For a long time, nothing exists in the world save the shadows of trees rushing by in the cool night wind.
Too abruptly, almost, they emerge onto an open plain. Waves of densely growing grass billow under the starlight, so tall that the horses seem to have waded into a silvery sea that surges up to their chests. The men halt to survey the landscape. Ahead of them in the distance lies a sullen ruffle of shadow that can only be the Threshold hills. They are not far away—less than half a league, by Stellia’s judgment—but to reach them, they will have to ride across the open grassland that offers no protection from hostile eyes.
“Don’t worry,” Sedwin says, as though reading her thoughts. “If there were pursuers at all, we lost them a long while ago.”
“There might be others,” Stellia says. “The brigands often travel through the Thorns on their way to raid the Southern villages.” She thinks of her father being struck by the filthy raider, and a searing anger rises in her chest. “Sometimes I wish the Guardian would send her army already, to root them out once and for all.”
Garroth raises an eyebrow. “Rather warlike, are we?”
“I’m sorry,” Stellia mutters. “I spoke in anger. I didn’t mean to sound—” She stops herself.
She hesitates. But then what is she risking, out here in the wild, talking to two strangers? It’s an opportunity to speak her mind, one she might not soon have again at home. “Like our Parson.”
“Ah,” Sedwin says. “And what’s so wrong with sounding like a Parson?”
Stellia’s heart pounds. It feels dangerous, but also exhilarating, to not imprison the words in the silence of her thoughts. “I don’t trust people who have easy answers for everything, and who are so quick to judge others. I prefer to think, before I speak.”
“That would indeed put you at odds with the average Parson,” Sedwin says.
“Think about this, then,” Garroth says. “Many of these brigands are descendants of your own people, who came here long ago because they did not wish to accept the Faith. Theirs is a hard and wretched existence, and has been so for many generations. They are hunted by those who were once their kin, and hated by all. Such a life seldom breeds virtue.” He leans toward Stellia in a conspiratorial manner. “How would you judge them, knowing this?”
“Their crimes are still the same,” Stellia says. “Whatever they once were, and whatever their reasons, they are thieves and murderers.”
“Not to mention rapists, if they get half the chance,” Garroth adds.
“For their deeds, I would judge them harshly. But I would also take into account why they committed them, and offer them a chance at penitence, and mercy.”
“Not bad.” Garroth purses his lips. “If these brigands could hope for you to be their judge, I’m sure they’d all give themselves up tomorrow. But their judgment will come from the Guardian, and I doubt they’ll risk submitting to that.”
“Why wouldn’t they? If I can be fair toward them, after what I suffered at their hands, surely the Guardian will do the same.”
“Maybe. But it’s a long way from Hestia to the Thorns. Or to Okast, for that matter.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“He means that the Guardian’s justice is not necessarily administered by her,” Sedwin says. “And that her servants find, shall we say, room for interpretation.”
“You were raised in a village,” Garroth says. “Even so, you will have heard of Queen Ingharad of Baramond.”
“Of course,” Stellia says. “The Parson speaks often of her at Guidance. He admires her greatly.”
“I’m sure he does. In Cresset Halls from Hestia to Baramond, Parsons sing the praises of Ingharad the pious warrior queen. Sword of the Shaper, Defender of the Faith, Scourge of the Faithless, and whatever else they call her these days. I suppose your Parson, like all the others, told you the story of Ingharad’s campaign in Okast some four years ago.”
“Many times. It’s one of his favorites.”
“Then you’ve heard him say, I warrant, how Ingharad marched on Okast’s capital of Jontar in the name of the Guardian, to put down an uprising of heretics who burnt Cresset Halls and slew Parsons, and how when the Faithful of the Realms clamored for vengeance and demanded that the city be put to the torch and its people to the sword, the queen was both wise in her restraint and grim in her devotion to justice, and exacted vengeance only upon those guilty of the infernal crimes committed, regardless of their station, not even sparing King Sooringal’s son, Prince Altachin, despite his high birth?”
“Our Parson drags it out more.” Stellia shudders at the memory of sitting through those sermons. “And he manages to sound even more sanctimonious.”
“Such is their art, which they ply with blind obedience. I doubt your Parson knows the true story of Ingharad’s campaign, though I’ve met enough of his kind to also doubt it would bother him if he did.”
“The true story?”
“There’s one thing I learned about flowery talk and titles, and I’ve a feeling you sense it also,” Garroth says. “A surfeit of perfume always covers up a stink.”
NEXT: The Scourge of the Faithless