Stellia wakes up suddenly to find Nevynne sitting next to her on the bed.
“Is something wrong?”
In the scant light of the single candle that burns on the dresser, Nevynne’s face is half in shadow. “Not exactly.”
“What is it, then?”
Nevynne wrinkles her nose. “Did I ever tell you about the night Ingharad’s soldiers came to our castle?”
Stellia sits up cross-legged on the bed. She shakes her head.
A strong wind has sprung up outside, and howls through the alley underneath their window with such force that the panes rattle as though they’re about to burst out of their frames. But aside from a cold draft that makes the candle flame twitch and send the shadows dancing across the wooden walls, the storm does little to disrupt the quiet of the room.
“They came at night,” Nevynne says. “And without warning. I was in my chambers, sleeping, when my brother burst through the door.”
“You never told me his name,” Stellia says.
“Odrynn.” Nevynne speaks it like a sigh. “He was five years my elder. Get up, he told me. Get dressed, quickly, we’re being attacked. I noticed then that he was buckling his sword belt as he spoke. From far off, I heard cries, and sounds of fighting. In the hallway, we met our father. He, too, was armed. The queen’s soldiers have come, he said. We are betrayed, someone opened the gate to them without my knowledge. He pressed a dagger into my hand. Take this, he told me, and make for the postern door with your brother. You may be able to flee through the vineyards. Do not seek battle, you must survive. Should escape be impossible, turn your blades on yourself, don’t let them capture you. Odrynn and I protested. We wanted to fight by our father’s side to defend our House. But he would not have it. He made us swear that we would leave. Then he bade us farewell, and headed toward the fight. That was the last time I saw him.”
Nevynne’s voice falters. Stellia lays a hand on her shoulder. She can’t think of any comforting words that would not ring hollow.
“On our way to the postern door, Odrynn and I tried to reach my mother’s chambers. When we got there, we saw several men issue from her door, blood dripping from their blades. I wanted to rush them, to aid my mother, or at least avenge her. Odrynn pulled me away. Somehow, we reached the postern door. But those men had seen us, and given chase. We left through the door, but we had no way of bolting it from outside, and they were close behind. Go, Odrynn said. Run, I’ll hold them off. I’ll not leave you, I cried, I’ll fight with you! Then we’ll both die, he said. And so I ran, up through the vineyard, toward the forest. I looked back once. The castle was burning, flames licking out of every window. To this day, I still hear the screams of people dying, or worse. And in the firelight, I saw Odrynn by the postern door, swinging his backsword, standing amidst the bodies of the foes he had cut down. I had hope, then, for an instant, that he would defeat them all, and join me yet. But just at that moment, he was struck by a blow, and fell. I couldn’t watch. I turned and ran into the trees, while my brother died. Not a day has gone by since that night that I haven’t wished I could have fallen next to him.”
Nevynne struggles fiercely against her tears. A few escape from the prison of her lashes, nevertheless. “But I’m going to live. I have to.”
“Of course you’ll live,” Stellia says. “They would all want it what way, your mother, your father, and your brother. And I do, too.”
“It’s not just that.” Nevynne smiles weakly, and wipes her eyes with a shirt sleeve. “Before I left him, I promised my father that I would find the Prince.”
“The Prince?” For an instant, Stellia is too dumbfounded to understand. “You mean Ansil of Vulth? Emperor Thedric’s son?”
Nevynne nods. “He is our only hope for justice. The Guardian has failed Baramond, Stellia. All who were noble and brave in our land lie dead, or are broken by torment. And their destroyer rules unchallenged.”
“But how can you hope to find Prince Ansil? For six years now the Guardian’s had thousands of soldiers searching for him far and wide, without success.”
“It may of course be that he’s dead,” Nevynne says. “Then again, maybe he chooses to remain hidden for a reason. In that case, a solitary traveler might have better luck finding him than all those soldiers tromping about.”
“I hope you do find him,” Stellia says. “Your luck would be the good fortune of us all. But why are you telling me this now?”
Nevynne takes a deep breath. “I’ve done something a bit less than honorable. I wanted you to understand.”
Stellia stiffens. “What are you talking about?”