Stellia bolts out from behind the tree, through the gate.
Quickly, like a hare fleeing a hunter, she turns right. If she can reach the hawthorn hedge that lines the road on its way out of the village, she can slip through the bushes, and perhaps elude the bandit long enough to find a safe hiding place.
Already she hears her pursuer’s steps. She has almost reached the hedge when they close in behind her. Her foot catches on something; she goes sprawling, an inch away from the shelter of the bushes.
The man who struck her father stands above her, baring rotten teeth in a fierce grin. A froth of spittle clings to the corners of his mouth. Stellia tries to get away from him, but she only succeeds in kicking up dust with her feet.
“Stay away from her!”
At first she thinks it is her father shouting. But it’s not his voice.
The brigand turns to face the sound, hefting his cudgel. His grin turns to a snarl, he spits a curse, and runs away.
Two men have appeared in the road, seemingly out of thin air. They don’t look like brigands; their clothes, though dusty, are not shabby and ragged enough, and they carry swords—a rare weapon for brigands to own. Both of them wear masks. Brigands never bother with that.
One of the newcomers kneels next to Stellia. His eyes are gray, but not cold, and though his gaze is stern, Stellia can tell that the strength in it is rooted not in harshness or severity. When she looks into these eyes, she feels less frightened. He is young, with ash-blond hair, and from what she can see, her elder by perhaps a few years, no more. Unlike the rest of his clothes, which consist mostly of dusty browns and dark greens, the cloth that hides his features is pristine and fine, and of a yellow so rich it almost looks golden.
“Are you hurt?”
He speaks her language with an accent—light, but unmistakably that of Hestia.
She shakes her head. Kind gray eyes or no, she tells herself, appearances can deceive.
The other man stands in the road, his eyes restless, his feet poised to move.
“We can’t risk staying long.”
His voice is deep, but not harsh. He is very tall, and built powerfully; he has the stature of a bear. A bristly black beard sticks out from behind the cloth tied before his face, and the eyes above the mask are a deep blue.
“Listen to me!” The younger man shakes Stellia’s shoulder. “The men who came to your house, they took a boy, is that not so?”
She wants to answer, and say yes, but she cannot find her voice. All of this feels like a dream, a nightmare from which she cannot wake up.
Again she nods.
“There’s no time for this,” the bearish man says. “The girl’s too rattled to speak.”
“Your brother,” the young man insists. “Why are they taking him? Why, and where to?”
She remains mute, half because she is in shock, half because some part of her that has retained its composure thinks: What’s it to you?
A thunder of hoofbeats approaches. A rider bears down on them, spear couched. As he comes closer, he slows his horse to a trot, and at last stops altogether. He aims the point of his spear at the blue-eyed bear, who lifts his hands in a gesture of surrender.
The soldier’s eyes narrow. His brown curls clings wetly to his forehead, and a spray of red dots covers his left cheek. He looks at the young man, then at the other.
“You don’t have the look of the rabble that attacked from the South,” he says. He glances at Stellia, never moving the tip of his spear away from the big man’s chest. “Have they hurt you?”
“No.” The word comes out like something dusty lodged in her throat.
The soldier jerks his spear at the big man. “Show me your faces!”
The big man slowly lowers his hands as though to remove his mask. Suddenly, with a speed and agility surprising for his great bulk, he ducks underneath the spearhead and charges the horse. Before the soldier can react, he seizes his wrist and with a violent tug pulls him out of the saddle. The soldier gives a startled cry as he flies crashing into the dust. His spear clatters to the ground. The other is on him at once, and hits him savagely on the head with a massive fist. The soldier gives one more pained groan, then he lies still, breathing rapidly. His horse trots off slowly, seemingly unconcerned with its rider’s fate.
“More will come,” the big man admonishes his companion. “If we don’t leave now, it will be too late.”
The young man with the gray eyes mutters a curse.
“I don’t know where they’re taking my brother,” Stellia blurts out. “They wouldn’t tell us. Only that the Guardian wants children like him.”
“The Guardian? Why?”
“I don’t know! The Parson never recommended him. But they took him anyway!”
“Very well.” The young man takes her hand. “Come, get up. We’ll see you to your home. There’s still brigands about.”
With a firm grip, he pulls Stellia to her feet. She shakes her head when he offers her his arm, but after a few steps her legs begin to wobble, and she is grateful to lean on him.
“Who are you?”
“Travelers. Brought here by lucky chance. The soldier would disagree, I suppose.”
“He’ll wake up with a headache, nothing worse.” The large man trails a few paces behind them. His eyes keep darting about.
Screams still ring out in the fields. The brigands that have survived the initial clash with the spearmen are trying to flee, but the soldiers hunt them down one by one. As Lord Osdath commanded, they take no prisoners, and offer no mercy. The Parson is no longer to be seen anywhere.
“Here we are,” the younger man says. “Get inside at once.”
“My father!” Stellia lets go of his arm and runs into the yard. The two men do not follow. “He was here a moment ago.”
A few dark drops in the dust mark the spot where her father fell. But he is gone.
“No doubt he’s in the house,” the bearish man says. “As should you be.”
More drops of bloods dot the ground, closer to the door. A trail. Stellia races toward the house. Only at the last moment she remembers her two saviors.
She turns around to thank them, but the road beyond the fence is already empty.
NEXT: Everything Turns Black