By the time Tylvanor has managed to collect enough halfway dry wood to keep a fire going, darkness has descended on the forest.
The rain has not abated; on the contrary, it has grown heavier. Stellia can hear it pelting the leaves of the trees, and the ground outside the cave. Were she in her own bed, in her parents’ house, the sound would lull her to sleep. But although their campsite, a few yards into the cave mouth, is dry and comfortable enough, she can’t bring herself to lie down and close her eyes.
For one thing, Tylvanor quickly and bluntly identified the musty odor permeating the air as the stink of bat filth. The very thought makes Stellia’s skin crawl. The vastness of the wilderness around them, and the sense of being lost and vulnerable in the middle of it, also weigh on her mind. Until a few nights ago she never once slept in the open, and this place may be the farthest she’s ever been from any human habitation. But most frightening is the way the cave extends into impenetrable darkness just a few feet from where she and Tylvanor sit.
Who could fool oneself into feeling safe here, just because of a guttering little campfire made of sticks and dead leaves? How long will it even burn?
As if sensing her unease, Tylvanor places another branch on the fire. Most of the wood is fir; the resin crackles as it boils inside the wood and sends blackish smoke into the air. At least it covers up the smell of bat excrement a bit. Earlier, a swarm of the creatures rushed over their heads, out into the night. Stellia was convinced that some beast or monster must have stirred inside the cave and caused the bats to flee from their perches. But Tylvanor assured her that they were merely determined to seek food, in spite of the rain.
Food is becoming a problem for them, as well.
They finished the last of Uncle Ezriyon’s rolls at noon, and all they have left for dinner is a heel of dry bread. Tylvanor still has a few shriveled carrots in his satchel, and some beets he pulled from some garden days ago, and they chew these as they sit around the fire. It’s not the most satisfying meal. Tylvanor has placed several traps near the cave entrance to snare a rabbit or squirrel, but in this weather, it seems doubtful that any such animals will be about. He is confident that they’ll be better able to find food once the storm passes, especially since there’s always fresh mushrooms after a heavy rainfall.
Stellia prays that they will reach Talvain before she has to take a chance on any mushrooms Tylvanor may pick, even if it means she’ll be famished by then. He claims to know how to survive in the wilderness, but Stellia is more and more convinced that he is better skilled at breaking into pantries and stealing from markets and gardens than he is at foraging or hunting. Come to think of it, aside from knowing how to build fires, most of the knowledge he has displayed so far seems more connected to a life in civilized society than to that of a footloose ranger.
Stellia bites into one more leathery carrot. “Tell me about your queen.”
“Ingharad?” Tylvanor gives her a strange look across the sputtering fire. There is something in his eyes—caution? Suspicion? She can’t tell. He turns and spits onto the cave floor. “Why do you ask?”
“I’ve heard so many different things about her,” Stellia says. “Of her piety, and of her beauty, her fair face. Is that not what the byname means she was given as a child?”
“Cindrica,” Tylvanor says, and wrinkles his nose. “Fair-of-Face, yes. I suppose she is that, though it’s been some time since I heard the name used. She’s too many other, more saintly ones, these days. What else have you heard?”
“More recently, I was told that she has a reputation for cruelty.”
Tylvanor raises an eyebrow. “Were you? And there I thought all you would have heard is your village Parson braying about how the Champion of the Faith smote the wicked in Okast.”
“I have heard that tale, also,” Stellia says. “Many times, in fact. More recently, a less glowing account, as well.”
“And who was the brave soul who told you that one?”
Stellia hesitates. “One of the men we’re trying to find.”
Hopefully, she is not saying too much.
“Truly? I can’t wait to meet them.”
“But is it so? Is your queen cruel, and ruthless?”
Tylvanor pulls a half-burnt twig from the fire and pokes around in the flames. A small eruption of embers rises into the darkness of the cave.
“It should always make you suspicious, when someone is known by too many flattering names. They’re like the surfeit of perfume meant to cover up some horrid stench. But simple minds will always prefer sweet-smelling deceptions to ugly truths.”
“And minds that are not so simple?”
Tylvanor gives her a wary glance over the fire. “They watch what they say, these days. The Stillborn Queen has spies everywhere.”
“The Stillborn Queen?” Stellia frowns. “I’ve not heard her called that before.”
“Everyone calls her that, in Baramond,” Tylvanor says. “It’s still too flattering, if you ask me, but it’s the one truth you can speak about her that won’t land you on a rack. You truly don’t know the tale?”
Stellia shakes her head.
“The story goes that when Ingharad was born, she neither stirred nor breathed,” Tylvanor says. “The royal midwives declared her stillborn, when all of a sudden, she moved and cried and lived. Alas, her mother did not fare so well. Queen Lannorath died in childbed, as if the birth of that fiend wasn’t misfortune enough. Baramond would be a nobler realm today, had Ingharad truly been stillborn.”
“So that’s what’s behind it,” Stellia says. “Our Parson sometimes called her Ingharad of Wondrous Birth. I thought it was just another honorific.”
“Oh, these sheep-brained Parsons naturally used that story to make Ingharad appear even holier. The Shaper meant for her to live, that she should become the Defender of the Faith! That’s the kind of stuff they bleat to their congregations. I’ve heard that some of Ingharad’s knights and commanders believe that no weapon can harm them as long as the Queen of Baramond watches over them. The foolishness! But it seems that even the Guardian has swallowed all this rubbish.”
Stellia is taken aback by the heat in his words. Clearly, if he harbored any suspicions about her that made him careful of what to say, he has decided to abandon his caution.
“I wouldn’t pretend to know the Shaper’s designs,” she mutters. “But it does make me wonder, why He would grant life to one so keen on taking it from others.”
“Wonder all you want.” Tylvanor breaks the charred stick in half and casts it into the flames. “It’ll never make sense.”
“If what I was told is true, Queen Ingharad must be a hard woman, indeed, and I am bewildered that her people should regard her as highly as they do. But it seems to me that you harbor a singular hatred for her. Why is that?”
Tylvanor’s eyes narrow, and he looks at her with that mix of suspicion and wariness again. But there is something else in his eyes this time, too. Is it fear? Or—
He jumps up, kicking dust into the fire. “Horses!”
NEXT: Another Reunion