Stellia’s mother is in tears.
Her father looks on with a face of stone as she clutches Stellia to her, muttering blessings and giving thanks to the Shaper that her daughter is back. Stellia herself recites countless blessings and prayers of gratitude as well, out loud and in her thoughts, upon finding that her father is alive. His head is bandaged—after Stellia failed to return with Miphrannos in time, her mother went and summoned the old man herself—and still throbs ferociously, but otherwise he is unharmed.
The initial joy yields swiftly to less cheering considerations. Stellia can tell what he is thinking: alive his daughter may be, but what of her honor?
They sit her down at the table by the fireplace, and her mother serves her stew in a wooden bowl, and apples, and a huge chunk of honeycomb in soured sheep’s milk, so that she may regain her strength. She tells them that she was not mistreated, and fed as well as the circumstances permitted.
When she speaks of her rescuers, her father’s eyes narrow.
“These men were not brigands?”
She shakes her head. “Wanderers, maybe, and men of no clear purpose, but not villains or robbers.”
“How did they know you were taken?”
“Does it matter?” Her mother interrupts. “They saved her from torment, from death, and from disgrace.”
Even she lists the worst of possible fates last, where it looms largest.
“So they aided you against the scoundrel who struck me,” her father says. “Yet when you were seized after that, they did not intervene?”
“I was borne off by a larger group of brigands,” Stellia says. “It would have been foolhardy to attack them openly, and too dangerous.”
“Foolhardy?” Her father scoffs. “Honorable men would have thought nothing of risking their lives to assist a young girl in such distress.”
“They did risk their lives,” Stellia says, “snatching me from the brigands’ camp when they did, instead of rushing into a battle and getting themselves killed without accomplishing anything. I am back here with you because of their prudence.”
Her father takes a deep breath. “If none laid hands on you, who then tore your dress?”
“One of the brigands attempted it,” she says. “But those two men arrived just in time to stop him.”
“Just in time? And did they see you so—” He clears his throat. “So uncovered?”
She sighs. “They took no advantage of my distress, neither with their eyes nor their hands. They even gave me a cloak that I might be warm as well as properly dressed.”
“Saddion,” her mother pleads. “She is safely back with us, because of those strangers. Clearly they did well by her. Why question their motives?”
“Why are they not here, to present her to us? I would have rewarded their deeds in whatever manner I could.”
“They feared to be taken for brigands,” Stellia says, “had someone spotted them approaching the village.”
Her father grumbles something about how honorable men would have no reason to fear such a thing. Stellia is no longer listening. She pushes her bowl away. His questions and suspicions have destroyed her appetite; even the honeycomb, a favorite, does not tempt her now.
“I don’t know who these men were,” she lies. “Or why they did what they did, except that they must have had some decency in their hearts to make them do it. Is that not enough? All I know is that I am glad to be alive, and home again.”
She leaves the question unspoken. It would only make him feel guilty, and that in turn would anger him.
“I am tired,” she says. “May I have leave to go to sleep?”
“Of course,” he says, in a milder tone.
Stellia climbs up the wooden steps, followed by her mother. In the room upstairs, the first brittle rays of the morning sun shine on Till’s untouched bed. Motes of dust drift in the light.
Time stands still.
No wasteland was ever more desolate.
Come,” her mother says, mastering the tears that well up in her eyes. She helps Stellia change into her nightshirt, and brushes her hair sitting on the edge of her bed. After that, she tucks her in, as she hasn’t done since Till was born and most of her affections and her attention turned to the boy.
“I believe you,” her mother says. “But you must understand your father. He knows that there are times when women keep things to themselves, to spare others grief and pain.”
I understand him well enough, Stellia wants to reply. And you, as well. I saw your rage, your grief, your pain, for one brief moment when father lay as dead in the house, and Till was freshly ripped from your bosom. You spoke true then, spoke your heart. But it won’t do for you to make a habit of it.
Nor will it do for me, or help anything, change anything, around here.
And so she allows herself to slip into the welcome forgetfulness of sleep. The last thing of which she is aware is the soft creaking of the shutters, and the room turning pleasantly dark.
NEXT: The Parson’s Revenge