1. A Frightening Visit

Stellia does not look up from her book.

Slowly, so it won’t show how nettled she is, she takes a deep breath.

The cicadas keep chirring in the pine trees. Bumble bees wobble unperturbed through the yarrow blossoms swaying in the warm, resin-fragrant breeze. For Stellia, the idyll is ruined. From the corner of her eye, she sees Gaddas, the blacksmith’s son, shifting from one foot to the other in the middle of the sun-drenched clearing.

“It’s true,” he pants. “I swear. There’s soldiers at your house, with horses and spears! And they mean to talk to Till. Your mother sent me to get you.”

It’s just the kind of lie the kids always tell her.

Till fell while climbing a tree. Till was swept away while looking for pebbles by the river. Till rowed out on the miller’s pond and upended the boat.

Two or three or perhaps four times she raced home, fearing that taunts of scaredy-cat and yellow-belly had goaded her little brother into doing one of those forbidden things. Each time she found him safely playing by the house, while laughter and cries of ‘Sister Hen, Sister Hen’ erupted behind her. Till never complained, but she could tell how embarrassed he was. She can’t do that to him anymore.

But the tale is also different, this time.

Soldiers, come to the house to see Till?

“Why would soldiers want to speak to a boy of six summers?”

“I don’t know.” Gaddas wipes a sweat-drenched lock out of his eyes. “They just do!”

He is obviously winded. He was never winded before when he came to tell Stellia one of his stupid lies. He’s heavyset, and hates running.

And yet he ran today.

With a sigh, Stellia closes her book and gets up from her sun-warmed pine stump. She walks through the clearing. Not too hurriedly, in case Gaddas is merely out to fool her, after all.

Once she reaches the dusty trail that leads back to the village, she goes at a brisker pace. Gaddas keeps up with her, huffing and panting.

“Soldiers, no less,” Stellia says. “Come to talk to little boys? When they’ve barely the numbers or the time to keep us safe from brigands, what with the Guardian sending them into all corners of the Realms looking for Prince Ansil?”

“But it’s true,” Gaddas puffs. “They’re at your house, and they want Till.”

“Not that they would be an unwelcome sight. It’s been months since a patrol came through Phoros.”

“I know. My dad says the brigands will come any day now. He says if he were your dad—well…”

“If he were my dad, what?”

“Well, he’d not let you go off into the forest anymore, all by yourself like that. He says you’re asking for it.”

“Does he, now?” Stellia wants to say that Gaddas’s father should mind his own business, but she bites her tongue. Gaddas would repeat the remark, and then her father would hear about it. He’s been grumbling enough already about her frequent trips to the clearing, and why she seems to think that her room isn’t a good enough place to read. There’s nothing wrong with Stellia’s room, it’s just that as long as she’s in the house, her mother somehow keeps finding chores for her to do that just can’t wait. Of course she can’t tell father that.

And here she is, giving up her precious quiet reading time for a childish prank! Soldiers with horses and spears, come for Till! She should turn on her heels and head back to the clearing at once. But they’ve almost rounded the hill. A few more paces and they’ll emerge from the pines, and she’ll be able to see the house. Why not make sure?

“You might as well start running now,” she tells Gaddas. “Because if I don’t see soldiers right this—”

Stellia stops so suddenly that Gaddas bumps into her with a grunt.

A mere two hundred yards away, three soldiers stand guard outside her parents’ house. The long blades of their spears glint in the afternoon sun. They all wear the same garb: gray cloaks embroidered in silver thread with the cresset of the Faith, and underneath that, coats of armor covered in scales of thick black leather.

Three sleek horses—two blue roans and one dark bay—are tied to the fence where the village road goes past the house. Two more horses graze, untied, on the tufts of grass by the mulberry tree that grows in a corner of the yard. One of these is a huge stallion, more warhorse than courser, and utterly black, the other a slender ash-gray mare. Their owners are nowhere to be seen.

Stellia starts running.

Gaddas stays put, shouting after her.

“I told you it was true!”

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