9. Proper Introductions

They stand in the darkness behind a tree trunk.

Stellia’s savior has set her on her feet. She is busy tying together what is left of her shirt. He has not tried to look at her breasts, which is encouraging, after what she’s gone through. While she ties the torn cloth together as best she can, he watches the camp, and places his hands in front of his mouth.

An owl hoots nearby, once, twice, and again. It takes Stellia a moment to realize that the sound is coming from her rescuer’s folded hands.

“What are you doing?” she whispers.

He lifts a finger to his lips.

A shadow detaches itself from a tree a short distance away and swiftly moves toward them. It is the younger man who questioned Stellia outside her parents house, during the raid. He, too, is no longer masked, wearing the golden cloth around his neck instead, though in the darkness it seems more like a dusky glint of silver. A faint suggestion of a beard frames his finely curved lips. He looks even less a brigand than his tall friend. In fact, he is quite striking.

Stellia has always considered her cousin Yakkon to be handsome, in a boyish way. But the sight of him never moved her to—to what? She can’t quite say what she feels as she looks at the young man who now stands before her. Certainly he is better looking than anyone she’s met before, but it’s not just a matter of his features. There is a gravity in his eyes, in his bearing, as though he’s used to weighing the world around him differently from other men his age, and as though his main concern in the presence of a woman is the extent of his ability to protect rather than impress her.

And that does make her heart race.

She lowers her eyes, hoping that the scarcity of light concealed the way she looked at him.

“What happened?” His voice, too, though youthful in timbre, is serious.

“One of the pigs tried to rape her.”

The younger man turns to Stellia. “Did he—?”

She shakes her head.

“His raping days are over,” the older man adds.

“Let’s hope he won’t be missed too soon,” the young man says. “We should hurry.”

The older man looks Stellia up and down. “It will be a bit of a walk.”

“I still have my shoes,” Stellia says. “And even if I didn’t, I’d run my feet bloody rather than stay here.”

“That’s the spirit. My name is Garroth, by the way. This fine youngster here is Sedwin.”

“Sedwin,” she repeats.

It has a pleasant ring to it. Even so, the harshness of the North is in the syllables. Both these men are from Hestia, then. What kindness of fate brought them to Phoros during the raid, and then to this place, is a question that will have to wait.

“I am Stellia.”

“Good enough.” Sedwin casts a glance towards the camp.

A man has emerged from one of the tents. He yawns noisily and stumbles off toward the edge of the forest on the far side of the camp, where he proceeds to urinate against a tree. Stellia is so paralyzed with fear that she forgets to look away until she sees the steamy cloud rising from the ground.

“Take this.” Garroth hands her a hooded cape made out of thick warm cloth. It is much too large for her, but she is grateful. Though the night is mild, she has started to shiver.

They move off, swiftly, into the sheltering depths of the forest.

NEXT: Shadows in the Night


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