"You've been defeated by the Knight of Darkness and Knight Mare. Remove your armor and sword. Leave them here. YOU have no further need."
Sandy tried to scream but couldn't utter a sound. His mind shouted to itself, "They are not mine! I can't leave them. They belong to the Fairy Godmother!"
"She has no need for it. She has no need for you. You failed!" came the voice of the rider, reading Sandy's mind.
Sandy started to cry. They had told him this would be a difficult journey. They told him not all came back to tell the tale, but he had assumed that it was only true for others. He was different. He would succeed. He would be a victor. Yet here, in depths of darkness, somehow he had failed. At what? He wasn't even sure what he'd been trying to do, but he'd failed.
He removed the armor and shivered in the cold as the darkness passed over him. Handing his protection to his enemy, he whispered through the tears, "Please sir, I know I've failed at what I had to do, but the armor belongs to Clara Mee. Return it to her. Please."
The rider heard not a word, but rummaged for something in a saddlebag. Out came a huge mushroom as big as Sandy's head. The rider flung it down to Sandy and said, "Now you are at the root of all things. Eat the poison that consumes you."
The rider stood aloof while Sandy forced himself to eat the mushroom. It tasted of bitter musk and left furry fuzz in his mouth. And when he had finished, the rider turned and galloped into the darkness, cackling as he went. Sandy was left with the residue of weeds in his mouth on a path into darkness. Sandy cried inside with his confusion and sadness. He knew he had tried, and somehow he'd failed.
Now, all there was darkness and the crushing feeling of defeat. He wandered in the darkness in any direction trudging and stumbling in despair. At last, he came to a fast moving river.
He walked along its side for a few minutes, and then knelt to take a drink and wash the mushroom fuzz out of his mouth. The chill of the water crept down his spine and sent shivers through his muscles. He walked to an open spot by the river, and in the dim glow he was surprised to see a crooked man with a boat by the waterside.
The boatman saw Sandy, and croaked to the boy, "Come along. It's your turn. This river waits for no one."
Sandy put his hands in the water again. It was cold. No, it was VERY COLD, and the river was racing past at a tremendous pace.
"How long can someone live in this water?" Sandy asked.
"Live? In this water? About five minutes before you freeze," said the oarsman. "It's a mean river. Most of it is uninhabited, and at the end is a place called the Icy Lake. That's a mean place too."
"Who are you?" Sandy asked.
"M'name's Sowers. I'll take you to the Icy Lake."
Sandy backed away from Sowers. He looked around with faint hope for a way out. The little light let him see the banks of the river lined with plants; brambles and weedy thorn bushes were all around. They rustled and reared up like an angry mare and Sandy shrank back to the water's edge. They were crowding toward him. The only escape was with Sowers down the river.
"Sowers?" Sandy stammered, "get me out of here. What do I have to do?"
"Just get in the boat, follow my instructions, and let go."
The boat was small and narrow. There was room for Sandy in front while Sowers sat behind. The two of them barely fit in the tiny craft.
Sowers had lots of instructions, which he delivered, bit by bit, into Sandy's ear.
"Look around as we travel, and point out rapids or places where the water is irregular. Watch for places where the water is running over a submerged rock, and when I say STROKE, take that paddle and paddle for your life."
"For my LIFE!" Sandy cried over the noise of the rapids thundering around them. "I can get out of here alive?"
"Well, you might live for a while, but sooner or later you'll take the trip to the Icy Lake. Life is like this river. It's a one way trip."
Sowers paused as they were swept past small rapids. They coasted down a long stretch of the open river, and Sowers gave more instructions to Sandy.
"Death isn't so bad. Every day a little part of you dies. You only get stuck when you hold on to what you want. Let go, Sandy and move on." Sowers was silent for a moment or two then shouted, "Look out for that one, Paddle, PADDLE! Like you mean it! Get your back in it!"
They swerved over one set of rapids, and rocketed through the next set of whirlpools and wave flows like a roller coaster on water hills as the wicked river ran through a desolate canyon. "Ah, you should always stay out of rapids," said Sowers with a sound of satisfaction, "but I like the water ruts that rocks make, diving down one side roller and up the other. I like 'em real fine."
They swirled along through chasms and canyons of a mighty mountain range and along the side there were whispers of icy waterfalls. The river descended past high cliffs of rugged rock and gnarled marl.
Sandy was quietly crying to himself. He was sad at the pointlessness of traveling one-way toward death when Sowers piped up trying to cheer him up. "Come on Sandy, this really is pretty good. Nice boat. Good River. Come on, sing with me," said Sowers as he began to sing.
"Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down, the Stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily
Life is but a…. YIKES! Here comes another one!" shouted Sowers. "Paddle hard, this one's a real bender. Give it your guts."
The tiny canoe swooped down over the edge of a river fall, down the sloping side of a wall of water, and through the trough to the bottom, then up the other side.
The canoe rode over a high hill of water, as Sowers shouted, "Paddle, PADDLE! PADDLE for God's sake!"
But, it was too late, as they rode down the wall of water, they rolled over each other and tumbled into the icy water.