Authors: T. A. Barron
The spear slashed the air again near my chest.
“Come, Shim. We are not welcome here.”
The little giant whimpered, but turned to follow me. We trudged across the tundra, as wordless as the Town of the Bards. In time we left its flickering torches far behind, though its sorrowful silence continued to cling to us.
Behind us, sunset draped a curtain of rich purple over Druma Wood. Before us, the dark night swiftly deepened. I reluctantly gave up hope of finding any shelter on this featureless plain. Yet I knew that I must keep searching, right up to the moment I could no longer see my own staff. Otherwise, like whatever creatures howled hungrily in the distance, Shim and I would have to spend the night in the open.
At that moment I spotted a shape of some sort ahead. It appeared to be a rock—and on the rock, a person.
As we approached, I saw to my surprise that it was a girl. She looked a few years younger than Rhia. Swinging her bare feet, she sat on the rock, watching the purples and blues streak the darkening sky. She did not seem at all afraid to see approaching travelers.
“Hello.” She tossed her brown curls that reached almost to her waist. A playful smile illuminated her face.
Cautiously, I drew closer. “Hello.”
“Would you like to watch the sunset with me?”
“Thank you, but no.” I studied her bright, exuberant eyes, so different from the eyes of the man we had just left. “Shouldn’t you be getting back to your home? It’s rather late.”
“Oh no,” she chirped. “I love watching the sunset from here.”
I stepped nearer. “Where is your home?”
The girl giggled shyly. “I’ll tell you if you’ll tell me where you’re going.”
Perhaps because of her friendly manner, or because she reminded me a little of Rhia, I felt drawn toward this spirited girl. I wanted to speak with her, if only for a moment. I could pretend, in some remote corner of my heart, that I was once more speaking with Rhia herself. And if her village was somewhere nearby, we might yet find shelter for the night.
“Where are you going?” she repeated.
I smiled. “Oh, wherever my shadow may lead me.”
Once more she giggled. “Your shadow will disappear fairly soon.”
“As will yours. You should go home before it gets any darker.”
“Don’t worry. My village lies just over that rise there.”
While we spoke, Shim edged nearer to the rock on which she sat. Perhaps he too felt drawn to her, for the same reasons as I. For her part, she did not seem to notice his approach. Then, for whatever reason, he halted and started slowly backing away.
Thinking nothing of Shim’s movements, I asked the girl, “Do you think it might be possible for us to stay in your village tonight?”
She threw back her head with a hearty laugh. “Of course.”
My spirits lifted. We had found shelter after all.
Just then Shim tugged on the bottom of my tunic. As I bent down, the little giant whispered, “I isn’t sure, but I think something is strangely about her hands.”
Not expecting to find anything, I glanced quickly at the girl’s hands. At first, I saw nothing strange. And yet . . . they did seem somehow different. In a way I couldn’t quite define. Suddenly, I knew.
Her fingers. Her fingers are webbed.
The alleah bird! Rhia’s warning that shifting wraiths always show a flaw of some kind! I reached for the dagger Honn had given to me.
Too late. The girl had already begun to metamorphose into the shape of a serpent. Her brown eyes transformed to red, her skin to scales, her mouth to ruthless jaws. Even as the wraith leaped at my face, a thin veil of discarded skin crackled as it floated to the ground.
I drew the knife barely in time to lash out as the serpent bowled me over backward. Shim shrieked. We rolled on the tundra, a knot of teeth and tail, arms and legs. I could feel the wraith’s claws digging into the flesh of my right arm.
Then, almost as swiftly as it had started, the battle stopped. Our two entwined bodies lay utterly still on the ground.
“Emrys?” asked Shim meekly. “Is you dead?”
Slowly, I stirred. I extracted myself from the grasp of the serpent, whose throat had been slashed open by the dagger. Rancid-smelling blood poured out of the gash and down the scaled belly. Weakly, I staggered over to the rock and propped myself against it, clutching my wounded arm.
Shim looked at me admiringly. “You has saved us.”
I shook my head. “Plain luck saved us. That . . . and one observant little giant.”
The little light remaining fled swiftly. We settled for the night by a barely trickling stream a few hundred paces from the remains of the shifting wraith. Each consumed by his own thoughts, neither of us spoke. While Shim stared hard at the eroded banks to make sure that no deadly creatures hid there, I mixed a poultice from my satchel of herbs.
The herbs smelled vaguely of thyme. And beech root. And Branwen. Gingerly, I patted the poultice on the claw marks on my arm, knowing full well that she would have done much better. I tried to hum to myself one of her soothing chants, but couldn’t remember more than a few notes.
I knew, as the darkness submerged us, that my second sight would soon be no help at all. I laid down my staff and leaned back against a rotting tree stump, the dagger clutched in my hand. I hefted the narrow blade that had slain the wraith. Had Honn used it in his labors? Or had he carried it just for protection? Either way, I was now twice indebted to him.
A few faint stars began to appear overhead. I tried to search for some of Rhia’s constellations, made not from the stars but from the spaces between them. I thought about the shomorra tree, heavy with fruit. The writing on Arbassa’s walls. The crystal cave, all aglow. Yet all that seemed so long ago, so far away.
To my disappointment, the stars were so few and so scattered that I found no patterns at all. Then I realized that even those stars were not growing brighter as the sky darkened. They seemed shrouded somehow. And not by clouds, at least not by ordinary clouds. Something held them back, kept them from lighting this land.
At that moment, I sensed a faint smoky smell in the air, as if a fire burned nearby. I sat up straight, straining my second sight. But I found no flame anywhere.
Stranger still, I noticed that a vague circle of light brightened the area where we lay upon the ground. It came not from the dimly lit stars, but from somewhere else. What else could be shining down on us? Puzzled, I looked closer.
Suddenly I understood. The gentle illumination came not from above, but from below. It came, in fact, from the rotting tree stump!
I rolled away. Cautiously, I took a closer look. I noticed a glowing circle in the top of the stump, as though a door had been cut in the wood, allowing the ring of light to shine through.
“Look here, Shim.”
My companion strode over. Seeing the glowing stump, he sucked in his breath. “Now I is sure we camps in the wrong place.”
“I know. But this light feels good somehow.”
Shim frowned. “The snakely girl feels good at first, too.”
Then, without warning, the door popped open. From it emerged a shaggy head with a tall brow and dark, observant eyes. The head of a man.
The eyes, deeper than pools, gazed at me, then at Shim, for a long moment.
“All right,” said the stranger in a low, resonant voice. “You can come in. But I don’t have any time for stories.”
The head disappeared down into the trunk. Shim and I exchanged looks of bewilderment. Stories? What could he mean?
At length, I announced, “I’m going down there. Come with me or stay here, as you choose.”
“I stays!” answered Shim decisively. “And you should forgets this foolery and stays, too.”
“It’s worth the risk if it means we won’t have to camp out in the open.”
As if to emphasize my point, the distant howling resumed.
“Supposing this man becomes another snakely snake? Supposing you is trapped down in his hole?”
I did not answer. I peered through the door and into a narrow tunnel. Although it was well lighted, which restored my second sight, all I could see from this position was a rough-hewn ladder leading downward. I hesitated, pondering Shim’s warning.
The howling swelled in volume.
Clutching my dagger in one hand, I put my feet into the entrance and began to climb down. I noticed as I descended that the wooden rungs were heavily worn, as if many hundreds of hands and feet had entered by them. And, I hoped, left by them.
Down I climbed, one rung after another. Soon a leathery, musty smell drifted up the tunnel. It was a smell that excited me, for I had encountered it only one place before, in the Church of Saint Peter at Caer Myrddin. The farther I descended, the stronger it became.
It was the smell of books.
When at last I reached the bottom, I stared in astonishment. For hundreds and hundreds of volumes surrounded me. They covered the walls and floor of this underground room from end to end and top to bottom.
Books everywhere! Books of all thicknesses, colors, heights, and also languages—judging from the varied scripts and symbols on the covers. Some bound in leather. Some so tattered that they wore no covers at all. Some formed of papyrus scrolls from the Nile. Some, made of pergamentium from the land the Greeks called Anatolia and the Romans called Lesser Asia, with the feel of sheepskin.
Books sat in rows on the sagging shelves that lined the walls. They lay stacked in piles on the floor, so many that only a narrow path remained from one side of the room to the other. They huddled in a mound beneath the heavy wooden table, itself cluttered with papers and writing supplies. They even covered most of the bed of sheepskins in the corner.
Across from the bed, a small but adequate pantry held shelves of fruits and grains, breads and cheeses. Two low stools sat to one side, and a hearth to the other. The hearth crackled with a flame bright enough to light the living space as well as the tunnel leading to the stump above. Next to the fire sat a cauldron made of iron. Bowls, grimy with leftover food, lay stacked beside the cauldron, perhaps in the hope that given enough time they might eventually wash themselves.
Sitting in a high-backed chair by the far wall, the longhaired man sat reading. His tangled brows, streaked with gray, sprouted like brambles above his eyes. He wore a flowing white tunic, with a high collar that nearly touched his chin. For a moment or two, he did not seem to notice that I had joined him.
I put the dagger back into my satchel. The man did not move. Feeling uncomfortable, I cleared my throat.
Still the man did not look up from his book.
“Thank you for inviting me.”
At this the man stirred. “You are most welcome. Now would you mind shutting the hatch to my front door? Drafts, you know. Not to mention the unmentionable beasts who like to prowl at night. You’ll see the lock.”
He paused, noticing something. “And tell your diminutive friend that he is under no obligation at all to join us. He need not feel awkward in the least. Of course, it is too bad that he will miss out on my fresh clover honey.”
Suddenly, I heard a slam up the tunnel. Seconds later, Shim stood beside me.
“I changes my mind,” he said sheepishly.
The man closed the book, replaced it on the shelf behind his chair. “Nothing like a good read to finish a day of good reads.”
Despite myself, I grinned. “I have never seen so many books.”
The man nodded. “Stories help me. To live. To work. To find the meaning hidden in every dream, every leaf, every drop of dew.”
I blanched. Had not Branwen said almost the same thing to me once?
“I only wish,” continued the man, “that I had more time to enjoy them. These days, as you surely know, we have other distractions.”
“You mean goblins and the like.”
“Yes. But it is
that I most dislike.” He shook his head gravely, pulling ‘down another book. “That is why I have so little time for my favorite stories right now. I am trying to find some sort of answer in the books, so that Fincayra’s own story does not have to end before its time.”
I nodded. “The Blight is spreading.”
Without looking up from his book, he replied, “So it is! Sophocles—do you know the Greek playwrights?—had a stunning phrase. In
as I recall.
A rust consumes the buds.
And that is indeed what has been happening to our land. Rust. Consuming the buds. Consuming everything.”
He pulled down another book and placed it on top of the first one, still on his lap. “Yet we mustn’t lose hope. The answer just might lie hidden in some forgotten volume.
It’s worth a look in every book
.” He raised his head, looking slightly embarrassed. “Forgive the rhyme. They just slip out, it seems. Even if I try to stop making them, I can’t. As I was saying,
There are sages in these pages
He cleared his throat. “But enough of that now.” He waved toward the pantry. “Are you hungry? Do help yourselves. Honey is on the left, by the plums. Breads of many kinds are there, twice-baked in the manner of the Slantos to the north.”
“I’ve not heard of them,” I confessed.
“Not surprising.” The man went back to flipping through pages. “Most of those northerly reaches are unexplored and uncharted. And consider the Lost Lands! There may be people there, most unusual people, who have never been visited by anyone.”
He bent closer to the book, pondering a particular page. “And may I ask your names?”
“I am called Emrys.”
The man lifted his head, eyeing me in an odd sort of way. “Called? You say it as if you were not sure it is your true name.”
I bit my lip.
“What about your companion?”
I glanced at the small figure who was already at the pantry, devouring some bread slathered with fresh clover honey. “That is Shim.”
“And I am Cairpré, a humble poet. Forgive me for being too preoccupied to be a good host. But I am always glad to welcome a visitor.”
He closed the book, still observing me. “Especially a visitor who reminds me so much of a dear friend.”