Penelope stood at the open doorway of her brother's house, watching the activity in the village. Fires were lit in the now darkened town square as villagers danced and sang, celebrating the fall of the tyrant.
Not all of the activity was joyous. The sobs and wails of those mourning the loss of their loved ones joined with the sounds of celebration, reminding everyone that no victory was without loss.
"Do you see Stephan yet?" Deiandra asked as she returned downstairs after putting the children to bed. She crossed over to the doorway, standing next to Penelope. "I hope they settle down soon," she said. "I could hardly get the children to sleep with all that noise. . . Oh, look there he is now. Good."
The women moved aside to let Stephan enter the house. He closed the door behind him, blocking out some of the revelry as he came inside. He crossed the room and sat down at the table. Fortunately he had suffered no wounds more than minor cuts and bruises, but it was clear the day had left him exhausted.
"I was starting to wonder if you were ever coming home," Deiandra said. "I thought you were supposed to be off watch an hour ago."
"I was," Stephan replied. "Afterwards I was talking with some of the men about what is to be done next."
"With Villetes?" Penelope asked. After the battle, the tyrant had been taken captive and held prisoner in his own dungeon until it was decided what was to be done with him. She'd overheard some of the villagers call for his execution and others for his imprisonment.
"Yes, to some extent, but more about who or what will replace him. I'm hoping for a village council to be established."
"Like the one Father was a part of back home in Amphidelphos," Penelope said sadly.
Both Stephan and Deiandra looked at her questioningly and Stephan motioned for her to sit down. "Now, isn't it time you told us why you're here on your own? Does father know where you are?"
Penelope shook her head. For a moment she was afraid she had lost her ability to speak. "No, he's dead."
Deiandra gasped and put a hand to her mouth. Stephan stared in disbelief.
"What? What happened?"
Penelope took a deep breath and tried to find the words to tell the story. "Last fall there was an attack on the homestead," she spoke slowly, taking time to choose her words.
"An attack?" Stephan asked, his brows furrowed and his voice anxious. "By whom?"
"It was too dark to see, but . . ."
"You think it was the Tarpuses?" he finished for her. Then muttered under his breath, "Who else?"
"The night before the attack Georgius and his men came to the door looking for Nik, but he wasn't there. He'd left the day before."
"Wait, what happened with Nik? Where did he go?"
"I'm not sure." Penelope shrugged off his questions. She didn't have any easy answer for that, not one that wouldn't take a long explanation. "Georgius came to the door because his younger son, Griffin, was killed in the night and they suspected Nik of his murder."
"What? That's ludicrous!" Stephan exclaimed. "What evidence did they have?"
"None, really. What evidence could they have? He obviously didn't do it. He would never."
"I know that," Stephan agreed heartily. "Was it about that girl, Sapphira? I knew Nik liked her and found it odd when she showed up here, suddenly on Rudicles' arm instead."
"And as I recall, it didn't take long before she was Villetes' woman," Deiandra added with a raised eyebrow.
"She at Villetes' side and Rudicles in Villetes' dungeon," Stephan remarked.
"I think it was about her, somewhat," Penelope continued. "She chose Rudicles over Nik and that's why he left to get away for awhile. Rudicles wasn't about to let the rivalry go. He was furious when Father told him Nik was gone. He didn't believe it and wanted to search the house, but Georgius made him back off and they left.
"That night after dinner, there was a commotion outside. When Father went out to look, he found the barn and the year's entire harvest up in flames. Men on horseback were circling around the barnyard, but their faces were covered and it was too dark to make out any features," she paused a moment to take a breath. The details, as they came back to her, were overwhelming. She could almost taste the smoke in the air as she remembered watching the flickering flames in the darkness and feeling the utter chaos and panic of everyone around her. Stephan and Deiandra were now too engrossed in the tale to interrupt with questions, so she forced herself to press on.
"We all went out to try to put out the flames. Audacia and Gerthe went to get David, but he never came and they never came back. In all of the chaos of the night, everyone got scattered and separated. The harvest was destroyed. In the morning only Father, Seth, and I returned."
"Then what happened?" Stephan asked, the anxiousness had gone out of his tone and his expression had turned grave.
"When Father couldn't find any trace of any of the others, he made arrangements for the three of us to leave the village by boat. Then he had to go back to the village to take care of some last minute business, but said he would be back. When he didn't . . ." Penelope could feel the emotions welling up in her chest and it became a struggle to continue on without breaking down in tears. "When he didn't come back when he said he would, Seth and I went to look for him. He told us to go without him, but . . . we couldn't. Seth and I split up to look for him and I found him . . ." The memories were too much. Tears began to fall and she couldn't go on without sobbing. Stephan clasped her arm tightly as tears threatened to fall from his own eyes and Deiandra began to sob next to him.
"He was bleeding. He'd been stabbed. He was dying," she managed to say, her voice barely above a whisper.
Deiandra draped an arm over her husband's shoulder and leaned into him as he he stared forward blinking back tears. When he finally managed to speak, his voice was husky and low. "And Seth?"
Penelope shook her head and roughly wiped the tears from her cheeks. "I never saw him after we split up to find Father. We were supposed to meet on the boat, but I was too late. And no sooner had it taken off, it went up in flames."
"By the gods," Deiandra muttered.
Stephan's lips quivered as he fought to keep control of his emotions. His mouth tightened and his brows furrowed. He spoke very little. He prompted Penelope to continue. "Then what?"
"I went home and I waited. I thought someone would return but nobody did. Our cousins, aunt Minova's sons, came for a visit around the time of the solstice and I stayed with them briefly," she said, eager to skim over that part of the story. "But mostly I waited, stayed in the house, and tried not to draw attention. Finally I realized no one was coming back, so I waited until the change of the seasons and for the weather to improve and then I came here, hoping you were still in Cynara."
Stephan cursed and banged his fist on the table as he rose to his feet and started to pace the room. "I knew something was wrong. I knew we should have gone home. The guard wouldn't have liked it, but we should have gone back anyway. I should have been there."
"We couldn't have left here and you know it," Deiandra responded sharply. "If you want to discuss 'should haves' then we shouldn't have come here in the first place."
Penelope jumped back, startled at her sister-in-law's outburst. Her eyes flitted between her sister-in-law and brother, trying to read what the exchange between the two of them meant.
"Yes, I know," Stephan replied, his tone as sharp as his wife's. "You know I wasn't given much choice in the matter."
Deiandra crossed her arms firmly in front of her chest and leaned back with a huff. Her lips were tightly pursed and she said nothing.
"What do you mean?" Penelope asked her brother softly. "Why did you come here?"
Stephan frowned and exhaled sharply. "I ask myself that everyday," he muttered. He took a few more steps before deciding to return to his chair and tell his sister the story. "When I was younger, the friends I ran around with weren't the type of friends I should have made," he began slowly, carefully choosing his words. "One of them was Edwin, who since became Villetes' adviser. He'd helped me out with some things, financial matters, when I was younger and Deiandra and I were first wed. At the time he just said I could repay him later. That time came a year ago, when he approached me and said it was time to repay my debt and to do that I would need to come here to join Villetes' guard."
"So that's why you left?" Penelope asked confused.
Stephan nodded. "I got the impression that refusing wasn't a real option, at least not one without potentially worse consequences." He paused to exchange a pointed look with Deiandra who was still holding her tongue. "I tried to tell myself that this could be a good opportunity for me to strike out on my own, to not be . . ." he trailed off, dropping his eyes to the ground as a somber expression crossed his face. When he spoke again his voice was low. "in my family's shadow."
Penelope stared at him confused. "What are you talking about? And why would you need financial help? Father would have helped you."
"I know that," he said. "But I was young and proud. I wanted to do it on my own. I wanted to prove I was more than just the second son."
"But no one-" Penelope started to protest, but she was interrupted by a loud knock on the door.
Stephan nodded and patted Penelope's shoulder as he rose to answer the door. "I know."
Stephan walked up to the door, set his hand on the knob, but did not open it. "Who's there?"
There was a moment of pause before a voice answered, "Rudicles."
"What do you want?" Stephan asked suspiciously.
"To speak with you. I have something I need to say to you, about Amphidelphos."
Stephan hesitated before opening the door. He stood in the doorway, but did not let Rudicles pass. "You aren't welcome here," he stated firmly.
"I'm not looking for a welcome. I have something I need to set right," Rudicles stated flatly.
Even from across the room, Penelope could see her brother stiffen. His hand twitched, eager to shut the door in Rudicles' face. "There's nothing to settle between us. You should go."
"I owe you an explanation. I've wronged you and I need to make up for that."
"There have been too many wrongs committed to ever settle the score between our families. No explanation will make any difference for what's happened to my family or to my father."
"Or to my brother," Rudicles said coldly. "Your family isn't the only one who suffered a loss and your family isn't as blameless as you would like to believe. But that's not what I'm here to discuss. It's something else. May I come inside. I'll only be a few moments and then I won't bother you again."
Stephan hesitated before stepping aside. He stayed positioned near the door as Rudicles entered. "Only a few and then you need to go." "I felt I should confess something to you," Rudicles began. "The reason Edwin recruited you to Cynara is because of me. I inadvertently asked him to summon you here."
"Inadvertently?" Stephan repeated skeptically.
"There was a misunderstanding," Rudicles explained. "It was your brother, Nikolaius, I wanted out of Amphidelphos and away from Sapphira, but Edwin thought I meant you and coerced you to leave. I wanted to apologize for my role in this and for my interference." He paused, waiting for Stephan's response, but Stephan only glared at him, so Rudicles continued speaking. "If it's any consolation, I've paid for my decision. Edwin coerced me to come here also as repayment for that favor. I lost what I was after in the first place, Sapphira, and was locked in a dungeon to be kept out of the way when Villetes decided to take her from me. During that time I had a lot of time to think about my life and my choices. I want to make amends for any wrongs I may have done and I don't want to be beholden to anyone ever again. My wrong to you was having Edwin send you here, even if it was not what I intended and I came to make that right."
Stephan eyed Rudicles skeptically. "You really didn't need to come here for this. None of that matters anymore. Villetes' has been overthrown. Edwin is gone and we're free to move on with our lives. Consider it forgotten." Stephan reached for the door, eager to get Rudicles out of his house.
"No, I can't. I can't let this go until I make amends." When Stephan tried to protest, Rudicles shook his head and pressed on. "I have some information I think you would want to know. Maybe you'll find this worth the trouble I caused you. I know where your eldest brother and his family might be."
That revelation silenced Stephan and caused Penelope to raise from her seat. "David?" she asked eagerly. "Where?"
"Pagasae or so rumor suggests."
"Rumor?" Stephan scoffed. "Rumored information is more worthless than no information. I think you should go now."
"No wait," Penelope said, stepping in front of Rudicles. "Where did you heat that? How do you know?"
"I heard that your brother came back to Amphidelphos the morning after the attack and buried your father. The man who gave him and his wife and children a ride out of Amphidelphos said they went to Pagasae."
"It makes sense," Deiandra, who had been sitting silently at the table during this exchange, muttered. "Ophelia had family in that area."
Penelope's face lit up with hope. She eagerly pressed Rudicles for more information. "Was anyone else with him? Our sisters?"
Rudicles shrugged. "I've told you all I've heard. I hope that's enough to make us even from here on."
"For this perhaps, fine. I don't care," Stephan said coldly. "But if you are in anyway responsible for the death of our father, then we will never be even. There's nothing that would ever settle the score for that."
"I'm not," Rudicles replied, his tone just as cold and calm as Stephan's, "I was part of the attack, I'll admit it, but I didn't hurt anyone that night or the next day. I was only interested in one thing, finding Nikolaius and avenging my brother. If I had found him that night, I would have killed him. If I ever see him again, that promise still stands."
"You need to go. Now." Stephan said firmly as he stood by the open door.
Rudicles nodded and without a word started towards the door.
"And take this with you," Penelope said, drawing the medallion out of her pocket and offering it to Rudicles.
He stopped and took it from her, examing the crest on the front critically. "Where did you get this?"
"Whoever attacked me on the road on the way here dropped it. It belongs to your family. You can return it to them," she said coldly. "We're even."
He frowned as he clasped the medallion in his palm and then turned to walk out of the house.