The Quarrels of Mages and Men

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Chapter Eleven - Old Stories

Clarice sat, perched at the desk Gerod had moved into the room she had recently been assigned to sleep in. It was designed as the room for unexpected guests – a tradition heralding back centuries, whereby any lost travelers who find themselves in the capital are given sanctuary for a night in the castle. As such, it did not usually have a desk or anything luxurious – merely a bed. Gerod, feeling either friendship of guilt, had belayed one into the room in which the broken girl, as she’d taken to thinking of herself, spent so much time.

The books in the castle were scarce, and Clarice was reading them far quicker than any rescue or resolution to her odd time in the king's city was coming.

She had already read a number of novels and histories of the kingdom. She read about the rise and fall of empires – the uprising from the salt mines that put the Norsom family in power, the myths of the Mage of Death, and the time of Dawn. All of these were catalogued in great detail, with many accounts of each in the king’s small book collection. Little more than that, however, was discussed in detail.

She had but one book left - a financial book detailing the distribution of food from small towns to maintain the capital city. Clarice sighed before starting it. There was a reason it was the final book in her stack - she hadn't the faintest interest in its subject matter.

She would read it anyway. A book of receipts and ledgers was better than sitting alone in the dark where sleep seemed to elude her. She had burnt through three candles already that night, and Clarice had the bottom third of her final candle flitting away on a stand before her. She'd stayed up enough nights to know that four candles would last until the sun rose.

The first section of the financial book was filled with receipts from fifteen years before she was born. She read names she'd never heard of nobles and peasants she would never meet. Men and women who had left so little impact on the continent that they were remembered only in a book so dusty and old that the skeletal carcass of a spider was the only thing to make an impression on the yellowed pages she turned.

The first section detailed the shipments of fish from her own home town and the neighboring villages around it. She recognized the name of her grandfather, a man she's only heard of through her father’s stories.

“Twelve crates of pike and half as many of salmon – fifty-three gold, bargained up by Nyor Lindberg,” she read. She found herself reading through the book quickly due to how uninteresting it was.

She did, however, learn about the continent’s geography. There were small towns she'd never heard of, and using a map drawn in her mind, assuming their path of travel by the order in which cities and towns were mentioned within receipts, she mapped them loosely.

Towns like Teek’s Hollow and Poll’s Port, as well as small inns for which the caravan gathering shipments would include makeshift receipts - places like the Mordis Inn or the Honeysuckle inn. She remarked about how silly the name of the second was, since honey was such a rare commodity on the continent.

She was amazed to read that there were some towns that survived solely on sending blueberries to the capital city, and similarly amused at how disinterested she could become by one book. She lay her head down on the desk and looked to her left.

The desk was perched beside her dresser, and as she looked at the space between the two she saw the corner of another book wedged between them. She reached over and pulled it out, placing it in the space she had unconsciously formed while reaching for it, where the financial reports had laid only seconds before.

The book had no cover, the leather binding having torn and frayed over the years of neglect. She remembered grabbing this one in the castles library - it had been tucked atop the other books on the bottom shelf and she figured no reader had stooped so low as to reach for it in years.

Upon reading past the first few pages, she realized that was an incorrect assumption. The scribbles of a scribe, whose initials were unrecognizable to her, and the marginalia introduced made it clear that someone else had studied the book in depth. Inconsiderately, too, Clarice thought, seeing as passages had strikes through them and notes penned above them, obscuring the text beneath.

It was a book of legends, but not legends she'd heard about. The names and characters were foreign to her - they didn't follow the conventions of Olander, but were filled with apostrophes and symbols that were unlike any she knew. The first story was about a character called a’Shenko, a name she figured was meant to be pronounced as Ashenko, but she knew not the reason for the apostrophe, nor the rationale behind the approach to its spelling.

A’Shenko’s tale stemmed from powers in the sky and in the sea. Creatures with wings and fur, hair described as being “unlike feathers”, a description Clarice could easily apply to all hair. The notes from the mysterious scrivener PD, the person who has written in the book before she found it, had scrawled “water?” Beside this story. The story itself was horrifying. The creature with wings assaulted the village a’Shenko lived in, and seemed to sow the area with disease. The story ended with a’Shenko drowning in the basement of his home, and rising again as a white figure, haunting the village of the plagued.

She flipped ahead in the book, the next story detailing a king, left to rule over a kingdom of these diseased people. It mentioned other creatures of this nature - coming from the mountains and forests. They seemed fantastic and unusual - like creatures lost to the world. The king in the story had little power over his kingdom, and was sent to make a deal with the beasts.

He left his castle to speak to the beasts of the sky. They spoke with cries, ear piercing and shrill, but as the king grew nearer to them, practically dragged by the damned and the diseased, he became able to hear their language. It wasn't his own, but it was clearly a language.

They communicated in a way unlike anything he could recognize. They stood, perched on two legs, and the four surrounded the king. They were monstrous, twice the height of the king, whose name had been a’Lexandre.

The scribe had strewn much in the margins about who this king had been. He'd drawn a makeshift family tree, tracking the lineage through names Clarice had never heard. Names all preceded by an “a” yet pronounced in such a straightforward way.

She read on, and the story came to a close. The beasts seemed to disappear, and so did the king. The disease began to fade, and the scribe noted that “this is where we come in”. She knew not what he meant by this, but she kept reading.

As she began to read the next story - a story prefaced with a note saying it was a “work of horror, and a truthless text - the final candle she had went out. It didn’t, however, fade away into nothingness, it extinguished. She reached forward and felt that the candle still remained, but the light had gone out.

A steady wind blew through her room, but there was no crack in the wall to provide it. She could feel the hairs on her neck rising as the wind caressed her. She felt as her eyes adjusted to the lessened light, and her other senses became more acute due to the blindness. Clarice could sense that something else was in the room but she knew not what.

“Hello?” She said calmly, or so she believed. In her mind the words had been calm, but the echo of her tone was shaky and uncertain.

Clarice heard footsteps in the back of her mind, and a ringing in her ears. They grew fainter and fainter, but the ringing increased ever more.

“Gerod?” She asked, hoping it would be something so simple.

No response.

She began to wonder if this was a sign of her fatigue. She'd not slept much in the past days, but she was vaguely sure that there was something truly around her, or approaching.

Clarice pulled herself up out of the desk and walked over to her door. She no longer felt as though there was something in the room with her, but she felt a need to open the door and let the light from the hall torches illuminate the mystery around her.

As she stood at the door, her hand grasping the brass handle, she again felt the breeze. It didn't come from the crack beneath the door as she'd hoped before - it came from behind her. From the enclosed room that existed behind her.

Her delirious mind raced. Her mind's eye glanced frantically at the things that could be hiding behind her - bears, wolves, ghosts, spiders like her father had told her about - larger than a grown man’s arm and twice as hairy - or a monster from the sea. And here she stood, alone to face the horror surrounding her. She turned from the door to look at the blackness behind her - the blackness that would soon reveal the monster lurking within her room.

She feared most that she would see her room had become a cell once again, she feared that she would see herself, alone and removed from the world as she had been only a few days earlier. She wondered if anything had truly changed and as she looked at the void before her, she opened the door. Light flooded the room and as she looked at the monster before her, her eyes opened again.

The candle before her was now exhausted and the light pounding in through the small window in her room was spreading directly across her face. The puddle of drool that had further obscured the vague scribbles of whoever read the book before her was large enough that she felt certain she had ruined the book. She could scarcely make out that the truthless story was about “swords” - at least, the title reflected that.

She thought about her dream, and what had been in the room with her. There had been nothing, and that scared her more than any bear or spider.

The day was new and the brief sleep she had surprisingly refreshed her. She stood up, looking at a patch of candle wax that had managed to befall the modest night dress – a deep blue creation, with small straps holding it up on her shoulders, and a few strips of black cloth dividing the colour, and complimenting it – she'd been wearing as she read and rifled through her drawers to find something to change into.

She planned to ask the king who “PD” could have been, but first she wanted some food to eat. She couldn’t tell from her room what time it was, but since the faint smell of the candle she’d been burning remained in the air, she was sure it wasn’t late.

As she walked into the dining room of the castle, she saw Gerod already sitting at the table’s head. He was a mess of a man - his head a collection of scabs and dry skin, his eyes smaller than the bags beneath them and his lips chapped, despite the humid air of the capital. His sour face had frown lines that were deeper than the cracks that surrounded the barren land around the capital.

“Hello, Clarice,” spoke the king in an awkward tone, trying to avoid eye contact. He felt guilty, she could see clearly on his face, but she had no intention of lessening his guilt. He had ruined her life, as far as she was concerned, and though she was coming to like him, this was unforgivable for her.

“Good Morning. Gerod, can I go to the city to get more books? Your library is barren,” Clarice asked the king.

“In time, for now just read what we have here.”

“I have, everything except the second half of the financial receipts from thirty years ago. I need more,”

The king looked surprised, his cracked lips spreading in a brief moment of awe, as he lifted a small chalice to his lips and acted as though he was drinking. Clarice, however, having looked in the cup knew this was some sort of ploy - a way of belittling her, or trying to seem as though her own issues of boredom were secondary to his desire for hydration.

“I need more - I need fiction, and stories to fill my mind. You would sooner have me sit alone, filing through the thoughts in my mind and reliving the past week of a broken girl?”

“I shall speak with the Dawn’s. They document the history,” Gerod said. “I was planning to rebuild bridges with them anyway.”

“I have no desire to read more history - I’ve read all the interesting times, and I have little interest in reading bureaucratic doctrine and laws formed between small lords and dead kings.” Clarice explained to him. “Surely there is a store in your city that can fill my need for escape.”

“You need not tell me about your need for escape, trust that I feel far guiltier about what I’ve done to you than I have for any other mistake I’ve made,” Gerod said with a sincere tone. “You can get books in a short time from now on your own. In two days’ time, perhaps. Until then, you will need to make do with what you have here.”

She asked about the book she’d read the night before. “Gerod, do you know any writers or readers with the initials ‘PD’”?

“No, but if he was filling up the margins of a book, it’s safe to say the ‘D’ stands for Dawn - that family has been around longer than the city, and have documented the history of our continent longer than that.”

She accepted Gerod’s words and began to eat the eggs that she hadn’t noticed being placed before her by Stephen, the cook. The eggs were a scrambled mess, but the thin cuts of salmon that lay beside them thrilled her - she’d never had her favourite fish with breakfast, but she was anxious to see how it worked.

Gerod left the room as she began to eat, and by the time she was finishing, he burst back in with a small stack of books perched beneath his bony arm.

“These should hold you over, I hope. Some legends I read as a boy - I had them tucked away beneath some clothes in my wardrobe. Be careful with them, these are the copies my teacher gave me when I was young, and it would wound me greatly to see them harmed.

Clarice smiled for the first time since she’d lost her magic. She quickly finished her salmon and ran out of the room, leaving the eggs behind, with the books held close to her chest. She flew into her room, grabbing a few new candles before, and planned not to leave it for the next two days, when she would be sent off into the city.

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