Darren emerged from the woods into the bone-warming sunlight of a warm spring day. There was still snow in places in the woods, and the air within had been sharp and chill. After the long months of bare trees and gray skies, the dancing sunlight on the deep blue of the lake before him was a glorious sight.
The road curved down to the shore, just as the innkeeper back in Pride’s Landing had said it would, when Darren had asked him where he could find someone to take him across the lake. A small cottage stood nearby, with a dock extending twenty feet into the water. Against the side of the building leaned an old rowboat, its wooden planks gray with age. A couple of old men sat facing the lake in wooden chairs near the dock. Darren walked down and greeted them.
“Excuse me, milords. I was told someone here could ferry me across the lake?”
The old men looked at him. Darren waited. The one on the left spoke. “Tha’s so, junior. But my son Bug’s got the boat just this second. Gone down to the cove, do a bit of fishin’. ‘Majin’ he’ll be back ‘fore nightfall. If’n so, ‘majin’ he’ll take you across.”
Darren closed his eyes. The innkeeper had told him that getting ferried across the lake would save him half a day’s walk. But in order to get here, he’d had to walk two hours out of his way. And now he’d have to wait for hours — and he still might have to wait all night! And he’d wanted to be in Westford tonight to be early for his brother’s investiture ceremony.
Darren thought. “Anyone else nearby who has a boat?”
The old man shook his head. “Nope. Can’t say as there is, junior.”
“Wait a minute — you’ve got a rowboat over behind your cabin. Can I take that?”
The old man shook his head again. “Tch. I wouldn’t feel right letting you take it. Ain’t been in the water in a couple season.”
Darren sighed. These old men hadn’t used the boat in years, but weren’t willing to let him take it? Wait — maybe that was it! They were hedging about it because he’d leave it on the far shore, with no one to row it back across the lake!
“Look, let me buy it from you. Here — here’s five drin. Can I take the boat?”
The old man looked at the coins in Darren’s hand in front of his face. “Well, I guesso. It’s not much of a boat, really. But if you insist…” He held out a weathered paw and Darren dropped the coins into the leathery palm.
He turned around and headed toward the cabin. He rounded the corner and found the rowboat propped against the side of the building. As he tilted it away from the building, something jumped out from the rotting leaves underneath. Darren leapt back and let go of the boat, which bounced loudly against the cabin, then fell to the ground with a thump, echoing the pounding of his heart. He took a deep breath; the rodent that he’d flushed had scurried away underneath the cabin.
Because the wood was dry, the boat wasn’t too heavy, and Darren didn’t have much of a problem hauling it down to the shore. The two old men just sat there watching him, not saying a word. He ran back and fetched the two oars, which the previous year’s leaffall had half buried. He slipped the oars into their locks and pushed off.
He started pulling for the other side. Because he was sitting facing the stern, he watched the two old men watch him as the shore gradually retreated. He was out five drin, but at least this way he’d make Westford by nightfall!
He was probably two or three furlongs from shore before he turned again to see where he was headed. The opposite shore stood at least another league distant, and he took a moment to admire the view. The trees were beginning to bud, and the valley would be a wonderful sight in autumn. He kind of envied the people who lived on the shores of the lake. Things were certainly much simpler here than in the crowded crown city of Magnus.
It was about this time that Darren noticed the water in the bottom of the boat. He hadn’t noticed it before, because he was wearing his boots, but it was already two or three inches deep! Looking closer, he could see water seeping, in some places flowing, between the seams in the planking of the boat. The damned boat couldn’t hold water!
Darren looked for something to bail with, but there wasn’t anything. He looked longingly at the far shore, but was certain that he couldn’t make it across. He sat back down and resignedly turned the boat around and headed back toward the cabin and those damnable old men.
The row back was strenuous. The boat was rapidly filling with water, which slowed it down and made it heavier. He struggled with it, sweating and cursing the entire way. Once he turned around to make sure he was on course, and he saw the two old men sitting calmly, just as he had left them ten minutes earlier. He didn’t turn around again.
He was perhaps half a furlong from shore when the boat foundered and just wouldn’t move any more. There wasn’t anything to do but swim. Darren turned and glared at his audience before he slipped over the side of the rowboat and started to swim for shore.
He rapidly began to tire, and began venturing an occasional foot to probe for the bottom. His arms were encumbered by the wet fabric of his puffy shirt, and he struggled to make any progress whatsoever. Finally, he could feel the bottom, but it was still too deep to walk on; he bounded along in a ponderous, bouncing mimicry of a run until the water was shallow enough to allow him to walk.
He finally dragged himself out of the lake. His white chemise, now tan with silt and green with bits of plants, hung heavily on his shoulders, and his boots were calf-high buckets of mucky water. He walked up to the old men and just glared at them. They didn’t even smirk.
After a moment, one of them spoke to the other. “You know, Jess, a boat made of dry wood just ain’t no use.”
“Yep,” replied the other. “Gotta let it soak fer a while – let the wood swell and fill up all them little cracks.”
“Yep. ‘Bout ‘majin’.”
Darren just walked away, heading back toward Pride’s Landing. He wouldn’t make Westford by nightfall, but he’d be sure to make it my nightfall tomorrow, even if it took him half a day to get there on foot.