Within moments, the soldiers storm into the building.
Garroth mutters a curse and turns toward Brother Frithil. “We must get out before they find us.”
“Come quickly.” Frithil opens the door and peers into the vaulted hallway. Already Stellia hears distant shouting, and the sound of boots marching at speed. Frithil steps over the threshold, to the right, and waves. “This way.”
Their passage down the hallway is agonizingly slow. Halfway to the end, Sedwin stumbles and falls with a cry of pain, despite Garroth’s best efforts to support him.
“Leave me,” he protests as Garroth and Frithil help him to his feet. “Or we’ll all be captured.”
“If we cannot get you out of here, it will make little difference,” Garroth replies. “Now come.”
“How could they have known we’re here?”
“The Guardian, and Osdath,” Frithil says. “They must have instructed someone to alert the soldiers in case you came here. The Abbot, most likely.”
“Hold on,” Nevynne says. “How could the Guardian have known we were coming here?”
“Save your breath, all of you,” Garroth snaps. “How much further?”
Behind them, the soldiers’ footfalls grow louder. Stellia did not have a chance to guess their number, so quick was their flight from the room. In the echoing hallway, it sounds as though a hundred men are approaching.
“Around this corner,” Frithil says. “There is a—”
A man steps into their path. He is taller than any of them, and in his gauntleted fists, he holds the short spear with the broad leaf-shaped blade that is the favorite weapon of the soldiers of Hestia.
“Hayrolf,” Garroth growls.
Stellia shrinks from the grim warrior. When she first met Hayrolf in her parents’ house, she half thought the severity of his features a result of the scar across his mouth. But his expression now would be no less fierce without it.
“No further.” Hayrolf speaks in measured, almost calm tones. His voice is all the more menacing for it. Two more spearmen round the corner and remain standing behind him.
“How dare you bar our way?” Garroth thunders. “Step aside at once.”
“You know I cannot,” Hayrolf replies. “For in so doing I would disobey Her Holiness’s command.” He turns away from Garroth to address Sedwin, and to Stellia’s great surprise, Hayrolf bows deeply before the younger man. At first she thinks his gesture mockery, but for all that she can read the permanent scowl that is his face, he seems sincere.
“My Lord,” he says. “I beg your forgiveness for my actions, but I am told you are unwell, and know not your peril from your salvation.”
“My Lord?” Nevynne cries out. “What is this brute talking about?”
Hayrolf frowns at her. “Who is this insolent brat?”
Nevynne’s cheekbones redden with anger; she wants to make some retort, but Sedwin speaks first. “I will not come, Hayrolf. Nor will I let you take me from this place against my will. Are you truly ready to use force against me?”
“Her Holiness bids me bring you before her,” Hayrolf says, “that the pain and confusion of your spirit should be healed by her benevolent hand. If I must do so by force, then I shall, for her purpose justifies it.”
He waves, and Stellia hears the footfalls cease behind her. When she turns, she sees that their retreat is blocked by a large number of soldiers. They are advancing no further, waiting instead at a distance for their master’s next command.
Garroth draws his sword and steps between Sedwin and Hayrolf. Sedwin’s hand moves toward his belt, but he finds no blade there.
“Interfere at your own peril, spymaster,” Hayrolf says. “I have authority to deal harshly with any who oppose Her Holiness’s commands.”
“Authority?” Garroth laughs without mirth. “You’re a warrior of the Empire! Whose authority could be above that of your Lord and Liege? Do not think your treachery this day will be forgotten.”
“I serve the Faith,” Hayrolf says. “If that is treachery in your eyes, perhaps a life of skulking in the shadows like a thief has skewed your vision!”
Garroth’s mouth twitches. He glances over his shoulder at the waiting spearmen. Still he raises his sword, readying himself for a fight.
The two soldiers who arrived with Hayrolf stir to assist their master, but at a gesture from him they remain in place, weapons at the ready. Hayrolf feints a thrust with his spear at Garroth. “Put down your blade, spymaster. It is over.”
Hopeless, Stellia thinks. Even if they get past Hayrolf somehow, his warriors will hunt them down. Garroth, too, seems to consider the odds. Beads of sweat glisten on his forehead.
Sedwin leans against the opposite wall, clutching Brother Frithil’s shoulder for support. He shakes his head. “Garroth…”
“We won’t yield!”
Jeweled dagger raised high, Nevynne springs forward to assault Hayrolf. The tall warrior sidesteps her attack with baffling nimbleness for a man of his stature. She lunges into empty space and loses her balance. Hayrolf cuffs her on the side of the head with his fist, and she goes flying against the wall. Her gilded dagger clatters to the floor. She lies still, knocked senseless. One of her eyebrows has burst open, and blood trickles down her face.
Frithil pulls Sedwin away in hopes of escaping Hayrolf’s attention. But he notices, and snaps his fingers. At once the two waiting soldiers spring into motion.
“Take the Prince to safety,” he commands them. “He is not himself, and may resist. Restrain him if you must, but do not harm a hair on his head, or it will be your life.”
But there is no time to take in the revelation.
NEXT: Into Darkness