, the pier with the sedges and cattails that surround it is already slipping away in the fog. Soon it is as though the world has altogether disappeared. Even the occasional cries of the loons sound muffled, more distant than before. But these calls are few and far between now. The only thing that sounds clear and real are the soft splashes of their sculls dipping into the water.

Once, Stellia leans over the side to see if her eyes can penetrate the lake’s surface, and if so, how far down she may see. As she does so, the slim boat tilts terrifyingly sidewards, and water threatens to spill over the edge.

“Try not to move about.” Nevynne speaks in a whisper. Perhaps because she fears that men in the ferry might hear, perhaps because the swirling mists make it seem that they are passing through some hushed realm apart from the world, whose silence must not be disturbed. “This boat is built to bear two at the most. Three will have to be very careful. We don’t want to founder.”

“Certainly not.” Stellia shudders at the thought. The brief glimpse over the boat’s edge revealed nothing, only an impenetrable obsidian mirror of water. It terrifies her. A lake this big must be deep, with plenty of room for large things to live in it.

“Do not doubt my gratitude for returning just in time,” Frithil whispers. “But how did you procure this vessel?”

“I borrowed it.” Nevynne chuckles. “From a local fisherman.”

“I see,” Frithil says. “And I suppose this fisherman inquired why you needed his boat? I trust you did not tell him that you meant to row a couple of friends over to the Guardian’s island?”

“He wasn’t actually home,” Nevynne says. “But no matter. We’ll return the boat once we’re done with our business on the Forbidden Isle.”

“Naturally.”

“You gave me a terrible fright,” Stellia says. “Why did your horse come back without you?”

“I couldn’t well take it with me in the boat, could I? So I gave it a slap on the rear hoping it’d keep galloping along the road long enough to get to you. Which it did.”

“I thought you’d had a run-in with the soldiers. That you were captured, or worse.”

“I’m sorry about that. Speaking of horses, you made sure they are well tethered, right? We’ll have need of them when we return.”

Stellia sighs, and nods. “I hope they’ll find enough to eat up there until we come back. Maybe we shouldn’t have tethered them.”

“They’d wander off,” Nevynne says. “Besides, if we’re still on the Forbidden Isle by the time the horses run out of hazel leaves to nibble, our chances will be worse than theirs. But enough talk. That ferry cannot be far ahead, and sound travels in strange ways in a fog.”

They continue to row in silence. The fog grows thicker. Moisture settles everywhere, on Stellia’s clothes, and in her hair, which has begun to feel quite damp. There is no way of telling how much distance they have covered, nor how much is yet before them in the alabaster mists that stretch endlessly in every direction. Stellia begins to see shapes and shadows in it that aren’t there. They continue to slip through this eternity of mist.

With every stroke of her scull, the bilgewater laps coldly at Stellia’s knees, as though to remind her that nothing lies between her and the depths below save a few thin planks of wood.

NEXT: The Forbidden Isle