“Allara! Wake up, girl!” My father’s voice reached into my dreams and finally awakened me. I stretched, rubbed my eyes, and slowly sat up in my small bed. Father looked down at me and continued, “I need your help this morning to copy the invitations for the Founding Day ball. We need to get them to the pigeon keeper to send out.”
I nodded sleepily and murmured, “Yes, Father.” Inwardly, I heaved a great sigh at the task ahead of me. I hated sitting down, making copies of notes. I would rather strive through the woods and hunt, but my father still made me stay inside as much as possible so I wouldn’t be seen.
“Get dressed, have your breakfast, then come to the workroom. Don’t waste time!” With a sharp nod, he turned and quickly departed. I sighed again, and then pushed myself up and out of bed.
For years Father had kept my existence a secret. No one knew that fifteen years ago, he had dallied with the maidservant of one of Dargon’s minor nobles. My mother had always claimed that I was the child of a traveler who had been passing through the city; but then last year, just before she died, she revealed that I was in fact the daughter of Rish Vogel, the Royal Chronicler of Duke Dargon. She had given me a letter and told me to seek his refuge
“Good morning, Allara!” the cook sang as I entered the kitchen a short while later. I returned her greeting and sat at the large wooden table in the center of the room. The other servants were busy preparing breakfast for the keep’s residents; I helped myself to some bread, cheese, and milk. These days, nearly everyone knew who I was, although at first Father had attempted to pass me off as his niece. The truth soon became known, of course, and sometimes he seemed to resent my presence in his life. Even so, he tried to find something useful for me to do. He taught me to read and write; I’d been an apt student, learning quickly, and since my handwriting was to his liking he had decided that I could perform menial tasks such as copying notes while he continued to work on the keep’s chronicles.
As I ate, a thin blonde serving girl came through the kitchen with a basket of clothes. “Morning, Donia!” I called to her. “Any news?”
She turned to me and set the basket on the table, drawing a few glares from the kitchen servants. “No news, Lara. It’s still missing. I hear the duke’s thinking about having every single house in the city searched, if they don’t find it soon. Can you imagine?”
I shook my head. Two days ago, someone had stolen an engraved silver plate that was to be given as a prize in one of the contests during the Founding Day ball, just three days from now. The guards had scoured the keep, but hadn’t found it. Everyone, including me and my father, had been questioned; the room where the plate had been kept hadn’t been broken into, so the suspicion was that someone living in or working at the keep had to be involved with the theft.
“And do you know what else?” Donia said. “Last night, someone stole a pigeon from the weir!”
“Another theft?” I replied, surprised. Wasn’t anything safe around here anymore? “Which pigeon was it?”
“The black one, I think. The one they use for the truly important messages.” Donia shook her head. “Old Fadeyko was nearly in tears when he found out, so I was told.”
I knew that Fadeyko was the duke’s Royal Pigeon Keeper, the man responsible for overseeing the keep’s messenger pigeon weir. He was very protective of his birds, and some said he treated them like his own children. The black pigeon was the fastest of the keep’s messengers, and was the pigeon keeper’s favorite. Small wonder that he should be so upset over its theft.
“The guards will probably be around again, asking questions,” Donia continued, blowing a strand of hair away from her face. “I’d better get working.” She picked up the basket of clothes, and I waved to her as she headed to the door that led out into the courtyard.
After finishing my meal, I halfheartedly made my way through the halls of the keep to my father’s workroom. He would no doubt scold me if I took too long to get there, but I was thinking about the two thefts and whether there was any connection between them. Had they been the work of the same thief? If so, was it someone here at the keep? I cast long looks at the people I passed in the halls, trying to detect any hint of guilt in their eyes.
When I got to the workroom, my father was seated behind his parchment-covered desk. He curtly acknowledged my arrival and told me that the invitation I was to make copies of was on my table. I started to tell him about the theft of the messenger pigeon, but he interrupted me and said that he had already heard the news. “The duke still plans to hold the ball,” he snapped, “and there are still plenty of birds left to carry the invitations!”
“Yes, Father,” I said, yielding my attempt to talk to him. I carefully stepped past his desk so as not to disturb any of the papers that stuck out over the edge of his desk.
It took most of the morning for me to copy the words of the invitation onto the small squares of parchment that the pigeons would carry to the messenger houses located in various parts of the city. Couriers would then deliver the notes to their intended recipients, in this case the nobles and wealthy citizens of Dargon. After Father had examined each note, he grunted in satisfaction and waved me away to take the lot of them to the pigeon keeper.
The sun was bright in the sky as I crossed the courtyard to the section of the keep where the pigeon weir was located. At the top of the stairs I was stopped by one of Fadeyko’s assistants, but the man let me pass when he saw who I was. The pigeon keeper himself was there, bent over a table and peering closely at something in his hands. I called out his name, and he turned and smiled broadly. This was another surprise, since Donia had told me about his distress over the loss of his favorite bird. Then I saw what he was holding: it was the black pigeon!
“Ah, Allara!” Fadeyko said, holding up the bird. “Come see, come see!”
“Is that the bird that was stolen?” I asked, going over to him.
“Yes, yes he is!” the old man cried happily. He planted a kiss on the bird’s head. The pigeon blinked and tried to flutter its wings. “He fly back home, just right now. And look — he come back with a message!” Fadeyko pointed to the bird’s right leg, around which was curled a little scroll of parchment, tied in place with a few loops of thread. He asked me to remove the message; after I had done so, he placed the bird in a cage with several other pigeons. Then he took the message from me, unrolled it, and squinted hard at the tiny letters.
“What does it say?” I asked. The pigeon keeper said nothing, but moved the little scroll closer to his face.
“I’m thinking it’s an important message,” he finally said.
“But who sent it? The person who stole the pigeon?”
“Could be,” he replied, looking at me. “Could even be the person who took that silver plate!” He let the message roll up. “I better show this to the duke. You have something for me?”
I suddenly remembered the messages in the square leather pouch that I had around my neck. “Yes, they’re the invitations to the ball.” I pulled out the messages and handed them to him.
Fadeyko thanked me, then told me to run along. “I go show this note to the duke,” he said. “It’s for ransoming that plate back, I’m thinking!” He turned and called to his assistant.
I quickly left the pigeon weir. My father would surely want to know about this, I was certain, so I ran across the courtyard and hurried through the keep to his workroom.
“Father! The pigeon is back!” I yelled, bursting into the room. He was still behind his desk, and my rushed entry had sent several parchments flying. Father gave me a stern look; ashamed, I bent down, gathered up the fallen papers and placed them back on the desk.
“What is so important about a pigeon coming back to the keep, Allara?” He looked at me as if I was stupid. I don’t think Father ever forgave me for being a girl.
“Don’t you remember the break-in last night? The pigeon keeper was all upset because his best messenger pigeon had been stolen. It came back just now and –”
“That is nothing new,” he interrupted me. “Messenger pigeons always come back when they’re released.”
“I know that, Father, but this one had a message attached!” For the first time this morning, he looked at me with a spark of interest in his eyes.
“What did the message say?” he inquired.
“I don’t know, Father. The pigeon keeper is taking it to the duke right now — he said it’s a ransom note.”
“How would he know? He can’t read,” Father grumbled. “I should go see the duke.” Turning, he handed me his brush. “You can finish copying this.”
“Father!” I called out in disappointment. “I want to know, too!”
“If you must,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. I took it as an invitation to come along. Quickly, I placed the brush in its container and followed him.
When we entered the keep’s audience chamber, Father gestured me to stay behind. Duke Clifton Dargon sat behind a long table, conferring with some of his advisors. Father announced himself and pushed aside the courtiers who were standing in front of the table. The duke looked up and greeted my father, then handed him the little scroll that he had been examining. “What do you make of this?”
Father stared at the note for a long time. I began to fidget, wanting to see the note for myself. A sigh escaped my lips, and at this Father turned and gave me “the look”. I put a hand to my mouth and shrank back into a corner.
“I think it was one or more of the followers of Arom-Nok who stole the prize,” Father finally said. “I’ve heard that there is a group of them in Dargon, trying to conceal themselves. I’m sure Captain Koren can find them easily and retrieve the plate.”
“That was my thinking at first, yes,” Clifton Dargon replied, leaning forward in his chair. “Yet, I feel there is more to this message than a simple accusation in prayer form.”
My father looked at the note again for a long time. The silence in the room was making me nervous. I could hear horses being led across the courtyard and the servant girl Donia singing, as she always did when she hung laundry. Time passed too slowly for my liking. I was concentrating on my breathing to stop myself from fidgeting again.
“I don’t see any secret message here,” Father finally declared. “It’s just unbelievers who think that by stealing the prize, they can prevent the contest from happening.”
Some of the courtiers nodded in agreement. Although Founding Day commemorated the establishment of the Kingdom of Baranur, it was the custom in Dargon to hold a contest during the traditional evening ball in which minstrels and musicians performed an original song about the life of Cephas Stevene.
“Nothing more?” asked the duke.
“No, milord,” Father replied. He handed the note back to the duke then turned to leave, gesturing me to follow. I ignored him and instead stepped up to the table.
“May I see the note, please?” I asked quietly. Clifton Dargon looked up. I don’t think he had noticed me, judging from the look of surprise I saw in his face.
“You’re Allara, aren’t you?” He gave me a brief smile.
“Yes, milord!” I replied, looking directly into his eyes to avoid having to see the stump of his left arm.
“So you think you’ll have better luck than your father, eh?” He held out the note in his right hand. I was about to take it when I felt my father’s fingers clamp into my shoulder. I could barely contain a scream. Not only had he taken me by surprise, but his grip hurt.
“You,” he hissed angrily, “were supposed to follow me out!” Father looked at the duke. “I apologize for my daughter’s insolence. I will make sure she learns her place.”
The duke pursed his lips, then gave the note to my father. “Why don’t you have her make a copy? I’ll have one of my men take it to Captain Koren.”
“As you wish, milord,” Father said quietly, his right hand clamping down harder on my shoulder, his left hand holding the note. He turned me around and walked me out of the room ahead of him. I bit down on my lip to prevent myself from crying.
Back in the workroom, Father gave me a long lecture about obedience. He then said he had some matters to attend to and would be gone for a little while, and warned me not to leave until he returned. When he left, I let out a giggle; I now had the note in front of me and could take all the time I wanted to study it! Dipping a brush into a pot of ink, I began to copy the strange text onto a larger piece of parchment.
Cephas Stevene protect
And save me from the
Unholy men who have
Stolen the prize.
Evil will never prevail
When your light shines
And good men walk in
Your holy path.
As soon as I was done, I read the words over again several times. After perhaps the fifth or sixth time, something about the verse seemed to leap out at me, and I felt a burst of inspiration. With a growing sense of excitement, I realized that if I was right, I knew exactly where to find the stolen silver plate!
A knock at the door startled me; it was the man the duke had assigned to bring the copy of the note to Captain Koren, leader of the town guards. The duke’s man was actually a youth, and looked to be only a few years older than myself. He shuffled into the room, not looking directly at me, and asked if I had copied the note. He seemed nervous, and I guessed that he was probably a low-ranking member of the ducal guard.
I told him that I had some important information for Captain Koren, and said that I wanted to give the parchment to him in person. I knew I would be disobeying my father by leaving the keep, but I was willing to risk his anger if it meant that the plate was found.
The duke’s man looked at me uncertainly. “Milord Dargon only said I had to take the note. Didn’t say anything about you.”
“Please?” I asked in my sweetest voice. “I truly must see Captain Koren in person. Won’t you take me along?”
He hesitated, so I told him that if there were any trouble about it, my father would speak to the duke personally. This seemed to satisfy him, and soon I was riding behind him on horseback through the streets of the Old City, the parchment safely tucked in a scroll case that I held tightly in my hand.
Once at the guardhouse, the duke’s man helped me down off the horse and informed the nearest guardsman that we had to see Captain Koren on the duke’s business. In about a mene, we were taken to the captain’s office. Koren himself answered the door and invited us inside, but the duke’s man preferred to wait in the hallway.
I felt a knot of apprehension as I stepped into the room. I had been rehearsing in my mind what I was going to say to Captain Koren, but now I saw that he wasn’t alone: next to his desk stood a slender woman dressed in a guardsman’s uniform similar to the captain’s.
I told him who I was, and explained about the return of the missing pigeon and its mysterious message as I handed him the scroll case. He motioned for me to sit in a chair next to the fireplace, then sat down behind his desk and unrolled the parchment. I waited as he and the woman looked at the message. When Captain Koren glanced up, I quickly described to him my idea about where the silver plate was hidden. The two of them studied the paper again, and after several moments the captain looked up at the woman and said, “Your thoughts, Lieutenant Milnor?”
“She could be right,” the woman replied. “It’s someplace we hadn’t even considered.”
Captain Koren nodded. He turned to me and said, “Well, Allara, thank you for bringing this –”
At that moment the door flew open, and my father stormed into the room. The duke’s man was nowhere to be seen.
“Where is — ah, there you are!” Father cried. I felt a stab of fear as he came over and grabbed my upper arm.
Captain Koren rose from his chair. “Milord Vogel!” he said in a firm voice, but Father ignored him and began dragging me to the door. Lieutenant Milnor came around the desk and blocked his way. She threw him a hard look, which to my relief made him let go of me. He turned and addressed Captain Koren.
“I must apologize,” Father said in a tight voice, “for my daughter’s behavior. She was to hand over the note to the duke’s boy, not take it to you herself.”
“Calm yourself, Vogel,” Captain Koren replied. “She was merely telling us about the message, and where she thought the plate could be found.”
Father frowned deeply. “Was she, now? I must apologize again. I did not raise her to waste other people’s time with her nonsense.” At this, I almost screamed that he wasn’t the one who had raised me, but managed to keep silent.
Captain Koren was about to answer, but Father abruptly said, “We will be going now.” He stared challengingly at Lieutenant Milnor; the woman returned his gaze, but after a moment she looked over at me and asked, “Are you all right, Allara?” I nodded weakly, and she stepped out of my father’s way.
As soon as we were outside, Father shook me and demanded to know why I had left the keep without his permission. He brushed aside my feeble explanations, and ordered me to get into the wagon that was waiting by the guard house gates. When I was aboard in the back, Father climbed into the seat next to the wagon’s driver, whom I recognized as one of the keep’s stable workers. I endured another miserable lecture on obedience as we rode back to the keep. When he was finished, I mustered up a spark of courage and asked, “What about that man …?”
Father made a sound of derision. “I sent him back to the keep, and will see to it that he is punished. What did you think?” My feelings of misery increased, and it took much effort for me not to start crying.
As punishment, Father had me assist the scullions in scrubbing the floors of the gong chambers in our section of the keep. It was hard work, mainly because the stench from the waste-chutes was so foul. One of the scullions whispered to me a story about how, a few years ago, my father had lost an important scroll down a waste-chute and had gone into the sewers to retrieve it. I enjoyed a huge laugh when she told me about how Father had encountered the gong farmer, an addled old man who lived in the sewers, and ended up covered in filth.
When Father came for me late in the afternoon, I could barely stifle my laughter as I recalled the gong farmer story. Father seemed to sense my amusement; he glanced back at the gong chamber and his face colored. I could tell that he had forgotten about that little episode, and that he regretted choosing that form of punishment for me. So I wasn’t entirely surprised when, after the evening meal, he locked me in my room after first taking away all my candles, leaving me to lay in the gathering darkness until I fell asleep.
The next morning, Father shook me awake again, but his manner was different. He wore a somber expression, and hesitated a moment before telling me to get dressed.
“Is anything the matter?” I asked.
“There is someone here to see you.” His voice had a tone of puzzlement.
When I went out into the main room of our chambers, I stopped in surprise. It was Lieutenant Milnor, the woman I had met in Captain Koren’s office yesterday.
“Come with me, Allara,” she said, a slight smile on her lips.
“Did I do anything wrong?” I asked, my curiosity building.
“Not at all,” she replied. “Quite the opposite, in fact.”
She said nothing more as we walked through the halls of the keep. When we reached the corridors that led to the duke’s audience chamber, my heart began beating faster. Upon coming to the double doors of the chamber, Lieutenant Milnor pushed them open and led me inside. Duke Clifton Dargon sat behind the long table, Captain Koren by his side.
“Good morning, Allara,” the duke said cheerfully. “We have something here that you might like to see.” He nodded to Captain Koren, who brought something out from behind his back: a large silver plate inscribed with the symbol of the Stevene.
“You found it!” I gasped, rushing forward. I leaned on the table and stared at the plate, then suddenly remembered my manners and took a step back.
Duke Dargon smiled. “Captain Koren tells me that it was you who saw the true meaning of the message. I’d be interested to hear how you did it.”
I glanced at Captain Koren, then back at Lieutenant Milnor. Hadn’t they told him everything? The duke was looking at me expectantly; perhaps he just wanted to hear it from me.
“Well, milord,” I began, “at first I thought it was some strange prayer, as you and my father did. But then I noticed that if you read only the first letter of each sentence, from top to bottom, it spelled the word ’causeway’. And since the message did mention the stolen prize, it seemed clear to me that whoever wrote the note was saying that the plate was hidden somewhere at the causeway.”
Koren set the plate gently onto the table and nodded. “I had Lieutenant Milnor take some men to search the causeway and the area around it very carefully,” he said, and went on to describe how they had found the plate buried near the base of the stone supports on the north side of the river.
“If we hadn’t been looking,” the captain concluded, “we would have completely passed the spot by. Allara certainly deserves our thanks.”
“Indeed she does,” said the duke. “You have a very smart daughter here, Vogel.”
I spun around, and saw my father standing in the doorway of the chamber. He took a few steps forward and gave a stiff bow. “Thank you, Your Grace.”
“Now that we have the prize back,” said the duke, “the contest will go on as planned. But we still don’t know who stole it in the first place, or who stole the pigeon and sent that note, do we?”
Lieutenant Milnor strode forward and said, “We’re still trying to find that out, milord. However …” She paused and looked at Captain Koren.
The captain grinned and said, “If Allara would agree to help us, I’m sure we could answer both questions quite soon.” But before I could reply he continued, “That is, of course, if her father will allow her to.”
“Well, Vogel?” said the duke.
I turned around and saw Father standing awkwardly in the middle of the chamber. His mouth worked for a moment, then he finally said, “Why, why certainly, Your Grace.”
The duke leaned forward in his chair. “So, Allara, what do you say?”
I was sure he knew what I would say, but I replied, “I would be happy to, milord!” I smiled broadly and looked at my father. He avoided my gaze, but that didn’t matter. I wouldn’t be scrubbing gong chambers again, that was for sure.