The country through which they ride is very different from Till’s home.
First and foremost, it is much greener. When they aren’t riding through forests, they travel through endless expanses of tall grass, shrubs, and bushes. Near evening, when the always cloud-veiled sun is sinking behind the mountains, the landscape begins to change. Till sees pastureland with herds of cows and sheep, and fields of grain, and a walled town in the distance. Beyond it, a brooding forest stretches into the horizon. On the road, they encounter men and women carrying farming tools on their way home after a day’s work in the fields.
When the soldiers ride past, the people stop to look at the procession. No doubt they are trying to work out who this little boy might be to rise in such company, flanked by a young woman and a grey-haired old man. They don’t seem to recognize the Guardian and Lord Osdath, Regardless, Till feels that he must look very important to have so many spearmen riding with him, and he rather likes that.
“Where are we?” he asks the Guardian.
She has told him that he may call her Hargis, rather than address her as Guardian or My Lady, or even Your Holiness, and while he has come to think of her by that name—which he secretly thinks doesn’t sound very nice, for a girl—he is still too shy to address her by it, and so he doesn’t call her anything at all.
“This is the town of Heathensfall,” she tells him. “We will make camp outside its walls for the night. In the morning the men will visit the market, and purchase supplies. Lord Osdath will take you, if you wish.”
“I would like that,” Till says.
That night, as he prepares to go to sleep in the tent he shares with Lord Osdath, Till decides to ask a question that has been on his mind for some time. “Is the Guardian always a woman?”
Lord Osdath looks up from the book he is reading by the brazier that heats the tent. “It puzzles you that all of these men should be commanded by one so young, and a woman at that.”
Heat rises into Till’s cheeks. Did Osdath read his mind?
“Why, no,” he stammers. “But—well, at home, it would never happen. My sister, she’s very smart, but still, it’s my father who tells her what to do, and it’s the same with all the girls and women. Except my mother. Sometimes my father listens to her.”
“Well, there you go,” Osdath says. He smiles, and speaks gently, but his blue eyes are very serious. “The Guardian is a mother to us all, in her way.”
That bewilders Till even more.
“What I mean,” Lord Osdath explains, “is that just as you listen to your mother because you know that she loves you and only wants what is best for you, and your father no doubt respects her for the same reasons, so we obey the Guardian because we know that her counsel is just and benevolent, and that she labors for the good of all.”
Till thinks this over. “But what about the Emperor?”
Lord Osdath frowns. “What about him?”
“My mother may tell my father what she thinks should be done,” Till says. “But in the end he is the one that decides. Sometimes my mother gets upset when he does something she doesn’t like. But she can’t tell him not to do it. And the Emperor, when there is an Emperor on the throne, I mean, surely he does not have to obey the Guardian when he doesn’t want to?”
“The Emperor wields great power,” Osdath says. “But the Guardian’s counsel represents the will of the Shaper. No Emperor of Hestia has ever rejected it.”
“But if he did?” Till can’t let go of the subject. He’s always thought of the Emperor as an all-powerful man who didn’t have to listen to anyone, and of the Guardian as someone much like the Parson in Phoros who attends births and deaths with his Shard and his prayers, and preaches the Scriptures to the people three times a week. That she should be able to tell the Emperor what to do is baffling news indeed!
“He cannot reject it,” Osdath says. “The Emperors of Hestia have ever been bound by a sacred oath to obey the Guardian’s counsel, for by her guidance the Emperor will one day rule all the world. That, too, is the Shaper’s decree.”
“All the world?” Till is not sure how big the world is. But he has done quite a bit of traveling by now and seen something new every day. No doubt one could go on and on and on traveling, without ever reaching the end of one’s road. The world must certainly be very big.
“All the world,” Osdath says. “One day all lands will have sworn fealty to Hestia, and all that live in them will have accepted the Faith.”
“But what will happen to those that don’t want to? There must be some. Like the bandits in the Thorns. The Parson always says they are a faithless rabble.”
“There are such. But they are fated to surrender to us in the end. All of mankind will enter into the Faith, and their souls be commended to the keeping of the Shaper.”
The world. All of mankind. The words make Till dizzy.
How can one imagine all mankind? How many people are there in the world, anyway? There must be thousands and thousands!
As he tries to grasp these things, he begins to realize how great Hargis’s power must be. He has been frightened of her since that morning at the Sundrance when she made him fall asleep—he is as convinced as ever that it was so—but now he is filled with awe as well as fear. He tries to hold in his mind the idea of who she is: the Guardian, who can tell emperors what they must do, because the Shaper Himself wants it so.
“There’ve never been men Guardians?”
“Never,” Osdath tells him. “It is a sacred tradition, and has been so since the beginning.”
The beginning. This is something Till never really thought about before. Of course the Parson often talked about how there was once a time when mankind was ignorant and lived in darkness and didn’t know about the Shaper, but that always seemed more like just a story to him, something that happened so long ago it didn’t really matter anymore. As far as Till was concerned, the Faith had simply always been there, which meant there had always been a Guardian, as well.
“How did it happen, really? I mean, how was the first Guardian—” He can’t think of the proper way to say it. “How was she made?”
Osdath closes his book. A small cloud of dust billows into the smoky air.
“Have you ever heard the tale of the Penitent King?”
NEXT: A Sinner’s Fate