“The Prince struggled many days and weeks with grief and confusion,” Frithil continues his tale. “And even though it shamed him to admit it, he felt anger toward his father for cursing him with exile without the comfort of understanding the need for it. For a while, Ansil and Garroth wandered aimlessly around Taronnis, and even strayed into the Thorns, where Garroth had forged some dubious alliances, and where, for the time being at least, they felt safe from the Guardian’s many eyes.
“Though Garroth pressed the Prince to set out into the West as the Emperor had wished, always Ansil delayed, hoping that some way might open up for him to uncover the secret behind his father’s final wish. But even though Garroth had many ways of learning what went on in the Realms, through associates in the Crown’s service that remained loyal to him, as well as through other, more shadowy avenues, they heard nothing of note, except that the Guardian had spread news that the Prince was stricken with grief, and likely roaming the wilds, his spirit overthrown by sorrow, and that whoever knew of his whereabouts or had seen him should come forward, and would be richly rewarded.”
“Strange, though,” Nevynne says. “In a case like this, I would expect there to be plenty of rumors hinting that Ansil had a hand in his father’s demise. And yet I’ve never heard as much as a whisper suggesting the like.”
“Nor I,” Stellia says.
“The Guardian and her servants took great care to preempt that kind of speculation. Master Garroth told me that several nobles who would not refrain from such aspersions disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Her Holiness was quite determined to keep Prince Ansil’s reputation untarnished by slanderous rumors that might have strengthened the claims of lesser pretenders to his father’s throne.”
“A throne his father didn’t mean for him to take,” Nevynne says. “But whyever not?”
“That question haunted our Prince day and night, and does so still,” Frithil says. “For nearly three years after Thedric’s death, Ansil roamed the Realms in secrecy with Garroth, seeking in vain to find an answer. They lingered long in Taronnis, but although Ansil wanted again and again to return to Hestia where he hoped to hear more recent and accurate news of the Guardian’s doings, Garroth was against this, and prevailed. They spent two years going back and forth between Okast and Baramond, and learned much of the affairs of the Stillborn Queen, as she is often called in those lands. But of the Guardian’s actions they heard nothing, save that she continued to search for Ansil, and would not hear of naming a successor in his place. They even made several journeys into the outskirts of the Wooded Lands, of which they had little to tell me.
“At last Prince Ansil resolved to return one last time to Hestia, and this time Garroth’s remonstrations could not dissuade him. They had traveled as far as Mount Xapharon when they heard rumors of Lord Osdath’s peculiar errand. The Prince was merely bewildered at first to hear that the head of the Council of Twelve, the Guardian’s lieutenant, should have been given a task normally in the purview of ordinary village Parsons. But the more Ansil heard of Osdath’s search, the more it intrigued him. When Garroth found out that Osdath had set out on his quest mere days after Thedric’s death, the Prince grew convinced that it must have some connection to his own fate, and his hope was rekindled that he might discover the reasons for his father’s demand. You know well what happened after that.”
“What a strange tale,” Nevynne murmurs. “And troubling, too.” Her eyelids are heavy, and her head has sunk to the pillow of moss and damp leaves she has piled up next to the tree trunk. “It sounds as though the Emperor himself was trying to flee from the Guardian, and afraid of something she might do to his son.”
“It does.” Stellia struggles to get comfortable between the alder’s roots, but she can’t manage it; whichever way she turns, some knob or knuckle of hard wood pokes into her ribs. How is she to find sleep, anyway, after hearing Frithil’s account of the Prince’s last moments with his father?
“Do you think perhaps—” She hesitates. “Do you think it is possible that the Emperor had gone mad?”
“Everything is possible,” Frithil replies. “The Prince himself wondered about it, at times. That is why for years he remained in the Realms in defiance of his father’s wishes. But I think he never truly believed it, and neither do I. What seems clear to me is that the Emperor saw some threat in the Guardian, and was desperate to send his son out of her reach. He must have feared or loathed her greatly, to choose to end his own life rather than face her again.”
Stellia shivers. Who is this woman, who can strike terror into the hearts of such mighty men? And what hope of safety can one small boy have, should she for some reason wish him ill?
“I fear for my brother,” she says. “More than ever.”
“I do not think the Guardian would have gone to such lengths to find Till, only to do him harm,” Frithil says. “More likely he does in truth possess some rare gift she hopes will benefit her labors, unfathomable though its nature seems to us. No, in my heart I feel that it is Ingharad whom we must fear above all else. The Guardian’s designs may be a mystery, but the cruelty of the Stillborn Queen is plain to see. To keep her servants bound to life and suffering, when mortal wounds should send their souls back to the Shaper—only the blackest thought could devise such a curse, and only the darkest art bring it about. Whatever reasons Thedric had to break with the Guardian, would he not have set them aside in the face of such a threat, and joined with her once more? If the Guardian truly possesses some extraordinary power as I think she does, she may be the last hope left us of countering Ingharad’s devilry. But will she hear the warning the shadow bade us convey?”
Frithil shakes his head, sighs heavily, and stretches out on the cold earth. “What times are these, when in all quarters the sun sets, and night falls everywhere we turn? But enough of such things. Already I’ve kept you awake overlong. Sleep now, and quickly, before I waste more precious resting time with cheerless musings.”
Nevynne is already snoring softly, curled up on her bed of musty leaves. Stellia envies her, doubtful that she herself will manage to find sleep. But the next thing of which she is aware is Frithil kneeling beside her in the cold gray light, nudging her shoulder with a bony hand, telling her that the soldiers are breaking camp.
NEXT: The Shaper’s Design