Again, Stellia tests the knot with which she has tied the bed sheets to the mullion of her window.
The irony of what she is about to do is not lost on her. For years, Till was the one forbidden from climbing trees, while all she ever wanted was to sit under them and read. Not in their wildest dreams would her parents ever have imagined that she might climb up anything.
Still, she feels neither clever nor triumphant. All she can think of is the grief her parents will feel when they find her gone in the morning. No doubt they will see her escape as proof of the Parson’s theory, and he will glut his self-importance on their dismay and confusion. It can’t be helped. If only they worried more about Till than about the Parson’s harebrained theories! It’s as if they succumbed to some kind of madness that left them unable to see what really mattered.
But their madness will not keep them from missing her, nor her from missing them.
The full moon beyond the rectangle of the window begins to flicker and swim. Stellia wipes the tears away with her sleeve.
If she does this, can she ever come home again?
Of course she can. And she’ll be bringing Till home with her!
She slips on the coat that was stored in the chest at the foot of her bed, awaiting the cold and rainy days of winter. It is made of fine thick wool, and will keep her warm in the out-of-doors.
One last time she takes in the small room where, until two nights ago, she’s slept nearly every night of her life, and for the last six years with Till but a few feet away.
And if she does not find him, or is unable to return him here?
She pushes the thought away.
“I will find you, little brother,” she whispers to the empty room. “I swear it.”
She gives the bed sheet a final tug. The mullion creaks, but the knot holds. She swings one leg over the window sill. Her stomach squirms as she looks down. If only she had spent more time climbing trees! Standing in the yard, she never thought her room was so far above the ground, but as she straddles the sill, it is like she is peering down a cliff. If she falls, and sprains or breaks an ankle, her journey will come to a swift and irrevocable end. The window will be secured against further attempts. Or, more likely, the Parson will lock her in the cellar underneath the Cresset Hall for the night.
She wraps the sheet around her wrist and tightly grips the cloth with both hands. She swings her other leg over the sill.
She’s never given much thought to her own weight. She’s not fat, on the contrary, her mother constantly exhorts her to eat more, saying she is too skinny.
As she hangs from the sheet, Stellia feels that her body must be as heavy as a horse’s. She won’t be able to support her own weight for long, let alone climb down hand over hand as she had imagined. Nor does she find any foothold. She is going to fall. She tries to brace herself with her feet. With a thud, her shoes hit the wooden beam that runs through the wall.
Too loud, too loud!
She loosens her grip on the fabric—and immediately slides downward.
The sheet turns into a burning rope in her hands. She stifles a scream. A moment later, her feet touch the ground, and she lets go. Her knees are shaking. Above her, the sheets sways back and forth in the cool midnight breeze.
Stellia stands still and listens. She hears the usual night sounds, wind in the leaves of the mulberry tree, an owl hooting somewhere, a dog barking in the distance. Louder than all of these is the sound of her heart pounding in her chest, in her head. But no door is opened, no light lit. Her parents are still sleeping, unaware of her descent.
She slinks along the side of the house toward the barn. Underneath the pantry window, she pauses and briefly considers sneaking back into the house to take some provisions. But it’s too risky, and besides, it would feel too much like stealing. It’s bad enough that she has no choice but to take Phylia, her father’s piebald mare.
As she approaches the barn, she hears the animal softly snorting. Less than a year ago, her father bought the mare on the market in Maltaros, a sturdy beast, good as a mount and, more importantly, strong enough to pull a cart, as well. Stellia has rarely seen him smile so much as when he is caring for the horse, brushing her, bringing her oats in the evening, talking softly to the beast. The mare’s absence will cause him tremendous grief. But she can hardly catch up with Sedwin and Garroth on foot, if she can find them at all.
Stellia lifts the latch of the barn gate and slips inside.
A slender shaft of moonlight shines through the small window on the side. Shadowy shapes line the walls: wheels, axles, many lengths of wood, and his saws, axes, and awls. The tools and implements of her father’s work. The mare stands in her stall, eyeing Stellia with curiosity. In a smaller pen next to the horse, Till’s goat, Ados, lies in his bed of hay. He bleats softly when he spots Stellia. She retrieves Phylia’s bridle and saddle from where they hang on the side of her stall. She has watched her father put the gear on the horse many times. Hopefully, Phylia will suffer her to do it, to say nothing of the question whether she will let Stellia ride her. She’s been on the mare a couple of times, her father holding the reins and carefully walking the horse in circles in the yard. As for a ride at speed, over land and through forests, well…
One step at a time.
The saddle is heavier than she thought. She speaks softly to Phylia as she secures it, and the mare remains calm as Stellia secures the saddle and bridle. The last step is the riskiest: she must walk Phylia away from the house without being heard.
Phylia’s hooves make a dull sound on the dry earth of the yard. Not loud enough to wake any but the lightest sleepers. Passing through the deep shadow under the mulberry tree, they reach the gate.
As Stellia lifts the latch, her heart grows heavy. Will she, in truth, ever return home?
If only she could leave behind a letter, to tell her parents that she left to find Till, that no malicious enchantment drove her from her home but her love for her brother, a love so strong that even if she were touched by some evil, its power would never be great enough to turn her from this purpose or break her will to save him.
Perhaps she will be able to send a message from somewhere along the road. It is something to hope for, at the very least.
Stellia takes a last look at the house.
A soft breeze stirs the leaves of the mulberry tree. She has never seen her home like this, so silent, with all its windows dark; a mere shadow against the glittering band of stars that spans the night sky like a trail of luminous frost: the Shaper’s Road. The familiar roof looks small and insignificant beneath these vast and icy heavens, a fragile haven sheltering everything and everyone she holds dear in life.
She turns away with a sigh, and steps with Phylia through the gate, and onto the road.
NEXT: A Talk With Brother Frithil