It is late afternoon when Stellia wakes up.
Downstairs she finds her mother busy shelling field beans for the evening meal. Normally, she performs such tasks with an almost meditative calm. Now she seems restless, uneasy.
“Where did father go?” Stellia asks. “Is he working in the shed?”
“Eat.” Her mother nods toward the honeycomb on the table. “Do you want more milk with it?”
“No.” The last meal Stellia truly enjoyed consisted of the wilted apples and dry bread she shared with Sedwin and Garroth, under the pine trees of the Thorns.
The door opens, and afternoon sunlight streams into the house. Her father enters, and behind him, the Parson. A rock drops into Stellia’s stomach. Seeing the Parson reminds her of the day Till was taken from them, while he stood by and did nothing. His presence here today can only mean one thing. He’s convinced her father that his daughter’s return must not simply be accepted as a token of good fortune.
The Parson looks nervously around the room as he enters, as though he, too, is thinking of the last time he was here, and as though he half expects the red-belted stranger to step out of the shadows. Her parents bid him sit down. He takes a seat at the table across from Stellia, politely refuses a bowl of milk her mother offers him, and waits for them to leave. Her mother goes upstairs; the floorboards above creak softly with her movements. Her father steps out of the house again, and Stellia hears the barn door being opened.
She is alone with the Parson.
For a few moments, they sit in awkward silence.
The Parson smiles his uneasy little smile, clasps and unclasps his fleshy fingers. He asks her if she has rested. She tells him she has. He has not come merely to ask about her well-being, she knows that. It worries her. He is knowledgeable about the Scriptures, and the Shaper and His Laws. But she has always thought him blind to the living, breathing people around him. When his mousy little eyes rest on a person, which they rarely do for more than seconds at a time, he can no more recognize the good or the evil in them than he can see the back of his own head. His shortcomings never seemed to matter much, as long as he taught the children to read and write, and offered his blessings to the newborn and his comforts to the dying. But now, without yet knowing why, Stellia feels a sense of menace in his presence. She realizes why he’s here. Oh, she can see it all too clearly—in his eyes, in his clammy pretenses at sympathy.
He hasn’t come to help her, or to find out the truth of her ordeal. He’s come to get even. When Osdath and Hayrolf took Till, she challenged him to do something about it, and thereby called attention to his uselessness, his weakness, and his impotence.
Now he wants revenge.
“Recount for me what happened to you,” he says. “During the raid on the village, and after.”
Stellia tells him the truth, with the same abridgments she applied when recounting the story to her parents. Sedwin and Garroth remain nameless, and she does not mention their intent to follow Lord Osdath and discover Till’s fate. She was lucky, she once again asserts, incredibly lucky, to have survived her abduction, with her body as well as her virtue intact, due to the bravery and compassion of two strangers.
The Parson asks her a few questions about the brigands, about the camp she was rescued from. Did she partake of any food or drink offered her by her captors? No, she tells him, only by the men who saved me from them. What manner of food, and where did it come from? Did it have any peculiar taste? Did she fall asleep, while she was with these men, and if so, for how long? Is she certain she was awake at all times?
Some of his questions strike Stellia as absurd.
Did she have dreams or visions of any kind, in which she heard voices? Several times, he asks her to recount in detail her conversations with the two men. Stellia takes care to repeat the exact same, much abridged account, leaving out her rescuers true names and all they told her about their interest in Osdath’s mission.
In the end, the Parson asks her to wait, and steps out of the house.
For a few minutes, Stellia is alone. Her mother has stopped walking around upstairs, and aside from the calls of various birds outside and the buzzing of a large fly that is darting about the room, everything is utterly quiet. But something is not right, of this she is certain. Why do her parents care so much about the details of her rescue, when they should worry about Till, about their son? Where is he, is he well, will they see him again? Those are the questions that should occupy their minds—and the Parson should be helping them find answers, not interrogating her!
She hears footsteps approaching. Her father enters, alone.
His face is a rigid mask.