“Till?” Stellia jumps up from the tree trunk, almost knocking Sedwin over. “But why? What could it be that Osdath saw in him?”
“I don’t know,” Sedwin says. “But one thing is certain. Your brother is special, Stellia, special in some way that neither you nor we can see or know, but that Osdath saw at once.”
“How is this possible?” Stellia starts pacing; it seems the only way to keep her head from spinning. “Till is a sweet child, and bright for his age, but he has no mind for matters of the Faith! He can barely recite a single verse of the Scriptures without mistakes, and when the Parson asks him a question at Guidance, I always have to whisper the answer to him. What about him could attract Her Holiness’s eye?”
“Would that I could answer that,” Sedwin says.
Garroth turns away from his gazing at the distant village. “It is your turn now, girl, to provide an answer. Think carefully, and try to remember every detail of Lord Osdath’s visit to your home. Was there anything at all that happened, anything that was said, that would tell us the least thing about why he decided to take your brother?”
“I remember only what Lord Osdath said to us, when he—” Suddenly, amidst the turmoil of unanswered questions and painful memories, one thought flashes brightly in Stellia’s mind, outshining all others. She stops her pacing. “His dreams. As the soldiers took him away, I asked Till of what Lord Osdath had spoken to him. He said that he asked about his dreams.”
Garroth spits out the rosemary sprig. “What dreams?”
“Nightmares,” Stellia says. “He’s always had them, since he was very little, or at least since he could tell us about them.”
“Can you describe them?”
“It’s the same dream every time,” Stellia says. “He says that he stands in a high place, and that there is water far below. The sun is shining, and he hears music in the distance. There is a man with him, too, but he can’t see his face, even when he looks at him. He says he is not afraid in the dream, just terribly sad. In the next moment, he is alone, and falling down, into the water.”
The two men exchange a glance.
“That’s when the dream ends,” Stellia says. “He wakes up in tears. I have to hold him, and sing to him, so he can go back to sleep.”
“Strange indeed,” Sedwin mutters. “Why would a small boy dream of such things?”
“I don’t know. We went to the Parson, to see if nothing could be done to stop the nightmares. He said they were a warning from the Shaper, because Till used to play near the creek with the other boys, or go out on the pond with the miller’s children in their boat, and climb trees.”
“Things all boys are fond of doing,” Garroth says. “Where’s the harm?”
“The Parson said the dreams foreboded that Till might fall from a tree and break his neck, or drown in the creek or the pond. The man in the dreams was our father, he said, from whom Till would feel sad to be parted if such a thing should happen. He told us that a warning from the Shaper had to be heeded, otherwise the nightmares would not go away.”
Garroth purses his lips. “It may be so, at that. I’ve always heard it said that dreams come from the Shaper.”
“But Till stopped going near the water, and climbing trees,” Stellia says. “My father forbade it, after what the Parson said. Now all my brother’s friends think him a coward, and the dreams still haven’t gone away!” She expels her breath in an angry puff. “The Parson says it is because in his heart, Till still yearns to do what he was warned against. But what if these dreams mean something else entirely?”
Sedwin fixes her with an intense, almost anxious gaze. “What do you think that could that be?”
“I’ve no idea,” Stellia admits. “But it must be more than just a warning about children’s games, to be of interest to a man like Lord Osdath.”
Another glance passes between the two men, more furtive than before. Garroth shrugs.
“Osdath is an adept of many arcane disciplines,” he says. “To most people, he is known as the head of the Council of Twelve, and the Guardian’s right hand and lieutenant, though I daresay few know what he actually does. His official title is Custodian of the Holy Sciences. He is a master not only of religious learning, but also of cosmology, cosmogony, and eschatology, exceedingly well versed in astronomy, and more than competent in the mathematical arts, to name but a few of his qualifications. Consider this, and any number of reasons come to mind why he might have thought to inquire about your brother’s dreams. Whether he actually conjectured some hidden meaning in them is anyone’s guess.”
“He must have,” Stellia says. “I think my brother’s dreams have some significance our Parson did not see. Enough for Osdath to decide to take Till with him. But to what end?”
“If Osdath’s purposes could be divined through talk, we would long have known them.” Garroth turns brusquely away and begins to untether the horses from the pine tree by which they wait. “It is time we got on our way. And you as well, girl.”
Sedwin nods as he accepts the reins of his sorrel from Garroth. “Your parents will be overjoyed to see you.”
“Will you send me news of my brother?”
“We told you all we know, in this regard.” With a grunt, Garroth climbs into his saddle. “Unwise as I think it was to do so.”
“But you are riding after Osdath, are you not? Surely you will learn something more!” Stellia struggles against the urge to snatch the reins from Sedwin’s hands, to keep him from leaving. A moment now, and they’ll be gone. So suddenly, so finally. “Please,” she begs. Tears well up in her eyes. “You are the only hope I have of learning my brother’s fate.”
Sedwin takes a step toward her, then halts, undecided. He looks to Garroth. The older man turns away, as though to say: I’m washing my hands of this.
“Tell me this at least,” Stellia says. “Where is Lord Osdath taking Till? You must have some idea!”
“North,” Sedwin says. “That is certain. If it’s the Guardian who wants your brother, he will be brought to Hestia. It is likely Osdath will pass through the Great Sundrance of Silence on the way. With luck, we’ll catch up with him there, and find out more.”
Behind him, the sorrel stallion neighs and strains against the reins, eager to depart.
“We will send news,” he says. “If we can.”
He lifts a hand to touch Stellia’s face. For a moment, he hesitates, then, very gently, he wipes a tear from her damp cheek. Even as he smiles to give her courage, she sees the uncertainty in his eyes.
He is afraid to promise it. Or knows better.
“Now hurry home, Stellia. And be safe.” With that, he turns away and mounts his horse.
The stallions rear, then the two men spur them in a gallop down the hillside.
Stellia looks after them until they have become a pair of shadowy flecks moving swiftly through maquis and olive groves toward the long row of hawthorn bushes that line the road leading north, away from Phoros. She is alone with the pine trees and sage brush, and the mournful calls of the unseen owls. She casts one last look after the distant riders.
Which of the tiny figures is Sedwin?
She can no longer tell, and that saddens her even more, because it matters somehow that it should be him on whom her eyes rest last before he is gone, lost to her sight, with so little hope of ever seeing him again. Why it matters, she cannot say—or perhaps she could, if she had the time to dwell on the feeling. Perhaps it is best that she does not. One last time she searches the two riders in the distance, but she can no longer find them.
Then she begins her descent into the valley.
NEXT: A Question of Honor