“I am a man of the Faith,” Frithil says, “as much as I am loyal to the Crown. I would never call into question the wisdom and dominion of the Shaper. But as for mortals… well, even the most pious may serve their own ends at times.”
Garroth’s astonishment gives way to keen interest. “Go on.”
“The Scripture tells us that sorcery is impossible,” Frithil says. “That man, by his very nature, can no more gain mastery over the Power of the Unseen than a grain of wheat can choose to grow into an eagle and soar into the sky. Several verses speak to this. Why then does the Faith punish so harshly those who attempt what it tells us is impossible?”
“Because the very quest alone can bring great suffering and grief to people,” Stellia says. “The tale of the Penitent King—”
“Yes!” Frithil interrupts in a fierce whisper. “It is certainly at the very heart of the matter.”
Stellia flinches, startled to be so sharply cut off by this otherwise mild-mannered man. Nevynne hangs motionless on Frithil’s every word.
“A story of one man’s sinful arrogance and cruel failure,” he goes on. “And a warning to us all. Indeed! But I suspect now that amidst the ruin of his downfall another gained the very prize he sought!”
Garroth stares unblinking at the friar. “Who?”
“Imagine it! We are taught that the Penitent King failed in his quest, like all others who embarked on it before him. But was it truly, ultimately, so? Did he not in fact achieve what no man before him had achieved? He alone received an answer from the Unseen Realm, in the form of the Shaper’s Light that took hold in his queen! The tale tells us that he was broken down and humbled, and gained none of the power that he sought—but what of her? What if the Hallowed Mother gained on that day not merely divine wisdom, but also learned a way to draw at will on divine might? The Scripture says no such thing, but then why would it, when it was set down by the queen herself? Would she reveal her power to the world, that rivals and enemies might strive to avail themselves of it as well? Or would she not rather keep it hidden, using it with utmost prudence in none but the most dire need, and pass the skill on only to a trusted successor, to be forever a secret of the order that she founded, while all others are forbidden under penalty of death from inquiry into such things? Oh, this is a guarded secret, indeed—and might not in that lie the true veiled meaning of the title she was first to bear?”
Garroth’s eyes are still fixed on the friar. “It would explain much,” he says in a quiet voice. But Stellia can sense beneath his words the torrent of his thoughts, like a stream roiling under sheets of ice.
“Very much, indeed,” Frithil agrees, still whispering.
Stellia exchanges a quick glance with Nevynne. Her friend’s face is unreadable. If Nevynne is delighted to have heard so bold a challenge to the foundations of the Faith, she neither shows nor says it. Perhaps Frithil’s theory is too shocking even for her.
Outside, the wind picks up, driving the rain with renewed urgency against the window panes. For a few brief moments, it is as though an enchantment has fallen over the friar’s modest chamber, calming the waves of emotion in all who are present, and causing them to sit silent and still, lost each in their own unknowable reflections. Yet it does not take long for Stellia’s thoughts to return once more to that which first and foremost occupies her mind.
“But if it is as you suggest, what has that to do with my brother? Why would the Guardian come here, to summon before one little boy a power that destroyed the minds of ten thousand men?”
“That I cannot say,” Frithil replies. “But I am sure such power must have other uses than the laying waste of armies, uses so subtle and arcane that for millennia no one—”
A knock on the door cuts him off.
They all start, even Garroth. Frithil stares at the door as though he is surprised to find it there. “Who could that be?”
Having overcome his surprise, Garroth crosses the room with a few quick steps. He opens the door, and Stellia finds herself smiling. For a moment, all thoughts of visions and gloomy portents are forgotten. It is Sedwin who stands before them. He looks haggard, with dark rings under his eyes, and he is leaning on a crutch. But he, too, is smiling.
Garroth helps him to the table, where Frithil has already pulled up an additional chair. “Your leg, how is it?”
“Not as bad as it seemed,” Sedwin says. “A few days’ rest, and I should be able to sit in the saddle again. Though it will be hard to leave behind the care and the food I was given here. I had a king’s midday meal.”
“Praised be the generosity of the Faith,” Garroth says. “And have you rested? You don’t look it.”
“It’s those witch’s herbs you gave me. The effects have worn off, and I feel as rested as one would, after fourteen hours of sleep. But the stuff left the mark of whatever fiend concocted it on my features.” He nods toward Nevynne. “And what of your arm, My Lady?”
“It hurts dreadfully when I move.” Wincing, Nevynne lifts her left arm and wiggles her fingers. “But the friars say the wound was clean, and expect it to heal swiftly. I’ve not lost feeling in my hand.”
“That is good, indeed,” Sedwin says. “The healers at Hestia’s Sundrances have no equal in all the Realms.”
Suddenly, Sedwin’s smile turns into a frown. He tilts his head, as though listening for something. Garroth springs to his feet, and hurries to the window.
Then Stellia hears it, too.
“Horses!” Nevynne jumps out of her chair and bounds to the window. Stellia follows.
A stream of riders is pouring into the courtyard below. They bear leaf-bladed spears, and are clad in storm-gray coats emblazoned with the Cresset of Hestia.
Leading them is a tall man with a blood-red belt whom Stellia recognizes at once.
NEXT: A Dream