Stellia has become the instrument of evil.
At least that’s what the Parson suspects, according to Stellia’s mother.
In the evening, she brings Stellia’s dinner to her room. Stellia doesn’t have much of an appetite, but her mother insists that she needs to keep her strength. And so Stellia eats soup and bread, mechanically, without joy, while her mother sits on Till’s empty bed and talks.
The Parson, she explains, claims that Stellia is no longer master of her own mind, that she was given false memories by some means, possibly through the use of food tainted with potions and dubious herbs, causing her to forget the truth and to remember things that did not really happen. This has been done to her, he claims, by evil heretics in the Thorns so that she could be returned to Phoros under the guise of perfect innocence while in truth, unbeknownst to even herself, harboring some dreadful scheme to spread sin, wickedness, and destruction.
As contrived and malicious as this idiotic story is, the futility of arguing against such a narrative is abundantly clear.
“What great evil,” Stellia asks, “does the Parson think a girl of barely seventeen summers might unleash, willingly or otherwise, on his parish?”
In response, her mother—missing the sarcasm in the question—rattles off the jumble of platitudes and tarradiddle she was told by the Parson: how the greatest perils work on the spirit and not on the flesh, that they manifest in their true nature only when it is too late, and that there are many ill deeds that can be done, unnoticed even, by one who possesses neither great strength nor other power. The Parson cited, in the way of example and evidence, the case of a small hamlet far to the Northeast, the name of which he was unable to recollect, where a four year-old boy had poisoned the only well, causing everyone in the village to die within a single day. The child itself was later found, half-starved, wandering the neighboring woods.
Stellia wants to point out that tricking a small child into throwing something down a well by telling it some fanciful story—perhaps that a unicorn will come flying out as a result—is a very different thing from turning a young woman against all whom she loves. But there is no use in making such arguments. No doubt the story isn’t even true.
“Do not worry,” her mother says. “Tomorrow, the Parson will take you to Maltaros. He has already sent for a Summoner to come there from Anirri, a man of great wisdom and experience in such matters. He is to question you, to see if your mind holds any evil. I have faith that the truth will be found, and that you are as innocent as you say.”
“And if they conclude otherwise?”
“You should not say such things.” Her mother gets up, and takes the empty bowl and plate from her. She kisses Stellia on the forehead. “Have faith. It will be all right.”
She leaves after that, and locks the door behind her.
Her mother, who has become her jailer.
Stellia clenches her jaws. The pain she feels seems no less severe than the blow she was dealt by her brigand captor. More so, for it isn’t followed by merciful unconsciousness.
First to lose Till. Then her parents, to whom she looked for comfort and guidance.
Because they are lost, in the Parson’s twisted fears of sinister conspiracies. Half a day. That’s all it took for them to become strangers to her, to begin looking at their own daughter through the suspicious eyes of another.
She wants to jump up, run downstairs and scream at them: Why could you not trust me? I trusted you, always!
Instead, they put her at the mercy of a man whose mind is as rigid as a cresset pole, and let her endure the indignity of cold, bony fingers probing her flesh.
As if a woman’s virtue could be located nowhere else!
Anger mixes with her grief, her despair.
The foolishness of them all!
Not only did they betray her—there is no other way to feel about what happened, no matter how she tries—the are betraying Till, as well. Instead of squandering precious time with the Parson’s absurd notions, they should do what they can to find out about their son’s fate.
Stellia begins pacing in the narrow space between the two beds. With every step, her anger and frustration grow.
If only she could tell them what Sedwin had revealed to her about Osdath, of the lies he told them and so many other families about the nature of his search, and how he had in truth been looking for just one child, one boy, for some unknown purpose. But Sedwin has sworn her to secrecy, lest she endanger him and Garroth.
They wouldn’t listen, anyway.
And if they did, if she could convince her parents to ask questions about Lord Osdath’s true motives?
The Parson would no doubt contend that such an inquiry was proof that their daughter’s treachery had infected them as well, poisoning their minds so that they imputed nefarious schemes to the doings of pious men. Stellia can already hear him lamenting the ill fortune that befell her family, while at the same time, and more loudly, crowing his satisfaction to see his suspicions confirmed, and praising his own vigilance by which their treason was forestalled from spreading further.
They’d all end up facing the Summoner’s inquiry together.
A sense of menace creeps up her spine with a thousand icy legs.
What if the Summoner confirms the Parson’s theory, and judges her an ally of heretics?
She’s read stories of how these men deal with cases of heresy. The interrogations themselves are described as harsh, torture being applied to particularly recalcitrant subjects. Few, if any, of the examinations she read about ended with the accused being pronounced innocent. The mildest sentence was life-long imprisonment. More often than not, execution was deemed to be more effective, and a better deterrent to others, as well.
Stellia is not so brave that neither of these possibilities strike terror in her heart. But it is Till of whom she thinks most, and the fact that she would never have another chance to help him, were she consigned to a dungeon, or the gallows.
She stops her pacing, sits down once more on her bed, and stares at the locked door, willing herself to be calm, to think clearly. When the light of the evening sun has yielded to shadow, she walks to the window, and watches the final sliver of crimson disappear behind the distant hills.
No, mother. Nothing will be all right.
Not if I stay.