40. Hot on the Trail

Stellia is shocked to see how light the sky has already grown.

Yakkon piles the flour-dusted rushes on the rubbish heap in a corner of the garden, next to the tall lilac bush.

“I hear you’ve become quite the horseman,” he says. “Or horsewoman, rather.”
“I managed to come here without breaking my neck,” Stellia says. “And in very few hours, at that.”

“That bodes well.” Yakkon smiles. He has immaculate teeth, unlike his little brother Oraxas, who is far too fond of all things sweet. “You really can’t stay for the midday meal? Mother is making her famous rabbit stew.”

“Tempting. But I must ride back. Father needs the mare.”

“I see.” Yakkon’s eyes reflect his disappointment—this is new, and somehow disquieting—but the smile remains. “Next time, then.”

“That would be lovely.” Stellia glances over her shoulder at the door to the bake-house. “I have a question I meant to ask uncle, but perhaps you can tell me, as well.”

“I’ll do my best. What is it?”

“Several days ago, two strangers came to my father’s shop to have a broken wheel repaired on their wagon. They said they had business further north that they wished to take care of in the meantime, and that they would return in a short while. Now father’s finished the repairs, but so far those men have not come back, and they have yet to pay him for the work. I wonder if perhaps they passed through Godossas.”

“Travelers do pass through here quite often,” Yakkon says. “And many come to our shop. Can you describe these men?”

“One was younger than the other, only a few years older than you, I think. His hair was reddish-blond, as was his beard. The other was taller, of powerful build, and quite a bit older, closer to uncle in years, and his hair and beard were dark brown. They spoke with an accent, as though they were from Hestia and not from Taronnis. Both left on horseback, one on a dun stallion, the other on a sorrel.”

“One ginger and one dark-haired, on a dun and a sorrel.” Yakkon rubs his chin. A fuzzy growth of beard has begun to appear there, which was not present last time Stellia saw him. His expression brightens. “Yes, I have seen these men. They did look a tad rough, especially the dark fellow. They came to our shop, yesterday at noon, and bought a large supply of bread and oatcakes. Their demeanor was stern, and they spoke little, though they were courteous enough. I thought them soldiers, they had that air about them.”

“Truly?” It’s hard to conceal her excitement. She’s on the right track! And a mere day’s ride behind them!

“Yes,” Yakkon continues. “Father mentioned that the innkeeper also saw them, later that day. They purchased several gourds of wine, and two small barrels of ale, I think it was. You seem very happy to hear this.”

“Why, no,” Stellia stammers. “I’m just pleased to be able to give father some news of them, at least.”

“I fear the news is not so good. These men were seen leaving Godossas by the North Road, and judging by the supplies they bought, I’d say they were prepared for a longer journey. If that is so, they may have decided to abandon their wagon, Stellia.”

“Oh.” Stellia does her best to look crestfallen.

“But one never knows,” Yakkon adds quickly, offering an encouraging smile. “It may also be that it’s all part of the business they mentioned to your father, and that they mean to return to Phoros once that’s finished.”

The genuine concern in his voice, and his attempt to lift her spirits, make Stellia feel altogether rotten again for all the lies she’s telling. Even so, she barely manages to conceal her relief.

“That’s possible, of course. Let’s hope it is so.”

She does feel nearly faint with hope, though for quite a different reason. But every moment’s delay is unbearable now.

“Thank you, Yakkon.” She raises herself on the tips of her boots and kisses him on the cheek. “I must get ready to return home, or father will be cross with me, and not let me have the horse again any time soon.”

“We would not want that.” Yakkon’s handsome face turns crimson. After a moment, he mutters, “I least of all.”

But Stellia is already back inside, to take leave from her uncle, and her aunt, and young Oraxas, with whom she has barely exchanged a word.

NEXT: Ambush


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