VIII. Shadows on the Wall

Early mornings were often dark in the Silent Tower, as the mountains to the east blocked out the dawn. The light in Avenel’s room was bleary and grey when Vallus entered. “I thought she might like these, too,” he said, adding three more books to the stack on the dresser.

“That’s enough, Vallus,” said Avenel, looking up from her packing. “You’ll weigh the horses down.”

“But she likes to read,” said Vallus.

“She’ll have plenty to read once we’re there,” said Avenel. “We’re going to my wardsister’s, not the middle of nowhere.”

“Your wardsister’s is in the middle of nowhere,” said Vallus. “Besides, she might want something to read on the road.”

“Then have her pick out one or two, not the whole stack.” She closed her saddlebag. “I’m going to go dress. Deena should be back soon.”

“Where did she go?”

“To return a book to Sir Moore.”

“A servant could have done that for her.”

“That’s what I said,” said Avenel, “but coming from Taunsgrove, she isn’t used to having servants hand and foot. I don’t think she exactly likes it.”

Avenel was still changing in the inner room when Deena returned. “O-oh, Lord Vallus,” she said when she saw him. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”

“Good morning, Deena,” said Vallus. “Are you ready for your journey?”

“I think so,” said Deena. “Everything’s packed—thank you for the clothes, by the way—and I’ve put the room back to how it was as best I can.”

“Did you have breakfast?” asked Vallus.

“Oh, no, I guess I haven’t,” said Deena. She examined the breakfast tray and picked out a piece of toast.

Vallus watched her as she drizzled honey over the toast. He wanted to say something her, but what was there to say? Nearly a week under his roof, but he was still barely more than a stranger to her.

He wanted to tell her that she meant the world to him. He wanted to tell her he was sorry.

It was Deena who broke the silence. “Lord Vallus, um, why are all these books here?”

“Oh,” said Vallus. “Yes.” He pulled out a volume near the bottom of the stack. “This is for you,” he said. “It’s a collection of maps. I thought you might like to know more about where you’re going and the route you’ll be taking. There are maps of other regions, too.”

“Aren’t maps very valuable? Shouldn’t this stay here?”

“This is from my personal collection,” said Vallus. “The Tower has its own copy.”

Deena opened it. He watched as she ran her hand across the page, her fingers tracing the blue ink of the river Rhiine. “Oh wow,” she said. “It’s beautiful.” She looked up. “But I don’t think I can accept this.”

“Please, I insist,” said Vallus. “I—your mother was a good friend. This is the least I can do.”

“You never mentioned how you knew my mother,” said Deena.

“It was before you were born,” said Vallus. “She—She helped someone very dear to me.”

“Did you know my father, too?”

Vallus paused. “No. No I didn’t.”

“Oh,” said Deena. She seemed disappointed. “What about these other books? What are they?”

“Just some that I thought you might like.” He had consulted with Sir Moore about which books she had been reading. “Take whichever ones catch your fancy.”

“Are you sure? Won’t they be missed?”

“Hardly,” said Vallus. “Most of these haven’t been touched in years.”

He watched as Deena perused the books, trying to memorize the shape of her. He looked for himself in her, and found it in the color of her eyes and the shape of her nose. He found Fosette in the color of her hair, the slight slouch in her shoulders, the way she rubbed the corner of each page as she turned it. He wanted to burn the image of her into his mind forever.

“I have something else for you,” said Vallus, retrieving a small box from his pocket. “I’ve been meaning to find the right time to give it to you. It—it belonged to your mother.”

Deena took the box and opened it to reveal the sapphire pendant inside, hanging from a thin silver chain. “This was my mother’s?” asked Deena.

“Yes,” said Vallus. “She—she left it with me for safekeeping, before she left for Taunsgrove. I think she would like you to have it.”

Deena examined the pendant, lifting it up to see it catch the light. “But she said that she and my father didn’t have a lot of money.” She looked up. “Did you know my mother very well, Lord Vallus?”

“Well enough,” said Vallus.

“What was she like? She never really talked about her life before Taunsgrove.”

Vallus hesitated. “I’m sure your mother had her reasons for not telling you.” He gestured to the necklace. “Shall I help you put it on?”

“Oh, okay,” said Deena, turning around.

Vallus’s fingers fumbled for a moment. He remembered the countless, countless times he had put that same necklace on Fosette. “There,” he said.

Deena turned back around. “How does it look?”

Vallus smiled. “You look lovely.”

By the time Avenel was dressed, a servant had come up to inform them that the horses were ready. Deena slid two of the books into her bag before handing it to the servant, and they walked down to the courtyard together.

A small group of people had gathered to say goodbye, waiting by the gates of the lift. Kamiya, Glenna, and Erikr were all there, along with Tatiana and Charles. Even Graham had made his way over, though he still looked rather pale and wan.

Tatiana pressed a paper package into Deena’s hands. “We made you a gift,” she said. “Well, Grizzly made it, but it was Glenna’s idea, and I drew the design.”

“Thank you,” said Deena, opening it. Inside was a small dagger in a leather sheath, an ornate D engraved on the pommel.

“Perhaps Lord Avenel could show you how to use it,” said Erikr.

“Or you could just use it as a fruit knife,” said Tatiana, rolling her eyes. “Not everyone needs to learn to kill.”

Kamiya pulled Avenel into a warm embrace, then gestured with her hands, too fast for Vallus to read. While they were occupied, he turned to Deena.

“Will you be alright?” he asked.

“Yes,” said Deena. “I’ll have Avenel.”

“Of course,” he said, nodding. “But if you ever need anything—if anything should happen where you need my help—please don’t hesitate to ask.”

Deena nodded. “Thank you, my lord.”

“A-and write to us once you’re settled there. Or to Tatiana if you prefer.”

“Okay,” said Deena. “I will.”

The others stayed upstairs, but Vallus and Charles accompanied Deena and Avenel down in the lift. The horses were already packed and ready, a handsome bay stallion and a grey gelding. Deena struggled a little to mount her horse, and Vallus almost reached out to help her before she managed it on her own.

“All the usual provisions are here, my lord,” said Charles to Avenel, gesturing at the packs on the horses. “It should see you as far as Emdenshire.”

“Thank you, Charles,” said Avenel. She swung herself up onto the saddle. “Vallus, it’s been good to see you again.”

“You as well,” said Vallus. “And Deena—” He paused. He wanted nothing more than to hold her, to tell her how much he loved her, to apologize for not being more of a father, but instead all he could do was give her an awkward pat on the knee. “—It’s been a pleasure to meet you,” he finished.

The portcullis lifted open with a great groaning of the chains. Vallus watched as Deena and Avenel rode off, out of the cave and into the bright sunlight outside. He watched them riding away into the trees, then the path bent, and they were gone.

Like her mother before her, all he had left was his memory of her.

Deena woke to the soft pattering of rain on the tent. The oiled canvas kept the water out, but her back was damp with sweat. Her mouth, on the other hand, was dry as bone, and tasted faintly of ash.

“Bad dreams?” asked Avenel.

Deena nodded. Her back ached abominably from sleeping on the ground after a week in a feather bed. “Did I wake you?”

“No, I’m an early riser on the road,” said Avenel. She lifted the flap of the tent. “I hope this rain doesn’t continue.”

“It’s good for the crops,” said Deena.

“Good for the crops, yes, but bad for travel. Once we arrive at Olyssa’s, it can rain as much as it likes.”

“What’s she like, your wardsister? Are you close?”

“We were, when she was a child, but it’s been a while since I saw her last.”

To Avenel’s visible displeasure, the rain did continue, albeit in an on-again-off-again sort of way. Thankfully, Charles had hooded raincloaks packed for them, so they were only slightly wet as they rode. The horses still struggled, though, hooves squelching in the mud with every step. Around noon, they stopped for lunch, seeking shelter beneath a large tree.

Avenel broke off a piece of cheese and handed it to Deena. “You never asked what Kamiya found at Taunsgrove,” she said.

“Oh,” said Deena. “I—I wasn’t sure that you would tell me.”

“She didn’t find much,” said Avenel, “only confirmed what we already know.”

“So, it really was an attack by the Ajjraeans?”

Avenel nodded.

“But why? We don’t—we didn’t do anything.”

“We don’t know yet,” said Avenel. “Vallus is looking into it, but it may be a while before we know.”

“Is it another war, then?”

“We don’t know yet,” said Avenel again. “Even if it is war, it’ll be safe at Olyssa’s.”

“It was supposed to be safe at Taunsgrove,” said Deena. “My mother always said so.”

Avenel didn’t answer.

A full day of riding had left Deena feeling sore and stiff, and she didn’t much relish the idea of another day on the road. Her horse didn’t seem too happy about it either, giving a sigh-like snort as Deena mounted. “Sorry,” said Deena, patting the horse on the neck, “but Avenel says it’ll be at least two more days to Emdenshire, and then another three to her wardsister’s.”

The road they were on followed the River Rhiine, though it wove through the woods so that they only caught glimpses of the river itself. Each time they caught sight of it, it seemed to Deena to be a little wider and deeper than it had before, and a little louder as well. By the time the sun started to set, the Rhiine was a series of raging rapids at the bottom of a canyon.

They turned off the main road and onto a much smaller one, overgrown and nearly impossible to spot, though Avenel navigated it with ease. Ahead, something dark and oblong peeked out over the tops of the trees.

“What is that?” asked Deena, squinting through the rain.

“Some old ruins,” said Avenel. “It’ll make better shelter than our tent.”

The ruins turned out to be that of some ancient castle, though most of it had long since been reclaimed by the forest. The oblong structure they had seen before had once been a tower, and one of the few places where the masonry remained intact. Even here, the walls were covered by moss and ivy, behind which Deena could just barely make out the black of soot.

“Was there a fire here?” asked Deena.

Avenel nodded.

The door of the tower had long since rotted away, but the inside was large and still blessedly dry. With relief, Deena peeled off her wet boots and breeches and laid them by the wall to dry.

“Aren’t you going to undress?” asked Deena, when Avenel only took off her cloak and boots.

“No,” said Avenel, lighting a lantern. “They’re only a little damp.”

Dinner was dried beef and cheese and the remainder of the bread. They considered starting a fire, to turn the beef into some sort of stew, but there was no chimney in the tower and no dry wood. Instead, there was only the lantern to see by as they ate, and Avenel extinguished it when they crawled into their bedrolls.

Sleep would not come. Deena listened to the rain pattering outside, the occasional snort or stomp of the horses. She listened to the roar of the Rhiine, somewhere to their east, as its waters raced northwest to the sea. She could hear Avenel, too, relighting the lantern and walking to the doorway to gaze out into the rain. Her sword was in her hand, and the ruby in the pommel shimmered as though the stone was on fire.

“Where are you going?” asked Deena.

“Nowhere,” said Avenel. “It’s raining.”

Deena sat up. “I couldn’t sleep either.”

Avenel didn’t answer.

“Did this place have a name?” asked Deena.

“Yes. It was called Parvelhaugh.”

“What did it look like? Do you know?”

Avenel was silent a moment. “It was large,” she said. “There were towers. This one—the one we’re in now—was one of the shorter ones. The tallest one was over there, right on the edge of the cliff. You could see for miles from that tower. But it’s fallen into the river, along with half the cliff.”

“Was that before or after the fire?”

“After. Long, long after.” She turned to look at Deena. “You should try to sleep. We have a long day of travelling tomorrow.”

Deena nodded and laid back down. “Avenel,” she said, “did you know the people who lived here?”

“Yes,” said Avenel, after a brief pause, “but that was a lifetime ago.”

She had no body, no features, no self. She was disconnected from her surroundings. A castle, a cliff, a river—but she could not have said where she was, or who, or even when.

She saw the world through a stranger’s eyes. The stranger was standing by a window, high up in a tower, gazing out at the fields and forests below. Somewhere out of sight, a river roared.

There was an army in the distance, a formidable host of hundreds, perhaps thousands. There were flags and horses and men clad in armor, all inching inexorably closer. The stranger watched them, and her heart beat quick.

A girl stood beside her, fifteen, maybe sixteen, clinging tightly to the stranger’s arm. “Kassie—” she began.

The stranger reached out and brushed a rogue strand of hair from the girl’s face. “Don’t be afraid,” she said. “I’m here.”

A knock on the door. “Lady Kassandra? Lady Katrina?”

The stranger turned. “Yes?”

A guardsman stood at the door. “My ladies, it’s time to go. There’s a safe room prepared for you in the cellar; your father has ordered for you to be taken there.”

The stranger nodded. “Take my sister,” she said. “I need to gather some things.”

“My lady, there isn’t time—”

“I need to gather some things,” said the stranger again, more forcefully. “Mother’s urn, at least.”

The guard bowed. “Very well, my lady,” he said. “Lady Katrina, if you’ll follow me.”

The girl released her grip on the stranger’s arm. She turned to look at the stranger, then followed the guard out of the room.

“Go,” said the stranger. “I’ll be right behind you.”

The castle was filled with people busy with the preparations of war, none of whom paid the stranger any mind beyond a cursory bow or curtsy. From the mantle above an ornate fireplace, the stranger took the urn and clutched it to her chest. She made way back through courtyard and down the steps that led to the cellar.

Her sister was at the bottom of the stairs, locked in a passionate kiss with a blond-haired man. So engrossed were they in each other that neither noticed the stranger’s approach.

The stranger’s heart stuttered, and the urn fell to the ground and shattered.

At the sound, the couple broke apart. “Kassie!” exclaimed the girl, quickly putting a hand to her mouth. “Kassie, I can explain.” She reached out for the stranger’s hand, but the stranger jerked away. “Kassie, we—I’m sorry, we should have told you sooner, but—”

“Was this Father’s idea?” asked the stranger.

“Yes, but—”

The stranger turned and ran. The girl and her golden-haired lover called after her, but she did not stop.

“My lady?” asked a passing maid. “My lady, what’s the matter?”

“Where is my father?” asked the stranger.

“In the workshop, preparing the oil for the murderholes. What—”

But the stranger didn’t wait for her to finish. She ran, pushing aside servants and soldiers alike.

The workshop was dark, lit only by a series of braziers along the wall. Men labored between large wooden casks, overseen by a stooped, balding man in a velvet doublet.

“Father,” said the stranger.

The old man didn’t even look up. “Not now, Kassandra. I’m busy, or have you not noticed the invaders to the west?”

“Father, I will speak with you now.”

The man looked up. “From the tone of your voice and the look on your face, I see you’ve found Nicholas with your sister.”

“Nicholas is mine! He loves me!”

“Love is for fools and commoners,” said the man. “I should not need to remind you that you are my eldest. As the gods have seen fit to deny me sons, whatever man you marry must be my heir. Nicholas is a bard, unfit to be the Lord of Parvelhaugh, and if marrying him to Katrina is the only way to end your foolish tryst, then so be it.”

The stranger shook her head. “He’ll never agree to it. He loves me.”

“Evidently not enough,” said the man. “They’ve already been wed and consummated.”

The stranger pushed, shoving the man with all her strength. He stumbled backwards, breaking the cask behind him and knocking over others. She ran, and several workers gave chase at the man’s command, but she knocked over the braziers to slow their pursuit. There was yelling behind her as the spilt oil caught fire, but she did not stop, only pausing to grab a sword from the rack along the wall. Servants tried to stop her or slow her as she ran, but she brandished the blade at them to keep them away.

Katrina found her in the corridor. “Kassie! Kassie, stop!”

“Where’s Nicholas?” asked the stranger.

“Looking for you,” said Katrina. “Kassie, please, you have to understand—Nicholas and I, we love each other!”

“Nicholas loves me!” She slashed, the tip of the sword grazing her sister’s face. The girl screamed, covering her face with her hands. For a moment, the stranger paused, taking half a step forward toward her sister, but then she dropped the sword and ran.

The fire was quicker than her, and by the time the stranger arrived at the courtyard, half the stables were already aflame. The stablehands were busy trying to extinguish the flames, so she ignored them, and retrieved a warhorse from the part still untouched.

She rode bareback to the gate. “Raise the gate,” she said.

The guard looked at her, confused. “My lady? There’s an army approaching, and the fire—”

“I will meet with their general,” said the stranger. “Raise the gate.”

The guard obeyed.

She rode, the flames at her back and the sunset in her eyes, until she could see the invading soldiers, staring up at the smoke.

“Who leads this army?” she asked.

A mounted knight stepped forward. “I do,” he said, and removed his helm. “I am Lord Ephraim of Elyria. Who might you be?”

“I am the Lord of Parvelhaugh,” said the stranger.

The knight glanced back at his companions. “We were under the impression that Parvelhaugh is held by a Lord Kenneth Avenel.”

“Lord Kenneth was my father,” said the stranger. “As his firstborn and heir, I am the new Lord Avenel, and I surrender unconditionally to Elyria.”

In the shiny reflection of the knight’s polished armor, the disembodied girl saw the stranger’s face.

Deena woke herself with her scream.

“Deena?” asked Avenel. “Are you alright?”

“N-no! No, don’t touch me, don’t touch me!”

Avenel drew back. “Deena, what’s the matter?”

“It was you! You started the fire!”

“The fire?” asked Avenel. “Deena—”

“It was you!” cried Deena again. “You started the fire here, at Parvelhaugh! You were the one who killed your family!”