On an outcropping of rock overlooking a valley of dense pine forest, they stop to rest.
Sunrise is still hours away. A faint mist curls between the treetops; underneath that, everything is blackest night.
Sedwin sits down on a rock next to Stellia. The horses graze in a patch of wildflowers near the trees, a few paces away. Garroth is on his feet, drinking from a skin, which he extends to Stellia. She drinks greedily, leaving just enough to pass to Sedwin, but he shakes his head, and produces a skin of his own. She watches him drink. He is younger than she first thought, a mere seven years her elder at the most, with only a light beard. When he lowers the skin, Stellia quickly looks away.
“Will they still pursue us?”
“These bandits are decent enough trackers.” Garroth eyes the forest behind them. “But we’ve put quite a distance between us and them. Besides, I doubt they will notice before daybreak that one of their own is missing.”
He rummages through a leather satchel and pulls out three wrinkled apples and a small loaf of bread. He distributes the apples and cuts the bread into three chunks with his knife. Briefly, Stellia wonders if it is the knife he used to stab the man in the camp. She is too hungry to care. The wrinkled apple is mealy and bland, but to her it is a feast.
“Eat quickly,” Garroth says, needlessly. “We can’t rest long, and we’ll have to cross the Threshold next.”
Stellia has only ever seen the Threshold hills from afar. If they truly are as rugged as she has heard, an arduous passage lies ahead.
“I cannot thank you enough for your help,” she says between bites of apple and bread. “But how is it possible that you saved me in Phoros, and then yet again in the brigands’ camp? There’s more than luck to it, I think.”
“Not more than luck.” Garroth stuffs a piece of bread into his mouth and chews it slowly. “Just more luck than people usually have.”
“We were passing through the woods near Phoros,” Sedwin says. “We heard fighting, and rode into the village to find out what was happening. We saw the brigand chasing you, and naturally, we helped. After we brought you to your home, we resumed our journey.”
“It seemed to us that the soldiers had the situation well in hand,” Garroth adds.
Stellia recalls that her two saviors seemed rather eager to avoid the soldiers. Perhaps it’s wiser not to point that out right at this moment.
“We were about to resume our journey,” Sedwin continues, “when we saw you running along the road.”
“I was trying to reach our healer’s hut. My father was in the house as you guessed, but he was badly hurt.”
“I see. Next we saw a man attack you and drag you into the hedge. We rode at once to intervene, but by the time we reached the spot, he had joined a group of raiders who had survived the battle, slung you over his horse, and ridden off.”
Stellia gingerly puts her fingers to her temple. It is swollen, and still hurts when she touches it. She doesn’t remember any of what happened after she received the blow to her head. Perhaps she should be grateful for that.
“They were too many for us to attack openly,” Garroth says. “So we tracked them without being seen, hoping for an opportunity to free you. When they made camp, we waited for night to fall, and approached on foot. You know the rest.”
“You risked much to save me,” Stellia says. “I am twice in your debt.”
“We did only what was right,” Sedwin replies. “As any decent man would have.”
For a moment, Stellia is satisfied with their answers. Certainly she should not question the good fortune that sent these two decent men her way. Except—
“You asked about my brother. Where the soldiers were taking him, and why.”
“What of it?” Sedwin says. “We saw soldiers taking a little boy from his home, and a woman crying. We were curious to know what had happened.”
“You just said that it was the noise of a battle that made you ride into Phoros.”
“So it was.”
“But Lord Osdath’s soldiers rode off with my brother before the fighting began,” Stellia says. “For you to have seen this—” She hesitates, realizing what she is about to imply.
Garroth glowers at her over a piece of bread crust.
Stay silent, she tells herself. Or say something about how it doesn’t really matter. But their story doesn’t make sense. She can’t let it go.
“You were there all along,” she blurts out. “Watching my parents’ house!”
“Your house?” Sedwin clears his throat. “Why would we do that?”
Garroth jumps to his feet so suddenly Stellia starts. He throws the remainder of his bread crust into the grass.
“Of all the girls in her village, they had to nab this quibbler! I’m beginning to wonder if it is you we saved from the brigands, or the other way around.”
“I meant no offense,” Stellia says. “I was very lucky that you came, and I am grateful! But I won’t believe that it was mere chance. Why were you there?”
“Grateful girls don’t question providence and accuse their very saviors of telling untruths.” Garroth stalks to his horse and rummages around in his saddle bag. He throws something to Stellia. “Here!”
She catches the object. It is an oatcake, small, dense, and hard.
“Fill your mouth with that, before more insolence comes out.” He mounts his horse, and turns its head away. “Now let’s ride on.”
Stellia chafes at Garroth’s words, but there is little she can do aside from slipping the oatcake into her pocket, and holding her peace.
For the moment.
NEXT: A Surfeit of Perfume