Stellia’s father remains standing by the door, as though uncertain whether to sit by her. Or perhaps he means to make sure she will not leave the house.
“The Parson has gone to fetch Aunt Limmiya.”
“Aunt Limmiya?” Stellia exclaims.
Limmiya is not her aunt, nor anyone’s aunt, as far as she knows. A solitary old woman of disagreeable temper, she has come to be named that only due to her intimate familiarity with the women of Phoros, who call upon her during pregnancy, childbirth, and other situations—the kind Stellia has heard her father sum up as ‘women’s troubles’—that require the skills of a midwife and herbalist.
“What need do we have of Limmiya?”
“She will examine you. To ascertain whether—” He makes a face as though he needs to spit out something bitter. “Whether the brigands forced themselves on her.”
“I told you they did not,” Stellia exclaims. “And I told the Parson this, as well. One of them meant to, but the men who saved me—”
Her father silences her with the wave of a hand. “I know what you told us, and no doubt you believe what you said.” At last, his voice grows more tender. “But there may have been forces at work that have clouded your memory, Stellia. He wants to make sure.”
“I would know if anyone had done to me what we are speaking of,” Stellia says. “Nor would I lie about it.”
Her father looks away. “The Parson only wants what is best for you.”
“The Parson? What does the Parson know of what’s best for me, or for anyone, save little children or the moribund?”
“You forget yourself, child.”
“It is Till we are forgetting,” Stellia cries out. “If the Parson truly cared about any of us, he would not have let him be dragged out of our house, while he stood by and rubbed his fat little hands! I want to know what is happening to Till, where he’s being taken, and if we’ll see him again. Why can’t the Parson tell us that, instead of wasting our time with his foolish suspicions?”
“Enough!” her father thunders. “I should have found a husband for you while I still could, instead of indulging your love of books. And what have they taught you? Arrogance and insolence! Go to your room at once. When Limmiya gets here, we will send her to you.”
Stellia is staggered by his words. When did the loving father who took secret pride in his daughter’s erudition become like any other man?
“As you wish,” she mutters, and climbs the stairs to her room.
She sits on her bed and tries not to think about what is to come. She has no choice but to await Aunt Limmiya’s arrival, and let herself be probed by the old woman’s bony fingers. She shudders at the thought. Limmiya has brought many children into the world, and cured many women of certain illnesses. Stellia, too, would one day have known the touch of her skilled hands.
Just not so soon!
As she looks around the small room, Stellia’s gaze comes to rest on Till’s bed by the wall, facing hers. A heaviness gathers in her chest, and her own worries recede into the background of her thoughts.
Where is her little brother at this moment?
In whose company is he, and are they treating him well? How frightened he must be, and how sad, and how much he must miss his parents and his sister. Does father no longer care?
She clenches her jaws and tries to hold back a sob, but it is no good. She buries her face in her pillow, and gives free rein to her grief until her tears and her strength are spent.
The sound of voices downstairs rouses Stellia from a gloomy torpor. She sits up, straining to hear. The voices fall silent, and the wooden stairs outside her room begin to creak under the weight of slow and labored footsteps.
Aunt Limmiya has come.