Stellia has seen soldiers before, and she is not afraid of them.
They are upholders of the peace and protectors of the people, honored and well-loved by all righteous citizens. Were it not for what Gaddas told her, Stellia would be cheered by the arrival of soldiers in Phoros, in these days when their patrols have grown so rare. But soldiers outside the door to her home, soldiers seeking out her little brother, that is something else entirely. And there are more of them—a lot more! As she crosses the North Road where it leads past her parents’ house out of the village, Stellia sees them some distance away, some fifty men at least, with horses, waiting between the hawthorn hedges that line the road. Far too many for a simple patrol!
They are not the kind of soldiers she knows. The two men that stand by the house are too tall, their faces too stern; none of Stellia’s people have such pale gray eyes. They are not from Taronnis at all, they are from Hestia! Soldiers from the far North, from the homeland of the Emperor—here, at her father’s door!
Her lungs on fire, Stellia races across the yard to the front door. The grim spearmen watch with disinterest as she storms into the house.
Inside, she nearly collides with a tall man standing in the middle of the room. He turns and frowns at her out of a face that seems all menacing edges. His nose is narrow and sharp, his beardless jaw prominent, his lips thin and mirthless, and his eyes are black needlepoints that pin her down with a bird of prey’s piercing stare. He wears the same cloth and armor as the men outside, a coat of black leather scales under a cloak emblazoned with the symbol of the Cresset. His hair is dark, almost as black as his coat. A scar runs across his chin, and the corner of his mouth, giving his lips a downward curve in that spot that makes him appear more sullen than perhaps he truly is. The one thing at odds with his somber appearance is a broad leather belt that has been dyed a dusky red.
“My daughter,” she hears her father say. “Stellia.”
The man with the red belt steps aside. She sees her parents sitting at the large table across from the fireplace. A bowl of grapes stands between them, the usual offering to unexpected guests. No one is touching the fruit. Her mother looks confused and frightened. Her father seems calmer, but his eyes betray that he is very worried.
“This is Hayrolf Bloodgirt,” he tells her. “He commands the soldiers you saw outside.”
In a corner of the room, near the fireplace, lurks the Parson. He seems unable to quite stand still, and keeps rubbing his fleshy hands together. Stellia can’t tell whether the expression on his round face is one of nervousness or excitement, but his mouth—small, with that heavy lower lip, framed by a well-groomed little beard—curves into a smile as he nods a greeting.
“Stellia,” Hayrolf Bloodgirt repeats. “How old?”
“Seventeen, this winter,” Stellia tells him. “My Lord.”
“Sir will do. Perhaps you should sit with your parents, while we wait.”
Her father nods. Stellia slips past the tall man and sits down next to her mother. She knows that her father will be displeased if she asks too many questions, it is not considered polite, certainly not for a young girl, but if he is to punish her, so be it. She has to know.
“Gaddas told me they want to speak to Till. What do they want with him? And where is he, anyway?”
“Upstairs,” her father says. “With a man who came for him.”
“A man? Who is he?”
The Parson speaks before her father can answer. “You must not be afraid, Stellia. The man who is with your brother is a great lord, by the name of Osdath.”
“Lord Osdath?” The name does not tell Stellia anything.
“He is a member of the High Clergy, of the Council of Twelve,” the Parson explains, his eyes alight with eagerness. “A servant of Her Holiness the Guardian herself. Whatever his reasons may be for seeking out your brother, Stellia, you must think of it as an honor. Of all the boys in the village, only Till was—”
“You forget your place.” Hayrolf gives the Parson a look that makes the smaller man flinch. “If such explanations are to be given, it is Lord Osdath who shall impart them.”
The Parson seems to ponder whether he has to accept being spoken to in such a rude manner. He bows his head. “My apologies.”
“A servant of the Guardian?” Stellia asks. “What does he want of my brother?”
Her father shoots her a furious glance. He has little interest in the affairs of Lords and Councils, be they of Hestia or Taronnis or elsewhere, but he regards soldiers with admiration and awe. She will get a lecture about her insolence, that is certain. But for now, the question has been posed.
Hayrolf looks at Stellia with his stinging black eyes. The fact that a young girl should be the boldest person in the room seems to amuse him. He smiles briefly. His face clearly isn’t accustomed to the exercise, and he still looks dangerous, perhaps more so than before.
“My Lord Osdath means to ask your brother a few questions. That is all.”
“Questions?” Stellia is bewildered. The last time she heard the phrase was when someone stole a loaf of cheese from the dairy farmer, and a constable came from the city watch in nearby Maltaros to try, without success, to find the thief.
“He’s six years old. What might—”
“Enough!” Her father slams his palm down on the wooden table. He turns to Hayrolf. “I beg your forgiveness, Sir. My daughter has too inquisitive a mind. Her desire to learn things is not matched by her desire to be courteous.”
“So I see.” Hayrolf glances at the book Stellia is still holding. “You read, girl?”
“What manner of books?”
“All kinds,” Stellia says. “Though it is history I like best.”
“An odd choice, for a village girl.”
A door open upstairs. Footfalls vibrate on the wooden stairs. Those of a man in heavy boots, judging by the sound, followed by lighter steps; little Till no doubt.
The man who comes down the stairs is tall—all of these Hestians are tall, apparently—though he is thinner than the others, and much older. His shoulder-length hair is gray and wavy. His face is long and thin to match his body, and his features taper to a long pointed nose, under which a mustache covers his lips. His eyes are of a blue so light that at first Stellia wonders whether he is blind. But his gaze is not that of the unseeing. He is dressed differently from his companions, in a long gray coat with a simple hooded cloak, light gray in color and utterly unadorned. On his right hand, he wears a silver ring with an intricate design. The details of it remain obscured by the dim light under the stairs.
Lord Osdath smiles when he sees Stellia, and tilts his head, like a bird eyeing what could be a potential meal, or perhaps a new threat. “The sister?”
Hayrolf nods. “Yes, My Lord. Stellia is her name.”
“Hello, Stellia,” Lord Osdath says. He continues to smile. But his blue eyes are cold and calculating. Instinctively, she dislikes him.
Till scampers down the stairs, squeezes unceremoniously past the visitor, and runs into his mother’s open arms, wailing.
“He says I must go with him!”