IV. The Splintered Tree

The road out from Taunsgrove was narrow, unpaved, and winding, but it was the only road that Deena had ever known. It widened slightly as they traveled, but even then it was only wide enough for two wagons side-by-side. When they came upon the main road, Deena gaped at the sight. It was large enough to fit a house, if a house had wheels and was pulled by horses. It was large enough even for several houses. And it was paved, too, with large flat stones pressed into earth, though many were cracked or hidden beneath a layer of dirt and mud.

There was an inn at the fork. Not a particularly large one, according to Avenel and Mr Allard, but it was the first building that Deena had seen since leaving Taunsgrove. The stream they had been following ran past the inn, where a mill had been installed to harness the water. Out front, closer to the road than the inn itself, was a large and twisted elm, split in half by some lightning strike of decades past. There was a small stable, too, and a fenced area with a dozen clucking chickens.

“Here we are,” said Mr Allard, pulling up to the inn. “And just in time for supper, from the smell.”

The faded sign above the door read “The Forked Inn” and featured a fork with its tines split apart. The door swung open, and a portly woman stepped out to greet them. Deena couldn’t help but notice the scar on her arm as she wiped her hands on her apron.

“Joel,” said the innkeeper. “And Lord Avenel, too.” She bowed. “I’m relieved to see you two are safe.”

“You’ve heard what happened, then?” asked Avenel.

The woman nodded. “One of ours came by to send a bird to the Silent Tower. Lord Kamiya came by too. Sent to see what’s left, I suppose.”

“It’s not your job to speculate, Bette,” said Avenel. “Is Kamiya still here?”

Bette shook her head. “You just missed her. She went by foot or I’m sure you would’ve passed her on the road.”

“Are there any other guests?”

“None but you.”

Avenel nodded. “We’ll need room and board for the night, and I’ll need to send a bird to Vallus.”

“Of course, m’lord. Tals’ll get you set up.” She glanced curiously at Deena, but when neither Avenel nor Mr Allard made any move to introduce her, she disappeared through a door into what Deena assumed was the kitchen.

Dinner wasn’t much, a stew of chicken and carrots and peas, but it was better fare than they’d had on the road, and Deena devoured her bowl.

“Would you like another?” asked Avenel.

“No,” said Deena. “But thank you.”

Avenel nodded and rose from her seat. “I’ll send that bird now,” she said. “Time to put Vallus out of his misery.”

“Who’s Vallus?” asked Deena, as she walked away.

“A, uh, a friend,” said Allard. “Avenel’s going to take you to go see him.”

Deena turned to look at him. “What about you?”

Allard shook his head. “The Ajjraeans did a number to my cart. I’m surprised it’s lasted this long. No, I need to get it fixed, sooner rather than later, so I’ll be heading for Emdenshire in the morning.”

“Can’t I go with you?”

“Ah, that.” He scraped his spoon across the bottom of his bowl. “Look, your mother would’ve wanted you to go to Vallus.”

“Why? Did my mother know him?”

“Sure,” said Allard. “He’s, um, he’s a friend. From before Taunsgrove.”

“My mother’s never mentioned a Vallus.”

“Has your mother mentioned anything from before Taunsgrove?”

That, Deena supposed, was a fair point.

“Look,” said Allard. “Lord Avenel, she’s not good with people, exactly. I don’t think she even remembers how to talk to someone who isn’t a soldier. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t a good person. You’ll be fine with her, really.”

“She kills people for a living.”

“Killed,” corrected Allard. “She left service decades ago. Retired, I suppose you could call it. The only things she’s killed lately have been elk and fish. And probably some rabbits.”

“What does she do now?” asked Deena.

Allard shrugged. “How should I know? Cataloguing birds, if the rumors are true.”

“Oh. I thought you two were friends.”

Allard scoffed. “She trained me, is all, before I decided that killing wasn’t in my blood. I hadn’t seen her in decades, until I spotted her at Taunsgrove’s tavern.”

“She trained you?” asked Deena. “To be— to be an assassin?”

“Aye, but that was a lifetime ago, and she was secretive even back then. There were rumors, when I was a recruit, that she lost her entire family in the Revolution, but that’s all anyone knew about her. Well, that and the fact that she despises tardiness.”

“Only when my trainees have been drinking the night before,” said Avenel, returning. “You deserved the extra laps you got.”

“You knew about that?” asked Allard.

Avenel gave him a look. “I could see you from my window. Honestly, Joel, it’s a wonder you ever thought you would make a good spy.”

Tals was the innkeeper’s husband, and he showed them to their rooms. Deena’s had a window that overlooked the chickens. The clucking reminded her of her chickens at home. She wondered what happened to them. Maybe she should have taken them with her, but it was too late now.

The room was plain, with just a washbasin and a small cot, but it was luxury compared to the back of Allard’s wagon. Deena collapsed onto the bed and wondered, briefly, if she could ask to draw a bath, but then her eyes slid closed and she fell asleep.

She dreamt of the tree, the cleft elm in front of the inn, but when the lightning struck it caught on fire. She ran inside the inn to tell someone, but there was no one around. Her mother wasn’t there, but then she remembered that of course—her mother was in the garden. Her mother was with the chickens. But when she ran outside to find her there was only a hole in the ground.

And then she turned back to the tree and there were bodies hanging from it, Mattieu and Phea and Mrs Sandler. Their eyes stared blankly at her until they melted from their sockets.

Someone was holding her hand. Someone said something to her, and wiped the soot away from her face. Deena was crying, or trying to cry, but her tears evaporated in the flames.

The sun was high in the sky when she woke. Someone had taken off her shoes and placed them neatly by the foot of the bed. She sat up, and a damp towel fell from her forehead.

The inn was quiet. She used the washbasin to splash her face and clean her teeth, then emerged from her room. The innkeeper, Bette, was sitting at a table, darning an old sock.

She looked up as Deena entered. “Lord Avenel is out back,” she said.

“Where’s Mr Allard?” asked Deena.

“He left at first light,” said Bette. “You had a bit of fever this morning, so we didn’t wake you.”

“Oh,” said Deena. “Well, thank you for the towel.”

“Wasn’t me,” said Bette. “That was Lord Avenel.”

Deena found Avenel outside, as Bette had said, sitting on top of the chicken coop, still witling that piece of wood. The woman didn’t look much like an assassin, apart from her unusual choice of perch, though Deena supposed she had no idea what an assassin might look like. Her frame was slim, but tall, with hair that fell nearly to her waist, even when tied back. She was pretty, too, with high cheekbones and a smooth complexion, and when she looked up, her gaze was piercing.

“Here,” said Avenel, tossing the bit of wood she had been witling.

Deena caught it. It had been carved into the shape of a tree, detailed down to the leaves. “It’s an oak,” she said.

Avenel nodded. “I took the wood from that tree in your town square. I thought you might like it as a keepsake.”

Deena turned the wooden tree over in her hand. “Thank you,” she said. “It’s pretty.”

Avenel nodded again and leapt down from the roof of the coop. “Have you eaten yet?”

“No,” said Deena.

“I’ll have Bette feed you something, and then we’ll be going.”

Wherever this Vallus lived, it was apparently in the mountains, because they started down a narrow footpath rather than follow the main road. Avenel walked ahead and Deena followed, but as the path grew steeper, Deena found it increasingly difficult to keep pace.

“Are you alright?” asked Avenel, turning around.

“Fine,” replied Deena, panting. “Just out of breath.”

Avenel turned toward the sun. It was already starting to set. “There’s a larger road, too, but it takes twice as long, so I thought—”

“It’s fine,” said Deena. “I’m fine.”

Avenel looked at her for a moment. “Let’s make camp for the night.”

There was no stream this time, but there were rabbits, though Deena wasn’t quite sure how Avenel had taken one down with just a sword and a dagger. Deena had always been too squeamish to skin a rabbit, so Avenel did it, and told Deena to make the fire. Deena piled the branches together, but when she picked up the flint and steel, her hands shook too much to light anything. Avenel took over making the fire, while Deena could only sit and watch.

Allard had taken the pots and pans with him, so they cooked the rabbit like a spit roast. There was some bread, too, that they’d brought from the inn, and a bit of hard cheese. They ate in silence, and afterward, Avenel put out the fire.

They had no tent, and the ground was hard and bumpy. Avenel laid out her cloak to sleep on and used her knapsack as a pillow, so Deena did the same. The forest canopy was thick, too thick to see the stars, but some moonlight still made its way to the forest floor.

Deena turned the wooden tree over again in her hand. In the dark, the leaves almost looked liked they were moving, as though they were rustling in the wind. “Um, Lord Avenel,” said Deena.

“Just Avenel will do,” said Avenel.

“A-Avenel, then. Mr Allard said you lost your family in the Revolution? Were they—were they killed by the Hallowed? Was it a raid, like—” She wanted to say “like mine,” but the words wouldn’t come out.

There was a moment of silence, then: “It was a fire.”

“Oh,” said Deena. She remembered the bodies at Taunsgrove, silhouetted by the dying flames.

“Get some rest,” said Avenel. “You’ll need your energy.”

They woke at dawn, and for a moment Deena thought there was a fire in the distance before she recognized the orange glow of the rising sun. They broke their fast on more of the bread and cheese, then resumed their upward trek.

“We should arrive by sundown,” said Avenel. “Later than I expected, but…” she trailed off.

At midmorning they came across a stream, where they stopped for a rest and to fill their flasks. Deena watched as Avenel mixed drops of purple iodine with the water, to make it safe to drink. They stopped again at noon, to eat what was left of the bread and cheese, then headed off again before Deena felt she was fully rested.

“We should meet with the road soon,” said Avenel. “It’ll be less of an incline.”

“O-okay,” panted Deena.

“You can see our destination now, through the trees.”

Deena followed Avenel’s gaze. High up on the mountainside, a single tower stood tall and proud, with crenelated walls running alongside it. The castle was large, larger than any building that Deena had ever seen, larger even than Taunsgrove’s town square, and more besides. “That’s where we’re going?” she asked.

Avenel nodded. “That’s the Silent Tower.”

Deena turned to look at Avenel. “That’s where they train the assassins. Like you.”

Avenel nodded again. “Lord Vallus is the current Head of Covert Affairs,” she said. “I passed the role to him when I left.”

“How did my mother know someone like him?”

Avenel shrugged.

It wasn’t long before their path met the road, but “road” was a generous descriptor. It was more of a goat path, rocky and uneven, and barely wide enough for two horses side-by-side. However, the incline was far gentler than that of the footpath they had been on, a relief to Deena’s aching lungs and legs.

The sun was nearly to the horizon when they heard the clipclopping of hooves. A rider came around a bend in the road, leading a second horse behind him. He was an attractive man, with a head of golden curls and silk tunic that did nothing to conceal his lean and muscular physique.

The man dismounted. “Lord Avenel,” he said, dropping a low, sweeping bow. “It’s a pleasure to see you again, as always.” His teeth shone white as snow when he smiled.

“Erikr,” said Avenel with a slight nod of her head. “I don’t recall requesting an escort.”

“You didn’t,” said Erikr, “but as it was nearing sundown and you still hadn’t arrived, I thought I’d come and meet you part way.”

“That was considerate,” said Avenel.

“Who’s your young friend?” asked Erikr.

“Her name is Deena. Deena, this is Sir Erikr of the Silent Tower.”

“Hello,” said Deena. After a momentary hesitation, she bowed as she had seen Bette do at the inn.

“Charmed,” said Erikr. He handed the reins of the second horse to Avenel. “Shall I accompany you the rest of the way, my lord?”

“No,” said Avenel. “Ride ahead and let Vallus know we’ve arrived.”

“As my lord commands,” said Erikr, bowing once more before mounting his horse and returning the way he came.

Deena patted the horse of the nose. “I’ve never ridden a horse before,” she said.

“Just sit and don’t fall off,” said Avenel, fastening their bags to the horse. She swung herself up into the saddle, then reached down to help Deena up behind her. “Here, put your arms around me.”

Deena hesitated a moment, then complied.

They arrived at a giant iron gate embedded into the side of the mountain. The gate was larger than any Deena had ever seen, large enough to fit a house through, perhaps. A man on the parapet above shouted something indistinct, and a moment later, the great gate slowly lifted with a groaning of metal chains. Deena couldn’t help but be uneasy as they passed underneath, but the chains held, and they passed safely to the other side.

It was dark inside, but once Deena’s eyes had adjusted, she found herself in a massive cave at least the size of Taunsgrove’s town square. Braziers the size of wagons hung from the cavern roof. Underneath, there was a stable, a kennel, and crates piled high along the walls. Corridors branched away on either side, and there was a deep recess on the far wall.

A stablehand, not much older than Deena, came forward for their horse. Deena dismounted, rather clumsily, nearly kicking the boy in the face.

“S-sorry,” said Deena. “Um, what about our bags?”

“The servants will get them,” said Avenel.

The recess in the wall, it turned out, was actually a shaft that extended well past the roof of the cave. A large metal cage, almost as wide as the gate, descended slowly from the shaft. When it arrived at the cavern floor, the front of the cage folded open.

“Is that safe?” asked Deena, when Avenel motioned for her to step inside.

“If you’d rather take the stairs,” said Avenel, “it’s a thousand steps to the top.”

Deena stepped inside the lift.

There was a girl running toward them from across the cave. “Wait!” she called. “Wait for me!” It was only when she neared that Deena saw that the girl was actually a grown woman, albeit a petite one. She ran into the lift, panting, hair disheveled with a smudge of dirt on her cheek. “Thank you,” she said. She looked up. “Oh! You must be Lord Avenel! Did Sir Erikr already go back up?”

Avenel regarded her. “He did,” she said. “You’re Sabine’s daughter.”

“I am,” said the petite woman, “and I’ve been told I’m her spitting image.” She bowed. “I’m Tatiana. Tatiana Vettel; I use my uncle’s surname.”

“And now you’re working under Erikr,” said Avenel. “From what Vallus tells me, your mother would be proud.”

Tatiana beamed, and fetching dimples formed on her cheeks. “My lord is too kind.”

The lift began to move with a great grinding of gears and chains. The floor shuddered and shook, but both Avenel and Tatiana seemed unfazed.

Tatiana seemed to sense Deena’s unease. “Is this your first time in the lift?” she asked.

Deena nodded.

“It made me nervous, too, when I first arrived. Perhaps you’ll feel more at ease if you saw the mechanisms. I have some time tomorrow; I could show you around, if Lord Avenel permits it.”

“I don’t see the harm,” said Avenel.

“Tomorrow, then, I’ll give the grand tour,” said Tatiana. “Oh, but I don’t believe I caught your name.”

“It’s Deena,” said Deena, and bowed.

Tatiana laughed. “Oh, you don’t have to bow to me; I’m not a sir just yet. Just Tatiana is fine.”

The lift slowed as it emerged into a courtyard lit by the setting sun. Deena blinked and squinted as the door of the lift creaked open.

“I have to run,” said Tatiana, stepping out from the lift. “It was lovely to meet you, Lord Avenel, and you too, Deena. I’ll see you both at dinner.”

The courtyard was full of people, men and women bustling about their business, busier even than Taunsgrove on market days. Some of the people wore expensive silks and jewels, while others were dressed in plainer garb. Two men were carrying a large crate across the courtyard. To the right, there was a group at sword practice, their weapons glinting in the sun. Somewhere out of sight, the sound of a blacksmith’s hammer rang out across the yard. Almost all of the people looked young.

“Are they all Hallowed?” asked Deena.

“Most,” replied Avenel.

“Is Tatiana?”

Avenel nodded.

They crossed the courtyard and entered the large tower that looked to be the main structure of the keep. Up close, it was even larger than it had appeared from afar, easily the width of four or five of Taunsgrove’s cottages. The exterior stones looked old, weathered and smooth, but the doors and windows seemed to be of newer construction.

A man stood waiting for them by the door, dressed in a crisp silk shirt, his bald head reflecting the sunset.

He bowed. “Lord Avenel,” he said. “It’s a pleasure to welcome you back to the Silent Tower.”

“Charles,” said Avenel with a nod. “Deena, this is Charles, the steward here.”

“Hello,” said Deena, unsure of whether to bow.

Charles bowed, putting an end to Deena’s dilemma. “A pleasure to meet you, Miss Deena,” he said. “Come, Lord Vallus is waiting for you.”

They passed a few people on their way up the tower, many of whom bowed to Avenel and looked curiously at Deena. The number of floors they passed made Deena almost wish for a second lift, until at last they arrived at the top.

There were only three doors on this floor, each one large and imposing. Charles knocked on the middle of the three. “My Lord,” he called. “Lord Avenel and young Deena have arrived.”

“Come in,” called the voice from within, and Charles opened the door.

The room inside was large and brightly lit by a number of floor-length glass windows. Bookshelves filled the spaces between the windows, topped with marble busts. There was a fireplace on one of the walls, as tall as a door, and accompanied by a small trestle table and a quartet of matching armchairs. The center of the room was dominated by a large and ornate desk of dark mahogany, piled high with papers and books. Sitting at the desk was a man who Deena assumed to be Lord Vallus, who looked at them over spectacles perched on a long, thin nose. The rest of his face was long and sharp too, with high cheekbones and hard, square jaw.

He brushed back his hair. “Lord Avenel,” he said, rising. “And—”

Avenel interrupted him. “Charles,” she said, “I’ll need a word with Lord Vallus in private.”

“Of course,” said Charles. “Shall I show Miss Deena to your quarters?”

“Please,” said Avenel. “I’m sure she is tired and will want a bath.”

Charles nodded. “This way, Miss.”

“O-oh, okay,” said Deena. She glanced back at Avenel for a moment then turned to follow Charles out of the room.

Avenel waited until the door had swung shut behind them before retrieving the ring from her pocket. She crossed the room in three quick strides and slammed it on Vallus’s desk. “Explain.”

Vallus picked up the ring and ran his thumb over his sigil. “Did Edith give this to you?”

“No. She was dead.”

Vallus closed his eyes. “Ah.”

“Is the girl your daughter?”

Vallus didn’t answer. His eyes remained closed. After a long silence, he sighed. “Yes.”

“She’s lucky to be alive. If Joel and I hadn’t been there—”

“I know,” said Vallus. “Taunsgrove was supposed to be safe.”

“Safe?” asked Avenel.

“I know,” said Vallus, holding up his hands, “but there hadn’t been an attack like that in decades. If I had known—”

“I’m not talking about the attack,” interrupted Avenel. “I’m talking about Taunsgrove. You know full well how towns like that can be, how much they resent Hallowed rule. You know what happened to Kamiya—”

“It isn’t like with Kamiya! Edith knew what she was—who I was—and once Deena came of age we would have told her.”

“So why send them away at all? You would hardly be the first man to keep a paramour or a bastard child.”

“That isn’t what— it isn’t how you think,” said Vallus. “Believe me, I had my reasons for—”

“What reasons could you possibly have for abandoning your own daughter?”

The look Vallus gave her was that of a wounded deer. “I—I didn’t,” he said quietly. “Avenel, I—I didn’t know what else to do.”

Avenel regarded him for a moment. “Then talk to me. Tell me what your reasons are.”

Vallus hesitated. “Promise me you won’t tell a soul. And—and that you won’t hurt her.”

“Why would I hurt her?”

“Edith isn’t Deena’s mother, not by blood.”

“Then who is?”

Vallus sighed. “Her name was Fosette. She was Ajjraean.”