The fire is the most beautiful thing Stellia has ever seen.
They sit at the edge of the hollow left by the fallen tree’s roots, where Tylvanor piled the dry branches they gathered, and stare into the flames. In the tangle of roots and earth overhanging their fire-pit, spiders and other small creatures flee upwards, away from the light and the heat. Stellia shudders at the sight, but she hopes that no animals living among the earth and fallen leaves had to die a fiery death for her comfort.
She steals a glance at her captor turned savior.
In the copper flicker of the flames, the dirt on his face is not so visible, and he looks less feral, almost dignified. But then everything might appear splendid and noble in this blessed light. She still finds him too soft, especially compared to, just by way of an example, Sedwin’s well-cut features.
“I thought I was going to die here,” she says.
“Just how did you manage to find me?”
“It wasn’t as easy, this time. You made a good choice in leaving the road. Too bad you aren’t equipped for a night in the woods. You’re not equipped for much of anything you set out to do, come to think of it.”
“Don’t I know it,” Stellia sighs. “But why did you come after me this time? Did you change your mind about not robbing me of everything I have?”
“In a way. I went back to your uncle’s bake-house, and spent some time watching it. As I lay in the bushes watching his door, I thought, well, Tylvanor, perhaps you made a rash decision. You could have had her bread, her horse…” His eyes narrow; he’s trying to look his most roguish, like a boy acting the villain. “Could have had her, in fact.”
“Only at knifepoint,” Stellia says. “And over my dead body.”
“If you say so. Anyway, I thought to myself, why do all this dangerous work, stealing from her uncle, risking the pillory and whatnot, when by rights she ought to share her bread and sweet rolls with me, for the kindness I showed her in giving them back.”
“Don’t shout,” Tylvanor says. “It’s risky enough, lighting fires in the wild. No need to holler so that we can be heard for miles around.”
“So, I kept riding until well near dusk, and I thought you’d actually managed to give me the slip. But this is wild country, and it’s a ride of more than two days to the next village. I figured you must have left the road, but where? Fortunately you didn’t bother to be careful about it. A blind man could have found the spot where you turned your mare into the forest, leaving crushed flowers and hoof prints in your wake.”
“What should I have done, in your opinion?”
“Gotten out of the saddle, and led her slowly, of course.” Tylvanor pokes around in the fire with a half-charred stick. Embers dance their way up into the darkness. “Look at you. Trailing two strangers and a mysterious clergyman, one from the Council of Twelve, no less, who travels with a troop of spearmen. And what have you got? A horse and a bag of bread. No weapon, no coin, no gourd to hold water from a stream, and certainly no common sense. You need help.”
“And you’ll provide it? Haven’t you got travelers and honest merchants to rob instead?”
“Go ahead.” He looks somber, of a sudden, without a trace of the insolent smile on his face. “Call me all the things you want. Recite the litany of my crimes. Spit at me if you need to. Get it all out.”
“Don’t act so offended. Considering how we first met, I’d have every reason to call you names.”
“Fine. Be done with it, then, so we can be about our business.”
“What business would that be?”
He wrinkles his nose—he has a way of doing this, Stellia notices, that makes him look even softer than he already does. “Your hopeless cause.”
“If it is so hopeless, why bother helping me?”
Tylvanor shrugs. “Why not? I wasn’t going anywhere in particular. Might as well try to keep you from perishing in the wilderness. And who knows, we might just be headed for an adventure. Or a misadventure, more likely. But even that could prove entertaining.”
“Don’t think me ungrateful,” Stellia says. “But it seems just a bit too noble for someone like you, a little too unselfish.”
“Or perhaps you don’t know the first thing about me.”
“What is it that I should know about you, to make sense of all this?”
“Go to sleep, is what you should do.” Tylvanor pokes around in the fire one last time. “We have a long day’s ride ahead of us.”
“You’re not hoping to win my heart, are you, with this sudden display of gallantry?”
Tylvanor wraps himself in the tattered cloak he brought, stretches out at the rim of the pit, and closes his eyes. “Like I said, not the first thing.”
Stellia has little choice but to sit up alone, or go to sleep as well. She is tired enough.
“Good night,” she murmurs as she tries to get comfortable on the cool earth.
But Tylvanor is already asleep, or else has chosen not to answer.
NEXT: The Road Ahead