Daybreak has nearly come, and with it a sight so pleasant, Stellia might almost imagine the events of the past day and night never happened.
They have stopped on a hillside covered with sage brush, just outside a mild forest of pines. The sky is still dusted with stars, but the horizon is fast turning from violet to azure. The air, though cool, is already fragrant with the scents of sage blossoms and pine resin. She hears the calls of two tawny owls nearby, conversing from one tree to the next as they retire for the day, and somewhere farther off, the first bird song of dawn.
In the plain below, near where the creek glints like a silver band in the darkness, lies the village of Phoros. Here and there, windows are lighting up in the shadowy outlines of its houses. Stellia searches for her parents’ house. They, too, are already awake. If they slept at all, this night.
And if father lives.
The thought makes her want to spring to her feet and race down to the village at once. But anxious as she is to have news of her father’s condition, there is one more thing she needs from her two saviors.
Garroth ties the horses to a pine. The morning light reveals one to be dun in color, the other a gorgeous sorrel, red as autumn leaves; both are stallions. Garroth stands leaning against the trunk of the tree, chewing on a sprig plucked from a rosemary bush, and gazes down at the village. Stellia can’t quite decide if he looks wistful or bored by the view.
“Almost home,” he says.
Stellia sits down on a tree trunk that lies amidst the tall grasses and herbs. The hooded cloak Garroth gave her is soaked with sweat from their march through the Threshold. An odor of suint emanates from the wool. They emerged from the ravine a few miles back, happily leaving behind its stifling air and clouds of gnats. But they have spoken little since then, and she wonders if Sedwin no longer remembers his promise to tell her what he knows of the man who took her brother. Perhaps he never really meant it. That her rescuers have secrets they do not intend to share has become amply clear to her. Unfortunately, she is in no position to make demands of them, much less so since it is she who is in their debt, and not the other way around. But what harm can there be in trying?
“Back in the ravine—”
“I know,” Sedwin cuts her off. He does not sound brusque, but rather like a man dwelling on some difficult decision.
Garroth approaches his young companion. “A word?”
Together, the two men walk a short distance away. Again Stellia hears the owls calling to each other, unseen in the treetops somewhere. For a while, Sedwin and Garroth whisper in their own tongue. They seem agitated, first one shaking his head, then the other. Toward the end of their exchange, Sedwin casts an anguished glance at Stellia and says something that sounds half pleading, half forceful. Stellia never made much headway in her attempts to learn the language of Hestia. The word for ‘brother’ is one of the few she still remembers, and she hears it from Sedwin’s lips now. Garroth exhales noisily and throws up his hands in frustration. He doesn’t look very happy, but he nods.
Sedwin touches his friend’s shoulder in a reassuring gesture, then he returns to Stellia, and kneels before the fallen tree trunk where she sits.
“I cannot tell you much,” he says. “And what I will tell you, you must not repeat to anyone. Do you understand?”
“Good.” Sedwin smiles a little, and again she is struck by the handsomeness of his features. “As for your rescue, you can tell everyone how two roving scoundrels with hearts of gold dashed in to save your life and honor. It will make a romantic and exciting tale.” As quickly as it came, the smile fades from his lips. “But you must not mention our names to anyone, nor describe us in such a way that one might recognize us by it, lest you place me and Garroth in great danger. Do you swear it?”
“Now, Osdath told you that his mission was to find children suited for the Guardian’s service. Is that not so?”
“Yes. He did not tell us what that service might be, but from what he said it seemed to me that it must be something unusual. He hinted that his was an uncommon task, like the appraisal of gold.”
“An interesting remark. Indeed Osdath has been pursuing this mission for some time already. Years, in truth. His quest has led him to every hamlet, village, and town in Hestia, and to many in Taronnis before he came to your home. In some places he would seek out boys like your brother, after consulting with the local Parson to see the records of births in recent years. In others, he would leave without seeing any children at all. But all those he did ask to see were boys, and of the same age as your brother.”
“So young,” Stellia says. “What service can the Guardian possibly have in mind for them?”
“We have no more an answer to that than you,” Sedwin says. “But about one thing I now have little doubt. Whatever gift it was the Guardian commanded Osdath to find, it was far rarer than gold. Your brother was the first to possess it, and perhaps the only one.”
“What do you mean?”
“In the years of his search, Osdath examined hundreds of boys. But never once did he deem a single one worthy of selection.”
Sedwin leans forward, and lowers his voice like one about to pass on a guarded secret.
“Except for your brother.”