The sun has halfway descended from its noontime perch in the cloudless sky.
Its heat still shimmers over the fields surrounding the village. The air smells of hay, and a gentle breeze carries the scent of orange blossoms from the neighboring gardens. Birds sing their bright tunes high among the branches, oblivious to the tragedy playing out below.
Stellia’s parents stand by the door, watching as the soldier who took Till places the boy on the back of one of the blue roans, then climbs into the saddle behind him. Her mother leans sobbing on her father for support. He places a hand on her shoulder. Beside them, leaning in close, the Parson rattles on about honor and blessings and devotion. He is comforting no one.
“They may yet bring him back to us,” Stellia says. “This is not goodbye.”
That, too, does little to ease her mother’s anguish.
“Where are you taking him, My Lord?” Stellia’s father asks.
“He will be safe, and well cared for.” Lord Osdath lays, briefly, a gloved hand on her father’s shoulder. “From this moment on, your son is the Guardian’s ward. That is all you need to know. The journey before us is far, and time presses. If you wish to say your farewells, do so now.”
Stellia’s father approaches the horse on which Till sits. His calloused fingers close with unaccustomed, almost fumbling tenderness around his son’s small hand. His voice is tense with suppressed grief. At the sound of it Stellia’s heart comes close to breaking.
“Listen to me, my little man,” he says. “Be a good lad, and give these men no bother. Do you hear?”
Till’s lips quiver as he struggles to stop crying, but he nods obediently.
“Do as they say, always. They are good men, protectors of the people. You will be safe with them.”
Her mother is next. She barely manages to bring out the words she means to say to Till. At the sight of her weeping, Till begins to cry anew. She turns away from her son and addresses Lord Osdath.
“Do not take him away from me, My Lord,” she sobs. “I beg you!”
“I understand your sorrow,” Lord Osdath says. “But you cannot want me to defy Her Holiness’s wishes.”
“Then let me come with you! I can watch over my son for you, wherever he goes.”
Lord Osdath says something more to her. Stellia no longer listens; it will only be more vague reassurances that don’t truly help anyone or mean anything. She dashes to the black horse and clutches Till’s hand. Weeping, she pulls him toward her, covering his face with kisses and mingling her tears with his.
“Do as father says,” she tells him. “And don’t be afraid! It’s the Guardian that wants you, after all. And what do guardians do? Tell me, Till.”
His sobbing subsides a little. “They watch over things?”
“Over things, and over people. And the Guardian watches over us all, and over our souls, especially now that there is no Emperor. So what can you have to fear from her? Whatever she wants from you, it can’t be bad, can it?”
“But I don’t want to go,” he says. “I don’t want to be away from you, and mother, and father! If she makes me go when I don’t want to, isn’t that bad?”
“Sometimes in life we all must do things we don’t want to do,” Stellia says with the brightest smile she can manage. “Just because they need to be done. Like when mother asks me to do the dishes, when I’d rather read. Does that mean she is bad?”
“Of course not,” Till cries, sobbing again at the very suggestion.
“There’s a smart boy,” Stellia says. “But promise me—” She lowers her voice to a whisper. “If ever you do not feel safe with these men, or anyone you meet, if ever you feel that they are doing something that is not good for you, something that truly frightens you—” She presses her lips to his ear. “Then run, Till! Promise me that you will run, run back to me, if you fear that anyone might mean you harm. Promise it!”
“I promise,” he sputters. “But I want to run now! I don’t want to go with them! Who will sing me back to sleep at night, when I wake from my bad dreams? Can you not come?”
Stellia glances over her shoulder. Lord Osdath is still comforting her weeping mother, or pretending to.
“They will not allow it,” she says. “But I will be with you, always, remember that! When you wake in the dark, when you’re afraid, think of me, and I will know it, and embrace you with my thought, and it will be as though I am right there next to you!”
I must be strong for him, she thinks, stifling a sob. If he sees me despair and weep, how can he have courage? She thinks of their room, of the bed next to hers that will be empty tonight, and the pain threatens to rend her in two. She must take her mind off these thoughts, and his as well.
“Tell, me Till,” she says. “What did he want to know, the man with the blue eyes? What did he ask you, when you were alone with him? Tell me, quick!”
“My dreams,” Till says. “He wanted to know about my dreams, the bad ones, the ones that scare me and wake me up.”
“Your dreams? But why?”
Before Till can say more, Lord Osdath shouts something in his own tongue to the horseman. The soldier clasps a hand over Till’s mouth and begins to move off. Till wails, the sound muffled by the man’s leather gauntlet.
Lord Osdath mounts the ash-gray mare waiting in the shade of the mulberry tree, while the red-belted man climbs into the saddle atop the huge black stallion.
“Your family has found great favor with the Guardian today,” Lord Osdath declares. “The Shaper himself will look fondly upon your souls for what you—”
Something hisses through the air, so closely past his head that it stirs the hairs of his beard.
One of the spearmen cries out, clutches his throat, and falls to the ground.
The shaft of an arrow sticks out of his neck.
NEXT: A Father’s Courage