Hallowed

III. Memories of a Father

Lord Vallus Nebeel had been the Head of Covert Affairs for the Republic of Elyria ever since Avenel had abdicated to go frolic in the woods. As much as he respected her and her command, Vallus had always felt his own brand of leadership to be the more efficient. Efficiency was based on structure, and Vallus was fond of structure.

At exactly 8:05 each morning, he rose from bed, having slept for exactly eight hours, the requisite time for someone of his health and vitality. Allowing for some time to clean his teeth and dress, he had breakfast sent up to his chambers at exactly 8:15. Breakfast took twenty minutes. Avenel used to read her mail while eating, but that made for poor digestion, so Vallus had the mail sent up separately, at exactly 8:35. He gave himself twenty minutes for reading, responding to, and acting upon the mail. The last five minutes of the hour, as with the last five minutes of every hour until he went to bed, were reserved for acting upon any emergency missives which may have arrived in the past fifty-five minutes. If there were none, he would simply rest. Rest was important for productivity.

The Silent Tower had room to house exactly 165 operational agents at any given time. Avenel had believed there was only room for 150, but there had been a miscount in the audit. Vallus had fired the offending parties, then counted the dormitories himself. He had informed Avenel of this once, on one of her sporadic visits, but she had only remarked that the exact number was irrelevant when the Tower only employed about a hundred operatives at any time. Vallus didn’t mention that he planned to expand.

In addition to these dormitories, there was also a guest suite next door to Vallus’s own, usually reserved for when one of the Council of Wardens came to visit. One floor below sat the rooms of other key personnel. Further down in the tower, there was a second, smaller set of dormitories for those agents still in training. It seemed foolish to Vallus for the sleeping quarters of everyone critical to the department to be located in the same building, especially when that building was carved into the side of a cliff. As unlikely as it was for a geological disaster to occur, one must always make plans against the worst. He had considered switching the operatives’ quarters with the servants’ elsewhere in the keep, but that would put the servants too far from the kitchens. Instead, he had decided to excavate room for a new set of dormitories, further inside the mountain. They would be windowless, of course, but concessions must be made somewhere. He spent the remainder of his morning with the architect that Lord Zachariah had sent to help oversee the project.

At half past noon, Vallus took his midday meal in the gardens. Spending time with flora helped clear the mind and maintain one’s spirits, and fresh air and sunlight were good for the constitution. After lunch, he would continue to sit in the gardens and read until 2 o’clock, when he would commence his daily training. He must lead by example, when it came maintaining his skills of combat, and besides, physical exercise was beneficial for both mind and body.

On this day, however, he was interrupted at 1:47.

“M’lord Vallus?” asked the servant, approaching him with a note in her hand. A new girl, as he recalled, the niece of one of the kitchen staff.

Vallus checked his pocketwatch. “There’s eight minutes until the time I usually take my messages,” he said. “Is something on fire?”

“N-no, m’lord,” said the girl, looking slightly bewildered. “Only, Ms Ulla wasn’t there, when the bird came, and she said red ribbons mean urgent, so I thought—”

“So you thought you would bring it to me yourself,” finished Vallus. He snapped his watch closed. “Very well. Your initiative is commendable, if nothing else. Don’t do it again.”

The girl blushed scarlet and practically threw the message at him before bowing and running off.

Vallus sighed. Now the girl was scared of him; that won’t do. He would have to speak to his steward about how the new servants were being trained.

The outside of the scroll was marked with the initials of an agent he had left with Lord Loorne, but Loorne’s stronghold was too far away to send notes by bird. Frowning, he unrolled the note and felt his heart plummet to the bowels of the Earth.

“Taunsgrove sacked. No survivors.”

Deena awoke to the sound of whispered arguing.

“You must have known, Joel.”

“Known? No. Guessed? Maybe. He asked me to look in on her from time to time, so I did, but I know better than to dig into his private affairs.”

A sigh. “We’ll speak of this later. She’s awake.”

Deena took that as her cue to open her eyes.

She was greeted by the ripped canvas awning of Allard’s wagon, surrounded by crates packed with straw and miscellaneous goods. There were birds singing outside, and footsteps, and a moment later there was Mr Allard, poking his head into the wagon. “Good morning, Deena,” he said. “Do you want some breakfast?”

Deena sat up. Allard looked different than he had the night before. “Your mustache,” she said.

“Ah, yes,” said Allard, rubbing his smooth face. “It was itchy. And fake.”

“Oh,” said Deena. His wrinkles were gone, too, and the white hair at his temples. He looked younger than he had in years. “You’re Hallowed?”

“Ah,” said Allard with a sigh. “Yeah. Yeah I am. I washed all that stuff out this morning. Didn’t think there was any point in keeping it from you any longer.”

Deena nodded. She supposed she should be surprised, but she didn’t feel much of anything. “What time is it?” she asked.

“Mid-morning,” said Allard. “There’s a stream over there, if you want to wash up.”

Outside the wagon, the stranger Avenel was kneeling by a fire, cooking fish in an iron pan.

“Good morning,” said Deena, trying to be polite.

The woman only nodded.

“Um, alright,” said Deena, and walked into the trees in search of the stream.

Avenel watched her go.

Joel took a seat beside her. “I think you scared her,” he said.

“How?” asked Avenel. “I’ve done nothing.”

“It’s just the way you are,” said Joel. He stabbed at one of the fish with a fork. “You know, she’s taking it all better than I would’ve thought. I thought she’d be bawling her eyes out by now.”

“I suspect it simply hasn’t sunk in yet,” replied Avenel. “Give her time.”

“Are you going to take her to the Tower?” asked Joel. “I’d go with you, but this wagon is about to fall apart.”

Avenel nodded. She reached into her pocket and took out the ring she had found in the ashes the night before. She ran a thumb over the engraving on the metal, the ornate V crowned by thorns. “If our assumptions are correct, he’s the only family she has left.”

“And if we’re wrong? If he isn’t her father?”

“Then I would very much like to know how a ring with Vallus’s sigil wound up in a dead woman’s hearth.”

Vallus read the note again. And again. And again.

“Taunsgrove sacked. No survivors.”

When he was certain that his eyes had not made some horrible mistake, he sat down, then stood back up, then sat down again. He crumpled the note in his fist.

Taunsgrove was supposed to be safe. Secluded. Harmless. What had happened to bring Lord Loorne’s ire down onto the town?

He would have to find out. He would find Loorne, find the man who lead the attack, and the man who struck the final blow. He would have their heads.

The message had been sent by bird. The nearest place to Taunsgrove where a bird could be sent would be the Fork. It would have taken hours for the bird to make its way to the Tower, and a full night’s ride from Taunsgrove to the Fork. Last night, then. The raid would have happened last night.

There hadn’t been a raid within Elyria’s borders in decades, and to strike so close to the Tower was beyond bold. Was a it a message? Had someone found out? Did someone discover that Lord Vallus of Elyria had hidden his daughter there? Or perhaps…

Perhaps it had been a mistake to bring the girl into the world at all, if it had only been for this. No. No, he would not think that way. There might yet be survivors; there sometimes were, on occasion, the one or two stragglers who had escaped the slaughter. Perhaps his daughter was among them. Perhaps, but Vallus found himself too much a man of numbers to believe in so slim a possibility. But he would send his men. He would find out.

And, he supposed, if this really was a reopening of hostilities, it would be his job to inform the Council.

He did not want to think of that. He wanted his daughter.

“My lord?”

Vallus looked up to see Erikr standing at the gate to the garden, a pair of practice swords in his hand. “What is it?” asked Vallus, trying not to snap.

“We’re supposed to train together today.”

“A change of plans,” said Vallus, rising from his seat. “There is urgent business I must attend to. I’m not to be disturbed for the remainder of the day.”

“Of course,” said Erikr, bowing. “I’ll leave you to it, my lord.”

In his office, Vallus sat down with the bottle of rum he kept in his desk. It was a silly habit, imprudent and wasteful, but there were days when all his thoughts were of love and loss, and only the rum was enough to drown them.

I need to write to the Council, he thought. I need to send someone to Taunsgrove, retrieve her body at least. But who did he trust enough to send? Would it be more dangerous now to send someone and all but admit that she was his daughter? Would there be anything left to find?

How do you grieve for a daughter you did not know? He had only known her for three days before he had her sent away into hiding, three days in which he had been so blinded by grief that he scarce could bear to look at her. She had just been a bundle of swaddling clothes, a squalling reminder of his loss, and he had sent her away as soon as he could. She was his daughter, yes, but he had been far from a father. He did not deserve to grieve for her.

Sometime in the evening, the sun low in the sky, there was a knock on his door.

“I asked not to be disturbed,” he called through the door.

“Apologies, my lord,” came the low, slow voice of the steward. “You were missed at supper.”

Was it already so late? “Sorry, Charles. I was absorbed in… in matters.” Hurriedly, he placed the rum back in its habitual drawer. “Come in.”

Charles came in with a tray laden with mutton and carrots, along with a flagon of ale.

“You could have just sent a servant,” said Vallus.

“I thought it best to come myself,” said Charles. “This behavior is most unlike you.”

“I was busy,” said Vallus. “Apologies if I’ve worried you.”

Charles nodded. “I’ll leave you to your work, then.”

“Wait.”

“Yes, my lord?”

He should have his mourning clothes brought up. It would only be proper, and the least he could do as a father. Instead, he smoothed out the note on his desk. “Fetch Lord Kamiya for me, if you please,” he said. “I have a job for her and her men.”

If he could not care for her in life, he would at least avenge her death.

Avenel was sharpening her sword.

It had been midday before Deena remembered where she had heard the name, and she had immediately gone and found Allard’s copy of the biography, tucked between a larger tome and a candlestick. Bouncing along in the back of a wagon was hardly the best place to read, but Deena managed, or she would have if she hadn’t been distracted by the menacing sound of blade on whetstone.

“For the last time,” said the woman, as Deena inched toward the far corner of the wagon, “you have no reason to be afraid of me.”

“You’re an assassin,” said Deena.

“Yes, and do you really think you’re important enough to merit assassination?”

Deena supposed that she was not.

When the sun began to dip below the treeline, Allard pulled the wagon to a stop. “That’s it,” he said. “Mule’s too tired to go on.”

“Are you sure?” asked Deena. “Shouldn’t we put more distance between us and the—the Ajjraeans?”

“If they were coming this way,” said Avenel, “we would have encountered them already.” She hopped off the wagon. “Are we still along the stream, Joel? I’m going to catch some more fish.”

“With what?” asked Deena. She didn’t see any fishing rods.

By way of answer, Avenel waved her sword.

“She’s going to fish with a sword?” asked Deena.

Allard looked up from tying the mule. “Oh, yeah. She does that. I tried it myself, once. Didn’t work.”

The sun had set by the time they finished their meal. The campfire was impossible to read by — it was far too dim and flickery — so Deena laid back to look at the stars. Thin wisps of cloud obscured them, here and there, but otherwise the sky was clear.

Maybe it was just her imagination, but the woods already seemed different than the ones around Taunsgrove, the landscape unfamiliar. The stars must still be the same, but Deena had never studied the stars. Mattieu did, though. Mattieu knew the names of what seemed like every constellation, but Deena could never find them, even when he pointed them out.

She sat up. Mr Allard was off watering the mule by the stream. Avenel was sitting against a rock, witling at a piece of wood with a dagger.

“That’s a pretty dagger,” said Deena, by way of conversation. It really was, with an ornate hilt and a crossguard shaped like wings.

“Thank you,” said Avenel. “It belonged to my wardfather.”

“Wardfather?” asked Deena.

“The man who made me Hallowed.”

“Made? I thought Hallowed were born that way.”

“Some are,” said Avenel. “If either parent is Hallowed, then the child would be too. For those of us who aren’t so fortunate, it’s still possible to become Hallowed, provided there is someone Hallowed willing to take us as their ward.”

“And for you, that was the man who gave you that knife?”

Avenel nodded. “He was a second father to me. He took me in and made me a part of his family.”

“What about your real family?” asked Deena.

“They had all died by then.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” said Avenel. “It was long ago.” She slid the dagger back into its sheath. “You should get some sleep. We’ll want to wake early tomorrow, to make the most of the light.”

It was only as Deena was falling asleep that she realized how Avenel had used the past tense to describe her wardfather. That’s so sad, thought Deena, as she drifted off to sleep. She lost her family twice.

She didn’t remember her dream that night, but when she woke, her mouth tasted of smoke and ash.