Stellia enters the house and cries out.
Her father lies face down on by the fireplace. Her mother kneels over him, dabbing at his head with a wet cloth. When she sees Stellia, she sobs with relief.
“Thank the Shaper you’re alive!”
Stellia lays a hand on the back of her father’s head. He feels hot, feverish, and he is breathing roughly. When her mother lifts the cloth, Stellia cries out at the sight of the gash in his scalp. The wound is not deep, but the very notion of her father injured, bleeding, hurt, unconscious, is too painful to bear.
“He came through the door and at once collapsed.” Her mother rinses the cloth in an earthen bowl. The water turns red. “What happened out there?”
“He was struck,” Stellia says. “One of the brigands. He came after me, but—”
“He must have aid. Is it safe to go outside?”
“Safe enough. The soldiers are killing the raiders.”
“Go then.” Her mother wrings out the cloth and gently places it on her father’s wound. “Hurry. Get Miphrannos.”
As Stellia opens the door, her mother wails behind her. “What are these days that have come to us? Strangers take children from their parents, and brigands strike down good men in their very homes. Won’t anyone help us?”
Stellia fumbles for a word of comfort. “The soldiers,” she mutters. “They are helping.”
“Helping?” Rage mingles with the grief in her mother’s voice. “They came to take my son! Not to help us! We’d all be slain, were it not for some lord’s quest to steal little boys!”
Stellia is stunned to hear her mother speak like this. She who was always patient, who always believed that the powers that be were just, and fair. And yet what she says is only the truth.
“It is fortunate that they were here,” Stellia says. “Whatever the reason.”
But her mother no longer listens, and so she turns away, and steps outside.
Out in the fields, the soldiers are making a pile of the dead bodies on the stubble of a recently cut wheat field. A few are still hunting down straggling raiders in the distance. Near the house, on the road, all is quiet. Nothing moves.
Stellia starts running up the North Road. Miphrannos’s hut is not far, at least it never seemed so in the past, when she walked in that direction. But they never had such urgent need of his services before. Now it seems she’s run ten miles already, her lungs are on fire, and still she seems no closer to the gap in the hawthorn hedge that gives on to the rampantly growing garden that surrounds and nearly covers the old man’s hut. It’s an herb garden, supposedly, though the few times Stellia has seen it she wasn’t so sure if most of what grew there weren’t weeds and brambles. Still, he knows how to stanch bleedings, clean wounds, and prevent traumatic fevers with poultices.
Stellia tries to run faster still. If it takes her so long to get to Miphrannos’s garden, how much longer will it take him to come to her house? He’s so ancient and tottery! And what if Miphrannos has been called upon already, and brought to the battlefield to assist the wounded? She might be running in the wrong direction!
The hawthorn bushes explode. Leaves fly, branches snap.
An arm clamps around her neck. A rough hand covers her mouth. She strains to breathe. In vain. She is lifted off her feet. A smell of dirt and cloth long unwashed envelops her. Sour breath insults her nostrils.
“Good things come to those who wait,” a voice hisses.
She kicks hard at the man’s legs.
Her attacker grunts. For a moment, her feet are on the ground again. She hears a loud crack, as if someone snaps a stick close to her ear. Pain flashes through her temple, sharp and immense, it hurts, it hurts a lot.
Something spins wildly inside her head, and everything turns black.
NEXT: Darkness before the Dawn