Matthias slept; his thoughts carrying him back across oceans, across years.
He remembered how it had been in the days just before his mother’s death, the constant tension between the two of them. And then, she’d woken him early one evening, told him to come with her. She had directed him down through the old manor house, past the cellars, to the heavy oak door that led out of the house. She had bidden him light a torch and together they had descended into the catacomb beneath the manor.
He had been there before, although not for some years. He and his brothers had dared each other to venture into the darkness any number of times. They had chased each other around the walled off area their mother called the Vale of Shadows and told each other ghost stories about it’s supposed inhabitant.
As he’d followed his mother down those winding stone steps, he’d thought about everything that she’d said over the previous week. When she’d first brought up the dreams she’d been having, she’d been so sure of their meaning. He hadn’t wanted to believe it, to believe her, but it had been difficult in the face of her iron-hard conviction. Not to mention others apparent willingness to go along with her preparations.
They had passed the memorials of the previous members of their House, simple plaques engraved with names and respective dates. They stretched well beyond the flickering pool of light his torch had cast. Soon after the walls of the Vale had loomed out of the darkness and they stopped before its heavy wrought iron gates. His mother had produced an ornate key, then hesitated. She’d seized his free hand and pressed the key into it, telling him it was now his to safeguard.
He’d felt a sudden anger at her. That was the sort of thing that she’d been saying for days, with nothing but dreams as proof of her supposed fate. He’d stared at her, wanting to reject the notion once again. Even though he was close to a foot above her own height, Lilith Valerius had never been a woman to be looked down upon. She’d held his gaze firmly, never wavering. He’d looked into her eyes, seen the torchlight reflecting the fierce determination there and had known that no matter what he said or did, his mother would not bend on this. He had bit back his reply and handed her the torch, turning towards the gate. As he’d done so he thought he’d seen a fleeting smile cross his mother’s face.
The gates had opened with barely a noise, surprising him. His mother had pushed past him, leading the way deeper into the Vale. He’d found himself looking about warily. Childhood tales of the Keeper of the Dead persisted and he felt foolish for his caution.
His mother had led him to a small stone building, seemingly carved out of the rock wall of the cavern. It looked almost like the crude structures Lukas had shown once shown him drawings of, claiming they were among the oldest human dwellings. There were no doors or windows, just a gap in the low walls to enter. His mother had gestured him inside.
Within had been a rough living space; a puddle of blankets in one corner serving as a bed. A dying fire rested at the bottom of a shallow pit in the centre of the room, its embers glowing a soft orange. His mother had laid their torch in the pit, causing the remains to flare, casting shadows against the stone walls. A robed and hooded figure sat near the fire pit, features totally obscured by the thick wool. His mother had gone to the figure, kneeling before them, reaching out to take their thin bony hands in her own.
He’d been about to ask something, unsure of what was happening and surprised by his mother’s actions. They were whispering to each other, a language he didn’t recognize but he’d somehow known they were talking about him, at least in part.
The figure pulled their hands free from her mother’s grip, reaching up to draw back their hood. The wool slid away to reveal an aged woman’s face. The hair may have been close to pure white, with only a few streaks of gray to give some clue to its original colour but the eyes were still alert and questioning. He had felt the weight of their gaze before they swept away and back to his mother.
The two women had looked at each other for a moment, no more words to pass between them. Eventually, the other woman had nodded, rising slowly to her feet. She shuffled over to the far wall where a shelf had been carved into the wall. Nestled in its recesses was an elaborately carved wooden box. A pale, almost white wood, inlaid with fine tendrils of gold. The woman had lifted it down carefully, almost reverently, clutching it tightly to herself for a moment. His mother had whispered something and, with only a slight hesitation the older woman had turned to him and presented the box to him.
He had accepted it from her, cradling it in his arm. It was lighter that he would have expected. Seeing his mother’s nod, he lifted the lid. Inside were bones; ancient bones, to judge from the pitting and the layer of dust that lay on them.
The older woman began speaking, in the same language she used with his mother. When she was done, she had turned to Lilith and his mother had translated.
“He gave us his name and he gave us our House. Do him all honour and keep his rest safe.”
His mother had looked at him then, and for the first time since his father had died, he saw tears in her eyes. “This is why you must go.” She had said.