They buried him under an apple tree not far from their home, beside her mother’s grave. Maybe he would have liked that. Fen didn’t know. He had never said how he wanted to die.
It had not been long before everyone left. The few people that knew her father, that were willing to help bury him; and the fewer that were willing to help… clean… her home.
Morning turned to noon, then noon to afternoon, and Fen still knelt by the grave. Shaded by the apple tree, the shadow felt cold despite the summer heat. She stared at the fresh mound of dirt, eyes dried out as if she had spent every tear in her body. Questions filled her mind but remained unsaid; a lump in her throat warned her that a single word might bring a waterfall.
She was reluctant to leave. Leaving meant returning to the empty house, and it still smelled of blood in there. The wind sent a chill through her body. Grudgingly, she got up, but almost stumbled to the dirt. Her legs still didn’t feel ready to walk. Numb, from all the time she spent on the ground. After a few deep breaths, she limped back to the house.
Fen swung the door open. The light that pierced the broken windows cast shadows across the room. She stared at the empty hearth and shivered. The cold felt as if the empty fireplace had sucked out all of the heat from her home; as if summer was long gone and winter had skipped autumn to stop within her house.
One reluctant step after another, she reached the spot where she had found her father. The body was no longer there, but the blood… Those who helped managed to clean some of it, but part had stuck to the floorboards, unwilling to be wiped out.
The scene had burned itself into her mind. She could still see all the blood, could still see his body sprawled out. His hand had been outstretched, finger stained with blood as if he had tried to write something. Only a smudge of bloody lines remained, a shadow of what he might have tried to scribble.
‘A last message in desperation’, one of the townsfolk had said. ‘Maybe the name of the killer?’ But it didn’t make any sense. Who would want to kill her father? No one had any answers. And the scribble had been too small for a name, but too many lines for a letter.
Her eyes watered again at the thought of her father. At the hundreds of things, questions, she didn't understand. She knelt, hand tracing the stain. Not a letter, she recognized. A rune.
It had been left incomplete. Her father had probably died before finishing it. But she could still recognize part of the pattern, of the rune it was supposed to be. Three parallel polygonal lines over the runic base. Etten.
Runes were natural. It was not really known how, but crystals already had them. As a thing of nature, runes themselves had no meaning. There was a process to read the runes, but the result was just a sound. A name for each type of crystal. Yet, societies still gave meaning to them. Usually something related to the effect of that crystal. Quo for light. Lis for strength. Keth and Reth – push and pull. Etten, heat.
Heat? Why? I don’t understand Da. Had he felt cold in his last moments? She didn’t want to think about it. About her father’s death. But she could muster no other thoughts; her head, when left empty, would wander towards his death.
She raised her head and her eyes met the hearth. What did you mean? She approached the fireplace. Edged with stone and covered inside with clay bricks, it lay against the wall; almost every trace of ash had been wiped off. Fen sat by the hearth, analyzed it as if it were part of some sort of riddle; another trick question her father had given her. There’s no such thing as trick questions, little dragon.
Every brick had the distinct sootiness given by the constant exposure to fire they received. Together, they formed a pattern, a mark of the flame, where it burned, how the heat dissipated. But one didn’t. It was covered in soot, but not in the same way as the ones surrounding it. Instead of the build-up blackness seen in the rest of the bricks, this one had simply been wiped over with soot. A quick glance wouldn’t draw attention, but if you stare at it long enough, you'd realize that the brick stood out.
It took Fen a couple of tries to finally lift the brick from its place. Beneath the now brickless spot was a hole. As wide as the brick, about two handspans deep. Within it lay a large coin pouch, two rings, and a leather-bound notebook.
Fen recognized the rings; they had belonged to her father. Both were thick, with holes a bit larger than Fen’s fingers. One gold, with a hexagonal, scarlet crystal about an inch in size; the other silver, with a round, deep blue crystal of similar size. Thell and Maht. The crystals used in balancing.
She had used them once or twice when her father introduced her to balancing. Initially, he had taught the subject with a larger pair of crystals; but had sold them off to a merchant on its way to Phoelles. Thell and Maht were a rare pair and could be worth a golden round each, depending on the size. So they had resorted to using the rings. She hadn’t seen them in a while, but now she knew where they had been.
The notebook, on the other hand, she did not recognize. She leafed through some pages. They were filled with scribbles she didn’t understand, pages filled with complete gibberish, and poems. All in her father’s hand. She had known her father had a taste in poetry, there were some lyrical books around the house. But she hadn’t known he had tried his hand on the art himself.
She opened the first page. It was mostly blank, except for a short poem at the centre of the page. Tears she didn’t know she had left rained down her eyes as she read her father’s words:
My little dragon
Of crystal heart
I am with you, always
We will never part.
Oh Da, she thought, clutching the notebook against her chest, how much I wish that were true.
* * *
Days went by, and Fen lived her life in silent automation. Wake, sit by the grave, sleep. She starved, but could barely manage to eat; meals were not the same without her father to keep her company. The days and nights seemed to fuse, to Fen there was no distinction between one day and the following. Not when the sleepless nights turned into empty mornings.
She refused to read the notebook. Part of her wanted to, and she did try, but reading her father’s hand, imagining his voice… it would bring the memory of his corpse to her mind. And the tears made it hard to follow the text. Either way, most of what she read was cryptic. She was not sure if the texts themselves were strange or if it was her own mind that had shut itself to any possible meaning.
She did inspect the coin pouch. Twenty golden rounds, forty-eight silver edges, fifteen copper slabs. As close to a fortune as she could think of. What was she supposed to do with this much money? Spent it passively as she lived her life? Was it enough? Her father had taken care of most living expenses. Fen wanted to ask him for help, how to live her life, how to move on. But she couldn’t. He was gone.
The same questions always plagued her mind; they were the cause for her sleepless nights. Who killed her father? Why? Who was her father? When she thought about it, Fen realized that she knew very little about his past. He was born somewhere in the Rendarean Empire, became an akademic at some point in his life, retired, married, had a daughter… and died. Did she really know her father? Was there anything she could do about it? Was she willing to leave the rest of her miserable life in the unknown?
It was morning when she came to that realization, her mind clear despite the short sleep and troubled dreams. She still felt miserable. Still felt like not leaving the bed. Still felt that her feet were bound to a massive, immovable rock. But a small part of herself, small yet disproportionately stubborn, decided she’d had enough.
This morning, she didn’t go to his grave.
She sat by the table, leather-bound notebook in her hands. She read through the tears and tried to piece the meaning in each stanza, in each incomprehensible paragraph. There were some snippets she could understand: references to her childhood, inside jokes they shared, her mother’s name.
But it was not until she zoomed out that she realized the truth of the notebook. The poems, the texts, they were all part of the same facade. There were secrets hidden within the texts, secrets Fen couldn’t even begin to piece out. But she was going to do it.
One particular poem caught her attention:
Beware of the eye:
Eye that lies,
Eye that is hiding.
Eye that is wise,
Eye that is watching.
Fen was still not sure what it fully meant, but one thing was clear. She fetched another book from her father’s bookcase and opened the first page. There it was. An image of an eye made off crisscrossing curves and circles. The All-Seeing Eye, the symbol of the Akademia. And if the poem was any indication, the eye also meant danger.
But she had decided. It was perhaps the inquisitiveness, the attitude to always ask questions and seek answers that her father had instilled in her mind since she was a child, that forced her to make the decision. She would not, could not, sit and let time pass by. She was going to look for answers. And she was going to the Akademia to get them.
Against her dead father’s will, Fen was going to Phoelles.