The rain still drums on the window panes, accompanied by the wind’s sorrowful song.
Inside the chamber, the fire whispers and crackles as it devours the wooden logs. It seems to impart no warmth. Brother Frithil closes the old tome with a thud. The ancient pages expel a soft sigh of musty air.
“The rest is an account of the author’s journey home to Hestia, where he presumably lived out the rest of his days. After that, there is no more, save for a note explaining that he wrote these events down because he hoped, in so doing, to rid himself of the nightmares that plagued him ever since.”
“I wonder if he was successful,” Stellia says.
Garroth grunts. “A strange enough tale. Strange, also, that no mention was ever made elsewhere of the words these Okasti spoke. The stars, was it? Many must have heard them say it on the battlefield, that day.”
“And surely many did,” Frithil says. “But you heard what our nameless warrior wrote. The Parson he spoke to told him it was likely some heathen prayer, or words with which the Okasti expressed their amazement at the Guardian’s display of valor and faith. I am certain that many of the Emperor’s soldiers never bothered at all to find out what those words meant. Why should it matter to them what a host of savages babbled as they died, after all, as long as die they did? I admit that when I first read this account, the Parson’s explanation struck me as plausible enough, and I saw no cause to suspect further significance in the matter.”
“Until you and the boy shared the same vision,” Garroth says. “Well, then. What significance do you see in all this now?”
Frithil looks at Stellia, then at Nevynne, and finally at Garroth again. “Is it not obvious? The Okasti were not murmuring prayers. Nor were they dazzled by the Guardian’s ardor and piety. They were—” The friar falters, throwing up his hands in resignation before the task of choosing the appropriate word.
Nevynne comes to his aid. “Bewitched?”
“It is not the word I would choose,” Frithil says. “Nor would I advise you to do so, in speaking of the Guardian. But surely there is evidence here of some event beyond the compass of the ordinary workings of the world we know.”
“Come now,” Garroth says. “Surely it is easy to see that the tale you read us is but one more embellishment of the same story we’ve all heard, of victory against an overwhelming foe unmanned by the radiant flame of religious ardor, and so on. Your nameless banneret was no doubt immensely impressed by the explanation given him by that Parson. When he finally set quill to parchment, his memory exaggerated what he had seen and been told.”
“But what if it is not so?” Frithil asks. “What if he set down the literal truth? Oh, believe me, I’ve spent endless hours feverishly pondering other possibilities, tormenting myself in search of some explanation that would lead to a less harrowing conclusion. I questioned my own senses, and indeed the trustworthiness of my mind! Was it possible that the child Till merely had a dream and nothing more, and that the banneret’s tale was in the end no more than an embellished fancy? Again and again I grappled with these questions, oftentimes through the dreary small hours of the night, and again and again I arrived at the same answer. Too many separate strands come together in the weave of these tales for me to go on believing in exaggerations and coincidences! The banneret’s writings, the account given by Till, who could not possibly have known any of that ancient tale, nor of my vision, and last but not least, Master Garroth, the events that started you and Sedwin on your current quest, the fervor with which you were cautioned against it, and the fact that he was indeed sworn to remain—”
Garroth makes a subtle gesture, and the friar falls silent. “Calm yourself, Frithil. And get to the point. What is it you think we should believe?”
Frithil takes a deep breath. “That the Guardians are far more than humble spiritual guides and counselors. That in fact they can do what no man can supposedly do—wield the Power of the Unseen.”
“Heresy,” Garroth says, as matter-of-factly as though he was remarking on the rain falling outside.
“Oh, yes,” Frithil says. Though he seems more self-assured than before, having once crossed beyond return the line he dreaded to approach, he does lower his voice. “But why is it heresy?”
“Because the Scripture says otherwise,” Garroth replies with a shrug. “And as in all such matters, the Holy Scripture has the last word. Simple as that.”
“Simple as that? But who wrote the Scriptures?”
Garroth frowns. “I don’t exactly recall now…”
“The first Guardian,” Stellia bursts out, forgetting to keep her voice down for a moment. “With some additions by the second and third, if I remember it right.”
“You do,” Frithil says. “And after those few additions were made, the Scripture was declared canon, and immutable. It is almost exclusively based on the writings of the Hallowed Mother, the Penitent King’s wife, who was first to assume the title of Guardian. Though composed by a mortal, the Scripture is regarded as representing the Word and Law of the Shaper Himself, revealed through the Guardian, His chosen instrument.”
Garroth regards the friar with undisguised incredulity. “And you—a man of the Faith—would call that into question?”