By the time they reach the slopes of the Threshold hills, the edges of the horizon have turned a sullen purple.
The windswept grass has given way to dense thorny maquis, and that in turn is soon replaced by an expanse of sandstone and soil made difficult to traverse by the countless grooves and gouges left behind by winter rains.
They walk on foot from here, and in silence, leading the horses and carefully picking their way over the furrowed ground. Sedwin heads their little group, while Stellia follows and Garroth brings up the rear. The trail descends steeply into a dark ravine. At the bottom flows a trickle of a creek with water so silty that even the horses won’t drink from it. The air feels thick and stale, and smells fetid, like rotting hay. When Stellia looks up, the stars themselves seem dimmer and tinged with a sickly green hue.
To make matters worse, in many places the creek forms stagnant pools that serve as nurseries for legions of ravenous gnats. The insects descend on the small caravan in stifling clouds. Each time they are waved away, they renew their assault within seconds. The cloud enveloping Garroth is thickest, thicker even than those around the horses. He mutters something about being cursed with sweet blood. Stellia ties a cloth before her mouth, and both Garroth and Sedwin don the masks they wore when she first saw them in Phoros. Sedwin’s golden scarf appears dull and tarnished in the foul vapors that swirl around them.
“Here’s something I don’t understand,” Stellia says, waving frantically at the gnats engulfing her.
“What’s not to understand?” Garroth grumbles. “They want to eat us alive!”
“That is not what I mean. The masks you wear now, why did you wear them when you came to my rescue in Phoros?”
“Misunderstandings happen,” Garroth says. “We might have been counted among the attackers, in which case we deemed it best not to have our faces known.”
“If you’d been wrongly accused of being brigands, anyone you assisted could have borne testimony to your innocence. I certainly would have done so.”
“Much can go amiss, in the heat and confusion of battle,” Garroth says. “The righteous may end up lying dead next to the wicked, with none left to speak for the stranger who remains standing over them, and to say whom he slew and whom he defended.”
“I was not dead,” Stellia says. “And the soldier who approached us would surely have listened to me, had you not beaten him senseless.”
“Or he would have skewered me like a fish first,” Garroth says. “I did not want to take that chance.”
“Didn’t want to be recognized, you mean.”
“What are you getting at, little girl?”
Stellia isn’t sure if it is wise to say what she means to say next. These two men have gone to great lengths to keep her safe, and it seems wrong to question them in this way. But to willfully ignore the incongruities in their account—that is simply not a choice she can bring herself to make.
“You were near my house for a reason,” she says. “Not by chance. Or providence.”
“You flatter yourself.” Garroth chuckles behind his cloth mask. “What makes your family so extraordinary, that we should be interested in them?”
“Not my family,” Stellia says. “I think it is the man who was at our house that interests you. He came from Hestia, as do you. There is some connection between him and you, I am sure of it.”
“Ridiculous. I’ve not the slightest idea who this man is of whom you’re speaking.”
“I think you do,” Stellia insists. She will be offending her saviors, perhaps even angering them, but it is too late now to stop speaking her mind. “I believe it is he and his men who you feared would recognize you if they caught sight of you. That’s why you concealed your faces, and that’s why you knocked out the soldier when he commanded you to remove your masks!”
“You’re beginning to irritate me more than these cursed gnats,” Garroth growls. “Are you accusing us of being criminals, who must hide their faces from an official of the Realms and his soldiers?”
“I thought you had no idea who this man was?”
“Enough!” Sedwin stops and turns around. “Save your breath, both of you. We need to get to fresher air, before we choke on these insects. The sooner we pass through the Threshold, the sooner we can travel on horseback again.”
Stellia does not move. She has no intention of letting herself be cowed into silence a second time. But perhaps needling her rescuers about inconsistencies in their story is not the best approach.
“It is true that I owe you a greater debt of gratitude than I will ever be able to repay,” she says. “You saved me from defilement, and likely from death. But more than for my own welfare and safety, I care for my brother’s. If you know anything about his fate, or about the man who took him from us, do not keep your knowledge from me. I beg you!”
She does not have to force the tears. They come freely, unbidden.
Sedwin bats away a cloud of gnats. “Can you hold your peace until we are out of this ravine?”
Stellia nods. Her legs ache, yet she walks on, and faster than before. Behind her, she hears Garroth mutter something in his own tongue.
For the remainder of their passage through the fetid gorge, they walk in silence.
NEXT: Till’s Journey into the Mountains