Stellia’s captor sits on a fallen tree, the knapsack between his knees, chewing vigorously on a sugared roll.
A few yards off, her reins tied to one of the sturdier branches of a holly bush, Phylia stands in a patch of fern and nibbles on the young shoots as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
Stellia is in a less comfortable position. Thankfully, her assailant refrained from cutting her throat. He did, however, tie her hands behind the trunk of a young tree. She is forced into an awkward crouch, and she seethes with absolute fury.
He’s just a boy!
An unkempt and filthy one, at that. His black hair looks as though it was cut with a hatchet, and sticks up this way and that like the feathers of a wet crow. It frames a round face dark with dirt. He wears leather britches that look too large for him and have several sizable holes in them. Others seem to have been crudely patched up. His jerkin, also made of leather, is in only slightly better condition. The wide shirt sleeves protruding from it look like moldy canvas. Only his boots still retain a bit of a sheen.
In spite of their present deplorable state, his garments do not appear poorly made. At some point they may not well have been far finer than anything Stellia ever owned. But none of that changes the impression she now has of their wearer. When he plunges his grimy hands into the knapsack filled with her uncle’s beautiful bread and rolls, Stellia wants to scream in revulsion. His fingernails are long as a bird’s talons, and rimmed black with dirt.
He’s young, so young—her own age, at most.
He starts to devour another roll, watching her as he chews. His eyes are rather striking, amber ringed with a darker brown that makes his irises seem aglow as with afternoon sunlight.
“Untie me,” Stellia snarls. “What are you afraid of? You’re the one with the knife!”
He smiles insolently, and speaks with his mouth full. “And then what? You’d up and run, and I’d have to interrupt my breakfast, and catch you all over again.”
Stellia struggles furiously, but his knots are well tied. The rope cuts into her wrists. “Then eat faster! My legs are falling asleep.”
He frowns at her, still chewing. “I am the one with the knife, as you said. Just because I didn’t use it so far doesn’t mean I won’t do it yet, if you keep sassing me.”
“Sassing you!?” Stellia wants to laugh, but stops herself. He may be her own age, but who knows how young some bandits are by the time they commit murder for the first time? Still, she has a hard time imagining this one killing anybody. Something about him seems rather soft. “You sound like my uncle, when he yells at my cousins.”
“The baker. Whose honorable goods you’re sullying with your unwashed hands and mouth.”
“Ah, so the baker is your uncle. I was wondering why you spent so much time in there.” He waves the half-eaten roll through the air and grins. “A capable man.”
By his accent, she can tell that he is not from Taronnis, nor Hestia. He doesn’t sound like the traveling merchants from Okast she’s met in Phoros, either, nor does his soft face have the wolfish cast so common to their features. She can’t place his speech at all. In spite of her anger and disgust, she has to admit that the way he strings his syllables together is not unpleasant, almost melodic.
“You watched me?”
He nods. “I was lying in wait near the bakehouse, hoping for an opportunity to help myself to something from the shop during an unwatched moment. Then you arrived, and, well—” Another insolent smile, another greedy bite and dough-muffled sentence. “Here we are.”
“Yes, here we are,” Stellia says. “And what have you planned next, once you’re done stuffing yourself with stolen bread?”
He wrinkles his nose at the word, but quickly puts on a hard expression when he realizes that she’s seen him do it. “I’ll think of something.”
“You’ll have to kill me, you know,” she says. “Because as soon as I get back to the village, I’ll set every able-bodied man on your trail until you’re in the pillory by the marketplace, where I’ll pelt you with offal and rotten fruit until my arms grow tired.”
“Hah!” He spits crumbs everywhere. “And how would they catch me, or even find me? By the time you’d get back there, I’ll be long gone. No need to cut your throat, unless—”
He pulls his dagger from its scabbard and waves it at her. The blade is spotless and shiny, the one thing he owns, apparently, that’s well cared for.
“Unless I keep sassing you?” Stellia laughs. It may be a mistake to taunt him, but she can’t resist.
He sheathes the dagger again. “Why dirty my hands? All I have to do is walk away, or ride away rather, now that I have your horse, and some pack of wolves or other will do the job for me.”
The remark sobers Stellia. What if he does leave her here, tied to a tree? He might just be capable of that.
The boy shoves the last bit of roll into his mouth. She can barely understand him when he speaks again. “Who are you, anyway?”
“The niece of the man you meant to steal from,” Stellia says. “What more do you care?”
He makes a face. “Maybe if you had a name, and I liked the way it sounds, I might feel more inclined to cut your bonds before I take off.”
“Really? Just for a name, you would do that?”
He shrugs. “What do you have to lose? Unless of course your pride forbids that you let a roving outcast know how to address you.”
Something about the way he says this sounds sad. It is true, after all: if her name is all he asks for the mercy of letting her walk out of these woods, it is a small price to pay.
“Stellia,” she says.
“Stellia? I like it. I may let you go.” He rummages through the knapsack again. “Anything to drink in here? I know they like goat milk, in these parts.”
“What is yours?”
His eyes narrow. “My name? Why would you care to know?”
“Why not? What do you have to lose?”
He puts down the knapsack. “Tylvanor.”
NEXT: A Thief’s Kindness