68. The Golden Owl

As far as Stellia is concerned, the situation has greatly improved.

In addition to a single youth of questionable ability, she now has two swordsmen with her, and she feels much safer. The fire is burning again, and Sedwin and Garroth have oatcakes, fresh apples, and a small supply of shelled almonds and hazelnuts, which they generously share.

Tylvanor, however, looks unhappy in spite of these luxuries.

Garroth’s treatment has left him with a bruise on his shoulder, not to mention a dent in his self-confidence. With a sulk on his face, he quietly nibbles an oatcake while Stellia answers the two men’s many questions, and tells the tale of her ill-fated homecoming to Phoros. Outside, the wind howls past the cave’s entrance. Rain continues to lash the firs and yews.

At the end of her account, Sedwin sighs heavily. “So. Here you are, in the middle of wild and barely inhabited lands, with a little thief for company. I suppose with his help, you might indeed have caught up with us in Talvain. But to what end?”

“To go with you, of course,” Stellia says. “To find Till.”

“Oh? And who says we wish to take you along?”

“I can’t go back home. After my escape, my father and the Parson will be more convinced than ever that I’ve come under some nefarious influence. I’ll be sent to Maltaros to be tried by a Summoner. If you won’t have us, we’ll continue on our own.” She looks at Tylvanor to see if he means to protest his inclusion in her plan. He averts his eyes and says nothing.

“And how far do you think you’ll get,” Garroth says, “a young girl and boy, traveling by yourselves? You will draw attention before long, and questions will be asked of you, to say the least.”

“That’s why we need your help,” Stellia says. “A young girl and boy traveling with kinsfolk, their uncle and a cousin, perhaps, would be far less remarkable, would they not?”

Garroth laughs. “I assume I’m meant to be the uncle? Sedwin’s a bit young for the part.”

Sedwin does not smile. “Osdath has a head start of several days. Having you with us will only slow us down.”

For a moment, Stellia loses her temper. “Fine,” she cries out. “Leave us, then, to make our own way through these lands as best we can. Or hand me over to the reeve in the next town, that he may send me to Phoros to face a Summoner’s inquiry, and likely be jailed, or worse. But I would ask you to consider one thing, before you decide. Whose fault exactly is it, that my own parents will not believe the tale of my rescue from brigands, and instead suspect that I am bewitched, and returned home only to wreak harm there, as some warlock’s poisoned gift?”

“What?” Garroth scowls at her. “Are you blaming us?”

“If you had presented yourself to my parents, instead of stealing away without being seen like a pair of rogues, you could have confirmed what I was saying, and no one would have doubted me.”

“Outrageous,” Garroth puffs. “Present ourselves? They should have been grateful to have you back at all!”

“And I wish they could have been.” Stellia summons a few tears into her eyes. They come easily enough when she thinks of her parents and what they must have felt standing in her empty chamber the morning after her escape. “If you had but come to their door, that they could have seen that my rescuers did in truth exist!”

She buries her face in her palms and sobs. Once she allows herself to cry, it is hard to stop.

“Now, listen to me,” Garroth begins, but then he says no more.

When her tears have at last spent themselves, Stellia looks up. The two men sit before her with sheepish expressions. Tylvanor has stopped chewing his oatcake, and glances furtively from one to the other.

The silence grows heavy between them, its weight made tolerable only by the sounds of rain, wind, and crackling fire. In the end, Sedwin gets up, muttering something about wanting to see to the horses, who have been sheltered further back in the cave, and indicating to Garroth that he would like his assistance. They can be heard arguing in hushed voices in the darkness at the back of the cave. Stellia cannot make out what they are saying.

Tylvanor leans toward her, lowering his voice to a whisper. “Don’t assume I’m so keen on traveling with these two.” He helps himself to another oatcake from Garroth’s satchel, and takes a third one that he stuffs in his pocket. “Especially that bearded fellow. He’s a brute.”

“Maybe you should have come out when I called you, instead of trying to stab him.”

“Speaking of which,” he grumbles. “I want my dagger back.”

“Quiet,” Stellia says. “They’re coming.”

Sedwin and Garroth return to where they sat by the fire.

“Perhaps it would indeed be best if you should travel with us,” Sedwin says. “We would conduct you home at once, which I do not deny is our responsibility, but we cannot afford the time, lest we fail to catch up with Osdath, and your brother. Perhaps if fate is kind to us, we can restore both you and him to your parents in the end.”

“That would be a joyous day,” Stellia says. She wants to cry again, this time out of happiness, but she restrains herself. Best not to let them think that tears come too easily to her.

Garroth nods. “Besides, if we let you ride off by yourselves, the luck that got you this far will no doubt run out, and you’ll be killed by highwaymen before long, or eaten by wolves.”

At this remark, Tylvanor flares up. “We would not! I am quite capable—”

“Tylvanor!” Stellia waves him silent. She is a little surprised when he actually obeys.

Sedwin turns to Tylvanor with a stern look. “As for you, there are still some questions we would like to settle before you join us in our travels.”

Tylvanor frowns. “What questions?”

Sedwin reaches for his belt and pulls out Tylvanor’s dagger. “For one, where a destitute rover like you would come by a weapon such as this.”

Stellia fails to see anything remarkable in the dagger. Aside from its sharp and well-tended blade—she still remembers the doubtful pleasure of feeling it against her skin—it seems quite ordinary. The hilt and pommel are tightly wrapped in worn brown leather that, in all honesty, looks a trifle grubby.

“What of it?” Tylvanor shrugs. “It’s a dagger like any other.”

“It is anything but that.” Sedwin runs the tip of his finger along the cross guard. “This is silver, if a bit tarnished. And these designs of flowers and leaves, so finely etched. A master craftsman made this. And here.” He points to a spot on the upper part of the blade, nearest the cross guard.

Stellia leans in close. In the firelight, she can make out another engraved design. This one is very subtle. It looks like the stylized eyes of some bird of prey.

“That was my first clue.” Sedwin produces a skinning knife and works the point under the leather band, right above the dagger’s cross guard.

“Hey,” Tylvanor objects. A glance from Garroth silences him.

With a sharp snap, Sedwin severs the leather and unwraps the strap covering the dagger’s hilt.

When he is done, Stellia gasps in wonder.

The hilt, like the cross guard, is silver, though untarnished, and etched with similar floral designs; but it is the pommel that is truly remarkable!

It is golden, and bears on its top a device in the shape of a shield, fashioned from polished dark amber. Inside the shield is an owl, of the same gold as the pommel and so masterfully carved that one could count each single one of its feathers. It holds a white snake in its talons. The owl’s eyes are fashioned from two cut green stones, while the snake has a single red gem for an eye.

The light of the flames catches in the jewels, kindling a hidden fire deep inside them.

NEXT: A Disguise Is Stripped Away


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