Given the circumstances, Stellia is not terribly uncomfortable.
The cave floor is hard, but the men have brought blankets to spare, and she is not cold. Earlier, Garroth discovered a small pile of brushwood at the back of the cave, left there for future use by whatever goat herder sheltered here in the past, and this he used to build a bigger fire that provides more warmth and less smoke. Nevynne has curled up across from her by the fire and is sleeping soundly. Garroth, using his saddle as a pillow, snores softly, almost soothingly.
But even though she is exhausted, Stellia has trouble falling asleep.
Sedwin has taken the first watch, and stands near the trees a short distance from the cave’s entrance. Save for a few scattered drops, the rain has stopped. But the clouds still linger, and beyond the reach of the firelight, the night is black as ink. Sedwin is a faint silhouette, his back turned to the cave. Every now and then, he gives a little sigh and walks a few paces in one direction or another. Somewhere in the night, a wildcat screeches. A second one growls a response, perhaps as a threat or warning.
For a while, Stellia shifts back and forth, unable to find a comfortable position. She stares into the flames, then at the ceiling, hoping for her eyes to fall shut on their own. When they do not, she closes them deliberately, but her thoughts keep chasing one another, disorderly and intractable yet too vivid to allow her to slip into dreams.
How much has happened this day!
By lucky chance, Sedwin and Garroth appeared, and Tylvanor was revealed not only to be Nevynne, but the last survivor of a noble family.
The fire starts burning lower. At last Stellia gets up. With soft steps, so as not to wake her sleeping friends, she walks up to Sedwin. He hears her approaching, and turns around with a smile. “Can’t sleep?”
She shakes her head. “There’s so much to think about.”
“It’s been quite the day. But we have a long ride ahead of us tomorrow. At least rest your body, if you can’t rest your mind.”
“I still can’t quite believe it,” Stellia says. “About Nevynne, I mean.” She glances back toward the fire, where her friend lies sleeping. “I just wish she could have trusted me.”
“Do not hold it against her.” Sedwin draws the cool night air in through his nose. “Ingharad’s eye reaches far, and she is not one to forgive her enemies, nor to forget them.”
“Enemies? What did Nevynne do, that the queen should count her among her enemies?”
“Precious little, herself,” Sedwin says. “It is the name she bears that Ingharad wishes to stamp out, for the offense she saw in the actions of Nevynne’s father. His desire for truth and justice brought the queen’s ire down on his house.”
“Strange,” Stellia says. “Why would such a desire offend a ruler known for her piety?”
“Why, indeed? But it’s simple, really. Ellyan of Combray, and several noble houses allied with him, meant to prove that Ingharad had murdered her own brother to gain the throne, and possibly her father, as well.”
“I can see how that would anger her. What made them suspect such a thing?”
“Both Ingharad’s father, King Meldu, and her elder brother, Prince Ennomyl, died unexpectedly in the same year. The king because his heart failed in his sleep. His death rather bewildered the court physicians. Meldu was strong and healthy for his sixty-four winters, and still sparred daily with his knights. Ennomyl ruled in his father’s stead for all of six months before taking ill with a mysterious sickness no leech could identify or cure. It consumed his life within a fortnight, and the crown went to Ingharad.”
“It does seem odd,” Stellia says. “Still, could it not have been mere ill chance?”
“It could,” Sedwin says. “And many among the Baramondine nobility chose to believe so. Not a few, I think, because they found the newly crowned queen to be far more amenable to certain wants and desires of theirs than her father and brother had been, in exchange for their sworn fealty, of course. Others found it hard to cast aspersions on a woman renowned for her piety and devotion and her lavish patronage of the clergy. But there were those who had not forgotten the dark rumors of Ingharad’s youth.”
The night breeze stirs the treetops into subtle whispers. A cold touch as of invisible strands of spider silk passes over Stellia’s nape, and she shivers. “What rumors?”
“Tales of a vicious child given to cruelty and violence,” Sedwin says. “Of a tormentor of all unlucky enough to find themselves in her power, beasts, men, and women alike. The worst I’ve heard is that when she was only fourteen years old, Ingharad strangled one of her ladies-in-waiting in a fit of anger.”
“Do you believe it is true?”
Sedwin shrugs. “I think she’s capable of far worse, judging by the brutality of her campaign in Okast, and what one hears of the cruelty of her henchmen. But all of that was yet to come, of course. Soon after the death of Ingharad’s lady-in-waiting, an account began to circulate portraying it as a tragic accident in which the princess had no blame. No doubt King Meldu had a hand in spreading it. It’s not to his credit, but I suppose a father can be forgiven for wanting to protect his child. The rumors of murder died down, and soon the matter was barely remembered. Duke Ellyan, however, never forgot. The strangled girl was his niece.”
“How dreadful,” Stellia mutters. Again she shivers. Sedwin removes his cloak and lays it around her shoulders. She protests, but not too vigorously. “Now you will be cold.”
“I’m used to nights in the outdoors.”
She blushes, and looks away. In the cave, the fire has nearly burnt down. Nevynne hasn’t stirred. Garroth continues to snore. Stellia pulls Sedwin’s cloak around herself, grateful for the warmth it provides. “What happened then?”
“A few years after this sordid business, Ingharad suddenly seemed to mend her ways,” Sedwin says. “She studied Scripture constantly, and gave generously to the clergy of her coin and of her time. King Meldu was overjoyed by the change in his wayward daughter. But Ellyan never stopped suspecting that Ingharad had merely learned to conceal her true nature. He was not alone in this. Nor was he the only one to be suspicious when Prince Ennomyl died and Ingharad took the throne. But Ellyan and his allies could not challenge the queen without some evidence of wrongdoing on her part. Even if they found it, they would need the Emperor’s support to charge her lawfully. And so Ellyan secretly reached out to Emperor Thedric.”
“I fear I don’t have to ask how this ended,” Stellia says.
Sedwin sighs. “Alas, no.”
NEXT: In the Name of the Faith