Several paces away, uphill from them under the trees where the moonlight does not reach, stands a shadow.
It is a man, judging by height and stature, dressed in a cloak topped by a large cowl. He is a silhouette only, a black shape outlined against the lesser darkness of the forest.
“You came with the Lost Prince,” the apparition says. Its voice is like the rustling of dead leaves in some forsaken place, both feeble and ominous at once—the voice of a specter. “Why does he now leave without you?”
Nevynne draws her father’s dagger—the only weapon they have left—and takes a step forward, pointing the blade at the menacing figure. “Who are you? How dare you question us?”
“Come no further,” the shadow says, and it seems that the dark apparition poises for retreat. Surely this sinister stranger cannot be afraid of two girls in the company of a skinny friar?
“This is a friar, no doubt,” Frithil whispers. “How else would he know these things?” Raising his voice, he addresses the black figure. “Why did you follow us? Show yourself, that I might know you!”
“You are wrong.” Nevynne takes a cautious step forward, raising her weapon. Never did she seem more courageous to Stellia. Again the apparition retreats before her. “Unless the custom here in Hestia is for friars to go armed.”
“I am no friar,” the shadow says. “And yes, I am armed.” He draws aside his cloak to reveal the scabbard at his side, yet he makes no move to draw the weapon. “With the very sword that saved you all.”
“What?” For an instant, Nevynne lowers her dagger, only to raise it again with a cry. “You! The fiend that led the attack near Talvain!”
“I guided your attackers, it’s true. But I was not complicit in their malicious plan. I was lied to, and did not guess their true intent until the very last.”
“And late enough that was,” Nevynne says. “Three bolts found their mark, and might well have killed the ones they struck, had they been better aimed!”
“He had no weapon of his own, Nevynne,” Stellia says. “He had to wait for the right time to strike, or those men would have killed him, too.”
“They would have overpowered me, that is for certain.” The shadow’s face is invisible in the darkness under his cowl, yet it seems that he shakes his head as he thinks back on the events of that day. “I could barely believe what I was witnessing. Even now it still seems like an evil dream. Never did I imagine that she would turn to such treachery.”
“She?” Nevynne exclaims. “Who is it, then, that sent you on your murderous errand? Speak plainly now! Was it the Guardian?”
“Would that it had been her I served,” the shadow replies. “No, you guess ill, and without thought. Why would the Guardian wish the Prince’s death? It was Ingharad who sent us.”
“Ingharad!” The name issues from Nevynne’s throat as a howl of anger ringing through the forest night. She steps forward, brandishing her blade. “Blackguard! You serve the Stillborn Queen?”
This time, the shadow holds his ground, and when he speaks, his rustling voice echoes with bygone strength. “Not willingly! You cannot know the depths of my disgrace for having been her slave, and I pray you never will. Rest assured that I hate our vile queen no less than you do, Nevynne of Combray! More so, perhaps.”
“You know my name? Who are you? Reveal yourself!”
“I will not,” the shadow says. Stellia is relieved to hear him refuse. She has not forgotten the description Garroth gave of the stranger’s mutilated face.
“We have no time to waste,” he continues. “You are to listen, not interrogate me.”
“Tell me why I should believe anything you say,” Nevynne snaps. “Tell me why I should not seek your death this very instant!”
“You would not achieve it,” the shadow says. “And come no closer! I would not fight you, but vanish into the darkness before you could reach me.” With bitterness in his voice, he adds, “It is a skill I have learned well, in recent years.”
“Nevynne, please,” Stellia says. “Let him speak. Whatever his crimes may have been, we are here now because he had a change of heart! Will you not see that?”
Nevynne lowers her dagger, though she does not sheathe it. “Go on, then. Say your piece.”
“The Guardian knew that the Lost Prince was abroad in these regions,” the shadow says. “Yet she guessed that he traveled cautiously on secret roads, where he might elude her soldiers, who are not familiar with these lands. So the Guardian bade Ingharad send out trackers to find him. But though the queen’s hunters knew every trail and footpath between here and Ceriselle, they had never seen Lord Ansil, save in some portrait painted in his youth. Therefore Ingharad commanded me to accompany them, for I had met the Prince some years ago, and she knew I would recognize him still. I was loath to obey her, for I know full well the blackness of her heart. Yet I suspected no evil in a task given her by the Guardian. I hoped to bring about some good by its completion, achieved though it would be in wretched bondage to a fiend. Little did I know that I led not hounds upon my savior’s trail but wolves instructed to tear out his throat.”
“I can’t believe it,” Nevynne says. “To betray the Guardian, and assassinate a Prince of the Sacred Bloodline—that Ingharad’s wickedness is great enough to conceive of such a deed does not surprise me in the least. But the boldness of it! Had she no fear at all that her nefarious scheme might become known? Or did she mean to claim that the Prince was now an enemy of the Faith, as she did with all the others whom she butchered?”
“No doubt Ingharad had plans to silence all who were involved,” the shadow says. “Schemes within schemes, that is always her way. But this one for all her cunning went awry! The one she sought to extinguish yet lives, and now he must hear who it was that wished his death, as must the Guardian! And there is more still they must learn, and worse. But why is it that the Prince rides with the soldiers, while you are left behind?”
“Prince Ansil is the Guardian’s prisoner,” Frithil says. “There is no other way of putting it, for he did not wish to go to her, and was taken away by force. We ourselves only narrowly escaped the same fate.”
“By force? But why?” For a moment, the shadow’s broken voice sounds even rougher. “Is it true, then, that the Prince is not himself, and his mind still clouded by grief?”
“Nonsense and lies,” Nevynne says. “I rarely met a man so clearly in possession of his wits. Whatever the true reasons the Guardian seeks him, he was leery of her designs, and he mistrusted her!”
“That is ill news,” the shadow says. “For now more than ever must Faith and Crown be united as one. I fear it is their union that Ingharad sought to forestall, when she sent assassins after the Prince. For in hindsight even that odious deed is but a gust in the storm that is coming. Dark times are upon us!”
“Dark times for Ingharad, when the Guardian learns of her betrayal!” Nevynne spits on the ground. “The scheming fiend is as vile as she is foolish! She’s done herself in, this time. A storm, you say? I laugh at that! It is Ingharad who will be a leaf before the wind, when justice finds her at last!”
“May the Shaper make truth of your words,” the shadow says. “But there are things you do not know about the Stillborn Queen. It is time you learned them.”
With a sweeping gesture, he draws his sword.
NEXT: A Dark Warning